Today’s Afrobeat: Founded by father, Fela, and continued by son, Femi Kuti takes this genre into a changing world

Femi KutiFemi Kuti, Head Shot, Press Photo carries his father’s – Fela Kuti – legacy of Afrobeat graciously and humbly. Developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Afrobeat blends elements of Yoruba music, jazz and funk rhythms with an instrumentation that emphasizes African percussion and vocal styles (New World Encyclopedia 2015). American musicians have come to appreciate the sounds of Afrobeat pioneered by Fela and expanded by Femi.

Throughout his 26-year career, Femi has toured with large rock and roll acts in the U.S., including Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and collaborated with Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright on a song for the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV (Ridgefield Press 2015).” As I interviewed Femi for the Music Historian in the lounge above the Brooklyn Bowl stage, minutes before his rehearsal, I asked him what it is about Afrobeat that artists from other genres admire.

“Understand,” Femi begins, “that it has always been there. In fact, in 1970s, when my father was making all of his hits, I think diplomats from Nigeria were taking records [of Fela’s music] to America. People like Miles Davis, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were listening to him. So many great musicians were inspired, but his name was never mentioned. What probably happened was that someone had been listening to his record, and they said, “Wow, this is great. Who is this?” Someone else would respond, “It is this cat from Nigeria,” and they would say “Wow! Great music.”

“In 1977, when Nigeria hosted the Festac Festival, I know Americans came to the shrine and played with him [Fela], jammed with him, and loved his music. I would [also] say 50-60% of Hip Hop came from the Afrobeat. So, it would not be surprising to hear people say my father inspired them. Then there was a musical about him on Broadway. I think this is a just a manifestation, but he was never mainstream. He was always on the ground and inspired American arts, culture, and music.”

In Nigeria, Fela had a very strong fan base. Femi got his start in music by playing saxophone in his father’s band at the age of 15 (femiakuti.com 2015). The fan base often asked Femi when he was going to play music and be like his father. When Femi decided to leave his father’s band, this was a taboo.

“In Africa, you never fight your father, especially if he was Fela Kuti,” explained Femi. Further, the musician admits he had a stressful period of trying to convince people his music was his own, and not his father’s.

“People misinterpreted everything I did,” he said. “My father told so many journalists that he would never write a song for his kids, but they still thought that was not true. When I had my first hit in Nigeria, “Wonder Wonder,” I was not given credit; people thought my father wrote the song for me. Then I had my big hit, which became international, “Beng Beng Beng” and people said “No, no. It is [a hit] just because you are Fela’s son. When I got my first GRAMMY nomination, it was, “Oh it is because you are Fela’s son.

“I think the good thing about it is it never troubled me. We loved my father very much. I don’t think critics or anybody could destabilize my thoughts.”

Femi has released a total of eight albums in his career. His 1998 album Shoki Shoki broke many boundaries in Afrobeat music. The artist used technology and machines to drive the force of the music. His last three records, Day by Day (2010), Africa for Africa (2011), and No Place for My Dreams (2013), have been released by Label Maison Records. I wondered whether Femi, when making a new album always searched for a new experience or focused more on the process of making music rather than an end goal. He says:

“I feel the experience of the time is what contributes most to the making of the album. For instance, in Africa for Africa, I wanted people to experience what it was like to record a band like mine both live and in the studio in Nigeria. [For example] they were recording and the electricity goes off. Hopefully, they would feel the frustrations I felt trying to get the record done.

No Place for My Dreams, the last one, reflects more of my childhood. I was trying to bring sounds from my father that touched me. Bringing that power – ‘I would love to play music, what kind of music do I want to play?’

“The next album I am working on is trying to go back to Shoki Shoki, which tried to use technology to enhance the creativity of Afrobeat. Most people [at the time] thought it was not very possible [to do] with the Afrobeat.”

Africa for Africa is one album that personally stood out to me the most. Femi, in a 2011 interview with NPR, said that one of the themes from this album reflects an ongoing concern among many African citizens, the lack of a unified central news network to inform people about what is going on in multiple regions across their content (NPR 2011). I asked Femi to tell me more about this theme. He elaborates:

“We have to wait for the BBC to tell us there is a war in the Congo; we have to wait for CNN to tell us what is going on in Ghana. Where is the African central network system to tell us our story, and then to tell all? It would be so powerful, that the BBC and CNN would have to get new [about Africa] from this network, not vice versa.

“Let’s take for example the crisis of Boko Haram. The BBC reports any crisis before any Nigerian network. The BBC or CNN will send journalists into this area to investigate. How come no Nigerian network sends a journalist to this war zone? Are they too scared? Not even videos or live footage. With the war in Iraq, you see BBC journalists will go there – this is journalism; there is no room to compromise nor argue with this. You have to appreciate the bravery of the journalist.

“There is so much. Don’t African nations see what is going on? Where is that kind of courage, where is that kind of attitude in journalism? If you were to focus really on Africa, Africa would probably not have time to listen to other news. There is too much going on there to deal with that. If we did have a serious network like the BBC – that was not corrupt, of course, not managed by interference or governments manipulating the system – then can you imagine how fantastic that network would be? For an individual journalist to be curious and go to find the truth of that news at any length because it is important? That’s what I would have loved for Africa.”

Femi Kuti Powerful Force Rehearsal (2) Like his father, Femi also addressed corruption within his music, corruption that each African citizen faces daily. One song from No Place for My Dreams, “No Work, No Job, No Money,” includes a lyrical message that within a country filled with plenty of oil and other natural resources, there is no work for people to help them make money and feed themselves nor their families. Based on personal curiosity, I wondered how have people’s reaction to this same type of corruption changed from the 1970’s to present day.

“I think what has changed is that now people are most outspoken. In my father’s time, it was just his voice and his voice alone. Now, on social media, you will see young boys and girls express their discontent with anything they see; this was not happening in my father’s time.

“The young people communicate way too fast for the leaders. I don’t think world leaders can deal with this, especially when they [the government] is being dishonest. More people today complain, so the government is very uncomfortable. The government is being forced to be honest for the first time, but, I think they will try to be smarter, more sophisticated; they will try to hide.

“You see what is happening in Greece, Spain, and France? I now realize that Greece is facing the kind of problems Africa faces – they have no jobs, they can’t put food on the table. You see what is going on in Ukraine? The government is losing its invisible force. Europeans and Americans don’t fear government like Africa fears government. Africa too is changing very fast and African governments are losing that invisibility where they think they are untouchable,” says Femi.

Issues of joblessness, poverty and hunger exist in all countries. Femi also makes a valid point when he says U.S. or EU citizens don’t fear their governments as much as Africans fear theirs. While the musician mentions that young people in Africa speaking on social media regarding what is happening around them; neither he nor his father wanted to encourage the international community to get involved.

“Understand,” begins Femi, “African leaders want people to believe they are honest. If I can show the true picture, then you have a different view. You become intrigued; you want to find out more.” A listener might ask, ’Is Femi speaking the truth, or will I go to Africa?’ Femi continues with this figurative scenario, “You will say ‘Oh, there is no electricity.’ How come Nigeria, a big oil-producing country cannot provide healthcare? How come the education system in Nigeria does not even exist? You have all of these universities and no matter what degree you come out with; it is meaningless. [You then ask] ‘Is Femi telling the truth, or are the leaders telling the truth?’ Then you have to question – How come your leaders are negotiating or doing business with corrupt people? Are they part of this corruption?

“I feel, that the world, whether we like it or not, in a few years, the political arena will change drastically, for the positive I hope.”

Looking towards the future, I wondered what Femi expected from himself and his band, The Positive Force. Before I directly posed this within a question, I wondered whether his last album No Place for My Dreams had produced the results he wanted. Femi says:

“I think it has already done its full lap. We have toured already now for over a year and a half, promoting the album. People love it very much, and now, [they] go into the future, and talk about it later on. The later generation might pick it up one day like they picked up my father’s [albums]. I think what is important for me is to know how to look into the future. Always try to bring new sounds into our music – new conversations.”

Wherever these new conversations lead listeners, Femi will continue that passion for a genre that helps define Africa. Also to combining funk, jazz, and soul, Femi also defines Afrobeat as a genre filled with African culture and tradition, “the true roots.”

“Don’t forget,” he explains, “Africa had its melody before the west came, or before jazz. My father was lucky to grow up in a village that still kept its tradition and folk songs from ancestral times. I think my father was gifted enough to say, “Everybody is doing this in Africa, this what I have… and if we take it and just make it rich.” That just caught everybody’s attention. His grandfather was a musician and composer, and his father was a musician and a composer. His grandfather was the first composer from West Africa to record for the BBC. They composed a lot of hymns, many of them are still relevant in churches, or in traditional culture in Nigeria.

“My father grew up with all of this rich music. As he studied classical music, fell in love with jazz, tried to find his feet, he probably then remembered, “Wow. This is what my grandfather was doing.” This is what I was listening to in the streets… where I was born. [He said] “Oh, I can… put all of this richness together and bring about my kind of music.” Then everybody said “Whoa! What is he doing?” Everybody was moved by it.”

In July, between the 10th and the 18th Femi Kuti & The Positive Force will travel to Paris and the UK to perform on a short tour. Then, it is back to Nigeria to focus on the new album, which will revisit the stylistic creativity established within his previous work, Shoki Shoki.

“I think with my experience, age, and maturity, and if my calculation is right, in my mind, it should be ten times greater than the Shoki Shoki album,” explains the musician. “If I can arrive at that, then I can say that I have reached another milestone in my musical career.”

Works Cited

Afrobeat. (2012, August 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Afrobeat

Femi Kuti Official Website. (2013). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.femiakuti.com/#!about/c2414/

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force Bringing Afrobeat To Ridgefield | The Ridgefield Daily Voice. (2015, May 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://ridgefield.dailyvoice.com/events/femi-kuti-positive-force-bringing-afrobeat-ridgefield

Nigerian Star Femi Kuti Talks Politics And Music. (2011, April 27). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2011/04/27/135770537/nigerian-artist-femi-kuti-talks-politics-and-music

 

All photos were published with permission

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Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn

Gypsy George Press Shot. Published with Permission from the Artist.Like many bilingual professionals, Gypsy George, a Brooklyn-based musician whose real name is George Mihalopoulos, has learned to manage two lifestyles simultaneously. You might have guessed that his family is from Greece. Though he was born in the U.S., George says he is “firmly rooted in Greek culture.” He describes to me his every day.

“My day to day is quite active and busy. Recently, I’ve added importing olive oil from Greece with my Dad to the mix of things I do. A few years ago, he and I were trying to find ways to bring money back to Greece, due to the financial crisis. My grandfather used to press this fantastic olive oil in our hometown of Nafpaktos, and later, we discovered that everyone in the area just pressed their own oil and never sold it. We met with a local miller there, developed a relationship, and now we exclusively bottle our single varietal (Athinoelia) Premium ‘Agouraleio’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Nafpaktos under the brand name 10δεκα.

“So, that has been taking up most of my weekday mornings. After I finish with Olive Oil stuff, I usually move onto music-related matters – responding to emails, organizing shows and working in the studio. It varies from week to week but generally, my daily life has been ‘Olive Oil & Music.’”

Aside from participating in a business partnership with his father, George also founded a publishing company in 2003, Always Already.

“I started this company mainly so I could start receiving royalties on a movie I contributed music to, ‘The Maldonado Miracle’ produced and directed by Salma Hayek. From there, I started to build it around music licensing and composing. Today, I have expanded it to include a record label. It is a boutique music company that pretty much offers all music related services – recording, producing, publishing, licensing, composing, and more.”

He adds, “I run the company very grass roots, family-style, encouraging all the artists I’m producing to be as involved with their projects as possible. I do try to teach them about the business end of things, so they are better armed to tackle the ever-changing universe of music.”

Speaking of an “ever-changing universe,” an entrepreneur and musician who runs multiple businesses might describe the road to their success as unpredictable and messy. At least, that’s how I would describe it as I reflect on countless interviews with musicians, informal interviews with NYC student entrepreneurs, and my professional development.

Like many entrepreneurs, George has learned to ‘embrace the chaos.’ He also incorporates this motto into his definition of a gypsy: “One who lets life happen – the good and the bad – and welcomes it; who can adapt to their surroundings with ease and pleasure; who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes.”

While I certainly find this definition of a gypsy inspiring in a creative and artistic sense, I know that in an ethnic and practical definition, it needs more refining. For George, Gypsy is his stage name, one he more or less picked up while being on the road, spontaneously traveling America’s mid-west for his musical inspiration and his identity. Further, George’s affinity to the open road also influenced the name of his band, Gypsy George and the Open Road Love Affair. The band creates what one might describe as Americana music with spurts of Greek flair. The band’s repertoire of music has opened doors to new projects and possibilities. Gypsy George shares his story right here on Music Historian.

Gypsy George Press Photo. Published with permission. Gypsy George received his name from his insatiable desire to randomly hop in a car – without a map – and travel the depths of America. The artist had mentioned that during this time, he was trying to figure out whether he was Greek or American (National Herald 2011). I asked him exactly what fueled this desire.

“A few things contributed to my desire for exploration and travel,” explained George. “Firstly, I moved around a lot when I was younger, eight times in the first six years of my life. So, that clearly laid the foundation. Secondly, it was my family origin. My sister, my cousins, and I are the first generation born in the states. The rest of my family was born in Greece, including my parents. I was raised bi-culturally. I frequently travel to Greece, and I am fluent in the language and culture.

“Initially, my drive to explore America was to experience all the regions that Blues artists had lived in or traveled. I wanted to find the places where Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, and Leadbelly had been before me. I wanted to see and feel what inspired them, and this led me up and down the Mississippi River for many years. Since I lived mostly in big cities and urban environments, it was mind blowing to see these places up close and play guitar on the banks of the mighty river. I fell in love with the countryside; it opened my eyes to the true beauty and freedom of this great experiment known as the United States.”

After some time, Gypsy George decided he was 50/50 Greek-American (National Herald 2011). Then, came my next question – where in his music does George’s Greek heritage shine most?

“My music is filled with my Greek heritage,” he begins. “I’ve always felt that my music truly is a culmination of American Blues and Greek music sprinkled with the Lennon’s and Dylan’s of the world. Some specific examples are the songs “Door County Nights”, a blues structure over a 9/8 Zeibekiko time signature; the ‘bouzouki’ style mandolin on “Everyday”; the solo section of “Maude On The Run”; and the list goes on.”

Door Country Nights” is the title track to Gypsy George’s 2003 debut. This album conveyed the artist’s stylistic versatility incorporating Americana, country, honky-tonk, and some funk. At the time this album was recorded (in Los Angeles), George worked as a music supervisor and composer at a music company that had recording studios. The owner encouraged the employees to use the studios and learn how to record during off hours.

“I figured, ‘if I’m going to learn how to record, I might as well record an album of my stuff.’ It was a learning experience, to say the least,” admits George. “It is always interesting when you record your first album; expectations are so high, yet your ability is in its infant stages. Additionally, I worked with an engineer who was even newer to recording than I was. That combination of hope mixed with a lack of experience can be an exciting, frightful adventure. We had a blast though, and I think we pulled it off – at least for our first effort.”

Another song on this debut, a honky-tonk, and a country-influenced number is titled “Open Road Love Affair.” I wondered whether this song inspired the name of Gypsy George’s group. I just happened to be right.

“The band name did, in fact, come from the song title. When I was trying to come up with a band name, I spent months bouncing around ideas. I wanted a name that would convey the ideology of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’[i] with the controlled chaos of a road trip. Also, I did not want it to sound forced. One day, I was barbecuing with some friends, and I complained about how hard it was to come up with a band name. Finally, my friend Stacy blurted, ‘why don’t you call it Open Road Love Affair?’ Everyone, instantaneously, had that moment of ‘uh, why didn’t I think of that?’ And that, folks, is how the band name came about.”

The song “Everyday” comes from his 2011 release The Loneliest Man in New York. In this track, Gypsy’s inner-Greek comes out on a mandolin that plays hints of tremolos. He says that when it comes to arrangements, he pushes the envelope. George explains “I like to take chances and treat instruments differently from their basic intended purpose. Sometimes, this fails. However, I’d rather go for broke than be conventional. With a song like “Everyday,” I was very influenced by Pet Sounds (an album by The Beach Boys); particularly the songs “That’s Not Me” and “I’m Waiting for the Day.” The drum part,” which exaggerates the downbeats within the measures, “was me trying to be Brian Wilson.”

Gypsy George Press Shot published with Permission Lyrically, George is influenced by Lennon, Dylan, Beat poetry and Kazantzakis. Occasionally, he writes in an obscure referential way or inside jokes. “Sometimes, “I like to use words to create a feeling or imagery. Sometimes, I just like the way words fit together regardless of meaning. It depends on the moment, the mood.” One such song like this is “Couplet Gun” a song about love which starts with a very distinct verse – I find a little Marxist red war paint/ And, I don’t want to pray it/ I don’t want to say it/ I just want to step in right next to you. The second chorus includes this rhyme I shoot the stars with asphalt bars/ I creep along a familiar song/ I find a way to stick my nose in the dirt…

“‘A little Marxist red war paint’ was a strange way of me referring the lady of the song, who is a redhead. The second set of lyrics was written to convey the heavy, deep pain and loneliest I felt at the time, hence, trying to shoot starts with asphalt bars, sticking my nose in the dirt. I attempted to convey my truest, deepest thoughts and emotions at that very juncture in my life.”

The Loneliest Man in New York included a band of six musicians, including Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm on vocals, who also appeared on the 2014 album 30 Songs in 30 Days. Between these two albums, George experienced a professional and personal development that was initially brought on by an impulsive decision. When he started recording Loneliest Man, George had just moved to NYC without knowing a single person.

“I wound up in NYC by accident: I was fed up with L.A. and left town. I just started driving due East to get as far away from the West Coast as possible. I lived in various spots throughout the country; toyed with the idea of going back to Chicago (where he lived throughout most of his life). Eventually, I came to Brooklyn and figured I’d try it out.

“My girlfriend at the time abruptly ended things, and I thought she was THE ONE – at least at the time. Dealing with a deep heartache – combined with living in NYC without any friends – led me to the only therapist I knew – music. I spent a month and a half in my apartment – which at the time, had no furniture or music equipment and hefty bags filled with clothes – and just wrote songs after songs.

“When it was all said and done, I had written around 100 tunes. From there, I began tracking the album. As I went through this process, I met a bunch of musicians at Roots Café in South Slope on an open mic night. After that, I just immersed myself in music and met more talented folks. Eventually, I asked a few of these insanely gifted people to play on the record. What started as my ‘breakup album’ turned into this colossal musical effort.”

“I had a very ambitious plan with 30 Songs in 30 Days,” continues George. “Having accumulated a wealth of songs I had written, I finally decided to release a double album. I also wanted to tap into all the different styles of music that have influenced me over the course of my career. Initially, my plan was to recreate the Beatles’ White Album. Rather than interpret the album song by song, I wanted to capture the general feel and weirdness of the album. As I developed the concept, it turned into the one thing I detest in art – pretentiousness. I felt I was forcing songs on this sort of strict creative platform. What I then decided to do was release 30 songs in 30 days. For the month of October in 2014, I released a song a day for 30 days. It was a maddening, yet rewarding experience.

“A lot of the material I recorded [involved] mixing and mastering on the fly. It was a very curious project that lent to quick, creative decision making as opposed to past albums where I had all the time in the world to figure out whether I liked this, that or the other. It was a fun release and one I am proud of accomplishing. Although I did play the majority of the instruments on the album, I did have some outside vocalists and musicians.”

Aside from Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm, the musicians who played with George on 30 Songs in 30 Days included Emily Trask and Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn. George says that while it is always difficult to gauge what people fundamentally think about his work, he was happy with the ‘all-over-the-map’ reaction from listeners.

“I like to add humor and silliness to my songs. At the end of the day, I just try to have fun and enjoy life. Obviously, there are serious moments, but I’d much rather poke fun at myself and not take it too seriously. I think that silly and loose atmosphere of my music is what people grab onto at first.”

“Charlton Heston” and “Maude On The Run” are some of the songs on 30 Songs in 30 Days that stood out the most to me. According to George, the political themes within these tracks were overlooked in the States but resonated more in Europe. Whether or not a listener can pick up on the political themes naturally is purely left up to opinion. I was curious as to how George incorporate politics into this song. A perfect example is his 2007 record, Joe’s Beginning, which he recorded while living in Los Angeles. George also recorded this album while in an interesting place in his life.

“I had ended a relationship, felt upset with the administration [at the time], and faced a crossroads with my career. I got my feelings out in music. I locked myself in the studio for six months recording the album, and it was the first record where I did everything, including the engineering.

“Thematically, I based the record on [the story of] “Romeo and Juliet.” I interpreted the couple’s fight for love as obstructed by socio-political circumstances as opposed to warring families. I chose [the title] ‘Joe’s Beginning’ as homage to the ‘Average Joe.’ I wanted to make a political statement without being pedantic. Whether I pulled that off with the album is a different story.”

My conversation with Gypsy George so far has helped me notice that emotional events like a heartache, an abrupt move, and the challenges of being your boss – which for this artist, involves getting songs out on schedule – drives him to create music. Also, he has managed to put his talent out in a robust artistic city. Although he has become known for getting up and moving from place to place, Gypsy George has lived in Brooklyn for seven years now. As far as I know, he has no leaving plans.

Gypsy George Press Photo published with permission “I love living in Brooklyn. I have lived in South Slope, and it has been a true home for me, a first for me in my adult life. Brooklyn and NYC have a great energy and a wonderful mix of gifted and talented artists. It is a city that lays the foundation for a creative atmosphere.

“Out in L.A., I felt that it was all about who you know or how you look, but the quality of the music did not matter [so much]. In NY, you have to be pretty good to survive in the music scene. Chicago has a great art and music scene, but it remains a bit more underground.”

This year will mark the second time Gypsy George has been invited to perform at the Northside Festival. He will perform as part of a lineup hosted by Whatever Blog at The Gutter in Williamsburg. Afterward George will return to producing his second record with Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn, with the hopes of releasing it in July. Also, George is in the process of remixing and re-mastering 30 Songs in 30 Days and officially release it as Politics, Ex-Girlfriends & the Ayn Rand Shuffle. He hopes to have this record out in the Fall. Finally, he is also the Music Director and Composer for South Brooklyn Shakespeare, a theater company founded by Paul and Dee-Byrd Molnar. This year, the company will perform “Much Ado About Nothing” on July 25th, August 1st, and August 15th.

Whether or not George chooses to stay in this city or relocate wherever his passion for the open road takes him, he will embrace the change, whatever it maybe, and channel it into his music. Whatever life throws his way, especially if it brings him into a rougher moment in his career, George will center his focus on the fact that he has felt blessed enough to continue doing music.

“My Dad told me a long time ago, that wherever you are, whatever you wind up doing in life, no one can ever take away your ability to create and play music. To me, every moment is a proud moment. I always view myself as an artist first and that everything I do is part of a larger dialog beyond myself.

“The music industry has turned a blind eye to creativity and has focused on profit. I mean [the need] has always been there, but I don’t believe a band like The Beatles could ever make it in today’s music business structure. This is why Independent Artists are more vital than ever. While I might sound critical, I am very hopeful for the future of music and where it will wind up.”

[i] Gypsy George says he “sort of stole a page from John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s concept for the ‘Plastic Ono Band.’ They had a philosophy that ‘anyone’ can be a member of the band, and were adamant that there was no ‘set’ lineup (G. Mihalopoulos, personal communications, June 9, 2015).”

Works Cited

“In the Spotlight: Gypsy George – Musician” (2011). National Herald. Retrieved from http://www.gypsygeorge.com/uploads/9/0/3/2/9032999/national_herald.pdf

 

Pop Musician & Classical Music Fan Campaigns for Key Change on PledgeMusic

Last Fall, alternative indie pop artist, Janna Pelle, introduced herself and her concept album, Key Change to Music Historian readers and the independent music scene in New York City. For the month of May, my interview with Janna has gotten into the top ranks of the blog’s most read articles. One reason for this might be the result of her fundraising efforts to make Key Change the album every classical and pop music enthusiast and history nerd wants to hear.

The evolution of the keyboard, which was largely inspired by the different performance spaces in which the piano was placed throughout history, inspires the concept in Key Change[i]. In her album, Janna infuses instruments that inspired the modern physical structure of the piano, like the harp and the forte piano, with pop-inspired tunes. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic – which is filled with personality and elegance – will make fellow musicians, bloggers of independent music, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano fall for enthusiasm and talent. Watch her campaign video right here:

Aside from bringing together additional talent within the independent art scene of New York City, Key Change represents the beginning of a new chapter in Janna’s life which followed many life-changing events. Music Historian has spoken to Janna about the themes in her first two albums. Shameless Self-Promotion (2012) reflect the moment she stepped out on her own as a musician. Janna wrote The Show Must Go On (2014) while she was grieving her father’s passing[ii]. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic will attract fellow musicians, bloggers, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano to her enthusiasm and talent.

Music-wise, Janna describes herself as the love child of Fiona Apple and Lady Gaga, with the alter-ego of David Byrne[iii]. If you want lyrics that describe city life, coping with difficulties, romantic relationships and sex, music that quotes theme songs from popular television series, and rhythms that can make you dance like you would at a club or a fashion show, then Janna Pelle brings it all. Pre-order her album Key Change today at PledgeMusic. As stated on the page which the previous link will take you to, donors can expect the album for a release date in November of this year.

[i] Janna Pelle: Key Change Campaign Video. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/keychange

[ii] P Trutescu. (2014, Nov. 18). Janna Pelle: The Shameless Advertiser & Musician Brings Us “Key Change.” [Web log]. Retrieved from https://musichistorian.net/2014/11/18/janna-pelle-the-shameless-advertiser-musician-brings-us-key-change/

[iii] Pelle, J. (2014). Janna Pelle: The Band, The Brand. Retrieved from http://jannapelle.com/bio.html

Daylle Deanna Schwartz, Former Rapper Talks Music Business, Empowerment & Self-Love

Daylle Deanna SchwartzLast October, New York City’s first while-female rapper, Daylle Deanna Schwartz passed away. Last Saturday, a beautiful and warm day in April, Daylle’s family and friends held a remembrance for her at The Open Center. Inside a spacious room with large windows on the second floor, everyone gathered to pay their respects to Daylle. They talked about how they have come to meet her, the time they had spent with Daylle, and how she left an impression on their lives.

I had come to know Daylle back in the Summer of 2013 when I interviewed her for the Music Historian. Learning about her background in music, her strides within the industry, and her advocacy for self-love, made this interview and article one of my most memorable. Meeting her family and friends, whom she has touched with her energy, love and positiveness – and who reciprocated the same to her – made me realize there was a backdrop to this artist’s life that I did not, nor could not see the first time around.

Throughout her life, Daylle was a rapper, teacher, entrepreneur, writer, and former Board Member of Women in Music and a committee member of New York Women in Communications. She also dedicated her life to her daughter, grandchildren, and all of her family members. Even when Daylle split with her husband, she always remained a great friend to him. Friends and family members said that regardless of her busy work schedule, Daylle made an effort to stay in touch with everyone closest to her.

While everyone has a public persona and a private persona, I believe there should exist a characteristic common in both. For Daylle, this characteristic was empowerment. Based on what I have learned from our interview years ago, the self-love she talks about closely relates to how she empowers those around her to feel more confident in who they are, braver in verbalizing their needs, and more accepting of what they need to fix within their lives. Reflecting on what I learned from her family and friends, Daylle advocated self-love and empowerment to everybody, like a need everybody required whether they admitted it or not.

In honor of the celebration of Daylle’s life, I republish my easy-to-read question and answer interview with a rapper who broke stereotypes to make her fantasies real, showed the world nice girls can finish first, and spread the word of self-love. I also republish this article as a “Thank You” to Daylle’s family and friends for having me at her remembrance. To my readers, let this article be a reminder of how far the industry has come in including ethnic diversity among genres like hip-hop, and how much attention gender inequality still requires.

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(First published July 19, 2013)

Prior to becoming the founder of the Self-Love Movement™ and the author of How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count the Ways, Daylle Deanna Schwartz, first left her mark on the 1980’s music scene in New York City as the first white-female rapper. Shortly after, she would become one of the first women to start her own record label.

When I listened to Daylle’s song, “Girls Can Do” I initially thought, “how charming.” Then I listened with my Music Historian ears, and heard a song that encouraged women to value self-respect and break the feminine stereotypes that lingered in both society and the music industry during the 1980’s. That stereotype being that a woman could not achieve everything she desired without compromising her emotional self, femininity or well-being, especially when it involved music or any profession.

As I personally reflect on my own professional experiences from the past few years, many women today continue to think they need to change themselves in order to get ahead in their careers. I also feel that many women still live with the illusion that personal and professional success is measured only by material; a belief that causes them to disregard genuine happiness.

As Daylle furthered her experience in the music business, she started to carve room for another passion – writing about self-empowerment for musicians and women. Today, she advises clients on how to manage their own music careers and focuses on growing the Self-Love Movement™.

In my first Q&A segment on Music Historian, I talk to Daylle to find out what she learned about being a woman in the music business, the advice she has for other female professionals, and why her 31 Days of Self-Love Commitment matters.

Music Historian: Tell me about your career as a rapper.

Daylle: During the late 1980’s, I was a teacher, and I remember feeling so bored and creatively stuck. In those times, my students were doing the human beat box in class. I would feel the beat and start to write my own raps. Article about Daylle by Newsday from the 1980's

My students were always rapping in school, and one day they dared me to rap. They would say “you cannot rap because you are a white lady,” but I told them I could rap as well as anybody out there.

In those days, there were no white rappers. This was before 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice, and the only female rappers before Salt-N-Pepa were Sparky Dee, emcee The Real Roxanne and Roxanne Shante.

Then they [my students] told me I couldn’t rap because I was too old.

How old were you?

I was in my 20’s.

That’s not old by today’s standards.

Yeah, but I was also a teacher. The students would say “we don’t know how old you are, but you must be too old [to be a rapper] because you are a teacher.”

That’s how they assessed me as too old. Although I was in my early twenties, I was perceived as a grown-up. Most rappers typically start when they are teenagers. While they are in school, they build a fan base, then receive a record deal and obtain fame during adulthood.

I wanted to rap to prove a point. I wanted to show my students not to let stereotypes stop them. I didn’t want kids to grow up believing their sex or skin color could stop them.

Eventually, I would go into the streets and rap. At the time, Davy DMX lived in the neighborhood and heard about this “a crazy white teacher rapping.” He sent someone to recruit me, and as soon as I was introduced to him we started working together.

I met Kurtis Blow and a few other rappers. I soon recorded my first record with Davy, “Girls Can Do.” At that time, Kurtis also invited me to come along on his European tour.

In the U.S., mostly Black Americans listened to hip-hop, and it took some time for this music to cross over to different nationalities. Europe had a very different scene. Most of the audience members at the shows Kurtis played on the tour were white kids.

While I was in the UK, I made some contacts, a few great ones and kept in touch with them afterwards. I met a guy who wanted to manage me when I was sure I was going to [professionally] rap. He was the manager for a rock band that was popular in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Fine Young Cannibals.

My manager helped me get onto a few radio shows in the UK and helped me gain a lot of publicity. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t get signed.

You had all of these fabulous publicity opportunities but still could not get a deal?

Yes, my manager in England eventually said “I give up. They just don’t want a white woman rapper.”

When I returned to the U.S. and to teaching, my students would tell me “You have to shop a deal here.” So I started paying people to shop a deal for me, but they took my money and did not do anything.

Is that when you decided to do Revenge Productions?

My students followed the story, and they would say “You have to get your revenge on them; they’re ripping you off…” That’s when I started Revenge Productions and then Revenge Records.

Revenge Productions and Revenge Records did quite well. I released “Girls Can Do” under this label, and DJs picked up on it, and the song sold, and I got distribution for my label.

Getting ripped off and losing money eventually taught me that I was doing the business all wrong. Then I started doing it right.

Part of my “revenge” stemmed from the fact that people tried to take advantage of me. I also had a mentor that was a very powerful man. He had told my father he would take good care of me. After that though, he tried to rape me. That made me more determined to succeed on my own without having to give up my body.

[The music industry] was very misogynistic then. Every woman that went to a music conference wore a skirt up to the top of her thighs and a blouse buttoned down to her navel. Many women were using their bodies to get ahead.

Although I am not sure whether I was the “first” woman to start her own label, in those days, I never met another woman that started her own record company. I knew women that created labels with their husbands like Monica Lynch who was married to Tommy Silverman and she started Tommy Boy Records with him. I did it all by myself, and that was another reason I had difficulty being taken seriously as a business woman.

Daylle Deanna Schwartz's novel, "Nice Girls Can Finish First" Since being nice did not get me anywhere I started to be aggressive and tough. People did not like me, and I did not like myself either. I had to learn to manage myself in a way where men could take me seriously without having to act like a perennial bitch. In fact, many of my lessons in my book Nice Girls Can Finish First come from my experience learning to carry myself in a way in which people would like me and also know that I meant business.

Many young professionals today continue to struggle with finding a position that will make them feel empowered. Sometimes they think that in order to obtain that appropriate role, they have to change. What do you say to this?

I focus on this a lot in my writing. Women often feel like they have to play on a man’s level and usually that does not work. Men don’t like women that act like men. While several men might easily be excused for behaving abrasively and aggressively, yelling and screaming, and using inappropriate language; a woman that behaves in this manner is not accepted. A woman has to walk that fine line between asserting herself and making sure people still like her.

Women also have trouble separating doing favors for people and charging money for their services. A young professional, for example, may know how to build a website, but everybody wants to have one created for free. Many women struggle with saying “this is my livelihood and I get paid for it.” I see this happen all the time.

In my personal experiences, I hear from individuals trying to break into the music industry or write a book, and they will approach me and ask me to read their manuscript. I will say “all right, here is my fee…”

Women must always remember their needs to understand there is a personal and business side of themselves.

In addition, many young women who cannot obtain that one position that will empower them actually start their own opportunities. However, even the most entrepreneurial individual might be afraid of not making enough money, being creatively restricted or coming to a dead end job. What do you say about these fears?

If you face your fears, they go away. It is a matter of passion, drive and desire. You have to want it [that position, job, record deal, raise, etc.] bad enough to face your fears.

In my book I Don’t Need a Record Deal, I ask many people “Do you truly want to do music or do you want to be a rock star?”

Sometimes you cannot always do what you want, especially in the beginning. I will advise musicians “play a couple of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs because it’s really good money.” I received responses like “I don’t want to play covers” and I [rhetorically] ask “isn’t that better than waiting tables?” RecordDeal

Musicians can still do music and make some money, and most importantly, they can make contacts along the way. Doing this also gives them the freedom to make original music when they are not working.

Whether it involves singing back-up at someone’s gigs, going on tour, being a music teacher, or playing on someone else’s tour, musicians have many opportunities to earn money. They might not be making their own music, but they are still getting paid to do music, practice, sing or play, and they have the chance to meet people.

This also applies to people searching for any careers. Some company presidents start in the mailroom of that company. For them, that’s where they learn about the business, and that’s where it all begins.

Many of the musicians I interview on Music Historian have second jobs to support themselves; whether it is teaching, singing at weddings, or a second profession.

Music has always received a reputation as a tough career choice. But now that I think about it, there is something difficult about every career path.

Absolutely, you have to earn a living. I never tell anybody not to earn a living. You must willingly give up certain things in order to enjoy the things you love, and you have to make time for what you actually want to do.

If you want to tour, you have to give up your free time to do that on the weekends, even if you have a day job. You might dedicate your vacation to touring instead of simply enjoying yourself.

Since writing is my passion, I make time to write. Every time I travel, I take my laptop along. I schlep it everywhere I go. On vacation, whether I am at the beach or in the mountains, I take that time to write peacefully. There is nothing else I want to do except off-shoots of my writing, like speaking.

Since we are on the subject of your writing, tell me a little more about the 31 Days of Self-Love Commitment on your site HowDoILoveMe.com.

Book Title: "How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count The Way", a book that Daylle is giving away I founded The Self-Love Movement™. I grew up a doormat and felt immensely unhappy and disempowered. I hated myself growing up [for several reasons]. I didn’t think I was good enough because I was not slim.

When I was in middle school, and elementary school, every student had to be weighed in gym class. That to me was traumatic because the teachers would call out everybody’s weight. Since I am big-boned, my weight sounded gigantic to everyone else. Everyone teased and laughed at me the moment they heard my weight.

That started it, I just felt so big and fat, and this made me set limits for myself. I never talked to the cute guys because I didn’t think I was worthy enough.

I never honestly liked myself for years. Then in my adulthood, I started building good self-esteem by doing music and being successful. I began to be kinder to myself, and that motivated me to take care of myself.

I built self-love through showing myself kindness, and doing nice things for me that made me feel good. This included exercise or doing something I have always wanted to do. By saying “no” to someone, you are saying “yes” to yourself. As a result, I created the 31 Days of Self-Love Commitment, a pledge to do something kind for yourself for 31 day.

I launched The Self-Love Movement™ in the Fall of 2012 and have given away almost 10,000 copies of my book, How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count the Ways, so far.

Do you hope to take on any additional projects in the future?

My eventual goal is to get The Self-Love Movement™ program into colleges. I have many Self-Love ambassadors. Now I’m looking to recruit young self-love ambassadors that are involved in sororities and student unions at their schools. I believe they can encourage other students and their colleagues to sign the 31 days of Self-Love Commitment.

These young self-love ambassadors will go to a representative stationed next to a computer, and they will sign their name digitally. Afterward, they will receive a pass code within an email. They can then go onto the website, HowDoILoveMe.com and enter this code to download a free copy of the book.

I feel that self-love can really help the many students experiencing depression, eating disorders, or thoughts of suicide.

I am also working on the plans for a video that will spread the word about the movement. I plan to use Hoobastank’s song “The Reason.” At the moment in the video when the following chorus is sung I found a reason for me/ to change who I used to be/ a reason to start over new/ and the reason is you, the actors in the video pick up mirrors and see themselves. I’m working on getting sponsorship, and I am really excited about finding someone that will make the video for me.

Based on your research, why do you think people have a difficult time loving themselves?

Oprah Winfrey and Daylle Deanna SchwartzWe don’t learn to put ourselves first or to feel worthy. A majority of this stems from childhood. They receive a lot of criticism when they are young and don’t feel accepted. They might not feel good enough, or they might not get what they want because their parents withheld what they desired.

Dysfunctional childhoods come in many forms, and children usually grow up not loving themselves. In my case, body image issues played a role. And many women experience this issue.

I have women in my workshops often saying they need to lose weight even though they are slender. I’m just astounded. I see women that constantly exercise at the gym or resort to eating disorders to stay thin.

I actually interviewed a model for my book, and she expressed to me, “If you want to know how lousy you could feel about yourself, try being a model and then having your picture airbrushed because your body is not good enough.” You can be slender and think you look really good. Then, they [the editors] air brush you. [Often] we compare ourselves to images that are not even real.

Many women feel happiness is based on having a lot, whether it is money, food, many beautiful physical features, a ton of things…

It’s a band aid. Feeling the need to make a lot of money, overeat, or overspend is a band aid. They look to soothe themselves with food, or overspend on retail therapy. And the same applies for guys too.

I knew this one man years ago who would work from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening. One day, he came to my office very late because he was busy all day completing jobs for other people. While he was working on my computer, he was constantly answering his phone and making appointments for later in the evening.

I asked him “is this your every day?” and he said “yes. I just run from one place to another.” I asked “why?” He made decent money, and he was exhausting himself.

Then, he opened his bag and inside he owned every tech toy. “I need to have the latest smart phone, laptop, iPad, I need to have it…” he explained. Again, I asked “why?” He just looked at me and said “because I have to.”

I thought to myself, “You are one unhappy guy.”

Finally, how do you define success?

If you are happy with what you are doing, that’s success. It also means doing something meaningful and satisfying for you.

Personally, I think I will feel successful getting the word out and the message across further about The Self-Love Movement™. Having a happy life is success.

Connecting the Dots (Part 2): Leah Speckhard talks Female Empowerment and Coming-of-Age on her second EP, Sleepwalker

Leah Speckhard, Press Photo Although Leah changed her mind about her university major, she always made sure to remember music and make that a part of her life. The singer-songwriter reflected on the transition between recording of her first album Pour Your Heart Out Like Water, and her newest one, Sleepwalker.

“I recorded my first album in Greece. When I signed with the label, Legend Records, they had me record a full album, which they put out with full press coverage. But the follow up coincided with the downturn, and  the album came out during the whole economic crash.

“The record label was very supportive of the album and me as an artist, but everybody was tightening their pockets. I saw that it wouldn’t be easy for a new artist to break through in this environment.”

While Leah felt satisfied with the completion of her first record, she also admitted that it did not build up into what she expected. In addition, the young artist realized the market for Greek music showed a greater affinity for club music, which did not suit her lyrics-driven songs. Leah asserts, “I felt it did not make sense to keep pushing in Greece, so I decided to come to New York to see if I could make it happen here.”

Leah describes her first experience as a recording artist as invaluable. When she made her first EP, Leah listened to a lot of folk music, and she was relatively inexperienced at recording. She says:

“In Greece, the label was very supportive of me, but I did not understand how the whole process of making an album would play out.. I am a fairly assertive person in general, but in the studio, in that element, I did not feel that assertive. I had a hard time articulating what I wanted the arrangements to sound like.

“In the second record, I felt more involved in the process – which I think is just part of the indie experience versus the label experience. I worked with a producer in Brooklyn and within a different environment. You just naturally have more control over things.

“Many artists I talked to have a similar experience with their first album. You don’t know how to assert yourself and sometimes, you feel that you shouldn’t, because the label is paying for everything and they bring in people with a lot more experience to work on the music, too. The record was also the label’s investment, and I wanted to be respectful of that.”

“On Sleepwalker, I was more sure of what I wanted, and I’d evolved as an artist. I also worked with someone younger, so the collaboration felt easier and more intimate. I knew I was working with someone who believed in me and who brought a lot to the table – we co-wrote most of the songs, and he listened to me about what I wanted production-wise and we really vibed as far as finding a direction that reflected who I am as a person and the dance influence that I liked.”

A great lesson Leah learned was to be assertive on the second album. She would agree that learning assertiveness without acting rude, and finding that fine line, is also a process of growing up creatively, personally and professionally.

“When I was younger,” Leah recalled, “I wanted to be easygoing. I did not want to come across as difficult, but now I realize, you must be to a certain extent if you want your creative vision to come to life. You don’t have to be rude, but you have to be straightforward if something is not the way you want it, and that can be very awkward and uncomfortable. While I love to hear suggestions from other co-writers or producers, as an artist I have to be the ultimate decision-maker and ask myself “Is this what I want my sound to be or not?””

As an indie artist, Leah funded this album herself. Some people might think that an artist paying for their album defeats the purpose of making money with music. Leah says that having her music pay for itself would be a dream. At the moment though, she tries to separate money from music.

“I know some people to think about the connection between them [money and music] when they make music their full-time job. I realized that apart from the money piece of it, I want music to be a big part of my life. I try not to focus specifically on the money because it is really more about the emotions and the feelings for me.

“I try to organize my goals more around questions like  “Do I want to play for bigger audiences, make a music video, or get the music out?” To put it out, you want to have the audience.

“There are so many emerging artists now. To charge people right off the bat for your songs seems foolish – very few people will want to pay $10 or $15 for your album when they can get everything for free on Spotify. I know as a consumer, I am the same way. I’d rather pay to go see a concert, so as an artist, I try to keep that in mind. I think people have grown unaccustomed to paying for recorded music. It’s more about the audience now. I feel like my investment will pay itself off someday with a bigger audience, which is more important to me.”

Listening to Leah talk about her music and her experiences, I realize that growing up for twenty-something’s is not reflected so much how frequently they change their minds until they make a decision most people find logical. Maturing comes from the valuable lessons twenty-something-year-olds learn within their development and apply that to make better choices in the future. I then wondered whether Leah had a song on her album that reflected a coming-of-age theme. She talked about another song on Sleepwalker called “Time Machine.” Leah Speckhard Album Cover

“I was delving into relationship issues with my songs – examining all of the heartbreaks, trying to figure out what was happening, and getting into all of this philosophical questioning about what really mattered to me. In looking at my emotions more closely, I realized that a lot of my fears circled around  getting older, and I put that into my song “Time Machine”.

“I started having this strong urge to be young again and have all of this time again to do things over. Aside from the social pressure to have a “real job” and career, there is also pressure to be young from wanting to be part of an industry that emphasizes youth and beauty. I started feeling like I needed to make choices, and fast. With so many options, though I was blessed to have them, I felt overwhelmed. In “Time Machine,” I thought, “I just want to go back in time and be young and not have to make any of these decisions.”

Leah is not afraid to expose her feelings in her songs – though they may come across as hyperbolic sometimes, she thinks hat many people can relate to strong feelings like this popping up from time to time. If you are wondering whether to listen to Leah’s music, this is definitely one reason; but it is not the only reason. In today’s popular music, there is a disconnection about the definition of female empowerment. Major performing artists talk about being female within their pop tunes without emphasizing empowerment.

Leah addresses female empowerment by expressing the injustice, the dissatisfaction with it, and then taking responsibility for entering that disappointing situation in the first place all within her music. “Loser”, a bonus song on her website www.LeahSpeckhard.com, is the track that beautifully introduces this concept. As for the rest of the songs, listeners will have to attend the launch of Sleepwalker on February 23 at 8:30 pm at The Bowery Electric, which she will do in partnership with Tinderbox Arts PR.

 

Connecting the Dots (Part 1): Leah Speckhard talks Female Empowerment and Coming-of-Age on her second EP, Sleepwalker

Leah Speckhard, Press PhotoIn her song, “Loser,” Leah Speckhard, sings, Why don’t you call me up, tell me my family’s dead/ tell me my best friend hates me, and always has/ burn my house to the ground, as you watch me cry/ this is what you know best, how to say goodbye. The catchy chorus carries the same dramatic tone, yet applies a more truthful resolution – I never really wanted you/ and all the things you made me do/ make you a loser/ and me a fool. Last Friday night, I sat down with the artist at the Moroccan restaurant, Marrakesh to ask her more about this song.

“The funny part for me, is that I wrote those songs in all seriousness,” explains Leah. “Then I would sing them for my friends and they would laugh hysterically. They said, “You’re so crazy.” I think that when I write, it helps that I am a bit melodramatic. My emotions are magnified when I have a moment where I think, “I don’t like that this [situation] happened, or I really don’t like this interaction.” It tends to be a little over the top, yet I think I started to embrace that instead of tone it down. This is part of my personality sometimes, and this is a fun way to release emotions – a lot like therapy.”

Aside from the obvious exaggerated context, the song is indeed funny, the melody is upbeat, and the rhythm has a nice dance feel. This song would be great on the show Girls; I said to her. Then, I silently recalled the press release of Leah’s upcoming album Sleepwalker. In addition to “Loser,” Leah also wrote a song that will also appear on this record called “Gaslighting,” which builds on a commonly-used feministic term. Additional songs, like “Time Machine” touch on coming-of-age in a global community. Naturally, with so many themes circulating in this artist’s music, and the release of new album coming up; I welcome Leah as the featured artist for January on the Music Historian to connect the dots on all the themes in her songs.

I have heard A&R Representatives from labels say that in dance music, lyrics are typically superficial and simple. “Loser” is an example of a song that is suitable for dancing yet does not fit in a club, and includes lyrics with depth, regardless of their dramatized context. Leah furthers her efforts by taking the message of female empowerment to new grounds.

“I think that some women allow themselves to be manipulated as a result of having a good and trusting nature, and unfortunately that can translate into playing a stereotypical fool. I saw that within myself at least. I thought “Yeah, maybe it was foolish to trust this person, but that person is also a loser for wanting to manipulate me in this way.” The song “Loser” stemmed from a reaction to that, and thinking “something needs to change.”

“Part of my process was to try and understand how I gave people permission to treat me this way, to examine whether it happened more than just once or twice. If it becomes a pattern, then you have a responsibility to stop that and stand up to that. I hope that some of that message comes through my songs,” says the artist.

Leah then talks about another important song on her album, “Gaslighting.” The term, Gaslighting expresses a practice in which men tried to convince women they were crazy. The term is based on an old film of the same name, in which a man arranges to have gaslights flicker noticeably while a woman is in the same room. When the woman comments on it, the man tries to convince her she is imagining the flickering of the lights in the room and is for this reason going crazy. Leah Speckhard Album Cover

“The song “Gaslighting,” is probably the most important and one of my favorite because it comes with a real message: Gaslighting should stop for me and all women,” explains Leah. “It bothered my sense of justice to see those things happen to me and my friends when I was younger. I have many amazing female friends, and I’ve seen many of them manipulated over the years. I too have been to a certain extent. I don’t want this for anyone, even men if they are experiencing this. While my songs come from a victim’s perspective, I want to be a little more empowering and say, “We can do something about this.”

Further in our conversation, I learned that in Leah’s life, she cared about a sense of justice not only in relationships, but also in a broader global sense. Leah is also the daughter of a U.S. diplomat and grew up in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C. until the age of 12 when her father was assigned to Belarus. While Belarus had a president, the leadership in the government was similar to a dictatorship.

“I moved to Belarus, and lived there for a few years in a compound where all of the ambassadors stayed. Everybody lived next to the president. He became very paranoid and believed people were spying on him. He blocked water, electricity and heat to the houses, and told residents they had to move for nonsensical reasons. All of the embassies invested money in those houses, so they told him that they had backup generators, and the residents were okay to stay. Then finally, he just said, “Get out.” This action violated an international treaty regarding diplomats, so my family moved back to the U.S. for a year until it was resolved. Living in Belarus really made me aware that we shouldn’t take rule of law for granted.”

After Belarus, Leah and her family moved to Belgium. Leah spent the remainder of her teenage years in Belgium completing high school. Afterward, she decided to pursue a degree in Vocal Performance at James Madison University in the U.S.

“I first became interested in music as a kid, because my family would always sing songs when they got together. My parents are originally from Wisconsin and my grandparents have a lake house there. All the generations would gather when we went there and sing around a campfire, and I loved those experiences. My Dad also sang to us every night before bed, and plays guitar. Music was always around me.

“My parents put me in piano lessons when I was a kid too. I can’t say I loved it; I always gravitated towards the singing and the writing more. I sang in a choir and the select choir in high school. I realized I wanted to do something more serious when I went to college and did voice as my major. However, at James Madison, the vocal coaching was geared towards opera singing, and I realized that I really wanted to write and sing current music. I learned that for me, music was more about expressing myself and sharing my ideas. So I ended up changing majors and working on my music on the side.”

After that revelation, Leah returned to Belgium and decided to change her major to International Relations. She explains:

“Although I grew up in Northern Virginia right outside of Washington, D.C., I lived in a city. James Madison University, while a great fit for some, wasn’t right for me – it was in a very rural area, and I wasn’t used to that. Apart from deciding not to major in music anymore, I also thought the location did not make sense for me. So, I moved back to Brussels and completed a dual accredited American and European degree.

“After college, I graduated and looked for my first job in Belgium. During this time, my family moved to Greece, and they told me, “Why not look in Greece? We miss you, and we’d love to have you around.” So, I found a job at a shipping company in Greece, and moved there.

“On the side, I worked on my music the whole time. I played around Greece, and some people heard my music and they wanted to introduce me to a record label. That’s how I started.”

Standby for Part 2 of my interview with Leah, in which she talks more about recording her first album in Greece, and coming-of-age on her second EP, Sleepwalker.

Arlen Roth’s Slide Guitar Legacy: Everything from Robert Johnson, to The Blues Brothers, to Teaching Students and Major Artists

Arlen Roth, Head Shot Since the age of 17, guitarist Arlen Roth has been influencing the scene of rock music, film, and television with his slide guitar, dobro, guitar and pedal steel guitar-performing skills. His most recent album, The Slide Guitar Summit, brings together many great musicians Arlen admires, like Cindy Cashdollar, Sonny Landreth, Lee Roy Parnell, Jack Pearson, and Tom Hambridge and many more for a large concert and jam in Nashville. At the moment, magazines like Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar have planned interviews with the musician regarding his new work. Most importantly, somebody who knows Arlen personally and lives in my hometown within Huntington spoke highly of his new record. Arlen’s friend Billy said:

“The album I feel will be important to musicians interested in the bottleneck and slide formats. I don’t think any recordings have ever put the “cream of the crop” together in this way and just let them challenge and play off of each other.”

Arlen tells me, over a telephone conversation, “I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said “What should I do for this next project, what’s going on?” Simultaneously, we both said, “What about a slide guitar summit project?” Now, I am known as a guitar player, in general, who has influenced and taught many, but Slide guitar has always been a big part of what I do. In fact, there is a book about slide guitar I wrote when I was 19 years old. It is still the biggest slide guitar book in the world. This was 40 or so years ago. I don’t want to date myself too much, but that’s always been a big thing of mine – specializing in the slide guitar. I am sure you are aware of what slide guitar entails and what it means, and how different it is from other guitar playing, but it has also become the voice of American music these days.”

Slide guitar is a technique of guitar playing where the player presses down on the strings while wearing a piece of bar, brass or glass cylinder on one of their fingers. Arlen adds:

“In the old days, it used to be called Bottleneck guitar because players would take a piece of actual bottleneck and put it on their pinky or third finger, or whichever finger suited them. I prefer a heavy piece of brass. You can also alter the tuning of the guitar to an open chord – EBEG#BE for example – as opposed to standard tuning. There are some great standard tuning slide guitar players, but I prefer the open chords. This started to be common back in the ‘20’s with Delta Blue players like Robert Johnson and Son House.”

Arlen Playing Slide Guitar

If you listen to Q.1043, WBAB, or any rock station within and around New York City and the Tri-state area, you have heard slide guitar. Whether you listened to, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “My Friends,” The Black Crows’ “She Talks to Angels” (in which the guitar is tuned to the open chord), or the instrumental version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (recreated by Arlen Roth), you heard slide guitar. Yes, I am thrilled that the first official interview article on the Music Historian for 2015 covers a guitar playing technique that has captivated all types of audiences. Rest assured; however, Arlen Roth will not pay a simple ode to the beauty and joy of playing guitar. Arlen shares his story about how he was at the forefront of bringing slide guitar into television and film. Most importantly, he talks about the importance of passing his passion of guitar to his students, family, colleagues and musicians who are gaining a new appreciation for American roots music. It is my pleasure to welcome Arlen to the Music Historian.

“When I was writing my slide guitar book at 19, I remember asking myself, “How do I know all of this stuff?” I have not even had time to learn it, but at that point, I had already been playing for nine years. I was deeply involved in the blues and in country music. So, at that time, I was the only person in New York City who was playing pedal steel guitar, dobro, and Hawaiian guitar, just because I loved that sound. I used to tune into the far off radio stations and listen to country music in Upstate New York. Whether I was listening to it from Pennsylvania or Wheeling, West Virginia or the famous WSM from Nashville. I picked up all of those stations, and I would pick up and fall in love with those sounds.

“When you say, you’re the Music Historian; that’s what we all are. We all fall in love with something like the Blues or Country, and we want to keep getting deeper and deeper into it, and it does not take very long. I can remember at 15 or 16 saying, “I love Mike Bloomfield, now I love B.B. King, now I love Buddy Guy, now I love Son House, now I love Robert Johnson.” Being so young and voracious for this material, and so you are learning ten-fold, and the speed at which you pick it all up can be amazing.”

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Arlen was 21 in 1974. In addition to writing his book about the slide guitar (also titled Slide Guitar), he went on tour with the Bee Gees across Canada. In 1975, he toured with John Prine, then between 1976 and 1978, he performed on an episode of Saturday Night Live with Art Garfunkel, taught guitar and recorded his first solo album. In 1983, he would tour with Simon and Garfunkel. However, Arlen assures that his road to success was not always rosy.

“I was in the opening act for the Bee Gees,” recalls Arlen. “They loved my steel guitar playing, so they would have me play on their song [Arlen sings] “I’m a-Goin’ back to Massachusetts.” This is like the real original Bee Gees, before they got into R&B and disco.

“We were touring Canada, and we had just done an album with a $100,000 budget. While we were on tour, we discovered the album was being shelved. It was not going to come out. Some of these things in the music business, you never know how much delay there is. The Slide Guitar Summit, I recorded two years ago. Almost, three years ago. Sometimes, that’s how long it takes to get things together.”

Arlen (middle) with (l-r) Sonny Landrith, Jack Pearson,  Lee Roy Parnell performing in Nashville to promote The Slide Guitar Summit, Jan. 2015

Aside from delays within record productions; Arlen also experienced plenty of challenges on large global tours, this time with Simon and Garfunkel.

“In 1983, I was teaching Paul Simon. I would also help and give him some pointers in some of his songs. Then, they asked me to do the world tour, the big Simon and Garfunkel tour. It was exciting to be on a tour that big, playing for 40,000 to 100,000 people a night.

“When you do a tour like that, the music connects with people, but more as part of an event. You are on the big screen, and one little move you make, gets 20,000 people to yell. It’s a whole different thing. I like it more when you are closer to the audience, and you have a closer rapport with the crowd.”

“True,” I said. “When you are on a global tour, you want to make a bigger event to get more money to pay back more of the expenses (operational). I’ve also noticed across the world, that in some countries, especially in Europe, music is made more for entertainment, and large events like that.”

“Yeah, it’s unbelievable,” responded Arlen. “It seems like they have festivals all the time, and these huge gatherings of people. I remember doing some of them with Simon and Garfunkel, and when the crowd got violent, there were riots and people getting hit over the head.

“We were playing “Scarborough Fair” and people are hitting each other over the head with bottles of Evian. Paul, when he saw that yelled, “Stop doing that. We will stop playing if you don’t stop hitting that guy!” People were getting crushed, running on stage and pulling your clothes; it was kind of scary.

“I also remember being in Boston, and [the crowd] getting unruly. People were hitting us in the face with glow sticks. I saw my niece in the front row, and she looked so worried because she was getting pushed from behind. Once the crowd starts pushing, they don’t stop. So, in the bigger events, try to be as safe as possible. But still, it’s exciting to be part of something on that scale.”

As I thought about having thousands of people watching every move a musician makes on stage, I recall reading about another major event in Arlen’s career where he performed for a large audience. This time, his guitar playing had caught the attention two actors on the set of Saturday Night Live – Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. A jam warm-up session that night with Arlen transformed into the beginning of The Blues Brothers.

“That night in 1978, [on the set of Saturday Night Live] there was no “Blues Brothers” yet. Belushi comes up to me, puts on a hat and sunglasses and says, “Look, we are going to warm up the crowd. We’re going to put on these blues outfits, and we are going to be these blues guys.” We just warmed up the crowd with a song, which happens to be on this new album, “Rocket 88,” which I also did with Johnny Winter on the new album. John Belush (Left), SNL Host (Middle), and Arlen Roth (right) on the set of SNL, 1978

“What happens at Saturday Night Live, is you start on Wednesday, and by the time you hit Friday, you do the show over, and over. You have a rehearsal, then a dress rehearsal, then a live show. By the time you do it, you don’t even care anymore. You don’t even know it’s live, you are like blind. They keep cutting routines, changing them, and I remember I was backstage with Belushi.

“I wrote out the words for him, and he was very much an actor saying, “Quick, give me the information right now.” Then I remember Andy Kaufman was there, and everything was amazing. Then, we hit the stage and warmed up the crowd with “Rocket 88.” In fact, later that night, after the show, we all went to this bar afterward – because the party never ended with Saturday Night Live – and we were jamming and playing the blues. That’s what turned into the Blues Brothers.”

According to outside sources, The Blues Brothers became a musical sketch on SNL, then filming of the movie started in 1979 and then premiered in June of 1980. While it earned just under $5 Million on its opening weekend, it went on to gross $115.2 Million in theaters worldwide before its release on home video. The film has become a cult classic (en.wikipedia, 2015).

By the 1980’s, Arlen had taught Paul Simon, toured the world, and contributed to the beginning of The Blues Brothers. In 1986, his influence would later grab the interest of director Walter Hill, who had just started filming the film about the legendary Robert Johnson titled Crossroads. Walter invited Arlen on the set to be an authenticator for the film, to play much of the guitar in the movie and to coach Ralph Macchio on his playing, and the guitarist made sure to deliver.

“What happened in a scene – which included Robert Johnson in 1937 recording in a hotel room in San Antonio – I said, “Hey look, the guy has tuning pegs on his guitar from the 1980’s.” They [the pegs] were bright chrome, and I told them, “No, you can’t have that.” Walter had to shut everything down just because I said that. I told him, “We’ve got to get the right guitar. If I am hired here to make sure that all the guitar scenes go down right, even if the guitar is wrong. I am going to point it out.”

“The actor who came in said, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.” He didn’t have anything covered. He did not understand that the guitar had to be the right one for the era of the scene. So, we shot another scene instead and then, the following day; we shot the authentic and correct Robert Johnson session.

“Walter would sometimes let me sit in the director’s chair and direct the scene. He already had his camera angles set right and said, “Arlen, this whole scene is about the music, and I don’t know anything about it, and you do. So, I’m going to go in my trailer, and you be the director.” I thought, “Wow! Here I am in the middle of a Mississippi cotton field sitting in the director’s chair saying “cut.”” Everybody was looking at me like I was the director now. They did not even miss a beat. I personally think Walter did that to give me a little thrill.”

While Arlen acted as a director for a popular film, performed on television, and taught famous performers, he did not stray away from his life as a performer and a music teacher. He did not depend on these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for his living. Arlen claims that teaching and showing an artist’s innermost passion is what he is all about.

“Many years ago, I was one of the first people to ever document famous musicians teaching. I had started a company with my late wife Deborah called Hot Licks. We formed it in 1979, and it was as far back as 1973 that I knew I would start it one day. In ’79, I started recording my teaching on audio cassettes. I then found other peers of mine – guitar players, piano players, drummers, whoever might be – anyone who would be willing to do something like this. It was a very new idea – it was not something many players embraced – the concept of laying it out on the line and saying “This is what I am about.” I am self-taught, I never took lessons, I don’t read music, I only learned in real life, in front of real people!

“I thought audio recorded lessons was a great way for people to learn because, and till this day, I still encourage my students to tape their lessons. I teach privately, and I always tell them [students], please tape it [the lessons] because you will lose everything, you will miss a lot of what we say. One day, a student said to me, “I miss those lessons on tape.” That student moved out to Colorado, and I said, “Aha! Lessons on tape. That’s what I will do someday when I need to start another business.

“Music is up and down. I was touring off and on, in between teaching and recording. When I got to the point of doing [one of the earlier albums] Toolin’ Around, I had many folks who had done videos for me, like Brian Setzer, Albert Lee, Danny Gatton – who was a big fan and friend of mine – Duke Robillard, Jerry Douglas, the incredible dobro player who performs with Allison Krauss, played on the album with me. This [album] stretched from 1989 to 1992, and it came out with 8 or 9 artists on it with me.”

Arlen playing guitar at Building 24 in October 2014 Arlen now touches on an important point – the fluctuation in the music business. For many musicians, across the different generations, teaching had provided a stable endeavor for instrumentalists. He claims that this is why he stuck with teaching. In addition, teaching brought Arlen equity.

“I figured that no matter what, people would enjoy my playing and be interested in my playing because I would change the way people were learning the guitar. I had self-taught musicians, teaching everybody else to teach themselves.

“Many of the artists I recorded or filmed never actually sat down and ever had to explain what they did. I had Buddy Guy talk about the blues. Here is a guy who is my hero from when I was about 15 years old, telling me, “You’re the boss, tell me what to do!?” I said to him, “Buddy, just do it, just play.” All the people who I had admired for many years, some of them whom I really looked up to, suddenly there they are sitting in that chair, in front of those recording cameras for an instructional video, produced by ME!!

“I had directed more than 180 instructional videos with about 140 artists, over a 25-year span. It was quite something. We had 2 million students worldwide; we would make these documentary-type videos into films or box sets. The company that bought my business is still to this day converting things over to digital, DVDs and little snippets on the internet.”

Arlen also filmed about one thousand instructional lessons for Gibson.com, each being five or seven minutes long, but some over an hour in length. He describes them as “a meaningful vignette of an archetype, a certain aspect of guitar playing and music that is a little gem that someone might hook onto and say, “Wow. I never knew about that!””

The musician expresses, “there is a lesson to be learned in everything.” He also believes in “the timeless quality of passing all of that information onto people” and down to his family. Lexie, Arlen’s second daughter, picked up the bass guitar when she was eight years old and entered the world of performing within her teens. Now, in her mid-twenties, she is working on her third album. In the meantime, Lexie also works as a natural gourmet chef. Earlier this month, she starred in a commercial for the Food Network.

“She writes great songs,” says Arlen. “Many of them are very hard-hitting and she’s wonderful and incredible with lyrics. Give her a few chords to go with a guitar part, and before you know it, there is another song.”

Arlen’s first daughter Gillian, who had incredible poise, beauty, and dignity, learned to play the guitar, and started doing commercials at 11 years old. She also performed with Arlen at a concert when she was 12. She even received a contract to star in a television show, where she would be the main actor, guitar player, and singer. Sadly, in the late 1990’s Gillian passed away in a car accident at the age of 14, with her mother, Deborah just two days after she had recorded the theme for that show.

These talented girls learned guitar early from watching their father. Reflecting on the lessons Arlen gave students, adult performers, and his family, I wondered about the most important lesson Arlen learned from his lifetime in music. I asked, “If there were any advice you would give your younger self, what would that be?”

Arlen says, “Because I did start playing so young, I worked with many people who were much older than me. Looking back, I got the spotlight a lot, but people also took advantage. I think you have to be a little cautious about that; there are must as many predatory people out there [today] as there ever were. When you are young and happy to do anything for any money, people start to know you are not the kind of person to turn stuff down.

“Something good has always led to something else. If you do something great, the word spreads and you get called for something better the next time. For example, in my old days in New York, in the early ‘70’s, I would get called to do recording sessions. I really grew up listening to the music that came out of California, Chicago and Nashville. What made me stand out in New York at that time was, there were not too many people my age who played slide guitar, dobro or my unique string bending method. They could not even get a good sound on a guitar in New York.

“I came to New York [in the early ’70’s], into a recording session. I would hear myself play on the record what sounded like this little “chink, chink, chink” sound. I told them, “That’s not the sound I am giving you. I’m giving you this wonderful rich guitar sound,” but the guitar was not important. The guitar was secondary, and you always had to be careful of what you’d say to these folks.

“It [New York] was a horn town, where they wanted to hear strings, horns, piano and drums – jazz. Now, I think there is a wonderful movement in New York and Brooklyn where many people are embracing the roots of rock music, the blues, and the country sound again.”

Recalling this experience in New York during the 1970’s, I asked Arlen what he learned. He responded:

“[I thought], “what are they asking me to record here?” I am recording nothing on this guitar. They were so impressed with me; they saw me perform, they jumped out of their seats and the next thing I know, I am playing “chink, chink, chink” on a record. Then I realized, this is what it is [sometimes] to make a record, at least back then. In those days, it was about overdubbing, layering, getting different sounds, going for hours and hours, breaking for lunch, and then doing it again.

“It was a whole different experience that I never knew. You learn from everything you experience, and all that learning is beautiful.”

In addition to the openness to learn, and the need to protect oneself from being misled, Arlen thinks of another piece of advice he would like to give his younger self:

“Stay true, and learn from those lessons. I had recording gigs that were just nightmares. You walk out of there, and you feel like you aged ten years. The reason it was such torture is because I already had the direction I needed to go in, and they were trying to force me into another thing. That’s part of working as a session man or a musician. Sometimes you have to play backup, adhere to what they want, and be attentive to find the moments where you can shine, and be your creative best.

Slide Guitar Album Cover “You have to stay true to your music, stay ahead of the pack. Don’t try to be a trend follower, it is better to be a trendsetter. Pretty soon, people will come to you, and turn their heads to what you are saying. I think that’s a little bit of what’s happening now with The Slide Guitar Summit.”

From Hollywood films to recording studios in the south, and on television, slide guitar has become very prominent in soundtracks. Interestingly, the average layperson does not think they are listening to slide guitar. Therefore, Arlen decided The Slide Guitar Summit would help educate and seize a very special moment. He explains:

“I’ve got this wonderful breadth of people, great friends and greats who play various forms of slide guitar,” which includes Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Rick Vito, Johnny Winter, Lee Roy Parnell, Greg Martin, Jimmy Vivino and more.

Arlen also asserts that when people think of slide, they think of blues. Slide Guitar Summit however, will expand into many different territories when it comes to slide guitar music. While listeners can expect the electric blues and Delta blues, they can also expect rock, southern rock, country, and Hawaiian. It is a little more challenging to categorize, but that is what makes it fun. Listeners can expect duets between the artists mentioned above and tributes to songs that have become classics within American music.

In his concluding words about The Slide Guitar Summit, Arlen says, “I wanted to do something that was going to catch people’s attention, and get them to appreciate it and love it. For me, I think of it as a legacy. To me, it is very much about what I am doing now. I loved getting together with these people. Some of the musicians, I had never met before or played with before, and some I had known quite a bit. So, we are going to get it all out there and make something new!”

Arlen Roth and his Slide Summit band will be in upstate New York on May 29th and 30th. Before that, he will probably hit New York City. To get the most updated information on concert dates, standby his website and Facebook.

I let Arlen take the reins of this conversation to share his amazing story. What many music listeners often forget is that music is cyclical. While the slide guitar tunes I learned when I took guitar lessons as a teenager are not the same tunes Arlen taught himself when he was a teenager; that technique transcended eras and continues to do so. What also transcends eras are the lessons musicians learn from being within the business.

Performers and recording artists continue to learn how to walk that fine line of staying open to new experiences within creating music while never losing focus on the sound and the style that makes them passionate. For Arlen, it was always about the playing and being self-taught. For other musicians, it may be about revitalizing a genre that made them happy growing up, or experimenting with various genres, or focusing on layering sounds within music, or simply about performing or collaboration. Whatever we stand for as professionals, we must never lose sight about what makes us who we are. Prosaic? Sure. Valuable though? Yes.

Works Cited

Wikipedia.org (2015 Feb 17). The Blues Brothers (Film). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blues_Brothers_(film)

Disclaimer: All Photos were published with permission