Interview with Yamantaka//Sonic Titan

I caught one of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s CMJ sets this week at Fontana’s on Wednesday. I then sat down with the group’s two leaders Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B at Enid’s in Greenpoint on Thursday. I won’t spend too much time on an introduction since they have plenty to say in their interview, but they are definitely one of the most unique musical acts around and if you ever have a chance, you should see their live show (see the photos for visual evidence!).

IMG_1253I read that your new album was inspired by Journey to the West. Is that correct?

Alaska: I would say a lot of things in the band, including on the first album, were inspired by Journey to the West.

I recently saw the musical that was based on that.

Alaska: Oh, the Monkey with Damon Albarn.

Yeah. Did you see it?

Alaska: I’ve seen clips of it.

Ruby: Yeah, I’ve seen clips and stills.

It was pretty cool. Really cool acrobatics.

One of the other things I read was that you were particularly inspired by the two characters of the Monk and the Monkey. So one of you is the Monk and the other is the Monkey?

Ruby: Yes. Alaska is the Monkey. She always wears the Monkey makeup.

Alaska: It’s a stylized version of it.

Ruby: And then I’m always the Monk with the robes.

Alaska: It reflects the character where the Monkey is always action. And I’m playing the drums. And the Monk is always more about speech…

Ruby: And reflection and contemplation and non-action. They’re related to the sun and the moon in the same way. The sun’s this life-giving, chaotic, plasma fireball and the moon is its reflective light. But they are part of the same thing.

I was actually recently at a ceremony where my friend’s father became a monk. It was really interesting.

Alaska: What school?

Korean.

Alaska: Was it Theravada or Mahayana?

I actually don’t know that.

Alaska: Were they ringing bells or were they hitting gongs? That’s one way to tell the difference.

I don’t actually remember either of those things. It was a very simple ceremony.

Ruby: He just accepted the precepts?

Yeah. There was a lot of bowing.

Ruby: Yeah. He had to promise stuff. [Laughter]

So what about the monk lifestyle…

Ruby: I guess we approach those two characters from the position of storytelling. So rather than reflecting necessarily or not necessarily aspects of our true personality, we’re interested in presenting the two opposites and how they’re related through the characters on the stage. There’s aspects of these two opposites of action and reflection or acts of rationality and acts of impulsivity in everybody’s lives. And those poles contain existence. So we’re trying to express those in a more poetic way than something clinical or didactic.

Alaska: And I wouldn’t say that’s the entire basis…

Ruby: No because there are other characters. It’s like a mode.

Alaska: It was kind of a statement about being in America too. So in Journey to the West… I’ve actually been to the Grey Goose pagoda where the story starts, which was a pretty interesting experience for me years ago when I went to China. The characters go to India. And on the Silk Road they run into all the demons and so on because so many people would starve to death, get killed by avalanche, winds, you know, etc. that there’s the concept of there being so many demons. And they learn to get along to go to a strange place to bring back something that brings peace to where they come from. In the same concept, where we’re starting from in North America, it’s in a way going back there to get further here. It’s like going back home even though this is our home here, which is kind of the tongue-in-cheek irony of it all. It was also a statement about– I’m from Alberta. It’s a little bit like–I hate when people say this– it’s kind of like Texas in Canada. And I really hate that because I’ve been to Texas and it’s not really true. But it’s kind of true enough. So for people to foist these stereotypes that they have of people from Asia upon me, being from the most redneck place in Canada, it’s ridiculous because obviously I identify more with the prairies than I do with big, sculpted mountains.

Ruby: And then, as far as it being a starting point, there are all these myths that we came to from that story or in relation to that story also. Different myths about religious figures, leaders, people who go on voyages, expeditions, and just monkeys themselves. There are so many stories about monkeys because they are this animal that’s also sort of human. There are lots of different myths from all over the world about these animal-in-human characters.

IMG_1263So I know that you draw from a lot of things. You have Chinese and Japanese traditional mythology and you also have North American indigenous mythology.

Alaska: Yeah. We’ve had a total of three native members so far. Two of the members of our band– one is Iroquois. Our former second drummer– we used to have two drummers in the band, and he was Iroquois as well. And we’ve had Jonas, he’s a guest singer on “One.” He’s also Iroquois. And also our guitarist John is also part indigenous from the Southwest from the border with Mexico.

Ruby: Also Spanish. He has a very long, interesting, convoluted family tree. We’re really interested in personal experiences with culture and self-definition.

Alaska: But also, for us… I’m half Chinese, but I’m also part Mormon. I’m part Swedish, part Irish. I’ve got a very complex background that I also draw on for inspiration. We made a statement about being racialized because all of our influences are Chinese and Japanese and all our other influences are denied. I’ve been to Ireland. I have family from the Southwest in potato country. They still live on farms. And if I were to say that I have all this Irish nationalist influence– Celtic music is a big thing I grew up with– people would be like, “Well, you’re not Irish.” And I would be like, “Yeah, but how many Irish-Americans even listen to Celtic music or know a word of Gaelic.” And I grew up with Gaelic around me. So it’s like, “Fine. You want to paint me with a broad brush. I’ll paint myself with a broad brush.” It’s like, “Give me that brush.” So I think other artists, in particular white American artists can draw influence from anything. They can be like, “Oh. I watched a documentary on National Geographic about Africa and now I’m going to play Afrobeat because I saw a documentary.” And then for us, things that are actually deeply personal– we get told, “Oh, that’s not yours.” So there’s a different imbalance about how people can access different cultures.

Ruby: And in terms of cultural influences, I would say that we’re really influenced by certain art sub-cultures I would say almost even moreso than these ethnic references that we make. Punk music. Performance art. Experimental film. Animation. And drawing, painting. Those kinds of things that are cultural, but not necessarily bound by national identity. And that’s how we work as a multi-media collective, and that’s a huge part of our work as well.

Alaska: My dad was actually a progressive rock musician in the 70s, so that’s where a lot of the progressive rock influence comes from. But that’s something that people wouldn’t necessarily see as being part of my personal influence. People hear it in our music for sure, but you wouldn’t understand that that, for me, is a personal thing. I grew up with the prog records in the house.

Ruby: It’s a bit of a joke.

Alaska: It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek thing. I think somebody said once that our entry point is confusion. And I think that’s probably the smartest thing that anybody’s ever said because people want to box things up and instead we made the box really big and then we labeled it with a simple small label that doesn’t describe the box. So, once again, the entry point is confusion.

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Intervew with Count Bass D for Deluxe Edition of Dwight Spitz

On August 25, Count Bass D released the tenth-anniversary deluxe edition of his little known, but nevertheless classic album Dwight Spitz. The album is available streaming and for download on his Bandcamp. Count Bass D first showed up on my radar when I heard his guest verse on MF DOOM‘s “Potholderz” (which the Count also produced) off 2004 record Mm..Food? The collaboration between the two idiosyncratic hip-hop artists dates back to Dwight Spitz, on which DOOM appears on the tracks “Quite Buttery” and “Make a Buck.”

Music writer Dart Adams introduces the deluxe edition by writing, “I’m just glad we have cats like Count Bass D in this current time to help us in the constant war between real music & bu11$#!+.” That isn’t self-censorship, but rather a reference to Bass D’s song “Real Music vs. BULL$#!+.” The sequel to that track is one of six new songs included on the deluxe edition. The original track samples someone declaring, “Real music’s gonna last. All that other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow.” Dwight Spitz is a testament to that statement.

Though he had previously recorded hip-hop with live instrumentation, Count lost his major label deal with Sony long before 2002 and, as he put it, “I didn’t have the money to record traditional instruments correctly.” Instead, he used the AKAI S-3000 and MPC-2000 to create an entirely sample-based sound that is as engrossing and smoothly connected as other well loved sample-based records like Endtroducing….., Since I Left You and Donuts.

The following is an interview I conducted with Count Bass D over the telephone:

WESU: So, are you in Tennessee right now?

Count Bass D: No. Actually, I’ve lived in Atlanta, Georgia since the end of 2009.

W: Oh, OK. Because on Wikipedia it still says Tennessee. But that’s often pretty inaccurate.

C: Exactly. I didn’t do many interviews for a long time, so my Wikipedia page didn’t have information updated. That’s a reason why I started doing more interviews lately. There’s a lot of inaccurate information that I hear sometimes. So, I’d like to clear the air, and it’s a good idea to do interviews again.

W: I watched the documentary about you last night. One of the things I learned from that was that you were born August 25, 1973, around the time that hip-hop was invented by DJ Kool Herc. I actually got to see him perform recently. There was a concert in Central Park for the 40th anniversary of hip-hop. He was there. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane were also there, and a bunch of other people. It was really cool. So I was wondering, when did you first realize that connection?

C: Honestly, I started to realize it every day as I grew up. I just turned 40 a couple weeks ago. Every day of my life I would see more and more things that were centered around hip-hop. It became my race, more than just my culture. Hip-hop was everything to me. My favorite art was graffiti art. My favorite dancing was break dancing. Any time I saw anything on television or any magazine or anything that had to do with it, automatically, I was drawn to it. It’s always been that way, even up to now. I gravitate to and am automatically drawn toward things that have a heavy concentration of the culture and the art form of hip-hop.

W: Another thing you were talking about was this preacher stage persona that you have– that you based on ministers that you saw when you were growing up. Do you see a parallel between gospel and hip-hop?

C: I guess in some ways. Preachers speak what they’re saying and rappers speak what they’re saying. And a lot of times you have a microphone and an audience in front of you, and it’s your job to speak the words. And there’s music. As far as accompanying, preachers will have an organ behind them, you know, a drummer– a certain type of backing band behind them. And we have DJs behind us. It’s the same sort of dynamic so far as bringing motion out of people, and making them feel things, a call-and-response. Preachers will say, “Turn to your neighbor and do this.” And you might say, “Say ho, and throw your hands in the air.” A lot of soul musicians and black performers borrow from preachers that we saw growing up because that was a concert that we saw every week. A lot of people who don’t go to church now still have a foundation of that from when they were younger– from when they were in grade school up until junior high, and then at that point maybe they stopped going. But most people that are my age have some semblance of going to a traditional church, and by that I mean a real church, not a mega-church– the ones with the big productions and the slick pastors that we see today. People were more sincere about the religious aspect. Now, the religion has gotten a little away from the spirituality. So there are a lot of parallels that I see, at least for myself.

W: You say that you are making music for yourself. And one of the funnier parts of the documentary, I thought, was when you were saying that you have the snobbiest, most bourgeois taste of anyone out there (laughter). When you’re making music, do you have something in mind that you’re aiming for, or are you just creating, and as you go along you say, “Yeah, I like that”?

C: It’s all about feeling and personal opinion. You know, when people go shopping, they say, “I like this shirt. I don’t like that shirt.” For me, musically, it’s the same way. It’s just a feeling that I’m looking for that the music gives me. That’s what I mean by snobby taste. If I can tell that it’s been put together just for the sole purpose of selling a lot or if it’s just for the sole purpose of sounding good in a strip club, a lot of the time that music doesn’t do much for me. Sometimes it does, though. It depends. It’s just a feeling. I’m looking for a loop that goes back to that essence of original hip-hop music. With my music, it’s really just a personal preference. That’s why I’m surprised when people tell me how much they like my music because I’m not making it with other people in mind. When you make yourself a mixtape and you say, “I’m gonna put these songs on here to go on the road. Because I’ve got a long trip, I’m gonna make myself a cool playlist to put into my iPod,” right? That’s your personal preference, you know. So now imagine if someone got a hold of that personal playlist, and a whole bunch of people were like, “Yeah, yeah. I want that mix. I want that mix. I want that mix.” You’d be pretty shocked, too because you just put down some songs that would entertain you. It’s your personal preference on your trip, you know. And so that’s kind of how I make the music. It’s something that would entertain me, that I really would like to hear. And I guess because I’ve listened to so much music, and have critiqued music for so long, there’s a common bond with other listeners out there. The music translates. So that’s the good part. I tell you, doing this interview is a great thing for me because one of my best friends just got in contact with me again last week from high school. He went to Wesleyan. And my spiritual adviser from when I was in Nashville, Reverend Edwin C. Sanders– he went to Wesleyan. And I remember when I was in high school, probably in 1990, I visited the college. I went there for a weekend, and, I’m telling you, it was the best weekend. I’ve been on tour, I’ve been all over the place, I’ve been everywhere, but still, that weekend was one of the greatest weekends of my entire life. Any time that school comes up in conversation, I tell people that’s one of my favorite colleges. That’s my dream college to go to if I could have, but, you know, when I was in high school, even though I was going to a great high school, my mind was elsewhere– really just on music and the background I had just come from. I didn’t really understand what it took to get into a university, and I didn’t have the discipline. I wouldn’t have lasted anyway. But I think it’s a great institution, and so when I was asked, “Would you do the interview?” I heard it was Wesleyan, no question about it. That’s why I did it.

Read rest of the interview after the jump

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Afropunk Day 2: The Coup, Death, Danny Brown & Chuck D

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The Coup’s Silk-E and Boots Riley

We had mixed feelings about Day 1 of Afropunk. Day 2 on the other hand was one of the most musically and politically stimulating days that I have been fortunate enough to experience.

DSC_0034The day started off with The Coup‘s leader Boots Riley announcing to the audience, “We came to funk you hard. That’s easy to do. Sometimes we funk you softly… The sweet angel of revolution whispering in your ear. What does that sound like? I don’t know. I don’t believe in angels. But if I did, it would probably sound like this…” Their set did not disappoint. One highlight was the song “5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.” off 2001′s Party Music. Boots introduced the song as a cover of a traditional song he once heard Paul Robeson perform.

DSC_0043Boots then presented the group’s “fiery femme fatale” Silk-E, who began a powerful soul singing showcase by saying, “We ain’t gonna talk about. We just gonna do it.”

DSC_0047The band ended their set with an “oldie but a goodie,” “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” from their second album, 1994′s Genocide & Juice. The song, an outstanding example of hip-hop storytelling, follows a small time hustler, who learns that the real hustlers are corporate executives. Boots stepped back to allow the band’s guitar player B’nai Rebelfront unleash a filthy solo, followed by bassist J.J. Jungle doing some literal acrobatics during his own solo.

Death's Bobbie Duncan, Bobby and Dannis Hackney

Death’s Bobbie Duncan, Bobby and Dannis Hackney

The next performance we took in was from Death, a group from Detroit, who like fellow hometown hero Rodriguez was unfairly lost to obscurity before recent documentaries (A Band Called Death and Searching for Sugar Man respectively) brought the artists renewed interest and recognition.

DSC_0065DSC_0067DSC_0068Death’s unique style of protopunk was just as powerful now as it must have been in the band’s brief original career from 1971-1976. They dedicated one of their songs to David Hackney (who died of lung cancer in 2000), brother to bassist Bobby and drummer Dannis, and the group’s original guitar player.

DSC_0112DSC_0101Danny Brown was one of Afropunk’s biggest crowd-pleasers. He played some (presumably) new material from his upcoming Old album. He also returned to 2011′s critcally-acclaimed XXX, performing “Monopoly” and “Blunt After Blunt,” and leading the crowd in the unabashed ode to cunnilingus, “I Will.”

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Closing out the day for us was Chuck D, who wore a KRS-One t-shirt and performed with what he called Elements of Public Enemy or Too Much Posse. Like The Coup and Death, Chuck D demonstrated an incredible amount of energy for a veteran performer. He tossed and swung the mic, throwing it up in the air and catching it like he a quarterback passing to a wide receiver.

DSC_0181The musicians backing him up were no slouches either. He introduced drummer T-Bone Motta by asking, “Can the drummer get wicked?” That he did. Also on stage was a member of Public Enemy‘s legendary production crew, The Bomb Squad, Hank Shocklee (Chuck called him “King” Shocklee). Davy DMX, who worked as writer, producer, and DJ for early hip-hop acts Kurtis Blow, Lovebug Starski and Run-D.M.C., played bass. Guitarist Khari Wynn laid down a solo Jimi Hendrix-style by using his teeth.

DSC_0185This set was about more than just the music. Chuck D soon got into the politics that Public Enemy is known for, saying that there are “more check to check, ain’t making a check black people than ever… I ain’t talking for long, but every word I say is gonna be a motherfucker.” The group played “Black Steel In The First World” off 1988′s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us BackChuck D then said, “J. Edgar Hoover set out to destroy us as a people.” He called out radio stations Hot 97 and Power 105 for playing “hate music,” or, as he put it, “Hoover music.”

Next, he addressed a subject that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. In my interview with Thoth & Lila’Angelique, we talked about how people are turning into cyborgs, constantly immersing themselves in technology, rather than connecting with other human beings. And in the recently released film, The World’s End, a group of reunited high school friends battle robots in a commentary on the insidious place of technology in our society. Chuck D said that there are going to have to be “medical services for people who keep their heads at a 45 degree angle… Be smarter than your phone. Don’t be a dumb motherfucker with a smart phone. Forget about Big Brother out to get you, people are signing up to help Big Brother.” Then he turned to the corporate suits that control the hip-hop industry, asking, “Who said it was the home of hip hop [a reference to Hot 97's motto "Where Hip-Hop Lives"]? A bunch of motherfuckers in offices, who said they could take this shit from you. The air is the last battleground. They’ve been hating on the originators of this beautiful art form… Reclaim your air. Every city in this country needs to play local artists. Man up, local artists. We are rebellious with our homage to the people and black music, which unites people all over the world.”

DSC_0210Chuck D began the most dramatic section of his performance by asking, “What did James Brown say? “Papa’s got a brand new bag.” I ain’t James Brown, but I salute him every day, cuz I’m black and I’m proud.” He then took out a bag full of magazines and newspapers, along with a barbecue lighter. First up was Rolling Stone, which he called out for not writing about real musicians. “Fuck Rolling Stone. Don’t talk about real music.” Next up was the New York Post. When it comes to hip-hop and black people, “bad news is the only news.” They got burned, along with some other publications that Chuck D considered bad for the people.

That wasn’t the end, though. Chuck went on to say, “I don’t like the way we’ve allowed radio stations to talk bad about our mothers, our daughters, our sisters. They’ve disrespected the classic artists: DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash…” Then came one of Public Enemy’s best and most well known songs, “Fight The Power,” which he introduced by saying, “We went right to a Klan rally in ’97 and played this song…” Next, he paid tribute to his DJ, DJ Lord, asking, “Before there was an MC, who’d we pay attention to? The DJ. DJs were gods.” DJ Lord then displayed some virtuosic skills on the turntables. Concluding the show, Chuck D said, “You hold this microphone like an instrument. You don’t give a microphone to a motherfucker who can’t, like Rakim says, move the crowd… I don’t smoke shit. I don’t drink. But I smoke the fucking stage.” Few in the audience could have disagreed with that statement.

-Jesse Brent and Adam Wechsler

Afropunk Day 1: Corporate Punk and The Skins

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The Skins guitarist Daisy Spencer

The consumerist appropriation of punk rock occurred early on in its history. As The Clash put it in “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”: “The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned/They got Burton suits, ha, you think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money.” The website for the Afropunk Festival states, “the word AFROPUNK itself has become synonymous with open-minded, non-conforming and unconventional, placing the institution at the epicenter of urban culture inspired by alternative music.” Undeniably, the Festival has a great lineup, and a strong emphasis on diversity and artists with a political message. Unfortunately, Afropunk is also a corporate-sponsored event, which relies on companies like Red Bull and Absolut Vodka to keep the price of admission free. That corporate sponsorship undermines the admirable political messages of artists like Chuck D and The Coup. It also means that the speakers are turned up to unreasonable volumes (for some reason this always, in my experience at least, is the case at corporate-sponsored concerts), making the entire Commodore Barry Park deafening. And security guards in tuxedos (whoever made that costume decision for the month of August is a real jerk) guard the entrances. These might seem like small bones to pick, but it does leave the festival with a bit to be desired, especially when (on day one at least) some of the acts sounded like imitators of Korn, and DJs, at extreme volumes inexplicably ruined songs like “Billy Jean” and “All About the Benjamins” by altering them with discordant electronic effects.

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Siblings Kaya, Reef & Bayli Mckeithan

Fortunately, there was at least one group that straight-up rocked, playing a strong, high energy set of blistering punk/soul/hip-hop. The Skins are a group of mostly teenagers (and three of them are siblings) from Brooklyn. Adam and I caught up with the group’s lead singer, Bayli Mckeithan after their show. Bayli led the group in a cover of Kanye West‘s “Black Skinhead,” and introduced some of the band’s songs by yelling out, “We are all artists!” and “This is dedicated to all my soldiers. Not military soldiers, per se, but just soldiers.” This is definitely a young band to keep an eye on. Talking to Bayli made me feel a bit curmudgeonly for my thoughts in the previous paragraph. The whole experience has been fun and awesome for her, and the band, and it’s hard to see things otherwise when watching them perform or talking to them.

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WESU: How long have you been playing together?

Bayli: Just coming up on two years actually now.

WESU: Where are you from?

Bayli: We’re from Brooklyn. I live ten minutes from here. And my siblings, the bass player and the drummer, we all live together.

WESU: Did you always play music together as a family?

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Bayli: We always jammed, and that’s how the band started. We always jammed together in my basement, which is where we rehearse now. And then Daisy and Russell, we met. We always used to see each other at school, and then we met there.

WESU: What school?

Bayli: The School of Rock. It’s a real thing.

WESU: Are you signed to anybody?

Bayli: Well, we’re talking to labels.

WESU: Major labels?

Bayli: We’re talking to major and indie labels. That will probably be happening very soon. That’s what we’re excited about.

WESU: Have you released anything yet?

Bayli: We released an EP when we first started– maybe a year and a half ago. We’ve done a lot of singles and some videos. And we’re going to be releasing another EP, I think, in the coming months.

WESU: I loved your cover of “Black Skinhead.” That was so cool.

WESU: Yeah, definitely ballsy. Better than the recording.

Bayli: That’s so sweet. Thank you. We love Yeezus. We used to cover “Mercy” up until today. I guess we just love Kanye.

WESU: Would you say that you’re a punk band, or how would you classify yourself?

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Bayli with guitarist Russell Chell

Bayli: I would definitely say that we have the rock foundation. We’re a rock band. But we try to incorporate all these genres that we listen to, like punk, jazz, soul, of course classic rock and hip-hop. We try to mesh all those together.

WESU: Who would you say your biggest influences are?

Bayli: I love Amy Winehouse. As a band, we love Jane’s Addiction and Led Zeppelin, Sabbath. A lot of classic rock guys. We love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Shit like that. Vocally, I love ’30s and ’40s jazz singers like Nat King Cole, Sarah VaughanI just really like jazz singers. Soul singers, of course, like Aretha Franklin. Janis, of course.

WESU: So have you been singing your whole life?

Bayli: I only really started singing a few years ago. Like I said, we all went to music school. I started taking guitar lessons. We had these recitals, and I would see someone have a cover show of The Beatles or Bob Marley. So I started singing there maybe three or four years ago. I heard Gladys Knight‘s “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination.” That inspired me to start singing.

WESU: Anyone here that you’re a big fan of?

Bayli: The Heavy. They just played. We toured with them. They’re the only band we ever toured with. We’ve done a US tour, cross country. They’re awesome. Definitely Le1f. I love Le1f. He was awesome. There are a lot of great great great bands. London Souls. There are some really great bands here. I’m so lucky to be playing.

WESU: I never heard of you until today, but we loved your show.

Bayli: We’re relatively new still, I guess. And I guess we’re just trying to get out there. Since two years, we’ve come so far. Literally, we were starting in the basement. And we just came back from LA, playing for writers and producers. So I feel very lucky. It’s been a really fun experience. And I know it’s going to get more amazing.

WESU: Are you doing anything other than music?

Bayli: I’m an art student. I go to Pratt Institute. And I’ve been to art school my entire life. I still paint when I have time. Mostly, we’re all into music.

WESU: Are you the oldest sibling?

Bayli: No. We have an older sibling. She’s not in the band. I’m nineteen. My sister who’s the bass player, Kaya just turned eighteen. My brother is fourteen years old, our drummer.

WESU: So are all of you teenagers?

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Bayli: Russell, one of our guitarists, he’s twenty-one.

WESU: Do you have a Soundcloud or website?

Bayli: Our website is theskinsband.com.

WESU: You designed this yourself (Bayli is wearing overalls with beads glued on in the shape of an upside down cross on the back)?

Bayli: I did this last night. So that was fun. My mother was like, “You should put an upside down cross on the back.” So that’s my mom. I will not take credit. It was so fun playing here. I love it here. Awesome atmosphere. I guess all festivals are.

-Jesse Brent and Adam Wechsler

Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu

Timbuktu has been a crossroads for trade and civilizations since its establishment in the twelfth century. The Saharan town has been claimed consecutively by the wealthy Mali Empire (which lasted from the 13th to the 17th century), the Islamic Empire of Songhai (that spread throughout West Africa), various Tuareg tribes, the Saadi dynasty of Morocco, the French, and finally the current Republic of Mali. As a result of these constant political upheavals, Timbuktu is home to a rich and diverse mixture of cultures. This cultural mixture was recently under threat from the conflict that took place following the Tuareg rebellion of January 2012. Since then, the Tuareg rebel group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), radical Islamists (both homegrown and from abroad), the region’s former colonial rulers (the French), and the Mali Republic itself have fought in a violent struggle that, though now resolved, has left many residents of the region as refugees.

The most recent Tuareg rebellion was only the latest in a series dating back to the creation of the Malian state in 1960. The state itself is a creature of the carelessness of transition from the colonial era. The Saharan region of Mali (called Azawad by Tuareg) has a unique history and culture, separate from that of the more prosperous southern region. Azawad has been persistently impoverished and war-torn, and many of its residents have spent significant periods in refugee camps. Though Azawadians have suffered from economic and political oppression, their music continues to flourish. Whether as a rallying cry for rebellion or simply a part of daily routine and relaxation, music has always played an essential role in Timbuktu. So one of the most shocking and horrible results of the Islamist takeover of Timbuktu was the ban placed on music. Mohamed Issa ag Oumar of the group Imharhan told the New York Times, “The occupiers made all kinds of threats, that they would chop off your hand so you couldn’t play, or cut out your tongue so you couldn’t sing…so if my guitar couldn’t stay, I decided I would split town, too.”

The annual Festival au Désert began in 2001. The liner notes for Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu state that the festival’s “mission has been to bring cross cultural exchange to economically develop this desert region. These recordings are a testament to the brave efforts of Festival organizers to use culture as a means of nonviolent reconciliation.” The Festival, which normally takes place each year in January, had to be postponed this year due to the conflict throughout the region. Because of the issues in the Azawad area, Tuareg groups Tartit and Imharhan, along with Mamadou Kelly, a Bambara musician, also born in Northern Mali, traveled to the United States to tour as a “caravan for peace,” bringing the Festival au Désert with them in exile.

Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is a compilation of performances from last year’s Festival, which took place just three months before the imposition of Sharia law in northern Mali. As the Festival’s founding organizer Manny Ansar writes in the album’s liner notes, “Music has no borders, no prohibitions and… it is a common good of humanity in which one can delight beyond any other considerations… The healthy meeting of cultures is the oldest weapon and today the most appropriate in the face of the violence and intolerance that increasingly immerse our world.” Many musicians still live displaced from their native land in refugee camps in Mauritania and Burkina Faso. In spite of the fear of violent reprisals for musical performance, musicians in the region are determined to continue expressing their culture and traditions.

Many different musical styles are represented in this compilation. Ali Farka Toure, the legendary guitarist from Northern Mali, whose music blended traditional Malian music with the blues, was honored by the Ali Farka Toure Allstars featuring Mamadou Kelly, who perform “Adibar.” Igbayen, an all male traditional chorus, back up a griot singer, “who tells the legend and history of the Tuareg people and their life with the Sahara” (description from the liner notes) on a song known only as “Traditional Chant.” Exemplifying the cross-cultural pollination made possible through musical collaboration, the song “Mustt Mustt” is a collaboration between Kiran Alhuwalia, an Indian-Canadian singer of Qawwali, a style of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia, and Tinariwen, the Tuareg group that invented the genre of “desert blues” and spawned thousands of devotees and imitators both in their own region and throughout the world. The compilation is dedicated to the memory of Koudede, a musician from Niger, who died ten months after performing at the Festival. Other highlights include “Super Onze” by Douma Maiga, “a master of the traditional Takamba style” (again thank you liner notes!), which is popular in the Azawad city of Gao. Maiga plays the ngoni, an instrument that dates back to at least the fourteenth century, and evolved into the banjo when slaves brought it from West Africa to North America. This connection has been acknowledged by one of the most well-known American banjo players, Bela Fleck. On “Les femmes sont belles,” Habib Koite asks the audience “Est-ce que ça va?” (“How’s it going?”) before performing a laid back song that sounds at once traditional and current. In spite of the violence that soon followed, his performance is a warm breath of optimism and a reminder that there is a great cultural tradition in northern Mali that will survive the violence of fanatics.

-Jesse Brent

Daora: Underground Sounds of Urban Brazil: Hip-Hop, Beats, Afro and Dub

Daora was released on June 3rd by Mais Um Discos, a deliberately eclectic label, which specializes in Brazilian music, but is based in London. This compilation is not concerned with presenting a thorough picture of any of the many Brazilian scenes that it covers. Rather, as its title (Daora means “something that’s dope” in Sao Paolo) indicates, Daora shares the Brazilian music scene’s dopest gems– and there happens to be quite a few of them. Rodrigo Brandao put together the compilation, and his list of past collaborators– Tony Allen, The Roots, Prince Paul, various artists off the Ninja Tune roster– gives a good idea of his taste: Afrobeat, hip-hop rooted in jazz and funk, and thinking man’s electronic music.

Brandao cites both Big Boi and Arthur Verocai as influences on today’s breed of Brazilian innovators. Why shouldn’t the two go together? Verocai, whose lone 1972 solo album was first released in obscurity and later became highly sought after for obsessive record collectors, has been sampled by DOOM, whose Stones Throw labelmate Madlib has also professed his appreciation for the record. Between American and Brazilian music, it’s often hard to say who influenced whom. Of course, the Tropicalia movement of the 60s and 70s took cues from American and British psychedelia, but it twisted the music in new and exciting ways, melding it with traditional Brazilian music and inventing new innovations. Since then, Western artists like Stereolab and Beck have paid homage to Os Mutantes and others from that scene.

This is a 32-track compilation that somehow has very little in the way of weak moments.  Among the highlights are “Vestido De Prata,” a laid back reggae-psych track by Curumin (real name Luciano Albuquerque), a musician from Sao Paolo, who plays the cavaquinho, an ancient Portuguese variant on the guitar. “Balboa Da Silva” is fast-paced, funky Afrobeat performed by Bixiga 70, who take their name from the Sao Paolo neighborhood of Bixiga, which is home to immigrant populations from Italy and Africa, as well as displaced Brazilians from the Northeast. Anelis Assumpção‘s “Not Falling” first seems like a rare misfire, starting off as slow-burning dub before building up to a raucous dancehall finish in its last minute. It’s really hard to find fault with much here. The music is at once familiar and exciting– it builds off established genres, but does not repeat clichés. It fits into the long and outstanding tradition of Brazilian music.

-Jesse Brent

Thoth & Lila’Angelique: A WESU Interview

Thoth & Lila'Angelique performing at the Angel Tunnel in Central Park on July 24

Thoth & Lila’Angelique prayforming at the Angel Tunnel in Central Park on July 24

The prayformance of Thoth & Lila’Angelique is a truly unique experience. The two (together calling themselves Tribal Baroque) prayform every Wednesday-Sunday (weather permitting) in Central Park’s Angel Tunnel in New York from 3-5 PM. Thoth first showed up on my radar eleven years ago when I recall reading an interview with him around the time when a documentary about his life, Thoth won an Academy Award. Since then, I’ve accidentally stumbled into the audience of his (and Lila’s) prayformances three times, and been blown away each time. I was able to interview both of them over the phone yesterday.

What do you guys do on your days off from performing?

Lila’Angelique: We usually do all the things that we can’t do when we’re performing. We do our laundry. We rest. We work on things. Thoth works on Photoshop a lot.

Thoth: On our days off we get ready for our prayformance. We prepare our costumes. We do a lot of study and quiet time. Some times we treat ourselves to a nice meal (laughter).

Do you go out for food or do you cook yourself?

T: We cook our food most of the week, but on our days off we save money to go out, and have a nice romantic meal. We’re going to have a treat tomorrow. We also buy things that get us through the week. [Before our prayformances], we have smoothies so that we can sustain our energy throughout the day. We don’t eat anything…

Really? All day long?

T: Yeah, all day.

So just one smoothie gets you through the day?

T: Yes…. And also, the world is so… You learn to eat too much. And the reason you do is because everyone is selling food and they’re advertising really hard to people, so you have three meals a day, but you can [survive on just] a little snack. We have our snack bars right after the prayformance, and then we have a meal of whatever we feel like later. Usually [something] simple when we’re doing the prayformance five days [out of the week].

I was going to ask about your prayformance. I watched the documentary about you last night, and I know that at the time you were doing a solopera, which was all about this mythology and about a hermaphrodite. Correct?

T: I still do that.

Is there new material though that you’re working on now?

T: The new material is ours.

L: Yeah, we’ve created new material. Together we don’t do the solopera. He does the solopera every day, but we’re creating our opera.

And what’s your opera about?

L: Love and devotion.

T: They’re more miniature and more individual. They’re more thematic, whereas The Herma [his solopera] was more various chapters of an epic.

Is it still in the same world as your solopera though? Festad [Festad is the mythological world that Thoth invented]?

T: No. I can’t say it’s the same world because Festad is mythic, and we’re dealing with love and devotion and the paradigm of the movement to being.

What about the language, because I know you invented your own language. What is the language you are using now?

T: We’re still using invented language.

 So, how complex is this language? Does it have its own grammar?

T: My language has its own grammar, but what we do together is a little more simpler, more improvised.

L: His has 252 characters. We’re basically starting from the ground up again together. He built his own language and his own opera, and we’re building our own opera and our own language. His whole thing was his personal thing. He’s my teacher and he’s teaching me all the things that he learned, but now we’re building up our own thing. And we’re making an opera about how we met each other and how our lives have been. And that’s very epic too.

Can you tell me at all about that? How you met?

L: I met him in New York in the Angel Tunnel in 2008. I saw him a few times. I saw him on America’s Got Talent just in passing, and I saw him in the Tunnel and I didn’t think much of him at first. And then I saw him again, and I was really just head over heels in love basically from the moment I heard him sing, and I ran up to him, and, “Oh my God, you’re a counter tenor!” And he was really impressed that I knew that word, and I started dancing with him, and then I started singing with him. And after that winter, we teamed up and started playing together, and have been ever since.

So are you a trained opera singer?

L: Yeah. I studied to be an opera singer. That’s what I wanted to do. And then I met Thoth and realized he was making his own opera. And I found that more interesting than what I was doing singing old dead peoples’ music. That we could create our own music—I really liked that idea.

Read the rest of the interview after the jump

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me opened on July 3 at the IFC Center in New York and is now playing throughout the country in select independent theaters. The film is a documentary about one of the greatest bands that never made it big, the unfortunately named, Big Star. The documentary opens with one of the defining moments of Big Star’s career, a concert they played in front of music critics from all over the country, who had gathered in Memphis for the supposed reason of organizing a union of music critics. However, the organizers of this event secretly intended to bring attention to a little known Memphis group, namely Big Star. It worked, at least to some extent. One of the critics interviewed for the film recalls with bemused surprise that she even saw critics dancing at the concert.

Big Star are, in a sense, the ideal pop group for music critics– smart, contagious pop music that you can dance to without feeling embarrassed. Alex Chilton, Big Star’s best known band member once said, “Most of the Big Star stuff was searching for how to get through two verses without saying anything really stupid.” That might be selling the group a bit short. Chilton was notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude toward the band that he would be most associated with throughout his prolific, if scattered, and at times sloppy career. Three years before he died in 2010, Chilton summed up his opinion on the group that he was constantly asked about in interviews: “I’m not as crazy about them as a lot of Big Star cultists seem to be. I think they’re good, but then again, I think Slade records are good, too.” Another critic admitted that Big Star was a group that critics didn’t want to share with the world. Instead, they preferred to keep them for themselves: the little band that everybody liked.

Part of the reason for the group’s lack of success was simply bad luck. Signed to Ardent, a local Memphis label tied to the more well known Stax, the band’s records received distribution by Columbia, but the corporate executives in New York cared little for this pop band from Memphis. They weren’t heavy enough for the ’70s rock scene, and they were from Memphis, a town much better known for its soul music than its rock scene. Though they received rave reviews in places like Rolling Stone, many towns didn’t even carry the band’s records in their stores or give them radio play. In the pre-Internet age, this meant that there simply was no way for the average music fan to hear their music. The band, and in particular, the band’s founder, Chris Bell, desperately wanted the adoration received by their heroes, like The Beatles. That adoration came, but not while the band was still around. In gushing interviews, musicians from bands such as Hot Chip, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Cheap Trick (whose cover of Big Star’s “In The Street” is the theme song for That 70′s Show), R.E.M., and, of course, The Replacements (whose song “Alex Chilton” introduced many of their fans to Big Star) speak of their fondness for the band, and the influence of Big Star on their own music.

Unfortunately, the delayed adoration was little solace for Bell, who left the band after the group’s first record, the hopelessly optimistically titled #1 Record. Bell is the truly tragic figure of the film. Chilton, though far better known, comes off as self-obsessed and spottily brilliant–the kind of guy it might be fun to share a drink with, but not necessarily work with every day (Big Star producer Jim Dickinson recalls at the beginning of the film seeing Chilton tripping on acid as a pre-teen and thinking that he was in for an interesting life– that’s certainly true, but he seemed to lack the emotional depth of Bell). Bell was tormented by several things– first of all by the fact that #1 Record was a flop, selling fewer than 10,000 copies. The reviews, though positive, concentrated mostly on Chilton’s role in the band. Chilton had previously served as lead vocalist for The Box Tops, a more traditional blue-eyed soul group from the late 60s, who had a hit with “The Letter,” a song that features a teenaged Chilton with an almost impossibly deep sounding baritone. Perhaps most significantly, Bell was (probably) gay. This is a fact that is hinted at several times during the film, though never declared outright. His gayness was certainly never referenced in the group’s music, or Bell’s later solo output. Bell’s brother recalls that Chris turned to Jesus, as well as drugs in order to distract himself from issues with his “sexuality.” Coming from a wealthy family in the south during the era before homosexuality became more or less accepted in this country, Bell must have felt deeply guilty (some have even suggested that he was in love with Chilton, though that remains the realm of rumor and hearsay).

In the midst of a deep depression, Bell’s brother took him to Europe, where he took the haunting cover photo of Bell’s lone solo record, I Am the Cosmos. Bell stands with snow covered mountains in the background, looking very cool in a jean jacket and sunglasses, but also lost in his own troubled thoughts. One of Bell’s friends from school tears up when discussing that album’s title track. It is a song that would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Bell was a very serious person, who felt things intensely. Chilton was his opposite. Though Chilton’s song “Holocaust” off Big Star’s last album Third/Sister Lovers may actually be one of the saddest songs ever written, it is a song about lack of feeling, rather than the overflowing feeling that Bell experienced. Bell’s sister admits that she, like Chilton, does not understand the cultish following that Big Star has received since the band broke up. She would rather have her brother alive than the music that he left behind. Bell became a member of the 27 Club (along with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain), dying in a one-man car crash. Perhaps most tragic of all, the local newspaper reported his death as that of the “son of a restauranteur,” rather than the founder of one of the most beloved bands of American rock history.

Big Star’s story is a good one, filled with characters like Dickinson, whose wife sweetly recalls the time that Bob Dylan visited his eccentrically designed trailer park home (complete with Otis Redding‘s “decomposing” grand piano, on which he wrote “Dock of the Bay”) and said, “Jim, you must get a lot of thinking done here,” to which Jim replied, “Bob, I think all the time.” However, the film does not have much ambition to do anything besides simply report the facts. There are no experimental flourishes, or mythologizing, as in the more memorable Rodriguez documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Luckily, the story and Big Star’s music are good enough to stand alone. The most interesting and emotional segments of the film are those dedicated to the lesser known bandleader, Bell. The movie falters somewhat when discussing the years after Bell died, going into unnecessary detail about Chilton’s post-Big Star output. Nevertheless, it’s a film well worth seeing, especially for those interested in Big Star or the history of alternative music.

-Jesse Brent