Wednesday, May 27, 2009


It’s time to re-think urban music- rap, hip-hop, and especially reggaeton. Despite its huge popularity, and its sociological acceptance as the voice of frustration emanating from its most honest protagonists, it’s never really been socially acceptable. The rap against rap, just like reggaeton, has always been its perceived misogyny, its glorification of violence and crime, its obscenity, and its adolescent posturing, i.e. more attitude than music. Reggaeton has always had more music than hip-hop of course, which is essentially a spoken-word genre which almost no one would dare call poetry. Yet despite its adoption and adaptation by almost every culture and language in the world as a voice of the oppressed, the old charges still stick. It’s the lyrics, dummy. You can’t undo them. You can hire Ice-T to play a cop on TV, but you can’t change the lyrics to ‘Cop Killer’. In Puerto Rico the police and National Guard were even called out to confiscate reggaeton music wherever they could find it in an attempt to stamp out the cause of the island’s moral decay at the source. Then ‘Gasolina’, the hit by Daddy Yankee in 2005, went platinum and all that changed. All of a sudden reggaeton was okay, a true crossover success, transformed overnight by a cute little novelty song, fought over by politicians instead of being fought against.

But on 'El Hijo de Obatala' Santero goes beyond all the hype, on the one hand returning reggaeton to its musical Caribbean roots, and on the other taking it in a new direction as a potent moral force for those same people for whom it was once a cry of anguish and hate, and little more. As the name suggests, reggaeton has its origins as an adaptation of reggae music into the Spanish language and its derived culture in the Americas, particularly Panama and Puerto Rico. If it got its start with the Jamaican laborers on the Panama Canal, it got its real push with Bob Marley’s surge to mass popularity and poster-boy acceptance as a hero to downtrodden third-world peoples everywhere. Many reggaeton lyrics at first were English-language reggae simply translated to espanol and sung right over the original melodies. It’s no accident that this would occur in the Hispanic countries most closely associated with America and the English language. As time passed and reggaeton evolved it adopted Jamaican dancehall and especially American hip-hop as its primary influences, gradually moving away from the optimism and philosophical balancing act of Bob Marley into something more materialistic and sometimes sinister.

Santero puts the spirituality back into reggaeton, all the while never losing the edge that makes it reggaeton in the first place. Thus a path that started with his birthplace in Guatemala comes full circle. With its traditional Maya culture and spectacular landscape, Guatemala may be one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but underneath it’s also one of the ugliest. I used to think that Lake Atitlan was the coolest place imaginable- until they found a dead body in the ravine next to our house- and the war was on. Everybody knows about the political violence of the 80’s, but may not know about the traffic in babies and body parts that continues to this day. Traditional Mayas may worship the old gods carved on stones on isolated hilltops, but evangelical Christians are the primary religious force in a country still nominally Catholic. A traditional Maya woman may still wear the huipil that identifies her place of birth and binds her to a lineage stretching backward into a remote infinity, but that doesn’t help the Guat City street urchin scrounging for scraps and for whom glue is the drug of choice. That’s the social and cultural milieu into which Santero was born. He left with his family when things got so bad in the 80’s that anything would be better.

Fortunately Santero always had music in his life, his father being the leader of a regionally popular cumbia and salsa band in Guatemala, a vocation he continued with at least some belated success in the US. This made a huge impression on the young Santero, he quickly absorbing current American musical influences, but maybe slightly less than the impression ultimately made on him by Santeria, a misnomer for the Yoruba-derived religion especially popular in Cuba and even quietly immortalized by Desi Arnaz in ‘Babalu’. Even in the back streets of Communist-to-the-death Havana, to this day you can still find shops stacked head to foot with items of adoration to the Orishas. But Santero went farther than that; he was initiated as a priest, disciple of the deity Obatala. The rest is history. His music from that point onward became a manifestation of that discipline and that spiritual presence. It’s served him well apparently. It even works for me, and I’m hardly what you would’ve called a reggaeton fan, at least not until recently…

El Hijo de Obatala (Son of Obatala) is the culmination of that spiritual infusion into Santero’s music, and the lyrics are full of it. From the opening song ‘Abre Camino’ (‘Open a Path’) to the final tribute to the warrior-saint ‘Ochosi’, Santero sings of inner city frustrations- “los que caen son los innocentes… ando buscando la justicia” (“the innocent are the ones who fall… I go looking for justice”), but without being defeated by it. His religion is his savior, just as it was for his hero Bob Marley. In ‘Baba Ade’ the divine Obatala himself “siempre me perdone sin reproche… alivia mi pena… accompaneme siempre” (“always pardons me without reproach… relieving my pain… always accompanying me”). He evens deals with environmental issues in ‘Agua del Mar’- “el calentamiento… parece suicidio” (“global warming… seems like suicide”), but the issues are mostly personal. A true ‘spirit walker’, as Santero calls himself, must even deal with death, and that he does, in ‘Madre de Nueve’- “el dia que me muere no me van a enterrar… nadie va llorar… recibeme” (the day that I die they won’t bury me… nobody will cry… receive me’). If he had omitted that pesky little detail of life- its opposite, its denial- I might have been skeptical about his spiritual enlightenment. He’s the real thing.

If you think you’ll need to brush up on your high-school Spanish to enjoy Santero, don’t worry- the music will carry you through. The surprising thing is its diversity, hardly a song repeating another’s licks in a genre I’d long given up as a one-off. The cumbia and salsa background serve Santero well here, and he dips liberally into both to keep the beat hopping. That means congas, brass, and flute, the works. The Marley influence is still there, in both words and music, lilting and optimistic. But maybe what’s most surprising is another voice from the grave, being properly coaxed and channeled- Marvin Gaye, complete with female back-up in English, to help re-align the focus. These days, after all, what better describes our dilemmas better than a phrase from another chaotic era- “What’s goin’ on?” Give DJ Santero’s ‘El Hijo de Obatala’ a listen- you just might be pleasantly surprised. I was.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


The debut album by Inbar Bakal, ‘Song of Songs’, is a wonder and a revelation, with its lush harmonics and rich melodies. This also fills a much-needed niche within the field of Semitic-language music for those for whom Tinariwen is too raw, Algerian rai too slick, Rachid Taha too French, and Ethiopian music too… weird (comparisons to Niyaz are obvious, but they are mostly sung in Farsi, so non-Semitic… more later). The irony is that Inbar Bakal is neither Arab nor Tuareg nor Berber nor Ethiopian. She’s Jewish, an Israeli by birth, via Yemen and Iraq parentage. For those of you who don’t know, there is a pre-Diaspora scattering of ‘oriental’ Jewish people that is the result not necessarily of emigration, but of conversion. Ethiopia was a Jewish nation before its conversion to Christianity, as was Yemen before Islam. This is an important point to remember, since at that time, the similarities between them outweighed their differences and monotheism itself was the powerful belief (and economic benefit?) that defeated a plethora of lesser gods and their demands for tribute. Until the foundation of the Israeli state, Judaism not only survived but even thrived in enclaves within the Islamic world, far better than they fared in Europe in fact.

So Inbar Bakal helps bring Israel and its musical heritage full circle, back to its origins in the Middle East. She does this by looking for modern clues in ancient texts, adapting Yemeni melodies to Torah-inspired lyrics. Her songs are of ascendance, meditation, and worship, the struggles for Yerushalayim and the struggles of an unwilling bride in an arranged marriage. If photos of her at first seem oddly ultra-sexy, given the subject matter and background, notice that they also are extremely enigmatic, of a soul half-divided, an innate tension that plays itself out in song, half-crying and half-laughing. She one-ups Mona Lisa in walking an emotional fence with a combination of resignation and resilience, faith and humor, all lying just slightly below the surface, close enough to sense if not touch.

If Bakal has a talented band of diverse musicians, her chief collaborator on ‘Song of Songs’ is Grammy-nominated producer Carmen Rizzo, himself a co-founder of the Persian/Sufi/Indian-inspired group Niyaz. Thus the question arises as to whether we’re listening primarily to Carmen or to Inbar. This is the same situation as with other artist/producers such as Daniel Lanois or T-Bone Burnett. It doesn’t matter of course, certainly not on a studio album, as long as the music is good. And it is. Ms. Bakal’s voice matches the music perfectly. If this typically takes the form of a melancholy lament, I see no reason why it should always be so. It would be interesting to see how she would interpret more up-beat material. You probably don’t want to play her song ‘The Bride’ at your wedding. Somebody might change his or her mind.

There is another story here of course, one of politics. Ms. Bakal proudly served in the Israeli military, as all citizens must, but she even attained the rank of officer in the Israeli air force. The fact that she advertises this fact rather than obscuring it, all the while playing with musicians of other faiths, including Islam, is commendable. Maybe it’s na├»ve to think that music might accomplish what negotiations can’t, but then again, maybe it’s not. When you have movies like ‘Heavy Metal in Baghdad’ making the circuits and people in Zagreb camping overnight to be the first in line to buy tickets for U2, there’s obviously a power there that’s more than just muddy metaphor and silly simile. The new album by Inbar Bakal adds an important new dimension to the extant library of modern Middle Eastern music. I want more, and I want it live, but for now the album will suffice for a few more listens. That’s the ultimate test, which she passes with flying colors.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


There was supposed to be a ‘festival’ two weekends ago in Addis Ababa called Selam Music Festival sponsored by a group whose initials are SEANM, some Swedish-Ethiopian musical something or other promising conferences and workshops and live music in clubs around town, which apparently degenerated into a few shows at ONE club called Club Alize’. Now while I didn’t come here specifically for that, and I’ve experienced other such dubious ‘festivals’ which are frequently little more than mutual admiration societies for egocentric cliques, I’m still disappointed, more as a promoter and supporter of the arts than personally, that such opportunities for communion amongst diverse groups are missed. So when I found out that Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi was playing in a show sponsored by the African Union I didn’t hesitate to grab a ticket. I’ve got habits to feed, too, and they’re always hungry.

‘Tuku’ is apparently a pretty big star in his native Zimbabwe, though I’m not sure how often he gets back to check, given the situation there and his star status on the world music circuit. He’s been featured several times on Putumayo compilations and has appeared in numerous world music festivals. The only time I saw him before was in Globalquerque! in New Mexico a couple years ago, so it was nice to hear him again without multiple stages competing for my attention. He was in good form even if the sound system wasn’t, frequently backfiring and even causing a fifteen minute disruption at one point. Tuku persevered with his smooth breezy Caribbean-like sounds. This is Reggae without the Rasta, ear candy without all the quasi-philosophical baggage which a non-adept may or may not be able to ‘overstand’ or even tolerate. It suits me just fine; I want more. Tuku is a showman also, with his own ‘moon-walk’ which he’ll gladly take to the bleachers if that’s what it takes to move butts. Too bad there weren’t more there to move, with the Africa Union’s ticket prices a bit steep for local budgets. Don’t let that stop you.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Two weekends ago Seattle was the scene of the World Rhythm Festival, sponsored by the Seattle World Percussion Society (SWPS or ‘swoops’). And what a scene it was, too, with the sound of drumming absolutely taking over Seattle Center, home of the famous Space Needle, in case you didn’t know. On the surface Seattle might be the last place you’d expect to see a percussion festival. I mean, it’s hardly a great center of salsa or Afro-beat. But that’s not the most important thing when you’re talking about drum circles and such. The most important thing is hipness, and Seattle is nothing if not hip, perhaps rivaled only by its little brother and little sister cities Portland and Vancouver. This is an area after all where local public radio still has a Grateful Dead hour (what year is this? 14AD?) and RatDog is heavy on the marquees with ‘The Dead’ not far behind. Apparently this is Ground Zero for drum circles and while I’m not sure what the connection is between hipness and drumming, Mickey Hart maybe, but most likely ‘the late great’ Babatunde Olatunje, I DO remember them at least as far back as the one Oregon Country Fair that I went to back in 1983 or so, and this is the sixteenth year for the SWPS event.

I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of the world of drum circles, but I do know they’re a lot of fun, and probably quite therapeutic for those of you stuck behind your desks all day every day, bless your hearts. Mine goes out to you, when I’m not jealous of you with your ‘real’ jobs and your kids and your lives. Arthur Hull is apparently the godfather of the official ‘movement’, complete with facilitator/practitioners, and he was there in full force, cutting up and hamming it up when he wasn’t actually mustering the troops into rhythm with drums and shakers and whatever instruments happened to be at hand. It seemed like everyone was carrying a drum, typically swathed in African cloth and slung over the shoulder for toting. Of course there were real live Africans there, too, in addition to other ethnicities, and this was the true value of the event, at least for me. These included Manimou Camara, Mapathe Diop and Modibo Traore (and that’s just the ‘M’ listings) representing most of the countries of Western Africa, which just so happens to be the most populous region of Africa and the mustering yard for the diaspora, of both forced slavery and Bantu expansion.

After Africa and African-style drumming, the other ethnicities and drumming styles represented included Latino (including Brazilian), Arab, Asian and good ol’ American. The levels of professionalism varied but in general were good, though in an open field like this there will always be some pretenders to thrones who do more invoking (of various spirits and gods) than evoking (of rhythm and movement), and some dancers more than willing to seize the opportunity to show off some pecs and ‘ceps just in case the moon is right and the mood is willing. But in general it was all good and fun, with highlights including didgeridoo playing, Japanese Taiko, and possibly my favorite, Egyptian dumbek featuring Raquy (pronounced ‘Rockie’) Danziger and her Cavemen. They get my Golden Finger award for sheer talent AND mixed origins. That lady has got some fingernails that mean business, and I don’t mean retail, and a no–nonsense approach that put some other flashier performers to shame.

Though broad swathes of the globe were represented, there was at least one glaring ethnic omission and a surprising one at that considering the Northwest’s political correctness- Native American, with some very respectable drumming of its own and chanting that not only carries a message with its medium but highlights the voice as a percussion instrument in a way rarely matched. In fact Native American drumming may be THE origin of the drum circle concept and is actually the first one I saw way back when in Portland, though I don’t think it was called that. There were also some gaps in the musical spectrum at both ends, percussive art and the most popular percussion instrument of all, the trap set used by every rock band from Seattle to Shanghai. As I found out last year in Buenos Aires and Montevideo respectively, not only can the traditional drum trap set can be a lead instrument in the right hands and the right jazz band, but there is a category of percussion that could hardly be considered drumming at all, and is best described as art. Marimba music falls somewhere between the two, music but not drumming, and was well represented by a group of kids known as the Shumba Youth Marimba Ensemble. You haven’t heard marimba until you’ve heard a half dozen of them together.

Yes, the festival was heavy on drum circle enthusiasm and enthusiasts and another side of that world was eventually revealed to me, drumming as a motivational technique. Arthur Hill himself doubles as a motivational speaker and others radiate the same self-centered glow. Maybe if everybody played drums, TOGETHER, then there would be no more war? It’s worth a try.

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