Archive for October, 2010

Rap, Peasants and Grammy

Monday, October 18th, 2010

El Libre

KadmusArts’ blogger from Cuba, Harald Himsel, has been tracking the intersection of music and culture in his posts about Silvio Rodríguez and the making of a new documentary film. Himsel is a German documentary filmmaker, and also the managing director of a consultancy firm that works in developing countries.

We meet with Silvio Lian Rodriguez, better known in Cuba as ‘El Libre’. Rodriguez lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Vedado. Rodriguez is a rapper, often appearing together with ‘Los Aldeanos’, a rap group from Habana. Los Aldeanos started out in 2003 when they held their first public concert. The audience consisted of five people.

Los Aldeanos don’t think of themselves as the pioneers of hip-hop in Cuba, but as the creators of ‘rap consciente cubano’ (conscious Cuban rap). Their songs focus on the social, economic and political problems of today’s Cuban society. Without a doubt, they are anti-establishment, questioning the authority of the government to rule over the people.

The lyrics of Silvio El Libre are a far cry away from the delicate and revolutionary poetry of his father, Silvio Rodriguez. The son’s lyrics are hard and direct and at times no less vulgar and obscene than those of their colleagues in the ‘free’ world. These lyrics are not romantic; they don’t play with words and grammar; they are down to earth, the Cuban earth.

The day after visiting El Libre we travel to the Biosphere Reserve ‘Sierra del Rosario’, south of Habana. We are sitting in a nice, comfortable and air-conditioned bus from the Cuban travel agency. With us are several other Cubans and a few Spaniards. A part of the Sierra del Rosario is called Las Terrazas, formerly an old French coffee plantation and now an eco-friendly tourist attraction. Las Terrazas is an artists’ village these days, the coffee plants are merely decoration. Hanging attached to steel ropes, we are sailing 30 metres above the ground through the canopy of the forests, getting a bird’s eye view of the village and the Reserve. Las Terrazas was also the home of Polo Montañez. Polo Montañez was born Fernando Borrego Linares in Sierra del Rosario, Pinar del Río in 1955. From early on he worked on the farm, driving tractors, milking cows, assisting on the family farm. But he would also go from house to house singing. Within the borders of his village he became known as the Guajiro Natural — the Natural Countryman. But it was not until 2001 when he became known all over Cuba. His song “Un montón de estrellas” (A Mountain of Stars) became a top hit, and not just on Cuban radio. He sang about what he knew: the life and hardships, the joys and tears of peasants. Polo was a very humble man, charming not only Cubans but also more and more an international audience with his simple, moving music. At home he was engaged in many community projects, which he supported in many ways. In some of his songs he set music to the poems of Antonio Guerrero, one of the five Cubans imprisoned in the United States.

Polo Montañez died in 2002 as a result of a traffic accident. For a week, the doctors were battling for his life. All over the country, the people followed the news in agony. Numerous messages not only from Cuba but from all over the world were pouring in at his modest home in Las Terrazas, all expressing hope for his recovery. One letter from Italy stated that “A man like him — of the people, modest and ordinary — knows how to win everybody’s affection. He’s in all our hearts and we are proud of him.”

We are heading to Habana, just in time to attend Silvio’s free open air concert in ‘La Corbata’. La Corbata is one of those ‘barrios marginales’ where life is even harder than in the rest of the country. There are roughly 2000 people living in La Corbata, mostly in poor housing. A drunkard once tied a tie — una corbata — around a tree marking the entrance to this part of town. And suddenly the area had its name — a story too nice for reality, apart from the drunkard. The stage is set up on the main street of La Corbata; we are welcomed by our friends from Silvio’s studio. Silvio plays with his band from the Segunda Cita album — all of them outstanding musicians. Silvio’s wife plays the flute and clarinet. There is hardly any need to sing for Silvio. The audience, the people from the ‘barrio’ standing in the street in front of the stage or sitting on the rooftops of their small houses, has taken over the singing part. They are drinking in the lyrics from Silvio’s lips as if they were drinking ‘Habana Club’ rum (which in fact they did). We are standing in the middle of the crowd and right next to us stands a tall man in jeans and sneakers; wearing his white shirt over his jeans, half open. He has a dark beard showing signs of grey; his thick black hair flows long, touching his shoulders. His name is Abel Prieto Hernandez and he is the Cuban Minister for Culture. I am looking around: where are the guys with the buttons in their ears, whispering into their wrists? However, apart from two policemen standing more or less disinterestedly close to the huge sound mixer there is nobody. No secret agents, and no seemed to be a plain-clothes policemen under cover. Abel Prieto Hernandez is in intense discussion with some of the villagers. I can’t catch anything of what they are discussing but it is quite obvious: it has certainly has less to do with culture and more with the conditions of the ‘barrio’.

The concert ends with Silvio’s version of Pablo Milanes’ song ‘Yolanda’; the audience requested it.

A few days later we met Silvio El Libre again. He was just preparing to leave with Los Aldeanos for a three-months tour through the colleges of the USA. Meanwhile his father was nominated for a Grammy because of his latest CD Segunda Cita: Silvio’s musical homage to 50 years of Cuban revolution.

- Harald Himsel

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Imagine John Lennon

Monday, October 11th, 2010

John Lennon

What would Lennon sing?

Too often these days, pop music appears to be a cynical exercise in crass commercialism: more about making a mark than crafting a song, more about becoming a celebrity than creating inspirational art. That’s why it’s worth thinking about John Lennon.

Lennon did not set out to be experimental or avant-garde, let alone lead a cultural revolution. But in writing pop music, Lennon influenced our sense of his art form and our political possibilities.

It is rather amazing how ubiquitous the Beatles’ and Lennon’s post-Beatles music is in our world today. One gets the feeling that every generation alive knows the songs, the lyrics, and the message.

Maybe our current pop stars would benefit from taking a moment to think less about themselves and wonder: what would Lennon sing about today? After all, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

In honor of what would have been Lennon’s seventieth birthday, here is a wrap-up of some of the better look-backs to help inspire our future:

Never sounded better — EMI and Capitol Records released remastered copies of his albums in an 11-CD set: John Lennon Signature Box

The official site: http://www.johnlennon.com/

A story told in pictures: Washington Post

Ringo joins Yoko and Sean for a celebration: Give Peace a Chance in Iceland

Television documentary on Lennon’s post-Beatle life in New York: American Masters’ “Lennon/NYC”

A new book: Starting Over

Robert Hilburn, LA’s pop music dean, looks back: Los Angeles Times

Grammy Museum exhibit: John Lennon, Songwriter

Watch, Remember and Dream:
Give Peace a Chance
Imagine

Yoko on one aspect of Lennon’s legacy:

Just like people in old days: The white guys had to marry white women, that kind of thing. In music too, in the old days, rock was rock, jazz was jazz, avant garde was avant garde, classical was classical. Now everybody uses everything, and they don’t mind it. … It’s all mixed now. It’s beautiful.

Thank you, John.

- Bill Reichblum

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My Video, Your Show

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Cellphone Video

Photo by David Cabrera — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

How you see the world of live entertainment is changing.

In the old days, audiences held up lighters to honor the performers. Now, we hold up digital devices to film them.

At the Open Video Conference in New York this past weekend, discussions centered on the trends and possibilities of participatory video. User generated video is a vehicle to support human rights. Repressive governments are held more accountable when we see their policies of brutality in practice and in real time.

We also know that there is a video revolution taking place in live entertainment.

As recently posted in the KadmusArts daily news feed, the Wall Street Journal highlighted the new controversy over how audiences participate in an event. Are audiences more interested in enjoying the live show or in recording it? WSJ writer John Jurgensen finds two bands whose music might be on the edge, but who want to pull audiences back from the video divide: Wilco and the Black Crowes.

These bands are trying to enforce a “live only” audience environment. They believe you can’t enjoy the show if you are so focussed on your camera screen. Of course, both bands, especially Wilco, have benefited from audiences sharing their music. But from the bands’ point of view, the sense of community at a live event is violated when so many are watching their screens and not the stage.

However, there is a difference between courtesy to your neighbors (“Put your arm down! I can’t see over your screen!) and the opportunity for bands and their brands. Already, some of the most forward thinking bands, producers, and technologists are realizing that by creating a common space for sharing all an event’s videos, the event experience grows from a live-only community to a global community.

This kind of participation deepens the connection to the current audience and reaches new audiences. This is not only a good thing, it’s a great thing. And the sooner other art forms jump into the crowd sourcing possibilities, the sooner they will enjoy the kind of fan devotion and social networking that so many bands enjoy today.

- Bill Reichblum

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