From the banlieues of Paris to the townships of Cape Town, young rappers have found a voice through hip hop, freestyling over beats inflected by their own rhythmic traditions. But no foreign hip hop artist has created a sound as poetic and personal as Ana Tijoux, the French-born Chilean rapper who gained international prominence with her 2009 album 1977 (which was released in the US by Nacional Records in 2010).
Tijoux, who performs Tuesday at San Francisco’s Brick & Mortar Music Hall and Wednesday at La Peña in Berkeley, has lived mostly in Santiago for the past two decades. She sees hip hop as an ideal form of expression that fits neatly with folkloric Chilean music.
“For me it represents a style of music where you’ve got a lot of leeway,” Tijoux said in a recent phone conversation from Santiago. “You can write a lot in one piece. In a pop song lyrics aren’t so extensive. Now that I’m older and I’ve lived in Chile, we have a lot of décimas made from the folklore from the campos. They tell a story, rhyming with the guitar. We’re a country with a lot of people rhyming in a very natural way.”
Born in her breakthrough album’s titular year to parents who had fled Pinochet’s brutal military regime, Tijoux moved to Chile in 1993 during the transition back to democratic rule. Within a few years she was at the center of Chile’s vibrant underground music scene, rapping in French and Spanish with influential indie bands like Los Tetas and the pioneering Latin American hip hop combo Makiza.
Also a gifted singer/songwriter with a love of funk, she spent several years focusing on developing a body of original songs. Her first album under her own name, 2007’s “Koas,” featured her lushly produced pop tunes. The project earned her Latino MTV Video Music Awards nominations for Best New Artist and Best Urban Artist, while her collaboration with Mexican singer/songwriter Julieta Venegas, “Eres Para Mi,” was nominated for Song of the Year.
Instead of pursuing the beckoning pop pathway, she returned to her hip hop roots with “1977,” an album marked by her melodic, rhythmically supple rapping and revelatory lyrics. Probing and introspective, she explores the complex skein of emotions evoked by her return to a homeland from which her parents had been exiled. Which isn’t to say her music is Lilith Fair sensitive. Viscerally dynamic, her hit “1977” entered mainstream American pop culture when the AMC show “Breaking Bad” set a fourth season montage to it.
Tijoux’s singular point of view may stem from her position on the margins, and her facility with language was attained through intensive work. “First of all I had to integrate Spanish in my own language, but also begin to dream in Spanish,” she said. “Any travel from north to south or south to north is intense,” Tijoux said. “I was coming from the north, trying to understand the culture of Chile and the consequence of the dictatorship.”
For her West Coast dates Tijoux is traveling with a stripped down band featuring a drummer and guitarist. She was determined to perform at La Peña, an institution founded by Chilean exiles that holds a special place amongst the generations of artists touched by the dictatorship’s long shadow.
“It’s a very historical place,” Tijoux says. “Berkeley was very open to Chileans, and it’s very important for me to be there and be present.”
Last year French singer-songwriter Marianne Aya Omac played to a SRO house at Ashkenaz, an enviable reception at least partly due to her announced special guest, Joan Baez. She returns to the venue on Friday with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell on accordion, mandolin, fiddle and banjo and percussionist Gabriel Harris (whose mother, Baez, is once again making a guest appearance). It was listening to Baez’s albums that first inspired Omac to play guitar and write songs as a child in Montpellier. Influenced by Latin American and Roma music, she spent years busking on the streets of France, followed by a stint leading gospel choirs. These days she’s focusing on her original songs, with a little help from some high-profile friends.
Featuring former Kitka singer Juliana Graffagna on vocals and percussion, Dan Auvil on percussion and vocals, Tom Farris on laouto, guitar, and accordion, Brass Menazeri’s Peter Jaques on clarinet, ney and vocals, and Berkeley string wizard Gari Hegedus on violin, oud, saz and mandocello, the sextet Janam weaves together a dizzying array of traditions from Appalachia and Asia Minor to Eastern Europe and the Maghreb. It’s swirling, hard-driving music that always seems to end up in unexpected places. They play the Starry Plough tonight, Nov. 15.
Veteran jazz writer Paul de Barros, a longtime contributor to Down Beat magazine and an essential chronicler of the Seattle jazz scene, reads from “Shall We Play That One Together” (St. Martin’s Press), his new biography of beloved pianist and “Piano Jazz” public radio host Marian McPartland at the Jazzschool on Sunday afternoon. A detailed look at her remarkable 94 years (and counting), the book is a vivid account of an epic life, from her early career in vaudeville and her fateful meeting with Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland in Belgium, where he arrived after participating in D-Day and she was touring with the USO.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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