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.

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