Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Sway Machinery Seeks to Connect Disparate Worlds at The Festival in the Desert (Huffington Post)

The Touareg people, nomads from the south of the Sahara in Northern Mali, West Africa, have a longstanding tradition of coming together for annual meetings called Takoubelt. These congregations allow them to reconnect with each other, have fun, resolve conflicts between individuals or groups, and exchange ideas about the challenges that they were facing at the moment. These gatherings are what "Le Festival au Désert" is built upon.

Every year since 2001, amidst the sweeping barren landscapes of the Sahara Desert, artists, nomads, patrons, musicians, tourists, and traders converge to create, share, and celebrate. On January 7-9, 2010, the tenth edition of The Festival in The Desert will take place featuring an all-star lineup of musicians from all over Africa, Europe and The United States, including The Sway Machinery.

The Festival Au Desert seeks to combine modernity and tradition, simultaneously opening its doors to the outside world while still preserving the cultures and traditions of the desert. It is in that vein that The Sway Machinery were invited to perform. For a band based out of Brooklyn, NY, The Sway Machinery have a decidedly desert sound. The group's leader and songwriter, Jeremiah Lockwood, descends from a familial tradition of Jewish Cantorial music to which his grandfather introduced him at a young age. He was also indoctrinated into the American blues when he met piedmont blues legend Carolina Slim at a music festival and went on to play with him in the subways of New York City for several years.

Lockwood's deeply personal relationship to these two musical traditions helped him to forge a unique musical language of his own fostering a unique blend of deeply moving sounds and concepts, bolstered by a powerful horn section featuring members of Afrobeat collective Antibalas such as Jordan McLean on Trumpet and Stuart Bogie on Tenor Sax. Add Colin Stetson rounding out the bottom register on Bass Saxophone and Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on drums, and what results is The Sway Machinery's rich, other-worldly sound that fuses influences and traditions from divergent cultures and places. Powerful and dynamic, yet entrancing and captivating, The Sway Machinery have a presentation that communicates on many differing levels.

"We have always strove with our music to connect seemingly disparate worlds--the past and the present, the secular and the profane, the obscure and the populist," Lockwood describes the opportunity The Festival Au Desert provides, "In this latest journey I see a wealth of connections opening up between cultures and between musicians and between individuals that would never have been otherwise possible."

Malian music is and has been for some time a source of inspiration for Lockwood, "I've been heavily into Malian music for the last five years or so, initially having gotten excited about the music through hearing records of Boubacar Traore. I immediately heard in it connections to the early Blues records that have always been a central part of my musical life. This connection between the old world and the new also resonated with me deeply--it felt connected on a deep level with the process I am going through in trying to delve into my family's Jewish musical heritage."

The connection Lockwood identified is one many European and American artists have sought out in the past. In 2003, Robert Plant (lead singer of Led Zeppelin) performed at the festival and described it as one of the highlights of his career. The music of West Africa has had a global impact on many levels. Not only do contemporary African musicians like Vieux Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté tour the world and enjoy widespread acclaim and success, but American blues and rock 'n roll descend from West African musical traditions carried over through the Atlantic Slave Trade. Those musical traits have permeated contemporary musical trends all over the world several times over.

As part of their pilgrimage to Mali, The Sway Machinery plan to record an album in Bamako, Mali's capital city, at the legendary Studio Bogolan, which was founded by the late African guitar legend Ali Farka Touré. The album will feature Malian musicians including Khaira Arby, "The diva of Timbuktu." They also have enlisted eight-time Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock to follow the band through their journey and document their experiences.

A journey such as this is not inexpensive. Transportation costs for both getting across the Atlantic as well as maneuvering within the country will be substantial. Recording an album as well as filming a documentary will place an even greater burden on the band's monetary limits. Over the past six months, Jeremiah Lockwood has undertaken the massive effort of raising funds for their journey, but they are still in desperate need of donations. Lockwood describes their situation eloquently:

"I am a strong believer in the ability of the powerful emotions present in the aesthetic experience to enact deep change in the lives of those who are open to them. It has always been my goal with my music to create moments where this kind of change can take place. It is my deepest hope that our performance at the Festival of the Desert will bring this goal to its highest point yet. The recording and documentary film we will make about our experience will allow us to share this experience with all of the world!

"The missing ingredient is not passion or artistic achievement or even opportunity. The missing ingredient, sadly, is money. At this moment, I come to you all with open hands, wishing that you will open yourselves to our passionate desire to see this project to fruition and that you will help us in any way you can!"

If you are able and willing to help fund The Sway Machinery's pilgrimage of cross-cultural exchange and artistic ingenuity, please do so through this website:

FELA! Pumps New Life Into the Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Huffington Post)

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a Nigerian dissident, multi-instumentalist, composer, innovator, and arguably the most dynamic protest figure the world has ever seen. His perpetual, uncompromising protest voice has influenced societies across several continents and his legacy is growing at an exponential rate. Knitting Factory Records is reissuing his entire catalogue in North America over the next eighteen months, afrobeat bands are re-inventing the genre Fela created all over North America and Europe, and FELA!, the Bill T. Jones-Antibalas production, began its broadway run at the Eugene O'Neill theater in New York last month.

FELA! enjoyed a widely acclaimed Off-Broadway run last year. Bill T. Jones, a Tony award winning director and choreographer, Rikki Stein, Fela's former manager and the executor of his estate, playwright Jim Lewis, and members of Antibalas, a Brooklyn Afrobeat collective, collaborated to put together a production that used Fela's music to tell the story of his life through 1978. With Sahr Ngaujah starring in the leading role, Bill T. Jones' ensemble cast and Antibalas re-created the atmosphere, attitude, and ambience of The Shrine, Fela's home night club in Lagos, Nigeria.

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938 to a wealthy family. He was sent to London to acquire a medical education at the age of 20, but enrolled in Trinity music school upon arrival. He studied the trumpet, arrangement, composition and started a band, Koola Lobitos. Fela returned to Nigeria and re-formed Koola Lobitos upon graduating, but found limited success establishing himself musically.

In 1969, Fela and Koola Lobitos traveled to The United States. It was in Los Angeles that Fela met Sandra Isidore, an American woman who was affiliated with the Black Panther Party. She exposed Fela not only to Malcolm X and African-American ideology, but also African-American funk music of the era. It was this key introduction that allowed Fela to make the initial breakthrough in his music, recording My Lady's Frustration, and creating an original distinctive style--Afrobeat--that brought together his traditional African rhythms and instruments with a funky sensibility.

Fela came back to Nigeria armed with his new sound and heightened political awareness, renamed his band to Afrika 70, and unleashed Afrobeat on his home continent. Fela used his incredibly infectious music to draw the peoples' ears and then spoke to their conscience with his unrelenting political diatribes against the injustices of the Nigerian government winning the respect of the masses across West Africa. Traditional African instruments, James Brown style funk, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, modal jazz improvisation and politically conscious lyrics all synthesized to create an original sound that influenced people all over the world.

Aaron Johnson, trombonist of Antibalas and musical director of FELA!, recollects his first encounter with Fela and afrobeat, "It was my college roommate, Torbit Schwartz at the New School, he played me my first Fela record, Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense. From the first time I heard Fela's music I was immediately so enthralled, and I just wanted to go hunt the shit down, and you couldn't find it anywhere, I mean I scoured New York City." Johnson's experience of being captivated but unable to dive into afrobeat headfirst is common. Although Fela's influence is widespread, his music is largely an underground phenomenon. His songs ranged from ten to twenty-five minutes in length, so he was never able to fit into a popular music category limiting his distribution in North America and Europe.

"That was Fela's thing, his thing was 'I'm not a pop artist. I don't have any intention of writing three and half minute songs for airplay,'" said Kevin Mambo, the Zimbabwean actor sharing the lead role in FELA! with Sahr Ngaujah. He pointed out the challenge Fela's elongated style posed to the ensemble cast, "We've found a really efficient way to convey this music without cheapening or making light of it. Antibalas--Aaron Johnson and Jordan Maclean--have done an amazing job of abbreviating the music without cheapening it.

"I really want people to have an appreciation of his music. I also want people to have an appreciation of the man," Mambo described his aim in portraying Fela on the stage. He wants FELA! to contribute to the growing afrobeat revival taking place in North America and Europe, "I also want people to leave the theater hungry for more. Looking to fill in the gaps, looking to understand more about his experience, looking to understand more about his culture, Yoruba Culture, looking towards Africa."

Aaron Johnson has played a major role in the afrobeat revival as part of Antibalas, "I remember when we first went on the road and there were no other afrobeat bands anywhere. Now every town we go to has one. I'm proud to have contributed to the growth and spread of the music all thanks to Fela. Fela is the ultimate artist, we're just trying to translate his music and bring it to a new audience."

The years of dedicated hard work has definitely paid off for Johnson and other afrobeat musicians who sought to further Fela's legacy. Kevin Mambo pointed out Fela's anti-establishment message has a new relevance today, "The stuff is now getting a life of its own and it's been introduced to a lot of people who knew nothing about any of this music when it happened, but it's all so relevant. The movement is growing. This is music for people, this is not music for money as such. This is not commercial music, there are not any other venues in which to participate unless it's on the ground."

Whether you're an abrobeat fanatic, or you've never heard of Fela Kuti before, FELA! will knock your socks off. Tickets are available online at, via phone, and at the theater box office. Group rates are available as well as rush rates (in person at the box office two hours prior to showtime). This play will take the afrobeat revival to the next level. Find out for yourself what the movement is all about.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Bajah & The Dry Eye Crew Give Voice to the Voiceless in Sierra Leone (Huffington Post)

"Dry Eye is like being bold, not being afraid to say what you wanna say. It's like being outspoken, you understand?" That's what it means to be "Dry Eye" according to Bajah, frontman of Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew, a burgeoning hip-hop group from Sierra Leone who released their first mixtape to American audiences earlier this week. Already national superstars in their native Sierra Leone, The Dry Eye Crew are one of the fastest rising acts on the international music scene today. They've released ten albums since 2000 in Sierra Leone, and their first full-length LP is due out in the fall with guest appearances from hip-hop luminaries Talib Kweli, Black Thought, ?uestlove, and fellow African hip-hop sensation K'Naan from Somalia.

Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew consist of Bajah, A-Klazz and Dovy Dovy. The three rappers came together in Sierra Leone where they're embraced as 'the voice of the voiceless.' Sierra Leone has a history of suppressing the freedom of the press, so when musicians take an active role in creating conscious dialogue, people take notice. It helps, of course, that The Crew has an electric stage presence and energy led by Bajah's rapid fire lyrics reinforced by live instrumentation and call and response refrains. They have the floor shaking rhythm of dance hall with the social consciousness of Fela Kuti, a combination that's creating a craze around their name.

Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew first made headway in the American market with the help of their record label, Modiba Productions, in the summer of 2007. Label president Eric Herman described how the process unfolded, "Vanessa Wruble [manager] reached out to Modiba after having been recommended us on a music listserve. We met them at a coffee shop with about a dozen of their friends -- fairly overwhelming. First thing Bajah told us: 'I wanna be bigger than Akon'. I was out of town during that summer on tour with Vieux Farka Toure -- Jesse Brenner helped Bajah and Dry Eye put some shows together in NYC and kept reporting back to me how phenomenal they were. The night I got back from tour they played a showcase at Joe's Pub and they knocked me on my ass. We started moving towards signing them the next day."

It's been a gradual process for Modiba and Dry Eye. Bajah's first single in Sierra Leone, "Grap n Clap", was featured on the soundtrack for 2006 film Blood Diamond . Then in August of 2007, their first single "Ease the Tension", was released online as a free download and was eventually featured in the Canadian drama TV show "The Border" on CBC last year. And earlier this week their first mixtape, Kings of Salone: The DJ Gravy Mixtape, was released online through the their website and websites. (Salone is what natives call Sierra Leone.)

The Crew is now living in Brooklyn, NY and are focused on penetrating the US market. Bajah commented on the transition from Sierra Leone to Brooklyn, "Well, you know Sierra Leone is the least developed country, so if we can [survive] in Sierra Leone we can [survive] any other place. We're trying to adapt to the American style. Sierra Leone is our homeland, so people already know what we're capable of doing, the fans are already going crazy for us, they really love what we're doing you know? We're for the people, and they already know us back home, but in Brooklyn, we're not yet known, so sometimes people give us the Dry Eye sign, and we'll keep things moving."

Bajah has high hopes for Dry Eye's first full length album, but having released ten albums already in Sierra Leone, he knows it's a process, "Since this is my first album, I really want it to be huge, but since it's my first, I just want to see the reception of the people. I don't know what people are going to like. When I did my thing in Sierra Leone I put out my first album in a different style and saw how people reacted and then changed things up from there." The process of working with icons like Talib Kweli and ?uestlove was a humbling experience for him, "Back in the day when I was still in Africa, I used to see ?uestlove, Talib Kweli, I used to see these people on TV, I never knew I was gonna meet these people, shake hands with them, work with them, you know, so it's a blessing."

Bajah speaks on the Wall Street Journal-hosted Planet Hip-Hop panel at Lincoln Center August 4th, alongside ?uestlove, Chuck D. and Steve Stoute, discussing international hip-hop. Then August 6th, Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew perform at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park Bandshell as part of the free show, Hip-Hop Generation Next.

Nigerian Government Close The New Afrika Shrine (Huffington Post)

What would you do if two nights before you planned to leave the country for several months to travel across North America and Europe, the government showed up at your front door and said you and everyone else who lives in your building has 24 hours to vacate the premises? What if your home was also your place of business in addition to a community center and shelter for dozens of downtrodden members of your community?

That was the dilemma facing Femi Anikulapo Kuti two weeks ago. Just nights before he was set to embark on an international tour across North America and Europe, the Nigerian government decreed The New Afrika Shrine, Femi's home base nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria, was to be closed permanently. The Shrine, however, is more than simply a music venue -- it is a sanctuary for the homeless and dispossessed, a community center meeting place and the headquarters for the Kutis' movement to better the lives of ordinary Nigerians by speaking out against corruption, encouraging empowerment, and distributing anti-aids literature and contraception.

The original Afrika Shrine was built in the seventies by Femi's father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Femi started playing with his father's band, Egypt 80, at the age of 16. It was at the original Afrika
Shrine that Femi started performing with his own band, Positive Force, on Sunday nights. Femi started developing his own sound, going in his own direction, and since then has released nine albums and toured the world several times.

Femi Kuti and Positive Force are one of the most powerfully revolutionary musical acts left on the planet. From the music itself -- wailing horns and voices sailing over the multi-layered
percussive elements accentuated by scratchy guitars and winding bass lines, all facilitated by an army of musicians and dancers that overtake any stage they touch, to their powerful message of African unity, accountability in government, and peace -- very few acts on the planet can compete.

So in a way, it's understandable why the Nigerian government wants the Shrine's doors permanently closed. According to Femi, it's due to the crowds that block the roads connecting to the club, "They said people were selling things outside, like sweets, and fried meats, biscuits, things like this on the streets, not in the shrine, on the streets, on the major road. So they are closing the shrine because we let people come and sell things there. How do they expect us to get rid of these people? Do we own the road? The road belongs to the federal government. How we can we go to the federal governments' property and 'say get out of here?' It's the government's problem to do that. They have to remove them not us."

The Nigerian government does have a history when it comes to harassing the Kuti family. Femi's father was arrested over 200 times in his life, and his dwelling place was attacked more than once by the Nigerian army. Femi is very different from his father in a lot of ways, but unfortunately, he cannot escape his family name and the pedigree with which it comes.

Femi asserts that the CIA was behind the most famous attack on his father's compound, a raid in which his house was set on fire, his family raped and beaten, and his mother thrown out of a second story window. "An american, I don't want to name names here, came to warn my father before the attack and warned him the CIA wanted him dead. He said it many times. He was warned that the CIA was going to kill him. I was there, I heard him say it many times. Any western government is always opposed to any Pan-African in government."

Like his father, Femi has always stood for the empowerment of Africans and against corruption. Femi was proud to see Barack Obama elected president but does not want him to give African governments any kind of pass because of his African roots, "I hope he won't be lenient in dealing with the corruption of African governments because he's a black man. I hope he doesn't fall for that. He has to be very objective, because all the African governments are corrupt. I think that is where he should be hard because he should want Africa to become a great continent. He has to be very hard on his policies, because he has to put an end to the corruption with his policies in Africa. He has to prove that the African government is not being proper democracy according to what we know it should be."

Femi Kuti and Positive Force are currently touring across North America. There is a petition to the Governor of Lagos and Nigeria's Minister of Justice circulating online for the re-opening of the Shrine. Please go to this website and add your name to the list because in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Balkan Beat Box Speaks the Universal Language (Huffington Post)

Balkan Beat Box is a globally conscious floor shaking explosion of sound and energy. Started by Israeli musicians Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat in 2004, BBB takes many shapes and forms incorporating a changing roster of musicians, dancers, and stage effects as they tour the world. Their live show has the energy of George Clinton and P-Funk in their prime, or Fela Kuti and Africa 70 utilizing the rhythms and melodies of their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern roots combined with an eclectic concoction of influences from the rest of the electric and organic world. Their third full-length LP Nu-Med Remix was released April 7, 2009 on JDub Records.

Wailing horns, booming bass, winding guitar lines, thumping drums and screaming vocals all combine to make up Balkan Beat Box's live presentation. The crowd is dancing, if not jumping, rhythm is reverberating from all angles and directions as percussionists, horn players, vocalists, and dancers all rotate around the stage. Objects, substances and people fly on, off and around the stage as the show romps and raves from set to set. There are very few live musical experiences quite like a Balkan Beat Box concert.

Diversity is a concept Balkan Beat Box champions. Their stated mission is to erase borders musically and politically. "I think our 'mission' is more a natural reaction rather then a task. It's the music which comes out by default, and the emotions and political attitude that is a default for us. We are musicians committed to making great music, but aware of the power of music to change hearts and lead. We see it work one by one as listeners talk to us on the road," Ori Kaplan commented.

Kaplan grew up in Israel but moved to New York in 1991. It was in the musically rich environment of New York City in the late 90's that he grew as a musician playing with bands like Gogol Bordello and Firewater, which spearheaded the Eastern European cultural revolution taking place in the city. It was also in New York that Kaplan met Tamir Muskat.

Muskat hails from Tel Aviv, Israel and moved to New York in 1995 at which point he had already established himself as a leader in the Israeli rock scene as a drummer and producer. He joined Firewater and began his career collaborating with Kaplan. In 2004 along with other members of Gogol Bordello they created J.U.F. (Jüdisch-Ukrainische Freundschaft), and released Gogol Bordello vs. Tamir Muskat, an album which acted as a precursor to what became Balkan Beat Box.

New York musicians such as Jeremiah Lockwood, Dana Leong, Itamar Ziegler, and Peter Hess all joined the party as Balkan Beat Box began to evolve. The collaborator that leaves the biggest imprint on BBB, however is without a doubt Tomer Yosef. Yosef began his acting career as a stand-up comedian and film actor in Israel in the early 1990's. Tomer moved to New York City in 1998 and along with Itamar Ziegler started a nine-piece band called The Zion Train. He appeared on BBB's debut album as a guest vocalist before becoming a full-time part of the team. Yosef is the perfect front-man for Balkan Beat Box. Very few vocalists could match the energy and sensibility of such a powerful ensemble, but Yosef does so and then some. Jumping off the stage, throwing water in the crowd, stripping, it's all part of his routine

Their next album, will be a continuation of the BBB global mission. They recorded parts in Belgrade, Serbia with some local Gypsy musicians and also plan to implement elements of Latin American musics that have infiltrated their sound as they tour. "We feel like something new is happening with the new record, (which is almost ready) more personal content i would say, more lyrics, we speak about how we feel about politics, cultural issues and love. This is something we didn't do much before," Tamir Muskat commented.

Balkan Beat Box is one of the most dynamic live shows on the planet. Their energy, seamless fusion of heterogeneous elements, attitude and sensibility all combine to make the entire crowd jump song after song. Coming from such a segregated area of the world has informed them with a powerfully unifying perspective that is truly an inspiring example for their homeland and the rest of the world to follow.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Album Review: Extra Golden-Thank You Very Quickly (Farafina Magazine)

Extra Golden is a powerfully vivacious Kenyan-American ensemble that fuses Kenyan Benga and American rock. They are currently touring in support of their latest release, Thank You Very Quickly, an album composed in the wake of Kenya's post-election violence in 2008 and released March 19, 2008 on Thrill Jockey Records.

Singing in both English as well as Swahili and borrowing guitar riffs from everyone from Jerry Garcia to Djelimady Tounkara, Extra Golden has a unique sound. All six tracks on Thank You Very Quickly are rough and fierce. Using time signatures like 12/8 and employing a distorted, bluesy guitar style, Extra Golden breaks the mold of most African guitar bands. Unlike the clean sound of Congolese Soukous or more traditional Kenyan Benga, Extra Golden sounds dirty and rugged.

Extra Golden was born during 2004 when Ian Eagleson, Alex Minoff and Otieno Jagwasi began fiddling with each other’s compositions in an apartment in the Buru Buru neighborhood of Nairobi. Eagleson was completing Ethnomusicological field work in Kenya at the time, and what started as casual jam sessions have evolved into three albums and an international touring schedule.

Extra Golden go about their work with a few simple goals in mind: to write songs that tell stories of life, love and loss; to praise people and places that are dear to their hearts; and, most of all, to create a sound that people of different backgrounds and generations can enjoy.

If you like to rock regardless of where you're from, I highly recommend Extra Golden's third album, Thank You Very Quickly.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Emmanuel Jal, Child Soldier Turned Activist Rapper, Uses Music To Fight (Huffington Post)

"I believe I've survived for a reason, to tell my story to touch lives." Emmanuel Jal is a child soldier veteran of the Sudanase Civil War, who released his third full-length hip-hop album earlier this year, War Child, on Sonic 360 Records. A documentary about his life with the same title is currently touring the international film circuit, and a book about his life with the same title was published earlier this month on St. Martin's Press.

Jal was born in the village of Tonj in Southern Sudan in the early 1980's (he's not certain of the exact year). When he was about seven years old, his father joined the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). His mother was killed by soldiers loyal to the government, and his aunt was raped in front of him. He was then taken to Ethiopia with a group of kids who were promised an education in the neighboring country, but upon arrival, they were forced to become soldiers in the SPLA. Jal returned to Sudan to fight in the civil war, and for nearly five years, he was a war child, forced to fight carrying an AK-47 that was taller than he was.

In the early 90's, Jal was rescued by a British aid worker named Emma McCune who smuggled him into Nairobi, Kenya to raise him as her own. It was there he first heard hip-hop. Tupac Shakur, Public Enemy and Biggie Smalls were some of the artists that affected him the most early on. "The things they used to talk about is what I wanted to listen to. Talking about being chased by police, drugs in the community. It was like they were communicating, and that made me interested in it."

While he draws his inspiration from contemporary hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Nas, Emmanuel Jal is nothing like a typical American rapper. Songs off his latest album like "Skirt Too Short" and "No Bling" speak out against what Jal sees as being wrong with the hip-hop industry: rampant sexism, materialism, and violence. However, Jal doesn't blame the rappers themselves. "It's the record companies that are pushing products that are not constructive to the community. MTV won't play anything that doesn't have half-naked women. Anything that has violence or sex they love it. Violence and sex sells. But the thing is, we have to think about the children, because the children then think, 'ok this is how the world is supposed to be.'"

In his song "50 Cent," Jal singles out the American rapper and tells him he's "being played by the man." Jal takes issue with 50 Cent's glamorization of violence and drugs and feels he has a harmful impact on those who idolize him. "I took a shortcut picking 50 Cent because in this generation 50 Cent is the top. Today, everywhere you go in Africa, in America, every kid wants to be like 50. So I say to him, 'Look man, you gotta be careful, a lot of kids look up to you. You can make a lot of money but you're going to do a lot of damage to these young peoples' lives.'"

Jal asserts musicians should be conscious of the role they play in society and use it to effect positive change. "Musicians should think and reason because we're in a time of crisis. To get people aware of what's happening, the shortcut is music. We gotta inform people, music can help pass informational messages easily. It's time for us to talk about issues affecting our nations."

As someone whose life has been ravaged by war, Jal feels an obligation to use his platform as a musician to fight against the oppression and suffering of his people. "I have no choice. I had no childhood. I had no family to take me to school, pay my school fees, play video games, play football, have a life, get Christmas gifts. I didn't have that. My childhood has been stolen. The only thing I have is to talk about what happened to me, to spread the voice of those kids that have none. My country is still at war, people are still dying."

According to the United Nations, 300,000 people have died and more than 2.2 million have fled their homes in the Sudanese Civil War. Jal uses his music to tell the world about his experiences and that of those who don't have a voice. "The way I look at it, I'm writing down history. I'm bringing what happened in my life to the international community. I feel responsible, I'm like the voice of those people."

Through his music, his book, and the film about his life, Jal aims to bring notoriety to the struggle of his people. Jal started his own charity--Gua Africa--to help rescued child soldiers start over in life similar to how he was given a second chance. His mission is to build a school in honor of the aid worker who rescued him, Emma McCune. He is currently only eating one meal a day until he raises enough money.

To find out how to volunteer your time and/or money to help the people of Sudan and Emmanuel Jal's cause, go to

For more information on Emmanuel Jal, check out his website, MySpace page and this Youtube video.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Asa: The Next Generation's Voice Of African Protest (Huffington Post)

What do you get when you take a little bit of Bob Marley, a chunk of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, add some India Arie pre-mixed with Miriam Makeba and Angélique Kidjo and finish it off with a whole lot of Yoruba classics like King Sunny Ade? Asa, the Nigerian singer who's first full-length album "Asa" hit U.S. markets January 27, 2009 on Downtown Records' new imprint, Mercer St. Records.

Asa has a politically conscious yet sweet sounding vocal presentation that with the help of her dreadlocks and guitar is exceptionally reminiscent of Bob Marley. After she was born in Paris, Asa moved back to the homeland of her parents, Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of two. It was there that her identity musically and otherwise took shape. "Growing up in Lagos, you get to see the realities of life. Things were not perfect. My parents were struggling parents. We were always looking for a better future, but in my time I think things haven't changed, they've only gotten worse. You can't escape the political sides of life when you live in Nigeria. I felt I needed to use my music to talk about this."

Asa's father exposed her to music from all over Africa as well as the United States. "I grew up around music, my father had a lot of records, Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba, Yoruba Classic songs I listened to all kinds of music, I drew inspiration and picked pieces from everybody. Angelique Kidjo, Femi Kuti, Keziah Jones, Lagbaja, they all inspire me in different ways. Coming from the Yoruba culture there's a strong musical identity blending with my language to create what I do."

The Yoruba people of West Africa have one of the most pronounced musical traditions of any culture in the world dating back multiple centuries. International African superstars such as King Sunny Ade and Fela Anikulapo Kuti are two of the most famous examples of Yoruba musicians, but there is a long history of lesser known Yoruba folk music in a variety of styles such as Fuji, Juju, Highlife, Apala, and others that all influenced Asa's cultural development.

Asa represents the next generation of Yoruba musicians, along with other contemporary Yoruba artists such as Keziah Jones and Femi Kuti, to continue the tradition of using music as a common ground to bring their culture to the attention of the world. "I come as an African singer, someone who originated in Africa but talking about things that relate to everybody. I also use it as way to introduce myself, my culture and my language. I don't like to be seen as World Music, that's a misconception. I am a singer who puts my roots down in Africa for you to see, but it doesn't matter my nationality."

While Asa's music has a sweet, aesthetically pleasing overall sound, it does have a social commentary message. Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, two of the world's biggest icons of musical protest and Asa's stated two biggest influences, taught Asa to use her music as a weapon to effect positive change and increase awareness of the world's unrecognized realities. "Fela used to be like the newspaper. You would get up in the morning and read the newspaper like listening to Fela to know what's going on. People who were educated and informed were listening to Fela. While I was growing up and listening to this man, I saw a lot of things, I saw courage, I saw the ability to use music as a weapon to educate and inform people and also to connect other people, Africans, to give them hope and also have the rest of the world informed about Africa and its people and the world at large. Fela has helped me see this way to use my music, not only Fela but Bob Marley, today we still listen to him, we use his lyrics in our everyday experiences. They used music as a weapon, and as a tool to bring people together."

Check out her "Jailer" video here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Yas: Iran's Hip-Hop Sensation (Huffington Post)

Since its genesis in the South Bronx in the 1980's, hip-hop has become one of America's most prolific exports reaching places you might expect, like Africa and Latin America, and places you might not, like Iran. Yas, a 27-year-old rapper from Tehran, first heard hip-hop at the age of 16 when his father started bringing him Tupac albums from his business trips abroad. Since then, he has become the first and only rapper to legally release his music in Iran and tour
internationally playing dates in Dubai, London, New York and Los Angeles.

Yas doesn't speak English, but once he heard the rhythm, rhyme schemes, emotion and passion in Tupac's voice, he was extremely affected by the power of hip-hop. When his father died abruptly, Yas became the sole provider for his family at the age of 18, and hip-hop was the only outlet for his emotion and anguish. "When I started to listen to the music and I heard the strength of his voice I really started to feel the energy of the music coming through. I really enjoyed the way he flowed and rhymed on the beat."

While Yas could feel the power and emotion of hip-hop without understanding the lyrics, it was when he began to translate Tupac songs that he realized the real power of hip-hop's message.

"After a while I started to pay closer attention to the music [and] I realized there was a lot more there to it, he was talking about real issues. I started to translate the lyrics and realized he's singing about society and the culture, about his perspective. I realized then that any kind of music that was going to stick around and have any kind of lasting effect had to say something real. It had to have a message and a deeper significance to it, in any kind of genre."

Persian culture has produced some of the world's most esteemed poets. Yas was inspired by Tupac's style and message, but he was also inspired by his own life and culture. "Hip-hop began in America, but Iran has had one of the longest traditions of poetry of any in the world. Poetry is in our blood. If he could sing about his life and pain and his culture, why couldn't I do the same thing in my own language, and that's where it all began."

Any music, books, or film to be released publicly in Iran have to be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. I asked Yas why he's been able to get past the censorship, "The more you limit something the more it becomes popular. Rap is a new style of music in
Iran. The people that censor things don't acknowledge rap as something to be taken seriously just yet. Even though it's extremely popular."

Yas was quick to point out American hip-hop artists like Tupac faced similar barriers and biases. In the early 90's, Dan Quayle was only willing to acknowledge hip-hop as being obscene and offensive, denying its legitimacy as an art form. "Nobody wanted to believe that hip-hop
would be a legitimate art form, just like nobody would believe there'd be a black president in America just like Tupac said in Changes. He said we'd never see it. It's very interesting to see that changes are happening and no one would've believed hip-hop would be popular in Iran,
but now you walk down the street, and there isn't a single car that isn't listening to hip-hop."

Yas is an ambassador for music's ability to bridge gaps and break barriers. He would like to see the United States and Iran as allies and would like to use music and culture to facilitate that friendship, "I can see from coming to the US and having seen both sides, the people of Iran want peace and want good relations with America, and people over here want the same thing, from what I've seen. I think right now is a good time to open up a friendship and change directions. It's important that we use music to show that the people have no issues with each other, that the people have no problems with each other.

"Our two cultures are a great match. One of my goals when I'm here is to work with a great American rapper to help me get my message out to a wider audience. I'd like to take a step forward with American hiphop." Yas is cognizant of the international appeal of his music
and tries to stay conscious of that when he writes in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, "One of my main goals is to put Persian rap on the map, but my biggest goal is to get my voice out to the world. Why should it matter that my language happens to be Farsi? My words are about my culture but also about the world as a whole."

Check out Yas on Myspace and YouTube here and here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Album Review: Femi Kuti-Day By Day (Afropop Worldwide)

Day By Day, the first studio album by Femi Kuti in seven years out November 18th on Downtown Records, re-established the prince of Afrobeat as a voice in the contemporary Afrobeat community. His trademark punchy horn lines and passionate vocals represent Femi's style having grown but not changed significantly. He still has his own style, his own sound, and his own message, different from his father Fela and brother Seun.

As the son of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Afrobeat pioneer, African musical icon, and international protest figure, Femi played in his legendary father's band, Egypt 80, from a young age. He later broke away from Egypt 80 to start his own band, Positive Force, which played at The Shrine, Fela's home club in Lagos, Nigeria, one night a week. Femi has long displayed his father's passion for social justice and political action, but has differed from Fela on many fronts including his religious views and AIDS.

A few of the tracks on Day by Day are studio versions of songs performed on Africa Shrine, Femi's live album and Concert DVD such as "Oyimbo" and "One Two". Almost every song on the album has a strong political message like "Tell Me" and "Demo Crazy". Several of the tracks have a soft, jazzy feel at times such as "Tension Grip Africa" and "Untitled". Using the organ, guitar, trumpet, and various percussion instruments, Femi creates a soft backdrop against which the powerful horn section of Positive Force clashes.

"Do You Know?", a track that starts off with a funky bass line and Femi asking, "Do you know Miles Davis? Do you know John Coltrane? Dizzy Gilespie? Duke Ellington? Do you know Billy Holliday?" has a particularly funky groove. The guitar and organ parts are emphasized in a sly, scratchy manner in the early part of the song before the horn section comes in as a whole and then solos. Femi has been honing his keyboard skills for the past several years. His progress is evident on this track as the funky jazz vibe furnished by the keys and guitar parts is especially accentuated.

A few of the tracks are studio versions of songs performed on Africa Shrine, Femi's live album and Concert DVD such as "Oyimbo" and "One Two". Almost every song on the album has a strong political message like "Tell Me" and "Demo Crazy".

When younger brother Seun released his album Many Things earlier this year, a lot of people in the music community were ready to forget about Femi. People were ready to ordain Seun as the leader of the next generation of Afrobeat. Seun and Femi are very different and Day by Day is a clear example why. Seun, playing with Egypt 80, is picking up where his father left off, playing the same style and representing Fela's legacy. Femi has never been concerned with being the next Fela. Postivie Force and Egypt 80 co-existed for several years before Fela's death. Femi has always had his own style and sound, and Day by Day is a continuation of Femi's legacy of originality.

Femi Kuti