All posts by Dorothy Johnson-Laird

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

Dizzy’s Love

Dizzy Gillespie ca. June 1946 – William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

 

Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.  Dizzy as he was affectionately known was one of the greatest jazz innovators of the twentieth century.  His music, Bebop – “Bop” for short, was improvised, with complex and often dissonant chords, and sometimes very rapid tempos.  It began in jam sessions in Harlem, and made a dramatic entrance into the music scene in the mid-1940s.  Listeners were startled by it, and some traditional jazz musicians even described it as noise. But, it took over the world of jazz rapidly, and as a genre would influence generations of musicians to come.

Nothing so amazing and so influential has been heard in jazz since.  Looking back, many writers have focused on Dizzy’s musical genius and technical mastery, but I am going to talk about Dizzy’s love of Cuban music and his connection to Cuban musicians.

Dizzy was born on October 21st, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina, and his father was a bandleader.  Dizzy was surrounded by instruments as a young child.  He learned to play piano starting at age four and later taught himself trumpet and trombone. He soon became a professional musician.  It was while he was playing in Cab Calloway’s orchestra in the 1940’s that Calloway introduced him to Mario Bauzá.  Bauzá was one of the first musicians to introduce Latin music to the United States. He would later connect Dizzy to Luciano Pozo Gonzáles, who was known as Chano Pozo.

Chano Pozo cut a strong and charismatic figure on stage. He could dance and sing as hard as he played conga.  Even though it was difficult for them to understand each other.  But, Dizzy said in the documentary film, A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba, that they both “spoke Africa.”  Dizzy saw him as a brother.  Before they met, Cuban music had only an occasional influence on jazz, and vice versa. That would soon change.  Dizzy quickly welcomed Chano Pozo as a conguero into his band.   And, on September 29th 1947, Pozo and the bongo player Chiquitico performed with Dizzy at a Carnegie Hall concert.   As Alyn Shipton wrote in “Groovin’ High: A Life of Dizzy Gillespie”:

Few collaborations capture the heady excitement, virtuosity … that can be found in “Manteca”, “Cubana-be Cubana-bop” (also known as the Afro-Cuban jazz suite) and “Guarachi Guaro” from the first fruits of Pozo’s tenure with Dizzy’s band.”

 

A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba

 

Dizzy incorporated much of Chano Pozo’s Santeria chanting into Bop – something that was new, and at times perplexed his fellow musicians, but later caught on.  Likewise, bands in Bop had hitherto only a single drummer, but suddenly congas and sometimes a group of Cuban percussionists became a regular component of the music, adding additional excitement and rhythmic spice.  Chano Pozo was tragically murdered at the age of only 33, but he left behind a powerful mark on modern jazz that reverberates to this day. Dizzy also recorded several beautiful pieces with the masterful Cuban composer and arranger, Chico O’Farrill, including the album Afro-Cuban jazz moods, on which the well-known Cuban maraca player, Machito, also performed.

Dizzy fell quickly in love with Cuban music.  It was a firm embrace. He said several times in different interviews that slaveholders forbade drumming in the United States, yet drumming was kept alive in the South Americas and Caribbean, a drumming that has as its roots Africa.  Cuban music is a music with rhythm at its center.  The clave rhythm, broken up into a first measure of two notes and a second measure of three or vice versa, finds its origins in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed the word clave means key.  And it is used to help organize many Cuban rhythms, including rumba, son, salsa and mambo.  Dizzy was no stranger to rhythm. He wrote in his autobiography, “To Be or Not … to Bop” of six prerequisites that all successful musicians must have: mastery of instrument, style, taste, communication, chord progressions and rhythm. “Rhythm,” he wrote, “includes all of the other attributes because you may have all of these others and don’t have the rhythmic sense to put them together, then it would negate all of your other accomplishments.”

 

To Be or Not … to Bop

 

The Cuban music that Dizzy fell in love with in the 1940’s would stay with him for the rest of his life.  Forty years later, he was invited to headline the fifth international jazz festival in Havana.  He described going to Cuba as “coming home.” There, like a loving father, he embraced and nurtured the emerging jazz talents of several younger Cuban musicians, including Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Arturo who is a trumpeter later recounted that he thought Dizzy was expecting to find only a group of great percussionists when he arrived in Cuba, but was a bit surprised to find a trumpeter with some technical prowess.

Dizzy’s love of world music did not stop and rest in Cuba.  He travelled the world as part of the Jazz Ambassador program with a band of musicians from all of the Americas on behalf of the United States State Department. They toured South America, the Middle East, and still other countries. He went with a sense of curiosity and openness. But he also felt a deep need for the world to know and to appreciate jazz.  He felt the same need in the United States, where racism impeded its acceptance. For Dizzy, music was a delight, he emanated joy from the stage.

In 2002, Gillespie was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to Afro-Cuban music.  Dizzy had long embraced the Ba’hai faith.  It is no accident that a man who wanted to be remembered not only for his music, but also for his humanitarianism, was so moved by a religion that speaks about the worth of all religions, and the equality and unity of all people.

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Ask Your Heart: Mehmet Polat Trio

Mehmet Polat Trio – Ask Your Heart (Home Records, 2017)

Ask Your Heart is the second album by the Mehmet Polat Trio (released in 2017 on homerecords.be). Its music transports the listener from a world of agitation to a place of calm. Imagine you are by the sea, relaxing by the waves, and you begin to get an image of this trio’s sound. Much contemporary music is too overproduced with electronics in place of real instruments, but not this album. Its spareness is elegant and moving.

The trio has nothing fancy to hide behind. They have only each other for back up. Folk in feel, the music has within it modal jazz and traditional African sounds. The album starts out slowly with “Untouched Stories,” as the two-stringed instruments, kora and oud, take baby steps and gradually move together with the flute-like ney. There is a lullaby feeling as the ney moves out expansively, playing longer notes while the oud and kora provide a steady accompaniment.

 

Mehmet Polat

 

Mehmet Polat is the trio’s founder. He started his life’s journey in Turkey, raised in a family of Alevi Sufi musicians. They play a spiritual folk music, whose songs are often revelatory or in praise of Sufi saints. Yet Mehmet was not content to remain within one musical genre. He seeks to voyage, exploring the musical connections between the middle East, traditional African music, and jazz. He has written that he is “constantly searching for new musical paths and inspiration.” He has found two master musicians to accompany him on his quest: Sinan Arat on ney and Dymphi Peeters on kora. The ney is an ancient reed flute, and the kora is 21 stringed instrument from West Africa with a calabash base as a resonator. But, neither instrument dominates the other; and none of the musicians overpowers the others or remains the center of attention.

 

 

There is equilibrium among the players, a sense of give-and-take as they improvise, as if each has come to share a delicious communal plate of food. The trio’s first album Next Spring started their collective adventure, but on this album, the different musical genres coalesce. The sound takes flight.

The trio’s musical creativity is heard best on the fifth track, “Whispering to the Waves,” as the oud shapeshifts to sound like an upright bass. The music breathes and the listener breathes with it. It has spaciousness. Sinan plays a long solo on the ney. It is haunting, seeming to flow like a mysterious mist into the night air.

On “Evening Prayer,” the three instruments together announce a simple melody. The ney improvises next. And then a surprise: Mehmet sings a vocal of longing, and the ney shadows it. The piece is a ghazal from the Middle East. Mehmet explains, “there is a melody or groove underneath, and the vocal improvisation is on top of it.” He learned how to sing ghazals from listening to recordings of an old local master from Urfa, Turkey, Kazancı Bedih. His listening paid off. He’s a talented, expressive singer. The deep vocal works well with the low tones of the instruments. The vocal is full of yearning for the divine. The song is from a poem by Leyla Hamm, who was an Ottoman woman poet, and reads in part:

Dear Divine: please help this powerless being in despair
May you help me heal my heartache
I am your disobedient creation, please forgive me…

The final track, “Mardin,” is also a ghazal. Here again the instruments start by playing the melody together and then the vocal is introduced. The song’s lyrics are translated in part as, “I have sacrificed myself for no other than your love.” The listener is drawn into this powerful, meditative moment as the vocalist moves into a place of longing. Mehmet Polat writes in the album’s liner notes: “Music for me is a connection from heart to heart. I invite you to open your heart to the music and let it come to you.” And if you allow yourself to stop and to listen, this music will open your heart.

For more about the Mehmet Polat Trio or to purchase “Ask Your Heart” you can visit their website: mehmetpolat.net

Buy Ask Your Heart

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Aurelio Martinez: Music of Love, Culture of Love

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

 

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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Yoham Ortiz’s Conversation

Yoham Ortiz
Yoham Ortiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

DJL: Do you enjoy teaching music?

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

 

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

 

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

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

DJL: Were your family musical?

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

DJL: When did you come to the guitar?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

DJL: What do you mean when you say raw?

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

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

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

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

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Mehmet Polat Trio Play Songs of Connection

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

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

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

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

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

Mehmet Polat Trio
Mehmet Polat Trio

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

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

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

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Mehmet Polat Trio play Music of the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DJL: How did you first hear the kora?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MP: Yes, I do that.

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

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

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

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

Recordings available: Next Spring

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

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

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Elikeh’s new EP release: Kondona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of the Global Beat Festival

Feedel band
Feedel band

 

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

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

 

Guayo Cedeño
Guayo Cedeño

 

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

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

 

Aurelio Martinez
Aurelio Martinez

 

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

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

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

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Zap Mama Zaps GlobalFEST

Zap Mama
Zap Mama

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

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

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

Zap Mama Music Video ‘Brrrlak’

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

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

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

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

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Karim Dabo’s Path to Peace

Karim Dabo
Karim Dabo

 

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

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

 

Karim Dabo - Sama Yone
Karim Dabo – Sama Yone

 

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

“Was music also forbidden to you?”

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

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

Karim Dabo
Karim Dabo

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Karim Dabo
Karim Dabo

 

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

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

Because you have to remain calm to do Social Work?

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

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

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

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