Grace, Sophia, and Hulda Quebe grew up in North Texas. Although they initially studied classical violin, in 1998 the sisters changed to western fiddle when they visited the North Texas State Fair in Denton, Texas. There, they first listened to Texas-style fiddling. Later, they met Joey and Sherry McKenzie, national fiddle champions and organizers of the Bob Wills Fiddle Festival & Contest in Greenville, Texas.
The Quebe sisters became students of the McKenzies and the Quebe family relocated to Burleson, Texas in Tarrant County. The sisters studied with the McKenzies for several years and Joey McKenzie became their arranger and a longtime member of their band.
In 2003, The Quebe Sisters released their first album, Texas Fiddlers, supported by Joey McKenzie on rhythm guitar, Mark Abbott on bass and steel guitarist Tom Morrell.
The Quebe Sisters are currently based in Dallas. The sisters and their band present a distinctive triple fiddle and three-part harmony mix of western swing, jazz-influenced swing, country, Texas-style fiddling, and Western music.
“We differentiate our music as ‘Progressive Western Swing’ from simply ‘Western Swing’ because we aren’t trying to sound just like Bob Wills,” Grace Quebe explains. “Instead, we continue his vision, playing the style he pioneered in an authentic way by incorporating new genres and songs, interpreting them using our own unique voice through Country instrumentation.”
The band continues the traditions once found in Texas dance halls and honky-tonks. Grace adds, “To us, preserving the tradition of Western Swing isn’t about keeping something alive like a relic. Western Swing has always been about innovation.”
Frontera Bugalú is a musical project developed by accordionist, guitarist, vocalist and composer Kiko Rodriguez and pianist Joel Osvaldo in El Paso, Texas in 2011. The group has become well-known for its lively música fronteriza, a combination of borderland folk, mambo and cumbia music.
The band includes members from both sides of the border, including vocalist Anabel Gutierrez and bassist Alex Ravana from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Rhiannon Giddens was born February 21, 1977 in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is a renowned multi-instrumentalist, composer, singer-songwriter and researcher, best known as one of the founders of the country, blues and old-time music band Carolina Chocolate Drops, where she was the lead singer, violinist, and banjo player.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ album Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards.
One of the essential part of Giddens’ work is her research of folk instruments and traditions of the African-American diaspora.
A MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient, Rhiannon has performed for the Obama’s at the White House and acted in two seasons of the hit television series Nashville.
In February 2015, Giddens released her debut solo recording Tomorrow Is My Turn on Nonesuch Records to widespread critical acclaim. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album includes songs made famous by Patsy Cline, Odetta, Dolly Parton, and Nina Simone.
In addition to her solo recordings and her albums with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon recorded Out On the Ocean: Music of the British Isles (2004) and Northern Lights (2005) with Gaelwynd; Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes (2014) as The New Basement Tapes; and Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways), a collaborative album that tells the stories of historic black womanhood and survival. Rhiannon has European American, African American and Native American background.
In 2016, Rhiannon received the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
in 2019 she collaborated with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. they released an album titled
Matuto is a blues and Brazilian music collective based in New York City. Guitarist Clay Ross and accordionist Rob Curto formed the band in 2009. A varying group of musicians join Ross and Curto during their tours.
Taj Mahal is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, ethnomusicologist, and award-winning artists. His music includes elements of Afro-Caribbean music, blues, folk, hula, funk and other influences.
Taj Mahal was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks on May 17, 1942 in Harlem but grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father a jazz pianist composer and arranger of Caribbean descent and his mother a gospel-singing schoolteacher from South Carolina encouraged their children to respect and be proud of their roots. His father had an extensive record collection and a short-wave radio that brought sounds from near and far to Taj’s ears. His parents also started him on classical piano lessons but after two weeks he says “it was already clear I had my own concept of how I wanted to play.” The lessons stopped but Taj didn’t.
In addition to piano, the young musician learned to play the clarinet trombone and harmonica and he loved to sing. He discovered his stepfather’s guitar and became serious about it in his early teens when Lynnwood Perry an accomplished young guitarist from North Carolina moved in next door. Perry was an expert in the Piedmont style of playing but he could also play like Muddy Waters Lightin’ Hopkins John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. Taj was inspired to begin playing guitar in earnest.
Springfield in the 1950s was full of recent arrivals both from abroad and from elsewhere in the U.S. “We spoke several dialects in my house — Southern Caribbean African — and we heard dialects from eastern and western Europe,” said Taj. In addition musicians from the Caribbean Africa and all over the U.S. frequently visited the Fredericks’ household. Taj became even more fascinated with roots — where all the different forms of music he was hearing came from what path they took to get to their current states how they influenced each other on the way. He threw himself into the study of older forms of African-American music, music the record companies largely ignored.
While attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as an agriculture student in the early 1960s the musician transformed himself into Taj Mahal an idea that came to him in a dream. He began playing with the popular U. Mass. party band The Elektras then left Massachusetts in 1964 for the blues-heavy Los Angeles club scene. There he formed The Rising Sons withRy Cooder Ed Cassidy Jesse Lee Kinkaid Gary Marker and Kevin Kelly. At the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles The Rising Sons opened for Otis Redding Sam the Sham The Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas at The Trip. Taj also had the opportunity to hear meet and play with such blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf Muddy Waters Junior Wells Buddy Guy Louis and Dave Meyers Sleepy John Estes Yank Rachel Lightin’ Hopkins Bessie Jones the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Hammy Nixon.
Taj tapped these experiences on three hugely influential records: Taj Mahal (1967), The Natch’l Blues (1968) and Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home (1969). Drawing on all the musical forms he’d absorbed as a child these early albums showed signs of the musical exploration that would be Taj’s hallmark over the years to come. “I didn’t want to fall into the trap of complacency,” said Taj Mahal. “I wanted to keep pushing the musical ideas I had about jazz music from Africa and the Caribbean. I wanted to explore the connections between different kinds of music.”
In 1970 Taj traveled to Spain to have a well-deserved rest and vacation in the home of the guitar. He carved out his own musical niche with a string of adventurous recordings throughout the ’70s, including Happy Just to Be Like I Am (1971), Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff (1972), the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to the movie Sounder (1973), Mo’ Roots (1974), Music Fuh Ya’ (Musica Para Tu) (1977), and Evolution (The Most Recent) (1978).
Taj’s recorded output slowed considerably during the 1980s as he toured relentlessly and immersed himself in the music and culture of his new home in Hawaii. Still that decade saw the well-received Taj (1987) as well as the first three of his celebrated children’s albums.
Taj returned to a full recording and touring schedule in the 1990s including such projects as the musical scores for the Lanston Hughes/Zora Neale Hurston play Mule Bone (1991) and the movie Zebrahead (1992). Later in the decade Dancing the Blues (1993) Phantom Blues (1996) An Evening of Acoustic Music (1996) and the Grammy Award-winning Se?or Blues (1997) were both commercial and critical successes.
At the same time Taj continued to explore world music beginning with the aptly named World Music in 1993. He joined Indian classical musicians on Mumtaz Mahal in 1995; recorded Sacred Island a blend of Hawaiian music and blues with The Hula Blues in 1998; and paired with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate for Kulanjan in 1999.
Since 2000 Taj has released a second Grammy-winning album Shoutin’ in Key (2000) and recorded a second album with The Hula Blues 2003’s lush Hanapepe Dream.
Etta Baker With Taj Mahal came out in 2004. In 2005 he released Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar. On this recording Taj Mahal took the blues to the mythical island of Zanzibar an East African island just off the coast of Tanzania. He collaborated with legendary local acts such as Culture Musical Club and Bikidude.
On February 2006 Taj Mahal was designated the “Official Blues Artist” of Massachusetts by Chapter 19 of the Acts of 26.
Maestro, released in 2008 was a landmark album where Taj Mahal explored some of his favorite musical traditions from various regions including the Mississippi Delta the Appalachian backwoods the African continent the Hawaiian Islands Europe and the Caribbean. The album features his daughter Deva Mahal, Latin rockers Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, the Phantom Blues Band, Ziggy Marley Angelique Kidjo, Toumani Diabate and the New Orleans Social Club.
“With his record as with all my records I want people to roll back the rug and go for it,” said Taj about Maestro. “This record is just the beginning of another chapter one that’s going to be open to more music and more ideas. Even at the end of forty years in many ways my music is just getting started.”
Taj Mahal participated in the album True Blues, a 13-song live CD released in May 28, 2013 on Telarc. It was recorded at various venues throughout the United States including Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York True Blues explores and celebrates the blues and follows its rich history from the Mississippi delta of the early 1900s to the present day. The album includes performances by Corey Harris, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Guy Davis, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Phil Wiggins.
On True Blues, Taj Mahal performs “Done Changed My Way of Living” with the help of his Taj Mahal Trio. Recorded at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis Maryland Taj uses his trademark growl that’s reminiscent (either by design or by accident) of the great Howlin’ Wolf. The trio reemerges later for a rendition of “Mailbox Blues” that hints at the mid-20th century swing music that would eventually evolve from the blues tradition.
In 2012 he released the two disc set The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 (Legacy, 2012).
In 2014, Taj Mahal received the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
A self-taught musician Taj plays more than 20 instruments, including ukulele, steel and dobro guitars.
In 2017, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ released their first album as a duo, “TajMo” (Concord Records). “TajMo” includes original songs and covers, featuring cameos from Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Sheila E. and Lizz Wright. The album was self-produced by the duo and was recorded by Zach Allen, John Caldwell and Casey Wasner at Nashville’s Stu Stu Studio.
Taj Mahal (Columbia Records, 1968) The Natch’l Blues (Columbia Records, 1968) Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home (Columbia Records, 1969) Happy Just to Be Like I Am (Columbia Records, 1971) Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff (Columbia Records, 1972) Sounder (original soundtrack) (Columbia Records, 1972) Oooh So Good ‘n Blues (Columbia Records, 1973) Mo’ Roots (Columbia Records, 1974) Music Keeps Me Together (Columbia Records, 1975) Satisfied ‘n Tickled Too (Columbia Records, 1976) Music Fuh Ya’ (Warner Bros. Records, 1976) Brothers (Warner Bros. Records, 1977) Evolution (Warner Bros. Records, 1977) Taj (Gramavision, 1987) Shake Sugaree (Music For Little People, 1988) Mule Bone (Gramavision, 1991) Like Never Before (Private Music, 1991) Dancing the Blues (Private Music, 1993) Mumtaz Mahal, with V.M. Bhatt and N. Ravikiran (Water Lily Acoustics, 1995) Phantom Blues (Private Music, 1996) Señor Blues (Private Music, 1997) Sacred Island, with The Hula Blues Band) (Private Music, 1998) Blue Light Boogie (Private Music, 1999) Kulanjan (with Toumani Diabaté) (Hannibal Records, 1999) Hanapepe Dream, with The Hula Blues Band (Hannibal Records, 2001) Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar (Respect Records, 2005) Maestro (Heads Up International, 2008) Talkin’ Christmas, with Blind Boys of Alabama (Masterworks, 2014) TajMo, with Keb’ Mo’ (Concord Records, 2017)
Alison Brown was born August 7, 1962 in Hartford, Connecticut. She began her music career at a young age, playing banjo in several Southern California bands alongside fiddler Stuart Duncan as a teenager. After graduating from high school, bluegrass took a back seat while Brown attended Harvard University, earned an MBA, and worked as an investment banker.
Following successful tours with both Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked, a Grammy-nomination for her first solo effort Simple Pleasures and the Banjo Player of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association, Brown put her business skills to work, founding Compass Records in 1995 with her husband Garry West. Brown?s discography includes five releases on Vanguard Records as well as four on Compass Records.
In the late 1990s Brown founded NewGrange, together with Philip Aaberg, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Tim O’Brien and Todd Phillips. New Grange combines traditional American elements (folk, bluegrass, even gospel and classical) with contemporary instrumentation (strings and piano).
Brown’s first record on Compass was Out of the Blue. On her next album, Fair Weather, Brown is joined by special guests like Tim O’Brien, Claire Lynch, Vince Gill, Stuart Duncan, David Grier, and others, returning to her bluegrass roots with stunning results. The 2000 release includes the Grammy Award-winning track “Leaving Cottondale,” featuring Bela Fleck.
In 2002, during two days between performances at the Grand Ole Opry and a trip to the Shetland Folk Festival, the Alison Brown Quartet recorded Replay, a collection of 15 tracks recorded live in the studio. More than anything, this album is the sound of the Alison Brown Quartet relaxed and having a jamming good time in the studio. The album consists of a collection of “fans” favorites in the energetic, updated arrangements that have evolved onstage in the years since Alison Brown formed the Quartet. Produced by Garry West, Replay showcases Brown’s penchant for melodic flair. Her sound is both innovative and accessible and in Brown’s hands, her Appalachian instrument takes bluegrass, bebop and Hot Club swing into the stratosphere.
Alison Brown said about her 2005 album Stolen Moments: “For the first time, I feel like I’ve created a true hybrid sound that suggests its influences bluegrass, jazz, Celtic music but when taken as a whole isn’t any one of these things.” Among those playing on the album are bluegrass greats Sam Bush (mandolin) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) as well as Irish maestros John Doyle (guitar) and Seamus Egan (flute), ex-Pretenders and Paul McCartney Band guitarist Robbie McIntosh and long time bandmate John R. Burr (piano). Also featured on the album are guest vocalists the Indigo Girls, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Andrea Zonn.
Brown tours internationally with the Alison Brown Quartet, has been a guest speaker at Harvard Business School, Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School and the University of Colorado Boulder, and served as an Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.
She is also a reputable record producer. She worked with Dale Ann Bradley, Peter Rowan, Quiles & Cloud, and Claire Lynch.
Simple Pleasures (Vanguard Records, 1990) Twilight Motel (Vanguard Records, 1992) Look Left (Vanguard Records, 1994) Quartet (Vanguard Records, 1996) Out of the Blue (Compass Records, 1998) Fair Weather (Compass Records, 2000) Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard Records, 2002) Replay (Compass Records, 2002) Stolen Moments (Compass Records, 2005) Vanguard Visionaries, compilation (Vanguard Records, 2007) Evergreen (Compass Records, 2008) The Company You Keep (Compass Records, 2009) The Song Of The Banjo (Compass Records, 2015)
Alex de Grassi was born February 13, 1952 in Yokosuka, Japan but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started music on the trumpet, but at age 13, discovered the guitar and hasn’t looked back.
He studied guitar with noted teacher Bill Thrasher, jazz piano with Mark Levine and composition with William Mathieu. A Grammy Award nominee and Indie Award nominee for The Water Garden, his first recording was Turning: Turning Back, in 1978, for the fledgling Windham Hill Records, and he became one of the most popular artists on the contemporary acoustic label that would become a recording industry phenomenon.
De Grassi has played at such notable venues as the Montreux Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall, Belfast International Festival, Telluride, and Wolftrap. In addition to his own workshop series, Alex has taught at the National Summer Guitar Workshop, the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music, and the Omega Institute. He was the subject of a PBS concert/interview television show, and collaborated with Chilean multi-instrumentalist Quique Cruz in the band Tatamonk and with experimental guitarist G.E. Stinson.
Turning: Turning Back (Windham Hill, 1978) Slow Circle (Windham Hill, 1979) Clockwork (Windham Hill, 1981) Southern Exposure (Windham Hill, 1983) Altiplano (RCA/Novus, 1987) Deep at Night (Windham Hill, 1991) A Windham Hill Retrospective (Windham Hill, 1992) The World’s Getting Loud (Windham Hill, 1993) Beyond the Night Sky: Lullabies for Guitar (EarthBeat, 1996) Alex de Grassi’s Interpretation of Simon & Garfunkel (Northsound, 1997) Alex de Grassi’s Interpretation of James Taylor (NorthSound, 1998) The Water Garden (Tropo, 1998) Bolivian Blues Bar (Narada, 1999) Tatamonk with Quique Cruz (Tropo, 2000) Shortwave Postcard, with G.E. Stinson (Auditorium, 2001) Now & Then: Folk Songs for the 21st Century (33rd Street, 2003) Pure Alex de Grassi (Windham Hill, 2006)
Robert “Tree” Cody (also known in the Maricopa language as Oou-Kas Mah Quet or “Thunder Bear”) was born April 20, 1951 in Los Angeles, California. He is a Native American flutist, dancer, artist, educator and actor who has performed throughout the United States, continental Europe, Canada, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, East Asia, Central & South America and Mexico
As an enrolled member of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Community and of Dakota heritage, Cody shares his knowledge of Native American culture, song, dance and music as a performer and invited lecturer at concert halls, universities, museums, schools, and colleges throughout the world.
A versatile flute player and a gifted singer, Cody has eight albums on the Canyon Records label. His most recent album, Crossroads, brings together for the first time, the music of the native people of the Great Plains and Mexico. This recording teams him with Mayan flutist Xavier Quijas Yxayotl (Huichol). Native Flamenco, fuses the Native American cedar flute with flamenco guitar and ethnic percussion into a hot lively sound. Guitarist, Ruben Romero, and percussionist, Tony Redhouse, perform with him on this groundbreaking recording.
Maze, travels a musical journey through the Southwest. Set prior to European arrival to Turtle Island, a wanderer of the North travels and meets the nations of the Southwest. Maze was a Native American Music Awards winner as Best New Age Album of 1999, and it’s track “The Bird Song” was a finalist as Best Song of the Year.
In 1999, Cody appeared as a featured guest artist on a Windham Hill modern jazz release by Russ Freeman and the Rippingtons.
Cody has a remarkable ability to communicate with people of all cultures. His knowledge of six Native American languages, in addition to English, Spanish and a bit of French and Japanese is useful when he travels abroad. Cody holds a special place in his heart for young people of all cultures, and generously gives with his time and many talents for people in need.
Riley Baugus was born November 28, 1965 in North Carolina. He was brought up in a household where recordings of old-time music were often played, Riley developed a love and appreciation for traditional southern Appalachian music as a young child. He began playing the fiddle at age 10, and soon after was playing the guitar and banjo as well. Riley learned much of his music through visits with the elder traditional musicians in and around Grayson County in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, including fiddlers Tommy Jarrell and Robert Sykes, banjo player Dix man, and guitarist Paul Sutphin.
Riley has played with numerous old-time string bands, including the Red Hots, Backstep, the Old Hollow Stringband, and the Farmer’s Daughters. He also played with Cuttin’ Loose and Polecat Creek.
He has taught banjo, guitar, and fiddle at music camps all over the United States and has toured throughout Europe with Dirk Powell and Tim O?Brien, the Konnarock Critters, and Ira Bernstein. Riley’s singing is featured on the soundtrack of the iconic film, Cold Mountain. He makes his home near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he works as a welder and blacksmith and builds old-time banjos.
Though a native of New York, Andy Narell has spent more than two decades developing a global reputation as a steel pan virtuoso whose multicultural style embraces a range of Afro-Caribbean, Latin jazz and pop traditions. He’s one of only a small handful of steel pan players in the world who are playing jazz, and perhaps the only one among that circle of musicians to commit an entire career — live and in the studio — to creating new music for the steel pan in that context.
Andy Narell was born in 1954 in New York City, New York. His father, Murray Narell, a social worker, met a gentleman from Antigua who needed a job and he knew how to make and play steel drums. Andy’s father had the idea of teaching the neighborhood kids how to play steel drums so he started one of the first steel pan programs in the United States. Muray Narell traveled to Trinidad several times, met with some of the top steel pan performers and makers and wrote notes about this encounters. He also brought back steel pans from Trinidad.
Andy Narell started his own steel band group in Queens. The group played regularly at festivals, weddings, benefit concerts and other events. In 1966, at the age of 12, Narell traveled to Trinidad for the first time. The locals were surprised to find such a great technique in a 12 year old boy from New York.
For many years, Narell worked within the context of jazz and world music. One of the highlights of his career came when he teamed with Paquito D’Rivera and Dave Samuels to form the Caribbean Jazz Project. While Narell was busy playing around the U.S., Europe and the Caribbean, or composing for the Panorama steel band festival in Trinidad, or laying down tracks on albums, films and commercials, a grassroots movement was taking shape in South Africa that would have a dramatic influence on his musical and cultural perspective. The lifting of economic restrictions and the transition to majority rule in South Africa in the early 1990s allowed residents of the major cities and outlying townships easier access to recorded music from around the world. A network of “listening clubs” sprouted throughout the region as low-income South Africans pooled their monies to buy CDs of their favorite artists.
By the late 1990s, Narell had ascended to folk-hero status in a fan club he knew nothing about. Narell had been hearing rumors as early as the mid-1990s, but he didn’t know what to make of them.
When South Africa’s government-sponsored Arts Alive festival invited him to come and play in September 1999, he figured he might fill a couple 200 or 300 seat clubs, maybe play an outdoor gig or two, and then come home. He figured wrong. When Narell and Heads Up president Dave Love landed in South Africa, the entire Andy Narell Jazz Club was at the airport, waving signs and sporting hats and t-shirts bearing his name. Arts Alive staffers told him there could be as many as 20,000 people at his outdoor performance. But even they figured wrong. Backed by some of the tightest, most intuitive jazz players from the Johannesburg scene, Narell took the stage and witnessed what he recalls as “a mass of people like I’d never seen. I’d never played in front of anything like this before in my life. The people from Arts Alive estimated between sixty and eighty thousand. And the people knew all the music. In the middle of songs, I’d hear this roar from the audience, and I’d realize that they were singing along with the music. All I could think of was, wow, we are really not in Kansas anymore. This is Africa, man.”
Narell came down from the experience just long enough to come home and record Fire in the Engine Room (HUCD 3056), his 2000 studio release on Heads Up. Among the musicians featured on the album was guitarist Louis Mhlanga, whom Narell had met in Johannesburg. He returned to Southern Africa in April 2000 for an extensive concert tour that reunited the band he’d played with seven months earlier and explored many of the lesser-traveled cities and townships off the beaten Johannesburg-Cape Town-Durban tour path frequented by most foreign artists.
Live in South Africa — recorded over a two-night stand at the Blues Room in Johannesburg at the tail end of the tour — chronicles another expansion of Narell’s already multicultural sensibilities. The musicians are veterans of the South African music scene, and they bring a rich musical heritage to the performances. Along with Mhlanga, hailing from Zimbabwe, the lineup includes keyboardist Andile Yenana, from the eastern Capebassist Denny Lalouette, from the island of Mauritiusdrummer Rob Watson, from Bloernfonteinand percussionist Basi Mahlasela, from Soweto.
For every song Narell taught them, he learned his share of their music and culture in return. While the formula of solid material interpreted by high-caliber musicianship may be surefire, Narell insists that much of the album’s energy comes from those moments — in the songs themselves and in the tour in general — when spontaneity and creative energy transcended traditional musical structures and cultural boundaries. “A few gigs into this tour, I realized. This is really clicking. We’ve got a band now. The guys were more comfortable with the music, and I started pushing them to experiment more and take more chances, open the music up and allow it to become more African. And sometimes we’d have people up dancing on stage, and they’d break into their township jive and the whole place would turn into a big party. Those were the greatest moments for me, when it was their culture front and center on stage.”
Live in South Africa is all about the response. “With the South Africans’ openness to jazz and instrumental music, somehow I’ve found a way in the door — or my records did, on their own,” he says. “But there was no way I could have known. Recordings are like a message in a bottle, and you really don’t know where the message is going to land and who’s going to hear it or understand it.“
His 2004 album, The Passage, which features Narell, the steelband Calypsociation, and three of the greatest soloists in jazz – Michael Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera and Hugh Masekela. The Passage was recorded and mixed using cutting-edge technology to capture all the excitement of the steelband sound, and was released in two formats: a CD, and a 5.1 surround-sound SACD.
The story of The Passage started in two places at the same time: Paris, France, and Port of Spain, Trinidad. The Parisian plot started when Narell arrived in Paris to discover the existence of Calypsociation.
“I came over here to teach in the spring of 2001,” Narell recalls. “I had sent over the chart of ‘Coffee Street,’ and they played part of it for me – and I could hear after two minutes that I wanted to work with this band.”
The fit between Narell and Calypsociation was so tight that the band commissioned him to direct, compose and arrange two ten-minute pieces for the second European Steelband Festival in 2002. That music sounded so sweet, and the experience was so rewarding on all sides, that Narell continued working with Calypsociation – a collaboration that’s documented on the CD.
Narell realized that this recording provided the perfect opportunity to try something revolutionary. “Due to technical issues,” he explains, “steelband recordings tend to be one-dimensional sounding. It’s very hard to capture the power of the bass, the spatial relationships of the sections, and the clarity of all the inner parts. So even digital recordings tend to sound small and tinny compared with the massive power of the real thing. For this recording, we placed the microphones all around the band to capture the excitement of 30 people playing together in a large studio space. Then we overdubbed each of the eight sections of the band on top of the live performance to get a clean stereo pair of each section for presence, balance, and effect sends. This way I’ve got the elements I need to create a mix that puts you right there in front of the band.“
That’s just the stereo mix. The 5.1 surround sound SACD will be ground-breaking in more ways than one. Obviously, this is the first steelband record to be released in surround, but Narell has gone a great deal farther. “Since surround sound is such a new format, everybody is experimenting and there are very few established conventions. So rather than take the stereo mix and just add a few things to the back for interest, which is what a lot of surround mixers do, I decided to use the technology to put the listener right into the center of a steelband. It’s a thrilling audio experience.”
To take things to yet another level, Narell invited three jazz masters to sit in – Michael Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera and Hugh Masekela. “A lot of jazz musicians don’t take steelband music seriously,” says Narell. “So it was important to me that the soloists should not only be great players, but that they would approach this music with respect, and come to the session with the anticipation that they were about to play with a tight, swinging big band – which is what Calypsociation is. Mike, Paquito and Hugh exceeded my expectations, which were very high. They add a whole new dimension to the record. They play so beautifully, and the sound of their instruments soloing in front of a steelband is a totally exciting experience for me.”
“It’s not every day you get a world class orchestra to rehearse for two years to make a record,” says Narell. “I could have spent a few thousand dollars, and a few days, to record the band, but I decided to make the most of this opportunity. We put hundreds of hours of work into recording and mixing this disc. Frankly, I’m trying to redefine the art of the steelband recording.”