Africa Unite: The Voice of America's "Music Time in Africa" radio broadcasts find a home at U-M

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Leo in an African radio station

Leo Sarkisian visiting a radio station somewhere in Africa. Photo courtesy the Leo and Mary Sarkisian Collection.

The Leo and Mary Sarkisian Collection at the University of Michigan contains a rich variety of artifacts from the longtime Voice of America broadcaster, whose creation, Music Time in Africa, is the longest-running English language radio program that broadcasts throughout Africa. There are audio recordings and documents from the Leo Sarkisian Library (on loan from Voice of America), as well as personal papers and musical instruments donated by the couple. 

But the latest addition came not from Leo and Mary, who died in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

According to a story written for the U-M Arts & Culture site, the current Music Time in Africa host -- and Michigan alumna -- Heather Maxwell let the Sarkisian Collection team know sundry tapes and scripts for old MTIA shows dating back to the mid-1960s were about to be boxed up and shipped to VOA's storage facility: salt mines in Western Pennsylvania. Knowing that if these items were sent to a cave, they'd essentially be inaccessible, Paul Conway, a U-M School of Information professor, and Kelly Askew, U-M professor of anthropology and Afroamerican and African studies, sprang into action.

Conway and Askew initially sought funding to digitize 30 Music Time in Africa shows, but once they saw how extensive and well-preserved the collection was, the duo boosted their target to 900 programs. The Sarkisian Collection team is digitizing 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, and vinyl records -- as well as original scripts, scrapbooks, letters, etc. -- and the first batch of these preservation efforts are online at the Music Time in Africa website.

Get Away With She: Nellie McKay wants to escape from it all

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Nellie McKay

Photo by Shervin Lainez.

This story was originally published on May 9, 2018, ahead of Nellie McKay's May 13, 2018, concert at The Ark in Ann Arbor. McKay is returning to The Ark on Monday, November 19 in support of her new 8-song EP, "Bagatelles," which you can hear below in addition to her 2018 LP, "Sister Orchard."

Nellie McKay often seems like she’s at a loss for words.

During our phone conversation to promote the pianist-singer-songwriter’s show at The Ark on May 13, her answers were often preceded by a swarm of ums, uhs, I means, and various other utterances. And when McKay did get to the answers, it wasn’t necessarily in response to my questions, instead offering long vignettes about politics and the stark realities of being a full-time musician. 

On stage, McKay has a similarly discursive way of speaking, mixing funny anecdotes, political pleas, and stammering self-effacement.

But once McKay strikes a piano key, everything flows. Words stream from her gorgeous voice with confidence and warmth. The quirkiness that defines her conversations gives way to sass and power, and listeners get invited into her world -- which is not of this era.

Never-Ending Greatness: Bob Dylan and His Band at Hill Auditorium

MUSIC REVIEW

Bob Dylan at Hill Auditorium, November 1981

Because no photographers are allowed at his concerts now, here's Bob Dylan at Hill Auditorium in November 1981. Photo by Robert Chase.

On November 6, Bob Dylan visited Hill Auditorium for the 7th time as part of his Never Ending Tour -- 57.5 years after his initial performance in Ann Arbor on April 22, 1962.

The Pulp feature "Highway I-94, M-14 & US-23 Revisted: A Comprehensive History of Bob Dylan in Ann Arbor" noted that this was the legend's 12th concert in town. But unlike his early shows here, which were marked by banter with and by the audience, Dylan's most recent show at Hill Auditorium was defined by his longtime approach to performing: he did not once address the audience verbally, instead only interacting through the music.

Being There: Wilco at Hill Auditorium, November 5, 2019

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Wilco by Doug Coombe - Hill Auditorium, November 5, 2019

Wilco and special guests Deep Sea Diver played Hill Auditorium on November 5. Photographer Doug Coombe was there. See below for more of his pictures. 

Rock 'n' Roll Theater: John Cameron Mitchell took listeners on a journey at Hill Auditorium

MUSIC REVIEW

John Cameron Mitchell The Origin of Love Nov 2 2019 by Doug Coombe

Photo by Doug Coombe

Saturday night’s Hill Auditorium performance by John Cameron Mitchell drew a crowd that likely skewed a bit younger and edgier than many University Musical Society audiences.

From where I sat, bold body art and piercings, asymmetrical haircuts, and statement eyeglasses abounded. And although about two decades have passed since Mitchell first created and performed in the groundbreaking show (and film) that would become his calling card, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he not only rocked Hill Auditorium on his ongoing Origin of Love Tour but crowd-surfed, Superman-style, during an encore number.

But the two-hour concert kicked off with a direct reference from Hedwig, as powerhouse guest vocalist Amber Martin arrived first on stage and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not … John Cameron Mitchell!”

All the Young Doogs: Ypsilanti's Doogatron makes electronic music with a human touch

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Doogatron

Building the Perfect Robot: Take one Kyle, add a Stevie, mix with a Mike, and you've got a Doogatron. Photo by Kate de Fuccio/AM1700.

Doogatron is one of three acts performing at the Ann Arbor Synth Expo (AASE) on Saturday, November 9 at AADL's downtown location. Below is an interview we did with the group earlier this year, prefaced by a band update written by synth player Stevie:

We've mostly been recording and trying different workflows this year. These new processes have yielded a few singles we're excited about releasing next year. Ann Arbor Synth Expo will probably be the only chance to hear some bits and pieces of those before we put them out. We also did some remixes this year that we're debating on releasing or just keeping in our back pocket to play at shows. The last of four EPs we're releasing this year is out on Friday, 11/15/19. The other three are currently available on our Bandcamp and all streaming platforms. Mike moved to Brooklyn in May so he won't be appearing with us at the AASE but he recorded with us quite a bit earlier this year and he might continue recording with us remotely.

Synth music is often a solitary exercise. It's easy enough for one person to program all the music and not have to deal with band dynamics.

Electronic music duos are more common and count influential acts such as Orbital, Mouse on Mars, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Coil, and many more in those ranks.

Less common is a synthesizer trio, quartet, or quintet, but there is a rich history of synth groups, too, from Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, Throbbing Gristle, Add N to (X), and Hot Chip. The combination of personalities mixed with live playing over sequenced sections gives the music a more human quality, and Washtenaw County trio Doogatron is part of this lineage.

Stevie, Kyle, and Mike -- family names are for families -- make loose-limbed techno that mixes programmed parts on computer and live playing on vintage synths. The group's sound is elastic and trippy even as it's framed by linear rhythms. 

Doogatron's self-titled debut LP came out Nov. 2, 2018, and the group has followed that with a New Year's Day 2019 mix of original tunes, reworked album cuts, and earlier tunes initially heard on Soundcloud. In February, Doogatron will release the first of at least four EPs/singles scheduled for this year. "Each release comes from one continuous recording session," Stevie said, "so each track will serve as a part one, part two, part three experience," starting with "Before Subsidized Time" b/w "After Subsidized Time."

Stevie gave us the lowdown on Doogatron's history, name, and work process.

Instinct to Play: Thollem McDonas at Kerrytown Concert House

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Thollem McDonas

This article on June 28, 2017. We're re-running it because McDonas is returning to Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, and he'll again collaborate with local improvisors Piotr Michalowski and Abby Alwin for an evening of spontaneous music.

Thollem McDonas might be a compulsive collaborator. The American pianist, composer, keyboardist, songwriter, activist, teacher, and author's many projects have included several renowned, and lesser known, players over the years, and he doesn't seem to be slowing.

From improvisations with perennial experimental music headliners -- guitarist Nels Cline; double bassist William Parker; the late composer, accordionist, and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros -- to his Italian agit-punk unit Tsigoti and the art-damaged spiel of the Hand to Man Band (also featuring American punk icon Mike Watt on bass and Deerhoof's John Dietrich on guitar), there's little ground McDonas hasn't covered or isn't covering. He might just be the ideal "six-degrees-of" candidate for people into that particular Venn diagram of weird improv, challenging chamber music, and thinking-people's punk rock.

McDonas plays Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, with a trio completed by two accomplished locals: reedman Piotr Michalowski and cellist Abby Alwin. We talked with the restless, and very thoughtful, pianist by email about his many collaborations, balancing political action with music, and sitting down at Claude Debussy's piano.

Be, Hear, Now: yMusic brought its contemporary classical and crossover collaborations to Rackham

MUSIC REVIEW INTERVIEW

yMusic by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

If you aren’t paying attention at the beginning of Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles” you might miss it. The first note is just so quiet, an almost imperceptible harmonic whispered high in the viola, the kind of airy, insubstantial noise you have to strain to hear.

But once you hear it you’re hooked.

That first lonely pitch is like a slow intake of breath, interrupted after a moment by a stuttering spiccato exhalation that foreshadows the energy that is to come. Slowly the viola is joined by other strings, and patiently the music unfolds and intensifies until, some two and a half minutes in the viola takes off with an up-tempo rhythmic pulse produced by bouncing the bow vertically off the strings, generating a sound that is a blend between being pitched and being a percussive noise.

From here the music grows in volume and intensity as the cello and trumpet play yearning arpeggiated lines, the bass clarinet pitches in with a fluttering falling figure, the violin scratches wildly and the flute shoots jets of air. It’s thrilling. And then it winds down again, just as patiently as the music of the opening developed.

Eventually, the piece closes out with soft, slowly moving echoes of the previous material, pared down until it’s only the viola, again, playing alone, with that same airy harmonic it began with.

“Music in Circles” has always been one of yMusic’s more popular pieces, at least on the classical music side of things, so it’s no wonder that the group chose to program it on last Friday’s performance at Rackham Auditorium.

In a Silent Way: Don Hicks, owner of Ann Arbor's Blue Llama Jazz Club, won an auction for one of Miles Davis' trumpets

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Don Hicks with Miles Davis' trumpet

Don Hicks, owner of the Blue LLama Jazz Club, with his Miles Davis trumpet. Photo from Facebook.

A piece of jazz history has found a permanent home in Ann Arbor.

Don Hicks, owner of the Blue LLama Jazz Club, won a auction on October 29 for one of three trumpets Miles Davis commissioned in 1980 when he was coming off a five-year performing hiatus.

Christie's auction house in New York City put a pre-sale estimate on the instrument’s value between $70,000 and $100,000, but as you can see in the video below, a flurry of bids pushed the cost to $220,000 -- and with the addition of Christie's commission, the final price for the trumpet was $275,000.

Happy Sad: The Cactus Blossoms' shimmering folk-rock hit a harmonious sweet spot at The Ark

MUSIC REVIEW

Cactus Blossoms at The Ark

The Cactus Blossoms at The Ark. Photo by Amanda Szot.

Why is it that sad songs make us feel better? 

Esther Rose, opening act at Thursday night’s show headlined by The Cactus Blossoms at the Ark, asked that question partway through her set as she realized that all of her songs to that point had been a bit melancholy.

A Michigan native, but a New Orleans resident for the past decade, Rose sang songs of loves lost and found. Not just people, but places too -- from her family’s farm near Flint, Michigan, to the love of the Lower Ninth Ward in her adopted hometown. Her earnest songwriting and clear vocals were paired with sparse instrumentation. She was joined on stage by Jordan Hyde, who provided backup vocals and lead guitar. Her debut album, You Made It This Far, was released in 2019 on Father/Daughter records.
 
The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey on main vocals and guitar, now joined eldest brother Tyler Burkum on guitar, cousin Phillip Hicks on bass, and Jeremy Hanson on drums. Formed in Minneapolis, The Cactus Blossoms have a sound influenced by classic country, folk-inspired storytelling, and the harmonies of famous sibling duos, with some good old-fashioned rock and roll reverb from the ‘60s. The band members started exploring this style of music around 2006 while investigating their local library’s music collection and through a friend whose collection of obscure folk music and “high lonesome” sounds was particularly intriguing.