Monday, February 11, 2013

Otchere Kojo Eyen and His Sound-Men: Itsekiri Funk Vol 11: Oniye Yone, 1982

Back from a long hiatus with this stone cold killer from Otchere Kojo Eyen.  Hard vocal harmonies complement tight instrumentals (an all star band on this one) and at times you can even hear some seiously jazzy guitar bends.  The B side is especially heavy.  The leader's name, at least his first two names, sound Akan.  The Akans are the plurality ethnic group in Ghana, hailing mostly from the Ashanti and Eastern Regions.  Their cultural capital is Kumasi, the regional capital of Ashanti.  Their language, Twi, which is spoken in many dialects across Ghana, has become something of a lingua franca there.  However, this record is not in Twi.  A Ghanaian friend of mine told me that Eyen is singing in Yoruba, which is spoken mostly in Nigeria and Benin; from the way he sings, my friend guessed that he grew up in Nigeria, not Ghana.

The album was recorded at Joromi Studio (called Joromi Sound Studio on the back of the record), which was Victor Uwaifo's studio in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria, founded in 1978.  The studio shares its name with one of Uwaifo's early hits.  According to Uwaifo, "Joromi in Benin mythology was a wrestler, a world champion who after conquering the whole world decided to go to hell and fight the Devil with seven heads."  (NB: West African Christians often describe pre-Christian myths in terms of their relation to contemporary Christiantiy.)  Although recorded in the 1980's and featuring some digital sounds on the A side in particular, this record has the warm, analog 70's sound that is so prevalent in much of Uwaifo's own catalogue.  It's unclear whether the studio is still operating, but it seems to have lasted at least part way into the 90s.

Sunny: lead guitar
Lemmy Mba: keyboard
Sabato: jazz drum
Jerry Mosco: rhythm guitar
Otchere Kojo Eyen: vocals, bass, trumpet, conga
Dapo Awodeyi: engineer

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

More apologies

I've still been unable to track down a new working turntable, but I realized recently that my current needle is busted.  I should be able to replace it within a month and I'll start uploading new stuff when I do.  Sorry again for the long silence.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Horace Andy: Rock to Sleep b/w Dub to Sleep, 1977

A lovely cut by Horace Andy, one of reggae's all time greats.  I couldn't find much information about this song, but the music is amazing and doesn't require an introduction.  This is not the 2005 Rockers pressing, it comes from the Serious Business label, which released it in 1977, a year after the Yard Music label.  The arranger/ producer credits are given to Andy and H. Robinson (the Yard Music pressing lists Andy as the arranger and Robinson as the producer,) while the Rockers pressing credits Michael Taylor as the producer. 

You will notice that the B-side falls well below this blogs normal standards for sound quality, and that it includes quite a few skips.  Given the gear I'm working with at the moment, this is the best and I can do, but I'm working diligently to start running smoothly again soon.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Leroy Smart: Mother Liza, 1975

To begin with, please forgive my long absence.  I have been (and remain) without access to a good turntable, as you will hear in today's rip, so I've been laying low on the blog front.  I am also having a lot of problems with my computer, which among other things have prevented me from transferring photos from my camera (the picture above comes from google images.)  I will put up pictures for future posts when I can, but in the meantime, I wanted to stop letting this blog go.  Please bear with me as I get back up and running.

Today's pick is a heavy rocker from Leroy Smart, a 1999 reissue of the Mother Liza single.  It's one of several reggae pieces that I acquired recently, so expect more roots for the time being.  A haunting voice, nice instrumental dubs, tight horns, and a rock solid rhythm.   What more could you ask?  As best I can tell, this is the internet debut of the horn-heavy version, so check it out and enjoy. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Various Artists: Síganme los Buenos Bailables Vol. 6, 1982

After today, I'll be taking a brief hiatus from this blog and coming back as soon as I can with some really fresh material.  For now, here are some cumbias and assorted other songs from an early 80's Fuentes compilation.  Mostly not essential listening, but there are a couple of standouts. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

KGIL Radio: February 9, 1971, The San Fernando Valley's Longest Day

Another collection of radio broadcasts today, this time covering a bit of local history.  The record documents the live coverage of the devastating San Fernando earthquake by KGIL, a local news radio station.  The San Fernando earthquake was a major earthquake in Southern California's recent history, one that ultimately registered at a magnitude of 6.6 (the report on the record says 6.5.)  In a spoken introduction, a representative of the station prefaces the record by describing that February 9th as "the single most historic day in the history of the San Fernando Valley, a day of tragedy and death, a day of passion and concern, and day that will remain fresh in the minds of everyone who experienced it for countless years to come.  And far into the future, people in the Valley will ask each other, 'where were you when the earthquake struck?'"  The thing I found most striking about these broadcasts was not really the information as much as how it was delivered.  The newsmen reported with a sense of gravity that does not reflect the destructive force of the earthquake alone but also the fact that was radio was one of the only widely accessible sources of vital information.  With the cell phones and internet connectivity we enjoy today, the radio is just one of many possible channels for information.  On that day in 1971, if an emergency announcement about contaminated water or a lost child had to go out, the radio was the best way to spread the word, especially when power outages meant that TV was not an option for many valley residents.  KGIL was most certainly aware of this, as evidenced by the self-congratulatory note they included in the jacket explaining how this record is not just a historical document of that day but also a clear example of the preparedness and professionalism that makes KGIL the radio station of the San Fernando Valley.

These broadcasts feature the voices of guests, newscasters in the studio and those driving around the affected areas. They deliver official feeds, reports on what they've seen and heard, and candid reflections on the human condition.  The reports are full of destruction but also stories of cooperation, goodwill, and hope in times of tragedy.  One reporter talks about giving a ride to a volunteer rescue worker who was hitchhiking home to his family after a night shift.  A reporter on the second side lauds the way citizens look past everyday differences, namely race, and help one another.  And throughout the record, reporters happily give updates on the Lower Van Norman Dam, which threatened to break but was brought under control as its 440,000,000 gallons of water were drained.  At one point, a newscaster even interrupts the earthquake coverage to celebrate the safe return of the Apollo 14, which had just visited the site on the moon that the Apollo 13 had failed to reach.  The record also contains practical information like an alert about where Red Cross shelters had been established, a call for physicians to report to a badly damaged veterans' hospital, and the warning that "the police have said that they will not think twice about shooting people that are attempting to loot."  You even get a hint of valley culture and architecture as one reporter at the beginning of the second side laments rampant destruction in and around the "beautiful mall area", strewn with the shards of shattered plate glass windows. 

See if you can catch the famous sample on Side 1.  And for those of you with experience driving around Los Angeles, you might recognize the image on the cover as the view of the valley from the 405 North just passed the Mulholland Bridge. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Pathar Ke Sanam: Laxmikant Pyarelal, Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, et al., 1967

Today's pick is the only soundtrack on this blog so far besides the very first post.  The movie is Pathar Ke Sanam, a Bollywood movie from 1967.  It's a light romantic drama complete with a love triangle and tensions that emerge over a dark past but are reconciled in the end.  From what I can tell the soundtrack might be the best part, buy you can read more about it here can decide for yourself.  The musical directors are the duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal, a force in Bollywood who composed the music for over 600 films according to wikipedia.  Both faced poverty as children and learned early on to earn money by performing, Laxmikant Shantaram Kudalkar on the mandolin and Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma on the violin.  They met at a music academy for children and worked together as they practiced and networked.  When Laxmikant was 10 years old, he met the famous singer Lata Mangeskar, who appears on this album and on others of the duo's soundtracks for years and years.  She approached him the first time he played because she was so taken with the abilities he had managed to cultivate at such a young age.  Pyarelal sometimes practiced with members of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra and apparently knew Zubin Mehta, the conductor for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and former conductor of the LA Philharmonic for 16 years. 

The singers on this album include not only the decorated Mukesh, but also Mohammed Rafi and sisters Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar.  These three are among the most celebrated playback singers in the history of Bollywood.  The role of a playback singer is to record the songs that actors and actresses lip sync to as they perform the film's musical passages.  I have an audio sample available from soundcloud but in the interest of giving you the full experience, I've also embedded a video clip of the song Mehboob Mere.  Keep in mind that these songs often became hits in their own rites and these musical sequences, especially more recent dance sequences, are one of a film's major draws among theater-going audiences.

Asha Bhosle has been featured on over 1000 soundtracks and is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recorded artist in music history.  She is also accomplished in a wide variety of South Asian genres, everything from qawwal to pop.  Her sister is also immensely successful and talented by any measure, and was actually well established as one of the leading female playback singers before Asha had been fully welcomed into that circle.  Internationally, Bhosle is the best known figure in Bollywood music.  Lata Mangeshkar has received the Bharat Ratna, the most prestigious civilian honor in India.  She started learning Hindustani classical music early and had to work diligently at the beginning of her career to eliminate her accent when speaking Hindi/ Urdu, the absolutely dominant language of Bollywood films at the time.  She relied heavily on her classical training and many of her film songs from the early period of her career are based on ragas. 

Mohammed Rafi has sung on thousands of film songs, a partial list of which you can find here, and also performs in an illustrious range of other genres.   He notably studied Hindustani classical singing under the widely renowned Ustad Bade Ghulan Ali Khan and the great Abdul Wahid Khan, cofounder of the Kirana Gharana.  This is the school that trained musical visionaries including Pandit Pran Nath, who spread the music in the West, Ram Narayan, and sarangi virtuoso Ustad Hafizullah Khan whose album Khalifa Kirana Gharana on La Monte Young's label is among the best Indian albums I own. 

The production of these soundtracks must have been streamlined in order that the same relatively small group of people could cut so many great albums.  To imagine these artists churning out beautiful music like this over and over, often together, is very inspiring.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Janos Starker and Abba Bogin: Brahms Sonatas for Piano and Cello, 1951

Today's pick is an earlier effort by the brilliant cellist Janos Starker, a duo recording with pianist Abba Bogin comprised of both of Brahms's Sonatas for Piano and Cello.  Bogin was a highly accomplished pianist but may have been best known as the president of the Bohemians, a musicians' club in New York that has been operating since 1907.  He died last August a widely respected musical figure.  The cover was done by a print maker and sculptor named Ed Casarella.  He is fondly remembered here.  The music on this album is mostly somber and brooding and also quite technically demanding, but of course the musicians handle the challenges masterfully as they draw out the music's richness.  Brahms is noted for exploring new forms while staying more true than most of his Romantic period contemporaries to baroque counterpoint roots.  Stylistically speaking, these pieces are no exception, and even inexperienced listeners such as myself can hear the mix of old and relatively new woven carefully and seamlessly together. 

In 1833, Johannes Brahms was born in Germany into a middle class (one might say petite bourgeoisie?) family that owned an inn.  He initially learned music from his father and at the age of 10, he played a concert to raise money for his own musical education.  As a child, he also played music at social events like dances to supplement his family's income.   One of his earliest meaningful musical encounters was his acquaintanceship with Eduard Remenyi, a Hungarian violinist who moved to Germany after being banished from Austria.  The exact date of their meeting seems disputed with wikipedia placing it as early as 1848 while others (whose information I suspect is more reliable) say they did not meet until 1850.  Remenyi had to leave Austria because of his contributions to the separatist Hungarian Revolution of 1848, an independence movement that many Hungarians see as one of the most significant steps towards the formation of the modern Hungarian nation-state.  The Hungarian folk forms that Remenyi introduced Brahms to would have a profound impression on the young man for years to come, and the two toured together in 1853.  (NB: In light of Brahms's connection with Remenyi, it seems like more than a coincidence that Starker, a musician who dedicated so much of his genius to performing the music of Hungarian composers, would return to these Sonatas to perform and rerecord them at various times throughout his career.)  That same year, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt became interested in Brahms and tried to take him under his wing but Brahms felt too constrained by Liszt's style.  1853 proved a major year for Brahms's entry into the social world of European music as it was also the year that met the immensely popular Schumanns, with whom he shared a deep mutual admiration.  He remained close, lifelong friends with Clara after her troubled husband Robert's death in 1856.  Throughout his life, Brahms treated the compositional process with a sense of deep gravity and often destroyed all copies of his pieces that did not satisfy his standards.  As he approached death in the 1890's, his musical output slowed dramatically in terms of its volume, but many critics maintain that some of his compositions from this period are among his most creative.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Radio Freedom: Voice of the African National Congress and the People's Army Umkhonto We Sizwe, 1985

This album is a mostly document of the time that two Rounder Records representatives spent in a Lusaka, Zambia radio station where the African National Congress was broadcasting programming that reached South Africa, where it was prohibited.  Apartheid was in full swing, and South Africa’s Black population routinely experienced harassment and violence at the hands of the state.  The government had by that point developed a wide array of strategies to prevent black people from gaining power.  It had long pressured Black Africans to live in Bantustans, designated areas of the country for each major ethnolinguistic group to reside in as ethnically pure homelands.  By separating indigenous ethnic groups from one another and trying to augment the barriers between them, the apartheid government sought to prevent Black Africans from consolidating power. 

Another strategy prominent during apartheid’s last decade, which is addressed on this record, was the tricameral legislature that president P.W. Botha established with the passage of a new constitution.  The legislature consisted of one house for white representatives, one house for Coloured (i.e. mixed race) representatives, and one for Indian representatives, who would legislate for their respective racial communities while the white house remained in control of the nation as a whole and the pure blooded African majority was excluded.  The record includes a radio drama (track 15) in which a few characters try to convince a stubborn old man who doubts that Botha’s intentions are as bad as they seem.  The others argue apartheid could not be worked out from within the government’s framework; true change could only be achieved from outside the bounds of legality.  One of the revolutionaries says that true reform must leave open a path for struggle.  On the other hand, Botha’s system puts the white population firmly and permanently in control of the country.  The characters’ entreaty to boycott the elections in protest of apartheid’s vision of governance apparently resonated with the popular sentiment of the day as the Indian and Coloured elections saw dramatically low voter turnout. 

The African National Congress is now the reigning political party in South Africa, but when this record was cut roughly ten years before apartheid’s fall, when the mostly Boer-run government systematically and violently oppressed the country's indigenous population, the organization was an unofficial revolutionary party.  The People's Army was its armed division, its name meaning "spear of the nation".  The station touts itself as the sole station that broadcasts from the perspective of South Africa's oppressed majority.  This album is a compilation of messages broadcast from the station and South African anti-apartheid music.  At the time this record was made, the punishment for a Black person caught listening to these types of radio broadcasts was up to 8 years in prison.  One could also be jailed 5 years for owning a record by the outspoken singer Miriam Makeba, who was living in exile by that time. 

Radio Freedom broadcasts came at staggered intervals from Angola, Ethiopia, (the sole sources of spoken material for this record,) Madagascar, Tanzania, and Zambia with the consent of the governments there.  The Madagascar station was temporarily put out of commission in 1983 by South African commandos, and not surprisingly the South African government’s military ventures into foreign countries are condemned on this album.  Programming was recorded in all the languages spoken in South Africa but only English selections were included on this record given its target audience.  Many pop songs from those days used encrypted lyrics to criticize the government while avoiding censorship on South African radio stations, and some of those songs are included here.  (Though not on this record, the station apparently also featured the music of ex-pats such as Dollar Brand and Dudu Pukwana.)  This album notably lacks daily news bulletins; the producers felt that because of the country's hectic political state, news items could become outdated so quickly that it was best to focus on the overall commentary about the state of the nation.  The proceeds of the original sale of this record went to Radio Freedom.

The content of the album is relentlessly revolutionary.  With an address to both the people of South Africa and the international community, one speaker began by describing the “state of war ... developing between the police and the people.”  He scorned the Boer government’s Western supporters with accusations of hypocrisy: "The people of Europe and the world at large breathed a deep sigh of relief when Hitlerite fascism was defeated in Europe by the allied forces.  They prayed that never again should mankind ever experience such inhumanity and cruelty.  Little did they realize that even at that moment in time fascism was rearing its ugly head in the Southern tip of Africa...  It is indeed ironical that the governments of the West, who joined forces in the struggle against Hitlerite fascism, are the same countries which today are supporting apartheid militarily, economically, and politically...  One cannot help but wonder whether this does not in itself smack of racism.  They did not invite Hitler.  They did not council negotiation with Hitler; because their people, white, were dying, they took up arms and fought.”  He goes on to warn these nations that their actions are not only immoral but lacking in political wisdom as well: “we shall not forget that the guns and bullets used to murder our people come from the Western countries.  The planes used to invade neighboring countries are supplied by them...  Our country will be free with or without the support that Botha enjoys from the Western imperialist countries.  And then they will have to contend with the aggrieved people of South Africa.  We shall never forget, never” (track 4). 

History has seen the ANC distance itself from this type of rhetoric, notably in South Africa’s decision to host the 2010 World Cup.  This kind of speech was more effective in rallying the troops than garnering confidence in trade partners, but more importantly, the shift away from it reflects a desire by post-apartheid South Africa’s leadership to hold the most egregious offenders against human rights accountable while engineering a national, interethnic reconciliation.  In any case, the message back then was clear: the people needed to find the strength to defeat Botha’s government within themselves because sufficient international aid would not be forthcoming.

Another speaker reiterates this point later when he bemoans Reagan’s reelection in the US because with it, “the apartheid government is assured more support of their oppressive system” (track 11).  But rather than be deterred by setbacks, another announcer proclaimed, the people of South Africa were compelled by their collective ethos and bare necessity to fight for their rights.  “The path of compromise that has been taken by the traitors and puppets is not open to us.  The path of surrender and subservience is also not open; it is foreign to us.  There is only one path and one path only, it is the path of relentless struggle.  It is the path of sacrifice.  It is the path of war and glory...  Our children have died of malnutrition in the Bantustans while food was being destroyed to maintain high prices” (track 6).  In other words, the physical, political and economic violence against all Black South Africans was so indiscriminate that even children became its targets.  It was this reality that motivated Radio Freedom to broadcast the following message: “Let [the government and its collaborators] fear each and every Black man in South Africa.  For indeed, the truth, the profound truth is that each and every one of us is a freedom fighter, each and every one of us is a guerrilla” (track 18).  South Africa became a place where ordinary people performed extraordinary deeds because they had little other choice.  This happens countless times across the globe in every generation, and this brings us closer to the thoughts and concerns of the South African rebels, whose heroism and valor is mirrored in the bravery on display today in the various Arab Springs, as well as in the Middle Eastern countries where such uprisings have been silenced or squelched before they could articulate themselves of mass levels. 

Although this album does not document one single continuous broadcast, I left each side whole instead of splitting apart tracks to preserve the feeling of a radio transmission that the producers created through their editing choices. The song I've posted below is a chant by rebel militants, very disciplined and ferocious.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sharan Rani (Backliwal): The Music of India, 1962

This World Pacific album of Sharan Rani Backliwal's music was her American recording debut, and wikipedia credits her as one of the first Indian artists to record for major label releases in the West.  A student of Ali Akbar Khan, she was apparently the first female sarod master.  She instructed many gifted students and inspired many women to dedicate themselves to the study of Hindustani classical music.  She passed away a few years ago, but she was truly a person who lived music; she apparently played concerts in the late 30's when she would have been 10 years old at most.  She owned a vast collection of over 350 instruments, some of  them dating from as early as the 15th century, which is housed in a museum.  She wrote extensively about music and is noted as having both an aesthetic and scholarly understanding of art. 

Her deep musical vision drives this album.  Her sound is bright and lush and the recording captures the richness of the sympathetic strings and masterful slides.  On tabla is the always impressive Chatur Lal giving Rani strong, steady support.  The tambura was played by Robert Garfias, an ethnomusicologist who now teaches in the anthropology department at UC Irvine.  The third track is primarily a tabla solo, but the sarod playing on Raga Kasui-Kanada (a midnight raga) and Raga Lalit (an early morning raga) is beautiful.  NB: this album is best heard at high volumes.  Sorry about the poor sound quality of the video, it was the best sample I could find of this album.

Recorded November 21st, 1961.

Sharan Rani: sarod
Chatur Lal: tabla
Robert Garfias: tambura

Saturday, May 12, 2012

M.S. Subbulakshmi: Sri Venkateswara (Balaji) Pancharatna Mala Vol. 5, Sri Annamacharya Samkirtanas, 1979

The albums that I upload on this blog have not typically been sitting in my collection for years.  More often, they are titles that I have picked up within a week or two of the posts.  Lately, I've been lucky to come across two great Carnatic albums, the first of which I posted two weeks back and the second of which I present to you today.  The featured soloist on this recording is Srimati M.S. Subbulakshmi, the 1968 recipient of the prestigious Sangeetha Kalanidhi award given almost every year to a Carnatic musician for excellent technique in Carnatic music.  Wikipedia describes it as among the highest awards available to performers of Carnatic music.  She was also the first musician to receive the Bharat Ratna, India's most prestigious civilian honor.  This album is the fifth and final in a series capturing Subbulakshmi performing the songs of composer and musico-religious devotee Tallapaka Annamacharya, who lived during the 15th century, an early figure in a tradition of Carnatic composers called Vaggeyakaras.  You can hear volume 2 here.  His music and his entire life were dedicated to Venkateswara, the supreme incarnation of Vishnu in the Kali Yuga age, which in Hindu theology stretches from about 5000 years ago far into the future and is the age of vice.  Vishnu appeared as Venkateswara out of benevolent love for his devotees.  The liner notes describe Annamacharya as a deeply and naturally musical person, one who composed because music was always flowing through his consciousness. He often composed music while in a musico-meditative state called Nadoapasana. 

Annamacharya's impact on Indian was substantial. He is credited as a major figure in the development of the kirtana devotional song form and is said to have written about 36000 songs over the course of his life.  He also occupies an unconventional place in India's social memory.  Legend has it that one day, a group of untouchables wanted to worship at the temple of his deity but were driven away.  He intervened by singing a song about how all people are the same "before God... as he resides in everyone's heart."  The linked explains Annamacharya's position that "God is approached by a saint and sinner and He welcomes the former and reforms the latter."  This is a brahmin speaking up on behalf of untouchables by asserting that, essentially, a person is defined more by character than caste and all people come before a God who treats them with understanding rather than discrimination.  The story goes that some of the people upset by his challenge to the status quo burnt all the documents containing his compositions in an act of revenge, but that the deity engraved his compositions on copper plates so that they would not perish again.  The message that discrimination is base and human makes this story an interesting bit of oral counterculture.  I am reminded of the split in Christianity between those who try to enforce what they see as the will of Christ versus those who strive to affect the world by leading Christ-like lives.

Radha Viswanathan: vocal support
Dwaram Manga Thayaru: violin
Kandadevi S. Alagiriswami: violin
T.K. Murthi: mridangam
V. Nagarajan: kanjira
R.H. Vinayakram: ghatam
K.S. Raghunathan: recording engineer

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Louvin Brothers: Ira and Charles with Instrumental Accompaniment, 1957

Today's post is a country album of mostly religious songs.  You'll have to excuse the quality of the record, I thought the music was worth posting in spite of the noise.  The Louvin Brothers were a country duo from Alabama who are joined here by a studio band.  They were one of the great close harmony duos of country music.  They started out in gospel and later gained recognition for songs about love and other themes, a couple of which appear here.  The duo split in 1963 when Charlie decided to leave his brother, who had developed a reputation as a heavy drinker, to pursue a solo career.  Ira died in a car accident in 1965, but Charlie continued to perform and record for much of his life, especially with a resurgence of interest in his music in the last decade.  He died in January 2011 at 83 years old. 

A different pressing of this album was posted on another blog with a different cover and two songs, I'll Live with God To Die No More and The Sons and Daughters of God, left out.  According to discogs, this pressing was released in 1957. On a personal note, I find that I often have trouble connecting with country music because it's primarily about the lyrics and the music doesn't really speak to me.  The singing and instrumentals on this album are exactly what I want out of country.  The pure vocal harmonies backed up by fiddles and twangy guitars make for a rich sound.

Although it's not the best song on the album, a track called The Great Atomic Power caught my attention.  It comes from the early period of the Cold War when the nuclear threat was still new.  Surprisingly, (to me at least,) the Louvin Brothers don't seem too alarmed.  To them, nuclear war is another doomsday scenario, a man made rapture.  Like the apocalypse, nuclear war would "[blot] out the works of man" without affecting the kingdom of heaven. The Louvins sing about the importance of preparing one's soul for heaven because no one knows when the rapture will come: "will you shout or will you cry when the fire ain't from on high?  Are you ready for the great atomic power?"  Interestingly, the Great Atomic Power doesn't appeal to politicians to avoid a nuclear winter.  Many revivalist Christians expect to see the end times during their lives and anxiously anticipate the reward that awaits them in heaven.  The Louvin Brothers' mission was to prepare people for the rapture, not postpone it.  Even if the end of the world were brought about by human technology, it would be a part of God's plan.

Friday, April 27, 2012

K.S. Narayanaswami, Narayana Menon, Palghat Raghu: Classical Indian Music introduced by Yehudi Menuhin, 1963

Today's pick is ethereal, with the two Narayanas on vina and Raghu on mridangam, but this is not your typical Carnatic record.  The album is supposed to be an introduction to Indian music for Western listeners, literally presented by Yehudi Menuhin who gives a spoken explanation of the music and quick summaries of the musical structures of each song.  His speech covers the history and components of Indian music and includes a fair bit of praise for the tradition. 

Menuhin is an interesting musical figure: he is an accomplished concert violinist considered by many to be among the best of the 20th century and was born into a prominent rabbinical line as the son of Eastern European immigrants in New York.  According to wikipedia, he gave a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic two years after the end of the holocaust as a gesture of reconciliation, (he was the first Jew to do so,) and defended himself by saying that the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler had never joined the Nazi party and had helped Jewish musicians.  He apparently also went beyond the bounds of Israels' comfort zone by performing benefit concerts for both Israelis and Arabs in the wake of the 6 Day War.  Menuhin's controversial and at times activist use of classical music was motivated by a belief that nationalism and the global complex of competing governments inhibits peaceful coexistence.  Along these lines, the Encyclopedia of World Biography credits him with a strong role in encouraging a cultural exchange between the US and USSR in 1955.  With an eye to the international, it's no wonder that he was drawn to Indian music.  Interestingly, some of his early exposures to Indian culture were not strictly musical but also through yoga.

Of Indian music in general, Menuhin suggests that performances are not finite because the beginnings and ends of songs are lost in the past and future as the music flows from tradition as from a river.  He opposes it to Western music, which he says develops through a series of "actions and reactions," often expressions of present social circumstances more than a respect for past work.  He stresses that before the advent of recording technologies, the music was transmitted exclusively through the didactic relationship between student and teacher.  This history of Indian classical music follows a very typical narrative about the music's continuity.  Menuhin's presentation (especially the hype at the beginning of the speech) gives the impression that this record contains a prime example of the kind of studied traditions that he describes, and the music delivers.  This narrative is particularly interesting in the context of this record, because Narayana Menon was the Deputy Director General of All India Radio, Delhi, at the time of this recording.  (He is credited simply as the All India Radio director in Peter Lavezzoli's The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi, and he apparently also held high posts at a number of other official music organizations.)  Menon must be a fascinating figure in his own rite: he has published books on music, dance, and the poetry of William Butler Yeats, whose work he studied intensely in his pursuit of a poetry doctorate at Edinburgh University.  And it was Menon who introduced Menuhin to Ravi Shankar, beginning a friendship that spawned multiple albums. 

Menon's appearance on this record of exemplary Indian music got me thinking about his place in the world of Indian music.  He presumably had a rare level of control over the shape of Indian music, because in addition to defining the music by playing it masterfully, he had some influence over what kind of music was recorded, broadcast, and sold.  As I say in a previous post, I have heard that many musicians abandoned their resistance to the harmonium as an accompaniment instrument after All India Radio agreed to include it in recordings.  I wonder how strongly music is guided in certain directions when a group of individuals, whose tastes are ultimately subjective, decide what music is fit for circulation. 

Although Indian music emerges from a long, deep, and powerfully expressive tradition, it actually exists in the minds and practices of individuals who define it in their own ways, and these individuals learn from individuals within the stylized framework of a gharana.  While the music might flow from  tradition, it is difficult not to read that tradition as an interconnected web of similar but separate practices rather than a single stream.  The general differences between Hindustani and Carnatic styles not to mention the variations from gharana to gharana would seem to indicate that there is no ultimate form of Indian music, that artists with carefully crafted sets of musical tools pursue musical and often spiritual depth with rare technical virtuosity.  And while the commentary on the record and the jacket avoid the pitfall of calling this music an expression of the purest Indian music, one has to imagine that this recording falls comfortably within the official, standard vision of Indian music.  When Menuhin implies that millenia of tradition led to the creation of this very record, other visions of Indian classical music with less official recognition get edged out. 

The truth is that some gharanas not only look down on other gharanas, some don't even recognize others as true practitioners of raga.  And where does such a subjective system for determining legitimacy leave musicians like Lacchu Maharaj, who does not fit exactly into any one gharana but appropriates elements from many?  As far as I can tell, there is no universal judge of true raga, but organizations like All India Radio have nudged public opinion in one direction or another by crystallizing certain styles into monuments of culture in the process of transforming them into recordings.  But to avoid sounding too critical, let me close by reiterating how masterful and serene the music on this recording is. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

U-Roy: African Roots, 1976

This album seems to be a compilation of music from at least two sources. The A side is all U-Roy cuts, some of which are undoubtedly avaliable on other blogs, and the B side is all instrumental cuts from King Tubby's studio. I thought I would post this album to share the cover art and because the opening song, Joyful Locks, is so classic. Like most (or all?) of U-Roy's songs, it's a remix. He sings over Linval Thompson's "Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks" rhythm with some of the original vocals dubbed back in. U-Roy's version preserves both the theme of Thompson's song and the spirit of the lyrics that he drops in his rendition. For example, even though he omits the warning, "(don't you cut off your dreadlocks) because Jah Jah will chastise you, even hurt you," he keeps Thompson's reference to the story of Samson and Delilah, a parable that some Rastafarians deploy to emphasize the importance of hair as a significant component of one's relationship with the divine. And although he drops the line about men with dreadlocks being righteous in spite of their reputations as evil, he does say, "don't look back, and don't don't you cut off your dreadlocks," and "got to be truthful most of all to Jah." In other words, having committed himself to God, a Rastafarian should concern him or herself primarily with the divine relationship; all other relationships should be secondary, and the people who scoff at the Rastafarian's path should be of no concern. As U-Roy says, "let Jah arise and all his enemies be scattered away."

In this light, the story of Samson and Delilah takes on a new relevance: Delilah stands in for the people and institutions that make up Babylon, the blanket term for all that is spiritually maladjusted and/ or motivated by greed. The Rastafarian must treasure his or her locks, through which the divine relationship is realized, but must also protect this relationship because his or her devotion and purity of heart are under constant siege by Babylon. As Johnson says in both versions, "Samson was a dreadlocks so Delilah betrayed." In other words, the evil that confronts Rastafarians' is not strictly the collateral damage of being poor and marginalized in the modern world. The evil inherent in Babylon motivates Babylonian subjects to consciously interfere with the Rasta's quest to abstain from all that is impure. Jamaican police (and police around the world) consider the Rastafarian evil or dangerous because they define marijuana, the Rastafarian's sacrament, as evil, and many members of society at large, especially the wealthy, reject the Rastafarian notion that greed and inequality are inextricable from Western society. Some try to persecute those who blame the unequal distribution of wealth and power on a culture of greed, and Rastas take this doctrine further than most. Rastafarians allege, reminiscent of the teachings of Christ, that spiritual purity overwhelmingly tends to be mutually exclusive with the ambition necessary for the accrual of wealth; there is simply not enough room in one soul and one lifetime for these disparate traits to coexist without one eclipsing the other. Babylon is a cultural atmosphere that favors the ambitious, and it defensively attacks those who criticize it and try to escape it.

This song encapsulates the kind of appeal that reggae, loved by musicians across an unusually wide spectrum of ethnicities, has to enthusiasts worldwide. In places like New Guinea, where capital and sovereignty elude so many indigenous people and power is the privilege of a small, mostly stagnant elite as well as foreign capital, reggae was adopted and endowed with local meaning. The same is true in so many Native American communities, many of which have achieved legal sovereignty but still struggle against poverty, marginalization, and discrimination. The music also has a surprisingly long history in various corners of the Arab world, whose people have for over a year been toppling despotic rulers. For most non-Jamaican communities of listeners (except for those in Black Africa and the African diaspora,) it is not the Africanist-Abrahamic God called Jah that draws people to the music, but rather the way reggae recognizes the torment that people face when walking a difficult but righteous path. I genuinely believe that it is the emphasis on living a righteous life in an evil world and the analogy between different kinds of oppression that makes reggae a global language, not the ubiquity of marijuana in the lyrics that arguably accounts for reggae's popularity among most Anglo-American listeners.

This song in particular can speak to just about anyone on the grounds that it can be difficult, even scary sticking to one's convictions, but without the strength to do that, we are truly powerless, just as Samson was when he allowed the holy relationship to which he had devoted himself to be severed along with his hair. It's true that God returned his powers to him one final time so that he could bring down the temple on his captors, but he died in the process and his old life was never restored. The message is that when it comes to sticking to one's beliefs in the face of adversity, the stakes are high and if we falter we may never regain our footing. It's a message that can resonate as easily with a Jamaican Rasta as a New Guinean in danger of losing his or her ancestral lands permanently to Chinese lumber interests.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sviatoslav Richter: Liszt; Schubert, 1958

Today's post marks a rare two week classical streak and part two of this blog's Sviatoslav Richter series with a focus on the man himself. The music on this album, especially Liszt's pieces, are exceptionally good. If you're impressed by the sample, you won't be disappointed by his other compositions here. Richter was one of the great pianists of the 20th century and as was made clear by the critical response to the last album of Richter's that I posted, he had a penchant for redefining classics and recorded famous versions of countless songs. This record captures Richter live in Sofia on February 25th, 1958. Apparently the Doremi label released a CD of one of his concerts from about two weeks earlier in Budapest that features some of the same pieces as this album.

Like the last Richter album that I posted, this one is unmistakably live: instead of the recording quality being rough and the air conditioning possibly being on, an audience member sneezes a couple of times on side A. This Columbia disc is presumably one of the recordings that primed American audiences for Richter's 1960 visit to Carnegie Hall. One side is dedicated to Liszt and the other to Schubert. On Liszt's side are Harmonies de Soir from Etudes d'exécution transcendante, No 11 in D-flat Major, Feux Follets from d'exécution transcendante, No 5 in B-flat Major, Valse Oubliée No 1 in F-sharp Major, and Valse Oubliée No 2 in A-flat Major. On Schubert's side are Moment Musical in C Major, Op. 90, No 1, Impromptu in E-flat Major, Op 90, No 2, and Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op 90, No 4. I think Igor B. Maslowski's biography of Richter on the back of the record is insightful because it describes Richter as both a highly gifted artist and an eccentric character, two traits that often go together. Here it is it's complete form:

"Sviatoslav Teofilevitch Richter was born forty years ago at Zhitomir, in the Ukraine. German-Russian by descent ('with a dash of Tartar Blood,' says he with a smile,) he is a blond giant with a striking build and fantastic hands (he has an octave reach between his index finger and his little finger.)

His father, a composer and pianist, never intended to have "Slava" become a musician; his mother, however, thought otherwise, and so she sent her son to Odessa where he studied conducting. (Gifted with a prodigious musical memory, Richter is also able to read the most complex scores at sight.) But after three years the young artist realized that he was not cut out for a conductor's career. Then some friends suggested that he might become a pianist, and he went to Moscow to consult with Professor Heinrich Neuhaus. Professor Neuhaus took his as a pupil, and four years later Richter performed Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata. This was to mark the beginning of a close friendship between him and the composer, a friendship which lasted until the death of the latter.

Right from the start Richter was hailed as a prodigy and each concert has has given since then has been an event of the first order.

Richter is an unusual person. Some say he is difficult, others insist he is charming. The fact of the matter is that we must distinguish between Richter as an artist and Richter as a man. As an artist he is terribly strict, with himself and with others; as a man he is as pleasant, affable and obliging as can be. A very modest man, he is never quite satisfied with his concerts or recitals, and insists that there is always room for improvement. In his opinion he has only once played really well, and he loves to tell the following anecdote to his friends:

'It was at Gorki, I think': (yes, 'I think' are Richter's own words--his absent-mindedness is legendary, and he is at times unable to remember his address or telephone number, much less the cities he has played in,) 'and they had introduced me as 'Sviatoslav Richter, from the Moscow Conservatory.' As soon as I stepped out before the audience I felt that they were disappointed. But I played well, really well, I was quite satisfied with myself and got ready to do an encore. I never got a chance to, though, as the last piece on the program was greeted only by a polite applause, and I went off, somewhat surprised. I later learned that the audience expected to hear a Professor from the Conservatory--stooped, bearded, monocled, etc. When they saw a twenty-year-old on stage they concluded a priori that he couldn't give a good recital.'

Richter lives in Moscow with his wife, Nina Dorliak, the famous singer; he is her regular accompanist. He likes getting up late, loves works of art, and his favorite pastime is getting his musician friends together. He dislikes being disturbed by the telephone, and hates airplanes, which he takes only when he is absolutely forced to.

When he is asked why he never plays in the West, he replies: 'There are still so many Russian cities I've never played in.'"