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Archive for the ‘Puerto Rico’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: CALMA CARMONAA-Tiny Desk Meets AFROPUNK: #204/196 (May 2, 2021).

Tiny Desk Meets AFROPUNK was the opening event of AFROPUNK’s “Black Spring” festival. The virtual celebration, hosted by Jorge “Gitoo” Wright, highlighted outstanding talent in Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean music across the globe. Our showcase featured four artists who honored their homes and celebrated the art their heritage has inspired.

Calma Carmona got her start in 2013 when the Latin soul singer-songwriter released her first EP and opened for Beyoncé’s The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour in Puerto Rico.

Carmona is mesmerizing as the massive amount of dreadlocks is piled on top of her head.  The setting is fascinating–it looks like an aquarium–a dark hallway with lit windows, but instead of fish there seems to be technology in the windows.  I love how in some scenes, it’s almost totally black–since (almost) everyone is dressed in black as well.

Her music is not dark, though.  Indeed, “When I Was Your Girl” has a kind of reggae feel, at least from the rhythm guitar (which I’m assuming is looped because Pedro “PJ” González is playing lead throughout. Carmona’s voice is quiet and kind of sultry through this song and when she’s supported by her backing singers, Athina Alejandra, Almonte Duluc and Yarinés Salgado, they sound great together.

There’s a lot of drums in these songs, although it’s so dark it’s hard to know who is doing what. Gabriel Oliver plays drums and he, Andres “Kino” Cruz and José “Junny” Elicier all play the barril, a traditional hand drum.

From her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Calma Carmona delivers a bewitching Tiny Desk performance. Her voice rarely rises above a whisper as she sings over impassioned Afrobeats during her three-song set — but when it does, it’s a gritty, intimidating growl.

That growl is present on “Ella Se Mueve” a darker song with deep bass from Adrián “AJ” Rodríguez and distorted deep keys from J. Rochet.  “PJ” González noodles some guitar solos throughout and you can really hear the barril.  Carmona sang in English on the first song but she switches between English and Spanish here

“Vibra” opens with the three men playing the barril and a slow bass line.  She sings the verses and then throws in a growly rapped verse.  I really enjoy the slinky way the song ends with them singing “and I’ll be on my way.”

And before the send us out, there’s a quick barril serenade.

[READ: May 3, 2021] “How Octavia E. Butler Reimagines Sex and Survival”

Having read three of Octavia E. Butler’s book recently, I was saving this article (what timing) until all three were done.  And considering the opening line of this article mentions Parable of The Sower (the second book of the three that we read) I’m glad I waited.

Although this is really a book review of her new Library of America Collection (she is the sixth science fiction writer to be featured in the series and the the first Black science fiction writer).  The book collects Kindred (1979) Fledgling (2005) and short stories.

He says, as we have noted

It’s often observed that the Parables, already prescient when they were published, now read like prophecy

But I didn’t know that Earthseed had inspired an opera by folksinger Toshi Reagon and that last September Parable of the Sower was back on the best seller list (we’re so trendy).

The article notes that her protagonists often begin as fugitives or captives but emerge as prodigies of survival only to find that adaptation exacts hidden costs. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKEDWIN PEREZ-GlobalFEST Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #136/155 (January 14, 2021).

Edwin PerezGlobalFEST is an annual event, held in New York City, in which bands from all over the world have an opportunity to showcase their music to an American audience.  I’ve never been, and it sounds a little exhausting, but it also sounds really fun.

The Tiny Desk is teaming up with globalFEST this year for a thrilling virtual music festival: Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST. The online fest includes four nights of concerts featuring 16 bands from all over the world. 

Given the pandemic’s challenges and the hardening of international borders, NPR Music and globalFEST is moving from the nightclub to your screen of choice and sharing this festival with the world. Each night, we’ll present four artists in intimate settings (often behind desks donning globes), and it’s all hosted by African superstar Angélique Kidjo, who performed at the inaugural edition of globalFEST in 2004.

The first artist of the fourth and final night is Edwin Perez.

From the basement of the Bowery Electric in downtown Manhattan, composer and vocalist Edwin Perez and his 10-piece band come together to put on a show. With a strong backbeat and enough room to move around, Perez’s up-tempo energy brings the party and keeps it going. The theme of the night is salsa dura music, which originated in New York in the 1970s and gained acclaim thanks to acts like the Fania All-Stars and Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

This set is a lot of fun (even with the seriousness of the second song).  Cuban music is so full of percussion and horns it’s hard not to want to dance to it.  And this band has three percussionists: Nelson Mathew Gonzalez: bongo, cowbell (from Puerto Rico); Manuel Alejandro Carro: timbales (from Cuba); Oreste Abrantes: (from Puerto Rico).  The horn section is also pretty large: Leonardo Govin (from Cuba) and Michael Pallas (From Dominican Republic): trombone; Jonathan Powell (from USA) and Kalí Rodriguez (from Cuba): trumpet.

They play three songs. “La Salsa Que Me Crió” has lots of percussion and a great trumpet solo.  Perez even dances during the instrumental breaks.  And throughout, Jorge Bringas (from Cuba) keeps the bass steady.

After introducing the band, he says “Say her name Breonna Taylor.  Say his name Philando castile.  Say his name George Floyd.  End the abuse.”  This is the introduction to the quieter “No Puedo Respirar” (I Can’t Breathe).   Despite the subject, this song is not a dirge.  I don’t know what the words are but there is joy in the music as well.  There’s a jazzy keyboard solo from Ahmed Alom Vega (USA).

Yuniel Jimenez (From Cuba) opens the final song “Mi Tierra” with a fantastic introductory solo on the Cuban tres guitar.  The rest of the song brings back the Cuban horns and percussion. There’s even a drum solo (or two) in the middle.

[READ: February 25, 2021] March Book 1

I had heard amazing things about this trilogy of books.  I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading them.  Now that John Lewis is dead for almost a year, it was time to read them.

This is essentially a biography so it’s not easy to write about.  It’s also an incredible story of selflessness, fortitude and unbelievable courage.

The framing device is very well executed.  After a brief prologue that shows John and is marchers getting attacked by police, the book shows us Washington D.C. January 20, 2009, the day that Barack Obama is being inaugurated President.  Since John is (in 2009) in office he will be attending the ceremonies.

As he is preparing and getting ready to leave, a woman and her two children walk into his room hoping to look at Mr. Lewis’ office–a inspirational moment for her young boys.  But it happens that John (or Bob as he is called) is still in his office. They are embarrassed to interrupt, but he welcomes them warmly and shows them some of the things around his office.

Like photos of him meeting President Kennedy when Lewis was 23.  And from the March on Washington in 1963, where Dr King gave his “I have a dream” speech.

Then the boy asks him why he has so many chickens in his office.

The story then flashes back to young John (called Bob by his parents).  His father purchased 110 acres in Pike County, Alabama for $300. John was incharge of the chickens on the farm.  He also loved preaching.  He learned to read at 5 and began preaching to the chickens (they never said Amen or anything).

He also loved going to school.  He would even away from his house on the days his father insisted all the children work in the field because he didn’t want to fall behind.  (Even if it meant getting in trouble).

One of the first being moments in his life wa when his Uncle Otis drove him North.

Otis knew which places offered colored bathrooms and the ones where you would never get out of the car: “Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky.  These were the states we had to be careful in as we made our way North.”

It wasn’t until they got to Ohio that his uncle relaxed.  They arrive in Buffalo 17 hours later and John was amazed to see white and black people living next door to each other. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BORIS with MERZBOW-Gensho (Disc One: Boris) (2016).

In 2016, Boris teamed with Merzbow to create Gensho, a 2 CD package that was designed to have both CDs played at the same time.  Not the easiest thing for many people, but with the advent of digital recordings it’s now pretty easy to play both discs at the same time (this release is on Spotify).

Disc 1 was all Boris.  Disc 2 was all Merzbow.

When you play them together, you get the drumless Boris with all of the glitching electronica of Merzbow sprinkled around it.  The songs are set up in a very clever way with one of Merzbow’s songs being exactly equal to two or three of the Boris songs.

I played the CD of Boris and the stream of Merzbow on Spotify.  It was cool to be able to raise and lower the volunme of one to change the intensity of Merzbow’s glitches.

Merzbow’s “Planet of the Cows” plays over the first two Boris songs “Farewell” and “Huge.”  Farewell’s quiet drone tacks on Merzbow’s squeals and glitches which fill in the gaps quite nicely.  When “Farewell” ends, the Merzbow continues until the loud gongs heavy chords of “Huge” ring out.  The Merzbow chaos sounds almost like a solo over the slow low heavy drone chords.  Atsuo’s low growling even complements the spare noises.  Both parts ends with squealing feedbacking sounds–analog from Boris and digital from Merzbow.

Merzbow’s “Goloka Pt. 1” plays over three Boris songs “Resonance” “Rainbow” and “Sometimes” (the My Bloody Valentine cover).  “Resonance” is mostly percussion–kind of randomly hit in a slow rhythm.  Merzbow’s noises sound like static in a distance echoing signal from outer space.  “Rainbow” is a piece I don’t know.  This version features Boris playing some quiet guitar and a grooving bass with Wata singing vocals. Merzbow’s electronics sounds restrained here, adding louder noises when the vocals back out  This song has some tasty soloing from Wata with the electronics almost keeping pace.  It segues into “Sometimes,” with its loud thumping echoes and eventual wall of noise.  The vocals are pretty well buried but you can hear the melody of the MBV song.

“Goloka Pt.. 2” plays over “Heavy Rain” and “Akuma No Uta.” “Heavy Rain” starts out with noisy stabs of sound–it’s actually hard to tell who is making what, but then things mellow out as Wata sings.  The guitars drone loudly and the vocals mix in with the electronics.  It ends with the noisy guitar buzzing from Boris while the noises from Merzbow continue between songs–sounds of noise and electronic bleeps.  “Akuma No Uta” starts slowly with washes of guitar build up. The glitching Merzbow adds keeps it from being purely a drone.  The drone gets louder and louder and I like the way Merzbow’s glitches seem to back off as the man riff enters the song.  As it nears the end, glitching sounds to me like a menacing voice coming through the static and heavy riffage.

The final song is Merzbow’ “Prelude to a Broken Arm” which plays over “Akirame Flower” and “Vomitself.”  It starts out with watery sounds before the big chords and vocals kick in.  Merzbow’s noise is like a screaming train underneath the slow crooning.   The main riff from Wata has some electronic percussive sounds tacked onto it.  As the final chord rings out the song segues into the musch noisier “Vomitself.”   It introduces a huge wave of low chords as Merzbow’s noise amps up to correspond with a lot of low growling percussive sounds. As the song rumbles to an end the squealing intensifies like feedback added on top of the roar with the last notes sounding like a person raging.

It’s interesting how I don’t really like the Merzbow tracks, but how they add interesting textures to the Boris songs.

[READ: February 19, 2021] Caliente

Matu Santamaria is an Argentinian illustrator and his work is really stunning.

This book has a big warning: 18+ but it’s not fully explicit.  There are drawing of naked women and sex acts, but there’s only a few things that are NSFW.

Santamaria’s work is full of clean lines and and dramatic colors.  I really enjoy looking at it, regardless of the content.

This book contains a lot of his most recent work.  It seems to be split between positive messages about sexuality, body positivity and appreciation for frontline workers during the Coronavirus.  There’s also some celebrity pictures as well.

After some definitions of the word caliente, the book opens with series of pictures of women exploring the sexuality with each other.  Interracial women kissing and a woman taking her top off with the comment–“and without realizing it, it’s poetry.” (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: OZUNA-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #97 (October 16, 2020).

Ozuna is described as a global superstar and is one of the most watched and listened-to artists on earth. [That link takes you to a Guiness Records page where he is recognized for how much he has been listened to].

Of course, I’ve never heard of him.

Ozuna is a crown jewel in the global crest of Latin pop, a movement whose modern success in reggaeton and Latin trap is indebted to the Caribbean genres Ozuna heard growing up in Puerto Rico, sounds like old-school reggaeton and reggae en español, dembow, dancehall and more.

This Home Concert apparently brings Ozuna’s sound to a more quiet place.

For someone whose work often operates at galactic proportions, this performance of five songs makes room for Ozuna’s sweet tenor to take center-desk in a love letter to the global communities that supported and streamed him to god tier status.

The Puerto Rican singer kicks it off with a breezy rendition of “Caramelo.”

Breezy is a great word for it.  It feels tropical with a reggae rhythm from Freddie “YoFred” Lugo on bass and Elí Bonilla on drums.  The two guitarists (Carlos Mercader and Benson Pagán) play reggae chords and some lead licks.

that leads into a solo version of the sun-drenched “Del Mar” from ENOC, his fourth album that he’s deemed a return to his roots.

It opens with a cool guitar lick and some pleasant keys (Edgardo Santiago).  But Ozuna’s delivery is much faster than the chill music.    I really like the way the backing singer José Aponte matches his voice so perfectly.

Dancing around in the back is the DJ Erick “Yonell” Pachecho.  I’m not really sure what he’s doing back there but he seems very busy.

This pared-down performance makes good on that promise, reworking star-studded collaborations, like the ballad “Despeinada,” as they should be sung: languorously and with intimacy.

“Despeinada” is a quiet ballad.  You can hear Hector Meléndez on the piano playing pretty fills as the rest of the band grooves.  It segues into the banger “Taki Taki” (which I can’t help but imagine is about those purple-bagged chips that I see at the Wawa).

Even the pop smash “Taki Taki” sounds brand new, buoyed by his alchemical flow and energy.

This is my favorite song of the set, from the bouncing rhythm, to the loopy keyboard melody to the fun of singing “taki taki.”  This song is quite short, so it’s clearly just an excerpt. The same is true for “Mamacita” which is barely 2 minutes.  But the flow of this song is great.

I guess the world is right about him.

[READ: November 24, 2020] Nano

I found this book in the hold of our library.  It’s from 2009, although I believe that we received it in 2012.  This means that it has been sitting in our storage area for 8 years and nobody has asked to see it.

This isn’t the only book in this situation–we have many, many books that are unlikely to be read–but most of them are nonfiction and not really timely anymore.  This book, however, is a cute little (40 page) book of cartoons.  And, best yet, they have no words.

There is an introduction (in Spanish) from Máximo, who I assume is the cartoonist Max.  I assume this because Máximo doesn’t come up in searches and because the introduction talks about how Nano is the tiny everyman.  So Máximo is a funny twist on a tiny person.  Or so I think. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BUSCABULLA-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #66 (August 18, 2020).

I know of Buscabulla from some glowing reviews of their debut album.  Their story is an interesting one as well.

Buscabulla is made up of husband and wife Luis Alfredo Del Valle and Raquel Berrios, two Puerto Rico-born musicians who were based in New York until 2017. When their birthplace was devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma that year, they decided to leave New York and go back to where they were born. It was an emotional journey, one that inspired the songs of Regresa and which they chronicled for an upcoming mini-documentary.

Despite that setup, their music is soft and gentle–ethereal and beautiful.  Raquel Berrios’ voice is delicately echoed and sexy without being over the top.

Their setting for this Tiny Desk (Home) (Beach) Concert is the trunk of their van.  Luis del Valle has created a studio within the car that perfectly reflects the band’s sound.  So two of them are

sitting inside their car at the beach in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico performing their Tiny Desk (home) concert. It’s as if the bubble of being inside the car will protect them from any chances of encountering the virus on the beach. But it’s also a reflection of how the band’s atmospheric sonic textures get inside your head when we listen with headphones. Buscabulla set up shop in New York years ago, but returned to their home to help support the island’s redevelopment — thus their entry from the beach.

It looks almost like a Zoom meeting background, with the gentle waves lapping against the shore, although in the beginning of the video you can see some people walking on the beach.

The set starts with “Mio” which has a cool slinky bass line from Luis Del Valle and an inset video of JD Matías playing timbales and cowbell.  And although LD Valentín is laying down some nice backing keys (also in an inset), it’s Berrios who plays the trippy keyboard solo.

“Nydia” has a funkier bass line and layered spacey keys from Valentín. Berrios’ voice floats above all of it.

The duo have to maneuver a bit in that cramped space to play the final song.  Luis puts his bass outside of the car (!) and switches to keys.  Berrios also plays keys and this lovely set ends as beautifully as it began.

I’m not sure what kind of car this is, but it’s a pretty decent ad for trunk space–maybe Buscabulla could make some cash.  It’s also a pretty nice ad for the gorgeous beaches of Puerto Rico.

[READ: August 20, 2020] “You Are  My Dear Friend”

I thought this story was going to be about a British couple living in India, because it opens with a British couple living in India.  They are hosting a party and their daughters’ au-pair, Geeta, brings their two little girls to meet everyone.

One of the party goers is a middle-aged Indian man sitting by himself.  He looks old and tired.

A few days later Geeta is at the markets and she runs into this man.  She has trouble placing him at first then she realizes that this man, Srikanth, was the man from the party.  He talks with her and she resists engaging with him at first.  Then she rethinks, and turns to talk to the man.

They met a few more times and then decided to get married. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: iLe-Tiny Desk Concert #874 (August 3, 2019).

It’s not very often that you hear a song that is all percussion.  But the first song of this set is only percussion and (Spanish) vocals.

iLe is a singer in the Puerto Rican band Calle 13.  Her most recent solo album Almadura:

is filled with metaphors and allegories about the political, social and economic conditions in Puerto Rico.

When vocalist Ileana Cabra Joglar and her band visited the Tiny Desk, they’d just arrived from the front lines of the historic demonstrations taking place in Puerto Rico. Two days earlier, they were part of a crowd of tens of thousands who were on the streets calling for the resignation of embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. (Rosselló recently stepped down, effective August 2.)

Right from the start, it was clear what was on iLe’s mind in her song “Curandera” — “I am a healer / I don’t need candles to illuminate / I bring purifying water to cleanse / Removing pains so they never return” — as congas and percussion shook the room with an Afro-Caribbean beat.

This is the song in which all of the band members play percussion–primarily congas although Ismael Cancel is on the drum kit.  While everyone plays congas, it is Jeren Guzmán who is the most accomplished and who plays the fast conga “solo.”

In the chorus of the slow-burning “Contra Todo,” iLe sings about channeling inner strengths and frustrations to win battles and remake the world. Her lyrics are rich with history, capturing the spirit of the streets of San Juan even as she stood, eyes closed, behind the Tiny Desk. Her entire performance is a startling reflection of this moment in Puerto Rican history.

“Contra Todo” has a rich deep five string bass from Jonathan Gonzalez and two trombones (Joey Oyola and Nicolás Márquez). Two guitars (Bayoán Ríos and Adalberto Rosario) add a kind of percussive strumming and a quiet song-ending riff.  Jeren Guzmán plays the congas with mallets, something I’ve never seen before.

By the time iLe and her band launched into “Sin Masticar,” they’d already captured the full power of protest, as their musical arrangements raged with the intensity of a crowd joined by a shared cause and pulse.

“Sin Masticar” has a super catchy chorus, perhaps the best way to get people involved in a protest.

[READ: August 2019] Midnight Light

Two years ago Dave Bidini co-founded The West End Phoenix, a newspaper that is for people in Toronto’s West End.  It’s print, it’s old school, and it’s pretty awesome.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to the West End, but I find the writing and the content to be interesting and really enjoyable.

It’s no surprise that Bidini has worked in journalism and loved and hated it.

I’ve always loved newspaper: the smell of the ink and the rough of the newsprint weighted in my hands, their broadsheets flapping like Viking sails.  When I was a kid, our family read them all–the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Sun, and before that The Telegram–at the kitchen table with each person drawing out whatever they needed: comics, sports, business, entertainment (and yet never Wheels, the Star’s automotive supplement).

He started writing before he picked up a guitar.  When he was 11 he submitted a poem about a hockey player to The Sun‘s “Young Sun” section.  It was accepted and he won a T-shirt.

In 1991, he was asked to write a regular column for a Star satellite weekly called Metropolis.  The day his first piece was to be in print he waited at the nearest newsbox for the delivery man.

But he had no stamina and fewer ideas and he was eventually let go.  Which led to writing books.  But he still wanted to write for the paper and then he remembered: Hey, Yellowknife had a newspaper.

This book is about journalism.  But it’s also about the Canadian North.  And while the journalism stuff is interesting–and the way it ties to the North is interesting too, it’s the outsider’s perspective of this region of the world (that most people don’t even think about) which is just amazing to read about–the people, the landscape, the conditions.  It’s fascinating. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ANDREA CRUZ-Tiny Desk Concert #836 (March 27, 2019).

I was really surprised by the music that Andrea Cruz played, especially when I learned she is from Puerto Rico.  It felt very folk-music, in the way she strummed and the trombone (Jomar Santana) was used more as a solo instrument rather than a dance-accompaniment.  That’s certainly reductive, and yet the blurb backs me up:

It’s important to note that the instrumentation of the band that traveled with her (keyboard, two percussionists and trombone) hardly fits what you’d expect music from the island to sound like these days. But Cruz is part of a movement in Puerto Rico that emphasizes largely acoustic instruments and a folk-based approach to interpreting life before and after the hurricane of 2017. It’s a bold creative statement in a land of reggaeton and salsa.

I was very pleased to see that Cruz’s live performance is very much like the stripped-down sound on her album and the handful of singles she’s released. In fact, I would say her music is a perfect soundtrack to a growing, back-to-nature movement in Puerto Rico that encourages local farming and a careful stewardship of the environment.

Cruz sings three songs, all from her first album, 2017’s Tejido de Laurel.

“No Toquemos Tierra,” opens with a lone trombone and Cruz’ guitar.  I love the delicate keyboard accents from Antony Granados. It looks funny that there are two of them playing the tiny percussion kit, but that changes later.  The way Cruz plays her guitar here I almost expected her to bust out into something like Laura Marling a few times.  The coda at the end is really pretty, too.

The emotion of the lyrics of the first song, “No Toquemos Tierra,” is evident in her angelic voice as she makes a declaration of love for the earth as a metaphor for a lover. The beauty of the song is in her poetic lyrics set to a melody that defies language.

“Santas Flores” is a prayer to the flowers.  I love in the middle that everything drops away except for the percussion and her voice.  I’m very curious how that trombone is so quiet.

“Canción de Amargura” begins with a martial beat from Francisco Marrero but when Ángel Rafael Rivera plays the cuatro venezolano, the mood lightens.  Despite the fact that this is an intense song

there was no mistaking the intense feeling behind her song about femicide on the island in the song, “Canción de Amargura.”

Their voices raised in harmony at the end are really powerful and the way her own voice just soars in the last few seconds is really lovely.

“Contigo” is listed as a fourth song but she doesn’t play it, I don’t think.

[READ: March 31, 2019] “The Match”

This is an excerpt from Whitehead’s not-yet-released book The Nickel Boys, which is set around 1964.

This part is about a boxing match at The Nickel Academy, a reform school for boys.  The main competitor is a black boy named Griff.   He is a miserable bully most of the time and the other boys really hate him.  But if he has the chance to defeat a white boy, they are all for him.

The “colored boys” had held the boxing title for fifteen years.  “Old hands on the staff still remembered the last white champion [Terry (Doc) Burns] and talked him up.”

Griff arrived at Nickel just after the last champ turned eighteen and was released back in to the free world.  Griff pulverized his opponents.  At the end of the school year, they would pit the dorm’s best fighters against each other and then in the finale, the best black fighter fought “whatever chump the white guys put up.”

Obviously, racism is inherent in this system.  Indeed, Trevor Nickel who opened the Academy was a member of the Klan.  During one of the brief asides, Turner, brought Elwood to the two trees in the back.  There were rings embedded in the trees, part of the trunk now: “Human bones would break before it came loose.”  This was where the black boys who disobeyed were brought.  The official word was that they escaped, obviously they did not. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MIGUEL ZENÓN feat. SPEKTRAL QUARTET-Tiny Desk Concert #814 (January 4, 2019).

When I saw that the artist was a quartet, I assumed this was classical music.  But then I saw that the main guy played saxophone.  So was this jazz?

In the end it doesn’t matter.  It’s glorious, modern instrumental music with instruments that at times fit so perfectly, you don;t realize there’s a reed in the strings.  And at times an instrument that stands out like its own unique thing.

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón is a big thinker — that much is clear from his recorded output, with its deep and inspiring connection to the folk traditions of his native Puerto Rico. But you also get that sense from his turn behind the Tiny Desk, where we can watch the concentration on his face and those of his adventurous band, the Spektral Quartet. This is life-affirming music with curious twists and turns, expertly performed by amazingly talented musicians.

The three songs work on mainly the same principle: fast, intricate string melodies with sudden time changes.  And a saxophone that either accompanies them or solos around them.

“Rosario” opens with the strings and sax playing an almost warm up sound before the pizzicato strings support the main sax melody.  There’s some very modern frenetic striking string music (with no sax) which is followed by the same strings with a lead sax solo over it.  The end of the piece features a delicately plucked cello and a lovely violin melody.

“Milagrosa” opens with everyone playing the same melody.  It’s fascinating how much the sax does not contribute–until it does.  But I’ll let the blurb talk about the amazing ending of this song:

There are two ways to marvel at the stunning unison playing that comes about three-quarters of the way through “Milagrosa.” First, listen with your eyes closed. The notes cascade at a such a fast clip, it can leave you breathless. Now, watch with your eyes open: It’s a joy to see Zenón and his band read the notes from the page, at times sneaking in visual cues with smiles just below the surface. It must be such a pleasure to make music like this.

The way the song starts and stops and starts again with such speed is really spellbinding.

He says that these songs were inspired by cultural and musical traditions from Puerto Rico.  Specifically, the final song, “Villabeño” alludes to a subgenre of Puerto Rican music–from the mountains

It is the quietest and lest intense song of the bunch.  The strings, even though they are largely playing staccato, are kind of hushed as Miguel plays the most jazzy solos of the set.  There’s a brief moment near the end where the strings come back to the fore, but it’s more as a supporting agent than a competitor.  It’s quite cool.

[READ: January 11, 2019] “Wrong Object”

I loved the way this story revealed the heart of itself.

It is written from the point of view of a therapist.  She writes that she has a new patient and he is very dull: “He is a nondescript man.”

He said his problem was himself–that his wife was thoroughly nice.  While she preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer, there was just nothing to him.  Usually her notebooks were full after a session, but she wrote very little about him: “Talks about wife, what a good person she is.  Annoying.”

She actually had to google him to find out even a little bit of information about him.  She felt bored by him.

She was about to suggest he seek a new therapist when he finally revealed what he had been holding back.

“I’m a pedophile,” he said. (more…)

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 SOUNDTRACK: AJ DAVILA-“Es Verano Ya” (Field Recordings, September 24, 2014). 

AJ Davila is part of the “unhinged Puerto Rican garage-rock band” Davila 666. For this Field Recording [Garage-Rocker AJ Davila Unplugs In A Hair Salon] he plays an acoustic song in a hair salon.

Davila says that New York is like another town of Puerto Rico.  That people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have made their homes and communities here.

There’s a joke that says the biggest town in Puerto Rico is called New York. Several waves of diaspora have created a deep and complex relationship between Puerto Ricans and the city. Boricuas have had an immense influence on the Big Apple — its music, its literature, its landscape, and even its cuisine.

He says that a small place like a barbershop (or beauty salon) can feel like you’re in your house.  “This is a song about hanging out with your friends.  It’s a summer song.”

We asked Davila to delight a Spanish Harlem beauty salon with a summer song. It’s appropriate: He’s one of the warmest souls I know — someone with whom it’s a pleasure to discuss art and music, argue about politics or tell silly jokes. He’s also a uniquely talented musician, with a style that combines garage-rock, punk and even elements of hip-hop.

This song probably rocks, but this acoustic version is lighter, with some bouncy chords from the other guitarist Daniel Ortiz and delightful backing vocals from Lola Pistola.  It’s somehow even better when they laugh off a tiny mistake.

[READ: September 14, 2017] ”Sunrise, Sunset”

This is a story of three generations of a Haitain family.

Carole is elderly and is slowly forgetting a lot–a blank look comes over her face and she forgets that she put her keys in the fridge or that her daughter is related to her.

Her daughter, Jeanne, and son-in-law James (they were known as JJ) just had a son, Jude (now known as Triple J).  But Jeanne has been in the throes of post-partum depression. James is a saint about it but Carole is furious that her daughter is lying around.  Back in Haiti, Carole did not have the luxury of depression.

Carole lived under a dictator.  She watched her neighbors get dragged out of their houses by the dictator’s henchmen.  Carole’s father fled the country and she never saw him again. (more…)

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stuffedSOUNDTRACK: BIO RITMO-Tiny Desk Concert #392 (September 29, 2014).

bioritBio Ritmo is a nine-piece band that has played salsa music for 23 years (as of 2014).  The back beat and rhythm is pure salsa–there’s a drummer (who has that classic salsa drum sound) and two bongo players.  There’s shakers and scrapers and timbales and congas and a cowbell.

The four horns players (two trumpets, sax and trombone) punctuate all o the right notes to get you moving along.

The first song is “La Via.”  The main driving force seems to be the keyboard, which was unexpected–it adds a kind of Latin jazz feel to the proceedings.  I love the way the keyboards shift from a Latin feel to a more groovy 70s feel before the vocals start.  There’s a cool break in the middle of the song when it stops and we get a few pounding notes before the song resumes.  Classic salsa.

“Picaresca”has fun dancey rhythm and a lengthy trumpet solo, giving it another interesting salsa/jazz feel.  The keyboard solo sounds a little cheesey here–like they need better sounds on that program, but it’s the drums “solo” in the middle that makes this song so much fun.  It’s a great instrumental.

“Perdido” goes through many different genres.  He explains that it begins like a Puerto Rican dance from the 1800s and then goes “into other stuff.”  The opening does indeed sound like an old song and after a few verses it morphs into modern salsa once again.

I really enjoyed this set a lot.  Most salsa music sounds the same to me, but I really like it when I hear it. On the downside, this is the first Tiny Desk Concert where I felt like the band wasn’t mic’d effectively.  The vocals are really quiet (almost inaudible at times), and when the trombonist does a solo it’s also a little too quiet.  But the main focus is the percussion and that’s plenty loud!

[READ: May 10, 2016] Stuffed

I have had to interlibrary loan a lot of the rest of the First Second books because my library system doesn’t have them.  Usually if a library doesn’t have an older book it’s because not many people read it any more so they got rid of it.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad, but it doesn’t  give you a ton of confidence about it.  But this book defied every expectation and wound up being outstanding!

I assumed this title would be a cautionary tale about someone eating too much.  I had no idea what I was actually in for!

As the book opens, we meet Tim. He works for a benefits department of an insurance company (it sounds awful).  He gets a call that his father is dying.  He rushes to the hospital just in time  to see his father insult him once more before breathing his last.  His father’s estate is to be split between himself and his half-brother, Ollie.  No one has seen Ollie in ages.  When they do track him down, he is now known as “Free Spirit.” (more…)

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