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Issue: February 2012

Fusion Transformation Explosion

Life, as we all are living it, in an era of ever-increasing internationalism, makes (alike in music as in food) for fusion! Of course, fusion is the life's blood, the exciting, (world-)beating, throbbing heart of all that is truly new, wherever in the world, in contemporary Worldbeat.

A natural, living fusion can (and most often does) come about as a culture as a whole changes and amalgamates: over time; even over generations. And of course all music all newness in music has historically resulted from 'fusion' of just this sort: from learning, assimilating, borrowing, reworking, often across cultures (and most often across time).

In the contemporary musical scene in the US fusion of all kinds is becoming common and I do not necessarily mean worldbeat: e.g., fusing Dylan with hiphop and North Dakota Cowboy music (as done by Sandman the Rapping Cowboy, from Dunn Center, ND). Genres are being redefined (and thus invented) on a wide scale.

More often, these are native-born musicians playing world music of all types (so really much less of a 'living' cultural fusion, since the strands being fused are not from the musicians' own culture, either native or adopted).

Some immigrant musicians mixing and hybridizing with native-born American musicians have appeared of late in some big American cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco, and LA. (Among these one must count the Hindu-Bluegrass fusion band in Charlotte, NC, who are LA transplants.) But these, too, are less examples of 'living' fusions because, while they might represent a collision of immigrant musicians with American art and artists, they do not represent any collision of cultures per se. The music they produce might be interesting, but, to the degree the cultural strains they are blending are not a prominent part of the mainstream, the resultant music will never become recognizably 'ours.' (No legs, in other words.)

So we would seem, ideally, to want to be on the lookout for something in the world of musical fusion specimens that is 'living' and 'has legs.' As for habitat where to look for it we don't get a lot of latitude in our choice of that, either, if it is to be living and to have legs. To put things bluntly, in this country at this time, the fusing cultural element needs to be Latin. Very simply, that is where the new wave of migrating people have come/are coming from. That is our next stop along the line of cultural assimilation in the US.

Of course this assimilation process is proceeding apace. The typical scenario is that in the larger cities one gets proliferation of ethnic neighborhoods, which serve as spawning grounds of the culturally New for the emergence of (for example) salsa bands and the like, which then stream into the culture gradually, sometimes via younger or even second-generation people already largely assimilated. So while such fusion process is ultimately quite successful, still, owing largely to the fact that it is more gradual (less jarring, less jolting), it is perhaps also less challenging; and because less sudden, perhaps, as well, less edgy; less surprising; less dramatic. Less fraught with possibilities. (I mean, less exciting, OK?) So even if such fusion process is successful and surefire, certainly it is more dilute. (Too many legs, in other words.) So not such a rare bird.

Let us recap: this mythic rare bird of 'living' musical fusion, a Phoenix rising from its ashes, we appear to be stalking is: not one that happens too slowly to be much fun; not one where the musicians aren't real representatives of the traditions being fused; not one which cannot take root and grow because one or more of the fusing traditions isn't finding a place among the culture's mass currents; and not one that shows up in the cultural mainstream so dilute as to have all its edge off.

Therefore: where this 'rara avis' might be located is where a group of musicians, as representatives of two cultures that are fusing 'in real life,' set themselves consciously to forge a musical fusion within a very short period of time, thereby speeding up a cultural and artistic process that would otherwise occur much more slowly (and invisibly, and dilutely), over a period of years or even decades.

But, wait, I can tell you one may have been sighted in Louisville (and, despite the fire imagery, no, it's not a cardinal).

Louisville fusion band Appalatin bears all the markings of our mythic fusion 'rare bird': of its seven members, three are Latin; three are American; and one is ethnically HispanicAmerican. Its vision is to meld two very strong, heritage musical traditions, Appalachian and Latin both of which are culturally 'ours' i.e., that are types of music we can strongly and immediately relate to one the traditionally, the other the emergently American.

But with a twist that is unique, on both sides: because the traditional music of the Appalachian Region is something distinctive within American music, and until now untouched by Latin influence (as much other mainstream American music no longer is); and because Appalatin's form of Latin music is one that is itself unique because it incorporates more familiar 'Latin' style with Andean tradition. Plus and here's a critical component there is an R&R 'substrate' that, though Appalatin's name doesn't imply it, runs through all of Appalatin's music that is in no small part where it gets its 'legs' its audience-immediacy and appeal.

Being thus something in the way of a 'living' musical experiment, Appalatin has already undergone transformation that has taken it through sharply defined (but, even to the members) in-their-details somewhat unpredictable and veering phases. And I think even more striking, new directions, are almost certain to emerge from all the uncharted artistic potential. What is clear at this point is that, in their new terra incognita, the Latin sounds Appalachian, and the Appalachian sounds Latin.

At a prior stage the band had signal success at putting together a loyal audience-following, including a set of regular get-up-and-dancers (who also are Cosa Seria salsa regulars at nearby Saints Skybar) exulting in the really rockin-out Latin numbers that were developed in that timeframe. But just within recent weeks the next stage of Appalatin's dynamite metamorphosis has ignited and truly exploded. At their Thursday nights venue at Zazoo's in St. Matthews the group has started taking their music back toward the Appalachian side of its inspiration with what I think it is safe to say is a an amount of both brilliance and bang.

New songs lately introduced into their repertoire which way turn up the Appi include 'Man of Constant Sorrow' (a Kentucky traditional) and 'The L&N Don't Stop Here Any More'; plus they are doing an amalgam of 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' with 'My Old Kentucky Home.' 'Cocaine, Tell It to Me' (you know, 'Drink the corn liquor let the cocaine be, Cocaine's gonna kill my honey dead" an old bluegrass favorite) has also come out for a spin. Their song that is likely most seriously in the hearts of their most dedicated fans, 'Shady Grove' (and something it is difficult to envision one's ever getting tired of), has been positioned as their signature piece. (But since their most recent format has been, first set, Latin/danceable; second set, Appa/fusion innovation, I would guess that their Latin dance-fans are not to worry those great Latin numbers surely aren't going anywhere.)

The band has never sounded tighter. At last Thursday's performance (January 19th) at Zazoo's they were absolutely on fire. First off: Vozos' mandolin (although it was only for one number) it sounded great. Then, while I would have said that deLeon's harmonica historically always one of the group's most Appalachian-sounding elements was already so good it just about couldn't get any better lo and behold, it HAS gotten better. The only word I can really think of to describe deLeon's playing last week is, "F-en Fantastic!"

Ovations are also owing to the group's two newest members, Mason Roberts (bass) and Alex H.M. Molina (Latin drums). They both sound at this point like they've been with the group for years: fully and seamlessly integrated into the Appalatin sound. Mason's evolution on bass has really added a solid Appalachian core to the music the innovation introduced by Moya (actually something the group he was playing with back in Ecuador used!), of applying a fiddle-bow to the bass, is inspired, and the result, awesome, and very Appalachian.

And none of this detracts in any way from the group's pre-existing strengths that it has built its reputation on to this point: Kentuckian Sizemore's slamming, irresistible drumming; the gotta-get-up-and-dance, rock-out factor spearheaded by twin guitarists and (truly melodious) vocalists O.-Solano and Vozos; with always the experience of knowing one is in the presence of world-class art, when swept away by Moya's array of Peruvian pipes surely some of the world's most magical and exotic of instruments.

(And I really don't want to move on without mentioning how much there is to love about Marlon O.-Solano's gentle sense of humor, up there in front of a mic; and, on the Appalachian side, Vozos' display, when he emcees for the group, of what can only be described as aggressive star-quality. These two guys really know how to throw a party.)

And this is only the beginning. Their standing Thursday night gig at Zazoo's is intended (hopefully) to play host to a host of Appalachian (and other) singers and musicians from the Region to play/sing/even dance with them a series of events which promise for an artistically innovative and divergent experience every single week all part of this seminal, burgeoningly fruitful, dynamic process of Appi/Latin fusion that is going on right here, right now in Louisville (but for a limited time only).

Here's my wish-list, anyway: Appalatin to play with Appalachian music notable Nathan Salsburg (at least we're workin' on it: his music, to me, would be a natural fit; I mean, I'm thinkin', Beautiful: so come on, Nathan get up here!); female vocalist Katie Rene' with her group, Yours Truly (Thurs March 22nd); from Burton, Ohio, Appalachian-like vocalist Rebekah Jean (Thurs March 22nd); (their mentor) John Gage and Friends from Home Front radio show; Relic Bluegrass Band/the Bibelhauser Brothers (has played with Appalatin before); the Guernsey Brothers; The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys, Alabama Brown, Alonzo Pennington from Princeton KY whose father was Eddie Pennington and had the same guitar teacher as Merle Travis. Players of fiddle, banjo, hammer dulcimer, flat guitar (local aerial acrobats - Krypta Night & SoulFire Bay - Thursday Feb 2nd) the possibilities are endless. And, on the Latin side, to add to Peruvian flautist Penelope Quesada, a local Bolivan charango player whose name is escaping me, and San Juanito de Ecuador's appearance so far, there will also be local Hatian musician & beatbox artist Caleb Louis on Thursday April 5th. For something completely different the Sudanese Rebaba Project will be playing with Appalatin on Thursday Feb. 23rd.

Should be, every week at Zazoo's, Thursdays with Appalatin will be just that different who knows what will emerge at each? and as time goes on? (Marlon jokes that they will be there at Zazoos for the next 20 years and their kids will come and see them.) Don't miss this. Because what's going on here at this moment, with Appalatin, is unique not only IN Louisville but TO Louisville.

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