Category Archives: Interviews

Dymphi Peeters Soars

Dymphi Peeters – Photo by Glenn Cornelisse

Dymphi Peeters started out life in Afferden, Limburg, a small town in the Netherlands of about 2000 people.  As a child, she never imagined becoming a professional musician.  She first learnt wooden flute then moved onto silver flute.  She taught herself the ngoni, an African stringed instrument.  Later, she worked to master the kora, a multi-stringed African instrument. 

Dymphi has performed with several groups, including the Ecstatic Dance Band and Mehmet Polat’s Trio. Mehmet describes her as, “a talented and open minded musician.”

Dymphi Peeters – Gaia

On her recent album, “Gaia” she steps out more on her own.  This CD is a collaboration with Andre Schoorlemmer.  He plays guitar, bass guitar, and also engineers. Dymphi’s songs invent a new world: her powerful voice soars over electronica with the steady pulse of the kora.  Dymphi describes her music as, “inner world music with a meditative atmosphere.” She has a hippy spirit and sunny demeanor. Yet do not be misled by her gentleness.  Her music mesmerizes.

DJL: Were your parents musical? What was your early musical experience?

DP:   My parents were somewhat musical.  My mother was a schoolteacher.  She played the flute and later learned the djembe in her fifties.  My father played guitar.  They always supported my desire to learn to play music.  When I was younger, I performed flute in a small folk music group.  We toured small villages in the Netherlands and abroad in countries like Slovenia and, Croatia. As a teenager, I loved rock music, the Cranberries Alannis Morrisette and the musical Hair.  

DJL: What is your musical background?

DP:  I spent one year learning classical flute at a conservatory.  I played for several years with folk bands, learning Balkan and other folk music, and with a flamenco band. Once, in a music lesson, there was a woman whose African boyfriend had died. She had his ngoni.  I felt drawn to this instrument.  It then took me a year to find my own ngoni to play.

I always had a deep longing to sing.  I met Dobrinka Yankova, who is a Bulgarian opera singer, and took singing lessons from her.  She said I had talent. Later, I learned about freeing the voice in a creative way through voice healing from Marius Engelbrecht.

DJL: What is voice healing?

DP:   It helps people sing with the different parts of their body as a way of healing. I now teach it.  They are welcome to sing their pain and their stories.  They may connect with the core of the earth or with their ancestors.

DJL: Why do you choose to help others through voice healing?

DP:   Voice healing has allowed me to heal myself and to follow my dreams.  I used to work as an educational designer, then became a professional musician. Through work in voice healing, I want people to connect more to their intuition and to all the support which surrounds them. I want them to be their free authentic selves and to stand in their power, in a balance between the divine masculine and feminine energies. I encourage them to create from their inner qualities.

DJL: You have also described the birth of your daughter as being a part of your musical transformation.

DP:   I quit my job to take care of my daughter.  I always carried her close to me in a baby sling .  It was because of her birth that I was guided back to the heart and to love.  As a result of her birth and my longing for music, I started to host concerts in the Netherlands, where ten musicians would come together and play intuitively. These concerts were a true adventure in music. Playing intuitively was freeing for me. When I was in Amsterdam to give an intuitive concert with a friend, I first heard Mehmet Polat. Hey played after us.

DJL: What was it like hearing Mehmet play? 

DP:   When I heard Mehmet play oud for the first time, I immediately connected with his music. It felt like home. I even felt a bit sad that I was not playing this kind of music. It touched something deep in me.

Luckily we connected afterwards. He asked me, “Do you play the kora?”  And I said, “No, I play the ngoni.” Mehmet said, “There’s an album I want to create. I have a particular sound in mind.  Can you learn to play the kora in six months?  I know you have inside you what I need for my trio.” 

Mehmet saw a musical quality in me that I did not know existed. I’m very grateful for his courage to give me an opportunity to play with him. When I’m on stage, I always feel supported by a bigger field of love. I feel connected to his music. I love the music we create from the heart.

Dymphi Peeters

DJL: What was it like to learn the kora?

DP:   When Mehmet talked to me about learning the kora, I had to learn it very fast. It was March and in October we would tour Mexico, Austria, Germany and The Netherlands. He was planning to do a CD.  When he asked me to learn, I had to sleep on the decision overnight, and then I said “yes.”  I felt it was a life-changing opportunity. And so it was!

At times when I was learning the kora, I would say to myself, “What am I doing?”  At first, I was terrible and nervous. Then I would continue to practice and say to myself, “You can do this.”  It was hard, but I had spent a year studying opera, and that experience made me realize I could do it. You can learn so fast if you invest time, and only practice from a place of love for the instrument and for the music.

I learned to play the kora from Mehmet’s sheet music compositions. I watched some Youtube videos and listened to kora music. I taught myself and also took a couple of lessons with Zoumana Diarra. Zoumana was the former kora player in Mehmet’s trio before I joined. I play on a kora built by him. My kora has 24 strings instead of the normal 21.  It also has tuning clips so that I can play in different tonalities.

DJL: The kora plays a central role in your new album. Is “Gaia” the first CD that you have initiated?

DP:   Yes, “Gaia” is the first serious CD I have created with Andre Schoorlemmer.  I did not want to make beautiful music alone. I wanted to create something from a deep place. The album feels very true to me.  I could not have completed it without Andre’s help.

DJL: Who is Andre Schoorlemmer?

DP:   I have known Andre for years. He is a dear friend. I played with him in flamenco concerts and in the intuitive dream concerts I organized. Andre is a brilliant musician. He owns a recording studio. He also creates film music. In 2017, I was asked by DJ Esta Polyesta from the Ecstatic Dance scene to record some kora and vocals so she could create a dance track from them.  I recorded these in Andre’s studio. He started playing with the recordings afterwards just for fun, and created a track called Trance Dance that is also on the latest CD. When I listened to this track, it made me so happy.  Then we decided to make a CD together. The creative process was fun and easy. I so loved Andre’s input and ideas. He challenged me every time. The result of our creative process is “Gaia!”

Dragonfly Ecstatic Dance Band – Into the Unknown

DJL: Why “Gaia”?

DP:   I chose “Gaia” as the name, because I feel the feminine power of being rooted in and connected to the earth. The kora has an earthy quality. It is like a pumpkin. One story goes that the instrument was invented by a woman.

DJL: Your voice is powerful. On the title track, “Gaia,” there is the regular pulse of the kora, your vocal is percussive at times, sounding as the steady tick-tock of a clock, and at times has a deep, grounded vocal. Can you talk about this song?

DP:   In the song, I want us to remember our nature—that we are part of the earth. Gaia is in us all. The song is also about sisterhood, about supporting and loving each other.  It is about being natural, authentic, deep, and intuitive.

DJL:  Speaking of sisterhood, there are tracks on the album that address different aspects of being a woman: “Woman Goddess,” and “Sirens of the Ocean.”  Sirens is a gentle, easy song with a lullaby feel. Your fingers carefully caress the ngoni as you sing alongside it. You create a soft breeze. You call the listener in.

DP:   Yes, that’s true. I want women to come out from the shadows and stand in the light.  And with “Sirens of the Ocean,” I love water and swimming. It energizes me. We are 85% water.  Sound makes the water vibrate. Water has an old wisdom. It is older than we are.

DJL: Your singing is this album’s highlight. Has your voice become stronger over the years?

DP:   When I was young, I was scared to use my voice. I talked very softly. My voice became much stronger once I practiced voice healing and took classical singing lessons. Voice healing is like a cleansing of energy. I worked through the energy blockages in my body over the years. That’s how I could get more conscious of my body, and how my voice got stronger.

DJL: Are there female singers that have inspired you?

DP:   I was always drawn to female voices.  I’m inspired by Dobet Gnahore from Côte d’Ivoire. Her music has a homecoming feeling in it for me. I enjoy Ane Brun from Norway and Gjallarhorn who are a Finnish folk band. I love Loreena Mckennitt‘s music and Nynke Laverman, who performs Dutch fado.

My main theme in life is to dare to take my own space, to be my authentic self, and to stand in my power. The more you are present in your body, the more you can sing from your body—the freer your voice gets.  My voice is a metaphor for all the aspects of my life. The more I liberate my voice, the more free and powerful I can become in my life.

From a hidden place, she unfurls her long wings, spreads them wide and sings. She soars as the kora accompanies her.  Now sure of herself, she flies.  

More information about Dymphi

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Karim Dabo’s Path to Peace

Karim Dabo

One day, I stumbled across Karim Dabo’s music online and I was transfixed. His vocals are soft and sensitive.

Even though you may not understand the lyrics as he sings in Wolof (a West African language), as a listener you are soothed and comforted by their gentleness. The vocals invite you into an atmosphere of peace, even relaxation. Karim is a good percussionist, but it is his singing that holds you in an embrace. In January 2014, his debut album “Sama Yone” came out. The sound is very spare, light, and acoustic with only drums, guitar, bass, kora and percussion accompanying his voice. Yet there is power in the simplicity. It sounds like folk music. Out of curiosity and wanting to learn more, I reached out to Karim for an interview and he responded.

Karim grew up in a household of music. His Senegalese father is a percussionist who loved traditional Senegalese music and the Mande music of West Africa. When asked about his father, he says, “My father’s story is important. When he was young he wanted to play music, but in our culture, it was forbidden to him, because it was not supposed to be part of our family. This was a family that was known for their work in business. Music is a genre reserved for the griots in West Africa. When my dad emigrated to France in his twenties, he played music, but in his head it was forbidden.”

Was music also forbidden to you?

No, nobody forbid me to play, because I grew up in France, I was not directly confronted with these concerns. When I returned home to Senegal with my music, my family were very open-minded. We started learning percussion as children with the jembe and dundun (Karim has five brothers and one sister). My mother is French; she is a teacher of African dance. Together, we played percussion to accompany her dancing lessons.”

Karim came of age in Annecy, France, a small mountainous town near to Geneva. He said “there is a spirit of peace in the mountains,” but felt it was too quiet to remain there. He was drawn to the possibility of moving to Montreal, Canada. Unexpectedly, he met Mafé, a Haitian-Québécoise singer based in Montreal who was visiting France. They began to make music together, and it was after meeting her that he moved in July 2013 to Montreal.

Yours is an incredible voice, when did you start to sing?

“I always sang when I was young, but only in my room. The kind of singing I am doing on this album, I started three years ago. Before I played a lot of percussion, but then I decided I wanted to try to create my own sound with guitar and singing.”

Karim Dabo

Why did you want to make your own sound?

I just wanted to discover the guitar, a new instrument for me. Also, one of my brothers, Sebastian Pintiaux, is a good guitarist and he sings. His music inspired me and he helped me to record and make the arrangements for this album.”

The music on the album is very spare and simple: is that deliberate?

“Yes, I wanted to keep the instrumentals quiet, basic, to give space for the voice.

Can you tell me about the track Africa? I ask, its cyclical music flows in the back of my head. An upbeat sound, the word Africa is pronounced many times as a chant throughout the song. The gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar, drums and light ripple of percussion accompany the steady vocal.

I am saying to African people we can make a choice for our development. It is not necessary to take a path in the same direction as Europe and America. We can make our own way. I believe this message is important, because when I go to Dakar, Senegal, I see a paradox in the people. I see a lot of people who want to live the same life as Americans or Europeans, but they are not being authentic to Africa.

This song is about how we can have our own way of life without being influenced by the West. The track was also inspired by the African musician Tiken Jah Fakoly, whose music often communicates directly and strongly with African people. I am saying we can build an authentic Africa, with an African spirit. Africa is beautiful and I think we can do a lot of things in Africa. In this song there is a little bit of revolution because I want to see African people strong and proud.”

Karim Dabo – Sama Yone

Your vocals carry the sound forward, because they are from the heart. Your singing sounds thoughtful. Your voice reminds me a lot of Geoffrey Oryema’s vocals. He has a very calming, steady, almost hypnotic sound. He is from Uganda.

“Yes, I know him. The track Diorme which means give me, is in the same spirit of Geoffrey Oryema. Even if you cannot understand him, you can tell the message is deep. But he is a great singer and I am a bit nervous to be compared to him.”

Yes, his vocals are haunting. They stay with you. But your vocals also have a haunting quality.

“There is a meditative aspect to my music. I want to convey peace. My singing is a reflection of what is going on inside me, a sense of introspection.

Karim Dabo

The track Jamm has that spiritual sense in it. Jamm is a gentle, meditative song with a steady rhythm. The same words are repeated, but the repetition is calming, not boring. The sound is restful.

“Yes, Jamm means peace in Wolof. In this song, I am talking about how a sense of peace comes from the sky and inspires me, but how peace may also inspire another person.”

So, is peace important to you?

“I am also a Social Worker, I work with people who are in difficulty. I’ve worked with disabled people and troubled youth. I’ve also learned to understand people by the way they play music. Through this experience I learned peace and self-control.

Karim has used music in his Social Work practice as a way to connect with others and to enable clients to express emotions or difficulties that they may carry inside.

Because you have to remain calm to do Social Work?

“Yes, and that’s why I decided to create music with a spirit of peace and love for humanity. A lot of people do not understand the vocals because they are in Wolof, but they can feel this calm in the music. And to make a world of peace, we have to do a lot of work inside ourselves. That’s why on this album, I am starting from within. Other people have taught me a lot, I want to offer them peace through music in exchange.

To find out more about Karim Dabo, you can visit his website at www.karim-dabo.com

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Interview with Sver’s Olav Luksengård Mjelva

Scandinavian band Sver will be touring North America this month. The ensemble includes musicians from Norway and Sweden. Sver will be presenting its new album Reverie, a set of musical pieces that combine acoustic Nordic folk, bluegrass influences and powerful beats through the use of a drum set.

Sver’s discography includes Sver ‎(Kvarts, 2007), Fruen (ta:lik, 2010), Snakka San & Sver ‎(Playground Music Scandinavia, 2014), Fryd ‎(Folkhall Records, 2015) and Reverie ‎(Folkhall Records, 2018).

Fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva talked to World Music Central about Sver and the upcoming tour.

Sver – Photo by Tom Gustavsen

Sver includes Norwegian and Swedish musicians, how did you all meet?

Leif Ingvar (accordion) and myself grew up in a small mining town in Norway. We started playing together when we were around 15. We had some ideas about getting a guitarist to join us, and that happened around 2005. Then it’s a lot of coincidences, but in short, we met Jens and Anders through the Ole Bull Academy, the music college in Norway, and then Adam, the guitarist, joined us later.

The members of the band live in different cities and countries. How do you coordinate tours, rehearsals and recordings?

We usually decide some dates for rehearsing, say 2-5 days. When it comes to touring, it really doesn’t make a big difference living in different cities. We meet up where we are going to play, anyway.

How has your style evolved throughout the years?

I would say we have gotten a bigger and more “epic” sound throughout the years. In the beginning we were focusing very much on arranging traditional tunes in a folk-rocky way. These past few years we have written more tunes ourselves, which suits the setting better. We also are thinking more about making music for big venues and festivals now.

Sver live – Photo by Anbjørg Myhra Bergwitz

Your sound combines traditional acoustic instruments with powerful, rock style drums. Do you reach any other audiences beyond the folk music circuit?

I feel that we reach out to all kinds of people. I would describe our music as acoustic folk-rock. There is a lot of energy in the way we play, but many “traditional” folk musicians also seem to find our music entertaining. So I guess — and hope — there is something to like for everyone!

In your recordings you incorporate Scandinavian folk music plus other influences like Celtic music and American bluegrass. Where do you get your inspiration from?

That’s a good question. We all have played so much Scandinavian music, so even if we would try to play an American bluegrass tune, it would probably sound Scandinavian.

Tell us a little about your latest album Reverie.

This is my favorite of our albums. The arrangements have a big range, from the large, epic tunes to the pounding, bluegrass-y tunes. We also got to work with some great people at Hedgehog Music in Sweden, and I´m very happy with the soundscape of the album.

Sver – Reverie

You will be touring North America in September. What’s the lineup and what material will you be playing?

The lineup is myself on fiddle and hardanger fiddle, Anders Hall on fiddle and viola, Adam Johansson on guitar and Jens Linell on drums. We will mostly play music from our two latest albums, Fryd and Reverie. Hope to see you there!

Sver 2019 Tour Dates:

Sept 5 – Portland, OR – Nordia House
Sept 6-8 – Sisters, OR – Sisters Folk Festival
Sept 9 – Olympia, WA – Traditions Café
Sept 10 – Bellingham, WA – Wild Buffalo
Sept 11 – Seattle, WA – Triple Door
Sept 13-15 – Montreal, Quebec, Canada – La Grande Rencontre (with Moira Smiley 9/15)
Sept 17-18 – Cambridge, MA – Club Passim (SVER and Friends 9/17; with Moira Smiley 9/18)
Sept 19 – Glens Falls, NY – The Folklife Center, Crandall Public Library (with Moira Smiley)
Sept 20 – New Haven, VT – Epic Little Folk Festival, Tourterelle (with Moira Smiley)
Sept 21 – Shelbourne, VT – Shelbourne Farms Harvest Festival (11:00am)
Sept 21 – Hamden, CT – Best Video Film and Cultural Center (8:30pm)
Sept 22 – Bryn Athyn, PA – (House Concert)

headline photo: Sver live by Anbjørg Myhra Bergwitz

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Kaïssa’s Joy

Kaïssa

Kaïssa greets me warmly at the door of her New York City apartment. She is a tall, thin, striking beauty with dark penetrating eyes. Born in Cameroon, she left at thirteen for France. As a young woman in Paris, she was first inspired musically by her elder brother. Raymond Doumbè Mouloungo is a bass player and led Miriam Makeba‘s band for several years.

Kaïssa began her musical apprenticeship in Paris, singing backing vocals for some of the greatest musicians to emerge from Africa: including Salif Keita and Manu Dibango. In 1996 she emigrated to New York. Here, she began to sing, songwrite and record independently. I Am So Happy, her second solo CD, was released in July 2011. We met in New York to discuss her life, her music, and this CD.

When you left for France as a young teenager, did you still feel a connection to Cameroon?

Yes a very strong connection! I have to acknowledge this was quite a trauma. It was quite a change. I moved from a very warm place, filled with people, a huge family. I am the youngest of ten, so you know when you get the love from your mum, it’s not the only woman’s love you get, you will see that when you go to Africa.”

The sense of community in your country, is that what you’re talking about?

Absolutely, that was what was terribly missing in France.” (Her voice is decisive.) “It was a culture shock. Something I first observed was an older woman, my neighbor’s children did not visit her. This happened in the French, modern, so called ‘civilized society. So, no, Cameroon never left me, because it was in me. Why the move at such a young age? Because my parents were told by a doctor that there was something wrong with my eyes, and they wanted me to get the best treatment available.”

You moved alone?

I traveled alone, but my three brothers and one sister lived here and were attending Parisian Universities. As a teenager, I used to break my brother’s ears, I want to sing, I want to sing,” (she chuckles), “One day he said, ‘you want to sing, don’t you want to sing? He was a member of ALAFIA band and Angelique Kidjo was one of the singers. She was unable to make the gig that night, that was the beginning.”

Tell me about that time in Paris, your musical life?

When I moved to France, Africa was very present culturally; it was a rich platform being in Paris in the late seventies and eighties. I sang in Bambara, Arabic, Wolof, Zulu, Duala, and French. You had so many African musicians,” She says enthusiastically.

So living in Paris exposed you to music that you would not have heard had you grown up in Cameroon?

Exactly, Paris was a very, very rich platform. So that’s when my brother said ‘viens, apprendre’ come, learn, and I had one week to learn the songs in Mina, one of the languages from Benin.” She laughs.

“So the experience in France, it prepared you for the musician you are now, doing backing vocals for all these great artists?

Absolutely, yes, my experiences in Paris, the diverse tours I did with Salif, Papa were the greatest schools, music and all of that, show business.”

Kaïssa

But, before Paris, you said that your father was musical?

Oh yes, it was how we would occupy ourselves on Saturdays, long meals, ten kids at the table, plus Uncles, Aunts, friends visiting, so, yes, we could all hear him. He could sing, and of course being born in Cameroon, that is one wonderful artistic tapestry. You have music, art, culture every day, every hour.

The particularity of Cameroon is that there are so many different people. It is a country in Africa with over two hundred and fifty languages; so many different languages mean many different rhythms. You go, for example, from the pop Soul Makossa of Manu Dibango with its strong bass to the music of the Bamilike, which is a 6/8 rhythm. We grew up listening to that diversity every day and I am really feeling blessed I was born there.”

Kaissa – I am So Happy

I am So Happy captures just the musical diversity that Kaïssa describes. It ranges effortlessly from soul to jazz to slow ballads. Each track is unique, yet the tracks work easily together. Kaïssa’s vocals strengths are twofold: she sings from the heart and has great vocal versatility. The first track on the CD, “Baka”, successfully highlights her technique. Here her voice becomes fun, playful, percussive, mimicking a drum. The rhythms interweave with repetitive breathing on this song, reflecting the traditional sounds of the Baka forest people.

Talk to me about the song “Baka.

Growing up I saw some kids making fun of the Baka and them being disregarded. Why should that continue today in a world where they should be protected, where the natural habitat should be restored? They are known as pygmies, but I don’t like that word because it is condescending. Growing up, kids would call them monkeys, and yet these are the original people of Africa. How can we go forward if we ignore everything from the past and treat them as if they are animals? And let me tell you their music is beautiful and they have a profound understanding of herbs, life and more.”

Indeed, a concern for humanitarian issues weaves its way throughout this CD. Kaïssa speaks to justice in her music, “One lady said ‘you should not sing about female genital mutilation on “Fanta.” You’re going to alienate a lot of people, and you’re not going to be understood. They might not play the CD.’ But I had to do it. This song “Fanta” is very personal to me even though I was not a victim of genital mutilation, this problem concerns us all. I first heard about this practice as many people did in France in the early eighties. This Malian child was about three and she died as a result of mutilation. It was all over the news, and I think legislators in France were forced to take action to try to prevent it from happening again. I remember crying, and asking my brothers. I was fourteen, and I could not believe it! I said, ‘Her own parents took her, explain to me why do they do that?’ I swore that one day I would write and maybe sing about it. I wrote the lyrics about four years later, exactly as they are.”

“Fanta,” is an earnest and introspective song. It is simple, yet full of feeling with the spare, gentle accompaniment of guitar and kora. Kaïssa sings, “Babo ba nongui oa owone, the lyrics say:

They took you away,
thinking they knew only the best that is good for you.
They never looked into your eyes,
because they would have seen you are such a precious, little being.

Kaïssa said, “I wrote it and then I met Idan Raichel about five years ago and he said, “Oh I have a melody,’ so we worked on it and then I re-recorded it a couple of months ago for the album. So you know this CD has really been a long work in the making.”

Tell me about the inspiration of your father – the fact that he got arrested in Cameroon. You have said this was a pivotal moment in your life. Did he influence you in terms of your commitment to justice?

“My Dad was Secretary of Culture in the first Cameroonian government in the early 1960’s. He was arrested in 1973 for writing “subversive” literature.

To me he was a visionary, more than a politician, I don’t think he should have touched politics, because he had to speak his mind and criticized the government. They used the pretext of the book he’d written to say he said bad things about the government. His thoughts about life, justice, liberty, left a serious imprint on me. After he got arrested, we went as a family to visit him in prison. They had taken his shoelaces away.

I remember asking my mother why they did that. Then closing, locking the door and it was so dark in that prison cell. After that, they never took me back. I came to realize he was jailed on no grounds, no court, no trial, nothing! You see one of the most important people in your life being taken away, and it’s an image that will never leave me until my last breath. So, yes, I sing about things that matter to me, that I believe are important.”

Tell me about working with Salif Keita, one of the best known singers from West Africa? What was that like? (Keita’s inspiration can be felt on her version of “Mandjou,” a song previously recorded by him)

“I love Salif, I love Mandinka music, it moves me, I always liked it. Working with Salif was an honor, an unbelievable great school.

Kaissa

You don’t like to be in one box, in one genre of, for example, rhythm and blues, Salif symbolizes West Africa. You like your music to be diverse.

“No I don’t! It is too restrictive. My music is diverse firstly because of the great diversity we have in Cameroon. Between my first solo CD and this one, the woman who inspired me the most musically, Miriam Makeba, who I called Mazi passed away. I recorded “Ntylo Ntylo” as tribute to her. She came to one of my first gigs with my mum and my brother.” (Kaïssa smiles fondly), “And when my brother confirmed that she would be there my throat went bloop, (gasp) because I had never sung in front of her before, and she gave me a standing ovation. That was a wonderful gift. That is something I will never forget.”

And finally, tell me about the title track, “I am So Happy.” This is truly an upbeat song.” (The sound is light, fast, somewhat funky, pop in feel).

When our oldest brother Eyoum passed in 2001, my sister Mamadé sent me a beautiful poem saying: ‘I’m not dead, I just went to the other side, keep on talking to me as you used to.’ I don’t remember who wrote those words, but they strongly helped me go through the process of grief. When Mamadé passed 5 years ago that poem she had handwritten helped me to go through the terrible pain of losing a loved one.”

It gave you comfort.

“Yes, it gave me a lot of comfort, because those words are so true. You lose someone, but at the end of the day, they are still somehow in you. And then you realize that love does not end. And that’s why I sing, “I am So Happy” because love never ends.”

What would you want a listener to take away from this CD?

It’s really for people to get what they want; I’m not here to educate or to indoctrinate. When people come to Zinc bar, for example, and tell me: ‘Oh, I walked in and I was so sad and disappointed by life and now I’m leaving and I am uplifted‘. (She laughs.) “Oh boy, that feels good, I know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Music can be a powerful tool. It has helped me deal with my own demons. And when people tell me they feel better, I feel great, because that’s what I want my music to do, to relax, for people to have fun, to think, for listeners to take whatever they want to take from it. I am putting out there things that are important to me, that make me smile, that shock me, and that I think should get more attention. Finally, I want to stay true to myself, to my music and what I want to present. I want to put people in a place of joy.

For more information about Kaïssa, please visit www.kaissa.com

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Elikeh: A Journey Between 2 Worlds

Elikeh – Photo by John Shore

“Between 2 Worlds” is the second CD release for Elikeh (Azalea City Recordings; released 2012). They are a big band based in Washington, D.C. who are best heard live. Imagine the punch of James Brown’s horns combined with the melodic guitar of Afrobeat and you would not go far wrong. Comprised of drums, percussion, two lead guitars, bass, two sax, trumpet and keyboards, their stage presence can enliven a sleepy crowd and get everyone on the dance floor.

This CD does an excellent job of capturing the band’s live sound and their versatility as performers: with a bass section that has the flexibility to encompass Togolese rhythms and funk in one heartbeat.

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Massama Dogo, their leader, about this latest release. When I asked him about the difference between this CD and the first, Massama, on lead vocals and guitar, explains, “On the first CD, we recorded different sections of musicians to make one track, here we recorded each track all together live in the studio.” Massama always wants to learn, “I seek inspiration from all the band members. We all come from different places and developed skills in different genres, rock, soul, yet I like to learn where I can. I learn from Frank Martins (lead guitar) and Clayton Englar (sax) who are both veterans.”

Elikeh – Between 2 Worlds

The CD starts with “No Vision” a slow, languorous track that uses a delicate guitar sound, but then builds in energy to the upbeat, highly danceable “Olesafrica” (an Osibisa cover). Here the music takes off as the chant of “Olesafrica” is interspersed between the lyrics and carries the music forward. The drummer opens up and flies with an intricate and hypnotic solo. It is with the fast, high energy songs such as this one that Elikeh excels. The lead guitar stretches out and space is made for a good rock improvisation. Massama’s deep, heartfelt voice adds to the quality of the music. Throughout this album Massama’s authentic, determined and sometimes frustrated voice compels the listener to pay attention.

Massama is impassioned about justice and this comes across in his lyrics. He says, “Injustice has been around since before I started to play music. To fight injustice is a part of my heart so it is natural that it be in the music.”

The music is helped this time by guest appearances from two great musicians, Vieux Farke Touré and John Kadlecik. Vieux originates from the Malian blues tradition, his father was the renowned musician Ali Farka Touré, while John comes from the American rock tradition. When asked about the experience of working with Vieux, Massama relates, “We opened for him in Washington, D.C., and ever since then, we became friends. When we found out he would record with us the band were jumping up and down like kids with excitement.”

This friendship can be felt on the track “Alonye.” Here Vieux’s bluesy guitar riffs fit right into the upbeat swing of the band. Vieux’s blues bring a soulful feeling to the music. Rather than taking over though, he has the understanding and sensibility to work right alongside the band with his guitar. On “Alonye” Vieux’s guitar in part echoes and corresponds with Massama’s deep and direct vocals, as if both are enjoying and thriving from the connection.

When I asked Massama about his hopes for the future of the group, he says: “Right now we are a regional band, I am hoping we will get more national gigs and little by little I want us to become international.”

With “Between 2 Worlds” Elikeh have finally arrived. A hard working and disciplined band, they deserve more space in the spotlight.

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Interview with Sarawakian Band At Adau

At Adau – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

When you think of Scotland, does the drone of bagpipes start playing in your mind? Does Hawaii spark strains of a ukulele-laced ‘Over The Rainbow’? Or perhaps Bugs Bunny singing ‘Aloha Oe’? At the mere mention of Sarawak, I hear the soothing lilt of the sapé. Just a decade ago, the sound of Borneo was in danger of being lost to history. As aging masters passed on, young musicians showed little interest in the instrument. The long carved ‘lute’ and other traditional instruments were considered ‘boring and un-cool’.

Meldrick Bob from Kuching band At Adau recalls, “When we were younger, we thought the same thing. When I went to middle school, my father said, ‘You must learn sapé. Who else will play?’ The sapé [made from a single bole of wood] featured at the first Rainforest World Music Festival I attended. I was then also inspired by rhythms from Africa and Latin America. That’s why I play drum with a mix. There’s influence of salsa, cha-cha and songo on our new album Oba.”

Bob represents the Iban and Bidayuh tribes of the 20+ across Sarawak. Others in the group descend from the Orang Ulu and Kenyah. “We also play instruments from the Melanau beat, the Penan… We plant it into modern elements. The old people say, ‘It’s OK, but you should know your roots first’. Back in the day, if we followed the taboo, it’s not good. But for now we really want to keep it alive – to create our own sapé scale and tune which attracts more youngsters. They’re surprised that modern music can be played with traditional instruments.

At Adau create a unique style of what they call ‘experimental world music.’ They accompany 4 or 6 stringed sapé with perutong (a traditional bamboo zither), Bidayuh bass drum, jatong utang (wooden xylophone), Kededek (mouth harp), and nose flute. They incorporate the sound of the rainforest and rivers with frame and Hang drum, Cajon, guitars and dance. Their compositions range from the hypnotic to rock fusion. Predominantly instrumental, their opening track on Oba features majestic vocals inspired by traditional ceremonial chants.

Bob’s fellow band members are Ezra Tekola (4 and 6 string sapé), Jackson Lian Ngau (Zither and Bidayuh bass drum), Alfonso McKenzie (bass guitar) Cedric Riseng (guitar)

and Luke Wrender David on 4 String and 3 String Sapé and guitar. “Ezra is very, very good at sapé. Lian in traditional dancing (Ngajat). The percussion is from Sarawak. I’m from a rock band. This idea came from Lian’s father (sapé master Mathew Ngau Jau). So we collected all the ideas from out of the box then put them in a blender. Then accidentally, magically, it’s very good. We realised we have something – not only traditional, strong to our roots, but something very fresh. In these times, we want to say, ‘Even the instruments unite so why don’t the people?’ We are from different races and backgrounds but come together to form a band. Boom.’ When we play, we see different races in front of us but they have the same feeling and follow the songs. We love to see that.”

In recent years, the sapé in particular has become more prominent across the local music scene in its many shapes and forms. Women players like Alena Murang are now accepted with large ensembles keeping the song of Sarawak and neighboring regions alive.

At Adau

An independent band, At Adau formed in 2014. Their profile rose steadily with 2015 debut album Journey. Gigs on RWMF’s small stages progressed to thunderous ovations for their main stage performance in 2018. Their album features on Malaysia Airline’s inflight music selection. International touring, industry awards and their own studio in Kuching see them now a mainstay of Sarawak’s cultural profile. They’re on the bill again for the global gathering this July. “Our costumes and necklaces, feathers, traditional tattoos… includes us as indigenous people. On stage we teach how the Iban or Bidayuh make a toast.” They did so on a teaching trip to South Korea. “If you go to Korea you might meet people doing the Borneo toast ‘OooohHaaa!’ because it’s fun and loud.”

Ezra Tekola makes his own sapé and nose flute. He learnt from an elder who he met at the Rainforest World Music Festival. Tekola explains, “Uncle Loyuh was the only one left to play and make the local nose flute. Another instrument showcased by the band is the very rare kededeh made of bamboo and gourd. It’s modified to sound more bass, so it sounds like a goose!” he laughs. “We were quite surprised to see in the Kuching museum that the Iban tribe has its own two-stringed violin. We wondered how it sounds and how to make it alive again.”

The musicians say some traditional stories tell strange, ‘very creepy’ tales about the spirits. A lullaby piece on Oba Story depicts a scene following a good hunting trip. “The people gather in the longhouse, have a feast, go all lazy then play.” Tuak (rice wine) flows freely as the toast rings out across the forests. OooohHaaa!

More about the band and discography: At Adau

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Dawn Avery: Performance as Prayer

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

In Dawn Avery’s recent album “Beloved,” her voice is strong and determined. Her songs are often slow and thoughtful. Her cello traces graceful circles around a guitar and a Persian tar – a stringed instrument similar to a sitar. The daf, a Kurdish frame drum, provides a steady, low, underlying rhythm. Gentle waves wash over the listener.  The music is a synthesis of her many musical experiences.  She has worked with Philip Glass, Sting, and many other stars.  Her music has echoes of Glass’s compositions. It is cyclical – it pulls listeners in and moves them into a meditative space. 

Dawn Avery – Beloved

“Beloved,” is Dawn’s embrace of her Mohawk heritage and her study of Sufism. Her music explores the Sufi theme of longing for the divine. On the track, “Night and Day” we hear Rūmī’s words:

I am dazed at the thought of you,
night and day.
I will place my head at your feet,
night and day.

Dawn is no newcomer to music.  Her father, Chris Bukholz, a jazz drummer, played in the Lennie Tristano trio.  She often fell asleep on his lap to the sound of Bebop, which she learned to love.  Dawn is a vocalist, cellist – she studied the instrument at the Manhattan School of Music, a composer, and a professor of world music at Montgomery College, Maryland. In conversation, she has not let this strong musical background go to her head. She is warm, down to earth, and brings fresh insights into her music.

DJL: Did your father’s approach to music inspire your own?

DA: My dad’s love of Bebop and old jazz meant it was always playing in the house. There was a reverence when Billie Holiday was played. We were taught to be quiet, listen, stay still. His listening discipline as well as his intelligence in analyzing both the technical elements and musical message of various styles of music affected me greatly. He never missed a day of practicing!  His interest in world cultures, religions, and art sparked my pursuits. His Mohawk heritage allowed me to pursue our culture in ways he was unable.

DJL: Your father played with Lennie Tristano. Tristano was an original composer. Did his music and composing influence yours?

DA: Tristano’s use of counterpoint, advanced chromatic harmonies, some avant-garde melodic passages, along with his attention to great technical and rhythmic detail, influenced my playing and composition. The attention to discipline in practice habits, performance, and listening to music, influenced how I grew up as a musician.

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

DJL: What are some early memories of playing music?

DA:  Piano was my first instrument. I was serious about it. At 16, I played at Carnegie Hall. When I later started playing cello, I got to play Beethoven’s Fifth in the center of a big orchestra, in the middle of all that vibration.  It amazed me. It reminded me of being in the Longhouse.

DJL: Is the drum at the center of the Longhouse?

DA:  In the Longhouse, rattles are the pulse of the music.  But you are right, the rattle has a drumming aspect to it. It has a large vibration about it.

DJL: Why did you choose the cello?  It has a female shape?

DA: Yes, a very sensual instrument. The elementary school cello teacher would not let me play any another instrument, so I played cello, but was more serious about the piano until I was seventeen. I thought the cello would be less of a solo instrument and enable me to play in diverse musical styles.  I like that the cello sounds as a human voice at times.  It has a big range, at the lower range you can play the blues, higher up classical music.  And when you hold it to your body, you get a certain feeling from the instrument.

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

DJL: Why is it important to you to preserve Native American music?

DA:  I first worked on reissuing some older music: Mike Jock and the Big Bear Singers.  In Mohawk language there is a word Non:wa that means now.  We have a different understanding of now, the past is very much a part of our present.  Preserving these traditions is a way of keeping our heritage strong and alive and of healing mother earth for all peoples.  I formed the Native Composers Project and we invited people to compose songs in their Native languages as a way of preserving them and bringing them into the present. 

DJL: What are the connections between Native American music and Sufi music?

DA:  Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi master, wrote, “The beauty of music is that it is the source of creation.” As a woman of Kanienkéha, Mohawk heritage, and a student of Sufism, I am aware of the vibrations in the world around me as the source of creation from first breath to the sounds of nature. Whether in the Mohawk Longhouse or in the Sufi Sema traditions, I sing to all of creation and strive to live in the beauty and remembrance of all who we are with the divine.

In Mohawk, the word for song, Karèn:nen is translated as “lay your vibration down.” This word was interpreted as a word for prayer by Western linguists. In Sufism, there is also the idea that the soul itself is song. Ceremonial and social songs in the Longhouse are sung to the people, Creation, and to the Creator for healing, remembrance, and peace, just as “The power of the voice as inspiring, healing, peace-giving, harmonizing, convincing, appealing…” exists in Sufism (Hazrat Inayat Khan). As Sufis may “increase the fire of their devotion while listening to music,” the Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy dance and sing around the fire to express their love of Creation.

In addition, there are many values and aspects that are similar, such as concern for the community, circle dances, the importance of ceremony, story-telling and metaphor, healing techniques, all of Creation at the center of daily life, the concept of gratitude.  I have been privileged to study language from both traditions through a cultural and historical translation of each syllable. I use these ancient languages in part of my music to invoke the spiritual depth that these two traditions give to us – with hope for the future.

Dawn Avery

DJL: Speaking of hope for the future, you wrote to me of a “softer kind of activism,” and your performances have been described as “loving.” Can you speak to that?

DA: Yes, I see my role not as pushing a specific agenda, but working in a healing and unifying role to share some thoughts in a less threatening way.  I hope that comes through to the audience. People often tell me they received love and healing in the room. I know as a trained healer that I am giving and receiving! It is probably unusual for someone of Native American heritage to be seen onstage performing Sufi music.

DJL:  Do you think it is important in these times that the broader American society better understands Native American and Sufi philosophies? 

DA: It is so important that Americans understand that the basis of these philosophies is love and respect.  I teach at the college level and I see many Muslim students saying how they are stereotyped as terrorists.  These kind and intelligent students are often treated so ethnocentrically.  As we know, humanity consists of both good and bad.  However,  it seems that racist tendencies have really been brought out during this current time.  I think that many people knew they existed in the United States, but perhaps some of us did not realize just how strong they were. My way of participating in a “softer activism,”  is to present and open up discussion to different points of view through less threatening mediums such as music, workshops, conversation, and the bringing of different cultures together. I want to hold onto the core of beauty and love that are not only important in both Native American and Sufi philosophies, but to us all.

DJL:  You have recorded many albums in your musical career, why this album now?

DA:  Well, I worked on recording it two years ago, but kept it to myself for a while, meditating on it, before sharing it with the world. Sharing the different voices of humanity. Releasing this music has a vulnerable aspect to it where something that was private becomes very public.  There is the track “Superheroe” on the album with the refrain, “Be a Superhero, renegade for love.” The United States has a strong tradition of super heroes, especially in cartoons. But here the hero could be the listener. The song is ultimately about how we elevate our spirits in the world.

DJL: Your music has a meditative quality to it: it reminds me of Philip Glass’s music.

DA: Yes, it can be meditative. People have described it as, “mystic pop.” Perhaps, it has a chill and spiritual aspect to it that is found in Glass’s music. I love hearing what associations people have when they listen to my music. It is meant to be music that enables people to reflect.

DJL: There are two other main musicians that perform on this album, the guitarist Larry Mitchell and Behfar Behadoran who is a vocalist, tar, and daf musician. Can you speak about them?

DA: Larry and I have worked together for about ten years on several Native American music and meditation projects.  He has been described as a guitar texturalist. He lays down a delicious bed of textures and grooves from which I can soar as a musician. Our different strengths interweave with one another. 

I met Behfar while teaching at Montgomery College. One day, I was surprised to see this student walking around campus with a Sitar.  I really like how he plays because he knows the old Persian Sufi songs, but he can bring a contemporary feel and great technique to them. It is also important for me to include Sakina Nur, the whirling dervish who performs with us live on stage.  She is also a flamenco dancer and sometimes includes that tradition when she performs. Sakina even got the audience to whirl!  I cannot separate her from us as musicians as Sakina is integral to this new music.  In the Iroquois tradition, we have this idea of being connected to the earth.  And you cannot really whirl as a Sufi dervish, unless you are connected to the earth and reach for the skies.  When I play with her, she makes true magic and her vibration is part of the musical prayer.

DJL: Towards the album’s end, the music also makes true magic.  “Night and Day” is a powerful, mesmerizing piece. The pace slows down. The music breathes.  There is a beautiful interplay between the cello and the tar.  Theirs is a heartfelt conversation. 

DA: “Night and Day,” is contemplative, it is a song about longing for the beloved spiritual teacher.

DJL: Do you move into a different state when you perform?

DA: Once I step on stage, I am in meditative connection with the audience and performers, a channel of the divine. I am truly blessed to be connected to people in this way. The performance is prayer.

For more information about Dawn Avery, you can visit her website: www.dawnavery.com

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Les Moncada Chats with Cuban batá Master and Conguero Román Diaz

Román Diaz

Batá drumming is getting more and more popular these days. With a lot of the masters who transmitted the tradition of batá drumming having passed away, the one living master today is Román Diaz, born in Cuba, now residing in New York City.

In Cuba, Román performed professionally with the Cuban legend of Afro Cuban folklore, female vocalist Mercerditas Valdés. She was known for her grand knowledge and recordings of Afro-Cuban folklore and Orisha songs. She recorded with the late master batalero Jesús Pérez. (batá master Francisco Aguabella’s dear friends from Cuba.)

Mercerditas Valdés

Merceditas Valdés is also renowned for having been a part of Pablo “Okilakpa” Roches Batá Ensemble in Havana, Cuba that included masters of masters, Pablo Roche, Trinidad Terregoza, Raúl Diaz and a young okónkolo player Francisco Aguabella. This ensemble was unsurpassable and not many bataleros or musicians can say that they performed with them.

In Havana, Cuba, Pablo “Okilakpa” Roche’s batá Ensemble with vocalist Merceditas Valdés, behind the bataleros, front left on bata, Trinidad Terregoza, middle Raul Diaz, and on the right on okonolo is Francisco Aguabella. Legendary ensemble of batá. Those who have performed with any of these musicians have become legends.

To perform with one of their members, as in Merceditas Valdés is in itself “without words.” Merceditas Valdés spread Afro-Cuban Folkloric history and knowledge, along with her vocals, lyrics, dance steps and drummers that performed and recorded with her.

Román Diaz was one of those drummers, relocating from Cuba to New York, to furthermore blossom his career and to spread the word, music, history and Afro-Cuban folklore to New York City and the world in its entirety.

Román has performed and directed many ensembles, too many to mention in this interview and has continued to perform and direct ensembles here in the United States, previously in Europe and now in New York City.

Román Diaz – L’ó dá fún Bàtá, Diaz’s latest album released in 2015

Let’s see what Román Diaz has to say about his life and times in Cuba, and times with Merceditas Valdés and his present movement in New York City.

Román, can you tell me a little about your past, where you were born.

I was born in the City of Havana, Municipality of Central Havana in the Barrio “La Victoria”.

Ekpe/Abakua encounter, Brooklyn, NY 2001. Left to right: David Oquendo, Román Díaz, José “Pepe” Hernández (Ísue of Efori Nandibá Mosongo), Vicente Sanchez.

Can you tell me if any of your family members had a musical history or were musicians?

I had an uncle that was a percussionist/drummer and my grandfather a trovador (troubadour).

Right to left: Chekere: Luis Medina; next: “Kikirito”; José Fernando Almendares “Pito el Gago”, Román Díaz – Havana, Cuba, 1984
Díaz on quinto, participating in a Havana comparsa during carnival 1983 with the group los Marqueses de Atares, who are the subject of a film by Gloria Rolando.

Román, can you tell me how you started to drum or become a drummer in Cuba?

I used to go to the comparsas (groups of musicians and costumed dancers that participate in parades and celebrations) and play bell. It was a friend from school, that motivated me to play in the comparsas. He lived in Solar de Africa, his name was Conrado Lam.

With Yoruba Andabo in Colombia, early ’90s. Román is in the middle on Iya. At right is Mario Garcia Arango.
Román Diaz with Melvis Santa & Ashedi

I would like to ask you about the vocalist whom you used to perform with in Cuba, legendary female Afro-Cuban Folkloric Vocalist, Merceditas Valdés.

Well, it was always a dream for me to play with Merceditas. As a young kid I would dream, just to play with her (Merceditas).

Yoruba Andabo (an Afro-Cuban Folkloric Group) that I was performing with, she came to our group to sing. Yoruba Andabo was already formed, it was formed in the 1960’s. I was given this opportunity to perform with her. (since she was in our group).

Cuban master rumba players performing in New York City, playing Abakua. Left to right: ‘Goyo’ Hernandez, Román Díaz on bonko, ‘Maximino’, Pedrito Martinez, Miguel Chappotin, Juan de Dios (Director of Raices Profundas)

Who first started you on batá?

I learned with Humberto La Pelicula. He lives in Italy. When we lived in Cuba I used to go to Mariano #110, 10 de Octubre (October), that is where I learned.

What does the future bring for Román Diaz?

At the moment, I try to play in the best position that I can perform in, to keep studying music (drumming), because there may be something that I could learn.

The above video is Juan De Dios, filmed by the late Jerry Shiligi, courtesy of Michael Pluznick who also went to Cuba. This was from the year 1985. I, Les Moncada, along with other San Francisco Bay Area musicians sponsored the Cuba trip. This was at the cabaret inside Hotel Cabri, Salon Rojo (in the Red Salon). Román Diaz is playing tumbadora (conga) , he is the drummer in the middle.

Musical Credits for Román Diaz

Percussionist, Cuba:

La comparsa Los Marqueses de Atarés. La Habana. 1983-86.

La comparsa Componedores de Batea. La Habana. 1983-86.

Escuela Nacional de Instructores de Arte. La Habana. 1983-86.

Grupo Raíces Profundas. La Habana. 1984-86. Juan de Díos, director.

Grupo “T con E”. La Habana. 1986-88. Lázaro Valdés, director.
Concerts in Panamá; Madrid and Barajas (Spain); Peru.

Orquesta Sublime. La Habana. 1988-89.

Grupo Yoruba Andabo. La Habana. 1989-1995.
Performances in Bogota, Colombia; Toronto, Canadá.

Grupo Añakí. La Habana. 1995. “Pancho Quinto,” director.

Percussionist, Europe:

Zurich, Switzerland.
Escuela de percusión de Zurich de Billy ‘Cotún’. 1995.

Paris, France.
Private percussion school. 1995.

Ekpe-Abakuá encuentro en Paris, 2007. Musée Quai Branly.

Percussionist, United States of America:

“Domingos de Rumba,” Esquina Habanera, Union City, New Jersey. 1999-2003
David Oquendo, director.

Collaboration with the Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernández album, New York City, 2000.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. Amherst College, Amherst, MA. April 2002. Funded by the Georges Lurcy Lecture Series Fund and the Willis D. Wood Fund, Amherst College.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. The Bildner Center for Cuban Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, New York City. March 2002.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. African Studies, Columbia University, New York City. February 2002.

Collaboration with Juan-Carlos Formell. New York City, 2003. “Misión Cubana.” Club Jazz Standard, Manhattan.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. A multi-disciplinary conference. April 2003. DePaul University, Chicago. Sponsored by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

Lecture demonstration conwith Dr. Ivor Miller. Román Díaz, singer. Black Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy, and Research. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library, February 2003.

International Festival of Yoruba Culture. San Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. 2004.

International Ekpe Festival. Calabar, Nigeria. December 2004. Collaboration with Dr. Ivor Miller. Sponsored by the Department of Tourism of Cross River State. Donald Duke, Governor.

Collaboration with Oriente López, pianista. Garden City, New Jersey. 2004.

Collaboration with percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, singer Marlon Simón, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. Philadelphia, 2004.

Collaboration with Paquito D’Rivera, director. “Obra Panamericana.” 2004. New York City; Newark, NJ.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” Lincoln Center, New York City. Román Díaz, director. August 2003. August 2005.

Latin Percussion representative. 2001. 2005.

“Noches Cubanas.” World Music Institute, New York University. April 2005. With Candido Camero, ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros; Orlando ‘Punilla’ Ríos.

Recordings:

Espíritu de la Habana, with Jane Burnett. Toronto, Canada. Won Juno award in 1992.

El callejón de los rumberos with Yoruba Andabo, Havana: (PM Records, 1993).

Aché IV with Mercedita Valdés, Havana (Egrem, 1995).

Aché V with Mercedita Valdés, Havana (Egrem 1996).

Del Yoruba al son with Yoruba Andabo, Havana (Magic Music/ Universal, 1997)

Montvale Rumba, New Jersey. (LP Productions, 2001)

Wemilere. Román Díaz, director. Recorded in 1996, Habana. Produced in 2002, Paris.

“Calle 54,” a 2000 documentary film and CD about Latin jazz by Spanish director Fernando Trueba.

Ay! que rico” with José Conde (2005)

Habana with Gema y Pavel (2006)

(R)evolucion” with José Conde (2007)
In Case Your Missed It, with Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits (2007)

Ye-dé-gbé – The Afro Caribbean Legacy with Yosvany Terry (2008)

Yo Se Que Te Gusta with Grupo Irék (2008)

Time Travel. With Raphael Cruz (2008)

Hot House: Cuban Tribute To Charlie Parker with Steve Gluzband (2008)

Herencia Judia with Benjamín Lapidus (2008)

Fiesta Percusiva with Victor Rendón (2008)

Across the Divide with Omar Sosa (2009)

Rumbos de la rumba with Pedrito Martínez, New York (2009)

Okobio Enyenisón with Proyecto Enyenisón Enkama (2009)

I would like to thank the Maestro Román Diaz for his patience & time he spent for this interview, Román is from Cuba and speaks Spanish. Therefore, I translated the interview as in many cases. Gracias Román for his preservation of the batá and Afro-Cuban folklore.

Me gustaría agradecer al Maestro Román Díaz por el tiempo que dedicó a esta entrevista y gracias por la preservación del batá y el folklore afrocubano.

Les Moncada

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Les Moncada Chats with the Comandante of the Timbal, Louie Romero

Louie Romero

There are timbaleros and then there are timbaleros like no other. Louie Romero has a remarkable timbales soloing style. When I post his solos on our Facebook site Timbales and Congas Bongo Bata and bells, the sound on my computer is like a slot machine!

Louie Romero has performed and recorded with the greats, as a youth living in New York City as timbales player for trombonist Willie Colon and with the late vocal legend Hector Lavoe.

Louie Romero’s brother percussionists in the Willie Colon Orchestra were José Mangual Jr. on bongo and the late Milton Cardona on congas, the most feared percussion section in New York City and the world, besides the earlier Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo.

Louie Romero, now living in San Francisco, California, is still making his timbales smoke. He is a true timbales music lesson for the young players and for those fortunate enough to meet him.

Let’s see what Louie Romero has to say about his legendary timbales career.

In the midst of the hottest salsa cycle of the 1970’s with Willie Colon Orchestra: Louie Romero, the late Milton Cardona & Jose Mangual Jr.

Louie, tell us a little about your background, where you were born and raised, your parents’ ancestry.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York of Puerto Rican descent.

Jose Mangual Jr., the late Milton Cordona & Louie Romero, the Comandantes of percussion in New York City.

When did you first hear Latin music?

In my mom’s womb.

How old were you when you started playing timbales? Could tell us what led up to you choosing timbales as your main instrument. Did you play any other instruments?

Watching my Pop playing drum set and timbales. No other instruments except percussion.

Which bands or orchestras did you perform with?

George Guzman, Willie Colon Orchestra, La Conspiracion, David Amram and Estampa Criolla.

Louie, how did you start to play with Willie Colon? Can you tell us a little about your association with Willie, Hector and Jose Mangual Jr and Milton Cardona?

I was at the Broadway Casino in Manhattan when Willie approached me and asked me to join. With Willie Colon and Héctor Lavoe, it was mostly business. With Jose Mangual Jr. and Milton Cardona, that was really good connect.

Louie, what are you presently doing music wise in San Francisco, California?

I have my Latin orchestra Mazacote.

Louie Romero backstage with legendary flutist, Art Webb

Louie, what is your recommendation to timbales or Latin percussion students of today?

For them to learn from the best instructors and to utilize a metronome.

What does the future hold for you, Louie Romero, timbalero of timbaleros?

To continue teaching, performing and recording.

Louie Romero with conguero Javier Navarrette

I would like to thank Louie Romero for his time he spent for this interview and thanks for his lifetime dedication as a timbalero.

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Gino Sitson’s Adventure

Gino Sitson – Photo by Alain Herman

Gino Sitson is a singer with a vocal range of four octaves. He soars while others crawl. As a high-flying acrobat, he glides from one place to another in an instant, reminiscent of Bobby McFerrin. He sings jazz; he sings classical; he sings traditional African music. And he mixes them together in a spicy gumbo. His vocal flexibility far exceeds most of his contemporaries. He has a distinct voice that listeners know is his. He often taps his face and chest in percussive accompaniment as he improvises. But he doesn’t just fill the air with endless notes. He understands the necessity of silence.

In March this year, Gino released “Echo Chamber.” It is his eighth and most ambitious album. As its title hints, he performs with a chamber group of Western musicians, who play violin, cello, clarinet, and viola. The Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango also makes a guest appearance on the album playing marimba. An echo chamber reflects the sounds put into it – it’s a symbol of conformity. But, Gino does not conform to one way of playing music. He is a musical explorer, seeking to innovate. But, he comes from a people – the Bamileke of Western Cameroon – with a strong musical tradition. And his music reflects their powerful percussive rhythms. He marries them with European counterpoint.

Gino Sitson – Echo Chamber

Astor Piazzolla combined the classical tradition with the Argentinian tango. Gino weaves the same classical tradition in chamber music with jazz, his ancestral African rhythms and melodies. After years of being aware of his music, I decided it was time to interview him about his life and his gift.

DJL: What music inspired you as a young person?

GS: As a child, I was fascinated by sounds, the sounds in our local environment in Buea, Limbe (Victoria), and Duala, Cameroon. As a teenager, it was soul and Motown, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Ritchie, and George Benson. I grew up playing music with my siblings. But back then, nobody knew that being a musician could be a full-time job. My brother Teo Sitchet-Kanda was the first to lead the way, to play music as a professional. He inspired us. It was also important that our parents did not forbid us from playing music.

DJL: I read that your mother was a Director of a Church choir. Is she a powerful singer? Has her singing influenced you?

GS: Oh yes, very much so. My mom has always been a huge influence on my singing through her knowledge of our language, Medumba that I sing in, and particularly her phrasing, in addition to the joy that emanated from her while she sang.

DJL: Did you sing as a child?

GS: I explored singing without knowing I was exploring it. I would hear an instrument and try to mimic that sound with my voice.

DJL: Later, you moved to France.

GS: I pursued several degrees in Musicology, Educational Sciences, Littérature at Paris VIII- St Denis and Sorbonne Universities. I was interested in how music is transmitted, for example, from one generation to the next or from one person to another. Bobby McFerrin invited me to be a part of the PBS program, “Music Instinct: Science and Song.” Listening to the scientist Daniel Levitin talk about his research on music fascinated me. I decided to pursue a PhD in Musicology.

DJL: For your PhD you went to Guadeloupe, an island with roots in Africa, where you studied the Gwoka, a genre that encompasses traditional dance, drumming, and song.

GS: Yes, I enjoy the sentiment, the eloquence of that music. People may improvise vocally out of the blue in the Gwoka.

DJL: You work as an academic and researcher, but you also teach vocal workshops, is that something you enjoy?

GS: Yes, so much, I like helping people to feel confident in their voices, to enable them to let go and to be free. I have a passion for the voice, for exploring and sharing music. If you think about it, we all improvise everyday.

DJL: To explore in music requires confidence. Are you more confident as a singer than when you first started out?

GS: Yes, I remember once, I was doing an audition in France, I had a guitar with me, I was a bit shy. The person in charge of the auditions told me to put down the guitar. At first, I did not understand why he wanted me to do that. Then, I realized it was because he wanted to hear my voice really come through alone.

DJL: You also help young Cameroonian children with music as an Ambassador for UNICEF. Are you trying to build confidence in them too?

GS: Yes I am. I work with street children in Yaunde. I am planning to return to them this year. I try to encourage their musical skills, to teach them a bit about music production, to empower them in a way that they may not have been before.

DJL: And now, how is your current CD, “Echo Chamber,” different from your earlier ones?

GS: It is a chamber ensemble with ingredients from New York, Cameroon and Europe. I am telling my story in my own way. The music reflects my thoughts and feelings. The listener is hearing someone who is able to encompass diverse sounds, but who is more at peace.

DJL: Is this CD more classical than some of your earlier ones?

GS: Yes it is. But if you listen to a high energy track like Upper East Side, you can hear the Bikutsi that is an up tempo rhythm from Cameroon.

DJL: How do you compose?

GS: Sometimes a note will come and then I let it evolve in an organic way. I compose on several instruments: guitar, piano or double bass. It all depends on the moment.

DJL: But the choice of the musicians on this album sounds very deliberate, for example, Maria João’s vocal alongside yours on the track “Night in Molyko.” This is a playful, upbeat song. There is a magical interplay created between the two vocals with the strings playing under them.

GS: Yes, you are right. How did you know that? (He chuckles). I am careful about the specific instruments that go on the album. I want the instruments to sound right together. This is a chamber group. My band persuaded me that the instruments would be recorded all together in one room. Only the vocals were recorded separately. I think it sounds better that way.

DJL: Are you trying to create a new sound that has not been heard before?

GS: I’m following my path by being true to myself. As you know, I’m an Associate Researcher at IReMus (Institut de recherche en Musicologie: Paris-Sorbonne University, CNRS, BnF, Ministère de la
 culture), in addition to being a musician. I’m an explorer…  it is a quest.

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