Friday, June 26, 2009


Which came first, Afro-beat or Cuban music (hold the salsa)? That’s obvious, maybe you say, since so many Cubans came from Africa originally. Not so obvious, someone else might say, since Cuba comprises many groups, in fact one of the whitest of Caribbean countries, despite its santeria traditions and Aunt Jemima (yay-MEE-mah)-like traditional dress. And salsa music probably originated in NYC anyway, so I’ll leave it for the academics to duke it out amongst themselves. It’s like asking, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Once again I confess to not knowing, but I DO know that I can mix both in with some instant noodles and mixed veggies and survive quite nicely until it’s time for rice. Now add the funk genre to the equation and you’ve got the equivalent of a pop-music three-body problem.

Fela listened to James who listened to Louis who inspired Tito who inspired Miles who inspired Carlos who listened to B.B. who listened to T-Bone and Frank in some never-ending double-helix of twentieth century popular music cross-pollinating itself across oceans but centered on an emerging America with enough time and space and energy and guts to just do it for the sake of entertainment and let the academics back-fill the logic at some later date. Politics should be so easy. If politicians could get along as easily as musicians of different genres and persuasions, the world would be a nicer place, n’est-ce pas? I bet Martin Perna, baritone sax player for Antibalas, and Adrian Quesada, guitarist for Grupo Fantasma, would probably think so. In addition to musical chops they share a forward-looking political consciousness that emphasizes action over theory, and… they share a band, sometimes at least… called ‘Ocote Soul Sounds/Adrian Quesada’. They’ve even got a new album out called “Coconut Rock.” It takes more than politics to make a good album of course. Does it work?

Certainly Afro-Beat and Latin-Funk have plenty in common, probably more than their differences, so what do you get when you cross them? In this case, you get something slower and dreamier than what either of them is probably used to. ‘Funk’ is the operative concept for both Antibalas’ brand of Afro-Beat and Grupo Fantasma’s brand of Latin Funk, music you digest on the dance floor, not in the sort of front-porch contemplation that ‘Coconut Rock’ inspires. But apparently Brooklynites need some downtime, too, because Martin Perna makes regular pilgrimages to the continent’s interior regions for some soul-searching or communion or whatever other benefits accrue from such directed travels and deliberate detours. Good for him! Every musician should be so grounded and reality-based and hungry for experience! As I like to say, “I don’t wander, I’m driven…” And so is Martin, though sometimes the bio-deisel beast breaks down, and you need some help. Necessity, not Frank Zappa, is the original mother of invention. In this case, while waiting for car repairs, a new musical entity was born, something not so funky, more psychedelic… almost like Peruvian ‘chicha’, a long-overlooked minor genre finally gaining some adherents and fans with the success of ‘Chicha Libre’, another Brooklyn-based group.

The coincidence may be more than coincidental. Latino music is always looking for new directions, just like its Anglo counterparts, and this is not a bad way to go. The ‘chicha’ (given its upper Amazon origins and psychedelic overtones, maybe it should be rechristened ‘yage’ or ‘ayahuasca’ music for a new generation?) influence is probably most notable on “Tu Fin Mi Comienzo” (Your End My Beginning), and on one hand confirms its emergence as a genre, and on the other hand fires a warning shot that competition is at hand. As with Antibalas, the instrumentals dominate ‘Coconut Rock’, though that’s maybe a shame, because there are some bizarrely compelling titles like “Revolt of the Cockroach People” and “El Diablo y el NauNau” (sorry, I’ve got no ‘enye’ on this keyboard), just not much in the way of lyrics to expound on the themes. One of the ones that does is arguably the album’s ‘hit’, a song called ‘Vampires’ (“red, white, and blue” ones), an indictment of runaway capitalism that leaves nothing but heartache- and higher rents (and presumably some infected converts, too)- in its wake.

But the song that steals the show for me is “Vendendo Saude E Fe” (Selling Health and Faith), a Brazilian song sung in Portuguese by guest vocalist Tita Lima (a filha dum dos legendarios Mutantes nao menos). Now as a writer maybe I’m just too hungry for lyrics and as a poet just love a good metaphor or euphemism which the title obviously is, since neither health nor faith can literally be bought or sold, or… maybe I’m just a sucker for any cute little Brasileira cooing bossa nova like she means it, probably some combination of the two… or three. But this brings up another point maybe worth mentioning. Chicha’ is not the only dreamily abstract Latin genre. Samba has lain dormant for a long time awaiting its renaissance on the international scene. Beef it up and funk it out a little and you might just have something quite compelling. Quesada’s guitar on the one samba track here does just that. Unfortunately that’s the only song Tita Lima appears on, so we’re left hanging and wondering what else a Latin-Funk/Afro-Beat/Samba fusion might produce.

Latin-Funk and Afro-Beat don’t need much lyrics or vocals to carry them- the music and the rhythm do. Slow that down and let it linger in your mind, and you’ve still got something good, something VERY good, but it may be best for a rainy day… or until the next new releases by the parent companies Antibalas and Grupo Fantasma. If you’re one of their fans, though, you’ll probably find a lot to like in ‘Coconut Rock.’ Listen and judge for yourself.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


This collaboration may not be first Anglo/African supergroup- Ali Farka Toure and Ry cooder did that long ago, not to mention Paul Simon and Ladysmith. Nor is it the first such longer–term collaboration to bear fruit and prove itself repeatedly on tour- Afrissippi has been playing and touring together for at least several years now. But they may very well be the first Anglo/African group to create an entirely new sound in the process. Now I’m not talking about Africans playing in US/UK bands or vice-versa; I’m talking about true collaborations, musicians meeting on equal terms. So what do you get when you cross West African griot music with white boy blues/rock? Think about that one for a minute. But whereas Ry Cooder respectfully stayed within his host’s West African folk idiom, so does Afrissippi stay well within the boundaries of Delta blues, albeit sung in Fulani, same as Juldeh Camara (Ali Farka also sang in Fulani, in addition to his native Sonrai). Justin Adams’ and Juldeh Camara’s music is not so easy to define. That’s good, for while the influences are many and varied, the result is unique and special. Look out, Tinariwen. You’ve got competition.

The album ‘Tell No Lies’ is a wonder in more ways than one, not the least of which is the thematic progression from start to finish. Listening to any one individual song doesn’t quite give the full picture. The album starts with the kick-ass blues rocker ‘Sahara’ which is basically a pre-flight warning to “buckle your seat belts.” Don’t be fooled by the title. This is Justin’s song, with Juldeh providing vocals, screaming wailing cut-me-loose vocals. Juldeh is not Saharan anyway. Fulanis are traditionally from the Sahel, that broad grassy plain just south of the Sahara that seamlessly segues into sand to the north, and into woodlands to the south, including Juldeh Camara’s home in the Gambia. And just as Tuaregs symbolize the Sahara, Fulanis symbolize the Sahel, traditionally ranging far and wide across borders, wherever there is enough grass to support their cows. Not infrequently do they cross paths with Tuaregs at the desert’s borders, sharing salt and trading southern goods for northern ones.

Just as the desert gradually becomes grassland before becoming forest, so does the music of Adams and Camara pass through many and varied landscapes to get where it’s going, essentially from north to south. If the opening song references Adams’ chief employer Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, subsequent offerings run the gamut of influences from Muddy Waters’ muddy vocals in ‘Fulani Coochie Man’ to Papa John Creach’s screaching fiddle in ‘Madame Mariana’ to Duane Allman’s soul-full slide guitar in ‘Nangu Sobeh’ to Ali Farka Toure’s folk chants in ‘Chukaloy Daloy’. Finally Camara returns home, literally, with the albums’s closing song ‘Futa Jalo’, sung in full griot style, and expressing a longing for Futa Jalo (Fouta Djallon), the homeland for Fulanis from which most emigration originally took place. This is griot music to make any Diabate brother proud. For those of you who don’t know, griot is a hereditary caste of musicians unique to West Africa. For those of you who DO know, “Big deal,” maybe you say. “Everybody and his freakin’ brother from West Africa is a griot. There are more griots on the world music scene than there are Tuaregs.” Labels are meaningless, true; the proof is in the listening.

Juldeh Camara is more than a mild-mannered balladeering griot humbly carrying on the tradition. He is one kick-ass player of the riti, a one-string ‘spike fiddle’ indigenous to the region. How he can get so much sound out of a single string is beyond my knowledge, but I know I haven’t heard such git/fiddle arrangements since Papa John Creach and Jorma Kaukonen traded licks way back when. So what do you get when you cross West African traditional music with white boy blues anyway? Would you believe Bo Diddley? That’s definitely the sound being channeled for what is arguably ‘the hit’ from this album, ‘Kele Kele (No Passport, No Visa)’, a song about the frustrations and joyful homecomings of illegal immigration. One more sampling, maybe you’re thinking, so where’s this unique hybrid sound that I talked about? Listen to ‘Banjul Girl’. These are pop hooks that defy categorization, maybe some hint of Amadou and Mariam, a little Tinariwen, a little Toumani Diabate, but with something else, some undefinable something.

That undefinable something is Justin Adams’ scorching guitar, setting a new standard for Afro-Pop that is not likely to be matched any time soon. As somebody realized long ago, that if you took Latino-pop and added virtuoso guitar, you’d really have something, i.e. Santana, so you can extrapolate the case to Africa. Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara have just raised the bar for African music. This is more than just a fusion of African and Anglo folk/roots/rock music, this is a fusion of the Saharan desert and Nigerian jungle meeting somewhere in the grassy Sahel. This is a fusion of electric and acoustic, deciding to join together instead of maintaining an icy distance. This is a fusion of Africa, both homeboy and √©migr√©, re-uniting in time if not space, in concept and concert. The only thing better than listening to this album would have been to see parts of it performed live at Dubai WOMAD a few months ago with guest Robert Plant stalking the stage and adding his significant two bits (and I wasn’t even a Robert Plant fan until his collaborations with Adams and Allison, so there you go). Now I guess I’ll have to go back and re-listen to Justin and Juldeh’s first collaboration, and see what I missed. I can’t wait. I’ll confess, though- I have no idea what the title ‘Tell No Lies’ refers to. You’re on your own there.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Mariachi music is like the Rodney Dangerfield (remember him?) of music genres- they don’t get much respect. Maybe that’s what happens when you sell yourself too easily, as mariachi music does every night of the week in numerous towns around La Republica Mexicana, playing for pesos. If it all looks romantic in Guadalajara’s Plaza de los Mariachis or Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, musicians strutting their stuff while tourists line up for the privilege, the reality elsewhere is another story, competing with grown-up girls in under-age school uniforms in Tijuana’s red-light district or competing with themselves in Ensenada, where the mariachis almost outnumber the drinkers, at least the parts of town that haven’t been Hussong’d out of business by the new ear-pounding discos. It gives new meaning to the term ‘border blaster’.

So what’s a mariachi band to do to gain a little respect in this world? Mariachi Vargas- the genre’s most famous act- plays large arenas. Other prominent mariachi groups have adopted permanent associations with Mexican food restaurants (two enchiladas and a cucaracha to go, please?). With ‘Mariachi Classics’, Mariachi Real de San Diego take another strategy in their attempt to reach a wider whiter audience. They’re sticking to the classics, not necessarily the most popular mariachi songs of history mind you, but the classics. They even claim to have rummaged old record bins in Tijuana looking for material that might otherwise have been lost (so THAT explains why the antique stores in TJ are always such a mess). This is old-school mariachi, pure and simple. There is no ‘Guadalajara’ here, no ‘Cielito Lindo’ (the “ay yay yay yay” song), nor God forbid ‘La Cucaracha’ (would somebody please put that crippled cockroach out of its misery?). No, some of the songs here have been out of rotation for many years but include such chestnuts as ‘Las Mananitas’/‘Little Mornings’, a rumination on birth and awakenings, ‘Las Golondrinas’/‘The Swallows’, a rumination on death, ‘Mexico Lindo’/ ‘Beautiful Mexico’, and the spooky ‘La Malaguena’/‘Lady from Malaga’ (‘es hechicera’- ‘she’s a witch’).

There is nothing by Antonio Banderas here either, though he and film director Robert Rodriguez have certainly done much to popularize the genre with the popular ‘El Mariachi’ film trilogy, and whose one big Lobos-backed hit- ironically in non-Mariachi style- gets more plays than many long-suffering journeymen. Though there are plenty of instrumentals here- e.g.‘Las Chiapanecas’/’The Chiapans’, ‘Jugueteando’/’Just Playing Around’, and ‘San Diego’ (actually ‘San Diego’ has two words- guess which two?), lyrically these songs, and mariachi music in general, tend to revolve around the theme of love- love of country, love of nature, and the love of a woman. For all its machismo posturing, esthetically at least, Mexico’s imagery and inspirations tend to be largely female. Whether it’s the Virgen of Guadalupe or poster-girl Frida herself, the rich vibrant colors, exaggerated sentimentality, and the mish-mash of emotion tend to predominate. Mariachi music is no different. Even a song as patriotic as ‘Mexico Lindo’ just barely stops short of getting down and dirty on the dance floor- ‘yo le canto a sus volcanes, a sus praderas y flores, que son como talismans del amor de mis amores’ (I sing to the volcanoes, to the meadows and flowers, that are like talismans of the love of my loves’). Oooohhh… I like it.

They say mariachi music can be traced to one particular village in the state of Jalisco, specifically the village of Cocula, though Texcalitlan- the home of Mariachi Vargas- is equally legendary. ‘They’ say a lot of things, of course. In their attempts to Mexicanize and autochtonize the national tradition, some academics have attempted to prove indigenous roots for mariachi music, even going so far as to say the word itself comes from the Aztec language Nahuatl, meaning something like ‘song and merriment’. This is probably going too far. For one thing the Nahuatl word for ‘song’ is cuicatl- everybody knows that (and I don’t remember a word ‘mariachatl’). For another thing la raza Mexicana is truly a hybrid, probably more than any other place in the Americas, with the possible exception of Brazil, including major influences from native American, Spanish, and even Arab (la reconquista was only completed in 1492, remember) traditions. From there comes the cowboy culture that Mexico came to excel at and even teach the anglosajones in Texas. The American vocabulary is full of it- lazo/lasso, vaquero/buckaroo, la reata/lariat, juzgado/hoosegow, etc. This is the tradition that modern mariachi culture owes most to, Mexican charreadas- highly stylized rodeos- and the Mexican revolution as conducted on horseback by Pancho Villa. So it’s no accident that the Mariachi tradition originates in Jalisco, a state that looks north and west, even if it does owe much to village-based son.

But I’m sure it’s also no accident that ‘Mariachi Classics’ closes with ‘Noche de Ronda’/ ‘Night Rounds’, a song better known for its version by crooner Luis Miguel- ‘Dile que la quiero, Dile que me muero de tanto esperar, Que vuelva ya;/ ‘Tell her that I love her, That I’m dying from so much waiting, That she come back now’. This is not a bad place to be, commercially or esthetically. It’s a win-win situation- LM fans might give mariachi music a more serious listen, and people like me, who’d likely never listen to someone who looks like a model for men’s cologne… will gladly listen to the mariachi version. It also gives weight to the theory of hybrid origins in French-era bandas marriages. Though they may have deep roots in native and busker traditions and modern affectations that owe much to La Revolucion and charreadas, their raison d’etre lies with celebrating love and celebrating its fruition. For best results, listen to ‘Mariachi Classics’ with someone you love… preferably in Mexico… on a beach… along a coastline… that will zigzag halfway around the world… just to come right back to you.

Monday, June 08, 2009


We Westerners tend to have this romantic notion of village arts and crafts as something handed down through generations, father to son, mother to daughter, in an unbroken chain. Once disrupted, the thread can never be picked up again, and the traditions will die out. The reality is not always like that of course. Sometimes a person adopts an art or craft as his life’s calling simply because he fancies it, and he’s blessed with the spare time to pursue it, and he’s got the talent to carry it through to fruition. Such is the case of Kolya Torosyan of Byuruka, Armenia, about an hour’s drive from Yerevan. When he decided over a half century ago to devote himself to the crafting of Armenia’s native duduk, zurna, and siring (a shepherd’s flute), he had nothing but a burning desire, a woodworker’s chops, and plenty of apricot trees for the raw material. Almost everyone in Byurukan does, and when they’re too old to bear fruit anymore, they’re perfect for woodwork, all heart (wood) and hardness.

In the early days, everything had to be done by hand with old-fashioned hand-made tools, the drilling, the lathing, everything. Even a brace-and-bit would have been considered high-tech back then, as his first drill resembles nothing so much as a primitive fire-making tool (yes, he keeps these relics as conversation pieces). The instrument is tuned by hollowing out just the right amount of wood to create the perfect pitch. Kolya may not be a master musician himself, but many of his friends are, and he knows he must meet their technical specs precisely or all his work is in vain. That he does, of course, and his fame has spread far beyond the local ‘hood, first into Yerevan, where he not only sells his work through music stores, but is also featured as an ‘honorary master’ in the government’s folk art museum. When Armenia was part of the USSR he made a trip to Moscow in the same role. Now his work is even sold in the USA under the good auspices of Refugee Arts in Massachusetts. At age 81 he may have slowed down a bit, but his son Vaclik takes up the slack.

Still there’s always time to relax… and chat… and eat… and drink vodka, the homemade kind, made with local apples. That’s the Armenian way. Everybody in the countryside makes their own vodka, just like they make own yogurt and cheese and lavash see-through bread. They all have bee-hives and gardens and animals and fruit trees in what offers a telescope to the past of one of the Western world’s ancient cultures, likely spun off from the Indo-European core about the same time as the Greeks and known to the ancient texts as Urartians, the people of Ararat. It also offers insight into our own Western European tradition, and all the other relations, too. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christiantity as the official religion, even before Rome (especially before Rome, the America of antiquity!), and has never looked back.

“I was feeling lousy when you all drove up, so I decided to hang back and let Vaclik do the talking… I feel better now,” the old master glows as a shot of apple vodka produces the desired effect.

What follows could only be described as a riot of social intercourse between the two masters, the local-boy-turned-guide, a visiting America-based Persian-Armenian… and me, getting exuberant translations at random intervals. The celebration is prolonged and the re-visit will likely be never, for me at least, given the distances involved and Kolya’s advancing age. Still something of Armenia stays with me, and not just the writing on the wall on the section of Hollywood that Little Armenia shares with Thai Town. No, it has something to do with resilience and determination in the face of the almost insurmountable difficulties that Armenia has faced as a nation throughout history and their attachment to place while surfing the tides of Time… and the importance placed on social relationships within and without the group. There’s a lesson for us all there.

So the next time you see a New Age or World Music master playing his duduk or his zurna in front of thousands of people in the large cities of the West, remember that equally adept masters are hard at work back in the villages of the Caucasus… making it all possible.

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