Juluka Featuring Johnny Clegg Play “Scatterlings of Africa”

Listen to this track by South African “world music” pop alchemists featuring lead singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, Juluka. It’s “Scatterlings of Africa”, an international hit as taken from the band’s 1982 record Scatterlings, their fourth. This single received much attention on the Western charts, even reaching heavy rotation on video channels and programs at the time.

To contrast that, the band itself was practically illegal in their home country of South Africa. With black and white members, they were not even legally allowed perform in public and were banned from the radio under the Apartheid system. Along with the rest of the band, singer and songwriter Clegg and vocalist and guitarist Sipho Mchunu were the embodiment of a forbidden cultural unity in South Africa, performing a fusion cuisine of styles presented in both English and in Zulu languages, often within the confines of the same song.

All the while, Juluka had to keep a low official profile since forming at the end of the sixties. Their popularity was truly grassroots, eventually reaching the rest of the world by the 1980s with this hit song on international radio and on video channels. What was it about this song, and others that riled up the South African establishment so much? More importantly, how did this song fly in the face of Western mores and customs around geopolitics and race in very much the same way? Read more

Tinariwen Play “Matadjem Yinmixan”

AmanImanListen to this track by actual rock ‘n’ roll rebels from the sahara region of northern Mali and Algeria, Tinariwen. It’s “Matadjem Yinmixan”, a key track as taken from their 2007 album, directly translated as “water is life” from the Tuareg language tamasheq native to the band . This title is perhaps of no surprise given the band’s origins, and even their name, which in English means “deserts”.

I say that they are actual rebels because the Tuareg people were involved in a war of independence in the early sixties and again in Libya in the mid-eighties, spending the ensuing years in between as a scattered people living their nomadic lives in various countries that make up northern Africa, including Mali. This is also a region known for being host to a source of the blues. In a region of the world where the desert is encrouching into farmlands every year, it’s easy to believe that the blues in several respects is alive and well on the edge of the Sahara.

But, in this case, it would be a mistake to think that Tinariwen’s music flows from this one source alone. In fact, the music they make is much like many other things in the Tuareg culture; it wanders, and picks up useful elements on its travels. Read more

Peter Gabriel Sings “San Jacinto”

Listen to this track by musical fusion-cuisine gourmand and art rock avatar Peter Gabriel. It’s “San Jacinto” as taken from 1982’s Peter Gabriel, the fourth album he’d put out under that title, and known in North America as Security. 

Peter Gabriel Fourth Album SecurityThat record moved Gabriel even closer to the top 40 than he’d been previously on the third Peter Gabriel album. Yet, Security wasn’t more accessible, nor were any of the songs on it in any way in line with anything that was on the radio at the time including “Shock The Monkey”, which scored him an enduring hit single. As for “San Jacinto”, this song would be as far off the beaten track as any song he’d ever written and recorded.

The song, and the rest of the album, was the result of a number of factors in which Gabriel was more directly involved than ever before. One was a more hands-on role in the production chair. Another was his interest in mixing early sampling technology with spare percussion-driven arrangements, which certainly affected the production aspects. And then there is the subject matter of the song, which was in part the result of a personal encounter that would prove to be instrumental in how the song came out. Read more

Amadou & Mariam Sing “Wily Kataso”

Here’s a clip of Malian power couple and musical fusion cuisine specialists Amadou & Mariam. It’s “Wily Kataso”, a cut from their most recent offering, Folilatheir seventh album.

Mali is a hotbed of musical greatness on many fronts, particularly for reasons that the music made there is known to show the musical genetic materials that link traditional African music with many strains of Western pop music. Specifically, Mali and West Africa as a region in general is the ancestral home of the blues, the cornerstone of many musical forms which flow therefrom.

But, Mali isn’t contained in a musical or cultural bubble. The funk, rock, blues, soca, reggae, and even disco grooves to be found in this music from Mali is a result of true cross-polination, particularly here with Amadou & Mariam’s work. I think it’s the result of songwriters reaching for sounds that appeal to them, and pulled from their cultural traditions, sure. But, it’s also the result of exposure to traditions outside of that culture.

Hey! It’s just like every other region where songwriters operate!

So how does this duo’s approach break the music out of the “world music” tag?

Read more

Pillarcat Play “The Fragile and the Few” feat. Lou Rhodes of Lamb

Listen to this track by London-based experimental chamber folk-pop collective Pillarcat, joined on this track by Lamb vocalist and solo artist in her own right, Lou Rhodes. It’s “The Fragile and the Few” as taken from the band’s full length album Weave.

Pillarcat is led by singer-songwriter Stephen Hodd, who seeks to mix the textures of John Martyn, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Sigour Ros, and beyond into his work. The title Weave then is honestly come by, and the resulting sound is at once cinematic, pristine, atmopheric, and evocative.

Hodd wrote and produced the record himself, drawing on a pool of guest talent that includes  the aforementioned Lou Rhodes, but also violinist Ben Lee, virtuoso drummer Emre Ramazanolgu, and vocalist Gitta. Spanish guitarist Pablo Tato and Italian drummer Alberto Voglino round out the regular membership of Pillarcat, making the band something of a cultural amalgam when joined with Ireland-born Hodd.

I spoke with Stephen via email about recording an ambitious record on a limited budget, about experimenting with sound while getting an accessible feel, and about what comes next for the band.

*** Read more

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Perform “Four Sticks”

Listen to this track from Percy and Pagey, once of conquering Nordic-style hard rock  demi-gods Led Zeppelin, reunited as world-music enthusiasts Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.  It’s “Four Sticks”, a massively underappreciated Zep track from their most soundly celebrated 1971 untitled fourth album (sometimes called IV, Four Symbols, or Zoso), and revisited here on their live No Quarter album, recorded and released in late 1994.

Since 1980, and through solo career efforts of varying degrees of success and quality, Page and Plant were burdened with their legacy as game-changing rock icons.  The pair were constantly asked about Zep re-unions, teased out by appearances with John Paul Jones at Live Aid (with Tony Thompson and Phil Collins sitting in for a departed John Bonham).  There was also a brief show together at the 1988 Atlantic Records 40th anniversary.  Yet, through it all, the commonality that runs through their music was their interest in Celtic traditions and the blues as informed by the musical traditions of North Africa. Read more

Paul Simon Performs ‘Gumboots’ Featuring The Boyoyo Boys

480px-graceland_cover_-_paul_simonListen to this track by singer-songwriter, folk-rock pioneer, and world-music promoter Paul Simon.  It’s the album-track “Gumboots”, which among other things going for it, features the Afro-pop stylings of The Boyoyo Boys from South Africa.  Another thing this song has going for it of course is one of the best lyrical marriage proposals in pop music history: “why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute?”

Paul Simon was lauded for his 1986 Graceland LP, off of which this track is taken. Coming back from a three-year recording hiatus, Simon married his interest in folk music to (among other styles) African pop music, creating a highly textured and idiosyncratic album that captured the imaginations of the critics and the record buying public.  But, he also took some flak, too.  Some leveled some pretty heavy allegations against the project, deeming it to be a product of cultural imperialism, and an implied dismissal of the anti-Apartheid boycott at the time .

The song was originally an instrumental by the Boyoyo Boys, which Simon heard and was fascinated by.  It captured his imagination enough to write lyrics to the song, sparking a project which would provide something of a path to a comeback album. That path would eventually frame South Africa as a rich musical hotbed, despite the political unrest for which it had been known since the National Party put the deliberately racist Apartheid system in place in 1948.

As for the resulting song itself, there is nothing like it in Western pop music, with jubliant sax lines against hyperactive percussion and fidgety accordion lines. It’s a joyful, happy tune, derived from a country which, at the time, wasn’t so joyful. I guess the closest style to which it might be compared is New Orleans Zydeco, a style that developed many thousands of miles away. It’s hard to say which style influenced which first, or even if the two styles developed completely independently.  It’s a mystery!

The point is, what works for a song, just works. It doesn’t ultimately matter where it comes from, even if the origins are fascinating to trace.  As far as cultural imperialism goes, to me music has always thrives best when cultures mix.  This is not exploitation, it’s evolution.  For Simon’s part, he was making a record characterized by textures that interested him at the time, which is not really a radical approach to making an album.   As such, the album features many African musicians and their respective styles, but also features Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, Adrian Belew, and Los Lobos, among others.

Many of the South African musicians he worked with to help him get the sound he needed must have most certainly seen the advantage of having a prominent Western musician as an ambassador. Their musical traditions, which hadn’t received a fraction of the attention it would get upon the reception of the Graceland LP, were as important to them as a thing to promote as the album was to Simon.  And arguably, the eye of the world may not have focused so keenly on the corruption of the Apartheid system in South Africa, if not for the exposure that country received, at least in part, because of this album.

Check the link for more information about Paul Simon’s Graceland album and how it was made.


David Lindley Plays ‘Tijuana’

Listen to this song by virtuoso stringed instrument-collecting savant David Lindley.  It’s ‘Tijuana’ a flamenco-styled folk tale, only one of many styles at which Lindley is skilled.

David Lindley’s chops have been utilized while playing with musicians as varied as Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, The Bottle Rockets, and the Bangles, among many others.  This doesn’t include his work with Ry Cooder as well, a fellow slide guitar player and folk music archivist.   His best known song, ‘Mercury Blues’ is in many ways only a fraction of his musical interests.  Where that song holds the banner of blues rock pretty high, Lindley’s mastery of the blues is really only an extension of his interest in folk music all over the world.

It helps of course that Lindley is exceptionally skilled at a variety of stringed instruments from the lap steel guitar to the bouzouki.   This allows him access to all manner of textures when putting across his material.  In seeing him recently at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival, I was taken on an excursion of North Africa, Greece, the Appalachians, and the Mississippi Delta during the course of a single number.

In this, Lindley’s musical patch is about making a connection between cultures, and a hint that the blues and other Western folk music, however you think of these musical forms, are far older and more widespread across cultural lines than you previously may have suspected.  When listening to Lindley’s set at the festival, it was like being lifted up to a high place where I could see that the lines dividing musical traditions are purely illusory.  It was like the realization  that the world beneath me was one land, one nation, one musical world.

For information on tour dates, and a tour of Lindley’s collection of exotic musical instruments, check out davidlindley.com.


Harry Manx Plays “The Gist of Madhuvanti/The Thrill Is Gone”

harry-manx-road-ragasListen to this song by Canadian blues-roots-world music purveyor Harry Manx. It’s his arrangement of B.B King’s “The Thrill is Gone” fused with his own Indian folk style raga “The Gist of Madhuvanti”.  The piece is taken from Manx’s 2005 album Road Ragas Live.

How do you get from traditional Indian raga music to early 70s electrified blues in one move? This song of course was a major hit for B.B King, full of biting Gibson electric guitar, thanks to B.B’s Lucille. And Manx takes the lush minor chords and attaches seamlessly to a raga.  Manx is an adept guitarist, and 5-string banjo player.  And Manx plays  an instrument on this which you may not have heard of, too.

Manx has a few tricks up his sleeve that makes the transition from Indian music to blues seem easy.  Part of it is his interest, and his background in playing the blues in its purer form.  Another is his extensive five year training in India, and the study of an instrument he discovered there – the mohan veena, which is a cross between a six string guitar and a sitar.  It is a twenty-stringed instrument, with some of the strings not being played so much as accompanying the player by droning when other strings are played.

One of the great things about the blues is that it can often fool you into thinking that it’s pretty one dimensional.  But, what the blues does best, aside from evoking some pretty primal musical impulses in audiences and players,  is to create a framework for other stylistic possibilities too.  After all, that how R&B developed, and in turn how rock ‘n’ roll was born too.  Manx extends this potential here, not only by taking it to another style, but also to other musical notation systems.

Manx isn’t the first artist to explore this mostly uncharted sonic region.  Legendary British guitarist Davy Graham commonly turned to Indian music, and music from many other parts of the world and fused it with Western folk music, most notably in his “Blue Raga”, which marries Big Bill Broonzy with Indian classical music.  Yet, Manx brings his own personality to this, a certain warmth and affection for two traditions, and to music itself.  This is what shines through, and makes this music more than just an academic exercise or a simple novelty.

For more about Harry Manx, check out harrymanx.com.


Goodbye, Davey Graham

Here’s a clip of one who once sat atop the mountain of guitar divinity, Davey Graham, here with a medley of the folk-standard “She Moved Through the Bizaar” (aka “She Moved Through the Fair”) and Graham’s own “Blues Raga”.    Davey Graham recently succumbed to cancer, aged 68.

This medley had a tremendous influence on another piece of music, “White Summer”, which featured regularly in live sets by the latter day line-up of the Yardbirds, as led by one Jimmy Page, who you may have heard of.  He later formed a group called Led Zeppelin, which turned out pretty well for him.  And the Graham influence continued on pieces like “Black Mountain Side” and “Bron Yr-Aur”.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page regularly namechecked Davey Graham as an influence on his playing, and in his approach to melding together styles into a unique sound that added folk ("Gallow's Pole") and world-music textures ("Kashmir"), into the rock milieu. It’s hard to imagine how Led Zeppelin would have sounded without the textures of the Graham-inspired folk-acoustic and world-music sound offsetting the Chicago blues and British blues-rock sounds for which they are most famous. And it’s not just Zeppelin who benefited. Many musicians who grew up hearing Graham arguably never would have considered adding what is now known as world music into their compositions without him.

Music and how it influences musicians is a mysterious force.  And each musician of worth tends to pass at least something of themselves onto someone else, who in turn does the same.  But in these terms, Davey Graham was a significant conduit of this particular phenomenon, although many music fans don’t know him by name.

Although he had a low-key career, his influence on the British folk boom at the end of the 1960s created a stylistic ripple effect that has lasted up to today, thanks to legendary club date appearances and his 1962 instrumental hit “Anji” (inspiring a famous cover by Paul Simon).  His influence on early folk-rock, and even the British R&B scene is interminable, touching on artists as diverse as Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Paul Simon, and of course Jimmy Page as mentioned above.

Ironically, many of the styles Graham introduced into the folk and rock worlds hailed from the very countries that made stringed instruments like the guitar popular in the first place – India, and the Middle East being two of the most prominent, with cultural influences into southern Europe, most notably Spain where the guitar was invented in the form we now recognize it.

Davey Graham knew no limits when it came to styles on the guitar. But he was not only a virtuoso, he was a cultural ambassador to  musicians around the world.

R.I.P, Davey.

For more information about this legendary instrumentalist, and more music,  check out The Davey Graham MySpace page.

And to leave your comments and condolences, stop by http://www.daveygraham.moonfruit.com/