Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Big Heart in Africa

Who could question music’s life-changing, transformative power? Music is memory. Nearly anyone can recall a time that a song brought on a comfortable smile; conjured tears of sadness; or when the pulse of an album shared at top volume in a dorm room created a cement bond. Sometimes the stakes are higher. Songs may prove to be the weight in the balance that can tip an entire culture toward survival. Likewise, the absence of songs may create a vacuum capable of bringing on a culture’s eventual destruction.

Paul Chandler is an American ex-patriot who co-founded and runs Instruments for Africa, (i4africa,) with his wife, Tama Wali.

i4africa cofounders Paul Chandler and Tama Wali.

i4africa co-founders Paul Chandler and Tama Wali.

Since 2007 the non-profit organization has pursued goals toward cultural preservation, education, and reconciliation in the West African nation of Mali. For i4africa, the stakes are extremely high. They organize events that bring people together to share artistic expression, culture, and history, emphasizing Malian’s similarities and their long-standing tradition of tolerance. i4africa‘s recent work has special relevancy due to the influence of extremist ideologies which threaten Mali, especially in the north of the country.

Chandler grew up in Nebraska, living there until his early-20s. He then traveled widely in Central America, South America, Europe, and Asia, while living mostly in California, Texas, and British Columbia. He has lived in Mali since 2003, initially working as a teacher at the American School in the capital city, Bamako.

Chandler, who is a fine musician, was exploring his own fascination with the expertise, worldwide influences, and deep traditions that are found in Malian music. While improving his skills on guitar, he also began producing concerts in his newly adopted city. Soon after settling in Mali, Chandler opened a recording studio, started a record label, (Studio Mali,) and he has worked to develop deep-rooted relationships with many of Mali’s most accomplished musicians.

Chandler’s devotion to music and his enchantment at Mali’s many rich musical traditions propelled him and he seized the chance to synthesize his Studio Mali work with the work of his non-profit organization.

The i4africa logo features a simple heart stamped in the center of a sturdy, majestic Baobab tree that is spreading its wide, wild, and generous limbs. The symbol of the sacred tree reflects the way that many who know Chandler feel about him – he is contemplative, stately, kind, and big-hearted.

The i4africa logo features a simple heart stamped in the center of a sturdy, majestic Baobab tree that is spreading its wide, wild, and generous limbs. The symbol of the sacred tree reflects the way that many who know Chandler feel about him – he is contemplative, stately, kind, and big-hearted.

The scope and reach of Chandler’s work is impressive. From the i4africa website:

“We work to empower [people] through academic and cultural educational opportunities. We organize events and create spaces that bring people together with the common goal of mending the social fabric of today’s Mali through shared artistic expression, culture, and history, emphasizing Malian’s similarities and their long-standing tradition of tolerance. [Chandler] has produced events and organized projects in Mali for National Geographic, NY Times, Carnegie Hall, USAID, Johns Hopkins/Bloomberg School of Public Health, US Department of State, UNICEF, APE Artists Project Earth, ABC, National Museum of Mali, Ministry of Culture (Mali), ICRISAT, and BONO’s non-profit organization DATA.”

Musical Pauls - Chandler and Hewson.

Musical Pauls – Chandler and Hewson.

Mali is home to nearly 15 million souls, it is landlocked, and desert landscapes predominate the nation’s north. The Niger River is Mali’s bloodline, it cuts the shape of a scythe across the center of the country and creates a de facto border – northeast of the Niger River few towns dot the map, indicating the harsh dry conditions for living.

The bulk of the population is found in the southwest, closer to the capital city. Bamako is an ancient river community; now a growing, cosmopolitan city, (home to about 2 million people,) located at a critical division of the Niger River’s upper and middle valleys.

About 90% of Malians practice Islam, and of those a majority are non-denominational Muslims. The country’s cultural traditions are closely tied to music and dance, and, as noted earlier, Mali enjoyed a longstanding reputation of tolerance and peace among its diverse peoples.

A number of complicated political, social, and economic factors have conspired in recent years to change the cultural landscape and erode the ethos of tolerance. These factors include population growth; regime change in neighboring Libya; the availability of inexpensive goods from China – and especially the proliferation of religious extremism. Conditions are considered less stable and more dangerous, and extremism threatens the flow and continuity of people’s lives by censuring the practice of the nation’s cultural and musical traditions.

Riders at a Malian cultural festival.

Riders at a Malian cultural festival.

After about ten years of teaching, Chandler left his position at the American School in Bamako to focus even more on promoting and producing cultural festivals and the other work i4africa was undertaking. In 2011 the Bureau of Cultural and Education Affairs awarded Paul Chandler a research grant titled: Preservation of Endangered Musical Traditions and Essential Related Art Forms in Mali. In 2013 he was awarded a grant to produce peace and reconciliation cultural festivals in the northern regions of Mali.

He has also made a documentary film called It Must Make Peace. The preview (linkable below) is absorbing and beautiful. In it, Chandler and his fellow filmmakers highlight and explore the unifying magic of music. Winnipeg-based Director of Photography, Brian David Melnyk, creates gorgeous frames for the shots of the musicians. The filmmakers lend the proceedings a mature and patient gravity; they  demonstrate that the nations’ songs and dances provide cultural traditions so rich that they are essential to life’s rhythms and continuity in Mali – from its cities to its tribal villages. One interview subject explains that by looking back and learning traditions, people can find a way forward:

“If our children know their culture, they won’t get lost…. If you follow the footsteps of your forefathers you can’t get lost…”

It Must Make Peace Trailer (2016 – Directed and Produced by Paul R. Chandler.)

“If our children know their culture, they won’t get lost…. If you follow the footsteps of your forefathers you can’t get lost…”

It Must Make Peace Trailer (2016 – Directed and Produced by Paul R. Chandler.)

The clip directly below features a passionate and revealing interview with musician Afel Bocoum. It helps to paint a picture of the general conditions for traditionalist musicians in Mali, and in addition to Bocoum’s guitar playing, you can also see and hear a variety of Malian players perform with traditional instruments:

I Sang a Lot for Mali-Afel Bocoum (2015 – Directed and Produced by Paul R. Chandler.)

i4africa’s work serves multiple purposes. First, the festivals themselves offer people a gathering place to perform their rituals and traditions. Additionally, they continue to teach younger generations the songs and dances of their people. And they give those gathered to perform at the festival, but who are otherwise unfamiliar with other musical and dance forms that may exist in their home country, a chance to witness Mali’s spectacular variety of dance and song. These traditions can be expected to help people understand one another and ultimately keep peace.

Festival International de Djenne.

Festival International de Djenne.

The festivals also support youth and women’s associations and hold peacemaking, community-building workshops.

It Must Make Peace debuted in Geneva, Switzerland in February 2016. It has been screened recently in Bamako, and also at the Festival International de Djenne, (which i4africa helped to plan and hold.) Plans for making the film available for world/U.S. audiences are underway.

If you would like to learn more or would like to make a contribution, link to i4africa’s Web site here: http://i4africa.org

20 April 2016

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All the Things You Wanted and All the Plans You Made

PRIMITIVES AND SMALLS

PRIMITIVES AND SMALLS

Jeff Runnings has amassed a catalog that now spans nine full-length releases. With his first solo record, Primitives and Smalls, (due 6 May 2016 from Saint Marie Records,) he has managed to synthesize not only an incredible variety of new musical tones, ideas, and moods; he has somehow also integrated his own completely distinctive sound with a lifetime rooted in meaningful musical influences. (Runnings has exerted his own musical influence that can be heard in the music of Weekend and DIIV.)

Primitives and Smalls may be his most deeply romantic and soul mining effort, and it is a soaring success. Runnings wrote every word and note, plays all the instruments, and as usual, his singing is confident and conspiratorial. While being strong rhythmically and melodically, the lyrical terrain that Runnings covers is no less fertile for being familiar. He explores heady universal themes with acid and wit – ranging from emotional torment, the psychologically destructive powers of resentment and obsession, the inevitability of regret, and ultimately, the combined powers of love and time to heal and transform us.

It is a wonder that something can sound so original, fresh, and new while also harkening flashes of the very best 1970s and 1980s post punk. Every note, every vibe, every juxtaposition sounds distinctly his own, yet Runnings gives us masterful and clever references to Killing Joke, Felt, The The, early Psychedelic Furs, as well as Duritti Column and other Factory acts of early vintage.

It is perhaps because Runnings has managed through the years to do something very elusive – he’s created his own musical language to build what is really an ethos – something that is wholly of his invention, but to which you are invited to participate. (You always know when you are listening to a Jeff Runnings song, in the same way you always know you are listening to a Cure song, or a Smiths song.)

JEFF RUNNINGS

JEFF RUNNINGS

While leading his band For Against over the past three decades, he has consistently been able to perpetrate a powerful form of refreshment, and even when necessary, reinvention. He’s accomplished this by erecting an incredibly broad and strong foundation of interesting sound and feeling that gives him lots of space to work in and add to.

That power is on display with Primitives and Smalls. Runnings uses a key-heavy approach layered with guitars and bass. In the way that Wire has been able to constantly refresh their sound by modulating degrees of rock, punk, and pop; or the way that XTC used jazz and heavy psychedelia to mix things up, Runnings’ music here stirs in classical piano, and, using the description found on Saint Marie’s Web site, he creates, music driven by Cocteau drums and Factory synths, it’s like being pulled under the ice by your own tormented thoughts.”

Perhaps most impressive is the amount of restraint Runnings shows with brilliant hooks and super catchy strokes of sound. At times the way he is able to simply toss off and understate wonderful ideas fairly makes the listener ache – think of it like waiting for a massive explosion whose bright light and shattering sounds are somehow rather made all the more spectacular and satisfying by unexpectedly imploding.

As one example, the record’s closer, My Cheerleader, washes along beautifully – evocative bells, guitar trills, and woodblocks calmly driving the song. The number waits until its final seconds to pause then blast the listener with a brief and gorgeous spray of open chord guitar. Just a blissful handful of seconds that a less savvy artist would have (and could have!) overused. The listener almost hopes for the pretty guitar to continue, but then the song and the record dissolve into dreamy synth and fade out.

Saint Marie did a killer job with design and packaging. Here is a link to terrific write up on their Web site, with a track list and information for preordering: saintmarierecords.com – jeffrunnings.

Here are two songs to check out — Maze opens the record, and Travelogue.

Maze by Jeff Runnings From Primitives and Smalls (Saint Marie Records 2016).

Travelogue by Jeff Runnings From Primitives and Smalls (Saint Marie Records 2016).

7 April 2016

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