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!

 

Resistance and collaboration: Les Parisiennes

Fabius

ravensbruck

Ravensbrück, 1945.

Still belatedly educating myself:

After writing at some length about the traumas of Germany during and after World War Two (notably posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and the work of Philippe Sands), and noting the troubled history of tourist sites, I now learn much from

  • Anne Seba, Les Parisiennes (2016).

Relating history through the lives of women has become a major theme, as in Guo Yuhua’s account of Maoism in a Shaanbei village.

With most men absent, Paris was feminized, the burden falling heavily on women, having to negotiate with the male occupiers. They faced agonizing choices, with constant moral ambiguity, shades of resistance and collaboration.

For women, choice often meant more than simply how to live their own lives but how to protect their children and sometimes their elderly parents too.

Was it collaborating to buy food on the black market if your children were thin, ill and vitamin deficient? Was sending your children to a cousin with a farm in the countryside acceptable? Was it collaborating to perform on stage for or to sell fruit and vegetables to Germans? Or to sell jewellery and high fashion to them, when French women at home had nothing? Was it a choice to walk out of a café or a restaurant if German soldiers walked in, or was that deliberately courting danger given that behaving disrespectfully could have fatal consequences? [1]

Yet again, Neil MacGregor’s question arises: “What would we have done?”

* * *

Paris was iconic for the Parisians, the Germans, and everyone. British people suffered grievously too, all over the world, but least they weren’t occupied. It’s disturbing that the closer I get to home, the more easily I can identify with them. All over vast areas further east, populations were brutalized still more thoroughly—and were then further occupied for decades. Yet the traumas of past eras continue to haunt us.

Anti-semitism was as common in France as elsewhere in Europe, and the population was already swollen with refugees from further east as well as Spain. The initial German occupation didn’t seem too bad, as Gitta Sereny, then a teenage nurse, observed (“The German officers with whom I had to negotiate for food, clothes or documents were always courteous and often extremely helpful.”) Museum curators and librarians played a major role in the budding resistance, including those at the Musée de l’Homme—and the great ethnographer Germaine Tillion, whom I have praised in several posts already.

Mass deportations escalated for Jews and resisters. 3,710 “foreign” Jews were arrested on 14th May 1941, and then three months later a further 4,230, both French and foreign. 13,152 Jews were arrested in July 1942, and further roundups continued. They were held in French internment camps before being sent to Auschwitz or Ravensbrück. The latter, subject of Sarah Helm’s brilliant book, features especially.

Perhaps rather at the expenses of documenting ordinary people’s lives, Seba describes all the salons and soirées of high society and fashion; and the compromises made by women in entertainment, like Édith Piaf. But such hedonism makes a suitably hideous contrast with the lives and deaths of those sent to the camps; as Seba observes, by contrast with high-profile stars in the arts,

there has been a prolonged and inequitable silence in France about the role of so many ordinary women who in some way resisted the occupiers—like the young woman who, persuaded by her Catholic priests, cycled around Paris distributing anti-German newsletters, […] an activity for which she could have been imprisoned if caught…

Following the guillotining of abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud in 1943, the film Le corbeau, about anonymous denunciations, was controversial—and remained so. Violette Leduc’s 1964 autobiography La Bâtarde shows the struggles of poor women in a patriarchal system. The role of church and family in Vichy France recalls that in Portugal and Spain.

Pétain used such occasions to bolster the moral and political conservatism of his authoritarian regime, glorifying the family as an institution in which the man was head and the woman occupied her place by virtue of being a mother.

Seba introduces the story of the female agents recruited to the French section of the SOE by Vera Atkins—subject of another great book by Sarah Helm. A sense of guilt as well as duty clearly played a role as Atkins sought to discover the fate of her charges (their average life expectancy in the field was six weeks). Among them was Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44)—yet another pupil of Nadia Boulanger, incidentally. But their whole story deserves another post.

 

A constant struggle went on between the needs to forget and to remember. Many of us will have met survivors while hardly realizing it. I only belatedly documented the successive flights of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). Now I find that Marie-Claude, whom I sometimes see at my local bridge club, is the daughter of none other than the heroic resistance fighter Odette Fabius (1910–90). Interviewed in the book, asked to reflect on whether it was right for her mother to risk her safety when they travelled together by putting documents and false papers in her case, Marie-Claude replies evenly that “she could never have been different. That was who she was.”

In 1943, when Marie-Claude was 12, Odette left her in a cinema while she went on an urgent mission to try and warn her resistance colleagues they were being watched. But she was caught by the Gestapo, soon to be deported to Ravensbrück.

Long after the film was over, Marie-Claude eventually gave up waiting for her mother and decided to make her way to family friends where her father, in due course, came to look after her.

In Ravensbrück, Odette tried to escape but was brutally punished after being captured. Unlike most inmates, she did somehow survive.

As Sarah Helm also notes, the later French arrivals at Ravensbrück made an incongruous and separate group amidst all the degradation. Seeming pampered, they suffered a double oppression, from both the SS and fellow prisoners; succumbing more quickly to sickness, they had to learn survival techniques swiftly.

* * *

As throughout Europe, the end of the war was far from an end to suffering, as Keith Lowe describes so well in his book Savage continent.

After Paris was liberated, many were shocked by the brutal misogynistic punishments for women accused of collaboration horizontale. This was also related to class. Arletty, star of the classic Les enfants du paradis (first shown in March 1945), though compromised, spending some weeks in the squalor of Drancy, was not punished by head-shaving as were many ordinary women. Others found the épuration sauvage inevitable, a minor suffering compared to all those women tortured and murdered in the camps. But those who returned, sick and emaciated, still found life difficult, receiving scant sympathy; Parisians didn’t want to be reminded of their recent pain by these skeletal figures. Not all the survivors could bear to speak of their tribulations anyway, but there was little audience for those that did feel a need to do so. Oblivion soon reigned.

Still, Lucie Aubrac, delegate in the new parliament,

was keenly aware of the gendered response to Liberation as France enjoyed its new-found freedom, and she was determined that the country should resist falling for the simplistic notion that the women had collaborated while the men had fought. She insisted it was women who had given the resistance its breadth and depth—the women who had been the essential mailboxes because they were at home, the women who had become couriers because they looked less suspect carrying suitcases, as well as the women who had daringly used weapons. Not everyone was prepared to hear her voice—most were preoccupied with trying to resume normal life.

There were further painful complexities:

Half of those deported for resistance activities returned, but only 3 per cent of of the Jews (2,500 out of 76,000 deported), an unwelcome statistic for those in France denying that a genocide had taken place. Yet the attitude which saw resisters as patriots who had been involved in combat entitled to a higher level of compensation than the deported Jews, perceived as victims, persisted until at least the end of the 20th century in some quarters. […] It also fed into the notion that to have been deported as a resister was noble, but to have fallen into German hands as a victim was shameful.

And disparities were shocking: while British, Americans, and rich Parisians resumed a lavish lifestyle, ordinary Parisians were still on the brink of starvation.

On 27th October 1946 the constitution was finally amended “guaranteeing women equal rights to men in all spheres”; despite several magazines urging women to return to a life of innocence and femininity, the mood was changing. But French society was divided.

Meanwhile Barbara Probst was working to publicize the neglect of Spanish anti-fascists, who had played a major part in the liberation of France.

I was intrigued to learn that Anouk Aimée made her first film in 1946, aged 14; in 2003 she starred in the harrowing 2003 film La petite prairie aux bouleaux, as a Jewish woman coming to terms in later life with her time at Birkenau:

* * *

So after all these years of naively relishing the street life and art galleries of Paris, it’s high time for me to seek out memorial sites and plaques, and camps like Drancy and Fresnes.

1971

Odette Fabius awarded Officier de La Legion d’Honneur, with Geneviève de Gaulle, 1971.

Little did I know that in 2015 Ravensbrück survivors Genevieve de Gaulle and Germaine Tillion were posthumously honoured with a ceremony in the Panthéon.

At the very end of the book Seba gives a succinct list of questions to discuss, some of which I’ve mentioned above:

  • Why has it taken so long for the women’s version of events to become known?
  • How different was it for mothers? Some gave away their children to a passeur without knowing where they were being taken; Odette Fabius abandoned her ten-year-old daughter in the cinema. Did mothers have a responsibility to stay with their children? Was it justifiable for some mothers to compromise their children by using them to carry documents for the resistance?
  • Why do you think fashion continued to matter to Parisiennes during the war? Was it vanity or can it be justified as a demonstration of self-respect and pride?
  • To what extent did all women have a choice during and immediately after the Occupation? Do you think Parisiennes behaved understandably after 1945 or do you think the (largely Jewish) political resisters should have been more supportive of the Jewish resisters who returned from concentration camps?
  • After the Liberation, why were so many women punished—often without trial—for collaboration horizontale, while male economic collaborators avoided repercussions? Was head-shaving ever a justified punishment? [SJ: videos like this, with gloating men surrounding helpless women, are hard to watch.]

 

[1] Here I’ve combined text from p.xxxii and the book’s final list of questions.

Rameau

Rameau

Nearly ready to try out using the bow.

We should celebrate the wonderful regional diversity of European folk cultures, notably their musics—Ireland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and so on. But styles are just as varied within WAM (Biber, Nielsen, Janacek…).

Even among the great composers born in the 1680s, apart from Bach and Handel, let’s not forget Rameau—an early flowering of the distinctive voice of French music, leading on to Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen (not to mention Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger). If we’re conditioned by some notional one-size-fits-all baroque style, it’s most rewarding to immerse oneself in Rameau’s whole sound world—the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodic contours and ornaments, the instrumental timbres…

Perhaps we can hear “Tristes apprêts” from Castor et Pollux as a French companion to the Buxtehude Klaglied or When I am laid in earth—not to mention the hymns of mourning of the Li family Daoists. Among several fine renditions, here’s Sabine Devieilhe, backed by soulful bassoons:

Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux,
Jour plus affreux que les ténèbres,
Astres lugubres des tombeaux,
Non, je ne verrai plus que vos clartés funèbres.
Toi, qui vois mon cœur éperdu,
Père du Jour! ô Soleil! ô mon Père!
Je ne veux plus d’un bien que Castor a perdu,
Et je renonce à ta lumière.

Rameau Athens

Rameau in Athens, 1981-ish.

In my early days as a baroquer I did some Rameau opera for Lina Lalandi, but alas I began working with John Eliot Gardiner just too late to take part in his ground-breaking performances. His 2011 Prom was enchanting. The very first piece I heard him conducting live (those funky bassoons again!) was the Entrée pour les Muses (from 18.09)—further enhanced here by magical staging with dance.

Rameau’s operas alone are a rich canon to explore.

Lili Boulanger

Boulangers

Yet another fine addition to BBC Radio 3’s coverage of female composers: the great Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) (immortalized on the excellent T-shirt):

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02kt04haltogether a website worth exploring.

Dying terribly young, her ouevre has been eclipsed by her equally brilliant older sister Nadia (1887–1979), herself one of the great influences on WAM music-making in modern times. And of course I’ve written many posts on French music in the form of Ravel and Messiaen.

“Not a lot of people know this”, but I recorded Lili’s pieces (or even morceaux) for violin and piano with Susan Tomes on one of those disc thingies around 1974, while we were at Cambridge. Even then, at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular, we were all much taken by Du fond de l’abîme:

 

Operetta in extremis

Tillion

Anne Sebba‘s book Les Parisiennes is high on my reading list. Meanwhile, it’s good to hear her on Private passions paying homage to the great ethnologist Germaine Tillion, who somehow composed the operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers while incarcerated in the hell of Ravensbrück (see link in Bearing witness)—a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, an attempt to help prisoners “resist by laughing”.

Enfers

A salutary link with the Ten Kings of the Underworld?

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. 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.