Sam Shalabi

Sam Shalabi — Eid (Alien8 CD)

Eid (Arabic for “festival”) is Montreal-based Sam Shalabi’s strongest work since his jaw-dropping Osama — a facetious, fiery and poignant reflection on what it means to be “an Arab” in North America post-0911 (“Sam” is short for “Osama” reflecting Shalabi’s Libyan/Egyptian background). Shalabi has explored lines between Arabic and other middle Eastern musics, psychedelia and folk with his touring band The Shalabi Effect for a number of years to considerable effect. Eid was composed during a year recently spent by Shalabi living in Cairo, but recorded in Montreal with contributions from many key figures in Montreal’s alt music scene. Although there are important traces of various musical forms heard in Cairo today, from Arabic classical music through to Egyptian pop and various rock mutations, woven into the complex sound-tapestry of the disk, the sound is experimental and modern, and Shalabi insists that the record is as much a meditation on North America, made by a foreigner living in Cairo, as it “about” Egypt today or “Egyptian music”. The exception that proves the rules here is the opening track, a strong, traditional sounding rumination on the oud, that gives little hint of the uproarious psych freakout of “Jessica Simpson” which follows, complete with a scorching guitar solo from Shalabi. The remarkable “Eid” mixes Arabic strings with a variety of unidentifiable voice recordings of people in varying states of distress and fervor, some recordings from films, others improvised within the studio, conjuring up both a sense of tradition and its violent distortion. There are a number of fine guest vocals too, including a fiery Evangelista style ballad “Billy the Kid” from Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, and strong appearances by Katie Moore and Nick Cave collaborator Lhasa de Sela. Shalabi does not indulge in any easy or obvious position taking when it comes to “ethnic music” or “East and West” — the distortion and collision of musical forms here is both exhilarating and frightening, rendering everything foreign and at the same time a monster entirely of our own making. Diplomacy is replaced by intelligence and the joy of sound: one minute, popular, alternative and classical musical traditions are treated respectfully, the next minute with a great big sonic fart.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

sad hits

Various Artists: International Sad Hits. Volume One: Altaic Language Group.
Damon and Naomi, themselves no slouches when it comes to singing a sad song, are the curators of this brilliantly themed collection. At one and the same time a parody of the seriousness of ethnomusicological labelling of music from the non-western world in the West, and a homage to the kitsch marketing tactics used to package the CDs of local popular musics available in markets and on the street in many non-western countries, “International Sad Hits” compiles the sad songs of Fikret Kizilok (Turkey), Kim Doo Soo (Korea), Tomokawa Kazuki and Mikami Kan (Japan). Purportedly linked by a common linguistic family, the curators observe that “what truly links them is a love of melancholy”. Spanning 1971 to 2003, there are four songs from each singer, all of them brooding guitar led pieces in the mold, according to the curators, of Dylan, Tim Buckley or Nick Drake. All four are singer-songwriters with considerable followings in their own countries, but little known by the rest of the world. While I admire the revealing of a genre of music that doesn’t fit into conventional categories of traditional or popular ethnic music, I find myself slightly disappointed by the results. Undoubtedly powerful and serious, there’s a particular male kind of swagger and self-pity at work in many of the selections here that feels quite familiar (maybe from looking at ads for whisky in different parts of the world), and I’m only intermittently moved, let alone heart-broken, by the sad singing here. With the notable exception of Kim Doo Soo, the femininity of Drake or Buckley, the multiple layers of irony and vision of Dylan feel a long way away. The songs are sad, but this is not the saddest music in the world. Still, I await the selections from other Language Groups with great hope.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson – Partick Rain Dance

Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson – Partick Rain Dance
VHF CD

Partick Rain Dance is the third collaboration between Richard Youngs and drummer Alex Neilson, following on from 2004’s Beating Stars and Ourselves. Youngs and Neilson also worked together as the rhythm section for Jandek’s recent visit to Glasgow, issued as Glasgow Sunday. Partick Rain Dance starts off with nearly ten minutes of freeform noise that makes the sweet folk melody that emerges five minutes into “Music of the Last Sun” all the more poignant. Then the track morphs into a magical echo-laden trance of drums and fluttering tones, like one of the Dead’s freeform beatless acid interludes. After that there’s a wordless almost acappella lament called “Noatak Beacon”, followed by fifteen minutes of electrified gongs and feedback on “Mountain” and three minutes of spliced psychedelia on “Big Aero Planet”. Youngs’ music achieves its poignancy from the fusion of various methods of production of sublime vastness, such as drones (see Advent and Festival), free form psych freakouts (see Ilk’s Ceaucescu) and repetitive, intense balladry (see Sapphie), all mixed with a lofi, DIY aesthetic and humility that is charmingly at odds with the epic sound forms. Less than a masterpiece but always interesting, Partick Rain Dance, the newest addition to a vast and ever expanding Youngs discography is something of a blend of the various techniques and styles that Youngs has made his trademark, especially in his collaborations. I prefer to take my Youngs straight, but the energy and invention here remains undeniable.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.

rappin

Various – Big Apple Rappin’
Soul Jazz 2CD (SJR CD 125)

The birth of hip has taken on the status of a cultural big bang as enigmatic as the Eleusinian rites or Shakespeare’s England, even though it happened less than thirty years ago. Recent years have seen impressive contributions to an archeology of this remarkable moment: Experience Music Project’s oral history of hip-hop; the 2 DVD reissue of the pioneering 1982 graffiti doc Style Wars and ear-opening microhistorical CD collections like The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop, 1979-1983. Soul Jazz’s Big Apple Rappin’ doesn’t quite live up to that level of detail despite the 64 page booklet that accompanies it. Instead, it is another in a long line of extremely classy, tastefully selected dancefloor gems from particular times and places on the planet, post-punk Brazil and the UK; mid seventies Latino New York, early eighties downtown New York; various times in Jamaica. Still, for anyone other than total headz, most of these tracks, which go way beyond the usual Kurtis Blow, Sugarhill and Enjoy staples, will be news. Most remarkable here is Brother D and the Collective Effort’s “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise” – a glorious throwdown over the “Got To Be Real” rhythm and arguably the first full on political rap (an accompanying interview with Lister Hewan-Lowe, who was responsible for the record’s original release points out that he took a “Maoist point of view towards music” and it shows!). Old Skool founding fathers like Cold Crush Brothers and TJ Swann are on hand (but where’s Grand Wizard Theodore?). And surprises like General Echo’s dub take on “Rapper’s Delight”, “Rapping Dub Style”. Highly recommended.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Pandit Pran Nath – Midnight

Pandit Pran Nath – Midnight (Raga Malkauns) (Just Dreams, 2003)

Kirana Hindustani classical vocal master Pandit Pran Nath’s teacher Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan was once asked why he only ever sang two ragas. The Ustad replied that if only the morning would last for ever, he would be happy to sing just one. A raga is not a song per se, but a specific matrix of notes and ways of combining and moving between notes, to be performed at a particular time of day or season. Within this framework, thousands of individual songs or compositions can be constructed. In this 1976 New York studio recording, minimalist composer La Monte Young cranks up the tambouras to Theater of Eternal Music levels of intensity while Pran Nath, at the height of his powers, conjures up Raga Malkauns’ sonic matrix and tale, that of a yogi meditating at midnight, beset by Asuras (evil spirits), which he is tempted by before banishing them and returning to his state of illuminated calm. What’s remarkable here is the sheer vastness of scale in this “song”: for a little over an hour, Pran Nath sings “He Krishna Govind Raam”, repeating the vilambit (mid-tempo) composition’s invocation of the Hindu deity, slowly moving up the scales to the higher notes, taking the listener through the various parts of the composition, into ever more intense and ecstatic realms of sound. As one listens, one comes to identify with these sound realms more than one’s own body and mind. One wants to stay there forever. If it weren’t for the morning …
Marcus Boon

originally published in The Wire.

osafrosambas

Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes – Os Afro Sambas/A Vontade
Él/Cherry Red

Poet, career diplomat and bossa nova lyricist Vinicius de Moraes jokingly referred to himself as the blackest white man in Brazil. In the early 1960s, Moraes and guitarist Baden Powell began exploring the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religious tradition centered around Salvador de Bahia, and the various musical forms that are part of it. The two holed up for months with an endless supply of Haig whisky and a bunch of ethnic recordings, to produce 50 or more of Brazil’s best loved songs, which were called Afro-sambas because of their fusion of Rio samba and bossa nova with Bahian “folk” sounds. Their earliest productions can be heard on Powell’s solo guitar plus percussion A Vontade of 1963. It’s a gorgeous, minimal record – Powell is a more expressive, romantic guitarist than say John Fahey’s favorite, Bola Sete, and some of the flourishes border on kitsch, but there’s also a ferocious percussive funk to his sound that is mesmerizing. This last word applies doubly to 1966’s Os Afro Sambas, which consists of a series of songs devoted to various Orixas (deities) of Candomblé. Reacting against the international slickness of bossa nova, Moraes and Powell took a lo-fi approach, with Afro-Brazilian percussionists, horns, the soon to be famous Quarteto Em Cy and a crew of friends and partners providing an impromptu chorus. The sound is gloriously chaotic. Powell and the percussionists face off against each other like drunken snakes writhing in a pit, with the percussionists winning out almost every time. Moraes is a very low key vocalist, but his phrasing is utterly charming as he intones songs of praise to Iemenja, Xango and the other deities, backed by a choir sound that’s part Brazilian church, part jug band and part Gregorian chant. A key precursor to Tropicalia and in its own quiet way as experimental and spiritualized as other key sounds of 1966 like early Velvets or Coltrane’s Ascension: a sacred noise indeed.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

Orchestre Poly

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou
The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sata From Benin’s Obscure Labels 1973-1975
Analog Africa CD

The TP “tout puissant – all powerful” Orchestre Poly-Rythmo were one of the standouts on the excellent recent compilation African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Music from Benin and Togo 70s. A highly prolific and popular group operating in Cotonou, the nation’s seat of government, Poly-Rythmo’s heyday lasted through the 1970s and early 1980s, when two key members died. The group recorded huge amounts of material, some at the EMI studio in Lagos for the Albarika Store label (from which the recent Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80 on Soundway was compiled, with more to be released on Analog Africa) and some for a local studio in Cotonou, for various local labels such as Echos Sonores du Dahomey, from which this record comes.

The sound is rough, vibrant and supremely funky. As the excellent sleevenotes explain, Poly-Rythmo’s sound was the result of a lot of creative copying, absorbing elements from: various traditional tribal musics including rhythms from West African vodoun, (which were dispersed across the Americas by the slave trade, much of which operated via Benin, then known as Dahomey); Afro-Cuban music, jazz and West African highlife, all of which also owe a debt to Vodoun; Congolese rhumba, a response to Afro-Cuban sounds; Nigerian juju and Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat; James Brown, who visited West Africa in the early 1970s, Ray Barretto style prog Latin and some psych rock jamming. The circulation of vodoun sounds back and forth between Africa and New World continues to this day – dynamic, appropriating whatever it encounters, and in the case of Poly-Rythmo, spitting it back out as modern dance music for weddings, radio and vinyl in response to local conditions. And there’s plenty that doesn’t fit into any tidy categorization of the sound – for example drummer Yehoussi Leopold who unleashes most unfunk-like snare volleys at key moments.

The sleevenotes also tell another remarkable story about the recording and production of the original Poly-Rhythmo disks that offer a reality check to any fantasies about the conditions in which this music was produced. We learn for example that the master tapes for most of these recordings were burned by the engineer’s father, after the engineer was put in jail and tortured, having recently taken a trip to Zaire to learn recording studio techniques. It’s a sobering story, but an important one – and it’s great to see such remarkable sounds being presented with such care and honesty.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

notaro chenaux

Marconi Notaro’s No Sub Reino Dos Metazoários (Time-Lag) follows on the heels of recent reissues of Satwa’s self titled disk and Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho’s Paebiru, two remarkable recordings produced by a small group of psychedelically minded free-folkers in Recife in North Eastern Brazil, during the height of the dictatorship years of the early 1970s. Partly recorded at the Rosemblit Studio, which was swept away by an ocean flood in 1975, taking with it master tapes of the group’s recordings, Marconi Notaro’s disk takes up where Satwa left off, in a cloud of cannabis smoke, acoustic guitars and regional folk sounds. Where Satwa was wordless (to avoid censorship) and acoustic, No Sub Reino Dos Metazoários is built around Notaro’s songs and singing, presumably flying beneath the radar of the government. There are drums from the local samba school, free-form freak outs involving matches, water, night birds and music boxes, Satwa’s Lula Côrtes and Paebiru’s Zé Ramalho accompanying on various string instruments, and electric guitars adding some gloriously sludgy rock touches. These recordings should be news to anyone only familiar with the Tropicalia sounds of Veloso, Gil et al which sound highly mannered by comparison. The necessarily lo-fi sound on the disk sounds very contemporary – and Notaro’s voice is a beguiling mixture of rawness, sophistication and honesty. These are Notaro’s only recordings – he later went on to publish seven books of poetry, before dying in 2000, and is given a touching eulogy by Côrtes in the disks sleevenotes. Still to come from this almost forgotten time and place are 1976’s Flaviola e o Bando Do Sol and Côrtes’ Rosa de Sangue (1980), which Time-Lag also plans to reissue: all are both unlikely and essential.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

Nimrod Workman

Nimrod Workman — I Want To Go Where Things Are Beautiful
Drag City CD

Nimrod was the Biblical king responsible for building the tower of Babel, that vast labor that caused God to sow confusion among mankind with the result that we now all speak different languages. So Nimrod Workman is a very heavy kind of name, one that suits the singer of these remarkable accapella Appalachian folk songs, originally recorded in 1982 and unreleased until now.
Workman was a coal miner and union activist in West Virginia who was forced to retire after 42 years in the mines due to black lung and a slipped disk, whereupon he started performing on the folk festival circuit and made appearances in a number of films including Harlan County USA and The Coal Miner’s Daughter. He recorded a couple of LPs in the 1970s, but nothing since, and died in 1994 at the age of 99.
This is classic, raw American folk music in the old style, 27 brief songs and monologues, beautifully recorded, the stories explaining where in the vast network of folk song Workman first heard the material. There are Biblical songs, work songs, old British ballads. His voice is powerful although occasionally out of tune, even by the arcane standards of folk tuning. If there’s a precedent it would be Smithsonian Folkways recordings or the recently deceased Alabama country singer Cast King who Locust put out a few years ago. If there’s dignity in labor, this is it, a voice unbroken by even the harshest circumstance – for example, these lines from “Coal Black Mining Blues”: Went to my place and I looked in,/Slate and the water up to my chin.” Brutal.

Originally published in The Wire, 2009.

Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho – Paêbirú

Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho – Paêbirú
Shadoks Music CD

Satwa – Satwa
Time-Lag CD

Lula Côrtes and Lailson were two freaks from Recife in North Eastern Brazil who met back home in 1972 after various world travels conducted in flight from the dictatorship that had a stranglehold on the country at that time. “Moroccan sitar” in hand, Côrtes jammed with Lailson, and in early 1973 they recorded Satwa (a Sanskrit word for the luminous aspect of consciousness), a mostly acoustic set of compositions and jams, using wordless vocals in order to circumvent the government’s censorship of lyrics. Originally released on “Kif Records” (a Moroccan word for marijuana), Satwa is a stoned but fiery, glorious record – a true ancestor of the current free folk explosion. Sanskrit, Hot Tuna, Moroccan music, Brazilian regional folk music: all fused in a cloud of smoke. The second track, entitled “Can I Be Satwa” i.e. “cannabis sativa” gives the game away, but made it past the censors.
Apparently, the first independent record made in Brazil, the master tapes for Satwa disappeared in a coastal flood in 1975, along with copies of a second disk, Marconi Notaro’s No Sub Reino dos Metzoarios, which Time-Lag is about to reissue, and Paêbirú, made in collaboration with Zé Ramalho, recently reissued by global archivists of the psychedelic, Shadoks.
Paêbirú, ironically, is organized, like Harry Smith’s Smithsonian folk collection, around the four elements, fire, air, earth and water. Paêbirú is recognizably psychedelic rock but saying that hardly does justice to this extraordinary record. While most of the tropicalia music of Os Mutantes, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso clearly emerges out of a dialogue with 1960s American pop music, here, as with Os Novos Baianos’ marvellous Acabou Chorare, which also came out of the Brazilian commune scene, or Milagre Dos Peixes period Milton Nascimento, there’s a stranger fusion of traditional Brazilian music with unhinged psychedelic rock and folk jamming. “Paêbirú” was apparently the location of an archeological site near Recife where Côrtes and Ramalho took acid and grokked cave hieroglyphs whose origin still remains a mystery. The range of styles here, from flute driven folk jams to explosive garage rock to various cosmic and psychedelic styles is more evidence that young people all over the world found in psychedelia the license to fuck with and fuse traditions and electronics, gesturing to a hazy but potent universal horizon that is still there, though currently obscured by other, darker clouds.

Originally published in The Wire.