Adventurous Listening with Lal Meri

13 02 2009

By Derek Beres

For better or worse (for better and worse), Indian music and instruments have been consumed by producers worldwide, resulting in everything from horrible “world lounge” and “chill out” compilations and jazzy fusions citing McLauhglin and Miles Davis as references (while sounding nothing like the innovators and their inventiveness) to inspired organic and electronic auditory and cultural explorations. When I hear tablas emerge from an overproduced, hygienic drum program, I cringe. When done right, the unique two-drum set makes for adventurous listening, arousing a specific sound without the blatant advertising of so-called exotic rhythms.

The Los Angeles-based trio Lal Meri, whose self-titled debut drops on Six Degrees in a few weeks, does it right. I’ve been a fan of two of the three participants: vocalist Nancy Kaye, who released two albums previously under the name Rosey, and Carmen Rizzo, producer and technician of Persian electronica labelmates Niyaz. In fact, it is probably that project, headed by the unearthly singer Azam Ali, which fueled Rizzo’s creative drive with Lal Meri. (The name is derived from a Sufi folk song.) Kaye was an easy choice for collaboration: her dusty, hearty and soulful voice lends itself to a variety of musical styles; her poetic flourishes offer depth to the gorgeous inflections of her voice.

The third component—Ireesh Lal—I was not aware of, but his trip-hop pedigree is obvious given the album’s tasteful, down- to mid-tempo beat selection. Wherever the three come from — they converged as a result of friends suggesting friends sending MySpace links and so on — they meet in a beautiful and thoughtful space; their songs are musically rich and yet sweet, subtle and tasteful. There are pop sensibilities (the melodies on “Give Your Light,” the entire landscape of “Sweet Love”), but not without an edge (the tabla-driven “Bad Things,” the light dancehall push of the oud-inflected “Take Me As I Am”). Pooja’s folksy vocal help on “Mausam” bring a bit of devotion to the mix; the sound reminds me of an electronified Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay or Shubda Mudgal.

After a few spins in my yoga classes, the album gets a big thumbs up. It’s one of those records that work in many situations, under many circumstances. The producers even pull off something normally taboo in my musical tastes: electro-jazz. The addition of trumpets over beats rarely work; here it does, and well. Placed in a soundscape that includes santurs anddrones, the palette they work from features abundant colors—introspective, songs of seeking, communal. Lal Meri isa refreshing album from three people open to see what their union would bring, and where it will take them. From the sounds of this debut, far.


John Brown’s Body Amps Up

28 10 2008

Amplify (Easy Star)

John Brown’s Body has been one of the hardest working (and touring) bands around since their inception in the 1990’s. Using reggae as their foundation, co-vocalists Eliot Martin and Kevin Kinsella added opposing dynamics—the former, with his hip, soulful lyrical chops that at times had the scatter and swagger of hip-hop; the latter, with his roots base and scratchy vocals. Things have changed since 2005’s Pressure Points however, most notably Kinsella’s departure (and bassist Scott Palmer’s unfortunate death). Martin has taken the helms with a reconfigured line-up that has stayed true to their jamband-oriented reggae, in which instrumental sections can flourish and reform numerous times in any given song. Gone is some of the diversity, which is sad, but Martin’s songwriting has always been strong enough to carry the weight. The band is most interesting when they stretch their roots, as on “The Gold,” which features Martin’s trademark stutter-steps. They slow—and dub—it down when Midnite’s Vaughn Benjamin steps to the microphone on “Speak of the Devil.” A fine return for a band that has long transformed turbulence into part of their musical experience. Derek Beres

(This review originally ran in Relix)

A Soundtrack in 3 Cities

27 10 2008

By Derek Beres

[Originally posted on]

I have long been turned off with the entire concept of “yoga music,” as well as much of the actual material marketed within this seemingly indefinable category. Like many translations of yogic texts, in which the concept of “good” overrides and demolishes “evil,” the music leans toward the airy and winsome without proper foundations. The yogic path is concerned with “wholeness,” not separation between opposing forces; the same goes for the music. When listening to street recordings of bhajans and qawwali, there is something downright sinister — and complete — in these sounds. The mind may differentiate, but the soul of the artist does not.

Being that my career is involved with these two crafts — teaching yoga and writing about, producing, and DJing international music — I spend a lot of time honing and polishing my playlists. While I love the bansuri and sitar, my body craves to move to bass and well-placed kick drums. A few years ago I had high hopes when being sent a debut by two producers going under the name Bombay Dub Orchestra. They were on my favorite label, Six Degrees, and it seemed very promising. And indeed, the two-record self-titled set was and is beautiful. Yet it didn’t have the undertones and push that I craved when hearing the word “dub.” From my tried and tested experiences teaching, the low-end of reggae produces some of the best sonic waves to move to, in the yoga studio and outside.

I was equally open-minded when opening their latest, 3 Cities, a few weeks ago.  What I was yearning for a few years back was finally involved. The producers, Garry Huges and Andrew T. Mackay, turned up the lows and refined the drums, which now exhibit punch. This in no way distracts the listener from feeling the highs; in fact, it enhances them. When flutes, santurs, and drones emerge, they float effortlessly over the rich, full landscape. The vocals sit magnificently, gorgeously in the pocket. Everything shines.

Paying homage to the three cities the album was recorded in —Mumbai, Chennai, and London— their sophomore effort reminds me in theory (though not in sound) to Cheb i Sabbah’s Krishna Lila. It does not favor the “light” over the “heavy.” There’s beauty in the unpolished lotus that is directly pulled from the mud. The hard and rugged beats of “Monsoon Malabar,” the downward trek of “Spiral,” the sweeping orchestra of “Junoon;” it’s all there, canvassing the field of good and evil and finding a middle ground. If that’s what I want my yoga practice to do — to see the world undifferentiated, to be able to choose though not deny the complete nature of existence — then my music has to accomplish the same. Bombay Dub Orchestra continues to contribute to this cause.

The Dusty Foot Philospher Kicks Up America

29 08 2008

By Derek Beres

It’s rare that I can say that I’m walking to see a Radiohead show. In fact, the last time I attended any show without the assistance of a car, subway, or bus was in 2001, when Liberty State Park hosted its last concert: Radiohead. Seven years later and the state reopened the land—a beautiful park edged on the cusp of Jersey City, overlooking Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Bayonne, as well as offering the closest view to the Statue of Liberty—for the inaugural All Points West festival.

Seven years seems to be my cycle with the boys from Oxfordshire. In 1994 I saw them open for Belly at Rutgers; in 2001, they blew away 25,000 fans; again in ‘08, to 30,000. The year 2001 also marked my introduction to a Somalia-born refugee poet/emcee named K’Naan, also on the bill at All Points West, on a compilation called Building Bridges produced by the great Senegalese musician, Yossou N’Dour. It was a fundraiser for African refugees, and featured two tracks by K’Naan, the global-minded “This Is My World” and the sweet tribute to the female half of our species, “Drain My Grey Away”.

Rooted in Toronto, K’Naan has made quite an impact on the Canadian music scene. When I first saw him perform in Winnipeg, he stood on stage, drum in hand, a full band accentuating his philosophical lyricism with an urban edge, focused on the two instruments that comprise and compose the totality of African storytelling: the voice and the drum. When his first American release compiled a number of older songs from his Canadian My Life Is a Movie earlier this year, The Dusty Foot Philosopher was eagerly embraced by hip-hop fans seeking something that feeds the world, lyrically, and does not simply rely on beats and inane verses to carry the music through.

“When you have music that has some message in it, a lot of the time people wonder if it works,” K’Naan told me after his one-hour set at the festival. “Audiences are predominantly the same anywhere—they’re just people. It’s how you say what you’re saying that counts. It’s also a responsibility. If you have music with a message, you still have to make it beautiful enough so that people appreciate it regardless of the message. It’s not saying something first that counts.”

Read the full article on PopMatters.

Genetic druGs Gets Contagious

19 08 2008

By Derek Beres

Four records and numerous singles into the mix, Berlin’s Genetic druGs drops what may be his most groove-oriented album to date. While he has always been intent on the unification of global cultures through sound-blasting the airwaves with the planet’s tunes on his Multi-Kulti radio show – the depths and range of craftsmanship displayed on Contagious is truly commendable.

The album cover says it all- the word “contagious” in eight languages, including the dead-but-revived slang of Sanskrit. He includes this script due to the participation of the Mantra Singers from Mangalore’s Tiger Temple, who provide an excellent vocal track on the drum’n’bassy “Lakshmi Mantra.” druGs hangs toward India a bit, featuring Oikyotaan and Katrick Das Baul on “Din Duniyaar Maalik,” which adds a hyper beat to the watery drums of the Baul tradition. The singing on that song, like most of the record, is excellent.

The India experience is complete on the Jew’s harp-led “The Radhakrishna Experience,” which features a high-pitched singer named Rani Chitrakar. The melody on this devotional track is perhaps the most meditative of the bunch; it is a tasteful, inspired song. The twangy resonance of the mouth harp is a great companion for the percussive rhythm and Chitrakar’s higher-toned voice; the resonating guitar effects halfway through give it a hallucinogenic vibe.

Read the full review on EthnoTechno.

Nomad Soundsystem: Oriental Electronics

7 08 2008

By Derek Beres

Attempting to cover a host of genres under a single umbrella can be a daunting task-one often inclined towards disaster in the global fusion realm. Yet the very name of this Berlin-based outfit hints at globetrotting, and the nomadic reference is refreshingly fitting. While, from what I’ve been told, this is a band to be experienced live, they prove themselves to be excellent producers as well, honing and crafting an impressive variety of, as the album title suggests, “oriental” sounds within the context of electronica-inflected backdrops.

Their story, paraphrased: Moroccan-inspired guitarist connects his rock roots with Japanese loop wizard, who offers his laptop and precision; two Tunisians, one on lead vocals and another throwing in occasional percussion, join an Algerian percussionist (and accordionist to boot), along with a bass-heavy beat master who refers to himself-in accordance with all this worldly alchemy-as Shazam, who, if I remember correctly, gave Billy the ability to transform into Captain Marvel.

While they throw around big and rather ambiguous terms (the latest: Advanced Ethnotronica) in reference to their sound, the most prominent features are North African. These soundbytes do not dominate, though. What the band most relies on, and what serves as the epoxy granting the project linearity, is their excellent selection of beats. David Beck is diverse enough on guitar to ensure a wide range of atmospheres are created, and Tomoki Ikeda is brave enough to offer a fine variety of rhythms which to choose from. Sparse percussion fills the play between deep and airy.

Read the full review on EthnoTechno.

A Walk Through the Medina

4 08 2008

By Derek Beres

While it did not surprise me to hear Hassan Hakmoun blasting from giant stereo cabinets suspended from metal chains inside Fes’ medina—the largest non-automobile city on the planet—I was a little more taken aback to hear Souad Massi. Not that it should be odd; Algeria is a stone’s throw from Morocco. It’s just that inside a city playing such upbeat music—plenty of Gnawa and Arabic tunes, as well as the occasional hip-hop and even Nine Inch Nails—the sensual strains of “Raoui [The Storyteller]” was a nice break, especially blasting from the rooftop café near Bab Bajloud where I sat many a night drinking mint tea and soaking up bread in the broth from the couscous.

While covering the Sacred World Music Festival for PopMatters (much more detailed coverage will be posted soon), I was expecting to be greeted by a musical culture. It is true; there were plenty of stores blaring various sounds, and my petit cab drivers played music that ranged from recitations of the Qu’ran and horrible Arab electronica to Pink Floyd and some form of disco that shouldn’t have been created in the first place. I found it odd that a number of them asked if I wanted to hear American music—that was the last thing I wanted to hear in a country as sonically rich as Morocco. Cross-cultural fascination works in both directions, however.

So while my assignment was to cover performances at festival venues, my real fascination was with uncovering local music that I couldn’t find anywhere near New York City. This task was accomplished, for the most part, although it proved more of a challenge than I expected. Being that I speak little French and no Arabic, communication was a problem. Fortunately, I found a great little record store just inside the medina that did not care if the plastic wrappers stayed on the CDs. They gladly unwrapped any album, playing it inside that bass-heavy cabinet that I smacked the back of my head into (twice) during my time there.

Read the full article on PopMatters.