Thursday, June 17, 2010


Even before the Boxing Day Tsunami hit the Indian Ocean in 2004 I knew something was wrong. I was lying in bed enjoying the moment in my house up near the Golden Triangle in Thailand. We had just moved into a larger house, you see, and so our bedroom was now on the second floor, balcony and all, ‘room with a view’ you might say. Suddenly a rumbling below shook me out of my reverie.

“That was an earthquake,” I told my wife.
“That’s not possible. Thailand doesn’t have earthquakes.”

‘They do now, either that or this house is falling down,” not an impossibility given the shoddy construction techniques that are commonplace in the Kingdom.

Assuming that people down South also felt the same quake- much stronger there than the measly 2.2 Richter rumble where I was- they should have been running for their lives… uphill. Because at that point there was still time to save oneself from the tsunami. No percussion wave can outrun the speed of sound, you see, but a fast jet can. I bet they will do just that next time, run for their lives.

By the time I turned on my TV an hour later it was too late. The wave had hit hard and the first reports were coming in. Phuket got blasted. Of course at that point even THEN there was still time for southern Indians to get out of harm’s way, since it would take several hours for a wave to travel that distance. Aceh on Sumatra in Indonesia was already history, of course, they Indonesia’s strictest of Muslims- and not coincidentally most westerly community- the first to go under the wave, something from which they have yet to fully recover. And the aftermath was brutal, some 230,000 killed, the worst affected countries being Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, in that order. Stronger earthquakes have been recorded, and stronger tsunamis, too, but none have wreaked more havoc on human populations. Though Thailand received much of the associated press (and aid), its death toll was relatively minor. But here’s the difference: its death toll was largely tourist, i.e. rich foreigners.

Fresh flowers love fresh ashes, of course, and good things can come out of the worst disasters. One of these was the Laya Project by EarthSync, a production company based in South India. Originally conceived as a world music ‘documentary’ of the disaster and the response to it, what resulted was a Baraka-like work of filmic art that tells stories with pictures, and consciously omits tear-jerking tabloid shots in favor of life-affirming images that refer to an open-ended future rather than a painfully punctured past. And it not only comes with soundtrack, in fact the soundtrack IS the film, or at least central to it. What better way to affirm life than through music? And ‘re-mixers’ have finally found their calling here, too. Thanks to Yotam Agam and Patrick Sebag, the original music has been respectfully enhanced for a quality listening experience, not butchered for the ‘mash-up’ tastes of surfers and tubers who spend more time interacting with a screen than they do with real life.

If these songs of six countries seem to evoke the Indian tradition over all others, there’s a reason for that, too. The Indian tradition pre-dates all other civilized and civilizing traditions in the region. Sanskrit is to the Thai language- and others- what Latin is to western languages. To this day the Indo-Malay ‘bahasas’ owe more of their vocabulary to ancient Sanskrit than they do to the Arabic of the Arabs to whom they owe their religion and cultural existence. But in spite of this common ancestral base, modern countries of the region are largely fragmented and even hostile to one another, religious fundamentals lost in the rush to fundamentalism, all in response to the overwhelming sweep of history.

And while the genetic roots of the region may be as diverse as East and West can be, the cultural nexus is similar, and these are the systems by which we operate. Both sides of the Indian ocean are a microcosm of this subconscious divide, Indo-Aryans on the sub-continent divided into Hindus and Muslims, Austro-Asians in the Southeast divided into Buddhists and Muslims, the result of historical and religious forces at work, social caste and godhead, one or many, face or faceless. When disaster strikes, many of these artificial divisions and unanswerable questions fade away. The Muslim scholars and the Buddhist priest chant together, and all parents are looking for their sons and daughters, and a return to a better life.

This is an area largely overlooked by Putumayo’s ‘groove & chill’ approach to world music. It’s not up to local traditions to adapt to our modern Western tastes; it’s up to us to adapt to theirs, or at least accept and appreciate them. If ethnomusicologists and ‘re-mixers’ can help this process along, then more power to them. What Earth Sync has accomplished here is no better or worse than what other unsung heroes have done elsewhere, not the least of which include companies like Sublime Frequencies and people like Laurent Jeanneau, scrounging the world’s outback for scraps of music that are as important as mitochondrial DNA in deciphering who we are and where we came from.

I’ve been to WOMADS and WOMEXES and music festivals all over the world, but nothing surpasses the night at the Sapa ‘love market’ in north Vietnam some fifteen years ago when I listened to two tribal Red Dzao lovers singing their hearts out- literally and antiphonally- getting the words and the rhythm just right… before the big plunge, before the tides of history make them forget. Speaking of tides, check out the Laya Project when you can, both film and music. It’ll do you good.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

FEUFOLLET’s En Couleurs- Cajun Indie? Mais oui…

Anybody who thinks that zydeco is what Cajun music is all about is missing the boat, literally, the boats that brought settlers expelled by jolly ol’ Brits down south to the lower Mississippi River delta a couple centuries ago, where they mixed with Natives and Africans and whoever else decided to jump ship before anyone else either noticed or cared. Zydeco may indeed be the beans of southern Louisiana music, but Cajun folk music is the rice. Situated at the crossroads of New Orleans funk and Austin country, Delta blues and Tex-Mex, uh… tex-mex, you might expect a variety of influences from the mix of influences in southern Louisiana, especially in a cool town like Lafayette. You got it...

So where does this group of young kids with a band called ‘Feufollet’ fit into the mix of hard-drinking and hard-partying bon temps gumbo musique? I’d say somewhere between the heart and the head. This ain’t zydeco. This music is closer to French ballads- themselves not too far removed from English ballads- with heavy doses of other influences, all subsumed to treatment by the traditional Cajun instruments of fiddle and accordion. Thus it’s more lyric-based with less boogie… but you can still dance to it, though maybe a bit slower sometimes.

‘Au Fond du Lac’ is a slow haunting gypsy-like number that leads off the album, with Scarlet Rivera-like fiddle and female vocals to match. Des Promesses’, with its guitar and organ grand orchestral introduction quickly advises us to not get complacent yet; even greater things are yet in store. It then breaks into a rollicking rocker- complete with male vocals and traditional fiddle and accordion- that doesn’t slow down until the final note is played. La Berceuse du Vieux Voyageur (The Old Traveler’s Lullabye)’ is just that, with slow soulful female vocals to match. Si T'as Fini’ adds some kick-ass guitar to the mix as male and female alternate songs and viewpooints, the female-vocal songs slower and sadder, the male-vocal songs more lively and danceable, as if these roles had been handed down and honed as such for generations.

After a brief ‘Do Wah Interlude’, male and female finally join forces in a duet, in what may be the album’s finest moment, ‘Ouvre la Porte (Open the Door)’ is a tearful ballad ‘about a woman dying of an illness as her faithful lover calls for the doctor and bids a sorrowful farewell.’ Assis Dans la Fenetre Interlude’ follows with an almost Celtic-like chant with female vocals only, a long ‘good-bye forever’. Les Jours Sont Longs (The Days are Long)’ is the first song to add a pronounced country feel to the album, almost country-pop, with pedal steel guitar solo breaking up the twangy male vocals and traditional fiddle, complete with stinger on the end. ‘Cowboy Waltz’ is the female counterpart, with banjo and accordion- and bells- as they continue the male-female back-and-forth in an almost-too-perfect symmetry. ‘Jean Billaudeaux’ is an instrumental doodle that serves as little more than another interlude- in an album full of them- before continuing with the male-side boogie of ‘Je M'en Va’ and ‘Mon Tour’ , followed by ‘Ouvre la Porte Interlude’, another instrumental- this one acoustic- something of a ‘Cajun remix’ of the earlier duet I suppose.

En Movement’ is another light-rocker in a string of them that has little by little come to define the album, and the ‘Lomax Interlude’- with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax pontificating over the debris of last night’s fais do-do- doing little to change that. This music may have indeed derived from the generations of what came before, but with a difference. While all the best-known Louisiana groups have converted to almost-English-only lyrics as fast as they can, Feufollet sings only in Cajun French, even though neither of the vocalists has a French surname. This is Cajun music for a new generation, better educated and open to new influences, expanding ever outward while refining and defining the central core… the still-beating heart. That’s what’s been handed down over the years. It’s called En Couleurs by Feufollet. Hardie K says… you know what.

search world music

Custom Search