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.
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.
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).
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 News: http://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.