Now that we have 2017 behind us, we’d like to take a look at the countries in the African continent, in Latin America and India and learn a little more about some of them. We realize traveling to these destinations may not be possible, but we can agree that one way of appreciating their cultures is through their music. To guide us on this musical journey, we’ve invited our guest blogger and music aficionado, Tom Schnabel, to share with us a list of his favorites.
We turn next to a good example of musical cross-pollination with India’s master sitar player Shujaat Khan and Iranian vocalist Katayoun Goudarzi, together exploring the Persian-Indian music connection that formed centuries ago along the spice route. After that, let’s check out a tribute to G.F. Handel from L’Arpeggiata with some crazy twists—it’s “crossover classical” at its best.
We switch gears and close the 2017 highlights show with the hot Latin band La Mambanegra from Cali, Colombia, followed by a young Cape Verdean star named Elida Almeida, who just released her third successful album.
I hope you like these picks as much as I do. They represent, however, only a fraction of all the terrific world music I’ve enjoyed over the past twelve months. You can revisit, on demand, all the Rhythm Planet shows from 2017 (and earlier) on the KCRW website or on the KCRW app to hear more of the great world music from the past year.
Istanbul is a city at the center of the old world, for millenia a crossroads of civilization, trade, and cultural exchange. On the many sailing ships entering the Bosporus over the centuries came the stray cats that kept mice and other vermin under control, who then left the boats and became landlubbers. Kedi is a wonderful new film about the street cats of Istanbul. We usually adopt cats into our homes, but in Istanbul the street cats choose to adopt certain lucky residents, who then take care of them. According to Oscilloscope Films, the film’s distributor, “claiming no owners, these animals live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame—and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt.”
Aslan Parçasi—the hunter. Photo courtesy of Ceyda Torun
Istanbul native Ceyda Torun, who now lives in Los Angeles, directed this utterly delightful film, with cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann giving us great kitty-eye’s view of the feline characters, following them around in their haunts and daily travels. Thirty-five cats initially showed up for the “casting call,” but many were unreliable, so the cast was pared down to seven:
Sari—the hustler; Bengü—the lover; Aslan Parçasi—the hunter; Psikopat—the psychopath; Deniz—the social butterfly; Duman—the gentleman; and Gamsiz—the player.
The charming soundtrack features Turkish pop songs as such as “Arkadasim Esek” by Baris Manço, “Bak Yesil Yesil” by Emel Sayin, “Deli Kadin” by the Turkish psychedelic band Erkin Koray, as well as Eartha Kitt singing a Turkish classic, “Usku Dara,” plus “Amber Eyes” by an American musician named Lloyd Miller who plays over 100 instruments and is known for his expertise in world music and jazz. What makes the soundtrack music even more fun is that each cat character has his or her own theme song, kind of like friends who have specific ring tones on your phone.
A cat hanging out in a record store in Istanbul. Can you imagine fighting with a cat for elbow room in the bins at Amoeba Records? Photo by Amanda (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0) via Flickr
The cool score is by Kira Fontana, a classically-trained (Eastman School of Music, Yale University) pianist-composer. Her mentors include Steve Reich, John Adams, and David Lang. The playful and percussive music score—in which you clearly hear the Steve Reich influence—is performed by percussionist Sidney Hopson, a three-time alum of USC’s Thornton School of Music, and features marimbas, glockenspiels, vibraphones, and strings. The music was recorded at Cal Arts in Valencia, California. The Arabic darbuka drum is used to highlight the hunt and fight scenes. As Kira described to me, they aimed for “an ethereal, magical sound-world to reflect the spiritual role Istanbul’s cats play in the daily lives of the city’s residents.” I think that together, the Turkish songs and score perfectly complement the feline stars as they pursue their daily adventures.
This is a movie not only about a great city and its colorful felines, but a tribute to the kind citizens of Istanbul who love and care for them. It’s a feel-good movie if there ever was one, whether you like cats or not. If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, the trailer below provides a taste, but you can also find screening information here.
And here is Eartha Kitt’s “Usku Dara” (theme song for Aslan Parçasi—the hunter):
And this is American Lloyd Miller’s “Amber Eyes” (theme song for Gamsiz—the player):
Above, Sari—the hustler. This and banner photo at top courtesy of Ceyda Torun.
I have always believed that music brings people together and bridges cultural divides. Music can connect us like no other arts, with its universal language of rhythm and melody. Maybe even more importantly, music—especially world music, helps us understand and appreciate other cultures and people. I have bonded instantly with immigrant taxi drivers from Nigeria, Cameroon, Armenia, Argentina, and other places simply by asking them about the music of their homelands.
This core belief in the binding power of music has underpinned my work over the past 30 years to popularize world music in Los Angeles and beyond. It’s been a joy to watch ecstatic crowds dancing to Pakistani qawwali (sufi gospel) music or Nigerian afrobeat and juju, to see people entranced by whirling dervishes from Turkey and Syria, and to swoon with others to achingly beautiful classical music from Iran. My life and personal horizons have been immeasurably enriched by these experiences. Sadly, some of these experiences may now be in peril due to the recently enacted immigration ban on seven predominately Muslim countries—Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya.
In this time of division and discord, it’s imperative to keep building bridges through music. With that in mind, I want to celebrate music that I’ve loved by artists from the seven countries targeted by the recent immigration ban. This sweeping ban will most certainly prevent artists from these countries from performing in the U.S., but we can still support their music and arts from afar—by continuing to share and learn about them through recordings and the vast resources of the internet.
We begin in SYRIA with the poet-musician Abed Azrie and his albums Lapis Lazuli and Aromates. Azrie was born in Aleppo but has been based in Paris for many years. Aromates was his first album released in the U.S., on Nonesuch. I put a beautiful cut, “Pareil à l’eau” (Like Water) from the album Lapis Lazuli on a compilation that I produced called Trance Planet Vol. 3. His poetry is as beautiful as his music.
IRAQ: Munir Bashir has been called the King of Oud and is credited by many as the greatest modern oud player. Algerian-born, French singer-songwriter Pierre Bensusan gave me my first Munir Bashir LP years ago. I immediately fell in love with his finely-filigreed music. Sadly, Bashir died at the age of 47 in an auto accident in Budapest. Here is a track from his album Mesopotamia:
I also want to mention an upcoming concert at the Getty Center by Iraqi-American oud musician Rahim AlHaj. His concerts take place on Saturday, February 18 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 19 at 4 p.m. Admission is free, but you must make a reservation. Click here for more information and reservations.
IRAN: Masters of Persian Musicis a classical music ensemble formed in 2000 by true masters of Persian music. Iran has an amazing classical tradition, as complex and arabesque as any Mozart or Bach. Lyrics come from the classic poets and mystics: Hafez and Rumi, as well as more modern writers. The group once performed at the Hollywood Bowl with a live calligrapher rendering classical Persian poetry; it was one of the most stunning concerts ever to grace the Bowl’s celebrated stage. Here is a song from their album Hanan (Without You), featuring Hossein Alizadeh, Kayhan Kalhor, and Homayoun Shajarian. It is a gentle, passionate, and powerful love song.
YEMEN: When I think about Yemen, I immediately think of the late Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza. Her parents moved from Yemen to Israel in 1950 in the airlift known as Operation Magic Carpet. She burst upon the scene in 1986 with her transcendent album Yemenite Songs. Many of the songs on the album were written by a 17th century rabbi. Her song “Im Nin’alu” topped the European charts, even rising to #1 in Germany. To me, her success was more convincing proof that music transcends language and builds bridges between cultures. Ofra once visited my UCLA World Music class—International Bandstand—and performed a Yemenite song, drumming a large oil can on her shoulder. It was a beautiful moment. Here is “Im Nin’alu“:
SUDAN: Sudanese music has incredible rhythms and deep groove. Crowds love it, though it’s featured more in big European summer festivals than in the U.S., especially after 9/11. Sudanese singer and oud player Abdel Aziz El Mubarakleads a large group, playing music that blends Arabic styles and Western forms. The great UK label Globe Style released his music back in the 1980’s, and I was listening.
SOMALIA: Somali poet, musician, and hip hop artist K’naan (born Keinan Abdi Warsame) was born in Mogadishu in 1978 and now resides in Canada. His hybrid sound draws from world music, hip hop, reggae, and of course, Somali music. He has collaborated with artists from the great Youssou N’Dour to Bono. Here is his song “Take a Minute.” Watch him as he walks by portraits of Gandhi, Mandela, Bob Marley, and Nina Simone:
LIBYA: We don’t hear too much from Libyan artists, especially here in the U.S., due in part to the country’s isolation under the four-decade long rule of Qaddafi. Ahmed Fakroun is a pioneer of modern Arabic pop music and one of the most popular Libyan artists, both in Tripoli as well as among Libyan expats. His crossover style blends Arabic instruments and lyrics with Western pop elements like synthesizers and electric bass. Here’s a track called “Ya Farhi’ Bik” from his 1983 album Mots D’Amour – it definitely has that 80’s pop sound but with an Arabic twist:
Finally, I want to mention the compilation album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, released back in the days of the Bush 43 administration. It features music from all the countries above, as well as music from Afghanistan, North Korea, and other “evil” places.
I hope you enjoyed these tracks and will keep exploring musical riches from around the world.
I first heard the Sufi devotional music called qawwali around 1982 on a WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) album. WOMAD was Peter Gabriel’s world music label and brainchild. This was right about the time when a bunch of Brit record executives coined the term “world music” as a category for retail sales purposes. The five-minute excerpt I heard was powerful, enthralling. I was transfixed. I contacted WOMAD and asked them how long the original was. The answer? Two hours.
The music was that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani devotional singer who died in 1997. His musical journey started with a dream he had of singing in Pakistan’s most famous mosque, and it was something he was able to realize before his untimely death at 49.
The word qawwali means “utterance” in Urdu, and Nusrat was and is the most famousqawwal. I first saw him perform at a fundraiser at the LAX Hilton on behalf of a cancer hospital in Lahore. The speaker was Pakistan’s #1 cricketeer, Imran Khan. My table was besieged by men asking us to raise $5,000, the amount assigned per table. Me and a bunch of music fans and public radio types? No way could we come up with that. Nusrat had food poisoning and looked green onstage. It was not easy for him.
The second time I saw him involved driving to Buena Park for an all-Pakistani show. I recall hundreds of Mercedes in the parking lot but no BMWs. Fans were crumpling up $10-20 bills and throwing them on stage in tribute to the great singer. His next show took him to the former Universal Amphitheater (now Gibson). I didn’t make it to that one.
One time I was playing Nusrat’s music on air when KCRW’s then General Manager Ruth Seymour got a call from her mother, who was put on phone hold while the music was playing. When Ruth picked up the phone, her mom said the music sounded like somebody getting their toenails pulled out. It’s a good thing that not all people hear Nusrat that way. Though often intense, his is a music of peace and love.
Nusrat would try anything musically, which is one reason he became the most famousqawwal. There was the Massive Attack remix of “Mustt Mustt,” and also the fun, crazyBally Sagoo remixes. Don’t be fooled, however. Nusrat also performed powerful, rich devotional music and love songs with his group, as you’ll hear on the first cut by him of this show.
Abida Parveen is the most famous female qawwali vocalist, adored by fans all over the world. I heard her once in Orange County years ago. She has a big voice, perfect pitch, and a powerful, ecstatic delivery. She will occasionally visit the U.S., but you will likely not know about it unless you read the local Pakistani newspapers.
In a 2013 article in the UK paper The Guardian, Parveen said, “My culture–our culture–is rich in spirituality and love. Sufism is not a switch, the music isn’t a show–it’s of life, it is religion. If I want to recognized for anything, if we should be recognized for anything, it’s the journey of the voice. And that voice is God’s.” Qawwali, like gospel music in the U.S., is a communal experience, a joy meant to be shared.
I did not include another famous qawwali group, the Sabri Brothers, because their tracks are super long. Sadly, I recently wrote a post about one of their founding memberswho was murdered by an Islamic extremist. Sufi gospel is a way of getting closer to the divine, both for listeners and performers. Dictatorships and Islamist hardliners don’t like music, don’t trust it either. We’ve seen that in the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Iran, and other places.
For those who don’t know about this powerful and ecstatic music, let it be a reminder that its message of peace and harmony is an antidote to the turmoil in Pakistan that we hear in the news.
Here is a video shot in Pakistan in 1993 of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:
When The Harpoonist (Shawn Hall) and the Axe Murderer (Matt Rogers) walked onstage last weekend at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex to open for Tinariwen, not many people knew who these two guys from Vancouver were. The duo’s name apparently references the blues harp(oon) from a line in country music singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson’s hit, “Me and Bobby McGee”: “I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana.” “Harp” being slang for the harmonica (Shawn Hall); “axe” is a common term for the guitar (Matthew Rogers). These two bust out the sounds of a full live blues and roots band playing their respective instruments while stomping and tapping out beats with both pairs of feet on kick drum, snare, foot tambourine, and shaker. (Check out the video at the end of this post to see them in action.) It’s no wonder why Tinariwen booked this Vancouver duo as the opening set for their entire North American tour.
The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer
Perhaps it’s that DIY nature with which Saharan ‘desert blues’ band Tinariwen feels some kinship. As the story goes, Tinariwen was founded in 1979 by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib while he, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, and Alhassane Ag Touhami were scraping by in the Algerian refugee camp of Tamanrasset. The following year, they answered Muammar el-Quaddafi’s call to create a Saharan regiment of Tuareg fighters and received infantry training while performing their soulful dirges and finding fans amongst other sympathizers seeking to establish a single independent Tuareg republic. Their anthemic music became “the soundtrack for Tuareg independence and reconciliation,” spread via bootleg cassette tapes by their Kel Tamashek fans who began to call them “Kel Tinariwen,” derived from the word ténéré, which means ‘of the deserts.’
Tinariwen founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib
After the Tamanrasset Accords of 1991, Tinariwen left the military to fully devote themselves to music. Ibrahim says, “I had long ago realized that I was a musician and poet, and that these were better weapons with which to achieve what I wanted.” Performing their songs in mostly minor keys with static harmonies, like “Tahalamot,“ guitarist Abdallah layers consistent modal rhythms over a signature bass key, painting a vast ever-changing desert landscape.
Tinariwen’s blues sound is one of ‘assouf,’ expressing a deep loneliness and eternal yearning. Due to the political instability of Mali, they remain nomads, unable to return to their native homeland for risk of incarceration or worse. Now a multi-generational collective of musicians and songwriters, their timeless music sings of exile, struggle, and division, but also of “the beauty of the desert, the sky, the lands, our blues, and the nostalgia of an old time.”
Exiled from their native Mali, Tinariwen recorded their latest album, Emaar in Joshua Tree, CA.
Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche says, “I’m told that a lot of the Africans who went to North America came from West Africa, from our part of the world. So it’s all the same connection. I think that any people who have lived through something that is very hard, feel this [assouf], this pain, this longing. That is what will make [our] music sound similar to each other.”
Tinariwen perform “Islegh Taghram Tifhaman” from their album, Emmaar.
The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer perform “Love Me ‘fore Ya Leave Me.”
I majored in Humanities as an undergraduate because it was broad-based and I could take many courses, from California Geography to Entomology to history, philosophy, languages and literature. Later, I took an MA in Comparative Literature for similar reasons: I could read the great writers from around the world, learning from epistolary novels (novels of letters e.g. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther). Historical novels, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and a lot of French writers (favorites were Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert). You learn about 19th century Paris from reading Balzac. You learn about Napoleon from reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, 19th century England from Dickens, psychology from Flaubert. You learn so many things about history, sociology, and especially psychology, human behavior, dreams, our collective aspirations, longing, the whole panoply of human existence.
The same holds true for world music. You learn about geography, something Americans could use more knowledge about. I am quite knowledgeable about African history because of my fondness for its huge variety of music. Additionally, I know all about Cape Verde, for instance, because I love its music and met and interviewed Cesaria Evora many times. Now I can tell anybody about where it is–300 miles off the coast of Senegal. In 2 weeks, I’m actually going to Cape Verde for the Atlantic Music Expo and Kriol Jazz Festival. I’m really looking forward to it.
Because music is such a basic expression in all cultures, it necessarily teaches us about those cultures: again, history, psychology, anthropology, geography, customs, mores, everything.
I say don’t confine yourself to just one kind of music. Like all the varieties of food we can now enjoy, why just eat one kind? World music is about exploration, finding joy and delight. Why deprive ourselves of such valuable lessons? For me it has enriched my life beyond measure, which is why I’ve been a world music cheerleader for the past 30 years.