Nobody Listens to…Rupa & the April Fishes

It’s the first Thursday of 2013 and I am back! I hope this is the first of a continued stream of regular essays here and not a one-off return.  In any case, we’re back to regularly-scheduled “Nobody Listens to…” posts this week, presenting San Francisco’s grassroots global outfit: Rupa & the April Fishes.

I’ve been listening to Rupa & the April Fishes since they made an appearance as a showcase artist at the 2009 Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.  I regretfully didn’t catch all of Rupa’s set, but what I saw and heard was captivating, and I picked up a copy of their first full-length album that weekend.  I’ve since spun the band’s songs on college radio shows and watched the group perform on French television.  The seductive fusion of understated grooves and laid-back melodies from around the world that the band presents has left me eagerly awaiting the chance to lie back and simply listen to anything Rupa & the April Fishes care to present.

The story of Rupa & the April Fishes really begins with lead singer Rupa Marya’s childhood.  The daughter of Punjabi immigrants to the United States, Marya was raised at points in the U.S., France, and India.  By adulthood, Marya was passably fluent in four languages and studying Biochemistry and Post-War Political Theater.  As though penning and performing socially-conscious folk music influenced by the local music and languages of the diverse countries she had visited weren’t enough, since the early 2000s Marya has been a practicing physician in the San Francisco Bay Area (in her time off from touring as a musician, obviously) and has served on the faculty of the University of California-San Francisco’s medical school as a professor of Internal Medicine.  With all of these experiences in her back pocket, Marya began performing on street corners and San Francisco cable cars with cellist Ed Baskerville in the mid-2000s, and quickly rounded out a whirling band of musicians that included trumpeter Marcus Cohen, Bandoneon player Adrian Jost, drummer Aaron Kierbel, and bassist Eric Perney.  By 2008 the group had recorded and released their debut album, eXtraOrdinary rendition, and quickly began ruthlessly touring North America.  Taking their name from a French expression that is akin to the American exclamation “April Fools!”, Rupa & the April Fishes have since endured numerous lineup changes and released two more albums, 2009’s Este Mundo and 2012’s BUILD.  Currently settled with Marya and Kierbel joined by Safa Shokrai, Misha Khalikulov, and Mario Alberto Silva the band is defined by truly global acoustic arrangements and multi-disciplinary projects that bring together people of interests and talents just as diverse as the roots of the group’s songs.

Rupa & the April Fishes have cycled through so many musicians, languages, and geographically specific folk musics that to describe the band’s ‘sound’ succinctly would be nearly impossible.  At this point Marya’s breathy and expressive voice is the most defining characteristic, and the singer does an impressive job articulating her thoughts beautifully in at least five different tongues throughout the group’s discovery.  Underneath Marya’s voice is her guitar playing, which frequently takes a backseat to the whirling cloud of noise the band produces; amidst the racing accordion and horn lines of the ensemble the guitar is almost exclusively an instrument of rhythm, softly strumming or stabbing upbeat skanks in between the melodic and harmonic lines of the band.  Kierbel’s drumming is also a constant, and the percussionist has proven himself highly adaptable in turning on a dime from quick-stepping ska grooves to spacious accompaniment for French chanson charts.  Stepping in and out on tracks from each of the band’s three LPs are upright bass, numerous species of tastefully-applied accordion, trumpet, clarinet, and stringed instruments, all of which contribute to a music that could be just as at home in Bogotá as in Paris as in Bucharest.

It does seem that with each album Marya and company have pushed the envelope further with syncretic blends of global folk genres.  On eXtraOrdinary rendition (an album name Marya says came from a desire for listeners to google the term and find information about the United States’ practice of extrajudicial transfer of detainees) the listener is greeted with a chanson song based around an Argentine bass line in “Maintenant“; surprisingly danceable folk romps in both French and Spanish in “Une Americane à Paris” and “Poder“, respectively; a dreamlike Indian raga sung in Hindi in “Yaad“; and a lighthearted reflection on a dream of seafaring ease as the album closes with “Wishful Thinking“.  The group turns to more Latin flavors on the Spanish-titled Este Mundo (This World), with comparatively more numbers sung in Spanish and a few tunes in definably Latin genres; “Soledad” is a sensual cumbia featuring a guest verse by rapper Boots Riley and “La Estrella Caida” is probably most easily called a rumba.  Este Mundo still does, however, retain many of the hallmarks of chanson songwriting, as in the French-language “La Rose”, the vamp-y “Trouble“, and the album’s pensive title track.  Perhaps the most evident new flavor added to Este Mundo may be the ska and reggae influences on tracks such as “Culpa de la Luna” and “La Linea“, an idea that is carried directly into the band’s newest release, last year’s BUILD.  On the new record the band has made a conscious shift to lyrical content (primarily) in English, and this is evident in the more conventional folk-rock and reggae of standout tracks such as “Firewater”, “Inheritance”, and “Gone”.  The group still retains their global sensibilities, however, and among the standout tracks are the Brazilian-tinged “Electric Gumbo Radio” and the transcendent bilingual reggae of “Weeds” and “Cochabamba”.  At each turn, Rupa & the April Fishes unleash music that is approachable and easy to listen to, wheezing accordions and ringing percussive bells surrounding the listener in exactly the ambience the band is looking to form as a setting for their work.

As soothing and seductive as Rupa & the April Fishes’ music is, the lyrics speak to a different emotional set entirely.  Many of the songs the band performs take up the charge for the causes its members support in efforts off of the stage, from a seed exchange to promote grassroots farmers to an artist’s residency in southern Mexico that seeks to give voice to “invisible” indigenous people.  Marya herself has tied her identity as a physician into her lyrics and artistic endeavors as her songs accompany efforts to provide undocumented workers and global travelers with free or low-cost healthcare.  Rupa & the April Fishes have songs that touch on populist movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, and when the singer touches on feelings of love it’s more often a humanitarian care for and understanding of her fellow man or woman than a romantic desire (though those emotions can also be found in the group’s lyrics).

The powerful good that Rupa & the April Fishes have done and are continually planning as an activist arm of their musical outfit is astounding.  Partnered with nonprofit organizations and seeking prestigious grants and awards to promote their social outreach plans is a fantastic path for a band to take, and that the music that serves as a source of this outreach is both appropriate and great to listen to only makes the group more likeable and important.  Marya’s undeniable talent as a singer and songwriter and her impressive resume do a good deal to keep the listener dialed in actively with the group, and with each release the band seems to widen its scope even as they associate individual tracks with tangible humanitarian efforts in the U.S. and abroad.  The group is represented here online at their official website and on facebook, though perhaps the best way to connect with the group would be attending a live show.  No one is listening to Rupa & the April Fishes at the moment, but the organic and alluring blend of global folk genres that reflect a desire to better the world in real and measurable ways makes this group quite deserving of a listen. And maybe some seeds.

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Album Review Bonanza Part 2: Rabbit Inn Rebellion

Before I get called out for stretching things beyond my original 24-hour promise, let me say that a) I got tired, b) all three of these posts have ended up being longer than I originally intended, and c) I decided it was important to go vote (PS GO VOTE! GET INFORMED AND CAST YOUR VOTE!) before I wrote up a review to an album by State Radio.  Excuses aside, here is the last of three new installments of this blog in three days: a write-up on the brand new release by Boston political rockers State Radio.

I should point out that State Radio is and has been my favorite band for several years now.  In the early 2000s, Chad Urmston began writing heavily political and well-educated rock and reggae songs as his jammy grassroots-celebrity band Dispatch was headed for a breakup.  For the past decade hence Urmston has fronted a Boston-based trio that defines itself on activism in practice and in their words.  Earlier this week, State Radio released their fourth full-length album, Rabbit Inn Rebellion, a heavy disc that rumbles in a slightly new direction for the group.

Listeners of State Radio will recognize a heavy slate of hot-button issues in the lyrics on the album, but gone are even a hint of the reggae upstrokes that have been present in the band’s music even as their arrangements have moved in darker and more metallic directions.  The great irony is that while the skanking is gone from these songs, the intense riffs and unexpected turnarounds that are found on Rabbit Inn Rebellion actually call the listener back to State Radio’s first studio offering, a 2002 EP titled Flag of the Shiners.  I miss the Marley-esque blend of reggae and social consciousness that the band has admittedly been moving ever so cautiously away from since their debut full-length, 2006’s Us Against the Crown, but the bombastic riffs and crashing wall of cymbal and bass guitar that sits at the forefront of the new album is just as familiar and welcome.

One of State Radio’s greatest strengths is Urmston’s incredible gift for storytelling; from his Dispatch heyday in the 1990s to the present, the songwriter has waxed lyrical about the fantastical and the painfully real, often finding a mystical realism in his words.  The people Urmston has met and the sights he’s seen clearly give him an arsenal of stories to tell, and each of them seems breathtakingly important.  A singer and lyricist with this clear of a command of oral history and English vocabulary can make some magical things happen on a record, and Urmston regularly achieves this.  Combining Urmston’s vocals with his clever guitar riffs, the face-melting lead bass guitar of Chuck Fay (this term has never been so appropriate in band not led by Les Claypool or Victor Wooten), and Mike “Maddog” Najarian’s 1990s hard rock-style drumming creates a rock album that captivates the listener from start to finish.

When it was released I was quick to refer to Let it Go, the most recent State Radio album, as a stream of anthems, their melodies soaring over the wall of sound the band created to great emotional appeal and effect.  Rabbit Inn Rebellion is similarly anthemic in the melodic structure and the earnest cries (and they are often cries) of the characters in Urmston’s stories.  From hard rockers about a mother in Haiti looking for her children in the aftermath of an earthquake and a populace that has forgotten about two wars they’re fighting (“Roadway Broken” and “Take Cover“, respectively) to the Boston-punk story of a guardian angel girl in “Freckled Mary“, Rabbit Inn Rebellion sees Urmston screaming over blues-clogged guitars and a rhythm section at the top of their game to package crucial issues and stories in fitting songs that often give a face and a narrative voice to their tales.

And there are tales to tell here.  The album kicks off with clips from an interview with a former junkie as an overdriven blues groove tells about the dangers of hard drugs in “H.A.C.K.I.N.“.  State Radio takes on Wall Street in “Big Man” and the tragedy of lost life in wartime in the Itunes-only bonus track “Ocean“.  A new recording of “Adelaide” (a more rootsy version appears on Urmston’s 2011 solo album) recounts the rise and fall of a love between Urmston’s brother and a girl from a Navajo reservation, and the Police-with-a-punk-twist roar of “Desert Queen” provides the listener with a true story of a dog killer in Arizona.    The distortion kicks off quickly on the first track and doesn’t really let up all the way through the closer, the Black Sabbath-like “Black Welsh Mountain“.  Rabbit Inn Rebellion is clearly meant to be listened to at loud volumes, and playing through it the listener is compelled at turns to scream along with the repeated chants and shift with the swaying riffs that power each track.

I’ve heard the comment that the album barely feels new, as almost half of the tracks had been released in some form or another prior to release, but I feel that they’re mostly all defensible.  “Adelaide” is sufficiently different from the Simmerkane II version released last year that I am happy to listen to it. “Roadway Broken” was released early as a part of a benefit for relief in Haiti.  “Freckled Mary” and “Take Cover” were essentially singles leaked to garner excitement, and “State of Georgia” is just now making its first appearance as a full-band studio cut.  The latter is maybe emotional peak of the album: a creeping voodoo blues flips the switch to death-cry rock to commit to memory the tragic life and death of Troy Davis.

Rabbit Inn Rebellion is as much a call to action as a listening experience, and the band is happy to back their lyrics up with community service and advocacy.  Urmston himself actually founded a nonprofit organization that works to unite musicians and fans in service to communities and causes.  Today actually eclipses Calling All Crows’ annual 5k in Northampton, Massachusetts, with this year’s proceeds raising awareness for marriage equality.  Just as the band has written songs about earthquakes and death-row inmates and human rights violations, their work has gone towards promoting and funding these efforts.  In this way, the group is always able to underscore the importance of their work; not only does State Radio support the causes they advocate in their music, they are happy to join hands with their fans and put work in on the ground in these situations.

State Radio’s newest offering is a headbanging freight train that barrels through chapter after chapter of a litany of causes and issues that weigh heavily on the band’s collective mind.  With snarling guitars and bass guitar riffs that vibrate the listener’s insides, this is a meaner and dirtier sound than the band has often put to record, but one that relates their message just as effectively.  Rabbit Inn Rebellion may prove to take a physical and emotional toll on the listener, but that falls right in line with the sober nature of so many of these stories being told.  In some ways this is a different type of album than the typical State Radio listener is used to, but the incredible (and with one or two exceptions, true) stories being told and undeniable quality of songwriting maintain this as a release to grab and a band to continue watching.

Album Review Bonanza Part 1: Country, God, or the Girl

As I implied last night when I finally came back to posting about underappreciated music here, I’ll be writing two more pieces this evening.  Later tonight I’ll have a review of a snarling new album by State Radio, but I’m beginning with one of 2012’s most anticipated albums in mind- if for no other reason than that it’s been long-delayed and put off.  When it didn’t drop in May (or June, or July) I started to worry something had gone horribly wrong with K’naan’s follow-up to 2009’s Troubadour.  I’m still not sure why it took so long, but October 16 Country, God, or the Girl arrived.  And I’m writing now to break it down for you.

There are so many things about this album that don’t make any sense.  K’naan seems to be the absolute best as tighrope-walking the line between superstar-level fame and eternal obscurity.  It could be because instead of capitalizing on becoming the 2010 World Cup’s theme music and palling around with will.I.am K’naan took his first trip home in 20-odd years to document famine and destruction in his native Somalia, but the fact that a rap album featuring cameos from Bono and Keith Richards could fly so far under the radar that even fans couldn’t pin down the release date is amazing.  Now that Country, God, or the Girl is finally here, we have an album that will be categorized as rap because K’naan is a rapper, though there is roughly as much singing as rapping, and the hard-edged beats that even I expected from the sneak peak EP More Beautiful than Silence are a minority on the full-length.

Even those slightly more jagged tunes only reflect a more pop sensibility than the rest of K’naan’s music, as work with some really slick producers has yielded familiar tracks like “Is Anybody Out There?” and “Better” (detailed on my write-up of the EP released early this year).  The leadoff single from the new album goes by the name of “Hurt Me Tomorrow“, a piano-driven bouncer that features K’naan straining his voice to the top of his range and delivering lines about putting off a breakup while referencing pop culture figures spanning the past eighty years. “Hurt Me Tomorrow” is undoubtedly a catchy tune, and the drum-machine-plus-bright-piano sound definitely reflects the conventions of post-2000 mainstream hip-hop (think Jay-Z or Cam’ron), though the last remaining vestiges of K’naan’s Somali accent and idiosyncratic vocal stylings keep even a song about such a broad topic at least a tiny bit original.

And subject matter is clearly a dimension of this album in which the artist wanted to diversify.  The references to his country’s civil war and his identity as both an African and a refugee are still plentiful, but in a Rolling Stone video interview the rapper states clearly that he wanted this album to look more introspectively at his own emotions and emotional experiences that listeners anywhere could relate to.  The combination of this new lyrical focus and a concerted return to the samples of soothing acoustic sounds and East African jazz records yields an album that sounds at once more conventional and more left-field than anything K’naan has done.  The understated “Simple“, for example, sounds like a blend of Coldplay, the Police, and Sub-Saharan Mbira music, creating an insistent groove in which the jangly thumb pianos play with the artist’s puzzling over his continued survival.  More than once distinctly East African melodies come into play in electric guitar lines: the album opener “The Seed” explodes into a pounding chant about K’naan’s gratitude for life and drive to be at his best while “Bulletproof Pride” contemplates how to stay friends with a (literal? metaphorical?) mercenary while Bono (yes, that Bono) sings backup.  By the time the record rolls to the standout “70 Excuses” and its slow burn from a minimalist meditation to an afropop-tinged saxophone romp, anything seems fair game.  Country, God, or the Girl is just K’naan making his music his own way, and orating on his emotions and dreams as he carries on.

 

The new album isn’t without its flaws.  I’m always skeptical of will.I.am’s appearance, and his appearance amidst the slappy guitar of “Alone” is unexpected at best and unpleasantly confusing at worst.  Likewise, Mark Foster of Foster the People appears on the last track (it’s technically a bonus track, but the album appears meant to be listened to with everything included) to wail falsettos over hand claps, tambourines, and a churning chorus.  These aren’t necessarily bad tracks, but they definitely feel like half-baked experiments, and these fall into a category with “Gold in Timbuktu” and “The Sound of My Breaking Heart” as less-stellar moments on the record.

 

Having said that, Country, God, or the Girl is in many ways what I was expecting and hoping for.  K’naan continues his evolution as a musician by widening his musical scope while taking his lyrics deeper into his own chest.  The raw passion of The Dusty Foot Philosopher isn’t to be found here, but the rapper gives the listener an equally earnest message with a much clearer head and a more even composure.  It’s rare that he gets terribly specific in his storytelling on this album, but K’naan appears to have hit onto something by speaking to experiences he’s had that his entire listenership also shares.  Even beyond the fact that this is musically a fantastically diverse rap album, and the fact that K’naan’s lyrics feel just as urgent and plaintive as ever, this is quite simply just a lovely modern hip-hop album.  Country, God, or the Girl is a paradox in its simultaneous appearance as a star-studded commercial affair and a socially-conscious mixtape that flows through its architect’s memory with unlikely arrangements of music from around the world.  The album is uplifting at turns and hollow at others, but there’s never a point at which I want to stop listening.

Nobody Listens to…Bankrupt and the Borrowers

EDITOR’S NOTE: A few super-helpful individuals with ties to the band have contacted me to clear up a few details about the group. Those changes are now reflected below. Thanks everyone! Keep reading (and expect a few new “Nobody Listens to”s to appear in the next few weeks).

Yes! At long last I’m writing a new post.  I’ve been away for a minute, but I’ve been thinking about you.  And it’s with great tenderness I craft this newest essay.  This will (hopefully) be the first of three new posts to go up within 24 hours, and will (again, hopefully) kick off a return to regularly scheduled programming here on this blog.  Tonight I’ll be putting up a remembrance of a great Austin band that no longer exists, and in trying to document the inherent tragedy and strife that followed Bankrupt and the Borrowers, I’ll be laying out some emotion here for the world. With their name as a signifier, Bankrupt and the Borrowers may have held the best indexical relationship in modern music.

It’s completely a fluke I ever heard about Bankrupt and the Borrowers in the first place.  The band never had a record deal, rarely toured outside of the greater Austin area, and as far as I’m aware none of my friends were also listening to the band back in 2009 when I was on a family vacation down in the Texas state capital trying desperately to convince my parents to take us to one of downtown Austin’s plentiful rock clubs.  We were in the live music capital of the world, and I wanted to go see a show.

It didn’t happen, but scanning the paper for acts with potential had taken me across a video of a Bankrupt and the Borrowers song.  From its opening chords I was taken to a fantastically angsty, raw-ly emotional depth of blues- the music and lyrics both evoked a point where things were so grim that you just had to crack a weak half-smile and keep drifting towards the next day’s depression.  It wasn’t uplifting stuff, but the feelings in it were great catharsis.  This is something I’ve remembered in tough times and called back upon when the darkness needed a way out.

Bankrupt and the Borrowers didn’t fabricate those echoes of bottoming out.  In the mid-oughts three young men with international roots met by happenstance in New England and decided to become a band and be very poor together.  Jesse “Cadger” Moore, Blue “Deadweight” Mongeon, and Jon “Baggage” Pettis eventually found themselves in Austin, apparently by virtue of its plentiful work for musicians and cheap housing.  The trio found a punk drummer in James “Osteo” Taylor and settled in to a neighborhood of artists in East Austin, blending dirty, grungy rock with the type of blues that seems to take strength from hopelessness.  They were also broke.  I bring this last bit up to really hammer home the point and spotlight its importance to the group; from the get-go, Bankrupt and Borrowers listed the lack of funds as a musical and lyrical influence, and the band members’ poverty is evident in their work from the low-quality home recordings they pieced together to the reckless desperation of their live shows.  Bankrupt and the Borrowers lived up to their name by staying true to their passions and feeding those passions off of the detrimental lifestyle other aspects of their lives had led to.

To my knowledge, Bankrupt and the Borrowers only released one set of recordings, a home-recorded EP entitled Beers on the Bible.  The band has a distinct and original sound, flipping the switch from simmering rock and jangly blues to the wailing guitars and strained voices of a grungy and particularly angry breed of rock music.  While the group lists their socio-economic circumstances and geographic locations as food for musical thought, the individual members’ backgrounds and tastes are easily in view.  Guitarist and sometime Vocalist “Cadger” studied blues guitar, while bassist and vocalist “Deadweight” brings an indie rock sensibility to the group.  Rounded out by multi-instrumentalist “Baggage”‘s interest in horn arrangements and “Osteo”‘s history as an Austinite punk drummer, Bankrupt and the Borrowers touches on several genres, each of which fits nicely in step with the topical themes of their music.

Beers on the Bible covers an emotional range that typically oscillates between depression and rage.  The vocals and guitar arrangements in particular reflect a certain disconsolate thrashing that instantly calls to mind someone who might not be in a great state of mind.  Even songs about lovers (“I Love you Baby“, “Katie Anne“) and their homebase on Austin’s East side (“Home“, “Dumpster“) can make lyrics that would otherwise come across as neutral at worst sound filled with intense (and yes, typically negative) emotions.  This does make the music decidedly dark, and Bankrupt and the Borrowers rarely seem to have happy news to share, but it adds an emotional complexity that sounds earnest enough to give the listener the idea that harsh truths are being shared.  Tracks from the EP such as “TCB” and “The Cat” benefit from this earnest emotional openness, as unclear lyrics still betray a kind of romantic desolation, squealing guitars and frantic drums mimicking the chaos of the bandmates’ lives.

And all of this brings me to the band’s most frequently-mentioned tune, an epic blues number ambitiously titled “Holden Caulfield at 35“.  In a rare behind-the-scenes interview, the band allows that the song takes inspiration from an imagined drugs-and-women-fueled weekend on the Mexican border for the now-approaching middle-aged narrator of “The Catcher in the Rye”, but more so betrays that even when they attempted to write a happy song the resulting subject matter betrays the reason why so many of their songs seem to tell miserable stories.  Musically the song throws the kitchen sink at Caulfield’s passed out friend Rosie, slowly climbing from a solo guitar riff to add whistling, harmonica, three vocalists delivering verses, and the eventual heavily-stomping coda that features an elegiac trumpet solo over the refrain “I’m still smilin’ all the same”.  It’s a powerful track, and followers of the band responded in kind: in the aforementioned interview, the band noted that at the time the track wasn’t recorded and fans at shows were singing along to every word.  Glimpsing a moment of validation, the musicians that comprised Bankrupt and the Borrowers could take some solace in the fact that they were writing music that fans connected with and could empathize with- real music.


The sad tale of the Bankrupt and the Borrowers, however, only continues in tragedy. Seemingly just as the group was staking a claim on the music scene in a town that can easily swallow an artist and replace him with five more, tragedy struck the group in a very real way.  In the early morning on October 9, 2009, a power strip in the home the band shared on the Northeast side of town malfunctioned and started a fire.  Within minutes the house was ablaze, and the one functional fire alarm was insufficient warning.  Jon Pettis, a multi-instrumentalist who took duties as a vocalist, guitarist, and player of several brass instruments for Bankrupt and the Borrowers died as the house burned down around him.  Pettis’ life, as those of his friends and bandmates, had been trending upward; the group was consistently booking shows, touring, and making new connections.  Just before the deadly house fire that took one of the bandmembers’ life, Bankrupt and the Borrowers had been announced as a marquee artist for Austin’s annual Fun Fun Fun Fest.

That show would prove to be the final concert for Bankrupt and the Borrowers as such, and would be dedicated as a benefit for the survivors of Jon “Baggage” Pettis in the wake of his sudden and unexpected passing.

  The surviving members of Bankrupt and the Borrowers have continued performing in and around the Austin area with a collective of down-on-their-luck musicians who go by the name of East Cameron Folkcore.  This new project has even had its story told by a local documentary filmmaker who wanted to recount the origin of the group as a companion to their second full-length album, The Sun Also Rises.  Meanwhile, little remains of Bankrupt and the Borrowers other than poignant memorials to the group.  Myspace, Facebook, and blogspot pages for the group are still live, though inactive, and the group’s official website is off the web.  For me though, this is a band that I didn’t even get to see play, and I mostly listen to them through Myspace streams and youtube clips.  And somehow that is still enough to get across the intense emotions of pain and loss that followed the group from their inception and seem just as appropriate now, almost three years after their last performance.  Nobody is listening to Bankrupt and the Borrowers right now, and to be honest many people don’t need to very often.  But the unfiltered and unrefined pain that the group was able to translate from their meager means into arresting music makes the group a potent listen, and their tragic story is fascinating and gut-wrenching enough to be shared as often as their songs.

“I’m still smilin’ all the same…”

Nobody Listens to…Luísa Maita

FIRST THINGS FIRST: Huge thanks to Zacke and his fans for the huge uptick in views these past few days. I noticed. More Swedes have now viewed this page than Americans. Well done.

While I guess I don’t necessarily need to ever justify why I’ve chosen one artist over another any given week, I have plenty of reasons to write about a Brazilian.  Neither me nor my blog have been to South America for a while.  Portuguese as a language isn’t well-represented here.  A Seleção stands a good chance of winning a gold medal in soccer (football) tomorrow.  Given all of this, we’ll be listening to singer-songwriter Luísa Maita this week.

Maita’s music jumped into my head as I was researching artists on the bill for the 2011 Lotus World Music Festival.  The Brazilian was billed as a young singer-songwriter whose samba-influenced compositions were both danceable and laid-back.  Both in her recordings and her live show, Maita does not disappoint.

Luísa Maita grew up in a musical family in Rio de Janeiro.  From a young age Maita learned and performed classic sambas and bossa nova tunes, watching the development of the genre known as MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, or Brazilian Popular Music).  By 1999 the singer had formed a band, and the past thirteen years have seen Maita’s songs recorded and performed by half a dozen different Brazilian performers.  The artist’s first solo album, Lero-Lero in 2010, and has since toured worldwide constantly from world music festivals to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.

Maita’s sound eludes easy description; other than to term it “cool”, the music is simultaneously understated and engaging.  Mid-tempo acoustic MPB tunes dominate Lero-Lero, with tasteful guitar work laid over throbbing bass and a wide variety of textured samba percussion.  The mixing of these instruments is really one of the most interesting aspects of Maita’s music: the songs are produced and arranged in such a way that infectious grooves drive the songs, but the drumming is never overpowering in terms of volume or density.  The guitar lines more often take the forefront, giving the music a more North American singer-songwriter quality.  Maita’s guitarist, Rafael Moraes, masterfully works the classic lines of bossa nova into a rockier style that favors effects pedals and staccato lines, and at the times the parts mimic other instruments.  Whether it’s a guitar sound effect or an actual cuica, the diverse sounds that fade in and out of Maita’s songs build a musical base that grooves hard without ever getting busy.

The vocals that fall over each of these songs amplify these effects as well.  Maita’s voice is seductive and breathy, always swelling to clear heights before fading to a whisper over her samba beats.  The singer doesn’t use a very wide range of pitches, only stretching to falsetto heights occasionally, but her rhythm and pacing exemplify the subtle use of percussive elements in melodic arrangements of her soft compositions.  Maita’s songwriting truly maximizes the beautiful Portuguese language and the hallmarks of Brazilian music, her voice serving as another instrument in a sensual music that flows softly from track to track.

And it is these types of track that make Lero-Lero a great album.  The title track is a symphony of syncopated guitar stabs and a mysterious-sounding singalong chorus.  The album continues with the quick bounce of  “Alento” and the comparative slow-jam of “Aí Vem Ele“.  When slow, as on “Aí Vem Ele” and “Mire E Veja“, Maita’s voice often falls even lower, and there’s a definite sexuality to the music, whether the lyrics reflect it or not.  The album rises and falls, cresting with the samba-band drumming of “Fulaninha” and the spacious mid-tempo tune “Desencabulada“.  The low-key melodies leave the listener humming along by the album’s midpoint, and despite the lack of heavy drumming or pulsing beat the music implores listeners to dance; it’s as though the dance association of Swing music translated to acoustic blues.  On Lero-Lero (and in Maita tunes recorded with or by other artists) the songs are moody, but also irresistible toe-tappers.

When she takes to the stage with her band, Maita is equally adaptive.  Though she tours with a standard four-piece band, the group seems equally able to carry a theater as NPR’s tiny desk.  By arming the guitarist Moraes with delay pedals and the ability to copy percussive noises and giving drummer Erico Theobaldo a sampling brain and trigger, the group blurs the line between acoustic quartet and electronic dance group.  All throughout the set I witnessed in Bloomington last year, Maita and her bandmates took control of the stage, lightly dancing over the music they made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maita is still writing and recording music, and a sophomore album is rumored to be due for release with the next year.  Since 2010’s Lero-Lero, Maita has embarked on three North American tours, the most recent of which took her across the US and Canada, including to a date at the (very cool) Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.  Maita also is credited with the release of a 2011 EP of remixes. Maita Remixed was released in 2010, shortly after Lero-Lero, and features remixed versions of four tracks from the debut.  In the meantime, Maita can be tracked through a website on her record label and on twitter.  Nobody is listening to Luísa Maita right no, but the Brazilian’s smooth and seductive twist on MPB has given birth to one brilliant debut album, and more of her work should mean more enthused listeners.

Nobody Listens to…Zacke

Once again I find this column taking me up to the frozen reaches of Scandinavia.  Whether it’s their attractive women, their wild dancing, or their smooth and catchy hip-hop beats, Northern Sweden draws me in.  I’ve said variously that Swedish hip-hop is surprisingly diverse and well-developed, and this week’s column only adds to that argument.  This week I’m spotlighting the inimitable Zacke.

I was probably listening to Zacke for quite a while before I realized who he was.  The young Stockholm-based rapper has a longstanding friendship with the fantastic Northern Swedish hip-hop/swing trio Movits (Click this link to read what I wrote about them back in February), and the two artists frequently collaborate.  Zacke has delivered verses on tracks from both of Movits’ albums and supported the group during their first full American tour.  I’ve been following Movits’ activity for a few years, and upon learning of their protege’s debut album I began looking a little more into this dark-haired young man wearing a shirt emblazoned with a parody of the L.A. Dodgers logo.

Though he currently lives in Stockholm, Zacke (born Zakarias Lekberg) has roots up North in Luleå, thus explaining his connection to Movits and their highly musical swing-influenced brand of hip-hop.  Zacke himself doesn’t take his instrumentals or his style choices so directly from the 1920s, but does incorporate a wide array of musical styles and instrumental arrangements in his songs.  Zacke has toured relentlessly both in Europe and worldwide with his compatriots in Movits, released one full-length album (2010’s Visst är det Vackert) and a few scattered singles, and tried his hand at directing music videos.  The man is active.

Zacke’s music is interesting to listen to in no small part because of the myriad musical influences that can go into any one song, let alone a full album.  Smooth jazz, blues, funk, rock, folk, and electronic music all have a part in the rapper’s tracks, leading to grooves that are as enjoyable during instrumental breaks as during the breakneck lines delivered in verses and hooks.  This is a trait that Zacke’s music does share with Movits: live instruments are prioritized just as high as synthesizers and drum machines in the arrangements, leading to tunes with an 808 beat with a jazz flute solo recorded over it.  Banjos, piano, Rhodes organ, accordion, horns, and percussion all appear on Visst är det Vackert, giving the album an organic feel.  Coupled with Zacke’s instantly recognizable voice and cheeky delivery, this is a rap album that feels cool.  There is a definite attitude to the rapper’s voice, and with every drawn-out syllable and rising inflection the general sentiment of the track is evident even to listeners with no understanding of the Swedish.  It may be that this is just a language particularly apt to be interpreted this way, but Zacke’s rapping style fits in seamlessly with his backing tracks.

The songs of Visst är det Vackert do sweep over a vast range of feels, genres, and tempos.  From lazy backbeats like on the album-opening “Flaskpost från Utopia” and the banjo-driven “Men Nanting!” to upbeat tracks like the country-esque romp “Ser det Kommer“, the album takes the listener in every direction a rap album could musically go with Zacke’s staccato verses and singalong hooks serving as guides.  The album leads off with blues, funk, and a club-banging dance track featuring Movits’ Johan Rensfeldt that is actually an ironic send-up of modern pop music in “Spela Mig På Radion” (“Play Me on the Radio”).  The album does turn reflective in its second half, however, with legitimate ballads and understated layered grooves on tracks such as “Förlorad Generation“, “Öppet Idag“, and “Båtdrinkar“.  Lyrically, Visst är det Vackertcovers topics from the artist’s jet-setting life and the difficulty of maintaining relationships to the cultural melting pot that modern Sweden has become; and the artist’s voice proves to be versatile at conveying abrasive bravado in one moment and a calm pensiveness in another.

Since his first album, Zacke has appeared all over the world of Swedish hip-hop, guesting verses on Movits’ new album and the anthem for their American tour (“Först tar vi Manhattan” or “First we take Manhattan”, an aggressively synth-heavy tune about how “they say that hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but the Bronx was born in Sweden“).  Zacke can also be found on the brilliant Swedish hip-hop sampler Evolution; on a Mighty Boosh-sampling track from Swedish producer Academics’ second album; and on his own terms with his new single “Mammas nye Kille” (Mom’s New Boyfriend”), a loud track with bouncing drums and a healthy amount of electric guitar shredding.

Zacke isn’t currently touring, but a second full-length album appears to be in the works.  For the meantime, the young Zacke is only widening his profile, popping up on hip-hop mixtapes and compilations across Sweden.  The artist doesn’t appear to have a presence on twitter (other than his mentions from his friends in Movits), but can be tracked down at his official website and on facebook.  Nobody is listening to Zacke right now, but the rapper’s unique delivery and carefully orchestrated tracks single him out as one of the best of a burgeoning Swedish hip-hop scene that desperately needs more exposure.