D’elf Does Japan 2010

•January 7, 2011 • 1 Comment

Medeski, Fuze, Micro, Dux & Bernstein, Gunma, 12.19.10

Bringing the D’Elf music to The Land of The Rising Sun has been one of the things I’ve most looked forward to ever since Taichi from Organic Groove Productions first brought us there in 2001 to play the Hotaka Mountain festival.

Band & Iko Iko staff at 2001 Hotaka Mountain festival, Japan

We were last there in 2008 to play the Sense of Wonder Festival at the foot of Mt. Fuji, and I have been jonesing to go back to this mesmerizing place ever since.

Kenwood, Skerik, Fuze, Rikiya & Micro backstage at Sense Of Wonder festival, 2008

The allure of the Orient has had it’s spell on me starting from my childhood when my dad would come back from being stationed there, bringing with him wondrous things made of carved wood, bone and shiny brass, and redolent of mysteries that were beyond my ken. Playing for the audiences in Japan is just plain amazing (“shinji lolly na!” in my bad phonetic spelling), and thus it was with great delight that I greeted the news that Taichi wanted to bring us there for our 5th tour, to coincide with the release of our new CD Electric Moroccoland in Japan on Akashic-Ensemble. It would be an extra-special trip this time, as we would have my old friend John Medeski as special guest, joining guitarist Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski, slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, drummer Dean Johnston & myself.

Band meal at soba house

Even if the audiences were terrible (which they are most certainly not), it would still be worth the trip just for the food, the description of which results in my getting a far-away look and murmuring my bad Japanese translation again for “amazing”. Seriously, it is THE BEST. We were fortunate to have many sumptuous meals on this trip, starting with our first night, when Taichi and Samii took the exhausted (except for John, who had arrived a day earlier and had played a solo concert that night) band for a late night meal. Do chee so sama! Ok, so much for my lame attempts at Japanese.

Taichi, Samii & the Tokyo posse

In true D’Elf fashion, this particular ensemble had never performed together before the tour, and while it would have been nice to have had the luxury of a bona fide rehearsal before our first show, no such luck.

Steven Bernstein

With musicians like Medeski, Fuze & Bernstein along (not to mention Dux on his first trip to Nippon) you just know its going to be cool regardless, and our “rehearsal” consisted of about 30 min of looking at charts and listening to some tracks in the van on the ride to the first gig in Chiba, and then hours of Bernstein’s infamous joke-telling (ask him to tell you the one about the 2 friends who go camping…), and general band dishing. Trust me: if you are in the unfortunate position of being the tour manager for this bunch, you better be prepared to get your balls busted. I’d much rather wear only the bassist & MD caps, but being the TM as well was small price to pay to have this opportunity to play with such a stellar group.

We were late to the sound check for the show at Kashiwa Drunkard’s Stadium (gotta love that name) due to the bass player forgetting his effects pedals at the hotel (last time he gets asked along) so we had to hit the ground running.

Micro & Yo (production mgr)

Thankfully the technical staff in Japan is like a dream, where whatever you need (um, hair dryer for the sintir skin? check.) is supplied gladly.

Dai, handling it w/ a smile

Bend down to fix an errant pedal, and look up and there’s a guy standing there (smiling!), holding a screw driver and a 9 volt battery. You won’t find that in the USA, trust me. Yass was our sound man for this show & the one in Tokyo, and he was as good as they get – same with Yo, the production manager. Big ups to these guys. Also to Dai, who drove us around and dealt with all of our “requests”. Domo arigato!

WWW, Shibuya, Tokyo 12.18.10

The show the following night at WWW Shibuya in Tokyo, was a much more relaxed situation, especially as the venue was literally a 5 min walk from the Hotel Unizo, where we were staying. Niiiiice. The place had great production and the sound check went very well, with the musicians becoming more comfortable with the music, and starting to really sound like a “band”. Taichi’s wife Samii provided an absolutely astounding all-organic meal of fish and vegetables and rice, all prepared with an attention to detail with a quiet, egoless grace that is commensurate with the Japanese way. There is no better way to prepare for a long night’s playing of trance grooves than having this kind of quality food in your gut. Also, there was sake.

Medeski at the grand piano, WWW Shibuya 12.18.10

One never knows what to expect in terms of who is going to show up to hear a band that plays the kind of music that Club d’Elf does. Face it, we are not your average listening experience, and I’ve had to accept the fact it is perhaps not a mass-market appeal kind of thing. Um, more for a “select” audience. But looking out over the sea of faces at WWW its hard not to feel, ever so fleetingly, that hey, this stuff may catch on!

Audience at WWW, Shibuya 12.18.10

Having the addition of the grand piano for the show, as well as a bona fide Hammond B-3, really helped to make this show something special. Ok, maybe the man who was playing them had something to do with it, too. The band really began to gel this night, and we had a blast blazing through the D’Elf material as well as Fuze’s tune Moon Ring Bacchanal, Bernstein’s Cave Man, and an arrangement of Ornette Coleman‘s Lonely Woman, with Dux on the electronic DXT pad & yours truly on electric bass kalimba, John & Steve floating the haunting melody on top. Samii’s nutritious food and the sake definitely fueled us this evening. Good times.

WWW Shibuya, 12.18.10

The drive to Gunma the following day was a long one, and we got to do our only real sight-seeing of the trip, stopping at the Akagi Mountain jinja (shrine). The tranquil beauty was a welcome respite from the joyous chaos that is Shibuya, which is like Times Square on some crazy Asian crack.

Dux, Medeski, Micro & Bernstein at Akagi Mtn jinja, 12.19.10

The sound of clapping hands occasionally broke the silence, as pilgrims let the gods know that they were there. We arrived at dusk and the place was imbued with a ghostly quality, heightened by fog that was beginning to roll in.

Akagi Mtn jinja, Gunma

We roamed the hillside and took in the ancient stone sculptures and wooden structures in Meditatious D fashion. All too soon we had to roll back into the van for the final leg to the venue in Gunma.

Dux, Medeski & Bernstein at Akagi Mtn jinja

We lost Yo & Yass for this final show and alas the sound and production at the venue (which wasn’t a club but a cement warehouse space used for rave parties) in Gunma was on the bootleg tip, but we soldiered on.

Medeski in his dragon shirt

The sound coming out of the monitors was…interesting, (what…snare drum?!), but its the sort of thing that as seasoned musicians you just have to deal with and not get all diva-like. That being said, it was a bit of a disappointment to end on that note, instead of the show in Tokyo.

WWW Shibuya, 12.18.10

One thing that was very cool about Gunma: the band was all staying in a traditional Japanese inn that had a real onsen, which we took good advantage of. We bathed before the gig, after the gig (open 24 hours!) and again in the morning. I may be wrong, but seeing everyone’s junk before you play together helps to create a more, um intimate quality to the music. But maybe that’s just me.

The Dux

Much too quickly the tour ended, just when we were getting warmed up! Next time longer, hopefully. There really wasn’t time to reflect on how cool an experience this was until after it was over, and I am most thankful for the amazing music that my sound ninja friends Medeski, Fiuczynski, Bernstein & Johnston shared with me over the course of those 4 days in Japan.

Fuze on his doubleneck

One thing that really struck me during this trip was the quality of the audience in Japan. I have noticed at shows back home of late that there is a disturbing lack of concentration and focus amongst audiences, with way too many people more concerned about their devices than actually committing to the performance and really living in the moment.

Micro making jazz face

Call me an old fart, but thats the way I see it. One might expect to see even more of that sort of thing in Japan, what with the love of gadgets and all the new shit coming out there first.. And sure, everyone has an iPhone and is technologically equipped, but they don’t lose focus. They participate in a way that as a performer, is really inspiring. Domo arigato to you, Japan. We will be back.

An Appreciation of Hassan Hakmoun

•November 11, 2010 • 1 Comment

Micro & Hassan in NYC circa 2004 (or was it 2005?)

An Appreciation of Hassan Hakmoun (as appeared in Dec ’06/Jan ’07 State Of Mind magazine)

I had heard some of Hassan Hakmoun‘s music in the mid-90’s, courtesy of a Boston world music radio show which played a few tracks off of his ’93 release Trance, but it wasn’t until my late friend Mark Sandman played me Gift Of The Gnawa, that I was truly smitten by his sound. North African music, and particularly the music of the Gnawa (Gnaoua), the mystical sufi brotherhood who were brought to Morocco as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa 500 years ago, was already something that resonated considerably with me. Being a bass player, I was drawn to the sound of the sintir (also known as guembri, or hajhouj), the 3 gut-stringed bass lute that is central to the music of the Gnawa. I had been listening to the Bill Laswell produced album Night Spirit Masters and unidentified cassettes with other Gnawa music for a few years by then, but something in Hassan’s playing and singing drew me in that day like few things in my life had before. I insisted that Mark let me borrow the CD, and reluctantly he agreed, though only with my promise that I would return it immediately upon his return from the upcoming Morphine tour. I took it home, had a smoke, and laid on the couch for hours as I played it over, and over, and over again, absolutely mesmerized. I made a vow that day that I would someday find a sintir and learn to play it, and would make it my life’s goal to endeavor to make music like this – music that transcended time and space, music that was tapped into something much greater than merely the person playing it, and that had a mystical quality with the power to heal. I also began a love affair with the music of Hassan Hakmoun.

Generally speaking, in Gnawa music the sintir is the main instrument and is accompanied by the metal castanets called qarakeb. The ma’aleem sings the lead and plays the sintir, joined by a chorus of response singers and clappers. One of the things that made this CD stand out from the other Gnawa music that I had heard was that drums (tablas & congas played by Adam Rudolph) were featured, and the interplay with Hassan’s sintir was some of the coolest shit ever, at times being difficult to tell who was doing what. In addition to strumming the strings, the sintir is slapped like a drum when played, the top of the instrument being made of camel skin. The way that Hassan and Adam played off of each other had me saying “Damn!” again and again. Don Cherry played pocket
trumpet on a couple of tracks and Richard Horowitz played the ney on a couple of others. Together with the sound of Hassan’s amazing voice the effect was nothing short of hypnotic, simultaneously sounding both incredibly modern and timeless.

Over time I sought out all of the music I could find of his. Though all of it is worth checking out, I was drawn to the music closest to the tradition which was mostly acoustic in nature, especially his CDs Life Around The World and The Fire Within. Eventually I met and became friends with Hassan’s bandmate, Brahim Fribgane, the great oud player and percussionist, and he began to play with my band Club d’Elf. Through working with Brahim and hanging out with him and his friends at places like Moroccan Bazaar in Cambridge (sadly, now gone) & Gates Of Marrakech in NYC, I furthered my immersion in the sublime music of Morocco, and at last got to meet Hassan himself. I had acquired a sintir of my own by this time, and Hassan was very gracious in offering some tips and help, though I was never able to muster the courage to ask for a formal lesson. Learning music in the western sense of “taking a lesson” seems foreign to this music, which is passed on mostly through oral tradition. What I learned came from Brahim (who was as close to a teacher as I got), and from drinking tea & hanging out with Hassan and the other Moroccans, who were about the easiest-to-hang with people as one could hope to meet, taking a delight in the finer things in life that was most infectious.

Every chance I get to see Hassan play is a reminder of how great music can be when the performer gives his or herself up to some greater power, and I have witnessed people go into trances even in the club atmospheres where I have seen him play. Experiencing him playing for an all-night Lila ceremony in Morocco… THAT is something I hope to see before I leave this earth, in’shallah.