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The best kept secret in music


"Two Artists Follow Muses to Success in Argentina"

BUENOS AIRES, July 1, by Larry Rohter ' When the singer and songwriter Kevin Johansen moved
back here in 2000 after living for a decade in New York, all his Argentine
friends were aghast. "Why are you here?" he recalls them asking
incredulously. "Are you crazy?" True, it would be another year before the
economy here would collapse and five presidents would hold office during
two weeks of political chaos. But the warning signs were already
discernible, and Argentines were leaving the country in search of
opportunities abroad, not returning to settle down. "Talk about timing,"
Mr. Johansen, 39, says now. "But I needed a breather from New York, I am
married to an Argentine and I realized that I can write songs anywhere, so
I thought, `Let's try it and see what happens.' " Three years later Mr.
Johansen, an American, has a hit CD in Argentina called "Sur o No Sur." He
is being singled out by critics here for his inventive lyrics, and he has
just finished a successful national tour that culminated in a sold-out show
at a theater on what he calls "the Broadway of Buenos Aires." On Thursday
he is scheduled to perform a solo set at CB's 313 Gallery, at 313 Bowery,
at Bleecker Street, next to CBGB in the East Village, and then he is to
join his band, the Nada, later this month to tour in Spain. To his utter
surprise that CD's most popular track is a quirky pop ballad in English,
"Down With My Baby," which he describes as "Barry White and Leonard Cohen
meet Nirvana." Chosen as the love theme for "Resistiré," or "I Will
Resist," a popular prime-time soap opera here, his song is played
constantly on the radio and in nightclubs, and when he played it at his
recent Buenos Aires show, audience members sang along. Mr. Johansen is not
the only American enjoying artistic success here after having cast his lot
with this country in crisis. A highly praised novel published in Argentina
recently is "Flores de un Solo Día," or "Flowers of a Single Day," by Anna
Kazumi Stahl, a Louisiana native, also 39, who first arrived here 15 years
ago not speaking a word of Spanish, and now, like Mr. Johansen, writes in
that language. Even more curious is that though Mr. Johansen and Ms. Stahl
do not know each other, their work addresses many of the same issues. Both,
as might be expected of émigrés working in a country and a language not
initially their own, are fascinated by what Ms. Stahl describes as "the
experience and sensation of national identity and belonging." "Flores de un
Solo Día" is the story of Aimée Levrier, who owns a flower shop here, and
her mother, a Japanese-born ikebana artist who is mute. Their orderly,
settled life is thrown into confusion when Aimée is notified of an
inheritance, which forces her to go to New Orleans to confront the
carefully hidden secrets of her family's dark, tangled past. Writing in La
Razón, a national newspaper, the critic Luis de la Peña said that Ms. Stahl
"shows herself to be an extraordinary narrator in Spanish." The novelist
and critic Ricardo Piglia compared her to Vladimir Nabokov, commending her
for having achieved "the feat of being transparent and mysterious" and
showing a "mastery of the poetics of estrangement." Ms. Stahl teaches
American and world literature for a joint program with Lincoln University
College and Gen. San Martín National University here and has worked as a
translator. "I guess that what I'm trying to talk about more than anything
else is the question of the components of identity and how we end up
putting them together," she said. "I'm interested in the stories of people
who choose to leave and install themselves somewhere else ' how you do
that, why you do it and whether you can do it." Mr. Johansen, born in
Alaska to an American father and an Argentine mother, addresses those same
issues directly in the title track of "Sur o no Sur," a pun derived from
Hamlet's soliloquy that Mr. Johansen translates as "To South or not to
South." As a violin plays mournfully in the background, he sings of
displacement and longing: I leave because I can't make it here I come back
because there is no hope I leave because here they take advantage of me I
come back because there they throw me out I'd like to stay here at home But
I no longer know what that is. Mr. Johansen's parents divorced before he
was in grade school, and he lived with his mother, a literature teacher, in
San Francisco in the early 1970's. But he spent his teenage years here with
his mother during the brutal military dictatorship, and after high school
he played in a series of rock 'n' roll bands before leaving for the United
States "to reconnect with my North American roots." During the decade he
spent in New York, Mr. Johansen worked as a movie video salesman, a
bartender and waiter, a bilingual tour guide at the United Nations and as a
doorman at a Manhattan tango club. Like many musicians before him, he also
found a home at CBGB. Ms. Stahl's background is equally complicated, though
without family ties to Argentina. Born in Shreveport, La., she grew up in
New Orleans, where she spoke Japanese at home with her mother, an immigrant
from Japan, and English with her father, an architect of German descent,
while always "feeling slightly outside the loop" as she and her brothers
shuttled from Roman Catholic school to ikebana classes to the high school
track team. "I never felt like the United States was 100 percent my home,"
she said. She came here in 1988 to research a graduate school thesis about
writers in exile. Urged by a Spanish-language instructor to write short
stories in that language, she ended up winning second place in a student
competition here and was spotted by a publishing house literary evaluator.
That led to "Catástrofes Naturales," her collection of short stories
published in 1997. Critics have traditionally argued that Spanish, more so
than English, lends itself to a florid vocabulary and to ornate sentences.
But Ms. Stahl said she finds it to be exactly the opposite: "Perhaps
because I am a Southern writer" in English, she said, she is more direct
and disciplined and less flamboyant, "cautious, with short sentences," when
she switches to Spanish. "Like any good Southerner, I get attached to the
words and all the resonances and so everything gets a little bit
embroidered," she said. Writing in Spanish, on the other hand, "took
everything away from me except primary colors," she explained, adding,
"It's not that I was necessarily working on a smaller canvas than in
English, but I was working with fewer elements, and therefore every stroke
had to be a stroke that counted." "Flowers of a Single Day," her first
novel, was nominated for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, one the most
prestigious for Spanish-language literature, and is to be published in Ms.
Stahl's English translation by Harcourt next year. Mr. Johansen, in
contrast, considers himself truly bilingual and writes lyrics in English
and Spanish, sometimes bouncing from one language to the other in the same
song and tossing off puns as if they were party favors. But he finds it
difficult to explain how he decides to pair a song with a language.
"Usually a melody or a line of a lyric will come," he said, "but beyond
that I really don't know how it happens. I always say that some day I'd
like to learn a foreign language, like French or Portuguese, because the
two languages, English and Spanish, are really just one for me." Musically,
Mr. Johansen also likes to mix genres, describing himself with tongue in
cheek as a musical "degenreate." He has released two albums since returning
here, and both are world music, with individual songs that mix Spanish
flamenco with Colombian cumbia or Dominican bachata with Argentine milonga,
but which also contain traces of tango, American folk music and even
reggae. Despite the severity of Argentina's national crisis, Mr. Johansen
and Ms. Stahl say they intend to stay on. Mr. Johansen says he has enough
songs written to make another record, and Ms. Stahl has begun a second
novel, also set here, with a character who is a translator working with
Japanese material. "I didn't come down for material or economic reasons, so
my project is more alive than it was before," she said. "My experience of
this place is that there is always flux, and as a writer that is inspiring
and energizing."

- New York Times

"Kevin Johansen: Rock Star with Bilingual Twist"

Oct. 16, 2003- by Brian Byrnes -- This week, singer-songwriter Kevin Johansen and his band The Nada will begin their first big tour of the United States. They'll be hitting cities
like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco and others.

The tour is a homecoming of sorts for Johansen. Born in Alaska, Johansen
has spent nearly half his life living in Argentina, his mother's native
country. His multicultural background informs his music, which features a
mix of English and Spanish lyrics and encompasses an eclectic range of
styles: salsa, samba, rock, rap, reggae, cumbia, country, hip-hop, tango.

As Brian Byrnes reports, in the past year, Johansen's quirky and catchy
bilingual songs have caught on with Argentine audiences, transforming him
into one of the country's hottest musicians. "Down with My Baby," the song
that catapulted him to stardom, is a slow-burning single, sung entirely in
English, that Johansen describes as "Barry White meets Nirvana." The song
has dominated local radio and was even adopted as the unofficial anthem
for one of Argentina's most provocative nighttime soap operas.

Johansen is now turning his attention to Spain, Mexico and the United
States. Sony Music has licensed his most recent album, Sur o No Sur. Johansen's promotional tour of the United States will include a red-carpet performance at the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America in Miami.

Johansen admits he's not certain if he'll be able to duplicate the success
he's had in Argentina. But he says he's grateful that evolving technology
and shifting demographic interests in the music industry have given him
the chance to try.

"To be able to record and publish your stuff from any point in the world
right now, thanks to the terrible word 'globalization'. It also gives you
the opportunity to kind of develop a project from wherever you are, and
that was a great lesson," Johansen says.

"Continental Post-Folk: Kevin Johansen"

By Carlos Schroder - Kevin Johansen, as you can probably guess from his name, is an Argentine, born in Alaska. Through bouncy, whimsical and mixtured music that go all the way from cumbias and huaynos to hip-hop and bossa nova and a wide variety of accents – from the “Anglotourist” trying to speak some Spanish to the new arrivals into the English language concocting a vocabulary of their own – “The Nada” has established Johansen as the new cult-postmodern-folk-musician of his generation. This hybridity means that everybody will get some and will lose some while keeping time with their feet as they listen to Johansen’s music. For Johansen, “mixture is the future” but it is also the home he inhabits.
From its title, “The Nada” puts the listener in a place of confusion and ambiguity. Depending on the listener’s linguistic proficiency, “The Nada” could signify “Nothing” – if his expertise lays with English – or “You’re welcome” – if the listener’s ear is fluent in Spanish. Of course, there is also the possibility of staying with Johansen, at the borderline of languages and allusion, in which case the title of the CD will signify both things at once and alternatively. This location is not without problems, because it invites not only recognition but also alienation. Johansen’s choice of mixing language is not a calculated decision in order to reach a more diverse audience. Rather, he allows his audience to experience how he has been crossed over both by culture and language.
Two songs in "The Nada” epitomize the underlying tension in the narrative voice. “Guacamole” appears to be a listing of different “typical” foods, but a closer examination shows us that the list is neither typical nor merely a digestive track. Some of the food listings are incongruous, some inedible and some linguistic puns that are available only to an audience with enough practice at crossing borders or establishing themselves within that borderline territory.
The other song is “Campo Argentino” where the same – but are they really the same? – lines are repeated three times, in Spanish, English and French. The lines – “What do you want?” and “I don’t know” – are equivalent in the three languages, but not identical. It adds to the confusion that they are then repeated backwards changing not only direction, but also meaning. And again, these meanings vary depending on the linguistic expertise of the listener. The song is all there, but not all there is, is contained within the song. As he listens, the listener chooses the path to a specific – divergent – understanding of the lyrics. To help matters, “Campo Argentino” uses a very traditional argentine folk form: “malambo.” However, as with the lyrics, this malambo is hybridized by country music and French chansons.
Johansen’s second CD “Sur o no Sur” released in 2002, is a further exploration of the same issues of linguistic and cultural dis-placement and re-placement. It’s title is a homophonic take on the Spanish translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s most famous line: “To be or not to be” = “Ser o no ser” but in this case “South or not South” which is more than just a gentle reminder of the dilemma facing many Argentines, that of emigrating in search of a “better” life. Johansen suggests that there are no clear-cut options, that both staying and going imply displacement and that belonging to one place is much more – and less – than a geographical accident limited by language and a common history.
“Sur o no Sur” deepens Johansen’s work with both language and musical forms, creating hybrids of his own, as is the case of “Puerto Madero,” a wry observation of the tourists visiting Buenos Aires; the title song of the album, defined as “popklore” or “Down with my baby” that Johansen describes as “Barry White meets Nirvana.”
It does, after all make sense that Johansen is so concerned with (musical) language. Son to a US father and an Argentine mother he spent most of his childhood traveling around the States and his adolescence between Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was half of a folk-pop band “Instrucción Cívica” with Axel Krygier until, on turning twenty-five he returned to the U.S. and established himself in New York for about ten years. Then he returned to Buenos Aires with the master copy of his first solo CD “The Nada” which he recorded at CBGB in 2001.
The issue of musical location Johansen presents to his listeners is not a heavy burden. On the contrary, Johansen’s music is intelligent, humorous, and sensitive – a delight to ears, feet and brains and a warm refuge at a time of loud barkings by the dogs of war.
- Not available


Sur o no Sur - 2002 - Sony Discos
The Nada - 2001 - Los Años Luz


Feeling a bit camera shy


Kevin was born in Alaska (yes, in Fairbanks), but was raised in Argentina as of age 12. Of Argentine mom and American dad, Kevin made a brief appearance in the local rock scene with the band Instrucción Cívica ("Obediencia Debida", recorded in 1985, achieved gold record status in Peru!). On October 12, 1990 he set out to “rediscover” the North America of his childhood. He says “New York is not the United States” which is probably why he lived there for almost ten years. Soon after his arrival he was discovered by Hilly Krystol, owner of legendary CBGB’s, who invited him to participate in his future record company. During the 90’s he recorded and played there as a “house band” every Saturday, and played also at the Knitting Factory and the Mercury Lounge, among others.
In 2000, Kevin went back to Argentina –where he currently lives- right on time to witness the country´s economic and social disaster. He refers to this weird decision with humor: “When I first came to this country in 1976, the old ladies at the bakery store would ask me “where do you like it best, here or there?” I would answer “I like it here best”, and everyone was happy. Now, the question’s changed: “what the h... are you doing here?!”
“The Nada” is the name of Kevin´s first album. It was recorded in New York but release first in Argentina by independent label Los Años Luz, and later in Spain by K Industrias. “The Nada” toys not only with Kevin´s two main languages (Spanish and English) but with various rhythms and elements of the Americas, from cumbia to milonga and son cubano, handled with a ‘quasi’ pop sound. “Mixture is the Future” is the album’s mantra. He calls to blend in ('mestizarse') in the near future and to mesh with strange accents and colors. The album fascinates immediately due to Johansen's personality. He is not a musician that you can make quick and easy comparisons with.
Two years later, Kevin recorded “Sur o no Sur”, released again by Los Años Luz in Argentina and by Sony Music internationally. His second album confirms him as an unique composer, going further in his eclectic style. “Sur o no Sur” has the charme of permanent surprise: Cumbias flamencas, Celtic Sambarera, Hip pop, Hyndu Blues are some of the names that Kevin uses to define the genre of his songs. “I´m a degenreate” states Kevin, and we all welcome his lack of musical prejudice.
During 2003, Kevin became a big success in Argentina, playing in June at the Gran Rex theatre, the largest in Buenos Aires. He also toured in Spain and USA.
By the end of that year and the beginning of 2004, Sur o no Sur was released in USA, Mexico, Chile and Spain.
On July 2004 Kevin was nominated for the Latin Grammys Awards, in three of the main categories: Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Video.

Funny, profound, intelligent, reflexive, Kevin is one of those rare cases of a singer with fans from 4 to 99 years old. And also one of the few truly bilingual artists, switching from English to Spanish in an organic and natural way. Music that is worth to be discovered, listened to and enjoyed. You sure won´t get disappointed!