Magenta blossoms, Havana, August 2010. (Flickr/zrm35)

Sometimes the spirit of an instrument, melody, or voice completely catches hold of you. The flamenco term “duende” describes it best: when the music’s sound is so authentic that it reaches out and possesses the listener.

This happened to me yesterday, when I cooked dinner and listened to Les Sessions Cubaines (The Cuban Sessions) by Montreal singer-songwriter Philémon Bergeron-Langlois. I stopped frequently while peeling potatoes and almost forgot to add salt.

The album, released in May 2010, is this week’s feature on Bandcamp by reviewer Andrew Dubber. He deftly identifies the power behind Bergeron-Langlois’ music:

…Whether you understand French is irrelevant, as the emotional heft of this album transcends barriers of language. Yet this is not at all a sentimental record. This is simply emotion, raw and unrefined.

As the album’s name suggests it was recorded in Cuba, at no less than EGREM Studios of Buena Vista Social Club fame. Watching this video of Bergeron-Langlois’ recording “Vaincre l’automne” (“Overcoming the Autumn”) in Havana brings the “duende” of the music home.

“Vaincre l’automne”

Philemon Chante “Vaincre l’automne” (Studio Egrem) from Audiogram on Vimeo.


A Puerto Rican flag hanging in an East Harlem apartment window (Flickr/Richard Alexander Caraballo)
A Puerto Rican flag hanging in an East Harlem apartment window (Flickr/Richard Alexander Caraballo)

Salsa music simmered to life in New York City’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s: a blend of Cuban son, mambo, cha-cha-chá, and guaracha; a dash of Puerto Rican rhythms; and swirls of other musical ingredients.

New York’s early salsa era was one part popular craze, and one part urban cultural movement. Today, Beijing boasts salsa-themed nightclubs, Scotland hosts an annual salsa congress, and salsa music spills out of car windows on hot summer nights in California.

In short, salsa is now a global phenomenon.

A San Francisco Bay Area reader recently sent Apsara a list of his all-time favorite salsa ensembles and solo artists. His lifelong passion for salsa began several years ago in Bogotá, with Fania All Stars (a showcase ensemble of Fania Records artists) topping the list.

Our Latin Thing

The film Our Latin Thing recounts a famous 1971 Fania All-Stars concert held in New York’s now-defunct Cheetah disco, and features footage of East Harlem. Fania recently released a re-mastered 40th-anniversary edition of this musical time capsule.

Fania All-Stars launched the solo careers of many salsa legends, including the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz. Originally from Cuba, Cruz’s impressive recording career spanned 50 years and lasted until close to her death in 2003.

Celia Cruz: “Guantanamera”

Other favorite solo artists from our reader’s list include:

Willie Colón (trombonist and singer): “Idilio,” “El Gran Varon,” “Gitana,” “Celos,” “Murga de Panama,” and “Calle Luna Calle Sol” from the album Greatest Hits

Henry Fiol (composer and singer): “Oriente,” “Ahora Me da Pena,” and “La Juma de Ayer” from Fe, Esperanza y Caridad

Larry Harlow (pianist): “El Paso de Encarnacion,” “La Cartera,” and “Abran Paso”

Pupi Legarreta (flutist and violinist): “Sabroso Como el Guarapo” and “El Niche” from Pa’ Bailar

Ismael Miranda (composer and singer): “Asi Se Compone Un Son” and “Maria Luisa”

Eddie Palmieri
(pianist): “Azucar,” “Vamonos Pal Monte,” “Puerto Rico,” and “Muñeca” from A Man and His Music

Thank you for sharing this wealth of salsa music with us! We’ll be posting the rest of the list on Facebook and Twitter this week.


The winter solstice creeps nearer each day.

An autumn sunset (Flickr/Josh Libatique)

Winter has not yet descended upon Northern California, but the wind bit at my cheeks as I walked along the ocean yesterday. I’m starting to dress in double layers and crave comfort foods like vegetable stew and fruit sauces flavored with allspice.

Acoustic string music kindles my late fall and wintertime memories of listening to folk music records, and watching the sun set through the bare branches of trees in the backyard.

“Up High in the Clouds,” a song from harpist Diana Rowan’s album the Bright Knowledge has always sounded both watery and wintery to me. On her website, Diana explains that this Romanian tune does have winter roots:

“[The song contains] variations on a holiday folk melody I found in the UC Berkeley music library, hidden away in a dusty book that hadn’t been opened in years. I was drawn to the melody’s combination of sweetness, strength and offbeat phrase lengths, much as I’m drawn to people.”

“Up High in the Clouds,” Diana Rowan


In a world wide web full of streaming music services, exists Bandcampa site that I discovered earlier this year and that has quickly turned into one of my favorite go-to sources for new music.

A 78 RPM Decca vinyl recording (Flickr/Mike Bitzenhofer)

I like Bandcamp—A LOT.

Apsara features tons of artists from this music distribution site, especially in our daily Twitter and Facebook recommendations .

So what’s so great about it?

From a basic listener’s perspective:

  • It offers an attractive landing page with a musician’s complete discography and links to their website, Twitter, and Facebook pages.
  • There are no commercials. You can only listen to one album at a time, but you can enjoy it in peace.
  • After previewing a full-length album, it’s easy to pay for and download it in a variety of digital formats, including MP3 320, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and several others I’ve never even heard of before. Using Paypal, I’ve downloaded albums in five minutes flat—which means a lot when I just have to have an album for my train ride home but am running late. (And if time is not a constraint and you prefer your music in CD format, many musicians offer this option too.)

From a blogger’s perspective:

  • Bandcamp’s nifty streaming player embeds easily into Apsara‘s WordPress page, allowing us to share full audio samples of the music we’re excited about.
  • There’s a bewildering array of musical selections—ranging from high school student home basement recording projects to Grammy-winning albums.
  • Labels like Cumbancha and its partner label Putomayo are cropping up more and more on Bandcamp, proving that they recognize that there’s more to digital music than iTunes.

The one double-edged feature to Bandcamp is its tagging structure. Musicians can set their own tags, which leads to a completely different set of results when searching for “folk pop” as opposed to “folkpop.”

On the other hand, it’s also possible to narrow results with an über-specific tag like “indie folk pop rock alt-country.” If you have the time, it’s fun to search for music by genre variation, as well as by country and even city.

Bandcamp is my online equivalent of the Exclusive Company of Madison, WI, the favored record store of my high school and college days.  Digging through the crazy tag structure reminds me of rummaging through bins of world, jazz, and classical music CDs in the Exclusive Company’s basement—never quite sure what I was going to find.

Unlike the Exclusive Company though, there’s no resident classical music buff hanging out in the basement who’s happy to chat and offer recommendations.

I’ll wager that music stores will be around for a long while yet, but we’ll see next week what you have to say on the subject as we delve into the results of our “Digital Divide” survey.


In keeping with our theme of “looking back, looking ahead,” an Apsara reader from Saint Louis shared REM’S Automatic for the People as a favorite album from a pivotal era of his life.

“This album was practically the theme for my freshman year in college, and I played it constantly. I think it was also a good album for that time in my life, when I was transitioning from one stage to another.”

Interestingly, this was an important album for me around this same time too.

It was sort of permanently on loan from my friend across the hallway, and I played “Man on the Moon” and the “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” endlessly—until I finally had to give it back.

“Man on the Moon”

Good memories–thanks for sharing!


Mondays often require an extra dose of good cheer.

With this in mind, I went in search for videos of the “sitar-guitar” (also just called a “sitar”) that I’d heard referenced in a conference presentation a few years ago.

I was intrigued, but time went by and I never followed up to find out what it actually sounded like. Little did I imagine what other instruments my search for the sitar-guitar would turn up today!

To launch the week, here’s an array of guitars and guitar-hybrids from around the world. And here’s to the creative musical minds that keep this instrument evolving!

Sitar guitar, Rob Mastrianni

Harp guitar, Tony Seeger

Harpolyre, John Doan

Omstrument, Jack Hass


Looking out a rain-spotted window at Seattle’s Capitol Hill. (Flickr/sea turtle)

We just celebrated Diwali (the Hindu new year) in our household, kicking off a season of new beginnings while winding down the current year. My birthday is also around the corner, so lately I’ve found myself thinking not only about the current year but also about years past.

Like many people, music strongly calls to mind for me a specific time and place in my memories—all of which connect to where I’m at, the music I listen to, and the person who I am now.  From now until the end of December, Apsara will feature a number of artists and albums who represent important influences on the road leading up to its creation in April 2011.

And along the way, we’ll also showcase some of your picks for the music that comprises the soundtrack to your life. We welcome you to e-mail us at apsaramusicblog [at] gmail.com with the name of an artist and album that reminds you of a significant moment or era in your life, with a few sentences about the place that it takes you back to.

I’ll go first, with an artist and album that I only “discovered” just this weekend, but whose music reminds me both of my years in Seattle and of my life in California now.

Robert Deeble is not exactly a household name, but this understated indie folk artist has been garnering critical praise with his albums and performances since the late 1990s. He only releases recordings every few years. The gap between his last album and his forthcoming November release spans six years, for example.

There’s a languid pace to his music that reminds me of life on the California coast, so I was not surprised to discover that Deeble hails from Long Beach. But he’s also spent several years in Seattle, and to my ears that sound comes through in the mellow guitar chords and quiet lyrics. Listening to “Blue,” I’m at once standing on the cliff overlooking Steamer Lane and sitting in the bus to Capitol Hill watching raindrops roll down the window.

you make me smile
when your mood
lies down
here for awhile
could you afford a major chord
to make us all smile?

shine down
let your blue light hue
touch the ground
do you mind keeping time
here with my sound? 

Now that I live in California, I feel that I’m “home.” But I’m also a little wistful for the rainy days of dreaming in coffee shops, and I’m grateful for the many friends and amazing musical experiences that I had in Seattle that continue to influence and make my life fulfilling today.


Hip-hop music blog Word is Bond joins the global effort to support post-earthquake relief work in Japan with the compilation album Hope for Tomorrow.

Tokyo’s unlit skyline on March 11.

As most people across Japan settled down for bed on March 11, a powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the country. The images and stories of the tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed are still almost too painful to comprehend five months later. According to recently released figures, 20,889 people are dead or missing and property damage amounts to $210 billion—and these are only estimates.

The other side to these terrible events is that countless governments, organizations, and individuals around the world quickly demonstrated a tremendous amount of support for Japan by sending much-needed relief supplies, workers, and funds. Musicians, both individually and collectively, have joined the efforts by organizing benefit concerts and releasing special albums, such as Hope for Tomorrow compiled by the hip-hop music blog Word is Bond.

Hope for Tomorrow was released within an impressive two weeks after the disasters and features tracks from nearly 40 independent hip-hop artists from eight countries, including Japan. Downtempo piano and other instrumental songs comprise most of the album, with also a sprinkling of rap, soul, and spoken word throughout. “Vespers” by Phish a.k.a Soundzimage, a French artist who maintains an elusive web presence, captures not only the spirit of the project but also the mood of many people in the earthquake’s aftermath: a deep sadness mingled with hope for the future.

Now offered free for digital download on Bandcamp, Hope for Tomorrow raised over $7000 for Japan’s disaster victims within four weeks of its release. Word is Bond encourages listeners who download the album to make a donation to an organization like the Red Cross in support of ongoing Japan relief activities. Japan still has much need for aid—both financial and in kind—especially with thousands of people displaced by the situation at the Fukushima nuclear complex and with basic public services in shambles in many places.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, people across Japan donated relief funds to the United States in a gesture similar to the benefit activities of the past five months. It takes the collective effort of the entire world to rebuild after a disaster of a magnitude such as Japan has experienced. And it shows that hope can shine on even despite seemingly impossible circumstances.

Tokyo skyline image by Evan Blaser.


SomaFM commercial free internet radioSan Francisco-based online radio station SomaFM serves up a familiar and eclectic offering of music to listeners around the globe.

One late night during grad school in Seattle a number of years ago, I stumbled across SomaFM while looking for online music to study to. It ended up becoming my regular go-to website for downtempo study music most nights, and for livelier beats when I was getting ready for the day or to go out on Friday evenings. (SomaFM also made writing papers on Saturday nights more bearable.) The appealing aspect of the station was that I could find music without lyrics when I needed to study and music with lyrics or mid- to uptempo rhythms when I wanted.

Established in San Francisco’s SoMa district in 2000 by now general manager Rusty Hodge, SomaFM has twenty channels of streaming music, with an especially fine offering of electronica, the obscure, and the simply unusual. SomaFM is entirely commercial free and listener supported, which means that the station conducts a daily but unobtrusive fundraising campaign.

Secret Agent on SomaFM, commercial-free, independent, alternative/undeground internet radio

SomaFM’s offerings range from the tabla-infused beats of Suburbs of Goa to the late-night lounge feel of Beat Blender—two grad school music staples I still listen to. Other notable channels include the electronified female vocals of Lush and the eclectic sounds of Illinois Street Bachelor Pad. The entire premise of Secret Agent, with its “soundtrack for your stylish, mysterious, dangerous life,” simply makes me smile—especially broadcast as it is from the city of Sam Spade.

Drone Zone on SomaFM, commercial-free, independent, alternative/undeground internet radio

SomaFM appears to retain its original low-key website design—kind of minimalist like Drone Zone—with all of its channel logos with their succinct descriptions neatly lined up and ready for listening on the homepage. Playlists for recent songs are available directly on the site, and extended playlists are found on individual channel Twitter feeds. Each channel provides links to albums by its featured artists, and the range of musicians is astounding—SomaFM is truly a place to discover new and new-old music. On PopTron, an indie dance rock/electropop channel, for example, legendary psychedelic rockers the Flaming Lips stream alongside the emerging pop rock band Anthem In. For those nostalgic for the synthesized sounds of the 80s, a host of familiar names like Depeche Mode and the Human League play on Underground 80s.

SomaFM’s channels are compatible with most streaming music players like Winamp, iTunes, and Windows Media Player, and the station has also introduced its own pop-up player and an application for iPhone and iPod Touch (one for Android is in the testing phase). The thousands of people tuning in at any given time (at 11:00 p.m. PST as I write this there are close to six thousand) and the range of ages and countries of SomaFM listeners represented on the station’s Flickr page show just how far internet radio can travel.

The next time you have a late-night study session or you simply want to listen to music, go online to SomaFM.com and prepare to experience a range of music and sounds like nowhere else in the world.


Welcome to Apsara, a new blog that highlights innovative, genre- and tradition-crossing music from around the world through insightful interviews, articles, and reviews.

We were honored to interview Ian Widgery, one of the two music producers behind the now-legendary Pathé 100: The Original Shanghai Divas Collection: Redefined, for our inaugural article.

Apsara Facebook, and we look forward to continuing to bring you features about some of the world’s most extraordinary musicians!