Feb 25, 2010
Nearly 50 years ago, a bright-eyed Ethiopian teen arrived in Wrexham, a county borough in the northeastern part of Wales. His parents had sent him nearly 4,000 miles from home to attend a renowned boarding school that welcomed a host of Ethiopians students. Young Mulatu Astatke quickly formed a bond with the school's band teacher, developing an interest in the trumpet and clarinet.
After graduation, Astatke set out for the big city, attending Trinity College in London and studying classical and jazz music before venturing across the pond to become the first African student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. A less formal education followed, in the talent-laden jazz clubs of New York City in the mid-1960s with his own band, The Ethiopian Quintet.
Astatke's ten-year stint in the West would ultimately set him on a singular path. Just as the Nigerian artist Fela Anikulapo Kuti mixed African highlife with American funk into a potent blend called Afrobeat, Astatke returned to Ethiopia in 1968 with an entirely new sound to unleash on his homeland: Ethio Jazz. It was unlike anything heard before, chock full of Arabic, African, Latin and African-American influences, with the groove prominent in the mix, enveloped by a swirl of hypnotic, snake-charming brass, wah-wah guitar and an onslaught of percussion.
Astatke has taken his sound all over the world over the past 45 years, but his latest collaboration has taken him full circle. Recruited by DJ and promoter Karen P and the Red Bull Music Academy to play a show at London's famed Cargo club in April 2008, Astatke was linked with The Heliocentrics, a British jazz ensemble that has drawn rave reviews in recent years for its psychedelic, hip hop-inflected sound. The show went so well that the two parties agreed to make a record together, and the resulting album, the third in the Strut label's Inspiration Information studio collaboration series, hit stores earlier this month. Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information 3 sees the master and his vaunted band explore their respective sounds but also meet somewhere in the middle, adding a harder, psych-rock tinge to Astatke's Ethio Jazz and injecting traditional Ethiopian instruments and Coptic Church chanting into The Heliocentrics' thick, fluid jazz compositions.
When he picks up the phone at his hotel on a trademark cold, damp late winter evening in London, Astatke is at the tail end of a long day of rehearsals with The Heliocentrics, as well as an appearance on BBC 1 with tastemaker extraordinaire Gilles Peterson. Despite nursing a cold with a cup of hot tea and already in bed, the 64-year-old pioneer is a relentless fountain of positive energy, continuously using words like “beautiful" and “so great" to describe his 45-year career in music and his serendipitous connection with The Heliocentrics.
“It's been so nice and so great," he says. “It's incredible to see younger musicians playing Ethio Jazz. This has been a beautiful collaboration."
Astatke has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the West in recent years behind the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch's film Broken Flowers in 2005, as well as the 1998 release of the fourth volume of Francis Falceto's monumental 21-volume Ethiopiques series, both of which leaned heavily on Astatke's instrumental arrangements.
But, his latest collaboration isn't a case of a bunch of young upstarts propping up an aging pioneer tenuously grasping at the days of yore. Astatke is fresh off a Radcliffe Institute fellowship at Harvard University, where he premiered part of a new opera he composed based on the musical traditions established by Yared, an iconic Ethiopian figure largely credited with establishing the country's musical framework. He is also in the midst of a project to modernize some of the traditional Ethiopian instruments, hoping to expand their sound without compromising their uniqueness, and is working on a solo album this summer.
“I've worked 24 hours a day to introduce Ethiopian music to the world, and to show what Ethiopians have contributed to the world in culture and music," he says. “I have enjoyed it so much. I've never been discouraged. I just keep on going and going, and this is the latest thing to happen for me. I'll never stop."
“Music just needs the brain to work - you don't have to have big muscles or anything," he continues. “I can play up to 100. You look at the great European composers [and] their best work was done at the age of 80 and 90. Even Duke Ellington was doing beautiful work at the age of 80. It's all how you look at it. It's so beautiful, so nice."
Heliocentrics' drummer and co-founder Malcolm Catto first discovered Astatke's music back in 1994 while on a search for rare gems in New York City as part of his day job for Jazzman Records. But, it was in 2002, when French label L'Arome reissued Astatke's Ethio Jazz album, that Catto was floored.
“That was the one that totally blew me away," Catto says. “When I heard the Ethio Jazz album, I was like, 'Jesus Christ.' We all love that sort of rough edge to it. It had a rawness that opened our minds to using different scales in that music, incorporating different modes and scales."
The discovery sent Catto digging for Arabic and African influences to incorporate into The Heliocentrics' sound, a move that ultimately helped the band land the Cargo gig. Catto and company were just as blown away by how laid-back and easy to talk to the jazz pioneer was when they first met in the days leading up to the Cargo show.
“The guy is totally approachable and so easy to get along with," Catto says. “It wasn't any sort of James Brown sort of business."
Currently on tour in Europe, the band packs into a van with their gear on the road, with Astatke traveling in a separate car and the band members taking turns traveling with him.
“He's just one of the guys, really," Catto says. “He's so easy going you wouldn't believe. He's not in his own world and he doesn't have his own whole separate thing going on at all. He's just there amongst us. What you see is what you get. I like to think that we're all like that and that's why we connect because we basically all try to be fairly honest about it and just love the music."
The feeling is mutual, and Astatke and The Heliocentrics have already discussed future projects that would potentially have the band traveling to Addis Abba to record with more Ethiopian musicians.
“We have some traditional instruments on this record, but going there to work with them would be pretty amazing," Catto says. “We could take this as deep as we can get it, and Mulatu is up for that."
The third in Strut Records' Inspiration Information collaborative series pairs Mulatu Astatke, 66-year-old father of Ethio-jazz, with London-based astral funk collective the Heliocentrics. The collaboration began with an appearance at London club Cargo in 2008, and has finally borne recorded fruit in the form of an intriguing album that's equal parts sweaty funk and blissfully meditative jams.
Astatke has come to be appreciated outside specialist circles in recent years. His music featured heavily in Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers, and before that, in 1998, an entire edition of the Ethiopiques album series was devoted to his work. His sound intertwines funk and jazz elements with traditional Ethiopian folk melodies and echoes of Coptic Church music. Astatke's compositions frequently combine his own vibraphone and conga playing with the distinctive sound of the lyre-like krar, which works with five tones instead of the seven-note scale typical of western music. These disparate elements combine to create a heady blend that feels both sacred and profane.
That paradoxical effect holds sway here, with the Heliocentrics adding a glitchy sheen. Their most noticeable contribution at first is the sheer power of the drumming, which on sleazy jam Addis Black Widow and the funky sax-led Fire in the Zoo have an almost breakbeat-like heaviness. Elsewhere, however, they conspire with Astatke to far subtler effect. The electronic effects flecked between the meandering bass, spiralling strings and washint (an Ethiopian flute) passages on An Epic Story are no less compelling for being down in the mix.
There are times when the partnership falters. Blue Nile dips its toes into forgettable downtempo territory, and the closing ten-minute sprawl of Anglo Ethio Suite doesn't build much beyond a promising opening. The good outweighs the bad, however, especially on the woozy stagger of Chik Chikka and the Alice Coltrane-style oddness of Phantom of the Panther. Best of all is Live From Tigre Lounge, where metallic beats combine with a sinister organ and distant howled vocals above a bassline that sounds like its wandered in from an early-1990s hardcore record. At times such as these this project makes perfect, unexpected sense.
Mulatu Astatke's music is impossible to categorise. There are Ethiopian influences, of course, thanks to his use of the (almost) Arabic-sounding five-tone scale, the echoes of Coptic church music, and his fascination with such ancient instruments as the six-stringed krar, the washint flute or begena harp. Then there are the jazz influences, reflecting the time he spent in the UK and the US. It's a predominantly instrumental style that first shook up the Addis music scene back in the late 1960s and early 70s, reached new audiences thanks to the success of the Ethiopiques albums, and is still evolving. Last year, Astatke gave his first live show in the UK in more than 15 years, backed by the London-based Heliocentrics collective, and now the African bandleader joins them again for an intriguing new studio collaboration. The result is an everchanging kaleidoscope in which his drifting piano work and vibes playing is matched against anything from echoes of Ethiopian folk styles through to edgy or rousing brass work, sturdy bass riffs and moody, gently rhythmic passages that would make great film music. He's now in his 60s, but Astatke is still taking chances.
OK, listen with me… tranquil soft piano keys playing for maybe fifteen seconds, soothingly melodious, you’re in a trance. At 22 seconds; you hear this gradually building, piercing sound. Is this the sound of a whistling kettle? Yes, and you’re still entranced…cue [what sounds like] a boat horn at 44 seconds accompanied by light tapping of the Congo drums. Stay with me… *drums, drums, drums, boat horn* … South African singing in the most titillating voice, right at the one minute mark. You have now entered the world of Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics via the opening track; Masenqo.
I introduce Mulatu Astatke, the Father of Ethio-jazz who has been freaking his albums for over 4 decades by geniusly merging traditional Ethiopian melodies with Jazz and Funk. Meet the Heliocentrics, “the UK’s foremost freethinking musicians” who broke the scene in 2007 with the psychedelic: funky: hip hoppy: jazzy: debut album; “Out There”. The Heliocentrics’ genre crossing musical scope is heavily influenced by James Brown and Sun Ra. Combine that with Mulatu’s Ethiojazz, and we get the 3rd of Strut’s studio collabo series; Inspiration Information. In short, be ready for the bluesy horns of the 60’s filled with sporadic, yet melodious instruments and sounds a la Sun Ra, and superb production a la Mabanua.
The album mentally takes you on a journey transcending genres, and crossing countries in such a unique way. I’m hearing instruments like the vibraphone, violin, horns, and electric guitars… but in a podcast that you can listen to HERE, I learned that they were also using Chinese cymbals & gongs, copper cooking pans, and a number of Ethiopian percussion instruments to name a few. The sound it has created will have you restarting tracks, and scratching your forehead while rocking along unknowingly.
Inspiration Information captivates by going hard with the instruments, withholding nothing. Mulatu has a 60’s era sound with the blare of the saxophones pushing through. The Thai guitar is delivering mad riffs, and the percussion instruments are creating an overall sound to make you tap your feet. Blue Nile sounds like a contemporary jam session. The tempo pushes you into the booth for a freestyle battle from the rhythmic bass and percussion. The true essence of a live band lives in this joint, if you’re in London they’ll be there in May! Chik Chikka starts on a mission to grip you. A powerful guitar rips, Mulatu stimulates the keys, and The Heliocentrics complement with wild percussion instruments. By far, my favorite track! Phantom of the Panther! If you dance…this is for you! The timbales and congo drums command you to your feet. Short pauses in between the tapping tease your senses… you’re giving all your energy as you submit to the drums unknowingly. Tambourines get your hips moving and you are officially deep in movement. Haunting chants reverberate, you close your eyes because you are now lost in the vibe. Bliss
The aforementioned songs are just my highlights of this work of art that in no way, shape, or form accurately describes the feelings you will experience. This fusion of artists creates the most magnificent international sound, and I’m still astonished that this masterpiece was created in 7 days. Get inspired! The album is to be released April 14th 2009, and is available at Amazon.com for preorder, you won’t regret it!
For all the excitement they generate, collaborations between artists who are well-established on their own tend to disappoint more often than not. This is especially true in music, but it’s a burden that Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke has been able to transcend for most of his career. Astatke was a founding figure in the Ethiopian jazz scene of the early 1970s—work that has been documented on the fourth volume of Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series—but the bulk of his achievements in the ensuing years have been made in collaboration with equally accomplished artists from cultures other than his own.
For the third installment of Strut Records’ Inspiration Information series, Astatke teams up with the London-based Heliocentrics, a band whose debut recording on Stones Throw and associations with artists like DJ Shadow and Madlib has given them some deserved credibility as adventurous musicians of the highest caliber. But not even the esteemed pedigrees of either side of this equation could prepare anyone for what Astatke and the Heliocentrics have attained together—the entire album takes the tenets of collaborative success beyond categorization in the way it blurs the lines between funk, soul, breakbeat, R&B, and Astatke’s vintage Ethiopian jazz. This is not a collection of genre exercises—just uninhibited cross-pollination by an ensemble cast whose creativity knows no bounds.
As anyone who’s heard Ethiopiques Volume 4 (or seen Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, whose soundtrack draws heavily from the same compilation) can verify, there’s something about Astatke’s concept of harmony that defies categorization—it’s exotic, to be sure, but not in the watered-down, stereotyped way that Esquivel or Martin Denny packaged so-called “exotica” to the Glenn Quagmire prototypes of the 1960s. Heliocentrics drummer Malcolm Catto conveys the essence of this quality in a promotional documentary clip on the making of the album: “That scale—the Ethiopian mode. And it sounds a bit Arabic, but it isn’t… it’s some of the most amazing music ever made, and I can say that from the heart.” Describe it as you will, Astatke’s minor-keyed harmonies drive the majority of the pieces, giving the session a funk-noir feel that has few recorded precedents.
It’s presumably obvious by now that each of the disc’s 14 tracks is a highlight in its own way, yet certain pieces demand special attention. “Masenqo” starts the album off on a deceptively pastoral note, before exploding into a ridiculously funky groove powered by Catto and his Heliocentrics rhythm partner, bassist Jake Ferguson—if Charles Mingus had lived to sit in with a live hip-hop band like the Roots, it might have sounded like this. Others like “Mulatu” stick closer to Astatke’s Ethiopian heritage, but still infuse that sound with modern touches, most notably in the form of Adrian Owusu’s stabbing guitar chords that recall John McLaughlin’s playing with Miles Davis on On the Corner.
Continuing onward through strange renderings of the I-IV-V blues progression (“Chinese New Year”) and stellar examples of Astatke’s own musicianship (see the ancient and otherworldly qualities of his piano playing on “Phantom of the Panther”), the album develops so effortlessly that even pieces that seem like little more than basic idea sketches (“Fire in the Zoo”, for example) get fleshed out into vibrant creations. And that’s what makes Inspiration Information 3 such a perfectly unpredictable album—the arrangements surprise throughout with unexpected twists in ensemble voicings or solo placements, culminating in the giddy disorientation found on the concluding track, “Anglo Ethio Suite”. A suite more in length than compositional make-up, it becomes a droning, string-heavy black hole that sucks in all that which has preceded it, leaving only the silence of space—and heads shaking in disbelief—in its wake.
Strut Records’ Inspiration, Information series was conceived as an exercise in collaboration, though, for its first two installments, it essentially sank into hero-worship– but then, isn’t that usually how these multi-generational collaborations turn out? On paper, the project is meant to bring together one veteran artist with a younger, kindred spirit, and in that regard it’s succeeded, but while the series is designed to give each participant a chance to shine, the first two volumes have left no question as to who is the mentor and who is the apprentice. It only makes sense, then, that for the third and hands-down the finest entry in the series yet, the Strut powers-that-be would enlist Mulatu Astatke– an artist whose long-standing interest in musical community and truly collaborative spirit show just how inspired this type of recording can be when the musicians are well-matched.
If you’re unfamiliar with Astatke’s music, then apparently you’ve never seen Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers; the director made prominent use of Astatke’s music and gave the musician just the platform he needed to begin expanding his presence in the minds and record collections of Western jazzbos and world music buffs. The movie wasn’t exactly Garden State, and Astatke isn’t exactly the Shins, but as far as Ethiopian jazz pioneers are concerned, it was still a pretty big break.
Now, the legendary composer– who began recording in the 1960s– is sympathetically paired with the UK-based collective the Heliocentrics, and what transpires between the two parties can only be called chemistry. Give much of the credit to Astatke, who practically invented the form known as Ethiopian jazz and who has spent much of his life trying to nurture an artistic community therein; though all of the album’s fourteen tracks were written by him, he treats the Helios not as his pupils but his equals, and the sound of the album is as much theirs as his. For their part, the Heliocentrics are faithful enough to Astatke’s compositions, some of which are classics though most of which are brand new. They don’t try too hard to place their own stamp on this music, but rather find themselves in the grooves, and what results is something that lives up to the album title– real inspiration.
It’s a vibrant and hypnotic assortment of sounds and styles, by turns very Eastern and very Western, tastefully retro but also very forward-thinking, jazzy without being too esoteric and funky without sacrificing the music’s depth and sophistication. Astatke borrows many of his melodies and rhythms from traditional Ethiopian folk music, which grounds it all in a particular tradition, but he also reveals a keen interest in Western modalism, as well as a distinctly spiritual sensibility that no doubt rubbed off on him from his late friends and collaborators John and Alice Coltrane. The Heliocentrics, on the other hand, bring all the musical signifiers of psychadelia, rock, James Brown funk, and film noir soundtrack music. Some of their beats come clearly out of funk, while others sound borrowed from contemporary hip-hop. Astatke doesn’t call attention to himself as a performer, but works himself into the fabric of the music– he does get in a couple of terrific solos on the vibes, and his hand percussion on some of the later tracks reveals an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm– and everything the Heliocentrics do is in service of the songs.
Which is all just a round-about way of saying that this is true collaboration, and it’s thrilling. These musicians share similar interests but also come from very different backgrounds, but when they meet here they not only find common ground, but push each other to explore and stretch creatively. To boot: The music flat-out kicks. It’s a wonderful collection that spans decades and continents, but finds its voice in pure, unified creativity.
02. Cha Cha
03. Addis Black Widow
05. Blue Nile
06. Esketa Dance
07. Chik Chikka
08. Live From Tigre Lounge
09. Chinese New Year
10. Phantom Of The Panther
12. Fire In The Zoo
13. An Epic Story
14. Anglo Ethio Suite
Feb 20, 2010
Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African Popular Music
"Jazz was born in America but its deepest roots are in Africa."
— Mulatu Astatqe (father of Ethio-Jazz)
The music of Africa unfortunately remains perhaps the most stereotyped on the planet. To outsiders, it's tied inextricably—and often exclusively—to the drum. And while there's really no point in talking about African music without emphasizing percussion, this simplistic characterization falls far short. In no African culture does drumming exist without vocal accompaniment (and/or vocal representation through the talking drum). String instruments like the kora (a harp with a calabash resonator) join with the xylophone-like balafon and a sea of plucked and blown instruments to create a truly orchestral range of sound.
Another unfortunate myth from the first world perspective is that there even is a single entity we can call African music. Not true! The massive continent spans a bewildering array of ancient traditions, colonial influences, religious elements, and cross-cultural fertilizations. Even within a single country, characterization can become quite difficult. Take Senegal, for example: with several languages both indigenous and European (ie. French), traditions from each of these groups, and simultaneous bombardment from West African hubs like Ghana as well as Caribbean centers like Cuba and Jamaica, there's a virtual menu of styles to choose from. The great statesman of Senegalese music, Youssou N'Dour, rose early to pre-eminence and obtained worldwide acclaim through raw talent, savvy marketing, and an insistence on cross-cultural hybridization. N'Dour's performances bring together funk, tribal rhythms, jazz, and pointed lyrics. What box are you going to drop him into, other than "Youssou N'Dour"? And then what about the many younger musicians he has taken under his wing? Thiink on that one. It's not easy.
Frank Tenaille goes directly after the "one Africa" myth with his book Music Is the Weapon of the Future in 30 chapters, each focused on a particularly influential popular African musician. (The title comes from a recording by the same name from Nigerian Afro-beat star Fela Kuti, and the cover features Fela in a moment of pure energy.) In a very self-conscious way, Tenaille includes the entire continent in his book, peering east, west, north, and south. His approach is refreshing and informative. The Pan-Africanism movement spearheaded in the early '60s with the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has played a key role in defining a post-colonial identity, but in the end there is just too much Africa to carry one flag.
Not surprisingly given the title and cover, Music Is the Weapon of the Future carries a whole slough of political overtones, dwelling on the consequences of imperialism from a socialist perspective and emphasizing the wars, coups, elections, and occupations which have influenced the music. And, again not surprisingly, he spotlights the music which has influenced government right back. Fela Kuti, for example, made a point of politicizing his work—dramatically influencing a generation of young Nigerians and inspiring fear from the state. And his voice was heard, loud and clear: no doubt about that.
In addition to highlighting big African stars like King Sunny Ade, Papa Wemba, Youssou N'Dour and Fela Kuti, Tenaille goes after less prominent musicians with equal fervor. Some, like Congo's M'Pongo Love, turned tradition on its head through blatantly feminist messages. Others, like Ethiopian vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed, inspired a movement of liberated electro-pop. Guinea's Mory Kante was an European ambassador of the kora—the sales of his Akwaba Beach allegedly surpassed the entire GNP of Burkina Fasso. (How many Americans have heard of Mory Kante?) And so on, Tenaille proceeds artist by artist, including a huge number of related players along the way, a few pages at a time. His focus: the emergence of "modern" music in Africa, defined as a break from the traditional sounds rooted in lineages extending back many centuries. The new popular music serves as entertainment, testimony, celebration, and ritual, all in one. Its roots in the musical tradition of the griots—combination storytellers, recordkeepers, ambassadors, and troubadors—adopt readily to the next context. Jazz, Latin and Caribbean music, Christian vocal traditions, and the manifold musics of the continent fuse here to form a fluid, seamless whole.
In addition to the 30 focused chapters which constitute the core of this book, the author also provides a handy map and appendices with definitions of musical instruments and styles, as well as a useful suggested discography and bibliography. And a wonderful and inclusive series of B&W photographs by Akwa Betote goes a long way to bring these players to life.
Listeners curious about African music will find Music Is the Weapon of the Future an incredibly valuable resource, with its emphasis on influential artists, recordings, labels, and movements. The francophone influences on the author (whose French edition from 2000 just came out in English translation) color his perspective but do not bias his coverage. Despite a well-grounded approach to the music, this remains a scholarly book—footnotes dot a majority of the pages, for example. By definition, it's not going to provide a "short list" of players to check out. But what it does offer is honest, insightful, perceptive analysis of a vast, underappreciated family of musical styles. In our day and age, nobody should complain about that.
Feb 18, 2010
Since their creation in 2002 in Ottawa, Canada, The Souljazz Orchestra have become one of the most potent bands in their field. Drawing on the rough, raw grooves of the ‘60s and ‘70s and effortlessly fusing soul, jazz, Afro and latin rhythms within their music, they have moved forward the blueprint of Fela, Fania and the funk in entirely new ways, whilst keeping the vital analogue grit intact. As a live unit, the Orchestra have become an in-demand fixture at venues and festivals worldwide.
Having turned heads with two fine albums on Toronto label Do Right!, ‘Freedom No Go Die’ (2006, featuring their breakthrough single ‘Mista President’) and ‘Manifesto’ (2008), Strut are proud to announce the band’s hotly anticipated third album, ‘Rising Sun’. Drawing on a wider canvas of styles than ever before, touching on spiritual jazz, deep African rhythms and Ethiopian modes, the Orchestra take their sound to new heights with stunning musicianship and virtuoso arrangements throughout. Long-time fan Gilles Peterson (BBC Radio One) has already acclaimed this album to be their best yet.
The tracks themselves flow as a sinuous whole. The reflective intro overture, Awakening, originally came to composer Pierre Chrétien in a dream; the hard Afrobeat of Agbara whips up a heavyweight groove, driven by prepared marimbas rather than traditional electric guitar lines; Negus Negast touches on dark Ethio-jazz, inspired by Strut label-mate Mulatu Astatke; Lotus Flower is a spiritual soul-jazz piece featuring the muted trumpet stylings of guest Nicholas Dyson (musician with Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Temptations and The Coasters); Mamaya moves us into heavy 12/8 Afro-jazz territory, based around traditional Guinean rhythms; the more laid back 12/8 Afro-jazz of Serenity features the flute and clarinet work of multi-instrumentalist Zakari Frantz; Consecration explores modal territory, a track composed during the very early days of the group; and the album closes with Rejoice, a storming cover in two parts of the Pharoah Sanders’ 1981 classic.
Can wordless music ever be spiritual– not just in some vague, subjective sense, but actually, substantively conveying something of the transcendent or the sublime? It’s a hard question, I know, but not because the answer is elusive– anyone who’s heard A Love Supreme knows it to be a resounding yes, just as anyone who’s heard Handel’s Messiah knows that the music is just as important as the words in conveying the piece’s profound beauty– but rather because, well, tying wordless music to a set of words is fundamentally vexing. I don’t offer any new insight, and neither does the Souljazz Orchestra, but their new work Rising Sun is a thunderous affirmation– a work that stirs the soul, reaches to the heavens, and offers spirited celebration of the enduring power of beauty in the human experience.
I’m not sure if the Souljazz crew wrote this as their own personal offering to God, as Coltrane did his work, but it is nevertheless in that same lineage– though admittedly by way of wife Alice and a panglobal survey of music made to move both body and soul. No, there is no verbage– not even in the song titles– to suggest that these songs are dedicated to a particular deity, or meant to encapsulate a certain religious tradition, yet the way this music engages the sacred– or perhaps, the innate human thirst for the sacred– and conjures eternal things is unmistakable. This is music for prayer; this is music for rejoicing.
And indeed, it does unfold, quite organically, as a sort of spiritual journey, beginning, appropriately enough, with “Awakening,” a wistful prelude that doesn’t jolt the listener to alertness so much as it offers permission for serenity, solitude, contemplation. That said, Rising Sun isn’t a quiet record to be played in the background, and the second song, “Agbara,” begins, quite literally, with a shout; it kicks into a joyful, drum-circle beat borrowed from South African folk music, but it’s adorned with horns that are pure funk. There’s a primitive abandon to the song that suggests a total lack of propriety or self-awarness; the musicians are joined by wordless chanting that’s zealous for an encounter with the sublime. If this song is a prayer, it’s a fervent, perhaps even demanding one.
The Souljazz Orchestra understands that a capacity for curiosity, and a love of beauty, are prerequisites for making music as spiritually seeking as this. “Negus Negast” is a playful, and once again totally funky song that tips its hat to the Ethio-jazz of Mulatu Astatke and friends, right down to a magical use of vibes; there are also killer solos on piano and trumpet, but the beat is simply relentless, clearly made for the dancefloor. This is the place where sacred music turns to pure rejoicing, where the seeker can’t help but be swept away in the joy of the search. The song is also a key lesson in understanding what gives this music so much heart: Not only are the compositions informed by all manner of dance music from around the world, but, despite whatever formality the word “orchestra” might suggest, everything here is loose and vibrant; the funk-minded numbers swing hard, and the more reflective pieces are open and airy, not stuffy.
Indeed, as the album’s journey into the soul continues, the fervor of the opening sequence slowly fades into more contemplative pieces, though that hardly makes them dull by comparison. “Lotus Flower” is a gorgeous, mid-tempo piece marked by a trumpet melody that Miles Davis might have played. “Serenity” is the album’s most naked arrangement, but is nevertheless a thrilling song, marrying spiritual jazz to African rhythm and featuring superbly understated work from flute and clarinet; “Consecration,” meanwhile, moves deep into the realm of mystery, an impossibly seductive and suggestive modal jazz piece, part Kind of Blue and part Indian folk music.
The record closes with an initially calm, but ultimately vigorous cover of Pharaoh Sanders’ “Rejoice,” a wild and unkempt jazz classic whose very title is a perfect summary of what Rising Sun is all about; this is music made for dancing, for singing (even though there aren’t any words), for calling out to the Divine, and for remembering to see the world as a dark marvel, a thing of strange and– every once and again– beguiling beauty, something this fine recording has in spades. It’s sophisticated in every way– the arrangements are complex without sacrificing their funkiness, and the influences drawn upon show an open-minded but nevertheless discerning appreciation for world culture and musical traditions– but what makes it such a deliriously celebratory affair is its spirit, which soars even in quiet moments and is never content to waste a moment even though it’s clearly made with eternal things in mind. Rising Sun is a triumph for the Souljazz Orchestra, for the wonderful Strut label, and for music in general, for it proves just how exciting– and meaningful– this art form can be.
03. Negus Negast
04. Lotus Flower
08. Rejoice, Pt. 1
09. Rejoice, Pt. 2
Labels: The Souljazz Orchestra
Feb 15, 2010
"Rubblebucket Orchestra are one of the most exciting groups to come out of Boston in recent memory..." - Seven Days
Rubblebucket is a ten-piece psychedelic poly-rock band feat. trumpeter/composer Alex Toth and vocalist/saxophonist Kalmia Traver (both members of cutting edge nationally renowned reggae band John Brown’s Body). Four piece horn section, alluring lead vocals, and a harp-like West African stringed instrument called an N’goni. Their vibe is like Bjork meets Fela Kuti meets James Brown. "The result is a genre-mashing maelstrom of hot-blooded West African funk rhythms and scorching soul melodies unlike anything that’s come before it." - Dan Bolles, Seven Days.
Rubblebucket Orchestra was born in June of 2007, out of a milk plant in Vermont. One balmy eve, two lovers – trumpeter Alex Toth and singer/saxist Kalmia Traver, who devote their lives to music and art – came head to head with percussionist/n'goni player Craig Myers. An improvised happening of rhythm and melody soared through the air at a party at Burlington's Hood Plant. Everything emerged on the spot and everything clicked. (Born and raised in Vermont, Myers has been traveling around the world his entire life. When he was 18, he was shot in the jaw by a bandit in Carlsbad, New Mexico and his life flashed before his eyes. He went on to live in West Africa for some time, immersing himself in the world of African drumming.)
Toth brought together young and feisty musicians from diverse musical backgrounds – including funk & soul, noise, avant-guard, German pop, West-African drum and dance, bebop, classical, and indie rock. By September of 2007, after a month of serious rehearsals and with the first tour around the corner, they knew they needed a name. Myers and German drummer Andreas Brade had both worked as stone masons, and so the band decided on the name of a tool the two used in their work: a rubblebucket.
The band now functions like a family, especially when they travel; like the cultish big bands of the 50's, they make their meals together, sleep en masse on open floors, and love and believe in the music. They have made several rounds throughout the northeast in NYC, Boston, Vermont and upstate NY. They are already drawing crowds of up to 300 and booking legendary clubs like Smalls, Canal Room, and Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City.
The first tracks of Rubblebucket's debut album, "Rose's Dream," were laid down in October, 2007, when the band had only been together for three weeks. In just seven months as a band, Rubblebucket has built a glowing and die-hard following, released a solid album, and forged its own genre of music. Major dance vibrations, colorful style, big PSYCHEDELIC SOUL sound with fresh beats, plump horns and alluring vocals – Rubblebucket Orchestra sparks and dots, zig-zags of desire!
“If you call us an Afrobeat band, I think you’ll piss off a lot of purists,” admits trumpeter and bandleader Alex Toth about his eclectic, world-influenced ensemble Rubblebucket Orchestra. “We’re doing something new with funk, rock and Afrobeat—there’s definitely something jazzy about it.” Though the outfit’s personnel often rotates, the group is anchored by saxophonist/lead vocalist Kalima Traver —who left John Brown’s Body with Toth in 2007 to focus on Rubblebucket—and percussionist Craig Myers, who moonlights in Mike Gordon’s solo band. The band recorded and released its debut Rose’s Dream after being together for only two weeks and has built a reputation for euphoric live shows through relentless touring in support of its latest 2009 release. “Having the JBB and Mike Gordon connections have helped give legitimacy to the project,” Toth says of Rubblebucket’s visibility, which has increased on the heels of its new self-titled record. “Getting off the ground has been such an incredible and difficult feat and we’re finally at a spot where it’s working on its own.”
In case you haven’t heard ‘em yet, Rubblebucket Orchestra aren’t the straight-forward funk ensemble that their name might suggest. Instead they are a vivid ten-piece afrobeat/rock band led by trumpeter Alex Toth and fronted by the alluring vocals of Kalmia Traver; both members of reggae band John Brown's Body. There is something behind their sneaky beats and Femi Kuti meets Bjork atmosphere that is begging to be discovered in the ears of the listeners. Having only been kicking it since 2007, the Rubblebucket secret is getting spread steadily on the east coast, Mellisa Brodeuer recently spit a few questions Kalmia's way.
What was the very first album you ever bought?
My Ace of Base tape. Then my first CD was Highlights From The Phantom of the Opera. I was kind of behind some of my other elementary school buddies who had CD players and Madonna CDs. My first cool album that I'm actually proud of was probably The Miseducation of Lauren Hill (but I think it was actually my sister's).
What is one of your favorite bands to see live now?
I love Giant Panda Guerilla dub Squad. I could listen to them all day and night. I love big wild bands like Nomo and Antibalas. I also love to see/hear a Boston-based band called Cuddle Magic.
What is the most frustrating thing about being in a band?
Nothing really... I love it. Being in a band is like having your family around you all the time. For some people that might not be a good thing but for me it generally is.
What is your favorite city to play?
It depends on the season... winter touring in the northern half of this country can be brutal, even in amazing cities like Madison, WI, Boulder, CO and of course Burlington, VT! The past few times that I have visited Fort Collins, CO I have felt so at home, and so appreciated by the audience. However, NYC might get the pick just for the pure thrill.
Are you guys concerned with your health while on the road, if yes what are you doing to stay healthy?
It is so difficult to keep my body feeling good on the road... a constant struggle. I try to always eat good food, and we make a lot of simple healthy band meals. Recently, partway through a 34-hour drive from Denver to Boston, via Chicago I made a commitment to run laps around every single rest area we stopped at. I followed through. It felt soooo right. I'm going to do that more often from now on.
What are some other creative outlets you have other than music?
I like to make art and graphics. I do lots of the Rubblebucket posters, and I did the album artwork for Rose's dream. I make so many beaded bracelets, I just can't stop. I give them to people I love.
What are some of your favorite publications?
I like the BBC, National Geographic, Utne Reader, Cabinet! I just discovered Make Magazine which seems amazing. A longtime friend of my family's, Sam Bartlett, makes an awesome zine called Stuntology and Tuneology. Also, I think that the fact Rubblebucket has a couple of Nylon enthusiasts speaks well of the band.
What do you think is special and unique about your band?
Nine geeky minds having fun and being rock stars.
In ten years I want.......
to have made a thousand bajillion beaded bracelets.
2 a.m. means A. time to party or B. time to sleep?
02. Red Line Beat
03. World Is Gonna Drown
04. Violet Rays
06. Rose's Dream
09. Fruit Trees
Labels: Rubblebucket Orchestra
Feb 10, 2010
An article by R.J. DeLuke (Source)
Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character
"I think it is incumbent, not just on every artist, but every person who has as their source communities that are disadvantaged, to give back," says Hugh Masekela, antiapartheid champion, friend of the downtrodden and musician extraordinaire who is still going strong at the age of 70. "If you don't give back, I think you end up somewhere down the line looking at yourself in a mirror that will eventually crack."
He's spent his life doing just that. Playing his flugelhorn with force and finesse, he's traveled the world spreading a message of concern for those around the globe—especially in Africa—who are under duress and oppression. He grew up in the apartheid of South Africa, but spent time going to music school in London and New York City, getting a chance to meet some of his musical jazz heroes in the process. But he never stopped caring about his countrymen back home and his zealous passion for freedom for all people—not just governmental freedom, but freedom from poverty and the feeling of hopelessness.
"I learned a lot from people like Dizzy Gillespie, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, who told me that Louis Armstrong never finished a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans," Masekela says from a New York City Hotel room in April. "I learned from all of them that if you have for your source of success the disadvantaged community you come from and you're never concerned about the quality of their lives after you've made it, you need your head examined. You find that most artists who are just about themselves eventually only self destruct."
The song "Bring It Back Home," from his new CD Phola (Time Square Records) released earlier this year, carries that message, reprimanding people who forget where they came from and turn their back to suffering. On the recording, he is still delivering songs with a purpose. But it also contains tales of his life and tales of romance, all coming through a sweet blend of African rhythms, jazz and pop sensibilities, and steered by his powerful horn.
"We grew up in demonstrations," says the native of Witbank, South Africa, who grew up in the 1940s when there was a great deal of instability in his country. That decade was a tumultuous time, filled with social and political upheaval in the nation that was colonized in the 17th century by the English and Dutch. The eventual electoral victory of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party led to the inauguration of apartheid.
"We grew up in strikes. We grew up in bus boycotts. We were cognizant of the situation from the time we were little kids. When you're a child, you're even more aware than many adults because you're directly affected," says Masekela. "We grew up as activists."
It may well be that music—specifically his first trumpet given to him at the age of 14—kept him out of serious trouble that was brewing in his early years. But musically, Masekela, who grew up listening to 78 rpm recordings of American popular music and jazz on his uncle's gramophone, isn't waving his fist at the air in anger. His music, especially in live performance, is uplifting. It's heavy in African-influenced rhythms and melody, but also contains elements of the music he has listened to all his life, all over the world; jazz is one part of it. It's buoyant, even when dealing with a heavy message.
"We try to make it musically habitable, musically enjoyable, so that it doesn't feel like we're over-preaching or beating you on the head with messages. It's not really so much to impose a message as much as to express concern," says Masekela. "People leave their homes, arrange for babysitters. They pay their money to come a long way, some of them. They deserve to be given a time that is worth their bother. That's how I approach all of our performances. Let's make it worthwhile for the people that have come to see us."
Masekela started as a trumpeter and has played flugelhorn for the last 40 years, influenced by the music of his homeland of South Africa, and also by American jazzmen like Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Harry James. He's attained a great deal of success over the years, including his 1968 hit, "Grazing in the Grass," that became one of the few instrumentals to reach the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And he's still making new music, heard on his newest recording, Phola, released earlier this year on Time Square Records.
"In 1969, I got a record called The Musings of Miles (Prestige, 1955), and on one track he played the flugelhorn and it had such a beautiful sound. I always found the trumpet a little screechy. I kind of blow hard. So I opted for a flugelhorn, and I've been playing it now for 40 years," he notes.
Davis stressed to Masekela the importance of sound, and even repeated the advice that his own trumpet instructor in St. Louis, Elwood Buchanan, had stressed to the young Miles Dewey III. "Miles told me to try not to vibrate, because when you get old, you're going to shake anyway," Masekela fondly recalls. "Try and think like a singer."
"In the last four years, I've been practicing again—a lot. On Phola, I think I play differently from how I've been playing ... I feel like I'm progressing. Especially on getting a singing sound. I think it's very important. For a while there, I rode on my success. Five years ago, I decided I should really practice again. I'm working on getting that sound. Not only in playing, but also in singing. So, sound is the most important thing. There's no doubt about that."
Phola, he says, means "to chill; to hand out; to calm down." But that doesn't really apply to the meanings in each song. It may, however, apply somewhat to his approach vocally and on flugelhorn throughout the recording. "Most of the other songs are songs of concern about the nature of the life of ordinary people who are taken advantage of all over the year. Basically, I think Phola is so much about my having healed my problems in my life and the need for the world to heal, especially because there is so much war and so much repression and so much turmoil. It's a cross section of emotions, but really it's an appeal for the quality of life, especially of poor people, to be considered," he says.
Produced and arranged by Erik Paliani, it is perhaps a bit more laid-back in approach, yet the music is bright and Masekela sounds great on the horn. He credits Paliani with the overall sweet sound of the music. "He said to me, 'I don't want to impose my capabilities on this. But we'd like to compliment as much as we can, what you do. I want to ask you not to be so intense and scream like you do in your other work and not to attack the trumpet as hard as you do. Just relax and let the music come across.' And that's how it came out.
"People are enjoying it. It's very calm and laid-back, but it maintains its intensity. I think that the professionalism and the performance of the musicians is quite good. It feels to me like a sleeper. It will grow on audiences for a long period of time."
He adds, "The first track was written by Erik Paliani. "Mwanayu Wakula" encourages small children to be nurtured, for their talents to be grown and developed as much as possible, and supported. "Moz," is a dedication to Mozambique, which is a beautiful country with very beautiful people. "The Joke of Life" is a Brazilian song written by Jon Lucien. "Ghana" is a love song. It traces how I met my wife 32 years ago and our romance and our life today."
"Mwanayu Wakula" opens with rhythms of Africa when in walks Masekela with his big tone—playing melodic and rhythmic phrases, letting the rhythms breathe. Breezy vocals begin and enter lyrics which Masekela's horn float gracefully through. "Moz" is thick with drums and rhythm guitar, and becomes somewhat reminiscent of "Grazing in the Grass." Each tune is accessible and creative, injected with Masekela's ability to pierce to the heart of the music. His sound is strong and vital.
The track "Sonnyboy" is autobiographical. It referenced the young Masekela, listening to recordings on the gramophone and becoming enraptured with music. His parents resisted his musical direction at first. But it was inevitable that it would become his life.
"I came from a family of mostly community and health workers. My father was a health inspector. My mother was a social worker. My aunts and uncles were either school teachers or school inspectors, supervisors, nurses—community workers. They all hoped I would come out as an academic, or medical or lawyer or something like that. They were very upset when I said I wanted to become a professional musician," recounts Masekela. "I actually had to run away from home (at age 16). It wasn't until a great musician who was a friend of my parents, Zakes Nkosi—he used to book me at many of his recording sessions—invited them. It was timed just right. I was taking a solo on a recording and they entered the studio. It was the first time that they really heard me perform. From then on they supported me. But I'd run away from home. It was a month later I appealed to Zakes to try and explain it to them. I guess he figured that if they saw me and heard me play, they'd change their minds, which they did."
Say the lyrics:
...He began to live for nothing else but the music that he heard.
We were wrong to take him away from the only thing that was close to his little heart.
We got to let him do his thing, got to let him be, got to set him free.
Let him fly away from where we want to try and tell him just how to live for the rest of his life.
Let him fly away. Let him dance to what he hears inside his mind.
Let Momma and Papa tell him to go ahead and do the things he needs to do.
Sonnyboy. Go and do your thing, Sonnyboy.
Sonnyboy, go blow your horn let it echo the world over.
Sonnyboy, put down all the walls that prevent you from all that you want.
Sonnyboy, blow your horn until everyone dances to your music..."
Says Masekela, "The song is taking into consideration a child's passion. If they want to follow a certain profession, instead of dictating what you would like them to be, you try and support what they are passionate about."
He explains with a chuckle that his parents' concern "wasn't unfounded. Just about everybody who I learned from in South Africa—all the great musicians—all died from alcohol-related diseases. All of them. That was my mother's biggest fear: 'Oh, you're going to become a drunk and hang out with prostitutes.' That kind of thing. They were terrified. It wasn't unfounded. But eventually I made them proud and they became my biggest supporters."
With his growing success as a musician at home, his grandmother, whom he lived with until he was about 7, taught him to remain humble, no matter what he achieves.
Masekela recalls, "My grandmother, who raised us until we were old enough to go live with our parents, didn't see me for 20 years. Then when I went to live in Botswana, she came to visit me. She said, 'I'm observing that people are greeting you and treating you with respect and all that. I just want to remind you that when you were born, you didn't bring anything with you. You didn't have anywhere to live, so we took you in. We clothed you and bathed you. We taught you how to walk. We taught you how to talk. We taught you how to think. We sent you to school. You lived rent-free for 17 years. I used to carry you on my back and I'll never be able to scrub all the ammonia you left. It took us three years just to show you where the toilet was. If with anybody you talk to you don't mention this, my ethnic group, we deal with lightning. We don't need clouds to throw lightning at you wherever you go. So for the sake of those you are with and for your own sake, any time that you get any praise. Make sure you tell this story. Because you will never be able to repay us for what we did for you.'
"That's part of the mantra of my life... So she really nurtured me into growth and gave us and my two younger sisters traditional values which I don't think exist anymore."
Masekela says he was enthralled by music by the age of 2, and listened to the gramophone even though he needed help to wind it up. "By the time I was 6 years old I was a walking anthology of all the records I'd heard and all the other traditional music. There was no television in those days, so children played in the street. We had children street songs. And there were wedding street songs. There were all kinds of marching bands and traditional ethnic groups doing their pageantry and singing and dancing with drums and all. I was surrounded by music.
"My parents realized that I sang all the time, even when I wasn't near the gramophone. So they got me piano lessons. By the time I was 13 or 14, I had been a musician for 13 years."
In boarding school, his interest in music was still prominent. "I took to music like a frog or a fish in water. That's all I've ever been interested in," he notes. He also got the chance to see the American film "Young Man with a Horn," which starred Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin, a character said to be based loosely on Bix Beiderbecke, the famed cornet player out of Chicago.
"That impressed me. I made up my mind I was going to be a trumpet player. Harry James, who played the soundtrack, had the most wonderful tone, as you might know. Kirk Douglas had the finest threads. He didn't take any rubbish from anybody, always got the girl, stood in front of the band and played all the solos."
Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid chaplain of St. Peters Secondary School where Masekela was enrolled, recognized his love of music. He presented the teenager with a trumpet, but there were also words to the wise. "He came to ask me, 'What do you really want to do?' because he worried about everybody, especially restless people. I was always in trouble with the authorities at school," says Masekela. "He knew my parents because he was not only a community worker, but also a political activist. Where I grew up with my parents, the township was the hub of political resistance. Those times were difficult. He said, 'The way you're going, if you get expelled from this school, no other school will take you.' I'd seen the movie ("Young Man With the Horn") and I said, 'Father, if I get a trumpet I won't bother anybody anymore.' So he said, 'I'm going to get you a trumpet and a trumpet teacher. If you don't succeed, if you don't take this seriously, it will be your fault.'"
Huddleston got him the teacher, but Masekela was on his way once the instrument was in his eager hands. "All I had to learn when Huddleston got me the trumpet teacher was how to hold it and how to blow it. A few months later, I was playing songs on it. I just had to learn the mechanics of it. By the time I started to play songs, other kids were excited. They went to Bishop Huddleston and said, 'Father, can I have a trombone? Father, can I have a clarinet? A saxophone?' Soon, we had a huge band."
It led to the formation of the Huddleston Jazz Band, South Africa's very first youth orchestra. Masekela and his cohorts were already informed by listening to records from the United States. This knowledge and familiarity cleared a path for the youngsters. "We knew everything that Louis Armstrong did, or Louis Jordan or the Andrews Sisters or the Mills Brothers. Nat "King" Cole. We were walking anthologies. Even when we formed the Huddleston band, we didn't have to read music because we knew all the songs. We just chose the parts: 'OK, I'll play the third part, I'll play the second part, I'll play the lead, I'll play the solos.'
"I was playing all the songs from the movie and things like "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Stardust," "My Dream is Yours," "I'll See You in my Dreams." All these melodies rang in my head." His trumpet influences came from his years listening to the gramophone. "Louis Armstrong blew everybody away. We grew up hearing 'I'll be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You,' 'When It's Sleepy Time Down South,' 'Rocking Chair.' The Hot Five and the Hot Seven. Then there was Harry James, Buck Clayton. But when bebop came in, Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge blew us away. But when I heard Clifford Brown and Miles Davis—especially Clifford Brown—that was a killer."
Out of Africa
As he grew, Masekela began playing in other dance bands. He joined the African Jazz Revenue in 1956, did a Manhattan Brothers tour of the country in 1958, and wound up playing in the orchestra for "King Kong," a musical that had blockbuster theatrical success, featuring the legendary singer Miriam Makeba (who would later become his first wife). He also became part of Jazz Epistles, which included the outstanding pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim). In 1959, it became the first black South African group to record an LP, Jazz Epistle, Verse 1 and became very popular.
ith the brutality of apartheid on the rise, including the 1960 incident in Sharpville, South Africa, in which 69 protesters were killed by police bullets, Masekela left the country with the help of Huddleston and his friends Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth (an English jazz musician and husband of singer Cleo Laine). He went to England, where he enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music, but he was restless in the United Kingdom.
"I wouldn't let it rest," says Masekela. "I wrote (Huddleston) two letters a week, saying, 'Get me out of here!' I felt that I needed to have access to the kind of teachers people like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles and all those people had. I was really determined by the time I was 17 or 18 that New York would be my destination. And it came true for me. Of course, Miriam had made a success here in 1959." Makeba, Belafonte and Gillespie were keys to getting Masekela to the United States.
In New York, Masekela attended the Manhattan school of Music. Also, in the world's jazz capital, he began to meet many of his heroes. Jazz musicians in general, because of their independence, achievement in the face of adversity, and their individual strength, served as inspiration to South Africans, he says.
In his autobiography ("Miles, the Autobiography," Simon and Schuster, 1989), Miles Davis says he met Masekela through Gillespie and that he was "in awe" of meeting the South African who was earning a good reputation in the states. Davis writes that he encouraged Masekela to play in his African-influenced style, rather than American jazz. He also notes he was surprised that he was a hero to Masekela, based on the infamous incident at Birdland where Miles was clubbed over the head by a police offer after being roused without cause by officers.
"Miles Davis was a major hero to everybody because that was on the front page of every South African newspaper, even though it was an apartheid country. The guy stood up to the police outside Birdland. It was international news. We became very good friends. Miles was one of the first people who told me not to become a jazz musician. Because when I first came there, I was a bebopper. I was looking forward to maybe becoming a Messenger in Art Blakey's band. Blakey and Dizzy and Miles, all of them said, 'Why don't you put some of what you got from your country and mix it in. Maybe we can learn something from you. Otherwise, it's just going to be a statistic, like all of us.'
"Belafonte cited Miriam (Makeba) as an example. He said Miriam stood apart from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae and all those people because she hit them with a whole different thing. I had to dig back into my old dance band days in South Africa, the township dance band, and I came up with the hybrid that I got known for later on."
Masekela was well-versed about things happening in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S. from his regular reading of the major jazz magazines and other publications that made their way to South Africa. He also knew of America's race problems, and found a strong distinction between the overt oppression in his homeland and the covert racism of the States.
In the U.S., in many ways, "It was more dangerous," says Masekela, "because in South Africa, all you had to fear was the police. In America, anybody could kidnap you or tar and feather you in the South, or hang you from a tree. That could have never happened in South Africa. So it was different in that way. In the States, a racist could take care of you themselves. I wasn't naive about the States. I knew everything about what was happening here. We knew who Rosa Parks was, who Martin Luther King was. We knew who Booker T. Washington was, Harriet Tubman. When I came, I was in the company of Miriam Makeba, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte. I knew what the deal was."
He also began to gain in popularity and was recording in the early 1960s. His success came as somewhat of a surprise. "I really came to go to school and hoped to play in a jazz group for a while, then go back to South Africa. By the time I finished the Manhattan School of Music, it was too late to go back, because by that time people like Nelson Mandela and others were arrested and some were sentenced to death. People were fleeing from South Africa into exile. I had major success here, but I did not expect it. So it was all gravy. It was something I hadn't planned on."
Trying to Go Home
"I tried to go back to South Africa in 1963. Belafonte and Miriam tried to discourage me. They said, 'Listen. You're known in South Africa, but you're not known in the world. If you go there, they're just going to put you in jail. With your kind of mouth, you'll probably get into a position where they could even kill you. Nobody will care. Nobody will know you. Why don't you stay here and make a name for yourself. Then when you talk about your country, people will listen.' I chose that."
It was 26 years before he would make it back, but in the meantime, he began to have a string of successful records, like The Americanization of Ooga-Booga (MGM, 1966), and the 1968 hit single "Grazing in the Grass." He had collaborations with Herb Alpert, and went on to perform with people like Paul Simon. "My success gave me a very strong platform to bring awareness to the world about what was happening in South Africa, because I had access to the media," he says.
Masekela finally succeeded in going back to Africa to live, in 1980. "I went to live in Botswana, which is close to South Africa. I lived in South Africa vicariously, because there was a lot of movement between Botswana and South Africa. Then in 1985, the apartheid government death squads raided Botswana and killed about 14 of my friends who were activists. I lived to tell about it. They didn't attack my house. They said they were attacking terrorist camps. The government of Botswana couldn't guarantee us security and safety, so I had to leave the country again."
ack in the U.S., he became involved in production of the Broadway hit musical "Sarafina" Musical production is still an interest today for the veteran musician. "Mbongeni Ngema was the director," he says. "I met him in England in 1983. He was bringing a two-man show into the Coronet Theatre. The show started with a song of mine, the train song, 'Stimela.' It had an uncanny arrangement, the duet they sang. So I went back stage to find out who had arranged it for him. He said he was a musician.
"After I saw 'West Side Story' and 'My Fair Lady,' I always wanted to be involved in a musical. I said to him I had always wanted to do a musical, having been in a very successful musical in South Africa where I played in the band. For the next few years, we tried to figure out what we would do. Then he came up with an idea of the children's uprising. I had given him some of my outtakes of tracks I decided not to use. "Sarafina" was one of them. We developed the play from there. He debuted it in South Africa and developed it there. Then Lincoln Center brought it to one of their small theaters. It was a major hit and went to Broadway. The rest is history."
In the 1980s, he toured with Paul Simon in support of Simon's album Graceland, which featured other South African artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Makeba and other elements of the band Kalahari, which Masekela recorded with in the 1980s.
In 1990, after Mandela's release from prison,, he went back home and has been living there ever since, while still traveling the world with his music.
Of Mandela, Masekela says, "He was a very important symbol for our culture," but his release did not mark the happily-ever-after end of the story. "I think people tend to look at South Africa as a movie. The damages of colonialism and the damages of apartheid are something that will take a very, very long time to reverse and heal. It was all very nice that we became free. But to fix the damages and the effects of it is going to take generations.
Masekela's aim is to help bring Africa's cultural richness to more prominence across the globe and to help Africans establish a strong, independent identity, of which culture is an important part. "That's where I came from. I'm very involved in cultural revival in Africa. I think it's very important in African society as a whole to bring back its cultural face to the world," says Masekela.
"I think Christianity and colonial conquest worked very hard to convince African society that our heritage was barbaric, uncivilized, backward. It was heathen. It was pagan and all kinds of negative things. When people come to Africa today, they come to see the animals and the geographical sites, because they can't find the people. The people are half-ashamed of showing their face. I think it's very important that we bring that to the forefront of our lives and for it to be present in our lives—to have visibility in our life. Otherwise, my great-grandchildren, when they ask them who they are, are going to say, 'They say we used to be Africans.' Heritage is not just important to me, it's an obsession." He sees heritage as Africa's biggest wealth and "the only thing that cannot be taken away from us."
Masekela states, "There is strife all over the world, but in Africa, it's really overwhelming. The blame is really on international industrial interests because Africa is a bedrock of raw materials. Most of the wars in Africa are orchestrated by those interests. I don't think international industry would feel comfortable with an economically independent Africa, because it would change the prices and the whole picture of raw materials and cheap labor, among other things."
Still, he says, progress is being made and there is always hope for the future. "If a person like President Obama could help to unify the American nation in two years, although he has a more powerful platform, it is possible to move people to re-evaluate their worth and their strengths and bring out their strengths. It definitely is possible."
These days, in addition to making American jazz festival appearances this year that will include music from Phola, as well as a European tour, Masekela is working, through his Chissa Entertainment, on a theatrical musical presentation that will open in August in South Africa. "It traces the migration music and the music of longing, because South African cities were only born in the 1890s. Songs are mostly about longing. I'm also dabbling in film production. I've got over 10 projects I've been working on with screenplay writers in parts of Africa and a couple of them here (in the U.S.) that are music and culture-driven. Movies that have been made about Africa are always, to me, depressing. We always just see misery. I'd like to bring the culture to the forefront and the excellence of the pageantry, etc., to make people aware that there is not only strife and suffering in Africa, there is also fantastic pageantry, culturally."
Masekela's exceptional musical statements are a part of that tapestry—something to be savored.
SOURCE and thanx to allaboutjazz for the great article!
Feb 5, 2010
Ikwunga has recorded a seminal concept album with a distinctly original African feel. Calabash Vol.1 brings together a superb collection of Ikwunga's poetry married with a satiny Afrobeat.
Ikwunga, an American Board Certified Psychiatrist and the son of a famous West African poet and tribal Chief, is unarguably the first afrobeat poet and the original creator of this unique addition to the afro-beat pantheon and to the burgeoning spoken word genre.
The poetry is easy to follow rhythmically and linguistically. Content can vary from the intensely political (leaning heavily towards pan-Africanism) to the love poem 'I don love' a hauntingly moving appeal to a lover who has yet to make up her mind.
Afrobeat, the music of the legendary Nigerian musician and sage, Fela Kuti, is clearly a huge influence on both Ikwunga and his superb backing band led and produced by Dele Sosimi (former keyboardist of Fela Kuti's Egypt 80 Band, and musical director of Femi Kuti's Positive Force Band). Ikwunga and Dele, previously fellow performers at Kuti's, famous night club, The Shrine in Lagos, have produced an album that can be enjoyed at many levels. Ikwunga is a fresh, urgent and lyrical voice in African poetry and the poems themselves are beautifully reproduced in the elegant presentation of this CD. These narrative poems have a distinctly African rhythm and can be enjoyed independently on sleeve notes. However Dele Sosimi captures the rhythm of the spoken word and provides the perfect accompanying music allowing the listener to enjoy the poetry while feeling the Afrobeat permeate his or her body. An excellent combination, which repays repeated listening, Calabash Vol. 1 leaves us eagerly awaiting Vol.2.
Proceeds from Ikwunga's Calabash series will partly fund the creation of The African Alliance for the Mentally Ill (TAAMI), a non-profit organization that will generate public awareness of mental illness in African communities, and advocate for mental health services treatment and research.
Calabash is the first volume of Afrobeat Poems. Afrobeat poetry utilizes Pidgin English and its idiomatic infusions of English and vernacular Nigerian languages as a medium to reach the listener/reader. The presentation of the poetry with the background of Afrobeat music gives this genre an authentic and fresh appeal. Consistent with the music of Fela Kuti, the legendary originator of Afrobeat, this collection stands true to Afrobeat philosophy: raise pan-African consciousness while entertaining the audience. In Calabash, Ikwunga in collaboration with Dele Sosimi, Femi Elias, and Justin Thurgur, have produced a unique fusion of Spoken Word, African style call- and- answer recital, with a new contemporary Afrobeat.
"The title pretty much says it all. This is a veritably embroidered calabash of poetry stewing in sweet afrobeat concoctions; a stunning debut and an indication of great things to come. Calabash Vol. 1 finds Ikwunga delivering a set of fresh verses on longstanding concerns. Much of the material here is as long on poetry as it is on titilating music, a provocative mix of pedestrian pidgin and sound that most people will be hearing for the first time. Ikwunga's raw delivery and Dele Sosimi's minimalist Afro-Chill constructions make this a winning disc."
"Ikwunga Wonodi's Calabash Afrobeat Poems is an invitation to all lovers of good music. Brilliantly enriched with the infusion of poetry, Calabash...skillfully meshes Afrobeat music with skillfully constructed lyrics suffused with conscious messages and stories. Wonodi's voice, though often fluctuating, resonates the kind of tone that should grab the attention of fans familiar with Afrobeat music and music inspired by poetry. His style, though influenced by Nigerian/West African pigeon English, is reminiscent of vocalization by Gill Scott, Les Nubians, MC Solaar and Mutabaruka. Cuts such as "I don love", "Go Slow" and "Da Bomb" are obvious classics. Brilliant effort for a first album!!"
The calabash is an annual vine (Lagenaria siceraria) having white flowers and smooth, large, hard-shelled gourds often pressed into service as containers, utensils, or-in West Africa, among other locales-as musical instruments. Calabash is also the title of the first volume of Afrobeat musician and poet Ikwunga Wonodi’s domestic CD release on Rebisi-hut Records (www.rebisihut.com). Ikwunga, a Nigerian-born assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine says, “Calabash is in many ways a concept album; [a] fusion of spoken word with African-style call-and-answer dialogue and western-style rhymes, and a new contemporary chilling Afrobeat. Calabash is poetry, contemporary African artistic design, and music in one.”
The CD provides many avenues for the uninitiated to arrive at an appreciation of this contemporary amalgam of styles. Afrobeat-the innovative 1960s cocktail of African highlife music, with its western and Christian musical connections, and jazz, with bits of James Brown funk-has had a high profile in the West since the 1970s under the genre’s standard-bearer, Fela Kuti. The enigmatic Kuti casts a long shadow across all West African musicians, but Ikwunga’s bona fides are securely in place: As a young medical doctor, his band regularly opened for Fela’s son, Femi, at the Afrika Shrine, Lagos’ legendary nightclub. The Shrine’s audience, accustomed to instrumental jams, responded to his patois with jeers and boos. “They called me ‘Di Poet’!” laughs Ikwunga. Other members of Femi’s band Positive Force, including former Fela Kuti keyboardist (and Calabash producer) Dele Sosimi, “informed me that this was what I should expect delivering a new style and that I should keep at it.” He would interrupt the music, charm the hecklers, and press on.
The smooth jazz sound of Calabash retains the texture of the Nigerian sound and instruments; but it is the anticolonial political content-consistent with the history of Afrobeat music from its inception-that joins with Ikwunga’s contemporary, American hip-hop and beat poetry stylings to create a surprising fusion that is strong yet easy on the ears. The artist cites dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson as an influence, one that is clear in “Di Bombs,” the album’s third track, a vernacular pidgin English selection that traces the parallels between slavery and modern war-making in the first and third worlds. Ikwunga is mindful of Johnson’s and the elder Kuti’s relations with the American Black Panther party, updating the music’s heritage for a twenty-first century audience.
In the end, though, this self-styled herald of pan-Africanism is less doctrinaire and more compassionate than his musical forbears: He is a man involved with the grassroots establishment of The African Alliance for the Mentally Ill (TAAMI) in Nigeria, an organization devoted to public health efforts to raise awareness, provide access to resources, and be an advocate for the stigmatized and afflicted in his homeland. Fela Kuti famously characterized music as a weapon, but, in the hands of Ikwunga, it is a weapon against sickness as much as a weapon against injustice.
01. Intro & Kola Nut
02. I Don Love
03. Di Bombs
04. Go Slow
05. Bad Belle
06. Ikeru (creation)
08. Di Bombs Instrumental (Dele Sosimi Cut)
Labels: Ikwunga the Afrobeat Poet
Hugh Masekela came to New York in November, 2002, to do press around his new release, Time. The city clearly awakened nostalgia for the South African legend, who has been coming here for over forty years. Banning Eyre and Christina Zafagna caught him at the end of a long day of meetings and interviews, but Hugh wasn't tired, and certainly not shy.
I'm struck right away that you have a Louis Armstrong compilation in front of you. Because I was feeling Louis Armstrong in many of the tracks on this record.
Yeah. Tell us about your relationship with Louis, artistically.
I think that anybody from the 20th century, up to now, has to be aware that if it wasn't for Louis Armstrong, we'd all be wearing powdered wigs. I think that Louis Armstrong loosened the world, helped people to be able to say "Yeah," and to walk with a little dip in their hip. Before Louis Armstrong, the world was definitely square, just like Christopher Columbus thought. Louis Armstrong paved the way for the African American experience to access European and Western social life. Because after Louis Armstrong, everybody started speaking slang. What was amazing about Louis was that he never finished a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans. He had a great sense of self, and how he got to be where he was. He was an inspiration to everybody when I was a kid, during the days of the Gramaphone.
Just by coincidence, the man who got me my first trumpet at my boarding school, Father Trevor Huddleston, was expelled from South Africa. Everybody, after about six months of playing the trumpet, went to Trevor Huddleston and said, "Father, could I have a trumpet? Could I have a trombone?" And we finally ended up with the Huddleston Jazz Band. And then he was expelled by the South African government because he was such a forward, vociferous and aggressive foe of apartheid, and he was a nightmare for [President] Verwoerd. So on his way back to England, he came here, because they have some missions here. In fact, there is one in New York on 10th Avenue, and they have another one in Rochester where there was a clarinet-playing priest from his order, who also was crazy about Dixieland and had befriended Louis Armstrong. So he introduced Father Huddleston to Louis Armstrong, and Huddleston told him about the band he had started back in South Africa and Louis Armstrong send us a trumpet. We received it when Louis Armstrong was touring Africa. He wasn't allowed to come to South Africa, but his trumpet came, and it put us in the front pages of all the written media in South Africa, including white media where they had never seen black faces on the front page before.
Later, of course, when I came to the States I got to meet him. Miriam Makeba helped me to come here, and Dizzy Gillespie was a really dear friend of his. He remained the funniest person that I've ever known. He had one story after another and he really enjoyed life. I think the greatest thing about Louis Armstrong was that he never became an adult. He remained playful. He remained a child, and that child personality made him very appealing to everybody. That and the fact that he knew where his roots were. Like I said, he couldn't talk for a paragraph without mentioning New Orleans. He always spoke like he owed a debt to New Orleans.
I think that was the greatest inspiration for me, because I don't think I would be what I am if I didn't come from South Africa. I owe an endless debt to the people of South Africa and all those other African communities all over the world that I have accessed, and lived with and learned their music. Because we're all born naked. We don't come here with anything, but we never learn to pay back. When we make it, we always think that we did it on our own.
You first came here in the late '50s, right?
1960. I arrived the day that Castro left the Waldorf to go and live at the Theresa Hotel, and it was a couple of days after Khrushchev had banged his shoe on the lectern at the U.N. and said, "We will bury you!" Lumumba was here, and Kennedy was campaigning against Nixon for the presidency. It was the time of Martin Luther King and civil rights and Belafonte, one of my sponsors, was the greatest fund raiser for civil rights. It was the time of the emergence of Malcolm X. And I came here right into the golden age of jazz, when you could go to the Apollo and see a whole gospel or Latino show, and you could go to Wells and see Abby Lincoln and Mel Waldron, and come downtown to Birdland and see Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and go to Basin St. West and see Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie, and go to the Half Note and see Coletrane and Miles, and then cross over and see Horace Silver and Les McCann at the Village Gate, and at the Jazz Gallery it would be Monk and Dizzy, and across the street at Five Spot would be Max Roach and Charlie Mingus. It was that kind of a time. You could go to the Coronet in Brooklyn. And you'd do all this if you were a student on like less than twenty bucks. Today, twenty bucks doesn't even get you into a club.
Well, I was thinking about that history and all that's happened to you, here and in South Africa. Your new record is called Time, so I guess you're thinking about that kind of perspective as well. How does the world look different to you now? Let's talk first about this place, America. New York. How is it different from the world you found in 1960?
It doesn't look that different. You know, I always think of my life from a musical perspective, and music doesn't really change. The industry has tried to change it and tried to label it and categorize it. But music: you either like it or you don't, and it makes life simple because it's not translatable as a language. You know, it goes to the heart and the mind.
I have the greatest joke about New York. When we brought Sarafina to New York, the kids were like fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and one of the lead singers, who had just turned fifteen, said to me, "Uncle Hugh, there's going to be a very big carnival happening in New York, right?" I said, "Why do you think that?" She said, "They are preparing. All over, they are digging. They are fixing things and all that. Something very big is going to happen." I said, "This is New York. I've been here like seventeen years. They've been doing the same thing."
She said, "Ah, you like to joke! You're so funny." And then, about three years later, we were on Broadway and they were still digging, and I said, "So when do you think the carnival is going to be?" And she said, "Leave me alone." She still lives in New York and whenever I see her, I say, "Carnival's coming soon."
When I came here as a student in 1960, the big slogan was, Con Edison had a big billboard that said, "Dig we must for a greater New York." But they're always digging. Can you dig it?
I dig it. Alright, let's talk about your side. You weren't able to go to South Africa for how long?
So what's it like to live there again now?
Well, for me it's a real bonanza because I never thought I'd be able to go back home, and I've been back twelve years. And in twelve years, I've been able to get to the point where like this album Time is on Chissa Records, which is our own label. I think that, except for like the young musicians who are into like what is called kwaito--South African hip-hop or whatever you call it--they are the first people to do their own productions. It the same way it happened when reggae started in Jamaica or when samba became a craze in Brazil. We're just getting into a stage where we're building the first steps towards creating our own industry, and our own manufacturing, wholesaling and marketing, and hopefully our own distribution. And our own broadcasting. But that's going to take time because we are trying to access a business that was previously white owned. With Chissa, we're trying to set up something that is modeled on Motown, where there's collaboration instead of divided artists. We all try to bring like excellence out of each other.
After being home for twelve years, this is the first time I've been able to do what I dreamed of doing when I went back--to unlock the excellence of all the diverse talent that is there. There are big bands there, and there's nostalgia. There's music I first heard when I was a kid. There are bands that I grew up with. So it's like a kaleidoscope of what is available in South Africa. We did this by choosing the material first and then rehearsing it so that when we got into the studio we wouldn't spend much time, so we could afford it. But the reaction we have gotten! This is the first album I've done since I went back to Africa that is really getting international attention. It means that this kind of collaboration has a universal appeal.
And our other two artists--we just did Sepho Tsola and we did Busi Mhlongo that we just finished last Friday--their albums were done the same way. And it's the beginning. I'm just one of the people who's beginning to get to the point where the music industry won't be owned by the old establishment five years from now. That to me is one of the most exciting things. I'd like to be able to do it in television. I'd like to be able to do it in film, events. In anything where we have been consumers, I'd like to see us becoming retailers and manufacturers and exporters. Having not been allowed into enterprise until a few years ago--we were just a cheap labor, mega warehouse for exploitation--that's the exciting part for me. I wish I was younger because it's going to take a long time.
But the main thing is planting the seed and changing the mindset not only of our people to say, "Yes, I can," but also changing the mindset of the old establishment who are the people who are really free because they have the economic wherewithal to enjoy freedom and to do something that could make South Africa the beacon of Africa as far as arts are concerned, by having a real African industry.
Spike Lee said it long ago. He was one of the patrons of the Africa Arts Fund--we used to like raise funds here to educate South Africans in the arts--and at one of our fundraisers he made a speech and he said, "The one thing you shouldn't kid yourselves about is to think that when South Africa is free, the ones who oppressed you and made all this money off of your backs are going to turn around and say, 'Sorry that we oppressed you for all these years. Here's five-hundred-trillion dollars to show you how sorry we are.' It's not part of human nature. It's never happened anywhere in the world, and why people should expect it to happen in South Africa--it's kind of naïve."
So to a certain extent, we have freed the people who were privileged before because now there is no longer an international embargo against them. They are the ones who are benefiting from the efforts we put in to free ourselves. That's one thing we learned from Mandela, who said, "Well, whatever it is, it's better than destroying the place. So build on whatever it is." We are not expecting to see any good will charity from the people who fed off, who still feed off us. I don't like for people to see South Africa disappearing into the horizon singing "Hi-De-Ho, Hi-De-Hi." All the solidarity groups that supported us and all the NGOs that supported us have left and said, "You're free now. Good luck. We have to go."
To that extent, life is more difficult than before, but nobody is harassing us, and we have opportunities open to us. We obviously won't get the funding to have a revival of our excellence from the people who oppressed us before, because it would mean that they did something wrong before. So we have to generate it ourselves. I'm just generating a picture of what we are facing. But we certainly have the talent. That can't be taken away from us. And we have the enthusiasm and we have the will, and I think that in the long run, maybe my nephew sitting here with me now, maybe his generation will be the ones who like run away with it and come up with the industries that we are trying to establish right now.
On the musical side, I think this is a strong album. It's varied, passionate, engaged, and it covers all these different genres. One thing that really strikes me is your singing. I always thought of you as a horn player who sang, but you really have some great singing on here. It seems to me that you've risen to a new level as a singer here. Do you think that's true?
Well, I think I'm a healthier person. I had quite a delinquent life. I got by a lot with talent, but six years ago, I decided to like admit to myself that I was like an alcoholic and a druggie and decided to go into recovery. When I came out, not only did I go public, but it became a passion of mine to help people like myself. In the process, I think that my thinking got clearer. My focus got sharper. And I knew what to go after. And all the things that I thought I could do well when I was high, I was very wrong about. In the five years that I've been clean, miracles have happened for me in every way, in my private life and in my creative life.
I actually handed in my last 77 pages of my manuscript today for my autobiography, which Random House is very excited about. We had a major, high-powered meeting today and they'll be publishing it. That has taken seven years, but in the last five years, I was really able to do it because I was focused. And I think that it's like that with everything. At first, it looked like a stretch, because when you're high, you're recovering every day, so you're working at ten-percent of your capability. But you are straight, you first remember what you really felt like as a child, and once you have regurgitated all those things that made you unhappy and wanting to hide behind a mind-altered state. Addictive people do things in excess. Other people can have a glass of wine or take one toke off a joint and say, "I got to do what I got to do." But a person like me, if I go to a party, they have to chase me away. [LAUGHS] "Hugh, we want to sleep. You've been here for three days, now, and the booze is finished." "It is!?"
So I think that comes out in the last three projects I've done. But I've finally got the window, and seen where to go, and it feels great.
The music speaks well for that.
I also had great collaborators. You know, all the people that I admired and should have worked with earlier, I finally identified them and said, "Let's do this," and they were almost like, "Damn, we've been waiting for you to get like this so we can do it."
It's a hell of a band.
Yeah, just wonderful people too. You know, at home, we're trying to come up with funding to tour this contingency. It's a 20-piece band, with like eight vocalists. When we did the launch for this album, we had everybody again, plus a 50-piece choir and it was just massive. It was fantastic. For me, the joy of it all was I never thought it would happen in my lifetime again, so I'm doing it with the enthusiasm of a child. I'm like a pig in swill. I never thought I'd be able to do this music with its owners, the people who can really express it. It's just wonderful to be back home.
That's wonderful. Let me just ask you about a few of the songs. "Happy Mama." That's really got that mbaqanga thing. To me, it's an interesting marriage of a jazz vocal approach and mbaqanga. Tell me how that came about.
It's an old song. "Send Me" and "Happy Mama" are like folk songs. "Happy Mama" was sung mostly by prisoners long ago. When I come out of jail, my mother is happy to see me. It's just a natural thing. It's a sing-along. And "Send Me" was a conciliatory song that was sung mostly at wakes. In South Africa, up to today, when somebody dies, you go to console the people and all week you go to the house and sing at night, and it's actually like a kind of township gospel song. But all these songs are songs of hope, encouragement, and conciliation, also celebration and joy. And "Happy Mama" was picked up by--I don't know if you've seen Amandla [the film]--but there are some guys who sing it. They picked it up when they were in the camps. That's a song that was picked up by the liberation movement and became one of their themes.
On both songs, I put English inserts there to be able to explain it, because all the years that I used to live here, people would say, "Hugh, that's a beautiful song. What are you singing about?" They're often like two-or-three word songs, that get the message across. So with this album, like "Saduva," we've got English lyrics, just to explain what the song is about so people will feel like they're participating in the experience.
And you sing in French on "Ce Soir."
And I gather from the notes that it's a little bit tongue in cheek.
Yeah, it's a stupid song. [LAUGHS] It's a stupid song about a guy who sees this girl who only speaks patois when she hears samba music, and he's obviously after her, and then when she hears it, she starts to cry and then she disappears while they are dancing the samba. And then he says she doesn't speak any English or French, but a whole lot of Zulu and Chinese. This is very bizarre, and he says, "Yesterday, she called me so that we could go dancing, but this time, I'm not going to let her go." It's a joke, but you can tell it was written by someone who has been to a lot of movies.
On a slightly more serious note, in "Cochita," you're dealing with the whole Latin music thing.
Yeah, well that was my first entrée to American. I went to school in Spanish Harlem. When I came here, the Manhattan School of Music was on 105th St. between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, and like the second generation of Puerto Ricans were about my age at the time. It was the time of West Side Story, and the Palladium. Tito Puente was the king, and Celia Cruz was in here thirties. You know what I mean? Eddie and Charlie Palmieri were still young people. Ray Baretto was still a teenager. Willie Colon and Pacheco and all these people were there, and I went out with a lot of a great mamitas, and I could do a major charanga and pachanga, and I was taught by those people. Ella Breu (??) was like 19-years old when he joined my band. He was a genius who came out of the Tito Puente band and we went to school together. So I got to be able to speak pretty good Puerto Riceño. Oh, goña, Mami!. It's a world that I know very, very vividly.
That's interesting, because I've spent a lot of time in West and Central Africa.
So did I.
And there, as you know, the influence of Latin and Cuban music is so much stronger than it is in South Africa. South Africa was sort of insulated from all that during the 1940s and 50s, wouldn't you say?
We were more exposed to like African-American pop and jazz, and not only that, but there's nothing we didn't know about Glen Miller or Benny Goodman or Frank Sinatra, or Tommy Dorsey or Jimmy Dorsey.
Which was much less felt in West Africa.
Right. They didn't know it. They were more exposed to the Caribbean, because most of the people of the Caribbean come from them. Like, the South African experience is a great parallel to a great extent to that of the African American people here. Also the hopes, and the styles. I think that for urban life--you know, because we were a rural people--when we came to the cities and we had to learn urban life and Western life, the only model that we had access to was the African American experience, because here were people who came out of slavery and became third-class citizens when they were so-called "freed." Just like in South Africa, their slavery really didn't go, and it's still very evident when you go to the African American neighborhoods, or even the Latino neighborhoods in this country. You can still see the bigotry lingering that affects their lives.
But still, the most sparkling people socially in this country are the African Americans and Latinos. All over the world, everybody tries to dress like them, to sing like them, to dance like them, to cook like them, to walk like them, to talk like them. And I think that was a great inspiration to us. You know, you can be oppressed, but there's something that they can't take away from you, your talent and your sparkle. They sure have the sparkle.
Hugh Maskela, 'Uptownship' cover art
I have to ask you about a personal favorite of mine, kind of a message song, and a powerful one, "Change." Tell me about that song.
One thing "Change" is going to do is curtail my traveling around Africa. That's for sure. But you know, there are a lot of things that are wrong. In the '80s, artists were singing a lot about South Africa. There was the Live Aid, the starvation thing. They seem to have always gotten their inspiration for social commentary about things that were going wrong. At one time in this country, it was the civil rights. There were a lot of protest songs. And then it was the anti-Vietnam war movement. And then it became the poverty thing in Africa. But in South Africa, everything was very militant. When we had guns facing us, and tanks and bullets, we used to take to the street at the slightest infringement of any of our rights. But since we voted, we've become very complacent, and we sort of don't know how to translate what freedom is. Because when politicians lead you into the freedom loop, they don't give you a prescription of how to live when you are free. By then, they are completely obsessed with their own successes, and their own inroads, and amnesia sets in.
I just feel like there are too many things that are going on that are wrong in Africa: the generals with their surrogate wars that are really inspired by greed for the cheap international price of raw materials. There are people that just feel that they own the countries that have chosen them as leaders, and they never want to retire. These are things that have to be said.
When I did "Change"…. I don't compose songs. They are sent to me. Songs that are meaningful are sent to you. I was saying earlier that everyone of us wakes up with a song of the day. We all wake up humming a tune. But sometimes, if you are a musician, that space is occupied by a song that was sent to you and you feel that this song has to be heard and it's something that has to be said. And yes, change is very, very badly needed in Africa. But we have to realize that for the international business establishment, they prefer Africa in turmoil because then the raw materials are available at cheap prices, so it's in the interest of many people who are in business to make sure that there is turmoil in Africa, to make sure that exploitable societies never progress, because otherwise, who's going to like sweep? Who's going to collect the garbage.
I mentioned Thomas Mapfumo earlier, and one of the reasons I'm writing about him is that he is someone who has stood for that principle over the years, never accepting the idea that just because we've won our freedom, the fight is over. No, there's always another fight. I told him that you mention Mugabe by name in that song, and he was very pleased about that.
[LAUGHS] Well, the thing is, what we always have to remember is that the source of our success is the people we come from. We can't forget where we came from. Again, I have to bring up Louis Armstrong. So you have to pay back, because when you are born, you are born naked. You don't come here with anything. My grandmother always reminded me that when I was born, I didn't bring any money, I didn't have anywhere to sleep, and it took me three years to show me where the bathroom was. They taught me how to talk. They taught me how to think. They taught me how to walk. I lived rent-free, and they clothed me and gave me food for seventeen years. I would never be able to repay them, but at least, I must always acknowledge that when I came into this world, I didn't know shit, and that if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't know anything. If you live by that motto, I think that you are not only able to pay back, but it sort of helps to center you. You have to remember that. You didn't make it by yourself.
I have one last thought going off that. You were talking about paying homage to the people who came before you. I appreciate a lot of older music, music that not a lot of my contemporaries listen to, and your last song "Old People, Old Folks" talks about how old people listen to music too and still have their finger on the pulse. I was wondering think we can create more fusion between younger and older people through music.
We have to not follow advertising as much as we do, and not exclude old people from our lives. They're the only ones who know who we are. That's the one thing that I've been able never to forget. I hang out a lot with the older people. When I came back home, one of the things that I thought I'd do was to relearn the languages and be very proficient in them. We have long family praises. I was telling Nicole today, and I'm going to finish with this. Traditionally, when they ask you what your name is, you couldn't just say "I'm Christina." They would say, "Christina of who?" Then you say your surname. Then they say, "Of what? Of where?" So you had to be able to know your lineage. That's like poetics. When I go to my village, I spend a lot of time with my aunts and my uncles. They are all in their 80s and 90s and they teach me saying. I mean, my name, for example, is Ramapola Hugh [HUGH FOLLOWS WITH ABOUT FORTY SECONDS OF AFRICAN ADORNMENT ENDING IN A LOUD THROAT WARBLE.] And that's just my nick name.
But it's important to know where you come from, because otherwise, where are you going? You can't go anywhere if you don't have a starting point. And if you don't hang out with the old folks, if you don't find what your path is about, then you are completely open to being consumed by foreign cultures. You don't have a mirror against which to judge them. They consume you completely. But if you do have your background, then you can also see the great things about other cultures, and you know what not to try and access because you are not it. We have become hybrids of things that we pick up from television. When I grew up, we didn't have television, so we played more in the street. But today's younger people don't have the potential for longevity because they don't play as much and they don't exercise as much. They are not into nature as much. They're into cyber, and they're into television, and they're into machines. To a certain extent, they're like manipulated people. It's great to use all those things, but you have to have that mirror that shields from them, and only from hanging out with old folks can you get the wisdom of the past, and you might also be able to know a little more about herbs and how to use them to heal yourself.
So we can learn how to play from old people. That's ironic.
Yeah, like that long quotation I was just saying. It's very playful. We don't play anymore. We can't even calculate; we have to have a calculator; we've become finger people. And it's dangerous. I think that's how species become extinct. After awhile, they don't have a past, so they become mutations of themselves. I think so. I gotta go. My mom is looking at me.
Thanks, Hugh. It's a great pleasure. Are you coming here to play soon?
Next year. April.
I hope you can bring your 20-piece band.
Me too. Let's speak to somebody. You have Bill Gates' phone number?
Interview by Banning Eyre & Christina Zafagna