Esperanza Spalding

I found out after the fact that the Tinariwen concert a few weeks ago was the second Grammy Award winner I’d seen in October. I recently learned that they won the World Music award this year for their album Tassili.

But earlier that month, I was fortunate to have caught Esperanza Spalding in Pittsburgh at the Byham theater. She won Best New Artist in 2011 for Chamber Music Society (her third studio effort). She was the first jazz musician to do so—and with competition like Justin Bieber no less. It’s good to see some grown-folks’ music getting its due.

Her recent follow up album, Radio Music Society, is more radio-friendly. It has a higher R&B quotient—a heavier dose of funk. The lyrics deal more plainly in matters of the heart. But the album’s forthright political edge gives it balance and proportion. Spalding’s versatility is reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield or Nina Simone. Her first single from the album, “Black Gold,” is a celebration of black pride very much in the tradition of Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” or Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black.”

Spalding’s back-to-back albums, each named for different Societies, are aesthetic counterparts. As the names suggest, Chamber Music is acoustic and string heavy, while Radio Music is horn-driven and oriented by the back beat. On the latter, Spalding plays a fretless Fender jazz bass in addition to the upright. Her funky ostinato lines have deep pockets.







The later album takes this conceptual impulse a step further. When Radio Music was released last March, the digital version was accompanied by an hour-long music video that linked the songs into a loose narrative. The plot adds new twists and an additional political significance. Especially on “I Can’t Help It” and “Hold on Me,” the love stories’ progressive gender politics treats varied sexual orientations as a fact of life and love—both requited and un-.

Her performance at the Byham drew on this conceptual and political vocabulary. The bandstand was covered in the image of a black boombox, the radio dial clearly illuminated. When the band began, they played fits and starts of songs in different genres punctuated by static, mimicking the frequency spectrum.

When she took the stage, she welcomed the audience and immediately asked, “But what does it mean: Radio Music Society?” The band then passed around solos, stipulating some terms. Spalding began to tie the songs together with her introductions, drawing on similar narrative techniques as the film.

Getting into “Land of the Free,” she told the story of Cornelius Dupree, Jr., who was proved innocent after having spent 30 years in jail. One prisoner, Spalding reminded us, among 2.3 million. The proceeds from the merchandise sales that night went to the Innocence Project, the organization that aided Dupree’s defense.

All night, the arrangements were fresh and the improvisations were dramatic, even transcendent. Spalding is a true band leader and a gifted composer; as a bassist, there’s not as many role models for that. Mingus comes to mind; and like him, Spalding bears the influence of Ellington.

Even while holding down the low end, her vocal performance is astounding. She’s at least a triple threat. These are the first three tunes of the evening, including the introduction.

I had hoped—maybe just a little—to hear a tune from her earlier album, Esperanza. I must have listened to her cover of the Milton Nascimento tune “Ponta de Areia” a few dozen times in recent weeks. That song became known to American audiences by way of the Wayne Shorter album Native Dancer, but Spalding owns it for herself.

Nonetheless, this was one of the finest performances I have seen: thoughtful and well-rehearsed, but never contrived. The musicianship was of the highest caliber, and it was delivered with equal doses of humor and sincerity.

Peace in Azawad

Last week I had the chance to see a group called Tinariwen at the State Theater in State College. Though I wasn’t very familiar with their work a few weeks ago, I caught up quick. After learning that the show was sponsored by Stax of Trax, a local vinyl purveyor, I found their Desert Sessions video and put it on a loop all week in preparation for their arrival.

It wasn’t just the remarkable setting or guest appearances by members of TV on the Radio that got me hooked. I recognized the Saharan drone blues blended with Algerian Rai from listening to Bombino. Tinariwen’s sound, though, is what I always imagined Ishmael Reed meant by the “Black Mud Sound” of the “old songs” played by Jethro the Midianite in Mumbo Jumbo. These cuts are that deep.

Tinariwen are Tuareg and Berber musicians originally from the northern region of Mali called Azawad. A little obscure, perhaps. For many, Timbuktu is just an idiomatic reference to nowhere. Yet Mitt Romney of all people brought a little attention to the region during the presidential debate on foreign policy the night before the concert. When he said that the northern part of Mali had been taken over by “Al-Queda type individuals,” however, he neglected the fact that this struggle for independence in Azawad goes back decades. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a founding member of Tinarawen, watched the execution of his father, who was a Tuareg rebel, in 1963 when he was four years old. Forced to flee across the border into Libya, some of these Tuareg refugees trained in Gaddafi’s army, earning them–one imagines–the title “Al-Queda type individuals.”

When Tinariwen’s front men appeared on the Colbert Report with Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, Colbert struck precisely this nerve. The interview is from February, 2012.

In March, there was a military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, which toppled a legitimately elected civilian government for their perceived mishandling of a previous Tuareg rebellion. Amidst the confusion in the capital caused by the coup, Azawad was seized by these same rebels and declared an independent state in April.

So Romney’s comments unintentionally heightened the political stakes of the performance—at least for this listener.

Although the musicians said very little, mainly just “salaam” and “merci.” Their message was clear enough. Although the single percussionist in the group was extremely capable, the audience added support by clapping along. The participation was as enthusiastic as any I have witnessed at the venue. The band moved from prayerful and meditative pieces to lilting folk ballads, culminating in the heavier pedal tones, thumping bass, and overdriven guitar riffs that united the audience into something like a collective ritual.

The only message they conveyed in English came during the introduction, when the announcer asked for “Peace in Azawad.”

These are the last 10 minutes, before they returned for an encore.