“Uncompromising” is Yoham Ortiz’s first solo album. He is a vocalist, composer, and guitarist based in New York City. His music is acoustic, folk at heart, with flamenco, jazz, and Caribbean inflections. His voice is a gentle breeze over the guitar, spare and soothing. He is energetic, at times the guitar shape-shifts into a percussive instrument. The music is deceptive in its simplicity, but pulls you into its journey.
“Hope is power if we all agree,” Yoham sings with conviction on the opening track. It’s upbeat, and at one moment, Yoham scats over the guitar accompaniment. He plucks its strings with precision. He takes the advice of his own song: “to let the best of ourselves shine through.” His line is universal yet intimate. His intensity reminds me of Richie Havens, the folk legend, and his songs for justice. I asked Yoham about Havens, and he said, “Yes, I am always invoking the people who have shaped music with a message – Richie Havens, Nina Simone, and many others.”
In “Up the Creek,” the vocals are like a butterfly’s wings. The guitar is lulling. The melody moves in a cycle. At one moment, Yoham whistles alongside the guitar. You travel forward with him. One track flows into the next. “Baiao Blues” is evocative and thoughtful. In a minor key. He hums the melody. He strikes the strings like a flamenco musician.
Yoham plays with confidence in his own mature style. He knows his craft. He has performed many solo concerts. His music embraces many different influences. His gentle, loving, singing haunts you. He invites you into a close embrace with his guitar. The music is understated, with no power drumming or blasting horn section: Yoham has stayed true to his vision. He is uncompromising.
The band Cha Wa take the stage at the Copacabana, New York, on a cold night in January. The horns play precise rapid-fire funk as J’wan Boudreaux leads, “I say Mighty”. His voice is bold and clear. It is 1960’s soul. Two singers are front stage, whirling and rocking as they tap tambourines. At first, the audience is still frozen, soon they warm up. Some jump up and down: the music excites them. Others squeeze to the front of the stage. Cha Wa are having fun unlike some other performers.
They wear long, elaborate, costumes that they took a year to make – so J’wan told us with pride. They continue their forbear’s tradition of marching in the Mardi Gras parades of the 1800s. They wear blue, red, and silver feathers of those Indian tribes who welcomed slaves escaping their masters. Joe Gelini, the group’s drummer and founder says, “We wanted to take the roots of what we love about New Orleans brass band music and Mardi Gras Indian music and then voice it our way.”
The horns open a new song, moving with slow ease. “Get on out the way,” the chorus chants, and the audience joins in. The instruments echo the chant, accentuating it. More people start to dance, some climb up onto their seats for a better view. Midway through, an electric guitar breaks out of nowhere and improvises funk. The horn section adds power to the music and an additional punch at the end of the piece. This group could keep the audience dancing all night. And although Cha Wa’s set is only a handful of numbers, their heat sets everyone on fire.
The Copacabana’s dance spaces on all four floors are pulsating. But their atmosphere is filled with music from four continents. GlobalFEST highlights the best young groups in world music. They have each won a place on the stage. The high intensity Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness come from Soweto. The political edge of the group 47SOUL are Palestinians. Debashish Battacharya is Calcutta’s famed slide guitar master.
But Orquesta Akokán stand apart. When they come on stage in the main ballroom, you enter 1960’s Havana with its tailored suits and sleek dancers. They play classic Cuban dance music – Beny Moré’s mambo meets jazz. Akokán is a Yoruba word that means “from the heart,” and this soul reinvigorates the older music, just as Buena Vista Social Club did. The vocalist José “Pepito” Gomez on ‘Mambo rapidito’ picks out his words like a Dizzy Gillespie staccato solo over Cuban percussion. On “Un Tabaco par Elegua” he tells us about Elegua, a god and a guardian of the dead. He starts to sing, and an elegant acoustic guitar joins in. A steady percussive rhythm keeps rolling forward, and the horns punctuate the music. The musicians are dancing. The intensity grows. A chorus of vocalists opens up. And dancers in the audience weave ever more sensual circles around one another.
On “Yo Soy Para Ti,” the singer starts by translating the opening lyrics:
For you, for you, I’ve been born just for you: Para ti, para ti, yo he nacido mi vida para ti.
The horns move in. The percussion plays a steady undercurrent. The vocalist stretches out notes to express love and longing. He goes beyond Spanish to communicate to everyone. The music and the musicians sway together. The lead vocalist calls: the chorus responds. Passion and precision. Emphatic unisons and graceful improvisations. Veterans and apprentices. The tradition continues.
Old school Cuban music heard live never ceases to captivate.
Various Artists – OneBeat Mixtape (Found Sound Nation, 2018)
The album “Onebeat Mixtape” is unlike any music that you have ever heard. In part, because the music comes from a project called OneBeat. Each year OneBeat brings together a select group of young, international musicians to create and exchange music together. Where else will you find the joy of Kenyan traditional percussion spun out alongside electric slide guitar? Think electronica meets folk and you begin to get some idea. Here is no forced fusion of genres: but musicians from different corners of the globe dancing together in new and unique ways.
Two musicians stand out on this album, Mehdi Nassouli from Morocco and Rapasa Otieno from Kenya. Both work hard to teach and preserve the traditional music from their countries. Both bring true enthusiasm to their music that enlivens this set.
Mehdi and Rapasa feature at the opening of the album on “Wuoth” a track that moves at a meditative pace. The synthesizer draws out long, spacious notes, while Mehdi on the guembri or three stringed lute and Rapasa on the nyatiti an eight stringed lyre work a careful interchange, weaving in and out of each other’s notes. It is unclear exactly where one instrument begins and another starts, as their instruments whisper to each other. This is a cyclical song with repetition that brings to mind Philip Glass, catching your attention and pulling you in.
A few tracks later “Yeah, Yeah” is a high energy number with the words, “Yeah, Yeah,” sung as a catchy chorus throughout. You are whirled into an area of Moroccan Gnawa music that makes you want to dance. Gnawa is spiritual healing music from North Africa that moves people into a trance. In Gnawa music one phrase or a few notes are played over and over to captivate the audience. Here Mehdi Nassouli hypnotizes, he draws steady circles on the guembri’s strings. Yet this is a new take on the Gnawa tradition. Out of nowhere, an electric guitar pulsates, bringing funk into the mix. The North African harmonies work well against the punchy trumpet notes of Mandla Mlangeni. The music is ecstatic. Haile Supreme, a vocalist on this song, is quoted in the liner notes, “I believe this song is OneBeat personified because of its message, cosmopolitan ingredients, and the extremely high energy participation it summoned from every crowd when we performed this piece on the OneBeat tour.”
“Aduogo Ka” continues the high energy. The percussion moves to the foreground as the synthesizer adds a quiet pulse under it. A gentle atmosphere wraps around you. Here the traditional Kenyan percussion sounds good alongside the slide guitar. The nyangile, a Kenyan percussion instrument is the focus. Its name means box, and it’s hit with a stick. The musician plays two rings or “ogeng” at the same time as striking the box. The sound is unique. The musicians accompany each other well. About two thirds of the way through the track, the percussion rises in intensity: Rapaso Otieno hurtles out rapid staccato beats.
“OneBeat is a catalyst in the lives of many musicians,” says Kyla-Rose Smith, a musician who has participated in OneBeat and is now Studio Manager for Found Sound Nation’s label. “Without the US. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, our work would not be possible. OneBeat has opened up a global network now consisting of at least two hundred musicians who came through its program. The intention is to open up conversation both between musicians and with audience, with people from all walks of life.”
On this album, the OneBeat musicians have opened up a masterful conversation. Theirs is a beautiful, often unexpected, musical exchange. Its musical excitement reaches out to you and draws you in. You cannot help but be entranced by the hypnotic dance of ancient and modern instruments.
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.
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.
Senegal is in mourning. Not only have they lost a beloved man, but a hero who changed forever their musical landscape. Habib Faye was a virtuoso bassist. He was a gifted composer, arranger, and a Grammy nominated producer. Think African traditional drumming meets Jaco Pastorius’s funk and you begin to capture the sound. He was a multi-instrumentalist who played the piano and owned it, while other musicians might claim it as a secondary instrument. He was a highly creative mind who could transform a piece of music from failure to success in moments.
Habib was born in 1965, in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. It’s a bustling and crowded city on the west coast of Africa, and its citizens have a strong tradition of hospitality. It’s also a deeply musical city, rooted in tradition, yet open to modern music. Habib grew up in a musical family: his father and his five brothers were all outstanding musicians. He didn’t attend music school, but listened to jazz, rock, and salsa, absorbing it and teaching himself to play it all. He worked hard at music, perhaps in part because he was a Mouride – a follower of the Sufi tradition in Senegal and devotee of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, who installed both non-violence and hard work into his followers.
He was only a teenager when he was plucked up to join a young band, Super Étoile de Dakar, whose lead singer was the fiercely ambitious Youssou N’Dour. Youssou with his soaring, heartfelt vocals and good looks was the obvious leader for the group, and he captivated many female fans. His father had forbidden him to play music, but his mother’s people were griots, and music was in his birthright. In the short film, Youssou N’Dour: Eyes Open, he says: “I sing about things which are important to me, I sing about real life in Dakar as it is today.” But his singing could go only so far. He needed a great band to make the music fly, and that’s why he chose Habib as his bassist.
At this time, a new musical genre was created in Dakar: Mbalax. The word means rhythm. Three drums lay down a polyrhythmic mosaic whose origin is in the music of the Serer people. The percussion section has a lead drum (the nder), a rhythm drum (the sabar), and a talking drum (the tama). In Super Étoile de Dakar, Mamadou Jimi M’Baye on electric guitar and Habib Faye were among the first Senegalese musicians to incorporate this highly rhythmic pulse and give it a new spin. Habib also brought elements of percussion into his bass playing.
Part of his power was in the variety of rhythms in his playing. His outstanding technique allowed him to make rapid interchanges between funk and indigenous rhythms. He was also one of the first to introduce marimba keyboard playing into Senegalese popular music. This was a participatory music, Super Étoile knew how to start with slow numbers, and then to accelerate the tempo, and to increase the intensity of their rhythm and energy as the night progressed. The rapid fire percussion caused sparks to fly. The group redefined Senegal’s music. Never before had the traditional and the modern been played alongside one another. Dakar was electrified.
In the 1980s, Super Étoile de Dakar, Youssou N’Dour, and Habib, caught the attention of Peter Gabriel, the famed British pop musician and producer. And he introduced them to international audiences and to critical acclaim.
After Habib had played for twenty-eight years with Youssou N’Dour, he at last formed his own quartet. And, in 2012, he released a significant solo work in the album entitled H20. It is a thoughtful, meditative work, and when the music slows down in a lament, listeners can hear the full expressiveness of his bass line.
Ashley Maher, an American musician, speaks of the more recent years, “If I am to speculate, his international travels expanded Habib’s appreciation for jazz and funk. He became a master of bass ‘slapping’ in his solos. And he also collaborated with a wide range of star jazz masters such as Stanley Clarke and Lionel Loueke. There was also a period of time that he toured with Angelique Kidjo. In my view, the world was never as aware of his incredible talent as they should have been.”
His final project was with Ablaye Cissokho, the kora player. For one more time, he brought traditional Senegalese instruments and rhythms to work together with the modern music that so inspired him.
Habib Faye died of a lung infection on Wednesday, April 25th, 2018. He was only fifty-two years old. He is survived by his wife and their children. The name Habib means beloved in Arabic, it is a fitting name for a man not only beloved to his family, but to his friends, fellow musicians and fans around the world who have been irrevocably touched by his music.
To give readers a feel for how his Senegalese contemporaries thought about him, I interviewed several of them, and here’s what two of the most important of them had to say.
Etu Dieng, musical director and bassist with the vocalist Kiné Lam, said, “His bass playing caught my attention. I lived not far from him. There was a stadium nearby and once Super Étoile played there. I was too young to go to the concert, I was about five years younger than him, but I sat outside to listen and I cried because of that bass. He was one of the first African musicians to be successful in incorporating advanced electric bass playing into our native music.
He inspired people. And I realized that the bass can be fun: we can do a lot with the instrument. He was already naturally percussive, but when he started to listen to Jaco Pastorius, his sound developed as you can hear in the progression of his work with Youssou N’Dour. He incorporated more funk into our music, as in the song ‘Hey You’ recorded by Youssou in the 1990’s. It was a new way of playing.”
Cheikh Ndoye, a younger bassist who plays for Baaba Maal, said, “Habib’s bass lines were so original, melodic, and harmonically rich. They were very rhythmic. He was the only bass player to come up with that style of playing, Mbalax. He changed the way we young Senegalese musicians created music. We’ve lost one of the most respected African musicians, multi-instrumentalists and composers. He’s no longer here, but his music lives on. And younger musicians will continue to play his music to keep it alive.
He had an incredible vision and an original sound — the hardest thing to find in musicianship. He was unique, and anything he touched in music became stronger. You can recognize him both in his bass playing and in his compositions. We loved him as a musician and as a person. He inspired all of us.”
Are you looking to continue the holiday season’s festivities into 2018? You can consider purchasing the band LADAMA’s self-titled album that was released in Fall 2017. The words La dama are Spanish for the lady and here the four women do step up. On this album, South American musical genres such as the cumbia and maracatu dance with rock and blues.
Acoustic instruments join together with non-traditional instruments, the electric guitar and rock drum. The musicians are from four countries, Mafer Bandola on bandola llanera is from Venezuela; Sara Lucas on guitar and vocals is from the United States; Lara Klaus on drums and vocals is from Brazil; and Daniela Serna on tambor alegre and vocals, a cheerful percussive drum, is from Colombia.
The band’s name comprises several first initials of the musician’s first names, La for Lara Klaus, Da for Daniele Serna and Ma for Mafer Bandola.
What stands out on this album though are the vocals. Sara Lucas’s deep voice is persuasive on “Compared to What” and “Night Traveler.” The former is a protest song from the 1960’s, and the vocals are direct and forceful, reminiscent of Nina Simone’s. The melody is simple, punctuated by horns. Lara Klaus’s vocals are playful and soft on “Elo.” Here the subtle, Brazilian rhythm ripples through, taking the listener back to the gentle, acoustic feeling of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema.”
A highlight is the track “Cumbia Brasilera” which is folk with a strong and steady undercurrent of drum. “Cumbia Brasilera” features the masterful, elaborate playing of Mafer Bandola on acoustic bandola llanera; a pear shaped guitar-like instrument. This is a lively song with the interplay of the women’s vocals coming together. It could keep dancers on their feet for a long time.
Recently, I interviewed Sara Lucas about LADAMA’s album and their work together as a band. Sara lives in New York City. She writes songs, and sings them to the accompaniment of her guitar.
DJL: Where are you from and what music did you grow up listening to?
SL: I am originally from St. Louis, Missouri. As a child I was exposed to a lot of jazz, blues, rock n’ roll and gospel. I grew up listening to the American songbook and folk music. I am also a classically trained guitarist.
DJL: You had your own band prior to LADAMA.
SL: Yes, I am a cofounder of a group with Ryan Seaton – Callers. We have toured internationally and released three albums.
DJL: LADAMA met in 2014 at OneBeat while touring on the road. OneBeat is a one month gathering that brings together twenty-five young musicians from across several countries, not only to collaborate, produce and perform music, but also to see how the arts can impact and engage with society. What was it like meeting at OneBeat?
SL: OneBeat is a great experimental incubator of musicians and gives them the opportunity to compose. We as women cherished the time spent together, there was a bond, a tremendous excitement in our making music together.
DJL: Why this album now?
SL: We felt compelled to record the album as our music grew organically out of our experience of working together. Half of the album was recorded in four days. The music happened as we went on tour — one month in Brazil, one month in Colombia, two and half weeks in Venezuela and then one month in New York.
DJL: LADAMA’s mission is to empower women in the community, how do you do that?
SL: We are operating on two levels, one is to tour our own music and the other is by bringing music workshops to the communities that we visit like, for example, high schools. We see music as life affirming – to hear and to see is really to believe. We are four women touring across four countries, and when other women and girls see that, we hope that it will inspire them.
DJL: Is audience participation important to you?
SL: Yes, 100%. Our performances are sometimes didactic and always a celebration. We want people to have fun. But we want people who come to the show to leave with something too.
DJL: The track “Compared to What” is bluesy in feel, but it also has a heightened, driving rhythm. Can you tell us about that song?
SL: Yes, it was written by Gene McDaniels, and Roberta Flack sang it first in the 1960s. It dealt with the realities of that time, the Vietnam War, the President and systemic, institutionalized racism – it is a protest song that rings true today. I grew up singing in this vocal tradition and wanted to incorporate it into the music of LADAMA.
DJL: What is your hope for this album and for the band?
SL: We hope that people will take the album home and have their own individual experience with it, responding to it on their level. We would like the album to reach as many people as possible and hope that the band can continue to record in the United States and in each musician’s country.
It is true that these women come from distinct cultural and musical backgrounds, yet there is a genuine feeling of unity on this record. Each could stand alone as a good musician in her own right, yet they seem to have more fun playing together. They generate a certain electricity that would not be as strong if they worked independently. Their presence as a collective conveys the power that music has to unite.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.