Posts Tagged ‘Culture’


This year the Fes Festival presented two excellent drumming ensembles, The Master Drummers of Burundi, and the Korean Samulnori Hanullim Ensemble. Experiencing these two groups got me thinking about how much we rely on our own cultures to interpret sound.
It’s not that I don’t believe music can cross boundaries, but I also believe that as we grow up our own culture informs us of how to hear things, and even how to evaluate the quality of the music we are listening to. The drummers from Burundi were excitement personified, and they were rightly presented on the big stage at the Bab Makina, where their athletic gestures and mighty, deep-voiced drums matched the grandeur of the setting. The Korean drums were presented in the more intimate Batha Museum, and although they were no less athletic, the statement was nuanced.

Again it had me thinking about what we are and are not comfortable listening to. Two hundred years ago, most occidental opinions of music were filtered through European classical standards. African music was considered barbaric. In the USA things changed about 90 years ago with the introduction of “Race Records” that brought the music of the African American population into broader distribution and the public consciousness. It’s been a love story ever since, and these days most American pop music continues to be a blend of Western harmonic concepts with African American grooves and gospel-influenced vocals. So the drums of Burundi already felt familiar as the progenitors of music I grew up with.
But what of the drummers from Korea? The higher pitched timbres and shifting rhythmic deconstructions that transitioned into ferocious grooves reminded me that sometimes we have to push hard with our own listening to “get” something that has been around for thousands of years. That’s why I thought to insert part of an interview I recorded about a year ago, and to focus on this ensemble in my post.
I had seen Kim Dong-Won in the wonderful documentary “Intangible Asset Number 82,” about the journey of Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker to find the Korean shaman whose music inspired him. Dong-Won had been Barker’s guide, and he was in town, playing with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, so I set up an appointment. I was anxious to get his insights into the film, and I also asked him to talk about Korean folk music: the way the vocals functioned, and about the philosophy behind the drumming technique. I have edited a small part of that interview into my video here.

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JULY 7, 2010, 12:00PM

In my last post about the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, I didn’t dwell very much on individual performances, since I was more concerned with conveying the feeling of being at the festival. So this time out, I’m taking the other route and just giving you a performance, sans any commentary from me. If you have never heard the Taarab music of Tanzania and Zanzibar, you may be surprised at how sweet it is. This is in large part due to the use of the Qanun, a most celestial sounding instrument. Taarab is a fairly recent genre, having been a court music created specifically for pleasure. There are even times when it sounds so pretty I find it ambient, and what with the beautiful sail-like shades shielding us from the sun in the courtyard floating serenely on the wind above us, the purely instrumental melodies sent more than one member of the audience into a trance. (As you will see, it even put a baby to sleep!) But when Shakila Saidi started to sing, she changed that dreamy vibe, and supplied just the right amount of edge to keep me alert and appreciative.

Want to know more about the Qanun?

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JUNE 18, 2010, 12:00PM

Joseph Campbell’s interpretations of humanity’s various myths are popular because they ring true; he was remarkably effective in revealing their wisdom about life and even death. Coming from a very similar place (though perhaps somewhat more curatorial in her process) is Virlana Tkacz, the director of the Yara Arts Group. She has been researching ancient songs and poems from Ukraine, Mongolia, Central Asia and points further east for years, and her work with the troupe reflects her desire to re-integrate the ancient “ways of knowing,” as she puts it, into modern life.

I first caught Yara’s work in 1999 when I was assigned to review their musical play “Circle.” It blew me away with its combination of great singing, songs, inventive staging, and earthy humor. (It was also where I first met Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, who had a role in the play.) Ever since then I’ve thought more people should know about Yara, and now that I am “vlog enabled” (!) I finally can not only write about it, but bring you an interview with Virlana, and present some excerpts from Yara’s most recent production, “Scythian Stones.”
Even if you missed this last production, the good news is that Yara continues to create these intimate theatrical pieces here in NYC (and abroad, in the countries from which much of the the music and myth come) and you can catch more of them in the future. And there is more to Yara than just theater, as a visit to the Yara Arts Group website will reveal, at

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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.