Jean-Luc Ponty, Master of Electric Violin

Posted December 23rd, 2012 at 5:18 am (UTC+0)

By Diaa Bekheet

I love the sound of traditional, classic violins.  I’m essentially talking about the age-old classical music, and some of my favorites like, Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate, Beethoven Romance, Paganini Violin concerto, Brahms violin concerto, and anything by Vivaldi.

Jean-Luc Ponty (Photo by Stuart Brinin 2009)

Jean-Luc Ponty (Photo by Stuart Brinin 2009)

But when I produced and presented Jazz Club USA show for the former VOA Arabic, I loved the new violin sound, the electric sound. It was the first time I gave it a real attention.

My show in 1996 (mp3) was about electric violin pioneer, French composer and bandleader Jean-Luc Ponty, one of the jazz-rock fusion fathers.


A few days ago, I had a chance to talk with Ponty. He told me that playing electric violin was necessary for him, and it was also a reason to move to California in the 1970s.


“It was just a necessity for me to have more volume, and to be able to play with a drummer who would play with the same energy as they do when they play with a sax player or a trumpet player.” Ponty introduced a way to amplify violin sound, which attracted the attention of pop and rock musicians, like Elton John, Frank Zapa, and others.

Although his father taught him traditional violin, Ponty found himself much better in an electric one. He found great encouragements from iconic musicians like classic jazz artist Stéphane Grappelli, the world-class French jazz violinist who founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, one of the first all-string jazz bands.

Ponty admired Grappelli’s talents, but he says he couldn’t find anything to draw from Grapelli’s style and violin techniques.  “He said it himself, you know, because there’s a confusion that sometimes people thought I was his student. Then he said, no he [Ponty] was not the student but he did something new for the violin.”

Jean-Luc Ponty (Sochi Winter Arts Festival)

Jean-Luc Ponty (Sochi Winter Arts Festival)

(mp3) Ponty, at the time, wanted to create violin adaptations of what trumpet and saxophone players from the modern jazz era [in America] were doing.

It was Grappelli who encouraged Jean-Luc to show his hidden talent. “When he heard me, when he discovered my playing – I was 20, or 21 years old – he advised me to go out in jazz because you have something special, and that was very important at the time that someone of his caliber would encourage me to dedicate my life to jazz ..”

The classic violin has its distinctive sound, but the electric version is great, too, but it provides different sounds as you can hear it in “No Absolute Time” by French virtuoso violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who is described as the “undisputed master of violin in the arena of jazz and rock.”

Ponty was born on September 29, 1942 in Avranches, France to a father who taught violin and a mother who taught piano. He studied music in France and at the age of 18, graduated from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris with the highest award, Premier Prix. Given his superior achievements and excellent grades, he was immediately hired by Concerts Lamoureux, one of the major symphony orchestras in France.

Ponty has released 49 albums and collaborated on hundreds of recordings.

In September 2009, he performed as a guest star of the Chick Corea – Stanley Clarke – Lenny White Trio along with Chaka Khan for a special evening at the Hollywood Bowl.  Stevie Wonder showed up for a surprise jam session at the end.

The circumstances that introduced me to Jean-Luc Pony were a bit strange. It was 8:00 a.m. on April 16, 1986, the day after the U.S. bombed targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya. At the time, I was inside a tall building in downtown Cairo where I worked for the West German Press Agency, DPA. I received a call from the BBC host of “The World Today” asking for comments on “Operation El Dorado Canyon,”  the U.S. airstrike campaign against Libya. The strike was launched in response to Gadhafi’s alleged role in the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing.

Le Voyage: The Jean-Luc Ponty Anthology

Le Voyage: The Jean-Luc Ponty Anthology

I was tuning in to Libya’s radio stations to monitor the situation, so I could speak knowledgeably about the Libyan position and reaction. But while dialing, I heard a violinist playing on one of the stations.  The music was great, and the artist was Jean-Luc Ponty. The song was: “Mirage” from Le Voyage: The Jean-Luc Ponty Anthology.

That was my first exposure to Ponty.  During our recent chat, Jean-Luc and I talked briefly about the U.S., France, and my friends in Paris, and the weather there. He said he missed sunny California.

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site,

Some holiday music you may have missed….

Posted December 19th, 2012 at 9:26 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

If you stick to mainstream media, you might believe that Taylor Swift or Mariah Carey are the only ones singing holiday songs. But that’s not true—in fact, there were a couple of very cool seasonal releases  that I want to make sure you know about. Because if you don’t hear about ’em from me, odds are you’re going to miss them this time around.

The first is  “The Edie Adams Christmas Album, featuring Ernie Kovacs. ”  If either of those names aren’t familiar to you, do yourself a favor and click on those links. Right now. I’ll wait.

Edie Adams in a nutshell: she could do it all. I’m not kidding. Adams, who graduated from the famed Julliard School as a trained singer, was also an actress and comedian whose career included working in nightclubs and films  and on stage and television.  Married to Ernie Kovacs, a groundbreaking comedy star of the early years of US television, the songs on this album were all recorded in the early to mid 1950’s for a television program of his called “Kovacs Unlimited.” I spoke with Ms. Adams’ son, Josh Mills,  who said that between Thanksgiving and Christmas she sang a holiday song every day on this program.  The video for most of these these shows was lost decades ago, but Edie Adams had the forethought to hire a company to record her songs so that she could have a record of herself singing them. Just as a personal keepsake.  Now, 60 years later, they’ve been released and it’s a big deal to those of us who love the ‘Golden Age” of American entertainment. There’s just not that much “new old stuff” out there.

In case you’re wondering what US television looked like back in the “old days,” here’s a glimpse. Edie Adams performing “Christmas in Killarney” on another Ernie Kovacs television show in 1955. This is not the same recording as is featured on The Edie Adams Christmas Album, but the song is on that disc, too.

Bela Fleck & The Flecktone’s wonderful “Jingle All The Way” has been out for a few years now, but it’s one I pulled out and featured on my holiday edition of Roots and Branches.  As you might expect, the group breathes new life into classics including “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “What Child Is This” and “The 12 Days of Christmas.” This fan shot video gives you a pretty good idea of what you would have experienced had you seen a Flecktones Christmas show. You’ve probably heard this song played a million times before, but check out the twist on this new version:  each day is in a different key…and a different time signature.

By the way, every year some smarty pants sits down and calculates the costs of each of the gifts given in the 12 days of Christmas. This year the grand total is $107,300 US.

And while we’re on the subject of banjos, earlier this year we lost Earl Scruggs, perhaps the most influential banjo picker of all time. He was known to pick a Christmas tune, or two—like this tasty version of “Jingle Bells.” And since you may not recognize the other guys playing with him, I’ll help you out—from left to right it’s: Randy Scruggs (guitar), Sam Bush (mandolin), Phil Leadbetter (dobro), Earl Scruggs (banjo), Ricky Skaggs (mandolin), and Gary Scruggs (bass). Excellent pickers, all of them.

Do you have a favorite “out of the mainstream” holiday tune?  If so, please share it with us in the comments.  And happy holidays from all of us on the Music Beat.

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

The Most Musical Time of the Year

Posted December 18th, 2012 at 1:19 pm (UTC+0)
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by Doug Levine

It’s holiday time and that means music is in the air, everywhere.  There’s holiday music on the radio and television, in concerts, supermarkets, restaurants, department stores, floating from invisible speakers at malls, on front lawns, and even in the waiting room at my dentist’s office.

It’s beginning to look (and sound) a lot like Christmas. (Creative Commons)

Walking into a convenience store last week I was greeted by “Jingle Bell Rock,” the original Bobby Helms’ version.  And I can’t remember a year that’s gone by without Jose Feliciano wishing everyone “Feliz Navidad.”  This year is no exception.  I was filling my car with gas and I thought I heard “Feliz Navidad” coming out of the gas tank.  Nope, just a video monitor sandwiched in between the pumps.

It seems as if Christmas tunes arrive earlier and earlier every year, but I’m not complaining.  No matter how many times Grandma gets run over by a reindeer or Alvin pleads for a hoola hoop, they never get old for me.  Too bad though for these famous “snow” songs – “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow” – because with temperatures in Washington hovering in the tepid range, it’s beginning to look a lot more like Labor Day than Christmas.

Songwriters Edward Pola and George Wyle struck a chord when they wrote one of the season’s best-known classics, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  Judging by the lyrics, Edward and George must have celebrated the holidays like there was no tomorrow: “With those holiday greetings and great happy meetings, parties for hosting and marshmallows for roasting.”  Talk about capturing the spirit of the season: “And hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near.”  You can see why Christmas songs like this never go out of style.

A perennial favorite is Andy Williams’ version of “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” made bittersweet with Andy’s passing in September.  He recorded it in 1963, and while many renditions followed, the holidays just wouldn’t be the same for me without hearing him croon, “When friends come to call, it’s the hap-happiest season of all.”

So, here’s wishing you good cheer and happy listening this holiday season!

Brubeck’s Take Five with Eastern-Western Instruments

Posted December 13th, 2012 at 3:52 pm (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet

I remember the first time I listened to Dave Brubeck‘s Take Five. It was1986 when a friend invited me to her birthday at a Cairo club. The minute I walked in, the recording of Dave Brubeck’s piano prompted me to whistle and move my body to the tune.


Just a few months after its release in 1959, Take Five became the best-selling jazz single of all time.  It was written by saxophone player Paul Desmond, who was a member of Brubeck’s quartet.

Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova

Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova

When Brubeck died last week, on December 5, just one day before his 92nd birthday, Take Five was the most played piece of music all over the news worldwide. In the Middle East the song was frequently requested by listeners there.

Recently, a Pakistani Muslim Orchestra used Western and Eastern instruments to play Take Five as a tribute to Dave Brubeck.

Sachal Studios Lahore performed Take Five “in memory of Dave Brubeck, an ambassador of peace, a great jazz musician and composer.”

The song is part of the orchestra’s album, Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova, which blends jazz standards, bossa nova, and indo-Pakistan music.

Last month I was scheduled to interview Dave Brubeck, but he couldn’t do it because of his scheduled medical tests. I talked with his producer, manager and arranger, Russell Gloyd, who told me that even in the month before he died, Brubeck “does practice almost every day, and it’s amazing to hear him practice because I’m hearing tunes I’ve never heard in my life.”  So Dave Brubeck –this jazz legend and international icon — was composing right to the end. (mp3 here)


Dave Brubeck has died but his music will live for years and years to come.

The music of Dave Brubeck:


Indo-Pakistan music:

Rez Abbasi’s Jazz & Qawwali Music Mix

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site,

Ravi Shankar, Music Ambassador to the World

Posted December 12th, 2012 at 9:41 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who became a worldwide musical icon through his work with the Beatles and introduced traditional Indian music to millions in the Western world over an eight decade career and was labeled the “Godfather of world music” by no less than George Harrison died December 12th at the age of 92. If you’ve never seen him play, here he is on Dick Cavett’s US television program. (And yes, that’s George Harrison sitting next to Cavett at the start of the clip!)

The Indian Prime Minister’s office has confirmed Shankar’s death and called him a “national treasure.”

I prefer to think of him as an “international treasure.” What do I mean by that? Well, I think he’s a big part of why my ipod contains songs that mix strains of classical Indian ragas with American pop, jazz with bluegrass, and all the other strains of musical gumbo that we now take for granted.

While  Ravi Shankar was popular in India before he started collaborating with Western artists, it was his relationship with George Harrison and the Beatles that brought him to worldwide attention the 1960s. It all started when George Harrison became fascinated with the sitar, an instrument with a long neck and a gourd for a body–it kind of looks like a giant lute.  George played the instrument with western tuning on the Beatles song “Norweigan Wood, ” but soon asked Shankar to teach him how to play it correctly. And proving that you can find anything on Youtube, here’s a clip of one of their lessons!

Shankar’s popularity skyrocketed after George Harrison got involved and soon he was playing in concerts with some of the top rock bands and at festivals like Monterey Pop and Woodstock.  Everyone wanted to collaborate with him, and soon Indian music began touching more and more other genres.  Who else was influenced by Ravi Shankar?   Violinist Yehudi Menuhin recorded three albums with him. Sax player John Coltrane not only collaborated with him, he named a son after Shankar.  And composer Philip Glass, who recounted their first meeting in a 2001 New York Times article, recorded 1990’s “Passages”  with the sitar  master.

And that’s just a little explanation of why I’m remembering Ravi Shankar as an “international treasure.” I bet you have your own thoughts (and maybe even a favorite clip or two?)  —please share them with us!

And to find out more about Ravi Shankar and hear my radio radio story, click here!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Two Rivers Mixing Jazz with Traditional Arabic Music

Posted December 7th, 2012 at 2:48 am (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet

Two Rivers by Amir Elsaffar

Two Rivers by Amir Elsaffar

I grew up in Egypt listening to traditional Arabic and Western music. Every Thursday, my family would watch “Kawkab El-Sharq” the Diva of Arabic music, Umm Kulthoum, on television, singing great poems by prominent Egyptian poets like Ahmed Shawqi, Hafez Ibrahim, Ibrahim Nagi, Ahmed Rami, and others.

Western pop was also very popular – songs by Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, the Bee Gees – but Jazz, which was popular in the 1940s, was not really making any impact on the new generations.  That didn’t happn until the 1990s, when  some musicians, like  Yahia Khalil and Fathy Salama, started to mix Arabic classical music with American jazz. Both Salam and Khalil studied jazz here in the United States.

Last week, I was pleased to see that the Middle East jazz scene visited the U.S.  An Arab-America jazz sextet called Two Rivers appeared here in Washington at the Historic Lincoln Theatre.  They celebrated “Turaath [Heritage]” of Arab Culture in America.  The event showcases Arab art, dance, and music.


The Sextet has made innovative strides in using Arab music’s maqam modal system to transform the jazz idiom to create a sound distinct from other contemporary cross-cultural musical fusions. The music, which is deeply rooted in musical forms of Iraq and nearby regions, still speaks the language of swing, improvisation and group interaction.

Two Rivers began in 2006, when Iraqi-American trumpeter, santur player, vocalist, and composer Amir ElSaffar composed his Two Rivers, a suite of compositions combining elements of the Iraqi Maqam tradition with Jazz. The music received much acclaim, and called it “as impressive a debut as we’ve had in America in the 21st century.”

I had a chance to talk with ElSaffar (mp3) who said he was commissioned by the Painted Bride Art Center, in Philadelphia, to compose a piece that combined the maqam and jazz.


Elsaffar said, “It was first a very daunting task. I was almost resistant to it because both are very distinctive traditions. But during the process of listening and trying to find a way to make them work I found some points in common between the two traditions. And at a certain level,” he concluded,“it actually made a perfect sense, and when I composed the first piece for the Two Rivers Suite it just came very natural the way that the pieces blended into each other.”

According to his official biography, ElSaffar continued to extend his compositional palette, creating a microtonal harmonic and melodic language that combines the pitch-flexibility of Middle Eastern music with jazz harmony. He composed another work, Inana, which has further expanded the sonic possibilities of jazz. The 2011 release of Inana received 4.5 stars from Allmusic and Downbeat, and was named #1 Jazz Album of 2011 in Time Out Chicago.

So far, Elsaffar and his group have released four albums: Maqams of Baghdad (2006), Two Rivers (2006), Radif Suite (2009), and Inana (2011).

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site,

Keys, Please

Posted December 5th, 2012 at 7:19 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

In my last blog entry, I wrote about  electric guitars…specifically, the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. I had so much fun learning about these perennial favorites that I’d like to look at some other  building blocks of modern pop music.

Today I’m looking at the electric piano and the Hammond organ. While the Strat and Les Paul continue to be popular today, these two instruments occupy more specialized niches. Synthesizers and rhythm machines dominate the current pop scene…you hear them everywhere in rap and dance songs. Synthesizers aren’t exactly electric keyboards, but they are frequently controlled from a keyboard. More traditional keyboards, both acoustic and electric, still appear  in country, gospel, and R & B…and there are still plenty of roots-oriented rock acts using them. A driving piano sound has been at the heart of good-time music since the days before rock and roll existed. Electric pianos have been around since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late ’50s that they became popular on record. In 1959, Ray Charles enjoyed a huge hit with “What’d I Say,” featuring the then-novel sound of an electric Wurlitzer piano.

Rhodes MkII73  (credit: Creative Commons, Wikimedia)


One of the best-known electric pianos arose from World War 2. In 1942, Harold Rhodes invented a small acoustic piano for soldiers convalescing in hospital beds. He founded his own company in 1946, and in 1959 entered a joint venture with guitar maker Leo Fender. The partnership lasted six years, after which the CBS company bought Fender. The resulting instrument, popularly known as the Fender Rhodes electric piano, is a staple of classic rock. Capable of producing sounds ranging from tinkling bells to raging distortion, it’s heard in many of the era’s greatest songs: “Riders On The Storm” by The Doors; “Get Back” by The Beatles; “You’re My Best Friend” by Queen – the list goes on and on.




By 1991, synthesizers dominated the keyboard market, and the Rhodes piano ceased production. Five years ago, a re-formed Rhodes Music Corporation introduced a reproduction of the original electric piano, called the Rhodes Mark 7, and even today, acts such as Radiohead continue to use electric pianos to achieve that special sound.


(B.B. King Museum, AP Photo/Matthew S. Gunby, File)

Organs have been associated with religious music for hundreds of years, and indeed, the Hammond organ began life in the 1930s as a low-cost alternative to church pipe organs. As a boy in the 1960s, I recall my father playing a Hammond chord organ in our house, and I even noodled around on it myself. Around that time, however, it assumed a much more prominent role in rock and jazz. Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band is one of the great organists of our era, and his keyboard work on their records has passed into rock lore. Psychedelic bands such as early Pink Floyd used the organ to make eerie and other-worldly sounds, and the instrument went on to become a staple of the progressive era of the 1970s. Rock virtuosi such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman forged their reputation on lightning-fast keyboard runs.



As with the electric piano, the organ plays a reduced role in the digital age, with the last electromechanical model rolling off the assembly line in the mid-1970s.

Today, the Suzuki company manufactures electronic Hammond organs closely replicating that classic sound through modern digital technology. The hardware may have changed, but the groove remains.



Farewell to a Penguin

Posted December 3rd, 2012 at 3:22 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

Does the name Cleve Duncan ring a bell?  What if I preface it by saying “founding member of the ‘50’s vocal quartet The Penguins” Cleve Duncan?

Cleve Duncan, second from left. (Mercury Records)

Ok, so he wasn’t a household name, but Duncan, who died November 7 at age 77, sang lead on one of the most beloved doo-wop songs of all time, “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine).”

The soulful ballad was recorded in 1954 and went on to sell millions of copies worldwide.  It enjoyed a second life 31 years later when it was featured in the film “Back To The Future.”

Doo-wop music was a little before my time, but growing up with two older brothers who were Top 40 radio addicts, strains of a cappella harmonies, along with my dad’s jazz albums, bounced off the walls.  So you might say I had no choice but I’m sure glad I became a fan.  Anyway, I first heard “Earth Angel” years after it broke through the Top 10 on Billboard’s pop chart.  It’s one of those tunes you just can’t get out of your head.  To this day, my favorite part is their harmonizing on the word you at the close, “a fool in love with you.”

The original Penguins consisted of Cleve Duncan, Curtis Williams, Bruce Tate and Dexter Tisby, who were still teenagers when they formed the group in 1953.  In no time, they hopped on the era’s so-called “bird” group bandwagon – which included The Orioles, The Cardinals, The Flamingos and The Ravens – naming themselves after a penguin famously pictured on a cigarette package.  Under the watchful eye of music publisher Dootise Williams, owner of Dootone Records, The Penguins recorded two singles, “Hey Senorita” and “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine),” during the summer of 1954.  “Hey Senorita” was released as the lead single, also known as the “A-side,” but disc jockeys gave more airplay to “Earth Angel,” and it ended up becoming a runaway hit.  The song became even more famous when the Canadian vocal group The Crew Cuts released their version in 1955.

As for Cleve Duncan, he re-formed The Penguins and remained lead tenor after their breakup in 1962.  They were the pride of oldies shows from coast to coast, but none rivaled their performance of “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” on the 1999 television special Doo Wop 50, seen here with an introduction by the great Jerry Butler.

Jason Mraz Makes History

Posted November 30th, 2012 at 3:02 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

Jason Mraz has already made music history by winning two Grammy awards for his music, now the singer-songwriter is about to make world history!

On December 16th, the 35-year-old singer will headline a free outdoor concert in People’s Square in Rangoon, Burma. The show will be at the base of the 2500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda, considered to be one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the country.

Jason is the first international artist to perform an open-air concert in the country since the end of military rule there. And he’s believed to be just the second international act to play there in decades —the last such concert was Ozomatli’s 2009 U.S. State Department sponsored show in 2009.

Jason’s performance is part of an event hosted by MTV Exit, the music television channel’s initiative to raise awareness about human trafficking and exploitation. Several local bands will also be performing at the concert,  which will be broadcast on  national television. In addition to the music, the free event will include speakers who work to fight human trafficking in Burma.  The concert will also be broadcast on MTV’s international network sometime in 2013.

Last year, Jason hosted a similar event in the Philippines. In a recent interview with Associated Press, he said he first became interested in the issue of human trafficking after attending the Freedom Awards. Put on each year by the organization Free the Slaves, these awards honor those working against human exploitation.   According to MTV Exit, “there are more than 20 million people living in slavery around the world with Myanmar and Southeast Asia particularly affected. The concert forms part of a wider initiative that seeks to educate and train youth through innovative television programming, digital content, capacity building workshops and community-based events. ”

In the Associated Press interview, Jason Mraz said “I’m going there with an enormous amount of gratitude and respect, and I hope we can actually make a difference.”
I was lucky enough to visit Burma recently on a personal holiday. I had a great time as a tourist in that beautiful country and met so many kind and wonderful people. It was a very happy time for me and I hope to return one day.  As you might expect, I  came back with a ton of photos. Here are two of my favorites taken around the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Lovers Holiday with Jason Paul Curtis

Posted November 29th, 2012 at 8:42 pm (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet


Lovers Holiday by Jason Paul Curtis

Recently I had the chance to talk with American singer, composer and songwriter Jason Paul Curtis who has just released his debut album.

It’s a holiday album right on time for the holiday season in the United States. I don’t remember many other artists whose debut album is a holiday collection but Jason told me about some of the background.

“This is an album that I have been putting together since, probably, January,  It’s not necessary a Christmas album, but it’s one with the intent that you can listen to it before Christmas, after Christmas, throughout the whole year,” he added.

 Jason’s new album, Lovers Holiday, is a mix of originals and classics.  He wrote five of the 12 tracks including this title song.


In our interview, Jason told me that the title cut on “Lovers Holiday” is essentially about a couple who have children. Jason and his wife have three children and he explained, “You are providing Christmas for your children, but you’re also trying to get back together as a couple to spark some romance.  So the song is about…sitting back after the kids are asleep and the guests have left, the party’s over…and now it’s time for us to have a glass of wine.”

On the new album, the talented jazz vocalist is backed by his Swinglab trio on some tracks and also accompanied by Swing Machine, an 18-piece big band, on other tracks.  Jason says that he was influenced by the voices of Nat King Cole, the Manhattan Transfer, and Harry Connick, Jr.

Another song, “Blue Friday,” is about a young man dragged along to his partner’s foray into the maddening crowds of a Black Friday department store sale, which is the day after Thanksgiving in the United States.


Jason Paul Curtis was born and raised in Texas. He pursued theater, film and opera in Houston, performing several productions with the Alley Theater, the Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals and the Houston Grand Opera Chorus.  But Jason told me he switched to Jazz because he felt he could communicate better with people in a way…that he couldn’t produce in any other genre.

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site,



VOA’s music bloggers bring you info about all kinds of music. Katherine Cole will keep you up-to-date on the world of Bluegrass and Americana music while Ray McDonald rocks the Pop charts and artists. Diaa Bekheet  jams with you on Jazz.  Visit us often. Your comments are welcome.



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