Sunday, July 28, 2013

What goes around...

I recently wrote a brief preview article for Arte y Vida Chicago of an upcoming concert by Novalima, a band that I'm familiar with and like quite a bit. As I put it together, I had a whole bunch of thoughts that there wasn't room for, prompted by my musings on travel and the two-way nature of global exchange.  I've got room here, though....

In the age of sampling, with hip hop's aesthetic of combining disparate elements to fresh and new effect, global dance music has flourished. The Washington D.C. based DJ duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton have been doing it for almost two decades as Thievery Corporation, a name I always took as a sly reference to the liberal borrowing of sampled exotica that they layered into their early recorded projects. I'm not sure if they were the first to do so, but like most that were good at it, the studio sampling was soon supplemented by live musicians who could take their multi-kulti kaleidoscopic sound to the stage.

Soon, there were other examples of this new sound emerging out of the dance clubs, like the Paris-based Gotan Project's take on tango. DJs around the world were introducing ethnic sounds into club sets or, just as often, injecting electronic beats into local traditions, packing dance floors in São Paulo, Beirut, Mumbai... pretty much everywhere.

In the midst of this freewheeling global exchange stepped four kids from Lima, Peru who dug rock, pop, salsa, reggae, dance and electronic music.  One stayed in Lima, but the others headed off to make music in London, Barcelona and Hong Kong. They stayed in touch, though, e-mailing song ideas back and forth in a long distance collaboration that became Novalima. And what they settled on for a creative anchor was music from home, Afro-Peruvian traditions dating back centuries. Returning to Lima, the core members sought out the best traditional musicians to give organic life to their vision, forming a powerful live band that now takes Afro-Peruvian music to the world stage in a form that is irresistible to club kids and musicologists alike.

Musical blending is probably as old as music itself, and there are dozens of current examples of artists creating out of their own traditions and pumping up the volume with electronics, hip-hop, funk and rock. Novalima has been doing it since 2001, and I find something charming and perhaps even reassuring in their back story, that you can travel the globe making discoveries and yet find your muse is something that was back home all along. It's about holding on to your cultural identity even as you participate as a citizen of the world. Still, you return changed by those journeys, and out of that comes something new.

Novalima is, in a sense, kind of a mirror image to Thievery Corporation, who cast about for global sounds to spice up their dance floor mix. Novalima brought dance beats (and a lot more) back home and integrated them into their own traditions, creating a sound that is culturally authentic and at the same time thoroughly up-to-the minute. You might want to check it out for yourself.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Colombia Three Ways

Nope, it's not the lastest chef creation from Las Tablas Colombian Steakhouse.

It's three bands back to back at the Celebrate Clark Street Festival on Saturday. One stuck to tradition, while another applied psych-rock riffs and traced cumbia's migrations to other parts of Latin America. A third incorporated ska and delivered power to the people anthems worthy of the Clash. All three made for an exhilarating (and exhausting) two and a half hours of dancing in the streets.

Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta - Cumbia may have originated in Colombia, but like reggae it has spread throughout Latin America. As things do when they arrive in new regions, the original chemistry is altered in accordance with local customs. When cumbia arrived in Peru in the 1960s, it was adapted by local musicians and renamed chicha, after the mind-altering corn liquor favored by indigenous locals. At once traditional and modern, it became a psychedelic sound when surf guitars, wah-wah pedals, farfisa organ and other western rock elements were added (not to mention that corn liquor). Dos Santos specializes in this with both original songs and vintage covers. They also explore what happened to cumbia in Panama and other destinations, and I love that their full name is a sly tip of the sombrero to Fela Kuti's African rebel music.  I'm told that the band has only been together a couple of months, but they were remarkably tight, and I'm very eager to hear what they do as they write more songs.

Los Vicios de Papá - These guys are local favorites of mine. Their brand of cumbia is heavily flavored by Jamaican ska filtered through 1970's England and the greatest punk band of all time, the Clash. At least that's the way I hear it. Ska was introduced to England by Caribbean immigrants, and it's sound was adopted by what were known as 'two-tone' bands because they very deliberately included both blacks and whites in their membership when racism and nationalism were flourishing under Margaret Thatcher. No band better represented this anti-racist, anti-colonialist stance than the Clash, who soon turned their insightful gaze on the rest of the world, including the U.S. interventions in Southeast Asia and Latin America, adding a world of rhythms to the original rock and ska. Los Vicios is the sound of Latin America reflected back, and between the irresistible dance rhythms and shouted choruses of "lucha y libertad!" and "pueblo resiste!", it's party music of the highest order. 

Beto Jamaica Rey Vallenato - And finally, the traditionalist, albeit one with an extremely funky electric bass. Beto is an absolute master of button accordion. I think he's right up there with Tex-Mex wizards like Flaco Jimenez and Esteban Jordan. The stuff he was doing, cranking out two or three melodies at once like an accomplished jazz pianist, was mind boggling. Vallenato, for lack of a better term, is country music from Colombia's interior ranching area, and Beto calling himself "Rey", or King of this sound, isn't much of a stretch. In addition to that funky bass player, his band is mostly made up of traditional percussion that churns along at almost superhuman speed. Hearing them after bands with their modern take on tradition was revelatory, and the number of dancers per square foot (and the waving of Colombian flags) certainly attested to the deep appreciation the crowd felt for this taste of home.

And, hey, that's only day one of the festival.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Land of 1,000 Dances.

Summer is neighborhood festival season in Chicago. The weekend calendar starts filling up even before Memorial Day.  Most of these fests are strictly local affairs, block parties on steroids; "Taste of.. " "Burger Fest", etc. My own neighborhood of Rogers Park is throwing theirs this weekend, but for an avid world music aficionado like myself, it's not the only game in town.

Choose Chicago is the city's official tourism website, and they have a section called "Chicago Like a Local" that tries to give visitors a taste of the metropolis beyond downtown, the lakefront and the major attractions. It's just the sort of thing I look for when traveling - what do the locals do for fun?  So when I was asked to contribute story ideas, I gladly accepted.

Here's the beginning of this month's contribution. Click on the link below to be taken to the complete article. As always, enjoy. And, hey, maybe I'll see you this weekend.

Chicago comes alive with the spirit of its Latino community this month with three exciting festivals. Whether you head north, west, or south, you'll find vibrant neighborhoods celebrating with the music, food and culture that makes each event unique.

Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, (July 19-20, Humboldt Park Boathouse) 

The festival features two days of music, dance and family activities, all in the pastoral splendor of the 200 acre park and its ponds, wetlands, ball fields and gardens. Friday night is headlined by Cuban percussionist Candido Camero, who played with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, and the Edwin Sanchez Project. Saturday daytime activities include...

The park itself is home to a number of food trucks serving Puerto Rican cuisine. One of the best is...

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Celebrate Clark Street: The Music

I recently wrote about where I live and why I like it.  I concluded the post by mentioning that a festival called Celebrate Clark Street will take place in my neighborhood this weekend and that I was looking forward to attending it.  I was also asked by and to write a preview of the festival itself, focusing mostly on the music.

Here's the beginning of the preview. To read the rest, click on the link at the end.  Enjoy!

Fans of world music would be wise to take the Red Line north to Rogers Park this weekend. That’s where the 8th Annual Celebrate Clark Street Festival takes place on Clark between Morse and Estes. The neighborhood is as diverse and eclectic as they come, and the fest embraces this with food, art and music.

About that music: For the past three years, it’s been programmed by David Chavez of the Chicago based global arts organization Sound Culture, which has brought world music artists to Mayne Stage and other venues around the city. Thus, what was already a fun street party has recently turned into a de facto world music festival that ranks among the best of the city’s musical offerings.

Some highlights include:

Click here to read the rest.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lament for a lost festival.

Once upon a time (in the very recent past) there was something called Music Without Borders, an 8 week series of world music concerts that took place on Thursday evenings at Chicago's beautiful outdoor concert facility, Pritzker Pavilion.  It was programmed by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, an agency that, sadly, no longer exists in its previous form. Why it no longer exists is a complicated tale of political and bureaucratic intrigue, but that's not my point. At least today...

Those summer Thursdays were when I loved Chicago the most, and reveled in my good fortune to live in such a cultural crossroads. Pritzker has seating for a couple thousand people. The lawn behind it is a vast picnic area that can hold several thousand more.  Music Without Borders usually booked two artists per concert, and was curated in such a way that the music of each, while from different parts of the globe, complimented each other, allowing you to make the connection. Brazilian samba and African pop, Gypsy jazz and Congolese rumba, Cuban son and Indian bhangra. As a result, you had a sort of gathering of the tribes in the audience made up of the ethnic groups represented on stage, fans of world music like me, tourists, and folks who simply worked downtown and wandered over to see what was up.  And just like that, you had 6,000 people who shared little besides their common humanity dancing and sweating together.

It was glorious while it lasted. The series was discontinued at the end of 2011. There's still music at Pritzker, though. A Monday night series called Downtown Sound has picked up some of the slack, mixing in a little world music alongside adventurous pop, rock and hip-hop. Theoretically, I'm in favor of the concept. "World music" can be every bit equal to and as forward thinking as the best rock or jazz, so why shunt it off into its own little box? Music has always traveled back and forth. Fela Kuti listened to James Brown. Bob Marley listened to Fela Kuti. The thing is, the minds behind Music Without Borders knew this too, and they put it into practice 8 times a year, with a quality so consistently high that you didn't even have to look at a schedule to see who was playing. Just show up on Thursday and enjoy!

The incredible Malian singer, songwriter and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara headlined Downtown Sound this past Monday. Though rooted in the traditional music of Mali, her approach is completely her own. Her band churned out polyrhythmic jazz-tinged hard rock (or was it the other way around?) behind her highly charismatic singing, dancing and magnetic stage presence. It was stunning. And yet, the audience seemed a bit homogenous, not the
gathering of the tribes I cherished. That probably has something to do with the way Downtown Sound is marketed. Still, you did have thousands of people dancing and sweating together, and they were doing it to African music. That's no small thing.

I miss Music Without Borders, and I hope the city figures out a way to revive it. Our mayor seems obsessed with the idea of culture as a way to boost tourism dollars, and I'm all for it. What better way to market Chicago as a world class destination than a regular showcase of world class music?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Home is where the heart is.

I'm not sure that I can adequately express my fondness for the neighborhood that I live in. Rogers Park is a sublime combination of inner-city grit crossed with the atmosphere of a beach town. To get there, you head north along Lake Michigan out of downtown Chicago on the train. It's a fairly long ride, and when it's crowded, it can be pretty unpleasant. You'll pass through many neighborhoods on the way there, some wealthy, some not so much: Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Edgewater, until the tracks angle slightly to the west, following the shore. Rogers Park hugs the lake, long and thin. Loyola is the first stop, adjacent to its namesake university. Morse is next, a commercial crossroads. Jarvis is mostly residential, Howard is the city limit.  

I moved here about 6 years ago, but until I did, I was a little afraid of it. The median income is around $39,000. That's not an especially low figure, but it doesn't adequately convey the sheer variance of the community's demographic. Walking around, you begin to see a fair amount of grand old city homes and rehabbed vintage apartments and condos, even some new construction. But the view from the elevated train has long been of blighted commercial strips and the rickety back porches of brick three flats. When you get off of the train, you see the community's diversity. There are a lot of low income families in Rogers Park, and a good many of them are immigrants. Poorer neighborhoods are often like that because they are affordable.  All big cities have their equivalent of a Rogers Park.  Heck, Chicago has more than one, although a few enclaves have already been extinguished through gentrification.  Somehow, though, RP has become a truly mixed neighborhood, economically as well as ethnically. Maybe it's the parks and beaches that line the shore, providing a soothing glimpse of nature on an evening stroll and a gathering place for families on summer Sunday afternoons. Or maybe we just got lucky when the real estate market crashed, slowing the pace of condo conversions and in the process preserving the neighborhood's character.

It has what urban planners call a high walk score: just about everything you need is a short walk away, and when more people are out walking, neighborhoods are safer. That's not to say we're crime free, quite the contrary, but most of it falls in the "oh, well, that's city life" property crime category.  I'd like to think that we're too far away from the action downtown (and that miserably long train ride) to ever fully gentrify. At the same time, I'm grateful for the positive changes that have occurred: crack houses wrested away from negligent landlords and converted to fashionable housing, new restaurants and nightspots, renovated streetscapes, farmer's markets. Friends, neighbors and merchants tell dark tales of "10 years ago", confirming my initial, outdated qualms about moving here.

Perhaps the best way to describe Rogers Park is a peek inside my local grocer. There's plenty of organic produce, but there are also ethnic staples like limes, 15 for a dollar. Lots of produce (chayote, plantains, jackfruit, casava) that you won't find at the supermarket. Tortillas share shelf space with kosher baked goods and Jamaican hard dough bread. Meat pies. Canned and bottled goods run the gamut from Hispanic to African to Caribbean. Dried chilis and Greek oregano. Chorizo and kielbasa. Free range chicken and cow foot. Yep, it's all here.

Clark Street is the main commercial strip, running parallel to the lake about a half mile to the west. It's not the prettiest of boulevards. Every block has a few vacant storefronts.  But what is there is fabulous. Packed with modest ethnic restaurants, it turns into an aromatic paradise around dinnertime. And there's not a Starbucks in sight. OK, to be fair, I don't think there are any cafes on Clark, but you'll find an indie coffee paradise just down intersecting Morse, Jarvis and Howard and along Sheridan Road by the University.  OK, maybe one Starbucks.

We (officially) gather on Clark Street once a year to celebrate our diversity with food, music, beer, art and kids activities. In recent years, Celebrate Clark Street's two music stages have turned this modest neighborhood street party into a de facto world music festival thanks to the energetic talents of David Chavez, a DJ and head of the fledgling global arts organization Sound Culture. This weekend, my neighbors and I will be out in force to dance, drink and, yes, celebrate. I can't wait.

You can come, too. We like to share.

Friday, July 12, 2013


I was first inspired to start this blog when thinking about the American Sabor exhibit that I mentioned in my introductory post. I was thinking "How cool is it that all this Latino music that we think of as foreign comes from right here is the USA?"  In many cases, even the musicians themselves were born here, not, well, there. They are the children of immigrants, living out their version of the American Dream.

I proposed a regular column to one of the folks that is kind enough to publish my musings, discussing the music released by these US / Latin hybrids, but there really wasn't room for it at the time. So, I filed the idea and let it gestate over the winter.

I've since decided that, A.) I would start a blog, and B.) it would address more than just music and certainly more then Latino music. But.. to honor that original intent, can I just say the Los Lobos is one of the greatest rock bands of all time? And that this fact (that's right, I'm not calling it an opinion) is wholly attributable to the way they have stayed true to a vision of their own roots music (Mexican folkloric, American R&B) while constantly expanding outward to encompass just about every imaginable style?

Like many a punk rocker in the early 80's, I discovered Los Lobos when their first widely distributed EP " ...And a Time to Dance" came out on Slash, a label that was home several L.A. punk bands like X, the Germs, Fear, and the Blasters. To my ears, its songs were an unconnected mix of blues, early rock n' roll (they covered Richie Valens' Come on Let's Go here way before La Bamba propelled them to fame in 1987) and Mexican folk music, which I knew little about. But I loved it. If fact, I got impatient when their first full album, How Will the Wolf Survive, came out, wanting more Mexican and less rock, thinking, under my highly misguided idea of what was authentic, that's what they were supposed to do

What I didn't know at the time was that Mexican East L.A. supported a thriving Chicano rock scene that loved R&B. Mexican music was what their parents listened to. Los Lobos, L.A. born rockers all, were one of the first bands to rediscover the value of the old stuff, playing it alongside the R&B and rock that they'd been cranking out since they first picked up guitars. Their genius lies in their understanding that American R&B is every bit authentically theirs as the rancheras, corridos and norteñas that they lovingly played on their 1988 release La Pistola y El Corazón.  As creative and adventurous musicians, they grew by leaps and bounds, taking in virtually every influence they could get their hands on, because all of that belongs to them too. By the time they released their 1992 masterpiece, Kiko, their songs were a seamless blend of all these influences. Yet, in terms of identity, they've remained fundamentally the same band that released Just Another Band from East 1978.

The indispensable box set (get the CD if you can - it's lavishly packaged and crammed with insightful commentary) El Cancionero Mas y Mas documents an incredible 25 or so years of growth, including live recordings and side projects like Los Super Seven and Latin Playboys.  I'm especially fond of the Latin Playboys tracks, avant garde soundscapes that evoke a stroll through the barrio, but all the previously unreleased live stuff acknowledges and pays tribute to a world of influences.

After over 30 years as a band, they still tour incessantly, playing everything from state fairs to prestigious concert halls and, if you're lucky, the occasional club gig. Catch 'em if you can.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Goin' south.

I'm a frequent visitor to Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.  Although rapidly gentrifying, it is still a mostly Mexican area that is considered by many to be the center of the Latino arts community because of its many murals, galleries and artist studios. It's also home to the National Museum of Mexican Art. Oddly, I myself have a historic connection to the area. Before it and neighboring Little Village (now mostly referred to by its Spanish name, La Villita) started absorbing waves of Mexican immigrants in the 60s and 70s, they were predominantly Czech areas, absorbers of an earlier migrant wave. As a child, I had many a hearty Bohemian meal there, and I think I even sipped my first beer at my father's side at the New Little Old Bohemia, a dining hall behind a tavern on 25th Street. But I digress....

Rogers Park, where I live, is about 1/3 Hispanic, predominantly Mexican. Large Hispanic communities exist in Albany Park and Edgewater as well, and the southwest side where I grew up has recently seen a significant increase in Hispanic population.  But the city's oldest Mexican community is in a neighborhood known as South Chicago. That's where I found myself for the very first time on Sunday.

South Chicago, along the lake near the Illinois-Indiana border, was home to several steel mills, which attracted a labor force from Mexico and eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Those mills have long since closed, and the area has yet to fully recover from the devastating loss of jobs. Most of those with European roots moved on. But the Mexicans stayed. And more came.

Chicago area arts organization Portoluz is presenting a Son Jarocho International Exchange Project that features Afro-Mexican music and culture from the state of Veracruz, Mexico. This past weekend, they presented essentially the same show twice. Local legends Sones de México Ensemble hosted two master musicians from Veracruz, Andres Flores and Camerino Utrera. Saturday night was at a fairly typical music club in a popular nightlife area. Sunday's show, however, was a matinee in a church basement in South Chicago. I hate to get bogged down in notions of 'authentic experience', but this seemed to good to pass up.

A word or two about Sones de México: Yes, they are a band, but they are a bit more. Organized as a non-for-profit, they research music from all of Mexico (just as there is no one 'American' music, there isn't a singularity to music from Mexico) and then perform it expertly and con gusto. Their participation in the son jarocho project is as almost as musicologists, albeit ones who know how to have a good time.

Back to South Chicago and that church basement. It was the first truly hot day of this summer, but the room held on to the coolness from earlier in the week.  Mass had just ended and people were still filing in, some pausing at the lunch window for tamales, tacos and carnitas. Sones, in accordance with the program theme, started playing son jarochos, to polite response. Then it was on to the state of Zacatecas and their music. Now, that got a few people going.  Just uttering the word 'Zacatecas' elicited whoops of appreciation, even before the first note was played.  It was then that I had an ah-ha moment where something that I knew became something that I understood.

To say that something is Mexican is like saying something is African.  It's not inaccurate, but it's far too broad a term for a place with many distinct cultures and traditions. People from Veracruz love and honor their roots, and people from Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and dozens of other Mexican states love theirs. They respect and enjoy the other traditions, but they love what they know in their hearts and bones. And in Chicago, like great cities everywhere that become landing points in a migration, they mingle together. Not necessarily as one, but as multiple peoples eager to share the best of their culture. Like my Czech family, who made clear distinctions that they were Bohemian on my mom's side and Slovak on my dad's, meeting in Chicago not 8 miles from this church basement, becoming something that is not one thing, nor the other. Americans.

Just like me.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 4th of July!

On this side of this particular border, it's a day of parades celebrating the nation's spirit. Me and Woody invite you to enjoy this one courtesy of Sones de México Ensemble.

Radio knows no borders.

Visiting an artist studio in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood last fall, I was struck by a number of works featuring monarch butterflies. The artist, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Chicago for decades, explained that the monarch was a symbol of migration that doesn't recognize borders like the one that separates Mexico from the United States. Instead, the butterfly travels back and forth freely in an annual rhythm, flourishing in the conditions that exist on both sides. I've since come to learn that the monarch butterfly is often used as a metaphor for immigrant rights struggles.

Radio, too, transcends physical borders. In the realm of popular music, radio station XERA is legend. With a million watt signal tower located just across the Rio Grande in Mexico, free from the regulations of the FCC, border radio crossed cultural boundaries and thousands of miles with an uninhibited mix of country music, blues, gospel, rock n' roll and, of course, Mexican music that could be heard as far away as South Dakota. From the 1930's all the way through the 1960's, this unregulated miscegenation of sound flaunted the law to entertain and inspire countless people, many of whom became musicians themselves.

Shortly before the studio visit described above, I took in the Smithsonian traveling exhibit American Sabor and wrote about it for, a Hispanic arts website. Something that I always understood was made explicit there: There is no art, most notably music, that exists sui generis. Everything is preceded by something else, and more often than not, it was carried from one place to another through a process of migration.

The book Cuba and its Music by Ned Sublette goes backward and forward in time, starting all the way back in 760 BC and the freakin' Phoenicians to make his point that the mambo didn't just spring up out of nowhere. Similarly, another book by Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans, shows that city's cultural debt to Cuba. Growing up in Chicago, I'm quite familiar with the way the front porch blues of the Mississippi Delta made its way upriver with and became electric blues here, which further excited Brits like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. We know where that led. And the circle continues ever-spiraling outward...

This blog ain't a radio station, digital or otherwise, so if you're looking for an audio stream, go elsewhere. I'm writing it mostly to explore all these thoughts about migration, art (music mostly) and the societal context of both that have been rattling around in my head since community college. I'll review albums (old & new) and concerts. I might talk about last night's dinner at the taqueria around the corner, or point you at an article or video that caught my interest. Some politics might creep in here and there, but I'll try to keep that to a minimum.

Stay tuned.