Roots Open Air (Java Island, Amsterdam)

A festival with strong roots

Throughout its long and interesting history, Roots Festival has been introducing Amsterdam crowds to exciting new sounds and great artists, many of whom (e.g. Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Manu Dibangowho) were already hugely popular in their home countries before becoming part of the everyday vocabulary among the circles of local music aficionados.

New edition, new location

This year’s edition marked a big change as Roots Open Air, the outdoor event which concluded the festival, moved for the first time from Oosterpark to a new location: the Java Island in Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands area. Thus, On 6 July, Java Island’s Kop van Java became host to a unique blend of musical styles ranging from non-Western pop and Afro-Caribbean to funk, psychedelic and electronic music.

Roots Festival (Kop van Java, Amsterdam)

Roots Open Air 2014 (Java Island, Amsterdam)

Singing in the rain

Despite the rain showers that persisted throughout most of the evening, the diversity and quality of music on offer were more than enough to make up for the lousy weather.

I first had the chance to watch Garifuna Collective, who presented the soulful melodies and powerful rhythms of their native region in Central America. After the beautiful tunes of the Garifuna people, the volume was raised for the Colombian Bomba Estereo and their dynamic ‘psychedelic cumbia’ sound.

Still, the highlight of this year’s festival was surely the closing performance by Youssou N’Dour. The Senegalese singer and composer performed both new and old songs (including 7 Seconds), as well as covers from such classics as Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.

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The best conclusion to the event (and certainly one of the day’s extra-musical highlights) was coming out of the main stage after the rain was over to watch an incredible evening skyline…

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Real magic

While reading a collection of short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927), known as the “father of the Japanese short story”, I came across the following passage (it’s taken from his autobiographical story The Life of a Stupid Man, translated by Jay Rubin):

He suffered an onslaught of insomnia. His physical strength began to fade as well. (…) But he knew well enough what was wrong with him: he was ashamed of himself and afraid of them – afraid of the society he so despised.

One afternoon when snow clouds hung over the city, he was in the corner of a café, smoking a cigar and listening to music from the gramophone on the other side of the room. He found the music permeating his emotions in a strange new way. When it ended, he walked over to the gramophone to read the label on the record.

Magic Flute – Mozart.”

All at once it became clear to him: Mozart too had broken the Ten Commandments and suffered. Probably not the way he had, but…

He bowed his head and returned to his table in silence.

I found this passage particularly powerful, as it manages to convey very elegantly one of music’s most intriguing characteristics: its universality, that is, its ability to reach straight into the hearts of people who lived under completely different social conditions and many hundreds years apart, forging a bond between all those who feel our common humanity through works such as Mozart’s sublime opera.

And that is some real magic indeed.

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The geniuses behind the hits

In the history of popular music there have been certain groups of musicians with a profound impact on the making and recording of hit records. They consist of the session players largely responsible for the sound of many great songs we all know and love, but never cared to look beyond the names of the star performers they’re usually associated with.  So let’s get to know some of these unsung heroes…

Hidden in the shadows

Known as The Funk Brothers, the Detroit-based session musicians who performed on Motown recordings from 1959 to 1972 played on more No.1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined! Despite this astonishing feat, they were essentially uncredited  as Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971.

Consisting of phenomenal talents such as bass player James Jamerson and drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, The Funk Brothers played on a long string of classic recordings including I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Their extraordinary story is told in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002).

Looking back at their list of achievements, one indeed understands why they have been called “the greatest hit machine in the history of pop music.”

Meet The Wrecking Crew

Another group of session musicians that played a big part in how American pop music sounded during the 1960s was The Wrecking Crew. This assembly of highly skilled and versatile musicians, many of whom were formally trained in jazz or classical music, recorded practically every style of pop music in existence and worked with artists such as Nat King Cole, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas & the Papas, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel.

Moreover, The Wrecking Crew was used by legendary producer Phil Spector for his trademark “Wall of Sound”, while songwriter Brian Wilson also worked with the Crew to materialize many of his sonic visions during the 1960s, including the album Pet Sounds and songs such as Good Vibrations and California Girls.

The remarkable story of The Wrecking Crew was also made into a film, which can serve as a great introduction to the musicians responsible for the sound of some of the most successful pop music the world has ever known (such as guitarist Tommy Tedesco, drummer Hal Blaine, and bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye – one of the few female session players of that period).

The secret of Muscle Shoals

There are some special places where the conditions for making great music seem to be just right. One such place is Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The musicians largely responsible for what came to be known as the “Muscle Shoals Sound” were The Swampers (aka The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), a group of soul, R&B, and country studio musicians based in Muscle Shoals who have appeared on more than 75 gold and platinum hits in total.

The Swampers worked originally at the legendary FAME Studios, established by American record producer Rick Hall. Some of the artists they recorded with at FAME were Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Paul Anka and Tom Jones.

FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals

Immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Sweet Home Alabama (“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two”), The Swampers left FAME in 1969 to form The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, becoming first time rhythm section -consisting of Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass)- to own a studio they could use for recording and production purposes.

Several rock and pop artists arrived to record at the new studio, including The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. The incredible story of  Rick Hall, The Swampers and a small town that would become the mecca of America’s most celebrated recording artists  is the theme of the recent documentary Muscle Shoals.

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Paco de Lucía (1947 – 2014) In Memoriam

It was a year and a half ago at the London Jazz Festival when I got to see Francisco Sánchez Gomes (better known as Paco de Lucía) play live. It was to be the first and last time I would ever watch him perform, an experience I will always carry with me for the years to come.

Paco de Lucía performing in London (16/11/2012)

Paco de Lucía performing in London (16/11/2012)

There are many things I would like to write about Paco. How he mastered his art from a very young age, expanded the vocabulary of flamenco, experimented with many genres and styles introducing various ‘foreign’ elements into his playing, while acting as an ambassador for flamenco music worldwide and becoming one of the greatest musicians the world has known in recent history.

But perhaps it’s better to let the music speak for itself. Below is a small selection of highlights from Paco’s long and extraordinary career that follow his development as a musician and demonstrate his endless curiosity and constant struggle for perfection and artistic excellence.

  •  Tico-Tico no Fubá is a renowned Brazilian choro music piece (“Tico-Tico” is the name of a bird, the rufous-collared sparrow) which Paco performed in the 1960s.

  • An intimate performance of a rumba flamenca (a style of Spanish flamenco music derived from the Afro-Cuban rumba) which became immensely popular both in Spain and internationally after the release of Paco’s album Fuente y caudal (1973).

  • Paco improvising on a famous theme by Georges Bizet in the film Carmen (1983) by Spanish director Carlos Saura.

  • Paco’s performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez was a remarkable achievement (it was released as an album in 1991), showcasing his brilliant technique and ability to infuse a unique flamenco feel in this staple of classical guitar repertoire.

  • While ever expanding his musical horizons, Paco met and collaborated with numerous great artists including celebrated jazz guitarists  Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin with whom he recorded the acclaimed album Friday Night in San Francisco (1981). Thirty years later, Paco would meet Meola again in Germany for an astonishing performance of Mediterranean Sundance.

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Tales of various Stradivarius

A sound like no other

When it comes to the construction of stringed instruments, no artisan has ever come close to achieving the fame of legendary Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari  (1644 – 1737). From the approximately 1,000 instruments he made during his lifetime, 650 (including around 500 violins) survive to this day, better known as Stradivarius or simply Strad.

Stradivari

Edgar Bundy, “Antonio Stradivari” (1893)

Along with their unique sound, many Strads also carry with them a fascinating history. Like the 1721 “Lady Blunt” violin (sold in 2011 for £9.8 million), named after Lord Byron’s granddaughter Lady Anne Blunt who owned it for 30 years. Or the 1697 “Molitor” Strad, said to once have been owned by Napoleon himself (it belonged to Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, a general in the emperor’s army).

S(tr)ad stories

Given their extraordinary reputation and sky-high value, it is perhaps not surprising that several Strads have gone missing or stolen over the years under obscure circumstances. One such case occurred only last month when Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was attacked shortly after a performance by two thieves who disappeared together with his precious Strad.

The stolen violin is known as the “Lipinski” Strad and was built in 1715 (which is during Stradivari’s “golden period”, i.e. 1700- 1725). Its first known owner was no other than Italian composer and virtuoso violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), whose Devil’s Trill sonata remains hugely popular to this day.

Another famous Stradivarius violin with a tumultuous past is the “Gibson” Strad, named after its early owner George Alfred Gibson, a prominent English violinist. On February 28, 1936 it was snatched backstage at Carnegie Hall during a recital by Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who had left the Strad in his dressing room while performing on his -equally precious- Guarnerius  (a violin made by Stradivari’s contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri). When Huberman went backstage after the show, his “Gibson” Strad was gone.

Bell’s Strads ringing

Some 50 years later and after a deathbed confession by the thief, the “Gibson” Strad was finally recovered and bought by American virtuoso Joshua Bell. Its unique tone can be heard in Romance of the Violin, Bell’s first recording with the long-missing Strad.

Bell’s former violin had also been a Stradivarius. It was the 1732 “Tom Taylor” Strad, which he played in the Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin (1998), an absolute must for violin aficionados. And what a score that was…

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Sweden on screen

The best… and the rest

The other day I happened to be at an advance screening of We Are the Best!, the latest film by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. Set in Stockholm in the early 80s, the film follows the story of Bobo, Klara and Hedvig, three teenage girls -and social outcasts- who come together to form a rather peculiar punk trio.

It was my first acquaintance with Moodysson’s oevre and, apart from introducing me to Sweden’s lively punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s, it also made me curious to check some of his earlier works.

So I went on watching Show Me Love (1998),  Moodysson’s first full length film. It bears many resemblances to Blue Is the Warmest Color (‘La vie d’Adèle’, 2013), and it also sparked quite a controversy when it first came out.

But my favorite Moodysson’s title so far is Together (2000), a film about the members of a commune in 70s Stockholm. It takes great artistry to produce such a fine balance of sociopolitical commentary, satire and drama, especially so when you choose an ABBA song for the soundtrack without compromising on the aesthetic result.

Best friends

An underlying theme of all the aforementioned films is that of friendship. In Show Me Love it’s the relationship between two teenage girls who are still discovering their sexuality, in Together it’s the friendly (and quasi-romantic) bond between a young girl and a boy who both share big thick glasses, while in We Are the Best! it’s the unlikely friendship between two punks and a born-again Christian.

Moodysson’s works are marked by an utterly unpretentious style and a deep, heartfelt humanism. It’s stories about real people with real emotions, and situations all of us can easily identify with because we have been there too.

And that’s perhaps why even the cheesiest, shallowest or otherwise most indifferent songs take on a completely new dimension when heard, sung or danced to during one of these films.

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New year, new ears

To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.

Alan W. Watts

To listen to music truthfully, and to listen to true music.

To close your eyes and use new ears.

To immerse yourself in the music that is closer to your heart, the one your senses find most fulfilling.

Indeed, all good resolutions for the new year.

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January 8, 2014 · 11:06 PM