Text by Jim Hoey
On November 16, 2009, musicians, family, friends, and fans of the late Robert Palmer gathered at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC to celebrate the music writer’s legacy. Robert Palmer (not to be confused with Robert Palmer of “Simply Irresistible” fame) was one of the first rock music critics for The New York Times, author of Deep Blues (an examination of the roots of the blues), and an accomplished flute, clarinet and sax player who could sit in with The Rolling Stones, Ornette Coleman, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka.
This night was a celebration of his legacy and also marked the release of Blues and Chaos, Palmer’s collected writings, and The Hand of Fatima, a film documentary by Palmer’s daughter examining his life, their relationship, and his obsession with the music of the Moroccan Master Musicians of Jajouka. The night was also a benefit for the musicians of Jajouka, and all proceeds went to their cause.
For this celebration, with so much that they were trying to accomplish, the organizers did a great job of mixing a short screening of the documentary, which opened the night, with readings from Palmer’s writings, and live performances from musicians who shared Palmer’s energy and spirit.
Starting it all off was the screening of The Hand of Fatima, the documentary by Augusta Palmer, which examines the path of her father’s life, which led him to abandon her and her mother soon after she was born for a life of music writing, drug addiction, and failed marriages.
This film is her way of coming to terms with and accepting the choices of her father’s life, and in it we see first-hand the very hotels and halls and streets in Morocco where Palmer spent short trips in the 70s chasing the spirits of this music. It also connects the dots between the first expatriates to be drawn in by the mysticism of Jajouka, like William Burroughs, Brion Gysin (creator of the cut-up method), and Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky), and the later ones who brought it back and put it on the cultural radar in the west. These later travelers included Palmer, Ornette Coleman, and, most famously, Brian Jones, whose Pipes of Pan album was the first real taste of the music of Jajouka available in the west. In addition to old footage, pictures, interviews with ex-wives, and surprisingly fresh animation, this film shows Augusta Palmer visiting Jajouka, searching, and walking, literally, in her father’s footsteps.
After this screening, the live portion of the night began, each act reflecting and in some way connecting to the spirits that Palmer chased. Eric Andersen, the folk artist and former opening act for Dylan, traveled from Amsterdam to read Palmer’s liner notes for a Junior Kimbrough album and to play with Lenny Kaye, guitarist for Patti Smith. They were accompanied by violinist Joyce Andersen and demonstrated the deep folk tradition that is still kept alive by some in NYC.
Ladell McLin and his blues band grooved and funked out, with Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi on saxophone, recalling Andersen’s reading from Palmer’s book about the jukejoints that he used to visit to check out Junior Kimbrough.
The Kropotkins took the stage en masse later, with a southern gothic spin on the blues, like out of a Harry Crews story. Garnette Cadogan, with his breezy, island accent, read an engaging passage from Palmer about Ornette Coleman and his contributions in looking into “the Void”. Ned Sublette (whose last book The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans was released in 2009) performed and told stories about race and music and outrage over Katrina, finishing with a great original called “Between Piety and Desire” (about the streets, jazz, and blues of New Orleans). Sublette also, eloquently, and in his most distinctive southern drawl, made the connection between Palmer’s examination of the blues and roots music of America and the research of noted African-American Yale scholar Robert Farris Thompson. According to Sublette, Thompson, or Master T as they called him, “passed the baton” to Palmer and endorsed the research that he did, acknowledging its relevance to the cultural landscape of today.
Alex Obert, a member of The Scam (a Memphis band Palmer joined in the late 1980s), performed solo on bass, bowing, plucking, and singing along to himself. This act was one that really took the crowd by surprise as Obert displayed a type of virtuosity and singing ability that is rare to see among upright bass players.
John Kruth and TriBeCaStan also added to the exotic flavor of the night, bringing oriental rhythms on mandolin. Kruth mentioned that he met Palmer when he was 15, but noted his influence and that “…every time I used to write, Bob seemed to light the way on the Lost Highway for me, like a flare”.
THE TEHRAN-DAKAR BROTHERS (with Swiss Chris on drums, Derek Nievergelt on bass and special guest John Kruth on an ancient Egyptian clarinet, a low d penny whistle and a Gibson mandocello from the early 1900’s), featuring Saadat on sax again, raised the energy level with fast-paced, Middle Eastern-inspired, nu-world trash jazz and spoken-word vocals, dedicating the first of their three songs (“Welcome New Iran”) to the Green Movement for the Independence of Iran. Saadat, one of the only other Muslims playing on this bill, recognized the musicians of Jajouka as his “brothers in the battle of staying alive and fighting against the speed of time”, a struggle which he believes Palmer would have fully supported if he were alive today. His second song, entitled “Ja-Jou-Ka”, was performed and dedicated specifically to Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians.
Then, in true East meets West fashion, Bachir Attar of the Master Musicians of Jajouka (on pipe) joined Lenny Kaye (guitar) for a noisy dervish meets gutter punk improvisation. This short meeting in sound bridged decades of musical development between two legends of the US and Morocco.
Writer Vivien Goldman gave an impassioned reading of Palmer’s writing on Bob Marley. Writer Anthony DeCurtis, the editor of Blues & Chaos, graciously served as the second emcee for the evening, alongside Augusta Palmer, and added his own memories of being Palmer’s editor at Rolling Stone to the evening. The evening closed with a performance/lesson in feedback by Robert Poss, the guitarist from Band of Susans, who recalled how Palmer and John Peel were the first to champion his music back in the day.
Robert Palmer’s band The Insect Trust