Norman Wisdom big in Albania

 

Albania

Oops, sorry—this statue in Tirana is to Mother Teresa. Same difference… For a less flattering portayal by Christopher Hitchens, see Dragging the icon to the trash.

In this thrilling new fantasy world of unfettered (unfetta-ed) opportunity that Brexit promises for “Great” “Britain”, perhaps we can now look forward to a lucrative trade deal with Albania, inspired by Norman Wisdom (and note the cameo from Tony Hawks):

For more, see here. A wacky instance of International Cultural Exchange, eh.

For other cute vignettes from Albania, see here and here. On a more serious note, do explore the wonders of Albanian folk music. For the earlier conjunction of Alexei Sayle with culture behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

Dream songs

 

In my post on Noh drama, I noted that Allan Marett’s Eliza made a kind of bridge to his fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia.

In the fine tradition of subaltern studies, Allan Marett, in partnership with Linda Barwick, has long been studying wangga, a musical and ceremonial genre of Aboriginal people of the Daly Region of northwest Australia. Along with many articles, he has written

  • Songs, dreamings, and ghosts: the wangga of north Australia (2005, with CD online here)

and co-authored

  • Allan Marett, Linda Barwick, and Lysbeth Ford, For the sake of a song: wangga songmen and their repertories (2013), with associated website here (NB audio here).

Dream songs make one of the most fascinating instances of the process of musical creation, and the relation between “inspiration and perspiration”. They also make a fine exhibit for us to broaden our concept of “serious music”.

Here I’ll consider Songs, dreaming, and ghosts. It’s the result of nearly twenty years of fieldwork, its detailed analyses enhanced by participant observation. In the Preface Allan explores the ambivalence of non-Aboriginal society towards Aboriginal culture, asking why its visual arts are so much more valued than its music:

Part of the answer must surely lie in the fact that both paintings and popular songs are easily commodified, while traditional songs are not. They do not lend themselves to reframing within a European modernist tradition in the way that paintings do. Moreover, traditional songs work in ways that are unfamiliar to most audiences and are sung in languages that nobody outside their home communities understands. They tend to be intensely local, focused on places that are frequently unknown to any but those who have rights to the country. They rest on cosmologies and ways of being that are radically different from those shared by the majority of the Australian community.

The articulation of the relationship between the living and the dead occurs both in the process of song composition and in ceremony. The whole culture is deeply embedded in the concept of country (for a very different kind of Country, see here).

As Allan observes,

The many social changes—settlement, migration, marginalization—that attended European intrusion on Aboriginal domains in the Daly region are reflected in, and mediated by, wangga.

The focus of the book on the positive roles of cultural transmission emerged from Allan’s dialogue with his mentors, whose primary wish was to share the beauty and resilience of their art, rather than dwelling on the post-colonial traumas that permeate all their lives, shared by indigenous peoples worldwide—poverty, low life expectancy, discrimination, high rates of incarceration, land rights, and so on (see e.g. here). For endangered songs and endangered languages, see here, and for the role of technology in preservation, here.

Allan outlines the history of research since the 1950s (A.P. Elkin, Trevor Jones, Alice Moyle, Catherine Ellis, and so on). He reflects on how to integrate social and musical analysis—a model for which I recommend Berliner, Thinking in jazz. We may think of WAM as complex, but the complexities of both the culture and soundscape of aboriginal life are of a different order. He reflects wisely on the role that notation may serve for us:

Although analysis is not particularly fashionable within ethnomusicology today, I am strongly of the view that it provides our best methodological tool for isolating significant (and signifying) moments of performance. I am not so naive as to assume that Western notation can ever accurately represent the totality of the sound world of wangga—or indeed any complex sound world—but I believe that transcription can, if sensitively handled, be used to direct the listener to salient features of the music, much as maps direct travelers to salient features of the landscape. Just as maps are socially constructed documents with their own sets of conventions, and just as they can never represent every aspect of the landscape without simply replicating the landscape in its entirety, so too are transcriptions socially constructed documents that can never totally encode the sound world to which they relate. But insofar as they help us navigate through an unfamiliar music, they can be extremely helpful.

The reason that I use Western notation—despite its obvious shortcomings—is because it is the most widely understood way of graphically representing musical sound. Many of the recordings on which my transcriptions are based are presented in the accompanying CD, and I invite readers to judge the efficacy of the transcriptions, and their associated analyses, with regard to the extent to which they open up the music and render it intelligible.

Indeed, reading such densely-argued analysis makes it all the more important to follow Allan’s careful transcriptions in conjunction with the 28 short audio tracks on the associated website. Such analysis of arcane repertoires is admirable—all the more so in view of the dearth of indigenous musical terminology. Profound concepts are often expressed in misleadingly simple expressions (cf. “doing things” in north China).

Chapter One introduces repertories, histories, and orders of being—opening with the legend of Old Man Tulh, represented in painting and in song.

Wangga songs are performed by one or two (or occasionally more) songmen, who accompany themselves on wooden clapsticks and are accompanied in turn by another performer playing the didjeridu, a long trumpet fashioned from a tree branch thathas been hollowed out by termites. Wangga songs typically comprise a number of bursts of singing, which I term “vocal sections”, which are accompanied by didjeridu, and, in some cases, clapsticks. Vocal sections are separated from one another by a number of “instrumental sections”, which are performed using clapsticks and didjeridu, with occasional spoken, sung, or hummed interjections by the songman. In many case, it is in the instrumental sections that dance comes to the fore.

The wangga repertory may be divided into two broad musical types. In the first, which I call “unmeasured”, the singer alternates didjeridu-accompanied vocal sections without clapstick accompaniment with instrumental sections performed by both clapsticks and didjeridu. In the second, “measured” type, the singer accompanies himself with clapsticks throughout the whole song, and the delivery of the text in the vocal sections is contstrained by the metrical framework established by the sticks and the rhythmic ostinato of the didjeridu.

Allan introduces the two main centres for the composition and performance of wangga, Wadeye and Belyuen—both migrant communities.

Today it is the Walakhanda wangga repertory that is dominant at Wadeye. The reasons for this go back to a set of extraordinary decisions made by Wadeye elders almost fifty years ago. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a conscious decision was made to create three new repertories of song—the Walakhanda wangga, lirrga, and dhanba—as the basis of of a new tripartite system of ceremonial reciprocity. […]

The immediate impetus for the establishment of this system was the rapid expansion of the Port Keats mission that occurred during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The expanded community included groups who had long histories of conflict with one another and therefore required a new mechanism to maintain social harmony. The tripartite system established at that time continues to function to the present day and is pointed to as a source of ongoing stability within the community.

In Belyuen, by contrast, the community was further removed from the country in which their totemic Dreamings reside, giving rise to a different set of cultural references.

Chapter Two, “Dreaming songs: sustaining tradition”, opens with the Barunga songman Alan Maralung’s account of how he was given songs in dream, and goes on to explore what exactly it is that the ancestors give to songmen. The author finds that the process of composition continues to evolve.

I once witnessed Maralung rehearsing a new song that he had just received. He sang fragments of melody and text sotto voce and quietly beat out short rhythmic patterns, adjusting the various elements until he was happy with them. Later that day he was able to perform the song for a recording; this perhaps suggests that he required less composition time than Mullumbuk. One should bear in mind, however, that Maralung’s songs involve a much greater degree of improvisation than Mullumbuk’s. They constantly evolve and never attain the degree of stability sought by Mullumbuk, or indeed by Lambudju. When songs are not regularly performed in ceremony, as is the case with Maralung’s repertory, they never become “set”, and their form invariably remains unstable from performance to performance. Nevertheless, both forms—those set by performance in ceremony, and those that continue to evolve from performance to performance—equally represent the collaborative work of humans and ancestors.

Basic elements are the cooperation and tensions between lineages, and between different language groups, influencing important aspects of performance.

table

As ever, this is not some anonymous, timeless tradition: individual performers make major contributions. As in other genres (including WAM), wangga repertories change significantly over time. Allan notes repertory loss:

Many songs fall quickly from the repertory with the death of their composers, while some survive for several generations. New songs quickly emerge as new songmen take over.

For various parameters for musical change, see Bruno Nettl.

Left: Behaving suspiciously towards strangers [lessons available for Brexiteers].
Right: Circumcision ceremony, Wadeye 1992.

Chapter Three explores ceremony, notably mortuary and circumcision rituals—again, constantly subject to revision. Always paying attention to the underlying importance of myth, Allan focuses on two burnim-rag mortuary ceremonies, in 1988 and 1995; and he makes detailed comparisons between a 1988 circumcision ceremony and accounts from 1935 to 1945. He broadens the topic to include lirrga and dhanba genres, and ceremonial reciprocity.

As performed today, the circumcision ceremonies at Wadeye represent a revival of the rites discontinued in the mid-1940s under influence from the Catholic mission at Wadeye, then Port Keats. The exact date of the revival is difficult to ascertain, though it seems reasonable to assume that it coincides with the creation of new repertories of wangga, lirrga, and dhanba in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

New ritual complexes have been introduced to replace those that are no longer regarded as efficacious. Notwithstanding the function of ritual to enhance social cohesion, given the precarious nature of tradition, I’d be interested to see an account like that of Geertz for a “failed funeral”, which I emulated for China.

Chapter Three ends with an account of funerals, performed within a Christian framework, and “quasi-ceremonial” civic events such as graduation ceremonies and festivals.

Chapter Four addresses the nuts and bolts of song and dance in performance. Referring to Susan McClary, he comments:

The need to focus not only on how performers play against conventions to generate meaning, but also on the meanings embedded in the conventions themselves, is as important for the study of wangga as it is for McClary’s study of the blues or Beethoven’s A minor quartet.

Indeed, pace Taruskin, this is another clear case of “serious music”!

Allan analyses melody, mode, melisma, metre, voice quality (cf. Voices of the world); the role of the rhythmically patterned drone on didjeridu, and the clapsticks, often signifying the footsteps or the gait of an ancestor; and the dance.

He begins by analysing a 1968 performance of a measured wangga song by Tommy Barrtjap at Belyuen (above, with audio track here), discussing in turn how metre and tempo are established in the instrumental introduction, the structuring of vocal and melodic sections, the structuring of text and its rhythmic realisation in song, instrumental interludes and codas, and stabilizing form.

He then unpacks an unmeasured wangga from a 1988 burnim-rag ceremony at Wadeye, and its relationship with dance.

Always uncovering both communal and personal elements in transmission, Chapters Five to Eight explore major repertoires of wangga with detailed analyses. Chapter Five concerns the Walakandha wangga, established in the early 1960s as part of the reorganization of ritual life at Wadeye. Chapter Six discusses the more variable (and now rare) Ma-yawa wangga, Chapters Seven and Eight the wangga of Tommy Barrtjap and Bobby Lambudju Lane at Belyuen.

In Chapter Nine Allan revisits the musical conventions of the Daly region, drawing general conclusions on the diversity of text structures, rhythmic treatment, multivalency, melody and mode, rhythmic mode and dance.

Chapter Ten looks beyond the Daly region to the performance of wangga and lirrga in the Barunga/Beswick and Kimberley regions. Again using material from as far back as the 1940s, Allan explores the wider network of ceremonial reciprocity between Wadeye and other communities, always identifying creativity.

Again, it is most important to follow Allan’s detailed analyses together with the audio tracks on the book’s website. Of course, listening like this we can only admire them as isolated sound objects, detached from the context of ceremony and dance. Short of attending ceremonies ourselves, film should be a major medium to engage with this culture—indeed, I can imagine Allan making a wonderful portrait film on the topic. Meanwhile, we can get a flavour of ceremonial performance here, with Button Jones singing wangga and lirrga from the Kimberley (as in Chapter Ten):

And lirrga from Wadeye:

Allan also admires the dancing in this exceptional video of performers from Wadeye at a 1973 Eucharistic Congress at Melbourne, with specially-composed Christian lirrga:

* * *

Beyond the nuts and bolts of soundscape, Songs, dreamings, and ghosts constantly stresses cosmological significance, and the creativity of individual composers.

Meeting up with Allan again in London recently, I reflect that after our paths converged at Cambridge while studying Tang court music with Laurence Picken, they then diverged with our respective fieldsites, and then converged again with fieldwork on living folk ritual among disadvantaged people (my own topics in China including spirit mediums and blind shawm players)—all paths of which Laurence, in his wisdom, approved.

 

 

More Country

Sources of country musicThomas Hart Benton, The sources of Country music (1975).

Three chords and the truth—Harlan Howard

Do you know what the southern definition of a true music lover is?
It’s a man who, if he hears a woman singing in the shower, puts his ear to the keyhole—cited in Dawidoff, In the country of country.

Complementing his classic series on jazz, the new PBS series by Ken Burns on the simpler but equally meaningful language of Country music reminds us that far from being a quaint byway, it represents the soul of modern US culture. The eight two-hour episodes have been re-edited and pared down into nine 50-minute programmes for BBC4. [1] Now that I’ve watched the latter, I’m keen to see the full version. Here I can only outline a few of the themes and personalities.

If you know about Country, then you won’t be reading this, and indeed you may bring more critical perspectives to bear on Burns’s portrayal; but for the rest of us, it deserves taking seriously. Here’s a trailer:

As with any genre (Aboriginal dream songs, Iranian chamber music, French baroque, and so on), you just have to immerse yourself in the style and the culture (for a more detailed project on flamenco, see the amazing series Rito y geografia del cante).

With Peter Coyote’s distinctive voiceover, the series judiciously blends interviews and performances with lingering photos, encompassing the personal and political, artistic and commercial, poverty and pain, ecstasy and drudge, church and honky-tonks, domestic stability and outlaw excess, survival and solace. Looking beyond the hillbilly costumes and cowboy hats to the heartache, amidst all the drink, drugs, divorces, early deaths, and the ravages of the touring life, Burns accessibly draws us to the lyrics and music, always identifying themes in the history of cultural transmission, and the very nature of tradition.

Gradually over the series, the early log cabins, railroads, coal mines, textile mills, timber yards, and sharecroppers give way to mansions and Cadillacs. And as one review comments, you can almost trace the history in the performers’ faces: the lean lines of the early stars such as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, giving way to the gnarled faces of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and then the soft, untroubled faces of the ’80s and ’90s stars. But to see it as “a simple journey from the sublime to the ridiculous” risks succumbing to the bourgeois nostalgia for poverty.

Despite the later countrypolitan sounds, audiences constantly returned to the roots authenticity of old-time, bluegrass, hillbilly. Female performers play an exceptional role, such as The Carters, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, and Emmylou Harris.

oldies

The Rub (beginnings to 1933) makes a captivating opening, with wonderful archive photos evocatively deployed. Folk music is always eclectic. Spreading through barn dances and travelling medicine shows, the history of Country is intertwined with gospel and spirituals, slavery and the blues, as well as folk traditions of Appalachia and European migrants, notably the British Isles. Though Country has been described as “the white man’s soul music”, the series acknowledges its debt to African-American culture. In addition to the new technologies of phonographs and radio, it soon became a highly commercial proposition, with patronage from institutions like the National Life and Accident Insurance Company and its WSM station, which gave rise to the long-running Grand Ole Opry. Among early performers, the 1927 discovery of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers was a seminal moment.

In Hard Times (1933–1945) (“The sad songs are the best”), the industry continues to grow through the Great Depression and World War Two, with major migrations. The Texas Swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys was based on strings rather than horns—a classic case of the eclectic melting-pot of immigrant styles (Cajun, Hispanic, and so on) (cf. Accordion crimes). Nashville becomes the heart of the scene with the rise of the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe are admired, and the Carter family become ever more popular. The steel guitar plays a growing role. Social dancing is still a major element.

Why don’t Baptists make love standing up?
Because people would think they’re dancing.

Country helped people cope with loss. Hard times was adopted from Stephen Foster’s 1854 parlor song:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh hard times come again no more

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleding looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more

Hank and Holly

Hank Williams and his granddaughter Holly.

The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945–1953) evokes the postwar period, focusing on the great, short-lived Hank Williams, with fine vignettes from his granddaughter Holly, and Marty Stuart reminding us of the importance of black musicians in the tradition. Also featured are the stellar bluegrass lineup of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs; and the Carter sisters with their mother Maybelle.

Carters

In I Can’t Stop Loving You (1953–1963), the confluence of blues and hillbilly music at Sun Records in Memphis gives birth to rockabilly, the precursor of rock and roll; at the forefront are Johnny Cash (with comments from his daughter Rosanne) and Elvis Presley. Not “Walking the Line”, Johnny Cash gets together with June Carter. Among the rapt inmates for his 1959 concert at San Quentin was Merle Haggard. Like Russians listening to Vladimir Vysotsky, when they heard him they couldn’t believe that Cash hadn’t done time in prison.

Meanwhile in Nashville the country twang was replaced by a smoother sound, with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn among its stars. Before Patsy Cline’s tragic death in 1963, there’s a nice story about how they reached the perfect tempo for her recording of Willie Nelson’s song Crazy, whose exceptional melodic and harmonic invention quite transcends the cheesy accompaniment:

In The Sons and Daughters of America (1964–1968), the Grand Ole Opry story continues, even as social conflict intensifies. Johnny Cash embodies the spirit of the age, his self-destruction mirroring his artistic triumphs. From the new East coast folk revival scene he took on board the current of social protest; his admiration for Bob Dylan was mutual. His 1968 Folsom Prison concert was a triumph. Merle Haggard (“San Quentin graduate”, another engaging commentator throughout the series; he died in 2016, R.I.P) emerges from his misspent youth as a great singer.

Amidst the civil rights movement (note also Detroit 67), Charley Pride overcomes racial prejudice with his fine voice. The unfiltered songs of Loretta Lynn chime with the new wave of Women’s Liberation. Dolly Parton, fourth of twelve children from a rural cabin without electricity or running water (the kind of CV that was still de reigueur for that generation of singers), demands to be taken seriously—despite joining a select group of strong women reluctant to acknowledge the boons of feminism.

Tammy and Loretta

Tammy Wynette with Loretta Lynn.

The story continues in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968–1972). As the Vietnam War intensifies, the industry and its audience react to divisive social upheavals. George Jones and Tammy Wynette get together. Despite Tammy’s submissive Stand by your man, she didn’t—by contrast with the tough-talking songs of Loretta Lynn, who did; as Jennie Seely comments “I always kinda thought they wrote each other’s songs.”

Among a growing number of Country recruits from outside the archetypal deprived rural background was Kris Kristofferson. Several singer-songwriters pay tribute to his exceptional lyrics, such as Casey’s last ride:

Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down
The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below;
Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors
Of silent desperation, never speakin’ to a soul.

The poison air he’s breathin’ has the dirty smell of dying
‘Cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain.
But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes
Of the clickin’ of the turnstiles and the rattle of his chains.

 Oh! she said, Casey it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!
Here she said, just a kiss to make a body smile!
See she said, I’ve put on new stockings just to please you!
Lord! she said, Casey can you only stay a while?

As he explains, his song Bobby McGee (Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train, And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans…) was inspired by La strada. Johnny Cash was hugely popular, and increasingly countercultural. And the Californian hippies of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recruited senior Country legends like Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Roy Acuff for an album that bridged the gap between generations.

In Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973–1983) (a sentiment that recalls Taruskin) opens by asking a question central to ethnomusicology, how much change a genre can embrace while retaining its identity; and reminds us how resistant Country had always been to arbitrary borders. As the smooth countrypolitan sound reaches new audiences, singers like Dolly Parton achieve crossover success, finding time for the classic epithet

It cost a lot of money to look this cheap.

And Emmylou Harris, with her background in the East Coast folk scene, tells how she found herself by becoming a convert to Country. At the same time, despite pressures from the Nashville bosses, Waylon Jennings managed to persist with a rougher style. And we hear the compelling story of Hank Williams Jr as he emerges from the long shadow of his godlike father to forge his own path (exemplified in his brilliant song Family tradition!)—with further endearing comments from his daughter Holly.

Marty and L Flatt

Lester Flatt with Marty Stuart.

In Music will get through (1973–1983) the less mediated, marginalized bluegrass style enjoys a roots revival: “It was so old that it was new”. It had never gone away, it just hadn’t hit the headlines. Marty Stuart, who provides thoughtful comments throughout the series, comes into his own as a fine performer, touring from young with Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, and later with Johnny Cash. I’m struck by how much performers themselves revere the whole tradition:

Walking into the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. It was like that old scene in The Wizard of Oz where the world went from black-and-white to color.

Nelson and Haggard

Merle Haggard with Willie Nelson.

The veteran Maybelle Carter finds a new audience; George Jones and Tammy Wynette, now divorced, come back for a reunion album. Willie Nelson (“Willie’s not from round here—I mean, Earth”) thrived in the freewheeling, genre-bending scene of the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. With Waylon Jennings he launched the Outlaw movement, later going on to work with Merle Haggard.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Rosanne Cash becomes a fine singer-songwriter. Emmylou Harris bridged folk, rock, and Country, influencing a new generation of artists, including young Ricky Skaggs, with all his bluegrass credentials.

As doors continue to open, the final programme, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984–1996) features artists like Reba McEntire, Naomi Juggs and her daughter Wynnona; k.d. lang (“a punk reincarnation of Patsy Cline”), Kathy Mattea, Rhiannon Gid, and megastar Garth Brooks.

Cashes

Johnny Cash with Rosanne.

But the pull of the more traditional elements still remains strong. Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart stay faithful to the bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe, taking Country back to the front porch. Johnny Cash reinvents himself, bowing out on a high note, with Rosanne offering more insights. The series concludes with a wonderful montage on the whole tradition.

And the story continues…

My purpose here, apart from drawing your attention to a fine piece of film-making, is not so much to provide a superfluous summary as to remind myself, in the spirit of ethnomusicology, that all the musickings of all the cultures around the world deserve to be treated on an equal footing, and that they offer a revealing window on societies in change.

 

[1] Currently online, alas only briefly, so catch it while you can; otherwise, the DVDs are eminently worth buying. The book, like that complementing Burns’s series on jazz, also looks tempting. Among many reviews far better informed than I can offer, see e.g. here and here. Among the extensive literature (note Malone and Neal, Country Music, U.S.A.), I’ve enjoyed re-reading Nicholas Dawidoff, In the country of country: a journey to the roots of American music (1997).

 

A flamenco Christmas

Xmas 1

As a relief from the seasonal bombardment of tinsel, schmaltz, and sprouts, you can’t beat a flamenco Christmas in Andalucia.

I featured the Navidad flamenco programme from the brilliant documentary series Rito y geografia del canto in my article on gender, politics, wine, and deviance, but a separate post seems timely—and like this recent addition to my series on flamenco, it bears on the wonders of inter-generational family upbringing.

Filmed with all the characteristic intimacy of the series, the episode features shots of customary life (“not suitable for vegetarians”) and the making of the zambomba friction drum that accompanies villancicos carols; as well as a fantastic Christmas bulerías session featuring the Soto family in Jerez, with the children taking their turns to sing:

For saeta devotional songs at Easter, see Calendrical rituals, and under Cante jondo.

Chicago blues

blues

In The blaze of obscurity Clive James (R.I.P.) compounds his paltry efforts to represent Japanese culture on film with a candid and fatuous account of filming a blues session for his Postcard from Chicago:

But Chicago’s expatriated European art would have been an unduly quiet story if it had not been offset by something noisier, and our candidate for that was the blues. Unfortunately, much as I loved jazz, I had only a limited tolerance for the kind of blues number in which the singer sings the same not very inspired line twice (or even worse, three times) before capping it with a third (or even worse, fourth) not very inspired line, followed by a peremptory wail from from that least disarming of all jazz instruments, the amplified harmonica. I spent a long, harrowing night in a blues club where I had to look fascinated by the cacophonous remains of a famous blues shouter called something like Slow Dirt Buncombe (I remember his real name but his lawyer might still be alive) while he gave a string of examples of how a song with less than a minute of material could be stretched to thirty minutes if you made the same line and stanza sound different by mangling them in a different way each time. Yelled at cataclysmic amplification, “Well mah woman she done leff me” was a recurring motif. “No bloody wonder” was the obvious continuation, but he never sang that. Thanks to the unnecessary volume—the sure sign of inadequate music—I was never completely clear what he was singing, but I could rely on a maximum air of drama when he pulled back from the microphone, slanted his polished ebony head to shield it from the blaze of the heavenly splendour he had created, and suddenly leaned forward again to give a long blast on his hellishly resonant harmonica. The desirable and necessary ideal of racial equality should, in my view, allow us to say that there is the occasional blues artist whose parade of desolation amounts to an acute pain in the neck. Slow Dirt Buncombe was one of these. Unfortunately Nobby, the deaf sound-man who was once again on the case, caught every line of Slow Dirt’s act with perfect fidelity, and some of the results got as far as the final cut, accompanied by cutaways of my enchanted, lying face.

Maybe he was just unlucky—although one wonders why the BBC scouts wouldn’t be able to find a good band. And sure, it’s a typically funny account. But rather than making an effort to identify what it is that makes blues so effective and using his own gift for words to encapsulate it, he chose here to disguise his incomprehension beneath glib cliché.

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of fine documentaries about Chicago blues, like this:

Not to mention more general histories, such as:

Or Blues America (here and here). And of course there’s a vast treasury of live performances online.

So to exorcise Clive James’s experience, here’s the great Junior Wells with Buddy Guy in 1970:

 * * *

Still, despite Clive James’s cultural blind spots, I am eternally grateful for his priceless evocation of Barbara Cartland’s face:

Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.

Oh Noh!

FG

To follow my post on Noh drama, on a lighter, nay meretricious (and a Happy New Year) note—in lieu of my fantasy article “There’s no business like Noh business: stagecraft in Japanese drama”:

While Clive James (R.I.P.) was generally admirable as well as entertaining, in chapter 12 of The blaze of obscurity he candidly describes his inability to represent traditional Japanese culture on popular TV. Coming to the topic via the unpromising genre of game shows, he concludes a passage describing the rationale behind the filming of his own discomfort (not merely physical) at a session with a samisen-playing geisha by proclaiming:

To let myself in for ridicule might mitigate any impression that I was setting out to ridicule the culture, which in fact I revered, even for its way of becoming even more incomprehensible as you focused your attention on it.

But he gave up far too easily. That comment follows a paragraph that includes a reference to Noh:

A Japanese classical sword-smith takes a long time to make a sword, you need a degree in metallurgy to appreciate what he does, and the finished product looks exactly like a stage prop from an amateur production of The Mikado. In a Noh play an actor takes half an hour to cross the stage. The special walk he is using takes a lifetime’s training, but he looks exactly like an old man with arthritis setting out to buy a newspaper. You can fall asleep while he is making his entrance and when you wake up again he is still making his entrance.

Sure, there’s no denying that Noh is short on hectic car chases and steamy love scenes. This passage is distinguished by its lazy cultural chauvinism:

In Kyoto, at the Geisha training school, the top lady was one of the greatest living players of the shami-sen, the single-stringed guitar [HEY] that has come down through the ages without acquiring any extra strings to compromise its purity by providing it with, say, the capacity to produce a chord. It goes plunk. It goes plink.

So much for ethnomusicology, and his proclaimed reverence for Japanese culture. At least he or his team of researchers might have counted the strings, FFS. At least the Serbian gusle really does only have one string, though the review featured here is no more enamoured with it.

To return to my orchestral tours, while I really shouldn’t emulate the way that James plays for laughs the culture that he professes to revere, Noh goes quite well with jet-lag—you can indeed nod off, or pop out to do a bit of shopping, and by the time you get back to the action the waki will still only have shimmied halfway across the stage. But enchantment soon takes over.

Further irreverent ideas might include a feature-length Family guy—Oh Noh!, with Brian and Stewie as an original waki–shite duo; not an entirely silly idea, as redemption (e.g. here) and time travel are common themes of the series.

And along with reading Miles Davis’s autobiography in the voice of the Queen (“Man, that cat was badder than ten bad motherfuckers”), how about a party game reciting my script for the wacky (wakiphrases from Teach yourself Japanese (a MUST READ!) in Noh style?

But enough of such levity—do follow up the wonders of Noh via my previous post, and with this post on tradition and change!

For a sequel in which Clive James extends his incomprehension to Chicago blues, see here.

Some jazz fiddling

Having given a little introduction to some styles of world fiddling (see also fiddles tag), I must confess that I often find jazz violin underwhelming. Country fiddling is amazing, but whereas sax and trumpet are made for jazz, the violin seems to struggle to adapt to the bebop revolution.

Much as I love Nigel Kennedy, I prefer his electronic excursions, where he seems less bound by classical” conventions. His own taste for jazz goes back to his teacher Menuhin’s collaborations with Stephane Grappelli.

But I am totally in awe of Chris Garrick—and I’m pleased to see that Maxim Vengerov is too:

I want to learn to play like Chris Garrick!

Just a taster—but do explore the variety of his soundworld:

Besides pioneers like Joe Venuti and Eddie South, Stuff Smith had a distinctive style:

They were followed by classically-trained fiddlers like Jean-Luc Ponty and Regina Carter.

Further from mainstream post-bebop, east Europe and Turkey, along with their more traditional string bands, also make fruitful breeding-grounds for new styles. The Paganini lookalike Nedim Nalbantoğlu is great—here he is playing acoustic with oud:

And this session at his Paris café:

Here’s Félix Lajkó:

He’s not always as frenetic as this:

Still more of a melting-pot for folk styles is Tcha Limberger:

And pioneers of fiddling in Polish jazz were Zbigniew Seifert and Michel Urbaniak.

How I envy such creativity…