Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Rogers brothers celebrate album release at Pioneer on Dec. 10

Posted By on Wed, Nov 30, 2016 at 11:29 AM

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The Bloomington brothers known as Busman's Holiday released their new LP Popular Cycles in mid-October. Next week, they'll celebrate that new release with a show at Pioneer on December 10.*

Popular Cycles finds Addison and Lewis Rogers taking aim at a huge pop sound — and we're talking Brian Wilson or George Martin huge. And, to the duo's credit, their arrow has zeroed in on that bullseye.

The sound here is indeed big. The intricately crafted arrangements on Popular Cycles make use of a 21-piece orchestra, in addition to a range of other arresting choices in instrumentation. But beneath the massive soundscapes and layered vocals lies the soul of Busman's Holiday: carefully written and lovingly performed pop songs overflowing with unique melodic and lyrical turns.

When all these elements come together, the effect is magical, as evidenced on the nostalgic "Make Believe," or the Beatles-esque "Evening Flows."

I caught up with Addison and Lewis in advance of their December 10 holiday-themed album release party at Pioneer. I was pleased to find the Rogers brothers to be every bit as bright, fun and engaging in conversation as they are in performance.

NUVO: Did you guys grow up in a musical home?

Addison Rogers: Not necessarily. Our father is a huge jazz fan. So we grew up with a lot of jazz because of that. But he never played and our mother never played or sang.

I stared playing drums when I was in fifth grade. I was in the Star of Indiana band. I was also in the IU Chamber Choir around that same point as well. I did a little bit of that in middle school and by high school I started doing more dramas and plays. But I'd been doing that since elementary school.

Lewis started playing saxophone for a year and then switched over to guitar.

Lewis Rogers: It's funny, our dad didn't even listen to music until he was like forty. Neither of our parents were that big into music until our dad found jazz, then he became a fanatic. Now he's probably got a thousand CDs.

He would always say, "If you want a jazz album, I'll buy it for you. But anything else you have to pay for it yourself." I remember once I started getting more into jazz I asked him about that and he's like "I'm not going to get you a CD." [laughs]

But our parents were very creative. When I was young I drew a lot, and I had always thought I'd be a cartoonist. My mom would say, "You can do that, but if you think of something else let me know." [laughs]

Addison Rogers: That being said, the folks are artists themselves and they actually met at Herron School of Art. They owned a pottery shop in Indy for three or four years called Plaza Pottery. They're super creative themselves, and you know artists beget artists. They've always been super supportive because of that as well, which has been tremendous in our lives.

Lewis Rogers: Yeah, they've been huge. But it's interesting. I don't know where the music came from, but Addison would always sing and I would hear him and I'd think, "Oh, I can sing." Then my passion for the guitar started skyrocketing, and I'd say to Addison, "Hey, let's play." At first he was like, "I don't really want to.”

Addison Rogers: [laughs loudly]

Lewis Rogers: He wanted to sing, but drumming? He was like, "Nahhhh."

Addison Rogers: It helped when he switched from saxophone to guitar. When Lewis was playing saxophone I could only do so much. But then he switched to the guitar, and then it was like we can play full songs and sing and stuff like that. That really propelled our music a lot farther.

NUVO: Before we totally move beyond talking about your dad, I'm curious what some of the discs were in his jazz collection that might have struck a chord with either of you?

Addison Rogers: First and foremost he was a huge Thelonius Monk fan.

Lewis Rogers: One of the first jazz records I got into was by Ben Webster, who was Duke Ellington's saxophone player. He had this very woody kind of tone. Ben Webster made me really want to play saxophone. You know our dad was always like, "This guy! Listen to him."

So that album King of the Tenors by Ben Webster was on all the time and that made me want to play the saxophone. But when you start out playing saxophone you don't sound like Ben Webster. [laughs] So I thought, "I don't want to do this." You know, I'm playing the "Star Spangled Banner" or something. It was not what I was hoping for.

But yeah, Ben Webster and Thelonius Monk were a big deal. And Duke Ellington actually. I remember writing a paper about him in third grade because I was so obsessed. I didn't know much about him at that time, I just thought "Oh, he's a cool dude." But now he’s one of my idols.

Addison Rogers: Pops was also way into vocal jazz. So Ella Fitzgerald was on a whole lot, and Louis Armstrong.

NUVO: Bloomington has such an extraordinary music scene, at what point did you guys start trying to play shows or just trying to break out from the brotherly music making activities you were doing at home?

Addison Rogers: I think the first time we performed, my drama class was having an end of the semester cabaret sort of thing. Everybody brought something to perform for a small audience. We brought a song of ours and sang that thing.

I think it was later that summer when I got out of high school that I really started to perform a bit and it was in the next year when we really brought it out. Lewis at that point was 13.

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Lewis Rogers: Yeah, I think we made our first album when I was like 13. I had this little Tascam thing. Then we made CDs and I remember we only knew one business owner and that was the owner of the video store. So we were like "Well, we need a place to sell our CDs." So we went to Plan Nine video and said "Hey, can you sell these?" He was a really nice guy and he was like “Oh, yeah."

He was the co-owner, and funny enough the other owner of the business was the owner of Secretly Canadian. So when he walked in he was like "Who are these people's CDs that are being sold? I have a whole roster of bands that are mad that there's now one person's CD being sold here.” [laughs] So then we had to take it out. But we did eventually take it to a local record store.

That was kind of our first time getting into the local music scene.

NUVO: How old were you both at the time that you made this CD?

Addison Rogers: Lewis was 14 and I was 19.

NUVO: What was the name you released the project under?

Lewis Rogers: Rogers and Rogers, and that first album was called Shirts and Skins.

NUVO: What sorts of sounds were influencing your musical direction at that time?

Lewis Rogers: That's a good question. When I was younger I was obsessed with Dave Matthews, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Those are the people I loved at that time. I would watch concert DVDs all the time. At that time Ben Folds was probably a big influence, and The Beatles. The Beatles were the number one reason I started playing music. As time went on, things changed and I discovered different things. But those were the guiding lights.

Addison Rogers: I'd definitely say The Beatles were pretty huge. I remember before I really got into them, it was around Christmas time one year and the family would always go to Sam's Club. They had a bin of CDs, and I saw a set of CDs with a title like Symphonies Perform The Beatles. [laughs] So my grandmother asked me what I wanted and I said "That! I want those CDs!"

So my mother went back there with my grandmother, and my grandmother is picking out these symphonic renditions of Beatles' songs and there was also a copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. My mom was like "Are you sure he wants the symphonies?" "Yeah, that's what he said." My mom said "You should also buy him this record." [laughs]

And I'm very glad my mom had that foresight to get me that as well! I really got into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Also just by chance in fifth grade I was with a schoolmate in class one day and we had a couple newspapers, and in one of them was one of those BMG deals advertising that you could get 12 CDs for 12 cents. We were like “That sounds great! I've got 12 cents!” [laughs]

One of the month's CDs that was sent to your home unless you said you didn't want it was a Dave Matthews Band album. I got way into them because of that and passed that onto Lewis.

NUVO: Moving beyond your early teenage years, I wanted to ask about some of the other projects you’ve both involved with. Lewis, I know you were a member of the highly regarded Bloomington band Sleeping Bag.

Lewis Rogers: Yeah, and I had been in a jazz group for a long time. When I graduated from high school it was either “I’m going to be a jazz guitarist, or we're going to write songs and do Busman’s Holiday.” And I decided to do Busman’s Holiday.

But I was in a jazz band called the The Nowlin Mulholland Quintet. So that was the first band that was not Busman's I had done. Sleeping Bag came not too long after that. Sleeping Bag was a way to kind of rock out. I had no outlet for that, so that was really fun. We did two records together. But it just gets to a point where you have to decide which band you're going to do, if you're going to do music seriously.

NUVO: Addison I know you've toured with the Swedish songwriter Jens Lekman. Tell us about some of your music making activities outside of Busman’s Holiday.

Addison Rogers: Sure, I haven't been part of of too many projects outside of Busman's Holiday. We had a lot of friends in a lot of different bands, which seems like it's potentially the way for musicians in Bloomington, or certainly for the people we hang out with. Pretty early on I decided we should make this our main focus and not try to have too many branches off of it.

But yeah, a few years ago Jens Lekman was looking for a drummer and a vocalist. He was shown a few people, I was one of them. So he managed to pick me. It was actually at the end of a Sleeping Bag tour. Our friend David Woodruff of Sleeping Bag was working for Fort William at that point, which is the management company Secretly Canadian started up. He helped me with a vocal audition for the thing.

So all the dudes in Sleeping Bag were unpacking their van and I go out there and David’s like "Hey, go check your email." I step back in and the email reads "You've got the voice of an angel. You got the part." [laughs]

That was a crazy whirlwind thing. It was the first time I'd been on such a big tour. We had gone throughout the States and then went over to Europe for a few weeks.

Outside of that it's only been a couple other projects. Most recently it's been Vollmar, which is led by Justin Vollmar who is a tremendous songwriter and musician living in Bloomington. So me, and him, and Erin Tobey were playing together for maybe a year, and a number of years ago we recorded an EP. That EP finally came out this year. I was really proud that thing came out. I think it's wonderful.

Also, the person we make our arrangements with for Busman’s records is Matt Nowlin. Me, Lewis, and Matt all became fast friends one summer. Out of that friendship came The Nowlin Mulholland Quintet, and the first time they went on the road we all decided that we should be in a rap group together.

We first experienced Matt through rap music. He was in this band called The Rapscallions, which was part performance art and part rap group. We thought Matt was excellent.

Lewis Rogers:
Well, he's bonkers. I remember one of the first nights I saw him, I was thinking "Who is this dude?" He was crazy. He had a trumpet on stage, but he never played it. He ran outside the building and ran around the block, then came back in while the whole show was going on. His body language was insane. I knew at that moment we should rap with this guy.

Addison Rogers: Oh yeah, and he'd go from expressing all that energy to lying flat on the ground for 30 seconds.

Lewis Rogers: Yeah, they had a whole bit where they would just fall asleep. It was a wonderful group.

Addison Rogers: Yeah, just tremendous. We loved that thing and when Lewis and him started collaborating a little bit, we thought we should definitely get him rapping again. So I made my first verse while they were out on a jazz tour. When they got back we started performing and we had that group for about a year.

It was awesomely fun. We had a whole schtick. The name of the group was Rusty Zavitson. Our thing was that we were from the hills of Appalachia and we came down because nobody understood our raps in the hills and we had to take them elsewhere. [laughs]

Once we'd done that for about a year, we felt we needed to decide between two ideas - should we do a full band with Rusty Zavitson, or should we do strings with Busman's Holiday? Ultimately the strings won out and that set us down a different course with Busman's Holiday.

NUVO: And that decision led to the release of the 2008 Busman’s Holiday EP Old Friends. At that point how long had you been performing as Busman’s Holiday?

Lewis Rogers: Actually long before that, because we played with two other brothers before that. They're called the Romy brothers, two very talented dudes. We had actually put out two records as Busman's Holiday with that lineup.

It was a little different and everyone was kind of moving into different spots and there was kind of a falling out of sorts. It was unfortunate really.

It really changed our direction when we said, “Let's do this and do the strings thing.” We were both writing songs at that point that were just different than what we had done before. I had finally written songs where I felt this is like me. As the records go on, I think you become more and more yourself.

Addison Rogers: And the name Busman’s Holiday I'd suggested to Lewis when we were first starting out. We settled on Rogers and Rogers. But before then I was flipping through a book of idioms, it was a Scholastic book I got through a grade school book fair. It was a Scholastic book of idioms, and I found this one "busman's holiday," that means to do the same thing on your off-time that you get paid for. So it just seemed pretty great for us. But it took a little while for us to get back to that name.

NUVO: So that 2008 EP essentially launched the modern incarnation of Busman's Holiday as a duo consisting of you two?

Lewis Rogers: Yes, and with a big collaboration from our string arranger Matt Nowlin.

NUVO: You guys are known for your frequent performances busking around Bloomington. It seems to me that busking has been a big influence on your approach to making music. You have a very simple live presentation. Lewis, you often perform on acoustic guitar, and Addison, you're known for playing on a sort-of-makeshift drum kit built around a piece of Samsonite luggage.

Addison Rogers: Yeah! [laughs] One piece of Samsonite which I use as my bass drum and for a high hat type of sound, and then just a snare and cymbal. 

I don't know how much that has shaped our music, but certainly it's shaped our approach to entertaining and having a relationship and dialogue with the audience, for sure.

Lewis Rogers: Well, I've actually always thought that a big reason we sing how we do is because I've trained my voice to singing on the street. You have to be loud. I think that for a while on a lot of our songs I was singing super loud. 

David Byrne has that theory that music is shaped by its environment, and I think that's really true. I think that's one thing that's interesting about how we've evolved. As we've started playing different venues we started using microphones more, and the approach to music starts to change. Now I can have a song where I whisper. Before, we couldn't have a song where I whisper, because we were on the street and you can't play that way on the street. I've always thought that we've been molded by the busking. 

NUVO: It's interesting to me that your live setup is so simple and basic, and the stuff you're doing in the studio is extremely complex. Can you talk about the gap between these two very different sides of the band?

Lewis Rogers: I've always wanted the songs to work in both of those setups. So you can explore this totally different world in the studio, but at the end of the day when you play it live for people, they understand that with just the chords and melody and a basic setup the song can also work. 

I've always enjoyed when artists don't sound live like they do on the record. I know other people don't necessarily agree with that, but I totally do. 

Addison Rogers: It settled into me at some point that we should not try to replicate what's on the record. If you want that experience, just listen to the record. The live show should be something you can't get otherwise and something that is as true as it can be. 

We decided a long time ago, with our setup as it is, the records need to be exactly that or they need to be wildly different from that. So we've stuck to wildly different for a while. 

NUVO: Your 2014 LP A Long Goodbye was a significant step forward for Busman's Holiday. It's an impressive record with ambitious arrangements and production.  You recorded the LP in Canada with Mark Lawson, who is most know for his work engineering Arcade Fire's 2011 LP The Suburbs, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011.

I heard a really interesting story surrounding your work with Mark Lawson that started with an inheritance you received from an uncle. Can you elaborate on that? 

Addison Rogers: Our mother's father died early on in her life, and she always wanted us to spend time with our great-uncle because that was the closest thing she had to her father. Unfortunately that didn't really come around. Then he passed away, and we got this inheritance. So we were trying to figure out what we should do with it. 

We were having a late-night meal with our buddy David Woodruff at Steak 'n Shake, and we were thinking maybe we should get some equipment to make some videos. David said, "You're thinking about making this record. Have you thought about getting a producer for it?" Lewis said, "Well, there's probably only one producer we'd want to work with and that's Mark Lawson." At that point he'd just received a Grammy for working with Arcade Fire. So we're thinking there's no way he's going to work with us. [laughs] That is a total pipe dream. 

At that point David was working at Fort William, and in the morning he told me to check my email. We found out that he'd sent a message to Mark saying, "These guys are orchestral pop, would you be interested in working with them?" Mark writes back, "Oh yeah, orchestral pop. That sounds great. Send me the demos." 

We sent him some songs and gave him Lewis' phone number. Then out of the blue one day Lewis gets a phone call from California; he answers the call only to find out it's Mark Lawson.

Lewis Rogers: I was just driving and I picked up the phone and someone said "Hi, is Lewis there? This is Mark Lawson." That sobered me up. 

So then we started talking, and he thought we'd already recorded the whole thing and just needed it mixed. I said "We actually need the whole thing recorded." He said "OK, come up to the studio. I've got the keys to Arcade Fire's studio. Come up and we'll make this happen." I told him we didn't have that much money really. He just said "Well, we'll not worry about that right now."

It totally worked out and he's just a super nice guy. He got us. It was nice to find someone really talented who got you. That was a touching moment. You don't find that very often, especially with someone who is really going to do you justice.

It was synchronicity.

Addison Rogers: He had us up there for a week and arranged really fantastic musicians for us. Some that had recorded and performed with Islands, which is the group that came after The Unicorns. That's how we got into Mark Lawson. We didn't really know Arcade Fire very much. But we were both big fans of The Unicorns who were a super tight, three-piece, indie pop group Mark had produced. They were really funky, quirky and terrific. Lewis and I had seen them live. They came through Rhino's at one point, maybe a couple times. They performed amazingly. 

We recorded in Farnham, Quebec which is about 45 minutes outside of Montreal. The recording space was crazy; it was an old Masonic temple. So it was like a huge church with great stained glass. A beautiful mixture of this decaying structure and this warm energy there. 

We really hadn't had an experience like that before. We'd had recordings that had their own sense of space and experience. We recorded our EP before that at a friend's house and everybody was sort of new to recording strings and that type of process. But to be submerged into this entirely different environment was just terrific. 

Lewis Rogers: Well, we'd just never been in a studio before. In my mind I thought "I've recorded albums. I've been in studios." But then you realize "I haven't been in a studio once!" So it was odd to go into this scenario where you're just thrown into things. 

But luckily we were with someone who was a total professional. He'd say "Hey, you guys should just take your time and warm up." I think he sensed we were both kind of nervous. 

NUVO: So this brings us up to date to your new LP Popular Cycles. I think this is a remarkable album. The songwriting and production are brilliant. There's some fascinating instrumentation on the record, including arrangements utilizing a 21-piece orchestra. And again you're working again with Mark Lawson. Did you return to Quebec for the recording of Popular Cycles?

Lewis Rogers: This time Mark came down to Bloomington. It was interesting because we did it in both Bloomington and Montreal. It was cool because on the last record we were going into this foreign place, so it was nice for Mark to come into our spot that we were most comfortable in and record us there.

He stayed at our parents' house. He specifically asked for home-cooked meals. We showed him around and made him feel like family. I think that it really helped us. 

Then we went to Montreal and stayed with his family. We picked his kid up from preschool a couple times. I think that bonded us more. It was a really good experience.

Addison Rogers: On the first record we did with him, he at times specifically stated that he didn't want to touch what we were doing, he just wanted to record it. This time around there was much more collaboration and he took on more of a co-producer role. 

Lewis Rogers: The first one isn't technically produced by Mark, it was just recorded by him. So on this one he added his flavor to it. Especially "Evening Flows"; that's the one he was involved in shaping the most. 

NUVO: Well, congrats to both of you. It’s a fantastic record. And you have a holiday themed album release party for Popular Cycles happening in Indianapolis on Saturday, December 10 at Pioneer in Fountain Square.

Addison Rogers: A couple years ago we decided to have a holiday spectacular in Bloomington at The Bishop. It was a really fun time. We got together all of these musician friends of ours and the idea was that Lewis would play a few holiday songs and then we would introduce our friends onstage and back them. Everything worked out really well that night. We totally filled the room. The whole night we were waiting for Mike Adams, I think he had to work that night and it became a recurring schtick through the evening until he got onstage victoriously and played some songs with us. It was an awesome feeling and we've been meaning to do something like that again since then.

This year with the timing of the album release show, we decided to make it a holiday themed event as well and hopefully make it feel like the first holiday party of the season. It's real relaxed and a real good time. Hopefully everybody there will have already had some eggnog.

*Note: The print edition of this piece stated the show would be at Joyful Noise Recordings. The show is at Pioneer.
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Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanksgiving protest playlist

Posted By on Thu, Nov 24, 2016 at 4:00 AM

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Like most American kids I grew up hearing the old yarn about the pilgrims and "Indians" breaking bread together for a peaceful harvest celebration. But as I grew older and pieced together a better understanding of the historical facts surrounding the American government's treatment of indigenous populations, I rejected the holiday. 

I don't make a big deal about my avoidance of Thanksgiving. I usually just try to find some alternative ways to spend my time while the majority of the country feasts.

But this year is different.

It's hard to abstain silently from this year's Thanksgiving celebration after repeatedly seeing images of state violence used against the indigenous communities gathered peacefully in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. In solidarity with the protesters at Standing Rock, I've assembled this list of indigenous protest music to blast loudly from your sound system throughout the holiday weekend. 

I understand that for most Americans Thanksgiving holds little political value and exists simply as a time to gather with friends and family. While I certainly respect that, I think it's important that we refuse to allow the barbaric history of violence and displacement carried out against Native American peoples to be falsified, forgotten or covered up. 

In his book American Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 1992), historian David Stannard argues that the genocide against Native American people is the largest in recorded history. Stannard estimates that as many as 100 million indigenous peoples of North and South America perished from diseases and brutality. 

We cannot alter the past, but we can try to foster a better future by acknowledging and learning from the tragic and unforgivable crimes of our history. The music listed below attempts to open up artistic dialogue on this theme. 

A Tribe Called Red — We Are the Halluci Nation  (Radicalized Records, 2016)

I was privileged to work with this incredible Canadian electronic music trio back in 2011, when I convinced the Eiteljorg Museum to fly A Tribe Called Red to Indianapolis for a performance at the opening night festivities of the Eiteljorg's Native American Contemporary Art Fellowship. It was one of the group's earlier U.S. dates, but their powerful mix of electronic music and Native American sample material was already fully defined. 

A Tribe Called Red's third and latest LP, We Are the Halluci Nation, is their best effort yet, both musically and conceptually. 

The LP opens with the words of the late Santee Dakota poet John Trudell, "We are the tribe that they cannot see ... we are the Halluci Nation." The album moves on to feature a multitude of artists representing marginalized cultures from around the globe, all in tune to A Tribe Called Red's thundering electronic take on traditional First Nation music. 

We Are the Halluci Nation features a vibrant range of voices from Swedish hip-hop artist Maxida Märak, who represents the indigenous Finno-Ugric people of the Sápmi Arctic region, to the American spoken word artist Saul Williams, to the Canadian Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. 

Native North America Vol. 1: Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985 (Light in the Attic Records, 2014)

This fascinating 2014 compilation features rare archival recordings from indigenous voices within the Canadian rock scene. Stylistically the vibe here ranges from Dylan-esque protest ballads to wild blasts of raw '60s garage rock. 

The set opens with the captivating ballad "I Pity The Country" by Willie Dunn, a somber meditation on discrimination against Native American communities. "Kill'n Your Mind" by Willy Mitchell & Desert River Band is another standout it's an acidic stoner rock jam riffing lyrically on the theme of Native assimilation. There are also some amazing tracks here sung in tribal languages, as evidenced on the powerful "Tshekuan Mak Tshetutamak" by Groupe Folklorique Montagnais.

Native North America is a fascinating journey into an under-explored branch of rock-and-roll expression.  

Tanya Tagaq — Retribution (Six Shooter Records, 2016)

Tagaq's vocalisms abandon traditional stylistic modes of "good" singing in favor of more expressive sounds like grunting, howling, growling and yelping. At times Tagaq manifests the aggressive fervor of a wild rabid dog, while in more intimate moments her vocal eruptions take on a sensual quality. 

The press release for Retribution describes the disc as a conceptual treatise on the "rape of women, rape of the land, rape of children, despoiling of traditional lands without consent." Retribution finds Tagaq manifesting the fury of the Earth incarnate, screaming out in defiance of all environmental crimes and transgressions. 

On the amorphous "Cold" Tagaq's chanting documents the effects of global warming on the Arctic, while "Centre" uses hip-hop to verbalize global civilization's small place within the infinite scope of the universe. And Retribution concludes with a spare, but harrowing, take on Kurt Cobain's "Rape Me". 

Tagaq has created a soundtrack for mankind's abuses against the environment and ultimately civilization itself.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dr. John ske-dat-de-dats his way to the Palladium

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2016 at 8:08 AM

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In 1967 a gifted young New Orleans musician named Mac Rebennack found himself in Los Angeles, California, struggling to make ends meet as a record company A&R man.

He was 26 years old but already a veteran of the music business. Before leaving New Orleans in 1965, Rebennack had recorded some highly regarded singles under his own name while contributing songs and session work to legendary early rock and roll sides for labels like Specialty, Ace, Ric and Ron. In California Rebennack was an in-demand session player for hit-makers like Sonny Bono and Phil Spector, but he'd failed to establish his own unique identity as a musical force to be reckoned with. 

But 1967 would be the year that everything came together for Rebennack, who rechristened himself with the identity of a mid-19th century New Orleans root doctor known as Dr. John. Working under the name Dr. John, Rebennack developed a funky, stretched-out take on New Orleans voodoo music that struck a chord with the psychedelic generation and propelled Rebennack to widespread underground notoriety. What became an all-encompassing NOLA sound hit its peak in 1973 as Rebennack landed a hit record with the irresistibly funky "Right Place Wrong Time."

Today Dr. John is a six-time Grammy Award-winning musician and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who embodies the essence of New Orleans music for millions of fans across the globe. I caught up with Dr. John in advance of his November 19 date at The Palladium with Nicholas Payton.

NUVO: I want to start off with a left-field question for you. The paper I write for, NUVO, is based in Indianapolis. There was a great blues singer and pianist here in Indy named Leroy Carr. His best-known recording was an arrangement of "How Long Blues," a record he cut in Indianapolis with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell in 1928 for the Vocalion label.

You've performed a couple takes on this song. In 1996 you laid down a version of the tune with Eric Clapton that seems to draw heavily from the 1928 Carr and Blackwell version, and in 2003 you recorded a version with Pete Jolly and Henry Gray for the Piano Blues volume of Martin Scorsese's documentary series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues.

I'm curious if you were influenced by Leroy Carr's take on this tune?

Dr. John: No, I tried to listen to Leroy Carr's version but I couldn't get a good disc of it. 

NUVO: Do you recall if you ever played on Indiana Avenue? That was kind of like our Beale Street; lots of great jazz and blues players came up on the Avenue.

Dr. John: Yes, I've heard of that. I have a great memory of working the Chitlin' Circuit. I remember being in Indianapolis during the days of the Chitlin' Circuit, but I don't remember exactly where I was. 

NUVO: Your current tour is in support of Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, an album you recorded in tribute to Louis Armstrong. I heard the inspiration for this album came from a dream where the spirit of Louis Armstrong visited you and told you to cut a record of his music in your own style.

Dr. John: That's correct.

NUVO: Had you ever thought about recording an album of Armstrong's music prior to this vision?

Dr. John: No, I had not thought of it. I had no idea in my head or on my brain that I would do something like this. 

NUVO: That's such a fantastic origin story for a record. I'm curious what was going through your head when you woke up the next day after having this dream.

Dr. John: I didn't know what to think. I put it on hold for the time being and I did what I had to do that day. But I started thinking about it the next night and I realized that Louis had told me something good.

NUVO: Did Louis Armstrong ever come back into your dreams to give you a review of the finished album?

Dr. John: No, but I would be grateful to see him one day in the celestial lounge to see how he took that record.  

NUVO: What kind of guy was Louis Armstrong to meet? Do you remember what you and Louis talked about?

Dr. John: Oh listen, Louis Armstrong was a gas to meet! I remember that in Joe Glaser's office he had this picture of Louis in Bucktown and I wanted to know if he'd passed thorough my pa's shop that was in Bucktown too.

[note: Rebbenack's father owned and operated a combination record shop and appliance store in the New Orleans neighborhood of Bucktown.]

But Louis Armstrong was laughing so hard about Ralph Schultz's Fresh Hardware store. He couldn't get out of laughing about that. But I could understand that. Ralph could marry you and divorce you. He could do anything.

[note: Fresh Hardware was a Bucktown hangout for a colorful cast of New Orleans characters, and in addition to peddling standard hardware store staples, the eccentric Schultz was known for catering to a wide range of his customer's needs.]

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Pope Adrian Bless on visual writing and Black mental health

Posted By on Thu, Nov 10, 2016 at 10:43 AM


At 25, Pope Adrian Bless has amassed an impressive discography of mixtapes, albums and singles. He’s also shined on collaborations with local luminaries like Sirius Blvck, and internationally respected underground fixtures like Afu-Ra, Akrobatic, Apani B and C-Rayz Walz. For years Bless has been closely associated with the true school, boom bap sound of classic underground hip-hop. But recent work has found the MC branching out to embrace more contemporary sounds, like the disorienting ethereal swirl of cloud rap.

That shift in Bless’ sound is fully evident on his new EP Suicide Radio, which tells the story of a young man on the losing end of a struggle with mental illness. The character abuses prescription medications to cope with his pain, but is ultimately unable to ward off the self-destructive impulses brought on by his condition. “High up off some shit I can’t pronounce, I’m on the road all alone and I just poured an ounce. I treat depression like the weekend when you see a nigga. Depression got me geeking. My bipolar keep me turnt up, but I’m just sad,” Bless raps over the somber chorus of the EP’s first single “Green Apple Gatorade.”

It’s a story that closely mirrors the conditions of Bless’ own life. The rapper has frequently addressed his own personal battles with mental health in the lyrics of his music. Talking about Black mental health has become a sort of calling for Bless who told me, “I take pride in letting people know that I have a problem, because I want people to know their problems aren’t bigger than them.” Bless spoke at length on this topic during a recent two-hour conversation I shared with the MC.

A portion of our dialogue is documented here.

NUVO: Pope, you have a dynamic style as an MC. You write thoughtful lyrics. You’re a charismatic performer and an exceptional freestyler. You’re capable of spitting out impressive, tongue-twisting, rapid fire flows. I know a lot of your peers in hip-hop respect the artistry of your craft, and the hard work you’ve put into cultivating your talents, and studying the history and tradition of hip-hop culture. At twenty-five-years-old, you’re still a relatively young dude. But you represent that golden era hip-hop style and that ethic of putting everything you have into perfecting your lyrics and your delivery.

However, we’re currently living in the era of mumble rap. Critics of this style would say the attention to lyrical artistry and the refined vocal techniques of classic hip-hop MC-ing aren’t really valued by mumble rappers and their audience. I’m curious where you see yourself fitting in with all the stylistic shifts and changes happening in rap music?

Pope Adrian Bless: The reality is that it’s not at an attempt to fit in. Dude, I wear gold teeth! I look very trapped out. [laughs] You would think I would be a trap rapper.
But it’s like this - my goal is to plant a seed of some kind. I can’t mumble rap to save my life. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know what it requires. Then there’s also a thing called cloud rap. I will never be able to fit in to that dynamic, because at the end of the day I won’t follow along with such guidelines and structures, because that’s a here today, gone tomorrow kind of thing.

This may be getting too deep, but a lot of things didn’t get passed down the way they were supposed to be passed down. You know I didn’t grow up on golden era hip-hop. My mom played screw tapes from DJ World, Scarface and Jeezy. Any Southern hip-hop that was crazy intense. I came up on that material. I didn’t know nothing about Nas or Rakim or how impactful on the scene a Busy Bee was compared to Kool Moe Dee. I had to learn it on my own. I had to go find it off the streets. I didn’t have the internet to do it. Now we’re in the golden age of technology and everyone can get to it — but nobody cares. You know why? Because we’re not paying the proper homage. The people up on the platform that we thrive off of aren’t bigging up the people who made it happen. I can’t do a show without saying Nas is the reason. “Live At The Barbeque” with Nas being 17-years-old? That’s what I wanted to do. You can’t forget that type of material.

Legends are made by the impact they created by being themselves. All of these young people right now aren’t going to be legendary. They can’t be. Because you sound like your next door neighbor, and your next door neighbor sounds like the guy across the street, and he sounds like the dude who lives in the duplex next to him. All of them sound the same, and the content doesn’t differ. Hip-hop’s social message is lost.  
If they mumbled a message, yeah let’s do that. But there’s no message being spoke! You’re telling me the same shit I’ve heard since I was 14. The first rap song I recall watching on BET was Slimm Calhoun’s “The Cut Song.” I didn’t even know what cutting was, but it was such a great record because it was structured well. But even then, you’d still have Nas’ “One Mic” come on, or “My Block” by Scarface. There was a balance. If there was a balance today, it would be fine. There’s no balance. My job is to provide the balance.

I am an alternative trap contemporary artist. Yes, I’m gonna use autotune. But I can rap very well, so it doesn’t matter. I know how to convert certain things. I’m going to tell you that it’s fucked up about Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and everything going on at Standing Rock. I’m gonna say these things in a way you’ll be able to listen to.

Kyle! Come on dude! Can you name me an Uzi Vert lyric? Can you tell me what 21 Savage has said that spoke to your soul? I want to know what Rae Sremmurd has done for you today. Nothing? Bet.

I’ve gotta come fill the void. My job is to take those cadences of mumble rap that stick with people and flip them and make them intense and then give it back to you so you can pick it up and walk around and rap “Green Apple Gatorade” for yourself. But when you listen to what I’m saying you think “Fuck, it’s deeper than that.”
But it’s interesting to see where this music is going to go in the next five years. Let’s see where mumble rap is at in five years.

NUVO: You were talking about the content you try to put into the lyrics you write. While your lyrics can often have a very abstract poetic quality, there certainly is a lot of literal commentary too. I know that you’re a freestyler, and you can bust out verses off the dome. But it feels like you put a lot of thought and discipline into crafting lyrics for your records. I’m curious about your approach to writing and some of the early influences that first got you thinking about the power of words.

Pope Adrian Bless: Tupac to me is the rapper who changed everything. Tupac embodied the spirit of what hip-hop is, from the performances, to the charisma, to the ability to talk about a plethora of things, to the poetic dynamic in his writing.

Tupac was the guy that showed me that if you want to do it, you go do it. You learn it, you educate yourself, you apply it, and you push it to the people.
My mom was a Tupac fan, and he was big thing for me because he was him. He was him.

There’s nobody in the world that can replicate my writing style. Nobody can take my structures from me. I’m a visual learner, so I write visually. I don’t read as often as I should because I like to see it. You need to see what Im saying. I want to make you think visually, it’s not always about listening. So maybe I’m an alternative dimension mumble rapper for God’s sake! But I want you to see it! I want to write for your visual mind.

NUVO: You mentioned that you have an individualistic approach to writing lyrics and I totally agree with that. One aspect of that individuality that I think people associate with your work is your willingness to talk openly about issues that you’re struggling with. I think it takes a lot of courage to talk openly about personal issues relating to mental health for instance. Why is it important for you to address that issue in your art?

Pope Adrian Bless: Because nobody has the balls to talk about that shit because everybody wants to make money or be popular. I love Huey Newton, I love Assata Shakur, I love that pro-Black era, the Stokely Carmichael times. It didn’t seem like a lot of us were going out there fighting the fight, but there was. A lot of them were martyred or taken away. Huey P. Newton got killed over some dope. What does that tell you?
I have to give the truth and one thing we don’t talk about is Black mental health. We’re not talking about bipolar depression or borderline personality disorder. We’re not talking about hyper manic anything. We’re not speaking about how impactful it is.

It’s deep.

We’re not talking about it because of the judgment, “Oh we’re going to be looked at as weak and wrong and emasculated.” Me? I don’t care. Because ever since I was 15, I’ve said, “If I make it to 25, it’a blessing. If I don’t, so be it. Because I told the truth.”

I know how the world works in a way. If you tell too much truth, you’re eradicated. But if you don’t speak it, you’re a fool. You can’t really win. There’s no middle ground. So if I’m going to leave anything behind in this world, I’m going to leave the truth. Because there are people everyday who go into a therapist’s office and they sit there and they speak their truth and they’re breaking and crying because when they leave they can’t go tell their mother, they can’t tell their dad or their siblings. They have to hold it in.

Dude, here’s a fun fact for people. I have bipolar depression. It is hell. I’ve been untreated for seven years. There was once upon a time centuries and centuries ago where people who had chemical imbalances in the brain were not crucified people. We were revered people. We were shamanistic individuals. Now, in the society we’re in today, we’re looked at as wrong, or weak or beaten. But we’re geniuses.

There’s a bunch of us in the scene who have something, but you won’t know it because they’re not talking about it. Because their fan base don’t want to hear about it and they don’t know how to handle it. I didn’t come in to rap looking for a fan base, I came in to tell the truth. I came to tell people it’s fine. Yes, you’re fucked up. I’m fucked up too. Let’s be fucked up together. You need help and I need help. But we have to be together to get the help.
I have this analogy — and I don’t intend to sound facetious or offensive by any means — but because I don’t walk around with a limp arm, or wear a helmet, or start drooling, you can’t tell something is wrong with me. But when I’m prepared to punch out a window, or run my car off the highway, you’re going to blame shit that has nothing to do with it. “You’re too stressed out, take a vacation.” Or, “You’re overthinking things, snap out of it.” Or, “You have a kid, snap out of it.”

It doesn’t work that way. It’s a chemical imbalance.

It’s hard to describe this to anyone. But music is the universal language, so why would I walk the streets and tell you about it when I know a way to get to you? I’m able to make music that sounds popular while I’m telling you there is a pain so deep that you cannot wake up for one day without the fear that you may end it all. ...

NUVO: You touched on a powerful idea, the thought that speaking openly and honestly about mental health issues is in some ways just as revolutionary as groups like the Black Panthers who spoke openly about social justice problems during the 1960s.

Pope Adrian Bless: At the end of the day somebody has to spark it. If nobody says it, nobody is gonna know. I would be ashamed if I was sitting here saying the same things everybody else is saying on their records. Like “Damn, that’s me too? Fuck!”

Find a doctor at Midtown Community Mental Health Center
Read the Indiana Black Expo's Your Life Matters plan for health
Find a doctor through Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Join the Indiana Minority Health Coalition
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Monday, October 31, 2016

New Sirius Blvck is seriously good

Posted By on Mon, Oct 31, 2016 at 4:25 PM

  • Photo by Angela Leisure

With the release of his latest project Nxghtcrawlr today, Sirius Blvck cemented his position as one of the most important and brilliantly creative artists working in Indianapolis. Since issuing his full-length solo debut Smoke in the Trees in 2012, Sirius Blvck has amassed a discography of unparalleled merit in Indianapolis hip-hop. Nxghtcrawlr builds on Blvck’s past victories, while moving into bold new territory.

Nxghtcrawlr is cinematic in its scope and ambience. Blvck’s longtime musical collaborator Bones of Ghosts has produced a stunning set of darkly ambient compositions that provide a note perfect foundation for Blvck’s introspective meditations on life. Bones’ intoxicating soundscapes achieve an orchestral quality, while staying firmly rooted in the deep bass and hard-hitting beats so crucial to hip-hop tradition.

Lyrically Blvck remains a hip-hop outlier, eschewing the tired themes of materialism, violence and misogyny that bog down so much radio rap. Instead Blvck focuses his oratory on grappling with the existential angst and depression that life too often throws down in our paths. Conversely Blvck never neglects to celebrate the small victories of life and the simple joys found in the camaraderie of friendship. As evidenced on previous releases likeYear of the Snvke and Light in the Attic, Blvck’s words stretch beyond mere lyric into the realm of poetry, while the tone of his delivery continues to unleash a wild and magic energy.

In this critic’s opinion, Nxghtcrawlr is the most fully realized hip-hop album to ever emerge from the Indianapolis scene.

I caught up with Sirus Blvck on the eve of Nxghtcrawlr’s Halloween release date.

NUVO: Sirius, I really appreciate you making time to speak with me. I’m a huge fan of all your work, and before we get into your incredible new LP Nxghtcrawlr I want to ask a few questions about your background. It’s my understanding you were born in Crown Point and spent your early years growing up in the Region.

Sirius Blvck: Yeah, I was born in Crown Point and grew up in Gary. I lived in the same house for a decade of my life. I moved down to Indy when I was 14 with my mom, and my five brothers and sisters. I've been down here ever since. Indianapolis is home.

NUVO: I read a really awesome fact about your time growing up in Northern Indiana. In third grade you entered into a poetry contest where you got to meet the great children’s book author, poet and songwriter Shel Silverstein. That must have been an inspirational moment in your life.

Sirius Blvck: Yeah, I wrote a poem called "Too Many Chores" and it was picked for an honorable mention in this kid's poetry magazine that my teacher sent my poem into. They ended up picking it, and he did an appearance at the Gary Public Library. I got to meet him. I got a signed copy of Falling Up and got a picture with him.

It was crazy. That was like my idol. I grew up writing poems from the time that I was six or seven.

NUVO: So as a kid were you thinking "I want to be a writer," or "I want to be a musician"? Did you have any idea of what you wanted to do with this talent you had?

Sirius Blvck: I just knew I wanted to write. I wrote short stories all the time. I had characters. I wrote my own Matrix spin-off series. I was always writing. Then I got into music when I was around twelve or thirteen and started writing raps. From there it just progressed.

When I was 15, my mom was working with a woman named Tasha Jones on an after-school poetry program for kids. My mom got me and a couple friends in it and we formed a group called the Write Me Project. Tasha showed us how to write our first contract. She bought us our first Mari Evans book, and Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. She put us on game to a lot of things.

After the Write Me Project ended I started getting back into music again.

NUVO: The first time I remember hearing about you was through your work with Indian City Weather. For folks that don’t know, Indian City Weather was essentially a six-piece rock band and you were one of the vocalists in the group. Was that the first major music project you were part of?

Sirius Blvck: Indian City Weather was the first thing I invested all of myself into musically. We started making music together when we were sixteen or seventeen and it snowballed from there. We put out two records, Leather Lungs in 2009 and Flesh and Spirit in 2012. Those are my dudes. We made some really awesome music. I still work with a lot of them today.

Indian City Weather is what got my name out in the beginning. That's how I met Oreo Jones and Grey Granite and Jay Brookinz through them contacting us to open up the Gateway 2 show. Indian City Weather was the catalyst for everything really.

NUVO: What was the process of leaving Indian City Weather and shifting into the musical identity we know today as Sirius Blvck?

Sirius Blvck: I think it was just Indian City Weather slowing down a bit. We were getting older and developing our own lives outside of music. We couldn't spend five days a week together and play two or three shows a week anymore.

We were all developing our own lives outside of the band, but I still wanted to make music. We had a 24 channel Alesis mixer and I borrowed it for a month and started recording my own demos. From there I started working on my first mixtape Smoke in the Trees.

NUVO: You've released a number of mixtapes and albums under the name Sirius Blvck. Before we get into you new LP Nxghtcrawlr I want to ask you about a couple tracks from your back catalog of music, tracks that I think are classics of Indiana hip-hop.

The first tune I want to ask you about is “Running On Fumes (What A Year It’s Been)” which is the lead-off track from your 2014 LP Year Of The Snake.

Sirius Blvck: That is a really special song to me. At that point my grandmother had just passed, she was one of the closest people to me in my family. That was not very easy. I had just gotten out of a bad relationship. It was not a dark time, but a dreary time. Bones sent me that beat, and I went in on it. It turned out good.

NUVO: You just mentioned the producer Bones of Ghosts. You have a special relationship with this musician. He’s been the exclusive provider of beats for four of your albums, including Nightcrawlr. Tell us about your connection with Bones of Ghosts.

Sirius Blvck: Running into Bones is a funny story. It's crazy what the internet can do. I had one of his instrumental beat tapes from around 2009. It was called Use Your Ends To Choose Your Friends. It was mostly just jazz samples, very different from what he's doing today. I thought it was awesome so I decided to try to find him online. I found his Twitter; he had like 16 followers. I wasn't sure it was even real, his profile picture was something off the wall. I sent him a message: "Yo man, I really like what you're doing. We should collaborate." He sent me back five beats. I recorded to them and sent him the demos back, and he sent me five more. We kept doing the same thing and then we had Ancient Lights pretty much.

He's been in California for awhile now. But he's originally from the U.K. That's where he was born and raised. He's kind of like a hermit. He sticks to himself and just makes music. He doesn't collaborate with a lot of people.
He's so talented. Us linking up was like the stars aligning, man. We're four albums in now, I'll always collaborate with different people but it always be me and Bones. That's my dude, my musical soulmate, man. He just fucking gets it on another level, man. He feels the music from a different place, and it shows. Especially on this new record Nxghtcrawlr. He's just channeling some other worlds. He's on some shit.

NUVO: The next song I want to ask you about is ”Yung Vultures" from your last record Light In The Attic. That’s my all-time favorite Indianapolis hip-hop song. The lyrics sound very philosophical to me, tell us about ”Yung Vultures."

Sirius Blvck: I was about to be a dad, and I felt like I was a man and getting older. But at the same time still feeling like a part of the youth. It was kind of like the song of me transitioning from a boy to a man.

You know, "The youth is on fire" man. The youth control the future. When I look at Indianapolis hip-hop and the movement we’re building here and this new foundation, it's something that's going to set a fire. It's a new fire being started. It was just kind of a picture of everything I saw at the time.

NUVO: There’s one more track from Light In The Attic I want to mention, that’s “Tribe Quest” featuring DMA and Oreo Jones. Again, this is one of my all-time favorite Indianapolis hip-hop songs.

Sirius Blvck: That's still one of my favorite tracks, too. I got the beat and I instantly knew what I wanted to do with it. Bones killed it. DMA is on it, he does the vocoder part at the end. He's one of my favorite artists and I was super stoked to get him on the track.

I started writing that song after a night on acid. I was roaming the Square and the hook kind of started coming to me. I started that track that night and then woke up the next day and I was like, "Oh snap," and I finished it.

NUVO: Do you normally start your writing process in that fashion, writing the hook first and building the rest of the track around it?

Sirius Blvck: It always starts with the melody. Sometimes it starts with hook, and sometimes it starts with a cadence and I'll kind of fill in the blanks from there. Usually I'll hear a melody first.

NUVO: “Tribe Quest” features Oreo Jones who is one of your colleagues in the Ghost Gun Summer collective. Oreo has been a major driving force behind this new movement of Indianapolis hip-hop which includes artists like you, Drayco, Flaco, Ejaaz, Poindexter, Mathaius Young, and so many others. How do you feel about being part of this rising generation of artists here in Indianapolis?

Sirius Blvck: There is a really awesome new movement of artists in this city that all have potential and eventually will break out of the city and the state, no doubt. You have people like Flaco who tirelessly work on their craft and who are continuously putting out great records. Drayco as well. I feel like it's to a point now that people can't ignore it. I see it happening more and more. Blogs outside the city are starting to pick up on different artists and it's starting to move outside the city. There's a lot brewing here right now. There are so many amazing artists you can't even begin to name them all.

NUVO: So let’s jump into your new LP Nxghtcrawlr. You sent me the album last week, and it’s a hard album to digest quickly. There are 13 tracks on the record, and every single track is excellent. I couldn’t skip ahead to the highlights because every track commands attention, and every track is essential to the flow of Nxghtcrawlr. I never had the urge to fast forward while listening — in fact, I found myself rewinding several times because some of the hooks are so addictive that I wanted to hear them again and again!

I think it’s a totally brilliant record from every angle. The lyrics and the production are exceptional. So huge congrats on this album. Are you happy with how it turned out?

Sirius Blvck: I'm immensely happy with it. Bones and I put in a lot of work in for this record. This is the first record where I didn't instantly go with my gut. Nine times out of ten when I'm writing and I'm in the zone, when the pen hits the paper [snaps finger] I know that's it. I don't second guess it. This is the first album where I was second guessing what I was putting down.
But I came to realize it wasn't me second guessing myself, it was more-so me not settling and wanting it to be better. I rewrote and revised, and rewrote and revised for the first time ever on a record. I think it paid off, because we came out with some of the best stuff we've ever done together.

NUVO: When we were talking before the interview you mentioned to me that Bones kind of challenged you with the production he created for this record. You said the beats he was sending you were different from any of the work you'd done together before.

Sirius Blvck: Yeah, when Bones sent me some of the instrumentals I was unsure about a few of them because they were so different from anything I'd ever heard before. It kind of threw me off at first. Not in a bad way, but it was new. We had kind of developed a good outline together from the first three records, but we threw everything out the window with a lot of these tracks. Bones just said, "Trust me. This is what we need to do. If you do this it's going to be something fresh." So I trusted him, and it came out good.

NUVO: A lot of the tracks on Nxghtcrawlr really stretch out musically. There are some very far reaching sounds on this record. It's just a fantastic sounding record sonically and musically.

I want to ask you about a few specific tracks off Nxghtcrawlr that stood out to me. Let's start with "Ride Around" which is the first track you released off the album.

Sirius Blvck: I wanted to write a song that talked about the whole process of writing the album and what that's been like. I also wanted to have a song where I told people they were going to ride around listening to the track, just as like an affirmation. (laughs)

NUVO: Tell us about ”Black Magik”, which I found to be a very compelling track lyrically.

Sirius Blvck: That’s one of my favorite tracks off Nxghtcrawlr. The first verse takes place at a party. Just looking around at everyone, being lost in the trance of it all and realizing you don't need anything but yourself. That's what the "Black Magik" is. It's really about removing negative people and negative energies from your space and trying to shine in your own ray.

NUVO: I have to ask you about "Static Rain," which appears in the middle of the record, and feels sort of like the centerpiece of the album. That track left a huge impression on me. It’s an ambitious track musically and the hook you wrote is unforgettable. It gives me chills every time I hear it.

Sirius Blvck: “Static Rain” comes from a dark place. It's kind of about depression. You know, the static in the rain is the white noise in the brainstorm. Like falling from cloud nine and self-medicating. It comes from a dark place, but it's a beautiful song. "Static Rain" is one of my favorite songs that I've ever written.

NUVO: The last song off Nxghtcrawlr that I want to mention is ”Me, Myself and All My Friends”, which is placed near the end of the record and is probably the most optimistic composition on Nxghtcrawlr.

Sirius Blvck: That's one of my favorite tracks from the album. I feel like I've said that about every song. [laughs]

NUVO: Well there are a lot of great songs on this record, so I think you can get away with it! If you had a bad record I might not believe you.

Sirius Blvck: "Me, Myself and All My Friends" kind of encapsulates the last year of touring and writing and recording with my friends, and all the changes that have occurred with losing people and gaining people. I like that one because in the hook I talk about all of things I'd love to do by myself, but at the same time I also want to do those things with all my friends.

NUVO: I assumed you were talking about your Ghost Gun Summer crew on this song. Or are you speaking in more broad terms?

Sirius Blvck: Yeah, Ghost Gun Summer and all my friends.

NUVO: You've been touring throughout the United States with your friends in Ghost Gun Summer. I know you recently did a tour of the West Coast, and you've made some trips into the South. How is the Indianapolis hip-hop sound being received around the country?

Sirius Blvck: I feel like everyone that we tour with and all the Ghost Gun dudes individually are just really good artists that make really good music that can draw nationally. Whenever we tour we work hard, and I feel like we're good performers. So we give a good show. It's always received really well and people always want us to come back.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Roy Meriwether plays Sunday at Chef Joseph's

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2016 at 4:19 PM


The Midwest soul-jazz piano legend Roy Meriwether has had an extraordinary career during his 50-plus years as a professional musician. Meriwether was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio where he gained notoriety as a child prodigy on the piano. But Meriwether came to national prominence in the 1960s, recording soulful, pop-inflected instrumentals for both Columbia and Capitol Records.

However many Meriwether fans would argue that the pianist really hit his stride in the 1970s when he independently recorded and released a series of brilliant underground jazz classics including his epic 20-minute version of “Nubian Lady” off the 1973 LP of the same title.

Nubian Lady has attracted an enthusiastic international cult audience, and original copies of the LP are rare and valuable collector’s pieces regularly selling between $200 to $300. Fortunately the Nature Sounds label released a deluxe reissue of the LP earlier this year, providing the LP with its widest distribution since its initial release more than forty years ago.

I caught up with Roy Meriwether via phone in advance of his Sunday, October 23rd performance in Downtown Indianapolis at Chef Joseph’s.

NUVO: Mr. Meriwether you were born in Dayton, Ohio in 1943. But I know you’ve played all over Indiana throughout your career. You've also recorded a couple albums here, including your highly collectable 1972 LP Jesus Christ Superstar Goes Jazz recorded live at Arni's in Lafayette. What can you tell us about your connection to Indiana?

Roy Meriwether: Well, Meriwether is a nice name. But you can call me Roy.

In the mid '60s when I was with ABC Booking, they were booking me at the Trolley Bar in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They would have people like Ike Cole, Freddie Cole, and people like that. It was very successful and it worked out good for me there.

Then in the late '60s ABC booked me at Arni's Market Square Lounge in Lafayette, Indiana. People like Ramsey Lewis and the great saxophonist Eddie Harris played there. They had a variety of people there. It was a Pizza King, but it was a very nice Pizza King. I didn't think I'd be invited back to play, but people there took to me very well. Arni is dead now, but he was a great club owner. Man, he was great to work for. I played there sometimes twice a year from the '60s all the way through the '70s.

NUVO: You weren't coming down to Indianapolis to perform in the 1960s?

Meriwether: Well, in the '70s my manager at the time Paul Watson wanted to book me in the old Marott Hotel on Meridian Street. So I went in there around Christmas of 1973 and played the New Orleans Room six nights a week. No offense, but because my name is Meriwether people thought I was white. (laughs) So they mistook who I was. But people white and Black started to notice that I played good and it got to be jam packed just about every night. The New Orleans Room seated about 450 people.**

[During this part of the conversation, Meriwether talked briefly about an incident of racial discrimination in Indianapolis that NUVO is working to substantiate.]

NUVO: Did you ever make it to Indiana Avenue to play, or catch a show?

Meriwether: I was there a couple times, but it was on its last legs while I was there.

NUVO: As a jazz musician what had you heard about Indiana Avenue’s music scene?

Meriwether: I heard it was like 52nd Street in New York, very active club-wise and historic jam sessions, so to speak. I met a lot of those guys from the Avenue, they'd come to hear me play when I was at The Marott because they'd heard about me.

NUVO: Roy, I do want to ask about your incredible catalog of music. At a young age you signed with one of the most important labels in the world, Columbia Records. I believe you were about 22 when Columbia released your debut LP Soup & Onions in 1965.

How did a 22-year-old musician in Dayton, Ohio get signed to the one of the biggest record labels in the world?

Meriwether: Let's see ... how did I do that? [laughs] I used to tell people when I was teenager that I was going to be on Columbia Records. But I didn't have any idea how I was going to do it.

I was playing at The Tropics, which was one of the top clubs in Dayton, Ohio. They had Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante and a lot of those old, traditional big stars. I was playing the lounge there and I remember I had eight teeth pulled that day. I was as sick as a dog. I didn't know anything about the union at that time or hiring a substitute, so I went to play while I was sick and bleeding. There wasn't many people in the audience that night, but Bob Hadley who owned the Trolley Bar in Fort Wayne was there. That's how I got booked in Fort Wayne. He told his friend Joel Muzzy about me, Joel was a booking agent at ABC in Chicago. Joel contacted Joe Glaser, the president of ABC Booking in New York, who talked to Clarence Avant, who became one of my A-list Black managers. Clarence Avant handled Jimmy Smith, Sarah Vaughan and all those people.

Clarence Avant flew in to Dayton to hear me play at The Nowhere in Fairborn, Ohio. There was a snowstorm that night, and I went with the owner of The Nowhere to pick up Clarence Avant at the airport. We saw all these well dressed, dignified white men get off the plane and walk by us, and finally we saw this well dressed Black guy who showed up at the end of the departure line. We figured Clarence had decided not to come and we turned around to walk away when we hear the Black guy say, "Roy?" [laughs] I had no idea at that time who Clarence Avant was, for some reason we thought he was white. We drove Clarence to The Nowhere, and because of the snowstorm Clarence figured there wouldn't be anybody there. When we got there the place was just about full.

So Clarence Avant was shopping me around to labels. Because of Freddie Hubbard and some of the other jazz greats, I told Clarence, "I'd sure like to be on Blue Note." Later Clarence called me and said "I couldn't get you on Blue Note, but I got you on Columbia."

That's how I got on Columbia, Clarence sold me to Tom Wilson who had discovered Simon and Garfunkel.
NUVO: Wow, Tom Wilson is a legendary and influential producer who recorded Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Sun Ra, The Mothers of Invention and so many others.

Meriwether: Yeah, he was the A&R man that recorded me. He was real easy to work with. After him I got Teo Macero. Do you know about Teo Macero?

NUVO: Of course! He produced some of the most famous records of all-time, including Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, and Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um.

Meriwether: Right, and Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington too. But at the time I didn't really know who people like Teo and Tom Wilson were. Teo called me and said "Roy, I got you now because Tom is sick." He talked like I was supposed to know who he was - but I had no idea! I was fresh out playing in the church.

I didn't know the workings of the music business thing. My father was a minister. You read write-ups where some musician's father took them to hear Art Tatum when they were five or six years old. My father never took me to hear any of these people. I learned only spiritual music. I think our family only owned two jazz records, some 78 RPM record from Duke Ellington and I think Lionel Hampton's "Hamp's Boogie Woogie" was the other. Other than that everything else was spiritual music. Me and my brothers and sisters were not allowed to play anything other than spiritual music.

NUVO: So how did your father feel about you pursuing a career in jazz music?

Meriwether: My father always wanted me to be a minister. But I was in Dayton playing on Third Street at age 17. Third Street was the original Route 40 and on Friday and Saturday everybody lined up at the Red Light and I'm playing in this big picture window. I had to play in this window and all the church people would see me and tell my father, "Your boy is playing for Satan!" My father would tell them, "He's making an honest living."

My father would walk up to me and shake my hand firmly when I was young and say, "Son, there are a lot of people very jealous of you." That's all he would say and then he'd walk away. I didn't understand it then, but now I understand. He was getting all kinds of flack about me playing in the window of this club. I was a popular minister's son and a prodigy at age four. So I was pretty well known around town because I played every hotel in Dayton when I was four years old. 

NUVO: That's wild! What type of music were you playing at four years old?

Meriwether: I wrote a couple of boogies and I could play the blues. I would play things like "Tomorrow's Just Another Day To Cry," which I'd heard off the radio. "Nearer the Cross" was the first song I ever played. I learned the "Wedding March" because my family used to have me play at Tom Thumb Weddings. Have you ever heard ever of a Tom Thumb Wedding?

NUVO: No, I haven't.

Meriwether: Well, I was four years-old and I'd play for all these little boys and girls who were dressed up like grown-ups in tuxedos and gowns and they would all march and have what they called a Tom Thumb Wedding. They were all little kids and I had to play for all of them to march in. I had to play on my knees because I was too short to reach the keyboard when I sat down on the piano stool. My knees got pretty sore playing for that long wedding march, because every kid on the block wanted to be in the wedding! [laughs]

NUVO: Getting back to your time at Columbia Records, you recorded three albums for Columbia before transitioning over to Capitol Records. I'm curious if you had a good relationship with Columbia?

Meriwether: Yes, basically. After my first album Soup & Onions did so well, they said, "Let him do whatever he wants to do." But at the end of the '60s Columbia started letting go of some of their biggest artists, like Andy Williams. I mean big sellers. I was on the fence, and I probably could've stayed because Teo liked my talent. But I didn't push it and then Capitol was interested. I should've just stayed with Columbia, but I went with Capitol in 1968.

NUVO: You jumped from one giant record company to what was probably their largest rival.

Meriwether: Yeah, Capitol Records, the home of The Beatles. Capitol were glad to have me, but you have to understand I really had zero experience. When I was getting mixed reviews for my albums it discouraged me. I didn't know at that time like Donald Trump does, any publicity is good publicity.

I remember playing at The Trident out in Sausalito, which was owned by the Kingston Trio. I got panned for my second album Popcorn & Soul and I remember the manager of The Trident telling me "Roy, don't worry about the reviews, it's all good!" But I couldn't hear him because I was just so embarrassed. I had zero experience at this thing.

For Popcorn & Soul Columbia approached me and they wanted me to record "The Shadow Of Your Smile" which won the Academy Award for '66. Columbia told me I had to do "The Shadow Of Your Smile" and "What's New Pussycat?". All the rest of the songs I could pick from different movie themes. Overnight I learned all these songs for that album. At 6 a.m. I went down to Columbia after staying up all night learning the songs and I recorded that album. They were quite impressed with me when I did that. I was impressed with me too. [laughs]

NUVO: I want to skip ahead to your work in the 1970s. In the ‘60s you'd been making what I'd consider more commercial records for Capitol and Columbia. In the 70's you started recording independently and that gave you a chance to really stretch out as a musician, correct?

Meriwether: You could say that, I stretched out on Columbia but they really edited it. They edited 16 minute things down to a minute and 58 seconds. It made me angry! So I recorded on my own label records like Nubian Lady, which has just been rereleased.

NUVO: You released Nubian Lady through Stinger Records in 1973. The album was recorded live at The Magic Carpet in Dayton, Ohio and as you mentioned it was independently produced and released. But it's gone on to attain a worldwide audience and it's a very valuable record in its original pressing. It's a beautiful record. That was the first record of yours I ever owned and I just fell in love with the music. Tell us about that album and the continued interest from hardcore jazz fans and record collectors.

Meriwether: I took my own piano into The Magic Carpet, it was a full grand piano. A friend of my bass player brought us some equipment to record. I wanted to play without being restricted. It was in protest of being edited so much by the big companies. People used to say to me "they just need to hear you live Roy! People just need to hear you live, that's the problem." I kept getting that back in the early days. When I did Nubian Lady I just wanted to play like I'd normally play, and that's what you heard on the record. I released it pretty much as is. Nothing was edited on Nubian Lady.

I played it for Clarence Avant, and it was the strangest thing. I just knew "Nubian Lady" was a hit. It had a nice ride on the solo, and even though the bass player was from the avant-garde, the beat was still present. The beat stayed present through the whole thing and I knew that made it listenable. Clarence Avant said "It's just not danceable enough." And there were about 20 kids who heard the record when I had the door open in my apartment and they’re like "What is that?" They started dancing in the yard! My girlfriend said, "Tell him to tell these kids it's not danceable!"

I only sold Nubian Lady at my live shows. I'd gone out in the this college tour through the National Entertainment Conference. The colleges developed NEC because people like Sly Stone were coming so late to performances because they were getting stoned. They'd come at 11 o'clock for an 8 o'clock performance. So the colleges started this organization and you had to audition no matter who you were. No matter how big you were, you had to audition for twenty minutes and take the music through all kinds of genres.

So I took the Nubian Lady record along for that tour. The only distribution that album had was a college concert tour along the Upper Midwest. It was only sold off-stage. It was never distributed at all and it did what you were talking about. It's unreal. It was on Ebay for one-thousand dollars last year.

NUVO: How do you feel about the reissue that was just put out by Nature Sounds?

Meriwether: I was okay with it. I didn't get as much as I probably could've. I got a pretty decent amount. They released it as a double album with extra material and they added pictures of me from that period of time. It's got new liner notes that talk about my work and past. It's a nice package.

NUVO: What do you think it is about your recording of "Nubian Lady" that's been so enduring and continues to attract new generations of fans?

Meriwether: Billy Jackson the drummer, he doesn't play any more because of medical reasons, he was with Richard "Groove" Holmes for five years. He used to tell me "I got this beat that sounds like a tambourine." When we played "Nubian Lady" one night, he went into that rhythm spontaneously. He just went into that gospel-type beat. It was the rhythm he had that really locked in "Nubian Lady". The solo I did had nice layers, it built very nicely with the drums and I think that's what sold it.

NUVO: The paper I write for here in Indianapolis is called NUVO Newsweekly, and for many years Chuck Workman was the chief jazz writer at NUVO up until the time of his death in 2012.

Meriwether: [interrupts] Chuck was a friend of mine!

NUVO: I know Chuck was associated with your record label Stinger in the 1970s. Tell about about your work with Chuck.

Meriwether: My manager and Chuck were friends and Chuck helped to promote me. Chuck became the president of Stinger Records. I wasn't interested in being president at the time. It wasn't a big deal, but he was listed as president of Stinger Records. The home of Stinger Records was supposed to be in Lafayette, Indiana. It was really almost a pseudo-address. He was a big fan of mine and a big help. He booked me a lot. He was a very nice man. I was so sorry when he died.

Yeah, Chuck was the first president of Stinger Records. I made him president. I asked Mike Pence, but he didn't want to be president then. [laughs]

NUVO: There's one other Indiana-related project I wanted to ask you about. In 1987 you released a live album called Opening Night. I understand that album was recorded here in Indianapolis at a club called The Place To Start, which is now The Jazz Kitchen. Any thoughts on that album?

Meriwether: Most of that album was recorded at Just Jazz in Anderson, Indiana. There were a couple cuts on there that were done at The Place To Start.

I remember the stage at The Place To Start was very high. [laughs] It was a very high stage. I didn't like that. I love the way the stage is now at The Jazz Kitchen. The Place To Start was an okay place, I drew good crowds there. It wasn't as nice as the Kitchen is now, but that stage was very high! Very high. I mean, very high.

NUVO: That sounds crazy because I work a lot at The Jazz Kitchen and the ceilings are a pretty normal height, it doesn't seem like you'd have too much room to work with if you were building upward.

Meriwether: Well, you should've seen it. But I don't think they built it like that, I think it just happened to be that way when they got it. The stage was okay as far as being on it, it was just further from the audience than I like to be... height-wise.

NUVO: You’re going to be playing in Indianapolis on Sunday, October 23 at Chef Joseph’s. I’m curious if you’re still performing "Nubian Lady" and some of the classic tracks from your past?

Meriwether: Yes, and there's some new things too. I'm not bringing a group from New York as I normally do. I'm going to use a group from Dayton. I'll put something together with them and see what happens. I plan to do "Nubian Lady" because of the rerelease. We'll see how that works. I've never played with these guys, but they're professionals and I'll work the show up with them.

NUVO: Roy, it's been a huge honor to speak with you. I’m a huge fan and I’ve been collecting your records for many years.

Meriwether: Well, I’m kind of floored by that. It's been really nice talking with you.

Special thanks to Ralph Adams and Rick Wilkerson for making this interview possible.
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Friday, October 14, 2016

Mohammed Fairouz’s oratorio 'Zabur' is a powerful war requiem

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 12:29 PM

  • Photo by Samantha West
  • Fairouz

Over a year has passed since the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir premiered Mohammed Fairouz’s oratorio Zabur, a powerful war requiem based on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Zabur’s Indianapolis premiere is the subject of a new CD to be released this month by Naxos Records, one of the top classical music labels in the world.

This is a big deal for the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, as the release of Zabur marks the group’s first ever recording for a major label. On top of that, the ISC will perform for Zabur’s New York debut at Carnegie Hall on October 16th.

The ISC’s commission and recording of Zabur represents a significant milestone for both the choir and the Indianapolis music scene at large. Classical music audiences in Indianapolis aren’t always enthusiastic in their support of new music. So the ISC should be commended for commissioning a work that challenges local audiences musically and conceptually.

On the occasion of Zabur’s CD release, I spoke with composer Mohammed Fairouz to get his thoughts on the continuously unfolding crisis in Syria. Fairouz is an important voice in contemporary music, in fact the BBC has called him, “one of the most talented composers of his generation."

NUVO: Zabur has been described as a “war requiem for Syria”. A significant amount of time has passed since you initially conceptualized Zabur, and during that period the humanitarian crisis in Syria has become graver. Are there any thoughts you’d like to offer on the continuing crisis in Syria as we approach the Naxos release of Zabur?

Mohammed Fairouz: Thank you for that. I appreciate your question, and I think it's the most important question to be asking about this work at this time. I'm glad you started with that.

The truth of the matter is that the Syrian situation should concern all of us very deeply for a number of reasons. One reason is the obvious strategic problem that has emerged as a result of the state falling out of the hands of anyone, really. It has transcended into complete chaos. We live in such an interlinked world that states cannot descend into chaos without causing chaos for other states.

A second reason is that we have on our hands the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. That in itself should be very concerning to us.

I think the moral dimension is also extremely powerful. President Obama has many accomplishments under his belt, especially on the domestic front. But Syria is the strategic disaster of our time. Syria will be remembered as the shame of our generation, and the shame of our time. The strategic error President Obama made in issuing a red line and then allowing a dictator to cross that line with no ramifications, especially as that red line involved the use of chemical weapons, has been devastating. It's been devastating to the idea of global order. It's emboldened people like Putin to make excursions into the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. It's threatened NATO. It's created a situation we should all be very concerned about, and I can't overstate that.

The human dimension is what we are concerned with in the oratorio. It humanizes the tragedy and that's what is so valuable about depicting this musically. But I am also very concerned with the strategic problem that has emerged. I think most millennials you’ll talk to are great fans of the Obamas, and I think there is much to admire in his accomplishments, his integrity, and his seriousness. But I can't really decipher if it's been a very high level of moral ambivalence on his part to allow this to escalate. He does have a responsibility, as of now he's still the most powerful man in the world. When you have power, you have responsibility.

In 2014 I wrote a scathing critique of Obama fiddling while the world burns. I said that the next administration would inherit a nightmare on the foreign policy front, and indeed they will. We're very lucky that Hillary Clinton seems to be the clear favorite in this election. She has the foreign policy chops to get into this. She knows how to use the military, which I think is very important. We're just so lucky that she's part of this equation, as we are unlucky and embarrassed that Donald Trump is the other half of that equation.

NUVO: You mentioned the fact that we’re currently facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Not terribly long after Zabur premiered in Indianapolis, Indiana Governor Mike Pence announced his intention to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees within the state of Indiana.

This sort of anti-Muslim or anti-Arabic attitude has intensified in the last several months with the rise of Donald Trump. I wonder how this growing wave of anti-Arab or anti-Islamic sentiment is impacting you as an artist?

Fairouz: I have to interject there. I think that what’s dangerous about Donald Trump’s campaign and people like Mike Pence, is not so much an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim argument, the problem is that it’s sort of an anti-everything argument.

Donald Trump is a buffoon. Mike Pence is not. He’s more dangerous than that. If you watched the vice presidential debates, his diagnosis of the problem in Syria is largely accurate. His response to it isn't and I don't know why we would imagine it would be. Why would he be an expert in foreign policy? He was the governor of a state. We have to approach these things a little more analytically than we have thus far.

We have on the other hand, a former Secretary of State. Someone who has served on the Senate's Armed Services Committee, and the Foreign Relations Committee. She's very experienced. She's made mistakes and learned from them - which by the way is a strength, not a weakness.

I have to say this and it's really, really important, unlike Sisi in Egypt, unlike the Brexit movement, unlike Putin, unlike these other bloviating strongmen, what’s happening now is especially dangerous in the United States. The words "e pluribus unum" are not in Britain's DNA. Britain does not refer to itself as a nation of immigrants. It is part of our identity. This idea of the melting pot is part of our identity. It's part of the way we think about ourselves and brand ourselves to the world. I just want to be very careful about this, because I think when we say anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment, we're excluding a long list of people that someone like Mike Pence is against.

When I came to Indiana the last time for the premiere of Zabur, it was around the time Pence was squandering the state's budget on oppressing gay people and LGBT Americans.

Think of what we saw a few days ago with the attitudes towards women. It's not a revelation, it's characterized this whole campaign. And women are over 50 percent of the population of the country.

It's also the language about Mexicans.

You know Hillary Clinton said that by the end of this cycle there will not be a single group in this country that Trump's campaign of sneer and snarl hasn't insulted - including our armed forces and off-limit things like Gold Star parents.

I've tackled this question before. People have asked me if I feel targeted religiously or ethnically and I think it's really important that we transcend that sort of thinking. I think we should all feel targeted. We should violated if someone takes the oath of office and doesn't know the Constitution. We should feel upset by that as Americans. Barbara Bush said she can't understand how any woman could vote for Donald Trump — I can't understand how any person can.

I think we have to be very aware of the fact that we’re all in this together. If by some unfortunate freak accident this man is elected, we’re all going to have to live with the consequences of it. There isn't just one community who will have to live with the consequences of it. We are all going to have to live with the consequences of it.

  • Photo by Samantha West
  • Fairouz
NUVO: I write a lot about the relationship between art and social justice, or art and the struggle for peace and human rights. You’ve written several programmatic pieces that engage with contemporary political or social issues. Would you like to share any of your thoughts or opinions on the relationship between art, music and social change?

Fairouz: If one were to be realistic about this, I'm sort of a foreign affairs analyst, a political analyst, or whatever you want to call it. I've written for a number of major publications, including The New York Times, on issues of global governance. I don't see my art as being separate from that.

When you write something like I'm writing now, The New Prince opera with David Ignatius, you have to make the journey compelling. I think that's something that is really important to my art.

If someone asks you what sort of writer you are, or what sort of composer you are, these are means to an end. They're not things in themselves. Do you know what I mean? You write in order to say something. Somebody can be a poet. Somebody can be a journalist. Somebody can be a novelist. There are all sorts of different writers, and different things serve different functions. Some people do all of the above.

The idea of creating art isn't about going in your ivory tower and creating art. Why are you doing it? What is your intention? Then what is your method? Often times I find that method dictates intention to artists, rather than the other way around.

People are often times surprised when they talk to me, at the end of the conversation they'll say, "Well, we haven't talked about music." I think it's a curious idea that artists will go into a conversation and talk about their art, rather than the issues they're passionate about, or the issues that drive their art or motivate their art. They'll go in and talk about their method rather than their intention or message. I think that's really strange.

Let me give you one final example off the top of my head. I actually think that there's a lot of good messaging coming out of the Clinton campaign right now. I think it's some of the most unspectacular, but substantial messaging. "Stronger Together" is a very meaningful slogan. It's not as strong as "Make America Great Again" or "A Future To Believe In," but it's more meaningful and more substantial.

There's another Clinton slogan I've seen a lot, and that's "Love Trumps Hate." I think that in itself is a very meaningful slogan and I think it's one you’ll run into when you talk to artists. They're going to say "love will win the day" when you're talking about social justice.

I'm writing an opera about Machiavelli. One of Machiavelli's teachings is that if you have to choose between being loved and being feared, you must choose being feared. It's safer and you ensure respect.

I personally don't believe that. But if I want to argue with that, then I actually have to write a drama that shows in a compelling way why I believe Machiavelli is wrong. I have to take real exercises from the world and put them onstage. One of those exercises is for example the situation with Palestine and Israel right now. Which is a never-ending cycle of violence. When Israel bombarded Gaza all those years ago, they were going in with the Machiavellian attitude that if we make them fear us they will be humbled into submission. Of course that's the same attitude that sent Israeli tanks rolling into Lebanon all those years ago.

It hasn't solved the problem of Palestine and Israel. The Palestinians started lobbing rockets at Israel and responding with suicidal vengeance. So how this cycle of violence will end we don't know. But the Palestinians and Israelis might want to consider for a moment the possibility that Machiavelli was wrong, that it is indeed safer to be loved than to be feared. It's safer to build communities than to denigrate others. It's safer because people don't respond well to being intimidated. They tend to want to react violently.

You have to demonstrate this through real world models. It's not sufficient to talk about it in the abstract. That's the sort of thing that I think can be valuable in our artistic enterprises. It's something that Mozart understood so well, and that Beethoven understood so well, and Mahler understood so well. It's not a new enterprise.

NUVO: It was a pleasure speaking with you Mr. Fairouz. Thanks for your time and I hope a future project brings you back to Indiana some day.

Fairouz: Me too. I like it out there.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Face à Face covers music and social justice

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2016 at 9:36 AM

Ariana Beedie, founder of Face à Face - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Ariana Beedie, founder of Face à Face
As the Indianapolis music scene continues to grow and evolve in new ways, it's important that a new generation of journalists and critics ascend to create spaces for documenting and disseminating the work of emerging young artists.

Music journalist Ariana Beedie was seeking to do just that when she launched her new digital media platform Face à Face this summer.

The content on FAF runs deeper than the strictly musical. Beedie and her contributors also offer editorial opinions on everything from gentrification in Indy, to the Black Lives Matter movement.

NUVO: My impression of FAF is that you’re covering music, social justice, and culture at large — but from a different perspective than we might see in more established publications.

Ariana Beedie: You really captured it. I wanted to start something that covered a full scope. I just know that I have a different experience than you do, and a different experience than my contributors do. We just wanted to shine light on what we see. It's a cultural hub for millennials in Indianapolis to shine light on what they see. 
NUVO: Before starting FAF you were active as a music journalist and, if I’m not mistaken, you contributed content to the much loved site AfroPunk. 

Beedie: Yes, I contributed a few stories to AfroPunk. It was totally freelance. I had some ideas, emailed someone, and I got picked up. That was back in 2012 or 2013. And I wrote specifically about hip-hop for AfroPunk. 

NUVO: One thing I really appreciate about FAF is that you're covering music and social justice shoulder to shoulder. That's something I've tried to do in my work for NUVO and I think it's important to connect these themes. 

Music is such a big part of that movement. It's more than just a soundtrack for the movement, it's often the inspiration for people to even begin thinking about ideas relating to race, justice and equality. That was certainly true in my case. And in your case, you're directly involved with these issues as an activist. You're a member of the Indy 10, which is affiliated with the national Black Lives Matter movement. 

Beedie: We are the Black Lives Matter group in Indianapolis. Indy 10 was founded by two beautiful and amazing Black women that I love, Leah Humphrey and Kyra Harvey.

Indy 10 was a blessing for me. I had just moved back to Indianapolis and I saw that they were really doing things as far as standing up for Black Lives Matter and just raising their voices. I went to a few meetings and joined and they welcomed me into their inner circle. They really get out on the front-lines and connect with other organizations like DON'T SLEEP. They are really standing up and in the face of the police — not to spread hatred at all, which is the common misconception. But just to make people aware that this is clearly still an issue we're dealing with. It's good to see people in Indy really stepping up for the cause.

NUVO: So how does your work in social justice influence you as a music journalist? 

Beedie: I feel like music pushes everything for me. As far as my activism, it can be hard out there dealing with hatred against a group you're part of, or someone that you support. Having music as that backbone is key. I gotta keep my A Tribe Called Quest on. I gotta keep my soulful music that makes me feel like home and family. It definitely plays a part, and not just hip-hop. I love punk rock, and that real urmph! I don't even know what to call it, but that feeling in punk rock that just makes you want to fight for what's right. And reggae music, it pushes you with the positive and sustains you when you may feel like your spirit is low. Music influences every aspect of my life, even the activism.
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Monday, September 19, 2016

Phil Ranelin's birthday tour lands at Jazz Fest

Posted By on Mon, Sep 19, 2016 at 3:10 PM


This interview originally ran on September 10, 2014. We're republishing it before Ranelin's set tonight at the Jazz Kitchen for this year's Jazz Fest.

Although he's a native son, jazz music fans will forever associate Indy-born trombonist Phil Ranelin with the city of Detroit. It was in Detroit that Ranelin found his voice as an artist, forming the Tribe music collective with musician Wendell Harrison in the early '70s. Functioning as a record label, band and magazine Tribe tapped into the spirit of its era addressing revolutionary concepts in music and political thought, from black consciousness to universal themes of love and peace. The music Ranelin and company released through Tribe has lived on to impact several generations of musicians, influencing works of avant-garde experimentalism, EDM and hip-hop.

While so much of Ranelin's legacy rests on his time in Detroit, the trombonist is undoubtedly a product of the Indianapolis jazz tradition. Ranelin was born in Indianapolis in 1939, received his musical education here and gigged regularly locally until moving to Detroit in the late '60s. 

Ranelin will return to Indianapolis for a September 16 date at the Jazz Kitchen. Ranelin's performance is part of the 2014 Indy Jazz Fest series, which also happens to coincide with his own 75th birthday tour. 

I spoke with Ranelin via phone from his current home in Los Angeles, a city that has provided Ranelin with all the due praise and honor his hometown has failed to offer. There, Ranelin's birthday is recognized as Phil Ranelin Day, and they've proclaimed the trombonist as a "rare and valuable cultural City Treasure” and a "Cultural Ambassador for the City of Los Angeles." Ranelin's return to Indy should give local arts administrators and politicians reason to reflect on Indy's negligence in paying proper homage to the historic jazz movement of Indiana Avenue.

NUVO: You grew up during a musically rich period in Indianapolis. I know you attended Arsenal Tech high school, but I understand you also studied with the great educator Russell Brown from Crispus Attucks, as well as David Baker. Can you tell me about growing up as a musician in Indy during the late '50s?

Ranelin: Musically I think Indianapolis is one of the world's best kept secrets in a way. There's a wealth of knowledge there, and I was blessed to have been around that coming up. As you mentioned I studied with Russell Brown and David Baker. I had a total of maybe eight lessons with Baker but those lessons are still with me. 

When I was a freshman at Tech, I discovered a record in the school band room. I used to look at this record from time to time for about a year before I ever played it. But when I was a sophomore I thought "Why don't I play this?" It was an album by Sonny Stitt and J.J. Johnson, and for me it was mind-boggling. At the end of the record there was something called "Teapot." iIt opened up with a Max Roach drum solo and J.J. came in immediately just playing on the changes. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. After it was over I looked at my classmate and said "You mean to tell me that a trombone can sound like that?" [laughs] Prior to that, I had only been playing marches in the marching band. It was a turning point for me getting more interested in the trombone. 

A couple years later after I graduated from high school I had the privilege of meeting and playing with Wes Montgomery. I'd met Melvin Rhyne through one of Russel Brown's summer programs. I happened to run into Melvin one day and he said "Hey man, what are you doing right now? Why don't you come by The Hubbub. Bring your horn and I'll introduce you to Wes Montgomery." So I came through and Wes was his beautiful, beautiful self. Wes was always seemingly in a good mood. I played with Wes and he invited me back. I ended up going to jam sessions with him every week for about three months in a row.

NUVO: You came up during a time when many great trombonists were emerging from the Indianapolis scene. Guys like J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, David Baker and yourself took that instrument into new directions. What was going on at that time to push musicians to explore the trombone?

Ranelin: That's an interesting question. The trombone is such a difficult instrument it tends to lead you into figuring things out musically. A lot of trombone players end up being pretty good writers, and arrangers also. I think that's part of the nature of the instrument. 

It is amazing that some of the top trombone players came out of this little town. I hear a lot of people say "Wow, Indianapolis is such a little place, but it's produced so many great players." And it's not just trombone players, Indianapolis has produced great brass players too like Freddie Hubbard. You've got Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery. There's three of the top musicians in jazz and they come from this little place called Indianapolis, Indiana. 

NUVO: Speaking of Freddie Hubbard I understand he befriended you early in your career, and later on in the late '70s you both recorded together. 

Ranelin: I just want to slightly correct you, Freddie Hubbard wasn't just a friend. He was a hero. He was only a year and a half older than me. We went to high school together. We developed a real close friendship, especially when I moved to the West Coast. At that time we were hanging out extensively. Every Thanksgiving I was at his house. He was a special friend and I valued him immensely. Freddie, for me, is my very favorite trumpet player. And I don't stand alone, that's not a biased statement. In terms of jazz a lot of people agree that it doesn't get any better than Freddie Hubbard. 

NUVO: Can you tell me about your decision to move to Detroit and what led you to co-founding Tribe Records? 

Ranelin: There again The Hubbub comes into play. I'd go by there and stand in with whatever band was there. There were a lot of great musicians coming through there including Grant Green and Eddie Harris. This particular time it was a band from Detroit and after the session was over the leader came and said "I really like the way you play. Are you staying pretty busy around here?" I said "No." He said "If you ever decide to move to Detroit, look me up immediately. I could get you some work."

That was music to my ears because I was getting very little work in Indianapolis. I didn't have any real ties in Indy at the time; my marriage had kind of broken up. So I decided to take him up on his offer. I moved to Detroit and immediately called him. He said "We're rehearsing, come on by." I go to the rehearsal, and come to find out it was a rehearsal for one of the Motown acts. In fact it was The Temptations. I played and I got the gig. They were heading out right that week on a 10-day tour and ironically enough the first stop on the tour was Indianapolis. At that point I'd only been gone from Indy for about a week, and most people hadn't realized I'd even left. [laughs]

As far as Tribe Records, that goes back to me meeting Wendell Harrison in 1964. He was touring through Indy with Hank Crawford's band. When I moved to Detroit in 1968 Wendell had just moved back there. We were both working at a place called Metropolitan Arts Complex. We didn't really remember each other that well, but we were both rehearsing in this big band. I stood up and took a solo and he looked around and said "Hey, don't I know you?" We exchanged numbers and started talking about our dreams of recording our own music. That's how Tribe was born. It started out mainly as a band, and later developed into a record label. It was a very gratifying period and it's still part of who I am.

NUVO: So much of your work with Tribe was focused on themes of social justice. Can you tell me what it meant for you to use your art to address social issues?

Ranelin: It meant everything to me. That's who I am. That's what I'm about. As a black man in America I face racism every day. Even today. Back then in particular we were conscious of all that, and it came out through the music. Later, Tribe developed from a band and record label into a magazine. We discussed political issues in the magazine. It was a very interesting time.

I feel like part of the Tribe Movement influenced a lot of activity in Detroit. The first record we recorded was Message From the Tribe. One song on that album was dedicated to Angela Davis, and I had the privilege of personally giving her a copy of the album during a political rally.

NUVO: Any current projects you're working on that you'd like to mention?

Ranelin: I just recorded a DVD that will be coming out early next year. It's called Portrait in Blue. They interviewed me while I drove from Los Angeles to a performance in San Francisco. They interviewed me every minute of the way while I was driving. It was crazy now that I think about it, that's dangerous talking and driving. [laughs] They interviewed me all the way back too. I'm looking forward to seeing how that turns out with the interview and performance. 

Also I'm celebrating my 75th birthday this year. That's one of the reasons I'm coming back to Indianapolis, as part of my 75th birthday tour. The tour has already included a date in Dakar, Senegal so it's an international tour. I'll be in Panama around the first of the year. So I'm celebrating all year. That's how we do it. 

I'm very happy to be back in Indianapolis for Jazz Fest, and I'm looking forward to the performance. I'll be joined by Clifford Ratliff on trumpet, Kevin Anker on piano, Thomas Brinkley on bass, and Greg Artry on drums.

A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lotus artist: Dhol Foundation's master percussion

Our final Lotus Fest interview

Posted By on Sat, Sep 17, 2016 at 8:00 AM


For the last 23 years the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival has brought some of the greatest musicians in the world to Bloomington, Indiana for an unforgettable weekend of musical performance. This year’s Lotus Fest artist roster is overflowing with incredible talent, making the Lotus 2016 line-up one of the strongest yet. If you’ve never attended Lotus Fest, this year’s edition is a perfect introduction.

I spoke with four of this year’s Lotus performers to give NUVO readers a taste of what’s in store September 15-18 at this year’s Lotus Fest.

Master percussionist Johnny Kalsi has a phenomenal musical pedigree. Though he’s most widely known for creating the Dhol Foundation, Kalsi has also been a member of Transglobal Underground, Afro Celt Sound System, and the pioneering British bhangra group Alaap. Kalsi’s music has appeared on the soundtracks of films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York and he’s collaborated with superstar artists ranging from Peter Gabriel to Cheb Khaled.

I recently spoke with Kalsi via phone from his home in London as we discussed his innovative work in the British bhangra music scene.

NUVO: Prior to forming the Dhol Foundation you were part of a very important and influential U.K. bhangra group called Alaap. How did you come to join Alaap?

Johnny Kalsi: Back in the day, oh crikey, we're going back to the '80s, Alaap had never really had a dhol player. It was kind of like an accidental audition, the band took a break half way and I came on with a DJ. They asked me to turn up at a studio where they were recording. I did, and they offered me some live gigs. From that point on I never looked back. It was 1986, which is quite ridiculous really. (laughs)

NUVO: The British bhangra movement was relatively fresh when you joined Alaap. In the days since you left Alaap the scene has produced huge acts like Panjabi MC who’ve scored major international hits. Would you have ever imagined the British bhangra scene would become such a massive global force?

Kalsi: No, I was a bit young then and we were still growing with the phenomenon and the whole bhangra movement. When I say the bhangra movement, I mean back then everyone wanted a live bhangra band at their party, or wedding, or function - as well as all the gigs. But no, I didn't envision it.

Looking back on it, being second generation British-Asian, my parents came over from Kenya. My whole family was born in Kenya and I was born in the U.K. Growing up I went to British schools and back then it was still a bit taboo to play your own music in public. People didn't appreciate our music or our culture. But they didn't know enough about it to be honest. Growing up there was lots of mixed feelings, even at school. I was one of probably five kids in my school that was Indian or of Indian descent. Everyone else was typically English, or white.
We had a mixture of friends and we got on. We would listen to whatever was current in the charts, which was probably Duran Duran, Boy George and Adam Ant. But at home we were listening to traditional stuff. Every Sunday there was one an Asian program that would come on. It was the only Asian program. It came on an obscure channel at six o'clock on a Sunday morning and all the Asian people would wake up to watch. (laughs)

It was quite interesting to see that wave take place. What I did understand from all that, was that there were maybe three or four guys from my generation who all took the same path. We'd listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or Noor Jehan from that Sunday morning Asian program. Those people were very influential in the Asian media and their songs, and ghazals and qawwalis actually were quite meaningful. But it had a Punjabi tilt to it and all the Punjabis we knew, my uncles and aunts all watched it.

So there was myself, Booby Friction, Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh. We all have kind of the same background were our parents came from abroad and settled. We were all listening to a mixture of music. So for our ears it was very natural to fuse the music. So being in Alaap and having that unique style - rather than playing an Indian groove on the drum kit, we would play a Western groove. That to our ears was much more natural.

So of course I took a bhangra route because of my Alaap background. Nitin Sawhney was playing guitar and he took a classical route. Talvin Singh took the Asian Underground route and mixed Indian sitar and vocals over drum and bass loops and added his tabla over the top which was quite mesmerizing. Bobby Friction came from a radical punk background and he would mix influences and beats and DJ grooves over the top of traditional Indian sounds. I was the only one that took the bhangra influence. Because ultimately the dhol itself in its DNA is a bhangra instrument. You can't get away from it.

NUVO: You mentioned coming up in the same generation as artists like Talvin Singh, Bobby Friction and Nitin Sawhney. Like you, these musicians became known for mixing South Asian music with electronic sounds.

For us in the U.S. it seemed like Talvin Singh was the mastermind of this fusion. His 1997 compilation Anokha - Soundz of the Asian Underground was the first widespread exposure for that sound in the states.

I’m curious if you were all listening to each other’s music and influencing each other, or if everyone developed their own ideas independently?

Kalsi: The sound was around a lot before that album. It wasn't new to our ears because Talvin was doing it long before Anokha. He played on Alaap's double album. He toured with Alaap back in 1990. He toured with Alaap when we went to Pakistan.
But there was an awareness of what everybody else was doing with their stuff. Of course even in the U.K. the Anokha thing was a big movement and a big wave. We liked what each other did, and whenever our paths have crossed we greet each other, shake hands and give each other a hug. We all understand that we've grown up together and we know where everybody's come from.

NUVO: Do you remember when you first started combining your dhol with electric sounds?

Kalsi: The electronic element came out of experimentation. I remember being in a studio with TJ Rehmi and he was slowing down hip-hop beats. He would slow them down to do the programming and then he would speed them up to ridiculous tempos. I thought it was kind of outrageous. So he'd program at 60 bpm and speed it up to like 180 bpm to make drum and bass loops. I thought it was fascinating but it didn't sound right to my ears. But when it all came out and started attacking the Asian underground scene everyone was loving it.

NUVO: When you heard TJ Rehmi doing these experiments, did you immediately hear a place for your dhol in those rhythms? Did you immediately see a place for your contribution in electronic music?

Kalsi: Yeah, completely. There was a track Rehmi and I did called "Who Killed Bhangra?” It was one of our showcase tracks we'd do onstage before we even had an album. His statement was that bhangra was actually dying because everyone started doing the electronic thing.

I don't think bhangra died, I think it just took a left turn. In the bhangra scene now there's hardly anything coming out of the U.K. It's all coming out of India and that started with the DJs. They were getting vocals from India and producing in a U.K. sort of style. But the producers out in India cottoned on to how we were doing the programming.

NUVO: The dhol is such a powerful instrument and it really commands attention when it’s played. Everytime I see a dhol player perform, I have a string physical response to the instrument. I’m curious if you can recall the first time you saw a dhol player perform?

Kalsi: My dad had like seventeen cousin-sisters. They were all around about the same age within about five years of each other and they all had to get married. So across that time I was dragged along to wedding after wedding. I had one particular uncle who kept a dhol drum under wraps and he'd only pull it out during a wedding. That became the highlight of me going to a wedding. Otherwise it was boring for a kid. But this came along and it was an absolute eye-opener. I was mesmerized. So I guess that first sort of influence was there from my uncle.

I never really expected I would end up picking up this instrument and having it become the love of my life. But it is a very powerful instrument, you're absolutely right. I think that it was the power that drew me to it. When you hear that drum the first reaction people get is that overwhelming feeling. I do remember getting that, and thinking "I want to do that." And I did.

The style I ended up with was my own style, but it was molded from playing with the band Alaap. The musicians in Alaap didn't really move around a lot. I came along and started playing with a little more passion and emotion and with a lot of facial expression because I play from the heart. I feel the music and I loved it and I was using my eyebrows and facial expression and people loved it.

In India the discipline is very different. Your taught not to make any facial expression at all to stop people from ticking. When I say ticking I mean they develop different facial expressions for different beats they play and that becomes a tick. It ties itself to the beat and they can't play that beat without pulling a face.

NUVO: Johnny, you've taken bhangra music in so many different directions through your work with Dhol Foundation. Do you still have new ideas for bhangra music, and new places you want to take the dhol?

Kalsi: Yes, totally. I want to expose my drum to Jay-Z and Beyonce. I went them to hear the power of it and I want them to hear the potential in it. I want Eminem to do a rap over my beats. I don't even care if it becomes a hit, I just want to expose the drum to the artists.

Sometimes you get the opportunity to work with people like I've done. Those opportunities don't come around that often, but when they do it's a breath of fresh air. And I think it's fresh air for the people that use it for their creative thing. The interesting band I exposed my drum to was Led Zeppelin. That was back in 1997 and I got to tour with them for six weeks. It was the time of my life to watch them and help them out where they needed it and become friends with Robert.

In all of this the most important part is to expose what we do to the masses. The dhol is just a barrel with two sides and two skins, but the potential and the sound you can give rhythmically - there are so many artists out there that need to hear this.
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Friday, September 16, 2016

Lotus artist: A-Wa's Yemenite folk

There’s something magical about the music of A-Wa that effortlessly glides across geographical and linguistic borders.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 16, 2016 at 11:57 AM

  • Submitted Photos
  • A-Wa
For the last 23 years the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival has brought some of the greatest musicians in the world to Bloomington, Indiana for an unforgettable weekend of musical performance. This year’s Lotus Fest artist roster is overflowing with incredible talent, making the Lotus 2016 line-up one of the strongest yet. If you’ve never attended Lotus Fest, this year’s edition is a perfect introduction.

I spoke with four of this year’s Lotus performers to give NUVO readers a taste of what’s in store September 15-18 at this year’s Lotus Fest.

There’s something magical about the music of A-Wa that effortlessly glides across geographical and linguistic borders. A-Wa are a trio of Israeli sisters whose intoxicating blend of Yemenite folk music with electronic beats has gone viral on social media and propelled the group’s debut single “Habib Galbi” to the top of the Israeli pop charts - the first Arabic language song to earn that rank on the country’s history.

I spoke with A-Wa vocalist Tair Haim via telephone from her home in Israel.

NUVO: I read an interview where you mentioned that your parents’ collection of British psychedelic rock records was a big influence on your musical style. What else were you listening to that shaped A-Wa’s sound?

Tair Haim: We grew in small desert village in Israel called Shaharut. It felt like music chose. We just loved to sing and perform and dance. So we used to listen to music a lot and we stole our parents record collection. I remember a record of Bob Marley and we really loved reggae. We found some records like you said of psychedelic music like Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac.

We grew up around American English speakers because around our village there were people who made Aliyah from the United States. In the local youth center we heard a lot of jazz and American musicals. We fell in love with that too.

We discovered vocal harmonies at an early age from jazz vocalists and Motown artists like the Jackson Five. I would take the middle voice, Tagel would take the high voice and Liron the low one. We had this formula of singing together.

I remember when we used to go to our grandparent's in Gedera which is in the Negev [note: Negev is the Central/Southern desert region of Israel.] We used to visit them on family occasions like weddings and ceremonies. We used to hear a lot of Yemenite music on these occasions and we were surrounded by the Yemenite community. We fell in love with Yemenite music and its awesome groove. I remember hearing the sound if women drumming on a tin drum and singing in soulful voices. It was very tribal singing. It was fascinating for me being a young girl with musical ears.

So we had influence from Yemenite music, Motown, psychedelic music from the '60s and '70s, and then in our teens MTV came. It was in the '90s and we fell in love with hip-hop. So we have many influences, but the Yemenite music was maybe the biggest.

It was hard for me to find my musical identity, because I had so many influences. But when I would sing Yemenite songs I saw people reacted differently. It was like I was singing from a deeper place within myself and I was bringing something that was really coming from myself. So I had this dream to one day record a full length Yemenite record. But I didn't know I would do it with my sisters. My dream is now fulfilled, but in a better way.

When we started this project we were naturally blending the Yemenite music with all these influences from hip-hop and reggae, and we were blown away by the results. We recorded some demos and uploaded some videos to Youtube and we started receiving beautiful comments. That's how we knew we should look for a producer and start recording our debut album.

NUVO: It's my understanding that all the songs on the Habib Galbi album are built around traditional folks song. Is that correct?

Haim: Yes, it's an oral tradition that was passed down from one woman to another. It's a folklore that was created by the Jewish women in Yemen. They didn't know how to read and write. They couldn't participate in the synagogue services of men. So there music wasn't religious. They were secular folk songs they created as an outlet for their emotions. They couldn't express themselves really around men. So everything they wanted to say that was really daring or hard they just expressed through these songs. It's a very flexible material, because if one woman taught her daughter to sing these songs, the daughter might take off a part or change the melody a bit. We used to hear these songs from our grandma and we just took it to our own place and gave it our own twist. We added the vocal harmonies, which is totally a Western element. As are the productions and electronic beats. We tell the stories from our prospective and its really cool to play with.

  • Submitted Photo
  • A-Wa

NUVO: Your debut video ”Habib Galbi" has racked up over four-millions views on Youtube, are you surprised at how quickly your music has found a mass audience?

Haim: Yes, because we didn't know how people would react to this music. We shot the video near our village in Shaharut. We thought that's how we should begin our story. We can't take it for granted. It's overwhelming to receive all these beautiful things people say and how the music makes people happy in Arabic countries. Then we hear from hipsters in Europe, and even people in the States. We hoped the song would be catchy and make people feel something. Even if they look at it and think it's strange. But it's beyond our expectations.

NUVO: You mentioned the influence of hip-hop on your music. That’s interesting to me as Yemenite music played a unique role in the development of sample culture in hip-hop music. in 1987 Coldcut sampled Yemeni singer Ofra Haza for their groundbreaking remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full”.

That remix was my first exposure to Yemenite music, as I’m sure it was for many other listener’s in the U.S. and Europe. I’m curious if that record an influence for you and A-Wa?

Haim: Yes, we used to listen to Ofra Haza and we grew up listening to her music. When this Yemenite record of hers came out, we were blown away by it. We know other great Yemenite singers, but she's the most famous singer who brought this music to the world.

When we saw people remix her songs and blend them with hip-hop we felt it was very inspirational. We thought we could also do something of our own as a younger generation. Of course it's a great influence.

NUVO: Do you know how your music is being received in Yemen?

Haim: Wow, it's so funny because we can't go there. We can't perform there. It's too dangerous in Yemen for even people who are from there to be in Yemen right now. But we hear all the time that people are blown away by our music, and that families love to listen to it. Young students who left Yemen and now live in Europe come to our shows, and they say that little girls look at the video of "Habib Galbi" and look at us as role models. It's heartwarming, because thanks to social media we can spread to places that we can’t even go. It's a beautiful thing and we see it as a great gift.

It's a fantasy for us to perform in Yemen. But thank god that people can enjoy it and find comfort in it. We get a lot of beautiful comments from people saying thanks for putting our culture in the forefront and for making us happy in these hard times.

  • Submitted Photo
  • A-Wa

NUVO: You’ll be playing the Lotus Festival in Bloomington this weekend. The group Balkan Beat Box are sort of like legends at Lotus Festival. They played at Lotus a few times during their career and developed a cult audience here in Indiana through their work at the festival.

Your album Habib Galbi was produced by Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box. Why did A-Wa select Tomer to produce this project?

Haim: When we started looking for producers his name just popped into my head, because Tomer is a man of groove. We really love his music. He's also coming from a Yemenite family, so we had a feeling he would understand our love and appreciation for the Yemenite music. He's all about the blend between hip-hop and music from the Balkan countries. He even mixes some Yemenite influences.

When we contacted him through Facebook, we just hoped he would answer soon. And he did. It was amazing. We started sending him demos we had recorded. My sisters and I used to live together in the same apartment and we would record demos in the living room with our brother who is a sound engineer. We met with Tomer to decide what we wanted the album to sound like. Tomer took our music and brought it to the next level with his amazing production. He called some of the members of Balkan Beat Box and we recorded together, because at that time we didn't have our own band.

So we created this beautiful project with him. He's also the one who shot and directed the video for "Habib Galbi". It's been an amazing journey.

NUVO: You’ve established a really unique sound and direction for A-Wa with Habib Galbi. Where do you see the group heading musically in the future?

Haim: I think on the second album we want to expand our perspective and develop our sound. Everything is open at this point because we can collaborate with cool artists that we love and maybe mix English with Yemenite. The first album was like defining our sound. From here we can only grow and get better and look for other adventures.
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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Royce Campbell to play Wes tribute on Saturday

Hoosier guitarist recounts his introduction to Montgomery.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 15, 2016 at 10:17 AM

Royce Campbell - PHOTO BY BOB TRAVIS
  • Photo by Bob Travis
  • Royce Campbell

On Saturday, September 17, Indy Jazz Fest will take over the IUPUI Campus Center to stage an epic tribute to Indianapolis guitar icon Wes Montgomery. Jazz Fest organizers have assembled an extraordinary cast of nearly two dozen jazz guitar greats to participate in this day long celebration of all things Wes. 

From 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., you can hop from floor to floor on the Campus Center to participate in panel discussions on the history of Indianapolis jazz or watch some of the greatest guitarists on Earth hit the strings.

If you have any interest in jazz or the guitar, you need to be at this event, which will certainly be a musical summit of legendary proportions.

Among the many guitar greats descending on Indy for this monumental festival will be the Hoosier-born guitarist Royce Campbell. Born in Seymour, Indiana in 1952, Campbell came to prominence in the 1970s touring with music superstars from Marvin Gaye to Henry Mancini. During his time off the road, Campbell worked the Indy jazz scene, recording and performing with some of the city’s best players. And since releasing his first solo disc in 1983, Campbell has cut nearly 40 well-received jazz LPs.

I caught up with Campbell via phone from his home in Virginia.

NUVO: I have some questions for you about Wes Montgomery, but first I want to ask you about Chuck Berry. I read that Berry was the musician that inspired you to pick up a guitar.

Royce Campbell: Chuck Berry wasn't a strong musical influence, but he was the reason I took up guitar after I saw him on TV. After that I asked my mother for a guitar. The real rock and roll influences on guitar were Hendrix, Clapton and Alvin Lee.

NUVO: So how did your interest in rock and roll guitar develop into an interest in jazz?

Campbell: The interest in jazz definitely came from Wes Montgomery, which came through my uncle Carroll DeCamp (arranger and pianist). He played with Wes Montgomery. He was from Indianapolis also. Wes was not only an internationally known musician, he was also a local guy too.

The very first jazz album I ever bought was a Wes Montgomery album.

NUVO: So you learned of Wes' music through your uncle's involvement with him?

Campbell: Initially he'd made some tapes of Wes. That's the first time I ever heard Wes. I was eleven years old and I heard these tapes. These tapes are now finally going to be released. My uncle knew Wes was something special and that people needed to hear him. At the time my uncle made those tapes Wes hadn't been discovered.

At that time I didn't really understand what I was hearing, but it still somehow made an impression on me.

NUVO: What was it about Wes’ music that caught your attention at that young age?

Campbell: I think what fascinated me the most was that I didn't understand it. I knew the blues and understood the blues. But this music was beyond me and it fascinated me. I was determined to figure out what he was doing because the rock stuff I'd already figured out.

NUVO: And that determination to figure out what Wes was doing led you to a deeper connection with his work?

Campbell: Yes.

NUVO: So, do you feel like you've figured Wes’ music out yet?

Campbell: I'm still trying to figure it out. Wes is still over my head.
NUVO: I did want to ask about your own work as well, I'm a fan of many of the projects you've been part of and the records you've put out. I have your album with Affinity and the album you made with Billy Wooten as a member of The Naptown Afro-Jazz Quintet. But first I wanted to ask you about Marvin Gaye, I know you toured with him at some point. Can you tell us a little about that time of your life and how you got connected to Marvin Gaye?

Campbell: I only did a couple tours with Marvin Gaye. With Marvin I was just hired by a music contractor that booked shows. I was booked as an extra. I wasn't part of his core band. I didn't fly on the jet, I rode the on the bus with the string players. (laughs) I didn't get all the good pay either. But it was an interesting experience. It was the first time I'd played with that big of a name in the big arenas. It was very loud.

I didn't get to know Marvin Gaye really at all. I was with Henry Mancini for nineteen years and we'd hang out with him and have dinner and we really got to know Mancini.

NUVO: Do you remember what album Marvin was touring on during your time with him?

Campbell: Yeah, it was the single that was a hit while we were touring which was "Let's Get It On." It was right during that era.

NUVO: You mentioned Henry Mancini and I did want to ask you about the many years you spent touring with him. Obviously Henry Mancini is an incredible composer and an icon of American film music. I'm sure you learned a lot from working with Mancini for so long, is there anything particular that stands out in your memory?

Campbell: That's a good question. So many things flashed across my memory at once. What stands out the most I think was his influence on me as a composer. I was very prolific as a composer and made a lot of my living through composing. So I think he actually influenced me more as a composer than as a musician. Playing his compositions all the time, I began to understand how he would arrive at melody. I learned a lot about composing through playing his music.

I got connected to Mancini through Al Cobine who booked music around the region. Mancini was on a short three day tour, and at that time he was hiring through a musical contractor. He was looking for a regular, steady guitar player and he decided not to go through contractors because he'd had some problems. He had a new album out with some more contemporary stuff and he needed to make sure he had someone who could cover that, not some old fart. (laughs) At that time I was young!

We did this short three day tour and at the end of the tour he asked me to be his regular guy. It was kind of the right place at the right time kind of thing. But I also did a good enough job to impress him to ask me to be his regular guy.

NUVO: You performed and recorded with so many of the Indianapolis' great jazz musicians during the '70s and '80s. Yet you were spending all this time on the road with Mancini, how did you balance those two roles?

Campbell: One thing about touring with Mancini was that it was part time. His main thing was writing for movies, not always doing concerts. We averaged about forty concerts a year I think. So it wasn't full time and that left me time to do other things. Though I couldn't make a full time commitment to anyone else either. But I did have my own group and did stuff around town.

NUVO: Speaking of your own group, you had a jazz fusion band called Affinity. Do you remember what sort of role Affinity had in the Indy jazz scene and what sort of venues the group worked?

Campbell: This was before Affinity, but I remember in the '70s the very first place I played jazz in Indianapolis was the Hummingbird.

NUVO: Okay, most people in Indianapolis now probably know the Hummingbird as Talbott Street, which unfortunately just closed.

I actually have an old newspaper that the Hummingbird venue produced during the '70s and Affinity was listed on their upcoming events calendar.

Campbell: Oh wow, so Affinity did actually play at the Hummingbird? I wasn't sure. Affinity evolved out of another band I was in called Myriad led by a sax player named Terry Cook [Note: Terry Cook was a former member of Bloomington's legendary Screaming Gypsy Bandits.)

NUVO: How do you feel now about the work you did with Affinity. The record you made with Affinity in the 1980s Around The Town has become a desirable LP on the collector's market.

Campbell: I don't know how I feel about. I'd probably need to go back and listen again. It's been awhile. [laughs]

I recently have been listening to a number of my albums for the first time in a long time, because people put them on Youtube. That makes it easier to hop around and check them out.

NUVO: One particular record you made that I'm eager to ask you about is the 1980 LP Naptown Jazz by The Naptown Afro-Jazz Quintet. You were a member of The Naptown Afro-Jazz Quintet along with Billy Wooten, Jack Gilfoy, Steve Dokken, and Nigerian percussionist Julius Adeniyi.

This was a really unique group for Indianapolis which mixed Brazilian and African music with jazz. That 1980 Naptown Jazz album is also a highly sought after LP for record collectors around the world. Tell us about your work with The Naptown Afro-Jazz Quintet.

Campbell: Once again, you're really making me use my brain. That goes back a long time ago.

That was Jack Gilfoy's group really. I'm pretty sure he was the leader. I'm pretty sure that we primarily did school programs with that group.

NUVO: Steve Dokken mentioned that to me recently. He told me the group was basically created as an educational music tool for local schools. So you guys wouldn't have been playing the club circuit together as The Naptown Afro-Jazz Quintet?

Campbell: No.

NUVO: So the group existed solely as a music education initiative for local schools and the Naptown Jazz album was cut as a byproduct of the music you were playing during these school programs?

Campbell: That's the way I remember it.

NUVO: Finally I did want to ask you one last question related to Wes Montgomery. Being a jazz guitarist from Indianapolis, I'd guess that you're associated with Wes Montgomery whether you want to be or not. Has that association with Wes Montgomery influenced perceptions of your work?

Campbell: Well, that's an interesting question. At times it's been a bit of curse for me. There was one instance where I actually lost a chance to do a recording project because I was labeled a Wes clone by the head of this label. Mel Rhyne, who played organ with Wes, said he wanted to use me on this project and the label rejected me because they said they didn't want a Wes clone.

When I heard about that I was kind of angry because I have my own style. After that I went through a period of almost twenty years where I purposely didn't listen to Wes because I didn't want to be influenced by him too much anymore. Now I kind of regret that, because Wes is so great and I shouldn't have avoided listening to him. There's nothing wrong with being influenced by Wes.

NUVO: So how do you feel now about coming back to Indianapolis to participate in this massive tribute to Wes Montgomery that Indy Jazz Fest has put together?

Campbell: I'm really excited about. It should be a lot of fun. It will be inspiring playing with that many great guitarists.

(Editor's Note: This article was graciously boosted on social media by Indy Jazz Fest []. Indy Jazz Fest had no input on the content in this article or the decision to create it.)

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