Category Archives: Various

Cannibalism, alchemy, and flying saucers: The ’70s Brazilian music scene

I recently had the good fortune to indulge myself in 1970s Brazilian music, after a small treasure ended up in my home: a box full of vinyl records with the very best of the Brazilian music scene of the time, featuring an explosive mix of samba, bossa nova, folk, soul, funk, psychedelia, and experimental rock.

Listening to these records one after another, I started putting together the pieces of a scene incredibly rich and colorful, encompassing artists so diverse and yet characteristically Brazilian as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, seminal composers João Gilberto and Tom Jobim, influential poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, as well as gifted guitarists and songwriters such as Luiz Bonfá, Toquinho, and Baden Powell.

A true gem I was delighted to discover was Tecnicolor (1970), an album originally intended to serve as the introduction of the legendary psych-rock group Os Mutantes to the English-speaking world. However, the tapes were lost and the album was only released in 2000 (with artwork by Sean Lennon). It is an absolutely thrilling record, showcasing the group’s talent and creative blend of disparate influences – a signature trait of the Tropicália movement known as antropofagia: a sort of “cultural cannibalism” aspiring to bring together different – often contrasting – elements in order to form a new synthesis.

Other records that left a deep impression on me included the brilliant self-titled debut album by glam rockers Secos & Molhados (released in 1973), as well as the fusion masterpiece Acabou Chorare (1972) by the psych-folk group Novos Baianos (voted first in the 100 Greatest Brazilian Music Records list published by Rolling Stone in October 2007).

Furthermore, I was fascinated by the transcendental dimension of certain seminal works of the era, such as Jorge Ben’s A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), a unique album that illustrates Ben’s interest in theosophy, mysticism, and alchemy. Another example is Tim Maia’s Racional, Vols. 1 & 2 (1975-76), two albums that were recorded when Maia read the book Universe in Disenchantment and decided to convert to the cult of Rational Culture, spending a lot of his time watching the sky for extraterrestrials and flying saucers.

Although in the end Maia abandoned the cult and went back to his previous lifestyle, his fascinating excursion into Rational Culture provided the inspiration for these incredible soul-funk albums, which, along with the music of the tropicalistas and several subsequent artists and songwriters, became part of the ever vibrant, groovy, and at times transcendental, Brazilian music scene.

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Defending an identity: An interview with Algerian guitar legend Lotfi Attar

Founding member of the celebrated Algerian band Raïna Raï back in the 1980s, guitarist and composer Lotfi Attar has acquired a somewhat legendary status in Algerian music circles. A multifaceted artist, Attar has done much to revolutionize the folk genre known as raï, extending its musical vocabulary as well as its audience.

Moreover, Attar boasts a broader understanding of North African music and culture, bringing together elements from various regions and experimenting with different styles. Apart from a unique and innovative musician, he is also a man with a deep passion and love for his country and its culture.

I recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his music, his development as a guitarist, and his overall career so far (his answers have been translated from French):

When did you first get seriously involved with music?

My brother Kamel also played the guitar. I started playing in 1962 when I was 10 years old, and in 1969 I joined the group Les Aigles Noirs playing western pop music and performing at parties and weddings. This type of music, however, was not very popular in the smaller villages.

Who are the musicians who had the biggest influence on you?

First of all, The Shadows and their distinctive way of guitar playing, but also American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Brazilian bossa nova composer Sergio Mendes, The Beatles, Carlos Santana with his song Jingo… And then everything my older brothers would listen to. I particularly like the sound of the Gibson and Fender guitars as played by The Shadows or Jimi Hendrix. The first guitar I bought was a Fender Duo-Sonic Mustang.

Apart from guitar players like Hendrix and Santana, when I was a teenager I would also listen to classical composers such as Strauss or Beethoven, and even played some pieces by Mozart.

Algerian guitarist Lotfi Attar / Photo: Nadjib Bouznad

What do you consider the most important moments in you career so far?

First of all, the formation of Raïna Raï in 1980 and the release of the album Hagda (1983), which included the song Ya Zina [the group’s biggest success]. Then, the formation of Amarna in the mid-1980s. For the group’s first album I composed the music while Hamida [Lotfi’s wife] wrote the lyrics in the form of lyric poetry. The group’s vocalist was Djillali Rezkallah [better known as Djillali Amarna], a singer with a beautiful voice coming from a rural vocal culture. I tried to create harmonies to accompany the vocal melodies using instruments like bass guitar, drums, and saxophone [the work stands out for its habitual use of unison, and includes the hit song Khalouni Nabki].

In more recent years, I have developed the “Goumb-Guits” style, where I sing a melody and try to approximate the sound of the gumbri [traditional 3-stringed instrument, also known as sintir] with my guitar. The Tuareg people have their proper style, I only adjust and transform it. So in the Goumb-Guits style, we find a mix of modern instruments (drums, bass guitar, piano, electric guitar) and traditional percussion instruments (karkabous, kallouz, guellal).

What have been your latest projects?

I try to evolve in the domain of musical research and bring forth elements from other world cultures that are often not valued, like Asian music for instance, through the use of the guitar. As I said, I have developed the Goumb-Guits style, but I am not limited to that. I also try to play in other styles such as Orient-Guits, Andaluz-Guits, Alaoui-Guits, and Tergui-Guits. I would also like to work with a European pianist, as I am curious to see how he or she would adapt to my style.

How would you describe your way of playing?

I don’t know… It’s natural. I am defending an identity. I am trying to be different from other guitarists. I would say mostly “Algerian.”

In what ways has Algerian music influenced you?

The Algerian musical influence on my style can be seen in the use of traditional instruments such as the reed flute, the ghaita [North African double reed instrument also known as rhaita], and percussion instruments like the bendir, the gallal, and the karkabous. I have also been influenced by the west-Algerian rural folklore we call trab [the word means “soil”], the alaoui style in my rock playing, as well as the rhythm of saf [a women’s dance], the diwan [similar to gospel], and the tergui [Touareg music related to the blues].

I chose to stay in my native Sidi Bel Abbès in Algeria in order to defend the Algerian identity and try to inspire the future generations. What is more, Algeria inspires me; I cannot see myself living in another place.


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Bach Brazil Barcelona

Johann Sebastian Bach and Brazilian music have always enjoyed an intimate relationship. This is evident from the towering figure of Heitor Villa-Lobos and his magnificent Bachianas Brasileiras to subsequent Brazilian musicians (such as guitarist Baden Powell) who also found inspiration in Bach’s music and combined it with their own distinctive style.

Originally scored for soprano and an orchestra of cellos, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 suite is probably Villa-Lobos’s best-known work. A special rendition of the suite’s famous Aria (which has been also arranged for soprano and guitar by the composer) was recently made by singer Ilona Schneider and guitarist Diego Caicedo. Based in Barcelona, the duo delivers an emotionally charged and delicate performance, which is further enhanced by the atmosphere of the  accompanying video.

In fact, Barcelona claims a very special connection to Bach. This is largely due to legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals: In 1890, when he was still 13 years old, Casals chanced upon a copy of Bach’s six Cello Suites in a second-hand sheet music store in Barcelona. Several years later, after having studied them laboriously, Casals would perform Bach’s suites  in public and record them between 1936 and 1939.  They have since been performed and recorded extensively, and are now considered to be among Bach’s most important works.

A highly original take on Bach’s famous Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 can be heard from Armonipiano, a duo formed by harmonicist Rodrigo G Pahlen and pianist Gilles Estoppey. Also based in Barcelona, the two musicians perform a fresh and eclectic blend of jazz, tango, and Brazilian music. And a little bit of Bach, that is.

As shown by such brilliant and novel approaches, the mix of Bach, Brazil and Barcelona makes indeed for an exciting musical cocktail: A sort of baroque-flavored caipirinha, served in the music bars of the Catalan capital.

Gil Shaham, Greece and an old Chinese legend

I recently had the chance to meet and talk with American violinist Gil Shaham in Barcelona, on the occasion of his performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in L’Auditori (you can read the full interview here).

Towards the end of our conversation we talked a bit about Greece and the soloist’s only visit there so far, which he seemed to remember very vividly:

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Gil Shaham with his ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius, backstage in L’Auditori

“I have never been in Athens, but I’ve been in Thessaloniki. I performed there around 10 years ago with a very good Greek orchestra. We played a piece called the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. I love this piece. It’s a sort of tone poem, and it tells a traditional story from the Chinese opera, very similar to Romeo and Juliet but in ancient Chinese style.

According to the story, the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, is forced to marry a noble man and she agrees to do so only if the wedding procession passes by the grave of her true love, Liang Shanbo. As the traditional Chinese wedding procession goes by the grave of young Shanbo, the earth shakes and lightning strikes and the earth shallows her up, and she throws herself into the grave of Shanbo. And in the end they are both resurrected as butterflies.

The piece is a symphonic version of a traditional Chinese opera, and it was composed in 1959 by two students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. It became extremely successful; it is the single most often performed symphonic work ever!”

It appears Shaham’s Greek visit was quite special, and he still has fond memories of it:

“So we played this piece in Thessaloniki. It was a very nice experience and and I have a beautiful memory of it. My whole family was with me, including my daughter who was just one year old at the time.”

We also talked about Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, for whom Shaham has a deep appreciation. The two artists also share some common experiences:

“We went to the same music school with Leonidas in New York. He was a little bit older. We live parallel lives so we never see each other, but then around 2 years ago we were in Munich at the same time and we had dinner together. That was very nice. I love his playing.”

Shaham, like Kavakos, has been one of the foremost violinists of his generation and it would be quite an occasion if their parallel routes also intersected in the concert hall – and it would be hard to think of a more fitting location for such a meeting to take place than Greece.

Listening to Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was one of these rare geniuses that are simply impossible to classify. Composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, as well as filmmaker and actor, he switched with ease from one genre or style to another, blending various disparate influences into a highly original musical idiom.

An accomplished guitarist, Zappa also left a rich legacy of dazzling guitar work, such as his electrifying solo in Willie the Pimp from his early masterpiece Hot Rats (1969).

His virtuosity aside, it is evident that Zappa’s unique, and constantly evolving, musical language was only one part of his multifaceted artistic expression and creative vision. His often provocative stage presence, caustic -and at times censored- lyrics, as well as controversial role as a public figure were equally important aspects of his artistic persona.

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

There are, thus, various ways of listening to Frank Zappa. First, through his innovative and unconventional music. Then, through his sharp, sarcastic, and often infuriating lyrics. Last but not least, through his public commentary and interventions.

The latter is the focus of the recent documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Featuring numerous excerpts from interviews and TV appearances, it provides a general overview of Zappa’s ideas and views on a variety of topics such as music, politics, education, religion, drugs, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Not unlike his music, Zappa’s talk and language are playful yet always well structured; his remarks can be humorous and sarcastic, yet extremely serious.

Unsurprisingly, many of his views, such as his stance on American culture and foreign policy, ring the same as timely and poignant today.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Zappa’s influence in Europe has been arguably greater than in his native US. The subversive character of his art had a particularly big impact in the avant-garde and underground scenes of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Notably, Zappa went to Czechoslovakia following an invitation by president Václav Havel in January 1990. Havel was a fan of Zappa, and would later refer to him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground.” The two men developed a friendship, further consolidating the special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic that endures to this day.

Another, more tangible, testament to Zappa’s lasting and far-reaching influence can be found in downtown Vilnius, Lithuanian’s capital city. It is a bronze bust of the American musician erected in 1995, which has since become one of the city’s most visited sights (I took a photo of it myself when I visited Vilnius some years ago).

Listening to Frank Zappa, then, has been quite tricky: his attitude towards the status quo and established processes always remained critical, his iconoclastic art causing great provocation all the way from the US (where he fought a long battle against music censorship) to Soviet countries (where his music was banned and his records had to be smuggled illegally).

Be it Zappa’s groundbreaking music or thought-provoking commentary on society and culture, it is a listen most definitely worth having.

Electronic music artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Despite its name, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted several musicians that are not exclusively tied to the genre. Rappers such as Run-D.M.C. and the rap-rock act Beastie Boys to name a few, with Compton group N.W.A. to be added next year.

As such, it appears the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally embracing electronic music. Kraftwerk, widely considered pioneers in the field of electronic music, are nominated once again, while Depeche Mode with their synthpop electronic sound have been nominated for the fist time.

A lot of electronic artists have given their time and talent to the genre. Even though mostly riddled with male artists, the genre has also known pioneers such as Suzanne Ciani, who has acquired a somewhat legendary status within electronic music circles.

There are many more talented DJs from the past who have promoted electronic music, while even big names from other genres have clearly benefitted from it. There is an almost innumerable quantity of pop songs that have used electronic sounds, and it can also be said that pop icons like Madonna and Tina Turner owe a lot to the genre.

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Furthermore, electronic music has been around for decades. Its importance has also impacted other industries too, most notable movies. This year saw the release of various titles that display the use of electronic music, which shows how the genre is blended into visual mediums. Additionally, electronic music is also evident in video games and, as shown in this infographic about music and games, the sounds produced by electronic machines help keep players engaged and liven up the gaming experience. This means that not only is electronic music a purely auditory aspect, it also contributes towards heightening the stimulation of feelings and emotions.

Considering, thus, electronic music’s various redeeming qualities, it wouldn’t be out of place to see artists who have dedicated themselves to the genre be acknowledged by award-giving bodies like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Following the inclusion of other genres in the past, it could well open it up to electronic music this time around.

A Nobel Prize for music

Earlier this week the Swedish Academy announced that American songwriter Bob Dylan was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first time a musician was awarded the prestigious prize. Naturally, certain questions pop up: What qualifies as literature? And where exactly does it intersect with music? Moreover, is Dylan primarily a musician or a poet? And does he deserve a Nobel Prize? I’ll try and tackle these one by one.

What is literature?

Not only books, apparently. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America, published in 2009, contains a brave new and surprisingly inclusive definition of literature: “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form.” Apart from focusing exclusively on the written word, the massive anthology also deals with subjects such as comic strips, film, radio, photography, and, well, music (as a matter of fact, its index contains numerous references to Dylan, as do many other literary studies).

To be sure, not everyone has been in agreement. In an article for Harper’s Magazine in March 2014, American essayist Arthur Krystal defends the traditional literary canon, concluding that:

The truth is we want from poetry and prose what Bob Dylan and advertisements and even many well written commercial novels cannot provide. We want important writing (…) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as T.S. Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.

Now this is an interesting statement. In my view, the simple fact that Krystal feels the need to mention Dylan by name in his defense of “important writing” is already a sign of defeat and a direct acknowledgment of the latter’s significance and influence on contemporary culture.

But more importantly, it is hard to see how someone could seriously argue that Dylan’s work does not “explore the human condition”. If to be part of the literary world one should have a typewriter, a publishing contract and a membership in the Writers’ Union, then probably gifted lyricists like Dylan do not fit the bill. But to say that the man has not been a “curious explorer of the soul” is simply inaccurate, if not depreciating or spiteful.

The music of words

Literature, in fact, has quite a lot in common with music. To begin with, the works of classics such as Homer or Hesiod that feature in every literary canon were meant to be recited to musical accompaniment rather than simply “read” in the modern sense of the word. Besides, some of the main aesthetic characteristics of both prose and poetry such as textual rhythm, pace, or sound (e.g. the use of alliteration or assonance) are essentially musical qualities – hence the term musicality as applied to literary works.

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There can be, thus, no literature without music. From Homer to experimental post-modern fiction the musical element has always been intrinsic to literary creation.

Bob Dylan: Poet or songwriter?

By this point, I hope it’s clear that the above question should sound quite irrelevant, if not misleading. The high literary quality of Dylan’s lyrics is obvious to anyone who has seriously concerned himself with his work (it is no coincidence that many acclaimed writers share this view). Although always considered a songwriter, articles and essays centering on the poetic dimension of Dylan’s work had appeared early on in his career, while literary scholars have been citing him extensively over the last 50 years (notably, Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009).

Dylan, wearing a hat and leather coat, plays guitar and sings, seated. Crouched next to him is a bearded man, listening to him with head bent.

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg in 1975 / Photo: Elsa Dorfman

After all, Dylan has always been a resourceful and multifaceted artist capable of reinventing himself constantly, and any effort to categorize or label him is essentially doomed to fail (“he not busy being born is busy dying”, as the song goes). He is both poet and songwriter, lyricist and singer, guitarist and harmonicist, folk and rock, acoustic and electric, joker and prophet. A troubadour of troubled times.

Songs and books

This is not the first time the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a non-conventional literary figure (notable examples include Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, who won the prize in 1950 and 1953 respectively). It is, however, the first time that it goes to a musician and this has some significant repercussions.

First, it reflects a general shift in ideas as to what exactly is considered literature. This also applies to last year’s winner, Belarusian journalist and non-fiction writer Svetlana Alexievich, whose work many consider non-literary. It appears, then, that the term literature can –and, indeed, should– encompass a larger variety of expression, content, form, and style.

Moreover, the committee’s decision further goes to show how the long-held distinction between high and low (i.e. “commercial” or “popular”) art is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A rock star winning the Nobel Prize is truly exceptional, and bound to have profound implications in the discussion about both the definition and boundaries of literature.

So is Bob Dylan worth the award? In answering this, I turn to the role music, and song lyrics in particular, have played in my development as a person from childhood to the present. And I imagine I am not alone in finding that certain lyrics have marked me irreversibly, profoundly shaping my way of thinking and seeing the world.

Now, there are not many people who could claim a Nobel Prize for their lyrics, and no doubt Dylan was the most obvious candidate (another one would be Leonard Cohen, but there’s always room for more). In this sense, this year’s choice was refreshing in that it acknowledged the importance and formative role of lyrics while elevating popular song to the level of literature.

Indeed, the words of the songs we love are often the same as precious as the books we hold most dear.