Hello and welcome back to our monthly roundup of great Bandcamp releases for Bandcamp Friday! Every first Friday of the month from now until the end of the year, Bandcamp is waiving all fees on music purchased on their site. It’s been a wonderful way to support struggling artists during COVID and much love to Bandcamp for keeping it going. I just interviewed Andrew Jervis of Bandcamp about Bandcamp Fridays so read that here if you’d like to find out more.
For August, I wanted to look at The Future of Trad, meaning music based on traditions but that travels far far afield to new climates. And, I wanted to cover some of the more intriguing experiments I’ve heard in the past year and also artists who are fearlessly breaking down barriers and developing new ideas in old music. Some of this gets pretty “out there,” so buckle up!
Calling an artist a “Renaissance Man” may be a bit overused, but it’s hard to find other words to describe Montréal artist Pierre Kwenders’ incredible range of musical talent. He sings in five languages, represents his Congolese roots as easily as his status as a leader in Montréal’s cosmopolitan culture, and is driving a movement of young African artists in one of the most diverse cities in the world, turning heads for his community building and wide ranging eclecticism. His voice is sweet like honey, ambling easily along a pathway that starts with Congolese soukous and rumbas, but ends up at the digital high-gloss sound of Africa today. His new EP, Classe Tendresse, is a collaboration with Parisian electronic artist and percussionist Clément Bazin that also involves multiple remix projects highlighting other global sounds from Portugueuse producer Pedro Da Linha, French DJ Lazy Flow, and Montréal afrofuturists Nokliché. Kwenders has spoken about the link between Bazin’s steel pans, a handmade street instrument tradition from Trinidad, and the Congolese traditions of street musicians making instruments by hand as well; he says that was part of the draw for how he and Bazin conceived of the album. And though the album’s digital beats sound modern, Kwenders is also looking back, basing “Ewolo”, for example, on older Congolese bands and dances that inspired him in his youth. Kwenders’ monthly Moonshine party series has crafted a space bringing together young experimentalists from the city’s many Francophone communities, drawing in celebrities like Arcade Fire’s Win Butler to guest DJ, but though he’s a much loved community leader, Kwenders still shines as a bandleader. Rolling over Bazin’s steel pans, his voice ebbs and flows like the ocean, even in a city as landlocked as Montréal.
Virginia fingerstyle guitarist Yasmin Williams’ breakout and universally acclaimed album, Urban Driftwood, seemed to come like a bolt out of the blue, but it actually represented a reckoning that was a long time coming. Ever since crusty old guitarist John Fahey started fingerpicking the blues, the press has focused on him and his progeny of mostly white, male guitarists as purveyors of the “American Primitive Style” of guitar (defined by mostly fingerstyle instrumentals with folk or blues roots). A pretty insulting name in and of itself (and Williams clearly wants nothing to do with it), these guitar wizards held the field to themselves, living in a genre they created and controlled. Which meant that a LOT of other guitarists were left out of the mix, often women or artists of color. Thankfully, Williams helped break their door down, so here’s hoping we see a flood of great instrumental guitarists from all over now that this outdated and problematic genre has been busted apart. And anyways, didn’t Fahey swipe this stuff from Black blues musicians in the first place? Sigghhh… All unfortunate Fahey comparisons aside, it’s always a delight to encounter a fully formed artist with a burning passion for the instrument and a whole raft of delightful techniques and ideas, especially for an instrument as prolific as the guitar. On Urban Driftwood, Williams dabbles in ideas as modern as the lap tapping that she developed originally via the video game Guitar Hero, beating it on expert level in the 8th grade, and as old as West African griot music (Williams plays kora and kalimba and the album features djeli drummer Amadou Kouyaté). While so many people focus on Fahey for their guitar inspiration, Williams realized early on that Black guitarists have always fueled American music, re-inventing the guitar again and again for every generation (Lesley Riddle to Charlie Christian to Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Elizabeth Cotten to Jimi Hendrix and on and on).
This is a marvelous gem of an album, born of a great idea, and infused with such warmth and love that you can’t help but love it also. Montréal bassist and composer Cédric Dind-Lavoie is well known as a musician in the city, and was a founding member of the band Mismar, but here he’s taken his musical inspiration directly from old field recordings of French-Canadian artists. A good number of these artists are Acadian, but have inspired generations of Québécois songcatchers. The great Acadian mouth music vocalist (turlutteur) Benoît Benoît is here, as is the inimitable Acadian fiddler and singer Joseph Larade from Chéticamp in Cape Breton. Dind-Lavoie sources as well from Québécois field recordings, including the great singer Alphonse Morneau who I’ve heard cited a number times by Québécois bands. Dind-Lavoie uses each field recording as his jumping off point and crafts beautifully subtle environmental soundscapes all around it, taking the rough gems of these scratchy, underpowered recording sources and setting them in a glorious necklace. Too often, field recordings can sound stark and offputting. Those who study them have come to love that about them; we obsess over the deadpan voices of the folklorists citing the name of the singer and the name of the song for their notes, we crank up the volume to try to hear what the singer’s neighbors or friends are saying in the background, we try to picture ourselves back there the day that the song was recorded. I’ve seen all that before and done it myself (Dind-Lavoie consulted me on certain Acadian recordings on the album), but what makes Dind-Lavoie’s project so special is that he’s seeing further than I am. He’s looking at the beating heart of the music, obscured by the roughneck recordings, pulling out much larger musical ideas and environments that the singer or fiddler was only hinting at. It’s a bit of alchemical magic, a seriously tricky thing to pull it off, and Dind-Lavoie makes it sound effortless. This album breaks new ground.
I’ve been writing about Bandcamp Fridays for a lot of months now, but I should say that the REAL experts on music on Bandcamp are the Bandcamp writers themselves. Bandcamp Daily is possibly the best curated media outlet out there right now, usually enlisting writers from the cultures they’re writing about and taking huge chances on music coverage that few other publications would dare. I got this album recommendation from them in fact, in a great article by Philip Freeman. New York jazz musician Hafez Modirzadeh’s new album, Facets, is an in-depth and revealing look at modality in Western music. Though Modirzadeh came up in jazz, he also studied Persian music to explore his own Iranian heritage, and the two systems of oral music learning infused his development of “chromodality”, a fusion of jazz chordal knowledge with the complex microtones of Persian modal system dastgah. With Facets he takes this idea even further, detuning pianos very carefully to more closely match Persian microtones and improvising on saxophone with different pianists playing these “prepared” pianos. The music sounds discordant in some ways, but also incredibly natural in other ways. We tend to forget that the tempered scale of all modern Western pianos is an incredibly aggressive compromise that, though most of us are used to it, can sound very jarring when compared to more natural harmonies. I’m a huge fan of early Arabic piano music, especially when artists began detuning pianos to better match Arabic scales and modalities. Check out the great Lebanese pianist Abdallah Chahine for more of this! In jazz, Arabic and Persian artists have been pushing past Western scales (as have many other jazz musicians) and I’m also a fan of Lebanese trumpet player Ibrahim Maalouf who plays on a modified trumpet capable of playing both Western and Arabic scales. In a sense, the piano has created a kind of white supremacy over the music, enforcing the somewhat forced musical concepts of long dead white Europeans on the rest of the world. It’s wonderful to have great masters deconstructing these Western musical systems now and showing us what music can really sound like.
With COVID keeping us all locked up indoors, music festivals, venues, and live music events have struggled for the past year and a half to find new ways for us to gather. Early on, promoters figured that video games would be a great way to bring people together, and started working to shoehorn everything from full-on festivals to conference calls into video game worlds. Up here in Seattle, Timber! Music Festival took place on a hand-made Animal Crossing island, and for a while companies were using Red Dead Redemption 2 for their conference meetings. Twitch saw a huge uptick as well in video game and music streaming (I wrote an article here about that). I missed the #Netherrap benefit festivals that took place entirely in the hugely popular video game Minecraft, and just happened upon it recently while looking up new Kimya Dawson music for my 12 year old daughter. Dawson’s her favorite artist, mostly through the Juno film soundtrack which heavily featured Dawson’s early antifolk band The Moldy Peaches, so I’ve been diving deeper into Dawson’s wildly eclectic folk music catalogue recently. Along with a host of other great artists, Dawson played two iterations of the #Netherrap virtual festival in Minecraft, with about 300 people or more attending as their avatars (you can see them hopping around and jumping up and down to the music in the video) and a couple thousand more streaming the festivals on Twitch. Live concerts in virtual spaces aren’t exactly new, but it sure is a fun way to experience music at home during COVID. Plus Dawson’s a great performer. She mixes old classics with new songs (including her absolutely blistering Black Lives Matter song “At the Seams”), spoken word poetry, and lots of encouraging, hopeful, and a little bit sad commentary between the songs. By the way, if you’re not familiar with antifolk, it’s a great vision of lo-fi DIY folk music making that came about as a reaction to the stuffiness of the New York folk revivalists. Younger folk songwriters had a hard time getting booked at the folk coffeehouses in the 80s and 90s and, inspired in part by punk, they created their own scene built around mocking the seriousness of folk revival songwriters. It’s a fun genre that The Moldy Peaches helped build along with Jeffrey Lewis and others.
Ya Tseen is perhaps best known as a visual artist, going by his name Nicholas Galanin. He’s Alaskan Tlingit in origin, and is one of the most brilliant visual artists I’ve ever seen, using traditional art as a platform to explore the brutality of modern America. One of his works, “My Ears Are Numb,” is a Native American frame drum decorated as the American flag with a beater made of a carved wooden police baton. A strikingly compelling recent art piece involved him creating an archaeological dig of the shadow of Captain Cook’s statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park. His modern art is catalogued on his Flickr account and is well worth a look, but on his Instagram you can also see Galanin hard at work on a traditional Tlingit dugout canoe in his Sitka, Alaska home, documenting the many ingenious construction methods of the Tlingit canoe builders of history. As a musician, Ya Tseen is more based in indie pop songwriting, awash with synths and futurist beats. He signed to prestigious SubPop Records for his new album, a label that’s long been at the center of Galanin’s community. Fellow SubPop artists Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction part of the Black Constellation of BIPOC futurist visual artists, fashion designers, and musicians along with Galanin. Indian Yard is the product of one of the most forward thinking Indigenous artists, an artist who lives in tradition, but experiments far beyond it.
I don’t know what it is with Canadians tapping into 1970s British folk revival influences, but I can’t seem to get enough of it! I first heard this sound with Kacy & Clayton, then with Clayton’s old band Deep Dark Woods, and now with their buddy Oxlip, aka Jayne Trimble of Vancouver, BC. Trimble’s voice quavers through that British revival sound, buoyed by a glossier modern band’s electric guitars. It’s psych folk at its best, anchored around Trimble’s fairy-haunted vocals but spinning out all around in swirls of paisley. Trimble’s spoken about wanting to create these beautiful settings for her songs on the new album almost as a way to cloak their real intention. These songs are meant to track the long long history of patriarchal abuse of women around the world. “Daddysaurus” is inspired by a character in a Greek tragedy, “White Dove” was inspired by the fifth century Saint Eulalia of Merida, from whose mouth a white dove flew after she was burned at the stake. “Nøkken” is based on a Norwegian fairy tale about shapeshitfting river monster that lures women in to murder them. Trimble hails from Northern Ireland originally before emigrating to British Columbia and perhaps some of the bleakness of Irish poetry has been infused into her songwriting. The songs here are all original, but you’ll swear that some of them are old British or Irish ballads given new life, such is the craft of her songwriting. And as the songs lull you in, you’ll be surprised how much punch they have. As Trimble has said, “a completely beautiful song can be the greatest way to say fuck you.”
(*NOTE: I was SO sure this album was on Bandcamp, but I guess not. My bad, it’s still a great album!)