Rapasa, a young nyatiti player from Nairobi, visited NYC recently, and some of my musical friends helped get him a gig at Brooklyn's Barbes. Here's some video, featuring Nathan Okite (guitar), Courtney Hartman (guitar, banjo), and Sam Reider (accordion). More words coming soon. I'm off to Sundance for reasons still not fully clear to me.
Mehdi Qamoum (Morocco) & Courtney Anne Hartman (US) met at the incredible OneBeat music exchange program in Caldera, Oregon. On Mehdi's way back to Morocco, we linked up at Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn where they composed and performed this song.
Mehdi plays one of my favorite instruments, the guimbri, used to induce trance-states in gnaoua music. Courtney's instrument will put you in a trance, too, as we all know.
Here are the lyrics in Arabic. I asked Mehdi to translate to English. He said, "I'm trying to translate, but it's not the same. You understand?" Certainly.
Mehdi Qamoun - Guimbri
Courtney Hartman - Guitar
Film by Cyrus Moussavi / Raw Music International
Audio mix by Jacob Blumberg
وماليي وهيا مالي
ويامالي شوفو واش جرالي
وهيا مالي شوفو واش جرالي
تمنيت كون مشيت ما يمشي صديقي
تمنيت كون مشيت ما يمشي صديقي
وحشك في قلبي ذوب ليي قليبيي
وحشك يا مسير ذوب ليي قليبيي
و ماليي وهيا مالي
ويامالي شوفو واش جرالي
وهيا مالي شوفو واش جرالي
تمنيت كون مشيت ما يمشي صديقي. تمنيت كون مشيت ما يمشي صديقي
وحشك في قلبي ذوب ليي قليبيي
وحشك يا سمير ذوب ليي قليبيي
ويامالي شوفو واش جرالي
ويامالي شوفو واش جرالي
وهيا مالي شوفو واش جرالي
ويامالي شوفو واش جرالي
وهيا مالي شوفو واش جرالي
وهيا مالي شوفو واش جرالي
Burma and the Burmese diaspora is really active on Facebook, and this Christmas carol from our trip across the eastern part of the country a couple years ago is suddenly getting a lot of love.
This clip was shot as part of a motorcycle trip through the very Christian (Catholic and Baptist) mountain regions of Kayin (formerly Karen) State and southern Shan state. We were on a search for music traditional and otherwise in a region rarely visited by foreigners. We found both, and a lot of Christmas spirit.
When I returned to Iowa mid-winter, a chance encounter in a pizza joint led me to a community of Karen and Karenni refugees and migrants from these very same villages, living in Waterloo and working in meat packing. They helped me translate some of these videos, and invited me to church services, lunches, and New Year's celebrations. I recognized some of the Christmas songs, first heard in the lush Burmese highlands, displaced and rearticulated in the dead bleak Iowa winter weeks later. Radically different contexts, but a common sense of longing and refuge in the church.
Here is a short film, one of my favorites, that resulted from this collaboration with the Iowa Burmese refugee community. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to our friends in Kayin State, Iowa State, and all places between and beyond!
(1937 - Nov 30, 2017)
We lost a great one.
Charles Duvelle was a musician, composer, photographer, and musicologist (don't call it "Ethno!") who recorded dozens of albums across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
A child of French colonialism (literally), he was born in "Indochina," as he called it. He didn't return to France until age 9. "Dirty, cold, and without color" he said when we asked him to describe the Marseille of 1946.
Duvelle didn't stay long. He spent much of his life traveling, first organizing local radio archives across Francophone Africa, then recording albums for France's Disques OCORA label.
His approach was innovative in both technique and humanity.
"Sound is a whole: The sound which is performed outside has to be reproduced as it is. Organ music is recorded with natural reverberation in a church, because this is its normal environment. But if someone is normally playing any instrument or singing outside, it’s better to keep recording outside instead of in a closed recording studio."
And so Duvelle ditched the studio and began making recordings outside, capturing the energy of performances as much as their sound. Listening back decades later, you feel you're there. Sometimes he moved amongst the musicians with the microphone and his Nagra 3 during a performance.
"I had to behave not only as a witness but as a musician—using the microphone like a musical instrument."
"[This] situation was complicated—and exciting at the same time—because it needed more intuition, mobility, communion with the musicians, and adapted skill to control together the microphone and the recorder. I felt a bit like I was improvising with a music instrument, or behaving as a video cameraman—trying to transpose the vitality and truth of the musical scene into a really good musical recording."
Duvelle's second innovation was in presentation. This music wasn't readily available in the "west," and people weren't sure how to approach it. Duvelle packaged and released the albums in elaborate cloth binding with detailed notes.
"I had the money, and I had the desire of having beautiful products. And also, I wanted to attract so-called “refined” people with popular traditional things. So I thought that this music should be treated as well or better than the Deutsche Grammophon series [preeminent German publisher of western classical music]."
Today people are putting out "deluxe exclusive" impossible to afford reissues of music from all over the world. But at the time, treating this music with respect, as a commercial product and also as pure art, was unheard of.
"Many kinds of world music—particularly oral traditions from Africa—were unknown, just because they had no means of being disseminated worldwide. Collecting part of this fantastic potential and publishing for the first time such new music was of course quite exciting.
But for whom—the public? I don’t know who is the public! Maybe some pop musicians, some jazz musicians or even 'serious' contemporary composers. The Beatles, at that time, one of them was interested. Serge Gainsbourg—have you heard of this one? He went to see me several times, and he was also quite excited by different kinds of African music."
Last summer I spent two long days with Duvelle. Brittany Nugent and I came along with our friend Hisham Mayet, co-founder of Sublime Frequencies. Hisham grew up on Duvelle's records, and felt kinship with Duvelle's rejection of dry academic practice in favor of spirit, energy, humanity. Hisham and Charles were finishing up a book of Duvelle's photos, and we were along to film the interviews and add a few questions of our own.
Duvelle was charming and gracious, spending hours showing us his immaculately organized music collections, scrolling through a lifetime of photos and videos on his little laptop, remembering with a wry smile and humor run-ins with greats like Rakotozafy. He even cooked us lunch, served up with bottles of rose and bemused questions about US politics.
"What would you be doing if we weren't bothering you today, Charles" I asked at one point.
"Playing piano like every day," Duvelle said.
Yet another thing that made him unique in this world of musicology. The man was a musician first, and it was when talking about music that he was at his most insightful and eloquent, transversing generations and cultures in a few sentences:
"I don’t like writing music. I think this system has produced so many kinds of beautiful music, but it limits new possibilities of creation. This is why I am so attracted by oral traditions of creation and communication. As I told you, I like to improvise music. I can build an organized and structured music without the help of writing, just because I am used to it.
Also, today there are so many means of recording and editing music through digital techniques that writing has lost a lot of his power. In that respect, it is interesting to notice that the great Asian civilizations—Indian and Chinese, for instance—knew how to write long before Western civilization, but did not use any writing system to play or transmit their refined art."
He said it with his glint and his smile. Then he sat at the piano and improvised.
Listen to some of Duvelle's work here.
Thank you to Hisham Mayet for bringing us along last year. Thank you to Charles Duvelle for the warmth and the music.
Preparing to hit the road with Group Doueh. Here are the dates for our film screenings. Dates with only Group Doueh playing are in the post below. We've got a bunch of new sounds and images to share, including a very limited live recording by Group Doueh with silk-screened covers by the artist Shawn Reed. Check it!
Last summer I traveled to Dakhla, Western Sahara with Brittany Nugent and Hisham Mayet of Sublime Frequencies. We stayed with Group Doueh, a band I've admired for years, and filmed the wedding of their eldest daughter, Oulaya. Now that film is done, and the whole band are flying to the US for a short east coast tour. We're showing the film alongside the performances -- a chance to see the latest Sublime Frequencies film and the legendary Group Doueh on their first tour of the US since 2011. Come thru!
September 29 NYC
(le) poisson rouge
Group Doueh Performance
September 30 Pittsburgh PA
Group Doueh Performance
October 1 PHILLY
Group Doueh Performance + Screening
October 2 NYC
New School, Manhattan
Film Screening Only (Film makers in attendance for Q&A)
October 3 GREENFIELD, MA
The Root Cellar
Group Doueh Performance + Film Screening
October 5 NYC
Anthology Film Archives (!!)
Screening Only (Film makers in attendance for Q&A)
October 6 WASHINGTON DC
Group Doueh Performance + Film Screening at nearby Suns Cinema
October 7th JERSEY CITY, NJ
Monty Hall (WFMU)
Group Doueh Only
Here in Athens, the city shuts down for August. Even the trusty woman who runs the bakery is off to Vegas for the rest of the month. Everything feels slow, hot, and covered in a film of exhaust. But, as usual, and seemingly despite ourselves, shit occurs. Some of that shit includes: THREE albums from Kenya coming your way in September:
1) Olima Anditi - Where Else Would I Be (Mississippi Records / Raw Music International)
A series of songs recorded with the great blind guitarist Olima Anditi in his rented room in the outskirts of Kisumu, Kenya on the very last day of 2010. Since then, I've been on a journey to establish the proper identity of old Olima. He shares a name with one of the first Kenyans to record on guitar. But the dates don't match up. An imposter? A fluke of history/biology? Last year I went back to western Kenya and tracked the old man down. He has no fixed address. He travels by bus and plays guitar at dives and drinking spots. For four days we followed him on his journey around Lake Victoria, and he told us the story. An honor to release this with the great Mississippi Records, a label I've looked up to and learned from over the years.
2) Usiende Ukalale (Don't Sleep) - Modern Omutibo from Kenya (Mississippi / Olvido / RMI)
In the late 1950s, George Mukabi invented a style of guitar music called "omutibo." A single guitar played like three, two sweet voices in harmony, and a spoon scraped against the ridges of a glass Fanta bottle for percussion. It was country music, and stood in stark contrast to the "Twist" music of the city (electric guitars, suits, flash and style). But it sold and sold. Mukabi was killed in 1963, but a generation of artists, many of them his family and neighbors, picked up the style and innovated.
On a trip through Western Kenya in search of information about Mukabi, I met many of these old artists. Some of them still played, and these wobbly, gorgeous tracks are the sound of the music today. Featuring legends like Shem Tube, Fanuel Amimo, and George's son Johnstone Mukabi.
3) George Mukabi - Furaha Wenye Guita (Mississippi / Olvido / RMI)
The great Mukabi. What can I say. Gordon Ashworth of Olvido Records first played me his music in Portland, and it's been a search to learn more about the man since then. This compilation includes newly mastered versions of some of his greatest tracks. It also includes an extensive oral history -- the story as told by those who knew him best. ALL of his recorded output will be available online. As with all these projects, proceeds go back to the family.
I've got guests. I have to go buy a (plastic) bottle of wine. Next time, I'll tell you about the two movies we're releasing this fall. It's gonna be good.
Late nite in Athens, thinking of Paris. We were there recently for the launch of a book of photographs by legendary rouge musicologist Charles Duvelle, compiled by Hisham Mayet of Sublime Frequencies. Last summer, my partner Brittany and I helped in the recording and transcribing of interviews with Duvelle at his home near Paris. Two days of long convos with Hisham and Duvelle, who, at 81, is sharp, funny, kind, and infinitely patient with us. He took us through his archives, served rose, cooked lunch, and asked incredulous questions about America (a long life of traveling the world and that's still the weirdest place of all). For a brief and truly sublime moment, Duvelle played piano, improvising as we fumbled with the camera gear, moved.
A year later and the book is out, a beautiful and weighty beast that Hisham poured his life into, shipped from Singapore to Paris in time for an event at the Musee du quai Branly. The museum, a monument to French colonialism and art deemed "primitif," sits amidst a faux tropical garden in the center of town. A room full of journalists and fans and the old elite of French musicology (though the academics were not invited). The conversation was long and very French, and we were proud and a little baffled to be a part of it.
Duvelle skipped the academic ethnomusicology route. Though his liner notes have always been thorough and he knows what he's talking about, he was never affiliated with a university, and he approaches field recording as an artist and musician first. He got shit for shunning the academy at the time, but his recordings are now canonical. Hisham, as they both agreed during the event, is following that path. A certain shared spirit, crossing generations.
Paris was alive. It was hot and the whole world was out, lookin good. We showed a nearly finished cut of our latest film, "Oulaya's Wedding," at a squat near Stalingrad. The crowd there grew up on Sublime Frequencies and looked up to Hisham the way Hisham looks up to Duvelle. That's a whollllle nother story that I'll tell you in picture form in the next post...
I've been living in Greece, translating Farsi to English for Iranian and Afghan refugees who live in anarchist squats. I'm thinking and writing about movement, displacement, art, and passports. Recently, I ran into visa issues and got kicked out of Europe. "Visa issues." That's the kind of terminology people with powerful passports are allowed to use. The people I translate for do not have visa issues. They sell everything they own and hit the road. So my American passport means I'm back in Chicago, upright, a little offended, and planning next steps.
The forced break gave me a chance to go through some of the old RMI hard drives and put together this clip of footage from documentaries past, present, and future. The music is by Ulaanbaatar's own Bodikhuu. Images come from Diyarbakir Turkey, Burma, Mongolia, Ukraine, Iraqi Kurdistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Trinidad, Kenya, Western Sahara, and more.
There's a lot coming from Raw Music in 2017. We're finalizing work on a series of vinyl releases of Kenyan guitar music, including an album by Raw Music favorite Olima Anditi, a new compilation of music by George Mukabi, and a compilation of field recordings I did with the surviving members of the Kenyan Omutibo movement during my trip across Western Kenya last year. I'm excited about these releases because the music is incredible, and because we put in a lot of work into tying the songs back to the specific culture and context from which they arose.
We've also got a feature length film about GROUP DOUEH, the most beloved band in the occupied territory of Western Sahara. We were there last summer for the wedding of Oulaya, Doueh and Halima's eldest daughter. A week of music and cooked meats, dancing, colorful clothing, love, family. I feel warmth when I think of it. It's also really special on a personal level -- I shot it with my partner Brittany and one of the people I look up to most in this strange music game, Hisham Mayet of Sublime Frequencies.
So that's what's up over here. What are you up to?
I'm so proud to release this record! The first in a series of gorgeous acoustic guitar albums from Western Kenya.
This batch is from the personal collection of the legendary Shem Tube. He gave me a pile of records wrapped in newspaper and plastic that he'd saved from the 1960s and 70s when I went to visit him in Bunyore, Western Kenya, this summer. We digitized and cleaned up the records, and now they're being released outside of Kenya for the first time. Check the PDF liner notes that come with the release for the full story.
All proceeds from this record go to the surviving members of Abana ba Nasery, Shem's band and the creative force behind these lovely songs. A co-release with Olvido Records. A very special thanks to Mike Graves for volunteering his time to make these old records sound so good. He's worked on many albums I love, so to have him contributing here is an honor.
LISTEN HERE and read the liner notes (with photos) HERE.
New Raw Music video here. I spent last Christmas with the deeply kind community of Burmese refugees living in Waterloo, Iowa. The holiday celebrations were overshadowed by the tragic disappearance and death of 17-year-old Moe Sed, who drowned in the Cedar River. But the generosity and grace that I admired so much while traveling in the mountains of eastern Burma continues on in my home state, and the Karen, Karenni, and Chin communities came together to mourn and celebrate in powerful ways.
I'm thankful to know some of the incredible members of this community, as well as the Iowans who support and encourage them. Burma and Iowa both have strong places in my heart. I hope you enjoy the video.
The night before we traveled to Western Sahara for our film shoot with the legendary Group Doueh, I drank a frightening amount of wine on a Paris park bench with my dear friend Allan K. and anyone else who stopped to talk. At some point I lost the tiny Rollei 35s camera that had been serving me so well throughout the summer. I also lost my way and wandered sweating in the blinding morning sunlight, bumping into waiters putting out cafe tables, looking for my friend's apartment. I barely made the flight, but I had enough time to buy a disposable camera at a gift store by the departure gate. A sad replacement.
We filmed like mad, and the first Raw Music feature documentary will be coming to a film festival near you (if they take us and you live near a doc-loving metropolis). In the meantime, Roads & Kingdoms published some of the disposable camera photos from that roll. I love the casual feel of these cameras. No one feels threatened. You don't have to think. You shoot and forget. Above are a few outtakes. See them all here: http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/sounds-of-the-sahara/
Today my friend Gordon in Portland sent me the restorations of a series of vinyl 45s Shem Tube gave me to digitize in Kenya this summer. The records were beat, but thanks to the hard work of Mike Graves, these things sound beautiful. It brings me warmth and joy on this grey Athens Wednesday, the day after the whole neighborhood went up in clouds of teargas during the annual anarchist protests of the police.
We'll release these tracks soon. It will be a fundraiser with all proceeds going back to Shem in Kenya. The records these tracks come from were lost in the mail when we tried to return them to Kenya. A brutal and completely unlucky event for people who spend their lives shipping records in the mail (this never happens). We can never replace these records, but we hope to compensate Shem for the music.
For now, here are some pictures and captions from our recording and interview sessions with Shem, which took place over two days in May, 2016. Certainly one of the highlights of the year.
And below, a track I recorded by Shem, accompanied by his son and some friends, during the same sessions. This will be part of an omutibo compilation and film to be released in 2017.
40 Years /
We drove through a snowstorm in Western Mass and Mom asked me to put on the great Iranian folk singer Pari Zangeneh. I'd never heard her, but Mom sang sweetly and softly, every word, right through the slow chaos of falling ice and swerving cars.
"You know November 16 was my 40th anniversary in this country?" she asked. I did not know. "It was hard not speaking the language and being in a new place. I listened to Pari Zangeneh every day. She helped me so much."
I've been on the road. I know it's hard to be away from home. But I can only imagine 40 years in a new country, molding yourself to a place that doesn't always want you.
I celebrate my parents and the work and heart and love they've put into this country. I believe in music, and I'll use it to fight the hate and fear that we've unleashed on ourselves.
Dark days, but, as usual, Mom is right. Pari Zangeneh helps in times like this. Enjoy.
Thrilled to premiere our short film "Nothing Bigger Than Love" at the Cambodia Town Film Festival tonight in Long Beach, CA.
It's from our recent trip to Cambodia. We spent time with Oro, a young human rights lawyer who, with his partner Maya, is building an archive of Cambodian music lost during the Khmer Rouge. It was the "Golden Age" of rock when the genocide began, and collectors buried their records and LPs underground to protect them. Oro has been traveling around gathering up these rare records, fighting for royalty rights for the artists and their families, and providing free links on YouTube.
We're especially proud to show this film in Long Beach, home of the largest Cambodian population in the US.
If you're in the area tonight check it out -- 6p at the Art Theater, with a rare Cambodian rock DJ set by Oro himself.
I came to Greece to see my man Allan, Kurdish journalist extraordinaire. It's a short trip to Paris, where I need to be soon for our next film (more on that soon). Unfortunately, Allan was reassigned to Istanbul before I even arrived. A tragedy, but we move on.
The whole "death-of-the-neo-liberal-capitalist-fantasy" scenario here has caused a lot of suffering. But it's also forced people to re-think how a society should function. Cheap housing, outdoor cafes, and a culture that values the art of living means there's plenty of time for figuring shit out. Cigarettes are waved. Arguments are heated.
But there's also action. The strong and organized anarchists of Athens have been taking over buildings and turning them into unofficial refugee housing. For the past two days I accompanied (and sometimes translated for) a Brazilian husband - wife couple who came to perform shadow puppets for children at these makeshift squat housing camps. This photo is from a huge hotel that the anarchists cracked. The previous owners left behind all the bedding, furniture, and silverware. It is now home to hundreds of Syrians, Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis. I'm jaded by my time in America, but it's good to see real, subversive, community action, even if it takes near-total economic collapse and a few wars to get it going.
At the Port of Pireaus, hundreds of tents sit under a highway next to cruise ships and ferries bound for the islands. This is the first stop on the mainland for many refugees Some have been here for months. The goal is Germany or Holland, though the powerful governments of the world seem to be working together to make sure that doesn't happen. For about half an hour one evening, there were shadow puppets. Strange times.
One of my main missions on this last trip to Kenya was to reconnect with Olima Anditi, the blind Luo guitarist I met on the first trip here. He was on tour, traveling around Lake Victoria by himself. He plays at highway bars on market days, when villagers with money linger in the towns and drink sales are high. We drove for hours to track him down, stopping at each town along Lake Victoria to ask about our man. Everyone knows him. "He's up the road," they'd say. "He was here last week."
We finally got to Olima, and over several sessions I learned a bit more about his back story. On our last day together I opened him a bank account so I could give him some back royalties (not an easy task -- you don't hand a blind guy a bunch of cash in a rough town in Kenya). We had some lunch and some Guinness (Olima's favorite drink-- he calls it refined busaa, the corn and millet based homebrew he drinks most of the time). We recorded 12 new tracks. Finally, I played Olima the songs I'd recorded years ago (he remembers people by touch and when we met again he said "ah, you're the white man who recorded me on December 31, 2010"). That's where this screen shot comes from. Olima was listening to the tracks on my phone and admiring his own playing, laughing about the lyrics, and giving me background on the tracks. It was a damn good time.
Jacob and I spent half of our Mongolia shoot in UB, the capital city, and the other half wandering the vast open western portions of the country. We traveled to the village of Chandiman, where they say Mongolia's most famous musical form, khoomei (throat singing), was developed.
Many people in Chandiman claimed to be able to throat sing. Most just garbled in our direction before coughing and turning away red faced. It was quite a performance. The real pros only perform for serious cash, apparently. That was out of our budget. Dejected after hours on the road, we checked out the Throat Singing Museum, a small concrete building with dusty old photos of the legends of the past hanging over artifacts from earlier generations of nomadic life. The guy in charge of the museum waved a sword around. His wife showed us an old butter churn made from the insides of a cow.
Back at their ger (yurt) we watched a Mongolian wrestle a Kazakh on the rigged up TV set. Electricity had come to the area a few years before. The leader of the museum played through a few songs but seemed more interested in eating a second lunch and watching the wrestlers. I thought the trip was a bust (a huge one -- we had rented a jeep and hired a driver), until I noticed that it was his wife who was tuning the instruments. Through our translator Byebit I asked if she played. She shook her head yes.
In fact, she played every traditional Mongolian string instrument. They kept pulling out new instruments for her to tune and jam out on. She was a music teacher at a nearby school. And she had won a national award for her long song. Her voice nearly deafened us at close range in the ger.
The Mongolian long song is one of my favorite styles of music. It's literally a really long song. Words are drawn out over the course of several minutes. Stories can take days and weeks to tell. It takes incredible control and discipline to perform. I imagine long songs were a way to pass the time on lonely nights out on the steppe, before you could watch international wrestling matches.
The woman agreed to sing for us, and we walked out of their house, took a left, and wandered a few hundred feet to the edge of the village. The steppe stretched out endlessly ahead of us. Minutes later she joined in her traditional deel. She said it's inappropriate to sing without that beautiful article of clothing.
She sang this song twice (this is just an excerpt). We were amazed. I thought a voice would be lost in such open spaces, but somehow it carried, moved with the wind, filled and bounced around us. It was one of the best musical experiences of our trip. Incredibly powerful.
I lost the notebook where I recorded her name. I'm hoping to find it out, and I wanted to save the video until I did that, but I came across it again and just had to share. I'm working on getting that name and giving this artist the credit she deserves.