Deciphering Culture

Posts Tagged ‘African music

“Pianist Omar Sosa is on a musical and spiritual mission” (@ SF Weekly)

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Cover of "Afreecanos"

Cover of Afreecanos

Omar Sosa’s exploration of the shared roots of the musics of the Black Atlantic is documented in an impressive body of work. A number of his albums are regularly featured in my own personal soundscape: Prietos (2001), Sentir (2002), Afreecanos (2008), and the brilliant, transformative Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry (2009). If you are not familiar with his work, I heartily recommend that you check it out. On Wednesday May 18, the Omar Sosa Afreecanos Quintet, featuring Bay Area Latin music icon John Santos, played Yoshi’s San Francisco. Below is the preview I wrote for SF Weekly.

Omar Sosa Mixes Jazz and Electronica into an Afro-Cuban Cocktail

By Jeffrey Callen Wednesday, May 18 2011

Pianist Omar Sosa is on a musical and spiritual mission. His music, steeped in Afro-Cuban and jazz influences, melds traditional and modern sounds (and aesthetics) to show the unseen threads that connect cultures throughout the African diaspora. His mission has taken him into myriad musical settings that have been documented on an impressive array of recordings. His rare stop in the Bay Area at Yoshi’s this week is a sort of musical homecoming.

The Cuban-born pianist spent three years in the Bay Area in the ’90s — a period that marked a turning point in his career. “It was the first time I did what I felt,” Sosa explains in a phone interview. He began exploring the roots of African music a decade earlier, but it was here that his sound took shape. Sosa particularly admired the vision and work of percussionistJohn Santos, who was already an established figure on the Bay Area Latin music scene. Santos became pivotal, offering moral support and hiring Sosa to tour with his Machete Ensemble. Wednesday’s show will see the two reunited, with Santos performing as a featured sideman in Sosa’s Afreecanos Quintet.

Sosa’s group formed to record the albumsPromise (2007) and Afreecanos (2008); it has appeared in various configurations and included more than a dozen musicians from the Americas, Africa, and Europe. It has become “more a collective than a group,” Sosa says. In addition to Sosa and Santos, the version that will appear atYoshi‘s includes drum ‘n’ bass pioneer (and founding member of New York City’s Black Rock CoalitionMarque Gilmore, bassist Childo Tomas from Mozambique, and Berkeley nativePeter Apfelbaum on saxophone and flute. Apfelbaum was another of Sosa’s inspirations when he moved to the Bay Area. He remembers that the first concert that made him exclaim “That is the kind of music I want to make” was the final San Francisco show by Hieroglyphics Ensemble, a legendary jazz group Apfelbaum formed while still in high school. (Apfelbaum relocated to New York to play with jazz icon Don Cherrysoon after Sosa hit the Bay Area, but remains one of Sosa’s musical heroes.)

Since he departed the Bay Area in 1998, Sosa has stayed connected, regularly releasing albums on Oakland-based Otá Records that document his ongoing musical explorations. He draws upon a diverse array of traditions to create an eclectic body of work. Ritual sounds of Cuban Santería orMoroccan gnawa blend with straight-ahead Latin jazz, big band horn charts, and hard bop; contemplative moments on ngoni or piano are flavored with electronic samples.

Sosa’s recorded output is driven not by commercial calculations but by what he calls “spiritual messages.” When Sosa’s spirits call him to record an album, he says he has to do it right then, or “the message will kill me.” Last year, when he was in New York City with two days off, Sosa received the message that he “needed to heal himself.” So his manager found an available studio, and Omar played solo improvisations on piano, electric piano, and electronic percussion for two hours. When he finished, he had recorded the raw tracks for his latest release, Calma (2010).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sosa’s best ensemble work features a thrilling drive and intensity along with the vibrant interplay of sounds — see Prietos (2001), Sentir (2002), Afreecanos (2008), and the brilliant, transformative Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry (2009). The introspective, laid-back Calma has a different kind of eloquence, contemplative and restrained without the drive and diversity of textures that characterize his ensemble work. Sosa says it’s the only one of his albums he currently listens to: “When you feel calm, you see life in front of you more clearly. … You have time to see things and choose in the moment.” Expect a variety of emotions, along with extraordinary performances, when Sosa’s Afreecanos Quintet takes the Yoshi’s stage.

For Staff Benda Bilili, disability is just a state of mind

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Most of the members of Staff Benda Billi, a pop band from Kinshasa (Congo), are homeless polio victims who live in or around Kinshasa’s zoo. The founders of the band formed the ensemble because other local musicians refused to play with them. The membership of the band soon was supplemented by street kids, including an 18 year-old boy who plays guitar-like solos on an electrified one-stringed lute he fashioned from a tin can. In the last few years, Staff Benda Billi has found success at home and abroad with successful albums and now a documentary Benda Bilili, which debuted at Cannes this week. Check out the review of the film by Will Gompertz of the BBC:

Cannes: Standing ovation for Benda Bilili

Will Gompertz

Cannes: There are over 1,000 films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which means it’s horribly possible to spend your entire time watching duds. Cannes is a game of chance; we hacks are like metal detector enthusiasts who go out each weekend with hopes of finding treasure but know the odds are stacked against them.

benda_bilili_2.jpgWell, on Thursday, just 24 hours after the festival opened, I struck gold.

It was in the relative backwater of the Director’s Fortnight that I stumbled on a French documentary called Benda Bilili. It opens with a middle-aged man with polio dancing on a dusty street in the Congolese city of Kinshasa.

The story then moves onto its main subject: a group of musicians that goes by the name of Staff Benda Bilili. The words “benda bilili” mean “beyond appearances”; for this band of brothers, it’s a statement with profound meaning.

The group’s original core is made up of three paraplegic middle-aged street-dwellers who live in cardboard boxes in this lawless city and stay sane by making music. They are joined by a 12-year-old drummer and by Roger, a 13-year-old runaway who makes music by connecting a tin can to a stick with a piece of nylon. (to read the rest, click here)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

May 14, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Music & the Struggle to be Human — Patrice Lumumba (@History is Made at Night)

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From History is Made at Night: The politics of dancing and musicking, a post asserting the primary place of music in the struggle to be human.

O Music, it was you permitted us to lift our face and peer into the eyes of future liberty

Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) was a leading figure in the struggle for the independence of Congo from the Belgian Empire. He briefly became first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960 before being overthrown and later murdered by Belgian/CIA backed forces. The following extract is from his poem May our People Triumph (full poem here). In it Lumumba puts music and dance (and specifically jazz) at the centre of the struggle to be human in conditions of slavery and colonialism:

‘Twas then the tomtom rolled from village unto village,
And told the people that another foreign slave ship
Had put off on its way to far-off shores
Where God is cotton, where the dollar reigns as King.
There, sentenced to unending, wracking labour,
Toiling from dawn to dusk in the relentless sun,
They taught you in your psalms to glorify
Their Lord, while you yourself were crucified to hymns
That promised bliss in the world of Hereafter,
While you—you begged of them a single boon:
That they should let you live—to live, aye—simplylive.
And by a fire your dim, fantastic dreams
Poured out aloud in melancholy strains,
As elemental and as wordless as your anguish.
It happened you would even play, be merry
And dance, in sheer exuberance of spirit:
And then would all the splendour of your manhood,
The sweet desires of youth sound, wild with power,
On strings of brass, in burning tambourines.
And from that mighty music the beginning
Of jazz arose, tempestuous, capricious,
Declaring to the whites in accents loud
That not entirely was the planet theirs.
O Music, it was you permitted us
To lift our face and peer into the eyes
Of future liberty, that would one day be ours.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

May 8, 2010 at 10:16 am

Review: Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace, by Deborah Kapchan (Middle Eastern Studies Association Bulletin)

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This review was published in the Winter 2008/2009 edition of the Middle Eastern Studies Association Bulletin

Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace, by Deborah Kapchan. 325 pages, 19 b/w illus., endnotes, bibliography, index. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. $75.00 (unjacketed cloth) ISBN 0-8195-6851-1, $27.95 (paper) ISBN 0-8195-6852-X.

reviewed by Jeffrey Callen

The ritual practice of the Gnawa, a Moroccan Islamic order formed by descendants of slaves from sub-Saharan Africa, centers on the performance of healing rituals (lilat; sing. lila). During a lila, afflicted individuals enter into trance and communicate with and placate spirits that are causing disturbances of their physical or psychological well-being. Lilat and the experience of trance have been the predominant focus of scholarly attention on the Gnawa, most notably from Francophone scholars (most notably Viviana Pâcques and Bertrand Hell). Traveling Spirit Masters, the first English language book of scholarship on the Gnawa, extends that focus to examine the ways in which trance and the Gnawa themselves have become commodities in the international marketplace. In the “Introduction”, Kapchan asserts that Traveling Spirit Masters is  not a book about the Gnawa but an exploration of the “power of trance, the way it circulates globally, and its relation to music and gendered subjectivity” (1). To fulfill the broad scope of  this goal, the book is divided into two sections: “The Culture of Possession” (Chapters 1-5) and “Possessing Culture” (Chapters 6-11). The first section, set in Morocco, explores the ritual practice of the Gnawa with particular focus on the role and involvement of women, both as individuals who seek relief through trance, and as overseers of the rituals (mqaddemat, pl.). The second section, set in France and Morocco, examines the movement of the Gnawa and their musical practice into the global marketplace. (for the entire review click here)

Youssou N’Dour : From Dakar To Kingston – United Reggae

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Reposted from UNITED REGGAE

Senegalese artist releases a new album celebrating the relationship between Reggae and the Motherland.

Youssou N’Dour is one of the most famous and great African musicians. He’s a renowned singer, songwriter, and composer who began his career at only 12 ! The king of M’balax is now coming with a new album recorded between Paris and the Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica alongside legendary musicians like Tyrone Downie (from The Wailers), saxophonist Dean Fraser, guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, drummer Shaun “Mark” Samson and bassist Michael Fletcher.

This new album called Dakar-Kingston connects Jamaica, Senegal and the whole Africa. It features 13 tracks including several reggae recuts of Youssou N’Dour classics, a tribute to Bob Marley and special guests like Ayo, Patrice and Morgan Heritage. Check out the EPK of this new effort out on CD since March 8.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 20, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Tinariwen in San Francisco (@Afropop.org)

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Desert rockers Tinariwen of Mali have been on tour in the US this winter.  Jeffrey Callen caught the show—on an off night, it seems—in San Francisco, February 22, 2010.  Here’s his review.  The photos by Banning Eyre are from Tinariwen’s performance at New York’s Highline Ballroom about a week earlier.

It’s easy to review a great performance. The feeling of elation from being taken out of the daily flow of life stimulates the creative centers of the brain and the words flow. Reviewing a bad performance also comes fairly easily. As an exercise in figuring out why the event didn’t work—the music didn’t gel, the crowd didn’t respond—it offers its own kind of satisfaction. But when a show almost works, when nothing is terribly wrong, there is little to say. It just fell flat. The emotional and intellectual drivers to write fail to appear:  elation is missing, no intellectual problem to unravel. The performance just fell flat. And that’s what happened when one of the great bands working today, Tinariwen, played the Palace of Fine Arts on Sunday, February 22nd. (for more go to Tinariwen in San Francisco).

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 8, 2010 at 9:27 pm

"Desert Rock"

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Desert Rock

Tinariwen brings rebel music out of the Southern Sahara.

By Jeffrey Callen

A slow Hendrix blues riff, deep, rough and insistent, slashes through the aural space. Broken down and repeated, the opening riff is joined by the offbeat upstrokes of a second, trebly electric guitar establishing a shuffle counterpoint. A fast rap barely breaks through the sound of the guitars, becoming louder when it morphs into a sung chorus with backing vocals (three, maybe four words). About four minutes in, the guitars drop out and the song is stripped down: a fast rap over a loopy funk bass line, accompanied by handclaps and soft percussion. The offbeat guitar upstrokes return joined by an arpeggiated riff on a second guitar, then a lead guitar. The vocals become secondary as the guitars propel the song to its ending and the opening riff returns. While the description could fit a performance of an up-and-coming indie band at the Noise Pop festival later this month, (to read more click here for the East Bay Express article)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 17, 2010 at 12:23 pm

“Desert Rock”

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Desert Rock

Tinariwen brings rebel music out of the Southern Sahara.

By Jeffrey Callen

A slow Hendrix blues riff, deep, rough and insistent, slashes through the aural space. Broken down and repeated, the opening riff is joined by the offbeat upstrokes of a second, trebly electric guitar establishing a shuffle counterpoint. A fast rap barely breaks through the sound of the guitars, becoming louder when it morphs into a sung chorus with backing vocals (three, maybe four words). About four minutes in, the guitars drop out and the song is stripped down: a fast rap over a loopy funk bass line, accompanied by handclaps and soft percussion. The offbeat guitar upstrokes return joined by an arpeggiated riff on a second guitar, then a lead guitar. The vocals become secondary as the guitars propel the song to its ending and the opening riff returns. While the description could fit a performance of an up-and-coming indie band at the Noise Pop festival later this month, (to read more click here for the East Bay Express article)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 17, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Selected Writings from my examiner.com page (3/09 to 12/09)

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

January 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Review of King Sunny Ade at the Independent in San Francisco (Afropop.org)

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King Sunny Ade in San Francisco – review of King Sunny Ade in San Francisco in June 2009 and the re-release of Seven Degrees North.


Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 13, 2009 at 6:04 pm

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