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Are there any arpas llaneras in the southeast Michigan area?

If you travel by air enough, eventually you’ll show up at your destination but your bags won’t.  When this has happened to me, my missing luggage has eventually shown up, but it’s never fun. The pressure is worse when the missing luggage is your instrument and you have a performance that night.

Two years ago, I went to the airport to pick up Lila Downs and her band.  All of the band members arrived, but one of them, Edmar Castañeda, was missing his arpa llanera or Colombian folk harp.

I wasn’t aware of anywhere in Ann Arbor to borrow or rent an arpa llanera, so I left Edmar and the tour manager at the airport. They tracked down the harp while I drove the rest of the group to Ann Arbor for their sound check.

Fortunately the harp was found in time for the concert. The harp sound along with Edmar’s unique approach to the instrument added a great touch to Lila’s music. I spoke with other UMS staff members after the concert who also marveled at Edmar’s harp playing. I was even more impressed when, after the concert, Edmar told me he had only been playing with Lila’s band for a short time. If I remember correctly it was only a couple weeks.

I have been looking out for Edmar’s music ever since.  I saw this video on NPR’s website and wanted to share it with you. It showcases an artist who was not  the main attraction, but added significantly to the quality of a UMS performance. On the video, you’ll hear Edmar’s novel technique through the mix of traditional Colombian dance music (joropo music) with jazz and Afro-Cuban music.

Do you remember this concert? Are there any arpas llaneras in the southeast Michigan area?

Cyro Baptista – Your donkey is safe.

In Ann Arbor last month, Cyro Baptista appeared with Luciana Souza.  During the concert, he had the audience in stitches, especially when he showed why Home Depot should consider endorsing him. He said he gets most of his instruments at Home Depot these days. One example was his flexible stainless-steel gas line flute. I wonder if, in addition to being a world-class percussionist, Cyro also does stand-up comedy.

In the video above, Cyro talks about what “Beat the Donkey” means. (Cyro insists they will not be beating or hurting any donkeys.) While Cyro invites you to bring your own donkey, we ask that you do not bring any animals to the performance. I have not confirmed the university policy, but it is probably safe to say that donkeys are not permitted in the Power Center.

In this second video, Cyro explains his desire to come to Ann Arbor after hearing about the town from his father, who came here when Cyro was young.  I wonder if Ann Arbor lived up to his expectations.

You can also download a video of highlights from Beat the Donkey’s appearance on the WBGH program La Plaza.

What Makes a Great Jazz Trio?

Editor’s note: The Bad Plus jazz trio perform with saxophonist Joshua Redman on April 23, 2016.

One of the great jazz trios in jazz history was the Bill Evans Trio. In many ways this trio illustrates the best features of a great jazz trio.

Classic Jazz Trio Instrumentation

Variations can be found throughout jazz history, but the standard jazz trio setting is the piano trio, with piano, bass, and drums. As Gerard Cox writes: ”

A piano trio takes full advantage of swing, interaction, and dynamics… since 1960 piano trios have become more interactive and democratic. Formerly, in the heyday of both swing and bop, the piano assumed a very dominant role where, it would have been fair to say, it was less a trio in the ideal sense of three equal parts, than it was piano PLUS bass and drums.

The obvious distinction of a jazz trio compared to any other jazz ensemble is that it is made up of three musicians. This simple distinction is important, though, because of the possibilities and restrictions that it presents. The choice of which three instruments determines much of the sound and textural possibilities. By limiting the ensemble to just three musicians, each musician has more musical possibilities and responsibilities.

The Trio Advantage

The trio strikes a delicate balance. The larger the band, the more limited the possibilities for each musician. Each instrument needs to find its place in the sonic palette and rhythmic scheme. The smaller the band the more limited the varieties of timbre. Each instrument needs to provide enough variety of sounds and phrases to keep the listeners interest.

By reducing the number of musicians, a trio opens more space in the sonic texture for each musician to explore. In larger ensembles each musician can be forced into pre-determined roles by the very nature that each instrument must compete for space in the sound spectrum. Without careful orchestration of parts the group easily descends into a cacophony of chaos (though at times chaos may be a desired effect).

If the smaller group equals more sonic space, then a solo performer is free to explore all of the soundscape as he or she chooses. The solo performer, however, is restricted because all of the basic elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and form fall on the soloist’s shoulders. The solo musician is exposed at all times, but the trio musician can expect the support of the other two musicians. This support frees him or her to be adventurous. You might say that the trio musician walks the  musical tightrope with a safety net that is not there when performing alone.

The Jazz Trio Sound

If you are like most people, the sound you imagine when you think of a jazz trio may be closer to that of Bill Charlap’s trio, which UMS presented last fall, than the sound of The Bad Plus or the Luciana Souza Trio.

Listen to “My Shining Hour” – Bill Charlap…

The driving swing rhythm of Charlap’s trio on “My Shining Hour” epitomizes the style. The steady walking bass and sizzling brush work by the drummer together with the left hand comping of the piano support the melodic musing on the piano. Occasionally the bass player and drummer get featured on solos. When they are at their best the three instruments are in dialogue as each musician responds to the musical statements of the others.

The sound of The Bad Plus is very different.  Not content to stick with jazz standards, or the “Great American Songbook” (Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, etc.), this trio emphasizes expanding the jazz repertoire by including both popular music, like Nirvana and Pink Floyd, as well as contemporary “art music,” like Igor Stravinsky and Milton Babbitt. The genre-bending repertoire frees the group to explore other textures and rhythms. The group is just as likely to explore odd-time signatures or a straight rock back-beat.

The Bad Plus

For another flavor, Luciana Souza’s trio instrumentation features her voice along with guitar and percussion. If the review from the Trio’s Boston performance last month is any indication, then the trio will explore the Brazilian sounds of Samba and Bossa Nova. The change in instrumentation opens up another possible sound pallet.

Duos III – Luciana Souza

The Jazz Debate

If you are confused how these different sounds are all classified as “jazz,” you’re not alone. You don’t need to search far on the web to know that the question what is or is not “jazz” is up for debate. I won’t settle that debate in this post, but a the Monk Institute’s Jazz curriculum calls jazz “a musical conversation: a partly planned and partly spontaneous musical dialogue among the musicians who are performing it.” All of the great jazz trios embody this idea of a musical conversation.

We Want Your Take!

What do you think are the greatest jazz trios of all time?  What are the greatest or most important jazz trio recordings?  What was your favorite UMS presentation of a Jazz trio?

What is Isicathamiya?

Even if you don’t know the name, you have probably heard isicathamiya (pronounced is-cot-a-ME-ya).

Isicathamiya choirs are made up of mostly of basses, joined by a couple tenors, an alto, and a lead voice.  Their sound is recognizable by the emphasis of the bass voices. In South Africa, isicathamiya groups of 10 to 25 men perform the popular song-and-dance a capella singing style at weekly competitions. Outside of South Africa, however, music lovers became more familiar with the sound of isicathamiya with the release of Paul Simon’s 1986 multi-platinum record, Graceland, which included isicathamiya by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who appear at Hill Auditorium on January 31, 2010).

Before Graceland, Solomon Linda’s adaption of a traditional Zulu melody,“Mbube,” was an international hit in the 1930s. Pete Seeger translated and adapted “Mbube” into the hit “Wimoweh,” also known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

While the roots of isicathamiya can be traced to Zulu culture, European and American musical styles influenced its stylistic development. During the Dutch and British colonial period of South Africa, local people adapted western instruments and music to their own styles. Missionary music, American spirituals, and minstrel shows traveled through the colony, influencing the local musicians.

In the early to mid 20th century, Zulu migrant workers traveled from rural areas to urban areas to work in the mines of South Africa. In a biography of Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Christopher Ballantine remarks, “Poorly housed and paid worse, [the migrant workers] would entertain themselves, after a six-day week, by singing songs into the wee hours every Sunday morning. Cothoza Mfana they called themselves, ‘tip toe guys,’ referring to the dance steps choreographed so as to not disturb the camp security guards. When miners returned to the homelands, the tradition returned with them. There began a fierce, but social, competition held regularly and a highlight of everyone’s social calendar. The winners were awarded a goat for their efforts and, of course, the adoration of their fans. These competitions are held even today in assembly halls and church basements throughout Zululand South Africa.”

Listen to isicathamiya:

Amazing Zulu Isicathamiya Choirs

“Zulu’s ‘Tip-Toe’ Choir Competition”

The NPR 100: Graceland

Further reading:

See the UMS Teacher’s resource guide available on the Youth Education page.

The South African ethnomusicologist Angela Impey’s “Songs of the Night: Isicathamiya Choral Music from KwaZulu Natal,” is a great article to check out for more information about isicathamiya choir competitions.



Ballantine, Christopher. “Joseph Shabalala: Chronicles of an African Composer.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 1-38.