By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
For now, though, you can still look at it. And listen to it.
|Listen to: Water music
Not drinking the water (and, nose in vintage tequila, not missing it), I'm sitting with my wife and kid in a dim Cancún tourist restaurant. The walls are "bamboo." The ceiling is "thatched." Several "sensual" life-size glass nude sculptures glow electrical pastel. At the next table, flambés light the faces of lurking sybarites.
A young man plays guitar in a corner. At first I don't notice him, which is good. Then I do, which is better. He plays lightly, plucking out the kinds of classical- and folk-informed melodies that flow naturally from a guitar if you let it follow its design. But he has his own tricks. He scratches on the wound strings for a percussive effect, executes perfectly timed flutter-picking, ends a passage with a thrilling dissonance. There's an unexpected change in every song.
A waiter explains that the guitarist, Javier Rojas, is also a composer, which is why we're not suffering "Cielito Lindo" again. Between sets, Rojas -- uncontrollable hair, shy smile -- edges over with CDs. I buy his first one, Bruma, and he endorses it.
Weeks later, listening to it back in L.A., I hear more and more depth in Rojas' music. Its rhythms are like water slapping against the side of a boat. A song for his grandmother is pure family love -- no caricature, no twist, as straight as everyone's afraid to be. The complex composition Rojas played for my family, "Monserrate de Bogotá," pleads with a heart-wrenching despair. "Rumba Flamenca" moves from gentle passion to the edge of anger. A tune named after Cancún's main hotel drag rings with forced three-day-two-night gaiety, and ends with an artfully ambiguous chord. I slowly realize that this background ghost is good enough to stand with any established name.
Rojas looks about young enough to have been born in the early '70s, when Cancún was being transformed from a quiet fishing town to an MTV frat-boy pissoir. The CD shows pictures of him by the sea; its title means "fog." His family probably lived a typical village existence before the miles of big hotels jammed the seaward side of Nichupte Lagoon.
Today, everybody in Cancún works the tourist trade. I hope the local restaurants aren't getting their seafood from the lagoon, where pollution has reached toxic levels. Nichupte's state-protected crocodiles snub live fish in favor of the scraps tossed by waterside diners, or nibble trysting snorkelers. Javier Rojas, who might have been a fisherman or a regionally known wedding minstrel, plays original music for people who will never see him again. Once in a while, they listen.
HAMZA EL DIN HAS ALSO BEEN FORCED TO ADAPT. In 1964, while he was in the USA acquainting us with the Nubian music of northern Sudan, his native village of Toshka was submerged under the backup from the newly constructed Aswan High Dam on the Nile (which also rendered the last of the region's crocodiles extinct). Since then he has recorded periodically, and performed with the Grateful Dead and the Kronos Quartet, among others; lacking a home to which he might return, he has moved a lot, and currently resides near another large body of water, San Francisco Bay.
Having learned that agricultural and industrial developers would "rebuild" the lost Toshka as a modern city, Hamza responded with his latest CD, A Wish. And his slant may not be exactly what you would expect.
Most of the music reflects the solo-based mode of oud playing and singing that Hamza El Din developed as a soapbox to warn his townsmen of the impending flood; in Toshka, only communal chants, handclaps and drums were indigenous. The oud is a stringed instrument, and while Hamza's scales and flatted tones are different from Rojas' melodic structures, there are also similarities: the liquid rhythms, the patterns played against an open string, the sudden rapid flourishes. The spontaneous spin of Hamza's all-instrumental tracks has a special universality -- you can see what attracted Jerry Garcia. The Nubian is also a versatile singer: Hear his horny schoolboy crush ("She is desired by all the world, not by me alone," the translation goes) on "Griffin 2," or his cooing nuptial balladry on "Anesigu."
When you get to the final "The Wish," though, something very unusual presents itself. In addition to his own oud, tar(frame drum) and voice, Hamza has integrated two friends from the West -- pianist W.A. Mathieu and Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud -- along with the lyrics of an Eastern friend, Mohi El Din Sherif, who wrote them years ago, not long before he died. The result is like nothing you've ever heard, simultaneously sad and whimsical, with a simple ensemble sound that seems beamed in from some unlooked-for electronic future. The verses do not mourn the loss of an ancient culture, but insist, "We will be prosperous and peaceful in this new-built country." And check this from Hamza's notes: "For me, if truth be told, it doesn't matter that the new settlements will not be solely Nubian, because the old land, the land of my ancestors, is being reborn."