I was skeptical when Watcha Clan‘s “world & bass” sound first crossed my path and their first show left me unimpressed (Deciphering Watcha Clan). But there was something there that kept me coming back: the musical goals were ambitious and sometimes sometimes it really worked. Then the second time I saw them it all came together (Watcha Clan, Live in San Francisco). That performance and a conversation with keyboardist left me eagerly awaiting their new album:
…Clement and I talked about the change in the approach Watcha Clan was taking to creating musical fusion on their new album (for release in early 2011). The album will include more North African, Balkan and Jewish songs, including a Yemeni song played in a Balkan way. Clement said it’s in the same format – “traditional plus electric but deeper.” This time, they are spending less time working on the arrangements and putting more attention to finding the emotion. For each song, they start by recording two or three simple vocal tracks by Karine or Nassim. Then when they have a good vocal take, they build a mix around it. The approach seems to be paying early dividends. On Sunday night, the arrangements of the songs fromDiaspora Hi-Fi were more dynamic and felt both more immediate and filled out. They bore little resemblance to the watered-down versions I’d bemoaned last time I’d seen them. Last time, I saw Watcha Clan, I left eagerly awaiting their new album but unsure if I’d see them again live. This time, I’m eagerly awaiting the new album and looking forward to seeing them again when they return for a North American tour next year. And, remember, never judge a band by a single performance.
Now, Radio Babel is out and it’s worth the wait. Check out the video for “Hasnaduro” (above) for a taste and if you’re in L.A., check them out on August 6, 2011 at the Grand Performances series of free events downtown.
Another repost from the always insightful History is Made at Night blog.
Last week in Iowa, Michele Bachmann launched her bid to become the Republican candidate in the next US presidential election. On the Tea Party far right of American politics, she has a long, lamentable history of anti-gay and anti-abortion activism not to mention whitewashing the history of slavery
As she made her way to the podium in Waterloo at the weekend ‘Elvis Presley’s Promised Land belted out’
. Well the notion of manifest destiny and Americans as the new chosen people is a hardy right wing trope, and at one level there is a connection between the idea of the Promised Land and the American frontier.But we cannot leave the Promised Land in the hands of US Conservatives. The name itself derives of course from the Book of Genesis where God promises Moses the land of milk and honey, not a metaphysical utopia but the actual land of Israel. Over the millennia that tribal foundation myth of a people in the prehistoric Middle East has taken on a universal appeal, holding out the hope of a better world somewhere, some place, some timeIt’s hardly suprisizing that Bachmann chose Elvis Presley’s version of the song, rather than the original by its black songwriter. When Chuck Berry
sings it there is no doubt that the songs works on at least two levels. On the surface it is simply a description of a journey from Norfolk, Virginia to California, part of the 1950s/early 1960s mythologisation of travelling across the USA (Route 66, Highway 61, On the Road).
Final repost (for now) from the always insightful History is Made at Night blog.
‘The extent to which the music is integrated with the literal meaning in soul is apparent in some of its basic stylistic conventions, the call and response structure, for instance, where a phrase from the lead vocalist – which may not even take a verbal shape – is as often echoed by the band as by other singers. Or the distinctive use of melisma – the concentration of several notes into one syllable – by soul performers. The effect of this technique is often to give the impression that the singer is none too sure that the words exist which could adequately convey the power of what he is feeling. When Jackie Wilson packs more than twenty notes into the word “for” in his version “Danny Boy“, the literal meaning of the song is virtually superseded’ (Ian Hoare, Mighty mights spade and whitey: soul lyrics and black-white crosscurrents, in The Soul Book, edited by Ian Hoare, London: 1975)
Check out the closing bars of this song for the example given – 20 notes for the word ‘for’:
The Pixies, Manu Chao, Jonathan Richman, and Moroccan cha’abi rockers Hoba Hoba Spirit. Musically promiscuous and lyrically inventive, head Cuban Cowboy, Jorge Navarro, has found the musical voice on their nThe Cuban Cowboys bring together rock ‘n’ roll and Latin beats with a punk sensibility that brings to mind such post-punk genre busters as ew album Diablo Mambo that was only hinted at in the Cowboys’ debut album, Cuban Candles – but he didn’t find it on his own. A couple weeks ago I interviewed Jorge for a piece in SF Weekly and found out the fascinating backstory behind the band and the new album. Check it out!
By Jeffrey Callen
The Cuban Cowboys‘ new album, Diablo Mambo, doesn’t hesitate to let you know what it is all about. Drop the digital needle on the first track and you learn all you need to know within the first 50 seconds: A Jimi Hendrix lick establishes the rock bona fides before the track morphs into a mambo section overlaid with a post-punk, art rock guitar pattern. The Hendrix lick then returns and signals the transition to driving punk guitars, but with a difference — the usual straight up-and-down thrash is blended with the sway of a Cuban son rhythm pattern. Two musical streams — rock and Latin music — are introduced, then blended, before the story of the song begins.
Bandleader/songwriter Jorge Navarro has interesting, engaging stories to tell. The opening track, “Cojones,” relates an early lesson in navigating the contradictions of the code of machismo taught by his knife-wielding grandfather. Navarro’s songs portray his family’s memories of a mythical Cuba born out of the nostalgia of exile and his experiences as a first-generation Cuban American, immersed in American pop culture and drawn to cowboy boots and rock ‘n’ roll. These two themes establish the narrative poles for the songs on Diablo Mambo, and Navarro skillfully navigates this bi-cultural territory, spinning tales of romance, sex, politics, and family. The music plays an essential role in the effectiveness of the stories, weaving together various tributaries from the two main musical streams — classic rock, punk rock, doo-wop, post–punk, rockabilly, and son, mambo, calypso, and salsa. (to read the rest, go to SF Weekly).
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The Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs, passed away today in London. Known as the master of ”lovers rock” — smooth vocals over cool grooves — Isaacs made his mark singing romantic songs. However, he also was an eloquent spokesperson for Jamaica’s poor, addressing social social problems in songs such as “A Riot” and “Village of the Underprivileged.” For me, Isaacs’s most arresting work is in songs in which he carried on the rocksteady sound of master vocalists, such as Alton Ellis and Dobby Dobson (check out his covers of rocksteady classics “Tumblin’ Tears” [Ellis] and “Loving Pauper” [Dobson - below]).
One of my research interests is the largely forgotten history of transgendered performers in American popular music. I thank Ray Astbury for bringing Petite Swanson to my attention, a blues singer in Chicago who recorded four sides for the Sunbeam record company in 1947 (Billboard reported her signing by Sunbeam in March 1947). At the time, Swanson was a member of Valda Gray’s troupe of female impersonators, who were the main attraction at Joe’s Deluxe Club in Chicago. She recorded four sides in 1947 for the Sunbeam label. These were not novelty recordings; they featured mainstream jazz musicians, mostly local journeymen but two of Swanson’s sides for Sunbeam (“I’m Sorry” and “Did You Ever Feel Lucky”) included legendary tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. The Petite Swanson page of Queer Music Heritage includes a collection of press articles that describe drag entertainment for mainstream audiences in Chicago during the 1940s that is quite similar to the Sissy Bounce phenomenon in New Orleans for the last decade (see Sissy Bounce — an anomaly or just another transgendered musical tradition).
A history of the Sunbeam label by Robert L. Campbell, Armin Büttner, and Robert Pruter includes this fascinating portrait of Pettite Swanson and the scene at Joe’s Deluxe Clug (thanks Ray):
…soon thereafter, Marl Young recorded with his own trio behind vocalist Petite Swanson. Petite Swanson was a member of Valda Gray’s troupe of female impersonators, who for much of the 1940s were the main attraction at Joe’s Deluxe Club in Chicago; Marl Young had led the band there in 1943. Some of the entertainment at Joe’s Deluxe is preserved on the recordings made by two of the house band leaders: Dallas Bartley’s session for Cosmo and his three soundies from 1945, and Bill Martin’s 1946 sessions for Hy-Tone (although Martin used a studio lineup instead of the musicians he was appearing with nightly). But the Swanson session includes the only surviving performances by a member of the Gray troupe. Referring to him as a “fem impersonator,” Billboard announced in its March 22, 1947 issue that Swanson had just been signed to the label. The way indie labels usually did their business, we infer from this that Swanson had already recorded. In his article on the label in Blues & Rhythm, Bo Sandell gives La Swanson’s real name as Alphonso Horsley. In its March 1948 issue, Ebony magazine ran an article on the female impersonators at Joe’s Deluxe Club. Petite Swanson is mentioned as a regular performer there; Ebony spells Alphonso’s last name as “Hersley” and states that he was 40 years old at the time, a former school teacher who “attends Catholic church quite regularly.” According to the Ebony writer, he was a “topnotch blues singer but favorite song is Schubert’s ‘Serenade’.”
Not everyone appeared to understand Petite Swanson’s act. In 1945, a young Marshall Stearns, in from New York, decided to take in Dallas Bartley’s six-piece group at Joe’s Deluxe Club, and wrote a rave review of Bartley’s band–which then included Bartley on bass, Mac Easton on alto sax, Reese Thomas on tenor, and Bob Hall on trumpet (the other two were unnamed)–hailing their music as “real jazz.” He was also thrilled by Swanson, writing, “Highlight of the floor show is a blues singer named Petite Swanson, whose idols are Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. When Petite backs away from the mike and lets go with ‘Evil Gal Blues,’ put up on what she’s putting down! She has the power and tone of the old-time, great blues singers and she knows the style by instinct.” Nothing in Stearns’ report indicates that he was watching a female impersonator floor show, or that the source of Ms. Swanson’s power and tone included some testosterone! In any case, he knew the jazz was real. See M. W. Stearns, “Dallas Bartley Pleases Those in Search of Jazz,” Down Beat, 15 September 1945, p. 2. (http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sunbeam.html) [The Ebony article is included full text on the Petite Swanson page of Queer Music Heritage website -- more fascinating stuff].
For more interesting history, check out Queering Pop Music Studies.
After being exposed to Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin — a piteous collection of pop dreck — I reluctantly turned my attention to the Turtle Island String Quartet’s Have you ever been…? While the latter’s set of Hendrix covers has not received the level of acclaim that Wilson’s butchering of the songs of the Gershwin brothers, it stands head and shoulder’s above it in terms of inventiveness and musicality. [I came to both these cds via NPR's music website, which features an interesting mix of artists but has never raised a critical eyebrow.]
“Reimagining” the works of classic artists is nothing new to Turtle Island String Quartet. Their previous interpretations of John Coltrane also hit the mark (on A Love Supreme). Here’s a sample, their rendition of “My Favorite Things” informed by Coltrane’s inspired 1961 recording of the Rodgers & Hammerstein composition.
Here’s my review of the best live show I’ve seen this year — published on Afropop.org today.
Fat Freddy’s Drop: Live in San Francisco
Fat Freddy’s Drop tore up the Independent in San Francisco on Friday, June 25. Soul drenched vocals and reggae riddims mixed with electronic effects, club beats and a killer horn section to create a fresh sound that is contemporary but deeply rooted in a diverse collection of black music styles that came of age in the 1970s. Funk, soul, reggae, ska, dub—sometimes straightforward, sometimes deconstructed—were not unexpected from an outfit that started out as a jam band. What was unexpected was that it all worked!
I was drawn to Fat Freddy’s Drop’s show by the song “Boondigga” (from their last album Dr. Boondigga and the Big BW), which had been firmly entrenched on my personal playlist for a month before the show. The song came early in the eighty-minute set so if things had bogged down or fell flat, I wouldn’t have second thoughts about cutting out and looking for a plan B but I didn’t leave until the show ended. Now back to the song that drew me to the show because I think there’s something in there that explains the appeal and brilliance of Fat Freddy’s Drop. “Boondigga” opens on a smooth soul groove, anchored by the sweet Philadelphia sounds laid down by the horn section and driven by a very ‘70s electronic drum track. Joe Dukie’s smooth vocals ride on top of the slowly building arrangement that does not gain its full power until after the break, three minutes in. A subtle shift in the horn chart brings in the more harmonically extended controlled dissonance that Tower of Power brought out of Oakland signaling the beginning of a major deconstruction of Boondigga’s smooth soul sound. The horns exit and a soulfully deviant aural soundscape is created from distorted guitar, swelling keys and electronics. Live the horn section left the stage at the start of the deconstruction, which was given twice as long to develop as on the album – a full four minutes. And that was true of the entire show: (for the rest…)
Another installment in the excellent series on Taqwacore from my sadiqi at Tales from Bradistan.
MONDAY, 26 JULY 2010
I am the revolution and you are the revolution
In your spirit you have the power
In your heart lies the secret
From your lips spills the truth
That the wine of power is in our blood
Together we can make a revolution
Tell your comrades
I am the revolution
We are the revolution
Recently I drove over to Preston to meet two of the bands that are at the forefront of thetaqwacore scene in the USA. I already wrote about The Kominas with some thoughts about the documentary film Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam. The other band on the tour were Al Thawra (“The Revolution” in arabic) from Chicago, a group that were not given much airtime in that film but certainly deserve greater recognition.
Al Thawra are a trio but on this trip they had expanded to four members. Syrian-Polish-American Marwan Kamel sings and plays guitar; Matt Scott stood in for the absent bassist Mario Salazar; Micah Bezold was on drums; and Adam Jennings from Winters In Osakaguested by playing the sampler. (to read on…)