Posts Tagged ‘introducing’

Introducing… Robert ‘Robi’ Svärd

Posted on May 20th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


There’s a new guitarist making waves in flamenco – and he’s not Spanish, but Swedish. He tells Chris Moss about his conversion

Swedish-born Robert ‘Robi’ Svärd started playing Beatles songs with his dad at the age of four. Three years later he began taking classical guitar lessons, dabbled with the electric guitar and then, after moving to Sydney when he was 14 to live with an uncle – a violinist at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – he studied at the city’s Conservatorium of Music. Now 40, he has just released a debut album, Pa’ki Pa’ka, of fiery, flamboyant flamenco, recorded at Granada’s famous FJR Estudios de Grabación.

He says his conversion to flamenco guitar took place in Sydney in 1998. “It was during my last year at the Con. I came home late one night to my residential college and heard somebody playing flamenco guitar amazingly well next door. It was Niño Josele, who had just won the largest flamenco guitar competition in Spain and was in Sydney as part of a ‘Gypsy’ segment at the Sydney Festival that year.”

Josele would go on to be an acclaimed leader of the emerging ‘new flamenco’ scene but back then he was a rising star. He and Svärd got on well and hung out for ten days.

“I immediately fell in love with the way the instrument is used when playing flamenco,” says Svärd. “By that stage I was getting quite tired of playing music not written for my instrument at the Conservatorium. It felt like for once I was playing something meant for this – and only for this – instrument. I had, of course, previously listened to a lot of flamenco, but never really had the opportunity to learn from anyone. I graduated and then moved to Seville, where I stayed for five years.”

It might seem something of a cultural leap from Sweden to Seville, but Svärd comes from what he calls a “very mixed family”: his mother was born in India to parents of Indian, Armenian, British and Portuguese extraction, and his father was Swedish. While he lived in Australia, his parents were living in China.

“I don’t really identify myself as being solely Swedish,” he says.

When living in Seville, he worked with singer El Pechuga, and also had occasional gigs with legendary flamenco-blues band Pata Negra, led by brothers Rafael and Raimundo Amador. On Pa’ki Pa’ka, he is joined by Granada-based singer Alfredo Tejada and percussionist Miguel Rodríguez ‘El Cheyenne.’ Svärd says there was never any sense of his being an outsider to the Andalucian scene. “Alfredo had long before made it very clear to me that he loves my music. He told Cheyenne about me, and after listening to some of my pieces he too said that he’d love to record with me.”

He now lives in Gothenburg, where his album launch at the local Konserthuset in April was a sell-out. “It was an amazing evening,” he says. “The next move is touring. At the moment we’re scheduling a week-long tour through Sweden and Spain, but we’ll also travel to Germany, France, possibly the UK and America as well as Australia in the near future.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #118. Svärd’s new album Pa’ki Pa’ka is out now on Asphalt Tango Records.

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Introducing… Eva Salina

Posted on May 20th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


Brooklyn-based singer Eva Salina tells Alexandra Petropoulos about how she’s immersed herself in the Balkan songbook, despite being an outsider

Authenticity is a subject that crops up from time to time within these pages. How ‘authentic’ is an artist? Is he or she qualified to perform music from a certain tradition or is it merely ‘cultural appropriation’? These questions have the potential to squelch creativity and originality in favour of a static ideal, but Eva Salina is one artist that refreshingly faces them head-on. Having grown up in a musical tradition outside her own, she addresses authenticity with a direct but gentle touch – delving into the history and tradition, while always remaining true to herself.

She grew up in California to parents of mixed European ancestry, and without her own unified cultural identity, was curious about other cultures from an early age. When she was just eight years old she started singing lessons with a young woman who taught Balkan music. “I heard these sounds and it was like something ignited inside me. I totally immersed myself into those traditions.”

This meant that she spent time with the local Balkan community, most of whom had recently emigrated to the US following the conflict back in Eastern Europe, and grew up in a primarily Bulgarian music tradition, but without any direct lineage. “When you’re a kid,” she explains, “you don’t have the mechanism that says this is not part of your lineage.”

Salina found that it was mainly the older repertoire that resonated most with her. These songs had a depth and complexity that appealed to her. “You can have a very happy sounding song with intensely sad lyrics, and there’s a beautiful tension that’s created there. I find inspiration from that acknowledgement that emotions are layered and complicated, that you can be feeling joy and sorrow, anger and confusion while you’re dancing. It’s such an honest representation of reality.”

For her debut album, Lema Lema, Salina decided to offer the first musical tribute to Serbian singer Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008), whose music mined those depths of human expression and complexity. But there was another motivation for tackling his songbook. “It has a lot to do with not being a native from the tradition. There’s a tendency to make direct comparisons, to measure me against so and so. And quite frankly I only ever want to be myself.” By taking on the repertoire of a husky-voiced Serbian man, who Salina knew she sounded nothing like, those lines of comparison would be obscured. “I knew that the adaptation and transformation would be an unavoidable part of the process. So I couldn’t say I had to resemble this person because I knew it would be ridiculous to even try!”

With this in mind, she was able to tackle Bajramović’s songbook as herself – a Brooklyn-based young American woman – rather than trying to transform herself into something she’s not. “I’m not going to create some romantic Gypsy myth about myself because it’s damaging to the culture.”

While respecting the tradition, she interprets each song in her own way, exploring a range of influences and featuring guest musicians from Serbian trumpet player Ekrem Mamutović to Indian percussionist Deep Singh. But her goal is ultimately to introduce new people to Bajramović’s music. “I’d like to get these songs into people’s ears so that they will become curious and want to learn about Šaban, to understand where these songs come from. Because how did any of us become enamoured with any artists? We heard it, it was arresting and our hunger and curiosity were ignited.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #118. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit:

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Introducing… Full Attack Band

Posted on April 26th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

Full Attack Band-©none-Free

Alex de Lacey catches up with Full Attack Band’s bandleader, Alejandro Toledo, who is not afraid to push the boundaries

Bandleader and saxophonist Alejandro Toledo is a certified globetrotter. Born in Argentina and now residing in London, his musical journey has so far taken him to the ornate climes of McGill University in Montréal – for a degree in classical saxophone – via the inner villages of east Moldova where he learned the ins and outs of its unique Balkan tradition for a subsequent PhD thesis. Each experience is of equal value, with every venture informing and guiding the work of his latest group Full Attack Band: a riotous six-piece whose resultant mix of Latin American folk, hip-hop, electronic wizardry and Balkan sensibilities is enthralling.

This mix of styles isn’t taken for granted, however, as attested to by Full Attack’s singer and rapper Fedzilla. “It’s a big stew, but we’re not mindlessly putting these ingredients in. We understand where the music came from, the meaning it has, and the power it possesses.” There is an awareness of heritage, and these influences can be seen as a homage to their predecessors: much like the practice of hip-hop producers who sample their favourite jazz records to express a shared lineage that carries cultural significance. For Toledo, too, it’s about learning through discovery, with every new pursuit imbuing a fresh sense of purpose. “I adopted new ways of thinking,” he explains. “I was experiencing these worlds of music, but changing myself through these experiences in the process.”

Indeed, this notion of a continually evolving creative endeavour underpins Full Attack Band’s album 1001, inspired by the functionality and aesthetics of the binary system, its connections to computer technologies, outer space and thinking outside oneself. Fedzilla and Toledo come from very different worlds – Fedzilla is half-German, half-Chilean and grew up in the US – but what they share is an enthusiasm for pooling together different aspects of their make-up to form something fundamentally hybrid, yet true to their understanding of the world as ‘third culture kids.’ It’s in a way much more reflective than a music that is archaically bound by the rules.

“There’s a sense of anarchy in what we do,” continues Toledo. “It’s kind of do what you enjoy, be what you are. We don’t play Latin music where you have to do two steps to the side and one step forward. It’s also dance music.” It’s this riveting and forward-thinking approach that has cemented Full Attack Band as one of the most exhilarating acts on the scene. Voraciously feeding off the atmosphere in the room, and then some, the band time and again escalate in intensity to a point of elation, that Toledo likens to an orgasm. Performing live is what they live for, breaking down norms and building the house anew with each frenetic exposition. “There’s no restriction, aside from the stage,” claims Fedzilla, “and even then we can jump off of it.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #117. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit:

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Introducing… Mohammed Assaf

Posted on April 26th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

Mohammed Assaf-©Ibrahim Alalami-Free

Garth Cartwright looks at the young Palestinian singer’s incredible story and rise to fame after winning the reality competition Arab Idol

Rags to riches stories are popular nowadays when it comes to how we venerate our favourite entertainers – biopics from Ray to Straight Outta Compton have all focused on the hardscrabble beginnings of the artists involved and the opposition they had to overcome so to achieve musical fame. Yet I can think of no one else who in recent times has experienced a journey akin to that of Palestinian Mohammed Assaf.

Assaf is a 26-year-old singer who has enjoyed remarkable success across the Arab world after winning the reality TV competition Arab Idol in 2013. Yes, Arab Idol is part of the British Pop Idol franchise and deals in the same format of good-looking youths with decent voices dreaming of musical stardom. So far, I can hear you mutter, so what? Well, Assaf not only is good looking and possessor of a magnificent voice but his story is the stuff of biopics.

Born to Palestinian parents in Libya, his family settled in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza when he was two years old. Assaf began singing aged five and by his late teens he was a popular local singer, performing regularly at weddings and local gatherings.

Gaza is an extremely difficult place to achieve any kind of career – the Israeli blockade and Hamas’ authoritarian rule ensuring life is often a struggle – so Assaf was determined that he would make it to Cairo to enter Arab Idol. Not that this proved easy: the Egyptian military had closed the crossing and he was forced to spend two days at the border pleading with soldiers to let him through.

Finally, Assaf made it to Cairo, only to find the hotel where auditions were under way had locked its doors. No more contestants welcome, thank you! Refusing to quit, Assaf simply climbed the hotel’s wall and found his way to the auditions. Yet, once there, he was too late to get an entry for the competition. So he simply sat in the corridor and sang. Another contestant heard him and said, “I know I won’t reach the final but you will,” and gave Assaf his contest number. Assaf then sang his way to the finals and the story of this raggedy refugee boy with the golden voice who had risked all to sing on TV won wide attention across the Arab world. When he appeared at Arab Idol’s final, singing a rousing version of a Palestinian anthem, voters in their millions chose him as the new ‘Arab Idol’.

Since then Assaf has, both in concert and with a series of albums that demonstrate his mastery of Arabic traditional ballads and more contemporary pop formats, won huge popularity across the Arab world. A feature film (yes, a biopic already!) about his rise from refugee camp to penthouse, The Idol, recently screened at London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. And the really exciting news for British music lovers is that Mohammed Assaf is to perform in the UK in April.

This article originally appeared in Songlines #117. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit:

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