It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. We make love to our iPhones and our egos, while begrudging food for the poor and health care for the indigent. I don’t know whether to disclose or disguise my disgust and disdain for the America of 2012: an America whose obstructionist Congress of hicks and rednecks, flat-earthers and holy-rollers, have wasted two years of our lives treating our kindest and wisest President worse than the shoeshine boy that they obviously wish he were; an America so engorged on violence and inured to it that the cause isn’t even discussed anymore, merely whether we prefer homicide or suicide; an America so dumbed down that it prefers its arts and entertainment in the form of reality TV, and its presidential elections, too. No, I can’t decide whether to disclose or disguise my disgust and disdain. Both paths have their perils. If I disclose my disgust, then I’m unpatriotic. If I disguise it, then I’m dishonest. So I look for others to do it for me.
Monday, October 08, 2012
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
I’ve often speculated that our golden age—like many others before it—must sooner or later be followed by a corresponding dark age of confusion and ignorance in some Hegelian meta-dialectic of history that must trump the comparatively logical meanderings of evolution, both biological and cultural. We’ll have to start all over—won’t we?—the only question being the starting point. Our current cultural trajectory—gas-guzzling and mass-consuming and baby-producing—is simply not sustainable. Everybody knows it—witness the many end-of-days movie themes—yet no one is doing anything about it. There are no futuristic movies of healthy functioning societies. No, they’re all dysfunctional… unless they’re on a spaceship. The glory that was Peoria (my metaphor for high-tech civilization superimposed upon not-so-high-tech societies) may all crash down precipitously, unless some governments and societies can figure out a way to make the changes incremental and less drastic. The guy with the sign reading, “The end is near,” just may be right. Global climate change aside, the poop just may hit the ventilator regardless of what we do.
And sure enough dialogue in the US seems to have turned nasty in the last few years, as if the election of a black President—an intelligent black President at that—were reason enough to throw all social niceties to the wind and hunker down for the impending Apocalypse, every man for himself and a woman for him, too, barefoot and pregnant and begging for forgiveness. With the possible exception of the new poverty classes, probably nothing illustrates the paradigm shifts underway within modern societies better then the rise of a certain social medium or two which has changed the way people interact, socialize, and even think. That’s medium—neither rare nor well-done. If Facebook is the paradigm and ultimate dictator of short-attention-span fashion, then Twitter, Tumblr, and another large handful of online commentaries are the ranks and hierarchies through which multitudes of blogs and lesser opinions find their way into the critical mass of consciousness.
The mainstream media even gets swept into the fray through their online offerings, and it ain’t all pretty. Read the comments below any online article, no matter how minor, and the vitriol, hatred, and stupidity are so thick as to be almost incomprehensible from any rational viewpoint. Everybody’s an expert now, and a critic, too, and full of opinions that preclude any compromise. If Internet is the new democracy, then social media are the new tyranny. Like an earlier Industrial Revolution was the death of the craftsmanship that preceded it, the new technological revolution could be the death of professional expertise, intelligent commentary, and even worse—politeness. Apparently it’s occurred to few people that ‘kissing up’ is not the only reason to be polite. Civil discourse and tolerance of opposing positions is good in itself.
Notwithstanding that “politeness” and “politics” ultimately derive from the same root word, the concept extends far beyond the sometimes life-and-death business of government into fields that are nothing but matters of opinion, such as the arts. We aren’t nasty to each other for political expediency. We’re nasty because it’s in our lower nature to be so, and that’s all anyone seems to care about anymore. Criticism—whether literary, music, film, real estate or whatever—can be tricky business. Obviously it’s opinionated, by definition, but sometimes the critic can simply be wrong or misguided. The critic should have some credentials in the field in which he’s critiquing, preferably, but that seems to be no deal-killer usually. Since reviews are usually written, he or she should also be a good writer, but… you know. In fact sometimes a critic can offer a better critique in a field in which he’s not also a creator, something about conflicts of interest, I suppose.
Anyway I think I’ve seen both sides of this (I review music; others review my writing) and have formed a few habits of conscience and convenience. For one thing: I don’t skewer people. That’s people—full of flesh and blood and intent and hard work. Hollywood poster-boys and assorted sacred cows are another matter. Still for the most part, if I don’t particularly care for something, I just leave it alone. There are plenty of other things out there to review. The requirements of a polite society to me are more important than the need to try to gain some ground by diminishing others. Somebody has to be pretty pretentious—AND over-hyped—for me to want to take out the poison pen.
Still, many critics do. And when they do, perhaps it’s only fair to hold up the mirror to their own work, not always easy since most critics are not also creators of original material. This is my feeling toward Henry Rollins right about now. Now I’ve always felt a certain amount of respect for Henry, even if I wasn’t any huge fan of his work. Fact is, I’ve heard very little of his music, simply because radio stations don’t usually play it, so there’s that. But I have read much of one of his books, simply because it was one of the few things I had to do in Pudva, Montenegro, in a stopover there some three-four years ago. I was not particularly impressed, but still not vengeful toward the man. He travels widely and espouses it wildly, so that’s good. And I’ve read his LA Weekly columns and listened to his radio shows on KCRW since becoming a reluctant Angeleno, enjoying them both, so we should be good, right?
Then he went and dissed Jack Kerouac. He shouldn’t have done that. He didn’t have to, but he did, describing his work as something like “total BS.” That’s a harsh judgment, and an insult to any of us Kerouac fans, not to mention Jack himself, may he R.I.P. He could’ve just said, “not my cuppa tea,” and left it at that. Rollins is lucky he didn’t say that about W. S. Burroughs. I’ve got a gun, and I know how to use it—just kidding. What most people never understood about Jack was that he was essentially a poet, albeit a narrative one, and at the same time the chronicler of an age. Now by all appearances, Kerouac and Rollins should be sharing the same side of the dial, whether musical or literary, so I’m not sure what the problem is, probably something similar to the same reason Mick Jagger felt inspired to diss Patti Smith, something about dissing someone whose turf you envy and couldn’t touch with a ten-foot body part.
Regardless, I’d say confidently that Jack Kerouac could write spiral bindings around Henry Rollins, most obvious when Henry seems like he actually wants to be and do Jack, much less obvious when he sticks to the journalistic music criticism and curation which he really does quite well quite frequently, albeit in his own fashion. To support this theory, I offer the following evidence, a sample of Mr. Rollins’ own writing in a recent LA Weekly column. I’m not saying it’s bad; I’ll only say, “Imagine how Jack might’ve treated the same material,” then make your own decision:
September is upon us. In its final weeks, August was staggering crookedly, profusely bleeding from the puncture wound in its side from a dagger shot by an assassin dispatched by our collective heat-fueled discontent. Every year, August lashes out in volcanic fury, rising with the din of morning traffic, its great metallic wings smashing against the ground, heating the air with ever-increasing intensity. August, the great and doomed warrior of summer, knew that the end was near. Yet so titanic is its rage, it will takes weeks for its body to cool.
Late summer is fired, blasted winds, beginnings, middles and ends -- all ending. For some it's a parting wave to youth, love, conquest and deathless time. In the face of this destruction there is revelation, epiphany, agony and exhaustion. Empty pursuits on fruitless plains in search of lightning, or perhaps even nothing.
We know it, therefore we must slay it. We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer's wreckage. We will welcome summer's ghost…
There’s more, too, if you want it. Follow the link. So you decide. Critics are people just like you and me. The only difference between a critique and a criticism is that the critique has a publisher. Ultimately, though, the consumer is judge and jury. That’s you; you vote with your pocketbook. To all critics, I only suggest: be polite and be open and most of all, be professional. Opinions and shallowness are two closely related concepts. I’ll still be a fan of Mr. Rollins btw, but only for the things he does best. Sometimes the medium is not the message; the message is. BTW, I’ve now listened to Mr. Rollins’ own story-telling on mySpace while prepping this article, and guess what? Not bad… I’ve also listened to his original head-banging stuff on spotify from way back when, and… you know. We’ve all grown up.
For my own part, this is something of a crossroads for this blog. I’ve taken a bit of a break from my music reviews, not because I feel lazy or uninspired (okay, maybe a little), but mostly because I’ve been too busy with another project, the compilation of a couple of guides to hostels, the first in a series of a half-dozen intended to cover the entire world. Still, I hope and expect to turn some attention back to this blog soon, BUT… it may not be the same as before. As a few of you may know, I have some background in film, too, more than music in fact, so long have wanted to do some film reviews, too, especially the foreign films which almost never get press in the good ol’ US, and hopefully even art films which hardly ever get press anywhere. Unfortunately film PR people don’t send me advance copies of films to review, not yet anyway… bummer. Still, in the age of Netflix, that shouldn’t be a deal-killer, should it? I mean, it’s not like I ever paid that much attention to the publicist’s rap anyway, and I’d certainly never reprint ad copy verbatim. Sooo… stay tuned.
Sunday, June 03, 2012
A couple weeks ago I was listening to KPFK and their special guest was Manuel Agujetas, the flamenco master vocalist. The occasion was his performance that night in an intimate performance to be held in the Los Feliz neighborhood of greater LA. His singing was incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever heard, so rich and powerful it’d probably take several Gypsy Kings to equal it. I even considered going to the show, but that would have required an arduous ten-minute walk from my apartment. Who’s got the time these days? They also interviewed him and Sr. Manuel had some interesting comments to make, one of which was something like—and I’m paraphrasing—“these days anybody can call anything flamenco”…and apparently get away with it. He must have been talking about a band called “Caramelo”…and others, too, of course.
Caramelo is a band from Brooklyn and they’ve got a new album out called “Ride.” If it’s a flamenco band from Brooklyn, then you might figure right away that we’re not talking about deep tradition--maybe no deeper than a few well-worn LP covers at most. But that would be wrong. These guys—and girl—have gone to the well, drunk deeply and come back with mixed drinks. Sounds good to me. The band revolves around female vocalist Sara Erde, doing bilingual bilabials on songs that range from the tango-intensive drama of “Peligrosa” to the funky who’s-yo-mama of “Brooklyn.” What about flamenco? Alfonso Cid handles those male vocal chores, mostly on “La Luna.” They never claimed to be a purist flamenco group btw, but influenced, so no false advertising here.
The opening song, “The Girl is Gone” sets the hybrid pace, with a mosque-like chant “no te vayas, nina” (“don’t leave me, girl”), though most of the song is in English: “I won't be lying for my love today, Won't be crying about the way you play, Won't be waiting in an empty bed, And I won't go crazy from the words you said. High roller the deal is done, Game over, the girl is gone.” The song features a killer lead guitar solo, too, courtesy of co-founder Jed Miley. “Como Quieres” ups the lyrical ante, an upbeat ditty featuring a tongue-twister that had me looking for a lyrics sheet (thank you): Como quieres que te quiera, Si quien quiero que me quiera, No me quiere (“How do you want me to love you, When the one I love Doesn’t love me?). By the time we get to “Brooklyn” it’s obvious that this band has got some pure pop hooks, upbeat and very danceable: “That’s the way we get to Brooklyn, that’s the way we go now,” and featuring a trumpet killer solo, pure pop for kids of all ages…and races.
“Nico” proves they can do a slow ballad, too, and take bilingualism to a high art: “Nico, I need to take you home, Que rico, the sugar in your soul, Despacito, the way you lose control, Nico, I need your love.” Rico, indeed, tasty tambien I tell you, usualmente tienen que ir a south Texas to find un restaurante Mexicana serving up scrambled tongue como estas, tacos de lengua o de pura cabeza. “Peligroso” is tango-like, gypsy—per the theme—yet light on its feet at the same time: “Why don't you stay, Here on Avenue A? Don't go back to Buenos Aires.” “La Luna” is the one genuine flamenco song, complete with weeping wailing and gnashing of teeth: “Girl, your words, Pierce my soul. Girl, your questions, Without longed for answers. Girl, that light, In the moon of your face!!) The album is “Ride” by Caramelo. It’s good. It’s out now.
But is it flamenco? Is anything flamenco? Carlos Saura’s flamenco film trilogy (not to be confused with the documentary, which I have yet to see) is a wonder, thesis>antithesis>synthesis. If the first realization about flamenco is that there are guitars as well as voices…and verses, then the second is that there’s dance, equal if not more important than the song, and the third realization is that there’s a stage surrounding it all. Saura’s trilogy is not ABOUT flamenco; it IS flamenco, in the same way that dance is. In “Amor Brujo” the unreal is posing as real and the good guy dies. In “Carmen” the real is posing as unreal, and the witchy woman dies. In “Bodas de Sangre” the unreal is unreal throughout—and recognized as such—and both guys die, and the woman wails, BUT…it’s only a stage. In all three films the actors are the same…but different, the story is the same…but different, but none of that matters. What matters is the dance, the voice, the verse, the chord, the clap…the strut…the fret. It’s all a stage. Nothing matters, but honor, and dignity, and the dance, and the music. The characters, notes, movements, and sounds are just playing roles, and hopefully well.
But not me. I’m not a musician (unless the fellatio I used to perform on the business end of a trombone in high school counts as “music”). And I’m not an actor, nor dancer, nor singer. I’m not really even a critic. Have you ever heard me say anything bad about any piece of work? I’m a writer, so I look for stories. If I can’t find one, then I’ll make one up. I’m a philosopher, so I look for meaning. If I can’t find any, then…you get the idea. I want to know what’s real, behind the matrix and the makeup. World music is full of it. I’ve pondered mightily on “Afro-Cuban music,” but that’s nothing compared to flamenco. What is “flamenco?” Everybody agrees that it’s Andalusian music, but not much more. So why is it called “Gypsy?” It has nothing to do with the people known as Roma. You’ll have to read long and hard before you’ll find the word “Moor,” much less “Arab,” far less “Muslim,” in describing flamenco. But what is Andalucia? It’s that region longest occupied by Moors, of course, over 700 years. And what are the distinguishing characteristics of traditional flamenco, and traditional Spain, in general? There’s honor, pride and dignity, male dominance… Sound familiar? Ever notice the similarity of flamenco dance to some Middle Eastern forms of dance? Ever notice the similarity of flamenco vocals to the voice coming over the closest muezzin five times a day? So why do so-called “gypsies” get credit for something that 700 years of Arab-Spanish culture most likely created? You tell me.
Monday, April 16, 2012
If fusion is the concept that informs the modern era as much or more than any other, then so it is in music, too. The more influences the better. Purity is a lonely existence. Nothing is truly novel. Hybrid vigor rules. For a non-native lover of “latino music” it’s a tough row to hoe, anyway, trying to mentally categorize the sometimes-subtle distinctions between flamenco, salsa, mambo, merengue, bachata, cumbia, and tango as musical DNA jumps from Europe (and Africa) across the Atlantic to North America with a hop skip and a detour across the Caribbean on its way to the lower haunches of South America in some rough zigzag path of evolution.
Fortunately the more obvious genres of mariachi, reggaeton, ranchera, tejano, rock en espanol, and musica andina (huayno) stand out as distinct whether due to geographic or stylistic isolation, because when you get to the more individually localized, obscure, or cross-genre smaller styles of trova, vallenato, chicha, punta, son cubano, son jarocho, son huasteco, danzon veracruzano, mambo Mexicano, boleros, trio, cha-cha-cha, cumbia sonidera and canto nuevo it all starts to get a bit confusing. Of course if you want to get technical, “the Northeastern part of Mexico is home to another popular style called Nortena, which assimilates Mexican Ranchera with Colombian cumbia and is typically played with Bavarian accordions and Bohemian polka influence. Variations of Norteña include Duranguense, Tambora, Sinaloense, corridos, and Nortec (Norteño-Techno)”—Wikipedia. Whew! Thank God for tequila! Are you ready for fusion yet?
Enter a band called LoCura from
San Francisco (I think I got the capitals
right, still easier than tUnE yArDs). Good
ol’ San Fran; God knows I love it and
miss it. A band this eclectic could only
come from San Fran, which even in the year 2012 still has more hippies, free-thinkers,
and general-purpose weirdos than Nashville has cats. At the front of this group handling lead
vocal chores is one Katalina Miletich, who was raised in Spain, albeit
of an American father (no doubt a northern Californian). The group’s other principal founder is
guitarist-bassist-and-flamenco-aficionado (try saying that three times fast)
Bob Sanders. Add in a tight cast of journeymen
tunesters, the cultural quirkiness and political in-yo-faceness of SF, and you’ve
got the potential for something pretty unique.
Now LoCura has an album coming out called “Semilla Caminante (traveling seed)” and it’s pretty darn good, I’ll have to say. If it didn’t hit me right at first, it came on strong the second time. The album starts off slowly in the fogs of mystery with “Prendela,” juggling languages like so many emotions. “Got a glimpse of you dancing, it’s got a way…to move me, to soothe me into breathing, to move me, to light me up in fire… Que uno le da fuego al otro, que uno le da fuego (let each give the other fire)…prendala (light it up). Then “Gueriller@s” (women warriors) punches up the rhythm without lightening up the mood, not too much anyway, only this time it’s political and existential, not romantic or sexual. “Y donde vengo y a donde voy (now where do I come from and where do I go?), ‘cause I’m looking to learn my roots…guerillera, mujer magica, curandera (woman warrior, magician, shamaness, etc.)…vamos ya (let’s go!),” all in lively beat with full brass accompaniment, made for dancing…and occupying San Fran’s Mission district carnival-style. This is good stuff.
“Con El Viento (With the Wind) continues in a similar vein (yes, THAT vein), calling for love, freedom, and justice, or so I imagine: “abre la puerta, abre la ventana, con el viento venimos (open the door, open the window, we come in with the wind)…somos movimiento, somos el agua y el viento (we’re motion, we’re water, we’re wind),” with one important addition. This song has some pure pop hooks. The English political back-story is nice in an explanatory way, but almost distracts from the rhythm and verbal cadence that’s already been established in Spanish. “Squatters' Song” doesn’t make that mistake. The story of squatters, “paracaidists (que) aqui cai’… a buscar un major futuro…un hogar para vivir (‘parachutists’ (who) just dropped in…looking for a better life…and a house to live in)” requires no long-winded explanation or PhD in economic theory, neither Keynes nor Mills nor Marx. It’s a sign of the times, and they capture it spot-on, without breaking stride nor style. If I can hear some Lila Downs in the previous song, then I can hear some Manu Chao in this one. Having some political smarts and some musical chops is one thing; having some pop hooks to make it go down easy is another. That’s pure gold, and these guys have got it, when they’re at their best.
There are other influences, too. If “Desde Las Entrañas” is pure flamenco, or almost anyway, then “To' Pa' Mi” has got Café Tacuba written all over it. And if “Reflections” has echoes of Violeta Parra, then “Te Sigo”is pure pop en espanol, maybe even Shakira, a reminder that these guys may still have a job even if the whole fusion thing doesn’t work out. Of course sometimes you have to break stylistic barriers before you can fuse them. LoCura may not be for purists who like their flamenco with at least eight guitarists and the sound of several dozen hands clapping. But you know what we say about those people. If they can’t take a joke, then… you know. These guys rock…and flamenco, and tango, etc., etc. That’s “Semilla Caminante” by LoCura, due to be released… tomorrow. Check it out.
Monday, March 05, 2012
If music reviewers had to be certifiably impartial judges in order to air their opinions in these not-so-hallowed nets and webs of intrigue, then I’d have to recuse myself, because I like these guys unabashedly, have for a while as a matter of fact, ever since seeing them live in LA at a free gig in McArthur Park for the homies a few years ago. First of all, you gotta respect any band that’ll go to those lengths to get in front of an audience. Secondly, it’s appropriate considering that both the band and patrons were predominantly Hispanic, even though most of the audience probably never heard of them. That’s the price you pay to be a star in Texas; you may not be a star anywhere else. After all they were Robert Rodriquez’s “own band” Chingon back in the latter days of the “mariachi trilogy” and had a major presence in the final soundtrack and even the film itself. Last time I checked their tour schedule a couple years ago, they still had a significant number of private parties to play. That’s all changing.
What these guys do with nylon strings is what I like to do with my wife when coming home after a couple months in dusty lonely godforsaken countries that I have to visit just to prove to myself that they’re really there. That’s the business of Rick and Mark del Castillo, acclaimed guitarists in the hollow body style. What they do is a bit hard to describe, maybe something like classical Spanish speed-guitar. Put the two of them together and it’s something to behold. This guitar virtuosity is slathered with the icing of Alex Ruiz’s dramatic voice and muy macho personality. They’re the cerebral European jazz musicians, solving equations with fine fret-work; he’s the bad-ass Mexican, in your face and up your spine with chilling renditions of romantic endeavor. Most of the creative interplay of the band occurs right there, with a solid bass and percussion laying down rhythm.
Their new album is called Infinitas Rapsodias and contains a mix of new songs and old standards, and even includes a DVD. For you initiates, the songs themselves hold no great surprises, mostly revisiting themes that have already been explored by Santana, Gypsy Kings, Los Lobos, or Los Lonelies. It’s the musicianship that sells it, good hearty stuff that ranges from rock en Espanol to flamenco to Latin jazz, all with those distinctive guitars and that high-drama vocal, evoking the classic themes of life and love, romance and dance, heart and soul. Still there are mysteries to be revealed internally. The album begins with “Lumbres de Babylon (‘Lights of Babylon’),” classic Del Castillo with those great guitars, dramatic and romantic, “vamos caminando por las carreteras de la Corazon…baila conmigo (‘let’s go walking along the highways of the heart…dance with me’).” “Fuego Egipico (‘Egypian Fire’)” follows up with a more pronounced Arab feel, guitars supplying the drama in a song purely instrumental.
At this point I realize something for maybe the first time. I don’t know if any Spanish-language song genre—be it flamenco, salsa, whatever—has ever paid tribute to what I consider to be its significant Arab roots. Even with flamenco, usually attributed to Spanish gitanos (gypsies), they don’t fit the description of Europe’s other groups of Romani. It does come from Andalusia, though, the Moorish stronghold in Spain. And of course, the Spanish history in the New World starts the same year that Arab history in Spain ends, so the culture was still mixed when it got exported. And it’s still there today, especially in Mexico, in the machismo, in the leather work, in the horsemanship, in the adobe, and in the music, of course. Where do you think those guitars—and horses—came from?
“Mujer Angel” is slower, with some sweet electric guitar, a pleasant break from the usual frenetic pace the boys set, still equally romantic, “Yo por ti muriera…mujer angel (‘I’d die for you…lady angel’),” likewise “Canta de Alma—mira las estrellas, mira al cielo mira la luna que es la luna de mi pasion (‘Song of the Soul—look at the stars, look at the heavens, look at the moon that’s the moon of my passion’).” “Brotherhood” is the only song in English, a duet with female vocals, and it’s a good one, “Oh there goes my brother, oh there goes my sister…whoa there is my mother…amen to the father.”
The rest of the album finds Del Castillo working largely in their comfort zone, with some pleasant change-ups in “Para mi Sobrina,” a mellow instrumental, and “Maria,” sung in Italian. “Perdoname (‘Pardon me’)” has some nice piano and violin, and some painful slow revelations and supplications: “lagrimas cayeron como cae la lluvia … perdoname suplico…no me abandones, perdoname (‘tears fall like rain…forgive me, I beg you…don’t abandon me, forgive me’).” They finish things off with a flourish in high drama, Amor Venme a Buscar, a duet with German opera diva Anna Maria Kaufmann. How’s that for a finish? No, music reviewers don’t have to be impartial and objective. Sometimes we just know what we like, too. That’s Infinitas Rapsodias by Del Castillo. Check it out. They’re on a world tour, also. That’s even better.
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
I’ve been waiting a long time for folk music to make a comeback, without really knowing exactly what that would sound like if it did indeed happen. Certainly the protest music of an earlier era would seem a bit dated by now, and I’m not sure if the “folk rock” of Eagles ever really qualified for that sentiment or not. The most direct path of evolution is probably through the singer-songwriter era of the early 70’s which somehow morphed into the “
Enter Kami Thompson, daughter of Richard and Linda, brother of Teddy, and proud owner of a new album called “Love Lies.” It rocks. And it speaks. And it cries for forgiveness. This is the first album I’ve heard in a while in which the lyrics are truly primary and essential. And the music’s good, too. After some false starts and a reluctance to join the “family business,” Kami seems to have hit her stride with this album. I’m not sure why she’s publicizing it through world music channels, but that’s an interesting approach. Maybe she doesn’t want to follow bro Teddy’s lead. But in general the album follows a solid mid-tempo folk-rock beat in which the lyrics predominate, usually love found and love lost.
Thompson establishes this pattern from the get-go with “Little Boy Blue”: “Little boy blue I miss you…singing songs in my head…thinking of you, all the time thinking of you,” thus establishing a theme she’ll return to again and again throughout the album. So it continues with “4,000 Miles:” There’s no need to say good-bye, because there’s nothing left between us…but 4000 miles.” Then comes what’s maybe the best song on the album IMHO: “Nice Cars:” “Ladies shouldn’t drive nice cars … they’re only gonna break our hearts.” I’m not sure exactly what Kami’s getting at in this song, and that’s just intriguing enough to make me want to know more … but that’s not why I like the song, not the only reason anyway. I like it because I can’t get it out of my head, the “stickiness” factor, the ability to internalize a song and make it my own. I think that’s what Kami and/or her handlers intended for the next song—if the batting-order theory of song-on-album placement holds true. That’s “Gotta Hold On”—“I wanta get dressed up wanna get pissed up, goin out tonight…You won’t understand…Gotta hold on to what you got, even if you don’t got a lot…even if it ain’t enough.” It’s a good song to be sure, but the refrain’s hooks seem almost too forced and cliché to be effective for me. I stand by my earlier opinion.
This album is the real deal, rock roots and pop hooks to express a true folkie’s heart, something you couldn’t pay a Tin Pan Alley or any
Saturday, January 07, 2012
You gotta’ keep an open mind. That is one of the first things you learn in life, hopefully, and one of the best, certainly. Now I’ll confess to no more than a vague familiarity with Leni Stern’s music prior to this album, but a quick look at the PR blurb of a lovely white lady with two traditional African musicians, claiming to pick the banjo-like ngoni old-school-style with the homies… and the first thing I think is that there must be a decent-size dollop of BS to the PR, and some old-school pretentiousness to boot. Of course a little pretentiousness is good; that’s the stuff of creativity; so it’s just a question of proportions—and honesty—and quality. I mean, a woman playing lead guitar is rare enough—even when well done; but ngoni? I believe Leni passes most of the tests in question here with flying colors.
The title of Leni Stern’s latest self-release is “Sabani” and the premise is simple enough, straight out of a Hollywood script in fact—kick-ass jazz guitaresse goes to Africa on a mission of goodwill and instruction, then falls in love with the place and the people and ultimately the instructor becomes the instructed, by no less than Bassekou Kouyate in fact, master of the ngoni (pronounced “ngoni”) and one of Mali’s most respected musicians. Fast forward to the middle of the story and Leni is performing at Essakane’s Festival du Desert with the collected mass of Mali’s finest ngoni-pickers all on stage at once. Fast forward to the present and she’s got an album together with three of Mali’s finest musicians and is embarking on a tour to share and support. That’s not bad for a child prodigy born in Germany who made her name in New York.
This is nothing new of course. Leni has been doing her African musical journey for at least a half decade by now, with influences from a handful of other countries and travels—including India and Madagascar—for another five years before that. Her musical career looks a lot like my travel book, in fact. And all that came after various and assorted work with the likes of jazz and world masters John Mclaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Bill Frisell, Michael Brecker, and many many other top luminaries. Hers seems not so much as a musical career as a musical quest. It’s nothing if not exhilarating. But can you dance to it? That’s up to you. This could be a seated concert or SRO. It keeps you flexible.
Leni of course is an equally accomplished lyricist as well as a smooth-fingered instrumentalist. Her first composition in her new-found home illustrates this nicely. It’s called “Still Bleeding” and features a theme familiar to all, regardless of continent: “It takes some time to heal a heart…it’s easier to break it…I’m still bleeding, I’m still bleeding.” From there the lyrics only get more abtract, more obscure, more… jazzy, such as “Like A Thief, with some excellent jazz guitar: “like a thief in the night when everyone is fast asleep…loves comes on velvet feet…there’s nothing anyone can do,” or “I Was Born,” again with very nice guitar work: “I was born hungry…never felt like I could get enough.” I get the feeling that that is the main recurring theme to much of Leni’s life and work.
Other songs are more African-inspired, like the whispery and mystical Sorcerer:” “you who can talk to the spirits…when you walk through the forest late at night and someone calls your name, don’t turn around, don’t look back…you’ll never be the same.” “Djanfa” is sung by talking drum player Kofo and is entirely in African dialect, presumably Bambara, reminiscences of Salif Keita, to no less effect. The two instrumentals go both ways. “The Cat Stole the Moon” is Leni back on jazz guitar, while “An Saba” could be Ali Farka Toure’s final take of something he’d been noodling with way back when but almost forgot. Perhaps the album’s best song is a combination of all of the above, PLUS fine female backing vocals. “Papillon” begins in African dialect with female backing vocals and then segues into Leni’s finest voice—Ami Sacko instructed her btw—“walk along the same old street, nothing seems the same…you’re motionless silent somewhere deep inside…your heat’s still heavy I can see, but you my friend will always keep butterflies for company.” Once again I’m reminded of Salif Keita, but maybe that should be no surprise; the album WAS recorded in his Bamako studio after all.
I challenge you to listen to this album with closed eyes and pick the foreign white woman out of the mix. All in all the entire work is well worth the listen, but maybe the best parts are not the ngoni numbers, but Leni’s highly accomplished electric guitar mixing and mingling with the traditional Mali urban and Sahel genres. After all that really hasn’t been fully explored yet, except for Justin Adams’ work, but that’s a totally different much more rock & roll style. As Dr. Santana made clear long ago, there’s always room for some virtuoso fret-work to add spice to traditional folk styles. And he wasn’t playing banjo, either. That’s “Sabani” by Leni Stern. Check it out.