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The Baul

Babukishan

The Baul are mystic minstrels, traditional poets, singers, and storytellers, from Bengal (eastern India and Bangladesh). With their flowing saffron robes, long jet black hair, rolling eyes and swaying hips, they sing in their high keening voices to the frenzied accompaniment of their traditional instruments.

The Baul movement, at its peak in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has now regained popularity among the rural population of Bangladesh. Their music and way of life have influenced a large segment of Bengali culture, and particularly the compositions of Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Bauls live either near a village or travel from place to place and earn their living from singing to the accompaniment of the ektara, the lute dotara, a simple one-stringed instrument, and a drum called dubki. Bauls belong to an unorthodox devotional tradition, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Bengali, Vasinavism and Sufi Islam, yet distinctly different from them.

Bauls neither identify with any organized religion nor with the caste system, special deities, temples or sacred places. Their emphasis lies on the importance of a person’s physical body as the place where God resides. Bauls are admired for this freedom from convention as well as their music and poetry. Baul poetry, music, song and dance are devoted to finding humankind’s relationship to God, and to achieving spiritual liberation. Their devotional songs can be traced back to the fifteenth century when they first appeared in Bengali literature.

Baul music represents a particular type of folk song, carrying influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song. Songs are also used by the spiritual leader to instruct disciples in Baul philosophy, and are transmitted orally. The language of the songs is continuously modernized thus endowing it with contemporary relevance.

The preservation of the Baul songs and the general context in which they are performed depend mainly on the social and economic situation of their practitioners, the Bauls, who have always been a relatively marginalized group. Moreover, their situation has worsened in recent decades due to the general impoverishment of rural Bangladesh.

Sources: Babukishan and UNESCO

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Global Musical Diversities in London, Songlines’ Cultural Activism

Numina by Zahra Hussain, Barbican Centre – Photo by Evangeline Kim

 

We live in confounding and perplexing times.  A relatively peaceful international order this past year has suddenly become upended by at least two recent political developments: the U.K.’s Brexit and the results of the presidential elections here in the U.S.  In both instances negative views concerning globalization and immigration threaten preservation and celebration of humanity’s rich cultural heritage and diversities.

Regressive electoral rhetoric here in the U.S. flaunted and promoted xenophobic intolerance, religious bigotry, racial hatreds, and misogyny.  Right-wing supremacist views loom on the horizon as the new normal.  In such a dangerously noxious atmosphere affecting the international, it’s critical to continue to explore and discover what’s noteworthy among the myriad global artistic, poetic and musical, expressions.  They form the world’s magnificent cultural ecosystem.  The proliferation and accessibility of world music recordings and concerts today in Europe and America, compared to, say, their “newness” 30 or 40 years ago, underscore much-needed cultural resistance against the political rants about metaphoric and physical borders and walls.

London Worldview

Across the pond, London is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.  About a  third of Londoners are foreign-born where over 200 languages are spoken along with English, the official language.  This is the cultural “fabric” of the U.K.’s largest city that Simon Broughton, editor in chief of Songlines Magazine, mentioned during a visit this past fall preceding the U.S. elections, as I attended a couple of excellent Barbican Centre world music events.

Among the international stalwarts advocating world music, Songlines Magazine, launched in 1999, is one of the few remaining major print and digital music publications. Still not widely circulated in the U.S. though available on the net, the magazine covers global music, traditional and contemporary, popular and fusion, with impressive style and content. (The print edition with its handsome glossy lay-out is well-worth the subscription.)

In Simon’s view: “Rather than just being a music magazine, I have always seen Songlines as a way at looking at the world through its music. And music is a way of exposing people to other cultures in a pleasant, accessible and enlightening way. Once you’ve experienced another people’s music and culture, you understand them more and fear them less.”

Songlines, among other world music publications and sites, stands to gain a greater profile as a worldview counter-force, given emerging discriminatory, isolationist ideologies. This occurred to me as I followed Simon Broughton around London for a few days preceding the roiled U.S. presidential elections. Even the concept of Brexit seemed remote during two great concert events at the Barbican.

Transcender Sufi Night

Parissa – Photo by Evangeline Kim

 

Originally conceived as  “Ramadan Nights” in 2004, meant to explore the wealth of Muslim music traditions found throughout Islam’s historical geographies, the Transcender Festival evolved to include spiritual, devotional and trance-ritual sounds from all over the world.  This year there were two Sufi-related festival concert nights, programmed by Simon B.  I happily caught one.  Persia’s iconic Parissa co-billed with Turkey’s Meshk Ensemble.  It was a night reaching moments of incantatory rapture.

Parissa had not performed in London for 12 years.  The Barbican main hall was filled with Persian media and legions of fans who cherish her.  She has not been allowed, as a woman, to perform publicly in her country, due to political repression enforced since 1979.  Yet for over 40 years, she commands reverence and adulation whenever her rare appearances outside of Iran.  At home in Tehran, she manages to carry on her tradition through teaching the fine art of Persian song to young women.

Accompanied by an ensemble of musicians on tar, kamancheh, and tombak and daf percussion, her repertoire was dedicated to the great 13th century Sufi mystic poet, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi.   Her vocal expressive progression during the concert seemed like an epiphanic ascension towards divine mystical love over earthly pain and despair.

The SOAS American scholar of Persian music, Jane Lewisohn, who has followed her since the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts in the 70s, exclaimed following her performance, “Parissa always chooses the best poetry by Rumi.” Lacking regrettably were program notes with translations of the poems. However, I drew pleasure just from the sheer beauty of Parissa’s nuanced delivery of Rumi’s poems with instrumental interludes. Hers were elegant delectations, restrained, lit with spiritual passion.

Meshk Ensemble Video Clip by Evangeline Kim:

 

The real surprise of the Sufi-themed evening was the stunning opening concert by the Turkish Meshk Ensemble.  There are currently all sorts of Turkish whirling dervish groups in Turkey ranging from the new age to the nonsensical.  Most all authenticity in Turkish Sufi devotional music was lost in 1925 when Sufism was banned as “backward” in the country for various reasons.  The original 1001 days of dervish training in the Mevlevi lodge tradition were abandoned.  The rigorous training of dervishes in Sufism’s philosophy and thought, its ethical code of conduct (adab), and the related arts,  – particularly musical knowledge of the highly complex technicalities in the Turkish makam system seemed all but foregone according to the Meshk Ensemble’s spokesman and musician, Feridun Gündeş.  A deeply embedded cultural tradition of higher knowledge dissipated into forms of nostalgia and touristic exoticism.

Simon further notes, “It’s the state-supported Konya Sufi Music Ensemble that usually tours with ‘whirling dervish’ performances and performs regularly in Konya where Rumi was buried in 1273. But their performances seem routine and overblown. They have around 25 musicians and singers and it’s clear that the Mevlevi lodges employed much smaller groups of musicians. So Meshk’s style is much more authentic and more interesting as they are continually investigating new repertoire and not rotating the most common ayin pieces. You could compare Cevikoglu with artists like Roger Norrington or John Eliot Gardiner who transformed the approach to Beethoven and Bach 25 years ago.”

“Meshk’ in Turkish signifies the earlier pre-1925 Sufi musical educational training process from dervish master to student, the chain of transmission.  This tradition has been revived and is being upheld by the Meshk Ensemble’s leader, Dr. Timuçin Çevikoğlu, Mevlana scholar with the Ministry of Culture, and who also happens to be the director of the famed Konya Mystic Music Festival.

According to Feridun Gündeş, “He ​works​ diligently like a musical archeologist determined to ​discover​ ​how​ the great composers of the past ​intended​​​ their Ayin compositions to ​be performed​​.  His understanding is probably the closest we can get to the original works of the past. ​ ​Meshk Ensemble is the group he founded and created in order to give life to this critical restoration work through performance and recording activities.”

And so it was at the Barbican, we were transported to mystical Sufi realms by a brilliant, London-debut Meshk performance with players of ney, tanbur, bendir, kudum and beautiful vocals by Dr. Timuçin and Suleyman Ozen.  The first part featured “Ilahis” or devotional  hymns, sung and played during Sufi “dhikr” gatherings (remembrance of God).  The lyrics were poems written by some of Turkey’s great poets, including Yunus Emre and Pir Sultan Abdal.

The second part enacted the famed sema ritual ceremony with 5 dervishes whirling in a blur of billowing white robes across the stage to a rare ayin (music performed during sema), discovered a few years ago in official archives by Dr. Timuçin.  It’s known as the ‘Hicazkar’ makam – one of utter poise, serenity, and peace – composed by Mustafa Câzim el-Mevlevî in the late 19th century.  The lyrics were drawn from Rumi’s masterpiece, the Mathnavi, verses 292-320.

Transcender Art

On the upper level foyer at the Barbican, as accompaniment to Transcender, the visual artist Zarah Hussain’s light installation “Numina” drew mesmerized crowds.  Combining designs found in Islamic art and architecture with digital technique, Hussain’s basic hexagonal grid shifted with infinite geometric variations of dazzling color and light.  Psychedelic visual riffs leading to contemplative wonder.

Songlines Music Awards 2016

Songlines Best Artist Award 2016, Mariza with Simon B – Photo by Evangeline Kim

 

Launched in 2009, the Songlines annual awards has become a delightful concert event in recognition of outstanding talent on the world music scene..  A couple of nights later following Transcender, I took in another sold-out evening at the Barbican’s main hall, showcasing 4 winning acts based on current recording releases, voted in by Songlines’ contributors, its readership, and the general public: Mariza’s “Mundo”, Sam Lee’s “The Fade in Time”, Songhoy Blues’ “Music in Exile”, and Debashish Bhattacharya’s “Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn”.

Simon B, as emcee, remarked, “For me this music is interesting because it brings us together.  The world is actually quite a small place with millions of diverse traditions.  Songlines is about making those better known.”

 

Sam Lee – Photo by Evangeline Kim

 

Contrasts in styles were in sharp relief.  Sam Lee opened the night with heart-tugging renditions of some the U.K.’s splendid folk traditions.  American record producer, Joe Boyd, in presenting Sam’s award stated: “The genius of Sam and his group has been to find a way to surround that music, those ballads, with really adventurous and interesting instrumentation that takes the rhythmic cue from the song rather than trying to impose something on it.”

 

Songhoy Blues – Photo by Evangeline Kim

 

Debashish Bhattacharya – Photo by Evangeline Kim

 

Mali’s Songhoy Blues is tremendous in live performance and had the audience jumping and dancing  with its searing, rocking rhythms.  They excelled especially with the catchy “takamba” beat.  India’s Debashish Bhattacharya to me sounds better on the album compared to his performance that night.  He is not a strong, convincing vocalist, but surprisingly, sang one song.  His edgy twang on the slide guitar was remarkable technically, but the shimmering delicate power of sitar tonalities was the quality I missed.

Mariza, the Portuguese fado star, is forever glamorous and beguiling.  I hadn’t seen her live in several years, but her confidence and charm topped off the evening with immense celebratory joy.  The Songlines Awards concert is a fun-filled and exciting world music happening, not to be missed if you happen to be in London.  Every world music artist might aspire to be a winning Songlines act, appearing at the Barbican.

Malick Sidibe Solo Exhibition, Somerset House

Before I left London, Simon clued me in on the superb exhibition of works by the late Malian photographer, Malick Sidibe.  Ensconced within the larger Contemporary African Art Fair that ran for a few days in October at the Somerset House, the solo photography show is still up until January 15th.

While Mali’s roster of stars from the 60s to the present began to hit the world music markets – such as Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare, and Rokia Traore – in Mali’s capital, Bamako, Malick Sidibe was quietly documenting Mali’s popular life and people.  To view this exhibition is an astounding view into the lives of ordinary folk who became immortal stars reflected through the lens of this photographer.

 


Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), 1963 (c) Malick Sidibé

 

Simon Broughton Portrait, 2004, by Malick Sidibe

 

His major work began at the moment of Independence and post-colonial exuberance in the country and throughout Africa, the 60s. Over the years, until Sidibe’s passing this past April, visiting world music fans, record producers, and journalists had their photos taken in Malick Sidibe’s studio.

In Simon’s experience, “It was the thing to do, to have your photograph taken by Sidibe. When I was in Bamako in 2004 a friend of mine took me to Malick’s studio. He was a man of few words and was fast and practical in taking my portrait. He asked me how I wanted to pose and not having a moped to straddle – although I’m sure he could have provided one – I just decided to sit crossed legged. He took a few pictures, but he chose the one that was kept. I went back a day or two later to collect the print. Nick Gold, of World Circuit Records, was also a fan of Malick’s work and took Oumou Sangare, amongst others, to have her photo taken there.”

The exhibit holds 3 themes: Nightlife in Bamako, Beachgoers by the River Niger, and Studio Portraits.  Wafting through the exhibition rooms is a fantastic soundscape of African music from the 60s and 70s by DJ Rita Ray.  The exhibition catalogue is a keepsake.

Despite the sad turn of political events in Mali since 2012, the photographs are a testament to the vibrant, resilient, and creative spirit of Mali’s people. The art of living lives on through Malick Sidibe’s eyes.  And Songlines will continue to add value to Mali’s and the world’s musical legacies.  There is hope for better days to come.

Headline photo: Meshk Ensemble – Photo by Evangeline Kim

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IndiEarth xChange 2016, Chennai: Weekend conference and festival of world music and indie acts

The annual IndiEarth xChange conference and festival wrapped up in Chennai recently with a weekend of world music and indie performances at The Park Hotel. The event also included conference tracks, workshops and film screenings (see my earlier writeups on the festival editions from 2015 and 2014).

The IndiEarth initiative, promoting independent musicians and filmmakers, was conceptualized by the founders of EarthSync India, a music label and film production company launched by Sastry Karra, Sonya Mazumdar, Yotam Agam and Kris Karra in 2004. It is widely regarded as one of the best forums to discover new bands and to network among the independent music industry, venue founders and festival curators in India.

 

electronic gear at the festival

 

Industry insights

The event was a celebration of the ability of artistes around the world to collaborate at a time of increasing political conflict, and also to share industry lessons on building viable careers and forums for the world of arts and culture. Panel discussions were held on music education, media contributions and festival design, along with workshops on field recordings, legal issues and preservation of folk arts.

Classical and folk musician Vidya Shah conducted an outstanding multi-media presentation along with live performances, titled ‘Women on Record,’ highlighting the gramophone era of recorded music and its mixed impact on the world of live performances. In a world of increasing commercialization of culture, it is important to understand the value and contributions of folk musicians, according to Divya Bhatia, founder of the annual four-day Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur.

 

Divya Bhatia, founder of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

I took part in a panel on ‘Arts Journalism: Content Creation, Ethics, and Reportage,’ covering the increasing role of social media in artiste promotion and music reportage, the need for talent strategies incorporating partnerships and internships, media coverage for local audiences as compared to international markets, the balance between business and editorial agendas, and new digital formats for content about music (see for example my app ‘Oktav: Music Quotes and Proverbs’ available for Apple and Android devices).

Day One

In the afternoon of Day One, the music performances kicked off in the lobby stage with Aver, a nine-piece Indian contemporary fusion-style band. Formed in 2015, the band is based in Chennai; its Indian as well as Arabic influences were reflected in their range of instruments and sounds.

 

Aver – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The evening show began with the spellbinding Hindustani classical music duo Pratik & Vinayak. Vinayak Netke composes, arranges, and plays the tabla for his fusion band Zamee, and has also released two devotional albums, Aadi Pujya and Kalidas’s Meghdoot. Pratik Shrivastava was born into a family of musicians, and began playing the sarod at the age of six under the guidance of his grandfather Pandit Rabi Chakraborty. They played two ragas (Rageshri was outstanding), and drew loud applause for their virtuosity and call-response interplay.

 

Pratik Shrivastava on sarod – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Vinayak Netke on tabla – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The mood switched to electronica with Vasuda (‘Miss V’) on digital media and Chaitanya Bhaidkar on guitars. The music blends Indian classical and folk with Western contemporary music. Vasuda’s debut album is ‘Attuned Spirits.’

 

‘Miss V’(Vasuda) – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Another superb performance of Indian folk and ghazal followed, with Vidya Shah on vocals accompanied by four musicians on sarangi, tabla, percussion and guitar. She picked up on some of the themes from her morning presentation, and wrapped up in fine style with the ever-energetic ‘Mast Kalandar.’

 

Vidya Shah – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Gears shifted again to the lobby stage with Tamil rock band Kurangan. They showed that scorching funk and blues have no geographical barriers, and lend themselves well to local interpretation. Formed in 2015, the band is set to release its debut album next year.

 

Kurangan – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

French alternative electronic band Organic Bananas wowed the audience with some amazing sound from the hurdy gurdy, fused with modern digital ambience. Kraftwerk in the 21st century, with some rock and groove, would be an apt way to describe their music.

 

Organic Bananas – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The night ended with a long set of African-influenced danceable electronica by Sauvage Sound System from the Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. The DJs Kwalud and Black Ben kept the audience on their feet late into the night, as could be seen by the sleepy faces of some of the conference attendees the next morning!

 

Sauvage Sound System – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Day Two

The second and final day of performances began with singer-songwriter Abhi Tambe from Bangalore, who was earlier with post-rock group Lounge Piranha. Abhi performed some melodic tracks from his upcoming solo album. Another solo performance featured Aditya Balani on guitar and digital media; he has been on BBC Asia Beats, MTV Coke Studio, Pepsi MTV Indies, and BBC Radio.

 

Aditya Balani – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The previous day’s Tamil rock track picked up again with folk rock band Kulam, featuring Pradeep Kumar on guitars and vocals, Jhanu on bass and Tapass Naresh on drums. Barefoot and in lungis, the guitarists joked among themselves between their songs, to much audience delight.

 

Kulam – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Another terrific band from Reunion Island then took the energy to another level: Afro-jazz band Identité. They blended maloya with jazz, showcasing the creativity of Creole culture. The percussion section and lead saxophone were outstanding, and drew loud applause from the audience.

 

Identité – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Electronica took the floor again with the Chennai duo Krameri, consisting of Gopi Krishnan and Damini Chauhan, followed by Indian punk rock band Dossers Urge. Synth-pop took the stage with Akshay Rajpurohit’s solo set; his debut album is called ‘Sadomist.’

 

Krameri – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

By then the audience was all pumped up for Indian dubstep guru Nucleya; his high energy set blended Indian sound with global bass. His new album ‘BASS Rani’ is a hit with audiences across the diverse regions of India.

 

Nucleya – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The music carried on later in the hotel bar well into the early hours of the next morning; a round of goodbyes followed the next day over breakfast and lunch (or was it brunch?). We look forward to next year’s xChange 2017 festival and conference already!

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Timbal Drumming, Endurance Vs. Speed

Latin Percussion timbales

There is a great difference between a drum set drummer playing timbales and an actual timbalero when he plays the timbales. Most drum set drummers try doing immense rolls, thinking that doing that is very impressive.

I, as well as others that have many years of experience playing timbales, can pick out an actual timbal drummer vs. a drum set drummer playing timbales.

Because drum set players are given the opportunity to bang on a drum and the audience roars, does not mean that they actually know their timbales chops. This is not in all cases. The late Mike Collazo was a drum set drummer for Tito Puente Orchestra and also one of the best timbales players ever.

Timbales or conga drumming is not about the ability of how fast you can play, it is about what you are saying with the drum as a percussionist. I have a friend from Africa. We are in a mutual club; he is a young guy and he told me he was a drummer in Africa. I knew the answers of what I was asking him, due to the fact that I am a very spiritual individual as well as drummer. I asked him why he drummed and he told me “to call spirits.” In our conversation he was telling me that they used the drums to talk to other villages from a distance.

Now, let me make the comment, when drummers play extra fast, what would the other village say about the extra fast conversations. That is what goes through my mind when I see drummers playing fast.

Francisco Aguabella, courtesy of Aguabella Family.

I used to sit down and talked to conga and batá legend Francisco Aguabella, at my home when he visited me. We would talk about fast playing on the conga drums. Francisco told me that he would play for days some non-batá ceremonies and that the drummers would take turns drumming and sleeping, taking shifts with other drummers and these ceremonies went on for 3 days at a time. Imagine the endurance of not tiring, when playing for days at a time.

As an orchestra leader observing and hearing remarks from conga drummers, today’s conga drummers do not want to do a conga solo on stage for more than 2 minutes duration; they have actually requested such. Endurance is one of the many keys to conga drumming or drumming per se. Playing fast does not impress me. Observing Francisco Aguabella or Mongo Santamaria with the voicing and language they were saying with the conga drum, when they played the conga drum to me is real conga drumming.

Francisco Aguabella would say that it was just a new technique that the drummers were utilizing by playing fast. Francisco Aguabella would tell me that these new drummers were getting bits and pieces and copying the techniques of other drummers or lessons from other drum techniques to try and be different and try to invent their own new style.

I asked Francisco Aguabella what he thought about these new up and coming drummers with fast techniques and he just made a face (smirk), like he always did.

To think in my mind, when I was around Francisco Aguabella, that he played with batalero group leader; “Okilakpa” Pablo Roche, Batalero Trinidad Terregoza, Raúl Diaz, Geraldo Rodriguez, Batalero Jesús Pérez, Julito Collazo and even learned batá from the famed Esteban ‘Cha-Cha’ Vega, plus years of playing with other legends and even playing rhythms that are no longer played in Cuba today that, and he taught his to his students.

Francisco would perform a conga solo on stage for Eddie Palmieri’s Perfecta Orchestra on one tune. Eddie and the whole band left the stage for 10-15 minutes while Francisco soloed alone on stage. In my mind I would say to myself, how could Francisco fear or even have a doubt of his own ability to play congas, when he came from the real actual roots of Matanzas (Cuba) and has played drums, even before some of these cats were born or thought of. And a lot of the new legends can never ever say they played with Trinidad Terregoza or batalero Jesús Pérez, like Francisco Aguabella did..

There has to be respect for some of these master drummers as well as Mongo Santamaria, Cándido etc. as well as the elder and present African drummers and timbal drummers like Manny Oquendo.

In timbal drumming I have personally gotten many tones out of the drums, but after 45 plus years of playing, I guess I also have the ability to do this with the conga drums. This comes with dedication, time, patience and love for the drum.

Manny Oquendo did not play the timbales fast, he was just Manny. Drummers I know wanted and actually did kiss Manny’s hands out of respect for his mastery as a timbal drummer.

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2016 Christmas Music Guide

Perhaps you’ve just ventured to the darkest part of the attic or basement, plucked out those dusty boxes from under the bags of horded, hideous sweaters, checked the boxes for holiday-hating raccoons and hauled the whole lot to the living room. Or perhaps you’ve gathered all your holiday stash from their secret hiding places, found the one roll of tape that doesn’t have cat hair stuck to it and piled the new rolls of wrapping paper along with the remnants from years past onto the dining table. Or maybe you’re just biding your time in between trips to the oven as Christmas cookies bake. What you really need now is some music. Well, maybe you need a little bourbon too, but what you really need some holiday music to build up your morale. Good thing we here at World Music Central have got you covered with our annual Christmas music guide. So, brush the cobwebs from your hair, get someone to grab the “good” scissors, pop a few chocolate chips and let’s get you some holiday tunes.

You know how just about every musician and singer puts out at least one Christmas album? Yeah, well, this year Neil Diamond has put out Acoustic Christmas (ASIN: B01MAZIGZQ ), Jimmy Buffett has ‘Tis the SeaSon available and Frankie Valli has put out his own tribute to Christmas this year with ‘Tis the Seasons (ASIN: B01LYUABCJ) . Unless you are a big fan of Diamond, Buffett or Valli, I think it’s safe to take a pass on these offerings because none really are all that likely to wrap you in holiday warmth. I’d be interested in having a list of popular artists who haven’t done a Christmas song or album.

Of course, if you’d like to experience a diabetic coma you might want to download a copy of Friendship Is Magic: It’s a Pony Kind of Christmas by My Little Pony (ASIN: B01LQC4UPG). My advice? Run, run away quickly because there’s not enough bourbon, vodka or a round of ayahuasca with an Amazonian shaman and an out of body experience that’s ever going to erase this from your mind once you’ve heard it. I guess you could give it to folks who have kids, but you’d really have to hate them or desire to completely cut ties with these people. I don’t think the International Criminal Court has heard this particular recording, but I’m fairly certain it should be classified as a crime against humanity.

Gene Autry – A Melody Ranch Christmas Party

If you are feeling particularly nostalgic and miss those ole time classics, there’s A Melody Ranch Christmas Party by Gene Autry with standards “Jingle Bells,” “Here Comes Santa Claus & Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Medley” and “Cowboy Santa Claus” to round out this tribute to the cowboy crooner. This offering means that you can put the 2013 Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas from Captain Kangaroo by Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans and give the track “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” a rest this year.

If you’re looking to jazz up your holidays Verve has Joyful Jazz! Christmas With Verve, Vol. 1: The Vocalists with tracks by Nora Jones, Diana Krall and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as Joyful Jazz! Christmas With Verve, Vol. 2: The Instrumentals with tracks by Mark Whitfield, Oscar Peterson Quartet and The John Coltrane Quartet.

Andra Day - Merry Christmas from Andra Day
Andra Day – Merry Christmas from Andra Day

Warner Brothers/Buskin has on tap this year Merry Christmas from Andra Day with “Someday at Christmas” with Stevie Wonder, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Winter Wonderland.” Holiday Soul on the Prestige label by the jazz pianist and composer Bobby Timmons is all cool Christmas with goodies like “Deck the Halls,” “White Christmas” and “You’re All I Want for Christmas.” Okeh/Sony Masterworks kicks the holiday humdrum with The Beautiful Day with goodies like “Star of Wonder,” “The Michigan Farm (Cradle Song, Op. 41/1)” and “Little Drummer Boy.”

Sarah McLachlan - Wonderland
Sarah McLachlan – Wonderland

Those hoping to burrow into a little country Christmas have plenty to choose from with offerings like Sarah McLachlan’s Wonderland with tracks “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain” or Trisha Yearwood’s Icon Christmas on the MCA Nashville label or Jennifer Nettles’s sassy To Celebrate Christmas with her own version of “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with Andra Day and “Little Drummer Boy” with Idina Menzel. Atlantic Nashville has this year Brett Eldredge’s Glow with a big band backing the singer. Rascal Flatts has put out The Greatest Gift of All, while Mercury Nashville has on offer A Very Kacey Christmas by Kacey Musgraves with tracks like “Let It Snow” with the Quebe Sisters, “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and “Present Without a Bow” with Leon Bridges.

Ray Conniff - The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings
Ray Conniff – The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings

Classic Christmas songs are fine idea for drowning out those political warthogs at your parties and there’s some goodies out there like The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings by Ray Conniff. Two CDs, 31 tracks and freshly remastered, you won’t have to hear about the 2016 election for a good while with classics like “Sleigh Ride,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “My Favorite Things” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” There’s also NOW That’s What I Call Merry Christmas. Ignore the cheesy cover and the Justin Bieber track, because there are some legitimate lovelies on this like “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Frank Sinatra, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” by Johnny Mathis and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” by Dean Martin.

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy - A Celtic Family Christmas
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy – A Celtic Family Christmas

Whipping a bit of world music mystery this holiday season, fans might want to take a listen to tracks like “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Medley” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on A Celtic Family Christmas by Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy. This year there is also Winter Fantasy by Charlee Brooks and David Arkenstone with goodies like “The First Noel,” “Noel Nouvelet” and “The Darkest Midnight In December.” The Steel Tropics have put out the Caribbean sounding collection Christmas Paradise with offerings like “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Cara Dillon - Upon a Winter’s Night
Cara Dillon – Upon a Winter’s Night

Some other goodies include Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas with tracks like Bobby Rodriguez’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” Juan Carlos Quintero’s “Jingle Bells” and Nossa Bossa Nova’s “Joy to the World.” Irish folk singer Cara Dillon has a lovely CD out called Upon a Winter’s Night with some yummy tracks like “Upon a Winter’s Night,” “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia,”

Please remember to be respectful this holiday season and those of you playing 2012’s A Heavy Metal Christmas (ASIN: B0189CFLWW) with Christopher Lee (yes, that Christopher Lee) or any of the selections from 2015’s Goth Christmas (ASIN: B017BNCXNU) to please try to not scare the native too much.

Happy Listening.

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The Charango, a Peculiar Instrument

Charango
Charango

One of the most popular Andean musical instruments is a small guitar with five double strings that looks like a Spanish bandurria. If looked at from the front, there is nothing special, but when you turn it around, it is surprising. Its resonator, which is more or less rounded, is not made out of wood. It’s the shell of an animal!

The fact is that the resonator of this mini-guitar is made out of the outer skeleton of a small mammal, the armadillo, which is also known as tatú, atatou, quirquincho, querú, cabasu, piche, mulita, toche, mataca… These are names that are sometimes also applied to the instrument.

There are 20 or 21 species of armadillos (biologists cannot agree on how to classify them), and all of them live in the South American pampas and other plains areas, and as far north as the southern part of North America (very few of them are found in the jungles).

The uniqueness of the armadillo lies in the fact that, despite being a mammal, instead of having its body covered with hair, it is covered by a protective shell or armor. The word armadillo comes from the Spanish word armado, which means armored. This armor, articulated to allow for movement, is composed of two large shields. One covers the shoulders and the other covers the back, separated by a series of transverse armed bands that vary according to the species (from 3 to 13). Another frontal shield protects the head.

The tail and the outer part of the limbs are also covered by articulated plates, although there are some species, like the tatús de rabo molle (from the Cabassosus class), that have an exposed tail.

armadillo
armadillo

When the animal is attacked, it rolls itself, like hedgehogs do, and becomes practically invulnerable. The one known as mataco (Tolypeutes matacus), forms a sphere so perfect that in some places it is know as bolita (little ball in Spanish), a name that is also given to the charango.

It should be noted that some armadillos, as good mammals, do have long disperse hairs, such as the one called peludo (hairy in Spanish or Chaetophractus villosus).

It is the hard shell that is used to make the resonator for the charango, specifically the one that covers the body, without the head, limbs and tail, and that is why the instrument is rounded. Nevertheless, not all charangos are made using armadillo shields. Some are made from cedar or chestnut wood. In that case, the resonator is usually flat. The cover is normally made out of pine or fir.

Inspired by Spanish guitars carried by the colonists, some of the first charangos appeared in the 18th century. The charango has become one of the most popular instruments in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Peru and northern Argentina.

The Quéchua and Aimara country folk of Peru and Bolivia prefer the charango with a flat wooden resonator and metal strings. The players from northern Argentina and Lake Titicaca region prefer the armadillo charangos, also with metallic strings. This version of the charango is also used in urban areas, although the strings are usually made out of nylon, giving it a deeper and clearer bass sound.

Sources: Charango description based on the article The Charango, a Peculiar Instrument by Marta Vigo, biologist. Translated by Angel Romero. Courtesy of Arca de Música.

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A Nobel Prize?

The victory in Bob Dylan’s winning a Nobel Prize is for songwriting. Dylan is nowhere near one of the greatest songwriters. However, this may finally be Gideon’s triumph.

Many of the men and women of literature’s ivory tower are well known for not giving the respect that is due to songwriters by not considering them writers of literature, despite the fact that the first poets of Western Civilization like Homer were singer-songwriters (aoidos.) Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature finally vindicates literate songwriting.

For some, Dylan’s win reinforces what much of his public has known all along: that we’ve been listening to a home grown Homer, writer of the Illiad, this whole time.

For others, it is a bad decision on the part of the folks at the Swedish Academy.

Songs are literature and have always been. In the England of the 18th century, with which the US shares its culture, poems were often referred to as songs. The classic English poet William Blake, who was well known for singing his poems, even wrote a book of poems entitled Songs. Elizabethans of the 16th century before him wrote “song books” to mean books of poetry, for poems were meant to be both read and sung. It was in this same age and spirit that a man by the name of William Shakespeare was also a songwriter, for example for his play Othello.

Some might argue that the English tradition is not the American one and that we don’t traditionally produce that many songbooks that can be read to go along with songs. Genius.com would beg to differ.

It’s not just that musical literature deserves praise. Let’s be real: written literature owes itself to sung literature. Popular songs provide the lyrics, the verses, stories, romances, dramas, that culture a populace. The lyrics of songs gave way to the souls that write lyrics, being that sung literature defines a national community’s outlook on life like a written poem never does.

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Singer’s Warsaw Festival 2016: An annual celebration of music and culture in Warsaw

warszawa_singera_2016

 

Yiddish culture returns by way of pre-war films and contemporary performances, workshops of dance and song, Jewish paper cutting, ceramics, and Hebrew calligraphy …

 (from the Festival’s website)

Jewish culture in Poland is experiencing a renaissance. Festivals of Jewish music, language, and ancient and modern history are among the finest undertakings of this kind in Poland. This was confirmed by the 13th edition of the Singer’s Warsaw Festival, organized as always by the Shalom Foundation. The creator of the festival is the General Director of the Shalom Foundation, Golda Tencer, an outstanding Polish singer, director, and theater actress.

 

Shabbat Shalom - Sabbath of peace
Shabbat Shalom – Sabbath of peace

 

Collaborating in the organization of the festival were The Ester Rachel and Ida Kamińska Jewish Theater, the Center for Yiddish Culture, and the Edward Dziewoński Teatr Kwadrat (Square Theater). Every year, some of the global music scene’s most prominent artists, their art inspired by and created in the spirit of Jewish culture and religion, come to the Polish capital. Many of these artists have Polish roots, and thus participate with even greater pleasure in this sentimental journey along the road of their lives, one that sometimes runs through countries such as Israel, the United States, Sweden, France, Canada, and many others.

As we read on the organizers’ website, “The Singer’s Warsaw Festival of Jewish Culture has been, for twelve years, bringing back the memory of the pre-war Jewish ‘Warsze’ praised by Singer in numerous short stories and novels […] Our goal is to recreate the pre-war climate around ul. Próżna and Plac Grzybowski, if only for a few days, and show the lost world of the Polish Jews. Here we situate Jewish cafes, restaurants, small shops, and artisans’ workshops. At one of the festivals, an old bookstore made an appearance; at another, the editorial office where Singer worked before the war; every year there is also a wine bar and bakery” (see: www.festiwalsingera.pl/en/cele-i-misja).

 

Yakov Rotner conducting famous cantors: Yaakov Lemmer, Benzion Miller and Tzudik Greenwald, accompanied by Menachem Bristowski. Festiwal Warszawa Singera 2016. Photo by Janusz Paliwoda
Yakov Rotner conducting famous cantors: Yaakov Lemmer, Benzion Miller and Tzudik Greenwald, accompanied by Menachem Bristowski. Festiwal Warszawa Singera 2016. Photo by Janusz Paliwoda

 

Thanks to the Singer’s Warsaw Festival, for a short time every year the streets of the city resound with klezmer music, synagogal singing, traditional Jewish songs, and even jazz (the Singer Jazz Festival, whose artistic director is Adam Baruch, constitutes a separate part of the Festival), as well as remarkable cantorial singing.

The third edition of the Singer Jazz Festival kicked off on August 26 with an opening concert featuring Wania/Bernstein/Parker/Grey (Poland/USA), comprising Dominik Wania (piano), Marc Bernstein (saxophone), Michael Parker (bass), and Devin Grey (percussion). The following day was marked by the appearance of the Dominik Bukowski Group (Poland/USA), featuring Amir Elsaffar (saxophone), Dominik Bukowski (vibraphone, marimba), Piotr Lemańczyk (bass), and Przemysław Jarosz (percussion).

The official opening of the Singer Jazz Festival took place during a concert by the Sefardix trio (the Oleś Brothers and Jorgos Skolias). This World Music ethno-style group forms a part of the Greek-Jewish tradition, reaching back for Sephardic themes and drawing on multicultural instrumentation. In 2013, Sefardix received the Polish Radio Folk Phonogram of the Year award.

Next was a musical event with the theme “Something’s Coming: Love or War,” created by Lena Piękniewska and Paweł Skorupki, who accompanied the poems of young poets from the Warsaw ghetto. Taking part in this event were Lena Piękniewska, Paweł Skorupka, Krzysztof Dys, Sebastian Frankiewicz, Michał Górczyński, Wojciech Pulcyn, and the Royal String Quartet, with visual effects by Karolina Fender Noińska.

The same evening featured a performance by World Citizen Band (Denmark/Germany/Ecuador/USA), comprising Ramiro Olaciregui (guitar), Kenneth Dahl Knudsen (bass), Alex Terrier (saxophone), Tomasz Dąbrowski (trumpet), and Rodolfo Zuniga (percussion), as well as by the duo Oleś Brothers (bassist Marcin Oleś i percussionist Bartłomiej Oleś), with the participation of Leszek Żądło (Germany).

 

Leszek Żądło
Leszek Żądło

 

Appearing at the Singer Jazz Festival on August 30 was the Israeli trio Savannah and the Stringz, known for their daring experiments at the crossroads of music and the performing arts, i.e., cabaret, jazz, and indie-rock all in one: real World Music! They were followed by Ugo Trio (DE), comprising Federico Eterno (saxophone, clarinet), Marco Papa (guitar), and Gioele Pagliaccia (percussion), as well as by the duo Maciej Obara/Dominik Wania with the participation of Leszek Żądło (saxophone).

Playing the next evening was Trio Kuby Stankiewicza: Kuba Stankiewicz (piano), Wojciech Pulcyn (bass), and Sebastian Frankiewicz (percussion instruments). Later, the Singer Jazz Festival hosted the Francesco Bruno Ensemble (Italy). At the end of the day was a concert by Łukasz Borowicki Quartet (Poland/Denmark), with Borowicki (guitar) accompanied by Mads la Cour (flugelhorn), Mariusz Praśniewski (bass), and Karol Domański (percussion), as well as an appearance by Trio Jachna/Wójciński/Szpura with a guest appearance by Leszek Żądło (saxophone)

The next day of the Singer Jazz Festival belonged to the Francesco Bruno Trio (Italy), including Marco Rovinelli (percussion instruments) and Jacopo Ferrazza (bass), and the Małgorzata Hutek Quintet (composed of Małgorzata Hutek, Dominika Kątny on viola, Bogusław Kaczmar on piano, Paweł Wszołek on bass, and Szymon Madej on percussion). The day closed with an appearance by the Nahorny Trio: Włodzimierz Nahorny (piano), Mariusz Bogdanowicz (bass), and Piotr Biskupski (percussion), with guest appearances by Lora Szafran (vocals), Sabina Meck (vocals), Zbigniew Namysłowski (alto saxophone), Wojciech Jachna (trumpet), and Wojciech Myrczek (vocals).

The next-to-last day of the Singer Jazz Festival showed that these final days of music would constitute a transition from cultural World Music towards traditional jazz. An encounter with Warsaw jazz was graced by the Kuba Płużek Quartet: Kuba Płużek (piano), Marek Pospieszalski (saxophone), Dawid Fortuna (percussion), and Jakub Dworak (bass). Immediately following this event was an appearance by the Leszek Żądło European Art Ensemble with the project “Expulsion from Paradise,” followed by Leszek Żądło again, this time performing with the concert band Sphere.

The last day of this monumental jazz undertaking featured a performance by the group Orange Train. We listened to Dominik Bukowski (vibraphone), Piotr Lemańczyk (bass), and Tomasz Łosowski (percussion). Appearing immediately afterwards was MusiConspiracy (PL/UK): Zbigniew Chojnacki (accordion), Fabrizzio Brusca (guitar), Michał Kapczuk (bass), and Jacek Kochan (percussion).

Concerts by world-famous cantors are always a great event at the Singer’s Warsaw Festival. Cantorial concerts constitute truly unique encounters of traditional Jewish and Hasidic music. From this year’s stage we listened to the wonderful voices of Benzion Miller, Yaakov Lemmer, and Tzudik Greenwald. The singers were accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of the Warsaw Chamber Opera, conducted by Yaakov Rotner and accompanied by Menachem Bristowski. As is true every year, the performing cantors pride themselves on a traditional education under the guidance of masters, enormous talent, and international renown. They perform Chazanut singing, works from liturgical, Jewish, and Hasidic music, and traditional Yiddish songs, along with selections from the repertoires of opera and Broadway.

 

Yaakov Lemmer at Festiwal Warszawa Singera 2016 - Photo by Janusz Paliwida
Yaakov Lemmer at Festiwal Warszawa Singera 2016 – Photo by Janusz Paliwida

 

This year’s Singer’s Warsaw Festival ended with an open-air concert by The Klezmatics (US), consisting of Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals), Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals), Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals), and Richie Barshay (percussion instruments). Their music is valued around the world for its experimental connections with multilingual singing, development of arrangements using many traditional and modern instruments, capitalization on Yiddish culture, and combination of contemporary styles of music. During the concert in Warsaw, The Klezmatics celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of their presence on the world music scene. Every year, the Singer’s Warsaw Festival brings us more and more excellent music.

 

The Klezmatics - Photo by Paulina Tendera
The Klezmatics – Photo by Paulina Tendera

 

We asked Nadia Issa, a Polish artist in the art of light who presented her work in the course of Singer’s Warsaw Festival in 2015, what she associates with this festival. Nadia said: “Nostalgia, tradition, music, memory. In the Old Testament, hell (Hebrew: sheol) is understood as a place of silence and forgetfulness. The Singer’s Festival protects us from the ‘sin’ of forgetfulness. In the context of the tragedy of the Second World War, there are memories about the past generation and about tradition, as well as an attempt to save the timeless values in Jewish culture as a debt to our tragically deceased ancestors.”

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Opinionated Piano: Jason Moran, Sullivan Fortner, Aaron Diehl

The piano.  It is unique: the piano is melodic like no other instrument is and plays us heavy loud and even sometimes fast, producing sounds that momentarily darken one’s soul.  Piano history is as fascinating as the sound the instrument makes.

The instrument’s best players have been those who have dared. Mozart, Monk, Jelly Roll Morton: the list goes on of musicians who have mastered the mass of matter that is the piano, all the while moving others with their style, opinions, and all around spirit. Three jazz musicians, Jason Moran, Sullivan Fortner, Aaron Diehl, are amongst today’s great, daring, pianists, but first a short introduction to the instrument.

The piano was invented during Europe’s Middle Ages: a time of adherence (to the Church) for many musicians but also a time of quiet dissent, as all times are in the end.  Given that its coming-together was financed by the Medici who were well known Renaissance patrons, the piano was probably born to some sort of moneyed dissent.

The Padua (now in Italy) that served as a host to the invention more than likely had the lutes, the hammered dulcimer, the clavichord, and the flutes that the Middle Ages were known for, instruments that excel at expressing lightness, and also the Harpsichord whose strings are plucked instead or struck despite its resemblance to the piano. With the piano came new direction; loudness and heaviness to add to instrumental largeness. The instrument that, to me, dethroned the plucking of strings, was first named the Fortepiano, a name that includes the word forte or loud, though it was also meant to play soft music.

The instrument made its way through Europe and especially to Vienna and  to the genial playing of Mozart. It eventually made its way to other societies, and communities that’ve included the Storyville living in New Orleans that bred Jazz. It continues to matter.

Jason Moran, Sullivan Fortner, and Aaron Diehl, three Jazz pianists, all belong to the new lineup of formidable, daring, piano players. All three play us very well formulated modernist or postmodernist opinions and wow us with the subjective. They often play us notes that are not accompanied with words that mirage the piano playing and because of this require us to feel instrumentation as we listen to make sense of their language. If one does listen in, formidable experience ensues.

 

Jason Moran - Modernistic
Jason Moran – Modernistic

J

ason Moran’s album Modernistic is a personal favorite but his piano playing is always sits a listener, whether it be long and lyrical or stride-ish.

 

Jason Moran All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller
Jason Moran All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller

 

The album of his that is the easiest listen is the soulful, melodic, and comic All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller; the rule is that Moran’s songs require serious contemplating. His playing is sharp and does not intend to either please or be celestial.

 

Jason Moran - Same Mother
Jason Moran – Same Mother

 

Moran seems to be always be playing an opinionated deconstruction of the times that we live – his playing is very complex and yet resonates with much odd familiarity. His song “The Field” on the album Same Mother is one of his best.

 

Sullivan Fortner - Aria
Sullivan Fortner – Aria

 

Sullivan Fortner is a very young musician. He has released a single solo album so far, Aria. He is a stride pianist who plays us the soft and smooth with incredible elegance. His song “You Know I Care” feels like an epic of well theorized beauty in movements. He plays us quiet very well with “For All We Know.”

 

Aaron Diehl - Space, Time, Continuum
Aaron Diehl – Space, Time, Continuum

Aaron Diehl seems to want to plays neo-traditional Jazz. The songs on his album Space, Time, Continuum, despite its having a title that we would associate with Free Jazz, tell us this. Sometimes he is an experimental piano player, the song “Le Tombeau De Couperin,” as many traditional Jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington were in their day, but he is never philosophically avant garde.

His piano playing is very controlled and allows to plunge into the sounds of individual notes all the while feeling along to the mood and other instrumentation in the song. His song “Single Petal of Rose” is a piano tragedy that will leave any listener asking about his or her own life.

Videos:

 

 

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I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face

Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson

Listening to Spotify shuffle Cassandra Wilson songs, I stumbled upon a song that I believe spoke to me in a political way: “I’ve Grown Accustomed To His Face.” The version that plunged me into dream was the one on her album Blue Skies. It had me think of it as a metaphor for political sentiment.

The song itself is a Broadway tune “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,”  though made grave this time my Wilson’s voice. This one in particular is from the musical My Fair Lady, a tale of becoming. It can be sung as either his, her, or your face. She takes her time at feeling her sentiments and at the sound of a magnificent voice until our walk through the song we are left amazed at a fantastic expressionist performance.

A Broadway tune that can be felt as a political metaphor? Who would have guessed. The  song’s lyrics can be interpreted in two ways. On the one had, I’ve grown accustomed to a face, sung to slow Jazz can only mean that I do not want this to end. On the other hand, the song can only be a rallying cry for change. We live in a world that most of us would like to change whether on the right or on the left. What is the root of much current political sentiment is inequality and cultural morbidity felt in a society that turns a bit too much to the dollar.

The lyrics added political layer to an already sentimental and poignant musical composition and much can be said about the fact that the instrumentation itself can be felt politically. I’ve grown accustomed to his face sung over and over again can signify that things much change or that things should remain the same with phenomenal elegance only if the instruments are well played.

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