Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Whale of a Song: David Rothenberg Jams with Orcas

David Rothenberg - Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound
David Rothenberg – Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound
David Rothenberg

Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound
(comes with CD)
Basic Books

I realize that a review for a book focusing on whale songs might seem a bit strange, maybe even out of place on a world music site. However, musician and author (of several books including "Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Birdsong"), David Rothenberg brings us another dimension. And he brings up the concept that non-human creatures enjoy listening to and making music as much as humans. And for many readers such myself this seems like a manifestation of one of those wild childhood dreams.

Depending on your level of rationality, you could say that I and others who think along these lines are anthropomorphizing or you might just consider that creatures such as birds and whales have been singing since the beginning of time. I won’t start philosophizing because I am not that good at it. Instead, I encourage you to read Rothenberg’s thoroughly engaging books. He is good at philosophy and putting all the pieces together in a unique puzzle.

"Thousand Mile Song (Whale Music in a Sea of Sound)" offers a fascinating and well-documented glance at a musical interaction between humans and whales. Similar to "Why Birds Sing," Rothenberg engages various researchers on his quest to find out if non-humans sing because they enjoy it. And the author-musician also invites the whales into a musical jam–an exchange between his clarinet and their whale clicks and songs.

The book comes with a CD and the music on it, falls somewhere between experimental jazz and otherworldly sounds. The music also sounds oddly Finnish. The author performs with Orcas off the coast of British Columbia, spends time in New Zealand, the former Soviet Union and other locales exploring whale songs. He also takes us back to the 1970s when listening to whale songs was hip and somewhat trippy. This quest leads to an insightful ending that transforms readers’ view of the natural world.

I believe that any musician, no matter the genre, can glean a lot from this book and CD. As we search for more cross cultural exchanges with music, why not consider cross species jam sessions? Perhaps this sounds too far out, or just right down your alley. After all, this is a new era where anything is possible if we just open our hearts.

And what better way to preserve non-human life on this planet, then to honor what we share in common. This planet is home to a myriad of creatures, and many seem to enjoy music as much as humans do. And unlike the whales, you do not need to travel a thousand miles to reap rewards from this unusual musical connection.

Patricia Herlevi hosts the music consciousness blog, The Whole Music Experience. She also feels a strong connection to birds, whales and other creatures.

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Peter Cox’s Set into Song

Set into Song
Set into Song
Take a communist playwright, actor, singer, and songwriter and introduce him to a young American musician and singer half his age. They fall in love. Add an ex-submarine commander with a eccentric view of radio as Art. Send them with the new mobile tape recorder to railway yards, onto fishing vessels, down coal mines, in search of gypsy encampments. Now read about the most compelling series of radio programs ever made.

So state the notes on the cover of Peter Cox’s latest book, Set into Song. The book that all folk music lovers wish they had written. The making of the eight ground breaking Radio Ballads. It’s about the lives of the makers, the lives of their subjects set into song, public broadcasting, the BBC and above all it documents a slice of the folk revival in the UK. Such tremendous subjects and timely too as 2008 marks their 50th anniversary year.

So what of Peter Cox’s treatment, who by his own admission has only been involved in the "folk scene" for the last two years. It is impeccably well researched. Access to Peggy Seeger’s phone book was a huge initial step up, serving as an introduction to the old folkie grapevine. As a consequence, the original musicians and studio hands could be contacted along with the actual subjects of the ballads. When he wasn’t on the phone or chatting face to face, time was spent pouring over various archives. A year in fact, writing content, cross referencing and checking his sources.

The result is an absolute treasure trove of a book that delivers and delights on so many levels. The early chapters satisfy any biographical interest in the contrasting lives of the three protagonists. Whilst the middle section with its behind the scenes approach, transcripts and detailed processes for each of the eight ballads, immediately turns the book into a companion to the audio material and at times a handbook for radio producers.

The latter part continues with a number of chapters on life after the Radio Ballads for all concerned. The final one, devoted to the 2006 radio ballads, finds the author bold enough to offer a comparison between the two series. This book is an absorbing, entertaining and educational read. It deserves to be cited many times as an invaluable reference book.

Copies of the book can be purchased postage free through its own website, where you’ll also find transcripts of the radio ballads, the first two pages of each chapter, photographs and other companion material.

Peter Cox was my guest on GondwanaSound on the auspicious day of 2nd July 2008, the 50th anniversary of The Ballad of John Axon, the first of the Radio Ballads to be broadcast by the BBC.

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Rich History of the Beginnings of the Tango

Tango Voices Songs from the Soul of Buenos Aires and Beyond
Tango Voices Songs from the Soul of Buenos Aires and Beyond
Tango Voices Songs from the Soul of Buenos Aires and Beyond
Compiled and Edited by Donald Cohen
Wise Publications

New Yorker attorney, history and music professor, guitarist and music folklorist Donald Cohen explores the life of the tango canción and its propagation throughout the world in his book Tango Songs From the Soul of Buenos Aires and Beyond. With printed music and lyrics, photographs, reprinted songbook covers and accompanying CD, Mr. Cohen introduces readers to the music, lyricists, composers, performers and stories behind twenty-six tango cancións from all over the world, celebrating the worldwide seductive lure of the tango.

Mr. Cohen delves right into the rich history of the beginnings of the tango in the orillas of Buenos Aires and finally ends up exploring the Hon Ghen or Jalousie by Danish musician and conductor Jacob Gade and lyricist Vera Bloom as sung by Vietnam’s Khanh Ly. Mr. Cohen fills in the history of tango canción greats through life and music of Carlos Gardel and his truly exquisite Me Buenos Aires Querido and Francisco Canaro’s tango vals (waltz) You No Se Que Me Han Hecho Tus Ojos or the Algerian tango Ana El Owerka with music by Mustapha Skandrani and lyrics by Mustapha Kechokoul with not only a music professor’s sense of historical importance but with a personal passion for the music.

Readers of every stripe will love Tango Voices as it is no staid history, just as the tango is no polite, friendly hop. Juicy nuggets like the affair of tango maestro Francisco Canaro with songstress Ada Falcon or tales of Oh, Donna Clara lyricist Fritz Lohner Beda and his defense of African American dancer Josephine Baker are shot throughout the book, making it clear that the passion of the tango exceeds far beyond the music.

Tango Voices captures a modest selection of the tango canción’s history (a complete history would take volumes) in an easy fashion that will appeal to both the dedicated aficionado and the tango novice. Musicians are certain to take to the book with its printed music that includes melody line and chord boxes. Another draw is the lovely black-and-white photos and printed lyrics like those from A Media Luz:

"And all in half light
That is the sorcerer of love
At half light the kisses,
At half light the two of us
And all in half light,
Twilight within
As soft as velvet,
The half light of our lov

Tango Voices exists nicely with the text and photos, but the accompanying CD is worth its weight in gold with such plummy treats like Nelly Omar on La Cumparsita, Alberto Podesta’s version of El Bazar de Los Juguetes and the vocals of Roberto Goyaneche on Astor Piazolla’s Vuelvo Al Sur. Without a doubt the CD is filled with wonders like Mesanichta, Le Plus Beau Tango Du Monde, Ana El Owerke with vocals by Lili Boniche and my personal favorite Viejo Coche with vocals by Rosita Quiroga. Mr. Cohen takes readers and listeners around the world with Tango Voices and it’s a rich, sultry journey.

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Required Reggae Reading

Roger Steffens and Peter Simon – Reggae Scrapbook
Roger Steffens and Peter Simon – Reggae Scrapbook (Insight Editions, 2007)

I don’t get hooked on many books, but two that caught my attention and remain favorites are 1977’s Reggae Bloodlines and 1983’s Reggae International, both of which were collaborated upon by writer Stephen Davis and photographer Peter Simon. Simon’s photographs are likewise part of what makes this new examination of reggae as classic as that earlier pair and Davis provides an eloquent introduction, but the bulk of the text this time was penned by Roger Steffens.

Steffens is a Los Angeles-based author, actor and lecturer (his multimedia presentations on Bob Marley are amazing) who possesses the largest private collection of reggae memorabilia in the known world. It’s his decades-long love for reggae that led to his amassing such a collection, and that affection is evident in every word and image the Reggae Scrapbook contains.

The book’s perspective is both heartfelt and historical, with Steffens and Simon outlining the story of Jamaican music from the pre-ska era to now. They spotlight key figures and personal favorites, comprehensively tying in such factors as politics, cultural identity, ganja, and of course the Rastafarian faith.

Bob Marley’s legacy (including the ongoing works of his offspring) is naturally a major factor in these pages, but the story goes far higher and deeper. Profiles of Toots Hibbert (who penned the book’s foreword), Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Culture, Dennis Brown, producer Clement “Coxson” Dodd and many more are framed by stunning visuals as the progression of reggae is recounted up to the dancehall era, the resurgence of the original roots style and the international status the music enjoys today.

Throughout it all, Steffens and Simon never come across as elitist insiders. Despite having interviewed, photographed and befriended so many reggae greats, they’re first and foremost fans whose commendable efforts to raise a greater awareness of reggae have benefited all those who regard it as much more than just music.

While the sheer depth and scope of the book are impressive enough, the design truly makes it spring to life. Distributed liberally throughout the pages are images of treasures from Steffens’ vast archives: Posters, photos, badges, album covers, singles, autographed knick-knacks, various depictions of the red, gold and green Rastafari colors and even the hot-off-the-press UPI news release on the 1987 murder of original Wailer and reggae legend Peter Tosh.

Some of these visual embellishments are tucked away in little nooks that require a keen eye to spot; others jump right out at you in an almost pop-up book manner. It’s a lot to take in, and you may want to flip through a few times and simply soak up all there is to look at before you start reading. Once you do immerse yourself in the words, you’ll find the anecdotal tone perfectly suited to the laid back but always-passionate sense of purpose from which reggae continues to draw its unique strength.< Included as well is a DVD of revealing moments from many of Steffens’ interviews, often conducted with the archives as a backdrop, showing what a labor of Jah Love the years leading up to this book have obviously been. A scrapbook it may be, but there’s nothing scrappy about it. Consider it a must for even the casual reggae fan. < Buy the book:


Sensational Knowledge Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance

Sensational Knowledge Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance
Sensational Knowledge Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance
Ethnomusicologist and dancer Tomie Hahn delves into the process of immersing oneself and incorporating the cultural knowledge of the nihon buyo, the traditional Japanese dance form in her book Sensational Knowledge Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance (Wesleyan University Press). A student of Japanese dance since the age of four and a performer, as well as an associate professor in the arts department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, Ms. Hahn explores the identity of the dance through culture, a teacher’s wisdom and the body and how that experience transformed her own identity.

More than just another how-to book, Ms. Hahn reveals in a very personal way in which dance and music of a community are reflected outward to define that community and how that nuanced cultural tradition defines the dancer. Examining the sensory way in which minute details of culture, music and dance are passed from teacher to student, Hahn is a veritable font of information about the personal journey of learning and understanding the nihon buyo. Personalizing this journey with details like the chimes that welcome her as she enters the dance studio to shoes lined up by other dancers to the changing into the yukata, or cotton kimono worn for dance practice, Ms. Hahn makes the exploration intimate and culls a curiosity out of the reader.

Beyond the personal, there is plenty that’s practical in Ms. Hahn’s book. With a DVD companion illustrating movements from the book, Sensational Knowledge also offers the categories of Japanese dance, choreography and musical notations, a glossary of terms, terms for symbolic movements and detailed descriptions of body positioning. Ms. Hahn embellishes the book with photos and tips on not only how a movement is executed but the imagery behind the movement.

In revealing the finer points of nihon buyo through her own dance experience, Ms. Hahn offers up a greater lesson and that is the very essence of the dancer within the dance and how the dancer absorbs the creative process of a culture.

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All About Dub

 Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae
Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae

A new genre called Dub was created in Jamaica in the 1970s when recording engineers “deconstructed” popular songs. Dub is in reality the art of remixing, something which became popular a decade later and has been a common practice in the recording industry since then.

On Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae Michael Veal sets the context for the Dub revolution by explaining the roots of modern Jamaican music, from mento, through ska and finally Reggae. There is also fascinating information about early recording studios in Jamaica and the role of DJs and producers.

Studio One gets special attention and it’s no wonder as it played a crucial role in the development of one of the most popular forms of roots music in the world.  Some of reggae’s biggest figures made their first recordings at legendary studio. But Studio Onbe was not the only player in town and many other pioneering studios get extensive coverage in the book.

Dub exploded in the mid to late 1970s ad has influenced numerous artists in North America and Europe, including many trend setting global electronica acts.

The author, an ethnomusicologist, combines absorbing details with scholarly work, providing extensive research. Michael Veal is an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Yale University, where he specializes in the music of Africa and the African diaspora. He is the author of Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon and also a musician and composer.

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All About the Gnawa

 Traveling Spirit Master by Deborah Kapchan
Traveling Spirit Master by Deborah Kapchan
Deborah Kapchan has spent years studying the music of the Gnawa and its relationship with the recording industry. Her book Traveling Spirit Master is an wide-ranging excursion into one of the most fascinating trance music genres in the globe.  As the subtitle, Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Market Place, implies, Kapchan goes beyond the study of Gnawa music. The book provides details about how Gnawa music has traveled beyond Morocco’s borders, into Europe and North America and its economic implications.

France has received millions of Moroccans and, thus, Gnawa music traveled with them. There are numerous French acts that perform some sort of Gnawa influenced music. Gnawa music also jumped the Atlantic with American jazz musicians and the renowned Hassan Hakmoun, who currently resides in the United States.

Even though Kapchan focuses primarily on France, Gnawa musicians have fared well in Germany, Spain and other countries. Recently, San Francisco Bay Area world music jam band Hamsa Lila released a double licve CD that has an extensive use of the Gnawa sintir and metal castanets.

Deborah Kapchan is an associate professor of performance studies at New York University. She is the author of Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition (1996).

Buy Traveling Spirit Master.


When the Timbales Are Dreaming

Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming
Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming
Master timbalero Ernesto Puente was a legendary figure in 20th century Latin music. for decades he performed with the biggest and most influential names in Latin jazz, mambo and salsa. His career followed the evolution of Latin music, from the big band orchestras to smaller combos.


Josephine Powell painstakingly researched Puente’s career and has written a fascinating book titled Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming. Powell begins the book with a chapter dedicated to Spanish Harlem, the famous neighborhood in New York City that is populated by families from the Spanish speaking Caribbean and other regions. Puerto Rican immigration was a key factor in the development of Latin music in New York.

Ernesto "Tito" Puente grew up in the thriving community in Harlem. Powell follows young Tito from his teen years. Even though he was fascinated by big bands, his life changed when he heard Cuban recordings by Orquesta Casino de la playa and its charismatic vocalist Miguelito Valdés. 


Something to be grateful for is that Powell also provides biographical information about some key figures who influenced or interacted with Tito Puente. Miguelito Valdés is one of them.

Tito Puente fell love with Cuban music and he practiced hard on the timbales. When World War II broke, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. There is a chapter that focuses on his military experience.


Upon his return to the United States, after the war, his musical career continued. Throughout the following decades he performed with some of the biggest names in Latin music and participated in several movies.


Josephine Powell does an excellent job at illustrating the life of the legendary percussionist.

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Other Tito Puente books:


Black Rhythms of Peru: A Fascinating Look at the Resurgence of Afro-Peruvian Music

Heidi Carolyn Feldman -  Black Rhythms of Peru
Heidi Carolyn Feldman – Black Rhythms of Peru
Heidi Carolyn Feldman

Black Rhythms of Peru (Wesleyan Wesleyan University Press, 2006. ISBN: 0819568147)

In the past years there has been a growing interest in the music of black Perú. A key figure in international awareness is musician David Byrne, who compiled some of the key figures in a best selling album titled The Soul of Black Peru, Afro-Peruvian Classics. One of the artists "discovered" in that compilation, Susana Baca, became a household name in world music circles, touring worldwide.

For those who seek further information about the history and development of Afro-Peruvian music, Heidi Carolyn Feldman, a lecturer in the department of communication at the University of California at San Diego, has written a fascinating book titled Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific.

Feldman goes beyond the familiar names of Susana Baca and another popular touring band, Peru Negro. She begins with a brief history of how black Africans arrived to Perú, settling primarily in the coastal areas. By the 20th century, Afro-Peruvian culture had nearly disappeared, diluted in the wider Peruvian Criollo (Creole) culture.

The book talks about how a new renaissance in the 1950s brought new pride and interest in Afro-Peruvian heritage. This led the way for today’s explosion of Afro-Peruvian sounds.

Black Rhythms of Peru provides insightful details about the musical instruments used in coastal Peru, a combination of instruments of Spanish origin and African drums, primarily the cajón, a wooden box which originally came from boxes used to carry fish.

Feldman dedicates space to Peruvian researchers, such as folklore professor José Durán, who investigated the origins of Afro-Peruvian culture and created the Pancho Fierro company, an influential pioneer in showcasing Afro-Peruvian music.

In the latter chapters, Black Rhythms of Peru explores the key musicians involved in the resurgence of black Peruvian music: the essential Santa Cruz family, the pioneering Perú Negro, the development of Susana Baca and several of the newer generations of Afro-Peruvian artists.

Buy Black Rhythms of Peru.


A Luring Guide to Africa and the Middle East

The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa and Middle East
The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa and Middle East (Volume 1 of 3)

Compiled and edited by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham and Jon Lusk with Duncan Clark

Published by Rough Guides, Distributed by The Penguin Group, ISBN-10: 1843535513

The third edition of The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa and Middle East, set to hit the streets on March 13, 2007, is a veritable pleasure cruise for the back porch music lover to the hardcore backpacking musician with a guitar slung over his shoulder. This chunky paperback tromps across the musical map from Algeria to Zimbabwe, from the Arab world to Turkey, riding the rails with traditional roots music pioneers and picking up cross-pollinating travelers along the way.

Chocked full of engaging articles, discographies, playlists and photographs, this 656-page reference guide lures even the most casual of page flippers onto the musical landscapes of Africa and the Middle East.

The Rough Guide isn’t meant to be a street-by-street surface map – so nitpickers beware, not every artist is going to be included. Instead, it’s an aerial journey with frequent, fascinating stops along each country’s musical geography, detailing the evolution of its different musical styles, its stars, and often the political and social upheavals that led the way to emerging groups of songwriters and musicians. That’s not to say the guide just skims the surface – just give me the name of another guide that includes sections on Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau, the musical traditions of the Bedouins and Kurdish and Pygmy music.

Despite dubbing itself as a "rough guide," the book delves into the traditional and genre distinctions, often ignored by meatier tomes. For example, the guide covers both the rai and kabylia traditions of Algerian music, divides South Africa’s musical expanse into chapters on popular music, jazz and gospel, and offers sections on arabesque music, the music of the Gulf, Israeli music, and a separate chapter on the Jewish Sephardic traditions. Essentially, you get the whole ball of wax, a condensed, informative one.

It would be impossible to pinpoint just one aspect that makes this guide work Instead, it’s the combination of smart writing by a whole host of contributors, like Simon Broughton, Lucy Duran and Phil Meadley that keep the material grounded and interesting, while the photographs and CD covers captivate and enliven the material.

The discography and a playlist at the end of each chapter, giving the reader a gems list of artists and styles to discover, make the book worth the price. And if that weren’t enough, The Rough Guide offers up some side tidbits and stories that are scattered throughout the book like precious coins, like where to find music in Addis Ababa or "One Producer’s Story" about Liberia’s E. Tonieh Williams or the article on Congo’s Papa Wemba. Its totality transforms a mere guide into a traveler’s handbook, a history lesson and a music encyclopedia all wrapped up in one. Of course the companion CD with tracks by Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, King Sunny Ade and Mariem Hassan make the reading all the more enjoyable.

Picking up The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa and Middle East is easy, putting it down is almost impossible. But I might like the opportunity to try if given The Rough Guide to World Music: Volume II Europe Asia and the Pacific.

Buy The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa and Middle East.