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Chaino and Türkbas: False Ethnography for Hi-Fi Travelers

Growing up, Chaino’s face was always around, floating in and out of the amazing collection of LPs and reel-to-reel tapes my Dad had accumulated before marriage. Every now and then, we’d plop it on the turntable and groove to raw African beats, churned through a mesh of steel drums, slapping palms, shakers, bongos, and moaning voices (yes, moans!) Never stopped to think about which African country Chaino was from – “just Africa” was enough for us. The convincingly tribal LP cover sealed the deal – Chaino was real in our minds.
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Susana Baca, the Golden-Voiced Government Bureaucrat

Remember George Clinton’s fantasy verse in Parliament’s “Chocolate City,” imagining a future government in which Stevie Wonder holds a cabinet post, Secretary of Fine Arts? We’re probably lucky Clinton never got his wish to have Richard Pryor serve as Secretary of Education. But something like his basic idea occurred in Peru this summer. President-elect Ollanta Humala chose one of my favorite singers, Susana Baca, as the new Minister of Culture. The New York Times reports that she will be the first minister of African ancestry to serve in the Peruvian parliament.

Susana Baca’s smoldering and gorgeous version of “Maria Lando,” written by her mentor Chabuca Granda, is the standout track on David Byrne’s uniformly excellent 1995 compilation, The Soul of Black Peru, and also appears on one of her solo albums. Since “Maria Lando” is a heartfelt ode a woman who works hard for the money, I’ve sometimes put it on playlists that also include Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” But the ache in Baca’s voice is so intense that it makes the protagonist sound like her hours are 9 AM to 5 AM.

Baca is actually highly qualified for her new post, as an adept music historian and the co-founder of a cultural organization, the Instituto Negrocontinuo. The appointment comes just in time to promote Baca’s new album, Afrodiaspora, which takes her out of her traditional ballad comfort zone and on a journey to survey the threads of African influences in all the Americas (with a brief stop in Spain as well).

If this sounds like one of those sentimental, grooveless world music projects that drowns in self-importance, it isn’t. When the minister wants to get out of the office, she knows how to throw a good party. Afrodiaspora includes suitably moving (in both senses) tributes to Mexican singer Amparo Ochoa and Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz. But Baca also ventures in more unexpected directions. She drastically reinterprets the Meters’ classic New Orleans funk strut “Hey Pocky Way.” Things get even sweatier on “Plena y Bomba,” a collaboration with Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 and its often-shirtless leader/MC, René Pérez Joglar (AKA Residente). Baca also sang on Calle 13’s “Latinoamerica” last year. Although 2011 is far from over, I’ll predict now that Afrodiaspora will win the award for Best Nontraditional Latin Album by a Credentialed Burecaucrat.

Susana Baca, “Maria Lando”

Susana Baca (with Calle 13), “Plena y Bomba”

Comeback Kids: The Equals’ Two-Tone Rebel Soul

Since I’m in a serious funk over the astonishing increases in inequality that define our age, it seems like a good time to feature the seriously funky legacy of England’s two-tone rebel soul pioneers, The Equals. The biracial group of native Brits and immigrants from Jamaica and Guyana, formed in North London in 1965, has been described by musician and ska expert Marco on the Bass as the first “real” two-tone band, paving the way for the Specials, Selecter and other integrated bands in ska’s second wave. Although the Equals drew from ska, they incorporated many other influences, including pop, garage rock, psychedelia, soul, and funk.

Those who know the Equals’ guitarist and main songwriter Eddy Grant as the dreadlocked pop-reggae singer who recorded “Electric Avenue” (written in reaction to a 1981 Brixton riot) might be surprised to see him with the Equals, sporting dyed blond hair and sometimes playing fuzzy psychedelic guitar as if his life depended on it. Growly Derv Gordon, not Grant, served as the band’s lead vocalist, and the band continued after Grant, weakened by serious illness, quit and returned to Guyana in 1971. But the band’s peak period ended with Grant’s departure.

The Equals’ two signature songs are probably best known as covers. The infectious “Baby Come Back,” which received a lighter treatment in Pato Banton/ UB40’s 1994 hit version, is concise and compressed enough to remind me of one of Grant’s heroes, Chuck Berry. The hard-charging “Police on My Back” fit so seamlessly into the Clash‘s repertoire on its sprawling 1981 album Sandinista! that most listeners assumed it was a Clash original. But the Equals’ original version packs almost the same wallop, with a little extra dose of sweet soul.

The Equals, “Baby Come Back”

The Equals, “Police on My Back”

When the Equals are mentioned at all, it often seems to happen after some major protest in which England’s youth take to the streets–most recently in Salon, which offered the band’s work as the soundtrack to a burning London. It’s true that by the late sixties and early seventies, the Equals offered some compelling slices of politically charged psychedelic soul (“Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,” “Equality,” “Stand Up and Be Counted”). Yet the Equals weren’t close to being politicians, and their love songs hold up as well as their fight songs. They would deserve to be heard even if the streets of London became perfectly quiet.

The Equals, “Black Skin, Blue Eyed Boys”

The Equals, “Equality”

Robert Christgau: Dean of Rock Critics, King of Beers

Over at WFMU’s excellent Beware of the Blog music site, Canadian writer Brian Joseph Davis has penned a hilarious music review parody, the Ultimate Negative Christgau Review. Davis is no stranger to outrageous satire. His own music-obsessed rant, Portable Altamont, reimagines Don Knotts as a Buddhist philosopher and Margaret Atwood as a gangsta as it delivers delicate epigrams (Sample: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Kid Rock was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”)

None of Davis’ earlier work, though, prepared me for his epic spoof of Christgau, whose peerless (and sometimes inscrutable) Consumer Guide recently transformed into a blog, Expert Witness. Davis’ spoof culls negative phrases from more than 13,000 Christgau reviews into a single composite pan. Here are some teasers:

A born liar, showing all the imagination of an ATM in the process, a certain petty honesty and jerk-off humor, a man without a context, a pompous, overfed con artist, a preening panderer, mythologizing his rockin’ ‘50s with all the ignorant cynicism of a punk poser, a propulsive flagwaver attached to UNESCO lyrics about people all over the world joining hands, a simpleton, but also a genuine weirdo, a spoiled stud past his prime, so that while he was always sexy he wasn’t always seductive, a stinker, from Jesus-rock to studio jollity, a tedious ideologue with a hustle, a tough talker diddles teenpop’s love button. Act authentic for too long and it begins to sound like an act even if it isn’t.

Air-kiss soul, alienated patriotic, all clotted surrealism and Geddy Lee theatrics, all form and no conviction, except for the conviction that form is everything. All he proves is that when you dwell on suffering you get pompous. An archetypal indie whiner.

Christgau’s prose, dense with cross-cultural allusions and insider jokes, is ripe for this sort of roasting. He has self-confessed biases (against salsa, metal and prog, and for almost anything African-sounding) and puzzling sources of inspiration (this means you, Black Eyed Peas). Far too cerebral to be considered a gonzo journalist, he’s impassioned and impulsive enough enough to have thrown pie at one of his generation’s finest essayists, former girlfriend Ellen Willis. Christgau only started liking Sonic Youth after they threatened him in a song. When Lou Reed slandered Christgau on a live album, Christgau thanked him for pronouncing his name correctly.

Yet Christgau is one of only three music writers whose work has moved me as much as my favorite fiction authors (the other two are Amiri Baraka, who wrote far less about music, and Lester Bangs, who wrote with more heart but far less consistency). And I admire that after four decades of nonstop listening and writing, he has an insatiable appetite for new sounds and a disdain for sacred cows. I like Radiohead, but won’t forget his take on Kid A: “Alienated masterpiece nothing–it’s dinner music. More claret?” When classic rock still ruled the airwaves, Christgau had this pithy take on Prince’s Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

Excerpt from “Robert Christgau: “Rock and Roll Animal” (1999)
(Music: Modern Lovers, “Government Center”)

Just as I was absorbing Davis’ Christagu parody, I discovered that Christgau and his wife, writer Carola Dibble, penned a Consumer Guide to Beer that is almost as funny. Written in the mid-seventies, before the advent of alt-beer and the heyday of Michael Jackson (the Dean of American beer critics, not the singer), the piece is surprisingly sympathetic to flavored-water American macrobrews such as Coors and Budweiser, with nary a reference to obscure Belgian monks.

Still, I love how the Christgaus start with a pedantic lesson on the history of grain fermentation since 6000 B.C. They review San Francisco’s Anchor Steam as if it were a bottled version of the Grateful Dead (“Our bohemian friends found it winy, but we found it one more instance of San Francisco’s chronic confusion of eccentricity with quality”), and describe the Krautrock-worthy Beck’s as if it were a bottle of Can (“This beer is so overbearing that bad-mouthing it seems risky”). As George Clinton would say, can you get to that?

Funkadelic, “Can You Get to That?”

Too Much Joy, “King of Beers”

Haiku Review: Decemberists, The King is Dead

Droll grievous geek squad
Murmuring through an earthquake
Satan loved the Smiths.

Decemberists, “Calamity Song”

Center of Attention

Music gets all the attention. Record covers a little bit less. Totally neglected are the poor center labels, which are often great little mini-works-of-art. Simon Foster’s Center of Attention publishes photos of excellent LP and 45 RPM center labels. Lest we forget.

Whilst record cover sleeve art has always received plenty of attention (and rightly so) I believe that center labels have been somewhat neglected … To keep the focus solely on the artwork I have purposely not included any information on the music, artists or date of publication as most of that should be self explanatory from the images.

Coltrane and Cousin: Giant Steps, Lotus Leaps

I spent part of my summer vacation in New York with two living branches of the Coltrane family tree. Ravi Coltrane is the respected, bespectacled sax-playing son of John and Alice, and the namesake of Ravi Shankar. Ravi’s cousin, Steven Ellison, whose grandmother wrote “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross, is the producer, laptop musician and cosmic voyager better known as Flying Lotus. So why was I thinking about an Irishman in a bar?

The Irishman used to show up at concerts I attended. He was fluent in a wide variety of musical styles. But he had precisely two musical opinions. After a show, he would down a pint or ten and proclaim the performers “bloody brilliant” or “bloody awful.” Asked to elaborate, he might add another “bloody” or two for emphasis. This could be frustrating, but I also admired his complete confidence in his beliefs.

There’s a bit of the Irishman in me when it comes to John Coltrane, because his music often leaves me muttering “bloody brilliant.” The only passable thing I’ve ever been able to write about him was to transcribe to limericks all the tracks on Coltrane’s Live at Birdland album. Coltrane’s horn cuts dangerously close to my sense of what it feels like to be human. Ask me about love, and I cue A Love Supreme. Ask me about justice, and I hear the stirring “Alabama.” Ask me about my work ethic, and I conjure the chord changes in “Giant Steps.” Ask me about God, and I squawk my way through the otherworldly clamor of Ascension and Meditations. Ask me if I remember laughter and…okay, I think of Tiny Tim and Brave Combo’s swing-tempo version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” But Coltrane had just about every other human emotion covered, and we can’t all be comedians.

Playing live in New York (at Birdland, no less) and on albums such as In Flux, Ravi finds inspiration in both John and Alice, and plays some top-shelf post-bop and ballads. But Ravi also deserves credit for finding his own path. While he can breathe new fire into papa’s “Giant Steps,” he’s just as likely to cover Ornette Coleman’s “Tribes of New York.” He also draws liberally from his years of cross-cultural improvisation as a member of Steve Coleman‘s M-Base Collective.

Ravi’s range serves him well when collaborating with his cousin on the lush soundscapes of Flying Lotus, whose special guests also include fellow travelers Thom Yorke of Radiohead and harpist Rebekah Raff. Much of what passes for “innovative” electronica these days leaves me stone cold bored, and I’m not yet ready to proclaim Flying Lotus the Coltrane of the laptop. Still, the most adventurous parts of 2010’s Cosmogramma suggest Ellison has the vision and nerve to bring uncharted parts of interstellar space to the next generation. And if that isn’t bloody brilliant, it’s getting pretty close.

[Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder site has posted a soulful summer mix.]

Ravi Coltrane, “Tribes of New York”

Flying Lotus, “German Haircut” (featuring Ravi Coltrane)

Flying Lotus, “And the World Laughs With You” (featuring Thom Yorke)

Strange Foundations of Dad Rock – Glenn Kotche sans Wilco

Radiolab (the finest podcast on earth) did something special for a recent short episode called Curious Sounds, bringing in three artists specializing in very different – and very weird – soundscapes.

All three performances are worth listening to, but the big surprise was drummer Glenn Kotche of Wilco, removed from his usual habitat and throwing down something totally unexpected. Kotche plays a prepared drum kit laced up with rubber bands, screws and springs, tuned cowbells, and a fruit bowl, as well as a couple of traditional percussion instruments.

… percussionist Glenn Kotche of Wilco performs “Monkey Chant,” his retelling of the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana–using different instruments in his drum kit to convey different characters. And after explaining how he once wrote a string quartet on the drums, he plays one more composition: “Projections of What Might.”

Kotche’s piece starts at 8’30” in — or 12’00” if you want to skip the introduction to his kit — so scrub past the Buke and Gass warm-up and dive in. It’s quite long, so leave this page up in the background and go about your business, or close your eyes and swim – it’s intense and wonderful. Kotche actually plays two pieces here, sandwiched by a brief conversation about how he orchestrates pieces for Kronos Quartet — on the drums. Apparently, a spiritual descendant of Harry Partch is behind the Dad Rock tradition.

More on Kotche at glennkotche.com

Gimme Swelter

In one of my recurring dreams, I’m handed an enormous map of an unfamiliar city and discover that it’s written entirely in musical notation. Because I’m a mediocre sight-reader, I find myself hopelessly lost after a few turns. Bossa Nova Boulevard moves along nicely enough until it unexpectedly dead-ends at the Fusion Freeway, leaving me scrambling for the nearest exit. Eventually, I abandon the map and submit to the found sounds of the streets and alleys, not sure if bebop or bhangra or blues will lurk around the next corner, perhaps followed by country-tinged hip hop, harmolodic polka or ukulele death metal.

While New York City didn’t quite become the city of my dreams when I visited last week, the annual Make Music New York festival helped it come close. On solstice day, more than 1000 musical performances in a staggering variety of sounds enveloped the boroughs. Dozens of pianos lined the streets, meaning that if you were in Queens, you might hear someone like teenage conservatory student Lisa Occhino, performing a medley that meshes Lil’ Wayne, Lady Gaga and the Beatles. The Bronx hosted an inspired griot summit of New York-based musicians from Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. Governors Island became Punk Island for the day.

Manhattan had Mexican ballads and a tabla symphony uptown, while downtown, you could find a concerto for bicycles and Wall Street businessmen rocking out on their lunch breaks. Greenwich Village had perhaps the best variety, including traditional shakuhachi players, Gypsy strings and vocals (Barmaljova), Afro-Colombian funk (M.A.K.U. Sound system), singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham with rock classicist Jim Boggia, and the audio gumbo of the Underground Horns. In Washington Square Park, dozens of guitarists remade Outkast’s biggest hit into an urban campfire song.

Some of the most ambitious concerts were projects of Super Critical Mass, an Australian collective that arranges for large numbers of musicians to play the same or similar instruments in public settings, drawing from simple, agreed-upon “algorithms” of sound. Close to sunset in Central Park, the MATA Festival presented one of these, an evocative piece called Swelter in which dozens of brass players collaborated lakeside, calling and responding with swirls of sound enveloping an audience of boaters and onlookers. It wasn’t home, but it was a great place to get lost.

The Radio Will Not Be Televised

How cool are Brooklyn’s soulful, cerebral art-alt-funk combo TV On the Radio? Never mind their years of critical accolades. Never mind that second vocalist and guitarist Kyp Malone reached the prestigious final round of Stuck Between Stations’ battle of the beards. The real sign they’ve reached the pinnacle is that the Brickshelf Gallery has put them alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Sleater-Kinney and Johnny Cash in their hall of LEGO rock star action figures.

TVOTR’s latest album, Nine Types of Light, may come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who still expects the band to be the ragtag upstarts who released OK Calculator a decade ago by hiding it in sofa cushions in New York coffee shops. For the most part, it’s more relaxed than the band’s earlier work, less frenetic than 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain and less groove-heavy than 2008’s Dear Science.

The shape-shifting opener “Second Song” comes across as a bit of TV On the Radiohead, at least until the charismatic lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe lets loose with his falsetto. “Killer Crane,” a gorgeous three-lighter ballad with avian imagery and gratuitous banjo, might have a few old-school fans wondering if they’ve accidentally picked up a Decemberists album. The self-explanatory “Caffeinated Consciousness” comes closest to capturing the Pixies-perfect manic energy from earlier albums. A few other songs seem to get their consciousness from herbal tea and a hot bath. These include the soul stirrer “Will Do,” a love song you could imagine Stevie Wonder singing into a telephone sometime in the eighties.

None of this should suggest that the guys now just sit around watching Oprah and making valentines. TVOTR never were art-punk purists to begin with (nor do they need to be, since that’s why the Lord made Mission of Burma), and they continue to play what the late D. Boon would have called scientist rock. The band’s riveting hour-long “visual reimagining” of Nine Types of Light shows TVOTR fusing lovers’ rock and revolution rock into the same mind-meld. A lot of this could come off as hopelessly pretentious, but the band usually finds the right moment to kick out the jams or segue to a funky new form of future shock. I especially like the video segments that accompany the Parliament-tinged “New Cannonball Blues,” and the Talking Heads-worthy “Repetition,” where survivors of urban anxiety become fish out of water, pushing their way through life during wartime. The songs are bittersweet in light of the sad news that TVOTR’s outstanding bassist Gerard Smith passed away from cancer in April, just after release of the new album.

Someone had better whack me with Peter Gabriel’s sledgehammer before I keep rambling about death-defying high-concept videos and songs with big beats. Adebimpe’s vocals tend to strongly resemble those from PG’s work in the albums following his Genesis exodus. But that’s a very old story, and Adebimpe had the last word on it seven years ago: “At least nobody is comparing anyone in the band to Meat Loaf.” For now, I still love TV On the Radio just the way they are, and have no worries that they will mutate into Mr. Loaf. But if the next album is called Bat Out of Brooklyn, I might start to worry.

TV on the Radio, “New Cannonball Blues”

TV on the Radio, “Repetition”