Sunday, July 29, 2012

No More Alabama: JB Lenoir

JB Lenoir

I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me
You know they killed my sister and my brother,
and the whole world let them peoples go down there free

I never will love Alabama, Alabama seem to never have loved poor me
Oh God I wish you would rise up one day,
lead my peoples to the land of pea'

My brother was taken up for my mother, and a police officer shot him down
I can't help but to sit down and cry sometime,
think about how my poor brother lost his life

Alabama, Alabama, why you want to be so mean
You got my people behind a barbwire fence,
now you tryin' to take my freedom away from me

-JB Lenoir

The blues is about many things. Son House believed it was all about the relationship between a man and his woman. Blues have been sung about every contraption and every situation imaginable. The strain of the blues that I’ve always found the most powerful is the one that speaks of the singer’s experience.  Whether that be poverty, love, injustice, politics or a favorite drink.

I spent a month, many years ago now, locked within a compound on the border of Afghanistan.  A small clutch of cassette tapes kept me company through the long days and evenings. One of them was a C-90 with Memphis Slim on Side ‘A’ and Champion Jack Dupree on Side ‘B’.  Both were good but Side ‘B’ was full of stories from Jack’s life. Ugly mothers-in-law, noisy neighbors, racist white people, the sun going down and his dream of being honored by JFK.  He delivered each with humor and pathos. By the time I left that compound I felt like I knew who Jack Dupree was. All I really knew about Memphis Slim was that he played raunchy piano. And not only did I ‘know’ Jack’s life, I felt as if his blues had given me a glimpse into the everyday experience of black American man before the civil rights movement.

The blues of JB Lenoir, one of which opens this post, are similarly powerful.  Considered by many to be one of the all time great bluesmen, the “bluesman’s bluesman”, he was born in the deep south but moved to Chicago, the terminus of the great northern migration, as a young man.  Beginning in the mid 50’s JB wrote songs that stood apart for their frankness and clarity of vision.  He didn’t pull any punches, though his record companies sometimes did, renaming Eisenhower Blues, to Tax Paying Blues, in an effort to not piss off the President.

He sang with a high, slightly fragile voice but of difficult subjects. The way he hated the south. The war, being poor. Like a prophet from the Old Testament he called upon God to wield his terrible swift sword.   He is best remembered, though, for several fast paced songs that are part of the great American bar band songbook now: Mama Talk to Your Daughter, Mojo Blues and Voodoo Blues.

In 1967, he had an accident and died some weeks later, just a couple years short of 40. 

Given my current location, I share this brilliant, brave music, compiled in an album called Vietnam Blues for your Sunday listening pleasure.

            Track Listing:
            01 Alabama
02 Mojo Boogie
03 God's Word
04 The Whale Has Swallowed Me
05 Move This Rope
06 I Feel So Good
07 Alabama March
08 Talk to Your Daughter
09 Mississippi Road
10 Good Advice
11 Vietnam
12 I Want to Go
13 Down in Mississippi
14 Slow Down
15 If I Get Lucky
16 Shot on James Meredith
17 Round and Round
18 Voodoo Music
19 Born Dead
20 Leavin' Here
21 Vietnam Blues
22 How Much More
23 Tax Payin' Blues
24 Feelin' Good

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Away again.

This week finds me pursuing other pursuits in Vietnam.  This country is moving at breakneck speed but alas the communications infrastructure lags behind. Will see if the great gods of Cyberia allow connection and the day job provides opportunity to share.  

See you eventually.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I Ain't Got Long: The Real Bahamas

What is REAL music?  For my money it is music that comes straight from the inner part of the human soul where there is no self-consciousness, only joy.  It comes through the heart and tumbles out of the mouth and doesn’t even need instruments.   You hear it in religious chants, work songs, tribal celebrations and even when the drunks stumble home early in the morning. In India I heard it in the voice of the blind beggars who sang for alms.

It has nothing to do with polish or production. Only soul and closed eyes are required. The album we highlight tonight is about as close as you can get to the bone without killing the singer. It is pure music, unadulterated, simple and very complex and absolutely non-negotiable. Though it is sung by ‘uneducated’ probably, barely literate people who are unafraid to laugh, cough, growl and shout as they sing the music they make sounds as if it came out of the very first volcano on earth. It is hot, cutting and unrelenting. So uplifting and moving too.

It is a collection of gospel ditties, sea shanties and parables from the Bahamas sung by itinerant preachers, pick up guitarists and very powerful speakers of truth.  Many of the songs are sung by various members of the Pinder family about which I was able to find this lovely portrait.

The Pinder Family lived in the Bahamas and were descended if not in blood then certainly in spirit from a long line of Island musicians.
Joseph Spence

Joseph Spence played the guitar and sang, if you can call it that. It's hard to say exactly what he did.
He grunted.
He snorted.
He made low guttural noises, and then would suddenly break into a demented scat.
He would be singing along and his English would descend into complete nonsensical gibberish.
Sometimes he almost sounded like Popeye. But whatever it was he was doing*, you could tell he meant business.
They say he looked like he was going into a trance when he played. The man was almost certainly filled with the Spirit.
And his guitar playing was phenomenal.
Sometimes even to this day while listening to him I wonder if my ears might be playing tricks on me.
Paired along with his voice, his guitar playing could weave incredibly complex rhythms and produce some of the most intriguing music I've ever heard to this day. His lackadaisical and carefree (almost irreverent) style is guaranteed to lighten any mood, and to hear his laugh always puts a smile on my face. Most people unfortunately would dismiss this sort of music offhand, if not because it seemed strange and exotic (and perhaps even frightening!), then because much of it was gospel. But any musician, or anybody with an ear for good music for that matter should immediately recognize its value.

*Actually, the Bahamians refer to this style of singing as "rhyming", and it could almost be considered a precursor to modern rap.

The Pinder family often accompanied Spence, and together they were nothing short of a veritable music machine. Edith sang in a powerfully deep and throaty tenor that reminds me of a Jamaican reggae singer. Her husband Raymond provided a deep and rich bass, while their daughter Geneva warbled along in a flighty treble. You just have to hear them to understand, but I'm telling you it's unbelievable stuff. They sang with an incredible intensity that at times can be almost overwhelming to listen to. The music is simple, but the complexities are astounding. It's truly a wonder to behold. If you've ever heard The Incredible String Band or The Grateful Dead performing their versions of "I Bid You Goodnight" then you've heard their tribute to the Pinder Family. These groups heard the song on an album called The Real Bahamas, a 1965 Nonesuch Records release which has since been re-released. Other musicians who claim Joseph Spence as an influence include Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, both of whom had the pleasurey to meet and play with him before his death in 1984. (

This is where the blues came from. Where almost every form of music in America came from. This could be 1760 rather than 1960.  Phenomenal!

            Track Listing.
            01 We'll Understand It Better By And By
02 Sheep Know When Thy Shepherd Calling
03 I Told You People Judgement Coming
04 Don't Take Everybody To Be Your Friend
05 Sailboat Malarkey
06 Up In The Heaven Shouting
07 Won't That Be A Happy Time
08 Out On The Rolling Sea
09 I Am So Glad
10 Come For Your Dinner
11 God Locked The Lion's Jaw
12 Great Dream From Heaven
13 My Lord Help Me To Pray
14 Numberless As The Sands On The Seashore
15 I Ain't Got Long
16 I Bid You Goodnight
17 Mary And Joseph
18 Peter, You Need The Lord
19 Jesus Promised Me A Home Over There
20 Troublesome Water
21 Kneeling Down Inside The Gate
22 Jesus Your Name So Sweet
23 Take Me Over The Tide
24 When The Leaves Turn Red
25 That Glad Reunion Day
26 The Great Coronation
27 The Captain Go Ashore
28 Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold God's Body Down

Monday, July 23, 2012

Pure Kenyan Gold: Extra Golden

A while back I posted Thank You Very Quickly by the American-Kenyan group, Extra Golden.  A few days ago I found their first album OK-Oyot System going for a song in yet another struggling retail outlet.  I grabbed it and have been listening to it all weekend. This is a record that places the electric guitar front and center, whether it be the languid plucking of shantytown Luo rhythms or elongated swathes of American stoner rock.  Sound weird?  Not at all. These guys work up an entirely pleasurable aural feast that ploughs a deep, but always gentle, groove.  That it was recorded in one afternoon session is a wonder to behold.

Some of the other sounds that came to mind as I listened: 3 Mustaphas 3, Black Keys, Cornershop!

Recorded in Kenya under a canopy of personal hardship, sacrifice, and loss, Ok-Oyot System has the type of compelling backstory that seems as though it should automatically translate into a powerful listening experience. The album is a collaboration between Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari-- both members of the Kenyan group Orchestra Extra Solar Africa-- and Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff of the D.C.-based group Golden. It's a collaboration that began when Eagleson went to Kenya for a year to conduct research for his doctoral thesis on benga-- a jazzy, guitar-centric strain of dance music popular in Kenya since the 1960s.

As guitarist and vocalist for Extra Solar Africa, Otieno provided much assistance for Eagleson's research; ultimately, Extra Golden were assembled in April 2004 to create and record their unique benga/rock hybrid. Along the way the musicians were forced to overcome numerous obstacles, including a costly run-in with the corrupt Kenyan police force and the effects of Otieno's severe physical ailments. Suffering from kidney and liver diseases that were complicated by HIV, Otieno's health continued to deteriorate after this recording session. He passed away in May 2005.

The title Ok-Oyot is derived from a Luo phrase that means, "it's not easy." This expression is used regularly as an exclamation in benga songs, and needless to say it seems a particularly apt descriptor for Extra Golden's all-too-brief collaborative experience. Yet considering the misfortune that seems to have plagued the album's creation-- and the political nature of some of its lyrics--the music on Ok-Oyot System is not particularly freighted with angry defiance, outward gloom, or self-conscious poignancy. Instead it's an album that sounds very much like what it is: Four talented, enthusiastic musicians playing together as a group for the first time, patiently working through ideas to determine a common musical vocabulary.

The bulk of the album was recorded in a single afternoon, a spontaneous approach that perfectly complements the exuberance of tracks like the opening "Ilando Gima Onge". In the hands of Extra Golden, benga seems an especially malleable genre, one that coarsely blends Indestructible Beat of Soweto propulsion with fluid, almost Cuban-accented rhythms and miles of complex, interlocking guitar figures. On the opener, Otieno adds some appealing, laid-back vocals, but the 11-minute song is dominated by the ambitious dialogue between his guitar and those of Eagleson and Minoff. Both the title track and the deceptively sunny anti-Bin Laden cut "Osama Rach" were written in the studio, held together primarily through Omari's agile, inventive drumming and the group's obvious sense of camaraderie.

            Track Listing:
            01 Ilando Gima Onge
02 It's Not Easy
03 Ok-Oyot System
04 Osama Rach
05 Tussin and Fightin'
06 Nyajondere