FROM GOSPEL TO BLUES

In addition to publishing this website, I play blues with Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra and the rest of the band Blúz Explozión whenever the opportunity comes up.

January 2012 rozinlapaz

He was two years old when his parents nudged him out onto the community centre stage to sing a duet with four-year-old sister Linda. The two children launched into “Christmastime,” a song written by their mom.FEAblues2 And so the toddler became a performing member of The Singing Cole Family of Freeport, Illinois.

Life has taken many twists since that day: from the community centre in a village outside Chicago to the bars and restaurants of Baja California Sur, from singing Gospel in his mother’s church to joining the priesthood of the Fahamme Temples, from being little James Cole in a family of seven singing brothers and sisters to being Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, soul of Blúz Explozión and Riddim Forz. Through it all, he has dedicated his life to making music.

His father, James Alfred Cole, was one of 12 children. “My dad was a piano player and a singer, Sheft-Hãt says. “His style was rock-and-roll — Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Brook Benton type of stuff — calypso, too, so I got that music from him.”

His mother, Erma Davis Cole, is a singer who still writes songs and poetry. “She gave us the other side of it. She took us to church, so the first thing we learned was Gospel music. We were prohibited from singing anythingFEAblues1 else for awhile.” Erma Cole would write songs for her children to perform on Christmas and other special occasions — “so she pretty much organized us, the Singing Cole Family.”

Sheft-Hãt laughs when asked what it was like for the two-year-old, stepping out onto that stage. “I was probably terrified.” He laughs some more. “But then, I think I took to it like a duck to water.”

Sheft-Hãt grew up listening to his uncles play guitar, so that was his first instrument. “I used to walk through the snow in Freeport to take lessons, carrying a guitar that was bigger than I was.”  Then, when he was 11, for Christmas he got an old Kay semi-hollow body bass that had belonged to one of his dad’s friends, blues guitarist ¨Rockin¨ Robert Earl Pearson.

“It became my favourite instrument. I think I liked the role that the bass plays — it ties the melodic and harmonic part of the music to the rhythmic part. I used to feel it was the bass that made people dance, so I kind of liked feeling I had something to do with that,”  he says.

“Eventually, I ended up playing bass for Rockin’ Robert Earl, in his band with ‘Downtown’ Ernie Brown on harmonica. Those two guys essentially became my mentors of the Blues, God bless them both. Unsung heroes. Robert passed away quite some time ago, but we just lost Ernie Brown a couple weeks ago. They used to call him ‘Sugarlips’ because he played the harp so sweet. He was an amazing talent and an outrageous showman. But beyond that, he was one of the most polite, kindest human beings I have ever met!  I´m gonna miss him.”

At 15, Sheft-Hãt wanted to join the school orchestra. But he needed an instrument to participate. Under a bed at Grandmother Davis´ home, he found an old violin that had belonged to his uncle, McKinley “Deacon” Davis, a basketball player who had no time to devote to music after he joined the Harlem Globetrotters. Sheft-Hãt studied violin through university. It gave him a formal training in musical theory that he used in jazz and blues improvisation.

As adults, the singing Cole children continued the family tradition of making music. Sheft-Hãt’s big sister Linda — “she’s still my mentor” — is a jazz singer in Orlando, Florida, where she’s called the First Lady of Song. Her son Anthony Cole, an internationally known drummer who has worked with Count Basie Band and saxophonist Sam Rivers, is currently on tour with J.J. Grey and MoFro. He credits “Uncle Ra” with giving him his first set of drums as a toddler.  Sheft-Hãt’s youngest brother Carl is a Gospel singer and piano player, a minister of music in Chicago.

So it is no surprise that Sheft-Hãt chose music as a career. But in other ways, he broke new trail. While the rest of his siblings settled down in the U.S.,  Sheft-Hãt adopted a new country, and a new spiritual faith.

He was about 30 years old when he became a priest of Fahamme, Ethiopian Temples of Science and Culture, which he describes as the origin of modern belief systems such as Rastafarianism. “There’s a tolerance for other beliefs because we think that everything came from the same source. Everybody’s equal, everybody’s from God, regardless of race, colour, creed and nationality.”

With his new religion came a new name: Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, Builder of the Creative Force. It’s not a name he chose, but one derived from a study of several factors related to his spiritual beliefs. He chuckles when I point out that it’s an appropriate name for a musician. “Each person comes into life with a reason,” he says. “It’s who I am and who I always have been.”

Sheft-Hãt was 44, working for festivals and bands around the U.S., when he was invited to play bass with Bobby Banana’s calypso group at a club in Mexico City. He jumped at the opportunity. For years, he had been fascinated by links between African cultures and the ancient Mayan and the Olmec cultures. “So when I had a chance to play music, it was like a dream come true for me to come to Mexico.”

The plan was to work for three months, then return to the United States. That was 17 years ago. Sheft-Hãt stayed because of the warm welcome Mexico gives its musicians. And because of a woman.

He was on stage when Charo — Rosario Luz de la Fuente — walked through the door to the club. “I couldn’t see anything but a light through that door — and her name is Charo Luz (luz means “light” in Spanish).” Charo, on the other hand, didn’t see Sheft-Hãt when she walked in and sat down with friends. “The stage was at my back, and when I turned around and faced the stage, I just saw blackness, because all the musicians were black.”

“I saw light, and she saw darkness,” Sheft-Hãt says. They laugh some more.

In fact, the two have much in common. Charo, born in Veracrúz and raised in Mexico City, is also one of seven children. Her father, an opera aficionado, had an abiding love of music and black culture, which she inherited. Both fathers worked in engineering and construction. And both died at about the same age.

Charo and Sheft-Hãt have been married 15 years. With her background in public relations, Charo became band manager. They moved from Mexico City to San José del Cabo, where for eight years they were part of the Sheft-Hãt brushed up against fame and fortune from time to time, but he chose to go his own way. “After Hendrix died, they were looking for the next black rock guys, and we got a pretty good offer at that point in time, but I blew it off.”

As a musician in Oakland, he was part of the band of Jerome Arnold, “a master and a great gentleman” who was bassist for Howlin’ Wolf and the original Butterfield Blues Band. “Jerome taught me a lot, especially about singing and playing blues bass.”

Sheft-Hat turned down a chance to travel to Paris with Jerome. He explains, “I’ve always been into the music. I have never really been into the business. I see a lot of people who have been damaged by the industry to the extent to where they lose their love for the music. That’s what I’ve always been afraid of. I’ve tried to keep my focus on the music and not so much on the business. That resulted in being flat broke all the time.” And then he chuckles again — for a good, long while.

Rozinlapaz plays harmonica with Sheft-Hãt at Tailhunter's

Playing harmonica with Sheft-Hãt at Tailhunter’s (that’s me, Rozinlapaz)

For now, Sheft-Hãt is focusing less on regular gigs in restaurants and bars and more on other projects. His rejection of the music industry propels him toward one of his dreams for the future. He wants to establish a cultural centre in La Paz where he can teach young people to play musical instruments and to work together in groups — to give them the tools they need to become artists on a national and international level. His vision includes a recording studio where young musicians will record demos and produce their own original material — “so young people can come into the music world with a concept of independence, and avoid exploitation by the industry.”

As for how to make that happen — “I’m still working on that. We´re seeking sponsors and investors, as well as for my recording projects.” Meanwhile, he’s bringing more young musicians into his reggae and blues bands, helping them develop their potential on stage.

Among Sheft-Hãt’s resolutions for 2012 is a plan to get back into the recording studio to make CDs of his original blues and reggae tunes. There’s already a recording of one CD of original music with Riddim Forz entitled “Funky Reggae Rock.” He also wants to return to singing jazz, including songs that his big sister Linda taught him long ago. He wants to participate in national-level music festivals — bringing them to La Paz and taking his bands to festivals elsewhere.

Sheft-Hãt has two more projects close to his heart, both involving family.

One pet project has to do with a distant cousin with a well-known name — jazz pianist and singer Nat King Cole. Sheft-Hãt never met his father’s cousin, although Linda Cole has performed with Nat King Cole’s little brother, Freddy. But there is a Latin connection that Sheft-Hãt wants to develop.

He says Nat King Cole didn’t speak Spanish, but with phenomenal skill sang phonetically to record volumes of of Latino ballads. “Since I speak the language and love this music also, I want to record some of my favourite ballads in Spanish, in the tradition of Nat King Cole.”

The remaining item on Sheft-Hãt’s wish list brings him full circle: to reconnect with The Singing Cole Family. After all, there are new generations, including Sheft-Hãt’s three children and eight grandchildren. His son James is a rapper and a producer, and James’ latest CD includes singing by Sheft-Hãt’s two daughters, Aleisha and Jacinda.

“I feel blessed to have been born into a family of traditional musicians,” he says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten together. Anytime we do see each other, we make a lot of noise. I would like Mexico to see some of my family do music with me here.”

(originally posted January 2012)

FLIGHT WITH LA BRUJA

November 2009 rozinlapaz

Ay que bonito es volar
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
Ay que bonito es volar, ay mama
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly! Oh, Mama)

The start of November is when Mexicans celebrate El Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Step outside after midnight and you just may hear, in the darkness, a “whoooshing” sound overhead. It’s an apt time to encounter La Bruja (The Witch) – a hauntingly beautiful melody with lyrics that mix humor, terror and glee.

La Bruja is a traditional Mexican song that reflects a uniquely Mexican attitude towards death. It is also a dance. The country’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz talks about the Mexico’s attitude, so different from the somber kid-gloved treatment death receives at the hands of many other cultures: “The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love.”

On Nov. 1 and 2, families visit the graves of loved ones, offer the departed favorite foods and drinks, and build temporary altars. This is a festival for the senses: marigolds and velvety purple coxcombs, candied skulls and fragrant sweet bread with “bones” of dough.

The lyrics of La Bruja are rife with double meanings about a witch who may also be a seductress. The composer is unknown. Salma Hayek sang the song in “Frida,” a film about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. But my favorite version is a duet by Mexican singers Lila Downs (pictured below in red) and Eugenia León (in purple). You can listen to their wonderful duet on YouTube. Go to:

And here are the lyrics of the first few verses:

Ay que bonito es volar
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
Ay que bonito es volar, ay mama
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly! Oh, Mama)

 

Subir y dejarse caer

(To rise and let oneself fall)
En los brazos de una dama
(In the arms of a woman)
En los brazos de una dama
(In the arms of a woman)
Y hasta quisiera llorar, ay mama
(I almost feel like weeping, Oh, Mama)

 

Me agarra la bruja
(The witch grabs me)
Me lleva a su casa
(She takes me to her house)
Me vuelve maceta
(She turns me into a flower pot)
Y una calabaza
(And into a pumpkin)

 

Me agarra la bruja
(The witch grabs me)
Me lleva al cerrito
(She takes me to the hills)
Me vuelve maceta
(She turns me into a flower pot)
Y una calabazito
(And into a little pumpkin)
Ay dígame, ay dígame, ay dígame usted!
(Oh, tell me, Oh tell me, Oh tell me, please!)
¿Cuantas criaturitas se ha chupado usted?
(How many children have you sucked dry)

Ninguna, ninguna, ninguna ¿no ve?
(None, none, none. Don’t you see?)
Que ando en pretensiones de chuparme a usted!
(It is you I intend to suck dry!)

La Bruja is often performed by dancers who float slowly across the stage, each with a lit candle on the head. you can see versions of this dance on YouTube. Here’s one:

Meanwhile, from a Web forum on Mexican folklore, here are a few spooky stories about the possible origin of the dance:

Theory #1: There was a young couple very much in love. The man gets sent away on a ship and the girl is left very sad and despondent. She can’t bear the emptiness in her heart and so she gets into a small rowboat and, with a candle as her only source of light, heads out to the sea to find him. She’s never heard from again. (From Irene Hernandez, director of Grupo Folklorico Sabor de Mexico).

Theory #2: In Mexican tradition, the presence of witches is related to the appearance of fire balls floating in the air, and thus the women dance with a lit candle on their heads. The slowness of the dance (allowing the dresses to be still) makes them look like they are floating on air.

Theory #3: The song makes reference to the drumming sounds coming in from the ocean. During the time of the slave trades some Africans would beat on the walls of the ships, as drums, for their religious purposes. These beats were carried over the ocean and the peoples on the shore thought it was some witchcraft or a bad sign coming in from the ocean.

Part of the fun of Web research is getting sidetracked. Looking for information on La Bruja led me down a few Internet side alleys. For those who want to do some exploring, here are interesting links I stumbled across:

The real Frida Kahlo Video: It’s a fragment of a documentary from The History Channel Español that uses footage from her life. The accompanying music is the lovely song, Esa Noche (This Night), by the group Café Tacuba:

Salma Hayek singing in the movie Frida: Here you’ll find video of Hayek practising La Bruja in the studio and of her performing in the film:

Singers Eugenia León and Lila Downs: If you enjoyed their performance of La Bruja, you can learn more about these Mexican divas from the Web. YouTube is a rich source of other performances by both singers. And you will find songs and biographical information by googling their names.

(originally posted November 2009)

SONG FROM THE HEART

April 2009 rozinlapaz

My heart opens itself to your voice
Like the flowers open
to the kisses of the dawn!

When soprano Loyda Vázquez sang these words from the French opera Samson et Dalila on stage in La Paz earlier this month, she was singing from her heart.

That’s partly because she had been preparing for the concert for a year.FEAsoprano1 And because she is passionate about bringing opera to life through voice and theatre. But what made the event especially heartfelt was that the pianist was her father, David Vázquez Cosío. He now lives in Mexico City. Because of this, father and daughter perform concerts together only once or twice a year.

“I don’t even have to look at him for us to understand one another,” Loyda tells me. She pauses to reflect for a moment, placing her hand on her heart. “He says, ‘Your heart and mine are the same.’ And so, it is a very special experience.”

Loyda Vázquez Lizárraga has been playing music with her father since she was six years old. Now she’s 38. Her dad is 73.

In Guadalajara, where Loyda grew up, there were always musicians in the family home. Singers, violinists, cellists and others came to play with her father. A concert pianist and professor of music at the University of FEAsoprano2Guadalajara, David Vázquez started by teaching his young daughter piano. But Loyda had other plans. “Being a pianist was not for me.” Asked why, Loyda is emphatic: “¡No soy yo, No soy yo! ” — she does not feel truly herself at the keyboard.

Even at the age of six, Loyda knew she wanted to be a singer. “When I sing, I feel as if I am flying.” She stretches out her arms like a paloma and laughs. The laughter is musical. Her sentences have the cadence of a song. But the effect is not theatrical. Loyda’s manner is natural. She simmers with warmth.

Loyda was 10 when she began voice lessons with her father. Singing is her passion: “I believethat when you sing, your soul is exposed.” Perhaps that is why, for her, performances are not without angst.

“Always, I’m nervous before going on stage,” she says. “But then, once I am on stage, I feel fine. For me, it’s a privilege to sing. My voice is a gift, something to share.”

Loyda came to La Paz on a family holiday and fell in love with the city — the Malecón, the beach, the tranquility. She moved here almost five years ago with her husband Gustavo and their son, who is now 11. In addition to performing, she teaches voice and choral work at the state music school.

Loyda’s favourite language for singing is Italian, followed by German — she says that’s because the words flow so freely. She enjoys singing in French, too: “It’s very delicate.” But what about her native language? “I don’t like to sing in Spanish,” she says, because some consonants are hard to sing in a way that’s easily understood. “The diction is very difficult.”

She is a performer who feels passionately that the voice reveals the person within. “I believe that when you sing, your soul is exposed,” she says. “When I sing, I say, ‘This is who I am. Listen to me. This is who I am.’ ”

(originally posted April 2009)