Nobody Listens to…LaBrassBanda


Something about brass band music just grabs me.  It makes me squint my face up in that odd way that looks like I’m cringing- but it’s because of something I like.  This reaction is also multiplied if the band playing it also delivers rap-like lyrics over intricate harmonies on the horns.  LaBrassBanda definitely does that.

I discovered LaBrassBanda’s music in 2009 while researching for an all-brass band installment of a show I was hosting on WIUX in Bloomington at the time.  A German group that played upbeat and uptempo funk tunes and literally had the words “brass” and “band” in their name seemed like an obvious choice.  LaBrassBanda immediately stood out to me because their music had a different quality to it- it was brass band music but seemed highly influenced by funk, dance, disco, reggae, ska, and hip-hop.  That the song I had chosen for my radio program also featured some impressive rap verses only added to my excitement.

LaBrassBanda formed in 2007 in Übersee, a Bavarian town near Chiemsee.  From their early days, the band’s off-the-wall personality mirrored their musical style, which teetered between serious horn playing and rollicking silliness.  In 2008 the band embarked on their first national tour, at times riding mopeds or playing live from the back of a farm tractor, with the goal of ending the run in Vienna at the final match of the UEFA Championship.  The group has since played everywhere from Siberia to Zimbabwe, spreading with them the sound of a very German brass group.  With two full studio albums released (2008’s Habediehre and 2009’s Übersee) and a live CD/DVD package, LaBrassBanda show no signs of slowing down.

LaBrassBanda is a five-piece group composed of drummer Manu da Coll, bassist Olli Wrage, trombonist Manu Winbeck, trumpeter and vocalist Stefan Dettl, and tubaist Andreas Hofmeir (technically he plays a helicon).  The band itself would define their music as “Bavarian Brass Punk”, which does well to reference the local roots of many of the group’s melodies, the obvious association with brass bands (both American and Balkan), and a certain punk sensibility with which LaBrassBanda approaches its music and live shows.  Songs are driven by generally simple drumset and bass guitar lines, while the horn section and Dettl’s vocals swirl through virtuosic passages and dynamic runs.  While the music itself is really a confusing blend of reggae, dance, folk, rock, ska, and disco (and maybe others), the fact that all of the melodies are played on horns somehow levels each disparate tune and melody; the songs all sound like they fit perfectly into the genre and style LaBrassBanda plays, even if no one could ever hope to put a name on that genre. Dettl’s vocals may help in that sense, in that his rapid-fire delivery and almost anti-melodic rapping add another element that makes the band’s music unique and recognizable.  It seems “Bavarian Brass Punk” may be the best moniker for this music, as LaBrassBanda have effectively managed to make a Tuba, a Trombone, and a Trumpet into melodic instruments that rock harder than an electric guitar.

Across both of their studio albums, the group has presented a pretty unified body of work, albeit one that spans that wide range of stylistic influences.  Songs such as “Bauersbua” (see link above) and “Natalie” have a jazz-like quality to them that puts a great deal of focus on tight harmonies over straight-ahead pulsation from the rhythm section, while “Zehnerlfuxa” and “Des Konnst Glamm” are essentially rockers where brass has replaced the more expected guitars.  This idea that songs of various genres can be interpreted by a brass group isn’t new, but something about the way LaBrassBanda takes over funk (“Ringlbleame” and “Bierzelt”), European folk tunes (“Autobahn“), and reggae (“VW-Jetta” and “Da Dub”) seems more overt.  LaBrassBanda doesn’t arrange songs where horns fill the holes made by the lack of guitar, it inserts brass into that role with completely novel ideas.  The great number of lightening-quick brass runs and hard grooving instrumental breaks don’t dominate the group’s music, however: both of LaBrassBanda’s albums feature softer, slower pieces that spotlight the high level of musicianship that the band members possess.  While it’s true that Dettl can make his trumpet scream and Hofmeir can play incredibly fast on his tuba, the inclusion of songs like “Deyda” and “Paby” show that these players know how to blend and contour their music.  LaBrassBanda’s songs are wildly varied, but without fail each shows another aspect of each musician’s art that he has mastered.

LaBrassBanda appears to be fairly quiet at the moment, but do have tour dates set for August throughout Europe.  For the time being, the group can be found online at their official website (available in both German and English) and on twitter at @La_Brass_Banda.  In any event, this is definitely a band worth following.  With their fun and highly impressive performance of intense brass band music, LaBrassBanda undeniably presents music that makes the listener move.  Nobody is listening to LaBrassBanda right now, but every time those five Germans walk onstage barefoot and wearing short shorts to play some white-hot brass runs and jumping grooves they are making their mark on the global music scene.  And that deserves your listen.


Nobody Listens to…Bajofondo

NOTE: I didn’t write here last week.  It turns out that getting certified to teach in public schools is difficult, and last week that took precedence.  It’s good to be back though.

OTHER NOTE: Remember to click the links. They’re hard to see, but will add an auditory dimension to your experience here.  Just click ’em.

Even before my younger brother took up the accordion I was a fan of any group that really rocked the squeezebox.  Just during the 2009 Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana, I saw no less than four groups with accordion players.  And maybe the most impressive was the bandoneón  (a type of Argentine accordion) work of the South American electronica collective Bajofondo.

Lotus 2009 was my first exposure to Bajofondo.  I knew well before the festival started that I couldn’t miss their Saturday night showcase concert, and was in no way disappointed.  I was completely taken with the exciting sensual blend of electronic tango music and frenetic video projections, and within 24 hours had both bought Bajofondo’s 2007 album Mar Dulce and danced onstage with the group.

In an odd way, Bajofondo is something of a supergroup of tango musicians, DJs, electronica musicians, and Oscar-winning film composers from the Rio de la Plata region of Northern Argentina and Uruguay.  Formed in the early 2000s as Bajofondo Tango Club, the group sought to blend traditional Argentine tangos and Uruguayan milongas with electronic music.  Incorporating a full rhythm section, violin, bandoneón, and a member whose sole job is to project video compositions onto a screen during performances, Bajofondo has brought a smooth and seductive mix of popular South American music and global urban genres.  In the world of Bajofondo’s music tangos are driven by breakbeats and swirling synthesizers while hip-hop tracks boast accents and flourishes of bandoneón. With their 2007 release of Mar Dulce the group even accommodated cameos from vocalists as disparate as Elvis Costello, Nelly Furtado, and Mala Rodriguez.  Whether lightly teasing with piano lines or aggressively leaning on synthesized drums and bass guitar, Bajofondo’s music keeps the listener moving.

Bajofondo’s music is intentionally diverse in its inspiration and execution.  Tango, milonga, electronica, hip-hop, trip-hop, and pop all appear variously across the group’s discography, and a track featuring rapped verses over a bandoneón loop can easily follow an atmospheric piece featuring echoing acoustic guitar and long-drawing orchestral strings.  It’s often left up to the listener to guess what has been recorded by the collective’s members and what has been sequenced, as instrumental lines are warped and twisted around clips of mid-century tango concerts and soccer game play-by-plays.  The result is a musical style that can be surprisingly deep even in moments of sparse arrangement; when a tune draws back to a twinkling piano line or an ominous whistle there is still an expressive air to the non-melodic sweeping and effect manipulation that pads the band’s sound.

This is very much a music well-suited to extremes.  The most minimalist pieces rank among the bombastic and star-studded leading tracks in the collective’s catalog.  Instrumentals such as “Centrojá“, “Pulmón”, and “Duro y Pareja” are essentially background music that demands the foreground.  Indeed, a number of 2010 Acura commercials did just that, letting the lively beat and violin-led melody do all of the talking.  When Bajofondo numbers do involve vocals, however, all bets are off.  These numbers vary from the understated and sweet (“Pulso (1000 Mares)“, “Fairly Right“) to the aggressive and dark (“El Andén“, “Miles de Pasajeros“), but consistently draw the listener in to lean in and bob his or her head to the simple drum beats and staccato stabs of violin that fall  in the cracks between verses, choruses, and sampled monologues.

I had the opportunity to see Bajofondo a second time just a few months after I first heard them.  In Austin for the 2010 edition of South By Southwest, I caught a free set by the band at Auditorium Shores.  While audience participation wasn’t quite what it had been in Indiana, the band was again mesmerizing.  It does seem that Bajofondo is quite conscious of the importance of aesthetics, and the color schemes that seem to float around the band perfectly match their sleek and futuristic sound.  As odd as it sounds, having video projections as an integral part of this live act makes perfect sense.  Having said that, musicianship is also not lost on the collective, and not only does each member demonstrate complete mastery of his or her craft, but the element of dramatic performance that Martín Ferrés (bandoneón) and Javier Casalla (violin) bring to the show reminds the concertgoer that even a musical form as processed and computerized as this still has a very human element to it.  As Ferrés stretched his bandoneón as far as his arms could reach and guitarist Gustavo Santoalalla growled at the crowd assembled, Bajofondo ignited a new love for Argentine music in the hearts of a few thousand SXSW attendees.  This is electrotango.

In  many ways, Bajofondo’s music is perfect for a car commercial.  It’s sleek, seductive, sensual, and a bit aloof.  It conjures up images of sweaty clubs both in modern-day metropoles and 19th-century Spanish-American backwaters.  By striking a balance between the cold, harsh drive of drum machines and synthesizer pads and the expressive wails and whines of violin and bandoneón, the Argentine-Uruguayan collective has an identity that works as much as a musical statement as it does as a signifier of cool.  The group hasn’t released a complete album together now in five years and their official website seems to have been taken over by spam (they can still be followed over on twitter at @Bajofondo), but Bajofondo remains an insanely talented collective of South American musicians blending very different styles of music.  Much as Asian Dub Foundation has melded Indian music and identity with electronica, so has Bajofondo singlehandedly created the genre of electrotango. Nobody is listening to Bajofondo right now, but the group’s deeply South American take on electronic music and their immersive live show make them an act not to miss.

Nobody Listens to…Bongo Love

I always make a concerted effort with these posts to keep varying up both the genre of music the artist I profile falls in and the region of the world from which they’re based.  It’s important to me to keep this variety on this page so that anyone who lands here on any given day can find something interesting and relevant quickly, without having to back-track very much.  My tastes and moods also change about every five days, so I’m often not currently listening to what I was last week (and no one is listening to anything on this blog…obviously).  So this week’s installment comes from Africa, is about a group that is largely acoustic in nature, and are the first to wish me a happy birthday on facebook this year. Just sayin’.

John Mambira of Bongo Love

Pictured above is my friend John Mambira, a man who nearly graced the banner of this site and sings lead vocals for Zimbabwean “afrocoustic” group Bongo Love.  I first heard of Bongo Love in their performances opening for and then sharing the stage with the band Dispatch during their DISPATCH: ZIMBABWE concert stand in New York City.  I didn’t attend the concerts, but was following closely (and downloading mp3s after each night)(legally) and was ecstatic to hear an mbira group from Zimbabwe invited onstage during a benefit concert as their country sank deeper into economic depression.  I even brought recordings of those shows in for extra credit in my first Ethnomusicology course at university during our unit on African music.  Nerdy stuff, to be sure, but the point stands that Bongo Love had entered my life in a big way.

Fittingly enough, it was only a few weeks after I was sharing Bongo Love’s music with a professor that I met the band in the flesh.  In the Fall of 2008, Dispatch-related rock group State Radio were touring the U.S. with Bongo Love opening each date of the tour.  I’m quite the fan of both groups, so a friend of mine planned to follow the tour and catch two dates and an acoustic benefit show one weekend in late September.  I met the group, spoke to them briefly about their music, and even was roped in to run sound for them last-minute at a benefit at Northwestern University for the Sudanese Community Center.  I bought all of their albums and traded the shirt off of my back for one of theirs.  And became facebook friends with the band.

Bongo Love were formed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2001, and for the past decade have been pioneering a style of music they refer to as “afrocoustic”- acoustic music played largely with sub-Saharan instrumentation.  On two albums, Afrocoustics and Rwendo (Journey), released in 2006 and 2008 respectively, the group supplements their warm grooves with pleasant arrangements that add unexpected elements such as violin solos to the buzzy timbre of their music.  When I last saw the group in 2008 they performed live as a quartet featured John Mambira on vocals and percussion, Trymore Jombo on mbira, Godfrey Mambira on bass marimba, and Themba Mawoko on lead marimba.  Mawoko has since left the group, but the now-trio continues to perform, and are actually currently on tour in Canada as I write this.

The recognizably African instruments Bongo Love uses to fill out its ensemble are specific choices; while they cite such Western artists as Bob Marley and Carlos Santana as influences, by using African keyboard percussion, djembes, and a Zimbabwean mbira (this incredible instrument that is important and interesting enough that entire books have been written about it) the group wears its African identity on its sleeve even before incorporating traditional dress as stage costume and lyrics in the native Zimbabwean languages of Shona and Ndebele.  With the aforementioned lyrics and rhythms pulled from traditional Zimbabwean music crossed with easygoing and easily listenable melodies, Bongo Love are uniquely pre-packaged as cultural ambassadors of their homeland.

While the mbira and marimba dominate Bongo Love’s recordings, it is Mambira’s vocals that steer the songs from a more traditional Zimbabwean style a la Thomas Mapfumo to the poppier sound the band takes on.  With long verses punctuated by ensemble hits at the cue of Mambira’s vocal crescendos and djembe slaps, songs such as Ekhya (Kogae) and Sounds of Africa give the group a very organic feel that fits perfectly with their attitude and appearance.

Bongo Love

While the tunes on Bongo Love’s studio albums are sweet and easy to listen to, the group’s live show takes their whole aura to a new level.  Decked out in matching dress, the group takes the stages and whirls through instrumental jams, percussion-and-dance breakdowns, and at least on occasion the best rendition of “No Woman No Cry” I’ve ever heard.  The air of peace and desire for a better world are tangible dreams at a Bongo Love concert.

While it’s been years since I’ve seen Bongo Love perform and they’ve  undergone significant lineup changes, the group is still one I listen to regularly.  I follow Bongo Love on twitter, and recently attempted to take a look at their official website (let me know if it looks like anything real to you).  To me, the relationship I formed with the band in one brief weekend was only the icing on the cake for a group that played an interesting and captivating style of music with a sound born from their own heritage and history.  No one is listening to Bongo Love right now, but the group’s soothing blend of African rhythms and melodies assuredly makes them great cultural ambassadors and an even better act to see play.