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

Advertisements

Wrapping Up 2014: What People said about music, and what I wish to see in music reporting

In 2014, Music Historian experienced its most decorated year. The New Music Seminar opened opportunities to listen to industry experts. Through this event, I also spoke to musicians who currently modernize classic rock and Americana, (Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies), revitalize the sounds of 1970’s funk and soul (Juicebox), and pay homage to some rock genres critics have often thought of as outdated or even obsolete, including grunge (Desert Sharks). The Governors Ball Music Festival presented a chance to apply the market research, strategy and consumer studies I had gathered at Business School in real life, and an interview with The Naked and Famous. Finally, during CMJ, my business colleagues introduced me to musicians who stood up for specific causes. Janna Pelle, for example, raised awareness for pre-Leukemia. Then, YUZIMA addressed the pettiness of homophobia with his artistic flair.

Looking back on a fantastic year, I am curious people say in the final weeks of 2014 about The Governors Ball Music Festival, New Music Seminar, and CMJ. I look at what people Tweeted over past three weeks and created a word cloud analysis to understand what was trending in regards to these events. Here is what I learned.

Governors Ball Music Festival

GovBall2014_Word_Cloud

“Tbt” appears in this word cloud as one of the largest after GovBall2014. Those of you Twitter fans know it stands for “Throw Back Thursday.” Naturally, one can assume that many remember the 2014 Governors Ball Music Weekend in the final weeks of December. As for musical acts that appear in the cloud, it appears that the Strokes and Vampire Weekend show up on most these Tweeters’ minds as December comes to a close. Out of all the musical acts that the Governors’ Ball brought New Yorkers; these were the two bands which came out on top.

In terms of consumers’ behavior at the festival, aside from the obvious subject, music; the words “festival,”  “photos” and “selfies” might indicate that this event was also a time for many celebrating together to make memories. Based on the activity I saw of people interacting with one another, I can say this is definitely the case.

New Music Seminar

NMS_Word_Cloud In the case you notice this word cloud is more compact than the last, that is for one reason only – I wanted to make sure I gathered at least 100 Tweets for each cloud. In the case of the New Music Seminar, those Tweets extended all the way to June 11th, the day after the event concluded. Meanwhile, GovBall2014 and CMJ, included 100 Tweets that were posted between early December and now.

So what do I see for this word cloud? Aside from New Music Seminar, I see “marketing,” “insights”, “streaming,” “industry,” “underground,” “marketers,” “Tips,” “Tune,” and “Battle.” This last word most likely refers to the battle of the top three bands at the 2014 NMS looking to win prize money. These bands included VanLadyLove, Kiah Victoria and June Divided.

VanLadyLove seems to be the only band which has appeared in the cloud. This is no surprise since they won the battle of the bands at this year’s NMS. Just like the word cloud for GovBall2014, you will see TBT. So what did Tweeters throw back on Thursdays where the NMS is concerned? Pics and articles of artists from the NMS in the late 80’s and early 90’s who quickly became famous, including Nirvana and Madonna. These Tweets that go to show readers that no one can ever expect who from the NMS will make it to the mainstream in the music industry a few years.

CMJ

CMJ_Word_CloudIn the CMJ cloud, the words which stood out to me include “new,” “songs,” “Jazz,” “Videos,” “news,” “one,” “unbreakable,” “interview,” “best,” “premiere,” “Murad,” and “Lucie.” How relevant are these words to what people have tweeted about CMJ in the last few weeks? Here is what I observed:

Jazz refers to “The Jazz Junes” from Philly, which have been popular in many Tweets. An interview with CJAM 99.1FM (Windsor, Detriot, MI) Music Director, Murad Ezrincioglu by CMJ received plenty of attention. Then, the English-born, New Zealand-raised, Nashville newbie, Lucie Silva premiered her song “Unbreakable Us” at this event too.

Social Listening in Popular Music Research

Although only 7-10 tweets included any interest in Murad or Lucie, these are the only news sources that showed up consistently throughout all the content from the 100 posts I gathered. I have also noticed in the Tweets for the Governors Ball Music Festival and the New Music Seminar that some subjects will receive more popularity than others. Now I ask, what matters more when reporting about Twitter trends regarding an important music event, quality or quantity? Here is what I think:

The number of Tweets leads to a clear distinction of what is popular by quantity, enough that it can be considered a trend. Further, the more people tweet about a subject, the greater the variation of the audience. On the other hand, the quality of the content of what people tweet provides insights to the concepts people consistently associate with CMJ, something known as brand mapping. In addition, the strongest content will include a specific emotion, strong mood or preferential word within the Tweet and include a link to a specific web page. Such messages include content like:

@LucieSilvas, I think I love you. This is beautiful. http://www.cmj.com/news/track-premiere-lucie-silvas-unbreakable-us

Check out this Q&A by @CMJ featuring one of our favorites Murad Erzinclioglu of @CJAMFM! http://www.cmj.com/column/on-air/qa-murad-erzinclioglu-music-director-cjam/

The smart chart I have made below shows that looking at both quantifiable and qualitative information within the content is important.

Quantity vs Quality

 

For whom does this information matter? A marketing consultant or public relations consultant working with a musician, or a music journalist? I would say for both. At least this is what I learned as a marketing student at Baruch College, as I completed a course in web analytics and intelligence. In this class, my final project involved working with Brandwatch, a social media listening tool and using it for the Music Historian.

While I did not know it then, I would soon learn that tools like Brandwatch looked very closely at trends on Twitter regarding specific news stories and examined both the quantity and quality of Tweets. When I did some research about the music consumer at the Governors Ball Music Festival back in June, I used this tool to see which Twitter users would be most interested in attending the event. Please read more here. Further, those who expressed interest by Tweeting about bands they looked forward to watching at the festival, made part of a specific demographic I would have never discovered otherwise.

Social listening is certainly one way to gather information about music consumers who would show interest in the musical talents at a specific event. Most importantly, social listening might also provide marketers, public relations experts and journalists information on how audiences perceive a musical event without having to reach these consumers personally.

What I would like to see in Music Journalism

While social listening is one way journalists can improve their research in regards to what people say about new bands and music; I also would like to see more actual music journalism. Just like I discussed with Janna Pelle last month, former musicians have their reasons for discontinuing music. Nevertheless, they still have an ear for music that they had developed when they played an instrument and spent more time performing.

I would like to see journalists who have played instruments once upon a time, to incorporate their musical skills into reporting on new music from rising talent. Although I understand entertaining content reaches audiences easier, readers are seldom challenged. Perhaps this is due to my bias that there is an art of asking quality questions. What are quality questions? Let me explain:

Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ Answers 

These types of inquiries should only be asked if they are essential to the context of the conversation.

If your research can already answer the question, DON’T ASK!

If a publicist provides you with a press release about an artist who announces they are working on a new project, study that release. Doing so will help prevent redundancy and focus on what you really want to know about the artist. Further, the artist you are interviewing is also a business person with plenty to do. I guarantee the artist will feel like you are respectful of their time by asking questions they have not already answered through any press materials, including their social media profiles.

Stick to the music

Like many, I agree that you don’t need to get too technical with an artist about their songs. You are trying to understand what motivated a musician in their songwriting by listening to their answers to your questions. On this note, don’t ask loaded or uncomfortable questions about a performer’s personal life, finances, or families. If the musician specifies that personal values like religion, social issues or inspire their songs, then you are welcome to ask these questions. Remember to ask in a context that will not diverge from the topic you are most interested in – their music.

Janna Pelle: The Shameless Advertiser & Musician Brings Us “Key Change”

Janna Pelle sings and plays keyboard at her Album Release concert at Pianos, for her latest record,  Janna Pelle, a young advertising grad from the University of Florida in Gainesville, builds her portfolio by helping promote a musician she knows very well – herself. Why? When a first-time professional steps into the competitive world of advertising, marketing and communications, she must stand out. Doing so sometimes requires some shamelessness.

“I had a band in college,” Janna beings. “We were called Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps. We performed covers and originals around campus and venues around the city, we were the house band of the University of Florida family events, and we performed at all of the parents’ weekends.

“My band – who were also my best friends in college – and I had just finished an album. As I was graduating, I knew I wouldn’t be in Gainesville anymore, but I did not know yet that I was coming to New York City to do music. Shameless Self-Promotion was the first album I had made without the band, and I started working on it knowing that I was going to be on my own soon. My drummer was going to law school, my bass player was going to be a teacher for Teach for America, and my guitarist would become an Apple Techie.

“When I worked on Shameless Self-Promotion, I had an opportunity to do something different. I also started working on that album knowing I would pursue music. I hate saying the word “pursue music” because I’m [already] doing it, why say the word pursue? So, I finished the whole album in a relatively short time. I had a bassist and a drummer do their part, and I produced the entire album. I knew I needed to have a product ready by the time I would decide to move where I wanted.”

I asked Janna, “And you were studying advertising?”

“Yes, exactly,” she answers. “As a result of this advertising endeavor, I felt so certain I could take a year or more without working in an agency, and do music. I am still building my advertising portfolio in the process – my album, logo, merchandise, and posters I have made for my shows are all a part of that now. At this point, I feel a certain confidence in wanting to do music as my full career. Shameless Self-Promotion was the product I needed to have before I moved to New York.”

Before physically skimming the back cover of her cd-case that proved her record was recorded in Gainesville; I stop for a second to see a nude shot of Janna on the front cover. She has her knees folded and placed up below her neck and on her feet, she wears lightning white go-go boots with her logo on them. This photograph has tasteful nudity which does not even touch risqué. Plus, I certainly could not have thought of cooler visual to match the phrase “shameless self-promotion.”

I then listen to tracks on this album like “Machine” and “Accessory,” and feel excited about Janna’s music. As I research her discography and find her 2014 release, The Show Must Go On, I learn that she courageously shares with listeners the tough experience of her father, who battled cancer. When I sat down with Janna to talk to her about her upcoming album Key Change, I discovered a lover of music history seeking to include a niche audience, in addition to her target listeners – conservatory students. Janna has come to the right blogger. I feel delighted to welcome her as my feature interview subject for November on Music Historian.

Prior to starting Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps at UF, Janna’s musical journey started at the tender age of 6, when she enrolled in piano lessons with a teacher, Rachel Currea.

“My parents enrolled me in piano lessons when I was 6. I was enrolled because I have hyperextension of the inter-phalangeal ligaments. My parents did not know how that would affect me later in life, so they wanted me to exercise my hands.

“They met Rachel, who is still one of my best friends – she’s amazing. My parents told her, ‘Whether she learns little songs only we will hear, or becomes musical; we want her to have fun and exercise her hands.’ So that’s when I learned to enjoy playing.”

Janna Pelle performs at Pianos for her album launch celebration, 11/10/2014 Janna did become musical, and eventually enrolled in a piano magnet high school, where she performed in state-wide classical recital programs. Throughout Janna’s high school education, Rachel acted as her trainer. When the young pianists had to decide on what to major in, Janna decided to continue with music without focusing on it as a degree.

“I realized I did not want to major in music, but I still wanted room for it in my schedule. Gainesville is a great music town, so I was able to form a band. I was greatly influenced by classical, rock and a little bit of jazz. Although I was no longer taking classical lessons… having a band… that experience was just as formative as my classical lessons.”

Hebrew music also slips its way into Janna’s repertoire. I wondered whether she liked Klezmer music – music I happened to play with a college ensemble at Syracuse University – and she claims her chord changes resemble that sound, but the instrumentation is very different. Listeners will not hear a wailing C-tuned clarinet in Janna’s music. However, the chord changes she talks about resonated a little with me, especially in her song, “Machine.” Further, she quotes a measure of a popular animated cartoon series television show from the 80’s. Can you guess what it is? Visit her website, www.jannapelle.com, listen to “Machine” and let me know in the comments section.

Another song that excited me is the one she performed at the CMJ showcase I reviewed last month and the one that gets listeners most excited – “Accessory.” Through the lyrics, Janna turns a romantic male partner into an object, calling him “her favorite accessory,” and how no other piece of jewelry can do what he can do to her. I asked her about the metaphor between sex and fashion. Janna explains:

“You hear the expression ‘trophy wife,’ but you can definitely have a ‘trophy husband,’ or even a ‘trophy relationship.’ You can carry around any kind or relationship as an accessory really. Janna Pelle at Pianos (l-r): Jamie Pitrelli (Bass), Leo Freire (drums) and Janna Pelle.

“The song is all about liking the presence of a person in your life and what they represent. There is nothing wrong with wanting someone as an accessory. You are proud of them and you want to show them off like an expensive bracelet. So, it is not always a negative form of objectification. You feel proud and it’s sweet when you want to show somebody off like that.”

While materialism seems to largely lingering in the background of Janna’s lyrics, the artist does not consider herself a highly materialistic person at all. She defines herself as a sentimental person. Her 2014 EP, The Show Must Go On – a dedication to her father, Tony Pelle, demonstrates this more intimate and emotional side.

Janna felt a need to write songs when her father was diagnosed with MDS, a type of cancer which is also known as “pre-Leukemia.” According to Janna, it goes without saying that songwriting served as a form of therapy for her. However, she felt humbled and happy to learn that it helped her family and listeners battling the same sickness.

“My aunt would tell me, ‘Every morning when I wake up, I listen to “Kick It In,” and look at the slide show you made about my brother [Janna’s father]. That’s how I start my morning.” That was what she did until the day he died. She always used that as therapy.

“There is a song on there for my Mom called “In Your Free Time.” [My Mom] is so devoted to other people. I know that helped her and my Dad a lot. My Dad got to hear all of the album before things got bad. Looking back, I sometimes I think I was so naïve writing these songs, but I wasn’t, I was hopeful. That’s all you can be in these situations.”

The MDS Newsletter featured Janna in one of their issues and distributed information about The Show Must Go On to all of their patients and support groups. People also started donating money to the album, which Janna in return gives to MDS research.

“That was also therapy for me, to know I was actually making a difference, raising money and awareness. I also received emails from patients and their family members who said, ‘I found your album, and it helped me express what I’m feeling now.’ That it really stuck with them. I knew the album would be therapeutic for me, but I didn’t know it would be therapy for so many other people.”

“That is good business right there. People showed and demonstrated how your product helped them,” I remarked.

“I think I would like to go into Non-Profits. Honestly. I will never feel as fulfilled as when I did knowing that I was helping people get through a seriously tough time,” she replied.

Fast-forward a few days to the show Janna put on for the release of her next full-length, Key Change. This performance took place on Monday night, November 10th, at Pianos in the Lower East Side. Here, she performed with her drummer, Leo Freire and bassist Jamie Pitrelli. She also welcomed poets, dancers, Sylvana Joyce and Sean Cunningham to sing and play violin with her in the song “Crazy,” guitarist and singer-songwriter, Jade Zabric, and even welcomed The Super Market Fairy (aka Sally Graves) to come and pass out small samples of organic food to the audience. The most sentimental portion of her show included a verbal message to the audience before she sang, “One Day at a Time.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“If there is anybody in your life you maybe take for granted,” she said as she played the chords of her song on the keyboard, “think about them when you hear this song. Remember that you don’t live your day to the fullest until you tell them you love them.”

It was certainly one of the most memorable shows I have seen on the Lower East Side. The amount of additional talent involved reminded me that there is room for everybody in music. While she might be promoting herself, Janna, like Alyson Greenfield, understands that artists live in a community where they have opportunities to support each other.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my article, in which I talk to Janna about the inspiration behind Key Change. In the meantime, I leave you with this:

I’m never one to directly ask a reader to listen to an artist’s music, but if you want to try and recognize the theme song of a popular animated cartoon series from the 80’s quoted in “Machine” of a listen to it here. If you can recognize the theme song, please write it in the comments below. Thank you!

Right Now for Now: Casey Dinkin Lets Go of Fear to Pursue her Music Making Dream

Music was always a large part of upstate New York-native Casey Dinkin’s life. Yet like many talented and passionate singer Casey Dinkin's Official Press Photosongwriters, Casey searched for a reason not to pursue music, up until now.

“I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she explains. “I’ve always wanted to be a singer songwriter, have a band and tour around and make albums, but I never thought it would happen.”

So what changed the mind of this singer and guitarist who lyrically and musically sounds like a distant cousin of Norah Jones? In my interview with Casey Dinkin for Music Historian’s full-length feature for July, I learned that self-reflection, relocating to New York City, and raising money through Kickstarter.com to put her songs on a record helped her take the necessary steps towards making her dream of being a recording artist a reality. The result for all of Casey’s efforts is the release her debut record later this month, Right Now for Now.

“I love this independent music”

Music surrounded Casey all her life. She says that both her parents loved folk songs from the sixties. Her mother played music from Joan Baez’s songbook as well Judy Collins, and her father favored Motown and soul. Meanwhile, Casey’s musical tastes included The Beatles and The Grateful Dead.

Casey and her mother would sing tunes from musicals together. At fourteen years old, Casey picked up guitar, and she participated in musical theater and school choirs. During this time, her admiration for the independent singer songwriter blossomed.

“I remember in High School,” says Casey, “I watched people get up on a stage with a guitar and sing. They would sing a song they wrote at the coffee house. I thought that was so cool, and I wished that I could be that amazing.”

College opened up new performance opportunities for Casey and led to more experiences, some successful and some challenging. She explains:

“In college, I started singing with jazz bands. After college, I sang with a rock and roll cover band, which built a following and played many gigs. At this point, I became more confident with performing. I started to think “I really love this independent music.”

“Then I started collaborating on songs with one of the members in the band, and that was the first time I had really shared my songs with someone. When we performed them in public, people responded positively; they thought my songs were enjoyable.

“Unfortunately though, that band broke up, and I was on my own for a while. I found more opportunities as I looked for other bands. At this time, I also worked for an anti-hunger non-profit.”

Casey enumerates that at this moment, having a job and handling her own performance promotion and booking made her think twice about pursuing music. So she put music aside to focus on her non-profit work which eventually led her to Washington, DC.

Putting Music on the Backburner: Casey’s Self Reflection

“I got a job in DC working at a national anti-hunger research and action center. While I was there, I realized that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial where I could set my own path. Since I’m an artistic person by nature, I wanted to be involved in the arts.

“I found myself having conversations with people trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Then one day I was talking to my friend Beth who told me that she made a cork board to help her figure out what she wanted to do. She thought of every possible career and put it up on this board, anything she could think of, and then she told me that the goal she really wanted to pursue, which was to write a book, she didn’t have the guts to put up there. I then realized I had the same thing.”

Although Casey tried to put music aside, she never stopped writing songs. She claims to have written about 100 songs by the time she left DC.

Casey Dinkin singing at the Leave A Lasting Mark Concert Series Van Morrison Tribute Show, on 2/9/2012 at The Bitter End in NYC. Photo by Manish Gosalia, courtesy of www.caseydinkin.com “I started to realize that putting music on the backburner was just a response to fear. I was also learning to be a yoga teacher at the same time, and some of the studies included letting go of fear and being your authentic self,” reflects Casey. “I feared that I was not going to make it, or it [music] was not important enough. Instead of letting go of this fear and being a songwriter, I worried about my ego.”

Recognizing this worry was Casey’s first stepping stone in overcoming her fear. Her next stepping stone validated why pursuing the dream of singing and songwriting mattered. Casey enumerates:

“In the middle of this self-reflection, I realized I had always written songs. I never stopped. Every day that I walked to my job, I wrote songs in my head. Then, one night before I went to sleep, as my head hit the pillow, I realized “If I died tonight, in my sleep, then my songs would die with me because I had not done anything with them.”

In this moment, Casey realized her songs counted as a “real body of work” and from there she decided to change her life. This included leaving the nation’s capital and moving to a city she always wanted to live in, New York City.

“At the same time, the funding for the project I was working on in DC was ending. I called someone I knew at an anti-hunger organization in New York City. He happened to have a position that just opened. So, I made the decision to move to New York.”

The Move to New York City

In one of her songs on her record, “The Light of NYC,” Casey described Washington DC as “the city of all smarm and no charm.” Firstly, I wondered what this lyric meant. Secondly, I wondered whether Casey felt like the only individual she knew in DC that was torn between choosing either a life in public policy or the arts. Casey explains:

“I made up a phrase one day “a city of all smarm and no charm.” One of my former colleagues described this lobbyist we worked with as someone who was “so smarmy, it made her skin crawl.” Smarmy refers to a charming but manipulative person that cannot be trusted.

“One day, I was walking outside and said to myself, “This is the city of all smarm and no charm.”

Casey adds, “Of course, there are a lot of very charming things about DC, and not everybody is smarmy.”

She continues, “I thought DC was where I could be, but when I got to DC, it was clear that I wanted to be in New York City. I think if you want to live in DC in the long-term, you must want that long-term career in policy and government. I thought I actually wanted that, but when I arrived there, I realized I truly wanted music.

“Although I could do music in DC, New York is where I have more access to great people to work with in music. I feel like there are so many people here that pursue creative things. In DC, I sometimes felt like the weirdest person. But here [in New York] I feel it’s normal to be [both] a musician and something else. I’m never the weirdest person in the room. It’s so refreshing.”

One of the most important contacts Casey made when she came to New York City is her producer Dan Siegler.

“When I looked for a producer, I wanted somebody that did not see my music as just another project. I wanted somebody who genuinely likes my music; plays keyboard well; and thought about the lyrics I write. I wanted someone that would think holistically about my songs, understand what I was trying to say and guide that.

“Then I met Dan Siegler who is a gifted keyboard player. He understands my songs in ways I couldn’t even understand them. Of Course, at this point, he has probably listened to my songs 50,000 times.”

Casey talks about her first experience producing a record.

“The process involved the following,” begins Casey, “I would go and play 30 songs for Dan, and he would go through them and say “this song yes, this song no, this song maybe but it might need another verse or a bridge.” Then we would talk about how the song should sound, musically, and start putting together the instrumentation.

“It was a very interesting learning process to see how that happens and see how a song is built piece by piece.”

In order to support this essential step of putting her songs on an album, Casey decided she would raise the necessary funds.

Funding Her Dreams of Making a Record

“Two days after I decided I was going to make an album,” explains Casey, “I received an email from someone I knew asking me to Photo by DJ Glisson, courtesy of www.caseydinkin.comcontribute money for their band’s upcoming tour on Kickstarter.com. That’s when I researched Kickstarter and thought “this was how I was going to make my album.””

“I raised about $11,000 in 30 days,” continues Casey. “People came through in incredible ways.”

According to Casey, she and Dan have dedicated a tremendous amount of time figuring out each component of every song – for example, what type of bass line, or if the song needed a violin part – and the delivery, making sure every note has the right intonation and falls on the right beat.

Though she did spend time reworking lyrics for certain songs on the album, Casey feels that the lyrics in her songs, as a whole, seem to come out naturally and effortlessly. Casey claims she feels blessed to gain inspiration and constantly write.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about appreciating that gift. I think right now, I’m very fortunate that life seems to give me these thoughts that turn themselves into songs. Very rarely do I sit down and say “I’m going to write a song.” Usually, an idea pops into my head while I walk down the street, especially if I am experiencing distress, and I don’t know what to do. So I think “I’m going to write a song about it,” and that helps me through the process.”

The best example of a song that represents this is her title track “Right Now for Now.” This song, throughout Casey’s experiences as an artist, takes on multiple meanings.

“That’s the song I wrote while my first band after college was breaking up. I wrote that song when I needed to tell myself that everything would be okay,” reflects Casey.

“When I wrote that song, I was not into Yoga,” she adds. “Then when I studied Yoga and listened to leaders that talked about being in the present moment and recognizing each moment as precious and event as temporary, I [now] think that song also talks about living in the moment, understanding that troubles will pass, as well as letting go and forgiving yourself. That’s every point in my life.”

The Album Release Party at Rockwood Music Hall

Casey Dinkin, photo taken on 12/14/2012 While Casey searches for inner peace through her music and works to achieve her dream of doing music professionally a celebration follows – the album release party for Right Now for Now at Rockwood Music Hall on Sunday, July 28th.

“I really look forward to celebrating everything I have been working for over the past two years and longer. This is the absolute pinnacle; the longest-term, truest thing I have ever accomplished.

“It will be the first time releasing an album, playing at Rockwood Music Hall, and performing my album songs live with a full band,” Casey joyfully claims.

The icing on the cake for Casey’s album release party might be the reunion with people that have supported the new artist through her journey.

“I have people coming from all over the country which is super exciting. My upstate NY friends and family are coming, and people from North Carolina and DC.

“They followed my progress and my many updates along the way. They were a part of my Kickstarter campaign…, and this is the finish line.”

Every Present Moment Counts

As we conclude our conversation, Casey mentions that releasing an album has taken longer than she initially expected. This makes me think that whenever a musician has available time between live performances, recording a song, producing or promoting their record; they dedicated it to writing a new song, rehearsing, or completing a second job. Casey reminds me that every present moment counts.

In addition, even during her years in DC and Albany, not pursuing music, every moment Casey experienced included a lesson that prepared her for now. Learning yoga helped Casey see that her previous habit of putting music on the backburner was a response to fear. Moving to Washington DC slowly fueled Casey’s desire to move to New York City. Finally, Casey’s experience with non-profits taught her how to run a successful fundraising campaign – one that would help support her dreams of releasing an album of her beautifully constructed, charming and earnest songs to the public.

Right Now for Now will help listeners who are native or have become well-integrated into the New York City landscape, view this Casey Dinkin, photo taken on 12/29/2012city from a refreshing outsider’s lens. Having also been to Rockwood Music Hall several times, I can attest that Casey’s album release party on July 28th will be the perfect setting to enhance this listening experience.

In the time that Casey prepares for this big event, she is also looking to the future.

“The next thing that follows is expanding my fan base. It would be great to hit the road. I would also love to start recording another album after this one is released,” explains Casey.

The most important long-term goal for this smart, talented and ambitious artist is to become better at everything, from songwriting, to learning more instruments, and honing in on her arrangement skills.

“I’m trying not to get too descriptive about the future because I think there is no longer a cookie-cutter model of how the road to success in the music industry should look,” she adds.

And of course, Casey is right. So let’s enjoy right now, for now.

Opera Night’s 7th Anniversary!

Like any modern day music historian, I talk about music during our generation in the 21st century. I also like to examine the role of classical music in today’s society. Although classical music is not on the top 10 list of popular genres, it is still used to educate and help young musicians, school children and professionals further their performance skills.

 Northport – a New York City suburb on Long Island – is one such artistic community where classical musicians and music teachers dedicate their time to building new talent. My former classical piano teacher, Isabella Eredita-Johnson has not only developed young artists as a teacher, but she has also created an organization called Opera Night.

Since its beginning, the series grew 

Since its first gathering at Café Portofino in Northport village on Friday, July 1st, 2004; Isabella and her sister, Maddalena Harris, have been inviting singers to perform arias and vocal duets on a monthly basis. They both named this gathering, Opera Night. As the series grew and began attracting larger audiences, the little café with the bistro charm couldn’t accommodate crowds.

Two years later, Opera Night relocated to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church across the street. Along with more seating space, the church provided an upright Steinway piano to accompany the singers and greater performance space. While moving to St. Paul’s greatly benefited audiences and singers, Isabella, also faced challenges. Some of them involved focusing on professional singing and musicianship while accommodating local audiences. I personally talked to Isabella about how Opera Night evolved from a monthly gathering to an actual venue, and the challenges that arose.

Opera Night is still as fresh and exciting as when it started

Isabella explained, “The caliber of the audience has grown and the presentation is now more formal than from Opera Night’s beginnings in 2004. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the spontaneity.” The performance program is determined by which singers show up that night. Isabella claims, “we do this to keep the performances fresh and exciting. After a performance, people come up to me and say, “this was the most exciting Opera Night to date!” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be very rich.”

 This spontaneity helps Opera Night stand out amongst the competing performance venues that heavily rely on structure in their programming.

Another aspect of Opera Night that hasn’t changed is the immediate delivery of famous arias and duets. Isabella started Opera Night to bring the most exciting and popular parts of great operas to opera lovers instead of performing full operatic works. Some musicians might find this hodgepodge of music overwhelming, but for Isabella, it comes naturally. Isabella claims, “For me, it’s easy because good, finely trained singers have come to me. The nature of inviting 20 different singers is they will most likely sing 20 different songs.”

Opera Night now focuses on furthering singers’ performing repertoire and skills

Focusing on the singers is fairly new general goal at Opera Night. Isabella explained, “The reasons a singer would want to sing at Opera Night are: they sing in front of a large audience; they get a free accompanist provided by Opera Night; and they increase the quality of their performances.” These benefits naturally encourage singers to spread the word about Opera Night to opera lovers and potential future Opera Night performers.  

If a free accompanist and a full house is not enough to attract singers to Opera Night, the success story of some regular performers will perhaps change prospective singers’ minds.

Bringing professionals back to the music and putting their voices in films

Bruce Solomon initially had a successful singing career. However; supporting a family while performing as a concert artist was challenging. So he went into sales.

Years later, he heard about Opera Night, which helped satisfy his passion for singing and helped make up for the years he was out of the musical scene. Thanks to Opera Night, Solomon can now easily step back into singing.

In the beginning years, Frances Fascetti was an Opera Night regular. Chris Garvey, an audience member, taped and recorded all of Fascetti’s performances and distributed them on a digital music platform.

One faithful day, independent film director, David Campfield, found Fascetti’s recording of “Ave Maria.” Isabella was thrilled to hear Campfield wanted to use Fascetti’s recording in his upcoming film, Cesar & Otto’s Summer Camp Massacre. Fascetti was doubly excited to learn that out of all the “Ave Maria” tracks available for download on the worldwide web, Campfield chose hers.

Opera lovers are all around and they are coming out to Opera Night

Aside from helping young professionals develop their skill and performance repertoire, Opera Night reinforces the communities love for one of the most classical performing arts.

Isabella says, “Opera lovers are out there and they’re coming out of the woodwork. We see the audience turn out, and it is growing. You meet these people who love Opera and want to know if there is anywhere they can listen to it… and you tell them about Opera Night.”

The minute Isabella meets an Opera lover looking for a good performance; she puts them on the email list and sends them reminders about upcoming performances.

Opera Night also reinforces Isabella’s life-long drive and passion for opera and classical performing arts.

Isabella’s performance experience during college encouraged her to take on Opera endeavors

 Isabella’s mother and father were the first opera lovers she ever knew. Their love of music fostered Isabella’s talent for classical piano, and soon, her years of dedication and performing eventually resulted in a degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Her greatest inspiration for opera however, was a “fine” bass/ baritone singer and enthusiastic voice teacher named Peter Maravell.

Isabella became Maravell’s piano accompanist at his studios. What Isabella thought would be a summer job that paid more than what her peers were making at McDonalds, turned into an assistantship and apprenticeship under a great singer. Maravell taught Isabella the music from the operas by some of the greats – Mozart and Puccini.

Maravell helped give Isabella a job that enhanced her experience as a concert pianist. Working under Maravell also expanded her musical world.

Isabella’s performance experience outside of academia encouraged her to teach music and take on projects and musical endeavors that would attract large audiences. For her, these projects and endeavors would revolve around opera.

Isabella encourages communities to help keep opera afloat

As Isabella continues in her musical endeavors and projects, she is constantly reminded of the hard economic times currently affecting many opera companies – even large ones in the neighboring metropolis, New York City. Isabella has taken the initiative in promoting New York City Opera’s Chairman Challenge, a fundraiser that will help City Opera continue producing full operas. More importantly; this challenge will help New York City Opera improve their opera education and professional development programs. This is why Isabella encourages community members to take an active interest in keeping opera afloat by attending a performance; spreading the word about a company; or donating.

Tonight is Opera Night’s 7th Year Anniversary!

Tonight’s celebration of Opera Night’s 7th year in Northport will remind community members of how much people love Opera. People want to have it and need to have it. “And for a good reason too,” Isabella says, “it is just wonderful!”