Saturday, September 24, 2011

High Holy Music

CD Review: Further Definitions of the Days of Awe.  The Afro-Semitic Experience (Reckless DC Music, 2011).

Just in time for the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah this starts at sundown on on Weds., Sept. 28 this year), an album called Further Definitions of the Days of Awe, by a band called the Afro-Semitic Experience, landed on my desk.
The Afro-Semitic Experience, which draws jazz, Latin and soul influences into its mix, isn’t the only band with a black / Jewish bent; kosher soul brother Joshua Nelson, a cantor who frequently performs with alt-klezmer kings the Klezmatics, has his own distinct take – joyful, gospel-charged, and politically progressive – on black Jewish music. The Afro-Semitic Experience, founded by African-American jazz pianist Warren Byrd and Jewish bass player David Chavan, is equally good, if less well-known.
For a decade, according to the liner notes, the Afro-Semitic Experience has played the Selichot services that precede Rosh Hashanah with Cantor Jack Mendelson at his synagogue in White Plains, NY.  Selichot, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the day of attonement) – collectively, the Days of Awe – are solemn times of repentance and renewal, but Further Definitions of the Days of Awe manages to be both deeply liturgical and unabashedly celebratory, all at once. Really, that's the right note for renewal, not to mention welcoming a new year. My ancestors might not approve such joyful noise, but I say hallelujah!
Classic cantorial vocal lines weave plaintively through soulful arrangements.  An Ashrei prayer becomes funky R&B, the bari sax adding edges of Monk-like dissonance. Viddui, a prayer of confession, morphs into a Motown-based ballad with a hint of rumba congas at the end.  Adoshem (praise) is done first as smoky tango, then as classic salsa in 2-3 clave. “Sh’ma Koleinu” sneaks in as soul, then slides toward straight-ahead jazz. “Shomer Yisrael,” a song for the guardian at the gates, simmers in soul ballad mode, spiced with supremely graceful horn lines; you can hear the audience say “Woo! Yeah!” at the end of the track. 
For the record, I’m an urban secular Jew.  My parents sent me to synagogue for a few years to instill a sense of my heritage, but my only vivid memory of that experience is the time I played Queen Esther in the annual Purim play. Religion’s never been my bag, but I can say this beyond a shadow of doubt: if the Afro-Semitic Experience had played at our services, I’d have attended religiously.
Further Definitions of the Days of Awe isn’t a disc I’d spin every day, but it’s much more than a mere holiday album. The Afro-Semitic Experience packs a lot of power onto a little CD – it’s worth a listen any time you feel the need for repentance and renewal.
Mazel tov.  Shana tova.
-- Susan Kepecs                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reflections on the Madison World Music Festival's Eighth Incarnation

                                                                                                SKepecs © 2011
By Susan Kepecs

Some Madison World Music Festivals have been better than others, and this year’s fest – the eighth – was one of the best. Every band I heard was brilliant, and the overarching lesson I took away from the event was this: while what we call “world music” is constantly evolving, and while lots of it is, overtly or not, about cultural resistance, absolutely all of it is woven from the shifting cultural-economic web of the world system. For a social scientist like me that’s a fascinating phenomenon.
I caught almost every group that played at the Memorial Union, though I missed Frigg due to bad timing Thursday night. I opted out of the Willy St. Fair – I had mixed feelings about Sergent Garcia and Bomba Estereo anyway, which I reported in the preview I posted last week. Still, I’m sure these bands, like the rest, shed some light on the world system. If you were there, please use the comments box below to tell me what I missed!
                                                                    SKepecs © 2011
Here’s what I thought of the rest of the fest. My pre-event pick was Nawal, the voice of the Comoros Islands, and she was great – a warm performer in a red Sufi turban, barefoot and smiling. Nawal, a mesmerizing Muslim woman wielding a mighty voice, chose to open her set with a Sufi trance take on “Shalom Aleichem,” an Israeli song every good Jewish kid learns at a tender age. That alone was a revelation, but the whole show underscored the essence of the island crossroads in the Indian Ocean where Nawal was born, and where traders from Madagascar, South and East Africa, Arabia and Asia mingled from medieval times through the late nineteenth century. Most of the Nawal’s repertory married Bantu polyrhythms and Arabic tonalities, though she stretched into deep, ringing hums like cosmic breaths, swung into the Soweto sound or intoned purely Persian modal melodies. Rounding out the set, the pianist in the stellar three-piece backup band plunged into some joyful straight-ahead western jazz during the encore. Bravo.
                                                                                             SKepecs © 2011
The Chai Found Music Workshop from Taiwan (which played two concerts, Thurs. and Fri. nights) was a big surprise.  Billed as traditional Chinese chamber music, I expected a high-end noodle shop sound. Instead, this virtuoso ensemble with its fabulous Chinese instruments (including a violin like a small box on a stick, played bottom down like a cello, and a big, round, banjolike guitar) melded echoes of western composers from Chopin to Prokofiev with non-western scales and elongated, sliding notes.  I even caught a few blue notes, a whiff of medieval Spain, a boogie woogie blues and a Chinese song built on a Buddy Holly-like 1957 rock n’ roll chassis.  Of course, China was at the heart of the world system from early days of the Silk Routes till the Ching Dynasty instituted the closed door policy in the seventeenth century – and Taiwan, celebrating its centennial of independence this year, has been much more open to European influences than mainland China since the late 1800’s -- so Chai's striking mix makes sense.
                                                                      SKepecs © 2011
The pizzica tarantella dance music Canzionere Grecianico Salentino brought to the fest wove a different sort of tapestry from world system sounds.  I loved the multi-instrumentality of the players and the folksy, scarf-flinging dance in 6/8 time. It was absolutely freezing out on the Terrace late Friday afternoon, but a group of local women – one of them a bona fide expert – whirled joyfully around on the concrete.  Ancient Greeks brought the original form, a Bacchanalian festival dance, to southern Italy, where it morphed into a medieval cure to cast out devil venom acquired through spider bites.  The tarantella still thrives in Italy, but there’s much more to it than the Adriatic connection. Italy was a Silk Route stop – that’s how Marco Polo got to China in the thirteenth century. His travels, and the links they established, came through loud and clear in Canzionere’s tunes, especially in the snake charmer flute solos and the echoes of Asia and Persia elicited from the concertina.  Did you hear that, too?
                                                                                                  SKepecs © 2011 
Kutumba, from Kathmandu, on its first-ever U.S. tour, served up high-energy fare. The young players, wearing jeans under their Nehru jackets, take a twenty-first century approach to cultural resistance, updating traditional Nepalese sounds with a slim, bright edge of rock and a slew of heartfelt activist themes. On their playlist Friday night was a song for the environment and another about Nepal’s 1996-2006 civil war.  Though Nepal is sandwiched between India and Tibet, Kutumba sounds much more Indian than Chinese.  Drums, cymbals and gongs are a hallmark of this music.  But like the Chai Found Music Workshop, Kutumba cooks with conversations between violin (sarangi – a much different-looking instrument than the Chinese violin) and flute.
                                                SKepecs © 2011
It was all great, but I saved the best for last.  I’ve always been nuts about Dragon Knights, those spectacular stiltwalker puppets towering over the Terrace, the Union Theater and the Willy St. Fair.  Founder Lily Valerie Noden, who’s French and lives in California, describes her artform as culturally blended theater with roots in Europe, Africa, Asia and the U.S. (go to her website,, for more of the story). But her puppets are more like creatures from another planet, or your dreams.  The dragon’s been dazzling MWMF goers since 2006; the luminous dragonfly was new here this year. Little kids seemed scared of them, but grownups were as thrilled as the slightly bigger kids, following them around with awestruck expressions.  And here’s a law of life: when a Dragon Knight touches you, you never forget. The dragon tried to take a bite of my hair, and I fell madly in love with him; MWMF artistic selection chair Esty Dinur danced with the dragonfly and was similarly charmed.
                                                                              SKepecs © 2011
Finally, Blitz the Ambassador, from Ghana and New York, blew me away. Blitz bills his act as hip hop, and I’m way too much of a boomer to be a big hip hop fan. From the YouTube videos I watched before I wrote my preview I was willing to bet Blitz and his band would be boss, but live onstage they beat the pants off my expectations.  What a troupe of tremendous showmen!  As the students in the UW-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives' First Wave Program might say, this band just bust. It was late Friday night. It was cold, but Blitz was hot. People were bopping before the stage; one guy was break dancing like wildfire. Blitz’ socially savvy lyrics ("You got to organize! Bring in the horns!") satisfied, and his mix of Afrobeat, highlife, old-school soul and hip hop ("I’m gonna blend it together, Madison!”), plus the blazing James Brown-style horn section, citing lions like Masakela and Coltrane, did me in.
           Thanks, Wisconsin Union Theater, for the Madison World Music Festival. Bring back Blitz the Ambassador!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival, Chapter 8

by Susan Kepecs

When the first hint of crispness creeps into the air, you know it’s time for the annual Madison World Music Festival.  This feast of free music (Thurs. - Sat., Sept. 15-17, with special added attractions tonight -- that's Sat., Sept. 10 -- and Weds. Sept. 14) hits its eighth incarnation this year. It's facilitated, in large part, through collaboration with other, overlapping Midwest fests, and it’s brought to you by the Wisconsin Union Theater and a generous group of local sponsors. Most events occur on our beloved Memorial Union Terrace, but on Sat., Sept. 17, everything but the wrapup show takes place at the Willy St. Fair.  That's a hike or a parking nightmare if you don't live on the Near East Side, but never fear -- this year for the first time Greyhound Bus offers free hourly shuttle service between the Memorial Union and Willy St., so there’s no excuse not to hit the near East Side for any band you want to hear.
The festival, as always, brings in rising young acts and established bearers of cultural traditions little-known outside their home countries.  But this year there’s also a warmup concert by a big star, Vieux Farka Touré, master Malian guitarist and son of the late, legendary Malian bluesman Ali Farka Touré. Vieux’s playing, rooted in his father’s flowing style but infused with fancy, Hendrix-like licks, wields his wicked axe on the Terrace this Saturday at 10 PM. 

Next up (Weds., Sept. 14, 7 PM at the Marquee, Union South) is Cultures of Resistance, an award-winning documentary by Brazilian activist Iara Lee.  Lee's traveled the globe documenting activist artists, many of them musicians. This important film speaks to the oblique powers of nonviolent artistic resistance against the global oligarchs, and reveals voices you’ll never hear in the mainstream media. Dr. Jonathan Overby, of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Higher Ground, leads a post-screening Q&A, and he’s the best person I can imagine for this role. The film screens again, without Overby, at the Play Circle in the Memorial Union at 9 PM Thurs.
For years, most of what we call “world music” was a tool of cultural, if not overtly political or economic, resistance.  But the genre’s always changing, as an historical glance at Madison's seven previous festivals shows.  For its first four years the fest was a savvy mix of very traditional sounds and the rootsy indie blends cooked up by a younger generation.  Among my many favorites in the first category I'll list sonero/merenguero Puerto Plata from the Dominican Republic in 2007, and the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar in 2006; in the second, Chicana/Mixteca Lila Downs’ sin fronteras rancheras (2005) amd Gjallarhorn’s jazzy electronic takes on medieval Swedish folk (2006) left lasting impressions.
By the festival’s fifth year, the emphasis expanded.  Two underground Europop bands – a wacky Hungarian group called Little Cow, plus Prague rockers Plastic People of the Universe, who billed themselves as the Czech Republc’s Mothers of Invention, found questionable room in the festival’s big tent. And at this year’s fest, alongside traditional and next-generation players you’ll discover three hip-hop groups.  Global hip-hop’s been edging into the world music festival circuit since at least last year, when several acts appeared at Chicago’s event, but I admit it – I have mixed feelings about this development. After all, hip-hop, an artform born in the Bronx, blazed its way around the world via the conduits of U.S. military-economic domination. Not that all hip hop is part of the capitalist machine – far from it. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the insipid thug themes of cheap, commercial rap is the socially conscious movement around which the UW-Madison’s Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives has built First Wave, a brilliantly innovative program of undergraduate education. OMAI dishes up its lavish Line Breaks Festival every spring.  Given hip-hop’s already prominent presence on campus, is adding it to the world music lineup the right way to go?  You decide, and let me know – please, drop me a line in the comments box at the end of this preview.
Of the three hip-hop acts at this year’s fest, one – Blitz the Ambassador (from Brooklyn, via his native Ghana) – stands out (Fri. 9:30 PM, Memorial Union Terrace [rain, 10 PM, Union Theater).  This is top-shelf, socially conscious hip-hop with honest world music roots – super-sharp, gritty, urban rhymes set to a scorching synthesis of highlife, Afrobeat and Big Apple hip-hop.  I’d be happy to hear Blitz the Ambassador at the MWMF, the Line Breaks fest or anywhere else.  I’m less enthusiastic about Sergent Garcia (Sat., 5:30 PM, Willy St. Fair; 9:30 PM on the Terrace [rain, Rathskellar]), a Parisian ex-punk rocker with Spanish roots who’s given his sound the unfortunately silly name of “salsamuffin.”  In a nutshell it’s sin fronteras salsa-with-reggae-and-rap; it’s muy bailable, but neither the sound nor lyrics, ranging from mildly political to self-indulgent refrains on the artist’s own hipness, can hold a candle to Blitz the Ambassador.  Bomba Estereo (Sat., 7:30 PM, Willy St.), from Colombia, plays “electro-tropical,” a close cousin to reggaeton and, yes, salsamuffin.  Its lead singer, Liliana Samuet, is slick, but this band’s let’s party, quitame la ropa lyrics (in Spanish and English) leave me cold.  Still, Sergent Garcia and Bomba Estereo will rock the crowds, and there’s something to be said for that.

Here’s a look at the rest of the fest.  My personal pick this year is Nawal (Thurs., 8:30 PM, Union Theater), chanteuse extraordinaire from Paris via the Comoros Islands. It’s the first time this volcanic chain in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Africa has been represented at the MWMF. The Comoros, a crossroads for medieval trade, was colonized by France at the start of the 20th century and cut out of contemporary commercial routes.  The islands are among the poorest regions in today’s world, but the historical legacy of their rich exchange with South and East Africa, Arabia, Asia and Madascar lives in Nawal’s music; she plies her powerhouse alto voice on a jazz-like Sufi / Bantu mix – sometimes pulsingly polyrhythmic, sometimes a meditative flow – and accompanies herself on the gambusi, a sort of oud with a banjolike sound.
Another country represented for the first time this year is Nepal.  Kutumba (Fri., 8 PM, Union Theater), a six-piece instrumental folk ensemble from Kathmandu, is dedicated to preserving the traditional folk music and instruments of this tiny, landlocked sliver of the Himalayas, while updating the sound for the 21st century. On its website, Kutumba makes it clear – this band is all about cultural resistance in the face of globalization. I like Kutumba’s rich aural Buddhist/Hindu tapestry, which, at least for this gringa boomer, conjures up incense and hippies. This is Katumba’s first U.S. tour, but the expat Nepalese community is already in tune with this troupe. A comment under a YouTube video says it all: “Kutumba, the pride of Nepal. Saving our culture, thanx, man.” 

From Taiwan, in celebration of the island's centennial as a sovereign state this year, comes the Chai Found Music Workshop (Thurs., 6:30 PM, Union Theater; Fri., 7:30 PM, Terrace [rain, 7 PM, Union Theater]). This remarkable group works in two veins. The first is traditional Sizhu (“silk and bamboo”) music, which essentially consists of improvisational dialogue between wind (bamboo) and strings (silk). In the second, compositions created in collaboration with other musicians from around the world, while clearly Chinese in instrumentation, fuse east and west in contemporary ways.  At Thursday’s indoor concert you’ll hear a quiet, traditional, very Chinese sound; the group’s Terrace performance on Friday shows off its more upbeat, international side.
For a closer-to-home sound, Brazilian sambista/popster Luisa Maita, the latest young phenom to climb the Latin charts, is a good pick.  Her sound’s not unique, but it’s satisfyingly silky.

Two really hot Italian bands take the stage this year. I’m especially looking forward to Canzionere Grecianico Salentino (Fri., 5:30 PM, Terrace [rain, 5:30 PM, Union Theater]), from the Puglia region of southern Italy – the heel of the boot, jutting into the Adriatic toward Greece.  This bright seven-piece band-plus-dancer plays 21st century arrangements of pizzica salentina, a regional form of tarentella dance music rooted in medieval belief that spirit-possessed dancing was the cure for tarantula bites.  In Italy right now there’s a big revival of this lively music, featuring tambourines, accordion and Italian bagpipes, and Canzionere – the band’s been around since the 1970s – is the reigning king of this scene.
At the opposite end of the spaghetti spectrum is singer / songwriter / guitarist Marco Calliari (Sat. Willy St., 3:30 PM). Born in Montreal to Italian immigrant parents, Calliari started out playing thrash metal with a group called Anonymus.  On trip to Italy he discovered his roots; today he writes his own tunes and casts traditional Italian songs like “Bella Ciao” in his own style, mixing traditional Italian rhythms with rock, hints of flamenco and more.
Calliari's on my to-do list, and so is Frigg (Thurs., 9 PM, Union Terrace [rain, Union Theater]), a band of Finnish fiddle players and Norwegian folksters that serves up “Nordgrass,” a high energy, contemporary takes on traditional Scandanivian tunes. Frigg is the name of the Norse goddess of happiness, and Frigg the Nordgrass band puts out an ebullient violin and accordion (concertina, actually) sound.  The echoes of Celtic and Cajun music you won’t fail to notice weave whole musical cloth from the Viking invasions of Ireland, then Canada, and the later flight of the Acadians from the Canadian maritime provinces to Lousiana. 

                           SKepecs photo © 2008
And last but not least, there’s the festival ambience – sunset on the Union Terrace, rowdy Willy St., beer, brats, ice cream – and, returning for the fifth year in a row, the amazing Dragon Knights (they tend to amble sporadically through the crowd, but they’re slated specifically for 7:20 PM Fri. on the Terrace [rain, 8 PM, Union Theater] and Sat., 3 and 5 PM at the Willy St. Fair).  These spectacular, otherworldly puppets on stilts by Lily Valerie Noden, who trained at the Ecole International de Theatre in Paris, are worth the parking hassle all by themselves.  
I can't wait. See you there!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

López-Nussa Rocks the Cardinal Bar

                                                                                                     SK photo © 2011

by Susan Kepecs

Last Sunday night I caught the Ernan López-Nussa trio at the Cardinal Bar. That afternoon the high-end Cuban jazz outfit played the Orton Park Festival, but this is nightclub music, and I chose to hear it where it belongs. Kudos to Cardinal proprietor Ricardo Gonzalez for providing a rare treat in a town where non-local jazz is usually relegated to the formal constraints of the proscenium arch – think the Isthmus Jazz Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and Sonny Rollins or Kenny Barron at the Overture. That never feels right to me – jazz, a spontaneous artform, demands a drink in your hand, friends at your table, the right ambience for head-bopping and the freedom to say “yeah!”
López-Nussa, a Havana native, is, like all great musicians raised in Revolutionary Cuba, conservatory trained. Early in his career he worked with Silvio Rodríguez, whose nueva trova, while far from my favorite style, provides some of the satisfying softness that comes through in López-Nussa’s own sound. With jazz giant Bobby Carcassés’ Afrocuba, López-Nussa honed his guaguancó. Today the versatile pianist, who’s got six or seven albums under his belt (most of them not available in the States) is a big name in Cuba. But while this is his second (or third?) U.S. tour, he’s not nearly as well known here as other piano titans from the embargoed island like Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Omar Sosa.  That’s a shame, since López-Nussa’s phenomenal jazz criollo explodes with sabor.  Based on the stately danzón and contradanza rhythms of nineteenth century Cuba – a fortuitous marriage of the Viennese waltzes that were the rage in Europe and Afro-Cuban influences – it’s a gentler sound than the mambo / rumba jazz played by Lopez-Nussa’s counterparts.  Not that criollo is Lopez-Nussa’s only style; Sunday night he ranged from from Bach to bossa nova, mixed montunos with modal progressions and plunged into some tasty jazz/rock fusions.
Onstage at the Cardinal, López-Nussa’s remarkable rapport with his Cuba-born sidemen, Jimmy Branley on drums and Jorge Alexander on bass, stood out. Branley’s a subtle but sparkling drummer with some of Roy Haynes’ snap-crackle in his sticks.  His credits include Valdés and Rubalcaba, plus NG la Banda, the band that invented timba and is still the only timba outfit I enjoy. Alexander started playing with López-Nussa at the turn of this century, in the latter’s jazz fusion band Habana Report (the name evokes the king of ‘70s fusion bands, Weather Report, fronted by Wayne Shorter and the late, great keyboardist Joe Zawinul – and the influences of both players are evident in Lopez Nussa’s style).
                                                                         SK photo © 2011
López-Nussa, Branley and Alexander, clearly in love with their music, sat facing each other, conversing, I swear, flirtatiously, via their instruments.  It was some of the best musical dialogue I’ve heard in years.  
           At one point López-Nussa, grinning, looked up from the keys saying “I’m going to do a sacrilege!” and launched in to Chopin’s Waltz No. 7 from Les Sylphides. From straight-up Romanticism López-Nussa swung seamlessly into danzón, letting the audience experience the blood tie between the two forms.  Say yeah!
López-Nussa served up several more spot-on danzones and a contradanza, all filled with soaring improvizations, plus some brilliant two-fisted piano playing on a playful piece of jazz / gospel / rock fusion. In a fine Cuban finish the trio took off on Rafael Fernández’ famous guaracha, “Capullito de Aleli.” I left wishing for more, and ready to spring for all the Lopez-Nussa CDs I can find.