Friday, March 30, 2012

"Hannibal" Marvin Peterson: Naima, 1978

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

Kakraba Lobi: Live, 1994

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.

Update 3.17.12:

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

Fabulous Counts: Get Down People b/w Lunar Funk, 1970

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.