Raiatea Helm – ‘Sweet & Lovely’

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Hawai’ian music occupies a strange place in the Euro-American musical landscape. I’d reckon you could stop just about anyone on the street and they’d have some idea of what ‘Hawai’ian music’ sounds like. But even a lot of world music fans would have trouble naming a single Hawai’ian singer or musician, except maybe Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, most famous for that version of ‘What a Wonderful World’ you’ve heard used over a thousand adverts and end-credits scenes. Although a lot of people would have trouble naming Israel Kamakawiwo’ole too – Hawai’ian must give Malagasy a run for the average surname length!

 


Just in case you’ve not heard it enough times…

Anyway, the reason Hawai’ian music is so familiar but also so foreign is that, for a while, it was incredibly popular – not just in the USA but right around the world. By 1916, only 18 years after the US had deposed the monarchy and colonised Hawai’i, more records of Hawai’ian music were being sold in the US than those of any other genre of music. By the ’30s, there were copycat Hawai’ian-style steel guitar bands in the UK, Sweden, Greece, even Indonesia, with names like Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders. The music coming out of Hawai’i itself played up to this, with lots of novelty records with nonsense lyrics exaggerating what outsiders thought the Hawai’ian language sounds like. The result of this is that, even after the fashion long since died, as with tango, we’ve all got some sense of what Hawai’ian music sounds like via osmosis, even though music actually made in Hawai’i by Hawai’ians remains pretty obscure. (There’s also something to be said here about the way Hawai’i is exoticised in US culture, which continues and is linked to ongoing colonialism, but this is a music blog, so let’s just stick to that for now…)

The thing that I find most strange is that even within the ‘world music’ scene, when Hawai’ian music does get discussed, it’s still the older music of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s that gets talked about the most. The great Gabby Pahinui who helped kickstart a revival of Hawai’ian steel guitar in the ‘70s gets his props, but it seems like you’re more likely to see reviews of yet another compilation of old-timey Hawai’ian music than you are of anything more modern. This is a bit of a shame because a lot of great and inventive music has come out of Hawai’i in the last twenty odd years. One of my favourites is Raiatea Helm. Forgive the slightly cheesy video and enjoy the first track off her second album ‘Sweet and Lovely’.

 

 

As you can hear from that song, Raiatea manages to keep her music sounding mostly ‘traditional’ but never old-fashioned – like most of the interesting music in the world. ‘Sweet and Lovely’ features some great but never flashy steel guitar and ukulele, the two mainstays of Hawai’ian music, with a lot of the uke playing coming from Raiatea herself. Her main talent though is clearly her singing. Raiatea sings in the old-fashioned falsetto style, which might take a little bit of getting used to if you’ve not hear anything like it before. While I can’t comment on her diction of the Hawai’ian language, she’s clearly a very skilled singer. Some of the notes she hits in ‘Pakalana’ are incredibly high, and in ‘Alika’ she holds a note for a full thirty seconds – that might not sound hugely impressive, but you need to hear it to believe it. Despite the purity and, well, sweetness of her voice, she almost sounds older than she is because it’s difficult to believe that someone as young as her – twenty-one when she made this album – could have such technical precision in her singing.

 

 

‘Sweet and Lovely’ was Grammy nominated, if you care about that sort of thing, and it might be fair to say it’s one of the more important Hawai’ian albums of recent years given that it’s drawn more people’s attention to the fact that, hey, this sort of music still exists. Raiatea isn’t exactly a musical trailblazer – she’s not as boundary-pushing as, for example, Keali’i Reichel who puts in a guest appearance on ‘Haole Hula’ – and occasionally her music threatens to become a little bit twee, especially on the tracks with synth strings. Still, there’s more than enough steel guitar and world-class singing to make up for that. Most of the songs on ‘Sweet and Lovely’ are in Hawai’ian, although there are a few in English – including, weirdly, a version of ‘At Last’. Yes, the one made famous by Etta James. Raiatea is undoubtedly a fantastic singer, but she ain’t Etta James. It’s just not the sort of song that’s suited to her voice, and it’s the one misstep on the album. For the most part though, the album strikes the perfect balance, sounding steeped in older Hawai’ian music but not regressive or old-fashioned. And as I said, isn’t something similar true of most great music?

Given that this album was self-released and largely self-produced, it’s pleasingly widely available – you shouldn’t have to hunt around too hard to find copies of this, and it’s on Spotify too. I thoroughly recommend listening to it as you’re putting up with another rainy day – close your eyes and imagine you’re on Molokai.

I’m on the radio! Listen!

I’ll be on the radio every week for the next month or two at 7-8pm Sunday evenings (UK time). The show is called Travelling Soul and the aim is to play soulful sounding music from around the world and show the similarities and differences, so as well as Sam Cooke, James Brown and Aretha Franklin you’ll hear Celia Cruz, Gilberto Gil, Mohammed Rafi and Orchestre Baobab. Previous themed shows have included ‘Queens of Soul’ and a Bollywood vs. disco special, with planned specials to come including ‘America in Africa/Africa in America’, the greater Caribbean and religious music. Click on to http://www.fusefm.co.uk to listen, and point your browser at http://www.facebook.com/travellingsoulfuse to see playlists, post requests, see videos I share and more.

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.

The Klezmatics – ‘Rhythm + Jews’

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Klezmer is the music of Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jews, that was reinvigorated and reshaped by Jewish immigrants’ encounters with early jazz in 1920s New York (as I’ve discussed here). The Klezmatics are undoubtedly the most successful klezmer band ever, and they can also make a good claim to be among the most influential and most interesting. They formed in New York just over 25 years ago, and so although they didn’t begin the ‘klezmer revival’ – The Klezmorim predate them by a decade – they certainly gave it a good kick up the backside. They haven’t really made a bad album, but this is usually cited as their best, and with good reason. If it wasn’t such a cliché, you might say that if you only buy one klezmer album…

The first thing to note is that The Klezmatics are all individually brilliant musicians. Their line-up has changed over the years, but on this album they feature trumpeter Frank London, clarinet player David Krakauer, violinist Alicia Svigals and singer Lorin Sklamberg, all of whom have gone on to be involved in various other excellent projects. The line-up is completed by bassist Paul Morrisett and drummer David Licht. The instrumental solos are never less than thrilling, and each member who plays a lead instrument gets their own showcase track – the titles ‘Clarinet Yontev’ and ‘Violin Doina’ are fairly self-explanatory. However, like the Captain Planet kids, the band are at their best when their powers combine:

As that track shows, The Klezmatics are not really exponents of klezmer in its purest form. Klezmer bands since the revival begun can broadly be divided into two groups: those who seek to recreate the sound of late nineteenth-century European klezmer as accurately as they can, and those who expand on the sounds of the genre by pushing the music closer to rock, hip-hop, jazz or even avant-garde sounds. In my opinion, the injection of rock’n’roll punch into their sound only makes The Klematics sound better, rather than diluting their music. The rock influence is not so overt as to make the music sound like a fusion mishmash; it adds an extra drive and power into their sound, upping the ante. It’s this that makes David Licht the band’s secret weapon – although he never really gets to show off his chops in the way that the soloists do, his drumming adds just the right amount of extra rock’n’roll power into the band’s sound. Given that he’s playing klezmer though, a lot of the rhythms and time signatures he’s playing would leave most rock drummers scratching their heads.

Although there is a definite rock influence – Svigals is apparently a die-hard Led Zeppelin fan – don’t think that this band don’t know their stuff when it comes to klezmer tradition, too. Many of the tunes here come from the repertoire of 1920s clarinet demigod Naftule Brandwein, who in his day was as inventive as The Klezmatics, given his raw playing style and jazz influence. On top of this, the album features tunes from the Hassidic tradition –‘Honikzaft’ even sees a section of the Biblical Song of Solomon set to an infernally catchy melody. Rather than being disparate, the various strands of influence permeate the whole album, as exemplified on this opening track, which even pays homage to the crossover between klezmer and Arabic music by featuring Egyptian percussion whizz Mahmoud Fadl:

(You can find a more ‘traditional’ interpretation of this tune on Joel Rubin and Joshua Horowitz’s excellent album ‘Besserabian Symphony’.)

The album begins to become more reflective towards the end, as Lorin Sklamberg – who no less an authority than Simon Broughton has called “the best Yiddish singer around” – sings ‘Shnirele Perele’, a Hassidic song about the imminent arrival of the Messiah. But even this is transformed into something like Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’; you can imagine a whole arena chanting it back at the band. The final part of the album is the ‘Klezmatic Fantasy’ suite, blending together several tunes, beginning with the mournful ‘Der Yiddisher Soldat in di Trenches’ before ending with the more upbeat ‘Turkisher-Bulgarish’.

With razor-sharp but still ‘rootsy’ instrumental prowess, a respect for tradition but an equal desire to innovate, and a good dollop of humour too (come on – look at that title), ‘Rhythm + Jews’ should probably be the first Klezmatics album you buy, but it equally shouldn’t be the last…

Marisa Monte – ‘Rose and Charcoal’

 

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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.