Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bouncing Cats, A New Film by Nabil Elderkin, Shows How Hip-Hop Empowers Lives Across the Globe (Huffington Post)

Bouncing Cats is a documentary film shot and directed by Nabil Elderkin that tells the powerful story of Abramz Tekya, the organization he founded, and hip-hop pioneer Richard "Crazy Legs" Colon of the legendary Rock Steady Crew's trip to Uganda.  Elderkin follows the legendary B-Boy and several members of his crew as they travel to Uganda to teach breakdancing to the youth of urban Kampala (Uganda's capital city) and the war-torn northern region of the country.  While the B-Boys in Uganda are exhilarated to have Crazy Legs come to their hometown, the trip has an equally galvanizing effect on Crazy Legs and his life.

Abramz Tekya started Breakdance Project Uganda in 2006 as a means to empower himself and those around him to initiate social change.  Offering free dance classes twice a week, hip-hop is the tool Abramz uses to bring people into the organization, but he aims to do much more than teach people how to dance, "We're a hip-hop organization, but we're not just promoting hip-hop culture.  We're using hip-hop culture to empower people to help people.  That's why when people come to our program we usually try to help them discover themselves, get to know more about them instead of just being b-boys or b-girls.  So we realize we want to be computer literate.  People want to be writers, photographers, videographers, but they don't have the opportunity, so when they come to us, as an organization we try to see how we can use our influence or connections to help them get to their dreams.  So some people have become computer literate, or get school fees to go back to school, so there's a lot going on." 

Nabil Elderkin was first introduced to Abramz and BPU through a mutual friend working for OXFAM in Northern Uganda.  He was traveling through the region documenting the conflict areas with his camera.  Having shot and directed music videos for hip-hop artists such as The Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, and K'Naan, he was pointed in the direction of Kampala where he met Abramz.  He was amazed by what he saw and committed to come back to document the amazing work Abramz was doing.  He pitched the idea to Red Bull who eventually produced the film and connected Crazy Legs with the project.

"I've been signed to Red Bull as an athelete for 7-8 years, they presented it to me, it's a trip to Uganda, Africa, there's no money involved and I was like hell yea, I'm down, let's do this.  But for me I was into it more for selfish reasons.  I'm going to go to the home of the beat, for me that's where breakbeats started," Crazy Legs described what attracted him to the project originally.  "I didn't really understand the full scope of what I was about to be involved with, and the depth of the situation over there.  It became more of a mission after I came back."

Some of the film's most compelling footage is seeing Crazy Legs and the other members of his crew interact with the members of BPU and discover how much they share.  When the founding members of BPU and Rock Steady first meet, Crazy Legs stresses what they have in common, "It's important for you to know, this isn't something that came out of America, this came out of the South Bronx, the South Bronx at that time could have been any third world country, and that's what we have in common, the fact that we all come from shitty conditions, we're born poor.  This didn't cost me anything as a child, anything I wanted to do cost money, whether it be boxing, baseball.  Any sport we wanted to do cost money, but this...(he starts tapping a beat on a table and bopping his head), and you start doing your thing."

Crazy Legs and his crew then continue on their journey, teaching workshops organized by BPU in Kampala both in a community center auditorium as well as in the middle of Kissini, a slum community of over 30,000 people living without running water or adequate sanitation.  The experience visibly affects Crazy Legs as he walks through the streets and sees children walking through mud with bare feet, playing with machetes and sniffing glue to deal with their hunger pains.  He comments in the film, "I felt like I was in hell for a second, and it has nothing to do with the people, but the conditions."

While the experience of seeing the most poverty-stricken area in urban Kampala is a powerful experience, traveling to the village of Gulu, in Northern Uganda is even more dramatic.  Much of Northern Uganda remains devastated by a civil war where children were abducted and forced to become child soldiers, innocent by-standers had their limbs and/or facial features amputated, and girls as young as 12 or 13 were raped.  Abramz bravely travelled to Northern Uganda at a time when no one dared in order to bring BPU to the people of the region as a means of recovery and recuperation for their spirit and to provide a sense of hope.

Director Nabil Elderkin displayed a delicate balance in his selection of graphic images from the Northern conflict area.  While he didn't want to alienate any members of his audience, he wanted to show the gravity and reality of the situation, "It's a fine balance with any graphic imagery.  I just wanted to show conflict, I wanted to show them this is the reality, this is the situation they've been put through.  Without adding extra layers that don't need to be there, it's all about putting it into context, and not exploiting."

It's in Northern Uganda, during a workshop led by Crazy Legs and his crew, that Rocksteady is on the receiving end of a dance lesson.  Abramz explains in the film that when he first ventured to Gulu, he would only teach the local kids b-boy moves after they taught him one of their tribal dances.  In that tradition, the kids in Crazy Legs' workshop perform their tribal dances for him, and he and his crew become the students.

One of the major themes of the film, is seeing the artform of hip-hop and breakdance come full circle and return to the ancestral source of their creation.  While hip-hop culture evolved out of the cultural and socio-economic milieux of mid-1970's South Bronx, the cultural practices ingrained in the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American values that spawned urban hip-hop culture all trace their lineage back to Africa.  Abramz is acutely aware of that lineage and encourages those he teaches to incorporate their traditional African dances into their b-boy moves.

Hip-hop artists such as Mos Def,, and K'Naan all comment on the relationship hip-hop has to African culture.  Born and raised in Somalia, K'Naan has the most personal insight on the subject matter.  He comments in the film, "The songs have a universal feeling of struggle, and hope and overcoming the odds.  These are the stories that humanity is made of and for that reason it connects wherever the music is heard."

Nabil Elderkin commented on hip-hop coming full-circle, returning to the source, "I thought it was really beautiful, that's one of the things that inspired me the most about this project, it was seeing something I'm involved with my work in photography and music videos, seeing this music and artform come full circle seeing the place where the beat originated.  As K'Naan said in the film, there's poets who have been using drum beats and speaking poetry for thousands of years. I'm sure it was all over Africa, I'm sure the beat has been going on for thousands and thousands of years and somebody was saying something to that beat."

Abramz confirmed Nabil's supposition, "Before I even heard about the word rap, the thing is, people in Uganda had been rapping before we even knew it was the word rap.  It was something traditional, it wasn't even urban, it was traditional culture.  There were rhymes that people used to recite for the king, and also people in the community, but usually in big ceremonies.  They called it ebieontonte.  Even the grandparents of our grandparents used to do that.  So rap has been around for generations, it's not something that's really new."

Breakdance Project Uganda is currently undertaking a fund-raising effort to build their own community center in Kampala.  Crazy Legs and Red Bull are committed to helping BPU raise the necessary funds to build a community center where they can not only teach breakdancing to more kids but also teach kids to use computers, conduct visual art seminars, and lead various other community-building activities.  Crazy Legs commented on the process, "Red Bull is doing a great thing.  At the end of the day we got involved in something that we realized was much bigger than we expected.  And once you become aware, then it's about action.  There are many people that are aware, but the awareness without action is useless.  Red Bull has made sure that although it's become a different kind of project, they decided to be involved with helping them to establish a website, establish a way to get donations, helping them to get NGO status and things like that.  We didn't just go in there document and leave and say hey we did this great film.  We documented, we left, and we stayed involved, and I think that relationship is still going to be there at least on my part."

Bouncing Cats is currently touring, screening in different cities and film festivals.  To find out about upcoming screenings, donate to Breakdance Project Uganda, or find out more about the project, go to  This is a powerful film with a story that needs to be told.  Go to to get involved.

Love and Death, the New Album from Ghanaian Legend Ebo Taylor (Huffington Post)

Ebo Taylor is one of the funkiest people to ever walk the earth. Love and Death, his first internationally released studio album out October 24th on Strut Records, is a continuation of Taylor's already legendary legacy as a composer and performer of African music.

Starting in the late 1950's, Taylor was an extremely influential figure in the Ghanian music scene. He composed, arranged and performed in several leading highlife bands such as the Stargazers and Broadway Dance Band. He traveled to London with his own ensemble in 1962, The Black Star Highlife Band sponsored by the Ghanaian High Commission. It was in London that he collaborated and experimented with other African musicians such as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, "I knew Fela very well. He was my friend. He would say, 'Taylor why don't you play your own thing? You always play jazz, jazz is for the Americans' So we all started doing our own thing. He started the afrobeat movement in Nigeria and was very successful."

Upon returning to Ghana, Taylor further cemented himself in the Accra music scene working as an in-house producer for the major record labels of the time such as Essiebons and Gapophone. He wrote for and recorded with other burgeoning stars like C.K. Mann and Pat Thomas. As his career continued to unfold, Taylor recorded several solo projects creating his own new sound. He melded elements of traditional Ghanaian music with afrobeat, jazz and funk and recorded some of the most highly regarded Ghanian funk music of the era.

As African funk music from the 1970's has become increasingly in demand over the last 5-10 years, Ebo Taylor's music has seen a resurgence in popularity appearing on compilations from Soundway Records and Analog Africa. His music has been sampled by contemporary hip-hop producers both in Africa and The United States. Taylor has always had an innate sense of how to emphasize certain Western elements in his music such as the wah-wah guitar pedal and JB's influenced horn lines to compliment the more pronounced African elements such as traditional African percussion and Ghanian lyrics. Similar to Fela's afrobeat, his music was extremely funky while at the same time carrying a strong African persona.

Recorded with Berlin-based collective Afrobeat Academy, Love and Death is a conscious effort on the part of Taylor to advance the afrobeat movement, "For the new album, I wanted to advance the cause of Afrobeat music. Fela started it and we shouldn’t just abandon it. We should push it so it is a standard form of music.“ Taylor accomplishes his goal and then some. Love and Death is an incredibly fluid album composed of eight tracks that attack from the first note and don't let up throughout. Tracks like african woman, victory, and mizin are all aggressive uptempo songs that use interlocking guitars parts, punchy horn lines, hard-driving drums and percussion to push the song forward.

Taylor's voice reveals the character and history of a 74-year old man. You can hear the experience and age as it cuts through the aggressive afrobeat soundscape. It's amazing to think that in a career filled with as much amazing music and as many prominent collaborations as Taylor's, Love and Death will be his first internationally distributed album.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Interview with Tony Allen (

Tony Allen is a legendary musical icon. He was the drummer of Afrika 70 and influential co-creator of afrobeat music with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He is currently on tour promoting his latest album, Secret Agent, out April 13, 2010 on Nonesuch Records. I had the distinct honor of speaking with Tony a couple weeks ago before he set out:

Marc Gabriel Amigone: My first question is you’re about to embark on a N. American Tour, are there any dates about which you’re particularly excited?

Tony Allen: No, not really.

MGA: So you’re excited about the whole tour?

Tony Allen: I’ll be coming to NY, and Toronto, and then I go back through the states and do the rest of my shows in the states.

MGA: I heard you’re going to be on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots and ?uestlove?

Tony Allen: Yes, in New York.

MGA: Do you have a relationship with ?uestlove or the Roots? Have you played with them before?

Tony Allen: I’ve never played with them before, but I’ve seen them play. You know,` so now we’re going to be working on the same program.

MGA: And you like The Roots?

Tony Allen: Oh yes, ?uestlove is a drummer himself too, so…

MGA: Right. So on your new album, Secret Agent, I’ve been listening to it a lot recently. How would you describe the direction you’re taking your music on your new album?

Tony Allen: Direction? It’s afrobeat I’m playing, you know? And I like different styles of afrobeat. It just comes from evolution.

MGA: Cool. So throughout your career, I’ve heard a lot of your albums, you’ve been doing it for a long time. You’ve always demonstrated openness to new ideas, new sounds and instruments. For instance on Secret Agent you feature an accordion, which is not traditionally seen as an “afrobeat instrument” per se. Could you describe you the way that new sounds inspire you and the process by which you incorporate them into your music?

Tony Allen: Well, you know, it’s music. It’s not the instrument, the instrument doesn’t play itself anyway, you know? The point is the music of the instrument, whichever instrument I put in my music. It’s the sound, it’s soundwise, you know? It’s not a question of which instrument I use, it’s what I compose.

MGA: So if a sound catches your ear, it doesn’t matter what it is, you just want to put it into your music.

Tony Allen: Exactly.

MGA: Cool. So how would you describe how your music has developed and evolved from your first solo album, NEPA, to now, with Secret Agent.

Tony Allen: Ah, I will not try to explain it, I’ve done enough explaining. I’ve done NEPA, I’ve done Afrobeat Express, I’ve done Black Voices, I’ve done Psycho on The Bus, I’ve done Homecooking, Lagos No Shaking, and this one. Every one has its direction, but its still afrobeat.

MGA: One of the most famous quotes that’s most often associated with your name is from Fela Kuti, who said, ‘Without Tony Allen, there would be no afrobeat.’ Could you elaborate on that a bit, and explain how you contributed to afrobeat’s creation?

Tony Allen: Well, that is something that people are not supposed to be saying that, people that have been watching me, people that spoke with me. I’m just doing my job. I’m doing my job, and I’m creating. I like to be creating all the time because I can’t just keep playing the same shit all the time, you know? I have to create something else, whether people are going to take it or not, I’m just going to be moving forward, you know? That’s all.

MGA: What musicians or musical styles were you and Fela listening to when you were coming of age in Nigeria?

Tony Allen: I was playing my music before I met Fela, you know? There is a lot of music in the country, all different types of music. Jazz, waltz, two-step, tango, whatever, highlife, before I met Fela. Then when I met Fela, he said ‘ok, stop playing all those other styles’ and dictating.

MGA: Right, and do your own thing.

Tony Allen: Right.

MGA: So who are you listening to right now that’s inspiring, what are you listening to these days that you find interesting?

Tony Allen: Right now, I’m working with my band, I just finished our latest album, and now we’re taking things on the road, so that’s what I’m concentrating on now.

MGA: Cool, so what other bands or musicians within the genre of afrobeat do you find interesting or inspiring?

Tony Allen: Ah well, there’s a lot of them. Everybody’s doing their own style, so as long as they have the afrobeat, it’s cool. I don’t want to commit myself for anything. They’re all good.

MGA: You don’t want to single anybody out since there’s so many out there?

Tony Allen: No, I don’t.

MGA: What is your take on the Antibals-Bill T. Jones FELA! Production currently running on Broadway in New York?

Tony Allen: It’s afrobeat, so it’s cool. I’ve said before I would not comment.

MGA: Have you noticed any increased interest from the mainstream culture due to the popularity of the play?

Tony Allen: No.

MGA: Really, you haven’t noticed any increased interest?

Tony Allen: Well, when I said I wouldn’t comment, it means that… well you know there’s positive side of things. I can’t analyze everything, but it’s very good to expose afrobeat to people that never know what afrobeat is.

MGA: Word.

Tony Allen: I know there’s a positive side of things there, and I just hope it expresses enough to make more spring up.

MGA: Right, right. So in what direction do you see afrobeat evolving as more and more musicians take up afrobeat? Do you think the electronic side of things will take the lead with artists like Wunmi is going to grow, or do you think on the instrumental side of things?

Tony Allen: Well, it’s ok, I just know that afrobeat is music that has to be played by human beings together. I’ve experimented with electronics in my music but not taking out the drums that’s supposed to be played with it, so it depends on what everybody likes, you know? That’s why I don’t like to criticize what everybody’s else is playing. I just know what I’m playing.

MGA: Are there any goals or things you’d like to accomplish by the end of your career?

Tony Allen: The point is I look forward, I look forward. I never preview nothing, with my music. The day I decide, the day is there. If I decide I like something then I do it. There is a song on Secret Agent called Celebration.

MGA: Right, Celebrate Your Life, that’s a great song.

Tony Allen: Celebrate means celebrate everything, not just Christmas, or marriage, or anything it means celebrate all the time. Why should we not celebrate every day? Every day. You see, because every time you can go to sleep and wake up the next day, that’s something to celebrate. Because whatever you do is whatever you do. Simple as that.

MGA: Yea man, I agree 100%.

Tony Allen: Haha, you agree 100%?

MGA: Absolutely. I agree, I think every day should be a celebration.

Tony Allen: Absolutely, that’s the way I look at my life.

MGA: One last question. Your album Psycho On The Bus, I’ve always thought of as the quintessential afro-dub album. Were there any particular dub artists that inspired you to make that album?

Tony Allen: No it was a collaboration. It’s music. It’s afrobeat with a certain production style. You know, I have other things to think about.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Salif Keita Celebrates Diversity and Preaches Tolerance on La Différence (Huffington Post)

"I'm a black man, my skin is white and I like it, it's my difference. I'm a white man, my blood is black, I love that, it's the difference that's beautiful." Those are the words of Salif Keita, taken from La Différence, the title track off his new album out June, 8 2010 on Emarcy Records. Known the world over as "The Golden Voice of Africa", Salif Keita is an icon of the international music industry, famous for his incredible voice and even more so for his incredible story.

Salif Keita was born August 25, 1949 in Djoliba, Mali, an albino. His skin is a deep white in a land of scorching sun. In his native Mali, as in many cultures in Africa, albinos are believed to be a curse. Keita was disowned by his father and ostracized by the rest of society. His mother had to hide him from murderous gangs out to kill him for his body parts to be sold on the black market and used in spiritual practices.

It was his status as an outcast that ultimately led him to become a musician. After being denied admission to a teacher's college due to poor eyesight at the age of 18, he relocated to Bamako (Mali's capital) to sing on street corners and in local bars. This was no small feat considering that he shared the same last name, and royal lineage, as the great warrior-emperor Sunjata Keita, founder of the Mande Empire that stretched across West Africa beginning in the 13th century whose cultural practices and customs are still in place today.

Keita commented on how his exclusion from society led him to music, "I would've done something totally different [If I wasn't an albino]. For me it was a way to go against my lineage. It actually helped other people, noble people, to stand up and take up music as well. It could've been a double-exclusion, but I still did it."

In Mande culture, musicianship is reserved for a separate caste of society called Jeli (more commonly known by the French word Griot). Traditionally, Jeli status is passed down from generation to generation. The customs and methods of singing, playing instruments, and recanting historical anecdotes are handed down hereditarily. Jelis are patronized and commissioned by other segments of society, especially the noble elite. Keita went against centuries of tradition by emulating the Jeli practices with which he was intimately familiar due to being on the receiving end of their praises.

Keita's musical career began to take shape during his time in Bamako in the 1970's. He was recruited into the burgeoning Rail Band de Bamako, the group charged with contributing to the new national identity of Mali by updating traditional songs with modern instruments (they got their name from their residency at the restaurant attached to the train station in Bamako). The newly independent Republic of Guinea, Mali's neighbor to the south, had already begun to forge their cultural identity through the sounds of voices and electric guitars under the patronage of President Sékou Touré. Due to being landlocked and more insulated culturally, Mali lagged behind neighboring Senegal and Guinea in their formation of national cultures. With the help of Keita's soaring voice and The Rail Band's swinging grooves that changed in a big way.

Keita grew to be so immensely popular that when he left The Rail Band in 1973 to join Les Ambassadeurs, a rival dance band in Bamako, it was an incident of national significance (Mory Kanté, who went on to forge a hugely successful solo career, replaced Keita, and The Rail Band continued to thrive). Les Ambassadeurs set out to accomplish the same goal as The Rail Band: to merge the traditional sounds of Mande Culture with the modern sensibilities of urban Africa. Keita, and Les Ambassadeurs, relocated to Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 1978 amid civil unrest and the arrest of their manager. It was in Abidjan that they recorded their most famous hit, Mandjou, a praise song to Guinean President Sékou Touré.

In the early 1980's, Keita began to perform on his own in Europe and eventually relocated to Paris to pursue a solo career. He continued to merge traditional African instruments and sounds with contemporary ones by collaborating with musicians from all corners of the globe and performing throughout Europe and North America. He went on to pioneer the "World Music" genre, a label Keita is quick to point out he did not choose while admitting it's contributed greatly to the success of his career, "Well in fact it's a label the music industry has created. It's not 'World Music,' it's African music. But the positive part is that it has helped African music to be known all over the world."

Keita is using his platform as an international music icon to draw attention to issues that matter most to him. He feels he has a responsibility to use his platform to speak out, "Once you are known and you have an audience, it becomes your duty to really speak out and be a spokesperson for other people who don't have that opportunity. It is a duty."

"The other concerns and issues that are occurring in Africa right now are desertification and degradation of nature," In addition to discrimination against albinos, Keita condemns degradation of the natural environment on his new album, "For instance, a lot of people earn their living by logging to the point where no forests are left on the continent. Pollution is also a big issue. Rivers are drying up. All these environmental issues are what I'd like to talk about."

Keita cannot hide the most prominent cause for which he stands. His white skin makes a statement by itself. His foundation, Salif Keita Pour les Albinos, provides care, assistance, and protection from the sun to albinos in addition to raising awareness about the issue. The lack of a functioning educational system in Mali, where the population is more than three-quarters illiterate, helps to explain the continued existence of inhumane beliefs and discriminatory practices against albinos.

"I feel that now is the time to stop atrocities and human sacrifices that are committed against albinos all over Africa. All over Africa, in Burundi, Tanzania, many regions of Africa, albino people are killed, sacrificed, their body parts are sold on the black market. It's really terrible, but now is the time to stop."

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

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Brooklyn Country (Block Magazine)

Twangin guitars, grinding washboards, and ballads about whiskey, guns, and wild animals having sexual encounters with mountain men--not what you might expect to hear in a packed saloon in Williamsburg on a Tuesday night, but that's exactly what concert-goers got when The Defibulators and Andy Friedman and the Other Failures hit the stage at Zebulon July 24th. Both bands are based in Brooklyn and both bands are living proof as to why the Brooklyn country music scene is not just alive and kickin but downright thriving.

Most people would be surprised to hear there's a blossoming country music scene in Brooklyn, NY, a place more widely recognized for bagels, bridges, and brownstones than bluegrass, ballads and back country hoe-downs, but in a place as diverse as Brooklyn where most people who live here moved from somewhere else, anything is possible according to Andy Friedman, "There's probably a blue male monarch butterfly collecting scene in this city that's as big as the Brooklyn Country scene. Everything happens here, and everything comes from all over the world and seems to meet here, and that's why it's a great place to live."

Andy Friedman grew up on Long Island before he moved to Brooklyn at the age of seventeen. He first heard a pedal-steel guitar in a Billy Joel song--The Great Suburban Showdown on Streetlife Serenade, his second album--and was first introduced to country music by exploring the influences of Bob Dylan. It's in the Dylan tradition of songwriters that Freidman sees the Brooklyn Country scene today, "To me, the Brooklyn Country scene is a descendent of what was happening here in the late 1950's and 1960's around Washington Square Park and the West Village, or at least I like to think it keeps that spirit (and scene) alive."

The Defibulators are perfect example of the Brooklyn Country music scene. They're comprised of musicians from all over the country representing Texas, Wisconsin, California, and New Jersey. They started out as a traditional rock-a-billy band, but have grown to include elements of bluegrass, honkytonk, blues, and regular ol' country. They describe themselves as "Hee-haw on mescaline."

"I moved up here from Texas, to go to school, and to get as far away from country music as possible," said Bug Jennings the band's lead singer and banjo player. "I bought my first country music record at Tower Records on 4th st., Best of Hank Williams." Jennings never heard a Hank Williams song in his eighteen years growing up in Texas and despised what he heard on the radio. He only truly discovered country music for himself when Roadblock, the band's lead guitarist, lent him a classic country cd after they met working at a restaurant in Manhattan. He now lives in Brooklyn and finds the positive reception his band gets here appropriately refreshing, "Our following makes sense to me because nobody who lives in Brooklyn's from Brooklyn. Everybody's a transplant."

Metalbelly, The Defibulators' washboard player who comes from Austin, Texas originally and dons flannel red one-piece pajamas to every show, pointed out a lot of good country music has come from New York City, "There's a lot of country and folk music that originated up here. There are a lot of original bands and a lot of original people that come out of the melting pot that exists up here." When it comes down to it, Brooklynites love to dance, and there's an undeniably infectious energy that flies around any venue at which The Defibulators play, "We love nothing more than playing for people in a crowded room and seeing what happens."

Andy Friedman and the Other Failures tour all over the country, and their reception doesn't follow what stereotypical expectations might dictate, "I would like to say the further south we go the better the crowd reception gets, but it's not true. We enjoy terrific crowds in the south, but Minneapolis and Chicago are two of our favorite spots, as well. We love the west coast, and liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Pitzer College, and Warren Wilson. The thing about playing in Columbia, South Carolina, though, is that each time we play someone from the crowd sends us home with a jar of corn liquor. That's tough to beat. What I do notice down south, however, is that's where most of the 'how does a band from Brooklyn end up playing country music' questions most often come from. I always answer the same way: there are plenty of punk bands playing in Alabama."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Activists Take Steam Out of Gas Plant Plan in Greenpoint (Block Magazine)

When you think of what Greenpoint and Williamsburg need, what comes to mind first: a 28-acre waterfront park or a power plant? If you went with park, the elected officials, community boards, residents and activists of the area agree with you.

North Brooklyn got one step closer to adding Bushwick Inlet Park to its résumé when the State officially killed TransGas Energy's plan to build a $2 billion power plant on eight acres of land along the East River between North 12th and 14th Streets on Kent Avenue. The State siting board put the nail in the coffin on March 20th, due to the fact their proposal failed to meet health and environmental requirements. TransGas has tried to push through their power-plant agenda several times in the past, most recently 2002.

While this was a decisive victory for the park, TransGas Energy (TGE) is expected not to give up yet. Legal counsel to GWAPP (Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning) and Open Space Alliance board member Adam Perlmutter broke down the legal wrangling still left to unfold, saying, "TransGas has filed a petition for a rehearing. The City and Columbia Environmental Law Clinic compile their briefs in opposition in 10 days, on which the board will rule in 90 days."

If and when TGE's appeal fails, they then have thirty days to file an appeal with the appellate division second department on the grounds that the Environmental Siting Board used its discretion in an arbitrary or capricious fashion. Perlmutter said that TGE's chances of success at this point are extremely slim. "Those are extremely high standards to meet,” he asserted. “To say we don't expect TransGas to prevail doesn't convey how strongly I believe they're really not going to get anywhere."

Steve Hindy, OSA Board-member and Founder of Brooklyn Brewery, threw a party to celebrate the community's victory over TransGas. Community activists in attendance included Joe Vance, a prominent Williamsburg Architect and GWAPP and OSA Board-member. He commented on the long fight the community has undertaken with TransGas at which he's been at the front. "It started back in 2000 when Con Edison tried to build a power plant in Greenpoint,” he recalled, “and that's when GWAPP was formed, Greenpoint Williamsburg Against Power Plants."

Gerry Esposito, District Manager of Community Board One was also there to celebrate. His comments reflected the battle that lies ahead: "We're very fortunate that we won the battle, we're lucky to have a community to have fought so hard. Now the battle to be fought is to convince the city to volunteer the necessary money to build the park."

One can't help but admire that resolve and generosity with which people in the community lend their time and money towards fighting special interests such as TransGas.

The victory was largely possible because there is more solidarity today than ever before. "Before 2000, there were certainly six or seven groups in the community doing good things, but the problem was none of them were united,” recalls GWAPP board member Joe Vance. “There were too many little voices. The officials at the time really used that. They would say, 'Oh well, we don't see a consensus.' And that was really when we got together and decided we had to work together."

Vance was not the only person to notice this trend.

"I don't think that another community that hadn't been as organized through formal organizations and long-term planning process taking control of its land use would fare as well as we have,” Adam Perlmutter commented. “It's not just GWAPP and others; it’s the community boards 197 planning process [and] the fact that the community has taken it upon itself to become extremely sophisticated in the area environmental protection and land use. The proof is in the pudding."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Baye Kouyate et les Tougarakes at Joe's Pub-July 15, 2008 (

Baye Kouyate's performance at Joe's Pub Tuesday night was a celebration of West African music: musicians from several countries in West Africa, the United States and Europe put on a world-class show that got the entire crowd dancing by the night's end. Baye Kouyate is a talking-drum master from Mali. He descends from Griots, a family line of musicians, historians, and dispute mediators, and is one of the most up-and-coming African musicians on the NY scene.

Baye's Band, Les Tougarakes, is a collection of international all-star musicians with griot master Yacouba Sissoko of Mali on kora, German international recording artist Leni Stern on guitar, Senegalese master drummer Samba Guisse on djembe and sabar, Gbatokai Dakinah of Denmark on bass, griot balafon master Famoro Dioubate of Guinea, and Adam Clark, band leader of the Superpowers, an up-and-coming Afrobeat band out of Boston, on trap drums. Les Tougarakes represent both a wide range of musical styles within West Africa and the wide spread influence of West African music's diaspora.

Kouyate paid homage to the several-hundred year griot tradition from which he descends Tuesday night. Musical energy emanates from him with his beautiful smile, matching voice and talking drum which he makes sing. The virtuosic, rising and tumbling kora and balafon glided gracefully over the serene rhythms of the djembe, trap drums and bass. Leni Stern, who has collaborated with Salif Keita and Baaba Maal in addition to traveling extensively throughout Africa, added a special colorful touch to the ensemble, infusing a bluesy African jazz guitar feel.

Tuesday night was most definitely one to remember. Baye Kouyate is not only an amazing musician but an amazing person. Before the show was over, he paused to thank everyone who has ever helped him get to where he is today, especially the owners of Zebulon. It was in the Williamsburg venue that he made his first connections in the New York music scene and played his first shows.

Even though he descends from a long line of Malian griots, Baye does not see himself as simply an ambassador of African muisc, "I see myself not as a Malian Ambassador but as a Human Ambassador because my music is not just about Mali - it's about the world. My music is about the fusion of traditional and the modern, it's about love and peace in this world. It's about sharing life and no discrimination - it's about who we are as human beings, not just black and white, and together we all can save this world."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: The Arguement by Matt Bai (

Over the last five to eight years, a progressive left political movement has been growing in the United States. These days you can feel it when you walk down the street and Obama '08 signs and buttons abound. One might think the country has simply had enough of the right-wing politics of the Bush-Cheney administration, but The Argument, a book by Matt Bai, a political writer for the NY Times magazine, gives you a behind-the-scenes look at exactly how the left has re-claimed its share of the American political debate.

Bai travels across the country tracing the steps of Howard Dean with his 50-state approach, and their nation-wide house-parties, and the liberal blogosphere that fostered an environment for progressives to flush out their grassroots movement. He provides insight into exactly how the left took back the fight, where it started, and for what they're fighting.

After reading this book, you'll know exactly why Barack Obama disposed of Hillary Clinton and her out-dated centrism in the Democratic primary and is leading Jon McCain in the polls. It's not just a pendulum swinging back and forth from left to right that controls American politics; it's a concerted effort by interests on both sides to frame the debate and influence the outcome of elections.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Nomo at Zebulon-July 12, 2008 (

So many people came to Zebulon to see Nomo Saturday night, they literally had to turn people away. For those who managed to squeeze themselves into the cramped Williamsburg venue, they were not disappointed.

Nomo brought an uncontrollably infectious energy to the Zebulon stage, their favorite club in the city. Throughout their first set, the crowd seemed not to know what to make of them. People simply sat in awe trying to comprehend the complex sounds emanating from the seven-piece ensemble. That all changed during the second set when the crowd thinned out a bit, and the remaining concert-goers got up and danced like they knew they should.

Hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Nomo is a seven-piece band whose sound is too unique to put in a genre. They fuse dubbed out 80's hip-hop synths with Tony Allen afro-funk drums and hard bop jazz horn lines. Even their arrangement is unique featuring two drum sets, electric bass, guitar, tenor and baritone saxophones, two trumpets, congas, timbales, bells, mbira (Zimbabwean thumb piano), and a combination of electric distortion effects.

Ghost Rock, Nomo's third full-length album came out last month on Ubiquity Records, and they're touring across the country promoting it playing thirty-four shows in fifty-five days in thirty-two cities. They are without a doubt, one of the most inventive, talented bands I've ever had the privilege of seeing live. Their ingenuity of arrangement and wide span of influences put them in a class by themselves. After listening to their records for the first time in the last six months, I had extremely high expectations for their show Saturday night, and they totally blew them away.

Nomo Myspace

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chin Chin at Joe's Pub-July 13, 2008 (

Chin Chin proved why they're one of the funkiest bands in the city Thursday night at Joe's Pub. They came out firing an all cylinders with their 9-piece band and brought a unique attitude and sound that said, "We're here to party and you better be too." Lead singer Wilder Zoby brought so much energy to the performance he was literally bouncing off the walls.

Chin Chin is a rotating group of highly talented musicians from the Brooklyn scene. Thursday night's show featured among others, Torbitt Schwartz on drums, Jesse Boykins III on backup vocals, Jeremy Williams on guitar, and Eric Biondo and Aaron Johnson of Antibalas on trumpet and trombone respectively.

Their infectious energy and groove make Chin Chin the perfect party music. You simply can't help but move with them on stage. They have a show coming up on the 24th of August at McCarren Pool. If you like to dance, check them out.

Chin Chin MySpace