Music man Jonathan Kertzer lands key role at U of A

Jonathan Kertzer sighs to think of the mountain of unpacking he has to do. He just moved here from Seattle, and when you've spent a long career in music it's no small thing to relocate your life. On the flip side, he's very enthusiastic about his new job as director of the University of Alberta's Folkways Alive! office.

01 August 2011

Written by Roger Levesque
Originally published in the Edmonton Journal August 1, 2011

EDMONTON - Jonathan Kertzer sighs to think of the mountain of unpacking he has to do. He just moved here from Seattle, and when you've spent a long career in music it's no small thing to relocate your life.

On the flip side, he's very enthusiastic about his new job as director of the University of Alberta's Folkways Alive! office. Speaking with him, you come to understand that he carries one set of moving experiences with him wherever he goes - his fascination for all sorts of music.

"I've loved all kinds of music for a long time," Kertzer admits. "I saw The Beatles at (New York's) Shea Stadium when I was little, and I used to travel to different parts of the world with my father (a writer and rabbi) when I was a kid. As a teenager, I just fell in love with the blues and different kinds of traditional music."

Apart from his work as an ethnomusicologist and educator, Kertzer has worn the hats of radio host, festival programmer and concert promoter, recording producer, digital media pioneer and more. Recently, he even started his own small recording label. It makes perfect sense that such a valuable walking resource was picked to head up another unique resource like Folkways Alive!

Kertzer is excited about where the possibilities may take him once he has a chance to settle into both the city and his new job.

"I like a lot of what's happened here already, but I'm looking forward to building on that, and to doing some bigger and better things. I really want to work with community groups and other partners, too."

While he can't be too specific at this point, those possibilities might include producing compilations for the Folkways label out of Edmonton and co-sponsoring concerts. He's also hoping to do something here to mark the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth in 2012.

The University of Alberta arts faculty established a special Folkways archive back in 1985 when former U of A professor Michael Asch donated a complete collection of some 2,000 Folkways recordings to the institution. Asch is the son of Moses Asch, the late founder of the legendary Folkways Records label. Established in New York in 1948, it has been hugely important in preserving music, spoken word and other environmental sounds from around the world.

The Folkways Alive! office now operates in tandem with the university's Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology. Kertzer, a friend of Michael Asch, has already produced a few projects for the Folkways label (now owned and operated by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

So how does this follower of many musical styles define "world music"'?

He's been studying ethnomusicology since before that nebulous term was adopted as a marketing tool at a meeting of promoters and music journalists in London in 1987, and Kertzer will tell you it's getting harder to pinpoint exactly what it means today.

"The definition of world music can be very artificial. I always thought that 'roots' was a better term because you're usually talking about music that's rooted in a specific place. The original Folkways recordings were in the 'ethnic series.' But it all became a different thing after Paul Simon's Graceland, and when more musicians started touring and people could see them live."

Now the definition of world music seems to depend on what part of the world you come from. Kertzer is careful to distinguish between indigenous musical traditions in various nations, the many international musicians who have chosen to adopt the sound of western pop as their own, and the many hybrids between those poles.

"You can go just about any where in the world now and find a band that's trying to sound like Michael Jackson, but is it interesting? So for me it's about having strong roots in traditional music or language. Ultimately, being able to see it live or even seeing musicians on film is really the key to marketing this music."

While he is the child of Canadian parents, Kertzer was actually born and raised in upstate New York, and got his undergraduate degree before moving to Seattle. Along the way he added master's studies in London, England and in West Africa over several years.

He took up guitar as a teen and now also plays the African kora and mbira. For four years in the mid-1980s, he led an Afro-pop band in Seattle. But for most of his life, Kertzer has dealt with music and musicians in more of a behind-the-scenes role.

It was during his undergrad years at Brown University that he got involved in college radio ("my first love") and became a program host and the station's music director. Then in 1984 in Seattle, he began hosting a weekly show called The Best Ambiance, focused around African music at college station KEXP. After hundreds of episodes and many live music performance features, it ended with his move here.

His interest in African music began during graduate studies in Seattle, but Kertzer says things really took off when he made it to London.

"During the early '80s, there was a lot going on with African music in London. Seeing and interviewing famous musicians like King Sunny Ade, Youssou N'Dour and Franco really changed my whole orientation. I went on to study with six different African guitar players who taught me how to play the different styles."

Kertzer was also one of the first people to book Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival in the 1970s and then again during the mid-'80s ("I booked k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam just after her first album came out, the same year we had Miles Davis"). His favourite memories date back to the international percussion series he was able to curate there with performers such as Zakir Hussain. Bumbershoot became known as one of North America's top music fests, though it now leans towardsmore of a rock angle.

Then in 1990 the software giant Microsoft approached Kertzer. One of the first projects he focused on for them were sound bites - the opening and closing sounds you hear when you reboot Windows software. At the time, Microsoft was at the conceptual stage of what became their CD-ROM encyclopedia Encarta. He ended up working for them for 12 years, tailoring sounds for that software package and other projects, including musical examples from every nation, speeches, and sounds from nature.

"It was up to me to find it, or create it, or record it, or license it. It was a big challenge, but very interesting at the same time. When it began, people were just starting to put sound cards into computers, but eventually everything changed when the Internet and multimedia hit and Encarta was basically replaced by Wickipedia."

One of the first places he looked to for sounds was the archives of Smithsonian Folkways. In turn, they hired him to sit on their advisory board and he eventually went to work on their Global Sound project.

Finally, Edmonton is now the headquarters of a new fledgling source of exotic tunes. Kertzer has his own small labour of love, Next Ambiance, marketed as a sub-label of Seattle's Sub Pop Records. He has licensed two recordings for North American release, by Mali's Grammy nominee Bassekou Kouyate (who played last year's Folk Fest), and by Honduras singer Aurelio Martinez (at the Folk Fest this month). He's also about to ink a deal to produce the label's first in-house album from scratch.