Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Henry Arteaga and the 4Elementos Skuela - WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award Winners

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2016 delegate guide.

Music has always been more than just music. Communication is a large part of it, of course, whether it is communicating stories, morals, political messages, comedy or even concepts and emotions that cannot be expressed any other way. In this manner, music can cause a lot of change, personally and further afield. But sometimes, the real power of music is to create change in the world by the simple fact of how enjoyable it is to make and be around. Henry Arteaga has harnessed this power to create good wherever he can.

When Arteaga was growing up in Medellín, Colombia, the city was considered the most dangerous in the world, irrevocably connected in the international consciousness to Pablo Escobar’s infamous cartel, and to the extreme poverty that grew around their corruption. In this environment, hip-hop began to appear, being used as a tool for the young generation of Medellínos to (re)claim the space and to project their personalities within their own scene.

Inspired by this growing interest in hip-hop, Arteaga became a breakdancer, a b-boy. Known as JKE (or El Jeque, the Sheikh), his moves gained him a reputation, and he soon began informally teaching the art to local kids. The group grew and grew, becoming known as Crew Peligrosos, and eventually people started calling it a school. And so the idea stuck. Despite a complete lack of outside funding, the Peligrosos’ school went on in leaps and bounds, securing a permanent meeting-place after a local school principal saw first-hand the difference they made and offered his facilities. Together, the Crew began to rap and teach the disciplines of MCing (rapping), DJing and graffiti alongside b-boying – the four elements of hip-hop which lent the school its official name: 4Elementos Skuela.

When Henry met fellow MC, P Flavor, Crew Peligrosos were transformed into a multimedia hip-hop performance collective. Nowadays the Crew consists of a band with numerous MCs and DJs, 20 b-boys and -girls and four graffers. They have released two albums, tour internationally and have collaborated with hip-hop stars such as Afrika Bambaataa and Emicida, as well as musicians from the full spectrum of Colombian music, from traditional musicians to symphony orchestras.

And at the heart of all this – enjoyment. When he was younger, Arteaga’s father made sure to impress upon his son: “this neighbourhood is a mirror. Whatever you do, you will see reflected”. Henry certainly took that advice to heart, and shows it through his work with the Skuela. Arteaga himself has said that ‘getting kids off the streets’ is not the aim of the initiative. It has that outcome, but simply as a consequence of the positive atmosphere created within their environment. When people see the passion and pleasure that Arteaga and the Crew give to their scholars, they want to join in. Art provides an alternative. The school is now a magnet for hip-hop artists (in all their forms) from around Colombia: old hands offer to share their knowledge; prospective protégés come looking to soak it up. All the classes are free, as they always have been. The Skuela now has over 400 regular attendees, and more than 4,000 have already passed through their ranks. Not all students leave, either. Some stay on and join the ranks of tutors – this way, the Skuela is self-sustaining. As long it is wanted or needed, it will exist.

The city that Henry Arteaga teaches in is not the same as it was when he started. Medellín is not even among the 50 most dangerous cities in the world now. It has become a cultural hub of Colombia and South America, even achieving the title of UNESCO Creative City for Music in 2015. And the 4Elementos Skuela, over its 17 years, has certainly made its mark on the population by its sheer revelling in the enjoyment of music and the hard work of its founder.

It is for these reasons that Henry Arteaga is being presented with the WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award on behalf of the 4Elementos Skuela and everyone involved with it. The Award is not an achievement – it is simply an acknowledgement of the real achievements, which can only truly be put into words by people they have touched. These two quotes from Skuela students really tell the whole story:

4Elementos Skuela is very important for me because it has taught me many values. It has taught me to grow as a person.
Laura Ibarra

Before knowing 4Elementos Skuela and Crew Peligrosos my life was meaningless. Since I was introduced to breakdance, I haven’t stopped training because it has become part of my life, and the shelter of solace from my troubles.

Photo: Henry Arteaga receives the WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award, by Eric van Nieuwland.

Calypso Rose - WOMEX 16 Artist Award Winner

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2016 delegate guide.

Calypso (along with its younger offshoot ‘soul calypso’, or soca) has long been known as the sound of Trinidad and Tobago, evolving from styles brought to the Caribbean by slaves from West and Central Africa and mixing with the popular American music of the early 20th century. With a heavy focus on lyricism, comedy and double-entendre, calypsonians originally occupied a role similar to griots, spreading the important news and gossip amongst different communities. The position has evolved into a more strictly entertainment role today, but the focus on topicality remains: until recently, calypsonians were expected to write twelve pertinent songs per year.

For a long time, calypso was a man’s game, a no-go area for women. That is no longer the case, and for that, we have Dr. McCartha Sandy-Lewis, Calypso Rose, to thank.

Growing up during the ’40s and ’50s in Tobago, Rose was the class clown, making up calypso verses about her friends, teachers and the gossip of the playground. As her reputation as a calypsonian grew and she began to write full songs, her father (a Baptist minister) and the local women’s church groups objected, calling it the devil’s music. But with a personal recommendation from the ‘Father of T&T’ Prime Minister Eric Williams (“you’re good, very good! You’re going to make it in the world!”) and by incorporating religious themes and melodies into her calypso for 1963’s Hurricane Flora, their tune eventually changed. This skill, being able to meld to her audiences’ desires while remaining steadfast in her message, is precisely why Calypso Rose is such a leader in her field.

Prime Minister Williams’ prediction came true, and Calypso Rose became the most successful female calypsonian ever. After winning the title of Calypso Queen five years in a row and being stripped of the Trinidad Road March prize after the organisers could not bear the thought of a woman winning, she decided to compete for the title of Calypso King in 1978. That the competition is now named Calypso Monarch shows how momentous Rose’s win was. She was the first woman ever to win the prize, and remained the only one until 1999.

Staying true to calypso’s origins, Rose’s lyrics balance the subjects of partying and politics – often together. As well as opening the scene for women by her very presence, many of Rose’s songs sing of female empowerment and shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy and double-standards perpetuated by the male-dominated calypso world. Where women were once only viewed in relationship to men – always admiring them, nagging them or cheating on them – Calypso Rose celebrated the woman’s independence with wit, style and class. That's not to say that her subjects are not racy, or even crude; the opposite is true, they are often gleefully so and revel in this fact, the exact reason her opponents thought calypso unfit for women, yet aspects that are celebrated and loved when performed by men.

As well as social change, Rose’s music has also led to real political change: in the 1970s, her song ‘No Madame’ highlighted the plight of domestic workers in Trinidad and Tobago (the vast majority of whom were women). It gained international recognition, pressuring the country’s government to introduce new protections for such workers into law, paving the way for similar laws across the Caribbean.

She is obviously most well-known for the calypso for which she has done so much to pioneer, but Rose is not afraid to look towards other styles – from calypso’s child, soca, to punta from Belize and the now pan-Caribbean sounds of reggae and ska. It is a sign of her greatness that she excels in all. Her adaptability has led to her taking to some of the most prestigious stages in the world (including at WOMEX 06 in Sevilla!) and even to performing with world-class artists from all over the globe, from Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton to Miriam Makeba and Bob Marley.

As a calypsonian, Rose has won every award going. In fact, it’s been claimed that she is the most decorated calypsonian ever. As well as countless competition and carnival medals, she has also been honoured with national awards by the governments of Trinidad and Tobago, Belize and Liberia for her services to culture. She is truly a living legend, in terms of her composition, performance and service to fans and human beings in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean and the world – it is an honour for us to add the WOMEX 16 Artist Award to her already heavy mantelpiece.

And with a new album, produced by Manu Chao and Ivan Durán, released this year and at least 70 shows booked for 2017 already, Calypso Rose is not slowing down. But then, she doesn’t need to: “I am bringing joy to the hearts of the people. The people are giving me energy, and I am giving them back the energy. That is why I am on stage with my hands up in the air!

Photo: Calypso Rose live at WOMEX 16, by Jacob Crawfurd.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 122, November 2016.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz
World Music Network (55 mins)

The eclectic Rough Guide series turns its attention to the wonderful world of Ethiojazz.

The trap of focussing only on Buda Musique’s landmark Éthiopiques series has been avoided, but this leaves the genre’s golden era somewhat under-represented. Two members of the old guard – Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekuria – are included with more recent projects, but many greats are missing, notably Mahmoud Ahmed.

Of the young guns showcased here, most continue the musical legacy of the master Astatke. The inclusion of Samuel Yirga’s intense and brooding piano exploration aside, it may have been fun to feature some of the more out-there young exponents.

The tracks on this album are presented in their unedited, extended forms, up to eight minutes in length. This decision is a double-edged sword: it’s a delight to appreciate the full listening experience as intended without the unceremonious fade-outs of abridged tracks; on the other hand, it means that only nine tracks are included, as opposed to the 12-18 that are usually found on Rough Guides. As such, the spectrum of Ethiojazz presented is not as broad as it otherwise could have been. One album can only ever hope to scratch the surface, but perhaps this one could have scratched just a little deeper.