Monday, June 30, 2014

Stormy Weather: Amanaska and "Wonder of the Storm"

Storms are something that I'm both fascinated with and frightened by. Ever since I was a little kid, I loved the rainstorms that would blow from the ocean through my northern California town. The wind bent the trees, and the air got thick with water and the smell of conifers. They weren't often thunderstorms, but when a thunderstorm did blow through, then I would get frightened. Occasionally, that huge thunderclap that signaled that a lightning strike was close by would scare the hell out of me. Once, such a lightning strike killed our neighbor's pig. It was those incidents that reminded me of the power of storms and weather.

When I moved to Milwaukee after college, a new element added to my fear of storms.  For the first time, I was in a tornado area.  I remember one night when the television announced that we were under a tornado warning, which meant that a tornado was likely or imminent.  We were advised to get into our basements and so I dragged my girlfriend down into ours and made us stay there until we got the all clear.  Later, when I lived in New Orleans, storms took on an even different and more sinister presence - the hurricane.  I remember my wife and I making the determination to not evacuate in the face of an oncoming category 2 hurricane, only to see it blow up to a category 4 and heading straight for New Orleans.  We went to bed not knowing what to expect, but woke up the following morning to find that it had shifted course, had weakened to a category 2 again, and would pass to the west.  However, the tension was palpable.

I am still fascinated by storms, but the power and destruction they can wreak is incredible.  Even a seemingly innocuous storm can suddenly turn into a demon, like the one that came ripping through Albuquerque two years ago, downing trees and causing widespread damage throughout the city.

Clearly, Simon Lewis was thinking about weather when Amanaska recorded Wonder of the Storm, a down-tempo, mellow and lush piece of music.  Amanaska was started by Lewis in 2001 as a project to explore the mixture of jazz, funk, electronica and what he calls "musical languages from around the globe."  They have released two albums, Panorama and Circles, and have contributed music to collaborative projects and compilation albums, such as the Buddha Bar compilations.  Lewis spends a lot of time in Southern India and records with Indian musicians, which adds to his sense of world fusion.  Amanaska concerts can be a solo Simon Lewis affair, or feature other musicians such as Stephen Joyce, Tania Doko, Lynelle Moran, and Janine Maunder as well as local musicians and dancers.  On their website, Amanaska describes themselves as "a supreme mix of female and male vocals and ethnic harmonies, with beautiful string arrangements, alongside earthy percussive elements and moody hypnotic rhythms and beats."  Wonder of the Storm can be found on the collaborative album Buddha Bar Ocean (2008), by Allain Bougrain-Dubourg and Amanaska.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Whoo-eee! Johnny Like Dat! Marce LaCouture and l'Orange

When I lived in New Orleans, late Sunday mornings belonged to Johnny Fasullo. He was a DJ on WWOZ, and called himself "the Ragin' Cajun!" We would get up and head from our house over to the Loyola University chapel for Mass, and when we came out and drove home, Johnny would be tearing up the airwaves. He'd play all the Cajun music he liked, and I remember he had a big thing for a little 12 year old girl, Amanda Shaw, who had released a song with her band The Cute Guys. The song was Little Black Dog, and she played fiddle and sang. After the song was over, Johnny would come back on the air, voice full of emotion, and say how impressed he was with "dat leel girl, oh Johnny like dat!" I associate Johnny with spring and summer late mornings, driving home along Carrollton Avenue, and stopping by the truck where the nice old man sold satsumas in the shade of a live oak tree, while Johnny spun Cajun songs. Johnny Fasullo died in 2005, but I can still hear his voice, and when a Cajun song comes on, I always think that Johnny would like dat!

Johnny would have liked a song like l'Oranger by Marce LaCouture.  She is an American folk and Cajun musician who grew up in Texas and Louisiana.  She started out in folk and rock bands in Austin, and did a two album collaboration with Butch Hancock.  One of her songs from this period, So I'll Run, is featured in Nick Hornby's book 31 Songs, where the author writes about songs that have particular special meaning and emotional resonance to him.  He saw her perform in north London, and the song made a huge impression on him.  LaCouture began to explore Cajun music and heritage in Louisiana in the 1980s.  She found mentors in Lula Landry and Inez Catalon, with whom she apprenticed.  Her first Cajun album was La Joie Cadienne, released in 2000 and re-released in 2004, and from which l'Oranger is the opening song. You can also find l'Oranger on Putumayo Presents: Cajun.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Stepping it Up: Yat-Kha and "Ahoi"

Until about five years ago I never knew that Tuva existed, which is pretty astounding for a map aficionado. But Tuva lies in that area in the Central Asian steppes that, when I was studying maps in grade and high school, was pretty much all Soviet Russia and Mongolia. There were a lot of areas with borders and names that ended with S.S.R. Since the fall of Soviet Union, the region has split into a checkerboard of countries, all regions that have proclaimed independence from Russia. However, Tuva still lies inside of Russian borders in southern Siberia as a federal republic or state of Russia.

When Neal Copperman and AMP concerts booked a touring group from Tuva named Chirgilchin in Albuquerque, my first reaction was "Where the f*** is Tuva?" My second reaction was "What the hell is throat singing?" I was in for an education. As for the throat singing, it turns out I'd heard it before but didn't know its name. Throat singing is the sometimes low guttural and sometimes high, nasally and whistling sound that you hear in some Asian and Eastern music. When I heard it on recordings, I always thought it was some strange instrument that I didn't recognize. Otherwise, I thought it was some kind of chanting thing that monks did. Chirgilchin helped educate me on throat singing. While throat singing is practiced among different cultures such as the Tibetans, the Inuit, and formerly the Ainu of Japan, in Tuva it developed out of the animism of Tuvan spiritual beliefs and at its root is a mimicry of nature sounds. There are many kinds of Tuvan throat singing which produce many different sounds, though I am not sophisticated enough in my hearing to know precisely when a certain type of throat singing is being employed. It sounds really cool, though.

You'll hear some throat singing in this selection by Yat-Kha at around the 1:20 mark in the song. You'll also hear some traditional instrumentation in the yat-kha, the instrument that gave the band its name and which is a traditional Tuvan zither. Yat-Kha is a Tuvan band founded in Moscow in 1991. Originally a collaborative project between Albert Kuvezin and Ivan Sokolovsky, it sought to explore traditional Tuvan folk songs with elements of post-modern rhythms and electronics. After three albums, Sokolovsky parted with the band in 1994 and Yat-Kha has de-emphasized the electronics in favor of the folk tradition and rock. The band has released twelve albums. This song, Ahoi, is a bonus track included on their 2010 release Ways of the Nomad: The Best of Yat-Kha, and references throat singing (xoomejj) and a specific type of throat singing (kargyraa) that Kuvezin is using in the song.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Music at the Crossroads: Gülseren and "Sinanay"

A couple of years ago, I got a chance to visit Turkey. My wife was invited to be a part of a journalists' delegation and I got to tag along. It was an amazing trip for a number of reasons.

One thing we were looking forward to was getting music from Turkey to add to our collection and play on the Global Music Show.  We spent a good part of a day in total on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, one of the hip areas that has sprung up in that cosmopolitan city, in a music store sampling music and we bought quite a bit to bring home with us.

Turkey sits at the crossroads of human history and civilization.  It is the meeting point between East and West, and between North and South.  Istanbul itself straddles Europe and Asia, with parts of it on either side.  So it is no surprise that in a large country, once the seat of an empire that spanned at its height from the gates of Vienna all the way around the Mediterranean and into Spain, you can find all types of music.  From music influenced by Turkey's eastern neighbors to pop in the western mode and everything in between, Turkey has it.  You are surrounded by music in Turkey, whether you are walking during one of the five daily prayer times and the muezzin (or a recording of a muezzin) is singing out from the minarets at the mosques or sitting in a meyhane eating meze and drinking raki, you can't escape the music, and why would you want to?

Today's randomly chosen selection is by Gülseren, which is the stage name used by Turkish-born Gülseren Yıldırım Gomez.  Born in 1973 in Istanbul, she was raised in Turkey until age seven, when she moved Paris.  However, she never wanted to forget her heritage and made sure to keep herself immersed in it, first by going to a French university specializing in eastern cultures and also by teaching Parisian schoolchildren how to speak Turkish.  In 2005, she was chosen by contest vote to represent Turkey at the famous Eurovision song contest, where she made some waves by choosing a song that was more traditionally Turkish than modern and pop.  She finished 13th in the competition.  She has one album that I have been able to find called Turquie: Rondes, Comptines et Berceuses (Turkey: Songs, Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies) released in 2007.  This song, Sinanay, can be found on many compilation albums, including the one that I own, Putumayo Presents Turkish Groove.  A nice, upbeat pop song with some Spanish talk at the beginning from Gülseren's husband Luis Gomez, presents a scene on a ferry to Istanbul and the joy that comes with the breeze and the people on it as they head there.  It was written by Sezen Aksu, herself a Turkish pop singer, song-writer and producer who has sold over 40 million albums and who Gülseren describes as "one of the greatest Turkish singers."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Paving the Way into the Sacred Treasure: MC Yogi and "Elephant Power"

A few years ago, Megan and I watched a little movie called Sita Sings the Blues. It is an animated film that told the story of a woman whose relationship fell apart after her husband was transferred to India. She began to imagine herself as Sita from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and so she presents the story of the Ramayana and the relationship between Rama and Sita. Sita is presented in the Ramayana as the ideal woman who supports her husband. Even when there is a misunderstanding, and Rama believes that Sita has betrayed him, Sita sacrifices herself to convince her husband that she remained true to him. The protagonist of the film changes the ending slightly, however, by showing a celestial Rama catering to Sita's wishes. (By the way, if you wish to see the movie, it is downloadable for free at the website. It is cute and funny and has good music.).

 Before I had seen that movie, I had paid little attention to Hindu mythology. However, the way the Ramayana was presented in the movie, I began to eventually read it. It's a long book, and I take it up in fits and starts. I am through about a third of the book, and so far it's a tale that upholds all the Hindu morality. Rama is an enlightened man, heir to the throne, who becomes the victim of a plot by his half-brother's mother to put her son on the throne. As a result, he is exiled for fourteen years, and his loyal wife Sita follows him into exile. The moral crises in the book come when the characters step outside of their roles in society. While the characters and the morals are interesting, I find the gods of Hinduism even more fascinating, partly because they incarnate themselves into new characters. Take for instance Vishnu, the supreme god of one of the three main sects of Hinduism, who is the essence of all beings and the holder of the past, present and future. He is the creator and the destroyer of the existence and the god who governs the universe. Yet Vishnu also has ten avatars, or incarnations, of himself. Rama is one incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna,the hero, prankster, and great lover is another. Or take Hanuman, the monkey god who is the devotee of Rama. Or Ganesh, the son of the gods Shiva and Parvati, whose head was lopped off by Shiva by mistake and then replaced with the proffered head of a wise old elephant. He is a remover of obstacles and represents intellect and wisdom. While there are elements of the strange, to Western ears, in Hinduism there are also parallels to Christianity. After all, Jesus could be seen as an avatar of God, and the disciples, his devoted servants, could be elements of Hanuman if you stretch it a little. So, there is a lot to explore in Hinduism that's just plain interesting.

Which brings us to MC Yogi and the point of this foray into Hinduism. MC Yogi is the stage name of Nicholas Giacomino, a yogi (yoga practitioner) and instructor who is based out of Point Reyes, California. As a hip-hop artist, he focuses his music around the tenets, philosophy and spirituality of Hinduism. His songs are often bhajans, or devotional songs, celebrating one or another of the Hindu deities. At other times, he provides interesting history lessons on the lives of important historical figures within Hinduism, such as Gandhi. At times, even when he is doing nothing but beatboxing, his songs can sound like mantras or prayers. Currently, MC Yogi has two released albums, Elephant Power (2008) and Pilgrimage (2012) and there is also a remix album called Elephant Powered Remixes (2010). This song, Elephant Power, is off of his first album of the same name, and provides some insight into the Hindu god Ganesh. The song features Bhagavan Das, a bhakti yogi who is also a singer and teacher and who was the guide for Ram Dass in his spiritual journey in India.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Modern Day Troubadors: Erik Pédurand and "Elle Donne"

Before I lived in Texas, I had scant idea of what a singer-songwriter actually was. I grew up on a steady diet of bands. Bands of all kinds. My parents were into big bands. My friends were into the prog-rock, hard rock, heavy metal, hair, and new-wave bands of the 70s and 80s. Oh, I knew of artists like Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and the like but to me they were sort of folk music straying into rock and roll. I won't say that I had a sophisticated view of all this. It was just how I interpreted the music world.

Fast forward to 1995.  My wife and I, newly married, are moving to San Antonio, Texas after almost ten years of living in Milwaukee - a city we had grown to love and where most of our friends were located.  She had taken a new job there in her field right out of graduate school, and we were prepared to hate Texas.  We had all the stereotypes.  Texas was the land of prideful, boasting Texans, conservative politics, hot and dry weather, and lots of flat land with cattle.  Also, it was the land of country music, which neither of us were into.  We got there, and immediately started trying to hate Texas...and after five years of living there, when we were driving our moving van out of town on our way to New Orleans and my own graduate school work, we both were bawling like babies.

There were a lot of things that made us cry about leaving, and one of them was the music.  It was in Texas that we realized how diverse, amazing and wonderful music could be.  Texas literally expanded our musical horizons and made us open our minds to new things.  We discovered Texas swing, Hispanic ranchera and norteño.  We discovered that country music, especially the older country music, was a beautiful thing.  We discovered bluegrass, and the psychedelic rock of the 13th Floor Elevators, and the Latin-infused rock of the Sir Douglas Quintet and Augie Myers.  And we discovered singer-songwriters - too many to count.  Tish Hinojosa in the Hispanic tradition, Terri Hendrix in a whole category of her own, Townes Van Zandt and all the people he influenced, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark and Waylon and Willie and the Flatlanders and Sarah Hickman and just amazing artists with stories to tell.

The singer-songwriter to me is the modern day troubador, who sings of serious things and humorous things, love and loss.  He can be an amazing musician with a story to tell, or she can just pick and strum basic chords but the lyrics are worthy of the best poets.   They paint pictures with their words and with their instruments and a concert of two hours goes by too fast because you are so engaged and you are left wanting more and more.  That's what we experienced in Texas, in back country dance halls and in concert venues.  And so, when we began doing this world music show, I was gratified to see that the singer-songwriter is not just an American thing.  There are troubadors all over the world, sharing their thoughts and feelings through the tapestry of their music.

Today's troubador is Erik Pédurand, a singer-songwriter from Guadeloupe - a French protectorate in the Caribbean.  He began singing at 15, and made a name on Guadeloupe when he appeared on a talent show called Stardom.  He moved to Paris to study language, and while there he met Lee Siam and Manuel Mondesir who eventually produced his first CD, Chayé Kow, which was released in 2008.  The album won him the award for Afro-Caribbean Breakthrough Artist of the Year in 2009.  He currently has three released albums, and this song, Elle Donne, is from his 2013 release Ecole Créole.  The video is beautifully filmed and worth seeing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Afro-Peruvian Revival: Susana Baca and "Maria Lando"

No matter how many strides we make as a world civilization, we seem to keep coming around to the same mistakes and lessons. Take slavery. The United States abolished slavery in 1865 only after the economy of a good portion of the country had become dependent on it and after a devastating civil war. England abolished slavery in 1833. Many countries in South America were well on their way to ending slavery before the United States, and most slaves in the New World were completely emancipated by the 1870s.

Yet here, in the 21st century, there are still reports of slavery. Nigerian terrorists kidnap hundreds of schoolgirls and threaten to sell them into slavery. The FBI announces that they have freed over 3600 children in the sex slave trade over the past few years. Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, is considered to be a state that survives on slave labor since officials confiscate the passports of guest workers and often don't pay them for months at a time. Thailand was demoted to the lowest rung on the US Human Rights report, and the Guardian reported that the Thai prawn fishing industry is dependent on slaves working Thai fishing boats.

All this in a world that supposedly put slavery behind it a century and a half ago.  All this in a world that is supposedly enlightened.  Modernization, reactionism.  Capitalism begets many good things, and yet begets greed which leads to the worst of human behaviors in the pursuit of wealth and power.

Today's selection, Maria Lando by Susana Baca, is a reminder of the past and hopefully a future we can avoid.  Maria Lando is about a servant girl, which is often a softer name for a slave.  The song opens with a beautiful evocative image of a dawn:

The dawn breaks like a statue
Like a winged statue spreading across the city
And the noon rings, a bell made of water
A golden singing bell that keeps us from feeling alone

The song goes on to tell us that Maria gets no sleep, and for her there is no dawn, no noon, no moon, just broken sleep, a suffering gait and "only work, only work, only work," performed for another.

Susana Baca is a Peruvian singer who is widely credited with reviving the Afro-Peruvian musical tradition.  She grew up in a small coastal fishing village and recounts on her website how black families came together with music.  She heard Cuban music and the music of Celia Cruz, and as she states on her website, "....The culture, music, and our whole selves are all about the mixture of Spanish Indian and African cultures."  Baca has won two Latin Grammys, and in 2011 she was named Minister of Culture, only the second Afro-Peruvian to sit on the Peruvian cabinet.  She also founded the Instituto Negrocontinuo, which collects, preserves and encourages the creation of Afro-Peruvian culture, music, and dance.  She is also one of my wife's favorite world artists.  Her music often utilizes traditional instruments, including the jawbone of a burro, gourd, wooden box, and clay pot, and her singing has been described as "spiritual", even if she is not singing about anything religious.  This video of Maria Lando shows Baca live in a studio with her backing band.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Little Night Magic: Jazzamor and "Nuit Magique"

Why is it that I am not enamored of French? It's a fine language, but I've never felt it to be the most beautiful language as the movies and Francophiles make it out to be. Sorry, French people and people of French descent and those who speak French. Perhaps I have a tin ear for languages, or something.

It is different for me, however, when French is used in music. When I listen to a jazz song in French, the music elevates. It doesn't especially matter if the voice singing is male or female, though I must say that given my gender I do find a female voice singing French to be very irresistible. However, French just seems to make the song that much more sophisticated, mysterious, sexy, longing, romantic, whatever.

Here's my biggest surprise. I am not a huge fan of rap and hip hop, though I like some offerings. I don't go in for the "gangsta" rap and all of the hypersexualized, treat women as objects to be passed around and used type of rap and hip hop but I do like rap and hip hop with social messages. Again, it's nothing personal against anyone. However, when I heard my first rap song in French, I didn't care. They could have been singing about anything, even reprehensible things that I would never agree with, and yet the language somehow made it different and interesting even within the conventions. I've since heard rap and hip hop in other languages as well, such as German, Dutch, Spanish, a couple of different African languages, and I find it more interesting than what I get in English.

So I'm strange, I suppose.  But, if you like songs in French you'll find today's selection very interesting.  It's not hip hop or rap (at least this time) but it's a jazz selection infused with bossa nova by a German duo named Jazzamor.  Jazzamor was founded in 2002 by Bettina Mischke and Roland Grosch.  Originally part of a jazz quartet, they decided to explore jazz in a different direction by minimizing the instrumentation and blending in bossa nova rhythms and a lounge sensibility.  Jazzamor's first album, Lazy Sunday Afternoon (2003), yielded a hit in the song Way Back, which was picked up by Nikon for an ad campaign.  Since then, they have released five more albums to date.  This song, Nuit Magique (Magical Night) is off of their 2006 CD release Travel.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Voice of the Populace: Inti-Illimani and Mañana quizás and Q'apac Chunchu

My wife would not be ashamed to admit it, but she's pretty left of center. I am too, for that manner. In her case, it is a product of her education and her upbringing. Her parents were liberals and adherents of Catholic social teaching, and whereas my liberal leanings are more based on what I always felt was right, hers is the smarter, more informed kind of liberalism. As a result, she taught me about things that I paid scant attention to. One of those things she taught me about was the Chilean popular movement and the election of a socialist, Salvador Allende, as president of Chile in 1970. By 1973, after he had embarked on policies including nationalization of industries and a heavy increase in social spending by the government, the military embarked on a coup d'etat some say was supported by the United States, although official documents say otherwise. After the armed forces trapped him in the presidential palace, Allende was forced to resign, and died under mysterious circumstances officially ruled a suicide. General Augusto Pinochet took over governance of the country as the leader of a military junta, which ruled the country until 1990. Many friends of a leftist bent I have known have also taken an interest in the political events in Chile, and it was from one of them that I think I got a tape (yes, I'm that old) of Inti-Illimani. I listened to it a few times but I was young and more into rock music. It was only while looking up Inti-Illimani for this post that I discovered their contribution to the popular movement in Chile. Formed in 1967 by university students, Inti-Illimani gained popularity in Chile due to their song Venceremos (We shall overcome) which became the anthem of the populist movement. This led to their exile - Allende's government was overthrown while they were on tour in Europe and, fearing for their safety, they stayed in exile in Italy until 1988, leading them to joke that their exile was the longest tour for any band ever. While in exile, they began to combine their Latin musical heritage with elements of European baroque and popular music, and by doing so helped create some of the first "world" music. Their music was banned in Chile, though distributed underground, and in 1988 they were allowed to return to their country. They participated actively in the campaign that ousted Pinochet from power in a democratic election, and continue their political activism to this day. However, in 2001 the band split over musical and political differences, and there are now two bands. The first retained the name of Inti-Illimani, and the second became Inti-Histórico. These two songs, Mañana quizás and Q'apac Chunchu, are on Inti-Illimani's 2002 album Lugares Comunes, and the video appears to be taken from a DVD of their live performances. The small guitar is, I believe, a charango and they mix the quiet sounds of the stringed instruments with flutes that almost sound martial, as if the quiet Chile countryside is broken by the strains of marching military units.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Free Tibet: Techung and Rang zen-Independence

When I was in college, I first started seeing the Free Tibet slogans and the Tibetan flag (a sun rising over a mountain peak). Over the years I have loosely followed the Tibetan story, which mostly gets retold in our country when the Dalai Lama comes to America or something happens to Tibet. The history, as I understand it, is that for centuries Tibet was a proud, independent nation governed on the principles of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 1950s, the Chinese made good on their longstanding claim to Tibet and invaded, turning Tibet into a Chinese province. They attempted to usurp the selection process of the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, by proposing their own candidate. This caused the young Dalai Lama (who is believed to be the same spiritual being reincarnated into different bodies throughout history) to flee to India. Today he lives in exile with other exiled Tibetans, while China slowly tries to assimilate Tibet into the rest of China with varying degrees of success.

There are a number of good documentaries about the Dalai Lama and his journey, and others about the Tibetan situation. I have an interesting story about Tibet: my wife's sister-in-law snuck into Tibet in the 70s on a rope bridge across a deep chasm and spent a little bit of time there (the area is generally not open to foreigners without a permit and there was a time when it was not open to Westerners at all).

The music selection for today is by Tibetan artist who goes by the nickname of Techung when he plays music solo, and as Tashi Dhondup Sharzur at other times. He is a second generation Tibetan exile born in Tibet but raised in Dharamsala, India. As an adult he splits his time between Dharamsala and San Francisco. He studied Tibetan music, dance and opera extensively as a child at the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts, and has become one of the key keepers of Tibetan musical and performing arts traditions. He founded the San Francisco-based Chaksampa Tibetan Dance and Opera Company in 1989, and is known for his collaborative work that explores his own musical heritage and that of other world music traditions. His latest album, Techung-Tibet-Lam La Che: On The Road (2013) features collaborative work with Keb' Mo'.

This song, Rang zen-Independence, is from his 2004 album A Compilation of Tibetan Folk and Freedom Songs.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ragin' Cajuns: Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys

When I lived in Milwaukee in the late 80s and early 90s, a friend was really into zydeco music.  It was my first introduction to music from Louisiana.  My girlfriend (now my wife and one of the hosts of the Global Music Show) and I were introduced to some zydeco artists through this friend, and went to see Wayne Toups and Zydecajun during a Bastille Days concert.

But my first real introduction to Cajun music occurred when Megan and I lived in San Antonio and drove to Louisiana to meet some friends for camping.  As we drove across western Louisiana, the music on the radio was full of accordion and violin, and the vocals sounded almost like the lonesome twang of country except they were in French.  Then a DJ came on and started talking.  "What's he saying?" I asked Megan.  "I don't know," she replied.  "I thought you knew French!" I exclaimed.  "That's French, but it's no French that I know," Megan said.

After living in New Orleans, I came to appreciate Cajun music, after attending concerts at Tipitinas and attempting to Cajun two-step to the likes of Bruce Daigrepont and other Cajun artists.  While classified by many as a "world" music, I began to see it as a uniquely American music, sung in French but with a lot of rhythms borrowed not only from the old world but also from the new.  It certainly gets your attention, especially when a good, upbeat song comes on.

One of the well-known Cajun bands of Louisiana is Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.  Originally formed in 1988, they have released 10 albums, of which two have been nominated for Grammys in the traditional folk category.  They have gone from being a primarily traditional Cajun band to one that blends their unique personal style, and sometimes a bit of blues, country and rock, with more traditional forms of Cajun music.  The band consists of Steve Riley on accordion, Sam Broussard on guitar, Brazos Huval on fiddle, saxophone and bass, and Kevin Dugas on drums.  Original guitarist Jimmy Domengeaux died in 1999, and co-founder David Greely retired due to hearing problems.

I first heard the band when Megan brought home their double CD The Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.  The selection provided here is footage of a Tiny Desk Concert they did for NPR Music in 2011.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lucha Libre: Los Straitjackets and Dame una Seña

Once I watched a documentary called Super Amigos about some Mexican luchadores (wrestlers) that had taken up the mantle of superheroes.  One took up the rights of animals and called himself Super Animal.  Another was all about the rights of the poor and called himself Super Barrio.  The third was concerned about the environment and called himself Ecologista Universal, and a fourth was a champion of gay rights and called himself Super Gay.  A fifth called himself Fray Tormenta, a priest who took up wrestling and used the profits to build two orphanages.  They traveled across Mexico to bring to light that country's serious social problems.

The only reason I bring this up is that today's featured band, Los Straitjackets, wear Mexican luchador masks as a part of their stage show.  What this is supposed to mean, I'm not sure.  When I saw Super Amigos, I was made aware of the rich and colorful history of Mexican wrestling and the characters of the wrestlers within it.  Luchadores come in two main types, the bad guys who do not play by the rules, and the good guys who are very technical and stay within the rules.  The characters are as well or better known than their American counterparts in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and often take on a heroic persona through their matches, tie in comics and other media.  The mask, while not universally used, is usually a prized possession and losing the mask in a match (an unmasking) is a terrible loss and insult.

I don't know if this is what Los Straitjackets was going for in their costuming, which consists of dark clothing, large medallions and luchador masks.  If it is, they are suggesting that they are heroic rockers, masked crusaders for justice, rough and tough and willing to take all comers.  Or, they could have just been trying to look cool for the stage show.

Los Straitjackets started in Nashville in 1988 and has released 13 albums.  An instrumental band, they began to gain a following after the movie Pulp Fiction brought a surf-oriented sound back in the limelight.  Their stage shows are apparently something to see - only band member Danny Amis speaks and does so in bad Spanish.  Many might remember their appearances on Conan O'Brien's late night show, in particular as his regular holiday band in the late 1990s.

This song, Dame Una Seña (Give Me a Sign), is from their 2007 album Rock en Español, Vol 1.  The album consists of 1950s and 60s English language rock tunes as Spanish language covers.  Vocals are provided by guest vocalists including Little Willie G. of Thee Midniters, Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, and on this song, Big Sandy of Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wasn't Much Into Elvis, but El Vez? En el Barrio, by El Vez

Elvis was a little before my time.  Born in 1963, I came in on the tail end of the music that defined a generation.  Elvis in the 50s and all the psychedelic rock and protest rock of the 60s only came into my awareness when they were already somewhat antiquated.  My musical tastes ran into the progressive rock of the 70s, a smattering of disco and funk, and finally into some of the new wave of the 80s along with punk and post punk.

Elvis was already old news when I was listening to music.  Sure, I knew Jailhouse Rock and Blue Suede Shoes, but I didn't appreciate them for what they were...they were already oldies but goodies.  But I can say the Elvis song that did make an impression on me was In the GhettoIn the Ghetto coincided with the comeback of Elvis in 1969, and I probably heard it later in the 70s on a radio station.  Having only known Elvis through his rockabilly, I didn't know that he could sing songs like that - a song with a story of poverty and hardship.  It might seem trite, but I grew up in a small town and had never considered such things before.  Poverty and ghettos were things that appeared on the nightly news, but were not present in my day to day reality.  The circle of life, poverty, crime and death outlined in the song was something outside my world, but the way Elvis sang it was very compelling and drew your attention.

I also knew about the Elvis impersonators, and even have a friend who played guitar for one in Wisconsin.  But even though I shouldn't have been, I was surprised and taken a little aback to find that there was a Latino version, a man named Robert Lopez who was part of the punk group The Zeros and who became El Vez, the Chicano Elvis.  More than just an impersonator, El Vez also performs other major rock icons including David Bowie, Iggy Pop, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan.  I had no idea about him until a DJ friend gave my wife and I a collection of covers of various song by artists around the world.  This collection had things like The Beatles singing their hits in German, and also foreign artists covering various rock standards.  While listening, when the first chords of En el Barrio came up I recognized it for what it was, and then realized it was not Elvis but someone singing it quite well in Spanish.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find the Spanish version online, but at least I have El Vez singing in English with his backup singers, the Elvettes.

Of course, we don't speak of ghettos anymore, where "colored" people live and work.  Our consciousness has raised so that the ghettos became inner-cities and colored people became black and brown, and the African-Americans and Latinos/Hispanics.  All of that is good, but as one who has lived in the inner-city for more of his adult life than not, the cycle that In the Ghetto and En el Barrio chronicles is still active.  Children are still born, and mommas still cry because they don't have enough to feed them, and sometimes we see, and sometimes we turn our heads and look the other way just like Elvis and El Vez sing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bollywood Dreams: The Dirty Picture's Ooh La La

I can't really believe this, but I've never seen a Bollywood movie all the way through.

My wife has seen plenty of them. She traveled in India for a month in the late 1990s, and therefore got a chance to experience Bollywood movies in Indian movie theaters - without subtitles or dubbing mind you. She really enjoyed them, and partly because they often are laid out in a formulaic way so that there is no mistaking what is happening in various parts of a Bollywood movie. And there are always the entertaining song and dance numbers. Some conventions you just know will happen - there will be no kissing so when it appears that a kiss is inevitable, suddenly the cast will break out in song. There will always be a moral, such as a rebellious woman will either be tamed by marriage or tamed by death.

I've seen movies by Indian directors, and movies about India. I've seen Slumdog Millionaire and many Mira Nair films and Deepa Mehta's Indian trilogy, but never an honest-to-God Bollywood spectacular.

But I've seen plenty of Bollywood numbers on video. In 1998 I traveled to Bangladesh and lived there for a month. Bangladeshi Television had one channel, so the rest of their television airwaves was flooded by Indian channels. One of the favorites was Indian MTV, and the videos shown on that channel were always song and dance numbers culled from Bollywood movies. I must say that I really enjoy watching them. The newer movies have music that ranges from electronica to driving percussion, and yet still that Indian sound anchored usually by a back and forth between a woman and a man in voices that sound like they could be wailing but are technically doing quite a lot. The dances always involve a lot of personnel, color, costumes and flirtatious glances between the two principles.

Today's video is a song called Ooh La La, and it is from a 2011 Bollywood production called The Dirty Picture. The movie is morality tale based on the life of a South Indian actress named Silk Smitha. Smitha died in 1996 at the age of 36, but she became one of the most sought-after Indian erotic actresses in history. She was apparently an accomplished actress and her non-erotic roles landed her critical acclaim, but because of her looks and her erotic success she was typecast into what some Indians considered "soft porn;" such roles often had her playing a secret agent wearing skimpy bikinis and beating up large, thuggish men. She had incredible audience-drawing power, such that one critic remarked that a film could be sold by the addition of a Smitha song. After trying to break into film production, and suffering financial problems, she apparently fell into depression, and her death at 36 is suspected to have been suicide by hanging.  

The Dirty Picture follows the life of an actress named Silk who breaks into movies by adding sex and spice, much to the chagrin of director who is saddled with her. She also has numerous affairs with men, and in the ends up an alcoholic chain smoker with many debts who is reduced to doing a porn film. Like the Silk of real life, she commits suicide at the end of the film. A sad tale to be sure, but what would such movies be without some drama, and part of the Bollywood formula is drama. I will have to make sure I see one to the end, and soon.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cosmopolitan and Sophisticated: Italy's Mau Mau and Venus Nabalera

When I first heard Venus Nabalera, by the Italian group Mau Mau, I wasn't really very versed in world music. I believe that I started listening to what is commonly labeled as world music or global music as the result of a happy accident. I was living in New Orleans in the early 2000s, and my journalist wife was tasked to write some entries on a series exploring the places where New Orleans musicians had lived. I forget which musician, a trumpeter who lived in the early 1900s, she was writing about when we headed to the Bywater neighborhood to look at an address, but we made the acquaintance of the woman who lived in the house that he had lived in for a little while. The woman turned out to be the wife of Dan Storper, the man who founded Putumayo World Music. They had bought the house and were in the process of restoring it. She gave us three or four Putumayo CDs, and I believe one of them had Venus Nabalero on it.

I remember being surprised that 1) this was an Italian band and 2) that I liked it, along with the rest of the music she had given us. I shouldn't have been surprised. In the 1990s I had become turned on to Celtic music at Milwaukee's Irish Fest when I sat in the audience as a new group named Capercaille played and blew me away with their modern take on traditional Scottish/Celtic music. My naive idea of Italian music involved accordions and violins and probably some mixture of Dean Martin and Louis Prima ("When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie..." or "Buona Sera Senorita Buona Sera...") song by a guy in a checkered apron. So hearing a group like Mau Mau do a song that was vaguely reminiscent of Brazilian music I had heard by chance, but sounding so modern, made me rethink my stereotypes and preconceptions. I listened to that Putumayo album, and the others, over and over. For the first time in my life, I felt sophisticated - like I shouldn't be privy to this type of music but I was. I also felt cosmopolitan, and vaguely like I had discovered a secret nobody else knew about.  I still feel that way sometimes.

In the years since, whenever I hear a new group that really captures my fancy, I have that same feeling that Venus Nabalera and other new world songs give me for a fleeting moment.  There is nothing more satisfying when you feel  like you've discovered something.  And there is nothing more wonderful, after you've savored it, to share it with others in the hopes that they will find it just as amazing as you have.

So, here is Venus Nabalera by Mau Mau, one of the songs that started me on this world music adventure so many years ago.  Just a few words about Mau Mau.  They are a group that formed in Turin in 1991, and they have released six albums to date.  Their name, in the Piedmont region dialect, can mean "one who comes from afar."   The name also references the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya that challenged the British colonial rule.  Venus Nabalera is from their 2000 release Safari Beach.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Touré Raichel Collective - Hawa - The Tel Aviv Session

Sunday is, for a great many people around the world, a day of rest and worship, and often that rest and worship is accompanied by music.  For me, when Sunday rolls around and it happens to coincide with music that appears from nowhere and puts me in a reflective mood, it is as if Sunday came into its own and rose into its own and into what it is supposed to be.

Today's musical highlight does just that.  Hawa is a song from the Touré Raichel Collective.  Beginning with the vaguely reminiscent blues style of Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, it eases into a lazy beat and rhythmic rise and fall that all but forces your mind into reflective submission.  While that description may seem discordant, you don't really feel the pull.  All of a sudden, you realize that you are in reflection when ethereal voices begin to chant to the newly introduced piano of Idan Raichel and you briefly come back to reality before the guitar sends you falling back into an almost spiritual reflection again.

What luck that the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré didn't manage to discourage his son Vieux Farka Touré from taking up music, and that Vieux Farka Touré enrolled himself in music school in Bamako! What luck that When Vieux Farka Touré wanted to release his own solo album, and his producer had to get permission from the village elders including Ali Farka Touré and the great Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, that they allowed the album to move forward! What luck that Idan Raichel, a highly successful backup musician in Israel, decided to pursue his own solo projects!  What an amazing coincidence that these two highly talented men met each other by chance in an airport in Germany, became deep and lasting friends, and after a session of music together decided to form the Touré Raichel Collective!

One could say that it might seem like the hand of a higher power was involved.  And on this Sunday, where many people will take a day to reflect and tend to spiritual matters, music like Hawa can only aid us in those endeavors.

Hawa is from the Touré Raichel Collective's album The Tel Aviv Session (Amazon, iTunes), released by the Cumbancha label in 2012. Here is an excerpt of the song performed live.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Welcome to Your World Music Show

This blog has come about because of the inadequacies of Facebook. My name is Michael Hess. I'm a staff person at a university, an adjunct professor of political science, and a music lover. My wife, Megan Kamerick, is a journalist. A few years ago, she was asked to serve as a backup DJ for a weekly world music show on our local public radio station. While both of us loved music, world music was not a genre that we were very familiar with. However, my wife is always game to try something new and she enlisted my help to find music. We were very quickly surprised by the breadth of world music. Today my wife is one of four regular rotating DJs on the show and I serve as her program assistant, music procurator and occasional replacement if she is unavailable. One of the things that has become apparent is that we LOVE discovering this music. We have become familiar with many of the greatest names in music that Americans have never heard from, as well as exciting new bands and solo artists that emerge every day from places outside of the United States. America may be the entertainment center of the world, but there are many amazing things happening with music in both other places in the first and third worlds. There are fusions and collaborations, reinterpretations of traditional folk musics and new musics being invented all the time. We have been privileged to expand our musical horizons and open our minds and ears to sounds that would not come to us over the airwaves in our home country.

For a couple of years, I have been maintaining a Facebook page called KUNM Global Music First Monday. On the page, I post a daily song about a world musician or band and a piece of work that he or she has done. Despite our exhortations for people to "like" us and get exposed, we only have 81 followers and, according to the statistics, it's the rare day that anyone actually tries out the music. So, I'm casting the net to the wider world in the hopes that there are more people that will find us on this platform and who may be willing to also open up their ears and their minds.

I once had an argument with a person about world music. She maintained that it wasn't interesting because she couldn't understand the lyrics. Here's a little secret that I've learned - you don't need to understand the lyrics to be moved by the music, by the longing or happiness or sadness in the singer's voice, the same emotions in the the way the kora player, the fiddle player, the guitar player, the Uilleann pipe player, or any of the other musicians at play.

By the way, you might be interested in the radio station that hosts us and our show. We air on KUNM, which is one of Albuquerque's public radio stations serving North and North Central New Mexico at 89.9 FM and at some other frequencies through translators. We air mostly on the first Monday of each month from 10 pm - 1 am Mountain Standard Time (USA). My hope is that with this page, I'll be able to expand on the Facebook page by doing a little more exploration into the music and also provide some commentary on how the music and the artist makes me feel. We purchase at least 10 to 15 new songs for each show, plus we play music from the station's collection. My wife and I have built up quite a collection of our own, and I will draw on all of these for this page.

So, let's start this and see if we can build a small community around the joy of music from around the world. As KUNM's motto "News and music that connect" suggests, we can come together in our enjoyment of music. I hope you find this site interesting, and please let me know if you come by by leaving a comment, even if it a suggestion or a correction! Michael Hess