Dengue Fever

Cambodian Rock from LA

Yes, Dengue Fever is a terrible disease that causes suffering and death in tropical countries. But it’s also a kick-ass band that takes the concept of world music to another level – a mix of American musicians and a Cambodian singer.

After traveling in Cambodia and discovering the rock music movement that was almost completely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge, brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman met Cambodian karaoke singer Chhom Nimol at a nightclub in Long Beach, California. They invited her to join their surf-rock indie band, and Dengue Fever was born.

She and guitarist Zac share lead vocals, often telling stories from both sides of a couple, such as in Tiger Phone Card, one of my favorite songs from their album Venus on Earth. Communication problems between a Cambodian Girl in Phnom Phen and her boyfriend in New York City cause conflict but ultimately bring them closer together.

Another cool song with this dynamic of opposing viewpoints is Sober Driver, also from Venus on Earth. A drunk girl calls up a guy from a party, and he suspects that the only reason she called is because he is sober and has a car.

Original angles like this, with the strong, distinctive vocals of the singers, are sung over a vintage-sounding Cambodian-rock influenced band that along with bass and drums includes a saxophone, keyboards and percussion.

I saw them live a few years ago in a small bar. The band was loud and tight, and Nimol’s powerful voice came through strong and clear. She ran around the stage, encouraged the audience to dance and chatted in her native language with a few Cambodians in attendance. Dengue Fever is an interesting, truly unique band that crosses genres and creates good music. Count me as a fan.

The Cat Empire

Australia's New Heroes

The first time I saw The Cat Empire was at the Vancouver International Jazz Fest in 2007. They had a concert the night before that I couldn’t attend. But I went to all the free street concerts the following day. To close out the festival, there’s always a mystery band and that year it was The Cat Empire.

As a volunteer for the festival (as well as a music fan) I always see a lot of great concerts, but it’s rare for me to see a band I’ve never listened to before that completely blows me away. Well, The Cat Empire is just that kind of band. The have the uncommon quality of being both great musicians and great songwriters.

Though they were playing Jazz Fest, you can’t really call them a jazz group, despite their obvious jazz chops. They are best described as world music and more specifically, a mix of Latin music, reggae, ska, jazz, rock and even hip-hop. They have no guitar, but a solid lineup of two lead vocalists, trumpet, keyboard, bass and drums.

Their first international release, the one they were touring in support of when I first saw them, is called Two Shoes. It’s a very solid album that contains some of their catchiest songs. They followed up Two Shoes with a few more decent albums, but then just last year they released Cinema, which may be their best album yet.

They are hugely popular in their native Australia and have been making inroads in the U.S. festival circuit. Also, after their successful debut at the Vancouver Jazz Fest they do regular tours of Canada and always hit up Vancouver.

The last time I saw The Cat Empire in 2009 was one of the most unique musical experiences of my life. I’ve seen a lot of bands multiple times, but I was completely amazed that although they blew me away the first and second times I saw them, the third time they were so much better than before. I guess that constant worldwide touring and an open musical mind can really pay off.

I urge you to check out this stellar group. We have to encourage them to come to North America as much as possible.


Fela Kuti

If you like funk or soul, you’ve got to hear this

Undoubtedly a giant in world music, Fela Kuti was one of those artists who was way more than “just” a musician. He was a rebel through and through – a man who both ran for president and was repeatedly beaten by the police in his native Nigeria. He never backed down, forming his own political party and even his own republic, and fought against the corruption in Nigeria even after his mother was thrown from a second floor window of his compound. He died in 1997 from an AIDS related illness.

But we want to hear some music. What is so special musically about Fela is that he invented a new kind of music: afrobeat. Fela got turned on to James Brown and decided to make funk music with African rhythms, but he took it even further by writing 10, 20 or even 40 minute songs that kept to the same groove and, amazingly, never got boring.

He sings/chants/rants mostly in pidgin English, with topics ranging from the super political (Zombie - a metaphor for the police) to proper personal hygiene.

He even goes further than the most misogynistic rapper with songs like Lady and Gentleman, in which he celebrates the inequality of men and women while justifying it in a culture context. Sensitive feminists, get ready to be offended, but sensitive feminist liberals, get ready to be confused, because Fela is as multicultural as you can get.

He put out a lot of music. That said, some of my favorite albums are Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana (just the name alone says it all) and Zombie. However, as much as I hate to say it, probably the best introduction to Fela is “The Best Best of Fela Kuti.”

Korean Traditional Music

Hwang Byeong-Ki

Let’s talk about traditional Korean music.

“What?” you say. “What the heck do you know about traditional Korean music?”

Well, it turns out that traditional Korean music is pretty awesome. Don’t confuse it with K-pop – Korean popular music, which is even more horrible than the Western pop music it mimics.

No, Korean traditional music can be up to 2,000 years old. There are many genres under this umbrella. They all have their similarities and use similar instruments – drums, especially the jangu; big stringed zithers that sit on the player’s lap, like the Gayaguem; and flutes. Interestingly, men usually play the flutes and women play the stringed instruments.

I lived in Korea for two years, and at that time the Seoul Arts Center gave cheap performances on the weekend. What’s more, they also gave free lessons. I’m a guitarist, so I chose the Gayaguem, which other than having strings doesn’t have too much in common with the guitar. The course was the most basic introduction to this quite complex instrument, a course designed for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Later I found a teacher who gave me private lessons. She introduced me to really good, modern traditional Korean music, groups like the Seoul Gayaguem Trio and the SookMyung Gayaguem Orchestra, of which she was a member.

The undisputed master of modern Gayaguem music is Hwang Byeong-Ki. When you listen to his music, think about Asian art with all its blank space. The music is similar. The spaces are as important as the notes.


Brazilian Styles

Brazil has a very deserving reputation for serving up good music. I think everyone has at least of vague conception of what Brazilian music is. What do you think of? The Girl from Ipanema? Big Carnival bands on the streets of Rio, women with huge feathered headdresses and skimpy clothes?

The Girl from Ipanema is Bossa Nova, a combination of samba and jazz. It’s basically a samba-like rhythm with jazz chord changes.


Samba is an important native Brazilian style, distinguished by a lot of percussion, like drums and the pandeiro, similar to a tambourine, and is usually led by guitar and cavaco, a little guitar-like instrument.

Samba is similar to pagode. From seeing both styles live in Brazil, I think pagode is basically samba with a more traditional band setup – including bass and drum kit – and more pop-like song arrangements. Some people said they didn’t like it because of cheesy love-song lyrics.

A mix of all these is MPB - Música Popular Brasileira. One of the greatest of these groups was Novos Bainanos. It’s mostly a mix of samba and rock.

Axe is the music of Carnival – loud boisterous party music. One of the biggest stars is Ivette Salgado. She always leads the big party procession through Rio de Janeiro.

Then there was the tropicalia movement, where Brazilian musicians mixed rock and roll with Brazillian styles. The Beatles were a major influence for these groups. One of the most enduring is Os Mutantes.

As for electronic music, well like anywhere in the world with a party scene, it thrives in Brazil. I can recommend a CD I got a long time ago called The Beginner’s Guide to Brazil. It may have an embarrassing name but it contains three CDs of great music. It’s a starting point for listening to modern Brazilian music that goes beyond the classics.

Bela Fleck

A World Musician

I think Bela Fleck is a major figure in world music. Widely considered the best banjo player ever, he travels the world making all kinds of music and jamming with many diverse musicians.


His main group, the Flecktones, defy categorization but can be described as fusion jazz. I think their best work is Live Art, a live double album with many guests. Bassist Victor Wooten is considered by many to be the best bassist alive, heir to Jaco Pastorius. His brother Futureman plays the synthtar, a hand held drum machine played with programmable pads. The fourth member has either been Saxophonist Jeff Coffin, now with the Dave Matthews Band, or current member keyboard player Howard Levy.

I’ve seen the Flecktones in concert several times. They have always blown me away. Also I’ve seen Bela without his usual band. In the late 90’s he toured with Sandip Burman, an Indian tabla player. I saw Victor Wooten play with Sandip as well a few years later. Both of these shows were in very small bars. I even got to shake Bela’s hand after the show.

Then at the first Bonnaroo in 2002 I saw Bela’s duet with bassist Edgar Meyer. They played mostly classical music with lots of improvisation. These two are true virtuosos, as is evident from their album Music for Two.

After that was the first ever Bonnaroo superjam, led by Bela and featuring Robert Randolph and musicians from Galactic, North Mississippi Allstars, String Cheese Incident, and more. It was a spectacular, fully improvised show.

Of course, as a banjoist Bela is almost obligated to play bluegrass. It was how he got his start, and he continues to play with the Bluegrass elite in groups like Strength in Numbers.

So if you are a fan of jazz, classical, bluegrass, or world music, you will probably enjoy Bela Fleck and his massive musical output.

World Music?

What is it anyway?

What is world music? I think a common definition for world music is anything that isn’t in English and isn’t a popular style, like rock. So by that definition world music isn’t an actual kind of music but a collection of distinct native music from countries all over the world.

So by that standard, some important figures in world music would be, in no order and just off the top of my head, Ravi Shankar, Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Toure, Celia Cruz, Gilberto Gil, and so many more.

These are all artists who achieved worldwide success while sticking to the musical roots of their homeland – often revolutionizing it but not necessarily crossing over.

But what about reggae, is that world music? It’s usually in English and is hugely popular. Bob Marley has been called the first third world superstar. Maybe world music is anything that isn’t American, British, and to a lesser extent, Canadian or Australian. So if you think of Santana, who is American and mostly plays rock, do you consider his music to be world music because he’s originally from Mexico and has a lot of Latin influences in his music?

So, the criteria for world music can be changed and comprise musicians who tour the world, playing many styles, while still doing their own original thing. People like Ry Cooder, Cyro Baptista, Os Mutantes, Ochestra Baobab, Manu Chao, and Yo-Yo Ma come to mind. Also you could throw in some American rockers/pop stars who embraced world music early on, like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Bryne.

To me one person stands out above all others: Bela Fleck. He got his start in bluegrass - traditional, “native music” from the US - and went on to travel all over the world, even playing with some of the people I mentioned above.

I hope there are a lot of world music fans out there who read this. What do you think qualifies as world music? Who are the standouts?

Frederic Chopin

Piano's most popular composer.

Frederic Chopin is probably the single most influential composer for the piano who ever lived. The Polish composer, who lived near Warsaw for most of his life and died in Paris, popularized the mazurka, but also innovated the sonata, prelude and waltz. If you hear a piece of dramatic piano music in a movie or television show today, you can guess it's probably by Chopin (if it's not by French composer, Satie). In his short life--he only lived to the age of 39, Chopin accomplished a great deal.

Chopin was a composer for the masses. The Industrial Revolution changed the way instruments were produced. Now they could be mass produced—the entire instrument or parts of the instrument—so manufacturers could make more instruments, including pianos, more quickly. This mass production made instruments cheaper so more families could buy instruments for their homes. This mass-production of the piano could have influenced composers of parlor music, including Chopin, in creating music that amateur musicians could play at parties and gatherings.

Chopin's arguably most famous series of pieces, Nocturnes, were 21 short compositions written between 1826 and 1846. Critics most often described Chopin’s Nocturnes either in a positive light as dreamy and sentimental or more negatively as effeminate. Kallberg says that genres don’t just represent something musically, but also reflect the way society defines the genre. So Kallberg seems to say extra-musical ideas taken from society—like comparing Chopin’s Nocturnes to louder and boisterous and therefore manly music of Beethoven-- influenced the critics’ opinions of these Nocturnes

Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen name of George Sand, carried on a long relationship with Chopin. She writes about Chopin’s inspiration, his difficultly in working with that inspiration, and his belief that he should not always trust his first inspiration. This excerpt says that Chopin’s inspiration was something that was frustrating in its fragmentation as well as something that he didn’t always trust to be correct. Sand says that Chopin got inspiration in strange places, but when he went back to write it down, it took him many hours to put it on paper. This seems to say inspiration comes in fragments in unexpected places and the real struggle begins when the artist has to piece his inspiration together. Also, it’s interesting that Chopin didn’t trust his inspiration as something that could lead him.

Have you ever attempted to play Chopin's music on the piano?

Matawaka - 'Tuhoronuku'

The Matawaka project takes the sounds of traditional Maori vocals and instrumentation and underlays them with the dirty synth smears of contemporary dubstep. I'm not sure if they're simply hopping onto the trend of throwing dubstep at everything or if there's actually some real genre-evolving work being done here, but at least it sounds cool. Take a gander. 

Inuit Throat Singing

Very different from the overtone singing we usually think of when we hear "throat singing", this style of indigenous music focuses more on the give-and-take between two singers in dialogue. The cycling back and forth produces some really interesting textures. Check it out.