Thursday, September 18, 2008

Album Review: A Filial-$1.99

What do you get when you take the aggressive, tough mentality of Rio de Janeiro, the rhythm, flavor, and style of Brazilian samba, and the dance-floor shaking, hard-driving sensibility of American hip-hop? A Filial, Rio’s homegrown hip-hop posse that celebrates Brazilian culture while fusing it with hip-hop to incorporate it into a mainstream sound. Their first American full-length album, $1.99, is set to hit record stores nationwide December 15, 2008 on Verge Records.

Fifties bossa nova mixed samba with jazz, sixties tropic├ília mixed samba with rock, and A Filial mixes Brazilian roots music and other world influences with hip hop. On $1,99, with the group’s percussionist Rodrigo Pacato, A Filial explores the unmistakable rhythms and harmonies of Northeastern Brazil and the new spirit of Rio’s old samba spots.

Rapping in English as well as Portuguese, A Filial simultaneously is recognizable and foreign to the average American hip-hop fan. Their beats draw from American influences like the Beastie Boys and NWA, as well as Brazilian macaratu. They mix the two worlds of sound perfectly to create a soundscape that’s delightfully danceable and downright funky.

A Filial came out of Rio’s skateboarding scene and a hip hop circle known as the Hemp Family. “Our first tape was made using a Playstation, a karaoke set, a $10 mic, a toy that made music, and a used cassette,” founding MC Edu Lopes recalls. “We wanted to develop a hip hop sound that was more regionally based.” The following year a track was licensed to the skateboard brand Agac├¬ for their “Todos Ouvidos” or “All Heard” compilation.

Now A Filial is releasing their first album, growing in popularity internationally, and growing together as a group. Their sound incorporates influences and styles from all over the world, so as they grow and travel to new places, expect their sound to continue to grow as well.

A Filial Myspace

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Album Review: Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko-Africa to Appalachia

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko's new album, Africa to Appalachia released September 9th by, is a beautiful display of uniquely original composition that bridges continental gaps to speak the universal language of music. Jayme Stone, an award winning Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, a griot kora master and vocalist, collaborate to create a heterogeneous yet familial mix of sounds that achieves a deep beauty and character.

Africa to Appalachia spans continents to create a sound all its own. Featuring African instruments like the kora and ngoni alongside the banjo, fiddle, and guitar, the ensemble finds an extremely comfortable common denominator and explores the possibilities therein. Mansa Sissoko's African vocals dip and glide much like bluegrass fiddler Casey Dreissen's solos, and the banjo blends perfectly with the kora to provide a seamless harmony. The polyrhythms, syncopation and bended pitches that define bluegrass all come from their African heritage, so it's no real surprise the two musical cultures speak the same language so effortlessly.

Many people think of the internet or phonographic recording devices as the means of globalization's effect on music cultures, but the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade predates them both. The banjo is a descendant of West African instruments like the ngoni, akonting, and xalam. It was first played by African Slaves in the American South and Appalachia. The genres in which the banjo has traditionally thrived, bluegrass, early jazz, and especially the minstrel shows of the 19th century, all trace part of their lineage back to Africa as well.

Jayme Stone, who has employed an expansive musical worldview throughout his career, traveled to Mali, West Africa to explore the roots of his instrument in 2007. He traveled the country and studied with African string masters Toumani Diabate, Bassekou Kouyate, and of course, Mansa Sissoko. It was in Sissoko that he found a partner with which to collaborate. The two used the universal language of music to connect and get to know each other's history, "With little common language between us, we turned to music for communication," Stone reflects. "This tangible heart-to-heart connection was there immediately and I knew that he was the perfect collaborator for the project."

Sissoko descends from a revered line of griots, or family line of musicians, historians, and dispute settlers, that date back hundreds of years to the Mande Empire. Griots play a special role in African culture, similar to the one musicians play in American culture. "The griot is someone who is there to play the role of blood in the society, for the society to live," says Sissoko, "He gives life to the society, musically, using carefully chosen words."

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko have given the world a gift by simultaneously creating a beautiful collection of music and giving testament to music's ability to bridge gaps, facilitate cultural dialogue, and bring people together. This album is a continuation of the cross-cultural exchange that was started in the 15th century. It was made possible by other musical works that have explored the history of African-American music and it will inspire others in the future. They'll be performing at Drom in the East Village on October 9th. Judging by their album, their live show should be even more captivating, so definitely check them out.

Jayme Stone Myspace

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Burning Spear Interview

Burning Spear is a music industry legend. He released his first album thirty-five years ago after Bob Marley discovered him in a field and introduced him to Studio One. He's since released fifty-one records, starred in a feature film, been nominated for eleven grammies, and won one. He's touring the US in support of his latest album, Jah is Real out August 17th on Burning Music Productions. I had the privilege of sitting down with the Spear before his concert last weekend at Irving Plaza.

The Afrobeat Blog: First of all, at 63 you do more than most people in their 20's. In the past year you've traveled to Africa, released an album on your own record label, where do you get your energy from?

Burning Spear: It varies, my energy is coming from the sun, my energy's coming from my mind, my heart, I try to focus. My energy's coming from all different directions.

The Afrobeat Blog: What was it like working with Bootsy Collins on your latest album?

Burning Spear: Working with Bootsy was very unique. I decided to do something different by bringing in Bootsy and Bernie. I did something on my album I never did before. I did a different thing changing up the instruments.

The Afrobeat Blog: Rockers is one of my favorite all-time films. How would you compare your story to that of Horsemouth from Rockers by taking on the record industry by yourself to change things for the better from the musicians' perspective?

Burning Spear: There's a lot of things that I can do today, and a lot of things I've done in earlier times, and those things come back to be a part of the mixture of what's going on today. There is a lot of improvement, I'm doing a lot of things for myself, I'm producing myself, I'm booking myself, I'm running my own business, I'm running my own label, Jah is Real is going to be my third release on my label, so there's a lot of difference and a lot of improvement.

The Afrobeat Blog: Do you plan on slowing up anytime soon? Another four, five albums? Do you plan on going as long as you can?

Burning Spear: I will always try to go to the studio and keep doing it as long as I can. Touring, I'll retire from touring, but I will use my discretion like when I'll do a show here and there, and that's about it.

The Afrobeat Blog: You've traveled all over the world playing music, most recently you were in Kenya, do you plan on going back to Africa again anytime soon?

Burning Spear: When the time is right. I went to Kenya in 2007, and it was very outstanding. I brought the people together for two to three hours, and everyone was enjoying themselves. The performance was properly supported by the people from Kenya, and when the time is right I will go back to Kenya or any other place in Africa when the time is right.

The Afrobeat Blog: Why do you think your music resonated so deeply with the people of Kenya on your trip?

Burning Spear: I think the people needed something like that at least for a couple of hours. Who knows what takes place after I leave, but at least when I was there everything was calm and the people came together as one people.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fela!-Show Review

Fela!, an offbroadway musical that runs through the end of September at 37 Arts Theater, celebrates the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti by bringing his music to life with captivating choreography, telling his story, and paying tribute to the legacy of his international protest voice. An ensemble cast of twenty-six actors, dancers, and musicians uses music, dance, video and still projections to tell stories from Fela's life. Sahr Ngaujah, who starred in the title role, has all of Fela's charisma and stage presence and then some. The creative choreography and set design paint a vivid picture of who Fela was and how he became the man we know today.

Bill T. Jones, a Tony award winning director and choreographer, Rikki Stein, Fela's former manager and the executor of his estate, and playwright Jim Lewis first met with Aaron Johnson and Victor Axelrod of Antibalas in the summer of 2006 to discuss their idea for the production. Later that year, Antibalas had a one day work session with the producers of the show and some dancers at which point they decided there was potential to pursue a show.

What they've come up with is an inventive, vibrant production that pays tribute to Fela's life by using his music to tell his story. The theater is setup to replicate The Shrine, Fela's home base nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria, with Antibalas taking the place of Afrika 70. When the show started, and Fela welcomed the audience to the Shrine, I thought to myself, "If everyone in the audience was dancing and ganja smoke filled the air, this would be just like the Shrine." Both things happened during the first act.

The story unfolds as musical numbers alternate with monologues and video projections to recap events from Fela's youth, adulthood and rise to fame. Major events from Fela's life up until the death of his mother are portrayed including Fela's college years in London, his trip to America and first marriage, the creation of his first band Koola Lobitos, one of his first encounters with the law (famously known as the "Expensive Shit" episode), his joint marriage of twenty-seven wives, and the attack on Kalakuta Republic.

Bill T. Jones is extremely successful in both paying homage to an internationally revered musical icon as well as introducing Fela to a new generation of people through this play. He introduces the different elements of Afrobeat by recounting the history of Fela's exposure to different styles of music in Africa, London, and the United States. The musical arrangements include the music of Fela's youth, highlife (as represented by an E. T. Mensah song--Medzi Medzi), big-band jazz (represented by Frank Sinatra), funk (James Brown), and cuban salsa. The rest of the show's music consists of Fela's most popular songs he recorded with Afrika 70 in the first half of his career including among others I.T.T., Water Get No Enemy, Shuffering and Smiling, Zombie, Sorrow Tears and Blood, and Coffin for Head of State.

Jones pays a special tribute to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela's mother from whom he inherited much of his rebellious spirit. She was an internationally recognized women's' rights activist who was the first African woman to drive a car and travel to China. She is portrayed as an angelic figure in the play and her death at the hands of the Nigerian Army is the pinnacle event of the production.

To include the complexity and complete scope of Fela's life and music would have taken much longer than a couple hours, so obviously major elements of Fela's life and musical repertoire were omitted. Major characters in his life such as his spiritual advisor Professor Hindu and his brother Beko did not appear at all. Much of the dancing performed by the female dancers, although extremely captivating and majestic, was not reminiscent of that which one would have seen at the Shrine in Lagos or at any other of Fela's performances around the world.

If you are a disciple of Fela and an avid Afrobeat fan, or you've never heard of him before and simply love good music and dancing, you'll love this show. Bill T. Jones and Antibalas do justice to the legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, one of the most dynamically prolific protest figures and musical icons in the history of the world, by celebrating his music and political message in a modern context. In a time where America could be on the verge of electing its first Black President, this play provides historical context to the international significance of Fela's legacy and its effect on contemporary culture.