Throughout the period I was working on “No Straight Lines,” I was listening to a fair amount of Al-Andalus music (i.e., dating from the period roughly 711-1492 A.D.). I’ve been keen on it ever since hearing the wonderful group Al-Andalus from Portland, Oregon 10 or 15 years ago. The cross-fertilization of Spain and Morocco during that era was extraordinarily rich and anyone traveling around either Southern Spain or Northern Morocco often stumbles upon many syncretic relics, including an entire section of the Fes medina built during the Al-Andalus era. It’s not unusual to see Al-Andalus groups using cello and violin (played in the lap) but playing melismatic maqams rather than European parts.
Here’s but one example:
The photo at the top of this post is from the medina in Fes, taken during the 2004 Fes Festival. The one below is from a back street in Malaga in 2006 when I spent an extended period of time in Frigiliana and Malaga writing songs for “No Straight Lines.” How far apart are they really?
The Mediterranean region continues to be a particularly potent area for musical collaboration. When it came out in 1988, I loved the Ketama record “Songhai” that featured Toumani Diabate on kora and Danny Thompson on upright bass (I was a big Pentangle fan during the 1970s). I enjoy what Javier Limon has recently been doing with Buika and Anouska Shankar, and what Neopolitans like Enzo Avitabile and Pino Danieli have long done with cross-cultural references in their corner of the region. During work on “No Straight Lines” I listened quite a bit to Karim Ziad‘s very cool “Ifrika” CD, a refreshing Gnawa-meets-Zawinul thing. In short, these various musics all share antecedents of one sort or another, just as we are all connected to each other, however tenuously it seems at times.
When it first came out, I saw the extraordinary film “Latcho Drom” in a theatre, and afterwards listened to its soundtrack album hundreds of times, I’m sure. I had already encountered a lot of flamenco by then and was highly curious about its origins, which are explored in the film through Romani performances from all parts of the world. I watched many more Tony Gatlif films during the making of “No Straight Lines,” so many of his characters torn between Spain and North Africa. My friend Cihtli Ocampo was the featured female dancer in Gatlif’s amazing film “Exils” (for which he received the Best Director award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival) and her husband Ethan Margolis played on and contributed to “No Straight Lines” in numerous other ways.
While not strictly Al-Andalus, the group that I probably got the most inspiration from while working on “No Straight Lines” was Radio Tarifa. I love their melding of flamenco with North African influences, but also the way they work really unusual instruments like hautbois de poitou, crumhorn, argul into their productions. To my ears theirs is a really novel and successful alchemy. And I love that they recorded their first album in their living room, which is where I recorded most of “No Straight Lines,” since I years ago sold my studio and now no longer even have a soundproofed room. If you’ve never checked out Radio Tarifa, here’s a short video that will introduce you to them:
As I review this post I am struck by how much music I refer to, when in fact I have always found it next to impossible to listen to other music when working on an album, lest I get distracted or lose focus. But I can see why one common thread that binds these artists together — their celebration of a world larger than themselves — was and continues to be an inspiration.