Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Jazz Pirates and other sources for Caribbean melodies

In my previous post I mentioned how the Etcetera String Band and now Martiniquan musician Kali have become primary sources in the ongoing search for Caribbean trad tunes.  I also want to recognize a Swedish ensemble called the Jazz Pirates who are proving to be a great resource.
The Jazz Pirates of Gothenburg, Sweden
I don't know much about the Jazz Pirates other than that their clarinetist Lasse Collin has uploaded hundreds upon hundreds of lead sheets for "jazz age" type tunes along with home-made jam recordings and YouTube videos of the Jazz Pirates playing them.  The Jazz Pirates feature a tenor banjo as a chord instrument, while Collin plays the melodies and improvises on clarinet.

I've only just begun perusing the list of lead sheets in the Jazz Pirates' New Orleans Jambook, but have already found several Creole/Caribbean tunes including Adieu Foulard, Black Orpheus, Ce Filon, Femme Matinik Dou, Touloulou, and West Indies Blues.  For reasons I can't understand - it has something to do with Bb instruments vs. C instruments - the lead sheets are a whole step off from the audio, so I just saved the files and adjusted the pitch so that they would line up with the written music.

Another group who has recorded many tunes from the French West Indies is the Panorama Jazz Band of New Orleans.  Not surprisingly, they also have a tenor banjo in the band.  I enjoy listening to their hot jazz versions of Serpent Maigre, Mettez I Dehro, Pani Ti Mou, Asi Pare, and Ba Moin En Ti Bo to hear alternate takes on these classics.


Still another musician who draws from Caribbean sources is Leyla McCalla.  Even better...she plays them on cello and tenor banjo!  Leyla has recorded several Haitian folk songs on her two albums thus far.  Her debut Vari-Colored Songs features Latibonit, Kamen Sa W Fe, ManMan Mwen, Mesi Bondye, and Rose Marie.  The followup - A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey - contains Fey-O, Minis Azaka, Peze Cafe, and ManMan.  Of these, at the very least, Kamen Sa W Fe is going to be a favorite of mine to play on my own.
Leyla McCalla with tenor banjo
When thinking of the 4-string banjo in Caribbean music, it doesn't hurt to include Jamaican Mento.  Mento songs don't always make for the best "tunes", but Jamaican 4-string banjo greats like Nelson Chambers of the Blue Glaze Mento Band and Moses Deans of the Jolly Boys are musicians worth checking out and returning to for inspiration.


Lastly, I've been digging something called Zouk Vol1: Féérie Antillaise by Honoré Bienvenu Et Son Orchestre.  I'm not sure what this is or who they are, but there are some strong melodies on here, one of which called Mi Un Marchand De Mangue I actually figured out by ear.

Kali: Traditional Music of the French West Indies Played on Banjo (Banjo-Mandolin?)

Martinique roots musician Kali and his banjo in early 2017
Learning of and gaining access to the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD in 2012 significantly changed the trajectory of my music playing interests.  On that 1990 release, the then Kansas-City based string ragtime ensemble interpreted rare, early dance music from the Caribbean - Haiti, Trinidad, the Virgin Islands, Martinique, Venezuela, Creole Louisiana, and more.  What was really special about that recording to me was that the lead melodies were played on banjo-mandolin by the virtuoso Dennis Pash.  This meant it directly translated to "Irish" tenor banjo.

Now I've become aware another source for West Indies tunes played with equal skill on a 4-string banjo or banjo-mandolin in the lead.  This musician is named Kali and, ironically, his primary recordings in this style were also done around 1988 to 1990.  The albums are called Racines, Volume 1 and Volume 2.  Racines means "Roots" and Kali is a Martiniquan who took up the banjo and returned to his roots after having gone in a more contemporary French-Caribbean pop direction during the 1970's and 80's.


One or two generations prior to Kali, Martinique musicians living in Paris - including the clarinetist Alexandre Stellio - recorded 78's of biguines and mazurkas that paralleled but differentiated from the Calypso and New Orleans jazz music going on elsewhere in the world.  It is this traditional music heritage that Kali chose to honor on his Racines series.  What I find to be great about these recordings is Kali is faithful to the original melodies, but of course uses modern recording techniques and sensibilities to give it a superior audio fidelity when compared to the 78's of the 1930's.  Additionally, Kali's banjo playing is second to none; his tremolo would make Grisman proud!

From what I am learning, songs such as Mwen Desann St Pie, Manicou Volan, Vlope Mwen Doudou, Serpent Maigre, Ti Citron, Femme Martinique Dou, Fok ni tche, Mettez I Dehro, A Si Pare, Ba Moin Un Tibo and Pani Ti Moun are standards of the French Caribbean trad repertoire.  As such, they are on my list of tunes to learn.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Casio SA76 44‑Key Mini Keyboard

Casio SA76 44-Key Mini Keyboard
I've been using a 61-Key Casio CTK-2300 digital piano keyboard for the purposes of better understanding harmony/chords as well as for ear training.  It's over 3-feet wide, so I've been looking for a more compact keyboard that I can hold in my lap and casually play on the couch.  The only requirements I had were:
-37 to 49 keys (less than 30" wide)
-Built-in speakers
-Ability to plug in headphones
-Wall socket / AC-adapter powered (not USB)
-Piano-like sound

Surprisingly, in this world of Amazon and eBay, I could only find two digital pianos currently available that met all of these criteria - one of them at $399 and one of them at $50.  Every other digital keyboard was either 61-keys or larger (I already have that) or some kind of computer-reliant MIDI/USB device (not interested).  I just need it to make a piano sound.

The $399 option was the Yamaha Reface series, particularly the Reface CP model.  I liked the fact that the Reface CP was a professional quality instrument with simple, easy to use knobs.  What I didn't like was the cost and the bad reviews regarding its built-in speakers.  If I had chosen the Reface it seemed like I may also have needed to purchase some kind of external speaker or amp to use with it.  I also didn't love the fact that it was only 37 keys, but I did like how that made it super-compact.  The vintage Rhodes, Clavinet and Wurlitzer sounds it contains weren't a big deal to me one way or another.  It was hard for me to tell who these Yamaha Reface mini keyboards were intended for.  Not for me, I guess.

So I chose the $50 keyboard, which is the Casio SA76.  Actually, it was more like $60 because the AC adapter that you need to plug it into the wall is an additional cost.  You could just use six "AA" batteries, but I wanted to be able to plug it in.  This instrument is definitely intended to be more of a child's toy, but it actually suits my needs quite nicely.  You get what you pay for so it's not anything all that incredible, but I like having it handy for working out things by ear and for reinforcing stuff that I am learning on a more full-size keyboard.

The SA76 has 44 mini-sized keys, but I actually don't mind this too much.  That is seven more keys than are on the Yamaha Reface, which are also mini-sized.  (As a stringed instrument player, I go back and forth between the tenor banjo's 21-inch scale and the mandolin's 14-inch scale without much trouble, so I'm not too worried about this when it comes to the piano keyboard).

I've hardly used any of the features of the SA76 thus far, and don't really intend to do much of that. When it arrived I simply turned it on and started playing. Usually I just scroll through the sounds it can make and find one within the first 10 that seems suitable to me at that moment.  If it just had one sound and that was a sampled "piano" sound it would be fine with me.  That's all I'm looking for.

So the verdict is I'm glad I found something.  It's surprising that there aren't any other keyboards like this besides these two.  If you know of any other digital pianos that meet all of the requirements above PLEASE leave a comment!  What I really would like is a smaller version of the Yamaha P-45, with 44 or 49 full-sized keys instead of 88.  That would still be compact enough but would be more playable.  Or maybe if the Reface model cut its price in half to $200 and improved its built-in speakers, then it would be the perfect mini keyboard.  For now I'm happy with the Casio SA76.