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)
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”
Sinkane opened its Tiny Desk Concert with a song that has been a bit of an anthem for me lately. “U’Huh” contains the Arabic phrase “kulu shi tamaam,” which translates to “everything’s great — it’s all going to be all right.”
Sinkane is the music of Ahmed Gallab — and such hopeful music it is. He grew up in London and has lived in Sudan and in Ohio and, these days, New York City. His band reflects his own love for music from around the world; you can hear a great New York jazz band in the rhythms of Sinkane, but you can also hear the influence of Bob Marley and the hypnotic repetition of Sudanese desert sounds.
July 27, 2016 by PATRICK JARENWATTANANON • The Colorado River — better known for running through majestic National Parks and powering hydroelectric dams — forms an unlikely backdrop for the creation of a jazz song. But René Marie was answering phones at Denver’s jazz radio station KUVO when she sat down across from a fellow volunteer fundraiser. He would soon invite her on a canoeing trip and, without yet having seen the eponymous river, she wrote the giddy “Colorado River Song” on the way there.
René Marie’s is the sort of voice which first comes to mind when someone asks for a jazz singer — big and expressive, at home in classic swinging settings and comfortable in crowds. There’s plenty to set her apart, though. She made her first recording in her early 40s, so she’s a late bloomer by any standard. Her tastes admit many influences, and she’s got a penchant for original songwriting, especially where social justice intersects with personal biography. Her folky story-song “This Is (Not) A Protest Song” addresses homelessness and mental illness even in her own family.
Joined by her Experiment In Truth band (John Chin on piano, Elias Bailey on bass, Quentin Baxter on drums), Marie visited NPR headquarters to play songs from her new album Sound Of Red. She never specified the exact nature of that synesthetic idea, though the title track would seem to indicate that it’s about the addictive and lusty blood-rush of performing — of seeing red while singing the blues. In the audience was the bold KUVO volunteer from that day 10 years ago. His name is Jesse, and they’re now married and live in her home state of Virginia; they drove up together for this Tiny Desk concert.
“Colorado River Song”
“This Is (Not) A Protest Song”
“Sound Of Red”
October 27, 2015 by BOB BOILEN
At first, I couldn’t pull my attention away from irrepressible singer Kam Franklin, whose down-to-earth but uplifting presence put a huge smile on my face. But as The Suffers’ set progressed, I became increasingly enchanted with the band, which was part Archie Bell & The Drells and part James Brown, with a touch of New Orleans and even Jamaican reggae.
It was a perfect mix of power and delicacy, as the band held back at moments only to steamroll me when my guard was down. The group has only two EPs, with an album on the way, and trust me: 2016 will be The Suffers’ year. Look for the band on far bigger stages soon enough.
Jones’ name is synonymous with the Hammond B3 organ. At 17, he recorded the instrument’s anthem, “Green Onions,” with his band Booker T and The MG’s. Watch him play the song all alone in the NPR Music offices — and with such joy, you’d swear he just discovered it.
“Born Under A Bad Sign”
“Down In Memphis”
Right near the top of this performance, Benjamin Clementine looks toward the camera with an intense stare and sings, “Where I’m from, you see the rain / Before the rain even starts to rain.” At that point, when I’m already hanging on every word, I feel like I’m witnessing an almost otherworldly presence — a visitor with wisdom to impart.
Clementine is a musician and poet who grew up in London and later moved to Paris, where as a teenager he slept on the streets at night and busked in the daylight hours. That’s how he was “discovered,” and in 2015, he released his first album, At Least For Now. There are intimate moments of revelation in this immersive, breathtaking performance, and his voice and piano both sound magnificent. I can’t think of anyone quite like him.
April 18, 2016 by BOB BOILEN
The music I feel most connected to beyond rock is from Mali. The melodies are so fluid, so elegant and most of all so trance-inducing. It often sits on one chord and notes played revolve around that chord. It can feel like a drone at times, and in the case of Songhoy Blues it rocks, lulls and the percussion grooves are not only trance-inducing but dance-inducing.
Many of the musicians we know from Mali are in exile, driven out by Islamists threatening musicians and kidnapping them; the members of Tinariwen know this firsthand. There is sadness, defiance and celebration in the music Songhoy Blues brought to the Tiny Desk from a record called Music in Exile, which is co-produced by an artist most of us rock lovers know best from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Zinner. Rock and the desert blues, already closely connected in attitude and sound, fuse nicely with his touch — and can be felt in blissful rawness here.
“Sekou Oumarou” 00:00
“Al Hassidi Terei” 03:46