More stories

  • in

    'Arab Divas' at the Arab World Institute: Singers Who Took Center Stage

    A multimedia exhibition in Paris offers a rich flashback to a period between the 1920s and the 1970s when many female performers took center stage.PARIS — The diva sings of love and unmitigated lust. Dressed in a scarlet evening gown with her hair pulled high, she cries out to her beloved, longs for a night of undying passion and yearns for the sun not to rise.The vocalist in the 1969 concert video is Umm Kulthum: the Arab world’s greatest 20th-century performer, possibly the best-known Egyptian woman since Cleopatra and the star of the exhibition “Divas” at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or Arab World Institute, in Paris. The show, which runs through Sept. 26, is a richly illustrated flashback to the period between the 1920s and the 1970s. It portrays unveiled and openly voluptuous women performing on stage and screen without fear of censorship or religious condemnation, and feminists, political activists and pioneering impresarios facing down the patriarchy.Costumes worn by the Lebanese singer Sabah in the 1970s, on display at the Arab World Institute.Alice SidoliBesides costumes and jewelry, passports and posters, album covers and high-heeled shoes, visitors get to watch footage of female performers wiggling their hips in mesmerizing moves and posing on the beach in hot pants. The overall picture contrasts sharply with present-day Western perceptions of the Arab world as a place where women are veiled from top to toe and silenced by all-powerful men.“The exhibition knocks down a fair number of clichés and preconceived ideas about this part of the world. Women actually occupied center stage, embodied modernity and were not at all absent from history,” said Élodie Bouffard, the exhibition’s co-curator. “They sang, acted, made people cry, broke hearts and showed off their bodies just as Western actresses did at the time.”“These images are still very present in the minds of younger generations,” she added. “They don’t just represent the past.”The institute’s president, Jack Lang, who was France’s culture minister in the 1980s and early 1990s, recalled in an interview that when he was a boy visiting Cairo, he sneaked into a theater where Umm Kulthum was performing, and was “stunned, absolutely breathtaken.” He later heard another singer, Fayrouz (the exhibition’s other major diva), while touring in Lebanon as a young actor, he said, then gave her a medal as culture minister in 1988.A poster from the 1968 movie “Bint El-Hares” (“The Guard’s Daughter”), which starred Fayrouz, center. The poster is included in the Paris show.Abboudi Bou JawdeThese women were not just exceptional vocalists, Lang noted: Some participated in their country’s struggle for independence from the colonial powers, Britain and France, and joined in a wave of nationalism that swept across the Arab world. “The emergence of these divas coincided more or less with a time of collective emancipation,” Lang explained. “The music sung by them is an extraordinary expression of freedom.”The exhibition opens in pre-World War II Cairo, the artistic and intellectual hub of the Arab world, where concert halls and cabarets proliferated, many of them established by women, the exhibition co-curator Hanna Boghanim said. Women also had a significant role in the film industry, she added, working as “directors, producers, actresses, costume makers, talent scouts.”Many of these women came from very humble backgrounds, including Umm Kulthum, who is introduced in a velvet-curtained enclosure in the show. Born in a village in the Nile Delta, she first performed disguised as a boy, singing religious songs that bewitched the crowds. Eventually, she came into her own, as a woman and as a voice, and became famous for her improvisational style. Her songs sometimes went on for more than an hour.Her story is told through photographs, album and magazine covers, videos, and bright-colored costumes created for the 2017 biopic “Looking for Umm Kulthum,” directed by the Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat.An installation at the Arab World Institute featuring stills and video from Shirin Neshat’s 2017 biopic “Looking for Umm Kulthum.” Alice SidoliThere are no loans from the Umm Kulthum museum in Cairo, the curators said; they were too complicated and expensive to organize. Nor are there loans from Fayrouz, who is still alive, despite requests made via the family and entourage of the reclusive vocalist. Her section contains posters, album and magazine covers, photographs and other paraphernalia, some compiled by a dedicated fan.By contrast, the section on the half-Algerian, half-Lebanese diva Warda is full of her personal possessions: sunglasses, medals, earrings, passports, an oud instrument, a brown leather suitcase and an Agatha Christie crime novel. Born in the Paris suburbs, Warda made her debut as a child in her father’s cabaret in the city’s Latin Quarter and became a successful recording artist before moving to Algeria in 1962, the year the country gained independence from France. There, she married an army officer who stopped her from singing. Her career took off when she moved to Egypt a decade later.The exhibition gets racier as it goes along, culminating with the last wave of 20th-century Arab divas, including the Egyptian-born Dalida, who became a superstar in France. Interspersed among displays of sequined evening gowns, stilettos and powder compacts are video monitors that show a woman singing from a hot tub and rows of others lifting their legs in skimpy outfits worthy of the Folies Bergère.In the decades since, the place of female performers in Arab countries has changed. Islamist movements and migration from rural areas have made parts of society more conservative about women’s dress and public behavior. That has led to assumptions in the West that Arab women are veiled and constrained today, as opposed to the decades when the divas reigned. The Egyptian-born performer Dalida in Giza in 1959. She became a superstar in France.D.R. Orlando ProductionsTo Coline Houssais, the author of “Music of the Arab World: An Anthology of 100 Artists,” these then-versus-now perceptions, which the exhibition risked encouraging, were misguided.“There are two visions of the Arab world,” she said in an interview. “One is: ‘They’re barbarians, they’re Islamists.’ The other is: ‘Everything used to be so good before. It was a golden age.’”“The Arab world’s development is measured using ultra-Western criteria, such as whether women smoke or not, or whether they wear short skirts,” she said. There were “more important factors, to do with equality: the number of women who work, women’s civil rights,” she added.Despite the coronavirus epidemic, the show is a hit with Parisian museumgoers, and visitors to the exhibition appeared to validate Houssais’s assessment. On a recent afternoon, onlookers seemed intrigued by the story of these stars of yesterday, who bucked contemporary stereotypes about Muslim women in France.“It’s really very interesting to find out about the emancipation of women in these societies and to see the contrast with today, even in terms of hairstyles,” said Camille Hurel, 23, a visitor to the show. “These were strong personalities who were known all around the world.”“Nowadays, I have the feeling that there isn’t as much freedom of expression,” she added.Randa Mirza and Waël Kodeih’s installation, “The Last Dance” (2020), featured in the Paris show, brings together the two D.J.s with vintage footage, converted to a hologram.Thierry RambaudHoussais said that, in fact, the Arab world today was mostly populated with people under 30, a generation “glued to social media, completely open to the world, and leading their own private revolutions against their families and their communities.”The notions of family, community and religion were fading, and these societies were in the middle of a major “recomposition,” she noted.“There are still 1,000 places in the Arab world where you can wear a bikini, snort coke and listen to American music,” she added. More

  • in

    Angélique Kidjo Connects With Africa’s Next Musical Generation

    The artist from Benin showed African songwriters how to reach the world. Now they’re repaying the favor.Angélique Kidjo, the singer from Benin who has been forging Pan-African and transcontinental hybrids for three decades, didn’t really need another Grammy.In 2020, she received the best world music album award for the fourth time with “Celia,” her tribute to the Afro-Cuban salsa dynamo Celia Cruz. True to form, Grammy voters chose familiar names and snubbed the year’s world-music phenomenon: the Nigerian songwriter Burna Boy’s “African Giant,” an ambitious, thoughtful album that drew hundreds of millions of streams and made him an international sensation. (“African Giant” also included a guest appearance by Kidjo.)In her acceptance speech, Kidjo was gracious, but she pointedly looked ahead. “The new generations of artists coming from Africa gonna take you by storm,” she said, “and the time has come.”Kidjo, 60, follows through on that declaration with her new album, “Mother Nature,” which is full of collaborations with rising African songwriters and producers: Burna Boy, Mr Eazi and Yemi Alade from Nigeria as well as the Zambian rapper and singer Sampa the Great, the Zimbabwean-American songwriter Shungudzo and the singer Zeynab, who was born in Ivory Coast and lives in Benin. Throughout the album, her guests give their all to keep pace with Kidjo’s leather-lunged fervor.“This young generation has the same concern that I’ve had throughout my career — trying to give a very positive image of my continent, Africa,” Kidjo said via video from Paris. “I also wanted to hear from them about climate change and the impact it’s having on their life, and the way that they want to tackle that. With climate change, we in Africa are going to pay the greatest price for it, especially the youth. It’s going to be up to the future generation not to ask questions, but to act. Because the time to ask questions is running out.”Kidjo with the singer Zeynab, who appears on “Mother Nature.”via Angelique KidjoThe songs on “Mother Nature” feature snappy programmed Afrobeats, lilting Congolese soukous, rippling Nigerian juju and a dramatic orchestral chanson. Irresistible beats carry serious messages about preserving the environment, about human rights, about African unity and about the power of music and love.Kidjo recorded “Dignity” — a song that was galvanized when protesters against police brutality in Nigeria were shot — with Alade, 32, a major star in Nigerian pop whom she had worked with previously, in 2019. Alade, like Kidjo, has collaborated with musicians from across Africa and beyond (including with Beyoncé on the “Black Is King” soundtrack).“I grew up listening to her music,” Alade said in an interview from Lagos. “She is one of the few role models that I have. The one thing that definitely drew me to Angélique is her unapologetic Africanness, no matter where she goes. As far as Africa is concerned, she’s definitely our Angélique, our songbird — any time, any day. It’s always heartwarming to see her do what she does and the way she does it, despite the fact that she’s been doing it for so long. I look at her and I’m encouraged to just keep doing what I do.”Like most of Kidjo’s music through the years, the new album is multilingual — primarily English, but also French and West African languages like Fon and Nago — and it fuses new sounds and technologies with Africa’s past. In “One Africa,” Kidjo celebrates the year she was born — 1960 — because it was a turning point in African history, when multiple countries gained independence. (She planned a March 2020 Carnegie Hall concert around the milestone, which was canceled as New York shut down for the pandemic.) She based the music on “Indépendance Cha Cha,” released in 1960 by Joseph Kabasele’s group L’African Jazz.“What this album taught me,” Kidjo said, “is that if we take the time really to speak to one another, we come up with beautiful stuff.”Julien Mignot for The New York TimesFor “Africa, One of a Kind,” Mr Eazi constructed the track around a sample of the Malian singer Salif Keita’s 1995 song “Africa,” but Kidjo raised the ante: She coaxed Keita, now 71, out of retirement to sing it anew. The song’s video features a dance, gogbahoun, from Kidjo’s home village in Benin, Ouidah.“Gogbahoun means the rhythm that breaks glass,” she said. It’s a beat, she explained, that was originally tapped on an empty bottle with a piece of metal: a ring, a spoon, a coin. “And when the bottle is broken, the party is over,” she said.The recording of “Mother Nature” was shaped by the pandemic. “We had time on our hands and nowhere to go,” Kidjo said. Her two previous albums were re-Africanized tributes to music from the Americas: “Celia” and, before that, a transformative remake of the Talking Heads album “Remain in Light.” But Kidjo and her husband and longtime musical partner, the keyboardist and programmer Jean Hébrail, were writing songs of their own in 2019, the year she also released and toured for “Celia.”When lockdowns were imposed in 2020, Kidjo set out to complete the songs with new, far-flung collaborators working remotely. On an album concerned with global warming, there was an upside: “a minimal carbon footprint,” Kidjo noted.She assembled the album’s personnel through connections and serendipity. Kidjo happened to hear Sampa the Great, 27, a rapper and singer who was born in Zambia and built her career in Australia, on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert and contacted her via direct messages on Instagram. They had actually met years earlier in a fan encounter, when Kidjo autographed a T-shirt for Sampa at WOMADelaide, a world-music festival in Australia.Their song together, “Free & Equal,” draws on the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights and the United States’ Declaration of Independence. “We been in the struggle since before I could speak,” Sampa raps, then praises “Angélique/connecting through the generations, power of musique.”“She was that person I saw who looked like me, who was from the continent, who spoke in her own language and made a huge impact outside of the continent,” Sampa said in an interview from Botswana.“She knows how much of a reach African music is having now — the continent is just connected with the world,” she continued. “The beauty of this album is to have legends who are able to give a nod to the young people, to acknowledge that we continue what people like Salif Keita and Angélique Kidjo had started. She said, ‘I want you to express yourself. That’s why I’m reaching out to you.’”Kidjo with Burna Boy. She appeared on his album “African Giant,” and he returned the favor on “Mother Nature.”Jean HebrailKidjo didn’t just invite songwriters and rappers to add vocals. She also handed skeletal tracks over to some of the electronics-savvy producers, like Kel-P from Nigeria, who are spreading Afrobeats and other African rhythms worldwide. “I said, you guys have found a way to make this a global rhythm,” Kidjo said. “Anyone in any part of the world can claim Afrobeats and do it their own way, because their own culture fits in perfectly. The jigsaw is just perfect. All the music that comes from Africa, based on our tradition, always has an inclusive way of doing things.”Some of Kidjo’s vocals get a computer-tuned twist in “Do Yourself,” a duet with Burna Boy that calls for self-reliance for Africa. “I asked Burna Boy, I asked his engineers and producers, ‘What did you do with my voice?’” she said. “He sent me a snapshot of the board, and I don’t understand anything about that stuff. It looks like something from out of space!” She laughed. “But it’s OK, I’ll take it. I don’t have to understand it to love it.“Every time I do a collaboration, it is always about keeping people’s freedom,” she added. “I would say, I’m going to send you the song, and you let the song lead you to what you want to do. I said, ‘Just go for it.’ What this album taught me is that if we take the time really to speak to one another, we come up with beautiful stuff.” More

  • in

    For a Composer, the Final Minutes Are Critical

    Flowering into lushly affecting patterns, Christopher Cerrone’s new album is part of a burst of activity over the past year.Christopher Cerrone’s career got a huge boost right at its beginning: His opera “Invisible Cities,” inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, when he was barely in his 30s.But despite its lucid grace and a compelling production — it was performed in a bustling train station for a wandering audience listening over headphones — I found myself wanting to love its unhurried nimbuses of melody more than I did. The opera’s drifting quality ended up feeling too shapeless.In a recent interview, Cerrone, 37, agreed that “Invisible Cities” suffered a bit from an overreliance on what he called “this lyrical, sort-of-melancholy thing.”“Honestly,” he added, “little by little I think I figured out how to compose.”It certainly didn’t take him too long to figure out. “Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” for solo piano and electronics, suavely subverted its initially sedate cast of mood as a stirring opening for Vicky Chow’s album “AORTA” in 2016. And in “Goldbeater’s Skin,” performed at Trinity Wall Street in 2018, he alternated luminous melodic development with frizzy rhythmic outbursts. At one point, a merger of muted, slowly strummed acoustic guitar and pitched percussion felt like the announcement of a new level of craft.

    Christopher Cerrone: Liminal Highway by Tim MunroCerrone’s most recent full-length album, “The Arching Path,” was released on In a Circle Records in May. The title piece — a three-movement work, played by the pianist Timo Andres — starts with brittle repetition before flowering into lushly affecting patterns before the end of the first movement. Tender ascending notes in the left hand contribute a sense of earnestness to the right hand’s chordal, Minimalist-inflected mechanics.“That’s the classic Cerrone heart-on-the-sleeve moment,” Andres said in an interview. “That’s where it’s all going.”Andres — also a composer and a close friend of Cerrone’s since they met as graduate students at the Yale School of Music — considers the piece a leap forward.“It’s not music that’s virtuosic for virtuosity’s sake — which is something I’m not really interested in, as a pianist or a composer,” he said. “But the musical form and the musical gesture just sort of requires a degree of virtuosity to play itself out. To me, when these two things fuse with each other, it can be very moving.”The pandemic gave Cerrone time to edit and release recordings of performances that had been captured over the past few years. Along with “The Arching Path,” the additions to his discography include a solo percussion-plus-electronics track, “A Natural History of Vacant Lots,” that sounds like a full-length ambient record compressed into a single, without seeming hurried. The second movement of “Liminal Highway,” performed by the flutist Tim Munro (who doubles on piccolo and beer bottles), begins with expansive, hard-core repetition before spiraling into its melodic material.“More and more over the years,” Cerrone said, “I’ve tried to do the same thing with rhythm and pulse that I’ve done with harmony. And I think it’s helped clarify and refine my overall compositional language.”A recent work for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra — “A Body, Moving,” featuring tuba, trumpet and a percussionist who uses a bike pump — saves its most emotive material for its closing minutes. That is also true of Cerrone’s violin concerto for Jennifer Koh, “Breaks and Breaks,” performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2018. (The concerto shares material with the string quartet “Can’t and Won’t,” which was also released as a single last year.)Closing minutes — of a movement, or of an entire work — tend to be a big deal for Cerrone. His compositions can seem like vessels that catch sparse rainfall for long stretches, thus setting critical terms of engagement for a listener, until a limit of storage is reached. Then, his writing sends this carefully husbanded material back outward in generous pourings.“I think he’s always really had this sense of going for a dramatic moment in his forms,” Andres said, while adding that this hasn’t always been clear in Cerrone’s music: “There’s some early works that I can think of where he was sort of too beholden to his modernist influences to really let it fly, if you know what I mean. Morton Feldman is not going to really have a such heart-on-the-sleeve moment. And I think Feldman was a big North Star for Chris, early on.”Born in Huntington, on Long Island, in 1984, Cerrone grew up taking piano lessons, but also played guitar in punk bands. He loved the ambient music of Aphex Twin, as well as Radiohead, Björk and the arranger Gil Evans’s collaborations with Miles Davis — all music that was, he said, “so closely influenced by classical music that I started to get excited by the Stravinsky records that were lying around my house.” (Cerrone’s father did advertising work for Tower Records, and was paid partially in classical LPs.)“My relationship to instrumentality — and, like, time — is not particularly drawn from classical music per se,” he said. “It’s a combination of these other genres of music, and the computer.” Growing up in the MTV era also had an impact on his work, and on his hopes for its intelligibility to nonspecialists.“I’ve just come to embrace it more and more,” he said. “I should make my music really accessible to the equivalent person who’s not in classical music.”Cerrone’s pieces can seem like vessels catching stray raindrops for long stretches, before each piece sends its carefully husbanded material back outward in generous outpourings.Lila Barth for The New York TimesWhile college and then graduate school opened his mind to experimental classical styles, he still has an allergy to certain extremes. On Twitter, where Cerrone is an impish presence, he recently asked what listeners could possibly get from the heady, quick-changing complexity of a composer like (the widely beloved) Elliott Carter, who died in 2012 at 103.“I cannot, for the life of me, understand the appeal of Elliott Carter’s music,” Cerrone wrote, “but sometimes I suspect it’s the ability for it to fit into a certain kind of showy athleticism that fits into the canon the way, say, Vivaldi does?” (He later clarified that “Vivaldi is good.”)“I really should never tweet,” he said in the interview, with a laugh. But there was something telling about his critique, which he said came from his desire in his own music “to do things in as few notes as possible,” reflecting his sense of the precious nature of an audience’s time.“Maybe that’s why I had that moment with Carter,” he said. “It wasn’t offering me anything.”But while he doesn’t court virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, Cerrone doesn’t have his music stay rudimentary for long — as the gradual windup of“The Arching Path” and “A Body, Moving” both demonstrate.“These pieces,” he said, “are all about taking really simple things and simple materials — repeated notes or single notes or things like that — and trying to build these dense, formally crystalline worlds out of them.” More

  • in

    They Won Eurovision. Can They Conquer the World?

    ROME — When the rock group Maneskin won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, it was little known outside Italy. Then the competition catapulted the band in front of 180 million viewers, and propelled its winning song “Zitti e Buoni,” or “Shut Up and Behave,” into Spotify’s global Top 10, a first for an Italian band.As of Wednesday, the song had been streamed on Spotify more than 100 million times. With nearly 18 million listeners in the last month, Maneskin was performing better on the streaming service in the same period than Foo Fighters or Kings of Leon.Eurovision acts typically disappear from the spotlight as soon as the competition wraps, yet Maneskin’s members are hoping to build upon their existing fame here and newly won international interest to become a rare long-term Eurovision success story.A post-curtain controversy that dogged the group last month has only increased the band’s notoriety. On the night of the Eurovision victory, rumors spread on social media after a clip from the broadcast went viral, showing the lead singer, Damiano David, hunched over a table backstage. At a news conference later that evening, a Swedish journalist asked if David had been sniffing cocaine on live TV, and the singer denied any wrongdoing.David took a drug test, which came back negative. The European Broadcasting Union issued a statement saying that “no drug use took place” and that it “considered the matter closed.”From left, David, is the band’s lead singer, Raggi plays guitar and De Angelis is on bass. Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York TimesSo it’s been quite a world-stage debut for a foursome whose combined ages add up to just 83. (David is 22; Victoria De Angelis, the bassist, is 21; and the guitarist Thomas Raggi and the drummer Ethan Torchio are 20.)“For us,” De Angelis said in a recent interview, “music is passion, fun, something that lets us blow off steam” — no surprise to anyone who has seen Maneskin perform live. The band is a high-octane powerhouse of onstage charisma and youthful energy.One Italian music critic compared Maneskin — which means moonlight in Danish and is pronounced “moan-EH-skin” — to the Energizer Bunny. That may in part explain why “Zitti e Buoni” has transcended what could have been an insurmountable linguistic barrier (though there is already a cover version in Finnish).The song celebrates individuality and marching to the beat of one’s drum, or guitar riff. The refrain repeats: “We’re out of our minds, but we’re different from them.”For Eurovision, Maneskin channelled glam rock in laminated laced-up leather flares, studded leather jackets and gold-speckled poet’s sleeves. Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York TimesWith its carefully curated, stylish androgynous nonchalance — accessorized with high heels, black nail polish and smoky eyes — Maneskin breaks down gender barriers and champions self-expression.The band was formed in 2015. David, De Angelis and Raggi knew each other from middle school in Rome. Torchio, whose family lives just outside the city, joined the group after responding to an ad in a Facebook group called “Musicians Wanted (Rome).”There weren’t many venues here for fledgling rock bands, so they busked on the street, played in high schools and in restaurants “where you were expected to bring your own paying public,” David recalled. Small-time battle of the band competitions “ensured that at least we’d be playing front of an audience,” he added.“These are the kinds of dynamics that toughen you up,” said Torchio.The band didn’t win the “X-Factor” final in 2017, but the show offered a springboard for other successes.Romano Nunziato/NurPhoto, via Getty ImagesAfter a couple of years of struggling to find gigs, the band went on the 2017 Italian edition of the talent show “The X Factor.”Anna Curia, 24, said “it was love at first sight” when she saw the group’s audition song on the program; a few weeks later, she founded the group’s official fan club. “From the first, they had a distinct style and sound,” she said. Other fan clubs soon followed follow. There’s even one, called Mammeskin, for women of a certain age.The “X Factor” stint also grabbed the attention of Veronica Etro, of the fashion brand Etro. “They had something,” said Etro, who is the brand’s creative director for the women’s collections. “I was very bewitched.”The fashion house reached out to the group and began dressing its members for album covers and videos. The collaboration evolved into providing the outfits for Eurovision, where the group’s studded laminated red leather looks made you “think Jimi Hendrix-meets-‘Velvet Goldmine,’” wrote Vanessa Friedman in The New York Times.“What I love is the way that they mix clothes for women and men,” said Etro in a telephone interview. “There is something very revolutionary about them, the way they don’t have any fear and they have fun with clothes.”Manuel Agnelli, who was one of the “X Factor” judges in 2017, took Maneskin under his wing. At first, its members weren’t musically mature, he said, “but I saw in them characteristics that can’t be taught, it’s something you’re born with, it’s personality.”“For us,” said De Angelis, far left, “music is passion, fun, something that lets us blow off steam.”Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times“Their image is a big part of who they are, their sexuality, their charisma, their bodies. It’s part of rock, it’s part of performance,” said Agnelli.Maneskin didn’t win “The X Factor,” coming second to Lorenzo Licitra, a tenor whose style is more in sync with the Italian penchant for big melodic ballads. Yet the program proved to be a springboard to greater things.“They are a television phenomenon,” said Andrea Andrei, a journalist with the Rome daily newspaper Il Messaggero. “Without ‘The X Factor’ and the machine behind it that churns out products ready for mainstream success, Maneskin would have struggled for a lot longer, like other rock bands have.”The real surprise, for many Italian commentators, was Maneskin’s win last March at the Sanremo Festival of Italian Song, the national event that finds Italy’s Eurovision act. Until a few years ago, Sanremo had mostly attracted Italians whose musical heyday predated Woodstock, but recent editions have reached out to younger audiences by involving the winners of talent shows like “The X-Factor.”“Nothing could be further from rock than Sanremo,” said Massimo Cotto, an Italian music journalist and radio D.J.So there, too, Maneskin broke ground. “Italy has never had an idyllic relationship with rock music, it never became mainstream,” said Andrei. “Maneskin’s win was unexpected, because they are a real rock band.”Torchio’s look of androgynous nonchalance is typical of the band’s style.Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York TimesDuring the interview, David soundly rejected the accusations that he was caught on camera using drugs at Eurovision, complaining that the speculation had overshadowed their win.The allegations were both infantile and underhanded, he said. And they came to nothing, because drug tests came up negative. “We know we are clean. We have nothing to hide,” he said.Allegations aside, there have been some changes since the Eurovision win.Merchandise associated with the band’s most recent album sold out in minutes. It lent its music to a Pepsi commercial. And earlier this month, the band parted ways with Marta Donà, its manager since 2017. Some newspapers here wondered whether an Italian management agency had begun to feel too tight for Maneskin’s international aspirations, and the name of Simon Cowell, the mastermind behind “The X-Factor,” came up as a possible successor. The group has not announced who will replace Donà.Agnelli, the Italian “X-Factor” judge, offered the quartet some advice for building on its current momentum: Tour as much as possible, get experience under their belts and continue to be themselves.“It’s their greatest strength,” he said. More

  • in

    A Night at a Jazz Speakeasy

    A Night at the Jazz SpeakeasySinna Nasseri📍Reporting from Midtown ManhattanLast Friday, I received a coveted invitation to the Daddy Rabbit, a clandestine pop-up jazz speakeasy that hops around locations in Manhattan.I watched as a handful of musicians gathered to play in a dark, unmarked room. Here’s what I saw, and heard → More

  • in

    New Report Paints Bleak Picture of Diversity in the Music Industry

    The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined 4,060 executives at six types of companies, and found 19.8 percent were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.A year ago, as protests spread across the country following the murder of George Floyd, the music industry promised to change.Major record labels, streaming platforms and broadcasters pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations. The diversity of the music industry itself — a business that relies heavily on the creative labor of Black artists — came under scrutiny, with calls to hire more people of color and to elevate women and minorities into management and decision-making positions.But how diverse is the music business? The answer, according to a new study: not very.A report by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, released Tuesday, examined the makeup of 4,060 executives, at the vice president level and above, at 119 companies of six types: corporate music groups, record labels, music publishers, radio broadcasters, streaming services and live music companies.Among those executives, 19.8 percent were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, including 7.5 percent who were Black. Women made up 35.3 percent of the total.Delving deeper into the numbers, the authors of the 25-page report, led by Stacy L. Smith and Carmen Lee, found that the representation of women and minorities seemed to shrink as they looked higher up music companies’ organization charts.After filtering out subsidiaries, the researchers looked at the uppermost leadership positions — chief executives, chairmen and presidents — in a subset of 70 major and independent companies, and found that 86.1 percent of those people were both white and male. The 10 people of color who held those positions were all at independents, and just two were women: Desiree Perez, a longtime associate of Jay-Z who leads his company Roc Nation, and Golnar Khosrowshahi, the founder of Reservoir, which owns music rights.The report includes some stark findings. For example, among the 4,060 people in the study’s sample, the researchers found 17.7 white male executives for every Black female one.“Underrepresented and Black artists are dominating the charts, but the C-suite is a ‘diversity desert,’” Dr. Smith said in a statement. “The profile of top artists may give some in the industry the illusion that music is an inclusive business, but the numbers at the top tell a different story.”Each year since 2018, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has tracked the artists, songwriters and producers behind the biggest hits. Again and again, it has found that women are far outnumbered by men, yet revealed some encouraging numbers for underrepresented groups: People of color have made up about 47 percent of the credited artists behind 900 top pop songs since 2012.Yet the group’s new report, called “Inclusion in the Music Business: Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across Executives, Artists & Talent Teams,” and sponsored by Universal Music Group, shows that women and people of color are poorly represented in the power structure of the industry itself.The variation across different job levels and industry sectors is notable. Black executives fared best within record labels, making up 14.4 percent of all positions, and 21.2 percent of artist-and-repertoire, or A&R, roles, which tend to work most closely with artists. Black people hold just 4 percent of executive jobs in radio, and 3.3 percent in live music.According to U.S. census data, 13.4 percent of Americans identify as Black.Women posted their highest executive numbers in the live music business, holding 39.1 percent of positions. But drilling down, the study found, most of those women were white. Even at record labels, where Black executives were best represented, Black women held only 5.3 percent of executive jobs.The U.S.C. report is one of a number of efforts underway to examine the music industry and evaluate its progress in reaching stated goals of diversity and inclusion. This week, the Black Music Action Coalition, a group of artist managers, lawyers and other insiders, is expected to release a “report card” on how well the industry has met its own commitments to change.Much of the data used in the U.S.C. report, the researchers said, came from publicly available sources, like company websites. The report suggests that a lack of participation in the study by music companies was a reason.“Companies were given the opportunity to participate and confirm information, especially of senior management teams,” the report says. “Roughly a dozen companies did so. The vast majority did not.”The authors of the report, who also include Marc Choueiti, Katherine Pieper, Zoe Moore, Dana Dinh and Artur Tofan, said they want to spur the industry toward change. The report recommends a number of steps that companies can take to make their executive ranks more diverse, including making career pathways more flexible and “fast tracking” leaders with support and mentoring.“Our hope,” Dr. Lee said, “is that the industry will come together to tackle this problem in a way that creates meaningful progress.” More

  • in

    Grammy Officials Oppose an Open Hearing on Reasons for Ousting C.E.O.

    The lawyer for the former chief executive, Deborah Dugan, said the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammy Awards, had already agreed to an open session to discuss her grievances.As the organization behind the Grammy Awards prepares for an arbitration hearing next month with Deborah Dugan, its ousted chief executive, lawyers for Ms. Dugan have accused the Grammys of reneging on a promise to have the proceedings be open to the public.The arbitration, over Ms. Dugan’s dismissal early last year after just five months on the job, could be a rare window into the opaque politics of the Recording Academy, after years of complaints from artists and others in the music industry that the group fails to adequately recognize women and minorities and is rife with conflicts of interest.Those criticisms boiled over when Ms. Dugan was placed on administrative leave by the academy just 10 days before the 62nd annual Grammys ceremony, in January 2020, and later fired. As the dispute played out between Ms. Dugan and the academy, Harvey Mason Jr., who was then the chairman and interim chief, declared the academy’s dedication to transparency.In a letter on Feb. 4, 2020, Mr. Mason, who has since taken over as chief executive, told Ms. Dugan that the academy had agreed to waive the confidentiality provision of the arbitration clause in Ms. Dugan’s employment contract.“The Recording Academy has absolutely nothing to hide,” Mr. Mason wrote, “and, in fact, welcomes the opportunity to tell its story so that the entire music community and the world can hear the truth — and nothing but the truth — about what you did to this proud institution during your brief tenure as president/C.E.O.“In short,” Mr. Mason continued, “we welcome a full public airing of your allegations against the Academy as well as the Academy’s many claims and defenses against you.”Harvey Mason Jr. wrote that “The Recording Academy has absolutely nothing to hide,” in a letter dated Feb. 4, 2020.Jordan Strauss/Invision, via Associated PressBut as the hearing, now set for July 12 in Los Angeles, approaches, the academy has requested the proceedings remain closed. In correspondence with the arbitrator, Sara Adler, and lawyers for both sides, the academy’s lawyers said that the organization “was and is willing to make public the results of this arbitration, and the reasoning for those results, and nothing more,” according to Anthony J. Oncidi of Proskauer Rose, a law firm that has long represented the academy.According to Mr. Oncidi, the confidentiality provision cited in Mr. Mason’s letter last year covered only the disclosure of “the existence, content or result of any arbitration,” and that a full public hearing would expose other confidential information and cause “further emotional distress” to witnesses.In an email to Ms. Adler last week, Michael J. Willemin, a lawyer for Ms. Dugan at the firm Wigdor LLP, said that the academy was changing its position and should be required to keep the hearing open.“The simple, undeniable fact,” Mr. Willemin wrote, “is that the parties agreed to open this proceeding to the public, and, therefore, it must be open to the public unless Ms. Dugan agrees otherwise.”According to the academy, Ms. Dugan was dismissed because she alienated the staff and exhibited bullying behavior toward an executive assistant assigned to her.Ms. Dugan cast the decision to dismiss her differently in a discrimination complaint lodged with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ms. Dugan — who had led Red, the nonprofit co-founded by Bono of U2, and was brought into the Grammys as a change agent — said her dismissal was an act of retaliation after she challenged the “boys’ club” that she said dominated the academy.Dugan’s ouster also came three weeks after she wrote a detailed letter to the academy’s human resources department alleging voting irregularities, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest involving members of the academy’s board and its executive committee. She also accused a prominent outside lawyer for the academy of making unwanted sexual advances toward her. (That lawyer, Joel Katz, disputed Ms. Dugan’s account.)The Recording Academy has for years faced complaints about its voting process and its poor record of recognizing women and people of color in many of the top awards. In 2018, Neil Portnow, Ms. Dugan’s predecessor, was criticized for suggesting that women should “step up” to be recognized at the Grammys.This year, the academy voted to eliminate most of its anonymous nomination review committees, in which experts selected by academy executives made the final decision on who made the final ballot in 61 of the Grammys’ 84 categories.Those committees were criticized by Ms. Dugan and came under fire from top musicians like the Weeknd. The next Grammy ceremony, set for Jan. 31, 2022, will be the first in years in which the committees will play no part in making up the ballots of most awards, although they will still be used for 11 categories like production and packaging. More

  • in

    Amythyst Kiah Found Her Powerful Voice. Now She Has a Sound to Match It.

    The 34-year-old singer and songwriter fuses folk, blues, rock and once-hidden emotion on her new album, “Wary + Strange.”NASHVILLE — Before Amythyst Kiah made her new album, “Wary + Strange,” she veered between two distinct aesthetics. Her 2013 debut, “Dig,” was filled with spare acoustic renditions of old-time material. Then came a more robust set of indie rock.“I do not understand what the hell my brain was doing separating the two,” she said recently, resting her elbows on a park picnic table. “I can do whatever the hell I want with the songs.”When Kiah and the producer Tony Berg recorded “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me),” a song about her excruciating awareness of being cut off from her emotions, in early 2020, the goal was to join the two halves of her artistic identity at last. The result: Kiah’s country-blues phrasing bent around a lurching groove, with the guttural buzz of Berg’s bass harmonica substituting for bass guitar.“When we were done with it, we looked at each other as if to say, ‘What the hell was this?’” Berg, who has worked with the indie-rock singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers and the band Phantom Planet, recalled in a phone interview.To Kiah, this was the sound of self-actualization: “It was one of the best days of my life,” she said.It wasn’t like she’d invented arbitrary reasons to corral her music into categories; developing her taste as an introspective Black listener and musician, she’d noticed that some genres are marked, and marketed, as white domains. There was, she recalled, “no talk about how Black people have consistently and always played integral roles in shaping industry and shaping culture and shaping music.”Kiah resides in East Tennessee, where she’s spent the entirety of her 34 years next to the Appalachian Mountains in one modest-size municipality or another, but she’d driven 300 miles west to Nashville to appear in a documentary about Black voices in country and roots music alongside Allison Russell, one of her bandmates in Our Native Daughters.That string band, convened in early 2018 by Rhiannon Giddens, is a group of banjo-playing Black women with significant overlapping experiences, but distinct sounds and sensibilities. Kiah’s contributions include one of her first pointedly topical compositions, “Black Myself,” a down-home, defiant testimony to Black pride that earned a Grammy nomination for best American roots song.On Friday, “Wary + Strange,” Kiah’s first nationally distributed solo release will arrive. It’s the work of an artist weary of correcting perceptions, book ended by the resolved refrain “Soapbox,” a slight song with a serious purpose: to reject the rejection she’s felt (“You can keep your sophistry”).Kiah took up the task of defining who she is when she grew aware that others were doing it for her. She was the only child of a manufacturing plant supervisor and a drugstore manager, one of the few families of color — or households that didn’t attend church — in their Chattanooga suburb. “We were all in the same socioeconomic bracket,” she said, “but at the end of the day, I was still Black, and there came a point where people that I used to hang out with just started ignoring me.”It was a revelation when she made an artistically inclined friend who had access to an older sibling’s Nine Inch Nails and Tori Amos CDs: “I was just like, ‘Oh, there’s other ways of being.’”“For the first time, I didn’t feel like I had to close off a part of myself,” Kiah said of making “Wary + Strange.”Liam Woods for The New York TimesKiah got into alternative metal bands, hearing echoes of her own unexpressed anger, but it was in the mystical, expansive angst of Amos’s piano epics that she found an approach to own. Instead of a piano, she requested an acoustic guitar. Her father, Carl Phillips, who’d played Southern rock, country, soul and pop in otherwise white gigging bands, and listened to plenty else besides, understood.“I don’t remember ever telling her that a particular category of music was bad, because I had a little bit of everything,” he said in an interview.Kiah dealt with intense social anxiety, so she was content to be a bedroom shredder. Learning classical fingerstyle guitar, with its blending of rhythm and lead, made her feel self-sufficient, like she had “this tiny orchestra beneath me.”A switch to an arts high school brought some respite. “I met the first Black nerds that I ever met in my life,” she said. “On top of that, I was able to be openly gay and literally no one cared.”That didn’t mean she was eager to play in front of others. Her third public performance was at her mother’s funeral, where she sang a momentous original. “She committed suicide,” Kiah said, “so my whole thing was, ‘Why did you leave me?’” She re-examines that loss, and how she dealt with it, in her new song “Wild Turkey.” “When I was 17, I pretended not to care, stayed numb for years to escape despair,” she sings, acknowledging her stoic self-protection.A decade, and much therapy, passed between those two compositions. “I just completely stopped writing down my feelings about anything,” Kiah explained. “I just wanted to be like a robot.”After her mother’s death, Kiah and her father went to live with her paternal grandmother in the considerably smaller Johnson City, Tenn., and she enrolled in a bluegrass guitar class at East Tennessee State University. A new fascination with flatpicking technique developed into a study of old-time music when she learned about the Black string band tradition concealed beneath the whitewashed narrative of what was once sold as hillbilly music.“To see that history unveiled before me, I was like, ‘Oh, so I do have a place in this country,” she said. “I am an American. I am Appalachian. This music is part of my heritage, and it influenced everything else that I listen to. Why wouldn’t I want to play it?’”Her father learned alongside her, borrowing textbooks and never missing a performance when she joined the school’s marquee old-time band. “Most of the places that they went to, it was majority culture and her,” he said, referring to white crowds. “I couldn’t imagine her being there by herself.”Receiving encouraging feedback about her singing convinced Kiah to focus on her voice, too. She worked up modern interpretations of mountain standards like “Darlin’ Corey,” dropping the key to suit the stern resonance of her low range. And she played on the regional circuit, with her father serving as informal tour manager. A band she called Her Chest of Glass was her first venture into full-band rock arrangements.No lineup has mattered more to Kiah’s career or consciousness than Our Native Daughters. She sensed the significance of their mission — recovering the musical agency of enslaved people and their descendants — but figured the album they released through Smithsonian Folkways would mostly have an “archival, academic” impact. To her surprise, its heartfelt historicity has registered with less scholarly audiences. “I didn’t think enough people were really prepared to accept these stories,” Kiah said.The potency of those vignettes emboldened her to take a personalized approach to folk and country-blues, and to record both stripped-down and muscled-up versions of her growing pile of material. At the Grammys, she met an A&R executive from Concord Music, who paired her with Berg. They agreed to scrap her existing recordings and start over. On “Wary + Strange,” she depicts a nightmarish netherworld of abandonment by spectral women — her mother; a lover — and a self-aware descent into melancholy, boozy depths. “There’s this feeling of being haunted and feeling slightly uncomfortable at all times,” Kiah said.Kiah reached for literary terms, “Southern Gothic” and “magical realism,” to describe her ideal sound to Berg: “This idea that you have a setting that is very familiar, very real, but then there’s these weird, otherworldly bits and pieces within it,” she explained.Berg foregrounded Kiah’s voice and guitar, and called in impressionistic instrumentalists like Blake Mills and Ethan Grushka. “What I wanted them to bring,” Berg said, “was something other than what you might expect. Sometimes it’s unrecognizable noise in the background, and that noise can represent the static that impedes the expression of ideas.”It’s had the opposite effect for Kiah. “For the first time” creating a record, she said, “I didn’t feel like I had to close off a part of myself.” More