Saturday, February 28, 2009

Grandmaster Flash Interview regarding his New Recording


From the Los Angeles Times
Things are just grand
By Choire Sicha

March 1, 2009

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five formed in New York in the late '70s and radically altered the musical and cultural landscape -- pioneering the turntable as a way to make music, not just play it. After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, Flash, 51, is preparing to release his first studio album in more than 20 years. "The Bridge" is out Tuesday.

How was your weekend?

I was with my kiddies, 'cuz I'm leaving for Australia for a few weeks, so I did the dad thing. I worked the club called Eden, which I love to do when I'm in [New York], on 47th Street and 8th Avenue. And when I get off the phone, I have to make a mad dash for my suitcase.

When did it first happen that your kids were listening to some music and you were like, what is this noise?

Actually I'm the creator of the noise, so it was never noise to me! They were like, "Dad, what is that you doing?" As opposed to the other way around. The things I've developed that've become the worldwide way DJs play, my kids, they get it.

Do they ever turn you on to stuff?

My 18-year-old, I never forget, this goes back, like, five years. There was this artist who used to make these mixtapes, he used to try to get me to listen to this guy. He said he was the greatest MC of all time. Of course I had to fight with him -- there's a lot of great MCs! His name happened to be Lil Wayne. I was like, "OK, this guy's pretty good." Today he looks at me and he's like, "Dad, I told you."

What's on your heavy repeat?

Because I want to get into remixes, production, video game music and doing scores, soundtracks, this guy by the name of Stravinsky, the song is called "The Rite of Spring." This guy! In one song he'll go from a happy situation to a real dark situation, how he changes the chord structure in one song -- it's just kind of amazing. So Stravinsky, that's what I'm into right now.

Oh, you're going way back.

And I'm going to be listening to Brahms, Tchaikovsky -- maybe something might materialize out of this! Don't quote me, but anything's possible.

Have you done your first film score yet?

Actually, I figure by this year I'll have a couple things. I have a video-game music deal, but I can't say what it is yet. But it'll be the biggest video game of the year next year. But I love the idea of going into a recording studio and experimenting with sounds. Where I come from, which is '70s, '80s, you would have anywhere from five, 10, 12 keyboards in one room. Now they have these things called plug-ins, which you can get the digital version of that same keyboard. You just install it into a Mac hard drive. I've got almost every great keyboard in my recording studio. The mixing, matching, trying different things -- like I was doing with this record on the production side.

Yes, your sort of intellectual world tour that is this record.

I think what I wanted to do when I made this album, "The Bridge," I wanted to make this in the mind of a DJ set. When I say that, I'm an international DJ. On my musical plate, I might be in Japan, so I'll play first Billy Squier and maybe Chic second. And the third, the Incredible Bongo Band, and the fourth, I'll play "I Just Wanna Love U" by Jay-Z -- and sixth, Mary J. Blige. I call that doing hip-hop.

I had to think: How do I do hip-hop with this record? Once a track was written, I'd burn a CD, jump in the car and listen over and over again. Then I'd think, I should get Snoop on this track, and Q-Tip could play on this track and Busta Rhymes would do great on this track. Then I said to myself, "This record would be incomplete if I don't go find unsigned talent. . . ." Then I got a new urge. I said, "This record would be incomplete without international. How do I not do that?" So I had to listen to MCs from Japan and Africa and France and Sweden, Spain. Anywhere possible! That's how I was able to do these things hip-hop. This album allowed me also to do hip-hop by taking a well-known MC and pairing them up with an unknown MC.

What was the most awe-inspiring music of the last year?

Boy, there's so much! When I get offstage, I get kids that sneak backstage. Modern technology has allowed these kids to go into a computer and make a song! Never in my wildest dreams did I think the world would come to this. I hear so much.

You said it took a long time to get over the bitter taste left in your mouth from your early business dealings. How are you doing business now?

Oh, it's wonderful. First things first, to be quite honest, I was able to create a company that was mine. And I had to go back and get with my children. I put my whole life into those early years. So first things first, I had to get to know my children. Then it was a matter of being able to find staff that was willing to devote themselves to helping me to build Grandmaster Flash Enterprises. And I found five people who understand and love what I do and that back me. And also the actual distributing company, which is in Germany, I have access to their staff as well. I get all the resources I need. This record could have been a little harder to make!

So you've got it worked out.

I'm happy with the end result of the record. We'll see what happens March 3! See if it all makes sense!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lebanese Rap: Hip-hop's Arabic-language kin

Hip-hop's Arabic-language kin
Lebanese rap artists take genre back to its socially conscious roots in a society deeply divided.
By Eamon Kircher-Allen | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

from the February 27, 2009 edition
[M&C note: see original for photos and audio file]

Beirut, lebanon - The unusual sound of a hip-hop beat and a funky bass line thudded out of a sandwich shop in a trendy Beirut neighborhood last summer. As one patron bobbed his head and a teenager with slicked-back hair flipped another piece of flatbread onto the sandwich shop's stove, a gravelly voice began rapping earnestly in Arabic.

"Who is that?" a passing foreigner asked. "What's he saying?"

"It's the rapper RGB," said the man in broken English. The song, he explained, was about the situation in Lebanon – the violence, the corruption, and the poverty.

RGB is one of several Beirut rappers whose discs are passed around among a visible segment of Lebanese youth. Unlike most of the flashy pop music that Lebanon exports to the rest of the Arab world – think singers like Haifa Wahabi and Nancy Ajram – these rappers' music usually comes with a social message. Their core fans in Beirut have adopted hip hop, from its music to its style of dress and graffiti, as their chosen mode of expression.

In Lebanon, foreign music is nothing new. The country's huge number of emigrants – far more people of Lebanese descent live outside the country than within – means that music from all over the world finds its way to Beirut, from salsa to samba, jazz, punk, and heavy metal.

But unlike much of Beirut's music scene that draws heavily on foreign influences, rappers like RGB are fiercely Lebanese in everything they do. They talk about personal experiences in which they see the same kinds of injustice, violence, and lack of forums for addressing social problems that were the impetus for early African-American rap groups with a political message, such as Public Enemy.

"It's black music, in my opinion," RGB said in an October interview posted to YouTube. "But I feel like it doesn't have to be specifically just for blacks.... It has messages, stories of using your smarts, and a people victimized. It has power."

"I take hip hop like it's a big school and I'm learning from it," he added.

Rayess Bek, who is something like the father of Arabic-language Lebanese rap, helped start the trend of hip hop as social commentary. "I lived the war.... I've been taken advantage of.... I'm speaking in silence," he sang a few years ago over a beat every bit as ominous as the shell-shocked landscapes of some Beirut quarters. A newer music video features him rapping against the backdrop of buildings destroyed by Israeli bombs in 2006.

"Most of the artists here are from the streets, they live in a very unfair system," music producer Zeid Hamdan says by phone. Mr. Hamdan produces and promotes several different acts, including Malikah, Lebanon's best-known female rapper. "They use hip hop more to express themselves than as a source of money," he adds. "[Lebanon] is a good ground for hip hop. The 'bling bling' hasn't arrived yet. The bling-bling scene is in the pop music."

Hip-hop beats, which are quite different from traditional Arabic rhythms, have not caught on with an older crowd. But there are strong connections between hip-hop lyricism and Arabic's heritage of poetry. For centuries, writers who mastered the art of self-expression in Arabic have been folk heroes. According to Joe Namy, a Lebanese-American music producer and a fine-arts graduate student at New York University, that heritage has converged with the current social dimensions in Lebanon.

"Hip hop is becoming more popular now because there's a lot more frustration," he said. "The music lends itself to this need to express yourself. It's a very visual form of expression."

Lebanese hip hop reaches across the sectarian divide as well – no small thing in a country that fought a 15-year civil war along sectarian lines and was rocked by factional violence as late as last May. RGB is Christian, Hamdan is Druze, and there are others in the hip hop collective 961 Underground – named after Lebanon's country code – who are Muslim.

A group that epitomizes that diversity is Katibe 5 (pronounced ka-TEE-bé KHAM-sé), whose members hail from Burj al-Barajneh, a rundown Palestinian refugee camp on the south side of Beirut. Burj al-Barajneh is a warren of ramshackle buildings draped with high-voltage wires, the sort of place that can make some poor American neighborhoods look luxurious.

Katibe 5 member OS Loop says by phone that hip hop in the camps had been born out of an appreciation for the struggles of poor African-Americans. "It's another culture, another style of music, and another people's mind," he says. "But the roots are the same as we have here: the same politics, the same black and white."

Many of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon suffer from discrimination.

"For sure, that's why the Palestinians choose rap, because they feel they are like the black Americans," OS Loop says. "They feel like the oppressed."

The group's first album, "Ahlan fikun bil Mukhayamat," ("Welcome to the Camps") was released last year. It tackles social issues head on – and aggressively.

"In the first album, we're talking about the condition of the Palestinian refugees," OS Loop says. "In one song, we are dissing the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], because in Palestinian culture there are too many NGOs, and they are all thieves.... The same goes for some people who work in the Palestinian [political] parties."

OS Loop follows the American rap scene closely. His favorite artists are KRS-One, Wu Tang, and Paris. Pictures on Katibe 5's Facebook page show posters of rap icon Tupac Shakur.

But it would be a mistake to see Lebanon's rap scene as a form of Americanization.

OS Loop recalls a concert American superstar 50 Cent put on in Beirut in 2006, before the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese. A native of Queens, New York, 50 Cent often raps about how he survived being shot nine times. But OS Loop isn't overly impressed with that – or the commercial turn that 50 Cent's music has taken.

"Now Snoop is coming, and Akon is coming [to Lebanon], but for me they are all commercial," he says. "I wish 50 Cent stayed in Lebanon for the war," he adds with a laugh. "I wanted to tell him what's the true meaning of gangsta."

Obamas honor Stevie Wonder at White House

That's my President:

Obamas honor Stevie Wonder at White House
Singer-songwriter is praised for creating ‘a style that’s uniquely American’

The Associated Press
updated 7:39 a.m. PT, Thurs., Feb. 26, 2009

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Wednesday thanked musician Stevie Wonder for creating “a style that’s uniquely American” as he presented the singer-songwriter the nation’s highest award for pop music.

Obama, who called Wonder the soundtrack of his youth, gave the star the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during an East Room tribute that featured Tony Bennett, Martina McBride and Wonder himself. The president joked that the group was “the most accomplished Stevie Wonder cover band in history.”

Wonder was emotional at times, thanking Obama for the award and reflecting on what his election as the first black president means to the United States.

“What is truly exciting for me today is that we truly have lived to see a time and a space where America has a chance to again live up to the greatness that it deserves to be seen and known as, through the love and caring and the commitment of a president — as in our president, Barack Obama,” he said.

Wonder cited Martin Luther King Jr., his faith and his mother during an acceptance speech that flowed into a set of Obama’s favorite songs. The Grammy-winning musician — he has 25 of the awards — joked that he looked forward to writing more love songs — perhaps a soundtrack for “you know, maybe I’ll be a part of creating some more of those babies.”

Obama praised Wonder’s decades-long career and a style that has blended pop and funk, R&B and gospel.

“Stevie has always drawn on the incredible range of traditions in his music and, from that, he’s created a style that’s at once uniquely American, uniquely his own, and yet somehow universal,” Obama said. “Indeed, this could be called the American tradition — artists demonstrating the courage, the talent to find new harmonies in the rich and dissonant sounds of the American experience.”

First lady Michelle Obama spoke in more personal terms, calling Wonder “one of the world’s greatest artists.” She recalled how she and her grandfather would listen to Wonder’s albums together.

“He’d blast music throughout the house and that’s where he and I would sit and listen to Stevie’s music together — songs about life, love, romance, heartache, despair. He would let me listen to these songs over and over and over and over again,” she said.

The first album she bought was Wonder’s “Talking Book,” and she and Barack Obama used “You and I” as their wedding song.

President Obama said he was lucky to have already loved Wonder’s music when he first met his mate.

“I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me, we might not have married,” Obama said, with his wife sitting in the front row. “The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.”

Although the president is a well-known fan — Wonder performed at his nominating convention in Denver last summer and at a Lincoln Memorial concert before his January inauguration — the Library of Congress had decided to honor Wonder before Obama won the election.

The Gershwin Prize honors George and Ira Gershwin and is given for lifetime achievement in popular music. Paul Simon claimed the nation’s first prize in 2007.

Wonder’s performance will be broadcast Thursday on PBS stations as part of a White House series on the arts.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saudis break taboo of opposing royals after soccer row

Saudis break taboo of opposing royals after soccer row

The incident highlights a shift from unquestioned deference toward the royal family.
By Caryle Murphy | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the February 20, 2009 edition

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - It had been a bad day for the kingdom, and three soccer commentators were trying to make sense of the national tragedy on a live TV talk show.

Saudi Arabia's national team had lost the 19th Arabian Gulf Cup to Oman, 6-5, because the players were underperforming. There was discord on the team. The coach had made bad moves. Their complaints went on and on. And no one could say that the three – a coach and two former national team players – were unqualified to assess the damage.

Suddenly, word came that a VIP was calling in, demanding to talk with the critics. Prince Sultan bin Fahd, son of the late king, and head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, had vowed to bring this year's Cup back from Oman.

What happened over the next few minutes, and in the days that followed, became a chart-topper when Saudis gathered to chat. For the episode is one of those moments when a nation instantly recognizes how it has changed. And in this case, that involves the slipping away of unconditional deference to royals.

Most royal family members are still held in high esteem. But economic, political, and demographic forces, as well as new forms of communication, are contributing to changing perceptions about how much unquestioning submission is due the royal sector.

Not least among these forces of change are those issuing from the head of the royal family itself, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Just days ago, the king announced an overhaul of the country's religious and political leadership aimed at speeding up implementation of reforms, particularly in education and the legal system. The king's agenda also includes a slow expansion of responsibilities for the Shura Council, an appointed advisory body.

As the reforms proceed, they will affect the relationship between rulers and ruled, forcing royal family members to increasingly contend with the verdicts of public opinion – as last month's soccer commentary show demonstrated.

Prince Sultan started out calmly, but grew increasingly agitated. Addressing each of the three commentators in turn, he chastised them for being disrespectful and not knowing what they were talking about. "You are all ignorant!" he shouted.

He accused former coach Jassim al-Harbi of saying "awful things" about the team manager, asking sarcastically: "You're evaluating managerial competencies now too, Jasim, you and your likes?"

Unable to get a word in edgewise, the three squirmed in their chairs – a scene viewed thousands of times on YouTube.

Then the prince turned to former player Faisal Abu Thnain. "We work day and night and you just sit here blabbering away on television ... I do not want to hear this talk again. I have tolerated you long enough. You must exercise self-restraint. And you must behave... If you have not been raised properly, we can certainly raise you ourselves."

It was this last sentence that shocked the viewing audience, for to accuse someone of not being well brought up is a deep insult in Saudi culture, on par with shoe-throwing in Iraq.

Mr. Abu Thnain did not let the prince's comment pass. "No, thank God, we have all been raised well and we know our limits and the repercussions of our actions," he retorted before the prince hung up.

Now, the audience was cheering – or at least it would a few days later.

"Faisal Abu Thnain made history by being the first Saudi citizen to talk back to a prince ... live and on the air and for this, we celebrate him," reads a Facebook page honoring the player. Created shortly after the Jan. 17 incident, it has collected 2,927 fans.

Someone else started a Facebook group – with 2,085 members so far – calling for the prince's dismissal. His picture is prominently displayed with the international 'No' sign over it.

Then the Saudi newspaper Al Medinah ran a cartoon showing the prince telling a microphone to "ignore these 'babbling' guys talking about things they know nothing about." The bubble over the silenced men reads: "Criticism. Opinions. The Truth. Points of View. Demands. Logical Analysis."

One long-time foreign resident here called the affair "unprecedented."

And Saudi sports columnist Abdulaziz A. Alghiama said that it underscored new attitudes toward a top official who belongs to the ruling family.

"It's completely changed because 10 years back, people were not doing that," says Mr. Alghiama, who writes for the Asharq al Awsat newspaper. While Alghiama conceded that Prince Sultan, who also serves as the country's sports minister, should not have used "insulting" words, he stood up for him.

"It was the first time that Saudi lost to Oman and for this reason, he was so devastated," he says. "Everyone makes mistakes and so there was so much pressure around. He's just a human being."

Abu Thnain said that he realized the prince was disappointed. But he was still "surprised" at his language, which "hurt my feelings, and my mother and father's feelings. They are very angry about that."

But "people are talking about this incident [because] sometimes there are not people who can say to a prince, 'you are wrong.' We are in 2009 and everyone has to accept the other's opinions," he adds. "Now, most of the population in Saudi are under 20 years and each one has a different opinion. If you don't accept them you will have problems in the future."

Some royals want to be more accessible to the public, even if this may dilute the deference once accorded the family.

For example, Princess Loulwa al-Faisal, daughter of late King Faisal, broke the taboo that princesses are not seen with uncovered faces in public and do not appear on television or in newspapers when she was interviewed on "Good Morning America" in 2007. She covered her hair, but not her face.

Another princess recently created an even bigger stir. Amira al-Taweel, wife of Prince Waleed bin Talal, one of the family's most progressive members, was photographed without face veil, headscarf, or abaya – the black cloak worn by women in public – by Al Watan newspaper, which carried an extensive interview with the princess about all aspects of her life.

Unlike in the past, the paper was not sanctioned by the government.

Prince Sultan did not respond to questions and a request for comment faxed to his office. He did talk about the incident four days after it happened on the privately owned Saudi news channel Al Arabiya. He was in a calm mood, but did not apologize, saying that everyone makes mistakes and "may Allah guide us all."

Way cool hip-hop remix of Soviet dancing

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Muzak Files Chapter 11 to Refinance Debt

February 11, 2009
Muzak Files Chapter 11 to Refinance Debt

Muzak Holdings, the maker of background music heard in elevators, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Tuesday.

The company had a heavy debt load, and it filed to try to refinance some of its debt. In a court filing, the company listed its total debt at $100 million to $500 million.

The filing listed assets of less than $50,000, but a company spokeswoman, Meaghan Repko, said total assets were about $320 million. That included the Muzak operating company, she said, which also filed for bankruptcy. She declined to provide a more exact figure for the company’s total debt.

Many of Muzak’s biggest creditors are music companies that license songs for use on Muzak playlists. While the company is known as the creator of elevator music, its business is now more focused on creating playlists for use in retail stores, installing professional sound systems and providing other services.

Muzak, which is based in Fort Mill, S.C., filed for protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court in the District of Delaware in Wilmington.

The company expects to continue to operate. A statement said it had “sufficient means” to support itself through a bankruptcy reorganization.

Among its biggest unsecured creditors is U.S. Bank, which is owed $371 million according to a court filing.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers is owed $213,020, the filing said.

Other top unsecured creditors include vendors like Universal Music Enterprises, owed $349,321; EMI Capital Records, $320,323; AT&T, $257,384; and Dish Network, $251,276.

Sony Music, BMG Film and Television Music, United Parcel Service and Virgin Records were also listed among the unsecured creditors.

Kirkland & Ellis was hired as the company’s bankruptcy law firm. Moelis & Company will serve as the financial adviser.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Cuban Bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez (1933-2009)


Buena Vista Social Club bassist Lopez dead at 76
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press Writer Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press Writer 2 hrs 1 min ago

HAVANA – Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, considered the "heartbeat" of Cuba's legendary Buena Vista Social Club for his internationally acclaimed bass playing, died Monday of complications from prostate surgery, fellow musicians said. He was 76.

Lopez, a founding member of the band brought together in the 1990s by American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, died in a Havana hospital several days after surgery, said Manuel Galban, a Cuban musician who played with Lopez for decades.

"We have lost a great companion," said Galban.

Born in Havana in 1933, Lopez became an international sensation as part of the Buena Vista Social Club — a group of elderly, sometimes retired, musicians who were living quietly in Cuba before Cooder brought them together and they became worldwide sensations.

"I will remember him as marvelous, both in his music and as a person," Galban, a guitarist, said by telephone. "He was extraordinary, affable, a great bassist."

Lopez died less than a week after turned 76.

"I called him last week because it was his birthday and his voice didn't sound too good," said musician Amadito Valdes, who added that Lopez had undergone prostate surgery several days ago. "He was a person who was always sharing with everyone around him, very noble."

Lopez was held by many to be Buena Vista's heartbeat and had played to international audiences as part of its touring company.

The group, which plays a mix of traditional Cuban rhythms, has lost many of its key members of late. Singer Compay Segundo — who was born Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz — pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Pio Leyva have all died in recent years.

But Lopez was also a star in his own right, independent of Buena Vista. His groundbreaking debut album Cachaito won a BBC Radio 3 Award for Word Music in 2002.

Lopez hailed from a family of at least 30 bass players, including his uncle, legendary bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez. His nickname translates to "Little Cachao." His father Orestes played piano and cello in addition to the bass and was also a composer.

Lopez originally played the violin, but as he said publicly many times, eventually switched to the bass after his grandfather urged him to take up the family craft.

He was a pioneer of Cuban mambo, and by 17 was part of a noted big band group known as Riverside. He later joined Cuba's national symphony. He also played with a band called "Los Zafiros."

Lopez was at home playing classic as well as popular music but also dabbled in late night jazz and jazz fusion.

However, he only gained international notoriety when Cooder brought him together with such standouts as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo to form Buena Vista.

Later, Wim Wenders released a documentary titled Buena Vista Social Club, in which he profiled the musicians whose talents had all but been forgotten.

Family members planned to cremate the body but there was no immediate word on funeral services.

Radiohead w/USC marching band

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Profile of a Professional Dumpster Diver

Forbes has an interesting profile of a professional dumpster diver.

Tom Paxton Humbly Garners Lifetime Grammy for Folk Music

Power Of Just Plain Folk
Tom Paxton Humbly Garners Life Grammy

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009; C01

Tom Paxton, an icon of the 1960s folk music movement, is riffing in a coffeehouse. Perfect!

Of course, it's a Starbucks near Paxton's townhouse in Old Town Alexandria -- nothing like the small, homey cafe in New York's Greenwich Village where he landed his first singing job nearly 50 years ago after crash-landing in the creative center of the American folk scene.

"It was happening right as I got there," Paxton says of the folk revival that was underway when he moved to the Village from New Jersey's Fort Dix, where he'd been posted with the Army. "On weekends, you couldn't move on the sidewalk, and all the coffeehouses would be crammed. It was the tail end of the Beat generation, and the Gaslight actually featured some of the Beat poets; the folk singers were kind of interspersed between them. But that didn't last long. Pretty soon, it was folk singers, period. It was exciting to be part of that."

Paxton never really moved on: The "small-town yokel from Oklahoma" who as a kid favored Woody Guthrie and the Weavers over the pop stars of the day has been almost singularly focused on folk music for the entirety of his adult life. For his efforts -- for five decades of writing, recording, performing, straw-stirring, self-editing, influencing, hamming, mentoring, teaching and rewriting -- Paxton, 71, will receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award today in Los Angeles as part of the Recording Academy's Grammy Week festivities.

The award, which honors artistic contributions to the field of recording, will be announced on tomorrow night's live Grammy telecast and will place Paxton in pretty fine company. Previous Lifetime Achievement Award recipients include some of the most famous of all folkies: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

"One of the things with Tom Paxton is that while he might not be as much of a household name as some of the people we've honored, his music has been really influential," says Bill Freimuth, vice president of awards for the Recording Academy, which gives out the Grammys. "He's very much considered a mentor to many, many musicians; he's been an inspiration to so many other folks who've continued the tradition of making great music.

". . . And Tom always stuck to his heart, sometimes perhaps at the cost of his wallet. He did not go the commercial route. People really respect that about Tom."

Paxton's take? "The English have a word for it: gob-smacked. It's recognition I never thought I'd get. You think of the Grammys as billion-selling artists. I've never had a hit record myself; other people have had hits with some of my songs, but I haven't. Not even close. I'm stunned."

For the uninitiated (basically, anybody who doesn't have a subscription to Sing Out! magazine), Paxton's catalogue is filled with both satirical songs and serious songs, almost all of which have choruses constructed for sing-alongs. They're songs about adult relationships, children's songs and pointedly topical songs. Lots and lots of those, including "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation," "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew" and "I Don't Want a Bunny Wunny," about Jimmy Carter and the "killer" swamp rabbit that the president said attacked his fishing boat in 1979. (That one still gets requested in concert, though Paxton is down to about 40 dates per year. Loves the interchange; hates the travel.)

There was also "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler," about the controversial 1979 federal bailout, and the recent update/sequel, "I'm Changing My Name to Fannie Mae." Also: "The Bravest," a poignant song about the heroic efforts of the 9/11 firefighters, and "Sarah Palin," a silly song about, well . . . you know.

Over the past half-century, other artists have recorded plenty of Paxton's songs -- none more frequently than the regretful lover's farewell, "The Last Thing on My Mind," which has been recorded by something like 200 artists, from Baez and Judy Collins to Neil Diamond and Charley Pride. It's been performed so many times, by so many artists around the world, that some people apparently think it's a traditional folk song of unknown origin, as Paxton's youngest daughter, Kate, discovered at a pub in Scotland.

"True story," he says. "A musician at the pub sang 'The Last Thing on My Mind,' and during the break, Kate went over to him and said, 'Thank you for singing that song; my dad wrote it.' He said: 'No, he didn't. . . . He couldn't possibly have written it. That's an old Scottish folk song that I learned from my dad.'

"And she said: 'I'm telling you, it was my dad!' 'Who's your dad?' 'Tom Paxton.' He thought for the longest time and then said, 'Well, he might have written it.' "

He laughs. "I've decided to settle for that: I might have written it."

Paxton still sits down to write several times each week at home in Alexandria, where there's a framed manuscript of "This Land Is Your Land" -- in Woody Guthrie's own handwriting! -- on a living-room table. (It was an anniversary gift from Midge, Paxton's wife of 45 years. They moved here in 1996, from East Hampton, to be closer to their brood: Kate lives a few doors away in Old Town, oldest daughter Jennifer is in Bethesda with her husband and three children.)

So how many Tom Paxton songs might there be?

"It's a meaningless statistic," he protests. "I could say a couple thousand. But it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is how many songs you'll admit to having written. That could be 500."

The first one worth owning up to was "The Marvelous Toy," a whimsical, oft-covered children's song written during his stint as Pfc. Paxton. "I wrote it on an Army typewriter," he says. "I was in the clerk typist school at Fort Dix, New Jersey. But I was bored out of my mind because I could already type!"

Paxton became a folk artist because, he says, "I couldn't not."

Explain, please.

"I was always a sensitive child and young man, and I was very passionate about the things I was passionate about. One of those things was music in general and folk music in particular. There was something about folk music that spoke to me very personally, even when the songs were nothing about a life I knew. They seemed to be a window into a broader soul. They made me feel connected somehow."

He'd been born in Chicago and raised mostly in Bristow, Okla., and enrolled in the drama program at the University of Oklahoma because he'd always been in school plays and always loved to perform. But he became increasingly interested in folk music, eventually forming a group with two like-minded classmates. "We had our own little imitation Kingston Trio/Weavers trio, singing in a coffeehouse off-campus for no money," he recalls.

Listening to "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall" changed his life. "By the last track, I had undergone a chromosomal change. I had gone from somebody who loved this music to somebody who had to try to do it."

When he came to New York, courtesy of the Army, he'd found his spiritual home. "I began making friends right away: Dave Van Ronk, Noel Stookey from Peter, Paul and Mary. I stayed in the Village and slept on a lot of sofas and somehow began to make my way."

Pete Seeger took Paxton under his wing and sang "Ramblin' Boy," the young, still-unsigned artist's elegy to a lost friend, at a Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Nice introduction. (It became the title track of Paxton's 1964 debut recording for Elektra and remains one of Paxton's best-known songs.)

More stories?

The owner of the soon-to-be-legendary Gaslight Cafe, where Paxton often performed, was convinced that the singer-songwriter with the Army haircut was an undercover cop. "But nobody really thought of me as an Army guy; I was one of them."

Paxton ran with Van Ronk and Stookey and Phil Ochs, and he talked shop with Dylan. "One night, in the Kettle of Fish, which was the bar above the Gaslight, a bunch of us were sitting around a table, as we usually did between shows. Bob was sitting next to me and said, 'Listen to this.' And I leaned over, and into my ear alone, he sang a new song called 'Gates of Eden.' I said: 'Bob, I really like that song. I really like that song.' He was really exploding creatively then."

Did the positive feedback flow both ways? "Oh, yeah," Paxton says. "We had a drink one night . . . and Bob told me that he loved my song 'Annie's Gonna Sing Her Song' and that he'd actually recorded it, though he didn't know if it was going to come out. He told me several times over the years how much he liked that song."

Funny thing about the scene, Paxton says: "We were all competitive and supportive at the same time, and there was no apparent dichotomy. We were supportive, but of course you wanted to do better."

Some did better than others, of course. Dylan took off like a rocket before plugging in to play rock-and-roll. Others became marquee stars, too: Baez, Richie Havens, Peter, Paul and Mary. That gave everybody hope. "Looking back, the thing that one is apt to forget is the insecurity of it," he says. "Nobody knew if they were going to be able to actually sustain a living doing this. "

Paxton, though, couldn't land a record deal during his first four years in the Village. "And it wasn't like now, where you can put out your own record; you had to wait until you got a contract," he says. He wondered if he'd ever make it.

But he had steady employment, performing at the Gaslight and elsewhere. And the songwriting was really working for Paxton, who had received his first big break in fall 1960. He'd auditioned for the Chad Mitchell Trio and was picked provisionally as the group's newest member, but it turned out that the voices didn't blend quite right. But he'd sung "The Marvelous Toy" for the group, which ultimately had its one hit with the song. More important, Milt Okun, the founder of Cherry Lane Music and the Chad Mitchell Trio's producer, wanted to publish Paxton's work. "That was the only good song I had at that point; I thought I had more, but I didn't," Paxton says. "But it was enough to let Milt know that I was already a songwriter. . . . And we're still together, damn near 50 years later."

At the time, Okun was producing for multiple artists, including Peter, Paul and Mary, and he wound up getting several of them to record Paxton's songs, such as "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound." As a result, Paxton had a modest, steady income even before he was signed to Elektra in 1964. "And it was tremendously supportive morally," he says. "I knew that I was not kidding myself if other people liked the songs well enough to do them.

"It was exciting to think that, my God, I can actually do this."

Still can. Still is.

"I wouldn't be able to define success in folk music; it's almost an oxymoron," Paxton says. "It really doesn't fit. But I suppose one measure of success is that I'm still doing it nearly 50 years later."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Eddie Van Halen reinvents the guitar

Eddie Van Halen reinvents the guitar

By Denise Quan

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- There are rock stars, and then there are Rock Stars. Eddie Van Halen is a Rock Star.

Take an incident in the summer of 2007. A security guard stopped me as I attempted to drive through the gates of Center Staging, a rehearsal studio across the street from Burbank Airport.

"That's odd," I thought. "They've never had security before. I wonder what's going on?"

Pretty soon, I discovered the reason for the limited access. A black BMW convertible drove up, and a baby-faced teenager jumped out of the driver's seat. The passenger door opened, and out walked Eddie Van Halen. Everyone stopped talking and stared, including Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, who were outside taking a break from their own rehearsal.

Van Halen and the other members of the band had just announced a big reunion tour with original singer David Lee Roth at a splashy news conference in Beverly Hills, and I had inadvertently discovered where they were prepping for their journey. Eddie and his son Wolfgang -- named for Mozart -- greeted a couple of people in the parking lot and quickly disappeared inside the soundstage.

Moments later, the earth trembled as the loudest guitar I've ever heard in my life was fired up. It was like a sonic boom -- only the sound wasn't coming from the airport. It was coming from inside the soundstage. The legendary guitarist launched into the familiar intro to Van Halen's 1978 hit, "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." That was followed by "Runnin' With the Devil."

Joss Stone ran out of her own rehearsal studio -- barefoot -- and begged a security guard for entry. She was turned away.

Months later, I would catch Van Halen, the band, during their triumphant hometown concert in Los Angeles. Little did I know that during that tour, Eddie had been road-testing a series of prototype guitars he was designing with Fender. The instrument was called "the Wolfgang," after his son, who's Van Halen's current bass player. VideoWatch Van Halen show off his new axe »

After years of wearing down metal frets and having pieces of his guitar rip off or malfunction during shows, Van Halen says he's built a guitar that even he can't destroy. On the Wolfgang, frets are fashioned of stainless steel, and metal gadgets are custom-made by a company that specializes in medical tools. Sections of wood are left unpainted so the instrument can breathe and age -- "like a Stradivarius," the 54-year-old musician explains with a degree of pride.

We recently caught up with Eddie at his 5150 Studio, high in the hills above Los Angeles. It's where the album "1984" was recorded, along with every subsequent Van Halen record. The studio sits on seven acres, just a stone's throw from the Tudor mansion he bought in 1980. He and his fiancee/publicist, Janie Liszewski, scoot around the property in golf carts. The red, white and black-striped motif of his signature Van Halen guitar is painted on the walkway. The following is an edited version of the interview.

CNN: You've been tearing guitars apart and redesigning them all your life, haven't you?

Eddie Van Halen: It kind of started when I went to a Radio Shack-type of store in Pasadena. They had a 12-string guitar hanging there, and I didn't want 12 -- I wanted six. And so I asked the guy, "Could I take six strings off and try it?" And the guy said, "No, not unless you buy it." So I borrowed the money from my parents, bought it, took six strings off and voila -- did what I wanted. The guitar -- it's on the first album cover. It's called Frankenstein.

I'm always tinkering with stuff. And basically, the new Wolfgang is a combination of all the years of tearing things apart, ruining things, creating things and coming up with things that I later found out I could patent.

CNN: How many guitars have you accidentally broken on stage?

Van Halen: On stage? (He shrugs.) During the last show, I actually tried to break a Wolfgang, and it wouldn't break. I picked it up and I couldn't break the damn thing. I threw it up in the air, and later put it out in the rain. I picked it up half an hour later, and it was still in tune. It pissed me off.

CNN: The Wolfgang sells for about $3,000. Are you worried about introducing a high-end guitar when the economy is taking such a hit?

Van Halen: I just don't think that way. I'm really not a businessman, so to speak. The only reason I do it is because people are always asking me where they can get what I use.

CNN: Who are some of the musicians who have asked?

Van Halen: Everybody uses my stuff. They just don't like talking about it.

CNN: I'm told you can hear things that most people can't with the naked ear.

Van Halen: I have selective hearing. (Laughs)

CNN: I think a lot of men do!

Van Halen: Obviously, I've lost a little bit, at very high frequencies -- which is kind of like a woman screaming at ya.

CNN: "Ed, did you take the trash out?" "Can you wipe the dishes?" Are you hearing anything?

Van Halen: What was that? (Laughs) I don't know. I'm blessed with a good pair of ears. That's how I fooled my piano teacher. I'd watch his fingers and I'd listen to it, and I just kind of basically learned it by myself.

I can't read music. Instead, I'd do stuff inside the piano, do harmonics and all kinds of crazy things. They used to put me in these annual piano contests down at Long Beach City College, and two years in a row, I won first prize -- out of like 5,000 kids! The judges were like, "Very interesting interpretation!" I thought I was playing it right.

But everything is open to interpretation. Imagine if Beethoven had a tape recorder. Then you'd know exactly what he meant. Maybe he meant (singing the opening notes to the Fifth Symphony), "Da da da da" instead of "Boom boom boom boom!" Who knows.

CNN: Did you ever take formal guitar lessons?

Van Halen: No. That's why I do all this crazy stuff. It's not taught.

CNN: Do you think you'd approach music differently if you had taken guitar lessons?

Van Halen: Probably. But you only have 12 notes. Do what you want with them.

CNN: What kind of music do you listen to when you're at home?

Van Halen: I don't listen to anything, really. Believe it or not, I'm so slammed with ideas, and the man upstairs overloads me with stuff, so I'm always doing my own thing.

CNN: How was it having Wolfie on the road with you on the last tour? He was 16 when he took over as Van Halen's bass player in 2007.

Van Halen: It was a dream! That kid is truly amazing. I did name him after the right guy. (Laughs)

CNN: He's still in high school. Did he have a tutor on the road?

Van Halen: Yeah, he had four hours of school and then a gig at night. He worked three times harder than any of us.

CNN: How was it touring with David Lee Roth after all these years?

Van Halen: It was great.

CNN: No smackdowns?

Van Halen: No, no. Everything went great. It went smooth.

CNN: Is there going to be another Van Halen tour?

Van Halen: Oh, I know so. I mean, we're a band! That wasn't just a one-off thing. It's officially a band. And Wolfgang Van Halen is the bass player. Janie and I are getting married in June, and my son's going to graduate, and we'll pick it up after that. Obviously, I hope we record some new stuff. I'm writing, and just doing the same thing I always do.

CNN: Is Wolfie going to be in the wedding?

Van Halen: He's going to be my best man. My brother's marrying us.

CNN: Oh, that's right! Alex (the drummer in Van Halen) is an ordained minister.

Van Halen: Yeah. Reverend Al! (Laughs) We're going to do it right here in the backyard. Small, intimate wedding. ... We'll get a string quartet for part of it and a DJ for afterwards, although I'm not much of a dancer.

CNN: Sounds like a very traditional, non-rock star-type of wedding. So many people can pick out an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, but not a lot of people know who you are as a human being.

Van Halen: I just consider myself slightly left-of-center. I'm not your average bear. I -- what's the word? I'm not -- normal. (Laughs) I sound like Michael Jackson. I'm not like other guys.

CNN: You hate interviews, don't you?

Van Halen: Well, believe it or not, I really don't have much to say -- 'cause the equipment speaks for itself. And so does the music.

CNN: If I play your new Wolfgang guitar, will I sound like you?

Van Halen: Why would you want to sound like anyone else? Get your own guitar. They're available!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Iraqi musicians: murder and revival


24 November 2008

Musicians take up their instruments again

50 musicians have been killed in 2004-2006 in Iraq, according to a national artists union. But as the civil war appears to be fading, so does the pressure on musicians and the ban on music by the Mehdi Army's and Al-Qaeda's militiamen, reported Sammy Ketz from Agence France Presse (AFP) on 17 November 2008.

In early 2006, the saxophone player Ayad Hair was was killed at his home in Sadr City by militiamen — in front of his children — and afterwards his corpse was burned. On the same day, his fellow musician, the tambourine player Ali Mohammad was killed. His corpse was found more than two years later. The militiamen explained to the musicians’ families that this will be the fate of all those “who transgress holy law.”

A 37-year-old music shop owner in the Fadel neighbourhood of central Baghdad, Mohammad Rashid, had his shop destroyed by a group of masked jihadists in March 2006, at a time when the Sunni extremist movement Al-Qaeda took over control of the neighbourhood — an area which was once famous for its traditional music groups, bands of drummers, trumpet and timpani players that would accompany a groom to his bride, cater to circumcision celebrations, and herald major holidays.

Mohammad Rashid reopened his shop during 2008, and then told the story about his band and the fate of his fellow musicians to Sammy Ketz from Agence France Presse, AFP. The trumpets and drum covers on display still bear the jagged scrapes left by the vandals, Sammy Ketz described in his article.

2004-2006: 50 musicians killed
“What you are doing is forbidden, because music is the work of the devil. If you reopen your shop, you are dead,” Mohammad Rashid remembers the assailants telling him before he fled to Syria..

The AFP-article quoted the head of Iraq’s artists union, Hussein al-Basri, as saying that in 2003, on the eve of the US-led invasion, there were more than 300 traditional bands playing in Baghdad, but most of them stopped playing in 2004, and since then around 50 musicians have been killed, and the number of active bands has dwindled to around 100.

Instruments destroyed
But even though Iraqi musicians are slowly returning to the streets of Baghdad, performing music is still a dangerous profession in some parts of Iraq.

In March 2008 an orchestral group that had travelled to the southern town of Aziziyya was reportedly attacked by the Mehdi Army, which destroyed their instruments.

In the Allawi district of central Baghdad, 27-year-old Ahmed Omar Magid, whose father played in the royal symphony orchestra in 1954, suffered the same treatment at the hands of Sunni fighters.

Sammy Ketz reported that today Ahmed Omar Magid and his bands perform at approximately a dozen weddings a month.

Ali Kassem, a 40-year-old musician who used to play trumpet in a military band, told the AFP-reporter that the miliamen would organise fake weddings in order to ambush the musicians when they arrived there to perform. He said that he had friends who were killed that way.

“And yet I am sure that nothing in the Koran forbids our art,” he told Sammy Ketz.

First metal concert in five years
In October 2008, Iraq’s first metal concert in five years was held in Baghdad, reported journalist Charles Levinson in the American newspaper USA Today, after he had experienced around 250 Iraqi fans of heavy metal music come out of hiding to listen to two heavy metal orchestras.

One of the two bands that performed at the concert was Brutal Impact. The 21-year-old lead singer of the band, Mani, told USA Today’s reporter in an interview after the show: “When religious extremists controlled Baghdad’s neighbourhoods, being a member of heavy metal’s unique subculture could amount to a death sentence. If I wore a T-shirt like this one,” Mani said, pointing to a logo of a bleeding skull, “they'd have killed me.”

The second band that performed that night was Dog Faced Corpse.

Click on map to read more about Iraq on
Between 2004 and 2006, around 50 musicians in Iraq have been killed, according to the head of the country’s artists union


AFP – 11 November 2008:
'Music returns to Baghdad as vice squad enforcers retreat'

Daily Star / AFP – 17 November 2008:
‘Music returns to streets of Baghdad as both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists recede’

USA Today – 30 October 2008:
'Nothing else matters: Iraqi heavy metal returns'

One Band Moves Its Metal Out of Iraq (Acrassicauda)

February 3, 2009
One Band Moves Its Metal Out of Iraq

It was a heavy metal miracle.

Acrassicauda had been through hell as a rock band in wartime Baghdad. Its practice space was bombed. Its members were branded Satan worshipers and received death threats for making Western-style music. Then they suffered through two purgatorial years as refugees in Syria and Turkey, killing time and dreaming of rocking out in the land of the free.

And on Sunday night, two days after the last of the band’s four members was resettled in the United States, they enjoyed what any metal fan would have to call heaven: bearhugs and “Wow, dude” heart-to-hearts backstage with Metallica at the Prudential Center in Newark. It probably wasn’t necessary for James Hetfield, Metallica’s lead singer, to surprise them after the show by handing over one of his guitars, a black ESP, and signing it “Welcome to America”; their minds were already blown.

“That’s for keeping the faith,” Mr. Hetfield said, adding as he disappeared with his entourage down a corridor, “Write some good riffs.”

Acrassicauda’s rock ’n’ roll faith was traced in a documentary, “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” released in 2007. That film portrayed the members as ordinary if tenacious rock Joes amid the most extraordinary circumstances, and they continue to embody those roles in their new lives.

The United States government has granted them refugee status, which allows them to apply for green cards in a year, and the International Rescue Committee has placed them in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Elizabeth, N.J., where there are as yet no Metallica or Slayer posters on the walls but a bundle of guitars are piled in one corner.

“This is more than we ever could have expected or dreamed of,” said Firas Al-Lateef, 27, the bassist, who arrived four months ago.

Backstage after the Metallica show, Mr. Al-Lateef giggled in disbelief along with two of his band mates, Faisal Talal, 25, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, and Marwan Riyadh, the drummer, who was the last to arrive. (The lead guitarist, Tony Aziz, who will turn 30 on Wednesday, was in Michigan working to bring over family from Iraq; heads were shaken gravely over his unfortunate timing.) It was only the second full rock concert they had ever attended, after seeing the venerable Testament in Turkey.

But they say they are acutely aware that another set of challenges lies before them, as they set out to make good on their commitment to play music and compete in the open marketplace of metal.

“We’re good at process,” said Mr. Riyadh, 24, who has previously used the name Marwan Hussain. “Going to the U.N.H.C.R.,” he said, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “standing in a queue for three or four hours. We’re good at that. But musically, we need to practice.”

There may not be many metal bands from Baghdad, but as refugees the members of Acrassicauda (pronounced “a-crass-a-COW-da” and derived from the name of a species of black scorpion) are far from alone, and not all have made it through the same hoops.

Of as many as two million Iraqi refugees around the world, only 13,000 were admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2008, which ended on Sept. 30, and another 17,000 are scheduled for fiscal 2009. An official at the State Department said that in the last 18 months, 47 of the Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States have been musicians.

“They were very fortunate to make it through the system,” Bob Carey, the vice president for resettlement and migration policy at the International Rescue Committee, said of the band. “Some of that is due to perseverance, some of it is advocacy and some of it is luck.”

Acrassicauda’s primary advocate has been Vice, the Brooklyn-based magazine and media company that made “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” Vice is better known for wisecracking pop-culture commentary than humanitarian aid, but it has been working tirelessly on the band’s behalf for a year and a half.

Vice tried to help resettle the members to Canada and Germany, and kept them afloat with cash — as much as $40,000 paid from Vice’s own coffers, sponsors and donations collected online, according to Suroosh Alvi, a founder of the company and one of the directors of the film.

“We had outed them and endangered their lives,” Mr. Alvi said on the way to the Prudential Center, where a small Vice crew was filming every handshake and wide-eyed glimpse of Metallica’s mountains of equipment. “They were receiving threats from Iraq while they were in Syria.” He added, “We had a responsibility.”

The band members insist that they received no special treatment from any government agency. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, does not comment on specific cases, but to qualify for refugee status all applicants must demonstrate that they face persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.

For these musicians, playing metal could be enough to make them a target for extremists, and they still fear for the safety of their families in Iraq.

“Sometimes I feel kind of guilty, because I am in a safe place and they are not, just because of me,” said Mr. Al-Lateef. “I am risking their lives to be in a heavy metal band.”

But a heavy metal band is what they are committed to be, and they chafe at the idea that too much attention is being paid to their being refugees and not enough to the music they have risked their lives and fled their homeland to make.

“What I want to be is a musician,” Mr. Riyadh said. “I want to release an album. But you feel all this pressure by the media. It’s like, do you care about me because I’m a musician or do you care about me because you think my story is interesting?”

Evidently Metallica finds Acrassicauda very interesting, and on Sunday Acrassicauda did not seem to mind. Before the show, the three band members were ushered through the production labyrinth backstage, where they were showered with attention from their heroes. Each of the four members of Metallica came separately — attended by numerous handlers — to pay respects, talk shop and hold up the devil horns for photo after photo.

Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist, came by last, diligently warming up his fingers on his unplugged guitar as he talked. “You guys represent the passion that comes along with playing this music,” he said.

The members of Acrassicauda arrived back at their apartment in Elizabeth well past midnight with armfuls of Burger King food for their dinner, but Mr. Talal went straight for the new guitar he had just received from Mr. Hetfield and plugged it into a tiny Peavey amplifier on the floor. With the volume low, he started playing Metallica riffs, and looked up.

“Wow,” he beamed, and then went back to the guitar.