Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Various Artists: Percussions Afrique No. 1: Tchad, 1966

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

Peter Tosh b/w Joe Gibbs and the Professionals: Here Comes the Judge/ Judgment, 1973

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

Sviatoslav Richter: At Carnegie Hall Volume II, 1960

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

Cal Tjader: Puttin' It Together, 1974

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