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

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