Blind minstrels of Ukraine

Kobzar 1915

Having just been reading about turbulent changing times along the eastern borders of Europe, and to follow my post on blind bards of Shaanbei, here’s more on the maintenance (or destruction) of culture through the state socialist era in Ukraine.

William Noll has a most thoughtful article unpacking ways of doing fieldwork on the past, and the multiple voices of ethnography:

  • “Selecting partners: questions of personal choice and problems of history in fieldwork and its interpretation”, in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, pp.163–88.

To provide perspectives for my work on China, this ranks alongside some of my other canons—such as Nettl, Small, McClary, Lortat-Jacob, and Bigenho.

Noll observes the issues involved in the common case where ethnographers of one cultural heritage conduct fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, but both groups live within the political boundaries of one state—such as Swedes and other Scandinavians among Sami; Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans among Native Americans; Russian fieldworkers in Ukrainian villages; Ukrainian fieldworkers in Russian or Belarussian villages; Hungarians among Slovaks and Romanians; and so on. Another salient, and distressingly topical, instance is Chinese studying Uyghur culture.

Moreover, educated urban ethnographers are culturally quite different from the peasant populations they study.

Eastern Europe was at the vanguard of early folklore studies, producing an enormous ethnographic literature (one inevitably thinks of Bartók‘s fieldwork throughout eastern Europe, Turkey, and north Africa). Impressively, in Ukraine the itinerant male blind minstrels* accompanying themselves on kobza or bandura plucked lute (kobzari) or lira hurdy-gurdy (lirnyki) were an early object of study. Here you can even hear remasterered cylinder recordings of their duma songs, made between 1904 and 1912. This photo comes from a convention in 1902:

kobzars

As Noll observes, the instruments, repertory, and performance practices of the large-scale sanitized staged bandura ensembles that, from the 1920s, were presented as “traditional” had virtually nothing in common with village music practice—as I keep noting for China, of course (e.g. here, and here).

lirnyki 1939

At the same time, along with other ways of musicking the minstrels—along with their patrons, and the whole social system that nourished them (life-cycle and calendrical rituals, and so on)—were under attack; no-one was untouched by coerced collectivization and the Holodomor (see e.g. here and here; cf. the Chinese famine of 1959–61).

Holodomor

Holodomor, 1933. Photo: Alexander Wienerberger.

Most of the kobzari

were gone from village life by the 1950s, probably eliminated through radical and deliberate repression by state authorities (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) and through a gradual change in village culture over a period of several decades.

Indeed, the kobzari seem to have been destroyed much more effectively in Ukraine than were the Chinese bards under Maoism—which, I should say, is not to excuse the sufferings inflicted by the latter. In Stalin’s Ukraine, Noll asserts, the imposed network of community centres (“houses of culture”) was largely successful in changing and controlling new norms of expressive culture—again, I’d suggest, by contrast with China. But more brutal techniques were used too:

The methods of proscribing the music of the blind minstrels most often included threats of arrest. Some minstrels were beaten, others apparently arrested or imprisoned. Some starved to death in the purposely engineered famine of 1932–1933, their blindness probably contributing to their losses. Others may have been shot, and many laid down their instruments out of fear or confusion and ceased to perform. Still others survived, and stopped performing only in the 1950s when the state began to provide subsidies for the blind and the handicapped as well as pensions for the elderly in villages.

But Noll gives a nuanced account of cultural realities and cultural authorities over time. This isn’t simply about “salvage“, but must encompass an understanding of what we’re doing when we undertake such work, reflecting mutiple perspectives. While (as in China) research continued through the period, with its particular prescriptive demands, ethnography itself became dangerous. Some scholars were themselves persecuted—like Kateryna Hrushevs’ka, who lost her job in the early 1930s, was sentenced to prison in 1937, and died in a labour camp in 1943; not just the performers but a generation of fieldworkers were virtually wiped out.

Even the brave ethnographers of the period found themselves censoring their own research, in terms of both the people they studied and the subjects of the songs they collected—choosing secular over ritual performance. In China, “reading between the lines“, fieldwork on ritual music under Maoism now looks impressive given such constraints; and upon the liberalizations of the 1980s collectors reversed their approach, with one local fieldworker commenting (Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”):

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

But even recently, my observation that “religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue” has itself been deemed too sensitive in China! Agendas continue to change, as with the reified, secularized mission of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Noll goes on:

I am extremely skeptical of an ethnomusicology or an anthropology of aesthetics that uncritically treats the Stalinist period as if it were unrelated to the present, and these institutions as if they were just another mechanism for state support of expressive culture. Virtually all discussions on cultural authority are in general agreement that the ethnographer needs to place critical value at some point on that which is researched. This ought to include that which is brutally repressed. A respect for the inhabitants of the past is no less appropriate than for the living.

He has a fine project online here. In English, see also

  • Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian minstrels: why the blind should sing (1998),

and her site here, as well as this site. Note also the Polyphony project, with groupings under region, context, and themes. For a beginner’s guide to folk and popular genres in Ukraine, including some CDs of archive recordings and leads to the emigré community in the USA (cf. Accordion crimes), see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia and Pacific, pp.426–34. And then we might move on the Balkan bards…

 

* In English, scholars tend to use “minstrels” for Ukraine, whereas I went for “bard” in my writings on Shaanbei. “You say potato…“—a suitable vegetable, or légume juste, for both venues.

Europe: cultures and politics

While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual cultures (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a little roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.

 

And in the sidebar, do use the tags, categories, and search box!

 

Sardinian chronicles

Bernard Irgoli 1995

Bernard Lortat-Jacob entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

I’ve already mentioned some of the more accessible bibles of ethnomusicology, like the works of Bruno Nettl, Susan McClary, Ruth Finnegan, Christopher Small, Paul Berliner, and Cieran Carson. Another justly popular one is the slim tome by

How I envy Bernard his fields of study—apart from Sardinia, also Morocco, Romania, Albania…! As with flamenco (first of three posts here), he explores the riches of regional folk cultures around the Mediterranean, integrating changing musical and social practices into everyday life—which is precisely what fieldwork should be about (see also fieldwork tag).

His publications are enough to make anyone want to become an ethnographer. He also blazed a trail in making audio and visual anthropology an indispensable part of our oeuvre.

* * *

So far I’ve only mentioned the riches of the regional folk cultures of Italy in the context of de Martino’s early work on taranta. The concept of “Italy” is rather recent anyway, and there’s still a huge amount to explore in its regional traditions. So taxonomy falls short again: to subsume the folk culture of Sardinia under Italy is no more suitable than discussing Tibetan or Uyghur cultures under China (ha). And it’s another illustration how very blinkered is our search for sun and sea (cf. fado, football, and Fátima).

Sardinian chronicles is popular not only by virtue of its brevity and its engaging style, akin to travel writing, but from its rich ethnographic observation and its musical, social, and indeed psychological detail, with a series of encounters with individual musicians and their families—musicking as part of social interaction within changing local communities.

Like the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck for China, Bernard is gifted with a natural rapport. And as he unpacks his own involvement, his delights and tribulations form part of the picture. Sardinian chronicles has become a model for later texts—certainly mine (not least my latest film and book).

Despite the luxury tourist enclaves of latter years, the poverty of Sardinia is striking, far from the glamorous life of Tuscany or north Italy. Vendettas remains chronic among Sardinian shepherds—like the feuds of rival clans in south Fujian, and child chimney-sweeps, among the traditional heritages that UNESCO won’t be supporting…

Complementing his book, this beautiful 1989 film by Bernard (with Georges Luneau) makes a fine introduction to various kinds of musicking in Sardinian life:

Here one truly feels the “red-hot sociality” attributed to Chinese temple fairs.

Canto a tenores
This style of a cappella vocal quartet (see e.g. from 16.40 in the film above) is one of the most entrancing vocal sounds anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe. Its sound ideal makes a fascinating contrast with that of the Swedish psalm—more for Lomax’s Cantometrics to explore. Though recently, inevitably, sucked into the heritage razzmatazz (nowhere is safe!) and a regular guest on the world-music circuit, commodification can’t hijack its presence in local society.

Liturgy
On Lunissanti Holy Week in Castelsardo in northwest Sardinia (cf. calendrical rituals, or Athos), Bernard Lortat-Jacob has another gorgeous book

  • Canti di passione (1996; French edition 1998),

with photos by Bachisio Masia—a brilliant innovation of a scholarly work on folk liturgy which doubles as a coffee-table book!

Like Berliner’s Lives in jazz, it is just as detailed in musical as in social analysis—and as with Indian music, or indeed Madonna, a basic grasp of musical features can only enhance a more physical and intuitive response. Apart from the wonderful scenes in Bernard’s film (from 28.26), some video from 1992:

and 2011:

Here the magical canto a cuncordu vocal style evokes that of the secular tenores.

Launeddas
The launeddas (Sachs–Hornbostel #422.3!!!) is another microcosm, with its locally renowned players and makers. With three pipes (one drone, two melodic), it’s a very distant cousin of the Chinese sheng mouth-organ. Again, Bernard’s film has some insightful scenes (from 46.14).

An early pioneer of launeddas studies was Andreas Bentzon (1936–71):

The minimalists would love the constant imperceptible transformations in these riffs!

CD

Prominent among the masters with whom Bentzon studied were Efisio Melis and Antonio Lara (yet more rivals who made a tactical truce!). Their recordings from 1930 and 1961 are featured on a fine CD.

I haven’t yet caught the launeddas in situ, but I was delighted to hear the great Luigi Lai at the City of London festival in 1998, to which I had invited the equally distinguished qin master Lin Youren. Here he is with Totore Chessa in 2011:

The manic melodic quality of the style is the basis for that of the organetto—one accordion type that Annie Proulx doesn’t quite cover (and to lower the tone, Captain Pugwash perhaps sowed the seed for my generation in Britain). A brief appreciation (of the organetto, not Captain Pugwash, as Nina Stibbe would explain) features below.

* * *

By contrast, to show the limitations of casual visits by an outsider like me, here are some vignettes from a holiday I spent there with my partner from Mantua in the summer of 1998, when Bernard affably introduced us to his adopted village of Irgoli—his chapter about which in Sardinian chronicles is itself a kind of love song, with beautiful insights on guitar song (another major genre) in the bar.

Writing up my notes mainly on the beach, the contrast with my fieldwork in China was extreme—I was deep in my studies of Gaoluo and the Hebei ritual associations at the time.

And despite the ethnographic riches of, um, Chiswick, it’s ironic that I should be writing all this stuck here, sweltering (insert suitable headline here)—I should be there! I guess it’s called work­–life balance.

Our hosts Totore Vacca and Doloretta are friendly—warm and natural. There are lots of musos around. We get by with speaking Italian, though of course they all speak Sardinian together.

On our first evening we go along to a festa for children’s singing, meeting the breezy, nay manic, organetto star Totore Chessa (see e.g. here and here; also featured in Bernard’s film above, and on the Sardinian chronicles CD). Totore uses his big fisarmonica (rather than his organetto) to accompany our hosts’ daughter Francesca. To conclude, the local priest makes a speech that reminds me of a Chinese cadre: family, pride, culture, blah blah.

One evening Totore drives us, manically, to the festa of Santa Margherita Bultei. The gig on a stage in the piazza is furnished with loud amplification. Several groups of dancers perform, one of which Salvatore accompanies, with singers and guitar. The other dance groups have their own organetto accompanists; and there are three groups of tenores, including the fine group from Orgosolo. An old codger goes round liberally dispensing local wine. This sure beats the Nether Wallop church fête.

The costumes seem rather fabricated to me, but it doesn’t affect the authenticity of the performances. The parameters of the music seem simple, narrow, but it’s still hard to grasp.

After the festa ends at 2.15am, the local organetto player Mario Bande invites Totore back to his place for a drink—which turns into an all-nighter. We’re tired enough after the long festa, unprepared for this further private party, but given that Totore is our lift, we tag along with some of the dancers. Their animated talk is incomprehensible, even to my Italian partner; yet if we had managed to understand more, it would have been a wonderful insight into local musical values. Story of my life…

The two of them are subtly sounding each other out. Mario’s uncle and grandfather were great players, and the latter collected many folk pieces, some of which Salvatore is said to have ripped off.

First Mario brings out various instruments for Totore to try out and appraise, then they have a protracted argument about the uniqueness of local dance styles. Totore, defending himself against the taint of plagiarism, makes the point that there can be no evidence that such pieces originated in this one village alone.

They’re not just arguing passionately about aesthetics (the local dancers are also vocal in support of the Bultei faction), with all the loving exploration of craftsmanship of instrument-making that Annie Proulx describes, but they also have a deep and insatiable need to keep playing and dancing. As soon as anyone even tries out a phrase, the dancers can’t help gyrating—a contagious kind of dancing mania. Everyone (except us!) gets involved. Eventually the party winds down, with diplomatic decorum apparently maintained, though we’re not privy to the nuances of their probings.

Totore is pure, other-wordly, childlike, living only for the organetto. He talks just the way he plays, in quickfire bursts and abrupt cadences, always upbeat, hectic, alert to the spark of the moment. People know he’s different.

Here he is with Luigi Lai in 2011:

Back to my notes, covered in wine and suntan lotion:

Totore drives just like he plays too. Still chattering away, he navigates the mountain roads at breakneck speed as the sun rises. He clearly know the roads as well as he knows his keyboard—like Daoist Li Bin as he chases round doing funerals in Yanggao. We get back to Irgoli by 7am. Only later that day do we learn that a shepherd had been shot dead at the edge of the village at 5am—another victim of local vendettas.

Another evening we take our hosts for a pizza in Orosei. They’re keen to go to a screening of Titanic. We make excuses—another of those moral dilemmas of the fieldworker. Solidarity (“Becoming at One with the People”) suggests that we try and share their world, but hey, we’re on holiday… Instead we find Totore Chessa propping up the bar. He drops in next day to invite us to another festa, but we’ve agreed to go to a gara poetica poetry joust in Orosei—which is no longer quite like this:

(As often I tend to cite older clips because they hint at change—more recent footage is easily found!)

On a visit to the museum at Nuoro we get a glimpse of how very much life has changed in Sardinia. Then Bernard and Maria arrive; after a trip to the beach we go to the wedding of their friends, where the tenores di Bitti and a group from Castelsardo are singing. As in China, this is how to experience folk music, rather than in sanitized stage renditions. Sure, it’s all a continuum

tenores 1998

And of course this is yet another instance of the diversity of all the cultures of Europe (like those of China, or Africa) from which Some Brits now seek to isolate themselves…

Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*

palmas

Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe. And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

Youtube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco. Here’s a briefer introduction to flamenco as part of social life:

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is “among the folk”, as the Chinese would say: at lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [1]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of youtube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

For a sophisticated model of metrical analysis, see here.

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and bulériasthe latter faster, difficult but much prized.

Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera:

And bulerias by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or rather (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but at first, for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). One soon learns to bounce off the 12, but I find it harder to internalize the varying patterns in the second half of the cycle.

Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The YouTube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also my Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:

 

*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”

 

[1] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The Rough Guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song.

Taming the Uyghur “heritage”

I’ve ranted in many posts about the iniquities of “heritage“, particularly (though not only) for China. As if the commodification, reification, and secularization of local Han Chinese cultures isn’t bad enough, it’s still worse for minority traditions such as those of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, for whom the political agenda to sinicize and tame is even clearer.

On the cultural aspect of the repression of the Uyghurs (muqam, meshrep and so on), I’ve just added a link to an excellent detailed recent report on the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang, both under my main theoretical discussion Edible, Intangible, dodgy and in my film review Ashiq: the last troubadour.

 

Accordion crimes

Proulx
“Germans invented the accordion,” Beutle explained to Messermacher. “A thousand things they invented, but accordions most of all. Because Germans think, Germans have brains. There was this feller, a musician, a German violinist, he ends up playing in the court orchestra in Russia, not Catherine the Great but around that time, he plays the violin. But because he’s a German, Jesus Christ, he notices things, he notices when he hangs up his bow on a nail back in his room she also makes a nice little tone. From this he invents the nail violin, very beautiful tones, I have heard it. A circle of wood with nails sticking out, you run the bow on the nails and ooo aaa ooo aaa, a beautiful tune. One day this feller gets a strange thing from China, somebody gives it to him because interested in things he is—naturally, he is a German—and he sees a round bowl with some bamboo pipes sticking out, and on the bowl a mouthpiece. He blows on it. It’s a fine sound. This thing the Jesus Christ Chinese put reeds inside the pipes, same as in the accordion, little reeds stuck on one end with wax, the other end can vibrate like this.” He trembled his hand at Messermacher. “The German violin player learns the playing of this instrument, die liebliche Chinesenorgel, and from this he passes to other Germans the idea of the accordion—the free reed. That’s how it begins. Later comes the bellows.” (91–2)

By now readers of my blog will know how vital the sheng mouth-organ is to the ensemble accompanying north Chinese Daoist ritual—and I suppose it was the sheng that obscurely reminded to read Annie Proulx’s miraculous 1996 novel Accordion crimes.

The book has long been popular with ethnomusicologists (e.g. this review), despite being a novel—or rather, near the fiction end of the spectrum from non-fiction to fiction; or near the readable end of the academic—engaging spectrum (cf. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s Sardinian chronicles, another engaging classic). Like ethnomusicologists, Proulx focuses on change and social function. In her Acknowledgements she lists an impressive array of sources, experts on their regional genres—it’s amazing that all her detailed research took only two years.

On an epic scale, in the tradition of the Great American Novel, Accordion crimes has all the rich detail of ethnographic thick description. Indeed, it’s timely that I should get round to reading it now, since it discusses the tribulations of poor, ill-fated immigrants. The human cast includes immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish (cf. the equally poetic Carson), Mexicans, French, and Norwegians—all against a backdrop of xenophobia, misanthropy, brutality. Their sad, tough, gory, gruesome tales are connected by the history of an old two-row button accordion for over a century, with other roles played by

  • a club style accordion
  • a little one-row button accordion
  • a chromatic accordion
  • a piano accordion
  • a bandoneon
  • a concertina
  • a Chemnitzer.

As I observed about that other ethno classic Lives in jazz, the book gives a perfect combo of music and social detail. Hooked on taxonomy, Proulx can never resist long lists; likely to be tedious in academic hands, hers never fail to enthrall. While poetic, her language is never pompous.

The novel opens with compelling detail from 19th-century Sicily:

It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance at the glancer.

He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had made all the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kid-skin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sewed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. (17)

As the old accordion-maker arrives in New Orleans in search of fame and fortune,

In and out went Caramele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whirling coin. (42–3)

In “Spider, Bite Me”, Abelardo recalls to his son Baby,

“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you’ve got a dance. It’s the best instrument for dancing in the world, the best for the human voice.”
[…] On the weekends [Baby] played for dances with Chris, mostly rancheras and polkas; they sang in the classic two-part harmony, primera y segunda. […] The dances were exhausting, the strain of playing and the lights, the sweat and heat and thirst, the noise like pouring rain.
[…] Though so many turned to the big-band sound and the strange hybrid fusion of jazz, rumba and swing, would rather listen to “Marijuana Boogie,” the Los Angeles Latin sound, than “La Barca del Oro”, there was an audience that liked their music, found value in it. These new ones, many of them veterans back from the Korean War, some of them university students, embraced conjunto, and this music was not for dancing but for listening. It had a meaning beyond itself. (173–4)

The changing tastes lead to a heated argument between Baby and his put-upon sister Félida (191–8):

She passed her arms through the huge straps. […] She stared at the ceiling, said, “por Chencho, Tomás, por Papá Abelardo,” then sang the heart-wrenching “Se fue mi amor,” which Carmen y Laura had recorded in the last year of the war.

Her bellows control technique was extraordinary, with dramatic swells and choking, sforzati explosive effects. She scratched and rubbed and struck the keys, ran the back of her nails across the folds of the bellows. The accordion gave the perfect illusion that a bajo sexto and a bass as well as a highly original percussion player supported the accordion, and from it came the melting harmony of the missing sister’s voice to twine and burn with the sweet, smoldering fire of Félida’s sad voice.

“Hitchhiking in a wheelchair” (199–276) is fascinating too, as Dolor makes a pilgrimage to Canada in search of old-time French music:

The music was stunningly brilliant, joyous with life and vigor. The dancers sprang over the floor and now and then they would draw back and give room to a step dancer whose rigid back, erect head and straight-hanging arms accentuated the clattering, tapping, rapping, knocking, flinging feet whose steps stuttered in and out of the music. He wished Wilf could hear the fiddler, the sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs—Jean something, a taxi-driver from Montréal.

This leads to “Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand” (277–349) , where Proulx expounds on Cajun and zydeco in Louisiana; and “Hit Hard and Gone Down” on the Polish folk scene (351–426):

The Chez family from Pinsk lived across the street; later they changed their name to Chess, the two boys grew up to work in businesses, a junkyard, bars and nightclubs, finally making phonograph records featuring black singers moaning the blues, and by 1960 the good Polish neighborhood had turned black on all sides. (354)

“There’d always be somebody’s polka band—two violins, you know, the bass fiddle and the clarinet, no accordion at all, they’d just play all afternoon and we’d dance. No music pages, they play from their heads, they were geniuses. You know, the dancers used to sing out a line of a song, or not even sing it, just shout it like, and the musicians they had to catch it, know it and play it back in the same key. Oh, they were so good. Well, your grandfather, he sees after a while there is some money starting to come to the polka band players and there was all kinds of places that wanted polka bands—Polish Homes, the Polish Club, not the culture evening but the Saturday night dance, little dance halls all over the place, the union halls, bars and Polka Dot restaurant, the Polish League of War Veterans, a lot of restaurants, Polonia Hall—oh, there was plenty of polka dancing, and a lot of fun, and weddings, weddings, weddings, everybody was getting married and you gotta have polkas.” (371)

Hieronim’s wake was something, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, in the old, old Polish style, and nobody would have known how to do it except Old Man Bulas from the Polish Club… He was the leader of the singing and knew the hymns, scores of them all written down in his śpiewnik, a thick, handsome book wrapped in black cloth. (383)

This is soon followed by a memorable wedding:

He told his wife that it was necessary to balance the solemn death rites of Hieronim with as much of the old wesele style as possible… (385)

But again, tastes are changing (404–14). As promoter Mrs Grab warns Joey:

“We don’t want nothing weird or extreme, you know? There’s rules now, the association’s made rules. […] Only one song in Polish. Most people don’t understand it, but one song gives a nice ethnic flavor. That’s what we want to stress, ethnic flavor. Let me tell you something, Joey. Ethnic music is not that old-time stuff anymore. These days everybody is ethnic, might as well make money on it. […] They don’t want that mournful folk music sound no more or those complicated couple dances going into cricles and weaving around and slapping their asses and crossing into the next lane. No more of that Kozaky na Stepie, Cossacks on the Steppe, stuff. Everything gets mixed up unless you got a Ph.D. in Polish clogging. It’s no fun.”

[…] The spare applause had hardly died down when a big guy jumped up, his thin long hair pasted to his sweating forehead, and began to shout at them.
“This is not Polish polka, not Polish music. I am a Pole from Poland and in Poland they would laugh at you as I do now—Ha! Ha!—for saying this garbage you play is Polish.”

Now the bandoneon and tango make an appearance, as Joey meets a migrant from Buenos Aires, who muses:

“Piazzolla, with his little zips like the plastic zipper of a cheap jacket, his plotted silences, the squealing like rubbing two balloons together. That is a serious, unsmiling, hard music; the faces of the dancers frown furiously; and his tempo, the beat is like climbing cement stairs in a skyscraper with fire behind the doors. And there is that quality of a paper comb that sets the sutures of the skull trembling. Those passionate swellings are musical hives…” (416–18, cf. Alexei Sayle, no less).

“The Colors of Horses”, with Basque and Irish musics as well as Appaloosa horses playing a major role, is another too, er, deaf ‘orse. More fantastical lists:

…descendants of the ice-age horses painted on the cave walls of France, of the fabled horses of Ferghana, between the Syrdarya and the Amudarya rivers on the steppes of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, of Rakush, the spotted horse of the warrior hero Rustam, celebrated in Persian miniatures and in Firdousi’s epic poem the Shah Namah, of the Chinese Celestial Horses from the Extreme West, the Blood-Sweating horses, of the galloping mounts of the Mongol Horde and Attila the Hun, of the Andalusian horses of Spain shipped to Mexico for the conquistadors’ savage forays, of a shipload of spotted horses from the Trieste Lippizan herd landed on Vera Cruz around 1620, of the horses abandoned by the terrified Spaniards after the Pueblo revolt of sixty years later and traded north by an agricultural people more interested in sheep, to the Shoshone, Cayuse, Nez, Percé, Blackfeet, Blood, Arikara, Sioux, Cree, Crow, of the North American steppes known as the Great Plains, had been bred down to dog meat. (443–5)

The evocation of Irish song (483–5) is worthy of Cieran Carson. Now we return to the original, battered old green accordion:

The silent reed suffered from a grain of rust jammed between the reed tongue and its vent, and this he eased out with a silk thread from his fly-tying box. The steel reeds were coated with islands of rust and he scraped at them with the blade of his knife but was afraid of lodging more fragments under the reed tongues. He cleaned the reeds with his toothbrush, blowing out the dust until he was dizzy.

He could see it needed everything—new bellows, new reed, new springs, reed plates reset, grille replaced, and more. But it had a wonderful voice, sonorous, plangent, shouting in grief to the mountain slope. (486)

The final section, “Back Home with Reattached Arms”, is moving too, with Norwegian immigrants making an appearance:

His own parents had been obsessed with the prescriptions of a book, The Emigrant’s Guide to Preserving Norwegian Culture, written by a homesick settler in Texas, a book that dwelt on the merits of the Norwegian language, twice-daily prayers, Norwegian hymns, clothes, food, and, after the fortune was made, return to the “elskede Nord” country. Daily they had sung “En Udvandrers Sang,” “O Norges Son” and others. His mother wished to live in a Norwegian community where land was owned in common by all. But Gunnar shouted for independence and his own land, purchased a mighty, star-spangled flag… (496)

 ***

That discussion of the sheng, with which I opened, reminds me of the Li family Daoist band’s concerts in German churches in 2013, the two mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out (my book, p.339).

For a general introduction to the accordion, see here. For yet another wacky illustration of the joys of organology, see the aerophones classified under Sachs-Hornbostel 412.232 here.

Passages like this draw the reader towards archive recordings:

Abelardo had hundreds of records, his own recordings of the 1930s, a few with Decca, then with Stella, then with Bell, then Stella again. “In those days I sang in Spanish; those men with the record company said to me, ‘we can’t tell what you’re singing, so don’t sing anything dirty.’ So of course I sang all the filthy ones.”
[…] He had old recordings of Lydia Mendoza, of the great accordion players, the records of Bruno Villareal, half blind, a little tin cup wired to the side of his accordion, playing in 1928, “the first recording with the accordion as the star”, Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez, Los Hermanos San Miguel, dozens of Santiago Jiménez discs.
[…] He would make them listen to all those old labels: Okeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, especially the Ideals made in the garage of Armando Marroquín up in Alice. (148–9)

Of course, like all those books about Daoist ritual, it misses a lot by being silent—it cries out for a good playlist. More stimulating than this one is a Songlines list, but one is drawn back to the great 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. We can find further clues among articles in The Rough Guide to world music.

And let’s all explore youtube—here’s a Polish tango from 1931:

But if we have to use words to evoke music, this is just the way to convey its messy exhilaration and flawed humanity.

More East–West gurus

Besides Gary Snyder, another hero of mine in the 60s was Alan Watts (1915–73).

His 1972 autobiography In my own way is complemented by

and

  • David Stuart, Alan Watts: the rise and decline of the ordained shaman of the counterculture. [1]

Watts was blessed with extraordinary mentors throughout his youth. His accounts of drab suburbia in the early chapters of In my own way are worthy of Betjeman. In the distinguished British tradition of alienation,  he reflects on his early exposure to Christianity: “on the whole I am ashamed of this culture”, and “I could not make out why such pleasant people espoused such a fearsome and boring religion”. Yet while deploring the “asinine poems set to indifferent tunes”, “wretched bombastic, moralistic and maudlin nursery rhymes”, he goes on to appreciate their charm. He would have loved Dud’s Psalm.

And—long before Alan Bennett’s Sermon:

“the sermons of the clergy—bleated or sonorously boomed […]—conveyed nothing beyond the emotional energies of their funny voices, which all of us used to mock and mimic”. [2]

Still, he did well to note:

Strangely enough, young people in Japan have the same feeling about the atmosphere of their parents’ Buddhism—the atmosphere which is, to me, enchanting and magical with booming gong-bells and deep-throated and unintelligible sutrachanting. To them all this is kurai—a word which means deep, dark, dank musty, gloomy, and sad. (p.46; cf. pp.421–22)

Such dispassionate observation needs taking on board while observing Chinese rituals (cf. my post on Geertz).

Watts made trenchant comments on the “ritualized brutality” of British education and the teaching of history (“propaganda for the British Empire and the Protestant religion”). His view of schools and universities as “production lines turning out stereotyped personnel and consumers for the industrial machine” may be par for the anti-establishment course of the time, but In This Day and Age his mission to retune values is worth revisiting.

Railing against God and his [sic] role in Europe’s bloody history, he  had to escape, taking refuge in the more “amiable” tradition of Buddhism, seeking a mystical depth his guilt-ridden religious upbringing couldn’t offer. Through Christmas Humphreys he became immersed in the Zen of D.T. Suzuki. His early fascination with the Mystic East was nurtured both by his mother’s “oriental treasures” (he relished the clarity, transparency, and spaciousness of landscape paintings), and—plausibly—with Fu Manchu (for me it was The inn of the sixth happiness!). He got to know Nigel Watkins, whose bookshop he relished long before me (In my own way, pp.123–4)—aware that a lot of such literature was “superstitious trash”, he appreciated Watkins’s “perfect discrimination”. He wrote his first pamphlet, An outline of Zen Buddhism, while still a pupil at King’s School, Canterbury. Among many meetings with remarkable men [sic, as ever], he was first introduced to Krishnamurti in 1936. In 1937 he met Eleanor Everett, daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (herself later married to the Zen priest Sokei-an Sasaki before his death in 1945); they married the following year, moving to the USA as war loomed.

Without any contradiction, Watts’s escape from the grey conformity of suburban Kent also made him “an unrepentant sensualist”. It’s all the more remarkable that he went on to train as an Episcopal priest, becoming ordained in 1945; at the time “it seemed to be the most appropriate context for doing what was in me to do, in Western society”. But unable to reconcile this “ill-fitting suit of clothes” with his inner beliefs, he withdrew from the church in 1950, and after a divorce he moved on to California. Of course, deploring missionary zeal, he was always free-floating—the ultimate trendy vicar, eagerly imbibing all the psychedelic trappings the burgeoning alternative scene had to offer from the prime position of his Cali refuge. Never one for institutions, he had an on-off relationship with academia, becoming what he called a “philosophical entertainer”—guru to the counterculture.

Watts’s 1957 book The way of Zen (1957) is a remarkable introduction to the whole subject. As he notes there:

During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism.

So—just like sexual intercourse (on which he would also have much to say, based on avid participant observation—see e.g. Nature, Man and Woman (1958)—we clearly have to backdate the Western craze for Zen rather before 1963.

In parallel with Gary Snyder, Watts trod his own path, but his admiration for Snyder is clear, evinced in his writings such as the 1959 Beat Zen square Zen and Zen. And for all their discipline, they shared a delight in language and humour:

The task and delight of poetry is […] to eff the ineffable, to screw the inscrutable.

And he even relished Brazil’s balletic “gaieté d’esprit” in the 1970 World Cup! He also left a rich archive of audio recordings—many of them are on youtube, even if some tip over into self-help or Thought for the day. Here’s one worthwhile talk:

***

If the hippies were predated by the beats, then before them both came R.H. Blyth (1898–1964, when authors might still have unscrewable initials rather than personal forenames; see also here), to whose work I was drawn by Alan Watts. Blyth completed his Zen in English literature and oriental classics while interned in Japan in 1941.


I was far more amenable to the oriental classics (notably haiku, his main exhibit) than to all the Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but I got the point that enlightenment didn’t necessarily have to be sought in remote oriental mountain hermitages—as the Daoist and Zen masters indeed remind us. Blyth was also a great Bach lover.

He wrote a whole further series of books on haiku, as well as on humour in Asian and English literature—main exhibit for the former being senryū, humorous counterpart to haiku. He would have enjoyed “the first English haiku”, not to mention this limerick.

Apart from Alan Watts, other devotees of Blyth’s work included Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger, and Christmas Humphreys (another challenging dinner party), all of whom I admired in turn. For Salinger‘s absorption in oriental mysticism, see for example Seymour: an introduction (Penguin edn), pp.90–102. Indeed, the companion Raise high the roof beam, carpenters [3] opens with the narrator Buddy’s 17-year-old brother Seymour reading a Daoist story to their ten-month old sister Franny. [4] Call me old-fashioned, but these books just get better and better. OK, I’ll leave Salinger and Steinbeck for another day…

***

And before Blyth… there was Eugen Herrigel, whose 1948 book Zen in the art of archery was based on his studies in Japan in the 1920s!

Zen archer

Zen archer, Kyoto. ©Timothy Kraemer, on tour with English Concert, 1990s.

Apart from this whole fascination with Zen and Daoism, it was the characters provided in The way of Zen and Zen in English literature and oriental classics that led me to study Chinese at Cambridge, and eventually to read between the lines of dour field reports on local Chinese folk ritual, as well as seeking the unassuming wisdom of Li Manshan. As I became involved with such grass-roots religious activity among poor rural Chinese communities, documenting their fortunes under Maoism, I came to feel somewhat uncharitable towards traces of lofty New-Age hippy-style abstraction in studies of Chinese religion; but now that I revisit the work of such trail-blazing sages, I’m not just nostalgic, I sincerely find much to admire.

 

[1] Among many online sites, note http://www.alanwatts.com
[2] He also had a fine line in limericks, often religious—work this one out, a footnote to the Salisbury (Sarum) rite (In my own way, p.67), rather in the vein of Myles’s tribute to Ezra £ (and there’s another early orientalist!):

There was a young fellow of Salisbury
A notorious halisbury-scalisbury
He went about Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till the vicar compelled him to walisbury.

[3] A Sappho quote, for aficionados of the female composers T-shirt.
[4] Some further links: https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/2010/01/29/j-d-salinger-1919-2010/, and https://tricycle.org/magazine/how-be-world/