Richard Morse, RAM and the Power of Haitian Roots Music

Lunise and Richard Morse performing with RAM. Photo credit Nadia Todres courtesy The Rhythm Foundation

By Fernando González

More often than not, pop music in the Western world is just another product vying for attention and shelf space. It might come in different models and packaging — snarky alt-rock; bluntly sexual reggaeton; street-tough rap — but it’s rarely more subversive than a soap commercial.
But in developing countries struggling with poverty, corruption, and failing institutions, pop music is not only entertainment but also often serves as a vehicle for protest and a tool for change.

In Haiti in the 1990s, the mizik rasin (roots music) movement, blending folk and religious traditions with elements of rock and funk, emerged as a powerful expression of  popular resistance. The lyrics of the songs, often using oblique references and parables, a common device in the Vodou tradition, became a popular shorthand to comment, protest, and organize. Dictators banned some of these songs — and made them even more relevant. But that was only part of the story. The very esthetics of rasin, built on rhythms of Vodou rites or utilizing the vaksen, the metal horns of the rara carnival tradition, were a statement about the richness and value of Haitian popular culture.

The 13-piece strong RAM, one of the essential groups of the rasin movement, performs at the North Beach Bandshell, in Miami Beach, Saturday at 8 p.m. presented by Rhythm Foundation. The concert stands as a Fete Gede (or guede), known as the Festival of the Ancestors is the Vodou equivalent of Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and Halloween, all in one.

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Carmen París Brings the Songs From Home to the World — and Vice-Versa

Carmen París. Photo by José Aguilar courtesy Centro Cultural Español, Miami

While introducing a song, halfway through her concert at Miami Dade County Auditorium, Friday, Spanish singer and songwriter Carmen París grumbled about globalization and what she saw as the resulting loss of traditional cultures. It was a curious observation for an artist who has built her career on blurring musical borders and subverting the tradition. Friday, París spent much of her show offering fascinating (and successful) global reimaginations of the jota, a traditional dance originated in Aragon, a region in northeast Spain, where she grew up.
Perhaps globalization is in the ear of the beholder.

Smartly accompanied by pianist Diego Ebbeler and percussionist Jorge Tejerina, París presented a program titled “En Sintesis” (Summing Up), in which she looked back at her 30-year career. She has a powerful voice, a phrasing tinted by tinges of tango, Cuban, and Mediterranean music, and an engaging stage presence. As for the repertoire, she offered jotas in which she braided elements of tango, cha cha cha, and Middle Eastern music (“Guarani”); tango and Afro-Cuban music (“Mucho Ringo-Rango”), and Afro-Uruguayan candombe (“Cuerpo Triste”). She also included, for good measure, a jota in English and Spanish (“Just One?”) that she has recorded with a big band.
But the program also included a nod to son (the anti-globalization “Chufla Dragón”); a piece she wryly introduced as “a quantum bolero,” (“Distancia Espeluznante”) and a beautiful, a capella version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s “La Nana del Caballo Grande.” As if to personify the theme of global encounters, a couple of old friends, Cuban singers Danais Bautista and Gema Corredera, joined Paris for one song each.

The political and economic consequences of globalization is a discussion for another day. But blending traditions is as old as humanity, as natural as a person moving from one village to another, bringing along instruments and memories. In the hands of an artist who truly listens and is as talented as Carmen París, the mixing, the borrowing,  and the creative “stealing” offer unexpected possibilities for all involved.
This globalizing, we like.


October 2019

Ginger Baker dies at 80

Trailer for Beware of Mr. Baker, (2012) a documentary by Jay Bulger.

Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker, drummer extraordinaire, best known as a member of the British trio Cream, died Sunday. He was 80.
According to the AP story, Baker’s family made the announcement on Twitter: “We are very sad to say that Ginger has passed away peacefully in hospital this morning.”
In a statement Sunday, his daughter Nettie Baker said he suffered “from many long term conditions” notably chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

With a powerful, explosive drumming style that apparently matched his temperament — the fascinating documentary about the drummer by Jay Bulger was titled “Beware of Mr. Baker” —  he became a reference for rock drummers of nearly every stripe. But while African drumming was a substantial influence in Baker’s music and drumming style, jazz was his first love.
In fact, despite being considered by many as the forefathers of heavy metal, Cream, which also featured Eric Clapton on guitar and Jack Bruce on bass, was often closer to an Avant – jazz/blues trio than a rock band. One does not need to go much deeper than Cream’s epic live version of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” in the group’s final album, Goodbye, to hear how their approach to improvisation, open-ended treatment of the blues, and instrumental brilliance fits into the jazz tradition.
Baker and Bruce might have had a horribly contentious relationship — but they shared a passion for jazz. Years later, in his autobiography, Bruce, who died in 2014, suggested that at least two-thirds of Cream thought of it as a jazz trio — then adding, jokingly, one would hope, that they just wouldn’t tell Clapton about it.
Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993

While not the edited version in Goodbye, this Cream’s performance of “I’m So Glad” gives a fair idea of the trio’s approach.  Imagine Clapton’s part on, say, alto sax.

A quote by Baker cited in the AP story might settle the argument.
“Oh for god’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” Baker told the blog JazzWax in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running. Jack and I had been in jazz bands for years. All that stuff I did on the drums in Cream didn’t come from drugs, either. It was from me. It was jazz.”

Baker’s musical life after Cream and the stillborn supergroup Blind Faith, with Clapton and Stevie Winwood, offers a road map of his interests. It included the short-lived, African-tinged large band Ginger Baker´s Air Force; a recording with Fela Kuti and his Africa 70 (Baker moved to Nigeria for a while and opened a recording studio); releases featuring African musicians (Palanquin’s Pole, African Force) and collaborations with Bill Laswell (Middle Passage, Horses and Trees ). And of course, Baker got to stretch out his jazz muscles in albums such as Going Back Home and Falling off the Roof, with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell; Unseen Rain with bassist Jonas Hellborg and pianist Jens Johansson; Coward of the Country, with trumpeter Ron Miles and the ever-shifting Denver Jazz Quintet to Octet, and Why?, leading a group featuring saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.