Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Well, things got off to a shaky start last Thursday when I found out that the group I was expecting to see and hear- ‘Palenke Soultribe’- is not scheduled until next week, so I got ‘Inca’ instead, an Andean folklore group. Chalk it up to dim lighting in my kitchen, jet lag, and the vicissitudes of fate. Anyway, that’s probably good, since I can probably think of plenty of things to say about Andean music, given my philosophy degree and many moons spent in Peru and Bolivia. Andean music, in fact, is maybe one of the few groups that can lay claim to a pre-reggae presence as a recognized world music genre, given Paul Simon’s adoption of ‘El Condor Pasa’ as his own, an event that pre-dated ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ by a shot and ‘Diamonds on the Soles’ by a mile. He couldn’t get it away with it now… now that Andean music has long been available in almost any Manhattan subway station- playing for tips- and the poor beggars are now reduced to dressing up in buckskin and beads and Sioux war bonnets, playing New Age music on the streets of Barcelona and Prague and… Ljubljana, any place where a there might be a tourist to buy the act, and the CD. And to think that not so long ago many good Andean groups could fill a decent-size arena in even modest-sized towns in the US. Maybe it’s time for their second wind. Though traditional penas may be on the decline in South America itself, Andean musicians have long been finding places in modern fusion-style jazz bands, with generally good results. Much of the the traditional stuff is musically not so challenging, after all, and plenty repetitious. They don’t create new traditions every day.

The LA-based band ‘Inca’ is maintaining traditions, though, but doing it right, mixing traditional dance in, and not limiting their offerings to the highland traditions. Anything ‘Afro’ is a good bet on the world music charts these days, and that includes Afro-Peruvian, whose contributions always outweighed their numbers. Ciro Hurtado, at LACMA Saturday evening, is more my speed, though. This is some of the best modern jazz on anybody’s favorite ‘triple-z’ station, and with a pronounced Andean twist, it goes down real nicely. This is one of the world’s best guitarists on nylon strings, and understatement IS his statement. Sr. Hurtado defines the modern ‘Latino sound’ almost as much as Carlos Santana once did, but he accomplishes it in negative space, a reverse applique’ tapestry. Imagine one of Santana’s rare quiet moments and that’s where Hurtado punches it up, most of the time laboring away unobtrusively in the background, weaving a rich sonic landscape.

Grant Geissman was there at LACMA the night before as part of their Fri-Sat 1-2 jazz-Latino punch (I’ll have a cup of that, please) in what is fast becoming one of the city’s best free offerings. It’s a chill scene, too, families and picnics on the grass. Grand Performances downtown may have just as good a selection of DIY food, but LACMA has more dogs, if you’re a closet dog-whisperer or even just a casual dog-watcher (and kids are welcome and plentiful in the early eves). MacArthur Park has got the best pupusas, though, and some good music, too. In addition to the aforementioned ‘Inca’, and Ricardo Lemvo’s ‘Makina Loca’- which I’d already foregone- ‘String Theory’ was there Saturday evening, with some of the week’s more interesting sounds. Imagine steel strings stretched 100 feet across the Park’s lawn radiating from a harp-like point on stage. Add some guitar and bass and cello and plenty of percussion and you’ve got some novel frequencies, albeit mostly of the minor key, twangy-bent-string variety.

In what has to be one of the music season’s more bizarre coincidences, Saturday was also ‘string night’ at Cal Plaza downtown, but it took on a totally different dimension. Starting off with ‘Hiroshima’s June Kuramoto giving a virtuoso performance on the Japanese koto- accompanied by piano- the show went to Veracruz for the next set, with Conjunto Hueyapan and one of the best version’s of ‘La Bamba’ you’d ever want to hear, even if they DID leave out the ‘para subir al cielo’ verse (I won’t mention para ser secretaria). But the real treat came when the troupe’s youngest member, the lovely Ixya Herrera came in to take over vocal chores. That woman has got some pipes! And as the name suggests, she and they celebrate la raza’s indigenous background- in addition to the Spanish. Depending on how she decides to market herself at this point, I feel like I’ve just had a sneak preview of Lila Down’s successor. Prince Diabate’ closed out the evening on his griot’s African kora, but as the evening was already long, and I'd already seen and heard him, I decide to forego and go before. That’s three venues and five bands in as many hours in the Hollywood/mid-Wilshire/downtown circuit that I call my ‘Golden Triangle.’

Actually first- but not least- was ‘Bad Haggis’ (don’t ask what ‘haggis’ is) at the LA Farmer’s Market, a kind of Irish-folk-fusion group (no, U2 does not count as Irish folk). As always it’s novelty that sells (ask any businessman) and music is no different. Of course ‘Salsa Celtica’ has already been done- by a group of that very name, but whereas that’s mostly salsa with Celtic elements, this is just the opposite, i.e if you want to hear bagpipes, this is a better bet. Idon’t know how it’d play in the bars and pubs of Kilkenny, but it sounds pretty good at the LA Farmers Market… and that’s not the greatest venue for acoustics.

This week best bets are looking like the aforementioned Palenke Soultribe at MacArthur on Thursday, Natacha Atlas the same night out in the hills at Skirball, and Adonis Puentes and Pacha Massive (NOT ‘Macha Passive’, no) at Cal Plaza Friday noon and Saturday evening respectively. Of course that same evening not only will Nonstop Bhangra be playing the second set at the water court, but the Tubes (yes, THOSE Tubes!) will be right down the street at Pershing Square. Of course this is a world music blog, so I might just have to, you know… sneak over and catch a quick listen during break. Yes, I’m a closet punk/hippie/folkie/emo, guilty as charged. So sue me.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

WORLD MUSIC HEATS UP LA- Beat the Donkey, Wil-Dog, and Tommy Castro

Ahhh! It’s that time of year again, like it or not. Last week the temps were up to almost three figures Fahrenheit and the blood so thin that I could barely get a quorum. The windows stay open and blankets go unused. The fan follows me around the apartment- which involves frequent trips to the fridge- and I have air-conditioned dreams, if I can sleep at all. Fast forward a few days and that’s all changed, reminding me of what I like most about LA- the weather. If it’s too hot one day, it just might be too cool the next, averaging out really nicely, nothing normal mind you, ‘average’. If it’s too hot for me today, it’ll probably be too cold for my wife- she’s Thai- tomorrow. But I was lying. That’s not my favorite thing about LA. My favorite thing is the music- and lots of it- outdoors and free all summer. It’s that time of year again. The weather’s better at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala anyway BTW.

I went to Brazil a few years ago- to travel, see Carnaval… and listen to music. “Well, you must’ve heard some pretty good stuff,” a friend surmised upon my return. “Well, you know, it’s funny…,” and I’m not sure if I ever completed the sentence or not. Because, well, to be honest, Brazilian music CAN be funny. That’s part of the package, and part of the personality. The idea promoted by bossa nova and Ipanema and a Jobim or two that Brazil is all about sex, show, and suavedade is a bit misleading, or specific to maybe only a part of Rio, but hardly the whole package, or even the real package, as if Brazil were but Cannes or Nice projected in Sensurround® upon the Atlantic coast of South America as a whole. Now that might be nice, but it’s just not accurate. In Recife, they don’t even do samba, much less bossa nova. In Recife, they dance frevo, which is something like a jitterbug cucaracha. And the music, well… I was disappointed at the time, but I think I’m starting to ‘get it’…

Nobody better personifies the wackiness that Brazilian popular music is capable of than ‘Cyro Baptista and Beat the Donkey’, who played last Saturday night at California Plaza in downtown LA. They don’t beat around the bush… or maybe they do. Better described as a troupe than a group, they take the stage wearing tophats and Indian headdresses and Russian ushankas and proceed to play flip-flops and PVC pipes- in addition to the usual guitars and drums- while tap-dancing and Balinese-dancing… and prancing about the stage in general. Sound like a bit much, maybe? That’s what I was thinking, too… and then they broke into a version of ‘Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin. Hmmm… I’m thinking… that’s different… still thinking… ‘Immigrant Song’? Now that’s radical! I never particularly even liked that song… until now, that is. And they played it well, too, note-perfect (lead guitarist kicks ass btw). Oh, now I get it! Cyro Baptista… beats your ass (with tongue planted firmly in cheek)! I’d listen again…

Compare and contrast with Wil-Dog (Abers, Ozomatli bassist) y su banda. Like Cyro and the ass-beaters, these guys can play, too. But once again, there’s an element of kitsch that clings to it all, too. I’m just not sure if they intend it that way. This is a large band, full of brass- including tuba- and balls, and cutting-up Ozomatli-style while playing music that I could only describe as… ‘Mexican’? True, they run around the stage less than OZO, and their music stays more within a single genre, whatever genre that is. Maraiachi, maybe? Polka? I give up. Wil-Dog himself seems to be having mucho fun, though, prancing around the stage all dressed up muy Pachuco, and his voice isn’t half-bad, but… you might want to keep that day job, Wil-Dog. It ain’t bad, either…

The other act I saw this past week was Tommy Castro’s band last night (Tues.) at Hollywood & Highland’s Wine & Jazz series. This music isn’t exactly jazz, of course, but I guess blues ‘passes’ like black for white. I’ve heard of this band for years in the Bay Area, so it’s nice to finally see- and hear- them. They’re pretty good, too, about as good as blues can be, really, considering that nothing new has been done with it for at least several decades, since Stevie Ray, if not Duane A. Blues just isn’t as revolutionary as it used to be in the 60’s, like going to the other side of town and entering a new dimension, and one that rocked, to boot. Even Cajun music has re-invented itself, fer Chrissaskes, and traditional Andean music is now Andes ‘fusion’. I’ll be the first to line up for the ‘new blues’. Bring it on!

So by now I should have launched into a bit on KCRW’s ‘World Festival’, right? Wrong, for whatever the ‘world festival’ IS, it’s NOT- in any reliable dependable way- world music, i.e. music from other countries, cultures and languages, two out of three wears the badge. Now while we intellectual cognescenti intelligentsia all know- nod nod wink wink- that ALL music is ‘world music’, that doesn’t help the poor bloke who might seriously be interested if he knew what it was. I’ll tell you what it’s NOT. It’s NOT ‘She & Him’ (or He & Her, I can’t remember, only that it was mixed nominative/accusative). Now Zooey Deschanel is not bad… pretty good, actually, so I’ll be interested to see if she is the one actor/actress who can actually accomplish something as a musician. As of yet, it’s only been the other way around, musicians finding success as actors. Money’s probably better that way.

Three gigs a week, you think that’s a lotta listening? When I’m up and running at full speed, I can do that in one evening. I’m still only half-counscious, recovering from eighty countries and two years of jet-lag! Top picks for this week include jazz greats Bill Watrous at the Farmer’s Market Thursday night and Grant Geissman at LACMA on Friday. Ciro Hurtado also shows up at LACMA on Saturday. Then there’s Colombian vallenato with VBC at Pasadena Levitt Pavillion on Friday after a night of Afro-Colombian with Palenke Soultribe at Levitt MacArthur on Thursday. Then there’s my favorite venue, the California water court downtown with shows Friday noon and Friday and Saturday evening. It doesn’t matter who’s playing. They’re always good; it comes with the turf. They’ve even got the funicular ‘Angels Flight’ up and running for the first time in years, whisk you right up to the music from Pershing Square metro station for a quarter. Try and beat that. See you there.

Friday, July 02, 2010

MAGNIFICATION by MAGNIFICO- Hawaiian Surfing Spaghetti Western Balkan Music

Most Americans had probably never heard of Slovenia until the US soccer team came up against them head to head in recent World Cup play. And while most probably could identify it as one of the now-divorced Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia, any more info than that would probably require some serious head-scratching. Slovenia was in fact the first Balkan country out of the gate, long heavily influenced by Austria and especially Italy, which all converge in and around the now-Italian city of Trieste. When the Iron Curtain started showing some serious rusty spots, Slovenia wasted no time in declaring its intentions. Outside the main Serbo-Croatian core of the southern Slav region, Belgrade didn’t even protest. Since then Slovenia has moved into close alliance with Western Europe, and is firmly on the main tourist trail as an easy inclusion on any Italian or Austrian itinerary, something like post-communist ‘lite’. In fact Ljubljana is one of the coolest and most beautiful cities of the region, no exaggeration necessary.

Musically I’ve never been too strongly attracted to Balkan music, perhaps because of a lack of exposure to tuba bands in my childhood. I keep listening, though, figuring that sooner or later something would strike my fancy. Magnifico may just be it. Something of a mix between Manu Chao, surf music, spaghetti Westerns, and traditional Balkan brass, Magnifico is probably best understood as something of a South Slavic answer to Mumiy Troll or Gogol Bordello. It wasn’t easy being a young Communist growing up in the grips of the Kremlin, you know, and even though Yugoslavia was independent, the psychology is common to all of them, and even to Cubans and North Koreans to this day. You learn to adapt. You learn to suppress your emotions. You learn to do end runs around your own imagination. You go a little bit crazy. The internal security police exist like a gray pall over your entire life, and Las Vegas looms like a dream from heaven all out of proportion to the reality. When you finally break loose, you hardly know where to start in making up for lost time. This is the world into which Robert Pesut, aka ‘Magnifico’, emerged, full of iron and irony, both music and words, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

He’s got a new album out, too, called ‘Magnification.’ ‘Zum Zum’ starts off like a raucous Balkan gypsy rag, doing a parody of ‘Ten Little Indians’ al la Europe with gypsies giving the lie to modern Europe liberalism. ‘iThink’ ups the intellectual ante a notch- albeit in similar musical fashion- “iThink and I got an idea that, there is too much, too much nation, too much nation for liberation and too much nation, for one railway station.” Bosangero Nero’ slows things down a bit and goes into ‘spaghettti western’ mode to great effect as our poor hero tries to explain to police that ‘I don’t know much about no globalization, I’m just a Bosangero.’ The effect is completed with cha-cha-cha ending. Ubicu Te’ goes into full-scale Balkan brass and is the first song to be sung entirely in Slovenian… and with electronic flourishes. The parody and paradox continue unabated regardless of language, “There is no place where you can hide, someday you will be my bride. And if I got to kill, kill baby I will, if I got to kill you honey trust on me I will.” Yes, Magnifico has a strong psycho-sexual side to his tongue-in-cheek, which ‘Emily’ explores further, “Emily, Emily after midnight come to me, I wanna see you dancing just for me Emily.” Pismu Kumu (Rambo Rambo)’, also sung in Slovenian, adds some Hawaiian-style guitar and some reggae–style beat to the musical mix and some serious religious doubt to the philosophical mix, “Oh, Rambo, Rambo,… I thought there was a heavenly God, to tell me some things I know nothing about, But neither has he spoken to me, nor he knows to tell me anything, it seems to me he’s just a big hoax.” Hmm, maybe Communism wasn’t so bad, after all.

‘Avanti Popolo’ is the only song to be sung in Italian, though hardly an ‘Italian’ song, and ‘Giv Mi Mani 2’ shows the influence of English language- and hiphop- on modern Slovenian music, though neither song is much more than mid-album filler. “I’m clever I’m not a fool, I got TV and I know what is cool, Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, Satisfy my body and soul” may be a genuine expression of existential dilemma, but ends up sounding more contrived than inspired. ‘Did You (Did U)’ fares better. Self-deprecating and ironic, the lyrics actually manage to explore some little-discussed territory of the human psyche, and does it with horns and electronica in the background, “I don’t care if you look at my lady, no problem it’s ok with me.” That takes guts. ‘Ljuba’ adds another wonderful ‘spaghetti western’ feel overlaid by Slovenian lyrics, while ‘Amore’ carries the Italian feel to its locial conclusion. “There is something up above, some people call it love, some people call it love, and I feel amore, yes I feel amore.” ‘Hidee Hi Hidee Ho’ is something of a Balkan war march, compelling enough, but ‘The Land Of Champions’ alone is worth the price of admission. This is no less than a Balkan ‘House of the Rising Sun’, boogie-woogie surf style, ‘Oh mother, tell your children not to do what I have done, I've lost my soul, oh glory hallelujah, down in Yugoslavia.’ Who’d’ve though to rhyme hallelujah with Yugoslavia? He’s Robert Persut and he calls himself ‘Magnico’. The album is ‘Magnification.’ Cute, ey? Check it out.

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