“Work is my life’s reason.”
“I’m over French people…”
—man on the street
“Follow the person because you never know what you’ll find.”
My interest in world music began as a teen in the ’60s when Brooklyn intellectuals called it “international music.” There were those odd crossover pop songs early on that most of us doo-woppers and jazz buffs tended to ignore, but then, as the drugs increased, horizons broadened. For me one such acid trip was with Ravi Shankar, after which Indian music was the only music I could tolerate while being psychedelicized. Also, at about age 15, I was introduced to Manitas De Plata’s music and my love affair with Flamenco began. I got to see these giants in the ’60s, and at De Plata’s concert got Dali to sign my paper bag—which mysteriously disappeared. After these initial excursions I sought out global sounds more and more. My taste widened: India, Africa (including Art Blakey’s quintessential genre bending LP The African Beat), afro-cuban (including jazz-related tunes such as Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Be Cubano Bop”), Japan, Spain, and almost every country East, West, and in between.
In the ’70s this passion stayed more to vinyl but in the ’80s, when “world music” was born and became a trend, I sought it live whenever I could. This thirst was, in part, constantly quenched by the now renowned World Music Institute (WMI), a non-profit organization co-founded in 1985 by Robert and Helene Browning. In those days, the Brownings presented mainly in the Alternative Museum, a nice mid-size gallery south of Canal, then reached bigger venues. They presented giants like Indian musician Balachander, who I had idolized since the mid-’60s, and the likes of Reggie Workman, Ed Blackwell, and Don Cherry. At the same time a new influx of African artists hit America, like Fela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and King Sunny Adé, along with such exotic offerings by the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria and other groups. I devoured them all. Then in the ’90s I stopped, until very recently when, after almost 20 years, I went to Town Hall to hear some extraordinary Flamenco music, and discovered that Robert and Helene Browning had come out of retirement and were once again presenting great world music and had, in fact, co-produced this one. We met, hugged, chatted a bit; it was as if those 20 years were yesterday.
The music was mesmerizing and the only thing I longed for was that it were somewhere in Spain in a dark, smoky café or basement, where all the passion and intimacy could be felt. The concert consisted of generations of artists; three singers—two male, one female—three dancers—two female, one male—two guitarists, and a percussionist. They alternated, soloed, and finally all interacted. There is a point where the artist transcends the context in which he/she appears, and such is the case with great Flamenco. It is one of the only art forms where joy and sadness come together to create a fierce yet relaxed duende. It is at once expressive, emotive, emphatic, empathetic, and gestural. It is transformative music yet down to earth, always keeping its identity and integrity intact.
Since then I’ve caught Gilberto Gil’s concert at Town Hall, which was, if you are nostalgic for bossa nova and samba, like I sometimes am, a wonderfully warm excursion through its history. Though I still and always will prefer Getz and Gilberto. Be sure to look for the Browning Associates series including trance and Indian music at Roulette this spring. And speaking of the WMI, their new artistic director Par Neiburger has partnered with 92Y, and for their 30th anniversary there will be a rare US appearance by Nigerian superstar King Sunny Adé & His African Beats on Friday, June 26, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. Adé’s troupe will consist of 17 musicians and singers plus five dancers. I still listen to his breakthrough LP Juju Music on Island Records. Neiburger also plans to reach out to many other important New York venues. The upcoming season will present Cuba’s Irakere, Indian music, an African festival, and a contemporary and avant-garde spectrum of world music called the Counterpoint series.
I recently saw Handel’s Orlando, a tale of fidelity/infidelity. As one of its key lines states, “Honor and duty are useless against love.” Handel was born in Germany, moved to England, and wrote this opera in Italian. I had a very mixed experience with this extremely pared down version, directed by R.B. Schlather and presented at Whitebox Art Center. I am a traditionalist, so for me it was too modern, too minimalistic. The space worked but a lot of the action didn’t. The supertitles were on the side walls, which meant constant turning to read them. The props consisted of beer cans, spray paint, a can of Mountain Dew standing in as an elixir poured all over poor Orlando, a Yankees pin which represented a very important keepsake, a t-shirt worn by the character Angelica, which read “Beat Me, Hate Me, Whip Me, Fuck Me,” and a subway bench that the director stated gave the added look of the ’70s period setting. But since he wasn’t born in the ’70s, he didn’t realize no such bench existed then. The singers were for the most part excellent and the music was breathtaking, even after the conductor took off his shirt and finished the score topless. But Handel, as the program notes stated, deemed this a serious opera, and the gay hipster apparel, including leather-boy and Santa Claus costumes worn by magic-man Zoroastro, and the way too many scenes played for laughs, just didn’t work for me. And that’s barely putting the icing on the cake, the over-the-top prop they all ate in the end. All I can say is that “I am a shadow and as a shadow I will cross over to Hell by myself.”
Three films of note: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, before and after Pol Pot; The Case of the Three Sided Dream, a documentary on Roland Kirk—who I was fortunate to catch many times before and after his stroke—that could have been more expansive; and the comprehensive What Happened, Miss Simone?, an incredibly heartbreaking documentary about one of my favorite artists that includes much footage and many interviews with her, and excerpts from her diary—a truly up close and personal experience.
There have been, since the ’80s, more and more musicians from every part of the globe playing out-of-this-world music. Yoshihide Otomo is one. At one of his gigs during his recent Stone residency, an ambient set with Ryuichi Sakamoto, the fat guy behind me was breathing so heavily that at points his sounds were integrated into theirs. He disturbed me so much I wanted to turn around and say, “Would you please STOP BREATHING and just LISTEN.”
I dedicate this column to Bernard Stollman, founder of ESP-Disk records, who passed away in April at age 85. For all the faults of ESP, it brought us some of the most daring and innovative music of all time, and has been a major source of my ongoing musical education. From their first release, Ni Kantu en Esperanto, to their latest release from the Matthew Shipp/Mat Walerian Duo, from Albert Ayler to the Fugs to Pearls Before Swine and the Godz, from free jazz to folk to kitsch, I owe a debt to this label I could never repay. As their motto says: “You never heard such sounds in your life.”
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become onethe french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.