Nobody Listens to…Kanaku y el Tigre

Good music doesn’t need to fit neatly into one genre to be good.  Truthfully, there is a lot of really great music being made that is hard to classify, often deliberately.  Genre helps us as listeners define what we’re listening and group it neatly with things that are similar and contrast it with things that are different.  Genre helps us to look for inspiration and try to pin down influences that shape the artistic process. Genre comforts us- that something about this song or that artist belongs within the whole of its genre.  Genre, however, does not tell us if music is good and is not at all helpful in evaluating whether something is beautiful or not.  The music of Peruvian band Kanaku y el Tigre is difficult to classify generically, but it is beautiful.  Kanaku y el Tigre simply write and perform good music.

In the Spring and Summer of 2011 I was living in Lima, Peru.  I spent six months as a student at a university in the city, and was incredibly lucky to do some traveling within the country.   I grew much better at speaking Spanish, made lifelong friends, and saw a lot of amazing things.  I did not discover a whole lot of new music.  For whatever reason I had a great deal of difficulty breaking into the music scene in Lima and went to precious few concerts.  This is especially distressing now knowing that I could have been around just as Kanaku y el Tigre saw their debut album rise to success locally and internationally.  Instead I read about the band for the first time just last year through MTV Iggy and was instantly hooked.  The band’s debut album, Caracoles, has great replay value; it’s easy to dissolve oneself into the songs to the point that another listen reveals more sublime details that went completely unnoticed before.  This is a nice magic trick for a band that describes itself as “wandering folk”.

Kanaku y el Tigre formed in 2010 around the songwriting nucleus of Nicolás Saba and Bruno Bellatín, a pair of Limeños with a taste for indie-folk strums.  Bellatín had honed his skills on an acoustic guitar while studying abroad in the United Kingdom, and Saba’s voice lent a new dimension to the acoustic tones that Bellatín was plying.  After rounding out their lineup with the additions of Noel Marambio, Marcial Rey, David Chang, Fernando Gonzalez, and Manuel Loli the band set to recording Caracoles and growing their profile throughout Latin America.  To date the band still has just one studio release, but has performed in festivals from the heart of their native Lima to Mexico City.

Scenes are painted in Kanaku y el Tigre’s music.  This is music to be played on a sunny balcony.  It’s music to be played while shuffling down city streets on a warm day.  This is music to be played as a dinner party transitions to a cozy evening with friends.  The “wandering folk” label does seem to apply, but there are definite elements of pop, jazz, and rock to be found in the songs on Caracoles.  The group almost exclusively uses acoustic instruments, but also holds a fascinating with toy instruments and “cualquier cosa que suene” – anything that makes sound.  These songs are built around soft harmonies and acoustic guitar strums, but are colored with antique pianos and ukuleles.  Harmonicas and accordions make appearances as airily brushed drums are tastefully applied.  Upright bass punctuates staccato moments, while toy glockenspiels and turning bicycle gears help build the world around Saba’s delicate storytelling.

The tracklisting on Caracoles spans a wide variety of sonic and lyrical content.  The title track and “Lucia” are plaintive folk songs about life and love in Lima.  “Bicicleta” is a midtempo indie symphony, while “Tu Verano, Mi Invierno” and “El Funeral” are bouncy and simplistic in a way that’s reminiscent of French chanson songs.  The album reaches its emotional height in “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” as swaying vocals rise over accordion and distant drumming, and an acapella falsetto line immediately precedes a kazoo solo.  This is where anticipation is bred in Kanaku y el Tigre’s songs: an arrangement is just as likely to include a brass chorale as to feature a spotlight on a kazoo or tinny bells.  As brilliantly as “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” soars, the 1-2 punch of the English-language “Exorcist Love Song” and the slinky “Pascal y Julian” take the music to a slightly darker place.  “Exorcist Love Song” still jumps and jives despite a lyrical subtext about a destructive relationship, while “Pascal and Julian” is a duet about existential dread.  These songs are at once familiar and foreign, as though the band has purposefully inserted discomforting chords and words into an otherwise playful body of work.  Maybe that is exactly the point.

As a band Kanaku y el Tigre is still highly active.  Despite a fairly low profile on social media, the enigmatic group is still touring and performing in support of Caracoles, and seem to serve as curators and activists for similar artists.  The most reliable outlet of information on the band is their facebook page, as the group doesn’t appear to have an official website.  A twitter account in the band’s name does exist, but hasn’t ever composed a single tweet.  In lieu of these traditional tracking methods, the band is best followed in video and in the steadily growing number of glowing reviews they’ve received.  In any case, nobody seems to be listening to Kanaku y el Tigre right now, but the wondrous surprises that come so effortlessly and pleasantly from the Peruvian folksters’ music assuredly earn them a place in any music lover’s rotation.

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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.

Nobody Listens to…La Rue Kétanou

This post is for the buskers.  Over the past five years I’ve spent some time on street corners and at farmers’ markets yelling and picking away at my guitar.  It’s a tough way to earn money, but maybe the most enjoyable I’ve experienced.

Pause for me to go google search good spots to busk in Fort Worth.

Pause for sadness upon learning that Fort Worth police are tough on buskers.

…and back to the actual article.  This week I’m writing about former street performers and grand purveyors of French chanson music, La Rue Kétanou.

La Rue Kétanou

I first heard La Rue Kétanou during a phase in which I had to listen to as much chanson as possible as quickly as possible.  While it’s not tough to find great bands that fit the bill of the seductive French genre that blends folk, gypsy music, pop, and maybe a bit of reggae, La Rue Kétanou stood out.  Their music is more energetic, more lively than the usually-sedate tunes that thechanson chanteuses typically churn out.  It’s still bohemian street music, but more the sort to jump and skip down the road than to stroll leisurely while holding a romantic partner’s hand.

The core of La Rue Kétanou is the trio of Parisians Mourad Musset, Olivier Leite and Florent Vintrigner, all former students of the Théâtre du fil. As street performers the three began performing in 1996, living and breathing with the streets they played on.  The band took their name, in fact, from a play on the phrase “C’est pas nous qui sommes à la rue, c’est la rue qui est à nous”, implying that they are not of the street, but the street takes its life from them (the performers).  The late 90s saw the group connecting with members of established chanson act Tryo, who invited the young La Rue Kétanou on a leg of their tour as an opener.  By 2001 La Rue Kétanou had produced their debut album, and have since released four more, and continue to tour, bringing their personal style of freewheeling street music indoors and onto the stage.

Most of what I know about La Rue Kétanou comes from their 2009 release, A Contresens.  The album is really quite polished, as could be expected from the fourth studio output of a band that had been playing together for thirteen years, though the free spirit that seems to define the group is still recognizably present.  Each member of the group sings, and the standard lineup features Vintrigner on accordion and Leite and Musset on guitar.  True to their bohemian roots, however, each member is liable to trade his guitar out for another stringed instrument or any element of percussion.  The album A Contresens itself boasts instrumentation as wide as to feature upright bells, strings, and electric guitar, though none of these ever takes precedent over the acoustic forefront that La Rue Kétanou has defined itself by from the beginning.

The songs of A Contresens bounce from the lighthearted to the plaintive and back again.  The album’s opener is “Todas las Mujeres”, a French romp with a Spanish title that pulses from a cajón and loosely strummed guitars.  The reggae-tinged “Germaine” follows, and the album continues a musical world tour with chanson interpretations of cabaret, tango, and bossa nova songs (“Ton Cabaret”, “Elle est Belle”, and “Sao Paolo”, respectively).  Numbers such as “Je Peux pas te Promettre” take a turn for the dramatic, but lighthearted and playful moments such as the jawharp solo to lead off the folksy “Prenons la Vie” are never far off.  La Rue Kétanou always seem to be joking, but when more closely examined, the songs often have much to say about life as the artists see it.  The aggressive and powerful roll of “Maître Corbeau” is led by a descending accordion line and percussive rap-like lyrics that muse on life’s winners and losers (and a crow character? maybe lyrical analysis of a language I don’t speak is a bit unwarranted).  In any case, the songs that fill A Contresens are at once worldly and quintessentially French, compounding the duality of a successful band of bohemian street performers that reflect the tragic and the comic in their words and their melodies.

La Rue Kétanou

The philosophy that La Rue Kétanou puts forth is a fascinating one, albeit not the most unique: that the individual doesn’t behave one way or another because he comes “from the streets”, but rather that individual makes the streets what they are.  To this band, such is life; out in the public domain where the marginalized and the elite pass each other there is a vitality that the slinky rhythms and gang vocals encapsulate well.  And this is especially well taken from a group that has come literally from performances on street corners to accompaniment by full orchestra. Along this journey the band has released five full-length albums, and has continued to tour, though largely within French borders.  La Rue Kétanou can be found most easily online through their twitter handle and a French music-only Myspace takeoff.  For the second week in a row I’ve managed to profile a group that doesn’t have an official website per se, as following a link directed to www.larueketanou.com only takes the user to the associated act Tryo’s page.  Web problems aside, La Rue Kétanou deserves to be listened to for both their folksy fun sound and their urban-organic ethos.  Nobody is listening to La Rue Kétanou at the moment, but the accordion-and-acoustic-guitar-driven act that sprang from Paris’ streets makes for a great listen that is improved with every toe tapped and head shaken.

Long live the buskers.