Jan Schulte’s New Album Celebrates German Tropical Drum Music

Jan Sculte

Photo by Stephan Machac.

“According to maps and witness accounts, Germany does not officially have any tropical forests. This is of no concern to Jan Schulte however, who has unearthed many stunning examples of tropical drum music recorded there.”

So begins the sleeve notes to one of the more intriguing compilations to emerge in the last few years. Compiled by Düsseldorf-based DJ/producer Jan Schulte, aka Wolf Müller, and released on Danish musician and producer Kenneth Bager’s Music For Dreams label, Tropical Drums of Deutschland collects obscure tribal music recorded on small Germany-based independent labels in the 1980s.

“I was always into drums, and started to buy every record that suggested some type of percussion,” Schulte says from his studio in Düsseldorf. “I began to find the ‘80s stuff just by chance about 10 years ago. It was then that I started to make the connections between all of these records that were being made in Germany at that time. It really was just a flea market thing—I kind of became obsessed with finding these records. I was digging really heavily, but didn’t pay more than €10 for any of the LPs that ended up being featured on this compilation.”

Schulte was in search of a specific kind of percussion music. “A big thing for me was to find all the records on the Någarå label with [Frankfurt-based Swiss jazz drummer] Peter Giger,” he says. And while Tropical Drums of Deutschland focuses on music from the ‘80s, Schulte was first drawn to the percussion music of Germany through LPs like Illegitimate Music from 1976, as well as recordings with the Family of Percussion collective featuring Trilok Gurtu and Doug Hammond.

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Double Bassist Damon Smith is a Driving Force in Out-Jazz

Damon Smith

Photo by Rob Miller.

It’s a Friday night in Bushwick, Brooklyn at the ramshackle, cozy DIY space Noise Workshop (formerly Secret Project Robot). Double bassist Damon Smith, a hardcore punk rock disciple turned free improvisational titan is fully in his element, helping unleash an impossible firestorm of loud noise. Other noise musicians have their “noise tables,” an arrangement of synths and other machinery they use to produce their crushing sound; Smith, on the other hand, towers over a sheet music stand stocked with a junkyard’s worth of miscellaneous contraptions—bows, drumsticks, clothespins, and chains—all ready to be rammed, prodded, poked, and spun into his bass strings.

“A lot of that stuff came from Barry Guy, the bass player, and Bertram Turetzky, who did a lot of prepared bass. It was just a way to get out of traditional playing and expand the palette of what you’re doing,” Smith says of his unconventional practices. Smith’s imposing and beefy techniques of attacking, scraping, and bowing the bass strings—and occasionally plucking out some swinging bebop-ish lines—with abandon has provided the serrated and rhythmic backbone and telepathic interplay for, and with, some of the world’s best improvisers.

Smith, who was a student of Lisle Ellis (who played in Cecil Taylor’s band), has been one of the driving forces behind the creative music scenes in both the Bay Area and in Houston—the former with experimental guitar pioneer Henry Kaiser, extreme-music drummer and Lydia Lunch/Retrovirus guitarist Weasel Walter, clarinetist Jacob Lindsay, and Brooklyn-via-Oakland guitarist Ava Mendoza, and the late altoist Marco Eneidi; the latter with guitarist Sandy Ewen and trombonist David Dove. Wherever the nomadic Smith has journeyed, he’s spearheaded an out-jazz community where the art of improvisation is its raison d’être. Sure, Smith’s long list of collaborators is star-studded (Brötzmann, Taylor, Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, to name a few) but Balance Point Acoustics—the record label he’s launched in 2001 at the suggestion of the late great German free jazz avant-garde-ist, Peter Kowald—has served as a document of his work and evident of the valuable alliances he’s shored up.

It’s fitting that on this night, the hulking and well-traveled forty-something Smith—who has made indelible marks in the vibrant creative music scenes in Oakland beginning in the ’90s and into the ’00s, and more recently in Houston and currently in his new-ish digs in Quincy, Massachusetts—is sharing the stage with two of his kindred spirits: Kaiser and Walter. Both played crucial roles in Smith’s bridging the gap of his DIY punk roots with improvised music.

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Big Ups: Corey Cunningham of Terry Malts Picks His Favorite Records on Bandcamp

Terry Malts

It’s clear from the music he makes—both as Business of Dreams and with Terry Malts—that Corey Cunningham has an encyclopedic knowledge of, and an enthusiastic appreciation for, pop music. On Business of Dreams’ gorgeous self-titled album, he melted down late ‘80s new wave and Britpop to create gently-flowing songs lit up by blinking synths and distant vocals. On Terry Malts’ intoxicating 2016 album, Lost at the Party, he leaned hard in the other direction, using biting guitars and ricocheting drums to recapture the fuzzed-out sound of late ‘90s indiepop.

But for all their reference points, Cunningham’s music never sounds derivative; he’s got an innate knack for pop hooks that makes his music feel instantly classic. He’s also a vocal supporter of other bands, using the Terry Malts Twitter account to boost groups he loves. So he was a natural choice for Big Ups, where we ask artists to select five of their favorite albums on Bandcamp. “I read an article that said that fans have more control than they realize on how well their favorite bands do,” Cunningham says. “A lot of times people will see something on Twitter from a band they love and not even bother to retweet it, not realizing that they’re kind of hurting the band. So I decided that I’m going to use whatever social media platform I have to highlight other people.” As you’d expect from such an evangelistic music fan, the albums Cunningham selected run the stylistic gamut, from moody ambient to obtuse, detuned post-punk.

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Album of the Day: Various Artists, “Sweet as Broken Dates”

Although influenced by Black American funk and soul as well as Jamaican reggae, the music on Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa is strikingly unique, and the collection does an excellent job of capturing the high quality and musical sophistication characteristic of Somalia’s musical community during the ‘70s and ‘80s. These tracks, though, were nearly lost to history. They were originally located in the archive of Radio Hargeisa, the state-run public radio station; when authoritarian ruler Siad Barre, seeking to quash any potential dissent or resistance, bombed the station, a few quick-thinking radio operators hid the archive throughout neighboring countries, knowing that the preservation of musical culture was crucial.

Throughout the assortment of tracks from that archive, provided here by Ostinato Records, shockingly powerful and adept vocals sung in Somali twist and turn through haunting harmonic minor scale frameworks. Nimco Jamaac’s “Buuraha U Dheer (The Highest Mountains)” is a soaring mid-tempo rocker with winding synth and string parts running counter to the gorgeous vocal melody. With its slow-rolling blues tempo and chicken-scratch guitar hitting on the on half-note downbeat, Iftiin Band (featuring Mahmud Abdalla “Jerry” Hussen and Maryan Naasir)’s “Xuduud Ma Leh Xubigaan (This Love Has No Boundaries)” is reminiscent of a psychedelic, East African take on James Brown’s classic “King Heroin.” When Naasir takes over the start of the second verse, her shining soprano cuts through the mix with fire and passion. The majority of the tracks here posses many similar aesthetic characteristics: rickety electric organs, reverb, tape delay-saturated vocals, and the percussion-heavy rhythms of Northeast Africa.

One could characterize the recording aesthetic here as “lo-fi,” but when listening to the songs of love, passion, devotion, and celebration compiled on Sweet As Broken Dates, it is abundantly clear that there is something deeper happening here. The musical choices made on these recordings were both borne out of necessity and are a reflection of the unique tastes and triumphs of Somalia’s musical community—and, by extension, the Somali people. As brilliant as this and similar compilations are, they will not stop the violence or free the Somali people from the cycle of war, poverty, and the aftermath of Western neocolonialism that plagues many nations on the African continent. Despite this grim reality, it is apparent that the salvaging, archiving, and distribution of these recordings is a small, yet incredibly important, part of the work of reconstructing Somalia’s rich and ancient cultural history.

—John Morrison 

George Chen’s Cynic Cave was a Secret Home for Bay Area Comedy

Cynic Cave hosts

Cynic Cave hosts (left to right) Nato Green, Allison Mick, George Chen, Natasha Muse, and Kevin O’Shea. Photo by Ahamed Weinberg.

In some stand-up circles, the idea that comedy is “punk” is currently popular. Open mics in L.A. are two minutes long, the average length of an ‘80s hardcore song. And sure, there’s certainly a comparison to be made between DIY comedy shows that take place in houses or alleys, to punk and indie shows that take place wherever space can be found. Some comedians, like musicians, have a burning need to perform whether or not there’s a traditional venue, though DIY musical venues have more of a sense that they sustain a community rather than a profession.

Sometimes, though, the two subcultures intersect in truth. One such instance was Cynic Cave Comedy, a basement-turned-comedy venue in the basement of Lost Weekend Video, in the Mission District of San Francisco. From 2012 to 2016, it was a vibrant stop for stand-up comics, all due to producers (and comics) George Chen and Kevin O’Shea.

According to Chen, the video store—which started after the dissolution of Jawbreaker by band associates Christy Colcord, Dave Hawkins, and Adam Pfahler—was initially greeted by some Mission denizens as a sign of the neighborhood’s changing atmosphere. Through Chen’s visits to the store and his position as a local musician with a nascent interest in stand-up comedy, he was invited to produce in their newly-created basement venue.

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