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…Movits!

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

Movits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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