Category Archives: Interviews

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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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 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 released – 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.

Gino Sitson – Photo by Alain Herman

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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Interview with Daymé Arocena

Daymé Arocena

There’s a revolution happening on the music front in Cuba led by a visionary group of millennials that’s banging down post-Buena Vista Social Club doors with an intoxicating mix of Santeria/Afro-Cuban roots, jazz, hip-hop, soul and funk.

In the vanguard of this new movement, alongside such as Roberto Fonseca, Danay Suarez and the project Havana Cultura, is Daymé Arocena.

In her mid-20s, this smoky voiced young songstress follows a 60-year conga line of Cuban musicians influenced by Caribbean Yoruba traditions. As she explains: “We have had limited information about musical activities internationally, so we’ve had to research our roots to create something new.

Now, she declares, her generation is looking for a link with the world: “We wanna make Cuban music universal again by mixing the traditional with our young spirits. This new era is mixed and fresh.”

Arocena is both saddened and perplexed by the fact that international audiences and reviewers seem to expect all Cuban musicians to be in the old school mould.

The Buena Vista Social Club represents the music of the pre-revolution period, but it’s crazy to think that we haven’t done anything else since 1959. We’re a little island full of music, because Cuba is a country with a mix of races, languages, religion and culture. People can’t just talk about Cuban music being in Spanish with one clave.”

The fast-rising diva – a disciple of Nina Simone and Marta Valdés — is on a mission to change preconceived ideas about Cuban music, but insists she’s not alone in that aim. “I just got the opportunity to do it with an international response, but there are a lot of us fighting.”

While Arocena’s acclaimed albums, Nueva Era and Cubafonía, contain a range of styles, she says her master plan is simply to make “Cuban jazz music for everyone“.

Her self-composed songs are imbued with the spirituality of Santeria: “It’s really the national religion of Cuba because it’s the only one that was born here. It’s the result of the mixing of Yoruba and other West African roots and Catholicism with other Cuban native, Asian and European influences. I’m crowned Yemeya — the saint of the sea — so I’m a practitioner and my music and my life are connected with it.”

Arocena proudly wears the traditional dress of Santeria and is bare-footed on stage: “It’s my way of keeping protected,” she informs.”

The singer, arranger and composer regards English producer Gilles Peterson, the man behind Havana Cultura that helped launch her international career, as part of the family. She says that Peterson and the Havana Cultura project gave her the freedom to be herself.

Music has been Arocena’s calling since the tender age of four, when she performed on dusty street blocks across Cuba.

At age 9 she was accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious music schools, where she studied choir directing rooted in Western classical tradition. By 14, she was the principal singer in the prestigious Cuban big band Los Primos, impressing the likes of jazz heavyweight Wynton Marsalis.

Arocena ascribes her love of jazz and hip-hop to the southern US, where rappers and musicians alike have affiliations to the Afro-Christian Church. She describes hip-hop as the urban spirit of the street. “As a creator and performer you have to be plugged into it; it’s the best way to understand the worries of the people.”

Daymé Arocena namechecks Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar as musicians she’d one day like to work with. If her international profile continues to grow at its current rate, she may soon be able to cherry-pick her collaborators.

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.

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Interview with Oud Maestros Le Trio Joubran

Le Trio Joubran is an acclaimed ensemble featuring the Joubran brothers: Samir, Wissam and Adnan. The three musicians are oud (Arabic lute) maestros and play a superb fusion of Arabic music and global music influences.

Le Trio Joubran’s most recent recording, The Long March is the number one album on the March 2019 Transglobal World Music Chart. Adnan Joubran talked to World Music Central about the trio and the Long March.

Le Trio Joubran – Photo by Karim Ghattas

What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?

Depth of emotions, is one of the essential elements of our music, Le Trio Joubran do their best to understand why they use a note better than another, how a melody becomes a melody, an image first, a direction, a feeling, and a message, some melodies start with a moment of a life for one of the group, and this develops into a concept, and then a melody.

As composers, we aim to bring back or revive emotions that we human beings began to put a side, unfortunately, media, social media has made us numb, and made us live an illusionary life of strength, beauty, power and glory, which isn’t much of a reflection of reality.

Other musical element such “Improvisation” which we always make sure that the album has, or the performance has, to keep our musicality on alert, and or brotherhood on motion, us improvising means alive, means changing, from concert to another, means discover yourself, and let the other discover you better.

Who can you cite as your main musical influences?

Lately, quiet few! Hard not to mention the career of Paco de Lucia and Keith Jarrett for Adnan, and classical artists such as Abdel Wahab for Samir, and the influence of traditional Arabic singing for Wissam.

In the same time, we all listen to different music, jazz, tango, pop, rock, tango and classical Western and Eastern! I believe one should listen and keep listening to all types of music, we find elements that inspire in every genre of music.

Le Trio Joubran – Photo by Luc Jennepin

How did the ensemble evolve from your first recordings?

The first recording I reckon was experimental in a way that we were trying to see if it works, and it did!

To have three oud players, composers, virtuosos, is a big challenge. We achieved success because we are brothers and we could handle this quiet tough mission well because we allowed ourselves to unveil hidden sides of us, others could like or dislike, but trust, which is another meaning of “brotherhood” could allow this.

At that period, the composition was a secondary target, although today, we have proved to ourselves that it works, that there should be no limit in composition, and there isn’t always a need to prove our technical skills. Today, we stop by the title, and we stop by the message. We make sure that the message is there and the composition should serve it, by complexity, length, directivity, sounds and instruments, and notes.

Le Trio Joubran – The long March

Tell us a little about your new album The Long March.

Two years of discussions and two other years of recordings! Not that it should take that long! But we have been busy touring with previous album, and small projects on the side, such as music for films and important shows, and also because we live apart now, each with his growing family, and each in a different country. We get to meet in tours and discuss and then dedicate a period of recording. But this time has given maturity for the tracks and the ideas.

In this album, we tried to achieve a wider listeners, and introduce the oud to a bigger public, also we tried to introduce new sounds to the listeners of the oud. We have electronics, orchestral, tribal sounds, and vocals. The oud is the singer, and all the other elements support the singer to represent the story.

The body of the album is the poem of Mahmoud Darwish, which says the message of the album. The tracks titles are extracted from this text that is trying to tell this world of industry and world of power, that we are humans. Before and after all, our humanity should remain, despite the reality of wiping it away, and before this power can wipe it away, we will defend everything we have, even our final songs.

We have collaborated with the musical producer Renaud Letang, which an amazing experience, to hand over our baby (composition) and another musician and master of production looks at it and takes the essence of it.

Also we had the privilege to collaborate with Roger Waters for two tracks: one single which we released as a video clip under the title “Supremacy” before the album; and another track, “Carry The Earth” in the album as a dedication to four boys killed on the beach of Gaza by the Israeli forces.

As well with Mohammad Motamdi, an amazing vocalist and singer from Iran; an oriental orchestra from Turkey; as well as a western orchestra from Macedonia; and many other talented musicians!

We have succeeded to color the album. Each title to have a different color and influence, and in the same to have a one message uniting the while tracks.

The three brothers play oud, the Arabic lute. Where did they get the training?

We come from family blended with music and oud making, our father is the third generation in the family who builds the instrument.

Samir, the eldest, had his elder brother the Oud in the house! He studied with a local teacher, and then went to Cairo to learn music.

Wissam started at a young age learning music and violin, and then took the oud as his language as well as studying in Italy (Antonio Stradivari Institute) violin making.

Adnan, had two brothers that are oud players and one father oud maker, so he had no choice to escape this world! Only at the age of 16, he took the instrument in his hands and tried to play, and by the age of 18 he was on stage touring after self-training and listening to his brothers and many other music and musicians.

Who makes your ouds?

Wissam Joubran.

Where are your currently based?

Adnan in London, Samir between Paris and Ramallah, and Wissam in Paris.

Le Trio Joubran – Photo by Louise Feugier.jpg

Do you have any initiatives to transmit Palestinian and Arabic music traditions to new generations?

Of course, in each album we make sure there is a track that is a traditional way of composing and playing, and we make sure the on stage we have one traditional improvisation. Still, there is more initiative for a more dedicated album only for traditional music.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with, whom would that be?

Some of them died. Many of them are alive! Hard to mention names, because there are too many! Me, personally, I’d love to play with Keith Jarrett.

Do you have any upcoming projects to share with us?

We are very proud of our last album, we have just finished it and glad to share it with you and the rest of the world. There will be soon a very big collaboration with a mainstream artist, but we are not to uncover this surprise now 🙂

More about Le Trio Joubran and its discography.

headline photo: Le Trio Joubran – Photo by Myriam Boulos

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Voice of the Steppes: Interview with Urna Chahar-Tugchi

Urna Chahar-Tugchi, an artist from Inner Mongolia, recently released an album titled Ser, a collaboration with Polish group Kroke. Urna discusses her musical background and her latest projects with World Music Central.

What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?

I grew up in the steppe and the infinite diversity was always a great enrichment for me as a child. The indescribable diversity of nature…The unimaginable spaces between heaven and earth…The invisible energies of the universe…

As a child, I have always been curious about the visible and the invisible. When I sing, I’m in my music (melodies) and live the connections effortlessly and gladly share that with everyone. These moments of being are indescribable and quite simply many of my compositions and lyrics are born even in such moments.

Who can you name as your most important musical influences?

My greatest musical influences are the endless nature! All the beautiful things in the world, my home, the roots of my birth earth, my wonderful grandmother, my parents and of course the always enriching life experiences …

Tell us about your first recordings and your musical development.

My very first recording was in 1991 during my studies in Shanghai Music Conservatory. We had National Folksong lessons and our teacher Ms. Bai once asked me after a lesson, if I would sing some traditional songs from my home Ordos for her, and she would record.

So we started once and she has recorded really many of my songs that I sang, I think … like hundreds? Anyway, a whole book with hundreds of pages every song I sung, all recorded with a pretty old tape recorder. It took many, many, many days.

At the beginning of the 90s, for many students and even many of my friends at the conservatory I was somehow the strange girl of the Inner Mongolian steppe. Because during my studies I was very interested and visited all possible concerts of traditional music, classical music and many other concerts. I also listened to all the different exams, from voice to violin, cello and piano…
It was a nice opportunity to experience many different music and cultures. It was my great bridge from the steppe to the world with my music.

Urna Chahar-Tugchi

What attracted you to work with the Polish group Kroke?

There are levels when making music you can communicate with the souls. This is simply wonderful.

Kroke are great musicians and I’m lucky enough to work with such wonderful musicians, as Kroke, the Chemirani’s and others. I’m very grateful for my wonderful musician friends. Thank you!

Urna and Kroke – Ser

The result of your collaboration with Kroke is Ser. How was the composing and recording process?

My basic philosophy for cooperation with people for music: free and peacefully, so will the music swing boundlessly in life. It was beautiful, we have always a lot of fun and joy working together, so we had a lot of joy in the studio. The result can be heard on my Ser CD and I wish really you all can feel it.

You currently live in Europe. Do you keep in touch with Mongolian culture?

Of course I visit my home country and spend time with my parents and family.

Do you have any initiatives to transmit Mongolian music traditions to new generations?

Unlimited music flow is timeless and touches the hearts of people. Today we have incredible possibilities to open our mind. If we look closely, the young generations are expanding great open and fast. That’s wonderful!

Free and Peacefully, we humans need the profound vibrations and frequencies of music.

I enjoy always to touch the hearts of people with my music.

If you could bring together musicians or music groups, who would you work with?

Very interesting question; it sounds like you have perhaps certain ideas? Of course I wish to do many great and different projects. It is fantastic to working with great musicians and music groups from small to big all over the world. That brings me a lot of fun and joy and is always fascinating.

Do you have any upcoming projects to share with us?

Yes, at the moment I have some different projects in Asia that one or the other needs something to plan and we are thereby. Therefore, I can not tell you yet publicly 😉

And about my next concert dates, when you’re interested in booking concerts, and also with new great projects to realize with me together, I’m glad if you contact my manager Oliver, call +49 172 543 2207.

More about Urna and her discography.

Headline photo: Urna Chahar-Tugchi by Kerstin Stelter

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Interview with Emre Gültekin

Emre Gültekin

Vardan Hovanissian & Emre Gültekin recently released Karin, an album that reached number 1 on the January 2019 Transglobal World Music Chart. Emre Gültekin discussed his musical background and Karin with World Music Central.

Vardan Hovanissian and Emre Gültekin – Karin

How did Vardan Hovanissian & Emre Gültekin meet?

One of the first meetings was when we were looking in Brussels for a duduk player for a recording. It was an album project with my father Lutfu Gultekin…So he came, we met and recorded; it was wonderful.

At that time, I was studying sound engineering and there was a class named “soundscape” or something like that. One of our exercises was to put a poem in sound without using music. 

I was often the first student to present my works because we had a home studio in our house. 

So I presented the work which was a poem of Nazim Hikmet and asked Vardan to play duduk.

So the Poem (20th century) was presented with just a voice and duduk in front of the class and the teacher. 

A lot of students were laughing, etc…Then the teacher said ‘Ok! You forgot the main instruction for this work (no music) but your work touched me so much that I will give you 18/20 and if you correct this part by doing this, I will make it 19/20.’

I answered something like “I am ok with 18/20”. After that it was obvious that we would keep in touch through music.

Emre Gültekin and Vardan Hovanissian

What attracted a Belgian with Turkish roots and an Armenian to collaborate?

There is no point for us not to collaborate because of so many common things from food to music.

For me, the “modern Turkish identity” they wanted to create doesn’t mean so much or it is not relevant. Turkey is a mosaic of more than 40 ethnic groups with several languages, which includes Kurdish, Aramaic, Pontos Greek, Armenian, Laz… so much!

Unfortunately, a lot of blood and tragedies accompany their stories.

As in Europe with Bretons, or all the “little communities” which are actually so big for me as the Baul, in India for giving just one example…Sorry for my English.

For Vardan and me particularly, the music is the common language we want to express our feelings… and I think in this attempt the goal is quite appreciated for that we are so grateful to our respective masters… you have some interviews where their names are noted.

For me, Lutfu Gultekin, my father then so lot of so nice musicians. Specially and first from Turkey (one of my main roots), Talip Özkan, Mustafa Karaçeper, Neşet Ertaş, Muharrem Ertaş, Tamburi Cemil Bey, Cengiz Özkan, Engin Arslan, Ertan Tekin.

I want to apologize because there are so many.

Then also here in Europe or India or Africa, America, Far East, Middle-East.

Actually, Muziekpublique based in Brussels or De Centrale based in Gent can give a good idea about the diversity of musical cultures we exchange in Belgium.

My second root is related with Belgium, where I was born. 

So it means through Brussels more than 170 countries… so much diversity who can give so much perspective in the way of musical exchange creations, etc.

At the end, the world is like a village 🙂

Very soon, I hope we can effectively understand the absurdity in so much ideas like borders, papers. Music has to remember that as an artistic point of view of life.

Then there is no point of defining music by “nationality” which is also nonsense. Of course, territorial geographical particularities is relevant. Sometimes even between two neighboring village stylistic differences exist…Particularly for Armenian and Turkish folk music we can say that there is a so large common background through the centuries of living together than we can hope to collaborate with Vardan all our life. As long as breathe, we will perform!

Vardan Hovanissian and Emre Gültekin

What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?

Soul and spirit…feelings…fluidity… all our respective lives in a way… get in our music our hopes to transmit all of this through our music

Whom can you cite as your main musical influences?

I already mentioned some earlier, my father Lutfu Gultekin, and a lot of his colleagues or friends, Talip Özkan, Mustafa Karaçeper, and a lot more. 

Recently I met after 20 years Aynur, for a Kurdish folk project. Through the platform muziekpublique I get the chance to meet a lot of musicians from “world music.” I dislike this categorization of music. A big mistake;-) the categorization.

Vardan has also his own masters (I don’t have the names in memory but you can find through muziekpublique.be His roots related to Armenia so old and deep traditions…so the sound of duduk is printed by all of this…

Vardan Hovanissian and Emre Gültekin- Adana

Tell us about your previous album Adana and your musical evolution.

Adana is before all the idea to combine some examples from Armenian and Turkish musical cultures. Through this friendship we developed with Vardan. Musically it is a mix I made as I am sound engineer…One of the rules I learned through years it is: less rules or indication or scores…to the musicians…

Just feelings… even the musician cannot understand the deep roots the expression he is giving to the music my role is to catch them and then put together.

And for this process I am so grateful to people with ears so fined tuned as my father Lutfu Gultekin, Cengiz Özkan, Talip Özkan…and many others.

The ear is our main tool; as musician or sound engineer which has to be in fusion (the two functions) if we want to give a chance to the music…to be heard.  Music coming first and before sound engineering (modern way to broadcast “diffuser.”

After Adana and in parallel a lot of projects…

There is no impossibility in music if you are open mind and if you want to share and find a common way. So it is a permanent journey. These are some of the projects: www.amusicjourney.com, www.seyirmuzik.com

A lot of recordings we have also to share, but in this very troubled period in the way they are diffusing consuming music sometimes it is very difficult to find it. Then you give up to think about and continue to play record. Making music is our life.

 You play two traditional Turkish musical instruments, the saz and the baglama. What’s the difference between the two instruments?

Saz is a generic term for all the lute family we can find in Turkey. There is no standard format of this instrument. Each instrument maker has his signature… initially it was like that. Today, industrial mood and process can be used. But I like signatures. 

So baglama is one of the format but in different regions it can represent different instruments. 

Baglama in Aegean part (west) is a cura in another part…More than 40 different ethnic group in Turkey;-)

Complicated a bit, but if you change the perspective to analyze music, it becomes quite ok. 

We can make music with spoon in Greece or Turkey:-)

Who makes your musical instruments?

I never bought instruments. Till today, my father had a very good approach of restoring old saz (as wine it is better older) and we have not this idea of mine, my instrument. Every material things for music is shared as it has to be through music, so in that way we share instruments. 

Also I received some gifts from very good masters. The instrument makers are in Turkey, Central Asia, Iran…Difficult to find here in Europe.

Are you involved in any form of musical education?

After years of “teaching,” you understand if you can go further that there is no point to teach, and maybe we have more to call it sharing…

Also as “teacher,” I learned a lot because new things generally can come also from “students” if the “teacher” is attentive. 

So in that way I was involved a lot but neither in academy or conservatory where they cannot teach the spirit of the saz…Some cultural association.

The masters as considered like were never in institutions or conservatory or academy. Some have opened their own school and sometimes they also the same impact as institutions for music… they empty the music from its own soul or spirit.

That is one of the thing I heard from Talip Özkan and then I experiment in my own musical trip.

So it is continuing like that…Some young people interested they can follow you, then it will depend of their own intention, to be or not actor in musical developments. And how… a lot of questions of course.

If you could gather any additional musicians or musical groups to collaborate with, whom would that be?

There is no impossibility. We can make music with anyone who is close to our feelings. You cannot cheat in music. In that way if the person is sincerely involved to share and express something which is above us, the music, then this one can emerge.

For Adana and Karin it is with double bass percussion and a lot of other instruments. For Karin we invited also a lot of guest: Iranian, Kurdish, Georgian, French, Belgian, and Indian.

Do you have any other upcoming projects to share with us?

Baul meets saz (Indian Baul); Aynur Kurdish; Osuna Trio Silk Road folk; Gultekinler (kalan music); Guo Gan “lune de jade.” And so much more in hard drives 🙂 Easy to get info through internet…

Discography:

Chansons Pour La Fin D’un Jour ‎(Homerecords.be, 2011)
L’exil, Refuge Du Barde, with Lütfü Gültekin ‎(Homerecords.be, 2013)
Adana, with Vardan Hovanissian ‎(Muziekpublique, 2015)
Lune De Jade, with Guo Gan (Homerecords.be, 2016)
Karin (Muziekpublique, 2018)

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Interview with Faith i Branko

Faith i Branko

She’s an English rose, an accordionist and circus performer from a Cotswolds hamlet. He’s a virtuoso Roma violinist from a village in West Serbia.

How Faith and Branko came to form a successful band, and the trials and tribulations they had to overcome en-route, provides a compelling backstory.

It began a decade ago when Faith felt impelled to drive to Serbia to learn local styles of accordion playing. While there, she met Branko, a fiddle player who the BBC would later mention in the same breath as Paganini. Despite a language barrier, they began creating music together. They fell in love and two years later, when Faith returned to Serbia, they married.

The couple spent the next five years attempting to gain entry to live in the UK. “During this time, I was immersed in the music and language of the Roma village in which we built a house near his family,” Faith relates. They eventually made it to England two years ago, via Vienna and work in the Austrian Roma music scene.

The stresses of the past half-dozen years or so have been immense,” Faith reveals. “Branko’s health has been difficult — his life before was traumatic — and trying to understand a way to be together in the fast modern world that we have now moved to, has been a huge challenge. But whether our joint lives are joyful or problematic, all of this — happiness and pain — is poured into our music and creates the energy between us that you can see on stage.”

Faith i Branko

Until he met Faith, Branko had never travelled internationally, been on an airplane or used a bank or computer. “Life in my village was natural, communal and simple,” he says. “Before Faith arrived in my life, I had had one of my visions — that a girl would come who I would travel the world with and play music with.”

In 2015, his dream was realized when they jetted to Australia for a handful of gigs with Sydney band Lolo Lovina. For Branko, simply arriving in the world-renowned harbour city with Faith was mindboggling: “It was one of the most spectacular moments of my life.

Faith i Branko currently perform with Serbian-born guitarist Stefan Melovski and Yugoslavian-born double bass player Viktor Obsust. “The quartet is the sound we currently prefer,” says Faith. “After working with drummers and additional instruments, it provides the fullest and most delicate sound for our requirements.”

The band’s music has been described as wild and energetic. “It doesn’t have much middle ground,” Faith agrees. “The emotions expressed within it are very intense, whether in slow painful passages or super-speed joyful bursts … it’s music that expresses the extremes of being alive.”

She continues: “The music works from a musical foundation of Serbia Roma music — the traditional music of Branko’s village of Gornja Grabovica. While we make journeys into other flavours, this is the style that predominates.”

Although Faith utilises a traditional English tabor pipe within their music — playing the accordion with one hand and the pipe with the other — she says there’s very little deliberate melding of their heritages. “It is more in the combining of two very different cultural personalities that this heritage can be felt.

By all accounts, Faith i Branko’s music has matured considerably in recent years. “It has progressed from a much more simplistic way of playing to something more detailed, complex and full as we have travelled and matured as people and players.”

One of the things they have done is to stretch the capacity of the violin. “Branko has changed greatly as a player due to being exposed to an international music scene, and the music reflects the change in our current personal relationship from the relationship between us four years ago.”

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.

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Dan Kurfirst: Drawn to the Light of Love

Dan Kurfirst is a composer, percussionist, and educator based in New York City.   He is not a flashy drummer as stereotyped by Sesame Street’s character Animal.  Dan brings a thoughtful, considered approach to his music.  His playing is compelling, drawing the listener into a gentle dance.

Dan Kurfirst

Dan was born and has spent most of his life in New York.  An early memory is of having a toy drum set.  Other instruments also came into his life as a child.  He took guitar lessons. At fourteen, he became aware that some boys at his school were starting a rock group.  He offered to play guitar, but they said they needed a drummer.  He chuckles and says “I tried to play drums.”

Later, Dan studied percussion with Shane Shanahan, a musician who knows drumming traditions from around the world. He also learnt from Hakan Kaya, a famed percussionist from Turkey. Beginning in 2009, Dan made regular trips to Istanbul to explore the connections between Sufism and Middle Eastern music. His playing is rooted in jazz and rock to which he brings elements of Middle Eastern, Indian, and West African music.  Dan performs with several groups in New York City, including Ensemble Fanaa and the American Sufi Project that have attracted a following. In conversation, he is quiet and unassuming. We spoke about both his experience as an educator and as a musician.

Dan Kurfirst

Other than the frame drum that is a large round, flat percussive drum and the drum set, what percussion do you play?

I play the darbuka (a goblet shaped percussion drum.) I love the calabash from Mali (which is a drum in a half circle hollowed out from the calabash tree), that is the next one I would like to make deep study of.

You were musical Director with the Children’s Museum for an exhibit entitled, “Manhattan America to Zanzibar, Muslim cultures near and far.” Can you describe that experience?

Yes, it was an amazing exhibit that covered the entire Muslim world. The exhibitors wanted to do a touch screen app where the kids could press pictures of different instruments and hear them.  They contacted me to direct the musicians for the app. We had a kora, a tabla, a gigeck – it’s like a stand up violin, a ney that is a flute, a frame drum, and an oud. It was not a complicated composition, but all the instruments sounded good together and it was a great project.

Does such an exhibit make the understanding of world music more vivid for young children?

Yes, that was the idea, there were descriptive texts so the children could learn by reading about the different instruments and where they come from. We did some live performances, so the kids loved that. Hearing music is a better way to learn about different cultures than by reading about them.

I saw a YouTube video where your group American Sufi Project talked about the ney instrument. Is your work with the Sufi Project also educational?

We did some educational videos with our first album release.This group’s focus is to record and perform music. But American Sufi Project is more than a band, our hope is to connect people to all kinds of artistic expression from the American Sufi community. I am the Director of the musical component of the group.

“Meet Yourself, Mast Qualander,” is a highlight track from American Sufi Project’s second album of the same name.  It was a collaboration with Dhruv Sangari, a vocalist from the Qawaali genre. Qawaali is Sufi devotional music from India.  Dhruv sings with such longing on this track, accompanied by your steady frame drum, among other instruments.  How did you come to work with him?

I met Dhruv in 2009, when I was in Turkey and first interested in music from that part of the world.  I got into a taxi with some other musicians. In the car, there was a nice older man, he asked us, “What are you?” And we said, “You know we are musicians,” And the man said, “Well, you know music is a sin.” He was half joking. Dhruv who was also in the car then had this great response. He said, “Yeah, I hope I won’t need it one day.” His answer made me immediately like him a lot.

We spent several nights singing and playing together, then I found out he was the last official disciple of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which is powerful (Khan was a singer who made the Qawaali genre more celebrated worldwide).  Dhruv comes to the United States quite a lot,because he has family here. We were able to record together in 2014.

He has an evocative voice…

Yes, well he is now the true representative of the Qawaali tradition.

There is also a track called “Drawn to the Light of Love,” from American Sufi Project’s first album that I enjoyed. It brings to mind the image of a caterpillar slowly winding up a leaf.  There is a mournful quality as the ney plays long, drawn out, notes. Can you talk about this track?

That is a traditional Turkish Ilahi form. An Ilahi is a religious hymn in Sufism. As a group, we’ve tried to study Sufi musical traditions, but you realize that you cannot hope to achieve the exact sound of someone who comes from generations within a certain culture. So you learn from the traditions and bring your interpretations to them, perhaps jazz improvisation. On that track, I played in a rhythm that is not the traditional three beat cycle for an Ilahi. But it worked. 

When you play live, is it a meditative feeling that you are aiming for?

Yes, you need to maintain a focal point.  I once heard a saying that goes something like “The way of the Sufi is sobriety within ecstasy.” But with this music if you lose your focus, it is going to fall apart. You have to be there with it for the audience.

Would you say the purpose of Sufi music is to elevate the audience’s spirit?

Yes, but if you are the musician you have a difficult job.You have to maintain your sobriety, it is more of a service for the audience.Although there are tremendous benefits for the soul in practicing and playing this music, there’s no doubt about that. Your question reminds me of the jazz musician Bill Evans, who was more concerned with the layperson’s immediate reaction to his music than musicians who cannot help but hear the technical aspect and what might be wrong with the music.

What is it about Sufi music that may resonate with someone’s spirit or is that hard to speak to?

Yes, it’s all hard to speak to.  (We both laugh). In Near Eastern music there is an untempered tonal system. In the Western system like on the piano, you have twelve very defined notes that are equal steps away from each other. The Eastern systems are not like that, they vary in terms of complexity.  In the Turkish system there are a lot more than twelve notes in an octave. You know, for example, you can have a B half flat and in certain music in Turkey it is even a little more flat. Tom Chess who is the ney player for the American Sufi Project described it very well when he said, ‘When you have a twelve tone system, you have the emotions of I am happy or I am sad, but when you have the subtlety of the microtonal systems,emotions become more complex, such as I am somewhere in between happy and sad.That’s also more of what real life is like.’

Maqam is the word for scale in the Turkish tradition. Maqam also means both the place and the grave where a holy person is buried.  Each Maqam is like a little emotional place that you explore inside a group of notes. There are different emotional and spiritual qualities that are associated with each Maqam. I don’t think Eastern music is more transcendent than Western music, generally, to me it is a different type of transcendence. John Coltrane had one way, Taksim another way,and Qawaali another way. No culture has a monopoly on transcendence of soul or anything like that.

You mention the musician John Coltrane, has he inspired you?

Yes, I’ve heard his recordings my whole life, because my father played them, but in my twenties I started to experience his music differently. His playing opened me up to a deeper understanding of music. At its apex, the music coming out of John Coltrane’s horn and ensembles sounds like pure love to me.

***

It is clear from our conversation that Dan has spent true time nurturing his craft.  He is a dedicated musician. His group Ensemble Fanaa released their self-titled debut album in September to good response.  His journey of tying together Eastern music with Western continues.   

For more information about Dan Kurfirst, you can visit his website at: dankurfirstmusic.com

To purchase Ensemble Fanaa’s latest album ensemblefanaa.bandcamp.com/releases

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