In the comforts of early Fall, with the windows thrown open and nothing coming through but the sun, winter seems not to exist. It is just a story you’ve told and been told but never really believed; the cold a memory you can’t quite access from a distance.
On this particular warm fall day, months before the polar vortex and the snowiest winter in years, Cedric Watson, Sidi Toure, Abdoulaye Kone dit Kandjafa and Desiree Champagne – collectively known as International Blues Express – perform the story of “Pa’ Janvier.” At the end of a day spent drifting out to the porch and back into the kitchen, once the sun and the garden has charmed us all into a pleasant stillness, the song sends a chill into the room. The violin, ngoni and guitar harmonize in a mournful breath, like a high-pitched moan of cold wind through a crack in the door. And Cedric recounts an old Cajun tale of the icy hand of old man winter come to steal his love. Donne moi Pauline.
Now as we haunt our own houses through a forbidding winter, listening to the performance it could seem a prediction of what was to come. A fable that foretold our chilly fate.
See International Blues Express – “Hanna” (Part 1), a traditional Malian song sung by Sidi Toure.
The Creole musicians speak to their Malian bandmates in French. Most everyone in the room, Americans and Africans both, speaks French to one another, explaining what is being explained as the house is set up for the recording. The four members of International Blues Express – Sidi Toure and Abdoulaye Kone dit Kandjafa from Mali, Cedric Watson and Desiree Champagne from Louisiana – are bonded by the common language, bonded to us by it, too. Heritage, experience and instinct all combine so that musicians, filmmakers, recordists, from different continents and different corners of them, are all communicating.
The Creole and Malian musical styles and songs melt together perfectly. The bright plucking sounds of the ngoni and guitar dance lightly on the steady rhythm of the washboard and the fiddle’s dulcet drone. Celebration is something that we all experience, and we instinctively know the sound of a joyous occasion when we hear it. “Hanna” means a joyous all-night gathering, and is a song for celebrating the first child born into a family. It can take on a form that is endless, so that the dancing can continue until dawn. It is a song of thanks-giving. We are thankful for this day, thankful for the chance to see the world light up with this connection, the makings of a new musical genre emerge, the possibilities that collaboration and exploration can offer.
At the end of the day, the house is filled with the smells of the meal that everyone shares. The fundamental pieces of life are the same everywhere.
The 78 we made with International Blues Express has two Side As. In the next installment, our Creole friends take the lead, and lead us from birth to the unknown beyond it.
May has turned out to be a momentous month for The 78 Project, each year it brings opportunities and joys we can hardly imagine. This year May finds us in France! Thanks to our fiscal sponsors and wonderful supporters at IFP we are participating in the first year of the Cannes Cross Media Corner, taking place during this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Thinking back to last May, we realized we were on a similarly adventurous bent, as in just one week we had the chance to record with The Wandering in a New York City alleyway at night, to appear live on WNYC Soundcheck recording with Justin Townes Earle, and to share an incredible evening of music at City Winery with our friends and supporters, culminating in a live onstage recording with Marshall Crenshaw.
In anticipation of the exciting week to come, a look back at this exciting week from one year ago:
Our afternoon workshop at the 5th annual Brooklyn Folk Fest felt momentous. It was finally Spring! It was Record Store Day! It was the midpoint in a weekend of exceptional folk music, a gathering of some of the finest musicians and most enthusiastic appreciators around. And we were honored to be scheduled just before Anna Lomax presented her father’s film “Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass.” We were among friends and fellows, with legendary banjo player and historian John Cohen in front of our mic.
Thanks again to Eli Smith, the Bell House, John Cohen, Jackson Lynch and all the musicians, organizers and folks who came out to the Brooklyn Folk Festival.
A beautiful afternoon filled with end-of-summer sunlight hid the rainstorm that was on the horizon. Our week in Memphis had been full of surprises, and our last day there was no different.
Sid walked in first, and his son Steve followed with their guitars. While we set up, father and son filled the room with stories of Memphis past and present. Sid can tell tales of Tennessee music for days, and you’d never want to miss one minute. He’s been there for it, and not only can he tell it, he can play it for you, too.
They settled in to pick and slide through a mischievous version of “I Got Mine,” two styles of playing that spin on the same axis. And when the story was told and the song finished, we heard two generations echo “It’s a record.”
Our deepest thanks to Ward Archer. For so many things!
There are things that the Presto seems to know inherently, surprising and wonderful things that pop out of our recordings when we play them back. The tapping of a foot on a floorboard, the chirping of a bird filtered through glass, the high praise-pitch of a fife brightly bouncing down a dark alley.
The Wandering assembled late one May night on the concrete behind Joe’s Pub in New York to play the classic gospel “Glory, Glory,” the five members of the Memphis group carefully shuffling themselves around to mix the sounds. Luther Dickinson, Valerie June, Shannon McNally and Amy LaVere each found their place, and the voices and instruments mixed beautifully as it all came together. Everywhere Shardé Thomas stood, however, the Presto seemed to hear her fife particularly. It’s the fife that her grandfather, the great Othar Turner, made with his own hands. And it was almost as if the Presto knew that sound, like the voice of an old friend carrying across a room.
It reminded us that the fife and the Presto both had lives before we were born, have a history we can only imagine, might have known each other in another life as contemporaries.
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Sometimes there is a feeling of knowing a place well, though you’ve never been. We instantly felt at home in the apartment, though none of us had set foot there before. It was a beautiful, sunny loft in Soho that felt filled to its 20-foot ceilings with Spring. In the street below bike bells cha-chinged and jackhammers clanged. We set up while Joe and Lisa rehearsed with the windows wide open, knowing we’d have to close them for a clean recording, but in no hurry to stop the breeze from carrying the city up and in.
The “Red River Valley” of Joe and Lisa’s song fills us with comfort, though it’s not a place any of us have ever called home. Joe traveled from California, Lisa from Ireland. New York, where we all met that morning, falls right in the middle. And the song became the familiar meeting point between their two voices. Harmonies sung in a living room, where a family meets every day, sound like home. Wherever that may be.
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The Flipside: Lisa Hannigan & Joe Henry “Little Bird”
Because they were in the midst of touring together, Joe and Lisa had one of her songs already in their minds and fingers, ready to play for the Flipside of their 78. It came from an album of Lisa’s that Joe had produced, and it was clear from the wild focus of their duet performance of “Little Bird” that they had developed a deep relationship with the song together. The breath was swept out of the room from the moment they began. Even the street construction found itself struck silent by the command of their singing.
This weekend marked The 78 Project’s one year anniversary. Labor Day weekend of 2011 we had a marathon first three shoots, Dawn Landes in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne at the High Horse Saloon, and The Mynabirds in our backyard in Williamsburg (the episodes from those shoots are reposted below!) We knew then that something special was happening.
We talked many times this year about a time when we’d be on the road, traveling to record. Now that we are, it’s every bit as challenging and spectacular as we dreamed it could be. We’re so thankful for the wonderful generosity of the musicians, friends and enthusiasts who have helped us to take The 78 Project this far. This first year’s work is dedicated to you all.
The first three Full-length Episodes of The 78 Project, shot August 31 – September 1, 2011 in New York: