KITHFOLK, Issue 3
An Interview with Mauritanian Master Musician Noura Mint Seymali
by Devon Leger
photos by Sean Jewell
In the dark, beautifully backlit confines of The Triple Door in Seattle, Noura Mint Seymali was holding court. A smallish woman from Mauritania in Western Africa, she ruled the stage with a fiery intensity that only the most powerful divas can maintain. She plucked her instrument, the ardine (a kind of harp from West Africa that’s somewhat similar to the kamele n’goni of Mali), with exact precision and sang with a voice so powerful it felt like it could pierce your skull. Along with her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, whose psychedelic electric guitar riffs would put any Jimi Hendrix wannabe to shame, the young American drummer Matthew Tinari who’d been helping them book their tour and translating for the audience, and bassist Ousmane Touré, who’d known her since she was a child, she tore the roof off this usually serene concert hall. It was an amazing experience, and in fact Seymali has been making big waves in the US since the release of her most recent album, Tzenni, on European label Glitterbeat. Backstage, we hung out a bit and talked about Mauritanian life and culture. Sean Jewell, editor of American Standard Time, shot candid photos onstage and backstage as well, as captivated as I was by Seymali’s powerful and proud demeanor, not least because the view of Muslim women we see so often in the West is that they’re largely invisible in traditional Arabic society. But Seymali is a griot, a hereditary musician and songwriter who bears the weight of centuries of tradition that have been handed down to her. And she’s also a relentless innovator, not content to stay at home playing wedding music as is expected of her and other griots.
Seymali is the daughter of the famous and respected Mauritanian musician Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall who was responsible for modernizing much of Mauritanian music, for notating the Moorish traditions in sheet music, for basically being the main ambassador of Mauritanian music to the West. It’s a position that Noura Mint Seymali, his daughter, now holds, and clearly believes in with a huge passion. Seymali learned from her step mother as well (and many other family members), who was the beloved national singer Dimi Mint Abba (check out some of her videos on YouTube). This isn’t folk music by any means; the music that Noura Mint Seymali plays is rooted in the intensely complex classical music of Moorish North Africa. In Mauritania, there are five modes to the music and traditional artists move in a kind of “melodic orbit” through the modes during a performance. Each mode has multiple under-modes that are referred to as black or white. It’s a kind of coloring to the music that helps bend the mode in a certain direction, either black which lends violent tension, or the white, which lends a softness or elegance. The push and play between these helps transform each mode. “Our music is rich,” Jeiche says to me backstage, and it’s no exaggeration. You’d need a degree in ethnomusicology and years of study to really get at the heart of what is made to seem effortless.
Here’s my interview with Noura Mint Seymali and Jeiche Ould Chighaly backstage at the Triple Door with special thanks to Matthew Tinari for help and Sean Jewel for the beautiful photos. The interview was conducted primarily in French, though also in Arabic and English, with some loud drumbeats from the other band onstage. So please excuse any transcription or translation errors.
KITHFOLK Interview with Noura Mint Seymali and Jeiche Ould Chigalhy
How is music transmitted in Mauritania? In families, from father to son, or what’s the process?
Noura Mint Seymali: There are women, griots, the ancient ones. It was these griots who made music in Mauritania, but now there are a lot of people making music who are not griots. Normally, though, in Mauritania, only the griots make this music. It’s made in families, like my own. I’m a griot, as was my father, his father, and twenty-one fathers before that.
Noura: Yes! Jeiche too is from a family of griots.
Is it common for a woman to be a griot?
Noura: Yes, there are female and male griots, especially female in Mauritania.
Jeiche Ould Chighaly: But before the 60s, women who were not griots couldn’t sing, only the griots could sing. Now, people who aren’t griots can sing.
The instrument you’re playing, the ardine, is it for griots only?
Noura: Until now, the ardine was for griots only. For the female griots only; there was another instrument for the men. The tidinit is for the men [Note: Jeiche’s guitar playing is directly based on the tidinit] and the ardine is for the women. It’s an ancient instrument.
Did you learn the ardine from your mother?
Noura: From my grand-mother. My father was a great musician. A professor of music and a composer as well. He wrote a lot of songs in Mauritania and he is very very well known there. He did many things. He wrote down the modes in Mauritanian music…
Matthew Tinari: He was explaining Moorish music, explaining all the instruments, the modes.
Noura: He explained the ardine, the tidinit… He wrote down in his book everything that’s in Mauritanian music.
What age did you start playing music ?
Noura: I was nine or ten years old. I sang with my brothers, with my family.
Jeiche Ould Chighaly: Her brother is a composer and lives now in Spain. He married a Spanish woman. He’s a composer and he had this family band. He was the soloist, there was a brother who was the bass player, and his sister on the drums. It was a family band, but modern.
Noura: After that I went to school for my studies and was playing traditional music with my family. Then I started playing for weddings in traditional groups. Then in 2004 I started modernizing the music I played. We brought in the drums, the bass. That was difficult in Mauritania.
Jeiche: Mauritanians don’t like fusion music. They like the tradition more than any fusions. There are young people who like this, but there are all these older people who always want to be under the tents with the griots.
What’s the wedding music tradition in Mauritania ?
Noura and Jeiche: It’s during the holidays of Tabaski (Eid el Adha) and Ramadan… When Ramadan is over there’s a big party. Since everyone’s tired because of Ramada, they want to make music. Plus there’s also the Tabaski holiday as well.
Are you guys busy with these weddings in Mauritania ?
Jeiche: Yes, before we came here to the US for our tour, we were at a wedding. Noura was with us and people were just throwing money on us while we were trying to play !
Noura: But I don’t like playing weddings.
Jeiche: She doesn’t like weddings, but I love them. My father didn’t go to music school, he just came from the tradition. He died this year, he was 92 years old, and he was the one that taught my family music.
Matthew: His father had a lot of wisdom in his music.
Jeiche: He was a poet, he knew all about Mauritanian music and modes. Yobua was his name.
Noura, What kind of changes did you make to the tradition ?
Noura: I added the bass and drums, I put in modern rhythms, but at the same time paired them with very traditional melodies and songs. Like the last song we played was a very modern rhythm but the song is traditional. The songs remain traditional, but we’ve reworked the rhythms.
Jeiche: The songs speak about the magic of Mauritania. About the prophet, about many things… Marriage, love, food.
Noura, do you write the songs in the group ?
Noura: No, there are a lot of people who have written these songs from all over Mauritania.
Matthew: Maybe I’ll just explain a little bit… There’s a repertoire of poetry that all the singers draw on. Each griot takes a bit from here and a bit from there. It’s more like your rendering of poetry that’s in the public domain. It’s like rap or reggae where there’s all these sort of memes or lines out there and you’re drawing on them.
Do people recognize the lyrics ? Like “Oh, that comes from this poem…”
Jeiche: All Mauritanians know poetry, or most do. It’s popular. They know arabic poetry, but for us, we don’t sing arabic poetry, we sing hassani poetry. That’s the language that we speak.
Noura, what was a lesson you learned from your father?
Noura: Lots of things, lots of things… A lot of melodies. He said to sing with your stomach. You musn’t sing with your voice, you must sing with your stomach. If you sing with your stomach, you won’t get tired. Even if your voice gets tired, your chest won’t get tired.
Did you always want to play the ardine ?
Noura : For me, the most important thing is to show the ardine. Because this is our tradition…
Jeiche [translating from Noura’s Arabic]: She’d like Mauritanians to know that what she’s doing is to ensure that Mauritania becomes better known. There are plenty of people that know nothing about Mauritania. She’s like a messenger of the music. Many people like this, but there are others that always want to stay in the tradition. Someone just sent her a Facebook message: “Noura, come back for my wedding, I can’t do my wedding unless you’re there!” But she’d rather be doing these kinds of concerts on tour, maybe leaving the weddings to her brothers and sisters.
To me, Mauritanian music kind of sounds like music in the Sahara. Are there ties between these traditions?
[heated discussion in Arabic]
Noura: No, in the Sahara there’s no music or culture of music.
Jeiche: They collect ideas from our music. There are no griot families in Saharan music.
I was thinking of the folks in Tinariwen or other Tuareg artists.
Jeiche: The Saharans or the Tuaregs, they take our music, but then it’s not at the level of our music.
Matthew: Mauritanian music has never really hit the international stage in the same way that Tuareg or other music really has. There’s a feeling that some of those cultures look to Mauritania for inspiration. There are elements of Mauritanian music that has been integrated into those styles over the years. But yet, Mauritanian music has never really broke. That’s a whole nother conversation because it’s kind of political.
Jeiche: Our neighbors, they put out our music before we can get it out. You know, people like Abdallah of Tinariwen, when they see us they say, « Bravo, Bravo ! » They know that this music comes from us. In the Sahara there are no griots. There are people who have music and if they listen to us for a bit, they take ideas. But it’s something different. There aren’t any of our modes, or the black and white modes.
What do the griots, especially the female griots, do in traditional society? Are they like journalists or politicians?
Jeiche: They don’t get into politics, but they take the stories and history of all the people in Mauritania. They know all these stories. Sometimes, we have these songs. If you love a girl and you can’t tell her that you love her, but it’s something that could be said with poetry. A griot could sing to this girl and tell her about you…
Jewish Culture in Montréal: An Interview with Jason Rosenblatt of Shtreiml
by Devon Leger
Montréal is one of my favorites cities. I visited it with my father when I was young, since my Acadian grandmother lived in a suburb of the city, and the hustle and bustle of Montréal made a big impression on me. Not because it was one of the first big cities I visited, but more because it was so wonderful to hear French ring out from every corner. Here in North America, where the US holds sway over all, was a city governed by French speakers, beholden to a different aesthetic. As I grew up, I saw Montréal as a bastion for the arts and a city with a vibrant personality. I recently returned to Montréal after years away for La Grande Rencontre, a festival and conference that I attended at the behest of the World Trad Forum. Wandering the streets around the city center, I fell in love again with Montréal, but for a different reason this time. I loved the swirling cultures that made up the city. I ate Vietnamese food for nearly every meal, stumbled into a later afternoon rehearsal of a full Cantonese orchestra, danced late into the night at a Québécois danse carrée (square dance), explored the Acadian (actually, Madelinot from the Magdalen Islands) quarter of Chateaugay, tracked down a Moroccan couscouserie for dinner, listened to Haitian radio from my cab drivers, gorged myself on late-night poutine, and was introduced to Montréal’s Jewish culture by the affable master musician Jason Rosenblatt. I’d been especially interested in Jewish culture and music in Montréal in the wake of the controversial debates over Québec’s Charter of Values, a proposed bill that would ban public servants from wearing religious signifiers when working in public. My Québécois friends had insisted to me that the purpose of the bill was to attack the dominance of the Catholic church in Québécois society (the Québécois have a long, contentious history with the church and many young Québécois are radically against the church, even to the point of refusing to get married in protest). But that’s not how their Muslim and Jewish neighbors felt, and the Charter remains a very contentious point in Montréal’s modern culture.
To get to know the historic Jewish culture of Montréal, I went out late at night with Jason Rosenblatt exploring. He took me by old synagogues that had been converted to other buildings, drove through the Hasidic neighborhoods, insisted we buy a couple dozen very delicious bagels at St-Viateur’s, and schooled me on how Jewish artists are perceived in Québec. He also sat down for a great interview that talked more about his background, his current projects bringing Jewish and Québécois traditional music together, and his thoughts on being Jewish in Montréal. As bandleader for the innovative roots band Shtreiml, and as one of the key organizers of the Montreal Jewish Music Festival, Jason was a great resource and I hope I can capture some of his spirit here. Thank you Jason for being so willing to talk and share your story!
BTW check out his band Shtreiml for sure! He’s partnered with Turkish oud player Ismail Fencioglu, and as a full band, Shtreiml explodes the notion of Klezmer into a creative whirlwind of harmonica, oud, brass, and deft arrangements. It’s truly Jewish music for a new century and great fun to listen to.
An KITHFOLK Interview with Jason Rosenblatt of Shtreiml
Devon Léger: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Jason Rosenblatt: I grew up in an orthodox Jewish household. My mom sang and she was a choir teacher and music instructor in school; my dad played guitar. My sister played piano before me. So, I started taking piano from the age of 7 or 8 and I went with private lessons through the age of 18. I picked up the harmonica right round the age of 15 or 16. My dad had a harmonica lying around the house and I picked it up and I was able to play, “Oh, Susanna” and my parents heard me playing and they brought out Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee records and said, “That’s what you have to play.” (laughing) I started getting into Country Blues, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Then I was inspired by the music of Jim Zeller who was a local harmonica hero who I had seen at the Montreal Jazz Fest and I noticed he was playing with a really different tone than Sonny Terry was playing with and my mom said, “Oh, that’s because he’s playing amplified; he’s playing through a mic.” She brought out a Paul Butterfield Blues Band LPs and I got to learn “Born in Chicago” and “Blues with a Feeling” from Paul Butterfield. That’s my early harmonica education was really through my parents giving me records that they had and sitting and copying and slowing it down…
And then, past that, I studied Economics at McGill but at the same time I was doing all the basic music courses at university: Jazz Materials and Choral Harmony and that type of thing. I started getting into jazz; I was playing in jazz ensembles at McGill, but I was also playing in rock bands, blues bands. At the same time, we also had Jewish music going on in my house but I didn’t consider it klezmer. It was just Jewish music, it was cantorial music; it was Yiddish music; it was Israeli music but it was always on in the background; I never made any effort to learn it. If I did learn it, it was for an occasion, whether it be a school function or to sing in synagogue. It wasn’t something that I said, “Oh, I’m really interested in playing this Jewish music. I’m going to quit blues and play. At that point, when I was 18 or 19, I played more blues and jazz.
I went away to Israel right after college and I was working in software doing multi-media sound design, and small compositions for multi-media, presentations. I was playing in the clubs in Israel, playing harmonica with some blues bands there and some hippie-religious bands. They were playing a lot of “Shlomo Carlebach” music. Shlomo Carlebach was the “Singing Rabbi.” He was an interesting figure in the 50s and 60s. He was the religious version of Bob Dylan, a singer-songwriter. His lyrics were derived from the Bible. He took some early inspiration from Hasidic and cantorial music. Later on, really simplified his songs to 3 part or 4 part songs, no more than that and composed Jewish music for the masses. It was folk songs for Jewish people. You’ll find that 30 to 40 percent of the music that’s played at all Jewish weddings these days is the music of Shlomo Carlebach.
DL: What was the moment where you found yourself turning back towards the music you’d heard when you were younger, towards Klezmer?
JR: I was in Rimon, Israel and my parents told me, “You have to come back to Montreal this summer. There’s an amazing camp called, ‘Klez Canada’” and I said, “What’s that? Sounds interesting.” It was in ‘96 and it’s a week-long summer camp, about an hour north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains at a summer camp. There are between 400 and 500 people with a 100 person faculty.
DL: Yeah. I heard about it. It’s a big camp.
JR: They get together and you immerse yourself in the study of Jewish music, whether it be Klezmer music, Hasidic music, cantorial music, Yiddish art song, Yiddish theater music…
DL: Wouldn’t cantorial music be more through the actual religious order?
JR: The camp itself isn’t a religious camp per se but the food is kosher and they do have services but it is multi-denominational. You don’t have to be Jewish to attend. First of all, a lot of the faculty doesn’t happen to be Jewish; and a lot of the attendees are people that happen to love this style of music. Cantorial music is an important element of Klezmer music; a lot of the modes that we play in when we are playing Klezmer are derived from the cantorial modes, the modes that people sing in… It’s an important element of Klezmer music. At this camp, you have an opportunity to sit with some of the masters of the Klezmer music revival, the people that, in the 70s, were re-discovering music from the 20s, 30s and 40s. People were brought in; at the beginning, for instance, Hankus Netsky from the Conservatory Klezmer Band, Michael Alpert, Stu Brotman, Allan Burns, Jeff Warschauer. Now they’re in their 50s; they may be approaching 60, but they were of the Klezmer music revival of the 70s. Those were people who were studying jazz or classical music and found music of their heritage and decided to look for old 78s and manuscripts. That’s how I was inspired. The first year, to be honest, I was so into jazz, from Rimon, the school where I was studying in Israel, that unfortunately I was dismissive of the camp. But the second year that I went back, I felt there was a lot more jamming, there were a lot more people that were coming from my generation. The first year, they were having trouble bringing in younger people and you would jam until 4 in the morning and discover that you can play a nigun which is a wordless melody and play it properly and then improvise on it and make it your own and that’s what was exciting to me.
DL: What you’re saying is that you found elements of jazz deep in the tradition.
JR: When I hear Jewish music played properly… What does it mean properly? It means someone that understands the ornamentation, understands the nuances. You can tell they’ve listened to old recordings. It’s not that they just saw a lead sheet and decided to play it. Someone that wants to make it their own, they can improvise around the melody. A great cantor knows the modes, knows what’s called “Nusach”. Nusach is the style of a particular type of prayer, but then he or she can improvise around that style and that’s what makes a good cantor, a great cantor. It still follows rules and guidelines. In essence, that’s what jazz is; there are certain parameters; it’s not playing any note that you can think of. With those guidelines in place, I was able to find joy in playing and composing new Jewish music saying, “I’m going to listen to old recordings, find out what makes them so amazing and try to compose my own melodies based on respect for the tradition.”
DL: You then formed two groups. Is that right?
JR: The first group that I started is called “Shtreiml.” It was actually called “Ghetto Shtreiml.” My wife named it that.
DL: What does Shtreiml mean?
JR: Shtreiml is a big furry hat that the Hasidim wear. It was formed with Josh Dolgin. He goes by the name now of “Socalled.” His band’s name is Socalled. Thierry Arsenault is the drummer, Rachel Lemisch is the trombone player and my wife, and Ariel Harrad was the bass player at the time. I started playing harmonica at Klez Camp because there wasn’t enough pianos to go around. I said, “I’m going to learn how to play all these tunes on a harmonica.” People would say, “You know quite a few Klezmer tunes. Why don’t you record an album of Klezmer harmonica?” So, that’s what I did. For good or for bad, it’s an album of Klezmer tunes on the harmonica.
DL: That was the first Shtreiml album?
JR: Yeah. It was at the infancy of my technique on the harmonica and you can hear it, but it is what it is and I did it. The second album that we did was a lot more elaborate. Josh is very big into taking arrangements from old recordings. I found some old recordings and I arranged some pieces exactly like they were on the old recordings. Those were the first two albums and on the third album, I got into playing Turkish music because we were asked to play Le Festival du Monde Arabe, an Arabic World Music Festival here in Montreal and I got paired up with Ismail Fencioglu, who’s a phenomenal oud player. We came up with “Benjy’s Blues.” I started getting into writing originals, sothere’s more original music on that album. Finally, we have Eastern Hora which is the latest Shtreiml album and it’s all original music and strongly features Ismail. I feel there’s a lot more subtlety to this one as opposed to the others. It’s not just me playing harmonica 90 miles an hour over the entire course of the album. There’s a lot more variation.
DL: Tell me more about Jewish music in Montreal. You came out of the heart of it. Where did you grow up? Did you grow up in a distinct community?
JR: Yeah, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in the west end; there’s Cote de Neige, Hampstead, Cote Saint Luc, Snowdon. They’ve been Jewish neighborhoods since the 50s. As people moved out of the Mile End and Outremont area, they moved further west towards bigger homes and backyards. My Jewish music background was through hearing music in synagogue and then, singing in synagogue, and being in a choir with my mom. And then, re-visiting Jewish music through Klez Canada and saying, “I’m going to start a Jewish music band in Montreal.” I feel that we started it at an interesting point in 2001. We started Shtreiml and there was a band called the Black Hawks Orchestra and there was Josh [Dolgin] doing his thing and there was Kleztory. There were 4 or 5 Jewish music bands in Montreal and there were some old-time Yiddish singers that were still performing at places like “Casa del Popolo” and “Sala Rossa.” There was a market for it and you’d be surprised, people would come out to shows being put on. They’re not dive bars but they’re not fancy locations and you would get a 65 or 70-year-old crowd coming and mixed with hipsters from university. It was an interesting time. I think it went a little downhill towards 2005 but I think there’s a bit of a resurgence now.
DL: Was there a lot of Jewish music being performed before you guys came onto the scene?
JR: Not that I know of. I think there was a hunger, especially we were considered younger, I was only 27 at the time, and we were young performing old music. My brother was one of the people; he was playing really old Jewish fiddle music from the 1800s.
DL: From this region?
JR: No, from Moldova. He was finding old recordings. There was certainly an interest in hearing the music, so, we just kept it up. Some bands didn’t keep it up and people had to get real jobs. I’ve fought against getting a real job for a long time. [laughing]
DL: Did you ever trace the paths of Jewish music in Montreal historically back in this area?
JR: That’s actually a great question. The only thing that I’ve done is some research at the Jewish Public Library. There were some Jewish bands like the Sperber Brothers, that played weddings. They brought a lot of their repertoire from Poland; they were a band from Krakow. My grandfather knew them in Krakow. They came to Montreal and did the same repertoire. Maybe they updated with some cha-chas and rumbas but they were essentially playing the same Jewish repertoire. But, in terms of songs being played in the 1800s here by itinerant Jewish musicians, I don’t know any of that. All I know is more of the orchestras that played. A lot of them were playing the “Hits of the Day”, like “Hava Nagila", “Shalom Aleichem”, really cliché tunes, but what people wanted to hear. I don’t think they had an interest in researching long-lost, forgotten songs. If you asked Josh [Dolgin]… He would say and I would agree, if you wanted to do some research into the old songs of Jewish Montreal, just go walking around on a Friday night through Outremont and listen to the Hasidim singing songs. That’s as authentic as you’re going to get. Just on a Friday night, if you walk by the windows, you’ll hear kids singing in harmony. It’s amazing!
DL: You mentioned Yiddish songs. Is Yiddish still spoken a lot in Montreal?
JR: A lot of Montrealers that we have nowadays are 2nd or 3rd generation Jewish Montrealers… My parents’ first language was Yiddish. My dad actually came over from Germany but my mom was born in Montreal but her parents came over from Poland/Bellarus. Yiddish, you can still hear it if you go to any of the old age homes, but many persons in my parent’s generation, their first language was Yiddish. Plus there was the Jewish People and Peretz School which was a social Zionist school. They were very big into teaching the Yiddish language, they still do. We still have our Yiddish Theater which is one of the strongest Yiddish theaters in the world. There’s Folksbiene in New York; it’s only second to the Folksbiene in New York … We still have our Jewish Public Library where you can find Yiddish books and Yiddish films.
DL: How many people, do you think, still speak Yiddish in Montreal?
JR: In Montreal? If you consider the Hasidim that live here, in Montreal, there are 80,000 Jewish people, I would say 15 to 20 thousand speak Yiddish.
DL: Do you hear it on the street in certain quarters?
JR: Certainly in Outremont. If you want to get some danish at the bakery… You’ll hear Yiddish everywhere. People say that Yiddish is a dying or dead language and maybe in secular circles…. I have a lot of secular friends that are into Yiddish theater and poetry. Unfortunately, in those circles, it’s dying and you’ll find the odd couple that will teach their children Yiddish as a first language. It’s dying in the secular world, you have some pockets but in the Hasidic world it’s the first language. Some kids I saw the other day, little Hasidic kids, they were between 4 and 6, they were speaking a language that I thought was Spanish, but it wasn’t Spanish. It turned out to be Portuguese interspersed with Yiddish. Apparently, they’re from Brazil and they just moved to Montreal. Even in Brazil, they’re speaking Yiddish.
DL: Are there Sephardic Jews in Montreal?
JR: There’s a big Sephardic community. There was a big immigration from Morocco in the 60s and 70s. I would say now about 30% of the population is Moroccan. I use Moroccan as a generic term; it’s Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian but the biggest population is Moroccan.
DL: Is there interchange between the Sephardic Jewish population and the Ashkenazi Jewish population?
JR: Because it’s a relatively small community, you have to work together, so they’re part of the Jewish Federation, which is an organization that oversees charity given to the old age homes, to schools, to the hospital. There’s a Sephardi component within that Jewish Federation but, unfortunately, it’s still pretty separate. We’re known as the Pollacks and they’re the Moroccans. I don’t know if you know this but even within the synagogue setting, there’s the Ashkenazi tradition. I go to a specific synagogue because they pray in a certain way that I know how to pray in. There is the Sephardi tradition and it’s a different type of prayer; I can go to a Sephardi synagogue and follow but I have to concentrate. The words are slightly different, the order is slightly different. I would like to see more togetherness on community events. I run a Jewish music festival and I always insist that there’s a Sephardi music component because Jewish music to me is not just Klezmer music. There’s a huge variety of music out there; there’s Yiddish art songs and there’s cantorial music and there’s punk stuff that’s coming out now and there’s Israeli music; there’s also traditional Sephardic music. So I always make sure to have a traditional Sephardi component. It’s difficult to persuade the Sephardic community to come out and support it.
DL: Let me ask you about how Jewish culture in Montreal interacts with Quebecois culture.
JR: I have to say that a lot of the audience at the Montreal Jewish Music Fest happens to be from the general Quebec population. They will come out to see a traditional Klezmer band. Amongst musicians, we certainly see a lot of the musician population that play Klezmer music in Montreal, that play Jewish music in Montreal, happen to be Québécois. My wife has a band called “Fanfare Severni”, which is a 7 or 8 person brass band and it’s based on Jewish music from the Ukraine and from Moldova. She also runs an ensemble and she’s been running it for 7 years and it’s called “The Community Klezmer Ensemble” and it’s 50% Quebecois, just because they love traditional music and there’s something about it that touches them.
That’s the positive side of it. The negative side of it is that, and this is from a musician’s point of view, I find a lot of people that are trying to play Klezmer music, they’ll buy a book we call, “The Klezmer Fake Book”. This is specific to a lot of Klezmer musicians, if you want to call them Klezmer musicians, around the world and in the United States, that they’ll buy a book of 30 of the most cliched tunes and call themselves Klezmer musicians. They basically learn off the pages and they never put any effort into learning. If you go to Trois Rivières [a town North of Montreal], there are bands that are well-known and are playing this music for people who don’t know the difference and it’s just oom-pah oom-pah. There’s no nuance to it and no understanding of what the music is about. I think it’s great that they want to play traditional Jewish music but you have to have an understanding of the history and the tradition before you can call yourself a Klezmer band. I think the audiences don’t know the difference sometimes.
DL: Music is obviously a unifying force, people come together around music, but outside of music, do you feel that the Jewish communities in Montreal are isolated as compared to the larger Quebec population? Are these communities that you have been mentioning, are they very isolated communities? Or do they feel that they are welcome in the larger Quebec?
JR: The Montreal jews: are they welcome? We have the Charter debate: I was very uncomfortable. I walk around wearing a kippah and people use it as an excuse. I play jazz, ragtime and jazz and blues piano, at a bar a few times a month. People often compliment me or buy me drinks, but once the Charter came out, “Why do you have to wear a kippah? Why do you wear it on your head?” Then, you get other people, “I really respect your choice to do that. You’re very brave.” My feeling is: it shouldn’t even be a point of discussion. I’m not a circus clown; I’m not walking a weird dog down the street. If you like my piano playing, tell me. If you want to buy me a drink, great, but let’s not get into a debate about it or a discussion. It’s a private issue; it’s really a private issue but unfortunately it’s been made into a public issue. It brought out really nasty sentiments. People say it was a minority of the population [who were pushing for the Charter]; I’m not so sure that it was that small a minority of the population that felt like that. Now, whether that means that they like Jewish music or don’t like Jewish music, I think they wouldn’t want to remove any religious element from Jewish music, and I don’t think you can do that.
DL: The Charter is interesting because the Quebecois say that it’s more their fight against the church. They’re passionate about fighting the Catholic church. Obviously, there’s a huge issue there. On the other hand, it is clear that this has brought out a lot of racial sentiments that have long been simmering. How do you feel about that? Do you feel this is a reflection of a larger issue of the Quebec perspective on race? Or are they just fighting religion?
JR: No, it has to do with race. Jews and Muslims don’t get along on very many things but on this, Quebec Jews and Muslims agree. I’d say, first and foremost, it was an attack on Muslims and then, Jews got caught in the crossfire. Sikhs are even further removed. It starts with Jewish people not getting jobs in the civil service, except for doctors because we have socialized medicine. We have socialized child-care. If you happen to be wearing a kippah, Jewish people, for the most part, are not working for the government. A lot of it has to do with our French, we got integrated into the Protestant school world and integrated into the Anglophone community, a lot of us were lazy and never learned French properly but, people from Muslim countries that immigrated recently, from Algeria, they come in speaking fluent French. They can’t really say, ”I’m not going to hire you for this job at the Societe de L’Assurance Automobile du Quebec,” but a lot of the people happen to be religious and if they are wearing a hijab, they stand out as a religious Muslim. It was a backlash against that. Then you have nastiness when people say, “I don’t want a doctor with a kippah on top of your head treating me.”
DL: Do you feel there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Montreal before the charter?
JR: Oh, yeah. This brought out the nastiness but it’s a weird place. On the one hand, it’s extremely multi-cultural; Montreal is a really multi-cultural city. I wouldn’t say anti-Semitism in Montreal in particular. It’s more in the surrounding areas where people don’t know any better. I’m not so sure that I would have a different reception if I went down to areas of Georgia. I’m not sure it would be any better. When I was younger, I would take off my kippah, didn’t want to be identified outside of my community, and now, I really don’t care. I try to make an effort; you don’t see many other Jewish people come to La Grande Rencontre; I love music. So, if I go to Vices et versa, which is a place where they [Québécois trad player] jam; I’ll go there. It’s fantastic and I love it. Meanwhile, I’ll never be a Québécois person; I was born in Quebec, I try to learn French as best I can. My French is really poor; it’s a combination of laziness at this point and I don't have time to take classes again and I’m a bad student but I try. I really try hard; my French, at this stage, has really improved, but I know I’ll never be Québécois, I’m just a Jewish guy that loves different types of music.
DL: Tell me more about your project with Québécois guitarist Yann Falquet and fiddler Pascal Gemme (of Genticorum) to write and record Québécois traditional music with a Jewish perspective.
JR: I have a Québécois fiddle project; I’m writing a bunch of tunes that was sponsored by Conseil des Artes de Quebec. The idea was: I’ve been writing a lot of Jewish music but I also write jazz and I write rock and pop songs as well. I was going a lot to Vices et versa [Montréal bar that hosts Québécois trad jam sessions]. It’s got 30 beers on tap; it’s good times on Tuesday nights. I was going a lot and I was, “I love this music. I should try to write some fiddle tunes.” I started writing and grant season was coming up: April 1st or 15th deadline. “I’m going to write a grant where I compose music that explores the nexus between Jewish music and Québécois music which is the population that you see in Outremont; you see a Hasidic community; you see a Québec community. It’s more multi-cultural than that it’s not really black and white. Part of it was to study with Yann and to listen old recordings, to go to Vices et versa more often.
DL: Basically, you got a grant to drink beer and jam with your buddies.
JR: Yeah, but to write and record some of that material. I’ve written over 50 tunes in the period of 4 months. I will submit 35 of them. I won’t say they’re all fantastic but I’ll submit 35 of them.
DL: These are tunes that are based on Québécois principles?
JR: Some of them are more far out… I wrote one and I really liked it and I thought it was a waltz but then, I realized that it was an Moldovan hora. It’s blurry. I asked myself, “What if I had a button accordion playing it. Would it still sound like a Moldovan hora or will it sound more Quebecois because of the proper instrumentation?” So, it all remains to be seen because we haven’t fleshed out the pieces. We’ve been getting together with Pascal Gemme, a wonderful fiddle player and Yann. We’re going to be working together on it a little more and then recording in June. It’s just the beginning; it’s a demo. The idea is in pre-production to see what else we can do to this music. Ideally, I have enough tunes for 2 albums. Let’s try to get one off the ground. Some of the songs sound Jewish and some of the songs sound Quebecois. Some of them are a little odd. There are a few that, I feel, are really a successful amalgamation of this style. Those are the ones that I am most proud about because that was the mission of the whole grant. That wasn’t easy to do… To say, “That piece could be Jewish or it could be Quebecois…”
DL: What are some of your favorite spots in the Jewish quarters of Montreal?
JR: That are specifically Jewish?
DL: Jewish and otherwise.
Jason: First of all, I like to go to the Saturday services at the Bagg Street Shul which is very close to Schwartz’s, but Schwartz’s is not kosher. Apparently, it may have been kosher back in the 30s; it’s kosher-style.
DL: Isn’t it a Jewish deli?
JR: Yeah, but it doesn’t mean it’s kosher. Further up the street, you have Schreter’s where you can buy decent quality, low cost socks and underwear. Then you have Berson’s Monuments if you need a tombstone. You have tombstones on demand. One of the few remaining, there are 2 people that make Jewish tombstones. They’re still on St. Laurent. You go up the street and there’s Sala Rossa. I think that was the old Folksbiene Yiddish theater, there’s Casa del Popolo and you go up further and there’s the bagel places and the coffee places and Dieu du Ciel which is the best microbrewery in Montreal. Then you have Cheskies the Hasidic bakery. Then, you have all the Hasidic synagogues that are still in that area. Like I was saying, Friday night, even if you don’t want to go into the synagogue, if you feel intimidated, you can still stand outside and listen and it’s amazing music.
DL: Can you go in a synagogue? Just go in? Is it open to everyone?
JR: Of course. The Hasidic synagogues they have now are not ornate. They’re not like they would have been in Hungary or Poland, in the turn of the last century, in the early 1900s. A lot of them are converted duplexes.
DL: Converted duplexes, really?
JR: A lot of them are converted duplexes or triplexes. Even the ones that are synagogues that were bought over from the Hasidic community from the older Jewish community that lived in the neighborhood, there wasn’t much kept of the old wood. They’re more functional buildings.
DL: Interesting. So, some of the old Jewish culture in Montreal hasn’t been preserved, do you think?
JR: If you want to see the biggest schande in all of Montreal…
DL: What’s a schande?
JR: Schande is the biggest “shame,” something terrible. There’s a place on Fairmount. It was the old B’nai Beth Jacob Synagogue or the Chevra Kadisha synagogue. There was a synagogue that was built in the mid-50s. It’s on the Jewish walking tour of Montreal; it was a gorgeous synagogue and unfortunately the community was starting, at that point, to move west from the Mile End and they didn’t have the membership or the donations to keep the synagogue going. Within 1 or 2 years of the place opening, they had to close it up and they had to sell it. They sold it to College Francais. It had a beautiful arch and what College Francais did is… They stuck a 60s, disgusting yellow brick facade onto this gorgeous, old synagogue. You can still see the arch in red brick and you can still see the Hebrew letterings and the building in the back is exactly, exactly as it was back in the 1940s and 50s. It’s a disgusting 1950s or 60s yellow brick in the front that says, “College Francais.” Why couldn’t they, at least, keep the facade?
DL: So, the Jewish community in Montreal, many people obviously came over during World War II but it dates back further than that, right?
JR: The Jewish community dates back to the early 1700s. When people say, “Yeah, a lot of the Jewish population came to Montreal post-Holocaust,” that’s essentially my family’s story, but the Jewish community has been here. It didn’t come that much later than some of the early French settlers that came here. Is 60 or 70 or 80 years that much later, even 100 years… is it that much later? Not really...
Note: Thanks to Jason Rosenblatt for the interview and for taking me and others around the Jewish communities of Montréal.
For further listening, pick up Shtreiml’s new album Eastern Hora. And if you’d like more listening, I’ve been enjoying the new album from Montreal Klezmer band Kleztory. Their 2014 album Arrival is a romp through Klezmer history with fiddle, clarinet, cimbalom, and accordion and it’s great fun!
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen Recipe
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen: KITHFOLK Recipe!
by Devon Leger and Frank Solivan
2014 has GOT to be Frank Solivan’s year. The bluegrass mandolinist, singer, songwriter, and bandleader (of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen) is up now for a Grammy for this year’s album, Cold Spell, and just pulled down a win at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards for Instrumental Group of the Year. Yeah, there’s no denying every person in the Dirty Kitchen band is a mad picker. Guitarist Chris Luquette, new to the band this year, is a breakout star, rightfully garnering awards and lighting up stages with his humble, yet pyrotechnic picking. Banjo picker Mike Munford is one of the best in the business and acknowledged as such. Danny Booth was one of Alaska’s hottest bluegrass exports before Frank snapped him up. And through it all, Solivan rocks as a bandleader. His affable personality, shiny pate, soaring vocals, and lightning fast mandolin skills put him front and center in the group, and–god forgive me here come the cooking analogies–he’s clearly the head chef on the new album. Cold Spell, released via Compass Records, is a complex, virtuosic tour-de-force and rare in that all the viruotosity doesn’t overshadow its listenability. Like any great chef, Solivan is a master at mixing very different ingredients. When your opening track runs almost six minutes long and blends 80s power ballad influences (in a very good way) with bluegrass songwriting, you need the hand of a master craftsman to guide the ship. I wouldn’t trust many other people to cut an album like this, but Solivan’s goal here is clearly to delight and surprise the listener with unexpected sounds and directions. I get the feeling that if you were to listen to this album in the room with him, he’d have that same, happy chef’s smile he must get when his dinner guests rave about his cooking. Take a trip with a master chef with Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen’s new album and you don’t even have to leave your home!
As a special bonus, we asked Frank to contribute a recipe, since he actually IS a master chef, to KITHFOLK and he was kind enough to oblige. Check out his recipe here for Mexican-style ox-tail soup. Nom nom nom…
Frank’s Guide to South of the Border Oxtail Soup
Inspired by two of my favorite Mexican soups, Pazole and Caldo De Res. The star of this soup is the oxtail. It adds a considerable amount of beefy goodness to the broth and the unctuous, velvety mouth feel is from the breakdown of connective tissue. The tender, flavorful meat is contrast by the freshness and crisp textures of the garnishes. The lime becomes the catalyst for flavor and the heat of the chile brings it on home!
Just ask your local butcher for some fresh, medium to large oxtail sections and have fun using this guide. I suggest a Modelo Especial while cooking and keep one cold to have when it’s served. Who knows, I may even have one in between.
8-10 fresh oxtail medium to large sized sections
2 medium yellow onions chopped
3 carrots chopped
2 sticks of celery chopped
2 medium zucchini large pieces
5-10 cloves of garlic chopped
1 1/2 pounds of fresh or canned hominy! 1 small can of red chile sauce
2-4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 Mexican beer
salt and pepper
large two finger pinch of ground cumin
large two finger pinch of chile powder
large two finger pinch of dried Mexican oregano! 2bay leaves
chopped jalapeño or serano chiles
fresh squeezed lime juice!
Liberally salt and pepper oxtail. Add olive oil to a large heavy-bottomed pot on medium high heat and brown all sides of the oxtail sections. After the meat is browned, remove it all from the pot. Add onions, carrots, celery, hominy, garlic, oregano, bay leaves, cumin and deglaze with Mexican beer and chile sauce. Return the oxtail back into the pot. Cover ingredients under 1/2 inch of hot water and simmer with lid on medium heat for about 3.5 hrs, stirring occasionally. Uncover and add zucchini when meat starts to become tender around 3 hrs. Only when the meat is tender add the zucchini. Done when meat is falling off the bone (around 3.5 to 4 hrs). Salt to taste.
In a large bowl add meat from 2-3 oxtail, a couple of pieces of zucchini and broth. Top with shaved cabbage, radish, chiles, cilantro, scallion, avocado and squeeze a wedge of lime all over. Dig in with a large spoon!
Interview: Folk Alliance’s New Director Aengus Finnan
Interview with Folk Alliance’s New Director Aengus Finnan
by Devon Leger
For the past four years, I’ve been attending the Folk Alliance International Conference. Each year it’s a gathering (now hosted in Kansas City, MO) of artists, bookers, writers, DJs, publicists, managers, and agents involved in supporting and creating folk music in North American and beyond. It’s great fun too! The conference takes over a major hotel in downtown Kansas City and fills up many rooms with great music and jams. Late at night you can wander hotel room hallways crammed with people, sticking your head in each room to discover small private showcases and raging parties. I’ve made great connections there and have seen a lot of my favorite artists get discovered. Recently Folk Alliance International announced that they had brought onboard a new director for the event, Aengus Finnan. Finnan is a performing folk singer from Canada and is heavily involved with the Canadian network of folk festivals, so he brings a lot of knowledge of the technical aspects of large-scale folk music event production, but also brings a passion for the music and especially the community behind the music. I was curious how he’d navigate some of the more interesting sides of Folk Alliance, like the community’s distaste for corporate sponsorship, their very strong opinions on many of the decisions that the event organizers make, and the way multiple generations come together at the event, so I called him up at his new office in Kansas City to ask him about his new job.
Interview with Folk Alliance Director Aengus Finnan
Devon Léger: You were just hired on as the Executive Director of Folk Alliance, is that right?
Aengus Finnan: Correct.
Where did you come from before that?
AF: I was in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and I was the Touring and Audience Development Officer for the Ontario Arts Council.
You come out of a folk music background, right?
AF: About 10 years on the road as a touring singer-songwriter, during which time I was an active member of Folk Alliance and came to the conference as hundreds do, to shop songs and make connections and meet musicians and hopefully get bookings from the festivals and concert presenters that were at the conference… Then I went back to my boyhood town, hometown of Grafton. It’s an hour and a half east of Toronto, and launched a festival there called The Shelter Valley Folk Festival. It really drew on the remarkable things that I noted in many festivals and my little shopping list of things that I wouldn’t do or would try to improve. It was a grass roots community event; we literally cut down the trees and milled the lumber on site and built hand-hewn stages and fences. It is a logo-free event, so there are no sponsors, there are strictly donors; everyone is thanked enough for the levels they come in at, but with hand-painted signage on site. It took a community focus as opposed to a music focus. Clearly we were booking musicians, but the intent of the festival was to bring together a community… The focus on all artists being paid the same rate, having all of the volunteers and all of the artists eat in the same tent, with home-cooked meals made by folks from the community, eating off real plates with real silverware, having cups of coffee in real cups as opposed to disposable. I call those things to really have it be not a pop-up event but a lasting festival within the community…
[The Shelter Valley Folk Festival] ultimately led to participating with the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, which is an arts service organization that represents the many festivals within the province of Ontario which included Shelter Valley as one of the new fledgling festivals, but also includes the legendary festivals like the Mariposa Folk Festival, Summer Folk, Hillside, and some of the festivals that have really become the hallmark and touchstones of the folk circuit within Ontario and Canada…That, in turn, led to ultimately working for the Ministry of Culture through the Ontario Arts Council. I wasn’t restricted to music there. It included dance, and theater, and visual arts but I was the Touring and Audience Development Officer, overseeing an export fund that provided support to underwrite the cost of touring. So, whether that was the National Ballet of Canada or the Toronto Symphony Orchestra or a singer-songwriter or a theater company, there is a fund in place that artists and organizations apply to underwrite the cost of those tours. For the past 4 years, that was my role.
DL: It sounds that you have run the gamut of different positions in the folk music industry. Do you feel that that makes you a better choice for executive director because you’ve seen it from different perspectives?
AF: I can’t speak to why the search firm and hiring committee chose me. They would be the ones to identify that but I think that was part of the asset, is a broad view of the community and the ecology of presenting folk music, presenting in communities at different levels, administering the grants and organizations that are involved. The brutal (sometimes) reality of what it takes to tour that circuit; the years it takes to build traction and credibility; the challenges and joys of being out on the road playing those festivals, and the economics of it… We’re all aiming for the same thing and that is to bring incredible music and inspirational experiences to a community that connects audience and artists and allows that art to be presented and to flourish. Whether that’s a little concert series happening in a church basement in a town with no stop signs in it, or whether that’s a major, international festival that shuts down the downtown core of a city and is flying in artists from around the world, the same thing is intended, the same connecting the cultural dots within a community that relies on folks stepping out of their way to make something happen and countless volunteers joining the ranks to bring it together and ever has it been that way. Go back 40 years and that’s what they were doing with folk festivals. So, you dial it forward. It’s the same thing. The technology might change; the artists change; the standards change; the prices change; but the essence is the same.
I liked what you were saying about Shelter Valley; how they were very egalitarian and there weren’t any sponsors, it was based on donors. What’s your take on sponsorship at Folk Alliance? People get really surprisingly touchy about any kind of overt sponsorship.
AF: It’s not part of my mission at all to come in and change the sponsorship or donation structure. [Folk Alliance] is a very different organization and there are costs associated with mounting the event. There are also completely appropriate ways for sponsors and donors to be involved in supporting the organization and supporting the activities of the organization at the conference and camp and throughout the year… The donation system that already supports the charitable purpose of the organization exists to deliver its mission and one needs the stability and fiscal resources to achieve that, and part of that is to generate revenue such that you are able to continue, not just to mount the conference but to have your staff achieve the charitable goals of the organization. That requires fiscal growth and responsibility, and sponsors come in in a relationship to Folk Alliance that allows that support to happen.
Okay, good answer. What’s your take on the next generation? There’s a big divide between the older generation, the baby boomer generation who laid a lot of the foundations for the folk music industry here in the United States and then, a younger generation who are trying to take some of the reins. How do you plan on integrating the 2 generations or bringing them together? Or do you see them as 2 separate generations?
AF: There are separate generations but I think that is strictly related to age and the social cues that you grew up with in different times. I think that there is so much cross-over in music; we see so many younger artists starting out with the traditional music, whether that’s bluegrass or ballads or whatever it is that has young artists being drawn to the tradition. They may not be hanging out with the musicians from 30 years ago day to day but the conference, I think, is a shining example of what that really boils down to: the music, the quality of the music, and the interest that one has in it. The other thing that I find fascinating about this is that you can be an emerging artist, meaning that you’re just starting, but you might be just starting at 60 and have learned to play in the past 5 years, and have started writing your songs and are coming out to strut your stuff and sing your songs and you may be playing next to a senior artist who is 20 years younger than you because they’ve been at it longer. There are different views of age within the community and the craft but there is an important role to be played by Folk Alliance to connect youth and elders. I think that it’s something that the conference and the organization have done well in the past and will continue to do in terms of honoring the elders within the community.
I think if there is one area that I’d like to continue to shine a light on and brighten, is really the fact that folk isn’t just about the music. It is more of a movement and a community. There’s a reason that bluegrass and blues and singer-songwriters and Celtic and Appalachian-American can all fit within the conference and under the banner of folk. That’s why it’s called Folk Alliance, not a music alliance, because it’s not just about the music, it is profoundly about the community and there is a very particular aspect and ethos to the folk community. It was born of a movement and a time that required voices and community gathering to address social and political and environmental issues. Those issues may have changed but they haven’t gone away. I think that there is still an important role for the folk singer, the folk musician and the folk festivals to continue to be a champion at that place for art to have a resonant role within the community to remind us and challenge us and inspire us to own the future and to be responsible with our time here. The political and community nature of folk music goes back hundreds of years in every culture. It was where the stories were kept and told; it’s where the legends were passed on; it’s where the history was preserved and it’s where important issues were sung about. So, it’s not just about the 60s folk, it’s about the grander folk tradition across every country. It’s not to say that every song must have a political message, it’s not that at all, but there is, definitively, that aspect to folk music and the community that I think is important to honor and recognize that we stand here. This conference exists and the festivals that host all of these musicians exist based on a movement and a real impetus to gather people in a meaningful way.
Thanks to Aengus Finnan for the interview! More information on Folk Alliance International can be found at www.folkalliance.org.
Come to the 2015 Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City from February 18 to 22, 2015. Hearth Music will be there sponsoring The Mayor’s Suite with our friends from The Bluegrass Situation, Quicksilver Productions, and 12X12 Management.
Murder ballads are a strong tradition in bluegrass and country music, even in American roots music in general. Sometimes based on real events and treated like a salacious tabloid, and sometimes based on mysterious circumstances that get treated almost like human universals, murder ballads spoke to the darkest side of humanity and to the injustice we all feel when hearing of a senseless murder. Women come out poorly in most murder ballads, and since many of the more taboo lyrics were cut from murder ballads in the religious communities of the New World, they’re often murdered seemingly without any reason. Supernatural elements were cut as well, and this could mean that the final verses in which the ghost of the women call out or hunt down their murderer also got cut in the new world. This means that we now have a long history of unrepentant male killers without rhyme or reason who get away clean with the murder. This doesn’t sit well with too many people, so folks have been composing or collecting new murder ballads in which the women get their sweet revenge. Here are five great examples:
Abigail Washburn & Béla Fleck – “Shotgun Blues”
Old-time clawhammer banjo maestro Abigail Washburn, also a former member of the killer all-female stringband Uncle Earl, takes a swing at the murder ballads that form the crux of so many old-time songs. Seeking retribution, her new song cuts pretty deep. Here’s an example of a verse: “If I had a shotgun/You’d fall down on your knees/I’d get you talkin’/And you’d start beggin’ please.” The chorus, then, is “So gimme a shotgun/And don’t you run now/Cause if you run now/you know what I’d have to do.”
Rachel Brooke – “The Barnyard”
Country noir singer and songwriter Rachel Brooke has made a career not only from plumbing the dark depths of traditional country music, but also from digging deeper herself. For example, she opened her 2011 album, Down in the Barnyard, with a six minute brutal murder ballad revenge song that graphically painted the picture of a woman’s jealous murder of her man. Embracing in the hay, the man utters her best friend’s name and the heroine of the story sees red. Brooke’s line for his demise is pretty rough: “Twas a hammer of rust that ended his lust.” She continues, “And he fell to the floor with such ease/So I tied him to the stable to finish him later/As I listened to his desperate pleas.” Leaving him tied up, she sets out for her friend’s house, confronting her and later dragging her back to the barnyard to complete a double murder. The heroine ends her days with a plea to the jury and a sentence to the madhouse. It’s a super rough revenge song that channels the brutality of male murder ballads but with an eye to revenge.
Sheila Kay Adams – “Lady Isabel & The Elfin Knight”
Not all the old traditional murder ballads dispatched helpless maidens. Some of them, like the classic Child Ballad “Lady Isabel & The Elfin Knight” (sometimes also called “The Outlandish Knight”), featured some serious ass-kicking from the ladies. The general gist of this ballad is that a young lady is lured away from her family for a tryst with a mysterious lover. Possibly a supernatural creature of some kind in some versions. The lover also entices her to steal her parents’ gold for the tryst. In any case, they retreat to a nearby viewpoint, usually near a lake or a river or a sea. All pretenses of love gone, now the man brags that he has murdered six or seven women already and that our heroine is next! He orders her to get undressed and lie down so he can steal her dress or jewels. Cleverly, the maiden demands he turn around so he doesn’t see her naked body. Once he’s turned around she kicks him into the water and drowns him. The song usually ends with some gloating, as in this version from master Appalachian ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams: “Tis true you’ve drownded six fair maids, but the seventh has drownded you.” Check out Sheila’s singing of this song; she’s a wonderful ballad singer who mentored younger singer Elizabeth Laprelle and who recently received the National Heritage Fellowship (highest honor from the US Government for a traditional artist.)
Sheila Kay Adam’s version of the song (skip to 1:55 in the video for the song):
Jim Lauderdale – “Old Time Angels”
Jim Lauderdale is quite the persona in bluegrass and American roots music. Host of Music City Roots in Nashville, a multiple Grammy and AMA Award winner, and this year he celebrated his 26th album with the release of I’m A Song. Way back in 2013, though, he recorded a great bluegrass song, Old-Time Angels for his album of the same name. It’s a name-dropper of a song, bringing up a bunch of murder ballad victims starting off with the wandering spirit of the Louvin Brothers’ Knoxville Girl. He brings up Omie Wise, Pretty Polly, Darling Cory, and Little Sadie too and the gist of the song is that the spirits of these murdered women from the ballads of yore are still up in the mountains looking to even the score. It’s a nod to the body count of old Appalachian songs and a bit of a warning to the young bucks on today’s traditional scene to watch out for the ghosts that came before and not to take these songs too lightly.
RUNA – “The Ruthless Wife”
Irish American roots band RUNA released their new album, Current Affairs, in 2014 (fwiw Hearth worked pr for them) and had not one but two murder ballads where the woman gets revenge. First was “Henry Lee,” taken from Nick Cave’s cover on his own murder ballad album. Henry Lee’s an old song, Child Ballad 68, and also goes by the name “Young Hunting.” Here’s a brief summary of the song from RUNA’s vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan: ‘girl kills guy and throws him down a well for cheating on her.’ Simple enough! The other song is a really interesting from Shannon’s pen. “The Ruthless Wife” is based on the murder of her great-great grandfather policeman James Lambert. Gunned down on the streets of Philadelphia in 1922, the reasons for Lambert’s murder are somewhat murky. Shannon posits that his wife set him up to go to Blind Joe’s cigar store because she knew he was cheating on her with another woman, Rose Gallagher. After Lambert’s murder by the gangster (and dope fiend) Frank Donnelly, young Rose Gallagher took poison to take her own life. Regretting this, she drove to the hospital but later died. It’s a brutal story, and RUNA bring across the passion of the scorned wife who sets the whole thing in motion.
Cassette Explorers: Maghreb Lyon
Cassette Tape Explorers: The Maghrebi Experience in Lyon, France
by Devon Leger
The three CD set Maghreb Lyon was released earlier this year on archival French record label Frémeux et Associés. It’s a marvelous collection of old cassette tapes from N. African musicians living in Lyon, France. Lyon is an industrial town in the East of France that’s actually not known for its immigrant culture or for being near any ports of entry. Many of the N. African immigrants came from Maghrebi cultures (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia especially) to Lyon to work in coal mining or industrial factories. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, this generation gathered in cafes and created a vibrant music scene that was turning out hundreds of small-run cassette tapes. The music on these tapes is raw and full of life; full of angst too about the plight of N. African immigrants in French society. As we detail in the interview, the 80s and 90s were a tough time for Arabs in France, and the French have always had a contentious relationship with their immigrant population. Recognizing the context of this music, Place du Pont Productions and The Center for Traditional Music in the Rhône-Alpes (both of whom produced this compilation) split the CDs into themes. Disc 1 is “Exile and Belonging”, Disc 2 is “Political and Social Chronicles”, and Disc 3 is “Love, Friendship, and Betrayal”. It’s an interesting way to compile some of these recordings and it creates a series of concept albums.
We wanted to know more about the culture and context behind these recordings, so we started up a Skype interview with Péroline Barbet of the CMTRA (Center for Traditional Music in the Rhône-Alpes) and Omar El Maghrebi, a Moroccan artist and long-time Lyon resident who’s one of the key artists on the recordings. The interview was translated from the French by myself and my father Louis Léger, so please excuse any errors in the translation. If you’d like a copy of the interview in French, please contact me: email@example.com
KITHFOLK Interview with Péroline Barbet and Omar El Maghrebi
Lyon’s not necessarily known as a key place in France for immigrants, or not like Paris and Marseille. What brought people to Lyon? Why Lyon?
Péroline Barbet: It’s economic factors that move people, but in the case of Algeria, it’s also political factors. Lyon is an industrial center, which brings people for work. It’s also a big city and a very culturally diverse city that has welcomed different waves of immigration. Like everywhere else in France, Maghrebi (N. African) immigration is key, but there are also Armenian, African, Asian immgrants now. Lyon is also a zone of passage for immigrants. A lot of immigrants arrive, in the case of N. Africans, at Marseille, and when they can’t set down roots in that city, they head North for Lyon or Paris. I’m not an expert on the history of N. African immigration, so I can only give generalities, but it seems like most of the music industry and the cassette tapes in Lyon originate in the East of Algeria. The city of Sétif in particular, and so the most represented genres–genres are not well known in France–are the Sétifi and Chaoui genres of music.
What is Sétifi and Chaoui music? How would you describe this music?
PB: Chaoui music is berber music, and Sétifi music comes from the folklore of Eastern Algeria. It’s hard to explain in musicology terms.
What are the instruments used? Is this music more folkloric than, say, Raï, which uses a lot of electronic instrument?
PB: The flute is typical, also singing and the violin. There is also the Malouf music from Constantine, Algeria, which is represented by the artist Salah El Guelmi on this compilation. That’s more Arabic-Andalusian music that he made popular and we called it Malouf. There’s an important center in Lyon for the Malouf music of Constantine.
Péroline, where did you find the cassettes that made up this compilation?
PB: The project comes from a collection of cassettes that was gathered by a Lyon musician who was also a sociologist, Richard Monségu. In the 90s, he did sociological fieldwork around the musical cafes in Lyon. He studied the cafés and the communities of musicians who played in the cafes. During his fieldwork, he collected over 50 cassette tapes. Once his work was finished, he became a musician and he makes world music today. The cassettes lay dormant at his place. One day, he came with these cassettes to the CMTRA (Traditional Music Center of the Rhônes-Alpes Region). For an event in 2009, we created a little audio documentary around these cassettes, and I got a chance to discover them, listen to them, also to look at them. The covers of the cassettes showed interesting sides to the music as well. At that time, I saw that there was something interesting we could do with these cassettes. What interested me was the unique sound of the cassettes; it’s a very raw sound that is very symptomatic of the 80s. There are a lot of surprises, a lot of special moments that you wouldn’t find on a more planned-out recording by someone from outside the culture. Once I started working on this I saw that it was an enormous project. We had a couple hundred of these cassettes, but there are thousands that were published by the Lyon record labels, stores, and distribution centers. Lots of these cassettes were recorded with musicians from Lyon, but a large part of it was recorded with singers from Paris, Marseille, and stars from Algeria and Morocco who had come to Lyon for a show or for a wedding party. These stars recorded in Lyon studios while they were here and the next day the cassettes were pressed, distributed, and sold in a very rapid market. It is an economy that takes advantage of these circumstances and that establishes itself very quickly according to what’s going on at the moment.
But you didn’t put the famous musicians on this compilation?
PM: The goal was mainly to work with local resources. I decided to focus on the local musicians where music wasn’t a profession; they’d record and perform after hours from their day jobs. Workers by day, musicians by night, one foot in both worlds, the musical world and the factory.
I have some questions for Omar… Omar, you live in Lyon right? Where are you from originally?
Omar El Maghrebi: Yes, of course I live in Lyon. I’m from Morocco originally, from the South, from around Agadir. I go back every two or three years, depending. I’m always in contact with Morocco.
A lot of the musicians on the compilation come from Algeria and Tunisia. Were there many Moroccans in Lyon at the time?
OEM: There’s more of an Algerian community than a Moroccan community in Lyon. There’s a lot of people from the East of Algeria, as Péroline mentioned. There are more Moroccans in the Saint-Etienne region, because of the [coal] mines. So the Moroccans worked there, but now we’re starting to see some Moroccan communities in Lyon.
Are you playing Moroccan music on the compilation?
OEM: I do a little bit. Mostly what I do are topical songs. I don’t do covers, so these are original. I do a bit of research, and I write in between the Moroccan and the Algerian styles, I try to move between the two. I don’t play typical Moroccan music, I try to blend the two.
In this cassette era, were you playing in bars or shops?
OEM: I started performing in the bars in 1976. I write these songs on themes that correspond to the sociology of immigration. What we live between us. I’m creating an image of the Moroccan or Algerian immigrant here, and sending it to people back home.
What inspired you to do this? To be a kind of musical journalist?
OEM: First off, I loved music since I was a child and played percussion. I started at 13 years old. I played Moroccan bass, I played the darbukka, but I sang a bit too. I loved singing and once I got to France I started working, and started playing for evenings with my friends in the housing unit where we lived. We were all bachelors, and Saturday afternoons we’d pass the time hanging out and playing music. Then I met an Algerian musician, a guitarist. He was playing at the bistro in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon. He was playing his guitar by himself, and I started to sing and he would accompany me. We had a small group and started playing out and that’s where it all started…
But the inspiration for the songs… I studied a bit of Arabic in school, and I liked philosophy. My first inspiration was to write the song called “Ma mère” (My Mother). I’d met an older Algerian singer who was a nurse in a hospital in Lyon who sang songs that were like recitations. When I met her, she said “Why don’t you make your own songs?” And that’s where I wrote my first song.
Where did you learn to play the oud?
OEM: I started learning the oud afterwards. I was playing the bendir [a N. African frame drum]. Living in Lyon, I had the chance to go often to Marseille or Paris, and I met other artists. I met a Moroccan violinist who played in the cabarets in Paris. In Lyon, we didn’t have cabarets like in Marseille or Paris. This musician told me I should learn the oud. I worked on learning the oud while also working full-time at my job.
What was your job?
OEM: I work in a factory. I’m an industrial worker. I came from Morocco to work in France.
Can you talk about your song, “J’en ai marre” (I’m Fed Up)? I loved this song and the lyrics are in French and Arabic, but what is it talking about?
OEM: The song “J’en ai marre” is a song that I wrote in the 90s because the Magrebian (N. African) community in France, at a certain point, was the target of all the political parties. Immigration became a bit of a problem in France, and everyone was talking about it. Then we had the Front National [French extreme right-wing political party] talking about immigrants, and other politicians, and I was inspired to write the song because there was too much crap being said. People were getting killed. There were a lot of problems for immigrants like police stops… I was fed up. I was fed up because I was a factory worker. For the immigrants there was nothing to do but go to work and then go home. When we went outside, we’d get stopped by the cops. After writing the song, in 1997, I had two cops who stopped me at a red light. I didn’t see them coming. They pointed their guns at me and wanted to arrest me. And that was after the song! You see, these kinds of things happened at that time. Lots of police stops, and because of that I wrote the song, just to give an idea of what it meant to be an immigrant in France.
Do you think that all those police stops at that time created a kind of insular community? Because people were afraid to go out?
OEM: The problem wasn’t being afraid to go out, the problem was being profiled. We weren’t afraid of the laws or the rules, it was that we were being profiled.
Targeted, you mean?
OEM: Yeah, exactly. That’s the word. Immigrants were targeted, they became a target for everything…
PB: Can I add something? What’s interesting about these three CDs is that they’re thematic. It’s true that love songs, party songs, and songs of exile tied to immigration are themes that run through immigrant music in France and Maghrebi music since forever, or mostly in the 1930s. On the other hand, the compilation shows that in the 80s these community-based singers started taking a position and denouncing the injustices, humiliations, and mounting racism in France. There are two factors in play, first an exasperation at not being recognized (these artists had been around since the 70s), and then there was a more tolerant political context because of the years under [French president François] Mitterand starting in 1981, which allowed a lot more tolerance. So they started allowing more, and then these songs came out. Omar, in particular, was a key songwriter. There was also a singer from Saint-Etienne, Zaïdi El Batni. There were a lot of very virulent political songs. From this came a movement of French rock coming out of immigrant communities that wasn’t like Rachid Taha. The music was different; we could say that they invented a kind of music that came from here, from Lyon.
Do you think that things are better now in France? Is there still a target on North Africans in Lyon?
OEM: The target will always be there... [long pause] The target will always be there.
So there hasn’t been much change, you think, since the 90s.
OEM: It’s up to the people themselves to change. Don’t wait for society to change, because society is waiting for you to come to it. Our generation, we have kids, and these kids are now 20, 25, or 30 years old. It’s different. So, our generation, we see differently. And the other generation, they can’t know what’s going to happen and they have a different mentality. That’s why the immigrant will always be sad and unhappy, because the idea of France that he has when he arrives will be changed by what society has in store for him. People are fragile, dear friend. They have their ideas, their structure, and then things start to crack. The child passes through the crack, the father passes through, the mother passes through, and afterwards, everyone’s trying to find themselves. Despite all this, society hasn’t changed. It’s too bad. It’s too bad because the sadness the immigrant felt at 25 or 30 years old comes back when he’s 60, even when he’s retired, because he couldn’t put anything aside to provide for himself. Target or no target, everyone has to create their own environment themselves.
Are you still playing music, Omar?
OEM: Less and less, because traditional music has less influence today. Since the arrival of pop, music is more for the youth these days, which is normal, but for me I haven’t changed directions. I stayed with traditional music, it doesn’t go very far, but it’s what carries me, you see what I’m saying? I didn’t get into techno music. I try to modernize my music a bit to satisfy people, but not that much because I want to stay in my idiom. I think I’ll get back into it when I retire, and I’ll take up the traditional music again.
PB: Omar’s part of the group of artists who resisted the synthesizers, the drum machines, the wave of modern music that the younger generations in the 80s rode on. There are a couple recordings like that on the same disc that has the song “J’en ai marre.” In particular, that song of Omar’s was recorded with the sound of that era, with reverb, with a drum machine, and all that. But, Omar explained to us the other day that this song was sped up by the demands of 1980s dance music because the producer wanted to get people dancing. That’s what producers of that era wanted. For Omar, his thing is that it’s all about the message, the lyrics, and this isn’t the case of all the other singers, but the texts of his songs make you think.
In any case, I can say that the singers today, the singers who I could meet with who still live in Lyon, all say that it’s not like it was before. It’s a recurring discourse and it’s true that the context isn’t the same anymore. There’s no more music in the cafes, because the cafes don’t play the same role of a meeting place for the community. The support for the music has evolved and the public has evolved also. The young generations speak less Arabic, so they don’t always understand the songs. The themes of the songs don’t concern them anymore, because these songs about the first wave of immigrants don’t touch them. The music doesn’t live anymore and it’s in the middle of disappearing, you could say. On the other hand, and I’m in the middle of experiencing this too, it’s starting to come back because this CD came out in May 2014, so it’s starting to circulate a bit. I’m starting to meet young people in the second or third generation who grew up with the cassettes and who knew the singers. These people tell me, “This is my heritage.” These old singers didn’t leave many traces. That’s why the cassettes are so important, they’re supporting the memory and history, and they’re witnessing the past. I hope, modestly, that this will contribute to renewing and bringing back an awareness of the heritage, of the story of this immigration.
OEM: In any case, for my part, I’ve been playing at a restaurant in Lyon with my oud, and people are starting to come by to see me. They’re interested in the words, in the real music. People today are so overwhelmed, and they want to come back to reality. It’s difficult, because there are a lot of things that don’t work anymore. The new generation speaks French. You have to speak to them in a bilingual Arabic and if you sing in this language, you have to sing a lot faster, to do a bit of rock n’ roll. That’s the way it works with them, and that makes sense, because it’s their time now.
PB: The other thing about these old songs is that they use a lot of words in dialects. They’re very hard to understand and translate, because you’ll have these songs in Oranais [from Oran in Algeria] or Sétifi, with words in Chaoui, so much so that when people listen, they’ll understand some singers, but not others. It’s not only a musical diversity; it’s a diversity of languages and expressions.
OEM: That’s what the singers from here did; they were singers from various regions. Each one sang in the style of his region, with his own accent and his mannerisms. You see, if you’re Moroccan and you sing in a style from the Casablanca region, the people of Casablanca will hardly understand, and then the people from Agadir in Southern Morocco, won’t understand anything…
PB: That’s what happened in the cafes. All these regionalisms started mixing together in the same places in Lyon and all of a sudden started influencing and changing each other. The music got blended together and the languages too.
Many thanks to Péroline and Omar for being so willing to talk about the music and culture behind these vibrant recordings.
Interview by Devon Leger
Photos of Southwest Louisiana by Lucius Fontenot
Photos of Preston Frank by Jim Miller and Rosie Newton
Zydeco and Creole music in Louisiana can be traced via the family trees that pass this music down from generation to generation. That’s multiple generations of ground-breaking musicians that went into developing this music and that continue to push its boundaries today. In Southwest Louisiana, the Frank family is one of the best-known Zydeco and Creole music families, and rightly so. Keith Frank rules the Zydeco dancehall circuit with this dance-friendly Zydeco anthems and reputation as the best of the best. But he comes from a family of Creole musicians with strong ties to the tradition. His father, Preston Frank, is one of the elders of today’s Zydeco music and has lived his life situated at the locus point when Creole music became La-La became Zydeco in the 1950s. Thanks to Jim Miller (Donna the Buffalo, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer, Red Dog Run), I was able to call up Preston at his home in Soileau, Louisiana to interview him a bit to find out how Zydeco is passed along in his family. And thanks to Lucius Fontenot of Valcour Records for sending us his beautiful photos of SW Louisiana and the Creole music scene.
KITHFOLK Interview with Preston Frank
Preston Frank: My dad’s grandfather was a fiddle player and he played with Dennis McGee. My grandfather played accordion but I never heard him play. He saw me when I bought my accordion. He played music, but some of it… he just let it all go. If you don’t practice, it leaves, you know? You gotta keep working at it. If you don’t work at it, it leaves.
Devon: What was your grandfather’s name?
Preston: Joseph Frank and my dad’s great grandfather’s name was Joseph Frank too…
My mom and dad never did speak Creole French, always English. I learned French after I had got more grown like 18, 19 because my grandmother on my mom’s side couldn’t speak English and my grandfather on my daddy’s side couldn’t speak English. To get your point across, you had to learn how to speak French and Creole in order for them to understand you and talk to you. So, that’s what made me more interested in trying to learn, because my grandmother would cook food for me in the evening-time when I got off of work and I had to tell her what I wanted for food… I learned it quick. It didn’t take me long to learn how to say some of the food stuff.
Do you think Zydeco has always been a family music?
Preston: I wouldn’t say all of it comes from families but it’s better when the family’s all together, because then, everybody knows what you’re going to do. It’s not all the time family, that music there, it’s all about family, because you’ve got Cajun bands that are family too... I guess it’s about how you started. The Frank family has been doing it. That’s why I started my kids playing with me because we were all together. We were practicing and rehearsing right in the house.
What was the name of the group when it was you and your kids?
Preston: The name was Preston Frank Family Zydeco Band. When I started out it was: Preston Frank and the Soileau Zydeco Band.
Did you play for a lot of dances at the time? Did you record albums?
Preston: Yeah, it was Slim’s [Y-Ki-Ki], Richard’s [Club] and they had a club right by my house, Cesar’s Palace, playing Mardi Gras and different things that was what we did most.
How long did the family band last?
Preston: Family band? The family band’s still there; we don’t play that much together though. The family band is still there, but Keith went on his own. Sometimes we do stuff together, sometimes we don’t. We’re not able to do it together because that’s what he does for a living, and I was working at the time but now I’m retired. This weekend, the family’s going to be together, not all of us, because my daughter got injured, got her leg messed up, so she can’t come with us to upstate New York. I leave tomorrow. It’ll be Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Who else from the family is in that band?
Preston: Both of my sons are in it. Keith and Brad, my youngest son, Jennifer’s my daughter. She plays bass and Brad’s the drummer, Keith plays guitar. When the family is together, Keith plays guitar and Jennifer the bass and Brad drums. I got my grandson play scrub board with us now.
That’s 3 generations there.
Preston: Keep it in the family. (laughing) Keep it in the family.
What’s your advice for keeping music in the family? How did you manage to keep your family together so tight with the music for all these years?
Preston: (laughing) Any family will have some problems sometimes but I always knew that when they had something they didn’t understand I came and straightened it out. All their childhood, we tried to work together. Just wait til later; just talk it over. And probably, it will settle down.
Does the music bring your family closer together, do you feel?
Preston: Sometimes it does. I feel like it does.
Sometimes it doesn’t?
Preston: Yeah, sometimes it doesn’t. (laughing) It all depends on how they work together. Keith’s been together with his band now, he’s been together for a little while.
I was 25, 28 when I started [learning the music]. I was much older when I started doing this. My children, they were much younger then. My children are the fifth generation in the Frank musicians.
I bought some records to try and learn but what I was hearing was not the same thing I was doing on accordion. My dad helped me to learn to like the way I played the accordion, because he knew the music and I didn’t, because I had never even listened to it. He helped me and he would show me. I’d go to work in the daytime and in the evening time, I’d come back home and I’d go meet him and he’d show me some songs, step by step. He showed me step by step and I learned from what he had showed me, and I’d go back home and practice, practice, practice. The only thing I was doing was, I was memorizing the song, what he had showed me. I’d just memorize it and, sometimes, I wouldn’t quite get what he had showed me the night before and then, go back the next night and get some more. That’s how I learned: to get to where I could understand him, go listen to him and what he had showed me, step by step. I’d just memorize what he was showing and from there, I started doing this stuff on my own.
What was La La music? I keep hearing about La La music. What was La La music?
Preston: It was Acadian music at that time. It was mostly accordion, fiddle, and guitar and sometimes a bass. I don’t think they had drums back in them days.
Was it family music or dance music?
Preston: It was dance music but it was La La. It didn’t have that rhythm and blues style… It was almost like a street rhythm.
I don’t play that new Zydeco or Acadian music. I play Creole Zydeco. It’s in between both of them. It’s got a good drive and a good swing to it…
The young people now-a-days they’re dancing more, all that jumping and things. So, they have to keep up that style, like a long time ago, when it was rock and roll music; then, they changed to disco; then, they changed it again to rap. I think it was the Zydeco musicians, when they went to Nouveau [Zydeco], they changed the style for younger people. There’s more drive to what they’re doing, than it was in my time… I try to keep the tradition alive, that’s what you have to do.For the young musicians, it can’t say anything in French, it all has to be in English because a lot of them don’t speak French at all. That’s where the difference is. I can sing in French but they all have to sing in English.
Your son, Keith… he’s part of the Nouveau Zydeco wave, right?
Preston: Yeah, well, he does it all. He can do the Nouveau [Zydeco] and then, he can play identical to like I play ,which I can’t do quite the same like he does. He can do it any kind of way that it need to be done. The old-fashioned or the new one, or La La, it’s all the same to him.
Do you ever play the old La La music with him?
Preston: I never did try much to do it, but he played it, but he put a “pep in the step” and more drive in it. He can play the old stuff if he needs to.
Do you guys ever get together and jam on the old stuff?
Preston: It’s very rare that you can catch him to jam. We do some jamming for us but if you can catch him to do so jamming. My uncle and my dad and I would get together and he would come jam with us but it’s not that often you can catch him because all the time, he busy, busy.
Preston: "All the people got their own taste of what they want."
What do you remember from the house dances when you were younger? Do you remember what they were like at all?
Preston: The only thing I can remember was the people, always family people, kinfolks. They’d come to the house dance and make some big parties and gumbo and cook and then play music and everybody was having a good time.
Did they clear out the house, clear the furniture out for dancing? Did they have to move the house around?
Preston: They moved the furniture around for the people to be able to dance in it but after everything was over, they put the furniture back where it was supposed to be. They had some room; there was an old tub. People would come and they would start playing; they would dance to the music you were playing. They ended up being house parties.
Do they still have house dances and house parties for Creole music?
Preston: No, they don’t have that anymore. Things have changed in dance.
So, where do people dance now? They dance in the big dancehalls?
Preston: Most of the time, yeah. Dance in dancehalls. If you go to a dance, it’ll be in a dancehall. Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki is still open and I think, El Sid-Os, that’s another club that is open. They’ve got some places still doing dances different but they’ve got some place called Cowboy in Lafayette, different places. I think most of the music is being done, played, would be in the Lafayette area. You wouldn’t have far to travel because Lafayette or Opelousas.
When you were younger, did Cajun and Creole musicians play together a lot? Or were they real separate?
Preston: When I first got some records, I bought a lot of music that was Cajun music at that time. That’s the first style I started from that style there. Then I changed my style after. To change with more driving, more like a rhythm and blues flavor in it.
Did the rhythm and blues come from Clifton?
Preston: I think he mixed it up too. It came from different music in the past. You just mix it all up and I guess that’s why they call it Zydeco. It’s a mix. “ No salt on the beans” It’s just a mix with more rhythm in it and more drive in it and that boom sound in it.
Young Pashtun Musicians in Pakistan
Rebel Renaissance: Young Pashtun Musicians Wrestle with Rock and Tradition in Northwestern Pakistan’s Underground
by Tristra Newyear Yeager
“Love the music, hate the musician.” That’s the bind musicians of Pashtun heritage in Pakistan face, a challenge only made tougher as extremist religious doctrines have come to dominate public discourse.
Yet young, well-educated Pashtun musicians are answering this challenge, creating a small wave of pop-powered work that draws ingeniously on tradition. Asserting one’s roots may seem like a conservative act, but for Pashtun artists, it has become an act of defiance and a source of fresh inspiration. It’s a lifeline in a time of stultifying dogma and trying violence.
Some of the touchstones of this movement: the rubab, or traditional lute, and the progressive poetry of wild philosophers, whose words ring with an eerie truth—and lend themselves to really catchy songs. Despite the lack of public venues for performing in Northwestern Pakistan (and their paucity in the country as a whole) and the threats to instrument makers and music stores, music thrives in private homes and in inner worlds. The underground has slowly begun to break out into broader audiences, both in Pakistan and abroad, thanks in part to savvy producers like Peshawar-based Zeeshan Parwez.
Two groups stand out for their artistic clarity and intriguing approaches to traditional sounds: Khumaryaan and Yasir & Jawad. While Khumaryaan offers a freeform, joyful instrumental take on Pashtun roots, Yasir & Jawad (actually a trio of musicians) make songs that shine a light on the individual’s struggle—grim and uplifting—in conflicted times.
Sometimes, incredible joy springs out of confusion and hardship. That’s the feeling that Khumaryaan (“The Intoxicators”) conveys effortlessly. The project began when Farhan Bogra picked up the rubab, the instrumental mainstay of Pashtun music, only to be chided that he needed to put it down immediately. “It was an instrument for the uneducated,” he explains.
Bogra went on to teach himself and then record a series of videos so others could learn to play. In this act of personal rebellion and with the determined hope to bring Pashtun music and culture into the regional and international mainstream, the instrumental quartet began taking the sound of home jam sessions to the stage.
With addictive passion and trancelike instrumental pieces, Khumariyaan demonstrate why Bogra couldn’t just leave the rubab. The signature Pashtun instrument can have the forceful twang of a banjo or a percussive, hypnotic thrum. It intertwines with the strong sonic qualities of other rare traditional instruments, including the djembe-like zerbaghali (clay or wooden goblet drum) and Pashtun sitar (long-necked lute). Underpinning these instruments with driving acoustic guitars, Khumariyaan’s rolling pulse and richly layered sound builds to high-spirited intensity. It’s an addictive and accessible pleasure that’s ushering in a new era for an eclipsed music.
Without lyrics, Khumariyaan’s pieces can move audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds instantly. “Sometimes, it can feel much harder to get the audience connect to a piece that’s purely instrumental,” says supporting guitarist Aamer Shafiq. “But if you make that connection and you’re targeting multi-cultures, then instrumentals allow everyone to relate. It’s bridge building.”
“In our country and particularly in our region, playing music, or indeed anything that is art, is a form of resistance, a resistance that many have paid for with their lives, yet the Pashtuns love their music,” reflects lead guitarist Sparlay Rawail. “By introducing Western and local instruments in one line up, we hope to remove the stereotypes from our culture, and bring back a love for music, and indeed, more importantly, a love for the musician. We are very lucky in regard to the support we have in our homeland from the public.”
Khumaryaan has been touring the US this autumn as part of Center Stage, an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
If you watch one music video from Pakistan, watch “Niqab.” With this song, this trio of friends forges an unmistakable link between the sentiments of the past and the present’s intense sonic statements, between social forces and painful introspection.
The band illuminates the shadowy inner world of individuals struggling in a community and world increasingly obsessed with ideas of physical and religious purity, yet celebrates the striking endurance of the heart and hope. Songs like the indie-rock gem “Reidi Gul” and the anthemic “Jaam” show how much poetry can speak to pop sensibilities. This is an act of rebellion, much like that of rock’s golden era in the US and UK.
The amalgam of rock and trad came intuitively to Yasir & Jawad, who met when both attended collage in Lahore. They met in their dorm, hanging out and jamming. Yasir had picked up the rubab, the traditional Pashtun lute, several years before, while Jawad had taught himself to play guitar by checking out videos by musicians like Neil Young. In their hometowns, there were no music schools, no instrument shops, no clubs and no sheet music. Everyone learned on their own, sometimes scanning MTV to catch the fingering of a certain guitar lick.
“When we started playing together, we weren’t a band. In 2008, we were sitting in our university hostel. I had brought my guitar, and Yasir said, ‘Let’s jam and see what happens.’ It was guitar and rubab, and I was doing the vocals. It wasn’t even a song, it was more of a rough jam session.” The two stringed instruments dialogue well, the rubab’s softer timbre weaving addictively through the guitar’s metallic resonance.
After vocalist Wali Khan Aurakzai, a native of Northwestern Pakistan’s Orakzai Agency, joined the duo, the group began to explore Pashtun culture in greater depth, in particular the poems of 20th-century poet-philosopher Ghani Khan. The move, seemingly unexpected to those unfamiliar with Ghani Khan’s work, made perfect sense to the young artists: “We can relate to him more than we can relate to any other voice,” states Jawad. “He’s open about his thoughts. He’s a rebel.” Wali’s raw-edged voice has the right intensity and emotional commitment to render Ghani Khan’s words meaningful, even to contemporary listeners unfamiliar with the language.
The free-thinking poet has been a source of inspiration for Pashtun singers and musicians for decades. Yet his words and his ideas take on a particular color in light of the current state of affairs in Ghani Khan’s homeland. “Ghani was against religious extremism,” Jawad notes. “He talks about freedom and expressing yourself, about feeling an open connection with yourself and beyond.” It’s a freedom Pashtun musicians are claiming for themselves.
Americana Music Association Festival 2014
The Americana Music Festival and Conference 2014: Select Interviews
by Mindie Lind
Last September HearthPR sent me off to Nashville for my very first big-girl trip to the Americana Music Association Conference. And oh what a trip it was. My days were spent lugging bags of freebees from one interesting music industry panel to the next, undoubtedly hung-over from the night before. It was pretty surreal to spend my evenings hopping from bar-to-bar, listening to some of the best acts in music today in one of the most saturated music towns in America, and calling it all work. At some point during the festival I began to notice the low hum of a question being screamed over the mounds of booze and crowds, as strangers were both embarrassed and eager to ask each other, “What is Americana?”
I remember it hitting me that I really had no idea what Americana really is. Most folks refer to the genre as a contemporary potpourri of country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, while others would spout off some tidbits about the early 90’s, when Americana was first reported on radio charts. Audiences shrugged and proposed, “American roots music?” “Modern day country?”. Whatever this elusive genre refers to, Americana’s roster is impressive, by any criterion: from Loretta Lynn to Emmylou Harris, Milk Carton Kids to Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Fairfield Four to Valerie June… I left Nashville thinking two things: 1.) What Americana is still remains nameless to me [and] 2.) I do very much like it. I was also quite overwhelmed by the idea that everyone in Americana music, including those at the AMA Conference, came from their own specific place and are their own specific marker for what American music looks like today, and this only adds to the very special, very awesome mélange that is the modern American roots scene.
With that said, I am excited to share with you three quick-stop interviews I had with three very different Americana artists: from The Cactus Blossoms’ new engagement with the Americana community and life on the road, to Shakey Graves’ unofficial induction into roots royalty, and Leo Bud Welch’s long life/late arrival sharing his music with a larger audience, here are three conversations I had at the 2014 Americana Music Association Conference.
The Cactus Blossoms at AMA
Mindie Lind: Who have you seen here that’s been inspiring to you? Or intimidating?
Cactus Blossoms: At the AMA Awards, sitting next to a gal I asked, “What’s your name?” And she said, “Suzy Bogguss.” I had heard of her. My dad had her albums when I was young… “That’s cool and you’re sitting right beside me watching Loretta Lynn”. We got to see Loretta Lynn sing, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” on the 54th anniversary, to the day, of her first performance there. That one song was the highlight of the week for me.
So, you guys are playing around a lot and travelling? What’s it like to be travelling musicians? Is that new for you? Or is it old hat?
CB: We first started travelling around playing music 2 years ago and have slowly been ramping up the amount of time we’re on the road. It’s been a lot of fun, seeing towns and driving through open spaces. This year we’ve been to way more cities and states than I’ve been to in my whole life before that. So, it’s been really fun to go to all corners of the states. We’ve still got to make it out to Europe one of these times.
So the tour cliché is: Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. True or False?
CB: Yeah, I think those things are all out there. It’s just what you prefer to indulge in. For “Mötley Crüe” there might be a bunch of girls backstage, wrangled up by their manager. Some bands probably have that on their contract as a rider but I think, for most people, it’s just that they’re meeting a lot of people, there’s no strings attached… I think that happens a lot. I think they’re all very available to certain people who travel. If you want them to be available; if you’re looking for drugs, you’ll know people, you’ll find it. If you’re looking for women in every town you go to, you’ll find them…We’re lucky if we can just get a little Rock N’ Roll going on!
What do you want to do with your music in this next year?
CB: Release a new album. We started recording and we’re really excited about it.
Do you have any goals for the album?
CB: We’ve never had really specific goals other than to work on what we’re doing and accomplish what we want to do musically. So far that has brought good things our way, as we improve with what we’re doing, better things happen. I think that I’m open to wherever it leads. I’m most concerned about the music and seeing where that leads us. Playing old-fashioned music, I understand that people want to put that in a niche. I like the idea of all sorts of people getting into what we’re doing and not just Old-Timey or purist-mind set people who think it’s neat because it’s old-fashioned. I would like to reach a bigger audience. I think, at this point, it’s been fun to become familiar with more people around the country that are doing the same thing as us. Then finding that we’re in good company and following the trails.
What’s up next for y’all?
CB: Next week, we’ll be on the road with Dale Watson for a while and we’ve done some shows with JD McPherson and those are some of our favorite performers out there right now. We really are big fans of them, so, some of that’s already happening. They’re older than us and they have things to teach us and tell us and show us. It’s been fun to find some mentor-figures in the music world because the only way to really meet them is to be at the same place at the same time and happen to see each other play.
Shakey Graves, interview at The Basement, Nashville, TN
Mindie Lind: So you grew up in Austin?
Shakey Graves: Yeah, my parent’s property was a bunch of 20-somethings in the 80s who moved into a house together. It was a big, old seven-bedroom farmhouse and we had a full-sized dance studio inside and there was a modern dance company and their kids. I grew up with nuts and bolts weirdos. I guess Austin is a good example of how my music ends up sounding. It’s not country music.
What are the themes in your music?
SG: My mom’s always been a playwright, it’s all theatrical. I grew up surrounded by a lot of complex themes as opposed to being surrounded by a music family that writes straight-up bluegrass or traditional blues music. My saturation was: early memories of my mom doing this really fucking, crazy play that has Nazis in it and angels. It’s about a Hispanic girl. It’s all linear but then it will dissipates into playing on the theme, “Is everyone dead?” A lot of that central Texas, Mexican Juju theater bullshit has permeated into my own storytelling … I’ve always appreciated Elliot Smith’s songwriting contrast stuff because he writes really bitterly a lot of the time and then it’s this super sweet song.
Your songs do that a bit. The songs are really pretty and the lyrics can be quite punk. I love that line, “City boys in country clothes.” …that position is punk as fuck! Is that coming from what your saying is your mom’s influence/the weirdo theater folks?
SG: My taste, as I got into music, is what I think of as “genre smashing”. In high school, I played with a bunch of shitty scream stuff and got into some really obscurebasement noise bands. I loved the sound and what they would sing about and how they would juxtapose everything and having a band called, “Girls Poop Too”.
You named a band “Girls Poop Too”?
SG: I didn’t entirely name “Girls Poop Too.” That was a collective effort. But we can name bands all day; we make great band names. If anything, I’ve named more bands than I’ve ever played in.
Have you had any moments with your music where you thought, Hey, my 12 year old self would totally think this is awesome.
SG: At Newport [Folk Festival] they do the big finale. The whole Newport experience was mind blowingly surreal. I didn’t realize that this was the first year at Newport Folk Festival that Pete Seeger hadn’t been there … With Pete not there to lead, he’s been the icon in that festival for a long time, it was a big changing of the guard. There’s all these people that I had albums of in high school, like Bryan Adams was there, Conor Oberst was there, Jeff Tweedy, Nora Jones. You’re just like, “Is that Nora Jones?” And then Nora Jones is like…“Yeah, dude, and that’s so and so.”… And at some point, we’re all watching Mavis Staples murdering it on stage…For the big finale, everybody goes on to sing “We Shall Overcome”
Do you know that song? Is there a teleprompter?
SG: No, because that used to be Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger used to go out and sing, “These are the words” and instead, it’s a whole new band of young musicians that are doing their own thing, the flag’s flying at half-mast and Mavis is out there leading it but it’s totally different. It doesn’t seem to matter and it’s sweet in a tragic way…But that moment was absolutely insane. You can’t take that away from me.
Leo “Bud” Welch at AMA
Mindie Lind: Tell me a little about playing music when you were young
Leo ‘Bud’ Welch: I thank God that my first cousin had a guitar, my bigger brother and I started picking and banging on his guitar and learned how to play guitar and learned how to sing and learned how to tune them. I been playing guitar for about 67 years now. I was born in 1932.
How old does that make you? I’m bad at math.
LBW: Well, I’m 82. This year I was 82, the 22nd day of March. I had a twin sister; her name was Cleo. Leo and Cleo, and she died in Chicago…. we buried her way out on the South side. She stayed there for 30 years, never did come back to Mississippi and I never did go up there. I don’t know why but that’s how long we stayed apart. She was my twin sister. I have some twin daughters myself.
Your album just dropped January of this year. So, what’s that like for you to get noticed so late in the game?
LBW: It’s a great pleasure and a great interest to know that I’m getting noticed all over the world. All these years I’ve just been playing, I call it “back in the sticks, living in the country”, playing in the country and I wasn’t going to any big cities. Since Vencie Varnado got to be my manager, I’ve been out on the road, for about 14, coming up to 15 months now. I’ve been doing great because if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here tonight. He’s the one who takes care of me, keeps me on the road. If it ain’t too far, he drives; if it’s too far, we fly. I used to say I wouldn’t ride in an airplane. The first ride and then the second ride convinced me; ain’t no big deal to be on an airplane. That’s the best ride you can get. I love riding the planes now.
Me too. It’s a miracle. You’re in the sky, flying like a bird.
LBW: Flying like a bird and look down on the clouds and above the clouds and all that.
Okay Leo, I got one more question for you. What do you think the biggest divide between blues and gospel is?
LBW: Some people call it spiritual. They don’t believe in the blues but there ain’t no difference. Blues is something about your life and the gospel is something all about Jesus Christ. But I don’t see any difference. It’s all good music….but the blues are greater in my book. I just love the Blues.
Why do you love the blues? Do you like being sad?
LBW: Oh, yeah. I love the blues because sometimes my girlfriend likes me to sing the blues about her.
Four Questions for Sam Amidon
Four Interview Questions for Sam Amidon
by Devon Leger
Sam Amidon’s new album, Lily-O, dropped in 2014. Again pulling from the deep wells of American ballads, he creates a sparse and haunting landscape for these old songs in new settings. Here are four interview questions I wanted to ask him:
Question 1 - Do you ever worry about the effect your songs will have on others? I once spoke for a long time to a great master musician from Zimbabwe, did you know that when he played the mbira for his class, he knew that there was a very real risk that one child would fall possessed? Did you know that above those children in his classrooms, there were many spirits and some particular children were tied to a particular spirit? Do you see that the music of this man was the connecting point between that one child and that one spirit and that once the spirit was connected to the child, they were bonded for life? Or do you think maybe I got it wrong and that the child was born connected to this spirit and had always been connected and always would be? Do you ever wonder why people in our culture don't talk about these spirits and don't acknowledge them? Does it make sense that they would exist for one culture but not for our own culture? Do you think that there are people among us, maybe close friends of ours, maybe you or me, who are tied to one ancestral spirit but because they never hear the right song, the connection is never known or acknowledged? Would you like to hear the rest of this story? The man who spoke to me got in trouble in Zimbabwe because many of the parents of these children were Christians, and the fact that their child was now inextricably tied to an ancestral spirit meant that their lives had been touched by something much older than Christ. So the man who spoke to me decided to build a new kind of mbira with new, more modern scales. He did this and no child ever fell into possession again because of his music. Do you think that at some point in the history of Irish or Scottish or Appalachian folk song, that someone decided to change the words or change the notes or change the scale or change the lyrics to cut these ties to an ancient world, just like this man did with his mbira music? Do you think that many hundreds of years ago a song like "Lily-O" might have been the gateway to the spirit world? Do you think that the lyrics, which are really very simple and boring, might be a code, or a chain of commands to open a door? Do you think that now the cords have been cut, we might ever be able to go back to this old world? Do you think maybe there's a song out there in an old old book, maybe a book that you've read, that might open these ancient doors again? Do you ever worry about that when you're singing?
Question 2 - Would you consider the folk tradition more of a rabbit hole or an ivory tower?
Question 3 - If it's a rabbit hole, how deep do you think you can tunnel? Do you think there's a limit to how deep this hole goes? Many others have plumbed these depths before, but what if you went deeper than they have? What if you could go so deep into this hole that you were actually transported? Has this happened to you? I mean, what if you searched so long and so hard for meaning in these unknown, foggy songs, pushing aside curtains of mist that almost seem to have physical form, hurrying past echo upon echo of ancient voices, ignoring the lives of entire generations flashing by next to you, that you actually touched through to the other side? What if the world around you started to shimmer, and fell away, and you stepped into the life of another person in another time and became that person with no hope of return? Do you think that's happened before? Maybe we've lost some of our best folklorists and song collectors to this? We don't know what's in these old songs, could there be a cantrip hidden within some of the words, that when said or sung or wished upon in the right manner, your presence in this part of the river of time reaches backwards to touch the original bearer further back down the stream? Do you ever worry about pushing too far and being unable to come back?
Question 4 - If the folk tradition is an ivory tower, how many songs can be stored there, do you think? Is it like Borges' Library of Babel in that its size has no meaning and can encompass all songs ever made and that will be made? Do you think there are librarians that walk in silence under these ancient domes, their breath as still as a sepulcher, their faces half hooded, their arms full of handwritten books that are half-full of spells, half-full of songs, and it's impossible to tell the difference between either, their steps muffled with bound woolen strips, their shadows non-existent for no sun shines into these old halls which radiate forth like re-iterating mirror images unto infinity, but which hold no human warmth? Do you think that angels watch over this library, passing from the firmament into these torch-lit hallways to commit a grand thought of one human being to paper? That they fly in the heavens, listening to our deepest thoughts and hoping for that moment when the spirit bound inside our meat becomes too much for the flesh to contain and something new is said that hasn't ever been said before? Or do you think the tower is finite? That all the songs that will be have already been written and stored away and that the best we can hope for is to echo an earlier grand thought and forget, as all humans forget, that this thought was said before, that we've existed before, that our lives have unwound before, that our loves have loved before, that our deaths have already come to pass a thousand times? Have you read Robert E. Howard's "Tower of the Elephant"? Do you see yourself as a lone warrior scaling the heights of this tower looking to pillage its contents? If all these songs have been sung before and are stored in this tower, would you fight your way to the top to get ahold of them? What would you do with the songs once you'd spirited them forth from the tower? What have you done with the songs you took from this tower? Why did you take these songs?
Possessed By Paul James
I was lucky enough at the 2014 Pickathon Festival outside Portland, OR to get to interview a number of fascinating roots musicians. These interviews took place in the Workshop Barn, a little venue off the beaten path that hosted hour long interviews and performances with hosts who were radio DJs or journalists. I was one of the hosts, which is kind of my annual gig there, and I got to interview Della Mae, Mandolin Orange, Old Buck, and my favorite, Possessed by Paul James. I loved his music, his one-man band with a ragining roots sound, but I didn’t really get his name until I saw him live. Weeeooo, what a fascinating performer and a powerful person! My interview with Possessed by Paul James was my favorite from Pickathon this year and he had a great time as well.
Note: The New York Times just posted their list of the Best Concerts of 2014 and my workshop with Possessed by Paul James made the list! Pretty cool!
Check it out:
Howard Rains Pictorial
Original Paintings from the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes 2014
by Howard Rains
I have painted since I was a kid, but for many years I have been painting old time fiddlers, drawing only from life and documenting living traditional musicians as they played. These portraits go through the filter of my style and I have often been told they look nothing like the individual I am painting; other times I have been told they look exactly like them. I have done this because I love to do it. Because I am obsessed with traditional music and the incredible people I meet through the music.
I was contacted by Suzy Thompson, artistic director at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington and was asked, “Would you like to come to Fiddle Tunes to paint?” Suzy was familiar with my art just as I was familiar with her fiddling. I have long admired her and her husband Eric and they had even been the subjects of one of my paintings. “Yes,” was the obvious answer. My wife, Tricia Spencer, my son Isaiah and I made plans and got ourselves to Fiddle Tunes and what followed was one of the great experiences of my life. Sure, we stayed up too late playing tunes every night and got up too early the next morning so we wouldn’t miss anything, but what was most meaningful was the people I met and the connection I made with those people.
Ordinarily, at any music event, I might easily remain cloistered in my old time fiddle world, listening, learning, and drawing from the music that is near and dear to my heart, but I had a job to do at Fiddle Tunes. I had to make the rounds, meet other folks from other places, listen to tunes and styles I found far less familiar, and draw these individuals as they made their music. In so doing, I was exposed to music and musicians that I did not know and quickly discovered I absolutely loved. Because I took very seriously my duty as a documentarian of this event, I took in all I could and found myself surrounded by some of the most brilliant people I had ever heard play.
I left Fiddle Tunes with a stack full of drawings, a wonderful group of amazing new friends, and a head dizzy with tunes. I have, since then, been working my way through that stack which can bee seen on my website, www.HowardRains.net. As I complete a painting, I post it to the site. My wife Tricia and I are working musicians so I paint between gigs. They sometimes come at a drip but that drip can turn into a flood when I have time to settle into painting everyday.
I encourage you to have a look. I also encourage you to attend the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes for what is surely one of the broadest and most colorful assortment of fiddlers and tunes you are likely run across in a single setting.
I found Dwayne Cote to be one of the most passionate fiddlers I have ever heard. When he took the stage, he was very unassuming, yet when he began to draw his bow across the instrument, he played with great power and sensitivity. I also found him to be just as passionate and individual in person when I showed him my drawings. He laughed uncontrollably at them, causing everyone around us to laugh with the same vigor. Barbara Magone was the perfect accompanist to Dwayne’s music and their interplay was filled with life.
SHERYL CORMIER & COURTNEY GRANGER
I first heard Cajun musicians Sheryl Cormier and Courtney Granger years ago on a trip to south Louisiana. I love Sheryl’s powerful playing and Courtney’s soulful singing and fiddling. Coming from a Cajun family, I have a deep love for their music.
THE RHYTHM ROLLERS
The Rhythm Rollers, Laurie Andres, Cathie Whitesides, and WB Reid, paid tribute to New England fiddler Bob McQuillen with their lively contra dance band, playing some of his favorite tunes as well a few he composed. Fiddle Tunes seemed to have a theme in celebrating the life of this recently passed master so this painting is particularly special to me.
I know very little about Matt Kinman, I just know that he was sitting a large chair, playing the banjo and singing an old song. It seemed to be a portrait waiting to happen, and he politely obliged when I asked if I could draw him. It was a very special and personal moment to be sitting and listening and drawing.
There was a depth in Dale Russ’s Irish fiddling that felt like you were being brought into a very private universe. I tried to capture that quiet elegance in my portrait of him.
For more info on Howard Rains' wonderful Texas fiddling and his paintings, which we LOVE:
Inside the Songs: Jeffrey Martin
Inside the Songs: The Heart-Breaking, Literate Lyrics of Jeffrey Martin
by Devon Leger
We’ve been fans of Oregon creative writing teacher and powerful roots music songwriter Jeffrey Martin for a while now. Not only can he write a perfect folk song (requirements: thought-provoking, emotionally resonant, and eminently hummable), but his sadly-resigned vocals nestle so well into his simple guitar work that we can’t help falling for pretty much every song he writes. On his new album, Dogs in the Daylight, released on Portland, Oregon label Fluff & Gravy Records, his songs seem more pointed than ever. “Man,” though simply titled, is one of the more powerful anti-war songs we’ve heard in a while, and as a whole the songs can be taken as poetic ruminations on a world that’s let us all down.
Pretty much everyone we know in the music industry is just fed up with singer-songwriters. Hundreds and hundreds of vanity pressings and terrible songs about nothing have burned pretty much every bridge there ever was for many singer-songwriters. Jeffrey Martin is one of my last hopes, and the person I’d go to first to prove the worth of the singer-songwriter genre. The best thing about Jeffrey Martin is that he writes copy as well as he writes songs. He’s just a great writer! So we had to ask him to send over the stories and influences behind a few of our favorite songs on his new album.
Jeffrey Martin - Coal Fire
There was a story I read somewhere a few years back about an underground coal fire that burned beneath an entire community in Pennsylvania. It's been burning since 1962, some say 1932, and is still burning today. Eventually the town had to be evacuated and permanently relocated. Smoke started rising up throughout the town, in people's backyards, and well-water and underground gas tanks started to get boiling hot, roads collapsed. I was staying in a hotel when I read the story and I remember just laying awake all night in the dark with these scenes in my mind of that burning town. It seemed so haunting to me, a fire smoldering under people's houses, eating these ribbons of coal in the dark. Apparently the fire was started by someone burning trash at a landfill and letting it smolder down into the earth until it entered a coal mine shaft. What a legacy to leave. I was struck by how sometimes our lives are the same way. I'm reminded of that Thoreau quote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." We maintain these complex interior lives, and rarely if ever let them out to breathe. And then we fall in love and make friends and raise children and assume that what can't be seen doesn't really affect our lives. But it does. Probably more than what can be seen. Eventually whole towns have to move.
Jeffrey Martin - Wellspring
When I wrote this song I was (still am, constantly) reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy, The Blood Meridian, and I was thinking a lot about what we leave behind when we die, what ripples out past our lives into the lives of our children and lovers and friends. I don't believe we are destined to be carbon copies of our parents, but I do believe that we are destined to be affected by what our parents set in motion, whether it be for good or bad. This song tells the story of a family who is destroyed by a father’s decision to try to escape the wrongs he committed. The real tragedy in life, and in the song, is that we are all long dead before we really see how our legacies play out. We're like those church builders from hundreds of years ago who spent their entire lives carving stone for something they would never see completed. At least they had the benefit of seeing the stones they worked on placed amidst thousands of others, to see a wall as a unit, and to see how a poorly worked stone could undermine lifetimes of work. I don't believe that those of us who come from less-than-healthy families are cursed or doomed to carry on legacies of brokenness and hurt. But sooner or later we all come face to face with what was set in motion long before we existed. The song is about colliding with that momentum.
Jeffrey Martin - The Middle
This is one of those songs I sing to myself, to remind myself of things I want to remember. It was inspired by a conversation I once heard while riding in the backseat of a car. The two in front were talking about God and whether or not God exists and whether or not God exists the same for everyone and whether or not we all need God in the same way. It was really a conversation between someone who was incredibly graceful and someone who was incredibly fearful. Sometimes people assume that it's a song about relative values, about finding what is true for you, etc., but for me it's never been that. I think there is absolute right and wrong in the world, and I also think there is a space in the middle of those two things, and strangely enough it's in that middle ground, where we are forced to really figure out why we believe what we believe, that any convictions worth having are found. I've always loved old men and women who are quiet in what they know; the way they move and speak without trying to convince anyone of anything. I also love couples who are really rough around the edges and who are unashamed of how theirs isn't the typical picture of healthy love, but seem to have been saved by each other regardless. They give mass and weight, dimensions, to the middle that can't be denied.
Pacific Northwest Irish
Pacific Northwest Irish: Three New Releases
by Devon Leger
Living up here in rainy Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest, you might think that we're pretty far from the green shores of Ireland, but actually we've always been right at home in the world of Irish and Celtic trad. We have some of the best Celtic artists living right here: Irish fiddle legend Kevin Burke in Portland, Irish fiddler Randal Bays in Seattle (Martin Hayes used to live here too), French-Canadian fiddle master Lisa Ornstein in Portland, and Irish accordionist Johnny B. Connolly in Portland. We've got a particular flavor to our Irish and Celtic trad as well that's happy to incorporate influences from outside, like old-time stringband tunes or covers of more modern songwriters. Kevin Burke's Open House first set the standard for the Pacific Northwest school of Celtic trad, but there's a new crop of artists bringing us forward today. Here are three great albums that came out in the Pacific Northwest in 2014.
Hanz Araki - Foreign Shore
Bless you Hanz Araki. Bless you for reminding me that great trad music can be pure and elegant without needing to “break the mold.” On his new album, Foreign Shore, Hanz makes a case for the beauty of the old melodies and old songs in a way only he can. Of Irish and Japanese descent, Hanz is the perfect embodiment of West Coast Irish trad in the US. He’s as easily informed by his Japanese heritage (he’s a sixth generation shakuhachi master from a rich lineage) as he is by Irish punk kings The Pogues, Tom Waits, or the Northwest old-time scene. Living in Portland, Oregon, he’s exposed to more great, diverse roots music than most of us can imagine and he’s basically always been at the forefront of Irish trad in the Northwest. As long as I’ve known him, I’ve looked up to his playing on the Irish flute and his singing as an Irish vocalist. Both of these talents of his are meticulous, refined, created in the best taste. Like a fine chef, Hanz works with simple ingredients and transforms them into something beautiful and unexpected. On Foreign Shore, he focuses on some of his favorite tunes drawn from late night sessions with great Northwestern players or his friends in the larger international world of Irish trad like Kevin Crawford, or old touchstone recordings. His description of a trio of “chestnut” tunes (The Chicago/The Maids of Mt Cisco/The Virginia) is endearing: “Three old session-warhorses that I felt deserved another lap.” The songs are drawn mostly from the tradition and Hanz has a special love for songs of the sailers on the sea or highway rogues (heck, who can blame him!). Previous albums from Hanz have featured songs taken from interesting sources (I think Tom Waits was a key to one of his earlier songs), but here he seems content to delve back into his large store of traditional songs. Throughout, everything about this album is tasteful and heartfelt. It’s a real ode to music that Hanz has loved for a very very long time. It’s so nice to have artists like Hanz Araki who love to live in the tradition and perform in celebration of those who’ve come before.
The members of Ná Rósaí are all young Irish trad players in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its trad scene, but on their debut album they show a maturity far beyond their years. I'd expect a band made up of young bucks to be hot players, and this is certainly the case with Ná Rósaí, but I didn't expect them to be so creative with the music and their arrangements. This band knows when to hold back and really draw out a melody, relishing the beauty of these traditional tunes, and when to let the shackles off and just go for broke. It took me many years to even come close to learning this lesson, so hat's off to them! Individually, each player in Ná Rósaí is highly talented and it's hard to pick out the highlights among them. Fiddler Erik Killops is one of my new favorite fiddlers with this album, able to bounce between an old-time fiddle tune ("Farewell Trion") and an Irish reel ("The Graf Spee") with the kind of ease that makes me quite jealous. Fluter Conor O'Bryan and piper/whistler Preston Howard are both stellar and have a very lovely chemistry on one of my favorite tracks from the album, "I Wish I Never Saw You", which rebuilds a popular reel into a slowed-down showcase of the interplay between the two instruments. Bouzouki/guitarist Richi Rosencrans holds down the band with his accompaniment and finds time for some nice flatpicking as well, plus he brings some great vocals to the band, especially on thesong "Three Fishers".
On their self-titled debut, Ná Rósaí have done a very Portland thing: included some great covers of old-time Appalachian stringband tunes. Portland's known even more for the old-time music community, who throw a rager of a party every year in the Portland Old-Time Gathering, and Ná Rósaí fiddler Erik Killops' dad, Scott, is a well known fixture on the scene. Though Irish musicians are often fans of old-time music, and some bring it into their music very prominently (see Mary Custy and Sharon Shannon), it's still not that common to hear these tunes mixing into the Irish tradition. Portland's the perfect place for this to happen, and other artists like Kevin Burke and Johnny B. Connolly have been doing this a lot. Great to hear it done so well here, as Ná Rósaí bring up "Farewell Trion" and "Whiteface". Overall, this is a killer debut from a young band on the scene with a lot of new ideas and talent to spare. Be sure to catch this one!
Dale Russ - Soul Food
Seattle fiddler Dale Russ has always been one of my most favorite Irish fiddlers, even if he doesn't get nearly the credit for his playing that he deserves. He's a remarkably deft and inventive fiddler who operates out of the deepest corners of the tradition but always manages to find new ways to present beautiful tunes. The albums he did a while back with Todd Denman are classics in my house as is his work with the great group Setanta (Pacific Northwest Irish band featuring Hanz Araki and Finn MacGinty). I've copied many of Dale's tunes from his playing and found so much in his playing that has inspired me as a fiddler.
His new album is a very stripped-back affair–primarily just him on fiddle, accompanying himself for a few tracks only on guitar–and it serves to shine a bright spotlight on his masterful playing. He rips through old classics like "Galway Bay", "The Morning Dew", or "Paddy Ryan's Dream" with a kind of creative abandon that bursts forth in unexpected and fascinating ways. He's got a lot tunes as well that I hadn't heard before, like the nimble jig "Truthful John", or "The Shepherd's Daughter", or my favorite track on the album, the easeful slow tune "Margaret Malone". That tune in fact, and Dale's playing on it, makes me for the first time in a long time that I'm back in Ireland. Encoded in the rasp of Dale's bow on the strings is a kind of foggy sadness that I've only ever felt over there. It's true that an album that's mostly all solo fiddle can take a bit more listening energy than a much-arranged fiddle album with a bunch of accompanists, but it's worth taking the time to really delve into the art of Irish fiddle with Dale Russ.
Growing Up with Utah Phillips
Growing Up with Utah Phillips: Nevada City, Erica Haskell, and Utah’s West Coast Legacy
by Devon Leger
Re-released towards the end of 2014 after a long period of being unavailable, the 4 CD set Starlight on the Rails was conceived of by renowned folk singer U. Utah Phillips as a kind of audio songbook. Since folk songs are passed down person to person, Phillips didn’t want to write his songs down on paper, but loved the idea of old publications like The American Songbook. On the cusp of the digital media revolution, he saw which way the winds were blowing and wanted to create an extensive audio document to hold some of his legacy. So with the help of ethnomusicologist Erica Haskell, a young woman he’d known since she was a child growing up near him in Nevada City, CA, and John Smith, who was working at Smithsonian Folkways, he set out to document some of his favorite songs and the stories behind them. For each song, he set down its story and the albums move like this, story-song-story-song. It’s a beautiful and heartfelt document of one of America’s great troubadours, and I was curious to hear more about how it was made and how it relates to Phillips’ time in Nevada City. I grew up there myself and love this small, liberal mining town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So I called up Erica Haskell, now a professor of ethnomusicology at University of New Haven in West Haven, CT, who put together this large compilation with John Smith, to see if I could find out more about the project. Phillips passed away in 2008, but his legacy lives on.
Interview with Erica Haskell about growing up with Utah Phillips
When did you first meet Utah Phillips?
Erica Haskell: Oh, my gosh, that’s a good question. I wish I knew exactly when it was. I’m sorry. I was probably 10 years old, sometime in the 80s, the mid 80s. He and Joanna Robinson, who was an old family friend, came to stay with us. Somehow, Utah was in transition as she was as well, and so they stayed in our cabin in Nevada City.
Is your family from Nevada City?
Erica: Yeah, I grew up there. My parents were both “back to nature” hippies. We lived on 10 acres and they built the house out of used lumber. My father is an artist; he makes furniture and my mom was a building inspector. They built the house just below Highway 20 on Haskell Road actually. That’s where I grew up.
Did you see him perform when you were in Nevada City? Would he come over to the house, beyond meeting him that time when he stayed at the house. What was the family’s connection?
Erica: I think they stayed for several weeks. That was my first introduction to Utah. My parents listened to a lot of protest music. My dad had protested during the civil rights era in San Francisco. He actually lived in a house in Haight-Ashbury where Big Brother and the Holding Company rehearsed. I was in that realm of music, protest music, certainly from that era. Utah was someone who I met and we played with. I remember he spent a lot of time with me and my brother playing games. He had children of his own. He was adept at that. Then, I went to concerts of his as well and I think that was around the time when his music came into the home and I started listening to his music.
What do you remember of him from when you were 10 years old. What did your 10 year old self think of him?
Erica: I remember his beard. I remember that we found, on a hike, multi-colored clay coming out of the ground and he decided that we should paint our faces. There are actually images from this, photos that were taken. We pretended to be Native Americans. I remember his expansive imagination. I remember him as a really warm person. At that point, all of his songs entered our home repertoire. “Daddy, what’s a Train”… He has a lot of songs that are accessible to children. I remember not knowing what his song, “The Enola Gay” was really about and only realizing in college what he was singing about. There were a lot of songs that I knew but they became politically impactful later, when I grew up. That’s the best kind of music… that you latch onto but doesn’t impact you, or impacts you at different times or in different ways.
That’s interesting. Do you think he understood that principle that even though he’s singing a song about a horrific event in World War II to a child that maybe it would come back again later in life?
Erica: Surely, I think he knew that. Did you ever meet Bruce?
Erica: Okay. He was a very wise man. I would say that he understood all of that. He understood the impact of his songs in the long term and that’s ... not to turn this to the project, but when John [Smith, of Free Dirt Records] and I started working on this project with him, he was at least aware of the limits of his longevity. He knew that he would die at some point and these CDs, these recordings, were something he wanted to leave to the world. I think for both of us, John would have to speak for himself, but it added an additional weight and also joy to the project. We were more committed than ever to produce something that was interesting, and would also last and have enough information in it and context that it would go beyond his death.
That’s really beautiful. Why don’t you talk about the project of the songbook. What was the genesis for this idea?
Erica: Not to focus it on myself because the center of it is Utah but… I was working in Washington, D.C. for Smithsonian Folkways. I was an intern first and then later they hired me, and that’s when I met John, who was at that point much more successful than I was. Someone interested in music. When he heard that I was from Nevada City, he already knew all about Utah and he asked me if I knew about him.
It was happenstance that I knew him through my family and I knew his music. I wouldn’t say that Utah was famous in Nevada City at that time, it was later when he became more well-known, especially through, and maybe this is nationwide as well, through his work with Ani DiFranco. Years after that, I actually left Folkways and went to work in Budapest where I worked for a company that was selling MP3s on-line which, amazingly, at the time, seemed completely novel. Selling music on-line, really. I know it sounds crazy to say that but… [laughing] A number of people said, “I don’t know. It’s probably not going to work, you shouldn’t leave Folkways.” The company ended up not being super-successful but I had a great 6 months in Budapest. Anyway, it was few years later that I went to graduate school at Brown University for Ethnomusicology and that’s when John and I started the project. I took a few trips back to Nevada City and we met with Utah, we talked to him about what he imagined it would be.
He was very focused on us producing what he called, “a songbook.” We talked a lot about the context, the stories, which are so central to Utah’s performances. You’ve probably seen a video of his shows; it’s almost more story than there is music. Every song is prefaced by some kind of story that explains who is there and why it’s happening and what it means. We talked about doing that in the written form as liner notes. I think he felt that it should be in audio form. Of course, Utah is super aware of oral tradition and the concept of passing on tradition, passing on stories through the oral realm. He really wanted to do that. I think, at first, John and I weren’t sure that would be accessible to the public because you’re producing these CDs and then you have the stories and you have the music and how many times do you want to listen to the stories? You want to listen to the music more. So, we had a lot of brainstorms about how to do that. Should we have some CDs that are only dedicated to the stories? No, Utah didn’t want to do that because then, the stories wouldn’t be directly connected to the particular songs. They shouldn’t be in written form, they should be in oral form. Finally, because of his force and his energy behind it, we landed on the decision to have a story and then a song, a story and a song. This is around when iTunes was allowing one to construct a playlist. We figured that if people were tired of the story, or they just wanted the stories, they could construct their own playlist. So, that was the decision we made. Utah made it really. He was in charge of the whole project. We were just helping out. [laughing]
The idea came from you but he took it on as a project that he really believed in then?
Erica: Sure. I would say he really believed in it. We met with him a lot. A number of the songs, the recordings, were recorded before us, they’re not original recordings. They’re being re-released. All of the introductions or all of the stories were recorded for that 4 CD release. We went into the studio with him and recorded those and then, we also mastered, we changed some of the recordings from before: cleaned them up and we had some live recordings. It was a lot of work, I would say. Not to complain, it was a joy and John is a really great partner. We worked together on this. It was all recorded in Nevada City.
Right. You went into the studio and recorded the stories and some of the key songs that weren’t taken from other sources.
Do you think that he was more comfortable in Nevada City, that that added to it?
Erica: As I remember it, he was less wanting to travel at that point. Yeah, it was very comfortable. We recorded at Flying Whale Studios. He was very comfortable with the sound engineer there. It seemed the easiest way to go. He didn’t record all of the stories at the same time. He would go in and do a few and come out. It was an intense process for him.
Were any of the stories especially hard for him to recall?
Erica: No, they weren’t hard for him to recall. It took a lot of energy and emotion. I wasn’t there during most of the recording of those. I did work on the mastering with John. I remember we spent a weekend together there going through the recordings. John would send me all the recordings. I was in grad school. I wasn’t in Nevada City.
Do you have any good stories from putting this together with Utah when you were planning it? Any good stories of his perspective? Of his behavior too?
Erica: I guess the thing that sticks with me most are those early meetings we had with him, when he explained to us the importance of this. It’s late in his life, and for me, what sticks to me is the idea of passing on information and stories through the oral medium and his real commitment to that, even with the onslaught of digital media because that was something that was happening at that time. He still felt committed to that. He still had his radio show when we were recording this. He was aware of the impact of his voice, the depth of his voice. I think that he understood that he was a medium for information and for political ideas, social ideas. But also, he was a wonderfully self-effacing, modest person. Many artists, I imagine you work with a lot of musicians and artists, some end up taking all of this in their head or to heart and they’re not nice people. This was not a problem for Utah. He was a wonderful person. I know his home very well. Actually, before he and Joanna lived there, another family friends of ours lived there before. I had grown up in the home where they lived, their house where they lived. It’s on Berggren. Do you know Berggren Lane? Just off Boulder Street heading out of Nevada City. I felt incredibly comfortable in that setting and Joanna, his wife, she was my mother’s closest friend when they were pregnant together at the same time. These were very intimate exchanges. I think that Utah understood that we would be respectful and that we would do the right thing. There wasn’t any sense that we were record moguls there to steal his sound. Do you know what I mean? There wasn’t that level of tension because I had grown up there and because we were old friends. That was a wonderful thing.
What was his house like? Can you describe his house? Was it cluttered with antiques and stuff he collected on the road? Or?
Erica: Yeah, it’s a very small house. It’s very modest with huge gardens around it. He has a wonderful dog, I don’t know if the dog was still alive, Bo, really fluffy dog. Also, a modest kitchen, a large stove, a wood stove, not cluttered at all, huge number of books, of course. He and Joanna are both academics in terms of their veracity for reading. It’s a very intimate setting. I think it’s a 1 bedroom house or maybe 2. Very intimate.
I like the idea of it being a songbook. It’s like he was embracing digital technology in a visionary way to create a digital songbook. Can you tell me more about that idea and what he thought of that?
Erica: He was aware that we were beyond the folk musician or the musician songwriter reading music. I think he realized that many musicians were learning directly from digital sound or from recorded sound. I think that was part of his thought about the songbook.
Do you think that it was part of the folk tradition too? The folk tradition is really keen on the idea of oral tradition and passing things along.
Erica: Sure. I think that’s part of it. I’m not aware of many recordings like this, where the story has been recorded as audio as well as the song. I think he wanted them both to be in the same medium, rather than the story being some kind of separate thing that you had to delve into. He wanted it to be upfront as if you were in a concert setting. Of course, he wasn’t going to transcribe all of his songs. That didn’t make any sense to him; that isn’t oral tradition. This was his term, the songbook. This wasn’t something we invented. That’s what he wanted it to be and I assume it relates to the “American Songbook”.
What’s the work you’re doing now? You said you were an academic. Are you in a university, or?
Erica: Yes, I’m an Ethnomusicologist and I did most of my research in Bosnia, in Sarajevo, and I’m very interested in the relationship between music and politics in Bosnia, in the post-war environment. How music and politics and music and re-development are intertwined was my focus. How do they spend money in a post-war environment? What do people need after a war? What does a society need and what’s the role of culture in that situation? That’s what my dissertation’s about.
Let me ask you then, since you have studied this topic so much… what goes into making a good political folk song? There are so many bad political folk songs being created every second. So, in your understanding, what would your advice be to somebody who is crafting a political folk song?
Erica: I don’t know. I don’t want to over analyze your question but your question is, what is good? Are you talking about efficacy? So that it’s effective in the moment? Are we talking about a folk song or a political song that impacts people over decades? What is the “good” that we’re searching for? Because they’re different answers. I would say that the most effective, long-term effective political songs are those that are fairly general in their topic. They leave the possibility for the singers to place their own meaning upon the song. “We Shall Overcome”, right? “We Shall Overcome” is probably the most impactful American song ever. It certainly has gospel roots, religious roots, but that song can be used in any context, for any people. In terms of long-term Impact, it has to be general. You know Pete Seeger died recently, sadly, and so, we know that the ability for large numbers of people (and I still believe this, even with the digital age), the ability for large numbers of people to sing together is important. A tune that is accessible to the masses is part of the success of a political song, if you’re imagining some kind of protest moment and that’s where it’s being used. But Utah’s songs are different from that. I don’t know that many of his songs were used in large protest settings, as Pete Seeger. He was a master at introducing details that emphasized the plight of the individual. If you think of his songs about the hobo, or his songs about the unions, “Lefty” or any number of his songs. You really see the individual and then you imagine how that individual could be multiplied, in terms of the plight of the human.
Do you feel Utah’s songs were too personal? He had so many personal details.
Erica: No, no. I think of songs as fitting into different categories. If I think of Pete Seeger “Where have all the Flowers Gone” category of songs: this is meant for mass singing. I think Utah was wonderfully focused on the individual.
I liked a couple of songs where he talks about tramps versus hoboes. How tramps are the intelligentsia of the wanderers or conscientious malingerers. I felt like that unlocks a key to his music. It’s like he had different aspects of his persona that come out in all of his songs. What would be some other keys to his music that you would hear in the songs? Elements that repeat through his music and help describe who he was.
Erica: I think, on a personal level, his love songs certainly say something about his kindness, his intimacy. Some of his songs make reference to his children and I think his relationship with his children was very important to him. Even when I was a kid, I recognized that he liked being with kids. He valued that. Those are other elements I noticed. He was wonderfully able to talk about big issues. He could talk about the Enola Gay and, at the same time, everyday issues. “Talking NPR”: this is one of his rants. That was probably the most recent recording that he had made that we decided to include. There was some discussion about, “Do we want to offend NPR? They will be one of the greatest supporters of this album.” And he was like, “Oh, we should put it in!” [laughing]
Erica: “Going Away” is one of the wonderful, for me, one of the wonderful love songs that I like so much. “Room for the Poor,” I remember listening to that as a child and feeling that it really impacted me. Growing up in Nevada City, I didn’t have a lot of experience with migrant labor or homeless people but these songs introduced me to those concepts, which is a powerful thing to be able to do.
That’s interesting. Nevada City really is a liberal bastion. Northern California often, in general. What makes Nevada City special to you?
Erica: I don’t know. I think the sense of community. For me, it’s very powerful to have grown up there and to still go to Victorian Christmas or some event and recognize people and have people remember who you are. I think that’s a very powerful thing. I think that what developed in the 60s and 70s, the arrival of liberal thinking people to Nevada City and my father talks about this, really changed the county and changed the town, changed our education system in Nevada City. It’s pretty impressive that you can go to NU, Nevada Union High School, and then head off from there to Berkeley or Stanford or Harvard or Yale. It’s a wonderful thing that we have such a strong system. You go to the Farmers’ Market or summer festivals; it’s an accepting place. If you look now at all the musical activity that’s going on, it’s wonderful. It’s our generation, right?
If he was still alive today, what do you think he would be talking about? What issues from today, right now, would he be interested in, do you think?
Erica: I don’t know what he would be talking about. Hopefully, he’d still be ranting at NPR. I imagine he might be bringing up the topics of Syria, what’s going on in the Ukraine. I imagine a nice, rantful song about Ebola and protecting only westerners versus the thousands who are dying. I can imagine something like that. And also, local issues. He and Joanna were both very involved in the homeless center in Grass Valley. I can imagine him focusing on those kinds of issues as well. I don’t know if that’s a good answer but… He was very adept at taking present political issues and putting them in his songs. This is the topical song tradition.
Instagramalogue – Tampa & Tarpon Springs, Florida
A new column for KITHFOLK! Instagrams from cool travels, kind of like those old vacation slides your Uncle Eddie would share all the time, but cooler.
I recently re-discovered an old flight voucher I’d gotten from taking a bump via Southwest Airlines and realized I only had a month or so left to use it. So I jumped at the chance to accompany by brother-in-law Jake Anderson when he went to Tampa for the Charlie Daniels Celebrity Golf Classic (Jake’s on the show Deadliest Catch). We stayed at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and had a great time, though Tampa’s certainly not one of the main tourist destinations in Florida. That means that there are some really cool things off the beaten path, though. Here are some discoveries and some of the music I listened to n the road. I’d just gotten Beats Music on my phone, and it’s a ridiculously fun streaming music service to use. I don’t know how much of my data allotment I used driving around and jamming tunes, but it was worth it!
Tampa, FL: Golf Courses – Charlie Daniels
I didn’t get a chance to meet Charlie Daniels, but it was pretty great to get up close an personal watching him do “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “The South Will Rise Again”. He’s kind of a country music Santa Claus, but man did he have some hot swagger when he was doing his classic Devil Goes Down. He was swinging his fiddle bow like a gunslinger and he had this great move where he blew the rosin dust on the top of his fiddle into a cloud that floated out to the audience. Daniels’ has a life-time of arena performances under his belt (hey, did you know he started out as a bluegrass fiddler in the Deep South?), so he knows to hold a crowd.
Tampa – Tarpon Springs: Haitian Psychedelia and Cuban Cigars
I figured on this being a foodie trip, since I’d have some evenings to myself, so I spent hours before leaving studying up on the hottest restaurants in Tampa and the surroundings. Not fancy restaurants, nah. Underground restaurants tied to the ethnic communities that make up Tampa and the surroundings, like the many Cubans and Haitians. For Haitian food, I talked around and found out about Alèz Haitian Restaurant. The food was amazing, transcendent. I had griot, which was a pork dish that kind of tasted like pork marshmellows. I’d never had pig like this; I think the Haitian chef was some kind of swineflesh wizard. Also loved the pikelz (super spicy pickled vegetables with lime juice) and marinade (fried dough with salt pork). I came in on Friday night and the whole time I was there Haitians kept coming in after work to pick up take-out dinners. Cab drivers pulled up for their dinner, and the Kreyòl language was everywhere. What a beautiful language. I could listen to it forever.
The next day I hit the road from Tampa to Tarpon Springs, which I’d heard had a really interesting Greek subculture based on sponge diving.
As I drove, palm tree lined canals and white beaches rolled past my window, and the hot, dry air of a Florida winter flooded the car. These were my jams:
Run The Jewels
Most Best of 2014 year end lists worth their salt included this intense, fiery hip-hop release from Southern rapper Killer Mike and underground MC/DJ El-P. The beats are amazingly varied, the rap is on fire, and the message matches the mood of the streets today. This isn’t empty bragging hip-hop or needless thugging hip-hop, these are two very different artists bridging the gaps between their talent with totally fresh and refreshing ideas.
Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978
I loved jamming these hardcore psychedelic and garage-y tracks from Haiti in the 1960s and 70s while driving through from Tampa to Tarpon Springs. The vocals recall the glory days of Cuban son, but the voices ring out in glorious Kreyòl instead of Spanish. The guitar work burns with a kind of desperation, and the whole vibe of this release is kind of underground, DIY. This music was recorded during the despotic reign of Papa Doc Duvalier, so there’s a layer of history to the music that adds to the intensity. The bands play for their lives and there isn’t a track on this album that doesn’t burn like anthracite. Highly recommended!
Tarpon Springs – Greek and Cuban Culture
Tarpon Springs may be a bit touristy, but there are fascinating elements of traditional Greek Island life here. From the hardcore Greek sponge divers that created a short-lived industry and a way of life in this corner of Florida, to the Greek musicians who still live around there, to the many restaurants and bakeries. As I was driving out, I saw a community hall packed with people at a community event for Cretans (from the island of Crete). Wish I’d stopped to check that out too. Tarpon Springs also is close by to some amazing beaches on Honeymoon Island. And it’s got solid Cuban culture. I stopped in at Serafin de Cuba Cigar Company in Tarpon Springs and got to hang out for a while with Arnold and Ramon Serafin, a father-son team of master cigar rollers from Cuba. Their legacy dates back generations to a great-grandfather who came over from the Canary Islands to build a tobacco plantation in Cuba. Now based in Tarpon Springs, the Serafins turn out hand-rolled Cuban cigars with Central American tobacco and a lot of well-deserved pride.
Abelardo Barroso – Cha Cha Cha
Reissued in November 2014, this red-hot disc of fourteen of the legendary Cuban singer Abelardo Barroso’s cha-cha-chas still has the power to light up the airwaves. Recorded in the mid 1950s, these cha-cha-chas relit Barroso’s career and it’s easy to see why. His sea-salty vocals have a deep charisma tat transcends their era, and the breezy Caribbean music that accompanies him sounds like the picture perfect orchestra you’d imagine. Swirling flute lines and sharp-edged violins dance through a haze of tobacco smoke, but always Barroso’s voice is there, guiding you home. It’s no wonder he became a legend in West Africa long after he was no longer able to sing. This is the kind of music that lasts forever.
La Dame Blanche – Piratas
I love Cuban hip-hop, but I’m super behind on the scene. I still listen to Orishas, who I guess broke up forever ago. So I did a little poking and thanks to the always awesome NPR Alt.Latino I picked up on La Dame Blanche aka Yaite Ramos. Ramos is the daughter of Jesus Ramos of Buena Vista Social Club fame, so it’s safe to say she’s knows a lot about Cuban traditions. On her first full LP, Piratas, she jumps with ease between beautiful Cuban jazz singing and dancehall shaking Cuban hip-hop, no small feat indeed. Based out of Paris, she’s leading off a new-wave Cuban trad scene with offshoot group El Hijo de la Cumbia, and this album is produced by Babylotion, who has old ties to Orisha. So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this reminds me of Orisha in some ways, but it sounds a lot fresher, practically shimmery with new Parisian ideas. La Dame Blanche is pushing Cuban hip-hop hard in new directions, but has the roots to back everything up. This LP is for real.
I might get some heat for this, since I’m not sure if Field Report is considered “roots music” or lies more in the “indie” realm, but whenever I hear the words and vocals of lead singer and songwriter Chris Porterfield, it just sounds like the kind of folk that made Bob Dylan’s early name. There’s an earnestness to the lyrics, but also a sense of larger humanity that elevates the words above your standard singer-songwriter fare. Above atmospheric electronics, thundering drumbeats, and amplified acoustic guitar fingerpicking, Portfield’s ragged voice rings out, almost tortured at times, but somehow always drawing the listener back to the lyrics. It’s a little bit of magical alchemy that only the best folk singers know; how to get the song to take the center of the stage rather than the singer. Porterfield rides the line lyrically between the indie arena anthems of Ben Gibbard and the everyman songwriting of Dylan or Townes Van Zandt. On Marigolden, his verbal alchemy is front and center, as the album features unforgettable (and quite singable) lines from “Home” like “And the body remembers what the mind forgets/Archives every heartbreak and cigarette” or “Leave the lights on/because it might be nighttime when I get there/And I’m on my way home.” Sure maybe there’s something a little emo in this music, but damn when has folk music not been emo? And for every heart-on-the-sleeve lyric, there are also wonderfully mystifying lines that still manage to carry a lot of meaning.
A lot has been made about the new album, Marigolden, and how it’s Portfield’s way of working through his newfound sobriety and that’s admirable. I’ll leave the specifics of that to those who are better at parsing lyrics than I am. All I know is that this album is instantly comforting in the very best way.
Seattle resident by way of West Virginia, Pepper Proud has been remarkably adept at blending her Appalachian roots with a very Northwest vibe. She got her start around here participating in the Round sessions; multi-media performances at the Fremont Abbey that brought together a lot of artists in the indie scene. But she’s stayed true to her folk roots, crafting handmade songs on her first album that echoed with Appalachian sentiment. On her newest album, Water, she’s working with larger metaphysical concepts, specifically looking at the human relation with water and the natural environment. It’s a natural, if a bit ironic, thing to examine for any Seattle resident. After all, we’re surrounded by water on all sides, sandwiched between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington, and bombarded daily by deluges from the heavens. You’d have to be pretty removed from your own world in Seattle not to be thinking about water all the time. But I’ll let Pepper explain it herself, from her Kickstarter page: “I spent a lot of time during my Pacific Northwest tour camping near water, trying to find water, and being inspired by the time I spent at rivers, lakes, watersheds, hot springs, cold springs, getting drenched by rain showers and jumping in mud puddles. You see- Something special happens while staring at water- a slow river, the sea, the tide moving with precise eloquence- it sets a tone that encourages tranquility and gives the mind space- and I found myself motivated to start writing about this indispensable resource and reflect lessons I have learned from the water.”
The songs on Water are drenched in gorgeous harmonies, beautiful finger-picked acoustic guitar, and Pepper’s intertwining songwriter styles of oblique and direct lyrics. They’re tied closely to the environment, sure, but also have a very human element. It’s a compelling blend of influences and ideas and the kind of album that you love to get lost in. There’s also a kind of joyful throwback in her music to the folk singers of the 60s and 70s who weren’t afraid to where their influences and their beliefs on their sleeves. You don’t get the impression that Pepper is trying to be anything but exactly who she is, which is a really refreshing perspective in the world of indie roots music.
J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices
J.P. Harris has been riding the honky-tonk train for a little while now and he’s one of the best young voices in this tradition. His songs have the grit and swagger of the best old-school country singers, and a kind of rich baritone that lends itself perfectly to the idiom. He lives the life too. He’s a long-haul roadster pulling into dark bar after dark bar to bring a little honky-tonk sunshine into our lives. I interviewed him a little while back for Tiny Mix Tapes, and he talked about the time he spent riding the rails as a modern-day hobo (he also sent me a postcard of hobo signs he used on the road), and he talked about the fact that he’s lived the subjects of his songs, which honestly is a whole hell of a lot more than you can say about most other country singers today. He’s got a big ol’ fuckin beard and a bunch of tattoos and looks like he might be part of Hank III’s army of underground country rats, but with his new album, Home Is Where the Hurt Is, he seems content to plumb the depths of tradition instead of pushing the music to brand-new places.
Home Is Where the Hurt Is features J.P.’s friends rather than Nashville regulars. Old Crow Medicine Show’s newest member, Chance McCoy, an old friend of J.P.’s from J.P.’s days as an old-time stringband picker, jumps on fiddle and guitar duties, and indie-country star Nikki Lane shows up as well. The album was cut in Nashville, which is where J.P. lives, and I imagine it must stick out like a sore thumb in this town. With all the focus on “Americana” and all the hybrid genres they keep trying to invent, seems folks often lose sight of hwat country music really means. Not J.P. though. His country music is an exercise in restraint, a continual act of editing that pares the music down to its core in order to focus on the lyrics. With all the attention given to Sturgill Simpson’s ground-breaking country songwriting this year, I was hoping J.P. would get some of that shine as well. But perhaps he’s too subtle to be lumped in with Simpson’s meditations on lizard people and psychedelics (I guess J.P.’s song “Truckstop Amphetamines” doesn’t romanticize the right kind of illegal drugs). But any way you cut it, J.P. has a gift for words. Check out these lines from the title song, Home is Where the Hurt Is: “Sometimes you crave that which hurts you the most. I can stand the silence, the run from your ghost, so I’ll run to the places that you hated most. From the bottom of this bottle, everything looks just right. Oh, home is where the hurt is, so I stay here each night.” Other country songwriters that want to get back to the basics would do well to learn from this kind of songwriting. And folks in Nashville would do well to sit up and listen when J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices hit the stage. He’s the real fuckin’ deal.
We’ve been watching British folk singer Josienne Clarke for a while now, ever since her superb 2011 album of traditional songs, The Seas Are Deep. She’s an acclaimed songwriter and singer in the UK, known for her work with her musical partner Ben Walker, who handles most of the arrangements to her music. She’s not so well known in the US, unfortunately, though here’s hoping that her upcoming visit to the 2015 Folk Alliance International Conference will help change that. There’s certainly a lot to love in her music: rich, beautiful vocals, and strong sensibility for crafting songs that sounds as old as the hills, and masterful arrangements by Walker. With her new album, Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, she’s mastered her true potential as an artist. It’s her best work to date and the kind of album that has the potential to turn a lot of heads. Each song is original, but you’d be hard pressed to say that “It Would Not Be A Rose” sounds like anything other than an old British ballad. With lyrics that play the kind of riddle game so beloved in old songs, this could easily pass for a Child ballad of yore, except for the fact that music sounds deeply modern. Shimmering classical strings, arranged in dense, surging rhythms, blend into East Indian-sounding drumbeats and John Renburn-esque guitar fingerpicking. At times, I’m tempted to bring up modern architecture when talking about Clarke’s new music. There’s something so precise and planned about what she’s doing, that it brings to mind the aspects of modern architecture that manage to be warm and cold at the same time. It’s as if somehow she’s crafted an austere album in terms of her vocals and lyricism, while also giving in to the sumptuousness of the album’s huge stringed arrangements.
Throughout Clarke’s voice rings with the kind of intimacy and careful thought that might be the hallmark of British folk singers, especially the great female folk singers in the UK. Her voice is fragile, yet powerful, and at times even playful. It’s not easy to bridge the gap between the cold detachment of old ballads and the warm intimacy of modern folk songwriting, but Clarke is a master at flipping between the two and a lot of that comes from the ease of her vocals, which operate so well in either realm. Together with other artists like Sam Lee, Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, and Rachel Sermanni, Josienne Clarke is at the front of the pack of a new generation of traditional British folk singers remaking the molds. It’s an incredibly exciting time right now for these traditions, and Clarke is already running herd with so many new and fresh ideas, as well as her ability to write original songs that mesh so well with the tradition.
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KITHFOLK Issue 3 Reviews
Dom Flemons. Prospect Hill.
2014. Music Maker Relief Foundation.
According to American songster Dom Flemons, 2014 was the Year of the Folk Singer. An optimistic notion, to be sure, what with the unprecedented hegemony of rootsless indie music on the national mainstream in 2014, but take a look at the year he had and you can’t help but agree. His new album was listed as one of NPR’s Top 10 Folk Albums, was covered by USAToday, NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Weekend Edition, Wall St Journal, Oxford America, The Huffington Post, Sing Out!, and a host of other major publications, and he opened tours with Old Crow Medicine Show and Pokey Lafarge. All this acclaim is well deserved, and centers on the fact that Dom’s a key voice for early American roots music in a new century. He’s the perfect epitome of a modern “songster,” a term developed originally to describe African-American artists from the 78rpm era who had a wide-ranging repertoire that included everything from hillbilly ballads to country blues and broadway hits. On Prospect Hill, Flemons flexes his muscles as a deeply passionate student of American roots music and it is an impressive flex! Few artists on the roots scene right now can boast this kind of diversity in their repertoire, nor can many of these artists boast that they can write songs that fit perfectly into the tradition. Here, Tohono O’odham fiddle tunes from Flemons’ home state of Arizona rub shoulders with the catch-all music of the Nashville Stringband, the back-alley hokum of Georgia Tom Dorsey (later the father of modern gospel music), and the lovely mystery of original songster Frank Stokes. Flemons’ original songs more than hold up against the trad covers, from the Chicago blues of “I Can’t Do It Anymore” to the soft folk of “Too Long I’ve Been Gone” about life on the road. Shouts to “Have I Stayed Away Too Long” which might have the most ridiculously fun saxophone line since Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”. Jeez, all this is without mentioning the guests on this album. Blues genius Guy Davis pulls heavy duty, really fleshing out the songs with Flemons as do Northwest duo Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons. Honestly, everything about this album is perfect. And ending with a Gus Cannon song like “My Money Never Runs Out?” Genius. Here’s hoping Flemons’ money doesn’t run out anytime soon so we can keep expecting amazing albums like this from him in the future!
Alice Gerrard. Follow the Music.
2014. Tompkins Square.
The doyenne of the American old-time music scene, Alice Gerrard has had a huge effect on roots music today. From her pioneering work with Appalachian singer Hazel Dickens that paved the way for most women in bluegrass and country music (Emmylou Harris acknowledges this debt) to her work with Mike Seeger helping form old-time music into a real genre, to her founding of the Old-Time Herald magazine and her continued work inspiring multiple generations, you won’t be able to understand American roots music today if you don’t understand Alice Gerrard’s music. Recently she’s moved more towards songs she’s written herself, and no surprise she’s a powerhouse songwriter. We worked on her previous album, Bittersweet, and that was crammed full of memorable songs inspired by the great folk musicians she’s collaborated with along the way. I’d been hearing about this new album on Tompkins Square for a while and was really excited. It’s finally out and it’s a triumph. Alice collaborates with indie roots folks out of her home region of Durham and Raleigh, NC, including members of Megafaun (another Megafaun collaboration that blew me away this year was Sylvan Esso). The key to the album is her collaboration with M.C. Taylor, aka Hiss Golden Messenger, who produced it. Taylor is an amazing folk singer and he himself released one of the best indie roots albums this year with his solo album The Lateness of Dancers. Here as producer, he puts Alice’s voice and lyrics front and center, reveling in her aged vocals. And when she’s singing songs like “Follow the Music” or “Strange Land”, you’ll really get why this wouldn’t work with a younger singer. Alice has a ton left to say and the real folk music heads better sit up and take listen now.
Al Jones & The Spruce Mountain Boys. Hardcore Bluegrass.
2014. Patuxent Music.
The title, Hardcore Bluegrass, for this release from old-school bluegrass singer Al Jones kind of says it all. Born in Grayson County Virginia, Jones is a fixture in the red-hot Washington DC bluegrass scene. He’s been around the block and has a kind of old-as-the-hills Appalachian accent to his singing. It’s the kind of accent and the kind of vocals that raise up the hair on the back of your neck. In a similar vein to Ralph Stanley or Danny Paisley, this is the kind of voice that’s oft-imitated, but never bettered, unless you too were born deep in the Appalachian hills. At the ripe old age of 81, Jones’ voice cracks with age but still has a ton of power, easily cutting through the other voices on this album to stand way out. The music is all old bluegrass, not that new-fangled speed demon kind of stuff. More like the old Louvin Brothers bluegrass that was content to ramble with ease through an old tear-jerker of a lament. It’s great stuff, and a valuable document of the long-standing connections between Washington DC and Appalachia that Patuxent Music has spent so much time documenting. There’s no gloss to the music, but it’s all heart.
Baltic Crossing. The Tune Machine.
2014. GO’ Danish Folk Music.
Humble Nordic label GO’ Danish Folk Music has been sending out an unstoppable stream of awesome Danish and Nordic music for a while now. If you’re into Scandinavian music at all, get with these guys and quick! My new discovery from them is Baltic Crossing, and this is one of the hottest trad albums of 2014! Five master musicians bring together three major traditions: Danish, Finnish, and Northumbrian. For those keeping score at home, the musicians here are accordionist Ian Stephenson and Northumbrian bagpiper Andy May from the United Kingdom, fiddler Kristian Bugge from Denmark (if you’re not hip to Kristian’s amazing Danish brass band Habadekuk then get thee to the internet), and brothers Esko and Antti Järvelä from Finland (fiddle and bass). The tunes mix and match across these traditions and in the hand of the masters manage to find some kind of totally fascinating middle ground in which it’s difficult to distinguish the origin of each. But each track on this album is wonderful and you’ll find yourself along for the journey no matter where you’re going or where you came from.
The Ephemeral Stringband with Tatiana Hargreaves. Land of Rest.
This is a lovely little disc of old-time tunes and songs from Massachusetts-based The Ephemeral Stringband. It helps, of course, that they’ve enlisted the help of amazing old-time fiddle prodigy Tatiana Hargreaves (even as a very young kid she was eerily chanelling Bruce Molsky), but Ephemeral banjo player Maggie Shar can more than hold her own with Tatiana and their interplay, the core of any old-time stringband, is a delight. Nice singing from Maggie, Tim Dolan, and Molly Merrett as well and they’ve got interesting harmonies throughout. Shouts to Tim’s mandolin playing which had a lot of earthy soul in it. It’s also great that the band draws from a lot of diverse sources to pull forth their songs and tunes. “Weeping Mary” is a particularly lovely track, close to a version I’d heard from Sam Amidon, but pulled from the Sacred Harp tradition. “The Cradle, The Coffin, the Cross on the Hill” comes from Dirk Powell, one of the best old-time songwriters. Nice to see love for key elder fiddlers as well, from Charlie Acuff to Lester McCumbers and Clyde Davenport. This is a great album of New England old-time with delightfully interesting takes on the Appalachian traditions.
Red Dog Run.
Neo-old-time band Red Dog Run had me at their first song: a pitch perfect cover of Dirk Powell’s heartfelt song “Waterbound.” Like Powell’s original, Red Dog Run have the chops in old-time Appalachian stringband music to pull off their vision of old-time music made new. Fiddler Rosie Newton is one of the best young fiddlers in the business, recently getting snapped up to join The Duhks and also touring with Kristin Andreassen and Jefferson Hamer. She’s a powerhouse of a fiddler and a beautiful singer too. I raved about her recent duo album with New England iconoclast Richie Stearns and it’s great to see the two of them forming the core of this new band. Stearns is famous for his work with The Horse Flies, Donna the Buffalo and Natalie Merchant, but he’s got a great ear to the roots of the music, whether as a lead singer or as a songwriter as well. Jim Miller’s a guy y’all should know too. He’s got ties to Donna the Buffalo and Preston Frank (he helped me set up the interview with Preston that appears in this issue) and was a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest (he plays in Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer). Jim’s a great guy and a great roots vocalist in his own right as well. Bass player Jed Greenberg comes to the band from Donna the Buffalo as well… jeez, I’m sensing a pattern here! On their debut album, Red Dog Run cover traditional songs like “Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake,” or “Adieu False Heart” and “Hills of Mexico” as well as old-time tunes like “Jimmy Shank”, a killer song “No Lonesome Tune” from Townes Van Zandt, even a song from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. It’s all done with obvious joy and great knowledge of the tradition. It’s a powerful opening statement from this band of old friends and music veterans.
Luke Winslow-King. Everlasting Arms.
2014. Bloodshot Records.
It’s not really a secret at this point that New Orleans is one of the hottest roots music spots in the nation (no, the secret is that Michigan is almost as hot). So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Luke Winslow-King can roll out of the Big Easy with an album that positively smolders with Southern blues n roll. The great part of the album, is that he’s also got the early 1900s Louis Armstrong kind of vibe going. Not the “Beautiful World” Louis Armstrong, nope I’m talking about the rough-and-tumble proto-hip-hop Louis Armstrong of the Hot Fives and Sevens ensemble, when he was just as happy fucking around with a little skit as he was redefining American music with “West End Blues.” Winslow-King understands this super fun early New Orleans stomp-jazz tradition and funnels it into a very modern perspective. This album is an absolute delight from start to finish, a masterpiece of how a very modern artist can create an original pastiche of old-school traditions that’s totally rooted in a sense of place.
Keith Murphy. Suffer No Loss.
2014. Black Isle Music.
New England guitarist Keith Murphy is well known in East Coast folk circles for his work with the band Nightingale. A trio featuring Murphy, fiddler Becky Tracy and accordionist Jeremiah McLane, Nightingale are known for their beautiful and thoughtfully arranged traditional songs and tunes and have ties to the historic New England contradance community. With his new solo album, Keith Murphy pays homage to his New England roots, but also to his native roots in Newfoundland, where he’s from. His cover here of “Great Big Sea” (from which the famous Newfoundland band takes their name) is absolutely suburb and totally redefines the song. As a whole this album is a very stripped back affair, really just Murphy and his guitar. But what a guitarist! And what a singer! You don’t really need much more when the talent level is this high. Murphy’s guitar rings out clear as a bell and his inventive and intelligent playing is on fine display. As a singer, I love his slightly rough-edged but totally on-point vocals and there’s even a kind of humbleness to this album that makes it really endearing. It’s almost like he’s happy to just sit down in front of a nice microphone to share some of his favorite songs. The songs themselves are drawn from Newfoundland sources like “Lukey’s Boat” and “Let Me Fish off Cape St Mary’s” as well as from collections of Southern Vermont singers, which yields songs like the old ballad “Fair Mary” or “Winsconsin Emigrant.” It’s been a long time since I heard a solo album that sounded so vibrant. Pick this one up if you have any interest in North American folk music.
Quraishi. Mountain Melodies.
2014. Evergreene Music.
A master rubab (traditional lute) player and Afghani immigrant to New York, Quraishi presents an unadulterated traditional sound with roots in Afghani court and folk forms. His instrument is the heart of all of the pieces on Mountain Melodies (Evergreene Music, 2014), a tribute to his father, who was his first teacher and instrument maker (“Wardagi” combines several of his favorite folk tunes into an original piece). Supported by the beautiful percussion work of Chatram Sahni, Quraishi can evoke sprightly, bounding songs or more contemplative and melancholy moments (“Kerwhali”). Pieces hint at influences from all along the Silk Road and move through a variety of gorgeous modes (“Negaar”). Though the production is straightforward, and there is little sonic variety from track to track. the focus and commitment in the performances shine. Fans of the banjo or mandolin need to dip into the rubab, and Quraishi’s work is an excellent place to start.
-tristra newyear yeager
Levi Fuller and the Library. The Wonders That There Are.
For over ten years Levi Fuller's been bringing fanfare and independent street cred to underexposed music via his Audio Quarterly, Ball of Wax-- He's got his finger firmly on the pulse of underplayed independent music in the Northwest and now with his first full length in over five years, it's about time we at KITHFOLK give Levi Fuller and the Library the independent music nod they so clearly deserve. The Wonders That There Are is a slow burning build from semi-acoustic, folky fortitude into a big ass garage sound, full of punk ideologies and what feels like Olympia-esque sweat and tears. The band's mellow-to-grand landscapes, pretty picking, and punk principles sound like sad bastards eating clouds. We like sad bastards, and clouds.
Abakis. I’m One Too.
A few months back we at KITHFOLK premiered Abakis' first song “Day Job” from her upcoming album I'm One Too, and we’re excited to say that her full length album is here! With her album release party held at a church in New York City, and catered by friends, family, and local businesses who all received hand letter-pressed copies, the album's release was quite the underground roots project. But don't be fooled by Abakis' folky tendencies, I'm One Too, is anything but. With its intricately lush arrangements, 1960's harmonies, and nuanced jazz stylings, I'm One Too is a flawless nod to Baroque/ Orchestral pop that carries a kind of cultish modern style.The album's refreshingly non-guitar-heavy sound mixes perfectly with Abakis' booming and soulful voice and catchy hooks for a landscape that feels ungrounded, almost floating. I'm One Too takes its listeners far above the clouds to that special place where pop still feels fresh and new modern sounds become old classics!
Bonsoir Catin. Light the Stars.
2014. Valcour Records.
Issued by the always-great record label Valcour Records, the new album from Louisiana belles Bonsoir Catin is just what the doctor ordered in the world of Cajun music. Though women have historically been front and center in Cajun music (shouts to Cléoma Falcon), they haven’t always been bandleaders, accordionists or powerhouse personalities. Bonsoir Catin rock HARD, as hard as any Cajun band ever made, and it’s great that they’re out in front of the scene now. In fact, this album was just nominated for a Grammy! Bonsoir Catin is basically a supergroup, with each member being involved in their own well-received solo projects. Acoustic guitarist Christine Balfa comes from the Balfa Toujours clan, bassist Yvette Landry is a killer country songwriter and released a wonderful country album of her own in 2014, fiddler Anya Burgess plays in the Magnolia Sisters (also up for a 2014 Grammy), accordionist Kristi Guillory is a great songwriter and has her own solo album an project, and electric guitarist Meagan Berard plays in her own group Sweet Cecilia and played with her father, the great Al Berard, whose much lamented passing has shaken up the Cajun music community this year. Together, Bonsoir Catin are nigh-on unstoppable. Guillory pens most of the songs on the new album and she’s one of the few Cajun artists writing original songs in Cajun French. Great songs too, slow-burner “Jours si longs” (The Days Are So Long) aches with heartbreak laid over a fiercely defiant accordion line. There’s a lot of variety to this album, which is the real delight here. I can listen to a lot of traditional Cajun dance music, and have done so, but I also love to hear where the tradition is going today. “Baby, Please Don’t Go” turns in a blazing cover filled with surly fiddles and overclocked vocals that hint at a much rougher edge than I usually hear in Cajun dancehalls. It proves that Cajuns get the blues too! Pick this disc up to hear what Cajun music sounds like today!
Les Siffleurs de nuit. Déliez-moi les pieds!
Québécois, Breton singing, and Scandinavian are perhaps my three favorite genres of traditional music. I know; this isn’t about me—it’s about what you should be putting in your earbuds to make life sound like a snow-covered field of happiness. But you have to believe me: if you like ANY of the aforementioned genres, you’ll want to get your mittens on Les Siffleurs de nuit. Combining two Breton singers and two multi-instrumentalists from Québec, one of whom plays nyckelharpa, their album Déliez-moi les pieds (roughly, “Untie my Feet”) stirs together a perfect blend of traditions into a nice cup of hot chocolate for your ears* (*don’t put hot chocolate in your ears). One gem of the album is the arguably one of the most beautiful kan ha diskan songs called “Metig,” sung by Emmanuelle Hélias and Anthony Gérard, and accompanied with beautiful chord progressions by Félix Duhamel and deft violin work by Alex Kehler. You can hear Kehler and Duhamel square off in a unique guitar/nyckelharpa arrangement on “Mec’hed Plonnevez,” and the album is well divided between songs in Brezhoneg and French. There is no shortage of tunes and songs that will make you either want to dance the An Dro or stomp out some podorythmie. Either way, you’ll have to untie your feet.
— dejah leger
KITHFOLK is a digital roots music magazine published quarterly by Hearth Music. Hearth is primarly a music publicity agency, but in KITHFOLK we're mostly writing about artists we do NOT promote, unless otherwise stated. Devon Leger does most of the writing and Dejah Leger does the graphic design. See our website for more information.
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