Category Archives: South America
I can’t really do justice in just a few hundred words to how important Astor Piazzolla was for tango, so I won’t try. Suffice to say that there is tango before and after him, and that he brought it nearer to European classical music, jazz and experimental music while retaining its slightly seedy, street-music heart, and also made it far more visible around the world. You could probably compare him to Ravi Shankar in terms of how he changed the way the world thought about the style of music he played.
Anyway, Piazzola’s most famous albums are probably the trilogy he made with US producer Kip Hanrahan. Justifiably the most famous of these is ‘Tango: Zero Hour’; every home should have a copy. The second, ‘La Camorra’, isn’t quite as famous or quite as brilliant, but is still well worth checking out. However, I’m going to talk about the third of these albums, which no-one really seems to mention much – ‘The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night’. Whether or not this album is as good as the other two, it’s certainly my favourite, probably because of the way I came across it. The finale to the album is one of the pieces of music used in Wong Kar-Wai’s 1997 film ‘Happy Together’. The film follows two men from Hong Kong, living in Buenos Aires, and the ups and downs of their passionate and tempestuous relationship. The most important thing about the film, rather than the plot, is the aching sense of longing the film evokes: the two men being so much in love even though their relationship is bad for both of them, their separation from their homeland, and their wish to visit Angel Falls, the original purpose of their journey to Argentina on holiday, which becomes an unattainable, Grail-like object of longing. The film is desperately sad and haunting, something which is increased by the masterful use of music. Two or three pieces are used repeatedly throughout the film, in different scenes, like memories whose different nuances are revealed when they are remembered at different times. One of these pieces of music is the finale from ‘Tango Apasianado’, the suite which became ‘The Rough Dancer…’ Its most striking uses are in the almost abstract shot of Angel Falls – which the two men never see – and the beautiful scene of them tangoing in their kitchen; nothing is going right, but they have each other. I couldn’t get the music out of my head for days after I’d seen ‘Happy Together’, and I still can’t separate the music of this album from the feelings the film evoked. Novels, films and music can produce profound affects depending on how exactly we encounter them, related to what else is going on in our lives, and there are certain artworks that it seems almost impossible to talk about with critical distance because the affect is so bound up with that artwork, for us. Maybe it even has something to do with our sense of subjectivity. I have no idea whether ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ is actually a good novel, for instance, but I certainly know how I feel about it.
Back to ‘The Rough Dancer’. The music is a tango suite commissioned by the Intar [sic] Hispanic American Arts Center for a stage production, and originally included lyrics too. The adaptation for this album is instrumental, and although I’ve got no idea of the narrative of the original show, there are clues some of the titles: ‘Knife Fight’, ‘Butcher’s Death’. Even without knowing the stage show at all, this music sounds like it tells a story, as it moves from mournful, nostalgic love themes on Piazzolla’s bandoneon to jerky, violent-sounding stabs at violin strings. The piano, violin, guitar and clarinet all get their time to shine, with the bandoneon leading them all onwards. The music sighs, it wails, it skips with childish happiness, it screams, it smiles ruefully, it even sniggers (listen to the guitar on ‘Street Tango’). In addition to emotions, the album is evocative of images. Tango is always bound up with particular stereotypes of Argentinian culture, but this album really does evoke a seedy, backstreets world where it’s always about 1:30 am, some time at the beginning of the twentieth century. The liner notes from Fernando Gonzalez describe “a muddy and baroque world […] fast knives and fast dancers, rough milongas and rougher cañas.” He describes the album as “Piazzolla imagin[ing] Jorge Luis Borges imagining” this world.
The comparison to Borges makes perfect sense, because like the murky world imagined in his story ‘Death and the Compass’, nothing is quite what it seems here. ‘The Rough Dancer…’ is Borgesian not because of the underworld of flick-knife-brandishing, sharply-dressed gangsters it evokes, but because it is – as the title implies – cyclical. Themes circle back and repeat throughout the album, leaving you unsure whether you’ve heard this melody half an hour earlier, or whether you’re remembering it from some time in the past you’re not sure of. The whole of the ‘Milonga for Three’ is repeated, first with Piazzolla playing the main theme on his bandoneon, and secondly with – bizarrely – Cuban salsa legend Paquito d’Riviera tearing the melody to bits with his saxophone. The theme comes back again in the finale, used so effectively in ‘Happy Together’. And that finale is nothing but: the very last track on the album is a fifty-second ‘Prelude to the Cyclical Night (Part Two)’, a Part Two which either never comes or has, perhaps already come… This album is as much the Borges of ‘A New Refutation of Time’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ or ‘The Circular Ruins’ as of ‘Death and the Compass’. Time seems to work differently for this album; musical themes emerge out of a dreamlike time where things might have already happened or maybe not. Are things repeated, or are you remembering something you’d forgotten? Or is it just that a trick is being played, and the melody is so predictable that you simply know where it’s going and so feel that your recognise it?
As you can probably tell, I love this album – maybe because it appeals to my pretentious side, maybe because it has an emotional effect on me, maybe both. Either way, it’s a great example of just how much Piazzolla –and his collaborators, lest we forget that he was far from a lone genius; his various Quartets, Quintets and Octets contained some amazing musicians – changed what tango could do. You could probably try to dance to this album, but I don’t know how far you’d get before you had to make yourself dance backwards.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
It seems like a bit of a backhanded compliment to refer to an album as ‘lovely’ or ‘nice’, as it suggests it just kind of exists there in the background, inoffensively, not being shocking or unorthodox but equally not providing much in the way of emotional depth or intelligence. Well to hell with that, because ‘Rosa e Carvão’, or ‘Rose and Charcoal’ to give it its international title, is intelligent, full of emotional depth, occasionally daring, and still one of the loveliest albums you’ll ever hear.
Marisa Monte is one of Brazil’s biggest stars – successful and recognisable enough that she was the first singer to appear on stage at Brazil’s section of the London 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony. She was trained in opera singing, surprisingly, but has found fame as a singer of musica popular brasileira, or MPB – which is more or less a catch-all term for Brazilian music that doesn’t fall into more specific genres. Monte is equally comfortable with other styles though, given that she grew up near the famous Portela samba school (one of the great samba schools of Rio), and has also worked with New York hypercool art scene types – both of which play an important part in this album. But the main draw is undoubtedly Monte’s voice, which really is one of the most wonderful in Brazilian music – as cool, refreshing and airy as a sea breeze.
That’s the first track on the album, and the stanrd is kept just as high throughout. Sometimes the mood is more reflective, as on ‘Dança da Solidão’, and sometimes more danceable, as on ‘Balança Pema’, with its obvious samba influence coming through loud and clear with the laugh-like sound of the cuíca. The instrumentation is tasteful (another ‘nice’ word!), with acoustic guitar and bass being the main sounds, ably backed up by muted trumpets and keyboards on occasion and the odd shot of samba percussion. The choice of songs is great too; the main lyricists are Monte herself and her long-time musical collaborator, Carlinhos Brown, but the other tracks range from a song by Paulinho da Viola, who the Rough Guide to World Music calls “arguably the greatest living sambista” (samba singer), to a version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ that’s arguably even more beautiful than the original.
As well as a great choice of songs, the album’s guestlist seems like a virtual guarantee of quality; as well as Carlinhos Brown, there’s contributions from New York/Brazilian art-music whizz Arto Lindsay (who also produced the album), Parliament/Funkadelic’s keyboard player Bernie Worrell, MPB superstar Gilberto Gil – ‘Ao Meu Redor’ even sees the credit “brass and string arrangement: Phillip Glass”. Surely the most joyous guest appearance is on the final track ‘Esta Melodia’, which sees Monte joined by Velha Guarda da Portela – the ‘old guard’ of that great samba school – who provide suitably infectious backing singing, strumming and drumming. (Velha Guarda da Portela have, incidentally, gone on to record an album of their own, produced by Monte, which is almost as good as this one – subject for another post another time perhaps.)
Although it seems a small point, the liner notes are nice too, providing all the song lyrics in Portuguese and English, and even including the relevant chord progressions too, in case you want to play along on your guitar at home.
This is a perfect storm of all the right elements: excellent song choices; sympathetic, delicate but occasionally surprising arrangements (check out the appropriately sparse ‘Segue o Seco’ – ‘The Drought Continues’ – if all the gentle guitar gets a bit much); friends in high places. But the real star is of course Marisa Monte and her voice. Soulful and touching on the introspective songs, infectiously happy on the upbeat songs, she sounds girlish enough that you can’t help yourself but smile, but intelligent and complex enough to deal with whatever sense of heritage the samba influence has behind it. The only word for it, really, is… lovely.
I’ve just learned today that the great music journalist Jan Fairley died on 9th June at the age of 63. While it may seem late for this post now, it is still worth drawing attention to her amazing work. Holding an MPhil in Latin American Studies and a PhD in Ethnomusicology, Jan was a lecturer and academic, dancer, singer, DJ and more besides. A fuller list of her many, astonishing achievements can be found in this obituary – well worth a read. The reason I’m writing this post though is that she was a key contributor to Songlines magazine (see here) and the Rough Guide to World Music, where she displayed her staggering knowledge of many forms of Spanish and Latin American music, from flamenco to Chilean nueva cancion to Cuban son to traditional Andean music. She was an excellent, passionate writer, with her immense knowledge and enthusiasm evident in everything she wrote, and I for one would know far less about music, and have heard fewer great records, without having read her. Whatever else, her death is a great loss to the world of music journalism, and indeed, to the ‘world music’ scene.
Her own WordPress blog is here.
Joe Arroyo is one of Colombia’s biggest stars, and this compilation provides a great introduction to his music. His biography is pretty amazing itself: as (Songlines magazine/Rough Guide to World Music editor) Simon Broughton summarises, “Arroyo’s life features the kind of dramatic incidents beloved of Latin American soaps: childhood in a convent and a brothel, a place in a church choir in the Caribbean resort of Cartagena, talent-spotted at 17 by Fruko, Colombia’s leading salsa producer, and given a deal with the hit-factory label Discos Fuentes.”
This compilation features a selection of hits from Joe’s days with a couple of Fruko’s bands, Fruko y sus Tesos and The Latin Brothers, as well as later songs from when Joe formed his own band, La Verdad. The tracks aren’t arranged in any kind of order, and as is often the case with compilations of Latin American music like this, the liner notes don’t provide a huge deal of information about dates or personnel on the tracks – but you can easily tell the difference between the earlier and later tracks.
This track with Fruko, ‘El Caminante’, sees Joe singing in his youthful-sounding voice, and the production is much more organic-sounding than on later tracks, almost sounding ‘live’. There’s a New York salsa influence here too – isn’t that piano great? This contrasts to the one Latin Brothers track on this compilation, ‘El Son del Caballo’, which is much more Colombian-sounding, with a much more ‘jerky’ sounding piano part.
By the time Joe formed La Verdad (‘The Truth’), he was massively popular in Colombia and further afield. His band’s sound was dubbed ‘joesón’ – that’s right, his own rhythm. The album’s opener is the absurdly brilliant title track, which gives a good idea of La Verdad’s sound.
Dispel any clichéd idea of listening to ‘Latin music’ in the sun – this is clearly, as the title suggests, music from dancing to in the dark, sweating in a nightclub. You can hear how Joe’s voice has changed from earlier songs; to my ear he doesn’t sound entirely unlike Youssou N’Dour. Some of the other La Verdad songs here are much more synth-led and have a more compressed production, which makes the likes of ‘Te Qieuro Más’ sound faintly cheesy, but you still won’t be able to sit still while listening to them. Make no mistake: the aim of this music is to get you to dance. Even when Joe seems to be in more reflective mood, like on ‘A Mi Dios Todo Le Debo’ (‘I Owe Everything to God’), the music doesn’t relinquish any of its power to make you move your feet.
Indeed, in a feat of excellent tracklisting perversity, two of the fastest songs are saved til the end of the record, the completely breathless ‘La Cocha’ and finally ‘Mis Zapatos Blancos’ – a song about a man from the city of Cali looking for the white shoes he needs to go out dancing. No doubt that after listening to this you’ll want to join him.
Occasionally people can seem to dislike salsa or ‘Latin music’ because they think it’s so busy-sounding, so unrelenting. Somehow this record never seems too overbearing in that way – even though it is all dance music, no doubt about it, it’s never quite as full-on as, say, New York salsa at its most intense, and so makes a good starting point if you’ve not heard a great deal of Latin American music before.
This record is worth seeking out over the few other Joe Arroyo compilations there are as it comes with a second CD offering a six-track sample of other Colombian music, including more from Fruko’s bands as well as some top choice Colombian accordion playing!