Henry Kaiser & Rome Yamilov – The Lenoir Investigation

Rome Yamilov & Henry Kaiser’s new release The Lenoir Investigation may well turn out to be the archetypal Little Village (LV) release, a beautiful mélange of brilliant, crosscultural playing grounded in a profound respect for musical tradition seasoned with a diabolically creative dash of whimsy, all of which comes out as gorgeous music.

Little Village is a nonprofit record company that seeks out music that might not otherwise be recorded, and one of their early discoveries was the extraordinary blues harmonica playing (accompanied by Hindi lyrics) of Aki Kumar. Kumar brought along a firstrate drummer, June Core, and an accomplished blues guitarist, Rome Yamilov, and before long the idea of a Rome Yamilov album emerged, which evolved into a duet with Henry Kaiser, a godfather of esoteric guitar. After all, Kaiser once used the South Pole—the pole mounted at our planet’s South geographic pole—as the slide to play some Antarctic blues.Rome turned out to be a kindred soul, Henry discovered, “amazing in his precociousness and the authenticity of his blues playing.” All of which is impressive since Rome was born in Russia, came to the San Jose area at the age of seven, was decently fluent in English after about a semester, and is even now still well south of the age of thirty.

Yet, Henry said with an impressed shake of his head, with only one exception Rome was comfortably knowledgeable with the vast span of musical references Henry has been digging up for the past fifty years, which included Henry’s next idea, which was to make a blues album—just not a conventional one—based on the music of J.B. Lenoir.

Lenoir (pronounced Len-nore) was born in Mississippi, played a bit in New Orleans, and in 1949 arrived in Chicago, where he recorded many singles and a few albums before he died far too young soon after a 1967 car accident. Although he played with George Wein’s
Folk Blues tours in Europe, J.B. mostly stayed in Chicago. This, coupled with his inclination for writing very serious political songs about the Korean war and civil rights, insured that neither the blues music world nor its audience gave him the attention he deserved. Henry and Rome had a perfect subject for their explorations.

They studied J.B., particularly his fine acoustic albums with Fred Below on drums, and gave themselves some ideas for genres to use in their improvisational approaches. The band for the recording—June Core (dr), Kid Andersen (bass), Jim Pugh (keys), and the two guitars, with Rome the primary vocalist—was so instantly telepathic that no rehearsal was needed and they hit the ground running; cutting all the songs in one or two takes.

The idea was to apply unusual musical genres to the improvisational sections of the songs. For instance, in “The Whale Has Swallowed Me,” they played ska, but with a dub section.” The dub section here is echoes and feedback that were not uncommon in old Jamaican dub material, but in this version, Henry notes, “Let’s hear the dub land on top of the ska live, with our guitar pedals, instead of the typical studio trickery.” In “Round and Round,” they managed to transition from Lisa Lueschner’s delightful and positive vocal to a groove taken from the obscure and difficult Malagasy dance style “BAOEJY,” which they also sang. “We had to have a funk piece, and there is very little funkier than New Orleans and the Meters,” said Rome, so “Feel So Good” came out as, in Henry’s words, “late period Meters.”
Given the variety of languages floating around, it wasn’t surprising when they began to emerge….in unusual ways. Musically, they transformed Lenoir’s “Play a Little While” into a Peruvian psychedelic cumbia. And then, “It’s our idea of having fun,” shrugged Kaiser, the lyrics became Norwegian. Give the bass player some, indeed—since it was his native tongue, Kid Andersen got the vocal. Their one non-J.B. song is “Rollercoaster,” by Bo Diddley: “It just wanted to be played,” said Rome. And then they sail into a Tuareg (a North African Saharan tribe)-influenced version of J.B.’s “Mojo Boogie.” Aki takes the lyrics here, which is why you hear his version of “I’ve been to New Orleans” as “I’ve been to old Bombay.” “God’s Word” begins, musically, somewhere near the planet of Funkadelic masterpiece “Maggotbrain,” which harp, piano, and dreamy vocals lead off into dreamland. “It’s the specifically spacey side of Funkadelic,” said Rome. “It came out completely natural.” “I’ll Die Trying” was to be in Hindi so that Aki would sing it. The lyrics weren’t ready when they recorded it, so for a “scratch vocal” Aki stuck to J.B.’s lyrics in English, and the results were so good that even the highly self-critical Aki liked them, and so they stayed.

Rome Yamilov
For a guy born in Russia and now hanging out with the unconventional Henry Kaiser, Rome Yamilov’s start in music was astonishingly normal-American. His parents turned him on to the Beatles, Dark Side of the Moon, and Santana. Rome picked up the guitar at ten and decided he wanted to be AC DC’s Angus Young. After more metal in high school, he heard In the Court of the Crimson King and shifted into progressive rock, which led him to bluegrass, John Fahey, and Chet Atkins. He even discovered J.B. Lenoir by taking a history of blues class in college—Lenoir was his teacher’s favorite. His brother fell in with Kid Andersen of Greaseland Studios (Little Village’s unofficial clubhouse) and Rome discovered San Jose’s local blues scene, which featured jams hosted by a harp player named Aki Kumar at Little Lou’s in Campbell and the Mojo Lounge in Fremont. Rome had been in and out of high school rock bands, but Kid’s scene was a great deal more serious. “It was the first time I ever saw really high-quality music being played in real time, and it blew me away.” The various house bands Aki assembled gave Rome his blues education, along with the special guests who dropped by, some of them major names from Chicago.

Henry Kaiser
Henry Kaiser attended a Captain Beefheart show on Halloween in 1971 while in college in the Boston area He bought a guitar the next day and spent the rest of the day “playing” along (mostly making sounds with a slide) to Live Dead, Captain Beefheart, an album with Malagasy music, and an album with Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Sharrock. Over the next few years, he would play live or in the studio with all of them…and many more. He’s appeared on more than 300 albums. Henry has visited Madagascar with David Lindley to record several award-winning albums, partnered with Wadada Leo Smith to honor Miles Davis, worked with Werner Herzog on four features, including the documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, for which Henry also received a producer’s Oscar nomination. He has been a scientific diver in the US Antarctic program for more than 20 years and his career interweaves music, film, and science work.