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

Dawn Avery: Performance as Prayer

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

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

Dawn Avery – Beloved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

DJL: What are some early memories of playing music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

DA:  I first worked on reissuing some older music: Mike Jock and the Big Bear Singers.  In Mohawk language there is a word Non:wa that means now.  We have a different understanding of now, the past is very much a part of our present. 

Preserving these traditions is a way of keeping our heritage strong and alive and of healing mother earth for all peoples.  I formed the Native Composers Project and we invited people to compose songs in their Native languages as a way of preserving them and bringing them into the present. 

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

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

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

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

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

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

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

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

DA: It is so important that Americans understand that the basis of these philosophies is love and respect.  I teach at the college level and I see many Muslim students saying how they are stereotyped as terrorists.  These kind and intelligent students are often treated so ethnocentrically. 

As we know, humanity consists of both good and bad.  However,  it seems that racist tendencies have really been brought out during this current time.  I think that many people knew they existed in the United States, but perhaps some of us did not realize just how strong they were.

My way of participating in a “softer activism,”  is to present and open up discussion to different points of view through less threatening mediums such as music, workshops, conversation, and the bringing of different cultures together. I want to hold onto the core of beauty and love that are not only important in both Native American and Sufi philosophies, but to us all.

Dawn Avery

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

DA:  Well, I worked on recording it two years ago, but kept it to myself for a while, meditating on it, before sharing it with the world. Sharing the different voices of humanity. Releasing this music has a vulnerable aspect to it where something that was private becomes very public. 

There is the track “Super Heroes” on the album with the refrain, “Be a Super Hero, renegade for love.” The United States has a strong tradition of super heroes, especially in cartoons. But here the hero could be the listener. The song is ultimately about how we elevate our spirits in the world.

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

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

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

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

I met Behfar while teaching at Montgomery College. One day, I was surprised to see this student walking around campus with a Sitar.  I really like how he plays because he knows the old Persian Sufi songs, but he can bring a contemporary feel and great technique to them.

It is also important for me to include Sakina Nur, the whirling dervish who performs with us live on stage.  She is also a flamenco dancer and sometimes includes that tradition when she performs. Sakina even got the audience to whirl!  I cannot separate her from us as musicians as Sakina is integral to this new music.  In the Iroquois tradition, we have this idea of being connected to the earth.  And you cannot really whirl as a Sufi dervish, unless you are connected to the earth and reach for the skies.  When I play with her, she makes true magic and her vibration is part of the musical prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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Gino Sitson’s Adventure

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

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

Gino released – Echo Chamber

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

DJL: What music inspired you as a young person?

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

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

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

Gino Sitson – Photo by Alain Herman

DJL: Did you sing as a child?

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

DJL: Later, you moved to France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DJL: How do you compose?

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

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

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

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

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

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The Universal Yet Intimate Music of Yoham Ortiz

Yoham Ortiz – Uncompromising

Yoham Ortiz – Uncompromising (Yoham Ortiz Music, 2019)
Contributor Dorothy Johnson-Laird

“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.”

Yoham Ortiz – photo by David Troncoso

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.

Purchase “Uncompromising.”

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GlobalFEST 2019 Concert Review

Cha Wa

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.

Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness

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.

Orquesta Akokan

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.

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Onebeat Mixtape Musical Exchange

Various Artists – OneBeat Mixtape

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.

One Beat – Photo by Alexia Webster

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.

One Beat – Photo by Alexia Webster

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.”

One Beat – Photo by Alexia Webster

“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.

One Beat – Photo by Alexia Webster

“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.

OneBeat Mixtape is available for digital download at: fsnrecords.bandcamp.com

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Dan Kurfirst: Drawn to the Light of Love

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 Kurfirst

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

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

Dan Kurfirst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He has an evocative voice…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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Habib Faye – A Beloved musician

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.

 

Habib Faye – H20

 

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.

 

Habib Faye

 

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.”

Headline photo: Habib Faye by Bill Farrington

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Interview with LADAMA

LADAMA – Photo by Kevin Bay

 

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.

 

Ladama – Ladama

 

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.

 

Sara Lucas (Ladama) – Photo by Kevin Bay

 

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.

 

Mafer Bandola (Ladama) – Photo by Kevin Bay

 

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.

 

Lara Klaus (Ladama) – Photo by Kevin Bay

 

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.

 

Daniela Serna (Ladama) – Photo by Kevin Bay

 

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.

Discography:

Ladama (Six Degrees, 2017)

Website: www.ladamaproject.org

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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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