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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

May 2017: NON-MUSICAL HEROES

Every musician has musical heroes. Some of us even write about them. You don't hear so much from us, though, about the very important figures in music history who've been non-musicians. Managers, promoters, A&R men, publishers, DJs, etc, have been crucial, and without them, some of the greatest music in history might never have even existed. The masterpieces of Mozart or Beethoven were often written on commission, for aristocratic patrons who in some cases were keen amateur musicians with good taste. (Sometimes they were lousy musicians with no taste, but they had something else of great importance in the encouragement of musical careers, namely money).

 

In the first half of the 20th Century, the two most important figures in jazz, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, were signed to what we would now see as blatantly insulting contracts with two powerful white managers, Irving Mills and Joe Glaser. Mills appears to this day in publishing credits as co-composer on many of Ellington's works, despite having never written a note; he just had to have a cut of everything. Glaser has generally been regarded as a gangster. But Ellington and Armstrong knew what they were doing. They wanted to reach the biggest possible audience, which meant a white audience, and in the process, to promote everyone who played jazz, and not coincidentally, everyone who happened to be black. Less money for themselves was apparently an acceptable trade-off, under the circumstances of the time, and neither of them ever had a bad word to say about their managers.

 

We would all be impoverished without the efforts of promoters like Norman Granz, A&R men like John Hammond (whose phenomenal career stretches from Count Basie to Bruce Springsteen) or mavericks like Hilly Crystal of CBGBs, or Danny Fields, who managed The Stooges and The Ramones. Then of course there are the producers - Phil Spector, George Martin, Quincy Jones; but then we're already overlapping into actual musical creativity. And yet one of the many unforeseen things that have happened in music during my career is the way that  dividing lines between writers, performers, producers, technicians, and even DJs have become more and more blurred, to the point that we now sometimes have no idea exactly who deserves the credit for what.

 

So what about DJs? Well, no one who ever made a record ever had a problem with someone playing it, but I come from a musical generation which did not much respect DJs, especially the kind who 'played' on the same gigs as my early, struggling bands. As far as we were concerned, these guys were parasites, spinning other peoples' records without actually creating anything, yet thinking themselves superior to us. Sometimes they'd even take over the stage and we'd have to play on the floor. We, who were working our arses off, trying to create!

 

Nevertheless I figured out quite a while ago that there was, or could be, a real art to being a DJ. It's been more challenging to start accepting DJs as artists. But I did become a fan of a couple of them. For instance, I stayed at the Hotel Costes in Paris back in the 90s, when Stéphane Pompougnac was in residence, more or less inventing a bespoke musical genre for the place. I checked out of the hotel with a copy of the fabulous Costes CD, the first in what would become a series of fifteen (the last I heard). Frankly, they progressively ran out of steam (as Pompougnac lost interest and left) but the first few still hold up as cocktail lounge music par excellence, never exactly challenging, but always clever, witty, stimulating and just cool.

 

Some years later I became a fan of Balkan Beats pioneer DJ Šoko, from Bosnia. And there's always been:

 

GILLES PETERSON

 

. . . who has, paradoxically, carved out a niche for himself by being omnivorously eclectic. He's as likely to play something by Sun Ra or Max Roach as he is something from Havana, São Paulo or Detroit, something from the 1960s or right now, or a mix of it all. He seems to have phenomenal energy – always a new radio show, a new compilation, a new festival event – and if nothing else, is obviously – very obviously – someone who is passionate about music.

 

Peterson first established himself (barely out of his teens) in the 80s via UK Pirate Radio and legendary sessions at London's Dingwalls. I was wondering why I never made it to any of those, when I was stopped by a reality check: Peterson may qualify as a 'veteran' at this point, but he's still a decade younger than me. My Dingwalls was the place where I played some of my first headlining gigs, where I saw Talking Heads, still a three-piece, on their first UK tour, and where someone broke a bottle over my head in the toilets. (By the time Peterson was mixing up jazz and funk and house and latin there, I'd moved on, to a life divided between New York and constant touring).

 

There are simply too many Peterson compilation albums to mention, or even get my head around, but a look through my own record collection turns up several. They include Nuyorican Soul, a latin/house landmark released on one of Peterson's many imprints, and Gilles Peterson in Brazil, which, if a compilation can be a classic, is a classic, and its sequel Back In Brazil is very nearly as good. Both are equally divided between old and new stuff. More recently Brazilika, a collaboration with the London-based Brazilian label FarOut, has fewer stellar names or tracks, but is a creative, seamless mix of old and new.

 

Fania DJ Series: Gilles Peterson is an inspired selection from Fania, the classic New York latin label. Apparently Peterson was as fascinated by this stuff as I was at a time when it was next to impossible to find in London. He stayed there, scouring the record shops and scrounging vinyl from latino emigrés for his DJ gigs, while I went to the source (see WILT July 2014). I can't touch him when it comes to Cuban music, though. He's curated and produced a whole series of Havana Cultura albums, under the sponsorship of the people who make Havana Club Rum. Nice work if you can get it.

 

On Gilles Peterson in Africa he seems a bit out of his comfort zone, pulling in a lot of stuff that isn't really African, but it's still enjoyable, and includes an almost frighteningly intense live version of Fela's Yé Yé De Smell. I also have a couple of his Worldwide compilations, which are intermittently interesting (Vol. 2, for instance, drifts along in a kind of down-tempo jazz-funk trance until track 10, when it suddenly comes blazingly alive with a Brazilian track from Grupo Batique). No one as prolific as Peterson is going to hit the bulls-eye every time, but he just keeps on going, and long may he do so.

 

SAMY BEN REDJEB

 

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Samy (with one 'm') is a devotee of African music whose years of hustling and crate-digging in places like Lagos, Accra, Dakar, and who knows where else have produced the Analog Africa series. Ben Redjeb has compiled and released roughly one collection a year for twenty years now. It's a highly collectible series, with beautiful, generous artwork and liner notes, and I can't get enough of it. Most of the music (as the series title suggests) is from the 60s-80s, a lot of it is very rare, and it runs a staggering gamut of styles and moods, from pleasantly groovy to startlingly weird.

 

I don't have all of them (yet!) but I can recommend a few. No less than three  (Nos. 4, 6 & 13) are devoted to the great Orchestre Poly-Rythmo from Benin, who I wrote about a couple of months ago. No. 5, Legends of Benin, features more music from that apparently inexhaustibly musical country. Nos. 8 & 14, Afrobeat Airways Vols. 1 & 2, contain fantastically funky stuff from Ghana. No. 10, Bambara Mystic Soul, has fascinating music from Burkina Faso, and No. 17, Verckys et l'Orchestre Vévé, showcases a big star of 'Congolese Funk, Afrobeat and Psychedelic Rumba'. No. 20, Space Echo, features some mad, trippy sounds from the Cape Verde islands.

 

The series sometimes steps away from Africa; Nos. 7 & 12 consist of (often very African-influenced) music from Colombia, the first, Mambo Loco, by Anibal Velasquez, and the second, Diablos Del Ritmo, by various artists. No. 16, Siria, features thumping, stomping music from the Amazon which might surprise anyone who thinks Brazilian music is all light and breezy bossa nova.

 

You can listen, download, and buy CDs or LPs from analogafrica.bandcamp.com. Please do so and support not only African music but Samy Ben Redjeb, another non-musician who deserves to be called a musical hero.

 

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