Tag: FIFA

Download, Upload, Revolution

There was something about Rocky Dawuni’s thought about avoiding “preachiness” in Part 1 of this exchange that hit me as both amusing and wise; there are few things more annoying or off-putting than pure polemic in a song. I like a bit of poetry throw in for good measure -that’s just a personal taste thing.

But the busy singer-songwriter hit on something profound, political, and poetic when he wrote a song called “Download This Revolution“. Though he could’ve never anticipated the way social media would be used in Egypt to oust a President, the song shows a clear understanding of the ways technology is influencing people’s lives, particularly within his home country of Ghana. There’s a clever taunt -perhaps a sly commentary -on the state of modern culture and the power of people’s politics, too, as Rocky smoothly croons “upload this / download this… ” -as if sharing information, the miniscule pieces of data that come together across wires and networks and form “likes” and groups and tweets, is this generation’s sit-in, march, loud chant, and noisy protest. People can take to their mobiles or keyboards, and… change the world. At least sometimes.

Like the rest of the songs on Hymns For The Rebel Soul (Aquarius), it’s thought-provoking, groovy, and wise, all at once. The NAACP Image Awards happen tonight, and Rocky’s nominated for Outstanding World Album. We recently traded ideas about the themes in his work, tackling difficult subject matter, and integrating technology within organic musical sounds.

What’s the theme of Hymns For The Rebel Soul?

The theme of this album was to create an inspirational collection of songs that offered a spiritual and melodic snapshot of various cultures around the world. The album reflects on themes ranging from love, life, God and peace beyond war.

What’s your method for integrating soul and real-world issues? “Jerusalem” is a beautiful example of this integration: it tells a story of a conflicted region but is very soulful and poetic at the same time. How difficult was this song to do?

I basically submit to the feel and vision of the song and let it lead me to its final manifestation. This method allows me to combine the real world issues with soul. It’ s basically letting myself be inspired by my own unique observation. “Jerusalem” was written from the first wave of inspiration when I set my foot in the Holy City. There was a certain mysterious beauty about this place that I felt made it the spiritual crossroads for major religious faiths but elusively out of reach for any particular faith to possess. Its divinity lies within its power to provide spiritual refuge to all those willing to overcome their prejudice and submit to its magic…I opened my he art to it and the song came pouring out. It was a very special and effortless moment .

“Download This Revolution” is a fascinating start to the Hymns For The Rebel Soul: it addresses a technological bridge between change, access, and art. Why was it was important to open the album with it?

The song represents our current times so it was an appropriate tone setting song for the album. We are the first generation of the ongoing internet revolution and “Download the Revolution” touches on the issue of equalization of the playing field : the emergence of an age where technology will fuel drastic social changes. The old doors that used to keep mass consciousness from coming into the mainstream will be circumvented while outdated and oppressive political systems fall to the tech-fueled people’s revolution.

I believe there is already evidence of this in the current internet-inspired democratic movements sweeping across Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the world. The thing about change is that it can be either positive or negative. The song calls for the forces of good to seize the moment and take charge of all the mechanisms of this transformation.


How challenging is it to integrate traditional organic sounds with electronic ones?

Well personally I believe having the options of both approaches gives me flexibility to be creative and push boundaries. Live instrumentation definitely bring s that organic feel to music and it’s my first approach before I mix electronic sounds . Some songs work better when you approach them from the electronic perspective as well.

In the long run it all boils down to the artist and their objective. Organic sounds never get outdated so I personally use that as the basis for my creations.

If you could work with any artist, who would it be, and why?

It will be Lauryn Hill because her songs have such amazing emotional and spiritual depth!

Painted portrait of Rocky Dawuni (top) by John Robertson, from his blog What Art Did He Make Today?

Rocky’s Hymn

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and issues, and where the two -if the two -should intersect. Some say no, others say yes. I’m on the fence about whether the arts can and should, to quote a favorite musical, “take on the world’s greatest problems, from war to pollution / no hope of solution” -but I keep asking, could culture possibly provide one? Not a day goes by that I don’t happily stumble across one organization or another doing good in blending arts and social issues. And yet, I’m left feeling curiously powerless myself most days, wondering why I should have to choose between twin passions and asking if there might be a larger role in bridging the two through 2011.

Rocky Dawuni might have a few answers, for me, and for the many others grappling the arts/issues divide -because he doesn’t see a divide at all. The Ghana-born singer-songwriter’s 2010 release Hymns For The Rebel Soul (his fifth album) seamlessly, seemingly-effortlessly blends the two, with reggae-and-dance-tinged music delivering a one-two punch of sage wisdom, righteous rage, and ultimately, tuneful grace. Dawuni especially references the work of Bob Marley (to whom he’s been compared) and Peter Tosh, artists who, like him, blended the world of art with the world of the personal with … the world.

Rocky caught mainstream attention when he recorded a version of Bob Marley’s “No More Trouble” for Playing For Change in 2009 with a raft of talented international musicians, including the Oneness Choir from India, Jason Tamba from Congo, David Broza from Israel, and… oh yes, one Bono Vox from Ireland (aka Bono). The original’s moody, haunting feel gets a global makeover, as artists cross borders mental, spiritual, physical, and even creative to form something altogether more powerful than any collaboration project might suggest. This past summer, Rocky’s bouncy tune “African Reggae Fever” became “African Soccer Fever” and was featured on the FIFA World Cup 2010 soundtrack alongside tracks from Baaba Maal, Florence and the Machine, and Michael Franti. The tune also became the official song for the FIFA World Cup 2010 video game. Put it on as a dare to anyone who says they can’t dance; within 30 seconds, I guarantee you, they’ll be pogoing on the lino, cutting up a rug, and doing the watusi like no one’s business.

Alas, I missed meeting Rocky when he was in Toronto last fall Rocky to be part of the We Day event and concert, organized by Free The Children. But I’ve no doubt he rocked the worlds of the 18,000 students who were present. 2010 was a busy year indeed: months before We Day, he was part of the Vatican-sponsored JOSPfest, and later on, he played the well-regarded Freedom Fest in San Diego. 2011 is shaping up to be busy too; at the end of March he’s off to Kenya for Songambele 2011, put on by NGO March Forth Kenya Kids. He’s on the Board of Advisors for Jammin Java Corporation. In July he’ll be playing the Hollywood Bowl as part of radio station KCRW‘s Global Soul show -with none other than Stevie Wonder.

Now, you’d think a guy this busy wouldn’t have time for social media. You’d be wrong. Throughout the tours, appearances, and recording sessions, Rocky’s maintained an active online presence that positively (and I mean that in a true sense) brims with inspiration and excitement. It’s heartening to see his regular tweets & Facebook updates -not only is he excited about music, he’s excited about meeting people, hearing cool new sounds, exchanging ideas. Rock is excited about life, and it shows. When I interviewed him last summer for a morning radio show in Toronto, he was deep in the throes of football fandom, cheering on his home team as he fielded non-stop calls from friends and relatives. This is a man who deeply understands the meaning of “joie de vivre” and harnesses that optimism for a greater good.

That good was recognized with a prestigious nomination; Rocky’s up for the Outstanding World Album at this year’s NAACP Image Awards, which happen tomorrow night in Los Angeles. The first part of our conversation, below, features his ideas on the responsibilities of the artist, the dangers of preaching in music, and how much he feels like a spokesman for contemporary issues affecting everyday Ghanians.

How much do you think musicians should feature social issues in their work?

Well, I think every artist has the right to express whatever they feel their art truly represents. When it comes to social issues, every additional voice can always be useful. The platform that a musician acquires is due to the projection and support of the public so I believe the artist has a moral obligation to wield this with a spirit of humility, gratitude and servitude. It also goes a long way when you give back.The art attains transcendence and realness.

In terms of music and politics, there is definitely a link. Whenever the music ventures to represent the everyday aspirations of people it intersects with everyday politics. In Africa most of us have a bigger responsibility to use the medium to articulate political issues and bring them to the fore of social discussions.

How much do you feel a responsibility to include social issues in your work in particular?

Growing up in Ghana, social issues are a constant part of everyday reality. My music strives to project these issues in a way that will inspire action among my audience.

I think it ‘s the core intent of my musical mission but the important thing is to always maintain a balance so as to avoid blatant preachiness.

How much did the Playing For Change collaboration change your career?

It definitely did, in so many ways. It gave me great exposure and also showed the power of music to cross all boundaries and nationalities.

Do you ever get bothered by outside perceptions about Africa?

On occasions yes I do get bothered. For example, when you meet folks who believe they have it all figured out about Africa solely on the western perspective without any knowledge of the cultural contexts.

Africa’s history is very complicated . The root causes of most current political and social challenges can be traced all the way to its history of slavery, tribalism, colonialism and modern schisms. The objective of my music and my work is to project the new Africa: an Africa whose greatness will be restored by a renewed engagement and reconnection with the diaspora . This new Africa will embrace all the promise of modern technologies and democracy while upholding its cultural identity.

Although the current political climate is rife with turmoil and unprecedented economic issues, I am part of an emerging conscious tech-savy intellectual generation who are rising in its wake.

How much do you feel like a spokesman for Ghana?

Well, it comes with the territory. There are so many great things to say about my country in terms of its functioning democracy and freedom of press. Ghana’s long term stability has also projected it as a shining example on the continent.

As a musician on the international stage, I always find myself in many instances playing the role of its spokesperson. It’s a role I always welcome!
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Part two of my conversation with Rocky Dawuni tomorrow, in anticipation of the NAACP Image Awards. We’ll be focusing on some of the tunes featured on “Hymns for the Rebel Soul” and Rocky’s methods of integrating soulful sounds and real-world issues.

Healing

Music has played a large role in my life lately. In the weeks leading up to the Grinderman show last week, I interviewed Laila Biali, Micah Barnes, and James Di Salvio (Bran Van 3000) about their respective new releases, received the new album from the fabulously-rockin’ Preachers Son, and have been diving headfirst into the work of recently-deceased composer Henryk Gorecki. I’m also been looking into attending more live shows, trying to get more familiar with the massive Sondheim catalogue, and preparing for the Einsturzende Neubaten concerts here in Toronto next month.

Amidst all of this, the gorgeous, babbling trumpet of Hugh Masekela has been reigning like some supreme being, dancing and swirling with magical silvery notes and the soft-sheen of hand-claps and rising voices. Masekela’s music is rich but spacious at the same time, and he gives a show like no other; his warm smile and funky dance moves leaves a trail of inspiration, and I think I can say with some confidence now that seeing him here a few weeks back marked the beginning of my musical renaissance of late.

It was a miserable Saturday night when Masekela came to Toronto to complete his latest North American tour. Cold rain fell hard and noisy across the concrete slabs and high scaffolding dotting the city-scape. Crowds huddled together under the tiny awnings outside restaurants and shops, barely daring the wind and the wet, and I arrived at Koerner Hall with pant legs soaked and in a slightly chilly mood. The new space put me somewhat at ease, though. The architecture is so… pretty, all glass angles and soft colours and grand open spaces. The hall has been creatively fused with the rambling old architecture of the old Royal Conservatory building, a place I shuddered to enter as a child.

It was in the fusty old Conservatory building that I would take my dreaded yearly piano exams, and it’s there I have an ashen collection of singed musical memories. Between the glaring, smile-adverse examiners, the creaky floors, the yellowed keys of ancient pianos, and the sheer terror of waiting outside a closed door as piano-playing way, way better than mine emanated from within, it’s a spot I was convinced I’d always despise. It’s no exaggeration to state that the Conservatory system pounded out whatever sonic creativity I had in favour of more rigorous, “proper” sounds. Stop fooling around, play what’s in front of you, technique over emotion, no improvising allowed, ever. Don’t do that to Bach/Beethoven/unheard-of-people-I-didn’t-give-a-toss-about-anyway! Hardly worth mentioning: I don’t play the piano anymore.

The building itself, which I remember as a fusty, cold, old space, has been fused with something warmly modern and welcoming; the regal (if equally cozy) Koerner Hall has top acoustics, comfy seats, and a nice smattering of old instruments in the basement, museum-style. Along with featuring Masekela that particular night, the Hall also hosts classical concerts (duh) a well as local groups like the excellent Art of Time Ensemble. Next year’s lineup includes jazz, Indian sounds, and blues shows. That eclecticism is a great reflection of not only the city, but the approach the Royal Conservatory is now taking to shape the nature of cultural experience in the 21st century. It’s not all poe-faced, serious, miserable, head-down-and-shut-up-ness stuff. Gosh, I almost wish I was playing piano again. Almost.

So what to say about Masekela? The term “legendary musician” feels incredibly trite for someone so multi-talented. Human rights crusader, politician, artistic ambassador, showman, loverman… where to begin? With a mellow touch, of course. Hugh and his five-man band gave one of the most beautiful concerts I’ve ever seen. Liberally mixing old and new favorites, Masekela proved himself a master of many sounds and emotions, from the sexy growls of his famous trumpet to yowling imitations of a steam whistle, and even to his funky dancing, Masekela proved he’s a supreme entertainer and musician of the highest order.

With the accompaniment of a strong, intuitive five-man band, Masekela worked the crowd with a gentle wit and highly watchable style. He took the time to include Toronto in his roll-call of cities in “The Boy Is Doin’ It”, and chatted to the audience with much familiarity and warmth, easily blending humour and politics. Between quick comments on the rainy weather (which seemed, to my ears, to be a chide to the numerous latecomers) and amusing references to the G20 debacles of earlier this year (“I hope we’re safe here?”), Masekela appeal to the collective conscience of his spellbound audience, wondering aloud if the natural calamities of this year were the result of the Mother Nature taking revenge against an ignorant populace. He then spoke about the history of “Stimela (Steam Train)”, how it referenced South African coal mines, and how the numerous troubles of his home continent require the world’s attention.

“Stimela” is a powerful evocation of time, place, and circumstance, and its live version was a wholly moving blend of sound effects, native South African rhythms and … frankly, rock and roll. I couldn’t help but think of how much the middle instrumental section resembled various favorite rock tunes (especially favorite live tunes), and I marveled at this spry, funny, smart, accomplished 71-year-old for being able to channel so many different energies and styles simultaneously, via his innate, if finely-honed ability to integrate dance, voice, and presence.

But perhaps that’s the special magic of Hugh Masekela. The second half of the program was chalk-full of fun, upbeat numbers, which inspired much dancing of the onlookers in the cheapie seats, located directly behind the stage. There was something wholly encouraging about watching the skinny-tied/ironically-bearded/thick-framed-glasses hipster set sway, swivel, and shake to the earthy, sexy sounds of “Happy Mama” and the famous “Grazin’ in the Grass” (which he played at the 2010 FIFA World Cup). Music makes the people come together indeed. Masekela and his band acknowledged the dancers as well as the numerous audience members familiar with his numerous references to South African culture. During “Kauleza” Masekela instructed us to call back the song’s title (which translates to “Police!”), noting it was what he and his siblings would shout growing up in illegal drinking establishments. “You’re not shouting loud enough!” he chided, “The police are coming!” My favorite moment was during the legendary Fela Kuti song “Lady”, when Masekela imitated a haughty woman, shaking his hips, pursing his lips, cocking an eyebrow. It was a hilarious, playful blend of satire and musical mastery, and completely spellbinding.

Indeed, the whole evening seemed to be a balm to soothe my awful Conservatory memories. Musicality takes all kinds of forms, of course, but it’s hard to flush bad energies away in one go. Attending Masekela’s concert in my old horror-movie stomping grounds felt like a good first step toward creative musical rehab. 2011 could be the year of Koerner Hall, both for me and many others seeking the kind of inspiration -and liberation -only music can provide.

Photo credits:
Top photo of Hugh Masekela originally published in The Telegraph.
Second photo of Hugh Masekela courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors.

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