Music Workshop - Global Voices: The Power of Song

2014 Lowell Folk Festival
Music Workshop
Global Voices: The Power of Song
Market Street


Before our first performance in Lowell on Sunday, the last day of this years festival, a handful of us from Conjunto Guantánamo where asked to take part in one of the several music workshops the festival offers. So, after breakfast, we got shuttled off to one of the stages, a small one at Market Street. There were 12 participants in total arranged in a semi-circle facing an audience that braved a good amount of rain that morning just to hear what we had to say and play. Those who took part in the workshop on stage were, from stage left to right...
Seán Keane - a renowned sean-nós (old style) singer (Ireland)

Samba Mapangala and two members of his Orchestre Virunga singing vocals - East African Rumba (Congo, Africa)
Joe Mullins (three of his Blue Ramblers joined him later singing vocals) - Bluegrass (Ohio, USA)
Myself (Ulises) on one conga drum and three members of my Conjunto Guantanamo - Afro-Cuban Son (Cuba)
Carlos Mena - bass and vocals
Pepito Gomez - lead vocals and guitar
Angel Diaz - vocals and clave
Hassan Hakmoun (and two of his bandmates) on a sintir (a three-stringed bass lute) - Gnawa (Morroco)
The workshop was moderated by Gregg Kimball, a multi instrumentalist, music lecturer, author, curator and scholar specializing in American roots music and who is Director of Educational and Outreach Services at The Library of Virginia.
Gregg did a great job making all the panel members feel relaxed and he was great at engaging and getting the panel to open up and discuss their experiences within their own careers and musical genres.
As far as our participation, at first I was somewhat apprehensive about participating because I didn't know what to expect and I wanted to make sure my band-mates and I brought something worthwhile to the table. I knew we would be asked to perform with the panel at least for a few minutes during the workshop and I wanted to make sure our participation would be appropriate.
First, Seán Keane, the folkloric singer from Ireland was asked about his musical traditions and he discussed the origins of his music which was handed down through the generations in his family. He explained that he learned "sean-nós" (“old style”) singing from his mother and aunts, and by the time he was in his teens, he had won thirteen All-Ireland medals in various singing competitions.
He sang an interesting Irish hymn which was characteristically melancholy and utterly unforgettable. To my ears it sounded very authentic.  
Next, Samba Mapangala, who is said to be East Africa's most beloved singer, and two other musicians from his ensemble discussed their music which they described, in part to be "rumba" and this immediately caught my attention. Rumba, being an exclusively traditional Afro-Cuban form derived from more traditional African forms brought to Cuba, developed as a genre around the mid 19th century. I was curious when I heard this was the genre they where working in.
Samba explained that the event, The Rumble in the Jungle, which was centered around the historic Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman boxing match held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974 and which featured several musical acts including of course, Celia Cruz, inspired them to explore their own version of "rumba" which sounds markedly different yet similar from what they do in Cuba. That genre eventually became the globally popular Souka we're all so familiar with today.
In 1974, Celia Cruz was one of the top Cuban exports via the US and part of a group of artists which also included BB King, James Brown, and Miriam Makeba that performed in Kinshasa alongside some top Zairean groups like T.P.O.K. Jazz and Tabu Ley Rochereau. The performance was part of a three-day festival called ZAIRE ’74, the brainchild of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and his producer Stewart Levine, who had come up with the idea of a music festival to precede the boxing match between the reigning champions. Here's a link to part of Celia's stellar performance.

Next up was Joe Mullins from Ohio, who sang and played his banjo. The banjo and the instrument that the musician to our right, Hassan Hakmoun had, a sintir which is a three stringed bass lute, where strikingly similar right down to their first strings only reaching halfway up the neck as well as having their bridges resting on a skin. The banjo had a synthetic skin whereas Hakmoun's, sintir used a skin from a camel's neck.
By the time the moderator's questions reached us, my head was loaded with idea's. I was able to discuss how all of the elements everyone had already shared, converged in Cuba, which became the glue that bound everything together, and after a long period of development eventually developed into Son, rumba, mambo, cha-cha-cha, guaracha, etc. and deeply influenced the rest of the world's music until this day. The gentlemen from Africa all nodded in approval, which was very reaffirming to me.
Now, the questions turned to Pepito who chose to sing "El Carretero" (written by Guillermo Portabales) which has been recently popularized by Eliades Ochoa of Buena Vista Social Club. Afterwards I explained that, as Joe Mullin's music was the music of the mountain people of the Appalachians, so was Pepito's song the music of the mountain people of Cuba.
I was asked by the moderator how the music of Santeria, from the Yoruba culture, plays into the scheme of things, musically speaking. I sang a short verse of a Yoruban orú (song) often sung to Elegua the child "saint" and guardian of the crossroads in the pantheon of  Santeria's deities...
omoni alaguana o mamakeña irawo eeee
ekue echu ordara
Omoni alaguana o mamakeña irawo eeee
Ache, moyugba lorisa
moyugba, moyugba lorisa
Ache moyugba lorisa
moyugba, moyugba lorisa"
They asked me what the song meant and I explained that Yoruba language in Santeria is rather like Latin in the Catholic church. Not everyone knows the meaning of what they're saying or singing. But, I explained, that, as I understood it, for instance, aché means good fortune, orisha is the word for deity and moyugba is the word for conversation. I also explained how the use of clave or a central, syncopated rhythm that the rest of a Cuban song is built around  (as in the 3/2 clave in 4/4 signature of Son or 6/8 clave predominant throughout the different sacred forms of Cuba's, music), is inherently purely African. Samba and his bandmates, again, smiled and nodded in agreement. I discussed how Joe Mullin's banjo with it's string configuration and having the bridge resting on a skin is derived from instruments such as the African sintir Hassan Hakmoun was playing which he had already mentioned originated some 3,000 years ago (Before the guitar originated in Spain centuries ago, it's predecessor arrived there from Africa).
I also wanted to express some contrasts within these related things and so I explained how in Cuban music, the base line is characteristically syncopated as opposed to the "walking bass" style used in Bluegrass, Rock and Roll, Jazz and most other styles. This is also an African trait. I then asked Carlos to demonstrate that for me so the audience could hear it in practice. This building block that gives Cuban music it's distinct "dancey" sound". How the bass executes this in our music is a mystery to many musicians so I wanted to illustrate it here.
At this point the panel of musicians all started to improvise a jam that sounded like we had all rehearsed previously but in reality we had never met one another. Hassan offered that this is because "music is like food. You set the table and everyone comes to eat," offering their respective input in harmony with the rest of those eating.
Hassan also played from his Gnawa tradition which is trance-like and mystical. Gnawa musicians often express their religious devotion through their music and through dancing, using that to enter into spiritual trance states (a sign of it's West African roots). Hassan played his sintir, deftly plucking a stuttering bass line along with the triple-time clatter of the metal castanets call qraqeb played by his bandmate. His music was both ritualistic and spectacular. His unique voice leapt above the instruments with an untamed cutting edge.
In my appreciation for his work, I offered the workshop audience information on Ned Sublette's fine book no musician should go without reading (and neither should you). The book is titled, Cuba and its Music: From the first Drums to the Mambo. It discusses musical history over the last 1000 yeas and traces it's development during the centuries as it was shaped thru cultural and political influences. This book will make anyone who reads it's 700+ hard-to-put-down pages, quite the musicologist as it explains the roots of many different world genres of today's music.
The workshop lasted almost a full hour and it all flew by! It felt like it lasted all of six minutes but all of the musicians really seamed to enjoy the time we spent enjoying each other's art and history. I'm sure each participant got shuttled off to the rest of their respective Sunday at the festival with a happy heart and inspired to do their next concert at one of the many great stages in the festival that afternoon.
As far as Pepito Angel, Carlos and I, we all agreed that it was a highlight of the whole festival for each of us as musicians and music lovers. We all really enjoyed the experience. It was the first time I had spoken to a large group like that about the part of music history. After the workshop and throughout the rest of the day I had many people congratulate me on the discussion saying they really enjoyed it. Someone even said the workshop was "Heavenly".
Many thanks again to all those that made this enjoyable time possible.
Stay tuned for an audio recording of this event which will be made available very soon in the coming weeks. I will update this page with a link when it becomes available.
Please stay tuned. Please share this nice story with your music loving friends and with your Facebook community too. If you haven't already please like my band by following this link...
 Aché e iré para todos,
See also...
Harry Belafonte's PBS documentary, Roots of Rhythm

And for all you friends that read till the end here's a special treat. Click her for a special preview of the video footage taken of Conjunto Guantanamo during our first performance at Boarding House Park playing La Negra Tomasa (Kikiribu Mandinga)

Click here to see the video on YouTube

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