Music

Meeting Me

keithSymbolia’s short Q&A with me on music obsession, being an artist, and zombie preparedness. I wrote about Keith Kabwe and Amanaz (“Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia”) for this excellent magazine’s debut issue. (Illustration of Keith by the great Damien Scogin, whose answers to the zombie preparedness question show that he’s given it a lot more thought than I have.)

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Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia

symIt’s been a long time coming, but the premier issue of Symbolia is out. This brand-new tablet magazine is all about graphic journalism, and my contribution is the story of Zambia’s psychedelic rock movement and one of its biggest stars, Keith Kabwe–anti-colonial freedom fighter turned dope-smoking rock star turned Pentecostal preacher and gemstone miner. My friend and colleague Damien Scogin did the illustrations, which are out of this world.

Ndola, Zambia, 1974.

The equatorial sun has set and the dusty streets are cooling, but you wouldn’t know it inside the concert hall. The place is suffocatingly hot, packed with people. They have come in their multitudes, from mine workers and secretaries to government ministers, to see Keith Kabwe sing.

The band vamps, propelling itself into the song. The drums set a driving beat, followed by the bass and then the guitars, fuzzed-out and in the red. A klieg light illuminates a long rectangular box at center-stage: a coffin.

As the music peaks, the coffin opens. A skeleton springs out, a boneyard apparition in an Afro and floppy bellbottoms. The audience gasps, then roars its approval. The skeleton grabs the microphone and begins to sing. Another Amanaz show has begun.

You can download the iPad version here, and the PDF version here. The iPad version gives you the full effect, with sound files of Amanaz songs and my interviews with Keith. Both are free, but if you like what you see please subscribe to get the next six issues.

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Housing a Movement, redux

utne31The current Utne Reader features a condensed version of my story about Steve DeCaprio, Oakland’s punk-rock squatter guru. I remember Utne from way back–what liberal doesn’t?–so it’s pretty cool to see my work in there. (Here’s a pdf, by the way, of the uncut version that ran in California Northern a few months ago.)

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Rainmaker: The Sort-of Super PAC

credoimgThe current issue of San Francisco publishes a quick Q&A I did with Becky Bond, head of Credo’s super PAC–which has the distinction of being the only super PAC out there that disapproves of super PACs. Here’s a PDF.

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Back to Zambia (kind of)

5021821668_4205b3c4d2_bIn this video, Symbolia founder Erin Polgreen gives us a walk-through of the tablet magazine’s premier issue as it comes together. My profile of Keith Kabwe, singer for 1970s Zambian psych-rock pioneers Amanaz, is slated to be in there, expertly illustrated by my friend and colleague Damien Scogin and supplemented by clips of the band’s music and my interviews with Keith.

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Housing a Movement

calnorthCalifornia Northern magazine runs my piece on squatting, punk rock, and the Occupy movement. I tell the story through an Oakland squatter and activist named Steve DeCaprio (he also plays in the black metal band Embers), in whom all of these threads converge. There’s just an excerpt posted online now, but I’m told the whole thing will be up there at some point.

“One night a little more than a decade ago, Steve DeCaprio pulled his bike up to an abandoned house in Ghost Town, a poor neighborhood in West Oakland dotted with vacant lots. He cut through the rusty lock on the chain-link fence with bolt cutters, then pried open a plywood sheet that stood where the front door once had. Then he replaced the locks with his own. This is how DeCaprio, a longtime East Bay squatter and veteran of the punk and metal scenes, “acquired” his home.

He already knew that the previous owner of the house had died in the early 1980s and that no one had come forward to claim it. The turn-of-the-century bungalow had sat empty for many years. The kitchen floor was burned out, and the back of the house hung off the foundation. An acacia tree in the back yard had grown into the roof, leaving the interior open to the elements. The top floor was piled with the carcasses of dead raccoons and other small animals. “They would climb the tree, jump down, and get stuck,” he says.

Later, DeCaprio and a crew of friends got to work making the place habitable. “At first, it was basically just urban camping,” he remembers. It took eight months of on-and-off work to fix the roof. He got the water flowing, bought storm doors and painted the exterior, planted cacti in the front yard, and yanked out another backyard tree that had begun to menace the house next door. He named it Noodle House, and he currently shares it with three people plus the occasional touring underground band.

DeCaprio, who turns forty in August, has tousled, graying hair and favors Carharts and black t-shirts bearing band logos. In a more mainstream context, he would be described as a “go-getter.” He plays guitar in a black-metal band named Embers, works as a member representative for the California League of Conservation Voters, and is pursuing a law degree through an independent study program (he expects to take the bar exam next year). And, of course, there’s the house. Right now, DeCaprio is working on a solar array to provide electricity. “There’s gonna be this moment when I turn on a light switch and it’ll be epic,” he says.

… “

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Jimi Hendrix, Musical Esperanto

jimi

My newest piece for Thought Catalog, a meditation on the legacy of Jimi Hendrix, and his use as a catch-all comparison for all sorts of non-Western music.

I’m not sure exactly when I first heard a musician from some far-flung spot on the globe described as the “Jimi Hendrix of [insert place name here].”

It’s only natural to reach for some sort of shorthand to translate the esoteric sounds of distant cultures into a language understandable to anyone with a passing knowledge of western culture. People might not know what a kamelengoni is (for the record, it’s a 12-stringed, harp-like instrument), but when you describe Vieux Kante as the Hendrix of the kamelengoni, everyone gets it: the guy’s a badass.

Read the whole thing here.

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Up from the Underground

5060942255_b637964972_zA couple of weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian ran a story of mine on the 1970s Zamrock scene. Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t much known for its rock’n'roll, but for a brief time in the late 1960s and ’70s every young guy from Lagos to Lusaka wanted to be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. Zambia, which makes few headlines in the west, was the cradle of this scene, hence the name. It was a heady time–these guys were full-on rock stars, with platform boots, groupies, and wild parties–but the economy tanked, the AIDS epidemic hit, and the scene was snuffed out.

I profile Jagari Chanda, probably the most famous Zamrock star of his day, who sang for a band named the Witch. He now ekes out a living as a gemstone miner in the bush. He’s looking for another shot in the music business. I hope he gets it.

It is a Saturday night in Kitwe, a rough mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt, and the bar is growing louder by the minute. The DJ plays American hip-hop, the beer flows and crowds of young miners, grizzled expatriates and working girls shout over the din.

Once upon a time, every head would have turned when Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda walked through the door. Tonight, nobody realises that the barrel-chested sexagenarian in the leather jacket was once Zambia’s biggest rock star.

(The photo comes from the cover of a self-released compilation Jagari put together. For years, hard-to-find releases like this were the only way to hear the music. Now-Again records, though, has begun reissuing albums by the Witch and other Zamrock greats.)

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Victory

fb4c543b6489242586e2f24991cd0671e35f6ebd_wmeg_00001Today, on Huffington Post San Francisco, I’ve got a piece on the Bay Area’s underground metal scene. Besides being a good excuse to name-check a few of my favorite local bands (Acephalix, for instance), the piece is a paean to underground concerts of all sorts, from punk to metal to bluegrass to hip hop.

I have no idea how the guy managed to sleep through Acephalix, because it was really loud. The San Francisco death metal band emitted a growling, galloping roar, the stuff of bad dreams, and it enveloped the room. The pit, meanwhile, was going off, a hostile ballet of bodies pinging off one another in front of the stage.

But this dude? He was dead to the world, mouth hanging open, slumped against the back wall. Next to him sat an equally incongruous giant stuffed donkey.

It was a Sunday night in early summer, and we were at the Victory warehouse in the Oakland ghostlands, a few blocks from Uptown but worlds away from its hipster sheen.

There’s something special about an underground show. I grew up outside Detroit in the late 1980s, as the city went into freefall. Paradoxically, Detroit’s collapse was great for the scene: there was no shortage of empty places to play, and the police were too busy to care about permitting or zoning. At college in North Carolina a few years later, I went to the occasional backyard bluegrass show. At a house in the woods about 20 miles from town, Teva-ed types sipped moonshine as guys with banjos and mandolins played Ralph Stanley tunes. While working in South Africa a few years ago, I found myself at a hip hop show in a weedy lot in Soweto, the country’s largest black township. While a succession of aspiring MCs jumped around on a makeshift stage, people drank beer and smoked weed, flirting with one another. Guys showed off their tricked-out cars, a parade of spinning rims and superfluous DVD screens mounted to the seats.

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The Jimi Hendrix of [insert country name here]!

Looking for a way to quickly and easily describe for Western listeners a virtuoso musician from a far-flung part of the world? Just name-check Jimi Hendrix, as commenters did with Vieux Kante, seen here playing the hell out of a kamelengoni.

In some ways, it’s only natural to use some sort of shorthand to translate, say, the esoteric sounds of the sitar into terms that anyone who grew up listening to rock radio can understand. So we get: the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele. The Jimi Hendrix of Japan. The Jimi Hendrix of South Africa. And, of course, the Jimi Hendrix of Turkey. I’ve done it myself, in discussing Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure’s incendiary new live touring act. At his most recent SF show, I tweeted, “He’s entered his Hendrix phase, with a power trio and everything.” And there was a resemblance to Band of Gypsys-era Hendrix, in both his liquid playing and the swing of the rhythm section. (It should be noted that Mali, a particularly guitar-happy country, has numerous contenders for the title. A few years ago, Vanity Fair reported that Baba Salah was known as not just the “Jimi Hendrix of Mali” but the “Jimi Hendrix of Africa.”

Right after I got out of college, I went traveling for a half-year or so, a dirtbag backpacker following my own version of the hippie trail. I ended up in Essaouria, Morocco, where Hendrix himself had spent some time. Local legend has it that he was so inspired by the ruins of an old fort on the beach that he wrote the song “Castles Made of Sand” (or, depending on the source, “Spanish Castle Magic.”). The songwriting claims aren’t true but, judging by all the drug dealers clogging the narrow streets, at least Jimi didn’t lack for hash. I spent a few days chasing his ghost, from restaurants where he ate to places where he stayed and musicians he supposedly played with. I never found a trace of the guy, of course. Little did I know, he was only an Internet search away. Voila: the Jimi Hendrix of Morocco.

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