Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson, R.I.P.

The world is remembering Michael Jackson.

At work yesterday, my coworkers put on some of their favorite tunes of his, among them "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" and the Free Willy theme song, "Will You Be There." When I was a little kid, one of my favorite videos was the "Smooth Criminal" section of Moonwalker.

While at work, I received an email from a Congolese man I met at the Dubai International Airport last year. "Bonjour !j'ai tres mal appris la nouvelle du deces de Michael Jackson. et comment la nation Americaine concoit cette perte brutale?" he wrote. "je presente les condoleances les plus attristes au peuple Americain."

After work, I headed to the Harlem Meer and checked out a pole at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center to go fishing. Heading back to the train, I bought a bottle of water at a bodega. While waiting in line, a Latino man talking to the clerk turned to me. "Man, what do you think about Michael Jackson dying?" he asked. "He was the best performer ever."

The NY Times has reported that Michael was on medication, but it will take weeks before the cause of death can be determined. The police have opened a criminal investigation and are questioning Jackson's personal doctor, Conrad Murray.

I went to the local bodega today. "Bad" was playing on the radio. Back home, I heard Michael's intense, unmistakable voice coming from my Chinese neighbor's apartment.

We miss you, Michael.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Various Artists, "Legends Of Benin" (Analog Africa; 2009)

Over the past year, Samy Ben Redjeb’s Analog Africa label has released three excellent compilations of irresistible hits of the ’70s by musicians from the small African nations of Togo and Benin: African Scream Contest, a collection of innovative, genre-bending dance tunes; The Vodoun Effect, a sampling obscure recordings by the renowned voodoo-funk band Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou; and now, Legends Of Benin, which compiles Cavacha, Agbadja, and Afro-beat hits by four “golden age”-era composers, Antoine Dougbé, Honoré Avolonto, Gnonnas Pedro, and El Rego. It’s difficult to say which compilation is best, but of all three Legends Of Benin features some of the deepest grooves.

Like the other two releases, Legends Of Benin is a pretty package, with extensive, forty-page liner notes detailing composer bios and the story behind the project. Back in 2005, Redjeb was hoping to create a similar series for Zimbabwean Chimurenga music, but he was forced to leave Zimbabwe in the midst of a terrible political crackdown; eventually, Benin caught his eye when he noticed in some records a curious divergence from a vinyl pressing technique common to West African highlife LPs from the ’70s. It would have been interesting to hear some of the more obscure songs from that era that were written in support of the guerrillas who fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation war, but Redjeb certainly wasn’t settling for less when he decided to plumb a treasure trove of rare records to produce these current releases. Legends Of Benin in particular offers a sampling of hits by artists who have been virtually unheard of outside Africa for far too long.

The skilled musicians on Legends Of Benin play incredibly diverse music with feeling, but while some of these fourteen tracks are downright sweltering, others are cool and even somewhat haunting. The propulsive bass line and warm accordion refrain of El Rego et Ses Commandos’ “Feeling You Got” has the gruff R&B feel of Captain Beefheart circa Safe as Milk (1967). Antoine Dougbé’s “Honton Soukpo Gnon,” which hinges on a lilting guitar-and-organ hook, evokes mid-tempo reggae. On the other hand, the horn-accented crescendo groove of Dougbé’s “Honton Soukpo Gnon,” driven by the Cavacha rhythm popularized in the Congo (similar to a reggaeton beat), resembles the soukous style of classic Congolese bands like Franco & le TPOK Jazz and Zaiko Langa Langa. Funky Afro-beat shows up in the jittery drums, lithe guitars and driving horns of Honoré Avolonto’s “Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu,” as well as in the intermingling guitar lines and cosmic synthesizer solo of Honoré Avolonto & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s “Tin Lin Non.” Latin influences show through in the cool vocals and laid-back guitar of Gnonnas Pedro & his Dadjes Band’s “La Musica En Vérité.” The average yovo wouldn’t hear it, but this famous salsero is perhaps more commonly known for incorporating the traditional Agbadja rhythm into popular tunes like “Dadje Von O Von Non.”

The main reason it takes over thirty years for many talented artists from Africa to gain due recognition in the United States and Europe is because, unfortunately, too few people over here license artists’ songs while they’re still alive. But one can’t fault Redjeb for his efforts: Legends Of Benin is still a worthy collection and a great resource for both the public library and the local club’s Afro-beat night.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bringing the party

Tonight, I performed a rare concert at The Glass Door in Bushwick, opening for my musical friends The Binary Marketing Show and Wagner. I keep my music mostly to myself and I usually perform about once or twice a year. The Binary Marketing Show is an up-and-coming electroacoustic band composed of four good friends of mine who are all from the South and live in Brooklyn. Wagner is the solo dance project of my main mec français, Yan Wagner. (None of us knew about this flyer, designed by friend of a friend with a curious imagination, before it was posted on Facebook.) Over the course of several hours, a chill party with a few dozen guests grew into a drunken blowout wingding.

The last time I was at The Glass Door, a scrappy performance space on the second floor of a nondescript building in Bushwick, The Binary Marketing Show played a show with a screamo band from New Jersey on New Year's Eve to an audience of about a dozen. It was the second show that the organizers--Steph and Jonny--had put on; the place had the unseemly name Retox and the walls were all painted a stark white. Fifty-odd shows/parties have gone on since. Now, the walls in the main space are covered with perverse cartoons (a monster with a scrotum attached to his head; an alien with four arms holding a smoky bong and a 40 oz.; what looks to be a caricature of Saddam Hussein, with a corresponding speech balloon that says "I HATE EVERYONE AND MYSELF") and cryptic graffitos ("DOUCHE COUGAR"; "Chuck Norris Beard gives Back Alley Abortions"; "DONNER PARTY PICNIC"; "Re-Pent & thou shall Be SAVED"). The venue seems legal enough and aspiring musicians should take note that it is currently booking shows for July and August. But like we did tonight, you'll have to bring the party!

Despite some technical difficulties early on, my performance turned out great. Enhanced by a borrowed delay pedal, my voice echoed through the room over my blistering programmed beats, jumpy bass lines and harsh keyboard phrases. I sang several of what one might consider pathetic love songs, and in other tunes I covered such interesting topics as my strange fascination with the Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia, my opinion on what should be done with the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay ("Close it down! Close it down! Close it down!"), and the tragic complexities of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq. But it wasn't the verses that won accolades from a few audience members, it was the beats. Michael Pope, who did crunked-up, down 'n' dirty DJ sets in between the night's three performances, even insisted that I become a producer: Quite a powerful compliment for somebody who has long considered this beat-making little more than a hobby.

The Binary Marketing Show, a bruising force driven by warped samples, resonant guitars, deep rhythms, FX-drenched vocal lines and introspective verses, put on a hearty performance. No doubt I'm seeing things a little bit differently because these people are my friends, but I think that Binary is a hot and promising band. Their new album, Pattern, is complex and rich with detail, sometimes bizarre and other times catchy. In a recent Pitchfork review of the track "Shape Of Your Head", Brian Howe accused the band of literally pretending to be Animal Collective. "It seems like such a meticulous diagnostic of the digi-tribal aesthetic that it can be hard to hear it as its own entity," he writes. Alas, yet another perfectly unique, innovative and catchy song is charged with conspiracy and fraud because a critic is incapable of simply enjoying it. Thankfully, Animal
Noises Music Blog published a rebuttal earlier today. "Not only does The Binary Marketing Show's new track, 'Shape of Your Head' not sound anything like Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam," John writes, "but it sounds nothing like Animal Collective."

Wagner quite simply stole the show: The moment he started throwing down his funky, Kraftwerk-style synth lines and infectious clap-heavy beats, the audience became electric. Wagner's music, a cross between classic Detroit techno and glamorous electro-pop, has an irresistible summertime feel to it; we in the audience worked up a healthy summertime sweat as we gyrated wildly.

He played an encore, responding to applause, cheers, and cries of "Encore!" and "Sans
déconner, mec!" When the song came to an end, he said, "Thank you for staying."

"Thank you for coming," replied organizer Steph. "It's like an orgy."

Monday, June 22, 2009


I just got back from (Le) Poisson Rouge, where I witnessed a breathtaking performance of Steve Reich's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece "Double Sextet" by the hip contemporary classical group Signal. Mesmerizing percussive instruments and herky-jerky piano merged with the dissonant, razor sharp phrasing of violins and woodwinds. The ensemble (heads bobbing and bodies moving, the falcon-like conductor Brad Lubman swishing and cutting with his arms) was propulsive yet subdued, piercing but sublime.

After the show, Reich himself appeared in his trademark baseball cap, making his way through the applauding crowd and going on stage to give hugs and kisses. Considering the mood of the scene, I couldn't help but feel a little regretful that I didn't pull out my phone to snap a picture, even though it would have turned out hopelessly blurry and underexposed. Oh, to simply have the Capped One in a frame!

Now, I'm thinking of this haunting indelible image: life streaming from the eyes of the young Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan. Whether or not all of the facts have been independently confirmed, the candid video of Neda's death is fast becoming the definitive emblem of Iranians' call for democratic change. As I follow the hopeful protests and tragic violence taking place in Iran, the image has begun to serve as something of a personal spirit: a reminder that pops up up in unexpected places of the incomprehensibly ugly forces that seek to destroy beautiful common struggles.