Armed with the incredible vocalist Bilal, The Roots performed the signature track from Detroit, a film about the race riots in 1967. “It Ain’t Fair” glares unflinchingly, takes a knee and raises a fist against the societal construct that has systematically denied equality of experience to those “presumed inferior,” to quote one of Bilal’s verses. And it achieves all this while covering its heart with its right hand. This reflective hymn tenderly yanks your heart strings and offers a window into the ethos of those who would like to stand for the flag but cannot in good principle, lest these same evils continue to exist.
Those lucky enough to be in the Tiny Desk audience witnessed masters at work. Black Thought is truly one of the most intelligent emcees ever, and his razor-sharp lyricism was on full display. Questlove, a musical and cultural historian nonpareil, was both a metronomical and moral anchor. It felt like the culmination of decades of academic rigor and boom-bap sessions, fittingly backed by a seven-piece horn section. Bilal’s falsetto-laced vocals and warm resonance evoked powerful messaging reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield’s “Don’t Worry,” delivered with the eccentricity of Prince.
Late last year, Common premiered “Letter to the Free” at the Tiny Desk and later won an Emmy for the song. It wouldn’t surprise me if “It Ain’t Fair” becomes another award-winning performance when the Oscars roll around early next year. This is a song that deserves to be heard in the millions of households that watch The Roots every night.
“It Ain’t Fair”
Curtis L. Jones Jr (Trombone), Arnetta Johnson (Trumpet), Hiruy E. Tirfe (Sax), Richard L. Tate II (Sax), Joseph Streater (Trumpet), Norman J. Bradshaw (Trombone), Damon Bryson (Sousaphone), Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson (Drums), Tarik (Black Thought) Trotter (Emcee), Bilal Oliver (Vocals)
This 21-year-old Maltese-Australian got a guitar from her grandfather when she was three, she says, and has played it every day since. It’s astonishing to watch Sultana’s fluidity on her instrument, like a natural extension of her body. (She also plays bass, saxophone, trumpet, flute and more, but kept it “simple” at the Tiny Desk.) I thought I had a lot of energy — watching her bounce from guitar to drum machine to two separate microphones — and then hopping barefoot from looping pedal to effect pedal as she builds her songs was exhilarating and exhausting. There’s more here than an exercise in virtuosity, her music is filled with adventure and ambition. These songs are rapturous and resonant.
One look at (and listen to) the cross-dressing, Asian rock band SsingSsing and you would hardly think they’re singing music inspired by traditional Korean folk. But SsingSsing isn’t like any other band I’ve ever seen or heard.
The group sings a regional folk style called minyo and the gender bending look has to do with shamans not glamour. As singer Hee-moon Lee describes it, “In Korean traditional art, male shamans, called baksu, have the body of a male. But as mediums, they need more than a single sexual identity, because they’re channeling both male and female spirits. When I act a female character and sing, I have to overcome the fact of my being a male sorikkun (singer), and try my utmost to bring a more neutral, unisex feeling to the performance. It sounds silly, but I feel like going back to the sensibilities of my youth, when I liked Madonna, helps.”
The understated music, the small dramatic gestures and the costumes all combine for one of my most memorable Tiny Desk Concerts of all time.
“Nanbongga (Song of Beloveds)”
“Saseol Nanbongga (Narrative Song of Beloveds)”
Hee-moon Lee (vocal), Da-hye Choo (vocal), Seung-tae Shin (vocal), Young-gyu Jang (bass guitar), Tae-won Lee (electric guitar), and Chul-hee Lee (drums)
They transform traditional Polish songs into Kujawski swing, and they mix folk songs, whispers, and shouts with sounds of…a grater, a knife being sharpened or a bathtub being filled with water. An original trio, Sutari, is gaining popularity on the folk scene with their modern interpretations of old songs.
Sutari is based on the strength of three female talents, temperaments, and voices. Zofia Barańska, Katarzyna Kapela, and Barbara Songin are vocalists, instrumentalists, actresses, and performers who have been active on the Polish artistic scene for many years now in various fields: from music to theatre through dance and film. Kasia collaborates with the Wrocław Song of the Goat Theatre, Basia deals with physical theatre, choreography and produces her own original shows along with the artistic collective FURU, and Zosia collaborates with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute on musical projects. They met a few years ago at the “Gardzienice” Centre for Theatre Practices and that is how their musical collaboration began: on violins, drums, wine glasses, bottles, knifes, graters and even using water. As Zosia Barańska explains:
We feel good on stage together. Playing together and giving concerts gives us great joy. We experiment with sound a lot. It’s enough to change the tempo, slow down, or speed up in order to find jazz, swing or blues in old songs. The idea of using unusual instruments helps us tell the stories of our great grandmothers, it reminds us all of the musical tradition of singing together while peeling potatoes or working in the fields, because singing was a part of everyday life. That is why we incorporated the rhythmization of sounds produced by kitchenware.
The bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding conceived of Chamber Music Society as an intimate experience, a close musical exchange between a small group of friends. If it was intimacy she wanted, she got her wish: Performing three songs in the constraints of Bob Boilen’s workspace ensures that all of her supporting players were nice and cozy.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band is a hot and historic outfit from New Orleans, and its members brought us a tuba-wielding Santa and some original holiday cheer and praise — what they call a Cajun Christmas from the French Quarter.
We lit some lights and decorated my desk and shelves as best we could, but it’s this amazing band — complete with saxophone, trombone, trumpet, drums and a couple of tubas — that lit this place up. We’ve never had so much dancing from the NPR crew at a Tiny Desk Concert. So enjoy the show, and happy holidays to all from NPR Music. –BOB BOILEN
“I Think I Love You”