A journey into Peru’s wild and ancient north is full of surprises.
Rising Appalachia Interview and Special Feature
We are incredibly excited to offer this very special Thanksgiving artist interview and Breaking Borders feature with the highly acclaimed deeply soulful, southern world-folk duo Rising Appalachia!
The incredible collective voice of sisters Leah Song And Chloe Smith have resonated with us deeply over the last years and continue to inspire us through their passion and spirit for world culture both old and new. By bridging folk tradition with contemporary relevance, their songs speak with intention to reconnect to cultural roots, social justice and harmony as a people. They show a strong commitment to working creatively at a grass roots level keeping them accessible to all. Through the power of sound, story and song Rising Appalachia raises the bar in music today, empowering woman world wide and representing joy, simplicity and meaning in all they have to offer.
We were honored to have the opportunity to connect with the sisters a month ago as they embarked on their current “Resilience Tour” up and down the Western USA. The tour reaches many small towns and every major city on the West Coast including a very a special show in our hometown of San Francisco at The Great American Music Hall on November 26th. Here is the FB Event and tickets.
They will be joined by their beloved bandmates Biko Casini (percussion) and David Brown (bassist/guitarist) with whom they have been performing, since their last album tour in 2015. The current “Resilience” movement for the band is a powerful response to the current state of the world, acknowledging the challenging times we face today and encouraging personal empowerment for ourselves and local communities to take action from the ground up.
“We are a resilient people in challenging times! And now more than ever we need to be making music.”
For the last five years, the music and ethos put forth by Rising Appalachia has greatly influenced our pursuits for the cross-cultural work we do here at Breaking Borders and has given us meaningful intent to keep our spirits high. In our interview, we ask the two songstresses Leah and Chloe to speak in depth about certain characteristics that make Rising Appalachia unique and truly stand out today as international musicians for change.
Breaking Borders: How did Rising Appalachia come into being? What was your intention behind the project? What were some of the driving forces that helped form your identity??
Leah: Rising Appalachia was born out of our long term immersion into southern roots music. We were raised in a family that kept Duke Ellington vinyl playing, and both our mother and father got very involved in Southern folk music traditions … so our whole childhood was steeped in music. When we decided to record an album we were mostly wanting to document the peculiar and rich soundtrack of our lives. There were so many different influences that created the bedrock of our musical tastes. From Old Appalachian mountain tunes, to the early days of Outkast, the South was our soundtrack. We wanted to create a platform to showcase all those influences, and at that time those genres didn’t historically mix. We wanted to make music that referenced all those sounds as much as they had influenced us. And there was born Rising Appalachia.
Can you describe the connection you both have to the American South? How does your love and admiration of the Southern soul translate into your music and message? What kind of story are you telling about the South that you want to express to the rest of the world?
Chloe: Well, we are sisters so we of course have the birth connection to the south and to our blood family there. But beyond that, we have the same fluctuating emotions for the south that most people do that are from there. Its love, its hate, its sort of a moving body of opinions depending on the times and the seasons and your neighbors. However, the love comes from the cultural heritage of the place… the songs we were brought up singing, our foods and crazy salty rich recipes, the feeling of front porch talks and hot summer breezes, fireflies on the mountain, and the hospitality and sweetness of many southern folk. Its sweaty and sticky and complicated sort of region. But we want to express in our music the importance of having a sense of place, of belonging to somewhere or something, and of singing the songs of ones ancestors and family members which we all have access to with a little bit of digging.
Rising Appalachia’s unique incorporation of international folk tradition seems to reflect an intention of bringing people back to the roots in contemporary time. In your words, what is the significance of folk tradition today? It what ways do indigenous worldviews impact your own lifestyles, music and visions?
Chloe: Folk music and folk practices ( Im thinking specifically of craft work, medicine, cooking and preparing, storytelling, dance, and other forms of expression and gathering) are simple, and that is why we hold on so dearly to them in contemporary times. That simplicity is peaceful and historic and full of information to pass down. I was raised in folk music and so I saw first hand the community it sprouted and the relationships it formed and in many ways a lot of young people I know now don’t have those sorts of things to grasp on to. Nothing passed down from the family necessarily. Its a great malnourishment of our country and I think people are awakening to that and doing the work to recreate it in their own lives.
What inspired you to start following this path of studying traditional cultures and world wide travel? Do you have a favorite moment(s) of encountering indigenous traditions or culture during your travels?
Chloe: Our father traveled around the world before Leah and I were born, and that gave him a lot of very interesting fodder for our dinner table conversations. We learned about different cultures and communities through his stories at an early age, and thus the seed was planted. Additionally, our mother was an international flight attendant for 30 years… so that travel bug was strong in the Smiths.
We knew that music was a glue in our lives, and we both wanted to explore other countries folk traditions pretty soon out of high school so as to broaden that scope. One of our favorite memories was visiting Bulgaria on a cultural tour that a good friend of ours set up for us years back. He was Bulgarian and loved our Appalachian styled music and wanted us to experience the rich mountain singing traditions of his country. We went to the Pirin Mountains together to a small village of mostly women farmers ripe with songs and laughter and shared songs and music and cherry liquor for a few days with very little language exchange, only the music to hold on to. There were no young people in the village and all the singers we met were 65 and older, so they were thrilled and tickled to have young somewhat weird looking ( tattooed/pierced) foreigners visiting and swooning over their intricate and haunting harmonies. Its still one of most visceral moments of song catching.
Rising Appalachia performs at both small local and large festival venues, always spreading messages of unity and creating positive social change through music and action. What inspired you to begin walking this path towards social and environmental justice?
Leah: We walked that path before we began the band, so it has always felt like a natural fusion of interests.
“We have always wanted to use music literally as a vehicle to connect to people- to place and to culture.”
What is your perspective on using music as a tool of activism for creating change in the world? Can you explain this parallel of activism and art in reflection to Rising Appalachia? Do you believe this has driving force for your success? If so, how?
Leah: It is a concept and an intention for us to be touring sustainably, and to be creating music with a purpose. We have always wanted to use music literally as a vehicle to connect to people- to place and to culture. And the music industry itself is such a FAST paced machine. We began to feel really disconnected from the pulse of our work. We started a project this year called the Slow music is a way to remind us to take the time to tour in a way that is sustainable- both physically and environmentally as well as emotionally (which might actually be the most important part). So it means challenging the status quo of touring: physically slowing down and staying in regions for longer amounts of time, staying locally and eating local food from the places where we are making music, taking days off in between shows to get into wild places and learn about the nature of each place, connecting each show to local non-profits that are doing direct action work in their communities so that our impact can create longer relationships than just a few hours at a show, exploring alternative travel options (like train, recycled fuel, sail boat, horse back, eat).
We also bring in local non-profits to each show to allow our audience to have more of a relationship with the place that THEY live and create those connections that last long beyond the show. Each night we hope that there are components of celebration, components of local activism, a dance party, and a place for us to encourage more direct action. Everyones path into activism is different and everyones voice is important. We try and create a place where all walks of life are welcome to come be a part of our experience.
A more recent conceptual movement of Rising Appalachia is the idea of “Wider Circles” and expanding yourselves to work with more people and musicians as well as reach wider audiences and cultural backgrounds. What was your intention behind this movement and album? Why do you believe it is an important concept today? How has this movement of “Wider Circles” manifested within your recent projects and performances?
Chloe: We have grown so much the past few years and there were so many people on board helping us to do so that we wanted to write a song capturing the value of those expanding circles. Rising Appalachia has always been a sort of “all hands on deck” type project with countless supporters behind the scenes and we feel very much that a large amount of our success is due to some of those people. The song is a sort of thank you to them, as well as a anthem to encourage people to widen their own circles and invite more people in. We see so much shutting down, separating off, and divisive language in our main stream media these days that can really isolate the human heart into feeling pretty alone and conflicted with “different” people. Wider Circles is a song about going to the center of those hard conversations and committing to the work that will unify. Its about showing up at the table. Its about marching. Its about walking the path of kindness in that work and being humble in knowing whom has come before you.
“I think that in order to enact change we have to keep showing up at the table over and over again.”
A big platform for Rising Appalachia to reach people is through the the global festival culture. What is your stance on festivals being a catalyst for change? Do you see festival culture functioning in a way that “breaks down” social norms? And if so, in what way?
Leah: To be honest we have a lot of critique of the festival culture. We are invited to be a part of a lot of events that boast change-making principles, but they often feel like they are disconnected from some of the action that is needed to create a shift. I think its ok to throw a party, but call a spade a spade. Transformation is a bigger task than just a party. It takes some discomfort, and some hard work, ad reaching people who don’t look, think talk or act like you. Some of the most profound events that we have been a part of are some of the smaller gatherings that are directly working to impact change (and not just a big party with a few workshops and classes on the side) like : Alternate Roots, The South Eastern Women’s Herbalist Conference, Jungle Camp, the Permaculture Action Network events, The Lake Eden Arts Festival, Honor the Earth events, Benefit shows, ect. I think that in order to enact change we have to keep showing up at the table over and over again. I am thankful that the festival culture exists and creates spaces for young people to show up and question the social norms, but i hope that it is only the first step and many people learn how to go much deeper to challenge the status quo.
After performing throughout the summer at many festivals and gatherings across the U.S and Internationally, you have now embarked on a new journey dubbed the Resilience Tour throughout the Western States. The tour is also coinciding with a documentary release shot in New Orleans during Jazz Fest early this year. What is the significance of both the tour and documentary being done at the same time? In your opinion, what is the concept of ‘resilience” responding to in this time period? What is your intention behind this movement?
Chloe: We felt like the word Resiliency is perfect for this season because in its essence it evokes a sense of toughness, levity, and positivity that we all NEED right now. It has also been a great spark in dialogue about how people are being resilient in their own communities, how people will be resilient after the elections, and how art and community can help in those processes. We hope to create a container at our concerts for both action as well as release/relief from the constant batter of the daily grind, providing local nonprofit and outreach information that encourages direct involvement as well as singing songs that soothe.
What does the future look like for Rising Appalachia? What is the next step for you as a band as well as an active force for change in the community? Any new tours, music, collaborations on the horizon?
Chloe: We can only ever guess about the future, as planning it too tightly can constrict the spontaneity of growth. However, we are of course writing, learning new songs with teachers, planning action days and furthering our ideas of “The Slow Music Movement”, refining our voices and meditating what we want to be saying out there, collaborating with mentors, and generally keeping one foot at home and one eye out on the horizon… hoping to strike that perfect balance of pushing ourselves while remaining rooted. 2017 will put us abroad much more, which we are very very excited about after touring all over the States for the past few years. We hope to do some horse-tours as well as a Seed to Sail tour raising awareness about Permaculture. All sorts of good things coming… 😉
In conjunction with their show in SF on 11/26, the band will be hosting a very special Bay Area Permaculture Action Day on Sunday 11/27 with City of Dreams, a local non-profit dedicated to youth leadership for low-income residence. The Action Day will be held at the non-profit’s youth-run community garden at the Oakdale Community Center in San Francisco. The one-day festival will be an active family-friendly outing which will include a variety of hands-on permaculture projects, live-music and artistic activities as well as a garden fresh community pot-luck!
An Interview with Nicola Cruz
Nicola Cruz is an eclectic international producer born in France of South American descent. He has established himself as an underground icon of South America’s electronic music movement. By bridging local soundscapes from the mountains and jungles with deep latin flavored rhythms and bass heavy beats, Nicola Cruz is bringing the Andean soundscape to dance floors worldwide.
This summer Nicola performed at several popular West Coast musical festivals, including Beloved Festival in Oregon and Symbiosis Gathering in California. We were fortunate enough to meet with Nicola before his set at Symbiosis. We delved right into his thoughts on why the South American sound has caught our attention in the U.S. and abroad.
He thinks that the “American music scene has lots of different crowds but [he] feels the response has been nice. The American listeners always show [him] a lot of love at shows, which always feels good.” His music “lacks talking but emphasizes unique samples and rhythms from [his] South American roots,” which he believes is becoming more popular in the US.
Nicola Cruz’s music offers a beautiful balance of sounds, drawing from a verity of sources that reflect his passion for Andean culture and the landscapes, rituals and rhythms that raised him. His vibrant mix of organic samples and deep rhythms, topped with smooth seamless melodies creates a soundscape for listeners to simultaneously journey into and move the body through.
He feels that the sonic qualities of his music is not just deeply reflective of the world he comes from, but also a personal practice of self-expression. Thus his music is an example of his own personality, the greater identity of Andean culture and South America at large.
Ultimately, his sound and practice “came natural for [him] while living in Quito. Living there, you are really exposed to music from the mountains (Andes), the coast and the jungle. The mix of environments in Ecuador creates an interesting contrast of sub-cultures and through their soundscapes takes listeners on a whole trip from the jungle to the coast to the mountains.”
He explained, “I really like to take music from around the country that I find through parties I attend or on vinyl records as well as natural environments, etc. Whatever I can sample from really, At the same time however, I love to record live instruments to create more sounds that I compose organically.”
We wondered if any traditional Andean Music or indigenous instruments inspired his music, but he responded, “not really, only some percussion“. Furthermore, “for me, studying the folklore and folk music is kind of a new thing. When I say that I mean in last 5 years but still I find it to be a new addition in my production. “
The defining theme for us at Breaking Borders during our Symbiosis coverage was whether festival culture functions as a was to ‘break down borders,’ by bringing people together as one, regardless of cultural differences. His response was simply, “yeah, well, several years I’ve been playing festivals world-wide so that’s integration right there.” He symbolizes a new wave of artists who are breaking borders and defying cultural boxes and is the perfect example of an artist who does not fit into a single genre and is difficult to label.
He continued, “I’m known for playing everywhere from large disco clubs to smaller spaces that are more rustic and traditional, there are no limits.” This resonated with us and validated our understanding that the music of Nicola Cruz is an essential reflection of himself and his culture. A reflection which should be heard as personal musical expression, one that blurs genre lines, and returns the focus to the celebration of diversity without judgement of difference.
We were curious what the future holds for Nicola Cruz and if any new tours, projects or any collabs are on the horizon. He replied, “I will continue to be active internationally with shows coming up in Mexico, Brazil and then back to the U.S for New Years in Los Angeles.” Additionally, “there will also be new compositions since if I don’t have that, I don’t have anything. As for upcoming collaborations, they are secret right now but I can tell you that I am always working with others.”
As a final question, we asked Nicola if he recommended any global festivals in South America that are similar to Symbiosis. He told us that “Nomad festival in Chile is a good one coming up next year. It contains a strong global fusion element and is always looking to collaborate with people from around the world through volunteering, performance, etc.
I never expected to end up in Albania, but once I did, and tasted the delicious burek and coffee, met wonderful people and experienced the untapped beauty, I had a difficult time leaving.
Albania was under the tight grip of communism for nearly 50 years. Enver Hoxha ruled the country with an iron fist as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule Albania declared itself the first atheist state and destroyed many religious artifacts. Communist rule collapsed in 1991 and the country has been rapidly opened itself up to the world since.
Now it is a land of opportunity, just starting to crank it into high gear. You can sense an eagerness to embrace western culture. Unfortunately corruption runs rampant and the average salary is hovering around $300 a month. This does make the country cheap for travelers who can take advantage of the wealth of natural beauty and history. The best part is that you can do it without running into any other tourists. Lets go on a journey back to the days when coffee and tobacco ruled and family was the only law. Visit now before its too late.
The Rapidly Changing Culture of a Modern Myanmar
Bagan is home to Myanmar’s precious “Valley of a Thousand Temples”. It is a place quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen, a landscape that is both barren, and vibrant, and host to an ancient culture that is in the midst of modernization.
There are many questions left to be answered regarding this modernization, especially with regards to the new youth of Myanmar, many of whom are now working in the tourism industry, a business that didn’t exist when their parents were their age. Many Burmese people, both young and old, have acknowledged that as Myanmar opens itself up to the world, it is inevitable that change will happen. However, both have expressed sentiments that aim to preserve as much of their traditional culture as they can. As I walked around the plains of Bagan, meeting with locals and travelers alike, I asked myself, how will Myanmar look in 10 years? It was then, that I met a young Burmese girl, who introduced herself as Ma (younger sister in Burmese). She approached me, with a stack of foreign money in her hand, and asked me where I was from. I told her the United States, and she promptly spoke to me in English. Perfect English, not a word wrong, her accent was impeccable. She reminded me of a highly intelligent young girl in junior high. So what was she doing with a stack of money from all over the world?
“I can speak all of these languages” she told me.
“Every single one?” I looked at the stack, there were bills from all over the world. France, Brazil, England, Chile, China, everyone was accounted for.
I tried Spanish with her, she nailed it. French, again, perfect. Her Portuguese was good enough to get her a job in Rio. I couldn’t believe it. We walked for some time, and she told me how she learned so much.
“Tourists are my teachers” she said with a smile. Ma has been a tour guide for 5 years, literally starting as soon as the borders opened. In that time, she has worked all around Bagan, hiking from one temple to the next, with a bag full of postcards, and foreign currency. From sunrise to sunset, this has been her life. As the tourists come in larger and larger numbers, Ma has seen more and more business. So, how is this influx of global culture affecting young people like Ma?
In a recent study published by Routledge, a publishing company that specializes in providing academic books and journals regarding humanities and social sciences, researchers went to Bagan, and conducted interviews with locals, who described the three biggest changes that they had seen since the opening of the borders. People of all ages agreed on three major areas; the consumption of alcohol, the way thanaka (traditional make-up of the Burmese people) is worn and the perceived importance of marriage (Rich and Franck 334-44). Although, tourism in not alone to blame for these changes. Free access to the Internet has also helped foster a developing mindset in the minds of many young Burmese people, especially with regards to drinking alcohol, and relationships. According to the study, it is in conjunction with modern media formats that Burmese people have been exposed to and have assimilated new cultural identities.
There are undoubtedly benefits to tourism, and most locals do agree that those benefits are very important to providing new opportunities for the next generation. Many young men and women are now able to afford luxuries that their parents could not have thought possible at their age, and many more are able to attend schools now. Whatever future these changes hold in store for Myanmar, it is important to learn from the successes and failures of nearby destinations like Thailand and Cambodia. Will Bagan’s Valley of a Thousand Temples someday have backpacker ghettos lined up across it’s plains? Will the environment suffer the way it has in some parts of Thailand? These questions are left to the people of Myanmar to manage, and to hopefully, resolve. Either way, it is a fascinating time to be young in Bagan ;a time when the new generation is setting out to define itself, and decide what direction it wants this new Myanmar to go.
Rich, Anna-Katharina, and Anja K. Franck. “Tourism Development in Bagan, Myanmar: Perceptions of Its Influences upon Young Peoples’ Cultural Identity.” Tourism Planning & Development 13.3 (2015): 333-50. Print.
For anyone interested in reading more about Myanmar, here are some interesting books to check out:
The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Freedom from Fear, Kyi, Aung San Suu. London: Viking, 2009.