Category: World music

Paul Simon's 'Graceland' 25th anniversary box set is a trove of riches

Paul Simon's 1986 album 'Graceland' is being reissued June 5 in deluxe 25th anniversary box set

It might seem there'd be little left to say about Paul Simon's watershed 1986 album "Graceland," which is being reissued today in a deluxe four-disc 25th anniversary box set.

Simon collected Grammy Awards for the title track and the album, as record and song of the year. It was No. 71 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and introduced millions of listeners to the wonders of the music of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, among its other attributes.

But the new box set does indeed help shed new light on the music and the entire project by way of the various bonus features that now accompany the original album.

Chief among them is the disc containing Joe Berlinger's fascinating documentary "Under African Skies," laying out the controversy around Simon violating the United Nations' cultural boycott of South Africa's racist apartheid system when he recorded several tracks in Johannesburg with the members of Ladysmith and other musicians from the region.

As noted in her review for The Times recently, film critic Betsy Sharkey lauded Berlinger for the riveting portrait assembled as Simon returned to South Africa last year on the 25th anniversary of his sessions there. The musician met with Dali Tambo, one of the founders of Artists Against Apartheid, who had criticized Simon for flaunting the boycott. Their discussion a quarter-century later isn't without tension, even though each offers unqualified expressions of respect for the work of the other.

Simon's take is that art transcends politics and that artists should not always be subservient to politicians. That view can sound self-serving, coming from Simon, but he gets some heavyweight support in supplemental interviews from Paul McCartney, Harry Belafonte, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and Quincy Jones, among others. 

It also incorporates Simon's 1986 performance on "Saturday Night Live," for which he was joined by the dazzling Ladysmith Black Mambazo troupe before any of the songs from the album had been released, in a breathtaking appearance that can be seen here:


Beyond the film, there's another disc with studio outtakes, including a jaw-dropping early take of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" that is largely just Simon's vocal along with bassist Baghiti Khumalo running gloriously wild and funky over the fretboard of his instrument. The same disc has an audio interview with Simon talking about the making of the title track, illuminating how this cross-cultural collaboration gestated.

The fourth disc captures the 1987 concert Simon gave in Zimbabwe on his "Graceland" tour, where he was joined by South African pop musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

To paraphrase Rod Stewart, every album may indeed tell a story, but some stories are dramatically more compelling than others. The story of "Graceland" is one of the most compelling in all of pop music.


For Paul Simon, the world is his sound stage

Paul Simon at Gibson Amphitheatre: Street smart

Album review: Paul Simon's "So Beautiful or So What"

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Paul Simon, center, with Joseph Shabalala, left, of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and other musicians who were part of the "Graceland" tour. Credit: Radical Media

Dhanush conquers Bollywood, then YouTube


Canada has Justin Bieber, the U.S. has Rebecca Black, and now India has found its own YouTube singing sensation.

Tamil film star Dhanush became a trending topic on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube after an audio clip for his song  “Why this Kolaveri Di” leaked a couple of weeks before its official release in November. The song, recorded in Tanglish (a mix of English and Tamil), was originally slated to be one of many tracks in his upcoming film "3," but since it took on a life of its own, Sony Music India put a crude video to the track and it's garnered more than 23 million views worldwide. The track now serves as the lead single on the soundtrack as well.

The 28-year-old, born Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja, is a well-known actor in India who only began experimenting with singing his own songs this year. It's unusual, because most Bollywood film actors lip-sync to vocal tracks recorded by professional singers (it's referred to as "playback" singing).

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'Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM' resurrects a continent's music

Jonathan Ward's ‘Opika Pende' box set resurrects the world of early African music — with a history lesson in the mix.

'Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM' resurrects a continent's music

Jonathan Ward's music room in his second-floor Angeleno Heights walk-up is a tight, comfortable space with three walls full of records and itsy speakers hung high on the walls in acoustically precise intervals. The 39-year-old writer, archivist, collector and perhaps most important, listener, has just received his copy of a project that has consumed him for the last 14 months. “Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM,” is a four-disc, 100-song collection and companion book of never before compiled regional African music from the early 1900s through the '60s. Much of it is culled from fragile original shellac recordings that have miraculously survived a journey across space and time to land on Ward's shelves.

He pulls out a recent acquisition: a Mauritanian record that he places on the turntable. The speakers fill the room with hiss and crackle, and a female voice moans while a high-lonesome stringed instrument meanders along. It's profoundly moving and resurrects long-buried voices within its crackling grooves.

Ward has helped spark interest in this and other early African music through his website, Excavated Shellac, which since 2007 has offered downloads of antiquated African music, some of the oldest ever captured, from throughout the continent. “Opika Pende,” a saying in the Lingala language that means “be strong” or “stand firm,” features music from the site and recordings gathered elsewhere. 

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Reissues spotlight the Afro-soul of Joni Haastrup's Monomono

Joni Haastrup

When it comes to Nigerian music, the average American obsessive knows at least two musicians: Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. Generally speaking, African music rarely crosses over to American antennas, and when it does, it tends to be white musicians appropriating African traditions (Vampire Weekend) or transcontinental collaborations (Paul Simon, whatever Coldplay is doing this year), to say nothing against the merits of any of those artists.

Joni Haastrup, however, is a third name that should be added to the conversation. The frontman of Nigerian band Monomono, Haastrup was an Afro-beat sensation through most of the '70s, but until a few months ago, information on him was scarce in America.

Even the encyclopedic All Music Guide lacked a biography of the band, this despite it having cut an album for Capitol/EMI. That changed this month, with Soundway Records (U.K.) and Tummy Touch reissuing Monomono's "The Dawn of Awareness" and "Give the Beggar a Chance," as well as Haastrup's "Wake Up Your Mind."

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South Africa's Johnny Clegg returns for May 5 show at House of Blues West Hollywood

Johnny Clegg - Robert Oettle 
South African musician Johnny Clegg focused much of his music in the 1980s and 1990s, when he had a presence in the U.S. as part of the booming world-music community, on the volatile issues that emerged in his homeland because of the government’s apartheid system of racial segregation.

Two decades later, apartheid is politically a thing of the past. But that doesn’t mean Clegg has run out of struggles to address in his buoyant combination of mbaqanga jazz-pop, Western rock, Zulu chants and other elements of Afro-pop music, which he brings to the House of Blues in West Hollywood on Thursday night.

His latest album, “Human,” includes songs about the aftermath of apartheid, and broader issues of identity and equality, which the 57-year-old musician sings and plays with no sign of waning passion. 

“Young people [in South Africa] have very high expectations, and these expectations aren’t being met, so there are crazy, big fights going on,” said Clegg, who also used teach anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand. “The politics of patronage, where you’ll get a job because you have been working under somebody and they are obliged to be loyal to that person, are not efficient. You’ll get the job, but if you’re not qualified and the department you head up collapses, then people don’t get clean water because of it.

“All of this has been bubbling up,” he said. “There have been a lot of protests; townships have been sealed off in scenes reminiscent of the bad old days of apartheid, with people shooting people in the streets.”

When we spoke last fall when his album came out, I asked whether the physically energetic performances for which he was known, which incorporate athletically demanding Zulu dance elements, are more challenging nearly 20 years after he was last touring the U.S. regularly.

“Not the performances themselves,” he said. “It’s tougher on me from the actual travel point of view. I still I love the show, and I don’t drink or smoke. I train and I’ve kept myself reasonably in shape. It’s the travel I’m battling with: hours on the plane, then hours on the bus. It’s definitely lost its romantic appeal.”


South Africa's Johnny Clegg returns with first U.S. album in 17 years

South Africa's Johnny Clegg: A Witness to History

Johnny Clegg & Savuka, 'Heat, Dust & Dreams'

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of Johnny Clegg. Credit: Robert Oettle.

Benin legend Orchestre Poly-Rythmo premieres 'Pardon'

If you didn't know any better, you might easily mistake Orchestre Poly-Rythmo's "Cotonou Club," for a long-lost gem from the legendary Benin band's 1970s heyday.

In a Wax Poetics interview last year, frontman Vincent Ahehehinnou described his 11-piece outfit as a "variety band," meaning one without a "fixed vision ... [and] very open to any kind of musical influence and open to the cultural world." Listening to their first album together in more than two decades, one immediately gleans how easily they glide from dazzling afro-beat grooves, to James Brown-inspired funk breakdowns, to Afro-Cuban rhythms. The sound is diverse but never diffuse, a tropical rainfall of horns, ancestral drums, psychedelic organs and soulful stentorian voices.

With a backstory more suited to a biopic than a blog post, the Orchestre fused traditional Vodun rhythms to the afro-beat emanating from neighboring Nigeria, and the afro-sheen funk flowing across the Atlantic. Founded in the late '60s and eventually swelling to 16 members, the band become famous in Benin, rocking festivals across the continent and earning plaudits from Fela Kuti and "Soul Makossa" mastermind Manu Dibango.

By 1977, they were so massive that the Benin Ministry of Culture intervened to ensure that the Orchestre would represent the county in the 1977 FESTAC (much to the government's chagrin, the band had placed third in a battle of the bands). Yet when it came time for them to leave for the festival, a coup struck the palace, forcing the ministry to charter a special bus for them to escape to Lagos, Nigeria, the site of the massive pan-African party.

The Orchestre held down a residency at the fabled Zenith nightclub in Cotonou, a major international port throughout the 1970s, famously playing shows from 10 p.m. until the break of dawn. Somehow, they managed to find time to record roughly 50 full-length LPs and hundreds of 45s, which have recently received a second life thanks to attention from masterful reissue houses Soundway and Analog Africa. 

Reunited since 2009, next month's Strut Records-released "Cotonou Club" finds the Orchestre in rare vintage: unspooling dazzling grooves, interlocking harmonies, and organ lines that conjure form-fitting polyester glory days. Pop & Hiss is premiering "Pardon" (even if thanks is probably a more appropriate gesture).

MP3 Download (Pop & Hiss premiere): Orchestre Poly-Rythmo's "Pardon"

-- Jeff Weiss

Bela Fleck on taking holiday music to new places

Béla Fleck Eggnog - Senor McGuire 
Musicians who explore the fringes of music as we know it often seem to operate in a parallel dimension with few points of reference for the average music fan.

This historically has been true in jazz, where such innovators as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus abandoned the rules established by their predecessors and opened new sonic vistas, leaving many fans in the dust with their experimentations.

Banjoist Béla Fleck chose an instrument most closely associated with tradition-minded country, bluegrass and folk music, but he's also a longtime jazz aficionado who has typically thought and played with the anything-goes sense of his jazz heroes. On the surface, that makes his current holiday music tour look somewhat curious.

But there’s a method to his musical madness, as he told me when we chatted recently for a profile that appears in Friday’s Calendar. He spoke about why he and his band, the Flecktones, chose to record an album of holiday tunes two years ago, and how they applied their penchant for experimentation to yuletide standards such as “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for the record,  “Jingle All the Way,” which went on to collect a Grammy for best pop instrumental album of the year.

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South Africa's Johnny Clegg returns with first U.S. album in 17 years

Johnny Clegg-beach 2010 
When South African musician Johnny Clegg started playing music in earnest in the 1970s, he was something of a trendsetter, one who assembled an integrated band of white and black musicians at a time when his nation’s government officially sanctioned racial segregation in the form of apartheid.

His blend of Western rock, mbaqanga African jazz-pop music, Zulu chants and choreography and multilayered vocal harmonies akin to those of Ladysmith Black Mambazo predated the incorporation of elements of traditional African music by such savvy world-music proponents as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne.

But as Clegg anticipates this week’s release of his first album in the U.S. in nearly two decades, “Human,” he recognizes how much has changed, both at home and around the world. Apartheid, against which he often railed in his music, is no more. Nelson Mandela, who was a political prisoner during most of the time Clegg and his bands exerted their presence in the U.S. on tour and with a string of major-label albums, came and went as president of the Republic of South Africa. And the Western culture that was long suppressed during the apartheid era has flooded through his country.

“From 1994 to 2004, we saw this amazing influx of hip-hop, rap, dance and house music coming in and new styles of dress, a new youth culture, coming up into the townships -- and completely to the detriment of traditional rural music styles,” Clegg, 57, said recently from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. “All the traditional music forms and styles lost their [radio] airplay and now are relegated to ‘traditional hour,’ which is usually 3 a.m. in the morning.”

That leaves Clegg, the onetime barrier bender who picked up a Grammy nomination for best world music album for his 1993 collection “Heat, Dust and Dreams,” as something closer to a standard bearer.

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A PSA for those without xx tickets: Investigate the Do

Press play on the above clip, and once one gets past a brief blare of a police horn, what follows is relatively pleasant, at times perhaps even soothing. Yet the Dø -- pronounced "dough" -- traffic in something that always seems to border on the unsettling. 

There's plenty of pain, longing and bitterness in the lyrics, and the vocals of Olivia Merilahti are attention-grabbing -- high-pitched, but not aggressively so. Yet they're not exactly completely playful either.

The song embedded above, "On My Shoulders," is a more conventional offering from the French-Finnish duo of Merilahti and mult-instrumentalist Dan Levy. The orchestral flourishes are brief, the guitar is calmly downtrodden and the atmospheric streaks and rhythmic scrapes come to weirden things up, but never overtake the song. 

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Van Dyke Parks goes 'Across the Borderline' for Roskilde Festival


The Roskilde Festival in Denmark, billed as Northern Europe’s biggest music and culture festival, usually coincides with Independence Day in the U.S., and this year, veteran composer-arranger-orchestrator-raconteur Van Dyke Parks decided to weave something socio-politically relevant into his recent performance as one of the headliners of  the 2010 event, which wrapped up on July 4.

So he turned to an expansive arrangement of “Across the Borderline,” the Ry Cooder-John Hiatt-Jim Dickinson song that was featured prominently in the 1982 Jack Nicholson film “The Border.”

Now a fascinating behind-the-scenes video has surfaced from Parks’ performance, including interview footage with him and highlights of the song featuring young Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno and the Danish Radio Youth Ensemble.

“When I got asked to come to Roskilde, I decided that I should keep a focus on something that I’m interested in,” Parks says in the video. “And I found by going to Pan-American music that I could hit on something which is essentially a very hot political topic right now, and that is immigration.”

To complement the songs’ lyrics about the perils people are willing to risk in search of a better life for themselves and their families in another land, longtime Southern California resident Parks said, “We took a trip back to these great romantic classics of Latin America to find the rhythms we love that said the things that we think are important to think about.

Musically speaking, “I presented some very difficult arrangements for a bunch of young people. …I think it served what I wanted to do: I wanted it to serve people that are younger than any of my neckties.”

As for the heated debate raging over immigration back home, Parks notes, “I don’t have any answers. But I want my music to raise questions. I would like to comfort people, but I'd also like to take the people that are comfortable by the throat and yank them into a sense of obligation into improving this world.”

Take a look and give a listen.

-- Randy Lewis


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