All posts by Dorothy Johnson-Laird

Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a freelance world music Journalist. Twitter: @MusicIntoWords Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/African-Music-Into-Words

Yoham Ortiz’s Conversation

Yoham Ortiz
Yoham Ortiz

Yoham Ortiz’s voice gently weaves in and out of his acoustic guitar notes. His vocal is warm, expressive and works well with his intricate guitar playing. He recalls that “everyone always danced” in Quisqueya (a Taino word encompassing Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the island he spent his formative years in. That island’s music ranging from the Carabine to the Merengue has stayed with him and finds its way into much of his music. But his inspiration is also jazz, West African, and Brazilian music. At times, Yoham’s music is earnest and sad reminiscent of Joan Armatrading’s wistful songs, yet it can as easily become upbeat, even playful. Versatility is part of his gift as a songwriter. He writes for television, film, and other musicians.

Now he is based in New York, he has chosen to perform alone. His guitar is his only accompaniment. To perform solo acoustic guitar is a bold statement in a time when audiences expect big, multi-dimensional sounds. Yet Yoham’s talent as a musician is to create a very spare, heartfelt ambiance that makes an immediate and intimate connection with his listeners. Sound is vital to him and he enjoys sharing his love of it with others as I quickly found out in this telephone interview.

DJL: It is good to finally catch up with you.

YO: Yes, on Wednesdays I have started a music program at a local Presbyterian school with children aged 2, 3 and 4. I designed the program to introduce young children to music by focusing on the 3 basic steps that lead to creativity: Inspiration-Thought-Communication. In class we explore the idea that musical instruments are tools with which to express the music that comes from within you. In other words: you are the instrument. Also, this concept teaches them that sounds come with information. It helps children better communicate their inspirations and thoughts – not only in music but in anything they are doing. It also makes them better listeners.

DJL: Yes, because you could argue that people don’t listen to music as deeply as they used to.

YO: I think people are not compelled to listen to music in the same way they once did. For example, most cartoons now do not use real instruments in their scores. The older cartoons of Hanna-Barbera did not use synthesizers, they used real instruments to play the effects and music. The Flintstones used real bongos when Fred took off running. The practicality of synthesized instruments is great, but it is missing the magic of live musicians collaborating and performing together.

DJL: Do you enjoy teaching music?

YO: Yes, I do enjoy sharing and teaching. This school asked me to start a music program, so I began in January of this year. But I explained to them that I was not going to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or any lullaby. Children are exposed to ‘children’s music’ everywhere they go – I feel it is patronizing for them at times. Children can appreciate all music. Young children do not have any preconceived notions about music, so I wanted to expose them to a variety of sounds from the Griot music of West Africa to the elephant horns of Tibet and Mongolia. This program would allow them to tap into sounds that perhaps they would not hear at home.

 

Yoham Ortiz - Photo by David Troncoso
Yoham Ortiz – Photo by David Troncoso

 

DJL: Is this music program connected to your project about sound?

YO: Yes, in some ways. “Listening to the Language of the City: Understanding How Communities of Sound Inform the Soundscape of New York City” was my thesis at New York University while I was doing a Master’s there in Music and Behavioral Science. I am developing it into a book. In this work I investigate the information that sounds emanating from urban environments convey to people living and traveling around cities. I study how people hear sound and how they navigate through the city in relation to sounds. The project makes the case that cities could be designed in a better way with more balance and awareness of sound.

DJL: Were your family musical?

YO: My family is mostly involved in the medical field. Although my father, who is a Gastroenterologist, did play trumpet as a young man. I came from a family of ten children. One of my elder sisters started learning to play piano when I was about seven. Every day she would come home and share something she had learned with me. One day my parents heard me playing, I was about ten, they signed me up for classical piano lessons.

DJL: When did you come to the guitar?

YO: I was about 12 years old. I was first inspired by Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. I started playing rock guitar. When I got to college, I listened to Wes Montgomery and George Benson, the jazz guitarists.

DJL: When I listen to your music, I also hear Spanish flamenco guitar. Does that resonate with you?

YO: Yes, absolutely, Paco De Lucia, the great flamenco guitarist. I love flamenco music, also the music of Brazil, such as the Chorinho, the Baiao. Sounds I grew up listening to in New York include the subway, congas played in the summer streets, artists from the 70’s record label Fania, Juan Morel Campos (Puerto Rican Danzas), Santana, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Ventura, Bernard Hermann (Twilight Zone). My older brother and I grew up listening to the music my parents and my two older sisters were listening to and that covered a very wide range of genres.

 

Yoham Ortiz - Photo by David Troncoso
Yoham Ortiz – Photo by David Troncoso

 

DJL: Speaking of the Baiao music of Brazil, your recent song, Baiao Blues, has a slow, spare feeling to it. Your humming is a deep, nice compliment to the bluesy feel of the music. There is no real vocal, yet it swings. And I love how out of nowhere the guitar breaks into an elaborate solo.

YO: Baiao Blues is a lament for displaced and marginalized refugees. For example, many indigenous peoples of Brazil, where the Baiao comes from, have been driven out of their homes by major corporations looking to exploit their land. A lot of the people from the Delta area in the United States, where the blues exists have also been marginalized for the same reasons.

 

 

DJL: The song Carabine del Emigrante is upbeat and more forceful. The song is based on the Carabine, a folkloric genre of the island Quisqueya, can you speak about that?

YO: Carabine is one of the folkloric sounds of the North of my island, mostly the Samana province. Carabine del Emigrante is a song about leaving something you love because it no longer can give you what it once gave you. This may apply to someone leaving their homeland or someone deciding to leave a person. And we see this happening all over the world from Palestine to Syria: everyone wants their kids to be safe.

 

 

DJL: Your voice has a strength to it, it has a beautiful tone that works well with the acoustic guitar. Your vocals are honest and sincere, so as a listener I trust what you are expressing.

YO: I’ve always sung but I never thought of myself as a singer. I’ve always thought of myself as a composer, producer and musician. As a record producer, I’ve had to sing many vocal references in the studio to help artists understand how the melody fits in the musical arrangement. That helped me to find my voice as a singer. I have been fortunate to work as a producer with many great singers from whom I’ve learned a great deal. And I have also studied with vocal trainers to better understand my voice as an instrument. Now, it is just my voice and the guitar. I am keeping the sound minimal, not overproduced, not too much technology. I come alone; I trust the elements. I use the acoustics of the room where I am performing as an instrument. It is as raw as it gets.

DJL: What do you mean when you say raw?

YO: By raw I mean, you get what you see and hear. No gimmicks or tricks; just the sounds that are naturally happening as I play my guitar and sing in a room. There is a direct connection to the soul like this – a spiritual conversation between the music, the audience and myself.

DJL: Well I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and I am sure your fans are ready for more conversation.

YO: Thank you, I’ve also enjoyed talking to you.

For more about Yoham Ortiz’s music, please visit: yohamortiz.com

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Mehmet Polat Trio Play Songs of Connection

Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium is a cool and welcome relief from the 85F heat of Manhattan. The room is crowded with more than a hundred people waiting for the Mehmet Polat Trio to take the stage. It is a packed house with a line out the door of 30 people waiting to get in, a turn-away crowd. Their performance is part of a weekly free concert series coordinated by Lincoln Center that runs year long.

The trio has an oud player Mehmet Polat, a ngoni player Victor Sams, and a ney player Pelin Başar. They are here at the outset of an almost month long tour across America. Mehmet introduces himself and the trio, he invites the audience to listen, “I am looking for a musical connection from heart to heart. I invite you to open your heart and let the music come through you.”

The performance starts with Polat’s gentle and languorous solo on the oud – a pear-shaped wooden instrument with strings that sounds like a lute. Mehmet is from Turkey, his family are from an Alevi Sufi musical tradition. But he has studied various musical styles, including traditional African, Indian, Persian music, and modern jazz. His sound is spare, folk-like, meditative. There are no electronic keyboards here or drum fills.

A silence opens up in the audience. People are rapt in attention, entranced. Mehmet seated center is joined in play by the ney player. The ney is a long and ancient flute. The ngoni, a long-stringed instrument, joins in. And the flute melody weaves in an out the accompanying strings of the other two instruments. There is a grace about this trio, nothing is rushed, time slows down. The audience is invited to relax and to contemplate.

The ngoni player initiates the second song, using his fingers in staccato taps at the base of his instrument. Victor Sams has a beautiful smile that radiates out to the audience. There is a happiness and versatility in his playing: the ngoni is magically transformed into a drum, then back to a stringed instrument, then again to a drum.

Mehmet Polat Trio
Mehmet Polat Trio

The ngoni and oud begin a conversation, shadowing each other’s sound. The two performers nod to each other as they sit side by side. The notes move round and round one another in call and response. One leads with a few notes and the other answers with a few more. Indeed, Mehmet has confirmed that this dialogue is vital for him, “The conversation is intended. I am interested in creating connections between different cultures and continents. I want to explore the common language, but also to look at how two different musical languages may correlate or vibrate together.”

The music is not afraid to breathe, to pause, and to create space in this large atrium. This sense of spaciousness is perhaps one of the trio’s greatest strengths. As the performance continues, Mehmet begins to sing. With his eyes closed, you sense his earnestness, his sincerity. He is humble, yet assured in his musicianship. The song includes some words of Fuzuli, who was a Sufi poet from Azerbaijan. The ney shadows the vocal notes. There is a cyclical sense to the melody, reminiscent of an Indian raga. The audience is pulled in, caught up in the compelling, lulling sound. The audience is transported on a journey of wonder and longing.

For more information about Mehmet Polat Trio’s tour, please visit: http://mehmetpolat.net

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Mehmet Polat Trio play Music of the Heart

Some fusions between musical genres do not work, because they sound too forced. Other fusions fail because modern electronics drown out ancient instruments. But, the Mehmet Polat trio form a true union between Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. Nothing about their music sounds too pre-planned. It moves in cycles and is as hypnotic as Philip Glass’s minimalist works. The trio is of three virtuosos: Mehmet Polat from Turkey plays the oud, Sinan Arat also from Turkey plays the ney, an end-blown flute and a very ancient instrument, and Bao Sissoko from Senegal plays the kora, a 21 stringed instrument from West Africa that has as its base a carved out calabash. The trio performed in New York during the annual APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) conference in January, which is where I heard them.

It was an intimate evening of instrumental music at the Chhandayan Center for Indian classical music in Manhattan, where both the Mehmet Polat trio and Sahba Motallebi (an Iranian-American musician) shared the stage. The room held an audience of about forty, sitting barefoot and some on meditation cushions. The trio sat alongside each other in a half circle. They performed without overt showmanship; no one musician sought to stand out above the others. Their simple, yet powerful unity was refreshing and provocative.

Their music was slow, gentle, simple. The elongated notes of the ney breathed into the air while the oud and kora danced together alongside the melody. This music rewards patience in a listener. It is not for fast paced and restless individuals. It tells you to slow down, take deep breaths as you listen, and it will calm you down. Yet, the languorous feel of the music demands your attention. And then you were introduced to a traditional West African song that was playful and light. The whole evening the three instruments spoke to each other gracefully. The sound was enchanting: the music was meditative.

Mehmet and Sinan both come from families who are Alevi, a Sufi Community in Turkey. Mehmet grew up in the city of Urfa, in South Eastern Turkey. Before the concert, he told me: “Urfa has a big musical tradition with roots in ancient times.” There, he says, he was surrounded by the voices of his parents singing Sufi songs. The music moved him as he was growing up. And he says, “I knew at the age of ten that I wanted to become a musician. When I was about 13, I began exploring Anatolian folk music. There is a huge diversity of music in Turkey.”

DJL: So how did you learn about all of this music?

MP: By listening. At 17, I started with the oud lessons from oud masters in Istanbul.

DJL: But why oud, did you see or hear it being played?

MP: I was visiting a poet in Istanbul with my brother. And I was curious about an instrument on the wall. What’s this instrument? It looked so interesting. I grabbed it and I lost myself for a few minutes in it. And the deepness of the sound, it touched me so much that I decided to learn. But it is not only the instrument, it is the culture of the instrument that drew me to it. It has roots in the Ottoman Empire, in Iran, in all the Arabic countries, among others, so I got a chance to learn something of those influences. Afterwards, I became interested in Balkan, Flamenco and Indian music.

DJL: Indian classical music has a strong spiritual component, for example, we know that the great Pandit Ravi Shankar saw playing his instrument as a way of connecting to God. Do you relate to what he said?

MP: Yes, I do connect with that. Music for me is a kind of language. When I play music, my intention is to bring sincere feelings from my heart and share them with the universe.

DJL: But in the Indian classical tradition, musicians spend years learning, it is a real apprenticeship. So did you spend a long time learning?

MP: Yes, I studied Indian classical music officially for two years at school, but my study is still ongoing. I also like Western genres, also jazz, Latin, grooves. The musician has to be both a revolutionary and a master of his instrument to have enough ability to convey his emotions. And a musician has to have a broad vision and good taste. Without good taste there is no music.

DJL: This music has a very meditative quality, so are you approaching it from a meditative place as a musician?

MP: Yes, that’s why it sounds peaceful. Sometimes before the concert if I see that it is needed, I will say to the audience, ‘close your eyes, open your heart, let the music come to you and let us be one.’

DJL: How did you first hear the kora?

MP: I heard the kora live when I first came to Holland in 2007. In Turkey, there were African musicians, but on hearing the kora live I was moved, and thought about making something beautiful with it in the future. In 2013, after some musical ideas became clearer in my mind, I contacted my friend, the kora player Zoumana Diarra. (Diarra was the group’s first kora player and continues to play with them from time to time). I was interested in how Balkan rhythms in 7 or 15 beats to the bar would work with some African rhythms. It’s like teaching an Italian cook Chinese cooking. Bao Sissoko joined us from Senegal, and he has played with the band for the past three months. He’s risen to the challenge, and he’s dedicated to the music.

DJL: Bao comes from a very strong Griot musical tradition in Senegal, West Africa. So, you went to the kora second, and then to the ney as the third instrument, right? The ney is one of the oldest instruments still played today. It is a flute dating back four to five thousand years. It has a unique and ethereal sound.

MP: Yes, the time difference from the kora to the ney was one hour. (He laughs.) In Turkish, we say, ‘breathing out through the ney’. It has the sound of soul, the sound of spirit. The ney is almost like a human voice sometimes. Sinan is a very good musician, a great improviser, and a master of his instrument. He is a poet with a big vocabulary, and so he has an opportunity to speak out.

DJL: All three of you are gifted musicians, and you work together so strongly.

MP: For me, it is not only the meeting of three unique instruments, but also the making of deep connections, keeping the ancient and authentic traditions, and combining them in a contemporary way. This music is eighty percent improvised, and that makes it very exciting for me.

DJL: Something else I noticed is that the tone of the three instruments is aligned.

MP: When I compose the music, I try to use the full capacity of the instruments, and to keep them in harmony with each other. I ask the ney musician, for example, to play a lot of low notes.

DJL: These instruments are not combined with any modern instrument such as drums or electronic guitar. Is that deliberate?

MP: Yes, sometimes when I have played with other larger groups with drums and bass, or as a guest musician with orchestras, I didn’t like it. Because they do not hear or listen what I played or perhaps don’t care. They may have me there as a picture or as an image. I do not want that.

DJL: You added two extra bass strings to the oud, so you provide your own bass?

MP: Yes, I do that.

DJL: Would you like to come back here to the US for another tour?

MP: Yes, we are planning it for the mid-August and the mid-September. Our hope is to reach more people and to learn more about traditional American music.

DJL: And you are now working on a second album. Do you see a development from the first?

MP: The second album will be more about developing the music. I would like it to include a more spontaneous feeling, more of a sense of oneness as musicians, uniting our energies. In the end, music is not just for entertainment, it can connect us to a more sincere spiritual world.

Recordings available: Next Spring

For more about the Mehmet Polat trio, you can visit: www.mehmetpolat.net

For US & Canadian Booking Inquiries, please contact Craig S. Hyman – Numinous Music at craigshyman@gmail.com or at (917)-854-6315

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Elikeh’s new EP release: Kondona

Elikeh - Kondona
Elikeh – Kondona
Elikeh is a band that brings true energy to the stage. Captured live their horns punch out tight harmonies alongside Massama Dogo’s earnest singing. He leads them in singing and on guitar. Think of James Brown’s precise horns meeting Agbadja rhythms native to Massama’s Togo, West Africa, and you begin to get the sound. Agbadja is a rhythm found in Benin, Togo and Ghana, based on three different percussion instruments of different pitches. It is upbeat, driving, and very close in feel to reggae.

This is a band that dances on stage. When I heard them last year at Drom in New York, Massama coaxed the audience to dance. They make you want to move. “Kondona” is an extended play released on November 20th by Ropeadope records. It captures the power of Elikeh’s live sound.

In this music, the worlds of Africa and America meet. Elikeh are neither a completely African nor an American band. Jazz, funk, pop and African traditions inspire its diverse members. They were founded in 2010 by Massama who formerly led a University big band in Togo. His prior practice and experience of leading a big band informs how he now leads this large band of nine musicians with its tight, full and pulsating sound. Its instruments are trumpet, sax, bass, two guitars, drums, keyboard, sax, and percussion.

After five years, band members were getting weary and restless about continuing to work together. Massama says that they were not able to agree about the future direction of their sound. They decided it was time to hold a meeting. During the meeting, Frank Martins, one of the two guitar players, kept playing his instrument. Other musicians joined in and participated in the making of a new song.

Conversation is the first track on “Kondona.” The horn section plays the same theme several times in cycles, while a steady, bouncy Agbadja rhythm hypnotizes the listener. Conversation is upbeat and danceable. Massama says, “I understand this rhythm, I feel it, I am naturally drawn to it, maybe it is because it is from my country.” A few minutes into the track, the trumpet enters and extends into improvisation, bringing increased life to the music. You hear a call and response from trumpet to sax. There is an openness in this song, the musicians are skilled at dialoguing with each other. A true conversation takes place as often happens in traditional African music where one musician initiates and then another steps in to answer what has been played.

In Adja, again you hear the steady, undercurrent of Agbadja rhythm that flows through the song. Here, Massama vocalizes about a tough man whose toughness cannot save him when he is captured by the police. Again the horns announce their presence, repeating the same theme throughout the song. The forcefulness of Massama’s singing draws you in and commands your attention.

The group then covers the Ghanian musician Ebo Taylor’s Heaven. Massama’s field recording of voices and steady percussion at a traditional Kondona ceremony from Togo is heard in the intro. The Kondona is an initiation that moves young men into adulthood. The traditional introduction makes way for the modern. The old nourishes the new as the sax playing stands out with long notes drawn out through the song. The audio recording of voices from the ceremony join the fade out of the music, so the modern music fades back out into the old.

On this EP I sense the live electricity of this band more than any previous album they have released. When I tell Massama this, he responds, “We were almost all in the studio at the same time for this EP.” “Elikeh” means rootedness. They have found new roots with Kondona.

For more information about Elikeh visit their website at elikeh.net

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Review of the Global Beat Festival

Feedel band
Feedel band

 

Arts Brookfield has existed as an organization for over twenty-five years. Part of its work is to bring free and open arts events in public spaces to audiences across the world. The Global Beat Festival is one such event. The festival took place this year from Thursday May 7th to Saturday May 9th and offered some of the best and most exciting acts in contemporary world music. Ranging from the powerful vocals of Emel Mathlouthi of Tunisia to Feedel band who merge jazz with traditional Ethiopian sounds and instruments. The real significance of this festival is its free accessibility to anyone with an interest in music. It gives audience members the opportunity to approach all kinds of world music on their own terms, whereas a music event that charges money may not.

On the last night of the festival, true magic happened. Here we were carried into the world of music that is Honduras, a Central American country with music ranging from reggae to Garifuna music (more about that later) with a touch of salsa to liven it up.

 

Guayo Cedeño
Guayo Cedeño

 

In the first set we were introduced to Guayo Cedeño and his band Coco Bar. This was Latin surf, as the guitar whirred, we felt as if we were stepping into the wickedly danceable soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The music was light and playful: the sea side sound of the Beach Boys met Ry Cooder’s electric guitar. This group’s sense of fun was like coming up for air after hearing so many bands that take themselves way too seriously. The sound was simple. Just three instruments: drums, bass, and guitar grabbed our attention. Their music made us want to get up and boogie down on surf boards. The first number was uptempo, almost ska in sound. By the third number, “La Charanga,” we heard the full expressiveness in Guayo Cedeño’s guitar playing as he elongated the guitar notes. The musicians were enjoying themselves, bobbing up and down to the jangling sound on stage. On the fourth number, “Black and White,” they moved their hips as they danced side by side to a psychedelic guitar that merged with reggae. The set built in excitement and energy, as Guayo’s guitar playing became more elaborate, ecstatic even.

But Aurelio Martinez was the musician to capture our attention. He held an acoustic guitar and was dressed all in white, even wearing white shoes as he moved with elegance on stage. His Garifuna Soul Band were the second group to take to the stage that night. His band was large, encompassing two round percussive drums, a drum set, clave, maracas, electric guitar and bass. His is the music of the Garifuna people, who are indigenous to the coasts of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. They are the descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib, and Arawak people. The pulse of West Africa is kept alive in their music — in its highly percussive sound. This music is closest to what we in America would call folk music, yet the vocals are arresting and haunting. Garifuna music was bought more to worldwide critical attention in 2007 by Andy Palacio a musician and activist who was a friend Aurelio. Andy sadly died in 2008, but Aurelio now continues the work of bringing this music to a broader audience.

 

Aurelio Martinez
Aurelio Martinez

 

Aurelio’s was a powerful voice, a voice of longing, a voice echoing the cry of the blues. His smile was beautiful as he sang, inviting us in, welcoming us to the warmth of his music. Pablo Blanco who is a cultural advocate of the Garifuna people and who lives in New York says that the voices of the Garifuna are prepared by their ancestors. And Aurelio’s voice soared with an expressiveness that reached to the back of this packed audience. The plastic seats stretched way back in rows that could almost have been in a church.

The festival was held in a wide open space, the Winter Garden, in a shopping mall in downtown Manhattan — not what you might imagine as a typical venue for live music. The ceiling was curved glass opening out onto the changing night sky. Yet the space was refreshing. Here was not the smoky, cramped atmosphere of a dingy night club where people are packed to the walls. Here you could relax as the percussive drums or segunda were a steady, constant undercurrent throughout this music. They never ceased playing. Pablo Blanco says that the “Segunda drum is a spiritual drum, they are used to call down the spirits. Segunda drums are vital when we perform our spiritual ceremonies. People go into trance when they hear the thunderous sound from five Segunda drums playing in unison along with the chanting of our ancestral songs.”

After a few songs, we too are lulled into a trance, swaying with the steady, hypnotic rhythm. We were held by the easy, gentle sound, almost a lullaby in feel. Aurelio caressed his acoustic guitar and rocked us with his vocals. He danced too, putting down his guitar for a moment, he jumped and twirled around with extended arms, electrifying us on “Chichanbara” as the percussion took flight under his vocals. The segunda grew more powerful as the night progressed, cascading in steady ripples. By the end, in “Yalifu,” the steady undercurrent of percussion held us in its grasp. We could no longer sit still, but were moving with the power of this music.

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Zap Mama Zaps GlobalFEST

Zap Mama
Zap Mama

On a cold night in January, the group Zap Mama took to the stage at GlobalFEST. It is an annual event that hosts twelve international acts, often up and coming, on three different stages in New York City. Although many strong vocalists performed this year, including the great Tunisian songbird Emil Mathlouthi and the ethereal sounding Emil Zrihan, Zap Mama is spellbinding. Starting in 1989, they were among the first to introduce to the world African polyrhythmic vocals. These were singers of such strength and skill that they became instantly recognizable for their acrobatic vocal play. Think Bobby Mcferrin meets the rainforest people of Zaire and you begin to get the sound.

Marie Daulne, the group’s lead singer and composer, (also known as Zap Mama), is strong and elegant, with hair wrapped tight in black curls above her head. She is a forceful presence, demanding our attention as she walks across the stage in gold stiletto heels. She could be a ninety forties actress in a thriller alongside Humphrey Bogart. She has vocal power and self-confidence that a younger musician may not have. She announces, “We bring you joy, love and happiness. I am going to zap you to another place.”

All eyes are on her, three other female vocalists and two males, as she invites us to join this drama. But the other female singers in the group (Maria Fernandez, Lene Christensen and Judith Okon) are no slouches. They are not just backing singers, they have a real interplay with Daulne as the team move in synchrony across the stage. Here is a group whose emphasis is vocal, their voices are the instruments teasing the audience with a sound that is at once Hip Hop and funk. They are a group that relies only minimally on the occasional accompaniment of guitar and keyboard.

Zap Mama Music Video ‘Brrrlak’

After a simple, funky opening song, it is in the second number where the groups inventiveness comes to the fore. This song includes the words “somebody text me” and seems to make fun of people’s obsession with texting. At one point the vocalists mimic the sound of a message being sent with quick fire staccato notes. There is not a moment of stillness, we are kept on our toes.

The pace does become gentler though, as we move into another song and are transported to South Africa. Here we feel the inspiration of Miriam Makeba’s vocal style as Daulne annunciates quick breaths over the microphone. This is a slower song that allows space for her voice that the quicker songs do not. Daulne not only has the vocal skill and technique of a seasoned performer, but hers is an expressive voice that both captivates and holds the audience in a strong embrace.

Look for upcoming collaborative tour dates from Zap Mama as they perform with the Afrobeat band Antibalas.

You can visit Zap Mama’s website at: www.zapmama.com

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Karim Dabo’s Path to Peace

Karim Dabo
Karim Dabo

 

One day, I stumbled across Karim Dabo’s music online and I was transfixed. His vocals are soft and sensitive. Even though you may not understand the lyrics as he sings in Wolof (a West African language), as a listener you are soothed and comforted by their gentleness. The vocals invite you into an atmosphere of peace, even relaxation. Karim is a good percussionist, but it is his singing that holds you in an embrace.

In January this year, his debut album “Sama Yone” came out. The sound is very spare, light, and acoustic with only drums, guitar, bass, kora and percussion accompanying his voice. Yet there is power in the simplicity. It sounds like folk music. Out of curiosity and wanting to learn more, I reached out to Karim for an interview and he responded.

 

Karim Dabo - Sama Yone
Karim Dabo – Sama Yone

 

Karim grew up in a household of music. His Senegalese father is a percussionist who loved traditional Senegalese music and the Mande music of West Africa. When asked about his father, he says, “My father’s story is important. When he was young he wanted to play music, but in our culture it was forbidden to him, because it was not supposed to be part of our family. This was a family that was known for their work in business. Music is a genre reserved for the griots in West Africa. When my dad emigrated to France in his twenties, he played music, but in his head it was forbidden.”

“Was music also forbidden to you?”

No, nobody forbid me to play, because I grew up in France, I was not directly confronted with these concerns. When I returned home to Senegal with my music, my family was very open minded. We started learning percussion as children with the djembe and dundun (Karim has five brothers and one sister). My mother is French; she is a teacher of African dance. Together, we played percussion to accompany her dancing lessons.”

Karim came of age in Annecy, France, a small mountainous town near to Geneva. He said that “there is a spirit of peace in the mountains,” but felt it was too quiet to remain there. He was drawn to the possibility of moving to Montreal, Canada. Unexpectedly, he met Mafé, a Haitian-Québécoise singer based in Montreal who was visiting France. They began to make music together, and it was after meeting her that he moved in July 2013 to Montreal.

Karim Dabo
Karim Dabo

 

“Yours is an incredible voice, when did you start to sing?” I asked.

I always sang when I was young, but only in my room. The kind of singing I am doing on this album, I started three years ago. Before I played a lot of percussion, but then I decided I wanted to try to create my own sound with guitar and singing.”

“Why did you want to make your own sound?”

I just wanted to discover the guitar, a new instrument for me. Also one of my brothers, Sebastian Pintiaux, is a good guitarist and he sings. His music inspired me and he helped me to record and make the arrangements for this album.”

“The music on the album is very spare and simple: is that deliberate?”

Yes, I wanted to keep the instrumentals quiet, basic, to give space for the voice.”

Can you tell me about the track Africa?” I ask, its cyclical music flows in the back of my head. An upbeat sound, the word Africa is pronounced many times as a chant throughout the song. The gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar, drums and light ripple of percussion accompany the steady vocal.

I am saying to African people we can make a choice for our development. It is not necessary to take a path in the same direction as Europe and America. We can make our own way. I believe this message is important, because when I go to Dakar, Senegal, I see a paradox in the people. I see a lot of people who want to live the same life as Americans or Europeans, but they are not being authentic to Africa. This song is about how we can have our own way of life without being influenced by the West. The track was also inspired by the African musician Tiken Jah Fakoly, whose music often communicates directly and strongly with African people. I am saying we can build an authentic Africa, with an African spirit. Africa is beautiful and I think we can do a lot of things in Africa. In this song there is a little bit of revolution because I want to see African people strong and proud.”

Your vocals carry the sound forward, because they are from the heart. Your singing sounds thoughtful. Your voice reminds me a lot of Geoffrey Oryema‘s vocals. He has a very calming, steady, almost hypnotic sound. He is from Uganda.”

Yes, I know him. The track Diorme which means give me, is in the same spirit of Geoffrey Oryema. Even if you cannot understand him, you can tell the message is deep. But he is a great singer and I am a bit nervous to be compared to him.”

Yes, his vocals are haunting. They stay with you. But your vocals also have a haunting quality.” I said.

There is a meditative aspect to my music. I want to convey peace. My singing is a reflection of what is going on inside me, a sense of introspection.”

The track Jamm has that spiritual sense in it.” I said. Jamm is a gentle, meditative song with a steady rhythm. The same words are repeated, but the repetition is calming, not boring. The sound is restful.

“Yes, Jamm means peace in Wolof. In this song, I am talking about how a sense of peace comes from the sky and inspires me, but how peace may also inspire another person.”

 

Karim Dabo
Karim Dabo

 

So, is peace important to you?” I asked.

I am also a Social Worker, I work with people who are in difficulty. I’ve worked with disabled people and troubled youth. I’ve also learned to understand people by the way they play music. Through this experience I learned peace and self-control.”
Karim has used music in his Social Work practice as a way to connect with others and to enable clients to express emotions or difficulties that they may carry inside.

Because you have to remain calm to do Social Work?

Yes, and that’s why I decided to create music with a spirit of peace and love for humanity. A lot of people do not understand the vocals because they are in Wolof, but they can feel this calm in the music. And to make a world of peace, we have to do a lot of work inside ourselves. That’s why on this album, I am starting from within. Other people have taught me a lot, I want to offer them peace through music in exchange.”

To find out more about Karim Dabo or to purchase his album, you can visit his website at www.karim-dabo.com

His Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Karim-Dabo-page

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Rebeca Vallejo Brings the Fire

Rebeca Vallejo
Rebeca Vallejo
Rebeca Vallejo was born in Madrid, Spain. As a child she was surrounded by a family of flamenco singers, flamenco is the traditional music of Andalusia in Southern Spain. It is a music characterized by emotive vocals, guitar, hand claps and dramatic dance.

As a young girl, Rebeca was mesmerized, but also daunted, by the force of flamenco. Now Rebeca works as a singer and composer. In October 2013 she released her third album Azúcar, Canela. Azúcar means sugar and canela means cinnamon. These are just two of the ingredients that make up sangria. Their sweetness and fire symbolize the mix of this music.

Not content to rest solely in flamenco, Rebeca studied jazz and Brazilian music on arrival in New York, and all three genres inform her music. This is not a fusion thrown together for fashion’s sake. This is a percussive music with Rebeca leading as an impassioned vocalist, George Dulin on piano and David Silliman on drums and percussion. The trio work well together. Think of the scatting of Ella Fitzgerald meeting Camarón de la Isla, a performer noted for his strong flamenco singing, and you begin to hear this sound.

Rebeca Vallejo
Rebeca Vallejo
Rebeca’s family had, “wanted me to a live a normal life,” but she could not resist the call to sing. While studying philosophy and politics in Wales, she first sang professionally. At an early gig, a friend came up to her after a performance and handed her a compilation of the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. She immediately fell in love. Listening to Ella changed her. In retrospect, she believes she needed to be challenged musically. She felt if she could sing like Ella then “other things would be easier.”

Returning to Spain after her studies in Wales, and working as a journalist, Rebeca knew something was missing. Always in the back of her mind was the thought that she would go to America. She explained to her mother that she had to go. In 2000, she arrived in New York City, knowing no-one. It was here that she studied jazz at City College. She says that, “when you have a vision, a passion for something, the universe helps you. Sometimes you need to fight for your dream. I was born to do this music, born with a sense of purpose, that sense of mission has kept me going.”

When I ask her if she sees a relation between flamenco and jazz, she says: “Slaves were singing about the plantation fields. My grandfather, Antonio Vallejo, also worked and sang about the fields in Andalusia, Spain. He was a descendant of generations of flamenco singers. The sound of the lament, that sense of grief carries through both flamenco and early jazz. Even the vocal technique is similar, singing from just beneath the eyes, from the nose. I would love the opportunity to look at the roots of early jazz.”

In 2009, through a scholarship Rebeca was able to return to study classical flamenco music in Seville, Spain. As a child, she was too intimidated to sing this powerful music, but now she was willing to give it a try. She thought flamenco would be all about improvisation. However, she was quickly proved wrong. She worked with a disciplined, traditional teacher, and learned that every note had to be precise and in order.

Rebeca Vallejo - Azúcar, Canela
Rebeca Vallejo – Azúcar, Canela
Although the CD has its gems, Rebeca’s real power as a musician comes to the fore on stage. Here she brings the drama and elegance of the flamenco to her performance as she stamps out rhythms alongside her heartfelt song. At a concert in late 2013 in the intimate setting of Cornelia St. Cafe, in New York, the music is fiery. The audience is focused as Rebeca weaves her hands in the elegant gestures of a flamenco dancer or uses finger snaps to punctuate her singing. There is a maturity in this music, of someone who has worked hard at her compositions, at developing her sound. This is not the kind of performance people could whisper through, her strong presence demands attention.

During the live performance it becomes apparent that this is not just the music of one person. There is a dynamic interplay between the three musicians that make up this band. Rebeca calls their trio, “A triangle of sounds.” George Dulin, hunched over the piano is reminiscent of Horace Silver in his elaborate and swinging playing. One of the songs Los Pilares de la Tierra (or pillars of the earth) is dedicated to her grandfather. When I ask about him, she says, “He was my role model, a poet, activist and idealist who served time in a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War. If I close my eyes I can remember him chopping wood and singing Argentinean Tangos. He loved to sing.”

The song Despertar (or Awakenings) is an intimate exchange between the Baiao rhythm of Northern Brazil and the Flamenco rumba. It is fun with Rebeca’s playful voice sounding over an accordion. Rhythm is vital here. It can be felt in the interplay between Rebecca’s scatting and the ornate sound of the accordion. Rebeca says, “I am in love with rhythm and melody. I am always thinking about rhythm.” The song Lullaby carries a slower rhythm. Here the piano playing breathes and stretches out. Lullaby is inspired by Brazil’s Bossa Nova. The sound is easy and seductive in feeling. Rebeca says, “Lullaby came to me on a subway ride. The whole song came to me in one shot. It is a comforting song. It was made as a surprise for two friends who were leaving the States to go to Europe. The lyrics are, ‘whatever you do in the world, shine with all your might and know that I am there for you’.”

Rebeca says, “This album represents a culmination of everything I’ve absorbed. It is an arrival for me. There is a mixture of flavors, but also very distinct sounds. There is a freedom in this music, but it finds its roots in Spain. The title track Azúcar, Canela is a positive song. It speaks of building things together, of being optimistic, of saying let’s do it.” And Rebeca Vallejo has done just that on her third album.

For more about Rebeca, you can visit: rebecavallejo.com

To purchase the album: Azúcar, Canela

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Martino Found Joy in the Music

Martin “Martino” Atangano - Photo by Bill Farrington
Martin “Martino” Atangano – Photo by Bill Farrington
On a cool night in Brooklyn in Mid-September, a group of musicians, friends and colleagues gathered in a meeting hall to celebrate the musician and historian Martin “Martino” Atangano’s life. A traditional dance troupe Ngoma za Kongo (from the Republic of Congo) lit up the floor in shimmering yellow customs. They danced the dance of death, pounding long powerful drums, while people brushed away streaming tears. You could touch the grief in the room. People were shaken. Martino was known not only in the New York music scene, but throughout the world for his electrifying, precise, high energy guitar playing. Originally from Cameroon, he fused traditional, upbeat dance rhythms from Africa such as the Bikutsi (more about that later) with funk and jazz. Although he had struggled with his health, his death on August 31, 2013 as a result of cardiovascular complications came as a shock not only to those who loved him, but also to those who had danced with joy to his music.

Recently, I spoke to Fred Doumbe, a gifted Cameroonian bassist, who performed many times with Martino and who knew him for over twenty years. He described Martino’s musicianship, “He was playing in a way we call Madgan in Cameroon, this is transposing the balafon’s sound onto the guitar. He muted the guitar strings to get close to the balafon’s sound. He was one of the few older musicians who could play in this way. It was a privilege to play our traditional music with him. As a musician he was versatile. He could learn something precisely and reproduce it precisely.”

Martin “Martino” Atangano - Photo by Bill Farrington
Martin “Martino” Atangano – Photo by Bill Farrington
Born in 1958 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Martino first found his place among musicians in his country. Yet he was too gifted to remain within its borders.

In 1986, he toured internationally with Manu Dibango, perhaps the most famous saxophone player ever to come out of Cameroon. In the same year, Martino moved to Paris to pursue graduate studies in history at the Sorbonne. It was here too that word began to get out about this talented guitarist. His authentic, elaborate guitar sound informed several noted collaborations, including with the French musician Jean-Luc Ponty and the American pop musician Paul Simon. Simon’s, “Rhythm of the Saint’s” album famously introduced more international audiences to some great African sounds.

In 1994, Martino moved to New York, where he worked as a Professor of History at St. John’s University with a focus on Central Africa. Here too, Martino finally struck out on his own, when he formed his band African Blue Note. He focused on developing a unique music alongside four key members, Joseph Jojo Kuo on drums, Todd Horton on trumpet and Flugelhorn, Mamadou Ba on bass and Azouhouni Adou on keyboards. These were musicians who came from distinct musical backgrounds, yet found a way for their music to reach common ground. They could be heard playing monthly at the Zinc Bar in New York where they developed a loving following.

Fred Doumbe describes Martino’s music: “He embraced all African music, he embraced people. He was very open to different types of sound, Soukous, Congolese music. He liked very much Fela Kuti and Nico Mbarga. He knew what was current on the market, but he also believed in what he was doing. He was into the texture of sound. He loved the sound of the Fender Stratocaster. He kept the same guitars and amps for years. You can do things with Roland amplifiers like reverb that you cannot do with modern amplifiers. He liked the modern aspect of music, like jazz, but he also liked the traditional, his music was somewhere in between. He never forgot his culture, but he also embraced all cultures. He entranced people when he played, with a natural smile, he could transport them with the music.”

Martin Atangana - Mot Songo
Martin Atangana – Mot Songo
This openness to different musical genres is a mark of his true greatness as a musician. Rather than remaining rigidly within one genre, his understanding and love of different sounds can be felt strongly on the last CD Martino released: “Mot Songo.” It was on this CD that much of the music Martino had been developing came together. Here the traditional Bikutsi 6/8 steady rhythm can be heard on the title track, “Mot Songo.” This is a lively, high intensity sound with Martino taking the lead and a chorus shadowing his vocals. The word Bikutsi means beat the earth, if you imagine someone jumping quickly up and down; you can begin to hear the rhythm in your mind. The CD then moves into Juju Jam, based on the Juju rhythm of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Here is a slower, more elegant rhythm that has more space to incorporate improvisation. This track features longer, more drawn out notes from the guitar, bass and sax as they interweave with one another.

Joy runs through this music, it can be felt on the song Couscous Congolese based on the Soukous rhythm with high, elaborate notes that Martino uses to create a circular dance across his guitar. Joy was Martino’s signature as a musician. It was a joy that he exuded, with never a cross word for anyone. This was an honest and loyal man in a music world that can often be brutal and harsh. One musician described how he would get up and walk away from conflict. Fred Doumbe said: “There was always a spirit of joy there, even when he played minor chords. He knew how to make people happy from inside his heart. They would want to get up and dance. You could not sit still to this music. He knew how to joke without talking. He knew how to make people laugh without saying anything.”

Martin “Martino” Atangana is survived by his wife, Lois Atangana, and his son Charles Atangana.

For more about Martin “Martino” Atangana you can visit: http://www.atangana.com

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Announcing Shofar

Shofar
Shofar
The best musicians are restless, they search for unique sounds. Shofar represents the coming together of three musicians based in Poland who are schooled in different musical genres, free jazz, classical and punk. Formed in 2006, they have experimented with old Jewish music and brought it into the present.

The name Shofar means horn – from a ram’s horn – in Hebrew and is used as a symbolic ritual in Jewish services, for example, to indicate the end of the fast of Yom Kippur. One interpretation of this name is that this band seeks to announce their musical arrival.

This past Thursday saw Shofar’s debut alongside another band, Poleseye Project, as part of a North American tour at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium. (Music made possible by the Polish Cultural Institute of New York and the Target Free Thursdays Series.) On approaching this concert, it was unclear to me how Jewish music would co-exist with free jazz or whether indeed it could. But that concern was soon eradicated by the strength of the musicians. Their sound encompassed both free jazz and Jewish cultural music with ease. Their music also hinted at rock, blues, and punk.

As the three musicians took to the stage, immediately there was a sense of the unexpected. Rather than the drummer sitting behind the other two as is the convention, he sat to the left while the saxophonist sat center and the electric guitar to the right, all at front stage. This set-up suggested the true partnership that takes place among these men. There is not one leader, all work together. When I asked Mikolaj Trzaska, the sax and clarinet player, to describe their collaboration he said, “We come from different musical traditions, but this is a conversation. We each share a similar sensitivity to Jewish cultural music. We want to make a new language.”

Instead of a light, joyous sound as typified by Klezmer which is what I had imagined, the opening number was meditative, and languorous, as the saxophone stretched out long notes. Raphael Roginski seemed to vibrate the guitar at times as he played in a minor key. Macio Moretti thundered in slow, skillful rolls on the drums as the saxophone launched into elaborate solos, reminiscent perhaps of John Coltrane.

When I asked Raphael to talk more about the Jewish cultural music, he explained, “This is a music that existed prior to the holocaust. Nigunim were a celebratory style of music, magical even. It was born in the Hasidic movement in Poland. There were often competitions among composers to see who could write the best Nigunim and thus be considered closer to God. It was considered a mystical music that could move people into a trance, a prayer. It was improvisatory.” This was also a music sought out by Moshe Beregovski, a Ukrainian Jewish musicologist, who made it his mission in the 1920’s and 30’s to tour the Ukraine making notations of Nigunim and old Jewish folk songs (in a similar vein to Alan Lomax, who toured the American South in search of the blues). Shofar takes as a base some of his musical notations.

As the musicians continue, not a ruffle of paper or a conversation is heard in the audience. They are held transfixed. The old melodies have hit an emotional core. Many nod their head in agreement, as if transported to a pre-war Poland, a time before the violence of the Nazism erupted, before Jewish culture was suppressed. Mikolaj speaks about what the music means to him, “It was about finding my identity as a Jewish person. When I started to play the melodies, I began to hear them in my dreams, this music is something so deep in me that I am dreaming about it.”

With the second song, comes a more lively, danceable sound, the sax screeches freedom alongside a guitar which shifts into higher and higher notes on the scale. The music works. Raphael’s guitar playing is captivating. His is a haunting, expressive sound, a musician journeying to the soul of a lost tradition, while pulling the old melodies into the future.

Stepping into the third song, this music becomes funereal. Even though the performance continued on for several songs (a full hour or more), there was a particular poignant sadness in this moment, a sense of mourning. This is a music of lament, yet at the same time it is soulful, yearning, restless in the best of musical traditions. For a moment, the sax is silent, the drums and guitar speak to one another in an old, but somehow familiar language.

For more about Shofar, including their tour schedule, you can visit
http://www.polishculture-nyc.org/?eventId=2049

To purchase their CD: http://www.kilogram.pl/?l=eng&id=&ex=

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