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”
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
When you hear Monika, life feels good: The singer’s performances and presence are simply winning. Last fall, I saw her take a hands-in-pockets crowd in New York and turn it into a bunch of dancing, hand-waving fans. Here at the Tiny Desk, the office was singing along as the ebullient singer danced on my desk. She’s a platinum-selling singer-songwriter back in Greece, and her most recent album, Secret In The Dark, is full of spunk and funk. The album was produced by the great Homer Steinweiss, whom you may know as the drummer for the soulful R&B band The Dap-Kings.
Monika Christodoulou’s recent transition from singer of sad songs to purveyor of upbeat jubilance came after she nearly lost her life in a boat fire; she had to swim eight hours in the dark to safety without food or drinkable water. These days, it’s all about a great band grooving, her joyful voice, and that infectious smile.
“Yes I Do”
“Shake Your Hands”
“Hand In Hand”
“Secret In The Dark”
Gaelynn Lea, the winner of NPR’s second annual Tiny Desk Contest, makes music like nobody else. Her sounds are steeped in the deep melodies of great Irish fiddle tunes, but her performance and singing style aren’t traditional. More than 6,000 artists submitted videos in which they performed an original song behind a desk of their choosing with the hope of winning a chance to play a Tiny Desk concert at NPR. Gaelynn Lea was the overwhelming favorite of our six judges.
After voting for Lea, I wanted to learn more about her and her remarkable talent. Following about a minute of just focusing on the desk, her video pans to a small woman in a wheelchair as she plays a violin she holds like a cello. Lea has brittle bone disease, which made it necessary for her to reinvent the ordinary — and, in this case, a way to play the fiddle.
I also discovered, after selecting Gaelynn Lea, that she’d become friends with Alan Sparhawk of the band Low. Sparhawk first heard her perform at a farmers market in Duluth, Minn., where they both live. They’ve become friends who sometimes make music together, recording under the name The Murder Of Crows, so I also invited Sparhawk to join Gaelynn Lea for two of her four songs at this special Tiny Desk concert. There was hardly a dry eye.
“Someday We’ll Linger In The Sun”
“Moment Of Bliss”