THE BLOG
11/22/2016 06:17 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

Pink Martini Album Is Happy Hour for Progressives

It's been said that God created war to teach Americans geography, but the band Pink Martini has a better idea.

The 15-member Portland band, formed in 1994, has become a de facto cultural ambassador, exposing European audiences to the classic American songbook and introducing Americans to songs from around the world, singing in 24 languages so far.

With its new album, Je Dis Oui! (French for "I Say Yes"), which is one of its strongest, Pink Martini has coincidentally created a timely balm for a spiritually bruised country.

Interviewed on the morning after Election Day, bandleader Thomas Lauderdale said the album was their "happiest" in recent years and "it's just in the nick of time" given the mood of the country and the progressive band.

The upbeat album, Lauderdale said, was a result of a recording process that "unfolded magically....The whole thing was effortless and not labored....There were no showdowns in the studio and nobody cried."

Lauderdale said Donald Trump's win was, in part, a result of a country where "empathy is nowhere to be found in pop culture." He said the band, in its mission as an ambassador of multi-culturalism and diversity must now "walk the talk and really be a diplomat."

He noted that the band has an eclectic audience - young, old, liberals, conservatives - and often performs to a roomful of people who "would never be in the same room together."

"What we need," Lauderdale said, "is to find commonality and bring that to these shows so that we can actually make people feel better about being alive. We don't want to be didactic or alienate people unnecessarily."

While Pink Martini's music is not explicitly political, the band certainly has politics in its DNA.

"I learned to somehow through the years to rub it in a bit," he said, "so that I can still feel true to myself and hopefully not push the audience members into a corner so they feel trapped."

Lauderdale grew up in rural Indiana, adopted by a minister's family, and though he is Asian, he does not know from which country his biological family was from. When he graduated from Harvard in 1992, Lauderdale wanted to run for mayor of Portland, but ended up forming the band to right the wrong of all the music at political fundraisers being terrible.

After the band began to coalesce, Lauderdale enticed his old Harvard compatriot, the versatile singer China Forbes - with whom he had performed at parties and late-night song sessions - to move to Portland. Creating its own record label, Pink Martini scored a surprise hit in Europe, the retro slow-swinging "Sympathique," which then led to a devoted fan base in the United States.

As with all the band's albums, Je Dis Oui! has songs in several languages - including Arabic, Portuguese, Farsi and Turkish - and taps an unlikely range of guest singers, from National Public Radio anchor Ari Shapiro to Chicago-based fashion doyenne Ikram Goldman to Portland activist Kathleen Saadat.

This time out, the band scales the high drama of Portuguese fado on "Solidao," with singer Storm Large nailing the soaring vocals once sung by the iconic Amalia Rodrigues while the little orchestra rounds out the typically spare fado arrangement of the original.

Three of the songs are from the soundtrack of the French film "Souvenir," which will be released in the U.S. later this year. The movie stars Isabelle Huppert as a singer known for having once done well, but not winning, at the Eurovision song contest.

Lauderdale and Forbes wrote the soundtrack songs with the filmmakers. He said the restrictions of writing specifically for a film's narrative were a welcome change of pace. "If there are parameters, it's easier," he said. "It's when there are no parameters that things go haywire and go on forever and you are constantly wallowing in your options."

The album also contains two American classics: Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," sung by Saadat, for whom Lauderdale worked at a summer job in Portland's city government when he was a junior in Harvard. "She taught me everything I know about politics: how to be respectful, how to be insistent, how to be honest." The band also covers "Blue Moon" by Rodgers and Hart, slowing it down to a zen stillness, which is then lightly topped with the shimmering vocals of Rufus Wainwright. The band also plays an early world-music classic: Miriam Makeba's 1957 grooving South African sing-along, clap-along "Pata Pata."

Now the band is readying itself for touring across America by bus; each night serving an elegant cocktail of equal parts gorgeous music and cosmopolitanism with a twist of fun and a wink.

"We're so lucky," Lauderdale said. "We get to travel the world, make people happy and get applause every night and play something which is beautiful - and get people to do conga lines."

Pink Martini's first hit, "Sympathique" performed live

Quizas, Quizas, Quizas with Storm Large and string section

Pink Martini's version of "Amado Mio" reverse engineered to sync with the movie "Gilda"