Friday, January 28, 2011

Snow melting music: Etran Finatawa

Tuareg beauty
In a few hours I embark on a long flight northwards to a land buried in snow.  The internet tells me the temperatures in Washington D.C this weekend will struggle to hit the mid single Celsius digits. The President of the United States has apparently been forced to travel by road rather than risk the dodgy snow driven airspace. Air travel is once more disrupted. Blizzards are predicted across the East.

Here in Melbourne (Australia) tomorrow the temperatures will soar to 40 C/104 F.

To mark the occasion of my long journey into the frigid northern hemisphere I have selected some snow melting music from the landlocked west African country, Niger.  Etran Finatawa play that recently defined genre of music known as desert blues that bands like  Tinariwen and Group Doueh have brought to stages, festivals and clubs in Europe and North America in recent years. Made up of Tuareg  musicians who were politicised during the eternally unresolved desert wars of Mali, Niger and Libya that have flared up at regular intervals since the early part of the 20th century, Etran Finatawa (Stars of Tradition) came together in part to try to reconcile the Fulani and Tuareg peoples who depend on the oases on the fringes of the Sahara for survival.

Their mezmerising pile driving music which plays off traditional chants against undulating rhythms tapped out on gourds and percolating electric guitar riffs is immediately addictive.  One can easily imagine the band jamming as they list and roll across the sand ocean of the Sahara on the back of slow-stepping, cud-chewing dromedaries.

It is difficult to associate music tones with climatic conditions but in some magical way Etran Finatawa's music does 'feel' arid, dry and hot.  Just perfect for those of you up to your eyeballs in snow and ice!

   Track listing:
  1.    Aitimani
  2.    Diam Walla
   3.   Aitma
   4.   Ndiiren
   5.  Gourma
   6.  Daandé
   7.  Duuniyaaru Dillii
   8.  Imuzaran
   9. Ummee Ndaaren
 10. Kalamoujar

Listen here

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sharp, Smart and Snapping: T-Bone Proves it Through the Night

Mr T-Bone Burnett

T Bone Burnett is best known these days as a producer of records of the highest quality for some of the finest popular artists in the business. You get T-Bone to produce your album and you’re guaranteed a clear, full, sophisticated sound as well as heaps of critical kudos.  His charges run the gamut: Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Roy Orbison and Leon Russell.   Greg Allman just released his first album in nearly 15 years to rave reviews. Guess who produced? T-Bone Burnett.

I discovered T Bone in the mid 70s when he was part of Dylan’s barnstorming national tour, The Rolling Thunder Revue, which was broadcast at certain venues on American TV.  In the late years of the decade he and fellow RTR refugees, David Mansfield and Steven Soles formed the Alpha Band, which could best be described as a proto-Christian mystic rock ‘n roll band. They put out a trio of albums filled with allegory and accomplished musicianship that kept me company as I painted houses in Minneapolis throughout the summer of 1979.

Proof Through the Night, his third solo record was released in 1980. It snapped with intent and intensity. Critics loved it, even though a few pushed back against what they interpreted as ‘moralising’. The lyrics were clever, the music sharply delivered by the likes of Pete Townsend and Ry Cooder and of course the production is outstanding.  An allegory for a creaking deteriorating America Burnett railed against the ultimate hollowness of the sixties experience and its icons. Oddly, but pleasingly, though he takes a lance to the ‘free love’ myth a certain sensuality percolates throughout the record in songs like Fatally Beautiful and After All These Years.

This is one of those records which doesn’t have a poor song on it. Particular favorites are After All These Years and the slightly haunting Shut it Tight.  If you like smart, fun, sharp rock music, do not pass this by.

            Track Listing
1.     The Murder Weapon
2.     Fatally Beautiful
3.     After All These Years
4.     Baby, Fall Down
5.     The Sixties
6.     Stunned
7.     Pressure
8.     Hula Hoop
9.     When the Night Falls
10. Hefner and Disney
11. Shut it Tight

Listen here.

The Washerman’s Dog Scale of Essentiality rates Proof Through the Night at 9 / 10.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Slip-slidin' Away: Bill Coleman in Paris

Bill Coleman, trumpter

This is a tremendous record. The sound is as full and fat as the drops of sweat on your baby’s neck at a midsummer dance. Bill Coleman, a minor trumpet player from Paris, Kentucky, finds himself in his twilight years in Paris, France  hosting what sounds like a jam session in a small smoky club. Budd Johnson’s tenor sax and Quentin Jackson’s basso profundo trombone accompany the trumpeter through a skanky set of jazz improvisations planted in blue soil.  This is 1960 and words like ‘funk’ and ‘boogie’ were not yet part of the lingua franca of middle class society. And if you’re looking for boogie-woogie piano or funk of the sort that Parliament or any New Orleans outfit purveyed in the 1960s and 70s then look elsewhere. Yet, the notes these expatriate compatriots blew on the night this record was made are the very definition of funky.  Slow, slidy and slippery from beginning to end.

It is the end of  a weekend filled with lots of barbeques and hot curries and a bit of (at last)  warm sunny weather in this strangest of Australian summers. In a few hours, another working week begins.  Between this place and that, is this time. A great moment to let the horns of Bill, Butter and Budd work their magic on your tired soul.

Track Listing:
1.     From Boogie to Funk Pt. 1: The Blues
2.     From Boogie to Funk Pt 2: The Boogie
3.     Bill, Budd and Butter
4.     Afromotive in Blue
5.     Colemanology
6.     Have Blues Will Play Em

Listen here

The Washerman's Dog Scale of Essentiality rates From Boogie to Funk at  8.5 / 10.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A slight tangent: New York Jazz and a Newlywed Couple

Indian Newlyweds 
Tell me this isn't a stunning photograph. Taken by an unremembered photographer in any of a thousand  studios that appeared in Indian bazaars in the early 20th century this gorgeously hand-tinted wedding memento of a freshly married couple was featured in a major photography show last year in London called Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  The show was an eye-opener in that it revealed just how rich the sub-continent's visual art history is.  For so long and for so many South Asia has dominated world consciousness for its cinema magic. Bollywood. Mother India. The Kapoors, Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal

But try to name more than one or two Indian photographers of international repute and one begins to stammer. Raghubir Singh and Dayanita Singh are well established and regarded outside of India.  But surely there are others?  Indeed there are, but so deep is the shadow of Mumbai's moving picture industry and so bedazzled is the West by the its glizty fun, that purveyors of the still image find it hard to get noticed.  Exhibits like Where Three Dreams Cross are therefore important because they surprise while at the same time confirming what we knew had to be so.  

As I've gaped with delight at this photo over the past few days an unexpected word keeps popping  to mind: jazz.  I've tried to think why and I can only say because I sense in the precise, intricate and elegant colouring the same technical precision and elegance that emerges from every jazz jam session. Within a formal set piece there are hundreds of folds and gradients where improvisation and surprise hide.  The bright and varied hues complement each other but appear about to break away into 'too much'. The eye is forced to stay alert and exploratory, just like the ear needs to be to awake to pick up the jazz combo's details. But in the end, the entirety of the piece is perfect.

And so, to help you enjoy this picture and to fill a wee break in your day, evening or night, I attach an exciting piece of jazz called New York Stories.  Some of New York's finest musical artists (Roy Hardgrove, Joshua Redman, Danny Gatton) come together for what feels like a relaxed jam session that  glides and dribbles down some bluesy, rock and even country-esque roads.  The liquid string bending of Gatton on guitar and Hardgrove's fine toned trumpet stand out like the turban and feather of the groom in the picture. Merely the highest points in a high quality frame.

Enjoy both. With or without whiskey.

        Track Listing:
         1. Dolly's Ditty
         2. Wheel within a Wheel
         3. Ice Maidens
         4. Out of Day
         5. Mike the Cat
         6. The Move
         7.  A Clear Thought
        8. 5/4        9. One for Lenny

    Listen here

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tunisia: Waking up from the Cold Sleep

In 1991 a young oud player from Tunis recorded an album for the classy German jazz label, ECM.  The album, Barzakh, announced the arrival on the scene of Anouar Brahem, a musician who since that debut has never lowered the quality or beauty or fascinating allure of his art.

In 1991, Tunisia was well on the way toward that all too common state that pertains in all one party states: deadened slumber. The government was setting up theatrical elections in which the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was returned by ‘overwhelming majorities’ as a sign of his adoring people’s love. Tunisians were compelled to remain quiet and voiceless and submissive.

I don’t know if anyone paid attention to the title of Anouar Brahem's debut album but it is a fascinating choice. Barzakh in Islamic thinking refers to a state of the soul after death not-dissimilar (but not exactly similar, either) to limbo in Catholicism.  Barzakh is that state where the soul of the deceased enters a deep, ‘cold sleep’ and awaits the Day of Final Judgment (qayamat).

At first blush Barzakh seems a bizarre title for an album but when one considers what was happening in Tunisia at the time, perhaps not. That the country was a political mortuary in which its citizens lay inert in an ever-waiting ‘cold sleep’, is now an open secret.

In the last few days the much ‘re-elected’ President Ben Ali has been chased out of Tunisia by his ‘adorning’ people.  The ancient land is vibrating with long-realized hope even as it teeters on the brink of the unknown.  The people, for so long asleep are now wakening. The state of barzakh seems to be ending. The final judgment has arrived for a government that for too long has oppressed those it claims to serve.

Whether Anouar Brahem attaches such political implications to his work is unknown. But given what is transpiring in that country there is no better  moment to share this magnificent masterpiece of modern Tunisia. Brahem is considered one of the most innovative and accomplished contemporary oud masters. Not only has he transformed the Arabic lute into a lead instrument (rather than an accompanying one) his spare playing style is instantly recognizable.

This album is one of my all time favorites, one that never ceases to pleasure the senses.

Track Listing:
1.    Raf Raf
2.    Barzakh
3.    Sadir
4.    Ronda
5.    Hou
6.    Sarandib
7.    Souga
8.    Parfun de Gitane
9.    Bou Naouara
10. Kerkenah
11. La Nuit des Yeux
12. Le Belvedere Asseige
13. Qaf
 Listen here

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Notes from the Underground

Talvin Singh

There are many things to love about Britain: long summer evenings at the pub, a culture that adores books, newspapers full of good writing and the Yorkshire Dales, just for starters.

Another admirable feature is the extent to which contemporary Britain is drenched with South Asian culture. Three generations of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigration has not only seen ‘a curry’ knock off fish and chips as the national food but in every sphere of society (media, politics, business and the arts) there has developed a strong hybrid Brit-Asian sub-culture.

When I lived in Oxford in the late ‘90s, the music scene was vibrating with sounds from South Asia. Nitin Sawhney, Asian Dub Foundation, Apache Indian, Fun-Da-Mental and of course, Cornershop were winning the awards and getting massive playtime in the clubs and on the radio. Between 1998 and 2001, Asian-British acts (often, more than one) were shortlisted for Britain’s top music award, The Mercury Prize. In 1999 it was won to great acclaim (and some surprise) by a Punjabi Brit tabla  player named Talvin Singh, for his album Ok.

Singh was born in an east London suburb and at age 15 went to India to study tabla. He returned within a year with a style that his classically trained guru felt was too ‘westernised’. He soon found himself playing with a diverse range of artists, including Madonna, Massive Attack and Sun Ra.  In 1995 he established the Anokha club night at the London night club, The Blue Note, which quickly turned into the premier venue for Asian Brit bands interested in a sound that mixed western electronica and Hindustani instrumentation.  Two years later he was signed to produce a compilation of the acts that played regularly at the club: Anoka: soundz of the Asian Underground.

The album was one of the first of its kind and was instrumental in bringing the whole ‘chill out’ or ‘lounge’ sound into the mainstream.  It also forever associated Singh with a new sub-genre, Asian Underground.

The album is a fine collection of DJ-inspired music as well as an important historical artefact that documents an exciting period in contemporary British popular culture when the Empire truly struck back. Stand-out tracks include Flight IC408 by State of Bengal, Mumbai Theme Tune by a then-unknown (outside of India) A.R Rahman, and Singh’s own 21st Tabula which showcases his mastery of the tabla.

                        Track Listing:
1.    Jaan by Talvin Singh (featuring Amar)
2.    Flight IC408 by State of Bengal
3.    Kizmet by Lelonek
4.    21st Tabula by Talvin Singh and Sangat
5.    Shang High Shang High  by Future Soundz of India
6.    Chittagong Chill  by State of Bengal
7.    Mumbai Theme Tune by A.R. Rahman
8.    Distant God by Talvin Singh (featuring Leone)
9.    Heavy Intro by Amar
10. Equation  by Equal 1
11. Spiritual Master Key by Osmani Soundz
12. K-Ascendent by Kingsuk Biswas

Listen here

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Carnatic Soul/Jazz


Not many months after I discovered Ghazal’s album As Night Falls on the Silk Road (previous post) I found myself dwelling on the Silk Road.  Tajikistan, the poorest of the Soviet Stanley Brothers, was in 1999 emerging from a traumatic civil war. My wife, Yvonne, and I were employed by an American NGO that ran quite a big microcredit and public health program throughout the country. It was one of the most challenging professional assignments I’ve had, dealing with a government of gangsters, unreconstructed Communists and Islamists with names like Rahman Hitler!

We fell in love with the ancient landscape and culture of Central Asia, however, and our visits to Samarkhand, Bukhara and Khojand (all major stops along the Silk Route) will forever remain one of the highlights of our lives.  In our daily lives in Dushanbe (formerly Stalinabad) the capital, there was little to do after hours, however.  The Indian Embassy had an open bar and restaurant as did the UN. If you didn’t drink in those places you did so at home.  The large expatriate community socialized together a lot and one of those whom I developed a friendship with was a jovial Bangladeshi who ran Save the Children’s program.  He, like me, was a fanatic music buff and it was from him that I received the gift I share with you today.

Shankar (Lakshminarayana Shankar) is an Indian classical violinist and vocalist most famous for his mid-70s ‘fusion’ collaborations with the guitar wizard John McLaughlin in their group Shakti. A child prodigy who sang complex Carnatic compositions at age 3 and played drums and violin by age 7, Shankar, developed a passion for bringing together in an aural sangam the Western and Indian (Carnatic, in particular) musical traditions. In addition to his groundbreaking work with McLaughlin, he recorded and performed with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Frank Zappa and a host of pop and rock ‘n roll stars at various points in his career.

This 1989 album Pancha Nadai Pallavi is two extended tracks of what can only be described as Carnatic soul/jazz. Since 1980 Shankar has played a double-necked violin with 5 strings that sound like a cello  and five with the more traditional tone of a violin.  In these pieces (accompanied only by his wife, Caroline, on drone and Zakir Hussain on tabla and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam) Shankar improvises the most exquisite and plaintive music.  If you wanted virtuosity, look no further than this masterwork.

Here is a review from AMG.

As if playing one violin within the Western art music tradition wasn't difficult enough, the virtuoso L. Shankar has made it his trade to both sing and play a customized double violin within the contexts of Hindustani, Carnatic, Western, and experimental musical sensibilities. On this 1990 ECM release, Pancha Nadai Pallavi, he lays down two tracks, the first without percussion and the second in collaboration with Zakir Hussain on tabla and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam. Caroline also accompanies the L. Shankar with the drone setting sruthi (a small one-note hand-pumped reed organ) and talam (a pair of small hand cymbals). With the first track L. Shankar performs the ragam "Sankarabharanam" (a ragam is the Carnatic equivalent to the Hindustani raga). For nearly 30 minutes he elegantly articulates an innumerable series of variations on traditional forms, melodies, and rhythms. The double violin allows him to imitate the sounds of a multi-octave string ensemble. On the CD's second cut a serpentine nine and one-half beat rhythmic cycle, the Mahalakshmi Tala, provides the temporal framework for the performance. An original creation by L. Shankar himself, this tala is realized by tabla superstar Zakir Hussain and the celebrated ghatam (clay water pot) player Vikku Vinayakram. Both of these percussive masters draw a myriad of tones and conjure up a fortified stew of rhythmic cadences from their respective instruments. In sum, Shankar's Pancha Nadai Pallavi is a smashing CD that represents virtuosic creativity and experimentation at work in both solo and collaborative contexts.

Track listing:
1.    Ragam: Sankarabharanam
2.    Talam: Mahalakhshmi Tala (9 1/2 beats)

Listen here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Bit of Late Night Music

Lady playing kamancheh

There are some records you know you’ll love the first time you lay eyes on them. The one I share in this post is one such. I picked this album up in a second-hand shop in Sarajevo in early 1999. As soon as I saw it I grabbed it. No hesitation. I love ghazals, and the romance of the Silk Road conjured by the title was too much to resist. That this is, in fact, not a collection of ghazals, that most loved of all Hindustani poetic forms didn’t bother me because what it was, was something unexpected and elegant.

Ghazal is the name of a musical collaboration between Iranian/Kurdish kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and Indian sitar player Shujaat Hussain Khan and tabla player Swapan Chaudhary.  All three musicians are recognized maestros of their instruments with CVs that shine with distinction and achievement. As Night Falls on the Silk Road is their much lauded second album.

What strikes you about the music of Ghazal is how organic it sounds.  The blending of folk and classical elements from both India and Persia doesn’t come across as contrived ‘fusion’ but absolutely true. As if this music was part of an ancient repertoire not recently confected. The playing is superb, understated and controlled and creates the perfect atmosphere. With three master instrumentalists  gathered together in a studio, the risk for gratuitous displays of virtuosity is always high. But Ghazal eludes danger by weaving an understated yet masterful collection of stringed melodies. The tabla sets the foundation and drives the music forward, at times to great peaks of intensity but always in the end is comforted by the forlorn and evocative singing of Shujaat Hussain Khan. Indeed, it is his vocals that are the special ‘something else’ that shifts this album from merely good to genuinely great.

Some have found the overall tone of As Night Falls on the Silk Road a bit moody. I couldn’t disagree more. Whether it is solace you seek or joy, this album, played in its entirety, especially after the sun has disappeared for another day, will not disappoint.

                        Track Listing:
1.     My Eyes, My Heart
2.     Between Dawn and Dawn a New Truth
3.     Snowy Mountains
4.     Traces of the Beloved

Listen here                

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sweet Soul Music from 1980s India: The Amazing Usha Uthup

The second New Year’s treat is the album Blast Off! (1984) by Tamilian diva Usha (Iyer) Uthup. We know much more about Usha then the bands who competed in Simla Beat.  Born into a musical Brahmin family Usha’s start in music was not propitious. Her voice, more husky and dark than what the Indian film world wanted, was labeled non-commercial.  She was kicked out of her first music class.

Usha got her start in many of the same clubs as the bands of Simla Beat fame did. Places like Trincas and Mocambos and the Park Hotel, in Calcutta. (For an interesting history on the early days of Calcutta rock’n roll check out Bhasker Gupta’s article).

Uthup started singing in a small nightclub in Chennai called Nine Gems in the basement of the erstwhile Safire theater complex on Mount Road , when she was 20, wearing a saree and leg calipers. Her performance was so well received that the owner of the nightclub asked her to stay on for a week. After her first night club gig, she began singing in Calcutta at night clubs such as "Talk of the Town" and "Trincas". She met her future husband Uthup in Trincas. After Trincas, her next engagement took her to Delhi where she sang at the Oberoi hotels. By happenstance, a film crew belonging to Navketan unit including Shashi Kapoor visited the nightclub and they offered her a chance to sing movie playback. As a result, she started her Bollywood career with Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Originally, she was supposed to sing Dum Maro Dum along with Asha Bhosle. However, as a result of internal politicking on the part of other singers, she lost that chance but ended up singing an English verse. (Wikipedia)

Usha, who lives in Calcutta, still sings and is loved for her ability to sing, without accent, in seemingly any language.  She’s been and continues to be a significant artist in the musical world of Indian film but has also released a number of albums of pop/soul music in English. Blast Off! was released in 1984.  Other albums followed and I’ve collected a few songs and put them into a second collection called Beautiful Sunday, but make no claims that this is the original track list.

The music on these albums is fun and revealing. Usha sings with a natural fluency and confidence. While the song selection on Blast Off! is enigmatic to say the least, careering from bubble gum (Chewing Gum Lips) to seasonal (Christmas, Merry Christmas) to bizarre (Welcome Test Tube Baby) the musicianship is strong and Usha’s voice very attractive and engaging. Give the lady credit for being able to interpret some dubious material! But packed within this album are some real gems, especially Lucy Was Crucified (echoes of Marianne Faithfull) and a nice slap-bass driven disco number, Someone Switched Me On.

One does wonder who this album was marketed to as many of songs explore a territory (abortion, sex) too challenging for polite middle class Indian listeners, in an era before the internet and satellite TV.  One hint comes from several tracks that could be interpreted as ‘Christian’ in some way (I Went to the Priest; Sinner Come to Me). Those tracks, and one that appeared on the original, Moses Stick, (but not on this collection) are a clear sign that the producers saw there was money to be made out of the English speaking community who were largely Christian. Though her husband is a Kerala Christian, Usha herself has never converted, as far as I know.

On Beautiful Sunday Usha sounds like an Indian Dionne Warwick circa 1968. The collection grooves and lilts with that light sunny southern Cal sound and the material is far more coherent and focused. Usha turns in an outstanding cover of Janice Ian’s angst ridden At Seventeen, as well as several other early 70s hits.

What really stands out throughout this music is the superb session work. The arrangements are tight and the musicians (all Indian) appear to be equally adept at running off jazzy guitar riffs as they are at getting funky or grooving to a reggae beat.  All in all two delightful collections of Indian-English pop music.

Back cover of the original album (1984)

Front Cover of the original album

                        Track Listing:
1.     Chewing Gum Lips
2.     Christmas, Merry Christmas
3.     I Went to the Priest
4.     Lucy Was Crucified
5.     Pressure Cooker of Love
6.     Sinner Come to Me
7.     Someone Switched Me On
8.     Top Me Up
9.     Welcome Test Tube Baby

                        Track Listing:
1.     At Seventeen
2.     Beautiful Sunday
3.     Dance Little Lady
4.     Evergreen
5.     Going Out of My Head
6.     I Believe in Music
7.     I Feel Love
8.     I Would Like to Dance
9.     Ways of Fire