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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

June 2017: THE BEST I CAN DO

I'm getting ready for a tour right now, so I'm pretty busy and don't have much to say about what I'm listening to, but I do have some observations about one artist, and something else for anyone who's feeling thirsty as the weather warms up.


ESMA: Chaje Shukarije


Esma Redžepova, known as the Queen of the Gypsies, died last year in the place she was born: Skopje, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. She left a legacy of countless recordings, concerts, film appearances, humanitarian activism (especially on behalf of the Roma people), a music school, a Museum of Music, and no less than 47 foster children. She sang mostly in Romani and Macedonian, but also in Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, and even Hindi (which makes some kind of sense, since, as I was surprised to learn only a few years ago, the ancient roots of the Roma are not in Europe but in India).


In other words, she was a pretty special woman, but what's still really special is her voice and the way she uses it. Needless to say, I can't understand a word of the lyrics, but who cares, that voice is nothing short of astonishing. Her technique is just over-the-top crazy; I can't even imagine how she does some of the things she does. For instance – speaking as a 'sort-of singer' working with a limited 'instrument' - I consciously avoid using vibrato, since I'm not very comfortable with it, or good at it. But Esma uses several different kinds of controlled vibrato, or none, or different kinds on different notes. She ornaments notes and slides between notes and sings patterns that are 'in the cracks', things that no one could notate on paper. Then there's that gypsy thing, that raw, intense sound, like a guitarist playing through a fuzz box, as though she has laryngitis but it actually makes her sound better. (I wish I knew how to do that). It's as though she can deliberately almost lose her voice altogether, just blow out her voice like this is the last thing she'll ever sing - and then just carry on. This is not any kind of 'Western' singing that I know how to explain, but I love it.


Chaje Shukarije (the song) is Esma's 'greatest hit'; it was featured in the movie Borat, without her permission (she sued for a million dollars, since she wasn't too pleased with the film's depiction of gypsies). On the album she's backed by some fantastic musicians, including Frank London of the New York-based klezmer band The Klezmatics – otherwise I assume they're Macedonian or at any rate, Balkan. They do all kinds of mad Balkan things like rocking out in 5/8 and 7/4 time. (I saw a live video of this band, and the drummer was wearing a fez. I mean, how cool is that?!)


Esma has been known to experiment, though, by doing things like adding synthesizers, which has apparently gotten her booed by some audiences. This kind of thing infuriates me. Are these the same people who booed Dylan for 'going electric'? Where have they been hiding? Wait a minute, they're always with us.


I'm reminded of Sussan Deyhim, an Iranian singer I've worked with. Vocally, she sounds nothing like Esma, though like Esma she draws on some fascinating non-Western techniques (I swear she can produce a note while inhaling as well as exhaling). And Sussan told me that she sometimes has a problem with the European 'World Music' scene, because they don't want her to experiment or be eclectic, they want her to sound Iranian – or their idea of Iranian; in other words, 'exotic'. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be much distance between being 'respectful' and 'multicultural', and being patronizing. Free-associating for a minute, I remember when Bob Marley's Kaya was released: I thought (and still think) it was a great album. It showed some unexpectedly sophisticated, melodic, and romantic sides of Marley's talent. And the UK music press trashed it. Marley's 'gone 'soft'! Where's the angry political protest? Where are the strident Rastafarian anthems? Give me a break. White pop critics slagging Bob Marley for not being black enough. Where do they get the nerve?


Anyway, you may or may not be interested in a gypsy singer from Macedonia, but that's all the W.I.L.T. I've got in me this month, so here's another cocktail recipe. I get asked for them more than I ever get asked to write about music, so what the hell.




It's shockingly easy to get a bad margarita. I was served an atrocious one in one of the top hotels in Mexico City. Some places turn them into ridiculous slushy icy things, more like a sorbet than a cocktail. Others skimp on the ingredients by using a combination of generic 'Sour Mix' and Rose's Lime Juice, which somehow manages to taste both too sweet and too sour at the same time. Even good bartenders will often use too much lime juice, add some unnecessary ingredient, or find some other clever way to mess it up.


Like the vodka martini, the margarita is the kind of 'mainstream' cocktail that trendy new 'craft cocktail' bars tend to sneer at. But a good margarita with Mexican food is a wonderful thing. I experimented for a long time before coming up with this recipe, for which you'll need:


3 parts Tequila

2 parts Cointreau

1½ parts freshly-squeezed lime juice

Half of the white of a large egg

Coarsely-ground salt


(As a 'part' I use a full shot glass, which is a bit more than an ounce, but you can make them ounces or anything you like. It's the proportions that matter).


First things first: use a decent, that is to say 100% pure agave, tequila. If it's pure agave, it will say so on the label. Cheap ones (mixtos) are 'made with real agave', but they also contain grain alcohol, caramel, artificial colouring, and God knows what; they can taste OK when you add the other ingredients, but drink more than one or two and you'll probably end up with a thumping headache. (Note that this category includes the ubiquitous Cuervo Gold, but note also that Cuervo make a couple of pretty good puros, too).


Tequila can't take much aging, and in a margarita most people use a young blanco (white) aka plata (silver) tequila, though I occasionally use a Reposada, which is aged a bit and makes for a more mellow drink. Don't use a longer-aged Añejo tequila, though, or any really expensive one intended to be sipped straight up. There are quite a few good mid-priced puro brands: try Espolon, Cazadores, Milagro, Corazón, Hornitos, El Jimador, Corralejo, Lunazul, Gran Centenario, or Olmeca Altos.


Some people are surprised at the thought of using more Cointreau than lime juice, but for my taste, the sourness of lime juice goes a long way, and needs to be balanced by a bit more of the sweet element than you might think.


Other people (especially Americans) are horrified at the thought of adding egg to a drink, but a fresh egg can't hurt you in any way, and egg white does nothing to the flavor of the drink; it just gives it a frothier, creamier texture.


If possible, serve in a glass that's been chilled in the freezer. It can be almost any kind of glass. In Mexico I've seen margaritas served in martini glasses, Old-Fashioned glasses, highball glasses, and simple tumblers. I do like the salt rim, though. Pour or grind a thin layer of salt onto a plate, and rub the juicy end of a half of one of your limes around the outer edge of the glass, right below the rim. Harried bartenders will simply up-end the glass and stick it in the salt, but it's better to hold the glass at a low angle - with the base of the glass just an inch or so above the plate - and carefully roll it so the salt sticks to the outside of the glass rather than right on the top of the rim. It's not a big difference, but you should get more salt on your lower lip and less falling into your drink.


Now shake, vigorously, for about 20 seconds without ice. This is known in the trade as a 'dry shake', and it blends and energizes the ingredients better than shaking with ice, and without diluting the drink. Then, add ice and shake again, just to chill – this time, for 10 seconds at the most. Strain into the glass.


Some people (especially Americans) might prefer their margarita 'on the rocks', in which case you can just just pour it out, ice and all, instead of straining. I think this is unnecessary and just dilutes the drink more, but what do I know . . . the American idea of a glass of Coke is a monumental pillar of ice with a bit of Coke splashed over it. (Not that I'm anti-American. After all, they invented cocktails).