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.

The flagbearers of traditional Irish folk

In the pantheon of Irish folk music, Lúnasa and Altan rank among the proverbial High Kings of Tara, adjacent to such immortal acts as The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, the Bothy Band and Planxty.

They are the bands that have helped turn Eire’s national art form into Europe’s most commercially successful traditional genre. As Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the fiddler-singer at the heart of Altan, pronounces: “We find it hard to believe that we’re playing as a band over thirty years after we formed, yet here we are performing the traditional music of Donegal all over the world as a living, the music and songs of our people.

Over the years most of our touring has been to the US, where there’s a huge following for Irish traditional music,” says Ní Mhaonaigh. “We’ve also been concentrating more on mainline Europe in recent years and we also tour Japan every few years.”

Lúnasa have performed over 1500 shows across the globe since their formation in 1997, appearing at such august venues as the The White House, the Hollywood Bowl and the Sydney Opera House. Trevor Hutchinson, the band’s co-founder and double bass ace, says Australia was fundamental in establishing Lúnasa: “The band was originally put together as a one-off just to come to Australia. The gig went so well that we repeated it the following year and after that we decided to make it full-time and we left our respective other groups. I don’t think the band would have happened without Australia; it sort of catalysed the whole thing.”

Inventive symphonic-styled arrangements, underpinned by Hutchinson’s jazz and rock-influenced bass grooves and intricate interplay between fiddler Seán Smyth, flautist/whistle player Kevin Crawford, uillean piper Cillian Vallely and guitarist Donagh Hennessy (more recently Ed Boyd), helped establish Lúnasa as Ireland’s finest traditional instrumental act since the aforementioned Bothy Band. “The Bothy Band is by far our biggest influence,” reveals the lanky bassman, who also played an integral part in Mike Scott’s band The Waterboys, with whom he recently reunited for a 25th anniversary tour. “The Bothies chose quite an active path of arrangements and we kind of take a sort of similar approach. It makes the musical journey easier to understand for people who maybe don’t appreciate the finer points of the melodies. My background’s more about improvising rock music than anything else,” he adds pointedly.


Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (pronounced Mah-RADE nee VEE-nee) also cites the short-lived Bothy Band, who came and went with indecent haste back in the ‘70s, as a major influence. “I adored the Bothy Band … they made traditional music young and trendy without losing the integrity of the music itself.” She also credits Clannad as being inspirational. “They took Donegal traditional songs and gave them beautiful arrangements and brought them to life for the younger generation. I always feel privileged that I was part of this wonderful renaissance which Donegal musicians had a big part in during the ‘80s and 90s and continues today through ourselves and new bands like Fidil and the Henry Girls.”

Altan’s reputation has been forged on playing predominantly authentic traditional music from their home county. “We get all our music from family, friends or by listening to archival material,” reports Ní Mhaonaigh, explaining: “Focusing on what we knew best was one of our main aims when we started the band.” She expands further: “Donegal has a distinctive style of music, very different to the rest of the country. Its position on the northwest coast of Ireland lends itself to being cut off in a way from the rest of the Republic and by the Northern Ireland borders, which straddle most of the county. Donegal people went to Scotland to look for work and the link with Scotland is still very strong. For example, we play strathspeys.”

Contrastingly, a fair amount of Lúnasa’s music is self-composed and the band has also made a habit in recent years of mixing traditional Irish tunes with pieces from other Celtic regions such as Brittany, Galicia and Asturias in their lively medleys. Although they come from different counties and backgrounds, the members all have a “vague sense” of what an Lúnasa tune might be, says Trevor Hutchinson. “My idea would be something that I feel we can get our teeth into … tunes where you can see possibilities to create bigger soundscapes.” He enlarges: “There’s quite a few different aspects to our sound. One is rhythm and counter rhythm, and the role that the backing can play. Another is the chordal structure and how to make that more interesting. The third one would be the arrangements themselves, in terms of the melody instruments. There’s a lot of use of low whistle in our harmony work with that and counter point. It’s really sort of all these things combined that makes Lúnasa’s sound a bit more musical.”

Though they’ve collaborated with some well-known singers, including Natalie Merchant, Lúnasa has never employed a vocalist. “If you have a singer, it’s difficult for them to be an integral part of the band unless they really play an instrument and their playing fits in as well,” says Hutchinson. “It makes it musically more of a challenge to do shows without vocals.” Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s crystalline vocals have been a feature of Altan since their inception. She’s also released a limited edition solo album (Imeall, in 2009). With band members, she’s worked with a wide variety of American singers, including Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and John Prine. “It’s always complimentary to get a call to sing with a hero or collaborate in anyway.”

Altan and Lúnasa’s careers have, inevitably, criss-crossed over the years. Suffice to say, the bands hold each other in high esteem. “Altan have a huge history and have a very big place in the scheme of things … they’ve done some really beautiful albums over the years,” says Trevor Hutchinson. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh adds that the two acts have been friends for years: “We’ve shared the stage with Lúnasa several times, as our guests at the famous Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and more recently at a gig in Chicago. I wouldn’t rule out a collaboration with them anytime.”

Emphasising the bond between them, both bands have made albums with Dublin’s celebrated RTÉ Concert Orchestra in recent years. “We are hoping at some stage over the next couple of years to do some more orchestral shows around the world,” Hutchinson reveals, adding: “When it’s done right, it can work really well.” Altan are similarly proud of their 2010 25th anniversary album with the RTÉ Orchestra. They’re also happy with their latest album, 2012’s The Poison Glen. “It encapsulates where we get our inspiration from — the land, the valleys and mountains and the natural beauty of our beautiful county. We also recorded it in Donegal which was important for the band as well,” says Ní Mhaonaigh.

Asked to nominate her favourite Altan recording, Ní Mhaonaigh mentions 1993’s Island Angel as special, not only because it was “a beautiful album to make” but also because it was the last one she recorded with her late husband, band co-founder Frankie Kennedy. “It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter in my personal life and in the history of the band.” Although Altan has experienced relatively few personnel changes over the years, she describes the band as currently being in a transitional stage. “Dermot Byrne was the last person to join in ’94, but we have invited guests such as Martin Tourish, an amazing young accordion player, to take Dermot’s place on tour and we have also have invited Harry Bradley, an accomplished flute player from Belfast.” The core of the band, including bouzouki player Ciarán Curran and guitarists Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule, has remained intact.

Trevor Hutchinson selects one of Lúnasa’s early albums, 1999’s Otherworld, as a personal favourite, “because it was one of our most experimental phases when we were exploring what the band was going to be.” He opines that both Altan and Lúnasa have thought hard about their direction and what they’re trying to say. “It’s easy just to rattle out a bunch of tunes, but I think we both tend to see it as something that needs to work on a biggish stage, and that requires a different way of thinking. It’s not just the tune; it’s what surrounds it. It’s more dimensional than just the melodies themselves.”

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


Meet the Iberian divas

The European music media has tagged them the new queens of flamenco and fado, the soulful Iberian counterparts of blues. They’re both extraordinary singers, blessed with voices that ooze passion and pathos, duende and saudade. They both speak English pretty well, share singular stage names and first attracted attention in feature films made by revered Spanish directors.

That’s where similarities between the Afro-Spanish and Portuguese divas known as Buika and Carminho pretty well end. As communicators, they’re as different as Calcium Carbonate and Camembert.

María Concepción Balboa Buika expresses herself in an ethereal and enigmatic way, often answering questions with only a handful of words, sometimes quizzically. Carmo Carvalho Rebelo de Andrade, by contrast, could hardly be more communicative, responding to probing from a pesky journalist with a fullness bordering on verbosity.

Buika sprang to prominence with a part in the 2011 Pedro Almodóvar film La Piel Que Habito [The Skin I Live In], which featured two of her songs in the soundtrack. Carminho actually made her recording debut in Carlos Saura’s 2007 feature Fados. While Buika tacitly acknowledges the part the Almodóvar movie played in her ascension, she seems more interested in talking about the “the love and friendship” she shares with the legendary auteur. Carminho recognizes the significance of her film debut, describing it as “a very enriching and beautiful experience … I was side by side with some magnificent artists”.

At the time of her appearance in Fados, Carminho was finishing university and uninterested in pursuing a recording career, although she had received offers to make albums. After returning from a gap year travelling the world, she changed her mind. Now, after two major label releases, 2009’s Fado and 2012’s Alma, she’s regarded as the hottest young singer of fado, Portugal’s national idiom, and is about to follow her fellow fadistas Mariza and Ana Moura into the international spotlight with an appearance at WOMADelaide.

Buika - La Noche Mas Larga
Buika – La Noche Mas Larga
Buika has already established a strong international following. Two of her seven albums have won Latin Grammy awards — 2008’s Niña De Fuego and 2009’s El Último Trago — and her self-produced 2013 release, La Noche Más Larga, which contains a suitably sultry version of Billie Holiday’s ‘Don’t Explain’ sung flamenco-style, was being tipped to follow suit at the time of going to press. She has also collaborated with piano maestros Chucho Valdés and Chick Corea and several other jazz greats.

While she has performed a plethora of musical styles, from house music to Tina Turner covers (in a Las Vegas tribute show), Buika became famous in Spain for her idiosyncratic interpretation of flamenco. Not that she has ever pretended to be a cantaora per se. She absorbed a feel for the Andalusian art-form from the local gypsy community in the Balearic Islands capital, Palma de Mallorca, where she was born into a West African immigrant family.

I was exposed to all kinds of music as I grew up,” she says: “The truth is that I heard a lot of jazz, blues, pop and rock, as well as flamenco.” She suggests that there wouldn’t be sufficient space on these pages to list the number of singers that have influenced her. As for her heritage, she says simply but poetically: “Africa is in my blood, the colour of my voice, in my cells, in my skin, in my hair, in my traditional education and much more. It is also visible in the sounds when I sing.”

Fado is well and truly in Carminho’s veins, although she too has been exposed to an eclectic array of artists and music, including the flamenco maestros Camarón de la Isla, Paco de Lucía and Vicente Amigo. She also cites jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, opera singer Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Brazilian stars Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento among her favorite musicians. In 2011, she unexpectedly topped the charts in both Portugal and Spain with a pop duet she recorded with the Spanish singer Pablo Alborán.

However, it’s the expressive music genre spawned by her country’s seafaring history, with attendant melancholic themes of longing and loss, that is Carminho’s and Portugal’s all-consuming passion. “We’re a small country but fado is enormous here … the music has been with me since I was born,” she says. “My mother and my brothers sing fado also. My mother taught me. My parents opened a fado house, where I heard many musicians.” Listening and learning the stories is part of a fadista’s upbringing.

As Carminho indicates, fado is more a way of life than a musical genre. “Beatriz da Conceição was one of those artists and is one of my main references. She taught me how to value the lyrics, the poetry and that each word has to be sung with a different intensity.” Other artists Carminho cites as influences include, inevitably, the great Amália Rodrigues and her sister, Celeste Rodrigues Camané, Carlos do Carmo, Fernando Maurício, Lucília do Carmo and Maria José da Guia.

While she acknowledges that there are different interpretations of fado around, Carminho likes to sing the traditional way. “It’s the real fado … I don’t have any pretension to change it because fado is bigger than me,” she states. “Other musical genres have been mixed with fado during its history, but it has its own identity and a language that I respect a lot. Fado liberates me.” She’s quite adamant that fado cannot be sung in English: “It’s not sacrilege; it just that it doesn’t exist in any other language but Portuguese.”

While emphasizing that the poetry of the lyrics is very important in interpreting fado, Carminho thinks it’s possible to understand the songs without knowing the lingo. “If the singer sings that poetry with sincerity and with all their heart, magic happens and even the people who don’t understand what we are singing can feel it.”

Buika freely admits that she hasn’t studied cante jondo, the deepest and purest form of flamenco, or any of the great cantaors. “The truth is I’ve not studied much at all; searches have always seemed a bit tedious to me. I’ve been devoted to seeking more … I follow my own instincts, believing that they will know where to guide me. They always seem to be aware of where to go. I must let myself go, be fearless and accept the trance vibe.” To a question about how flamenco aficionados generally regard her music, she responds: “Well, next time I bump into them I will ask them. I’ve never thought about it.”

As for duende, the so-called spirit of flamenco, Buika’s not sure if she’s got it or not: “I don’t know. Does a rose know it’s a rose? I don’t know what I am nor what I have, but I do know how to use me, so I guess that must be it.”

The uncompromising but decidedly charismatic Spanish siren seems to have a similar ambivalence in regards to her relationship with fado, a style she has utilized in a handful of songs on her albums. Carminho agrees that fado and flamenco have much in common. As she conveys: “They were both born in the cities, they are urban song forms and are the expression of peoples that gathered in communities to express their feelings and their emotions.”

Carminho makes no secret of her admiration for Buika. “She’s an extraordinary singer with unique features.” Buika, in turn, describes Carminho as “exciting and wonderful”.

Buika is most forthcoming when talking about jazz: “It’s something that will always be part of everything I do, in and out of the music. It’s part of my thoughts and actions, part of my colour and taste. I would not be myself if jazz wasn’t alive within me.” A published poet, Buika says she rarely turns her poems into songs — “my poems would be difficult to sing” — although she says she invests her songs with “poetic musical language”. She’s not sure if a recent move to Miami will edge her closer to mainstream pop. “The truth is that whatever direction I take will be great fun as that’s why I do most things.”

In recent performances at WOMADelaide in Australia, Buika was backed by a guitarist whom she says “places me in a trance while I’m performing” and a “master flamenco cajón player”. Carminho was accompanied by Portuguese guitar, standard guitar and acoustic bass, the first-named an instrument pivotal to fado. “Even if it’s my voice that commands all the instruments on stage, the Portuguese guitar follows and dialogues with me and gives the necessary cohesion to this music.”

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


Moana’s on a mission for Maori culture

Moana Maniapoto and her current band, The Tribe
Moana Maniapoto and her current band, The Tribe
In her native New Zealand, Moana Maniapoto has long been beating the drum on behalf of Maori culture. In recent years, she has taken her mission and message offshore.

Performances at events such as the World Expo in Shanghai, the New Orleans Jazzfest, the Montreux Jazz Festival and UK’s WOMAD have established Moana and her current band, The Tribe, as primary Aotearoan ambassadors around the globe.

Moana and her bands have been pathfinders in pushing the boundaries of Maori music, both in live performance and on records, deftly fusing traditional instrumentation, language and haka with elements of electronica, RnB, soul, reggae, rock and classical.

One of the most articulate and significant Maori voices of her generation as lawyer, advocate, documentary maker and talkback host on New Zealand’s first national indigenous radio station, Maniapoto initially made a mark musically with the Moahunters back in the ‘90s. As she says: “People have said I was the first musician to incorporate taonga puoro [taonga puoro], karanga [Maori welcome call], te reo [Maori language] and haka into contemporary dance music. I wanted to bring haka in as a counterpoint to rap.”

Moana admits the fusion had some political motivation. “Apart from the creative aspects, it was also about uplifting Maori and challenging Pakeha [white New Zealanders]. The ‘90s was a period of activism. Music was my way of being part of a revolution.”

Now Maniapoto insists it’s more about the music and the songs than pushing political barrows. “These days, it’s not unusual to see Maori language artists performing with an orchestra or taonga puoro within electronic music, so I don’t feel so compelled to make a point anymore. That’s kind of liberating actually. If I feel like writing a song in English, I do. If it comes to me in Maori, that’s all fine too.”

The singer/composer has reached new peaks with The Tribe, a collective that has constantly evolved since its inception in 2002.

The band’s last studio album, 2009’s Wha, was its first exclusively Maori language release. A new album, Rima, is on the agenda.

The new songs include what Moana terms “a tribute to the sisterhood” called ‘Warrior Women’,” says Moana. ‘Ko Au’, she adds, is a new love song to the ocean with Maori lyrics.” ‘Seashells’ is a protest song that challenges the decisions being made by the current New Zealand government to open up the seabed to mining by foreign multinationals.

While the current line-up encompasses three new members, the band’s credo is constant. “We are fanatical about haka and puoro remaining authentic as art forms themselves but lending themselves to a fusion of contemporary with traditional onstage and in recordings,” the leader summarises.

Many people around the world will be familiar with the basic haka, thanks to the All Blacks rugby team. Moana uses the ancient chant-dance where it fits naturally — on songs such as ‘Treaty’, ‘Ancestors’, ‘Te Apo’ and ‘Whaura’, which she says require a strident almost militant vocal style and staunch lyrics.

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


Shellie Morris & The Songwomen on a mission

Shellie Morris
Shellie Morris
For millennia, song has been the principal conveyor of language and story in Aboriginal culture. Thanks to a visionary project hatched only a couple of years ago, it is now set to play a pivotal role in the preservation and revival of languages.

The Song Peoples Sessions has thus far handed a lifeline to two endangered northern Australian tongues, and it’s hoped that the template conceived by Patrick McCloskey, to bring together contemporary indigenous singer-songwriters with traditional song people from their clans to create new music and conserve the old, can be applied to other communities around the country.

In the interim, Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu/Together We Are Strong looks as though it will generate at least as much interest and as many accolades as the ARIA-nominated double CD that last year launched the Song Peoples series. Winanjjara, which teamed Warren H Williams with the Warumungu Songmen of the Barkly/Tennant Creek region, put the focus on the language of the country singer’s paternal grandmother. The second release has Shellie Morris performing in tandem with the Borroloola Songwomen of Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria country in the Yanyuwa tongue of her grandmother’s family that is spoken fluently these days by less than a dozen people.

The format is the same for both albums. CD1 in each pair has the contemporary artists creating fresh forms of cultural expression in collaboration with the elders, under the expert eye of ARIA Award-winning music producer and sound engineer Tim Cole, who also mixed and mastered both of the Song Peoples’ CDs. The second CD on both albums has an anthropological bent, focusing exclusively on the delivery of song cycles in time-honored fashion.

The principal disc on Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu involves the utilization of ambient keyboard pads and judicious electronic beats meshing with strings and percussion. This atmospheric platform allows Shellie Morris’s soaring opera and gospel-trained voice and the otherworldly harmonies of the song women to combine quite beautifully in celebration of stories, melodies and rhythms informed by her ancestral clan.

The symbiosis is sublime in songs such as ‘Jiwarrmanji’ [The Wind Is Blowing] and ‘Ngabujiyu a-Kurija’, a song honoring the memory of Morris’s late grandmother. Both tracks evoke an emotional response similar to that engendered by Gurrumul’s albums. CD2 comprises no fewer than 58 short tracks containing traditional song poetry recorded by the 11-piece Borroloola Songwomen.

In recent years there have been a number of high caliber collaborations between contemporary white Australian musicians and traditional indigenous singers — 2009’s Paul Grabowsky driven Crossing Roper Bar being a prime example — but none has been as ground-breaking or as significant as the government and NGO-funded Song Peoples Sessions albums. As executive producer Patrick McCloskey has observed: “Many of these old song people might only be around for another 15 to 20 years. Already a lot of songs have been lost, so there is an increasing urgency to record songs.” The Sessions’ mastermind argues that song people are the most important custodians of culture in most Aboriginal communities. “The singers often say the painting and the patterns don’t exist without them, they don’t exist without the songs. The song is the thing that binds it all together.”

Crossing Roper Bar @ Alan Eaton Studio from AAO on Vimeo.

Musical director Tim Cole, who has helped produce such acclaimed indigenous albums as Frank Yamma’s Countryman, claims the Song Peoples Sessions is a model for all future cross-cultural projects to follow. “From Patrick’s ground work to the execution of the sessions, the thoroughness of research, language details, respect to the community, ownership over the songs, and royalties, always the community has come first.”

For Darwin-based singer-songwriter Shellie Morris, who was adopted by a white family and raised in Sydney, the project was genuinely life changing. “To be reconnected with my Aboriginal family and to sing in my grandmother’s language is one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” declares the dual National Indigenous Music Awards [NIMA] ‘Female Musician of the Year’ recipient. “The album reiterates our story in our language, a dying language. Now every child in Borroloola, regardless of their clan roots, sings those songs. So much thought went into the music around those traditional songs. It was like holding the most precious gift ever.”

Morris, who has performed alongside such legendary artists as John Cale and Sinead O’Connor, was busy touring internationally with the Black Arm Band when the project was first raised. She knew she’d be making an album with her family but had no inkling that it would be done entirely in language. A background conducting workshops in remote communities helped her rise to the challenge. As she says: “I had learned to sing in many other languages other than my own.” However, it was no easy task. First, Morris had to fully understand the stories before writing new stories that matched the ones in the traditional songs. Then she had to get them translated into Yanyuwa and learn the language before finally recording the re-worked songs. She acknowledges the assistance of Melbourne anthropologist Professor John Bradley, a fluent speaker, in that process.

The modus operandi in the first Song Peoples session release was a little different. For Winanjjara, Warren Williams wrote his songs first, the Warumungu men listened to them and then chose traditional songs with similar storylines to match them with.

Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu, which was actually recorded before Winanjjara although the latter was released a year earlier, required a certain amount of blind faith. As Tim Cole admits: “We had to achieve the project’s goal, without a map.” Morris concurs: “We didn’t have much idea how it would sound. We recorded all the traditional songs acapella because that’s how they’re performed in the bush. We recorded them on-site in the studio we built at Borroloola. Using headphones was a bit awkward for the song women. It was alien for them to ear their voices in their own ears. Then we had to establish what key we’d do the songs in. Some of the melodies weren’t in the Western scale at all; I would have needed a Middle Eastern keyboard to do that.”

Although the album took two weeks to record, Morris emphasises that it wasn’t a stressful process. “It was a very beautiful journey, with lots of laughter and lots of cups of tea.” She reports that the crunch time came when they brought the ladies back into the studio to listen to the first track they’d recorded, ‘li-Anthawirriyarra’ [Saltwater People Song]. “The reaction was overwhelmingly positive,” declares Morris, re-living the moment. “They burst into tears and said it was the most wonderful thing they’d ever heard. I think we played that track five hundred times that day [laughs]. Then they understood the whole concept of mixing traditional with contemporary sound.”

Shellie Morris and Tim Cole
Shellie Morris and Tim Cole
The process and protocols, Morris indicates, were beyond reproach. “I don’t think there was one note that was played on the album without everyone’s approval — it was very important that everybody was happy with what was happening. When English is not the main language, things can get lost in translation, so we were very careful to consult with the ladies at every stage.”

Shellie suggests that a Western Australian community would be a prime candidate for the next Song Peoples Session project. She’s hoping to make a follow-up album with The Borroloola Songwomen next year. In the interim, according to the grapevine, Shellie and the Songwomen will be performing at this year’s Woodford Folk Festival, a prospect that excites her greatly. “The response we received at the Darwin Festival last year was fantastic, so emotional. We were overwhelmed with the response. People waited around for an hour to get autographs and just to say hello. The ladies are loving being in the limelight.”

Performing at the Deadly Awards at the Sydney Opera House with eleven ladies from Borroloola Morris describes as the proudest moment of her life. “Someone told me I was up for an award, but it didn’t matter. There was no better reward than doing a song in Yanyuwa with the Borroloola Songwomen. People who were there that night are still talking about our performance, including Peter Garrett.”

While there is already international demand for the act, the women’s advanced age will make overseas’ tours all but impossible. All is not lost, though. Shellie Morris reveals a plan is afoot to use modern technology to present the show offshore by beaming the ladies in, in the form of a hologram.

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


Sierra Leone All Stars in the ascendancy

Sierra Leone AllStars - Photo by Zach Smith
Sierra Leone AllStars – Photo by Zach Smith
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ success story is one of the most inspiring in the annals of world music. It is a tale of indomitable spirit and irrepressible talent and how a band formed by refugees of a brutal civil war became not only a champion of pan-African music but also one of the globe’s great bands, per se.

No one who has experienced the Refugee All Stars’ irresistibly uplifting performances would be surprised by their ascendancy to the top tier.

Despite spending considerable time overseas, the All Stars’ feet remain firmly planted in their homeland. If founder member and driving force Reuben Koroma’s idea of success is measured in monetary gain it is only because that means he can fulfil one of his and the band’s principal ambitions. Koroma has long had it in mind to build a music school in the now peaceful but still poverty-stricken Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, to which he has returned to live.

Koroma knows from his late 90s’ days in refugee camps in Guinea, where he had fled to avoid the carnage in his home city, the therapeutic value of music. “When we started playing in the camps, we saw that people were transformed. Most of the people who were so sad become happy. At first, we did it for ourselves, but when we started playing and we continued to play, we saw that thousands of people were enjoying it and, well, they really reacted positively.”

Although four original members have sadly passed away, the All Stars, under their dynamic leader, have continued to go from strength to strength since their unique genesis.

After the international success of their last two albums, 2010’s Rise & Shine and 2012’s Radio Salone, which were guided respectively by Steve Berlin and Victor Axelrod, it had been expected that the band would turn to another high profile American producer to maintain the trend.

Surprisingly, the as-yet nameless and unreleased fourth album, was produced by Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Vilen, the man behind the music on the award-winning 2006 documentary Living Like A Refugee — a film that chronicled the All Stars’ origins and helped catapult them on to the world stage — and their debut album of the same name.

During a call to the band’s temporary base in the USA, Koroma revealed that the new album, to be released in the first half of 2014, comprises five reggae-oriented tracks and seven African-accented numbers that include what he terms “Sierra Leone soko beats and palm wine music”.

Reaffirming his love of reggae, the bandleader declares: “I’m the biggest fan in Sierra Leone! I love Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Third World’s music. Reggae is loved in Sierra Leone. It’s seen as a music that is to do with liberation of the people, so it’s seen as music of deliverance.” Koroma concedes that the All Stars’ brand of reggae has also been influenced by an age-old West African rhythm known as baskeda. “That was my father’s music,” he says. “I used to love it when I was a kid, so when I grew up I just tried to compose songs in that rhythm.”

Explaining the band’s impressively wide range of pan-African styles, which also includes afrobeat, high life, gumbe and soukous, Koroma says that Sierra Leone is a very rich musical country. “Freetown is seriously multi-cultural,” he stresses.

The Refugee All Stars’ uplifting, up-tempo songs of hope, faith and joy certainly reinforce the redeeming power of music. It’s no wonder their life-affirming story and captivating music is in such demand around the planet.

It’s been a long struggle out of the war, out of miserable conditions,” notes Reuben Koroma. “We try to bring out sensitive issues that are affecting the world, but we put out positive messages, so we can expect a positive change in the world.”

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


Joseph Tawadros is in a New York state of mind

Joseph Tawadros with Bela Fleck - Photo by Lee Varis
Joseph Tawadros with Bela Fleck – Photo by Lee Varis
If you asked a panel of suitably qualified referees to nominate the Australian musician who punches highest above his weight, age and chosen instrument, one who’s pound-for-pound the best-performed home based player on the international circuit, they’d assuredly name Joseph Tawadros.

Ask the wisecracking young maestro of the ancient Arabic oud what he thinks of that rhetoric and he’d probably respond by pointing to the colossal number of kilograms he’s shed from a once bulky frame, rather than endorse himself as a heavyweight of the roots music world. This inveterate pun-lover might even extend the metaphor by borrowing a word from the title of the latest in a line of superlative albums that carry his name, and suggest that he’s only shadow boxing.

Joseph Tawadros - The Hour Of Separation
Joseph Tawadros – The Hour Of Separation
Truth is the newly slim-lined Sydney resident has been trading blows with global elite as he sashays towards his thirtieth year. The Cairo-born player/composer has retained a wry and wickedly self-effacing sense of humor. Anyone who heard his acceptance speech at last year’s Fine Arts ARIA awards presentation, or has attended one of his concerts, will no doubt concur. Receiving a long overdue Aussie Grammy equivalent for best World Music album, after a string of near-misses, the virtuoso of the pear-shaped lute quipped: “I think it’s great the music industry is finally trusting an Arab with a sharp object, although I’m not sure what an Egyptian is going to do with another pyramid”. Another pyramid is literally what he got because his name had been misspelt on the original statuette! “I guess I’m a multi-ARIA winner now,” he adds with a wry laugh.

In this scribe’s opinion, Joe Tawadros should have been awarded an ARIA the previous year for The Hour Of Separation, a sublime album that he and kid brother James cut in New York city in 2010 with three of America’s most distinguished jazzmen — guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette, drummer of choice for leviathans such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Instead, it was a classically inclined album, Concerto of The Greater Sea, recorded several years earlier with Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (but not released until 2012) that broke his duck.

Now that he’s managed to wrench the monkey off his back, it’s short odds he’ll be back on the winner’s rostrum at next year’s ARIA presentation for Chameleons Of The White Shadow. Joe’s most adventurous album yet, in what has been an upward progression of excellence, was recorded at the same New York studio as The Hour Of Separation two years before and with an equally stellar guest list of American ‘A’ team players, headed by the grand wizard of modern banjo, Béla Fleck. Three giants of US jazz — Joey DeFrancesco, DownBeat magazine’s ‘Organist of the Year’ for ten consecutive years, and those septuagenarian supremos of vibraphone and tuba, Roy Ayers and Howard Johnson — figured in support roles. Cameroon-born bass ace Richard Bona and James Tawadros, a genius on the tiny req (Egyptian tambourine) and bendir (frame drum), helped stoke the engine room.

For those yet to sample its treasures, the latest set contains music that’s cerebral, soul searching and utterly stimulating. Exquisite musicianship is a salient part of the album’s appeal. To turn a noun from the title into an adjective, the playing is chameleonic, with all contributors adapting and responding symbiotically to the leader’s cues and painstakingly crafted compositions and arrangements. The dialogue between oud and banjo in pieces such as ‘Street in Sarajevo’ and ‘Freo’ is especially invigorating, featuring rapier runs, elegant figures and nigh-telepathic exchanges as both string-benders stretch out in pursuit of the mythic titular ‘White Shadow’. Styles criss-cross and blend seamlessly in Chameleons Of The White Shadow, world music, jazz, classical, bluegrass melding into a creation of amorphous beauty.

Joseph Tawadros
Joseph Tawadros
Tawadros concedes that his tenth album has exceeded expectations. “It was hard with the mix of instruments we had but I think we created something special and something that works really well.” As he points out, Hammond organ, banjo, vibraphone and tuba didn’t exactly sound like natural companions for oud on paper. “We made it work,” he stresses. “Between the seven players on the album if something didn’t sound right someone would have said: ‘Hey, this sounds like shit’ [laughs]. The thing is you don’t to need add very much to make it work if you have great ingredients.” Joe maintains it’s about composing to people’s strengths. “If you give people things that they’re strong at, the music will be strong. I didn’t give the players anything they weren’t familiar with. The most important thing is everyone knowing his role. Of course you run the risk of egos getting in the way as well. But musicians of their nature and attitude know what they’re supposed to do, and that’s what makes them who they are. They’re successful for a reason.” He says the musicians were able to adapt to each other and inspired each other. “From the first notes playing together we knew it was on. We were collaborating on many different levels. Getting it to work so well I guess is a reflection on the level of musicality.”

Joe’s stellar collaborators seem equally happy with the outcome. “They really like the album and enjoyed being part of the project,” he reports. “Joey had never really played with an ethnic instrument, so he was stoked. When you get professional players of their calibre together, they just want to do the best job. They want to be true to this art we’re creating. They’re there to give their soul.” Despite conceding international standing and seniority, Tawadros is adamant that he was never overawed in his approaches or had any doubts about his musicianship or modus operandi. “You can’t be nervous and hesitant when you’re playing with guys of this calibre. I’ve always believed that the stuff I’ve created has been quite discerning. I’ve never been intimidated. I’ve been more excited to collaborate … the musicians that I get are ones that love music. They’re not there for the wrong reasons. This music is not lucrative. They’re not getting paid amazing amounts of money. They’re really there for the project. After long careers, they’re still interested in exploring other parts of music and that’s inspiring to me. The great thing about it is that you get to meet as well as play with your heroes.”

Béla Fleck was high up on the list of musicians that Tawadros had always wanted to work with, although he harboured doubts whether the banjo legend would be interested in his project. “I’d been chasing him for years because I thought we shared a very similar passion in a way,” Joe confides. “We’re both kind of seamless collaborators and not afraid to try new territory. I’d been sending emails to his management and never got a reply.” Joey DeFrancesco, the second guest to come to the party, was the conduit. “He passed my message on to Béla and a couple of days later I got an email from him asking what’s up. That’s how we got the ball rolling.”

Joseph Tawadros
Joseph Tawadros
Christian McBride, who holds an equally exalted position in world jazz circles, was originally scheduled to play double bass on the session, but had to back out at the eleventh hour. “Richard Bona came on deck in the last week and learnt the repertoire really fast,” Tawadros imparts. “Howard Johnson also jumped on board in the last week. Roy Ayers agreed two weeks before the recording.” Although he ended up with a different bass vibe, electric rather than acoustic, the session went well, aided by Joe’s assiduous prep work. “I recorded MP3s of what I thought the music should sound like. I would talk on the MP3s, saying things like: ‘Béla’s solo here’ and ‘I want this’ or ‘here or I want that’. Of course, the players have their own ideas, so when you workshop it, the music grows. Béla and the guys were amazing. We only had one day rehearsing and one day recording booked, so we had to be as prepared as we could before we got to the studio because it’s a very stressful time.”

Tawadros expands: “When you only have one day to record seven tracks, you have to do it all live. It’s stressful enough having to organise people’s accommodation and travel, then getting the music together and scoring it, and all that stuff, and rehearsing. But then you have to actually record it. You forget that the last thing you have to do is actually play and get in the zone. The other musicians don’t really have anything invested in it except playing music. They get to shine. Take Béla’s contribution, for instance. He’s really adding so much to the music and that’s because I think he has the freedom to try different things within it. When you’re a sideman you play differently; you get to explore a bit more, take a few risks. When it’s your recording, you’ve gotta play a little bit safer.”

Although Joe admits the financial outlay involved in making independent albums in New York is daunting, he says the rewards outweigh the expense. “I get a little bit of help from some people and the album’s licensed to ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), so they give you an advance. But it never really covers the cost. As long as it breaks even, it means you can do the next project. It just seems to work and that’s a blessing in itself. It’s an investment … you’re investing in yourself and you can’t put a price on the experience. I don’t really see it in a financial sense. It’s just a question of can we do the project?

Tawadros is clearly a man on a mission. To cannibalise the Star Trek mission statement, maybe it is to take his instrument where no oud has gone before. “I’m a person who has a short attention span, so I’m always challenging myself with new projects, and taking oud into new territory is definitely the idea.” One potential future project involves a mix of oud and heavy metal-style guitar. That might not be as outlandish as it sounds, given both styles favour the use of Middle Eastern scales. “I’ve thought about recording with some sort of shred guitarist, maybe Slash or John Petrucci,” Joe reveals. “It wouldn’t need to be that loud or rocky; it would be a matter of applying their amazing technique and feel to anything I might be able to create.” He likens collaboration to cooking. “If you get great ingredients, you don’t really have to do much. You just have to know how to prepare it and let styles infuse together in a way. I’m in a great position to get great ingredients on my albums. Obviously there’s a lot of work involved in making it all happen, but when the tools are already there, it’s a much easier platform.”

Tawadros also has in mind a project with French accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, who contributed to the last album. He’d also like to renew his Hour of Separation association with John Abercrombie, a guitarist he greatly admires, and work with Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian kamancheh (Persian fiddle) player. Singing is also something he wants to explore down the track: “I’ve just finished a tour with The Song Company, six voices and the oud. That was haunting and we got a great response and great reviews.”

Whatever direction he decides to take, you can bet Joseph Tawadros will keep on collaborating. “It’s a question of keeping myself fresh and challenging myself,” he says. “I listen to all the players that I collaborate with and love their music. It’s a real privilege that I get a chance to play with them. I’ve been very lucky to get those platforms, but that’s all through my love of my instrument and my love of music, mixed in with a bit of luck and the way the world brings people together.” Long may ‘The Force’ be with him.

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


The Alaev Family Way

Alaev Family
Alaev Family
Allo Alaev’s life changed for the better back in 1991 when escalating belligerence in his native Tajikistan, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, prompted the master percussionist to emigrate to Israel with his family. As members of a minority Jewish population in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, it was a logical decision to relocate from Central Asia to the Middle East state, and the patriarch and his multigenerational ensemble wasted no time garnering a loyal local following.

In a less obvious move 20 years later, Alaev linked up with Balkan Beat Box’s co-founder and programmer Tamir Muskat, a man more closely associated with electronic beats than ethnic music. Since releasing the album that bears both their names, the world has been an oyster for the octogenarian drummer and his dynamic family band.

The impact of Muskat’s work with us has been huge … he was the correct man to work with in all senses,” confirms Alaev’s grandson Zvi, one of six family members in the 8-piece ensemble. “The Alaev Family had performed abroad a few times, but since the project with Tamir we have had many tours, and played world music festivals all over Europe and in the USA and at WOMADelaide in Australia.”

The success of The Alaev Family & Tamir Muskat album has even resulted in an award from the Israeli president as recognition of the band’s contribution to local culture. “Since our arrival in Israel, we have not had many days without work … television shows, radio, as musicians on stage at Habima National Theatre and many more projects in schools and around the country,” Zvi reports. In general, he says their audience is not drawn from their own community, which is small. “Nowadays, we have a new audience — mostly between 20 and 35 years of age,” he adds proudly.

It’s really no surprise that The Alaev Family has attracted such a strong youth following. Half of the band’s current line-up belong to the younger generation, and while their music might be based on ages-old folklore, it’s modern sounding with an up-tempo effervescence that is dance inducing.

The band’s music is not readily pigeonholed. Zvi Alaev explains: “As Central Asia is our roots, it is obvious that this is our basis, but we have some Balkan and Russian influences and we’ve even done a Bob Marley piece and added Tajiki rhythm to it, and I do a rap version of a Moroccan Khaled song. We do a few songs in Hebrew or half Hebrew and half Tajiki and in Uzbeki language. One song is in Turkish and there’s even one in gibberish! We connect to many styles in Israel … Klezmer, Balkan and Oriental.” In simple terms, he stresses the band plays music that they enjoy playing and which makes them and the audience happy. He likens a typical Alaev Family gig to a Bukharian wedding feast: “A boost of energy and joy featuring great young and old virtuosos.”

The Alaev Family band members, whose age ranges from eight to eighty, perform on a variety of percussion instruments, including the doyra (Uzbek frame drum), darbuka (goblet drum) and cajón (Peruvian box-shaped drum), augmented by accordion, clarinet, violin and bass guitar.

Almost the entire band sings. “Ariel is the lead singer, but many of the songs are call & response style and everyone joins in, even the bass player!” says Zvi, who reports that all but two of the band are closely related. “It started with Allo and Yaakov, his brother. They performed years together with great success. When the three children were born — Ada, Amin and Ariel — they were educated in music and it was natural they should join in as well. They all had basic training in drumming and later developed in classical music in conservatory. When the grandchildren came along, it was obvious they all had a good musical ear, so we continued the tradition.

Allo Alaev, who performed in the Folk Opera Company of Dushanbe in Tajikistan for many decades, is recognized as one of the most important links to the old music of Tajikistan and the Jewish music of Bukhara in neighboring Uzbekistan. “It is said that this rhythm, frequently in 6/8 beat, was brought in to Bukhara from Moroccan rabbis, who came to the region many hundreds of years ago,” says Zvi. “Many of the songs are Sufi poems and about love and the divine.”

In his heyday Alaev senior, a maestro on the doyra, used to play five drums simultaneously. These days he manages three at the same time. Not that he drags his heels! “Allo is extremely fit for his age,” his grandson reports. “The stage has been his life since the age of 10. He’s the leader and decides most things in the family but the grandchildren have great input now and grandfather is more than willing to try new things.”

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

Recordings available: The Alaev Family and Tamir Muskat


Rasa Duende’s cross-cultural soul

Rasa Duende
Rasa Duende
Bobby Singh’s last cross-cultural trio collaboration, with kora maestro Mamadou Diabaté and slide guitar master Jeff Lang in the ARIA award-winning Djan Djan, examined the nexus between Indian, West African and blues music. His latest artistic venture explores meeting points between Hindustani and flamenco traditions.

Rasa Duende’s debut album could easily net another Australian World Music gong for the most celebrated tabla player down under.

Singh’s expertise and sensitivity in the field of acoustic fusion is matched by the skills and subtlety of his band mates, sarod player Adrian McNeil and flamenco guitarist Damian Wright, as manifested in the intricate and thoughtful way their instruments blend and generally interrelate in an outstanding first release.

Rumbas and ragas converge organically in Improvisations. In one of the CD’s standout pieces, an ektaal (a rhythmic cycle of 12 beats in Hindustani music) morphs majestically into a bulerias, the fieriest of all flamenco rhythms.

Singh’s tabla playing helps bind the different styles. After many years in Mumbai studying under masters of the expressive Indian hand drum, he has developed into an internationally renowned soloist on his chosen instrument, but eschews that role in Rasa Duende. “My job is connecting the cultures,” he asserts, adding “and I really enjoy sitting back and just being in the groove.”

As specialists and experts in Indian music, Singh and McNeil share an obvious rapport. “I’ve been performing with Adrian for nearly 20 years in India, Australia and many other countries,” says Singh. “He’s not only one of the highest regarded Indian classical musicians in the world of non-Indian background but also one of the highest regarded academics of Indian classical music as well.”

McNeil took up sarod, a resonant stringed instrument with a slide capacity, some 30 years ago. “Adrian was pretty much the first student in Australia of Ashok Roy, who was a disciple of the world’s greatest sarod player, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan,” reveals Singh. “Now he’s regarded in India as one of the top players of the instrument.”

Although tabla doesn’t have a natural affinity with flamenco, Singh has discovered a modus operandi that works well for his instrument. “What I do is I learn rhythms on cajon [a box drum compatible with flamenco] and then adapt them to tabla. Both Adrian and I really love flamenco, so when we met Damian we had an instant connection. Damian was very interested in ragas and Indian music.”

After regularly jamming together, the trio put on a concert that garnered a “huge” response. “It just sort of led on from there,” relates Singh. He explains that Rasa Duende’s repertoire has evolved from simply performing together. “Nothing’s really staged and contrived because it can’t be. It’s more about us all looking at what the music and band will represent as a sound rather than crazy soloing. I can do that [soloing], but in the context of what we’re doing in Rasa Duende it isn’t really necessary. It’s more about the feel.”

Switching between Indian and flamenco modes isn’t that hard, Singh insists, explaining that there are strong cultural ties between the two styles of music. But he’s quick to add that it takes time to create the kind of naturalistic music that Rasa Duende is making. “It’s very slow cooking; it’s not a question of chuck this in, chuck that in and eat it. We’re trying to go for something that’s completely organic, something that happens spontaneously.”

Rasa Duende - Improvisations
Rasa Duende – Improvisations
It’s appropriate that Singh uses a cooking analogy to stress his point. The trio present a Hindustani cooking demonstration at some of their shows, based on a published paper of McNeil’s showing the correlation between methods of cooking Indian food and the melodic universe of a raga. “Pretty much every Indian musician will tell you that if you can’t cook you can’t play music, and you’ll never understand the subtlety between notes,” he declares.

The title of Rasa Duende’s debut album is not coincidental either. “We had sketches of tracks before we went into the studio to record Improvisations, but we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.” Their music becomes more improvisational in live performances. “That’s our background,” emphasizes Singh. “One of our grand masters used to say if you don’t have that element, there’s no chance of ever doing something amazing.”

Bobby Singh returns to India at least twice a year; last year five times. Adrian McNeil visits the sub-continent at least once a year to perform. Damian Wright, who spent years in Spain studying under maestros before creating his own touring flamenco group (Bandaluzia Flamenco) here in Australia, returns a lot to Andalusia.

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


Bombino gets the key to the highway

Bombino - Photo by Ron Wyman
Bombino – Photo by Ron Wyman
Collaborations between American rock stars and musicians from Third World African nations can result in cultural imbalance. The liaison between the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Omara ‘Bombino’ Moctar, a singer-guitarist from the Sahara-subsumed country of Niger, is definitely not a case in point.

Prior to accepting an invitation to make his new album, Nomad, with Auerbach in Nashville, Bombino had never recorded in a proper studio before. He was unaware of the Black Keys or their music until his manager suggested they head States-ward to cut the follow-up to 2011’s Agadez, the release that introduced him to a Western audience.

Bombino - Photo by Chris Decato
Bombino – Photo by Chris Decato
The decision’s been well and truly vindicated, with the Keys’ Grammy Award-winning producer/guitarist having succeeded in boosting Bombino’s international reputation and appeal without compromising the Tuareg’s bedrock desert blues sound or his uninhibited guitar playing. The urban groove and production muscle gained by recording in the US with a local crew has helped net Bombino a string of dates in the States, a world tour and a list of festival engagements that’s tipped to include a berth at the 2014 Byron Bay Bluesfest.

In an interview conducted with the assistance of an interpreter via email, the North African expressed his delight at the turn of events. “Recording in Nashville with Dan was a tremendous first studio experience for me and my band.” Bombino describes the ambience as “fun and relaxed” and something that he says he’ll always remember with fondness.

Bombino - Photo by Ron Wyman
Bombino – Photo by Ron Wyman
Bombino says he was very happy with the approach that Auerbach adopted, especially the producer’s suggestions to add keyboard and percussion to many tracks, and pedal steel guitar and vibraphone specifically to songs such as ‘Tamiditine’ and ‘Imuhar’. The rhythm beds were recorded like a live performance, to which Bombino added layers of serpentine guitar lines and reverb-laden vocals. The visitor was much impressed with Auerbach’s local crew: “Everyone contributed very nicely. I love the colours that these instruments and these great musicians gave to the album,” he says.

Linguistic barriers between he and Auerbach presented few problems. “My manager speaks English and French, so he would translate, though after a couple of days translation was hardly necessary,” says the newest star from the seemingly ever-growing Saharan firmament, explaining: “We could do all of our work almost without words … there was a very good connection and a great energy in the studio between us.”

Bombino says his new songs discuss “hardship and the need for solidarity, peace, brotherhood and maintaining Tuareg culture as we go further into a modernized world”. He admits these are difficult times in the sub-Saharan region, but points out that almost all Tuaregs strongly reject the Islamic extremists. “It’s very important for the world to understand this,” he stresses. “We’re in favor of peace and freedom and tolerance. We’ve none of the same goals as the extremists.”

Other Tuareg bands have influenced Bombino’s style, most profoundly Tinariwen: “I grew up listening to them and idolizing them. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s a very big influence and inspiration for me. He’s the father of Tuareg music today, you could say. The other African artist that influenced me the most is the great Ali Farka Touré from Mali, his music and the way he lived his life for his people.”

Bombino has also listened to some of the old Mississippi Delta blues recordings. “You can easily hear the relationship between Africa and America in the blues,” he says. The guitarist’s playing style, though, perhaps owes as much to rock, with Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler obvious references. He also professes to be a Black Keys fan now.

Bombino - Photo by Ron Wyman
Bombino – Photo by Ron Wyman
As with many Tuaregs, music is at the center of Bombino’s life. “It’s my medicine and it’s my nourishment. It’s my protector and also my joy.” Leaving little doubt that he’s particularly enjoying making music with his current band, he says: “It’s very exciting to see the fruits of all of our efforts, not just in the studio but also on tour in the last couple of years. It’s been a lot of hard work and there have been difficult times, but now I feel like we’re enjoying the rewards a bit. I’m looking forward to a very big year.”

Bombino’s especially looking forward to taking back copies of Nomad to give to friends and family in Niger. “I’m sure soon you will see it in the hands of pirates everywhere and on the radio … it’s like that at home,” he says philosophically.

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

Discography: Group Bombino – Guitars from Agadez, vol. 2 (2009), Agamgam 2004 (2010), Agadez (2011),

More about Bombino


Scaling Dizzy Heights

Arturo Sandoval - Photo by Manny Iriarte
Arturo Sandoval – Photo by Manny Iriarte
As a teenaged trumpeter in Cuba back in the mid ‘60s Arturo Sandoval dreamed of one day meeting his idol, American jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. What eventually ensued was way beyond his wildest dreams, the stuff of a Hollywood movie script that the story was actually destined to become.

The pair came face-to-face for the first time in the late ‘70s when the man credited with bringing Latin influences into US jazz visited Havana. Sandoval was assigned the job of showing him the city. At the time, Gillespie had no idea that he was being ferried around by a musician, let alone a fellow trumpeter who could match his own brilliance. When Dizzy heard his chaperone play, he was blown away.

The flamboyant trumpeter famous for trademark beret and bent horn not only went on to become Sandoval’s teacher, mentor, band-mate, close friend and confidante up until his death in 1993 but, more fundamentally, Sandoval’s savior … as his protege explained in a telephone interview with your correspondent.

Dizzy saved my life; he set me free,” declares Sandoval in Spanish accented English. “He brought me to the States for the first time in 1978 and he helped me with the whole process of getting political asylum ten years later.” Sandoval, like other Cuban jazz musicians of the time, led an oppressive existence under the austere communist regime of Fidel Castro. He harbors absolutely no regrets about leaving his homeland. “I regret the fact that I couldn’t leave before,” he says with some vehemence when quizzed on the matter, even though he concedes he enjoyed the benefit of a classical musical education in Cuba. He has not been back to the Caribbean island since. Although, a few relatives still live there, all his close family now reside in the US, where Sandoval became a naturalized citizen in 1999.

For Love or Country
For Love or Country
Arturo Sandoval’s life story was the subject of a well-received 2000 TV film (and subsequent video release) For Love or Country, with actor/musician Andy García playing the trumpeter. “They had me as a consultant working with the scriptwriter, and I scored the music, so it accurately tells the story,” he reports.

Sandoval says that García is a very good bongo player. “Lately I have been using him as a musician for sessions in the studio and he’s been doing a wonderful job, man. He’s got his own band, too.” In fact, García plays on Sandoval’s new album, Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You).

Sandoval’s colleague in the renowned ‘70s Afro-Cuban group Irakere, Chucho Valdés chose to remain in Cuba. The trumpeter points out with a sense of irony: “A lot of things have happened between the ‘70s and now, but I have fond memories of my days with Chucho and Paquito D’Rivera in Irakere. We put the band together and played together for seven years. We had good times.”

Arturo Sandoval - Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You)
Arturo Sandoval – Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You)
Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You), which netted Sandoval his eighth Grammy Award (for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album) earlier this year, is the latest in a long line of projects in which he has paid homage to Gillespie, who in the 1940s played a pivotal role with Charlie Parker in the development of bebop and modern jazz.

The album is a collection of classic works from Gillespie’s colossal back catalog framed in big-band arrangements and showcasing Sandoval’s “athletic playing”, as Dizzy himself described his amigo’s penchant for high-register, up-tempo runs. Swapping blows with Sandoval on the album that incorporates Gillespie standards such as ‘Con Alma’ and ‘A Night in Tunisia’ are some stellar co-lead players, including vibraphonist Gary Burton, tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer and clarinetist Eddie Daniels.

Scheduled for release in the near future is a coffee table-style book, which Sandoval has helped to put together as another expression of his gratitude to Gillespie. According to its chief compiler, The Man Who Saved Me is a large collection of personal photos with caption stories.

Arturo Sandoval is effusive in his praise of the man who has so profoundly influenced his career. “I learned many things from Dizzy; he was very paternal to me. He never got tired of answering questions or teaching me or talking about music, about chords and progressions. He was a real music enthusiast and that was the best lesson I get from him, to have passion and be in love with what you do, which is a privilege and blessing from God.” Sandoval says he truly thinks of Dizzy every day. He’s even got a picture of the great man on the license plate of his car!

Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval
During the most animated part of the interview, Sandoval continued to wax lyrical about his mentor. “Dizzy was a unique player. He was very musical and not just on trumpet. He played piano very well too. He always mentioned the piano as being the basis of learning chords and learning music. That really makes a big influence in my way of thinking because since he mentioned that to me I’ve been playing or practicing the piano every single day. Everything I ever wrote came from the piano, not from trumpet.” Sandoval makes a habit of playing at least one number on piano during his shows, although he says (with a laugh): “Sometimes when I play more, people complain —they say, ‘stay with the trumpet’.”

Another recent release that netted a Grammy Award for Sandoval (for best Latin album), the self-produced and independently released Tango Como Yo Te Siento, is also a tribute album of sorts. As its creator explains: “I made it as a tribute to my late father because he loved tango music. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about music in general, but he knew all the lyrics and melodies of all the famous tango songs. I really had a lot of fun making that album. I went to Argentina and invited seven or eight of the main tango singers to be guests.” The latter comment alludes to the likes of Maria Grana, Valeria Lynch, Julia Zenco, Fernando Soler, Guillermo Fernandez, Patricia Sosa and Raul Lavie. The set also included contributions from the acclaimed accordionist Nestor Marconi.

The Mambo Kings
The Mambo Kings
Arturo Sandoval’s versatility and general love of music is reflected in recordings with everyone from jazz giants like Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Woody Shaw and Stan Getz to singers as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Rod Stewart and Alicia Keys and guest appearances with some of the world’s finest classical symphony orchestras. It also shows in Sandoval’s movie scoring, a passion which prompted him to move to the outskirts of Los Angeles four years ago, “to be closer to Hollywood”, after 20 years of residing in Miami. The trumpeter was Musical Director for 1992’s The Mambo Kings, and helped score two editions of the blockbusting Pirates of the Caribbean series and the 2011 Oscar-winning animation feature Rango. His music is featured in the current box office smash The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp.

Although he’s well into his sixties, Sandoval shows no signs of slowing down. A particularly busy period in his career will see him touring continuously until late March of 2014. “I am working every day doing different projects,” he imparts with relish on the eve of a second consecutive appearance at the annual George Gershwin Award nights at the White House (this year paying tribute to Carol King). When he’s not performing with his sextet or his Los Angeles based big band or working on movies, Sandoval is producing albums for other people or himself. At the time of writing, he was mixing down a new album of his own devoted to Cuban bolero, the ballad style popularized around the world by the late Ibrahim Ferrer and other members of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Every day, no matter how crowded his schedule might be, Sandoval devotes time to practice, to ensure that his renowned technique remains in tip-top shape. “It’s important to practice at any age, but as you get older of course you have to be extra careful. The trumpet is a very tough instrument. You can’t take it easy, you have to be working every day and be very dedicated. I’m 64 and I feel more comfortable playing the trumpet now than before. I think I’m playing better than ever.” A listen to his recent albums endorses the last statement.

I’m a very happy man,” avers Arturo Sandoval. There is no doubt part of his content stems from being the anointed keeper of the flame that Dizzy Gillespie ignited. Adopting the mantra and mantle of his mentor, he says: “My desire is to share my passion and love for music. My favorite joy is when I’m on stage and I’m sharing with the people that love for music; it’s the best moment of my day.”

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

Related story: Jazz Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval to Be Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom By President Barack Obama