Thursday, July 5, 2007

Mike Seeger, the younger half-brother of folk legend Pete, takes his old-time music seriously.

For decades the multi-instrumentalist has been researching, documenting, recording, playing and discussing traditional sounds from the rural American South — sounds that became the bedrock of bluegrass.

It’s a life’s work that he refers to as his “mission.”

His call to duty came at a young age, growing up in a household where music wasn’t just a diverting form of entertainment but a staple of daily life. His parents were esteemed musicians Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and when they weren’t working on their own compositions or contributing to the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song (later renamed the Archive of Folk Culture), they were sharing melodies with their progeny.

Their lessons clearly struck a chord with the younger generation of Seegers — particularly Mike, Pete and Peggy, who each made a lasting impact on folk music and, in their own way, the world.

Pete, the activist artist who co-authored songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” is the best-known in the bunch, but his little brother harbors no resentment.

“There’s perhaps been a little bit of competitive feeling,” Mike Seeger says. “But I recognize the difference in what we do and how we relate to an audience and what we want to do with the music. It’s never been a problem for me because what Pete has done has been so magnificent and so important.”

For his own part, Mike has been instrumental in reviving interest in traditional music, through documentary recordings and work he’s done both solo and with the New Lost City Ramblers, which he helped found in 1958.

He’s attempted over the years to not only preserve the music he loves so much, but to clear up misconceptions about it. For instance, he says, “Most people don’t understand that Southern music was created both by working class blacks and whites … and that it was a rich and varied tradition.”

A sample set list for one of his headlining shows illustrates this diversity. Drawing mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it might include an Anglo/black-American cowboy song, a tune about the plight of American Indians, a Cajun waltz, a Mississippi Delta blues ditty and a ragtime number.

On Sunday at the Birchmere (, he’ll showcase his skills as part of the Old Time Banjo Festival, hosted by Grammy-winners Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer and set to commence at 7:30 p.m.

The banjo Mr. Seeger has been using for the last 30 years is no standard-issue instrument; it was built by “a very fine craftsman” and “based on a design from over 100 years ago,” he says.

Authenticity is important to him.

Ultimately, though, the future matters as much as the past. He wants this music to stick around for a long while, and at present, he’s feeling very optimistic.

Jenny Mayo

A street beyond reggaeton

Calle 13’s lead rapper-Rene Perez (aka Residente) and keyboardist-programmer and half-brother Eduardo Cabra (called Visitante) have given the burgeoning reggaeton genre a much-needed shot in the arm, winning the best urban artist award at last fall’s Latin Grammy ceremony.

Some have suggested that reggaeton (a popular urban mix of hip-hop, Latin beats, reggae and rap) was becoming stale, with predictable artists monotonously rapping about hooking up, getting paid, sex and food.

But why stray from a winning formula?

Because Calle 13 — so named because while growing up, Residente would often visit Mr. Perez on 13th Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s middle class Alto Trujillo neighborhood — never considered itself a reggaeton band.

“We don’t have a particular genre to call our own, but we’re definitely not a reggaeton band,” Residente says in Spanish during a phone chat from Puerto Rico. “This is not hip-hop. We’re rock, because that allows us to do what we want to do in our very own style.”

Residente holds a master’s degree in fine arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, while Visitante has a bachelor’s degree in accounting. In contrast to the bling-happy norm for reggaeton stars, Neither wears gold medallions, with Residente usually comfortable in a white wife-beater and jeans, and Visitante in a beret and funky indie rock shirts.

Their musical idols include Whitesnake, Poison, Ruben Blades, Eminem and one of Puerto Rico’s original reggaeton stars, Tego Calderon. The varied influences help explain Calle 13’s genre-busting inventiveness, which includes, for example, a clarinet solo in their breakout smash hit “Atrevete-te-te” — which dares intellectual girls to “come out of the closet” and “go hyper,” let loose.

They also mix in rock, electronica, cumbia and rap with lyrics that are funny, political, even scandalous. “La Jirafa” uses heavy percussion in the group’s search for the “one,” while the sarcastic and overtly sexual “Se Vale To” uses ‘80s-style synthesizers.

The group’s newest hit, “Tango del Pescado,” adds tango accordions to reggaeton beats, with a swaggering Residente rapping to a bride-to-be: “I’m coming straight from hell/Your daddy is more square than a notebook and he can’t comprehend my modern language.”

Although not the devil himself, Residente does have a mischievous smile and a cocksure stage presence. He calls this song, “progressive tango — a super cool mix, a theme we really loved.”

Calle 13 performs Wednesday at the 9:30 Club ( Doors at 7:30 p.m.

Alfredo Flores

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