Saturday, May 24, 2014

Jorge Drexler, continued.

I had the opportunity last summer to enjoy a concert here in Chicago by the Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler. You can read about that here if you like. The show was in an intimate venue and, for the most part, Drexler performed solo. I suspect that decision was based as much on economic factors as artistic. Taking a band on the road is expensive, and it seems that the middle-aged Drexler has no deep seated drive to conquer the North American market. His infrequent tours in the U.S. are, I think, designed to reward his loyal fans who, sadly, are not vast in number in this part of the world.

I'm hoping that all changes with the promotion of his new album, Bailar en la Cueva. It was recorded in Bogatá with members of Bomba Estéreo, who are a hot band of youngsters that do tour here frequently. I reviewed the album for Agúzate, and in the course of my research learned of a concert in Buenos Aires where the reviewer was surprised and delighted by the liveliness and sheer dancability of the show, which featured a full seven member band, including a horn section.

So, here's my selfish request: After reading this review, go immediately to iTunes or wherever you get your music and purchase the album. Then tell all your friends to do the same. Perhaps if Drexler's record company sees all the activity, they'll invest the money to bring that whole band to Chicago.

That's not asking too much, is it?

An excerpt of the Agúzate review is below. You can read the rest by clicking here.

... With his new recording, Bailar en la Cueva, Drexler took an entirely new approach. If you are surmising from the title that this is a danceable album, you would be correct. Drexler lives in Spain, but when it came time to record he would often return to Montevideo and producer Juan Campodónico of Bajofondo. This time around, he decamped to Bogotá, which seems to be turning into the center of the rhythmic universe. He worked with Mario Galeano of Frente Cumbiero and Ondatrópica to record the basic tracks and invited guests like Ana Tijoux (who has been spending a lot of time in Colombia herself) and Bomba Estéreo to contribute. He took these tracks back to Madrid and his production team, who built the songs and arrangements from there. The result is a danceable collection of songs that retain the lyrical potency we’ve come to expect.

... “Universos paralelos” is the album’s centerpiece for two reasons. First, it was released several weeks before the rest of the album, and thus has had lots of time to insinuate its way into my consciousness. I just checked my iPod – I’ve played it 27 times in the last 2 months. Yes, it’s that good. Lyrically, it’s a wistful observation of love lost, and it features a verse by Ana Tijoux about 2 ½ minutes in that tells, well, the other side of the story. It’s one of those moments when, like on a hip-hop record, the 12 bars from the guest rapper takes a good song and thoroughly elevates it to another level.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

'Friends' and friends, 'Likes' and likes

A lot of us, it seems, have a conflicted relationship with Facebook.

There's no getting around its benefits. I myself use it practically as my primary news source. Whether it's NPR or WBEZ or Mother Jones or Al Jazeera, every news outlet has a Facebook presence and I hear from them several times a day. When it comes to my personal obsessions, blogs like Colorlines, The Root, Havana Times, Eater and Ask a Mexican post a steady stream of updates. Facebook helps me keep track of my beloved New Orleans through the pages of WWOZ, Kermit Ruffins and Antoine's Restaurant as well as the personal pages of friends who live there. My day is brightened by beautiful photographs posted at Antigua Guatemala and Playas Boricuas. Writers I admire like Junot Díaz and Walter Mosley share their thoughts on Facebook. Of course musicians and performance spaces and cultural organizations and music bloggers all have their own pages. Even my own city is somehow closer, with neighborhood pages and even regular reports from my alderman.

And, of course, I'll use Facebook to get more people to read this.

And then there's my friends. That's a bit of a strange category, yes? For every one of my genuine real-life-really-like to-spend-time-with friends, there are nine more who are casual acquaintances or people I've met along the way or people who are 'friends with' my friends.  By and large, I imagine that they are good people, just not friends in the traditional sense. But that one in ten... it's simply wonderful to hear from them about the contours of their daily lives. Especially gratifying to hear from are the ones, because of divergent paths, I don't often see in the flesh and blood world.

I've been on Facebook for, well, a long ass time. I've also managed pages for a small handful of arts organizations. And perhaps I should have taken it as a sign a couple of weeks ago when I launched my own professional  business page and on the same day I came across a video entitled The Innovation of Loneliness in an article called Here's What Facebook is Doing to Your Brain. (Naturally, I saw it on Facebook, and when you follow the link to the website a pop-up asks you to share it on, well, you know...)  It's one of those typically geeky things full of animated line drawings and a narration that argues the interconnectedness we feel in a social media network is a technologically superior but humanly inferior substitute for real life conversations that are, by their very definition, quite limited in number.

The video deployed science to affirm a position I've long held, that there is a certain amount of artifice inherent in a Facebook profile. That's not to say deception, although I'm sure there's some of that too. It simply means that we have the power of editing at our command, and thus the persona we present on Facebook is shaped by this more than it would be in an uncontrolled environment like, say, over drinks in a bar. Still, most of us are pretty honest, and what we choose to share is a reflection of what we care about. We put stuff up there, then hope for likes and comments. When they don't come, well, I think that is what the video is getting at when it speaks of the innovation of loneliness. After a while, I think, we start to make choices based on our craving for likes, or, to put it another way, our need for validation. Sentimentality is good, as are pictures. Combine them both and voilà!, you have likes.

And, by and large, that's fine. Who doesn't want to be popular? Who willingly shows their bad side if they can avoid it? Who doesn't want to share that beautiful sunset or tropical hideaway or hang out with friends or social injustice we observe or band we really like with others? It's simply another way of saying, "I am here. I matter." Yes, we want the gratification of a like, but if it doesn't always come, c'est la vie

One of the roots of our ambivalence about Facebook is knowing that it is tracking our every move so that a small handful of people can get very rich. Thus, the periodic brouhaha about privacy settings and so on. But here's the thing: Like airport security, those settings are a bit of a ruse to make us feel safer. Meanwhile, we assiduously go about tagging our text and photo postings so that more people see them and maybe get us a few more likes, temporarily easing the craving. Like any highly monetized drug, the hit is short lived. By then, though, Facebook has the data and is already packaging it for advertisers. And we're on to our next post.

So, that's the backdrop for the launch of my professional Facebook page. And if I learned anything in a very short time, it's that the shit gets real when you try to consciously position yourself and your service as something vital on social media. It's no longer simply "Hi, I think _____ is cool / interesting / funny, what do you think?"  All of a sudden, those likes become simultaneously more and less than those cravings. They become measurements of your success. And when they don't come, you are puzzled and maybe even a bit needy. I'm left wondering why people who are my Facebook friends haven't liked my Facebook page. It feels personal, even though it's the farthest thing from it. And the reality is, a bit over one in ten of my friends has liked my page, so the numbers make sense. The really horrifying thing, though, is that I'm spending more time than ever in the technologically superior but considerably less human virtual world, thus compounding the unease that I'm feeling.

Lady Gaga was by no means the first person to deploy the fame monster metaphor. And certainly what we are seeking on Facebook is some kind of fame, however modest. But I don't think of Facebook as a monster. More of a devil, seductive and full of promise. Be careful what you wish for.

Monday, May 12, 2014


Some of you may know that I do research and write program notes for the Chicago Sinfonietta. Their final concert of their 2013-14 season deals with how we maintain our cultural identity, even if we are, through choice or otherwise, many miles and generations removed from the places we call home. I thought I'd reproduce those notes here, as I found the research fascinating and rewarding. Always learning, always learning...

Read on.

As both individuals and members of society, people are on a perpetual quest for identity. It brings order and perhaps even a sense of comfort to know who we are and what our place in the universe is. There are many ways to take measure of such things, among them what we do for a living and where we choose to live, what political or religious beliefs we adhere to, how we think about race, gender or sexual orientation. I would argue, though, that perhaps the strongest identifiers are those that have to do with culture and history.

For the final concert of their 2013-14 Season, the Chicago Sinfonietta looks at how traditions of art and culture define our sense of who we are as well as the way those traditions both connect us to our heritages and inform our present day lives. To do so, we look to two very different societies connected only by the Silk Road, China and Eastern Europe.  They’ll perform contemporary works that are deeply tied to their respective ethnic traditions that simultaneously say something new, and in the process perhaps share a bit of knowledge and cultural pride with those who are willing to listen.  

This journey of discovery starts in Eastern Europe, and more specifically, the small Jewish villages called shtetls that dotted Poland, Romania, the Ukraine and other countries for nearly 800 years, only to disappear almost overnight with the onset of World War II.  Our first two selections are both by the Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson, who is an Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia College Chicago. Levinson immigrated to the United States in 1998, and is a graduate of both the Moscow State Conservatory and the University of Chicago. His identity serves as rich material for his work.

Shtetl Scenes was written by Levinson in 2005 and it is, in his words, a “nostalgia cycle”. He wrote it “about a world that is lost [and] not coming back” and to “give a voice to those who cannot speak.” It was originally written for piano, but the version being performed by the Sinfonietta is a full orchestral arrangement. We will hear two of the cycle’s five movements. The first, Forgotten Dreams, imagines an idealized life in the shtetl, forever lost to the Holocaust, even as that dream slowly slips away with time. The second movement, Freylakh, is a lively dance of the type that was enjoyed in these long gone places, full of rhythm and exuberance. This piece starts slowly and suddenly its pace accelerates to a very fast tempo.

The stage now set, we come to the first of our two concert centerpieces.

Klezmer is a combination of the Hebrew words "kley" (vessel) and "zemer" (melody), describing musical instruments in ancient times. It came to be used to describe Jewish folk musicians sometime in the middle ages.  In the 1970s, “klezmer music” and “klezmer band” were terms coined to describe the revival of Eastern European dance music and Yiddish folk and theater songs. It’s a rollicking sound that shares much with jazz and Latin music.

Maxwell Street Klezmer Band
As a music professor and composer, Levinson’s research interests include klezmer music and the klezmer idiom in contemporary concert music. He was asked to compose a klezmer-based orchestral work in 1998 by Phil Simmons, the artistic director of the Linclonwood Chamber Orchestra. Because most klezmer tunes are a short 3 or 4 minutes in length, Levinson quickly settled on the genre of rhapsody. This allowed him to build a concert-length piece out of a series of exciting musical episodes, much like such works as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody.   Thus was born the Klezmer Rhapsody.

Once Levinson determined the form, he set about introducing the more dissonant harmonic and contrapuntal practices of the 20th century in the work, using these to break up the structure, rhythms and harmonies of the klezmer melodies. All the themes of the piece are original, but they were composed using certain rhythmic, melodic and harmonic idioms of klezmer music, and thus intended to bring to mind traditional melodies. He worked closely with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band’s musical director Alex Koffman to insure the work’s authenticity, and it premiered in 1999 as an orchestral piece with Koffman as violin soloist. The story of Klezmer Rhapsody, however, doesn’t end there.

Levinson later arranged the work for violin and klezmer band sans orchestra and this version appears on the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band’s 2005 album Old Roots New World. Tonight, the Chicago Sinfonietta premieres a brand new version for klezmer band and orchestra. For this new arrangement, Levinson has thoroughly reworked and re-conceptualized the piece to take advantage of the dynamic interplay between the two ensembles. In this version, there is a bit of a musical joke going on, as the orchestra “learns” about klezmer and the band alternately supports or makes fun of their efforts. By the end of the piece, though, both ensembles speak in a unified voice.

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen is, as you might guess, no stranger to Asian music, but she is also someone who has rigorously mastered Western classical music as well.  The very first time she ever led the Chicago Sinfonietta, in October of 2009, her program paired two works from contemporary Chinese composers with works from Ravel and Rachmaninoff.  She might very well be the perfect conductor to introduce the evening’s third featured work, Identity: Zhongshang Zhuang, to Chicago audiences.
Su Chang
Identity combines the musical traditions of Western and Chinese culture in a piece that is accessible to international audiences. A romantic orchestral concerto setting provides the backdrop for the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument that is plucked and strummed like a harp. The instrument, which is nearly 3800 years old, is an ancestor to the Japanese koto, Korean gayagaeum and Vietnamese đàn tranh.  Its mesmerizing timbre and lightning agility blend the familiar and the exotic, and Identity showcases its unique sound. Tonight’s soloist, Su Chang, traveled to Chicago from China for this performance.
The work is a collaboration between Chinese producer and composer Victor Cheng and American composer Michael Gordon Shapiro, and as such, Identity bears the musical signature of both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Cheng composed the core themes and established the direction of the piece. The Los Angeles-based Shapiro, a graduate of the film scoring program at the University of Southern California, also has a graduate degree in music composition from New York University and a background in writing music for video games. Both of these fields demand a high degree of story and character-related musical skill. He took Cheng’s themes (and detailed story line) and scored them for orchestra and, of course, the guzhang.

Identity tells a fictionalized story of a family ripped apart by conflicting loyalties during the time of the Chinese civil war, sending some members into exile.  As such, it is divided into three movements, each of which tells a different part of the story: Peaceful times, conflict, victory, exile, remembrance. The versatility of the guzheng comes into play, as it alternately represents the pastoral beauty of the Chinese landscape, the harsh realities of war and the loneliness and despair that come from separation. Nostalgia, longing and resolution are all conveyed by its tone and timbre. Ultimately, the piece seems to say, even though civil war divides a people along political and philosophical lines, at heart they retain a common identity that survives and perhaps points the way toward reconciliation.

As noted earlier, when Ilya Levinson first approached writing a klezmer piece for orchestra, he immediately thought of the form of a rhapsody, something like Rhapsody in Blue or the Romanian Rhapsody. Thus, it seems only fitting that we close the Identities concert with George Enescu’s most famous piece. Enescu himself was a concert violinist as well as a composer and conductor. He was a bit of a prodigy, graduating from the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 13, continuing on to study in Paris. His compositions were influenced by Romanian folk music, and he was a champion of other Romanian composers. Enescu’s musical curiosity went beyond mere provincialism, though, and included Balinese gamelan and Indian music.

The Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 is the better known of the two he wrote, and he is said to have remarked that it “was just a few tunes thrown together without thinking about it". Though this is an incredible understatement of modesty, that model helped Levinson write Klezmer Rhapsody, based as it is on several traditional klezmer song forms, all of which are short in length. At any rate, Enescu completed the first rhapsody in 1901 at the age of 19. It is ebullient and outgoing, as is fitting for a work that takes its starting point with a folk song whose English translation is "I have a coin, and I want a drink".

This lighthearted work is perhaps the best way to close an evening which, while providing superb and often exhilarating entertainment, also gives us much to ponder about the sometimes tragic vagaries of history and the universal imperative to remain true to both ourselves and our heritage. Through this, we can draw strength from our own identities.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Dos Santos' pan-Latin brew

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta

“When it comes down to it, the story of ALL music is one of change, of hybridity, of a diversity of experiences and encounters. So, when we talk about crossing musical borders, there needs to be the recognition that music has always been crossing cultural, social, and expressive borders. This is its history—one of multiple crossings. We shouldn’t try to fix music (or its audiences) in place, that is, construct borders around it.”

If you've read any number of this blog's articles over the past year, you might assume that I wrote that. I could have. It sounds like me. But it's not.

The above quote comes from Alex Chávez, guitarist, organist and songwriter for Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta, a stripped down, rocking electric cumbia group that's been playing all over Chicago for the past year. They are celebrating their first anniversary with a show next week at Beat Kitchen. I discovered Dos Santos about the same time I started writing this blog, and in fact I devoted a paragraph to them in a post about a festival in my neighborhood.

It may seem like I'm cribbing my Border Radio posts lately from stuff I've written for the Afro-Latin organization Agúzate, but I guess that just means that my passions and those of Agúzate are well aligned. Which is a way of saying that I interviewed Alex Chávez and the members of Dos Santos (who have roots in Panama, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the U.S.) to learn more about the band and why they play, of all things, cumbia.

My introductory comments are reproduced below, but to read the far more interesting stuff the band had to say, click on through to the original Agúzate post.

Last summer, I went to the Celebrate Clark Street Festival in Rogers Park and stumbled across a band whose musical style was simply described as ‘psychedelic cumbia’ on the festival website. I was intrigued by this description as well as the group’s name: Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta. I subsequently learned that the band had only recently formed and that this was one of their first gigs, but the tightness of their sound suggested a group that had spent years getting to know one another. The farfisa organ and fuzzed out wah-wah guitars that Dos Santos employed resonated with my rock n’ roll youth, while at the same time the deep cumbia rhythms compelled me, and a lot of other people, to dance.

They were playing what I identified as chicha, a Peruvian variant on a traditional Colombian sound. It’s a music that sprung up in the 1960s and 70s when Caribbean rhythms, Andean folk melodies, rock instrumentation and a strong dose of the mind-altering indigenous corn liquor called chicha mixed together in Peru’s newly urbanized environment. It’s a sound that only recently came to the attention of North American audiences through a handful of reissued recordings from that period. Dos Santos pretty much blew me away that day, and I’ve been keeping track of them ever since.

Click here to read the rest. But you might want to watch this first.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Sound Culture Celebrates its 5th Anniversary

This article was originally published at Agúzate, the website of an organization in Chicago that is dedicated to Afro-Latin music and culture. But, because it fits so well with the overall purpose of this blog, I'm reproducing it in full here. At one point in this interview, we talk about the Celebrate Clark Street Festival and my neighborhood, which I've written about before. Click here and here if you want to check that out.

On to the article... 

This Saturday, May 3, Sound Culture Center for Global Arts will mark 5 years of presenting global music in Chicago with a party at Subterranean in Wicker Park. We at Agúzate know Sound Culture well, having partnered with them to bring Novalima, Orquesta Macabeo, Henry Cole & the Afrobeat Collective and several others to Chicago. I sat down with Sound Culture founder and Artistic Director David Chavez to talk about Sound Culture and the Chicago world music scene.

“I had done programming for different institutions, HotHouse, Uncommon Ground, and Morse Theater” says Chavez, a Chicago native of Salvadoran immigrants who makes his home in Albany Park. “I felt like I was always starting over at each of them…  I saw a chance to build my own community and institution around what I am most passionate about, multiculturalism and music.​  Sound Culture was a vehicle to realize my own vision and mission to expand the audience for international music.”

Sound Culture Director David Chavez

The organization began when Chavez and Amor Montes de Oca (of Arte y Vida Chicago) started programming global music by local and international artists for HotHouse after they vacated their South Loop venue, producing shows at various donated spaces throughout the city. They celebrated their first anniversary with the Nomadic World Music Festival, presenting 10 shows at 5 venues in April of 2010.

When Mayne Stage in Rogers Park opened in 2011, it became Sound Culture’s primary (though not only) venue. “Mayne Stage provides the perfect setting for the majority of my shows” Chavez states. “It's classic but not pretentious, it's open to all ages and accessible, the sound and AV are the best in the city, it's suitable for either a dancing show like Sierra Leone's Refugee All S​tars, or sit down show like the Eddie Palmieri Quartet.” He continues, “They've also been genuinely interested in Sound Culture's programming and as a brand, not just the  ​dollars and cents.”

Chavez had been involved in the Rogers Park community prior to starting Sound Culture. “I'd been programming Celebrate Clark Street (an annual summer festival in Rogers Park) for many years before Morse Theater turned into Mayne Stage. That festival is very special because it has defied the cookie cutter festival landscape that currently exists in Chicago.  It's not about selling beer and listening to cover bands.  It's about celebrating the cultural diversity of the neighborhood both on and off stage.”

As a Rogers Park resident, I can attest to Chavez’ assessment of the festival’s vibe as well as his description of the neighborhood’s diversity. In recent years the modest street party has evolved into a de facto second Chicago World Music Festival.  It’s one of the things I love about living here.

When I ask Chavez about some of his most memorable shows, it’s a pretty long list. “I really try to produce shows that are culturally significant.  And so when you start with that, you set the bar high for yourself from the get go.  Susana Baca, Eddie Palmieri, Gregory Porter, Sargent Garcia, Idan Raichel, Orquesta Aragón, Brownout, Wake Up Madagascar with Jaojoby, Bomba Estereo, O​rchestre P​oly Rythmo de C​otonou, Novalima, Juana Molina, DakhaBrakha… ​I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot.”

Chavez has also been a DJ since he was 18, and he changed his nom de disc to DJ Sound Culture after starting the organization. “The musical aesthetic and message in the artists that I presented on stage was the same as what I was spinning anyway.  So to me, they go hand in hand and provide two different vehicles to carry the same sound culture message, albeit to two different audiences in most cases.“ 

About those different audiences: “I feel like the world music scene is in transition, a good portion is graying but there's also an emerging generation coming into the fold.” Chavez continues, “Apart from wanting to expand the audience for world music across the city I also wanted to expand it to a new generation of globally minded music audience. I've been a key player in helping to develop a global bass scene in Chicago, a predominantly dance music oriented audience that tends ​to erase national borders and cross cultural lines both musically and on the dance floor.”

And that brings us to this Saturday’s anniversary party. The lineup is a slice of everything that makes Sound Culture unique and important.  For one thing, the event is timed to coincide with International Workers Day. For another, it features music from out of town as well as local artists. Finally, DJs will keep the groove going when the bands aren’t playing.  All of the artists fit it well with Chavez’ mission. I can hear the passion as he describes the lineup.


“Boogat, from Montreal, is one of those artists that straddle the live and the electronic; his message is often one from an immigrant experience or one of self identity as a minority in an Anglo Francophone culture. Very in tune with the International Workers Day theme. Los Vicios de Papa is a hometown hero also championing human, worker and immigrant rights. They were probably the first real Latin band in Chicago that wasn't conforming to traditional salsa or Mexican regional music and resonating with young 1st and 2nd generation urban Latinos. DJ's Chief Boima and Geko Jones, from New York City, have a new Africa Latina project that celebrates the African diaspora in Latin America.”

Add in other local favorites like SOULPHONETICS, Esso! Afrojam Funkbeat, Las Selectas, the FEx DJ collective (collaborators for this event) and a set from DJ Sound Culture himself, and it’ll be quite a night.

I’ll see you on the dance floor!