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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Forgive Me For Giving Up

I may have given up winter for good. Forgive me, because springtime comes full of promises, like a cold martini sliding gently toward you across a low-lit bar. Spring brings freedom of movement; it dots and washes the world with color; it fills the air with warmth, scent, light, and sound.

What says “Spring!” to your senses more deliciously than fragrant plum blossoms?

What says “Spring!” to your senses more deliciously than fragrant plum blossoms?

As a side note, spring also means baseball.

Standard little league-issue bell bottoms and great-fitting caps.

Standard little league-issue bell bottoms and great-fitting caps. My sporting costumes through the years.

Unquestionably the worst all around player on any team that I ever belonged to, I may also have been the worst hitter in the entire league. When I wasn’t riding the old pine, I logged time in shallow right field checking the leather knots on my mitt for tightness, and I was only ever ninth on the lineup card.

I loved the game, though – still do – and I would have given nearly anything to excel at it. But I didn’t and I gave it up. Easy to forgive me – as with many things, when it’s time for giving up, you know. So now I follow the Major Leagues pretty closely, and even pay some attention to the college game. When the springtime rolls around, I am ready for shedding layers, getting outdoors more, and watching baseball.

Anyway, enough on the side note ….

OH, Spring! You mean so many things!  One of those things is great new music, though lately I have had a number of old tunes playing. Many of these old tunes are new to me, and have come through suggestions from friends – stuff that I had missed through the years. So I wanted to return the favor. Here is a mix, suitable for the springtime, of things you may have missed – and also some brand new sounds.

Hundred Waters

Hundred Waters

In a year-end favorites post from 2014 I wrote very briefly about Hundred Waters, a brilliant electronic/ambient-folk group: “Absolutely beautiful. Fans of Bjork, Cocteau Twins, and Hammock – plug in. [Listening is] like looking down from a great height through the clouds at the rolling ocean.”

I remember clearly the writing of that short recommendation. It was quite early on a December Saturday morning and I was listening to the band’s second album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, through headphones. I was in an airplane, looking down from a great height through the clouds at the Gulf of Mexico. I had spent six nights in a hotel room – was heading home for one night – then would be off to another hotel for five more nights. I usually have trouble sleeping in hotels, and I was so grateful to have discovered Hundred Waters, because their beautiful music helped me to relax in the room and sleep well.

Something about the new spring season has Hundred Waters back on my mind, and they have a welcome, newish single, (a tribute to David Bowie,) that is a fabulous jazz-inflected number. It incorporates more straight instrumentation than usual with their electronica – saturated strings, simple jazz drums, and minor chord piano all work to accompany the absolutely fucking incredible voice of singer and lyricist Nicole Miglis.

Forgive Me For Giving Up by Hundred Waters (2016 OWSLA).

Forgive Me For Giving Up

Forgive Me For Giving Up

What a voice. These, too…

Out Alee from The Moon Rang Like a Bell by Hundred Waters (2014 OWSLA).

Boreal from Hundred Waters by Hundred Waters (2012 Elestial Sound).

And speaking of great voices, it is time to feature something long overdue on this page: Jenna Morrison’s singing and the lustrous talents of the Omaha band Conduits. All the band did in 2012 was to give us 40+ recorded minutes of near perfect dream pop, tour Europe, then …. What happened? Did they give up? They have been quiet ever since. Maybe they knew it was time, but that they have gone away with no follow-up is hard to forgive. The sound on the self-titled release is so mature and fully realized that it’s hard to believe it is a debut. They should have been massive.

This is a live version of the song, recorded at The Slowdown in Omaha for Hear Nebraska’s Love Drunk video series.

The Wonder from Conduits by Conduits (2012 Team Love).

Conduits

Conduits

Also recorded live in Omaha:

Limbs and Leaves from Conduits by Conduits (2012 Team Love).

Blood from Conduits by Conduits (2012 Team Love).

And from Nashville, the wildly original two-piece, Hammock, has a new release due 1 April 2016. This band is good in spring or any season at all – and they don’t sound like anyone else. (Comparisons to Sigur Rós and Robin Guthrie get close – and they are meant as high praise – the band’s members, Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson, are fans of both.) Here is an early single from the upcoming full-length:

Dissonance from Everything and Nothing by Hammock (2016 Hammock Music).

Everything And Nothing

Everything And Nothing

This song from ten years ago sounds as fresh as the day I first spun it. Fans of For Against, especially the fantastic lyrical and melodic sensibilities of Jeff Runnings, will dig this.

Raising Your Voice … Trying To Stop An Echo the title song from the album by Hammock (2006 Darla).

I have forgiven you.

29 March 2016

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The Potency of Symbols

Man, the South is strange. I have not spent too much time down there, and want to be careful not to paint the people and collective judgments of thousands of square miles with the same brush – but man, it’s strange.

Symbol of wisdom.

Symbol of wisdom.

Judy and I were just down in Arkansas with a couple of our dearest friends, Diane and Howard, and we were having a great time – a really fun short getaway. Because, the South is not only strange, there is also lots of upside in the South, like great food and sweet warm weather. And there are curious, charming specifics of regions, like a comfortable pace for instance, and being called ‘Mr. Matt’ by people to whom I have only just been introduced as ‘Matt.’

But the South, boy – there are things that make me pretty uneasy, too.

With our friends, we rented a cool old house in a compact, tidy town – we were walking nearly everywhere. In the center of the old business district was an open block town square with handsome sculpted gardens and symmetrical walkways. For some reason we had not walked through the town square until the final night when Howard suggested that we do so.

Ugh. In the center of the square was a largish circular fountain, and in the center of the fountain was a tall stone sculpture of a Confederate soldier mounted on a pedestal. In bold block font on each of the pedestal’s four sides was the word CONFEDERACY. The vibe cast by this town square’s memorial shook all four of us simultaneously. Then …

Double ugh. As we stood in the lamplit square, not really saying anything to one another, along the pretty main street came rumbling one of those tricked-out pickups – jacked up with gigantic tires, etc. The truck’s very loudness caused us to turn and look. There in the breeze of a nice warm night – flapping on a pole that was secured in the bed of the truck – an oversized Confederate flag.

Oh South, you are strange. Compared to the statue, my reaction to the flag was more intense – it was internal, visceral, and spooked – the potency of the symbol nearly put this Yank off of his catfish and fatback grits.

One of the kindest favors music can do for us is help us to travel in time. In my recent case, I wanted some music that would improve or erase the temporary poor impression of the South. So I traveled back to a time that I associate with growth, happiness, light hearts, and some simplicity. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of two records that influenced my listening heavily and that I have enjoyed over and over. I thought these two deserved new serious listens, and might be just the things to rid me of the ugly taste of celebrated Confederacy. I was rewarded, and I generated a few new thoughts after revisiting the following music.

First, Skylarking by XTC (1986 Geffen/Virgin Records). Some of my friends and I probably never expected to hear a better record than Skylarking. We were fans of the earlier records, and I think now that I like the five that directly precede Skylarking best: Drums and Wires, Black Sea, The English Settlement, Mummer, and The Big Express. But at the time, and for years after, the sounds of Skylarking came to symbolize a whole time for me – a time of rich personal inspiration and ambition. Skylarking was more grown up. It was lyrically brilliant, discussing big existential and philosophical ideas, and asking questions about how how to function in the world – taking on religion and class, life and death.

Strange

Strange

I found its broad range of ideas and styles, and its musical sophistication enthralling – and the band had never been afraid of being a little daffy in the name of fun.

The two bands’ stories and trajectories are different, and certainly XTC never was going to dominate the world in the way that the Beatles did, but I think there are strong cases for comparison. Both bands had the ability to cut quickly and decisively from light, boyish goofing to dropping deeply introspective nuclear bombs – they could both go from pastoral lushness to explosive pop/rock in a convincing snap. Certainly both bands were wildly imaginative and unafraid of experimentation and expanding on ideas that had been set down before them.

All of this holds up so beautifully…

Skylarking

Skylarking

The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul

Dying

The song below was originally on the UK release of Skylarking. The U.S. release instead featured the b-side for the song Grass, called Dear God.

Mermaid Smiled

And then, good old Graceland by Paul Simon, (1986 Warner Brothers).

Graceland

Graceland

Like most people at the time that Graceland was released, I suppose, I had limited experience hearing Western pop music integrated in that way with African music. (Peter Gabriel released the gigantic-sounding, African-influenced hit So that same year.) The album gave listeners an unusual balance by combining the exotic rhythms of Tex/Mex, Latin, zydeco, and multiple African cultural sounds, with the iconic,

familiar voice and heady confessional poetry of Paul Simon. His ability to make these things work together had the effect of making us feel smart.

This album played in super-heavy rotation during most of my senior undergraduate year, and became so habituated that it is a bit strange to listen to it anew now. As a whole, I still very much enjoyed it, but the songs that became hits, (especially the silly You Can Call Me Al,) register almost automatically as simple background music – nothing wrong with that.

Accusations of cultural appropriation and genre-tourism bedeviled Simon at the time of the record’s release. There was even a case related to a song on Graceland, where the band Los Lobos called Simon a straight up thief. Some of this seems quaint in light of the explosion of hip-hop – many of whose very best artists function as thieves and appropriators. It is interesting to note these social and cultural matters inasmuch as social and cultural political matters were the impetus for me to re-listen.

There are still a couple of real stunners. He is, of course, incredible with duets:

Under African Skies Paul Simon with Linda Ronstadt.

And he can be darkly funny, too:

That Was Your Mother

Certain things stick around – they become so familiar that they fall away into the environmental ambience. We become so used to songs, or streets, or statues, that they are hardly noticeable. Some of these things are mostly benign, some can still rise up occasionally and thrill us. Some come rumbling down the pretty street to confuse and even disgust.

Be thrilling, occasionally.

16 March 2016

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A Little Help From My Friends

A lifetime of collecting music to love is a bit like a lifetime of saving money – when times are tough and you can’t come up with any new tunes to enjoy, you need an “account” of old music to draw upon to get you through. But you always want to be sticking a little more into the old bank. I’m constantly on the hunt for holy money: the sweet rewards of new music – or more accurately, music that is new to me.

Bank of MUSIC.

Regular readers may remember that a consistent theme threading through these posts is the experience of music as a form of time travel. With a little help from my friends, I recently got hipped to two great things worth sharing – and both of them fit right in for experiencing music as time travel.

First, thanks to my friend Amy Farnstrom. She and I have exchanged opinions on music from time to time since we were at college together. Our tastes run close so it is no big surprise that when we would catch up to exchange suggestions with one another, (sometimes after long stretches of being out of touch,) we’d discover that we had picked flowers from the same musical garden. She helped turn me on to one of my all-time faves, Belle and Sebastian; she was always a huge fan of David Bowie; and she championed wailing guitar gods like Johnny Marr and Pete Townshend.

She recently sent me the link for the self-titled first record of the band Heron Oblivion. I got a chance to listen to the whole thing once through this morning. There were immediately “grabbing” elements that Amy knew would be in my wheelhouse – especially the wonderful female vocals and the psychedelic rock aspects of the songs. I could also tell that the record will be a “grower” and that there will be much to pull out and appreciate on repeat listens.

Blessed psychedelic wonders, Heron Oblivion.

Blessed psychedelic wonders, Heron Oblivion.

The expansive sound percolates with fantastic rhythm provided by great 60s/70s style rock and folk drumming, and by creative bass flows. Throughout the record you can depend on the sweet, dull roars and resounding flickers of psychedelic guitar. And the big star for me here is singer Meg Baird – her vocals fairly sparkle.

The time travel machine invoked by Heron Oblivion can take you back to any of the prior five decades. The opener, Beneath Fields, has the assured trippy psych-folk quality that I would associate with a smoky subterranean San Francisco bar in the mid-1960s. My immediate favorite song, Faro, conjures the late-80s and the 90s with a driving, insistent, wildly experimental pluck and flow of sound that is straight out of Sonic Youth’s playbook – including the freaky guitar tunings and the breathy lyrical delivery that Kim Gordon mastered – a mixture of spoken and sung words that convey simultaneous vulnerability and confidence.

Heron Oblivion.

Heron Oblivion.

The record is due 4 March 2016 on the Sub Pop label. You can hear individual songs, or the whole thing here, now:

Heron Oblivion – NPR First Listen

Thanks also to friend Scott Lewandowski for his recent ‘reco’. Sweet Lew and I were boys together, and have stayed in close touch ever since. He has always had a great ability to sniff out cool sounds – and he recently unearthed a band that we had missed from the early 1980s – ESG – Emerald Sapphire Gold. (They recorded 1980-1985, and again for a time after 1991 – their music was reissued in 2010 on the Fire label.) I have just been poking around on YouTube to sample the band’s tunes and every click leads to a delightful new find for me.

Funky! The Scroggins Sisters.

Funky! The Scroggins Sisters.

It turns out that we have all probably heard lots of ESG’s music because so many great bands, including Public Enemy and Beastie Boys, have sampled it. Their influence on the original music of bands like Luscious Jackson is easy to hear, too. What is so crazy is that the Factory Records’ sound guru, Martin Hannett who is associated with Joy Division, produced the band’s first EP.

ESG’s main drivers were the Scroggins sisters from the south Bronx. They created a pretty stripped down and original music that is remarkable for its variety – from weirdly dark to just funky and fun.

Lew suggests checking out this one because, “the chorus sounds like dogs barking,” and he, “loves the tambourine.”

Dance by ESG from Dance to the Best of ESG (reissued in 2010 Fire Records).

This should be familiar:

UFO by ESG from the EP ESG (1981 Factory/99 Records).

ESG.

ESG

Naked Eye by Luscious Jackson from Fever In Fever Out (1996 Grand Royal).

New Town Velocity by Johnny Marr from The Messenger (2013 Sire Records).

Get in touch with an old friend.

27 Feb 2016

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