"Photographs of Charles Duvelle" Paris Release by Cyrus Moussavi

Image from "The Photographs of Charles Duvelle," Sublime Frequencies 2017

Image from "The Photographs of Charles Duvelle," Sublime Frequencies 2017

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. 

Duvelle and Hisham telling secrets, photo CM

Duvelle and Hisham telling secrets, photo CM

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...

Brittany at the Musee du quai Branly, photo CM

Brittany at the Musee du quai Branly, photo CM

The crew post event

The crew post event

Duvelle in PNG, 1974

Duvelle in PNG, 1974

Raw Music 2017 by Cyrus Moussavi

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? 

Shem Tube's Personal Record Collection by Cyrus Moussavi

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.

Celebrating in Heaven by Cyrus Moussavi

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. 

Disposable Camera in the Sahara by Cyrus Moussavi

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/

 

Shem Tube Restoration by Cyrus Moussavi

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 by Cyrus Moussavi

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.

Pari Zangeneh, from a 1975 album

Pari Zangeneh, from a 1975 album

A photo posted by Cyrus Moussavi (@cyronymus) on

Film Premiere by Cyrus Moussavi

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.  
 

Latest photos - Athens, Paris, Western Sahara, Casablanca, Chicago by Cyrus Moussavi

Athens by Cyrus Moussavi

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. 

Chillin with Olima by Cyrus Moussavi

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. 

Glory on the Mongolian Steppe by Cyrus Moussavi

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. 

Mongolia in Virtual Reality by Cyrus Moussavi

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.  

35mm Film by Cyrus Moussavi

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. 

New Things by Cyrus Moussavi

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. 

Mongolia, the road to Khovd. Photo by Jacob Russell.

Mongolia, the road to Khovd. Photo by Jacob Russell.

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.  

One Man Guitars Across Western Kenya by Cyrus Moussavi

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. 

160512 A7Olima1-053 SMALL.jpg

**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.

Nairobi by Cyrus Moussavi

Five years since I was last in Nairobi. Woke on a couch and watched the sun come up on a giant tree in the yard. Marveled at the color and texture of the light. Wondered how I could stay away so long.  A few hours later I realized it’s just a colored spotlight. 

The last time I was here my friend looked out the window at the long lines of people shuffling to work along the dirt path from the slums of Kibera. “This is a walking city,” he said.

This time the city feels faster, more crowded, richer, meaner, dirtier. There’s a little more order but a lot more people. In the end it’s a wash.  The new “traffic cameras” are just flashing lights. The motorcycle guys wear helmets but haven't dropped the death wish.  Expensive lowered coups crash through the potholes. The daily Biblical rainstorms mash it all together.    

In Kenyatta market, a record stall jammed between butcher shops.  Thousands of albums – funk soul rock and precious few Kenyan sounds. James asks for my list of artists and labels, and he asks Juliette, his assistant, to begin her search. “We’ll call you tomorrow.” He gives me some phone numbers and sends me on my way.

At a reincarnation of the famous Assanand’s record store, three shops spread up and down Moi Avenue, Robert flips through the collection of CDs from the olden days.  I’m looking for stuff from the 60s and 70s, guitar music before the Benga bands took over. A label called Tamasha has reissued some of them. 

At the Tamasha office, I catch a glimpse of the operation.  15 CD burners churn out reissues of the classics. An old Epson printer squeaks out CD covers. A paper catalog of releases lists terse facts about some of the greats -- among them George Mukabi, John Ondolo, and Isaiah Mwinamo, who "is retired from music, got saved, and is resting at home. You will like his guitar and good voice." I want to speak to the artists who are still with us, and meet the families and friends of those who have passed on.  The goal is to add to the painfully short bios we have for most of them. 

Downtown on River Road, an entire building is dedicated to bootlegging these semi-bootleg CDs. Offices within offices, closets that open onto more small businesses, hundreds of people running up and down the stairs, burning and printing and downloading, scheming, making it happen.  Uptown Nairobi, above the matatu terminal, there are banks and nice hotels and fat guys in suits.  Downtown the streets are dirt and real business gets done.    

I meet a lot of people.  Some of them are kind and some see dollar signs and some read me poetry.  I eat meat and buy records and ride around getting phone numbers for very old men who once recorded gorgeous songs they rarely got paid for. Some of them are still alive.  Tomorrow I leave for the countryside where I hope to meet them.

This last week has made me very grateful and very tired.  I've had so much help from friends old and new. From Portland, incredible advice and inspiration from Gordon and the Mississippi crew.  In Kenya from Kip and Joyce and John and Kasuku and Yasiin and Abdul Karim, Colin, Pete, Susan, and George. Online resources, some written years ago and thousands of miles away, have aided and abetted the search -- especially Excavated Shellac and KenTanza Vinyl with their deep and dedicated music nerdery.  And of course these old Kenyan songs, a constant, haunting, soundtrack. I play them on my phone for people when I'm trying to explain what I'm doing. And they play in my head day and night, alongside, inexplicably but somehow appropriately, "Panda" by Desiigner.

 

Amsterdam -> Nairobi by Cyrus Moussavi

I've had so many bad sandwiches in Amsterdam Schiphol airport. When we were kids traveling to Iran, Amsterdam was the hub. Our family explored the city on long layovers. Situated in my mind directly between Iowa and Iran, Amsterdam and its airport came to represent the triumphs of northern European civilization.  The toilets were clean, the graphics were clean, the people were clean and spoke in soft voices.   

A year of studying immigration here dimmed some of the glow.  I now think of red-faced men and watery beer, bicycle rage, low clouds, ethnic segregation, and bad sandwiches. The airport bathrooms seem a little dingier.  Never look too closely at your heroes.  

Which is exactly what I intend to keep doing. I'm on the way to Kenya to meet with the great Olima Anditi, a man I met on the first day of the first Raw Music trip  back in 2011.  He's stayed with me since, the proud and glorious blind guitarist, delivered well into his late 80s by what appears to be a steady diet of homebrewed corn-beer and cheap cigarettes. 

While there I hope to also meet Johnstone Mukabi, son of the late great George Mukabi. The goal is to hear as much Kenyan "dry guitar" music as possible, and record with any of the old-timers still left.  Here's one of my favorite songs (of any genre, ever):

On this front I have to thank Gordon of Olvido records. We ran into each other in Mississippi Records in Portland and bonded over his first release, an incredible album of dark-side Greek music from the early 20th century.  Listen here:

Gordon and Eric at Mississippi love Kenya dry guitar, and they've set  me up with lists of names, labels, and improbable musical connections.  I'll spend a month tracking through these lists, digging through records, and talking to the elderly across the country.  Hopefully, I'll be able to come up with a few albums worth of jams.  So here we go...

I know what she says by Cyrus Moussavi

Karenni Merry Christmas - Burma

The elders of a #Karenni village in #Burma wish you a Merry Christmas (and probably Happy Holidays, too). Recorded last year on our trip through the mountains of #Karen (Kayin) and #Kayah (Karenni) states in eastern Burma. We stopped for lunch and got a serenade from the village elders. I really loved this moment.For more from Burma, check our full episode here: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/video/raw-music-burma-n354831#Myanmar

Posted by Raw Music International on Friday, December 25, 2015

 A little over a year ago, Jacob and I were riding motorcycles through the mountains of eastern Burma looking for music and a way to talk about an incredibly complex and misunderstood place.

'Misunderstood' would be the operative word -- it seems that each hill and valley has its own language in this region. Without a translator, we relied on the inevitable "guy who speaks some English" in every village to help us out.  

We stopped for noodles in a small village in Shan State. The guy at the stall called down the street. The guy down the street called further down the street. In two minutes, a "guy who speaks some English" came bounding toward us in an Arsenal jersey. He'd learned a bit of the language in a refugee camp, the rest from movies and TV.  He helped run an organization for disadvantaged kids, and he sold pirated music from a desktop computer linked up to a car battery beside the noodle shop.  

Did he know some musicians who could play for us? There were some very old people who might be able to play a few songs, he said. They worked in the fields during the day, but they might come and play for the foreigners. 

They did come and play for foreigners, with a quizzical look and a smile and a great show of appreciation for the small donation we gave in return. The resulting session was tough -- an overindulgence in betel nut, battered old instruments, a beating sun -- but this was a beautiful moment. 

A year later, in Iowa (where I grew up), in the post-industrial meat packing town of Waterloo (where I did not grow up), I showed this video to Liberetta.

Liberetta is one of about 1,500 Burmese refugees living in Waterloo, drawn by jobs at the meat packing plant.  Liberetta has a love for cooking, a way with languages, a PhD from India, and a lifetime of stories from Malaysia and Burma and Iowa and between.

 I showed Liberetta this video and said, "Liberetta, do you know what she's saying to the camera at the end?"  

Liberetta in Waterloo, Iowa, 2015 (photo Cyrus Moussavi)

Liberetta in Waterloo, Iowa, 2015 (photo Cyrus Moussavi)

Liberetta grew up a few miles, and quite possibly a few languages, away from where we shot the video.

"Oh! She's speaking my language," Liberetta said.  

The woman is speaking Karenni, of which there are four main subgroups, of which one is Kayan, of which there are another 4 main subgroups, of which one is Padaung.  The few words of Karenni Kayan Padaung the woman speaks at the end of this video are perfectly intelligible to Liberetta. They are in her mother tongue.

In the kitchen in Iowa, where the snowflakes beat on the window, Liberetta translates the interaction I had a year ago in Burma.

"She says, 'I am not beautiful, don't film me. You are beautiful.'" 

The woman in the video then busts out the most beautiful smile. I've watched it several times just for that moment.

'Misunderstood' being the operative word of that trip.  

 

Raw Music International Best of 2015 by Cyrus Moussavi

Saaina in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (2015).  Still from our upcoming Mongolia doc for NBC...

Saaina in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (2015).  Still from our upcoming Mongolia doc for NBC...

Going through all the music we recorded this year and it's madness!  I love it!  How did human beings make all these sounds? To what end? 

I put together a list of my favorite moments from 2015, below.  Each of these songs evokes landscapes, stories, and often some sort of gastroinstestinal crisis. The Raw Music method of travel breaks the body while nourishing the soul.

The tracks stand on their own, but for me they're also tied to the personalities of the people who made them.  I'm grateful for the music, but most of all I'm grateful for the opportunity to spend some time in the orbit of these artists, hustlers, and visionaries (usually a combination of the three).  

Here are some of my favorite Raw Music International jams from 2015, recorded in Mongolia, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Trinidad, and NYC. 

Khun Narin's Electric Phin Band - Sports Day Jam

Kicking it off with an unreleased one...My partner Brittany and I just had the glorious opportunity to meet and record Khun Narin's Electric Phin Band -- a gang of really nice dudes living and shredding in the sunbaked flatlands of north-central Thailand. They achieved considerable notoriety when a YouTube video they posted went viral amongst music nerds worldwide. A subsequent album on the great Innovative Leisure label upped their profile. But back home in Thailand, they're unknown outside of their province. The band all have day jobs (Khun Narin himself is a butcher) and play temple fairs and parties for extra dough. They're bemused by the small stream of foreign visitors who make it up to Phetchabun. 

A young French researcher and stand-up human named Edouard introduced us and helped translate.  The band were gracious hosts, treating us to an unending stream of Thai whiskey and grilled squid from 7/11, taking us to see a psychedelic new Buddha statue on a hill, and shredding mercilessly through their homemade sound system. We spent three deafening days with the crew and recorded hours of video and audio (coming soon). For now, here's a quick piece from an all-day jam. I'd dreamed of meeting these guys but never thought it was possible. A beautiful way to end the year.


MAKE IT HAPN (Trinidad) - Mus Eat Ah Food

I met Make It Hapn in Barataria, Port of Spain, Trinidad, in February. I rode the Arima highway to his home. We smoked in the yard with the grey clouds low and the grass gone to weed, staring at a cinderblock wall.  Make It took me through centuries of white oppression and colonization, of entire cultures annihilated by greed and hate.  He stared me in the eye and spoke of ancient Ghana like he spoke of modern Iraq -- as if he fought these battles himself.  These wars against white imperialism are personal, and this man has conviction.  People warned me that he was crazy or racist. But he's just truthful, and that's way more dangerous.  

I've never been more conflicted.  I could disagree with some of his fundamental points (the Greeks invented homosexuality etc) while admiring the breadth of his knowledge and style of argument. I sensed flashes of anger but was treated only with overwhelming generosity -- of spirit, of mind, of weed, of music.  The conversations took wild turns dictated by more than the blunts of "Holy Grail" Make It rolled up for our interviews.   

And that's to say nothing of the music.  Trini rappers are famous for "rapping Yankee"-- putting on American accents, rapping about American problems.  Make It Hapn is a legend for rapping in the accent, rhythm, and cadence of Trini speech, and for saying shit people are afraid to say in rhyme or otherwise. This is powerful music.

Make It Hapn, DGainz, Cyrus, blunted AF, Trinidad March 2015

Make It Hapn, DGainz, Cyrus, blunted AF, Trinidad March 2015

We shot the above video with the great Chicago video director D.Gainz in downtown Port of Spain.  One of the ubiquitous CD vendors put the song on loop, Make It rocked up with a few of his friends, and we just rolled down the street. The kids stared and people on the street recognized the song. It didn't matter that it was a track off a decade-old mixtape. In Make It Hapn's world, time and space telescope into one.  The ancient past is as important as the present. And that's what makes a legend.


Saw Paw and Naw Pa (Burma)

Sometimes, when you're hiding behind a camera, you don't fully appreciate the beauty of what is happening in front of you.  You're worried about light and audio and falling backward down a hill.  And even though Jacob and I were halfway through a motorcycle trip across Burma -- broken, dirty, and slightly deranged -- we both paused when Saw Paw and his daughter sang this song early one morning in the hills of Karen state.  I hadn't expected her voice to be so beautiful and delicate. When she went for the high notes, her throat strained, her eyes looked upward, and I watched transfixed, worried she wouldn't hit her mark (she usually did).  When she came back down, their voices blended in the kind of harmonies only families can make. They were proud of the song, which they wrote themselves. Most of the performers we met in Burma worked hard to hold back all outward signs of emotion while performing.  But father and daughter couldn't help a smile after their second time through the song.  I was beaming, and I nearly fell backward down the hill.  


BodiKhuu (Mongolia) - Rio EP

Bodikhuu is a producer's producer living in a place without producers.  Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is a tough place for a guy obsessed with hip hop and rare vinyl flips.  Despite the lack of access, Bodikhuu knows as much about the American underground as anyone I know in New York. He also knows as much about Japanese hip hop and afro-funk and dozens of genres I'd never even heard of. 

"Why did you make a Brazil-themed album?" I asked via translator.  The reclusive Bodikhuu looked at me like I'd asked him why people dance.  "Bossa nova sounds like heaven" he said, looking up past Ulaanbaatar's new skyline.  An internet connection, a brutal winter, a small dark room, and a guy looking for a way out produced this glorious little album.   

Bodikhuu, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, September 2015 (disposable camera pic, Cyrus Moussavi)

Bodikhuu, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, September 2015 (disposable camera pic, Cyrus Moussavi)


How do you make metal heavier?【Tengger Cavalry】blends traditional Mongolian music with crushing riffs to honor their heritage.

Posted by Great Big Story on Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tengger Cavalry (Beijing / NYC) 

I teamed up with CNN's Great Big Story to produce this piece about Nature Ganganbaigal and his Mongolian heavy metal band Tengger Cavalry.  I met Nature in New York while preparing for our Mongolia trip.  He was playing the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) at a small gathering of Mongolians in Central Park.  We talked metal and Mongolia before I realized he'd never been there.  Like the Vikings and Norsemen that inspire so much western metal, the Mongol hordes are a great inspiration to metalheads in China.  It didn't help me with any contacts in-country, but it was a valuable piece of context. Plus the music is great. Nature and I kept in touch and back in New York we linked up for this piece.  


Myron B and Mistah Shak (Trinidad) - Exempo Calypso

I'd been running around all night with Beebo, a producer, bassman, musicologist, and generally serious dude who felt he had to teach my dumb ass a few things about Trinidad music.  We saw David Rudder, crossed the street to the smoke and dub haze of the 12 Tribes of Israel's 7 Nights reggae revival, and returned for more calypso.  The main event was canceled, and The Incredible Myron B and (equally incredible) Mistah Shak were chilling outside the performance tent with nowhere to go.  Beebo had been talking about the tradition of extempo -- the improvised rhyme battles Calypsonians have been throwing down for decades, way before rap was a thing.  Myron and Mistah Shak picked it up from there.  This is a glimpse of the looseness, creativity, personality, and joy that defined Trinidad for me (the flip-side -- corruption, heat, woozy mornings, ultra violence -- are harder to catch on film). 


NEW RAW MUSIC: Daw Mou Htou JamAn hour outside of Loikow, the capital of Kayan state in eastern Burma, we met Daw Mou Htou. She sells home-made corn wine at a roadside stall. In a place that was closed to foreigners until only a few years ago, Daw Mou Htou was surprisingly savvy with tourists. She was the only artist to charge us for performing on this trip. $10 bucks well spent. We asked her how she learned to play her incredible 4-string guitar. "My boyfriend!" she said, and giggled. Men serenaded her, but she chose the guitar.Daw Mou Htou was one of the few Kayan Lahwi women left in the area. Long oppressed by the Burmese military junta, the Lahwi fled to Thailand, where some of the refugee camps were turned into tourist attractions. Daw Mou Htou said she wanted to start wrapping the famous brass coils around the necks of her own daughters, passing on the tradition. But she acknowledged that it wasn't practical. "I want them to be able to work," she said. Or we think that's what she said. There are so many languages in this part of Burma that our interview went through three people before turning into English. For more, check the full Burma episode at NBC News: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/video/raw-music-burma-n354831

Posted by Raw Music International on Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Daw Mou Htou, Kayah State, Burma

An hour outside of Loikow, the capital of Kayan state in eastern Burma, Jacob and I met Daw Mou Htou. She sells home-made corn wine at a roadside stall. 

In a place that was closed to foreigners until only a few years ago, Daw Mou Htou was surprisingly savvy with tourists. She was the only artist to charge us for performing on this trip. $10 bucks well spent. 

We asked her how she learned to play her incredible 4-string guitar. "My boyfriend!" she said, and giggled. Men serenaded her, but she chose the guitar.

Daw Mou Htou was one of the few Kayan Lahwi women left in the area. Long oppressed by the Burmese military junta, the Lahwi fled to Thailand, where some of the refugee camps were turned into tourist attractions. 

Daw Mou Htou said she wanted to start wrapping the famous brass coils around the necks of her own daughters, passing on the tradition. But she acknowledged that it wasn't practical. "I want them to be able to work," she said. Or we think that's what she said. There are so many languages in this part of Burma that our interview went through three people before turning into English. 

For more, check the full Burma episode at NBC Newshttp://www.nbcnews.com/news/video/raw-music-burma-n354831


Arn Chorn - Pond and Seyma Thon (Cambodia)

Early December, at Arn's home an hour outside of Phnom Penh.  We woke on the Mekong River and spent the morning listening to Arn, Seyma Thon, and their band of friends and family go through the Cambodian Golden Era classics.  Arn is a Khmer Rouge survivor dedicated to recovering music lost during the genocide.  Seyma was born after Pol Pot, but the brutality of the late 70s lingers over the country, and no one is spared.  She has a beautiful voice and runs the Khmer Magic Music Bus.  The contrast between their joyous sound and their harrowing stories, between Arn's fingers flying over the flute and the look in his eye when he speaks of the past, came to define Cambodia for me.  One of the hardest places I've been, and some of the most uplifting music heard and powerful people I've met.  This is what Raw Music International is all about.