March 16, 2006
A World of Music
This spring, the City of Angels plays host to an eclectic mix of sounds and songs.
A few weeks ago, the Paris-based world music ensemble Les Yeux Noirs performed at Royce Hall as part of UCLA Live. Led by brothers Olivier and Eric Slabiak, violin virtuosos who are the Paris-born grandchildren of Polish Jewish immigrants, Les Yeux Noirs played improvisations on Russian, Yiddish, Romanian and Roma songs, as well as their own eclectic compositions (including one that puts Baudelaire's poem "Invitation au Voyage" to music.). What a trip it was!
This concert just confirmed a feeling I've had for some time: Even if Los Angeles is not the center of the world -- as I sometimes believe it is -- the city has increasingly become a center for world music.
This spring you can attend amazing performances all over L.A.: Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares are performing at Disney Hall on March 8; Césaria Évora, the nightingale of Cape Verde, plays at Royce Hall on March 17; Pierre Bensusan, the French Algerian guitar maestro of Sephardic heritage plays at the Skirball on March 30. And that's before summer programs kick in at the Hollywood Bowl's world music series, as well as the sunset concerts on the Santa Monica Pier and Grand Performances, the series of free world music concerts held downtown.
There is no easy definition for what constitutes world music. Generally speaking, we are referring to music made in second- or third-world countries. Often we are talking about music made by non-Europeans in languages other than English -- but even that is not always the case. Nor is world music a code word for the primitive rhythms of indigenous people -- it can as easily refer to complex modulations of Latin or East Asian music. World music can be the music of longing, of exile, or the expression of joy, or the joyous expression of a spiritual rapture.
There are many portals to world music. Many listeners I know first encountered it through the reggae of Bob Marley, or the African beats of King Sunny Ade or Fela Kuti; others began their journey in Brazil with a girl from Ipanema, a samba or some smooth bossa nova. In Los Angeles, one can travel via radio to Tom Schnabel's "Cafe LA" (www.kcrw.org) or to Yatrika Shah-Rais' "Global Village" on KPFK Pacifica radio (www.kpfk.org). And for those still buying CDs, now that Rhino Westwood and Hatikvah Records have passed from the scene, all roads lead to the world music section of Amoeba Music in Hollywood, which has one of the most extensive offerings.
For myself, I can trace no specific moment of initiation; no Ur moment. Was it the Csardas or some Roma music that I heard in some Hungarian restaurant as a child? Or perhaps the cymbalom-driven theme to "The Third Man"? Was I made a devotee after Ravi Shankar's appearance at the "Concert for Bangladesh"? Or was I entranced by a late-night show of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come"? Was it the summer I spent in Brazil after my high school graduation? Or maybe it was afternoons at my uncle Emil's, when he would excitedly play a cassette of some obscure Eastern European cantor so I could hear some long-lost niggun (wordless melody) he'd uncovered.
My best guess is "Answer D: All of the above."
For whatever the reason, all I know is that world music has a strange power over me -- it takes me out of myself to places I want to go, while at the same time making me feel at home.
World music, as its name indicates, belongs to all people of the world. But it seems to attract people who can hear the universal in the particular.
So if the question is "Who is responsible for the explosion of world music in L.A.?" The answer is more people than you can imagine. David Sefton does a great job at UCLA Live, and Michael Alexander is to be commended for the Grand Performances at California Plaza. But for this article, I would like to highlight two people who deserve special mention: The aforementioned Tom Schnabel and Yatrika Shah-Rais. Schnabel has probably introduced more people in L.A. to world music over the years than anyone else; and then there's Shah-Rais, who made the Skirball Cultural Center into a world music destination.
Schnabel seems, at first meeting, an unlikely avatar of world music. As he recounted recently over lunch, he is California born and bred; he grew up in Santa Monica Canyon, attended Pali High, was a surfer and worked summers as a lifeguard at Dockweiler Beach. You'd imagine his passion would be for Jan and Dean or Dick Dale. However, at 16 he heard John Coltrane's "Impressions," and it was, in his words, "a mystical experience." He became a jazz aficionado, listening to 105.1 KBCA. Schnabel attended USC, where his passion for jazz led to an interest in classical music, Debussy in particular.
He then went to France, where he taught English. It was there that he first heard African and Arab music and began his lifelong passion for world music. However, after breaking up with his French girlfriend, he returned to Los Angeles. He tried to get a teaching job here, but couldn't find any. In an attempt to create a new life, one more involved with music, he started to write liner notes and for Downbeat magazine, and he started doing a radio show on KCRW.
"Everything just coalesced," he says.
On July 19, 1979, Schnabel became musical director of KCRW (a position he held until 1990): "I was in the right place at the right time."
Reggae and African music were becoming popular. In the 1980s, Los Angeles was home to several clubs that supported African music.
"It was fun," he recalls.
I remember visiting Los Angeles during that period and being taken to a club that stood somewhere in the shadow of the 10 and 405 freeways, where a sweating King Sunny Ade invited the frenzied crowd to leap on stage, dance with him and stick dollar bills to his forehead.
Schnabel also hosted "Morning Becomes Eclectic" throughout the 1980s, until he ceded the show to Chris Douridas (the program is now hosted by Nic Harcourt). During Schnabel's tenure, the list of world music artists he was the first to play would be too long to cite.
Says Schnabel: "World music is honest music. The lyrics mean something. There's a lot of virtuosity."
At one point, Schnabel became a "suit," working for A&M, where he had his own label. Schnabel is responsible for one of my favorite albums "A Meeting by the River," the collaboration between Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
At this point in his illustrious career, Schnabel is a man of many business cards. He hosts "Cafe LA" on KCRW (Sunday noon-2 p.m.); he is program director of world music for the L.A. Phil, programming shows at Disney Hall, as well as the Hollywood Bowl; and he continues to do music consulting and supervision.
In the coming months he is hosting programs at the Disney Hall, such as Mônica Salmaso, Les Ballets Africans and Ravi Shankar. This summer, the Hollywood Bowl World Music series will feature a Sergio Mendes evening, a Bollywood evening and a reggae night, as well as other acts still to be announced.
Schnabel has great respect for his colleagues programming world music in L.A. He feels they are people who have great heart, citing the wonderful shows Grand Performances puts on for free and describing Shah-Rais, at the Skirball Center as "a beautiful person inside and out."
Katrika Shah-Rais was born in Iran and educated in France. She has degrees in international relations and has worked for environmental and human rights organizations. Before coming to the Skirball, she worked at a management and booking agency and at the World Music Institute in New York.
Although she grew up a Beatles and rock music fan, in many ways it is her background in international relations that draws her to world music. Music, she told me recently, "is the best tool to bring people together."
Shah-Rais came to the Skirball in 1998. With the Skirball's support, she has made the center, whose nominal mission was to explore the connections between Jewish heritage and America into, in her words, "a gathering place where an exchange of ideas and culture takes place."
By using its three venues (an auditorium, an outside plaza and the Ahmanson Hall) the Skirball can cater to audiences as small as a few hundred or as large as 800 (which is still small by concert standards). However, having this flexibility has allowed Shah-Rais and the Skirball to feature lesser-known artists and build an audience for them and their counterparts.
In recent months, the Skirball has featured jazz musician Ben Sidran and Czech Songwriter Maria Topferova. Coming up are guitarist Pierre Bensusan on March 30 and singer songwriter Keren Ann on May 11.
What struck me about my conversations with both Schnabel and Shah-Rais was that they both see music in general, and world music in particular, as a way to educate and bring people together.
"World music is a gateway," Schnabel told me, "it expands you."
Or, as Shah-Rais told me, "The common language is music."
World music faces many challenges. Given the current geo-political situation, getting visas for foreign artists can be time consuming and difficult -- for example, very few Cuban artists currently are being allowed to perform in the United States. At the same time, some foreign artists, resentful of the U.S. procedures are themselves less interested in performing here than in, say, Europe or Latin America.
Also the marketing of world music remains a challenge. Few of these acts appear on Jay Leno. To even come close to filling the Hollywood Bowl, which has a capacity of 18,000, is no easy feat. This requires a delicate balancing act between a known headliner -- Sergio Mendes, for example -- and a lesser-known opening act. This is the art Schnabel practices each summer for his series.
Sometimes I think about all the people who have immigrated to the United States over the years, and about all their children who traveled to California to make their homes here. I think of Los Angeles, where we travel on the freeways and drive around in a constant stream of traffic -- and the varieties of music that are the soundtrack to our lives.
In Hollywood, one of the memorable landmarks is The Crossroads of the World, on Sunset Boulevard. Thanks to Schnabel and Shah-Rais among others, Los Angeles is becoming the crossroads of world music. l
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week. Visit him online at www.tommywood.com.