Archive for CD Review category
Next Gen Folk Column
Victory Music Review October 2011
Note: The Next Gen Folk column is intended to be more than just a perspective on roots musicians from a younger generation. The goal of the column is to show positive ways that different generations work together in roots music. The goal is to show how music is passed on and celebrated from generation to generation. The Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili is a powerful example of this kind of work.
Staff Benda Bilili. Très Très Fort.
2009. Crammed Discs.
When writing about music from Africa, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the stories behind the music. Africa has traditionally excited Western imaginations (and stereotypes) more than any other place. And sometimes the story is so powerful that you can’t ignore it, which gives the music a special meaning. This is the case with the Congolese ensemble Staff Benda Bilili. You just can’t make up a story like this.
The musicians of Staff Benda Bilili are handicapped and live on the streets outside the Jardins Zoologique in Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo. Riding around on motorized tricycles all day (local kids push them when the tricycles run out of gas),they hustle a living from the city streets. They’re surrounded by, and have taken in, street children, or sheges. One of these former street kids, Roger Landu, is also a stunning virtuoso in the band. A mere 17 years old, he built his own instrument: a one-string lute he calls a satonge. It’s got a tinny sound from the homemade materials (a coffee can), but despite its humble origins and single string, he blazes through guitar riffs that would stun any six-string instrumentalist. I can’t imagine the ingenuity and creativity it would take to rise above a life in the streets with an entirely hand-made, self-taught talent like that. All the members of Staff Benda Bilili have hard-won stories like this. One example is Bandleader Ricky Likabu who works many odd jobs, hustles alcohol and cigarettes from his tricycle outside clubs, and, according to the liner notes, still sleeps on cardboard in the streets.
But despite the hard-luck exterior image of the group, handicapped people in Kinshasa occupy a key role in the city (at least according to the album’s liner notes) running goods back and forth across the border (due to an exemption on customs taxes), and enjoying a reputation as fearless, well-educated, outspoken advocates for themselves and others less fortunate (the sheges, or street kids, whom they protect). This is reflected in the lyrics of Staff Benda Bilili, as they sing about the importance of polio vaccinations (their handicaps stem from polio afflictions as children), speak out against corporate control of food, present a call to action for Africans “Black man, get up, stand up, Africa is being destroyed./If Africans don’t unite they’re going nowhere/Africa belongs to Africans/Let us love and help each other,” and admonish those who would judge them, “Don’t judge the life of a man/one doesn’t choose one’s life.” The songs are sung in Lingala, and are heavily informed by Congolese music traditions which were themselves originally inspired by Cuban music that had traveled back to Africa. The more you look into the modern history of music, the more you see music turning in circles, traveling away from and returning to the source endlessly.
On the one hand the music of Staff Benda Bilili is a powerful testament to overcoming adversity, but on the other hand, it’s a more positive vision of life in the Congo. A sign that life goes on, no matter where you are or what your circumstances, and that hope unifies us all. Staff Benda Bilili are now touring internationally and have a critically acclaimed documentary of them making the festival rounds. In the song “Tonkara,” Staff Benda Bilili sing about chance, and how it can strike anyone at any time. “I once slept on cardboard/Good luck hit me, I bought myself a mattress/It can happen to you, to him, to them/A man is never finished/Chance can hit you without warning/It’s never too late in life/Someday I’ll make it too.” Think about the kind of chance that brought these street performers across the world and landed them brand-new careers as international stars. Now that’s an inspiring story.
Staff Benda Bilili: Moziki
Staff Benda Bilili Documentary
Roger Landu on the santonge
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Victory Music Review, a monthly publication for acoustic music lovers in the Pacific Northwest.
10/10/2011 | comments (0)
Note: This review originally appeared in Driftwood Magazine.
Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra vs. Fanfare Ciocarlia. Balkan Brass Battle.
2011. Asphalt Tango.
By now, Balkan brass is an accepted and much-loved part of the “world music” industry. Give thanks to Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica for this. His hallucinatory, rabidly-exciting scenes of gypsy life in the Balkans, though rife with stereotypes, are also so much fun that they sparked a huge love for this music in the West. Think a mix between O Brother Where Art Thou if it was set in Eastern Europe and the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), and you have an idea of what his films are like. Classic Kusturica films include Underground, Time of the Gypsies, and Black Cat, White Cat. If you haven’t heard of Kusturica, drop what you’re doing right now and add Underground to the top of your Netflix queue. Seriously. It will blow your mind. Or if you’ve already seen his movies, drop everything and add Arizona Dream to your queue. It’s his foray into American film, and it’s totally insane. Starring Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and Jerry Lewis, it’s a psychedelic romp through Southern Americana. Pure mad genius.
A key to Kusturica’s movies is his use of intense Balkan brass, and his integration of the brass bands into his film (see the Youtube clip from Underground). There’s something innate in Balkan brass; I think it’s a music you have to be born into. You can hear the desperation and anger of Eastern Europe’s Roma (not Gypsy, please) people in every note. This isn’t music to relax to; this is music to make your walls bounce. It’s frenetic and weird and overwhelming. And it’s infused with the party-or-die attitude of Eastern Europe. Balkan brass bands in concert put out a colossal amount of energy; I once saw someone fall into a canal, they were dancing so hard to the music. So the thought of bringing two Roma brass bands together, and two of the very best, is kind of staggering. And true enough, this battle between top ranked bands Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra (known for their playing in Kusturica’s movies) and Fanfare Ciocarlia (one of the best Balkan brass bands) is every bit as house-shaking as imagined.
Recorded in 48 hours in a Transylvanian hotel outside Castle Dracula (according to the press release), the ensuing album, Balkan Brass Battle, brings together these two giants of Balkan brass to cover such unusual material as the James Bond theme and the Gummy Bear song. And they produce stunning renditions of both, which may surprise you when you realize just how silly the Gummy Bear song is. On the Western covers, the beats are extra funky, channeling an almost funkadelic sound, and helping to tilt the axis away from the insanely frenetic sounds of Balkan brass. But the album really shines when the groups tear up traditional Balkan folk music. “Devla” is a hallucinatory romp through Balkan rhythms, with each group blasting back and forth. And tracks like “Topdzijsko Kolo” and “Dances from the Monestary Hills” give the listener a great intro to the true sounds of Balkan brass. Each band gets their time to shine with their own tracks on the album, and you can compare and contrast the bands via their alternate takes on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”
Many of the tracks have the oom-pa oom-pa beat usually associated with Oktoberfest polkas, but the rhythm is so jacked up that you’d probably injure yourself trying to dance to this music with a belly full of German beer. In fact, Roma brass music is so intense that injuries on the dance floor are not uncommon. These are the kind of bands that close out the night at an all-night Balkan dance party, probably breaking half the chairs in the place with their hard-partying dance music. Now you have a chance to bring home your own party with this collaborative album of Balkan brass.
Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra vs. Fanfare Ciocarlia: Devla
Opening Scene from Emir Kusturica's Underground
Trailer for Balkan Brass Battle
10/05/2011 | comments (0)
NOTE: This review was originally written for Driftwood Magazine, the online publication that took over for Dirty Linen. Check out their daily reviews!
On their debut album, Fish & Bird were a folkier duo with a sound that was heavy on fiddle and banjo interplay. Now they’ve expanded to full folk-rock, and if you liked bands like The Duhks or The Paperboys, I would heartily recommend their new album, Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void. They’ve still got those really nice clawhammer banjo lines and the kind of smooth-yet-not-pop fiddling that you can only find in Canada, but they’ve now added bass, drums, and guitars. Their songs also seem poppier. That can be good and bad, but overall they’ve got the folk chops to keep from sliding into “Genericana.” Some lyrics are a bit strange, certainly it came as a surprise on the nice instrumental “Circle Tune,” when singer Taylor Ashton started singing about climbing inside a recently-dead horse à la the ice planet Hoth, but most of the lyrics are sensitive and thoughtful, like
There are more connections in the human brain
than there are stars in the universe
and I tried to say in a couple words
what I can’t understand, let alone explain
from the beautiful “Effigy.” The opening track, “Well Run Dry” passes the hummability test that every song should undergo, and the penultimate track, “Northern Lights,” is just flat out gorgeous. Fish & Bird are a new force to be reckoned with on Canada’s roots scene, and from the sound of their new album, they’d do well in the U.S. too.
Fish & Bird: Effigy
Fish & Bird: Circle Tune
09/25/2011 | comments (0)
We're proud to invite back our friend, Paul Michel, a noted author and folk musician in the Northwest, to write a guest blog for us. We love Paul's writing, so it's a treat to bring him back on board! And while you're at it, check out his new novel: Houdini Pie, a novel based on historical facts, about the efforts of a group of hapless entrepreneurs to mine for the mythical treasure of a tribe of ancient Hopi Indians under the streets of urban Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
Fly Down Little Bird
Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger
by Paul Michel
Remember 1955? Good for you. Let’s set the stage for the forgetful: Ray Kroc launches his first McDonald’s, the Salk polio vaccine is approved, Disneyland opens its gates in Anaheim, the Mickey Mouse Club debuts on TV and President Dwight D. Eisenhower pledges his support for the government of the new South Vietnam. And in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C., a twenty-year old musician named Peggy Seeger, mining the vast trove of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax and transcribed by her mother Ruth, releases a 10” LP called Songs of Courting and Complaint. At the same time, her half-brother Pete is busy trying to sing louder than Senator Joe McCarthy can screech, and her brother Mike, just two years older, is immersing himself (via those same field recordings) in the traditional “old-time” styles and repertoire that will fuel the campus festival phenomenon soon to emerge as the New Lost City Ramblers. The table was being set for the big folk music revival of the 1960s, and an awful lot of the cooking was happening at the Seeger house in Silver Spring.
Fast-forward to 2009. In the months just before his short, losing battle with cancer, Mike and Peggy managed to reprise the sound, and indeed many of the same songs, that sweetened the Seeger home more than a half-century ago. Their newly-released collection, Fly Down Little Bird (Appleseed Recordings, 2011), is a fourteen-cut journey into a distant but resonant chapter in the continuing revival and popularization of rural American, mostly Appalachian, music. After Peggy’s move to England in 1959 (a victim of McCarthyistic blacklisting) she turned her significant musical talents mostly to political songwriting, for many years in partnership with Scottish actor and folksinger Ewan MacColl. Mike continued to research and champion the “true vine” of American music as a folklorist, performer and tireless proselytizer of all things old-time. They collaborated infrequently over the decades; most notably on a 94-song (!) Rounder Records triple LP in 1977 called American Folksongs for Children, which included some of the “play-party” pieces repeated on the Appleseed release. Peggy’s liner notes to the new album, Fly Down Little Bird, insist that “These are not ‘children’s songs’—they are grown-ups’ songs, and we grew up with them.”
They did indeed, and over the years they left them very much as they’d found them—or rather, as they’d adapted them originally. For although there’s a plantation porch, corn-shucking quality to these recordings, it’s a whimsical illusion. These charming renditions of old ballads, tunes and nonsense rhymes don’t evoke the Lomax field recordings nearly as much as they do Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1950s living room. The evocation is unapologetic and endearing. Mike and Peggy produced in this project, appropriately and lovingly in Mike’s last days, a tribute not so much to the “authentic” traditional music of the American soundscape as to their younger, pioneering, unforgotten selves. There is virtuosity here to be sure—the driving, haunting claw-hammer banjo entwined with fiddle both ragged and right in the Georgia tune “Big Bee Suck the Pumpkin Stem,” and a tasty sample of Metis fiddling in “The Red River Jig.” There is the broad Seeger instrumental range, including fiddle, guitar, several different banjos, piano, Hawaiian guitar, harmonica, mandolin and lap dulcimer. Duets are sung as often in octave unison as in country harmony. There is silliness (“Fod!” and “Jennie Jenkins”), fond familiarity (“My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains’) and homespun politics (“The Farmer is the Man”). But mostly there is comfort. This collection is delightful from the first listen and grows on one steadily. It’s a simple, cunning capture of two old sibling souls, up in years at long last, singing and smiling back at a slice of yesterday that—like McDonalds and Mickey Mouse, I suppose, but much easier on the ears—never really went away at all.
Mike Seeger & Peggy Seeger: The Farmer is the Man
Mike & Peggy Seeger: Big Bee Suck the Pumpkin Stem
Note: Mike Seeger passed away on August 7, 2009.
09/13/2011 | comments (0)
I was thinking this was gonna happen! Lafayette, the capitol of Cajun Country in SW Louisiana, has a rep for being one of the hottest music spots in the state, and not just for a whole new generation of young Cajun musicians. It's also got it's share of indie bands too. I got hipped to this thank to Valcour Records, who released the debut album from a little indie band called the Givers a year or so back. Now The Givers have blown up and are getting lots of great press and attention, and people are starting to realize that there's a lot of great music coming out of Louisiana's "Cajun Country."
This split EP, The Color Sessions, is a great example of Lafayette's fertile music grounds, with indie-Cajun band Feufollet trading off songs with indie-rockers Brass Bed. Though trading off isn't so much the word, they're actually covering selected tracks from the other band's albums. Which is even cooler because it means that Feufollet sings in English and Brass Bed sings in Cajun French. But both bands are closer than you'd think. Their press release states that they've played together, lived together, shared a keyboardist, and shared plenty of drinks at the heart of Lafayette's music scene: the Blue Moon Saloon. It's not a huge stretch for either band, but it does make for a great album.
The fun here is that covering another genre brings out new sides to the bands. It's great fun to hear Feufollet tear through an indie-rock summer romp like "Bums on the Radio," just like it's surprising to hear Brass Bed totally nail a subtle Cajun song like "Le Berceuse du Vieux Voyager." So raise a glass with me to the fine young kinds in Lafayette, Louisiana, long may the bon temps roules!
Feufollet: Bums on the Radio
Brass Bed: Le Berceuse du Vieux Voyager
08/19/2011 | comments (0)
This review was originally published in Driftwood Magazine, the online publication that took over for Dirty Linen. We love their work, so be sure to check them out if you haven't already!
Terakaft. Aratan N Azawad.
2011. World Village
The “desert blues” of Mali has been one of the great world music successes of the 2000s. Bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa have toured the world over, bringing their music to new outlets that haven’t traditionally covered world music and had never heard of, much less heard, Malian desert blues before. Born of Mali’s nomadic Tuareg people, the desert blues was a result of American and Arab pop/rock refracted through nomadic traditions. For the Tuareg, their sun-bleached music, drenched in shimmery electric guitar lines and West African percussion brought a new kind of cool to the American festival scene. And when word hit the West about how cool the main Tuareg event, Festival au Désert, was, backpackers started heading out into the desert to discover this music. Heck, even Volkswagon jumped onboard, naming a line of cars “Touareg” after the Malian desert tribes, and donating some of their riches to the Tuareg festival.
There is another side to this popular explosion of Tuareg music, though: the unsettling rise of what some have called “poverty pornography” in the West. Decades of gangsta rap in the America have given rise to American audiences looking for violent street cred in artists, and especially in artists from abroad. So while Youssou N’Dour headlines European festivals and is hailed as the Golden Voice of Mali, in the U.S., Tinariwen’s story of guerrilla warfare gave them the Third World cred needed for acceptance. As mainstream Hollywood movies like The Incredible Hulk, Slumdog Millionaire, or The Constant Gardener mined Latin American, South Asian, and African slums for inspiration, artists started playing up their connections to the third world slums and impoverished communities. Musical artists soon followed suit, like M.I.A., who capitalized on her somewhat tenuous connections to the Tamil Tigers, or K’Naan, who rapped about growing up amid the violence of Somalia. Some of this music was inspired, bringing voices to people who are never heard in mainstream news (like K’Naan’s song “Somalia” or his outspoken YouTube comments that flipped the script on Somali pirates, providing historical background to help Americans understand the pirates’ origins). But the American mainstream’s demand for titillation demanded the frisson that truly “hardcore” third world artists could bring and this strange demand created new careers.
Happily, a new Malian desert blues group, Terakaft, has come on to the scene late enough in the game that most of the sensationalism about the Tuareg history of violent conflict has died down. So maybe now we can just get down to the fact that there are some amazing musicians coming out the Sahara! And the sound of Tuareg desert blues is continuing to evolve in new, exciting directions. Terakaft shows a soft side to the music on Aratan N Azawad, keeping the hard-earth-baked electric guitar lines but swapping out some of the handclaps and heavy call-and-response chanting for lyrics that are at times almost whispered. Check out the title track, “Aratan N Azawad,” for an example of this kind of softening of the music. But that great desert blues sound is still here too, as a track like “Aman Wi Kawalnen.”
Of course, sometimes it just sucks that you can’t understand the lyrics: On “Ahod,” the lead singer keeps referencing Tinariwen, the best known Tuareg band. I wish we could find out what he’s saying about them. Maybe Terakaft’s taken a cue from hip-hop and started beefing? After all, both bands have shared members, and Terakaft’s leaders got their start in Tinariwen. But this scenario is unlikely. After years spent in refugee camps outside of Mali, it’s wonderful news that so many Tuareg musicians have found success as touring cultural emissaries.
Just as the world has come to embrace the music of Mali’s Tuareg people, the Tuareg musicians have also come to discover a world of music. Terakaft has been playing now with a French trip-hop drummer and collaborating with South Asian singer Kiran Alhuwalia. And Tinariwen members discovered the blues through their first travels. We used to think about music as coming full circle, but as the dry, dusty beats of West African music travel back and forth between the mother continent and North America, we’re starting to see these musical voyages as an extended spiral around a center. That mysterious center, born of West African rhythms and melodies and inspired by ancient kings of the Mandinka empire, has birthed more music in the past couple hundred years than anyone would ever have imagined.
Terakaft: Aratan N Azawad
Terakaft: Aman Wi Kawalnen