Disc Review: Discover World Music/Various Artists

By Ernest Barteldes

When it comes to music, I am a bit of an omnivore – I listen to almost everything with the possible exception of gangsta rap or death metal (then there’s the music played at the gym, but my earphones have solved that). As far as I can remember, I have always listened to music from all over the world. In school, I remember being the only weirdo who not only knew who Harry Belafonte and Elizete Cardoso were (I’ll let you Google that one) but also knew a great part of their catalogues.

Lila Downs

Attending concerts at Summerstage and Celebrate Brooklyn deeply broadened my scope – it was there that I first heard groups like Babasonics (Argentina), Amadou & Mariam (Mali) and Lila Downs (Mexico), and I was also blessed to have been present for what turned out to be the final performance by Celia Cruz.

My time as a contributing writer for the now-defunct Global Rhythm magazine was also an eye-opener. I recall that every month the editors (some of whom I am still in touch with) would send the writers a list of records to review, and I would always pick stuff I was not really familiar with so I could learn a bit more about them – during those years, so much music reached me that it is almost overwhelming to think about it. After some time, I started reviewing live performances – one of the most funs was The Pogues, who played a St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Roseland Ballroom back in 2007. I recall that I was probably one of very few sober people in the room (I don’t drink much while covering shows, maybe a beer and that’s it – you can’t really rely on just your notes if you have too much to drink).

World Music is, however, a hard sell in America. Just a few months back I remember talking about Lila Downs to some co-workers and getting blank stares in return – even if some of them HAD watched Frida. Never mind that her shows are completely sold out in New York, and that is also true about stars like Bebel Gilberto, Malian blues guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Mexico’s Maná and Colombia’s Aterciopelados. From my experience, American audiences in general do not get ‘foreign’ music unless it is sung in English (one of the reasons why Shakira is big in the US and other Latin artists are not).

It’s not like folks don’t try –  World Music organizations and labels frequently bring artists stateside, but those shows are limited to centers like New York, Chicago (which hosts an annual festival every year during the summer), Los Angeles and Miami – some acts do make it as far as Phoenix but it’s not like they are filling halls in Topeka, KS.  I once had an argument with an editor who told me to stop pitching him African musicians – his readers (or he) were not interested – never mind that some of the acts were performing in one of the most popular concert venues in his town.

What would it take mainstream audiences who are not fans of NPR to pay attention? Maybe bringing everything together in a package would be a good start for World Music neophytes would be a good start – which brings us to Arc Music’s Discover World Music, a double CD that showcases different musicians from around the globe. Some are old favorites like Portugal’s fantastic guitarist Custódio Castelo, one of the most sought-out musicians in his country. He appears on “Inquietude,” a gorgeous instrumental piece that highlights his technique on the Portuguese guitar – the most important instrument in fado.  Brazilian music is also very present via Ceumar’s “Gotas do Norte,” a fine example of xaxado, a near-forgotten rhythm from the northeastern part of the country that has been pretty much dwarfed by more commercial fare I’d rather stay away from.

Other highlights include Egypt’s Hossam Ramzy, one of the most creative composers of his generation, and also Noel McLoughlin’s gorgeous “Song for Ireland,” a tune sung with so much passion that it gives you goose bumps even if you don’t have an Irish bone in your body.

Arc Music is one of these labels that always bring you something new – discovering their releases led me to learn about artists like Marta Gomez, Klezmer Juice and so many more. I really recommend you to get this one as your personal introduction to many other things out there.

Discover World Music

Various Artists

Arc Music

Disc Review: Altas/Tiempo de Bestias

By Ernest Barteldes

The band formerly known as Panal S.A. de C.V. (a  Colorado-based trio formed by Enrique Jimenez, Juan Carlos Flores and Israel Jimenez)  defines itself as an experimental instrumental band, but I see them as more than that. Their songs could easily lend themselves to extended jams that could go beyond the confines five or six minutes of the seven tracks on their (sort of debut) EP Época de Bestias.

 The album kicks off with “Altepetl,” a distortion-heavy rocker reminiscent of the early days of Black Sabbath with a touch of psychedelics. There are no virtuoso moments – guitars scream at you with gusto as to announce that the show has begun. Things move into a different direction with “Aokigahara,” a trippy tour-de-force  in which electronics plays a central role around  guitars and jazz-inflected drums. My personal favorite is “Black Sand,” a tune that is quite surprising. A gentle piano starts the song out, and then for a while the song evolves into a progressive-style ballad. Around the fifth minute things completely change and things become much heavier with a greater emphasis on guitar and drums.

“You Knew I Was A Snake” begins with a snippet of a Spanish-language oath of office of a Mexican president (not sure who that was, but by the sound it seems like something quite ancient) that introduces an uptempo number based mostly around keyboards.

I have run into band member Enrique Jimenez various times during the annual Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York City, but they have never (to the best of my knowledge) participated in any of the showcases. I think it is time for the organizers to give these guys a shot, because it is clear their time has come.

To purchase the album visit http://www.altasiscoming.com/

CD Review: Caetano Veloso’s “Abraçaço”

It took me a while for me to finally listen to this album, but it was worth the wait because I could get my mind off the cacophony around me so I could look at this without influence from anyone else.  For the third time, Caetano Veloso teams up with the youngsters of Bandacê to create what I would regard as a late-career masterpiece. For decades he relied on lavish arrangements (often under the direction of master cellist Jacques Morelembaum) and instead plays backed by a bare-bones quartet that is more indie-rock than samba. He still plays his bossa-inflected acoustic guitar, but his music is more visceral these days than it had been during his more commercial 70-80s days when he got British pop singer Richie to duet with him on the very radio-friendly “Shy Moon.” But I digress.

The Caetano I hear is closer to the guy I heard in the music he was writing in the late 60s and early 70s – the songs are highly biographical, and reflect memorable tunes like “É Proibido Proibir” or “Terra,” the latter being about a photo of the Earth seen from the perspective of someone who had been in jail for political reasons. This is evidenced by “Um Comunista,” a song that whose lyrics talk about the life and death of activist Carlos Mariguella, an activist who fought against the military dictatorship in Brazil and ended up assassinated by the police during an ambush. The tune also looks nostalgically at the dreams of the socialists of his era and the results today – one of the fighters is now president and no one seems to remember what the fight was about.

One of the most poignant tunes actually opens the album – “A Bossa Nova É Foda”(Bossa Nova Is The Bitch) – in just a few minutes, he looks at how the bossa movement changed his own perspective of music in spite of what “the poet from Minnesota” – a reference to Bob Dylan – could do to his writing. He seems angry at Joao Gilberto & Co. at times, but in the end he is grateful because they paved the way for him.

Many critics in Brazil derided the album as “too personal,” but what they missed is precisely that – I think Caetano doesn’t give a shit about what critics have to say. His real fans get him, and they will keep singing along to his songs even if the lyrics are somehow incomprehensible unless you understand his personal history.  Caetano has rediscovered his internal muse, and listening to him lay it like this is quite refreshing – even if you don’t understand the words.

Caetano Veloso

Abraçaço

Nonesuch

Welcome to Music Whatever – What is This About?

By Ernest Barteldes

After years of contributing to alt-weeklies around the country, I have found it more and more difficult to deal with editors these days.   For instance, about a year ago I had a discussion over the fact that one of my reviews did not contain background information on the artist – basically, he wanted my reviews to look like a Wikipedia entry. I respectfully disagreed because I felt that wasting space (which was already limited in the first place) was basically distancing the music review itself, but he just said that is what he wanted and we amicably parted ways.

Other publications have also become way too niche, focusing on a single genre instead of expanding things to make things interesting. I still write for a small number of these, and I feel that it is really constricting to write about an artist and then getting answers back that my article doesn’t quite fit their vision (without exactly telling me what the heck they want in the first place. Finally, there are other magazines that have gone ‘local’ and that no longer accept work from writers that do not reside in their area. I can’t really blame them for that one, because sometimes there is a struggling writer in say, Phoenix and here I am in New York taking his or her opportunity (I still occasionally write for said publications when they can’t find a local that can do the job properly). And then there are those editors who prefer to discover the next Justin Bieber instead of an African player who actually deserves to be heard but it is not palatable to a wide array of readers (I actually had a discussion with an editor about that, I am not making this up).

As someone who has been writing about music for such a long time, I feel that there is way too much music that has been overlooked because it doesn’t fit a certain profile or is not considered to be cutting-edge in some 23-year-old who somehow got the job as editor even though he or she could not put two sentences together with any coherence, so I have decided to start my own music page that will focus on these overlooked gems. Here I will post anything that I find interesting and that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. I will not focus on any specific genre, so you might find me writing about African music one day, New York jazz the other and Polish pop the next.

I have yet to figure out how I will be able to monetize on this, so don’t expect to see daily posts for now because I still have to make a living. Guest posts are welcome but until I find a way to make this lucrative, I cannot promise payment. I understand it sucks, but I don’t have a trust fund to draw from.

This is a work in progress – I don’t have a set plan in my head, I just want to find space to write about the music that I find without having to exchange 100 emails trying to convince someone of my point of view. So bear with me during this process – and do not hesitate to send suggestions my way.