Tuesday, August 26, 2008


It’s the curse of the world traveler and world music aficionado- while other normal people are off doing other normal things, we’re out searching for that elusive ‘other’, at one and the same time exotic and novel and accessible, a dimension hidden in plain sight, degrees of separation defined only by the mutations of time, language, and circumstance. So while others are off at Sunset Junction groping and grappling with the latest ‘indie’ fave raves, I’m searching the Metro web-site, trying to get to the African Marketplace at Rancho Cienega and the Guatemalan ‘Fiesta Chapina’ out at Hollywood Park all in one single day’s outing, and still end up in Thai Town in time to meet my wife after work. Hey, Thai Town’s not too far from Sunset Junction, maybe I could do a quadruple flip off the Hollywood springboard and win gold at the LA Metro Olympics. Such are the daydreams of the world traveler reduced to arm chair gymnastics and the search for new dimensions in inner space. Does anyone still remember that there was an active public search for a fourth dimension little more than a century ago, such was the need for such? Time heals all.

Okay so the African Marketplace probably ain’t so exotic really, variations on typical SoCal street fare, booths and entertainment, etc., good clean fun, well advertised and open to all who want to get irie with the Homies out on their own turf. But the Feria Chapina? You gotta’ be a dedicated Gringo/Farang/Gaijin looking to ‘out’ himself to end up there on a Sunday afternoon. You’ve got to read HOY. The Gringo ‘zines are out of the loop on this. It should be an adventure and a sort of homecoming too, shouldn’t it? After all Guatemala was my first point of ex-patriation way back in the old post-hip days when Europeans still slept on the beaches of Lago Atitlan and tried to decide where they’d make their next ‘scene’ when they tired of that one. We Americans were trying to figure out how to make a buck on it. Many of them are still there, though I got tired of it a few years later when they found a dead body in the ravine by our house and the Guatemalan civil war was on. I still traveled in and out for many years doing business, but the bloom was off the rose.

I went back last year for the first time in twelve years, and it really hadn’t changed that much since the last time, though quite a bit from the first time. In other words, most of the changes happened on my watch, in effect caused by me and ‘my kind’. It’s always been like this, the search for something else, not necessarily better but ‘other’, on both the micro and macro scale. When the sun starts arcing low in the sky, I start making plans to go south for the winter. The same thing happens a little bit every day, circadian rhythms not so much different from ‘circanian’ ones. I made that word up. There’s a constant process of extending oneself outward, come what may.

In other words, the ‘Feria Chapina’ sucked… big time. Notwithstanding my sentimental attachment to Guatemala, I figured that since the Central American fair by MacArthur a couple months ago at no charge was half-way decent, then this one at Hollywood Park for a five-spot should be pretty good. It wasn’t. After running a zig-zag maze of vendors, designed for their optimum exposure, certainly not fire safety, you finally arrive at… nothing. The music was lousy, the lines were long, the costs were steep… and the crowds were thick. Ironic, isn’t it, that America’s ethnic minorities are happy to pay a premium to call something their own, while across town they could get something in the same genre but world-class, all for free? I wish I’d gone to the African Marketplace instead, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be disappointed twice in one day.

Fortunately I caught the NEA Folk Arts Heritage Award Winners downtown at Cal Plaza first. That was eminently worthwhile. This is the highest honor that can be bestowed on an artist in the folk and traditional arts. The program started with Richard Hagopian on the Armenian oud, accompanied by dumbeg and kanoun. Born in the Armenian stronghold of Fowler near Fresno, Hagopian has studied music and the oud since an early age and received its highest honor, the title of ‘oudi’ in 1969. His music is available from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and any of their outlets. The next NEA recipient on the bill was Zakir Hussain, the Indian tabla master probably best known by most people for his work with Mickey Hart on the earlier Grammy-winning Planet Drum album and the current Global Drum Project. In fact he is a fixture of Indian classical music and has a PhD in musicology in addition to having collaborated with many Westerners in his long and storied career, from the Beatles to John McLaughlin. Sunday was unusual in that he was playing alone unaccompanied, admitting “I have no idea what I’m going to do.” Apparently he figured something out, teaching us all along the way, thumping poly-rhythms while simultaneously picking bass lines and weaving melodies in and out. The man is a master.

That was the highlight but the week had other bright spots, also. Saturday evening at LACMA featured Scott Martin Latin Soul Band, playing a lively set of standards. Ex-Poncho Sanchez, saxophonist Martin has played all over and recorded with many greats. Saturday evening they must have been hungry, because the titles seemed to contain a large number of references to food, particularly “Fried Neck Bones and an Order of Fries.” Sounds good to me. Later that evening Dona Oxford played some rockin’ soul and blues over at MacArthur Park. Too bad nobody was listening. They were all over at Grand Performances’ Cal Plaza presentation of the DaKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, conducted by Geoff Gallegos. It was interesting and the music itself was great, but the hip-hop aspect itself was a bit disappointing, as usual. As always the attitude outweighs both the music and the message, leaving me all revved up and no car to drive. I persevere in my quest to get into hip-hop. The concept of ‘talking blues’ helps, but I don’t remember it being quite so… so… so full of itself.

This week the hot ticket is the Andy Palacio tribute by his band The Garifuna Collective, joined by Umalali. For those who don’t already know, the Garifuna are runaway slaves from the Caribbean who mixed with the local Arawak Indians and founded their own civilization and culture. Finally they landed on the shores of Central America where Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras all meet. There they remain today, speaking their own Arawakan-based language in addition to either English or Spanish or both. Andy Palacio was their pride and joy, prominent in the world music community until struck by a heart attack a short six months ago. It should be a good and heart-felt performance. Besides that, there are Sammy Figueroa, TAIKOPROJECT, and Mili Mili at MacArthur Park and Kobo Town at Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena. Angel Lebron is at LACMA Saturday and Charangoa is at the Farmers’ Market Friday evening. Jose Rizo’s Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars are at Hollywood & Highland tonight Tuesday. See you there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Okay, so it’s not exactly the good, the bad, and the ugly, but it is three very different branches of musica Latina. The Brooklyn group Pistolera started off the festivities on Wednesday at MacArthur Park here in LA. They’re great, rockin’ and boppin’ with some constantly upbeat Tex-Mex ranchera music. They’re a mixed bag, three females and one male, two Mexicanas and two Gringos, two lead instruments and two rhythm. These gals rock. What Mexican music is doing up in Brooklyn in the first place is anybody’s guess, but somebody’s done their homework. Fortunately I’m not a big stickler on authenticity as long as the music’s good. They seem to be ‘breaking out’ so something must be going right for them. Still I wonder if they’ve got their marketing plan right. They could run into some image problems along the way or limit their acceptance to the ‘ethnic-music-as-kitsch’ niche. They don’t have a Hollywood-tested centerpiece like Lila Downs, so that’s not an option, and wearing Mexican/cowboy wear would be phony given their city backgrounds. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend ethnique chic with Guatemalan huipiles and such, but if the only option is matronly retro wear and high heels, then maybe (my ex- is going to kill me)…

Chana is something totally different. Now if there’s anything more suspicious to me than models-as-singers, it’s music coming off a stage from instruments that don’t exist except in some studio somewhere hopefully no farther away than Echo Park. So Chana came with two strikes against her for me. Of course, if the girl can sing, you can’t begrudge her her fetchingness, and if the band members are all holding instruments and playing them, then what’s wrong with a few supplemental tracks? Still, it stretches the definition of ‘live’ and again raises those artificial reality scenarios and conspiracy theories that I fear more than the conspiracies themselves. Just gimme the truth. I’m a big fan of multi-media, mind you; I just like to know what’s what. Still it’s a sign of the times and if you start rejecting dub tracks you may just be relegating yourself to the sidelines. Should I go ahead with that prototype for a guitar-shaped laptop?

The audience is always right after all, but you might want to make a distinction between what’s appropriate for a disco and what’s appropriate for an outdoor stage. I remember lone drummers playing along to DJ tracks way back in the Stone Age for extra oomph in the butt-twitchability department, but I don’t think I’ll pack a picnic and take my kids to see that, if I had kids, and if I liked cold fried chicken and potato salad, that is. What’s that? Wine and cheese? Really? That’s legal? Playing self-described ‘trop-electro-hip-pop’ Chana is headed up by Rosanna Tavares (NuYoMinican) and Martin Chan (Chinese-Peruvian). They each have multiple talents and I’d be interested in seeing them in a club along with ‘multimedia stuff’, as long as Martin winds up back in front of his instrument by the time the song is over. Some of their abrupt endings after extended texturing are like sex without the climax. They played a short set also, if that helps the metaphor…

“Chuchito” Valdez needs no second-guessing from dilettante mother-bloggers like myself. He’s a wonder, laying down notes in inspired sonic washes up to the point of drowning in them, only to come up for air just in the nick of time to walk on the water again. To call him a master of understatement would be an understatement. The salsa dancers’ loss is the listener’s gain. I’ve mentioned frequently the mix and mash of Latin jazz and salsa available here in LA and how tough it is for a band to distinguish itself, but that’s no problem here. “Chuchito” Valdes is beyond the category of mere ‘musician’. The man is an artist, tickling our sensibilities along with his precious ivories, which seem to serve more as an extension of his nervous system than a mere instrument to be abused by 10-year-olds the world over doing their mothers’ bidding and compensating for their own missed opportunities. I only regret that I missed him last week with the Mladi’ Chamber Orchestra, but that was because I ran into Big Sam’s Funky Nation along the way, so all’s well that ends well, right? Still, though, “Chuchito” with a chamber orchestra…

I stopped in to see Fishtank Ensemble at Cal Plaza Saturday night almost as an afterthought, so that was a pleasant surprise. They were opening for the movie Gypsy Caravan, so their own brand of mostly East European Gypsy music was great. They even played a Flamenco song or two to satisfy that branch of the musical DNA, but it certainly wasn’t a Flamenco band. This was Slavic drinking music and Romanian rants, filtered through the translocations of time and space. With strong backing from bass, guitar, and violin, front-woman Ursula Knudson was free to explore other terrains with more exotic instruments, such as a theremin-like musical saw, and especially, her voice. She hit notes that are best appreciated by dogs, and did things with it that might best be described as ethereal scat. I’d like to see a longer set, with alcohol…

This week is a mixed bag for world music in LA. If you’ve got time, gas, and fifteen bucks, Manu Chao is down at the bullring-on-the-beach in TJ on Sunday after his gig in SF Outside Lands on Friday. I think they backed off on that new passport requirement. You definitely won’t need it this Wednesday at the Knitting Factory on Hollywood for ‘Verano Alternativo’ with alterno-Latinos Quetzal, the Salvador Santana Band, Chicago’s Alla’, and ZocaloZue. For us cheapies ZocaloZue will be at the Japanese American National Museum on Thursday for free along with La Santa Cecilia and Cheap Landscape, the band not the city. The Indo-Germanic group Ahimsa will be at Skirball Cultural Center also on Thursday. Then there are my usual haunts. First there’s Mariachi Reyna, ‘America’s First Female Mariachi Ensemble’, then SambaDa at MacArthur Park on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. Then there are Xavier Quijas Yxayotl and America Indigena on Friday with Mayan and Aztecan music and dance, then Kevin ‘Bujo’ Jones with Afro-Cuban jazz on Saturday, both at Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena. Cal Plaza Grand Performances has Very Be Careful with Money Mark Friday night and daKAH Hip-Hop Orchestra on Saturday. LACMA has the Scott Martin Latin Soul Band earlier Friday evening. See you there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Like I said before, if you’re a true music aficionado, whether musician, promoter, critic, or mere fanatic, the pay-off is that moment when music just knocks you on your ass. You went in expecting nothing, got blown away, and then left with a wet spot in your mind where something hard and unyielding used to be. That’s just what happened Saturday night at MacArthur Park courtesy of Big Sam’s Funky Nation. I didn’t think it could happen two weeks in a row, after Del Castillo reminded me of why I used to love hanging in Austin. Now Big Sam comes along and makes me want to go back to N’Awlins. I’ve never been such a huge fan of New Orleans music really, Cajun and Zydeco sure, but that ain’t the Big Easy. I’ve been to Mardi Gras, Jazz & Heritage fests, Bourbon Street late-night staggers, and private Meters parties in Manhattan, but I’ve never been more than politely appreciative and thankful, never moved. Saturday night I mean I was literally MOVED, like up out of my seat. I had no choice. If I’d known Big Sam used to be the Dirty Dozen trombonist, that might explain it, but I didn’t know that. Now that I know he usually has a full horn section with him, I want the full Monty, or the full Sam that is, and he’s a big guy. His band are grade-A jazz musicians laying down pure funk, featuring Adam Matazar on organ and Casey Robinson on lead guitar. They’ll be at the Continental Club in south Austin on the 23rd this month. Don’t miss it. Hey, wait a minute… where am I? What year is this? What identity problem?

The LACMA non-stage was perfect for Katia Moraes of Pure Samba earlier Saturday evening, enabling her to walk right out into the crowd in her frequent exhortations to dance and to love. Her charm is infectious; few would dare refuse. That’s what’s I like about speakers of Romance languages- they’re so romantic. If Dennis Hopper epitomized the northern barbarian outlook in the movie Water World with his line, “Don’t just stand there- kill something!” Ms. Moraes one-ups him with the Romantic counterpart, “Don’t just stand there- kiss something!” Katia Moraes’ is samba almost to the point of bossa nova, sleek and sexy but most of all sensual, fingers interlocking fingers, hands holding hands with Nature and everything else surrounding, including him or her, lost in the moment. And this is a down-to-earth moment, too, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and just one of the guys. But don’t be fooled by her tom-boy casualness. She really is a good looker, and a good singer too. I don’t know how her other band Sambaguru differs from Pure Samba, but I plan to find out. I’ve been to Brazil looking for music like this and only found second-rate rock, passable folk, and novelty acts in a festival presided over by Gilberto Gil. What does that say? It wasn’t Rio

Friday was also a good day for music. I managed to catch a bit of Chekere’ at MacArthur and also some of Jaipur Kawa at Cal Plaza. Chekere’ is a pretty darn good Latin jazz band featuring Yvette Summers on percussion and vocals and Eric Luis Gonzalez on trumpet. Yvette is quite charismatic and full of thoughts and ideas, something of a self-styled African wonder woman, and insists on talking even though she’s been warned to ‘shut up and play,’ but she was actually spot-on with her comments on African culture, sometimes to my surprise. Gonzalez can certainly wail on the t-horn and the whole band is quite good. Any place besides LA that would be more than enough. Jaipur Kawa is another story. If the mere spectacle of an Indian brass band isn’t enough for you, then the guy balancing a bowling ball off his nose certainly is. I’m only exaggerating a little bit, but the point is that the spectacle overrides the music. The only problem is that it’s really not enough of a spectacle to be a real spectacle. There’s a reason circuses have three rings, and even small ones have lots of people with lots of things going on. Any less than that and I’m thinking ‘tourist schtick.’ I expected the guy to charm a snake out of his pants at any moment. Still these guys are fun if only ‘India lite.’ It’s cheaper than a flight to Delhi.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Irish music either, though always respectful mind you, and definitely a bit skeptical about so-called ‘Celtic’ music, soaring and wailing, mystical and magical, with overtones of Lindisfarne and undercurrents of little people. But you can’t beat traditional Irish music for drinking in a pub and getting happy with your friends. Okay, so MacArthur Park is not exactly Kilkenny, but you can still have fun with it. That’s the kind of music Ken O’Malley and his Twilight Lords played Thursday, along with some other folksy songs by fellow sympathizers such as Van Morrison and Townes Van Zandt. Sounds good to me.

Irish music and culture have affinities with the Mexican, however bizarre that may seem at first glance. They both come by circuitous routes before meeting in Catholic churches and a sentimental attachment to homeland. Ireland is the last stand of Gaelic- i.e. Gallic, Galatian- culture after a centuries-long migration from that uncertain Indo-European heartland through Central Europe, France, and England. One strand even got lost in Anatolia, which is only known because it’s Biblical. Mexican culture of course begins from that uncertain Asian heartland (possibly the same as the Indo-European) and winds its way through the Americas before finding itself ‘down there,’ then mixing it up with European Spaniards coming the other way. One strand even found itself in Texas where it mixed culturally with not-so-long-ago German immigrants who taught them the polka and gave them the accordion. Thus a new genre of ‘Mexican’ music was born in exile. That’s the music Juan Manuel Barco’s Tejano conjunto played Wednesday night, complete with narrative and history. These guys may not have full professional chops and stage presence yet, but they’ve got lots of heart. There’s plenty of time for the other. They’re only in their sixties. Dreams die hard.

It’s another good week for world music coming up. First there’s Pistolera at the Mac on Wednesday playing their own unique brand of Mexican ‘alt-folklorico’ the way women would do it if they could. They can. I saw these ladies at Webster Hall NY earlier this year amidst the cluster-funk of GlobalFest, and they rock out. Rangoli will follow them with Indian dance on Thursday and then CHANA with electronic musica Latina on Friday. Then there’s Tuareg bluesmen Tidawt out at Levitt in Pasadena on Friday, playing the kind of music that Tinariwen brought to the forefront last year. Argentinians Los Pinguos follow them on Saturday. Luis Conte Cuba is at H&H tonight Tuesday and Chuchito Valdes is at LACMA on Saturday. Lal Meri does East Indian trip-hop at Cal Plaza at noon Friday. How can you get to six or eight shows in only four days? Practice.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


They say flamenco bands are a dime a dozen in Spain (actually they don’t say that; I say that), so why do they all sound the same- two Spanish guitarists and three people clapping and clogging to the rhythm, with assorted throw-away vocals? Well, this is good interesting stuff to be sure, but can’t somebody do something new and original with it? Enter the Gypsy Kings, basically doing a double-or-nothing, twice the guitars and twice the vocals and bam! They’ve got hits and top billing and a high-five artists’ fee while the rest wallow in anonymity. But still, can’t somebody take flamenco and do something really original? They can; and have. You’ve even heard them, but you probably didn’t notice. They’re Del Castillo and they were the nuts and bolts of Robert Rodriguez’ ‘own rock band’ Chingon (I won’t translate) in the third installment of the ‘Mariachi’ trilogy. The sound they create is so memorable and classic that you assume it’s always been around. Maybe it has, but only in small snatches. Imagine a combination of Spanish guitar, Flamenco flavor, Santana stylings, and Mana’ pop hooks, and you’re getting the pic.

These guys have really got something, and any notion that Rodriguez himself might deserve the credit is undermined by the fact that these guys predated Erase Una Vez en Mexico. If it were the ‘Rodriguez sound’, then you would’ve heard it on previous ‘Mariachi’ installments. You didn’t; you heard Los Lobos. The band is anchored by suave Spanish speed guitarists Mark and Rick Del Castillo and fronted vocally by Mexican bad-ass Alex Ruiz, a brilliant convergence of the different Spanish and Mexican personalities. This is Tex-Mex music at its best. This is why you go to Austin. These guys come out of the same milieu that has spawned such innovators as Anglos Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Espanoles Charanga Cakewalk and Maneja Beto, and hybrids Alejandro Escovedo, Los Lonely Boys and Flaco Jimenez. It’s fitting they showed up at McArthur Park in the Central American barrio only days before Salvadoran independence day. It’s a shame few people showed up. It’s not cutesy cumbia after all, and it’s really not designed for dancing, though I guess you could. It’s for listening and letting your mind wander over high plains and fields of saguaro, sensitivities heightened and mentally alert. If there’s any vicarious thrill to being a music promoter/aficionado, it’s discovering something new and different, maybe right before your eyes but invisible until you took the time to notice. Del Castillo could be the next Los Lobos. Have I said enough good things yet?

Latino music took a totally different turn with Quetzal Guerrero as part of the Fresh Roots Jazz Festival at Cal Plaza’s Grand Performances Friday night. This is smooth violin-laced jazz with a Brazilian feel, sung in Portuguese, English, and Spanish. I was pleasantly surprised. This is music for caressing your lover, getting out of your rut and sliding into a groove. I’ll expect more from Quetzal G with or without his eponymous warriors. There’s always room for a good jazz violinist. Latino music took a more familiar path with Bobby Matos’ (Afro) Latin Jazz Ensemble at LACMA on Saturday. There’s a lot of salsa and Latin jazz in this town. You gotta’ be tight. The confusing profusion of band names under which Mr. Matos plays may reflect some confusion in the delivery of such. I’d give him big credit for adding violin and flute to diversify the sound, but they might need to double up on the practice sessions. There were a few calls from the line of scrimmage and some dropped leads, and that hurts. The dancers probably won’t notice of course, but listeners do. Like I say I don’t always know where Latin jazz becomes salsa becomes cumbia becomes ‘rock en Espanol’ becomes ‘indie en Espanol’ on a scale of tightness to looseness, perhaps in inverse proportion of spontaneity to formality, but if you call yourself ‘jazz’ then you better be tight and you better wail on the leads. Perhaps there’s some confusion with half the band from LA and half from NY. Bobby’s got a long distinguished career. Cut him some slack.

Last but not least, and not even last chronologically, Thursday night was reggae night at McArthur Park with Elan, who has made a name for himself, and still does sometimes, by assuming Bob Marley’s vocal roles with Bob’s old band The Wailers. His voice does sound uncannily like that of Uncle Bob’s. Big deal; I know a guy in Chiang Mai who’s made a career out of being the Thai John Lennon. Do we love Bob Marley because of his singing voice? No, we love him because he articulated something that needed to be articulated and gave musical voice to African/American identity in the lean years between soul and rap. His current MySpace numbers verify the timelessness of his message. Fortunately Elan has got some good hooks in his own right, and his music is unmistakably reggae, both technically and spiritually, among the best of what that genre has to offer in this age of lifeless re-hash. It’s eminently listenable.

There was a lot more world music this past week that I couldn’t make, like Dengue Fever at El Rey and Nomo at Amoeba, but that’s the breaks. I’ve seen them both and DF is one of my all-time faves, but you live for the thrill of discovery. This week gives some much-needed African music into the mix with Oliver Mtukudzi and Rocky Dawuni at Santa Monica Pier and Daby Toure’ at Skirball Cultural Center. Unfortunately they’re at the same time, so you can’t see both. There should be some sort of way to avoid this. Besides that there will be plenty of other choices, including Juan Manuel Barco’s Tejano conjunto, the Dublin 4, and Chekere Latin Jazz at MacArthur Park on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday respectively. Then there’s zydeco with Lisa Haley on Thursday, Smadar Levi’s Semitic tunes on Friday, and Nocy’s guitar wizardy on Saturday night, all at the Levitt sister Pavilion in Pasadena. Cal Plaza water court downtown has Jaipur Kawa Brass Band Friday at noon and 8pm, and LACMA has got Pure Samba with Katia Moraes on Saturday evening. I love this job. When do I get paid?

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