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.
In a fit of madness, I took a virtual reality camera rig on our trip to Mongolia. It consisted of six GoPro cameras in a 3D printed plastic housing. It was rickety and somewhat untested, but I was excited about the possibilities. Here is some of the footage. NBC wasn't ready to go VR, so we just put it up ourselves.
I've been trying to trace back the steps and figure out how and why this VR experiment happened. I was in Yangon, staying on the couch of a Jamaican-British expat musician named Adam. It was the last night of our Burma shoot and I was sick and weird but he convinced me to meet his friends at a bar. DJ Joo had just arrived in the country from Los Angeles and was not a DJ or Jewish but a Korean-Brazilian commercial editor with a wanderlust. We spoke briefly, exchanged info, and went about our lives.
Months later, I was crashing on his couch in Los Angeles. I can't remember how that happened, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. He liked Raw Music, had a lot of experience and advice, and we were hoping to make some videos together.
When I got there, he was losing his shit about this new VR tech. I'm suspicious about this stuff, but he handed me a headset and told me about huge companies that were starting to make films in this medium. I was impressed.
At a party in LA I met a kid named Matt who works at an ad agency as a "creative technologist." He'd been experimenting with the tech, too, and said he could 3D print me my own rig and help on the stitching and software side. He said it was the future. He had a good look about him and seemed to know what's up, so the idea further solidified.
Back in New York, I scrimped and shuffled and evaded and got some deals on some GoPros that weren't great but would do the job. As the trip neared, Matt's offer to 3D print a rig fell through (their machine broke or something). I had to find another option.
On Ebay, I found some guys with a home-made 3D print operation in Staten Island. So my (ex-girl)friend Brittany and I got on the ferry and went to the island of Shaolin to meet two sweaty bros pounding Monster Energy drinks and 3D printing with abandon. They were very proud of their operation. They showed us their 3D printed 3D printers, which were 3D printing 3D printers. It was slightly disconcerting, but I blamed the energy drink jitters bouncing around the room.
For $75 they printed me a rig. The guy even drove it out to Bushwick the next morning. Shirtless in the kitchen, I tested the thing out. But the stand was poorly made (it was a nut the bros had glued into the thin plastic at the bottom of the rig). The whole rig fell of my tripod after 15 seconds.
I tried to fix it but no luck. Time was short. I was off to Berlin to meet Jacob. We would spend 5 days there finishing our preparations before heading to Mongolia.
Somehow Norwegian Air managed to lose my bag on the 2 hour flight from Stockholm to Berlin. I didn't get it back until I returned to JFK a month later. I spent those 5 days in Berlin replacing our camping gear in the middle of a heat wave. But my friends Clara, Nicola and Dani helped out. They took me to a joint called Modulator full of guys in clear glasses and cutoff black t-shirts (the summer alternate tot he black turtleneck). They came up with a few solutions for fixing the base of the VR rig. At a music store down the street they gave more suggestions. All these musicians and engineers flipping my dumb VR rig around, looking for answers. But they were really good and helpful. It cost about $100 and a day of sweat.
In Mongolia, Jacob and I used the airplane glue and screws and wires accumulated in Berlin to create some sort of stand for the camera. I put it in a Pelican case and hauled it around the country. We rode a bus for nearly 3 days nonstop. I kept the thing by my side. When we finally reached deep into the countryside I got sick from some yak milk and couldn't use the camera for a couple days. We did what we could.
Back in the states, broke, I sold all the cameras through ebay and craigslist to help fund my recent trip to Kenya. GoPro and Kolor Software generously donated software for editing. I put it together late one night. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a kind video editor helped me refine the footage. I got on a plane to Kenya and forgot about it til now. That's how we made this video. I think I'm done with virtual reality for the time being.
I brought a shitload of 35mm film to Kenya, but only shot one roll. It seemed utterly illogical to struggle with lighting and focus and speed when I was walking around with modern cameras that could do it all instantly. But now that I'm back in the states and developing some images, I wish I did more. It looks different, right? A little warmer, a little more depth. The guy in the shot above is a butcher at Kenyatta Market, right across from James' vinyl stall. He grilled up a killer plate of goat, salt, and peppers. When I get back I'll bring him a copy. I wonder what he'll think.
Below is the legendary Peter Akwabi. He told me more than anyone else about omutibo music and the history of the artists I was curious about. He was there from the beginning. But unlike most of the other musicians, he also has an academic side, and eventually taught at Kenyatta University. He told me not only the years, but the dates and recording times, for some of the great tracks of the omutibo genre. What a guy. An honor to spend time with him.
Here I am posting two videos from two different places.
First: Our latest Raw Music International episode, from Mongolia, is now live at NBC News. Please check the link to see.
Meanwhile, I'm still in Kenya, and wrapped up in full on countryside music recording mode. We've heard some beautiful tunes from the wilted legends of Kenya's golden age of guitar. This is a video we shot with the great Shem Tube of Abana ba Nasery. He's backed by his son and two friends. The rain lashed at the tin roof, the battered guitars wouldn't stay in tune, and the boastful songs of cocky young men took on a different tone half a century later.
On the road, sweating, swatting mosquitos, oscillating wildly between euphoria and despair, meeting mostly kind and generous people, speaking to elderly men about how they got so good at playing guitar.
Johnstone Mukabi at home, Uasin Gishu County, Kenya, May 2016
Johnstone is a master of finger-style Kenyan guitar, but he's only written a handful of songs. He's the son of legendary Kenyan guitarist George Mukabi. His father's songs were the best, he said, so why write more? 50 years after the murder of George Mukabi, Johnstone and his brother burned through 30 of their father's tracks. It was a haunting and beautiful scene.
We** recorded two songs with Jimmy Bongo. He recently lost his eyesight, and he felt around on the old classical guitar before muscle memory helped him find his fingering. He had pictures of the Equator Sound Band on the wall of his home in Kakamega county.
Olima Anditi was the first musician I met on the first Raw Music trip. I've thought of him way too often since then.
So after five years, I finally came to find him again. We drove around the countryside, following leads and stopping in homebrew booze spots until we saw him sipping busaa in Bondo, an hour and a half from Kisumu. Despite his age and blindness, Olima rolls solo, traveling the region via public transport, searching out gigs. He's been on the road since late last year. We convinced him to spend a few days with us to talk and record.
He lost his glasses and his distinctive metal thumb pick. His guitar was shattered, and his white leather shoes were gone. The last five years have been rough. But Olima was in good spirits, and he held his radio to his ear listening to political news, as always.
At least three Kenyans prominent in the music biz have approached me over the years to say this Olima is a fraud. They say he's impersonating a legendary artist, one of the first to pick up a guitar in Kenya. Over a pile of fish in a drooping bar in downtown Nairobi, KBC radio host James Onyango Joel drove the point home. "I know people who were at Olima's funeral!"
Today we finally brought it up with Olima. The truth, as is often the case, is far more interesting than the facts. I'll share the story with you once I figure it all out. It's raining and the power is spotty. Tomorrow morning we go buy a new guitar. And then we make more music.
**When I write "we" I mean me and the bewildering number of people I've met who have worked with me, fed me, guided me, and generally made these last few weeks work. Huge thanks to Timtim, Kiptoo, Steven, and other kind humans along the way.