Monthly Archives: August 2019

SOUNDTRACK FOR A NEW & BETTER AGE: Johnny Clegg

Arguably South Africa’s greatest export ever, the Juluka / Savuka bandleader, and solo artist of equal acclaim, passed away a month ago this week. Journalist and longtime Clegg fan James Tighe offers this analysis and appreciation of the musical giant. (Above photo: courtesy Wikipedia)

BY JAMES TIGHE

It came out of the blue. The BBC radio announcement just before midnight on Tuesday, the 16th of July, that South African musician Johnny Clegg had died earlier in the day. Pancreatic cancer. He was 66-years-old. The news hit me hard. I didn’t know he had been diagnosed with the disease in 2015.

I first heard Johnny Clegg’s music during a three month stay on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1989. It seemed like everybody on the island was listening to him. As it happened, he played his final scheduled tour date there in October 2018.

Mauritius, being situated 500 miles east of Madagascar, is a member of several pan-African political and trade organizations. It has a sizable population of black citizens, Creoles, of east African origin, descendants of slaves imported to work the sugar cane fields by a succession of colonial powers, Dutch, French, English. These Mauritians, in particular, were ready-made Clegg fans.

The story of Johnny Clegg’s introduction to southern Africa’s Zulu culture and his lifelong identification with it has often been recounted. Born in England, he moved with his divorced mother to Zimbabwe at a very early age, then at the age of 6 to South Africa. Growing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, as the story has it, he met a street musician, a guitar player, who happened to be a member of the Zulu nation. The black street musician took the young white boy under his wing, introducing him to traditional Zulu music, dance, the larger culture.

The boy became enamored with all things Zulu, picking up the maskandi guitar and concertina accordion. He eventually became fluent in the language, mastered the male dance traditions, and becoming in the process something of an honorary member of the Zulu nation, if not an actual one.

His first musical incarnation consisted of assembling a mixed-race South African band, Juluka, releasing their first album in 1979. His partner-in-crime was the guitarist Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker he met when he was 17. The songs were a mix of traditional Zulu music and rock-n-roll, with both English and Zulu lyrics.

Much of Clegg’s music is characterized by a chorus of deep male harmony vocals that help give the songs their power. Because the band was integrated, Juluka’s very existence was illegal, and the band members were arrested several times and their concerts broken up. At the time Clegg said that Juluka wasn’t founded as a political band, but, “Politics found us.”

He formed his second bi-racial band, Savuka, in 1986 (pictured above). Ironically, Clegg was expelled from the British Musicians’ Union around this time because he refused to stop playing shows in South Africa, a practice the international anti-apartheid movement didn’t condone.

***

After returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, from my Mauritius trip, Johnny Clegg became the matrix for my meeting a fellow countryman of his. One afternoon I was sitting in an Oxford bar, drinking a beer. No one else was in the place but the bartender. Behind the bar was a cassette tape player rigged to speakers. I asked the bartender to play the Johnny Clegg tape I had with me, one that I had bought in Mauritius. After a couple of songs, a guy walked up the stairs into the barroom. He was stout of body, with a black beard, longish hair, and wire-rimmed spectacles. He was about to seat himself at the bar when he stopped, looked up at the speakers with a quizzical expression, and said in a pronounced British accent, “Who’s playing Johnny Clegg?”

Thus was born the start of a friendship.

Peter Lee, like Clegg, was a South African of British ancestry. At the time we met he was the editor of Living Blues magazine, a University of Mississippi publication. He told me he had originally come to Oxford to enroll at Ole Miss as a result of his chancing upon a flyer posted on a bulletin board of the college he was attending in South Africa. The flyer invited students to apply to a foreign exchange journalism program at Ole Miss. Peter, a longtime American blues fan and collector of the music, immediately went into a mad scramble to get here. Mississippi. The word was magic to his ears. The Promised Land. The Birthplace of the Blues.

After graduating from the program, he was selected to become the editor of Living Blues. He went on to found Fat Possum Records in Oxford. His signing R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, among others, to the label revived their careers and helped put north Mississippi hill-country blues on the map.

It should be emphasized that Peter Lee didn’t start up Fat Possum just to make money. He founded the label to help black blues musicians make the money. And he wanted to promote the music. Peter’s deeply felt regard and respect for black people was catalyzed by his experience in the South African army where he witnessed first hand the brutality of his government’s apartheid regime.

As a South African soldier (military service being mandatory) he was literally placed on the front lines of the apartheid wars of the time, albeit not on the side he would have chosen. He witnessed up close and personal the savage inhumanity of violent racism as wielded by the state. The experience marked him for life. It is no wonder he loved Johnny Clegg and his music.

Johnny Clegg was an important public figure in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. His song Asimbonanga was dedicated to Nelson Mandela when he was still imprisoned on Robben Island. The song became an anthem of the movement. Clegg eventually received South Africa’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver. He was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government and was made an Officer of the British Empire. The list of honorary degrees he has received from universities around the world is a long one. I don’t think he was well known in the U.S., but internationally, especially throughout Africa and much of Europe, he was a super-star.

Back in the early ‘90s Johnny Clegg and Savuka performed on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. It was quite a spectacle. The band members were dressed old-time ceremonial Zulu-style, half-naked, barefoot, draped in big-game animal furs and skins. With spears and shields they demonstrated Zulu dance rituals as they played and sang, deep-throated, resonant Zulu voices booming in harmony. The studio audience loved it. “Just wait until we tell the gang back home in Peoria about this, Gladys.”

Around that same time, I made a cassette tape of Clegg and Savuka for my friend Larry Brown, the late Mississippi novelist. On occasion, usually late at night in a barroom, he would incline his head toward mine and in a low, barely audible voice, begin singing, “Asimbonanga. . .” completing the first line of the song, pronouncing the Zulu words perfectly. He would always end by saying how much he loved the song.

Johnny Clegg’s songs were not only of visionary politics but also of his love for Africa and the African people, the rains they depend on, the ground on which they walk, hunt, till, and otherwise wrest a living. Hearing of his death that Tuesday night awakened in me many of the past associations he and his music have for me. He touched my life in the best possible way. The world is a better place because of him and his music. That, to me, is the ultimate tribute any one of us can ever hope to receive.

Below, watch a complete Clegg & Savuka concert from back in the day.

COUNTING ON THEM: Curse Of Lono

A conversation with the London upstarts who, in just a few short years, have created the kind of international buzz you used to only read about in the UK weeklies. Oh, and according to BLURT’s ye olde editor, Curse of Lono is officially our current favorite British band. Don’t be surprised if the next time your read about them here, they’ll be our current favorite, period. Drill down on their latest album, 4 AM And Counting, cut at the inimitable Toe Rag Studios. PS: Hunter Thompson’s not dead, he’s just orbiting us in the stratosphere.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Over the course of just four years, London’s Curse Of Lono has delivered three near-perfect records (one EP and two LPs check the links for our reviews) embodying Americana better than most south of the Mason Dixon-based bands raised on RC Cola, Johnny Cash and not-so-subtle racism.

So how do they follow up a so-far stellar track record of album releases? Well, by going back and re-visiting their still fresh anthology of songs. Naturally.

On 4 AM And Counting, Curse Of Lono set up basecamp at Toe Rag Studios in London where they recorded stripped down, mellower versions of songs off those first few albums. They brought along pedal steel great BJ Cole (Dolly Parton, Elton John, Pink Floyd) and harmonica player Nick Reynolds (Alabama 3) to sit in on a handful of songs as well.

The vibe is infectiously low-key and the rootsier sound manages to highlight the sophistication of the lyrics even more so than on the original tracks.

Back in London and preparing for some European dates, singer/guitarist Felix Bechtolsheimer took some time recently to talk to us about the genesis of 4 AM And Counting, the prospects of finally pulling off a proper tour of the states, and kicking heroine while discovering the genius of John Prine and Guy Clark.

BLURT: Let’s start by talking about the concept behind 4 AM and Counting?

FELIX BECHTOLSHEIMER:  We normally strive for a very cinematic, widescreen sound, which requires a lot of planning and lots of layers. With this album we were aiming for the opposite. Instead of visualising the recordings on a big IMAX screen, we wanted the listener to feel like they’re sitting in the room with us. We really wanted to capture that intimacy. We had a bunch of chilled-out, stripped-back versions of our songs, which we’d put together for radio sessions and through the band jamming late at night, and we wanted to record a couple of those for a little video series. But we couldn’t decide which songs to go with, so we ended up recording 15 tracks in three days. The camera was rolling on one of those days, so we ended up with six session videos as well. I was a bit nervous about putting out a whole album with no new songs this early in our career but in the end, we agreed to do a limited-edition vinyl for Record Store Day. That went really well so we agreed to put it out properly.

You recorded this in Toe Rag studio – what was it about that studio that attracted you to it in the first place?

Toe Rag Studios is an incredible place. There are no computers. There’s no technology to tempt you. We just played everything completely live like we do when we’re messing around in our rehearsal room, so what you hear is exactly what was played. Liam Watson built the place in the nineties and he got a lot of attention when he recorded The White Stripes there and won a Grammy for their album Elephant. It was amazing working with Liam. He just knows how to get the right sound quickly so there is very little waiting around. We just plugged in and off we went.

You’ve also got some impressive guests on this one. How did you get BJ Cole and Nick Reynolds involved?

We’ve known BJ and Nick for a long time. Our drummer was in a band with BJ and my old band, Hey Negrita, toured with Alabama 3, so we’ve spent a lot of time with Nick. When we found out that we were getting the Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award at the Americana Awards in January, we thought it would be cool to take some of the tracks in a bit more of a rootsy direction as our first two albums tend to veer off the beaten Americana path quite a bit. BJ and Nick were the perfect guys to add a bit of that loose, Beggars Banquet style rootsiness. And it was really cool to hang out with two old friends for a couple of days.

Any chance you will ever playing a proper tour in the U.S.?

We certainly hope so. We are coming over for Americanafest in Nashville in September and our booking agent is inviting a lot of promoters and US agents down to see us. Hopefully one of them will bite so we can come back for a longer stint next year.

You mentioned filming some of the record sessions for this record. Videos/movies are pretty synonymous to this band. Why is the visual element important to the band?

I studied at the London Film Academy, so I’ve always been very interested in visuals. I think these days it’s getting harder and harder to break through the static to reach your audience. It’s so easy for people to access infinite amounts of music for no money while their attention spans are rapidly shrinking. As an artist you have to work really hard to convince people to give you a few minutes of their time and I find that videos and movies are a really great way to do that. They enable you to tell your story in a more detailed way.

There is a strong Americana sound to your music. Are there bands in particular that you draw a lot of influence from?

Yeah. It’s a weird one. We get a lot of love from the Americana crowd but we’re also getting great support from the rock and indie tribes these days. A lot of the songs I write start out as simple indie tunes but then we throw some slide guitar and a few four-part harmonies in the mix, and it automatically gives them a bit of an Americana flavour. I moved to south Florida in 2000 for a year to give up heroin and methadone. I had a roommate out there who turned me onto a lot of the great American country songwriters like Guy Clark, John Prine and Steve Earle. I guess some of that must still be in my system.

Any musical influences you have that might be surprising to some people?

Oh. There are loads. I love the Pixies, Sisters Of Mercy, the Prodigy, Black Sabbath and even a bit of Ministry when I’m in the right mood.

Have you started thinking about new songs yet for another album?

Yes, but it’s early days. I have some sounds, some melodies and some lyrical themes but I haven’t had the time to put them together yet. The past year has been pretty crazy for us but I’m hoping to get the first few tracks finished next month. I’ve already booked five days in a rehearsal room when we’re in Nashville in September so that we can start playing around with some ideas.

What’s next for the band?

We’re heading back to the U.S. for a couple of festivals in Nashville and Bristol, TN in September and then we have a UK headline tour in October. I’m really excited that one of my favourite songwriters in the world, a guy called John Murry, is opening for us. If you haven’t heard his music, you have to check him out. After that, we’re going to lock ourselves away until the next album is finished. No excuses!

40 Years On: The 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival

This year’s event, held June 26-July 6, made for a remarkable experience regardless of what you were expecting.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY ALISA CHERRY

Over the course of the past four decades, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (also known as the Montreal Jazz Festival), has rightfully become one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals regardless of the competition. This was a milestone year for the festival and the fact that its two long-time leaders and cofounders, Alain Simard and Andre Ménard, announced their retirement, the 2019 edition of the festival took on additional significance as well.

Nevertheless, there will always be consistency. Montreal’s downtown district offers both ticketed main stage performances and outdoor musical events that are free to the public. People attend from all over the world, all marvelling at some of the best bills found at any festival of a similar size.  Indeed, the Montreal Jazz Festival’s reputation for providing imaginative and adventurous music in a variety of forms will likely continue unabated. This year’s line-up included Peter Frampton, Alan Parsons Project, Buddy Guy, Holly Cole, Charlotte Cardin, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Blue Rodeo, Steel Pulse, Victor Wainwright, Dianne Reeves, George Benson, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Joshua Redman, Bryan Adams, Chet Faker, John Pizzarelli, PJ Morton, Popa Chubby, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Elling, Pink Martini, Richard Reed Parry, Colin James, Sue Foley, and Mercury Rev among the many. Its banner to the contrary, the festival isn’t limited to jazz, but rather some of the most eclectic offerings possible.

(Above: Buddy Guy on July 6, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

***

Here then are some of this year’s highlights in the order of their presentation:

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s tribute to Django Reinhardt was an early highlight, as was Gabriel & Rodrigo’s demonstration of duelling guitars. “People ask is what kind of music we play,” Gabriella remarked. “I tell them I don’t know. We have no boundaries in our heads.”

(Alan Parsons on July 4, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal)

The Alan Parsons’ Project provided another extraordinary performance, and the group’s takes on such signature songs as “Time,” “Breakdown” and “Games People Play” were, by measure, both stunning and surreal.

(Peter Frampton on July 5, 2019, The Farewell Tour, we hope not, at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

Peter Frampton’s performance was highly anticipated due to his decision to make his current Farewell Tour a final farewell due to the fact that he suffers from a disease called IBM which attacks the muscles with varying degrees of speed and progression. “I never want to stop playing. I love being on stage,” he continued, while insisting that the choice depends on the progression of his affiliation.

For the moment however, Frampton was still in top form. A slide show captured images of him from his earliest efforts with the Brit pop band The Herd through his efforts with Humble Pie and then into his tremendously successful solo career. He began the 2 1/2-hour concert with the upbeat song “Something’s Coming,” an apt opening anthem. From that point on, the setlist offered some obvious choices — “Show Me the Way,” “Do You Feel Like We Do,” as well as covers of “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Same Old Blues,” the latter two from his chart-topping new album All Blues. He went back to the beginning with several selections from his first solo album Wind of Change and then even further back with a pair of Humble Pie staples, “Four Day Creep” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” as part of his encore. A dramatic read of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” ended it all, with an obviously emotional Frampton telling the audience “I’m not going to say goodbye,” while fighting off a few tears as he walked off the stage.

(Press Conference with newly festival president, Jacques-André Dupont and festival founders, Alain Simard and André Ménard on July 6, 2019  – Salle Stevie-Wonder, Maison du Festival, Montréal  – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

The founders of the festival, Simard and Ménard, took center stage later that evening in Le Club, where they were interviewed live on the radio and a given special serenade by several of the festival’s past and present performers. A slide show was shown on a screen behind them as the musicians entertained the small invited audience. The l two song set by Holly Cole was especially memorable, and her rendition of “Bali Ha’i” from the musical South Pacific were nothing less than magical.

The festival’s new team in charge — programmers Marin Auxemery and Lauren Saunier, and newly installed festival president Jacques-Andre Dupont — shared their satisfaction. “We are really pleased,” Auxemery insisted. “We’re on budget, we have good ticket sales and a lovely vibe within this community. It’s an excellent first year.”

The others echoed his enthusiasm, hailing Montreal as a city that’s an ideal match for the diversity of the festival’s artists and audiences. It is, they agreed, a perfect place for musicians and music lovers to gather and celebrate such an astounding array of sounds and styles.

(Colin James on July 6, 2019 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Art, Montréal – Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)

Later, local proud again became evident when Canada’s Colin James opened for blues legend Buddy Guy. He occasionally ventured offstage into the first few rows of the crowd, keeping a constant grin on his face as he shared his songs with both aplomb and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Guy showed he was in a playful mood as well. Even at age 82, he’s as vibrant as ever, gyrating his hips, mugging with his moves and showing he’s still earnest and enthusiastic when it comes to showing off his skills,

Leslie Odom Jr., known for his role as Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton — as well as for his various TV roles — did a superb job of sharing standards in the company of a three-piece jazz band of considerable skill. His voice climbed to higher octaves while retracing some familiar fare, his take on “Killing Me Softly” being but one example.

On the other hand, experimentation was on tap with the final show of the festival, a performance by the adventurous ensemble Mercury Rev in the intimate environs of Le Club. The music was mesmerizing given its shifting tones and textures. Singer Jonathan Donahue was an inventive frontman, preening and posing with obvious aplomb. It was an apt ending for Montreal Jazz, and the extraordinary encounters that have always been so essential to its existence.

Granted, being in Canada over the 4th of July holiday does seem somewhat unpatriotic. Visiting a foreign city sans fireworks or any other homage to American pride can be cause for remorse.

Still, the sacrifice is well worth it. The Montreal Jazz Festival has a remarkably gracious staff that helps make the journalists that congregate onsite feel welcome and decidedly at home. Indeed, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as mingling with the crowds on the bustling streets of Montreal. The combination of those wonderful sights and all that remarkable music clearly makes for an amazing adventure in itself.