Disc Reviews: The African Blues Project + Putumayo’s Afro-Caribbean Party

By Ernest Barteldes

The West African Blues Project (Arc Music) came into my mailbox in a package from Europe that included several other CDs, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle as I sorted out all the music I’d received while Renata and I were in Brazil – two weeks don’t seem to be a lot, but when you get advance music to review like I do, it does get problematic.

The album brings together guitarist Ramon Goose and multi-instrumentalist Moudou Touré, and they do an intriguing blend of American blues and West African folk music. It’s not quite a blues record per se but a collection of tunes that show how two distinct genres come together seamlessly. For instance, “Lolambe” is a fast-paced shuffle dominated by guitar and drums and frantic vocals at an incredible pace. “The Lighthouse Keeper” is the closest to a twelve-bar blues that you can get here, with heartfelt vocals, a cleverly played acoustic guitar and a nice bass & drums backbeat. Also notable are “Casamance River Blues, a pleading slow-tempo tune and also “Kayre,” a reggae-tinged mostly acoustic number.

Putumayo’s Afro Caribbean Party follows in the tradition of its previous releases – a small sample of various artists from different areas of the Caribbean that looks outside the usual box of Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba – the disc opens with Martinique’s Kali, who sings “La Grev Bare Mwen,” an up-tempo zouk played mostly with acoustic instruments, and follows with Jamaica-born Clinton Fearon (and current Seattle resident)’s “Come By Yah,” an cheerful tune about enjoying the beauties of life.

Cuba is represented by Asere, a sextet that does a mix of traditional and modern music – they have the traditional elements of the music – congas, acoustic guitar and horns – but their approach is attuned to the sensibilities of modern pop music, as evidenced by “A Favor del Viento.”   Also worth checking out is “Mango LaFrance” from Jan Sebon & Kazak International, a Haitian ensemble that plays West African-inspired music.

Both albums are highly enjoyable, and are immensely cool when heard side by side – you really notice where some of the sounds came from, and how they evolved in different directions while retaining the same basic essence.

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Concert Review: An Evening of Americana Music at Celebrate Brooklyn

By Ernest Barteldes

Joe Henry + Rihannon Giddens

Celebrate Brooklyn

July 18, 2015

Weekend construction on the MTA subway lines are a usual hassle New Yorkers and tourists have to live through all the time, but last weekend’s changes ended up being a recipe for disaster for me because it took me over an hour to get from the East Village to the Prospect Park Bandshell – something that usually does not take more than 25-30 minutes – as a result I was considerably late for Joe Henry’s opening set of Americana music.

Joe Henry at Celebrate Brooklyn

Joe Henry at Celebrate Brooklyn

Henry performed with a sparse band that featured saxophone, bass, percussion and a multi-instrumentalist who played guitars, mandolin and violin. The tunes were very personal, with lyrics that spoke of heartbreak and loss. All the band members improvised a lot around the songs, giving the evening a jazz-inflected feel. He also featured “Don’t Tell Me,”  a collaboration with his sister-in-law Madonna, who also recorded it in her 2000 album “Music,” which he mentioned he’d recorded as a tango while she did it “as a hit – I learned my lesson then.”

Rihannon Giddens and her banjo at Celebrate Brooklyn

Rihannon Giddens and her banjo at Celebrate Brooklyn

After a short break, Rihannon Gibbons came on stage with a small ensemble, kicking the set off with personal covers of songs by Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline.  She mentioned the ‘roots of American music’ as she went along, playing each songs with great feeling.   At one point, she talked about the African-American roots of the banjo and went into an inspired spiritual piece.

The set was divided into different historical parts showcasing the rich musical tradition of the United States. One of the great highlights came when she began to improvise around the melody of one of the songs – an amazing blend between folk music and jazz.

It was a magical evening that reminded me what American music was about – I am so exposed to the ‘world’ aspects of things that I often forget that we do have some great melodies out there that do not really make it into the spotlight – even though they should.

Festival Review: The 2015 Latin Alternative Music Conference

By Ernest Barteldes

Latin Alternative Music Conference

Various Locations

July 8-12, 2015

335

I must say that at first I felt reluctant to register for the LAMC this year – after all I now have a day job that does not allow me to fully participate events like these – sure, I do enjoy being part of them, but I feel bad that due to my hours I am unable to say, attend panel discussions or late-night music showcases when I have to be at work for most of the day and up and ready to face classrooms full of students.

Maybe if I had a desk job I could spend the day drinking coffee and dealing with paperwork, but students notice when a teacher looks hungover from lack of sleep – and probably assume your appearance has to do with something else. So ultimately I did the Brazilian thing and registered at the last minute, and decided to cover the event to the best of my abilities – something I will have to do until this blog grows into something – ahem – gainful.

On Wednesday afternoon I headed to the Affinia hotel in midtown Manhattan hotel to pick up my credentials and the gift bag that comes with various goodies, which included a compilation CD of some of the artists showcased at the event, the official T-shirt for the conference and some things – including a power pack for smartphone provided by Verizon, one of the event’s main sponsors this year and sat down to study the program and made plans for the shows I would attend. I knew the indie showcase that evening would be impossible but there would be a lot I could check out with my time availability.

After I wrapped up my classes at work, I returned to the hotel to check out the vendors – Gibson had a beautiful display of new guitars, and I spent some time trying them out. I am a huge fan of the brand (I actually own two of them) and I was eager to check out the new semi-hollow Les Paul model. It certainly did not disappoint – it had that sweet, mellow sound of the 335 with a very lightweight body.

SofiaVic

Later that evening I headed out to SOBs to catch the acoustic showcase.  Each band or soloist plays two songs to give the audience (mostly LAMC attendees) an idea of what the music is about. The evening kicked off with Argentina’s Estelares, who played two tunes – some were singing along with them, and they played with great confidence although they were out of their more electric comfort zone. They were followed by Raquel Sofia, a Puerto Rican singer-songwriter who has worked with several big-name artists and is now doing her own stuff.  She accompanied herself on guitar, and sang with lots of soul. I stayed for just one more singer – Chile’s Rodrigo Solo, who came backed by a small ensemble behind him – unfortunately I had a few personal things to do and could not stay any longer.

On Friday Renata and I headed over to Prospect Park, where Chile’s Astro was already on stage. Their music blended Latin electronica with psychedelic influences and other sounds.  Their sound was heavy on percussion but went into various directions. Some tunes were synth-heavy, almost with a 80s feel. The band members are very versatile, switching instruments throughout the set  – at one point there was something wrong with their electronic equipment, and they just played a punk-inspired tune on guitar, bass and drums with no apparent embellishments, proving their ability to adapt when something goes wrong – other bands might have just stopped playing until the problem had been solved.

After a brief break, Argentina’s Los Autenticos Decadentes took to the stage. They started out with a strong disco-influenced sound but their music is not limited to that at all – they play traditional music, cumbia, rock, drinking songs and other genres.  The band has a total of 12 members, and they switch lead vocals throughout the show.  The band is clearly meant to party to, and the audience responded to that by jumping and dancing through most of the set – the only exception being ballad they played halfway through. They overstayed their time and a presenter tried to make them stop – they responded by going into a short encore that left fans asking for more.

On Saturday we headed to Central Park to hear Mexico’s Ximena Sariñana. We almost didn’t make it in because the security guard at the press entrance questioned me why I don’t carry press ID (I am a freelance writer, this has never been an issue EVER) and then took issue with a selfie stick that had been given to me at the Affinia a day earlier.   I got angry and was ready to leave, but Renata had a cooler head and suggested we go through the main entrance, where no one gave us any problems. We then headed to the press table and got our passes and headed inside, where Uruguay’s No Te Va Gustar were wrapping up their set.

Sariñana came on backed by a six-piece band and kicked off with two fast-paced tunes, quickly going into a funky tune. Her set was packed with her singles including   “Sin Ti No Puede Estar Tan Mal,” the lead single from her 2014 album “No Todo Lo Puedes Dar” and also “Different,” an English-language tune from her second self-titled album.

Ximena

She is a highly talented artist who is poised to be the next Shakira if audiences are willing to pay attention. She is quite charming and is also a skilled keyboard player. She has yet to develop the stage presence of someone like Ivete Sangalo or Julieta Venegas, but at 29 she is definitely on the write path.

Vicentico

The evening closed with an appearance by former Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ vocalist Vicentico, who brought a mix of hard-hitting rock songs and romantic ballads reminiscent of Eros Ramazotti. He had fans singing along with him for many of the tunes – including some from his former band. One of the highlights was “Tengo Derechos,’ a poignant song about those who disappeared during Argentina’s brutal military regime, which he sang solely accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and a crowd of thousands.

The Latin Alternative Music Conference has been instrumental in bringing these and many Latin artists to the spotlight and also has brought some great stars to larger stages. I would probably not be aware of many of the bands I have written over the years if not for this conference – which I haven’t missed since I first heard about it.

Preview: The Latin Alternative Music Conference 2015

By Ernest Barteldes

It is no secret that I am a fan of outdoor concerts during the warm summer months, but there is one event that I eagerly wait to come around: The Latin Alternative Music Conference, the annual event that takes place all over the city, including shows in Central Park and Celebrate Brooklyn and other select venues. Though some of the concerts are for participants only such as the various showcases, most are open to the general public – a treat for fans of Latin Alternative artists.

But what exactly is Latin alternative in the first place?  A few years ago, one editor included in an article of mine that it is basically about Latino artists that ‘don’t play salsa.’ Though for most readers back then that might have made sense, I did not really like that definition because rhythms like mambo, cumbia and salsa are actually part of the genre, just not in the traditional sense.  After all, reggaeton is the ultimate blend of a quintessentially North American genre with the sounds of the Caribbean. Aterciopelados is a rock band that incorporates traditional Colombian music into their songs, and Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux (who was by the way first showcased in America at LAMC before she broke out internationally) does not hide her home country’s influence in her rapping.  At least they are no longer calling it “rock en español,” a dreadful label that came to be in the 90s when some Latin bands broke into the pop scene in America.

The LAMC is more than just music – it’s an opportunity for musicians to network with label executives, journalists and ultimately their own peers. When I first attended about a decade ago (has it been that long?) the conference had what I would describe as more of a party atmosphere, but it has since grown up and become one of the principal opportunities to exchange ideas and try to find the answers for questions about the state of the music business today – which has been changing in breakneck speed.

During the entire conference, several panel discussions are held to look at the state of music today and how to stay current in it – I recall sitting at one panel that included professionals involved in crowdfunding, then a novel idea that not many in attendance could understand.  This year, streaming is one of the topics up for discussion. Sure, it is not exactly a new idea, but now that large companies like Amazon and Apple are embracing it, what does it mean for a struggling independent artist who can no longer rely on downloads to make a living? Their music might be featured on NPR, but that is not going to pay their bills – new music comes out at a crazy pace these days, and it’s becoming harder and harder to focus on what the next thing might be (believe me, as I write this I am trying to go through my never ending pile of music to review).

For music fans, this year’s attractions are indeed a treat. The fun begins tonight (July 8) at Central Park Summerstage, where three up-and-coming bands will showcase their music – Starting with Electronic music artist Helado Negro (Roberto Carlos Lange, who I’m guessing changed his stage name because of another popular artist called Roberto Carlos), an Ecuadoran native who now calls Brooklyn his home. His sound bears a lot of influence from his former Miami home, but you can hear a lot more in what he does.

Following him is Systema Solar, a Colombian electronic collective that (as I mentioned before) blends lots of their native sounds with more contemporary sounds – it’s not for everyone, but it is certainly innovative.  Closing the evening is Compass, a collaboration between Camilo Lara  –  a frequent collaborator to the LAMC – and Toy Selectah, a DJ and producer with a large resume that includes Morrissey and Calle 13, to name a few.  On Friday (10/7) we go to Celebrate Brooklyn for a three-part set that includes veteran Argentinean band Los Autenticos Decadentes, one of the great luminaries of their country’s pop scene for over thirty years – who apparently are enjoying a comeback.

On Saturday we return to Central Park for another great afternoon that will feature Ximena Sariñana, a Mexican breakout singer who has been crossing over thanks to her efforts in English-language songs such as “Different,” an infectious song about not conforming to expectations.

There is much more going on – just check out the schedule for further details. It is a great opportunity to get out of the American pop box and discover some new sounds. I always have a lot of fun there and am always reporting – so please follow my Twitter feed @ebarteldes for more.