I generally go to some lengths to avoid Beethoven, my wariness confirmed by Susan McClary. I grew up on his late string quartets, but I hardly know the piano sonatas, so Op.109 (1820) came as a revelation. While its improvisatory quality clearly suits Grimaud, to me the manic contrasts of the first two movements often sound like an ADHD diagnosis; but the final movement, with its variations on a tranquil, intense theme (Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung—in the incandescent key of E major, to boot), is a real apotheosis. Here’s her 1999 recording of the movement:
She has a particular affinity with Brahms, and continued with the “private musings” of his late works from 1892–93 (for some reason I’ve always thought of Brahms as mid-century, but the symphonies are from the 1870s and 1880s, and he knew Mahler). First the Three intermezzi, “lullabies in all but name”:
And then after an interval, the Seven fantasias, a contrasting series of intermezzos and capriccios—the fifth movement particularly haunting for me:
In 1877 Brahms had adapted Bach’s monumental solo violin Chaconne (featured here) for piano (left hand—cf. Ravel!). Instead, Grimaud segued from the Seven fantasias into Busoni’s 1893 arrangement of the Chaconne, which I mentioned under Alternative Bach. Here she plays it live in 2001:
Lastly as encores for the rapturous audience she played Rachmaninoff and Silvestrov—the latter part of her latest project.
Averse as I am to the whole mystique of “Pianism”, Hélène Grimaud joins a cohort of celestial musicians of yore for whom the piano is merely a vessel; ** she vanishes deep inside the music, leading us with her. While she’s a devotee of rubato, her playing is unadorned and serious, eschewing mere virtuosity, never glamorising the music. The mood set by her languid stroll on and off stage (gliding, dreamy but not casual—roaming the clouds), once seated at the piano she plays for herself, as if we are but eavesdroppers. To hear her is one of life’s great blessings.
To accompany my post on Ethio-jazz, the whimsical piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (1923–2023) made another great coup for Buda Musique producer Francis Falceto in the CD series Éthiopiques. Vol. 21 (2006) opens with the enchanting sounds of The homeless wanderer (playlist):
Her father, the European-educated diplomat and former vice-president of Ethiopia, Kentiba Gebru Desta, was 78 years old when she was born, making her possibly the only person on the planet alive in 2023 with a parent born in 1845. The young Guèbrou was a glamorous society girl, educated at a Swiss boarding school and fluent in several languages. She had piano and violin lessons at a classical conservatoire in Cairo (learning under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz), immersing herself in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. On her return to Addis Ababa, she started to write her own compositions, and assisted Kontorowicz when he led the Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard Band (she recalls playing the Emperor some solo piano pieces and singing him a ballad in Italian).
Following Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, Emahoy spent time in confinement with her family on an island near Sardinia (cf. this post). In 1948 she was offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for some reason she couldn’t take up the offer. Depressed and apparently disillusioned, she abandoned high society life to take holy orders, going to live barefoot at an austere convent on the holy mountain of Gishen Mariam north of Addis Ababa.
There she stayed for a decade before returning to Addis to live with her mother, when she started playing the piano again; her recordings between 1963 and the mid-70s have become the basis for her canon. She remained in Ethiopia after the 1974 coup, but was increasingly involved in charity projects with the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, where after her mother’s death in 1984 she lived in a convent for the rest of her life.
In the words of John Lewis, her compositions are a “curious fusion of fin de siècle parlour piano, gospel, ragtime, Ethiopian folk music, and the choral traditions of the country’s Orthodox church… pitched somewhere between Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, and Professor Longhair”, using
a series of pentatonic scales, or kignits [useful intro here], which are the building blocks of all Ethiopian music, from its ancient liturgical chants to its folk songs and funky pop music. These five-note scales are similar but musicologically quite distinct from Arabic maqams or Indian modes. They have names like the anchihoye, the tizita and the bati, and most have major and minor-key variations (some, like the ambassel, don’t have a minor or major third at all, and so have a wonderfully ambiguous, open-ended feel). Guèbrou’s piano playing manipulated these modes to draw us in and hypnotise us, like a snake charmer with a pungi.
Here’s an excerpt from the long-awaited documentary Labyrinth of belonging:
Journalists in search of a soundbite sometimes claim rashly to have discovered “the last” exponent of some precious ancient genre; even ethnomusicologists may be prone to this faux pas (e.g. Balkan bards; the lama mani of Tibet; cf. Ishi, “the last wild Indian”).  There may be some cases of this, but it seems to misinterpret constant change in folk cultures.
I was reminded of the hallowed clickbait by a recent article on zhuizi shu 坠子书 narrative-singing of Henan province in central China. Despite the title “The last blind folk storytellers”, it’s an interesting piece. As it points out, narrative-singing, along with fortune-telling and massage, remains the most reliable means for blindmen to make a living, a traditional form of “poverty alleviation” not just in Henan but throughout China (e.g. Shaanbei, and note Liu Hongqing’s book on blind bards in Shanxi, which makes an even more harrowing version of the story told in the article on Henan).
The blind female performer Zheng Yurong 郑玉荣 (b.1985) was taken in by a poor couple after being abandoned as a baby. She took up zhuizi shu in the hope of making a living after losing both her foster-parents when she was young. As I learn from a 2022 article, after befriending another blind performer in 2011, they felt such an affinity that, utterly unlikely as it sounds, DNA tests determined that he was in fact her younger brother—though he too had been abandoned, his foster parents had survived to bring him up well. As Zheng Yurong made a name for herself, they sought their birth parents through the auspices of Zhengzhou TV, but without success. She had gone on to marry her accompanist Feng Guoying 冯国营 (43), also blind, and they raised two sighted children in a flat provided by the government in Lushan county-town.
Blind performers are no longer considered so auspicious—and then came Covid. Faced by rising household bills and the cost of their children’s education, Feng has had to take up fortune-telling again, from a rented flat.
The economic climate since the 1980s’ reforms has certainly affected the livelihoods of folk performers. Still, unlike narrative-singing in regions such as Shaanbei, zhuizi shu as never been limited to blind people (for posts on blind musicians in China and elsewhere, click here). And none of this justifies portraying them as “the last” bearers of the tradition. It feeds into the widespread yet powerless laments of well-meaning pundits about the decline of traditional culture—laments that, again, have a long history.
* * *
Henan has long been poor; but the most desperate famine there came in the “three years of hardship” following the Great Leap Backward. In recent decades the province has been hard hit by the HIV/AIDS scandal (see.e.g. here, and here).
I’ve mentioned Henan in posts on the zheng plucked zither (cf. the yaqinbowed zither) and spirit mediums (including refs. in n.3). Without the benefit of fieldwork, I thought I’d seek a basic acquaintance with the zhuizi shu, equipped with the great Anthology (click here, leading to my review “Reading between the lines”), whose monographs on narrative-singing Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志, province by province, are among the most impressive of the whole vast project—further complemented by the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成 volumes on narrative-singing music (for the folk-song volumes, see also here).
Despite the poverty of the region, one of the most notable survivals of its literati heritage is to be found in its folk narrative-singing. As shown in the Henan volume (1995), the genre known as zhuizi shu (named for its distinctive bowed fiddle zhuizi) is just one of thirty-five genres of narrative-singing identified around the province, including guzi qu 鼓子曲, dadiao quzi 大调曲子, sanxian shu 三弦书, pingshu 评书, dagu shu 大鼓书, daoqing 道情, shanshu 善书 morality tales (pp.93–4), and lianhualao 莲花落.
As always with these monographs, one has to piece together material distributed around various rubrics. The framework for zhuizi shu is presented in a brief overview (pp.65–70), which packs in some impressive historical documentation, supplemented by sections on performance contexts (pp.373–4) and venues (pp.456–497). Defined by the zhuizi fiddle, it emerged in the 19th century on the basis of other genres, notably sanxian shu and daoqing, spreading from Kaifeng to the southwest of the province and beyond. In its early days stories were delivered by one or two itinerant performers, invited for the redeeming of vows huanyuan shu 还原书, a common context in Henan (pp.498–9) and elsewhere, and for temple fairs (again, cf. Shaanbei).
Traditionally a solo male performer accompanied his own singing on fiddle, but by the early 20th century the roles of fiddle player (waikou 外口) and vocalist (likou 里口) were sometimes separate, and soon afterwards female vocalists began to emerge on the little stages of tea-houses, with simple props. By the 1920s (in a typical process) some groups featured both male and female vocalists, emulating the style of “little opera”, further enshrined by professional troupes after the 1949 Liberation.
The genre was performed as far afield as Tianjin and Beijing. The first recordings seems to date from 1928, and by the 1930s several companies were issuing 78s; click here for one of several recordings online of the influential singer Qiao Qingxiu 乔清秀 (1910–44). Another section of the Anthology volume documenting various types of organisation features zhuizi shu groups active in the Republican era: those of Wang Yulan 王玉兰, Lu Yuancheng 鲁元臣, Liu Weiran 刘蔚然, and the Fan 范 family (pp.418–20).
But it is rare for new styles to simply replace the old (note the wise words of Bruno Nettl): the itinerant, unstaged format persisted in the countryside. As the Anthology notes, while the state troupes came to be dominated by short excerpts from female vocalists, in the countryside itinerant male artists prevailed for much longer, performing lengthy stories (whose plots, related to other genres of narrative-singing and opera, are outlined in a separate section, pp.128–200). I’d be keen to document the enduring activities of story-tellers performing for poor rural families redeeming vows, and at temple fairs (you know me…).
The New Year’s narrative-singing at the Horse Street festival in Baofeng county.
Before we consult the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, the Zhongguo quyi zhi has a succinct outline of musical features (pp.205–21), identifying melodic and metrical aspects of eastern, western, and northern styles, with transcriptions.
As well as a detailed chronology for genres, the material I enriched by biographies of celebrated zhuizi shu performers.  It introduces a wealth of studies over the decades preceding publication, such as the 1951 book Henan zhuizi shu (quyi zhi, p.531) by Zhang Changgong 张长弓 (1905–54; quyi zhi, pp.638–9), as well as official documents (pp.665–701) for imperial, republican, and Communist eras—the latter in particular offering illuminating vignettes on social change (cf. Hunan).
* * *
More recently, click here for lengthy footage from Baofeng county from 2022, and here for a documentary on the life of Xia Lingshan 夏玲珊, reflecting changing styles of presentation. And here’s a busker. For the same genre in nearby Shandong, there is film footage online of blindman Guo Yongzhang 郭永章 (b.1945), such as: 
Long before the Intangible Cultural Heritage sank its fangs into zhuizi shu, performance on the concert stage has become common—as usual, supplementing rather than replacing traditional folk contexts.
Even if we can’t refine the picture through our own fieldwork, the Anthology confounds the simplistic, reified image of the whole range of Chinese performance arts, showing the wealth of activity before, during, and since Maoism—supplemented by articles suggesting the precarious survival of poor families through all three periods.
For more on narrative singing in China, see under my post on Chinoperl.
 Ishi’s songs were wisely studied by Bruno Nettl in “The songs of Ishi: musical style of the Yahi Indians” (1965).
 Including (I’ve marked female performers—who emerged only later—with *): Liu Weiran (1878–1956), Li Mingyi (1888–1979), Gao Liankui (1889–1956), Zhang Zhikun (1889–1975), Liu Zhongtang (1890–1955), Zhao Yanxiang (1891–1963), Chen Yongqing (1891–1971), Chen Zhikui (1893–1939), Hou Wenming (1894–1942), Zhang Hongyu (1894–1947), Zhao Cuiting* (1897–1960), Gao Xuebin (1898–1945), Meng Zhifa (1899–1974), Fan Mingyan (1898–1980), Cheng Liyan (1900–1975), Li Zhibang (1901–83), Bi Liduan (1903–43), Zhu Yuanli (1907–76), Wang Gancheng (1908–60), Zhang Quanyou (1909–77), Zhang Yuqing (1914–79), Zhang Xiushan (1914–69), Wang Shuangqi (1914–85), Chen Fuzeng (1917–85), Liu Mingzhi* (1920–77), Zhao Yuqin* (1921–81), Zhao Yuanxiu (1923–84), and Ma Yanqiu* (1933–77). And that’s just the more celebrated names for whom the edited publication found space…
Their programme at the Barbican last week (notes here) was intense right from the start, with Berio’s hieratic Contrapunctus XIX, an arrangement of the final unfinished work in Bach’s Art of fugue, completed with an enigmatic B-A-C-H chord. Then came Berg’s violin concerto (1935), mourning the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler—with another homage to Bach. Having been entranced by the piece through my teens, I was glad to hear it again, played by Veronika Eberle. Though this was the only piece requiring larger forces, the way she blended with the orchestral sonorities reflected the whole intimacy of the concert, reminiscent of chamber music.
Image: Mark Allen, via @londonsymphony.
After what is known as an “interval”, * Haydn’s Trauersinfonie, more Sturm und Drang than sombre, was delightful. Symphony orchestras venturing back into Early Music can sound ponderous and drab, but scaled down, in the hands of a tasteful director, they’re perfectly capable of bringing such works to life. Not an obvious choice, the symphony is full of the light and shade highlighted in the rest of the programme, and juxtaposing it with new works, Hannigan and the LSO reminded us of Haydn’s creative originality. The oboes and horns shone, the strings with some fine pianissimos between bursts of manic, angular noodling (1st and 2nd violins seated antiphonall, YAY!); and the Adagio (in E major!) was radiant (I couldn’t help imagining Haydn beating Henry Mancini to it with a minor-key variation on the Pink Panther theme).
And so to a most original finale: Lonely child (1980) (see e.g. here and here) by the Canadian Claude Vivier (1948–83) (wiki, and here)—yet another composer whose sound-world was enriched by Balinese gamelan. Without knowing of his traumatic, short life, his text may seem more dreamlike and reassuring, with its “great beams of colour”, stars, magicians, sumptuous palaces, and mauve monks. But Vivier’s music is “forever grasping at a place of security and eternity that is just beyond reach”, in the words of Jo Kirkbride’s programme notes. Hearing it live, I felt a certain remote Arctic chill—suggesting a link with Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, already a modern classic thanks to Hannigan.
Lonely child was first sung by Marie-Danielle Parent, for whom Vivier wrote it. Whereas Hannigan often combines singing and conducting, here she accompanied the evocatively singing of Aphrodite Patoulidou—here they are in 2019:
* At this point my keyboard was hijacked again by a Martian ethnographer, whose note I append here:
Interval: an interruption in the proceedings that appears to be widely accepted by the participants, when they take leave of the ritual building to partake further in the ingestion of mind-altering substances.
My allusion to La ci darem la mano (in Sentimentality in music) reminded me belatedly to catch up on the extensive body of material on the problematic nature of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, from which I cite a mere selection.
As I performed the opera in the pit since the 1970s—effectively “one of the servants”—it hardly seemed my place to reflect on its messages. One likes to think that audiences are more aware since #MeToo, but in my memory of earlier performances, I suspect that many people enjoyed the dramatic frisson and some jolly good tunes without agonising too much over the issues involved—Harmless Fun for All the Family? Among the well-heeled Covent Garden audiences demurely sipping their interval champagne are doubtless victims and perpetrators of sexual violence, yet such a venue may not seem a promising constituency for feminist views.
While the views of Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte are among those considered in the articles I cite below, they (like me) are more concerned with the opera’s later reception history.
Music has the power to conceal as well as to illuminate dramatic agendas; as Roger Kamien noted, “Mozart’s music has made a sinner seem very attractive”—this article, reflecting the mood since #MeToo, incorporates some musical analysis. In this post I relished the aria Protegga il guisto cielo while hardly delving into its message and context.
Writing in 2022, Hannah Szabó notes that E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1813 story praises the opera, treating the protagonist as a venerable force:
the baritone playing Don Giovanni boasts a “powerful, majestic figure” with a “masculinely beautiful” face that stands out in the provincial town where the performance takes place. […] Women, once they have met his gaze, can no longer part with him, and, spellbound by his uncanny power, must ineluctably achieve their own ruin. […] A tyrannical king, he towers above the “puny specimens of humanity whose feeble dreams and plans”—Zerlina’s marriage, Donna Anna’s chastity, Donna Elvira’s infatuation—“he hijacks solely for the sake of his own pleasure”. In comparison, the harem of women he surrounds himself with are reduced to “factory-produced mannequins”, soulless clones who can only be animated by his ever-shifting presence. Among this “vulgar rabble,” Don Giovanni ascends to near-divinity.
This was an enduring view. Joseph Kerman portrayed Don Giovanni as “a romantic hero, a scorner of vulgar morality, and a supreme individualist”. In her fine 2017 article “Holding Don Giovanni accountable”, Kristi Brown-Montesano expresses shock at William Mann’s 1977 misogynistic portrayal of Donna Anna; she finds his position widely echoed in the critical reception of Don Giovanni at the time, heavily skewed in favour of the libertine aristocrat (she makes an apt comparison with James Bond).
Commentators and directors have idealised Mozart’s wilful, seductive, and violent protagonist, crediting him with virtues (unflagging bravery, triumphant self-determination, revolutionary resistance to oppressive societal power, and sensual idealism) that are, at best, only equivocally suggested in the original libretto. […] The female characters are judged largely in terms of charm and receptiveness to the Don’s don’t-say-no sexual advances. […] Fast forward 170 years later and you find conductor James Conlon rhapsodising that all three female characters have experienced a sexual metamorphosis, compliments of Don Giovanni: “their erotic impulses awakened, magnified, and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer”.
But meanings change. Liane Curtis published two articles in 2000: “Don Giovanni: let’s call a rapist a rapist” and “The sexual politics of teaching Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Szabó notes Catherine Clément’s 1979 book Opera, or the undoing of women, “reframing Don Giovanni as an exploration of the ways that gendered power oppresses men and women alike”. As well as the violated noblewomen, Zerlina’s aria Batti, batti,
the most famous invitation to domestic violence in the genre of opera, * reveals a woman of the lowest social class employing the only tool available to her, that of her “feminine” sexuality—”feminine” in the traditional sense of completely submissive. “Beat me, beat me, dear Masetto, beat your poor Zerlina. I will stand here like an innocent lamb and take your blows,” she sings, a frightening stance to take on the first day of her marriage.
As with La ci darem, it was long possible to delight in the apparent romanticism of the aria:
Yes, Don Giovannicomes from a different time. But this is a poor excuse for partitioning opera/art from contemporary ethical values, forever justifying behaviour that—in any age—is predatory and exploitative. Does the work benefit from this protection? Do we?
She ends thus:
If we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.
Susan McClary was a pioneer in unpacking the sexism of Western Art Music. For Michael Nyman’s scintillating instrumental take on the Catalogue aria, click here. On a purely linguistic note, do read Nicolas Robertson’s brilliant anagram tale on Don Giovanni (Noon? Gad—vini!).
Burt Bacharach, who has just died at the age of 94, commanded the broad territory between soothing and rebellious musics, hardly deserving the epithet “easy listening”, as Alex Petridis comments in one of many tributes to his artistry.
Having admired I say a little prayer (under Detroit 67) and the soundtrack to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, I’ve been listening again to Walk on by (1963). “a woman’s perspective on a failed relationship”, written with Bacharach’s lyricist Hal David in the early days of their collaboration with Dionne Warwick, and recorded in the same session as Anyone who had a heart. Here’s 1964 footage of her singing it in Belgium—not just live but really live, apparently:
Again, the cool syncopated trumpet interjections (cf. Comment te dire adieu) don’t quite remind me of Messiaen…
Here’s a 1996 BBC documentary on Bacharach’s life and music (opening with Marlene Dietrich, narrated by Dusty Springfield, with cameos from many of his collaborators):
Left, Dilber Ay; right, Büşra Pekin in the title role of the 2022 movie.
Flying on Turkish Airlines, to follow the safety video (Trailer for a thriller) and a dodgy dervish movie (note here), I’m also grateful to them for introducing me to arabesk singer Dilber Ay (1956–2019), subject of a recent biopic (Ketche, 2022) that captivated me, even without subtitles. Here’s a trailer with German subtitles:
Dilber Ay was brought up in a Yörük-Kurdish tribe of Kahramanmaraş province, south Turkey. Her family migrated north to Ankara and then Düzce, where she was discovered by TRT scouts at the age of 13. Constantly abused at the hands of men, her story chimes in with what seems to be a dominant genre in Turkish cinema. This interview doubtless reads better in Turkish, but you get the gist…
Like much of the most moving music around the world (see e.g. under flamenco, or the Matthew Passion), Dilber Ay’s music expresses anguish—often stressing the theme of imprisonment, as in her Flash TV series Kadere Mahkûmları (Prisoners of fate, 2011–15). It’s always the plaintive slow laments that captivate me, often with exquisite free-tempotaksim preludes on violin. Two songs featured in the film:
Among her other songs,
Barak havasi, with further contributions on zurna:
 I featured İbrahim Tatlıses under The call to prayer. On the changing arabesk scene, Izzy Finkel’s instructive BBC radio programme “Istanbul’s factory of tears” (2019) includes contributions from various singers and producers, as well as Martin Stokes, author of The arabesk debate (1992).
Assessing sentimentality in music seems to be rather subjective (more on wiki here and here). I offer these random jottings largely as a reflection of my personal tastes.
It’s hard to police taste. In our times the term “sentimental” has come to have pejorative connotations—as wiki suggests, “a reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason”; meretricious (and a Happy New Year), trite, even false. Other items on the word-cloud of sentimentality include maudlin, mawkish, tear-jerking, schmaltzy, manipulative, heart-on-sleeve, and self-indulgent—restraint being a virtue fraudulently claimed by the elite. Apparently emotions, and the declaration of sentiment, have to be earned (Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”).
Gender is a major element in the discussion, with the often-unpacked trope of rational/repressed men and emotional/communicative women. The “sentimental novel” (indeed, empathy itself) is often associated with the rise of female authors, although Dickens is a notable suspect, as well as some poetry of Wordsworth. In daily life, while objects of “sentimental value” seem exempt from censure, much-noted contexts include family, cute pets (the main content of social media, grr), teddy bears for Princess Diana, nature (the sentimental/pathetic fallacy; think sunsets), and Christmas cards. For a brilliant antidote, do listen to Bill Bailey’s Love song!
I note that my own playlist of songs is heavily weighted in favour of women singers, who seem most capable of emotional expression. By contrast with bubblegum/wallpaper music, at last the songs I’m considering are intense. Apart from the lyrics (even assuming we know or care what they mean!), much depends on the framing, the dramatic context. Irrespective of genre, one would suppose it difficult to “earn” the declaration of sentiment within the limits of a song lasting only a few minutes; but it’s perfectly legitimate to plunge right into a mood, as do many WAM songs. Performance is also crucial, the establishment of rapport: the vocal quality of the singer, the arrangement, harmonies, instrumentation (smoochy strings being a giveaway), and tempo. Some may find “the same song” sentimental (or not) according to such variables.
I’m not entirely fascinated by philosophical discussions, such as this from Charles Nussbaum (I’m somewhat thrown by his idea that “passion excludes sentimentality”—really?). He distinguishes sentimental music from the musical portrayal of sentimentality, which is OK, apparently. While critics defend such music by detecting layers of irony, detachment, and distance, isn’t it just those qualities that expose a song as false, a device for feigning passion? Surely we want sincerity; there’s nothing intrinsically superior about ironic detachment. It seems that a song can be both denigrated and excused for being fake.
I’m wary of Posh People claiming the cerebral high ground of lofty moral sentiments, trying to belittle the experience of the Plebs, moving the goalposts; as if their own emotions were noble, but those of the lower classes unworthy of expression. Corduroyed Oxbridge professors (and perhaps even the “tofu-eating wokerati”) pretend to more legitimacy in channelling feelings than a hairdresser from Scunthorpe, but if there was ever a time when this mattered, then fortunately it has receded. Responses to music can’t be policed (cf. What is serious music?!).
So the term is often used as a simple dismissal of a nuanced spectrum. WAM is a broad church, within which pundits make distinctions. Some more austere ideologues, still hooked on “autonomous music” (debunked by Small et al.), might claim to relegate emotion entirely, but WAM is full of it. Puccini is a classic case who appears to need defending (see e.g. here, and here), such as O mio babbino caro:
Predating anxieties over sentimentality, while I refrain from considering the courtly love of medieval ballads, we might now find sentimental some elements in the music of Bach (“O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild!”)—set within a religious frame. In WAM (as in Sufism) the portrayal of divine love can be controversial; some critics shrink from the sumptuous string harmonies that are part of Messiaen‘s unique musical lexicon. Baroque arias such as Handel‘s Lascia ch’io pianga, or Purcell’s When I am laid in earth, are never rebuked for sentimentality. Mozart arias too are presumably “rescued” by dramatic irony—such as La ci darem la mano (cf. Holding Don Giovanni accountable), the Terzetto from Così, or the Countess’s aria:
But many audiences, even “high-brow”, are presumably moved by such arias irrespective of the dramatic context.
Moving on to the Romantic era (generally considered OK, you gather), the OTT pathos of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is clearly “earned”. For Mahler, the kitsch of popular folk music made an essential and utterly moving counterpoint to his more metaphysical strivings. But he weaves layers of “sentiment”, such as the slow melody that contrasts with the monumental opening of the 5th symphony (above). The Adagietto, of course, is easily co-opted to what we might consider sentimental ends—a not uncommon fate, like Rachmaninoff in Brief encounter. Again, a lot rests on interpretation: conductors are often praised for toning down the sentimentality in Mahler’s music—WAM pundits are dead keen on restraint (cf. Susan McClary on the denial of the body). Returning to gender, this article by Carolyn Sampson on performing Schumann songs may also be relevant.
Modern times (1936).
Just as in opera, music manipulates us strongly in film (e.g. “weepies”), such as The way we were or Cinema paradiso. Again, our dour WAM pundits tend to disdain the art of film composers such as Korngold.
Turning to popular musics, I revisit my (not to be missed!) playlist of songs. Again, in such pieces a certain dramatic distance seems to help. Charlie Chaplin’s Smile is a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived. The nuanced ballads of the Beatles seem sacrosanct—besides Yesterday and Michelle, She’s leaving home is a masterpiece of empathy. I’ve sung the praises of Dream a little dream (again, “elevated” by Mama Cass’s delivery, by contrast with that of Kate Smith). Am I “allowed” to relish Michel Legrand’s You must believe in spring? “Am I bothered?” Country music is more anguished than saccharine (indeed, the lyrics of the Countess’s aria could be from a Country song!)—I like the tone of this post. In jazz, the ballad was blown away by bebop, but survived despite recastings in a more edgy manner, like Coltrane‘s My favorite things. But while the modern reaction to sentimentality has been quite widespread, I can’t help wondering that it’s a handy slur used by the elite to denigrate popular culture.
While such concepts change over time, they clearly vary by region too. If WAM and popular musics share a considerable affinity in conceptual and musical language, the context broadens out widely with folk musicking around the world, where sentimentality doesn’t seem to be A Thing, confounding our narrow Western concepts. In the Noh drama of Japan, a transcendental message and austere sound-world pervade the common recognition scenes at the scenic site of an ancient tragedy. Conversely, the cante jondo of flamenco, its “brazen, overwrought, tortured, histrionic” style expressing “self-pity, posturing machismo, and hypersensitive adolescent egos”, doesn’t quite fit within the norms of sentimentality; nor does the heartache widely expressed in the anguished nostalgia of saudade and sevda. As in WAM or the sentimental pop song, the performance is exorcistic, cathartic.
So for some reason I seem to be requesting permission to be moved by certain songs—Pah! By contrast with some WAM-lite singers like Katherine Jenkins, Billie Holiday had a unique gift for singing sentimental lyrics without ever sounding remotely sentimental—such as Lover man, or You’re my thrill (“Here’s my heart on a silver platter”):
What knots we tie ourselves up in! In both WAM and popular genres, it’s worth positing all kinds of fine distinctions, and interrogating them; but pace the self-styled arbiters of taste, there’s little consensus on what is “legitimately” moving, and I’m reluctant to exclude any music along the spectrum of mood. Hmm, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”…
I have to admit that I’ve never warmed to the voice of Kathleen Ferrier, although I’m a devoted fan of Janet Baker. The series generally suggests Christopher Small’s plea to recognise the value of all kinds of musicking, not merely the “prestigious” (cf. What is serious music?!), and guests often include a track of amateur, domestic musicking that evokes intense memories or associations.
Cate introduces Molly Drake (1915–93; playlist), observing: “So private, she was making music inside her home, for herself really… she gives me quiet courage.” Her choice is The little weaver bird:
The vision of Messi dancing his way through flailing defenders reminded me to expand my limited acquaintance with Argentine tango—don’t worry, I’m not going to try and dance. 
As with flamenco, fado (here, with sequel), and rebetika, the demi-monde roots of tango in the ports and bordellos were soon co-opted in a typical progression from banning (like the waltz) to bourgeois respectability, as the genre’s sleazy, predatory background gave way to the elegant sensuality of polished cabaret and ballroom performance (for critiques of artistic competition, click here). Please excuse me if I round up some of the Usual Suspects below, and for focusing on music rather than dance.
The early years, and the Golden Age In the traditional style, the habanera rhythm, with the jagged, staccato syncopation of its 3+3+2 accents (cf. Taco taco taco burrito), is common to other Latin American genres (see this useful wiki page). The tango sound became more distinctive from the late 19th century with the addition of the bandoneón, originally used for church music in Germany (cf. Accordion crimes—including an early Polish tango).
The dance, with its sinuous intertwinings, spread around Europe from 1910. Echoing the “posturing machismo” of flamenco, Ricardo Guïraldes wrote in homage (sic):
Hats tilted over sardonic sneers. The all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts…
Naturally, in recent years the sexism of tango dance has been subjected to much critique.
The global fame of tango was spread by the new radio, recording, and film industries. Here’s Rudolph Valentino with a tango-travesty in The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921):
and the great Aníbal Troilo on bandonéon with singer Edmundo Rivero in Cafetín de Buenos Aires (1948):
Tango is part of a widespread musical family expressing heartache (duende, saudade, sevda, and so on), whose letras lyrics enhance its melodic melancholy; however, in vocal timbre I find none of the harsh anguish of flamenco cante jondo. The quintessential tango singer was Carlos Gardél(1890–1935), heard on playlists like this:
To redress the macho dominance, women singers from the Golden Age—some great tracks here:
With the lyrics it’s quite transformed—I like Carlos Gardél’s version (#5 in playlist above), reminiscent of fado. Like most performers, he sang the Si supieras version by Pascual Contursi, which is maudlin enough—but the anguish of tango is rarely expressed so extremely as in Matos Rodríguez’s own lyrics, heard in this 1945 recording:
La cumparsade miserias sin fin desfila The parade of endless miseries marches en torno de aquel ser enfermo around that sickly being que pronto ha de morirde pena… who will soon die of grief…
Well, that’s the last time I’m inviting him to one of my parties.
The piece must have become a millstone around the necks of tangueros—but its immortality was confirmed by Tom and Jerry:
Piazzolla Meanwhile, as juntas and Perónism rose and fell, Buenos Aires was in flux; with an ever-swelling immigrant population and changing tastes, “old-guard” tango declined amidst the rise of pop music. And so to the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla (1921–92) (Songlines; wiki), “the Boulez of the bandoneón” (an epithet attributed to L’Éxpress, making one worry about its readership figures), who “elevated” the genre to the status of art music in the concert hall (NB What is serious music?!). After his youth working with some of the great bands of Buenos Aires, Piazzolla was drawn to the style of modern WAM composers like Bartók and Stravinsky, studying with Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger—who, to her credit, insisted that he follow his own path.
Studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, 1955.
He also recruited jazz musicians to his groups, although by the standards of jazz his arrangements were over-prescribed (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”).
Again, just a selection. Tres minutos con realidad (1957):
And the gorgeous Oblivion (1982; danced here, and here):
I’m keen on his late Quinteto Tango Nuevo, with Fernando Suarez Paz (violin), Pablo Ziegler (piano), Horacio Malvicino (guitar), and Hector Console (bass)—click here for their 1984 gig in Utrecht (playlist).
As the “world music” scene took wing and boundaries were breaking down, Piazzolla became a legend. A definitive book is María Susan Azzi and Simon Collier, Le Grand Tango: The life and music of Astor Piazzolla (2000). And here’s the documentary Tango maestro (Michael Dibb, 2004):
Joining a long list of London gigs that I kick myself for missing, in 1985 Piazzolla performed for a week at the Almeida Theatre! Awww…
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The scene has continued to develop, with nuevo tango supplemented by neotango. But as Adam Tully observed,
It’s too easy to think that [Piazzolla] was leaving it all behind or rejecting it; in truth he was completely a part of this music and wanted it to be ever greater, to grow rather than to stagnate. And the dead end is to think that since Piazzolla innovated, then the natural progression of tango is the language that he invented. The danger there is for other composers, arrangers, and performers to get absorbed into Piazzollean language, which is what happened in the 80s and 90s.
Finally, some bonus tracks. Dance, with its complex technique, remains a vital part of tango’s social life, deserving greater attention than I can offer; but here are some staged representations. Carlos Suara’s 1998 movie Tango:
For Last tango in Paris and The conformist, click here. A scene from Frida (2002):
Hmm. Like I’d know—I was just admiring Messi weaving his way through yet another helpless defence, and recalling his time at Barcelona, comparable only to Bach at Leipzig [Late entry for 2022 Pseuds’ Corner Award—Ed.].
Hot on the percussive heels of Israel Galván’s flamenco reinvention of The Rite of Spring, I paid another visit to the splendid Bhavan Centre in west London, where resident vocal guru Chandrima Misra led her students in the first of two evenings displaying their progress learning a variety of north Indian ragas—the latest in a series of courses over many years.
Chandrima Misra directing students, Founders’ Day, March 2022.
Between the opening and closing numbers (with nearly a hundred students seated on stage) we heard a variety of solos and for two, three or more singers—mostly women—in the popular khyal style, discreetly supported by Chandrima Misra on harmonium, with Rajkumar Misra on tabla, whose own students also took turns. Students paid eloquent tributes to the diligence and inspiration of their unassuming guru.
Framed by rāgs Bhairav and Bhairavi (introduced here as part of my extensive series on north Indian raga), the programme illustrated a variety of ragas roughly in their proper sequence prescribed over the course of the day, such as Bhimpalasi, Multani, Puriya, and Bihag. Many used chromatic scales with augmented intervals—none more complex than Lalit (introduced here).
As I observed on a previous trip to the Bhavan, it’s always intriguing to hear how young students learn the building blocks of a raga, memorising increasingly lengthy bandish compositions before going on to develop their own voice. The event had a celebratory family charm that rather conjured up an image of the Tring Amateur Dramatic Society; and it suggested the core of the mehfil aficionados who attend concerts of the great visiting artists—a strong amateur basis for the appreciation of raga in the UK.
* * *
In this concert footage, Chandrima Misra sings rāg Multani (flat 3rd ga, sharp 4th Ma, with re and dha—both flat—only sounded in descent), again with Rajkumar Misra on tabla, and Prabhat Rao on harmonium:
Munawar Ali Khan was the son of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1902–68)—who, as wiki notes, while agreeing that the beauty of classical music lies in leisurely improvisation, favoured shorter expositions of lighter ragas, reluctant to impose long alaps on his audience. In this brief excerpt he sings Bhairavi in thumri style:
And here he is heard in a selection of clips:
Chandrima Misra’s other main teacher was Vidushi Sanjukta Ghosh—in this radio concert from c1983/84 she sings rāg Lalit:
I’ve long been hooked on the gritty art of flamenco (series rounded up here), and The Rite of Spring is utterly compelling in both orchestral and ballet versions, always a rich source of inspiration for new interpretations. It makes perfect sense for them to come together, and the other day I was delighted to attend a solo dance performance of La Consagración de la primavera by the ever-innovative Israel Galván at Sadlers Wells.
It’s hard to unhear the sonorities of the orchestral score, but the pared-down arrangement for two pianos (played by Daria van den Bercken and Gerard Bouwhuis) worked well, and Galván was mesmerising, embodying Stravinsky’s vision with his chthonic percussive energy.
Here are excerpts from a performance last year:
The dance complemented the agonised ethos of flamenco—modifying its ”self-pity, posturing machismo” (Timothy Mitchell) and the “culture of victimage” (William Washabaugh) (see Flamenco, 2). Blurbs for Israel Galván typically remark on how he “challenges gender norms”. While stressing the angular syncopations of Stravinsky, he added his own rhythmic counterpoints. His whole body became a sound-box, with relentless stomps and shimmies (his legs sometimes concealed beneath a huge billowing skirt) and expressive arms. Much as he deserved a nice sit-down, you might not think that the hectic Danse sacrale that concludes the piecewould be quite the moment, but he spent most of it on a chair—legs, feet, and arms frantically busy as ever.
The Rite of Spring usually makes a climactic finale, but here it was the centrepiece of a continuous event, amidst two contrasting musical works, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti—also making suitable vehicles for Galván’s style. The programme brought out the highly percussive nature of the piano, even if I couldn’t help imagining a version on bandoneón and xylophone.
Andrea Motis is one of the most gifted young musicians nurtured under the aegis of Joan Chamorro’s Sant Andreu Jazz Band project in Barcelona (click here, and here). How very wonderful to hear her live last weekend, performing at the London Jazz Festival on vocals and trumpet at Pizza Express Holborn—an intimate venue conducive to attentive listening—in trio with the splendid Josep Traver on guitar (a Sant Andreu veteran) and the Sicilian bass-player Giuseppe Campisi.
Her alternation of vocals and trumpet recalls Chet Baker, but whereas Chet constantly reproduced a mood that he had discovered in his youth, Andrea is constantly developing—creating her own magic of the voice, ever deeper in her personal dream.With her growing superstar status, she’s not becoming a diva: her manner remains unassuming.
Here’s an upbeat number (the colour palette not doing justice to the Mediterranean warmth of her Almodóvar-esque dress!):
Between imaginative reworkings of standards like My favorite things and Someone to watch over me, a highlight of her Latin-tinged set was her entrancing transformation of Majorcan/Catalan band Antònia Font’s song Alegria, with its “gentle shower of stardust”—here she is performing it in 2020, with Josep Traver and Joan Chamorro:
If Andrea had stayed with her four-piece jazz backup band of Juan and Josep etc., and done original versions of jazz standards, she could have been the European version of Diana Krall and found huge success. With that small jazz band, she was getting hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of comments on YouTube. With her new band led by her husband and the experimental style, she is fading from view. I find this unfortunate.
I’ve been trying to get an impression of the underground music scene in Tehran.
While this sub-culture naturally attracts journalists and film-makers, this is not merely exotic decoration for our jaded palates, but a manifestation of urgent issues confronting young people in Iran—in particular, the options for women to express themselves within tight constraints (cf. Persepolis). This alternative scene makes an outlet for frustration (cf. GDR, China)—and often a route to emigration.
Your go-to authority on the variety of musicking of Iran is Laudan Nooshin. Further to her survey in The Rough Guide to world music (2009), she has published significantly on the popular music scene—  a scene, of course, that continues to evolve.
A few vignettes that I’ve spotted via the media: 
On the underground metal scene, here’s the incisive short feature film Forbidden to see us scream in Tehran (Farbod Ardebili, 2020) (see e.g. here, here, and here):
Her parents were part of the vast wave of Greeks expelled from Asia Minor in the population exchanges of 1922–23. Living in a shanty town on the edge of Athens, without water or electricity, she grew up in poverty. But at the age of 13, while attending night school, her life was transformed when she was trained by the musicologist and song collector Simon Karas (1905–99) (website, with some projects; wiki)—whose largely prescriptive work set forth from the study of Byzantine modes.
Having endured German occupation and civil war, Samiou began working for the state-run radio station in 1954. Mass migration made Athens a convenient base to collect songs from all over mainland Greece and its islands. By 1963 she was travelling widely on recording trips. In 1971, with Greece still under the junta, she left the radio and started singing in public, opening the ears of younger generations to folk music. Inevitably, covering such a wide area, her forays sometimes remind me of the “gazing at flowers from horseback” style of lesser Chinese fieldworkers, with specially staged performances—but given her own background as a folk singer, the comparison would be quite unfair. Her surveys suggest the rich regional cultures of song, dance, and instrumental music—Thrace, Epirus, the Peloponnese, Asia Minor and Pontos, as well as the islands (Crete, Karpathos, Skyros, Skiathos, Lesbos, and so on).
From her 1966–67 TV series A musical travelogue with Domna Samiou (twenty episodes, usefully introduced here), here’s the programme on musicking in Evros, Thrace:
 Apart from the material in this post, see e.g. this site; other starting points include wiki; The Rough Guide to world music and Songlines; The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, The Garland encyclopedia of world music, and so on.
Like WAM, the recordings and tours of the great jazzers have long had a devoted following in Japan. But as American culture became in demand in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat in World War Two, many fine musicians moved from mimicry to creating their own sound. For us, knowing where they come from (or even “are coming from”…), it may be tempting to seek a Japanese aesthetic in the music, such as the concept of ma “space” (see under Takemitsu) in Noh drama, or the inevitable Zen vibe. Irrespective of all that, my little playlist below has some impressive sounds—and there’s more to explore via the J Jazz reissues.
Toshiko Akiyoshi (b.1929) is the grande-dame of Japanese jazz pianists, still going strong in her 90s. “Discovered” in 1952 by Oscar Peterson, from 1973, now based in the States, she went on to form a big band with her husband Lew Tabackin. Click here for many playlists. Here’s Kyo-shu (Nostalgia), from The Toshiko trio, 1956:
Children in the temple ground, from the album Long yellow road (1974):
Kogun, from Road time (1976):
On sax, Koichi Matsukaze: At the room 427 (live, 1975—including an imaginative version of Lover man):
See also Hiromi—among my roundup of posts on Japanese culture. My jazz medley includes not only the Golden Age (Billie, Miles, Trane, and so on) and more recent figures, but also some great jazz from Poland (whose own vibrant post-war scene reminds me of Japan), Turkey, and Ethiopia, as well as notes on Istanbul and Shanghai.
Not unlike The Haunted Pencil Getting Down with the Kids by grooving to avant-garde songstresses like Dames Nellie Melba and Vera Lynn (cf. Staving off old age), I’ve been inspired by the work of two rather younger women vocalists.
Brought up in Virginia, Judi Jackson moved to New York, building on the style of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone to create her own voice. Since 2017 she has been based in London.
Here’s Still, live at Ronnie’s:
Over the moon, 2018:
and at the London Jazz Festival in 2020:
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By way of contrast, the innovative Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Zvezdana Nikolic! I wish I was called that) is quite elusive, doing few live gigs. A denizen of Ladbroke Grove, her Serbian-Spanish mother and Jamaican father are both musicians. She has released two studio albums, Rose in the Dark (2020) (playlist):
In wiki’s choice phrase, “she is rumoured to be a member of” (I like that) Sault, an even more elusive “avant-soul” (WTF) collective (reviews e.g. here and here). Since 2019 they have released six studio albums, dazzling sound collages that include Untitled (Rise, 2020):
and Nine (2021):
Some of this feels more alien to me than Chinese ritual, but it’s another glimpse of the kind of creativity on my doorstep that has largely eluded me (cf. New British jazz), and it makes me very happy.
For a roundup of posts under the jazz tag, click here. You may note that my amazingplaylist of songs is dominated by women vocalists—quite right too.
Among this wealth of creativity, I’ve been admiring the Kurdish–Alevi singer Aynur Doğan. As a recent Songlines article observes, the media find her a potent symbol for the cause of the Kurds, “Europe’s latest fetish”. Weary though I am of the “Songlines effect” (cf. here), she much deserves her reputation on the World Music scene.
Aynur was brought up in a small Alevi mountain town in Tunceli province of east Anatolia. In 1992, when she was 18, her parents brought her to Istanbul, anxious about the clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK. As she studied at the Arif Sağ Music School there, she came to focus on the Kurdish–Alevi songs of her youth (for one source of her inspiration, see Some Kurdish bards).
Her song Keçe Kurdan (“Kurdish girl”, 2004) was briefly banned in Turkey, misunderstood by some as inciting women to take up arms for the Kurdish cause rather than as a call for women’s rights. Here she performs it live in 2017:
In Crossing the bridge, Aynur’s scene (filmed in an old hamam) is exquisite (you might start watching from 54.32)—here’s her lament Ahmedo (with Italian subtitles, to keep us on our toes):
In 2005 she appeared with her band in a meyhane scene in Yavuz Turgul’s movie Gönül Yarası (“Lovelorn”) (click here).
Following the lifting of the ban on the use of the Kurdish language in public life in 2004, when it was at last heard on the national TV station TRT, this was a progressive period for the arts in Istanbul. But the scene soon suffered from Erdoğan’s drive to Islamify and Turkify society, affecting Turks and Kurds alike. And the situation in the Kurdish homeland of east Anatolia remained tense. Following the 2011 Istanbul Jazz Festival, when Aynur was shouted off the stage for not singing in Turkish, she left for Amsterdam in 2012. Here she is that year with an impressive line-up at the Morgenland Festival in Osnabrück:
Her first solo album in exile was the 2020 Hedûr, solace of time:
with the official video of the title song:
And here’s Min digo mele live, on a return visit to Istanbul in 2020 (lyrics here):
Paddy Canny (1919–2008), in the East Clare style, a graduate of the Tulla Céilí Band.
With Frankie Gavin:
And with Kieran Hanrahan on banjo:
Paddy’s nephew Martin Hayes (website; wiki) is blessed with a particularly enchanting style, often introspective yet capable of great energy (good appreciation here). I don’t always feel comfortable with guitar in Irish music, but I quite see why he relishes Denis Cahill’s sensitive accompaniment:
In this set they are joined by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (whose bow-hold delights me) and Dermot Byrne:
And here he is with the Brooklyn-born Sligo fiddler Tony DeMarco:
Click here for Martin’s album Under the moon as a playlist.
Kevin Burke (b.1950) (website; wiki), based in London until moving to the States in the late 70s, plays in the Sligo style—here are two complete albums:
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What a wealth of creative wisdom under all those nimble fingers, immersed in the style, each with their own lineages and influences, full of regional and personal variation—like shawm players in north China [Thought you were going to say that—Ed.].
Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *
Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.
The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).
From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:
If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.
Focusing on the period from 1890 to 1970, Slominski returns women to the historical narrative by exploring the “disjuncture between the documented public activity of women traditional musicians in early 20th-century Ireland and their subsequent erasure from the narrative of Irish traditional music history” (I gave a succinct introduction to studies of gender and music under my second post on flamenco).
In Irish music a few such women “were visible nationally or internationally, and tend to be remembered as extraordinary rather than exemplary”; many others were once known but have since been mostly forgotten outside their families and immediate communities. A third category was “an unknown and possibly significant number of women musicians [who] occupied social positions that rendered them invisible to the musical public sphere”. And a fourth included the “second-degree visibility” of mothers remembered as tradition-bearers whose names now appear mainly in connection with their sons.
Encoded in these categories is an unspoken assumption that traditional music’s historical gaze still belongs to male musicians. With rare exceptions, Irish traditional music’s texts have all been written by men, and the brain trust of the tradition still rests with its “gentlemen scholars.” Thus, nearly all the accounts and recordings we have of pre-1970 women musicians come from male authors, interviewers, and collectors.
Idealised women commonly appear in the media of the day as metaphors for the Irish nation:
Personifications of careworn Mother Ireland and long-tressed Erin linked homeland and hearth, and invariably cast the nation’s men in the roles of hero, protector, and dutiful son.
More promising are the biographical profiles by Francis O’Neill in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), even if he still largely conforms to the feminized personifications of the nation.
Slominski cites Habermas’s distinction between the “public sphere” (a forum for the shaping of state policy) and the “public” activities of the street; indeed, the public house was the domain of men.
The fiddler Bridget Kenny (“Mrs”) was daughter of piper John McDonough. In O’Neill’s account:
Devotion to art does not appear to have unfavourably affected the size of Mrs Kenny’s family, for we are informed she is the prolific mother of thirteen children. Neither did the artistic temperament on both sides mar the domestic peace of the Kenny home, and, though the goddess of plenty slighted them in the distribution of her favours, have they not wealth in health and the parentage of a house full of rosy-cheeked sons and daughters, several of whom bid fair to rival their mother, “The Queen of Irish Fiddlers,” in the world of music.
Alas, I can’t set much store by the 1898 recording here, billed as her playing The high road to Galway—surely the playback speed is far too fast, and the pitch correspondingly too high?!
From a poor family, Mrs Kenny became a street musician, an “urban busker”. But O’Neill also stresses her success in music competitions. Her talents were recruited by the nationalist movement.
The dominant narrative held that pipers—whether common men or gentlemen—had once been respected members of society, but that the occupation and its practitioners had fallen into disrepute.
O’Neill again, describing the period following the great famine:
Changed conditions, lack of patronage, and other well-understood causes, forced this class of minstrels, many of them blind, to take to the highways for support—a form of mendicancy which brought their once honoured calling into disrepute.
A 1912 story:
The poverty-stricken piper became an object of contempt, and the contempt was naturally extended to his instrument, the cause of his indigence. It is only a few years since a friend of mine, a good fiddler, who expressed an intention of learning the pipes, was told by his relatives that if he did so disgrace himself he need never show his face at home again! Small wonder that the pipes ceased to be generally played just as the language ceased to be spoken and so many of the old customs to be observed! The race of “gentlemen pipers” had died out and no respectable person would touch the instrument.
If social disapproval fell upon men who made a living from playing the uilleann pipes (cf. shawm bands around the world), it was much worse for the women who did so from “dire necessity”, often after being widowed early. Among instances cited by O’Neill are Mollie Morrissey, May McCarthy, and the blind Nance the Piper.
By the early 20th century, piping was becoming a somewhat more respectable occupation for women, mainly by virtue of nationalist rhetoric.
Cultural nationalist beliefs in the early 20th century helped create an environment in which some parents allowed their daughters to learn the uilleann pipes, teachers agreed to teach them, and some newly-formed pipers’ clubs allowed women members.
Morrissey and McCarthy are portrayed as “young, graceful, and mild-mannered”. This account comes from 1905:
I give you an interesting portrait of Miss Mollie Morrissey of Cork, fideogist [player of the tin whistle?], harpist, pianist, violinist, bagpiper and stepdancer, at the age of fourteen. I venture to say that not many Irish colleens can boast of such a long list of accomplishments, but such are the attainments of this little girl, whose charming and unassuming manner has endeared her to all who know her. She is the youngest and most proficient female piper in Ireland, playing the famous Irish melodies with great expression, and is also a correct exponent of dance music. [….] The clever little artiste is decorated with many medals, won at competitions in piping and step-dancing, and at last year’s Oireachtas she carried off first prize in female hornpipe dancing from all comers, her graceful carriage and movements combined with precision being much admired. [….] Miss Morrissey got a special invitation […] to attend a reception during Pan-Celtic week, which she could not accept on account of being indisposed at the time.
As Slominski observes, her role here is merely to decorate the public practice of Irish cultural nationalism.
Unlike his accounts of male musicians, in which he uses nouns like “piper”, “fiddler”, “musician”, and “composer”, O’Neill’s profiles of these two women pipers rely on words like “learner”, “artiste”, “performer”, and of course, “daughter”, “girl”, and “colleen”.
For such women, even as they depended on musicking as an occupation, music was portrayed as a mere “accomplishment”, an accessory. This at least made them seem less threatening. “By considering a women’s musicianship peripheral to her identity, any expectation that she would continue playing through her adulthood was removed”—although they often did.
Finally Slominski contrasts the lives of Galway flute-player Mary Kilcar (c.1890–?) and fiddler Lucy Farr (née Kirwan, 1911–2003). Mary’s playing was confined to the household, while Lucy took part in public musicking quite late, after reconnecting with her musical upbringing.
Mary was a spinster (as one said then) who lived with her sister. Their background seems to have been comfortable, and Mary may have had some formal education in music.
As a single and ageing woman in the socially conservative years of the Irish Free State, Mary would have been symbolically invisible: she was neither a mother nor a maiden in a society whose metaphors of nation defined the behaviour and aspirations of real women. However politically and rhetorically invisible, Mary’s position as spinster was legible within rural Irish society. The combination of her musicianship and her marital status, however, was not.
In a 1987 interview, Lucy recalled:
And there was a lady in the next village, and her name was Mary Kilcar, and she would be—when I was 20, she’d be about 40, and she played a flute, and—though she was never part of the scene in my young days— she never—women didn’t come down into the houses where the men were. You’d hear Mary Kilcar playing the flute inside in her own house, but you’d never see her in any house where there was music. And so one day, I was walking around, and I knocked at the door. “Oh!” she said, “Lucy Kirwan! Come in!” “Well,” I said, “I’ve come in because I’m playing the fiddle, and we’ve all heard you playing outside, but you never come to our neighborhood dos.” “Oh,” she says, “They wouldn’t have women—they wouldn’t at all them dos.” I said, “Well, we do, I do.” “Ah, but you’re living in the house where it is. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that.”
As Slominski comments,
Lucy’s status as maidenly daughter of a musical father placed her, a future tradition bearer, on the receiving end of borne tradition. As a spinster, however, Mary was a transmissive dead end. […]she does not fit into the category through which most women musicians of her generation are remembered: as mothers who pass tunes down to their sons. […] For single women like Mary Kilcar, bodies out of reproductive circulation also meant tunes out of circulation.
Lucy moved to London in 1936, and after her marriage she only re-engaged with the music of her youth from the late 1950s (see this fine article). Although she enjoyed greater access to the musical public sphere than Mary, even in comparatively progressive London in the late 1960s she too described the discomfort of going out to sessions alone.
Here’s a short film:
* * *
Lucy Farr mentioned sessions with the fiddler Julia Clifford (1914–97: wiki, and here), who also moved to England:
Another musician who moved to England in the 1950s was the Irish traveller Margaret Barry (1917–89), a singer and banjo player. Here’s She moves through the fair:
and the first part of a documentary:
Now I’d like to learn more about early women harpers, singers, and dancers, and the challenges they faced.
Click here for Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes and telling an almost related story.
Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk demonstrates the trombita.
The great strength of Maria Sonevytsky’s excellent Wild music is the way she binds urban popular genres closely with the constantly changing social and political life of Ukraine. While she shows how avtentyka and etnomuzyka performers remould “traditional” rural cultures, the latter are not her main topic; and indeed (typically?), such local musicking, submerged under glossy media representations, may seem to have become vestigial.
Still, as a rank outsider (as with my impertinent forays into many areas of world music, largely untrammelled by any knowledge of the subject) I’m prompted to explore online sites to seek some sonic soundmarks, and to suggest the kind of fieldwork practised by Sonevytsky’s mentors.
Given that most folk musicking is based in life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I’m sorry that few of the tracks below provide much social context—online clips often tend towards the fakeloric. But a home video like this, from a 2004 village wedding in Kolomyja county, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, has a good honest feeling (and talking of avtentyka, even the weather is authentic):
Here’s a solo kolomyjky song accompanied by fiddle at the summer solstice festival, also from Ivano-Frankivsk:
Some iconic instruments of the Hutsul people of the highlands in west Ukraine:
the long trembita horns (played over the wider Carpathian region) that gained fleeting celebrity with Ruslana’s winning Eurovision song in 2004 (see Wild music): here’s an introduction by the great Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk:
For early recordings of immigrant communities in New York and New Jersey (cf. the companion disc at the end of Folk traditions of Poland), here’s Ukrainian village music: historic recordings 1928-1933 (playlist):
And here’s a 1951 Folkways LP:
For the Crimean Tatars, here’s the first of three compilations on the emblematic qaytarma 7/8 dance (“traditional”, followed by “modern” and “retro” lists):
* * *
While folk musical activity changes constantly along with society (cf. Society and soundscape, and Musics lost and found), all this may remind us that it survives not merely in the commodified representations of urbanites; and that in Ukraine, to paraphrase its national anthem, rural culture is not dead yet.
Maria Sonevytsky, Wild music: sound and sovereignty in Ukraine (2019)
(introduction here; she has posted a basic reading list on Twitter—her tweets are generally most instructive—and do follow her text by listening to the tracks, some of which I feature below).
The book illuminates the troubled modern history of Ukraine through particular aspects of its popular soundscape. While such urban representations are Sonevytsky’s main focus, she has cogent remarks on how they borrow from regional traditions. Each chapter adds fascinating new dimensions to the story.
In the Preface she situates herself as a “halfie”, a Ukrainian American unable to pass fully as Ukrainian while doing fieldwork there, and sometimes even a target of “suspicion, derision, or hostility”. Her parents had fled Ukraine during World War Two, and on her first visit there in 1991, aged 10, she discovered that her image had been a mirage:
the real place was alien, full of real people with complex and disadvantaged lives. In it, I was a strange misfit speaking an archaic dialect imprinted with privilege and distance.
After graduating in 1991, while listening to “the cool new bands that were emerging seemingly everywhere”, she first encountered the ethnomusicologists based at the L’viv Conservatoire, going on to study the urban revival of village styles known as avtentyka, guided by the authoritative Yevhen Yefremov.
The study of pop music has become an important strand of ethnomusicology, with Eurovision a major theme (see also here and here). Sonevytsky’s theme is “loosely bookended […] by the two revolutions that coincided with Ukraine’s two most prominent spectacles of global pop visibility” in the 2004 and 2016 contests.
The Introduction opens with the 2004 Eurovision in Istanbul, where Ruslana won the contest with Wild dances, a song that soon became an emblem of the Orange Revolution:
While Ukraine itself is “liminal”, a “quintessential borderland”, Sonevytsky explores the stereotype of “Wildness” associated with the Hutsul people of the western highlands, and the “erotic auto-exoticism” of etno-muzyka—among many instances in the book where I’m reminded of China’s portrayal of its ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. I’d also like to read what Sonevytsky might have to say about The Rite of Spring.
This book asserts that Wildness structures much of how Ukrainians today envision their horizons of possibility, and that wild music is a key vector through which citizens debate what Ukraine has been what it is today, and, even more urgently, what it ought to be.
Soon after the Maidan Revolution and the Russian takeover of Crimea, she attended a performance at a rural festival where a Crimean Tatar trio “wilded” the national anthem, with its “rather uninspiring (and in 2014, dispiritingly apropros) title ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ ”, in a rendition “stripped of its pomp and revitalised with wild feeling”.
She ponders “sovereign imaginaries” and the instability of nation-states, observing Ukraine’s multi-ethnic and multi-national population. She notes that since Independence in 1991, “the Ukrainian state has repeatedly proven its untrustworthiness, incompetence, and disregard for its non-elite subjects. […] Many Ukrainians across socio-economic categories suffer from revolutionary fatigue, having lived through many cycles of social collapse, revolutionary hope, and eventual disappointment.”
Sonevytsky notes that
This generation tends to reject the creeping nationalism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but they also do not fully embrace faltering models of European statehood. They are suspicious of voracious capitalism and understand the dangerous precedents of “actually existing socialism”.
Chapter Onepursues Ruslana’s “transformation from a marginal figure of post-Soviet Ukrainian estrada to a global etno-pop star, and then to a political activist with ambitions to transform state policy and redefine Ukrainian futurity.” Ruslana first came to fame in 2002 with Znaiu Ya (“I know”), referencing tropes of Hutsul culture:
As Sonevytsky notes,
The project depicted a community based on qualities of essentialized Wildness but exclusive of other groups prevalent in Western Ukraine, many of whom also endure histories of objectification (this includes Jews, Roma, Poles, Armenians, and others).
This led to Ruslana releasing an album for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and representing Ukraine at the 2004 Eurovision contest. From the press materials:
Here we see wild and sexy, hot and dangerous, mystic and knowledgeable about all the secrets of Carpathian mol’far (shamans) mountain Amazonkas. Fur and leather, dangerous games and unique meditations all of this charms and entertains you, gives shimmering in the heart.
Such representations commonly use folk instruments as symbolic props, such as trembita long horn, tsymbaly hammered dulcimer, and the drymba jews harp of the mol’far shaman.
Despite Ruslana’s involvement with ethnomusicologists in L’viv, such glossy exoticism was soon debated, not least by the Hutsuls themselves. Some of the discussion revolved around the archetype of “femininity”.
In 2005 Sonevytsky visited the Carpathian highlands, source of Ruslana’s inspiration, with a feeling of “naïve expectance”, such as many fieldworkers will have experienced, reaching the village of Kosmach where the Znaiu Ya video had largely been filmed (for a less glamorous Chinese scholarly romanticization of Daoist ritual, cf. Debunking “living fossils”).
Familiar with the long history of Hutsul romanticization by L’viv urbanites, and as someone who thinks of herself as allergic to exoticizing rhetoric, I nonetheless briefly entertained the possibility that maybe, somehow, this would be “the place”, as the press release boasted, “where you find true Ukrainian exotics!”.
It soon transpired that the locals were underwhelmed by Ruslana’s repackaging of their culture (cf. the exploitation of Tibetan culture by a Han Chinese singer in Sister drum). This was not the kind of celebrity that the Hutsuls would have envisaged. Sonevytsky joined in a wedding procession, with guests “in festive, but not folkloric attire”, far from the portrayals of the media. Consulting authorities like the patriarch of the Tafiychuk family, she found considerable resentment of the Hutsuls’ “wild” image, along with some more nuanced views weighing their heightened profile and the stimulation of tourism against the price of “disgrace and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes”. Yet others took the hype in their stride. Wild dances
provoked anxious discourse among Hutsuls about whether Ukraine could be taken seriously as a “European” state if it portrayed itself as a cradle of ancient, primitive expressive culture. Wild dances represented an obstacle on the path to Ukraine’s integration into the European Union.
Given the Hutsuls’ “hybrid identities as a borderland people whose culture is fused from Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Roma, and other elements”, Sonevytsky notes the irony of their adoption as emblems of “authentic” Ukrainian ethno-nationalism. (Note also Sergei Parajanov‘s 1964 film Shadows of forgotten ancestors, a fantastical drama based on Hutsul culture.)
Many urban intellectuals, too, bemoaned “the fact that Ukraine’s most visible post-Soviet cultural export to date came ensconced in leather and metal”. They recycled the sonorous slang term sharovarshchyna, the banal caricaturing of folk culture propounded by the former Soviet regime (cf. Kundera’s The joke)—although Sonevytsky, citing the work of Ana Hofman on Slovenian and Serbian state ensembles of the socialist era, offers the caveat that it wasn’t a monolithic style, and didn’t deprive musicians of agency.
As Ruslana’s focus shifted away from ethnic culture, her progression to “eco-activism rooted in a civically minded pragmatic patriotism“ is illustrated in the futuristic Wild energy (2008), addressing the need to oppose both female trafficking and Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy imports:
In Chapter Two Sonevytsky reflects on the “freak cabaret” of the Dakh daughters, “Spice Girls with Molotov cocktails”, or “Pussy Riot—with good music”. Like many musicians, they set out by disavowing politics—Sonevytsky unpacks the various strands in the bourgeois ideal of artistic autonomy with thoughtful references (to which I might add the work of Christopher Small and Bruno Nettl), compounded in former Soviet states by antipathy towards the politicization of music. The Dakh daughters were only spurred to take up the cause with the Maidan Revolution in 2013, a performance that Sonevytsky analyses with typical insight.
Again, their mash-up of symbols (Indigenous femininity, revolutionary feminism, Hutsul rurality, experimental theatre) prompted opposing reactions, from “hipster rebellion” to”neofascist agitation”. And again, they sought “an articulation of Ukraine’s future as not either Western or Russian, but as something else”. One band member described the revolution as attempting to escape the “lack of joy” present in both “the puritanism of the west and repressiveness of the east”.
The band’s seven trained actors and musicians were managed by the influential impresario Vlad Troitsky. The Maidan performance of Hannusya was based on the lament of an elderly Hutsul woman, becoming a metaphor for survival.
In a section titled “On feminist fascists”, Sonevytsky introduces the topic of gender studies in Ukraine. She paid several visits to another celebrated partisan baba in the village of Kryvorivnia, and explains how the terms “fascism” and “neo-Nazism” (currently being touted by Putin) are a glib recurring slur. The Dakh daughters now subverted the notion of the World-War-Two Banderivka nationalist resistance to Soviet occupation (also with its base in western Ukraine).
Chapter Three examines the interesting failure of avtentyka singers on the reality TV competition Holos Kraïny (Voice of the Nation). Rather than merely bemoaning the banality of such shows, Sonevytsky perceives the failure as “an act of refusal of the limited musical forms that dominate Ukrainian media and an assertion of the ungovernability of Ukrainian rural expression”.
The young singer Oleksiz Zajets came from a rural background, going on to study with the influential Kyiv pedagogue Yevhen Yefremov. In the first edition of the show in 2011, Zajets disrupted the rules of the game through the strident timbre and volume of his voice. As the show’s host commented, “He wasn’t just born two hundred years too late, but two thousand years”. While the “coaches”, including Ruslana, concurred that his voice was outstanding, praising its “depth and wisdom”, they couldn’t find a way to corset it into the pop-dominated format of the show.
Of course, defining the term avtentyka is elusive. By contrast with the “fakelore” of sharovarshchyna, it may refer both to local singers in the countryside thought to be uncontaminated by colonial encounter and Soviet cultural policy, and to the urban performers and scholars who seek to emulate their style. Sonevytsky illustrates the latter with vignettes of her own studies in Manhattan with Yevhen Yefremov, who meticulously trained students in the technique and variational creativity of rural singing, seeking to remove traces of the choreographed Soviet choral style. Despite the limitations of what ethnomusicologists might regard as a crucial shift of context from rural life to the classroom,
Students do not learn an ür version of a song. Though field recordings are a kind of wellspring for avtentyka singers—many of whom were trained as ethnomusicologists in the late and post-Soviet era—contemporary avtentyka singers do not seek to simply recreate those field recordings. In fact, multiple field recordings of the same song are reference when possible to inform an interpretation. […]
So instead of perfecting the art of imitation, students are taught how to creatively utilise the conventions that govern these traditional songs in order to replicate them in as “authentic” a manner as possible, in part by exerting their own agency as singers.
I note Yefremov’s teaching with envy, since while the collection of folk-song has long been popular in China, the scholars there rarely take part in singing themselves, either in the field or after their return (cf. Participant observation, and Speaking from the heart).
Fieldworkers like Yefremov paid particular attention to calendrical ritual songs, absent from collections during the Soviet era—here, remarkably, Chinese fieldworkers have done well, having been diligent in collecting ritual music, both during the first fifteen years after the 1949 revolution (e.g. under Yang Yinliu) and since the 1980s’ reforms (e.g. the great Anthology).
Most of the rural voices that Ukrainian fieldworkers found were female:
Due to wars, famines (such as the 1932–33 Holodomor), and various Soviet social engineering projects that decimated the male population of Ukrainian citizens during the mid-20th century, women have been the primary subjects of post-World War Two Ukrainian ethnomusicological enquiry since they tend to constitute the vast majority of surviving village elders.
Appearing in the second season of the TV show was Suzanna Karpenko, a Kyiv-based aventyka singer. Her background was similar to that of Zajets, but the show portrayed them very differently:
If Zajets was depicted as a quintessential rural bumpkin with a “natural voice” that is simply too rich to include in the competition, then Karpenko was portrayed as a scholar, whose intellectual investments in “real folklore” (that is, avtentyka) were rewarded when she was chosen to advance in the competition despite the melismatic gestures, huks [swooping cries], and timbral quality that made her voice and style largely incompatible with the pop songs she was asked to sing in later rounds. Tellingly, though they circulate in the same milieu of urban avtentyka singers in Kyiv, Karpenko was assimilated into the programme as an urban folklorist (where “folklore” became the operative term appended to her vocal style), whereas Zajets was depicted as either an idiot savant or a shaman; in either case, he was the unknowable, somewhat comic, rural other. […] The contestant who is portrayed as and embodies “real authenticity” is destined to failure, while the singer who is depicted as an urban expert—someone who has domesticated the village style—is at least permitted to compete.
Karpenko is a member of the ensemble Bozhychi, which she joined after leaving the influential Drevo (“Tree”) group, and also takes part in the Polyphony project. She was encouraged to take part in the show on learning that Oleh Skrypka (veteran of Soviet-era Ukrainian punk, and later a champion of etno-muzyka) would be among the coaches. Though she advanced in the competition, her non-pop timbre and rural stylistic flourishes led to her elimination.
Is the failure of these singers to win merely an example of the triumph of cosmopolitan pop in the marketplace—and are we left with a bitter Adornian culture industry critique of homogenization? […] Is their participation just a cynical move on the part of television producers to add dramatic fodder by introducing these folklore revivalists as nostalgic oddities or rural buffoons?
The reader may be tempted to answer these questions with a simple Yes. But Sonevytsky observes when the avtentyka voice emerges from the “cloistered contexts” of the academy (and from the village?) to participate in the TV spectacle, “it is disruptive, introducing a heterogeneous notion of etnos into the constrained sovereign imaginaries available…” Still, for all her theorising on the “politics of refusal”, in the end avtentyka singers appear only rarely, and they certainly can’t progress far in the show. As she concedes, failure is still failure.
Again I’m reminded of similar shows in China, where there’s also a lasting hangover from the fakelore of the high state-socialist era, and yuanshengtai 原生态 (“original”, “unspoiled”) folk voices are sidelined, despite the best efforts of pundits like Tian Qing (for examples of the style, listen to the folk-song CDs in this post). See also Critiques of artistic competition.
Chapter Four turns to the Crimean Tatars, covering Radio Meydan, the soundscape of marshrutki microtransit buses, and Jamala’s Eurovision triumph in 2016. If Hutsul music relates to European folk cultures further west, the Sunni Muslim, Turkic-language Tatars of the Crimea lead us towards the East—glib polarities that Sonevytsky resists, along with many other Ukrainians.
On the forced deportation to Central Asia (mainly Uzbekistan) in 1944, here’s the movie Haytarma (Akhtem Seitablaiev, 2013):
Some 200,000 Crimean Tatars returned to the peninsula in the late 1980s—where they continued to suffer discrimination in the fields of civic, religious, and land rights. Radio Meydan began broadcasting from Simferopol in 2005, soon becoming a key expression of Crimean Tatar identity, while deferring to the authority of the post Soviet Ukrainian state. Sonevytsky describes the power of such community radio stations. As “tensions between the Indigenous population, the predominantly pro-Russian public, and the weak Ukrainian state simmered below the surface of everyday interactions”, Radio Meydan was variously interpreted as “Orientalist menace or strategic exoticism”. Despite its ambition to serve as a forum (meydan) for diversity, as Sonevytsky discovered on the marshrutki buses in 2008–2009, it soon became an “aural battleground of rival sovereign imaginaries”.
After some time the station also provided a launchpad for a new generation of pop musicians exploring the wider market for an amorphous “Eastern music”, within which distinctive Crimean Tatar sounds often lost their identity. The first Crimean Tatar hip-hop DJ to emerge was DJ Bebek, with his 2004 album Deportacia; he went on to create the iconic jingle for Radio Meydan.
The station was outlawed soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. With Russian-backed radio there now offering its own take on Crimean Tatar music, independent performers and broadcasters migrated both online and to Kyiv.
Sonevytsky ends the chapter with a brief section on the Crimean Tatar singer Jamala, whose 2016 Eurovision victory in Stockholm is fresher in the memory than that of Ruslana twelve years earlier. Her song 1944 won despite Russian complaints regarding its political overtones. Here it is In performance:
and in the official video:
As Sonevytsky comments,
Such aural assertions of cultural sovereignty in an international forum such as Eurovision act as a generative refusal to consent to the annexation. […] Through musical sounds coded as Eastern music, Crimean Tatars continue to contest their liminality, harnessing the representational force of such wild music to amplify their political claims within the shifting terrain of post-Soviet geopolitics.
Chapter Five, “Ethno-chaos: provincialising Russia through Ukrainian world music”, discusses the Kyiv-based quartet DakhaBrakha, sister group to the Dakh daughters—both groups were by promoted by Vlad Troitsky. Their international career on the world music scene was launched at WOMAD in 2011. Again, they were closely involved in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, revising etno-muzyka into the slogan “ethno-chaos” and “refusing national mythologies of continuity and coherence”.
The three women singers had all taken part in fieldtrips to collect rural songs, but the group’s inspirations were diverse. As Sonevytsky observes, the wide-ranging and sometimes indiscriminate incorporation of “disembodied sound markers” is standard practice in “world music”.
Here’s Carpathian rap from DakhaBrakha’s 2010 album Light—a bricolage of Hutsul, central Ukrainian rural, Soviet-era, and “global” material, elements which Sonevytsky analyses in turn:
Again, Ukrainian ethnomusicologists were underwhelmed by the foreign enthusiasm for DakhaBrakha’s “authentic” vocal style. The band give a subsidiary role to the accordion (cf. Accordion crimes), archetype of the Soviet socialist soundscape, using it in a functional rather than “elevated” way—a process that Sonevytsky regards as subversive.
Next she discusses Sagir Boyu (from The road, 2016), another gesture of solidarity with the Crimean Tatars—a joyous wedding song reworked as “a pensive and ultimately frenetic lament”:
Sonevytsky offers further reflections on the world music business. She is wary of sounding too celebratory. First, “it would be disingenuous to consider the members of DakhaBrakha as ‘subalterns’, given their origins in the eminently literate and urbane world of Ukrainian experimental theatre”. And their success comes within a world music industry governed by Euro-American capitalism. Still, she finds their path constructive, “an aesthetics of transformation, a product of Ukrainian modernity on its own terms—not filtered through the gaze of neighbouring states and entities”.
The Conclusion, “Dreamland: becoming acoustic citizens”, written in 2018, opens with Oleh Skrypka’s Dreamland summer festival outside Kyiv in 2015, still resolutely featuring a Crimean Area. Sonevytsky proposes the idea of “acoustic—rather than musical—citizenship”. She notes moments of tension at the festival. Reflecting on “revolutionary fatigue”, she asks “What comes next?”. Since publication, the answer seems at once appallingly predictable and (this week, at least, in that Putin’s invasion has given new life to Ukrainian and wider solidarity) somewhat optimistic.
By way of the Russian war of disinformation, Sonevytsky returns to Jamala’s song 1944, which
reveals the politics of Eurovision to itself, exposing how rhetorics of international friendship mask the violent unresolved histories and ongoing conflicts between competitor states.
Since Jamala fled the invasion, she has been raising awareness by performing the song.
* * *
Sonevytsky sometimes steps back to interrogate her own partiality. With her focus on the niche of etno-muzyka and the cultures of Hutsuls and Crimean Tatars, she doesn’t attempt to cover the most commercially successful music such as estrada (I think of research on Chinese pop, where studies have been dominated by “alternative” bands—with the noble exception of Andrew Jones’s Like a knife). And she reminds us that the majority of Ukrainian citizens do not consume or engage in any way with etno-muzyka. Her focus, as well as her status as a Ukrainian American, hardly leaves space for her to consider pro-Russian viewpoints. Also, committed to the project of decolonising ethnomusicology, she deliberately downplays nationalism in music. Nor, I might add, does her remit cover the glut of young urban-based “roots” bands from west Ukraine and the wider Carpathian region, less political and less internationally hyped—for some of these, try the forgottengalicia website (cf. this page on the useful euromaidanpress site).
The book’s origin as a PhD thesis is revealed in its theoretical vocabulary, which some readers may find somewhat dense (and which I have cited only sparingly here); but, blending politics with soundscape most perceptively, Wild music richly deserves to be part of reading lists on the modern history of Ukraine.
Many of my interlocutors […] point out the potential futility of any music to do anything. I do not dispute that music has little power against bombs, or BUK missiles. But I do assert that the study of music cannot be consigned only to our study of “the good life” since it is so prominently enmeshed in systems of capital, and therefore in the operations of power, and—importantly—because it also holds the affective power to captivate imaginations, move bodies, and support political actions. The politics and aesthetics of wild music allow us to investigate how the good life is imagined in dark times.
It was almost inevitable that Ukraine would win Eurovision this year, with the “rap lullaby” Stefania by the Kalush orchestra.
Broadening the theme, Music and conflict (ed. John O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, 2010) has sections on music in war, music across boundaries, music after displacement, music and ideology, music in application, and music as conflict, with case studies from many regions of the world.
Among topics covered on this blog, I think of Afghanistan; the war of the Chinese state against the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and its own people (e.g. China: commemorating trauma, and Guo Yuhua); the genocide of First Nation peoples; Mali; and indeed Bach, haunted by the trauma of the Thirty Years War (Bach—and Daoist ritual, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”).
Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.
Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.
Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.
Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.
Wedding bands, 1970s.
The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.
Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.
Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:
After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.
Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.
They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.
After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.
This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:
Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.
Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.
Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):
Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.
This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:
* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:
Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”
The elite, rarefied qin zither enjoyed an unlikely Golden Age during the first fifteen years of Maoism, as I show in my series of vignettes. Though it was largely self-contained in its ivory tower, in the 1950s the new energy at the Music Research Institute in Beijing to study all kinds of traditional music combined with the official populist ethos to encourage occasional exchanges—such as this illustrious gathering with masters of the zheng 筝 zither at the house of Yang Dajun:
Qin and zheng exchange, mid-1950s (see e.g. here). From left, back row: Zhao Yuzhai, Yang Dajun, Gao Zicheng, [unidentified], Cao Zheng, Wu Jinglue; front row: Wang Jinru, Cao Dongfu (playing), Luo Jiuxiang, Zha Fuxi.
Of the zheng players there, Zhao Yuzhai and Gao Zicheng came from Shandong, Cao Zheng and Cao Dongfu from adjacent Henan; Luo Jiuxiang represented the Hakka style of east Guangdong, far south; Wang Jinru was based in Beijing.
Unlike the seven-string qin, the strings of the zheng have individual bridges. Though just as ancient as the qin, it has much more in common with local folk music; while some prominent advocates like Cao Zheng made more exalted claims for its grounding in ancient cosmology, it still feels like a poor cousin of the qin. Its regional distribution is patchy, but Zhao Yuzhai was part of a thriving zheng scene in southwest Shandong, based (as often) on the local ensemble that accompanied vocal performance; the musicians were itinerant and semi-occupational.
My sparse early clues to folk musicking in Shandong (Folk music of China, p. 209) have been much augmented by the publication of the Shandong volumes of the Anthology (see my review “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”), in this case particularly for instrumental music (Zhongguo minjian qiyuequ, Shandong juan 中国民间器乐曲, 山东卷, 1994).
Throughout the Anthology, ensemble repertoire always far eclipses solo pieces; like other volumes for north China (e.g. Liaoning), the coverage of Shandong is dominated by the shawm-band repertoire (cf. “Reading between the lines”, pp.317–18), to which the first 1,269 of 1,958 pages are devoted. Solo pieces for the zheng occupy pp.1515–1620 (among online surveys of the Shandong zheng, see e.g. here).
Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋 (1923–99)  came from the Heze region of southwest Shandong, also renowned for its shawm bands. He was a disciple of the great blind musician Wang Dianyu 王殿玉 (1899–1964).
The Dong Lu yayue she 东鲁雅乐社, led by Wang Dianyu, 1943. Right to left Chen Baozeng 陈宝曾, Gao Zicheng 高自成, Zheng Xipei 郑西培, Wang Dianyu 王殿玉, Han Fengtian 韩风田, Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋, Tan Yonghe 谭永和.
The core string ensemble is for zheng, yangqin dulcimer, pipa, and ruyigou fiddle. Their repertoire is based on the Peng baban 碰八板 form—baban variants are common in various coastal chamber genres from Shanghai down to Guangzhou, if not nearly so widespread as scholarly attention may lead us to suppose. The Shandong style has much in common with the adjacent province of Henan, where zheng masters like Cao Dongfu 曹东扶 (1898–1970) were much admired. (Click here for bowed zithers in Shandong and Henan.)
In the cause of forging a new style of “national music”, through the 1950s many folk masters were enlisted to the new conservatoires and state troupes. Solo instruments like the zheng were more easily incorporated into the conservatoire system than ensembles that relied on folk ceremonial; players took readily to adapting their repertoire for the new demands of the new ethos.  In 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was recruited to the Shenyang conservatoire (where one of his colleagues was the qin player Ling Qizhen—see Musicking at the Qing court 1, n.3). The traditional zheng had 16 (or fewer) strings; in 1957, responding to the call to “improve” Chinese instruments, Zhao Yuzhai created an enlarged 21-string version. Meanwhile the lofty qin also found a place in the conservatoires; but while players took part in the major shift from silk to metal strings, they remained largely unscathed by “development”.
n 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was exposed to the rigours of rural collectivisation when a troupe from the conservatoire was sent on a tour of rural south Liaoning to “experience life” (tiyan shenghuo 体验生活), as the glib slogan went (cf. Daoist Li Qing’s stint in the Datong troupe). This resulted in his florid composition “Celebrating a bumper year” (Qing fengnian 庆丰年)—irony not supplied:
By 1958 even qin master Zha Fuxi was reduced to composing a piece in praise of the Great Leap Backward. for whose hyperbole click here.
In 1956 Zhao Yuzhai was part of a troupe performing at the Prague Spring festival, and in October he toured north Europe; his career continued to thrive until 1963. I can never get used to the blatant lacunae for the years of Maoism that are so universal in PRC biographies (cf. Craig Clunas’s remarks); like countless others, Zhao Yuzhai was assaulted at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, condemned to labour camp until his release in 1978.
Zhao Yuzhai was one of three zheng players, along with Gao Zicheng and Luo Jiuxiang, who appeared in illustrious company on the 2-CD set of archive recordings from the Music Research institute. In 2000 a CD was devoted to his playing. He appears on film in “Autumn moon over Han palace” (Hangong qiuyue 汉宫秋月):
and “Four folds of brocade” (Siduan jin 四段锦):
Among other celebrated Shandong zheng masters were Han Tinggui 韩庭贵 (1929–2016) and Gao Zicheng 高自成 (1918–2010). Like Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng found a long-term position away from his Shandong home, teaching at the Xi’an conservatoire from 1957 (for the Shaanxi zheng style, see here)—here’s a short documentary in Chinese:
Apart from such masters who were selected for national celebrity, it may be hard to find ethnographic material on how folk chamber ensembles in rural Shandong adapted to successive social transformations—first to collectivisation, and then to the 1980s’ revival of tradition, soon challenged by the tide of capitalism and pop culture. Cf. Bards of Henan.
Meanwhile in a separate milieu, the concert platform made a more natural progression for the zheng than for the qin. Hitherto largely the preserve of men, since the 1980s’ reform era the zheng (like other stringed instruments in the conservatoire) has been dominated by female soloists. At the same time, concert performances for the qin on stage have come to enjoy a higher profile than the “refined gatherings” where its soul resides; but in the end, the qin still occupies its own world, at a tangent from the conservatoire.
However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.
The scene was still largely amateur, with aficionados of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) taking part in “refined gatherings”. The stories of some of the leading characters are interwoven with those of the Music Research Institute, the Beijing Qin Research Association, the 1956 national project (with its definitive recordings), and political movements. This is a monument to an aesthetic world that since the 1980s’ reform era has been eclipsed by glossy conservatoire professionalism.
Always trying to move beyond disembodied sound-objects, I seek to evoke the place of musicking in the lives of qin players through the first fifteen years after Liberation, punctuated and eventually engulfed by campaigns—click on the links below for essays on
Guan Pinghu (1897–1967): an otherworldly figure, revered not least for his dapu recreations of early tablatures, an activity that thrived in the 1950s
Wang Di (1923–2005), Guan Pinghu’s devoted disciple, making a bridge both to the reform era and to
Zha Fuxi (1895–1976): his role in the 1949 Uprising of the Two Airlines, his remarkable 1956 survey with its numinous recordings—and NB this qin-erhu duet from 1962
Pu Xuezhai (1893–1966), descendant of the Manchu imperial clan: more classic recordings, and his disappearance in 1966
Yue Ying (1904–74): an affluent youth, motherhood, and her moving 1972 recordings—perhaps the only audible remains of the qin in the PRC for the whole period from 1963 to 1978.
Women constituted a significant minority among qin players, as illustrated in the posts on Wang Di and Yue Ying, as well as Yuan Quanyou. The story of Yue Ying makes a poignant coda to the series.
See also qin tag. For a stellar gathering of masters of qin and zheng zithers, click here.
Sola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.
In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).
After graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was
irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.
By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.
London and New York In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.
With Vini Reilly, 1988.
Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.
In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.
Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):
After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.
In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:
In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.
Back in the PRC After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she
cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.
In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:
The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.
From The afterlife of Li Jiantong.
Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.
Here’s a short CCTV documentary:
* * *
Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing, and Rock it, mom), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.
Bartók outside a nomad tent in south Anatolia, 1936.
In the world of WAM, Béla Bartók’s work collecting folk music is often regarded merely as providing raw material for his compositions. Much as I relish these masterpieces, his archive of recordings, along with his meticulous transcriptions, is so vast that it can hardly be seen as subsidiary (see e.g. Chapter 9 of Michael Church, Musics lost and found).
His seminal early fieldtrips around east Europe were disrupted by World War One, whereafter he became in demand as a composer and performer. But in 1932, after a long break from fieldwork, Bartók attended the Congress of Arab Music at Cairo, recording at Mevlevi and Laythi dhikr ceremonies, and at a Coptic mass.
Meanwhile he had long been drawn to Turkey. As he wrote, “I first searched for Finno-Ugrian-Turkic similarities among peoples by the Volga, and then, starting from there, in the direction of Turkey”. in October 1936 he took the train there to inspect recordings in Istanbul and give lectures in Ankara, before embarking in November with a little team of Turkish scholars on an all-too-brief fieldtrip to south Anatolia (see e.g. Bartók, Essays (1976), pp.137–47, as well as this exhibition site).
Always seeking “ancient” tunes, his main brief was to explore links between Turkish and Hungarian melody. Tracks from his fieldwork feature on the 2-CD set
They made a base at Adana, near the Syrian border, recording Yörük nomads at their winter base—notably in Osmaniye, then a large village. Bartók hardly broached social or political issues in the regions that he visited; like much of Anatolia, Adana was no rural paradise, with a history of ethnic tensions already going back several decades. Since his time, along with all the other trappings of modernity, with the outbreak of the war in Syria it has become a site for refugee camps.
The very first recording they made was of their 70-year-old host Ali Bekir oğlu Bekir singing “Kurt Pasha went up to Kozan” with kemençe bowed fiddle (CD 1, #45):
From Bartók’s transcription of “Kurt Pasha went up to Kozan”.
The same song, Essays p.140.
He noted their “shabby, stereotyped” European clothing, by contrast with the peasant costumes he had been used to finding in Transylvania and the Balkans. The performers were all male, and mostly illiterate; after Bartók’s efforts to record women singing came to nothing, he reflected on how future fieldworkers might rectify this and other issues.
In Osmaniye they also recorded dance music for davul-zurnadrum-and-shawm (CD2, ##18–19, 22–25 = playlist #63–64, 67–70)—Bartók regretting the lack of higher-quality recording equipment and a sound-film camera (as do we…). Travelling by cart along rutted tracks, they went on to record songs of Tekirli nomads.
While the repertoire that Bartók documented is only a tiny sample of the wealth of Turkish folk music (contrast Paul Bowles in Morocco), he suggests that the connection with Hungarian melody is no mere coincidence:
No such tunes can be found among the Yugoslavs, the Slovaks of the West and North, or the Greeks, and even among the Bulgarians they are only occasional. If we take into account the fact that such tunes can be found only among the Hungarians, among the Transylvanian and Moldavian Rumanians, and the Cheremis and Northern Turkish peoples, then it seems likely that this music is the remains of an antique, thousand-year-old Turkish musical style.
Still stressing the Hungarian angle, here’s a TRT documentary (in Turkish) from 2015—with his visit to Ali Bekir from 10.27:
Bartók’s monograph Turkish folk music from Asia Minor, completed in 1944, was belatedly published in 1976.
Bartók was concerned to help Turkish scholars collect their own music more methodically. This memoir by his fellow fieldworker Ahmet Adnan Saygun includes a list of Turkish collections from 1926 to 1971. On the broader topic of doing folklore outside academia from the 1950s to the 1980s is this article, with an introduction on antecedents. And János Sipos, In the wake of Bartók in Anatolia (2000)—again based on the Hungarian connection—describes his own fieldwork from 1988 to 1993 at sites including the Adana region.  Yet later research yields further insights. See also Jérôme Cler’s work on the yayla.
* * *
By the time of his 1936 visit to Anatolia, Bartók was already deeply anxious about the rise of Nazism in Europe. He would happily have settled in Turkey, but as international and domestic policies shifted, in October 1940 he left Hungary for the USA—where successive waves of refugees from Europe, and the Levant, had already made a new home.
In New York, alongside his activities as composer and performer, Bartók set to work at Columbia on the massive task of transcribing the precious Milman Parry collection of Yugoslav epics (see again here, under “Bards”). His book with Albert Lord, Serbo-Croatian folk songs, was published in 1951; his overview of the project (in Essays, pp.148–51) is here (for a critique of the “Homeric question” and other caveats, click here).
Since Bartók’s death in 1945, ethnomusicologists have continued to refine methods for musical analysis, but all this takes place within a wider concern to document social change (see e.g. under Society and soundscape). While Bartók’s prescriptive search for disembodied “ancient” melody has fallen from fashion, that doesn’t make his fieldwork and analyses any less admirable.
 A note on my teacher Laurence Picken (who maintained a lively correspondence with musicologists from behind the Iron Curtain, I may add): apart from his groundbreaking work on the music of the Tang court, Laurence also compiled a magnum opus on the folk instruments of Turkey. After his first visit to Istanbul in 1951, exhilarated by the sound of the Black Sea kemençe fiddle, he made regular summer fieldtrips to Turkey until 1966. As Richard Widdess explains (here, pp.238–41):
he travelled, alone and at his own expense, the length and breadth of the country, collecting, photographing and recording instruments in almost every region, and interviewing musicians, instrument makers, school masters, farmers, street vendors, children.
You really must read Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective! An anthology of critical assaults on composers since Beethoven’s time, it cites a wealth of “biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgements”. *
Having mentioned the book’s magnificent “Invecticon” in The joys of indexing, in various posts I gave quotations from scathing early reviews that Slonimsky cites:
Berlioz (lunatic… the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon)
Turangalîla (Dorothy Lamour in a sarong … Hindu Hillbillies).
(As the glosses by a Chinese friend suggest, a wacky challenge for language learning…)
* * *
In his thoughtful prelude, “Non-acceptance of the unfamiliar”, Slonimsky reflects on critical incomprehension, under various rubrics such as racism, lack of melody, and noise.
In the minds of righteous reactionaries, musical modernism is often associated with criminality and moral turpitude.
As he observes,
A fairly accurate timetable could be drawn for the assimilation of unfamiliar music by the public and the critics. It takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty years to elevate it to a masterpiece. Not every musical monstrosity is a potential musical masterpiece, but its chances of becoming one are measurably better than those of a respectable composition of mediocre quality.
He cites George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1910:
It is not easy for a musician of today to confess that he once found Wagner’s music formless, melodyless, and abominably discordant; but that many musicians, now living, did so is beyond all question. […] The technical history of modern harmony is a history of growth of toleration by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians.
* * *
Slonimsky suggests parallels with critical reactions to other modernist trends, including painting, women’s suffrage, and science. Another well-covered topic that he also addresses is outrage at the rise of jazz. As early as 1899 the Musical courier exclaimed:
A wave of vulgar, filthy, and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cake-walk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures. […] Our children, our young men and women, are continually exposed to the contiguity, to the monstrous attrition of this vulgarising music. It is artistically and morally depressing, and should be suppressed by press and pulpit.
He cites the Most Reverend Francis J. L. Beckman’s address to the National Council of Catholic Women in 1938, in line with Nazi assaults on “degenerate music”:
Jam sessions, jitterbugs, and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies are wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!
Back in 1805, the waltz attracted similar opprobrium:
Waltz is a riotous German dance of modern invention. Having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.
* Slonimsky acknowledges an 1877 antecedent in Wilhelm Tappert’s generously-titled Ein Wagner-Lexicon, Wörterbuch der Unhöflichkeit, enthaltend grobe, höhnende, gehässige und verleumderische Ausdrücke welche gegen den Meister Richard Wagner, seine Werke und seine Anhänger von den Feinden und Spöttern gebraucht worden sind, zur Gemütsergötzung in müssigen Stunden gesammelt.
The neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus is a delightful community from which I can hardly drag myself away. Amidst constant inspiration, I’ve met more people there in the last week than in the previous five years… Having made a few brief trips to Istanbul Back in the Day to perform with London early music groups, I feel the European side of the city can wait—rather as I take eccentric pride in never having visited the Great Wall on all my stays in Beijing.
As elsewhere in Istanbul, vestiges of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish cultures are still evident in the architecture of Kuzguncuk (click here for a fine study by Amy Mills).
Armenian church next to a mosque.
Inside the main synagogue.
The two Greek churches.
* * *
Among Kuzguncuk dwellers are migrants from Kastamonu, due east of Istanbul in the region south of the Black Sea. Kastamonu is a leading centre of festive köçek dancing, and for the celebrations following Republic Day on 29th October a group came to perform along the lovely tree-lined main street of Kuzguncuk that leads up from the Bosphorus. The dancers’ main instrumental support is provided by davul–zurnadrum-and-shawm, ubiquitous accompaniment to festivities over a wide area.
In the afternoon, first they performed at the entrance to the shops lining the street. As locals and visitors threw lira notes at the twirling feet of the two dancers, they gyrated gracefully down to pluck them up in their mouths. The group then made a base at the entrance of a side-street, performing a lengthier sequence beneath a large banner depicting Atatürk; the musicians, now seated, were supplemented by a kemençe bowed lute (cf. Indian and world fiddles, Musics of Crete), with gutsy, exuberant singing. Here are some clips from Augusta’s fine filming:
The band bursts into song as the dancers kneel to assemble the notes around the skirt:
They get back on their feet for the climax:
That evening they went on to perform for a lively street party up the hill.
* * *
Köçek troupes, 1720 (wiki): left, musicians and dancers entertain the crowds; right, at a fair for Sultan Ahmed’s celebration of his son’s circumcision.
In folk traditions today, there may be a solo dancer, or a pair. Of course costumes (and concepts of gender) have changed over time, throughout the whole Levant. We saw two young adult dancers, both clean-shaven, their costumes and props each playing on male-female roles. One wore a long flaring skirt decorated with coins, jewels, and gold, as well as a kind of sporran at the waist, but a (“male”?) waistcoat; he/she sounded the zil finger-cymbals, as played by the female çengi dancers. Meanwhile the “male” dancer wore the skirt of the çengi, and necklaces, clacking the kaşık spoons (cf. çarpare castanets).
Specially-composed musical forms for çengi and köçek dances include tavşanca, çiftetelli, and ağırlama. A collection of songs in the same modal form with lively instrumental ritornellos is called takım. These include songs by named or anonymous composers and performers. Hammamizade Ismail Dede (himself a fine composer of köçekçe) called such forms musikinin orospuluğu (“musical whoring”). Köçekce are composed in popular modal systems like karcığar, gerdaniye, hicaz, hüzzam, gülizar, bayati araban, and saba. Those köçekçe in aksak limping metres are beautiful in both their musical style and poetic lyrics.
The köçek tradition of Kastamonu is renowned. Among many videos online, this general introduction includes a wedding party from 7.14:
Here’s a succinct personal account of change in the livelihood over the last two decades (with a rather confused appeal to “the government” that reminds me of China):
I can hardly begin to encapsulate the myriad delights of Kuzguncuk…
The exhilaration of Racist, sexist boy in the Linda Lindas’ * gig at the LA Public Library ** in May 2021 was augmented by the frisson of the venue:
By the time the video went viral, Bela Salazar (17), Eloise Wong (13), Lucia de la Garza (14), and Mila de la Garza (11) were already experienced performers—here’s an earlier intro:
By contrast with most of their early punk forebears, they are encouraged by cool parents. This is something I can’t imagine—I never even knew it was possible to have parents who were into any kind of popular music. And when I was their age, people swam in the seas of sexism and racism all the time, but few were yet aware of the concepts—in my absurd Ivory Tower I sure didn’t Worry my Pretty Little Head about such things.
As prodigies the Linda Lindas have forged a rather different path from that of Alma Deutscher. Here they chat with Carrie Brownstein, a punk veteran at 47. And here’s their new single Oh!:
Oh, thank goodness, the next generation… You guys aren’t even the next generation; you’re like three generations below me. But I’m so glad that you exist.
All this makes a refreshing change from the raging arias of Handel opera and the righteous preoccupations of his class…
It’ll be intriguing to see how the quartet negotiates the perils of celebrity and the PR juggernaut; this useful article on Sleater-Kinney comments, “As any band that comes out of a DIY scene knows, no matter how pure your intentions, you’re never far from being accused of selling out.”
By contrast with the all-encompassing Matthew Passion, Mahler, or Abbey road, contrasts of mood and timbre are not often valued in world genres. The variety of Sleater-Kinney’s album The hot rock is something of an exception, surpassing the boundaries of punk.
* Their name alluding, need I add [Yes—Ed.] to the Blue Hearts’ 1987 single, which features in the 2007 Japanese movie Linda Linda Linda.
** I can offer this joke:
Guy walks into a public library and confidently asks the assistant, “LARGE COD AND CHIPS PLEASE!” “… You do realise this is a public library, sir?” “Ah, I see… [leans forward and whispers:] Large cod and chips please!”
Jumping belatedly on a bandwagon long driven by Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, I’m moved by the plangent voice of Karen Dalton (1937–93)—a worthy addition to my essential Playlist of songs!
For some reason I can warm to Country, but I seem to have a blind (deaf) spot about Anglo-American folk. Apart from being a tad allergic to guitar songs, it’s quite unfair of me to reduce it to a wholesome image of apple pie and right-on social activism. But Karen Dalton crashes right through all that.
She may not have approved of Dylan likening her voice to that of Billie Holiday, but it’s inevitable. Billie only rarely sang the blues—though she saved her greatest ever blues for her 1957 TV appearance.
Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, and Fred Neil, early 60s.
There’s more artifice, and variety, in Billie’s voice, and in her opulent backings. Karen emerged from the Greenwich village folk scene, but there’s a rare depth of anguish in her sound, accompanying herself on twelve-string guitar or banjo. “Not interested in playing the music industry’s games in an era when musicians had little other choice”, she managed to self-destruct without going through the usual stages of celebrity and tabloid exposure. So despite her admirers, her music remained a niche taste until quite recently (see e.g. here).
Here’s a playlist for her 1969 album It’s so hard to tell who’s going to love you the best:
Though she only sang covers, she transformed them. It hurts me too had long been a popular blues standard—here’s Elmore James (1957):
How little I know of all the cross-fertilisations of blues, Country, soul, pop, and onwards… Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the 60s were remarkable—Coltrane, Miles; soul; Beatles, Stones… Meanwhile in the rarefied echelons of WAM, the Mahler craze was growing, and the early music movement was getting going.
The music of sax-player Frank Morgan (1933–2007) features in several of Connelly’s novels. I’m reminded to pursue his work as I re-read The burning room (2014).
Morgan was yet another devotee of Charlie Parker—following whose death in 1955, and the release of his own first album (below), he too self-destructed, spending much of the next thirty years in prison; in San Quentin he managed to keep playing in the company of fellow-inmates like Art Pepper.  But Morgan thrived again after he was freed in 1985.
Connelly sings Morgan’s praises in a corner of his website, introducing the documentary The sound of redemption (N.C. Heikin, 2015), “from drug addict, conman, and convict to beloved elder statesman of jazz”. Here’s a trailer:
As Connelly recalls,
At the time I was putting together a character for a book I was writing. The character was a detective who was a loner and liked to listen to and draw inspiration from jazz. The character—I would name him Harry Bosch—had a particular affinity for the saxophone. Its mournful sound, like a human crying out in the night, was what he was drawn to. The detective saw the worst of humanity every day on the job. He found solace every night in the sound of the saxophone. […]
It was a perfect set up because Harry Bosch did more than simply listen to the music. He identified with the musicians. I wanted him to listen to musicians who had overcome the odds to make their music because Harry had overcome great odds himself.
Here’s Morgan’s 1955 album:
Bosch’s anthem, its minimalism reminiscent of Blue in green and Naima, is Lullaby, with pianist George Cables:
The call came in at midnight. Harry Bosch was awake and sitting in his living room in the dark. He liked to think that he was doing this because it allowed him to hear the saxophone better. By masking one the senses he accentuated another. But deep down he knew the truth. He was waiting. The call was from Larry Gandle, his supervisor in Homicide Special. It was Bosch’s first call-out in the new job. And it was what he had been waiting for. “Harry, you up?” “I’m up.” “Who’s that you got playing?” Frank Morgan, live at the Jazz Standard in New York.That’s George Cables you’re hearing now on piano.” “Sounds like All Blues.” “You nailed it.” “Good stuff. I hate to take you away from it.” Bosch used the remote to turn the music off. “What’s the call, Lieutenant?”
Here Morgan accompanies readings from the book:
From The Burning room:
On the way back to the PAB he stopped by the Blue Whale to see who was playing and who was coming later in the month, and he was pleasantly surprised to see Grace Kelly on the stage with a four-piece band. Grace was a young saxophonist with a powerful sound. She also sang. Bosch had some of her music on his phone and at times thought she was channelling the late, great Frank Morgan, one of his favourite sax men. But he had never seen her perform live, so he paid the cover, ordered another beer, and sat at the back of the room, his briefcase on the floor between his feet.
He enjoyed the set, particularly the interplay between Grace and her rhythm section. But she closed with a solo and it stabbed deeply into Bosch’s heart. The song was “Somewhere over the rainbow”, and she produced a sound from the horn that no human voice could ever touch. It was plaintive and sad but it came with an undeniable wave of underlying hope. It made Bosch think that there was still a chance for him, that he could still find what he was looking for, no matter how short his time was.
Indeed, here’s the prodigious Kelly, then 15, with Morgan in his final months:
Among the distinguished Jewish musicians in fin-de-siècle Vienna was the Rosé family (see e.g. here).
Arnold Rosé (1863–1946) (here, and wiki), led the Vienna Phil from 1881 to 1931. Having worked closely with Brahms (!), he married Mahler’s younger sister Justine. Meanwhile he led the Rosé quartet from 1882 to 1938—to supplement my post on Late Beethoven quartets, here are the opening movements of their 1927 recording of the C♯ minor quartet:
In 1932 Alma formed the salon orchestra Wiener Walzermädeln.
Arnold gave his last concert with the Vienna Phil on 16 January 1938, playing Mahler 9 under Bruno Walter. But after the Anschluss, further devastated by the death of his wife Justine, he retreated to London with their daughter Alma.
But soon after reaching safety there, Alma made the fateful decision to try and resume her career in Holland. Fleeing to France upon the Nazi invasion, she was captured in 1942; after a period interned in Drancy, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she led the Mädchenorchester (see here, here, and wiki), before losing her life in 1944, aged 36.
Camp inmates like the musicians serving the whims of their Nazi tormentors (among many sites, see e.g. here and here) constantly had to negotiate impossible moral decisions in the faint hope of survival. Among the survivors was Fania Fénelon (here, and wiki), whose autobiography gives an unflattering portrayal of Alma, and downplays the bond between the musicians; as explained by Michael Haas, her account was disputed by other survivors such as the wonderful Anita Lasker-Wallfisch.
And there’s a recent Polish dramatisation of Alma’s story by Bente Kahan.
Arnold Rosé survived the war. In 1946 the Vienna Phil sought to reinstate him as leader, but he refused on the grounds that over fifty Nazis still remained in the orchestra (see e.g. here, and wiki). Heartbroken at the loss of his wife and daughter, he died that same year.
Much as I love the Albert Hall, one might wish for a more intimate, or interactive, ambience for jazz. But it worked for Nubya Garcia’s recent Prom—wonderfully cohesive ensemble musicking, showcasing the thriving British jazz scene (shown on BBC4, now on i-Player).
By a remarkable coincidence (cf. Köchel), the theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896–1993). Given that its timbre is surely that to which singers and instrumentalists aspire, it seems sad that its profile remains largely limited to the niches of film music and “lollipops”.
Termen was drawn to experiments in physics and electrons from his teens. After World War 1 and the civil war Abram Fedorovich Ioffe recruited him to the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd. In 1920 he invented the instrument that would become known in the USA as theremin. As a cellist, one of the early pieces he adapted was The swan (see below). In this 1954 clip he demonstrates the instrument:
Having married Katia Konstantinova in 1924, he spent time on tour in Europe before they moved to the USA in 1927. His concerts on the theremin soon became popular, and he set up a laboratory in New York, devising a range of inventions, including new electronic musical instruments. As he became the toast of New York society, he was conducting industrial espionage for the Soviet state.
With Clara Rockmore.
Apparently irrespective of the Soviet Consulate’s demands that he should divorce his wife, Theremin proposed to emigré Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg, 1911–98), who became renowned as a theremin virtuoso. Instead, when Clara married an attorney, Theremin married the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams in the mid-1930s, to some controversy; with racial tensions such a thorny issue, this might have made an interesting match. But in 1938, concerned over his financial problems and the imminent global conflict—and perhaps under pressure from his Soviet minders anxious that his spying activities might be exposed—Theremin returned abruptly to the USSR, whereafter Lavinia never saw him again.
With Stalin’s great purge under way, he was promptly imprisoned. He was sent to work at a sharashka research facility in the remote Kolyma gulag, devising eavesdropping devices. After his release in 1947 he remarried. Rehabilitated in 1956 following the death of Stalin, he continued serving the KGB until 1966, also working at the Moscow Conservatoire.
When Lavinia visited Clara in 1974, she was glad to learn that Theremin was still alive; as she started corresponding with him, he even proposed remarriage. He was able to travel abroad only from 1989, visiting the USA in 1991—where he met Clara again.
* * *
For more, Albert Glinsky, Theremin: ether music and espionage (2005) is a fascinating study, meticulously researched. And for an imaginative fictional treatment, this tangled web makes a fine theme for the novel by Sean Michaels, Us conductors (2014). Focusing on Theremin’s relationship with Clara, the story takes in the Russian Revolution, America’s Great Depression and the celebrities of the day, Stalin’s gulag, two world wars, the cold war, and perestroika. Indeed, following the 1993 documentary Theremin: an electronic Odyssey (trailer here), the subject seems to cry out (eerily) for a movie version…
You crouched in black on the terpsitone’s platform, as if you were praying, centred in a spotlight. Carlos, the harpist, sat beside you. In the wings, I held my breath.
You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You arched your back. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.
With Carlos you played Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Each note was shown in a beam of light. I had built a loudspeaker, covered it in twill, raised on a simple mount above the stage. Your music pushed like breath against the cloth. It trembled and then sang. You danced, choosing every moment, guiding the melody with a rolled shoulder and the tilt of knee. At the clubs you had not danced like this.
* * *
Theremin was interested in a role for the instrument in dance music, developing performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. And the instrument was to be a gift for film soundtracks.
Among several YouTube playlists, this one features 64 tracks by the great Clara Rockmore—opening magically with The swan:
Even by the other-worldly standards of the theremin, her rendition of Vocalise is Something Else:
And here’s Theremin’s last pupil, his grand-niece Lydia Kavina playing Clair de lune:
Eurovision has become a significant theme in ethnomusicology. Further to my post on Barbara Pravi, Ukraine’s successes in the 2004 and 2016 Eurovision contests are among the subjects of Maria Sonevytsky’s Wild music.
Azerbaijan’s 2021 entry Mata Hari by Efendi is striking:
The refrain Ma-ma-ma-Mata Hari makes another entry for my list of stammering songs. Were there an Azeri Stammering Association, they could have p-p-picketed p-p-performances.
The song may not be entirely illuminating as historical documentation, but hey—portrayals of her story have never been limited by facts. This clip from Greta Garbo’s 1931 movie is enriched with Amy Winehouse‘s You know I’m no good:
“Exotic, glamorous spy… notorious temptress…”—among several posts exploring the trope of the femme fatale, see here (cf. Words and women).
And while I don’t expect Efendi’s song to reflect the wonders of Azeri folk magham (for which see here), we world music fans are always on the lookout for popular songs that mine (and cheapen…) the folk heritage—a more promising theme the further east one ventures (e.g. Ivo Papazov). But in Mata Hari the shawm plays a sadly minor role, so here’s an Azeri zurna solo:
Under the punk tag in the sidebar (roundup here), apart from the Usual Suspects, are posts on punk in the GDR, Madrid, and China.
From this article I learn that in former Yugoslavia, among several youth magazines that played a significant role in eroding the Party’s message was Val (“Wave”, 1976–90), that began publishing in the Croatian port city of Rijeka just as punk was spreading (for leads to punk in Yugoslavia, see here, and wiki).
The first punk bands in Croatia were Paraf and Termiti—here’s a playlist:
From where we are today it’s easy to miss the more challenging aspects of the movement. The female band Cacadou Look (playlist) seem more polished than snarling, and they appear to have a certain musical ability, generally frowned upon in punk:
After the fall of Communism the mood of openness was soon blown away by nationalist insanity. But today Rijeka remains something of an avant-garde enclave; like the Łódź YMCA after World War 2, it turns out to be a cultural mecca, serving (along with Galway!) as European Capital of Culture in 2020 (Nobody Tells Me Anything).
For the current scene, there are several playlists on YouTube, including the female band Punčke.
Given ethnomusicologists’ taste for all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, Eurovision has become a fashionable topic, * but with my head buried in Daoist ritual practice, I’ve always given it a miss (“Call Me Old-Fashioned”).
So it was only when watching the presentations after the French Open women’s singles final this weekend that I was enticed to explore the ouevre of the beguiling Parisian chanteuseBarbara Pravi. **
For the Roland Garros organisers, inviting her to perform her recent Eurovision song Voilà may have ticked the boxes, but she matched the intensity of the players’ speeches, with her lyrics (see below) affirming their own strivings; the occasion gave her song a personal, almost informal touch that the streamlined Eurovision inevitably lacks (see this clip). Paying attention to context, even her chic outfit was artfully chosen, as a fan notes:
Barbara was a vision of summer in bright yellow [Dior, I gather]. Her high-rise pleated skirt helped define her silhouette, while her oversized short sleeves gave it added drama. Barbara, who is famously petite [sic], added height with a pair of super-tall platform heels with black straps around the ankles. She wore white booty socks, which brought a sporty element to the elegant look.
Here’s the official video of Voilà:
Again, it benefits from a more intimate setting:
Écoutez moi Moi la chanteuse à demi Parlez de moi À vos amours, à vos amis Parler leur de cette fille aux yeux noirs et de son rêve fou Moi c’que j’veux c’est écrire des histoires qui arrivent jusqu’à vous C’est tout
Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà qui je suis Me voilà même si mise à nue j’ai peur, oui Me voilà dans le bruit et dans le silence
Regardez moi, ou du moins ce qu’il en reste Regardez moi, avant que je me déteste Quoi vous dire, que les lèvres d’une autre ne vous diront pas C’est peu de chose mais moi tout ce que j’ai je le dépose là, voilà
Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà qui je suis Me voilà même si mise à nue c’est fini C’est ma gueule c’est mon cri, me voilà tant pis Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà juste ici Moi mon rêve mon envie, comme j’en crève comme j’en ris Me voilà dans le bruit et dans le silence
Ne partez pas, j’vous en supplie restez longtemps Ça m’sauvera peut-être pas, non Mais faire sans vous j’sais pas comment Aimez moi comme on aime un ami qui s’en va pour toujours J’veux qu’on m’aime parce que moi je sais pas bien aimer mes contours
Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà qui je suis Me voilà même si mise à nue c’est fini Me voilà dans le bruit et dans la fureur aussi Regardez moi enfin et mes yeux et mes mains Tout c’que j’ai est ici, c’est ma gueule c’est mon cri Me voilà, me voilà, me voilà Voilà, voilà, voilà, voilà
Though the French entry came second in Eurovision 2021 (“nous wuz robbé”), it was France’s highest-ever score. The song is consistent with the contest’s decisive shift in favour of minor keys over the last twenty years—conveying gravitas to offset the kitsch of the occasion, or even reflecting political unrest?
Talking of international multi-dimensionality, perhaps we might see Eurovision as a Handel opera, with the recitatives replaced by other boring longueurs. For the Azeri entry, see here.
Back with Barbara Pravi, her father is of Serbian and Algerian Jewish descent, her mother of Polish-Jewish and Iranian origin—I note this with no small envy, since my own parents hailed from the exotic climes of Surbiton and Chippenham (cf. “Palm trees are nothing to us—we’re from Torquay”). She discusses her Persian heritage in this interview (from 6.31).
And I’m most taken with her recent LesPrières for International Women’s Day; this playlist includes all six songs:
* See e.g. Dafni Tragaki (ed.), Empire of song: Europe and nation in the Eurovision Song Contest (2013), reviewed here.
** One might expect the drôlerie à demi of my heading “Ravi par Pravi” to be a staple of the French tabloids, but its apparent absence there rather confirms Kate Fox’s observations on the British propensity for headline punning. At least we can win at that.
Roza Eskenazi with Demitris Semsis (violin) and Agapios Tomboulis (cümbüs), Athens 1932.
Through the first half of the 20th century, the popular songs loosely grouped together as rebetika, performed by Greek, Turkish and other ethnic groups (Armenian, Jewish, Roma), thrived in the night-clubs and music halls of port cities like Istanbul, Smyrna/Izmir, and Athens, as well as in the diaspora, notably the USA (cf. Accordion crimes).
For “the birth of modern Istanbul”, I’ve already praised Charles King’s Midnight at the Pera Palace, which puts the popular music scene of the day in context. Despite its syncretic style, rebetika found itself on the faultlines of a period of convulsive change, with savage ethnic conflicts leading to the population exchanges of 1923. The rebetika ethos is commonly linked with other popular demi-monde styles like flamenco, fado, tango, blues, and so on. 
This was also a booming period for the commercial recording industry, and we have a wealth of reissues on CD (often with fine liner notes and translations), such as
Greek-Oriental rebetica: songs and dances in the Asia Minor style—the golden years, 1911–1937 (Arhoolie Folklyric, 1991)
Armenians, Jews, Turks and Gypsies: oldest known recordings (Collection Greek Archives, 1995)
Great voices of Constantinople 1927–1933 (Rounder, 1997)
To what strange place: the music of the Ottoman-American diaspora, 1916-1929 (Canary, 2001)
Women of rembetika 1908–1947 (JSP, 2012).
For early 78s of Greek rebetika and other styles, note the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum (n. here), including some wonderful amanes.
Left to right: Safiye Ayla, Necmiye Ararat Hanim, and Suzan Yakar Rutkay.
Prompted by the CD Women of Istanbul (Traditional Crossroads, 1998), I’ll feature YouTube playlists for some of the female singers who feature on such discs, as they achieved popularity from the 1920s alongside male performers. Their biographies only hint at the changing times. As Harold G. Hagopian observes in the liner notes, the gramophone
could effectively divide the public from the private, the voice from the body, screening women at least for a time from the very modern world they helped foster.
Left, Zehra Bilir; right, Roza Eskanazi.
Zehra Bilir (1913–2007), of Armenian descent (see e.g. here) (17 songs here, some duplicated):
I love her plaintive free-tempo songs, like this one punctuated by fiddle—reminiscent of a Uyghur muqaddime (and, more distantly, Irish sean-nós!):
Here she sings in an Armenian dialect quite remote from “standard” Turkish, with stock phrases borrowed from Anatolian folk türkü, rich in allusions. As my Istanbul friends tell me, the folk lyrics seem to have inspired a poem by Ali Kızıltuğ, in which a man professes his undying love.
This style is featured on the CD Amanedhes and taxims 1929–1937 (playlist):
The Jewish-Greek singer Roza Eskenazi (mid-1890s–1980), based in Athens—a playlist with 276 gorgeous tracks:
The list opens with Why I smoke cocaine—the Greek lyrics translated by Hagopian:
Where’s all my prettiness, where are those great looks of mine? In all of Athens, no girl had my class. I was really a doll, with money and all— I’m not putting you on, I made the world go wild. Then this tough guy, yeah, a number one Mr Cool, Got me involved with him; He took all I had and left me flat— He took my heart, my. youth, and my money too, And from the pain, I smoke cocaine. (Oh damn you cocaine, you’ve wiped me out!) Bigshots loved me, old guys, young guys, boys, And all the fine dudes on the scene. What great times I had, with wine and song; Every day I partied it up and led the good life. And now, poor me, I wander around and waste away, ‘Cause my hang-up for that tough guy won’t let me be. That cokehead came and wrecked my brain, So I myself now smoke cocaine.
Petits pays, grandes musiques: le parcours d’un ethnomusicologue en Méditerranée (2020; 512 pages).
Among BLJ’s main fieldsites, the focus here is on the Mediterranean, notably Sardinia—his early work on Morocco only features en passant. His remit also extends to India, Java, Iran, the Hebrides, Brazil, jazz, and Western Art Music. Most valuably, the text is cued to 63 wonderful audio and video tracks on this onlineplaylist, so that we can instructively listen and watch as we read (or even before Rushing Out to buy the book). Meanwhile BLJ also considers changing ways of musicking (the French musiquer is good), and changing trends over his long career in ethnomusicology. One feels his rapport as participant observer; while applying thick description (cf. Geertz) to both social and musical aspects, his style is deeply engaged, full of character.
BLJ entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.
* * *
The Introduction by Giovanni Giuriati gives background on early influences on BLJ’s studies and the significance of his ouevre; while sharing many approaches with Anglo-American ethnomusicology, he has also been at the centre of a distinctively European tradition (cf. posts under Society and soundscape).
The main text is a parcours in three parts, each with nine chapters—an anthology of mostly previously-published articles, illuminatingly arranged by themes.
Part One, “Improvisation: permanence et transformations”, unpacks the creative process (cf. Nettl).
After an introductory chapter, BLJ offers three vignettes on Sardinia, featuring the launeddas (in memory of Aurelio Porcu); dances with organetto; and songs with guitar. Alongside detailed musical analyses, he always pays attention to social context (festas, bars, and so on).
“Bartók’s kaleidoscope” is a thoughtful tribute, dating from 1994. Focusing on Béla Bartók’s early recordings and transcriptions of the folk music of Romania (cf. my Musical cultures of east Europe), it’s further informed by BLJ’s own fieldwork there from 1991 to 1996 with Jacques Bouët and Speranţa Rădulescu (see A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie, 2002, with DVD, including amazing clips like #23).
Chapter 6 is a more general discussion of models and typology, in which BLJ spreads his net to Iran, India, and Scotland—as well as Morocco, illustrated by the Aissawa cult of Meknes (#15), and Turkey, with a fine taksim on the zurna (#18b).
He then continues exploring Romanian village traditions with chapters on the oral traditions of the Ouach (Oaș) and Baia Mare regions. He discusses the misleading dichotomy between fieldwork and the laboratory.
In an intriguing experiment, the team asked local musicians to play their own transformations on short extracts played to them from a Brahms Hungarian dance, The four seasons, and West Side story (##24–27). While I appreciate the idea, here I’m rather less excited by the insights it yields.
A numinous image, also used for the cover of Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz—
just the kind of fusion of ethnographic and musical detail that BLJ practises.
Part One ends with a virtuosic entr’acte, “The jazz ear”, suggesting grander themes through two suggestive analytical vignettes. Seeking to assess contrasting evaluations of Chet Baker’s vocal intonation, BLJ gives a micro-analysis of his “deviant” pitches at the opening of I fall in love too easily (cf. Deep in a dream, and Chet in Italy). And the “cultural ear” is apparent too in his discussion of the harmonic implications in Charlie Parker’s different melodic renditions of Billy’s bounce. While this kind of analysis stops short of explaining why audiences are so moved by both jazzmen, it suggests fruitful paths.
This jazz vignette leads BLJ to suggest three approaches:
the imperial (“not to say imperialist”) position, whereby ethnomusicologists, with their universal science, declare themselves the omniscient authority, taking credit for the aptitude of others (Others) without asking too many questions;
the discouraging opposite view, as expressed famously by Bruno Nettl‘s teacher in Iran: “You will never understand this music”;
a middle way, which BLJ favours: that it is precisely the problematic accessibility of the music of others that is at the heart of our task.
Part Two, “Chanter ensemble, être ensemble” (and the word ensemble is more evocative in French!) returns to Sardinia, considering vocal polyphony there (“Les mystères des voix sardes”). Five chapters explore aspects of the Castelsardo confraternities, with their annual cycle of rituals culminating in the Passion rituals of Holy Week, illustrated with magnificent video clips like #35 and #39 (more under Sardinian chronicles). Exquisite as is BLJ’s Chants de Passion (1998), he reflects that
les mots du livre sont beaucoup moins riche que les paroles qui leur ont donné naissance. […] L’écriture est toujours maladroite lorsqu’il s’agit de rendre compte des intonations et de la richesse de l’oral…
Musical notation too is an imperfect tool.
BLJ in deep harmony with tenore quartet at wedding, 1998. Photo: SJ.
In the fourth chapter of this section BLJ expands his consideration of vocal polyphony in Sardinia to the more widely-known secular genre of the tenore quartet, including the distinctive group from Fonni, who open his 1991 CD Polyphonies de Sardaigne (#36b).
Chapters 5 and 6 offer more perspectives on the Castelsardo liturgy, reflecting on the aesthetic judgements of the participants, and on memory, individual style, conditions and constraints (the ritual cycle, sense of place), grammatical rules, preparation. With such factors in mind, BLJ analyses a 1993 Stabat mater (#41).
Chapter 7 considers such orally-transmitted group singing in the less formal (male) social interaction of the cantina. Describing the singer as “creator of empathy”, he notes that while such societies commonly refer to nos anciens, the word “tradition” doesn’t belong to such societies, but is an invention of the “professors”—an issue to bear in mind in China.
This discussion makes a bridge to the last two chapters of Part Two. Chapter 8 is a version of BLJ’s 2013 article “Multipart drinking (and singing): a case study in southern Albania”. After apéritifs in Ancient Greece and the Andes, he describes the Tosk ensemble seated around a table (also a focus of Chinese musicking), singing in free tempo as they make toasts with raki (e.g. #45), revealing the correlation between social and musical rules and their spatial and temporal dimensions.
La performance a pour but de render contigus, de façon construite et progressive, le proche et le lointain, le present et l’absent et—pourrait-on dire plus largement—les mondes physique et métaphysique.
He notes the presence of virtual as well as real participants:
Il s’agit d’etres mythiques: héros convoqués par les textes des chants dont on célèbre l’importance, faits d’armes divers (en general contre les Turcs), fiancées perdues ou inaccessibles dont on ne sait pas meme si elles existèrent un jour. Mais aussi présences-absences: le chant est la trace d’un souvenir, d’une situation précédente, de l’objet de ses pensées, et qui se voit adoubé d’attentions expressifs particulières. De sorte qu’être ensemble revient à s’inscrire dans un présent, mais consiste tout autant dans l’évocation et le rappel des absents.
As to the polyphony of the Lab people further southwest in Albania, Chapter 9 discusses the mournful song Ianina, led by Nazif Çelaj (#48; full version on BLJ’s 1988 CD Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales). It was premiered at a 1983 folk festival in Gjirokastër, and despite being promptly elevated by the regime to national status, audiences agreed that it was both original and moving. This seems to have been a rather rare occasion in folk tradition to witness a song regarded as a “new creation”; while BLJ describes the innovative aspects of the vocal arrangement (always embedded in tradition), I’d like to know more about just how the song came into being.
One particularity of the song is its evocation of the funeral laments of women:
Il est comme un esquisse ou un rappel des lamentations funèbres dont les femmes ont en principal l’exclusivité. Il emprunte ainsi, sans le dire, au vaj (cri, plainte ou lamentation féminine). Il y a là un travestissement qui ne peut passer inaperçu. En fait, un double travestissement, car ce chant d’hommes emprunte aux femmes et il ne raconte pas seulement une histoire: il la met en scène en y insérant—en live—le chagrin occasionné par le mort du héros.
Chant de douleur de l’ancien régime, il renvoie au temps de la domination des Turcs. Mais aussi et sourtout au régime qui l’avait vu naître, comme si, à son tour, il ne pouvait plus s’extirper de ce passé encore brûlant. Cependant, il n’est pas nécessaire que son référent soit precis, car en tant que plainte masquée Ianina chante la douleur. Or, celle-ci ne manque pas des scénarios anciens ou nouveaux pour fair irruption: elle renvoie à ce qui fut autrefois, mais aussi à ce qui est aujourd’hui (l’instabilité morale, l’injustice social et l’émigration notamment). Et sans doute a-t-elle même l’étrange pouvoir d’inclure les douleurs à venir. Elle et à la fois précise et indécise. En cela réside sa fonction paradoxale autant que son charactère opératoire.
In Part Three, “La musique en effet”, we return again to Sardinia. Chapter 1 reflects on BLJ’s “home base” of Irgoli, opening with villagers’ apparent indifference to the intrusion of American rock music blasting from the TV in the bar. He contrasts the whole social soundscape with the silence surrounding vendetta. The tenore style of Irgoli has hardly been affected by the fashionable adoption of other such groups onto the “world music” bandwagon. And meanwhile the canto a chitarra, the improvised “jousts” of the gara poetica, and dancing in the piazza continued to thrive there.
Further pondering how music reflects the social structures in which it is inscribed (an idée fixe of ethnomusicologists), in Chapter 2 BLJ revisits the launeddas and the liturgy of Castelsardo.
In Chapter 3, “Le cheval, le chant, la poésie”, he reflects on the limitations of comparison, even between the various festive cultures of Sardinia. Chapter 4 explores the connection between flowers and liturgical song. The following three chapters discuss Lévi-Strauss, the “science” of music, and affect—ending with an astute commentary on the speaking voices of women in Castelsardo.
In Chapter 8, BLJ’s return to Orgosolo in 2011 after thirty years prompts reflections on memory and the individual “proprietors” of repertoire among his various fieldsites. This in turn leads to a discussion of female mourners in Albania (#61), and the return of a celebrated Albanian singer to his desolate natal home, shown in BLJ’s film with Hélène Delaporte, Chant d’un pays perdu (2006) (extracts e.g. #62b and 62d).
For both performers and audiences, a complex, imprecise nostalgia may be involved in a synchronic event (as well as in later reception history, I might add). He ends with a note on music, memory, and possession—the latter here denoting the power of absent or lost beings in the performative expressions of the living.
This leads suitably to the final chapter of Part Three, on Georgia on my mind as sung by the “alchemist” Ray Charles. Applying the same methods he has developed for folk traditions, BLJ analyses the musical features that create the multivalent portrait of an elusive protagonist, with its “tempo-malaise”.
“Georgia”—l’être évoqué—existe a travers son énonciation chantée, des qualités d’intonation spécifiques, un timbre ô combien particulier, des transitoires d’attaque et de fin, etc., constituant non pas l’accessoire du chant mais son essence.
Noting the human voice as marker of social discrimination, he explores the “black voice”, anchored in the memory of douleur, and “le nègre blanc”; the pentatonic basis of the song, both gospel and rural (another pays perdu); and the arrangement by Ralph Burns. Nor does he neglect to pay homage to the 1941 recording of Georgia by Billie Holiday (and one might cite her Don’t explain as a succinct assessment both to support and criticise his method?!).
In his thoughtful Postface/Volte-face, BLJ reflects on the major themes that have emerged, describing the ethnomusicologist as both droguiste and acrobate-gymnaste. While noting the reduced local diversity of rural traditions since his first fieldtrips in the 1960s (a theme, indeed, that one might trace back to the origins of anthropology), he has remained alert to change, constantly refining his “models”.
All this makes one keen to explore the final bibliography, discography, and filmography—and do also consult the ear-opening CD set Les voix du monde, in which BLJ played a significant role. What—no index?!
This stimulating tour de force is both a survey of Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s lifetime immersion in musicking and another reminder of the wealth of Mediterranean traditions on our doorsteps, along with their relevance to a global understanding of local cultures.
And as if Barcelona wasn’t cool enough already, since 2006 the bass player Joan Chamorro has been nurturing a wealth of talent in his Sant Andreu jazz band, originally based at the Escola Musical de Musica de Sant Andreu. I heartily concur with Gary Berman’s enthusiasm and his excellent introductions (e.g. here and here); in another post he introduces A film about kids andmusic, 2012 Ramon Tort’s beautiful record of a great period in the band’s life (English subtitles only on the DVD):
The band’s repertoire (not one that teenagers necessarily take to at first: cf. Punk in Madrid) is based on the classic Great American songbook, with an impressive sideline in bossa nova. The female singers seem to have a particular aptitude; still more remarkably, they are also fine instrumentalists. This is a true ensemble, producing generations in seamless succession. By contrast with their American models, isolated divas beset by racism and heroin, this is a nourishing, supportive environment, a family; immersing themselves in the style, they delight in taking turns accompanying each other’s solos as backing singers with sumptuous close harmony (surpassing the family jazz band in Cold comfort farm…).
From the wealth of glorious musicking on Chamorro’s YouTube channel, even my modest selection below is rather extensive. We might start with this track from 2010, with an 8-year-old Alba Armengou (to be featured in my second post) joining in with her seniors—including Andrea Motis, then 14:
The site includes tracks from the two La magia de la veu [The magic of the voice] albums so far.
Andrea Motis (trumpet)—here she is singing a blues in 2009, aged 13:
Four fabulous numbers from 2013—Meditaçao:
Moody’s Mood for love:
Chega de saudade:
and I fall in love too easily—just as moving as Chet:
In ensemble, here’s How high the moon, with the Fab Four together in 2017—Rita Payés, with Andrea Motis, Eva Fernández, and Magalí Datzira:
The singers featured on the second CD are the subject of another post…
While the production values of these videos are classy, I feel the point here is about young people learning to engage in musicking joyfully together. Whether or not such brilliant young performers go on to take up music as a profession, it’s inspiring to see how potential, and the spirit of ensemble, can be nurtured.
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Avoir de réflexes malheureux Il faut que tu m’ex——pliques un peu mieux Comment te dire adieu
Mon coeur de silex vite prend feu Ton coeur de Pyrex résiste au feu Je suis bien perplexe, je ne veux Me résoudre aux adieux
(Je sais bien qu’un ex——amour n’a pas de chance, ou si peu Mais pour moi un ex——plication voudrait mieux)
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Devant toi surex——poser mes yeux Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu
(Tu as mis à l’index nos nuits blanches, nos matins gris-bleu Mais pour moi une ex——plication vaudrait mieux)
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Devant toi surex—poser mes yeux Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu
She sounds soooo cool, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hurting going on here. Instead, she finds inner strength through a flurry of insouciant wordplay on “ex“—not least Pyrex (a niche hommage to kitchenware in French chanson) and Kleenex. Sex is just a sibilant away….
Nor does she let up in her gorgeous sprechstimme interludes (above a change to triple metre on strings), stressing ex——amour and ex——plication (as in the sung ex——pliques and surex——poser) with an ecc——entric hiatus, negating the natural rhythm of speech—not so much a speech impediment as the kind of deliberate pause advocated by therapists to prepare the stammerer to approach the following syllable (especially plosives) with easy onset!
True, she would make the Paris phone directory sound irresistibly seductive (cf. the HP sauce label), but here her spoken sections further the dramatic effect, ex——punging, ex——orcising her ex——perience. They’re punctuated by a funky syncopated trumpet motif, courtesy of Caravelli, worthy of Hardy’s fellow-Parisian Messiaen—who three years previously had completed the Sept haïkaï…
Then there’s the extra visual frisson of veux, malheureux, auxadieux, mieux. One even hopes to hear her pronouncing the x there (I wonder how this works: do native French speakers somehow hear it in their heads?).
À propos, like many men, Monsieur Pyrex, the passionless, fire-resistant subject of this nonchalent lament, clearly needs his head ex——amining.
Françoise Hardy subtly subverts both the melodrama and the “gamine elfin waif” trope (see also Feminine endings). Put this song on the British school syllabus and there’ll soon be a legion of fluent young Francophiles…
Her German version of the song works well too; while the lyrics are less detached, they make a bit of an effort to keep the “ex” theme going:
Nach zwei Cognacsex bekamst du Mut Deine Abschiedstexte waren gut [Das Lied von der Erde for generation X?] Ratlos und perplex nur dachte ich Was mach ich ohne dich
Stets war mein Komplex du bist zu schön Charm hast du für sechs, ach was, für zehn ** Liebt denn so was exklusiv nur mich Was mach ich ohne dich
(Ob du daran denkst Wie einsam und verloren ich bin Nein, du hast schon längst Eine Andere im Sinn)
Gib mir keinen Extrakuss jetzt mehr Der nur noch Reflexbewegung wäre Ratlos und perplex nur frag ich mich Was mach ich ohne dich Was mach ich ohne dich
(All die Nächte mit dir Voll von Glück bis zum Morgengrauen Die und dich stahl mir Eine andere Frau)
Diese Dame X, die dich mir nimmt Fliegt auf deine Tricks wie ich, bestimmt Dann als Dame ex sagt sie wie ich Was mach ich ohne dich Was mach ich ohne dich
And she sings it in Italian, with yet another angle on the story:
Non voglio un pretesto per pietà Sai che io detesto falsità Sii un po’ più onesto quando vuoi Finirla fra di noi
Non restar perplesso ad inventar Scuse che del resto non van mai Oltre ad un modesto rendez-vous A cui non vieni più
(Io so bene che i castelli di carta Con un soffio van giù Non ne hai colpa tu)
Non voglio un pretesto per pietà Sai che io detesto falsità Dammi il fazzoletto quando vuoi Finirla fra di noi Finirla fra di noi
That first verse is good:
I don’t want an excuse for piety Know that I detest falsity Be a bit more honest when you want To finish it between us.
One might think Spanish regional languages would offer potential for the exes too. Anyway, the nuances of mood in these various versions are intriguing. Possibly a multilingual EU directive to Brexit Britain?
Françoise Hardy did a more melancholic version with her soul sister (twin?) Jane Birkin in 1976 (Comment lui dire adieu!):
Later Birkin gave an intense live arabesque rendition (1996/2002), with ex——emplary decorations on solo fiddle:
The 60s, eh?! Ex——traordinare! I am officially applying to be reincarnated as Serge Gainsbourg.
In Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the cant d’estil are short festive songs sung on the street and on procession. My baroque gigs there have coincided with a couple of processions to the cathedral, but I’ve never managed to hear cant d’estil live. What I did pick up, though, was
Antologia del cant Valencià d’estil1915–1996,volumes XXV–XXVI (!) of Fonoteca de materials of traditional Valencian music,
a 2-CD set with 192-page booklet by Jordi Reig in both Valencian [related to Catalan] and Spanish, containing 59 pieces by 46 singers; the erudite notes (with photos, transcriptions, analysis, and English summary) consider (quite limited) musical change over the 80-year period.
And cant d’estil is the subject of yet another fine CD by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, assisted by Vicent Torrent, compiler of the Antologia:
Espagne, València, cant d’estil, joutes chantées(Ocora, 2005), with recordings from 2003—here’s the playlist:
Of the two main genres,valencianes are accompanied by guitarró, with wind bands providing formulaic punctuation; albas are framed by dolçaina small shawm and tabal snare-drum. The songs themselves are more florid and free in tempo than the rigid, banal instrumental sections—the two seem in deliberate conflict; even the fandango strummings of the guitarró serve merely to offset the rhythmic freedom of the singing.
Within a framework that seems based on “art music”, there is considerable latitude in both texts and melody. The creation of songs, with llisteros and versadors whispering in the singer’s ear to prompt themes, may remind us of the garapoetica “poetic jousts” in Sardinia. Both men and women sing in the same range, the former in a “forced” high register.
The brief lyrics are not just traditional, but also cover charmingly topical themes:
I ask the crowd here assembled To give a thought To whether the powers that be Will ever find a solution To the parking problem.
Others seek to do little more than introduce the band (cf. Sgt Pepper):
Today the wind section Are all here Toni on the powerful trombone Tico on the trumpet And Casar on the clarinet.
Among many YouTube clips, this sequence, from 9.14, after the opening speeches, shows the prompters:
And pursuing my drum-and-shawm theme around the world, having featured a Catalan group here, here’s the Valencia tabal and dolçaina combo that frames alba songs (featured on the Antologia, and #13 of Bernard’s CD):
Smile was first heard as the romantic orchestral theme in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern times (1936), with Paulette Goddard as “the Gamin”.
It’s a political film critical of industrialisation, lamenting the hardships of the Great Depression. Graham Greene feared it would be seen as a Communist film, and indeed Goebbels banned it. By 1954 when the theme was arranged into a song, Chaplin was banned from the USA.
Here’s the original, purely instrumental, with its gorgeous harmonies:
So despite the smoochy strings, it’s innocent of sentimentality; rather, it’s a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived, recognising the challenges of life.
It’s said to be inspired by Puccini, but while the melody is indeed close to Ah, quegli occhi! (cf. Jeepers creepers), it was a more generic sound that Chaplin (one of a select group of left-handed violinists!) seems to have offered to his young arranger David Raksin to embellish (see here and here). If we’re playing the melodic similarities game (always a vexed issue; see also Unpromising chromaticisms), its contour is echoed in the opening of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight serenade:
Modern times is also famed for its nonsense song (cf. Doubletalk):
Talkies had already replaced silent films, but Chaplin persisted; the song is the only time in the Little Tramp films that his voice is heard—ironically, singing gibberish.
* * *
One doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s film to relish the 1954 vocal version by Nat King Cole (one of rather few male pop singers I find expressive):
So with all its further heart-rending harmonic shifts and inspired touches of orchestration, it’s still a sad song. Its mood also reminds me of Michel Legrand’s exquisite You must believe in spring, with its more sophisticated lyrics.
Judy Garland’s 1963 version has a special poignancy:
*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, click here!*
Rediscovering my youthful devotion to north Indian raga, I turn to the popular ragas Bhairav and its female partner Bhairavi.
Bhairav Bhairav, associated with Lord Shiva, uses a flat second and sixth but natural third and seventh degrees (S r G m P d N S). Here’s The raga guide outline:
For a vocal version in dhrupad style, here’s the sublime Uday Bhawalkar again:
For the extended alap, it’s useful again to anchor ourselves in the main cadences. Exploring the tension between natural Ga and flat re, like that between Ni and flat dha, he builds up to a decorated cadence on Sa from 10.01, and then explores further around Ga, with the “subdominant” ma too featuring quite prominently. Always expanding the combinations of phrases, in a long passage from 14.51 he starts ascending to the flat dha. Still moving upwards, hints of top Sa are confirmed in long sustained cadences from 21.53.
From 25.38 he introduces a firm pulse with mukhṛā cadential refrains, exploring lower and middle registers in turn, eventually building to another sustained cadence on top Sa at 38.52, with excursions up to top Ga. From 43.19 the pulse intensifies further, until the pakhavaj entry at 50.08. As my trusty gurus explain, the two concluding songs are devotionalbhajan, the first from 1.05.00 to Lord Shiva in 10-beatjhaptāl (2+3, 2+3), followed from 1.20.43 by a song to Vishnu in 10-beat sūltāl, with five duple units.
Here’s another vocal rendition, by Rashid Khan, with discreet sarangi:
On sitar, I’m charmed as ever by Nikhil Banerjee:
with gats in 7-beat rupak tāl (3+2+2, which I pick up from 41.19) followed by 16-beat tintāl (from around 55.51).
And another version:
All that is more than enough to absorb, so take a break before embarking on
Bhairavi Bhairavi, the “devoted and compassionate consort of Bhairav”, is “usually portrayed in a small shrine worshipping a Shiva linga” (which, like touring, clearly doesn’t count; for some sacred phalluses in Bhutan, see here).
Here’s The raga guide on rāg Bhairavi:
To the ear—as with the whole raga-ragini theoretical system—there is no apparent male-female dichotomy here. Bhairavi is based on flat second, third, sixth, and seventh degrees (S r g m P d n S), but the natural version of Re is often heard as a passing note leading upwards to the flat ga. Now that we have some clues on how to listen, I’ll be more sparing with my comments.
Here’s rāg Bhairavi in dhrupad style sung the senior Dagar brothers Moinnudin and Aminuddin (from a 1968 LP recorded by Alain Daniélou, whose book was my main guide for raga back in the 1970s):
Still with dhrupad, here’s the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina:
On sitar, here’s Nikhil Banerjee again, always sooo comfortable to listen to (or if you’d like to admire peacocks rather than trees, click here):
As well as contrasting flat and natural versions of re/Re, he flirts with a natural Dha at 10.15 (and from 16.58 as a passing note up to flat ni). The vilambit, with Nikhil Ghosh on tabla (in jhumra tāl, 3+4+3+4 beats), begins at 11.10.
As ever, these are largely village traditions for festivities, handed down in the family, based in dancing (syrtá, kondylies, and so on) and sung mantinades couplets.  Though audio recordings can’t reproduce the spirit of taking part, compilations of archive recordings can be evocative. I relish
Cretan musical tradition: radio broadcasts 1960–70 (3-CD set, Aerakis/Cretan Music Workshop, 1996),
featuring lyra (cf. Middle Eastern kamanche) or violin, with laouto lute and singing.
Along with the pleasures of the recordings, the liner notes offer a window on the lives of musicians through the travails of the modern era (for more biographies, see here).
Often they came from family traditions in rural Rethimnon, spending periods in Heraklion and Athens, sometimes touring for the diaspora. Musicians include Giannis Dermitzakis (Dermitzogiannis) (1907–84) on lyra and violin, also the author of popular couplets satirising post-war Cretan society; and the blind violinist Giannis Papachatzakis (Stravogiannios) (b.1905)—here he is playing syrtó from Chaniá:
In a highly macho society, the only woman performer here is Aspasia Papadaki (b.1932), the first female lyra player in Cretan music. At the age of 14 she made her own instrument; though her widowed mother persuaded Aspasia to play violin instead, by 1960 she found that she could only record for radio if she reverted to the lyra (see below). Here’s a track:
And here she is on violin, and singing, in later years:
The first recordings of Cretan music: original recordings made between 1940–60 (Greek folk and popular music series, 6) (Aerakis), sadly not annotated (some clues here) apart from naming the performers—mostly on violin: Dermitzogiannis, Pantelis Baritantonakis (also heard on the 1920-1955 set), Yannis Papahatzakis, and Georgis Lapokonstantakis.
Here’s the latter CD as a playlist:
As radio broadcasts and festivals on stage came to dominate the media, videos of musicking for local festivities are not easily found on YouTube, although judicious searches using the Greek alphabet may yield more results…
* * *
For all Crete’s long history of Venetian and then Ottoman occupation, the use of violin or lyra seems to have been mainly regional until the mid-20th century. What we might not notice at first when listening to such recordings from before and after 1955 is that the choice became a hotly-contested ideological issue. As we learn from
competing myths now came to portray the lyra either as bearer of the true Cretan and Hellenic identity, or as an inferior Turkish importation.
Thus the violin became an unlikely casualty in the whole troubled story of Greek–Turkish relations. Whereas it had long dominated in western Crete, the ideologically-driven musicologist Simón Karás sought to rescue Greek music from “the tastes of people who play heinous foreign music that feminises and stupefies the youth”—a common lament among dictators, such as Salazar and Mussolini (cf. foreign music in Tang China). So in February 1955 (just before the Istanbul pogrom) the violin was banned from Chaniá radio station, to the “bewilderment and outrage” of locals.
The renowned violinist Kóstas Papadákis (1920–2003) mounted a spirited (if equally polemical) defence of the tradition.
tells his story in revealing detail. Forced to keep on the move by the risk of vendetta (a disturbing feature of Cretan and other Mediterranean cultures), after making a living on the Athens rebetika scene during the war, he returned to Chaniá in 1953, and continued to adapt while resident in the USA from 1959. But after returning to Crete in 1976, he no longer “recycled himself”, instead engaging in vehement cultural resistance against the violin ban. Here he is:
Though the ban still remains in nominal effect today, the violin did resurface on the radio from 1983; but by then most musicians and audiences had accepted the dominance of the lyra. Anyway, the association of Cretan music with lyra is a rather recent fabrication.
For a less ideologically-driven audience, the choice of violin or lyra may seem barely relevant: in many world traditions, indigenous bowed lutes and Western violins can sound equally idiomatic (e.g. in Indian, Uyghur and indeed Turkish musics). Listening to the 1940–1960 tracks, what I’d have imagined as a more likely target of cultural ideologues is not the choice of bowed fiddle, but the use of simple Western harmonies in the plucked accompaniment.
It’s always worth considering Bruno Nettl‘s wider taxonomy of musical change. Argyro Pavlopoulou cites Ross Daly, who considers tradition an illusion: rather than a body of material from the past, it refers to the internal dynamism of a music which develops in time—while it’s not a restricted system that cannot include new components, the novel elements should be compatible with the pre-existing system.
Gauhur Jan accompanied by harmonium, 1902.
Meanwhile in India, the violin had long been popular in Carnatic music, while in the north, sarangi still dominated as accompaniment to the voice, so there seem to have been no principled assaults on the violin. Instead, over the course of the 20th century some singers began to favour the harmonium, threatening the livelihood of sarangi players, which prompted it to be banned from All India Radio from the 1940 to 1971. Though the sonic differences between sarangi and harmonium were more striking than those between the Cretan violin and lyra, the impetus again came from ideologues rather than performers. 
 Some useful sources in English, with further refs., are Kevin Dawe, Music and musicians in Crete: performance and ethnography in a Mediterranean island society (2007) and “The engendered lyra: music, poetry, and manhood in Crete”, British journal of ethnomusicology 5 (1996), as well as Argyro Pavlopoulou, Musical tradition and change on the island of Crete (2011).