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American geet! 

Hot Club of Cowtown turns Western swing into a homegrown take on world music

For many of us, the name "Hot Club of Cowtown" doesn't necessarily conjure up visions of a sophisticated, original world music band.

You may think of North Carolina hoedowns.

You may think of Colorado Springs' own Flying W Wranglers.

You may, like me, end up with the "Woody's Roundup" theme from Toy Story 2 stuck in your head as you prepare to interview the band.

Boy, don't you feel dumb?

Within two minutes of talking with Elana James, fiddler and vocalist for Hot Club of Cowtown, it was plain that I needed to stop thinking "regional music" and start thinking "global phenomenon." Hot Club's sound is nothing if not international.

For one thing, the name of the band is a reference to Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli's Quintette du Hot Club de France, considered the best jazz band in pre-WWII Europe. Guitarist Whit Smith has been compared to Reinhardt, and the band's sound owes a great deal to the forms and conventions of jazz's early days. They just play it with guitar and fiddle instead of brass and piano: hence, Western swing.

For another thing, Hot Club's fans already run the gamut from Willie Nelson to Mongolian herders. Through their extensive world tours, they've had the opportunity to win converts in nearly every conceivable setting.

Vidhur Malik, a music expert James studied with in northern India, bears a lot of the credit for that. During her time there, James met all kinds of venerable practitioners of ancient music. But at a certain point in the proceedings, Malik "would inevitably call out, 'American geet!' [the Hindi word for 'song'] and I would break into some kind of hoedown," she says. "He got such a kick out of that."

In 2006 the band was tapped by the U.S. State Department to be musical ambassadors to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. James says the experience further crystallized their globally-minded approach to Western music.

"In the United States there's this sense that world music is music 'other people' play, but as soon as we leave the country, our own music becomes 'world music.' Seeing and feeling that has been really exciting for us," she says. "The origin of this music is very culturally specific ... it's quintessentially as American as pro wrestling, Monster Trucks, Harley Davidsons, Quarter Horses and Skittles. It's just been around longer."

This month, Hot Club will participate in Daniel Pearl World Music Days, which commemorates the life of the slain journalist (and fiddler) by promoting cross-cultural understanding through music. As James explains, "we see all kinds of different people, different ways of doing things, all over the world. Any tiny gesture we can make toward helping the world toward harmony and understanding is an honor and a privilege."

Along the way, Hot Club is expanding its geographic and demographic reach, coaxing new audiences to get up and swing. "Even the dark songs swing and are danceable," James says. "People can identify with this — no matter where they live."

claire@csindy.com

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