mojo-photo-yaala1.jpgEight years ago, 31-year-old teacher Jack Carneal moved with his wife and young son to Bougouni, Mali. While his wife was busy researching rural education, Jack became immersed in the region's home-grown musical culture, buying up hand-copied cassettes and recording live street performances. Upon returning to the states, his handing out of Mali mix-tapes for friends grew into Yaala Yaala Records, an imprint of Chicago's Drag City dedicated to bringing Malian music to more listeners. We exchanged e-mails this week.

What was daily life like in your village in Mali?

It was based on domestic rituals: hanging out with neighbors, going to the market, taking naps, preparing meals. Our son was only 2 when we were there so much of our lives—the joys and stresses—revolved around our being relatively new parents, and in such a dynamic environment, to boot. On the main it was fantastic but we lived in a cinderblock house with a tin roof, and when daytime temps got up to 115 we often longed to be elsewhere.


How difficult was the process of tracking down musicians, getting their permission to record them, and, well, getting a good take?

The 'getting a good take' part was so simple as to be nonexistent. They played, I recorded. The musicians, in many cases, would've been performing regardless of whether or not I was there, and in the other cases I'd met the musicians and hung out with them a little bit before recording them.

I was, coincidentally, obsessing over Malian duo Amadou & Mariam's Dimanche a Bamako when I happened upon the Yaala Yaala releases, but then I saw on your label's site that they're dismissed as music for "export", and not really part of the local musical culture. I had thought I recognized some similar musical motifs, but am I just a naïve westerner thinking French fries make me an expert on French cuisine?

I love Amadou and Miriam, actually, but yes, they were never once mentioned out in Bougouni. There is a scale that a lot of Malian and West African music is based on and a similar long descending melody line in some tunes as well, ergo the audible similarity.

Ever seen an arena after a big show? It's an apocalyptic nightmare of trash, grime, beer bottles, cigarette butts, random articles of clothing, and sweat; not to mention the huge chunk of energy that was used to power stage lights, amps, sound boards and speakers.

Well, the green-friendly folks at Reverb, a nonprofit founded by an environmentalist and a musician, want to reduce the "environmental footprint" of big touring shows this summer—not just by recycling and reducing plastic waste at shows, but by using biodiesel tour buses and generators, eco-friendly merchandise, and biodegradable catering products. They're also setting up Eco-Villages at shows to educate folks about carbon offsets and green technologies.

Who is Reverb tagging along with this summer? Pretty boy John Mayer, The Fray, the Beastie Boys, and Brandi Carlile, who by the way is donating $.50 from every ticket back to Reverb.

So, I guess it's not cool to show up to the rock show with your pals in a gas-guzzling Ford pickup and throw beer cans all over the parking lot anymore...

mojo-photo-mika.jpgUK pop sensation Mika recently topped the charts in the UK with "Grace Kelly," a bouncy slice of "Queen lite" that some found grating. Despite the, well, glammy nature of his music (and a song about a gay love affair on his CD), Mika has famously refrained from revealing his own sexuality, recently appearing on the cover of Out magazine beside the headline: "Gay/Post-Gay/Not Gay?"

But, of course, Mika's not the first guy to play the "sexuality is a private matter" card, and it's interesting to note that many of the musicians we now take for granted as torch-bearing homophiles were just hinting at it for years. Logo's After Elton site has a fascinating look at male rock and pop stars who have "straddled the closet," as they put it. It's actually kind of depressing: does every gay artist have to blather endlessly about not wanting to be "pigeonholed" as a "gay artist?" Even Jake Shears of gayer-than-a-thousand-Liberace-candelabras combo Scissor Sisters has the eye-rolling quote of "I'm not a gay man first and foremost." Jeez, lighten up! Do ya wanna make out, or not?! It's heartening to see up-and-coming musicians like (super-cute) Dan Sells of The Feeling who's utterly blasé about it, saying he marched in his first pride parade at age 4. Check out the article here.

And yes, just to be clear, your writer is absolutely a gay man first and foremost. Before being a geek, and a fan of snack foods, even. ...Okay maybe not before snacks.

mojo-photo-whitestripes3.jpg Well, the Canadians seemed pretty happy about it, actually. The White Stripes had been performing at odd venues all over Canada in a quest to play in every province and territory in our great northern neighbor; yesterday, realizing that they were one province (Newfoundland) away from achieving this goal, and that "playing a show" would really only require them to play a single note, they did exactly that. Here's video from the one-note show, yesterday in St. John's, Newfoundland:

Yes, the audience is chanting "One more note!" But don't worry about the poor Newfoundlandians: the Stripes did a full two-hour gig for 'em later that night. Check Stereogum for some awesome pictures of the roadies tuning up the gear before the one-note performance, go here for upcoming US dates.

mojo-photo-utadahikaru.jpgVariety is reporting Japanese superstar Utada Hikaru has achieved the record of largest-selling digital single ever, with "Flavor of Life" moving over seven million units. Label EMI made the claim despite the fact that there's no real official body who counts these things, so it can't be verified; however, the next-highest-sellers (O-zone's nightmarish "Dragostea Din Tei," with four million units, and in the US, Daniel Powter's almost-as-horrific "Bad Day," with two million) are so far behind, I guess nobody's questioning it.

"Flavor" was available in a format to anyone's, er, taste: mobile phone ringtones, mobile downloads, home computer downloads, ring videos, and "ringback" tones (the new thing where you hear it instead of a ring when you call somebody). Perfect for Japan where people basically live out of their cell phones.

Who is Utada Hikaru, you may be asking? It's understandable: despite her massive Japanese success, an attempt to market her in the US as "Utada" failed miserably, and much of her best material still isn't available domestically. You can listen to excerpts of both versions (the regular and "ballad" style) of "Flavor" on her official website here, but you can't buy it. Unfortunately you also can't buy the single that, in my opinion, is her best so far: the charming Madonna-reminiscent "Traveling," which I'm admittedly partial to since it was utterly omnipresent during a brief trip to Tokyo six years ago. So, check out the awesome (if slightly overwhelming) video and an mp3 below.

Utada Hikaru – "Traveling" (from Deep River, 2002, on Toshiba/EMI)

The Reagan era may have jump-started an entire era of politically-charged punk music, but dissent lies among the ranks of globalized musicians in 2007 as well. And the music of the Bush era is as fun as it is political.

Wunmi, a singer who used to perform with Soul II Soul and Roy Ayers, takes the basic elements of Afrobeat (jazz, funk, 70s African percussion, lots of repeated musical phrases), and adds distinct verses, choruses, and hooks to make it sound like a pop song. On her song "Talk Talk Talk," She tells politicians to stop flapping their jaws—"Too much talking. Too much yap yap talking"—and to start solving problems.

Brooklyn's Antibalas, a self-described "giant versatile orchestra," plays Latin-influenced Afrobeat music inspired by Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti and Latin jazz band leader Eddy Palmieri. Their 2007 album Security powers through political songs like "War Hero" and "Filibuster X," but band members say that even their instrumentals are filled with enough cultural and political emotion to inspire awareness and change.

Ozomatli, a 10-piece Latin/funk/rock band from Los Angeles, describes its brand of musical activism as "oppositional politics." Their song "La Temperatura," off their 2007 album Don't Mess With the Dragon, was inspired by immigration marches last summer in downtown L.A. Last month, the group was credited as the first western artist to perform in Nepal in recent history and the group's shows were acknowledged by some as the first peaceful and non-political mass gathering ever organized in modern Kathmandu.

Take that, Reagan Youth!

mojo-cover-johnvanderslice.jpgI don't, like, drink beer with John Vanderslice, but he lives across the street from one of my friends in a fogged-in outer-SF neighborhood, and he's legendary around town for being a super nice guy, which he totally was the one time I talked to him. This of course should all be irrelevant to the actual music, but still, I get all excited when he has a new CD coming out, like, "Hooray! Go, you!" Vanderslice is a multi-instrumentalist and studio owner, so it's hard to characterize his sound: Beatles-y, Smoggy, Death Cabby? The title of his sixth (!) solo album, Emerald City, apparently refers to Baghdad's Green Zone, which reflects the darkness that creeps up around the edges of these deceptively sunny tunes. I guess his French girlfriend's visa is all tied up in Homeland Security red tape, so it's understandable where the heartache is coming from. But on songs like "White Dove," which asks, again and again, "what are you thinking of," the sense of longing is rendered with delicate grace; you get the feeling Vanderslice couldn't make an ugly song if you paid him to.

Emerald City is out Tuesday, July 24th on Barsuk Records.

(mp3 of "White Dove" from the Barsuk site, or listen at JV's MySpace)

I Smell a Hit

mojo-photo-smell.JPG So, how can kids these days be convinced to shell out big bucks for CDs when free mp3s of the new Fergie megajam are just a click away? Here's an idea: add value through the magic of odor. CMJ reports that CDDVD Now! plans to introduce scent-infused scratch 'n' sniff CDs, which they're calling "Rub 'n' Smell Discs." Seriously. The Bay Area company alleges that scents "stimulate purchase activity," which I suppose is true when you smell cookies and then buy actual cookies. The scents are applied to the CD surface as a varnish, customers release the odor by lightly rubbing the surface. Stock scents offered include standards like Strawberry and Watermelon, pleasant surprises like Ocean Mist and Clean Cotton, and bafflers like Asphalt and Stinky Cheese. Custom scents are also available… please tell me the new Collie Buddz CD will smell like Cheetos and Ho-Hos.

mojo-photo-mercuryprize.JPG The nominees for this year's Mercury Prize, honoring the best album by a British or Irish artist, were announced today in London; the list has both surprises and shoe-ins. Retro-R&B sensation Amy Winehouse and jumpy rockers Arctic Monkeys seemed guaranteed nods, and have been pegged as equal favorites to win, with booker William Hill giving them each 4-to-1 odds. (I love this whole British "odds on everything" thing. I'm 2-to-1 for going to grab coffee after this.) The Arctics won the prize last year for their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not; fellow nominee Dizzee Rascal has also won before, back in 2003. Other artists nominated include Klaxons, The View, and New Young Pony Club. A full list of nominated albums, William Hill odds, and "for fans of" descriptions after the jump.

I know I said I didn't like reggae. But, I lied. Mostly I just don't like people who like reggae, especially people in San Francisco who like reggae. Take a shower! But, ensconced in my relatively tidy house, with running water and clean air that doesn't reek sourly of weed (I swear! It doesn't!) sometimes that loping dancehall beat hits the spot. Thus, the presence of four, count 'em, four reggae or kinda-reggae tracks on this week's Top Ten, plus the usual techno and stuff. Welcome to Jamrock:

mojo-photo-teganandsara2.jpg10. Tegan & Sara - "The Con" (from The Con, out 7/24 on Sire)
(iTunes link)
Not reggae, and not quite as instantly catchy as 2005's "Walking With a Ghost," the Canadian duo still bring infectious melodies to this slightly rockier single. Their lyrics are as obtuse as ever ("I'm capsized, staring on the edge of safe") but clearly impart the pain and confusion of a breakup.

mojo-cover-builttospill.jpg9. Built to Spill - "They Got Away" (single on Warner Bros.)
(mp3s just taken down from Stereogum here, but they promise a stream soon, or, wow, buy it on iTunes)
Hey whoa, remember this band? Ten years ago (!) they made Perfect From Now On, a near-masterpiece of epic, heartbreaking 7- and 8-minute songs reminiscent of Neil Young. Now they've put out a, er, one-off reggae single, but somehow it works. Don't worry, it's still in a minor key, with lead singer Doug Marsch lamenting "they got the things that they came for," before the band launches into an echoey instrumental dub.

mojo-photo-peoplepressplay.jpg8. People Press Play - "These Days" (from the self-titled album on Morr) (mp3 via Boule a Facettes)
This icy track from the Copenhagen quartet could fit on your mix tape with Air and Swayzak, but they're unapolagetically synthy, with glitchy percussion and bubbling bass owing more to Aphex Twin, and a theremin-reminiscent solo at the end. Plus I think I have that same Ikea stool from their publicity photo. Flüggi or whatever.

mojo-cover-justicecross.jpg7. Justice - "Genesis" (from on Ed Banger / Vice)
(mp3 via Hate Something Beautiful)
The first track on the French duo's new album makes explicit the hard-rock connection with what sounds like a Sabbath sample. But then it heads straight for techno-land, with acid squelches rising up in pitch until you can just imagine the hands-in-the-air cheers of the basement crowd.

mojo-photo-thepack.jpg6. The Pack - "Robocop" (from the forthcoming Based Boys)
(Stream at The Fader blog here)
This Bay Area rap crew had trouble getting their last video, "Vans," on MTV, seeing as it's about a trademarked shoe product; can somebody tell the Pack that their latest song title is shared with a movie that starred our freakin' Governator er, features a robotic cop?! Thankfully it makes sense: as The Fader points out, you can totally do the robot all day to the song's Kraftwerky beats.