Thursday, February 18, 2010


It sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it, to hold a festival of African- mostly East African- music in one of the world’s most exotic locales, Zanzibar? Land of spice and Islam, these island nations were the mix-and-mingle point for Africans, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese and maybe even Zheng He. There are only a few problems with the brilliant idea. The first is one of power- not political or economic or religious- but simple electricity, or lack thereof. Zanzibar doesn’t have any, except that generated by thousands of generators converting petrol into 220 volts of electricity. It sounds wasteful, doesn’t it? Since the main need is light, why not just burn petrol as the Brits did until the 1930’s?

The second problem is site location, the cramped and dangerously congested Old Arab Fort. It’s beautiful, but a disaster waiting to happen, what with vendors in makeshift booths using open flames to light their unstable tables. Meanwhile a contiguous amphitheater lies empty. DUH. Considering that problem number three is the annoying down time between single-stage sets and the resulting short set-times, it seems like someone might come up with the brilliant idea to alternate between the two stages, thus spreading out the crowd and moving things right along, too. Considering that video screens are already there and in use, such a plan is easily conceivable. What it takes in extra lights and equipment could easily be saved in recovered down-time. I’d hate to see what might happen if a fire broke out in the over-packed space, IN DARKNESS, crowd scrambling for only two narrow hard-to-find exits. But the show must go on, of course.

Ah, the show, now that’s the good part. Disgusted by the logistical snafus of both show and city- power off all day is wasted time all day, after one day at least, and power off at night is downright dangerous, I decided that I just couldn’t sacrifice more than one full day and two evenings of my life to this project… but what I saw was eminently enjoyable, and I don’t mean just the stars, either. I saw five acts each of the first two evenings, and I think that those would be representative of the talent available. The first evening started for me with Ikwani Safaa Musical Club from Zanzibar itself, a classic (if not ‘classical’) Swahili group that featured Tamalyn Dallal belly-dancing exquisitely. Kenyans Maia von Lekow with a very nice and focused jazz touch and Makadem with a broader modern eclectic sound going in a lot of lyrical and musical directions- not unlike the US’s Ozomatli- also made for some fine listening. Now I missed a couple of acts at the opening of the evening and one at the end featuring the local ‘jumbe’ dance music, but I’d say that my favorite act the first evening would have to be Jimmy Omonga from DR Congo. Now anything creative coming out of the DR Congo these days is to be heavily congratulated, because the DRC is NOT in good shape politically and socially. But these guys don’t need a handicap. Four guys played drums and sang while five dancers danced nonstop their entire almost-hour-long set. Now if that sounds boring, it’s not. The drummers may have been wearing what looked like their wives feather dusters turned upside down, but the dancers were scarily exotic in flowing robes, bare midriffs, ethnic pancake makeup, and one was even wearing a lightbulb- wishful thinking? You had to be there.

The next evening I resolved to arrive a bit earlier to catch the opening act, and was well rewarded. The very first act was a group of disabled performers, including two dancers up front that kept me fighting back tears. These two guys, who’ve probably spent their whole lives hearing names like “Flipper” and “Tuna Boy” directed at them from cruel buddies, not only danced their hearts out with gymnastics and acrobatics, but were… SOHAPPY… doing it. How could I have ever bemoaned my own fate of such comparatively minor handicaps? The band itself I didn’t even realize was disabled until the set was over, so that says something. The music was that good, that I wasn’t compensating for their disabilities in my mind, ‘handicapping’ them, so to speak. They may not be the next Benda Billi, but then again they just may. A group called ‘Swahili Encounters’ was next and did a really nice job of offering a balanced palette of music from a variety of African countries, reflecting the origins of their members, and including the Swahili coast. Maureen Lupo Lilanda of Zambia then delivered some nice enough Afro-pop, but which seems to be depending on her star-power-which she may or may not have- to deliver the knock-out punch. For me African music is not at its best in that star-based context, but rather in a broader music-based one, but that may just be me.

The evening’s big star, though, was the next performer Malick Pathe’ Sow, currently a hot item on the world-music circuit, who delivered an exquisite performance, but did something which I feel deserves mention, if not an explanation. After an excruciatingly long time for set-up and sound-check- mostly due to Zanzibar’s power problems, Malick FINALLY started his set, played one song, and then walked off stage with his band for a 10-15 minute ‘prayer’ break. HUH? Am I hallucinating? Now I respect a man’s religion whatever it might be, but I also respect the rights of the audience. If a Muslim can’t miss his evening prayers, then he should book his set around it. I didn’t see anyone else praying… IN MUSLIM ZANZIBAR! That’s what mosques are for. The set was brilliant, though. Malick promoters, beware- read the rider carefully! Since the next performer, Mari Boine from Norway, wasn’t really exciting me; and the evening’s other big name, Ba Cissoko from Guinea, I’ve already seen; and the evening was hopelessly behind schedule by now, I decided to call it an evening and go back to my hotel. Fortunately they have escorts for you through the darkness for a buck or two, which I probably wouldn’t want to wait until the last minute for. Let me know when you get your power problems solved, Zanzibar, and maybe I’ll be back- and recommend it to others. Until then, I’ll just listen to the MP3’s. You’re pressing your luck. Beware the law of large numbers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

‘GENTE’ BY SAMBA DA- Indie em Portugues

Bossa nova is the worst thing that ever happened to Brazilian popular music. In that one unique rise to the pinnacle of world music some fifty years ago, Brazilian popular music became frozen in time, at least in the minds of its foreign audience, but not without significant repercussions for the progenitors back home also. THAT was ‘the Brazilian sound’ and that’s what we wanted… over and over and over. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good, and I like it, but it’s as if French pop music were to be forever defined by Brigitte Bardot cooing ‘je t’aime’ instead of moving on and letting Charlotte Gainsbourg coo ‘five fifty-five’ (Bac Ho’s favorite brand of fags- if I remember correctly from my Hanoi days- in addition to any other meaning it might have for Serge’s daughter).

Meanwhile musically tiny little Cabo Verde has been one-upping the rest of the Portuguese-speaking world with superb work by the ‘barefoot diva’ Cesaria Evora and plenty of help from Lura and others making big waves in the world music genre. That’s even where samba originated in the first place, according to the cognoscenti, though I’d be hesitant to attribute too many origins to a place uninhabited a scarce few decades before a ship got blown off course and wound up in Brazil. Of course samba has always been at its best as a Carnaval dance form, and always will be, regardless of how the music evolves. Even Mozambique has some good things happening musically, while Portugal itself languishes even farther behind, resigned to its own self-imposed fado. Meanwhile back home in Brazil, while cariocas may still be frolicking on the beach and waxing rhapsodic over a well-heeled female form, down in Sao Paolo drug gangs occupy whole sections of the city and flaunt it for public TV, just daring the police to challenge them. When a fight breaks out there, I bet they don’t wait for the band to show up and choreograph the capoeira for them. In short, life is more than just a beach, and you don’t have to walk far into a favela to realize that.

So Brazilian popular music artists have for years been trying to discover and re-discover their national musical voice without much luck. Brazilian pop music had more than just bossa nova in the ‘60’s of course, not the least of which was the legendary Os Mutantes, Brazil’s contribution to psychedelia and arguably a better guide to the country’s quirky sun-and-spiritualism psyche than the more jazz-and-Euro-infused bossa nova. Then there was Caetano… and Tropicalismo. Some of these genres and sub-genres provide more fertile soil for new seeds than bossa nova, which was never much more than a GMO hybrid that got lucky somewhere along the food chain. This is the thread that Samba Da follows and ‘Gente’ is a highly listenable piece of work, full of references to salsa and cumbia in addition to the more obvious Brazilian precursors. The fact that they are from Santa Cruz, CA, US- not Brazil- says everything… and nothing.

The opening song ‘Iguana’ is a quirky number that sounds appropriately something like a cross between Julieta Venegas and Nortec Collective, bright and perky. ‘Balancou’ follows right on its heels like a nice salsa/reggae mix while lyrically extolling the African contributions to Brazilian culture. Song #3 ‘Dende’ goes a couple new directions simultaneously- free-form jazz and a heavier percussion (topped with an almost Native American style flute). ‘Rabo de Arraia’ is a cumbia-like number that wanders a bit much for my tastes, but ‘Sangue Africano’ then defines what this album is all about- AfroBrazilian roots given over to Indie spirit. It works beautifully. ‘Nao Va Embora’ tries hard but fails to excite, while ‘Mare’ does just the opposite, succeeds beautifully without really trying. This is pure Julieta, a la brasileira, fully arrived and fully formed, unselfconscious and unpretentious. This just may be the album’s sleeper hit, complete with that nice flute that weaves in and out throughout the album, teasing our sensibilities, nicely balancing out a sometimes murky percussion. Unfortunately the album is running out of steam at this point. When you include songs about both Mom and Pop on the same album, you’re definitely getting on thematically thin ice. Likewise DJ-style ‘remixes’ are dubious enough conceptually without being included on the same album as the original, all this to get the ten-song minimum to consider it a full-length CD.

Though the album is a bit uneven, this band’s got real potential. Band leader Papiba Godinho runs a pretty tight show and they may have just gotten the ‘Fergie’ they needed with their newest member, vocalist Dandha da Hora (simulated beef-eating for the video not required). There may be scarcely few Brazilians in a mostly-American band playing Brazilian music, true, but still they’re as Brazilian as Dengue Fever is Cambodian or Chicha Libre is Peruvian. That’s what ‘world music’ is all about, breaking sound barriers, not obsessing over authenticity. Nobody worries about whether Seu Jorge or Curumin does a song in English. Bebel does lots of them. Bottom line- some halfway point between salsa and reggae is Brazil at its best, faster than a reggae that almost refuses to wake up, but slower than a salsa that won’t sleep, more spiritual than dance-till-dawn Latino hedonism but less messianic complexity than a sometimes overly pretentious reggae. And Copacabana- or Santa Cruz- doesn’t have to pretend to be Nice or Cannes any more than Brazilian pop has to pretend to be French pop. Winner takes all, and this band’s got a real shot, what with Dandha da Hora now sharing vocals with Papiba Godinho. She’s good, and more than just the new girl from Eponyma. That’s ‘Gente’ by Samba Da. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Tito Gonzalez, ‘Al Doblar la Esquina’- Ship’s In

Nobody was more surprised at the phenomenal success of ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ than the hard-line Communist Cuban government, which for years had surpressed all forms of popular music as vestiges of a recidivist bourgeois love affair with capitalism and all its inherent evils. They promoted classical music instead. Go figure. Well, that was before the USSR’s last gasp, and in the 1990’s ‘revisionism’ was not the dirty word it once was. Not only was pragmatism the new operative concept, but there was also a realization that a generation had been sacrificed in the the cultural evolution of the country, and that time was of the essence if the thread was not to be lost entirely. Well, it could have been worse. Havana fared better than Phnom Penh, after all. So the call went out for talent to come forward and show itself. One of those who turned up was Heriberto ‘Tito’ Gonzalez, as part of a group of musical taxi drivers. The rest is history, and Tito’s belated career was finally on its way after many years of fits and starts.

If Communism accomplished nothing else, it did manage to stop clocks all over the Communist-speaking world, so that much of the Cuban music in Cuba itself is something of a snapshot of the way things were BEFORE the proliferation of ‘Afro-Cuban’ music overseas, BEFORE the emergence of a plethora of new Spanish-language ‘Latin’ genres that would rival that of the English-speaking world, and maybe most of all… BEFORE Carlos Santana. I will tell you now, and I’ll tell you on my death bed, that no one single person is more responsible for putting that well-known sabor in modern Latin music than Don Carlos. He is the hot chile in that south-of the-border musical cuisine. He gave Latin music a new direction with a sharp edge, not just guitar-drenched, but rhythm-infused… and mind-penetrating. What he didn’t do himself directly, he did through his indirect influence, as simple comparisons before and after will attest.

The music of Tito Gonzalez comes from a simpler era, and his new album ‘Al Doblar la Esquina’ reflects that. This is an era when the brass in big bands ruled, the drums stayed respectfully on the sideline if not the background, and romancing the opposite sex was how you ‘got off.’ While Tito himself is a consummate player of the three-stringed tres (not to be confused with the cuatro), that pretty much stays in the background on this album and Tito mostly lets his rich baritone do the talking for him. Whatever it lacks in easy comprehensibility of intricate lyrics it makes up for with a rich melodic texture that wears well. The brass rule the harmonic airwaves on this album and that’s testament to Tito’s choice of a bandleader, too, in this case Jose Dumen, and a superb line-up of ex-pat Cuban musicians in the US.

This is one of those albums that only gets better as you go along. While most albums load their best stuff on the front-end of the batting order, Tito seems to be connecting first with the Buena Vista son expectations, and then moving into his own as the album proceeds, nothing short of a kick-ass salsero he is by the end, spiritual son of another Tito. Things get off to a rollicking start with ‘Busco a Alguien’ (I’m Looking for Someone’)- “no tengo compromisos… busco alguien que me queda” (“I’m not committed yet… I’m just looking for someone to stick with me”), an up-beat number that rolls out the brass in full force, especially a trumpet that soars over the top of it all. Song number two keeps it up, ‘Para Componer un Son’- “hace falta una razon, sentimento, y corazon” (to build a son… all you need is a reason, a feeling, and some heart) that tones things down enough to let some really good piano shine through, but not enough to lose momentum. Song number three does that for us, intentionally, ‘Aquel Viejo Amor’ (That Old Love), in keeping with the theme of loves and lives gone by, slow and syrupy and sentimental, as memories tend to be, almost too sticky to handle.

Love is the predominant lyrical theme of the album, not surprising for a man who’s lived his life on the seas, overseas, and always somewhere in between where he’s ultimately going. With ‘Cuando Tu Te Fuistes’ (‘When You Left’) a serenade wtih brass, the pain is almost too much to bear, ‘todo cambio para mi, un profundo dolor que me atravesaba’ (‘everything changed, with the deep pain I was going through’). La Despedida’ (‘The Goodbye’) waxes philosophical, ‘yo soy tu amigo y te ayudara’ (‘I’m your friend and I’ll be there to help’), but ‘Cancion para Bonnie’ reflects his new life in the US and the new love that cements it, romantic and hopeful. When the theme is not one of love lost and love found, it’s about the enjoyment of life regardless, the parties and the dances and the music. Soounds like a pretty good attitude to me. This man’s been around and single-handedly proves that if you stick to your dreams you’ll ultimately get… somewhere. As someone noted long ago, there is really no ‘there’ there… because there’s always a halfway point that must first be reached… always… and usually a corner or two to be turned. That’s ‘Al Doblar la Esquina’ by Tito Gonzales. Check it out.

search world music

Custom Search