Your Papers, Please
Music coming to, through and from America
By Brett Campbell
The current immigration kerfuffle has revealed an old and ugly strain of American nativism that’s disturbing no matter your policy preferences. I recently heard the great Catalonian classical musician Jordi Savall (who has long studied musical interactions between cultures, most recently the Spanish-Native American encounter) wax eloquent about music’s ability to open hearts to other cultures, and maybe the lineup of musicians coming through town this month who’ve channeled musical beauty from other lands will affirm Savall’s idealism.
For all our Decemberists and Martinis and Shins, the most famous musician in Oregon is probably an immigrant: Thomas Mapfumo, the erstwhile Lion of Zimbabwe who relocated to Eugene some years ago after his chimurenga (liberation) songs spoke truth to power and thereby offended the corrupt Mugabe regime — just as it had the apartheid rulers a generation earlier. The Afropop pioneer’s thrilling transfer of mbira (southern African thumb piano) lines to electric guitar, boosted by his hero James Brown-style funky horns, keyboards, vocals and percussion, remains one of the planet’s most compelling and danceable sounds. For Mapfumo, Eugene is more of a place to raise a family and chill between international tours, so hometown shows like the one at the WOW Hall on Sept. 25 with his Blacks Unlimited band are unfortunately scarce.
Another African music inspired band, Les Nubians, warms up the WOW the previous evening, Sept. 24. The French-Cameroonian sister duo specializes in bubbly pan-global rhythms, including reggae and various Afropop sounds, wrapped in a glossy sheen that appeals to fans of pop and R&B.
Centuries before electrified Afropop married traditional African sounds with rock, African music was gloriously funking up the Western hemisphere. We naturally pay more attention to the northern branch of the involuntary diaspora, which brought us jazz, blues and ultimately rock, but African rhythms also mixed with European and indigenous sounds south of the equator, notably Brazil. Oregon jazz saxophone master Tom Bergeron and drummer Jason Palmer have recently been exploring various pulsating Brazilian sounds like bossa nova, samba, choro and more, enlisting the assistance of recent immigrants Cassio Vianna on piano and Wagner Soares on bass. They’re opening for rising young singer-songwriter Halie Loren at Cozmic Pizza on Sept. 23.
In discussing world music traditions, musicologists frequently point to three pinnacles: Africa’s rhythmic sophistication, Europe’s development of harmony and the incomparable melodic traditions of Asia, especially Indonesian gamelan music, which weaves long, interlocking melodic lines into meltingly beautiful tapestries of sound, played on various gongs, strings (the two-string rebab fiddle and a zither called siter), bronze keyboard instruments, bamboo flute (suling), marimba (gambang), drums and more. The music enchanted composers such as Debussy, Britten and Portland-born Lou Harrison. The U.S. now boasts a couple hundred gamelan ensembles, including three sets of instruments in Eugene. On Sept. 19, the city’s community Indonesian orchestra, Gamelan Sari Pandhawa, will play some of those magnificent melodies from Central Java at Cozmic Pizza.
Just as Euro-American west coasters can play Indonesian music, a kid from Brooklyn is perfectly capable of excelling at the music of exotic — to him — Appalachia. Bruce Molsky is one of a long line of New Yorkers drawn to explore American old-time music, becoming adept at fiddle, guitar and banjo and broadening his scope of study to include other traditional strains like Delta blues and Irish sounds. Though the least well known of the Fiddlers 4 supergroup, he’s impressed folk and bluegrass fans for years. Check out his show at the Shedd on Sept. 17.
Another guitar master, David Rogers, started out playing classical music but quickly branched into jazz and world music as well. His solo concerts span the spectrum, as you can see when he plays Supreme Bean Coffee at 29th and Willamette at 6 pm on Sept. 24. If cranksturgeon, which appears at DIVA art center Sept 29, fits the immigrant theme, it’s because the art/noise act from the other Portland is really from another dimension, planet noise. Besides the noise, freaky costumes (including birthday suits) and various transgressive stage antics add up to a multi-media experience not for the timid.
I don’t know whether merely hearing music from other places can overcome cultural hostility, but maybe understanding what charms cultures offer each other will help soothe savage breasts, because all music comes from elsewhere. As Lou Harrison, who explored the music of many cultures more creatively than anyone, said, “enjoy hybrid music, because that’s all there is.”