Album Review: Among Criminals “Break” to New (and Old) Mutiny

Following the career of an independent band as closely as I’ve followed Among Criminals can give the listener an interesting look into how years of working towards any measure of success can change a musical group.  For better or worse, lineups change and sounds evolve.  Much has changed since I last wrote about Among Criminals, but on their new album, The Break, there are some welcome calls to the group’s past mixed in with intriguing new directions taken.

CDfrontcover

Though the group has changed two-thirds of its makeup, Among Criminals’ identity is still very much tied up in the one remaining founding member’s sound preferences and songwriting.  On The Break singer-guitarist Ryan Gaughan seems to have really cut loose; though the type of blistering guitar solo we’ve come to expect from Gaughan doesn’t really arrive until late in the tracklisting, the guitar work throughout the album effortlessly slips from delay-draped staccato skanks to heavy distorted power chords.  The singer’s voice as well is extended beyond its normal dynamic range: on The Break Gaughan both croons softly and shreds his vocal chords screaming, sometimes both within the same song.  New bassist Bhauraw Avhad brings a more metallic sound to the band’s low end, and Kyle Ruggieri’s drumming is as straight-ahead rock as has ever been heard on an Among Criminals record.  The Break is really a paradox in itself in that regard, as though the group set out to make a true rock album and ended up with some of the most heavily blended work they’ve yet to churn out.

As always, subject matter is of great importance.  It’s easy to read from the album’s cover art (pictured above) and the descriptive imagery used in the songs that these are protest songs.  A number of tracks (“Cold Soldier” and “Kingsmen”, for example) continue the Among Criminals tradition of pointedly political songs, but much of the material on The Break is more allegorical.  It seems that Gaughan and co. have much to be upset about.  Mysterious lyrics point towards tragic young women and an ambiguously innocent narrator.  Throughout all of this musical tones and tempi shift dramatically.  There is no song on the album that is downtempo, or a ballad, strictly speaking.  Instead, there are two or three tracks that begin or end softer and slower in contrast to the aural assault of hard rocking that belies the remainder of the running.  Reggae rhythms (“Save Me”, among others) and danceable funky grooves (“Firefly”) are present amidst a very polished mix of general rock hallmarks.  Guitars are distorted, voices are strained, and drums and cymbals crash loudly in an inexorable rush through the stories told here.

As mentioned above, the path that an independent act may take through its career can lead to some unexpected choices or unorthodox moves.  Mixed in with new material on this album are newly recorded versions of two old favorites among the Among Criminals crowd: “Cold Soldier” from the debut full-length Kill the Myth and “Don’t Tell Us” from the group’s self-titled effort.  That these tracks fit in as seamlessly as they do is truly a testament to the cohesive nature of the group’s artistic choices and songwriting prowess.  Around these two callbacks to earlier work are such standouts as the leadoff track, “Glow in the Dark”, the sweetness of “It All Breaks”, and the swaying funk-rock “Firefly”.  “Kingsmen”, “Save Me”, and “Constant” take the tempo and emotion up a degree before dropping into almost dub-heavy reggae grooves.  The album’s closer “Secret (Father Murphy)” has a truly big, bad swagger to it.  These songs mean business, and are arresting to the listener.

As Among Criminals continues to evolve as a band in search of wider success and the ability to continue making music, The Break is assuredly a step in a new direction.  New band members and old songs come together on this album to give Among Criminals a no-frills record that is in-your-face and unapologetic.  Clean production and tight engineering hopefully give this album the greatest gift that recorded music can: songs delivered to the listener exactly as the artist imagined them.

The Break is available through CDBaby and iTunes, and Among Criminals can be followed through their website and on facebook.

Nobody Listens to…Taïro

NOTE: Welcome to my first post written right here on the wordpress.  It feels nice.  Please keep reading.

NOTE: Yes, I did import and archive all of my previous posts, so you can find everything here.  The Tumblr still exists, but you can get all of the “Nobody Listens to” you want right here.

NOTE: There are hyperlinks all over the place here, but I realize they can be a bit tough to see.  They’re a dark brown color that I can’t seem to change, so keep an eye out for things like this that you can click on.

So according to my site tracker (still not sure if this is a great tool I now have access to or just another corner of the internet that’s going to drag my self-esteem down) literally zero people viewed my blog yesterday.  Hopefully we can avoid that in the future.  With that in mind, I need to write about soul music again.  This week I turn my focus to a young French singer who has truly mastered the sound and aesthetics of a particular type of soul music (sound familiar?) and whose first full-length album has been among my dearest discoveries.  This week no one is listening to Taïro.

If Ben l’Oncle Soul is the young French avatar of 1960s American Soul, Taïro is the same shifted forward thirty years.  In both his music and his smooth urban style, the French-Moroccan singer reminds me of the R&B and neo-Soul artists of the 1990s.  While Taïro himself seems to have drawn his inspiration from more from Dancehall and Ragga than modern R&B, the association I immediately make as I listen to his music is more R. Kelly than Buju Banton.

I actually found Taïro, as seems to be hilariously recurrent, through a lucky mistake.  While trawling youtube for clips of another French group, Makali, I kept coming up with results of a song by someone named “Taïro”.   Exhausting my search for acoustic chanson tunes, I gave the hip-hop-tinged Taïro song “On S’fait du Mal” a try.  I was instantly hooked.

From what I can piece together in bios that have been poorly translated from French, Taïro is the son of a Moroccan immigrant-rights activist father and a French sociology professor mother.  Born Ishmael Jolé-Menebhi, the artist now known as Taïro grew up in Paris in the 1980s, and actually initially tried his hand at an acting career in the early 90s before discovering dancehall and soundsystem subcultures and pursuing a music career.  Though he adopted the moniker of Taïro (a transliteration of the English term “Tyro”, for his novice status among his newly-adopted dancehall brethren) and began appearing with bands on records as early as 1996, Taïro didn’t release a fully-realized musical effort until 2007.  After moderate success with records and live shows, the singer-songwriter recorded his first full-length, professionally-produced album, Choeurs et Ame, in 2009.  This is still his most well-received and well-distributed work to date.

While I tend to peg Taïro as a soul artist, the dancehall and reggae influence that shaped his experience as an artist so dramatically is very clear in his music.  Heavy emphasis is often put on the bass lines of his songs, and staccato guitar skanks and one-drop drums aren’t at all uncommon.  The music moves away from this however when live drums are replaced by a drum machine, those guitar chops fall on the beat instead of between beats, and a chorus of backup singers begin sweetly vocalizing behind the songwriter’s crooning and pleading.  Elements of Dancehall, Soul, Reggae, Jazz, and Hip-hop are all combined in Taïro’s music; any fully-orchestrated music where the lead singer’s voice is central is fair game to be absorbed in the artist’s oeuvre.  For the songs of Choeurs et Ame, the real intrigue of the music actually lies in the small touches and artfully-selected pieces of the background.  A smooth sax solo, a tasteful mournfully wailing guitar lick, and surprising sound effects and patches are really what make Taïro’s music special and captivating to listen to.

None of this should discount the singer’s voice and lyrics and how important he is to the music.  Whether he is softly rapping, raising his voice in a reggae yell, or throwing an unexpected and surprisingly fitting touch of autotune, Taïro has a voice that seems perfectly fitted for the style of music he plays and writes.  At all times the songwriter sounds smooth, as though his lyrics are just rolling over the lightly danceable grooves that are played and programmed underneath him.  The almost understated delivery that Taïro lends to his songs gives them a subtle, sneaky quality to their depth and skill; it’s not until the moment is fully upon the listener that one can appreciate just how hard to hit this note is or how fast the singer delivered that rap verse.  The backing vocals and guest cameos Taïro brings in also do a great job of adding to the almost singer-songwriter-like presence he has in his songs, as rappers connect Taïro to the twinkling piano loops and stacked harmonies of a backing chorus echo bass lines and horn arrangements in dreaded-out reggae numbers.

Almost every Taïro song kicks off in one direction before revealing itself to be a completely different sort of tune.  The light organ syncopation that begins “Je ne t’Aime Plus“, the opening track on Choeurs et Ame, quickly gives way to a mid-tempo drum machine beat and a string arrangement.  Similarly, the drawn-out wah-wah guitar of “Jamais Eu” suddenly is filling in gaps between a persistent one-drop reggae groove.  Even the standout “l’Animal Geint” swells from a simple acoustic tune (though with deceptively fast lyrics) into a layered groove with complex vocal arrangements.  Whether it’s ostensibly rap, R&B, reggae, or the quasi-hispanocaribbean of “Mama“, the songs of Choeurs et Ame all offer a great deal more depth than a precursory listen might suggest.

  With his perfectly manicured five o’clock shadow and meticulously-placed dreadlocks, Taïro easily looks the part of any of the slow-jams-and-sappy-love-songs R&B singers that American audiences came to know and love during the early 1990s.  To look further, however, reveals a much more musically diverse catalog that increasingly plays up the singer’s interest in modern Caribbean dancehall music and culture.  In fact, Taïro’s latest release, Amen, sees the artist playing up that Jamaican influence with a track dubbed “Bonne Weed” and a quintessentially French take on the wildly popular “Me Hold Yuh” riddim*.  While there’s no mistaking Taïro or his music as authentically or directly Caribbean, to assume as much would really miss the point.  Despite the almost overbearing adoption of musical ideas and subject matter from dancehall that his music has recently bent towards, Taïro is still the son of an immigrant who sees reggae and its related forms as a music that speaks to and for marginalized people all over the world.  Following Taïro on twitter and facebook gives the listener the added dimension of seeing an artist who is very conscious of the idea of urban style, but reflects with a legitimate ideology.  Nobody is listening to Taïro right now, but the subtle touches- both musical and stylistic- that the artist has woven into his personal blend of modern R&B and reggae makes him quite an interesting subject and a smooth, enjoyable listen.

*This probably deserves a footnote: a riddim is, in Jamaican music, a recorded musical track that is used and re-used several times by different artists to record different songs in a process referred to as versioning.

Nobody Listens to…Among Criminals

There may be a little bit of pressure writing about a band when I know that at least one of its members will read this.  Having said that, when I remember that I watched these guys play acoustically in a park in my hometown when the Dallas stop of their first national tour was cancelled, I can breathe a bit easier.  In any case, this week brings you the best act to come out of Philadelphia since Will Smith: hard-rocking and reggae-grooving Among Criminals.

Among Criminals

I was still in high school when I first heard Among Criminals.  At the time I was pretty plugged into the community of fans that followed the band State Radio (read: I geeked out reading and occasionally posting on the band’s fan forum), and heard about a really great group out of Philadelphia that not only had some great music, but made a point of being accessible to anyone who followed the group.  I followed the group’s progress, downloaded their albums, and struck up an online correspondence with the band through the myspace page that they personally managed. 

According to Ryan Gaughan, Among Criminals’ singer and guitarist who was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the group, he and the bassist known only as “Bean” were childhood friends who reunited as bandmates upon returning to Philadelphia after time in Boston and Las Vegas, respectively.  While in Boston attending Berklee College of Music Gaughan met drummer Jarrod Pedone, who happened to come into the market for a band at the fortunate moment that Gaughan and Bean were looking to round out a band.  Among Criminals was born by fire when Gaughan introduced his prospective rhythm section immediately before the group’s first show in Trenton, New Jersey.  The trio hasn’t looked back since.

Gaughan truly has found a way to live the dream.  After Among Criminals’ early rehearsals, the three decided that they didn’t have anything better going on, bought a van, and proceeded to play roughly four hundred shows in three years (“that number inflated depending on who we talk to!” reveals Gaughan).  After three self-produced albums and sharing bills with State Radio, SOJA, Dirty Heads, and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Among Criminals went for broke (literally) and recorded their first professionally produced work.  As I write this the band is in Los Angeles shooting their first-ever music video.

The three shaggy-headed members of Among Criminals each brings a wild energy to the group’s recordings.  Gaughan lists 90s alternative rock giants such as Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters as playing as much a role in the band’s musical heritage as punk and reggae acts The Clash and the Police.  Each song is as likely to settle into a hard-edged reggae bounce or a hot latin groove as it is rise into a distorted and blistering rock song; for that matter several of Among Criminals’ songs boast all of the above. Pedone is an impressively fluid drummer, and shifts styles somewhat effortlessly as the group’s varied music demands.  Bean seems constantly in the pocket, and ensures that the bass guitar demands as much attention as any other aspect of the power trio.  Gaughan remains in the center, his soft vocals juxtaposed with his virtuosic brand of Joe-Strummer-meets-Carlos-Santana-on-amphetamines lead guitar work

All of this accompanies the righteous anger and hope beyond hope that the highly political and social lyrics of the music contains.  The group has no qualms about wearing their beliefs and ideologies on their collective sleeve, and Gaughan’s calls for an end to violence, war, and political corruption fall in line with both a musical style that is recognizably influenced by The Clash and Rage Against the Machine and a social stance that has led to the group’s placement on bills with Tom Morello and Anti-Flag (Among Criminals signed on for two shows to benefit Iraq Veterans Against War that never happened, much to Gaughan’s chagrin).

As can be imagined, Among Criminals’ songs are typically highly dynamic.  From the quasi-latin riffing of “Cold Solider”, “Fire”, and “Last Bullet” to the distortion-heavy numbers “Bare-handed Hitman” and “Smartest Man in the World”, elements of the song are both hauntingly distant and unabashedly in-your-face.  Working through the band’s discography, however, reveals unexpected surprises: almost tribal chants float over a constant guitar skank in “War”, the world nearly comes to an end in the genre-bending odyssey of “Ghost”, an upbeat funk groove belies more angry lyrics in “Step Back”, and lighthearted acoustic tunes like “Go Say” and “I See” occasionally pop out (mentally prepare yourself for the guitar solo in the latter before listening).  The pacifist ballad “Killin’ is Killin’” even features steel pans.

To note any differences from album to album would be an exercise in futility, as each album is more the result of funds coming through to record tracks that are constantly in flux.  The freshly-minted 2012 release Among Criminals even features new recordings of several songs that appeared on the trio’s earlier releases,Kill the Myth and Happy History.

It’s been four years now since the night I gathered a few friends and met Among Criminals as their van rolled into a neighborhood park in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth.  Whether it was the impressive skills each member of the band has honed on their instrument of choice or the diverse influences that form Among Criminals’ music, I always felt that the songs translate just as well to an acoustic setting as to the high-decibel rock that characterizes the majority of the trio’s shows.  In any case, Among Criminals is a band that tours tirelessly, and spares no expense in their continuing quest to make a name for themselves.  As mentioned above, the group is currently shooting their first music video for a single from what they hope to be their breakout album (an album which, by the way, can be purchased for just seven dollars on the group’s official website).  The self-titled Among Criminals is currently available to stream in its entirety on the band’s facebook page, and members of the trio still regularly communicate to fans through social media.  If nothing else, this is one of the most endearing aspects of Among Criminals’ life as a band: in addition to writing and performing good music, the group makes an effort to be responsive to those who follow their music.  Nobody is listening to Among Criminals much right now, but hopefully the hard work that the band has put into both connecting with fans and producing a powerful sound will soon pay off with appropriate success.

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.

Nobody Listens to…BLK JKS

To my knowledge, African prog-rock groups are few and far between.  This isn’t to say that this isn’t a genre that deserves more recognition or investigation, but simply that it’s one that doesn’t get much play.  BLK JKS may be working to change that.

BLK JKS

My introduction to BLK JKS was one of simple circumstance.  Not only was I the beneficiary of the it’s-a-small-world fact that the group had recorded their first full-length album in the town where I was attending university, but also the group had come to that same southern Indiana city for a set at its annual world music festival.  By the time BLK JKS’ Saturday night showcase set rolled around, I had already developed a fascination with the group and purchased their CD.  For music geeks like me festival lineup pages are enough to get excited about.

BLK JKS (pronounced “black jacks”) are a quartet from Johannesburg, South Africa that play a swirling blend of progressive rock,afrobeat, jazz, soul, reggae, and post-rock.  Formed in 2000, the group grew their sound and following in South Africa for the better part of a decade before journeying to the U.S. to record their debut with the Bloomington, Indiana-based independent record label Secretly Canadian.  Recorded in such a way as to really translate the fury of BLK JKS’ live show, and with cameos by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, 2009’s After Robots is still BLK JKS’ only full release.  Given the album’s singularity (and relative short tracklist), After Robots is all the more impressive for its wide scope and the wild abandon with which each track progresses.

Musically, BLK JKS are quite hard to define.  The songs on After Robots generally would fall within the heading of “progressive rock”, but there is a distinct afrobeat flavor to much of the arrangements, and both rhythmically and melodically the songs often touch on jazz or reggae themes.  One constant tends to be the band’s proclivity towards abrupt dynamic changes; at moment a song may be loudly sweeping with washy cymbals and distorted guitars only to break down immediately into an acoustic near-silence.  Rhythmically this same idea is echoed, as time signatures and tempos are liable to jump forward or back or sway just as frequently as the volume swells.  These traits identify this as incredibly difficult music, and leave the listener suitably impressed with both the band members’ talents, but also their arranging and composition of some of the more avant garde soundscapes that are laid around more straight-ahead melodies and songs.  In many ways comparisons to The Mars Volta are apt, though BLK JKS expectedly replaces that bands’ vague Latin-American influence with a thoroughly African one.  Additionally, The Mars Volta’s trademark quasi-falsetto screams are replaced by BLK JKS lead singer and guitarist Lindani Buthelezi’s ominous narrations.  While all four members of the quartet fuel the music in their own ways, it is often Buthelezi’s guitar work or drummer Tshepang Ramoba’s well-placed accents that lead BLK JKS on musical odysseys through space and time.  The group’s music is an exercise in anticipation: expectations are constantly subverted, and every time the listener has an idea of what will happen next the music takes a sudden turn in the opposite direction.

After Robots leads off with “Molalatladi”, one of the more afrobeat-tinged tracks on the album. Over a jumping drumbeat and staccato stabs from the horn sections, gang vocals in both English and Setswana chant a circular melody that keeps the song rotating on its head.  Following “Molalatladi” is the intense syncopation of “Banna Ba Modimo”.  Within the blender of odd time signatures that follows are lyrics that may sum up the group perfectly: “It’s the ominous and the disquiet” (the line where Buthelezi orders the listener to “Defenestrate the trash” is a close second).  Even at the points where the song becomes easy to follow, “Banna Ba Modimo” is lurching over the bar line and into different times and feels.  These tracks only lay the footwork for the rest of the album, which stretches from the ambient (“Standby”) to the acoustic (“Tselane”) by way of the scorching lead single “Lakeside” and the horror-reggae of “Skeleton”.  Each progressive track makes the high points sound louder and bigger and the quiet sections smaller and more intimate.  With a careful application of special effects and sounds to the undeniable musical prowess that the group boasts, After Robots becomes a true experience in listening.

BLK JKS

When I saw BLK JKS live in the fall of 2009, they had just released After Robots and were just beginning to cross into American music scenes.  Their tent was completely packed when I arrived partway through the set, and the whole room was filled with delay-overdriven noise.  While special effects add a great deal to BLK JKS recorded sound, when the group plays live everything is put through delay pedals, linking every instrument and every note in one echoing wall of sound.  The group doesn’t seem to be hiding behind their effects, as lives clips do exist of the band playing crisply clean, but the application of heavy amounts of special effects serves to unify the band’s sound.  Whether this is or ever was BLK JKS’ intention, their live sound condenses everything into one level out of which bits and pieces of guitar, drums, bass, and vocals occasionally poke out to accent the heavy grooves underneath the psychedelic prog-rock the group lays out.

BLK JKS did release a five-song EP in 2010, led off by the title track “Zol!”.  Recorded and released to accompany the South Africa-hosted 2010 World Cup, the EP features a more dance-influenced sound and straighter rhythms.  With this exception however, BLK JKS have largely returned to their live roots.  The group is actually somewhat difficult to track online, as the groups twitter handle @BLKJKS and page through the record label Secretly Canadian both link to blkjks.com…which appears to be a single page with a paragraph of Chinese characters.  Nobody is listening to BLK JKS right now, and while their apparent online shortcomings don’t help, the group definitely deserves a listen.  The group has been criticized as not living up to favorable comparisons to other groups, but I believe that BLK JKS’ relative singularity as a quartet of young Africans playing heavy experimental rock music makes them an interesting and worthwhile endeavor regardless of their similarities to other groups.  BLK JKS should be judged by what they are as opposed to what they are not, and I can say that the group are a talented young band with a wild sound that couldn’t be classified as anything else I have ever heard.

Nobody Listens to…Los Cafres

As the weather starts to take a turn for the sunny and warm (it’ll be this way for probably two weeks before it’s just brutal heat every day), afternoons become perfect for lying around lazily while listening to reggae music.  As such, I’d like to offer up a great addition to summer sunshine listening: Los Cafres.

Los Cafres

Los Cafres feature as a leading exponent of Argentine reggae, and are notable as much for their longevity and persistence as their music.  Originally formed in 1987, Los Cafres actually broke up and scattered to the winds in the early 90s due to a lack of attention.  Finding gigs to be scarce and having trouble getting a record produced, the band had planned to call it quits.  In 1992, however, the group’s constituent members returned to Buenos Aires (some from as far away as Canada), and picked up where they had left off.  From 1992 to the present day the group has toured and recorded tirelessly, releasing ten studio albums and playing everywhere from tiny clubs and pubs to the football (soccer) stadium at Luna Park.  With their Argentine answer to Jamaican roots reggae, the group have been producing a high-quality Spanish-language tropical sound now for more than twenty years.  And it seems unlikely the group has any plans to stop.

Los Cafres’ sound rests on an easygoing foundation of softly-played drums, bass guitar, and guitar skanking.  There is rarely anything fancy about this rhythm section, but with this style of music and songwriting, consistency is more important than flash.  Melodically the group is led by the smooth crooning of Guillermo Bonetto, whose voice never seems stretched or tense, but always pulls his lyrics along like a blanket covering the listener in his mellow lyrics and melodies.  Punctuating Los Cafres’ music are their horns, comprised of Manuel Castaño and Guillermo “Willy” Rangone.  It is the horns, and to a lesser extent keyboards, that really sets Los Cafres apart from any other paint-by-numbers roots reggae group.  When such inventive and well-placed arrangements are laid over a solid reggae base and easily approachable vocals the result is a highly listenable and enjoyable sound that is every bit as applicable for dancing as rocking in a hammock.  This is quite possibly as laid-back as music can get.

The majority of Los Cafres’ lyrical content could be classified as romantic, with love songs such as “Si el Amor se Cae” and “Dulce Muñequita” ranking among the bands’ greatest successes.  Having said that, thematically the band has spanned a wide range, from the historical (“Pirata Colón”) to the machismo-laden (“Objeto Sexual”) to the educational (“Dreadlocks” no es una moda).  Despite the broad spectrum of the groups’ lyrical content, it’s interesting to note that there is little change over time; though over the years a political song here or a deep roots rasta song there have appeared, for roughly two decades Los Cafres have been singing soft reggae love songs to their fans.  The group’s look has certainly shifted, with the members having shaved their dreadlocks, but 2011’s El Paso Gigante is marked by the same style that Los Cafres have called their own since their debut Frecuencia Cafre in 1994.

Los Cafres

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Los Cafres is their relative obscurity outside of South America.  By any standards, Los Cafres are a very talented reggae band, and were signed to Kingston (Jamaica)-based Tuff Gong Records until 2007, but are virtually unknown to most of the world.  This is the true rationale behind my selection of this group for this piece, as though clearly somebody listens to Los Cafres, but nobody I know is.  While this is certainly puzzling, I hope that my writing this contributes to the exchange of music, so that people in North America may start listening to the Argentine reggae band that covers Michael Jackson.

Los Cafres are still very much an active group, having released their latest album last year, and can be found through their official website and on twitter @loscafres.  Nobody is listening to Los Cafres right now, but their relaxed brand of roots reggae should put them on anyone’s Summertime playlist, and the shocking disparity between their success at home and lack thereof internationally is something that should be corrected in a world made so small by globalization and the internet.  Los Cafres are not Bob Marley, but to expect as much would be to miss the point.  These are just a group of Argentines who love reggae (and beautiful women) and have been singing about it for twenty years.

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.