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/AndrĂ© 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.

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