Some albums take a while to warm up to, but every so often I come across one I know is going to be a fixture in my music collection for a long time. The first few bars of harmonica on Senegalese singer-songwriter Badu Boye’s new release We Can Win decided it for me.

"We Can Win" by Badu BoyeBadu Boye’s open-hearted harmonica, guitar, and vocals on We Can Win evoke Bob Dylan at his best in the early 1960s, but with a thoroughly contemporary edge incorporating electric guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, violin, cello, mandolin, and other instruments. Composed individually, the songs represent different musical moments from over a decade, including “Mboolo Mi” from the 1997 album Woyou Talibé, which Badu released with Pape Armand Boye, his brother and the producer of We Can Win.

The Boye brothers debuted on Senegalese television in the early 1990s with a sound that was a bit different during a time when synthesized mbalax music dominated the airwaves: a simple pairing of acoustic guitar and bass. Through their ground-breaking early performances and recordings, they led the establishment of acoustic music as a genre still thriving today in Senegal.

A current of optimism runs throughout We Can Win, not least of all in the title track’s call for positive development and image building across Africa. “Everything single thing I do is to make you proud,” Badu sings. “I know that we can win—yes we can.” On “Senegal,” one of the album’s very strongest tracks, he describes the experience of living abroad while still cherishing the country he has left behind: “Everything is beautiful, but I’m homesick for Senegal my country. I’m sure that one day I’ll be back!”

The album’s arrangements are layered around Badu’s signature harmonica and acoustic guitar, and are filled with bursts of shimmering, beautiful sound when you least expect them. Sukjong Hong’s violin catches you unawares with its pure sweet sound on “Politique,” while Will Martina’s cello ripples in and out of the melody toward the end of “Mboolo Mi.” Of all of the tracks though, the loveliest of all perhaps is “Melokaan,” a simple arrangement with Badu’s brother joining him on acoustic guitar.

We Can Win is one of those albums I pull out when I need a gentler perspective on life after a harsh day, and more than deserves its place as a long-term fixture in my music collection. Samples of the tracks can be previewed on Badu’s website.


Jef Stott’s new album Arcana invites listeners to follow a strong, snaking bass line to a place of skillfully balanced power and peace.

A female voice mingles with a buzzing bass line for a few moments and then crescendos through and above it on “Deep Playa,” the opening track of Arcana, San Francisco-based musician Jef Stott’s latest album.

Throughout the entire recording, Stott merges vocals and acoustic instrumentals—at once ageless- and ancient-sounding—with electronic beats and percussion loops. He pairs the future with the past and strength with sensitivity, revisiting many previous collaborations along the way.

“This album is like a scrapbook of my whole career,” said Stott during a recent interview. “Sonja Drakulich from Stellamara is on it, for example, and she and I hadn’t worked together in more than 10 years. There’s also some motifs from earlier pieces that I’ve written.”

Stott, who has been releasing albums since the late 1990s, never completely stepped away from music while pursuing a career path in a different direction and a master’s degree in interactive media. But Arcana represents his renewed focus on music after life dealt him a series of blows, and symbolizes his coming back to the beginning and re-gathering strength.

“The sound of the album is me artistically and personally reclaiming space,” he said. “It’s letting the world know—and letting myself know—that I’m still here and that I still have something to say.”

Arcana draws on Stott’s years of expertise in Middle Eastern music, including studying with oud virtuoso Hamza El Din, and on his success as a DJ at festivals like Burning Man. But at the album’s heart is actually a much earlier and simpler musical experience.

“I started playing guitar when I was around 11 or 12 years old, and went through all of the permutations—punk rock, heavy metal, and all sorts of different things,” he said. “For Arcana, I started working with acoustic guitar.”

Jef Stott playing oud (courtesy the artist)

Stott built upon this six-string foundation with lush, synthesized sounds and with skillful juxtapositions and looped recordings of talented friends like singer MC Rai, tabla player Jason McKenzie, and multi-instrumentalist Eliyahu Sills. On “Hero’s Return,” for example, Stott interspersed segments of Sills playing bansuri, an Indian bamboo devotional flute, throughout the track.

“There was a lot of editing in the bansuri parts because I didn’t want it to overpower the song,” he said. “I had to find just little pockets and phrases that were going to complement the melody.”

The intense bass line from “Deep Playa” snakes its way throughout Arcana, stopping short of the final track “White Tara.” Compared with his earlier recordings, the powerful sound of Arcana may take some listeners by surprise.

“I kind of stepped out of the shadows on this one,” Stott said. “What I was trying to do was just to be really open and lay it all out emotionally—that was my main goal with this record.”

Even with the bumpy road Stott encountered before recording the album—or perhaps because of it—Arcana presents a perfect balance of power and peace. It tells the story of coming full circle, and of honoring the past while welcoming the future.

Arcana is now available on Six Degrees Records.

“Deep Playa” from Arcana


Israeli musician Idan Raichel shares the incredible story of jamming with Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Touré and uncovering a diamond.

Vieux Farka Touré (left) and Idan Raichel in concert. (Nitzan Treystman)

Two years ago Vieux Farka Touré and Idan Raichel met in a rehearsal room in a south Tel Aviv recording studio simply to jam. Deciding it would make good archive material, they recorded the spontaneous three-hour session.

“There was something about this session that just brought out our love of music,” Raichel said during a recent phone interview.

A week later Jacob Edgar from Cumbancha Records contacted Raichel with the idea of turning the session recording into an album. Raichel initially hesitated at the thought of cutting down the 15- to 20-minute improvised melodies into album tracks. But after spending a few months listening to the recording, he realized it resembled an unpolished “diamond” and took on the task of producing the album.

Raichel’s work paid off in the form of 11 shining tracks. Under the name the Touré-Raichel Collective, The Tel Aviv Session was released on Cumbancha last week. The four musicians from the original session—Touré (guitar), Raichel (piano), Souleymane Kane (calabash), and Yossi Fine (bass)—form the core of this acoustic album. A select group of guest artists, including harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet and singer Cabra Casay, also lent their talent to the album.

“Vieux Farka Touré and I are very song- and production-oriented, so it was a very different experience for us,” Raichel said. “[But] The Tel Aviv Session album ended up as one of the most exciting works that I have ever done as a musician.”

During production, Raichel kept the album focused on the original 2010 session, especially the unrehearsed musical exchange between the artists and the overall atmosphere of the studio. Like on a jazz recording, the musicians take turns leading, and when they all play together they create shimmering cyclones of sound. An occasional breath or sigh even comes through on the recording. Listening, it is easy to imagine the excitement and connection between the musicians during the session.

“[With the album,] I tried to emphasize the best part of each musician,” Raichel said. “But the most important thing was still the communication between the four of us.”

There is a feeling of freedom and experimentation on the album, and even of heightened virtuosic ability. On the track “Bamba,” for example, Raichel plays glissandos and plucks the strings of the studio’s grand piano to create the sound of a West African kora. Touré’s dazzling finger work and tone especially come through on tracks like “Hawa” and “Ai Houde Bakoi.”

The guest musicians also add energy and texture to the album. Yonnet’s high-power harmonica playing on “Touré,” for example, shakes up the middle of the album, escalating the rhythm to a foot-stomping pace. And Mark Eliyahu’s haunting kamanche weaves in and out of the melody on “Alem,” until it fades away with Touré’s guitar and closes the album.

Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)
Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)

The Touré-Raichel Collective begins a two-week tour of the United States and Canada on Apr. 13. Tapping into the spirit of the 2010 session, they will improvise around the album’s tracks.

“What we will try to do onstage is not to play the album, but to play the idea of the album,” Raichel said.

The concerts, like the album, provide a unique opportunity to experience Touré and Raichel—two of the most talented musicians of their generation—come together in such a personal and open style of performing. And it creates an uncommon experience for the musicians too, like discovering a diamond.

“Special moments like the Tel Aviv session are very rare,” Raichel said. “And we are very lucky to have them.”

Join the tour on Twitter for backstage photos and insights from the road.


Not all songs need lyrics. On his newly released album World Behind Curtains, Israeli musician Yair Yona once again shows his talent for communicating to listeners without saying a single word.

Yair Yona, Feb. 2009 (Facebook/Yairyonamusic)

Yair Yona immediately wanted to sell his bass and switch to guitar after buying a Bert Jansch album eight years ago in London. His life changed direction again a few years later when he discovered the instrumental acoustic music of guitarist Glenn Jones.

Yona, who just released World Behind Curtains, his second album for guitar, says his unmapped journey of discovery, frustration, and inspiration has all been worth it and life is better than ever. Although he’s immensely talented on guitar, he doesn’t actually call himself a “guitarist” and identifies more with behind-the-scenes roles in the music world.

It’s not difficult to see where he gets this self image from. In addition to writing, recording, and performing his own music, Yona keeps busy as a co-founder of the music label OutNow Recordings, manager of freestyle saxophonist Albert Beger, and writer/publisher of the music blog Small Town Romance.

World Behind Curtains, at heart an acoustic guitar album with cinematic inspiration, builds on Yona’s first album Remember (2009). Incorporating instruments like electric guitar and french horn and a special mother-son piano/guitar duet,  Yona has developed his musical voice in an even further, more meaningful direction.

He spoke with Apsara about the journey leading up to this latest album.

You first discovered fingerstyle guitar when you lived in London studying audio engineering. What drew you to this style of playing?

I played bass in London, and in my dream world I believed that I was going to find a psychedelic rock band, go on tours, and become ridiculously rich and buy more bass guitars. That was the plan anyway.

Then one day when I went into a record store in Camden and stumbled upon Bert Jansch and Jackson C. Frank’s first albums and I bought both of them—I’d never heard of either of them or their music before. There was just something about the album covers that made me curious to pick them up and listen to them. When I first listened to Bert Jansch’s music it immediately felt so familiar. I don’t know how or why—it just sparked my senses. I remember that feeling even today. It was like the excitement of the first time you see the girl of your dreams.

Has fingerstyle guitar been the focus of your music since then?

When I discovered Bert Jansch’s music, I immediately wanted to sell my bass guitar and become an acoustic guitar player. That was it. I’m a person who makes strong decisions and usually goes to the extreme with them. And then I meet myself somewhere in the middle. I didn’t even know how to play except for the basics, but something inside of me just felt so right so I went in that direction.

I don’t actually see myself as an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist, or as a guitarist at all. To me, a guitarist is someone who takes the time to practice for five hours a day, and knows all of the notes, scales, and modes. And I don’t. I have no formal musical education and everything I know about guitar playing serves my music only. If you put me in a band with a guitar in hand, I have no idea what to do with myself. I’m a good guitarist for my music—I think that’s the right definition.

I think art has nothing to do with formal music education. I like to improvise as I go along. But I do think if you know the musical rules and then go and break them you’re in a better position. Still, Paul McCartney’s musical education started later on in his career… I’m feeling good with myself and with the path that I’ve taken. I’ve just followed my heart, and my heart has taken me to where I am now. Things are going great and I’m happier than ever.

World Behind Curtains is even more of an instrumental album than Remember (2009). Guitar still takes center stage, but there are other instruments, including the violin and piano. How did the idea for this album evolve? What’s the meaning of the title?

When I initially thought about how to do the marketing for this album, I thought about tracking down a film director and proposing to make a film for which this would be the soundtrack. It was born out of lots of soundtrack listening hours—lots of Americana and 1970s Italian composers. The music was composed on solo acoustic guitar, and just evolved out of itself in a way.

“World behind curtains” is a phrase that my girlfriend wrote in the first line of a story. Translated from Hebrew it is something like: “The girl looked out of the window and saw the world behind curtains.” I told her: “That’s a good name for an album.” Only later did I learn that in English it can mean “someone behind the curtains.” It somehow fit me perfectly. I was always behind the scenes, as a label manager who was managing artists or as a bass player who wasn’t the focus of the rock band. This is an album that says: “This is a picture of the guy who’s behind the curtains.”


You’ve dedicated several songs in the past to musicians who’ve influenced you. On this latest album, for example, you’ve dedicated one track to guitarist Glenn Jones. What has his music meant to you over the years?

When I discovered Bert Jansch’s music and the whole world of British folk music I tried to write songs in English, which isn’t my native language. When I tried to sing it just didn’t sound right to me because of my accent. I kept comforting myself by saying: “Nico had a German accent and that’s okay, it worked for her. And Björk has an Icelandic accent and it works for her, so I can do it too.” But it didn’t feel authentic to me, and I felt I would be lying to myself if I continued that way. I had a couple of hard years because I desperately wanted to be a songwriter, but it didn’t feel right and I was really frustrated by that.

Then by chance in 2006 or 2007 I listened to Glenn Jones’s first album, which was released on Strange Attractors Audio House, the same label as my albums. I had known of him before as the guitarist of Cul de Sac, an experimental rock band I like very much. When I listened to the music on his first album, which was for six- and 12-string acoustic guitar, it made so much sense. He said so much without saying a single word. It just liberated my mind. I listened to the music and said to myself: “You know what? That’s a good way to express yourself. You don’t have to sing.” I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, I could just do it my own way. It was all thanks to Glenn Jones’s music.

Since then he’s released three more albums, and people are starting to recognize him now. He signed on to a bigger label—Thrill Jockey—and he’s touring. He’s seriously amazing. And he’s been a big supporter of my music. When I finished the work on Remember, I sent it to him on a CD-R before it was released. He wrote me such an amazing note afterward. Reading those words coming from the most important person to me in that field was the ultimate stamp of approval.

In the liner notes for World Behind Curtains, you write that you composed the song “Bella” while watching TV: “The song just poured out in a couple of minutes.” How did this beautiful song, which features your mom on piano, come about?

It was written about two-and-a-half years ago for my previous girlfriend, whose nickname is “Bella.” Someone had bought me a guitar instruction DVD by Kelly Joe Phelps that I was watching. He’s a really amazing guitarist and a soulful singer. I like to watch guitar instruction DVDs because I like to see how guitarists move their hands and how they hold the guitar. I really like to study from other people. He was playing with an unusual tuning: C-G-C-G-C-D. I tried to retune the guitar and that melody just poured out in five seconds. It just wrote itself, and when that happens you feel like you’re the luckiest person on earth, seriously. Then I recorded the demo of that song so I’d have it at home to work on.

My mom was a wonder kid on the piano. But she stopped playing for about 40 years and just returned to it about four or five years ago. I decided that it would be amazing if she’d play piano on the album. I wanted to give her a stamp of approval again. She sees me as her “son the musician.” So I decided to bring her into the studio for the first time in her life, and have her put headphones on and make her part of the process. I was very excited and also very nervous because I was on a tight schedule and had limited time in the studio. Everything had to be quick, but it was very, very exciting. It was a different level of connection between mother and son. She was really happy with the result. She said she loves the album and that it’s so beautiful, but that’s just mom talking.

World Behind Curtains released Feb. 14 from Strange Attractors Audio House. Preview it, and Farthest South, Yona’s latest musical project, on Bandcamp.


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


The dulcimer a traditional instrument? Not so, says Michael Futreal, a multi-instrumentalist who pushes the boundaries of how people typically view this Appalachian folk instrument. Futreal speaks about growing up as a self-taught musician in North Carolina, his free-spirited approach to the dulcimer, and about his band Twang Darkly.

Michael Futreal performs on electric dulcimer. (Sherry Heflin)

In a few sentences, how would you define your music?

Picture this recurring scene from Twang Darkly shows: someone who has been listening to us for over an hour will come up to us during a set break and ask, “So…what kind of music do y’all play?” I’m always struck dumb by the question. I usually manage to answer something along the lines of “cinematic Appalachian roots rock” or “new-fangled mountain music.”

Here’s the real deal though: in attempting to create new music that I would like to hear, I try to keep myself open to discovering other related music that I want to play. And it really does feel more like discovery than a purely willful act of creation. The Muses are broadcasting on all frequencies, and I can tune into a few of their stations on the broken radio of my rambling Truckaluck. When I stay with the signal long enough, sometimes something magical remains to me through all the rain and rust. These days, I record that stuff as soon as I can, or I just play it for the band and we take it wherever we can.


Who do you consider to be your earliest musical influences? How did growing up in North Carolina and in a musically inclined family shape your first experiences with music? What is the biggest impact of your earlier influences and experiences on your music today?

My brother Andy taught himself to play guitar over the course of my childhood. There weren’t lessons and there were few, if any, how-to books—there was just a guitar. He had an acoustic, but he was primarily playing electric rock like Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult, and Jethro Tull, and that seemed perfectly acceptable to him. I remember him playing Mike Post’s TV stuff like the theme from Magnum PI…he’d create complete arrangements on the acoustic guitar for some of those TV themes. So as I grew up, he was demonstrating that music was something that you could do, not just purchase.

We grew up in Warsaw, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina…the 1970s and 80s for me. Taking charge of our own experiences was paramount because, well, there wasn’t much to do otherwise. We had no cable TV; we had books, records, a basketball goal, some lawn mowers, and four TV channels. Our parents would take us to Raleigh and we’d hit the giant flea market (comics and records!), the mall, and maybe a movie. I wanted to recreate everything that was important and enjoyable out of those excursions. I made silly movies with our 8mm camera. I created comics. It was inevitable that I’d eventually want to start making music too, and that wish took hold as I started to notice how much Dire Straits and Springsteen were speaking to me as I transitioned into those angst-filled teenage years. Love, desire, romance, blues, mojo…you name it, and I could have all those things through music in a way that I couldn’t pull off any other way.

As it happens, Springsteen and [Mark] Knopfler were very self-consciously experimenting with American folk music traditions, and this dovetailed nicely with the increased time we were spending in the North Carolina mountains. We’d traveled there nearly every summer as I grew up, but we started going a lot more as I got older. As we’d haunt folklife museums, craft guild shows, and any odd store we’d come across, I’d encounter a lot of Appalachian dulcimers (though not nearly enough actual music).  By the end of my senior year in high school, we’d actually moved to Asheville. Before starting college that fall, I got my first dulcimer with some money my grandmother had left for me. As I was already playing guitar and harmonica, I set up a crude, bounce-based recording system using two cassette recorders, hoping to do stuff along the lines of what Springsteen had accomplished with Nebraska.


Music by Twang Darkly, Futreal’s band, accompanies video footage from his family’s early vacations to the North Carolina mountains. 

Another piece of the puzzle, I think, comes from my oldest brother, Bill. Knowing I was interested in blues and folk stuff, he wisely told me to seek Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Wolf’s the Real Folk Blues was a revelation to me. And Hooker N Heat…oh my god! How could anything so completely off-the-hook…so clearly performed without any plan…be so fabulously dead-on kick-ass? As usual, I wanted to be able to do that sort of thing too! It turns out to be a lifelong project, of course.

You started out playing harmonica, and would sometimes practice in the woods. What was this experience like? Do you still try out new instruments in this type of setting?

I used to take a Walkman into the woods and play along with Springsteen and Howling Wolf cassettes, because: a) you really can’t play harmonica so quietly, and b) when you first start, you really can’t play so well. So this was simply my best option for letting loose without driving everyone else crazy, and not the more enlightened communing-with-nature that it might seem. That said, I love the woods, and love to hike. I generally enjoy the birds and rustling leaves more than my own sound though, so I try to keep the mojo down low!

I really don’t do this sort of thing now, as the new instruments I’m inclined to try are often variations on instruments I already play to some degree. My wife is pretty used to strange sounds emanating from my side of the house, in any case, and she mostly doesn’t mind. I do wait for her to leave before I give that lamentable bamboo saxophone the business though.

“Crossing Thistledown”

Futreal on harmonica (his first instrument), dulcimer, and electric guitar.

When did you shift to the dulcimer as your primary instrument? What is it about the dulcimer that led you to make the switch?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a primary instrument, but I’ve certainly decided to allow myself to focus more on the mountain dulcimer without regret. My older habit had been always to move on to something out of my comfort zone. For instance, if I was feeling pretty good about my dulcimer playing, Iâ’d try to focus on recording more banjo or what have you. I like to learn, and I like where coping with uncertainty pushes you.

The thing I love most about the dulcimer is the way you can surf the tension between the open droning strings and the limited notes available on the diatonic fret board (the dulcimer is missing frets, such that only a major scale plus a flat seven can be played on a given string). The interplay of those patterns across the strings shapes your expression similarly to the way a rule-set applied to poetry (e.g., writing in sonnet form) fosters an altered state of creativity.

“Devil’s Stompin’ Ground”

Demonstrating the range of what a dulcimer can do.

Even better, because of the weird fretboard, when you re-tune, capo, or re-string the dulcimer (I play with at least six different tunings across two different string arrangements), you get dramatically different musical possibilities. Suddenly, it’s not just sonnets, but villanelles and sestinas.

The dulcimer has also shaped the way I hear and play other instruments. When I’m playing guitar, banjo, or even gourdtar, I often employ very similar kinds of approaches, allowing some strings to drone while I pursue modal melodies and chords that work against the drones. I use a lot of dulcimer-inspired “alternate tunings.”

Sailing in the Junkyard Sea, an album you released with your brother Andy, features the oud. How did you decide to pair a North African/Middle Eastern instrument with Appalachian folk instruments like dulcimer and banjo?

I wish I could tell a good story about the epiphany that put these things together, but in this specific case it has more to do with what instruments were on hand and what happened that particular day…our only plan was to play and record whatever happened. So most of the tracks on that album, including the title track, began life as pure improvisations recorded live during two days in Cambridge, UK. Andy usually has a simple stereo recorder set up in his den, right next to a bunch of acoustic instruments, including laud, oud, and several guitars. He keeps each of his guitars in a different tuning (which I started doing myself after that session), so they really are effectively different instruments. The title track “Sailing the Junkyard Sea” happened when I randomly picked up a guitar and started playing along with something he happened to be doing on the oud at that moment. As soon as there are two of us playing, we’re drawn into some flow…and something beyond either of us emerges.

“Sailing the Junkyard Sea”

Title track from Michael and Andy Futreal’s album.

At some point, I’ll probably reconstruct the essence of my part in that recording and then unleash it within a Twang Darkly session to see where it goes. Bassist/guitarist Joel Boultinghouse and I work together in a substantially similar way, just riding the resonances that happen when we start playing.

More broadly, though, I just really enjoy unexpected combinations of instruments. From my point of view, getting too hung up on tradition and what “goes together” risks comfortably reproducing expectation at the expense of creativity. It’s not that traditional musical forms and instrument matchups can’t be creative tools, but more that I simply enjoy going sideways.

You first started playing dulcimer in an unusual style at a medieval-themed dinner in college. Since that time, in what other ways have you pushed the boundaries of how people normally think a dulcimer should be played?

Well, some folks would be quick to point out that I play electric dulcimer with free use of distortion, neither of which is “traditional.” I think the electricity brings a new layer of expressiveness to the instrument. It is easier to work with electrics in a live setup, which is part of why I do it, but I’d be needlessly limiting myself if I ignored the additional musical possibilities that the electric dulcimer offers.

I think another aspect that puts me in a minority has to do with the way I maneuver outside one of the supposedly important division within our ranks. That is, the dulcimer-playing community seems to be concerned over the distinction between traditional “drone and noter” playing and modern “chord style” playing. I’m certainly willing to play chords and chord fragments, but drones figure prominently in what I do, and I’ll often use these chord fragments as a way to play harmonized modal melodies.

“Greensleeves in Blue”

Twang Darkly’s rendition of a famous English folk song.

I’ve encountered folks who talk about the dulcimer as a “traditional” instrument and get rather defensive about how it should be handled, what repertoire it should play, etc. According to dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith, though, the dulcimer tradition only seems to date back into the early 19th century, maybe 1818 or so. Before that, there were no mountain dulcimers, but rather some folks migrating south from Pennsylvania with a different instrument, the scheitholt (a Germanic zither). Once these folks got among the Scotch/Irish people down in the Virginia Appalachians, someone broke with tradition and created something entirely new. I’ll bet that probably tweaked some of the scheitholt players. Traditions arise from change, so I figure it’s fine to be willing to try new things with “old” instruments.

The bottom line here is that I’m not too keen on arbitrary limitations based on supposed tradition. I make choices, yes, but I don’t find it too useful to believe that my choices in one circumstance mean that I’m obligated to make similar choices across the board. And I certainly don’t believe that someone else having made a choice a long time ago warrants any special consideration simply because a lot of folks followed suit so as not to “do it wrong.” Tradition is valuable, but never more so than when it provides building blocks for “new” ideas.

The members of Twang Darkly jamming together. (Courtesy Michael Futreal)

Of all of your musical projects over the years, what is your favorite to date? What is your latest Twang Darkly project?

I’d have to say that the band Twang Darkly itself is my favorite musical project to date. We’re building an extensive repertoire, both from our ongoing re-imagining of my older material, as well as from the outpouring of new material that our collaboration has prompted. We’re feeling out how we can perform and what our music can be.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and guitar) and Troy Messina (drums). They’re gifted musicians with an almost supernatural ability to ride a groove wherever it leads. I have a very loose improvisational approach with most of our material, elaborating on the structure and melodies in whatever ways seem right on a given night. Joel and Troy are always right there with me: we’re listening to each other and feeling our way. Being part of that is like an out-of-body experience sometimes. I think, “How are we doing this?” But this is the best part of music, being in a non-verbal resonance with your musical partners. It’s a powerful and fine intimacy to share.

I’m very excited that we’e about to embark on recording a new album. Our first collection, Live from Wire Mountain, was recorded very simply with a recorder out in front of our PA at rehearsals. For the new stuff, I’ve invested our Twang earnings into a new studio setup that can better accommodate a band. We’ll likely still record the core of the songs live, because that’s what we do best, but we’ll also be willing to do a bit of the fleshing out that a studio approach affords…things like adding a bass line to a tune where Joel and I are both playing guitar for the live version. Maybe I’ll explore more flute and such too.  Who knows? We’re making it all up as we go! I hope somebody listens to this new album and wonders, â”What kind of music is that?”


Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)
Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)

Given that many of the seeds of American folk music traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with the country’s early European immigrants, it is not entirely out of the question then that some of the techniques and sounds that evolved over the past couple of centuries should eventually double back. On Remember, an album originally released in 2009 by guitarist Yair Yona, American folk music has traveled through the Straits of Gibraltar and found its way to Israel.

Reissued last year, Remember boasts 10 masterful (and musically witty) fingerstyle guitar melodies embodied with the spirit of American and British masters of the genre and, of course, Yona’s own wonderful creativity. The tracks consist largely of fingerstyle acoustic guitar, with a variety of other instruments and different styles of music joining in on some of the songs.

“Russian Dance”

On the track “Russian Dance,” for example, Yona conjures up the sound of a Russian folk dance. The instruments—12-string guitar, banjo, accordion, and mandolin (sounding like a balalaika)—blend perfectly here, with the banjo carrying much of the tune. Through the changes in tempo and intensity, it is not difficult to imagine the dance steps that would accompany the song.

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through (As It Carries the Passenger Fahey On It)”

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through” pays homage to late guitarist John Fahey, and is another song in which Yona’s talent for sonic imagery displays itself. Electric guitar builds the crescendo behind six-string acoustic guitar, signifying the floodgate opening and the passage of a large ship through it. As the melody winds down, the heavy gate closes and the ship continues on its path downriver.

Remember is by far one of the most original and enjoyable albums that I have discovered this summer. Listen to it for just a few minutes, and you will find yourself unconsciously tapping your feet and swaying your head in time to the rhythm of its pleasingly twangy melodies. Be sure to check it out, as well as Yona’s site, which contains samples of his forthcoming album due out later this year.


Senegalese acoustic music pioneer Pape Armand Boye connects with audiences through sincere, conscious artistry. A true “world musician,” he skillfully navigates the waters of this genre by retaining his own clear voice.

Pape Armand Boye and Clifton Hyde at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts
Pape Armand Boye and Clifton Hyde at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts

In March 2009, a crowd of nine hundred fans sat perched on the edge of the red plush seats in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, awaiting the entrance of the Idan Raichel Project. Instead, the audience was startled by the appearance of an unanticipated feature act. Pape Armand Boye and Clifton Hyde walked calmly onto the stage, briefly tuned their guitars and then, with a natural ease, entered into a set of rich acoustic melodies that quickly won over any potential dissenters. The cavernous reaches of the Palace melted into an intimate space as the music invited audience members to lean in close and share in the simple act of two friends making music together and telling stories about life.

Originally from Senegal, Boye is a composer, instrumentalist, singer, producer, and arranger who leads a busy life performing and working on musical projects in New York City, France, and Germany. No matter where his music takes him, he remains deeply connected to Senegal where he and his brother pioneered its now-thriving acoustic music scene. His music—live or recorded—is a sincere, sensitive reflection of both his own life and of the human experience—its joys, but also its inevitable struggles.

Acoustic Senegal

Boye grew up in the small coastal city of Rufisque on the outskirts of Dakar, where very early on he experienced the wide array of music played on the radio, including many iconic West African artists. “When my mother was cooking, I would hear Lalo Keba Drame, the great Gambian korist,” he recalls, “and the sounds of Samba Diabare Samb, the legendary Senegalese xalam player.” Growing older, he was drawn to music like the folk rock of Bob Dylan, the roots reggae of Joseph Hill, and the ballads of Jacques Brel; to songs that coupled acoustic guitar and meaningful lyrics; and to the powerful voice of Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum.

The Boye brothers

Boye’s San Francisco performance was not very far from his musical debut on television with his brother Badou in the 1990s. The two brothers appeared on stage with nothing but acoustic guitars and a bass—a radical departure from the large mbalax ensembles then dominating Senegal’s popular music scene. Cutting through the synthesized sounds of mbalax, they introduced a style of music they believed authentically expressed the “softer, deeper side” of Senegal.

Senegalese acoustic music eventually took firm root, but not without the perseverance of the two brothers. “Even if the price to pay was high, I’m very proud of the battles we fought,” Boye emphasizes. Acoustic music coexists in Senegal today with the ever-popular mbalax and a prevalence of global music offerings. Boye views expanding to a wider music market as the next challenge for Senegal’s musicians. “There is a long way to go until our music becomes accessible to the Western consumer the way that reggae, blues, or salsa is,” he says.

Communicating and connecting

Pape Armand Boye

Boye speaks German and English in addition to his native tongues of French and Wolof, reflecting the very international nature of his work. He keenly understands the fine line a musician engaged in today’s world music genre must walk between artistry and marketability. “I think a lot of world music artists concentrate so much on communicating with the rest of the world that they lose who they are in the first place,” he says. “Whether it’s by becoming what others expect of them or just reproducing the music of others, in the end the artistry can get lost.”

Communication is, in fact, at the heart of Boye’s music, and is something he strives to do with authenticity and a strong sense of self in order to better connect with listeners. His masterful guitar and clear voice lead the way through gentle arrangements of violin, cello, bass, marimba, djembe, and other instruments. On the title track of Xareba (The Struggle), his most recent album, rap lyrics even enter the mix—providing a surprising complement to mandolin. Boye carefully crafts his songs based on years of experimenting across a variety of musical styles. When pressed to categorize his music, he describes it as “new African acoustic soul,” but cautions against focusing too much on genre labels.


Boye’s lyrics are as straightforward and sincere as his conversation. In “Hero Ak Ngayo” (“The War”), for example, he poignantly describes how misunderstanding and conflict are born, and how resolution can be reached:

“Hero Ak Ngayo”

Remember that day
your thoughts and mind had already changed’
that day you were full of anger and hate,
when all you wanted was war.

Now I see who you are’
I see all that you’ve done.
But you can wait for me;
I’m still coming.
When I get there we’ll talk.

It is important to Boye that his many listeners in the United States and Europe understand his songs. His albums provide translations of the Wolof lyrics into English and French, and during live performances, Boye pauses between songs to explain their meaning.

“When I sing or play,” he says, “I’m telling my listeners how I feel and what I’ve lived—the same way a friend tells you their story. It’s deeply personal. In the end, I want people to find themselves in what I’ve felt and lived.”

Coming up

Boye and Hyde will bring their onstage musical chemistry to an all-acoustic album coming out later this year. Originally from Mississippi, Hyde exhibits virtuosic mastery of numerous stringed folk instruments, including guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, and zither. He dazzled the Palace of Fine Arts audience playing Boye’s compositions on steel guitar, and this album promises to be no less exciting.

In addition to his longtime collaboration with Hyde, Boye often performs and records with a full band, as he did with Xareba. He and the band are currently hard at work to produce a new album by spring 2012, one that will feature Boye’s uniquely personal songs with a backing of innovative string and percussion arrangements.

As he records and performs, Boye continues to connect with listeners around the world in a sincere, authentic way by staying firmly on his own course as he did in the 1990s when pioneering acoustic music with his brother in Senegal. “They key is to know about the best from others,” he states, “But in the end it’s all about giving the best of yourself. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing when it works.”

Palace of Fine Arts photo by Joolimei.

All other photos courtesy Pape Armand Boye.