Ugo is a ghost town.
In the first full week of November, I headed back up to Akita prefecture to meet the president of the Nishimonai Preservation Society for the Nishimonai bon-odori Buddhist festival of the dead. This was my first time leaving the “concrete jungle” of Tokyo for months, and I was naturally beyond excited to be out in the woods and mountains for which Akita is known. I was also eager to reconnect with the nearly magical music and dance of this festival. I’ve been to Ugo several times, but this would be the first time I would see the town without the enchanting smokescreens of the festival and the unique atmosphere it creates.
Riding a rented bicycle around Akita’s Tazawakō, the deepest lake in Japan. Save for a few passing cars, no one was around for miles.
Oléna Simon performed tracks from her solo project at September’s GRASSROOTS with Fannar Ásgrímsson on beats and production.
The two of them, along with Jónas Thór Guðmundsson, are also a part of a three-piece music group called Asonat. Although they consider themselves an Icelandic group, they’re very much international: Jónas is living in Estonia, Fannar Ásgrímsson is in Iceland and French vocalist Oléna Simon plans to move to Japan.
Though, Jonas says, “Despite this constant moving around, we are in total synchronization toward how the music should be.”
Their new album “Connection,” was released at the end of September, and has been well received by the press. The record landed on the number 1 spot at WRAS Radio 88.5FM in Atlanta and Nordic Playlist rated it as one of “10 Unmissable New Nordic Albums” alongside Ásgeir’s “In The Silence” (Iceland) and Love To’s “Queen of the Clouds” (Sweden).
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Voices are musical, though you may not notice if you understand the languages they’re speaking. I noticed it when I began to learn Spanish, and later Arabic. I couldn’t distinguish the boundaries between words, so instead I heard textures and pitch contours. A beautiful speaking voice, like a beautiful singing one, has its own unique quality, something you can’t quite put your finger on.
In high school, my violin teacher pushed me to hear the tiniest deviations in my intonation, and in college, I learned to transcribe—modes, chords, bass lines, progressions, atonal intervals. Linguists develop a similar skill. My pop song transcription class overlapped with linguistic transcription and left me fascinated by the difficulty of transcribing syllables and vowels as they aligned with melody and rhythm. Melodies play with familiar word boundaries, drawing the listener into a soundspace detached from everyday speech…just like languages we don’t yet understand.
The ear training I’ve described inspired me to study, more broadly, the intersections of music and language. I fell in love with Arabic language and Arabic music during a year of study in Egypt, and I learned them together. Spread across many countries, Arabic contains so many voices and so many kinds of music, and there is always more to learn.
An Abu Dhabi audience dances dabke to the music of Jordanian singer-songwriter, Omar Abdallat
Hello from Harare, Zimbabwe! In just a few days I will be heading over to Zambia where I will begin my Fulbright-mtvU project. I will be exploring how young people assert individual and collective identities through participation in music culture on the Copperbelt in Zambia.
I have been in Harare, Zimbabwe since early September thanks to funding I received as a recipient of the NYU Gallatin Dean’s Award for Graduating Seniors. This is my third time visiting Zimbabwe and working with Magamba Cultural Activist Network, an organization that creates and promotes alternative media. Most notably, I have assisted with the organization of their annual music and arts festival “Shoko.” While in previous years I was unable to attend the festival because the dates conflicted with my classes at NYU, I was finally able to attend this year as a graduate. It was amazing to be able to attend the vibrant and diverse festival as well as reunite with many close friends and colleagues!
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In late September, slowsteps was one of five musicians who performed at GRASSROOTS, the arts and music community bash hosted in my backyard.
Slowsteps (Sebastian Storgaard) played a solo acoustic set for the 50 or so community members at the event, although a band sometimes accompanies him. Interesting to note in his band is bass player Róbert Mikael—who also performed a solo electronic set under the name ROBO R1X2 at GRASSROOTS. As he says in the interview below, the scene is small and everyone knows each other.
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