Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Old reviews for PopMatters: dZihan & Kamien, Refreaked

Another one from 2001.

dZihan & Kamien
(Six Degrees)

by Ted Swedenburg
PopMatters Music Critic

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Refreaked is a collection of remixes of tracks from dZihan & Kamien's successful Freaks & Icons from last year. The remixes, mostly by artists who are personal friends of dZihan & Kamien, do not range too far from the originals. But even if you've already got the original, it is still worth your while to get re-freaked. 

Based in Vienna, dZihan & Kamien produce a brand of Eurodance that is chilled-out, down-tempo, and very easy on the ears. For the most part, the tracks on Refreaked will work just fine as velvety background music. But repeated close listenings reveal a level of complexity, and even subversiveness, beneath an apparently glossy sheen. 

A large portion of both the intricacies and the understated resistance of Refreaked can be traced to dZihan and Kamien's intense interest in Middle Eastern, and particularly Turkish, music. Vlado dZihan hails from Sarajevo in Bosnia, home to a substantial Muslim population, while Mario Kamien, raised in Switzerland, has a Turkish girlfriend. For several years the duo have been recording percussion tracks from musician friends in Turkey, and many of these were used to construct Freaks and Icons. Once they had composed the basic tracks of Freaks and Icons, they then went to Turkey to record live musicians on top. The remixed versions on Refreaked manage to preserve the Middle Eastern feel of the originals. 

But what is truly impressive is how these songs are so subtly given an "Eastern" tinge. Unlike so many "East-West" musical hybrids, where you can immediately hear the discrete "Eastern" and "Western" elements working, and often grating, together, on Refreaked the Turkish drumbeats and Oriental flutes blend together seamlessly with all the other musical ingredients, to create a lush, integrated texture. You really have to listen carefully to hear those "foreign" components.
Take, for instance, "Homebase", a tribute to dZihan's natal home of Sarajevo, the scene of obscene (and for the most part, anti-Muslim and anti-multicultural) violence in the '90s. Remixed by UFO, it opens with a vaguely Eastern-sounding, moaning sample, which is later joined by a simple and melancholic "Western" keyboard riff, repeated over and over. The song builds slowly, adding bass, and then the rhythms of the Middle Eastern derbouka. It continues for over eight minutes, achieving a kind of chilled intensity, as other samples, some recognizably Eastern, others Western, others unidentifiable, weave in and out. All in all, a very low-key yet effective tribute to Sarajevo's multi-ethnic, Euro-Levantine heritage, and an understated lament for the heavy blows it has suffered. "Carta de Condução", as remixed by Butterkeks, is another standout. Opening with a lush and dreamy keyboard sequence, it commences to kick ass with a funky, fuzzy bass and drum riff. A couple of minutes in, the bass and drum are joined by the Eastern derbouka, and then those dreamy keyboards chime in. Then it's chill-out time, no percussion, a moment of repose with bubbly, reverie-inducing keyboards. The bass-and-derbouka kick up another storm, and the number ends with those soft, dreamy keyboards. 

What makes this all so subversive is that dZihan & Kamien simply insinuate all these Eastern elements into downtempo Eurodance without you hardly noticing. It's an insistent, insidious infiltration of the Levant, a resurrection of the spirit of Sarajevo. Coming from a country where an ultra-right, racist, fascistic-leaning and anti-immigrant party (Jörg Haider's Freedom Party) is a partner in the national government, dZihan and Kamien offer an alternative vision of a tolerant, cosmopolitan Europe, one that honors rather than vilifies its Islamic and Levantine elements. And it goes down smooth, like the perfect martini. 

Time to get re-freaked!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Old reviews for PopMatters: Steve Earle in concert, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 2001

(The reviews I did for PopMatters have disappeared from their website, so I'm using Wayback Machine to recover them. I think this is the only concert review I ever wrote that was published elsewhere than on this blog.)

Steve Earle / Stacey Earle
20 March 2001: Dave's on Dickson — Fayetteville, Arkansas

by Ted Swedenburg
PopMatters Music Critic

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My hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas, has been in a drought of sorts for the last couple years, at least as far as decent touring music acts. But we truly lucked out on March 20, when Steve Earle decided to make our town his last stop on what he told us was a seven-month tour, to support his last release, Transcendental Blues

The audience was large and adoring. We love Steve because he writes such great songs; because he is a quintessential survivor, has been to hell and back; because his music cannot be pigeonholed or easily labeled and he refuses to be constrained by musical categories; because he's a bohemian-outsider-hillbilly; and because his political stands are brave and uncompromising. And he's been coming to Fayetteville ever since the late '70s, when he first played at the Swinging Door along with Guy Clark. For all these reasons, the crowd included a much wider range of age groups than you normally see at rock events. And more women than usual. Lots of twenty-somethings, and lots of geezers like me. In fact, all the folks I saw Steve with are over 50, and we did not feel out of place at all. 

Steve's sister Stacey Earle, who's promoting her second album, Dancin' With Them That Brung Me, opened the show. Stacey performed solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and quickly won over a boisterous crowd that was dying for Steve to take the stage with her goofy mannerisms, peppiness, smart songs, and outstanding vocal phrasings. She reminds me a bit of Ricky Lee Jones. Particularly noteworthy was a song that she performed for the first time, about being lonely on tour in New York City, and her secret love affair with the Man in the Moon. 

Steve and his band stormed onstage soon after Stacey left, opening with the first three cuts off of Transcendental Blues — the title cut, and then "Everybody Loves Me", where Earle & the Dukes sound like the Beatles, and then "Another Town". A great way to open, songs faithful to the album but with more distortion on the guitars, and played with great intensity. Steve has slimmed down some, put on a full beard, but the voice is still intense and raggedy and biting. The band proceeded to play for about two and a half hours, performing, in all, 35 songs. Lots of numbers from Transcendental Blues, but also tunes ranging from all over his career, including crowd pleasers like "Copperhead Road" and "I Ain't Ever Satisfied", all played with equal passion and intensity. What's truly amazing is how wide-ranging a set of sounds this little four-man band can produce. Not only have they mastered The Beatles (and the best Beatles, circa Revolver), as on so many of the songs from Transcendental Blues. They can also kick hard-rock ass with the best of them. They can blast out the bittersweet country ballads and the high lonesome bluegrass — as on "Travel and Toil", from The Mountain (recorded with the Del McCoury Band), with Steve playing mandolin. When Steve straps on the harmonica, the group enters Dylanesque folk territory. And even Celtic — "Galway Girl" from Transcendental Blues, with Dan the manager joining the group on pennywhistle. The whole band is outstanding, but at the apex is guitarist Eric Ambel, formerly of the Del-Lords and the Blackhearts, who is forever grinding out smart, spare riffs, fills, power-chords, and solos. 

Steve put his politics out there too, albeit in a low-key manner. The tone was set by the drumset, plastered with a reproduction of that recent cover of The Nation with George W. Bush as Mad Magazine's "What Me Worry?" Alfred E. Neumann. Two years ago when Steve and the Dukes played Fayetteville, they brought an anti-death penalty banner. No banner this time, but the focus was still on the death penalty. Steve did his haunting "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)", from Transcendental Blues, about his experience witnessing the state's execution of his friend Jonathan Noble in Huntsville, Texas. (You can also read about Steve's harrowing and incredibly moving account of this experience in an article he wrote for Tikkun [September 2000]). Introducing "Travel and Toil", Steve made a pitch for union membership, and added, "No matter who you vote for, George Bush is gonna fuck you." 

During the first encore set, Stacey came back to sing harmonies on "When I Fall" from Transcendental Blues. And then Steve and the Dukes showed us they could even do funk psychedelia. Adding Steve's younger brother as a second drummer, they stormed through the Chambers' Brothers "Time Has Come Today", in my opinion, one of the great anthems of the sixties. In the second encore set, Steve made a pitch against the War on Crime. The band ended their night, and the seven-month tour, with a fine cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia", with Steve on mandolin. 

Come back real soon, Steve, and let's magnetize this motherfucker again.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Rescuing my old reviews for PopMatters: Hamid El Gnawi, Saha Koyo

I wrote a number of reviews for PopMatters back in the day, and most of them have now disappeared from the PopMatters website. So I've decided to use the Wayback Machine to try to recover them. Here's the first. More to come. This was published some time in 2001.

Hamid El Gnawi
Saha Koyo
US release date: 16 January 2001

by Ted Swedenburg
PopMatters Music Critic

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Of all the music genres produced in Morocco, it is Gnawa that has gained most circulation in the West. Jazz luminaries like Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry have recorded with master Gnawa musicians, as have Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, most notably on No Quarter. A stream of albums by gnawa musicians continues to be released; probably the most well known of the lot is the Bill Laswell-produced Night Spirit Masters (1990).
The appeal of the Gnawa is apparent from the first listen. The distinctive sound of the central Gnawa instrument, the three-stringed guimbri, resembles that of the acoustic bass. The music, moreover, is based on a pentatonic (five-note) scale, and hence is more readily accessible to the Western ear than other North African music, mostly based on Other-sounding Oriental modes. Finally, the most important point of attraction is that the Gnawa has the same origins as African-American music, for it is music played by the descendants of slaves from West Africa who began to settle in Morocco in the medieval period. 

It is the similar origins of the blues and Gnawa music that have inspired the collaborations between Western and Gnawa artists. When a Gnawa master plays his guimbri, it is fairly easy for blues-trained Westerners to play over him. But only seemingly so. In fact, Randy Weston and Pharoah Sanders' recordings with Gnawa do not really work all that well. Such collaborations frequently turn out to be not a dialogue but extemporaneous playing while the Gnawa do their thing. In effect, the Gnawa provide the "natural" base and the Western musicians provide the (supposedly) "creative" juice. This mode of engagement has become so popular, in fact, that it forms the basis for the annual Essaouira festival, a three-day musical extravaganza held since 1998. Every year the festival in Essaouira attracts more Western and "World" musicians, who jam on stage with the major Gnawa ensembles from around Morocco. I attended in 1999, and found the experience both invigorating and frustrating. By themselves, the Gnawa groups were simply awesome. But when the "guest" musicians jammed with them, the results were, at best, mixed. Great musicians (these included the likes of Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Doug Wimbush, and Susan Dayhem) frequently came in over Gnawa vocals, regularized the beat in a way violated the usual Gnawa flow, and sometimes turned the overall sound into a muddy mess. 

On occasion, Gnawa collaborations do work, usually as a result of sustained ensemble practice rather than just jamming. The work of Don Cherry, Adam Rudolph, and Richard Horowitz with Hassan Hakmoun on Gift of the Gnawa is a stellar example, and Plant & Page's collaboration with M'allim Brahim on "City No Cry" from No Quarter is surprisingly satisfying. 

But the singular contribution of Hamid El Gnawi's Saha Koyo is that it shows that the Gnawa don't need outsiders to "help" them develop and modernize their music. Saha Koyo is the result of a collaboration between Gnawa musician Hamid Faraji (a.k.a. El Gnawi), who sings and plays guimbri, and producer and jazz keyboard player Issam-Issam. The result is a kind indigenous Gnawa jazz. Unlike most of the collaborations with Western jazz or rock players, here the fit between the playing of the guimbri and the jazz keyboards is just perfect. The keyboard work is faithful to the spirit of the Gnawa, and yet turns it into something new. Issam-Issam's playing on the organ and the Rhodes piano not only meshes, but also manages to capture the mood of the Gnawa songs, which are sometimes joyful, sometimes redolent with dread. The spirits (known as muluk) the songs are meant to propitiate are capricious, neither wholly good nor evil, and they can bring blessings, or harm. 

The overall sound is rich and full, although produced by only keyboards, guimbri, and the distinctive Gnawa percussion, metal castanets known as qaraqeb. Issam-Issam's playing, especially when he's on the Rhodes piano, reminds me of 1970s Creed Taylor/CTI vintage jazz-only funkier. Hamid Faraji has chosen to sing well-known numbers from the vast Gnawa repertoire, and each one receives a fine treatment. My favorite, however, is "Merhaba", a song that welcomes and calls the spirits to the healing ceremony. (The true function of Gnawa music is to propitiate the spirits at healing rituals.) "Merhaba" demonstrates the funky side of Gnawa, moving at a fast pace, with booming guimbri basslines. The album might seem, on the first few listens, to have a certain sameness, but repeated listenings will reveal the distinct beauty of each of the songs. 

When I visited Essaouira in summer 1999, I found two cassettes from this group (known in Morocco as Saha Koyo and not Hamid El Gnawi), and I heard these cassettes played all over town-in restaurants, shops, on the street. Hamid El Gnawi not the only example of indigenous experimentation with the Gnawa form. Gnawa master Mahmoud El-Guinea (who recorded with Pharoah Sanders) has released some "experimental" Gnawa cassettes in Morocco, and there are other local examples of Gnawa jazz groups. I hope that even more examples of these indigenous experiments will become available here. It's time that the music of the Gnawa stop being treated as raw material for outsiders to play with, and be regarded as dynamic, creative and experimental in its own right.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Jewish Contributions to Middle East Music, March 28-29, University of Arkansas

Our Middle East Center organized a great conference, plus a keynote and a concert, last month at the University of Arkansas.

It featured (1) a keynote by Jonathan Glasser, College of William & Mary, entitled '“More Than Friends?” On Muslim-Jewish Musical Intimacy in Algeria and Beyond'; (2) a concert performance by Galeet Dardashit and band called Monajat; and (3) a full-day's conference, with presentations from Joel Beinin, Galeet Dardashti, Sara Monasseh, Edwin Seroussi, Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, Hisham Aidi, Jonathan Glasser, and Chris Silver. The titles of the talks plus abstracts are here; bios of the speakers are here. Special thanks goes to Nani Verzon, program manager of the Center, for all her hard work.

I was somewhat remiss about remembering to take photos, but here are two:

This is Galeet Dardashti performing Monajat, and her percussionist, Philip Mayer, who took a break from his regular job as percussionist for the Tony award-winning Broadway musical, The Band's Visit, to be with us.

And Chris Silver, talking about the great Algerian Jewish musician and scholar, Edmond Nathan Yafil.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Report on American Research Center in Egypt conference, "Egyptian Soundscapes: Music Sound and Built Environments"

 I gave a paper at the conference last December, and posted last month a bit from my paper, about Khidr and his song, "Ismi Hunak."

Here is a report on the conference from the online Cairene culture magazine Scene/Noise. It was posted in January, but I just now ran across it. There were many excellent papers presented at the conference, but the author, Tucker McGee, who I met, chose to provide summaries of just three papers: mine, Mark LeVine's and Michael Frishkopf's. Too bad he didn't cover more.

One small error in his report on my paper: I never saw Hamza El Din at Cairo's General Nubian Club, but I did see him perform at the Opera. (And I met him several times in the US, after I left Cairo.)

Monday, March 18, 2019

RIP Dick Dale/Richard Mansour (and Dale & Stevie Ray Vaughan)

Here he is doing a fabulous medley of "Misirlou" and "Malaguena" in 1963. For more on Dale, check out my earlier post on "Misirlou." I don't know if this version actually exists anywhere on record.

And, I only just found this out, Dick recorded "Pipeline" with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1987!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Nubian songs of the bitter migration: Khidr al-'Attar

Khidr al-'Attar

When I lived in Cairo (1992-96), and once work on my book on Palestine was wrapping up, I started doing research on Nubian music. This involved hanging out at the General Nubian Club, conveniently located right off of Tahrir Square, and right across from the campus of AUC, where I taught at the time. The friends I developed at the Nubian Club were all very engaged in Nubian culture, some were musicians themselves or belonged to folkloric troupes, and they invited me to lots of weddings, which always featured live music from Nubian (and sometimes Sudanese) performers. I also made one trip to New Nubia, near Kom Ombo, the area where Nubians were resettled when the High Dam completely flooded their villages, in 1963-64. And I returned to Cairo for more research on Nubian music, in the summers of 1997, 1998 and 2000. 

Then I stopped going to Cairo, not returning until March 2011, for a very short visit. I was back again in Decembers 2017 and 2018, again for very short visits. There was not time to pick up my Nubian research during those very short visits, but on my last trip I did make a presentation on Nubian music, based chiefly on my research during the nineties, at a conference, “Egyptian Soundscapes: Music, Sound, and Built Environment” put on by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). (You can see a report on three of the presentations at the conference, by me and Michael Frishkopf and Mark Levine, here.)

One of the musicians I discussed in my talk was the late Khidr al-‘Attar, who passed away in 2014. I saw him perform at several weddings, and here is a photo from one of them, probably taken in 1995.

Khidr was born in 1962 in the village of Ibrīm, in Old Nubia, and one or two reports I’ve read report that he lived there until age five. (Frankly, this doesn’t seem quite right, as his village would have been re-located in 1963 or 1964.) He was a Fadikka speaker, but he sang in both Fadikka and Kenuz (Faddika and Kenuz are the two Nubian languages.) He was a great artist, who released lots of cassettes, and I collected most of them when I lived in Cairo. (Nubian musicians released many, many cassette recordings between the 1970s and the 1990s, and this was an important means by which their music, which for the most part did not get aired on TV or radio, could be circulated and disseminated.) (Three of his cassettes are listed at; and you can also hear him on that great, 1999 world music collection of Egyptian popular music, Yalla - Hitlist Egypt).

The music played at weddings was for the sake of entertainment, for dancing. Songs for the bride and groom, popular songs dealing with themes of love, and so on. At the same time, the practice of music on such occasions was a time for the celebration of Nubian culture – modernized, for modern times – and Nubian community, as these were gatherings that brought together Nubian Egyptians, and few outsiders – other than invited guests like myself.

At the same time, everyone gathered together was well aware of the tragedy that had befallen the community of Nubians as a result of the total inundation of their homeland by the Aswan High Dam. One elderly Nubian I met in Cairo described the event as the equivalent, for Nubians, of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In the political atmosphere of the time, however, expression of such public sentiments needed to be kept muted, and so, to a great degree, Nubian political issues were to a great degree expressed and kept alive through cultural and musical means.  

 At many of the weddings I attended, a song would come on, which I came to know as “Al-Higra al-Murra” (the bitter migration). It was principally performed by and known as Khidr’s song, but if my memory serves me, other artists performed it as well. At the time, I was never able to find any recordings of it. 

When song would come on, everyone would get up and dance, and chant along with the song, especially the lines, “faradu ‘alayna al-higra al-murra,” or, “they imposed the bitter migration upon us,” referring to the displacement of 50,000 Nubians by the High Dam. The wedding, for the period of the song, would turned into something that resembled a political rally, and often people in the crowd would break into tears. 

Last year, while teaching about Nubia, I came across a video on YouTube of that Khidr song that I used to see performed during the nineties. There are several versions on the web, the first one I found was this one, available here. It's not an "official" video clip for the song, but is an interesting one, full of nostalgia-inducing photos of Old Nubia.

I learned from the YouTube vid that the song is actually called “Ismi Henak” (My name is there). Below are the lyrics (by Khidr, I believe) and the translation, on which Elliott Colla did the bulk of the work. The lyrics are fairly straightforward, but just a couple of observations. Note that Khidr refers to Old Nubia as a “civilization,” not just a bunch of agricultural villages, and the reference to the waterwheel or saqiya, the ancient mode of irrigation used by Nubians, which serves as a key symbol of Old Nubia in contemporary Nubian cultural expression. “Kom Ombo” refers to the space of New Nubia, which the Egyptian regime in the era of Nasser promised to those who were moved would be a “new dawn,” where life would be much improved, with modern housing and electricity.  

O people, they've erased an entire civilization
  شطبوا يا ناس حضارة كاملة

And killed the hopes of a black Nubia
واغتالوا اماني النوبة السمرة

The sighing of the waterwheel calls me back
بتنادي عليا انين الساقية

As they've ground up what's left of my forefathers' bones  
    وطحنوا عظام اجدادنا الباقية

My name is there, my homeland is there
اسمي هناك بلدي هناك

I myself am there, and Nubia is there
انا ذاتى هناك والنوبة هناك

Standing witness, O people, behind the dam
    شاهدة يا ناس خلف السد

Come, O Nubian man and woman!
    هيا يا نوبي ويا نوبية

Bang the drums of the coming return
    دقوا طبول العودة الجاية

They imposed the bitter migration upon us
    فرضوا علينا الهجرة المرة  

They said Kom Ombo was the verdant heaven
قالوا كوم امبو الجنة الخضرا  

We’ve lived sad nights there
    وعشنا فيها ليالي حزينة

We've walked for years, and our exile has been long
   مشينا سنين والغربة طويلة

My name is there, I myself am there
    اسمي هناك ذاتي هناك
My homeland is there and Nubia is there
    بلدي هناك والنوبة هناك

I hope in future to post some more bits from the paper I gave in December. Inshallah.