All posts by Dorothy Johnson-Laird

Dorothy Johnson-Laird comes from a long line of musicians, including a music teacher in the 1820s in England. As a child she trained in both classical and jazz piano. Dorothy has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. At New School University, she was the Research Assistant for a course taught on gender issues and women in blues music. Dorothy's passion is African music. She was formerly a regular contributor to worldmusic.about.com.

Dymphi Peeters Soars

Dymphi Peeters – Photo by Glenn Cornelisse

Dymphi Peeters started out life in Afferden, Limburg, a small town in the Netherlands of about 2000 people.  As a child, she never imagined becoming a professional musician.  She first learnt wooden flute then moved onto silver flute.  She taught herself the ngoni, an African stringed instrument.  Later, she worked to master the kora, a multi-stringed African instrument. 

Dymphi has performed with several groups, including the Ecstatic Dance Band and Mehmet Polat’s Trio. Mehmet describes her as, “a talented and open minded musician.”

Dymphi Peeters – Gaia

On her recent album, “Gaia” she steps out more on her own.  This CD is a collaboration with Andre Schoorlemmer.  He plays guitar, bass guitar, and also engineers. Dymphi’s songs invent a new world: her powerful voice soars over electronica with the steady pulse of the kora.  Dymphi describes her music as, “inner world music with a meditative atmosphere.” She has a hippy spirit and sunny demeanor. Yet do not be misled by her gentleness.  Her music mesmerizes.

DJL: Were your parents musical? What was your early musical experience?

DP:   My parents were somewhat musical.  My mother was a schoolteacher.  She played the flute and later learned the djembe in her fifties.  My father played guitar.  They always supported my desire to learn to play music.  When I was younger, I performed flute in a small folk music group.  We toured small villages in the Netherlands and abroad in countries like Slovenia and, Croatia. As a teenager, I loved rock music, the Cranberries Alannis Morrisette and the musical Hair.  

DJL: What is your musical background?

DP:  I spent one year learning classical flute at a conservatory.  I played for several years with folk bands, learning Balkan and other folk music, and with a flamenco band. Once, in a music lesson, there was a woman whose African boyfriend had died. She had his ngoni.  I felt drawn to this instrument.  It then took me a year to find my own ngoni to play.

I always had a deep longing to sing.  I met Dobrinka Yankova, who is a Bulgarian opera singer, and took singing lessons from her.  She said I had talent. Later, I learned about freeing the voice in a creative way through voice healing from Marius Engelbrecht.

DJL: What is voice healing?

DP:   It helps people sing with the different parts of their body as a way of healing. I now teach it.  They are welcome to sing their pain and their stories.  They may connect with the core of the earth or with their ancestors.

DJL: Why do you choose to help others through voice healing?

DP:   Voice healing has allowed me to heal myself and to follow my dreams.  I used to work as an educational designer, then became a professional musician. Through work in voice healing, I want people to connect more to their intuition and to all the support which surrounds them. I want them to be their free authentic selves and to stand in their power, in a balance between the divine masculine and feminine energies. I encourage them to create from their inner qualities.

DJL: You have also described the birth of your daughter as being a part of your musical transformation.

DP:   I quit my job to take care of my daughter.  I always carried her close to me in a baby sling .  It was because of her birth that I was guided back to the heart and to love.  As a result of her birth and my longing for music, I started to host concerts in the Netherlands, where ten musicians would come together and play intuitively. These concerts were a true adventure in music. Playing intuitively was freeing for me. When I was in Amsterdam to give an intuitive concert with a friend, I first heard Mehmet Polat. Hey played after us.

DJL: What was it like hearing Mehmet play? 

DP:   When I heard Mehmet play oud for the first time, I immediately connected with his music. It felt like home. I even felt a bit sad that I was not playing this kind of music. It touched something deep in me.

Luckily we connected afterwards. He asked me, “Do you play the kora?”  And I said, “No, I play the ngoni.” Mehmet said, “There’s an album I want to create. I have a particular sound in mind.  Can you learn to play the kora in six months?  I know you have inside you what I need for my trio.” 

Mehmet saw a musical quality in me that I did not know existed. I’m very grateful for his courage to give me an opportunity to play with him. When I’m on stage, I always feel supported by a bigger field of love. I feel connected to his music. I love the music we create from the heart.

Dymphi Peeters

DJL: What was it like to learn the kora?

DP:   When Mehmet talked to me about learning the kora, I had to learn it very fast. It was March and in October we would tour Mexico, Austria, Germany and The Netherlands. He was planning to do a CD.  When he asked me to learn, I had to sleep on the decision overnight, and then I said “yes.”  I felt it was a life-changing opportunity. And so it was!

At times when I was learning the kora, I would say to myself, “What am I doing?”  At first, I was terrible and nervous. Then I would continue to practice and say to myself, “You can do this.”  It was hard, but I had spent a year studying opera, and that experience made me realize I could do it. You can learn so fast if you invest time, and only practice from a place of love for the instrument and for the music.

I learned to play the kora from Mehmet’s sheet music compositions. I watched some Youtube videos and listened to kora music. I taught myself and also took a couple of lessons with Zoumana Diarra. Zoumana was the former kora player in Mehmet’s trio before I joined. I play on a kora built by him. My kora has 24 strings instead of the normal 21.  It also has tuning clips so that I can play in different tonalities.

DJL: The kora plays a central role in your new album. Is “Gaia” the first CD that you have initiated?

DP:   Yes, “Gaia” is the first serious CD I have created with Andre Schoorlemmer.  I did not want to make beautiful music alone. I wanted to create something from a deep place. The album feels very true to me.  I could not have completed it without Andre’s help.

DJL: Who is Andre Schoorlemmer?

DP:   I have known Andre for years. He is a dear friend. I played with him in flamenco concerts and in the intuitive dream concerts I organized. Andre is a brilliant musician. He owns a recording studio. He also creates film music. In 2017, I was asked by DJ Esta Polyesta from the Ecstatic Dance scene to record some kora and vocals so she could create a dance track from them.  I recorded these in Andre’s studio. He started playing with the recordings afterwards just for fun, and created a track called Trance Dance that is also on the latest CD. When I listened to this track, it made me so happy.  Then we decided to make a CD together. The creative process was fun and easy. I so loved Andre’s input and ideas. He challenged me every time. The result of our creative process is “Gaia!”

Dragonfly Ecstatic Dance Band – Into the Unknown

DJL: Why “Gaia”?

DP:   I chose “Gaia” as the name, because I feel the feminine power of being rooted in and connected to the earth. The kora has an earthy quality. It is like a pumpkin. One story goes that the instrument was invented by a woman.

DJL: Your voice is powerful. On the title track, “Gaia,” there is the regular pulse of the kora, your vocal is percussive at times, sounding as the steady tick-tock of a clock, and at times has a deep, grounded vocal. Can you talk about this song?

DP:   In the song, I want us to remember our nature—that we are part of the earth. Gaia is in us all. The song is also about sisterhood, about supporting and loving each other.  It is about being natural, authentic, deep, and intuitive.

DJL:  Speaking of sisterhood, there are tracks on the album that address different aspects of being a woman: “Woman Goddess,” and “Sirens of the Ocean.”  Sirens is a gentle, easy song with a lullaby feel. Your fingers carefully caress the ngoni as you sing alongside it. You create a soft breeze. You call the listener in.

DP:   Yes, that’s true. I want women to come out from the shadows and stand in the light.  And with “Sirens of the Ocean,” I love water and swimming. It energizes me. We are 85% water.  Sound makes the water vibrate. Water has an old wisdom. It is older than we are.

DJL: Your singing is this album’s highlight. Has your voice become stronger over the years?

DP:   When I was young, I was scared to use my voice. I talked very softly. My voice became much stronger once I practiced voice healing and took classical singing lessons. Voice healing is like a cleansing of energy. I worked through the energy blockages in my body over the years. That’s how I could get more conscious of my body, and how my voice got stronger.

DJL: Are there female singers that have inspired you?

DP:   I was always drawn to female voices.  I’m inspired by Dobet Gnahore from Côte d’Ivoire. Her music has a homecoming feeling in it for me. I enjoy Ane Brun from Norway and Gjallarhorn who are a Finnish folk band. I love Loreena Mckennitt‘s music and Nynke Laverman, who performs Dutch fado.

My main theme in life is to dare to take my own space, to be my authentic self, and to stand in my power. The more you are present in your body, the more you can sing from your body—the freer your voice gets.  My voice is a metaphor for all the aspects of my life. The more I liberate my voice, the more free and powerful I can become in my life.

From a hidden place, she unfurls her long wings, spreads them wide and sings. She soars as the kora accompanies her.  Now sure of herself, she flies.  

More information about Dymphi

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Karim Dabo’s Path to Peace

Karim Dabo

One day, I stumbled across Karim Dabo’s music online and I was transfixed. His vocals are soft and sensitive.

Even though you may not understand the lyrics as he sings in Wolof (a West African language), as a listener you are soothed and comforted by their gentleness. The vocals invite you into an atmosphere of peace, even relaxation. Karim is a good percussionist, but it is his singing that holds you in an embrace. In January 2014, his debut album “Sama Yone” came out. The sound is very spare, light, and acoustic with only drums, guitar, bass, kora and percussion accompanying his voice. Yet there is power in the simplicity. It sounds like folk music. Out of curiosity and wanting to learn more, I reached out to Karim for an interview and he responded.

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

Was music also forbidden to you?

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

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

Yours is an incredible voice, when did you start to sing?

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

Karim Dabo

Why did you want to make your own sound?

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

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

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

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

I am saying to African people we can make a choice for our development. It is not necessary to take a path in the same direction as Europe and America. We can make our own way. I believe this message is important, because when I go to Dakar, Senegal, I see a paradox in the people. I see a lot of people who want to live the same life as Americans or Europeans, but they are not being authentic to Africa.

This song is about how we can have our own way of life without being influenced by the West. The track was also inspired by the African musician Tiken Jah Fakoly, whose music often communicates directly and strongly with African people. I am saying we can build an authentic Africa, with an African spirit. Africa is beautiful and I think we can do a lot of things in Africa. In this song there is a little bit of revolution because I want to see African people strong and proud.”

Karim Dabo – Sama Yone

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

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

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

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

Karim Dabo

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

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

So, is peace important to you?

“I am also a Social Worker, I work with people who are in difficulty. I’ve worked with disabled people and troubled youth. I’ve also learned to understand people by the way they play music. Through this experience I learned peace and self-control.

Karim has used music in his Social Work practice as a way to connect with others and to enable clients to express emotions or difficulties that they may carry inside.

Because you have to remain calm to do Social Work?

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

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

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Kaïssa’s Joy

Kaïssa

Kaïssa greets me warmly at the door of her New York City apartment. She is a tall, thin, striking beauty with dark penetrating eyes. Born in Cameroon, she left at thirteen for France. As a young woman in Paris, she was first inspired musically by her elder brother. Raymond Doumbè Mouloungo is a bass player and led Miriam Makeba‘s band for several years.

Kaïssa began her musical apprenticeship in Paris, singing backing vocals for some of the greatest musicians to emerge from Africa: including Salif Keita and Manu Dibango. In 1996 she emigrated to New York. Here, she began to sing, songwrite and record independently. I Am So Happy, her second solo CD, was released in July 2011. We met in New York to discuss her life, her music, and this CD.

When you left for France as a young teenager, did you still feel a connection to Cameroon?

Yes a very strong connection! I have to acknowledge this was quite a trauma. It was quite a change. I moved from a very warm place, filled with people, a huge family. I am the youngest of ten, so you know when you get the love from your mum, it’s not the only woman’s love you get, you will see that when you go to Africa.”

The sense of community in your country, is that what you’re talking about?

Absolutely, that was what was terribly missing in France.” (Her voice is decisive.) “It was a culture shock. Something I first observed was an older woman, my neighbor’s children did not visit her. This happened in the French, modern, so called ‘civilized society. So, no, Cameroon never left me, because it was in me. Why the move at such a young age? Because my parents were told by a doctor that there was something wrong with my eyes, and they wanted me to get the best treatment available.”

You moved alone?

I traveled alone, but my three brothers and one sister lived here and were attending Parisian Universities. As a teenager, I used to break my brother’s ears, I want to sing, I want to sing,” (she chuckles), “One day he said, ‘you want to sing, don’t you want to sing? He was a member of ALAFIA band and Angelique Kidjo was one of the singers. She was unable to make the gig that night, that was the beginning.”

Tell me about that time in Paris, your musical life?

When I moved to France, Africa was very present culturally; it was a rich platform being in Paris in the late seventies and eighties. I sang in Bambara, Arabic, Wolof, Zulu, Duala, and French. You had so many African musicians,” She says enthusiastically.

So living in Paris exposed you to music that you would not have heard had you grown up in Cameroon?

Exactly, Paris was a very, very rich platform. So that’s when my brother said ‘viens, apprendre’ come, learn, and I had one week to learn the songs in Mina, one of the languages from Benin.” She laughs.

“So the experience in France, it prepared you for the musician you are now, doing backing vocals for all these great artists?

Absolutely, yes, my experiences in Paris, the diverse tours I did with Salif, Papa were the greatest schools, music and all of that, show business.”

Kaïssa

But, before Paris, you said that your father was musical?

Oh yes, it was how we would occupy ourselves on Saturdays, long meals, ten kids at the table, plus Uncles, Aunts, friends visiting, so, yes, we could all hear him. He could sing, and of course being born in Cameroon, that is one wonderful artistic tapestry. You have music, art, culture every day, every hour.

The particularity of Cameroon is that there are so many different people. It is a country in Africa with over two hundred and fifty languages; so many different languages mean many different rhythms. You go, for example, from the pop Soul Makossa of Manu Dibango with its strong bass to the music of the Bamilike, which is a 6/8 rhythm. We grew up listening to that diversity every day and I am really feeling blessed I was born there.”

Kaissa – I am So Happy

I am So Happy captures just the musical diversity that Kaïssa describes. It ranges effortlessly from soul to jazz to slow ballads. Each track is unique, yet the tracks work easily together. Kaïssa’s vocals strengths are twofold: she sings from the heart and has great vocal versatility. The first track on the CD, “Baka”, successfully highlights her technique. Here her voice becomes fun, playful, percussive, mimicking a drum. The rhythms interweave with repetitive breathing on this song, reflecting the traditional sounds of the Baka forest people.

Talk to me about the song “Baka.

Growing up I saw some kids making fun of the Baka and them being disregarded. Why should that continue today in a world where they should be protected, where the natural habitat should be restored? They are known as pygmies, but I don’t like that word because it is condescending. Growing up, kids would call them monkeys, and yet these are the original people of Africa. How can we go forward if we ignore everything from the past and treat them as if they are animals? And let me tell you their music is beautiful and they have a profound understanding of herbs, life and more.”

Indeed, a concern for humanitarian issues weaves its way throughout this CD. Kaïssa speaks to justice in her music, “One lady said ‘you should not sing about female genital mutilation on “Fanta.” You’re going to alienate a lot of people, and you’re not going to be understood. They might not play the CD.’ But I had to do it. This song “Fanta” is very personal to me even though I was not a victim of genital mutilation, this problem concerns us all. I first heard about this practice as many people did in France in the early eighties. This Malian child was about three and she died as a result of mutilation. It was all over the news, and I think legislators in France were forced to take action to try to prevent it from happening again. I remember crying, and asking my brothers. I was fourteen, and I could not believe it! I said, ‘Her own parents took her, explain to me why do they do that?’ I swore that one day I would write and maybe sing about it. I wrote the lyrics about four years later, exactly as they are.”

“Fanta,” is an earnest and introspective song. It is simple, yet full of feeling with the spare, gentle accompaniment of guitar and kora. Kaïssa sings, “Babo ba nongui oa owone, the lyrics say:

They took you away,
thinking they knew only the best that is good for you.
They never looked into your eyes,
because they would have seen you are such a precious, little being.

Kaïssa said, “I wrote it and then I met Idan Raichel about five years ago and he said, “Oh I have a melody,’ so we worked on it and then I re-recorded it a couple of months ago for the album. So you know this CD has really been a long work in the making.”

Tell me about the inspiration of your father – the fact that he got arrested in Cameroon. You have said this was a pivotal moment in your life. Did he influence you in terms of your commitment to justice?

“My Dad was Secretary of Culture in the first Cameroonian government in the early 1960’s. He was arrested in 1973 for writing “subversive” literature.

To me he was a visionary, more than a politician, I don’t think he should have touched politics, because he had to speak his mind and criticized the government. They used the pretext of the book he’d written to say he said bad things about the government. His thoughts about life, justice, liberty, left a serious imprint on me. After he got arrested, we went as a family to visit him in prison. They had taken his shoelaces away.

I remember asking my mother why they did that. Then closing, locking the door and it was so dark in that prison cell. After that, they never took me back. I came to realize he was jailed on no grounds, no court, no trial, nothing! You see one of the most important people in your life being taken away, and it’s an image that will never leave me until my last breath. So, yes, I sing about things that matter to me, that I believe are important.”

Tell me about working with Salif Keita, one of the best known singers from West Africa? What was that like? (Keita’s inspiration can be felt on her version of “Mandjou,” a song previously recorded by him)

“I love Salif, I love Mandinka music, it moves me, I always liked it. Working with Salif was an honor, an unbelievable great school.

Kaissa

You don’t like to be in one box, in one genre of, for example, rhythm and blues, Salif symbolizes West Africa. You like your music to be diverse.

“No I don’t! It is too restrictive. My music is diverse firstly because of the great diversity we have in Cameroon. Between my first solo CD and this one, the woman who inspired me the most musically, Miriam Makeba, who I called Mazi passed away. I recorded “Ntylo Ntylo” as tribute to her. She came to one of my first gigs with my mum and my brother.” (Kaïssa smiles fondly), “And when my brother confirmed that she would be there my throat went bloop, (gasp) because I had never sung in front of her before, and she gave me a standing ovation. That was a wonderful gift. That is something I will never forget.”

And finally, tell me about the title track, “I am So Happy.” This is truly an upbeat song.” (The sound is light, fast, somewhat funky, pop in feel).

When our oldest brother Eyoum passed in 2001, my sister Mamadé sent me a beautiful poem saying: ‘I’m not dead, I just went to the other side, keep on talking to me as you used to.’ I don’t remember who wrote those words, but they strongly helped me go through the process of grief. When Mamadé passed 5 years ago that poem she had handwritten helped me to go through the terrible pain of losing a loved one.”

It gave you comfort.

“Yes, it gave me a lot of comfort, because those words are so true. You lose someone, but at the end of the day, they are still somehow in you. And then you realize that love does not end. And that’s why I sing, “I am So Happy” because love never ends.”

What would you want a listener to take away from this CD?

It’s really for people to get what they want; I’m not here to educate or to indoctrinate. When people come to Zinc bar, for example, and tell me: ‘Oh, I walked in and I was so sad and disappointed by life and now I’m leaving and I am uplifted‘. (She laughs.) “Oh boy, that feels good, I know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Music can be a powerful tool. It has helped me deal with my own demons. And when people tell me they feel better, I feel great, because that’s what I want my music to do, to relax, for people to have fun, to think, for listeners to take whatever they want to take from it. I am putting out there things that are important to me, that make me smile, that shock me, and that I think should get more attention. Finally, I want to stay true to myself, to my music and what I want to present. I want to put people in a place of joy.

For more information about Kaïssa, please visit www.kaissa.com

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Elikeh: A Journey Between 2 Worlds

Elikeh – Photo by John Shore

“Between 2 Worlds” is the second CD release for Elikeh (Azalea City Recordings; released 2012). They are a big band based in Washington, D.C. who are best heard live. Imagine the punch of James Brown’s horns combined with the melodic guitar of Afrobeat and you would not go far wrong. Comprised of drums, percussion, two lead guitars, bass, two sax, trumpet and keyboards, their stage presence can enliven a sleepy crowd and get everyone on the dance floor.

This CD does an excellent job of capturing the band’s live sound and their versatility as performers: with a bass section that has the flexibility to encompass Togolese rhythms and funk in one heartbeat.

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Massama Dogo, their leader, about this latest release. When I asked him about the difference between this CD and the first, Massama, on lead vocals and guitar, explains, “On the first CD, we recorded different sections of musicians to make one track, here we recorded each track all together live in the studio.” Massama always wants to learn, “I seek inspiration from all the band members. We all come from different places and developed skills in different genres, rock, soul, yet I like to learn where I can. I learn from Frank Martins (lead guitar) and Clayton Englar (sax) who are both veterans.”

Elikeh – Between 2 Worlds

The CD starts with “No Vision” a slow, languorous track that uses a delicate guitar sound, but then builds in energy to the upbeat, highly danceable “Olesafrica” (an Osibisa cover). Here the music takes off as the chant of “Olesafrica” is interspersed between the lyrics and carries the music forward. The drummer opens up and flies with an intricate and hypnotic solo. It is with the fast, high energy songs such as this one that Elikeh excels. The lead guitar stretches out and space is made for a good rock improvisation. Massama’s deep, heartfelt voice adds to the quality of the music. Throughout this album Massama’s authentic, determined and sometimes frustrated voice compels the listener to pay attention.

Massama is impassioned about justice and this comes across in his lyrics. He says, “Injustice has been around since before I started to play music. To fight injustice is a part of my heart so it is natural that it be in the music.”

The music is helped this time by guest appearances from two great musicians, Vieux Farke Touré and John Kadlecik. Vieux originates from the Malian blues tradition, his father was the renowned musician Ali Farka Touré, while John comes from the American rock tradition. When asked about the experience of working with Vieux, Massama relates, “We opened for him in Washington, D.C., and ever since then, we became friends. When we found out he would record with us the band were jumping up and down like kids with excitement.”

This friendship can be felt on the track “Alonye.” Here Vieux’s bluesy guitar riffs fit right into the upbeat swing of the band. Vieux’s blues bring a soulful feeling to the music. Rather than taking over though, he has the understanding and sensibility to work right alongside the band with his guitar. On “Alonye” Vieux’s guitar in part echoes and corresponds with Massama’s deep and direct vocals, as if both are enjoying and thriving from the connection.

When I asked Massama about his hopes for the future of the group, he says: “Right now we are a regional band, I am hoping we will get more national gigs and little by little I want us to become international.”

With “Between 2 Worlds” Elikeh have finally arrived. A hard working and disciplined band, they deserve more space in the spotlight.

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Dawn Avery: Performance as Prayer

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

In Dawn Avery’s recent album “Beloved,” her voice is strong and determined. Her songs are often slow and thoughtful. Her cello traces graceful circles around a guitar and a Persian tar – a stringed instrument similar to a sitar. The daf, a Kurdish frame drum, provides a steady, low, underlying rhythm. Gentle waves wash over the listener.  The music is a synthesis of her many musical experiences.  She has worked with Philip Glass, Sting, and many other stars.  Her music has echoes of Glass’s compositions. It is cyclical – it pulls listeners in and moves them into a meditative space. 

Dawn Avery – Beloved

“Beloved,” is Dawn’s embrace of her Mohawk heritage and her study of Sufism. Her music explores the Sufi theme of longing for the divine. On the track, “Night and Day” we hear Rūmī’s words:

I am dazed at the thought of you,
night and day.
I will place my head at your feet,
night and day.

Dawn is no newcomer to music.  Her father, Chris Bukholz, a jazz drummer, played in the Lennie Tristano trio.  She often fell asleep on his lap to the sound of Bebop, which she learned to love.  Dawn is a vocalist, cellist – she studied the instrument at the Manhattan School of Music, a composer, and a professor of world music at Montgomery College, Maryland. In conversation, she has not let this strong musical background go to her head. She is warm, down to earth, and brings fresh insights into her music.

DJL: Did your father’s approach to music inspire your own?

DA: My dad’s love of Bebop and old jazz meant it was always playing in the house. There was a reverence when Billie Holiday was played. We were taught to be quiet, listen, stay still. His listening discipline as well as his intelligence in analyzing both the technical elements and musical message of various styles of music affected me greatly. He never missed a day of practicing!  His interest in world cultures, religions, and art sparked my pursuits. His Mohawk heritage allowed me to pursue our culture in ways he was unable.

DJL: Your father played with Lennie Tristano. Tristano was an original composer. Did his music and composing influence yours?

DA: Tristano’s use of counterpoint, advanced chromatic harmonies, some avant-garde melodic passages, along with his attention to great technical and rhythmic detail, influenced my playing and composition. The attention to discipline in practice habits, performance, and listening to music, influenced how I grew up as a musician.

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

DJL: What are some early memories of playing music?

DA:  Piano was my first instrument. I was serious about it. At 16, I played at Carnegie Hall. When I later started playing cello, I got to play Beethoven’s Fifth in the center of a big orchestra, in the middle of all that vibration.  It amazed me. It reminded me of being in the Longhouse.

DJL: Is the drum at the center of the Longhouse?

DA:  In the Longhouse, rattles are the pulse of the music.  But you are right, the rattle has a drumming aspect to it. It has a large vibration about it.

DJL: Why did you choose the cello?  It has a female shape?

DA: Yes, a very sensual instrument. The elementary school cello teacher would not let me play any another instrument, so I played cello, but was more serious about the piano until I was seventeen. I thought the cello would be less of a solo instrument and enable me to play in diverse musical styles.  I like that the cello sounds as a human voice at times.  It has a big range, at the lower range you can play the blues, higher up classical music.  And when you hold it to your body, you get a certain feeling from the instrument.

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

DJL: Why is it important to you to preserve Native American music?

DA:  I first worked on reissuing some older music: Mike Jock and the Big Bear Singers.  In Mohawk language there is a word Non:wa that means now.  We have a different understanding of now, the past is very much a part of our present.  Preserving these traditions is a way of keeping our heritage strong and alive and of healing mother earth for all peoples.  I formed the Native Composers Project and we invited people to compose songs in their Native languages as a way of preserving them and bringing them into the present. 

DJL: What are the connections between Native American music and Sufi music?

DA:  Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi master, wrote, “The beauty of music is that it is the source of creation.” As a woman of Kanienkéha, Mohawk heritage, and a student of Sufism, I am aware of the vibrations in the world around me as the source of creation from first breath to the sounds of nature. Whether in the Mohawk Longhouse or in the Sufi Sema traditions, I sing to all of creation and strive to live in the beauty and remembrance of all who we are with the divine.

In Mohawk, the word for song, Karèn:nen is translated as “lay your vibration down.” This word was interpreted as a word for prayer by Western linguists. In Sufism, there is also the idea that the soul itself is song. Ceremonial and social songs in the Longhouse are sung to the people, Creation, and to the Creator for healing, remembrance, and peace, just as “The power of the voice as inspiring, healing, peace-giving, harmonizing, convincing, appealing…” exists in Sufism (Hazrat Inayat Khan). As Sufis may “increase the fire of their devotion while listening to music,” the Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy dance and sing around the fire to express their love of Creation.

In addition, there are many values and aspects that are similar, such as concern for the community, circle dances, the importance of ceremony, story-telling and metaphor, healing techniques, all of Creation at the center of daily life, the concept of gratitude.  I have been privileged to study language from both traditions through a cultural and historical translation of each syllable. I use these ancient languages in part of my music to invoke the spiritual depth that these two traditions give to us – with hope for the future.

Dawn Avery

DJL: Speaking of hope for the future, you wrote to me of a “softer kind of activism,” and your performances have been described as “loving.” Can you speak to that?

DA: Yes, I see my role not as pushing a specific agenda, but working in a healing and unifying role to share some thoughts in a less threatening way.  I hope that comes through to the audience. People often tell me they received love and healing in the room. I know as a trained healer that I am giving and receiving! It is probably unusual for someone of Native American heritage to be seen onstage performing Sufi music.

DJL:  Do you think it is important in these times that the broader American society better understands Native American and Sufi philosophies? 

DA: It is so important that Americans understand that the basis of these philosophies is love and respect.  I teach at the college level and I see many Muslim students saying how they are stereotyped as terrorists.  These kind and intelligent students are often treated so ethnocentrically.  As we know, humanity consists of both good and bad.  However,  it seems that racist tendencies have really been brought out during this current time.  I think that many people knew they existed in the United States, but perhaps some of us did not realize just how strong they were. My way of participating in a “softer activism,”  is to present and open up discussion to different points of view through less threatening mediums such as music, workshops, conversation, and the bringing of different cultures together. I want to hold onto the core of beauty and love that are not only important in both Native American and Sufi philosophies, but to us all.

DJL:  You have recorded many albums in your musical career, why this album now?

DA:  Well, I worked on recording it two years ago, but kept it to myself for a while, meditating on it, before sharing it with the world. Sharing the different voices of humanity. Releasing this music has a vulnerable aspect to it where something that was private becomes very public.  There is the track “Superheroe” on the album with the refrain, “Be a Superhero, renegade for love.” The United States has a strong tradition of super heroes, especially in cartoons. But here the hero could be the listener. The song is ultimately about how we elevate our spirits in the world.

DJL: Your music has a meditative quality to it: it reminds me of Philip Glass’s music.

DA: Yes, it can be meditative. People have described it as, “mystic pop.” Perhaps, it has a chill and spiritual aspect to it that is found in Glass’s music. I love hearing what associations people have when they listen to my music. It is meant to be music that enables people to reflect.

DJL: There are two other main musicians that perform on this album, the guitarist Larry Mitchell and Behfar Behadoran who is a vocalist, tar, and daf musician. Can you speak about them?

DA: Larry and I have worked together for about ten years on several Native American music and meditation projects.  He has been described as a guitar texturalist. He lays down a delicious bed of textures and grooves from which I can soar as a musician. Our different strengths interweave with one another. 

I met Behfar while teaching at Montgomery College. One day, I was surprised to see this student walking around campus with a Sitar.  I really like how he plays because he knows the old Persian Sufi songs, but he can bring a contemporary feel and great technique to them. It is also important for me to include Sakina Nur, the whirling dervish who performs with us live on stage.  She is also a flamenco dancer and sometimes includes that tradition when she performs. Sakina even got the audience to whirl!  I cannot separate her from us as musicians as Sakina is integral to this new music.  In the Iroquois tradition, we have this idea of being connected to the earth.  And you cannot really whirl as a Sufi dervish, unless you are connected to the earth and reach for the skies.  When I play with her, she makes true magic and her vibration is part of the musical prayer.

DJL: Towards the album’s end, the music also makes true magic.  “Night and Day” is a powerful, mesmerizing piece. The pace slows down. The music breathes.  There is a beautiful interplay between the cello and the tar.  Theirs is a heartfelt conversation. 

DA: “Night and Day,” is contemplative, it is a song about longing for the beloved spiritual teacher.

DJL: Do you move into a different state when you perform?

DA: Once I step on stage, I am in meditative connection with the audience and performers, a channel of the divine. I am truly blessed to be connected to people in this way. The performance is prayer.

For more information about Dawn Avery, you can visit her website: www.dawnavery.com

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Gino Sitson’s Adventure

Gino Sitson – Photo by Alain Herman

Gino Sitson is a singer with a vocal range of four octaves. He soars while others crawl. As a high-flying acrobat, he glides from one place to another in an instant, reminiscent of Bobby McFerrin. He sings jazz; he sings classical; he sings traditional African music. And he mixes them together in a spicy gumbo. His vocal flexibility far exceeds most of his contemporaries. He has a distinct voice that listeners know is his. He often taps his face and chest in percussive accompaniment as he improvises. But he doesn’t just fill the air with endless notes. He understands the necessity of silence.

In March this year, Gino released “Echo Chamber.” It is his eighth and most ambitious album. As its title hints, he performs with a chamber group of Western musicians, who play violin, cello, clarinet, and viola. The Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango also makes a guest appearance on the album playing marimba. An echo chamber reflects the sounds put into it – it’s a symbol of conformity. But, Gino does not conform to one way of playing music. He is a musical explorer, seeking to innovate. But, he comes from a people – the Bamileke of Western Cameroon – with a strong musical tradition. And his music reflects their powerful percussive rhythms. He marries them with European counterpoint.

Gino Sitson – Echo Chamber

Astor Piazzolla combined the classical tradition with the Argentinian tango. Gino weaves the same classical tradition in chamber music with jazz, his ancestral African rhythms and melodies. After years of being aware of his music, I decided it was time to interview him about his life and his gift.

DJL: What music inspired you as a young person?

GS: As a child, I was fascinated by sounds, the sounds in our local environment in Buea, Limbe (Victoria), and Duala, Cameroon. As a teenager, it was soul and Motown, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Ritchie, and George Benson. I grew up playing music with my siblings. But back then, nobody knew that being a musician could be a full-time job. My brother Teo Sitchet-Kanda was the first to lead the way, to play music as a professional. He inspired us. It was also important that our parents did not forbid us from playing music.

DJL: I read that your mother was a Director of a Church choir. Is she a powerful singer? Has her singing influenced you?

GS: Oh yes, very much so. My mom has always been a huge influence on my singing through her knowledge of our language, Medumba that I sing in, and particularly her phrasing, in addition to the joy that emanated from her while she sang.

DJL: Did you sing as a child?

GS: I explored singing without knowing I was exploring it. I would hear an instrument and try to mimic that sound with my voice.

DJL: Later, you moved to France.

GS: I pursued several degrees in Musicology, Educational Sciences, Littérature at Paris VIII- St Denis and Sorbonne Universities. I was interested in how music is transmitted, for example, from one generation to the next or from one person to another. Bobby McFerrin invited me to be a part of the PBS program, “Music Instinct: Science and Song.” Listening to the scientist Daniel Levitin talk about his research on music fascinated me. I decided to pursue a PhD in Musicology.

DJL: For your PhD you went to Guadeloupe, an island with roots in Africa, where you studied the Gwoka, a genre that encompasses traditional dance, drumming, and song.

GS: Yes, I enjoy the sentiment, the eloquence of that music. People may improvise vocally out of the blue in the Gwoka.

DJL: You work as an academic and researcher, but you also teach vocal workshops, is that something you enjoy?

GS: Yes, so much, I like helping people to feel confident in their voices, to enable them to let go and to be free. I have a passion for the voice, for exploring and sharing music. If you think about it, we all improvise everyday.

DJL: To explore in music requires confidence. Are you more confident as a singer than when you first started out?

GS: Yes, I remember once, I was doing an audition in France, I had a guitar with me, I was a bit shy. The person in charge of the auditions told me to put down the guitar. At first, I did not understand why he wanted me to do that. Then, I realized it was because he wanted to hear my voice really come through alone.

DJL: You also help young Cameroonian children with music as an Ambassador for UNICEF. Are you trying to build confidence in them too?

GS: Yes I am. I work with street children in Yaunde. I am planning to return to them this year. I try to encourage their musical skills, to teach them a bit about music production, to empower them in a way that they may not have been before.

DJL: And now, how is your current CD, “Echo Chamber,” different from your earlier ones?

GS: It is a chamber ensemble with ingredients from New York, Cameroon and Europe. I am telling my story in my own way. The music reflects my thoughts and feelings. The listener is hearing someone who is able to encompass diverse sounds, but who is more at peace.

DJL: Is this CD more classical than some of your earlier ones?

GS: Yes it is. But if you listen to a high energy track like Upper East Side, you can hear the Bikutsi that is an up tempo rhythm from Cameroon.

DJL: How do you compose?

GS: Sometimes a note will come and then I let it evolve in an organic way. I compose on several instruments: guitar, piano or double bass. It all depends on the moment.

DJL: But the choice of the musicians on this album sounds very deliberate, for example, Maria João’s vocal alongside yours on the track “Night in Molyko.” This is a playful, upbeat song. There is a magical interplay created between the two vocals with the strings playing under them.

GS: Yes, you are right. How did you know that? (He chuckles). I am careful about the specific instruments that go on the album. I want the instruments to sound right together. This is a chamber group. My band persuaded me that the instruments would be recorded all together in one room. Only the vocals were recorded separately. I think it sounds better that way.

DJL: Are you trying to create a new sound that has not been heard before?

GS: I’m following my path by being true to myself. As you know, I’m an Associate Researcher at IReMus (Institut de recherche en Musicologie: Paris-Sorbonne University, CNRS, BnF, Ministère de la
 culture), in addition to being a musician. I’m an explorer…  it is a quest.

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Dan Kurfirst: Drawn to the Light of Love

Dan Kurfirst

Dan Kurfirst is a composer, percussionist, and educator based in New York City.   He is not a flashy drummer as stereotyped by Sesame Street’s character Animal.  Dan brings a thoughtful, considered approach to his music.  His playing is compelling, drawing the listener into a gentle dance.

Dan was born and has spent most of his life in New York.  An early memory is of having a toy drum set.  Other instruments also came into his life as a child.  He took guitar lessons. At fourteen, he became aware that some boys at his school were starting a rock group.  He offered to play guitar, but they said they needed a drummer.  He chuckles and says “I tried to play drums.”

Later, Dan studied percussion with Shane Shanahan, a musician who knows drumming traditions from around the world. He also learnt from Hakan Kaya, a famed percussionist from Turkey. Beginning in 2009, Dan made regular trips to Istanbul to explore the connections between Sufism and Middle Eastern music. His playing is rooted in jazz and rock to which he brings elements of Middle Eastern, Indian, and West African music.  Dan performs with several groups in New York City, including Ensemble Fanaa and the American Sufi Project that have attracted a following. In conversation, he is quiet and unassuming. We spoke about both his experience as an educator and as a musician.

Dan Kurfirst

Other than the frame drum that is a large round, flat percussive drum and the drum set, what percussion do you play?

I play the darbuka (a goblet shaped percussion drum.) I love the calabash from Mali (which is a drum in a half circle hollowed out from the calabash tree), that is the next one I would like to make deep study of.

You were musical Director with the Children’s Museum for an exhibit entitled, “Manhattan America to Zanzibar, Muslim cultures near and far.” Can you describe that experience?

Yes, it was an amazing exhibit that covered the entire Muslim world. The exhibitors wanted to do a touch screen app where the kids could press pictures of different instruments and hear them.  They contacted me to direct the musicians for the app. We had a kora, a tabla, a gigeck – it’s like a stand up violin, a ney that is a flute, a frame drum, and an oud. It was not a complicated composition, but all the instruments sounded good together and it was a great project.

Does such an exhibit make the understanding of world music more vivid for young children?

Yes, that was the idea, there were descriptive texts so the children could learn by reading about the different instruments and where they come from. We did some live performances, so the kids loved that. Hearing music is a better way to learn about different cultures than by reading about them.

I saw a YouTube video where your group American Sufi Project talked about the ney instrument. Is your work with the Sufi Project also educational?

We did some educational videos with our first album release.This group’s focus is to record and perform music. But American Sufi Project is more than a band, our hope is to connect people to all kinds of artistic expression from the American Sufi community. I am the Director of the musical component of the group.

“Meet Yourself, Mast Qualander,” is a highlight track from American Sufi Project’s second album of the same name.  It was a collaboration with Dhruv Sangari, a vocalist from the Qawaali genre. Qawaali is Sufi devotional music from India.  Dhruv sings with such longing on this track, accompanied by your steady frame drum, among other instruments.  How did you come to work with him?

I met Dhruv in 2009, when I was in Turkey and first interested in music from that part of the world.  I got into a taxi with some other musicians. In the car, there was a nice older man, he asked us, “What are you?” And we said, “You know we are musicians,” And the man said, “Well, you know music is a sin.” He was half joking. Dhruv who was also in the car then had this great response. He said, “Yeah, I hope I won’t need it one day.” His answer made me immediately like him a lot.

We spent several nights singing and playing together, then I found out he was the last official disciple of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which is powerful (Khan was a singer who made the Qawaali genre more celebrated worldwide).  Dhruv comes to the United States quite a lot,because he has family here. We were able to record together in 2014.

He has an evocative voice…

Yes, well he is now the true representative of the Qawaali tradition.

There is also a track called “Drawn to the Light of Love,” from American Sufi Project’s first album that I enjoyed. It brings to mind the image of a caterpillar slowly winding up a leaf.  There is a mournful quality as the ney plays long, drawn out, notes. Can you talk about this track?

That is a traditional Turkish Ilahi form. An Ilahi is a religious hymn in Sufism. As a group, we’ve tried to study Sufi musical traditions, but you realize that you cannot hope to achieve the exact sound of someone who comes from generations within a certain culture. So you learn from the traditions and bring your interpretations to them, perhaps jazz improvisation. On that track, I played in a rhythm that is not the traditional three beat cycle for an Ilahi. But it worked. 

When you play live, is it a meditative feeling that you are aiming for?

Yes, you need to maintain a focal point.  I once heard a saying that goes something like “The way of the Sufi is sobriety within ecstasy.” But with this music if you lose your focus, it is going to fall apart. You have to be there with it for the audience.

Would you say the purpose of Sufi music is to elevate the audience’s spirit?

Yes, but if you are the musician you have a difficult job.You have to maintain your sobriety, it is more of a service for the audience.Although there are tremendous benefits for the soul in practicing and playing this music, there’s no doubt about that. Your question reminds me of the jazz musician Bill Evans, who was more concerned with the layperson’s immediate reaction to his music than musicians who cannot help but hear the technical aspect and what might be wrong with the music.

What is it about Sufi music that may resonate with someone’s spirit or is that hard to speak to?

Yes, it’s all hard to speak to.  (We both laugh). In Near Eastern music there is an untempered tonal system. In the Western system like on the piano, you have twelve very defined notes that are equal steps away from each other. The Eastern systems are not like that, they vary in terms of complexity.  In the Turkish system there are a lot more than twelve notes in an octave. You know, for example, you can have a B half flat and in certain music in Turkey it is even a little more flat. Tom Chess who is the ney player for the American Sufi Project described it very well when he said, ‘When you have a twelve tone system, you have the emotions of I am happy or I am sad, but when you have the subtlety of the microtonal systems,emotions become more complex, such as I am somewhere in between happy and sad.That’s also more of what real life is like.’

Maqam is the word for scale in the Turkish tradition. Maqam also means both the place and the grave where a holy person is buried.  Each Maqam is like a little emotional place that you explore inside a group of notes. There are different emotional and spiritual qualities that are associated with each Maqam. I don’t think Eastern music is more transcendent than Western music, generally, to me it is a different type of transcendence. John Coltrane had one way, Taksim another way,and Qawaali another way. No culture has a monopoly on transcendence of soul or anything like that.

You mention the musician John Coltrane, has he inspired you?

Yes, I’ve heard his recordings my whole life, because my father played them, but in my twenties I started to experience his music differently. His playing opened me up to a deeper understanding of music. At its apex, the music coming out of John Coltrane’s horn and ensembles sounds like pure love to me.

***

It is clear from our conversation that Dan has spent true time nurturing his craft.  He is a dedicated musician. His group Ensemble Fanaa released their self-titled debut album in September to good response.  His journey of tying together Eastern music with Western continues.   

For more information about Dan Kurfirst, you can visit his website at: dankurfirstmusic.com

To purchase Ensemble Fanaa’s latest album ensemblefanaa.bandcamp.com/releases

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Aurelio Martinez: Music of Love, Culture of Love

Aurelio Martinez

Aurelio Martinez takes up space in the room even when he is seated. He speaks without hesitation and with big clear gestures. I had wanted to speak with him ever since catching an ecstatic live performance at the Global Beat Festival in New York a couple of years ago. By the end of that concert everyone was on their feet.

Aurelio is a guitarist, percussionist, composer and singer. Darandi is his fourth album (released on Real World Records in February 2017). It represents the best of his thirty years in music. This album captures the live sound of his performance. The musicians were all recorded in one room. So, its lively and real, rather than the precise, overdubbed sound of his previous albums.

Aurelio – Darandi

To understand Aurelio’s music, you need to know his background. He grew up and spent his childhood in Plaplaya, Honduras, surrounded by Garifuna music. Indeed, he is one of the Garifuna peoples’ strongest Ambassadors. Garifuna music is closer to West African music than to rock; it’s closer to folk than New Orleans jazz. Sometimes, it’s as melancholy as the blues, but always it owes more to Africa than to Europe.

Much of the music has a percussive undercurrent that both grounds it and helps to propel the music forward. The segunda is a bass drum that is at the core of much Garifuna music. Aurelio has a very evocative voice, even if as a listener you cannot understand his vocal, you feel there is true heart in what he is singing

He is a master of Paranda music, a sub-genre within Garifuna music, that is blues-like in feel, and its lyrics, like the blues, often convey a lively commentary on society.

The Garifuna people are the descendants of African slaves who were first bought to St. Vincent in the West Indies and the Arawak Indians. While in St. Vincent, they fought the English colonizers, who killed many of them, the ones who survived were taken to Punta Gorda, Belize. I spoke to him recently about his music, his childhood, and the Garifuna. His conversation is as upbeat as his music.

DJL: Can you tell me about your childhood?

AM: Yes, my mother was a singer and composer of Garifuna music. She represents fifty to a hundred percent of my music, even now when I compose. She is my best mentor. My father was a guitarist. My grandfather too was a musician with the local community band. My music school was my family.

Aurelio Martinez in 2010 at Forde Festival in Norway – Photo by Angel Romero

DJL: How did you come to play guitar?

AM: I made my first guitar out of fish line and pieces of wood. (He chuckles.) You know how you come to find toys sometimes. I was about six years old. I first wanted to play the saxophone, because my uncle was a saxophonist. But when I was 15 years old, my Dad, who had moved to America, sent me my first professional guitar.

DJL: The biography on your website describes you as a singer, guitarist and percussionist, but one aspect that is sadly missing, is your incredible dancing. You can get everyone in the audience on their feet, even coming up on the stage to take turns dancing. Sparks fly during a performance. Can you talk to me about your dancing?

AM: Yes, you know when I hear drums, it is impossible for me not to dance. I used to hold onto my grandmother’s skirt as she danced at parties. And you know the dancing is sensual, I was watching all of that as a young boy. I was taking it all in. In Garifuna culture, we have celebrations where both the young and old come together. When I was little – seven or eight – drumming was my special weapon.

I would say to the adults, ‘if you are not inviting me to the party, I am not playing drums.’ I used the fact that I could play percussion to negotiate invitations to come to parties.

DJL: What would you like to say about Garifuna culture to someone who knows nothing about it?

AM: On April 12th this year, we will have our annual celebration that marks 286 years of our living in Central America. Garifuna people are extended into four places: Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. We have a huge Garifuna population in the United States, half a million people. We have food, language, spirituality and music that are all unique to us.

DJL: Are you fighting to preserve this culture?

AM: Yes, of course, the government in Honduras is a threat. They want to convert our community to a tourist place by building hotels on our land. Previously, the Christians said we were diabolical. We have been forbidden to speak our language. We face discrimination and oppression. Yet, we are keeping this culture alive. My band takes our pride around the world, we convey to people a culture that is both powerful and rich. The soul of Garifuna is about bringing people together, in peace and harmony. I am a spirit, the music comes through me. I want to be true in my music. I sing what I feel.

Andy Palacio – Photo by Yuquill

DJL: You met Andy Palacio, who was a known Garifuna musician and a leading activist, who fought hard for the people, before dying at aged 47. Can you describe him?

AM: Yes, we met in Honduras. He was a brother. It was a friendship. We agreed on many things about the Garifuna people, we saw eye to eye, and he loved his culture. We worked on music together. When I first stepped on the beach in Senegal, West Africa, after he died, I was moved. I knew that Andy would have been there with me in Senegal, if he were still alive. His spirit was with me that day on the beach.

DJL: This album Darandi represents your whole career, why now?

AM: It is about closing one part of my musical life, and a renewal, moving into more powerful music. I want to work with other, different musicians, who play jazz or Afropop. I want to open the music up.

DJL: Yalifu is a powerful track on this album. Yalifu is a song of longing. Can you talk about it?

AM: Yalifu means pelican, and in the song I ask, “pelican, lend me your wings so that I can fly.” This is a love song about wanting to fly to my father, who at that time was far from me in America. It was written as I was remembering being young in Honduras and missing my father. The song also speaks to bigger issues of immigration, borders, loss, and longing, how people should have the chance to move freely around the world.

DJL: Landini is also another evocative track.

AM: Yes, it is a song about my reconnecting to my home town, Plaplaya. When I sing that song, the image of my home town appears in my mind: the river, the birds, the boats coming in.

DJL: And finally, what is your hope for the Garifuna people?

AM: Do you know that in 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the language, music, and dance of Garifuna as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity? We love to live in community, not to fight. A grandfather is a grandfather to our whole community. Come to the Garifuna nation to see. I welcome you. I know that we will continue as a spiritual people with our music of love, our culture of love.

To read more about Aurelio and his discography, read his Artist Profile.

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Martino found Joy in the Music

Martin “Martino” Atangano at Zinc Bar – Photo by Bill Farrington

On a cool night in Brooklyn in Mid-September 2013, a group of musicians, friends and colleagues gathered in a meeting hall to celebrate the musician and historian Martin “Martino” Atangano’s life. A traditional dance troupe Ngoma za Kongo (from the Republic of Congo) lit up the floor in shimmering yellow customs. They danced the dance of death, pounding long powerful drums, while people brushed away streaming tears. You could touch the grief in the room. People were shaken. Martino was known not only in the New York music scene, but throughout the world for his electrifying, precise, high energy guitar playing.

Originally from Cameroon, he fused traditional, upbeat dance rhythms from Africa such as the Bikutsi (more about that later) with funk and jazz. Although he had struggled with his health, his death on August 31, 2013 as a result of cardiovascular complications came as a shock not only to those who loved him, but also to those who had danced with joy to his music.

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

Born in 1958 in Yaounde, Cameroon, Martino first found his place among musicians in his country. Yet he was too gifted to remain within its borders. In 1986, he toured internationally with Manu Dibango, perhaps the most famous saxophone player ever to come out of Cameroon. In the same year, Martino moved to Paris to pursue graduate studies in history at the Sorbonne. It was here too that word began to get out about this talented guitarist. His authentic, elaborate guitar sound informed several noted collaborations, including with the French musician Jean-Luc Ponty and the American pop musician Paul Simon. Simon’s, “The Rhythm of the Saints” album famously introduced more international audiences to some great African sounds.

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

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


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

Martin “Martino” Atangano – Photo by Bill Farrington

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

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

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Announcing Shofar

Shofar

The best musicians are restless, they search for unique sounds. Shofar represents the coming together of three musicians based in Poland who are schooled in different musical genres, free jazz, classical and punk.

Formed in 2006, they have experimented with old Jewish music and brought it into the present. The name Shofar means horn – from a ram’s horn – in Hebrew and is used as a symbolic ritual in Jewish services, for example, to indicate the end of the fast of Yom Kippur. One interpretation of this name is that this band seeks to announce their musical arrival. This past Thursday (February 21, 2013) saw Shofar’s debut alongside another band, Poleseye Project, as part of a North American tour at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium. (Music made possible by the Polish Cultural Institute of New York and the Target Free Thursdays Series.)

On approaching this concert, it was unclear to me how Jewish music would co-exist with free jazz or whether indeed it could. But that concern was soon eradicated by the strength of the musicians. Their sound encompassed both free jazz and Jewish cultural music with ease. Their music also hinted at rock, blues, and punk.

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

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

When I asked Raphael to talk more about the Jewish cultural music, he explained, “This is a music that existed prior to the holocaust. Nigunim were a celebratory style of music, magical even. It was born in the Hasidic movement in Poland. There were often competitions among composers to see who could write the best Nigunim and thus be considered closer to God. It was considered a mystical music that could move people into a trance, a prayer. It was improvisatory.”

This was also a music sought out by Moshe Beregovski, a Ukrainian Jewish musicologist, who made it his mission in the 1920’s and 30’s to tour the Ukraine making notations of Nigunim and old Jewish folk songs (in a similar vein to Alan Lomax, who toured the American South in search of the blues). Shofar takes as a base some of his musical notations.

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

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

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

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