Good Music Defies Labels and Borders
A local producer is promoting musicians from Africa, with the help of Hudson Valley artists.
Music has long been a part of Chris Nolan’s life. One of the music producer and promoter’s earliest memories is crawling over the pedals of the organ his mother played at church. Now the Clermont resident promotes musicians, primarily from western Africa and specifically from northern Mali. His love of music has never been restricted by genres or borders.
“I listen to everything,” said Nolan, while wearing a t-shirt dedicated to kpop icon G-Dragon. “I always have. When I was in high school in the mid 60s I listened to music from around the world — Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar — classical music, and Sousa. My mother listened to Xavier Cugat in the 50s. There was always lots of music around me from a lot of different cultures.”
Promoting Mali’s music did not start until later in life. For a few decades he worked as an architect, planner and development consultant. It was his interest in economic development that led him to become a consultant to the Festival au Desert, which brought together musical performances from Mali’s various ethnic groups. Something about the country and the music spoke to him. A few years later he created Nolan & Associates Productions, LLC, to produce and promote music by the musicians he befriended.
Nolan currently promotes a half-dozen artists, some with a dedicated North American following, and others playing to smaller crowds. According to Nolan, the algorithm for defining musical genres tends to lump African music together, and that’s unfortunate, since it’s so diverse. Even Northern Mali is home to various styles.
“It’s a country with many many musicians, many many regional styles, many many groups. To even say “the music of Mali’ is not only an over-generalization, but you have to ask, the music of where? In the north there are three main cities that have their own culture, their own ethnicities, their own kind of musical expression and styles.”
He must occasionally correct misconceptions about what African music can be, as it can range from traditional Tuareg tribal chants to innovative rock riffs.
“Oumar Konate started to play rock and roll with a screaming guitar and they said, 'Wait a minute, this isn’t African music,' and I said, 'Wait a minute, look at his passport. This is African music.'”
In the past eight years, Nolan has organized more than a dozen tours through North America, Europe, and the Middle East, a complicated endeavor that involves booking dates, making travel plans, and meeting visa requirements. He usually also accompanies artists on tours. It’s a labor of love as, given the limited audience and considerable traveling expenses, such tours rarely make much money. Sometimes he even loses money.
“I’m the driver, the roadie, the guy who gets dinner and decides where we’re gonna stay,” said Nolan of his tour involvement.
Nolan has not only booked musicians to perform at Hudson Valley venues such as Kingston’s BSP and Hudson’s Half Moon, the albums he produced by Mali’s musicians have many local connections. Albums are mixed and mastered in Saugerties and covers are designed by a Kingston artist. Local musicians such as Susie Ibarra, Cindy Cashdollar, and Dan Littleton were eager to play on Mamadou Kelly’s recent album “Politiki.” Nolan has produced more than a dozen albums for his clients, a roster that includes Afro Rock innovator Oumar Konate, singer-guitarist Leila Gobi, calabash master Alpha “Hama” Sankare, as well as Al Bilali Soudan, Mohammad Issa and Imarhan Timbuktu.
In 2017 alone, Nolan’s company released Kelly’s “Politiki” album and “Oumar: Live in America,” with plans to further release “Ballebe” by Sankare and “Leila Gobi 2017” before the end of the year.
Nolan suggests that it’s important to expand your knowledge of all music by researching the conditions that inspire it. From Dylan to kpop, music worth listening to is always created in a context.
“Try to get out of your comfort zone and listen to new music for more than 30 seconds, then search for the context in which it exists. Music has context, even Justin Bieber. It has a socio-political context and who’s driving that?”
It’s also important to enjoy the diversity. There’s great music all over the world.