Saturday, December 11, 2010

‘CHAMBER MUSIC’ by Ballake’ Sissoko and Vincent Segal- Mind Over Music

It had to happen sooner or later… that world music would produce a successful collaboration of African classical with Western classical music. After all, there have been collaborations of world music with almost everything else western- rock, pop, folk, hiphop, you name it. But classical? Surely the two traditions are too disparate to merely ‘mash up’ in any meaningful way. I myself didn’t think it could be done. African artists, however masterful, just seemed too self-taught and out of the mainstream of Western music. This seemed painfully clear watching Vieux Toure’ in a jam with other world musicians on a workshop stage at Edmonton Folk Festival a few years ago. It just didn’t fit, so it didn’t work very well. Even if they play in the same keys and tune their instruments the same, the relationship between the people and the music is fundamentally different… isn’t it? Maybe not. Maybe it’s just a matter of combining the right musicians in the right situation.

If ‘Chamber Music’, the new album by Ballake’ Sissoko and Vincent Segal is any indication, then the possibilities are infinite. Ironically the concepts of ‘chamber music’ and ‘world music’ are about equally undefined and undefinable, chamber music being closely associated with ‘classical music’, though smaller- capable of being played in a chamber, or room- the string quarter maybe being the most obvious example of the concept. ‘World music’, on the other hand, can mean almost anything. My own garbled definition vaguely describes it as ‘music of other styles and other languages’ than the predominant Anglo-American established genres… which could be almost anything.

The concept of ‘African music’ is even more misleading, usually almost equally divided between Afro-pop and African roots music, a genre which usually includes the kind of griot/djeli kora-based music of the type that Sissoko plays, kora being the long necked string instrument played extending outward from the griot’s lap, something quite a bit different from Segal’s cello. Maybe it’s time to re-think the difference between roots music and Western art music, the broad category to which all Western classical music belongs. Perhaps, like language, all popular forms of music ultimately derive from more structured forms, from which they deviate and ultimately re-invent.

The opening title song sets the tone nicely, cajoling and teasing and soaring to uncertain heights, just begging you to surrender and let go of your preconceptions. The second song ‘Oscarine’ shows the other side of their collaboration, the slow moody side, which may just be what they share most in common, apart from the mastery of their instruments. All the songs are written either by Sissoko or Segal individually, but I’d challenge you to guess which without referring to the credits. The songwriter’s instrument may be more prominently featured on his own songs, but never overwhelms. That calculated moodiness in fact defines the overall tome of the album.

Both artists are comfortable and competent whether the song in question is solemn or upbeat. They’re all a bit dramatic and suspenseful regardless. One song, ‘Regret’, a tribute to Sissoko’s friend Kader Berry, even has words, supplied courtesy of Sissoko’s fellow compatriot Awa Sangho. Other than that they’re all purely instrumental, with instruments in addition to Sissok’s kora and Segal’s cello contributed to suit the mood and the music. All in all it’s one inspiring effort.

On second thought, I’m not sure whether I’m ready to admit that the two traditions are merely flip sides of one and the same thing. I’d be more ready to allow that these are two extraordinarily well-traveled and well-disciplined masters, who have found in each other’s music something to complement their own. They play as two hands from the same mind, a mind that they’ve cultivated in each other’s company along the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, and in concert halls in Paris. The fruit of their creativity is the music itself. It’s called simply ‘Chamber music’. Check it out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

‘LARU BEYA’ by Aurelio- Garifuna Music Lives!

The Garifuna people are one of the most unlikely success stories in the long sordid histories of both the African diaspora AND the Native American genocide. Remnants of an African group mixed in varying degress with local groups of Arawaks and Caribs in the Lesser Antilles, these refugees were long ago relocated to the Central American coasts centered around the not-so-golden triangle where Guatemala meets Honduras and Belize, formerly British Honduras. There these almost-black people speaking an Amerindian language encountered local Maya-descended groups- in addition to other Caribbean blacks and mixed-race Latinos- and have proceeded to extend themselves far and wide. They have also proceededed to establish their own identity and culture based primarily on farming and fishing… and poverty… and music. For most people the notion of Garifuna music starts and ends with one name- Andy Palacio, the musician from Belize who made world music history with the album ‘Watina’ and whose life ended tragically soon thereafter, before he even got to enjoy his newfound fame.

Enter Aurelio, aka Aurelio Martinez, from Honduras, another Garifuna musician and close friend of Andy Palacio. He is fully prepared to carry Andy’s torch, and his new album ‘Laru Beya’ (‘at the Beach’) intends to prove it. Gone are the Latino flourishes that graced Aurelio’s previous work, and gave him some connection to the resources and markets of that genre. Largely gone also are the Afro-Pop affectations that made him something of a cause célèbre within that genre. This album, in fact, could almost be seen as much as an extension of Andy’s work as his own. Instead of Latin ‘spiciness’ or African rhythms instead we have minor keys and soulful laments, punctuated by upbeat numbers of philosophic survival. But if you think that sounds like reggae, you’d be wrong.

The opening song ‘Lubara Wanwa’ is not untypical. This is the slow soulful tearful lament of a woman bemoaning the vicissitudes of love and the absence of her sailor lover long gone to sea. And if that sounds like Youssou N’Dour singing complementary vocals with Aurelio, there’s probably a good reason. The title song ‘Laru Beya’ lightens things up with more of a reggae-like feel, complete with full female chorus line and occasional brass. "In the stillness I sleep. I awake and find that I have dreamt of you. I love you. I love you. I'll be sitting at the beach waiting for you", same scenario but more upbeat feel. I guess it’s a ‘glass half-empty/glass half-full’ thing. The next song ‘Yange’ extends the theme, with the same almost fado-like mournfulness and lamentation, this time over a brother hurt at sea.

Wéibayua’ warns of the dangers of politicians and ‘Ineweyu’ warns of the dangers of sleeping around, all in lively percussion with occasional brass and appropriate mocking tone. This is music in its primordial function as a tool for social order and morality and transmission of culture, no small task considering that, like many dispersed tribal peoples of the world, the Garifuna are separated by national boundaries. Other songs deal with AIDS, immigration, and the price of cassava, but as always the most common theme here, as with almost any album any where any time, is the love between two humans, the spark that ignites larger fires.

The real theme of this album finally emerges on the tenth song, ‘Wamada’ (‘Our friend’) a soulful ballad featuring Youssou N’Dour that mourns the loss of Andy Palacio, and wishes him his rightful place amonst the ancestors in the afterlife.

Nuwaruguma’ (‘my star’)- extends the theme of loss and solidarity and the idea that such phenomena are merely part of a larger order exemplified by the heavens. Faith is always the last refuge of confusion and wonder. Thus the album comes full circle and a lament becomes a eulogy and a renewal of faith. And thus a native people decimated in the Caribbean find cultural survival in the physical bodies of unwilling immigrants who not only meet up again with their Mayan second cousins, but carry their spirit on to the North, in the language of a new paradigm… music. Between punta and paranda and so on and so forth, there’s a lotta’ music emanating from a tiny band of survivors with a base in the Caribbean and a past in the Grenadines… with much of their population now scattered in the immigrant communities of the US, all coasts considered.

This music has DNA from all over, just like the Garifuna people who it so proudly represents. Hybrid vigor rules. The new album is called ‘Laru Beya’ by Aurelio. It’s more than reggae. It’s also being released by Next Ambiance, an imprint of Sub Pop. Remember them? But that’s another story. Check it out.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

MOUNQALIBA by NATACHA ATLAS- Classic Arab on Rai, a la Francaise s.v.p.

Though Frau Merkel may have unilaterally declared ‘multi-kulti’ to be dead, the reality at ground zero of world music would hardly agree. We’re just getting started. You ain’t seen nothing yet. If we ever run out of ex-pats and immigrants, then we can always go to remote foreign countries themselves. And if their particular home-grown genres don’t especially appeal to us, then we can just chop their music up into bite-size chunks for use by DJs and avant-garde producers. Natacha Atlas (نتاشا أطلس) can go either way, something of a perfect example of the macro- and micro-cosm of world music. Of mixed roots primarily combining English with Middle Eastern, she was born in Belgium and has lived in England, speaks five languages (while dreaming in two) and has worked variously as a belly dancer and lead singer of a salsa band, in addition to her main role as a proponent and agent provocateur for the musical sub-genres of ‘world fusion’ and ‘ethno-techno’. That’s about as ‘multi-kulti’ as you get. And oh yeah, her career includes major stints with UK-based Jah Wobble and Transglobal Underground.

Now like haze from a machine, Natacha Atlas emerges from the mists of buzz and rumors to finally arrive on the US stage… she’s long been on the world stage. Considering that we have no shortage of our own music, that’s not so easy, and usually involves at least a short-term sublet in LA (or NY). So her name pops up frequently on the entertainment ‘zines around here with gigs ranging from the Skirball summer series out in the hills to her most recent at the Conga Room downtown. She has a new album out, you see, and is anxious to claim some turf in our collective subconscious. It’s called Mounqaliba.

If her past and her palette seem something of a confusion of styles and sensibilities, then Mounqaliba is anything but. This is a newer more mature Natacha Atlas. Gone are any vestiges of her previous life as a dub/techno artist. When she’s not reconfirming her staus as one of the pre-eminent female Arabic-language pop singers, she’s leaning heavily toward the slower classical Arab songs, lush with strings but not so over-produced like much Arab music. Add to that some English laments and slow French-language jazz and there’s plenty of room for Natacha to spread her wings. And that’s just the beginning.

After a nice piano instrumental as introduction- the nice Zoe Rahman piano refrains weave in and out throughout- the album goes into the song ‘Makaan’, a nice slow Arab number infused with flute and strings. Matrah Interlude’ is a spoken-word monologue on the subject of free will, while ‘Bada Al Fajr’ returns to the soft piano instrumentals that almost define the album. ‘Muwashah Ozkourini,’ a classic Arabic standard, with its piano AND lush strings, DOES define the album. For her one English pop interpretation, she makes a definite departure from previous takes of James Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, instead opting for ‘Riverman’ by Nick Drake. The melancholy fits the mood perfectly.

‘Batkallim’ returns to the Arab theme, but a bit electronica in style, to deliver a heartfelt denunciation of hypocrisy. The title song is another lovely piano/flute soliloquy, the perfect lightweight counterpart to the album’s predominant classical Arab- sometimes heavy- feel. From there it goes into its other minor theme- French chansons, slow jazzy laments- with ‘Le Cor, Le Vent’, a theme echoed with ‘La Nuit Est Sur La Ville’. ‘Ghoroub’ is about as slow and mourning as an Arab song can be, while ‘Taalet’ is more like rai, quick and full of joy. ‘Nafourat El Anwar’ returns to the soft piano and dreamy vocals format to close the album, an overall highly pleasant range of songs.

What makes Mounqaliba stand out as a great album- for me at least-are all the intros and interludes that punctuate the album from start to finish, a full half-dozen of them scattered throughout. In an era when songs go for a buck a pop as often as not, this is significant. These include spoken word, sparse instrumentals, calls to prayers, and market and street sounds. They serve to set a tone for the songs to come. They serve to explain the songs that have just gone. They help to make an album more than just a collection of songs. They help to lift the album from the realm of the ordinary. That’s ‘Mounqaliba’ by Natacha Atlas. Check it out.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

MIRA by JIENAT- Engineer as Auteur

One of my first philosophical proclamations- at the ripe old age of eight- was that all of the suitable themes for popular music had been exhausted. There simply was little left to write about. It had all been done. I’ve since revised that theory, in fact inverted it 180 degrees to assume that almost NOTHING has been done. We’ve just scratched the surface- written a few love songs, a few waltzes, a few instrumentals, a few laments, a few rants. Still these days it seems like we’re all on our seats, maybe even biting our nails, some even hedging their bets, as to what will be the ‘next big thing.’ That there will be we all agree; novelty sells, but WHAT?

It’s so bad now that the hottest things these days are slice-and-dice ‘mash-up’ versions of disparate artists from disparate genres sharing a three-inch screen with two or more songs when in fact that may be all they share- except maybe a mutual love of mustaches, or wine vintage, or loopy lyrics, or the key of C. DJ’s are increasingly the stars of musical events, turntablists by trade re-editing the music of others for their own profit, while ‘real musicians’ can barely find gigs and songwriters stand in food stamp lines. What’s going on? I’ve got more paradigm shifts than I have fingers to count them on.

Let’s call it the ‘auteur’ theory, by analogy with what happened in the film industry c. 1959, first in France, later even up here in the Hollys. Everyone’s heard of of the world’s best film directors today, they existing in the public’s imagination almost on a par with A-list actors, TMZ notwithstanding. Most telling is the fact that any actor- or producer or screenwriter- who wants to really ‘get serious’ about film will sooner or later have to try his luck on the other side of the camera. The same thing is happening in pop music. Producers are increasingly becoming directors as fast as DJ’s are becoming producers to move music into a potentially exciting new era where musical performance is more than four guys standing there in T-shirts, cigarettes and instruments dangling… or a troupe of singer-dancers doing choreographed movements, while the real music occurs somewhere in the background. Pop music is growing up. Who knew the name of any record producers forty years ago? Today many people know the names of Lanois, Burnett, Carmen Rizzo, Danger Mouse, and maybe even Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno… while many more DJ’s are stars outright.

Enter into this creative milieu JIENAT (‘voices’ in Sami/Lapp) and its (instru)mentalist/engineer/auteur Andreas Fliflet, with their new album ‘Mira’. Ostensibly a group doing Saami joik music, this is to joik what maybe the Beatles were to rock-and-roll. Not a local himself, the Norwegian Fliflet was able to see in the far northern music something that maybe they couldn’t see themselves. So it’s interesting that, while joik itself seems to be divided into traditionalist chanting styles and a more ‘modern’ ballad style, Fliflet’s style is distinctly closer to the traditional, albeit transformed by the ultra-modern sensibilities of its African/Brazilian-influenced auteur. This means a much heavier reliance on percussion than would otherwise be the case. More importantly, for me at least, it includes a willingness to use anything and everything as components of a total sound.

The song ‘Sissel’ opens the album with visceral vocals and American Indian-like chants, accented with percussion and bells. The similarities to Native American traditional chanting may seem surprising until you consider that these two broad groups may have at one time shared some hunting grounds in the Ural Mountains. ‘Andreas/André adds the female voice of Marit Haetta Overli to the mix, along with scat vocals augmented by percussion. ‘Radio Belgrano’ even incorporates horse hoofs and vendors’ sales pitches as an intrinsic component of the music. But the title song ‘Mira’ tops that with barking dogs that have been known to get cats hot and bothered around the world, no matter their native language. ‘Tudeer’ incorporates a musical saw that sacrifices nothing to a theremine in its creation of an eerie other-worldy sound. ‘August Samuel’ closes with what almost sounds like Gregorian chants. Thus with traditional Sami chanting, assorted percussion, and found objects, Fliflet and Jienat manage to make a musical statement well worth a second listen. Now if we could only get an auteur theory for music videos, then we’d have something… but I digress. That’s Mira by Jienat. Hardie K says check it out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Front Lines of World Music

"Today I wish to inform as many people as possible about the paranoid atmosphere of a so called modern country China. Our neighbour is a political activist from Beijing (and) close friend of the guy who just received the Nobel Peace Prize, who is in jail for 11 years... today our neighbour had a discussion with the secret services, (and) the first question was what's your relationship to the French s guy s wife, your neighbour ? He answered in a non controversial way and got away with it, (but) as u all know the government of this country is sick ! A country controlled by the propaganda department, who does not hesitate to even censor the Chinese president who in a CNN interview declared that democracy is needed in china and that message from the president cannot even go through in this sick country. Let me just express my feelings, how long can it go on like that ????????????????

Such are the trials and tribulations of living and working in China. Laurent Jeanneau perseveres. He has to. It's nasty work, but somebody's gotta' do it. Did you ever in fact wonder where 'world music' comes from? As you sit in Starbuck's listening to the latest Putumayo compilation, you may not fully appreciate the circuitous routes such music has taken in arriving at your eardrums. Maybe you figured that deals are simply made at the executive level between record companies overseas and record companies in America? You're right. Or maybe immigrant musicians in London, Paris, New York and LA re-create the sounds of their homelands with fellow ex-patriates? You're right again. It even goes beyond that, immigrants from different countries creating hybrid sounds and styles, original music that never existed anywhere or any time before. But that only tells half the story.

You can follow any genre of music back to its source and the story is always very similar- village people making music for entertainment, for religion, for tradition. This music may be very simple in style and in execution, but it serves a higher purpose for the villagers themselves. It ties them to their place and their time. When those village people move to cities, they take their instruments with them. There it gets mixed and matched and transformed and exported... or not. Sometimes it never gets heard beyond its village of origin. Sometimes it simply dies out as the next generation might rather emulate hiphop or other foreign styles. What can be done to preserve the original music for the mutual enrichment of the entire human race? Does anyone care?

Laurent Jeanneau does. Since 1995 he has been involved in two complementary activities, firstly recording ethnic minority music mostly in South East Asia, and secondly composing electronic music that includes or transforms those recordings. It involves going to foreign places, often remote, in India, in Tanzania, in Cambodia, in Laos, in Vietnam and China, and finding and then recording the music, often in primitive conditions. Every country has a different context so the approach is different, depending on how much time is available, on how close he is with the people, on the degree of acculturation, on how easy it is to find musicians, on political situations, on who he is working with and which music simply interests him most. He invests time, money and energy on music that moves him, and in most cases is likely the first to record those musicians. He sells it himself and through the American niche label Sublime Frequencies.

"I have no academic background, never studied anthropology or ethnomusicology... (what's) essential is to find cultures which are being ignored by the record industry, which has no interest in totally uncommercial music... My goal is to find original music I love; I don t waste time on music I don t like."

If that sounds like an idyllic lifestyle, the opposite is often the case, especially in dealing with an idiosyncratic political entity like China, where he now lives with his wife and son. This is certainly obvious from the latest e-mail I received from him, as quoted above. Still he perseveres. He has to; it's his life's work. You can listen to music samples on MySpace at: . If you like what you hear you may follow the links to contact him or to purchase. He'd appreciate it. So would many villagers in many villages scattered throughout the SE Asian region. Think of it as a genome project, unraveling and presenting the DNA of music. The old ways become the New Age, music for a new millennium. Enjoy.

Monday, October 04, 2010


What’s the greatest music festival in the world… that nobody’s ever heard of? WOMAD Canarias, maybe, or Sauti za Busara in Zanzibar? My vote would have to be for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, CA. Founded by venture capitalist Warren Hellman and now celebrating its ten-year anniversary, HSB (not the bank) is the best kept secret this side of the International Date Line. While everybody here in LA gets all cummy reminiscing about their favorite Coachella desert encounter or waxing philosophical about the difficulties of maintaining the spirit of Burning Man, in a week when I heard KCRW dj’s exclaiming the unusual bounty of musical talent on display this week, not a word was mentioned about HSB, a short half-day’s drive to the north… likely the cause of much of the synchronous left coast bounty BTW. Down here there was not so much as a word of advertising, nor a blurb of news on the subject. We’re talking about a high six figures in attendance, mind you.

But bluegrass music is not exactly your thing, you say? That’s why it’s called ‘Hardly Strictly.’ In a show that features the likes of Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, and Steve Earle, they can call it a festival of wedding singers, for all I care. True it IS still heavily roots-oriented, including a heavy dose of alt-country as well as bluegrass proper, but anything that’s heartfelt and genuine seems welcome. Outside the narrow bluegrass genre, artists with lyric-based music seem to predominate. Other than that, the predominant feature seems to relate to the audience themselves, who seem to be… how do you you say it… of a certain age? Ahhh, so that explains the virtual anonymity, doesn’t it? Everybody’s so interested in what the dorky freckle-faced kid down the street is doing when his hands aren’t otherwise engaged, that they could care less about what’s become of the generation that created a revolution in the 60’s… musically at least, politics subject to reinterpretation. HSB featured fairly equal doses of local, Austin, and Nashville artists, with heavy doses of New York, LA and London thrown in for good measure. So there’s not much world music there, but just about everything else.

So the festival stays largely local… and an insider’s pilgrimage. Imagine a Rainbow Gathering or a Grateful Dead New Year’s show, and you’re getting the idea. Many attendees walk or take public transportation, but the best part is that it’s free, yes, FREE… zippo zilch nada nadita, all courtesy of Mr. Hellman. He probably figures ‘why choose the usual Gateways or blow it all in one giant Buffet’… when you can create the world’s greatest party? Thank you, Mr. Hellman. If we’re stuck with cowboy capitalism, we like your horse-riding style. With six stages going more or less simultaneously, everybody’s free to create their own individual show schedule, of course, aided by various real-estate schemes usually involving the creative placement of various tarp-like spreads and items of lawn furniture. It’s almost like Second Life.

My show went something like this: after leaving LA (in the broad daylight) as the sun rose over the Hollywood Hills, we hustled up the central corridor lickety-split so’s to try to make the 2pm Friday half-day opening. Allowing a few stops for corn and various fruit items from the roadside stands, we almost made it. We DID find the righteous parking spaces (Hell no I’m not telling you), so that helped a lot… all three days. So we missed Jerry Douglas with Omar Hakim and Viktor Krauss, but we still got to hear an excellent set by Patty Griffin- with help from special guest Emmylou Harris, and then another by Jenny & Johnny. Worried about losing my street-cred as a musical idiot savant by embracing J & J- after maybe one or two listens- I was relieved when Elvis Costello showed up to help them with a song. So now I feel vindicated. They’re going places. T-Bone Burnett then played MC for his own little revue of current producee clients, but we wandered over to see the Dukes of September, aka Fagen, Boz, and Michael McDonald, a 3-in-1 hitmaking juggernaut anxious to relive the golden days.

Saturday started off with credible performances by Austinites Kelly Willis and Band of Heathens, before moving on to Hot Tuna Electric and a small slice of Fountains of Wayne. Up next then were excellent performances by Joan Baez and David Grisman. It’s always fun to hear Joan going into Dylan-voice to get his songs spot-on, and suffice it to say that the spark never died. Grisman’s set was indeed one of the show’s best, reminding one what string bands might be like if Scruggs never picked, and the heights to which that format can be taken, almost like a string quintet. We then moved on back to the ‘Austin stage’ with a somewhat revived Jerry Jeff Walker and another awesome threesome in the guise of Ely and Gilmore and Butch Hancock’s Flatlanders, but by then the fog had moved in and the temperatures were Arctic. Shivering that much may qualify as a calisthenic work-out.

They save the best for last. Sunday got started with a Peter Rowan hoe-down, before bogging down a bit with the much-respected but hardly exciting Hazel Dickens. As someone commented, that’s ‘a little TOO traditional’. So my friends and I staked out our turf for Randy Newman’s excellent set, and then held our ground while Elvis Costello played over the speakers from the stage next door. He was showcasing a band called the ‘Sugarcanes’, featuring such luminaries as Jerry Douglas in addition to some familiar old Attractions. Hey, if Allison’s gonna play FTSE with Robert Plant, Jerry doesn’t have to sulk alone in the corner now, does he? So they did some Costello standards country style to really nice effect, and even came back for an encore.

But all of this, the entire three days, was only a warm-up for what came next… the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience anywhere… much less a rock music concert. We’re talking about Patti Smith, high priestess of punk, and arguably the best poet since Allen Ginsberg. You had to be there. A third-person narrative would hardly do it justice, but suffice it to say that, yeah, she did ‘G-L-O-R-I-A… in Excelcis Deo’, ‘People Have the Power’… and much more, including quotes from St Francis of Assisi, San Fran’s patron saint. It was incredible. Remember that there would be as many concert stories as there are spectators. Consider it for next year, and bring a friend… but don’t steal my parking space.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

‘SHOSHAN’ by Shye Ben-Tzur- Israeli Sufi music? Only in India…

I’m not a musician. Oh sure, I did my time in the high school band, spewing on the business end of a trombone as part of what our band director affectionately referred to as ‘the sludge pump’ section. And I can even read music, or at least COULD, something a few R & R guitarists couldn’t do in their wettest wildest dreams. But that’s just mathematics, music as equation, the stuff of ‘classical music’-uptown, upstairs, privilege of the landed gentry- while on the other side of town, out in the countryside, simple country folk sang love songs to each other and recited stories handed down through generations, folk heroes kept alive through oral history.

But that’s not what really interests me about music, neither the pleasant effect of particular notes in creative melodic progressions, nor the information conveyed in narrative story-telling. What interests me most is the emotional transcendance capable of being transmitted, something probably best exemplified- at least until the modern era- in church music. “Music, unlike art or architecture, does not represent physical objects, and unlike poetry is independent of propositional thought. Hence it can take human emotions into areas that other artistic works cannot, and offer the prospect of an escape from worldly existence.” (Wikipedia) Obviously they haven’t read much modern poetry, but still, why certain emotions seem best expressed in major keys and others in minor ones is a source of never-ending mystery to me.

And except for some military ‘music’ (yeah, right), that’s pretty much the way it stayed, at least in the Western world, until the arrival of Africans on the scene with their exotic sounds- mostly percussion- and new lyrical concerns that transcended the previously typical themes of… love, mostly. That new emphasis on rhythm, and society, and the willingness of lyricists to gladly take over a role previously relegated to poetry, gave birth to popular music, something far more powerful than the ‘folk music’ that preceded it. I don’t know of anybody- ANYBODY- who hasn’t been touched by popular music, whether intellectual or businessman or ditch-digger, whether rap or rock or country. It somehow SPEAKS to us, inside, side by side with that little voice that is so closely identified with our inner being.

Add to this milieu over the last half century a plethora of foreign styles from a plethora of foreign countries- Mexican son, Brazilian samba, Euro-pop, Jamaican reggae, Peruvian folclorico, salsa cumbia meringue, Afro-beat high-life juju, and they just keep on coming, the DNA of music in constant evolution, the product of both artificial and natural selection. Then the genres start interbreeding amongst themselves, seeking fertile soil in which to drop their genes, and soon you’ve got hybrid genres like Celtic salsa and Cambodian surf music. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, then something comes along like… Hebrew Qawwali music, via Rajasthan, India? Huh? That’s surely a misprint, right? For those of you who don’t already know, Qawwali is Sufi devotional music, some of the purest music to ever come out of the Indian sub-continent, devoted to one of the purest forms of Islam, Sufism… usually, but not always, and not when handled by one of the brighter stars in the current crop of world music pilgrims.

The artist’s name is Shye Ben-Tzur and his new album is called ‘Shoshan’. Ben-Tzur is an Israeli poet who moved to India to study the music… and ended up finding himself in the Qawwali music of the Muslim communities, music best-known as the product of a country that he probably wouldn’t even be allowed to visit on an Israeli passport. This is one of the perks of world music. Things can happen here that couldn’t even happen in the UN, much less the streets of Gaza. But is it any good? It is, but in a different sense than that of, say, master Qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This is definitely fusion music, incorporating Spanish guitar and strings as well as the tablas and harmonium more typical of Qawwali music. And the songs are shorter, too, something that Mr. Nusrat himself did to make his music easier for Western audiences.

From the upbeat rousing choruses of the song ‘Shoshan’ to the Latin-Arabic (OK, flamenco) style of ‘Dil Ke Bahar’ and the Spanish guitar of ‘To Die in Love’, the album segues into the minor key wailing of ‘Sovev’ and the brooding harmonies of ‘Daras Bina’. In fact the album is almost dialectic in its approach to the reconstruction of Jewish/Arab Middle Eastern music as manifested there and in its farthest reaches in Muslim India and Moorish Spain. Yet it never strays too far from the tabla rhythms which are indispensable to Qawwali music. This synthesis is nowhere better expressed than in the last song, ‘Shoshan Katan’, which somehow I knew was the last song even when playing at random during my first listen. Why is that I wonder? Is there a certain air of finality that can somehow be conveyed musically? That’s a question I’ll have to save for later. For now I suggest checking out ‘Shoshan’ by Shye Ben-Tzur. It’ll do you good. And have a happy 9-11, may the memory of those who died serve to promote the understanding necessary to mitigate those eternal conflicts that caused it. We all share the same God, remember.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Los Lobos playing down at the corner record store? For free? Ooohh, life’s rough. This is THE Los Lobos, after all, veterans of the American rock music scene for some thirty-odd (some very odd!) years, something of a Mexican-American Grateful Dead, a comparison they would be proud of, considering they’ve included a Dead song in their latest album ‘Tin Can Trust’, had a song on the early tribute album ‘Deadicated’, and toured with them during one phase a couple decades ago. They’re just that kind of band- more substance than style, more music than hype, there more for the fans than the corporations. First I heard of them was almost thirty years ago when I was living in Portland, OR, and they had just canceled a show at a local club… because their van broke down. Since then the ride’s been smoother, they in fact being one of the brighter spots of the 80s-decade which, but for the exception of ‘college radio’, was occupied mostly by big hair and mindless metal (IMHO). Even the Dead themselves were stalled out to almost nothing, Dylan was consumed by Christianity, and the ‘British invasion’ was history which the fashion-rockers Boy George, Eurythmics, and Duran x2 could hardly repeat. Los Lobos gave us hope that maybe the 60s and all that jazz still ‘meant something’. If Santana was essentially Mexican, after all- an exotic product somewhat unfathomable- Los Lobos were essentially American, just like us… almost… ‘just another band out of East LA’. They knew- and played- the American blues and rock idioms as their own, and they could learn to do the same with Mexican cumbias y nortenos tambien… y con venganza.

So now some twenty years after their decada maravillosa do they still ‘have it’? With a vengeance… and a smile. Last Wednesday not only did they play the main hits off their new album, “I’ll Burn it Down” among others, but they also played a smattering of their old stuff, including “Will the Wolf Survive?” No, there was no ‘Bamba’, but lots of other stuff. And they sounded good… as always. After all they should, shouldn’t they, after playing together as a unit for so long. With the exception of a new drummer so that Louie Perez can move up front with his guitar, their line-up hasn’t changed since 1984, when Steve Berlin joined. In fact they played a full hour, hardly what you’d expect on a Wednesday night gig at Amoeba Records. These guys are great and so’s their new stuff. Don’t write them off any time soon.

Mr. Vallenato Friday night was right in that same vein (yes, THAT vein)- good solid roots music, this time from Colombia, where vallenato reigns- along with cumbia, original cumbia- as the people’s choice. It’s infectious, too, capable of turning even the most jaded listener into an ecstatic dancer… you guessed it, me. I’d seen them the week before at Cal plaza downtown, but that was a city crowd. This was mostly Latinos from Central and South… America. This is the kind of stuff you usually have to know somebody to find, out in the barrios, or maybe Hollywood Park Casino… a long way from Hollywood. And it was a good mix, too, some highly motivated whites and blacks in addition to the Latinos. I only feel sorry for the state of the lawn after we got through dancing. You’ve simply got to see- and hear- these guys to appreciate it. Comparisons are difficult. If Very Be Careful’s down & dirty vallenato is analogous to Delta blues, then this is maybe analogous to the Chicago version.

Now for something completely different, like maybe a string quartet, perhaps? Uh huh, like I usually get out to see a string quartet, maybe, once every… decade? But it’s a different motivation when they’re doing Hendrix instead of Mozart, though, isn’t it? You bet it is. But can they really ‘do’ Hendrix? You bet they can. Okay, so it takes four of them to one-up Hendrix, but I’d say that’s not bad. Don’t I wish I could write like Hendrix plays guitar? You bet I do. And that’s not all they do, either. They also cover the likes of Chick Corea as well as many other mods and rockers, in addition to performing works by founder and violinist David Balakrishnan, ‘exploring the mind of David’, as he puts it. It sounds good to me. That two violins, a viola, and a cello, can produce such a full complete sound is a complete revelation for me. Highly recommended.

This week the grooviest scene- now that Cal Plaza has shot their wad for the season- would have to be Dr. John at Santa Monica Pier on Thursday evening. I haven’t seen him in about thirty-five years, so that should be good. In case I can’t get up and out in time for that early 7pm, show, then I’ll go see Viver Dance Brazil at MacArthur Park instead. Aside from that, Rocky Dawuni is looking like the best bet Sunday night at that same MacArthur Park. For anybody who hasn’t heard Rocky, and who maybe hasn’t been too inspired by reggae in a long time, then you’re in for a real treat. Rocky’s got some of the best reggae tunes I’ve heard since the Bobster himself. See you there.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Oh, but last weekend was another sublime compilation of subtle pleasures in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula aka ‘L-A’! It’s not all just mindless fun and games, though, of course. There is a strong educational aspect to it also, at least in the ‘world music’ genre that I specialize in (you might want to hedge your bets with ‘death metal’ though). So I started the weekend off early at MacArthur Park with the Korean troupe Noreum Machi. This is a classical Asian genre, not unlike the ‘classic folk’ genres that exist in many other Asian countries- especially the most heavily Chinese-influenced- from Vietnam to China to Japan. Interestingly these are the Asian countries with little or no ‘roots music’ left in their repertoires. Like the others, this one is also heavily percussive, though maybe less then Japanese ‘taiko’ drumming.

But I was most anxious to see Dengue Fever at the Pasadena Levitt Pavilion Friday night, after not totally getting my fix at Cal Plaza the week before. Partly that’s because it was a show split with Bassekou Kouyate, so not really a long enough set to fully take wings, and partly because I just happened to be sitting in a ‘dead zone’ where the chopped-up lower level creates wave interference and certain frequencies are simply canceled out, leaving hums and rumbles in the place of the intricate keyboard melodies that would otherwise occupy the space between Nimol’s high notes and Senon’s bass line… Fortunately acoustics were no problem at Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena. That’s why band-shells are shaped that way. A couple thousand warm bodies in the grass don’t hurt, either. And DF did not disappoint, even though their sax player wasn’t present. Local Khmers were out in force, too, at one point threatening to disturb the peace up front in the over-excitement of the occasion… and maybe an overdose of Mekong whiskey. Good vibes usually win over situations like that, though, and this was no exception. The set was excellent, and included several new songs… or at least ones that I haven’t heard before. I can’t wait for the new album scheduled for release in Spring 2010!

So Saturday night I went back to Cal Plaza for the Latino-themed three-way bill that included Ceci Bastida, Mr. Vallenato, and Nortec Collective. Ceci was first up and managed to get the crowd at least half-way up and on their feet. Ex-sidekick of Mex-pop superstar Julieta Venegas, Ceci has learned her lesson well, and- judging by the amount of time spent in LA- would presumably like to accomplish here exactly what Julieta has accomplished in Mexico itself. For regardless of how ‘indie’ her packaging may seem to us here, in Mexico itself, JV is pure pop, and has been for years. So with that turf largely taken, Ceci’s got her eyes on the big prize, I believe. The formula is not difficult- good songs, Latina cutie, lively Mex-pop band- of which they’ve got at least 2 of 3 down pat already. Now I love a girl wearing cowboy boots, but if Ceci kicks any higher and harder, then we may have to relocate her shows away from the San Andreas Fault. At one point she even brought out a friend dubbed ‘la reina de anarcumbia’- presumably for street cred- but she hit her stride with ‘Ya Me Voy’ - ‘I’m leaving; I’m gone; I’m outta’ here’ (you get the idea). When all her songs are THAT good, then she’ll be ready for Letterman. She DOES speak perfect English btw, so that’s no obstacle. The delivery systems may shift with the paradigm, but a hit’s still a hit…

Mr. Vallenato was up next, but as the turn-around time seemed lengthy, I wandered down to Pershing Square to see what was up. Big mistake. By the time I got back up to the water court, his set was half over, and he was cooking, I tell you- I mean COOKING- eggs, smothered in salsa. Now I don’t have much experience with vallenato except what I’ve heard from Very Be Careful and this selfsame Mr. V sitting in with an otherwise less-than-satisfying Colombian techno group a couple weeks ago, but nothing prepared me for this (and I have listened to Toto la Momposina also)! This guy- and band- can WAIL! If they’re as slick as VBC is earthy, then he is as accomplished on the accordion as many others are dilettantes. These are no oompah-oompah polkas, either btw. If this is salsified vallenato, then add another spoonful on my plate, por favor. I could listen to more of this… and kick muyself for missing part of his set.

Ah, but not to worry, because Mr. V will be back this Friday playing for the homies at MacArthur Park… and I won’t be late this time, either, I can assure you. So what about Nortech Collective (‘presents Bosstich and Fussible yada yada’) last Saturday? Well, my mama told me that if I have nothing good to say then say nothing, so… if you like listening to a tuba player and an accordionist playing minimalistic nortenos while videos screen overhead and two others (Bosstich and Fussible?) stand in front of a backdrop like two geeks in a trade-show booth… then go for it. A cada quien sus gustos. For my money, it’s all pretentious crap. So I aborted the mission after a short couple songs and went back to Pershing Square to catch what I could of the Bo Deans… and was pleasantly surprised. I like the ‘americana’ genre, too, you know… but usually for breakfast, indie rock to get cranking, jazz for lunch, then the rest of the world for the rest of the day…

In addition to the aforementioned ‘Mr. Vallenato’, this week’s best bets look like Katia Moraes and Sambaguru at the Westside Farmer’s Market on Friday and Charmaine Clamor at MacArthur on Saturday… sounds like ‘American Model’, you say? Sounds like that go down easy. Me, I’m thinking Oscar Hernandez at LACMA Saturday afternoon, maybe followed by Turtle Island Quartet at Cal Plaza…doing Hendrix? Oooh, that’s cheating.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Well, it doesn’t get much better than this past weekend for variety and quality in the LA free music department, some of it expected, some out of the blue. I’ll have to admit that I almost got my rocks off prematurely with the Budos Band last Thursday night at McArthur Park. I went expecting nothing, but apparently KCRW has been playing these guys regularly, so there was a pretty good crowd out there. Now there’s a concept- LARGE CROWD AT MCARTHUR PARK! I’d like to be able to say that more often. Too often I’m the only guero in a sparse crowd of homies with hot dogs and pupusas. What do I know? I’ve been busy traveling around the world, and then have to turn off KCRW when it’s fund-raising time lest my guilt complex destroy me.

Budos Band is hot! Now I’ve always politely respected ‘afro-beat’, but never followed it too closely for one simple reason- nobody can match Fela. Not even Femi can match Fela, but he probably comes closest, he or brother Seun. Listening to the various pretenders has always been more an exercise in endurance than ecstasy. The Budos Band raise the bar a notch in the ‘other’ department, a good healthy notch. What’s the difference? With Fela there’s always a variable there that can’t be predicted… Fela’s personality. This is something that can’t be taught… though it can be learned. It may be something as simple as coming in on the off-beat on one song… or slightly biting the reed on the next. Once it’s written in, then it’s no longer the spontaneous variable that made it so exciting in the first place, that subtle flick of the tongue that drives you wild. Budo’s got it, but I’m hesitant to speculate on its origin. It just may be that organ, though, which gives it a sound not typical of Afro-beat bands, and may be as close as the genre can come to rock & roll without going to lead guitar, because then it’s no longer Afro-beat. I Hardiely recommend a listen.

Next night was the Big Night Out, Cal Plaza water court under the Perseid showers with Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba opening, to be followed by Dengue Fever, one of my all-time favorite fusionistas, mixing up classic Khmer pop, Ethiopian jazz, surf-rock, and God knows what else those guys- and gal- have got buzzing through their brains. Well Bassekou Kouyate is on something of a roll after sitting near the top of the European world music charts with ‘I Speak Fula’ for many months not so long ago, so he’s doing the roll-out tour now, trying to sell some tickets, since not even Billboard’s Top 10 means that many bucks any more, and certainly not the WMCE. If you want bucks you gotta pack in the butts, not CD’s. Ngoni Ba did not disappoint, though hardly due to Bassekou’s ngoni all by itself, of common ancestry with the banjo, for those interested in the musical genome project. This is one tight band, doing things with talking drums that should have been done long ago- playing lead- not just some curious lilting blips in the background. That Fula/Fulani tradition (Ali Farka also spoke Fula) is well placed to fill the gap between the incredible raw stuff now coming out of Tuareg country to the north and the more citified Keita/Diabate stuff coming out of Bamako and beyond.

An interesting ‘compare and contrast’ could be made with Saturday’s African diaspora band ‘Tabou Combo’, originally out of Haiti, now (mostly) New York. While both bands can certainly rock, Bassekou’s is still clearly tied to the African folk blues tradition. You can almost feel the trodden earth under your feet. Tabou, on the other hand- full of brass and balls- has been freed by the very slavery which produced it, free to experiment with other nearby sounds and influences, free to fly with something of an ‘island sound’ claiming allegiance to no one. While that term may seem rather generic, any other description would require so many hyphens that I probably wouldn’t pass the grammar-check. Better listen for yourself. I bet they’re a regular at SOB’s in NYC.

Then there’s Dengue Fever. Then there’s always Dengue Fever, I hope, notwithstanding the real contagious disease which is currently inflicting so much misery on my sometime-home of SE Asia. This band has simply got to be seen- and HEARD- to be believed. When Nimol breaks into that high-pitch Cambodian squeal so indicative of 60’s pop music there, I get a shiver up my spine that implies that I’m now entering another dimension. Unfortunately the mix didn’t seem quite right last Friday night, as I could hardly hear Ethan’s organ at all. That’s a rather important component of DF’s sound, to say the least. Fortunately they’ll be back at Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena THIS Friday, so that may necessitate a double-dip, something I would not normally do for any lesser band. Cal Plaza may simply not be the best place for their sound, as the acoustics are rather uneven there. I think it’s better upstairs, though you sacrifice any close-up visuals, hardly a loss with the spectacular fountain background. Besides DF, best bets this week look like Nortec Collective and Mr. Vallenato at Cal Plaza on Saturday night, maybe Ceci Bastida, too, Tijuana yes! C U there.

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