SXSW 2017: A Tale of Three Musical Border Crossings

The Great SXSW 2017 Performance Contract Controversy—whereby a five-year-old, never enforced deportation clause in the artist agreement took on sinister implications within the Orwellian political climate under Trump—ultimately presented a mixed blessing. On one hand, acts refused to attend in response, and other acts were denied entry into the U.S. On the other, it turned up the volume of the conference’s musical multiculturalism, a regular feature that has only grown with its stature. As usual, one didn’t have to go far to find an exceptional Latin music showcase, from RuidoFest on Rainey Street to Nacional Records’ acoustic Collide House sets on Sixth Street. The globalFest showcase at the Palm Door featured an eclectic whirlwind of international sets, including standout Ukrainian “ethno chaos” quartet DakhaBrakha. And then there was ContraBanned, comprised of acts with roots in one of the six Muslim-dominant countries targeted in Trump’s travel ban.

If artists are more politicized than ever, turning to their mediums to bring attention to the injustice of social and economic discrimination, musicians time and again perceive music’s power not only in its ability to sound diversity but even more so in its ability to communicate effectively across boundaries, fostering conversations that would be otherwise difficult to have and inspiring listening rather than merely “hearing.”  It resonates at the deep level of feeling and disposition that precedes and directs conceptual thinking; in short, music can change how we are oriented to the world.

I spoke with three SXSW showcase acts, disparate from one another in music style and background, but who converge precisely on this point. Japanese ska/jazz outfit Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Venezuelan alternative rock band La Vida Bohème, and Iraqi-American traditional and fusion musician Dena El Saffar compose and perform in order to render borders fluid and facilitate intercultural understanding.

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra: The Universal Dance

2017 marks Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra’s twenty-ninth year as a group. It also marks their first time in Austin, a city in which they claim to “feel music all around” and to which they would like to return to perform at the ACL Festival. Hailing from jazz and rock backgrounds, “Skapara,” as they are affectionately known by their fans, began as the only homegrown Tokyo ska band, heavily influenced by the frequent visits that Gaz Mayall (British blues musician John Mayall’s son) made to the city during the 1980s with his legendary ska record collection in tow. Their special mixture of punk, ska, and jazz—the self-titled “Tokyo Ska” that made them a national institution—made a convert out of Fishbone’s Angelo Moore, and he played a pivotal role in finally getting them to North America in 2004. Since then, they have scored slots at world-renowned music festivals (Vive Latino, Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Glastonbury), enticed celebrated world music producer Manu Chao into producing their 2012 track “Let Me Come The River Flow,” and, most recently, opened for The Specials’ tour of Japan in late March.

From the get-go, the members of Skapara were drawn to ska for its ability to start a global dance party, its characteristic rhythm applicable to any song. As band translator Eri Komazaki summarized to me, “Any type of music, if you adapt it to ska music, makes you dance,” to which saxophonist Atsushi Yanaka appended, “No border.” She continues, “Maybe ska music can break the frame. Music has different genres, categories, but ska can maybe break that barrier also. It can go across different genres of music, because it’s so adaptable.”

This flexibility has led Skapara into musical territory they recently discovered they loved: Latin America. In fact, one member joked, “We want to be called ‘Latin Alternative’.” An L.A.-based label specializing in this style, Nacional Records, handles their U.S. releases. In 2016, they released a “best of” album in Brazil, where they performed twice in one year; titled Seleção Brasileira, it pays homage with covers of “Mas Que Nada” and “Olha Pro Céu” and the original composition “Call From Rio.” They plan to tour Mexico and South America in support of their new album (their twentieth), Paradise Has No Border, released March 8th in Japan (September in North America). Most importantly, they never forgot the warmth and sympathy of their Mexico City audience during 2011’s Vive Latino: their first performance in Mexico took place one month after the Tōhoku earthquake, the most powerful recorded in Japan with approximately 15,900 deaths caused by the tsunami it triggered.

The band plans to continue collaborations with musicians overseas, like Manu Chao. As Komazaki put it on their behalf, “We don’t want to be limiting ourselves. […] By collaborating with other artists, we can grow a bit more too.” 

  Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra | Photo by Amy Frishkey

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra | Photo by Amy Frishkey

La Vida Bohème: Music for Deconstructing Barriers

Don’t be fooled by the sunny sound of La Vida Bohème’s new album. Its title, La Lucha (The Struggle), reveals treacherous waters navigated in the last five years.  Since living in exile from Venezuela beginning in 2014, the band emerged stronger as a unit and came to feel renewed purpose in the face of political turmoil. These four men, all in their late 20s, joked to me about the move to Mexico City initiating their “coming-of-age” and first taste of true independence, downplaying the effects of president Nicolás Maduro’s iron grip on national resources and democratic processes that touched them personally: the band’s booking agent, who stayed behind, was murdered after being kidnapped, and lead singer-guitarist Henry D’Arthenay barely escaped government persecution for his involvement in World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community.

La Lucha is the final offering in a trilogy of albums (Nuestra in 2011 and Será in 2013, forming the sentence “Ours shall be the struggle”) tracing La Vida Bohème’s evolution since starting out in Caracas in 2007. The album builds upon the band’s rock-electronica foundation with a more organic approach that draws heavily from naturalistic soundscapes, images, and worldviews encountered during travels within their new home of Mexico, especially to beaches that remind them of Venezuela’s Caribbean coastline. It plumbs the depths of displacement to assert artistically an ideal of shared humanity that they have come to believe will eventually prevail over the reality of totalitarian treachery worldwide. As D’Arthenay put it during our March 17th interview on Austin’s landmark Castle Hill, “In our hands is the power to actually to put the ideas out. […] Even…if help came from outside, it’s my opinion that, in the end, self-construction from within is the one that actually makes [a] stronger basis. […] For us as artists, if there’s a task, if there’s a responsibility, I believe it’s one of throwing out the ideas.”

La Lucha’s proclamation of interconnectedness has found a welcome reception across the Americas. A smattering of examples: An interview and photo spread of the band was the centerpiece of the U.S. music magazine SPIN in their April 2017 issue…the producer for the album is Eduardo Cabra of the Puerto Rican hip-hop group Calle 13, a kindred spirit in political protest…the populist former president of Uruguay, José Mujica, provides the spoken word introduction to the song “Você” and also to the album. This proclamation is also evident in the band’s various movements and explorations—in the fact that the album’s atmospherics were recorded in a variety of circumstances and locations, from rehearsals in Santiago de Chile to street sounds in Madrid. Again, in D’Arthenay’s words: “Since we moved [to Mexico], we started understanding nomadic movements better. And I believe in our core, as human beings, we are nomadic. Being sedentary has allowed for a lot of our cultures to be [able to] prosper, in many ways. But being able to move like this [the world] is your home, this is something that I believe has really nourished our view of life.”

  La Vida Bohème | Photo by Amy Frishkey

La Vida Bohème | Photo by Amy Frishkey

Dena El Saffar: Sounding the Crossroads

Multi-instrumentalist and singer Dena El Saffar has been a resident of cultural and musical crossroads since her childhood in River Forest and Oak Park, Illinois. The middle child of three, her mother is an American pianist, singer, and former Spanish professor with a love of Latin American and European Renaissance-era music; her father is an Iraqi proponent of both Arabic-language music and Broadway show tunes (particularly from The King And I). Herself classically trained on viola and violin, she was moved to learn the Middle Eastern music she had heard growing up after a life-changing trip to Baghdad with her father at age seventeen in 1990. El Saffar relayed the story of her relatives’ lukewarm reception to her performance of the Bach Unaccompanied Suites; they subsequently urged her to play by ear to tapes of Iraqi pop music, to which they responded with what she called “palpable excitement.”

Upon her return to the U.S., she repeatedly played along with her father’s LPs and took a transcription-and-analysis course at Indiana University while working on her Bachelor of Music degree. Her newfound notational skills meant that she could introduce songs to fellow trained musicians from the university, which led to her creation of the band Salaam (meaning “peace” in Arabic) in 1993. Soon, her deep listening to vinyl was replaced by studies with musicians from throughout the Arab world and Turkey. El Saffar learned from members of the Master Musicians of Joujouka when they performed in Bloomington, after impressing them with a performance of one of their recorded songs. She also learned to play bowed spike fiddles—she studied the Iraqi joza with specialists and the kemanche with an Azerbaijani musician—and the Arabian ‘oud, a pear-shaped plucked lute.

In our phone interview, El Saffar noted that Salaam performed as “a traditional Arabic band” for its first decade, staying true to her studies of traditional Middle Eastern music. Before long, however, original compositions came to the fore: while improvising, musical ideas arose that she wanted to “bracket out” and develop. She conceives of composing as pulling the “thread” of Middle Eastern music through “interesting neighborhoods,” which include North American, Latin American, and Western classical styles. Her newest composition, “Iraqi-American Blues,” finds common ground between the “devastating lyrics” of Iraqi folk songs, “sung with a smile,” and the blues singing for which her Chicago hometown is known. It is here that El Saffar locates the dual heritage of her identity.

She performed this piece as the first act for March 18th’s ContraBanned SXSW showcase at the Palm Door on Sixth Street, presenting both traditional and original songs via vocals, joza, and ‘oud.  Her work onstage is political, albeit implicitly: it performs her belief that music has the “seductive” power to generate openness, perhaps more viscerally than other arts.  The “outsider” status she experienced both as a child and adult of Midwestern suburbs is balanced by the accepting curiosity she has encountered in her Middle Eastern music workshops for children. She finds hope in their enjoyment of singing Arabic phrases and clapping in rhythm, which anchors her concern for the fate of friends and loved ones (for instance, she worries about the safety and mobility of an Iraqi relative currently attending college in the U.S.). She is also excited by the likelihood that ContraBanned will take their show on the road in the near future.

  Self Portrait by Dena El Saffar

Self Portrait by Dena El Saffar

Final Thoughts: Celebrating Music as the Tie That Binds

At the start of my interview with Skapara, I asked them why their band name contains the word “paradise.” The reason for the other words is self-evident: they hail from Tokyo, they play ska, and “orchestra” refers to their large size. But why “paradise”? After interpreting band members’ responses, Eri Komazaki replied, “They feel wherever the music is playing, that’s paradise for them. So their goal is to spread happiness throughout, though their music. You can’t build a wall in the sky…there are no borders in paradise.” This vision sums up the type of world possible when music leads the way and to which these three acts are wholeheartedly committed.


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About the Author

Amy Frishkey received her Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from the University of California, Los Angeles in September of 2016. She is also a music designer for Mood Media, where she specializes in music branding for businesses around the globe. 

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