‘The Light for the Heart’

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The first Arabic music I heard was in its native habitat, while riding on gaudily painted buses through Turkey, Morocco and Syria in the 1960s. Before the drivers thrashed their busted-out transmissions into second gear, they were popping in cassettes of Lebanon-born Fairouz or Egypt’s Oum Khalsoum, the sirens who serenaded the entire Arab world.

The propulsive beat went with the bad roads, wild driving and free-form mix of human and animal passengers. Even the chickens, tied together at the feet, seemed to sway in time. The singing was rich and highly emotive, but what really captured me was the hypnotic pulse of the oud, the Arabic lute. With its short neck and deep body, the ten-to-twelve-string, plucked oud looks like a sawed-off, overweight guitar, but its beginnings–it might have originally been Sumerian, Egyptian, Persian or even Jewish–are shrouded in mystery.

It was certainly Arabs who popularized the oud and placed it front and center in a musical tradition that was, until recently, best appreciated in America as the soundtrack to belly dancing. But its potential for crossover appeal was soon apparent in the West. Like rock, Middle Eastern music–in infinite variations ranging from exuberant Algerian rai (a rough-hewn, boisterous and often-topical street music) and Egyptian shabbi (meaning “people,” an irreverent, rhythmic folk music with working- class origins) to meditative qawwali (the devotional Sufi music of India and Pakistan, exemplified by the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)–had a good beat and you could dance to it. In Arabic, the word tarab means state of ecstasy or enchantment, and it’s what the best musicians try to capture. Small wonder, then, that LP copies of Port Said: Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East Captured in High Fidelity, Music on the Desert Road and The Seventh Veil brightened the otherwise drab scenery in many a 1950s suburban rec room.

A decade later, John Berberian, an accomplished Armenian oud player from New York, helped penetrate the consciousness of the Woodstock generation with Middle Eastern Rock, a 1969 fusion album that included studio pro Joe Beck on amplified yamaha acoustic guitar and fuzz. But Berberian was thirty years ahead of his time.

Peter Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) tours, launched in 1982, also helped make Arabic music “cool” in the West, particularly by presenting young artists like the London-based Transglobal Underground, which mixes dance beats, tape loops and samples into a world music stew. Also helping the crossover and performing on WOMAD was the onetime Top of the Pops performer Natacha Atlas, a self-described “human Gaza strip” of a singer and belly dancer who is half English, half Sephardic Jew and was raised in a Moroccan community in Brussels.

It is, arguably, sad that Arabic music has to be adulterated with pop influences to be palatable to Western audiences, but the artists themselves–many of whom live in France or the United States–are enthusiastic participants. Khaled, the Algerian rai singer who is among the most popular Arabic performers in the United States, rocks it up with production help from British progressive rocker Steve Hillage. Cheb Mami, another rai star, goes into the studio with producer Nile Rodgers to record “Le Rai C’est Chic.”

Aside from Peter Gabriel, the rocker with the biggest influence in promoting Arabic music has been Sting, who was introduced to rai by his manager, Miles Copeland. In 2000, Sting recorded the song “Desert Rose” as a duet with Cheb Mami, and toured with him. The song, which even made it into a Jaguar commercial, was a huge hit, and the collaborations continued. That’s Sting singing backup on “Le Rai C’est Chic,” and the rocker’s endorsement is stickered on many a current Arabic music album.


Just a few months ago, there was considerable optimism that Arabic music would “cross over” in a big way, like Latin pop, country, cajun or any number of other styles. As producer and kanun player Ara Topouzian points out, movie soundtracks–from The Crow and Dead Man Walking to Gladiator–use the duduk, an Armenian wooden flute, for a taste of the exotic, and pop stars from Gloria Estefan to the Colombian singer Shakira give Joe Zeytoonian a call when they want some oud on their records.

But then September 11 happened.

Dawn Elder, vice president of Miles Copeland’s label, Ark 21/Mondo Melodia, was in Egypt, on her way to the airport with eighteen musicians “about to embark on an almost sold-out ten-city US tour with Khaled and Hakim, who’s known as the Sheik of Egyptian shabbi,” she says. “It was stunning, surreal. Obviously, the tour had to be canceled.” Simon Shaheen, who lives in Brooklyn and is one of the world’s foremost oud players, troubled over going on with a September 22 performance at the Chicago World Music Festival. In his case, the show went on, to standing ovations; but Shaheen, born in Galilee and educated in Jerusalem, says many of the musicians he has worked with regularly have had trouble getting visas since September. “This horrible event has nothing to do with Arabic music or musicians,” he says. The Taliban, of course, banned all music, even though Shaheen points out that the Koran calls music “the light for the heart.”

Shaheen, who was nominated for no less than eleven first-ballot Grammies for his album Blue Flame, went on Politically Incorrect to, as he puts it, “talk about American foreign policy. I think the United States needs to put pressure on the repressive Arab regimes it supports. These countries have to let the people breathe and express themselves.”

Many Middle Eastern musicians are Armenian or Lebanese Christians, or non-Arab Turkish Muslims, or even Greek. The problem, of course, is that Americans have trouble telling Arabs from Sikhs, so they’re unlikely to appreciate fine political distinctions of the type Shaheen makes. Arabic music can sound like an ecstatic expression of deep humanism or it can be perceived as the soundtrack to terrorism. Fears of the latter led to cancellation of many bookings at the club level. Live Arab music almost disappeared from New York. (Sadly enough, the club scene in Dearborn and Detroit, home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, died out long before September.) According to deejay Addis Pace, some New York clubs that had featured Arabic dance music simply stopped spinning it after the World Trade Center attacks.

Moroccan oud player Brahim Fribgane now lives in Arizona, but as of September he was part of Boston’s tight-knit Arab music community. A regular with Hassan Hakmoun’s ensemble who has toured with Peter Gabriel and recorded with Morphine, Fribgane was numbed by the attacks. “For the first few days, I couldn’t play at all,” he says. “I had to break through this idea that I couldn’t play music because I’m an Arab. But on September 14, I had a gig in Boston with Atlas Soul, a UN-type of North African funk band with a Jewish-French sax player, a German drummer and an American bass player, and I found I could perform again.” Fribgane is a regular at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and loathes the idea that Arab music could in any way be associated with hate or terrorism. He hopes that it can be seen as a healing force instead. “Music is about love and peace, right?” he says.

That view is common among Middle Eastern musicians and producers. Dawn Elder calls September 11 “a setback, a step backward” for Arabic music, particularly after there had been an August 11 cover story in Billboard (“Arabic Music Moves West”) and big spreads in the Los Angeles Times and Rhythm. “We were waylaid. But this awful time has also reinspired me to spread the word about this music,” she says. “It’s not just about having a good time or a great cultural experience. It’s truly a much-needed healing force.”

Oud player Shaheen expresses the hope that Americans will want to learn more about Middle Eastern culture “because of this event that happened.” Shaheen is himself an educator, lecturing regularly about the music at colleges and workshops. He is also the founder of the Arab American Arts Institute, which organizes an annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kay Campbell, banker by day and oud player by night, helps administer the retreat, which brings together amateur and professional musicians from around the world. Campbell says she could sense “a door opening” before September 11, that “people from all over were getting into the groove of Arab music. The attacks were, obviously, devastating to the progress we were making. There is seething and justifiable anger. But this is also an opportunity to educate people about this culture that has fabulous music, great food, wonderful poetry and true joie de vivre.”

Reports of the death of Arabic music in America would be premature, however, despite the sense of setback. Deejay Addis Pace, who doubles as the head world-music buyer at a major New York record chain, says, “This has been a very robust year for Arab music, and we were very worried about a backlash after the attacks. But it hasn’t happened. Sales have maintained. Four of our top five world-music sellers right now have a connection to the Middle East. I guess people want to understand that part of the world.”


Fabian Alsultany, manager of the Moroccan gnawa virtuoso Hassan Hakmoun, says the the cross-pollination among world performers has opened arms wide to Arabic music. Alsultany is himself half Iraqi and half Cuban, so crossing over between cultures is natural to him. Alsultany also deejays in New York, and he says people are still asking for Natacha Atlas and such unique fusions as MoMo, an electronic band from Morocco, and Badawi, Israeli desert music with a reggae dub overlay.

The crossover music is so strong, and so popular, that it threatens to swamp the modest movement that is attempting to preserve traditional Arabic performers. The Egyptian classical composer Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab, who died in 1991, viewed the western pop influences in shabbi and rai as a distressing development. “The new wave singers have damaged the music scene with their songs,” he said. “In Europe, they are not attempting to replace the ‘old with the new,’ or classical with modern, as is happening now in Egypt.”

But purity is hard to find in any musical tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, John Berberian, despite his having given birth to the first Middle Eastern fusion album, is frequently cited by traditionalists as the oud player with the truest sense of kef, or Armenian soul. Berberian, now living in Massachusetts after many years in New York and New Jersey, is still doing what he has always done, playing ethnic club dates, performing at Armenian and Greek dances, parties, weddings and anniversaries. “I’m still working,” he says. “One club where I play, the Middle East in Cambridge, suspended operation for a couple of weeks. The name above the door was not very attractive for a while. But they’re back in commission.” Most Middle Eastern musicians are hoping that they’ll have a similar experience. A pause to reflect and heal, then back to the seriously peaceful business of making music that is “the light for the heart.”

Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, and author, most recently, of Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, just published by the Sierra Club.

Horns of plenty: the Canadian Brass blends harmony and humor

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Horns of plenty The Canadian Brass blends harmony and humor

They are almost certainly the only internationally renowned classical ensemble to have posed for an album cover in flashy sunglasses. And when the Canadian Brass performs ballet music, its five members leap about the stage. Such antics have earned them some backhanded compliments – one critic described them as “the Harlem Globetrotters of brass ensembles.” As the Toronto-based quintet approaches its 20th anniversary next month, the group is striving for more respect. For its most recent recordings and its current tour, the group has teamed up with the principal brass players of the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony orchestras to play works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Venetian Renaissance composers. But in concert, members of the Brass still preface numbers with lighthearted patter. It is a way of reaching out to people who find classical music intimidating – or those who equate brass instruments with marching bands. Indeed, the group’s tuba player, Charles (Chuck) Daellenbach, describes the five musicians as “missionaries of brass.”

The group has attained a level of commercial success that some pop stars would envy. Last month, an estimated 65 million television viewers watched them play the Canadian and American anthems with U.S. trumpeter Doc Severinsen at the start of major league baseball’s all-star game in Anaheim, Calif. And on Aug. 18, the musicians will perform another sold-out “triple-brass” concert with their New York and Boston colleagues at the prestigious Tanglewood summer music festival in western Massachusetts. According to one music industry executive who has worked closely with the group, the ensemble earns more than $2 million a year, before expenses, through concerts and sales of more than 20 albums. When the musicians first came together, the repertoire of music written for brass ensembles was small. But the group has proven that it can dazzle crowds and even critics with everything from Johann Sebastian Bach fugues to George Gershwin show tunes.


Daellenbach and trombonist Eugene (Gene) Watts, the American-born founders and only remaining original members of the group, are the ones most likely to step up to the microphone and crack a few jokes. Watts, who had put himself through college by leading a Dixieland band, came to Toronto to become the principal trombonist of the Toronto Symphony. There, he met Daellenbach, a graduate of the University of Rochester’s renowned Eastman School of Music who had accepted a music teaching position at the University of Toronto. The other members of the ensemble also have strong ties to the United States. The lone Canadian-born member, Fred Mills, originally from Guelph, Ont., was the principal trumpet player of the Houston Symphony Orchestra early in his career. He and the other trumpeter, Ronald Romm – who was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic by the age of 18 – have been with the group from the early 1970s. French-horn player David Ohanian performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 11 years before becoming the Brass’s newest member in 1986.

In the early years, most of the Brass’s performances were children’s concerts in southern Ontario schools. A breakthrough came in 1977 when the quintet became the first Western chamber group to tour mainland China. Two years later, they appeared at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Since then, they have also had considerable recording success. Their 1987 Dixieland album, Basin Street, remained for 42 weeks on the crossover chart – the top-selling albums in a pop vein by classical musicians – of the U.S. music industry’s Billboard magazine and sold an impressive 120,000 copies. Last year, defying all conventional wisdom, the group recorded the first complete brass transcription of Bach’s demanding Art of the Fugue, usually performed on solo organ. The album received rave reviews in Europe and North America – and sold 40,000 copies.


With more than 150 concerts a year and many long days in the recording studio, the Brass’s schedule is hectic. Their latest release, on CBS, is a triple-brass collection of Venetian Renaissance music titled Gabrieli/Monteverdi: Antiphonal Music. As a result of a bidding war, their next recording will bear the Philips label. Expected by December, it will feature triple-brass versions of Beethoven orchestral works, including the Fifth Symphony. Members of the Brass point out that the classical community has traditionally frowned upon the adaptation of musical compositions to instruments for which they were not originally composed. “But we have proven that audiences want this,” said Daellenbach. “You’re viewing a great masterpiece from another angle, and it has its own validity.” Another project in the works is an album of Kurt Weill music. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. “My nephew is into rap music and he is convinced he could write something for us,” said Daellenbach. For the group that has won over millions of listeners, success is a theme with seemingly unlimited variations.

PHOTO : Canadian Brass (from left) Ohanian, Mills, Daellenbach, Romm, Watts: reaching out

>>> View more: Songs of the sirens

Songs of the sirens


The Lilith Fair, a women’s rock-music festival named after Adam’s first wife, sold out its first four shows. Concert promoters, mostly middle-aged men, initially were opposed to the idea of a women’s music festival because they did not think it would feature enough diversity.

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They read tarot cards on the grass in the afternoon sun and danced under the moon to the sounds of Tracy Chapman. And before they left the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., a number of women-faced with lengthy lineups at the ladies’ rooms-took matters into their own hands and simply went into the men’s. Welcome to Lilith Fair, an event organized and headlined by Canada’s Sarah McLachlan, that is changing the nature of summer rock festivals. Dubbed everything from “Chickapalooza” to “Estrofest,” Lilith Fair offers a kinder, gentler alternative to the aggressive mosh-pit scenes of male-dominated events like H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza. At the Shoreline ear- lier this month, the sold-out crowd of 22,000-four girls to every boy-enjoyed eight hours of music by 10 female acts that ranged in styles from jazz and blues to alternative rock and pop-folk. Whether it was the precise folky lyrics of Suzanne Vega’s Luka, the emotive, soaring vocals of Paula Cole’s Me or the funky acoustic pop of Jewel’s Who Will Save Your Soul, Lilith showcased thoughtful, introspective songs. Later, when Chapman sang her anthem, Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution, it seemed to underscore Lilith’s social significance. Said Vega: “I feel like I’m taking part in something historic, something that’s never really been done before.”

In fact, Lilith Fair continues a tradition that began in the 1970s with women’s music festivals featuring the likes of folksingers Holly Near and Ron- nie Gilbert. But those events were small, even quaint, by comparison-socially conscious, Birkenstocked gatherings that had little commercial impact within the music industry. By contrast, Lilith Fair-named after Adam’s rebellious first wife-is an economic force to be reckoned with. The first four dates of its 35-city North American tour are sold out, in 10,000- to 22,000-seat venues, making Lilith already this summer’s biggest ticket. By the time the all-woman tour rolls into Canada next month (playing Toronto on Aug. 15 to 16, Montreal on Aug. 17, Calgary on Aug. 22, and winding up in McLachlan’s home town of Vancouver on Aug. 24), a rotating roster of 51 acts will have given nearly half a million concert-goers an antidote to the angry messages of testosterone-fuelled rock.

Ironically, it was the raging, emotional blasts of Alanis Morissette that paved the way for Lilith’s more hopeful brand of fem-pop. Ever since Morisset- te’s Jagged Little Pill album hit sales of 15 million copies, the music industry has begun waking up to the commercial potential of singers like Jewel, Cole and McLachlan. Still, Terry McBride, McLachlan’s Vancouver-based manager and a partner in Lilith, remembers encountering resistance to the idea of an all-woman tour when he began booking venues last September. “Most con- cert promoters are guys in their 40s and 50s,” says McBride, “and some didn’t think an all-woman tour offered enough diversity.” According to Vega, who was around during pop music’s earlier flirtation with female musicians in the 1980s, the same attitude prevails at many radio stations. “A lot of program- mers are older men who think of women as a ‘type’ of music,” she says. “They don’t see that women play many different styles.”

That diversity comes through loud and clear in Lilith’s lineup, especially on the smaller, secondary stages that feature up-and-coming talent. McLachlan and McBride also show a commitment to Canadian artists. Montreal’s Lhasa, an expatriate American of Mexican extraction, may well be Lilith’s most exotic addition, blending Hispanic, gypsy and Parisian cafe music like a globe-hopping Edith Piaf. Meanwhile, Dayna Manning of Stratford, Ont., only 18 and still in braces, has a spirited, confident debut album of modern folk, Volume 1, out on EMI. Mudgirl, led by Vancouver singer Kim Bingham, leavens crunching guitars and slamming drums with a sunny, buoyant chorus on songs like the rocking This Day. And Tara MacLean, also of Vancouver, sings rich, moody ballads for the same record label, Nettwerk, that has fostered McLachlan.

But Lilith’s most singular new Canadian talent is Vancouver’s Kinnie Starr. Combining hip-hop beats, choppy rhythm guitar and provocative rap, Starr wowed the crowd at the Shoreline with a solo set. Relaxing backstage after her per- formance, Starr was enthusiastic about Lilith’s feminine focus. “It’s nice to be around other female players to see what they’re doing, what equipment they use and just to talk,” she said. “When I go into a recording studio and it’s only men, I feel intimidated. Here, I feel totally safe and confident.”

That sense of community is exactly what McLachlan had in mind when she con- ceived Lilith Fair last summer, with a successful trial tour of four cities. At the same time, with corporate sponsors who donated money to charities rang- ing from an AIDS organization to a rape and incest hotline, Lilith is making a highly visible statement about its organizers’ social concerns. But McLachlan does not see her baby remaining a girls-only club for long, and says she wants to broaden it in future to include male singer-songwriters. “There are a lot of great men out there like [Toronto musician] Ron Sexsmith, who maybe aren’t getting all the recognition they deserve,” she says. “I’d like to bring them into the fold and spread it around.”

>>> View more: Rainforest World Music Festival 2011

Rainforest World Music Festival 2011

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A to Z: From Algerian Oud Dudes and Accordions to Zithers and Zydekats

In an age when cell phones are common around the world and the connectivity of social media is growing like wild fire (Facebook, for example, has more than 750 million international members), ideas and music are circulating at an unprecedented rate. In this climate, the purity of musical styles is less defined and a world music festival such as the annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Borneo presents traditional music of many lands often tinged with influences of other genres, instruments, and sounds of the 21st century. Perhaps this is not surprising on an equatorial island in Asia, where remote longhouses have solar panels and the indigenous sape lute is now heard through amplifiers.

Certain themes emerged at the RWMF that cut across continents. Lost and found languages, instruments, and patterns of thinking were among them. Musicians from different continents spoke about singing in (saving) their languages, which were previously banned such as group members from Startijenn (meaning “energy”) in Brittany, France, whose parents fought for the language of Breton rather than the more dominant, national language of French.

Conversely, in Louisiana, kids were punished for speaking Cajun French rather than English in school. Vivacious violinist Lisa Haley, who is clearly proud of her 140-year-old tradition, and sings in the French Cajun dialect with her Zydekats band spoke of “Cajun music being banished to the garage. Because it was practically forbidden when I was in high school, I played it out of spite.”

At the festival there were also multi-lingual groups like the electrifying bhangra band, Kissmet, who rock out, singing in Punjabi, Hindi, Sanskrit, and English, which makes sense since they grew up hearing Gospel church music in the same neighborhood in England along with Hindu devotional songs and prayers from the Mosque. This blender mix of languages and sounds was a normal, daily occurrence for this group composed of three talented Indian Sikh brothers–who have never been to India–along with members from other lands. Ron Singh said his Dad liked North Indian music, while his Mom preferred Elvis.

Ora Barlow, a Maori woman from New Zealand spoke of over 200 indigenous Maori instruments, which were lost when Christian missionaries discouraged their usage and then of a recent revival of some, including bullroarers and ocarinas associated with ancient myths of their people and land. Sandy Scofield, a First Nations Canadian musician referred to North America as Turtle Island, reminding us the lyrics of the traditional songs and pattern of thinking emphasize respecting the ancient ways, and honoring the elders, community, and sense of place. Along with her trio Iskwew, (meaning “woman” in Cree) they sang only social songs in public, reserving the ceremonial repertoire for actual rituals in their native land.

“The voice is one of the oldest, most ancient sounds used in struggles, resistance, and healing,” explained Ora of the Pacific Curls band, whose members span across continents. Song lyrics are a window into culture, and this was clear at the festival whether singing about the Maori moth and flute goddess or a tune titled, “Paper In Your Shoe.” Lisa Haley explained there were three reasons for this: to cover up a hole in your shoe, to store money rather than in a bank, and to write down someone’s phone number at a dance. The Sisters In Song, We Are Strong vocal workshop was a chance to share these common bonds between outstanding and powerful women performers. It also affirmed that workshops are the very heart of the festival.

The intersection of music and repression was another theme, which emerged as musicians from Iran, Australia, and Ireland each addressed this topic. The hearty Irish balladeer James Riley (who sings about coalminers poor working conditions) from Paddy Keenan’s band said: “We were not allowed to play Irish music in the 1600s and in the 1700s we fought to keep our music, which is an oral tradition passed from person to person sitting around the table.” David Martin of the eclectic Australian band Kamerunga added that some of their songs speak of pain, suffering, and freedom.

The soulful Senegal griot, Malike Pathe Sow commented how difficult it is to separate political and artistic freedom, adding, “It is the role of the artist to tell the people what is really going on.” And the poignant vocalist Mamak Khadem reminded us women in Iran don’t have the freedom to perform as she does, since she now lives in the United States. Victor Valdes, the charismatic Mexican harpist who has performed for royalty, suggested if musicians ruled the world, there would be harmony.

Each group included some indigenous instrument in this world music festival, yet most ensembles reflected a contemporary approach, call it fusion, or as the musician Zurab Gagnidze from the Republic of Georgia in the band The Shinn (meaning “coming home”) explained, he heard his grandmother sing Georgian folk music when he was three years old and as a young man listened to the Beatles, whose sound went through the Iron Curtain. He said, “We mix our music with flamenco and jazz and so on. If something is good, we want to integrate it into our music. It is a peace-making music.”

But all the workshops were not peaceful. At the Euro Exchange session, after hearing some music from Lapland, one of the Polish musicians from the Warsaw Village Band skillfully held forth on a 140-stringed hammered dulcimer and then eyed members of the Finnish band, Frigg (who play “Nordgrass”) and said,” The Swedes took everything from us when they occupied Poland; now they play polkas.” But Alina Jarvela, who had characterized, her own instrument, the violin as “pretty boring,” shot back quickly, “We are not Swedes; we are from Finland.”

We did hear polkas from Poland, Finland, Brittany, and the US along with other dance forms from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Italy, Ireland, Kenya, Scotland, and Senegal. The audience went with the groove, regardless if it was merengue, mariachi, a beat box or a Baroque gavotte. Dance provided an international cultural union transcending other barriers.

The Rainforest World Music Festival happens every July in the large state of Sarawak, East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. The festival was founded 14- years ago by Canadian musician Randy Raine-Reusch, who still works as the Artistic Director today. Collaborating with hard-working locals from Sarawak, he has crafted a truly outstanding festival. Many of the returning audience members who make the annual pilgrimage have come to trust the artistic direction of the festival believing, even if you have not heard of many of the groups, you can expect an outstanding program on each night’s concert and an inventive interplay at the workshops.

Musicians from over 20 countries perform in three days of evening concerts alternating on two outdoor stages at the edge of the rainforest while the afternoons are reserved for more intimate thematic workshops in a variety of venues scattered around the inviting Sarawak Cultural Village site at the foot of Mount Santubong.

This appealing cultural village is set around a lake; it’s easy to walk from one longhouse to another although the property spans 17-acres with trails through the rainforest. The village, which is a living museum spotlighting seven of the 27 distinct ethnic groups living in the area–through architecture, crafts, cuisine, music, and dance–is well worth a visit any time of year. It’s a place to experience the daily cultural performance in their theater, try a Penan blowpipe, listen to the local sape lute (played below a lovely tree-of-life mural) at the longhouse of the Orang Ulu (a collective term for people of the highlands), watch weaving in the Iban house or learn about sky burials near the carved totem pole and taste the sweet sago delicacies outside the Melanau tall house.

The Sarawak Cultural Village has received awards acknowledging the preservation of music, dance and culture. General Manager, Jane Lian Labang added: “We want to strike a balance between a dynamic culture for tourists as well as instilling cultural pride of the people of Sarawak.”

During the 2011 RWMF, the centrally located lake offered a welcome surprise. An ensemble of women from the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, wearing leaves they had collected and sewn together, played water music. This was not Handel’s Water Music, but a semi-circle of a half-dozen women standing waist-deep in the lake as they “played” the water as their instrument. The Leweton Women’s Water Music group sliced, diced, slapped, sloshed, pushed, cupped, and gathered the water, creating a myriad of rhythms and timbres inspired by the sounds of nature: waves, dolphins alongside a boat, thunder, and a rain shower. The audience, myself included, was mesmerized.

This elemental performance was indeed a traditional music passed down from their grandparents without interference from the 21st century. The women had never left their country before this trip and each day was filled with something new. Among the long list of firsts for them, Cecelia Lolonun mentioned riding an escalator at the airport, seeing an orangutan, and hearing a piano.

While listening to the Leweton Women’s Water Music was a personal highlight of the festival for me, there were other musical moments that also held great resonance. One workshop featured modal music with musicians from Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, and Bulgaria. Particularly entrancing was the solo by Balkan wind player Theodosii Spassov, who combined traditional kaval playing (splitting the air column while holding the instrument at an oblique angle) along with circular breathing and contemporary techniques offering different tone colors (occasionally using a trumpet embouchure) and sometimes adding multi-phonics, simultaneously singing and playing in a virtuosic display, while seemingly channeling Eric Dolphy. He literally blew me away.

At the end of this workshop was a playful improvisation: the kaval player interacted with the Tunisian oud player Jean-Pierre Smadj (pronounced “smudge”), who seemed to smudge his samples, performing on his Apple laptop laced with humor. He gently swayed back and forth, putting body and soul into his “ax” while creating interesting layers with pops and clicks along with the Algerian oud master Mehdi Haddab, the other oud dude from DuOud, who at times sounded like Jimi Hendrix. Their sounds mixed with the arresting vocals of Persian musician Mamak Khadem, doubling on the daff frame drum (associated with dervishes).

The biggest challenges of the festival for me were selecting which of the workshops to attend (since three were held simultaneously) and listening to interfering audio issues at workshops where the interactions between musicians from different groups often created tasty new sounds. In spite of these concerns and the three days of travel to get there, I plan to return.

Dato Rashid Khan, C.E.O. of the Sarawak Tourism Board says: “Please come and see the nature, culture, and adventure that we have to offer you.” I hope to do just that, exploring the natural wonders in the Malaysian state of Sarawak as well as a festival leaving both body and soul sated. After all, where else can you discover such diversity coupled with high-quality musicianship from around the globe featuring Masters of the Sape from Borneo, water music from Vanuatu, impressive finger-picking from Colorado’s Blue Canyon Boys playing tunes like “No Worries in My Pocket” and “The Jalapeno Flashback?”

The Rainforest World Music Festival is a place to soak in the joyous music and dance from groups like Kenge Kenge from Kenya, and the truly electrifying bhangra band Kissmet, asking the audience to “scream from their hearts”. Hope to see you at the 15th anniversary celebration in the rainforest next summer, where the range of music is only rivaled by the biodiversity of nature.

For More Information

The Rainforest World Music Festival–www.rwmf.net

The Sarawak Tourism Board–www.sarawaktourism.com

The Malaysian Tourism Board–www.tourism.gov.my

Borneo Adventure–www.borneoadventure.com

Damai Beach Resort–www.damaibeachresort.com

Iris Brooks is a writer specializing in cultural and travel-related topics. She and photographer Jon H. Davis are a photojournalism team for Northern Lights Studio

Country Goes Pop!


The entrance of country music into mainstream culture is examined, focusing on crossover bands that span the differences between country and popular music. Topics include the mixing of rock and roll and country melodies, and the adoption of contemporary expressions and word usage for lyrics.

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While the country-music industry has been unable to launch enough new stars, some of its hottest acts are playing the glitz-and-glam world of pop for all it’s worth.

On the surface, the country-music industry looks like it has never been more prosperous or its performers more popular. The hottest acts are all over the place:

*the breakthrough trio Dixie Chicks plays Lilith Fair, the tour circuit featuring musical divas from diverse genres;

*hit-maker Alan Jackson performs at a concert in Brazil, where a bilingual version of his I’ll Go On Loving You is climbing the charts;

*at glitzy, music-award ceremonies, Faith Hill wins more trophies than she can carry;

*Kenny Chesney has a music video for his six-week chart-topper How Forever Feels that is raunchy enough for MTV;

*two of this year’s top three touring musical acts (the George Strait Country Music Festival and Shania Twain, following only the ageless Rolling Stones) are both considered country, depending, of course, on who you talk to; and

*there are even rumors of the omnipresent Garth Brooks, country’s perennial megaseller, cutting an uncharacteristic pop-rock album, In the Life of Chris Gaines–a move that would probably put him over the hundred-million-album sales mark.

Along with unprecendented radio, television, and film exposure, international touring and record sales of country artists are at all- time highs. Yet despite the appearance of industrywide success, overall record sales have depended on just a relative handful of key artists, whose Top Ten hits have dominated this year’s country and, frequently, pop charts: Twain (Come On Over and The Woman in Me, each of which has sold well over 10 million albums), Dixie Chicks (Wide Open Spaces), Hill (Faith), and Jo Dee Messina (I’m Alright). “Living legends” like George Jones (Cold Hard Truth) and Kenny Rogers (She Rides Wild Horses) produced hit albums, while Tim McGraw (A Place in the Sun) is being touted as the Second Coming of Brooks, who, with some ninety-five million albums sold, continues to sell from a formidable list of proven hits.

Yet even as Twain and Brooks sell millions of albums, there’s trouble on the home front in Nashville. There is not enough gradual development of the new acts launched in Music City each year, and everyone’s paying for it. Some labels are disappearing, and the survivors are downsizing staffs and cutting off songwriter stipends, alienating traditionalist fans in the process.

‘Disposable Acts’

“The newer acts are disposable like pop acts and have a life of two years,” says Barry McCloud, Nashville-based author and musicologist. “This is possibly a sign of the times, or the fact that radio does not give the necessary support, and the acts, in many cases, do not have a firm fan base.”

“The people at the helm of the record companies have no idea of what has gone before. They look at current trends only,” insists McCloud, who has been observing the country-music scene for over thirty years. “People like Garth, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba McEntire are selling in large numbers. In country music, there have always been about twelve acts that sell in big numbers.”

The solution? “Nashville needs a system that will train people,” explains McCloud, pointing out that instead of signing a crop of thirty-plus acts each year, record companies “need to look back to the past and utilize the farm-system approach” in developing new acts. “In the past, all the major labels had ‘cadet’ labels that released initial singles,” he recalls.

The problem of a limited “star system” in Nashville recording circles may have its roots, ironically, in the unbridled optimism that struck the industry with the arrival of the talented “Class of 1989” (Brooks, Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin-Carpenter). Country- album sales almost tripled over the next five years, increasing from $724 million in 1990 to almost $2.1 billion in 1995. Yet after reaching record heights in that year, country-album sales sagged, increasing by only 2.7 percent by last year. (The gain was largely due to one artist: Brooks, who accounted for 20 percent of the nearly 73 million albums sold, according to SoundScan, which tracks sales.)

As a result of sales leveling off, major labels have fired a number of executives, and Nashville’s leading song publisher halved its Nashville roster last October, citing declining royalties. Meanwhile, mergers are costing more jobs in the area. Some see a parallel to the mid-1980s, when the country-music industry almost self-destructed following the boom started by the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy.

However, Nashville may just be a victim of its own meteoric success. As the coffers filled up, the big labels built expensive office buildings, gave employees raises, and hired more people. Now those companies are desperate to cut costs, and small labels like Rising Tide, Magnatone, Almos Sounds, Imprint, Decca, Tower, Challenge, and Favor have sadly all closed their doors in the past couple years.

And it’s not only the new acts who are suffering. Diehard fans of traditional country music are complaining about being sold out by money-hungry acts who are ignoring their musical roots and crossing over into the arena of mainstream pop music.

“We turn to a country radio station and hear noncountry music that’s being called country, and the industry tries to pawn it off as country,” says a disgruntled fan, “Sbickta,” in opinion forums on the Internet edition of Nashville Digest. “But real, traditional fans know that this isn’t country. Believe me, I heard songs on ‘pop’ stations in the seventies and eighties that sounded just like today’s so-called country music.

“So-called country music of today is bland, boring, pop music that has fiddle and steel added to try and fool listeners into believing it is country. Fans of real country music know better!” declares Sbickta. “As for Faith Hill … and others like her … the industry people make these folks what they are today. The fans don’t have much of a say in the matter anymore.”

Musicologist McCloud concurs: “The major country acts, in some cases, have eroded the ‘real country’ content, while others like George Strait and Alan Jackson have appealed to the public who are largely not being catered to by country radio.

“This is not just the record companies. This also applies in large part to publicists and definitely radio stations. So many stations that now play country were not so long ago formatted as rock or pop stations,” adds McCloud.

Some fans take it one step further. “No one is singing country music anymore. But no one in power cares because there’s more money to be made in pop music,” laments “Vagabon” on the Internet forum. “I have stopped discussing music with people because I’m so tired of hearing ‘I love country music–I have every Garth and Shania album!’ ”

McCloud takes a more philosophical approach. “The media love to pigeonhole musical styles rather than say there is good and bad music. What may be called country because it emanates from Nashville may be called rock if it comes from Seattle,” he says.

One such singer who may be hard to pin down musically is Mark Wills, winner of this year’s Top New Male Vocalist at the 34th annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards. Hailing from Blue Ridge, Georgia, Wills, 27, epitomizes the new generation of Nashville artists: eager to make music as well as a name, but keeping well in touch with the musical influences that continue to shape country’s sound.

“I think that country is basically Everyman’s music and so, essentially, is what we call pop. I think that pop is recognizing the great music that is out there, whether it be country or any other genre,” says Wills, who had three No. 1 singles in a row on the country charts–I Do (Cherish You), Don’t Laugh at Me, and Wish You Were Here.

Wills’ musical roots are a mix of traditional and country. “I can definitely see myself writing pop songs. I grew up listening to Journey and Bon Jovi at the same time I was listening to Steve Wariner and George Jones,” he says, adding that one of the singles from his current album, I Do (Cherish You), was written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill and recorded by the pop group 98 Degrees, so he is familiar with the great songs that can cross genres.

“I’m definitely paying attention to the quality of songs that I record, and I am sponging up as much knowledge as I can from the great songwriters whom I’m fortunate enough to work with,” says Wills. Meanwhile, for Wills, performance is everything. “I really love the chemistry our band has when we’re playing a show. I love to do a Journey tune and the band totally rocks! I really like to throw in a little rock in my show for fun.”

Wills’ well-received intermingling of rock and country may be a window to today’s state of music. Notes McCloud: “Looking back and comparing acts from the eighties who were thought to be too pop, such as Holly Dunn, Lee Greenwood, and even the Eagles, they now sound downright country next to some of today’s crop of acts.

“Some of the songs recorded now are cliche-ridden and would have been consigned to the waste bin instead of trying to achieve higher levels,” he reflects. “It would seem that, not only in country but in all forms of communication, successive generations rise to their own level of mediocrity.”

Intelligence Insulted

“It’s not a problem for artists to branch out and try different formats and to try and make some extra money for themselves,” insists Vagabon. “But it’s a big problem when the radio stations insist on playing these ‘pop’ songs and passing them off as ‘country’ on a continual basis, thereby insulting the intelligence of their listenership by passing off a fake product and not giving us fans what we really want.”

McCloud attributes a large part of the problem to radio as well. “There are over twenty-five hundred stations playing country today [more than twice as many as adult contemporary], yet barely one hundred fifty form the singles charts,” notes McCloud. “We are now in the electronic age, and it should be mandatory for all radio stations to submit their play lists. At the moment, we have a 6 percent sampling to determine who will be our future stars. Would we elect our officials that way?”

McCloud characterizes radio stations as getting bored with acts quickly and rarely playing anything before 1989. “There is a phenomenon that I have called ‘The curse of the third single.’ If radio continues to support an act’s third single, then there is a chance that the act will survive,” insists McCloud, who stresses the stations have singles “released by the consultants, not the labels or the artists.”

Despite the importance of station play in furthering careers, there is no substitute for the real thing: live performance. “Entertainers are important to the continuation of country music. Standing in front of an audience like a stuffed dummy no longer cuts it,” says McCloud. “Remember, we are competing for the same bucks that buy tickets for Michael Jackson, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones.”

If there’s any country artist who is not a “stuffed dummy,” it’s Jo Dee Messina, a self-described “high-energy person” who was acclaimed Best New Female Vocalist at this year’s ACM awards. Viewing herself as a “traditional country artist,” Messina, 28, speaks excitedly about the down time in between shows. “Just walking around is a gig. I don’t even recognize the success, even when somebody recognizes me and says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ ” jokes the vibrant, pull-no-punches redhead, whose openness belies the fact that she is the first woman in country music to ever have three consecutive multiple-weeks No. 1’s in a row: Stand Beside Me, Bye, Bye, and I’m Alright.

Messina cites Dottie West, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, and the Judds as those who have helped shape her sound and style, but it was her trying to break into the industry that fine-tuned her hunger to succeed. “I think I did learn a lot from the early setbacks I had, but they were painful as hell,” she reveals. “I’m not going to say they were good things–feeling like people would forget you [after two initial hits: Heads Carolina, Tails California and We’re Not in Kansas Anymore]. But I’m all right–my fans showed me they remembered me, and radio was there for us, which blew me away.”

As for her message, the Nashville-based artist takes the traditional bent: “I only know what they tell me–that I sing a lot about their lives. Their lives and our lives happen to be the same. I’ve had a lot of people say that my songs are empowering in nature. It’s an honor to hear them say that.” Loyal fans or not, “paying your dues,” she insists, “never ends, but I don’t mind working that hard.” Messina, like Wills, is representative of that small but hopefully not dying group of talented new artists who have bided their time and perfected their craft, yet haven’t lost sight of how tenuous success can be.

Despite the increasingly rare individual success stories, McCloud passes mixed reviews on the current state of country. “The Dixie Chicks are trying to be themselves. What a breath of fresh air they are– retro-country–going back to where they were,” he says, noting that some alternative country is a “definite effort to reclaim the heritage, much as Willie Nelson did when he started to play in Austin.”

“I once said that heavy metal would be called country and it is already evident: Shania Twain and Faith Hill just happen to record in Nashville,” McCloud quickly adds. “Country music has always been a sponge, soaking up influences from all over and wherever. The problem nowadays is that there are too many influences–and not all of them good. Does country become the jack of all trades and the master of none?”

On this the jury is still out. But when the smoke clears after all the industry layoffs, country music soundtracks, cameo TV appearances, and pop-marketed songs, one would do well to bet that the diehard traditional fans will have their way. For after all, tradition is what country music is all about.

Stephen Henkin is an Arts editor at The World & I.

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I Like Icon; But I’m getting a little weary of the adjective

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Byline: Joe Queenan

The other day, I decided to see how long I could go without reading the word “iconic.”

Four minutes. After putting on the teakettle, I opened the newspaper and almost immediately read about the “iconic” Oprah Winfrey. Then I read about an “iconic” Cuban bandleader who, like many other people routinely described as “iconic,” was someone I had never heard of. Such people belong to a class of quasi-celebrities best referred to as “niche icons,” as opposed to universally admired “global icons” like David Beckham, who was referenced thusly in an ad for the Breitling Transocean Chronograph Unitime, a watch the size of Uruguay. Finally, I came across an insert announcing a summer sale at Macy’s. It was the “American Icons” sale.

Opening my email, I eyeballed a promo from the Caramoor Music Festival announcing that the “iconic” Emerson String Quartet would soon be appearing at its grounds. An email from Colston Hall in Bristol, England, invited me to come over and see some “iconic performers” in action this fall. Seconds later, while rooting around my refrigerator for orange juice, I moved a Pepsi bottle aside. On the back label were emblazoned the words “Iconic Summer.”

There was a time in this great nation, not terribly long ago, when people who accomplished remarkable things were described as “heroic” or “fabulous” or even “Numero Uno.” Extraordinary musicians were extolled as “legends” whose concerts were “water-shed events.” Gifted writers were referred to as “pioneers” and “sages” and “trailblazers” whose works were “seminal.” Outstanding athletes were described as “titans,” or “giants” or “colossi.”


Not every remarkable person was described in exactly the same way: Words as varied as “amazing” and “superb” and “fantastic” could also be called upon to honor a spectacular chantoozie or automobile. Some people or institutions–Michael Moore, Merle Haggard, Carol Channing, and the American Museum of Natural History, among others–were even singled out as “national treasures.”

But that was before the invasion of the icons. Today, icons totally dominate the conversational landscape. If you open the newspaper you will see an ad for “iconic hotels in iconic places,” featuring “an iconic footbridge.” You will read about someone having his picture taken in “iconic Malcolm X poses.” You will read that the “iconic” rock band Fleetwood Mac will soon be playing at Madison Square Garden, itself an icon of rare iconicity.

Meanwhile, on iconic Broadway, in the very heart of iconic Times Square, iconic sixties band The Rascals took up temporary residence at the iconic Richard Rodgers Theatre. For those of a slightly more Methuselahn frame of mind, the iconic Pete Seeger will be giving a concert in some iconic coffeehouse, playing iconic Woody Guthrie songs. And yes, he will be playing that most iconic of instruments, the five-stringed banjo.

The fault for this tidal wave of knee-jerk, bootlicking, just-add-water hyperbole lies partly with advertising agencies, but mostly with the press. Journalists, born sycophants and copycats, maintain an internal checklist of top-shelf cliches they desperately attempt to shoehorn into their stories, because using industrial-strength banalities makes them feel more like Thomas L. Friedman.

They feel a professional imperative to describe the snail darter as “the poster child for endangered species.” They never get tired of telling readers that “the center cannot hold,” as if that were the only thing William Butler Yeats ever said. They can never resist paying homage to those who “think outside the box.” And at some point, they simply must insert the words “preternatural,” “quintessential,” or “Ouch!” into their otherwise antiseptic articles. Otherwise, they feel like rank amateurs.

Until they receive an official directive from the League of Flatulence’s Central Planning Committee authorizing them to stop using such extinct banalities as “style over substance” or “happy camper,” they will strangle the life out of these steaming balls of piffle. There is no horse too dead for them to beat as long as a lot of other journalists are beating it simultaneously. It is as if the entire profession has been sent out on a search-and-destroy mission, and the target is the English language itself. Write no story that does not bristle with empty phrases, hollow sentiments, shopworn bromides, and time-honored cliches. And at all costs, make sure you get the word “icon” in there somewhere.

Journalists use the word “iconic” to describe everything. They use to it to describe magazines (Sports Illustrated, Time, Spy). They use it to describe golf courses (Pebble Beach, Augusta National, St. Andrews). They use it to describe TV shows (Tonight), hosts of TV shows (Jay Leno, Johnny Carson), and characters in TV shows (Don Draper in Mad Men). Left unchecked, they will even use it to describe Betty White. They use it to describe singers, movie stars, quarterbacks, personal computers, automobiles, pieces of legislation, gardens, even sandwiches. And when they themselves are not using it, they quote somebody else using it.

“I always saw her as kind of iconic,” a woman says of her friend Kylie Minogue, the very definition of that non-iconic entertainer, the niche icon. What kind of food can one expect to be served in the new restaurant that perches high atop Freedom Tower (aka One World Trade Center) in Lower Manhattan? “Iconic fare,” says the guy who will be running the place.

According to Webster’s, the word “iconic” means “an object of uncritical devotion.” It is a word that can reasonably be used to describe people like Winston Churchill, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Charlemagne, bands like Duke Ellington’s and Led Zeppelin, and, stretched to its very limit, objects like the iPod or the Gibson Les Paul or the AK-47.


It cannot be used to describe synthetic fabrics, secondary characters in cable TV programs, piquant beverages, dated hairstyles, or Weezer. There is no such thing as an iconic ocean, an iconic dessert, or an iconic search engine. Iconic fruits do not exist on this planet. Nor do iconic cordials. There is no conceivable set of circumstances in which the words “iconic” and “Lionel Richie” can be joined. The English language has strict rules about this.

It is often said that before things get better, they must get worse. Well, things are getting worse. Set loose among the pugnaciously brainless, the word “iconic” has wandered so far from its etymological moorings that it is now being used to describe, literally, anything: gelato, toys, headgear, pajamas. Small, down-at-the-heels New York municipalities.

Yes, not long ago, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, New York, Mayor Mary Foster actually said, “This is iconic Peekskill.”

Iconic Peekskill.

This stuff has got to stop.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.

Back in the groove: Alberta’s jazz festivals are in full swing again, amidst resounding support from their communities

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The phoenix is rising from the ashes of two once long-standing jazz festivals in western Canada, and organizers of the new Edmonton and Calgary events vow they won’t get burnt again.

Their lineups of world-renowned musicians are a little trimmer than in the past, but still artistically powerful. Once again, Edmonton and Calgary are on Canada’s jazz festivals circuit, meaning better access to top international acts. From June 18 to July 2, such jazz luminaries as Joshua Redman, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett, Dave Brubeck and Madeleine Peyroux will play stages from Victoria to Winnipeg. And after being courted for more than a decade, Sonny Rollins will at last return to Vancouver’s festival and also debut at Victoria’s.

When Edmonton’s famous Jazz City crashed in 2005, a belly blow was felt across the country by fans of the music, festival organizers, sponsors and volunteers, hosting venues and the musicians themselves. Jazz City was the longest-running international jazz festival in Canada. If Edmonton could fall, who might next?

Answer: Calgary, a year later.

Jazz Festival Calgary announced the news only six weeks before opening night: there would be no festival, due to “funding uncertainties, the timing of notification of ever-decreasing government funding, and unexpected demands from some of our creditors.”


But on both occasions in both cities, the show did go on–albeit a different version than planned–thanks to a grassroots rallying of citizens and performers.

“For 25 years, Jazz City was a significant festival on the global scene, and it came to an abrupt halt,” recalls Kent Sangster, executive director of the new Edmonton International Jazz Festival. Sangster credits the Edmonton Jazz Society (operators of the 50-year-old Yardbird Suite jazz club) as the primary reason a festival was created that year. “In six weeks we put together 60 performances of local and national talent and the Edmonton audience was very receptive to that focus,” he says. International artists Dave Holland and Sheila Jordan agreed to appear on the strength of the Yardbird Suite’s good reputation.

Sangster says that with this year’s changeover to the new Edmonton International Jazz Festival organization “we’re not trying to recreate Jazz City, which became a huge pyramid of international artists with some local acts.” This year’s festival is an inversion of that pyramid with Edmonton and Canadian talent comprising the majority of the shows. But international acts are in demand, evidenced by the early sellout of Madeleine Peyroux’s performance at the gigantic Winspear Centre. “Things look very positive,” Sangster says. “We’re building slowly, with the help of Jazz Festivals Canada. We are truly trying to retain a jazz festival here. If we keep venue sizes realistic and don’t overextend ourselves on the large shows, we’ll be very successful.”


Calgary’s revival mirrors Edmonton’s, although it had been on the brink of collapse before, in 1997. Then Jazz City’s founder and producer, Marc Vasey, took over running the Calgary festival concurrently with Edmonton’s in 1998. To some, it looked like a franchise operation. Local musicians and fans feeling disenfranchised from their own festival responded by forming C-Jazz, the Calgary Jazz Association seven years ago, to help raise the profile of Calgary talent and present a late-summer festival. It was to C-Jazz that performers turned when last June’s international event was cancelled. “The day after the announcement, I got calls from national and international groups that had been booked, asking if we could find a place for them to perform,” says C-Jazz’s Pat Maiani. With Jazz Festivals Canada’s agreement, Maiani placed most of the performers, who didn’t mind the more modest venues. Now, as producer of the new Calgary festival, Maiani says he’s almost overwhelmed by the support from the entire community: “Everybody seems to be pulling for us. We have generous new sponsors and some of the old ones have returned.”

June is ending on a high note for jazz fans in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. From the Vancouver International Jazz Festival that draws more than 500,000 patrons, to the younger Medicine Hat JazzFest that’s been growing steadily for 11 years, an impressive array of talent and styles from across North America and as far away as Denmark and Japan will wow ’em once again. Stay tuned.

Two kinds of “folk”

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In Germany, white people’s romanticized conceptions of North American Aboriginal peoples hold such power that middle-class German citizens attempt, at great expense, to emulate their customs. They attend elaborate “pow-wows,” dress up in ornate, buckskin costumes and learn Aboriginal languages.

The Canadian white man also has his (indeed, her) fantasies, but as face-to-face colonizers of Aboriginal peoples, our fantasies are a little more “multicultural,” a little more complicated: We attend folk festivals.

For many years, the Winnipeg Folk Festival (WFF) campground at Bird’s Hill Park enjoyed among its thousand smaller tents a giant teepee. Whatever its other functions, it provided an attractive place for partying white kids to smoke weed. Ah, back to the garden. If only that garden were really ours.

Cultural appropriation appears in other ungainly manifestations, like white girls wearing (east) Indian bindis–and, as my best friend Krishna is fond of stating, “the keffiyeh is certainly the new ‘short brim’ anarchist cap.” Perhaps most insulting is that these props of white “freedom” are appropriated as easily–and in the same spirit–as South Padre Island-style spring-break accoutrements like breast “pasties.”


Equally disturbing are the more official forms of window dressing, like featuring a few Aboriginal musicians, despite a near total lack of Aboriginal festival-goers. While this year’s festival did feature an Aboriginal host (one out of four), representation among musicians was worse than usual; out of 74 main acts profiled in the program, only superb Metis singer-songwriter Ted Longbottom might qualify as an “Aboriginal act.” Indeed, Aboriginal people from the Russian Republic of Tuva enjoyed equal representation to Aboriginal people from Canada: one act each.

All in all, a rather poor performance for a festival located in Winnipeg, the “Aboriginal Capital of Canada.”

For a white fella like me–born, raised and living on stolen land, a regular festival-goer for so many years–these issues involve much questioning. And indeed–embarrassingly–white navel-gazing.

Well, whaddya gonna do? From where I sit, it seems that maybe white and Aboriginal people see “folk” in different ways. On the white side, a multicultural shopping excursion, with endless opportunities to spend lots of dollars on overpriced treats. Not that Aboriginal people don’t spend their dollars on music festivals–check out any countrymusic festival and you’ll see lots of Aboriginal folks. Perhaps they attend such events cause they’re just plain fun (duh!), unlike supposedly “multicultural” events organized by white people where they are consistently made to feel like one of the event’s many cultural consumables.


Back in the nineties, I attended the North Country Fair, a small folk festival near Joussard, Alberta. Besides the white hippies who moved to Joussard back in the sixties, and besides the mostly white folks who made the four-hour drive from Edmonton or beyond, many of the attendees were members of four nearby First Nations and Indian Bands. That festival somehow seemed to have something for everyone. The music wasn’t “multicultural”–it was mostly local, whether that meant Aboriginal or otherwise. Yet, the experience was somehow appreciably more culturally diverse than that offered by Winnipeg’s festival. I’m not saying that festival didn’t have its own problems, but probably someone from the WFF should take a closer look at the North Country Fair.

Let’s end with this: Multiculturalism is a white-derived federal policy–so, maybe that’s why, perhaps paradoxically, “multicultural” events become white events by default.

The end of love and a famous voice: with his heart and his vocal chords shredded, Ian Tyson bares his soul on a brave new CD

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Ian Tyson is on the phone, and his voice sounds as ragged as a tumbleweed rattling over a dusty plain. It’s 8 a.m. in High River, Alta., and a fierce gale is whipping across Tyson’s ranch. “The wind is blowing like there’s no tomorrow,” he says. “It’s going to be a hundred clicks today. You gotta tie things down. When I first came here they had these asphalt shingles on the barns, and when a storm took them off you’d see what looked like a huge, immeasurable flock of vultures in the sky.” Tyson, the cowboy poet reaching for an early morning metaphor, knows a thing or two about wind. His classic ballad, Four Strong Winds–recorded with Ian & Sylvia and adopted by Neil Young–was voted the best Canadian song of all time by CBC Radio three years ago.

But one of the most beautiful voices ever to sing of women and horses and heartbreak is now broken. Its smooth, clear depths are drained and its timbre is cracked like a dry riverbed. The damage was done two years ago at the Havelock Jamboree, a country music festival in Ontario. “The sound was set up for Nashville rock ‘n’ roll, all heavy bass,” Tyson explains. “I stupidly tried to outmuscle the sound with my voice, which I’d gotten away with all those years. When I got offstage, I knew I’d done something strange and terrible. Then it was too late.” His voice partially recovered, but last year he caught a nasty virus on a flight from Denver and it hasn’t been the same since. “There’s a lot of scarring down there,” he says.


That, however, didn’t stop Tyson from recording a new album with what was left of his vocal cords. Last week, the singer-songwriter, who turned 75 this year, released Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Songs, his 14th album. Most of the songs are sad ballads–made even sadder by a voice that’s painfully torn and frayed. The difference in Tyson’s singing is so radical that it amounts to a whole new style: and his Edmonton-based label, Stony Plains Records, is promoting his “dramatically ‘new’ voice” as a selling point. It’s a half-talking delivery that sounds not unlike Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. “I didn’t realize I was doing it,” says Tyson, “but when I listened to the album, I heard a lot of Knopfler. And he’s a huge influence, especially on the songwriting.”

Though the bass has dropped out of Tyson’s voice, he has discovered some strange new frontiers in the upper shallows that give it a sense of fragility. “The bottom end is gone completely,” he says, “but the top end seems to be lengthening. There’s all sorts of funny avenues you can take in the upper register. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Tyson says he was reluctant to record at first. But Alberta country singer Corb Lund, a close friend, urged him to forge ahead, saying, “I like your voice better the way it is now.” Lund connected him with his Nashville producer, Harry Stinson, who has worked with everyone from George Jones to Steve Earle. Tyson laid down most of the album’s tracks in Nashville in just four days, for a fraction of what he’d spent in Toronto on his previous record, Songs From the Gravel Road, which bombed. This album is attracting a lot of curiosity and some favourable reviews.


Most of the songs are tender laments for a lost love or a vanished frontier. Some verge on the maudlin, but Tyson is not content to sit back in the saddle of country and western cliche-who else would rhyme “some damn bureaucrat” with “abrogate a cowboy hat”? The title tune, Yellowhead to Yellowstone, is sung from the viewpoint of a pack of wolves transplanted from the Canadian Rockies to Wyoming–the kind of epic narrative Gordon Lightfoot used to write. And My Cherry Coloured Rose, about Don Cherry mourning his wife, was sent to him on a homemade CD by Toronto songwriter Jay Aymar.

The breakup ballads on the new album were inspired by “a deep, serious love affair that went south,” says Tyson. “It’s been a tough couple of years.” But he’s not referring to his divorce from his second wife, which finally came through last spring. “The divorce songs were on the previous album.”

Living alone on his ranch, Tyson still works on a horse most days. And next month he’s off to Oklahoma to ride in a major cutting horse championship. He will continue to tour with the “new” voice, and inevitably there are requests for Four Strong Winds. “I don’t like doing it all the time,” he says. “I wrote that thing in 20 minutes and I was just a kid. It’s like someone else wrote it.” Now it will sound like someone else is singing it.