Monday, August 22, 2011

“Bob Lind: Perspective” (self-released DVD)

Singer-songwriter Bob Lind is remembered today primarily for his 1966 Top 5 hit, “Elusive Butterfly”. Over a five-year period ending in 1971, he released a small, but significant body of work that was the equal of virtually any other singer-songwriter during that busy period, yet it went under-recognized at the time, and is sadly largely forgotten today. And then he disappeared.

Four decades later, we find out that not only is Bob Lind alive and musically active, he still sounds as good as he ever did, and is still writing first-rate songs that deserve to be heard by a much, much wider audience. But not only does this recently issued DVD include a number of fine live performances of songs from his recent output in the company of a small, but sensitive combo (as opposed to the lush orchestration that framed his songs back in the 60’s), there are documentary segments that go a long way towards explaining “whatever-happened-to-Bob-Lind”, and why he seemed to fall off the face of the earth for so long.

It turns out that Bob Lind had what we now call “issues”- drinking issues, drug issues, anger-management issues, self-esteem issues. His travails reached the point where nobody in the music business wanted to work with him anymore. Subsequently, he lost his enthusiasm for the music business (though not the music), so he dropped from sight and lived off his songwriting royalties. Eventually, he took a job making up wacky stories about Martians and Bigfoot for the supermarket tabloid “Weekly World News”, and began to enjoy life a bit more. He talks openly and honestly about his problems during the interview/conversation segments on this disc. And while he feels he’s in a “much different place” now, and has become virtually a different person, he confesses to still having a few demons to conquer (anger mixed with sadness), but at least he’s made it back in one piece.

The fact of the matter is, in his late 60’s, he doesn’t sound a whole lot different from the way he did in his mid-20’s, which is an achievement in itself. His voice is instantly recognizable, his new lyrics still thoughtful, richly creative, and personal, the music still polished, but now showing a wider range of influences ranging from country-rock to jazz, as well as folk. Interestingly, on the jazz-tinged pieces, he doesn’t sing in an overtly jazz-vocal style, but the melodies have a bit of a swagger and the band swings in turn. He’s a new Bob Lind, but in ways that should have no difficulty appealing to fans of the old Bob Lind; hopefully this disc should bring in some new supporters along the way as well.

The good news is that he presents current versions of a few old favorites, including “Cheryl’s Going Home” (adding a little scat to the arrangement) and “Elusive Butterfly”, which now sports a surprisingly effective Latin-inflected beat. Unlike some artists who try very hard to avoid performing their old classics, Lind is willing to accept that there are people who will come to see his cocnerts because of their love for “Butterfly”. But the better news is that the new songs are certainly well worth hearing, whether he accompanies them on guitar or piano, an instrument which adds which adds an entirely new dimension to the Bob Lind sound. Yes, his music has undergone some changes, but it is still accessible, fulfilling, and of a high quality.

Bob Lind is not an “oldies act”, nor a simple purveyor of nostaligia. He has not stood still, and there is no reason he should have stood still. He is not a relic of the past, but a viable current artist with something to say that’s well worth listening to. Welcome back, Bob Lind!

“Bob Lind - Perspective” is 93 minutes long. For more information and a sample, visit

Sunday, August 14, 2011

“The Other Side Of The Water: The Journey Of A Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn” (Third World Newsreel)

The phenomenon known as “rara” is a highly localized one native to the country of Haiti (aside from a bit of spillover into the Dominican Republic, where it is known as “gaga”.) It is intimately connected to the Haitian spirit religion known as vodun (or “voodoo”). Voodoo as practiced in Haiti is very much unlike the sort of madcap, stick-pins-in-dolls silliness seen in Hollywood movies over the past 70 years, the first thing Americans think of when they hear the term “voodoo”. Even given that statement, rara is not so much a religious ritual (though it certainly has aspects of one), as it is a Carnival-like procession, with music, dancing, and a variety of carryings-on, combined with ceremonies at graveyards and crossroads. It is an event that takes place on a virtually daily/nightly basis along both the rural and urban thoroughfares of Haiti during Lent, escalating in the days leading up to Easter. It has a reputation for being loud, disruptive, and, er, impolite, but its religious and cultural connections have made it a vital part of Haitian identity, much to the dismay of many Haitians.

This fascinating documentary allows us a glimpse into a new setting for this old event (which is thought to date back to the Colonial era), the Haitian community in Brooklyn, NY. The Haitian-American community is one of the “hidden” ethnic treasures in the US, perhaps because many of the members of this community have done little to assimilate into American culture, while others have tried to blend in totally. The latter have become invisible, while the former tend to think of themselves as being Haitians in exile, living here only temporarily, having come to escape political oppression and poverty, even long before the earthquake of 2010. Many manifestations of Haitian culture (such as konpa music) survive in the US, even though hardly anyone outside the Haitian-American community is aware of their existence.

But this film focuses on the specific example of rara, which is not even accepted by many Haitian-Americans. It is particularly despised, even feared, by those who profess themselves to be Christians, and are convinced that any phenomenon associated with voodoo is Satanic and therefore unsafe for the community. (It should be pointed out that Satan per se, in the Judeo-Christian sense, is not a major focus of voodoo, one of many misconceptions that pervade the religion, even among Haitian non-followers.) This has made it especially difficult for the film’s main figure, Pe Yves, to establish and subsequently maintain the longest-running rara band in the United States, DJA-Rara.

The film follows the band’s history from its formation in the early 1990’s to the present, through a series of interviews with Pe Yves, as well as present and former members of the band, family members, supporters and detractors. There are also rehearsal and performance footage, short video clips of Haitian bands, radio appearances in which Pe Yves openly discusses the negative stereotypes people have of the music, and expert opinion on both cultural and Haitian political matters. Parts of the film are in the Kreyol language, with subtitles, but the rest is in English. We see rara used as an energetic source of fun at times, but it is also shown to be used as an outlet for protest. In both cases, DJA-Rara intends it to be a force of unity among the Haitian population of Brooklyn, though it doesn’t always turn out that way.

The music of Rara is very strong rhythmically, but traditionally has been comparatively simple melodically. The primary melodic instruments are bamboo “vaksin” horns and a cylindrical metal trumpet called the “konet”. (The spellings of both instruments varies, since Kreyol has traditionally been a spoken language more than a written one.) Each of these instruments plays only one note. If you want to construct a melody which has, say, two notes, you need two horns pitched differently. For a three-note melody, you need three horns, each of which plays a different pitch. This works fine for religious purposes and if your primary purpose is to make noisy entertainment while marching/dancing through the streets. But in more recent times, saxophones and trumpets have been added to the parade. Or - if you want to restrict your rara band to traditional Haitian instruments - one can add more one-note bamboo or metal horns, each with its own pitch, in order to play a full scale.

This latter concept originated in Haiti, but has been adopted by DJA-Rara, which led to pressures within the band itself, as Pe Yves felt the need to downplay the musicians’ rowdy, celebratory enthusiasms and to professionalize and modernize the band’s approach, as detailed in the film. Subsequently, DJA-Rara became the first American rara band to record a CD, in 2008. The band celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2010. However, what would normally have been cause for jubilation was greatly tempered when everyone in the band lost friends and family members in the earthquake.

We see rara music used outside of its strictly voodoo context, to entertain children at a Christmas party, to cheer on a soccer team, playing at a street fair, and for a very appreciative ethnomusicology class at Amherst College. And, in what I find to be one of the most encouraging scenes near the end of the film, we hear from one little girl who is already thinking of the day when the band members get older, and it will be up to her and her generation to take over for them, and keep the music alive. Pe Yves and DJA-Rara may have struggled through those first 20 years, but it would appear they have laid the groundwork for the continunace of the rara tradition in the United States.

Thge film is 52 minutes long. More info, as well as a few clips from the film, may be found at Third World Newsreel is at

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

“Complaints Choir” (Fine & Mellow)

Complaints. We all have things to complain about, we all make complaints. They allow us to let off steam, to deal with our problems by sharing them with sympathetic friends, to shout out our frustrations on Facebook to a world that may or may not care. Or we can write them into songs and sing our complaints away. To be sure, this is not a new concept. It’s what the entire genre of music we call “blues” is all about, catharsis through the writing and singing of our complaints arranged as song lyrics. But now, here’s a new way to sing our troubles away - through a phenomenon called the “Complaints Choir”.

This documentary DVD with three accompanying CD’s will tell you most everything you need to know about Complaints Choirs. It turns out that there are several dozen such choirs throughout the world, the majority in Europe, but quite a few in North America as well. The film follows the originators of the Complaints Choir concept as they attempt to put together new choral groups in Chicago and Singapore. Though not a “how-to” instructional video, it will show you just what you need to do to put together your own Complaints Choir, and what not to do, particularly if you live in a repressive society such as Singapore.

The Complaints Choir concept is the brainchild of Finns Tellervo Kallleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, who are featured throughout the film. Their original concept had less to do with the aesthetics side of choral singing per se, but was instead a unique form of participatory performance art. When the pair decide to open a branch of their Complaints Choir concept in a new location, they put out the word through local media of what they intend to do, and when and where the first rehearsal will be. People may read it, find it to be of potential interest and show up. The Finns never know who will show up, how many will show up, or if indeed anyone will come at all. The first meeting isn’t actually a rehearsal as such. The Finns tell people to write down their complaints, anything that may bother them enough that they feel the need to turn it into creative energy. Certain particularly interesting complaints are collected, and a song lyric is formed from the combination of several such unconnected lines and sentences. A songwriter is then called in to set them to music, and the choir then rehearses the song for public performance.

What we see in the film is the entire process from start to finish. People talking about their lives and voicing complaints, the process of those complaints becoming son g lyrics, interviews with the melody writers/accompanists, choral rehearsals, public performance. We hear what people are frustrated about, what it is they hope to gain from their participation in this art project, how the Finns react to the process they set into motion, and what the audience reaction is like. This may sound straightforward enough, but occasionally there are definite complications. Things go very wrong in Singapore, where people are strongly discouraged from expressing any sort of complaint in public. Compromises with government officials are attempted, including a self-censorship attempt that ruled out certain topics, and a rather odd situation in which the government would allow the Singaporean natives to sing, but not the foreigners temporarily residing in Singapore as “guest workers”.

The film, by director Ada Bligaard Soby, gives the viewer a real feel for the pettiness under which repressive governments operate, and how it affects the lives of the innocent amateur performers who simply wish to participate in a novel art project-cum-choral performance. It also affordsa a fascinating glimpse at a creative process which is quite a bit less formal and less traditional than a more academically-oriented process of readying a recital or choral concert. It demonstrates quite effectively that, in the long run, the Finns do not control the entire process, but simply set it up, act as referees (one likens her role to that of “party host”), then let the process carry on in its own way, at its own pace. Thus, the results will be different wherever a Complains Choir is attempted. There are also a few scenes intercut into the film of a minster who has developed a totally different way to help members of his flock eliminate complaints from their lives. These segments are interesting enough, but they are not really relevant to what the Finns are doing, and could have been edited out of the film with no great loss.

The film is 56 minutes long. DVD bonus features include a trailer, clips of other Complaints Choirs, a discussion of the Finns’ philosophy behind their concept, and excerpts of a few of their other, very different art projects (mostly involving Tellervo by herself). The 3 CD’s include full-length performances by a number of Complaints Choirs, both official and “DIY” choirs, from many areas of the world, in a highly impressive variety of musical genres. The performances may range from rank amateurism to polished semi-professionalism, but the real point of these projects is more the artistic process rather than achieving an aesthetically pleasing result.

More info may be found at