Tuesday, July 29, 2008

MUSIC'S WORLDLY CHARMS- RUPA ROCKS, DENGUE FEVER SATURDAY AT EL REY





The ‘world’ genre of music can turn up some real gems sometimes, and that’s what we world music aficionados live for, those acts that define and refine the musical, cultural, and linguistic quirks that we love and live for. Dengue Fever, everybody’s favorite Cambodian band (bassist Senon is not really Cambodian, but don’t tell anyone), is certainly one of the best examples of this. Formed and founded by brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman from LA and fronted by Ch’hom Nimol, the sweetheart songstress of Khmer Karaoke from Battambang, these guys rock and roll in Khmer and English like no other, with quirks and hooks and feeling to boot. This is modern indie rock inspired by 60’s killer Cambodian pop, tweaked to their own subtle frequencies and timing, and performed with… okay, a fever, yeah, that’s right. They’ll be at El Rey this Saturday, not to be missed.


Rupa and the April fishes is another example of the quirkiness that we love in world music (I’ll just say WoMu for short, OK? We do offer CD’s). They showed up for a noontime Grand Performance gig at Cal Plaza on Friday in some significant summertime LA heat, no problem for an Angeleno but maybe problematic for a fog-bound Franciscan. If so, it didn’t show; they were great. Look out, Manu Chao. You may have some female competition. Of Indian descent, San Fran birth, and world-wide travel and residence, Rupa sings mostly in French, with some Spanish and English, and rumors of Hindi and Roma. Nevertheless, regardless of the language, the musical idiom is French, complete with abrupt tempo changes and extended leads by accordion and cello. As Manu Chao himself proved long ago there’s healthy demand for someone who can tame that farcical romantic but sometimes overwrought French ballad genre and channel it into some healthy digestible pop and roll. Rupa succeeds. I only hope she doesn’t jeopardize it by casting herself too strongly as a reborn ‘hippie chick’ singer, performing barefoot, looking for berries to pick, and hanging with repatriated mojados in TJ. All that’s fine and good, of course, but once typecast, it can be hard to change.


This past week may have been a little less exciting than some previous ones for me, but that’s partly because I’d already seen some of the acts, such as Baka Beyond at Skirball and Quetzal at Levitt Pavilion in McArthur Park. Then there’s the Greek Theatre, where I heard Los Lobos with Los Lonely Boys was good, but I didn’t get there. Promoters note: I do accept free tickets. I assume they worked out who was headliner. But as always, at least in the summer, there’s no shortage of good world music to go around. This week there was even some dance to add to the mix, something I don’t usually go out of my way for, so it’s nice to have it come to me. First there were Sounds of Korea doing traditional songs and dances, very staged and elaborate, relatively speaking, similar to the traditional Chinese operas I’ve seen frequently in Thailand, though more serious and less burlesque (i.e. no behind-the-screen percussion laugh track). Seeing a rack of drums lined up across the stage, I hoped to see some serious acrobatic percussion, such as I’d seen in Thailand in Chinese festivals. I know some wood carvers in Hanoi that carve huge drums which they export everywhere, so am very curious about this universal aspect of Asian culture. Unfortunately they didn’t get this far. Still this was a charming cultural display and it was good to see some of the sizeable Korean community come out in support. Let me know when there’s a concert of Korean roots music; I’ll be there. Then there was the Delfos Danza Contemporanea from Mazatlan, Mexico at Cal Plaza Friday and Saturday nights. This was anything but regional or ethnic; this is contemporary dance of the highest order I’d say. I’m no aficionado, much less an expert or critic, not yet anyway, but the effect was striking. I’m hungry for more.


But this is a music blog, not a dance blog, so that’s what I’ll talk about. As always there’s so much good salsa here that you start looking for added flavor. Chipotle? Cilantro? Corn and beans? This week I went and heard Pete Escovedo at Hollywood and Highland for their Tuesday night ‘rum and humble’ jazz series. I don’t always know where salsa stops and Latin jazz begins, but I don’t worry about it much. Escovedo was great, and the crowd was appreciative. He was in town for the LA Jazz and Music Festival as part of the ‘Escovedo Family.’ For anyone who doesn’t know, that’s a distinguished family indeed, prominent in San Francisco music circles for years, both rock and Latin Jazz. His late brother Coke and Pete himself were long associated with Carlos Santana before joining more mainstream jazz circles. I’m not sure which ‘E family’ members were with him at the Festival, but I imagine daughter Sheila E. was, at least. Little brother Alejandro’s playing at the Troubador this week. If he showed up at Pete’s gig I don’t want to know, or I might die kicking myself. Pete’s over seventy now; catch him soon if you haven’t already. He still kicks ass, in all three of his bands.

Last but not least I managed to catch part of the Rogelio Mitchell show at LACMA Saturday. Since I wasn’t familiar with him, so didn’t expect much, I was pleasantly surprised. I even made some smart-ass remark about never having heard of reggae en Espanol, so now I have not only heard of it, I’ve heard it. Still most of his songs are in English, though there was a notable Hispanic contingent in the audience in addition to the Rastafarios and Homies. Sparsely backed by a minimal rhythm section and occasional violin, Rogelio mostly evoked Richie Havens and Bob Marley in his songs of love and peace and forgiveness. He even had an itinerant rapper for creative effect. I even like rap better now since I heard it referred to as ‘talking blues.’ Maybe there’s hope for me yet in the world of hip-hop.


This week, in addition to Dengue Fever at El Rey on Saturday, there’s Del Castillo, ELAN, and Sambaguru at Levitt Pasadena and Celtic Spring and Rolando Morales at Levitt McArthur. The there’s Otmaro Ruiz and Bobby Matos at LACMA. The only problem with world music in LA in the summer is making decisions.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

QUALITY RADIO DOESN’T HAVE TO GET SO SIRIUS

I just heard this morning that XM and Sirius are merging. I have no opinion on the subject. Yeah, right, as if there were any subject I don’t have an opinion on. But anyway, I suppose it didn’t live up to all the hype. If it did, they wouldn’t be merging; there would be more emerging. Who wants to listen to canned radio anyway? Good radio is LIVE, even though I don’t particularly care to listen to some failed-actor egomaniac blessed or cursed with the ‘gift’ of gab. I just want some spontaneity. Though most stations have some sort of play list, there’s always at least some flexibility in the frequency or pattern of rotation. The only advantage I could see in satellite radio is the consistency to be had in long-distance driving. If you find something you like you can follow it from all the way down I-10, from Santa Monica to Savannah. Is there any coincidence in the timing of this current consolidation with the rise of gas prices? Accordingly the only time I’ve availed myself of satellite radio is while driving rental cars. Apparently it’s becoming standard. Unfortunately I had Sirius, and could find no decent world music. XM has world music, though I haven’t heard it yet. The term ‘world music’ can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Still, it’s canned. If you listen long enough, it’ll repeat. That ain’t radio. That’s a tape loop.


Los Angelenos have got it nice, lots of good radio stations. Residents of any big city or college town have it similar, music geared to eclectic tastes. There’s nothing wrong with mainstream country or rap, hip-hop or pop. It’s just a matter of proportion, that and some true diversity. Public radio helped a lot, starting way back in the 70’s and spreading quickly wherever anyone had long hair and liked good music. Some of the best music I ever heard was driving through the outback of Colorado while gazing upon glaciers. But big cities generally have the best offerings. In LA of course there’s the public KCRW, which prides itself on its ‘eclecticism’, has the standard PR in-depth news coverage, even promotes shows with the type of ‘indie’-style music that it features, and has some world music second to none, though not every day. Just as good almost is Indie 103.1, which has a bit punkier rockier feel to it generally, though with the great Americana-genre ‘Watusi Rodeo’ on Sunday mornings and an international rock selection on Saturday morning, not to be confused with ‘world music.’ They even have ex-Sex Pistol Steve ‘Jonesy’ Jones syndicated live from London every day and a show they variously refer to as ‘deep alternative,’ ‘shoe-gaze,’ etc. that I’ve been meaning to check out, but it comes on late, not too late, but the same time as Seinfeld re-runs. That’s sacred time. Don’t interfere. There might be one I haven’t seen.


Growing up in a big city or progressive college town, you get spoiled. You could almost forget that the vast majority of the country’s outback is aware of the same trends, but just has a hard time accessing it. But access it they do, and always have done. As a thirteen-year-old in Mississippi in 1967 I curled up with my little transistor radio after going to bed at night, because that’s when they’d play the good shit, like ‘Day in the Life.’ I knew it was important. No one had to explain that to me. As things picked up steam in the late sixties, there was a late-night border blaster operating out of Little Rock that we listened to. Everybody knew about it, something like ‘Bleeker Street,’ though I may be confusing it with the famous street and cinema in New York. It was the same deal ten years later if you wanted to listen to New Wave and Punk, though by then cassettes were replacing eight-tracks and ‘turning friends on’ to things took on new meaning. As late as the Nineties you could’ve died waiting for Grunge to come to Flagstaff, AZ. Now it’s easier. When you hear about something interesting, you go check out their MySpace site and have a listen. Any act that’s not there probably doesn’t count for much anyway. Listening was always free, as it should be. You pay to possess. Musicians used to pay to play. Everything’s different now.


Let’s change the subject. How old is pop music- by broad definition- anyway? Arguably the recording industry started at the turn of last century, though it suffered later with the birth of radio before somebody thought about combining the two. Anyway things picked up steam after WWII with the birth of 33rpm LP’s (sp. elepe’) and 45 rpm flip-side singles. More importantly for our purposes, 1946 is the year when Billboard started keeping records, of singles at first, then albums a decade later. Guess who topped the Top 100 in 1946? Well, there was Bob Wills atop the country charts with ‘New Spanish Two-Step (and also #4 with ‘Roly-Poly’), Lionel Hampton atop R&B with ‘Hey-ba-ba-re-bop’, and Perry Como #1 in the Top 100 itself (general overall category), the Ink Spots being in the Top 5 in both of the last two. When albums were first tracked in 1956 Harry Belafonte was #1 overall, with Elvis Presley #5, and the soundtracks to My Fair Lady, The King and I, and The Eddie Durchin Story (who?) were number’s 2, 3, and 4. We’ve come a long way since then, past the rock ‘n roll invasion, folk music, the British invasion, soul, psychedelia, blues rock, country rock, disco, metal, grunge, into the modern era of hip-hop and techno, with assorted mainstream pop and rock and assorted teen idols interspersed along the way. But those are the evolutions of genre and style, faces and places. The medium was always the same- radio singles and record albums- until now. Enter iPods and podcasts, YouTube and MySpace. Everything’s different now.


Myspace is more than a social network, which I care little about myself, not being a teenager anymore. It is simply the single largest central database of music that anyone is likely to ever have access to and growing every day. I’m listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson now for the first time. Sure I could’ve hung out on Farish Street back home as a teen and maybe found something, or maybe hung out at Arhoolie later, but that’s easier said than done. I’m sitting on my bed in my underwear right now. They won’t let you do that at Arhoolie. I know; I’ve asked. Thus it plays the same role as the Internet as a whole plays, one single massive database. This is a revelation and a revolution. The record companies are the first to go, hopefully down-sized into usefulness. Publishing is next. Newspapers are being decimated and the book publishers won’t be far behind. It’s already happening, with novels and short stories and poetry being blogged and flogged increasingly each day. Will it ever reach the film industry? TV of course is hardly any different from You Tube already, dumbing itself down with heavy doses of reality, but action movies take a lot of money to make. I bet more than a few members of SAG and AFTRA have stopped worrying about a piece of ‘new media’ action and started wondering whether there will even be anything to have a piece of. The ‘star system’ has collapsed before. Everything’s different now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

AFRO-PORTUGUESE VIBES SERENADE CAL PLAZA; BAKA BEYOND THIS WEEK AT SKIRBALL



It’s been another good week for world music in LA this past week. I started off Wednesday with Son de Madera at Levitt Pavilion in McArthur Park. They are a traditional son Jarocho group from Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, currently on tour of the western US. After playing Cal Plaza downtown they played gigs in Santa Fe, NM, and Yoshi’s in Oakland before returning to LA last Wednesday. The style is simple, as you would expect from an extremely rural style of music, but the effect is rich. Two musicians playing assorted guitar/mandolin-like instruments and one bassist comprise the band, occasionally accompanied visually by Rubi’ del Carmen Oseguera dancing zapateado. They sing of life, love, and… politics in southern Mexico. Though they sing a rural style, these are no country bumpkins, and list among their influences Susana Baca, Hendrix (?), and Bob Dilan (sic), in addition to a slew of their compatriots. They were also joined occasionally by members of the local sometimes-son band Quetzal. Good stuff.

Grand Performances at Cal Plaza downtown was the hot ticket last weekend. In addition to the frequent evening performances, Cape Verdean troubadour Tcheka showed up midday Friday for a show on the way to Grass Valley for the California World Music Festival. Born Manuel Lopes Andrade on the island of Santiago, Tcheka grew up playing the local hybrid batuque music in the local hybrid environment. Though called the most ‘African’ of the Cape Verdean islands, there is in fact no evidence of African habitation prior to the Portuguese arrival. Thus the music reflects a mix of the different African groups brought over as slaves and the Latin influence of the Portuguese and later Brazilians. If this makes the music and culture less African, then that’s both blessing and curse. At 60 years, Cape Verde has by far the highest life expectancy of West Africa. Tcheka has succeeded in adapting the local music to modern times and tastes, especially the guitar, making an aboriginal drum-based style of music more melodic and suitable for ballads and story-telling. It has great affinity with some Brazilian music, i.e. the best Brazilian music. Give it a listen if you like that style of silky-smooth sometimes-sexy musica soave.


If all Afro-Portuguese music is a hybrid, then Waldemar Bastos mixes it up with an even heavier dose of the Latin, thus more romantic, component. On some songs you could close your eyes and imagine that you’re not in the jungle, not in a mud-walled village, not on some driftwood-strewn beach, but instead maybe at a fado fest at the market in old-town Lisboa on a Sunday afternoon still train-lagged from the long ride from Madrid the night before, waiting for the crowd to show up, trying to remember the differences between the Brazilian and Portuguese languages, trying to wake up, spilling hot espresso all over your notebook and pretending it doesn’t matter. This life is your fantasy after all. Bastos has seen much of the world, leaving his native Angola at an early age to never return, spending much time in Europe and the Americas, particularly Brazil. There he mingled with the cream of the musical crop and absorbed much of their influence. Recently sponsored in the US by David Byrne and his label Luaka Bop, Bastos has even taken to recording and singing some songs in English, though with mixed results. Recording in English is always a risky proposition for a foreign act. He shared the show at Cal Plaza last Saturday with Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, whom I unfortunately had to forego. I’ve listened to their music, though, and he completes the circle to straight-ahead salsa. This brings up the old chicken-and-egg conundrum of existence: with Afro-Cuban music, which came first, Africa or Cuba? They’ll be at Levitt Pasadena again this Saturday. I’ll see you there.


This week looks like another good one for world music elsewhere in LA also. In addition to Ricardo Lemvo, Levitt Pavilion will host folk music of Eastern Europe with Harmonia on Friday. Levitt Pavilion at McArthur Park opens this week with local fusion-soneros Quetzal on Wednesday then continues with Korean court music on Thursday. Rogelio Mitchell will be at LACMA on Saturday evening from 5-7pm with music every bit as hybrid as his name- a ‘unique blend of reggae, soca, and jazz.’ But the hot ticket I’d say is Baka Beyond at Skirball Cultural Center, carrying the concept of ‘fusion’ to new heights, somehow not just mashing together, but actually combining African and Celtic music. The strange thing is, it actually works! I saw these guys last year at Edmonton Folk Festival and they don’t disappoint. That’s at 8pm and it’s free, parking only $5 if you carpool, $10 otherwise.


First things first though. Tonight Tuesday Pete Escovedo is playing in the courtyard up at Hollywood and Highland. That sounds good to me.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

THE MYSPACE COUNTDOWN CONTINUES (PART 2)

For those of you just tuning in, I’m counting MySpace plays to judge musical popularity as of July 2008, this being an era when the traditional record industry is in a shambles and Internet is ascendant. So far I’ve counted down past the top 50 with some gross omissions as I promised. By a strict count the grossest omission would be number one, Panic at the Disco, with some two hundred million plays, highest I've ever seen, and some forty million views. That’s a problem, though, because plays never run five times the number of views, so I don’t believe it. I suspect that it’s being manipulated just by the fact that somebody like me might be ranking them. I can believe the forty million views, so that’s where I’d rank them, though plays could very well be sixty million or so. That would place them right with their label-mates Fall Out Boy, who I also omitted. Then there’s their bass player's stable-mate Ashlee Simpson at 20 million, who I also omitted, along with Carrie Underwood at some 40 mil, coincidentally with one of the lamer My Space sites I’ve seen, especially since it’s ‘managed’ by Arista Nashville. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid here? Enter You Tube, exit Nashville.

So do you give up yet on who’s the number 3 t-shirt idol in the third world after Che Guevara and Bob Marley? It’s Kurt Cobain. Third-world cognoscenti cry out not just for revolution or minority equality, but out of sheer anguish at the very fact of their being. They ‘get it’ whether a record executive ever will or not. Nirvana has also received over 15 million MySpace plays, despite the fact that they only released three albums of new material and their leader self-destructed at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, apparently the prime age for self-destruction, the Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and James Dean of his era. Also at around or over fifteen million plays are rockers Oasis and Kid Rock, and guess which classic-era act? Beatles maybe? Stones? How about Journey, the Santana spin-off (they’ve fared much better than Santana himself)? Then there’s country star Faith Hill, Jason Mraz, rappers ‘The Dream’ and DJ Khaled, the perennial Madonna, this year’s model Leona Lewis and (pull up a drink) Paris Hilton, forever proving the old adage, “sex sells.” As I reiterate, this is a snapshot in time. It has no metaphysical meaning.

We’ve seen 90’s rock; we’ve seen 70’s; now where’s the 80’s? At around 10 million hits there are U2 and Green Day for the US and UK, along with the ex-King, now dethroned, Michael Jackson himself. Sister Janet’s right there also. Forget Van Halen; you gotta’ stay in shape. For Spanish speakers there are Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez, and for country lovers there are the good-looking Toby Keith, Dierks Bentley, Jessica Simpson, Shania Twain, and cow-couple Sugarland. Then there’s teen pop star Jesse McCartney, Shinedown and American Idol Jordin Sparks, rockers Limp Bizkit, rappers Three6Mafia and the still revered Tupac Shakur, decisively beating his old rival Notorious B.I.G., who pulls only around 100,000 posthumous MySpace hits. Then at the same 10 million level there are rising emo stars Metro Station, Wyclef Jean, last week’s Top 100 #1 Katy Perry and Gwen Stefani. Considering Gwen’s old band No Doubt itself still pulls 5 million hits with no maintenance or even any songs, a solo career may or may not have been a good career move for the ‘no-holla-back’ girl. Witness hubbie Gavin Rossdale’s re-energized career also.

Switching genres was DEFINITELY a good move for Jewel, who can’t rap worth a shit, but finds herself a rising star in country music with over five million MySpace plays, along with fellow country-folk Hank Williams, Jr. and Alan Jackson. There are also 90’s rockers Beck, Pearl Jam, and Radiohead around that level. Jazz gets their first entry on Hardie K’s list here with the bubbly Michael Buble’, as does sometimes alt-country rocker Ryan Adams. Where’s the 60’s music? Guess who tops the list? Meet Mr. Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan who Allen Ginsberg, no slouch himself, once referred to as “the greatest poet of our age” or something like that. Want some more poetic justice? The Mexican group Mana’ are right there with five million hits, Mana’ a group that’s never sung a word in English, did Led Zep’s ‘Fool in the Rain’ in Spanish’, and has never even bothered to establish an ‘official’ MySpace site. They cracked the Billboard Top 5 in 2006, though the average Anglo-American has never heard of them, with their CD ‘Amor es Combatir’ (‘Love is Warfare’). They’re one of my favorites. The Colombian hip-shaker Shakira, up-and-coming rapper David Banner, old-time-white-boy rappers Beastie Boys, country rising star Blake Shelton and Scandinavian inspirations-for-Cold Play Sigur Ros round out the five million category, along with Flobots, 80’s party animals Motley Crue and southern rockers Alkaline Trio. Guess what 60’s icons come next? The Who, followed by Jimi Hendrix.

Many more sixties and seventies favorites, all still active, show up at the 2-3 million hit level, including Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Elton John, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, James Taylor, and Jefferson Airplane (their Starship spin-off didn’t do as well). Tambien los Hispanicos demuestran su fortitud a este nivel con la apariencia de Juanes, Manu Chao, y Julieta Venegas. Then there are the Marley brothers Ziggy and Stephen following in daddy’s footsteps and playing his songs, America’s best 80’s band R.E.M., up-and-comer Duffy and freak-folkie Devendra Banhart. Ready for a 50’s rocker? Guess who? That’s right, Elvis the Pelvis, still getting a few million listens thirty years after his death and at least forty-five after his heyday. What about kiddie groups? Hanson’s here, along with the newly-active New Kids on the Block, featuring ‘the other Wahlberg.’ Then there’s ex-Take That star Robbie Williams. Wha ‘tsat? Never heard of them? They’re from the island, mate. They’ve got a million hits on their own, too. Don’t forget late Tex-Mex star Selena at 2-3 million. The ‘new’ Selena, or is it the ‘Mexican Miley’, Selena Gomez only gets 2-300,000, but give her some time, and maybe a Spanish dictionary, and maybe a few more years on the Disney Channel.

Obviously at this level we’ve got stars on their way down as well as their way up, such as Sam Sparro with his red-hot take on events at the Garden of Eden with ‘Black and Gold’ or Mexican Techno-Rancheros (my term, not theirs) Kinky. Scads of classic-rock biggies are at this million-hit level, including the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed from the 60’s, but no CSN or Santana. There are Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, John Denver, Peter Frampton, and the BeeGees from the 70’s, but no Allman Brothers or Joni Mitchell. From the 80’s are Crowded House and Bauhaus, but no Tears for Fears. Not really classic but sounding a lot like it are Indigo Girls and the jammers Widespread Panic and Phish. Old-timers but not really rockers Sergio Mendes and George ‘Possum’ Jones are there at a million, as well as almost-world-music groups Ozomatli and Michael Franti’s Spearhead. Jazz’s Norah Jones is there with John Mayer and so is hip-hop’s P. Diddy/Puff Daddy/Sean Combs, or whatever he’s calling himself these days, ironically the richest rapper from other investments and involvements. We’re just counting popularity here, remember, not money.

Mainstream world music gets a lot more entries around the half-million level. There’s Lila Downs, TJ’s Nortec Collective, and everybody’s favorite Cambodian band Dengue Fever. Then there are country faves Lucinda Williams on the way up and Randy Travis on the way down and Dwight Yoakam holding his ground between acting gigs. 90’s Alanis Morrissette is there along with 70’s Genesis and their antidote, the Sex Pistols, along with 50’s rockers Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Ready for some 40’s music? How about ol’ blue eyes, Frank Sinatra x 2, Sr. and Jr. both. I bet they’ve got a lot of the same fans. Guess who else? Yep, ol’ boots-made-for-walking Nancy is still pleasing fans. I walk by her mural every day at Hollywood and Highland. Then there’s my heroine Patti Smith and my hero Townes Van Zandt, the original Cowboy Junkie, proving that death CAN be a good career move, considering he never got more than thirty minutes of radio play in his life. There is poetic justice in the world. It wasn’t quite as good for Gram Parsons at half that nor fellow cowboy junkie Steve Earle.

The farther down you go, the thicker the field gets of course, and at a few hundred thousand hits there are many great artists rising from their graves in a universe now contracting, for instance: jazz greats John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, blues great Howlin’ Wolf, and their upbeat contemporary Doris Day. There’s world-music star Angelique Kidjo, Lyle Lovett, Carole King, and Thai chart-toppers Silly Fools. Bluegrass finally gets their vote in here with Allison Krauss and Union Station, though Jerry Douglass gets 100K on his own also, where the field starts to get really thick. There you find world-music greats Orchestra Baobab, Ali Farka Toure,’ Fela Kuti & Femi Kuti, Café Tacuba, Tinariwen, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Andy Palacio, bluegrass greats Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson, and old timers Os Mutantes, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers, grateful splinter acts Ratdog, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart, and a surprisingly weak Carlos Santana, my vote for greatest disappointment. He really is not as well known among Hispanics as you might think. When he toured the US with Mana’ I suppose he was the secondary act. B.B. King is down there, too.

Are you ready for somebody from the 30’s? How about Leadbelly at a cool 50K, or maybe Blind Lemon Jefferson? 20’s? How about Al Jolson with the same? Rudy Vallee is down there somewhere. Any further listing would be a bit ridiculous. The main point is the comparative popularity among genres from a 2008 perspective. The other point is that with social networking, Internet and computers are now for everybody and record companies play only a secondary role. You Tube can even help a band where MySpace can’t. Many Thai bands from outback Isan who haven’t given a thought to MySpace have videos on You Tube. Figures like these of course are only good right here and right now. If they became a goal in themselves, then they could be manipulated like back-link farming and page ranking within the blogosphere, and thereafter meaningless as a true gauge of popularity.

So who are the big winners and the big losers in the MySpace music era? Aside from the youth for whom such is a way of life, big winners are the regional music centers in general. Big losers are the musicians manufactured by Hollywood, pablum for Saturday morning consumption. For example Austin old-timers Townes Van Zandt, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and the 13th Floor Elevators each get more hits, 3-400,000 EACH, than some of their best-known 70’s contemporaries, while most boy bands get little or nothing at all. Elmore James has twice as many hits as the Monkees. How’s that for poetic justice?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

MAKE MINE SALSA ON RAI; HOLD THE POLITICS





I don’t know who has better salsa music, LA or New York, but at some point the question becomes superfluous. They say it was created in New York by Puerto Ricans, or maybe in Cuba, but it’s a universal genre by now, widespread in all Hispanic countries and beyond, as if language carried culture embedded within, regardless of a theoretical Chomskyan ‘meta-language.’ I won’t go so far as to talk about a ‘Latino’ race as did Yari More’ last Friday at McArthur Park, but the point is valid. There’s so much good salsa music in LA that they have to distinguish themselves, and to be sure there ARE differences, usually referring to the dance that they accompany, but also to the regions they come from. Hispanic culture, not unlike Anglo, has a universal aspect as well as individual differences native to the individual locales. I won’t go into the different types of salsa, of which ‘LA’ is one, but that’s about all I know. Yari More’ is Colombian, and his salsa style may very well reflect that, with its ties to the big band era and popular cumbias, but his own self-subtitle probably says it best, the ‘romantic of salsa.’ And that he is, after many years as a balladeer. The music may not be as ‘spicey’ as some or as funky as others, but show off Yari’s own vocal talents and those of his wife Christina.

I don’t think the Levitt Pavilion at McArthur Park planned a ‘Semana Colombiana’ or anything like that this past week, but they certainly got a dose. Yari More’ was preceded there last Wednesday by a vallenato group called Very Be Careful, weird name but good stuff. Maybe the group’s name has some hidden meaning, so I won’t rag on it. They’ve got a lot of loyal fans, so they’re doing something right. For those who don’t know, vallenato is a Colombian folk style, the exact opposite of salsa, if that makes sense. It’s a very rural story-telling style with roots going way back to the wandering minstrels of Spain, by whom news was carried from town to town in the medieval era. VBC carries on this tradition albeit with the changes brought by circumstances of time and space. Ricky Balboa carries the load on vocals and accordion, and has an amazing talent. He is accompanied on stand-up bass and various percussions in addition to back-up vocals. Unfortunately a disproportionate load falls on Balboa’s shoulder. In addition to the inherent limitations of the genre, he must carry the bulk of the load on both vocals and lead instrument. He could use some more help on one or the other or both. But all told, they’re great. Catch them around LA, when they’re not playing festivals in Japan or Europe.

LA even has some world music that isn’t Latino of any form, but you won’t find the amount of African music here that you would in, say, New York, and what you do find may lack some authenticity. Usually that means reggae, but others make the effort also. ADAAWE did so last Thursday at McArthur Park. They consist of seven females every shade of brown from every corner of Africa, including Israel, which is geologically correct, if not politically. In their faces you can find traces of the horn, the bulge, the desert, and the coast. In reality, they’re probably far removed from the source, but do an admirable job of evoking it. This is percussion only, so the possibilities are a bit limited, but what they lack in Western-style ‘songs,’ they make up with energy and spirit. Make no mistake, though, this is a female group first and a percussion group second. If you’re a hard-core percussionist or drum-circle enthusiast, this might fall short of expectations. Still, they’re good fun and educational at the same time. Check ‘em out sometime around LA.

But the real treat last weekend was not at Levitt Pavilion, either LA or Pasadena. The real treat was at Cal Plaza for Grand Performances. Not only do they have some great performers, but it is a killer venue also. What it lacks in natural acoustics it makes up artificially. The split levels and broken surfaces combine with the waterfalls and surrounding high-rises to not only dramatize the setting and backdrop, but also dampen the sound and not let it boom or reverberate, which could be disastrous downtown. The high-rise neighbors don’t complain; they come out and listen. Son de Madera was there Friday, which I missed, but I’ll catch them out in the McArthur barrio this Wednesday. Saturday night rocked with Rachid Taha, the world-renowned Parisian-based Algerian who sings mostly in Arabic. They say he’s socially conscious, but I can’t really tell. My Arabic’s a little rusty, since we didn’t speak it much around the house. It’s not really ‘Rai’ music though, even with all the traditional instruments.

Taha is a master of synthesis, and does it thoroughly. The Arabic-language songs seemed to have a French pop-rock feel and the effect is splendid, harsh guttural Arab consonants blending with crisp French melodies. On the other hand, the few songs he sang in French seemed to have a more typical Algerian ‘rai’ feel to them musically, sweeping strings leaden with overtone. Either way it works. If any art is the art of combination or juxtaposition, then this is one more example. He’s played rock, punk, ballads, and blues; he’s dined with farmers and factory workers, and met with the ministers of government and masters of ‘rai.’ His new album is called ‘Rock El Casbah.’ That says it all. Unfortunately they don’t let blogger floggers like me get up close to get good pictures, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Si voce fala a lingua Portuguesa ista e uma boa semana. Grand Performances is again the hot ticket with Tcheka playing at noon on Friday and Waldemar Bastos with Ricardo Lemvo at 8pm Saturday. Tcheka is a Cape Verdean singer singing in the island nation’s brand of Portuguese creole. Bastos and Lemvo come from another ex-Portuguese colony, Angola, blending African rhythms with Latin sensibilities in trying to make sense of the realities of that formerly war-devastated land. Brazil Brasil is at Pershing Park downtown at noon Thursday also. The Dave Pell Octet and Orquesta Charangoa are over at LACMA this Friday and Saturday evening at 6 and 5pm respectively. Then there are Son de Madera at McArthur for some rockin’ Mexican son Jarocho on Wednesday evening 7:30pm, and Filipina jazz artist Charmaine Clamor (‘my funny brown Pinay’) on Thursday if that’s your style, but I’ll probably wait for Pete Escovedo next Tuesday at Hollywood and Highland 7pm to get my jazz rocks off. See you there. It’s all free.

p.s. For those of you just checking in after a long absence, the major changes to this blog may have surprised you. Don’t worry; I’ll get back on the road and write some more travel stuff soon. What you may not have noticed are some of the minor changes- I’m now dealing Latin girls in addition to Thais. I know I know- salseros need love, too, but I’m starting to feel like a pimp. I have no control over Google ads you know. Actually I’m starting to think maybe Google knows something I don’t, about me that is. This is getting spooky.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

MYSPACE’S MOST POPULAR BANDS- The Numbers are In

For those of you who didn’t read the introductory blog last week, here’s the deal- I’m looking at the plays/views for an individual musical act’s MySpace site(s) to determine who is most popular, at least of the ones that I can remember to include. Obviously MySpace could probably just click a button and list them all in order, but they haven’t done that yet, and by the time they do, or if anybody knew they were doing it, the results might be manipulated and therefore useless. So this is a snapshot in time, all relative to July 2008, a point at which I figure every act that cares to join MySpace is already on the band-wagon without a lot of ones who are now out-of-date, like much of the Internet itself, barely a decade old. What does it all mean? That depends. Though there are obvious advantages and disadvantages inherent with any count of MySpace ‘hits’, and the results are nothing if not unscientific, they are nonetheless interesting, at least to me. If someone took a scientific survey, the results might be different. But how would you do that? Would minorities be accurately counted? Would youth? At what age would you start counting? What about people without access to electricity, much less computers, much less Internet, as if computers were anything but Internet-machines these days? What about overseas?

The biggest skew is toward initiative; only those motivated enough to log on will be included here of course. The next biggest skew will be toward technological proficiency. If you can’t navigate the Net then you won’t be counted here. Such considerations are obvious and don’t really discriminate. The main discriminatory tendencies will be toward youth and toward the wealthy, those most likely to have the means and the lifestyles (i.e. the spare time) to show up here. Given population demographic skews toward older populations in Western countries anyway, maybe this balances out. There is certainly a bias toward Western countries, particularly the US, where Internet usage is high. Using the terminology of physics, numbers would probably fall off in inverse proportion from a line extending through space from LA through New York to London and in time from the moment NOW back into the past. The older the act, and the less memorable of course, then certainly the less likely they are to score highly here. They might score more highly here than in CD sales, though generally I suspect the ratios are similar.

Countries within that Western spatial orbit, including Canada, Mexico, Scandinavia, even Russia, still count strongly, then fall off precipitously. For example, T.A.T.U. the Russian femme-pop sensation led by ‘fierce brunette Julia Volkova’ and ‘sprightly red-head Lena Katina’ easily score 5 million MySpace hits while Puffy AmiYumi, superstars from Japan, who have courted the English-speaking audience far longer and far harder, barely get a quarter million and play small clubs on the US West Coast like Slim’s in SF and the Key Club in West Hollywood. Shonen Knife only get half that and I can’t even find a site for Umeboshi Plums. The numbers are similar for Faye Wong from China and Coco Lee from Taiwan, zip for Korea’s BoA (not the bank). Even sexy Anggun from Indonesia, on record as the best-selling Asian artist outside Asia, barely scores 50K, though she now lives in France, where she records albums heavy on the drum machine and poses semi-nude on the beach for mail-order bride ads touting the ‘smoothness of Indonesian women.’ She can’t do that back home in Bali, though the white girls do, hence 10-12 aftershocks to 9-11 (a popular name for mini-marts there). Of course these MySpace numbers don’t mean much until you compare them with well-known Western acts, so we’ll let the results speak for themselves, remembering that I have to actually search an act’s site to get the numbers, so there could be some gross omissions. Anyway here goes:

Number one overall in MySpace plays (drum roll here please): Lil’ Wayne at 140 MILLION MySpace plays (just as a point of reference Russia with a population of 141 million is the ninth most populous country in the world). At about half that number are slinky umbrella girl Rihanna followed closely by the rapper ‘50 Cent’ each with some 70 million. Chris Brown is not far behind with 65 million, though with some 85 million views. Surprised yet? Don’t be. Hip-hop and rap have tremendous pull in the third-world, with its universal themes and individual screams and schemes. You don’t pull these kinds of numbers with sales in south LA and Bed-Stuy alone. They may not have poster-boy status overseas equal to Che Guevara and Bob Marley yet, but whoever emerges on top of the rap race certainly could. Ready for the country? Rascal Flatts comes in at 60 million. Number 6? Guess. It’s time for another sexy girl, right? They’re legion. Another rapper maybe? Lil’ Wayne, 50 Cent, and Chris Brown are hardly unique. Guess again. Now for something completely different: a girl yes, but the anti-Britney. How about Avril Lavigne at around 60 million? Now if a country full of hip-hop fans was scary, what about a country full of raccoon girls, all wearing too much make-up and laughing at us men when we try to come on to them? Now that’s scary! But don’t worry. The dollhouse girls Danity Kane right behind prove that all is right with the world.

Who’s next? I’ll give you a clue: white men can be sexy, too. Would you believe Justin Timberlake? This should hardly surprise, former Boy Band boy going out on his own and learning to cop a pretty decent hip and a hop in the process. Ready to Rock? My Chemical Romance is right behind Linkin’ Park at Number 9. Then Fergie has over 50 million plays ON HER OWN, without the other Black-Eyed Peas, so factor that in later. What color are her eyes anyway? Then come Kanye West and Beyonce’ with around 50 million also. Country super-star Taylor Swift is right there, followed by rockers Nickelback. The pubescent Jonas Brothers also have around 50 million views also, but not that many plays, so I won’t count them here, though I would if the other way around. Like I say, this is a snapshot; who’ll remember them in ten years? Want to know Hanson’s rating? It’s not bad, actually. Next on my list, hardly scientific I reiterate, are the hip-hop acts Plies, Ne-Yo, Jim Jones and Snoop Dogg with around or over 40 million, as well as Nelly Furtado, country pop-star Carrie Underwood and MySpace’s own star, the neo-singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat, who showed that MySpace could not only map the stars, but it could create them too. In the mid-30’s are Mariah Carey, Evanescence, and soft-rocker Jack Johnson. This completes my outer circle, the strato-pause, beyond which you’ve truly achieved escape velocity and start to form your own countries and governments. Let’s get a little more down to Earth, the mere stratosphere.

So far there seems to be a strong pattern favoring hip-hop and exotic females, and sure enough at around 30 million plays we find Alicia Keys and fellow mighty not-so-modest Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, still holding up after all these years, after growing up on our TV screens, after baring all for public consumption. Then there are rap and soulsters Timbaland, Ray J and Gnarls Barkley and ‘emo’ superstars Boys Like Girls. Where’s the rock and freaking roll? It’s there with Coldplay, neo-classic Daughtry, the Red-Hot Chili Peppers, alt-rockers 3 Doors Down and even heavy-metal old-timers Metallica and new timers Disturbed, all there at around 30 million. Thought maybe things might move a little slower out in the country? Think again. Country stars Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban are right there at 30 mill. Then there’s R&B singer Keyshia Cole at over 25 million, and a little closer to Earth at around 20 million plays are teen idols Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers (though 50 million viewed, only 20 million actually listened), and also hip-hoppers Tech N9ne and Flo Rida, Vanessa Hudgens, pop-punks Relient K, and the UK chart-topper Natasha Bedingfield. Black-Eyed Peas are right there also, which gives Fergie an enormous figure (heh heh) if you add this to her total. Amy Winehouse is there too, bottle in hand (fitting name, eh?), as well as rockers Death Cab for Cutie, Maroon 5, Weezer and Foo Fighters, looking grungier every day, and rappers Usher and Jay-Z. We’re measuring popularity here remember, not wealth. And don’t forget the emo stars Good Charlotte and centerfold rockers Pussycat Dolls. Any comment would be superfluous.

This is boring so far, right? That’s the Top 50+ artists by my measurement of Myspace hits, subject to gross omission. There are no surprises there. Almost all of these are at or have been at the top of the charts recently (not all the Top 100 have millions of MySpace hits, however). That’s where I found most of them, and admit to listening to many for the first time in the last 2-3 days. Some have been on the charts since the birth of MySpace some three years ago, so these results are expected and to some extent negligible. Where’s the classic stuff you ask? This is where it gets interesting, and this is the reason I started this project. These numbers may even stand up over time. Now enter Robert Nesta Marley at over 20 million MySpace plays, and that doesn’t count his protégés and prodigal sons. Dead almost as many years as he ever lived, he is still a genuine third-world hero, arguably the father of world music, and still in the Top 100 on Hardie K’s list of MySpace popularity. It was only after his death that Record executives began scouring Africa for suitable replacements, even though they probably didn’t ‘get it.’ Marley is the only poster-boy who can compete with Che Guevara on third-world T-shirts, except for another rock-and-roll hero. Guess who. You might be shocked. I’ll tell you next week. I need a drink. Let’s take a break here. Next week we’ll continue getting more down-to-earth. That is where it gets even more interesting. Remember we still haven’t heard from the genres of jazz, bluegrass, and blues or the decades of the 80’s, 70’s, 60’s, 50’s, 40’s, 30’s, and even 20’s. That’s a lot of territory to cover. Can you believe it? They’re all here. Stay tuned, and feel free to tell me how many great artists I overlooked. This is a democracy, remember.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

SALSA STOPPED AT BORDER; LA MAKES ITS OWN




Rumor is that they’re stopping all salsa ingredients at the US/Mexico border, looking for Sam and Ella, the infamous outlaw duo causing more gut-wrenching havoc than anyone since Bonnie & Clyde. Apparently Sam and Ella like lots of fresh salsa, though it’s uncertain whether they actually prefer the tomatoes, the peppers, the onions, or the cilantro. Don’t forget the tortillas. Sounds like my kind of folk. Who cares if they’re a pain in the butt? Who’s not? Just as long as there’s no embargo on drums, brass, or guitars we’ll all survive.

With Esai Morales presiding, things got off to a saucey (sassy?) enough start at McArthur Park’s July 3 opening concert of the season. It’s everything that Memorial Park in Pasadena is not- dirty, smelly, and… full of people! There are people playing soccer, people having picnics, and people just relaxing. It’s in the heart of LA’s Central American barrio, you see, and it looks it, with pupuserias, tortillas veloces, the whole shebang. Before the concert began, there was even a little Central American sideshow party going on, with buffet and a marimba band playing the kind of cutesy Latino pop that they like down there. Guatemala was my first point of expatriation in life, but I can’t say I ever appreciated the music there very much, though there are possibilities. One of those possibilities is the Garifuna, who occupy a little crotch-shaped piece of the continent where Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras all meet, and who have achieved some fame, such as it is, in world music circles with the ascent of the late Andy Palacio of Belize and his album Watina, and to a lesser extent Aurelio Martinez of Honduras.

Punta Cartel opened the show, billed as Reggaeton in some blurbs and Garifuna in others, though in reality I think the correct term is ‘punta rock.’ That’s probably honest, since they’re probably looking for an identity as well as a sales pitch. I’m not sure what country they’re from, Honduras I think, since they all spoke fluent English as well as Spanish while invoking the names of all the Central American countries, though Garifunas are certainly not native to El Salvador. I heard no Garifuna spoken, an Arawakan-based language, though the people look more African than anything else, escaped slaves who inter-bred with the local Indians not unlike what happened in Florida. I suspect these guys are as much Caribbean Blacks as they are Black Caribs, as Garifunas were formerly mistakenly called, but I suppose the question is academic. There are all levels of involvement with any traditional culture. How many Native Americans actually speak a native language? Only the diehards do, my friends, only the diehards. Anyway the music was lively enough, if a bit frenetic at first. The opening number was almost un-listenable for me, all percussion and no direction, but by the second song they settled into a comfortable cumbia-style groove and pretty much stayed there for the rest of the set, only occasionally deviating for a Bob Marley tune or some other reggae-style number.

Son Mayor came on next to wide applause, probably as much for the sexy lead singer Juliana Munoz as anything else, strictly old school femme fatale with high heels and short skirt primping and strutting- imagine Salma Hayek in drag- but she can sing. The whole band is as tight as a drum with no weak spots. There are twelve members complete with multiple horns and percussions and some rocking good piano. In other words these guys kicked proverbial butt, playing no nonsense straight-ahead salsa of the highest order, and the dance floor (grass field actually) was full. If there was any weak spot it was only perhaps in the overly dramatic gyrations of Munoz, threatening to make a caricature of herself in that little Xena-does-the-asphalt-jungle skirt, scant cover riding high up muscled thighs, loose top drooping low over fleshy mounds of fetching endearment (excuse me a moment…) Okay, I’m better now, but don’t forget to catch Son Mayor sometime. They play all over the LA area.

Another salsa band named Rumbankete, a portmanteau I assume meaning ‘wall of rumba’ or something like that, played the LACMA (LA County Museum of Art) outdoors on Saturday. What a difference the venue makes! This makes Pasadena look like the barrio! In other words this is salsa for Anglos, though that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘salsa lite.’ Billing themselves as ‘LA’s newest salsa band,’ I reckon I can cut them some slack. They had some trouble with three-part harmonies, but did fine with simple lead and back-up. They had no problem with three-part trombones. That’s their strong point. This is a trombone lover’s band. They too played some pretty full-on straight-ahead salsa, but without a proper stage and sound system it just didn’t sound as good as Son Mayor. There’s something to be said for twenty years’ experience, and then there’s that sexy lead singer providing a visual focus… Give them a little time to tighten up. They’ve got gigs at El Floridita up here in Hollywood.

This week Macarthur Park is looking like the hot ticket again, with Very Be Careful- weird name (do Latinos study English in Thailand?), but good tunes; ADAAWE- female African percussion; and Yari More y su orquesta- hot sizzling salsa again, from Wednesday through Friday respectively. They’ve even got the jazz piano phenomenon Eldar Djangirov on Saturday, but I may be elsewhere, like the Rachid Taha show at Cal Plaza, a Paris-based Arab of long renown. Son de Madera, a son Jarocho band, is at Cal Plaza downtown on Friday evening and also at Macarthur next week. INCENDIO, guitar fusion, and Jessica Fichot, folk gypsy jazz, are at the Levitt in Pasadena and LACMA has their ongoing Friday and Saturday evenings of Jazz and Latin (at 6 and 5pm respectively), this week featuring Grant Geissman and Imaginacion. Then there’s Banda Brothers next Tuesday at Hollywood and Highland. There are regular shows out at Santa Monica Pier, Borders and Amoeba Records, Griffith Observatory, Getty Center and Autrey Center also, most for free, but they’re not all world music. Latin and jazz overlap so much here and in New York that I’ll mention the jazz too when convenient. They need all the help they can get to show people there’s a genuine Black American musical art form that’s fun, highly skilled… and not hip-hop.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

MYSPACE REVOLUTION IS A REVELATION, WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL

The biggest paradigm shift in the popular music industry since 1955 has occurred and is now a fait accompli. The previous cultural and musical revolution occurred when greasy long-haired redneck rock-and-rollers from the South knocked corporate crooners from the North off the charts and changed music forever. In 1954 when Bill Haley first poked his head on to the charts, Sinatra and Como, Page and Fisher, Clooney and D. Day (Rosemary and Time) ruled the music sales charts as they had for years. By 1956 they barely retained a toe-hold as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Gene Vincent, all scored big hits, many of them right off the Louisiana Hay Ride as ‘hillbilly’ music become ‘rockabilly’ and ‘race’ music felt its way toward ‘soul.’ They would be joined in 1957 by Sam Cook, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and in 1958 by Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Eddie Cochran. The industry responded by signing its own version of watered-down rebellious youth music, much of it brilliant in its own right, in the form of the Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, and ‘Little Ricky’ Nelson (not to mention Alvin and the Chipmunks), but by then the die was cast and the damage was done. The ‘old guard’ would never return. Pop music belonged to youth.

What does it all mean? It means that people reserve the right to create their own music and have it heard by others, without corporate interference or oversight. Not surprisingly this usually happens at the edges of corporate contentment where dissatisfaction takes root and creates fruit, freed from formula and following the inner cry for expression. That era in the South can hardly be described. Imagine families living in shacks dotting the countryside, with a dozen kids all going to school barefoot, cussing and fighting, never tamed by Church or State. And that’s the white people! The condition of blacks was unspeakable, one room shacks in open pastures, the wind blowing through the walls’ cracks, from which they share-cropped or ‘tenant farmed.’ I saw my first wood stoves there long before it became Foxfire hip, all this in the ‘richest country in the world.’ Whites there were consumed with their own inner demons and so were the blacks. The Civil War had never really ended and the Republican Reconstruction had yet to really begin. You either conformed or rebelled or you got the Hell out of Slidell. Or you sublimated those impulses into your art. That world ended with the Welfare Act of 1965.

Fast-forward fifty years and it’s happening again. It never really stopped happening of course. After the initial rock-and-roll years things settled back into a smug Tin Pan Alley predictability until the edges of the culture began screaming to be noticed by the center again, this time from the UK. Losing its colonies and its preeminent position in the world to the US, the UK was ripe for cultural revolution in the ‘60’s. Taking cues from the US and cross-breeding it with the existential fashions of the Continent, England came up with something truly original and brought it over to the US to remind us of what we had almost forgot, the boogie factor. Cross-breed that again with Beatnik poetry, a Harry Smith-inspired folk revival, ‘soul’ music and an unpopular war (sound familiar?) and the time was right for all Hell to break loose, the Psychedelic ‘60’s, followed in quick succession (and no certain order) by Southern rock, hard rock, soft-rock, and folk-rock. Once again the Industry raised its ugly head in the mid 70’s and incorporated beyond anything ever imagined, sending the Eagles, the BeeGees, John Denver, and disco music out to all corners of the world, all on vinyl and safe for public consumption. The New York ‘new wave’ and British punk rock said ‘fuck all that’ of course, and they were spot-on. So it goes in an endless dialectic between growth and contraction, thesis and antithesis, corporate crap and individual creativity, right up to the current day.

The traditional record industry is dead or dying and something else has come and taken its place. This time the medium is the message, the medium of Internet, and it’s not about stealing songs by download. It’s about choice, supply and demand. The pop music revolution that started in the US and got cross-bred with the UK, has caught fire in the rest of the world as well. Increasingly widespread affluence and its ironic counterparts, discontentment and artistic release, has spread to even the smallest countries. Art is something to be created by the ambitious individual, not handed down from corporate boardrooms. IPod and other MP3 players are but the visible symbols of the change. MySpace and other Internet social networks are at the heart of it. There you can listen to anything, if not everything that’s ever been created, all for free. Some die-hards grumble, but radio was always free, wasn’t it? Just like love, you don’t pay until you want to possess it, or see it performed live.

Sometime around 2005 the word got out that something was going on by Internet that any band could use to its advantage in this cut-throat industry. Those who signed on first might reap the largest benefits, of course, so by 2006 the race was on, ironically many times by the fans themselves, making sure that ‘their’ band was represented with its best songs. It was chaotic of course but fun to watch as it evolved. Chaos slowly organized itself and most bands have an ‘official MySpace site’ by now, sometimes to the exclusion of all others, sometimes to the exclusion of its own website, all this in a medium that barely even existed a decade ago. I got my first e-mail address in 1999, before most of my friends, but not all. Any band that doesn’t have a MySpace site by now just doesn’t care much about its future. It’s not that hard.

So what does it all mean? In short for me it means that ‘plays’ and ‘views’ of a band’s MySpace songs and site are a valuable look at a band’s level of popularity. When I was looking to book bands in Arizona, that’s the first thing I looked at. The numbers of plays and views tend to be similar, rarely one as much as twice the other, but that in itself tells a tale. A band with more views than plays seems to be ‘breaking out,’ with a surge of publicity as cause and effect. A band with more plays than views tends to be stable with long-term fans looking to listen. There is still an element of chaos, of course, multiple sites for many bands, etc., so the figures are somewhat provisional and any conclusions should be approached with caution, but are nonetheless enlightening. So what do the numbers say? Surely they must be skewed toward youth-oriented groups and hip-hop, right? Do country music groups do MySpace? The results are interesting. I see them as a reliable gauge of popularity, not money, but popularity. I’ll tell you next week. Do your own survey if you like, and we’ll compare notes. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Kusun Ensemble and Quetzal rock Pasadena by Starlight; Son Mayor and Hawaiian Music coming to McArthur Park in LA



Oh, I could almost fall in love with Pasadena. It’s so clean, and neat, and quiet, a microcosm of America, and I don’t McCain’s America either. I mean Obama’s, liberal and optimistic and forward-thinking. Part of that beauty is its multi-cultural background of course, percentages of Anglos, Latinos, Blacks, and Asians almost identical to those of California as a whole, coming together in one big mixed neighborhood. While this may not sound much different from LA proper, the difference is in the details- the back streets that don’t reek of piss, a city center that is well-planned and coordinated, and no happy campers rounding up the shopping carts in a circle to ward off the elements of the night. As my Thai wife of three months’ US residence puts it, “it’s another world.” And it’s only an hour and a $5 day pass by metro line from Hollywood. Celebrate the bucolic!

There’s no better place to experience this harmony than the summer concert series at Levitt Pavilion in Memorial Park. Starting with last week’s ‘Make Music Pasadena’ and continuing on through the summer months, Levitt will play host each week to Children’s Night, American Night, World Night, Latin Night, and Jazz Night, from Wednesday to Saturday respectively. American night is no joke, either, with the likes of Laurie Lewis, the Blasters, Lisa Haley, and John Doe making appearances. Ditto for jazz, with Ernie Andrews, Billy Mitchell, Charles McPherson, Red Holloway and more all showing up before the summer’s over. Jazz is so refreshingly timeless. I listen now to jazz stations on the radio for the first time in twenty years and guess what? More than half is the same stuff! And I like it too, but here we’ll only go into the world and Latino offerings.

Last weekend featured Kusun Ensemble and Quetzal, playing Ghanaian and ‘Chicano’ music respectively. Kusun Ensemble is led by singer, composer/arranger, and percussionist Nii Tettey Tetteh (try saying that three times quickly) and flanked by guitar and bass and numerous other drums and objects of percussion. They play a sort of neo-highlife style of music they call ‘Nokoko’ (‘something’ in Ga language) that is equally jazzy and traditional. But that’s only half the story. Kusun Ensemble is equally a dance ensemble as much as a musical one. Now I’m typically a little skeptical about dancers accompanying bands, bringing back memories of ‘go-go’ and ‘chorus’ girls and such that I’d rather forget. I really got sour on the concept of ‘pretty young girl singers’ while living in Thailand. Music is music; if it needs models to sell itself, then I’ll pass. When’s the last time you saw a female country singer plain of face or lacking grace?

World music can be guilty of ‘tourist kitsch’ also, putting on a little song and dance, supposedly ethnic/indigenous, that makes you wonder when your guide is going to come and herd you off to another location to claim your free drink with a little sombrero impaled upon a swizzle stick. But Kusun Ensemble is no nonsense. These girls, and guys, including members of the National Ballet, can really dance, leaps and pirouettes, together and individually. The several costume changes were rewarding also, tending to evoke a certain mood indicative of the song being played. These guys play to a lot of cultural and educational centers in addition to music venues. Check them out live some time; the dancing gives it that little extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ that separates them from the also-rans.

Quetzal is a self-styled Chicano group hailed as ‘local heroes’ in the ad blurbs. Created by Quetzal Flores and fronted by vocalist Martha Gonzales, they offer an eclectic mix of Mexican and Latin rhythms, nothing if not ‘alternative,’ complete with a not-so-subtle political message of thoughtful revisionism, including a child named ‘Sandino’ for Ms. Gonzales and a picture of Noam Chomsky as one of the Top Ten MySpace friends. She must have layed it on a little thick at one point, inspiring some minor heckling, but didn’t lose her cool, settling only for, “quiero que me escuches. We all do. We all want to be heard, but that is a double-edged sword. I even heard one of the Death Cab Cuties once say that interpreting politics for the masses “is our job.” That’s nice work if you can get it (just ask ‘W”), but I don’t think it’s part of the job description for a pena folclorica. An entertainer’s job is to entertain. Whatever else you can get away with is icing, or gravy, or something else fattening.

Quetzal’s music is good, if a little bit scattered by genre. It has all the makings of a Mexican son band, complete with various guitars, jaranas y requintos Jarochos (of Veracrucian style, from whence they just came) played by Flores and Cesar Castro, and this is probably what they do best, much to the audience’s appreciation. But they become generically confused with the neo-gospel stylings of keyboardist Quincy McCrary on the Hammond B3. Despite his considerable talent and welcome back-up vocals, the mix-and-match is a mismatch for me, not to mention that McCrary apparently is the only non-Latino in the group. Andy Mendoza on drums and Juan Perez on bass round out the group, with the addition of a violinist for whom I have no name. If she’s provisional, then they should keep her. She rescued their sound from mediocrity, shades of Scarlet Rivera. Still, if you’re looking for sones Jarochos, then wait for Son de Madera. They’re the real thing.

The fun continues this week. If Pasadena sounds a bit far away, then you’re in luck. LA has a Levitt Pavilion at McArthur Park and they’re starting their own series this week, similar to Pasadena. I’ll be there tomorrow for the big band salsa sound of Son Mayor, with Punta Cartel opening. The next night is Hawai’i night, with Keali’i Raichel and Na Leo. If I knew they’d play traditional Hawaiian music I’d go, but the easy listening stuff is a bit sappy for me, making Barry Manilow look like Iggy Stooge on meth (is that redundant?) I might head back to Pasadena Saturday night for Bandidos de Amor (Argentinian folklorica, Jamaican roots, and alternative?), but haven’t heard them so not sure. Then there’s the Hollywood Bowl next Tuesday. It’s not world music, not really anyway, but the LA Phil is doing Carmina Burana, based on the medieval poems which prove that the Dark Ages, to paraphrase Stephen Hawkings, “weren’t so dark.” Do I dare?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

ABOUT ME AND WORLD MUSIC

Hi! Welcome to my new world music blog. It’s good to be back here writing, not playing with widgets and gadgets, so I hope the new layout is pleasing enough. I think it’ll only get better. As I make the transition from a travel blog to a music/film one, there are other changes that are both cause and effect, undercurrents and overtones to the most obvious one. One is the transition from a personal blog to a professional one. Related to that is the transition from a non-commercial site to a more commercial one (I hope). Hey, I got bills to pay and habits to feed. The difference is also more apparent than real anyway, one of degree not kind. I get no salary for this, so any pocket change is welcome. If you’re thinking of buying something from Amazon anyway, I could use the commission. Thanks. If it’s starting to look like Chinatown here, well that only adds to the ambience, right? Lastly there’s the transition from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle for me. (Pssst! Don’t go there, Hardie…) Okay, so let’s move on to other things. So, for those of you who don’t know me, and maybe some who do, maybe you’re wondering what qualifies me to pontificate on world music and film?


I’m no musician and though I studied some film and video and made at least a few, my experience is not vast. I never even heard the term ‘ethnomusicology’ when I was going to school, and Putumayo was a river in Colombia where I went looking for yage in the steps of my patron saint Uncle Bill Burroughs. I never found the vine (though it’s now available over Internet), but I did meet Mr. Burroughs at Naropa in 1982. Now that doesn’t qualify me as an expert in music or film, so I guess I’m just a fan, hopefully an educated one. I’ve traveled in fifty some-odd (some very odd) countries and kept house in a couple of them, worked in even more. I got into world music at a slow point in my career while listening to my stepson obsess over the Thai group Carabao. I liked Carabao a lot a decade ago when I first heard them, but understanding the lyrics opened up a whole new dimension, like the first time I heard Dylan or Costello or Cobain. There are very few lyricists that good. It’s mostly about the music. I felt that they deserved a larger audience, and still do, and I even adapted a few songs to English, but it’s not that easy to create entire new dimensions or wormholes between worlds.


So, though I’ve long liked ‘world music’ I’ve only been serious about it for just a few years. I like the ‘indie’ and ‘Americana’ genres just as much probably, and the terms are all equally vague and subject to interpretation, but world music deserves special care and attention. We’re talking about real people here, rare specimens at that, and if left to the whims and fancies of the American marketplace, world music could easily die on the vine. If you don’t believe me, just look at the current status of world arts and crafts. Once-flourishing cottage industries now lie abandoned as fashions change and the natives don’t, so income is lost; or they do change and traditional culture is lost. Fortunately except for Britain and Ireland Europe has little music of its own, compared to America, so is world music’s main patron. France deserves special mention for the help it gives, especially to its Francophone former dependencies in West Africa. So now that I’ve learned a bit about world music over the last few years, it never ceases to amaze me that many people have no idea what it is. That’s understandable, since the term gets tossed around very loosely even by its main protagonists, to the detriment of us all, in my opinion.


To some promoters, especially on the US West Coast, ‘world music’ is a new market-savvy term for reggae, simple if not pure, like calling granola ‘muesli’ for new sales hooks. On your favorite airline’s in-flight play list it’s likely a very smooth version of foreign pop music or light jazz. To drum circle and percussion enthusiasts, it’s totally different, anything but smooth and heavily oriented toward Africa. For Europe it’s heavily oriented toward Africa and Europe’s own ethnic and cultural minorities, especially in the Balkans, East Europe, and Spain. The US East Coast follows much of that logic and adds a strong Latino and Caribbean emphasis, including the US’s own rich Louisiana heritage. It’s a categorical mess, with ethnicity crucial to some, meaningless to others. The best definition I’ve heard goes something like, “non-English music from all over,” to which I would only clarify ‘non-English SPEAKING’ and add minority CULTURES regardless of language. Ghana and Nigeria should not be excluded because of English proficiency.


For the uninitiated I’ll give a quick history lesson. World music first come to the public’s attention around twenty-five years ago when somebody, probably inspired by Bob Marley’s success and untimely death, decided that Africa was ripe for the picking. Thus the ‘scramble for Africa’ began, and ‘world beat’ was the catchword. Oil-rich Nigeria was relatively prosperous and numerous bands had long caught the fever of pop music from the US and UK. From there Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade were quickly signed, and enjoyed wide success, spawning many imitators. Many Western rock legends such as Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel at this point were inspired to get involved and facilitate the process, creating record companies, festivals, and collaborating, a process which continues to this day. Ry Cooder went even deeper and resurrected almost-dead genres in his collaborations with Buena Vista Social Club and Ali Farka Toure’ and in the process helped move world music beyond its original slick ‘world-beat’ phase into something more meaningful. To this day Cuba and Mali are the shining examples of world-music’s ability to transcend its circumstances.


Fast-forward to the present and world music stands at the cross-roads, like all minority interests, torn between purity and loyalty to its roots or assimilation into the mass culture developing rapidly with the global MySpace generation and widespread use of English language. It’s a delicate balancing act, made more difficult by its own proponents’ almost stubborn refusal to develop it into one commercially viable genre, and its inability to make much sense in the wake of its conglomeration from too-numerous sub-genres, far too many to even mention. While one music blogger derides the term ‘world-beat’ as ‘cutesy’, I find it useful, basically dividing all music into two categories- fast and slow. A more elaborate analysis might settle simply on the American nomenclature of rock, jazz, blues, folk, pop, modern urban and country styles, to which I’d only add ‘traditional classical.’ Almost all world music could fit into one of these categories, albeit prefixed with the country of origin.


Obviously the term ‘world music’ is something of an Anglo-centric one; that’s a given. English language is the de facto international medium, neither rare nor well-done. Nevertheless world music festivals can and do occur in non-English-speaking countries to broad audiences. Most people ‘get it,’ but the promoters don’t always, booking a US blues or bluegrass or straight-ahead jazz band just to be ornery I think, maybe smirking, “I figure the US is part of the world, isn’t it?” This is not helpful. We want different music with different rhythms in different languages from different cultures, plain and simple. Is that so hard? Nevertheless a play list and Top 40 of sorts is emerging, which I think is good. Some blogs will go on and on about Bob Marley, Paul Simon, and Ry Cooder. That’s old news. Others will tell you about bands so obscure that they don’t even have a MySpace site. Enlightenment lies along the middle path. To experience the depth and diversity of what’s currently happening in world music, listen to the following, if you haven’t already, and then see what you think. These acts are all alive and kicking and coming soon to a city near you. Here goes (off the top of my head, in no certain order): Tinariwen, Dengue Fever, Manu Chao, Lila Downs, Angelique Kidjo, Vieux Farka Toure’, Orchestra Baobab, Etran Finatawa, Seun Kuti, and Ozomatli. That’s just for starters. Who says World Music has no hooks?

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