A Malian Master Returns to Los Angeles

This week, the Skirball continues its nineteenth season of Sunset Concerts with Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba, who will perform songs from their celebrated new album, Ba Power. I thought I would take this chance to break down Kouyaté’s musical lineage and show why this Thursday night the Skirball will be the best place to experience the future of Malian music.

Bassekou Kouyate with first-born son Madu, right, his wife Amy and their son Moustapha.

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba: (left to right) Moustapha Kouyaté, Bassekou Kouyaté, Amy Sacko, and Madu Kouyaté.

Since exploding onto the scene in 2007, Bassekou Kouyaté has established himself as a leading world musician, appearing at major music festivals such as Glastonbury and WOMAD in support of three critically acclaimed albums. He has played and collaborated with such esteemed musicians as Taj Mahal, Paul McCartney, and Damon Albarn. To those who have seen him perform live, Kouyaté’s extraordinary rise may come as no surprise, but his career trajectory appears more unexpected on paper.

Kouyaté descends from a long line of griots, Continue reading

Looking Back at D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968)

The Skirball’s Friday Night Rock Docs series continues this summer with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978) on July 31 and Hal Ashby’s Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982) on August 21. In order to get ready for these screenings of landmark rock docs, I decided to delve a little into the history of the genre—with particular focus on D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968), which kicked off the Skirball series on Friday, June 19.

A barrage of liquid light show images choreographed to the shrill screams and pulsating rhythms of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Combination of the Two” opens Monterey Pop. In this somewhat disorienting opening sequence, Pennebaker immediately sets the documentary—depicting events at the Monterey Pop Festival, which occurred Friday, June 16–Sunday, June 18, 1967—apart from its generic predecessors. This film is not just about the counterculture; Pennebaker employs a style that represents the counterculture’s subversive values both visually and aurally.

Watch Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, perform “Combination of the Two” live at the Monterey Pop Festival. A recording of the song plays over the opening credit sequence of D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop.

Prior to the release of Monterey Pop and his 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker was perhaps best known for his affiliation with the Drew Associates, a group of filmmakers including Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and David and Albert Maysles. Together, these filmmakers furthered a documentary style known as Direct Cinema, largely the product of the new lightweight camera and sound equipment developed in the 1950s. Unlike many conventional documentarians before them, champions of this new style did not use staged reenactments, voiceover narration, or extensive onscreen text to explain their subjects. Instead, they strove for objectivity and immediacy in their films, capturing events as they happened and allowing people to tell their own stories.

In many ways, Monterey Pop assumes the stylistic goals of Direct Cinema. Continue reading

La Chiva Gantiva: Remixing Music and Identity

From the wild energy of their Afro-Colombian rhythms to the exuberant sound of their horn riffs, the West Coast debut of La Chiva Gantiva will be a stellar kick-off to the Skirball’s nineteenth season of Sunset Concerts this Thursday, July 23.

The Brussels-based ensemble emerged from three Colombian students who wanted to incorporate more of their roots into their favorite contemporary genres, like rock and Afrobeat. To make this Belgian-Colombian fusion even more enticing, they recruited additional Belgian members along with musicians from both France and Vietnam. Thus began their journey into a multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-genre music movement.

I have a special affinity towards this group as they evoke in me a certain nostalgia for my study abroad experience, specifically my time in French bars with Colombian housemates. All of La Chiva Gantiva’s funky songs will get your head banging, but the song “Pelao” (which translates to “kid”) and its music video were what hooked me. The video juxtaposes aggressive French and Spanish verses with a paper-constructed scene of Brussels. With the French I am able to decipher, it seems the song is a dialogue on Colombian identity, displacement, and the deconstruction of stereotypes. This was an all-too-familiar conversation for my Colombian housemate, as he often felt excluded abroad and would always have to fend off the stereotype of Colombians as cocaine traffickers. But like La Chiva Gantiva, he overcame adversity by tackling it head-on through restless song and dance.

SkirBLog_La Chiva Gantiva_Sunset Concerts - pelao
Among the commotion of the piñata smashing and flamingo hats, I was able to spot the Vietnamese saxophonist Tuan Ho Duc, who sports a Vietnamese flag shirt that is also found on their Pelao album cover. Being of Vietnamese descent, I never feel like my culture is represented in the larger music scene, so witnessing Duc’s full-blown pride makes me appreciate the band even more.

With the rising popularity of Pelao, La Chiva Gantiva was able to tour throughout Europe and even hopped the pond to the US for a South by Southwest appearance. They have since released a second album, Vivo, which is spearheading festivals from Canada all the way to Benin. The Skirball is proud to present La Chiva Gantiva at Sunset Concerts this coming Thursday, their single West Coast stop this summer.


Arthur Pham is the 2015 LA County Arts Commission Intern for the Program Department. As an undergraduate at UCLA, he studied geography and was a producer for JazzReggae Festival, so he particularly enjoys seeing the impact of music and art in different cultures. In his free time, he can be found photographing portraits or thrifting a new outfit.

How I Found the Skirball By Way of a Missing Painting

<i>Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Lyon(s) at the age of 101 Years</i>, John Constable, 1804. Gift of Mr. Ben Selling.

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Lyon(s) at the age of 101 Years, John Constable, 1804. Gift of Mr. Ben Selling.

When I first met my son-in-law’s father, George, we instantly bonded over our shared interest in family history. One of George’s most interesting ancestors is Sarah Lyon, who lived from 1703 to 1807. A notable fact about Lyon is that she was painted by the great English Romantic painter John Constable when she was over 100 years old. However, George didn’t know where the painting now was. Intrigued by the story, I asked a friend in England to contact the National Gallery in London and see if they had any information. The next day, my friend called me back and told me that the painting was actually right here in Los Angeles, at the Skirball Cultural Center, just a short distance from where I lived. The timing was fortuitous because the location of the painting had only recently been discovered. Immediately, I called the Skirball and asked if they could send me a picture of the painting. Shortly thereafter I received a phone call from a docent, David Welsh, who told me he had been instrumental in gathering information about Lyon. David said he would be happy to meet me for lunch and give me a copy of his notes.

I was excited to visit the Museum, see the painting, and discuss genealogy with David Welsh. And I was not disappointed—it was a marvelous experience. Here is what I have learned about Sarah Lyon and her family: Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jul/Aug 2015

Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. Photo by Lindsey Best.

Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. Photo by Lindsey Best.

Over six Thursday evenings every summer, we welcome thousands of visitors to our Sunset Concerts. Global and local artists take the stage to uplift the audience with their music and unite us in song and dance.

This summer, I am particularly looking forward to experiencing the Yuval Ron Ensemble, who will perform a special program entitled “My Heart Is in the East: Mystical Music and Dance of the Hebrew Tribes.” Named after the Israeli-born musician, composer, and educator, the Yuval Ron Ensemble innovates upon traditional pan–Middle Eastern music, including Armenian, Levantine, Arabic, Bedouin, Sephardic, and Roma styles.

Lately I have had the pleasure of listening to the band’s exquisite repertoire. To me, it conveys a hopeful calm. Theirs is the music that plays in my head when I recall driving through the desert hills between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea—both as a child before immigrating to America and as an adult visiting my native land. I am moved by this soundtrack to my cherished memories of Israel. Continue reading

“The Lost Tapes”: Things I Learned from Knowing and Remembering Bill Graham

In the exhibition, be sure to stop at the final “Remembering Bill Graham” section. There you’ll hear excerpts of many interviews and well as excerpts from the radio tribute, which I called “Laughter, Love & Memories,” which I produced in 1993.

In the exhibition, be sure to stop at the final “Remembering Bill Graham” section. There you’ll hear excerpts of many interviews as well as excerpts from the radio tribute, which I called “Laughter, Love & Memories,” which I produced in 1993.

When you visit Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, you will find a listening station towards the end of the exhibition. If you put on the headphones, you’ll hear excerpts from one-of-a-kind audiotapes that I have loaned to the Skirball for the exhibition, all recorded for my radio show after Bill Graham tragically died in 1991. You’ll listen to John Popper, Blues Traveler frontman, calling me from a payphone off Bleecker Street (in New York City) to share memories of Bill. You’ll hear Richie Havens performing “Dreams” by Stevie Nicks in Bill’s honor while talking to me about the early days with him. You’ll catch the late legendary Phil Ramone telling me how Bill recommended to The Recording Academy that they give Phil an award based on his many accomplishments (that became a reality a decade later when Phil was honored with the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award). You’ll hear those audio segments and so much more.

Here’s a preview of the clips of John Popper calling me from a payphone in downtown NYC, and of Richie Havens in the studio with me telling me about the first time he met Bill Graham.

I was especially happy to be able to share these treasured tracks because for many years I didn’t know the recordings still existed! Here’s what happened. Continue reading

What’s Your Story: Fifth Graders Share Their Family Histories

When you enter this classroom you are:
unique, explorers, authors, musicians, readers, successful, inventors, respected.

These words welcome visitors to teacher Debbie Elkayam’s fifth grade classroom at Haskell Elementary School, an LAUSD school in the San Fernando Valley. And they are a perfect representation of the teacher and her students.

Several years ago, I met Ms. Elkayam during her class field trip to the Skirball for the extremely popular Grade 5 School Tour of Americans and Their Family Stories. I was one of the educators leading the interactive tour in which students explore the commonalities and differences among immigrant stories from around the world. At one point in the tour, Ms. Elkayam mentioned that she uses this tour—along with the Skirball’s teacher guide and creative activities she designed herself—to make the topic of immigration and heritage more personal for her students. Curious about how she did so, my next question was: When can I visit your classroom?

Soon, I was happily on my way to Haskell Elementary for the first of two planned visits. On my first trip in February, I learned how Ms. Elkayam prepares students for the program at the Skirball by connecting the theme of immigration to their lives.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom. Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

A warm greeting in Polish, my native language, welcomes me to Ms. Elkayam’s classroom.
Dzień dobry (d͡ʑɛɲ ˈdɔbrɨ) means “hello,” or “good day,” in Polish.

Looking around the classroom, I saw projects displaying illustrated family stories, art making, and explorations of the diverse heritage of her students. Clearly, the Americans and Their Family Stories tour worked extremely well within Ms. Elkayam’s curriculum. Continue reading

What Big Art Is All About: Conversations with Robert Landau and Enrique Vidal

I recently sat down with photographer Robert Landau and billboard artist Enrique Vidal to discuss the billboards on view in the exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. In addition to telling me more about the history of the billboards and the labor of creating them, they each spoke of their great admiration for billboard art. This passion drove a teenaged Robert to photograph the billboards on the Sunset Strip for over a decade, a project that profoundly influenced his artistic vision. It also led Enrique to make a living “painting big,” first as a billboard artist and later as a muralist for cultural sites around the world. Hear more of their fascinating stories in the videos below, plus read some of my favorite moments from our conversations.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Excerpt from my interview with Robert Landau, Photographer:

Can you tell me a little more about how you came to document the rock & roll billboards?
I had an old Nikkormat, which was kind of a poor man’s Nikon camera in those days. But the smartest thing I did was shoot color transparency film. I shot Kodachrome slides, because my main purpose in shooting them was that I would have slide shows for my friends. That’s as far as I thought the images would go. I’d invite all my friends in—they lived in other parts of the city, they never saw these things because [the billboards] came and went so frequently—and I’d have slide shows and show [my friends] all these great billboards.

I began just by trying to take good pictures of the billboards when the light on them was good. I was crossing the Strip every day: Every time I went anywhere in the city, I had to travel on the Strip. So I’d see them. I was traveling early to go to school. I’d see the crews out there, so I got to know the sites, and when and where and how [the crews] changed [the billboards] and all that. Very quickly thereon, I realized it was just as interesting to see what was happening around the billboards. Some of the first art photographers that I was interested in were mostly French street photographers . . . and I thought that they were capturing so well that city and that time. I thought I could try to do the same thing with Los Angeles.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

What specifically drew you to these billboards?
My father, Felix Landau, was one of the early art gallerists in Los Angeles, on La Cienega. He started in the late 1940s, but throughout the ’50s and ’60s [he] had a very influential gallery Continue reading

I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, June 27, 1971. Photo by John Olson. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

Continue reading

President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2015

When it comes to rock & roll music, I can’t claim much familiarity. I grew up with the music of Israeli folk dancing, which still moves my heart (and my feet!). The world of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana was known to me only through my children. I was well aware that this music had become a worldwide phenomenon, but I knew very little about how it happened.

Photo From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938, Gelatin silver print.

From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938.

Now, with the Skirball’s presentation of the exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, I am finding out. I am learning of the life and legacy of a remarkable Jewish immigrant, orphaned by the Holocaust, who did as much as anyone to launch that revolution and transform it into a communal experience and a social force.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, Bill was in many ways a classic example of the American success story: a young boy with no advantages, rising from obscurity to the pinnacle of success solely on the strength of unstoppable personality, drive, and determination. Continue reading