There comes that moment when you realize why you do what you do. As a music journalist, it often happens at a live show. Unsuspecting, you’re standing in the crowd, enjoying, perhaps dancing, perhaps relaxing, and suddenly you’re pulled into the vortex, the “sacred space” that solders the connection between sound and human, that the musicians create and invite you to step inside of. Some call it trance, hypnosis, divine; it is the reason they play, the reason we go, the reason that doesn’t need reason.
After an overnight flight (delayed four hours on the runway) and a full day canvassing the streets of Paris, we were exhausted walking into the basement of La Maroquinerie. I had just interviewed Les Primitifs du Futur co-founder Dominique Cravic at his studio, nearly passing out in the 18 Euro cab to the club. I was pleasantly surprised to see the supporting band on the ticket stub—Londoners Transglobal Underground. We grab inexpensive wine (which my friend Jason assures me is better than a lot of expensive wine in the States) in plastic cups and head inside. The room is no larger than the Bowery Ballroom, but it is packed, throbbing, the sound equivalent or better.
Based on a True Story
US: 14 Nov 2006
UK: 11 Jul 2005
N/A release date: 2 May 2005
A Mediterranean Caravan
US: Available as import
UK: 14 Apr 2008
US: Available as import
UK: 4 Jun 2007
Transglobal sounded good, which I expected. Their records have always been hit or miss, usually a bit of both on each. Songs like “The Sikh Man and the Rasta” and “Stoyane/Male-Le” stayed on constant rotation in my iPod for months, while a lot of their latest, Impossible Broadcasting, was forgettable. The banging dhol, the pulsing bass, the British patois—it certainly set the stage for what followed.
Before coming to Paris—a trip centered around the Les Printemps de Bourges festival—my friend Cecile at the French Music Export turned me onto Watcha Clan. I was excited to check them out live, via the strength of their MySpace page. They reminded me, in some way, of Ojos de Brujo. Little did I know how correct that assumption would be. Their show was much different in scope; Ojos travels with over a dozen people, while Watcha had three, and another rotating in on guitar and vocals. Musically they were also worlds apart, though fragments of flamenco did seep into Watcha’s set, and both use hip-hop as a foundation for part of their material.
No, the connection was deeper, more incalculable. The band’s singer, Sista K, has such a similar flair as Ojos’s Marina that I had to double-take. There is no imitation; they are markedly different. They are, you can say, from the same clan, one inspired by the romanticism of Romani dress and headwraps, one using the power of the female voice as a focal point for an incredible band to wrap notes and beats around, one that promotes show-women in every sense of the word, from their elegant dancing to the piercing timbre of their voices. To watch them on stage is to experience all stages of a love affair: anguish, despair, exaltation, desire, victory, and defeat.
Watcha Clan’s bass-heavy romp “Tchiribim”, Sista K wielding a megaphone like a sword, the undeniable hook of “Limu” with its dub-informed low-end, the guitar-driven “Goumari”, with a Tuareg riddim and exceptional peaks—this band scoured the Mediterranean, collecting sketches of Spain, Israel, France, Morocco, Mali, making a globetrotting tapestry mind-bending in scope, beautiful in presentation. This band is the future of music, a collective of friends knowledgeable that numerous parts fit into a sonic jigsaw, if only you take the time out to find the inherent themes of various cultures.
This is something Dominique Cravic has been doing for decades, albeit with an extremely different medium. His affair has been with musette since the mid-‘80s, when he met an American ex-pat cartoonist famous (and infamous) for his doodlings on Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin posters, as well as his subsequent loathing of the country that birthed him. Musette and Auvergnat are what led R. Crumb to France, and his idyllic banjo playing is what helped him to form Les Primitifs du Futur with guitarist Cravic. The night after my interview for Sing Out! (and the Watcha performance), my friend Jill and I headed back to Studio Acousti for a small gathering of 70 friends for the release of Tribal Musette.
Started in disparate regions of Paris in the 1880s, musette became the most popular music form by the 1940s, when the upper classes visited seedier neighborhoods for their sonic fix. It disappeared when acid rock and Motown spread their own seed worldwide, reemerging when Cravic and company initiated a forward-thinking renaissance of this accordion-fueled folk.
“I tried to make a world version of musette,” he says. “We have very typical French tunes, and then we add darbouka, mandol, oud, and made an Oriental version. We like to do poetic, surrealistic ways of hearing world music. At the same time, I like to write original compositions mixing those different musicians, sometimes with words, sometimes just an instrumental. There’s more and more ingredients with each album.”
Dominique Cravic (Photo by Derek Beres)
Today musette again defines French consciousness, albeit with a lot more friends joining in for the ride. Walking among the friendly faces at the party, listening to the sounds of Arabic and Japanese players inject tasteful rhythmic patterns and melodies into a decidedly French music, it was a small slice of what we are heading toward as cultures, as people. The generosity of my hosts, both this night and all five in France, made me think back a few years ago when our President egged us on in declaring that oily fried potatoes be renamed “Freedom fries”. The absurdity of nationalism becomes apparent when surrounded by talented artists creating a community, not tearing others down.
I thought about this heading to Bourges the following day. Jill and I decided to go to France when finding out about Printemps. Housed in a city that takes you back a few centuries in architecture, smell, and décor, Bourges is breathtaking. She found out Fat Freddy’s Drop—a New Zealand-based reggae- and R&B-informed band that has broken all national sales records (their manager told me that “gold” in New Zealand is 4,000 copies; they sold over 100,000)—was playing at the festival. Being that they have yet to tour America, we figured it was as good a time as any to head overseas.
The weeklong fete, held in a city that is on the map because of it, featured a five-band reggae-tinged night headlined by Israel Vibration, African reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly, and San Francisco-based roots outfit Groundation. Little were we aware Fat Freddy’s Drop was on first, and for only a 40-minute set. No matter, every trip is about the journeying. The four songs they did play, including a 12-minute finale of “This Room” from Based on a True Story, made the traveling every bit worthwhile. The play of DJ and drums (first time playing with a live kit, in fact), three horns and bass/guitar/keyboards, and, of course, vocalist Dallas Tamaira (a.k.a. Joe Dukie), created an ambiance befitting an acoustically brilliant lounge in the midst of 10,000 screaming attendees.
Fat Freddy’s Drop (Photo by Derek Beres)
I was turned onto Fat Freddy’s Drop when friends returned from a tour in Australia and New Zealand with a copy of Live at the Matterhorn. Raw and rugged, I played the CD out listening to the enchanting dub-based grooves that the songs—each nearly 20 minutes long—exhibited. By the time Based on a True Story rolled around, I was already a devoted fan. Having their live DVD and a more recent live set from Paris in 2007, I knew how they evolved, what they were capable of. And they did not disappoint.
Talking with them backstage (the subject of next month’s column), I was intrigued by their varied influences. It ranged from American soul and jazz (Tamaira’s stage name, Joe Dukie, is a play off of Duke Ellington; his vocal influence is Bill Withers) to, of course, Jamaican reggae and old-school ska, as well as tribal African rhythms, Gnawa music, the brass intonations of Balkan musicians, the modern machinations of Bronx-based hip-hop. For three straight nights a similar pattern emerged: wherever we can get to, whatever music moves us, we will seek and find and, as all these artists show, incorporate.
This is not to say “throw together”. Cravic warned against that. There are laws of melody, rhythm, and culture that have to be adhered to. But if you find common ground, the playing field is wide open. When I ask Fat Freddy’s Drop trombonist Joe Lindsay what the follow-up album is sounding like, he replied “country techno”. He laughed, though not necessarily because he was kidding. Like all these (and many more) musicians around the world, the “box” is not something they’re comfortable inside of. Yet they don’t sarcastically write it off; through their music, they are evolving us, mentally, emotionally, socially. You probably won’t find many desert musicians turning on beat boxes in Mali to accompany their bluesy, Hendrix-inspired musings, but after hearing Watcha Clan incorporate elements of the style into their kinetic electronica, maybe you’ll seek out Tinariwen, Toumast, Etran Finatawa, and Desert Rebel. The party grows, we along with it.