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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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Lotus artist 2016: Palenke Soultribe's Afro-Colombian vibes

Posted By on Wed, Sep 14, 2016 at 9:42 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.

Palenke Soultribe melds traditional Afro-Colombian music with contemporary electronic sounds. I recently caught up with the group’s producer and bassist Juan Diego Borda via phone as we discussed the roots of Palenke Soultribe’s style in Colombia’s "picó" soundsystem culture.

NUVO: You have a long a history of involvement with electronic music and DJ culture, going back to around the year 2000 with your first group Polaina Dinamita. I wanted to ask you a more general question about Afro-Colombian DJ culture. We hear a lot about early DJ culture in the United States with disco, or in England with the Northern Soul DJ scene.

But the coastal region of Colombia also had a very early and very important DJ scene with the mix of Caribbean sounds and Central and West African music that led to the birth of champeta music. Could you talk about that history of DJ culture in Colombia and whether that had any influence on the music you're making? 

Juan Diego Borda: It does have a large influence on the music we make. We can't really talk in the first person about DJ culture on the Colombian coast because this goes to back to the '80s when they were bringing the records in from Africa and Europe.

I think the DJ culture really picked up with the urban development of the music, like the champeta stuff. All these people coming from the barrios and the villages put together soundsystems and put together parties in garages or empty lots. They had a very defined way of decorating these things and they called it the "picó". So this colorful and loud soundsystem with a guy playing records and mash-ups started incorporating live music. So for example, one guy would do the beats on a Casio drum pad along with the record. So there would be a mixture of records and live performance.

So from then on a lot of bands started forming around champeta music and eventually started fusing cumbia sounds from the same region and that gave birth to a new music which is the one we are enjoying now with bands like Systema Solar, Bomba Estéreo, and ourselves.

NUVO: So, the music of Palenke Soultribe came out of this tradition of the picó?

Diego Borda: Not only that, there's other influences too. One of them is this DJ culture of champeta or picó. The other is a more folkloric or rural sound from the traditional cumbia with names like Totó la Momposina, and Petrona Martínez. There's a mash-up of this old traditional cumbia which is based on African instruments and indigenous instruments. The African influence can be found in the percussion and the indigenous influence can be heard in the gaita which is kind of a long flute. That influence of the old cumbia is being combined with influence from the North in the United States, like hip-hop.

NUVO: Building on that question I wanted to ask you about the popularity of remixing traditional Colombian music. It seems like the whole range of Colombian music has provided great sample material for DJs. I think of Petrona Martinez as you mentioned, with the New York producer Uproot Andy doing fantastic remixes of her work. But we also hear remixes of gaitero music, as well as Andrés Landero and all the Colombian cumbia masters.

What do you think it is about Colombian music that is so attractive for DJs to reshape into an electronic sound? Why are so many DJs around the world gravitating toward Colombian music and remixing it?

Diego Borda: I think the rhythm itself has a contagious and trancey feel. I can relate that to the origins of cumbia to demonstrate. When you see a musician like Lucho Bermúdez, and here we are talking about the 1940s, he was probably the first to take the traditional cumbia and arrange it for big band. For the gaita he would use the clarinet. He changed things around to make it more universal and sell it to audiences. He started spreading the cumbia and for some strange reason you'll find this rhythm has a natural connection to all the people of Latin America. Judging from the reaction at our shows, a connection with the entire world.

I guess it's the simplicity, and the right tempo — it's not too fast or slow. The chromatic and harmonic changes are into the easy listening kind of field without feeling cheesy. But it's never a music that has a dissonance or talks about something extremely negative or implies something dark. Even when there's a sad song there's a sense of hope.

All those conceptual elements make cumbia very easy to rework. Also musically, because the pattern is a defined 4/4. The accents are off, but really clear. If you put that together with a four to the floor kick drum and it just works.

From there you can start experimenting and combining things. It's a combination of concept and trend as well. I think right now Colombia is enjoying a little bit of a shining moment after all of the bad situations we lived through from the '80s to the early 2000s.
NUVO: Speaking of Colombia having a shining moment, you mentioned Bomba Estéreo earlier and they've been having tremendous success globally. Bomba Estéreo had a huge Billboard charting hit with "Fiesta" which featured a guest appearance from Will Smith. How has the popularity of Bomba Estéreo and the exposure they've given Colombian music affected the work artists like you are doing?

Diego Borda: Bomba Estéreo has been successful, but some of the other bands in Colombia are doing amazing work as well. It does help that there's a name people are starting to recognize and opening doors for the rest of us.

There are so many bands that have incredible musicianship in Colombia, I think it's only a matter of time before they hit the same places Bomba Estéreo is hitting now.

NUVO: I wanted to her your thoughts on the terms "global bass"and "tropical bass". These labels have become very popular for categorizing the sort of music artists like you are making that combine electronic dance music with traditional styles and sounds.

Are you comfortable with these terms or would you prefer your music be labeled with the proper names of the rhythms and genres they're drawn from?

Diego Borda: It's difficult because we also call it "electro roots" or "nu-cumbia". It's fine for me. I think it's difficult for people who are not musicians to identify what tropical bass is. If you say to a person off the street "hey, do you want to hear a tropical bass song?" They'll be like "what?"

For people who are writers, or musicians I think they are good terms. It is tropical music and there is a lot of bass involved. Global bass is good if you talk about African or Asian music combined with modern beats. I like the term global bass. It sounds very contemporary and it matches with the era we're living in now. What's the style that defines this era? What is it? We've lived through so many styles of music and now we seem to be combining them all in new ways. So I think it's probably a good term.

NUVO: Finally, I wanted to ask about your live presentation. What sort of group will you be bringing to Bloomington for Lotus Festival?

Diego Borda: The live show is really special for us. We put a lot of effort into it. We try to express what Carnival feels like. We'll have four people with drums, percussion, bass and keyboards. We all sing. It's not a band built around one voice or instrument. Each one of us has a task within the band and that's the message we try to convey. It's about everyone. It's about our tribe. Our show is a non-stop show, which we took from our DJ days. We try to link songs together. It's the idea of on-going energy, not dropping the sound to tune the guitar. We try to create a whole experience.
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Monday, September 12, 2016

Lotus artists 2016: Alsarah's futuristic Sudanese sound

Her band the Nubatones plays Saturday at the Fest

Posted By on Mon, Sep 12, 2016 at 10:00 AM

Alsarah and The Nubatones - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Alsarah and The Nubatones

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.

Sudanese singer-songwriter Alsarah released her debut LP Aljawal in 2013. Produced in collaboration with the surrealist French beat-maker Debruit, Aljawal offered listeners an exciting audio journey into a futurist landscape of Sudanese sound.

Alsarah followed Aljawal with Silt, an earthy collection of songs focusing on traditional Sudanese sounds.

I recently caught up with Alsarah via phone to discuss her brilliantly unique approach to creating a futuristic East African sound that firmly embraces the traditions of the past.

NUVO: You moved to the United States from Khartoum at age 12. How were you able to maintain a link with Sudanese music while growing up in the U.S.?

Alsarah: At first through my parents mostly. Once Youtube came about I sort of aggressively sough it out on my own. For the first nine years in America I was mostly able to maintain my link with Sudan through the music actually. While we were going through our migration and getting our paperwork together, we couldn't leave the United States.

NUVO: I first heard about you when the album Aljawal was released in 2013. That project was a collaboration between you and the French electronic music producer Debruit. Aljawal strikes me as a very experimental exploration of Sudanese music. I’m curious how the project came together. 

Alsarah: I was always a fan of Debruit's music. In my opinion he's a really brilliant composer and producer. I just randomly reached out to him through the Internet. I had just started my project with the Nubatones and we had only recorded one song. I sent that song to him and said “I’m really interested in working with you, I think we could do something really unique together with Sudanese music.” In my head I thought maybe we would make one song — if he even called me back.

I was really happy that he actually reached out to me. He was really interested in the music and on while I was on tour in Pakistan I ended up meeting with him in Brussels on my way back to the U.S. We rented a house and banged out the project over a period of two weeks. He worked on it for another year after I left and then we put it out. It was just one of those random moments.
NUVO: I love the Aljawal album and I also love Silt, your 2014 debut LP with the Nubatones. I was a bit surprised when I first heard Silt, as the sound is far more traditional than Aljawal. Tell me about the transition in your sound between those two LPs?

Alsarah: Silt for me was really important to make. Interestingly enough I started working on it around the same time I started the Aljawal project with Debruit. They happened simultaneously but were released a year apart.

Silt was independently produced by myself, so it was kind of difficult to fund in the beginning. For me making Silt was just as important as making Aljawal. It was really important for me to establish the roots from where I come. For me, I don't see a difference between traditional music and pop or contemporary music. To me they're all extensions of the same thing. I think of music in general as a circle with all these things being different points within the circle.

Working [on] Silt was very natural. It was about setting the grounding and foundation for where I come from musically and all the things I love about that sounds. Which, for me, were the rocking parts of it, as well as the traditional sounds in it.

The album was about 50 percent original songs and 50 percent traditional songs with our own arrangements. For me it was about making an album from which I could jumpstart my own sound. Because I was working on a really local level, I never thought it would go beyond the boundaries of New York when I made it.

NUVO: You just released the first single “Ya Watan” from your upcoming album Manara with the Nubatones. Sonically, “Ya Watan” sounds like you’ve found the meeting point between the diverse sounds heard on Aljawal and Silt.

Alsarah: Like I said I made Silt so I could make the second album Manara. For me it's been about the real blending of all the different sounds in my brain. I'm a global child, I've moved around my whole life. My brain has all these sounds in it, which are all parts of my soundtrack. I actually think the synthesizers and keys we added are very retro, they're very retro synth sounds.

NUVO: In addition to your amazing solo work, you’ve also been a part of the fascinating music collective known as the Nile Project, which has brought together a diverse group of musicians from across East Africa. Tell us about your work with the Nile Project.

Alsarah: Doing the Nile Project was really exciting for me as a musician from East Africa woking in the diaspora, and living in the diaspora, and being part of the diaspora. One of the biggest challenges for me as a musician has always been getting access to other East African musicians and working with with them and having access to my own community.

A lot of the issues that Africa in general is going through, East Africa specifically, is much more than just politics. The political things are happening because of geographical reasons, cultural reasons, environmental reasons - there's a lot going on. The Nile Project as an idea was about addressing all those issues. So I was really excited to join them on the couple tours I did with them back in the day.
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Pat Martino honors Wes Montgomery

The Indy Jazz Fest artist tells the story of his friendship with the Indy great

Posted By on Tue, Sep 6, 2016 at 11:14 AM

  • Photo by Mark Sheldon
  • Pat Martino
Philly jazz guitar maestro Pat Martino cut his teeth performing with incredibly important icons of the soul jazz scene, getting booked at clubs he wasn’t even old enough to enter yet as a patron. As Martino’s career progressed, he moved beyond the soul jazz sounds of his youth to embrace a wide range of esoteric styles.

Martino’s impressive catalog of work has earned him recognition as one of the eminent jazz guitarists of his generation. Through all the stylistic transitions of Martino’s career, one consistent element has remained: The inspiration Martino has found in the life and work of Indianapolis guitar great Wes Montgomery.

Martino will spotlight his appreciation for the late Indianapolis guitarist’s work at Indy Jazz Fest’s Tribute to Wes Montgomery on Saturday, September 17 at the IUPUI Campus Center.

The guitarist's appreciation for Wes extends far beyond musical concerns. The two guitarists developed a personal friendship that permanently altered Martino’s perception of the role of an artist.

I caught up with Martino via telephone as we discussed his extraordinary career in music and his deep respect for the life and music of Wes Montgomery. 

NUVO: Mr. Martino, I know you devoted your life to music at a young age. You started recording with the great tenor sax player Willis Jackson in 1963 while you were still a teenager. Over the next couple years you recorded about half a dozen records with Jackson. How did you get started recording professionally at such a young age?

Pat Martino: I think the first movement in that evolution started with Charles Earland. Charlie was a tenor saxophonist at the high school I was going to at the time in South Philadelphia. Charlie and I became very close friends. We wound up going to Atlantic City at some point, and there used to be a place there called the Jockey Club. We went to the Jockey Club and there was Jimmy Smith and his trio with Kenny Burrell.

When Charlie heard Jimmy Smith for the first time he gave up the saxophone and devoted his life to the Hammond B-3 organ. In doing that, the next three weeks we rehearsed at a garage near where Charlie lived and we put an organ trio together. I wound up going to Buffalo, New York with Charlie and we played at a place called the Pine Grill. We were at the Pine Grill for two weeks, and during that time the Lloyd Price band came in. In Lloyd Price's big band were players like the Turrentine brothers — Stanley and Tommy, Charlie Persip was the drummer, Curtis Fuller was in the group, and Red Holloway and "Slide" Hampton — just one after another great players. Julian Priester was in the band too. It went on and on. That was the propulsion that brought me into a professional career.

When the band heard me, Lloyd Price offered me a position as guitar player. I was just a teenager at the time, but I accepted the position and wound up in New York City. I worked New York City with Lloyd Price's big band and whenever I was off I would work with Willis Jackson who I met through the same series of events. That took place at Small's Paradise, which was owned at the time by Wilt Chamberlain. During the summer, I would work Atlantic City with Willis Jackson and on all the dates off I would go back and forth between Willis and Lloyd Price's big band on the road. After that was a series of events that led to record contracts and interacting with a lot of other players.
NUVO: You've played with so many great legends of jazz, including some of my musical heroes. But there was one particular musician I wanted to ask you about that doesn’t get talked about very often. You played on a couple of her records and she played on your debut record.

Martino: Are you talking about Trudy Pitts?

NUVO: That’s right, she’s a favorite musician of mine. Can you talk about working with Trudy Pitts and what sort of person she was?

Martino: Gosh, I mean Trudy Pitts was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful person. She was an artist at the highest level and one of the great organists, to be honest with you. Along with Shirley Scott and all the other giants like Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith and so many others.

Trudy... I don't know how to begin. I worked with Trudy and Bill Carney in the earlier years of my career. I was on a couple of Trudy's albums. Eventually when I got my "leader" contract with Prestige Records I chose to have Trudy on my first album because of the rapport between us. We worked out locally in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio during those days. Trudy was just wonderful in every direction.

NUVO: That's actually the first record I heard you on, her debut album Introducing the Fabulous Trudy Pitts. I bought the album because I was fascinated by the photo of Trudy on the cover. The first track on that record was “Steppin’ in Minor” and I was just mesmerized by the sounds she was getting out of the organ. So I became interested in your work through that recording with Trudy.

I think all of your records are classics and I’m huge fan of all your work. But there was one particular album I wanted to ask you about, your 1968 LP Baiyina -The Clear Evidence (A psychedelic excursion through the magical mysteries of the Koran). You came from a soul jazz background and Prestige Records wasn’t known for making experimental records, but that was an experimental record.

Martino: I became influenced by interacting with a number of great artists. One of them was John Handy. We lived in San Francisco when I joined John Handy's group, which included Bobby Hutcherson and Albert Stinson. When I joined that band I stayed in John's house on Haight in San Francisco. Above John's was a series of apartments and one of the apartments was used by Ravi Shankar. That's how I began to become exposed to ragas from Indian music and tala systems as well. Baiyina, in 1968 was an extension of those influences. I became very interested in odd time signatures and the instrumentation with the use of tamboura and tabla rhythmically. I think that was my first expression of those influences.

At that time Leonard Feather reviewed Baiyina and gave it five stars. That was a step forward in recognition for me. Coming from Leonard it was a beautiful gift. It was the beginning of many longterm relationships in serious jazz. Especially when it came to the evolution and influences that had an effect on my future from that point forward.
The next cycle from that particular output took place somewhere around 1998, it was an album called Fire Dance. I was asked to join that project which included Zakir Hussain, one of the greatest living tabla players. It automatically brought me back to that Indian music cycle. I was really surprised and excited that it recycled itself over so many years.

RELATED: Read our interview with Zakir Hussain 

NUVO: You mentioned the tamboura and there was one particular musician on the LP I wanted to ask you about, the tamboura player Khalil Balakrishna. I believe that was his first recording in a jazz context, but he later went on to play on some important albums by Miles Davis including On The Corner and Bitches Brew. How did you get connected to Khalil Balakrishna?

Martino: Being affiliated with Prestige Records automatically gave you contact to quite a number of interactions. In many cases it was the decision and choice of the producers involved. So I'm sure that's what brought about the instrumentation and personnel that were chosen.

  • Photo by Mark Sheldon
  • Pat Martino

NUVO: You’re going to be performing for Indy Jazz Fest’s tribute to Wes Montgomery, and I did want to ask about your relationship with Wes. It’s my understanding that you first met Wes when you were fourteen and your father took you to a Montgomery Brothers’ concert.

Martino: Exactly. It was a dream come true. At that time I'd begun listening to one of the Riverside recordings of the Montgomery Brothers, which happens to be one of my favorites to this day. That particular album was called Groove Yard, and I think I must have gone through three copies of that album. I would just lift up the tone arm and place it on different cuts and again and again. I’d go back to a particular cut to copy the solo, until finally one by one those albums wore out and my dad would go out and get me another copy. 

So he finally said, "guess what? Wes Montgomery is in town. The Montgomery Brothers are in town and I want to take you over there." And he did! They were in Philadelphia at a place called Taps. They were promoting that particular album Groove Yard. I met Wes, and of course Buddy and Monk. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It began a relationship that lasted for a real long time.

NUVO: Can you talk about your friendship  with Wes? I’ve read that you had an opportunity to jam with Wes when you’d meet up with him in hotel rooms and various places between gigs. 

Martino: That's right. I don't know what to say other than the embrace and friendship that took place. It extended beyond even our personal friendship. A good example is when I was working Small's Paradise in Harlem. I was staying with Les Paul in New Jersey. I said to Les Paul, "Have you ever heard of Wes Montgomery?" Les said, "No, I never did." I said "Guess what? He's playing at Count Basie's. Why don't you come into town tonight and I'll introduce you to the greatest living jazz guitarist." Les said, "You're kidding." I said, "I'm not kidding. He's the best you'll ever hear."
So he took me up on it and I took him to Count Basie's and introduced him to Wes, and there I stood between Les and Wes. I hear Wes say to Les Paul, "Man, you're one of my favorite guitar players. I really loved Charlie Christian and you're the other one. I can't say what a pleasure it is to meet you."

Well, I had to go to work at Small's Paradise and I left. Les stayed at Count Basie's all night long. Finally when I get finished, I packed my guitar and it was after four in the morning. I walked down the street to Basie's. There was Wes and Les standing outside Basie's along with George Benson and Grant Green. We all went over to a little place down the street and had breakfast together. It was a wonderful experience that went beyond friendship. There's something about guitarists in general, that embraces each other in such a wonderful way with so much warmth. It's unusual compared to quite a number of the other instrumentalists. 

NUVO: Wes' innovative style has become such a foundational part of our modern musical vocabulary. Because of that I think it’s often easy to forget how revolutionary his sound was. Can you tell us what it was about his work that so strongly attracted you when you first heard him perform?

Martino: I think one of the greatest facets of the significance that Wes meant to me had to do with the style I was subject to at the time and my own evolution as a player. I had listened to some great players, and at that particular time I was really involved with Johnny Smith. Johnny's playing was so accurate and the tones were so pure and that’s how I was influenced by his playing as a specific artist. Then, up came Wes. Wes was totally different than Johnny. Johnny gave me precision. Wes gave me heart and soul. There were major differences between those two artists. That's what Wes was to me, heart and soul.

NUVO: You’ve recorded two albums in you career that are tributes to Wes Montgomery, The Visit! in 1972 and Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery in 2006. Can you talk about approaching his music and taking on his technical style as you perform these tributes to his work?

Martino: I think it's important to realize that when I did Remember the album itself was more on the basis of what I learned from Wes and it had very little to do with the music itself. It had a great deal to do with the influence Wes gave to me as a player. It was a reminder. It was something I thought was necessary for me to get back to after all the time I had moved away from it in between The Visit! and the later date of the release of the Remember. Both of those albums had a great deal to do with my greatest influences. I think of all the experiences I have been granted and gifted with, the greatest of them all was something that transcended the artistry of the individual involved —- and that was Wes Montgomery.

What really affected me more than anything with Wes, was the expansion of a wonderful human being that was not chained through addiction to the instrument like so many guitarists really are. You can go up to a guitarist many times, and he or she can only reflect and only embrace you through that instrument and when the instrument is placed aside and put away, there's not much personally between the two of you.
Wes Montgomery was a human being that was totally, totally energetic as a person, more than as a musician. That's something that affected me more than anything. It told me something about what was more important. It was more important for an artist to be involved with the beauty of life, the enjoyment of others, the brilliance of each and every moment no matter what the tools were within that moment. As opposed to the craft. Some are gifted as craftsmen, and some are gifted as artists. There's a difference between a craftsmen and an artist and I learned the difference through Wes.

NUVO: As I’m sure you know, Indiana Avenue was sort of an incubator for lots of up and coming young Indianapolis jazz players, including Wes Montgomery. You were touring with group like Willis Jackson’s during the 1960s. I’m curious if you can remember playing any of the jazz clubs on Indiana Avenue.

Martino: That's a valid question. It's possible, but I may be failing to remember. Gosh, I can't tell you Kyle how many things have just evaporated. There are so many things to remember, but the most important of all is now. The moment.

NUVO: So what are you listening to now that’s inspiring your work?

Martino: Wow, what am listening to now? Well, as I just said the most important moment of all is now. Therefore, I'm not so interested in my state of mind in the upcoming engagements. I'm more interested in the moment. When it comes to the moment it's hard to say what I'm going to listen to next. This morning when I took a shower, I had playing in the background Cistercian monks chanting Gregorian chant. That was just so lifting in terms of the authenticity of it and the commitment to it as a recording.

It's kind of hard to say what I'm listening to now has anything to do with jazz guitar other than the fact that it's part of what really gives me the enjoyment of life and living. Eventually that comes back to the enjoyment of the guitar which is one of the utensils I find most pleasing and of most service to my enjoyment. So, it's not like before. I remember a time when the only thing I used to listen to was guitar players. Even then, the only thing I would listen to was jazz guitar players. That's evolved in many ways. 
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Monday, August 29, 2016

Yonatan Gat's unrestrained rock and roll anarchy

... will be on display at The Hi-Fi on September 8

Posted By on Mon, Aug 29, 2016 at 9:08 AM


Israeli guitarist Yonatan Gat will bring his brilliant brand of unrestrained rock and roll anarchy to The Hi-Fi on Thursday, September 8.

Gat released his excellent debut solo LP Director on the Indianapolis-based Joyful Noise label in 2015. It was Gat’s first full length release since departing the Tel Aviv based garage punk band Monotonix.

With Monotonix Gat earned a reputation for wildly unpredictable, chaos-fueled performances. Gat’s current work maintains the raw, manic punk rock energy of Monotonix, while adding additional layers of musical complexity through the extensive use of free-form improvisation. It’s a powerful combination that Gat calls “unstoppable.”

Gat’s performance in Indianapolis earlier this year at the Fountain Square Music Festival was one of the best shows I’ve seen in 2016. Gat is an incredibly charismatic performer and an impressive innovator on the electric guitar. His upcoming show at The Hi-Fi will undoubtedly be a scorcher and I can’t recommend attending highly enough.

I spoke with Gat via phone from his current home in New York City.

NUVO: In live appearances you’ve become known for performing on the floor of the venue you’re booked in, with the audience positioned around your band in a circle. As an audience member this gesture had the effect of removing me from feeling as though I was merely a spectator, and I felt like an active participant in some sort of unfolding musical ritual.

As a musician I’m curious what you get out of performing in this style.

Yonatan Gat: I think it’s different for each project. It’s just kind of became the way I do things. In Monotonix we started playing on the floor because we had a certain objective — to shock people actually. [laughs] It’s hard for me to think about that now because I’m in such a different place. I’m much less interested in shocking people now. But I think shock has a lot of value and I think people need to be shocked out of their senses constantly. But I feel like I’ve already done that.
When Monotonix started playing on the floor we just wanted to do something very different and catch people by the balls, to get a response and make them feel something. Eventually Monotonix became like it’s own world and our interaction with the audience grew from that. For example, the way our singer Ami would take a beer from an audience member and spill it over his own head, or take a trash can from the ladies' restroom and spill it all over our drummer. That kind of came from playing on the floor, it wasn’t like the whole thing was planned. It started out as an attempt to really get in the audience’s faces, but it became something else. It became this interactive show where the band communicates with the audience in a very individual and intimate way — even when we’re playing really big shows. When I play festivals I usually set-up a little stage in the middle of the audience so people can see us all around. I don’t have to stand behind the barricades and I can really feel the audience.

That’s the point of this band. When I started this band, playing on the floor was not for shock value or for a theatrical element. I wanted to have the audience partake in the show in more of a musical sense. And because the show is completely improvised, I wanted to make it 100 percent flexible, meaning anything could happen at any moment. Thirty minutes into the show we can do something we’ve never done before and keep doing that for another thirty minutes. It’s very open like that. Being inside the audience really allows us to improvise with the audience. I can really get the response of the audience and feel what they need. We don’t try to make an experimental show, and just stare at our effects pedals. We do try to communicate with the audience. Obviously we’re not going to start playing a Britney Spears songs just to try to impress people. But we’re there with the audience and we try to build some sort of community vibe with them.

There’s a certain play between us and the audience that I think makes the feeling you had at our show very true. You are a part of the music. You are a part of what you called the “ritual.” Just by being there and the energy you give, you can actually affect what happens next. There’s no set list and nothing is pre-designed. It’s all about adjusting to that moment.

NUVO: I think audiences have an unusually strong response to your live show. There’s a wild energy in the air when you perform. When you appeared at the Fountain Square Music Fest earlier this year, I saw friends of mine who would never listen to experimental forms of music become completely engrossed in your concert. At the risk of sounding cheesy, there was an almost shamanic quality to your performance that night.

I’m very interested in the rituals of Santería, candomblé and voodoo where performers transmit powerful supernatural messages purely through music. I’m curious how you view this. Do you think of yourself as a punk musician slashing your guitar in some primal expression, or do you feel your music is evoking these deep supernatural messages?

Yonatan Gat: Of course it is. Music is one of the deepest things you can have. Music existed before language. Music basically is the source of everything. Music can really tap into some of the primal experiences of being human. That’s actually one of the greatest things about punk music. You asked if I’m a punk musician just thrashing on the guitar, or if I think about music in a deeper way — and I think it’s both. I think punk music’s biggest contribution to the history of music is that it brought back this idea of getting lost inside your music. The jazz people had that, but then they forgot it. Around the ‘70s when there were all those progressive bands in rock music and everything was very self-conscious - actually it’s not that different from now. The punk rockers went back to that feeling of losing yourself in music, to kind of transcend language and ideas and get connected to this primal energy. I think that’s a lot of my attraction to punk music.

When I think about music as a ritual, I think every performance is ritual in a way. I like that people call it a ritual, and I agree. It feels like that to me.
But I like your question, and a lot people when they talk about our shows having a ritualistic element compare it to voodoo music or shamanistic music. For me one thing that sets our music apart from that idea, is that voodoo or shamanistic music is very repetitive. If you listen to voodoo music with all the Haitian drums it tends to have a very repetitive element. But our music is the opposite of that. So why do you think people make that connection?

NUVO: Perhaps because in the United States we are surrounded by Santería, it’s found across Latin America, the Caribbean and also internally within the U.S. I think that’s the most common example we have of relating to a form of music that’s used for communication with the supernatural.

Yonatan Gat: Interesting.

NUVO: I want to ask about your approach to playing guitar. As you implied, a lot of contemporary rock music has become very self-conscious and in my opinion quite boring. You’re one of the first guitarist I’ve heard in ages that has reignited my excitement for the instrument and made me believe that there are new possibilities for the guitar.

Clearly you have a unique style of playing guitar. I wondered if you feel you’ve developed this style independently, or if you feel there are particular guitarists who’ve influenced your approach to the instrument?

Yonatan Gat: I think it’s both, and more. There are a lot of guitarists I like that are less typical. When people ask me this question I think maybe they expect me to say Jimi Hendrix. Of course I love Jimi Hendrix, it’s sort of impossible to not be influenced by Jimi Hendrix as a guitarist. So me saying Jimi Hendrix is not interesting in a way. When it comes to Western guitarists I really like Syd Barrett and on the other hand I also like Robert Fripp, especially his work on the David Bowie records. I think Fripp’s experiments with Eno really pushed the guitar forward in an ambitious and interesting way. But I really appreciate Syd Barrett for the incredible touch that he has on the instrument. I think it’s completely unique and I was always drawn to guitarists like that.
So many things have been done already on the guitar, so it seems like it’s very hard to do something new in a way. But in a way it actually isn’t because all the groundwork has been laid before you. I think you can get insane ideas if you just open your ears and go a little bit beyond Western music, and go a little bit beyond rock and roll recorded between 1955 and 1975 — which most musicians refuse to do.

The guitarists I listen to are West African guitarists. One of my favorites… I don’t really know his name unfortunately, which is embarrassing. But he plays in this band called Orchestra Baobab.

NUVO: Oh, wow! You’re talking about Barthélemy Attisso. He’s one of my guitar idols. He’s from Togo and he traveled to Dakar, Senegal in the 1960s to study law where he joined Orchestra Baobab.

Yonatan Gat: Yes, he’s one of my favorite guitarists and I’m glad you know him. If you listen to his guitar playing, which is very influenced by Cuban music, you just get this insane amount of new ideas.

Even if you listen to a really famous guitarist like Django Reinhardt, which everybody in the West knows. You can take his ideas Not in the sense of studying him or mimicking his style as so many people do. Django completely dominates jazz guitar. He became not only a name, but a whole style of music. But if you listen to his approach to music, then of course you can do new things in rock and roll.

People are obsessed with celebrating a certain style of music, from a certain set of years, from a very particular part of the world called the U.S. and England. I think there’s much more music than that. I think if what I do sounds new and refreshing, a lot of it comes from my curiosity about many styles of music from everywhere in the world.

One more thing I want to say in that context is to talk about improvisation. We talked about how in the 1970s punk was an important thing to release rock and roll from its own ass. I hope maybe this combination of incorporating styles from outside the U.S. and England will lead to a new music. But it’s tricky talking about these things, because I don’t want to encourage people to go out and start an afrobeat band tomorrow if they don’t come from that part of the world and don’t understand that music.
I’m not saying you need to listen to Fela Kuti and imitate his music. But you can take his approach and implement that to your own music and that would immediately make your own music ten times more interesting. I think the place where a lot of bands fall is when they listen to a certain kind of music and than imitate the style. What can be imitated, without any danger of becoming an imitator, is approach. Fela Kuti had his own approach to music. Orchestra Baobab had their own approach to music. Jazz improvisers like Miles Davis had a completely unique approach to music. We don’t need to steal that, but we can use that to open our own minds.

Maybe the same way punk rock saved rock and roll from its own ass in the 1970s, maybe taking in those influences and approaches from different musicians, from different times, from different parts of the world — 

And maybe improvisation too! I think rock and roll is a perfect music for improvising. It doesn’t have to be jam bands playing twelve bar blues. There’s so much more to improvisation. The beauty of improvisation in jazz in the old days was the energy. It was the most insane energetic music. Going to a big band show in the 1920s was like going to a punk show at CBGB’s in 1976. Over time the music became very academic. I think improvisation, with the energy of a music like punk, is unstoppable. There will always be something new to say, especially if you are opening your mind to influences from wherever you can get them.

Our time on this planet is short and there is so much music. We only have to open our minds immediately. Then maybe people would stop voting for Trump.

NUVO: On the subject of guitar influences, I wanted to ask you about a Greek guitarist who became very popular in Israel.

Yonatan Gat: Are you going to ask me about Aris San?

NUVO: Yes! Has he been an influence on your work?

Yonatan Gat: [laughs] Haha, nice! Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’ve actually been rediscovering Aris San lately. In the last year I bought an Aris San vinyl on Ebay. The album wasn’t that good, but as a guitarist he’s amazing.

I think about this a lot: Aris San’s influence in Israel was massive, even though he was ostracized and had to leave the country at some point. There’s a documentary about him on Youtube. I think it has English subtitles - but if not, you’re screwed. It tells his life story and his story is insane. He emigrated to Israel and he became very successful because no-one could play guitar like him in Israel. Something really interesting happened to him, and I think this is something that happens to immigrants when they become very successful in a new country. The country just spits them out.

We saw the same thing with Charlie Chaplin in the U.S. This guy moves to America from England, and becomes huge. He was a genius director, he acted in the films and scored them. He had an amazing method of working, it was very improvisational. I get very inspired by people like him. He would shoot with no scripts. His script may have two lines and everything else just happened on set. I think that’s where the potency of his films comes from. Anyway, he becomes this gigantic American icon and in the 1950s they accuse him of Communism and he has to flee back to England at some point, humiliated with his tail between his legs. Spat out of the country where he helped popularize the cinema so much.

The same thing kind of happened to Aris San in Israel. He came to Israel and became huge. Then at some point, he did this weird thing. He started incorporating Arabic influences into his music. Which is of course something I do to, because I come from that part of the world. For me it makes a lot of sense to play those Arabic scales. It makes a lot of sense to have Arabic elements because I come from there. It’s not something I would recommend other guitarists to do because it needs to be in you.You can’t play something just because you like it. It’s not that simple.

But Aris San did that, and it was very groundbreaking during the late ‘60s and early ’70s. At that time nobody did that. Israel was a much more racist place than it is now. And people just thought he was insane. But for him, he was a stellar musician and it was the next logical way to go. He’s in Israel surrounded by the Arabic countries of the Middle East. Why not bring an oud in? Why not bring the Arabic scales and atmosphere?

But people really freaked out. People started calling him a spy, an Egyptian spy or Syrian spy. People were saying he had a camera on the headstock of his guitar and he had to leave the country after being the most successful guitarist. It’s a really interesting story and I could talk about it for a long time.

But I think what he brought to Israeli culture was an appreciation for Greek guitar playing. That bouzouki style all comes from Turkish music and back to Arabic music. He really popularized that style in Israel. Now every Israeli guitarist can be influenced by that. So much of Israeli pop music has those elements in them.

So even if you don’t grow up listening to Aris San in Israel, his influence is completely inside you. He just completely reshaped music in Israel. He is an incredible guitarist, for sure one of the best guitarists to come out of Israel. He changed music forever and a lot of the change was incorporating those Greek, Turkish, Mediterranean, even Middle Eastern influences into the guitar sound of Israeli music.

That exists in my playing whether I like Aris San or not. But in the last year I’ve been on an Aris San kick and I’ve been really enjoying him. He’s a super creative guitar player. Getting into his music is a really good idea. There are great videos of him on Youtube where you can watch him go, and he shreds.

NUVO: Were there any other musicians or records coming out of Israel that were important for you?

Yonatan Gat: I don’t know. Israel is a very problematic place. It’s a very young country. It’s been around way less than a century and I don’t think it has really developed its own identity in music yet. I think part of the problem for Israel culturally is that it’s still looking out to the West for inspiration instead of trying to finds its own voice. That’s a problem in general for musicians around the world. That’s part of what I’ve been complaining about with rock and roll bands. They’re not trying to find their own voice, they’re trying to glorify the 1970s or something like that.

A lot of bands in Israel are trying to sound like American or European bands. Or on the other hand, they’re going for that cheap shot of being an ethnic-whatever band - which is something I’m not that interested in. It’s definitely not organic to bill yourself as some ethnic world music band. You can call all music world music, and all music is ethnic music. I have a lot of problem with that.

So music in Israel has not been an inspiration to me in the way that I sit home and listen to a lot of Israeli records - outside of a really great Mediterranean-Israeli singer named Zohar Argov. He’s really good. There are some great songwriters and some great musicians, but not as many as I would want to see. Of course there is Aris San. But I think the future might be better.
I think the influence for me is just being from there and absorbing the musical culture, whether I wanted to or not. That makes me a different guitar player than any American guitar player because I have this completely different cultural background. Even if I just wanted to make rock and roll. When I was young I listened mostly rock and roll. But slowly over the years you kind of understand that the music you make is a combination of what you want to make, and what you are.

NUVO: You mentioned Syd Barrett earlier. Continuing with this idea of Israel developing a distinct identity in rock and roll, I wanted to ask you about a band from Tel Aviv called The Churchills. They made a very interesting self-titled LP in 1968 that combined traditional Israeli music motifs with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd psychedelic rock. Do you feel like this Churchills’ album is a valid expression of an Israeli-born style of rock and roll?

Yonatan Gat: Interesting. Yes, it’s valid enough. It’s considered a legendary record amongst psychedelic collectors. You happen to know all these things — but Aris San and The Churchills are rare things in Israel. You’re not going to find a lot of examples of this kind of music in Israel.

I heard that record a few times. It doesn’t sound like the most unique piece of music I’ve ever heard. I like it, but I don’t feel like it adds anything to my musical world at the moment. ...

Of course it’s valid and I think it’s a beautiful record in a way. There are a lot of interesting things about it. But in the future I would expect more from Israeli bands - and from bands in general. But yes, it’s an interesting record and I should get into it again. I don’t want to say too much about it without listening to it again more recently. I already said a lot.

From the way I remember it, it sounds like a band that was looking outside of Israel. But that band actually ended up playing on very weird Israeli records by this famous singer named Arik Einstein. In the later ‘60s they became his backing band. They made very interesting music together, but it still suffered a bit by trying to imitate The Beatles and whatever was fashionable at the time. But it still had some kind of Israeli flavor.

I think it would be very interesting for somebody to curate some sort of Israeli rock comp, because I think we definitely have enough stuff for at lest one very interesting compilation. But other than that, I think the future is where we want to be looking when it comes to Israeli music.

NUVO: Finally, speaking of the future. You’re signed with the Indianapolis record label Joyful Noise. Do you have any upcoming projects with Joyful Noise that you’d like to share with our readers?

Yonatan Gat: We’re working on our next record. It’s been two years of that. I started working on the record as soon as we finished Director. It’s a bit of a different project. It’s been an insane two year process where we keep going back into the studio recording more stuff and doing crazy editing experiments. I think it’s going to be very special. It’s definitely not going to be rehashing what we did on our last record. But I think it will have a lot of what’s good about that record. I think our next LP will be something that people who like our music can really look forward to and I’m definitely interested in hearing people’s reactions to it. We also have a love DVD coming out soon. A lot of the DVD was shot at our Fountain Square show.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rehema McNeil on Moko, or "Womanhood"

A chat with the emcee before Chreece

Posted By on Thu, Aug 25, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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Rehema McNeil unapologetically identifies as a "conscious" rapper, but she's not afraid to pair her thoughtful lyrics with club-friendly beats. She follows up her 2015 debut EP Davu with a new project, a five-song EP titled Moko. The release finds Rehema hitting an impressive stride as an emcee, and her mix of conscious lyrics and dance floor-ready tracks creates a winning combination that appeals to a wide berth of listener tastes. 

I rank Moko as one of the best local releases of 2016 thus far and I strongly recommend catching Rehema's 10:30 White Rabbit performance Saturday night at Chreece.

RELATED: Davu, reviewed 

NUVO: In your notes for the release, I read that the word "moko" means "womanhood" in the Polynesian language of Tonga. Why did you choose that word to represent this project? 

Rehema McNeil: Overall, I wanted to reflect my upbringing. My father introduced the word "moko" to me years ago and I thought it sounded cool and clean. I felt it was fitting for this project because I have become a woman since the release of Davu.

NUVO: When we spoke last year I remember you telling me that Davu was essentially your first attempt at rapping, that you came from more of a spoken word background. Listening to Moko, it sounds like you've really found your voice as an MC.

McNeil: I'm still finding my voice. There's so much to learn, and the more you learn the more you realize that there's so much more that you don't know. It's a continuous journey and I'm looking forward to learning what's next. So I try to stay open to grow as a person and artist.

NUVO: On Davu your lyrics addressed themes relating to social justice. For example, your piece "Terrorist" commented on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots in Oklahoma. Are there similar themes in your lyrics for Moko?

McNeil: It's a bit more personal this time around. I've been going through a lot of things, both good and bad. Those challenges helped to create character. So I wanted to write about it to release it. "Black Widow" speaks about beauty and identity and relationships. 

On "False" I wanted to do a song based off Greek mythology. It tells a story about how hip-hop has become like gospel now for many people. People follow and adhere to the lyrics of the mainstream rappers and it changes their lifestyles. I didn't want to call the song "False Gods" because I didn't want it to be too preachy. So I called it "False" because I don't really agree with a lot of the things being told within music today. 

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NUVO: So you think the language of popular contemporary hip-hop is having a negative influence on young people? 

McNeil: Yes, I would say so.

NUVO: You think it's contributing to violent or misogynistic attitudes? 

McNeil: I love hip-hop and I think it's a beautiful art. As individuals every choice we make is our own. We can't blame media; we are only influenced and from there we make our own choices. I feel like whatever you expose yourself to repetitively, that is what you become over time. I'll leave it at that. 

RELATED: Rehema at Chreece in 2015

NUVO: Womanhood is a central theme on Moko. On that topic I'd like to ask about your role as one of the few women emcees working the Indianapolis hip-hop scene. The rap scene here is very male-dominated. Do you have any thoughts on that?

McNeil: I have mixed emotions about it honestly. Part of it is an opportunity, because there aren't that many female emcees in the city that are dominating, so I have an open path to dominate and control the scene and saturate it with my music. But also I feel like I'm overlooked in certain areas, like getting booked for shows. I do get booked for more shows now, but that's more because of my personal connections. It's progressing, but it's slow like baby steps. At the same time I believe in creating my own doors and creating a buzz that is so broad and saturated within social media that people can't ignore it.

NUVO: Do you get a sense of whether there's more opportunities opening up for other women to follow your path?

McNeil: I would say yes. I hear women when I get offstage say, "Oh my god that was amazing. You were the only woman up there and you really represented!" That makes me feel good and I feel like it inspires other women to know that just because there aren't any women onstage you can still get up and do it.

NUVO: I want to get your thoughts on "Black Widow," which has a heavier club sound than any other work you've created thus far.

McNeil: I love to dance. I wanted to make a song that would make people get up off their seats and dance, and I feel like we achieved that. That song tells different stories. One of them is about being compared to another woman in a relationship and how that made me feel emotions of pain and disappointment, but ultimately helped me realize my self-worth, which is a beautiful thing. Then the song talks about identity and how the media paints a picture for little girls and young women to grow up to. I feel like every woman is beautiful, and there's not just one form for beauty. It's an anthem for confidence and finding your self-worth. 

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