A weekly update about upcoming concerts and notes on the local scene.
Hittin' the clubs
Madison djembefola (master djembe player) Mandjou Mara moved here in 2008 from his native Guinea. There he was a member of Les Percussions de Guinee and Tayeli of Kaporo, formed drum and dance ensemble Limanya de la Guinee, and also performed as a griot, a singer/poet carrying on the oral history tradition. In addition to re-forming Limanya in Madison, Mara's musical activities include the Afro-pop band Kikeh Mato, which will play at 10 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 7, at the Argus Bar.
"Kikeh Mato means 'look at the moon,'" says Maya Kadakia, Mara's wife and a singer/dancer with the band. "Life in Guinea is very difficult for most of the population. Manjdou sees musicians and other artists as being similar to the moon which gives hope and inspiration. Griots not only sing songs of praise and history, they also help people in times of trouble by taking away bad feelings and giving solace. Manjdou sees his role as an artist as someone to help and to heal."
Kikeh Mato drummer John Doing helped get the band off the ground by bringing in some colleagues from the Madison jazz scene -- he also plays with West African Dance of Madison, Chafo, Spectrum Trio and other ensembles. "A heavy emphasis on groove and instrumental solos makes for a natural transition from jazz to West African music, so my jazz band adapted our harmonic and rhythmic concepts to the music of Guinea," says Doing. "Mandjou burned us a CD of some West African bands like this and we studied and learned the parts before coming to rehearsal.
"Mandjou had recorded a demo cassette in Guinea of his original compositions for Afro-pop ensemble and once we got that onto CD form, we were able to begin learning Mandjou's original songs. Also, several songs were dictated to us in rehearsal by Mandjou from scratch. I think everyone in the band agrees that this has been an amazing experience, something that has expanded our musical sensibilities from all angles."
Tani Diakite and the Malian Blues Band -- another Madison ensemble led by a West African emigrant -- will also play at the show.
Since moving to the East Coast, former Electric Automatic frontman Nate Palan has made regular trips back to the Midwest for gigs, including this past week for a Hometown Sweethearts show on New Year's Eve. Automatic's original drummer, Jay Iverson, departed Madison about three years ago and went even farther east -- first to Hungary and then to Hangzhou, China, where he's currently living. Iverson will be in town on Saturday, Jan. 9, to play drums for both bands in a double bill at the Glass Nickel Pizza on Atwood Avenue. "Meet and eat" is at 8 p.m. and music will get underway at 10 p.m., with sets by former Madisonian Annah London and a reunion by 99 Days, featuring Iverson, Ben Smith and Vince Kenny.
Iverson's current project is the Hangzhou-based band The Phoenix Prestige (which, just to clarify, won't be playing at Saturday's show). That trio also includes a pair of Irish expatriates, Brendan Donnelly and John Carroll, who Iverson met through Hot Music, a school where he teaches and also practices.
"The owner also sets up gigs, and there are some well-paying commercial gigs where they basically want foreigners to look good," says Iverson. "So the owner of this school got the foreigners together for one of these commercial gigs. We basically met and had our audition at the same time, but found out that they wanted more of a 'jazz band.' In China jazz band means a background band. We didn't get the gig but we ending up forming an excellent band."
Iverson says figuring out the music scene in China as an all-immigrant group has been a learning experience.
"Everyone in the band speaks some Chinese," he explains. "I speak and understand the least because I've been there the least amount of time. We all do a little booking and we do a lot of it in English, as there is a certain amount of English in the music scene in China. Plus the other band mates have Chinese girlfriends, who help some too. My Western girlfriend is more of a music lover and helps us a lot, too. She does some of the negotiating, photo taking and other managerial type jobs, plus she's now learning to do sound because we've had too many nights of bad sound. To get gigs in China we network as much as possible. We talk to all the musicians, promoters, bar owner, friends or anyone who may be able to help. There is a certain notoriety being a foreign band in China, but we are actually rock."
Iverson says that hard rock music is somewhat of an unknown quantity in China. "Now 'we want jazz music' has become a joke in our band because so many Chinese want us to play 'jazz.' When Chinese people see and hear us rock live, it seems to blow their minds."
The Phoenix Prestige will be self-releasing an EP this year and plans to tour through China, Korea and Japan. "I hope we can sell some and get our name out more, but I think it will be more of an promotional tool. No one in China buys any movies or music," Iverson says. "Everything is downloaded or bootleged. I have a hard time actually finding places that sell legal copies of DVDs of CDs."
Open mike players will want to make note of a change to the schedule at Mr. Robert's. The east side club's weekly jam night has moved to Mondays for the new year. Also, the comedy open mike at Area 51 Bar & Grill will be moving its start time up an hour, and will now take place at 7 p.m. every Tuesday.