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Namibia is the Southern Africa country too seldom celebrated, if not too often outright overlooked. Located in Southern Africa with a Western coastline bordered by The Atlantic Ocean, Namibia is known for its deserts, namely the Namib and the Kalahari deserts. Namibia has the least rainfall of any landscape in sub-Saharan Africa.

Musician/activist Shishani Vranckx’s mother is native Namibian, her father is Belgian, after a childhood in Windhoek, the capitol city of Namibia, Shishani matured into adulthood largely in the Netherlands with frequent trips to and fro Namibia. Her music is influenced by African American, Southern African, and world folk music traditions.

She is a conscious advocate of LGBTQ experiences and is unflinching in making music that reflects her views and values. Her signature song is “Minority”, which has become a personal anthem with international impact.

Even though she is multi-lingual and a troubadour citizen of Europe, she has never forgotten, nor ever failed to celebrate Namibian culture even as she collaborates with various combinations of Europe-based artists.

She fronts two different bands, “Namibian Tales” and an all-female, women-of-color quartet, “Miss Catharsis”.

Shishani’s album Kalahari Encounters by her band Namibian Tales features original compositions based on traditional Namibian music as performed live by her band in combination with the San female singers from Namibia.

During her homecoming residencies, Shishani had her music documented. She has formally studied Namibian culture and, more importantly, incorporates Namibia into her music and life-long cultural commitments.

Even though domiciled in Europe, Shishani remains rooted in her Namibian heritage. She has founded organizations that promote both Namibia and LGBT concerns. 

Dressed in the colors of her native country, Shishani is a prime example of living the life she sings about in her songs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m ready to put forward my best jazz album of 2020. None of the usual suspects make the cut. This is modern jazz from the sixties and seventies. Innovative bassist/composer, maestro Charles Mingus (April 22, 1922 – January 5, 1979) and a gathering of beautiful musicians, seriously playing at the height of their powers. Bracing music. Not for everyone–but if you’re into contemporary jazz this is as close to sonic nirvana as you can get in this lifetime. If you have Amazon Prime, the music streams free.

Charles Mingus was both a composer of astounding depth and also a bandleader who reveled in the musical achievements in the moment. Here, in one box set, are two concerts recorded in Bremen, Germany a little over a decade apart–1964 & 1975, two years that I usually short-hand to respectively be the Civil Rights and the Black Power eras.

As a jazz addict I’m a major fan of Trane (John Coltrane), Monk (Thelonious Monk), and Mingus (Charles Mingus). Of course, there are numerous others, but the aforementioned triumvirate are my major touch-stones, those whom I return to time and again for inspiration and aural excellence.

I’ve got to add Duke Ellington as a composer/bandleader and Miles Davis as a soloist/bandleader to that pantheon of significant voices although I don’t think Duke is major as an instrumentalist, nor is Miles profound as a composer. Nevertheless, all of them have canonical albums that have been unparalleled additions to recorded jazz.

All jazz aficionados have their personal selection of favorite players and performances. Moreover, it is well known that it’s hard for studio albums to compare with stirring recorded concert performances. Inevitably, while the studio offers an opportunity to lay down iconic music, it’s in performance that jazz inevitably scales the heights.

Many of the compositions recorded in Mingus’ two Bremen concerts have been recorded in the studio or have concert sessions that are major performances of jazz lore. Previous recordings notwithstanding, this 4-CD set is essential for fans of Mingus’ music.

Here are some of the staggering highlights. First, there is the work of woodwind master Eric Dolphy. His technical achievements as an instrumentalist are the pinnacle of what it means to master the saxophone. I don’t know which brings me more joy: the brilliance of his alto playing or the massive agility and impact of his bass clarinet solos. Less than a month after his appearance on the 1964 recording, Dolphy was gone, died in Germany of a diabetes complication.

Second, there are the two pianists: Jaki Byard and Don Pullen. Byard is encyclopedic in his abilities to cover the waterfront of over a half-century of recorded jazz keyboard stylings. He lays down a multi-textured carpet of chordal work that virtually defines jazz from the twenties to the sixties. Byard truly knows how to sonically embody the sound of hammers on strings, thereby giving us both percussion and melody, singing single notes as well as prodigious chordal techniques. Pullen, on the other hand (really on both hands), can solo to match any of the horn players in his ability to excite rhapsodic and rapturous responses as he pounds and trills the keys. His is a unique vocabulary of pianistic techniques that are as exciting as any horn player achieving anthemic high notes and is also awe inspiring with his dexterous explorations up and down the scales combined with the machine-gun velocity of single-note runs.

I was appreciative of the work of both tenor saxophonists: Clifford Jordan and George Adams. Their recordings rarely reach the intensity of what is displayed herein. Both Jordan and Adams were too often overshadowed by the horn players with whom they played, however both are outstanding on these recordings. I also am particularly appreciative of the trumpet stylings of Johnny Coles and Jack Walrath. It is a special joy to hear the severely under-recorded Coles blowing at length, especially because on a previous recording of the band, Coles was ill and did not offer up his sweetly pungent trumpet essays. How he achieves a seemingly contradictory sound is both stirring and absolutely singular. Walrath is a woefully under appreciated musician. The second concert offers some of Walrath’s best recorded solos and, hopefully, encourages some listeners to check out more of Walrath’s brass work.

Of course, I can not say enough about Dannie Richmond’s bedrock drumming that keeps the music moving and exciting without recourse to bombastic pounding of the skins. Given the vitality and volatility of Dannie’s sensitive support, it is amazing that he is not better celebrated as a master percussionist.

Standing out because of his prodigious command of the string bass is my man Mingus, who was stellar as both an accompanist&instrumentalist and simultaneously as a composer. While Mingus has a number of important albums, this major set of two concerts, is a surprising and important addition to his aural library. If you are not familiar with the recorded work of Charles Mingus, this box is phenomenally satisfying, and if you are familiar with Mingus, this set is a new joy to add to the Mingus banquet of musical delights.

A final footnote: of the 15 tracks there is only one repeat. Both concerts offer up rollicking versions of “Fables of Faubus”, with the ’75 recording presenting us with an update that is shorter but far more sarcastically condemnatory. I hope I have convinced you that this 4-CD Bremen box set is a musical must-have for any of the thousands of fans of contemporary jazz in general and Charles Mingus in particular.

 

 

 

Can we embrace people as they are, or must they be like us in order for us to accept them? For me, many, many years ago when I began to get deep and deeper into jazz, the music opened me.

Now, following my life-long literary mentor, Langston Hughes, I am an ardent advocate of his touchstone: “my motto as I live and learn / is dig and be dug in return”. Which leads to my appreciation of Lianne La Havas.

She’s from England; her mother is Jamaican, her father Greek. A long, long way from Louisiana, nevertheless I dig her sound. The way she composes and the fact that she is both a vocalist and an instrumentalist, whether on her own songs or interpreting the music of others, as she does on her idiosyncratic rendition of “Weird Fishes”.

She made a big splash when she debuted professionally back in 2011. After years of whirl-wind touring complete with interviews and such, she took a five year break before reappearing.

Although she is a pop artist, there is an intense intimacy to much of what she sings. Both accessible and deep. She has figured out how best to showcase herself commercially and simultaneously how to maintain herself as a human being.

Here is a festival performance of her music. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI

Although there are a bevy of singers who are also songwriters, not many of them are truly superb singers and simultaneously profound songwriters. The ability to sing is a common gift; the achievement of putting notes together is quotidian. But there is a step beyond, a step that constitutes extraordinary achievement whether as vocalist or composer.

Terry (Terrence Orlando Callier–May 24, 1945 – October 27, 2012) is not only a major composer, he is also a master of re-interpreting songs written by others. Terry can take an old chestnut such as Duke’s “Satin Doll” and turn it into a contemporary and tender ode for a special someone.

I, as well as many others, am particularly moved by Terry’s reading of “Love Theme From Spartacus“, turning the song into a moving sung soliloquy on the possibility of actually achieving freedom.

Terry is from Chi-town (Chicago, for those not in the know), so it’s no surprise that he sometimes uses Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” as an intro for his inspirational and instructive anthem, “Keep Your Heart Right“.

Terry has literally done everything, from folk songs to compositions inspired and influenced by Coltrane. Moreover, his TimePeace album, featuring Pharaoh Sanders,  won an award from the United Nations.

What I particularly admire about Callier’s compositions is his penchant for complex realism rather than saccharine romance in his songs of love–sometimes it’s wonderful/sometimes it’s just not meant to be; all of which leads him to question love itself.

Callie’s observations on “Dancing Girl” contain a deft documentarian’s touch: highlighting the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, and everything between.

It takes a truly honest man to admit, regardless how much we may wish life was otherwise, it just isn’t all good, all bad, or all any one way. Like he laments, some relationships, while fulfilling in the moment, just were not meant to be permanent, or even, life long.

Even though we’ve only scratched the surface of Callier’s deeptitude as a singer/songwriter–his immense catalogue of aural compositions is both captivating and enchanting. While the varied and substantial cornucopia of Terry Callier’s music will significantly reward hours of listening, nevertheless, we’ll close with a 1-hour live set from 2003. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been watching Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, an anthologygy of five films focusing on the life of Black folk in England from the late sixties to the eighties. Part four presents the early years of writer Alex Wheatle. There was a moment sharing the infamous “New Cross Massacre”. As the tragedy began to unspool, I immediately thought of Linton Kwesi Johnson. And then as if I had conjured him, his distinctive voice intoned a threnody for the lives lost in the fire.

I recognized both the writer and the poem. There and then I decided to share his work. So, here, in three segments, are: 1. a beautiful interview, 2. Johnson’s narration of “New Crass Massacre” contained within a short documentary about Brixton, and finally, 3. an LKJ concert accompanied by the music of his long-time collaborator, bass player and band leader, Dennis Bovell. For those who know little about 20th century Black Britain, this is a good introduction.

Mr. Johnson is truly a Jamaica-born, England-based griot. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her father is South African. Her mother is German. She lives in Berlin. Her new album, Let Yourself Be Loved, is out on Motown.

Joy Maureen Denalane (11 June 1973) is often described as a soul singer. I like her sound. Have dug her music since her first release, most of which was in German, but you quickly forgot about the language barrier as she poured her soul into the tracks of Mamani (2002). Most times, she’s presented doing contemporary rhythm&blues, at other times, like on Gleisdreieck (2017), the emphasis is on her German identity.

She has a new 2020 release: Let Yourself Be Loved. And it sort of just happened. One minute she’s laying down tracks in Germany and the next minute a producer takes the music to America. And then up pops a Motown deal. Well, it actually took more than a minute to record in Germany with musicians there, while simultaneously offering an album that is representative of her international approach to music.

What I like most about Joy’s singing is that she explores the various aspects of her identity. She has recorded with Hugh Masekela and other South African artists. On a different continent, she imbedded herself in the USA to luxuriate in the authentic Philly International soul sound. She has charted singles in collaboration with rap artists Common and Lupe Fiasco. But most of all she keeps stretching and exploring, this way and that, as she is guided by her own inner spirit which is literally multi-national and multi-cultural.

Here is a lengthy interview in which Joy reveals details of her background. Life wasn’t easy for her struggling to stay the course for over twenty years.

Here also is a sit-down session in which she speaks in German and sings in English. She delivers over thirty minutes live to pre-recorded musical tracks that cover various aspects of her decades long career. Additionally, towards the end, her long-time partner Max Herre makes an appearance before they collectively bring the session to a close.

She sounds neither jaded nor dis-interested, indeed, despite her age and lengthy career, Joy sounds like a teenager just breaking into the business. A track from her new album features a duet with Texas vocalist C. S. Armstrong.

Germany is not the first place we think of when looking for soul music, but check out Joy Denalane. She more than lives up to her name. And what a joy she is.

 

 

Back in April 2020 when the virus was solidifying a firm grip on America and worldwide, I wrote a short story salute to hospital workers presented as a monologue of a nurse named Mariposa who was facing the psychologically taxing struggle of surviving another night and another day. I didn’t know it back then–indeed, nor did many of us–but our lives were about to get much, much more dangerous.

Part of it had to do with the Trump administration which was whistling past America’s sickness cemetery, talking about just hold on, it was going to disappear. But the virus was awfully persistent like stepping in it and getting stank on your shoe. The disaster of the corona-virus disease was not to be ignored. You could vainly try to walk on and pretend the odor wasn’t stinking up the place, pretend it was alright and going to shortly be gone. Pretend.

It’s the end of the year now. Thanksgiving is gone and Christmas is just ahead–and the intervening months between an earlier another spring and this terrible winter did not go well. Not well at all. Yes, there are vaccines about to drop but we are forced to face tough days and a couple of months of madness before there is any improvement.

Thankfully, political change is promised with the January  inauguration of a new Washington administration. Better must come, we’ve just got to get there–although getting there will be no walk in the park.

A majority of us are glad to see 2020 go and look forward not only to a new year and new hands on the political plow, we also hope that our lives will change for the better. Meanwhile, too many of us have died, numerous citizens are ill and economically destitute.

At the end of this “I’ll be glad when you’re gone, you rascal you”–year, I present a reprise of a sad, albeit hopeful, short story for consideration and as an affirmation of present day survival as well as future time prosperity.

Peace and, dare I say it, the optimism of believing there are better days ahead.