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.
McArtha Linda Sandy-Lewis might never be immortalized in the global annals of female activism, but the feisty woman claiming that formal and somewhat long-winded moniker has certainly made an indelible mark on the history of Caribbean music. Back in 1978, Calypso Rose, as she is widely known, shattered the glass ceiling in Trinidad & Tobago when paradoxically becoming the first of her gender to win the coveted ‘Calypso King’ crown. Organizers of the annual championship were obliged to change the title to ‘Calypso Monarch’, and Rose went on to win the prestigious event for five consecutive years. In recent years, the Tobago-born singer has gone international with her trademark husky vocals, incisive wit and raunchy calypso and up-tempo soca songs.
Now 70 years of age, Calypso Rose revisited her trail-blazing days after being voted the No. 1 calypsonian of Trinidad & Tobago earlier this year. Speaking from New York City, where she has resided for the past three decades, this voluble, irrepressible woman, said: “The calypso scene has changed immensely over the years. It was mostly men back in the early days like Kitchener [Lord Kitchener], The Lion [Roaring Lion], The Sparrow [Mighty Sparrow], Atilla The Hun and Lord Irie. When I came into the arena in 1955, Lady Irie, the wife of Lord Irie, was the only female and she was a senior citizen at that time.”
Despite calypso being a male domain, Calypso Rose, a Baptist minister’s daughter, says she was received “very highly” by audiences in general, but not by church groups, who frowned upon her performing in that milieu. “They called me to meeting after meeting,” she recalls. “They wanted to know how come a young girl like me could be in the calypso tents, singing calypso between all the men. In 1963 I said: ‘Look, I will not be like the five foolish virgins that buried their talent in the soil’. I said: ‘The Lord has given me the ability to write calypso lyrics and create the melody and make the people happy and I will continue doing that until the day I die’, and I got up and I walked out of the room.” Whether by divine intervention or not, it’s a fact that Hurricane Flora devastated the islands of Tobago and Grenada soon after. “I wrote a calypso about the hurricane to sing in the tent in 1964. After every verse I sang ‘Abide With Me’.” After rendering a verse of said hymn down the line from Queens, Rose suggests that may have given her some purchase with the church elders.
As an idiom, calypso currently lives in the shadows but that wasn’t always the case. In 1969 Calypso Rose was on an equal footing with Bob Marley. The Caribbean artists performed together at a New Year’s Eve concert held in the ballroom of the Grand Concourse in New York’s Bronx. “The people went crazy,” Rose recalls. During its heyday in the late ‘50s, Harry Belafonte took calypso to the top of the pop charts with ‘The Banana Boat Song’ (aka ‘Day O’). Calypso Rose, who has written over 800 songs, herself had a major hit in the Caribbean with her signature number ‘Fire in Meh Wire’, which was subsequently recorded in nine different languages, and Bonnie Raitt did a cover version of her ‘Wah She Go Do’. “I was in San Francisco one year performing and she came on stage and sung it with me,” she says. Rose has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in show business. In 1978 she did a gig with the late Michael Jackson. In Europe she says she has performed to audiences of up to 10,000. Back home, where she’s regarded as a living legend, Rose is a fixture during the annual carnival season in Trinidad & Tobago, playing for many thousands of revellers.
Rooted in social and political commentary, calypso is a music form that puts more emphasis on lyrics than almost any other idiom, and is invariably peppered with patois. Rose has written her share of risqué numbers over the years, but only one overtly political song, ‘The Boat Is Rocking’, which she penned leading up to a crucial local election. One of the songs she’s most proud of, ‘No, Madame’, she wrote when Trinidad & Tobago domestics were working for a paltry $25 a month. “Soon after that song was released, the government voted that no domestic should work for less than $1200 a month.” Rose says that you could sing just about anything in the calypso tents, but the more controversial songs wouldn’t be played on the radio.
She points out that calypso has changed considerably in style over the years and that these days soca, a faster, more dance-orientated variant which places less emphasis on the lyrics, holds sway. “It’s gone from the minor calypso to the four-verse calypso, from the four-line calypso to the eight-line calypso. With the four-verse calypso you’re getting more rhythm. The structure of the bass has been changed and the drumming has been changed too. It’s vastly different now, and I think that is the reason why the Mighty Sparrow and myself are still on the road working because we do soca, although we also do the old-style calypso.”
It was calypso that enabled a 13-year-old McArtha Lewis to overcome a debilitating stammer. “I’ve come a very long way,” she reflects. “I couldn’t speak without stuttering badly back then.” Calypso Rose will forever be proud of the fact that she opened the doors to let other females enter the long-time male preserve of calypso. As she observes: “There are a lot of female calypsonians around these days, not only in Trinidad & Tobago but the whole of the Caribbean and even beyond.”
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.
If there’s such a beast as the quintessential WOMAD act it must assuredly be the Afro Celt Sound System. That’s no idle claim dreamed up by an indolent journalist in search of an angle. The Afro Celts are irrevocably and inextricably bound up with Peter Gabriel’s World Of Music And Dance festivals.
The collective was actually launched from the WOMAD mother ship in the UK in 1995, back in the days when the event was held at Reading. Coincidentally, the band’s debut corresponded with this scribe’s one and only appearance at said festival. In fact, showing uncharacteristic prescience, I recall relinquishing a prime position at one of the bigger stages, where a big-name was in action, to investigate some intriguing sounds emanating from the Whirlygig tent. It was a case of love at first byte, and three subsequent sightings of the band, in 1997 and 2001 and this year, at WOMADelaide, Australia’s very own branch of the WOMAD franchise in Adelaide’s leafy Botanic Park, have only served to confirm them as one of the most exciting live acts I’ve seen in a lifetime of concert-going.
The Afro Celts’ synchromesh of Irish, African and Indian rhythms and electronic beats locked into hypnotic grooves has arguably set the benchmark for modern fusion. But unravelling the folds of their musical quilt is like trying to find the beginning of a knot. There are myriad elements and they all overlap. Those familiar with their template will know how modern doof dovetails with time-honoured Celtic tradition in the band’s bubbling cross-cultural cauldron. How Gaelic airs on lush keyboard beds morph subliminally into wicked West African rhythms. How Irish bodhran, Indian dhol and African talking drum harmoniously co-exist with programmed percussion, and kora, uilleann pipes, fiddle, whistle and other organic instrumentation are in symbiosis with synthesizer washes and ethereal sean nos singing. Each member of the Afro Celt Sound System plays a key role, and yet, like all great bands, the sum is magnificently greater than the various parts.
English guitarist/programmer Simon Emmerson, the Afro Celts’ instigator and studio mastermind, and Irish vocalist Iarla Ó’Lionáird, who has played an increasingly active role in the band’s development over the years, offer different reasons for the music’s coherence and the collective’s on-going popularity.
On line from his home in Kilkenny, Ó’Lionáird, whose voluble conversation belies his soft, seductive singing style, asserts: “What we’ve always tried to do is focus on performance and write material that holds together as a song or as a tune. You try things and you bring them to a certain level and then if they don’t graduate, if they don’t sparkle naturally, there’s no point proceeding with them. We always have far more tracks on any given album that don’t make the cut. There’s always some exploration.”
Speaking from his abode in the Dorset village of Broad Windsor in England’s west country, Emmerson is a tad more specific. “When we started, just looping a drum was a time intensive process. Making beats that way was something that was new and fresh and it was a kind of skill that I think the mainstream music press didn’t appreciate. Right from the word go, we were making our own loops and finding ways of creating new music out of bodhran and talking drum loops.”
Emmerson had experimented with the technique while producing Senegalese singer Baaba Maal’s breakthrough album Firin’ in Fouta a few years earlier. “I brought Donal Lunny over from Ireland to try some ideas, so that album very much predicated the Afro Celts. There are obvious intersections that I heard when I first went to Senegal in 1992 to work with Baaba Maal. You get a lot of triplets; you get a lot of rhythm patterns based around the lilting, bubbling rhythm that you get on the Irish drum, the bodhran and throughout Irish music. When we sat in the Real World studio in Wiltshire in ’95 to record our first album and people came in and played over the top, we knew we had a very good basis,” he says. And yet Emmerson had no real inkling that the session in question would lead to such success and longevity.
“If someone had told me that six years later we’d have sold a million and a half records and be headlining festivals all around the world, I just would have said: ‘This is impossible’,” Emmerson concedes. “We weren’t a band then; we were a project. How could it be logistically possible, let alone musically possible? My roots were very much in the alternative club scene. There was this amazing period in ’95 when you had bands like Transglobal Underground, Fundamental, Baka Beyond and the Afro Celts. We didn’t fit comfortably under the label world music, which had kind of been invented on our behalf by a group of marketing people to get a category that record shop owners could use. But there was this incredibly creative upsurge in global music and global culture, and we tapped into that. However, it was still a very underground thing; something that existed on the festival scene and the post acid house scene. I didn’t think it would go much further than maybe WOMADs.
Bringing the Whirlygig venue in was kind of a turning point for the festival because you got the parents turning up to see the established African acts, then you got their kids coming along as well ‘cos they wanted to go to the Whirlygig. It was the Irish contingent in the band — Iarla Ó’Lionáird, James McNally and Ronan Browne — that said to me: ‘This could be huge’. They’d seen music that started in the pubs of Ireland become international. James is very important in all of this. He said: ‘Look, we’ve got to tighten up, get our act together, get a stable line-up and we’ll go all the way’, and he was right!”
Ó’Lionáird says he had a feeling when they were in the studio recording Volume One: Sound Magic that something good was happening. “There was a kind of care, attention to detail, a richness to what the music content was compared to other things I’d been involved in. There was a quality to what we were putting down. It was all really heart music; it wasn’t head music. It was kind of magical. I wasn’t in awe of being in the studio — I’d been in studios before. It was more to do with the actual music. There were all these guys playing really exotic instruments. It was really fascinating. There was a kind of coherence, a lightness as well. It wasn’t turgid. Whatever preparation Martin [Russell] and Simon [Emmerson] had made, it was very inspiring to sing off and play off. But there was no real talk of us doing shows. We weren’t a band. There were no expectations. But when people started hearing the record, they started going ‘who are these guys?’. Then the Whirlygig happened and we did a WOMAD in Spain. Mind you, we hadn’t a clue what we were doing.”
Emmerson recalls the band’s live debut at WOMAD the same year with similar clarity, even though it was 15 years ago. “Martin Russell, who does our sound, still refers to the Whirlygig concert as one of the most chaotic gigs he’s ever done. We had all kinds of people on stage. It was quite bizarre, bonkers really. I also remember when James McNally did his bodhran solo there was just this clatter of djembes coming out of the audience ‘cos in those days everybody brought a djembe along. You were there in ’95. That was the inception of the band. We were born really on stage and our career has been intimately tied up with the history of WOMAD. When we came to Australia in ’97 for WOMADelaide we consolidated the idea, then we returned four years later.”
The first time the Afro Celts played WOMADelaide, Joe Bruce, the band’s inaugural keyboard player (whose father Jack was in the legendary rock trio Cream), was still alive. He died eight months later. Johnny Kalsi, a current member, wasn’t in the band, but he was there, playing with Fundamental. “It was unbelievably hot,” Emmerson recalls. “I was trying to DJ and the vinyl was sticking to the turntables. But it was extraordinary, a turning point in our career. I think that was when we realised that we could play these international stages and that we were making music that could travel the world and set festivals alight. I remember Joe when we were doing ‘Whirl-Y-Reel’ just kind of dancing around the stage with incredible abandon. When we came back in 2001, we were a bigger band. What I do remember about that year was that we were on stage and James McNally was monitoring the sound when something happened and he had this massive amount of feedback and it did his ears in, and he couldn’t do the second set. But it still went off.”
When they decided to make a comeback last year, after a three-year hiatus, naturally the English WOMAD was one of their first ports of call. “It was an amazing homecoming crowd — it was quite extraordinary,” says Emmerson. “There was so much love from that audience, but it wasn’t simply idolatry fan worship. The whole tent was full. At one point I looked out and there was this massive line of people conga-ing around the side. It was great; a fantastic moment for us, and further evidence that WOMADs are very important and special for us.”
When they reconvened after their lengthy lay-off, the Afro Celts spent three or four days rehearsing, which, in a dental allusion, Emmerson describes as being like root canal work. “It was just awful. We were sitting there just kind of learning the parts and there was no vibe with it. Then we walked on stage at the beginning of [the northern] summer at a rock festival. Van Morrison was playing the main stage and I heard him come on 20 minutes before us and play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and there was this huge roar from the crowd, and I thought, oh god there’s gonna be ten hippies and a dog for our gig. But we went out there, and it was completely dark, and a huge roar went up. We started playing and the audience, which must have been 30 or 40 per cent 20-year-olds who wouldn’t have seen the Afro Celts when we started, were really getting into it. It was great. We were back. It was like we’d never had the break.”
Ó’Lionáird endorses what the band’s leader says. “Every place we played just took off and people went mad. It was a great craic, and that’s the honest truth. Our music makes people jump, and it makes people happy. WOMAD was just amazing. We had some good gigs in Europe too. It was fabulous to come back.”
Their sets on the Australian tour in March, WOMADelaide included, were peppered with songs from their back catalogue, as featured on their double-CD comeback anthology Capture. “People have been turning up to gigs and saying that it all sounds totally different to the record,” Emmerson reports. “We’re doing mixes and medleys and changing bits and reinterpreting. It sounds fresh,” Ó’Lionáird also expresses his satisfaction with the selection on Capture. “Look, there’s lots of stuff that isn’t in there and everyone of us realise that. But it was more a question of trying to get the balance right. I think the guys [co-compilers James McNally and Martin Russell] did a great job.”
Neither Emmerson nor Ó’Lionáird were idle during the Afro Celts’ downtime. As the latter explains: “What happens when you’re in a band like the Afro Celts is that all the side projects that you’re trying to develop you can’t and it can get very frustrating.” Ó’Lionáird recorded another solo record for Real World during the band’s sabbatical and has spent the last couple of years doing new classical music.
Emmerson took advantage of the hiatus to explore his own roots as an English musician, “to look into the relationship between what we were doing in terms of post-dance music, post electronica, and working with trad English musicians like Martin and Eliza Carthy. That was something I always wanted to do, so I made the Imagined Village album and it became very successful, although it hasn’t travelled as well as the Afro Celts. With the Afro Celts, we built up an international following. The Imagined Village and the Afro Celts are completely different in the way we compose.”
While the first two Afro Celt albums were very much Emmerson’s concept, he says it has become a four-way writing process, and quite often five, six or seven ways. “For me, the key is to try and capture on record the energy of our live show, which we haven’t done. A lot of people have been coming to our live shows and almost not recognising the old material because it’s so much more dynamic and fresh,” says Emmerson, who plays a 10-string cittern through a pedal on stage, giving the instrument the sound of a keyboard.
There are many different strands in the Afro Celts’ sonic tapestry. One critic described their sound as a “global village gone wild”. At the risk of stating the obvious, Ó’Lionáird says: “It’s been interesting because we’ve been able to use our platform, if you like, to incorporate lots of different colours from all over the world. People typify us as having a relationship with African and Irish music and that’s true, of course, but we’ve had lots of other influences as well, from Spanish guitar to rock, to club, to Indian and Arabian music. It’s been interesting that we’ve been able to incorporate all these expressions fairly effortlessly in some ways.”
In the Afro Celts, Ó’Lionáird’s dulcet tones blend quite beautifully with Guinean kora player N’Faly Kouyate’s vocal strains. “It’s great being on stage with him. He’s got enormous charisma and there’s a kind of sanctity to his voice. He carries everything from his village, you know. He’s a griot and there’s a kind of magic quality to his voice. It’s a beautifully light, transparent delicate voice. I think I didn’t initially make the connection with Africa because I was largely known for singing very slow songs, so I was more drawn to the more meditative Asian singing. But the minute I encountered it I found it surprisingly easy to connect with. Africans are so musical; they can make music with so little. They keep everything on the surface very simple — a bit like Irish music — but between the notes there’s lots of stuff going on.”
Ó’Lionáird says Anglo-Indian dhol drummer Johnny Kalsi is equally integral to the band. “We couldn’t work without him either. He’s a brilliant musician. He’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever stood on stage with. He’s like a cat. No matter what happens to cats they always land on their feet, and Johnny’s like that on stage. He’s got this incredible traction. He knows exactly what’s going on. He’s eyeing you; he’s eyeing the audience. His relationship with his instrument is so subtle and yet it’s really powerful. I’ve never witnessed him having a bad gig.” The lead singer is similarly effusive in praise of his uilleann pipes-playing bandmate and compatriot Emer Mayock: “I wouldn’t go on the road without her. She’s a wonderful player and really deep person and a real artist. We also have a young drummer now — Ian Markin, a fabulous player. He plays a hybrid kit. And we still have Moussa Sissokho, who’s a great Senegalese-born talking drum player. The chemistry between him and N’Faly is amazing.”
The Afro Celts have kept company with some celebrated musicians outside of the core group on their albums over the years — Sinead O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant and Jah Wobble, to name but a few. “There’s always a hit list,” observes Ó’Lionáird, though he’s tight lipped about revealing future collaborators. A surprising amount of the band’s music pops up as backdrops to advertisements or as part of movie scores, in award-winning films such as Gangs of New York and Hotel Rwanda. “Loads of people have come to the Afro Celts through our soundtracks,” Simon Emmerson confirms. “It’s very cinematic music. When we sit down and write it’s often with filmic concepts. We’re working on new material at the moment.”
A glaring anomaly concerning the annual ARIA Awards — the Australian equivalent of the Grammy Awards — is that Joseph Tawadros, one of the country’s finest instrumentalists, has yet to win a gong. It’s not for want of trying or lack of the right product either. The young Egypt-born maestro of the Arabic oud has received no fewer than five nominations for Best World Music Album in the past seven years — for Storyteller (2004), Visions (2006), Epiphany (2007), Angel (2008) and The Prophet (2010) — without getting the nod.
This master musician had two strong strings to his bow last year, with a hot-off-the press new release nominated in the Best Jazz Album category. The Hour Of Separation and The Prophet are related, and yet very different. The latter comes from a verse in poet Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet, which inspired the earlier album. Two tracks from the album were renamed, revamped and re-recorded in an expanded setting on The Hour Of Separation — a wholly remarkable album, which is not only the artist’s most significant work to date but arguably one of the finest collaborative recordings ever made involving oud.
Recorded over two days four months ago in a New York City studio, The Hour Of Separation offers a musical dialog of the highest quality between Joseph Tawadros and his percussion-playing brother, James, and three bona fide greats of American jazz — guitarist John Abercrombie, bassman John Patitucci and veteran drummer Jack DeJohnette, who’s performed with leviathans such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. “Who ever would have thought that I would have an album out with those three guys,” he declares. “From the amount of times I have to pinch myself, I’m walking round with some big bruises,” he laughs.
Explaining the genesis of this unlikely liaison, the oud maestro reports: “I first met John Abercrombie in New York in October ‘09 when James and I were performing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. He invited us to the Birdland jazz club, where he was performing with his quartet.” They had discussed recording an album before, but originally it was going to be as a duo. “John Patitucci jumped on board pretty quickly and that was amazing. I had emailed Jack DeJohnette earlier about the project, but received no response until I was in New York, when I was honored to discover that he was interested and available. He came and recorded some tracks as a special guest. I kept thinking, that’s the drummer with Miles Davis! I always liked the album Bitches Brew, so to have him on board, playing my tunes, was beyond belief.”
Joseph and his bro stayed a few nights with Abercrombie leading up to the studio session. “He’s one of the nicest and most laid back musicians I’ve met. We rehearsed quite extensively, which made me learn more about the man’s genius. There are improvisers who inspire and there are improvisers that try and compete. John is the first example,” he says admiringly.
John Patitucci, he adds, “is one of those high calibre musicians who can read music at lightning speed, so when he came into the rehearsals he really formed a rock solid partnership with James.” A virtuoso on req (a tiny Egyptian tambourine), the younger Tawadros also struck up an immediate rapport with Jack DeJohnette, reports Joseph. “There’s a great duet between the two called ‘Conversation in Time’ … Jack came out of the isolated studio booth high five-ing James … the sound engineer doing the recording declared: ‘There he is 21 years of age and holding his own with Jack DeJohnette!”
Elsewhere on the album, on ‘Give or Take’, there’s a duet between Patitucci’s bass and Tawadros’s oud. “I actually used the lowest registers of each instrument and surprisingly the same percussive sound of the strings hitting the fingerboard occurred,” Joseph reveals. “I should confess that I did use a tuning in the oud’s lower register so I could match it, but on other tracks the bass is also very complementary to the oud — it fills in the real low register whereas the oud kind of covers a cello/viola range. The guitar has the upper. Add percussion to the mix and you have a very full sound.”
Tracks such as ‘Forbidden Fruit’, ‘Fly Away’ and particularly ‘Nostalgia’ feature some exquisitely empathetic exchanges between Joseph’s oud and Abercrombie’s electric guitar. “We had a good understanding,” Tawadros happily concedes. “We used our ears, we looked at each other, we learned about each other’s playing and we inspired each other, and that’s why you can’t tell who’s leading who. There’s a magical balance which you really can’t analyze.”
Joseph composed the bulk of the pieces on The Hour Of Separation with the American luminaries specifically in mind. “I think that’s where all successful collaborations lie,” he says. “It’s about listening a lot to the players, and learning about their strengths, what makes them who they are — their sound, tone, technique, dynamics etc — and working on that. If you compose music around individual player’s strengths, then the playing will be strong; hence the album and collaboration will be strong.
After rehearsals, I listened to the recordings a lot and worked through forms and structures in my head and changed previous ideas — who would solo where and other arrangement ideas. It’s important to keep the music alive in your head until you record it and grow it further before the recording. In saying that, there were things that changed in the studio, and some unintentionally.
Sometimes there’s a magical musical force that appears between improvisers, where things just happen for the best. Certain times in the record there were unplanned jam sessions in pieces and form changes which were not talked about but felt once the that red light was on. That’s the beauty of having musicians like that — it’s the buzz and the understanding that one gets from mutual respect and admiration.
There were certain ideas we wanted to realize in each track. As a composer you envisage how someone will play your music and how they will improvise on the material. But you have to direct, you have to give the idea, and based on what you tell them each musician will interpret what you say in their own way. I never direct James any more because he always surprises me. For a guy so young, his choices are excellent. He impressed the other musicians, the sound engineer and all involved.”
Joseph swears he didn’t have any objective in mind with The Hour of Separation other than to enjoy himself and create music that was seamless. “The fact that I got to be in the company of those great musicians, share a laugh with them and have them perform my music was more than enough. Getting to listen to John Abercrombie and John Patitucci three metres away was a privilege. They are serious jazz players, using jazz elements, but I wouldn’t classify the album as jazz. In fact, I wouldn’t classify it as anything. It’s music and I hope it appeals to people in certain ways. I’m hoping people can relate to the emotional aspect of separation but also to the element of celebration and growth. It’s about avoiding clichés and creating an understanding about the music that is then transformed naturally to the listener.”
Humor, Tawadros maintains, was a salient aspect of the symbiosis. “I like to have a laugh. Humor is a brilliant icebreaker and we had many great laughs in the studio. It’s about creating a friendship. Because there is a relaxed atmosphere, people work at their best. Fortunately, my jests were taken in good spirit. For example, when James and I started rehearsals with John Abercrombie, I said to him: ‘You know Abou – Cromb in Arabic means ‘Father of Cabbage’.’ He loved that. We often called him ‘Vator von Cabbage’ or ‘Vator von Gemuse’ — ‘Father of Vegetables’ in German — and he often signs off his emails like that. I remember hearing a quote, which I apply in concerts and life: ‘Take the music seriously and not yourself’. It’s a great way to look at life and music.”
Continuing in a philosophical vein, Tawadros says he is blessed to have oud as his instrument and to have been reared in Australia, where he has lived for 24 of his 26 years. “Cultures are at our fingertips here. I am very proud of my Egyptian heritage, but I’m also inspired by Australia, its environment and its people. If I were living in Egypt, I’m sure my oud playing would have been different. I was able to study at the University of NSW and learn about Western elements and learn the western music lingo, and for that I’m grateful.”
“The magic of the oud is in its Arabic voice,” Joseph emphasizes. “Whichever context you put it in, it takes you to the Middle East. It’s a symbol of the Middle East and there’s a reason why. It has a mystical and soulful sound and that’s what the West is attracted to.” So what distinguishes his sound? “My compositions are quite different,” he responds, “and I like utilizing the whole oud. I have a seven-course oud — normal ouds have six — so I have a wider lower range. In Egypt, the legendary oud players live in the same area but sound totally different. They are only bound by the maqam system — a modal system of scales. Technique, articulation and tone are what each player brings to the table. There is also a high degree of improvisation and, of course, this does not require notation.
There was never a notation system in Egypt. It’s an aurally learned tradition. With more listening, more experiences, more performances, you change a lot from year to year. I think it’s also important for an emotion change as well. I’m a strong believer of the connection between music and emotion. For instance, heart break. I think this is one of the greatest things to ever happen to a musician. As hard as it is, I welcome it. It changes your playing, inspires you and allows you to grow.”
For many Australians, Joseph Tawadros is the personification of oud. “I do feel the oud is me,” he admits. “It is my truth. I probably express more than people know through my melodies and that’s the beauty of music — it can be secretive to the composer but mean something else to another.”
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.
Awareness in Australia of vintage Ethiopian soul music (aka Ethiojazz) has increased exponentially in recent years. French producer Francis Falceto put the idiom on the world map with his prolific Ethiopiques series, shining a light on classic tracks recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tours by two legends of that golden era, singer Mahmoud Ahméd and saxophonist Mulatu Astatqué, last year helped raise the bar Down Under. Melbourne-based collectives like Afro Habesha Band and Black Jesus Experience have also played a part with their fusion excursions, but a recently released Ethiopian soul album and project out of Sydney, both bearing the moniker Dereb The Ambassador, promises to raise the profile even higher.
Actually, it was the titular singer who introduced Ethiopian music to the local scene, via his experimental 2007 duo album with Nicky Bomba, Drums and Lions. John Butler’s drummer was the conduit that led Dereb Desalegn, who arrived from Ethiopia in 1998, to hook up with Tony Buchen and create Dereb The Ambassador. The Sydney producer/player was introduced to Dereb a couple of years ago while working on Bomba’s solo album. “Nicky played me some of his stuff and it just blew me away,” Buchen relates. “I said to Dereb right there and then, sitting in this beautiful old vintage studio, do you want to make a record?”
What the sound engineer had in mind was a conceptual album that evoked the Ethiopian records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Dereb could hardly believe his good fortune. “It took me over ten years to find someone like Tony Buchen. He was absolutely passionate about early Ethiopian pop music.” What’s more, Buchen had the technical know-how to recreate the sound required for Dereb The Ambassador, one of the last recordings to be made at Sydney’s Electric Avenue studio, where Buchen had worked for five years, specialising in vintage soul. “Every mic I used, every piece of pre-amp, every piece of gear was all pre-1970s, so that it would be pure from beginning to end. Dereb wasn’t quite aware how authentic I could make it sound. It was incredible watching him react to the music because it was like going back in time for him literally.” As 30-something Dereb admits: “It wasn’t something I ever personally experienced … the music I grew up with was more ‘80s, so to me when I heard the ’60s and ‘70s music I was just overwhelmed by the sound of it and how they recorded it.”
The 11-track set that comprises Dereb The Ambassador, arrived at by consensus and after a month’s deliberation by Dereb and his producer, includes compositions that featured on the aforementioned Ethiopiques compilations, including songs by Alamayehu Eshete, Mulatu Astatqué and Dereb’s personal hero, Tilahun Gesese. Now the producer of that series wants to use one of Dereb’s tracks on an upcoming Ethiopiques release. “Francis believes the most interesting Ethiopian music happening now is actually being made in the diaspora because the stuff that’s happening in Addis Ababa is all very electronic,” says Buchen. Dereb recently recorded a track for Colombia-based UK studio whiz Will Holland, the man behind the Qantic moniker, and US producer/DJ Cut Chemist wants to follow suit. “Everyone who’s heard the record over there has just gone nuts for it,” Buchen reports.
The record’s producer refers to the hybrid style they’ve come up with as “noir soul”. He expands: “The album’s got this dark, heart of Africa sound. Ethiopian music has a pentatonic thing around it but it has got its own scale really. All the musicians on the record, myself included, pretty much did it by ear. Once you get the series of notes, it’s more about the articulation, especially with the horns. It took a long time to get the exact type of sound. It’s dark and it’s dirty. It’s gotta be growly, but not in a 1980s’ saxophone solo way. It’s really about controlled looseness. If you listen to those classic Ethiopian recordings, they didn’t care about intonation — it was much more about the expression. It’s distorted and warm and that’s an essential part for me.”
The band is a combination of people who have worked with Dereb before and players handpicked by Buchen. The brass section, led by jazz saxophonists Peter Farrar and Matt Ottignon, was recorded live, usually in unison and mixed in mono. The players rehearsed for a couple of days and then spent two days in the studio. Buchen’s Farfisa organ, in tandem with Danny Atlaw’s keyboards, helped produce the swirling rhythm that’s a hallmark of Ethiopian music. But Dereb’s singing, modelled on the aforementioned legend Tilahun Gesese, is the album’s crowning glory. “Dereb has such a unique, sweet voice,” observes Buchen. “He started singing when he was very young and got a name for himself as a troubadour playing on the streets.” Dereb admits to being “quite big” in Ethiopia, where he has had half-a-dozen hits and released two albums over the past decade, though with a more ‘80s-orientated and commercial sound. The music he was brought up with in rural northern Ethiopia, in a place called Gonde, he says, was “much more traditional and organic”.
A couple of songs on Dereb The Ambassador feature the singer on masenqo. Buchen has recorded additional tracks with Dereb accompanying himself on the ancient one-stringed spike fiddle that he first learned as a 10-year-old from his musician father and an uncle, and he hopes to release them as an EP down the track. Dereb first performed publicly with his family when he was a tot. By the time he was 16 he was drawing crowds in the bars of Addis Ababa and around Ethiopia, as both a solo artist and with other Ethiopian musicians.
Ironically, Dereb missed seeing his illustrious compatriot Mahmoud Ahméd perform at WOMADelaide 2010 (also his sister in the band Dub Colossus) because he was playing at the Port Fairy Folk Festival on the same weekend. Dereb’s performance at the Adelaide festival earlier this year was among the best of the home-based contingent. With Ethiopian music de rigueur, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world wises up to his undoubted talent.
They’ve been in existence for little more than a couple of years and yet The Barons of Tang have already cut a swathe through the Australian festival circuit, leaving a trail of deconstructed dance floors in their wake, from Alice Springs to Woodford. No band in the land has made a greater impact in a shorter space of time than the manic Melbourne purveyors of self proclaimed “gypsy death core”.
The Barons’ brand of musical mayhem is as magnificent in its madness as it is exhilaratingly original. Frank Zappa meets Fanfare Ciorcarlia with echoes of previous Australian genre benders the Blue Grassy Knoll and Bachelors From Prague, they make music that would not be out of place on a Terry Gilliam soundtrack. Tango, Russian folk, zydeco and jazz blend with East European Romany and French manouche influences, rockabilly rhythms and punk attitude in the band’s musical melting pot.
Bass player and de facto manager Julian Cue is ambivalent about the band’s success. “We never thought this wacky style would be so well received, but having an array of instruments and players putting out high-energy dance music has been a winner on the festival scene. Because we don’t really play in any one style, we’ve had the opportunity to play at circus, arts, folk, rock, world, blues, jazz and gypsy festivals … and always seem to sit somewhere on the outside of what these audiences expect.”
Given their stagecraft, it’s no surprise to discover that The Barons formed during rehearsals for a theatre show. They acquired their catchy moniker while performing in the play. The name alludes to an American powdered fruit drink. Cue explains: “At the time, we were all broke, so we basically lived off anything we could get out of the supermarket dumpsters and we found all these boxes of Tang. We put the contents on the bar we were running and by the end of the first night people were snorting lines of it for bets. It was hilarious and we became ‘the Barons of Tang’!”
When they started writing music, they used traditional feels but messed with them until “they sounded demented”. The band’s compositions are getting better all the time. “We’ve only just started exploring the limits of some of our instruments such as the bass clarinet, or the much feared contra-bass clarinet, an instrument so low in register that it can’t be heard, and in many cases causes the player and/or audience to lose consciousness!” They are also working on expanding their vocal output. “We plan to have a good deal more hootin’ and hollerin’ real soon,” promises Cue. “We’ve found the vocal pieces tend to be audience favourites.”
The most exotic musical flower in the garden of Tang is Carlos, their accordion player, who has Colombian heritage. “You can hear his influence in a lot of our music,” observes Cue. “The rest are generally mongrels of some vague European descent. Musically, however, we have a rich background and draw from a large range of influences,” says the spokesperson, a self-confessed rocker whose slap double bass technique is a legacy of playing in punk and psychobilly bands.
Percussionist Annie has played a lot of roots, folk and punk. Jules, the guitarist, has developed a love affair with all things gypsy-jazz over the past few years, but before that studied classical guitar while playing thrash metal.
The band’s drummer, Sean, had previously played experimental music, punk and metal. Clarinetist Aviva studied classical music, with a particular interest in contemporary and avant-garde composition, and also played a lot of Klezmer, Balkan and Turkish music.
Saxophonist and trombonist Anna played free jazz through uni but had almost given up a career in music until the band found her busking, playing sax and juggling simultaneously. “We thought ‘we want you!’” Cue declares.
The Barons display boundless energy on stage, which is not conclusively captured in either of their EPs, their latest release Knots & Tangles or its self-titled predecessor. “We approached recording as a completely different art form to the live show. For us it was an opportunity to really hone and perfect our arrangements, which inevitably produces a very different energy. It’s true that we do draw a lot of energy from our audiences in our live shows, especially when they are rollicking about in a mad frenzy, but it’s important to us to also enjoy each tune as a focused, dynamic and sonically detailed composition.
The erratic nature of our arrangements comes directly from all members having input in the writing process. There’s space within solo sections to improvise, but generally we arrange very specifically … the combination of influences, ideas and personalities get to shine through varying sections and instrumentation. It can be intense writing this way, but it certainly reflects our strong group dynamics. We all bring compositional ideas to the band, which can occasionally cause moments of incredible frustration, hilarity and creative genius in rehearsals.”
Cue and his colleagues simply haven’t stopped touring long enough to piece together and record an album yet, though it’s a goal they’re working towards. While the logistics of touring with a 7-piece, especially one with so many instruments, causes problems they won’t consider paring back.
The Barons’ love of gypsy music is reflected in support spots behind East European luminaries such as Fanfare Ciocarlia, Paprika Balkanicus and Besh o droM and their US heroes Gogol Bordello. “It’s just great music — wonderful dance rhythms, virtuosic soloing, and it uses awesome, otherwise obscure instruments. As well as that, there are plenty of various styles within European folk music, plenty of appeal to keep us inspired for years. It can be simple or extremely complex, and it’s honest. It’s dirt music, music for the underdog.”
The band is currently touring North America with a hot Klezmer punk band called Di Nigunim.. “We made the US tour come about with 4,578 emails … we’re playing anywhere that will let us in the door — barns, houses, pubs, festivals etc,” says Julian Cue.
Acclaimed North Quensland band Kamerunga will be taking its innovative blend of Aussie folk, funk, reggae and world music overseas for the first time next month.
Having performed at just about every festival of note Down Under over the past couple of years, including the gargantuan Byron Bay Bluesfest, the Cairns-based sextet is now preparing to make its international debut.
Kamerunga will represent Australia at Borneo’s Rainforest World Music Festival, one of most prestigious events of its type in south east Asia.
“It’s a great honour to fly the flag there,” commented a band spokesperson. “Hopefully, the festival will be a conduit to other gigs on the lucrative Asian market.”
“The Aussie acts that have performed at Kuching in the past played African or South American inspired music, whereas our music draws to a degree on Australian colonial heritage, albeit with a modern twist.”
The 2011 Rainforest World Music Festival, to be held on weekend July 8-10, is a veritable united nations, with bands from no fewer than 21 different countries on the bill.
Kamerunga will be lining up alongside such well performed acts as Poland’s Warsaw Village Band, Finland’s Frigg, Tunisia/Algeria’s Duoud and groups representing several other European and African nations, as well as bands from North and Latin America, India, the Middle East and Asia.
Kamerunga recently jetted westwards from its Cairns base for four shows at the Fairbridge Festival of Folk and World Music, the biggest roots music event in Western Australia, where British celebrities Emma Thompson and Ben Elton were among a packed opening audience for the band’s performance at the Riverside Stage.
Since its debut CD, The Push, garnered an ARIA nomination (the Aussie equivalent of a Grammy), the band has attracted attention far and wide. It is now working on songs for a new studio album.
Harry Angus, singer/trumpeter with one of Australia’s most popular world music-oriented bands, the Cat Empire, is among those who have extolled the band’s virtues.
Recommending Kamerunga’s first album to its readers, influential UK magazine fRoots commented that the band’s “clever and tasteful concoctions” and ethnic elements “breathe peacefully within the cosmopolitan jungle”.
Closer to their home, Bob Elliston, reviewing last year’s Tablelands Folk Festival in the Brisbane Folk Rag, opined: “I think Kamerunga is one of the best bands currently in Australia.”
Kamerunga’s members include drummer Nigel Pegrum, who was a member of UK folk-rock pioneers Steeleye Span for nearly 20 years.
When it comes to music festivals, Adelaide has certainly stolen a march over the rest of Australia. The City of Churches added another string to its already substantial bow in 2007 when it launched the Adelaide International Guitar Festival (AIGF).
While the inaugural event might not have been a huge commercial hit, it certainly was an artistic success, if only for introducing Jeff Lang to Mamadou Diabaté, which led to the formation of Djan Djan. The slide guitar whiz will return for the first biennial festival in late November (25th-28th) for a show with Djan Djan bandmate Bobby Singh and young sitar player Josh Bennett, and a collaboration with Wolfgang Muthspiel, Shane O’Mara, Doug de Vries, Anthony Garcia, Leonard Grigoryan and AIGF’s debut Artistic Director, Slava Grigoryan. But Lang is just one of an eclectic range of top-notch stringbenders selected by Grigoryan, who is a guitar maestro in his own right. Continue reading Adelaide International Guitar Festival adds another string to its bow→
Afrobeat, the ebullient amalgam of juju, jazz, soul and socio-political commentary created by Fela Kuti back in the 1970s, has enjoyed something of a renaissance worldwide over the past decade. Bands led by Fela’s sons (Femi and Seun), his drummer and right-hand-man (Tony Allen), and New York acolytes (Antibalas) have led the revival. Lately an exciting Australian act has joined the charge, with the emergence in Melbourne over the past 18 months of the country’s first bona fide afrobeat ensemble.
Ravaged by years of civil war, an oppressive military regime and on-going conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopia’s economy remains poverty-stricken, despite recent increases in GDP. In musical terms, however, it is rich beyond measure … as Australia discovered at WOMADelaide 2010. Thanks to an inspired piece of programming, one of Ethiopia’s national treasures, the charismatic veteran singer Mahmoud Ahmed, performed at WOMAD’s southern hemisphere flagship festival in Adelaide, along with the cream of the country’s up-and-coming talent in the band Dub Colossus.
In many ways, the landlocked state once known as Abyssinia is the sleeping giant of African music — the continent’s eastern counterpart to the West African powerhouses of Mali and Senegal. Ethiopia’s music reflects its amazingly diverse mix of ethnicities and languages, its long history and its status as one of only two African countries not to have been colonized by European powers. Even though it employs a unique modal system (pentatonic with characteristically long intervals between some notes), Ethiopian music is totally accessible to western audiences.
Through the filter of their own traditions, Ethiopian musicians of the ‘60s and ‘70s developed an idiosyncratic brand of pop — a mixture of military brass band music, jazz, funk and soul. The music’s comparative lack of exposure has led to the suggestion that it’s the missing link in the pan-African melting pot.
Few non-natives know more about Ethiopian music or indeed appreciate the country’s musicians more than Frenchman Francis Falceto, who’s bringing a band to Adelaide led by the legendary singer Mahmoud Ahmed . The Paris-based journalist and music producer is responsible for the critically acclaimed Ethiopiques compilation series that has done more than anything else to put the music of Africa’s second most populous state on the world map, at least in Europe. Ethiopiques, which features primarily singers and musicians from the golden era of Ethiopian music, was launched on the Buda Musique label in 1998. In December 2009, Falceto issued Volumes 24 & 25 of the series and he’s preparing another dozen more for release over the next year or two.
When I talked to Falceto in mid-December, he had only recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia. He returned in January, and was back there again after WOMADelaide to supervise a festival he helps stage in the capital, Addis Ababa.
he voluble Frenchman remembers with some clarity when his affair with Ethiopian music began — and, yes, it was love at first sight. “It was April, 1984. I was at a party with a promoter friend of mine. Another friend put on an LP of Mahmoud Ahmed , which later became Ethiopiques Volume 7. We were amazed. We had no idea about this music, and we were supposed to know a bit about music in general. We sent copies of this LP to some journalist friends and music reviewers and by the following day all had replied, asking: ‘What’s that, where did you get it from?’, so we understood it was good music, everybody agreed about this, though it was unknown music.”
A year later, Falceto made the first of many trips to Addis Ababa. “I wanted to invite Mahmoudto come and perform in Europe. I was totally ignorant about Ethiopia — about its history, its music, its culture, its language, and I went in the middle of a military dictatorship. It was hell to do anything, so it failed.” He visited Ethiopia thrice more over the next few years, without any success. In the meantime, though, he bought as many vinyl albums and cassettes as he could find in the shops of Addis Ababa. “I started to understand a little about this music. It was a bit like a puzzle for me to understand, where this music had come from, what was its influences, how it had developed. It took three or four years to study seriously.”
When he started to release compilations of the music he had collected, Falceto was stunned by the size and the passion of the response from world music buffs. “It was the greatest surprise to me. I didn’t intend to publish as many CDs as I have. I initially planned to release ten or twelve. I never thought we would get such feedback from the general audience worldwide. I never thought it would get to this point … seriously. I’ve been working in music for more than thirty years now. I could never have anticipated the success of Ethiopiques, nor the feedback from musicians from all over the world.”
Now the live show is eliciting a similarly positive reaction. Mahmoud Ahmed’s UK debut at WOMAD’s flagship festival five years ago is still talked about in English world music circles. Not that the crowd’s response came as any surprise to Francis Falceto. “For me, Mahmoud’s voice is one of the most beautiful in all of Africa, together with Salif Keita. He’s very classical in his singing and playing. On stage, he’s an incredible entertainer, even though he’s over sixty now and he doesn’t jump as high as he used to. He feels alive when he’s on stage. I’ve never seen a bad concert of Mahmoud’s in my life. He wants people to sing and dance with him. He wants to have audiences jumping and dancing, happy. I have never seen an artist or entertainer so professional in the sense that he is there to give. He’s enjoying travelling the world and playing big festivals too much. His life has changed. Last summer he got a BBC Award. It’s an achievement he never dreamed about. He can’t believe so many articles are written about him.”
Although Ahmed has been based in the United States of America for the past two years, he has lived in Ethiopia for the vast majority of his life. “There is an important Ethiopian diaspora in America, so he plays extensively, essentially for them,” says Falceto. “When he first toured there in ’84, it was the first time a modern Ethiopian band was exposed to a foreign country. He has been a superstar in Ethiopia since the beginning of the ‘sixties. Nowadays people, even in the deepest countryside, have a transistor radio, so every Ethiopian knows about Mahmoud. The leading god of Ethiopian music used to be Tlahoun Gessesse, but he passed away last year, so Mahmoud’s really the last survivor of a golden age. He and Gessesse played together in the Imperial Bodyguard Band [a renowned nursery for Ethiopian musicians in the ‘sixties].”
While the 9-piece band that backs Mahmoud Ahmed in live performance these days is French, Falceto insists it is “the best Ethiopian band today”. Qualifying that paradoxical statement, he says: “The band has played in Addis Ababa and the Ethiopians went crazy about them. They have been performing together for a number of years — they’re incredible. This band used to send me demos. One day they had an opportunity to play a big summer festival in France and they asked whether Mahmoud would like to join them, and Mahmoud said yes. It was an amazing experience. Many musicians from all over the world, from east to west, from Japan to Switzerland, are playing in their own style Ethiopian music covers … I never anticipated such a phenomenon. If you look at Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour and many of the other African stars they play very often with foreigners.”
When Western interest in African music ignited in the ’80s, making global stars of singers like Keita and N’Dour, Ethiopia’s borders were sealed as the country suffered under a dictatorship. The vibrant Ethiopian music scene of the ‘60s and ’70s, the so-called golden age, had vanished. That’s one of the reasons why the music of Ethiopia has only recently caught the world’s attention. Falceto offers another explanation. “All of the colonizing countries acted as a kind of loudspeaker, in London, Paris and Lisbon for African music, but Ethiopia had never been colonized, which is very important even when it comes to understanding the music of this country. It is unique because these people were closed to the world for so long. Ethiopia has 3000 years of existence. They were orthodox Christians before France, before the British.”
Until recent years, Ethiopia had greater exposure to American rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll than pan-African music. “I remember during my first trips in the late ‘80s, you would never hear African music on Ethiopian radio,” reports Falceto. “Only recently have they had access to this music. They were so deprived of everything during the 18 years of the revolutionary regime that they listen to everything they can, good or bad. Before the dictatorship, they were exposed to music from abroad and it was very influential to Ethiopian musicians. There was a U.S. military base in Asmara, which is nowadays the capital of Eritrea, and the base had its own radio station.”
Eminent British pop and rock musicians, such as Elvis Costello, Brian Eno and Robert Plant, have praised the Ethiopiques project. Costello has described Mahmoud Ahmed and his contemporaries as “the Ethiopian R&B counterparts to James Brown, Elvis Presley and Jackie Wilson” and “bluesmen with the power and wildness of Bukka White or Son House”.
“I like very much the fact that they are part of the fan club,” says Francis Falceto. “When you consider that people like them and Americans such as Patti Smith, Marc Ribot, Tom Waits and the Kronos Quartet are also part of that, it’s very meaningful. What I like is that it’s not middle-of-the-road pop singers. All these artists are something special, more creative. I don’t really come from a world music background. I’m just a music lover who’s into many different things, so I appreciate that people like these are part of the fan club.”
Another aspect of Ethiopian music, a more contemporary take, was exhibited at WOMADelaide 2010. Even so, that’s not to say that Dub Colossus don’t doff their collective cap to Mahmoud Ahmed, Ethiopiques and Francis Falceto.
Nick Page, the British producer and musician who directs the band, freely acknowledges the debt that he owes to all of the above. “I have nothing but admiration for what Francis did with the Ethiopiques series,” says the founder member of some of the UK’s most popular cross-cultural fusion bands, including Transglobal Underground, Temple of Sound and Fun-Da-Mental. “I wasn’t trying to compete with that. I was actually hoping to put the Dub Colossus album out with him, and while that didn’t happen we’re still good friends. I think he’s probably brought Ethiopia to the world’s attention more than we have.”
Page, who plays guitar in the band, points out that one of the Ethiopian musicians in Dub Colossus, saxophonist Feleke Hailu, has a strong connection with Mahmoud Ahmed — “Feleke’s father was Mahmoud’s arranger and trumpeter for most of his life.” Francis Falceto confirms that Hailu’s father was an important arranger in the Imperial Bodyguard Band and adds that most of the musicians in Dub Colossus> have performed with Mahmoud. “Between both bands, the audience at WOMADelaide got a very good impression of Ethiopian music. From Mahmoud they got the band of the swinging ‘sixties, the golden age of Ethiopian music, and through Dub Colossus they had a blend of what Ethiopian music may become. I think electronica may be the future of Ethiopian music and Nick is doing something very important, not only to promote his own music but also Ethiopian music too. I want to make a compilation soon of Ethiopian music of today, and he has agreed already to give me one track.”
Five of the dozen players who were on stage with Dub Colossus in Adelaide were Ethiopians. Sintayehu ‘Mimi’ Zenebe is a great singer, who’s known as the Edith Piaf of Ethiopian song. Tsedenia Gebremarkos is a well-known and respected performer who won the best female singer in East Africa award in 2004. They were joined by Teremage Woretaw who, with his plaintive voice and one-string fiddle [messenqo], is a youthful carrier of the ancient Azmari tradition. Feleke Hailu’s a brilliant saxophonist. Samuel Yirga is an extraordinary pianist, a young prodigy of classical and ethiojazz. The bass player was Onny from Asian Dub Foundation, or ‘Dr Bass’ as he’s known, and the drummer was Nick Van Gelder, who once played with Jamiroquai.
On Dub Colossus’s well-received debut album, In a Town Called Addis, which was recorded in a makeshift studio in downtown Addis Ababa, the loquacious Page, who started his playing career in UK reggae band Steel Pulse, applied dub and electronica to Ethiojazz, Azmari and other traditional styles of Ethiopian music. “It wasn’t a premeditated, bolted together world music project,” he stresses. “It evolved through happy accidents, and that’s the best way really. I’d like to say that I’m really intelligent and smart and pre-planned it, but I’m afraid that’s just not true because when you meet people and you go out and work with them all your preconceptions and motives, good though they felt at the time, go out of the window.
You have to actually start with what’s there and what’s working. You can’t impose the form you want on the people you work with, unless you’re a genius. You’ve got to let what they have to offer show itself to you and to them and then cut and paste in the right context. That’s a very different approach from what some people take. I don’t believe in bolting stuff together just for the sake of it; I never have done. I like things that work that no one had ever assumed would work. I like things to happen because they need to happen and want to happen. You can only push it so far.”
Despite receiving plaudits from all over the place, Ethiopian music is still relatively under-exposed on the world scene. Nick Page says there a lot of reasons why it hasn’t had the focus it merits. “Don’t forget, Ethiopian music received a big kicking when the military regime came in and Ethiopian society is really still coming back to a state of normality. A lot of the musicians left and the music scene was destroyed from 1974. By 1976 it was pretty much gone and it carried on like that ‘til about 1991. So, the development was stunted. It had this really vibrant, eclectic world-aware scene. It was borrowing and assimilating everything, and then it shut down for 18 years and a lot of people left. There aren’t many modern Ethiopian artists you could name that have cross appeal. I mean there’s Gigi [Ejigayehu Shibabaw] and there’s Aster Aweke, and there’s Teddy Afro. Nobody knows Teddy Afro here in the UK. His real name’s Tewodros Kassahun. He’s a big star in Ethiopia. He just got imprisoned for something political. Mahmoud Ahmed is the ambassador really at this point for Ethiopian music, along with Aster Aweke.”
Banished to back porches and parlours, ‘B’ grade Hawaiian flicks, comedy shows and toy shops for decades, the humble ukulele has become hip again. More than a century after its golden era, the “jumping flea” is enjoying a Second Coming around the planet, and Australia is among the countries bitten by the bug.
In one of the most intriguing music phenomena of recent years, the long derided tiny four-string instrument, formerly associated with novelty/music hall acts like Tiny Tim and George Formby, now boasts its own equivalent of guitar gods. Stunning virtuosos such as Canadian James Hill and Hawaiian Daniel Ho, who toured Australia in July. Festivals dedicated to ukuleles are mushrooming, uke clubs and weekly jam sessions are flourishing and sales of the instrument are going through the roof. In Britain, there’s reportedly a nationwide shortage, while American luthiers are apparently struggling to match demand. In primary schools, the uke is even superseding the time-honoured recorder as kiddies’ starting instrument of choice.
Late 19th century Hawaiians were the first to succumb to the ukulele’s charms. The instrument arrived in the North Pacific islands via sugarcane workers from the Portuguese island of Madeira. Ukes quickly captivated the Hawaiian royal court, and within a decade were embedded in local culture. Its popularity spread to the American mainland.
From the 1920s to the early 1950s, it was the most popular instrument in U.S. homes and featured in countless films and Broadway musicals. Then, with the rise of electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll, it vanished into virtual obscurity, consigned to toy baskets … until American music historian Jim Beloff’s popular series of uke songbooks and Hawaiian Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow helped kickstart a revival in the mid-1990s that is still gathering momentum. The resurgence, appropriately, happened in Hawaii, before winding its way to Japan and then the rest of the world.
Now ukuleles are wielded by punks in preference to electric guitars, provide a backdrop to pop singles, and are played by serious classical, jazz, folk and other roots musicians at myriad ukulele festivals, staged from New York to Tokyo. In the UK, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain hit the charts with covers of Sex Pistols and Nirvana songs.
Jake Shimabukuro’s You Tube clip of the Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ has scored in excess of five million hits (coincidentally, the song’s creator, George Harrison, was a self-confessed uke-o-holic, who allegedly parted with thousands of pounds for one of George Formby’s instruments). Shimabukuro slew all who saw him on his Australian debut at the Byron Bay Bluesfest a couple of years ago. James Hill, who has taken over the Hawaiian’s mantle as the go-to “uke man”, and Shimabukuro’s compatriot Daniel Ho wowed concertgoers at the inaugural Cairns Ukulele Festival in July. Both acknowledge the instrument’s spectacular resurgence in popularity and its broad community appeal.
“The recent surge is partly due to challenging economic times,” offers multi Grammy Award winner Ho by way of an explanation. “The ukulele is a happy and inexpensive instrument that brings joy to players and audiences.” As he observes: “It’s hard to listen to a ukulele and be sad … it is also one of the easiest instruments to learn, and is one of the most portable.” Hill concurs: “It’s a social instrument by nature and it’s contagious by nature, too. If you don’t enjoy making friends, sitting around and strumming with others, and if you don’t like laughter, camaraderie and good vibes then you should avoid ukulele like the plague,” he laughs. The lanky Canadian, who has been described as the “Paganini of ukulele”, also believes that people are getting tired of playing a passive role in the music industry. “We’ve been consuming for so long. The ukulele gives people a chance to rediscover the joy of music self-made. It’s a delightfully lo-fi counterpoint to all this high-tech gadgetry that promises to make life better but really just clutters it up.”
Musicologist, academic and long-time ukulele devotee Dr Karl Neuenfeldt, of Central Queensland University, stresses that it’s important to remember that the instrument is a point of contact and commonality for legions of “hummers and strummers” as well as a showcase for virtuosos like Hill and Ho. “For amateur performance, most people can learn a C, F and G chord on a ukulele and thus happily strum along and entertain at least themselves with the numerous songs in the ukulele repertoire, such as Pearly Shells. In some ways it’s the instrument with which one can do the least damage musically, but one whose very simplicity encourages a more engaged and less mediated engagement with music and music-making. Put in even more simple terms, uke makes people smile and that is surely a great antidote for the sonic hustle and bustle of modern life.”
Daniel Ho raves about the bonhomie he encountered on his previous visit to Australia, in 2005, when he performed at Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island Festival and conducted workshops in Sydney and Melbourne. “One of the happiest gatherings I can recall was a ukulele club meeting in Melbourne led by Rose Ertle. Thirty of us were playing and singing ‘Dancing Queen’.”
James Hill, whose family is from New Zealand, made his first trip to Australia, exclusively to headline the Cairns Ukulele Festival on the first weekend in July. While they nominate the Ukulele Picnic in Japan and the Portland Ukulele Festival in Oregon as the premier events of their type in the world at present — notwithstanding the Ukulele World Congress in Indiana, Canada’s International Ukulele Ceilidh, Tokyo’s Ukulele Superjam, the New York and London Ukulele Festivals and Waikiki’s long-running Ukulele Festival — Ho and Hill acknowledge the Cairns Ukulele Festival as one of the most significant uke shindigs to be staged in the southern hemisphere thus far.
When Cairns Ukulele Festival hosts, the Cairns Ukulele Club, held their first meeting on April 1 2008, many locals thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but its convener, Gaby Thomasz — co-ordinator of the inaugural Cairns ukefest — was deadly serious. Music City, the store she manages in the city’s main drag, Sheridan Street, now boasts one of the biggest selections of ukuleles in the land. “The ukulele suits our tropical lifestyle,” she observes. “The aim of the club and the festival is to get as many people as possible together making music and having fun. It’s not about how good you are — all you have to do is bring a uke along and a smile and lots of aloha. The great thing about uke clubs is that they are for people of all ages, from all walks of life.” To prove the point, Thomasz is organized a world record bid during the uke fest, which garnered nearly 700 participants performing ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ simultaneously.
Australia’s top-ranked ukulele player, Azo Bell, who initially piqued Gaby Thomasz’s interest, came to the instrument by the back door. The leader of popular Byron Bay act the Old Spice Boys heard cavaquinho when he toured Europe as musical director for a theatre company back in the early ‘90s, and that was the genesis of his love affair with ukulele. “Cavaquinho is the modern version of the Portuguese instrument, the braguinha, and they’re the instruments that led to the development of the ukulele in Hawaii about 150 year ago,” he explains. “The charango from the Andes is also related to the ukulele and so is the Latin American cuatro. There’s ukulele all over the Pacific region, from Timor right across, though the design’s a bit different in Tahiti. There’s a lot of ukulele music coming out of West Papua and New Guinea.”
Bell might also have included the Top End of Australia, especially the Torres Strait, from where Seaman Dan, who came out of retirement to perform at the Cairns ukulelefest, has netted two ARIA Awards (the Australian equivalent of Grammy Awards) with albums featuring ukulele. From Northern Territory, Skinnyfish Music, the boutique label that has enjoyed phenomenal success with Gurrumul, Gurrumul Yunupingu’s debut solo album worldwide is now beginning to make waves with a Kriol version of Waltzing Matilda (Waltjim Bat Matilda) recorded by Ali Mills (Ali Mills), an inveterate Aboriginal ukulele player and singer.
Rose “Turtle” Ertler, a Melbourne singer-songwriter who also performed at the Cairns Ukulele Festival, is another Australian on a mission to show that ukulele is not just a novelty, but an instrument capable of producing serious music. When she’s not touring or working part-time as a music therapist, Ertler organizes events such as Sydney’s ukulele Land. She’s also written a book entitled: What Do Ukulele Players Eat? Ertler fell in love with the instrument a decade ago while scaling down her possessions in preparation for an overseas’ trip. “I had the idea that if I plugged it into an effects’ pedal, maybe it could sound like an electric guitar, maybe even a double bass. Then I wouldn’t have to cart around lots of equipment.”
James Hill also strives to extend the instrument’s parameters through experimentation, although he concedes he has yet to play Ukulear Meltdown, a rock ukulele festival in the UK. “I love music but my first love is sound. I never wear an iPod; I’m much too fascinated by everyday sounds and sonic landscapes. I’d say some of my experimental work could be called ‘sound sculpture’. The experimental ukulele stuff I play has a polarizing effect on adults — they either love it or they just hate it — but it appeals almost universally to children.”
Hill, who’s now in his late 20s, started playing ukulele at nine years of age like the rest of his classmates in Langley, British Columbia, and by the time he was 12 he was touring with a local ensemble. “It’s part of the school curriculum there and has been for decades. I was really lucky to grow up in a town that supported ukulele and believed in it as a vehicle for music education. I had no idea at the time just how lucky we were. That was 20 years ago and I’m still learning new things every day.”
While Daniel Ho, who’s in his early 40s, started when he was in second grade, he maintains he’s still not proficient at it, despite the contradictory evidence provided by a string of awards. “ukulele was my first instrument, but when I was nine, I studied classical guitar for five years. That provided the formal fingerstyle training I use to play ukulele and slack key guitar. I primarily play fingerstyle ukulele and don’t strum very much.” For the last couple of years, he’s been working on a right-hand fingerstyle technique that he says has helped him improve his speed and consistency.” By contrast, Hill has developed a signature “mono strum” in which he strums all of the strings, but only sounds one note.
Hill has been in such demand around the world in the past few years that he’s lost track of just how many countries he’s visited and how many ukulele festivals he’s played. “I often have to check my own website to see where I’m going next. Recently I’ve been from one side of North America to the other, Hawaii, Singapore, Sweden, Italy, Japan, New Zealand … the list goes on.” He sees getting more bookings at general music festivals these days as a barometer of his instrument’s burgeoning status. “There’s more and more of that kind of thing as the ukulele starts to cross over into other genres. My latest album, True Love Don’t Weep — a duet album with my partner, cellist/singer Anne Davison [who’ll be performing with Hill at the Cairns ukefest] won ‘Traditional Album of the Year’ at last year’s Canadian Folk Music Awards. It was a surprise but I think it shows that the instrument is making its way into deeper musical waters than ever before.”
Like Azo Bell, who joined them in Cairns, Hill and Ho have astonishingly eclectic tastes and influences. Ho draws from acoustic rock, jazz and classical styles and names the Beatles, BeeGees, Dave Grusin, James Taylor, Beethoven and Billy Joel as some of his favourite artists. Hill cites Glenn Gould, Stevie Wonder, Mark O’Connor, Victor Borge, Daft Punk and John Cage among myriad influences. Like Bell, he’s adept at playing everything from classical tunes to jazz, blues, bluegrass, ragtime and Celtic folk.
Both Hill and Ho are heavily involved in teaching and will be conducting beginners and master classes as part of their upcoming visit to Australia. Hill has been working for the past seven years on developing a comprehensive ukulele curriculum for schoolteachers and self-learners. “The ukulele in the Classroom’ series is helping teachers all over the world to use ukulele as an effective platform for music literacy and education. What happens all too often is that a teacher will catch the ukulele bug and become really excited about teaching ukulele but before long the nuts and bolts of planning and running a successful ukulele program become overwhelming.
Enthusiasm will get you off the ground but it won’t sustain a program over the long-term. Enthusiasm mixed with good teaching resources can be dynamite.” Ho has co-authored beginners and intermediate ukulele instructional books with Herb Ohta, Jr. He recently finished a new work called Polani – Fingerstyle ukulele, which contains all the songs from his latest solo ukulele CD, Polani, written in tablature and notation.
Along with the ukulele revival has also come a spate of new manufacturers like Kala, Lanikai, Hilo, G-string and Koaloha to challenge classic 20th century ukulele makers such as Kamaka, Martin, Gibson, and National. Daniel Ho uses a custom curly koa 4-string KoAloha that Paul Okami built for all his recordings and performances. “It has a beautiful acoustic tone, accurate intonation, and a nice pickup sound.” He had a 6-string, but it split down the middle of the back while he was playing it on an airplane, so he only plays his 4-string now. James Hill plays a custom GString tenor ukulele, on which the James Hill Signature Model ukulele (JH-SM1) is based. The ukulele Azo Bell uses for most gigs is a cheap German instrument that cost him less than a hundred bucks ten years ago.
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