sunday: four ‘f’s and a ‘u’

Cumbancha World Music

Cumbancha World Music, pre-party

The phrase “world class party” takes on a  whole new dimension of meaning, when you’re talking about a party at the Cumbancha headquarters.

By definition, “cumbancha” means ‘party’ – and that’s about all you need to know to get the scope of yesterday’s gathering.

The occasion? There were actually a few reasons, all of which contributed to the “Four F” theme of the day’s event: Father’s Day, the First day of summer; Fête de la Musique (the international day of music); and,…the fortieth birthday of Cumbancha founder Jacob Edgar. Any one of those excuses occasions (or none at all, actually) would have been reason enough, but with that many great vibes in the air it just had to happen.

It still surprises folks sometimes – even some who live in Vermont, and love world music – to learn that the quiet barn sitting there in the Charlotte countryside is Cumbancha’s offices. The label’s recordings have won top international acclaim and awards, and the artists it represents are from places as far away as Israel, Ivory Coast, Cuba, Peru, and…far beyond. I can tell you that your initial ‘quiet, pastoral’ impression of the place would be turned right around to be inside the place on any given Friday afternoon; hundreds of envelopes being stuffed and mailed, phonecalls often taking place in several different languages, and website and database and library work all being done at the same time. It takes a lot of work to be known on seven continents.

Movement of the People: the Fela Kuti Tribute project

Movement of the People: the Fela Kuti Tribute project (part of the archive in the background)

And the archive! Along with the business office, the barn also houses the combined recording library with Putumayo World Music of thousands of CDs from around the world. I’ve been volunteering and working part-time there for a couple of years now. I  haven’t looked for an ethnic recording yet that I haven’t been able to find, whether it’s from the Seychelles or Comoros Islands; Mali or New Zealand or Nicaragua or anywhere else . Everyone’s in there – it’s amazing.

Jake Shimabukuro

Jake Shimabukuro

So consider that this vast global cultural archive, floor to ceiling lining the interior walls of the barn, served as the backdrop for yesterday’s party: as Vermont’s own Movement of the People: Fela Kuti Tribute band laid down the funky Afrobeat groove for the afternoon, the international potluck table along one wall offered everything from Moroccan cous cous to steamed Bratwurst, to Greek salad and a lot of other colorful dishes I’d have to research to be able to identify, much less pronounce. Best just to try it all and not worry about what to call it. Good plan.

Jake playing an original, koto-inspired work:

Jake playing his original, koto-inspired work "Sakura"

How to follow up an afternoon like that?

The only answer I could come up with was: ukulele concert. So that’s what the evening held, as the four “f”s of the afternoon’s party were followed by the “u” of the evening’s show.

Jake Shimabukuro played at Higher Ground for a couple of hours last night in a charming and energetic set that happily included a generous amount of originals, and – of course – the George Harrison song that made Jake and his fearless ukulele an instant YouTube hit a couple of years ago…While My Guitar Gently Weeps. (Haven’t seen it yet? Over 3 million others have, and this is why. It is extraordinary.)

The ukulele sang sweetly like a koto, in Shimabukuro’s gently cherry blossom-flavored original Sakura, and it twanged along just as flatly in his bluegrassy Orange World. (That’s what happens when a young artist goes on tour with veterans like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – it has a certain effect.) Shimabukuro has a keen ear for the characteristics that make instruments like the koto or the banjo unique, and his ability to adapt those voices to the ukulele is uncanny.

His technique and artistry on the instrument are unassailable. Likewise with his stage presence: warm and personal, creating a comfortable  environment for the intimate experience of a solo ukulele concert. The original compositions Shimabukuro played were somewhat less successful. Spirited, inspired (a word he uses often, and with good reason) and undoubtedly earnest in their intent,  the repetitive, often mono-dynamic, ‘call and response’ style characterizing many of them leaves some room for maturing and development.

It’s good he has something left to learn in the long career that surely lies ahead. As a 32-year old performer now he’s already done more as a musician than many do in a lifetime.

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