Monthly Archives: July 2010

Money Jungle: Downsizing Heroes

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Cuts to law-enforcement will open deeper gashes in society.

The next few weeks will offer some tangible clues as to the direction our country is going in, for better or for worse. Cities nationwide are now immersed in what will be, for many, the third straight year of tense, tumultuous budget negotiations sure to satisfy no one. Of course, it’s year four in Florida, thanks to future US Senator Charlie Crist, who may end up the only sitting governor in America to ever get elected to anything else. The White House has reportedly thrown backchannel weight behind Crist, perhaps in gratitude for his helping to start the recession that swept Obama into office, while Kendrick Meek may be out before football season starts.

While “Charlie the Triangle” pursues his promotion—or, at least, a remarkable lateral shift—hundreds of police officers are losing their jobs nationwide (including here in Florida) while almost all the rest will have to get by on pay cuts, hiring freezes, and less of the stuff they need to do their impossible job the best they can. Some officers are being demoted as departments get scaled-back; one New Jersey cop had the equivalent of $10,000 shaved from his salary. No wonder that cities like Newark and Trenton are lurching toward civil emergency status.

Even as the pols prepare to (pardon the pun) pull the trigger on the broadest program of national austerity in our lifetimes, stark and sobering statistics arrive to remind us what is really at stake here: During the first six months of 2010, 87 police officers were killed on the job in the United States—up 47% from last year, which was itself up from the year before. Some were killed in car crashes, but more died by human hands. The past couple of years have also seen an alarming surge in incidents in which more than one officer is killed by a single suspect; the tragic shooting of two Orlando cops by a fella fleeing Duval warrants is just a recent example.

2010 has also seen more disturbing episodes of police brutality, either alleged or caught on-camera for posterity. The city of Oakland, which like much of California is facing a severe economic shortfall, was already discussing whether the budget would force them to fire cops when that debacle occurred on its Metro System. Precious man-hours were later wasted on riot-duty, and it could have easily been worse.

Note that most high-profile police shootings (justified or not) have involved younger cops; vets are much less likely to get into these situations. My theory is that police numbers were expanded so rapidly under DHS mandates, and later in response to the upward spike in crime from 2005-on, that training suffered. Like any business built on preparation and instinct, the value of veteran leadership cannot be overstated. Much of what a young cop needs to know can’t be found in a manual, but in the memories of an older colleague. With veteran officers peeling off by the dozen all over America, expect a lot more shooting, omni-directional.

This column has documented the collapse of civil authority in this country over the last five years, and stood nearly alone in US media in stating clearly what’s causing all this: the systematic misappropriation of law-enforcement resources toward cracking down on the civil liberties of American citizens. That includes the Drug War, primarily, but also stuff like file-sharing, low-power broadcasting and peaceful political protest, not to mention the trillion-dollar prison-industrial complex. This is not the kind of stuff you talk about for shits and giggles, or to be well-liked or well-compensated; if that happens, great, but don’t bet on it. There is a heavy price to be paid for such work, but if you keep the receipt you may be reimbursed later.

When I predicted such an abrupt jolt upward in these trends in these pages in March 2009, I did so hoping to be wrong. Unfortunately, projections were not only borne out, but even faster than expected. One now suspects that the coming cuts to police and other key public services, such as teachers, will lead to even more rapid deterioration of civil authority in this country. And the recession, remember, has only just begun, so all this could prove very difficult to get a handle on, for years to come. (Also note that there’s still a war going on.)

Had the American People had the courage and common-sense to follow up on the warnings being given them here and elsewhere, and actually rejected the evil being done in their name, they wouldn’t now be forced to spend the rest of their lives on their knees, living in vitriolic fear of everything from pedophiles to tinhorn dictators and crackpot cave-dwelling heathens, jumping from one piss-poor president to another. Government works for the people, yet the people beg like whipped dogs; they hoist up preposterous placards and cry out for a world that is gone. My Tea Party friends should carry some signs that read: “It’s All My Fault!” It’s a start.           

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 26, 2010

[Addendum: Given the impossibility of finding a one-stop repository for information related to firings or proposed firings of officers, I figured I’d just use this space as a place to store stats as they emerge fresh. When possible, I’ve tried to list only known cuts of actual officers, as opposed to support staff. However, cuts to support staff are effectively cuts to the officers, all of whom must do more paperwork, etc., to make up work that would normally be done by others.

I may later prepare another list of firefighter cuts, as fire departments are taking a disproportionate share of first-responder cuts because police cuts still remain somwhat controversial. But the fire cuts are just as dangrous. Some of the stuff already announced may constitute a direct threat to public safety. Response times have already doubled in some cities.]

AZ: Phoenix, 400 (possible; $70 million shortfall in January)

CA: Belmont, 2; Eureka, 10; Long Beach, 49 proposed; Oakdale, 4; Oakland, 80; Redwood City, 6; Stockton, 53;

CO: San Luis, 5 (100% of their force, including the police chief);

FL: Broward County, 14 proposed; Clearwater, 7; Gainesville, 2 proposed; West Palm Beach, 12

IL: 460 state troopers; Elk Grove, 10 proposed;

LA: Lafayette, 4;

NB: Grand Island, 7;

MA: Lawrence, 25; Malden, 13-16 proposed;

MI: Bay City, 5; Romulus, 3; Saginaw, 32;

MN: Minneapolis, 10;

NJ: Fairlawn, 4; Garfield, 7; Hoboken, 18; Newark, 181-263 proposed; Passaic, 18; Stafford, 5; Trenton, 142 proposed; Vneland, 20; (40% of the force); some 700 projected statewide by the state’s PBA.

OH: Ashtabula County, 63; Toledo, 130; East St. Louis, 19;

TX: Dallas, 87 (175 vacant positions, but only 88 will be filled)

WA: Lynwood, 23 proposed

Notes on Brian Hicks (1970-2010)

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The first time I ever saw Brian Hicks was a couple years before I actually met him, when his old band Gizzard opened for the Rollins Band at the Milk Bar in 1996. It was my first time writing a concert review, and my only time in a mosh pit. Hicks was probably the first professional musician I’d met in Jacksonville—the first on many, almost all of whom were friends of Brian. If you ever met him, he was your friend. When Brian died on Independence Day, the memories rushed back like floodwaters.

That summer night, not too terribly long ago, I remember being crowd-surfed from the front of the stage all the way back to the bar. I landed next to a fella (here un-named) who was then writing about music for one of the local rags, recognizing him, I humbly solicited advice for getting established in local journalism. I’ll never forget the half-smirk/half-sneer on his face as he turned his back, dismissing me, and I vowed at that moment to always do business the right way.

Brian did his business the right way, too. He played bass and guitar here and there, but his creative legacy resides mostly with wind instruments—Hicks was one of only a handful of musicians playing flute in a modernist setting. His was arguably the alto saxophonist of his generation, much like the way that Eric Riehm currently defines the tenor. Hicks’ natural versatility was a function of his openness to life, to new people and new experiences. I can’t imagine how much practice it took to make it look so effortless!

Brian was basically the first good friend of mine to die by some means other than murder. But then again, when I think on what he had to endure during last few years among us, the word “murder” seems to jump out. Cancer is one of those things you just can’t control; it seems to be different for every person who faces it. It would be simplistic and presumptuous to say that Brian, who beat cancer at least once before, might have beaten it again and still been alive if he were rich. The truth, of course, is that when it’s your time, it’s your time, and no amount of money or power can obstruct that course. But money remains a factor—the stress, the uncertainty.

I remember sitting and talking with Brian a couple years ago, outside the Starlite, which is now Birdie’s—a place where Tropic of Cancer played regularly for years. I saw that band perform more than any other musical group. It was mid-afternoon, or what musicians and reporters call “time for breakfast”; I drank whisky, he drank water, and he talked about what he was going through. The physical stuff was terrible, of course, but I was struck by all the other ancillary matters on his mind.

It made me so mad, I never spoke of it. I found it hard to even attend the various benefit shows held on his behalf over the last few years. A guy like that should have never had to worry about anything but feeling better, and if this was a country that had any respect for the things that really matter—like truth, love, beauty, the joy of family and friends—then a guy like that, who provided so many people with so many happy memories, would have never wanted for anything.

But the lesson of living in this city is that, time and again, it is the very best of us who get it the worst. It’s never the rapists who get raped, never the bullies who get bullies, and it is almost never the true cancers of society who get cancer themselves. Brian Hicks’ death came just two days after another friend was viciously attacked out in Riverside. I was giving thanks to God two days earlier, and now I’d reverted back to my usual skepticism. Better, I think, to be thankful for having known him at all.

Brian’s courage throughout his long battle with cancer was truly amazing and humbling for someone like me, and I’m hardly alone in feeling this way. He was the kind of man every parent prays their son may become some day. A teacher, a leader, a friend to pretty much everyone he ever met. He used to work at Starbucks, where my aunt gets her morning coffee. She knew him only in passing, and he hadn’t worked there for years, but he left enough of an impression that she often asks how he’s doing.

Brian’s memorial service was held at the Five Points Theatre on Saturday, July 10. A standing-room-only crowd shared in music and memories all day, and well into the night. For all the tears, there were more laughs, more hugs, more reunions of old friends and colleagues. Members of his old bands Gizzard and Helm played together for the first time in years, while Tropic of Cancer opened the event, playing together for the first time without their leader. They played hard—drummer Colin Westcott was especially good—with the elegiac grace of a “Missing Man” formation.

Jon Bosworth did yeoman work from the MC spot—surely one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, but he manned up admirably. I regret not taking the mic to offer a few words; I have some mental block formed against public speaking, and I’m not sure why or how it exists. Probably the highlight was the spontaneous standing ovation given Brian’s mother during her turn on the mic—I’ll never forget that!

Tropic of Cancer didn’t record nearly enough, and that fact for me amplifies the sense of loss, like it’s the end of an era. Maybe the worst thing about Brian Hicks dying is that there are so many out there who will never know how good he was, because he chose to live and die in a city sorely lacking in respect and support for all the incredibly talented artists and musicians working here. Hicks, who was also a highly skilled audio technician who produced probably dozens of albums over the years, was working on the new Tropic CD at the time of his death; its posthumous release will stand as a mini-monument to his talent, but the real monument is a scene that is stronger than ever, and easily on the verge of some truly explosive growth in its national profile.

The only consolation to be had, however small, is this: Tropic played at Birdie’s once more, celebrating the band’s 10th anniversary on March 12, and he sounded as good as he ever had, and he knew it. His last performance was at Underbelly, just a few weeks before he died, and even then his alto sound rang with that sweet clarity of tone that was as much a part of this city as the river itself. We’ll all carry that sound in our hearts and minds forever, or at least until we can hear it again. RIP

Review: new Bobby McFerrin CD

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[Many thanks to Reese Dickerson for lending me this CD, and letting me keep it for several weeks even though it was on heavy rotation in his car, alongside the new Rob Roy, which I also borrowed!]

Bobby McFerrin—VOCAbularies (EmArcy)

 

Bobby McFerrin is a perfect example of a musician who’s so good, he’s almost too good for his own good. The veteran vocalist is best known for his instant-classic relaxation anthem “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, a song that is immediately recognizable and widely adored around the world. His massive crossover success with that tune (and its seminal video, featuring master performers Robin Williams and Bill Irwin) was never approached again, though, and most music listeners probably assume that’s all there was—that he was a one-hit wonder who faded into obscurity.

 Most music listeners would be wrong: McFerrin has remained active and relevant throughout the 22 years since “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” hit #1 (the first a capella song to ever accomplish that, incidentally). McFerrin’s latest album, VOCAbularies (EmArcy), is a stunning testament to his broader impact and enduring influence on the vocal arts. His approach recalls Bjork’s all-vocal masterpiece Medulla, as well as the seminal works of Meredith Monk, among others. There’s been a lot of work recorded for arranged vocal groups, excellent stuff spanning almost all genres. McFerrin takes the format a ways forward from where it’s been up to now, imposing his own stamp as surely as he did on the doo-wop/calypso forms he used in “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. It’s a stunning testament to the scope of McFerrin’s talent.

Besides some splashes of sax and woodwind on three tracks, and percussionists Alex Acuna and Roger Treece (who also adds some drum programming, and co-wrote many of the songs on the album), all the sounds on VOCAbulaies are produced by human voices. Many of them. The logistics are pretty imposing: The leader is augmented by some 52 different vocalists over the seven tracks of the album. They number the same as the cards in a deck, and McFerrin plays them with the dizzying speed and finesse of a Vegas dealer; the deck always seems stacked in his favor. But in this case, when the house wins, the listener does, too.

I hesitate to refer to the material specifically as “music” or “songs”, since there’s so little in terms of instrumentation. But McFerrin’s arrangements are certainly musical in nature, to the extent that they probably translate easily to an orchestral setting. Even the most intimate-sounding tracks include a dozen singers or more. It’s hard to break down the technical aspects of the work in a way that really makes sense in print, so I’d suggest playing this album on a lazy day at home, as you read a favorite book. It sounds especially good through a nice set of headphones.

 

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 14, 2010

Preview: PJ Morton@Cuba Libre, July 15

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[It was just announced that the PJ Morton gig at Cuba Libre has been cancelled, along with all of his tour dates for the year. Apparently he signed on to play keyboards and sing backup on Maroon 5’s new tour.]

For God and Glory

PJ Morton’s performance at Cuba Libre on Thursday, July 15, may be the most highly-anticipated concert of religious music held on the First Coast this year. He came through earlier, on January 21, to preview the new album and his return engagement here; due to relentless demand, that show was re-scheduled from May.

Morton’s commitment to his craft is reflected in the speed with which his work found an audience. He’s already won a Grammy, a Dove Award and a Stellar Award for “Song of the Year” within the surprisingly diverse and compelling world of religious music, a world in which he quickly became an established star. His newest album, Walk Alone, was released April 6 on his own S.O.S. (“Song of Solomon”) Music. It is actually Morton’s fifth studio release, and his second self-run record label. His debut disc, Emotions, was released in 2005, followed by Live From LA in 2008–both products of his original label, 2 PM Music.

Morton, 27, currently lives in Atlanta, but his musical roots are set in another southern hotspot, New Orleans, arguably the birthplace of black music in America. His story mirrors, in some ways, his musical idol, the great Stevie Wonder. Morton’s life was defined by music from day one, immersed in the powerful sounds of homegrown gospel. He picked up piano at eight and was writing his own material by age 14. By the time he graduated from Historically Black Morehouse College, Morton had already won his Grammy for writing the India.Arie song “Interested”. He’s gone on to collaborate with music heavyweights like Erykah Badu and LL Cool J.

Last year Morton, himself the middle child of Atlanta Bishop Paul S. Morton, published his first book, Why Can’t I Sing About Love?: The Truth About the “Church” Against “Secular” Music. Published out of Atlanta by Namesake Publishing the book is short (just 51 pages) and small (4”x6”), but powerful, and well worth the time to read. The text is part-treatise, part-memoir, dealing with the timeless conflict facing those musicians seeking to reconcile pop success with the sometimes oppressive moral standards of their church backgrounds.

This has been an issue since the earliest days of black music in America; Marvin Gaye, whose socially and sensually provocative music made him a legend before he was murdered by his preacher father on April Fools Day 1984, is probably the most famous example of this dynamic at work. But it’s been a significant factor, in a less extreme level, in the lives of many, many music masters. Most often it manifests as a more or less seamless transition from religious to secular music—say, Whitney Houston—or as heavy issues that materialize at the wrong times—say, Whitney Houston.

The distance between light and dark can be very far, or split-second close. Morton’s position is that God endows the artist with creative powers to use as they feel obliged to do, and that much of that the church consigned to the “secular” realm is, in fact, an expression of the spirit. Artists like Morton, who work in religious music while maintaining secular affinities, are like their many secular counterparts whose grounding in the church gave them the technical and professional background needed to thrive in the music business. They are bridging the gap in perception among a generation of listeners trained to perceive Gospel as “corny”, as they once perceived jazz. In so doing, they are reawakening people’s connection to their own history, reintroducing them to God, and throwing open the door to greater potentialities.

“In a world too often filled with lurid sexual lyrics written by people whose emphasis only embraces the physical.  PJ Morton has substituted the far more fulfilling spiritual emphasis on love lyrics, much like the Song of Solomon,” says Bishop TD Jakes. “The closer we get to real love in our home, the more we understand the God that gives us someone to love.” The back cover features quotes from Jakes, Kirk Franklin and the Rev. Al Green, who certainly knows a thing or two about these issues.

As one would expect of any modern musician, Morton maintains an online presence via MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Dusty Groove and CD Baby, in addition to his personal website. Recently, he formed a partnership with Jermaine Dupri, an Atlanta institution whose string of hits began with the infamous Kris Kross. In addition, the Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) tapped Morton to contribute vocals to a recent Hollywood production, the Vince Vaughn comedy “Couples Retreat”. With these and so many other irons in the fire, odds are that PJ Morton will continue running hot for many years to come.

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 10, 2010

Omnibus Review: Fela Kuti reissues from Knitting Factory

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[Originally written for the August 2010 edition of Ink19.]

Fela Anikulapo Kuti—Na Poi/Chop ‘N Quench (Knitting Factory Records)

The music of Fela Kuti (1938-1997) sounds like so many things. It sounds like reggae, R&B and mambo; it sounds like Sun Ra, and James Brown; it sounds like disco, and the greatest black-college marching band ever. If ever an artist and a technology seemed almost made for each other, so it was with Fela Kuti and the long-playing stereo record. Such a powerful sound could have never existed otherwise.

The hypnotic swing of his horn arrangements is every bit as characteristic as his approach to rhythm. Fela’s horn section could set a mood in three notes like nothing ever quite could. Under his leadership, Africa 70 was arguably the last truly masterful large organization working in popular music. That is to say, a perfect band with a lot of members—a difficult challenge in terms of both logistics and creativity.

Knitting Factory was hardly the first to repackage segments of Fela’s output; several key titles were reissued by Rykodisc, among others. These 13 CDs represent the last 24 of the 45 albums licensed to Universal Music Group and, most likely, the last large-scale reissuing of Fela material we’ll see in the US market. There will be occasional releases, and surely a number of gems that remain undigitized at this point, especially from Fela’s first decade as a leader. But unless someone goes crazy and opts to put all this stuff together into one gigantic box set, these will surely be the definitive versions of these recordings for some time.

The “Chop ‘N Quench” package (which includes ten albums recorded in the early ‘70s) starts at $39.99 for the full digital download; $59.99 buys all the digital downloads, plus hard copies of the six CDs. The Deluxe Package ($89.99) includes all that, plus bonuses well worth the extra 30 bucks: a limited-edition screen print of the Best of the Black President album cover, as well as a copy of Carlos Moore’s acclaimed biography, Fela: This Bitch of a Life. Nice, huh? Well, it gets better. The “Na Poi” batch (seven CDs recorded from 1971-77) also downloads digitally for $39.99, with archival copies also available for $20 more; $79.99 gets all that, plus a Fela t-shirt.

So for about $170, you can have all 13 CDs, the poster, the t-shirt and the book. That’s certainly a chunk of change, but entirely reasonable—not much more than a high-end jazz box set, and less than the cost of a night out on Broadway for two. Heck, the CD’s alone retail for $15 each, so you’d save $25 buying them all at once, with digital downloads to keep the discs pristine, and all the other stuff is a bonus. Given the extreme devotion of Fela fans, this stuff pretty much sells itself. This review touches on some of the highlights, focusing more on the formative early years, but since many titles must go unmentioned for time/space reasons, here is a full list:

*Batch 1 (“Chop ‘N Quench”): 1) Koola Lobitos (1969)/The ’69 L.A. Sessions (1969); 2) Live With Ginger Baker (1971); 3) London Scene (1970)/Shakara (1972); 4) Open & Close (1971)/Afrodisiac (1973); 5) Roforofo Fight (1972) 6) Gentleman (1973)/Confusion (1975)

*Batch 2 (“Na Poi Batch”): 1) Alagbon Close (1974)/Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971); 2) Expensive Shit (1975)/He Miss Road (1975); 3) Everything Scatter (1975) /Noise For Vendor Mouth (1975); 4) Monkey Banana (1975)/Excuse O (1975); 5) Ikoyi Blindness (1976)/Kalakuta Show (1976); 6) Yellow Fever (1976)/Na Poi (1976); 7) J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop) (1977)/Unnecessary Begging (1976)

Fela’s march to musical immortality has taken major steps forward in just the past year. He was one of three music legends featured in The Messengers project, a series of three EPs issued simultaneously by the Somali-American rapper K’Naan and J. Period, a Brooklyn DJ who constructed beats from the original tracks. The other “messengers” (in the sense of being musical prophets) were Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, and while those EPs are plenty nice, the project peaks with the Fela stuff, while overall it marks its creators’ highest-profile achievement yet.

Fela has also been recently paired with another dearly departed master: erstwhile “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, whose suspicious death in June 2009 crashed several major websites, blew up every search engine and social media tool, and precipitated a complete sell-out of all of his recordings on Amazon and iTunes. Another fascinating subset of this phenomenon has been the explosion of MJ mashups and related remix projects, of which The King Meets the President in Africa is the most recent, most intensive and probably most successful so far.

The website is as ambiguous as the album is hot. Like The Messengers, the mashup is offered up for free download, eliminating what would have otherwise been an impossible set of legal issues. While going to the trouble of setting up the site, which includes extensive documentation of the source material, and even a promo for a forthcoming t-shirt, there is nothing on the site (or anywhere else on the web) that gives any indication of who actually made the thing—which is a shame, because they should be acknowledged for doing such a good job!

And, of course, there’s the musical. With big-time backing from co-producers Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Jay-Z, “Fela!” went from being a hit on the indie theatre scene to a Broadway sensation in a year flat. “Fela!” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three: Best Choreography, Best Costume Design and Best Sound Design. The soundtrack album has also been recently released by Knitting Factory, with much of the music provided ably by Antibalas, widely viewed as the finest among the new generation of Afrobeat musicians inspired by the Africa 70.

Its runaway success has led to some speculation the project will be adapted for the screen; if so, that would almost fulfill Fela’s vision for a film outlining both his music and philosophy. Those plans ended when his footage was destroyed during the central event of Fela’s life, touched on in the musical: In 1977, his compound was besieged by hundreds of Nigerian soldiers whipped into a homicidal frenzy by his breakout anti-military record “Zombie”. Fela’s mother, herself a pioneering feminist of post-war Africa, was defenestrated—thrown out of a window—and killed, and her son’s visceral rage became a  factor in most of his subsequent work.

Fela’s formula for success was solid: an infectious backbeat punctuated by tight brass, with the leader’s saxophone out front. His lyrics were witty, profane and almost lethally incisive, sung usually in English for maximum global impact. One could just as easily ignore the politics of his message, treating the words as just another layer of sound, but in doing so one runs the risk of missing what made Fela’s music so special: it was the sound of a revolution that never quite happened, at least not exactly as he’d wished. His was one of the most important voices articulating the conditions of people living under a military dictatorship in Nigeria funded and back by Shell Oil. 

Recorded in 1968 and 69, Koola Lobitos/The ’69 L.A. Sessions represent some of the oldest Fela stuff on-record, and it makes an ideal starting point for neophytes. Koola Lobitos was the band’s original name; it would be soon changed to Nigeria 70, later Africa 70. Koola Lobitos is Fela’s sound at its purest, before much of the sadness, anger and despair that colored a lot of his later work; you can hear it, from track to track, as Highlife becomes Afrobeat. The songs are also all relatively short. Highlights include “Omuti Tide”, “Laise Lairo”, “Witchcraft”, and the scorching “Wayo” (version 1). A song like “Obe” stands as one of the earliest examples of what Fela’s experimentation would ultimately yield. (You could then add Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles, or the Best of the Black President comp, to hear what the band became.)

Fela got some of his first major rub in the west from former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Among that wave of excellent drummers to emerge from the British Invasion—Ringo, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell and the singular John Bonham—Baker’s name is not as well-known to current audiences, but his is a legacy of power and finesse rarely equaled at the drum set. Live With Ginger Baker (1971) starts fittingly with “Let’s Start”, maybe the most-sampled Fela tracks; it opens the Messengers, and there’s also a version online with mashed-up vocals by Wale and Dorrough.

The album’s highlight, and really a signpost in the whole Afrobeat story, is the drum battle between Baker (who checks in for the second half of the concert) and native son Tony Allen—a true summit of styles running over 16 minutes. It was actually recorded in 1978, and added to later reissues. To hear Baker, a notorious adept of Buddy Rich, digging deep into his bag of tricks for some Gene Krupa phrases in the sixth minute is a special treat, not least because Krupa was a major early influence on Allen. It’s not so much a competition as an exhibition, an intense-but-friendly jam among peers. When they cut loose and really get engaged, the resulting complex polyrhythms call to mind Art Blakey, and especially Elvin Jones.

Shakara/London Scene (1972) has a noticeably dark vibe—grimy, almost menacing. If some Fela albums are really just about having a good time, this most certainly is not. While not overtly political in content, it carries an air of danger throughout. Maybe Fela, in Britain, was able to relax a bit, take brief distance from the lethality of the politics of Nigeria and blow off some steam. The horns carry the day, like high-beams punching through the London fog; note the four-note theme that punctuates the title track. “Who’re You” (also sampled for the Messengers) has some nice keyboard work, too. “Buy Africa” (also mashed-up online, with Dorrough vox) is a signature piece.

Most of the Fela albums recorded in the 1970s have certain standard features. They usually have two tracks, one on each side, sometimes two on Side B. The albums are usually named after its first track, which tends to stick pretty up-tempo, whereas the B-sides are decidedly slower, more reflective in tone, almost dub-like. (It begs the question of how a man like Lee Perry or Rudy Van Gelder might record such a group.) It’s like each of these songs (and, thus the albums) are self-contained orchestral works themselves. The familiar Tony Allen rhythms permeate all.

The set should appeal to Fela completists, whose efforts to fill out their collection probably stalled out years ago. Of course, with this much material being released at once, not all of it is going to be the most awesome stuff ever. Nothing is actually bad, but some of it feels like going through the emotions. For example, Confusion/Gentleman (1975) is nothing special until the last track, a little gem called “Igbe”. (Extensive insight can also be gleaned from Albert Oikelome’s excellent “Stylistic Analysis of Afrobeat Music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti“.)

It’s still not entirely clear exactly how many records were released in Fela’s lifetime, and some were sparsely distributed. On Ebay, vintage Fela LPs are selling now for up to $500. Fela had the ability to record basically whenever he wanted, with facilities on hand and most of his key personnel pretty close. The situation is somewhat similar to another esoteric-leaning big-bandleader whose preexisting global influence exploded after dying in the mid-‘90s—Sun Ra. (Incidentally, a well-worn copy of his Arkestra’s debut LP tops $1,300 on Ebay.) More casual fans, the types who have just recently discovered Fela through the musical, are in for a time-consuming treat, picking and choosing individual selections starting with those mentioned above.

Fela himself would surely be pleased to see the exponential growth of his posthumous reputation. It is a fitting postscript to a life marred by violence and ended prematurely by complications of AIDS. In life, Fela had dozens of wives, hundreds of lovers, thousands of devoted fans and probably an equal number of enemies. Now, 30 years after his creative peak, his fans number in the millions, while most of his enemies have either died or been imprisoned for their crimes. He never lived to see the end of the regime he hated so much, but he did live to know that a) its days were numbered, and b) his music helped make it happen. When the day of true freedom and real democracy in Nigeria finally comes, it will stand as tribute not only to him, but to all his friends and family who suffered and died to make it happen. And after a new government is sworn in, people will play “Zombie”, loud, and laugh.

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 1, 2010

Rob Roy—King Warrior Magician Lover (review + 2006 reprint)

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Rob Roy—King Warrior Magician Lover

Rob Roy is without question one of the most uniquely talented and strangely compelling artists to ever emerge from the pressure cooker that is Northeast Florida’s music scene. He first came to prominence while fronting the seminal rap-rock combo Cue Estey, who recorded and toured throughout the region during the early part of the 21st century before scattering to the wind. After attaining virtual legend status in Florida, he modulated west to Los Angeles some years back, incubating his style in the ruthless aggression of Cali’s punishing, unforgiving music scene.

His 2005 debut, Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents LP, was an instant classic before the term was in circulation; it remains an undisputed masterpiece today, for those lucky few thousand who ever got to hear it. It was self-produced before the explosion of indie rap labels and the broader pro-musician changes to the industry facilitated by the Internet had really taken flight within Northeast Florida. Had it occurred five years later, someone would have surely ridden it to the bank, and it remains a minor mystery why his early brilliance went largely unexploited even in LA.

Odds are those days of being overlooked may be over. Rob Roy’s second album sounds almost completely different from the first; only his voice (which sounds kind of like a cross between Eminem and Kanye West) remains. The sense of humor that permeates everything he does comes through extra-clear here.

Rob Roy has always had a gift for self-promotion, and more than enough ego to maximize his obvious talent. It helps that he’s a longtime associate of Alyssa Key, auteur of the Love Brigade clothing brand, a legit master of the networking arts whose reign as Jacksonville’s Best Party Hostess was a key point for the synthesis and fusion of what were then still mostly disparate styles and personalities within those circles. Her later emergence as a tastemaker on the national level is no surprise at all.

I wrote about him for Folio in 2006 (see below), and even then he came across as an almost entirely polished talent. This serves him well in a business where ego is as fundamental to success as the music itself. He’s also smart enough to know what listeners want to hear. Rob Roy is, at heart, an entertainer. His chops are sharp, as one would expect from anyone with his pedigree, and so is his sense of rhythm and timing. His music is always perfect for parties, but it holds up just well to a solitary listen.

Roy Roy has always had one of the most unique flows in all of hip-hop, but he’s not placing as much emphasis on the speed and verbal dexterity that defined his debut. He is more about servicing the beats, which are certainly of an accessible, radio-friendly nature. His current work will invite comparisons to people like Drake, Lil’ Wayne and the Cool Kids. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that; hip-hop is a fundamentally self-referential music, which is why mashups and remixes are so popular. It would be fun to hear a Rob Roy mixtape, wherein he raps over some of those beats that have become the genre’s equivalent of jazz standards (“Grindin’”, “A Millie”, “Black Mags”, etc.).

 All that said, it feels like something is missing, but I have no idea what, and what there is deserves an intensive listen. With King Warrior Magician Lover, Rob Roy has succeeded in producing a strong follow-up to one of the finest albums of the decade.

 www.iamrobroy.com  

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 9, 2010

The Charismatic Enigma

One of the most impressive debut recordings of recent years is the product of former Cue Estey vocalist Rob Roy, who is among the artists opening for Ghostface at Fuel on April 5. Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents is a startlingly sophisticated work of distinct modernist appeal. If some albums are clearly the work of artists trying to fit into the boundaries of whatever musical genre(s) they’re into, Roy Roy’s rings through with the force of his own personality, and that’s what makes it so effective.

Soft-spoken but verbose, Rob Roy’s showmanship is only hinted at in person — in the tilt of a hat or the rhythm of a handshake. He was born in Livingston, New Jersey, but has lived here since he was a toddler, attending Stanton Prep and graduating UNF with a fine arts degree. He vividly recalls taping the old Bigga Rankin “Cool Runnings” radio show on his boombox as a kid, and his early years watching shows from the crowd. Cue Estey went over big with regional audiences, and while Rob was hardly the dominant member, he was the band’s public face more often than not.

“Four years is a magical number,” he says, noting that the three most profound transitions to this phase of his life — college, his relationship, the Cue Estey experience — all took about four years and ended around the same time in 2004. “It was like starting from scratch — ground zero. In my mind, I felt like I had nothing, because everything that was something to me was no longer there.” The album’s title reflects what Rob viewed as “taking a nothing situation and making something out of it”; it’s also something of a political statement, in that “cash rules everything, basically — it does.”

In addition to his musical influences, which range from Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Dr. Dre to Andre 3000, Jodeci and Luke Skyywalker, Rob Roy takes great pleasure from the world of stand-up comedy. “What draws me to it is that it has so many layers. Yeah, people get a rise out of it and they laugh, but also you peel back the layers of things, with wit. And that’s something missing from a lot of music today.” The influence is obvious in his live show, where his movements and behavior are more reminiscent of a Vaudeville villain than a baby-faced band-man. The result is well worth a look-see.

The album was almost entirely produced by Willie Evans, Jr. of Asamov [now known as the AB’s]. He’d known Evans for years through the scene, and lining up one of the nation’s rising young beat-smiths to helm his production was, in his words, “one of the biggest steps.” Evans’ laissez-faire style pushed Rob to step up his songwriting, a challenge he mostly rises to. “I probably scrapped three or four” of his first compositions for the project; the first one to click was “Ooooh!”, one of the album’s strongest tracks.

Another factor was Luke Walker (of the band The Summer Obsession), who did all of the recording and mixing. Under his tutelage “I came to enjoy recording, rather than dreading it as I had previously.” He also added tons of miscellaneous sounds. Backing vocals were provided by Brandeis Bing (“Hey Buddy”), Alice Fletcher (“R.O.B.R.O.Y.”) and Clare Marshall (“Oh, F*** My Brain”). Bing, along with Cherub Stewart, comprise “The Last Minutes,” Rob’s back-up singers. Aaron Abraham (of Whole Wheat Bread) turns up in two of the spoken interludes, too.

The album’s last track, “Sadly to Say”, was built around a track provided by DJ Winks, aka former bandmate Sela. It’s quite different from the rest of the material, offering a glimpse of Rob Roy’s immediate future. “I’d like to do this as a career,” says Rob, who defines that as “not having any side hustles. … Everyone that does this stuff, they don’t do it just so the walls of their bedroom can hear it. I’d think that everybody would like a huge audience to be able to hear what they do one day. I guess I’d like to know that the sacrifices I’ve made to this point weren’t in vain.” He is soon to follow up with an R&B project cheekily titled The R.N.B.R.O.Y. EP. If Rob Roy can succeed in getting Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents into the right hands this year, he will be well on his way to realizing his own immense potential.

www.myspace.com/robroy

sdh666@hotmail.com; March 20, 2006

Gusher In the Gulf, Part 3

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[Pardon the general lack of links, pictures etc. in Gusher posts. Will add those later!]

Ten weeks in, and still more questions than answers. The situation in the Gulf remains a jurisdictional nightmare, and the many overlapping, intersecting, contradicting layers of authority in place have had the collective effect of impairing the entire relief effort. No one seems willing to take control over what may already be the most spectacular screw-up in all of human history. Oil washes up onto beaches at this very moment, while thousands of people all over the region are still trying to find ways to actually contribute to the effort. They should consider joining the FBI!

 A cynic would argue that what we’re seeing now in the Gulf is a preview of what we’ll be facing as civil society deteriorates even further. With first-responders being fired or taking pay cuts nationally, a political leadership that is strategically incompetent at best, and actively malicious at worst, and a citizenry that lost faith in our leaders’ ability to handle crises five years ago, we are sitting ducks for what-have-you. It’s just a matter of time before the people who protected us from criminals (other than BP) are having to protect themselves from each other—and that’s when it’s really on.

Last week, Americans all over celebrated Independence Day, the day our founders formally threw off the yoke of British imperialism and began to pursue their own new vision of a free (and, gradually, freer) society. But now, 234 years after those men and women risked death, and in many cases embraced it, a disturbing new reality is dawning on all us nominal patriots: the British are still very much in charge. To see our President, our Congress, our governors and every single local law-enforcement agency in the Gulf region actively carrying water for BP as it continues to lie, cheat and steal, while concealing evidence of their own mass-murder of American citizens forces the growing recognition that we have, collectively, failed our founders.

Not only are today’s Americans a disgrace to our ancestors, but also to our kids; in fact, the laziness, stupidity and outright corruption that defines the society that we’ve become now constitutes a direct threat to the long-term survival of the human race itself. More and more observers from around the world are asking the same question posed in this column a month ago: Given that the American People are clearly unable or unwilling to defend their own interests, vis a vis the oil spill, how long will the dozen other nations that also have coastline touching the Gulf just sit back and allow their own interests to be jeopardized by us? A line has been drawn in the sand, and it’s made of oil.

Literally: More than one activist group has uncovered evidence that BP’s cleanup crews have been dumping fresh sand onto oil slicks; trenches dug into these beaches look like a cross-section of a Pop Tart, with oil instead of fruity goodness. Other groups have accused BP of reckless disregard (remember that term) for the wildlife being killed by their greed. Some people are seriously suggesting we allow oil-soaked birds to just die, because it’s cheaper, and we’ve all heard the stories of sea turtles caught up offshore in plumes of oil, being burned to death; at least one whale has been dispatched in similar fashion. One brave, righteous fella even went up in his helicopter, risking arrest, to shoot heart-breaking footage of some three dozen dolphins suffocating slowly in the oil. We’re unlikely to hear much more of this stuff.

Like the men aboard the Deepwater Horizon, who warned BP about their cost-cutting measures and died because of them, whistleblowers in the cleanup process are being blocked from getting and telling the critical stories. Under guise of “protection”, unauthorized personnel are banned from areas near the oil slick. By “unauthorized”, I mean reporters, environmental groups and anyone else who didn’t sign off on BP’s gag order. Even as more reports come in of cleanup workers getting sick from all the toxic, unvetted chemicals being forced into their system, the truth remains elusive because BP controls their access to medical care, and rule #1 for anyone who takes a dime from them, as payment for work or via settlement, is “Shut Your Mouth”. And every single agency of government seems compelled to enforce these ridiculous rules.

From the initial explosion on, the priority of relevant authorities has not been capping the leak, blocking oil from the shoreline or saving the affected wildlife—it has been minimizing BP’s financial and legal liability, by any means necessary. This may be the first case in history of killers running their own investigation, and we can see clearly why that is such a terrible idea!

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 5, 2010