Archive for November, 2013


Two Harps That Beat As One: Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

Almost 25 years ago, I was walking down West 4th street in Manhattan, and heard a harp-like sound that seemed extraordinarily out of place in the urban noise surrounding me. I tried to locate the source, and eventually realized it was emanating from three tall, slender men in robes who were sauntering up the block ahead of me. I sped up my pace and as I got abreast of them, saw that one of them was playing what I learned later was a kora, as he strolled. And it seemed as if something magical was happening; the instrument changed the environment surrounding the three, as people were calmed and drawn to the sound. All around them, these three stately men had everyone in thrall with the pure, rippling notes of the kora. The instrument itself was sort of a cross between a harp and a some kind of lute, and the most conspicuous part, the resonator, was half of a large gourd. I walked a block out of my way before tearing myself away from the sound to go home.
Since then, there have been quite a few musical collaborations involving the kora in combination with other western instruments. (The wonderful “Chamber Music” with Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal is one of the most successful.) But as far as I know, the collaboration between Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch is the first one to pair the kora with another harp. And upon hearing this duet, one actually wonders what took so long.
The two musicians in this duo are well matched, Keita has a history of innovating and experimenting with his instrument –he plays a western-machined double necked kora– but has been careful to always maintain some distinctive root of his beloved West African music. Catrin Finch (known in her home country of Wales as the Queen of Harps) is also known for her forays into experimental music, as well as her mastery of the standard classical and folk repertoire. For this performance, Keita brought both a single and a double necked kora, while Finch played a striking Camac “Big Blue 47″ concert harp with pickups on each of the 47 strings.
There was quite a buzz building up to their performance at WOMEX, which this year was in Cardiff. 
It was unfortunate that it took place in a rather small concert room instead of the big auditorium, as it filled up to capacity far too quickly and many delegates could not get in to see the show.The room was jammed with a mostly Welsh audience, and anticipation crackled in the air. I was pretty much crushed up agains the apron of the stage, almost in the middle..not the best angle for shooting!
When Finch and Keita play together, there is a complete immersion one with the other. Keita plays the rhythmic patterns and Finch’s precise fingers play a counterpoint or a harmony figure and it all just feels right. Keita grins when Finch plays a stately figure enhancing his motif, and Finch nods back, giving Keita the room to cascade away on the kora. And that’s quite a blazing solo he takes at the end, I might add. Through it all, there is a close communication that is palpable. Purists from one tradition or another may take issue with this blend -and I did hear one opinion voiced that it sounded too Welsh and not sufficiently Senegalese, but I think it is just that the two players have made allowances for each other’s music, and this give and take creates a true hybrid. At any rate, I was in string heaven, awash in pleasure from lovely music, exquisitely played.
For more information about these artists visit

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Iran Modern at the Asia Society from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

Prior to the Revolution, many of the precepts of Western modern art (both figurative and abstract) were being explored and incorporated into the work of Iranian artists.
This exhibit which runs till January 5th showcases some of the major figures of that time. My personal biases have dictated what I chose to shoot, given my preoccupation with surfaces, processes, lines, edges, mediums, organization and of course, color.
I will hazard a guess (not being an expert on the subject) that the exquisite heritage of Persian Miniatures, calligraphy and Islamic Geometry was fertile ground for the various explorations in the show. The result is a rather luscious experience, with an abundance of gold, silver, mirrors, plenty of tactile fun, intriguing line work and loads of detail. Most of it has sufficient intellectual edge to skirt the purely decorative. The show runs through January 5th, and is well worth seeing, as it provides a window into a free and invigorating moment in the life of Iranian art.

For more information about the formidable drumming of Mohammed Reza Mortazavi, visit:

to see the video from which the audio for this article was taken visit:

At the request of Asia Society, I have included the list of art donors for the exhibit:

Untitled by Mohsen Vaziri-Moqaddam. Untitled (Forms in Movement), 1970. Collection of the artist.
Parviz Tanavoli. Bronze Prophet, 1963. Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Gift of Ben and Abby Grey Foundation, 1963.
Massoud Arabshahi. Untitled, 1970. Collection of the Golden Tulip Art Foundation.
Reza Mafi. Siyah-mashq, 1971. Collection of Houman M. Sarshar, New York.
Reza Mafi. Siyah-mashq, 1975. Collection of Houman M. Sarshar, New York.
Reza Mafi. Untitled, 1973. Collection of The Farjam Foundation.
Parviz Tanavoli. The Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers), 1964. Tate: Purchased using funds provided by Edward and Maryam Eisler, 2011.
Marcos Grigorian. Untitled, 1963. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Alex J. Gray, 1965.
Marcos Grigorian. Crossroads (Earthwork), 1975. Collection of Cleopatra and Thomas Birrenbach.
Parvis Tanavoli. Oh Persepolis, 1975. Collection of the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar.
Faramarz Pilaram. Mosques of Isfahan (B), ca 1962. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Gift of Abby Weed Grey, 1975.
Mansour Ghandriz. Untitled, 1962. Collection of Shireen and Reza Khazeni.
Parviz Tanavoli. The Poet, 1973. Collection of the Artist.
Abolghassem Saidi. Untitled, 1973. Collection of Sam Bayat-Charlotte Denise Madeleine Bayat.
Massoud Arabshahi. Untitled (Avesta Series), 1978. Collection of the Golden Tulip Art Foundation.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Heart Beat, 1975. Collection of Nima Isham.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Untitled, 1977. Collection of Zahra Farmanfarmaian.
Mohammad Ehsai. GEREHAYE KHAYAM, 1968. Collection of the artist.
Manoucher Yektai. Untitled, 1951. Collection of Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller.
Manoucher Yektai. Still Life, 1954. Collection of the artist.
Sohrab Sepehri. Trees, 1970. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Gift of Abby Weed Grey, 1975.
Reza Mafi. The Poems of Hafez, 1969. Private Collection.

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Emily Portman Trio performs “Sunken Bells” at WOMEX from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

My deep love for British folk music stems back to my first Young Tradition albums, which landed in the USA and immediately made waves in the folk community here. Although there will always be musical mingling along borders, I still find that Britfolk is distinctive from Celtic music. I will leave it to those who can articulate it better to write what those differences are, (comments welcome!) but for me the melodies, harmonic structures and lyrics touch me deeply and are very much their own.

Emily Portman is definitely spinning her songs from the web of British folk music (and a sprinkling of other folk lore). What is lovely is that these songs feel if they have been around for centuries, and even though the poetic lyrics may be post modern in sentiment, they still stem from the magic and mayhem that pervades myths and folk tales. This is very well crafted, creative songwriting.

The Emily Portman Trio performed for a daycase at WOMEX, and I was not at first drawn into the sound. But I was glad that I stayed and shot, because as I did, I started to appreciate the music far more. Portman has a rather soft, head voice, but it is deadly accurate, and the two other women who make up the trio (Lucy Farrell on on viola and Rachel Newton on harp) supply imaginative, sure footed harmonies. Between the three they create a hypnotic sound that may start with a drone or a simple repeated figure, which gets more layered and richer as the song proceeds. Stay with this stuff, it will entrance you in the best sense of the word.

“Sunken Bells” was inspired by mermaid tales. I was first struck by the musical elements of the song but the lyrics are something to be savored, perhaps on a second or third listening.


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Here’s where you’ll find my weekly original world music video blogs that appear on Huffington Post, as well as an archive starting in April of 2009.

This is also the place where you will find video that is exclusive to my site. I’ve traveled to places like Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Taiwan and no matter where I go I have found amazingly talented and creative people working in every genre from the deepest traditions to the cutting edge.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to interview them and to capture some of what they do on video. Enjoy what you see and hear, and let me know what you think. I welcome your feedback.