Saturday, February 28, 2009

Martyn and Martin

For me, there are two people that set the standards on opposite poles of Celtic music: Martyn Bennett and Martin Hayes.

First, there is the Scottish piper Martyn Bennett, who died in 2005 after a long bout with cancer, having released 5 recordings which continue to set the bar for traditional-contemporary fusion. I'm proud to say that The Cedar was one of a handful of venues that presented Martyn during his only U.S. tour in 1998 (to less than 100 people). There do not seem to be any good live videos of Martyn on YouTube, but here's some complied footage to one of my favorite recorded tracks:

And here's a solo pipe video of Martyn which displays his raw talent as a player:

Then there's the other end of the spectrum, the County Clare (Ireland) fiddler Martin Hayes, who plays at The Cedar on Sunday night, the 1st of March, with his long-time guitarist Dennis Cahill. Martin and Denis work acoustically, but their explorations of the core essence of melody and improvisation are no less extraordinary.

Here's a great video which shows how they effortlessly string multiple tunes together, build, improvise, and how Martin just cooks when he gets going (stick with it)!

Martin has played The Cedar many times (he even lived in the Twin Cities briefly in the early 90's), but his appearances are always "don't miss" in my calendar.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bringing the Analog Africa Sound Home to the Cedar

Last week I was so all over Analog Africa's 4th release The Voudon Effect : Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, that I had to go to their blog and check out all the goodies there. At which point I realized, "Oh, they did Africa Scream Contest? (AKA Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds From Benin & Togo 70s - AKA Analog Africa #3. They have that at the Fetus! " So I headed back to the old record store on 4th Avenue for more of what I hoped would be great vintage West African tunage. Finally got a chance to listen last night (while building a Lego space station where all the Lego space ships being constructed in our living room could dock...I added a handy repair bay and comfy - - if your butt's made of plastic -- pilot's lounge.)

I was SO not disappointed! Wow. So much great music. Umm, that Vintage West African playlist I posted a couple of weeks back? I'd better rearrange the whole thing ...or just double its size. Talk about party in a box!!

Scream Contest
focuses on the countries of Benin and Togo, squeezed in there on the southern coast of the region, just west of Nigeria. So of course there is the Nigerian influence, as Fela had already been to America and come back James Brown-ified by that time, and King Sunny Ade was starting to get high life a broader audience, but these tunes don't really sound like either of those genres. The JB screams are there, but so are crazy organ solos, shiny guitars and the rhythms that take something from the coastal Afro-Cuban styles of the 50' and 60's as well as indiginous voudon, but the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It's that borderlands/melting pot/ vinegar and baking soda fizz thing ... CULTURE CLASH!

Wow! Video footage of Fela from 1971, filmed by Ginger Baker!

Reading the booklet, (another chubby 40+ pager) I was taken again with Samy Ben Redjeb's tales of travel all around the region during the last few years in quest of rare vinyl and even more elusive retired musicians. He'd run into plenty of dead ends. Every so often, however, he'd strike gold and be ushered into a room of pristine 7" singles. I am so happy this guy's vinyl lust is being transformed into something that can get butts shaking all over the world, and is giving the musicians who are still alive the wider recognition they so richly deserve. Here's a bit from his blog upon the release of this disc last summer.
This project initially took off in August, 2005 when I arrived in Cotonou without any special expectations, just hoping to lay my hands on fewgood records.
What I found in the process cannot really be described in words. This first trip was followed by eight more to the region.
Thirty Months and a few thousand Records later Analog Africa is proud to present this compilation which comes with a 44 pages full liners notes and features many rare photographs handed to me directly by the artists.

16 interviews were made and recorded in various cities in Benin & Togo with musicians, producers & sound engineers who kindly offered their support to reconstruct the history of the 70s music scene. Composers gave me a detailed biography, hilarious anecdotes and sometimes the story behind their song.

It's a bit like the adventures of the Lomax clan as they traveled about Appalachia making field recordings and saving bits of American old time tunes for posterity. Not to mention the wonderful box sets are still being released of rare old American vinyl from the first part of the last century, unearthed by collectors over here.

It really kinda blows my mind that we were listening to disco during those years, so processed, so corporate, while folks in West Africa were staying up all night sweating to these amazing grooves. Here is some video of Orchestre Poly Rythmo, edited down from 45 minutes of old footage. (From Ananlog Africa's blog.)

Just as I was wistfully imagining those all- night gigs in sweaty long ago clubs, I realized that we actually can get a little of that action going at the Cedar. Tell me people were sitting down at Thomas Mapfumo and Rokia Traore last month.... But if you missed those shows, haul yourself off the couch on Friday March 20th for the Occidental Brothers International Dance Band, a Chicago quintet that specializes in vintage West African and Central African dance music. You may hear some Franco or Dr. Nico grooves, or some Ghana style highlife or maybe even a New Order cover! Their live shows reportedly tear it up, and their recordings are getting some high praise as well.

You could easily believe the tracks on this very sharp cd were recorded in Kinshasa or Accra years ago rather than quite recently in Chicago...OBDBI offer up simply stunning instrumentals recalling the golden ages of rumba, highlife and other African styles"
-T. Orr, World Music Central, 12 May 2007

"Pitchfork Festival - Sunday's Best: Many fashionable rock bands count themselves fascinated by the polyrhythms of classic West African pop, but scant few have the chops to pull it off convincingly. This Chicago band doesn't try to tame this beautiful music with Western ornaments but instead offers up respect through authentic interpretations and originals. A dance band for the thinking man."
-Matt Lurie, TimeOut Chicago, 17 July 2008

Oh yeah! See you on the dance floor!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Listening to Oscar®

Tomorrow night will be the 81st Annual Academy Awards, an event which has always been one of my guilty pleasures. For the most part, the music nominated each year is largely forgettable. But there are regularly notable exceptions, such as last year's extraordinary story of the movie Once and its ultimate award.

Last May I had the opportunity to go to the U.K. to observe a different Academy Award winner (Grammy®), Tchad Blake, mix the new record by the local ensemble Halloween, Alaska. After a few days mixing the HalAl tracks, Tchad had to run off to Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, just down the road from his home studio, to, as he told us, "mix a track that Peter is doing for some Disney movie or other."

No more than four months later I was back home in a movie theater watching the Pixar film WALL*E, which I highly recommend by the way, and the ending credits feature a song that I had never heard before by Peter Gabriel, "Down To Earth." Notable, because I'm a huge PG fan. It then dawned on me that this was the track Tchad Blake went to mix when I was there!

Last week, Gabriel announced that he was declining to perform the song on the Oscar® broadcast because they were limiting all music performances to under one minute each. The song is up against the probable streamroller called Slumdog Millionaire, which has some great music of its own. But "Down to Earth" is a brilliant song, so enjoy it here with a trailer from WALL*E:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

But I was First in Line!

Do you ever think you really are the first kid on the block with some shiny new cool toy ( or music recording) then you come to find out that it's old news already?

There I was at Orchestra Hall Saturday night, watching Osmo Vänskä dance all over the conductor' s platform as he conducted Sibelius's 2nd Symphony and I thought to myself, "Hey, I should write a blog post about this, what with the Finland connection we have going at the Cedar and all." So when I checked internet the next day, what new shiny post on the Cedar's blog should greet my eyes? The Main Figurehead had just put up a great piece about that very topic!


Then Friday night while working together at that crazy Brass Messengers show at the Cedar, I was telling the Angel of Rock about some fun new discs I had purchased a couple of days before. As I waxed effusive about Kasbah Rockers, a really fun blend of Algerian trad and rai, Arab influenced strings, vocals and raps in at least three languages, distorted guitars, big bass lines with some help from Bill Laswell as well nicely produced electronics, she said to me "Oh yeah Paul (dj Paul Harding) got that at the station. (Radio K - 770) I'm supposed to be working on my review of it right now."

Uh. UH! But I special ordered it last month! I thought I was the first kid on the block... Oh well. Great disc. I'm hoping you'll post a version of your review here, young lady!

One of the other new discs I have been loving is more of that amazing vintage West African wonderstuff, this one from the folks at Analog Africa,"The Vodoun Effect" a compilation
of 7" vinyl recordings by Benin's Orchestra Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou from the mid 1970s. I got all caught up in the big 44 page booklet that came with the album and decided to write a big post about that next week. What an amazing quest for old vinyl all over West Africa! Check out the link above for a juicy mix of a bunch of fun African titles put together on their blog space. Settle in for some listening time. Scroll down for some samples of individual tunes from this particular disc; I recommend "Dis Moi La Verité."

For now, however, I have to leave you with this factoid. A number of the recordings the Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou did for smaller labels were recorded with only one or two mikes, to a reel to reel tape recorder, in the producer's back yard or roof in the quiet wee hours of the night! Sound adjustments were made by placing the vocalist closest to the mike and ranging the band in a semi-circle behind him at just the right distance. Yet they sound amazingly good. Amazing energy makes up for high-tech studio gear. Hope I can find a photo of this; there are some great ones in the booklet. No such luck; I'll keep looking. Hmm, I might have to buy the rest of their compilations; this stuff sounds great!

Now I just wish somebody closer to the source would start putting out compilations from old TURKISH psychedelic vinyl from the 1970s!

Ooh, maybe something like this.

Excuse me, I need to go music shopping now.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tatsuya to Clear the Mind!

Zuppa has returned from the darkness. Being in bed for the better part of a week sounds more relaxing than it actually is. There is a nasty cold bug going around the Twin Cities - make sure you drink plenty of fluids and avoid it at all costs!

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Tatsuya Nakatani, a Japanese percussionist, at the Rouge Buddha Gallery in Nordeast, mpls. A nice crowd of around 75 packed into the single room gallery and were witness to one of the greatest solo percussion performances they would ever hear. Tatsuya began by bowing a massive gong - very slowly and steadily using bows he made himself. Over a few minutes he began bowing two gongs, facing both with arms raised. It was like watching a man chop down two trees at the same time. The sound that was produced was INTENSE. That is the only way to describe it. The overtones were numerous and gorgeous. By the time he ended this improvisational piece he had bowed cups, gongs, cymbals and replicated the sound of a freight train crashing into a traffic jam - complete with the screams, tears, gasps and emotion. There is really no way to describe one of his performances, so it's best to see for yourself.

There is no better way to scare a cold bug out of you than listening to Tatsuya! Enjoy friends,

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Classic Alchemy

I consider myself a casual classical music fan. Since moving to Minneapolis in 1983, I've been to a Minnesota Orchestra concert at least once a year. Initially the internationally renowned Neville Marriner was the music director. Reputation notwithstanding, I could never stay awake through his concerts. Apparently some local music fans came to knickname him "level Neville" for his flat, unexciting interpretations, so I was not alone.

The Dutch Edo de Waart followed, a marginal improvement, but my annual visits to the orchestra remained more opportunities to catch up on my sleep deprivation than my music appreciation.

In 1995 the orchestra took a rather bold move and appointed a lesser-known Japanese music director, Eiji Oue who, while personally providing more spark and energy on the podium than his predecessors, didn't seem to inspire the musicians to follow suit, or display the kind of disciplined playing that is required of a great orchestra.

Then, in 2003, the orchestra again appointed a relatively little-know music director from Finland, Osmo Vänskä. And almost immediately, something changed. There was a precision, attention to detail, and range of emotion emanating from the stage of Orchestra Hall during concerts that Osmo was conducting, which I had only rarely experienced at classical concerts prior.

There is clearly chemistry at work here... it would be easy to conclude that Osmo is a particularly effective leader, and brilliant interpreter of certain repertoire (Sibelius and Beethoven being the top two). But it's so much more than that. It's a given that only top musicians make it to an orchestra of this stature, and certainly all of those past music directors are in an elite class themselves. Ultimately, it's the right combination that makes the difference; Osmo Vänskä was the right person at the right time for this particular group.

The Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä is currently the "buzz band" in the classical world internationally. If you have even a minor interest in classical music, or are just musically curious, and you live in the Twin Cities, you should be aware that there's really something extraordinary going on right now, and take advantage of the opportunity to see and hear truly great orchestral music playing in our own home town.

If you want a specific concert recommendation, on May 1 the orchestra will be playing both Sibelius and Beethoven, previewing a program they will take to Carnegie Hall a few days later

No video to embed, but there are some at this link here

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Powderhorn Gokh-Bi

I'm thinking about my community this week, as in my own little neighborhood down here called Powderhorn Park. A group of neighborhood organizations got together last weekend to put on the second annual Art Sled Rally, a fun and goofy event that seems to have the makings of a tradition. What would bring a couple hundred neighborhood folk tromping across the lake to the steep slopes on the west side of the park to watch contraptions of cardboard, OSB, wading pools, old skis and duct tape attempt to make it down the hill in one piece? Guess it's just a Minnesota thing, but there was free hot chocolate and hot dogs and KFAI was blasting tunes.

To really take it to the next level, next year somebody should invite the Brass Messengers, the unofficial brass band of Powderhorn, to blow some tunes for the rally.

The giant 6 pack of Grain Belt cracked up partway down the hill, spilling all 6 (of course!) riders out into the snow. Luckily they had little silver hats shaped like bottle caps for protection. The giant rattlesnake came down tail first, then about 10 kids came tumbling out. Luke Skywalker and his lifesize landspeederhad a dramatic crash into the fans their last time down and the giant plate of WPBP pancakes topped with a pat of butter hat on the rider's head made the journey slowly but safely inside their wading pool. A 10? foot tall dodecahedron die made it down the course (nobody was inside.) The oversize coffee cup representing the May Day Cafe drew loud applause, as did the giant hockey puck saucer, promoting the return of a hockey rink to the pond's ice. Nice work everybody. A weird and fun local event! I love my neighborhood!

Here's a video that features some of the high points.

Say, isn't that Cedar special events emcee Nick Lethart there at about the 3:10 mark? Yeah, he lives in the hood.

What's next for the beloved 65 acre park with the little lake? Word on the street has it the hills there will play host to a giant snowball war next week, Capture the Flag style. Prizes and everything, and fund raising to go towards the legal bills of the RNC 8.

But about that Brass Messengers idea? Whadya think? Should I ask them when they play at the Cedar this Friday night? This is a band that has been known to take over light rail cars and play impromptu concerts between Lake Street and downtown. They also do concerts on light rail platforms sometimes, if I remember the story correctly. Plus they played at the ice shack Art Shanty event this year as well as assorted parades and street dances. Definitely another fun and occasionally goofy South Minneapolis treasure. Their cd release on Friday should be a good time, with lots of special guests including a musical saw player!

Keeping it in neighborhood mode, Gokh-Bi system's Voice of the Jeli has been in heavy rotation this week in my earbuds. Some warm feeling is happening during a gloomy chilly week. (It's just like summer. You know, it's not the heat, but the humidity? I do fine in the bitter cold, but this damp stuff? Ugggh.) I feel warmer and drier whenever I listen to Curumin'sJapanPopShow or to Voice of the Jeli. Just give me some more of that "Palestine." Love that organ riff. "Peace and land," everybody. Peace and land. Plus I get to fulfil my Afro-Pop backup singer least in the car by myself. Can't wait for their show next week at the Cedar. Thursday night. Should be very cool. Or warm.

Oh yeah. Know what Gokh-Bi means? NEIGHBORHOOD.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More Rokia

Someone has posted two decent videos of Rokia Traoré and her band performing at The Cedar last Friday night on YouTube. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

To Rokia and Band: Wow, and Thank You!

Last night The Cedar was rocked by a phenomenal performance by Rokia Traoré and her incredible band. The room was packed, and by the end of the evening everyone was on their feet, shaking most parts of their anatomy, while the band seemed to be channeling the Prince records they had been listening to in the Green Room before they came on stage (filtered through Mali, of course)!

We send out our thanks to Rokia, the band and the crew for such an inspirational evening of hot playing!

For those who want to relive a bit of it, here's a YouTube clip of the same band just a few months back in Stockholm:

Yet more proof that you should never miss a live performance by a band from Mali!

Upcoming African shows at The Cedar:

Sunday, February 15: Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited "The Lion of Zimbabwe"

Thursday, February 19: Gokh-Bi System Hip-hop from Senegal

Sunday, May 3: Dobet Gnahoré Remarkable singer from Côte d’Ivoire, co-presented by Walker Art Center

Friday, February 6, 2009

Arts in hard times

I hate to add to the mountain of media covering the economy right now, but I think is different enough that it doesn't count. 

There has been some coverage of how the arts are being impacted the economy, but, and maybe this is to be expected, it has been largely negative. What I haven't much about (yet) are the ways in which  some people are adapting to satisfy their cultural appetite. 

Maybe you're just more selective about what events you attend, but I have a feeling people are craftier than that. There are actually a surprising number of options for the culture vulture. On the West Bank alone, the Acadia Cafe often has music without a cover charge. The Triple Rock Social Club offers free bacon every Wednesday night, which at the very least would save you a trip if you were planning to get bacon elsewhere. The Katherine E. Nash Gallery on the University's West Bank campus always has free admission. And The Cedar also has a number of options to keep you cultured on a budget. All of the Open Stage events are free and for the price of a ticket to a 416 Club you usually get to see at least four up-and-coming local artists before they make it big. A ticket to see the Hawaiian Treasures Celebration is unquestionably cheaper than a trip to Hawaii. The list goes on.

I know I haven't covered everything on the West Bank let alone the rest of the Twin Cities. Or anywhere else for that matter. So tell me, dear reader, what's your inside scoop?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Vintage African tunes rock my morning

There is so much great music coming out of Africa all the time, last month, last year... I jammed Dub Colossus A Town Called Addis Sunday morning and totally rocked to Speed Caravan's Kalashnik Love twice yesterday afternoon. (Think of the former as Ethiopiques dub-style and the latter as wankin' oud and bass with electronics from Algeria...oh wait, make that France, now.)

Listening to Gokh-Bi System (Senegal)yesterday, I got pretty psyched for their upcoming show at the Cedar. I like the samples of traditional instruments like balafon and kora in there with the electronics. I like the positive message and international outlook.

Their bookings keep getting getting canceled, but I am holding out hope that we will see Malian desert blues act Toumast at the Cedar one day soon. Probably the one album that I have listened to in its entirety more than any other for the last year or so has been Toumast's debut Ishumar from late 2006.

Rokia Traore (Mali) will warm up this Friday night and chimurenga legend Thomas Mapfumo (Zimbabwe) will bring in his band later this month to shake the rafters - and some butts. Be sure to come early for dj Paul Harding who has some great current and vintage African vinyl.

Ali Farka Toure's son Vieux rocked the Cedar a couple of years ago with his jam band boys , taking his father Malian blues legacy way into the new century. (That was the night my son learned the word "guitar;" after that it was all air guitar at our house, no more air-fiddle or air-banjo.) Gigi's Ethiopian pop disc Gold And Wax was pretty much our soundtrack to summer 2006. A new Amadou and Miriam disc is out in Europe and is due to arrive over here this spring. Sudanese former child soldier Emmanuel Jal's War Child is drawing rave reviews all over the place. Although from what I've heard, I liked his 2005 relase Ceasefire with Abdel Gadir Salim better; his rapping feels more fluid in Swahili and Dinka. And so on and so on.

Gotta love that Senegal Fast Food!

Know what? There has been an amazing amount of great music going on in Africa for a long long time; we just didn't get to hear much of it over here until recently. Crazy things were happening...aside from the Fela and the King Sunny Ade and the Franco. I often send up huge thank yous to the people who put together The Ethipiques colections, the Golden Afrique collections, World Psychedelic Classics volume 3 "Love's A real Thing", the Discotheque 72 and 75 collections (Stearns Africa, I think) and all the rereleased Orchestra Baobab stuff from the 1970's. Somebody somewhere took good enough care of their vinyl that it was able to be digitized for all of us today to enjoy such vintage West African psychedelia. Love it . Love it . LOVE IT! The groovin' rhythms, the screaming organ solos (!!), the low-fi effects on the guitar solos. Beautiful things were happening in this part of the world as club bands were transitioning away from the Latin sounds that were popular in the 1960's and bringing their own heritage and their own languages to create a hybrid that had to have included some bootleg Jimi Hendrix and James Brown cassettes somewhere along the line.

So in the spirit of The Angel of Rock's playlist from last week, I hereby post my Vintage West African Playlist. My partner was playing female vocal alt-country stuff on Pandora Saturday morning and a genre shift was clearly called for. This mix was just the ticket to wash all that away!

1. SuperBoiro Band - Kha Mu Lan Ma
2. Horoya Band - Daba

3. Pivi et les Baladins - Samba

4. Sorry Bamba - Porry

5. Orchestra Baobab - On Verra Ca

6. Number One de Dakar - Yaya Boye

7. Etiole De Dakar - Thiely

8. Ofo the Black Company - Allah Wakbarr

9. Guelewar Ban of Banjul - Warteef Jiggeen

10. Tunji Oyelana & the Benders - Ifa

11. Super eagles - Aliou Gori-Mami

12. Idy Diop - Yaye Boye

13. Ambassadeur International - N'Toman

14. Super Mama Djombo - Dissan Na M'bera ("Suur Di No Pubils")

15. William Oneyeabor - Better Change Your Mind

16. Orchestra Baobab - Yen Saay

I might write more detail on some of these tracks next time, but for now, just know you can find them on the discs linked above.

* * * * * * *

On a TOTALLY different note, it's time for the Art Sled Rally at Powderhorn Park this weekend. You've heard of Art Cars? Well, in Minnesota we now have Art Sleds, too and they are going to be flying down the icy hills at P'horn this Saturday. Come watch or create your own. Learn more here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"Indies" Crash the Chart

As many of you may have heard or read, "indie rock" had a big week on the Billboard Top 200 chart this week. Coming in at #16 was Eau Claire's number one beard-rocker Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver with his new "Blood Bank" EP. At #13, the Baltimore artiste colony known as Animal Collective with their extraordinary "Merriweather Post Pavilion" CD. And at #12, the beloved Andrew Bird with his wonderful "Noble Beast" (and by the way, "Noble Beast" was #3(!) in the Twin Cities).

Could it be that intelligent, interesting and engaging music is finally working its way into mainstream America? Well, yes and no. The Billboard chart is largely driven by sales at traditional record retail, which has become a fairly skewed measurement of how music is actually consumed. A look at the real numbers behind these chart positions is revealing: each of these three records sold between 23 and 25 thousand units. While that's impressive for "indie" releases, just a few years back those numbers would maybe have placed these titles in the top 100 of the chart, certainly not the top 20. So perhaps these three records scoring so well says more about the difficult state of music marketing and retail than it does about major trends in popular culture.

Nevertheless, it is indeed an accomplishment for all three artists to have scored so well, and it's a very encouraging indicator that more people are more open, and are actually being exposed to, a wider range of popular music these days.

Animal Collective is scheduled to play at First Avenue on May 20, and tickets are going fast. We're still hopeful that Bon Iver will follow through on his expressed desire to have his next Twin Cities appearance be a multi-night run at The Cedar (stay tuned!). And of course, Andrew Bird will be back in town on April 11 at the State Theatre (maybe someday we'll be treated to another Cedar appearance, but until then we'll just have to hold his 12/16/2007 show precious in our collective memories!).

In the meantime, I put the news of this kind of music's success in the same category of "good news for the world" as the inauguration of our new president. After all, right there on national television last week was Andrew with a virtual all-star band of Twin Cities musical luminaries, all of which regularly grace The Cedar's stage. Here's the clip of Bird (with Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Mike Lewis) and on Letterman: