Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mighty Narrow at the Hairpin

Last Saturday night, I had my debut DJ gig, spinning under the alias DJ Mighty Narrow. The crowd at the Hairpin Arts Center was diverse, pretty representative of Logan Square (where it's been, where it is, and ... where it's headed). The music selection was diverse as well. And even though I was called a guerito and, I think, a white boy, the word in there is that people were feeling the music. Below is a taste of some of the tunes I played. Glad I heard this one before I ever saw this video. Wow. For more context on the DJ name, click here and here. The choice was mostly wordplay, as I have no relation to Trinidad or Trinidadian music whatsoever. I like how the name can be read as either a juxtaposition between two words or as a two-word phrase with one word qualifying the other. Either way, I wonder what kind of reaction I'll get the first time I play at a party with some real calypso heads.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Locked Down

Ever since I first saw him crooning "Such a Night" with The Band and those wonderful horns behind him, I've always had an appreciation for Dr. John -- his gritty voice, his bizarre swagger, and his commitment to New Orleans music and culture.

His new album Locked Down is one of those quintessential redefining albums by artists who are decades into their careers. What tends to be true about those albums is that these artists who killed it in the 60s and 70s finally quit the schlocky gloss of their 80s and 90s "adult contemporary" output and turn one of two corners. They either get back to some degree of musical roots and produce a killer of a record that sounds just like their old stuff. Or they can draw upon a young producer and mesh their songwriting with a current sound.

Dr. John kind of goes both ways with Locked Down. For all the talk of this being a return to the music of his Gris-Gris era, that's not entirely true. The record doesn't sound much like his early Cajun psychadelia. That stuff was great because it was loose and hazy, but still soulful. This new record is burning, its horns and drums locked in to precision. My favorite example is the nu-Afrobeat groove of "Ice Age". It'll take a few listens for me to start paying attention to what the Nite Tripper's actually saying on that cut and most of the others. But for now I'm happy just taking in these sweet, dark, and fiery grooves.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I've been going hard getting my hands on lotsa salsa, cumbia, and bachata mixes in preparation for an upcoming DJ set to benefit the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. I'll have to save posting some of those mixes for another week. For tonight, THEESatisfaction's first single off awE naturalE. They're out of Seattle and they're on Sub Pop. Might bump this at the gig next week!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cut n' Mix

I've been reading Dick Hebdige's Cut n' Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music this week. It's a very readable work, at the intersection of popular music writing and scholarly theory. For those who want to trace the historical evolution of reggae but don't have time nor wherewithal to tackle nearly 600 pages of Lloyd Bradley's This is Reggae Music (I've never read it, though I hear it's of the highest quality), Hebdige's book is a great place to start. Though I still haven't read the book's final chapter, "Club Mix: Breaking for the Border", I thought it would be a good idea to do a mid-read recap of five things I learned from Cut n' Mix.

1. Just before calypso became popular in Trinidad in the 40s and 50s, band members would compete during Carnival by engaging in stick-fighting. After white authorities feared riots and cracked down on the ritual, stick-fighting morphed into musical competitions between the bands themselves. Traditional stick-fighting continues today and is a fun celebration of the island's history.

2. Hebdige traces the evolution of Jamaican popular music, generally, as: Rastafarian drum music, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub. As the music changed, the bass became increasingly pronounced. Hebdige describes the music as becoming more "sticky". I like that phrase. Never thought of reggae that way before.

3. Jamaican music, from ska and beyond, was influenced in part by American r&b. Jamaican musicians first heard the sounds of Fats Domino and Louis Jordan when black American soldiers were stationed there during World Word II. In fact, the first music that "sound system" DJs used at street parties came not from Jamaican artists, but from imported American singles. The early ska recordings in the 1950s and the growth of the Jamaican music industry came from the competition among these DJs. They needed to innovate their playlists.

4. To make Bob Marley's Catch a Fire more palatable to American listeners, Chris Blackwell turned down the bass, upped Marley's vocals in the mix, and added more electric guitar solos.

5. British Two Tone music of the late 70s was partially an anti-racist response to segregation and inequality in England. I knew the Specials and other groups of that era were interracial, but I had no idea how important (and controversial) this was until reading Hebdige's second chapter, "Dub Version: Rise and Fall of Two Tone". The music was simultaneously a reaffirmation of the African and West Indies influence on British music and culture and a "fuck you" to Margaret Thatcher social policy. Black and white checkerboard... quite significant!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Benny Velarde at San Francisco Jazz Festival

Benny Velarde is a well-known timbalero who has been part of the Latin music scene in the Bay Area since the 1950s. Most famously, he was part of Cal Tjader's quintet. He has continued to lead small bands and orchestras for the past 50 years.

I went to see Velarde (or, just "Benny!" as audience members called him) last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco. The group featured excellent musicianship and dynamic interplay among the percussionists. One things I noticed about the timbales, which are still pretty new to me, is how a small change in the rhythms and patterns can dramatically change the momentum of the overall group sound. An emphatic drum hit on the "one" can signal the transition between soloists; changing the clave rhythm from cowbell to cymbal can propel the whole ensemble forward with a new sense of urgency.

Velarde himself is a joy to watch. He is in his ninth decade, a survivor of cancer, and yet, unlike other big names known for still doing their thing (B.B. King comes to mind), he can maintain his inspired playing for over two hours. Afterward, he had enough gusto to accept his SF Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award with three separate mini-speeches, detailing his boyhood in Panama and the history of his career as a Bay Area legend. Go Benny!

Below is a recording of his biggest hit, "Baila Mi Guaguanco". Check out the early Cal Tjader Quintet recordings for more of his sound.