Sunday, 27 October 2019

Kayhan Kalhor - WOMEX 19 Artist Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

For Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh is his voice. When he plays, he creates whole languages in which to communicate with people from all over the world, from centuries past and far into the future.

Born in Tehran to Kurdish parents, it was quickly clear that Kalhor had a special talent for music. Although he started by playing the violin, it didn’t take long for him to become entranced by the kamancheh, switching his studies to the ancient Persian spike-fiddle by the time he was 10. Just three years later he was working with the National Orchestra of Radio and Television of Iran, and his career as a professional musician took flight.

Since his prodigious childhood, Kalhor has rightly been regarded as a true master of Persian classical music, but that mastery doesn’t come only from his immersion in the tradition. Without innovation, the tradition cannot exist, and Kalhor has been at the forefront of innovation in his field for decades. For him, there was no other option. “This happens in every generation and in my generation, I’m one of the people who tried to do that,” he says. “It comes very naturally. You don’t decide to do it, it just happens because you don’t want to sound like your teacher. At some point you have to translate your tradition to how it’s supposed to sound in your own generation’s voice.” The way he develops the tradition and makes it his own comes in part from the wide range of styles he exposes it to. Throughout his career, he has worked with the best musicians from across Iran and studied the folk musics of Kurdistan and Khorasan, allowing all of these voices to permeate his own sound; eventually, it all grew together into playing techniques and methods of improvisation that were entirely unique to himself.

This spirit of innovation extends far beyond the borders of his own culture. A globally-focussed way of working took seed when he studied Western classical music in Italy and Canada. There he gained useful knowledge of different ways of approaching music, while taking pains not to corrupt his own style. “I was so careful not to learn anything that damages the traditional way of thinking or playing. I was so conscious of that during those years, just to get good things that I need and not absorb things that might change my direction.” This way of picking only those elements that would enrich his style and identifying those that would weaken it became an important method when performing with other, distinct cultures.

On the international scene, Kalhor is most well-known for his world-spanning collaborations. From Shujaat Khan, Yo-Yo Ma, Erdal Erzincan and Toumani Diabaté to the Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio, Kalhor’s musical partnerships are many and varied, and the results are invariably world-class. When he plays with these musicians, he stays true to the sanctity of his musical culture but deconstructs it in a way that creates new, entirely sympathetic fusions with those of his collaborators. Together they create an intense, improvisatory music that is not from one culture or the other – it is always both and always neither. “I can say it’s a new language, and I want to get deeper in that language, to create a vocabulary. It’s give and take…I’m after creating a language where you can know this is old music, but at the same time, there are new words that are comprehendible, not so new that they are beyond recognition. One foot in the old traditions and one foot in the future.” His collaborations are so successful because they are more than just an album or a concert, they are full, holistic relationships where music is just one part: “I stayed with these musicians for years and years. I’m living with these people. I’ve been with Shajaad Khan for 24 years, Yo-Yo Ma for 21 years, Erdal Erzancan for 13 years. I look at these collaborations as a process, something that breathes and lives. That is why I was so meticulous in choosing musicians, someone I could live with, someone I could understand, be a friend of their family, have a non-musical trip with. These were all factors, and that’s why I had to choose someone who was exactly like me, in their own country, musically and non-musically.

With so much thought, philosophy and concentrated effort that goes into preparing his work – whether solo or in collaboration – when Kalhor plays, the music flows as easily and gracefully as a swooping bird, a completely natural phenomenon. For him, all the work simply allows the music to manifest itself. “It’s difficult to explain it,” he ponders. “I think we’re all devices of goodness and beauty in this world. The beauty comes through us and we’re responsible to project it, that’s all. The beauty comes from another world. We have to work, we have to rehearse, we were given the talent and the gift, but that doesn’t mean we are the creator of it.

With his music possessing a power unto itself, Kalhor has neither the intention nor the choice to stop that ethereal flow. “[I’ll] keep on playing, until I die! Because I cannot leave music and music cannot leave me. When I’m not able to be active as a concert musician as I am now, I’ll teach more and I’ll write. There’s a young generation here that needs attention and direction, and I’m doing a lot of that whenever I can, and I will do more. But I’m staying with music. I cannot leave music, music is for life.” Together, he and his music will ensure that the renaissance of Persian classical music will not slow down any time soon.

It is for his mastery and virtuosity of the kamancheh, for his ceaseless innovation and collaboration to create exciting new musical languages, and for bringing the Persian classical music tradition to the ears of people all over the world, that we are delighted to award the WOMEX 19 Artist Award to Kayhan Kalhor.

Photo: Kayhan Kalhor (left) performs at the WOMEX 19 Awards alongside Erdal Erzincan, by Eric van Nieuwland.

Julie's Bicycle - WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

The world is burning, the ice is melting and the oceans are choking, and it’s our fault. Those that argue otherwise are not only working against humanity but against the world at large.

But all is not yet lost. We still have the opportunity to kick back against these changes to our world, and our efforts work best when we move as one community. Julie’s Bicycle is an organisation that are rallying the creative and arts sectors in shouting with one powerful voice against the environmental crises we currently face. Like most good ideas, Julie’s Bicycle came about through a meeting with friends. A beautiful utopian vision was dreamed up, ‘where festivals were powered by solar, venues were off-grid and covered in flowers, museums were community energy providers, artists were united as beacons for change.’ That was in 2006. Since then, Julie’s Bicycle (named after the location of that first meeting) have worked tirelessly towards that vision, in London (where they’re based), in the UK, and in the world. Venues may not be covered in flowers just yet, but under their diligent watch and intense work, the arts world is slowly becoming more and more sustainable.

From their very first project – a calculator for arts professionals to work out and understand their carbon impact, which has since become a go-to tool in the creative arts industry – Julie’s Bicycle have approached their task in three main ways: working with businesses individually to improve their environmental impact management; researching and developing resources for the use of all; and introducing, promoting and performing outreach for new ideas and sustainable business models. The holistic nature is not only important to making a real impact, but is one of the strongest ways that people and businesses can make a difference, says Julie’s Bicycle CEO and founder, Alison Tickell: “One thing I’ve learnt is that there isn’t a single way of doing it. We actually need to work on many dimensions all the time. But if we simplify it down, the first thing is to recognise that we can act, and then work out what we can do personally and professionally. They can be small things or big things, but they can accumulate to be quite a powerful collection of actions that are about real change. It leads to a different understanding of agency in this space. It’s this wonderful experience of giving yourself an opportunity to act, and it becomes a really exciting, deepening endeavour.

To move and work within the music industry is often to feel disempowered when it comes to the concerns of higher powers of national governments. There is usually a disconnect between the creative community on one side and policy-makers on the other – we often speak very different languages. Julie’s Bicycle is a translator. Not only do they act to bring together many facets of the industry with one voice, they also help those in power to understand our wants, needs and demands in ways that may not be otherwise understood, or taken seriously.

The great thing is that Julie’s Bicycle aren’t just working alone. Their message has been spreading and their successes have been building and gaining influence across many fields. “Over the last six months it’s been fantastic feeling that things are changing, and I think we have been a bit of that change,” Tickell says. “We were very lucky to pick up on this one quite early on. The way we work is so collaborative, we work with everyone. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to gather this community.” They have played an enormous part in turning small ripples into tides of change, and this was made starkly evident in July of this year, when they, together with Extinction Rebellion and Culture Declares Emergency, launched Music Declares Emergency. This declaration reached every facet of the music industry – artists, labels, publishers, venues, festivals promoters, managers and agents – with more than 1500 signatories calling on international governments to ‘act now to reverse biodiversity loss and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2030,’ as well as pledging to support, share and work towards a sustainable music industry. The work of Julie’s Bicycle is key to this goal.

For Julie’s Bicycle, outcomes are more subtle than large-scale ‘achievements.’ Instead, they are slowly, surely (and with an increasing pace) changing the way that the music industry thinks, feels and acts in regards to ecological emergency. There’s a lot there to be proud of, and it’s clear that their legacy is only just beginning. “What I am pleased about is that people are much more ready than they would have been because we have been developing the ‘how’ for such a long time,” says Tickell. “The amount of people and organisations who are ready for this moment of change and want to do more has been really gratifying. We’ve been inundated with ideas and interest, requests for help. The fact that we have been working on this for some time has given people the confidence to step into this space much more easily, and that’s been terrific.

The work that we have at hand is to literally save the world. But we can do it. There is a lot to do, and we all have our own roles to play – especially in our own position as music professionals – and Julie’s Bicycle are here to help us. They have plenty of room to expand, too. As we all look ahead to what we can do now, and what solutions may be coming, we need to future-proof our business model as well as the world, and Julie’s Bicycle will be there with us, doing whatever it takes, at all times, to help us succeed, together.

For their forward-thinking strategies to speed up the attainment of environmental sustainability in every facet of our industry and professional lives, for their rallying of artists and arts professionals from all over the world to speak and act in one powerful group, and for their status as a figurehead in the global arts movement in the face of climate change and ecological disasters, we are delighted to present Julie’s Bicycle as the WOMEX Professional Award recipient for 2019.

Photo: Chiara Baliali of Julie's Bicycle (left) receives the WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award presented by Sam Lee, by Yannis Psathas.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Boomtown 2019: Five Ones to Watch

Boomtown is a festival that I’ve had my eye on for quite a few years. Its reputation is immense, and so, by all accounts, is its personality. The whole thing is a giant performance art piece with a narrative that slowly reveals and trundles along year after year, with so many plots and subplots playing out in what has grown to be a city of music. Like any city, there are loads of districts in Boomtown (up to 14 this year), each with their own character, architecture and culture = and each with their own set of stages. There’s over 25 main stage and 80 smaller ‘street venues,’ all with their own programmes – that means there’s a LOT of music, of all sorts of styles.

And excitement – I get to go this year for the very first time! This year, it’s held over 7-11 August. The line-up looks amazing – as it does every year – and, yes, it’s absolutely humongous. So in my excitement, I thought I’d give you a run-down of just five artists that I cannot wait to catch there…now I’ve just got to hope that none of them clash!

Ozomatli feat. Chali 2na
Ozomatli are basically a globetrotting party. I’ve seen them live a handful of times now and every time they have absolutely blown me away – they’re still some of my favourite live shows to date. Their mix of hip-hop, rock, tropical pop and all sorts of Latin music from son to cumbia to samba to norteño and more is just so infectious, their shows turn into a joyful riot, it’s absolutely amazing. Even better: they’ve now reunited with Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 and an original Ozo band member – he’s got one of the most recognisable voices in hip-hop and his thoughtful lyrics and supreme flow put him, for me, right up there with the greatest rappers. I can’t wait to see them perform together.

Prophets of Rage
Okay, I’ve never actually heard any recordings of this group, but their pedigree is unreal. They’re a supergroup featuring members from Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. Do I really have to say more? Yes yes, I know supergroups usually come out as less than the sum of their parts, but I’m willing to risk it. Come on: Chuck D and B-Real battling it out between funk-metal solos from Tom Morello – inject it directly into my veins.

BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) are a group from Soweto that combine all the music of their neighbourhood, from traditional dance styles, church music and beerhouse songs to hip-hop, soul and rock. The group have been getting so much hype over the past 12 months, and I’ve got friends who are absolutely mad about them, saying they’re the greatest live group around right now. I saw them myself at WOMAD last year, and the crowd went nuts; thing is, their forever-looping riffs and heavy beats didn’t strike me at all, and I left, bored, after about 10 or 15 minutes. But the hype train has continued, so I fully admit I’m the one in the wrong – I’m looking forward to seeing them again in August to give them (and me) another chance.

Nubya Garcia
The UK jazz scene has been booming in the last decade, and saxophonist Nubya Garcia has been one of its leading lights. Her music brings in modal and spiritual jazz in the Coltrane way together with the contemporary styles being fermented in places such as Trinity Laban and Berklee as well as hip-hop, soul and electronica. I’ve never seen her show before, and festivals are all about new experiences – I reckon Nubya Garcia is one I can bank on to be a winner.

Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip
Would it really be a festival season without Mik Artistik? The loony Leedsman* has been a staple on the festival circuit for many years and he’s the perfect act for when you’re quite drunk, quite muddy and just a little disorientated. He’s absolutely bananas, he’s hilarious but he’s also touchingly earnest when he wants to be, all while making music behind his trusty little Yamaha keyboard. The man is a legend, and if you’ve never heard or seen him before, you owe it to yourself to go and experience this true institution of British festivals.

…and then there’s so many others. Gogol Bordello, General Levy, San Sebastian, Bassekou Kouyate, Napalm Death, DJ Yoda, Asian Dub Foundation, The Streets, Skream and the man behind it all AAA Badboy…there is so much great music happening everywhere that it seems pretty much impossible not to see some amazing and unexpected artists wherever the current takes you. And really, what I’m most looking forward to is that atmosphere, and diving into the huge, deep and bonkers world that is created at Boomtown every year. Basically, I can’t wait! So if you’re heading over, I’ll hopefully see you there, and either way I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on here sooner or later.

*Okay, I just looked it up and the actually demonym for someone from Leeds is a Leodensian, which is awesome but also completely impenetrable, so I’m leaving it as Leedsman, and all of you Yorkishers are just going to have to deal with it.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Cultural appropriation row ignites the IMAs

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

A collective of Inuit womxn musicians are boycotting the Indigenous Music Awards (IMAs) in a protest against cultural appropriation. The IMAs, which are run as part of the Manito Ahbee festival in Winnipeg, Canada, aim to honour the best in music from First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians in Canada. Awards are presented in 19 categories covering a range of musical styles from pop to electronic to gospel and more traditional styles of hand-drum and pow wow music, alongside awards focused on music videos, producers and radio programmes.

However, controversy arose when Cikwes, a Nehiyaw Cree performer, was nominated in the category of Best Folk Album for her album ISKO. On the album, Cikwes uses a technique of throat-singing that imitates an Inuit style. The Arnaqquasaaq Collective, which includes Inuit artists Tanya Tagaq, PIQSIQ and Kelly Fraser, argue that such an imitation of a tradition with deeply-held and sacred meanings for Inuits is cultural appropriation, and reached out privately to both Cikwes and the IMAs requesting a withdrawal of the nomination. When withdrawal was refused, members of the Arnaqquasaaq Collective publicly announced a boycott, withdrawing their own nominations from the awards and refusing to submit to any further awards until Inuit people and artists are properly represented on the IMAs’ board of governors and a policy on cultural appropriation is adopted.

As a response to the boycott, Manito Ahbee released a statement, saying ‘We don’t presume to agree or disagree on this matter at this time, as it requires great reflection, ceremony and discussions on how we move forward in a good way, to ensure that we as Indigenous people uphold our teachings, and do not provide a platform for negativity and separation. We have been taught that our gifts from the Creator should be honoured and that we do not ‘own’ what is gifted to us, but that it is our responsibility to share those gifts.’ The festival’s director, Lisa Meeches has also been quoted as saying she did not believe that cultural appropriation between Indigenous people was possible.

Tagaq responded to the statement with a lengthy Twitter thread, saying ‘Do you know that Inuit have our own ceremonies and religion? Or did you assume that the creator origin could be applied to anyone kind of brown? Acknowledging these differences in culture isn’t an act of division, it’s a sign of respect. If we respect each other’s cultures and EDUCATE each other, the rest of the country may follow suit. Artists choosing to omit their own artwork and presence at an awards show in peaceful protest to show displeasure at bureaucratic procedure is NOT negative or inflammatory.

Later on, she followed up: ‘Regardless of any outcome to this nuanced conflict, I am resting assured that we have conducted ourselves with dignity and patience. Our voices HAVE been heard by the right people.

Photo: Tanya Tagaq, by Rebecca Wood

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali - Barbican Centre, London

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali
Barbican Centre, London
30th March 2019

When the great qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in 1997, it fell upon his nephews to continue his legacy. Since then, Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan have secured their status among the most highly respected qawwali musicians on the international scene. That reputation was on show at their recent concert in London. The event was sold out far in advance and the musicians’ reception was incredible. The crowd was raucous, cheering each song as it was announced with wild enthusiasm.

The massed voices of the ten-man qawwali party is one of the world’s most powerful musical spectacles, and it was again tonight. Soaring and roaring above the chorus were the solos of Rizwan and Muazzam themselves, who amazed with feats of breath, tongue and vocal control. There’s no getting away from the fact that this was undoubtedly a concert instead of a traditional mehfil-e-sama. Because the party were on stage, they were very much separated from the audience, leading to a slightly sterile atmosphere at times. No-one in the crowd was transported to spiritual ecstasy or got up to present offerings to the party. It reflected musically, too, with aspects of the arrangements and performance obviously Bollywoodified to some degree.

Nevertheless, the group’s experience allows them to give the audience just what they want, and the crowd duly responded. The concert’s two-and-a-half hours passed in what felt like 30 minutes. It wasn’t the most solemn or devotional occasion, but it was certainly a great night of wonderful music.

Photo: Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, by Stuart Bruce

Pulo NDJ - Desert to Douala

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Pulo NDJ
Desert to Douala
Wonderwheel Recordings (36 mins)

Pulo NDJ is a project that broadcasts from the musical midpoint between N’Djamena, Chad, and New York, USA. DJs Nickodemus and djbuosis met with musicians in the Chadian capital and recorded many hours of music with their portable studio before remixing it all together with house and electronica, with the full blessings of the musicians.

Desert to Douala perfectly reflects the nature of the project’s two cities; there are all sorts of music thrown into Pulo NDJ’s pot. There are traditional instruments like the garaya (calabash lute) and balafon (xylophone), but also retro keyboards and electric guitars, and then the programmed drums, deep basses and massive synths from the producers. It’s especially exciting when the Chadian sounds merge seamlessly with the electronics, such as on ‘Mbaoundaye’, where the buzz of the balafon blends with the synth bass, traditional drums are sampled into dance beats and ululating singers caress the lot of it.

The music of Chad is rarely heard outside of the country itself, so it’s great that this project is giving it wider attention. With the amount of recordings that were surely made, it’s strange that the album is so short. Hopefully it’s just the beginning of Pulo NDJ’s journey.

Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band - Pedal Steal + Four Corners

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 148, June 2019.

Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band
Pedal Steal + Four Corners
Paradise of Bachelors (3 CDs, 145 mins)

Now here’s a fascinating one. Terry Allen is an artist of many forms: a conceptual artist, painter, writer, playwright and (most prolifically) a country musician. This release is a collection of five performance pieces recorded between 1985 and 1993. The works are each based around spoken word performed over musical beds and frequently interspersed with songs. Allen’s stories revolve around the lives of people at the fringes of society, usually within his native Texas; laced together with the music, they create extremely riveting and evocative set-pieces.

The first piece is ‘Pedal Steal’. Originally written as a soundtrack to a dance performance, it tells the tragic tale of ne'er-do-well pedal steel player Billy the Boy. The narrative is punctuated and accompanied by a mixture of country music, Navajo songs, Tex-Mex conjuntos and jazz as well as abstract soundscapes and found sounds.

The ‘four corners’ of the album’s title are four radio plays, each following a different set of outlaws, peasants and down-and-outs. They are as charming, wistful and bittersweet as ‘Pedal Steel’ with the exception of one. ‘Torso Hell’ is as evocative as the rest, but completely unpleasant, a dark, disturbing and ultra-violent critique on war narratives in Hollywood. Good art maybe but that doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable – a shame compared to the rest of the set.