All posts by Tony Hillier

Tony Hillier is an Australia-based freelance music writer, broadcaster, musician, MC and band leader. He writes album and concert reviews and feature articles for The Australian (the country’s only bona fide national newspaper) and Rhythms (Australia’s only dedicated national roots music magazine) and prepares/presents weekly programs for the national broadcaster (ABC) and community radio. He is also a member of the Transglobal World Music Chart (TWMC) panel.

Hail The White Zulu

Johnny Clegg

Contrary to popular opinion, Paul Simon was not the first musician to recognize the rich potential of fusing Western pop with Zulu tribal rhythms. An inquisitive young white South African musician literally and figuratively had his finger on the pulse years before the diminutive American married his quirky songs with township jive on what was to become his and one of the 1980s’ strongest-selling albums.

While still in his early teens, Johnny Clegg, who passed away on July 16, started exploring Zulu music on the streets of Johannesburg — defying the iniquitous and racist apartheid doctrine into the bargain — when the seminal Graceland album was nary a glint in Rhymin’ Simon’s eye.

Clegg went on to become a professor of anthropology and one of South Africa’s highest-selling and best-known international artists, with six million album sales to his credit. When I interviewed him for Australia’s Rhythms magazine back in 2012, the Grammy Award winner recalled with some clarity what initially attracted him to indigenous culture and what fascinated him in particular about Zulu music.

I was 14 and I was playing Celtic folk music and listening to folk-rock bands like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull when I discovered street guitar music.” It was Clegg’s Eureka moment. “I was quite a shy kid, but I went up to a guy who was playing and asked if he’d teach me. I saw that the guitar had been Africanised, basically reconceptualized. There was no chords, just simple notes being played in a stream of sound. In some instances, the strings had been changed around, and I realised that this was a unique genre of guitar music and I wanted to play it.” So he began to look and learn.

What was originally fascination started to take the shape of a profession when he met Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu and they became Juluka, the first prominent racially mixed South African act. “We began as a duo,” Clegg related. “Later on I started bringing Celtic and other influences into the music and found a meeting point between Zulu street guitar music and Western music, and that was the birth of this crossover band.”

Clegg and Mchunu put out their first album in 1979, long before there was a category called world music and some half-dozen years before Graceland was launched to mainstream acclaim and worldwide sales. They recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, again well before Paul Simon utilized that group’s exquisite Zulu harmonies on ‘Homeless’ and ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’. “I was fluent in Zulu by then and we were singing Zulu and English on the same songs. We were mixing languages, we were mixing rhythms, styles and composition. Western music has rules of composition; it’s very linear. Zulu music is very cyclical. It was a very interesting challenge to overcome as a songwriter; it was fascinating developing solutions.”

Johnny Clegg and Sipho MChunu

Flying in the face of apartheid posed a greater challenge. “Initially, we kept our day jobs; we couldn’t make a living as a mixed race band,” Clegg asserts. He later discovered a loophole in the law. “Apartheid was only applicable to public venues. We could play at private venues, so we performed in churches, peoples’ lounges, embassies, private schools and university halls. We discovered there were pockets of platforms that we could use. When we began to play in public, that’s when we started to get closed down. It was really a kind of balancing act between those. There weren’t enough security police to monitor what we were doing, so as long as you weren’t playing the main centres, you managed to get a bunch of shows in.”

Juluka records received what was known as ‘restricted access’. “They would strike a nail through the vinyl on certain tracks,” he remembers. “There were four levels of censorship on radio: sexual, religious, racial and cultural.”  Although their debut album, Universal Men, received little to no air play on state-owned radio, it became a word-of-mouth hit. Juluka were able to tour in Europe, where they earned international platinum and gold sales for albums such as 1982’s Scatterlings of Africa and 1984’s Stand Your Ground.

Scatterlings is the song that got me on to the world platform,” Clegg conceded. “It’s the song that launched my musical career actually because by the fourth album I was teaching anthropology at university. When that song became a hit, I said to the head of the department: ‘See ya — I’m off’. I left after it went to number one in France, Belgium and Switzerland. It’s a song that’s worked very hard for me. It’s given me openings in two different bands to secure music as a way of life.” ‘Scatterlings’ was also significant on another level. “The song’s sentiments are about Africa being the birthplace of all mankind and that from Africa humans scattered to the rest of the world. What it’s really saying is that everybody is significant, not just us. The first humans left Africa 170,000 years ago and populated the planet.”

Despite his high-standing overseas, Clegg received short shrift from the South African government. He was arrested several times, initially as a 15-year-old back in the late ‘60s for entering a black area without permission. “But I wasn’t political,” he insisted. “I was musical. Juluka wasn’t really a political band. We were a cultural activist band. You were dealing with a far more basic issue — the right to sing another man’s language, the right to share another man’s culture in a country that forced cultural segregation. It’s a very complex issue this. South Africa was racially and culturally segregated. The regime didn’t want blacks to unite, so there was a divide and rule policy at a cultural level. Mixing languages was taboo. We mixed languages and we mixed music and we mixed dance and we mixed all these things.”

Savuka, which Clegg formed after Juluka was disbanded in 1986 when Mchunu left, was the band that in Clegg’s words “became political, more outspoken and clearly articulated”. Following the release of Savuka’s hard-hitting debut album Third World Child in 1987, its leader and other band members were arrested several times. Savuka concerts were routinely broken up and some of Clegg’s songs, such as ‘Asimbonanga’, which called for the release of Nelson Mandela, were banned by the regime. [In later years, the singer got to share stages with Mandela during a series of AIDS Awareness concerts, something he lists among his most cherished memories].

For several weeks in the 1980s, Third World Child and the follow-up album, Shadow Man, dominated the French charts. The band was so successful that Michael Jackson allegedly had to cancel a show in Lyon because it clashed with a Johnny Clegg and Savuka gig. Amusingly, a newspaper headline in France read: ‘WHITE MAN SINGING BLACK MUSIC OUT SELLS BLACK MAN SINGING WHITE MUSIC’. Clegg was at a loss to explain his huge following in France, where he is known as Le Zoulou Blanc (The White Zulu) and where in 1991 he was awarded a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) by the French Government, other than to point out that the French are very open to music from other countries. “At that time on French radio you heard every kind of music imaginable. They are very culturally sophisticated and aware.”

2011 marked Clegg’s 30th anniversary as a professional musician and he celebrated the milestone in style. “I got Juluka and Savuka back together and all the people I could muster for three shows. We did a Johnny and Sipho duo set, then we did Juluka, then we did Savuka. The show in Capetown was brilliant.”

Clegg said his career had been something of a blur. “I toured between four and six months every year. In the early days, I did nine months touring for years and years.” He stopped performing in 1993. “I went through a personal crisis with my marriage; one of the issues we discovered was my extensive touring. I was spending too much time away from home and my wife gave me an ultimatum. We had an agreement that my touring would be limited.” While admitting that affected his profile and album sales at a time when the world spotlight moved away from South Africa, he took comfort from the fact that Juluka and Savuka were secure internationally. “I lived off the goodwill of those fans that followed me in the ‘80s.”

Close to 60 when I talked to him, Clegg senior said he kept fit for the energetic Zulu dancing that became an integral part of his live shows by doing plenty of cardiovascular work and weights and most importantly, he stressed, “stretching for suppleness”. While he didn’t lecture at university any more, he still utilised his academic expertise. “My shows are accompanied with explanations, anecdotes and stories about the songs, which people like to hear. It adds a bit of layering to the songs.” Clegg spoke with authority. In what was perhaps a veiled reference to Paul Simon, he said: “I come from inside the tradition. I play Zulu concertina. I play Zulu guitar. I play maskanda music, I grew up in the tradition. I’m not raiding some foreign cultural entity and then constructing something out of it, I’m writing from inside the tradition.”

Johnny Clegg, whose Zulu name (‘Madabe’) translates to ‘Big Ears’, told me his career had been a great journey. “The thing for me is having a dedicated group of fans over the years who’ve brought their kids to my shows. The key is to have people that want to grow with you as an artist. In the end, it’s about the connection with an audience and maintaining that connection.”

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Interview with Daymé Arocena

Daymé Arocena

There’s a revolution happening on the music front in Cuba led by a visionary group of millennials that’s banging down post-Buena Vista Social Club doors with an intoxicating mix of Santeria/Afro-Cuban roots, jazz, hip-hop, soul and funk.

In the vanguard of this new movement, alongside such as Roberto Fonseca, Danay Suarez and the project Havana Cultura, is Daymé Arocena.

In her mid-20s, this smoky voiced young songstress follows a 60-year conga line of Cuban musicians influenced by Caribbean Yoruba traditions. As she explains: “We have had limited information about musical activities internationally, so we’ve had to research our roots to create something new.

Now, she declares, her generation is looking for a link with the world: “We wanna make Cuban music universal again by mixing the traditional with our young spirits. This new era is mixed and fresh.”

Arocena is both saddened and perplexed by the fact that international audiences and reviewers seem to expect all Cuban musicians to be in the old school mould.

The Buena Vista Social Club represents the music of the pre-revolution period, but it’s crazy to think that we haven’t done anything else since 1959. We’re a little island full of music, because Cuba is a country with a mix of races, languages, religion and culture. People can’t just talk about Cuban music being in Spanish with one clave.”

The fast-rising diva – a disciple of Nina Simone and Marta Valdés — is on a mission to change preconceived ideas about Cuban music, but insists she’s not alone in that aim. “I just got the opportunity to do it with an international response, but there are a lot of us fighting.”

While Arocena’s acclaimed albums, Nueva Era and Cubafonía, contain a range of styles, she says her master plan is simply to make “Cuban jazz music for everyone“.

Her self-composed songs are imbued with the spirituality of Santeria: “It’s really the national religion of Cuba because it’s the only one that was born here. It’s the result of the mixing of Yoruba and other West African roots and Catholicism with other Cuban native, Asian and European influences. I’m crowned Yemeya — the saint of the sea — so I’m a practitioner and my music and my life are connected with it.”

Arocena proudly wears the traditional dress of Santeria and is bare-footed on stage: “It’s my way of keeping protected,” she informs.”

The singer, arranger and composer regards English producer Gilles Peterson, the man behind Havana Cultura that helped launch her international career, as part of the family. She says that Peterson and the Havana Cultura project gave her the freedom to be herself.

Music has been Arocena’s calling since the tender age of four, when she performed on dusty street blocks across Cuba.

At age 9 she was accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious music schools, where she studied choir directing rooted in Western classical tradition. By 14, she was the principal singer in the prestigious Cuban big band Los Primos, impressing the likes of jazz heavyweight Wynton Marsalis.

Arocena ascribes her love of jazz and hip-hop to the southern US, where rappers and musicians alike have affiliations to the Afro-Christian Church. She describes hip-hop as the urban spirit of the street. “As a creator and performer you have to be plugged into it; it’s the best way to understand the worries of the people.”

Daymé Arocena namechecks Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar as musicians she’d one day like to work with. If her international profile continues to grow at its current rate, she may soon be able to cherry-pick her collaborators.

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.

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Artist Profiles: Havana Meets Kingston

Back in the closing years of the 20th century, when the Buena Vista Social Club ruled the international roost, Cuban music was all the rage. Now, two decades on, an Australian musician/producer is not only following the footsteps of the great American facilitator Ry Cooder, who guided that collective’s high-selling Havana-recorded album, award-winning documentary and sell-out overseas tour, but he’s also taking an extra bound by blending son, salsa and rumba with reggae, dancehall and dub from Cuba’s Caribbean island neighbour, Jamaica.

In what is a mighty musical and logistical achievement that he’s claiming as a world-first, Melburnian Jake “Mista” Savona has amassed a star-studded cast that includes both lauded Buena Vista players and reggae royalty. His Havana Meets Kingston concept has already yielded an album and several world tours.

Various Artists – Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston

Surprisingly, Savona says no master plan is involved, and he insists it is all the better for that. “To be honest, the whole project hasn’t been quite as pre-meditated as it may seem from the outside … and I believe this is actually what makes it so special. It evolved step-by-step over many years. The seeds were planted well before I had even envisioned the possibility of bringing together Jamaican and Cuban musicians in Havana.”

The project had its genesis back in 2004 when Savona made his inaugural visit to Jamaica to record Melbourne Meets Kingston, the first album-length collaboration between Australian musicians and Jamaican vocalists. That led to a series of return trips between 2004 and 2013 for further recordings.

He says the turning point came after a friend returned from a 2014 trip to Havana with some persuasive photos, and he realised a visit to Cuba was well overdue. “When I looked at the map I couldn’t believe how close the two islands are — literally only a few hundred miles apart. I was heading to Jamaica in April that year for a quick promotional trip, so I decided to visit Cuba for ten days or so.”

Savona fell in love with the people, music and culture. “Towards the end of the trip, I was sitting in a cafe in Havana, a great place called Chanchurello. They were playing a CD of traditional Cuban rumba, mainly percussion based. I was daydreaming and imagining how the sounds of Nyabinghi drums from Jamaica would sound mixed with the rumba. I realized it would be very special to mix the two styles, and wondered if it had ever been done before.”

Jake Savona with Sly & Robbie

After returning to Kingston a few days later, he bumped into the veteran Jamaican percussionist Bongo Herman, who convinced him to setup a recording session that night at Tuff Gong, Bob Marley’s studio in Kingston. Drummer Sly Dunbar was there, of the world-famous rhythm section, Sly & Robbie. They ended up recording until sunrise. “He loved my piano playing, and I, of course, was amazed by his musicianship.”

Following some research on his return to Australia, Savona realised there had never been a project bringing Jamaican musicians into Cuba or vice versa. “I started to think how it could be done. I called Sly and he loved the idea, and he gave me Robbie’s phone number in Miami.” He also called Bongo Herman and Winston ‘Bopee’ Bowen, one of his favourite Jamaican guitarists. “Everyone was saying ‘yes’ without hesitation, and it just felt like a project that wanted and needed to happen.” So Savona started to look at how it might be organised.

A year later — in June 2015 — the producer flew seven Jamaican musicians into Havana. They had 10 days booked at the famous Egrem Studios, where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded their famous album.

As word spread about the initial sessions, Savona says over 30 Cuban musicians came through the studio, including members of Buena Vista, Los Van Van, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Irakere and Havana Cultura.

It was an incredible 10 days,” he recalls. “I hoped to record one or two tracks a day to complete a fifteen-track album, but we actually recorded enough material in that time for almost three albums. The energy and inspiration was incredible. I had prepared sketches for all the songs, and these master musicians took the arrangements into hyperspace.”

Havana Meets Kingston has continued to exceed Savona’s expectations. “This project is so much bigger now than just my initial vision. It’s a joyful celebration of Caribbean music and culture that’s opening new doors for everyone involved. With our introductory music video going viral earlier this year, it’s also inspiring a lot of new tourism to the Caribbean.”

Looking back at the logistics of the exercise, Savona says the knowledge he gained from previous trips to survey Kingston’s music scene gave him the confidence to organize the Jamaican side of things. With his Cuban experience limited, he enlisted the help of Melbourne percussionist Javier Fredes, a master conga player, who, having lived in Cuba, had a deep knowledge of the musical landscape there.

I couldn’t have organized the sessions in Havana without his help,” Savona admits. “The biggest unknown for me was Cuban immigration, which is somewhat of a mystery. Did we have the right visas for the Jamaican musicians? Would Cuban customs mind that we were bringing so much musical and studio equipment into Havana? Thankfully, this side of things went smoothly, and once we had everyone safely in Havana, I knew we were good to go.”

The only real issue that Savona encountered in the studio was that the Jamaicans didn’t speak Spanish, and the Cubans had very little English. However, once the musicians were sitting with their instruments, he says the language barrier simply melted away.

Havana Meets Kingston

When the Jamaican musicians returned to Kingston, there were more sessions in both Havana, Santiago de Cuba and later on in Kingston to complete the recording. Savona also later travel led to London to record with one of his favorite reggae artists, singer Randy Valentine.

The project leader spent close to a year on the arrangements and mix downs, utilizing this time to also find the right record labels for his album. “Although at times I realized I was working quite slowly, I didn’t want to rush anything. Now, I have no regrets because we needed this time to actually fit all the right pieces of the puzzle together.”

All up just over 60 musicians were used on Havana Meets Kingston. “Famous older legendary musicians are playing alongside young new talent, some of who had never been in a recording studio before,” he points out.

I had no idea in the beginning that I would be able to work with such legends as [Jamaican guitarist] Ernest Ranglin, or Barbarito Torres of Buena Vista fame. Recording at Egrem Studios, he says, gave his album some of the same unique, “warm woody-room sound” that helped the eponymous Buena Vista Social Club release to become a huge seller around the world in the late 1990s.

Savona strongly refutes any notion that revamping songs such as ‘Chan Chan’, ‘El Cuarto de Tula’ and ‘Candela’from the revered Buena Vista album with beats, raps and manifestations of reggae amounts to any disrespect.

“That album is incredible; it was recorded over twenty years ago but stands the test of time. However, roam the streets of Old Havana today and all you’ll hear are Cuban bands in the bars and hotels mostly rehashing the ‘same old’ classics. Although this is what many tourists want to hear, it’s not great for the evolution of Cuban music. Music will lose its relevance and passion if it’s frozen in time. We made the Havana Meets Kingston album with so much respect for the roots music of both islands, involving many of the same legends that play on these old classic recordings.”

In order to blend together rhythms as diverse as Jamaican reggae/dancehall and Cuban son/rumba, Savona prepared sketches of all the songs, focusing on what he describes as interesting chord changes and strong funky riffs.

“I left them quite open, rather than preparing overly complicated charts. This, in hindsight, is the best thing I could have done, because it meant the musicians could really get inside these songs and breathe, rather then being glued to the written music. It also meant they could easily imbue the music with their own style and touch.” As a result, he says, the songs evolved quickly and came alive in unexpected and exciting ways.

One goal was to bring the sounds of Jamaican soundsystem culture together with the virtuosic Afro-Cuban jazz traditions. “Robbie Shakespeare’s incredible rolling bass lines made this possible,” says Savona. “His playing mixed with the Cuban percussion of Yaroldy Abreu, Oliver Valdés and Changuito to really bring the sounds of the Kingston and Havana streets together in a way never heard before.”

Savona reports that both Sly and Robbie were fantastic to work with: “They’re very relaxed and confident in the studio. They were happy to take my musical direction, and at the same time bring their own style and sound to my arrangements. They’re an integral part of the album for so many reasons — no one plays like them.”

The first Havana Meets Kingston album, which comprises predominantly fresh original compositions, presents a bona fide mix of musical cultures that’s relatively free of studio artifice. As Savona says: “It’s all about the performances, and less about the post-production, which I’ve kept as simple and natural as possible. You could argue that contemporary music is becoming increasingly sterile, with the focus in pretty much all genres now on post-production and auto-tuned, synthesised vocal performances, which I believe actually stifle and repress deeper human expression. For me music should be about uplifting people, not brainwashing them.”

What Aussie festivalgoers saw on stage at WOMADelaide and elsewhere on the 2018 tour was the core band that played on the initial Havana sessions. Besides key vocalists, English-Jamaican Randy Valentine and Cuban Francisco ‘Solis’ Robert and Brenda Navarette, one of Cuba’s rising singers, the 15-piece line-up in Adelaide included Sly & Robbie, Jamaican guitarist Bopee, the legendary Cuban percussionists Yaroldy Abreu and Oliver Valdés and the great trumpeter Julito Padrón. Laud player Barbarito Torres and virtuoso pianist Rolando Luna of Buena Vista fame were other world-renowned Cuban musicians in the line-up.

Savona is justifiably proud of the fact that it was his stewardship that facilitated Jamaican musicians flying into Cuba to record and collaborate with Cuban musicians for the first time. He says a combination of political, social, economic and linguistic reasons conspired to prevent that in the past. “Additionally, both islands have such potent and unique music scenes that they’re really captivated by their own music to a large degree. Until two years ago, there were no exchange programs between the islands. Jamaica’s music industry is its biggest export, and yet the government still doesn’t invest in it properly. There’s not even a museum in Jamaica dedicated to their incredible contributions to the world’s music.”

The financing of such an expensive and ambitious project as Havana Meets Kingston was problematic: “As a full-time musician, with a variable income to say the least, there was no way I could have financed this on my own,” he concedes. “But, I was very fortunate to have so much assistance along the way to bring this dream to life.” Savona managed to submit what turned out to be a successful application for an Australia Council ‘International Pathways’ grant in the nick of time. That, he indicates was pivotal. A Kickstarter campaign raised funds to take a film and photographic crew to document the project in Havana. “A few generous friends of mine were also happy to lend me money to help with the final mixing and mastering stages later on.”

Savona concedes there are still some outstanding debts from Havana Meets Kingston, but he’s confident in time that his project will become fully self-sufficient. He plans to tour the live show elsewhere around the world, including free outdoor concerts in Jamaica and Cuba. The second volume of the album is on the drawing board, along with a documentary, and a third installment of the record is expected to follow at a later date.

What amazes me about this project,” says Savona “are the synchronicities that kept happening, again and again. Looking back, I can see these countless little miracles that happened along the way that made it all possible. It just felt like an idea that wanted to happen, a project that wanted to be born. And all these great musicians loved the idea of the project. That’s what made it all possible.”

While there’s understandable pride in local music circles that an Australian is behind a project as bold as Havana Meets Kingston, Jake Savona stresses that it’s first and foremost an international collaboration. “This is an album by Jamaican and Cuban musicians, and it is an album for the people of Jamaica and Cuba, first and foremost. This is the real strength of the project.

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.

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Interview with Faith i Branko

Faith i Branko

She’s an English rose, an accordionist and circus performer from a Cotswolds hamlet. He’s a virtuoso Roma violinist from a village in West Serbia.

How Faith and Branko came to form a successful band, and the trials and tribulations they had to overcome en-route, provides a compelling backstory.

It began a decade ago when Faith felt impelled to drive to Serbia to learn local styles of accordion playing. While there, she met Branko, a fiddle player who the BBC would later mention in the same breath as Paganini. Despite a language barrier, they began creating music together. They fell in love and two years later, when Faith returned to Serbia, they married.

The couple spent the next five years attempting to gain entry to live in the UK. “During this time, I was immersed in the music and language of the Roma village in which we built a house near his family,” Faith relates. They eventually made it to England two years ago, via Vienna and work in the Austrian Roma music scene.

The stresses of the past half-dozen years or so have been immense,” Faith reveals. “Branko’s health has been difficult — his life before was traumatic — and trying to understand a way to be together in the fast modern world that we have now moved to, has been a huge challenge. But whether our joint lives are joyful or problematic, all of this — happiness and pain — is poured into our music and creates the energy between us that you can see on stage.”

Faith i Branko

Until he met Faith, Branko had never travelled internationally, been on an airplane or used a bank or computer. “Life in my village was natural, communal and simple,” he says. “Before Faith arrived in my life, I had had one of my visions — that a girl would come who I would travel the world with and play music with.”

In 2015, his dream was realized when they jetted to Australia for a handful of gigs with Sydney band Lolo Lovina. For Branko, simply arriving in the world-renowned harbour city with Faith was mindboggling: “It was one of the most spectacular moments of my life.

Faith i Branko currently perform with Serbian-born guitarist Stefan Melovski and Yugoslavian-born double bass player Viktor Obsust. “The quartet is the sound we currently prefer,” says Faith. “After working with drummers and additional instruments, it provides the fullest and most delicate sound for our requirements.”

The band’s music has been described as wild and energetic. “It doesn’t have much middle ground,” Faith agrees. “The emotions expressed within it are very intense, whether in slow painful passages or super-speed joyful bursts … it’s music that expresses the extremes of being alive.”

She continues: “The music works from a musical foundation of Serbia Roma music — the traditional music of Branko’s village of Gornja Grabovica. While we make journeys into other flavours, this is the style that predominates.”

Although Faith utilises a traditional English tabor pipe within their music — playing the accordion with one hand and the pipe with the other — she says there’s very little deliberate melding of their heritages. “It is more in the combining of two very different cultural personalities that this heritage can be felt.

By all accounts, Faith i Branko’s music has matured considerably in recent years. “It has progressed from a much more simplistic way of playing to something more detailed, complex and full as we have travelled and matured as people and players.”

One of the things they have done is to stretch the capacity of the violin. “Branko has changed greatly as a player due to being exposed to an international music scene, and the music reflects the change in our current personal relationship from the relationship between us four years ago.”

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.

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The gypsy guitar genre factor: fact or fallacy?

Stochelo Rosenberg Trio at the Adelaide Guitar Festival
Stochelo Rosenberg Trio at the Adelaide Guitar Festival

 

Hard on the heels of the perennial poser ‘can a white man sing the blues’ comes the query that questions whether non-gypsy guitarists can authentically perform flamenco and jazz manouche.

Spanish maestro José Antonio Rodriguez and Dutch master Stochelo Rosenberg, who were programmed to respectively open and close the 2014 Adelaide International Guitar Festival (AIGF) last month, on their Australian debuts, are perfectly qualified to opine on that conundrum … and also to put their genres of expertise into some kind of historical context.

It’s a given that any conversation about jazz manouche will inexorably gravitate towards Django Reinhardt, the world’s most iconic Romani musician and a guitarist who pretty well single-handedly invented and refined the style of music more widely known as gypsy jazz or string swing. Likewise, that most discussions about flamenco guitar will inevitably home in on its close ties with the gypsy world.

As a payo (non-Romani), Señor Rodriguez is living proof that you don’t have to be a gypsy to perform authentic flamenco. As a player, composer and music professor who has won several prestigious national flamenco prizes and shared the stage and recordings with such revered maestros as the late Paco De Lucía (another non-gypsy), Manolo Sanlúcar and Fosforito, he speaks with some authority. “The gypsies have a unique way of seeing life and playing music, but it’s not the only way,” he told Rhythms. “Although flamenco and jazz manouche come from a specific oppressed ethnic group, the two music forms do not exclusively belong to the gypsies. What’s important, certainly in flamenco, is the personality, the differences between the interpreters.”

 

José Antonio Rodriguez
José Antonio Rodriguez

 

Stochelo Rosenberg, who’s regarded among aficionados as the finest practitioner of gypsy jazz since Django, is a bona-fide gypsy, a member of the same central European Sinti-Manouche clan from which Reinhardt emanated. And yet he shares Rodríguez’s sentiments. Speaking from his home in Holland, prior to the AIGF, he commented: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a gypsy or not. But it is necessary to start young and to really feel the music. In traditional flamenco, it’s the same thing. I play a couple of Paco de Lucía’s rumbas, ‘Entre dos Aguas’ and ‘Rio Ancho’, but I don’t play the real flamenco, although I love the music and my grandfather was a gitane (professional gypsy flamenco guitarist) so I have some Spanish influence in my playing.”

From a family steeped in the jazz manouche tradition, Rosenberg started playing guitar as a ten-year-old. By 17 the prodigy had Django’s repertoire pretty well off pat. “I can’t read or write music … my music school was the family,” he discloses. After that, Django’s records were his teacher. “I spent a long time learning everything he did, note for note. I copied it all, down to the last detail, including vibrato, bends, etcetera, so I could play all of Django’s solos from memory. Later I discovered that it’s not only good to copy, you need to find your own style. So that’s what I did, I started to compose tunes and I discovered my own style within this style of music.”

While clearly awkward at comparisons with the progenitor of gypsy jazz, whom he regards as a one-off genius, Rosenberg concedes that he’s honoured to be considered an ambassador and to play in the style of Django. This Dutch master had the pleasure of performing with Reinhardt’s right-hand man, Stéphane Grappelli, at a handful of concerts including one at New York’s Carnegie Hall to celebrate the great violinist’s 85th birthday. Forging a liaison with the Frenchman brought him closer to the source of his and every other jazz manouche player’s inspiration. “When I was playing with Stéphane, it was like I was playing with Django,” he says, while revealing that the violinist didn’t talk much about his famous partner in the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a group that was largely responsible for instigating European jazz.

Unlike Stochelo Rosenberg, who was born 15 years after Django’s death, José Antonio Rodriguez was fortunate enough to work with his own and pretty well every other flamenco guitarist’s mentor. “I collaborated with Paco De Lucía in several recordings and in Carlos Saura’s film ‘Flamenco’. Without him, without Serranito, without Manolo Sanlúcar, possibly we would not be talking now … I would not be a guitarist. I got the news about Paco’s death while on tour in the US … the loss of a teacher, friend and genius is very sad.”

While he also started playing guitar as a youngster, Rodriguez, unlike Rosenberg, enjoyed a formal music education, which started when he was just seven. He later studied at the academy of flamenco guitarist Merengue de Córdoba and at the Conservatorio Superior de Musica de Cordoba, where the first faculty of flamenco guitar was established in Spain. He says his playing has evolved considerably over the years, much like the genre itself. “Flamenco music is very young and alive; it practically unfolds day by day. At first, there was no standard methodology and that made every guitarist play only in a way that matched their own physical and musical characteristics. That created a series of important personalities who initiated the development of what we now know as the evolution of the flamenco guitar. In flamenco, the composer is also the performer. It’s very difficult for someone else to interpret your music, since it’s tailored to your own technical and expressive abilities. In flamenco the difference is appreciated.”

 

José Antonio Rodriguez
José Antonio Rodriguez

 

In both flamenco and jazz manouche, rhythm is the starting point. Players can’t progress to lead until they’ve mastered what are known in the respective vernacular as compás and la pompe. If a guitarist’s compás or rasgueado (a rapid-fire strumming technique) is not metronomic, there will be swift chastisement from the dancers, who tend to rule the roost in flamenco troupes. “Flamenco is a very strict musical genre, although it might seem the contrary,” says Rodriguez. “Everyone talks about the feeling (duende) and the expression in flamenco, which are undoubtedly very important, but the technique, the development, and the particular forms are what you have to study from the beginning. And only then can you create innovative flamenco.”

Each part of Andalusia, flamenco’s home in the southernmost part of Spain, is unique, both in the character of the people and in customs, and this shows in the way music is created and played in each region. Rodriguez enlarges: “There are many styles or palos, which got their name from the town or the village where they were created … as ‘Malagueña’ or ‘Granaina’, referring to styles created in Malaga or Granada, for example. My own town Córdoba does not have its own palos, but it does have particular ways of interpretation such as the ‘Alegrias de Cordoba’ or the ‘Soleares de Cordoba’.”

In gypsy jazz, the pulse is also generated by a distinctive style of strumming, the aforementioned pompe or pump, which gives the music its fast swing accent. The percussive rhythm is not dissimilar to the “boom-chick” of bluegrass. Like every other jazz manouche guitarist, Rosenberg paid his dues playing rhythm, for two years. “If you play good rhythm, and you have a good sense of swing, then your solos will swing too,” he observes.

After touring the world for 25 years with cousins in The Rosenberg Trio, Stochelo decided it was time to make room for upcoming young talent outside of the family, to develop fresh repertoire, hence his new alliance with French guitarist Sebastien Giniaux and German double bass player Joel Locher. “What’s so special in this trio is that you have three soloists as well as three rhythm players. That means I can breathe now … we can play double solos together and things like that. You can hear the gypsy jazz influence of Django but also a Balkan influence.”

On the final night of the 2014 Adelaide International Guitar Festival, Stochelo Rosenberg and his new sidemen were accorded a prolonged standing ovation from a clearly blown away Aussie audience. Memories of the Hot Club de France were revived with some incredibly fast and clean renditions of some of the great man’s compositions, such as ‘Festival 48’, ‘Heavy Artillery’ and ‘Minor Blues’. Both Rosenberg and the equally dexterous Giniaux performed with an admirable sense of abandon and adventure (and a wonderful appreciation of dynamics) — whether playing breakneck lead or the driving rhythm of gypsy jazz, la pompe. The leader and his partners-in-rhyme were equally impressive in their slower paces, in the encore number ‘Nuages’ and ‘Clair De Lune’. Away from Django, their rhythmically distinctive and no doubt technically challenging medley interpretations of the ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ and Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ was right on the money too.

 

 

On the opening night of the AIGF, José Antonio Rodriguez trawled through his three latest albums, La Leyenda, Cordoba … en el Tiempo and Anartista, in the company of his own trio, which comprised Chico Gallardo on second guitar and Raúl Botella on percussion. “They’re musicians and friends, so when we are playing, the camaraderie we share is great.”

 

 

Less than inspired in the early stages of his concert — possibly caused by cold digits, to judge by his hand wringing between pieces — Rodríguez certainly warmed to his work. His performance (and the front-of-house sound) got better and better as it progressed, and the set finished in a frenzied flurry, with the maestro’s left hand moving like a tormented tarantula up and down the fret board and his right hand in a butterfly-winged whir above the guitar’s sound hole.

Purists would no doubt have been perturbed to see Señor Rodríguez’s instrument plugged in to an on-stage amplifier and connected with effects’ pedals on the floor. His distinctively phrased, Cordoba-nuanced interpretations of alegrias and soleares and other flamenco staples might also have sparked some consternation amongst aficionados, although they certainly generated much excitement within the throng at Festival Theatre — as evidenced by a standing ovation. Following a spellbinding solo tremolo study, the maestro’s arguably under-utilised accompanists (Chico Gallardo and Raul Botella, on second guitar and a range of percussion instruments) re-joined their master on the one guitar for a Tommy Emmanuel-esque party piece of an encore that predictably brought the house down.

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms — Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.

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Aussie Oud Maestro Shines Again

Joseph Tawadros - Permission To Evaporate
Joseph Tawadros – Permission To Evaporate

Joseph Tawadros has managed to raise the bar yet again, as if the latter wasn’t already elevated enough. Permission To Evaporate completes a trilogy of superlative albums cut by the young Egyptian-Australian oud maestro, composer and arranger and his percussionist whiz of a kid brother, James, in a New York studio with ‘A list’ American jazzmen.

A quick revision is in order. First came 2010’s The Hour of Separation, featuring legendary guests John Abercrombie, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette. Last year’s Chameleons Of The White Shadow saw the Sydney high-flyer dexterously duelling with fellow visionary and banjo genius Béla Fleck, with contributions from the venerated veterans Joey DeFrancesco, Roy Ayers and Howard Johnson.

Like Fleck, Joe Tawadros’s virtuosity, versatility and vision has enabled him to charter fresh territory for his chosen instrument. The latest episode in this tireless quest for exploration has the dual winner of ARIA gongs — the Aussie equivalent of Grammy Awards — engaging in a musical dialogue of the highest calibre with Christian McBride, US jazz’s highest-rated double bass player of the past 20 years, and Mike Stern, one of that country’s most esteemed jazz-rock guitarists.

 

 

Tawadros’s rapport with the bassman is tangible in a dazzlingly executed duet, ‘Kindred Spirits’, that constitutes one of the album’s many highlights. ‘Shared Memories’ is an equally aptly titled and exciting encounter, in which the leader’s lute and Stern, with his distinctive electric guitar setting, share rhythm and lead. ‘Space In Time’ finishes with thrilling, frenzied exchanges between the pair.

The set opens boldly with the fast and furious ‘Bluegrass Nikriz’, a well-named ensemble piece that genuflects to Bela Fleck. The title track and ‘Last Candle’ tips a fedora to the Latin world, with subtle Cuban flavouring. The moving but ultimately uplifting ‘Peace For My Father’ honours the Tawadros patriarch, who passed away last year, only a year after the boys’ mother. The leader’s oud playing can be heard in all its pristine glory in the short, stripped-back companion pieces ‘Nomad’s Fear’ and ‘Wanderer’, which exhibit Indian and Middle Eastern modalities.

Tawadros’s regular piano man, and fellow Sydneysider, Matt McMahon, like James Tawadros on percussion, makes his presence felt throughout the set, via some sizzling jazz breaks or in more ambient passages that are suggestive of Erik Satie or Keith Jarrett.

Joseph Tawadros provides personal insights to his modus operandi, specifically in relation to Permission To Evaporate:-

I’m extremely happy with the new album. It was a big challenge for me to find a new concept and sound … it’s definitely in a different direction, telling a different story with a new energy. I’m very passionate about the oud and music and I’m happy with the way things have been moving. As long as I can maintain passion and love for what I do and continually am restless in my pursuit, I think the best is yet to come. I want to play oud in different contexts because I believe that it can contribute to a specific style, genre or player, but my compositional style is always based on melody first like the Arabic music tradition.

 

Joseph Tawadros with New York guests
Joseph Tawadros with New York guests

 

I feel each album is a diary of who I am and shows a growth not only musically but personally. It’s about taking what I’ve learnt from each recording experience and growing from that in the next one. You can hear that I must have soaked up some Béla Fleck and Richard Bona in some of the tracks, but that came by chance. The opening line in ‘Bluegrass Nikriz’ also came by chance, while I was trying something chordally on my oud. I was very excited when I first composed it and the tune seemed to grow from there. I then transposed some passages in the Arabic scale ‘Nikriz’, hence the title. I find that that scale works well with the blues scale.

 

 

A couple of the tracks I had in mind for the great Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. He unfortunately couldn’t make it in the end, but I could definitely hear them on these tracks. I must’ve been thinking of him when I composed them and hence why that ‘Cuban-ness’ may have come to mind. Mike Stern was not going to be on ‘Last Candle’ originally but after Arturo couldn’t make it, he slotted in perfectly. The scales used on ‘Nomad’s Fear’ and ‘Wanderer’ are shared in both Middle Eastern and Indian music, so that’s where a similarity can be heard. You’re right, however, that I did use some Indian ornaments in ‘Nomad’s Fear’. I found it quite interesting to have a wide glissando, with the piano an instrument whose notes are fixed without vibrato or slides. Performing in Rajasthan in the last three years must’ve had an influence on me.

‘Peace For My Father’ was really about capturing my father. I composed this piece a day after his passing and I see him in it every time I play/hear it. The middle section in the piece, where the oud plays a solo with the piano simmering underneath then gradually gains pace, is one of my favourite moments on the album. It arrests my heart, before the bass comes in very strong and percussion join before the energetic piano solo. There are a lot of emotions in the piece … love, melancholy, sadness, joy and confusion and a farewell to a great man who is missed very much.

The opening of ‘Sleight Of Hand’ was actually composed only a week before the recording, as I was having trouble coming up with how to start it. The scale of the piece is from an orthodox oud key centre Bb minor (Nahawand), so I started messing around with some accidentals and was so happy with the line when I first came up with it. I could instantly hear Christian McBride with a walking bass line and when we first tried it, I was so excited. McBride was originally scheduled for last year’s Chameleons album, but his grandfather passed away the week of the recording. We had been in contact since the Hour of Separation album and finally the timing was right. I believe he outdoes himself. In terms of expectation, I go in with a lot. We only have two days to record and I have a vision of what I want.

With such projects one has to be clear, have a rough idea of what is to be achieved and also allow for magic and sparks to happen when great musicians like this get together. ‘Kindred Spirits’ was especially composed with McBride in mind and I knew the fast section would challenge us both. I focused on the similar tunings of the bass and oud and the use of our open strings. This was also the last track of the session, which we finished at 3am on February 17 after eight hours of recording prior, so we were pretty dead. But we seemed to really feed off each other when we were recording. I love McBride on this track and the interplay between oud and bass.

 

Joseph Tawadros
Joseph Tawadros

 

I think Mike Stern’s electric guitar settings and his playing are relatively subdued on the set, compared to his own albums, because of the unorthodox line-up. He usually works with electric bass and drum kit and is a real rocker … there’s also a different repertoire, structure and sound here and I think what he did in the end was amazing. I think he works perfectly in this ensemble and his choices are tasty. Of course, I gave him some frameworks and suggestions of Arabic modes, which he loved and got creative with. He’s a truly great guitarist. I met Stern at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival in 2011, where we both performed. After seeing his concert I always wanted to record with him, but never found the appropriate time or concept until this one. He has a beautiful sound and I knew it would be such an interesting one to couple with the oud. I’m very happy with the results.

I think anyone that has heard or knows Matt McMahon will not be surprised by his contributions. He is and always has been one of those great musicians of high quality. He’s sensitive to what I do and I knew he’d be perfect for this project. We (brother James and I) have performed with Matt in my trio for a while prior to this recording and he also features on my albums Angel and Concerto of the Greater Sea. James and I understand each other musically very well and Matt is the same. We seem to be on the same page and have the same vision and that’s why I decided to fly him with us from Australia to be apart of this album. James is a rhythmic genius and gets total freedom on the album. We’ll discuss things and see what sounds better or is appropriate to the piece. Bendir is usually for slower pieces but on ‘Dreaming Hermit’, he decided to use bendir and it sounded beautiful. It’s great to have a musician that is so solid every time.

I’ve always said that if you want a strong collaboration then you must compose to the musicians’ strengths as well as challenging them. It’s about challenging them through what they already know and allowing them to grow and try things within that framework. I just draw a map, and a destination; each player helps to get not only me there but all of us. My music is inclusive, it’s not dominated by oud, but everybody has an equal role and responsibility into acquiring our vision.”

• The above interview/review first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.

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A Stellar Strings Quartet

The Heartstring Quartet
The Heartstring Quartet

 

Two of the British Isles’ most renowned folk duos, joined by holy matrimony and the spirit of musical adventure, are an exemplar of stringed instrument eclecticism.

The members of The Heartstring Quartet have performed in America, Australia and Europe in various guises and combinations over the past 25 years, including as a 4-piece, back in the mid “noughties”. That was before sisters Máire Ní Chathasaigh and Nollaig Casey, who are in the top tier of Ireland’s harp and fiddle ranks, and their respective partners in life and music — Chris Newman, one of England’s finest flatpicking guitarists, and his Northern Ireland counterpart Arty McGlynn — adopted and adapted a collective name from the title of their 2008 debut album, Heartstring Sessions.

Máire Ní Chathasaigh (pronounced Moira Nee Ha-ha-sig) admits that the group presents some “logistic difficulties”, given the “huge range” they encompass and that one half lives in in the UK, and the other in Ireland. As she expands, the Quartet’s repertoire covers a gamut of styles — from meditative airs to powerhouse traditional Irish dance-music, from bluegrass and ragtime to rockabilly, from old songs to those with a contemporary twist and striking new compositions.

 

The Heartstring Quartet’ s Máire Ní Chathasaigh
The Heartstring Quartet’s Máire Ní Chathasaigh

 

According to the loquacious spokesperson, the Heartstrings take a democratic approach to selecting repertoire. “We all compose and the quartet plays pieces written by each of us … it’s a case of whatever anyone fancies really. We’re not like a conventional band. There’s no front or backline. We’re all equal and fortunately we all have similar taste, although we cover a huge range. The core is Irish traditional, but all of us like to play different things and it’s great to be able to do that. Chris and Arty have a wide hinterland of music. You don’t often get two guitarists of their calibre in the same band. They do a duet in the set, as do Nollaig and I. The boys are great improvisers, and so is Nollaig. We all like to stretch ourselves.”

 

 

While the guitarists’ grounding in jazz might not directly manifest itself in the Heartstrings’ sound, Máire observes that both men tend to think off the top of their heads. “It’s never the same from one night to the next,” she says with a laugh. “Arty comes up with amazing cross rhythms, whereas Chris does a lot of melodic improvisation on guitar and mandolin. Chris has a background in manouche. He played with Diz Disley for ten years and was in a band with the legendary swing violinist Stéphane Grappelli. These days, traditional Irish music is his first love and jazz second. It’s the same with Arty.”

The men boast truly impressive CVs. Newman’s resume also reveals a spell with the legendary Scottish band Boys Of The Lough. McGlynn, whose early playing was influenced by jazz greats Wes Montgomery and Thelonius Monk, has been a member of Planxty, Patrick Street, 4 Men And A Dog and De Danann and was for a number of years lead guitarist with the Van Morrison Band. Máire proudly points out that Nollaig has also played with some of Ireland’s most influential bands, including Planxty and Coolfin, and that she was a member of the esteemed RTÉ Symphony Orchestra and toured the world as featured fiddle player with the hit show Riverdance.

 

 

Both of the County Cork born-and-bred sisters have evolved their own unique style. Back in the 70s, as a teenage harpist wanting to perform traditional Irish dance music, Ní Chathasaigh had few references in the field of her chosen instrument. “There’s an enormous repertoire of Irish harp music going back to O’Carolan in the 17th century, but it’s mostly low tempo stuff,” observes this trailblazer, who in 1985 recorded the very first harp album to concentrate on traditional Irish dance music. “Nollaig also developed her own utterly distinctive and inimitable sound and style as a fiddle player,” she says, although adding that her sibling’s singing is very much in the Cork style.

With their different backgrounds and instruments, the four Heartstrings inevitably have individual influences. Máire Ní Chathasaigh cites the legendary piper Séamus Ennis among her heroes, while she singles out the renowned Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples as a “champion of modern Irish traditional music”. The harpist takes collective inspiration from listening to archive recordings of Irish musicians from the 1920s and 30s. As she expands: “Those recordings were made before the era of editing and what you hear is a complete performance. They had incredible energy and improvised within the tradition.” The same might well be said of The Heartstring Quartet!

• The above interview/review first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.

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Ozomatli’s Place in the Sun

Ozomatli
Ozomatli

 

Ozomatli are guaranteed to be the life and soul of any festival, a band that’s truly earned its place in the sun. It’s no revelation, then, to report that upbeat messages and feel-good pan-Latin vibes pour out of their seventh studio album like lava from an erupting volcano.

Place In The Sun comes as close as is physically possible to capturing the extraordinary energy and spirit of their stage shows without actually being a live album. Rhythm rules in Ozoland. Melody lines tend not to meander, nor lyrics linger. It’s Latino street-party music pumped out with snappy mantras and conga line-inducing purpose. Not that Ozomatli’s arrangements lack depth.

Ozomatli - Place In The Sun
Ozomatli – Place In The Sun

Driving rock, irresistible funk and rapid-fire raps dribbling with Latin spice might be the primary mix, but with rhythmic and stylistic sub-texts and a balance of electronica and organic elements. For example, the dancing soukous-accented keyboard figures in the incandescent opening title track. Or the joyful Mexican banda feel of ‘Paleta’ and the gyrating Colombian cumbia dance grooves generated in ‘Prendida’ and ‘Tus Ojos’ and the hip-hop meets mambo mayhem of ‘Échale Grito’. Jamaican raga propels the uplifting ‘Brighter’ and its infectious, sing-a-long chorus “The weight’s gonna get much lighter/ The world’s gonna look much brighter”. Synthesised strings and soulful horns offset the grungy guitar and hard rock of ‘Burn It Down’. Acoustic and tremolo-heavy electric guitar and mariachi trumpet flavour a touching ballad, ‘Only Love’.

 

 

Ozomatli’s guitarist, Raúl Pacheco, provides an insider’s view of this dynamic band’s new album:

As the songs took shape, we realised we wanted an upbeat record. We’re just not a downer band; it’s not our natural state. We like to connect with people through our joyfulness. The songs that made us feel that the most are the ones we developed to completion.

Place In The Sun is a mix of modern electronic production styles mixed with live instruments. It’s an extension of our original style, which contained sampled loops and live playing on top. The title track developed from a chorus idea that we were asked to write for the California Tourism Board. They went with something else, but the chorus stuck in our head. We decided to make it a real song and it took a 60s’ garage vibe.

 

Ozomatli’s guitarist, Raúl Pacheco
Ozomatli’s guitarist, Raúl Pacheco

 

“‘Brighter’ was co-written by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics’ fame and Asdru (Ozomatli’s lead vocalist/trumpeter Asdrubal Sierra). Dave is a huge reggae fan. He has a place in Jamaica and loves the music. He also brings his pop sensibility and good song writing to the track — we brought our style. ‘Burn It Down’ was inspired by Bombino, a North African Tuareg guitarist that we like a lot. We made our own powerful rocked-out version. ‘Ready To Go’ is a straight club style dance tune with a fun edge.

 

 

‘Paleta’ is what we call an electro-banda tune. Banda is a Mexican style of music that developed from the heavy German presence in Mexico in the early 20th century. It’s derived from a combination of German marching band and waltz music. We made an electronic base that features a popular group named Voces del Rancho. I like ‘Paleta’ for its uniqueness and the fact that people love it live, ‘Time to Go’ for the Herb Alpert bridge and ‘Échale Grito’ for its mambo horns.

‘Prendida’ is effectively an electronic cumbia base with live playing on top. I like the sound of this track a lot. ‘Tus Ojos’ is another cumbia with an electronic base and us live on top and I also like the sonic quality of this mix. Our saxophonist Uli Bella’s grandmother inspired the song. She was an incredible spirit who had native heritage from a tribe in Mexico called Otomi. The title means ‘Your Eyes’; Uli was fascinated by her sense of cosmic timelessness.

 

Ozomatli
Ozomatli

 

Despite the differences in styles, we hold ourselves to a standard of naturalness. If it doesn’t feel good, we don’t play it. If we play something that’s new, we do it until it feels right. We only play songs that we feel work live. The new ones will go through their phase of live presentation. We work on them, see what needs tweaking for the live crowd. The ones that seem like a struggle stay out and the ones that rock, stay in. But they all get their day in court!

• The above interview/review first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.

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Milestones in Martin Carthy’s stellar career

Martin Carthy at Folk Awards 2014, Albert Hall
Martin Carthy at BBC Folk Music Awards 2014, Albert Hall

 

Martin Carthy’s certainly not known as the guv’nor of British folk for nowt, as a richly deserved Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual BBC Folk Awards earlier this year underlines.

 

Martin Carthy & Jarvis Cocker at BBC Folk Music Awards 2014, Albert Hall
Martin Carthy & radio presenter Jarvis Cocker at BBC Folk Music Awards 2014, Albert Hall

 

So, what did that award mean to this humble man and how does it compare with the prestigious MBE (Order of the British Empire) title he received in 1998 for his services to English folk music?

I’m very happy indeed to have it as long as it doesn’t mean that people think I’ve finished and that my bookings grind to a halt! And it was especially good to have it handed to me by Jarvis Cocker, who is a remarkable singer and human being as well as a lovely man. I was very happy to have the MBE and I took it on behalf of a genuinely underground music movement to which I am eternally grateful. I’m also aware that many people reject the idea of that particular award and I felt then, and feel now, that a change of name for that award is long overdue. Legion of Honour perhaps?

 

 

Carthy was able to celebrate the receipt of his gong with a rare duet performance with his daughter, Eliza, at the awards ceremony, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in late-February. Was that the icing on the cake?

Yes. We do the occasional gig together, which is very exciting personally. It was lovely to do that particular song with Eliza and to use the moment to pay tribute to her uncle/my brother-in-law Mike Waterson. We had just completed our first CD as a duo and were able to sing a song from it! The whole evening was hugely enjoyable and not just for that reason. Some great music was given its due. There are some very fine performers coming through all the time. The standard is very high indeed.”

 

 

Eliza Carthy is following in her father’s footsteps as a mover and shaker on the English folk scene. How satisfying is that for her Dad?

Eliza continues to take the bull by the horns, musically speaking and likewise to take the most extraordinary risks. I’m filled with admiration at what she can do and the choices that she makes. She’s very much like her Mum [Norma Waterson] in that she’s not daunted by anything and will give it a shot. Playing and singing with her is a 24-carat blast.”

 

Martin & Eliza Carthy With Peggy Seeger at Folk Awards 2014, Albert Hall
Martin & Eliza Carthy With Peggy Seeger at BBC Folk Music Awards 2014, Albert Hall

 

Martin & Eliza Carthy at BBC Folk Music Awards 2014, Albert Hall
Martin & Eliza Carthy at BBC Folk Music Awards 2014, Albert Hall

 

Martin Carthy has had many trailblazing musical partnerships over the years. Which have meant the most to him and why?

I honestly can say that I try not to put them in any kind of order except to say that the Watersons are bound to stand out because it’s family — and a totally remarkable family at that — and it led to Waterson:Carthy, which existed side by side. Work with Steeleye Span produced the album Please To See The King, which contained moments of pure magic. The Albion Country Band was a fabulous band that collapsed because of a mixture of rotten luck and well meaning but idiotic management but which produced the very fine Battle Of The Field. To play with the people in the Imagined Village is something I will treasure because of how much I learned and continue to learn. To put all of those — plus collaborations like Band of Hope — into some sort of order of preference would be nonsensical I think.”

 

 

 

 

So, what does he consider to have been his most significant career achievements and milestones, and for what reasons?

I’ve never considered what I do as a career. I think of it as a wonderful accident of history which gave me the opportunity to find out about a music which had intrigued me because of the implications of skiffle and then totally enthralled me when I actually heard it coming out of the mouths of people like Seamus Ennis, Jeannie Robertson and, especially, Sam Larner.

It was hearing Sam Larner that made me understand that the fact I am English doesn’t mean that I’m going to have an immediate and deep understanding of English music. What I realised was that what Sam sang was as exotic and as much of a mystery to me as the Indian music I had heard when a while earlier I had been at Ravi Shankar’s first appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall. That’s the sort of thing that brings you up short — makes you at least reconsider.

 

 

I think that a whole bunch of us have taken the guitar into unfamiliar areas and that we have between us found ways of accompanying very old songs with some success. I continue to think that putting the guitar into these oddball tunings is the way to do it, but these days there is a bit of a reaction and people are sometimes rejecting such notions.

If I had to choose one genuine achievement it would be the collaboration with so many different musicians of which I am hugely proud and which produced the wonderful album of songs by Mike and Lal Waterson called Bright Phoebus. Mike and Lal were fabulous songwriters and as different from each other as you might imagine. Sadly the album is unavailable now.”

 

 

Martin Carthy has influenced a great many musicians during a long and fruitful career, including Bob Dylan and Paul Simon (during their sojourns in London in the early ‘60s). How does that rate in his long list of achievements?

It’s not so much a case of ‘what goes around comes around’ but the opposite: that is, that what comes around goes around! I have learned a phenomenal amount from other musicians. I always cite Davey Graham as a major source of inspiration. Also Big Bill Broonzy and Elizabeth Cotten.

When Bob Dylan was in London at the end of 1962, it was clear that he was an ordinary bloke with an extraordinary talent. When he came to a gig he would sit quietly and concentrate very hard on what was going on, absorbing everything and the end result was I think those melodies which carried songs like ‘Chimes of Freedom’, ‘With God On Our Side’ and many others. Any achievement rested on his shoulders. He was a very, very fine performer indeed.

 

 

Paul Simon’s approach was as different as it could be. He had written to a club organiser called Dave something in Brentwood [in east London], asking if he would be prepared to take him on as a resident singer for £5 a week. This sent Dave himself going round clubs asking whether anyone had heard of this man and was he any good. The general feeling was that he was unknown, but that the Americans who came over tended to be good performers so he was worth a shot, and that if he was no good he could sack him! He was a long way from no good as it turned out, and Paul was in the country for a couple of years on the road round the folk clubs building a very good reputation. What he wanted was to find a way of honing his songwriting and his performing and that’s exactly what he did. He was one of us. The achievement was his.”

Carthy’s been lauded as a master singer of traditional folk ballads, a groundbreaking guitarist and an authoritative interpreter of contemporary material. Which of those epithets mean the most to him?

I don’t really know how to answer that except to say that it was and continues to be trial and error. The great thing about this job is that there aren’t any rules, so it’s up to you to make ’em up. The great advantage is that periodically you can change the rules as you choose. It always comes down to what works. What gets any story you are telling rise up and sing itself, and that is something you can only discover while doing it. As far as guitar is concerned, I am an acoustic player who has learned a couple of very important lessons from playing electric — the first of which was economy: that less is more.”

Of all the many fine songs that Martin Carthy’s arranged and recorded over the years — on more than 40 albums — which have given him enduring satisfaction?

The aforementioned ‘Bright Phoebus’. But I would also point to ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’, ‘Lochmaben Harper’, ‘Bill Norrie’ and ‘Prince Heathen’. And I still like ‘Peggy and the Soldier’.

 

 

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.

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The new Chinese cultural revolution

Hanggai
Hanggai
They might not be the Central Politburo’s pin-up boys, but a brace of charismatic Beijing-based bands from far-flung regions of China that blend contrasting ethnic minority heritage with a disparate range of English and American rock influences are beginning to gain significant traction in the People’s Republic and in the West.

Hanggai, who are heavily informed by their roots in Inner Mongolia, the autonomous region that spreads across China’s far north edging Russia, have already made a significant mark on the world at large. Their protégés Shanren, representing the culture of the mountainous province of Yunnan in the far southwest of China bordering Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, are also beginning to make their presence felt far and wide.

Neither band exactly conforms to the central government’s preferred exemplar of sanitised folkloric song and dance troupes, let alone international musical ambassadors for China, where officials have attempted to keep a tight rein on the activities of ethnic minority groups. Both encountered early battles for survival.

The emergence of a growing number of alternative performance venues and festivals, allied to a variety of changed socio-political and economic forces, has in the past few years afforded alternative indie acts such as Hanggai and Shanren opportunities hitherto strictly limited to Han Chinese and pop musicians.

Shanren
Shanren
Both bands hold direct links to their respective cultures and utilise traditional techniques and instrumentation innovatively in conjunction with standard Western rock configuration of electric guitar, bass and drums. Their eclectic folk-rock is starting to have real resonance with young audiences in Beijing, the provincial capitals and at festivals overseas. As Shanren’s leader, Qu Zihan, conveys via an interpreter: “Since 2010 we’ve played in Spain, France, Slovenia, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia.” He says they have always been well received. “We didn’t really expect that, even though our music is relatively accessible to non-Chinese listeners, and it gives us a lot of confidence.”

Hanggai’s leader Yilichi or “Ilchi” concurs, pointing out that his band have also had a positive reaction from audiences in most of the 60-odd overseas countries in which they claim to have performed.

As authorities have steadily loosened their grip, the bands have enjoyed expanded opportunities in China. Hanggai’s following in Beijing has really burgeoned in the past few years, with more gigs becoming available and, with them, increased media coverage. “We did our concerts in small bars at the beginning, but now we perform in bigger places, such as theatres,” Ilchi reports. Hanggai have also been able to string together national tours. Indeed, they were preparing to embark for concerts in Zhejiang and Fujian at the time of this interview.

Hanngai has also been invited to perform at music festivals and events hosted by the Chinese government in Inner Mongolia. “We have a following among young Mongolians because we sing the traditional songs in our own way,” says Ilchi proudly. There’s also been a significant increase in Hanggai’s international following since the release of their critically acclaimed 2011 album He Who Travels Far.

While Shanren’s performances in China have hitherto been largely confined to festivals, they’re starting to pick up theatre concerts as their popularity spreads. Naturally, they enjoy strong support in Yunnan province. As Qu Zihan muses: “I think people back home take some pride when we get invited to a big show overseas. We’ve influenced quite a lot of musicians and some younger bands are now starting to incorporate tribal influences into their music. We’ve also inspired some young people to study their own traditional music. While I only know of a few examples of this, I consider it a true sign of success and I hope it can happen more.”

Qu Zihan readily concedes that Hanggai have inspired Shanren. “They fuse different styles, the modern and the tradition, in a very special way and that has influenced us and others who are trying to find their roots. Most importantly, they show people that it can be done and that it can be appreciated, especially overseas. They’re really the first Chinese band to tour overseas in their own right, to create their own market. They have helped forge a path for bands like ourselves to follow.”

Shanren’s frontman/lead singer indicates that although the bands are often grouped together because they both play a mixture of traditional and modern styles, there are clear distinctions between them. “The processes involved in the making of the music is quite different and the traditional roots are also very different,” he stresses, simplifying the delineation as the difference between the north and south of China. “Another important difference is that Shanren’s music represents a geographical area rather than a single ethnic culture like Hanggai. Our aim is to create a style that fits in a lot of different things.”

Shanren
Shanren
The four musicians in Shanren represent three different ethnic groups in the Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, an area believed to have inspired the Shangri-La of James Hilton’s classic novel, Lost Horizon: “Each member brings different influences to the music, which helps us hold together a wider Yunnan identity,” says Qu Zihan.

Admirably eccentric and eclectic, Shanren modernise the indigenous folk of their homeland with elements of rock and pop, reggae, metal, electronica and even Afro and Caribbean sounds. “Rock music and its power and attitude stood out to us when we started the band,” explains Qu Zihan, who cites the Beatles, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Red Hot Chili Peppers among early influences. “In the 1990s you could get hold of destroyed, illegally imported Western music on ‘da kou’ cassettes. We got everything in one dose, so there was no chronology. We couldn’t really work out what had come from what, so we just mixed it all up.” Bob Dylan, Manu Chao and Bob Marley, he says, were later band influences. Shanren’s multi-instrumentalist, Xiao Budian, has described the power of first hearing Dylan sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ akin to an atom bomb.

Hanggai, formed by Ilchi in 2004 after stints in Sex Pistols and Nirvana-inspired punk/grunge bands, also include Pink Floyd among their rock influences, along with Radiohead and Rage Against The Machine. But the leader emphasises that his band has an inimitable style, as those who have heard them will attest.

The unique Inner Mongolian folk music styles that form the basis of Hanggai’s sound — in conjunction with Western rock, pop, country and bluegrass — reflect Shamanic rituals, nomadic lifestyles and a love of horses, and include the extraordinary vocal technique known locally as xoomii or hoomei. The otherworldly overtone throat-singing style allows a performer to sing simultaneously two notes, an octave apart. “The hardest thing is learning to control your muscles so that you control the melody,” says Ilchi, who has been employing the technique for a decade and says that he’s still learning. The septet’s songs, he indicates, are “all about stories, legends, history and life of the grassland we call home”. Ilchi and his five Mongolian bandmates — the other two members are Han Chinese — return to their home region as often as they can: “To learn more from the traditional life there and add those feelings into our music”.

Ilchi plays a two-stringed Mongolian lute (tobshuur) and banjo — like many banjo players he’s an avid Bela Fleck fan — but it’s the two-string Mongolian fiddle known as a morin khuur that defines Hanggai’s sound. As he declares: “We’re a rock ‘n’ roll chariot driven by the horse-head fiddle!” The band features a truly imposing lead singer, Hurizha, who looks like a sumo wrestler jammed into traditional Mongolian garb. Hanggai’s name derives from an old Mongolian word denoting an idealised landscape of mountains, rivers and trees.

Shanren translates as ‘mountain men’. “There’s certainly a lot of Yunnan mountain attitude in our music,” admits Qu Zihan, while quickly adding, “but city life is also a very important influence — it’s the conjunction of two worlds that causes the chemical reaction.” Some of Shanren’s songs, he reveals, are direct re-workings of folk traditions and some are original songs that don’t sound much like traditional Yunnan music. “Our overall sound is inspired by the sounds we grew up listening to and that comes out in compositions.”

While Qu Zihan says it’s difficult to generalise about Yunnan music — “we’re about twenty-six tribes with different languages and different instruments” — he points out that all forms of traditional music share a link with something ancient, an old way of living and a passing on of that way and its history and stories. “It’s a purity of spirit and an attitude of defiance against the pressures of change. I play people traditional Lisu singing and they’re sure it must be African. Dabiya [a Nu stringed instrument] sounds like a sitar. Wa Elephant foot drumming sounds Indonesian and Yi left foot dances sound like twisted Celtic line dancing.”

Some of the traditional music, Qu Zihan concedes, can be quite inaccessible to unaccustomed ears, despite its richness and diversity. “Some Yunnan music is quite organic and primitive; the melodies are simple and can sound discordant to outsiders. Bu then you come across music, like that of the Yi or the Dai, which is in some ways highly sophisticated. The Han Chinese music in Yunnan is very different from other parts of China. I suppose there are some melodic principles that reoccur throughout the tribes, maybe something that might sound Tibetan to people that aren’t familiar with the area but mixed with a very rhythmic attitude. Yunnan music is usually combined with drinking or dancing, preferably both.”

Shanren play xianzi and qinquin (four and three-stringed lutes), dabiya and xiangu (a traditional drum), guitar and bass. Incorporating ethnic instrumentation into the sound can be a tricky process, Qu Zihan suggests. “It almost always involves some work on the instruments themselves to keep them in tune and to amplify them. Fitting them into the sound either happens very naturally or we base a certain song around that instrument and see where it takes the rest of us. You can divide the instruments we try to incorporate into three categories — percussive, melodic and atmospheric. The above applies to melodic instruments, which are the greatest challenge. We try to experiment as much as possible and see what works.”

Unlike Hanggai, Shanren regard themselves as ambassadors for their country’s ethnic diversity, even within China itself. “There’s sometimes an attitude that these tribes live in China but they are not Chinese. They aren’t majority Han Chinese, of course, but Chinese non-Han tribes have been playing a part in the nation’s history for thousands of years.”

Shanren - Left Foot Dance of the Yi and Other Chinese Folk Rock Anthems
Shanren – Left Foot Dance of the Yi and Other Chinese Folk Rock Anthems
Shanren’s new album, Left Foot Dance Of The Yi, could be seen as an attempt to join old and new China. Many of the tracks mash together field recordings from Yunnan most effectively with street sounds recorded in Beijing in a melange of high-register vocals, quirky string textures and driving rhythm. “The band’s identity is really based on this juxtaposition,” states Qu Zihan. “We’re trying to find a place for our culture in the modern world, which is the only way for it to survive. Rhythmically and emotionally, rock music fits with the music we’re combining it with. Our goal is to create modern folk songs, not just to rework traditional stuff. Rock music is one of our musical roots; we don’t really think of it as a Western and Chinese thing, it’s just us. We started out as a rock trio, but gradually we found that there was room for more sounds and then we dove into the traditional music.”

Explaining why rock musicians are treated with caution by authorities in his homeland, he opines: “Rock music in China is about individual expression, while the mainstream culture is about collective mentality. It’s inevitable that there will be some suspicion. In the mid-nineties, no mainstream media would play rock music. It was forced underground. People played it to rebel, got piercings, tattoos and crazy hair. Nobody made any money and people without money are outcasts, especially when they look like that. But there was always something cool about rockers … a mystery that attracted people.”

Hanggai  - Baifang
Hanggai – Baifang
Hanggai, who have been described as the Chinese counterpart of the Pogues, are also currently brandishing a new album (also a new drummer). Baifang, which translates to ‘Back To You’, will be available internationally before being launched in China. “It’s different from the last one; we’ve added new elements,” says Ilchi. “We even invited a female Mongolian singer from Qinghai, the first time we have recorded with a female artist.” American musician Ken Stringfellow, who has worked with the likes of R.E.M and Neil Young, produced Hanggai’s previous album, He Who Travels Far, while Dutchman JB Meijers, who worked with the late soul legend Solomon Burke, oversaw Baifang.

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.

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