Monday, September 29, 2008


Yes, you know the economy really sucks when you turn on the TV at 8am Sunday morning and find Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson on three different channels talking simultaneously to three different interviewers, giving the same little dog-and-pony speech to all, explaining that the $700 billion bail-out is not government spending like health care or education (i.e. BAD) but is actually something like a long-term investment, a sweetheart deal complete with parachutes for those bailing out (i.e. GOOD). No, Republicans don’t raise taxes on your wallet; they raise unholy Hell. So even if Obama gets elected he’ll never get any social programs passed anyway, since all the money’s already gone to Baghdad and Wall Street. At least the surge has pacified Iraq, you say? Not if the funding dries up, since that ‘peace’ apparently has been bought just like that of Israel and Egypt before it. Fortunately this is not a political or economic blog, so I mention all this strictly for entertainment value. No I’m not a conspiracy nut. Yes it’s a good time to be a Communist. Russia just might win this thing after all; witness new deals with Evo ‘Coca’ Morales and Hugo ‘Che’ Chavez. “Without Communism to keep it honest, capitalism no longer is.” You heard it here first.

So the Sixties may not have accomplished jack shit politically, but it certainly left musical DNA over a hugely scattered landscape, the mestizo bastard sons of which are only now coming back to face the folks here. If the first example of that was Dengue Fever with their kick-ass Cambo-rock otherwise previously only available on old B&W ‘Battambang Bandstand’-style videos, then the latest is Chicha Libre and their genetic modification of a lost-in-time Peruvian style of ‘Cumbia Amazonica’ that is as dreamy and psychedelic (under the influence of yage maybe?) as it is exotic. The sixties were about more than psychedelia too, including folk and blues and protest, which also caught fire elsewhere. A good example of this would be Thailand’s Carabao (in direct descent btw, no GMO stuff), but they’re just too freakin’ famous in Thailand to take a pay cut and come play for us Homies here in back yards and parking lots. Having lyrics at the Dylan-Lennon-Marley level of accomplishment will do that for you.

Chicha Libre was at the Japanese American Museum here in LA to open a show for Etran Finatawa, and I think they probably landed a few new fans with their quirky yet compelling music. In fact the only real concern about Chicha Libre is authenticity, the lack of a real physical link to their subject matter. None of these guys singing in Spanish is Latino, after all, and they’re apparently from Brooklyn, not Pucallpa or Iquitos. Maybe the Pistolera girls taught them; or witness Dan Zanes’ DIY ethic. Whatever’s fine with me; if it takes PhD musicologists to give world music a shot in the arm, then that’s cool with me. They could punch it up a bit though. It’s almost a little bit TOO dreamy. Of course missing a key member of the band doesn’t help, especially when it’s the vocalist and leader, so they performed admirably. I’m just trying to figure out why Joshua Camp was playing a squeezebox that he never squeezed (squoze?).

Etran Finatawa (‘stars of tradition’) themselves played at Amoeba Music on Tuesday and again at the Museum on Thursday. Whether you like their music or not, you’d have to admit that these guys from Niger have got to be the coolest-looking band in show business, what with their Tuareg desert robes and their Wodaabe tribal costumes. The music is highly listenable also, if not quite as compelling as Tinariwen’s hooks nor as musically accomplished as some others. This was as much a cultural performance as a music concert. The Wodaabe are famous for their men’s beauty pageants in which men will flash big toothy smiles and roll their eyes to impress the women, and they do some of that in concert, too. While there’s nothing especially musical about these cultural affectations, it DOES add to the overall hypnotic atmosphere, which is what Etran Finatawa does best. They’re best seen and heard in the overall context of their relation to ‘Saharan Blues’, a genre which maybe took a cue from Ali Farka Toure’, but found its voice in the rebel training camps of Moammar Kaddafi. In addition to the aforementioned groups, other members of the genre include Tidawt and Toumast.

With DNA as the metaphor we now come to its analogy to language, not music. For me the best multi-cultural confluence of the past week was the All Roads Film Festival sponsored by National Geographic at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, featuring films, photography, and music by and about the world’s endangered minority cultures. The program I saw was called a ‘Wave of Change’, about ‘new challenges and changes’ to traditional cultures, but the underlying theme was heavily about their imminent acculturation and demise of their language. The best of the lot was a film entitled ‘The Linguists’, about two linguists David and Greg in an Indiana Jones-like quest to document endangered languages before they die and their encoded way-of-life with them. This they did in four widely scattered terrains and circumstances- Arizona, Bolivia, Siberia, and northern India, united only by the essence of their timeliness. For as they say, “a language disappears every two weeks.”

I myself having spent large amounts of time in the study of language as well as in Arizona and Bolivia, not to mention world travel, all this is of enormous interest. Fortunately the narrative was as authentic as it was dramatic, the long searches down winding roads, the serendipitous encounter, the limitations of one’s own body. Gut instincts give way to gut reactions give way to gut aggravation that all must be finalized by the deadlines of circumstance. Unfortunately no distinction was made between the demands of different circumstances. Why is it so necessary to document the Sora language of Orissa in India, whose 300,000 speakers place it far out of the immediate danger of extinction? Why is it so necessary to document Kallawaya, which has long been a secret jargon of Bolivian healers, never used at home in the family, and definitely a mish-mash of Quechua, long-extinct pre-conquest Puquina, and magical incantation? Why is it so important to document any of this anyway? Obviously the metaphorical DNA at stake here holds no cure for cancer.

Its importance is a matter of debate among linguists, the psycholinguists led by Noam Chomsky long holding dominance over the sociolinguists with roots deep into the origins of anthropology and the holy triad of Boaz, Sapir, and Whorf, whose famous hypotheses were essentially that a language represented a way of life and a way of thought, a notion long eclipsed. That may be changing, due not so much to Chomsky’s foolish Einstein-like preoccupation with politics, nor to the imminent demise of his personality cult, but to genetic researchers’ discovery that for some strange reason, only He knows the details, the biological evolution of species and the cultural evolution of language function in eerily parallel ways. Those same genetic researchers have found no basis for the inheritance of some Chomskyan hypothetical ‘meta-language’ btw, notwithstanding the fact that Broca’s area is where it all goes down.

Psycholinguistics finds a better outlet in the quasi-psychotic manifestations that surround a language and its ‘acquisition’, a subject ‘The Linguists’ dealt with in a humorous and enlightening way, e.g. the fact that one of their drivers actually spoke an almost-extinct language without revealing it for fear of losing status; the fact that the few speakers of Chemehuevi rarely speak it to each other for reasons equally obscure and pathetic; that languages are frequently used as weapons of control and dominance by one social or governing class over another; that Sora speakers held up the lingo-party to negotiate payment, etc. Welcome to Thailand.

Given the average person’s lack of interest in the minutiae of linguistic science, the movie might have played up their protagonists’ potential star quality a bit. For instance, if they can speak twenty-five languages between them, as advertised, why did we hear only Russian, where they’ve done research for many years? Their lack of any Oriya, the Indian Orissa state’s dominant language, or even Hindi or Spanish for God’s sake, two of the world’s five most-spoken languages, frankly diminishes their impact on the story as protagonists, not just compilers. Louisiana ‘Lingo’ Jones would have I bet. Given that 96% of the world’s some 7000 languages are spoken by only 4% of the population, there is a lot of room for choice there for languages on the verge of extinction.

If they didn’t want to deal with languages that they actually know some of themselves, then they might at least have wanted to choose far-flung languages that not only span continents but that might actually be related to each other, such as the macro-Penutian languages on both American continents or ethnic Siberians from Russia to Greenland or ethnic Austronesians scattered from Hawai’i to Madagascar. In this way linguistic DNA truly imitates the bloodlines of its human vectors. They hardly had the time or space to deal adequately with four entirely distinct subjects anyway. The highlight of the evening came when one of the last speakers of Chemehuevi, hardly an academic or filmmaker, spoke it live for us after the show. He was the evening’s true star.

Don’t know where to go for world music or film this week? Me neither. If you want to stay in LA, then maybe check out the ‘Schooled in Song’ festival in Long Beach. Dengue Fever is headlining. Myself I’m going to SF for the ‘Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’ festival, petrol gods willing. I need to get in touch with my roots. The Global Drum Project with Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain among others will be there, then here in LA next week. That’s ‘hardly strictly’ enough for me. Then there's Gogol Bordello co-headlining downtown's 'DETOUR' festival Saturday if that's your thing. World music has got its village people, too. Catch you on the rebound.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


9-11-08 to the day, the U$D exchange rate was at its highest in many moons, the price of oil was down below $95 (not coincidentally) after startling rises just a few months prior, and the world seemed like it just might proceed with something like an orderly process after all the recent psychological clusterf**k of high gas prices and mortgage foreclosures and oil wars. A week later that had all changed as the Twin Towers of the US economy took deadly aim and shot themselves squarely in the foot, feigning suicide for the free hospital care, rocking foundations and sending inestimable fallout to the streets below. This may be my last blog if the lights go out and the Dark Ages begin, so just let me say that I’ve enjoyed it. You’ve been great. I’ll miss you all. So Bush’s administration began with planes crashing into psyches and apparently ends that way, too, as Congress contemplates what could be called the Economic Patriot Act, i.e. think fast and toe the line or lose it all. Fortunately we have fiscally responsible Republican ‘businessmen’ in charge, not those free-spending Democrats, or we’d really be in trouble.

Yep, you know the econs really suck when I listen to Georges Will and Stephanopoulos on Sunday morning instead of Chris Morris and ‘Watusi Rodeo’, just possibly the best and most unique radio show in the greater LA area, putting the triple rrr back in roots music, encompassing the best of CBGB- that’s country, bluegrass, and blues you know, Americana around its edges- without ever repeating itself. Who else can say that? Where else are you going to hear Rodney Crowell’s ‘Sex and Gasoline’? Where else can you hear Lucinda, Smokey, B.B., Elvis Costello and Hank all in the same program? Who says the non-urban American majority can do little more than field-dress a moose? My favorite ‘world music’ is the rootsy kind also, the other being the slower more classical studied kind, better for listening than dancing. There were good examples of both this week in LA, Cava the first, Savina Yannatou the second.

But I’m sorry I missed the Ozomatli-Spearhead-Lila-Nortec show at the Bowl. I’m sure it was good. Reports from Globalquerque where Lila headlined two nights before were superb. I’d definitely like to hear her new version of ‘Black Magic Woman’, as she moves on from a Frida Kahlo heart-of-darkest-Mexico obsession to a more one American one, or at least the border. Not unsurprisingly the new album has many more songs in English, following the lead of LA’s Dengue Fever and Ozomatli themselves. This is one of the problems with ‘world music’: you can apparently only go so far in a non-English format, and Lila’s tried. Still she’s little known to the average Mexican OR American. To make the circle complete, not only does she do more songs in English, but she adapts English-language compositions to Spanish, like Lucinda Williams’ great “Yo Envidio El Viento.” But she’s the only act at the show I hadn’t seen before, so I passed. I’ll catch her somewhere. Very few acts do I see more than once. Now if Nortech were to ‘present’ Clorofilo and Hiperboreal, then that might be different. Anybody can play a QWERTY f***ing keyboard. I want to hear somebody who can play accordion like Flaco.

But I DID see Cava live at Amoeba, so that’s not a bad substitute for Lila, especially considering that front-woman Claudia Gonzales is in somewhat the same circles, having sung with Charanga Cakewalk, Lila’s frequent opening act. She’s great too, a natural born showman, totally charming and unaffected. She’s a good singer and musician too, manning a Taiko drum when she’s not otherwise banging (and sitting on) her cajon, not to be confused with my cojones. She gets strong right-arm support from whiz keyboardist Walter Miranda and other assorted percussions and… trombone? I was skeptical, but it sounded good, fit right in with Cava’s own unique blend of cumbia, son y salsa. This is not your typical Latino trombone and Taiko group. Still I couldn’t help but wonder what the group would sound like with a guitarist and now I see they’re supposed to have one, his absence at Amoeba unexplained. Power struggle? Love spat? Upset stomach? Only someone’s hairdresser would know for sure, but I imagine it could significantly alter the sound of a band accustomed to one. But for all the attention given to Cava’s use of Taiko drums, I was most captivated by the live on-stage use of the quasi-mythological theremin. For those who don’t know, this is an instrument played by hand-waving the frequencies surrounding an antenna, and famous for the eerie ‘vibe’ in the closing sequence of the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations.’ These guys will be at Pasadena’s Zona Rosa on Thursday. Check it out.

Savina Yannatou’s show at the Japanese-American Museum in Little Tokyo Thursday evening was something totally different, a refreshing change from the huge doses of Mexican food we get for world music here in LA. At least it’s filling. But her music is that of the Mediterranean, including her native Greece, but also including the surrounding Muslim and other Middle Eastern countries. Still her music encompasses so much more than that, not only interpreting different regions but different eras and different uses of the voice, gargling and squeaking out sounds that I didn’t even know a person was capable of, and somehow it all fit. She frequently introduces her songs with poetry, too, usually a bit romantic and wistful, setting the tone for the music to come. She stopped in LA on her way to Globalquerque! and the Chicago World Music Festival. I hope she was a hit there. She deserves it. The show here was opened by Mamak Khadem of Iran doing classical Rumi-like musical ruminations on the human condition, textured and soulful, ethereal yet down-to-earth. It was a good evening.

As the air gets a nip in it and the sun starts rising later than I do, it gets harder to find the really good stuff, the stuff from overseas and back East that you’d die to go to bed with, die to have come out of your own radio 7/24, world music par excellence. But it’s still there, even if you have to look a little bit harder for it. It goes underground and indoors for the winter, down dark alleys emblazoned with strange Chinese characters. You gotta’ start reading HOY and checking the Guatelinda website. You gotta’ start checking the local Ethiopian, Armenian, Russian, Korean, Chinese and Thai-language presses. Want to see something totally authentic and not filtered through the industry people of world music’s own private Interzone? Thai luke toong superstar Tukkataen is over here stateside and playing at the Thailand Plaza restaurant on 10-10, tickets on sale at all Dok Ya Bookstores. LA Weekly won’t tell you that.

But this week’s best bet is Etran Finatawa, Niger’s own Tinariwen and cousin to all the other Tuareg ‘Saharan Blues’ bands currently en vogue, and for good reason. Their stuff’s good, unique, and authentic. EF is different from the rest in that they combine Tuareg and Wodaabe (Fulani) riffs and traditions, no small feat in the Sahel where water is in short supply and Tuaregs want it as much for their goats as much as Fulanis do for their cows; no small feat considering that Tuaregs are Semitic Mediterraneans and Fulanis are dark sub-Saharans; no small feat considering that Wodaabes pride themselves on their rejection of Islam. They’ll be at Amoeba on Tuesday evening and again with Chicha Libre at the Japanese-American Museum on Thursday. But the big deal this week is the All Roads Film Project at the Egyptian Theatre from 9/25-28, which features third-world and ethnic filmmakers' documentaries and narrative films. Somali hip-hop star K'naan opens the show Thursday night. See you there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I guess it was fitting to have Poncho Sanchez close out the MacArthur Park music series for the summer, today being Mexican Independence Day and all, he being a native of Laredo and long one of LA’s foremost jazz and salsa percussionists. The audience responded by turning out in force, something that cannot be said of all the shows there. He did not disappoint either, with a nice mixture of both styles, for dancing and listening too, both concrete and abstract. His band featured some especially inspired trumpeting in addition to his own poly-rhythmic conga drumming. He makes it sound easy, but it’s not. The fastest drummer is not necessarily the best, and ditto for the music. Jazz is all about phrasing and subtle nuance. Salsa is all about rhythm and danceability. These guys have both. Nothing else is needed or desired.

This is in marked contrast to the band that proceeded Poncho on Saturday, Marito Rivera y su Grupo Bravo from El Salvador, not coincidentally Central American Independence Day, notwithstanding the fact that there is no such thing as an independent Central America. But no matter, they obviously have some regional solidarity, so that’s cool. But the music’s another thing. Though their cumbia and Latin pop is certainly related to Poncho’s by genre, the extra cutesiness and quasi-choreography is something to behold, keyboardist and lead guitar and various singer/percussionists swaying and dipping to the music. It’s enough to almost make you think that Central America is hopelessly ‘small time’ in comparison to its big brothers in Mexico, South America, and the ‘mother country,’ Spain. Still it’s all good fun and definitely the ‘real thing’, if such concerns are important. There weren’t many gringos in that crowd, just me and one other group conspicuous by their presence. Turns out that was Ms. Levitt herself, sponsor of the whole schmear, alive and in the flesh. Thanks, Ms Levitt. Cutumay Camones started the evening off with some socially conscious lyrics to some folk music Latino style, a bit limited and repetitive, but still significant considering El Salvador’s tortured past and the FMLN banners in the crowd. Grupo Bravo did a rap version of ‘Juana la Cubana,’ too.

More interesting musically was the group Gongmyoung from Korea. An all-instrumental group featuring various percussions and even guitar, they were able to weave sonic landscapes that were quite compelling, creating melodies where by logic melodies don’t normally exist. With some finessing and adapting, these guys could be a hot item on the world music scene. With some ethereal vocals added to taste, they could even be the next Sao Dingding, not to be confused with the Ting Tings. They were there to celebrate Chusok, the Korean harvest festival, and were preceded by HanNuri, doing Korean dancing and drumming. The Korean community turned out for this event larger than I’ve ever seen, so it was a fitting end to the season, each week a new process of discovery. It’s a shame more people don’t take advantage of it. Okay, it ain’t Temple Bar or Largo or Safari Sam’s, but who’s posing with a mai tai? The music was generally good, so that’s the main thing.

It’s pot luck. One night you get the students, another night you get the masters. That’s the good and bad of free music, but that’s the way it’ll have to be. I have yet to pay a peso or peseta, pound or punt, libra or lira, real or riyal, dinar or dirham, ruble or rupiah, yen or yuan, kyat or kip, won, ringgit, dong, baht, or dollar to hear any of the music I’ve heard 4-5 days out of every week this summer, so I reckon that’s way cool. Every week is like a little mini-fest, roaming from stage to stage, loving some and leaving others. Sounds like romance. And I haven’t seen the half of it really, being too scattered to encompass it all. I tended to concentrate on my own little golden triangle that starts around Hollywood & Highland where I live and catch the ‘Rumble and Hum’ Tuesday evening jazz series, continuing on to randomly scattered Grand Performances at Cal Plaza just two red line stops past MacArthur Park, where I see more music than any other one place, usually wrapping the week up at LACMA with its Friday and Saturday evening jazz and Latin music series just past the Farmers’ Market with its Thursday and Friday music series. So it’s route 217 and the 720 and the Red Line, where I pick my wife up in Thai Town every evening on the way home. Don’t mess with me. I’ve got a system.

But, I guess I could’ve just pitched my bedroll at MacArthur Park, since I was there two-three nights almost every week for over two months. I probably wouldn’t be the only one, and I’m not talking about Levitt Pavilion volunteers. It’s not the classiest of music locations to be sure, but isn’t that part of the attraction? Estas’ en el barrio, hombre. So what if someone’s pissing on a tree somewhere over there? They don’t charge extra for that. Most ads don’t mention MacArthur Park any more, just the street address, as if people wouldn’t go if they knew. This is justified if you have bathroom anxiety. Check out the port-a-pooper and you’ll know why. Reminds me of the first time I went to Mexico over thirty years ago. Remember the crapper at the bus station for the bus from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido? They are (or at least were) despicable, and I’ve got low standards. Ask my wife. Sometimes you gotta’ get down and dirty. Sometimes you don’t. A little ‘atmosphere’ is great with world music, but not that. Since they can’t figure it out, I’ll have to say it.

The water court at Cal Plaza is the exact opposite, if that’s possible, cool and abstract to the point of distraction, a pond in front of the performers and shooting fountains behind. I guess it’s a yin/yang thing and aesthetically inspiring, but almost distracting. And then there’s that yawning gap between you and the performer, as if you’d have to walk on water to get there. It’s only inches deep, but security would probably get there first, unless you hip-hopped the islands. That might be a shortcut to stardom after all. Hip-hop? Hey, wait a minute…

There are many others, many of which I have yet to fully explore, including the Santa Monica Pier, the Skirball and the Autry, but probably my favorite of the summer freebie venues to which I regularly go for world music is LACMA by the tar pits. It’s not a proper stage really, the sound system is basic, and the acoustics are non-existent, but the audience is always as good as the music. They’re warm and appreciative and most importantly, they’re there, even if this is not exactly their ‘there.’ I don’t think that many people actually live right on Museum Row and there’s no convenient subway line, but there’s always a crowd, black and white and all shades of between-ness, munching and dancing and playing with the kids. And the stage is right there in front of you on the same level. You can’t more intimate than this. If only that sun would just go on down…

It ain’t over yet. The Festival of Sacred Music still has a two-week run to go. On Thursday Savina Yannatou will be at the Japanese American National Museum with songs from the Near and Middle East; sounds like a good bet for us red-line sewer snakes. Cava and Gomez are at Amoeba in Hollywood today Tuesday as DJ and performer. The Latino Film Fest continues in Hollywood until Friday. Soon the weather will turn cool and the rains will come. What next? Oh yeah, I almost forgot. This Sunday will be the latest installment of KCRW's 'world fest' in which reigning world music diva Lila Downs will play third fiddle to fusionista crowd-pleasers Ozomatli and Michael Franti's Spearhead, barely edging out TJ techno-rancheristas Nortec Collective featuring Bostich and Fussible, whoever/whatever that refers to. It sounds like a sewing machine that's a real bitch or semi-automatic or both. Es la frontera, hombre. Welcome to World Music 401.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


What’s the difference between a pit and a bull-hockey mom? The pit knows how to say nothing without even speaking. It’s like using change to promote your career or using your career to promote change, or using the power of example instead of examples of power. Who writes this crap? It’s like déjà vu all over again. It’s like too many cooks spoiling the broth. It’s time for that seventh-inning stretch. One-line zingers and time-worn clichés seem to dominate our YouTube MeVee MySpace FaceBook SecondLife era, giving high-def resolution and Mosly Def soundtracks to low-brow insults by high-income low-breeds in the no-concept re-runs that we collectively refer to as our national body politic. It is a headache with no resolution in sight. Fortunately I’m not a political commentator or I might have some spleen to vent. As it turns out I limit myself to this humble blog and a more Baudelairean form of spleen that looks for release in a thousand bastard poems and homeless confessions, some godly some not, most still seeking the light of day in a system that seeks fashion not form from editors who grin through gapped teeth when they say without the slightest trace of self-consciousness, “stay tortured, my friends.” One man’s spleen is another man’s bad attitude is another man’s political righteousness. Go figure.

Fortunately for this mostly-world-music phase of this mostly-world-something blog, there are only one or two clichés that apply to our current situation- i.e. it ain’t over till it’s over, and that’s usually right after the fat lady sings. In other words, summer’s almost over and so is the world music, at least the freebies. I’ll either have to start paying for it, what little can be found, or go off in search of festivals to get my rocks off. But festival season’s over, you say? Mais au contraire mon cher; it’s only just begun. If you don’t believe me, just look at the left-hand column of this blog, and that hardly includes all the little local hoe-downs. Always wanted to see the world? There’s no better time. The era of cheap flights is crashing headlong into the era of high-price gas, so the future of world travel is uncertain. For world music in the US, September is actually probably the best month, with major festivals still to come in Madison (this week) and Chicago and Albuquerque (next week). The fact that they co-ordinate somewhat ensures that some of the best-quality acts available will be there.

Even right here in LA, the Sacred Music Festival has many ‘world’ acts, probably more and better than other so-called ‘world fests’. Unfortunately it’s scattered over many days and all over the greater Metro area, thereby likely stretching one’s patience as thin as the definition of ‘festival’. Still for my money festivals are the best place to see and hear music, for not only do you get the music, but you usually get food, arts and crafts, and other aspects of the culture too. WOMADs may be on the decline, presumably due to lack of local funding, but local promoters are increasingly taking up the torch and the slack. That’s the way it should be, right? Just last Saturday here out at La Brea (‘tar’) tar pits, the Brazilian Consulate put on a nice little festival where you could listen to music while shopping for T-shirts and sipping acai. It’s not bad. I hear all the Olympians are trying it. I managed to catch a trio playing some nice smooth Brazilian ballads in the process. I didn’t manage to catch their names. Other than that Los Pinguos showed up for Grand Performances at Cal Plaza on Friday, playing their particular brand of ‘Latin/Indie/Other’ (so their MySpace site says) high-energy pop balladry that they bring with them from their native Argentina. Nice stuff.

I also managed to catch a bluegrass group called Bearfoot at MacArthur Park. Now I don’t normally consider bluegrass to be ‘world music’, not unless it’s sung by Inuits from Greenland, but there are always exceptions. Global Fest in New York had one earlier this year, so there is precedent. Nevertheless, this particular group hails from Alaska (no direct relation to you-know-who, but you never know…), so that’s ‘worldly’ enough for me I guess. Actually without a flat-picking banjoist (or any banjoist for that matter), their music might more resemble an old-fashioned string band, so instrumental (pun intended) is the Scruggs flat-picking banjo style in modern bluegrass music. Worldly or not, and notwithstanding the fact that my little brother plays dobro in a bluegrass band back home down South, bluegrass music is not usually the type of music I sit in my living room and listen to, no matter how much I might respect it. Still I found myself getting lost in it, though these are hardly trail-blazing musicians. But the three-part harmonies, the aw-shucks goofiness and small-town honesty should remind us all of something we might have quickly forgotten upon moving away from such, i.e. ‘home’. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m sorry, truly sorry. It’s nice to see a traditional-music band in LA not called ‘groovy’ or ‘psychedelic’ something. These guys and gals are so straight that it’s hip.

Maybe last but certainly not least, this week is nothing short of spectacular for world music in LA. First there’s the beginning of the World Festival of Sacred Music with perhaps the single most impressive day of the entire season at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday September 13, with Tuvan throat singing, fado, samba, zouk, Sufi, Qawwali, Persian, and Javanese music played by such luminaries as Chirigilchin and Waldemar Bastos among others. In addition there will be songs and ceremonies at the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center in La Canada all weekend and Canciones del Alma at the MOLAA in Long Beach on Sunday as part of the same program, not to mention Balinese music at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock and Indonesian and Tibetan music at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, among others. Whew!

That’s not all. MacArthur Park celebrates its final weekend of the summer season in grand style, with a Korean ‘Chusok’ harvest moon celebration with Gongmyoung on Friday and continuing on Saturday with Central American Independence Day with bands Cutumay Camones and Marito Rivera y su Grupo Bravo on Saturday. This all culminates with Mexican Independence Day celebrations on Sunday with Mariachi Los Angeles and the legendary Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band. While it may be surprising that Central American nations celebrate their mutual independence from Spain rather than their individual independence from each other, it’s certainly no surprise that Mexicans celebrate the day of Hidalgo’s grito as their day of independence. No city in Mexico is without a street named 16 de Septiembre. The festivities have already started. See you there.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Latin-Beat vs. Afro-Beat: Take Your Pick

If LA is any indication, then musica Latina and Afro-Beat are the two cornerstones of world music. I’d say that’s about right. LA is closer to Latin America of course, so it’s only logical that that style is a little bit easier to come by here than the African. But we get top-notch salseros from New York, also, such as Sammy Figueroa and Oscar Hernandez who played at MacArthur Park on Wednesday night. I wouldn’t place them any higher than Jose Rizo’s ‘Jazz on the Latin Side All-Stars’ at Hollywood & Highland Tuesday night, though. Maybe it’s because Justo Almario played with both, or maybe it’s because Jose Rizo has truly rounded up some of the best players in LA all in one place. I wasn’t familiar with them before the show, so sauntered in late and was barely able to squeeze my butt in. Jose Rizo’s group includes such luminaries as Poncho Sanchez, Alex Acuna, and a list that goes on forever. What Sammy Figueroa had were the sensitive songs and arrangements of keyboardist Hernandez, songs with a personal touch, not covers. Songs are always better when performed by the original composer.

The African music last week was provided by Mili Mili. Though a mélange of styles sung in Arabic, Portuguese, and Swahili, this music most closely resembles that from the Eastern ‘Swahili’ Coast of Africa and is distinct from typical ‘Afro-Beat’, less funky and livelier, a la Caribe. Add in elements of Brazilian music and Algerian ‘rai’ and you’ve got something truly unique. I hope to see more of these guys. Afro-Beat can take on many other forms also, given their worldwide forced diaspora. One of the most unlikely is that of the Garifuna on the shores of Central America. This was the style of music on hand at Grand Performances at the water court of Cal Plaza on Friday, played by the Garifuna Collective and joined by Umalali, a group of women singers who can wail with the best of them. They were here for a tribute to the late Andy Palacio, who died suddenly of heart problems a few months ago. They dress in the same Aunt Jemima style you find from Salvador, Bahia, Brazil to Clarksdale, Coahoma County, Mississippi, and though certainly their music is that of Africa, it has been filtered through many influences of church and state.

In fact the Umalali women’s sometimes-eerie wailing is reminiscent of the American Indian chanting you can hear any Sunday morning on KUYI from the Hopi rez. Maybe this is not as strange as it seems on the surface, and not just a figment of my imagination, for while much is made of the Garifuna’s preservation of African culture on the American coast, this is not entirely true. The language they speak is an Arawak-based one, hence their former designation as ‘Black Caribs’, notwithstanding the fact that Caribs and Arawaks were separate groups frequently at odds with each other. Misery loves company of course and survival seeks the straightest path to fulfillment, so here we bask in the glory of their accomplishment. Perhaps vocals are passed through the mitochondrial DNA of music, the women’s lineage. You heard it here first. BTW for all the rap about the 'tenuousness' of Garifuna culture, that's because many are now in Bed-Stuy and South LA. Very few if any 'Red' or 'White' Caribs remain anywhere. As in Mexico, ancient voices speak through modern disease-resistant carriers.

Another anomaly of this diaspora a la force is the import of the African marimba to become the national instrument of Guatemala. This is the broad sort of music Masanga Marimba brought to the Mac on Thursday. Barack was accepting his nomination that night so I only heard one song by them, but I liked it. The puny tinkling that passes for Guatemalan traditional music is totally transformed when played by a half-dozen or so wild men at so many monster marimbas. Supposedly this was Zimbabwean marimba music, but since I'm not familiar with such and since there were no Africans in the band, I couldn't attest to it. Taiko Project was there that night too doing something similar with Japanese theatrical drumming. This is the kind of Chinese-descended orchestral drumming I'd hoped to see earlier at a Korean show, but didn't find. I've been interested in this ever since I saw my wood-carvers in Hanoi building a drum almost as big as the room it was being built in. The highlight of the evening was the two ensembles playing together while police arrested a man in the audience for d & d. Price of the music? Free. Price of the show? Priceless.

The music doesn’t die as the summer comes to an end, but it definitely starts going into hibernation. Still it’s not over yet; summer still has a couple weeks to go. This week the best tickets look like Los Pinguos at Cal Plaza Friday noon and Stratospheerius that same evening at MacArthur Park. See you there.

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