On Stage: Sounds of Africa come to World Cafe Live

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Vieux Farka Touré

Vieux Farka Touré, who hails from Niafunké, Mali, is one of the best musicians from Africa to step onto the world stage.

Touré, who will be performing at the World Café Live (3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com) on May 21, has released eight albums starting with “Vieux Farka Touré” in 2007.

His upcoming album “Les Racines” (translated as “the roots”), will be released on June 10 via World Circuit Records.

Touré has music in his DNA. His father Ali Farke Touré, who died in 2006 at the age 66, was a internationally acclaimed guitarist from Mali who released more than 20 albums. He was also a national hero in Mali who became mayor of Niafunké in 2004 and spent his own money grading the roads, putting in sewer canals and fueling a generator that provided the impoverished town with electricity.

If Ali Farke Touré, who is often referred to as “The Hendrix of the Sahara” had had his way, Vieux Farke Touré would not have been a musician.

Ali Farka Touré came from a historical tribe of soldiers and defied his parents in becoming a musician. When Vieux was in his teens, he declared that he also wanted to be a musician. His father disapproved due to the pressures he had experienced being a musician. Rather, he wanted Vieux to become a soldier. But with help from family friend the kora maestro Toumani Diabaté, Vieux eventually convinced his father to give him his blessing to become a musician shortly before Ali passed.

“My father worked in the music industry,” said Vieux Farka Touré, during a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “He never got proper payment for his music.

“He was a farmer and never went to school. He couldn’t read and didn’t know what his contracts said. So, people in the industry cheated him all the time.

“He said to me that it’s better that I get something secure. He wanted me to become a soldier. Instead of gun, I heard my guitar.

“When I’m starting to play, he said – O.K., if that’s what you want, no problem. He was a very good person. After four years, we started to play together.”

Vieux was initially a drummer/calabash player at Mali’s Institut National des Arts, but secretly began playing guitar in 2001. Ali Farka Touré was weakened with cancer when Vieux announced that he was going to record an album. Ali recorded a couple of tracks with him, and these recordings, which can be heard on Vieux’s debut CD, were among his final ones.

“I grew up with this music,” said Touré. “Every morning, music was playing in our house. When I finished my school at five o’clock, it would be time for the village orchestra.”

Niafunké is located in the Timbuktu region of Mali – land of the Songhai. French was the national language and all the residents also spoke Songhai.

“After Niafunké, we moved to Bamako,” said Touré. “That’s where I went to the University of the Arts. With my music, Songhai was the influence from when I was young.”

In 2005, Eric Herman (still Touré’s manager today) of Modiba Productions expressed an interest in producing an album for Vieux. This led to Touré’s self-titled debut album, released by World Village in 2007.

“In 2003, Eric came to Mali and became my manager – and my friend,” said Touré. “We’re still together today. He’s like my little brother.”

The new album, “Les Racines,” is Touré’s return to his Malian roots. The timeless grooves of the album are steeped in the traditional music of West Africa and the fire of his guitar playing and the urgency of the messages in his songs add an entirely contemporary relevance.

According to Touré, “Early in my career people asked why I wasn’t just following my father. But it was important for me to establish my own identity. Now people know what I can do, I can return to those roots with pride, and I hope a certain authority. We are nothing if we abandon respect for the past. But we can also marry modernity with the strength of our traditions.”
“I recorded in Bamako in my studio,” said Touré. “It’s a real studio like they have in the states. It’s a 32-track studio.  We started it before COVOD hit. People still came to the studio to work on the record. We didn’t have a problem with COVID.”

The 10 songs, all original compositions, address a range of topics, traditional and contemporary.

“In Mali many people are illiterate, and music is the main way of transmitting information and knowledge,” said Touré. “My father fought for peace and as artists we have an obligation to educate about the problems facing our country and to rally people and shepherd them towards reason.”

Video link for Vieux Farka Touré –  https://youtu.be/zDFRHVCKOoQ.

The show on May 21 will start at 9 p.m. Tickets are $22 in advance and $25 at the door.

May Erlewine

One of the Midwest’s most prolific and passionate songwriters, Michigan-based May Erlewine continues to share her gift for writing songs of substance that feel both new and soulfully familiar. Her lyrics offer a window into the heartbreak, empowerment, and emboldened spirit which are a crucial part of her make up.

On May 21, Erlewine will visit the area for a show at City Winery (990 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, citywinery.com/philadelphia). She is touring in support of her new album, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which was released on May 13 on May Erlewine Records

Named after the book by Cheryl Strayed, which contains a selection of intimate letters between total strangers, the album is a collection of songs focused on the power of connection and the emotional exchanges surrounding love. The production serves each song with a tenderness you can both hear and feel deeply.

To the intent listener, it sounds like an honest, loving conversation with one common truth — when we share our lives with others, they become richer, stronger, and more full of purpose. This feels especially valuable given the album was made during one of the most isolating and disconnecting times for many — a global pandemic.

“I’m doing almost all of the songs from the album in my live show on this tour,” said Erlewine, during a phone interview Monday on her way from Michigan to a gig in Boston.

“We started recording the album in January 2021 – started shaping the tunes. I co-produced it with my friend Joe Hettinga.

“We were working completely remotely for the album. I did a lot from home and some at studios close to home. I finished the album in January 2022.”

The album is timely for these uncertain times.

According to Erlewine, “This album is an invitation to connect with the many ways love appears in our lives. If we look around us, it’s always there. I feel thankful to get to share these love stories through music and I hope they find a useful place in your heart.”

Co-produced with Joe Hettinga, these songs feature some incredible musical talent including a strong presence from Theo Katzman (vulfpeck) on background vocals and electric guitar, mixed by Caleb Parker (Scary Pockets), and mastered by Devin Kerr (Goodhertz).

May considers her career in the music industry as a service-oriented one and uses her platform for positive change. She stresses the importance of environmental advocacy, social justice, creative empowerment, and community building as necessary work in our world.

May’s body of work has become an anthem and an example of why we need to listen to women, empower women, and why we need to hear their stories.  A few of the organizations in which she’s been involved include 350.org, Safe House Ann Arbor, On the Ground Global, Cross Hatch Center for Arts and Ecolog and Bioneers Conference.

Her lyrical content, which is really stories crafted through Erlewine’s unique experiences, are rooted in wisdom, joy, sorrow, simplicity, and love. Musically, she carries the songwriter’s torch through many genres and sonic landscapes. The delicate arrangements seem to land somewhere between the go-to labels, making it difficult to describe and easier to enjoy.

“When I write songs, it’s usually a feeling that is the beginning,” said Erlewine. “There is the inspiration/feeling base and then the lyrics come. Then, I get a melody or a tune. After that, I go back to see how the words and music fit together.”

Among Erlewine’s successes, perhaps her greatest accomplishment is that her music has touched people all over the world. When she starts to sing with that beautifully clear and warm voice, there’s no way around it.

“I can dig into a deep place,” said Erlewine. “I like to be able to connect with people. The main thing I focus on is for it to be useful. I’m a service-oriented musician.”

Video link for May Erlewine – https://youtu.be/N4vkYgeB35Q.

The show on May 21 will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22, $24 and $28.

Jon Snodgrass

Jon Snodgrass is a musician and member of the groups Armchair Martian, Scorpios, and Drag the River. He also performs solo.

He currently is touring as a trio – guitar, drums and bass. The tour will make two stops in the area – May 25 at Phantom Power (121 West Frederick Street, Millersville, www.phantompower.net) and May 27 at  Kung Fu Necktie (1248 North Front Street, Philadelphia, 215-291-4919, kungfunecktie.com).

Snodgrass is on the road playing shows in support of his new album, “Tace,” which was recently released via A-F Records.

“I started recording ‘Tace’ before the pandemic,” said Snodgrass. “It was done and in the can before the pandemic arrived. We thought stuff was going to happen, so we held back the release.

“I don’t really complain because about the pandemic shutdown because everyone took a hit. We’re all equally significant and equally insignificant.”

“We recorded the album in a bunch of different places. We did some in Oklahoma at the Hansons’ studio and some in New Jersey at Volume IV, Chris Pierce’s studio.

“The album was supposed to come out in the middle of 2020. It came out in October 2021 and did really well. We did the first pressing of 1,000 and it sold out before the year was over – without any touring. We had to make another pressing.”

Snodgrass, who lives in Fort CollinsColorado, has an impressive music CV.

In addition to being a founding member of Armchair Martian, Drag The River and Scorpios, he also has made records with Frank Turner, Cory Branan, and Joey Cape, and has toured all over the world with Flogging Molly, Frank Turner, Justin Townes Earle, Chuck Ragan, Cory Branan, Austin Lucas, Lenny Lashley, Joey Cape, Tony Sly, Northcote, Chris Wollard & The Ship Thieves, and Mike Herrera.

Snodgrass also writes jingles – and actively supports the brands that he composes for. One of those brands is Odell Brewery.

Odell Brewing Company is an independent craft brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s the 23rd largest U.S. craft brewing company by the Brewers Association. Odell Brewing is known for its hop-forward and balanced IPAs.

“Odell Brewing is big throughout the Midwest but it’s new to both coasts,” said Snodgrass. “My gift to them – on this tour, I deliver their product and give it to the bars to sample. I have cases of beer with me on this tour – including two cases of hard kombucha.”

Snodgrass has headed east with beer and a batch of new tunes from “Tace.”

“I’m starting to play all the songs from ‘Tace’ in my set,” said Snodgrass. “I always have songs handy.

“This is the first time I really played any of the songs off the album. I’m just trying to play music and have fun.”

Video link for Jon Snodgrass – https://youtu.be/AYXbvx3TiD0.

The show on May 25 at Phantom Power will start at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.

The show on May 27 at Kung Fu Necktie will start at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12.

On May 21, SRUTI (www.sruti.org) will present a twin-bill of Indian classical music – a pair of Carnatic music concerts at the Fugett Middle School Auditorium (500 Ellis Lane, West Chester).

SRUTI, The India Music and Dance Society is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization. Every year, around 10 or more world class music and dance recitals are presented during the Spring and Fall seasons by SRUTI in the Greater Philadelphia area.

The first concert on Saturday will be the Bala Bhavam Concert featuring Sahana Sreeram (Violin), Srihari S Raman (Mridangam) and Samyuktha Sreeram (Ghatam). It will run from 3-4 p.m.

The mridangam is a percussion instrument of ancient origin. It is the primary rhythmic accompaniment in a Carnatic music ensemble. During a percussion ensemble, the mridangam is often accompanied by the ghatam.

The ghatam is one of the most ancient percussion instruments of India. It is a clay pot with narrow mouth. From the mouth, it slants outwards to form a ridge. Made mainly of clay backed with brass or copper filings with a small amount of iron filings, the pitch of the ghatam varies according to its size. The pitch can be slightly altered by the application of plasticine clay or water.

Sahana Sreeram studies Carnatic violin under Sri Subhash Vinjamuri and Sri Kamalakiran Vinjamuri. She also learns carnatic vocal music from Kalaimamani Smt. Charumathi Ramachandran.Sahana has won awards in Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana, Chicago Tyagaraja Utsavam, and SIFAA in North Carolina. Sahana has performed in the USA, Canada, and in Chennai Margazhi festivals.

Srihari S Raman was born into a musical lineage, with his recent ancestry consisting of his uncle, Kalaimamani Dr. Udayalur Kalyanarama Bhagavathar. Srihari was introduced into the journey of Carnatic Music at the age of four. Srihari continued his advanced training in mridangam under Kalaimamani Guru. Sri. Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan. Srihari has accompanied many esteemed vidwans within the United States, Canada, and India as well.

Samyuktha Sreeram is a disciple of the Late Sangita Kalacharya Sri TH Subash Chandran and currently is a disciple of Sri N Guruprasad and Sri Akshay Anantapadmanabhan. She also learns carnatic vocal music from Kalaimamani Smt. Charumathi Ramachandran. Samyuktha has provided ghatam accompaniment for concerts in the US, Canada, and in India.

The featured concert on May 21 will be a Carnatic Vocal Concert by Vidushi Krithika Natarajan at 4:30 p.m.

Krithika Natarajan had her initial training under Dr. Manjula Sriram and later under Sri Lalgudi G.Jayaraman. She is currently under the tutelage of Smt.Ranjani and Smt.Gayatri. She is an A grade artist on the All India Radio, Chennai and has performed in many prestigious venues in India and abroad. She has numerous accolades to her credit and has been featured in several TV channels and in newspapers. In addition to being a performing vocalist, she trains many students across the globe. Academically she is an MBA graduate, currently pursuing music full time.

She will be accompanied by Rajeev Mukundan (Violin) and Vinod Seetharaman (Mridangam).

Rajeev Mukundan began his violin lessons with Shri N.Govindarajan at a very young age. He is currently receiving advanced training from Sangeetha Kalanidhi A.Kanyakumari for over a decade. He is an ‘A’-grade artist on the All India Radio. He has received numerous awards from prestigious organizations and has travelled extensively on concerts, both in India and abroad.

He has given many violin duet concerts with his Guru A.Kanyakumari, and has also accompanied senior artistes. He has been a part of many unique jugalbandis and musical collaborations.

Vinod Seetharaman is among the most accomplished and sought after first generation Carnatic percussionists in the United States. His training in Mridangam started at the age of seven from Shri. Ardhanareeswaran, and he continues his advanced training from Bangalore Shri. Arjun Kumar and Shri. Umayalpuram Sivaraman.

The purity and sophistication of Vinod’s mridangam training has enabled him to accompany four generations of Carnatic musicians including Dr. M Balamuralikrishna, T N Seshagopalan, Dr. N Ramani, TM Krishna, Bombay Jayashri, Chitravina Ravikiran, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Abhishek Raghuram.

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