Saturday Late Night Music — Fantastic Negrito performing “Lost in the Crowd”

Every once in a while a natural talent arises that distills the American experience.  According to the interesting bio on his website, Fantastic Negrito is out of Oakland California.  But that’s like saying Bob Dylan is from Minnesota and taking significance from that fact alone.  I know, I know–I’ve used origins of artists as a way of placing them in time and space.

No doubt, anyone with a passing knowledge of American social history understands the significance of Oakland to African-American culture: its centrality in the Great Migration on the west coast of the United States, its musical influence on West Coast Jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, jump, and funk.  It’s economic importance in the development of the black working and middle class.  The political movements that contributed to the advancement of equal rights and equal opportunity and then, in the wake of redlining, assassinations, white flight, and white backlash, the organization of the Black Panthers which came to a violent end.  Out of this strong conflict of cultures and ambitions, however, arose a city that learned the meaning of reconciliation and synthesis.

Fantastic Negrito’s real name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz.  He is the son of the first Somalian ambassador to the United States.  He was raised as a strict Sunni Muslim from childhood.  When his family emigrated to the United States they first settled in Massachusetts, where he was born, but then crossed the country and landed in Oakland in the 1980s.  It was during this time that Xavier was exposed to one of the most diverse cities in the United States.  The African-American community in Oakland during those years reached its peak in both proportion of population and cultural influence.  Thus, Xavier made the transformation from the strictures of religious chants to the music of Funkadelic and other similar bands, absorbing the culture, music, and ideas of the liberal and accepting world around him.

This transformation caused him to be rejected by his family, but also led to his reinvention in the 1990s from emigrant to the personality known simply as Xavier.  Under Xavier he created a unique R&B/funk/electronic dance sound, where he played all of the instruments, under the title the X Factor, which landed him a contract with the Interscope label.  Unfortunately, realizing success too soon, which stilted his creativity, and at the wrong time–since Rap had overtaken the type of music that he was doing–led to disappointment.  Coinciding with the end of X Factor came a devastating auto accident in 2000 that left him in a coma.  After awaking from his coma, he undertook many months of painful physical therapy due to muscle atrophy while he was bedridden.  A reinvigorated life after cheating death, and the birth of his son, caused his eventual transformation into his latest incarnation as the Fantastic Negrito.  If Elizabeth Woolridge Grant can be Lana Del Rey, then Xavier Dphrepaulezz can be the Fantastic Negrito.

His appropriation of the word Negrito is interesting.  The term is derived from the Spanish to describe small dark-skinned persons.  Geographically, it has been largely confined to refer to the diminutive dark-skinned people of Southeast Asia.  Rather than having a direct association with groups in Africa, DNA testing has shown that Negritos are most closely related to Asian populations that surround them with some splitting from the African migration that occurred about 60,000 years ago.  Thus, despite their distinctive physical characteristics, they are a very diverse admixture of distinctive Southeast Asian ethnic groups.  Perhaps, for one who has self-confessed to having gone through several transformations within the span of a single lifetime–which is a typical part of the American experience–the moniker is an appropriate one.

The band members, aside from Xavier, consists of Thomas Alcedo, Nate Pedley, and Ruthie Price.  The band won the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Award for 2015 back in February.  Then in March they took SXSW by storm.  This is the blues updated to our joint experience–essential, urgent, and exciting.

Saturday Music Interlude — Humming House, Little Hurricane and Laura Mvula

The 2014 edition of the SXSW Festival showcased so much talent that it is hard to choose the standouts.  Now we’re well into music festival season with the New Orleans Jazz Fest just concluded.

Music, as all of the arts, is a rough business.  For every band that “makes” it with a modicum of fame, there are hundreds just as talented that operate just below the surface of popular culture.  Having spent significant parts of my life in and around New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other cities in the United States, for me it is those performers–just a step away from recognition–that stitch together the strands in the fabric of civilization.  For it is these people who live for the art, for the love of the thing.

Having been a jazz enthusiast for virtually my entire life, I have listened to, watched, and met performers of the art of that uniquely American form of improvisational music dedicate themselves to excellence in their craft.  Most of them are unknown to the great majority of the populace and their recordings have been heard by very few that have been fortunate enough to have had that opportunity.  Yet they press on.

One day I met a saxophone player who was the featured musical artist at a poetry slam that combined poetry readings with improvisational jazz.  During the break we talked about The Music and he told me about a time when he had the opportunity to play with the great Art Blakey at Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio.  “I played the best music of my life in that set,” he said.  “But then Rudy looked over at us and he realized that the recording equipment had malfunctioned and hadn’t recorded anything.”  Though I was a stranger–a mere fan listening to the story of a malfunction many years removed–I felt distress for the man before me at hearing his story.  “Weren’t you disheartened?” I asked.  He smiled then.  “No, because we weren’t doing it for the recording.  We were doing it for the thing.  When you do it for the recording, for others to hear you, then that’s just ego and that ain’t nothin’.”

I realized then that he was right, and that his admonition that when you pursue “just ego…that ain’t nothing” applied to other pursuits and not just to music.

Since that day when I walk down Frenchman Street in NOLA and come upon a group of young people in an ad hoc brass band I know–I feel–that they are doing it for “the thing.”  When I go to Nashville and come upon artists plying their music at the local bar and at the street corners I know they are doing it for “the thing.”  Walking down Venice Beach, in the clubs of San Francisco, in the neighborhoods of Philly, the boardwalk on the Jersey shore, outside Santa Fe with the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance, remembering the Hoboken of my youth, and the music I heard in Spanish Harlem and in the Cuban section of Miami, on the old Steel Pier in Atlantic City, in the jazz bars of Manhattan (or what’s left of them), I heard that same thing–that voice, that joy, that playfulness, that anger, that sadness, that blues, recording who and what we are; recording the human experience and human emotion in all of its hues in ways that only music can accomplish: “the thing.”  Then, given this knowledge, when you find those artists that combine the heady admixture of originality, genuineness, and musicality, it is a transcendent experience.

All of this is simply preface to three very different talents that I’ve come upon and who stick in that part of my mind that says:  “here is something.”

The first is Humming House and, full disclosure, I came upon them via WordPress when they responded to one of my previous musical posts.  So I decided to check them out.  What I found was a group of talented performers communicating absolute joy through their music.  Working out of Nashville, Humming House is one of those bands that seem to open for every first rate act and whose music can be heard in many mediums while never quite breaking through.  Their genre is American roots, folk, country and pop.  They performed in Austin and the following is a SXSW Showcasing Video.

The next band also turned some heads at SXSW and the following video is from the Jam in the Van franchise.  They are a rock and dirty blues outfit from San Diego, California consisting of two members:  Celest “CC” Spina on drums, and Anthony “Tony” Catalano on guitar.  On the following song “Superblues,” Catalano’s vocals are electric with Spina propelling the music forward using an idiosyncratic drumming style that still manages to work.

Finally, the last artist is from the U.K. but was mentioned as the standout first timer to the New Orleans Jazz Fest.  Her name is Laura Mvula.  Her voice is an impressive instrument that she manipulates to remind one of singers as different as Nina Simone and Sade.  The performance that follows from a U.K. music program is simply electric.


Saturday Music Interlude — Hurray for the Riff Raff Performing Look Out Mama

This group has been around since 2007 but–as with most worthwhile endeavors–took some time to build up some stream, noting small but notable successes along the way.  They caught the attention of Spin magazine at the beginning of the year and made a big splash at the latest SXSW Music Festival in Austin this past month.  The band is led by Alynda Lee Segarra, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent who left home at the age of 17 and settled in New Orleans.  Hearing her story alone caught my attention.  Then I heard the music.  It is folk, country, roots music.  It is music from the heart and it is no surprise that Ms. Segarra’s journey took her to New Orleans, the city where the soul of America resides: beaten, abused, milked, and exploited but refusing to die, to lay down, to quit.  This is America.  This is who we are and where we came from.  We are the mutts of the world, the ones no one wanted, the runts of the litter, the downtrodden and the poor, the cast offs, the survivors, the melting pot, (who if you cross us are a little dangerous), and we’ll not be defeated.