Friday, December 02, 2011

“My Life” by Sia Tolno: Another African Success Story

When you hear the name of the country “Sierra Leone,” music is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind, more likely being the movie “Blood Diamond,” the Leonardo D vehicle which portrayed it largely as a tiny remote West African nation enmeshed in a violent revolution funded by corrupt and illicit mining, a portrayal at least partially true.  I think of it as the slave-era British counterpart to Liberia, a territory where freed slaves were released and allowed to make their way as best they could without the baggage of the past infringing, hence the emergence of Freetown as capital and major city.

“My Life” is the title of the new album by Sia Tolno, and this is the cultural milieu into which she was born and raised, for a while at least.  She, too, like many others, was forced to leave to escape the brutal civil war, and begin a refugee’s life of crowded cramped restless wandering, first in Guinea, then elsewhere as her fame grew.  Her music reflects that harsh reality she had to endure to survive.  Still she never forgot home, even when ir was largely reduced to ruins.  The title to her first song, “Blamah Blamah,” is the name of the town where an annual festival used to be held, back in the good ol’ pre-war days.  Such is life, one of makeshift impermanence.  Sia Tolno takes it to heart, brooding and growling and cursing the corruption and decadence, while never losing her optimism.  And still she’s pure African at heart.  If many “world music” artists seem like nothing so much as enlightened hybrids, Sia Tolno is refreshingly pure and authentic, and so is her music.

From that pure percussive African starting point, Sia proceeds to stake her claims to all the styles for which African is famous.  If she opened the album singing scat, she follows it up in “Odju Watcha” singing balls-to-the-wall blues, and to good lyrics, too: “People fight here for power… with all the gold and diamonds we’ve got…  human pride does not exist…”.  There’s some kick-ass good brass and lead guitar showcased here, too.  Then she changes it up.  This is the mark of the consummate artist, and the place where most fall short, the ability to mix it up in a variety of styles and still resonate (pun intended).  “Di ya leh” does just that, with soft and smooth balladry, Sade-like, the moody female reduced to type without being reduced in artistry.  The title song “Malaya (My life)” explains: “I spent my life making people happy when I was so sad…Oh God, take me back to your peaceful home…,” slow and brooding and accompanied by some nice clean guitar.

Just as abruptly she shifts right back into defiant mode. “Polli Polli” is a kick-ass rocker—complete with some screamin’ sax—and a blistering critique of corrupt local politics: “what did they say…sister, what did they do?... polli polli no good at all,” Sia all the while growling, cursing, kicking and screaming—yet never losing her cool.  Then another signature sound emerges in “Aya ye,” neither harsh nor soft, neither brass nor ballad, more like a jazzy reggae, light and lyrical, prophetic yet fun, “Kongossa” following in a similar vein.  “Blind Samaritan (Poor Man)” starts similarly, a reggae-like ballad, “Here comes the blind man, hoping to see the beauty of this world…no man is an island, no man stands alone.”  But it also adds another distinct sound, just when I thought Sia had pretty much shown her full palette.  She has a Latin side, too.  If this is hinted at in several songs, it’s overt in “Tonia (The Truth),” which just may be the most compelling song on the album, or at least a close second to the Afro-Beatish “Odju Watcha.”  Slow brooding and romantic and with some biting sharp guitar, Carlos Santana would be right at home on this song and Sia seems right at home with the style, too.   This could be a whole new growth area for her.

“Toumah toumah” also features some elegant guitar, and flute, and some whispering vocals that only leave one continually astounded at the range of Sia Tolno’s musical, acoustical and emotional depth.  Most of all, though, she’s an African patriot.  “Shame upon u” closes the album rocking and rollicking, “We are the owners of Africa… it belongs to us… shame upon you.”  BTW, did I mention that the album is elegantly produced, also, by Francois Breant?  She’s a keeper.  That’s “My Life” by Sia Tolno, out on December 6 on the Lusafrica label.  Know what I’d do if I were you?  I’d check it out.

Saturday, November 05, 2011


It’s not often that you get the chance to re-visit a bygone era and help rescue one its great protagonists from the shadows of obscurity.  After all, the future may be a sea of possibilities, but the past is definitely not.  Especially in the well-publicized field of pop music, such finds are rare, Nick Drake and Arthur Lee being a few that come to mind in the Anglo-American mainstream of pop music.  Within the ample hidden folds of world music the harvest may be a bit greater, as many long gone old-timers are found, revived, and brought back up to the surface for fresh air and ultimate justice.  Examples of this might be Boubacar Traore’ of Mali or any of the Buena Vista Social club members.  Others of course met crueler fates and survive only through their music, never knowing that they found a posthumous following in the west.  Ros Sreysothea and Sinn Sisamouth of Kampuchea are good examples of that.

Meet Joni Haastrup from Nigeria.  His band MonoMono was one of the defining acts of a generation that included a much better known Fela Kuti, with whom he collaborated and competed in the 70’s.  Now three of his albums from that era have been re-issued and made available to a new generation.  Like Fela, Joni too did most of his songs in English, ostensibly to gain an overseas audience, but don’t underestimate the need for the broadest possible lingua franca in a country of over five hundred languages.  But Joni was never the attention-grabbing superstar in his own right, shining instead as a vocalist and keyboard player in an ensemble setting, first with O.J. Ekemode, and then Ginger Baker’s Air Force, before forming his own band MonoMono.  His lyrics are always upbeat and empowering, shades of another young man from across the sea, also making the rounds in London at about the same time in the early 70’s.  Of course, the ‘rush for Africa’ didn’t really begin until Bob Marley hit #1 in the charts, scooping up Fela and King Sunny in its net, while Joni had to wait… until now.

“Give the Beggar a Chance” was originally released in 1972, and it reflects much of what had occurred in Anglo-American rock by this time, especially a wild-ass psychedelic organ derived straight from the 60’s via The Doors, and a clean jazz guitar laid down in light hot licks.  But the vocals predominate, to generally good effect.  In the title song, lyrics like “what do you need from a beggar?.. give him a chance to blow your mind” exemplify much of Haastrup’s ethos, his love of common people and constant exhortations to forge on and forge ahead.  “The World Might Fall Over” even features a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins- like vocal, reminding us that his voice defined him as much as his keyboards.  His lyrics were consistently upbeat, but not always bold.  ‘Lida Lou’ was a soul number that could have been right out of any 60’s American soul music playbook, if not playlist- “she was so good to me… I’ll never forget her… she was called ‘Lida Lou.”  But maybe my favorite song on the entire album is the final number, titled ‘Kenimania’, an organ and guitar instrumental that would do Booker T proud.

1974 saw the release of ‘The Dawn of Awareness’ and an advance in the steadily-evolving progression of Joni and Monomono’s sound.  The thick psychedelic organ is now given over to a cleaner tighter keyboard style while guitars take over much of the experimental chores, at least two of them in fact, clean precise jazz licks dueling with fuzz tone power chords, triangulated sonically with an up-front saxophone and percussion that increasingly jumps up off the back line to assume a more prominent place in the mix.  “Plain Fighting” is maybe the best example of this in the lot, singing “don’t ever let yourself feel so downcast…your life is exactly what you make it.”  ‘Awareness Is Wot You Need’ opens with a nice flute solo and continues in the same vein, “Awareness is what you need… people refuse to see the truth… you don’t know what you are inside.”  

The third album of the trilogy ‘Wake Up Your Mind,’ released in 1978, finds Joni back in London and going it solo.  While America has gone to disco by this time, Joni moves his sound closer to Fela’s successful Afro-Beat while maintaining his own lyrical similarity to Bob Marley’s successful formula.  The opening song ‘Free My People’ explains this well in a opening rap, then continues on with lyrics like, “give us unity, give us peace of mind… we need peace and love all over the world.”  The title song keeps it up with, “We have gold, we have silver, we have every thing… we have to open up our minds so we can get back our land.”  ‘Champions & Superstars’ is an ode to soccer stars and ‘Do The Funkro’ is a worthy attempt at disco, but Joni is best is his comfort zone, closing the set with  “Watch Out…heaven is gonna fall… people get yourself together.”  He’s got a point, you’ll have to admit.  At the very least Joni Haastrup is an interesting and highly listenable footnote to the 1970’s and the history of world music, not unlike Mamadou or Boubacar or Eliades or Omara or any one of a hundred other undersung heroes.  He may even be a lost master.  Either way, he’s worth a listen.  All three albums have been re-issued by Tummy Touch/Soundway and are available in all formats.  Hardie K says check it out.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


The first time I saw Clifton Chenier play was at Antone’s blues club in Austin, TX in 1975, back when it used to be down on Sixth Street, back in the ‘cosmic cowboy’ days, back when a plate of BBQ out on Burnside Road would set you back a cool $3, more than the minimum wage btw.  It was a revelation, though, the zydeco music, that is, named after the lowly snap bean, staple food ‘down there’.  This was something neither country nor blues, but somehow somewhere in the middle, with a detour through N’awlins, where it picked up a whiff of the French and a flair for funk.  Still it was something completely different, closest in genre to the Cajun music of the era, but not really, not exactly.  Something entirely new had been born, and this was the man who’d midwifed it, the Bob Marley, the Chuck Berry, the Leadbelly of zydeco.  It was being refined and defined and expanded and expounded while I sat there watching and listening.  The only question was: What next? 

When Clifton died in 1987, would zydeco die with it, like so many other sub-genres?  Enter C. J. Chenier, hot on the heels of his father’s success, even taking over his father’s band upon his death, and automatically inheriting much of his success.  But that was the ‘90’s; what about now?  Fast-forward to the present and much water has passed under the bridge, the old Mississippi River Bridge at Vicksburg.  Zydeco’s changed, with Clifton long gone, and a succession of pretenders to his throne having already given their best, a list with names as illustrious as their music- Buckwheat, Queen Ida, Rockin’s Sidney and Dopsie, and many others, not just in southwest Louisiana, but also on the West Coast and even in Europe.  And of course, the recording industry has undergone a near-collapse, leaving live performance the only constant in a rapidly-changing music scene.  But the best news of all is that C. J. Chenier has gone back into the studio and done an entirely new album in one swift session.

C. J. Chenier’s new album is called ‘Can’t Sit Down’, and while it may not be the “second coming” of zydeco, it’s pretty darn good.  Of course, the ‘boogie factor’ is primary, and that’s present in full force, but there’s more than that.  Lately zydeco has become more and more a close cousin to Tex-Mex, not surprising considering their geographic proximity in southeast Texas, and their mutual love of that German import for all things polkaic, the accordion.  This album changes all that, moving it back toward its original blues roots.  This album starts out with the title song, a rockin’ number by long gone daddy Clifton, complete with killer guitar solo, the signature style for modern blues-rock, and waving a flag for what’s to come.  ‘Baby Please Don't Go’ by Joe Williams is nothing but wailin’ gutter blues, accordion taking the parts normally assigned to guitar.  Then things get really interesting, the reason I wanted to listen to this album in the first place- ready for this?  How about ‘Clap Hands’ by Tom Waits?  Now I’m not a TW freak, but I do like this song a lot, so anxiously awaited a listen.  Expecting something approximating Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, I was disappointed at first, but upon re-listen… no, CJ got it right, nailing it with a 20 oz. claw hammer.

At clean-up position in the lineup, ‘Ridin' With Uncle Cleveland’ is probably CJ’s best self-penned song on the collection, a credit shared with Denise LaBrie, sweet and slow and soulful.  Here CJ references his father’s brother and frottoir washboarder par excellence, he and his ever-present bottle of Crown Royale, out on the town.  ‘Red Shack Zydeco’, a rockin’ instrumental, kicks the tempo back up again, coincidentally the name of the studio the album was recorded in, and something of an exercise in zydeco fundamentals, complete with guitar solo.  ‘Trouble in Mind’ by Richard M. Jones, has a slick bluesy urban groove, and then CJ covers dad’s classic ‘Hot Tamale Baby’.  Dusty Road’ by John Lee Hooker continues the blues theme, and CJ pays tribute to his influences with a cover of arguably the first zydeco song ever, ‘Paper in My Shoe’ by Boozoo Chavis.

My only mild complaint of CJ, and zydeco in general, is ironically CJ’s own complaint back in the days when he was a music student at university while Dad was rockin’ the honky-tonks: sometimes it all sounds too similar, a complaint that could also be lodged against many other of the smaller genres, including blues, jazz, even country.  It’s no surprise then that they often cover rock and pop hits, even to this day, as this is where much of modern music’s creativity lies.  Blues’ inability to do so has bequeathed it a lower status over the years.  Novelty sells- that’s the first law of business.  Not surprisingly some of the juiciest nuggets on this album are loaners from other genres.  Surprisingly blues is often the loan of choice.  That’s the way it should be, the way it was always intended.  The results are good.  The album is called ‘Can’t Sit Down’ by CJ Chenier, out now on World Village Records.  Check it out… standing up.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Summer’s not over yet, Best of the Fests yet to come- Electronicaboriginal, maybe?

When you think of music festivals, in the US at least, you probably think of Coachella or Lollapalooza, maybe Bonnaroo, all of which boast of daily attendance numbers well into five figures, with overall totals into six.  This pales in comparison with many of those in Europe, though, at least half a dozen of which show numbers well above that, with Glastonbury UK topping the list at some 175, 000 souls per day.  Of course ‘Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’ festival in San Francisco this month might have that many if anybody bothered to count.  It being a free festival, the only numbers are from the crowd controllers, i.e. police estimates.  Nevertheless, Europe has so many festivals- in an area half the size of the US with twice the population- that it becomes something of a Mecca for many US bands looking to make hay while the sun shines.  This leaves US fests to concentrate more on, how do you say, the ‘indie’ groups?  Yes, with the exception of Bogota’s major festival, you would recognize the names of many, if not most, of the acts at the biggest festivals worldwide.  We’re the jugglers and the clowns.

If you’re looking for ‘world music’ fests- (sound of loooong needle scratch on vinyl LP)- the selection goes way down way fast.  Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festivals set the standard worldwide, with long-running events in UK, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and elsewhere subject to local funding, Dubai being one of the newer more interesting offerings.   Here stateside it’s pretty grim for the most part.  We create most of the world’s music, remember, along with the UK, so there’s not much initiative to look elsewhere.  ‘World music’ itself- music of other languages, cultures, and traditions besides the predominant Anglo one- come largely from the ex-pat African and Latino communities in our largest cities, and France, in addition to major ‘emerging countries’ themselves, such as India, Brazil, and Mexico.  People gotta’ eat.  Besides that the best music in the world today probably comes from tiny remote impoverished Islamic Mali, the landlocked heart of West Africa, the jigsaw puzzle piece linking African communities black and semitic, woodlands and desert.  

!Globalquerque!, in (almost) equally remote and scenic Albuquerque, NM is one of the best world music festivals in the US.  This year’s festival takes place on 9/16-17 and features such top world music acts as Los Amigos Invisibles, Cedric Watson, the inimitable Buffy Saint-Marie, and many others, google ‘em.  The overlapping World Music Festival in Chicago hasn’t released their schedule yet, but usually shares some of the same bookings, convenient if you don’t happen to live in the greater Albuquerque metropolitan area.  Other than that, Francophone-oriented Festival Louisiane in Lafayette, LA simultaneous with the jazz fest in N’awlins in April is by far the best… unless you count the entire summer in LA. 

‘World music’ is to be found in North America, too, of course.  Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Cree from Canada, and Andrew Thomas, also performing at !Globalquerque!, is a Dine’ (Navajo).  When you think of Native American music, what do you usually think of, maybe the sound of a lonely flute echoing over the vast expanses of the Grand Canyon, perhaps best exemplified by Carlos Nakai?  I like that, too, but ‘Indian’ music is much more than that, almost anything imaginable, actually.  Native American music is not limited to the American Southwest, either, of course, nor does it stop at the two borders.  In addition to Buffy Sainte-Marie, there are many others, both north and south.  They’ve got shows for that now, too, in the spirit of SXSW and NXNE, specifically to showcase that talent and open them up to increased opportunities.  

One of the newer showcases is the Aboriginal Music Week in Winnipeg, Manitoba, November 1-6, which should be diverse and good.  The show will include the spacey Indie vibes of World Hood and the Metis fiddle of John Arcand.  Then there’s the hip-hop of Winnipeg’s Most and Derek Miller’s roots-rock.  Leela Gilday’s introspective folk-rock offerings are as good as any singer-songwriter in the business today, and the Electric Powwow electronica mind-bumfuggle of A Tribe Called Red simply has to be seen- and heard- to be believed.  Check ‘em out.

Then there’s LA, which is something of a giant festival all summer… if you know where to go.  I haven’t been out as much as usual this year, but still managed to catch Debo from Ethiopia, Bombino from Niger, and others, while missing far more than that simply because of scheduling conflicts or because I’d already seen them.  Best part?  It’s all free…  So, if I achieve escape velocity to actually get out of the crib this weekend, I guesss I’ll just have to content myself with maybe Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loka at LACMA tonight or maybe Quetzal and Conjunto los Pochos down at Celebracion Mexicana in Macarthur Park on tomorrow, or possibly Pete Escovedo at Rum & Humble (yeah) in the courtyard at Hollywood & Highland on Tuesday.  Then there’s Ernie Watts at the Farmers’ Market next Thursday.  Damn!  That’s as many shows as I’ve been to all summer!  I used to do that in a single night.  I’m younger than that now.  C U there.  Drive carefully.     

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Addis Acoustic Project’s Tewesta, “Remembrance”- Eat it with the Fingers

I don’t remember if I went to Ethiopia first or listened to the album Ethiopiques first- the two events were more or less simultaneous- but my first impression was that here was some really wild really weird stuff, nice but in a curious way. My second impression was that this was not so different from what I was hearing on the buses- like maybe an earlier version- tripping through the Ethiopian outback from Addis to Bahir Dar or Gonder- the Selam bus, that is (don’t even think about the others, at least not from the Mercato at 5am). The music is hard to describe and inquiries about it are usually handled best by responses like, “Here, you take a listen.” It’s something like jazz, with healthy doses of psychedelia, Rai, and Afro-beat… fun-kee, all wrapped up in one big plate of injera bread. Now try to imagine an unplugged acoustic version of that same music, and you’ll have to listen to Addis Acoustic Project’s Tewesta “Remembrance”, out next week on the World Village label.

Now Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world whose culture is truly autochthonous. Despite the waves of peoples who have passed through or stayed on since the origin of homo sapiens sapiens, that which is Ethiopian was pretty much created right there, and direct foreign influences are few. That doesn’t make description any easier of course. It’s African, but not THAT African. It’s Semitic, but not THAT Semitic. It’s Christian, but not THAT Christian. Truth be told, Ethiopia is no one distinct thing, but an amalgamation, a collection, all gathered up within borders… more or less. The separate countries of Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan all share certain characteristics with their neighbors across the border, just to complicate matters, it seems sometimes. Amharic is the ‘working language’ of Ethiopia, but spoken as first language by little more than half of it, and Arabic would be more useful in much of it.

All of this concoction is reflected in the cacophony of the music, loosely held together by a common thread of musical history and culture and a desire for sonic nourishment. ‘Selam Yihoun Lehoulachin’ is the album's opening song and something of a sleeper, combining clarinet and mandolin with various forms of percussion to create a hypnotic trancelike lullabye. ‘Ambassel’ kicks up the tempo a notch with drums and accordion, pretty much setting the standard for what’s to come sonically. ‘Almaz YeHarrarwa’ gives the lead over to clarinet, alternating musical dialog with mandolin and percussion. ‘Ante Timeta Ene’ betrays an Italian influence, and you might be forgiven for thinking you were on a gondola in Venice if you happened to snooze.

It’s time to wake up with ‘Fikir Ayarejim’ (Love is Eternal) one of the album’s best songs and once a popular hit in its own right. ‘Etitu Beredegn’ ups the ante nicely, adding a dramatic touch to what was previously a certain sonic symmetry. Now you might imagine you’re in the middle of some whodunit, film noir, where everyone thinks the other has something to hide, each as he’s hiding something himself. ‘Anchim Ende Lela’ slows things down a bit again, getting into long low clarinettic grooves interwoven with percussion and mandolin that suggests nothing so much as old movies and old times. ‘Mashena’ continues in a similar vein, albeit more on the side of mandolins and choruses calling-and-responding across the field, across the aisle, across the centuries. This is nothing so much as visual music, music to free your imagination.

Once the tone and tenor is established, there are no great surprises from song to song. The great surprise is the album itself. Where did such a unique form of music derive from? Maybe if you explained the concept of jazz to a group of Ethiopian musicians and asked them to play what they imagine that to be, then this is what you’d get. I don’t know. I like it the same way that I like jazz, just let it play and imagine visual scenarios to accompany. There are no hooks or hangers, and few vocals even. Still it has a compelling quality tht makes me want to listen to it again. Of course, I’m attaching scenes from Ethiopia to it while I listen, so maybe that’s cheating. So go eat some wots with injera, then come back and put this on. If you liked Ethiopiques, then chances are you’ll like this, too. If you didn’t like Ethiopiques, then you should still try this, especially if you like jazz… and not so much funk. If you’ve never tried either, then start right here, tenderfoot, times a-wasting. Savor the flavor. That’s Addis Acoustic Project’s Tewesta - “Remembrance” out Aug. 9 on World Village. Check it out.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


What Ali Farka Toure’ accomplished with his Talking Timbuktu album with Ry Cooder, has been consolidated and spread like wildfire through the otherwise harsh reality that is the African country of Mali.  The fact that it is really two countries- one Saharan and Semitic, one sub-Saharan and negroid- is the creative conjunction where sparks fly and old battles die, IF (i.e. big if), you can hold it all together.  Bottom line, Mali has some of the best music in the world, bar none.  In fact, on a per capita basis, given its population of less than fifteen million, it’s arguably THE best music in the world.  Too bad it’s so hard to travel there independently, and so expensive once you get there, no small irony in a country with per capita income of less than $700 per year.  You could easily spend that on a hotel for a week.

So, have fun if you can find those legendary dimly-lit (lighted?) clubs where people with surnames like Toure’, Diabete’, and Keita show up to play.  There’s more than a few of those names, and they may not all be related- not closely anyway- though they probably all know each other, by this time at least.  Don’t be shocked when you see street signs with those same names, IF you see any street signs at all.  There isn’t much there btw.  If you want to go to that night club, you’ll probably need a guide.  Bring lots of cash.  There aren’t a lot of ATM’s.  You’ve been warned.

It’s probably easier to just buy the CD’s, since Mali is now firmly on the world music market, one of the five pillars in fact.  Within the country itself you’ve got maybe four or five distinct genres again.  Though I haven’t seen any scholarly studies on it (that’s what I’m here for, right?), it seems as though there are genres of traditional/classical/'griot'- e.g. Diabate’, Sahel folk- e.g. Ali Farka Toure’, Tuareg folk rock- e.g. Tinariwen, urban folk blues- e.g. Ali Farka’s son Vieux, and… I’m still thinking, so give me a minute, please…

Meanwhile check out two of the newest releases from a couple of Traore’s (not to be confused with Toure’), Lobi and Boubacar, not related, so far as I know, but… it’s a small country.  Lobi Traore’ may have died prematurely last year year at the age of forty-nine, but his music will live on in this group of live recordings from those same dingy night clubs that you’re wandering around the streets of Bamako looking for.  If the album starts off a bit slowly but distinctly with the folksy percussive ‘Makono’ and ‘Banan Ni’, by the time we get to songs four and five ‘Jama’ and ‘Mali Ba’ Lobi and band are kicking ass.  ‘Bi Donga Fa Ko’ shows some surprising pop hooks and may indeed be the best song on the album, despite its seventh place in the batting order.  The album is called ‘Bwati Kono’.  Check it out.

Boubacar Traore’ is something else altogether.  Firmly within the ‘Sahel Folk’ genre, this is the only person in the Mali music scene that is perhaps even as important as Ali Farka Toure’, and in fact even pre-dates him.  If Ali Farka’s music was the revelation, then this is the confirmation.  If there was any further proof needed of the close relation between US blues and Mali folk music, then look no further.  Regardless of the details in a history largely unwritten, it’s obvious that these two genres have a common source.  One branch got shipped off to Clarkdale, MS, up in Coahoma County, while the rest stayed behind in the savannahs and woodlands of Africa, eking out a living there.  Only now are they being reunited, through music.

Traore’s newest album ‘Mali Denhou’ is a wonder.  If ‘M'Badehou’ and ‘Dundobesse M'Bedouniato’ are pleasant-enough ballads to lead off with, the latter featuring a nice acoustic-guitar lead solo, ‘Mondeou’ turns up the tempo significantly, and by this time you may have a hard time sitting still.  I should probably mention the killer harmonica work by French harpster Vincent Bucher, who literally kills on this album, in effect making it a cross-cultural collaboration, some of the best blues harp I’ve ever heard, in fact, albeit of the acoustic sort.

Title song ‘Mali Denhou’ starts off with some really nice atmospheric percussion before settling into a solid blues groove, and then ‘Minuit’ takes a French-style ballad and turns it into a talking blues.  ‘Farafina Lolo Lora’ and ‘Djougouya Niagnini’ slow things down a bit, but ‘N'Dianamogo’ puts a pulse back into the beat and ‘Mali Tchebaou’ is an especially nice closer.  All in all this ranks up there with the best of Ali Farka and highly recommended.  I don’t know if he’s touring the US or Canada this summer, but I’ll be looking.

Ah, summer, it’s that time again, festival season, time to listen to music outdoors, where God intended.  Here in LA, best bets for that are the two Levitt Pavilions in MacArthur Park and Pasadena and Grand Performances downtown, featuring such acts as Sambada, Bombino, Seun Kuti, Khaira Arby and Rupa and the April Fishes.  Further afield, the Canadian Folk Festivals deserve special mention, in places like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and even Dawson City, featuring some of the best world music around, amongst other compatible genres.  If the gods are willing, I myself will be in Calgary, which is featuring too many great acts to mention.  C U there.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Until recently if you were to Google the word ‘jihad’, guess which region of the world you’d be referred to, Palestine maybe, or Iraq? Think again. Actually you’d find out much about the history of West Africa, including Mali, no, ESPECIALLY Mali, in the 1800’s. Timbuktu was a major center of Islamic learning at one point, and still is somewhat even to this day, in fact. This is the path that Islam took across the desert generally, first stop Timbuktu, established on the edge of the Saharan desert and the grassy Sahel. From there it’s but a short hop to the forests and the coast. These incursions gradually changed the nature of the native-grown empires, such as the Songhai. One of the most famous incursions was a Morocco-Spanish one in 1590 that forever changed the history of the region. Their soldiers got left behind.

Ali Farka Toure’ was descended from this small increasingly-mixed group called ‘Arma’, thus making any conclusions about his music comprising the ‘DNA of blues’ largely meaningless, circles interlocking and turning back on themselves to infinity. If Ali Farka Toure’s music indeed is the origin of blues, then it itself may ultimately derive from Spanish and Arab traditions up north. It doesn’t matter, of course. His music was legendary because it was good, and comprised something of a transition style between the raw jangly Tuareg style farther north (only recently come to full fruition) and the more polished Afro-pop styles of the West African coastal regions. For lack of a better term, it can probably be best described as ‘Sahel folk,’ acoustic guitar-based folk-blues ballads lamenting the joys and pains of life and love on the vast African Savannah, albeit in languages most of us don’t understand. And if you were to guess what the music of a son of Ali Farka Toure’ might be like, ‘The Secret’ by Vieux Farka Toure’ might come pretty close, the same folk blues, but with a harder edge and a bit more urgency to it. Ali considered himself first and foremost a farmer, after all.

‘Sokosondou’ gets things off to a rockin’ start, displaying Vieux’s signature guitar style, something like dad Ali’s gone electric, something of a running style that seems to have no beginning nor end, a largely unpunctuated style, a snapshot of Vieux’s oeuvre in process. ‘Aigna’, featuring Derek Trucks on slide guitar, ups the ante a notch, slow with slide wailing, vocals a repetitive chant that gives Derek lots of room to shine. ‘All the Same’, featuring Dave Matthews on vocals gives some insight into Vieux’s lyrical preferences, like ‘when you look at them are they all the same? Smiles and promises… cry real tears till you believe… they don’t want you, want what you got… look at me because I believed, turned my back felt the knife sink deep,’ etc. etc. Betrayal seems to be a big theme. This song also lets Vieux pick some blues licks, too, on his own, shades of Derek. ‘Ali’ sounds a lot like dad, not unsurprisingly, but Vieux’s own take, the slow rhythmic chanting over thumping percussion. ‘Watch Out’ features Eric Krasno, the album’s producer, on guitar and Ivan Neville on organ= funk, rockin’ and bopping. There’s even some genuine guitar interplay, not easy, since Vieux’s style is so singular. I’m not sure if Eric could have done this on day one… nice.

‘Wonda Guay’ is a mid-tempo folksy number, familiar Vieux turf, but title song ‘The Secret’ featuring dad Ali Farka Toure on one of his final efforts, is an especially nice instrumental number that lilts along effortlessly gliding between acoustic and electric guitars, dad and son. From that point on, Dad is gone, and Vieux asserts himself. ‘Borei’ rocks, and Vieux wails, guitar and vocals, too. ‘Sankare Diadje’, with its sing-song lyrics, is a change-up. ‘Gido’, featuring the venerable John Scofield, may have been an experiment, but becomes one the of the album’s best songs, killer guitar and minor keys, brooding and mysterious. Vieux should explore this Middle East feel further. He IS Muslim after all. ‘Amana Quai’ is Ali-esque to start, then shifts the tempo up, chanting and wailing, guitar crying. ‘Touri’ is slow and anthemic, like the final good-bye, a last look back to Dad, church organ playing the closing hymn. All in all, it’s a good album. About the worst you could say is that he doesn’t mix it up enough, too predictable. But wait a minute…

Then there’s the live show, specifically the live show a few nights ago in the Silverlake district off LA. Forget the slow folk ballads. This is kick-ass power-trio blues. I’ve seen Vieux twice before, but I’ve never seen this. This is what a post–psychedelic Hendrix might have sounded like, back to blues, thick and heavy, laying down grooves in sonic washes. Drummer Tim Keiper is a revelation, too. He gets to cut up on stage like he can’t on disc, showing his own style of talking drum kit. The ultimate Vieux Farka Toure’ album just might be a live one. Till then ‘The Secret’ will do nicely. Check it out. Better still, if you can catch these guys on the road this summer, do that, too. Don’t forget to dance.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

‘Hammock House- Africa Caribe’ by Fania All-Stars, remixed by Joe Clausell

The term ‘Afro-Cuban’ was always something of a misnomer, and ‘Afro-Caribe’ is no different, applying logic to some past event that was probably anything but, what I call ‘back-filling’ logic. Need to fill a hole? I can get you a special price on some day-old logic. Seriously, though, I don’t think anybody sat around thinking and philosophizing and finally deciding ‘let’s mix some African and some Spanish or ‘Latin’ music together and see what we can come up with. No, like most all forms of evolution-whether biological or cultural- the thing was born and the whys and wherefores came later, even from the best little Darwinist laissez faire evolutionists. Probably the best that could be said is that a genre of music distinctly Cuban arose and its most distinctive propagators were of African descent. From there the name game goes downhill- ‘Puerto Rican music’, ‘chachacha’ and, God forbid, ‘Salsa’, a term as ambiguous as ‘zydeco’ (from les haricots- beans). Give me some dirty rice and I’ll have a meal.

The fact that this killer ‘Afro’ music originates in the Caribbean country with possibly the least percentage of African blood- Cuba- is something to discuss over drinks. In fact the Caribbean countries with purest African blood seem to prefer reggae… or gospel. Go figure. Sometimes a culture survives best where it is most threatened. Enter Fania Records and its house band Fania All-Stars at about the time of ‘salsa’s greatest popularity, the late 60’s and early 70’s. Consisting chiefly of Celia Cruz, Ray Baretto, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, and others, Fania quickly set the standard for ‘salsa’, doing a great service by exposing non-Latin peoples to the ‘real thing’, as opposed to the pop stylings of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. The movement arguably peaked with Ruben Blades, and from there entered a period of long decline until 2005, at which point the assets were sold. Ironically that sale was the beginning of its comeback, as the archives have been opened for review, reassessment and marketing to an entirely new audience.

Hammock House ‘Africa Caribeproduced and mixed by the legendary Joaquin “Joe” Claussell is the latest- and maybe best- attempt to revisit the Fania catalog. Clausell is not only of Puerto Rican heritage, but also one hotsh*t New York City DJ/producer, and what he’s done is admirable, arguably remarkable. In one fell swoop he’s almost single-handedly stripped the heavily ornamented ‘Salsa’ sound and returned it to its African roots. The African roots, of course, are percussion, something almost unknown in European ballad traditions until the cultures themselves were mixed. The more recent European orchestral tradition was heavily evident in Cuban mambo, until salsa trimmed it back and slimmed it down. Joe Clausell takes it a step further, until it actually begins to sound African again.

‘African Fantasy’ by Lou Perez opens the album and sets the tone, strong on flute and percussion, probably the world’s two oldest instruments (fife & drum, anyone?). Add to that a singular piano style and you’ve got something that can hold its own with the best of jazz, Latin or otherwise. ‘Undeniable Love’ by Jai Veda is a revelation to me, by an artist heretofore unknown to me. If that’s one of the goals of this remix, then they may be on to something. The voice is sweet and the guitar is transcendant. Who dat? ‘Mambo Mongo’ by the legenhdary Mongo Santamaria stays fairly faithful to the original, with a brassy jazzy mambo sound, while ‘Chango’ by Celia Cruz is positively astounding, a direct sonic connection to the recent ‘Afro-Colombian’ efforts of Toto la Momposina. Now I think we’re getting somewhere. This is the real thing, still jazzy enough for urban tastes, but the African dirt and pulse never hidden too far below.

‘Lucum’ by Eddie Palmieri has it all, except lead vocals- brass, killer keyboards, and guitar. Something only lightly acknowledged in the salsa literature, and forbidden in realated Afro-Beat forays, it’s no accident that ‘salsa’ arose largely AFTER the advent of Santana and his guitar. ‘Exodus’, by Ray Baretto, is a delightful interlude, at once a somnolent soliloquy and a rousing African wake-up call. It’s based on the theme to the 1960 movie, and much better without the Pat Boone lyrics (‘this land is mine’) IMHO. There’s more. And hopefully there will be MUCH more… in the future. This is what re-mixing is all about. Heretofore something of a skeptic, especially when big city club DJ’s are ripping off starving third-world musicians- without compensation- for the amusement of the rich and famous, I find projects like this to be a revelation, the stuff of archeologists and reconstructionists, putting a fresh spit-shine on musty archival material. That’s Hammock House ‘Africa Caribe’, remixed by Joaquin ‘Joe’ Clausell. Check it out. There’s really nothing quite like it.

Friday, April 08, 2011


New Year in Thailand is something of a joke, i.e. ‘which one’? Never one to sit out a party, Thailand celebrates them all, the international farang (western) one on Jan. 1, the Chinese lunar-calendar moveable feast in February, and an ancient one, Khmer-derived I think, in November (which many people don’t seem to even know about). But the main one, hands down, occurs on April 13-15 (it seems like forever up north), and is better known amongst foreigners as the Water Festival. Wear protection. Buddhist-oriented and tied to the Indian astrological calendar, ‘Thai’ New Year thus spreads across borders and into neighboring country’s ‘Tai’ and other communities, including Laos, where it’s known as ‘Lao New Year’ and Kampuchea, where it is known as ‘Khmer New Year’ (but NOT ‘the water festival’, since they already have another). Well, as fate would have it, it even spreads across the ocean to Hollywood Blvd., between Western and Normandie. We can do without the water over here, thank you, but otherwise it’s much the same- time to reunite with family and renew your vows with the holy men from the local temple, ask them to bless your existence and consecrate your life. The fact that it is days earlier than the ‘real’ one back home doesn’t seem to bother anyone, since the meaning’s the same. This IS America, after all… and this is my LA.

I think I met Apichatpong Weerasetthakul at the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival back in Dec. 1999. I’m not sure because we were never really introduced and the meeting wasn’t all that memorable, not because he wasn’t the hottest thing in foreign indie films at the time- which he WASN’T- but because the guy is so quiet and low-key. In fact, when I first became aware of Apichatpong’s work in 1994 with the release of Sut Pralat (which does NOT translate to ‘Tropical Malady’ btw) and read that he was one of the honchos of BEFF, I assumed he was the gregarious and outspoken character that I remembered most distinctly, until I googled his picture a couple weeks ago and had a little aha moment, i.e. aha! That’s the other guy! If I remember correctly, Apichatpong was maybe more interested in me, in fact, than I in him, simply because I was the only- ONLY- farang (westerner) who showed up at the temple of experimental film every day, living and breathing it, just like religion. He seemed quite taken by that fact. I’d like to think that I shot up a little flag that influenced his career right then and there, that instead of busting his hump to make lame-ass ghost films that might appeal to a few million Thais, he could make some really good artsy ghost films that might appeal to a few million farangs- like me- around the world. If you were an artist, which would YOU rather do, make good films or bad ones?

With all due respect to J. Hoberman and his characterization of Apichatpong as “the acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naïve, avant-pop, magic neorealism” (whew!), I’d like to propose maybe a minor correction or two. Apichatpong IS an artist, a consummate one, but he’s NOT naïve, not at all, and he’s definitely not faux. He’s Thai. Though he was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago - and so knows exactly what is good art and what is not- he is still quintessentially Thai. He is quintessentially Thai in the same way that Fellini is quintessentially Italian or Eastwood is quintessentially American (and yes, Clint Eastwood is a great director, one of America’s greatest). He defines the nationality by his characters, and in turn defines his characters by their nationality. He could even be seen as the anti-Fellini or the anti-Clint, where, instead of all these people with all these dreams doing this or that with Clint, or all hell breaking loose- picturesquely- with Federico, almost nothing happens overtly in Apichatpong’s films, at least not in any particular direction, yet at the same time one is swept up into it, subtly engrossed by it, and ultimately liberated by it.

This is the dark side, and that’s not bad. The dark side is beautiful, alluring, irrational, and superstitious- especially superstitious- but not bad. On the dark side everything is the opposite of the ‘real’ world. Our Christian democratic proactive cost-effective positive-thinking fashion-forward work-ethic equation (cause 1+ cause 2= effect) falls flat on its face in this dimension, not for any special reason, but for the absolute lack of it. That’s the equation, get it? Hang that ‘=’ anywhere you like and it’s all the same, i.e. sh*ts happen. Whether this is due to the ultimate passivity of Buddhism or not is not important. In this dimension the fact that anybody accomplishes anything, is not only NOT a miracle, it’s a lie. Things are accomplished, present passive reflective, but the who what why are frequently murky. Save those w’s for your URL. The only truth is in your belief, not the chronology of occurrences. And it ain’t faux. It’s real.

When two hundred aerobicists dance to pop music in the park in Syndromes and a Century (or whatever they called it), that is not magico-realistic staging, that’s Thailand. When a dozen different characters say the same thing over and over and over, that’s not existential reiteration. That’s Thailand… and the list goes on. But it doesn’t matter if no one really understands Apichatpong, as long as they accept his reality as accurate… and beautiful, within its own terms. For within it all is vindicated- Thailand, Buddhism, Asia, the power of the empty hand, me- for having spent ten years of my life there, never sure of who I was fooling- and ultimately, all of us, living our pathetic little lives in what should be a state of at least heightened expectation, if not exalted bliss. I only regret that I missed my chance to suck up to Apichatpong when I had it… but that’s not the Buddhist way… or is it? He obviously didn’t need the encouragement, but I did.

Apichatpong’s new movie is called ‘Uncle Boonmee Remembers His Past Lives’. It won Palm d’Or at Cannes last year. No, I haven’t seen it yet, since I refuse to spend half the day going to Santa Monica and back. I’m too busy trying to finish the final draft to Pancho and Lefty. I’ll wait for Netflix to send it to me. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, though. Who knows? Something good might happen. That IS the essence of Buddhism, after all, at least Thai-style. Do good things and good things will happen to you, sooner or later, somehow some way, hopefully in this lifetime, pure if not simple. Save your money on the summer retreat. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the critics ‘get’ Apichatpong or not… as long as they give him the thumb up. Thailand has found its Jarmusch, if not its Del Toro. Let’s call it ‘imagino-realism’. That sounds more realistic.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Native American Music Lives!!! (North of the 49th parallel, too)…

When you think of Native American music, you probably think of it most often as a genre, typically exemplified by the prominent roles of flute and drum, lilting windswept melodies over pulsing drum beats, words frequently limited to chanting and vocal percussion, a sound that has not only earned it a niche in New Age music circles, but spawned a host of imitators, also. South American folkloric groups long accustomed to playing similar instruments have even taken to copying their North American cousins outright in major European capitals, wearing buckskin and Lakota war bonnets while invoking the Mohicans and others by name in their effort to sell albums while busking. Hey, work’s work, I guess. Just don’t let Russell Means catch you.

But Native American music is more than a genre of course. Native American music is music made by Native Americans. In Arizona alone that can run the gamut from the classic flute style of Carlos Nakai to the politico-punk of Blackfire and a plethora of styles in between. I’m still not sure what genre Keith Secola and his Wild Band of Indians fit into. And that doesn’t even count such icons of pop/rock as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson and Daniel Lanois, all from Canada.

Yes, Canada’s got a whole lotta’ music, too, not the least of which are such stars as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, so embedded are they into the American music scene that that fact is often forgotten. And yes, they have Native Americans, in a proportion at least several times greater than that of the US (and that doesn’t include Inuits). And yes, they have their own version of the Grammy Awards, called the Juno Awards, held usually in March or April of every year since 1970. They even have a category for ‘Aboriginal Recording of the Year’, an honor accorded no other minority in Canada (except Francophones), not bad for an ethnicity that didn’t even get the right to vote until 1960.

This year they’ve done even better. This year there will be an exclusively First Nations showcase. Since the Juno Awards are an all-week affair, it can become more of a SXSW-style event (not to be confused with the NXNE in June), complete with showcases. The Native American showcase is sponsored by Manitoba Music and will feature five of Canada’s most up-and-coming native artists. Christa Couture is perhaps the most ‘Canadian-sounding’ of the lot- despite her Arapaho father- pure modern acoustic folk, slick and sweet, self-conscious and world-wise, complete with piano and strings. “All the while she was starting and stopping, box-car hopping, to no avail,” she sings on ‘Sad Story Over’, whether autobiographical or not, I couldn’t say. Leela Gilday works in the same folk genre, even though she comes from the far north in Yellowknife NWT, a Dene cousin of our own Southwest US Navajos (Dene:Dine, get it?). Her style is more world-weary then world-wise, though, as in the song ‘End of the Day’- “She gets up from the table, the coffee’s growing old, she thinks of how the years go by, it seems she’s growing old.” Canada has got some of the best folk music in the world, and if they’re reluctant to give that up, then I see no reason to. Their First Nations fit right in.

Canada is not known for its urban music; I wonder why? Maybe they’re just too happy and healthy up in the north country to get bogged down in the anger and hatred that defines much of urban music… and much of America. Maybe that’s what national health care will do for you. If that makes Canada old-fashioned, then so be it. There is some, though, funk and electronica, too, so Natives will have their own versions, and Cris Derksen is a good example of that. A half-Cree classically trained cellist, she gets down down and funky with some hard-edged electronica on ‘What Did You Do, Boy?’ Digging Roots is a bluesy group headed by the collaborative duo of ShoShona Kish and Raven Kanatakta, killer voice meets killer guitar chops sharing a bouquet of flowery lyrics to create a sound that reminds variously of Joplin or Stevie Ray, even got some native rap, too. Coming from Ojibway roots and composition styles, it sounded good enough to win them the Juno award for Aboriginal Album of the year last year for their collection entitled ‘We Are’. Listen with a friend.

But my personal favorite of the five groups showcased is a group called ‘Eagle & Hawk’. Likewise of Ojibway roots and Winnipeg-based, these guys maintain a healthy schizophrenia consisting of gold ol’ R&R and what I could only describe as maybe… Indian rock? This can run the gamut from the chants, strings, and ambient sounds of the ethereal ‘Water Sounds’ to the border-town honky-tonkin’ ‘Wild West Show’. Their self-reflection and mock-deprecation can even be so incisive as to be anthemic, as in “I See Red’- “I’m not embarrassed when I look into the mirror; is it fear and anxiety or just the cost of sobriety?” This is good stuff.

I haven’t been to the Juno Awards before, but I know Canada has THE best folk music festivals in the world out West, and some of the best pow-wows, too, I hear. And if there’s less urban and electronic music than down south here, that’s easily compensated with good solid songsmanship. Check ‘em out if you get the chance.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

‘CRUSH’ by TELEPATH (MICHAEL CHRISTIE)- Producer as Auteur... and Star?

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the nuclear musical group is quickly going the way of the nuclear family- whoever shows up for Sunday dinner is fine… let’s eat! If that offends those for whom a cigarette in the final fret inserted- incensed and wafting- is the de rigeur pose for rocanrolero true believers, then so be it. Some people will never embrace change, no matter what the form… and that’s fine, too. No change is better than mindless change. I hear they still have Grateful Dead nights at one of my old watering holes, though I had never wished it so, past perfect subjunctive. Most of these manifestations and methods of delivery- all for the sake of entertainment- are cyclical, constantly changing and returning. If you miss a certain type of music enough, just make a wish and bide your time- it’ll be back.

It’s always been this way to some extent. The 50’s garage bands were a response to Crosby/Sinatra slick orchestra pop, and early 60’s teen-idol Tin Pan Alley songs were a slick-rock response to that, in some sort of pop-music dialectic that plays out like an apocalyptic struggle between the kids and the companies to see who will win control of the local armory. Did Bobby Rydell have a band? Fabian? Bobby Vee? Who knows, or even cares? With the possible exceptions of Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, and the Four Seasons, not even the singing ‘star’ was important in the early 60’s, mere plug-in pin-ups to music formulated and manufactured to its lowest-common-denominator specs, sales measured by the lusty look in a teenybopper’s eyes. Then came the Beatles and Bob, of course, and all Hell broke loose for a decade or so, record companies crisscrossing the map trying to keep up with the Next Big Thing. They regained control eventually, though, so had to be taught another lesson in the late 70’s, just like the one they’re being taught right now.

The problem with electronic music IMHO has always been its self-conscious obsession with its own bells and whistles. Like a 60’s cinematographer playing with the zoom lens, there have always just been too many electronic arpeggios to suit my taste, mindless doodling, too mechanical and cold, not enough heart and soul. Things got much more interesting when electronic musicians and producers started working with ‘world’ musicians, of course, taking some of those hard-to-market abstract qualities and re-combining them with more modern and more Western ones for mutual benefit, both acoustical and financial. I’m not sure I could listen to straight Tuvan throat-singing now that they’ve been re-imagined (in my mind at least) as themes to imaginary Chinese westerns, thanks to Huun Huur-tu and Carmen Rizzo (and you can keep your “In-a-gadda-da-vida” and other Tuvan curiosities).

Still the one thing conspicuously lacking in most electronic music is the simple human voice, in all its beauty and all its language(s). This is where Telepath (Michael Christie) makes a real and genuine contribution to the genre on his new album ‘Crush’. With the addition of that one simple element you can go anywhere… though it hardly has to be limited to one, and certainly doesn’t have to be simplistic. After a jazzy brassy ‘Intro’ with much instrumental fussing and percussing, the album follows with ‘Justify’ (featuring Elliot Martin and Monsoon), a song with a post-modern reggae feel and strong influences from afrobeat and hiphop. From there we go into ‘In This Time’ (featuring Becky Ribeiro), classic jazz/pop with strong female vocals. It also features sitar and tabla percussion, setting us up for the batting order’s sweet spot, ‘Dust’, Crush’, and ‘Rohi’, featuring Pervez Khan, Stephanie Morgan, and Sarabjit Kaur Babbu, respectively, sub-continental-style electronic pop with influences that range from Mumbai to the Punjab, devotional qawwalis to Bollywood follies.

‘Mama’ and ‘The Ancient Ones’ (both featuring Kevin Meyame) have a Brazilly kind of Afrobeat feel, featuring Afropop guitar and Youssou-like vocals. ‘Down the Block’ has strong percussion and surf-rock guitar. There is a little bit of electronic doodling on ‘Critical Mass’ and ‘Connection X’- for those who like that- but it’s not overdone. ‘Carry the One’ and ‘Mirrors’ (which closes the album) both feature Maitrayee Patel and her non-verbal voice as instrument, bringing the experiment full circle- adding voice to contribute concrete human qualities to an essentially abstract genre, and then using that same voice to return to the ethereal qualities from which electronic music comes. Only a handful of musical stars have ever been non-vocalists, and they have all been crack instrumentalists, mostly in the jazz field. Modern producers and DJ’s are turning such simplistic notions on their pointy little heads, and improving our listening experiences in the process. Even more experimental here is the essential modus operandi- the majority of the vocals on this album were e-mailed in. Did somebody say something about re-defining something? If that sounds like too-easy jury-rigging, then I’d vote… not guilty. But don’t take my word for it, you be the judge. It’s called ‘Crush,’ by Telepath. Check it out. (I still prefer four woolly dudes and optional chick singer live, though. I guess I’m old-fashioned).

Sunday, January 02, 2011

‘HANDMADE’ by Hindi Zahra- Expect the Unexpected

Were you expecting Chipmunk-like vocals from some Hindi-language Bollywood-based diva, maybe? Or perhaps you were thinking of tablas and sitar serving in devotion to a few hundred gods? Guess again. Hindi Zahra is Moroccan with Berber roots, French branches, and… English flowers. The name of her first album is ‘Handmade. Now I don’t usually like non-native English singer-songwriters, not so much for the accented singing itself, but for the typically lame compositions from such ‘cross-over’ artists, the subtle nuances of language usually lost in translation. But you’ll have to admit that the quality is getting better, proving not only that the music typically predominates over the lyrics, but that foreigners are increasingly mastering our medium. For a Moroccan Berber- or a Belgian or a Chinese Malaysian or almost any African, for that matter- you’re growing up with three languages already… so what’s a fourth?

The lyrics may be English, but the musical style is unmistakeably French, old school. We’re not talking Manu Chao here; we’re talking Django. And though she counts jazz as her main influence- the album is being released on Blue Note after all (visualize hand swishing a lapel)- be careful: we’re talking Billie Holiday, not Cassandra Wilson. The first song- ‘Beautiful Tango’- a surprise hit in France, illustrates this old-timey quality best, down to the earthy vocals, slow and moody- “beautiful stranger, take me by the hand… sweet music, sweet sweet music”. You can cut the smoky air with a knife.

The next two songs, ‘Oursoul’ and ‘Fascination’, continue in the same vein- yes, THAT vein- doing what Hindi does best (and what the French audience apparently wants), getting sweet and lowdown, albeit in the Berber language on ‘Oursoul’. With ‘Set Me Free’ she explores some new ground, more of a Spanish-Gypsy feel, with percussion and clapping and guitar, with increasingly bluesy vocals- “I know you’ll never be the man I used to know… please set me free, look what you do to me.” ‘Kiss & Thrills’ continues the lament with “in your heart, in the dark…who’s gonna’ love you like I do?” ‘At The Same Time’ tells us why. She’s a hopeless romantic- “I should die in your arms right now, and give it all to you… love is so beautiful and cruel at the same time.” Sooo French. At least that gives it a break from the standard verse- verse- chorus- verse format.

The album’s third third gets more experimental musically… to good effect, in my opinion. ‘Stand Up’ is faster, more lively, and even adds banjo; now that’s very old-school jazz! Ditto the lyrics- “stand up on your two feet baby… you want me to be your mother, but you know I’m too young, and you want me to be your sister, but you know I’m too old”. Then she shows us a side as yet hidden with ‘Don’t Forget’ (“don’t forget about me when you say good-bye”) and the album closer ‘Old Friends’, slower but not moody, instead trippy and dreamy, a side I like a lot- “Old friends and young ones, all the angels and preachers became one… for this heaven we live, reality may come in”…

The one thing this album does NOT include are any Arab standards, or hardly even any influence, surprising given Hindi’s Moroccan origins. The influences are jazz, gypsy music, and French chansons, in no certain order. Given the romantic sensual nature of much of it, it might even be considered a rebellious album, almost anti-Islamic, harking back to an era when Islam was not concerned with fundamentalism. Expect a call from the Brotherhood any day. In fact the album reminds me of no one so much as K. D. Lang, pure torch and twang, and… constant craving. But I won’t go there. YOU go there… and check it out (a brief word about the title: it’s accurate, complete with that ‘lived-in’ feel, family production values), 'Handmade’ by Hindi Zahra.

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