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

e-mail this article
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

e-mail this article
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

e-mail this article
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.