Monday, February 23, 2009

"Arabesque"--the Kennedy Center's major celebration of Arab culture

Tonight (Monday) marks the opening of "Arabesque", a major three-week festival of the arts of the Arabic-speaking world, with a particular focus on music, at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The parameters of the celebration, unprecedented in scope in the U.S. and perhaps in the world, are outlined in a preview feature in the Washington Post's "Weekend" section of 20 February: for three weeks, more than 800 participants from 22 countries will present a wide spectrum of artistic expression in a range of genres. The article details the enormous challenges of the five-year effort, which is a continuation of--and the most ambitious undertaking yet in--the Kennedy Center's tradition of international programming. Another article from the Associated Press gives further details of the festival as of opening night.

"Arabesque" is receiving wide coverage by the media, including a week-long series of vignettes in the prestigious News Hour on PBS, the non-profit national (and primarily educational) television network. In the first installment, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser explains the philosophy behind the undertaking: "I believe that this festival is going to help people to understand Arab people, to understand their aesthetic tastes, to understand their hospitality and their generosity and their passion, and we'll start to understand them not just as political beings, but as human beings." (This television episode, as well as the remaining four, will be available on the News Hour's Website).

The musical presentations of Arabesque will include nightly performances on the Millennium Stage, which is open to the public without any admission charge; the first night's enormous turnout had listeners standing far back in the lobby of the Kennedy Center. Tonight's program was a duet by Amina Eman Matter and Shayma Khalifa Al-Oraify, two women from Bahrain performing on the oud (also transliterated as 'ud), the most important stringed instrument in Arabic music, and the ancestor of the European lute. This performance is remarkable in that while there are many women who perform vocal music--the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1904-1975) being the most prominent example--few venture into the realm of instrumental performance, a province occupied almost exclusively by men. This duet was streamed live on the Web, and can be seen here, in the archived programs of the Millennium Stage.

There will also be several concerts in the larger Kennedy Center auditoriums, some of which I'll be covering on these pages, along with selected Millennium Stage performances. In short, the next three weeks promise to filled with many musical riches from the Arabic cultural tradition.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Stealth" world music albums among the Grammy winners - Latin genres

Note: Links below will enable you to hear musical samples from the Grammy winners.

As promised in my previous entry, we move forward (excluding "Latin Jazz" categories, which may by now considered an integral part of mainstream American jazz) to some of the regional music categories which, in that they are unique to certain geographical areas, derive from a range of musical sub-cultures in the United States and Mexico and thus may fall under the world/folk/ethnic music rubrics.

The first group of categories in the Grammy Awards sequence under the "Latin" Field (#58: Latin Pop; #59: Latin Rock Or Alternative; and #60: Latin Urban), are sufficiently mainstream to be outside our purview here. The winners in the remaining "Latin" categories in more traditional styles are given below.

As suggested in my previous blogs on the Grammies, click on each album title (given first, in "quotation" marks) for some Web-based sample of music from the album nominated (you may have to click on "Listen to samples", or follow some similar prompt). Click on each artist's name (in
boldface, following the album title) for further biographical information, and in some cases, pictures of the artist(s). Finally, a link to the artist(s)' own Website is listed following the record company name.

61. Tropical Latin Album: The specification here (again from the Grammy Web page) is "This category is for all tropical (which Wikipedia defines as "a group of musical styles having their roots in Cuba, the Caribbean and Latin America genres") Latin albums, including salsa and merengue, (the latter being both dance as well as musical genres.) This year's winner was:

"Señor Bachata", by José Feliciano, on the Universal Music Latino label. Artist's Website.

Feliciano, a singer and guitarist with strong roots in Flamenco music, has been performing for decades, with numerous hits and seven previous Grammy Awards. I remember clearly from 1968 his first blockbuster hit,, "Light My Fire", a cover (meaning a performance, in his own interpretation, of a song written by someone else), of the The Doors' original dark and fiery version, which was used with eerie effectiveness, as perhaps the song best defining the Vietnam War era, in the soundtrack of director Francis Ford Coppola's seminal (i.e., groundbreaking and highly influential) cinematic masterpiece, Apocalypse Now.

62. Regional Mexican Album: This year two CDs tied for first place:

"Amor, Dolor Y Lágrimas: Música Ranchera" by Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, on Folkways Recordings. Artists' Website; and

"Canciones De Amor", by Mariachi Divas, on Shea Records/East Side Records. Artists' Website.

Both albums are in the Mariachi style, arguably Mexico's national (and most popular) instrumental ensemble genre, consisting of a unique combination of violins (usually three); three guitars of various sizes (including the small five-string vihuela and the large, bass-like guitarron); trumpets (usually two); at least one vocalist (often doubling as an instrumentalist); and an occasional harp. The music is lively and somewhat raucous. What is remarkable here is that the second group, Mariachi Divas, is an ensemble comprised entirely of women (hence the name "Divas") competing in what has been heretofore an almost exclusively masculine field. The group was founded by the protean trumpeter Cindy Shea, a Californian who is herself not of Latino ancestry.

63. Tejano Album: The genre of Tejano (also called Tex-Mex) is associated with a majority of the current Hispanic residents of the American state of Texas, as well as with the peoples traditionally residing in the Northern portions of Mexico. This year's Grammy winner in this category was:

"Viva La Revolucion", by Ruben Ramos and The Mexican Revolution, on Revolution Records. Artists' Website. There are three styles of Tejano, with Ramos' performance being in the "orchestral" style, with as its instrumentation bass, drum, electric guitar, synthesizer, a brass section , and occasionally an accordion.

64. Norteño Album: Norteño (literally, "Northern") music was the original genre from which Tejano (above) emerged, although it too has continued to evolve and develop new characteristics. A traditional band features the accordion (usually as the lead instrument) and a bajo sexto (a 12-string bass guitar), and sometimes a drum set, and an additional melodic instrument such as saxophone or electronic keyboard. The Wikipedia article has a number of musical examples in the different sub-styles of Tejano. This year's winner was:

"Raíces", by Los Tigres Del Norte, on Fonovisa records. Artists' Website. The group has won several previous Grammies.

65. Banda Album: In a Banda ensemble, the vocalist is supported by wind instruments--trumpet, trombone, and sousaphone among the "brass" section, and clarinet and sometimes saxophone among the "woodwinds",--while the rhythm is provided by a tambora, a bass drum with a cymbal on top; a tarola, which is a kind of metal snare drum similar to the tom-tom; cowbells; and cymbals. This year's winner was:

"No Es De Madera", by Joan Sebástian, on Musart/Balboa Records. His use of the Banda form is rather sophisticated, with accordion and strings added to the traditional instrumentation noted above. Like many of this year's winners, he was won several Grammies in the past.

Next week I'll address the winners in the "Folk" field (Traditional Folk , Contemporary Folk/Americana , Native American Music , and Zydeco or Cajun), as well as in the Reggae field/category.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Stealth" world music albums among the Grammy jazz nominees

Note: Links below will enable you to hear musical samples from the Grammy nominees.

In an earlier post previewing the contenders for Grammy Awards in the two World Music categories, I noted that nominees in other categories as well may have some "world music" connection. With mischief aforethought, I'm calling such musicians "stealth" artists, and will do as complete a rundown as possible to show the extent of world music's enrichment of entries in a variety of categories throughout the Grammy Fields.

Among the five nominees for the prestigious Record of the Year (Number One among the 109 official Categories) was the Sri-Lankan-born rapper Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam; she goes by the sobriquet M.I.A., and as previously noted here performed (fully pregnant) in the Awards ceremony itself. Her entry was "Paper Planes", and although she did not win a Grammy, I'll be doing a more extensive piece on her at some point in the near future, in order to explore her fascinating international background, and some of the intriguing ways she has adapted South Asian elements and content into her artistry.

Moving down through the Fields, we come next to the single-Category Field, New Age, which without careful scrutiny seems this year to have no significant world music element,. From there we move on to the Jazz Field, with its five Categories, including Latin Jazz, which I'll not discuss here since it is a relatively mainstream part of the American jazz scene. In the first Category, Contemporary Jazz Album, two of the nominated works involve elements of both western jazz and Indian music. The first, on Abstract Logix, is "Floating Point", recorded in India by guitarist John McLaughlin, who has had numerous collaborations with Indian musicians in the past, particularly with his group Shakti.

The second is "Miles from India", a 2-CD compilation with "various Artists, [and] Bob Belden, Producer, [on] 4Q/Times Square Records." A listening to sample tracks on the latter reveals a richly Indian influence (including not only sitar, sarod, sarangi, and tabla instrumentation, but Indian vocal stylings as well), in a collective tribute to the late and legendary trumpet master Miles Davis by some of his surviving colleagues, since Davis' music, like that of the late saxophone genius John Coltrane, had its share of Indian influences. But because I don't currently have access to either recording, both of which sound very good in excerpted samples, I'll pass over them now in hopes of discussing both at length once I can obtain copies.

But (drum roll . . . . . ) the 2009 winner in the Best Contemporary Jazz Album category is "Randy in Brasil," by Blood, Sweat, and Tears alumnus Randy Brecker on MAMA Records. Like McLaughlin, Becker chose to record collaborations with musicians outside the U.S.--in this case in Brazil, which in several waves over the last fifty years has greatly influenced American jazz and dance music with such popular genres as the bossa nova and samba. An informed review of this album can be found in the excellent online publication, AllABoutJazz, and samples heard at

Although not the winner, a nominee in the next category, Best Vocal Album, was another release with a strong Brazilian influence: "Imagina: Songs of Brasil", on Concord Jazz, by three-time Grammy nominee Karrin Allyson. Though recorded entirely in the U.S. with American musicians, she sings a number of songs in Portuguese by the masterful Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, as well as others by his countryman. There is a useful review, again on AllAboutJazz, and samples of her music can be heard on the artist's own Website.

In short, as for the continuously expanding influence of world music, it is interesting to note that four out of the eight nominated albums in the first two jazz categories explore international musical dimensions, this year via India and Brazil.

More to come in later postings with further examples of "stealth" world music identity, if not incursions, in traditional Latino genres, Native American and Hawaiian music, the Louisiana-born Zydeco, Reggae, Polka, and Classical, among others. I'll be traveling, with unlikely Internet connectivity, in the days following, so do stand by until the middle of next week.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A vision of the future: first reflections on the Grammy Awards

The Grammy Awards have passed, and I will have more postings to come: on examples of world music in the many Grammy categories; on this year's winners in the specific categories of world music; on M.I.A. and her place in world music; and on musical and other aspects of the ads which punctuated the ceremony itself.

To begin, though, perhaps I should explain the exuberance (I was, after all, an English major in a previous younger incarnation) in my first posting during the show itself on Sunday night. Somehow this was the first time I had ever watched the entire Grammy Awards, and the extraordinary sequential bursts of energy, color, light, motion, and musical sound throughout the highly produced performance stood in stark contrast to the serious and mostly gloomy flow of nightly news reports that I have been watching, perhaps too obsessively, in recent months.

There has been some characterization in the media of the post-election period as beginning an era that is "post-racial" and "post-partisan"; these characterizations have also been met with varying degrees of skepticism, and for good reason: the country, the society simply cannot be transformed overnight. Yet I found in the human configurations of the Grammies a deeply moving demonstration of trends that may already be said to be evolving toward a post-racial and post-gender consciousness.

I think it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the performances in the Awards ceremony beautifully embodied a meeting, even melding of artists black and white, male and female, in which differences of race and gender not only became insignificant, but in which the success of collaborations between individuals of diverse backgrounds and identities offers an eloquent expression of the possibility of our nation and our culture achieving a true unity in diversity. The fact that a male-female duo garnered the most number of awards (not to mention the fusion of rock and country/folk sensibilities) attests to this trend.

And I lost count of the number of occasions in which black and white musicians, old masters and young, were performing together, effortlessly fusing differences of musical style and language idiom into a truly successful artistic synergy. And the envelope-nudging of gender-related issues in Katy Perry's saucy rendition of "I kissed a girl--I liked it," as well as the exuberant performance of Sri-Lankan-born rapper M.I.A. in unabashed full-term pregnancy, are precursors to a further challenge to stereotypes and norms. (Various versions of the Awards performances, including those just mentioned, may be found on You-Tube.)

I would like to think that at this stage in the evolution of American society, our artists--musicians in this case--will continue to play an essential role not only in defining, but in helping to shape our future cultural and social development into a true pluralism which recognizes the equal importance of different identities, both individual and group. And this year's Grammy Awards--in scenarios which on more than one occasion presented the artist both as a small, lone figure singing far below the camera in a spotlit circle in the darkness, as well as one of many participants in brilliantly staged and choreographed multi-level ensemble numbers--awakened in this viewer's heart a genuine sense of hope for the future of America, and of the world.

Monday, February 9, 2009

FLASH: Washington Post reports and New York Times blog on the Grammy Awards

I was hoping to be able to steer you to an actual news report, but it's less than two hours since the end of the televised awards ceremony, so do check out the New York Times blog on the events.

Then again, checking the Washington Post, I found this summary, as well as an article on fashion!! (of all things--but of course that matters too) at the event--as though the music weren't enough. Yet I must say that I was struck by the visual impact of the whole ceremony, even as seen on my 1987 vintage lo-def 12.5 inch color screen, with two tiny speakers struggling (alas, unsuccessfully) to capture some echo of the full audio spectrum.

Again, your reactions and comments welcome.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Watching the Grammy Awards . . . What wonders!

By now, if you've checked the Website, you know who the World Music Award winners are. But more of that later, and of the Grammy Awards overall.

This is all too much. A Cabinet-level Secretary for the Arts? And a VERY pregnant (word has it her baby was due today) Sri Lankan Rap artist, M.I.A. a featured vocalist in a visionarily black-and-white-film-like performance on mainstream American TV? "Oh brave new world, that has such people in it." (Shakespeare's The Tempest, and then again, Aldous Huxley)

The event, in any case, gives hope that we may yet avoid Orwell's nightmare.

Many voices from the past: McCartney, and Smokey Robinson . . . .

And toward the end, a deeply moving, and generous in detail, luminous montage of those who left us (and this world of music) in 2008, then a seamless segue into a multi-layered commemoration of Bo Diddley's unique rhythmic riff.

Stay tuned!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Listen now: World Music contenders for the 2009 Grammies!

Note: Links below will enable you to hear musical samples from the Grammy nominees.

The forthcoming 51st annual Grammy Awards will feature two slots for world music--"#74 - Best Traditional World Music Album" and "#75 - Best Contemporary World Music Album"--among a total of 109 categories of various genres (click here for a complete listing of "Fields" and their "Categories", and here for their full definitions.). Other fields, such as Alternative, New Age, Latin, Folk, Reggae, and Polka, may in fact have a substantial world music (i.e., international and/or traditional) component, and further general categories (e.g., Record of the Year, Album of the Year, etc.) may occasionally include world music artists (click here for a complete listing of all the 2009 Grammy nominees). But suffice it for now to look at--and listen to samples from--this year's competitors in the two world music categories.

As for these two categories, it's informative to look at their definitions as per the Grammy Website. Both are virtually identical in the first part, with the only differences being indicated below in boldface:

"For vocal or instrumental traditional/contemporary world music albums . . . that may combine musical elements indigenous to a culture or country with additional elements of another culture."

It's only in the second part that the distinctions are made between the two:

1) (Traditional): "Non-Western classical music, International non-American and non-British traditional folk music are eligible in this category", and

2) (Contemporary): "The music may also contain elements of popular music styles and/or production techniques. World/Beat, World/Jazz, World Pop, and cross-cultural music with contemporary production techniques are eligible in this category."

Next, we come to the nominees themselves, listed below by album title, artist, and record company. The listing in this blog is designed for your ease of access to information about the nominees and their music. Click on each album title (given first, in "quotation" marks) for some Web-based sample of music from the album nominated (you may have to click on "Listen to samples", or follow some similar prompt). Click on each artist's name (in boldface, following the album title) for further biographical information, and in some cases, pictures of the artist(s). Finally, the artist(s)' own Website is listed, following the record company name.

For Traditional World Music, the entrants are:

"Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey" by Debashish Bhattacharya, on Riverboat Records/World Music Network. Artist's Website.

"The Mandé Variations" by Toumani Diabaté, on Nonesuch. Artist's Website.

"Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu" by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, on Heads Up International. Artist's Website.

"Dancing In The Light" by Lakshmi Shankar, on World Village. Related Website.

For Contemporary World Music, the entrants are

"Shake" by Lila Downs, on Manhattan Records/Blue Note. Artist's Website.

"Banda Larga Cordel" by Gilberto Gil, on Warner Music Latina. Artist's Website.

"Global Drum Project" by Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju, and Giovanni Hidalgo, on Shout! Factory. Artists' Website.

"Rokku Mi Rokka (Give And Take)" by Youssou N'Dour, on Nonesuch Records. Artist's Website.

"Live at the Nelson Mandela Theater" by The Soweto Gospel Choir, on Shanachie Entertainment. Artists' Website.

For the record (no pun intended), videos of many of these artists are available on YouTube, as well as on some of their Web pages.

In terms of the national origins of the nominees, two of the "traditional nominees"--Debashish Bhattacharya and Lakshmi Shankar, as well as one of the "contemporary" contenders--Zakir Hussain (of the Global Drum Project)--are all from India, and well known as distinguished practitioners of Hindustani (i.e., North Indian), classical music. Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir hail from South Africa, Toumani Diabaté from Mali, Sikiru Adepoju (of the Global Drum Project) from Nigeria, and Youssou N'Dour from Senegal--for a total of five nominees from Africa. Of the Hispanic nominees, Lila Downs is from Mexico, Gil is from Brazil, and Giovanni Hidalgo is from Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory). Only Mickey Hart (again, of Global Drum Project), was born in the continental U.S.

As for performance styles, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel choir are purely a capella vocal groups, singing in rich harmonies without instrumental accompaniment. Lakshmi Shankar, Lila Downs, Gilberto Gil, and Youssou N'Dour are all well-established singers who perform with instrumental accompaniment. And Debashish Bhattacharya (on his version of the western guitar, which he has adapted to his own purposes), Toumani Diabaté (on the kora, a harp-like chordophone with a large gourd as a resonating chamber and a long neck with frets), and the members of the Global Drum Project are all virtuoso instrumentalists. Only the percussionists in the last group fall directly into the category of "cross-cultural" music, in which the drumming of three different continents is skilfully blended into a musical "fusion."

As noted above, there are numerous other examples of what might also be considered world and/or traditional music among the nominees in the remaining 107 Grammy categories. In future entries, I'll try to highlight some of these--i.e., New Age, Latin, or Folk., as well as comment on the winners in the two fields we've discussed (and hopefully, listened to) today.

Finally--a couple of historic notes from my personal experience regarding the nominees:

I remember well the extraordinary impact of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's participation in the groundbreaking "Graceland" album by Paul Simon--one of the earlier (1986) successful mainstream efforts to include "world music" in a contemporary popular context; the album won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1986, and the title song won the Record of the Year Grammy in 1987. And I had the good fortune to meet Debashish Bhattacharya in connection with my writing liner notes for his 2000 release on India Archive Music--Raga Saraswati--so that perhaps I may be permitted a bit of bias in anticipating this year's winners in the World Music categories.

And if any of you do have any predictions or preferences, I'd be most eager to hear about them via the comments option.