Category Archives: Concert reviews

Ellika Frisell and Solo Cissokho show

By Susan Budig

Amazingly, I’ve found that I have something in common with Bill Gates. We both
have been in the presence of great wealth. The treasures I have immersed myself
in, however, far surpass the impermanence of money. The rich, musical language
of two cultures, Sweden and Senegal, with a dash of American Appalachia filled
my ears and graced my soul at the 5th annual Nordic Roots Festival held recently
at the Cedar Cultural Center in
Minneapolis, Minnesota. The evening left me drenched in a peace-loving spirit.

Saturday’s evening show starts with emcee, Nick Lethert amusing the audience
with droll, self-depreciating comments. His dry wit set the stage for the
Swedish demeanor, in the form of Ellika Frisell, to follow.Frisell and Solo Cissokho (www.jalikunda.com)
perform several numbers from their sole disc, tretakt takissaba, released
in 2002 (Xource). Their first set starts up with Kodinadioulou. I see Frisell
looking very Swedish, with white-blond hair and becomingly pale skin, holding up
the familiar fiddle. She is dressed in a silver pant and tunic suit. Next to
her, stands Cissokho, his kinky, black hair braided and flying out of his head.
Cissokho wears flowing white pants and tunic. The outfit, given to him by his
mother, features intricate detail and trapunto-like embroidery. It stands out as
the traditional clothing of Senegal. He holds a kora, an instrument similar in
sound to the harp, distinctive to the countries of Senegal, Gambia, and Mali.
The visual impression the two of them make is like looking at a piano, with a
sharp visual contrast between the two types of keys. Like a piano, the sound
produced by these two musicians is harmonious and whole.

When I hear the next song, Takissaba, far from being like oil and water,
which are two elements that never mix, Frisell and Cissokho, utterly unique and
on the surface dissimilar, come together to create a sound I’ve never heard
before. Frisell presents her polska, a Swedish dance, and Cissokho layers on his
Senegalese music, adding vocals in his native Mandinka language. Frisell’s
foundation, deceptively simple, is set by the rhythmic, steady saw of the
fiddle. This creates a perfect framework on which Cissokho plays his kora with
child-like abandon. That these two styles can be congruous almost defies logic.
But melodious, they are, in a most agreeable way.

Cissokho comes from a long line of griots, that is, storytellers, from his
West African country. And in this song, we hear a wonderful story about Nouria.
Nouria was a widow and a farmer who lived alone. In her country, when help from
the neighbors was needed, food was offered to those who came to work. Cissokho
saw Nouria needed help, but was unable to afford to feed the neighbors who came
over. Cissokho, in true altruistic fashion, walked from one farm to another
soliciting help for Nouria and in exchange, he played the kora for them. I don’t
know about the cuisine of Senegal, but I now know about the musical flavor and
payment such as Cissokho’s kora playing would entice me to work all day long.

Cissokho composed this next song, about his grandmother, titling it Mama
Tonkara. Frisell, on viola, treats us to a long run during which she closes her
eyes and wanders off into a world of pure sound and notes. Then, Cissokho joins
in and the interplay between the two is a smiling intimacy.

Frisell tells us that as a musician, she travels a lot. One of the good
things to happen as a result is that in 1994, while at a fiddle festival in
London, England, she met a wonderful fiddler named Bruce Molsky. With that
introduction, Molsky strolls up on stage and joins the duet, making an amazing
eclectic trio.

The three of them play an interesting combination of a Norwegian halling tune
put together with a Senegalese song, Mansami Cissè. Hallings are dance numbers,
generally performed by the men in an effort to impress the women. Mansami Cissè
is a song for a king, as Cissokho tells us, “Every king (in Senegal) gets a
song
.”

Frisell fades gracefully into the background as Cissokho and Molsky play an
old time duet, Green Grows The Laurel. I am mesmerized by this love song. It is
at times saucy and humorous, absolutely delightful, and it also includes these
two men’s voices, each singing in his own language, simultaneously serenading
the audience. Their rich, earthy voices saturate our senses. The sensation of
wallowing in the musical wealth they offer is very strong.

Before Molsky leaves the stage, he and Frisell play a favorite of mine, Poor
Boy’s Troubles. Tongue in cheek, Molsky temporarily renames the tune, Poor
Woman’s Troubles. As always, this number is enormously inspiring. Adding
Cissokho’s kora to the mix deepens its vibrancy.

Cissokho lives in Oslo, Norway. Frisell makes her home in Sweden.
Occasionally, their flights do not put them in the same place at the same time,
as desired. While waiting for Cissokho to arrive for rehearsal, this next song,
composed by Frisell, emerged. The Violin Is Waiting For The Kora is a
challenging tune, each player displays enticing virtuosity. Serendipity at its
finest.

Frisell doesn’t sing on stage often, but during this next piece, Saara,
Cissokho engages his music mate to sing along in her delicate, clear tones. I
think of the flora of Sweden with its petite, fragile flowers blossoming during
its short growing season. This describes Frisell’s singing. Just a bit of
vocalizing, and very pleasant.

Their part of the show, which is the opener for Filarfolket, begins to wind
down. The audience, on the other hand, can’t stop begging for more. Molsky comes
back up on stage and has the delightful experience (I’m sure) of playing along
with Frisell and Cissokho on a piece that he’s never heard before.

We learn a bit more about the kora, which has 22 strings and is played with
the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Cissokho dissects his playing style,
suggesting that it is basic building blocks of rhythm played on top of one
another. He lost me on the idea of simplicity after he’d plucked about four
strings.

The last song, Kaira, is a peace song and after hearing both Frisell and
Cissokho sing together in Mandinka, we applaud until our hands are numb and our
souls are rejuvenated, rich beyond measure.

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Hurdy-gurdy meets jazz

Trame (Gilles Chabenat & Alain Bonnin)
Bethany Lutheran Church
Seattle, WA
September 24, 2003

A year ago, I didn’t even know what a hurdy-gurdy looked like. And now that I
have seen hurdy-gurdy players twice in concert (Le Vent du Nord and Trame), I
still have a difficult time describing the instrument to readers.

When I first arrived at the church where Trame would be performing, I was
shown an acoustic version of a hurdy-gurdy, that in itself would cause any
musician to salivate. Although this particular instrument hadn’t been broken in
yet, its ancestors reach back 1000 years from origins in Central Europe. Today,
you will find the instrument being performed in Russia, Scandinavia, France,
Spain and other European countries, as well as North America. You can hear its
drones and Moog synthesizer like tones emitting from music of various cultures.
Most surprising was hearing a hurdy-gurdy on Mohawk vocalist Lawrence Laughing’s
recording, Now Our Minds Are One. And this just proves the versatility of this
keyboard-fiddle-like instrument.The hurdy-gurdy and its uses have evolved over time. Gilles Chabenat, half of
the duo, Trame performed jazz compositions on an electric and fully equipped
hurdy-gurdy. However, Gilles and his musical partner pianist Alain Bonnin got
off to a bad start, when half way through their first composition, a circuit
breaker blew. This problem was remedied as a few light-hearted jokes rallied
around a jovial audience (consisting mostly of
hurdy-gurdy players and students of the instrument). Soon Gilles and Alain
returned to their jazz repertoire, which in itself defies the usual
descriptions. Yet, I could hear elements of contemporary Finnish folk-roots
music, American jazz, French traditional and even echoes of French Impressionism
(the music, not the paintings).

Gilles and Alain who met eight years ago while performing in the Corsican group,
I Muvrini work well off of each other. Both musicians proved mastership over
their respective instruments, but also seemed to be communicating telepathically
with one another and at times, they broke into wild improvisations such as on a
composition that Gilles dubbed “French rock and roll.” If Gilles had lit his
instrument on fire, he would have drawn comparisons with Jimi Hendrix (after
all, this is Seattle). Le Fil/Mab featured a funky piano solo and some
delightful jazz interpretations. Couleur par Couleur began as a slow melodic
piece then the musicians picked up speed, creating frenzied and dissonant music.
This led into the experimental Carmin and then into the mood piece, Argile.
Although most of the compositions fell into jazz, a couple of traditional dance
songs were performed and Trame ended their performance with the encore,
Madranque in which a few of the Over the Water Hurdy-Gurdy Association board
members joined in as a vocal choir, complete with polyphonic harmonies.

The overall atmosphere created was one of sheer enjoyment and honoring
musicianship. Perhaps the hurdy-gurdy and the Hurdy-Gurdy Association will
successfully bridge the gap between France and the US through a passion for
music, both ancient and modern. Concerts such as this one uplift audiences while
preserving roots and heritage. And that alone is worth the price of admission.

(Compliments of Cranky Crow World
Music
).

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North Indian Hawaiian Guitarist Tours Malaysia

Jaywant Naidu, a North Indian music Hawaiian guitarist from Hyderabad, has returned from his visit to Malaysia. He was invited to the country by Penang Ytl Arts Festival. Jaywant performed in the first week of June 2003 in a musical feature, Harmony, a unique musical evening playing on his Hawaiian guitar. The musical event was produced by Actors Studio at The Actors Studio, Greenhall. Jaywant presented several recitals in India and interacted with international groups under the aegis of Alliance Francaise,
etc. and has an expansive musical perspective. His recital in the Hindustani style played on a modified Hawaiian guitar was very much within the
grasp of both the Malaysian and international audience, the city being a popular
tourist attraction.

The Hawaiian guitar is modified minimally to suit the North Indian style,
added with 19 strings to produce a rich resonance and sounds like a Chitra Veena
or Gottu of South Indian origin. Played with the right hand holding the striker
and the left hand holding a narrow steel bar, the artist produces the Hindustani
Raga gliding the bar on the three main strings, striking them with the striker in the right hand.

Jaywant played a fine blend of the pure classical and light classical so as to be within the reach of the audience and was much appreciated for the sheer melody and the characteristic Indian style, which has a fine mix of melody and rhythm. His Jod and Jhala were particularly applauded. Maru Behag, Malkauns and Bagesri were the
melodies which Jaywant played. These were all instantly pleasing Ragas and there was no need for the audience to occupy themselves with any hard to understand but to enjoy tonic based melody and
swaying to the rhythm-based hand work. Jaywant also played at Kuala Lumpur and
received a good response, with more Indian audiences, apart from the Native
Malaysians, Chinese and other foreigners.

Jaywant spoke of his experiences describing the seaside beauty of Penang and
the modern city of Kuala Lumpur. Artist website is at
www.jaywant.info

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Ravikiran enthralls at Richmond

Chitravina N Ravikiran, prodigy since two, living legend since 22 and the world’s greatest slide player, if you go by the opinion of Radio Australia, entertained connoisseurs with
heartstopping and soul stirring music at Richmond, Virginia on Aug. 3rd.Ravikiran’s repertoire includes classical Indian ragas as also facile world music compositions, some of which are his own compositions. His presentation of some of the Carnatic masterpieces made one look up and take notice for this side of Indian music. Most listeners in the West have been exposed to the meandering exposition of long raag alap by artists from the Northern part of India but the southern system is full of lively songs laced with exciting improvs.

Ravikiran’s concert improved the listeners’ perspectives as he did not stint on explanations whenever appropriate and held the audience interest throughout.

Ravikiran’s creative forays were out of the ordinary. All in all, the music was an ideal mix of thrills but without any needless frills.

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Folksters at Jericho Beach, Vancouver

Vancouver-Folk-Music-Fest226th Annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Vancouver BC, Canada–July 18 – 20, 2003.
After WOMAD USA was officially canceled, I made a decision to attend the Vancouver Folk Music Festival at
Jericho Beach. This wasn’t going to be the usual festival attendance, but a leap of faith for me. After all, I have
been unemployed for a year and I had to scramble for a place to stay as well as, ride shares.

As you can
imagine I was detained at the Canadian Immigrations Office, but finally allowed to enter Canadian soil. I left an
atmosphere of fear and paranoia behind to enter one of harmony, joy and fabulous music set in a park with a
panoramic view of trees, mountains and a stretch of English Bay. My memories of the festival linger in my
daily thoughts and nightly dreams. I conjure images of the perfect blend of music and nature, of the painted
Australian aboriginal musicians, of the solo folk artists, Quebecois foot tapping, the body melting sun and the
friendly festival attendees.

By the time I arrived at the festival grounds on Friday, I had missed half of the evening performance. My eyes
adjusted to the natural setting during the Lotus Ensemble’s set and by the time, British folk singer Sara-Jane
Morris belted out Janice Joplin’s Take Another Piece of My Heart, I shifted to a festival mood. French
troubadours Lo’Jo followed with an effervescent set of songs revealing their connection to Africa. Having seen
Lo’Jo perform at WOMAD twice and also in Seattle, it was a pleasure to see them perform on Jericho Beach.
Next up was the Cockney bard Billy Bragg who played to an extremely enthusiastic crowd despite his usual flat
vocals and dualistic anti-American sentiments. When I was in my twenties, I was a huge Billy Bragg fan and I
have lost count of how many times I have seen him perform, yet I have grown tired of non-spiritual thinking. My
mood soured after the Bragg performance and I turned in for the night.

And yet, the festival provided both spiritual and political musical acts from the Woodie Guthrie inspired set to
the celebration of the Sufi Poet, Rumi. Festival attendees had choices as they traipsed through the gorgeous
festival grounds under an unforgiving sun. Many older traditions played along side innovative groups. The
Vancouver World Music Collective blended music from the Silk Road with African, traditional Europe and
Australia’s outback. I caught a glimpse of VWMC’s composition while a local film crew taped a documentary
of the collective. The performance acted as a musical journey around the world and delighted the attendees of
the performance. I was impressed with the exotic array of instruments including zithers, a pipa, didgeridoo,
various drums and vocalists representing a variety of cultures.

After witnessing the Vancouver World Music Collective performance, I stage hopped between Stage 1 and
Stage 4. Quebecois accordionist Yves Lambert, Vancouverite Celso Machado, Victoria’s Portuguese fado
vocalist Sara Marrieros and Ontario’s Sandra Bullock look alike folk singer, Martina Sorbara shared life’s
simple pleasures on Stage 1. Although all the performers delivered musical pleasures, Ms Sorbara left me
with the most memorable impression as she crooned out a bluesy tune about getting laid. It’s not the subject
matter, but the musicians brazen delivery that caught my attention. Equally sexy and on Stage 4, was Indian
vocalist Suba Sankaran (Ontarian ensemble Autorickshaw) jazzy rendition of the jazz classic Caravan. Suba’s
immensely talented group shared the stage with the enigmatic Harry Manx (Salt Spring Island) on slide guitar
and the Indian group Tantra (Quebec/Ontario).

Hailing from the Australian outback, White Cockatoo performed ritualistic dance, drumming and singing which
in itself proved intriguing, but was offset by a Crocodile Dundee type translator who talked through most of the
performance. Ritualistic performances are best seen when there are no interruptions. Feeling a bit
disappointed with this much anticipated performance, I headed to the Waves showcase in which Autorickshaw
hosted and appeared with Tantra and the Syrian-UK group, Abdellah Chhadeh & Nara. Virtuoso qanun player
(An Arabic 81 string hammered dulcimer), Abdellah delivered a breathtaking set of songs. And then Abdellah
later appeared on stage with British musician and journalist Andrew Cronshaw where various instruments
including oriental flutes, a shepherd’s horn and a zither were brought out. The set of songs proved innovative
while allowing each performer to improvise and create a playful atmosphere.

Saturday ended on a high note after seeing the Quebecois traditional group, La Volee d’Castors storm the
stage. Despite my reluctance to dance in public, the group’s infectious music had me kicking up my heels and
clapping along with the rest of the large crowd. Tantra followed with a quieter and more introspective set
reminding us about the diversity of acts at the festival.

Although Sunday was filled with miscommunication, missed connections and missed performances due to
delays at most of the 7 stages, I did manage to squeeze in a few showcases. I started my morning at the
Fiddler’s Bid showcase which was hosted by virtuoso fiddler Calvin Vollrath (Alberta) and featured Canada’s
fiddling talent, Daniel Lapp (Victoria), Shannon Johnson (the McDades), Rani Orbo (Daisy Mayhem) and
Darcie Deaville. Shannon shared songs about heartbreak, Darcie shared songs about childhood hardship
and Daniel Lapp offered innovative fiddling. I also squeezed in performances of Lotus Ensemble, Harry Manx,
Safa and the Toronto Tabla Ensemble. I ended my weekend with the Quebecois music showcase featuring
Yves Lambert, La Volee d’Castors and Vent du Nord. Although the sun was baking my skin by this point, all of
the musicians excuded energy as they step danced, fiddled and foot tapped their way through kitchen party
and traditional Quebecois fare.

Although I would have liked to have seen Lo’Jo perform one more time, the hot sun had taken its toll on my
body so consequently I also missed the evening performance. My overall impression of the festival is a good
one. I particularly am impressed with the festival staff’s sustainable practices and their desire to tread lightly
on the planet. I have never been to a festival that has a mission of tossing less garbage in a landfill while also
sharing a diversity of musical styles with music fans. The performers are also fed well and treated with a great
deal of respect. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival, its staff, volunteers and sponsors all deserve a round of
applause.

For more information visit Vancouver Folk Festival
(compliments of Cranky Crow World Music).

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Show Review of Dan Rumsey in St. Paul, Minnesota

by Susan Budig

I’ve found
something better to do than sleep-in on a Sunday morning. Instead of indulging
in sweet slumber, on July 20th , I take in the sweet sounds of Dan Rumsey (http://www.folkrocks.com/danrumsey.html).

Under an
overcast sky, I zip over to the Black Bear Crossing café near Como Lake in St.
Paul to hear the offerings of guitarist. Dan Rumsey and his musical cohorts,
Sally Heinz on flute and Andy Anda on fiddle and mandolin. These three music
makers know how to celebrate the world with their talents. Their music is
infused with their spirits and it shows as they share themselves with the
audience.

Standing
under a hanging birch bark canoe, suspended in air by ropes, Rumsey starts out
with “Here Am I” .It’s a piece which shows off the vocals for the morning and
sets the tone as we sip our coffees heavily laced with cream and sugar. We move
right into the traditional “Down in the Valley.” sung with an aching melancholy.
Anda whispers along with his fiddle, using a two finger hold on the bow, his
touch is so light.
Curt Mayfield wrote this next number, “People Get Ready” .The band’s rich sound
is presented as a unit. While each player takes a turn with the melody, they are
so cooperative that they sound ideally suited for one another. Then, while Heinz
takes a quick moment to swab at her flute, Rumsey and Anda mess around with
their instruments, managing to work out a bit of a tune. Rumsey mischievously
grins and murmurs, “what song is this?.” With Heinz back at her seat, they
launch into “The L & N.” by Jean Ritchie. The song from Kentucky is flavored
with a bit of Southern blues and old-time.

The band
gives us a fiddle tune from Doc Watson, “Warm and Windy” .I note, not for the
first time, that while a coffee shop has a quaint sort of charm, it also has
very poor timing. The loud bangings and hums of the espresso maker nearly drown
out the soulful melody.

For the few
kids in the sparse audience, Rumsey sings out in a jocular voice, “Vegetable
Dance” .The band horses around and giggles as they perform. Peter Rowan is the
originator of the subsequent song, “Knocking on Your Door” .This tune, along
with the next, “Life Is Like A Mountain.” has a Southern taste. The end of this
duo of songs features Rumsey poignantly singing with a lone fiddle accompaniment.

After a lengthy instrumental introduction, Rumsey intones “You Don’t Know My
Mind” .Anda gives an impressive run with his fingers reaching up into the
highest range of his fiddle.

Rumsey’s
second set begins with an original song, “The Peaceful, Loving Way” .This number
is finger picked on the guitar with the flute sounding like a river as it
carries along the notes of the vocalist. Rumsey’s soul is into this tune. I hear
it in his voice and instrument. Heinz is so responsive to Rumsey’s picking, it
seems intuitive. It makes me wish his entire show was comprised of his own work
because he is so present and focused. The song is beautiful and I don’t want it
to end.

The next
piece, one which revs up thoughts of activism, is titled, “Who Are These People?”
Rumsey gives a heart rending entreaty of his concern about land (over)
development. The instruments are cohesive and reflective of the mood of the song.
After this we hear “Four Wondrous Women.” which Rumsey wrote after a gig he
shared with Ellis and others at a peace benefit concert. The song celebrates
women’s voices.
Far and away, Rumsey’s original work is the true grit of his show. All the rest
of the music, while competent and well orchestrated and mostly polished, are
just side dishes to the main course. My opinion is, I believe, validated with
the next number, “The Wicked Trail” .Rumsey wrote this song as a tribute to Gram
Parson, Hank Williams, and Townes Van Zandt who, Rumsey feels, lived lives and
played music in a way which burned them out.

I admit I
am a ardent Bruce Molsky fan and when Rumsey starts up the next song, an old-time
traditional one, “Fishing Blues.” I nearly shake my smug head in skepticism. Why
do I doubt Dan Rumsey? He pulls off the number with such an amazing energy and
rollicking fun that a comparison to Molsky’s rendition is pointless. Rumsey has
a blast “fishin’.” with his guitar and Heinz turns her flute into a pole,
casting out an imaginary line to the audience.

Rumsey
slips in a bit of Irish with his political song, “Me Laddie Friends and I.” He
wrote this with the current state of our world firmly in mind. Our morning ends
with a Fleetwood Mac tune. Rumsey heard Eva Cassidy’s recording of “Songbird.”
and plays it for us now. At the end of the song shivers run up Rumsey and he
comments on his goose bumps.

It’s easy
to hear Rumsey perform if you live here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He’s at
the Black Bear Crossing the second and fourth Sundays of the month. He also
weekly hosts open mic at the Riverview Café. If you aren’t close by, he has his
debut CD at www.dreamhorse.net. A review
of it is included in the spring, 2003 issue of “Sing Out.” magazine. A new CD is
forthcoming later this year.

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Mpambara–a Minneapolis, Minnesota show review

Mpambara-a Minneapolis, Minnesota gig review by Susan Budig

Leafing through the Minneapolis Summer Jazz Festival booklet I spy a new name. It’s the first time I’ve heard of Mpambara, slated to play on June 26, 2003. That evening I ride a bus downtown to Peavey Plaza with high hopes of hearing some innovative material. I arrive at the McDuff stage early, settling in a seat at a table near the front of the platform. It’s dinner time and I am looking forward to enjoying the brisk, fresh air gig of Mpambara who is performing his jazz flavored world music infused with his native country’s Ugandan rhythms and harmonies.

Six o’clock rolls around and Mpambara, or MP, as his friends call him, starts picking his Fender bass while his band mate, Siama Matuzungidi, follows suit on his trendy, angular guitar. The piece, Kamlang, is mostly instrumental with some of it sung in Lingala, a Bantu language from northern Congo. The bass line is so strong it feels like my heart is being told when to beat. Friends and Strangers regales our senses next. The title is analogous to the assortment of musicians on stage this evening. Along with MP and Siama, Rick Olson, who currently resides in Los Angeles, is Mpambara’s music mate from their days at the University of Minnesota twenty years ago. He keys the Yamaha piano. David Burk has been playing his Paul Reid Smith guitar with Mpambara for the past ten years. But the other two band members were recruited just this week and first played all together this morning. Angela Diaz on percussion and Greg Schutte on drums complete the sextet.

The next piece, Gentleman, begins with Olson on the ivories. He hands off the theme to Burk and in typical jazz style, it goes round the circle, ending with Siama. Throughout the song, Siama smiles a wide, almost naive grin, belying the sophisticated skill he employs as he fingers his guitar. This is a gorgeous tune, lasting over twelve minutes with riveting arpeggios and smooth segues from one player to the next.
Mpambara’s long, slender fingers pick out the notes on his Fender with an easy precision on this next number. Soy La Ley, a tune from Puerto Rico, translates as “I am the law.” Diaz sails along during an ambitious passage, bringing new life to his congas. At the same time, the band looks so relaxed and composed that I almost feel like I am looking at a still life painting. During this six minute song, skateboarders practice their jumps behind the stage before getting chased away. All the while, the sun keeps shining and the black clouds to our south keep spitting rain in our direction.

Accordingly, after the last song, we are treated to a Miles Davis number, You Are Under Arrest. This distinctive American jazz piece really exemplifies the value of experiencing music as it’s played live. Not only are my ears engaged with the music, but my eyes are mesmerized by the band’s interplay. Studio work can occasionally devolve into a canned sound. Not so with Mpambara and his band as they perform live. Olson, with his back angled toward the audience, interacts with the band, providing direction and emotion with his eyes and facial gestures. I can see adjustments being made as various band members respond to one another. When Burk find himself playing a particularly winning run, he is encouraged to stick with it and play it out. The individual players build one another up and close to a frenzy before finishing the tune.

Burk starts this next tune playing on Mpambara’s Fender. Over and over we hear the same five or six notes, almost as if Burk is teaching the rest of the band a new song. Suddenly, Mpambara breaks out singing and using an Algerian percussive instrument. Looking like a long, red paddle with attached bells, he hits it against his hand, suggestive of a sparrow’s rapid heart beat. Mpambara arranged this number, Nawuliranga, a traditional Ugandan piece. It’s a song found on Mpambara’s sole CD, Hail To The Chief (Bina Music, 1995) The other musicians join in and heat up the stage with this amazing number. With power and energy, the band plays Nawuliranga as if they’d known it all their lives.

A connection between all of the band’s artists truly gels in this piece.
The last song, Bolingo, is an original by Siama Matuzungidi. Siama, Mpambara, and David harmonize in Lingala, smiling all around. This song has an incredible groove. The driving beat adds an irresistible energy. I’m not sure how I manage to stay seated. It includes a staggering run by Mpambara who also brings back his Algerian percussive instrument. It’s a clever ploy by the band. It leaves me hungering for more.

By the end of the summer Mpambara hopes to finish his second CD, Eradde. I can hardly wait.

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32nd Annual NW Folklife Festival

32nd Annual Northwest Folklife Festival
Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington
Memorial Day Weekend 2003

It’s been a few years since I have attended the Northwest Folklife Festival and while attending the 32nd annual festival, my mind took a turn down memory lane. The festival has endured many changes over the years, but has maintained its free admission, even if various festival staff, board members and musicians give PBS pledge drive speeches in between the 100’s of performances. Festival staff expected 200,000 attendees over the course of the weekend and the center grounds definitely felt over-crowded as I inched my way across the center on route to the various performances I attended over the four-day event.

For those individuals who thrive on statistics, this year’s festival boasted 18 stages, 1,000 performances from 120 traditions performed by 5000 performers. And for those who only wanted to get a bite to eat or buy handmade crafts, could visit 35 booths scattered throughout the center grounds. However, as I travel down memory lane, I recall the first festival I attended back in 1987. At that time, vegetarianism thrived among a large hippie crowd dressed in tie-dyes and Birkenstock sandals, playing drums on the lawn and occasionally checking out a performance of Greek dancers, Scottish bagpipes or tossing spare change into a fiddler’s case.
Although Folklife has transformed into a folk-roots festival featuring a broader range of world music performers, you can still find droves of Birkenstock clad hippies toting a coffee cup in one hand and a festival program guide in the other waddling their way to a performance. Tofu burgers have been replaced by large chunks of meat seen on various plates throughout the festival and the folky-folk scene has been augmented with a world beat consciousness that would put a smile on Peter Gabriel’s face.

This year’s festival promoted a maritime theme while highlighting the lives of fisherman and other maritime folk of the eastern seaboard and the West Coast of North America. Seafarers and musicians from as far as Scandinavia and Portugal were also strewn throughout this year’s festival programming. And while this theme focused on theatrical, dance, spoken word and other types of performances, I focus only on the musical portion. I started off with a Scandinavian fiddle performance with Michaelson & Myers. The Scandia-American fiddling duo introduced traditional fiddle dance tunes from Norway and Sweden, but tossed in a cover by the Finnish fiddle group, JPP. The fiddling was laced with Scandinavian humor and technical prowess.

Next I headed to the Seattle Children’s Theatre to catch the Maritime Showcase. The Yupik Savoonga Comedy Players, a troupe of elder women comedians entertained a packed theatre with slapstick antics, Eskimo humor on traditional songs sung in the Yupik language. They ended their set with How Great Thou Art sung in Yupik and although the vocals were slightly off-key, the women’s charming demeanor garnered hearty applause. Daisy Nell and her husband, Captain Stan Collinson chipped in a short set of sea shanties that delighted all of the fishermen and women in the audience. Local folksinger and fisherman Knut Bell also delighted the same audience members with his baritone vocals and songs about romance and rough seas. I felt a bit seasick.

Fado singers Ana and Jose Vinagre, accompanied by Portuguese musicians, Jose Pedro Ramalho (guitar) and Alfredo Paredes (Portuguese guitar) ended the evening with a passionate set. Jose kicked off with songs by the infamous Amalia Rodrigues and other fados that sported maritime themes. Ana completed the second half of the set with a similar repertoire along with commentaries about Portugal, the maritime culture and her guru, Amalia Rodrigues. When she asked audience members to name their favorite fadistas, a few yelled out “Mariza,” much to Ana’s dismay. She explained that she respects Mariza’s talent, but that you could hardly compare her to the legendary Rodrigues. Yet, any recent interest in fado could be connected to Mariza’s newly acquired international success and she will certainly keep the tradition going for another generation or two and at the same time, it’s a pleasure to watch older fadistas preserving the fado tradition and maritime themes.

On Saturday, I attended the Fiddler Showcase featuring world-renowned Cape Breton fiddlers Buddy MacMaster and Jerry Holland along with Appalachian fiddlers, Carthy Cisco & friends, swing fiddler Paul Anastasio with emerging talent 13-year old Michael Frazier, Jacob Breitbach and an array of other fiddling talent. Buddy MacMaster, (the brother of Charlie MacMaster and uncle of Natalie MacMaster) packed the theatre with fiddle enthusiasts. And his short set with Jerry Holland and pianist Robert Deveaux delivered the goods while acquainting novices with Cape Breton’s fiddling tradition. Two young fiddlers charmed the audience. Teen fiddler Sara Comer from Arkansas displayed a budding talent when she wasn’t hiding behind her girlish grin. Canadian swing fiddler, Michael Frazier also stunned the audience with his boy wonder abilities and his poise. Keep your eyes out for these emerging talents.

After I learned that the Scandinavian Music Concert with members of Varttina and Gjallarhorn was cancelled, I headed to an outdoor stage just as giant clouds roamed across the sky. As I waiting for the Latin American ensemble, Grupo Condor (from Beaverton, Oregon) to begin their set, I watched a parade of samba drummers pass. Grupo Condor struggled with the wind that was kicking the stage canopy and with their sound, but once the trio settled into their performance, they delivered warm and inviting Andean music from Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and France. The music featured pan flute, congas, guitar and vocals played by veterans of the musical genre. The group has already released several CDs and has a strong following in Oregon where they perform at various festivals.

I attended the Senegalese Show on Sunday. Charismatic drummer Thione Diop (“Jo Jo”) with the group Yeke Yeke and two seductive Senegalese dancers led off the showcase with power beats, polyphonic rhythm and entranced dancing. Although the audience seemed enamored with Diop’s vibrant personality and drumming abilities, the two dancers stole the show with rubber hips and non-stop smiles. Meanwhile, a colleague took her basket through the audience collecting cash for the performers, as is the custom in Senegal and one that honors the musicians.

San Francisco-based griot musician, Henri-Pierre Koubaka followed with quiet, yet mesmerizing set. Accompanied only by his guitar, I had a difficult time hearing his gorgeous songs due to audience members who decided to hold conversations during the short set. While solo performers deal with this sort of audience attention deficit disorder on a regular basis, Henri is an expert at engaging us with his stories and humorous antics. And despite the few rude folks in the audience, Henri’s soaring vocals and innovative guitar left a favorable impression.

I headed outdoors and caught a performance by local performer Gina Sala and her ensemble that consisted of a tabla performer, double bassist and guitar player who doubled on other exotic instruments. Gina coined the phrase global vocal that she fused with groove and devotional music while singing in Hindi, Bulgarian and other languages. The end result was peaceful music with a capitol “P” and a good remedy for my strained nerves.

I headed to the Mercer Arena on Sunday to watch the Arabic Show. Again, even though the showcases featured dancers, poets and musicians, I choose to focus on the musical portion of the show. Writer-musician Hanna Eady sent shudders through the audience with his haunting vocals and oud performance, but he kept apologizing for being on stage again. He had appeared earlier along side a trio of Arab women poets. Of course, no apologies were necessary since it seemed that everyone with the exception of the wailing baby (whose cries echoed throughout the concrete auditorium) seemed to be enjoying them selves. David McGrath introduced the ney (an end-blown flute from the Silk Road) with a performance laced with historical commentary. Soon a drummer joined David and the two musicians launched into traditional Arab dance songs. Master oud player Maurice Rouman also cited ancient history of his instrument, but his broken English proved difficult to comprehend. However, his passionate execution on the oud didn’t need any translation and was absolutely breathtaking. Rouman’s son-in-law and son assisted the frail octogenarian oud master onto the stage and also accompanied on traditional drums. Frailty, old age and Rouman’s small frame did not stop him from unleashing the oud’s hidden powers and secrets.

Finally, I capped off the long weekend with a solo kora performance by Seattle musician, Kane Mathis. Although I always enjoy hearing this West African harp, I would have enjoyed Kane’s presentation and comments more if the theatre ushers had the decency to lower their voices when showing latecomers to their seats and not shine their flashlights in our faces. On that note I will conclude my review, realizing that human behavior does play a big role in any festival environment. And that people come to the Northwest Folklife Festival for a variety of reasons, including people watching, networking, getting stoned, learning about new cultures and supporting local performers and colleagues. I went for the music and witnessed many dynamic events by musicians of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Many of the artists have released recordings and will be performing throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond this summer. For more information on the artists, please visit the NW Folklife Festival web site–directory of artists. www.nwfolklife.org

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Bruce Molsky – a Show Review from Madison, Wisconsin

Bruce Molsky
Bruce Molsky
Running late on this mild spring evening, I angle into the nearest parking spot and run up the steps of an old, gutted, church, transformed into community center. Before even opening the door, I hear a well rosined bow gripping the strings of a fiddle. Chagrinned to have missed the first notes of his opening tune, I push on the wooden door to see Bruce Molsky sitting twenty feet away, on the stage. Molsky’s warm, smiling eyes meet mine and with a friendly nod of his head, he welcomes me into the hall. Everyone, I think, should be so lucky as to receive a personal greeting from this magnificent fiddling genius. I scan the room filled with roughly 60 people and slip into a folding chair next to the sound controls. Besides the two lamps shining on stage, the audio-system’s green desk light provides the only other lamp in the room. I’m at the back of the hall which was once the church’s sanctuary, yet Walking In The Parlor pierces the darkness and rings true in my ears. Molsky couples this tune with Rebel’s Raid. Though not a common technique among old time musicians, Molsky likes to build energy and add interest by pairing tunes together. One number ends and the next begins without any break or interruption.

Continuing with his fiddle, Molsky sings Peg and Awl. His voice grips the air, sounding as rosined as his bow strings. I’m suddenly aware of the many similarities between Molsky’s voice and his fiddle. They resonate amazingly at the same pitch. If his fiddle had lips, it would sing in a voice exactly like Bruce Molsky’s. I close my eyes and let the sonorous duet wash over me.

Molsky then strums his guitar and shakes his head. “It was in tune when I put it on the plane” he jokes. He fingerpicks Knoxville Blues. A tiny baby squirms and babbles among the show attendees, making it easy for me to complete the picture in my mind that I’m not really in the year 2003, in a building on the campus of the University of Madison, Wisconsin. But rather, I’m back in 1902, sitting on a tuft of grass in a Tennessee farm yard with the rest of my family, listening to Uncle Bruce entertain us. It’s not all that far fetched an idea. Old time music has it’s roots in the Appalachian mountains, dating back much father than the early 1900s.

Molsky pulls me back to the present with some banter before playing the tune, Fare The Well. “I’m not from the South. I did grow up in the South Bronx though…you gotta problem with that?” he rasps, smiling broadly. “No, Sir!” calls out a voice from the audience. We all chuckle. I’m not overly impressed with the acoustics tonight. Molsky sounds fine on his instruments and singing, but a touch too soft when talking. I determine to move up to the front during intermission.

The guitar is swapped for the banjo and we are treated to Rove Riley Rove, paired up with Uncle Norm’s. After another banjo number, we learn some finer points about Canada. Before playing a couple of fiddle tunes from John Arcan, The Grey Owl and Victor’s #39, Molsky tells us about a marvelous fiddle festival, Fiddles of the World, held up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was there, four years ago, that Molsky heard about First Nations people. This is the term that Canadians use to refer to the people who lived on that land before the Europeans crossed over the Atlantic. During these two tunes we see Molsky’s animated face. His expressions are so varied, it’s as if he’s deep in conversation with his fiddle.

Lady Hamilton is played and then we are enjoined to sing along with Sail Away Ladies. “If I’m singing and you feel like singing, please join in” he says. While I love to sing, and I do sing along when thusly asked, in general, I’d rather listen. Molsky’s voice takes on such a personal tone, it feels like he is singing just for me. And I’d think everyone in the audience could say the same thing. Again the rich sound of both voice box and fiddle box fill our ears and every crevice of the room. I drink in the sound of the soprano fiddle and the baritone singer, their voices full and luxurious, made for one another. We hear Jeff Sturgeon and Sally’s Little Favorite. Molsky looks out at the audience and smiles an impish grin. As he fiddles these last few songs, his fingers are moving so fast, they fly like a typist on the keyboard typing eighty words per minute.

Cotton Eyed Joe holds several agreeable fiddle tricks. The tune is a lively one and includes Molsky sliding his finger down the peg board as he draws his bow across the string. We also discover that even fiddlers can rap. Old time fiddle master, Tommy Jarrell, taught Molsky the technique of rapping the wooden part of the bow against the fiddle. This tune moves so much, I notice the heel of Molsky’s foot banging from side to side rather than a more sedate toe tapping as he keeps the beat.

After a short intermission, during which we are brought up to-date about local folk music activities by the show’s presenters, Madfolk, we settle back down for Mike in the Wilderness which includes lots of colorful left handed plucking and Black Jack Grove where the bow whips around on the strings so much I am reminded of a flag being pummeled by the wind. I note that Molsky holds his bow with the first three fingers of his right hand. “You could cut off these two (ring finger and pinkie) and it wouldn’t make any difference” he says.

Of Molsky’s many varied musical talents, one of them is not as a choir director. He attempts to get us to sing along in this call and response song, Let’s Go to Hunting. The audience does not respond as hoped. Imagine Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer, handing out paint brushes to his patrons and entreating them to “add another pearl.” It’s just not going to happen. Likewise, Bruce, most of us want to hear you sing, not the off-key fellow sitting next to us. Conversely, the next song, Poor Cowboy, works tonight as a sing-a-long. Maybe because Molsky teaches us how to sing it and it’s a simpler song to sing for those of us who are musically challenged.

Molsky calls himself an African music freak. The next number was influenced by the Zimbabwe National Choir. Molsky heard a recording from the 1967 LP Africa in Revolutionary Music (LSM Records) and wrote this song. It’s still untitled, but Molsky is compelled to share it with us. I’m glad he does. It’s unlike most of his other music and resultantly adds another dimension to his repertoire. “Music evokes a different response every time you play it” he states as an excuse for not being able to find the right name for the song. Indeed, if the song’s emotional message keeps changing with every rendition, naming it would, in a sense, nail it down. That might not be a good thing.

During Roustabout, played on the banjo, Molsky, true to his word, spends time tuning the instrument while simultaneously playing the song. “Banjo players spend half their time tuning their banjo and the other half playing out of tune” he says.

We hear Give The Fiddler A Dram and Three Forks of Cheat, both fiddle tunes. When Molsky sings I Truly Understand and Field Holler, I find I need to look carefully at his feet. His voice sounds so rooted and plangent that I wouldn’t be surprised to see that his feet have become cemented to the floor, he is that solid sounding. His pitch is remarkable. He then warns us that he has only one more song before the evening is over.

Pickin’ The Devil’s Eye is one of my absolute favorites. The way that Bruce plays this makes me think there is more than one fiddler on stage. After this tune and leaving no doubt as to his virtuosity, Molsky exits. We respond in kind with a rousing round of clapping, not stopping until Molsky re-appears. The encore is of the same caliber. We all go home with joy in our hearts.

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Pandit Shivkumar Sharma & Zakir Hussain

King Cat Theatre, Seattle, Washington–USA. May 3, 2003.

When I saw the mostly Indian audience dressed in their finest saris and suits crowd into the King Cat Theatre, I could feel the anticipation. Two of India’s most brilliant musicians, tabla player Zakir Hussain (the son of the legendary tabla master, Alla Rakha) and the world-renowned santoorist, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma would soon bless the audience with their musical presence. And as promised by a fateful invitation, Zakir and Shivkumar did indeed delight their devoted fans and novices such as myself with their sheer virtuosity. And novices to classical Indian music could easily be fooled into thinking that it was Zakir’s concert when in fact, Shivkumar was the featured performer. Every nod or gesture on Zakir’s part brought shudders and applause. Watching the musicians master their instruments or play off of each other’s energy ended in elation and wonderment. As did, focusing on the ripple of muscles under Zakir’s bright orange shirt while his rubber-like hands pounded out beats only he could invent.
The first set began with a Hindustani (North India) raga called Buriya Kalyan. Shivkumar flowed through the alap section, then introduced rhythm in the jor section that grew more complicated through the jhala section. This flowed into the composition and gats section in which, tabla beats were slowly added. It was at this point that the audience elation grew thus waxing and waning with slow rhythms and applauding after musical climaxes. The atmosphere created by the musicians fell somewhere between the sexual act and mathematics as the musicians continued through the rupak tal and ek-tal sections. An intermission came after an explosion of tabla beats and santoor rhythms. Both the musicians and audience members needed a breather.

Of course, the intermission lasted too long and concert goers were still drifting into the theatre and winding their way to their seats long after the raga of the second set, Mishra (mixed) Khmaj had begun. These were obviously people familiar with the slow and tedious alap and jor sections. They were waiting for the interplay between tabla and santoor that in time did occur this time adding playful elements and more complex rhythms with the introduction of folklore elements. Shivkumar had commented earlier that normally a vocalist would be added on this section. Yet the absence of a vocalist appeared to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Ever so often, the musicians would wipe sweat off their foreheads and Zakir would hammer on his tablas, most likely to tune them. They worked their way through slow and fast 16 beat talas while teasing the audience with false endings. The real ending created uproar of applause and left the musicians legendary status intact.

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