Nobody Listens to…Afro-Peruvian Music

As a freshman at Indiana University still unconvinced that I should pursue a degree in Ethnomusicology (or maybe just unaware that this was inevitable) I enrolled in a performance class focusing on “the music of coastal Peru”.  The music that I listened to and performed as a part of that class has since played an important role in my life, most notably in my decision to spend a semester studying in Peru during my junior year of college.  Now, having left university, I still wonder about the lack of exposurela musica afroperuanafaces worldwide.

Afro-peruvian music   The history of Afro-Peruvian music is, as could be expected, inherently tied to the history of African-descended people in the South American nation.  In contrast to countries such as Brazil and Cuba, which have well-documented Afro-influenced musical scenes as a function of a history of slavery that saw whole communities transplanted from Africa to the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of South America, Peru’s slave populations were historically more separated.  As opposed to the large plantation-style slave economies elsewhere, Peruvian slaves were frequently household servants, miners, or workers on small family-owned ranches.  In light of this, until relatively recently a history of black Peruvians was largely absent, and the kind of cultural groups and associations that formed in other countries with large populations of African slaves and their descendents.  The result in Peru has been a dark, unspoken racist attitude that the country is still working to overcome, and a gaping hole where one would expect to find musical traditions of Afro-descended Peruvians.

All of this changed dramatically in the 1970s behind the work of Afro-Peruvian scholar and musician Nicomedes Santa Cruz.  Seeing the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Santa Cruz (along with several other prominent scholars and musicians) sought to reclaim a tradition of music and dance that had been lost to history.  While a few accounts that spoke of instruments, dance steps, or names of songs survived, by the time Santa Cruz was planting the seeds of an Afro-Peruvian revival very little traditional Afro-Peruvian music was being performed.  Faced with such a challenge, Santa Cruz got creative.  Traveling to Brazil to research Afro-Brazilian song and dance, Nicomedes Santa Cruz began to hypothesize connections between songs known in Peru and styles written about historically across Latin America with African roots based on linguistic similarities.  While this may leave some doubt as to the authenticity of the music that began to spring from Peru’s Pacific coast, it gave musical life to a movement to establish Afro-Peruvians as a dynamic cultural group in the country.

The artists (and scholars) of the Afro-Peruvian revival frequently borrowed ideas common to Afro-Cuban or -Brazilian musical styles and applied distinctly Peruvian twists to claim the music as a link to Afro-Peruvian heritage.  The dance moves, typical attire and costumes, and instruments used in the performance of Afro-Peruvian music were all used as markers to demonstrate that this was very much a Peruvian phenomenon.

Cajonero

The percussion instruments used in Afro-Peruvian music may be the best example of this focus on Peruvian-izing Afro-descended music.  Symbolic of the music is the cajón (literally “big box”), a box drum said to be adapted from shipping crates in Peru’s port cities.  Also important are the cajita (“little box”) and quijada, adapted from tithing boxes and mules’ jawbones, respectively.  Finally, Peruvian versions of Afro-Cuban drums such as the congas and bongos began to surface, the animal-skin heads replaced with wood a la the cajón. When paired with guitars, violins, and breathtaking singers, the Afro-Peruvian ensemble is complete.

Afro-Peruvian music encompasses a number of different genres, from the dual-time signature ballad of the landó to the upbeat dances of the marinera and the festejo. All of these are characterized by the aforementioned Afro-Peruvian instrumentation, rhythms that waver deceptively between duple and triple-feel time, and vocals that play over the instrumental base in surprising fashion.  With famous female vocalists such as Eva Ayllón and Susana Baca fronting ensembles such as the Nicomedes Santa Cruz-founded collective known as Peru Negro, the music is sensual and exciting to listen to.  In many ways Afro-Peruvian music exists as an answer to and challenger for Afro-Cuban music, and the complex rhythms, seductive melodies, and powerful singers match up well in comparison.

Susana Baca

Almost 45 years after Nicomedes Santa Cruz founded Peru Negro as a way to promote the newly “rediscovered” Afro-Peruvian music he had been writing and recording, the music is still very much alive.  Continuing to sell out concerts in Peru, divas of the music such as Eva Ayllón (currently touring with Peru Negro) and Susana Baca (touring across the U.S. as we speak) seem to be bound to perform until they literally can no longer continue.  The music has also continued to evolve, as electronic iterations (lead by Novalima, who will someday get their own post here) and Afro-Peruvian Jazz (a great example is Gabriel Alegria, a bandleader whose group does a pretty incredible version of “Summertime”) have become steadily more popular at home and abroad.  Nobody outside of Peru really listens to Afro-Peruvian Music (for that matter, it was surprisingly hard to find even when I lived in Peru), but the fascinating history and cultural significance behind a series of musical genres invented to foster a black identity in Peru adds depth behind the hot rhythms and scintillating sounds of this music that deserves to be much more readily recognized.

Nobody Listens to…the Asian Dub Foundation

FOR THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE NATION

THE SOUNDS OF THE ASIAN DUB FOUNDATION

Asian Dub Foundation

I can’t recall exactly how I found out about the Asian Dub Foundation.  I know that at some point in the Summer of 2010 while I was hosting a radio show on WIUX in Bloomington I caught a listen of the collective’s greatest hits compilation, and the music just continued to ooze into my life.  Despite how undeniably accurate and descriptive their name is, the Asian Dub Foundation have stayed with me because of how seamlessly they seem to have melded a myriad of sounds and ideas.

Though biographies of the band are maddeningly vague, confusing, and poorly edited, it is known that the Asian Dub Foundation grew out of a youth organization in East London called Community Music. In the early 1990s bassist Dr. Das began working through this venue to recruit teenagers into a an electronica collective with an emphasis on live music and punk ideologies.  From the South Asian immigrant communities of London Das found rappers, instrumentalists, and activists to fill out the Asian Dub Foundation.  Making their name as a live act performing electronic music, the group began touring throughout the U.K., mainland Europe, and eventually worldwide.  By wearing both diverse musical influences and pan-Asian anti-racist political views on their collective sleeve, the Asian Dub Foundation rose to the perfect level of prominence for a band with its social goals: never superstars, but engaging enough that those who came into contact with the group walked away having learned something.

The sounds of the Asian Dub Foundationbring together an impressive array of musical and cultural influences.  While the music has the hallmarks of early 90s dub, trip-hop, and electronica music, the Asian Dub Foundation is set apart by the pastiches of its members’ South Asian heritage and punk sensibilities brought to the music.  Drum machine beats are interspersed with dhol rhythms and tabla solos.  Guitars swirl in imitations of sitars and chop staccato punk lines.  Bass lines vibrate heavily underneath everything.  On songs such as “Collective Mode” string arrangements are pulled from Bollywood films and thrown over raggacore beats.  Falling in line with the outfit’s goals, the music makes it instantly recognizable that this is a sound meant to render Asian sounds no longer exotic through their juxtaposition with both danceable electronica and socially-conscious punk rock.

Further complicating the musical pedigree that the Asian Dub Foundation expresses is the fact that vocalist Deeder Zaman is rapping frenetically over most of the group’s songs.  Using rap lyrics as a vehicle for social activism and as a subversion over the colonial attitude that Asians ought to be considered racially “black”, Zaman’s vocals make the songs (and the political stances taken therein) more aggressive and “in-your-face”.  Zaman’s rapping also is frequently used as another instrumental line, percussively punctuating the more rounded sound of the bass lines that drive the music with impressive speed.  With his unique Indian-via-East-London accent, Zaman is unmistakeable as an MC.

Given their political bent, the collective has taken up a number of causes as deserving of banner-waving songs.  The group has come out against European immigration policies (“Fortress Europe”) and in support of South Asian separatist groups (“Naxalite” is the name of an Indian militant group) and Asian immigrants who may have been unfairly tried in court cases (“Free Satpal Ram” calls for justice for an Indian man convicted of a 1986 murder after his racially-directed mistreatment by Britain’s courts, while “1000 Mirrors” features guest vocals by Sinead O’Connor to tell the story of Tsoora Shah).  On broader strokes, the Asian Dub Foundation campaigns for racial harmony and understanding (“Black White”).

Asian Dub Foundation

In the mid-2000s a number of the collective’s original members departed for solo projects and/or retirement, though the loose nature of the group has allowed the Asian Dub Foundation to continue performing and recording.  By 2007’s release of the greatest hits compilation Time Freeze, the Asian Dub Foundation had performed or recorded with such artists as Sinead O’Connor, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and Tuvan rockers/throatsingers Yat-Kha.  Though recordings on that compilation were the last to feature original members Dr. Das and Deeder Zaman, but have since released two full-length albums in 2008’s Punkara and 2011’s A History of Now.  The Asian Dub Foundation is also still touring, with upcoming dates throughout Europe, and can be found online through their official website and on twitter.  From their roots in a community center for South Asian youth to a dynamic and motivated electronica group with punk ideals performing anti-racist agit-prop, the Asian Dub Foundation has married their deep groove with an indelible message.  Nobody is listening to the Asian Dub Foundation now, but their unique sound and important perspective on social issues makes them a group that I would heartily recommend.

Nobody Listens to…Ben l’Oncle Soul

So I’m not down in Austin for SXSW (those of you who are better make the most of it for the rest of us) and I need some cheer-me-up music. So I’m writing this week about Ben l’Oncle Soul

Ben l'Oncle Soul

Like a surprising number of my favorite groups and artists, I found Ben l’Oncle Soul completely on accident while trawling youtube for videos of a German brass band (more on them in a later post).  After skipping through a video of the artist being interviewed on a German morning show, I saw this: an acoustic (loosely speaking) cover of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” performed by a young Frenchman who sang like a Motown soulman.  And he had backup dancers with coordinated moves.

It’s hard to find out much biographical information about Ben l’Oncle Soul, but that really just plays into his persona as an almost mythical time-traveler sent from the 1960s to remind us what soul music should be.  From what I have discerned, Benjamin Duterde of Tours, France took up a bowtie and the moniker Ben l’Oncle from the smiling man on Uncle Ben’s Rice, adding the surname Soul to avoid copyright complications.  After releasing his first single in 2009, Ben l’Oncle Soul recruited a backing band, a horn section, and two backup vocalists/dancers a la the Temptations.  Building a diverse repertoire of original songs and soul covers of pop songs, Ben l’Oncle Soul began a one-band soul revival. In France.

Duterde is unquestionably the face of the group, and even plays up his lead-billed soulman status in act’s live shows.  Snazzily dressed in a bowtie, suspenders, and a fedora, the titular Ben l’Oncle croons and screams in a voice dripping with more soul than his closest American counterpart (Ben l’Oncle Soul even does a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” that reimagines the tune as though Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” had an illegitimate child).  Duterde can sing as smoothly as Smokey Robinson or Lionel Richie and scream as wildly as Otis Redding or James Brown.  The singer’s melodic and dynamic is impressive, and even more so as he shifts back and forth through English, French, and on at least one occasion Spanish.  While the howls and blues runs that can be heard on record give the listener an idea, Ben l’Oncle Soul really needs to be seen visually for his coolness to be fully realized; something about the mannerisms and movements Duterde goes to while performing fleshes his character out that much more.  Though the music is highly enjoyable just at face value, the band is quite a bit more than a Motown-obsessed young man from France imitating Cee-Lo Green’s voice-cracking soul falsetto.

Likewise, though Duterde’s vocals take a definite front seat, the musicians in both Ben l’Oncle Soul’s studio recordings and live shows deserve attention of their own.  At any point in any song the drummer could be deep in the pocket playing jazzy fills, the guitarist could rip out a blistering solo, the bassist could be laying out a funky line, the keyboardist could be building massive Rhodes organ chords, and the horns could be over the top of everything blasting out tasty fills (though it’s not terribly descriptive I can’t think of a more apt adjective for Ben l’Oncle Soul’s horn section than “tasty”).  As should be the hallmark of any great soul act, every member of the group is a superstar in his or her own ride, even if only the lead singer is down on one knee having a cape draped over him.

Ben l’Oncle Soul only has two official releases currently making the rounds: an EP of covers in Soul Washand a full-length self-titled album, released in 2009 and 2010 respectively.  The full-length features strong lead-off numbers in the aforementioned cover of Seven Nation Army, the introduction to Duterde in “Soul Man”, and the wild soul crescendo of “Petite Soeur”.  From that point, the album rises and falls with soft ballads and loud screaming tunes, with even dashes of reggae (I Don’t Wanna Waste) and funky gospel (the album’s closer Back for You).  The EP Soul Wash meanwhile treats the listener to soul covers of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, putting a decidedly different spin on a few bubblegum-pop hits.  In addition to those found on the album a few more inspired covers can be found floating around the internet, including Ben l’Oncle Soul’s takes on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Otherside” and the Police’s “Roxanne”.

With recent appearances on Later with Jools Holland and the excellent French youtube series le-Hiboo, Ben l’Oncle Soul is growing a bit in Europe, but is still largely unknown in North America.  For the meantime, the artist can be found on twitter and through his official website, while his music is best available through Amazon.  While no one is listening much to Ben l’Oncle Soul, his brilliant execution of classic soul music and the style and energy he brings to his performances go along with a tight backing band to make a sound (and an image) that begs-just as the old Motown and Rhino Records singers would- to be heard.

Nobody Listens to…Of Monsters and Men

So I’m being a bit trendy here, but I want to go ahead and write this entry before the title is dated in about a week.  For right now, Of Monsters and Men still qualifies as a band most people I know haven’t heard of, so they’re the subject of this week’s column.

Of Monsters and Men

A Few weeks ago, I began hearing a song I didn’t recognize quite frequently on KXT, a public radio station here in Dallas-Fort Worth that plays a wide variety of music.  I wondered if I was listening to a new song by Mumford & Sons that featured a female voice, or some other such exponent of the U.K.’s recent folk revival.  After extensive research (read: going to KXT’s website and looking up playlists) I discovered that I had been listening to “Little Talks” by a hot new Icelandic band by the name of Of Monsters and Men.  I decided that they were worth some investigation.

Of Monsters and Men formed through the collaboration of singers Nana Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson in 2010.  Within a year of its inception, Of Monsters and Men had both secured a slot in and won Iceland’s national battle of the bands, Músiktilraunir.  Around this time Seattle radio station KEXP caught wind of the group and released a video of the group performing the song “Little Talks” acoustically.  Of Monsters and Men had a foothold in the U.S.

Musically, Of Monsters and Men describe themselves as “crafters of folkie pop songs”, a designation that the group lives up to on their debut album My Head is an Animal.  I’ve not been the first two compare the group to Mumford & Sons, and the male vocals provided by Þórhallsson and the pounding kick drum that drives most of the tunes of the album easily remind the listener of the British string band that burst onto the airwaves in late 2010.  Þórhallsson’s voice itself is clear and plaintive, reminiscent of Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford or Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice.  When paired with the unique-yet-familiar vocals of Hilmarsdóttir on such songs as the album’s lead-off track “Dirty Paws” and the follow-up single “King and Lionheart”, the two singers seem to manage a tangible emotional content while never straining their voices to great dynamic or melodic heights.  It should also be noted that Of Monsters and Mens’ songs are in English, and the singers’ accents could almost pass off as British (thus the easy comparisons to British folk groups).

(Personal sidebar: While living in Peru, I met a lovely young Icelandic girl who spoke English very clearly, and with a similarly quasi-British accent. She said it was due to Icelanders’ consumption of British television.  I wonder if this is relevant.)

The resulting sound is a surprisingly soft and warm lyrical aspect to a music that swells from finger-picked acoustic guitars and softly played piano to pounding drums and soaring horns.  Tracks such as “Love Love Love” really spotlight this dynamic range, as the song is light all the way through an arrangement of guitars and accordion, but feels as if it might explode at any moment.  This is par for the course on My Head is an Animal.  Something about the way these songs are written leads the listener to an anticipation that even the most quiet and calm of musical passages can burst into a thick wall of acoustic sound.  That Of Monsters and Men have a penchant for ominous sound effects and gang vocal shouts only adds to this.  Expanding around these musical punctuation marks are clouds of guitar, keys, and percussion.  The songs onMy Head is an Animal seem to exist in a wide and open space- almost as if the music reflects how one might imagine Iceland (I’ve heard it’s not all expansive tundra, but it’s hard to shake that mental image).  A healthy reverberation placed over all of the instrumental and vocal tracks makes the album interesting to listen to spatially. My Head is an Animal sounds like a folk band playing very far away that has somehow echoed very close to the listener’s ears.

Of Monsters and Men

As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, Of Monsters and Men appears to be on the verge of major success stateside.  After KEXP in Seattle’s profiling of the group, radio stations across the country have begun giving “Little Talks” airplay, and a beautifully-shot music video has appeared on the internet.  I recently discovered that the group will be performing as a showcase artist at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival in just over a week, and multiple dates across a North American tour are beginning to sell out.  All of this is doubly amazing given that the group hasn’t even released their debut album in the United States yetMy Head is an Animal officially becomes available in the U.S. on April third, though tracks from the release can be streamed at various points throughout the internet, and a number of high-quality live videos are on youtube.  Of Monsters and Men can be found online through their website, a tumblr(!), and on twitter with the handle @monstersandmen.  No one is really listening much to Of Monsters and Men yet, but the new depth they bring, both melodically and geographically, to the recent surge of well-written and emotive folk music makes the band worthy of all of the new exposure it seems they will be privy to over the next few weeks.  I encourage all in Austin for South by Southwest to stop by Of Monsters and Men’s showcase, and all who can’t make it to the festival to keep youtube-ing until April third.

Nobody Listens to…Nneka

NOTE: I’ve been asked to include more audio of the artists I’m writing about, so I’ll be making a concerted effort to hyperlink to audio or video (usually youtube). So make sure you click all of the hyperlinked text.

OTHER NOTE: I have a twitter! So tweet me about artists you want to hear about here…or whatever else you can think to bother me about.  Tweet @iamkevindhood OR just hashtag something #nobodylistenstothis and I’ll respond!

Now, to this week’s column…

Nneka

I discovered Nneka’s music while geeking out over the artist roster for a music festival that I didn’t really attend.  In the Spring of 2010 I managed to be in Austin during South by Southwest without a wristband to the showcase performances, but researched all of the bands and artists performing anyway. Just in case.  One of these was Nneka, a Nigerian-German soul singer who I couldn’t watch but quickly took note of.

Nneka was born in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region to a Nigerian father and a German Mother in 1980, and lived in the West African nation until she was 19, at which point Nneka moved to Hamburg, Germany to study Anthropology (!) at university.

Also, she’s a powerful singer-songwriter who has been blending R&B, hip-hop, reggae, afrobeat, and funk for the past ten years or so.

Nneka’s music could draw easy comparison to K’naan, but to link two African-born hip-hopping singer-songwriters seems a bit insensitive to the wide scope each artist’s discography covers.  Nevertheless, Nneka’s songs pulsate through intense samples, bouncing drums, and hard-edged guitars.  While incorporating both the musics and lyrical contents of Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Sly Stone, and Mos Def, Nneka weaves a sound that is both familiar and hard to define. Over all of these diverse sound palettes soars the singer’s voice, which is at once soft and pointed.  The degree to which Nneka’s voice can shift from soft crooning to a diva-blasting scream is startling.  When she raps it still seems she is singing, and when she sings a rhythmic articulation that feels like rapping.  The control that Nneka has over her voice and the somehow understated way she often belts out her lyrics is surprising, to say the least.  Nneka’s voice simply is, and its versatility is what gives the singer her unique sound.

Nneka has thus far released three full-length albums, in addition to several compilations and EPs.  A highlight of these is 2010’s Concrete Jungle, which packaged a diverse sampling of hit tracks from the artist’s first two LPs (2005’s Victim of Truth and 2008’s No Longer At Ease) for her introduction to American audiences.  Headlining Concrete Jungle is “Heartbeat”, a neo-soul stomp that rises into emotional pleading at the chorus.  Concrete Jungle also includes the ska-infused “Suffri”, the guitar-driven rap-rock of “Focus”, and a track sung partially in Igbo in “Kangpe”.

Perhaps most notable, however, is “Africans”, a soul song in reggae clothing that appears midway through the compilation.  Like many of Nneka’s songs, “Africans” advocates self-empowerment and love, but in this case takes up the cause of the African continent’s place in the world.  The song calls for the global community to take notice of Africa and Africans’ place in the world, but also for Africans to stop being victims and “wake up”.  On an album of strong messages and plaintive calls to action by the singer (really this applies to both Concrete Jungle and Victim of Truth, on which “Africans” originally appeared), this track stands out as important both musically and lyrically.

Nneka’s latest album, Soul is Heavy (2011), strikes a few more upbeat notes while delivering to the listener more of the soulful reggae (or reggae-tinged soul, as the case may be) that is expected of the singer.  On tracks such as “Sleep” and “Shining Star” the music builds upward in a progression that matches the inspirational tone of Nneka’s lyrics, while the lead single from the album “My Home” begins as a reggae number that morphs into a swinging R&B backbeat.  The savvy with which Nneka continues to blend these genres is astounding, and despite the diversity of instrumentation, melody, tonality, and tone in her music everything blends well into the corpus of the singer’s work.

Nneka is still touring and performing behind Soul is Heavy, and actually taped a performance on BET’s “106 and Park” program today (her segment will air on March 6th).  A North American tour continues through the end of March before moving to the U.K. and mainland Europe into the Summer.  Despite appearances at multiple large music festivals and on a number of American television programs and radio stations, I still don’t know of anyone else who has heard of Nneka.  While no one is listening to Nneka right now, in my opinion the Nigerian’s soulful blend of R&B and reggae with hip-hop elements topped by truly emotive vocals simply demands that more of us listen.