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Back on BlackGrooves

This week over at the Indiana University Archive of African and African American Music review blog, check out my review of Erykah Badu’s latest offering, the hotly anticipated New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh. Then go out and pick up this record. It’s vintage Badu at her best.

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Featured Artist: Nora Chipaumire

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for ChoreographyAbove: Nora Chipaumire mid-sketch at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)

It’s taken me an unprecedented MONTH to react to this artist, primarily because her residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) had such a profound impact on me. My interactions with Nora Chipaumire started because of a history professor who invited me to one of MANCC’s “entry points.” I had been to one other such “informal showing” before, and I had never been more intrigued by a dance event.* MANCC doesn’t present performances; instead, they invite choreographic fellows to come for residencies and the public only ever sees their work in its most embryonic and mutable phases. This takes pressure off of the dancer/choreographers so that they can concentrate on movement and experimentation, but it also creates a qualitatively different atmosphere for reception. It’s an environment that I have come to prefer as a more accessible way of wrapping my head around dance compositions.

During the few weeks between that initial invitation and the last showing of her collaborative piece, I have been humbled to do research for, work with, learn from, and laugh with Nora Chipaumire. She’s a person who enters the room with an irresistible magnetism about her. She says more with every detail of her body and movement than any other artist I have ever seen, and not only with her movement onstage. For example, Chipaumire cuts her hair like the male warriors in her clan:

Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

Above: Chipaumire sports her “lion” hair during a rehearsal

Despite the centrality of natural hair to an aesthetic of Afro-centrism in African American style and culture, it’s probably difficult for most Americans to understand the full symbolic effect of this look for Chipaumire. Beyond being an international traveler, a renowned artist, financially independent woman, and generally boisterous personality, grooming this look smashes up Zimbabwean gender roles and norms even further. When she dances, she draws her vocabulary from an equally in-your-face repertory of movement.

One of the most poignant and fascinating images from her recent work involves an image of a Zimbabwean man who was burned alive in South Africa. Rather than embody a passive (if panicked) human torch, Chipaumire’s version of this person focuses on his humanity, his agency as an individual to experience suffering. The informal showing featured the music of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited (in the flesh!), but I watched Nora rehearse this sketch to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, which lent both an window of intimacy into that person’s relationship with his Creator and a globalizing effect to this image of violence (particularly since Islam is widespread in Africa). The result embodied in performance the suffering of many people around the world, but most obviously and painfully the Zimbabweans who have recently experienced xenophobia and violence in South Africa.

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

Above: Chipaumire “on fire” at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)

Chipaumire’s choreography juxtaposes of horrifically painful images behind masks of utter bliss: “everything’s fine, I’m fine, I’m wonderful, life is good” . . . complete with toothy minstrel grins. The whole atmosphere reeks of Dunbar’s masquerade, now thrown into stark contemporary relief through a more global light. Bondage, capture, torture, beating, and burning move past this mask, however, all with a sense of personhood and dignity that gives voice to the many thousands of voiceless suffering in Zimbabwe. Chipaumire’s process, moreover, comments on violence in a manner that extends a borderless statement of personhood both toward and on behalf of all who suffer needlessly.

*Sincerest thanks to MANCC, Nora, and all of the others involved with this project (you know who you are) for a wonderful two weeks, permission to use photos, and the opportunity to hang out with Nora, Thomas, and the Blacks Unlimited.

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Illadelph Roots Crew, Rising Down Review

If you have yet to hear the new album from Illadelph’s hip-hop cognoscenti, what are you waiting for?  You can see my review of this bombastic masterpiece in the upcoming June issue of BlackGrooves, which should be out next week.  Enjoy!

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Featured Artist: Vampire Weekend

Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, Christopher Tomson, and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend

The combination of my fantastic, Upper West Side Soweto-powered beach weekend and the last two posts over on Stuff White People Like have compelled me to feature Vampire Weekend at long last.  Did Clander’s inclusion of the “Oxford comma” in his latest (hilarious) post have anything to do with the VW song of the same name?  Or was that and the previous rip on Ivy Leaguers and those jealous of them some subliminal attempt to ride VW’s wave of success (I doubt it since Clander doesn’t really need such cheap tricks).  Regardless of Clander’s purpose, these Ralph Lauren sweater and boaters-wearing Columbia grads embody everything white people like.

Vampire Weekend came to their popularity in part because of one of my favorite blogs.  They’ve come full circle more than once already with numerous blogren and critics since then, garnering some pretty significant haters as well as some attention from those who are reading too much and listening too little.  But even the haters can’t deny that these gentlemen can play their instruments.

More important than that, they offer a refreshing melange of trends from the past 60 years of global pop music all the way from David Byrne (check out Ezra’s vocal quality on Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa) to Buddy Holly and Franco Luambo.  They’re clever lyricists, which is more than I can say for the many of the other jacked up wanna-be hipsters trying to make a splash on the New York Indie scene.  If these lyrics reflect privilege, as in “take your passport it’s no trick,” at least these silver spoon monkeys have the sense to poke fun at themselves for it.  Besides, the rich-boy snot dripping from their sweaters is clouding people’s judgment so much that the Village Voice’s rejoinder leveled a devastating critique on VWs more reactionary reviewers: according to the Voice’s Mike Powell, ” A lot can be gleaned about Vampire Weekend from the fact that their most evenhanded assessment to date has come from Teen Vogue.”  Ouch, Mike.  The truth hurts sometimes.

The bottom line is that Vampire Weekend has put out a polished record full of all the irony of scalar cello passages echoing from New England homes juxtaposed with the sweat and fun of 50’s Zairean pop.  My best advice if you haven’t heard this record is to go out and buy it.  If you’re reading this, that means you’ve probably already read too many other reviews from the mixed bag, so don’t listen to it right away.  Let the craze die down, buy some Franco, some Loketo, some Papa Wemba, and some Koffi Olomide, and then come back to Vampire Weekend.  You’ll have a whole new appreciation for them.

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Featured artist: Banksy

Too often art in public places has been shaped by the forces that put together funding to get it there or by the ambitions of an artist to go so far over the top that nobody can understand what they’re saying.  Not the case with Banksy.  I must be way behind the hipness curve on this one, because apparently this person has been around in the U.K. and has even done some work in Palestine.  Check out this clip from a British television program:

Now the weird part about Banksy is that he doesn’t want to be seen or known by anyone.  At first glance this seems to me like an effort to annihilate the ego, but with a name like Banksy, I’ve got to wonder…he’s obviously adept at publicity and he makes a living at this though nobody knows who he his.  Sure, nobody gets into art for the money, and yet he seems to be doing just fine.  Say what you will (no really, comment–I’m curious); this is still very honest art and it’s getting noticed all over the world, so he must be doing something right.

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Heads up: BlackGrooves

Thanks to the online periodical blackgrooves.org, I just discovered new artist Kevin Michael. His (still fairly new) CD features collaborations with Lupe Fiasco, Wyclef Jean, Q-Tip, and Akil Dasan. On the heels of John Legend’s recent success, this R&B crooner is going to look at first glance like he’s posing to ride that wave. But listen carefully:

Yes, Michael draws on the new-soul/acoustic r&b movement, but he’s developing sounds and relationships of his own as well…

Look for my review of Erykah Badu‘s new CD in next month’s issue of BlackGrooves.

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Warpaint, having listened thoroughly…

What’s really tragic about freelance critic David Peisner’s review of the new Black Crowes album has nothing to do with his ignorance of the post-review 2.5 stars that Maxim assigned to the album. There’s also less travesty in the fact that he did not hear the album in its entirety before reviewing it than in the reality: this man has absolutely no ears. Here’s what he had to say about what little he heard of the album, probably from the short clips on the Crowes’ website:

Maxim BC Review

First of all, it was a neat trick. So neat, in fact, that every hip-hop artist and acoustic neo-soul act in the record store these days wants to pull off a similarly retro-hip tactic that the Crowes did with their debut. Moreover, Mr. Peisner (boy do I hope you read this), any reviewer worth the bullshit that rolls off his tongue and onto the page next to Maxim’s mindless T and A ought to know that every artist brings a combination of their influences into forming their own voice.

Now, while I have no doubt that Chris Robinson and the gang have as many musical debts as the next artist, those tips of the hat do not and could not sound “pretty much like they always have.” What was clearest to me even after the first time through Warpaint is that these guys have spent the last sixteen years since their Southern Harmony and Musical Companion listening to a lot of classic country and blues records. While some of those were likely the same records that inspired the likes of Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and the Allmans, the same could be said of virtually every jazz and blues musician since Muddy Waters.

The opening cut on the record, “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution,” only seems less likely to be a hit than, say, “She Talks to Angels” because it’s too rock to fit on any country station and too honky-tonk to work very well for straight-ahead rock radio. But by the time the chorus rolls around, the Crowes’ Southern Rock charm is dripping from the speakers. As they follow up with “Walk Believer Walk,” it’s very clear just how much lowdown dirty blues they’ve heard since their last record.

So far as songwriting goes, the heartwrenching “Oh Josephine” works as well as anything else they’ve ever written, including “She Talks…” though it’s sung with a bit more stinging knowledge of love lost and life on the road. As they “let it all ride” at the end of this tune, the guitar vamp and organ solo let you know that there’s still hope out there for a grizzled and tired out lover.

“Evergreen” has the sound of something Cream or Hendrix may as well have written, and its satisfying triple meter chorus more than adequately prefaces a second verse lyric that invites this Evergreen to “come dance in my rain.” “Wee who see the deep” is so clearly indebted to Chicago’s “Twenty Five or Six to Four” in its opening guitar vamp that it brings the Southern into the Psychedelic with an ease that only the Crowes can pull off. The out of tune patina on the string introduction to “Locust Street,” however, reminds a listener that we’re still thoroughly in Southern Rock territory here.

“Wounded Bird,” of all the other cuts on the album, sounds the most like a classic Crowes track with the possible exception of “Oh Josephine.” The upbeat new-jack groove that Steve Gorman lays down on the drums feels great with the guitar/organ anthem that the band lays down for Chris and Rich Robinson to harmonize. As Gorman’s grooves go, only the gospel shuffle of the next cut, “God’s Got It,” can compete.

My only complaint about this record is that “There’s Gold in Them Hills” and “Whoa Mule” make it seem like the Robinson boys are trying too hard to sound country. The sublime “Here Comes Daylight” more than makes up for it, though, and along with the rest of a solid record, it’s tough to be too hard on the Crowes for that. Besides, who knows? Maybe they really are more country than they’ve let on before.

All things considered, the organ and dobro make this record at once as soulful and as rural as Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals‘ recent Lifeline, and with songwriting that rivals Harper’s as well. I don’t want to take anything away from Harper because I really liked that record, but since it’s been out a while and I probably won’t review it here, let’s just call that a compliment for the Crowes.

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