Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Tuesday Reviewsday: Money Chicha, Nels Cline and Aki Kumar.

by Take Two®

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Akarsha "Aki" Kumar

Every week we get the latest music that you should be listening to. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman, who started by introducing us to a band called Money Chicha. Here they are performing live.

Money Chicha is an off-shoot of Austin, Texas’ Grupo Fantasma. They make a wide range of exciting Latin-rooted music — salsa, boogaloo, merengue, even some wild Led Zep covers. They even got hired by Prince to be his band at a Golden Globes party a decade ago. But even that can’t contain its musicians’ full desires for exploration, so it’s spawned some spin-offs: Brownout, for one, is a tight Latin-funk act.

Money Chicha dives into psychedelic cumbia, with great results.Their all-instrumental debut album “Echo en Mexico” (love the play on words of the title) echoes not just Mexico, but perhaps even more the ‘60s and ‘70s variations of Colombia, Peru and elsewhere in Latin America. It’s a style known for its loping beats, burbling folk percussion and stinging, elastic electric guitar lines. Call it Andean surf music. Never mind that there aren’t any beaches in the Andes.

Opening track “Lamento en la selva” (“Lamentation in the woods”) digs back to 1973 for a song by Peruvian band Los Mirlos, a staple of the compilations of this music, which have proliferated in recent years, popular among world music nuts and hip deejays alike. Money Chicha doesn’t reinvent the form — heck, one song is even titled “Cumbia Familiar.” But its approach is, well, money.

As for chicha, it’s a potent beverage which we last cited in March via the song “Chicha Roja” by Argentine “nu cumbia” artist La Yegros. Here we get a song “Chicha Negra,” musically a raw, clip-clop cadence with an almost circus sounding guitar line. And then there’s the title, song, which almost could be a theme for a Colombian spy movie, just enough mystery and mystique — we’ll take that chicha shaken, not stirred. 

Next he brings us an unusual artist, Aki Kumar, and his album “Aki Goes to Bollywood.”

Aki Goes to Bollywood, is an unexpected and unexpectedly wonderful meeting of American blues and Indian pop. The meeting happened, though, in California’s Bay Area. The project is part of the Little Village Foundation’s mission to uncover the hidden cultures and music of the state. Other releases have covered folk, blues, mariachi and Latin American traditional music (some of the latter coming from communities where the language is neither English nor Spanish, but pre-Colombian dialects).

But this? Go figure! The story behind the album is surprising enough. Akarsha Kumar was born in Mumbai, moving to Silicone Valley at 18, eventually becoming an Adobe software engineer. He’d studied Hindustani traditional music as a child, but over here became infatuated with blues and early rock and took up the harmonica, playing in club bands at night after work. At some point along the way, he realized that some Bollywood pop was heavily influenced and modeled on American rock and pop and might lend itself to some specifically blues-rooted interpretations.

Jim Pugh, executive director of the Little Village Foundation and an accomplished blues keyboard player as well, agreed when he encountered Kumar a few years back. And here we are with something likely never before heard, whether in California or Calcutta.

For the most part the songs find a great balance between the styles, the best featuring stinging guitar lines, roiling piano, hard-four beats and Kumar’s blowzy harp fitting perfectly with the buoyant froth of some classic Bollywood production numbers. On first listen to such delights as the opening “Badan Per Sitaare” (the original found in the 1969 Bollywood movie “Prince” and sung on that soundtrack by icon Mohammad Rafi) it’s a perfect tease — a riff that sets you up for Muddy Waters instead leading to bubbly Hindi. 

Songs that are basically blues with Indian touches, such as the slow stomper “My Home is a Prison” (with guitarist Kit Anderson adding a little sitar), are less successful, but still worthy experiments.

There’s much to delight here, but the absolute must-hear is Kumar’s take on “Eena Meena Deeka,” originally from a big band boogie-woogie fantasy sequence in the 1957 Tamil movie “Aasha,” featuring the voice of all-time top playback singer Asha Bosle. Kumar and band transform it into pure Southside swing scorcher. It’s Chicago deep-dish pizza — masala style.

And finally, we hear about Nels Cline, and his new album, “Lovers.” Here is a video of Nels performing, "I Have Dreamed."

If you’ve seen Wilco in the last decade or so, you’ve certainly noticed that tall, lanky blond guy going absolutely nutso on his guitar, adding touches of everything from sheets and shards of skronk to fragile lyricism, always taking the songs to unexpected, but perfect places. And you’ve probably walked away shaking your head in wonder at the range and depths of his talents.

But you still may be surprised to hear how Nels Cline sounds on “Lovers,” his first album for jazz legacy label Blue Note. Even if you’ve followed his very multi-faceted solo and collaborative career through the years, you may well be surprised to hear him in the context of some sensually romantic jazz, both standards and originals, though you won’t be surprised by the combination of facility and imagination he brings to this. Of the former, we’ve got some tunes by Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini and Gabor Szabo, complemented by a few modernists including Arto Lindsay and Sonic Youth. Working in settings from small combo (including his twin brother, Alex, on drums) to large ensemble with various combos of brass, woodwinds and strings (arranged and conducted by Michael Leonhart), Cline fashions sounds he’s termed here as “mood music,” though really it’s a plurality of “moods music.”

He says it’s a concept he’s been pursuing for more than 25 years, inspired by such icons as Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Gil Evans, Mancini and others. At times he evokes other eras. The Kern/Hammerstein classic “Why Was I Born?” sounds like it could have been played at Gatsby’s party. Yet somehow it evokes a sense of now as strongly as any wistful then. The same is true in reverse for the originals and other pieces, reaching back to some dream past from a very current foundation. Prime example: The Sonic Youth piece, “Snare, Girl,” transformed from its spare 1998 original version into a dreamily lush drift somewhere between Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” and Martin Denny’s tropical-inspired lounge music (that’s a compliment). You could easily hear something like this in a major movie score. Ditto on the latter sense of his approach to a medley of jazz experimentalist Annette Peackock’s “So Hard it Hurts” and “Touching,” given melancholy atmospheric lyricism akin to Gil Evans’ most subdued works. And those both connect with the touching tones brought to the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut “I Have Dreamed.”

Most intriguing, perhaps, are the five Cline compositions, as far from the fierce playing for which he may be best known as he can get. “Hairpin & Hatbox,” “The Bed We Made,” “You Noticed”… These are lovely miniatures, fireside music, delicate and, yes, romantic, a la Jim Hall or Joe Pass, as intimate as it gets. Now that’s a mood.

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