Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Monday, September 17, 2012
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.'"
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Janos Starker is a Hungarian Jewish cellist of Polish and Ukranian descent who has lived in the U.S. since the late 40's. He teaches at Indiana University's Jacob School of Music and apparently still performs on rare occasions. He played cello from a young age and according to wikipedia had five regular students of his own by the time he was 12. His technical ability is astounding, but what makes him an amazing musician is the finesse, control, and care that define every second of these performances. With Starker's help and that of a few others, I'm starting to understand how a performer can shape a piece by interpreting it on a level that exceeds the artistic vision of normal musicians. As Starker brings out the beauty in the works of these composers, we hear a melding of great musical minds; it is truly a collaborative process even though these works were written decades before this performance, before Starker was even born.
The sonically rich A side features Starker playing over the Philharmonia Orchestra (of London) conducted by Walter Süsskind. Kodály's piece, in spite of its modest instrumentation, is intense and energetic and covers a surprising amount of ground. The liner notes give an interesting account of Kodály. As author Frank Hampson put it, his music "scratches the surface" of the Eastern European folk music that inspires it while Béla Bartok's "dug deep" in this regard. (Incidentally, the two men were friends and made some expeditions to collect folk songs together.) Hampson is careful to point out that Kodály's pieces are equally informed by a deep understanding of and respect for folk music, it's just that his approach grafts folk themes "onto a fundamentally French Impressionist background." He touts Kodály's music as genuinely Hungarian and deeply personal. Kodály's compositional practices indicate an awareness of the then-current European notion that the soul of the people resides in an endangered body of folklore kept alive in mostly marginalized corners of the countryside where progress has yet to pave over the nation's quaint traditions. Still, I can't help but read his fusion of this music with a distinctly modern style (not to suggest that Bartok was any kind of purist) as a nod to the fact that he was living in a world much bigger than his own country. His time studying music in other parts of Europe, notably France, must have made him aware of this. Kodály's music acknowledges that the though he desires to rediscover his roots through folk forms, he and most of his listeners were born a ways away from these folk roots, and musical forms from other parts of the world may be just as relevant to them as homeland varieties. I imagine that Starker, whose background was even more international than Kodály's, must have appreciated these elements in Kodály's work, although I'm not well enough acquainted with Hungarian folk music myself to recognize its influence on this sonata.
Friday, March 30, 2012
This album consists of two full side cuts, recorded direct to disc in New York and released on EMI Japan. The A side is an interpretation of John Coltrane's Naima and Duke Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood appears on the back. The B side is played by a quartet; Diedre Murray joins them on cello for Naima. The song opens with bass (Cecil McBee) and cello, both bowed, accompanied by light percussion. Murray and McBee create a stunning dynamic together, taking Naima to a place that I have never heard before in harmony and timbre while masterfully preserving its essence.
Jazz emphasizes the infinite nature of music. Every solo is a reinvention of an established theme or a journey into an unexplored dimension. This version of Naima raises the bar more than most. Listening to it is like hearing a familiar song sung in a language you've never heard before. The cello is rare in jazz although its has been explored by such luminaries as Fred Katz, Tristan Honsinger, and Abdul Wadud and it has been used to magnificent effect by jazz composers like Alice Coltrane. Still, compared to instruments like the saxophone or bass, the cello has had relatively few innovators within jazz. Maybe I found Murray's voice on the cello so moving here because her work seems so individualistic; she developed a deep style of playing without drawing on a long history of musicians who have explored the sound body of her instrument with an eye to the jazz aesthetic. I think that this recording struck me as a testament to the infinite nature of music because Murray managed to create something intensely beautiful while paving a new musical pathway. She played from a knowledge of the jazz that came before her and worked with Cecil McBee to make Naima her own. It makes me think of all the musical avenues that remain (and will remain) unexplored.
"Hannibal" Marvin Peterson: trumpet
Kenny Barron: piano
Cecil McBee: bass
Billy Hart: drums
Diedre Murray: cello on Naima
Friday, March 23, 2012
Today's post marks a first for me: I have never before posted an album that I do not physically own. In fact, this album is so rare that I could not even find an image of the cover online, so I put up a random picture of the musician instead. This is also the first time since the early days of this blog that I'm sharing a CD rather than a vinyl disc, but the music on this album is so deep, moving, and incredible that I can't help myself. It was recorded by James Koetting, part of a series of Ghanaian recordings that he made, and released by a Tokyo-based label called Conversation.
The solo artist featured on this album is Kakraba Lobi, one of the foremost (many say the foremost) ko-gyil (Ghanaian wooden xylophone) players in his lifetime. A great bearer and innovator of Birifor music, Kakraba taught at the University of Ghana in Legon, a neighborhood of Accra, for 25 years and toured the world extensively, popularizing Ghanaian music in many countries. At one point he even came to Southern California, but at that time I was unfortunately unaware of his existence. His technique is unparalleled by any artist whose recordings I have ever heard, and his technical mastery and rhythmic and melodic creativity completely saturate every track of this CD. Right up until his death, he accepted a great number of students from Ghana and around the world who would travel long distances to spend months or years studying under him. He died on July 20th, 2007. An informative and well-made video by Brian Hogan about his funeral and his life is viewable here. His contributions to the musical forms of his instrument cannot be understated, and as far as I am concerned based on the limited exposure that I have had to his music, he was one of the deeper musical thinkers of his time from any corner of the globe.
I found the 17 minute opening track of this album was the most musically striking, but the fifth song, Africa Unite!, which is actually mentioned in the funeral video, gets stuck in my head as often as any of the others. The song is a simple plea for African unity, and in it Kakraba intersperses the names of different African countries with the word "united" as he accompanies himself on xylophone. Only recently did I start to think about the song outside the context of this particular album and in the context of Ghana's history as an early and vital global center of Pan-Africanism. W.E.B. Du Bois famously became a citizen there shortly before his death. Ghana has since become something of a Mecca to Pan-Africanist Black people from around the world, especially the United States and Jamaica. Rastafarian culture, notable in part for its message of the common interests and cultural bond between members of the Black diaspora, has caught on among many in Ghana, although Jonathan Tanis, the author of this article, argues that Ghanaian Rastafarianism is more a broad category of anticonformism than an ideologically rigorous social institution. Under independent Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana became a charter member of the Organization of African Unity, an organization which Nkrumah himself would go on to chair late in his presidency. Marcus Garvey, who famously advocated the repatriation of Black people to Africa because he believed that they would never escape their status as second class citizens in white societies, is respected and admired by many Ghanaian intellectuals. Ghana's list of Pan-African credentials goes on and on, but the point is that Ghana is a crucial site of the global Pan-African movement. Kakraba Lobi played a part in this history in his own musical way, not just by performing this song but by spreading African music all over the world and forging connections with musicians in neighboring countries. As the narrator of the funeral video says, his students perform in groups that integrate music from multiple Ghanaian ethnolinguistic traditions and he blazed a trail that allowed other performers on indigenous African instruments, especially xylophones, to earn international recognition.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Luigi Nono: ...Sofferte Onde Serene..., A Floresta è Jovem e Cheja de Vida [Sorrowful but Serene Waves/ The Forest Is Young and Full of Life], 1979
Tonight's post is strictly for outside music lovers. Fans of abstract free jazz will especially enjoy the first track.
Luigi Nono was a composer well known for mixing musicians with electronics. Both compositions on this album employ electronic elements and the second, A Floresta è Jovem e Cheja de Vida, is heavily processed. It includes vocals, a clarinet, percussionists, and of course tape, and Nono captures a rich range of sounds. The vocals are spread out pretty evenly across the song, but the excerpt that I posted is a mostly electronic passage to give you a sense of the kinds of sounds Nono was working with. I would have liked to hear a lot more of this stuff personally, but I'm a sucker for old timey electronics.
A Floresta is a song in protest of the Vietnam War that was composed in 1965 and 1966, right in the middle of the conflict. Listening to it for the first time, I couldn't help thinking that Nono must have felt a deep sense of futility as he was writing it. He clearly cared enough about Vietnam to compose such a long song that incorporates so many carefully selected criticisms. Still, he was presenting his critique as an artist, even as a figure in the academic world; he must have known that his words probably would not reach the right ears and that they certainly wouldn't convince them of anything. I say he must have because the uncompromising aesthetic that he packaged his message in would be enough to turn away any power player, and in any case his music tended not to be terribly friendly to what people back then called the establishment. This was often the role of artists, to speak the truth (more specifically their interpretation of it) to the people who were interested in listening. For overtly activist artists like Nono more than the rest, I suppose one of the goals was to spread an idea or an attitude to as many people as possible. The more people there are who support or reject certain kinds of policies, the more likely they are to at some point help bring about social and political changes. The practice of spreading political awareness through art is not exclusive to artists who share Nono's perspective; those unhappy with the status quo for a whole host of reasons have engaged in it.
Nowadays, it seems like the internet has largely taken over that role. Relatively few people have single-handedly brought about significant, concrete change for the good of humanity in recent times, but we keep sharing insights and information in the hopes of shaping a more informed populace and catalyzing a series of changes that sometimes don't seem very far off. I think that's what made me sympathize with Nono's position when he was writing this music. When I see an injustice in the world, I try to write about it because I think that if enough people are talking about enough issues, there may come a day when this kind of talk translates more readily to action than it does now. Of course, the channels of dissent that we take for granted today were a generation or more off during the Vietnam War. In spite of this, people then managed to make some big changes although they couldn't ultimately save the Vietnamese people from the tragedy of war and the trials of exile and rebuilding.
On ...Sofferte Onde Serene...
Maurizio Pollini: piano
On A Floresta è Jovem e Cheja de Vida
Liliana Poli: soprano
Kadigia Bove, Elena Vicini, Berto Troni: voices
William O. (Bill) Smith: clarinet
Bruno Canino: conductor for the percussionists
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
I don't have any music to talk about in this post, but I wanted to mention something that I haven't been able to get my mind off since I first read it a couple of days ago. In Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, a fire at a munitions depot located in or adjacent to a densely populated part of the city caused a series of huge explosions that were heard and felt for miles around. So far, the death toll has been set at just under 250, but that number is expected to climb dramatically once rescue crews are able to search more of the collapsed buildings where many people are suspected to be dead or trapped. The crews have been largely unable to explore the more devastated areas because of fires which continue to burn and explosives which continue to explode after being scattered about the city by the initial blasts. Teams of international firefighters did succeed in preventing the fires from reaching a second depot near the first which apparently contains even more powerful explosives. It goes without saying that time is running out for the people who are still trapped and require medical assistance. A similar but less severe incident in 2009 prompted the government to pledge to move its munitions stores away from the capital, but if any steps were taken towards this goal, they were too little too late.
The real tragedy about all this is that while someone might be at fault, this horrible story has no villain. The people left dead or maimed by this explosion are collateral damage in a world where tons of explosives are considered a reasonable investment but emergency response infrastructure is not. The victims of this explosion are the victims of a world where technology that takes away lives is more valuable than technology that protects life. This is not to say that the government could have kept itself afloat without the threat of force that these weapons represented. The whole world is simply militarized and weaponized. What made this story so painful to me is that these deaths are more senseless even than the deaths in wars whose outcomes are of little material interest to their soldiers. This is militarization at its worst. Through some series of decision making processes, the Congo Brazzaville government elected to buy all those bombs and store them in or close to a densely populated quarter of the city. This destruction was unnecessary by any account and yet somehow it was not avoided because in the big picture, some set of military concerns was given priority over the importance of avoiding this catastrophe.
Why is no one reporting on this? I understand it's a small country, but I can't seem to find anything from any major news source published after March 6th. This gutwrenching piece came out just yesterday, not much new information on the progress of relief efforts or death tolls, just a description of the horror that is the aftermath of this incident. The reporter, Yusuf Omar, seems to think that with the threat of a cholera outbreak, this aftermath will bring with it a whole new tragedy.
I think there is a correlation between how underreported this event is and how understaffed and resource-hungry the relief effort is. The distinction between the first and third worlds, one created by those who place themselves in the first world, allows people from powerful and prosperous nations to overlook the plights of poor nations, even in cases like this when so many preventable deaths loom.
Just today, a volunteer came into the store where I work and asked me for a donation for the victims of the Fukushima disaster, which occurred just over a year ago. At that moment, I couldn't help but think that I hadn't heard a peep about the first anniversary of Haiti's earthquake. Nor had I ever been visited by volunteers seeking donations on Haiti's behalf even though the death toll of that disaster was significantly higher than Japan's and Haiti has made much less progress in their recovery effort.
Haiti lacks both the infrastructure and the international recognition that enables these kinds of efforts, but I suspect that the problem runs deeper than this. We citizens of the prosperous nations expect poverty and tribulations to plague the people of Haiti because we have classified them as poor. What happened in Japan shocks us and pulls at our heart strings because it feels too close to home, because in the global community they are too like us. We see the Haitians, on the other hand, as natural born sufferers. By the same token, and through major no fault of their own, many of Japan's American sympathizers are oblivious to the very existence of Congo Brazzaville, not to mention the dire situation presently unfolding there. The failure of the fortunate to acknowledge the value of human life in poor countries is put further into perspective by the fact that United States just withdrew $80 million in annual funding from UNESCO in protest of the institution's push for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood.
In any case, as Omar says in the above linked article, without a serious and immediate disaster relief effort, "this is just the beginning."
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
I'll probably go back to posting LPs soon, but I want to keep this 45 kick going a little longer if I can. Today's disc is from the Fabulous Counts, produced by Ollie McLaughlin for the Moira label of Detroit, distributed by a division of Atlantic. In addition to featuring two nasty funk tracks, it contains a relatively early example of delay in popular music, applied to a synthesizer on Lunar Funk. Delay appeared around the same time in some variations of reggae and rock and earlier on in less commercial music like the works of some modernist classical composers. Its use on this track is conservative compared to most dub, but to my ear, its presence creates a powerful effect. It contributes to the texture of the music by thickening it and it changes the dynamic of the song because it warps the sound in a way that no musician could. This was unusual in early funk to say the least, and the use of delay on Lunar Funk sounds like part of a songwriting experiment even today. This is not because it was applied in a less intricate way than in dub, but because of the way that the producer takes on a bigger role in crafting the shape and flow of the song and uses delay to give the song structure. The delay does not hover up and down in the mix, ultimately leading you through the whole song, it simply provides a backdrop for two of the song's bridges. The very title of the song tells you before you even listen that it is an exploration, a different sound or concept in funk.
Time and again, we see examples of how the same technologies and techniques were adopted in dramatically different ways by niche or regional music industries. In reggae, delay was used to produce distinct rhythms and a characteristic sound. Legend has it that producers originally used it to emulate the interference patterns that accompanied American radio broadcasts picked up in Jamaica. In modern classical music, it was a vehicle by which composers could discover and create new forms, which were a hot commodity at the time and have been ever since. In rock, it was used to endow music with a psychedelic mystique or aesthetic.
For an example of an instrument with a similar but less disjointed history in recorded music, we can turn to the pump-operated reed organ called the harmonium, an instrument less widely used among the world's music industries. It was originally brought over from Germany by missionaries, but is now produced primarily (or exclusively?) in India. It became popular among singers as a backup instrument. This was primarily because it freed the singer of the burden of finding an instrumental accompanist (a necessity in North Indian vocal music) who possessed the musical prowess required to play the bowed sarangi proficiently. Although few people ever truly master any instrument, the keyboard of the harmonium has a shallower learning curve than the sarangi. (Incidentally, sarangi was an especially unpopular instrument to learn in the early 20th century because it was associated with music played in unwholesome contexts and thus tended not to earn its players good reputations.) Some say that the harmonium was prevented from achieving ubiquity until the higher ups at All India Radio authorized it to appear on their recordings. Interestingly, the blogger Shubha Mudgal argues that although the harmonium has been criticized for failing to capture the microtonal precision of Hindustani music because its free reeds are harder to control than strings or other instruments, some gharanas have developed intricate harmonium techniques. I wonder, then, if the music industry really pushed it on the people or if it was the other way around. In any case, the harmonium seems to bother musical purists the most, and a great many listeners and highly gifted musicians in India appreciate its sound. The important point is that the harmonium entered the Indian record market to play a specific role mirroring vocal lines and it remains within a set of stylistic boundaries.
On the other side of the world starting in probably the 60's, musicians began incorporating the harmonium into Western albums, but not as a primary accompaniment instrument. For the jazz, folk, and rock musicians who used the harmonium on their albums in the 1960's and 70's, it was more of a nod to the sensibilities of Indian music and Indian philosophies, or at least the versions of them that were imported to the US and Europe around that time. Including a harmonium on an album became a signal that the musicians subscribed to or sought meaning in worldviews outside the Western mainstream. On few of the Western albums from that era that feature a harmonium does the harmonium play continuously across the whole album. Its inclusion coveys an idea and it colors an album rather than constituting the essence of its musical statement. Instruments like the harmonium and tools like the delay might have an easier time jumping between markets with the help of widely disseminated recordings, but in each case they are reworked, sometimes in very fundamental ways, to fit their new context.
I also wonder how the social resources that the internet offers musicians will impact music scenes across the world today in different ways. It has already made touring incomparably easier for small time musicians, at least in the United States and Europe, where they can almost effortlessly establish contacts in other cities. Diasporic communities the world over access homeland music through the internet as well. As much as people anticipate (or worry about) the cultural flattening effect that communications technologies and social networks will have on the world's population, the technology is also indisputably preserving some differences between people and nurturing new movements and subcultures.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
This 45 offers deep drumming from Chad, recorded by the famous ethnomusicologist Charles Duvelle and Michel Vuylstèke for the Ocora label with the cooperation of Chad National Radio, apparently on a recording excursion around the countryside. The music on both sides is beautiful, but I especially recommend the B side played loud. The first cut features two drummers from an ethnic group identified as Mbum in a place called Pao. The second features three drummers that they call Barma and was recorded in Massenya. The first song is available on the CD Mbum du Cameroun (whose liner notes seem to suggest that it was recorded in Cameroon) from the briefly in print label dedicated to Duvelle recordings called Collection Prophet. Somehow the speed of the recording changed between the two releases; the CD version is 13 seconds shorter than this one not including the silence before and after the song.
The liner notes of this 7" make a serious effort to be scientific about their cataloging methods for their recordings. Both recordings are identified by date, place, ethnic (or linguistic?) group, a very minimal statement of the music's purpose and a description of each instrument including its name and how it was played. In spite of this, both tracks are excerpts, not full recordings, and no individual musicians were named on the jacket. I can't help but imagine that Duvelle just went around with questionnaires and a mic trying to make as many recordings as possible instead of talking to any one person for too long and finding out too much about the social significance of any of the music he was recording. It seems like an awkward way to express admiration for these indigenous people in the wake of colonialism, but I guess it's what France was ready for at the time. It is great to be able to listen to this music today, but you wonder exactly what the holders of the purse strings back then expected they would achieve when they financed this project. It was a government project after all. Maybe it was about reconciliation, maybe guilt, maybe something completely unrelated.
In any case, I cannot recommend this music highly enough, especially at high volumes.
Friday, February 24, 2012
This single originally came out in 1973, but from what I can tell by looking at the labels of early Joe Gibbs 45s on google images, this disc is not an original pressing. The A side, sung by Peter Tosh and a chorus of vocal actors, is about the trial of prominent Western explorers and bearers of imperialism and enslavement on Judgment Day. A court crier speaks on behalf of God as the accused protest that they were simply following orders. The B side is a lovely, unrelated instrumental track by the studio band.
Where many Western colonizers went, they tried to bring Christianity to the people they oppressed, partly in order to establish a paternalistic relationship in which they played the role of spiritual provider and compensated themselves by helping themselves to other people's labor and resources. One of the great ironies of the colonial project is that the colonizers' behavior was more Roman than Christ-like, and many imperial subjects, notably Jamaicans, became acutely aware of the incongruity. Christ told his followers to reject the material ambitions that accompany the pursuit of money because these distract people from accruing a wealth of spirit by serving God's will. "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's [i.e. the money that bears his image,] and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). Speaking of those who follow the path of wealth, Jesus cast doubt on their ability to dedicate a sufficient portion of their hearts to the ascetic observance of God's word, saying, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). It was no secret to conquered people that the desire for wealth motivated their colonizers, and yet these Europeans served as agents of Christianity.
Tosh's song opens with a spoken introduction: "...because it said here comes the judge, seen? And that does not mean the judge in what they call, in our colonial judiciary system, seen? Our imperial judicial system. I mean the judge of righteousness." The performance is theatrical, at times comical, like when the actors mock the accents of the accused or when the court crier changes Columbus's name to Cumbolos, a play on the word cumbolo, which has positive connotations of togetherness but can also refer to socially malicious people. The message of the song is potent and its critique unapologetic and sharp: the rich, powerful Europeans who exploited less militarily powerful peoples may have controlled life on earth for their colonial subjects, but God will ultimately reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and his judgments last for eternity. Judgment Day is not an uncommon topic in reggae songs, especially those by artists who focus more heavily on Rastafarian themes. As much as anything else, it shows how much the religion necessitates that its close adherents be aware of the inequalities that exist across the globe, systematic and indirect as they may be today.
My apologies for the sound quality of the first cut.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
This solo piano album captures a complete live performance from October 25, 1960, when the celebrated Ukranian pianist Sviatoslav Richter came to the United States by a special arrangement between a Soviet media company and the American Recording Artist Music Corporation. The liner notes say that Richter's tour was originally proposed as a gesture of diplomatic goodwill that would coincide with a visit by then-president Khrushchev, and it was in that way that he came to the U.S. in the same year that he first performed west of the Soviet Union. Richter played five concerts at Carnegie Hall which won wide critical acclaim and apparently made a big impression on the American classical music community. According to the liner notes, Columbia planned to release recordings of all five concerts, but I'm only aware of three concerts that were released in their entirety, the others being an all Beethoven set (Volume 1) and a performance of compositions by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff (Volume 3.) I'm given to understand that Volume 2 is the most sought after in the series. The sound on this album is clearly live and even a little bit raw in parts, but there is an energy and charm on this recording that I haven't found in many albums that were recorded in state of the art studios.
Richter's reputation apparently preceded him in the U.S. and his concerts were highly anticipated, with musicians and music lovers alike flocking to Carnegie Hall to experience his musical mastery firsthand. According to all the news articles excerpted in the liner notes, the audience reaction after the fact was even more enthusiastic. In reference to this specific performance, one critic reported hearing "a new and great Debussy." If you listen, I'm sure you'll be able to hear the magic that these critics were describing, but I also read the amazement in these reviews as reactions to how deeply this Soviet pianist shared their aesthetic preferences. I can't imagine that the optimistic possibilities entailed in this moment were lost on many of the audience members, and I like to think that it accounts for at least a small part of the joy in their applause.
I'm sure there are a lot of different ways to explain what happened in the intervening years between this concert and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in any case the event demonstrates the irrationality of mass fear that plagues many modern societies in which too many people religiously integrate official narratives into their worldviews. This concert showed that at least some Americans were starting to see through the haze of 1950's anti-communist propaganda. Some say that music is a universal language, but more to the point, it's hard to control how other people interpret it. If in the Soviet Union Richter had any patriotic value as a living national treasure, in the U.S. he was a symbol of how through music, our humanity can disrupt our political tensions. But just two years later, (the Missile Crisis coincided with the two-year anniversary of this concert,) this moment of coming together was swallowed up when Kennedy and Khrushchev himself, neither of whom desired the annihilation of the human race in any way, brought the world closer to destruction than it's ever been.
It seems like an example of convention getting in the way of rational behavior, of bureaucracy taking on a life of its own. But as much as the political system created the crisis, such a standoff would not have been conceivable had Americans not consented to our militaristic brand of diplomacy out of fear. The government sought to manufacture consent through propaganda, but it ended up buying its own story and getting sucked into the panic. This is why fear on a big scale is dangerous, because people can help create it but not control it. Today, some people are a little better informed and more cynical, and it seems like more than before, leaders who spin webs of lies for political purposes lose the trust of many of their citizens. Still, as we can see this very moment in Russia, it takes more than just recognizing a leadership problem to root it out.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
Some funky moments on this live album recorded January 1973, especially on the last track Manuel Deeghit. The performances were at Concerts by the Sea, a jazz club on the Redondo Beach pier that lasted until at least the mid 80's. The club was run by Howard Rumsey, the bassist and founding member of the legendary West Coast jazz band the Lighthouse All-Stars, which featured some of LA's best jazz musicians of the 1950's. Through playing and hosting concerts, Rumsey has contributed to the Southern California jazz scene for most of his life. He is 94 years old and continues to play sporadically, most recently (to my knowledge) in a tribute to Stan Kenton last October.
Puttin' It Together shares most of its cast with the more popular Live at the Funky Quarters (San Diego) record that came out in 1972. On this album, Mike Wolff replaced Al Zulaica on piano and Tjader added Bob Redfield on the guitar. Ed Bogas, who produced Live, also co-produced this album and Jim Stern stayed on as the engineer. Like many prolific jazz musicians, Tjader's sound changed a lot over the years and although the Latin influence was a thread throughout his career, he was really versatile. For me, the funky semi-electric music that he got into in this era is some of his heaviest.
Cal Tjader: vibes, timbales, percussion
Mike Wolff: piano
Bob Redfield: guitar
John Heard: bass
Dick Berk: drums
Michael Smithe: congas