winny

Let’s talk about Estonia. No one ever talks about Estonia. Estonia is probably the kind of place hipsters would move to just so they could say that they live in an obscure place that you’ve probably never heard of. The whole Baltic region is but a far-flung concept of everyone’s mental map except to Estonians and to people who are linked with people of Estonian decent (I know how it feels. I’m half Slovenian; no one in America has ever heard of Slovenia…), even to those who know their geography well as they only think about Estonia when asked to point it out on a map. It’s a region damned to an obscurity comparable to… you know… that place in the middle of Asia or that group of islands in the Pacific that isn’t Hawaii. Hell, I don’t think I could have named one Estonian band or, for that matter, any band from the Baltic region before today. Now I can, and I’m happy that it’s a name as abstract sounding as “Winny Puhh.”

It seems that all of the essential information on Winny Puhh is in the Estonian language, as they are primarily established in their native country (since 1993 to be exact) but they’ve recently been picking up steam abroad. The band, whose name is translated into English as “Winnie Pooh” (in case you had your doubts), has two distinctive elements: their bizarre theatrics and the psychiatric patient on lead vocals:

The singer defines the band’s sound. He sounds like a really angry cartoon bird that wants to sing in a hair metal band (he’s probably angry because his parents said that becoming a hair metal vocalist is not a viable career path because he’s a bird). It sounds better in Estonian, obviously.

And I have no idea what’s going on in this next one but I’m intrigued. It’s a more mature track than the last and even has some folk melodies. There’s also a man who sometimes has a peg leg and is somehow crapping the front of his pants (the Estonians clearly have a sick sense of humor). And the song is called “Peetus” if that helps.

They have no problem changing their sound on a whim, too.

But they stuck with their usual antics and took it to a new level when they tried entering the Eurovision Song Contest this year. Though they only placed 3rd for Estonia (and I’m not surprised because it’s Eurovision), they’ve gone viral for reasons that I don’t need to spell out if you watch the video:

 

The last time a decent act played at Eurovision was Knorkator back in 2000. But I guess that’s just MY opinion.

Now if only I could name two Estonian bands…

 

bomba_seks

Today’s band was one I first encountered about 10 years ago but hadn’t thought much of in some time.  That is until I rediscovered their stuff on YouTube and eventually wandered over to their site.  I then learned they originated in Allston, MA.  Allston.  The tiny sub-town in which I currently reside.  The blogging was on.

A self-described “surf-spy-cocktail rock” group, Seks Bomba formed in 1996 as a quintet consisting of vocals/guitar, organ/flute, drums, guitar, and bass, their name coming from the only recognizable phrase in a Czech magazine frontman Chris Cote was leafing through.  Their musical language can best be summed up by looking at the cover of their first album, Operation B.O.M.B.A.; all of the kinds of music you could expect to hear on the soundtrack to a post-Goldfinger 60’s spy movie.  No decade has been more eulogized than the 60’s, from Mad Men to the hundreds of hippie throwback genres and here as what has usually been seen as the most disposable genres of their era.  The genius of Bomba is their ability to take music meant to be ignored (lounge exotica, cartoon jazz, cheap spy suspense) and bring out all the best qualities of each one, causing the listener to wonder how they could have forgotten them in the first place.  “Rum Holiday” is a great example of their craft; their musicianship is super tight, their songwriting is lovely and inventive, and they have a great deal of passion about each note.  Some of these hooks I have a hard time getting out of my mind, especially the bridge section in Cmaj7 (at 1:52).  And as much as I like their second album, Somewhere in this Town, is even better, featuring stuff like a great cover of “Charade” and the inescapable “5-0-5!!!”

Now I know what you’re thinking: isn’t this the same thing as what Pink Martini does, but with less singing?  Well, yes, but firstly I don’t think there can only be one famous band for a possible niche, and Pink Martini didn’t get famous until Seks Bomba had already effectively quit.  Both groups occupy an interesting subgenre that probably only could have arisen after the success of the Swing Revival of the 90’s with groups like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  And I’ll admit that Pink Martini have a bit more variety than Seks Bomba, but Bomba is special to me for nostalgia reasons (I listened to Somewhere to death in both Middle and High Schools), and I think they get a lot of memorability for a mostly instrumental group.  They Bomba’d for the last time in 2005 with the release of their third album Thanks and Good Night, but all three albums are available for download on amazon.com and other DRM-ridden channels (and possibly under-the-table ways which I won’t link here).  Their albums stand as a testament to respecting and glorifying the past rather than mocking it, the latter of which is all too prevalent these days.  You can tell that they deeply love their supposed “disposable” music, and their high level of musicianship and songwriting prove their case.  Pass the martinis and watch out for knife-shoes.

~PNK

vyto

Such is the nature of elusivitisation.

You can ask around.  Zip.  Attempt to locate physical copies of his two albums.  Noperino.  Google and Bing and Encyclopediate.  Cigars aren’t even on the horizon.  You could try out this website apparently run by him  but it seems to have been created to dissuade the curious and fatalistic.  Even his Myspace holds no answers.  And that is only half the appeal.

I’ll just assume Vyto B is an alias, but I’m not sure anybody knows his real name.  He apparently works in Chicago, and has been around since the 1976 (when this first album was released).  All we know is what we hear, and this first album is simply fantastic.  It’s a wild surge of sci-fi themed bar piano, barreling through its hip chords, acidic humor and optipessism (optimistic pessimism, if that makes any sense).  The wicked dynamism of his voice resonates perfectly with the parking garage the album was apparently recorded in.  Or a silo.  Such joyous lyrics for such frightening subject matter.  All Electronic Enforcers and Tricentennial new orders and dystopias.  Maybe this is how we’ll get through the apocalypse, making summer jamz from the whistling of falling nukes.  In case you’re wondering, this is my favorite Nick Drake album that never was.  Egg City Radio, where I got this album and the other one, described his sound as Billy Joel, but I think it’s closer to early Joni Mitchell on one of her more morose bents.  Some tracks have a feeling of the more child-like, quavering moments on The Wall.  I could listen to Tricentennial 2076 for about 10 hours and still want more, so all of these things are an enormous plus.  Why isn’t this on CD?  Extra New Year’s Resolution, guys.

And then there’s his second album, from ‘85.  And…well, it’s quite different.  Actually, I’m pretty sure he spent the time between the two releases holed up with Gary Wilson’s You Think You Really Know Me, but I could be wrong, as I’m not sure Vyto B listens to music other than his own, and I’m not sure he intended Automatic Vaudeville as anything near as solipsistically nuts as Know Me.  I…I just don’t know.  Maybe this article was a bad idea.  Maybe I should have just pretended that he just did Tricentennial 2076 and went the way of a Spinal Tap drummer, but I just can’t.  So yes, the soaring, armageddony celebration of the first album is gone, to be replaced by something much more New Wave-y and un-visionary.  And then there’s his more recent work:

And I just don’t know.  Maybe this is what’s keeping his work from gaining more recognition.  Maybe I should have lied.  Though I can’t fault somebody for keeping it real (if that’s even the case).

You know, I guess this is a different sort of ROTU article.  It’s not even so much about the whole artist’s work, but about one truly amazing thing he did that needs more recognition.  A LOT more.  And that’s really what this is all about; you could take any of the previously wrote-up artists here and scour their discogs to find some pure, undiluted horse hockey.  But where’s the good, fuzzy feelings in that?

You know what, forget it.  Here’s the full album.  Now you can listen to it for 10 hours and see exactly what I mean:

~PNK

james ferraro

It’s happened.  For the past few years we’ve been living in a world of manufactured nostalgia.  And why shouldn’t we?  We all like snuggling in the big, fuzzy blanket of cloudy memories that is our old VHS tapes and sing-along CDs.  Maybe that’s the real impetus behind the hipsterist trend of thrift store scouring, the eternal quest for semi-baffling artefacts from a not-so-distant past (for hipsters my age that past is apparently the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s).  That way we can pop in our very own VHS copy of Space Mutiny and laugh ourselves into nostalgia, even though only a handful of us actually saw that particular movie back in the day.  It’s not about actually reliving memories; it’s about the feeling of dumb relics, those fetishistic objects that allow us to shake our heads and say, “Man, things sure were goofy and loveable back then.”  It’s this same mentality that has brought mid-fi electronic music to the fore, whether via actual synthesizers, 8-bit compositional programs, or revving an Irish folk tune on an old Hot Keyz.

Obviously these things become tedious after a while, as irony keeps about as well as bananas.  However, some electronic artists have made sweet ecstasy in Casioville, and I have yet to find one more creative than James Ferraro.  Based out of the Bronx, Ferraro’s palette is very wide, and he’s covered a lot of ground in his more-than dozen albums and his work in the avant-garde duo The Skaters.  I first got introduced to his music through the favorites list of an experimental video artist on YouTube.  And boy, if nostalgia is like watching your favorite show through TV snow, then this song is like the best NY-post-punk-band-recreation-of-a-50’s-soda-fountain-dance track I’ve heard through a bad Walkman:

It’s all here: the gorgeously crappy fidelity, the adventurous feeling of flipping TV channels at 3 in the morning, and utterly gooftacular synth jamz.  Other track titles from this album and others include “Buffy Honkerburg’s Answering Machine”, “Find Out What’s On Carrie Bradshaw’s iPod”, and “Jet Skis and Sushi”.  I think the closest analog to his sense of humor in a band people may have actually heard of would be Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the people behind the Kids in the Hall theme and creators of instrumental tracks with such titles as

“Cheese in the Fridge” and “Plastics for 500, Bob”.  And in case you’re wondering if his humor makes it to his Skaters work, here’s a track that comes with a free picture of hanging meat:

Obviously not all his tracks are jokes, and I wouldn’t even call “Moonshocked Dudettes” a joke, either.  Even though he employs expert comedic presentation, his sound sculpting is top notch and his song have a great sense of construction and arc, not to mention a huge range of sonic components which make the whole albums worth it.  When paddling through the algea-ed rivers that is modern electronica, variety is a huge and somewhat uncommon plus.  For example, another mid-fi artist called Com Truise has a few albums out, and I liked them.  Then I realized that every single song had the same tempo.  Every.  Song.  You might not notice it at first, but when you do your heart sinks with each passing beat.  Ferraro has a lovely awareness of his work that keeps things like that from happening, and his more recent work seems to have moved on from the crappy fidelity altogether, perhaps sensing that his music would attract the wrong kind of fans (those who decoupage Markey Mark onto their Biker Mice from Mars lunchboxes, which carry iPhones instead of lunch).  And even though he has managed to actually grow as an artist (which is always a bummer for shallow fans), don’t worry: his new stuff keeps the wonderful and endearing sense that you’re filming a promo video for an 80’s office building:

For the attuned listener it’s the invention and craftsmanship that really shine.  For the casual fan it’s the warm and fuzzy feelings that keep them coming back (and the snobs, too).  Because that’s what we really need for those personal oases at 3 in the morning, and if we feel guilty manufacturing it ourselves, then Ferraro can lead the way.  Dudettes to the max!

~PNK

The Burqa Band (sometimes “The Blue Burqa Band”) was one of those special bands that existed against all odds. We are talking about three Afghan women who decided to… form a band. But seriously, in Afghanistan, women are highly discouraged from playing music, even religious music. In fact, under the Taliban, which sees music as the work of the devil, performing music in Afghanistan, privately or publicly, was pretty much a big no-no altogether, even though it wasn’t technically illegal by any other more legitimate standard. Even with the Americans “bringing democracy to the country,” Afghanistan is still among the most conservative and anti-modern countries in the world; citizens still strongly believe that women shouldn’t be allowed to play music. These three women in particular don’t seem to care but they were polite enough to leave their burqas on, despite the inconveniences that wearing a burqa would bring to playing an instrument.

In case you don’t know what a burqa is, it’s that distinctive Islamic garb that completely covers the wearer from head to toe, as opposed to the hijab, which only covers the wearer’s hair. Sometimes the eyes are shown and sometimes they are covered by a net or some kind of mesh sown into the fabric, like in the picture above. (On a side note, it’s sometimes spelled with a “k” instead of a “q” since there’s no established transliteration method from the Arabic alphabet into this alphabet.) I’m sure you’ve seen it in the movies or magazines or whatever. If you’re Western, you probably see it as a symbol of the oppression of women. Well, guess what: you’re not far off from the truth. Yes, it is a part of the culture but they don’t want it to be. While the actual necessity of the burqa is disputed among scholars, most Muslims, at least in Egypt where my mother is from and where I lived for a while, don’t wear it and even see it as a form of extremism. In Afghanistan, where it’s called a chadri, women, including those, who wouldn’t choose to wear it, otherwise must wear it, lest they receive accusations of being a seductress. That custom is slowly starting to wear thin over there (get it? WEAR thin… whatever) in favor of the hijab but women still reluctantly wear burqas just to be safe. For a more in-depth account of the burqa/chadri in Afghanistan, check out this blog post at the New York Times. But I digress…

This band started with the drummer, who goes by “Nargiz” in interviews. She was taking a modern music workshop at Kabul’s Institute of Learning Music in late 2002, sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Culture, led by German pop musicians, including members of Fehlfarben, a certain frank, and Pyrolator. She studied drums with Saskia von Klitzing of Fehlfarben and got the hang of it quickly. One day, wondering why all the burqas in Afghanistan were blue, Nargiz got together with two of her classmates, wrote “Burqa Blue,” which is the song that you just heard, and recorded it with help from the German guys. Nargiz and her two classmates became The Burqa Band. They released the recording on the German Ata Tak label in summer 2003. Their brand of primal ESG-like minimalism became an enormous hit in Germany and their fame only grew when this remix started circulating around clubs in Europe:

The girls were even invited to play in a big show in Cologne. Unfortunately, Nargiz couldn’t go due to her job at an international organization in Kabul but the other two went and she followed the events with great interest.

Indeed, the burqas make the video look cute and silly but they are actually necessary for practical reasons as well artistic. If the identities of these women were revealed, they would face severe harassment in their home country or even be killed since, according to Nargiz, “there are still a lot of religious fanatics here.” They had to make the video discreetly in ‘safe’ public places such as the kitchen at the Institute so as not to be caught by the Taliban. Remember, we’re talking about a place where, at one point in time, reasons for arrest included but were not limited to listening to music, watching TV, flying a kite, eating lobster, playing pool, playing chess, wearing nail polish, clapping at sporting events… you get the idea. Imagine the punishment for three women playing modern music! Nargiz said that only about six people in the entire country know that that’s actually her behind the drums. That would be her mom, her sister, and some close friends.

Ironically enough, being forced to wear the burqas allowed them to use their anonymity to their advantage and protect their identities. I’m no expert at harassing people but I would think that in order to effectively harass someone, you would need to know basic information about them such as name, appearance, etc. With the burqa and their strictly imposed facelessness, harassing them specifically becomes an extremely difficult if not impossible challenge. The result was brilliant tongue-in-cheek subversion that blatantly taunted ultra-conservative religious leaders. I personally love the idea that this was a source of extreme annoyance for the Taliban:

“Burqa Blue” and “No Burqa!” are pretty much their entire repertoire. After their unexpected success with those two songs in Germany and, by extension, Europe, they stopped. They have never given a single public performance in their home country for reasons that must be too obvious to state at this point. They are inactive right now, although Nargiz had expressed interest in playing music again. She and the guitarist have regular jobs and the singer moved to Pakistan, where she has a little more hope to put her talent to use. Right now, it’s not clear what the band’s future is, or if they even have one. Their only hope would be to wait for an American or European label to sign them again and give them the financial support to record an entire album. Nargiz estimated 7 years ago that it could be 10 years before there can be girl bands in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence of the country stabilizing right now, let alone allowing women to perform any kind of music.

For now, the only way that you can listen to them is to watch their videos on Youtube or to buy their “CD-Extra” from the Ata Tak website for €7 (about $8.75), which includes the two songs, two remixes, and the music.

Adam Thometz is a composer and writer who holds a B.A. in Philosophy from The City College of New York as of 2012 (magna cum laude, baby!). He studied jazz piano from 2006-2011 but he’s more interested in composition, synthesizers, and production, as well as the nitty-gritty scientific and philosophical aspects of music. Adam records and produces his own brand of electronic music heavily influenced by rock and extreme music under the name “Mr. Anthrope.”

Adam can be contacted through:
Facebook: facebook.com/adompeace (personal) & facebook.com/Mr.Anthrope.Music (fan page)
Soundcloud: soundcloud.com/mr-anthrope
Email: adamthometzathotmail.com@gmail.com

Before I talk about Plastic People of the Universe (or PPU), let me set the stage and give a brief history lesson since they are a very historically important band. To the best of my knowledge, they are the most historically important band to have ever existed. I can’t think of another band that could potentially be in history books. If you know of one, I’d like to hear it.

The Plastic People of the Universe were conceived in a time when the Czech Republic (called Czechoslovakia back in the day, up until 1993) was going through a period of Czechoslovak normalization. In this period, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, headed by Gustáv Husák in this period, ruled the country and adhered to Soviet policies. One of their main goals, generally speaking, was to preserve the status quo and they did this by repressing dissent as much as possible, as was the nature of Communist parties associated with the Eastern Bloc. One method of repressing dissent was to promote consumerism; material goods were widely available to the Czechs so as to placate them and nudge them to accepting Husák’s policies. However, like any repressive regime (except maybe North Korea but who knows?), there was an underground scene that formed as a response to these policies. This underground scene is known as the “Prague Underground” and was based in Prague. Go figure. This scene was defined in opposition to the conformity and consumerism of the time and its lifeblood was experimental rock, psychedelic rock, and samizdat literature. The Plastic People of the Universe is probably one of the most important figures to come from the Prague Underground scene.

PPU, as they will be called from this point on, was formed by bassist Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa in 1968 in Prague. He was heavily influenced by Western music, which was banned by the regime but it circulated anyway thanks to Czechs living abroad and sending these records to their friends and family back home. Some of his favorites were Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. Ivan Jirous, a Czech art historian and cultural critic, was their manager and artistic director; Jirous was to PPU what Andy Warhol was to the Velvet Underground. Most of PPU’s lyrics were not written by its members. Instead, their lyrics were outsourced; they were written by prominent dissenting Czech poets and philosophers specifically for the band, including Ladislav Klíma and Zbyněk Fišer(pen name: Egon Bondy). Nearly all of their songs are sung in Czech. There was a stint from 1970-72 where the lyrics were in English because Jirous believed that English was the lingua franca of rock but Paul Wilson, a Canadian living in Prague at the time who translated their lyrics into English and sang them in that period, encouraged the band to continue singing in Czech.

Due to the militant preservation of the status quo in Czechoslovakia, simply playing this kind of music in public was considered a radical political act, despite the band not having any political agenda. In 1970, they were officially banned by the regime from playing their music in public. This didn’t stop them. They continued to perform their music throughout the 70’s. Band members have been beaten and arrested on several occasions by the police, making PPU one of the most harassed bands in the history of rock music. This harassment had reached its peak in 1976 when PPU and others from the underground scene were put on trial by the government for “organized disturbance of the peace” and were sentenced to terms in prison varying from 8 to 18 months. This trial had inspired various Czech writers and intellectuals, including former president Václav Havel, a fan and sympathizer (may he rest in peace), to write up and sign the historical Charter 77, which was a highly influential critique of the Czech government’s handling of human rights issues, handed out as samizdat.

After their release from prison, the band had continued to perform their music discreetly and started to deteriorate in the 80’s. In 1988, the government officially lifted their ban from live performance but the band broke up. Hlavsa went on to form Půlnoc, “midnight” in Czech, with two other ex-PPU members. In 1997, then-president Havel suggested that they reunite and perform a series of concerts to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. Hlavsa died of lung cancer in 2001 but PPU is still active and touring, despite their age.

If you want to know where to start, search for Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned and take it from there.

UPDATE (08/17/12):
 
As you may have heard, the Russian all-female punk group Pussy Riot is being convicted for “crudely undermin[ing] social order” and “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” (since when did modern Russia consider religion important?) among other things. These charges don’t sound too far off from those against PPU. For me, after having done the research for this article, following the trial was eerily akin to watching history repeat itself right before my eyes, even though I wasn’t alive to witness, and therefore fully appreciate, PPU’s trial or the change that it inspired. I’m no historian or political scientist but if history is any indication of where this trial is headed, I expect a big change coming to Russia in the near future for the better, not because they will discover Jesus or miraculously realize the error of their ways or whatever but because people, Russian or otherwise, will become inspired by the trial and pressure Russia to change; eventually, the pressure will become so great that Russia will cave in. That’s how significant change happens. Look at Egypt: Mubarak didn’t step down because he miraculously realized on his own that nobody liked him!
Also, in honor of Pussy Riot’s cause, Tom Hawking of flavorwire.com created a list of 10 bands who have brushed against the law for their radical tendencies, political or not. If you thought this article was interesting, I implore you to check it out. Naturally, PPU and Pussy Riot are on the list (first and last, respectively). Go to http://www.flavorwire.com/319387/musical-martyrs-10-bands-whove-suffered-for-their-politics for more radical acts!
I’ll be the first to admit that the avalanche you just witnessed is a bit more “70′s” than we’ve done on ROTU. Perhaps it was just in the ash-encrusted air. I know I got black lung just looking at that cover (as stretched it is on YouTube), but enough with the zingers. Caldera was an excellent group that fell victim to that all-too-unfortunate planned obsolescence of distribution: an art object that’s owned by a major label (in this case Capitol Records) and didn’t sell. As a result, their work is pretty hard to find on CD (at least legitimately or for reasonable prices), but thankfully the piracy juggernaut that is YouTube has helped out a great deal. Let’s hear it for team work.
Founded in 1976, Caldera was a multi-American effort to combine the then thriving jazz fusion scene (their primary influences being Return to Forever and Weather Report) with Pan-Latin influences. Pan-Latin may seem like something I just made up (as I did), but it fits what Caldera considered to be Latin music, which encompassed everything from Afro-Cuban to Flamenco to Salsa and anything else written in Spanich. The mind runs wild. Pulsing rhythms. Synths. Bongos. Keytars. The best-yet-found precursor to Earth Wind & Fire (who would be supplanted by a former member of this group). Perhaps we should just take another listen.
After floating off on a Tomita carpet ride, we hit Heavy Weather and all is right in the world. It’s almost too lovely to behold, swooping from acid to sitcom opener to soul-enriching sax in the blink of an eye. And yet it all works. This track isn’t as Latin heavy as the previous one (aside from a surging auxilary percussion drive), but I’m not one to pigeonhole. I’ll let this track make up for that:
This kind of brilliance lasted them four albums (1976-1979) but they just refused to sell. I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a Sam Hill shame that is, and everybody on YouTube, AllMusic, and Discogs agrees. They broke up after their fourth album The Dreamer and split into other projects, such as the aforementioned Earth Wind & Fire participation. A discussion on why they didn’t get the Big Break could shoot all over the place, with tangents on the public’s willingness to cross-breed genre tropes, to speculation on Capitol’s marketing, to the general direction of Jazz Fusion at the time and what people were expecting to hear if the words “Latin Flanger” are uttered. My first question is to whether or not record company executives actually listen to their product before making decisions (Answer = ? and 1/2). A lone track on the suspicious looking Capitol Rare, Volume 1 compilation isn’t doing it for me.
I’ll leave you with this last portal to a mythical land, with keyboards by Larry Dunn (hey, didn’t he co-found EW&F?)
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