Monday, October 26, 2009

CESARIA EVORA- The ‘Barefoot Diva’ Returns with “NHA SENTIMENTO”

One thing nice about world music is that it not only respects its cultures, but it respects its elders… AND its women. While pop and country tend to ditch their forebears once they’ve passed their reproductive prime, world music’s leading songstresses just get older and wiser. If you need proof, just look at Omara Portuondo, Cesaria Evora, and Toto la Momposina (hint hint: my previous present and future blogs). You’d think that after a stroke and pushing seventy, Cesaria would be slowing down, but no… not yet anyway. Her new album “Nha Sentimento” (“My Feeling”) not only lives up to the standards of her previous work, but takes it in important new directions. At the core, though, as always, is that voice, that voice that goes down like the cognac a younger Cesaria so loved to drink, rich and smooth and deep with emotion.

Emotion lives at the heart of all Cesaria’s music, whether old or new, and it doesn’t matter whether you call it mornas or ‘Verdean blues’, it obviously shares affinities with Portuguese fado, both in style and content. There’s always that longing and nostalgia for something, not something other, but something familiar, usually the past, youth, a romanticized era that may or may not have ever existed. For it is not a longing meant to be fulfilled, but a longing that is a way of life, as if our expanding universe allowed us only to look back from where we came, never to where we are going. It’s cozier that way. Personally I prefer Cesaria’s style over the sometimes over-dramatic fado, more like a ‘folksy fado.’

For this album, in addition to local musicians Cesaria includes tracks recorded in Cairo with Egyptian conductor Fathy Salama and the Cairo Orchestra. But don’t start thinking that she’s ‘gone Arab.’ If anything, she’s ‘gotten slick,’ with a background instrumentation lusher than what we’ve come to expect, most typically an interplay between guitar and drum, with occasional strings and brass. This album has that, too, but also adds Arab instruments like the Egyptian zither and flute, prominent on the title track ‘Sentimento.’ In fact if this album evokes a nationality foreign to her, it would be Italy, thanks to the Italian-style accordion of Henry Ortiz that weaves in and out on the song ‘Ligereza.’ It becomes her, adding another dimension to what is essentially a southern European style to begin with, despite the African connections, and balancing out with new ‘folksiness’ a sound that is tending toward light jazz.

If the album starts out a bit meandering with the aptly-titled ‘Serpentina’ it quickly gets right back on track with ‘Verde Cabo di Nhas Odjos’ (‘Green Cape of My Eyes’) obviously a play on Cape/Cabo Verde’s name and an invocation of ‘greenness’ as a symbol of hope, ‘verde vida, verde sonho… verde verde manha’ (‘green the life, green the dream… a green green tomorrow’), and when coupled with ‘Esperanca di Mar Azul’ (‘Hope of the Blue Sea’) becomes a one-two punch of synesthesia, color evoking emotion and vice versa, establishing hope as a positive counterweight to the more prevalent melancholy. Chanting ‘vento di norte, vento di sul’ (‘northern winds, southern winds’) Nature’s malleability thus offers much of the reason for that hope. The third song ‘Vento de Sueste’ (‘The Southeasterly Wind’) continues right in that vein, lilting sad and nostalgic- ‘innocencia foi grande… curacao fica isolado’, (‘my innocence was great… my heart remains isolated/an island’), a nice play on words. Ligereza’ bats clean-up and by now we’re firmly on Cesaria’s turf- ‘amor ta va, amor ta vem’ (‘love comes and goes’), unrepentantly philosophical.

From there on it’s all downhill and down to business. If the album flirts a bit with almost-too-slick over-production at first, ‘Zinha’ shifts gears into some nice brassy no-nonsense up-tempo Latin jazz, to be taken up again on ‘Tchom Frio’ and ‘Holandesa co Certeza’, interspersed with Cesaria’s more typical ballads. Last but not least is ‘Parceria e Irmandade’ (‘Partnership and Brotherhood’), apparently a throwaway track that barely made the lineup, but for my money maybe the best track on the whole album, both philosophical AND up-tempo, haunting and beautiful and carrying an important message, i.e. that closeness among family and friends is not only more important than wealth, but is also a source of it. Maybe a bit angry and even more determined, this stands in contrast to much of the more passive content of many of her other songs, and seems to sum up much of what Cesaria’s life has been all about, overcoming poverty with dignity. I can’t get it out of my head. I hope it’s not her swan song.

There are enough similarities to other Portuguese-language music here to make a Chomskyite go running back to his textbooks, but there are many other things that are just Cesaria, unique and inimitable. That’s “Nha Sentimento.” Check it out.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


It’s always nice to pick up some quality music while traveling, but the timing seldom works out unless I’ve actually planned it that way, and even then… suffice it to say that some people’s big festive ideas for big ideal festivals don’t always work out. The Crossroads moveable fest in southern Africa a couple months ago was good, if small and a bit provincial. The Sauti Za Busara fest in Zanzibar in February should be much better, while covering some of the same East Africa musical turf. It’s good, and a bit different from the West, from whence most of the African genre of ‘world music’ derives, more of a reggae feel, as opposed to the Latino (Cuban-Africaine?) feel in the West. I’m looking forward to it. Then there’s the legendary Festival du Desert in Timbuktu and its sister fests in Segou and elsewhere in Mali, but lately they’ve been looking a little more generic than originally, almost like WOMAD Sahara, but that’s probably mostly because so many Malians are successful outside their home country.

Individual shows are harder to come across, and you’ve got to be an avid signpost reader to make that happen, or a lucky MySpace peruser/pursuer. Still it can happen. This year alone I’ve caught Oliver Mtukudzi in Addis Ababa and Ba Cissoko in Marseilles, while missing (only by inches) Lura in Wroclaw and Tinariwen in Paris and Rachid Taha in selfsame Marseilles. Okay, so I missed them, big deal, but at least I KNOW that I missed them. Of course the magic can occur closer to home also, like catching Omara Portuondo last week in Tijuana. In addition to its own great classical sounds, Buena Vista Social Club accomplished nothing so much as a feeling of great loss at the ‘missing generation’- or two- of the hemisphere’s greatest popular music (after the US). Fortunately it also released a handful of aging musicians for one last go-round on the world stage, one larger than they ever had before. Omara Portuondo is one of those. Fortunately Cuba has excellent health care, the pride of the Caribbean, and Omara Portuondo looks as radiant as she ever did in her youth. If the feet and hips have slowed down a bit, the upper body sways with the rhythm as smoothly as ever, not bad for a woman pushing eighty fast.

And what a rhythm it is! It’s as smooth as… the cheap imported rayon that passes for silk these days in Cuba (but the health care’s good!). Led by guitarist and musical director Swami Jr., Omara went through her entire new album Gracias song by song, note by note. How’s that for a Communistic approach to a concert? But while the songs and notes may have been weighed and measured to original specs, the emotion was real that came from ‘la novia del filin,’ featuring such chestnuts as ‘O Que Sera’ (What Will Be), ‘Amame Como Soy’ (Love Me as I Am), Adios Felicidad (Bye-bye Happiness), and the title song of course- Quiero agradecer a quien corresponda… no quiero guardarme lo que siento… (I just want to thank whoever it concerns… I don’t want to keep these feelings inside…). And for the encore, can you guess? Guantanamera, of course, guajira Guantanamera if that helps you distinguish it from the notorious torture chamber that passes for a US army base, funded by US taxpayers and located on Cuban soil, in case you didn’t know. I’d be willing to bet quite a few don’t, but that’s the region where the best Cuban music originates, and not coincidentally only a stone’s throw from Haiti.

Given a previous song in praise of Che and her striking resemblance to a terrorist’s grandmother, it’s amazing she can even get a visa to sing in the US, but she still can… sometimes. On Oct. 20 she’ll be at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts and Oct. 23 in Royce Hall at UCLA, so I guess the visa came through. I hope she’s not sitting in TJ waiting for it, though I thought I saw a woman at the Calimax with a basket of fruit on her head… Angelenos are so lucky, the best music in the world right there on the doorstep, offering itself up for little or nothing, so anxious are so many musicians to carve out their little niche in the Fantasy Factory for subsequent export. Hey, there’s got to be something the Chinese will buy… if only we could teach them Engrish ranguage. They kicked the big O a century ago… R&R wars anyone?

It’ll take Cuba longer. For all the glossy six-color tourist rap, downtown Havana ain’t pretty. But Omara is, and with a voice like a songbird in the morning. Hopefully the tourists will be crossing the Straits soon, and not just to Varadero’s sometimes-sunny beaches. And hopefully the new generation of musicians will get caught up before the ketchup. But it’s not yet, because Omara still hasn’t gotten a visa for the Grammys in Vegas next month. Of course if I’d known she’d be in LA… but naah, CECUT in TJ has a Cubanosofia cultural series going all month, worth checking out. The revolution started in DF, after all. I wonder where it’ll end?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Slide to FreedomII: Make a Better World- "Dobro means good in any language."

That’s an old motto of the Dobro Manufacturing Corporation- for any of you non-industry people less than 100 years old- the word ‘dobro’ itself a trade name, now property of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, which intends to vigorously defend its exclusive rights to the name btw. So sue me. If you’ve ever spent time in a Slavic country you might be excused for imagining that they’re a race of resonance-guitar lovers, but no, in fact the word DOES mean ‘good’ in nearly all of them, so you hear it frequently. I used to jokingly refer to this for my dobro-playing younger brother without even knowing that the Slovakian-born DOpyera BROthers indeed had this also partly in mind when they named their new company. The rest is history, but only part of it.

The intimate connection between blues-based slide guitar and country-based dobro doesn’t get talked about very much, much less expounded upon, but the connections are there, and it’s more than just the ‘tude. It’s the tunes. At the same time that the Dopyera Bros. and the National String Instrument Corp. were trading secrets, designs, and patents in factories and courts and board-rooms, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Robert Johnson, and others were doing something a little bit different with their guitars in the Mississippi delta. All of them had probably played with the ‘diddley bow’ (as in ‘Bo Diddley’) as children, a one-string toy instrument eerily reminiscent of some one-string African designs, played with a glass or metal slide…

The connection with Hawaiian slack-key style slide guitar is more remote, though, and India’s slide tradition hardly even known… until recently. Canadian slide guitar and Dobro master Doug Cox knows them all… and loves them… and can play most of them. But on this album he had to dig deeper into the corners to get just the sound he was looking for… on his gadgie, a resonance guitar even more obscure than a Dobro™ (satisfied now, Gibson?). “Slide to Freedom II: Make a Better World” is his latest collaboration with Indian sitarist and veena player Salil Bhatt, son of the master Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

One of the nice things about ‘world music’ is that because of the plethora of regions and cultures represented, there are no sharp divisions between classes, simply because they no longer have much meaning outside the local context. And I don’t mean social classes as much as I mean classes of anything. Everything’s connected. This is a good thing. Best of all you can be a nerd intellectual and still be cool, or you can be urban and still be country, or you can live simultaneously in about three different countries signing your e-mails with your current GPS co-ordinates (or maybe that’s just me). So you’re in a funny mood tonight and can’t decide whether you’d like to listen to some classical Indian music or some down-home folk blues? With the album ‘Slide to Freedom II: Make a Better World’ you can do both, where various versions of Indian slides on strings intermix effortlessly with their American counterparts.

The album leads off with the title song “Make a Better World” by Earl King and that pretty much sets the redemptive tone for the album- “sing sing sing… join hands, do yo’ thing, make a better world to live in,” or at least about half of it anyway. In some act of cosmic symmetry, whether accidental or intentional, the album is pretty much divided between modern covers and classical-Indian-inspired instrumentals. I personally probably reached my ‘Amazing Grace’ saturation point long ago, but I can always get up for one more, and the one here is a nice to-the-nailhead-point version. And it’s always nice to hear someone cover the late great George Harrison- another Shankar disciple, along with Salil Bhatt’s father- in this case ‘For You Blue.’ But the real chestnut of a cover song is ‘I Scare Myself’ by Dan Hicks. When’s the last time you heard someone cover that? They nail it, too, its spookiness only augmented with eerie gospel vocals.

A special note needs to be said about the accompaniment to the major collaborators Salil and Cox. Salil’s father and mentor Vishwa delivers a stinging almost ungodly solo on ‘For You Blue’- as though some buddy still had another lick to lay down- and Ramkumar Mishra maintains a tabla rhythm throughout the album without which it would not have been the same, nor nearly so successful. But the real revelation is New Orleans blues and gospel singer John Boutte’. After listening several times to the album without carefully perusing the notes and credits beforehand, I kept thinking, “Who is that ballsy blues mama doing the vocals?” Well ballsy indeed, imagine my surprise at seeing John Boutte’s name- and face. Little surprises like that are magical, like imagining that maybe Michael Jackson’s soul divided around 1990 and the sane half went to New Orleans and became a kick-ass blues-and-gospel singer, while the other half… you know. Tenors are not that rare, but for a blues and gospel singer? As with the tabla-based rhythm, it is excellent and serves to help define the album.

The album’s other half is pretty much straight-ahead Indian string-based instrumental, heavy on the slide, which, according to Salil Bhatt, has always been an element of its use. Thus “A Letter Home,” “Blessings,” and “The Moods of Madhuva” all allow your mind to wander while simultaneously blowing it, as you meditate on origins and endings and the ways and means to it all. The beauty is that- as Doug Cox put it- you really don’t know who’s doing what all the time, the parts fit so seamlessly together. Albums like this are more than just happy accidents and brilliant mistakes. There is purpose and vision behind it. As Cox himself says: “…the future of traditional music really lies in the coming together of cultures. Folk music until now came from isolated cultures developing their own unique style of music. That’s not going to happen anymore.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The album ends with “Freedom Raga” by Cox, which sets the still-yearning closing tone for the album, “I touch freedom, I smell freedom…” as if by simple affirmation we could correct all the slights and injustices that have ever been perpetrated in the history of the world. Would that it were that easy… Listening to “Slide to Freedom II- Make a Better World” is easy. Check it out.

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