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First Listen: Orchestra of Samples

Posted on April 13th, 2017 in News by .

orchestraofsamples

British audio/visual duo Addictive TV collected samples of musicians from around the world to create a collage of sound for their latest project

This is an orchestra of a different kind; featuring over 200 musicians from 20 countries, Orchestra of Samples is a unique collaboration of international artists spearheaded by DJs Graham Daniel and Mark Vidler, known together as Addictive TV. The duo were touring when they decided to set up impromptu recording sessions to sample local musicians and amass an archive of sound for their audio-visual performances.

Having toured the Orchestra of Samples project last year, they’re due to release the album Orchestra of Samples on June 2. It features a myriad of guests including sitar player Baluji Shrivastav, fiddle player Shona Mooney and Kounta Dieye on koraListen to ‘Hangman’ – the second track from the album – featuring hang player Daniel Salorio below.  

You can read more about the project in the next issue of Songlines (June 2017 #128, on sale May 12), or watch an overview of the project below.

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Introducing… Orkesta Mendoza

Posted on April 12th, 2017 in Features by .

Orkesta-Mendoza-©Josh-Harrison

Russ Slater chats to the Mexican musical polymath Sergio Mendoza about his influences and various projects, prior to his UK tour

Talking to Sergio Mendoza, Orkesta Mendoza’s softly spoken bandleader, you get the impression of how different life can be either side of the US/Mexico border, and how incredible it is that his own music has been able to traverse the two countries so freely. His first musical memories hail from Mexico, when he was living in the border town of Nogales, Sonora. At an early age he would listen to cumbias and rancheras, learning to play the melodies on the family keyboard. Then when he was around eight years old his family moved north to Nogales, Arizona, back when the border didn’t seem so immutable.

Though only a few miles north, the move meant a big change in culture. “I remember the first day of school,” Mendoza says. “There was free paper and pencils and that was a big shock to me. In Mexico you show up to your class and there’s nothing but a desk and a chalkboard.” Of bigger impact though was the change in his musical habits.

“I started letting go of all that [Mexican] music and just listened to everything American,” Mendoza tells me. “My friends looked down on all the Mexican stuff because they thought it was cheesy. So we started listening to classic rock, rock’n’roll and grunge.”

It would take years, many fateful rock groups and a stint in a local salsa band until Mendoza would finally get in touch with his roots again. By that time he’d become known in the Tucson, Arizona music scene when Calexico’s Joey Burns got in touch, asking if he wanted to play with them. “I was the perfect combination of a guy they wanted to play with. Somebody who was Latin but also loves rock’n’roll.”

He’d also come to a point where he was ready to re-embrace his earliest musical influences, going back to mambo and cumbia. “I wanted to learn Pérez Prado’s style,” says Mendoza, “so we decided to do a Prado tribute. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but Joey Burns and the local promoters were like, nah, you’re going to do this again and started booking us. Then right away I started writing songs in a similar style, and that’s how we made those first [Orkesta Mendoza] recordings.”

Three albums later – the latest one, Vamos a Guarachar, was reviewed in #124 – and Orkesta Mendoza are as strong as ever, moving fluidly between Mexican and American music with a fiery mix of ranchera rock’n’roll, indie mambo and psych cumbia. Their music represents the cultural fusions that could only exist on the border. Mendoza, who continues to play with Calexico, as well as the Mexican Morrissey tribute band Mexrrissey, and Los Hijos de la Montaña (an experimental indie-pop collaboration with fellow US Latino Luz Elena Mendoza) is the perfect example of this.

“I feel like I fit in both worlds,” he replies, when I ask him whether he feels more Mexican or American. Thankfully, unlike the hard hand of politics, music does not seek to erect walls. Though, you can be sure that, if it did, Orkesta Mendoza would do their best to shake them down.

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Spotlight: António Zambujo

Posted on April 12th, 2017 in Features by .

Antonio-Zambujo-©Isabel-Pinto

Michael Macaroon speaks to the Portuguese singer and guitarist who will make a welcome return to London in April for La Linea

The title of António Zambujo’s latest album, Até Pensei que Fosse Minha (Until I Thought it was Mine), could stand as the tag line for his whole musical career. His extraordinary popularity as a singer and guitarist, both in his native Portugal and abroad is founded on a seemingly effortless absorption of musical influences ranging from fado to bossa nova, taking in Chet Baker, Serge Gainsbourg and Bulgarian folk choirs on the way.

This latest outing is a tribute disc to Chico Buarque, the Brazilian singer whose 50-year career has encompassed dozens of albums, as well as plays, poems and novels, not to mention political protest. Buarque’s samba and tropicália roots may not seem obvious material for a fado singer, though the points of cultural connection are there, and in any case, Zambujo is not exactly a fadista from central casting.

Zambujo’s own roots are in the Alentejo region in the south of Portugal, and he’s steeped in the social and musical traditions of cante alentejano – choirs of men and women who sing of the land they work, local saints and lost love. Cante has an austere harmony built up in parallel thirds, pregnant with Arab influence from centuries back. By his teens, however, Zambujo had discovered the fado of Amália Rodrigues and before long made the move to Lisbon. Mentored by guitarist and composer Mário Pacheco, it was four successful years in the role of Amália’s husband in the eponymous musical that gave him his big commercial break. The recording and touring career that’s followed has charted an individual’s cultural coming of age – a transition from local to international fame, yielding in the process some wonderful tunes, poetry and albums.

His early discs are noted for bridging cante and fado – notably 2004’s Por Meu Cante – though wider interests soon emerge, and a passion for Brazilian music in particular receives the full Zambujo treatment in albums such as Outro Sentido (2007) and Guia (2010).

Now on his eighth disc, Zambujo is established enough to follow his personal enthusiasms without compromise. This is a fan’s tribute: “Chico Buarque is one of the biggest poets of the Portuguese language and I love him,” says Zambujo. Unlike an ordinary fan, though, he has drawn on his idol’s help in whittling down a long list of a hundred songs to create this personal playlist of 16.

What’s more, Buarque, together with the likes of Carminho and Roberta Sá, perform alongside Zambujo on some of the tracks. This dynamic of collaboration is no doubt important morally as well as musically. If you are reinterpreting a classic protest song such as ‘Cálice’ – written in the face of government censorship following the Brazilian military coup of 1964 (cálice or ‘goblet’ is a near homophone for cale-se or ‘shut up’) – then direct engagement with its author helps reconcile a 21st-century perspective with the authenticity of the original (not to mention avoiding the pitfalls of cultural appropriation).

For future projects, Zambujo claims not to have any plans: “I just want to sing and play my guitar… I know that we will tour this year with this album, then we’ll have a live album being released around September, and after that we’ll see…” It doesn’t take much probing, however, to get him to admit there are other enthusiasms he’d like to explore further: “Tom Waits, Caetano Veloso, Agustín Lara, Chavela Vargas, so many…”

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Sona Jobarteh: Modern Griot

Posted on March 29th, 2017 in Recent posts by .

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Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to Gambian kora player Sona Jobarteh about the musical journey that has taken her through traditional griot music and Western classical performance, and how it led to the creation of her country’s first school dedicated to Mande music. (Photo by Mateusz Bral)

Sunjata Keita watches regally over the proceedings, his marvellously patterned robes drape over his kingly red throne. He has just been crowned the king of the Mali Empire, and although Sanjally, the boy playing Sunjata, is only nine years old, he exudes a charisma fit for an emperor. The other children, his subjects, dance and sing his praises, grinning from ear to ear, while another young actor, Sidiki, plays the balafon at the base of Sunjata’s throne. It is clear they are relishing this moment, proud to be showing off their hard work. They finish triumphantly and take their bows. The audience, made up of parents, teachers and a few members of the Gambian ministry, offer up their proud applause.

The children are students at the brand new Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music in Brikama, the Gambia, set up by kora player Sona Jobarteh in memory of her grandfather. They have been at the school for less than a full month, and their performance is an impressive start for the school, one that promises much for the children who might otherwise have been left behind in a damaged national education system.

Education is a subject close to Sona Jobarteh’s heart. Between her years of touring and performing, she has developed a comprehensive curriculum for teaching kora, and she has now embarked on her ambitious ABJ Music School project. Not only does the school represent the Gambia’s first Mande music institution, Sona is working on a rigorous curriculum, which would ensure that the school is a respected cultural institution that is recognised internationally as well as at home.

Education has always played an important part of Sona’s illustrious musical career. She was born for music, just one in a great line of griot musicians: her grandfather and namesake of the school was the Gambia’s most celebrated kora player; her cousin is none other than Toumani Diabaté; her father Sanjally Jobarteh is a respected kora player; and her brother Tunde Jegede is a composer and accomplished kora and cello player.

As befitting a musician with her heritage, she began learning the kora from her brother at the tender age of two. Her brother also taught her classical instruments, like the cello, setting her on a path into the Western classical discipline. It wasn’t long before the cello, which required so much of her practice time, replaced the kora as her dominant instrument. By the age of 11 she was enrolled at London’s Royal College of Music’s Junior Department studying the cello, piano, harpsichord and Baroque music, and soon after that she started full-time at the Purcell School of Music, where she added composition to her studies. “It was the first time I was allowed to bring in my African heritage and bridge that gap.” While her composition tutor encouraged this melding of cultures, it was certainly not the overriding sentiment of the school.

The fact that Sona’s mother is English did little to dispel the discrimination that seemed inherent in the classical world. “The harsh reality is that I spent a lot of those years struggling with the fact I was not European. I was the only person who wasn’t European. It was like I was just ticking a box for them. But the comments…” she trails off, seemingly lost to her memories, but only for a moment. “It was comments like, ‘you’re doing quite well for an African.’ It’s interesting that you get used to it when you’re young, you don’t criticise things. It’s when you get older that you think, why did I put up with that stuff?”

She internalised that discrimination and quickly became self-conscious of her griot heritage, which may be why it took her a bit longer to find her way back to her roots, but “because of those experiences, I eventually came to a point where I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to pursue what I felt passionate about.”

That pursuit took her on a journey that saw her experiment with various genres, but ultimately the beckoning whispers of her heritage led her feet back to that familiar, traditional path. “I was very apprehensive about choosing a traditional route when based in London. I felt like no one was going to understand what I was doing. Then I was like I don’t care if no one understands, it’s the only thing that just makes me feel everything that I want. So that’s why Fasiya came about.”

Fasiya (Heritage), Sona’s debut album, was released in 2011, and saw her glorious return to Mande music but as informed by her Western training – new sprouts on those strong, deep roots. While she had decided to make the album without worrying about its reception, it was hard for her to be free of all apprehension, so it came as a pleasant surprise when it was so well-received. “There was a massive audience out there for this kind of music, and people loved it. It blew me away. And then within that year, I was the opening act for Toumani and Salif Keita… It made me confident that I had made the right choice.”

Sona is the first female kora virtuoso, rising to prominence in a male-dominated tradition, but it may be thanks to her mixed heritage – the very thing that held her back in the classical world – that she was able to do so. “[Being a woman] wasn’t as much of a problem as it should have been, and the reason was because I was different. It’s the challenge you face having mixed parentage – you’re always different, on both sides. But that was probably the reason why I was able to [play the kora]. I can’t imagine being able to do it otherwise.”

The gender question has never sat well with Sona however. “I never used to want to talk about the fact I was female. I am a kora player, that’s it. It has nothing to do with being female.” Over the years she has learned to embrace the conversation, as she recognises that there are plenty of women who may take inspiration from it, but this does lead her into fascinating discussion on gender and how it affects musicality. “If someone hears me play, they wouldn’t know that it was a female playing.” What is the difference between a man and woman’s playing, I ask. “There are differences in energy, feel and touch. Music is very connected to the differences between men and women.”

This begs the question of whether she tried to learn to play like a man. “No, I just played how I wanted to hear myself playing. The only people that play the instrument are men, so I didn’t want to sound any different from what I believe the kora should sound like. That male/female energy thing is really important in my understanding of music. Particularly when it comes to people asking about a male tradition. I have never intended to change tradition. It’s about respecting what the tradition needs. So if you are a female and you want to embody the way that this music is, you really have to submit yourself to what it demands. It may mean embodying a different energy and a different kind of a spirit.” It is for these reasons she refuses to sing and play at the same time when recording. “The only realm that I embody femininity is when I sing.”

Singing seemed to sneak up on her. She never saw herself as a singer. It was while she was looking for a singer for Fasiya that fellow Gambian musician Juldeh Camara heard her singing and asked why she didn’t just sing. “I was like ‘Come on, let’s not be ridiculous, I am not a singer.’ But he was adamant: ‘Is something wrong with you? Why would you spend six months trying to get someone to sing like that when you can just do it?’”

But she did spend about six months trying to find a singer before admitting to herself that she was perfectly capable of singing. Since then, her singing career had led her to work with film composer Alex Heffes on several projects including Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and a forthcoming remake of the TV series Roots. And never one to sit still, she is also in the midst of finishing a second album, due out this summer, and is still touring the world. However, recently, she’s put the most energy into the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music.

The school has been a long time coming, as the initial inspiration came to Sona when she was just 16 years old. She volunteered to assist in a music workshop for teenagers with behavioural problems. At this particular workshop, there was an angry young boy who had recently broken his hand by punching a wall the day before, and Sona watched this boy find a moment of escape while drumming. “He beat that drum like there was no tomorrow. He was just completely stuck on hitting this thing. He seemed to realise he could hit something, and instead of always being a negative thing that happened, like breaking his hand or injuring someone, he was getting a positive response. He was the last to leave. When he finally put the drum down, he just left his hand on it for a moment, and that really moved me. That was when I realised I want to work with children. That seed had been planted: I am going to set up an educational institution one day, for children, but in Africa.”

The ABJ School of Music is the result. While Sona points out that the official mission of the school is to preserve and propagate Gambian culture, the fact that she is personally sponsoring the school’s first round of 15 students from her own pocket hints at the lasting desire to help children in need that workshop so many years ago seemed to have instilled in her.

Sona chose the students through workshops she conducted across the country. She was looking for students with a musical spark and ability, without regard to their affluence. “The last thing I wanted to do is segregate children, I am not having that. The majority of people in this country don’t have money to go to school, so going for the 5% that do, it’s not real. I have to at least reflect this country properly.”

While the school’s main focus is obviously music, Sona has developed a fully integrated, holistic curriculum that attempts to make up for an otherwise broken national education system. Studies are topic based, rather than subject based, meaning that while the students learn about the Epic of Sunjata, they have history lessons about the time of the Mali Empire, will write summaries of the story for their English comprehension, depict the story in their art lessons, sing songs about Sunjata, and, of course, perform scenes from the epic in their play.

Children are able to learn about their culture in a context of something they can understand, but Sona is not only concerned with cultural preservation, but also cultural representation. “Culture is rarely presented properly from Africa to the rest of the world. Compare it to Indian classical music and how they present it to the rest of the world; it’s got such a high level of dignity. Before they know anything about it, people already know that there’s a lot of substance to it. Whereas here, because the culture isn’t presented properly, people come with a different attitude, like let’s have fun. This is real and not a joke.”

That is why Sona is keen to construct a strict curriculum that will help students learn music in a structured way that would reflect the classical institutions of the West, but be focused around proper representation of African traditional music and the musical framework behind it. “I am looking to get this implemented in every school in the country as an actual curriculum. There’s no point if it’s only a few children are going to benefit from it.” But Sona has set her sights further afield than the local Gambian educational system. A curriculum like this would also benefit the international students that the school will soon start accepting. These students who come to study the kora, balafon, djembé or singing will not only help the school’s international recognition, but their fees would help Sona accept the next intake of Gambian students.

“Everything has a beginning,” Sona says with a satisfied sigh, deservingly allowing herself a moment to relish the result of her hard work. “It’s not even been a month, and I think we’ve come far. If we continue to develop at this rate, we will get there.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #118. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs

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