June 2012

Universal Language

If Los Angeles is a musical feast, then Tom Schnabel and Jordan Peimer are its maître d’s  by STEVE HOCHMAN / photographs by ANDREW MACPHERSON

A cool February night in 1983 stands as a turning point for both Tom Schnabel and Jordan Peimer. That was when King Sunny Adé, monarch of the slinkily electric Nigerian music style known as juju, made his Los Angeles debut at the Hollywood Palladium. It was a night of eye- and ear-popping vibrance, as a mix of Africans in colorful traditional clothes and Americans entranced with the cultural grooves danced, while others joyously paraded onstage with the dozen-plus musicians for the “spray”—the ritual of plastering paper currency on the musicians’ sweaty foreheads in tribute.

“I was there,” says L.A. native Schnabel. “We all were there,” adds Peimer from across the table.

Schnabel winks. He helped present the show, an outgrowth of his job at the time as music director of KCRW-FM (89.9). And it, in turn, helped solidify his status as one of Southern California’s ambassadors for global music, key in introducing international titans Adé, Fela Kuti and Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to local music fans. For New York–born Peimer, enrolled in law school and fairly new to L.A., the concert ignited a passion for that very kind of musical experience.

Three decades later, Schnabel remains one of world music’s biggest cheerleaders and preeminent authorities. The writer of two books on the topic, he has taught classes, has served as adviser for world music at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall and currently hosts a Sunday-afternoon show on KCRW. Peimer is vice president and director of programs at the Skirball Cultural Center, hosting a wide range of roots and world music, including its beloved Sunset Concert Series, now entering its 16th summer.

Before that Adé concert, world music here was largely limited to small clubs, if the artists came at all, or to audiences drawn from specific cultures—including L.A.’s large Persian, Russian, Armenian and Southeast Asian populations. Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel had been exploring African inspirations, but it was three years before Paul Simon’s Graceland really brought it to the mainstream. But on that one night at the Palladium, the genre crossed cultures and generations to find a home in the hearts of Angelenos craving new musical vistas.

Today, L.A. is arguably the top world-music market in the country. The Skirball, Bowl, Disney Concert Hall, UCLA’s Royce Hall, the Getty, Santa Monica Pier, Conga Room, California Plaza and Levitt Pavilions are just some venues hosting a wealth of performances, often free.

We met with Schnabel and Peimer at the Skirball, in a conference room overlooking the whizzing 405, and a lively discussion ensued about their passion for global music and the excitement and challenges of showcasing it in Southern California.

We don’t want to rehash the whole issue of how to define world music, but in the context of Los Angeles, what does it mean, and specifically, what is your mission?
TOM SCHNABEL: I think the shows have to reflect the different cultures we have in Los Angeles. There are something like 200 or 300 languages spoken here. Some of the programs you don’t even hear about—[a venue] rental by a private promoter in Long Beach or somewhere, and suddenly you find out that [Indian singer] Asha Bhosle did a show, and no one knew about it! For me, it’s not just about the culture of the artist but about celebrating cultures and bringing them to new audiences here in L.A.
JORDAN PEIMER: There was an Asha Bhosle show in Long Beach I didn’t hear about?
SCHNABEL: Yes, a few years ago. But if you don’t read the Indian newspapers or watch Channel 18 on Saturdays from 11 to noon...
PEIMER: I think—and correct me, Tom—world music in Los Angeles is identified as two specific things. It’s Latin music and, mostly, African music. But that’s not all that’s out there. For us—and I know for Grand Performances—African music, well, I don’t want to say it’s a no-brainer, but it’s a popular sell.
SCHNABEL: African shows are really fun. They’re not just sit down and listen. And one thing I love about the Skirball is there might be an 80-year-old next to you tapping his or her toe, and all the kids are usually dancing up front, which is wonderful. It isn’t a formal atmosphere.
PEIMER: With the Hollywood Bowl shows, they’re doing progressive alternative artists performing on bills with the world-music artists who have influenced them. And it has led to some really interesting combinations that at first might seem like strawberries and flounders.

They’re trying to draw people from different communities to the same shows.
PEIMER: Well, it does educate people—there’s no question about that. And some of our responsibility is to grow those audiences.
SCHNABEL: The Bowl has a Filipino show this summer. Eventually, I think they’ll try to do a big Chinese event.

The Filipino show has the advantage of apl.de.ap from the Black Eyed Peas—he was born in the Philippines—helping put it together and being on the bill. Could you pull off something like that without a big name involved?
PEIMER: Well, in this city I do think you could.

Could you succeed at bringing in people who are not from the Filipino community?
SCHNABEL: That might be a little more difficult.
PEIMER: Right, but L.A. is one of the most Filipino cities in the world. So I think there is a built-in audience.

But is the goal to fill up the Hollywood Bowl or to bring in a diverse mix, including to a large extent those who would never be exposed to this music?
PEIMER: Well, our goal at the Skirball is certainly the second—introduce people to new forms. One thing we try never to do is just talk to ourselves, because I think that [would be] really easy to do.

Outside of the specific cultural communities, there actually seems to be a world-music community—people you see at any show of this nature, no matter where the music originates. Who are they?
SCHNABEL: I think they’re open-minded people...not going in to hear a particular hit song they’ve heard 100 times.
PEIMER: They tend to be risk takers. I think they’re educated and curious. We probably have a third of the people at each show who are somehow connected to a specific culture and a third who are somehow connected to the Skirball in some way—they’re the real regulars. And then there are the third who just love world music.

A lot seem to be from the ’60s generation—the old hippies.
PEIMER: There are also a lot who date further than that, people really into folk music. I can’t tell you how many we’ve had who were introduced to folk via Theodore Bikel [when] we did an event with him. [And] I don’t expect people are going to have any clue who the Alaev Family are—maybe some of the Russian community or some of the Persians because of the similarities between Tajik and Farsi. But I think the Skirball can generally count on a pretty full house when it comes to just the fact that it’s a free concert here during the summer.

If the King Sunny Adé show in 1983 was transformational for the world-music market in L.A., what was your personal transformational moment?
PEIMER: I was at the University of Pennsylvania. I basically had one course to take the second semester of my senior year, and I worked in a record store. I think Talking Heads’ Remain in Light had come out, and [the world rhythms–based Brian Eno–David Byrne collaboration] My Life in the Bush of Ghosts came out that semester. I was a constant clubgoer. Every club in Philadelphia was my second home. But there was something that was so uplifting about the combination of those two albums. I distinctly remember sitting under my loft bed, headphones blaring, reading Ulysses—probably the most pretentious thing a college student could do. I just got swept away.
SCHNABEL: I was born and raised in L.A. When I was 16, I went to Wallach’s Music City and bought John Coltrane’s Impressions. I had taken the family phonograph into my bedroom, shut the door and put on “India.” It was like being on drugs, this powerful effect on my mind, my spirit. At that point, I was a music nut. I spent all my money—what little I had—on records. Then I lived in Paris in the ’70s. I’d stay up late, and there was a Berber [indigenous people of North Africa] radio station. I never knew what anything was because I didn’t understand Kabyle. [But] oh my God, it was amazing!

So, what doesn’t work for the market in this city?
SCHNABEL: I think L.A. has limited interest in European music. There’s a certain interest in Celtic music, but it’s relatively narrow—Boys of the Lough and Chieftains oriented. And there really is so much more.
PEIMER: There’s so much music from Romania and Hungary—Rom or Gypsy, some call it. I think that’s really exciting. I’m [also] fascinated by the Finns and Norwegians. And you don’t see a lot of new tango in L.A., which kind of surprises me.
SCHNABEL: I think a lot of the Latin dancers—the salsa scene—are interested in tango.
PEIMER: But when I think of all the new electronic tango—other than Gotan Project and Bajofondo—I wonder why it’s not here. And I cannot seem to get an audience for Asian music—Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, although that Vietnamese jazz musician, what’s his name—
SCHNABEL: Nguyên Lê.
PEIMER: Yeah, he did okay. But it was more from the jazz side.
SCHNABEL: He was here? I’m mad over that stuff!

Have you had any “failures”?
PEIMER: We had Parno Graszt a couple of years ago—they’re a Gypsy group.
SCHNABEL: I don’t know them.
PEIMER: Oh, you need to know them—absolutely amazing artists from Hungary. We had hundreds of people, but I thought we should have had twice as many. I’d bring them back in a heartbeat.

STEVE HOCHMAN is one of the foremost authorities on world music—and the world of music. He has written for the Los Angeles Times and other publications for nearly 30 years.

STYLING: Brandon Palas
GROOMING: Carola Gonzalez / The Magnet Agency