Category Archives: Europe

Not Coming Soon To A Cinema Near You

With Oscars season over for another year, and everybody taking smiley pictures of themselves with their celebrity mates as they celebrate films about slavery, space and the depths of human suffering and terror, I thought it might be fun to imagine which figures might next be picked up on for awards-bait biopics. The Academy loves films which feature a lot of suffering but in the end show the triumph of the human spirit (or something), and there are plenty of musicians who’ve had the sort of lives that would make Walk The Line and Ray look like an episode of Teletubbies.

Of course, there are loads of people I could have picked here. The most obvious candidate is Fela Kuti, but he’s been excluded – mostly because I already mentioned his crazy life here, but also because he soon is to be the subject of a Hollywood film, after the success of the musical Fela! on Broadway and the West End – although the movie isn’t based on the musical. Apparently the original director was going to be man of the moment Steve McQueen– now that would have been something.

Mariam Makeba

I think the only reason Miriam Makeba’s life story hasn’t been made into a big budget movie is that it would have to include some subjects that would be just a bit too touchy for the US – namely the side of the Civil Rights movement that wasn’t Martin Luther King’s peaceful brand of campaigning. Makeba was certainly a big enough star to merit a film – nicknamed ‘Mama Africa’, she’s probably the most famous and popular singer the entire African continent has produced. Born in 1932 in Johannesburg, her mother was arrested for selling homebrew when Miriam was only eighteen days old, so the first six months of the infant Miriam’s life were spent in prison. Her singing career began with the vocal harmony group the Manhattan Brothers in 1954, and she then joined the all-female Skylarks with whom she really made her name. Her fame grew through her role in the ‘jazz opera’ King Kong in 1959, the same year Miriam made an appearance in an anti-apartheid documentary. Touring with the cast of King Kong in the UK, she met Harry Belafonte who helped her gain entry to the USA in 1960.  In 1963 Miriam testified to the UN on the horrors of apartheid, and so she was stripped of her South African citizenship and unable to return to her birth country.

Nevertheless, Miriam’s career went from strength to strength in the US, due to her mega-selling duet album with Belafonte, and re-recordings of her earlier hits like ‘Pata Pata’ and ‘Qongqothwane’ (retitled ‘The Click Song’ for American audiences). In 1968, Miriam married her fourth husband, Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers (her previous husband was one of South Africa’s other great stars, the trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela). Marrying a Black Panther did not do Miriam’s career any wonders in the US and she was effectively blacklisted. She and her husband thus moved to Guinea, where they became very close for a while with President Seckou Touré, proving that if nothing else, Miriam sure could pick friends who might land her in trouble. In the meantime, she was growing into the figure of Mama Africa, singing in Nairobi at Kenyan independence, in Luanda at Angolan independence, at the Rumble in the Jungle and many other such events. Eventually, she was able to return to South Africa at the personal invitation of Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. From then on, she continued to perform and to campaign to raise awareness of such issues as HIV and child soldiers. She died after a heart attack suffered during a concert in Italy. Proving that Miriam was a fighter til the end, the concert was to support the writer Roberto Saviano in his campaign against the Camorra.

Recommend album: Despite her star quality and power as a singer, Miriam’s albums are, in general, notoriously patchy. There’s about a bazillion different compilations available, mostly recycling different versions of the same songs she recorded again and again. ‘Best of the Early Years’ is a very good selection of her ‘township jazz’ days, although the liner notes are disappointingly scant. ‘The Guinea Years’ shows how different a later period of her career was, at a time that saw a lot of fantastic music coming out of Guinea, although you’ll have to hunt around to find it on CD.

Esma Redzepova

Esma Redzepova has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice and was awarded the title of ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ by Indira Gandhi in 1976 at a Roma festival. She has not lead a boring life. Esma is a Roma singer from Macedonia (although she’s been outspoken about the breaking up of Yugoslavia and the division it has caused), and she has a singing voice like no other. She has been a professional singer since the age of 13, when she was ‘discovered’ by the Macedonian accordion player Stevo Teodosievski, who became her main musical collaborator and husband. At the start of the 1960s Esma and Stevo had a series of big pop hits throughout the Balkans, and they ended up moving to Belgrade. As with so many talented musicians who are co-opted as national icons, Esma ended up serving the needs of a less than savoury politican, as Tito decided Esma and the Ensemble Teodosievski were to be Yugoslavia’s musical representatives abroad.

Once Tito was out of the picture however, and Yugoslavia collapsed, Esma used her fame to campaign to help people as much as possible. She has worked for women’s education, rights for the Roma, inter-ethnic communication and helped persuade the Macedonian government to give refuge to those fleeing ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosovo. Esma’s charity begins at home, however. Since the age of thirteen – yes, really – she has been adopting Roma orphans and runaways, and thus now has nearly fifty children. She and Stevo worked to give all of the children an education and music and so, since Stevo’s death in the 1990s, Esma’s band has been composed of her children.

Esma is a national icon for Macedonia, a figure of pride for Roma, and a global star. She has a diplomat’s passport, has been a local councillor in Skopje, and has set up a Roma TV station that ran from the basement of her immense house – a house which has now been turned into a museum, while Esma moved to more modest surroundings. She has lived through difficult times but her generosity and her voice have risen above it all.

Recommended album: Esma is nowhere near as well-represented in album releases in ‘the West’ as she should be, and some of her most acclaimed recordings are on the World Network compilation ‘Gypsy Queens: Flammes de Couer’. I really like her 2007 album ‘Gypsy Carpet’; the young(ish) band are composed of later generations (!) of her children, and they give a real punch to the music. Esma sounds as feisty and full of energy as ever.

Tau Moe

If there’s one of these stories I can imagine actually becoming a movie, it’s this one. The story starts in Hawaii, Hollywood’s go-to ‘exotic’ (but not too foreign) location, and then spans most of the twentieth century before concluding with a rags-to-riches final act.

Born in Samoa in 1908, Tau Moe (pronounced Mo-ay) started playing slide guitar in Hawaii in the 1920s. In 1927, the band Tau had with his uncles was joined by a falsetto singer and dancer called Rose. The band became called Mme Riviere’s Hawaiians, as they were managed by a French professor, and they toured extensively through Asia, from India and Burma to the Phillipines, Japan and Indonesia. Rose and Tau were married and had a son, who was born in Tokyo. After recording a few songs in Tokyo, Mme Riviere’s Hawaiians split up, and Tau, Rose and their son Lani began to play as a trio, while Lani was just five. The trio recorded a few songs in Shanghai, and then gigged around India for a while, before journeying to Egypt, almost penniless. They managed to find work playing music in Egypt’s bigger cities, and travelled throughout the Levant and then into Europe, ending up in Germany. Unfortunately, something called the Second World War began, and so the family soon had to be on the road again.  Arriving in Baghdad, the Moes boarded a ship to finally return to Hawaii – but, through an even worse stroke of luck than the one that had led them to Germany, Pearl Harbour had been bombed just before they arrived! The family turned back and travelled halfway round the world (again) to India. The Moes had a daughter, Dorrian, in 1945, who was soon part of the family band too, dancing and singing. After playing around India for about ten years, the family went back to Europe and stayed there til the end of the 1960s and played many gigs and appeared on TV programmes and in movies, travelling throughout Europe. After still more travelling in Asia, Australia and the USA in the ‘70s, the family band’s five-decade long world tour finally came to an end as they moved back to Tau’s childhood home in Hawaii.

That story would be good enough, but the final chapter is the icing on the cake. In 1986, the American blues guitarist and Hawaiian music expert Bob Brozman (who went to make many excellent cross-cultural collaboration albums) got a letter from Tau ordering one of Brozman’s albums. Brozman, who, as a record collector, owned the only known copy of one of Mme Riviere’s Hawaiian’s recordings, phoned up Moe right away to find out if he was the same Tau Moe who played guitar on that record. “Oh sure!” said Moe. “My wife sang on those records – wanna hear?” Rose then apparently sung that song down the phone to Brozman – “in the same key!” the amazed Brozman wrote. Brozman arranged to meet with the family band a few years later and together they recorded an album recreating, entirely from Tau’s memory, those now-lost recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s – a style of music that, given the Moes’ influences, was already a bit old-fashioned when it was first recorded! Apologies for the quality of the video below; the music shines through all the same.

Recommended album: You can hear some of the 1920s recordings on a compilation called ‘Vintage Hawaiian Music: The Great Singers 1928-1934’, but the pick has to be the album the Moe family recorded by with Bob Brozman, ‘Ho’omana’o I Na Mele O Ka Wa U’i’, or ‘Remembering the Songs of Our Youth’. It has to be one of the most joyous albums you will ever hear; the octogenarian Rose’s voice is incredible, and the slide guitar, courtesy of Tau and Brozman, is just a delight.

Gilberto Gil

Cheating slightly here, as Gil has actually been the subject of (at least) two documentary films, one about the Tropicalismo style of music he pioneered, and a film that came out last year called ‘Viramundo’, where Gil travels around the world and meets various local musicians. Still, I think Gil could merit the biopic treatment too.

Gil did not have radical beginnings. He grew up in a fairly comfortably middle-class family in the south of Brazil, and by his early twenties, he was composing advertising jingles, had moved to Rio, had his own TV show, and his songs were being recorded by big hitters like Sergio Mendes and Elis Regina. Things took a turn however when Gil founded Tropicalismo in 1968 with his friend Caetano Veloso, with the album ‘Tropicalia: ou Panis et Circenses’. Tropicalismo is a blend of various Brazilian regional styles of music – experimental enough in itself – with tricks learned from British and US rock music, and poetic, dense lyrics. It was an exciting time in Brazilian music, with many of the most famous stars just beginning to break through – Maria Bethânia (Caetano’s sister), Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Chico Buarque and so on – and there was an amazing amount of creativeness. Unfortunately, Brazil’s military government weren’t so keen on the radical music which was popular with the youth of the time – who would think it, eh? – and in February 1969, Gil and Veloso were arrested, spending three months in prison and four months under house arrest. Apparently they got off lightly – less famous musicians simply had their tongues cut out. They were freed on the condition they left the country, and they both eventually settled in London. It seems like Gil ended up having a rare old time in the UK, discovering reggae (which had a big influence on his music), helping to organise the 1971 Glastonbury festival, and performing with bands like Yes and Pink Floyd.

Gil was able to return to Brazil in 1972 and has released plenty of albums since, in various different styles. He has also developed a parallel career as a politician. In 1987 he was elected to a local government post in Bahia. He worked in various positions, particularly promoting environmental matters, and in 2003 was chosen to be a cabinet member under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As the Minister for Culture, Gil worked on projects like grants to help children from poorer areas learn music, staging big concerts in favelas, and working to create a freely downloadable archive of Brazilian music (although this seems yet to actually materialise). Lula da Silva must have valued Gil, as Gil had to request to step down from his position three times before this was finally accepted. Having dealt with some health issues, Gil continues to make music and serve as an elder statesman for Brazilian culture. He made not be as radical as he once was, but he certainly keeps himself busy.

Recommended album: Given that he’s had such a long and varied career, everyone seems to favour different albums of Gil’s. Some of his earlier albums apparently sound like Zappa-esque noisy rock, while also he’s flirted with reggae, psychadelia, acoustic twiddling and more besides. The album that started so much, ‘Tropicalia’, is now, crazily, out of print, so my pick would be his 1979 album ‘Realce’, where Gil provides his own version of funk and disco. Maybe not as politically serious as some of his other work, but a whole lot of fun.

Various Artists – ‘The Soul of Klezmer’

As strange as it may sound, klezmer music probably has one of the biggest media presences of any form of ‘world music’ – or ‘ethnic minority music’ if you live in the US. In other words, even if you don’t know it, you will have probably heard klezmer. Think about it: TV shows as disparate as Frasier and Futurama have at least one Jewish character, and the episode that sees their bar mitzvah or wedding will feature a klezmer soundtrack. It’s this raucous music that this marvellous compilation celebrates. But it also shows another side to Ashkenazi Jewish music (as opposed to the other Jewish diaspora musics, for example the Sephardic, Ladino-language music of the likes of Yasmin Levy, or the Yemeni Jewish repertoire made famous by Ofra Haza) – the stately, almost mantra-like songs of Hassidic mysticism, pleading for contact with God.

Klezmer is one of the great forms of ‘fusion’ music. The genre name comes from the Yiddish word ‘klezmorim’, meaning a band of amateur musicians for hiring at weddings. That amateur nature is perhaps key to the energy and rough edges of the music. The beginnings of the genre lie in the shtetls of eastern Europe, and the crossover points between klezmer, gypsy music, Turkish military music and other genres have led to some very interesting collaborations and experiments. For example, the Hungarian band Muzsikás (perhaps most famous for their ‘Bartok Album’) appear here, proving a common ground between gypsy and Jewish music. Klezmer evolved into the style we know today once it, and its players, reached the US, when jazz and swing influences crept in. It is here that this compilation comes in, featuring examples of a couple of the greats of the early klezmer scene: Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, both born in the old country, yet both firmly establishing klezmer as an American genre of music, Brandwein’s rugged and rough style contrasting with Tarras’ military band precision.

No surprise that they were both clarinet players. While the violin is a very important instrument in klezmer, and instruments including accordion, dulcimer, mandolin and the human voice also appear on this compilation, it’s those piercing clarinets that reign supreme. Whether plaintive, wailing, screaming or almost seeming to laugh, the one thing klezmer clarinet never is is relaxed.

Another key moment is the ‘klezmer revival’, which began in east-coast USA in the 1970s. The band often claimed to be the movement’s frontrunners were simply called The Klezmorim, and boy could they play – dig this flute!

The ‘90s saw another burst of klezmer creativity, with bands experimenting with subversions of the strict style. As represented on this compilation, they range from the track by the Andy Statman Quartet which features American banjo/mandolin whizzkid Béla Fleck, to Budowitz’s attempt to recreate as nearly as possible the sound of authentic, nineteenth-century European klezmer. The most successful of the lot has to have been The Klezmatics, a sort of supergroup who’ve featured such important figures as trumpeter Frank London, violinst Alicia Svigals and singer Lorin Sklamberg. Additions such as a drumkit have made the band’s sound a little more friendly to the rock fan’s ear, but don’t think they don’t know their stuff, as this track off their hilariously-titled album ‘Rhythm + Jews’ shows:

This compilation manages to showcase all these various sub-genres and chronological developments of the music over two CDs, mostly featuring American bands, but also including old masters such as Brandwein, and Europeans such as Muzsikás from Hungary and Kroke from Poland. As is the case with all of these ‘longbox’ compilations issued by the German record label Network (other gems in the series include ‘Road of the Gypsies’ and ‘Sufi Soul’), there’s also some fantastically informative notes in English, French and German, and many great archival photos of Jewish ceremonies. Quite frankly, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the genre, given that it includes most key figures as well as a few oddities – and not sequenced in any real order, so there’s no chance of getting bored with too much of the same. Whether or not you know the difference between a freylekh, a doina and a bulgar (different song types), it’s all great fun, lively, energetic and complex. The only dud track is the rather overwrought ‘A Yiddisha Momma’ sung by Ava Gold, about how much she loves her old mama. Well, schmaltz is a Yiddish word (although it originally meant ‘chicken fat’!)

If all that clarinet and exciting dance music has worn you out a bit, let’s finish with an example of the more sedate, though no less emotionally intense side of klezmer. Based on the liturgical chants of the Hassidim, there’s a few examples of this repetitive, spiritual music on this compilation too, mostly sung by the marvellous Lorin Sklamberg. Here he is with The Klezmatics, singing ‘Shnirele Perele’. How fitting that this song finishes the compilation: the most successful klezmer band in the world performing a song about the imminent arrival of the Messiah. What a note to end on, eh?

Mariza -Terra

Mariza’s recent UK tour is as good an excuse as any for revisiting her back catalogue. ‘Terra’ is her 2008 album that, at the time, seemed to garnish rave reviews (as usual with Mariza). Looking back a few years on, it doesn’t stand up nearly so well as some of her other work.

Apparently Mariza has for a while now been suggesting a ‘pan-Lusosphere’ album, that is to say one that takes in music from all over the Portuguese speaking world. Being a fado singer who grew up in Mozambique and worked with a Brazilian producer on her most successful album ‘Transparente’, that’s hardly surprising. This isn’t quite that album – just a half-hearted attempt at something like that. Rather than the poignant guitar and soaring emotion-laden vocals we’d expect from fado, much of this album features a slow drumbeat like the most stereotypical background jazz. It does not do the songs any favours. Nor do the guests, sadly: Tito Paris from Cape Verde (apparently doing his best impression of Cesaria Evora) adds some creole colour to the Verdean morna ‘Beijo de Saudade’, and Cocha Buika shows up too, but neither sound much more excited than Mariza does.

It’s difficult to make a singer as powerful as Mariza, and a genre as full of emotion as fado, sound dull, but this album tries its hardest to do just that. The music is seldom attention-grabbing, and there’s an overuse of piano (particularly on the track ‘As Guitarras’, which begins, “Guitars are a gift from God…” – why not play them, then?). Mariza is in as fine a voice as ever – she could sing the phone book and you’d want to listen. But she doesn’t ring emotion out of every syllable as we know she is capable of doing. Mariza on autopilot is still better than most, but she can do better.

Whether it’s due to producer’s decisions or the melodies, there are few really memorable songs either, apart from clear stand-out ‘Minh’Alma’, which manages to be both the catchiest and most melancholic song on the album. The singer’s restraint, lack of powerful melodies, and that damn jazz drumming all combine to create a kind of generic “world music” sound – background music. Not what we want from a genre as full of emotion as fado. Given the world-friendly generic-ness of the album (as suggested by the title), it’s hardly surprising Mariza decided her next album would be ‘Fado Tradicional’.