Monday, February 28, 2011

Toumani Diabate Master Class Graduation

The film crew was taping a segment about making a kora when Mali's premeir kora master, Toumani Diabate dropped in to see how it was going. Asked for his consent to appear in the documentary, he said it would be fine to tape his master class graduation ceremony the next day, Feb. 20th, at a club called The Diplomat. The Diplomat is Toumani's regular spot for performing in Bamako. If he's in town, you can be sure to see after midnight any Friday night there.

We arrived an hour before the ceremony was to begin not sure what to expect. About 15 students were in various stages of setting up and tuning their koras. Other instruments were out as well. I noticed a large, powerful looking man enter the Diplomat and go straight to a balaphone giving it a few taps to hear how it sounded. Later found out that he was a maker of balaphones, a teacher, and a master musician of that instrument. He was the subject of two segments filmed later.

Toumani promised we could get a line out from the house mixing board ( a 24 channel Behringer). After checking with the club technicians, I connected a parallel split from the Left and Right outputs of the board to two tracks of the 788. It soon became apparent that very few instruments were going to get miced. DI lines from 2 or 3 koras was about the extent of it.

To pick up the instruments acoustically, we placed the stereo Neumann in an unobtrusive position about 10 feet in front of the stage left side. Also managed to get the U87 right on the stage with intention of getting the koras' natural acoustics close up. Setting up any more mics felt like it would be an intrusion.

The first kora performance was by Toumani's son who appeared to be in his late teens or early 20s. He clearly demostrated that he had either inherited, learned or both, his father's skills on the kora.

Much of the evening was taken up with speeches and the graduation ceremony, interspersed with a few more kora performances.

Toumani was holding court, making the rounds dressed royally in a dark green bouba. Full length stand-up posters with elegant graphics declared Toumani a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador in the fight against A.I.D.S. Our hope, at the very least was to get a usable sound byte from him.

A week earlier, Toumani had been in Los Angeles to receive a Grammy for his last album with Ali Farka Toure. The Grammy was presented to him again as part of this ceremony. His sister and some of her friends sitting in the back near the sound board, all dressed with formal elegance, began singing acapella songs of praise for Toumani and carried on even as the M.C. moved on to his next presentation. They carried on this singing - it was nice singing - for a good 15 - 20 minutes unconcerned with the disruption they were causing. Toumani, himself, appeared to ignore them. Someone later said that this was a thing they did sometimes to try to get some money. I don't think they were successful, most people looked confused by it or mildly annoyed.

Finally, toward the end Toumani's band got up on stage though it was still uncertain whether the master would sit in. His band had a full drum kit along with 3 drummers upfront playing a drum from Senegal called a Sabar which looks like a skinny djembe and is played with a stick. There was a bass player, guitar, n'goni, balaphon, and a cheesy synthesizer - no vocals. Someone else, obviously Toumnai's personal sound technician, came back to the mixing board to get their mix together. At the last minute, much to our delight, Toumani jumped in on the kora.

All evening the house sound techs had been friendly and easy going and helped, where they could, with my audio requirements despite our language differences. They were also very hospitable, making sure that I was supplied with cold drinks as they were also. When Toumani's soundman took over, he noticed I was there recording and made sure to ask if everything was ok for me. He was friendly and welcoming, also.

The only instruments going through the mixer were Toumani's kora, the bass drum mic, and the synth which I thought was mixed too far on top. But the kora still cut through. With the audio from the ambient mics, including at least one of the camera pair of mics, combined with the board mix, we had good audio to go along with the footage of Toumani playing.

It was official, Toumani Diabate was in the documentary. Unlike most performers, he had not required a fee. This was considered a bit of a coup as the production was hoping for names more familiar to American and International audiences to help market the release. Toumani had been coy about his participation the day before and there was uncertainty about it for most of this evening. I considered that he was feeling us out before jumping in.

After his performance things became chaotic - people looking for photo ops and to meet him. A local TV crew was there broadcasting the event live. Aja and the film crew managed to get in a few interview type questions with Toumani for the documentary. Later, Aja was interviewed on television about what he was doing. We are still wishing to have a more formal sit down interview with Toumani but he's hard to pin down.

As we were getting ready to leave, Toumani was still center stage basking in the moment. People were going up to shake his hand, he wasn't saying much but smiling broadly. I thought to make contact and went and shook his hand. He turned to me and said, "Thank-you, bro ... I am happy." He obviously was. That made my night.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bravo, Max

Are now taking pre-release orders for their new cd, Dog's Light which I Produced with them at Prairie Sun Recording last December. It's a very organic recording - great songs passionately played and sung live in the studio.

Break These Chains Release

Received an email from Winifred Adams mentioned earlier this year in The Mix:


Your mix is our first single release on Itunes worldwide!

Maybe you can share your work with your blog fans as well!! Whoopie!!

Thank you so much!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rupa & the April Fishes in Grass Valley

One of my favorite groups plays in my hometown tonight. Unfortunately, I'm not there to make it. If you are, I highly recommend catching their set.

Saturday, February 26
The Center for the Arts presents a Dance Party
Rupa and The April Fishes
8:00PM, $15 members, $18 non-member
Tickets at: The Center Box Office - 530-274-8384 ext 14
BriarPatch Co-op Community Market - 530-272-5333
Cherry Records - 530-823-2147

"...romantic and pulling from many worlds -- Indian ragas and sultry tangos, Gypsy waltzes and bossa nova. And all of it shares the soothing quality of lullabies, with deeply poetic imagery, which Marya sings in sweet, lilting French."
- San Francisco Chronicle

"Watching them perform is a little like riding with the top down in a double-decker bus, careening through seven or eight crowded ethnic neighborhoods, each one in the middle of a massive street party. " - Los Angeles Times

Rupa & the April Fishes hold up a carnival mirror to life and present a warped, humorous and occasionally disquieting reflection. Sequestered beneath Rupa’s infectious and captivating melodies are thought-provoking themes that address life, love, art, death and the real and artificial divisions that keep us apart. The San Francisco-based musical agitators are specialists in crossing borders and building bridges and with their new album they effortlessly blur the boundaries of genre and geography to create a sound Time Out has called "global agit-pop".

Although Rupa and the April Fishes are based in San Francisco, California, their music is a specifically locale-free style of pan-culturalism, with lead singer and songwriter Rupa Marya singing not only in English, but also French, Spanish, Hindi and the Roma language of the Gypsies. Marya was born near San Francisco, but her Indian-born parents traveled quite a bit, and she was raised not only in California, but also in northern India and France. Although the study of medicine was Marya's main priority -- she is an internist on staff at a teaching hospital in San Francisco -- she also began playing piano and guitar as a child, and began writing songs as a teenager.

After a stint in a folk duo with San Francisco singer-songwriter Kate Isenberg, Marya formed Rupa and the April Fishes with the intent of blending all the forms of music she had been exposed to, from wistful French chansons and dramatic Roma ballads to the Mexican-American pop that permeates the Bay Area, along with politically minded lyrics that concern her internationalist mindset. With herself on guitar and lead vocals, Marya formed Rupa and the April Fishes while completing her medical residency. The band's debut album, Extraordinary Rendition, was released in 2007.

Their latest release, Este Mundo, was recorded at Prairie Sun Studios by engineer and sound wizard Oz Fritz, who is best known for his work with Tom Waits (Mule Variations). Guests include rapper Boots Riley of The Coup, along with some of the Bay Area’s best musical talents including Tin Hat’s trumpeter Ara Anderson and Serbian slap bassist Djordje Stijepovic. Rupa & the April Fishes blend an alternative pop attitude with international spices, mixing in elements of Gypsy swing, Colombian cumbia, French chanson and Indian ragas. According to lead singer Rupa, “este mundo is a collection of sounds and songs highlighting life’s accidental beauty and surging joy as well as their inexorable partner: human suffering.”

Friday, February 25, 2011

Scouting a Location

2/14: Drove diagonally across Bamako from our home base in the South West corner to the North East area to scout a location where a donso n'goni (bass n'goni) instrument maker had his shop. It's on a hill overlooking several domes of a large mosque still under construction. The sound of many voices from an unseen market or public gathering of some kind funneled upward, amplified by bouncing off the stone buildings lining narrow alleyways. A pile of broken stones in the artisan's flotsom and jetson strewn dirt yard gives a post apocalyptic look to this place.

A number of shoots this week have minimal audio requirements - human interest stories,instrument making, on the street interviews - segments without music performances. I hang back and do rough mixes in the Production Room.The roughs give me a good idea as to how the recordings turned out - so far, so good! I'm finding the audio from the camera mics quite useful for picking up good ambience.

For a transistion piece, I was asked to buy a small radio and record the static and tuning in to various radio stations across the dial. I discovered BBC Africa which I've been listening to since. Their, bold, person on the street/reporters in the thick of things broadcasts with the attendant background sounds is confrontational and often quite shocking. The violence in Libya seems to reverberate throughout the African continent and, presumably, the world. Things seem very volatile to me.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

General Diabate

On Feb. 12 we drove across Bamako to film djeli dun dun master General Diabate. We enter his compound and encounter an active domestic scene, women doing laundry, cleaning, preparing food, a multitude of kids being kids. General got his nick name as a child - something to do with his skill as a soccer player, never been in the military, but does work in a local hospital possibly as a surgeon though that wasn't made clear. General is a tall man with a stately and friendly demeanor.

He invites us into his living room where the interview is to take place and offers hospitality by having one of his daughters go out and buy sodas for everybody. The living room is just big enough to set-up cameras, lights and sound. The walls are painted a shade of bluish turquoise; An old television rests on a table in one corner broadcasting a soccer game which he turns off when we're seated. Small framed photos of family adorn the walls along with perfomance photos from Paris. Two clocks on the wall tell the time with extreme precision exactly twice a day.

For the interview, General changes from his house clothes into a colorful, light purple traditional costume known as a bouba. It is immaculately clean. The bright vividness of the bouba makes for a moment of concern with the camera crew but they end up going with it.

A djeli dun dun is carried by the musician by a strap slung over one shoulder. It's played with a wood mallet, the other hand plays a metallic bell. The drum has the sound of a powerful booming bass drum. A djeli dun dun player is a griot someone who communicates the history of their tribe through their music. General Diabate doesn't sing, he tells the history through different rhythms which have associations with various aspects of the tribal life.

For General's performance piece, the film crew is having him play walking up his street into his compound while also commenting on what he's doing. He's accompanied by two of his sons on the djeli dun dun. He's being miced with a clip on lavalier mic and the Rode shotgun. The lav works to pick up the commentary but both mics are woefully inadequate to capture the full power of the dun dun.

To get a good drum sound, we have them play a couple of rhythms stationary at one end of the compound. We are going to temporarily comandeer the courtyard and interupt their domestic activities and the children's play. Perhaps this is why General gets a bag of candy and gives a piece to all the children who need no prompting to come running up to him for their treat. This reminds me of Gurdjieff giving out candy on the streets of Paris in his later years.

The film crew doesn't want to see any mics in the shot so Lee and I set-up the Neumann stereo mic off to one side and a U87 beside the cameras. To try to get some of the low end with an ambient mic, I place an AKG D112 on the ground of the stone courtyard as close as they'll let me which is still about 10 feet away. I'm suprised by how well this works.

The sound of the dun duns shake and reverberate through the courtyard. The clatter of the metal ringing bells carries the higher frequencies in a way that I can only describe as purposeful chaos. The booming drums and rattling bells are loud enough to wake the dead.

The pieces aren't long but afterwards, in the true silence that follows, one gets the sense that something very powerful has occured, though exactly what remains unknown. Accessing new worlds through sound isn't something that contemporary science has found a way to measure as of yet.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Zumana Treta

2/11/11: The next music performance filmed was with soko fiddle player Zumana Treta. We shot this on the banks of the Niger outside the same Cultural Center where KSK had put on a concert 4 years earlier. It's near the bridge that connects the two sides of Bamako and right across the river from the lone, tall bank building that repuredly holds all or most of the country's gold not in the ground. Mali is one of the biggest producers of the world's gold. Downriver from the bank is the Hotel Libya. It's the only other building in view.

Accompanying Zumana was a calabash player, and a n'goni player - the same n'goni player who sat in with Djeneba Seck the day before.

A calabash is a percussion instrument - a shell that's a gourd cut in half. It has two sounds - fast syncopated rhythms played by the fingers on top of the shell, and a low thump played by the back of the hand or sometimes a fist on the shell.

To capture the low sound I put a SM58 inside the shell - not enough room to put on a stand so the mic just rests on a piece of cloth inside the shell. A SM57 covered the top of the calabash.

Often the calabash is played on the ground. At first we planned to have all the musicians on the ground for the shot, but the calabash player brought a stand, a portable raised platform that allowed everyone to stand up. The n'goni and fiddle were run direct.

Zumana also sings. We wanted as few mics in the frame as possible. Tried the Sanken lavalier but it didn't sound right for Zumana's voice. Switched to the Audio Tech lav. It sounded pretty dark but it did pick up the throaty part of his vocal and didn't get so much of the fiddle bleeding through. I was confident that I could brighten his vocal in post production.

Still wasn't happy with the vocal so set up the U87 and set it as close to Zumana as I could without compromising the shot. It ended up about 18 - 24 inches away, farther than I would have preferred to record a lead vocal but close enough to pick up some of the higher frequencies in his voice. I was reasonably satisfied with the combination of the U87 and the lav.

I had found some shade to set up the 788 recorder in to avoid getting fried by the sun. The temperature was 107 in the sun. We arrived around 3pm then waited about an hour or so until the light was better. The sunset, around 6:30pm was quite dramatic.

Didin't have much of an audience for Zumana but his singing and playing was mesmerizing nonetheless. He played 5 pieces. The plaintive wailing of the soko fiddle often in repetitive patterns that seemed to draw one in further with each repetition, had a yearning quality, reaching for something more. Drawing one up in a mood outside the ordinary.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Grande Marche

Feb. 17th, 9am cab ride down to the Grande Marche, the Grand Market. Vendors everywhere you turn in small stalls packed with goods. Many of them are just out walking the streets with all their wares piled high upon their heads.

Now is when I get the impression reinforced that Africans have a stronger 6th sense. I wrote the above words on my notepad in a fabric shop where another member of our party was negotiating a purchase. Someone had kindly brought out a stool for me to sit on while waiting. When the transaction was finished, the proprietor, an alert young man in his 30s, jokingly puts all the purchased fabric on the top of his head, looks directly at me (for the first time) giving me a big smile and a knowing look.

In the cab I'm asked to say: where are we really going? Not sure how to respond I say, "the market bardo, a Rebirth Station, a Way Station of sorts." Narrow alleyways, walkways, passageways, a maze of shops and stalls, throngs of people - wannabe guides and attention seducers on all sides. Multiple omnidimensional interconnected choice points. Things to buy, to look at, to smell - sweet smelling inscense wafting from the religious stalls. Holy men in robes wandering about, their heads wrapped with scarves on a hot day not breaking a sweat. Street hustlers, hawkers, wanting to be your guide to take you to their favorite rebirth chamber, their shop or someone they know who will kick back some of the profit.

Propelled through the market via focussed intention or automatically from karmic momentum? Or the fishhooks of seduced, distracted attention, the colors of the psychedelic fabric designs, the sounds of loud distorted reggae and West African funk, the bright glitter of the silver and gold jewelry, holy beads, plastic beads, the occasional ancient artifact, a piece of pottery or an antique looking glass, beads from Roman times, the occasional treasure buried beneath multiple redundant identical chinese goods that could be radioactive because they don't regulate radioactive material in China. Voyaging through the market bardo sometimes seems like stepping into a William S. Burroughs novel - the Interzone, the place between worlds.

Later in the day, I'm asked for and provide a copy of the Clear Light prayer for a young friend getting ready to leave.

Early in our journey, before we'd stepped into the Interzone proper, Eo haggles for a nice shirt at a stall on the street. A relaxed back and forth comic/drama all done in good nature even disagreeing in good nature. Ther's an art to bargaining in West Africa. The price is not right, Eo gives the shirt back and we start walking away. Get almost through the next stall before the shop owner's raised voice indicates a new offer.

The back and forth bartering resumes . . . an army guy, apparently unarmed is there observing. He introduces himself, appears straight-up, clean and direct with his presence, and friendly. Checking out the proceedings in a casual way while ostensibly looking at things.

Another shop steward tells the shirt saleperson to " give him a good price, he gives money to the beggars and the "garibous." Garibous are young children who sing songs of praise to Mohammed and Allah for change. Indeed, Eo makes a point to give a coin to every beggar he sees.

After a bit, the Military officer also tells the proprietor to give Eo a fair price. The whole drama lasts 15 - 20 minutes before getting settled. The price had started at 11,000 cfa, he ended up getting it for 7,500 cfa, everyone satisfied with the transaction.

Lunch at Amandine. A cosmopolitan crowd, Japanese, Africans, French, Americans and maybe some indefinites who only wear their national identities at certain times like a mask to get over the border past passport control. A thought passes: must be an International Hotel nearby, as a crowd of "toubabous" (white people) stroll up.

Two middle-aged male twins enter stage right looking like CIA operatives from a movie where they want you to know they're CIA operatives. They order a 40 ouncer of beer, must be off duty.

An older African wearing dark shades, sitting in the shade, dressed in fatigues at a table close, but not that close gives Eo a very intense look as Eo speaks passionately of his disapproval of the "military machine." I switch the subject keeping my eye on him. After awhile he relaxes and his attention diffuses. I don't see any calls made - we appear to have passed his surveillance.

This cafe carries the feeling of being at the crossroads of the World, the crossroads of something, I'm not sure what?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Djeneba Seck

On Feb. 10th we were scheduled to shoot an up and coming singer named Djeneba Seck (pronounced Jeneba Sheck). We were looking to capture both a music performance and an interview. She was contacted several times to find out what musicians would accompany her performance. We were told there would be 2 or 3 additional musicians, singing or playing acoustic instruments. We brought our full assortment of mics and stands just in case.

The shoot was at the same location we had filmed Madou Diabate, the former Presidential Palace. When we arrived, a group of musicians were waiting - more than 2 or 3, it looked like we had a full band. A few minutes later some other people started unloading equipment: a drum kit, guitar amp, bass amp, and a club-size, very beat-up looking PA sound system.

This was a suprise. We had no idea if we could make it work. First task: find some electricity. Aja went to ask the caretaker of the grounds but it didn't take long to determine that if we wanted electricity, we would have to go back and get our own generator.

All the musicians except the drummers were planning to plug-in to their time endeared PA. The only way a recording would work would be to split the microphone/line signals with one branch going to our recorders, the other going into their PA. Fortunately we had a snake that also split the signal, purchased to record a day of concert performances on a previous trip here. It was decided to send Eo and Lee back across town to get the snake and generator. In the meantime, we would interview Djeneba.

We set-up for the interview and attached the Sanken lavalier to Djeneba but soon found out that it was the wrong Djeneba. Her name was Djeneba but not Djeneba Seck. She was wearing a striped, brightly colored, crisp African dress, all the presence and appearance of someone about to perform. She turned out to be one of the background singers.

Djeneba Seck looked even more royal and regal. She had a light brown, formal looking embroidered African dress, and the bearing of someone quite comfortable with their position as star of the show. I would guess that she's in her mid 30s. Djeneba is married to another musician, guitarist/singer Sekou Kouayte. They often perform together.

The interview went well. I was concerned that we wouldn't have enough time to set-up the band and the recording before it got too dark to film. Especially since, after the band's equipment had been unloaded, no one was making any moves to set anything up. I encouraged Aja to ask the musicians to set-up and they finally got started.

The first piece of good news was that they wouldn't be using the trap set. We only had the 8 track 788 with us though we could record onto additional tracks by sending them to the camera audio inputs.

The band had brought a soundman who looked to be in charge of getting the PA up. They put the speaker cabinets on stands - 3 of them, Left, Right and Center, but positioned the speakers behind the musicians. When they started to plug in vocal mics, loud feedback howled from the speakers due to the volume they were set at. I had them move the L and R cabinets in front of the stage on either side. The center PA cabinet was taken off the stand and placed on the ground for a stage monitor. As soon as the speakers were moved, the feedback went away.

The band's line-up was:

A dun dun player - a dun dun is their bass drum. It is a large drum placed set on its side on a stand about a foot off of the ground. On top of the dun was a smaller drum, also on it's side, called a somba. It's pitch is in a similar range as a rack tom. These drums are played with a hook-shaped, wood mallet. Above that on a small stand is a metallic bell. Having limited tracks, I placed an AKG D112 in between the dun and the somba and miced the bell with a Neumann KM184.

Djembe - miced with a SM57

Bass - DI

An electric guitar through an amp - an SM 57 on the amp.

N'goni - this is a 4 string, guitar-like instrument. It has a pick-up so was run direct. You need either a pick-up or a contact mic with this instrument. It's small, solid body doesn't project sound very far. With its pick-up, it sounds a little like an electrified acoustic guitar.

Soko fiddle - played by Zumana Treta, a recording artist and master of this instrument. It's a one-string instrument played with a bow. It could be called an African violin.

The band was rounded out by two female background singers/dancers, and of course, Djeneba Seck on lead vocal. All the vocals were miced with SM58s.

With only 8 tracks on the 788, I ended up routing the two background vocals through a 2 channel Sound Designs preamp/mixer and then to the audio input of our DPs camera. Time was of the essence, so I asked Lee to set-up our U87 for ambience and run it into another camera. A miscommunication occurred resulting in that mic not getting recorded until the last song. A third camera had a RODE shotgun mic for its audio. That recorded an excellent ambience track.

I had the group run through a song for a soundcheck. Everything seemed in order though I wasn't in the best place for monitoring, about 8 - 10 feet in front of their loud and distorted PA cabinet.

I monitored with a set of closed ear headphones turned up pretty loud. The effect of hearing a clean lead vocal through the headphones and a distorted one from the PA, gave the effect of the vocal sounding like it was doubled and slightly harmonized.

The layout of the grounds, the former Presidential Palace getaway retreat, consisted of multi-leveled tiers. On one side was an empty, Olympic sized swimming pool. The band had set-up on a platform at the same level as the pool. The cameras and I were positioned one level down making it look like the band was playing on a natural stage.

The music was very infectious and catching, easy to lock in and get swept away by the groove. Djeneba's singing was passionate and dynamic - sometimes powerful, sometimes intimate.

After the first song I heard applause and turned around to see that an audience had gathered, mostly women and children, to watch the shoot. The more the crowd got into it, the more the band got into it - a mutually reciprocal feedback loop. By the end of 5 songs, one of them 20 minutes long, I definitely felt like I'd been at a concert. That same high you get when you can feel that the music has taken you somewhere. It was another case of having to make sure to keep part of my attention on the technical side as it would be easy to get carried away by the music.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Market, Camels & Al Qaeda

Feb.9/ Went to a large outdoor market around 9am with Shelly and Eo. Shelly went to get fresh fruit and vegetables. I went to get a small clay pot to burn charcoal and inscense in. Picked up some Frankinscense rock crystals in Ethiopia. Eo went to translate, he speaks Bamana somewhat. The market is a thick, teeming mass of humanity doing business. All the vendors we dealt with, after the extended formal greetings - How are you? How is your family? How is your wife? How are things back in America? How did you sleep last night etc. etc. - ask for your name, first and last, and ask about our relationship to each other. Eo is Shelly's son, I am "mon ami." They also want to know where we're from. Unlike Ethiopia or Morocco, there was no haggling required. Everyone gave us a straight up price right away, maybe because Eo spoke the language.

The work today involved a couple of interviews. Mache, the djembe player in the early afternoon in the back of the courtyard at our house, and Madou Diabate in the evening outside on the upstairs balcony. They were both miced with the Sanken lavalier and a Rode shotgun mic on a boom stand with one of those big fluffy windscreens you always see with camera crews. Normally our street is quiet in the evening. On this particular night there was a great deal of noise, motorcycles roaring up and down, a whining dog,and people talking. Still, it seemed to work, just a different atmosphere than we expected.

The upstairs common room in our house has been turned into a Production room. Every night the day's footage is reviewed there. Three large sheets of butcher paper are taped to the wall with story ideas and an outline of the proposed structure for the documentary.

My assistant recently started blogging about this adventure has has uploaded some great photos.

Eo came in and spoke of a local belief that sitting on a camel cures all minor ailments. He had just sat on one and felt great. I suggested we get a camel for these curative properties but I don't think anyone took me seriously.

Early on this trip David mentioned a NY Times article that warned of an increasing Al Qaeda presence in Mali. Bamako was included in the warning without mentioning any real evidence. They (whoever "they" are) are saying it's more dangerous up North in the Timbuktu area. Apparently some French people were kidnapped in Niger and brought into Mali and haven't been heard from since.

Some educated local residents offer a different theory. France wants Mali to sign an extradition treaty so they can send undesireable Malians back. The President of Mali won't sign it so French progandaists cooked up Al Qaeda rumors to hurt the tourism industry in Timbuktu. It's working; normally thriving with visitors this time of year, Dogon country in North Mali and its main city, Timbuktu are getting no tourists this year according to reports I've heard.

Things, or coincidences, seem to manifest easily here sometimes. At the market I was looking for flip flops or sandals to wear around the house. Only saw one vendor and it was all woman's footwear. Later in the afternoon, a vendor showed up at our house with a cartful of sandals and flip flops. Door to door salesman, and tailors, are quite common.

The other day I made a joke about the Rolling Stones. The next cab we got had a couple of Rolling Stones logos affixed to it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Madou Diabate

The Egyptian National Museum of Cairo, located at the center of the recent uprising in Tahrir (or Liberation) Square, contains a reading artifact known as the Stele of Revealing. An ancient Egyptian, funerary piece, it's a central transmission and altar piece in Aleister Crowley's cosmology of Thelema. T he 3rd chapter of the Book of the Law, the revelatory text of Thelema, seems more relevant now than ever before and seemed to forecast current events in Egypt.

I had a room on the 7th floor of the Interconintental Hotel, a hotel on the summit of a hill in Addis Ababa. The room had an adjoining open air balcony with a low railing that amplified the feeling of being very high up. Mornings were clear and crisp. The bright orb of the sun dramatically greeted each day from the East, so dramatic in the elevated open air as to indicate a higher order than the troubled strife of human politics down below.

The footage of the revolution in Egypt seemed everywhere. A flatscreen television prominently displayed Al Jazeera's constant broadcast in the center of the enormous hotel lobby. They even had it silently playing in our rehearsal space.

Still feeling feverish from getting overheated the day before, going through Military checkpoints, seeing soldiers on the street, a soldier checking our bags before entering the museum, a metal detector at the entrance of the hotel, getting stopped outside the U.S. Embassy by soldiers ( one of them with a Jesus Loves You rifle strap) and being questioned for suspected filming of the Embassy ( we weren't), left me with a strong impression that the world is on fire.

Even at the airport on my way out, my bag was thoroughly searched by a soldier in the parking lot before I reached the airport entrance. The soldier sniffed my Tea Tree essential oil to make sure I wasn't packing gasoline or nitroglycerine.

Riding to the airport with Giacomo Bruzzo, an Executive Producer of Method of Defiance, and his friend Carlo, I told him about the documentary we're shooting in Mali. Giacomo is one of the most intelligent, astute, and well-informed listeners of music I've personally encountered. As a point of reference, I asked if he'd heard of the world famous kora player Toumani Diabate and mentioned that we worked with his brother Madou Diabate, also an amazing kora player.

I requested a window seat to look out upon Africa as we made the 7 hour flight over the broadest part of the continent. When I checked, most of it looked brown and flat, no signs of water, vegetation or habitation.

As soon as I got out of the airport in Bamako, the Capital of Mali, I was told that the day's planned shoot, if I was up for it, was with none other than the aforementioned Madou Diabate. I agreed despite a concern that the sunstroke would get reactivated by the unrelenting afternoon sun.

Eo, who met me at the airport, also mentioned that Aja had been called by a well known English musician, Damon Albarn, the former lead singer of Blur, enquiring if Madou was available to play a festival with his band at a festival in Manchester later in the summer.

The shoot took place at an abandoned and unkept complex that had once been a Presidential Palace from the time of Independance in 1961 until the early 1990s. It wasn't the Prez's main residence but a retreat spot on the edge of the city. A beauriful cool spring ran through the grounds; a factory bottling fresh spring water had established itself nearby.

Aja said that kora music reminds a lot of people of water so he positioned Madou in front of the spring to make sure the water was in the frame.

The idea was to have the shoot as natural looking as possible which meant no visible mics in the frame. I tried setting the Audio Technica lavalier mics, one near the sound hole and one on the bridge of the kora. Neither could handle the sound pressure level and were unusable.

While I was away, a new member had joined the crew. Jim was serving as a Producer and additional cameraman. He had with him a very nice Sanken lavalier mic which we placed on the bridge. It didn't overload but had a thin sound. I repositioned it on the body of the kora and it sounded much better. Fortunately, Madou also had a pick-up that we ran through a DI which helped a lot. Still wasn't completetly satisfied with the sound of the kora.

We had set-up a U87 for ambience outside the visual frame. Listening to it soloed revealed that this position was virtually useless for the kora's sound. We ended up transferring the U87 to a small stand and placed it near the sound hole. This became our best and main sound source for the kora. True, it now was in the frame, but looked rather elegant, I thought, and made the kora sound good.

The delicate, liquid sound of the kora played by a master like Madou does remind one one of water flowing.

Healthwise, my physical organism felt good by the end of the shoot and survived the debilitating rush hour air pollutution on the ride back. My trick to combat that is to wear one of those blue germ protection masks you can buy in pharmacies.

The sunstroke did not reactivate, on the contrary, I had gotten past it. The atmosphere of cool water at the Presidential Palace must have tempered and offset the oppressive fire in my body. I enjoyed a delicious meal upon returning home, my first since getting sick.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Addis Ababa part 4 - A Night in Hell

Tried posting this yesterday but the local power went out. That seemed quite appropriate for the subject matter.

My approach to recording or mixing audio is always done in the nature of a scientific experiment. In these experiments one may be looking for desired or expected results but nothing is guaranteed. Even when multiplying a number of possibilites to create probabilities designed to work.

As we approached the venue for the evening's concert you could hear music blasting from the PA to the point where Skiz, our videographer, wondered if the opening band had gone on already. It was a DJ turned up about as loud as he could go, or so I thought. Turned him down when I got back to the board; he proceeded to turn himself up. This went on a couple more times until we arrived at an uneasy compromise.

If I had my druthers, there wouldn't have been a DJ in the first place. Blasting club volume sound pressure levels at the back of a 10,000 seat ampitheater isn't my idea of how to warm up the ears of a crowd attending a World Music concert. Later, I found out that Bill had requested no DJ but the promoters didn't agree.

Everything started smoothly enough. The opening act began with an instrumental; everything sounded as it should. When the singer came on her mic sounded too low at first . Was able to get it up to a decent level without feeding back but it still didn't sound quite right, to me. She was using a wireless Beta 58. I'd seen a wireless Beta 58 fall on the concrete earlier in the day and suspected it was the one she had. I asked Sisay to swap her mic with one of the wireless mics the background singers were using and the lead singer sounded much better. At one point Brook Girma gave me a thumb's up.

About halfway through the opening act I started to hear a loud crackling distortion on the left side of the PA. Told Sisay, who had also heard it. He said that a cable connecting the flown line array on the left side had been disconnected which he reconnected. The PA seemed stable for the opening act's last song.

After positioning the mics for Material during the change-over, I headed back to the mix position. I immediately noticed that the DJ, still playing at an excessive level, sounded completely bassy with no discernable treble. I was hoping it was just the DJ.

As soon as Gigi and Material started it was obvious that no high frequencies were coming through the flown line arrays. At first I thought it to be just the left side but later it became clear that both sides were affected. I thought the line arrays weren't on at all but if you went to the front and stuck your head in front of one you could hear midrange at a moderate to low level. I was devastated.

The horns on the cabinets that were not flown still worked so the sound for about half of the crowd nearest to the stage was alright. Back at the mixing board, you could still hear everything but it sounded a million miles away. I went on stage in the middle of a song and told Bill what was happening and suggested we stop the show to fix the problem.

Despite the technical malfunction, the crowd response to Gigi was overwhelmingly positive. People knew the words to her songs and were singing along even at the back. From this, and from the crowd's response to Gigi's banter between songs, I could tell that the crowd at the back could at least understand what she was saying.

Most people didn't seem to realize there was a problem though one tall Britsh non-gentleman berated me quite loudly about the poor sound. I yelled back that the PA was broken. Needless to say, nothing changed from this pointless exchange of amplified hominid grunts and squawks.

Fortunately, they didn't stop the show. That probably would have broken the flow and made people aware of a problem they didn't know about which, more than likely, didn't have an easy solution. I was actually worried that a sizeable portion of the crowd would leave and demand their money back but their love and enthusiasm for Gigi and the excellent musicianship from Material won out over the poor sound.

I did the best I could with a broken PA and ended up turning up the high frequencies on the BSS EQ all the way - something I never do as I prefer to use the House EQ to cut frequencies when needed, never to boost.

At one point, Brook Girma told Bill that the problem had been solved, so I guess it wasn't the end of the world as I knew it.

All in all the concert was considered a total success by everyone. The backstage tent was jam packed with people, trying to meet and have their picture taken with Gigi. The musicians were completely cool about the situation, taking it in stride. "These things happen," was Dominic's response. They had a great show.

I decided to take a lesson in not being overly attached to my work. The frustrating things for me that I was working on not being attached to were: 1) It would have sounded great if the PA hadn't broke down. 2) Despite the loud distortion and the PA cutting out for the opening act, I couldn't get Sisay or Brook to believe me when I said the PA wasn't working. For Brook this is understandable because he's not a technician.

When I got back to my room, my body felt feverish and incredibly sore all over. The climate in Addis is very similar to Northern California, temperature was in the mid 70s in the day and quite cool at night. I didn't think I needed sunscreen and wasn't constantly drinking water like I do in the hot sun of Mali. However, Addis is even closer to the equator than Bamako (our base of operation in Mali) and I'd gotten sun stroked. Had a restless night's sleep and couldn't eat the next day.

I still felt well enough the next day to go to Abegasu's new studio site in Addis with James, our stage tech, and give Abegasu some advice for studio design. My final words to Abegasu were that he should choose a good name for it; James' final words were to make sure to have a good parking lot.

After that, we met up with most everyone else at the Ethiopian National Museum. Saw some human teeth dated at over 10 million years old and saw Lucy, the oldest human skeleton. The old girl wasn't looking too bad for her age. A sign in the display case indicated that Lucy was named after the popular Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Quite the foresight her parents must have had!

Following the museum we drove up a hill overlooking Addis, quite a spectactular view. We checked out an Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a smaller museum connected to it. Skiz grilled the attendent about the Arc of the Covenant which he thinks is in the area. The fellow said that a replica of the Arc is in every local church - by that he means a copy of the tablets containing the 10 Commandents which the Arc is supposed to contain. The attendant wouldn't directly answer Skiz's question if he'd seen the real one.

Vultures flying overhead underscored the fragility of life.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Addis Ababa part 3

Setting up the LCS was relatively easy. The sound company didn't have an RTA mic but after some trial and error we found one that the LCS would read. Playing a cd through the system sounded a thousand times better after the LCS was calibrated even with the BSS House EQ set flat.

Material's soundcheck was smooth and easy in the House with more work needed to get the stage monitors set. Turning up the sax mic, or any other instrument sounded good immediately with minimal eq needed. For the first time, the vocals sounded as they should. Everything seemed in place.

Back at the hotel, with a four hour break, some of us opted to go down to the main market and see the life of Addis outside a luxury hotel. We requisitioned a van and a driver who was known as Six because he had six fingers on one or both of his hands. We called him Deep Six.

The market held a seemingly endless variety of beautiful Ethiopian handicrafts. We picked up souvenirs and gifts for our loved ones back home. Outside the market Six warned us against ever present pick-pockets. He also told us to be careful with our cameras as desperate people will snatch them out of your hands. We kept our visit to the market short and sweet to ensure enough time to eat and rest before the evening's performance.

Back in my hotel room after the day's activities, my body ached more than usual and was somewhat exhausted. A little yoga and some light food brought it back to life.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Addis Ababa part 2

Had a soundcheck in the evening after the 2nd day's rehearsal. The venue was outdoors behind the Ghion Hotel, a huge hotel owned by Emporer Haille Selassie's grandson. The PA was brand new, Chinese speakers and cabinets bought and shipped over from Dubai. Mixing was also a brand new 24 mono channel, 4 stereo channel Soundcraft. 4 large subwoofer cabinets per side were set-up on the ground with a couple of mid/high cabinets on top for front fill. An array of about 10 mid/high cabinets were flown on each side. The outboard consisted of 4 consumer grade dbx compressors, a lower end Lexicon multi-processor and a very nice BSS 32 band graphic equalizer for the house.

As soon as I played a cd through the system ( brought a portable cd player and cable) I could tell something wsan't right. For one thing, the left and right sides were radically out of balance with the left side at least 6 dB hotter in level. The crossover was a high end dbx Loud Speaker Control System that had been plugged in but not set up.

This evening's soundcheck didn't have the full band, just the rhythm section and the singers. A full 3hour soundcheck was scheduled for the following day.

Two local female background singers were added to Material's line-up which included Bill Laswell on bass, Hamid Drake - drums, Aiyb Djieng - percussion, Dominic Kanza - guitar, ( Dominic's regular gig these days is with Angelique Kidjo), Abegasu Shiota - keys, Bernie Worrell - keys, and a horn section of Steven Bernstein - trumpet & slide trumpet, and Peter Apfelbaum - tenor sax & flute. Lead singer and star of this show, of course, is Ejigaghu ¨Gigi¨ Shibababow. Another local musician playing a mesinko ( a one-string African lute sounding something like a thick, coarse violin) was slated to sit in for one song.

For this first soundcheck I was able to get the rhythm section sounding fairly decent, however the vocal sound was nasally and abrasive, lots of mid and upper mid frequencies. After Material finished, I stayed and did a soundcheck for the opening act, whose name I didn't get. I had promised to mix their set. This artist currently has a hit song on the local radio stations. 6 songs from her album were produced by Abegasu, a resident of and well-known Producer in Addis.

As I was chcking the local band, I started to get some advice and direction form someone who actually had a good ear and knew what he was talking about. Everything he suggested made sense. Because I did what he suggested, everyone but me was happy with their sound.

The vocals still didn't sound right, so I asked Sisay, the designated system tech, for the Loudspeaker Control System manuel which I planned to study in order to set it up properly the following day. Got back to the hotel at about 11:30 pm and looked at the manuel for about 1/2 hour before retiring.

The Loud Speaker Control System is basically a mini audio computer. They're supposed to come wit a RTA ( Real Time Analyzer) mic that's set-up about 25 feet in front of the speakers and connects to the unit. The LCS generates pink noise, balances the levels between the left and right speaker stacks, and then sets a House EQ curve. It also has an Advanced Feedback Suppressor function, which, from what I can tell, is basically a series of notch filters to eliminate feedback. The way it works is that you turn all your mics on and slowly raise the level until it starts feeding back whereupon the unit detremines the likely feedback frequencies.

I arranged to get to the venue an hour early the next day to set up the LCS. On the way ove I asked Brook Girma, one of the promoters, if anyhting like the uprising going on in Egypt had happened here in Addis. He said there was one in 2005 that lasted 2 or 3 days before the miltary stepped in and ended it.

On the way, we passed Haille Sellassie's former palace. I noticed a number of white U.N. SUV's. SoƧme, but not all of them had the international symbol for no automatic weapons - a picture of a black machine gun inside a red circle with a red X over the gun. This made me wonder if the U.N. vehicles without that symbol carried automatic weapons.

A military checkpoint was in full operation set-up just before the entrance to the venue. Soldiers were making a visual search and in some cases getting people to open their trunks. Traffic was backed up, so a number of street vendors and beggars approached our sedan. One child tried to sell me a pack of Venus chewing gum.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Addis Ababa

Trying to get anything done in Africa always meets with much resistance as the people trying for a regime change in Egypt will tell you.

At the moment of our first rehearsal it was announced that the location of the rehearsal was no longer available even though this was supposedly set up months in advance. Some scrambling ensued while the promoter found another spot which, conveniently enough, was in a club in the basement of the hotel we're staying at. All in all, the rehearsal started 3 hours late and had to end when the nightclub, Club Voltage, ended. On a positive note, they had a good amp and cabinets for Bill to use - a Peavy Max 700 with a Hartke 4x10, a Hartke 15, and a Peavy 8 x 10 with a brand new Marshall 200 watt head for back-up. Dominic, the guitar player, also got the amp he prefers, a Roland JC12.

Even though we are a a 5 star International Hotel, there are still periodic power blackouts though they only last a few minutes. This stopped our rehearsal a couple of times.

Lots of Ethiopian English language newspapers - thought there would be much coverage of the Egyptian situation but barely a word - mostly reporting on local and national issues. Wondered if this was some kind of news blackout, but doesn't seem so. Much coverage on TV, they have CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera broadcasting it in the rooms. Yesterday they had the coverage broadcasting with sound in the lobby as I was going for breakfast. Noticed an interesting juxtaposition getting ready to leave for soundcheck. A synth and sax player played Arabic muzak - very soft and mellow - as images of the uprising, revolution, military coup - whatever it is, were shown on television behind them. Some people are oblivious to the world burning behind them.

This area of the world is very "hot" right now. Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Jordan, all of them experiencing unrest, are in the neighborhood. The people in Addis appear very friendly and relaxed so it seems unlikely that would happen here although there was a nearly sucessful assasination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa in the 1980s.

Gotta go - more later.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Recorded a master djembe player named Mache and his ensemble by the banks of the Niger on the outskirts of Bamako a couple of days ago. We were in a small field surrounded by a stone wall normally used for livestock. Set-up the computer and Pro Tools 03 under a mango tree with the musicians under another mango tree about 75 feet away.

Th ensemble consisted of a dun dun player ( like a bass drum) two djembe soloists, two djembe accompianists, and a kokanee ( a drum played with a mallet whose pitch is midway between a djembe and a dun dun. The dun dun is also played with a mallet and is set up on it's side with another smaller drum on top of it and a bell on top of that. Double miced the drums as much as possible. Used all dynamic mics, 57s and D112s except for a km184 on the bell and a u87 for ambience. Got some great ambient bounce off of the stone wall.

Had a problem powering up our Presonus mic pres. Powered everything else down then turned on the Presonus and it powered up and stayed on after everything else was turned back on.

The drumming was consciously trance inducing and uplifting. Had to deliberately maintain part of my attention on the recording process. After they got the pieces they had planned for the recording, they tried some newer ones with some quite complicated polyrhythms. Hopefully we'll be able to put those on the cd.

Flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia very early the next morning which was quite the adventure. My luggage is still on the adventure, I'm hoping it will turn up today. Staying and writing this from the Intercontinental Hotel. Distressing news out of Egypt ( seen on CNN) but very little mention of it in the local newspapers which I though odd.