Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Femi Kuti on CNN’s Inside Africa

There is a half-hour segment currently running on CNN’s Inside Africa series that focuses on contemporary music scene in West Africa (primarily Nigeria), a scene that I find vapid - an opinion that causes the younger locals to label me “old school”. I simply find nothing in today’s big sunglasses, machine-driven beats, and insipid lyrics to inspire me when compared to what existed a few decades ago. I mean then the musicians actually played instruments. Just my opinion, I may be wrong.

The Inside Africa segment features a seven minute interview with Femi Kuti and some footage of the New Africa Shrine in Lagos. Click here to watch. Kudos to Femi's international publicity machine for getting him on CNN. In searching for the web link, I came across an interview with Femi where he described Afrobeat as “incredibly popular” – if that is so, he means outside of Nigeria because it is on life support here in its homeland. Fela Kuti so dominated the Afrobeat scene that his death nearly killed the entire genre; today you will be hard pressed to find live Afrobeat music in Nigeria outside of sons Femi and Seun playing with their respective bands at the Shrine. I understand that some of that crappy hip-hop so popular with the younger crowd has labeled itself Afrobeats just to confuse the issue. Afrobeats has nothing to do with Afrobeat beyond appropriating the name.

The CNN video opens with a shot of my friend, tenor saxophonist Dotun “Dotsax” Bankole, at 00:06; he shows up again a couple more times. Hope that does something good for his career as he is a solid player deserving wider exposure. I think I might have been present at the Shrine during one of the nights they were filming, as I previously noted Femi playing trumpet up on the riser with the horn section as shown in the final few seconds of the video. His yellow t-shirt looks mighty familiar too. I don’t remember seeing the cheesy CNN reporter at the Shrine, however. Throughout the segment, he wears what we used to call a sh*t eating grin back when I was growing up in the Midwest. He would have stood out like a sore thumb. You just don’t see smiles like that in Lagos.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Ain’t Nobody’s Business

The Penang Blues Brothers reconvened at Kim Gooi’s place for a late night jam last weekend, just prior to my return from Penang to Lagos. I joined Joe Goh on electric guitar and Kim on harp and acoustic. The blues spirit flowed freely as it always does when we get together, helped along in this instance by the product of the Isle of Jura. It is rejuvenating to play with these two – we routinely reach the sought-after (and all too rare) state of mind where the musicians are on the same wavelength, pick up their instruments, begin to play, time suspends, and the clock moves three of four hours ahead before the music pauses. 

I've been tied up with settling back in to work after the holidays and haven’t had sufficient time to go through and master all the recordings from last Friday. Of course, the batteries on my Zoom quit after about 2-1/2 hours, leaving some of the most spontaneous and creative parts of the jam in the air, never to be captured again. I did, however, cut out one track for sharing – Ain't Nobody’s Business – in tribute to the classic 1959 session by Jimmy Witherspoon with Ben Webster on tenor. “I'm three times seven, that makes twenty-one” – the age at which I first appreciated ‘Spoon’s rendition. Long, long ago now, a clear memory in the dim past. An appreciation that survives until today. Fortunately, I edited out most of my insipid vocal.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Penang Blues Brothers Ride Again – Audio

Following our end-of-year blues jam the Little Penang Street Market, Kim Gooi hosted a get together last Friday night at his house in Tanjung Bunga. Joe Goh came up with his guitar from KL for the New Year and Kim’s friend Chiang, a Penang native who spent much of his life in Sweden, dropped by ‘round midnight to join in on second guitar. The blues spirit was flowing and we jammed for nearly four hours, caught on my Zoom recorder. From blues classics like Stormy Monday to Miles Davis to free blues jamming - Kim on harp, Joe and Chiang on guitars, and me on tenor sax. A good time was had by all; I had the chance to play my 1948 King Super 20 which is just a fantastic instrument. We plan one more blues jam before I head back to Africa for work.

Here are three downloadable audio tracks from last Friday’s jam – Sweet Home Chicago with Chiang on vocals, Folsom Prison Blues (where I make my vocal debut in the background), and Blue Monk. They are  MP3s at 320k.

By the way, Kim Gooi just published his book Health Tips: Maintaining a Long Life and Seeking a Spiritual Link with the Supreme Spirit which is available here from Kim’s life as a journalist landed him in a Burmese prison in the 1970s and the story of his survival is recounted in his book. An interesting new non-fiction from the man behind the blues harp on these recordings.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Blues Jam at Little Penang Street Market

Let 2013 begin with some YouTube videos from the last weekend of 2012. Jackie and I were asked at the last minute to perform at the Little Penang Street Market on Sunday. The LPSM is always a fun venue because the organizers let the musicians call the shots: we are able to put together our own sets and play whatever we want. No call for Lionel Richie covers or Frank Sinatra tunes to please the audience. The LPSM has evolved into one of the last remaining jam sessions on the island, particularly for jazz and blues fans, since the long-running G Spot jazz jam died over a year ago.

I phoned blues harpist Kim Gooi to join us, but our hopes to pick up the Penang Blues Brothers at short notice were dashed when we discovered that keyboardist James Lochhead was not feeling well and guitarist Sid was in KL for the holidays. Jackie and I were resolved to playing a not-too-fun duet set over Band-In-A-Box. We managed to convince one of the actors from the UK's Click Theatre Company, Richard, in town to play the role of The Major in Fawlty Towers, to sit in on piano for a few tunes.

Then things got interesting. I was told that there was another keyboardist in the crowd, which was larger than normal due to the number of tourists in Penang for the holidays. I asked him to join us and he modestly said he did not think he was up to standard. Ha ha. Fortunately I was able to convince "T" to come up on stage and sit in with me, Jackie, and Kim. The next hour caught fire. We warmed up on Chitlins Con Carne and Night Train, but then T just started jamming in Bb and things took off. T has a great rhythmic sense and we didn't miss the bassist and drummer after that.

I've posted four videos from December 30 on YouTube. First up is a slow gospel blues I've dubbed "Testifying with T" in honor of our mystery guest. I preach an improvised Sunday morning sermon over T's chords, then Kim and Jackie bear witness and Jackie and I harmonize in the choir before we all take it out.
Next up is The Doors' Roadhouse Blues, which I first played with Hans and the Hillbillies at Ziggy's Bar on the beach in St. Kitts. From the sacred to the profane, Roadhouse Blues is one of the all-time classic bar-band rockers. Then, back to tradition with Blue Monk and, finally, Blue Train as our New Years' wish.

As Blue Train closed, T got up from the keys and disappeared back into the crowd. Our time ran out too quickly, like 5 minutes rather than an hour. It has been quite a while since I've been in a pure pick-up band situation that I liked this much. You can see the smile on T's face in the videos. He definitely has the right attitude towards music and it was infectious. The crowd enjoyed listening to our set as much as we enjoyed playing the music, an all-around win-win. Like William Parker told me a couple of months ago, creating positive energy helps keep the world on its axis.