Nobody Listens to…Movits!

This is a difficult post to write.  It’s not for lack of things to say about Movits, but just because it’s hard to type while dancing and pretending to rap in Swedish.  But I’ll give it a try.

Movits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I first discovered Movits back in the first few months of 2010 while researching artists for jazz installment that I hosted on a college radio station with my friend Jon.  In our diligent and highly scientific combing of the web for new bands from around the world (we managed to get our show coded as “world music” and each week played artists from all over the world in a given genre), Jon happened upon the music video for the Movits single “Fel del av Gården” and fell over himself listing all of the reasons we needed to play it on our show.  I’ve been a fan of Movits ever since.

Movits hails from Luleå, a port city in Northern Sweden that is also home to the winningest professional basketball team in the country (and, based on this video by Movits-affiliated artist Zacke, looks like the American Midwest in movies and TV depictions of the 1960s).  According to the band’s bio, after hearing the big-band jazz classic “Sing Sing Sing” at a party, brothers Anders and Johan Rensfeldt were inspired to blend jazz and swing with hip-hop and rap, creating an exciting sound that has carried them from Luleå all over the world.

After recruiting saxophonist Joakim Nilsson to round out a trio, the young Movits spent three years live-tracking their debut album, 2008’s Äppelknyckarjazz.  Coming from an acoustic background, the group had decided to avoid the use of samples, and such pieced together Äppelknyckarjazz with a full cast of musicians.  The result is an album that is bouncy, groovy, and much more melodic than the run-of-the-mill rap album.  Suddenly the swung backbeat has become the track over which Johan Rensfeldt’s rapped lines flow effortlessly, functioning almost as another instrument in the mix.  From the swaying jazz comp of “A-kasseblues” to the up-tempo single “Fel del av Gården” to the accordion-and-brass-driven closer “Vals på Vinkelgränd”, Äppelknyckarjazz surely captures the exact vibe that the Rensfeldt brothers experienced dancing to swing records at that pivotal get-together.

By some stroke of luck, Stephen Colbert caught a listen of “Fel del av Gården” and invited Movits to perform on his show in July 2009.  The day after their performance, sales of Äppelknyckarjazz skyrocketed on Amazon.com, and a worldwide tour was set into motion.  Armed with the slogan “They say that hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but the Bronx was born in Sweden”, Movits embarked on a series of shows across the U.S., including dates at South by Southwest in March of 2010.

2011 saw the release of Movits’ second full-length, Ut ur min Skalle, a more sample-driven (the band swore off live-tracking every arrangement after the labor of love that Äppelknyckarjazz became), but nonetheless highly original, work continuing to propagate Movits’ hip-hop/swing hybrid sound.  Ut ur min Skalle features much more drum machine and analog synth than the live drums and accordion of Äppelknyckarjazz, but rather than taking life from the record new possibilities are opened.  String-sounds appear, and the drum machines blend with horn patches and analaog effects to produce a sound that still hearkens back to a different era of music.  Bombastic horn arrangements and a driving kick drum power the track “Nah Nah Nah”, keys and a screaming sax solo from Nilsson lead the single “Sammy Davis Jr.”, and a synth-string pad forms the basis for the “love song” “Skjut mig i Huvet” (translated: Shoot me in the Head).  Some elements from the earlier release remain: Nilsson continues to throw in tasteful sax solos behind, underneath, and over Johan Rensfeldt’s vocals, and guest appearances by fellow Swedish rappers such as Timbuktu and Zacke further flesh out the album.


I’m not sure there is a band who reflects their sound as well in their appearance as Movits.  The group never appears on stage without their matching tuxedos and basketball shoes, and their music videos almost universally feature beautiful swedes dancing frantically to the swing tracks Movits has converted into hip-hop tunes.  Videos like the clip for “Sammy Davis Jr.” even reflect the changes made to the new album as a clinical, almost retro-futuristic visual backs up the bounce of the synth organ; even the transition from live instruments to samples is played with in the clip as live musicians are “programmed” into electronic instruments.

I have had the good fortune of seeing Movits perform live three times, each besting its predecessor.  I first watched the band sweat through a performance on the back patio of a pizza restaurant in Austin during South by Southwest 2010.  The afternoon show was free, and broken up by pizza breaks for all involved, and the band hawking what little merchandise they were able to bring.  I walked away from that show with a physical copy of Äppelknyckarjazz I spent too much on and a confirmed love of the band’s music.  My excitement about the group hit a high point last September at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.  Two showcase concerts by my favorite Swedish rap crew had been booked in the town where I attended college.  I went to both of Movits’ shows that weeked, and each time emerged sweaty and hoarse.  The energy and excitement that permeates both of the group’s albums is very much alive and well in their live show.  Even notwithstanding live freestyles and a more horn-heavy arrangement of the Zacke tune “Spela Mig På Radion” (alright, I’ll have to dedicate a separate entry here to him as well), the performances at this past Lotus Festival were among the best live shows I’ve ever seen.

Movits is currently on tour in Europe continuing to support Ut ur min Skalle.  For those of us not on their current tour route, both albums are available at various online retailers, a number of great music videos and live clips can be found on youtube (or linked throughout this post), and anything I neglected to talk about can be consumed at movits.se.  Despite their brushes with U.S. exposure on The Colbert Report and through two nationwide tours, not many people are listening to Movits right now.  In my opinion, the hypnotic blend of swing and hip-hop that forces the casual listener to move at least a little and the devoted fan to jump and jive uncontrollably deserves some more play.

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Nobody Listens to…La Vela Puerca

As I wrestle with my proposal for a Fulbright grant (yes, I am applying for a Fulbright-MTVU Fellowship), I’m feeling the need to return a bit to my roots.  Over my career in college, I became more and more interested in South America and its contemporary music.  This was reflected in my major (Ethnomusicology), my minor (Spanish), and the certificate program I completed (Caribbean and Latin American Studies).  At some point during my studies, I realized that there is a great deal of really incredible ska music coming out of Argentina and Uruguay, and one of the greatest exponents of this movement is an Uruguayan band called La Vela Puerca.  As such, while I consider working my Fulbright proposal to get me to Uruguay, it seems appropriate that I write a bit about a band there that I love and would ideally (may very soon?) be studying with.

la vela puerca

I discovered La Vela Puerca completely by accident.  I had been searching or clips by an Argentine progressive rock group from the 70s (I still haven’t heard anything of theirs…has anyone heard Contraluz?), and landed instead on songs from La Vela Puerca’s 2004 album A Contraluz.  I fell in love instantly.  The songs on A Contraluz range widely from pop to punk to ska to folk, but all are anthemic and catchy.

In every song by the Uruguayan outfit I’ve heard, the band members have done an impeccable job orchestrating fascinating and inventive melodies and harmonies.  La Vela Puerca seems to work largely by a rule of pairs: two singers harmonize on every song, two horn players blend their arrangements behind the wall of electric sound that most tracks feature, and two guitarists trade duties with chords and lead lines.  The resulting effect is a surprisingly sophisticated ska-punk sound that is much more sonically dense than one might expect, and every listen gives the listener a new melodic or harmonic line to follow through the songs.  Add to this occasional touches of strings, pianos, and harmonica on the group’s more recent albums and La Vela Puerca is playing a style of music that retains the excitement and exuberance of punk while very much avoiding sounding immature or sophomoric.

La Vela Puerca formed in Montevideo in December 1995 after some loose jam sessions outside a bar.  Lead singer Sebastián Teysera entered an early demo into a contest without his bandmates’ knowledge, and by the time the Concurso Generación 96 contest had named La Vela Puerca as finalists, the friends from Montevideo were a legitimate band.  The contest prize led to eighty hours of prepaid studio time, giving the “banda nacional que descansa en un reggae, sueña insumisión y se enchufa en ska” a foundation for their debut album.

Since Deskarado’s release in 1998 and re-release as a self-titled debut the next year, La Vela Puerca have recorded and released four more studio albums and one live disc, 2009’s Normalmente Anormal.  With each record, the band sounds more polished and tight.  The soaring melodies of A Contraluz that first introduced me to the group are very much still present on their latest, 2011’s Piel y Hueso.  The group’s discography boasts an impressive cast of producers, including Academy Award-Winning composer Gustavo Santoalalla and Uruguayan guitarist and composer Juan Campodónico, both of Argentine-Uruguayan Tango fusion band Bajofondo (They’ll get a separate entry here later).

On A Contraluz acoustic songs began appearing more often, most notably with the band’s chosen anthem, “Zafar”.  The song’s name is a Buenos Aires-area slang term used by musicians to describe leaving the establishment, and the upstroke bounce of “Zafar” paints the listener a picture of the urban life Teysera is a part of, but doesn’t necessarily love.  Many of the songs on A Contraluz in fact relate a similar sentiment, expressing simultaneous love and discomfort for the group’s situation as a successful rock group in the Montevideo-Buenos Aires metropolitan area.  It’s not quite as though the band is conflicted about their place in society, but that they feel they are in two places at once.

This duality is almost the given theme of the group’s newest release, Piel y Hueso.  Translated the title means “Skin and Bone”, a reference to both the lyrical content of the album and to its musical makeup.  Piel y Hueso is a two-disc set, the first being a full electric album paired with a six-song acoustic EP on the second.  This approach, similar in some ways to the American group Foo Fighters’ 2005 double-album In Your Honor, allows the group to focus on their down-tempo and acoustic songs without the stigma of having them categorized as ballads or filler tracks on an otherwise electric rock album.  The first disc of Piel y Hueso is very much what is expected leaving off from the upbeat rock and ska of A Contraluz and 2007’s El Impulso, albeit with the horn section mixed a bit less sharp in the rockier songs.  The second disc is an entirely different story, with songs such as “Sólo un Paredón” and “Hoy” developing into sweeping orchestral arrangements featuring choruses.  The album doesn’t feel terribly cohesive as a whole, and is clearly not an even split, as the first disc features twice as many tracks as the second.  Within each segment of the album, however, the pieces fit together seamlessly, one of the group’s trademark inventive melodic hooks trailing off into the next.

Piel y Hueso La Vela Puerca is still very much a live band, and is actually currently gearing up for two big release shows for Piel y Hueso, one each in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.  These release concerts will kick off a tour that immediately moves to Europe to tour with German group Die Ärzte.  Information about the tour, as well as complete liner notes and lyrics for each of La Vela Puerca’s albums can be found at velapuerca.com.  The band also has a Twitter account, @LaVelaPuerca_.  In any case, the undeniably talented musicians and songwriters of La Vela Puerca are continuing to write, record, and perform, as well as expanding the scope of their stylistic influence.  Many of La Vela Puerca’s songs, especially from A Contraluz, strike me as contagious and instantly brighten my mood. Nobody is listening to La Vela Puerca right now, but the Uruguayan band’s well-written melodies and appealing mix of pop, punk, and ska make them a band that impels the listener to move and dance, and always leaves me smiling.

Nobody Listens to…The Dusty Foot Philosopher

The Dusty Foot Philospher

As a tribute to all of the nice Somalis that I met today at the Minneapolis airport, this week’s post is all about Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan.  Full disclosure: I didn’t really talk all that much to many people during my layover this afternoon, and I guess I can’t really say for sure that everyone I wanted to imagine was Somalian actually was.  I do know, however, that Minneapolis has a significant Somali immigrant/refugee population, and that in and of itself is reason enough for me to write about K’naan this week.

Really, just the fact that I like his music is reason enough.

K’naan is the stage name of Keinan Warsame, a Somalian refugee based out of Toronto.  As of late, K’naan is enjoying some recognition as a result of cameos on a number of mainstream rappers’ albums and mixtapes, as well as the use of his song “Waving Flag” as the official tune of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  The version distributed widely for the World Cup was a remix of the single that appeared on K’naan’s third album, Troubadour, and is in my opinion far inferior.  As an introduction to the artist’s work, the will.i.am-produced “Celebration Mix” of “Waving Flag” doesn’t really do K’naan justice.

Backtracking, therefore, a step from the World Cup is TroubadourTroubadour was released in February 2009 to moderate success, and was my first experience with K’naan.  Troubadour is really a very good hip-hop album that blends K’naan’s eye-opening personal experiences with an easily accessible flow over samples of Ethiopian jazz and guest appearances from artists as diverse as Mos Def and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.  Troubadour is surely deserving of more press, but with this article I intend to focus on K’naan’s sophomore album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher.

It was over a year after I bought Troubadour before I heard K’naan’s 2005 album The Dusty Foot Philosopher.  I don’t know all of the reasons for it, but The Dusty Foot Philosopher feels much more real than Troubadour – the earlier LP is rawer, grittier, angrier.  With the tracks I had heard before the rapper spoke of the shockingly desperate times he had been through both in Somalia and in the diaspora, but for whatever reason I feel that The Dusty Foot Philosopher has a greater degree of emotional resonance.  Whether it is because he is four years less removed from some of the events he describes or because of other personal reasons, The Dusty Foot Philosopher takes the listener to a very different place.

One difference between Troubadour and The Dusty Foot Philosopher right at the outset is the production.  K’naan collaborated with the producing duo Track & Field on both albums, but the tracks on The Dusty Foot Philosopher take a very different vibe.  These songs are simultaneously heavily influenced by a harder brand of rap and more traditional East African musical elements.  The lead single “Soobax” features a sample of women ululating, and tracks like “Hoobale”, “The African Way” and “Until the Lion Learns to Speak” sample East African instrumental pieces.  These stand in contrast to the more mainstream rap-sounding track behind “Boxing My Shadow” and “Smile” and the Ethiopian jazz sample of the album’s title track.  Each song has a distinct sound, and the album boasts a wide range of key tonalities and tempos, but something about The Dusty Foot Philosopher is unmistakably African.  Added to the musical compositions are the fact that the rapper’s Somali accent is more present in several tracks and that he delivers significantly more verses in Somali than in his later work.  From the opening sound effects of people at a river in “Wash it Down”, the Western listener is transported from their own perspective into the world of K’naan’s life.  The music behind K’naan’s lyrics does a great deal to bring to life the child soldiers, starving beggars, and corrupt politicians that the artist speaks about.

As I mentioned above, something about The Dusty Foot Philosopher is more personal and emotive than some of K’naan’s more recent work.  There’s more than a tinge of anger on several of the tracks, which is absent on Troubadour.  The earlier album simply has a little more of an attitude, which really only adds to the emotional appeal of the stories K’naan tells and the complaints he lodges about life as an immigrant struggling to become a musician.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t joyful moments on the album, however; something about the song “In the Beginning” gives the listener the nameless warm feeling that leads people to jump or shout for joy.  It is telling, however, that “In the Beginning” is preceded immediately by “Strugglin’”, on which the rapper intones “Believe me, I know struggle, and struggle knows me”.

K'naan

The Dusty Foot Philosopher is a brilliant album because it doesn’t hold anything back.  K’naan lays his past, present, and future all into the track, and betrays his fears and anxieties along with his ambitions and boasts.  The songs are frequently socially or politically conscious, but are all deeply personal.  The fact that this work is lesser known than 2009’s Troubadour is my justification for devoting an entire post to just this chapter of K’naan’s discography.  Nobody is listening to The Dusty Foot Philosopher right now, but the high quality of lyricism, emotional appeal, and indexing of African-ness (non-ethnomusicologists can just nod their heads and indulge me with that one) earn it a rediscovery.  Whether the listener knows K’naan for “Waving Flag”, for his recent humanitarian work, or for being written about on Nobody Listens to This, taking a look back at K’naan’s The Dusty Foot Philosopher is a transcendent listening experience.

Nobody Listens to…Makali

*This is the second installment of my new blog “Nobody Listens to This”. You can find last week’s by clicking here, or by simply scrolling down on the page.

De La Chansn et Puis C'est Tout

My knowledge of the French chanson group Makali begins almost four years ago on a dreary Saturday morning.  I was a freshman in college and had lazily woken up to a cold, grey Indiana weekend (full disclosure: it may not have even been “morning” by this point).  Per residence hall rules I didn’t have the luxury of toasting my pop tarts in my own room, so I walked down the hall to use my dorm’s communal toaster.  While preparing my highly nutritional breakfast, I decided to surf the channels on the university’s cable set-up.  I landed on TV5 Monde, the worldwide version of a French station.

As I sat in the Foster Quad lounge eating pop tarts and watching TV, a program called TV5 Acoustic started, and an in-studio performance by Makali started.  I was instantly taken.  I rushed back downstairs to my room and read everything I could about the group online.  By the end of the week I had ordered their CD from Amazon.com.

Makali is a six-piece band from southern France who could best be described as falling within the genre of chanson, a sort of French folk music characterized by lyric-driven melodies that reflect the French language (most other modern French pop music follows English-language speech rhythms).  Makali itself began in 2003 as a trio comprised of vocalists Armelle Ita and Barnabé Saïd-albert and guitarist Andrea Papi.  After the group began performing live cellist Audrey Saturi, bassist Cleps Puig, and drummer Nico Rew joined the lineup to fill out the band, with Ita also adding clarinet lines and Saïd-albert playing rhythm guitar behind Papi’s electric lead.

Makali’s first significant exposure came from the use of their song “Il Faut du Temps au Temps” in the soundtrack to Ridley Scott’s 2006 film “A Good Year”.  Makali continuing touring and performing throughout France and released their debut albumDe La Chanson et Puis C’est Toutin 2008, and my breakfast-and-French-television epiphany happened early in 2009.

De La Chanson et Puis C’est Toutis an effortless album to listen to.  Bright and full arrangements that draw equally from the band’s acoustic roots and their diverse and expansive instrumentation characterize most of the tracks on the album, but each has its own distinct groove and melody.  The songs themselves are all instantly catchy and often seductive, and the intertwining male and female vocal lines blend well together.  The sound of Makali owes as much to classic French singers like Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel as to Caribbean reggae rhythms and American jazz and swing sensibilities.  The result is an album that the listener can easily lay into his or her background – until the melodies and rhythms lead to uncontrollable dancing.

De La Chanson et Puis C’est Tout alternates tempo every few songs, from the upbeat romps of “Mais Bon” and “Comme le Mal Emporté” to the low-key swings of “En Papier Mâché” and “On S’fait du Mal”.  There are moments of levity, and the emotional high note of “Assise Là”.  I don’t personally speak French, but the dense textures, well-written melodies, and sensual voices of the singers tell me all that I need to know about Makali.  De La Chanson et Puis C’est Toutis an album that requires multiple listens: not only are there layers to each groove that fly under the radar, but by the time the listener has reached the end of the disc there is almost a nostalgia for the events along the road from the lead-off of “Il Faut du Temps au Temps” to the closing hidden track that plays after “Je Te Suis Parmi Les Gens”.

As far as I’m aware, Makali hasn’t performed as a group since July 2009, but various members are still active.  Vocalist/Clarinetist Armelle Ita has released a number of electronic and dub reggae-influenced tunes through her myspace and soundcloud  profiles.  The tracks are interesting and do well to spotlight Ita’s unmistakable vocal chops, but lack the vibe that Makali captured.  It doesn’t appear that Ita has released an album that is available in the U.S., but it is encouraging to know that she is continuing to write, record, and release music.

De La Chanson et Puis C’est Tout is an impressively versatile album, and one that is fit to be listened to in any number of situations.  Whether they are the center of attention or the sonic backdrop to everyday life, Makali presents a light and airy type of music that seamlessly blends a number of easily recognizable genres into a version of chanson that is both soothing and exciting.  While Makali may not still exist as a live band, their one studio album is still available through several online shopping markets.  Other than their occasional appearance on breakfast-time TV programming at universities and one song that made its way into an American film, Makali still lacks much exposure on this side of the Atlantic.  Given all of this, taking a listen to Makali at their website or jumping straight to a purchase from Amazon seems a worthwhile endeavor.  Nobody is listening to Makali right now, but I believe that the blend achieved by the musicians in the band and the sound they put forth is one everyone should discover, whether it’s accompanied by pop tarts or not.