Category Archives: Concert reviews

Mpambara–a Minneapolis, Minnesota show review

Mpambara-a Minneapolis, Minnesota gig review by Susan Budig

Leafing through the Minneapolis Summer Jazz Festival booklet I spy a new name. It’s the first time I’ve heard of Mpambara, slated to play on June 26, 2003. That evening I ride a bus downtown to Peavey Plaza with high hopes of hearing some innovative material. I arrive at the McDuff stage early, settling in a seat at a table near the front of the platform. It’s dinner time and I am looking forward to enjoying the brisk, fresh air gig of Mpambara who is performing his jazz flavored world music infused with his native country’s Ugandan rhythms and harmonies.

Six o’clock rolls around and Mpambara, or MP, as his friends call him, starts picking his Fender bass while his band mate, Siama Matuzungidi, follows suit on his trendy, angular guitar. The piece, Kamlang, is mostly instrumental with some of it sung in Lingala, a Bantu language from northern Congo. The bass line is so strong it feels like my heart is being told when to beat. Friends and Strangers regales our senses next. The title is analogous to the assortment of musicians on stage this evening. Along with MP and Siama, Rick Olson, who currently resides in Los Angeles, is Mpambara’s music mate from their days at the University of Minnesota twenty years ago. He keys the Yamaha piano. David Burk has been playing his Paul Reid Smith guitar with Mpambara for the past ten years. But the other two band members were recruited just this week and first played all together this morning. Angela Diaz on percussion and Greg Schutte on drums complete the sextet.

The next piece, Gentleman, begins with Olson on the ivories. He hands off the theme to Burk and in typical jazz style, it goes round the circle, ending with Siama. Throughout the song, Siama smiles a wide, almost naive grin, belying the sophisticated skill he employs as he fingers his guitar. This is a gorgeous tune, lasting over twelve minutes with riveting arpeggios and smooth segues from one player to the next.
Mpambara’s long, slender fingers pick out the notes on his Fender with an easy precision on this next number. Soy La Ley, a tune from Puerto Rico, translates as “I am the law.” Diaz sails along during an ambitious passage, bringing new life to his congas. At the same time, the band looks so relaxed and composed that I almost feel like I am looking at a still life painting. During this six minute song, skateboarders practice their jumps behind the stage before getting chased away. All the while, the sun keeps shining and the black clouds to our south keep spitting rain in our direction.

Accordingly, after the last song, we are treated to a Miles Davis number, You Are Under Arrest. This distinctive American jazz piece really exemplifies the value of experiencing music as it’s played live. Not only are my ears engaged with the music, but my eyes are mesmerized by the band’s interplay. Studio work can occasionally devolve into a canned sound. Not so with Mpambara and his band as they perform live. Olson, with his back angled toward the audience, interacts with the band, providing direction and emotion with his eyes and facial gestures. I can see adjustments being made as various band members respond to one another. When Burk find himself playing a particularly winning run, he is encouraged to stick with it and play it out. The individual players build one another up and close to a frenzy before finishing the tune.

Burk starts this next tune playing on Mpambara’s Fender. Over and over we hear the same five or six notes, almost as if Burk is teaching the rest of the band a new song. Suddenly, Mpambara breaks out singing and using an Algerian percussive instrument. Looking like a long, red paddle with attached bells, he hits it against his hand, suggestive of a sparrow’s rapid heart beat. Mpambara arranged this number, Nawuliranga, a traditional Ugandan piece. It’s a song found on Mpambara’s sole CD, Hail To The Chief (Bina Music, 1995) The other musicians join in and heat up the stage with this amazing number. With power and energy, the band plays Nawuliranga as if they’d known it all their lives.

A connection between all of the band’s artists truly gels in this piece.
The last song, Bolingo, is an original by Siama Matuzungidi. Siama, Mpambara, and David harmonize in Lingala, smiling all around. This song has an incredible groove. The driving beat adds an irresistible energy. I’m not sure how I manage to stay seated. It includes a staggering run by Mpambara who also brings back his Algerian percussive instrument. It’s a clever ploy by the band. It leaves me hungering for more.

By the end of the summer Mpambara hopes to finish his second CD, Eradde. I can hardly wait.

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32nd Annual NW Folklife Festival

32nd Annual Northwest Folklife Festival
Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington
Memorial Day Weekend 2003

It’s been a few years since I have attended the Northwest Folklife Festival and while attending the 32nd annual festival, my mind took a turn down memory lane. The festival has endured many changes over the years, but has maintained its free admission, even if various festival staff, board members and musicians give PBS pledge drive speeches in between the 100’s of performances. Festival staff expected 200,000 attendees over the course of the weekend and the center grounds definitely felt over-crowded as I inched my way across the center on route to the various performances I attended over the four-day event.

For those individuals who thrive on statistics, this year’s festival boasted 18 stages, 1,000 performances from 120 traditions performed by 5000 performers. And for those who only wanted to get a bite to eat or buy handmade crafts, could visit 35 booths scattered throughout the center grounds. However, as I travel down memory lane, I recall the first festival I attended back in 1987. At that time, vegetarianism thrived among a large hippie crowd dressed in tie-dyes and Birkenstock sandals, playing drums on the lawn and occasionally checking out a performance of Greek dancers, Scottish bagpipes or tossing spare change into a fiddler’s case.
Although Folklife has transformed into a folk-roots festival featuring a broader range of world music performers, you can still find droves of Birkenstock clad hippies toting a coffee cup in one hand and a festival program guide in the other waddling their way to a performance. Tofu burgers have been replaced by large chunks of meat seen on various plates throughout the festival and the folky-folk scene has been augmented with a world beat consciousness that would put a smile on Peter Gabriel’s face.

This year’s festival promoted a maritime theme while highlighting the lives of fisherman and other maritime folk of the eastern seaboard and the West Coast of North America. Seafarers and musicians from as far as Scandinavia and Portugal were also strewn throughout this year’s festival programming. And while this theme focused on theatrical, dance, spoken word and other types of performances, I focus only on the musical portion. I started off with a Scandinavian fiddle performance with Michaelson & Myers. The Scandia-American fiddling duo introduced traditional fiddle dance tunes from Norway and Sweden, but tossed in a cover by the Finnish fiddle group, JPP. The fiddling was laced with Scandinavian humor and technical prowess.

Next I headed to the Seattle Children’s Theatre to catch the Maritime Showcase. The Yupik Savoonga Comedy Players, a troupe of elder women comedians entertained a packed theatre with slapstick antics, Eskimo humor on traditional songs sung in the Yupik language. They ended their set with How Great Thou Art sung in Yupik and although the vocals were slightly off-key, the women’s charming demeanor garnered hearty applause. Daisy Nell and her husband, Captain Stan Collinson chipped in a short set of sea shanties that delighted all of the fishermen and women in the audience. Local folksinger and fisherman Knut Bell also delighted the same audience members with his baritone vocals and songs about romance and rough seas. I felt a bit seasick.

Fado singers Ana and Jose Vinagre, accompanied by Portuguese musicians, Jose Pedro Ramalho (guitar) and Alfredo Paredes (Portuguese guitar) ended the evening with a passionate set. Jose kicked off with songs by the infamous Amalia Rodrigues and other fados that sported maritime themes. Ana completed the second half of the set with a similar repertoire along with commentaries about Portugal, the maritime culture and her guru, Amalia Rodrigues. When she asked audience members to name their favorite fadistas, a few yelled out “Mariza,” much to Ana’s dismay. She explained that she respects Mariza’s talent, but that you could hardly compare her to the legendary Rodrigues. Yet, any recent interest in fado could be connected to Mariza’s newly acquired international success and she will certainly keep the tradition going for another generation or two and at the same time, it’s a pleasure to watch older fadistas preserving the fado tradition and maritime themes.

On Saturday, I attended the Fiddler Showcase featuring world-renowned Cape Breton fiddlers Buddy MacMaster and Jerry Holland along with Appalachian fiddlers, Carthy Cisco & friends, swing fiddler Paul Anastasio with emerging talent 13-year old Michael Frazier, Jacob Breitbach and an array of other fiddling talent. Buddy MacMaster, (the brother of Charlie MacMaster and uncle of Natalie MacMaster) packed the theatre with fiddle enthusiasts. And his short set with Jerry Holland and pianist Robert Deveaux delivered the goods while acquainting novices with Cape Breton’s fiddling tradition. Two young fiddlers charmed the audience. Teen fiddler Sara Comer from Arkansas displayed a budding talent when she wasn’t hiding behind her girlish grin. Canadian swing fiddler, Michael Frazier also stunned the audience with his boy wonder abilities and his poise. Keep your eyes out for these emerging talents.

After I learned that the Scandinavian Music Concert with members of Varttina and Gjallarhorn was cancelled, I headed to an outdoor stage just as giant clouds roamed across the sky. As I waiting for the Latin American ensemble, Grupo Condor (from Beaverton, Oregon) to begin their set, I watched a parade of samba drummers pass. Grupo Condor struggled with the wind that was kicking the stage canopy and with their sound, but once the trio settled into their performance, they delivered warm and inviting Andean music from Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and France. The music featured pan flute, congas, guitar and vocals played by veterans of the musical genre. The group has already released several CDs and has a strong following in Oregon where they perform at various festivals.

I attended the Senegalese Show on Sunday. Charismatic drummer Thione Diop (“Jo Jo”) with the group Yeke Yeke and two seductive Senegalese dancers led off the showcase with power beats, polyphonic rhythm and entranced dancing. Although the audience seemed enamored with Diop’s vibrant personality and drumming abilities, the two dancers stole the show with rubber hips and non-stop smiles. Meanwhile, a colleague took her basket through the audience collecting cash for the performers, as is the custom in Senegal and one that honors the musicians.

San Francisco-based griot musician, Henri-Pierre Koubaka followed with quiet, yet mesmerizing set. Accompanied only by his guitar, I had a difficult time hearing his gorgeous songs due to audience members who decided to hold conversations during the short set. While solo performers deal with this sort of audience attention deficit disorder on a regular basis, Henri is an expert at engaging us with his stories and humorous antics. And despite the few rude folks in the audience, Henri’s soaring vocals and innovative guitar left a favorable impression.

I headed outdoors and caught a performance by local performer Gina Sala and her ensemble that consisted of a tabla performer, double bassist and guitar player who doubled on other exotic instruments. Gina coined the phrase global vocal that she fused with groove and devotional music while singing in Hindi, Bulgarian and other languages. The end result was peaceful music with a capitol “P” and a good remedy for my strained nerves.

I headed to the Mercer Arena on Sunday to watch the Arabic Show. Again, even though the showcases featured dancers, poets and musicians, I choose to focus on the musical portion of the show. Writer-musician Hanna Eady sent shudders through the audience with his haunting vocals and oud performance, but he kept apologizing for being on stage again. He had appeared earlier along side a trio of Arab women poets. Of course, no apologies were necessary since it seemed that everyone with the exception of the wailing baby (whose cries echoed throughout the concrete auditorium) seemed to be enjoying them selves. David McGrath introduced the ney (an end-blown flute from the Silk Road) with a performance laced with historical commentary. Soon a drummer joined David and the two musicians launched into traditional Arab dance songs. Master oud player Maurice Rouman also cited ancient history of his instrument, but his broken English proved difficult to comprehend. However, his passionate execution on the oud didn’t need any translation and was absolutely breathtaking. Rouman’s son-in-law and son assisted the frail octogenarian oud master onto the stage and also accompanied on traditional drums. Frailty, old age and Rouman’s small frame did not stop him from unleashing the oud’s hidden powers and secrets.

Finally, I capped off the long weekend with a solo kora performance by Seattle musician, Kane Mathis. Although I always enjoy hearing this West African harp, I would have enjoyed Kane’s presentation and comments more if the theatre ushers had the decency to lower their voices when showing latecomers to their seats and not shine their flashlights in our faces. On that note I will conclude my review, realizing that human behavior does play a big role in any festival environment. And that people come to the Northwest Folklife Festival for a variety of reasons, including people watching, networking, getting stoned, learning about new cultures and supporting local performers and colleagues. I went for the music and witnessed many dynamic events by musicians of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Many of the artists have released recordings and will be performing throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond this summer. For more information on the artists, please visit the NW Folklife Festival web site–directory of artists. www.nwfolklife.org

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Bruce Molsky – a Show Review from Madison, Wisconsin

Bruce Molsky
Bruce Molsky
Running late on this mild spring evening, I angle into the nearest parking spot and run up the steps of an old, gutted, church, transformed into community center. Before even opening the door, I hear a well rosined bow gripping the strings of a fiddle. Chagrinned to have missed the first notes of his opening tune, I push on the wooden door to see Bruce Molsky sitting twenty feet away, on the stage. Molsky’s warm, smiling eyes meet mine and with a friendly nod of his head, he welcomes me into the hall. Everyone, I think, should be so lucky as to receive a personal greeting from this magnificent fiddling genius. I scan the room filled with roughly 60 people and slip into a folding chair next to the sound controls. Besides the two lamps shining on stage, the audio-system’s green desk light provides the only other lamp in the room. I’m at the back of the hall which was once the church’s sanctuary, yet Walking In The Parlor pierces the darkness and rings true in my ears. Molsky couples this tune with Rebel’s Raid. Though not a common technique among old time musicians, Molsky likes to build energy and add interest by pairing tunes together. One number ends and the next begins without any break or interruption.

Continuing with his fiddle, Molsky sings Peg and Awl. His voice grips the air, sounding as rosined as his bow strings. I’m suddenly aware of the many similarities between Molsky’s voice and his fiddle. They resonate amazingly at the same pitch. If his fiddle had lips, it would sing in a voice exactly like Bruce Molsky’s. I close my eyes and let the sonorous duet wash over me.

Molsky then strums his guitar and shakes his head. “It was in tune when I put it on the plane” he jokes. He fingerpicks Knoxville Blues. A tiny baby squirms and babbles among the show attendees, making it easy for me to complete the picture in my mind that I’m not really in the year 2003, in a building on the campus of the University of Madison, Wisconsin. But rather, I’m back in 1902, sitting on a tuft of grass in a Tennessee farm yard with the rest of my family, listening to Uncle Bruce entertain us. It’s not all that far fetched an idea. Old time music has it’s roots in the Appalachian mountains, dating back much father than the early 1900s.

Molsky pulls me back to the present with some banter before playing the tune, Fare The Well. “I’m not from the South. I did grow up in the South Bronx though…you gotta problem with that?” he rasps, smiling broadly. “No, Sir!” calls out a voice from the audience. We all chuckle. I’m not overly impressed with the acoustics tonight. Molsky sounds fine on his instruments and singing, but a touch too soft when talking. I determine to move up to the front during intermission.

The guitar is swapped for the banjo and we are treated to Rove Riley Rove, paired up with Uncle Norm’s. After another banjo number, we learn some finer points about Canada. Before playing a couple of fiddle tunes from John Arcan, The Grey Owl and Victor’s #39, Molsky tells us about a marvelous fiddle festival, Fiddles of the World, held up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was there, four years ago, that Molsky heard about First Nations people. This is the term that Canadians use to refer to the people who lived on that land before the Europeans crossed over the Atlantic. During these two tunes we see Molsky’s animated face. His expressions are so varied, it’s as if he’s deep in conversation with his fiddle.

Lady Hamilton is played and then we are enjoined to sing along with Sail Away Ladies. “If I’m singing and you feel like singing, please join in” he says. While I love to sing, and I do sing along when thusly asked, in general, I’d rather listen. Molsky’s voice takes on such a personal tone, it feels like he is singing just for me. And I’d think everyone in the audience could say the same thing. Again the rich sound of both voice box and fiddle box fill our ears and every crevice of the room. I drink in the sound of the soprano fiddle and the baritone singer, their voices full and luxurious, made for one another. We hear Jeff Sturgeon and Sally’s Little Favorite. Molsky looks out at the audience and smiles an impish grin. As he fiddles these last few songs, his fingers are moving so fast, they fly like a typist on the keyboard typing eighty words per minute.

Cotton Eyed Joe holds several agreeable fiddle tricks. The tune is a lively one and includes Molsky sliding his finger down the peg board as he draws his bow across the string. We also discover that even fiddlers can rap. Old time fiddle master, Tommy Jarrell, taught Molsky the technique of rapping the wooden part of the bow against the fiddle. This tune moves so much, I notice the heel of Molsky’s foot banging from side to side rather than a more sedate toe tapping as he keeps the beat.

After a short intermission, during which we are brought up to-date about local folk music activities by the show’s presenters, Madfolk, we settle back down for Mike in the Wilderness which includes lots of colorful left handed plucking and Black Jack Grove where the bow whips around on the strings so much I am reminded of a flag being pummeled by the wind. I note that Molsky holds his bow with the first three fingers of his right hand. “You could cut off these two (ring finger and pinkie) and it wouldn’t make any difference” he says.

Of Molsky’s many varied musical talents, one of them is not as a choir director. He attempts to get us to sing along in this call and response song, Let’s Go to Hunting. The audience does not respond as hoped. Imagine Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer, handing out paint brushes to his patrons and entreating them to “add another pearl.” It’s just not going to happen. Likewise, Bruce, most of us want to hear you sing, not the off-key fellow sitting next to us. Conversely, the next song, Poor Cowboy, works tonight as a sing-a-long. Maybe because Molsky teaches us how to sing it and it’s a simpler song to sing for those of us who are musically challenged.

Molsky calls himself an African music freak. The next number was influenced by the Zimbabwe National Choir. Molsky heard a recording from the 1967 LP Africa in Revolutionary Music (LSM Records) and wrote this song. It’s still untitled, but Molsky is compelled to share it with us. I’m glad he does. It’s unlike most of his other music and resultantly adds another dimension to his repertoire. “Music evokes a different response every time you play it” he states as an excuse for not being able to find the right name for the song. Indeed, if the song’s emotional message keeps changing with every rendition, naming it would, in a sense, nail it down. That might not be a good thing.

During Roustabout, played on the banjo, Molsky, true to his word, spends time tuning the instrument while simultaneously playing the song. “Banjo players spend half their time tuning their banjo and the other half playing out of tune” he says.

We hear Give The Fiddler A Dram and Three Forks of Cheat, both fiddle tunes. When Molsky sings I Truly Understand and Field Holler, I find I need to look carefully at his feet. His voice sounds so rooted and plangent that I wouldn’t be surprised to see that his feet have become cemented to the floor, he is that solid sounding. His pitch is remarkable. He then warns us that he has only one more song before the evening is over.

Pickin’ The Devil’s Eye is one of my absolute favorites. The way that Bruce plays this makes me think there is more than one fiddler on stage. After this tune and leaving no doubt as to his virtuosity, Molsky exits. We respond in kind with a rousing round of clapping, not stopping until Molsky re-appears. The encore is of the same caliber. We all go home with joy in our hearts.

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Pandit Shivkumar Sharma & Zakir Hussain

King Cat Theatre, Seattle, Washington–USA. May 3, 2003.

When I saw the mostly Indian audience dressed in their finest saris and suits crowd into the King Cat Theatre, I could feel the anticipation. Two of India’s most brilliant musicians, tabla player Zakir Hussain (the son of the legendary tabla master, Alla Rakha) and the world-renowned santoorist, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma would soon bless the audience with their musical presence. And as promised by a fateful invitation, Zakir and Shivkumar did indeed delight their devoted fans and novices such as myself with their sheer virtuosity. And novices to classical Indian music could easily be fooled into thinking that it was Zakir’s concert when in fact, Shivkumar was the featured performer. Every nod or gesture on Zakir’s part brought shudders and applause. Watching the musicians master their instruments or play off of each other’s energy ended in elation and wonderment. As did, focusing on the ripple of muscles under Zakir’s bright orange shirt while his rubber-like hands pounded out beats only he could invent.
The first set began with a Hindustani (North India) raga called Buriya Kalyan. Shivkumar flowed through the alap section, then introduced rhythm in the jor section that grew more complicated through the jhala section. This flowed into the composition and gats section in which, tabla beats were slowly added. It was at this point that the audience elation grew thus waxing and waning with slow rhythms and applauding after musical climaxes. The atmosphere created by the musicians fell somewhere between the sexual act and mathematics as the musicians continued through the rupak tal and ek-tal sections. An intermission came after an explosion of tabla beats and santoor rhythms. Both the musicians and audience members needed a breather.

Of course, the intermission lasted too long and concert goers were still drifting into the theatre and winding their way to their seats long after the raga of the second set, Mishra (mixed) Khmaj had begun. These were obviously people familiar with the slow and tedious alap and jor sections. They were waiting for the interplay between tabla and santoor that in time did occur this time adding playful elements and more complex rhythms with the introduction of folklore elements. Shivkumar had commented earlier that normally a vocalist would be added on this section. Yet the absence of a vocalist appeared to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Ever so often, the musicians would wipe sweat off their foreheads and Zakir would hammer on his tablas, most likely to tune them. They worked their way through slow and fast 16 beat talas while teasing the audience with false endings. The real ending created uproar of applause and left the musicians legendary status intact.

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Ensemble Tartit at Meany Hall, Seattle, WA USA, April 26, 2003

Tartit
Tartit
Opening with a song entitled Democracy, the Tuareg musical group, Ensemble Tartit ignited a relationship with a Seattle audience as well as, opening ears, eyes and minds to a culture that exists in the sands of the African Sahara Desert. Needless to say that it was easy to forget that we were in fact sitting in a packed auditorium while members of Tartit, including four veiled male and five powerful women musicians, sat crossed leg on an oriental rug that graced the stage.

They could in fact be sitting around a cozy campfire sharing their thoughts of politics and life through a reverie of polyphonic voices, hand claps while accompanied by an array of exotic string instruments. One might even be reminded of the French classic, The Little Prince in which the titular character finds himself wandering through the Sahara encountering treasures and insights along the way. It’s an adventure that some might find themselves romanticizing, yet in reality and sadly this nomadic lifestyle is fading with the sands of time due to economics, politics and AIDS (a plague that sweeps across the African continent).

All of these problems were addressed in Tarit’s repertoire of songs and the groups multi-city US tour in which the group appeared in concert and taught workshops at public schools further emphasizes the need for preservation of the Tamashek culture. After all, when tribal cultures lose their natural way of life, they are faced with immense poverty as they try to assimilate into the dominant culture. Language and music disappear along with the souls of those cultures. Everyone loses and it’s a sad affair.

Politics aside, Tartit’s musicians, dancers and vocalists instated a celebratory mood filled with flirtation between the musicians, lively call and response songs and performances on the one-string violin (imzad played by Tafa Walet Alhousseini) lute (tehardant played by Issa Amanou & Idwal Ag Mohamed), an acoustic guitar (Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar) and drums (tinde performed by Walet Mohamedun Fadimata & Fadimata Walet Oumar). Many of the audience members would remember the title of the songs by the instruments featured on the songs. Five of the Tuareg musicians also danced, but not in the usual manner one would expect. Many of the dances were performed in seated positions with the combination of hand gestures and body movements that sent waves under the layers of muslin worn by the performers thus creating a hypnotic effect or something you would expect to find in ancient Egypt.

A few of the dances were performed standing and while hips and pelvis bones did sway, one would never confuse the dancing with more primal dancing found across the African continent. The group leaned toward flowing movements that captured timelessness. It’s difficult to describe and too many adjectives would ruin the magic of the moment. Ensemble Tartit ended the concert with Voice of the Desert, a song that featured a marriage of male and female vocals which could easily be mistaken for a spiritual possession ceremony. As an encore, three of the vocalists sang a capella leaving the audience wanting more. There are CD’s available for those folks who missed this fabulous performance. (As the review appeared on Cranky Crow World Music site).

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WOMADelaide 2003

Womadelaide_2003WOMADelaide 2003 – March 7th-9th
Botanic Park, Adelaide, Australia

Like a fine South Australian red wine, WOMADelaide has matured well with age. Debuting in ‘92 as part of the Adelaide Arts Festival, WOMADelaide quickly established its own identity, running bi-annually as a separate event over the last decade, in alternate years to the Arts Festival.

According to WOMAD’s international supremo Thomas Brooman, “WOMADelaide has become one of the jewels in the crown. It’s such a magic setting, the organisation is superb and the audience is truly wonderful”. Celebrating ten years of WOMAD in Australia, and nestled once again into its green Botanic Park home, Womadelaide 2003 opened on Friday night with a huge crowd.

The evening began with a short traditional “Welcome to Country” ceremony from the local indigenous Kaurna people on the main stage, followed by an energetic display of dance and percussion from Burkina Faso’s impressive musical family Badenya Les Freres Coulibaly. As the other two major stages kicked in with Scotland’s sprightly Shooglenifty and Canadian Celtic/Quebecois band La Volee d’Castors (The Flying Beavers), the festival was well and truly off and running.

An inspired set from Pakistan’s Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali showcased not only the still-maturing talents of the late Nusrat’s talented grandnephews, but also the dub backing of UK beatmeisters Temple of Sound. Having not played together for seven months the collaboration between the two groups was a little sloppy at times, but Count Dubulah’s bass-heavy lines still managed to mesh perfectly with the qawwalis’ potent and impassioned vocals. Muazzam’s body language was at times distinctly reminiscent of his famous uncle, all flailing arms and facial contortions, and their Pakistani backing chorus boasted some of the most enthusiastic hand-clappers I’ve ever seen. It should be fascinating to watch these young Ali Khan men develop more fully over coming years.

Another Friday highlight was an animated set from Mexico’s Zapatista-inspired ska/hiphop outfit Los de Abajo. Fresh-faced and full of fun they managed to create WOMADelaide’s first-ever mosh pit, with a blend of bright brass and righteous resistance. The night closed beautifully with the expected sarod brilliance of classical Indian maestro Amjad Ali Khan, accompanied by his two sons and musical heirs, Amaan and Ayaan.

Early on Saturday afternoon Australian acts King Kadu from the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinean/Fijian/Aboriginal band Drum Drum were equally impressive. Both acts combine modern technology with traditional culture, and the group members all looked sensational. Other local acts that received good responses included Greek/Aussie instrumentalists Apodimi Compania and indigenous country/folk singer Kerrianne Cox.

Colombia’s ageless Toto La Momposina excited the Stage 2 crowd with her fiery, colourful display of cumbia and salsa rhythms, and a wardrobe that would put Las Vegas showgirls to shame. Her experienced band was relaxed, but tight, effortlessly shifting from lively Cuban son to bouncy bolero beats. Meanwhile diminutive young Irish singer Cara Dillon more than filled the vastness of Stage1, her strong tradition-based vocal renditions winning over the hearts of even the harshest Celtic critics.

As the afternoon began to fade, Jamaican guitar legend Ernest Ranglin didn’t have to work too hard in order to please the rapturous crowd. At 70 years of age and still skanking strongly, his flurried fret runs and laid-back demeanor was backed by a seasoned posse of Jamaican session players who swung freely. Looking like Nelson Mandela’s funky younger brother, and with his hollow-bodied guitar glistening in the sun, Ranglin effortlessly worked through his familiar jazz/reggae “Below The Bassline” repertoire. No surprises here, but sometimes the tunes that you know are just the ones that you want to hear. An understated triumph of cool groove.

Elsewhere, American guitar virtuoso Bob Brozman was in fine form on one of the smaller stages, dueting with veteran Okinawan sanshin player Takashi Hirayasu. Working the material from their two excellent collaborative albums, their sets and workshop were a delightful and educative journey into the pop/jazz stylings of Japan and Okinawa, with a little bit of Hawaii and vaudeville thrown in as well.

Less successful on Stage 1 was Benin/French singer Julien Jacob whose songs were based around his own made-up vocal language, and backed by a competent but underwhelming band. While pleasant enough, his set quickly became predictable once the language novelty wore off, and his repeated pacing of the stage didn’t make for a very visually stimulating show. Bobby McFerrin he’s not, and he really should have been presented on a smaller stage.

Later, Senegal’s dreadlocked wonder Cheikh Lo energized the record Saturday night audience with a stirring set. Looking like Sammy Davis Jr. gone to seed, the whippet-thin Lo led his excellent band through their paces. With complex Senegalese mbalax rhythms ricocheting against some exciting tama drum excursions, Lo himself was both visually and vocally strong. While possibly not as personally
magnetic onstage as past Senegalese WOMADelaide superstars Baaba Maal and mentor Youssou N’dour, Cheikh Lo’s eclectic performances this year would certainly have satisfied most West Africa music fans.

But the main man on Saturday night was French/Algerian bad-boy Rachid Taha. With a seemingly endless supply of attitude, arrogance and rock star pretension, Taha’s set was an explosion of frenetic electric oud and guitar soloing, screaming stadium cock-rock posing, and generally a whole lotta fun. Swinging his microphone like some crazed Arabic version of Roger Daltry (but lacking the finesse to actually catch it properly) Taha strutted the stage like a pumped-up rooster, urging his crack band to ever-increasing levels of testosterone-fuelled musical self-indulgence. Most of the crowd loved it of course, but divided opinions the next day varied from “The best thing I’ve ever seen” to “What a wanker!”. Rachid, it would seem, is something of an acquired taste.

For those with stamina the late night WoZone dance club, held at the Student Union of nearby Adelaide University, was a jammed-packed way to keep the party going through the wee hours. Highlights that I enjoyed, before finally succumbing to a few hours of much-needed sleep, were DJ Desperado (aka Thomas Brooman in retro-ska disguise), a dazzling beat-heavy session from the Temple of Sound fellas, and a sample-rich World sound montage from Melbourne’s disc-spinning, odd couple Systa BB & DJ Angelina.

Back at Botanic Park on Sunday afternoon, most acts took the opportunity to flog their CDs, appear on a different stage, and further impress with a second set. Tatarstan/Australian singer Zulya Kamalova led her band through a moving performance, her achingly beautiful voice highlighting the many reasons why it would be no surprise to see her increasingly representing this country overseas in coming years.

Spanish band Felpeyu demonstrated once again the group’s dexterous mastery of their Asturian/Celtic heritage, and solid second sets from Totó La Momposina (with big brass!), Ernest Ranglin, Cheikh Lo and Los de Abajo confirmed their star status. Yet another impassioned performance from Rachid Taha (actually the same set, just with different pants) was slightly more in a Bruce Springsteen mode this time, compared to his Saturday night Algerian Elvis impersonation. It was also impossible to get him off the stage at the end of his set. That guy was born to be contrary.

An all-star Festival Finale brought the weekend to a close. Bravely working by the Chaos Theory, English cellist Matthew Barley made a gallant attempt to supervise the unorganizable throng, which while ragged, still successfully encapsulated the musical spirit and comradery of the entire weekend. Notable contributions in this mad final set were made by Irish troubadour Andy White, Takashi Hirayasu, Ranglin, Zulya, various Temple of Sounders, Toto’s entire brass section and sundry Mexicans. The security boys had a nightmare trying to decide who to let onstage and who to turn away, and in the end, to their credit, simply gave up. A pleasant time was had by all. One helluva good festival.

Postscript:
As a result of a deal announced earlier in 2002 between WOMAD International and the South Australian Government, WOMADelaide will henceforth become an annual, rather than bi-annual, festival. Dates for the 2004 event are yet to be confirmed.

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Jorma Kaukonen & Jon Shain at The Arts Center in Carrboro

Concert Review by Rob Turner
Jorma Kaukonen &Jon Shain at The Arts Center in Carrboro, North Carolina, February 19, 2000.

Jorma Kaukonen’s return to the “triangle” area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) was part of a big weekend on Franklin Street just outside of Chapel Hill. Literally two storefronts away the Smashing Pumpkins were slated to perform a rare club date at Cat’s Cradle. Unfortunately, two of the original members of the band were unable to perform that night, so the cogitative Billy Corgan performed most of the show solo.

Word has it he pulled it off just fine, by the way, some of his most hardcore fans were actually delighted while a handful took advantage of the band’s offer to redeem admission to any displeased patrons.There was no refund seeking at The Arts Center on this night.

These two artists were planning on performing solo all along. Jorma Kaukonen, veteran of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and so much more, was the headline. His appearance was met with much excitement, as it was his first area gig in an intimate setting since an appearance at Under The Street in Durham seven years prior (almost to the date, 2/13/93).

Jon Shain, who opened for Hot Tuna as well as Kaukarano (Jorma’s duo gig with Michael Falzarano) a number of times as a member of Flyin’ Mice, was in a familiar pre-Kaukonen slot. (Jorma even sat in with the now-defunct Mice a couple of times.) The combination of the return of a legend, and one of the triangle’s finest singer/songwriters, made the show an easy sellout.

Jorma Kaukonen’s set

The Letter
Loan Me A Year
Child Of Tomorrow’s Summers
Sapphire Sky
New Year’s Eve
Porcupine Rag
Armchair Warrior
One Way Gal
Acoustic Solo
Perambulatory Blues
Step It Up And Go

Jon Shain’s set:
Jon Shain was in the middle of a hell of a week. He and his wife had just closed on a new house. How many people can say that they were opening for Jorma Kaukonen Saturday night, and then picking up a truck rental Sunday morning to spend the entire day moving?

Shain opened the set with a version of his updated take on Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee’s The Letter. While his performance on acoustic guitar was a little shaky behind the initial vocal portion, the first section of lead guitar was so impressive it elicited applause from the crowd. The next six songs were from Shain’s 1999 solo release “Brand New Lifetime”. His finger picking on Loan Me A Year was a bit more subdued than usual, perhaps in deference to Mr. Kaukonen. He chose spice up this version with a lead guitar not usually heard on Loan Me A Year, and an enlivened lead vocal.

Jon was in strong vocal form the entire set. This paid off particularly well as he offered note-perfect versions of three of his stronger recent originals, which also were well received by his hometown crowd. Child Of Tomorrow’s Summers featured the presumably unintentional nod to Corgan’s worries at Cat’s Cradle, with the lyric “frightening nightmare’s in the cradle.” This was a particularly impassioned rendition, as Shain engaged himself in the lyrics of the song, especially as he sang, “at harvest time we’ll have to scour the field, for the seeds we’ve never sown.” He also played a note-perfect, gorgeous solo in this number.

One of Shain’s favorite one-two punches lately has been the old-timey Porcupine Rag, and the Stephen Stills-flavored muscular acoustics of Armchair Warrior. These two shined particularly bright tonight, and grunts of appreciation for Shain’s luscious guitar picking emitted from finger watchers sitting up near the stage.

Shain then pointed out that another one of his heroes was in The Arts Center that night, the esteemed North Carolina bluesman Lightnin’ Wells. Shain then performed One Way Gal, which he introduced as written by a Piedmont blues musician from the twenties, William Moorealthough Shain stole it off of one of Wells’ albums. Shain also chose this moment to acknowledge the many guitar students of his that were in attendance, to which the students shouted out their approval.

There were many of Shain’s most fervent fans in the house also, and he treated them to a rare solo reading of a former Flyin’ Mice showstopper, the poorly titled instrumental epic, Acoustic Solo. (I always thought the title didn’t do the adventurous song justice) Later, one taper who follows Shain’s career closely suggested that it may have been the first live version since Flyin’ Mice disbanded. 

Perambulatory Blues, a long time staple of many Shain projects, found him offering a fiery lead at breakneck pace, definitely his strongest guitar work of the set. Jon then engaged the crowd in a call and response on the set-closing Step It Up And Go. As he departed the stage, most of the audience exalted him with a standing ovation.

I was taken by the respect Jon showed Jorma by shaping his set to complement Jorma’s performance rather than compete with it. The Americana feel of some of his songs, the guttural singing synchronized with an entire lead he took on Armchair Warrior, and of course the call and response with the crowd on Step It Up And Go, all served to appropriately whet the audience’s musical palette for the Jorma set that followed. Shain displayed an awareness of the fact that there is no need to finger pick too many tunes when one of the greatest of all time is on deck.

Jorma Kaukonen’s set:
Harvey Colman’s Clapton Story Intro
Trouble In Mind
Hesitation Blues
Walkin’ Blues
How Long Blues
Death Don’t Have No Mercy
Do Not Go Gentle
I See The Light
Sunny Day Strut
True Religion
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Living In The Moment
Good Shepherd
99Year Blues
I Am The Light Of This World
Ice Age
Genesis
Follow The Drinking Gourd
Uncle Sam Blues
Happy Turtle Song
Mann’s Fate
San Francisco Bay Blues
Water Song

Police Dog Blues

Keep On Truckin’

One thing that highlights how Jorma has improved, as a performer in the years that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy him is his vocal delivery. As far back as I can remember, Jorma’s guitar prowess has always been evident. However, when I first started seeing Jorma in the eighties, his vocal approach, while always resonant with soul, was sometimes was lacking in comprehensibility. While he was still a delight to see back then, one really had to come to the show armed with prior knowledge of the lyrics of his repertoire to garner a full appreciation. While he still has his own distinctive warm growl delivered with robust soul, he now also sings with consistent clarity. And his guitar work…well…. ridiculous…..off the hook….at times inconceivable….Jorma is one of those artists that render words worthless and weak, but that’s all we got so here we go.

Jorma’s tour manager and close friend, the enigmatic Harvey Colman, regaled the crowd with a story while introducing the man some call, “The Captain.” “Eric Clapton was doing an interview one time and somebody asked him, ‘How does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world?’ And Eric said, “I don’t know, ask Jorma Kaukonen!” After showing Harvey some appreciation for going the extra mile with the introduction, Jorma slid into a tune believed by many to be written by B lind Connie Williams, Trouble In Mind. Jorma eased into the set with pretty straight readings of this and Hesitation Blues. That is to say, straight by lofty Kaukonen standards. He did lend some extra muscle to one portion of Hesitation. Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues seemed to energize Jorma, as one slightly botched section gave way to muscular low note improvisations immediately.

Jorma threw down some stunning instrumental work, holding notes and series’ of notes to build tension, and slamming out of them only to return to more liberal improvisation and eventually launch into other note holding sessions. Some of the riffs that he tossed out during Walkin’ were nothing short of jaw dropping, and the show was in gear.

Responding to a request for In The Kingdom, Jorma shared a prayer that he had heard on NPR recently, “I pray for the day I can be the man my dog thinks I am.” He then laid a spectacular version of How Long Blues on us, which featured some stunning sinewy guitar lines. His vocal was outstanding as well, especially his delivery of, “I thought I heard a whistle, mama I think I see a train. Deep in my heart there is a achin’ pain.”

I thought Death Don’t Have No Mercy was going to be the rarely performed Another Man Done Gone at first, until he injected an acrobatic low note guitar roll into the introduction signaling that it was indeed Death. Again, he exhibited many stunning low note guitar flurries. One of the many head-scratching things about Jorma is the amount of notes he can get out with very little plucking from his right hand. That left hand of his is often solely responsible for many, many strong notes, while his right hand patiently waits above the strings. His guitar playing in the verse section of Death seemed to be entirely improvised, and even the fastest riffs didn’t throw off his timing one bit. Jorma’s instrumental passages were pure ear candy, with high notes here, some lusciously repeated chordal work thereit was truly an amazing reading.

I enjoy Do Not Go Gentle, because it is a song that particularly allows Jorma to take it wherever he pleases. Tonight, it wandered into some sweetly ethereal spaces. The opening chords of True Religion, sparked some hoots out of the attentive audience. The reading was slightly slower than I am used to, which seemed to put more emphasis on the prescient lyric of this Tuna classic. Just the way he inserts a gentle smidge of his growl into the verse ending “Hal-ay-lu’s” (phonetic) was chill-inducing.
Nobody Knows You lends itself to Jorma’s style of vocal and phrasing beautifully. An example of one of my favorite things about Jorma was when he crooned the “Nobody Knows You When” and then with “Your” he trailed to a growl and let his guitar play the “Down and Out,” part which flowed seamlessly into an instrumental section. As Harvey would ask, “does it get any better than this….really….does it?”

Living In The Moment, is a new song that will soon have words, “if I’m lucky,” Jorma says. It is a contemplative piece, which tonight I believe had a new portion that wasn’t included in the version I had seen in Atlanta just two days back. It’s always nice to hear Jorma working on new material. This is especially true with a piece like this one, where there is ample space for improvisation. I’m sure Jorma will take advantage of this as he becomes more familiar it. One fan yelled out, “don’t need no words Jorma!”To which the eternally quick-witted Kaukonen responded, “That’s not what my wife says!” Jorma dipped back to his psychedelic days with a heart-felt rendering of Good Shepherd, which was first made popular by the Jefferson Airplane. His vocals were spiced with quiet embellishments. He effortlessly alternated delicate guitar parts with resonant chords where his left hand grabbed the guitar with such might I though he was gonna throw the thing. Jorma also displayed some energetic rhythm guitar before and during the familiar descending patterns that return the song to its final lyric.

99 Year Blues has become something of a “hit” for Kaukonen lately, as the crowd responded to the opening notes, and the end of the first verse for that matter, with fervent applause (as they did in Atlanta). Jorma appeared more than happy to play 99 Year Blues as he fired off some dizzying guitar lines, and was jubilantly toying with the phrasing. Rev. Gary Davis’ I Am The Light Of This World, provided further evidence of Jorma’s ability to easily work his left hand across the fret board like a contortionist. The crowd seemed hypnotized by a spectacular reading of his own spooky composition, Ice Age. Jorma took full advantage of this piece on the final instrumental portion, which found him to twisting the song into new directions before he power-strummed it to its conclusion.

A woman squealed with delight when Jorma announced that he was going to perform Genesis. Jorma thanked the exuberant fan by saying, “bless you.” Widespread Panic covers this song occasionally, and in case some of their younger fans don’t know, it i a Kaukonen-penned Hot Tuna song. His heart-wrenching lead vocal was mesmerizing as Jorma delivered a memorable version of this wonderful song. After its completion, Jorma got ta’ talkin’ about surreal moments, and among the ones he shared was a recent day that he had heard his instrumental Water Song in an Ohio airport. After a couple more stories, he offered an extended version of his instrumental, Follow The Drinking Gourd in lieu of a requested White Rabbit.

While all of Jorma’s material takes on a different feel in a solo setting, this version of Uncle Sam Blues departed radically from any I’ve ever heard. His choices of where to accent, lyrically and instrumentally, were strikingly adventurous. This made for an interesting listen, as did the Jorma chestnut that followed. A friend of Jorma’s had asked him to perform Happy Turtle Song, and Jorma obliged, introducing it as “A little thing in C.” It was a quick lil’ nug, but I’ll take it. Hot on its heels was a version of Mann’s Fate that was nothing short of stunning. There was one point where he was repeating two separate guitar lines in unisonJorma at his stunt acoustic guitar best!

I’ve always preferred Jorma’s approach to Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues to anyone else’s, and tonight’s version did not disappoint. He twisted the song beautifully, stretching out some words, and galloping through others. His fingers skipped across the guitar as he offered an unthinkable array of rhythms, repeated notes, and sick licks. The room seemed in collective awe as it was beyond silent until a rousing ovation greeted its conclusion.

Jorma’s tantalizing reading of Water Song ended the set. The crowd exploded with a loud standing ovation that did not let up until he returned to tune up for a solid version of “Police Dog Blues.” After he attempted to leave again, the crowd continued to roar their approval. The venue turned on the house music, but that only caused the crowd to increase its cheering. As the thunderous applause drowned out the house music, Jorma re-emerged to leave us with a animated version of Keep On Truckin

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