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Where the World and the ’Hood Connect

World Music Comes to Town from Mali, Iran, and Cuba


Thursday, October 13, 2011

WE HEAR THE WORLD: This time of year, the world comes calling and serenading in Santa Barbara, courtesy largely of the all-important cultural resources at UCSB. So-called “world music” sneaks into the musical calendar from at least a few different corners at the University, including the Indian music organization Raagmala, which put on its fall concert with the eclectic-Carnatic Heartbeat Ensemble last weekend at the MultiCultural Center theater.

This Saturday, the MultiCultural Center’s own concert series opens with the entrancing and largely traditional music of Mali, home of such great artists as Oumou Sangare and Salif Keita, to name a couple of the internationally-renowned products of that musical culture. But there are plenty of others deserving wider recognition, including Mamadou Sidibe, a masterful player of the 12-stringed kamala ngoni (aka “hunter’s harp”) and a mesmeric singer, who will lead Saturday’s charge, in a group with balafon player Balla Kouyate, djembe player Karamba Diabate, and Sidibe’s wife, percussionist-vocalist Vanessa Sidibe.

On the following Friday, October 21, MCC’s compass turns to another global hot spot not given enough attention in the world market, Iran. Fared Shafinury & Friends will bring an evening of Persian Classical Music to the treasured, intimate MCC Theater, where many treasured international music evenings have taken place. Meanwhile, across campus at Campbell Hall, the Arts & Lectures series gives us a refreshingly different blast of cultural inspiration from Cuba, with the arrival of the Creole Choir of Cuba, on Wednesday, November 2.

FRINGE PRODUCT: Although his name may not register with new arrivals in town, John Rapson was once a vital musical figure in Santa Barbara, where he grew up and was a trombonist-composer-bandleader who taught at Westmont College. Some twenty years back, he loaded up the family and the Volvo station wagon, and headed east to study at Wesleyan, and has run the University of Iowa jazz department for some years now. But we get musical missives occasionally, such as an exceptional and distinctively venturesome new album project Mystery and Manners: the Improvisations of Vinícius and Nenê. (MoMu).

A kindly radical, Rapson has always had a keen ear for the interactive mix of structure and abandon, things melodic and avant-stylistic. In this case, he has worked with his own unique, labor-intensive procedure in which he commissions original freely-improvised pieces as compositional putty—here laid down by the musically robust Brazilians, saxophonist Vinícius Dorin and the drummer known as Nenê, along with pianist Rafael del Santos. Afterwards, Rapson meticulously transcribed the solos and created new compositional contexts around the spontaneously-combusted source material. In effect, he reverses the traditional process of theme and variations in standard jazz practice, resulting in a structure built from building blocks conjured up “in the moment.” In past years, Rapson has used the technique for a project featuring seed material from the great reedman/idea man Anthony Braxton (in whose group Rapson has played) and Billy Higgins.

On Mystery and Manners, Rapson has outdone himself, creating the strongest example yet of the rewards to be found in his process. To flesh out the ensemble-after-the-fact, Rapson adds six extra musicians, and himself plays some evocative electric piano parts (leaving his trombone at home, though), and conjures up compelling pieces with shards and echoes of thematic materials, mini-big band arrangement notions, ebbing and glowing harmonic densities and other hallmarks of music on paper. But a particular freewheeling ambiance also runs through it, along with a spirit of flexibility and intelligence which somehow resonates with the musical condition of the “Brazilian thing.”

As if to reveal his sources and “show his work,” Rapson also includes several of the original, unadorned improvised tracks on the CD. All in all, Rapson’s latest release is a potent addition to an altogether fascinating discography going back to his SoCal days in the ‘80s, and further proof of this artist’s refusal to take conventional approaches to music-making as a self-guiding norm. He’s got big ideas, sometimes requiring extensive architectural and exploratory work, and the will to see them through. Not incidentally, his musical muse is still very much with him, from Santa Barbara to Iowa City to Brazil and back.

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