The great sax player and composer Wayne Shorter (1933–2023) (wiki; YouTube topic) died recently at the age of 89, having been at the heart of a succession of outstanding bands (tributes e.g. NYT; Guardian here and here).
From 1959 he was a core member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, recording albums such as A night in Tunisia—here’s live footage from Paris that year:
Indestructible (recorded in 1964, issued in 1966) (as playlist):
Eventually in 1964, Wayne was lured away by Miles Davis (cf. here and here) to join his second great quintet, recommended by John Coltrane himself as his replacement. As Miles reflected in his Autobiography, evocative and candid:
I knew that Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams were great musicians, and that they would work as a group, as a musical unit. To have a great band requires sacrifice and compromise from everyone; without it, nothing happens. I thought they could do it and they did. You get the right guys to play the right things at the right time and you got a motherfucker; you got everything you need.
If I was the inspiration and wisdom and the link for this band, Tony was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualiser of a whole lot of musical ideas we did; and Ron and Herbie were the anchors. I was just the leader who put us all together. Those were all young guys and although they were learning from me, I was learning from them, too, about the new thing, the free thing. Because to be and stay a great musician you’ve got to always be open to what’s new, what’s happening at the moment. You have to be able to absorb it if you’re going to continue to grow and communicate your music. […] I knew that I was playing with some great young musicians that had their fingers on a different pulse.
Both Miles and Herbie deeply admired Wayne’s writing—Miles again:
Wayne was the only person that I knew then who wrote something like the way Bird wrote, the only one. It was the way he notated on the beat. Lucky Thompson used to hear us and say, “Goddamn, that boy can write music!” When he came into the band it started to grow a lot more and a whole lot faster, because Wayne is a real composer.
The passage that follows refines our image of “free” jazz:
He writes scores, writes the parts for everybody just as he wants them to sound. It worked exactly like that except when I changed some things. He doesn’t trust many people’s interpretations of his music; so he would bring out the whole score and people would just copy their parts from that, rather than go through the melody and changes and pick our way through the music like that.
Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste. Wayne was always out there on his own plane, orbiting around his own planet. Everybody else in the band was walking down here on earth. He couldn’t do in Art Blakey’s band what he did in mine; he just seemed to bloom as a composer when he was in my band. That’s why I say he was the intellectual musical catalyst for the band in his arrangement of his musical compositions that we recorded.
Classic albums from this heady period include E.S.P. (1965):
Miles smiles (1967):
Nefertiti (1968) (Miles: “it was with this album that people really began to notice what a great composer Wayne Shorter was”):
and Miles in the sky (1968):
For all the variety of these albums, I find it remarkable how often Miles favoured the idiom of the busy earlier bebop style that he had sidelined with Kind of blue (1959).
Meanwhile Wayne was also making albums independently of Miles—such as Night dreamer (1964), with Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones (as playlist):
Speak no evil:
and Juju (as playlist):
* * *
Much as I admire the 1960s’ pop scene, it’s taken me a while (Hello?) to appreciate the extraordinary creativity in jazz that followed on the heels of the classic bebop era.
Moving on, Miles disbanded the quintet in 1969 after Wayne left, but they kept working together, with exploratory albums with Joe Zawinul such as the exquisite, contemplative In a silent way (1969)—with Chick Corea as well as Herbie and Joe on keys, and John McLaughlin on guitar:
They delighted further in new keyboard timbres with the extraordinary double album Bitches’ brew (1970):
Again, Miles’s account of this period (Chapter 14) is fascinating. I’m always impressed that early bebop found such an audience, but these later albums, even less grounded in the reassuring signposts of traditional melody and harmony, were joyfully received too—even amidst the wealth of more digestible popular songs that were thriving at the time, such as soul (here and here) and the British scene (of which the Beatles were just the apex), not to mention the niche WAM avant-garde like Boulez.
* * *
I may be stuck in the 60s, but Miles, Wayne, and Herbie weren’t. Through the 1970s, they were avidly exploring the new sounds of funk, rock, and fusion. By now Wayne had largely switched from tenor to soprano sax; and like Herbie, he was absorbed in Nichiren Buddhism.
If you ask Wayne the time, he’ll start talking about the cosmos and how time is relative.
From 1971 until 1986 he was a core member of Weather report with Joe Zawinul, making albums such as I sing the body electric (1972) (these are all playlists):
Heavy weather (1977):
Here they are with their final line-up, live in Cologne in 1983:
From the late 1970s Wayne was also part of VSOP, with Herbie, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (from Miles’s 60s’ quintet), and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet:
Ever adaptable, Wayne also worked with Joni Mitchell (from 1977 to 2002), Carlos Santana, and Steely Dan. But he never neglected jazz; from 2000 he played in a quartet with Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—here they are live in Paris, 2012:
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”…
In an entirely futile effort to keep my finger on the pulse of Chinese popular culture, I’ve been watching the current TV hit series Rock it, mom (Yaogun kuanghua 摇滚狂花, directed by Li Jun 李骏 and Jing Lipeng 荆丽鹏). It’s well contextualised in a China Project article (cf. this review).
Rock It, Mom tells the story of Peng Lai [played by Yao Chen 姚晨], an over-the-hill, middle-aged rock singer. A run of disappointing relationships caused her to move to the US, where her music career never took off, leading her to return to China. As she tries to put her troubled life back together in her home country, she reconnects with her long-lost teenage daughter Baitian [Zhuang Dafei 庄达菲], whose passion for rock music inspires her to restart her career.
The mother-daughter dynamic, competing in their destructiveness, makes a refreshing study in alienation. Once again I am reminded of Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic riposte to Cui Jian’s Nothing to my name:
What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?
You can watch all twelve episodes as a YouTube playlist, currently without English subtitles:
Further to my post on Muzak, at a certain remove from traditional scholarship on the Great Composers or Daoist ritual, a couple of examples of how ethnomusicology “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, in the immortal words of John Cleese.
Back in the heady days of the SOAS shawm band, my mate Simon (not to be confused with Philomena Cunk’s mate Paul, bane of many a hapless expert interviewee) took time out from his research on percussion in Korean shaman rituals to undertake a fieldwork project about the music of British ice-cream vans. Like Liu Kuang’s Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office in the Tang dynasty, the loss of this work is to be lamented, but Simon recalls driving around in his parents’ Morris Minor with the window down in the peak of summer, listening out for ice-cream chimes:
After picking up the tell-tale sounds, I’d pursue the van until it stopped (if it wasn’t already stationary), park nearby, buy an ice-cream, and hover around until the queue had disappeared. Then I’d approach, briefly summarise my project, and conduct my semi-structured interview—designed to elicit all the van owner’s experiences and thoughts regarding chimes. Only a small minority of owners declined. Most were eager to talk. I remember a couple of responses especially clearly: a huge Italian man threw up his arms and said “Of course I like the music. If you don’t like-a da music you don’t like-a da ice-cream”; another guy said something along the lines of “Honestly, it’s a nightmare. I get home and the tune is still going round and round in my head—sometimes I can’t sleep”. Someone else had removed the usual tinkly ice-cream chime and had rigged up a huge stereo system blaring out jungle music. Nowadays, it seems that the chimes are UK-made [see below], but back then, I remember people telling me that they typically bought Swiss-made music boxes. One man did things rather differently, having a special box made for his fleet of vans that played a Welsh hymn in a computer game beeping kind of style (he was servicing a patriotic rural area in the valleys). The van owners made some interesting comments about territory too—how they would listen out for others’ chimes as they drove around, making sure not to get too close.
AGuardian article by Laura Barton from 2013 reminds us of the distinctive sounds of the British summer, like the low, sweet call of the wood-pigeon and the distant sound of leather on willow. Some history:
The earliest chimes were operated like a music box and fitted with a magnetic pickup and amplifier. It wasn’t until 1958 that transistors transformed the van chime, along with amplifiers that could be fitted to the vehicle’s battery. Traditional British ice-cream vans have tended to use Grampian Horn loudspeakers, angled downwards, towards the road, to diffuse the sound, and though the technology has improved sound quality, the distinctive tinniness of the ice-cream van’s call is largely regarded with affection.
This sounds like a candidate for the nostalgia of Memory Lane UK. Now, indeed,
in a move that has brought jubilation to the ice-cream industry, chimes can play for up to twelve seconds rather than four; and once every two minutes, instead of three. Vans may also now chime while stationary.
As to repertoire, a representative of MicroMiniatures, leading company for the manufacture of the chimes, explained that among the most popular tunes are O sole mio, Greensleeves, and Match of the day, as well as Jerusalem, The stripper (um…), Nessun dorma, Cherry ripe, and Waltzing Matilda (the BTL comments to this 22-minute (!) YouTube compilation open with a list; for further detail, click here).
John Bonar of Piccadilly Whip [Ah, the coy innuendo of British punning!] commented, “We’ve just always used the Pied Piper since the start, so all the vans we order come with that tune. You get pretty sick of it. But whatever tune you’d have you’d get pretty tired of it.”
If you find 22 minutes a tad excessive, there’s quite an array of more succinct medleys on YouTube, such as this:
The sonority makes me wonder if Indonesian ice-cream vans borrow from the gamelan…
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For Taiwan, in a refreshing change from studies of ancient nanguan ballads, another recent Guardian article explores the island’s musical garbage trucks. Recycling (sic) research dating back many years, a recent article by Chinese-music scholar
Garbage in Taiwan is at the centre of a musical assemblage that resonates beyond the confines of the nightly waste collection soundscape. Garbage trucks in Taiwan are musical: Beethoven’s Für Elise or Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s Maiden’s Prayer announce the garbage truck brigade’s arrival at designated times and places throughout urban Taipei. Neighbours stream into the street for a turn at depositing their pre-sorted waste into the proper receptacles. Taiwan’s semi-tropical climate, combined with a densely situated human population and the presence of well established rat and cockroach populations, makes garbage management a matter of daily urgency.
Guy traced Taiwan’s pop music “from the early 1980s through to the present as evidence of ways in which everyday habits and practices of reckoning with waste have seeped into a wide range of sensibilities”.
Despite efforts to diversify the repertoire, it has remained far more limited than that of British ice-cream vans. A maiden’s prayer was preloaded onto trucks bought from Japan in the 1960s, and has remained strangely tenacious. The other dominant tune is Beethoven’s Für Elise, apparently preloaded onto trucks bought from Germany. Now embedded in the Taiwanese psyche, the sound of the garbage trucks has been incorporated into modern Taiwanese culture:
Nothing says it’s Pride weekend in Taipei more than a drag queen death dropping to a club remix of Taiwan’s bin collection song. pic.twitter.com/vUVnnKVuoC
“Whenever I hear Für Elise, I feel like I need to take out the garbage as well.”
To my ears the stark monophony of this limited repertoire sounds more alien, even sinister, than our jovial ice-cream-van jingles—but I quite recognise that they serve different contexts, so maybe I’m just orientalising… And while these instances may be considered muzak in the broad sense of manipulating behaviour, they serve to alert the community—closer to the use of muzak in 1950s’ factories than to the subliminal aural conditioning that anaesthetises us in elevators or shopping malls.
My fusty musical tastes then being largely conditioned by the violin, I suppose I responded to the song’s classicism, although Bach didn’t mean much more to me then than he did for most fans of the song. Along with the trippy lyrics, the blending of the Hammond organ (cf. Booker T. Jones in Memphis) with the blues/soul/rock vocal style is perfect:
We skipped the light fandango turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor I was feeling kinda seasick but the crowd called out for more The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away When we called out for another drink the waiter brought a tray.
And so it was that later as the miller told his tale that her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.
She said, There is no reason and the truth is plain to see But I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be one of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast and although my eyes were open they might have just as well’ve been close.
Here Procul Harum perform it live:
This 1967 film (banned from the BBC) captures the zeitgeist:
A whiter shade of pale is the subject of a programme in the BBC radio Soul music series. With its walking bass, it’s commonly supposed to be inspired by Bach, in particular the Air, but the connection is more generic. Other similarities seem oblique, like the organ prelude O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß, or the opening Sinfonia of Bach’s 1729 Leipzig cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (sadly not written for the BBC sitcom):
A more recent comparison is When a man loves a woman, sung by the splendidly-named Percy Sledge (1966):
While generally recreations of original versions are to be welcomed, I seem to regard A whiter shade of pale as sacrosanct, like Beatles songs, so I’m not susceptible to Annie Lennox’s cover. There’s a nice cameo in The commitments:
Meanwhile in 1967, great songs were still coming out of Detroit amidst social upheaval. Among other good years for music, try 1707!
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.
Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….
Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!
The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
Composing and performing songs is an art—not just in Western Art Music, but in folk and popular genres around the world (cf. What is serious music?!). The songs of the Beatles deserve to be treated with the same seriousness as those of Schubert (cf. Susan McClary); and apart from pop music generally, it’s worth admiring the craft of miniatures such as cartoons, TV theme-tunes, and jingles (for the merits of “analysis”, see the introduction to my Beatles series, citing Mellers and Pollack).
The exquisite Dream a little dream of me was composed in 1931 by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Unlike Beethoven, those guys really knew how to write a tune. A lullaby for parting lovers, it’s been revisited by many singers to different effects that reflect the changing zeitgeist.
I tried to sing it like it was 1943 and somebody had just come in and said, “Here’s a new song”. I tried to sing it as if it were the first time.
And it’s magical:
Stars shining bright above you Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you” Birds singing in the sycamore tree Dream a little dream of me
Say nighty-night and kiss me Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me While I’m alone and blue as can be Dream a little dream of me
Stars fading but I linger on dear Still craving your kiss I’m longing to linger till dawn dear Just saying this
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you But in your dreams whatever they be Dream a little dream of me…
Mama Cass caresses the lyrics (“Birds singing in the sycamore tree”…) with dreamy syncopations and triplets, never metronomic. The harmonic progressions into and out of the “Stars fading” section are enchanting. Whether or not listeners are consciously aware of it, various types of modulation are effectively used in pop music. Step-wise shifts are most frequent; but here, after the opening two verses in the home key of C major (with our ears perhaps prepared by the surprising chord at “whisper” in line 2), the second section modulates fluently, exhilaratingly, to A major (from 0.54)—distantly reminiscent of Mahler’s sudden revelation of alpine pastures adorned with cowbells, or an incandescent Messaien meditation suffused with ondesmartenot [Steady on—Ed.].
The “Stars fading” section is a gem in itself. After the chromaticism of the opening two verses, its rather brighter mood, over layers of honky-tonk piano and wordless chorus, far from sounding brash, only enhances the song’s overall intimacy. With more lazy triplets, I relish the descending minor 7th leap (from high so to low la) at “linger on dear” and “linger till dawn dear”, framing more sensuous lingering on the last word of “Still craving your kiss“… And then, to signal the return to the home key, the harmony shifts back with “Just saying this“—first (1.13) beneath a descending semitone in the vocal line, then the second time (2.18) with dreamy wide leaps.
It’s all complemented by the arrangement, with the first bass entry slipping in for verse 2 (Cass responding with a funky rhythmic emphasis on “kiss me”), the nostalgic-pastiche piano interlude and coda, as Mama Cass becomes subtly more jazzy and energised… Every detail is perfectly calibrated to the dream.
* * *
Going back to quirky original versions from 1931 transports us to a different era of dance music—when the singer was subsidiary, providing an interlude between the main instrumental sections. Here’s Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra:
And here’s Wayne King, introduced by some wacky chinoiserie at the very start (in homage to the organum of the sheng mouth-organ?!), with Ernie Burchill singing:
BTW, it’s fun to invert the chronology of these early recordings, imagining them as a post-modernist ironic take on Mama Cass’s song by the Michael Nyman band.
We can only hear early music with our modern ears; and how we respond to music over time depends substantially on the persona that we impute to the protagonists. Still in 1931, by contrast with those versions, Kate Smith (cf. By the Sleepy lagoon) performed the song with an impressive rhythmic freedom, and the band arrangement is also effective, already breaking out from the starched corset of the foxtrot:
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1950:
(Several YouTube uploads mistakenly attribute this to Billie Holiday, but alas she doesn’t seem to have recorded it—now that would have been amazing!)
Doris Day (1957) is even dreamier:
Now here’s a thing. For the “Stars fading” section, versions so far modulate upwards by a minor 6th—pleasantly novel, but not radiant like the major 6th modulation of The Mamas & The Papas (a stroke of genius that I surmise we can attribute to Papa John Phillips). And in earlier versions, for the first appearance of the line “Dream a little dream of me” the vocal line has risen brightly (mi–la–so); but as a later generation perhaps found this too soupy and saccharine, it was discarded, instead falling from a flat mi to re.
While there is much to savour in such renditions, the more I listen the more infatuated I am by the dreamy mood of Cass Elliott’s version, with her rhythmic variety, and all the subtle tweaks of the arrangement in timbre and harmony that make it so very enthralling.
And the song keeps inspiring younger musicians—such as Andrea Motis with the Joan Chamorro Quintet (see here, and here):
Again, among targets that she sends up are the documentary format, her own persona, both elite and popular cultures, and indeed human history itself.
In the beginnings opens by exploring the achievements of early humans:
One thing they did invent was fire, which allowed them to see at night and kept them warm, tragically prolonging their already tedious lives.
Having conquered numbers, humankind moved on to something even more boring, by inventing writing.
The Ancient Greeks invented lots of things we still have today, like medicine and olives, and lots of things that have died out, like democracy and pillars.
And another invention:
Philosophy is basically thinking about thinking—which sounds like a waste of time, because it is.
Thanks to the volcano, we know everyday Romans had grey skin, were totally bald, and spent their time lying around inside their shockingly dusty houses. But it also preserved glimpses of how sophisticated Roman life was, with creature comforts like indoor plumbing and cunnilingus.
In Faith/off the intrepid Ms Cunk covers religion.
What’s ironic about Jesus Christ becoming a carpenter was that he was actually named after the two words that you’re most likely to shout after hitting your thumb with a hammer.
She perks up with an entirely gratuitous plug for an all-inclusive five-star resort near the temple of Kukulkan, “the last word in luxury”.
Islam represented a radical break from previous religions, because the buildings it happened inside were a slightly different shape.
And she asks
Why can’t the religions all learn to live together in peace, like they do in Ireland?
In The Renaissance will not be televised Ms Cunk sets the scene:
It’s the year 1440 (not now, but then, in 1440).
The historic present has always Got my Goat too.
Gutenberg’s press was the first of its kind in history—except Chinese history.
This is Florence—the Italians call it Firenze to try and stop tourists from finding it. […] Florence might look like a pointless mess today, but in the 15th century…
On the Mona Lisa:
Just looking at her prompts so many questions. Who is she? What’s she smiling about? Is she holding a balloon between her knees? And if so, what colour is it?
Turning to the New World,
After arriving in America to forge a life of honest hard work and toil, many of these colonists quickly discovered they couldn’t be arsed, so they stole people from Africa and made them do it instead.
Eventually Washington won, becoming America’s first president, the single most revered role in the world until 2016.
Rise of the machines opens with a succinct recap:
Last time we saw how the Renaissance turned Europe from a load of mud and parsnips into a posh resort full of paintings…
Americans back then weren’t the humble unassuming people they still aren’t today.
The North asked the South what kind of America it wanted to live in—one where white people leeched off other races while treating them as inferior, or one where they pretended they didn’t.
Following the Civil War,
Now Lincoln was President, at long last slavery was abolished, and replaced with simple racial prejudice.
Turning to recording,
Thanks to Edison’s pornograph, classical music could now bore an audience of millions.
She returns to the theme of femininism, on which she has already established her credentials;
Finally, with the vote, women could choose which man would tell them what to do.
Besides her collaboration with Charlie Brooker, in the final episode, War(s) of the World(s)?, “it’s easy to see why” she’s an admirer of the ouevre of Adam Curtis. Turning to Russia, Tsar Nicolas
was allowed to rule the country like a dictator, which I’ve been advised to say isn’t how Russia works today. […]
A world like this, where the masses toil for pennies while a tiny elite grow rich, seems so obviously unfair and unthinkable to us today. We can scarcely imagine what it must have been like.
As to 1950s’ America,
Adverts were so influential that it made viewers at home want to be the sort of person who bought things too. They’d work hard to get money, to buy a car, so they could drive to the shops and buy more things, which they’d have to pay for by going back to work, which made them miserable, so they’d cheer themselves up by going out and buying more things, which they’d have to work to pay for.
On the birth of popular culture:
Unlike normal culture, which was paintings and Beethoven, this was stuff people actually enjoyed.
For decades, pioneering black artists had steadily built on each other’s work to develop an exciting new musical form for white people to pass off as their own.
Moving on to the technological revolution, the Apple Macintosh was
the world’s first inherently smug computer.
smartphones revolutionised the way people interact, by providing a socially acceptable way to ignore everyone around us.
But we’re not lonely—thanks to social media, it’s quicker and easier to bond with millions of others over something as simple as a cat photo or the ritual shaming of a stranger.
* * *
Dr Shirley Thompson’s musicological expertise somewhat under-used
in fielding fatuous questions like
“Would it be fair to say the Rolling Stones were the Beatles of their day?”.
To help her unlock the mysteries of human civilisation Ms Cunk consults a range of academics, asking penetrating questions like “Why are pyramids that shape—is it to stop homeless people sleeping on them?”, “Has a mummy ever ridden a bicycle?”, and “Is there a Great Roof of China?”. Scholars such as Jim Al-Khalili, Douglas Hedley, and Ashley Jackson manage to keep a straight face, even as she disputes their so-called expert views with stories about “my mate Paul”, recommending them helpful YouTube videos wat ‘e sent ‘er. The Cunk interview is fast becoming the hallmark of the public intellectual; and I now feel that it should be a compulsory ordeal, a rite of passage for any aspiring lecturer. As Rebecca Nicholson’s review observes:
You could spend a lot of time wondering whether the interviewees are in on the joke or not; if they are in on it completely, it ruins the gag, which surely works best if they think Cunk is deadly serious. The same is true for viewers, in a way. If you look closely enough, you can see that there’s a formula: compare old thing to new thing, ask anachronistic question, wait for baffled response. In both cases, though, I don’t think it matters. None of the academics seem to think they are being mocked, nor are they trying to be funny; likewise, it’s so hilarious and well-written that if you can occasionally see the bare bones poking out, it isn’t much of an issue.
The interview in Cunk on Shakespeare, where she quizzes Ben Crystal on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up, remains a great favourite of mine:
This series has a new, mystifying musical leitmotif, introduced by fine links such as
Descartes inspired an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, during which metrosexual elitists published essays that expanded humankind’s horizons in a manner that will go unmatched until the 1989 release of Belgian techno anthem Pump up the jam… [cue music].
Philomena Cunk attains a level of vacuity with which no-one outside the current government could compete. Too bad she’s over-qualified to serve as the next Prime Minister.
George Melly (1926–2007) was one of the great characters of the London trad jazz scene.
He described his early escapades frankly in
Owning-up(1965), a most delightful and perceptive memoir (cf. Lives in jazz).
Forced as he was at prep school to listen to the cricket on the radio,
even now the sentence “and we return to the studio” holds an irrational beauty.
Very often the announcer, in a suitably apologetic voice, would introduce a record by Ambrose and his Orchestra or Roy Fox and his Band. At this, the headmaster, with the hysterical violence which characterised all his movements, would push back his chair and attempt to silence the ancient set before the first note.
If, as usually happened, the switch came off in his hand, he would drown the music, as he fumbled to replace it on its axle, by shouting “Filthy jazz!” at the top of his voice.
Sitting po-faced under a sepia photography of giraffes in the East African bush, I would mentally add jazz to Bolshevism and the lower classes (“Spurni profanum vulgus”) as things I was in favour of.
All over wartime Britain the same thing was happening. […] Suddenly, as if by spontaneous combustion, the music exploded in all our heads.
After Stowe he joined the Navy as an ordinary seaman, taking his gramophone and records on board ship, dreaming of New Orleans. In this same period his other interest was Surrealism, and after demob he began working for E.L.T. Mesens in his newly-opened London Gallery. Eventually he got to hear live revivalist jazz, as trad was known then. Hanging out at Humphrey Littleton’s weekly sessions, he began exploring clubs in the suburbs.
I resolved to become an executant. Too lazy to learn an instrument, I had decided to sing. *
He went to Eel Pie Island on the Thames to hear Cy Laurie’s band:
After I had drunk several pints at a bar half painted to look like the window of a Spanish Hacienda, I asked Cy if I could sing. He couldn’t think of any excuse so I did.
He soon found his groove—in John Mortimer’s words, “singing with the raucous charm of an old Negress, so easily attained by those educated at Stowe”.
George and Mick.
As he teamed up with Mick Mulligan, his work at the gallery suffered: “what had been vague inefficiency turned into inspired anti-commercial delirium”. He notes the conflicting credos of trad jazzers and beboppers (the latter being the main topic of my series on jazz):
The revivalists began with the old records, and only learned to play because they loved a vanished music, and wished to resurrect it. Depending on their purism, they drew a line at some arbitrary date and claimed that no jazz existed after it. The modernists did this in reverse. Nothing existed pre-Parker. […]
Very slowly things changed, initially on a personal level. The two schools began to meet socially to argue and listen. Eventually some of the traditionalists became modernists or mainstreamers, and others began to realise that Gillespie and Parker, Monk and Davis were not perverse iconoclasts but in the great tradition, and the modern musicians stopped imagining that bebop had sprung fully armed from the bandstand at Mintons, but had its roots in the early history of the music.
The contrasting ethos was also displayed in the two camps’ sartorial tastes, with George soon creating his own distinctive style.
He branched out from his early homosexuality, with no moral decision involved. After years of patient suffering, his landlord served him with a brilliant eviction notice:
… I have endured your drunken and dissolute ways, your wanton waste of light, gas fire, hot bath water, horse radish, beans, lavatory water, your assumption that my library was yours… I never reproached you when you made this house a doss for band boys and barrow spivs, nor when you plastered the walls of a lovely room with obscenities and childish scrawls…
As the band began making a name, they traveled to seedy suburban jazz clubs via second-hand car lots on bomb sites, and set off on tours of the provinces.
After one session George was head-butted by a young thug wielding a bottle.
I was anaesthetised by fear. I subconsciously did the only thing that might work and it did. I took out of my pocket a small book of the sound poems of the dadaist Kurt Schwitters, explained what they were, and began to read. The book was knocked out of my hand, but I bent and picked it up again, and read on:
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi Ookar. langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi Ookar. Rackerterpaybee Rackerterpaybay Ookar. langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi etc.
Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off. I can’t explain why it worked, but I suspect that it was because they needed a conventional response in order to give me a going over. If I’d pleaded or attempted to defend myself, or backed against the wall with my arm over my face, I think I’d have had it.
Leading lights on the scene included Ken Colyer, purist stalwart of the trad jazz church, and Humph, who George recalls listening to a modern jazz record and then turning away with the remark, “Back to sanity and 1926!”. In later years on I’m sorry I haven’t a clue Humph would introduce his deadpan put-downs of the show’s long-suffering pianist Colin Sell by intoning languidly, “Listeners may be interested to know that…”
The Mulligan band performed for the 1951 Festival of Britain (cf. Stella Gibbons), “that gay and imaginative flyleaf dividing the grey tight-lipped puritanism of the years of austerity from the greedy affluence which was to come”.
Mick had a “pathological hatred of rehearsal”. This story of a banjo player, a “kind-hearted formidable pissartist”, takes me back to our ordeal playing Handel in Göttingen:
The replacement of a broken string was a comic performance in itself. He would hold the banjo about two inches from his nose and with slow glassy-eyed deliberation fail time and time again to thread the new string onto the key. Eventually by the law of averages he succeeded, tuned his instrument with conscientious precision and then, often only a bar or two later, another one would snap.
As George lost his job at the gallery, his sexual education continued in a world of scrubbers (see below), knee-tremblers, and bunk-ups. The band turned professional (using the word loosely), playing all over Britain in dance halls, whose décor he evokes poetically. It was a relief to play in jazz clubs. He pays homage to the transport caff; while some were disgusting, “with congealed sauce around the necks of the bottles and pools of tea on the table with crusts of bread floating in them”, others had gleaming juke-boxes and pin-tables and fruit machines, clean tables, and hot, edible food. Such caffs provided
a few minutes of light and warmth in the dark cold hours between leaving the dance hall where the old caretaker and his one-eyed dog snooze over a tiny electric fire, and climbing into bed in the London dawn, grey and shivering from lack of sleep.
He evokes the cellar clubs of Soho, frequented by taxi-drivers, clip-joint hostesses, waiters, small-time criminals, and jazz musicians. In 1952 at their basement club in Gerard street, Mick and George organised all-night raves—a term which Mick apparently coined with his manager Jim Godbolt. George traces the ebb and flow of the revivalist scene, with vignettes on the motley crew of aficionados who kept the flame burning.
Soon after their coach crashed in the Lincolnshire night, Mick dismantled the band, offering to manage George as a solo singer. Changes were afoot in their corner of the jazz world. Ken Colyer came back from New Orleans “like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law”. Humph “was in full revolt against his revivalist past”, eventually settling for mainstream, the small-band jazz of the late 30s–early 40s. Cy Laurie’s cellar club in Windmill street did well, his all-night raves more financially viable than those of Mick and George, before he went off to India on a Quest for a different kind of Truth.
George was ecstatic to hear Big Bill Broonzy at the Conway Hall, the first American jazzman to appear in England after the war (cf. Ronnie Scott and my Chinese-music mentor Ray Man getting to hang out with their American idols in the early 60s), though he found Alan Lomax’s lengthy introduction paternalistic. The visit featured memorable all-night sessions, and on Big Bill’s trip to Liverpool he stayed with George’s parents.
By 1955 Mick couldn’t resist returning to the fray, and George couldn’t resist singing with his re-formed band, staying with him for the next seven years despite other tempting offers. He relays a story from clarinettist Ian Christie:
Mick was very drunk and playing a solo. His control was minimal, his head entirely empty of any constructive ideas. His timing gone. All he could do was blow unbearably loudly, his neck swollen, his eyeballs popping with effort. Ian listened with irritation. When somebody is playing as badly as that it reflects on everybody in the band. Finally Mick finished his thirty-two bars of nothing, and waved his bell in the direction of the trombonist to tell him to take the next chorus. He turned to Ian, his face running with sweat:
“All the noise and vulgarity of Freddy Randall,” he said, “with none of the technique.”
Although jazz and WAM may seem far apart, such hooliganism, like the antics of the band on the road, reminds me of the orchestral scene in the 70s, complete with intemperate excess and practical jokes (see Deviating from behavioural norms!). With the personnel of Mick’s band constantly fluctuating, George gives affectionate portraits of its miscreants’ foibles.
By 1954 Chris Barber was taking over the mantle of Ken Colyer on the trad scene. But just then
a whole new world was in the process of being born, and we were entirely unaware of it. I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “teenager”. I don’t know at what point I began to take in the teenage thing. I doubt many other people can either.
They decided Rock around the clock was a drag, and were underwhelmed by Elvis. But what was changing was the new group identity of young fans. George became aware of the trend through meeting Tommy Steele on a transmission for the embryonic medium of television. Later, sharing a bill with him, he realised what a huge youth following Tommy had, their “orgiastic cries of worship” foretelling the death of jazz. Still, they managed to ride the storm, playing for loyal jazz club audiences. George also notes the rise of skiffle, revived yet again by Ken Colyer, making a star of Lonnie Donegan.
On a Scottish tour in 1955 George got married. He had just done a lecture at the ICA in London on the subject of “Erotic imagery in the blues” to a mixed audience of earnest ICA regulars and his own unruly mates. Generously fortified by gin, and diverging from his well-prepared script, he delivered a rather incoherent attack on the ICA itself, referring to it “with a certain lack of originality” as “Institute of Contemporary Farts” or, to relieve the tedium, “Institute of Contemporary Arseholes”. Finally, as the staff stacked up the chairs, with George insensible, his supporters unstacked them (which could surely have been billed as a work of performance art in itself). In response to outraged coverage of the event in the Melody maker, George
wrote in defence citing Dada and Rimbaud, but leaving out Messrs Gordon and Booth, which was perhaps rather unfair.
After a sympathetic account of the early breakup of his marriage, George describes the exhilaration of hearing Louis Armstrong on his first visit to London in 1956. As American jazzers began touring England more often, George found a particular affinity with bluesman Jimmy Rushing. With Mick’s band they toured with Big Bill Broonzy, as well as Sister Rosetta Tharp, who to their relief turned to be quite a raver.
As to George’s own showmanship on stage,
The general feeling in the band was that my poncing about had become a bit much.
On the road they made “an increasingly dull noise”; but his old jazzmate Wally Fawkes (whose sketch of George adorns the book cover) now asked him to write the dialogue for his popular Flook cartoon in The Daily Mail. This regular income boosted his unpredictable earnings.
Ever alert to language, he notes the transition from “mouse” to “chick” to “bird”, terms whose sexism is hardly redeemed by being well-meant (cf. Words and women). He gives an expansive sociological definition of the term “scrubber”. Whereas in the later Beat world it came to mean a prostitute, in his early days on the road it denoted a girl who slept with a jazzman for her own satisfaction as much as his. Each had their own catchment area, and they tended to specialise in men who played a particular instrument. **
Around 1960 trad jazz enjoyed another vogue, with Mr Acker Bilk rising to fame, prompting George to further unpack the changing scene and deplore the turgid banjo (cf. the rise of the bouzouki in rebetika). He recorded LPs and EPs, and appeared solo on TV as compère and performer, “looking camp as Chloe”.
In Liverpool, doing gigs at the Cavern, they find Beat groups beginning to appear—including one called the Beatles.
By 1962 Mick’s band had agreed to disband again. George, no longer dependent on singing for his supper, found a long-term partner in his wife Diana.
At the time of writing rhythm and blues is taking over from Beat.
His benign conspiratorial chuckle translating onto the page, Melly’s sensibility is so contemporary and his style so candid that it’s hard to believe the book was published as early as 1965. He pursued the musical upheavals of the time with Revolt into style (1972). In Rum, bum, and concertina (1978) he recounted his earlier days in the Navy.
Of course, even in later years he could never resist camping it up for an audience. Here he is live with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in 1983:
And he stars in the evocative documentary Smokey dives: jazz faces and places (2001):
* George’s speciality in singing, unsullied by instrumental skills, reminds me of my time at meetings of the Gaoluo village ritual association, with trusty liturgist Shan Yude’s constant self-deprecating lament, “I can’t play wind instruments, I can’t play percussion…” (wo you buhui chui, you buhuida 我又不会吹，又不会打), which I used to impersonate rather effectively to the amusement of his colleagues. They would have enjoyed George’s company too.
** This calls to mind an American groupie friend from my days in the opera pit in Verona, who had a fetish not just for trombonists but for bass trombonists—which one might suppose to be setting rather a high bar. Having already got nine under her belt (the mot juste), I used to tease her whether she could succeed where Beethoven and Bruckner had failed. A couple of years later, back in London I received a triumphant postcard inscribed with the single word “TEN!”
My current sojourn in Istanbul happily coincided with another fine reception at the German Consulate on a balmy late summer’s evening, to celebrate Einheitstag unification day on 3rd October.
I’m all for a bit of Einheit, * particularly over copious wine and a varied menu in a sumptuous garden. In the Consul’s welcoming remarks he expressed solidarity with Ukraine, followed by personal solo renditions of both German and Turkish anthems sung by a Turkish staff-member. A local rock band then struck up—while I am no authority on these new-fangled Popular Beat Combos, a Good Time was had by all.
One could also soothe the ear by taking refuge in the salon inside to hear the versatile Consul on flute, accompanied by the radiant Augusta Tickling the Ivories most appealingly. She then offered a medley that included Hildegard Knef (Angela Merkel’s choice for her farewell ceremony, along with Nina Hagen), some Kurt Weill, a song from Marlene Dietrich’s Lola, and Francis Lai’s exquisite Plus fort que nous.
For more on the events leading up to Einheit, see Deutschland89; the biography of my orchestral colleague Hildi (parts 1 and 2); and other posts under the GDR here.
Given the recent regression to 1950s’ deference back in Blighty—the kowtowing of once-critical people to power and privilege, military pomp and Christian values, forming an orderly queue in one last swansong of Einheit before we all succumb to hypothermia and starvation—and the spectacular dog’s dinner that the Tory “government” is making of absolutelyeverything, surpassing even its own high standards (see also Get a proper speech impediment, FFS, and Drawing a line), I really should have availed myself of the Consulate visit to seek political asylum there…
* Not to be confused with the metaphysical quest, sent up by Woody Allen in a notional adult-education course list (“Spring bulletin”, in Getting even):
Manyness and oneness are studied as they relate to otherness (students achieving oneness will move ahead to twoness).
by turns passionate and dispassionate. Working month by month through 1968, the short chapters, with their snappy titles, unveil a wealth of insightful vignettes, showing a real feel for the streets and for the dazzling cast of troubled musicians in search of stardom, social justice, or just struggling to survive. Cosgrove’s vivid descriptions make one reach for YouTube—so below I complement my introduction with some of the many tracks he evokes so well.
The story hinges on Stax Records, the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4th April 1968, and increasingly violent protests. Vietnam, and the obdurate Memphis city mayor Henry Loeb, also loom large. Stax has already been the subject of several studies, such as Rob Bowman, Soulsville U.S.A. (1997) and Robert Gordon, Respect yourself (2013), as well as several documentaries.
Cosgrove’s opening chapter, “Roosevelt Jamison’s blood bank”, segues seamlessly from the segregationist rules for blood donation to Jamison’s thriving sideline nurturing soul bands.
James Carr, The dark end of the street (1967):
In Hank Cherry’s words, Carr “dove into his own embattled soul and pulled from the painful reaches of his psyche”. Another star discovered by Jamison was O.V. Wright, who had a series of hits, including
A nickel and a nail (1971):
The brilliant Otis Redding was only 26 when he was killed in a plane crash late in 1967, along with the Bar-Kays. Sittin’ on the dock of the bay was posthumously released on 8th January 1968:
Unlike the more controlled Motown system, or, more famously, the Hollywood studio system, Stax was informal, haphazard, and collegiate.
The company, “an oasis of racial sanity”, smashed through segregationist rules. Its (white) owners were Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton; the school system produced a wealth of black talent. The Bar-Kays were educated at the Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis, still almost entirely black, “informal academy of southern soul”. Stax prodigies Booker T. Jones (no relation!) and the M.G.’s had a hit with the instrumental Green onions as early as 1962:
Another senior mentor was sax player, bandleader, and studio boss Willie Mitchell. At first Stax had a mutually beneficial relationship with Atlantic Records in New York and its “emperor” Jerry Wexler. Among the performers Atlantic sent to Memphis were Wilson Pickett and Don Covay, as well as Sam and Dave—all of whom were volatile and hard to work with.
Mustang Sally (1965):
Hold on, I’m coming (1966):
But then came the break with Atlantic, as they came under the wing of Warner Brothers—which soon ensnared Stax in knotty legal disputes with a soulless conglomerate.
As young black musicians returned from Vietnam—such as John Gary Williams, a member of the Mad Lads—a group of activists called the Memphis Invaders led student unrest, closely watched by the FBI.
James Brown, Say it loud I’m black and proud:
A lengthy garbage workers’ strike—publicised by WDIA, the voice of black Memphis, and supported by charismatic ministers—came to the attention of Martin Luther King. He arrived in Memphis on 28th March as another violent protest march was under way. In successive chapters Cosgrove tells the story of the murky chain of events surrounding King’s assassination on 4th April.
Dr King’s supporters point in the direction of the shooting.
King had checked into the Lorraine Motel, where Stax regularly put up visiting black singers. Sax player Ben Branch was due to give a fundraising concert that night, and just before the shooting King addressed his last words to him from the balcony:
“I want you to play Take my hand Precious Lord, Ben—play it real pretty, sweeter than you’ve ever played it before.”
The inner cities now erupted.
King was among those religious men torn by a “civil war inside”, captivated by sex and love, revealed in the tension between sacred and profane, gospel and blues. Bettye Crutcher was a gifted composer of candid songs about betrayal and infidelity, including
Johnnie Taylor, Who’s making love:
Stax, hitherto a model of racial harmony, was polarised by King’s death, with black activists increasingly concerned to claim equal rights.
Like Miles Davis, Booker T. Jones had chosen popular music over the orchestral world. He made his name on the Hammond B-3 organ, taking it beyond gospel towards rock and soul. Ironically, while working on the soundtrack for Jules Dassin’s political movie Uptight (watch here), he escaped the turmoil of Memphis to fly to Paris for a round of post-production, only to witness the May riots there.
Cosgrove gives an aside on “black bohemian” Melvin Peebles and his Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss song, whose soundtrack was also taken up by Stax. Isaac Hayes, who had assumed the persona of Black Moses after his album Hot buttered soul, went on to win an Oscar for Shaft (playlist here), his extravagant stardom playing a major role in Stax’s later travails.
More socially engaged than the “bubblegum soul” of Motown, Stax was rebuilt by Al Bell after the fall-out with Atlantic, aiming at the new market for albums. Another hit single of this period was
William Bell and Judy Clay, Private number:
The 1972 Wattstax festival, “the Black Woodstock”, with Isaac Hayes heading the bill, was immortalised in a film—here’s a trailer:
Young mother Juanita Miller led a Poor People’s March by mule train on Washington DC, which turned out less to be far less successful than Martin Luther King’s vision, ending in disarray.
The Staple Singers, Long Walk to DC:
As black power became more militant, Cosgrove introduces Dino Woodard, a “devout brute” who served as security guard and enforcer for Stax. With his fellow hardman Johnny Baylor he propelled Luther Ingram to stardom:
(If loving you is wrong) I don’t want to be right (1972):
After Vietnam and some time in prison, John Gary Williams went on to reflect the changing times with The whole damn world is going crazy (1973):
The Black Power movement spread to the 1968 Olympics. Athlete Bill Hurd, from Memphis, narrowly missed selection. He was also a sax player brought up in the jazz and the marching band tradition of Manassas High School, where he was trained by Emerson Able—as was jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr, “the greatest soul musician that never was”. Newborn also passed through the Plantation Inn, another cradle for soul, whose house band were Ben Branch and the Largos. * Meanwhile Bill Hurd retired from athletics and became a successful opthalmologist, travelling internationally; later he reconnected with his fellow students at Manassas High to record soul albums.
Also visiting Memphis in 1968 was Mahalia Jackson, who remained faithful to her gospel roots at a time when many singers were crossing over to pop and soul. Of course, like the church, the gospel scene was far from pure, with “religious parasites, false preachers, and furious commercialism”. The battle between sacred and profane was again in evidence. Jackson’s Glori-fied Chicken franchise, part of the move towards black-owned businesses, had a branch at Stax corner. Here she is singing Take my hand precious Lord at King’s Atlanta memorial service:
This leads Cosgrove to feature the songs of Ann Peebles, such as I can’t stand the rain:
and Margie Joseph, whose reworking of Stop! In the name of love, with its introductory rap, was influential:
By December, Memphis “had been battered by a divisive rage that few cities in the world could survive, yet it not only survived, it thrived and expanded”.
Meanwhile, FWIW, white stars were making the pilgrimage too. Dusty Springfield (white only reluctantly) came to record an album—although she ended up recording the vocals in New York. Elvis showed up, recording a comeback TV show with a strong Memphis element. Janis Joplin, who also idolised the Memphis sound, did a misconceived gig there with the local regulars. She turned up for Jim Stewart’s Christmas party, “one of the most bizarre events in the history of soul music”. The following November, strung out on heroin, she joined the tragic 27 Club. (The lure of Memphis has persisted—among later pilgrims, on a quest for blues rather than soul, was alternative Chinese singer/novelist Liu Sola).
The Bar-Kays re-formed, reinventing themselves as pioneers of street funk. On stage with Isaac Hayes at the Tiki Club they broke new ground in an innovative cover of By the time I get to Phoenix, with a rap intro—“a mesmerising piece of soul alchemy that took classic Nashville and reimagined it as Memphis soul”. Here they are in the version on the visionary Hot buttered soul album, all 19 minutes of it:
With the obvious exception of jazz, most forms of popular black music had been constrained by the needs of commercialism and the demands of radio stations. Motown had perfected telling stories of teenage love in under three minutes, and not until Hayes broke the mould had any soul artist ever dared to extend songs or disrupt the rules of the marketplace.
In an Epilogue Cosgrove ponders reasons for the “banal and ignominious” demise of Stax records in the 70s: expanding too far from the centre (“like many a dying empire”), bruised by rash financial dealings, and over-indulgence.
Amongst all the creativity of the 60s (Coltrane, Hendrix, Beatles …), the story of Stax Records, beset by social trauma, is remarkable.
* Like Charlie Parker, Newborn spent periods in Camarillo State Mental Hospital—cf. Bellevue in New York, among whose inmates were artists such as Leadbelly, Mingus, and Dusty.
Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala: music in the life of a Tibetan refugee community (2002)
is the fruit of ten months that the author spent from 1994 to 1995 in the hillside capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northwest India, “perched in the middle of one of the world’s political hotspots”. Despite the presence of the revered Dalai Lama, Dharamsala is no mystical paradise.
As Diehl explains in the Introduction, Dharamsala felt somewhat over-subscribed as a topic, and she had hoped to study Tibetan refugee communities elsewhere in India; but she was drawn back there by circumstance, and soon became a participant observer playing keyboards with The Yak Band. This informs her thesis on the performance and reception of popular music and song by Tibetan refugees—including traditional folk genres, Tibetan songs perceived as “Chinese”, Hindi film songs, Western rock, reggae, and blues, new Tibetan music, and Nepali folk and pop.
In the Introduction she notes a contradiction between scholarship on displacement and the people whose experiences generated it. Whereas anthropological theory tends to celebrate “transgression, displacement, innovation, resistance, and hybridity”,
it became clear that many of the displaced people I had chosen to live among and work with were, in fact, striving heartily for emplacement, cultural preservation, and ethnic purity, even though keeping these dreams alive also meant consciously keeping alive the pain and loss inherent in the exile experience rather than letting or helping these wounds heal.
Further, much of the scholarship that does include ethnographic case studies tends to emphasise
the richness, multivocality, dialogism, and creativity of their subjects rather than their deep conservatism, xenophobia, and dreams of emplacement.
Diehl gives cogent answers, in turn, to “Why study refugees?”, “Why refugee music?”, “Why refugee youth?”, and “Why Tibetans?”. Exploring “zones of invisibility” (and inaudibility), she seeks to
fill in some of the gaps left by the many idealised accounts of Tibetans. Through its generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity and cultural preservation in exile, much of the available information on Tibetan refugees exhibits a troubling collusion with the community’s own idealised self-image. […]
After four decades in exile, many Tibetans realise not only that the utopian dream is still an important source of hope but also that it can be a source of disappointment and frustration that has very real effects on individuals and communities who are raised to feel responsible for its actual, though unlikely, realisation.
She introduces the “Shangri-La trope”, analysed by Bishop, Lopez, and Schell, and notes the “disciplinary bias within Tibetan Studies towards the monastic culture of pre-1950 Tibet”—a bias that applied also to Tibetan music, largely interpreted as “Buddhist ritual music” until the mid-1970s (cf. Labrang 1). Since Diehl wrote the book, the whole field has been transformed by new generations of scholars at last able to document Tibetan culture within the PRC.
She notes Dharamsala’s position at the “literal yet liminal intersection” of a “geographical and conceptual mandala”:
What complicates this apparently cut-and-dry native point of view is the fact that […] sounds and musical boundaries are, ultimately, immaterial and are therefore felt and experienced in personal and varied ways.
Chapter 1, “Dharamsala: a resting place to pass through”, depicts the town as both a centre and a limen, a destination for pilgrimage which refugees hope eventually to leave. Besides them, the ever-shifting population also includes civil servants, nomads, traders, aid workers, dharma students, and tourists.
Members of the oldest generation in exile came to India from Nepal, Bhutan, or India’s North East Frontier Area (now Arunachal Pradesh) after escaping from Tibet in 1959 on foot over the Himalayas, travelling in family groups under the cover of darkness, following their leader into exile. Since then, for forty years, Tibetans have continued to escape from their homeland in a procession whose flow varies with the seasonal weather, the attentiveness of Nepali border patrols, the effects of specific Chinese policies in Tibet, and the varying intensity with which these policies are implemented in different regions of the country and different times.
Diehl identifies three general waves of migration:
The first escapees (between 1959 and the mid-1960s) came from Lhasa, Tingri, or other southern border areas of the country. Few Tibetans escaped during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), but in the 1980s a second wave of refugees, a number of whom had been imprisoned during the first decades of Tibet’s occupation, fled Tibet. Since the early 1990s, a third wave of refugees from Amdo in the northeast, known as sar jorpa (“new arrivals”), have arrived in exile, putting the greatest demands on the government-in-exile’s resources and institutions since the first months spent establishing tent camps, clinics, and schools in 1959.
Besides regional aspects, I note that there are political and class considerations here too, as the old generation that included aristocrats and former monks from the Lhasa region was replaced by commoners (and former monks) from a wider area, brought up under the routine degradations of de facto Chinese occupation. At first the shared plight of exile tended to homogenise interactions:
It was irrelevant, even laughable, to insist on special privileges or respect because one’s father had been a regional chieftain in Tibet, when you had no more power to set foot in Tibet than your neighbour, the son of a petty trader from Lhasa.
But social, regional, and sectarian divisions later re-emerged.
Some refugees in the diaspora avoid Dharamsala altogether, specifically because of the ambition, materialism, self-consciousness, and conservatism engendered by its status as an international hub of activism, tourism, and bureaucracy and because of its overcrowdedness and uncleanliness.
Refugees (and the Indian population) depend to a large extent on the influx of tourists, including the transient “dharma bums” and those on more committed spiritual or welfare missions. The new refugees find themselves
outside the rigid structures of Tibetan society, perched at the margins of Indian society, and inferior to all around them owing to their utter dependence.
Chapter 2 explores the notions of “tradition” and the “rich cultural heritage of Tibet”, which “authenticate the past and largely discredit the present”. The chapter opens at a Tibetan wedding, with a group of older chang-ma women singing songs of blessing and offering barley beer in toasts to the couple and the guests.
Groups like this had been common in Tibet before 1959, but only became popular in Dharamsala in the 1980s. The women performing for the wedding had all fled from the Tingri region of Tibet, working in Nepal as day labourers, petty traders, or wool spinners before reaching Dharamsala. They had recently pooled their memories of weddings in old Tibet to create a suitable repertoire.
At some remove from such non-institutional groups, Diehl examines the role of government-sponsored community and school events in “cultural preservation”, headed by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).
In exile the official drive was inspired both by the dilution of Tibetan culture after exposure to Indian society and by fears over the destruction of traditional culture inside Tibet after 1959 (this mantra, still repeated by rote, probably needs refining in view of research on the state of performing traditions in Tibet since the 1980s). The reified cause of “preservation” required perpetuating a sense of “loss and victimisation” among the second and third generations, who had no experience of the homeland.
But the nostalgic canonisation of certain genres
does little to account for (or respect) the complex mosaic of cultural practices that are continually being constructed in exile through the choices and circumstances of even the most “traditional” Tibetan refugees and that constitute their day-to-day realities.
Nor does it reflect the diversity of culture inside Tibet before the 1950s, and since the 1980s.
Diehl scrutinises the annual ache-lhamo festival of the TIPA Tibetan opera troupe (see here, a post enriched by wonderful videos), as well as TIPA’s international touring activities. But locals note that the school appears demoralised, its performances lacking vitality—the emphasis on preservation apparently leading to “cultural death”, just as in China.
Diehl notes the uncomfortable position of the sar-jorpa “new arrivals” from Tibet:
Rather than being valued as fresh connections to the increasingly remote homeland, as might be expected, these Tibetans more frequently cause disappointment by failing to validate the hopeful dreams of those living in exile. Instead, their apparent foreignness only confirms dire thirdhand news of cultural change (namely, sinicization) in Tibet.
Still, educated Tibetans in Dharamsala told Diehl that
the children escaping nowadays from Tibet (rather than those carefully schooled in exile) are the most likely to maintain a strong commitment to the “Tibetan Cause”, since they have personally experienced the consequences of living under Chinese occupation.
She illustrates the conflict with a telling scene at the Losar New Year’s gatherings. Besides the chang ma singing songs of praise and dancing, a group of new arrivals from Tibet were also taking turns to sing namthar arias from ache-lhamo opera, with loud amplification—a performance shunned by the locals.
It seemed a perfect illustration of the separate worlds refugee Tibetans and Tibetans raised in the homeland inhabit, even when living and dreaming in the same close physical proximity. No Tibetan in the temple that morning wanted to be celebrating another new year where they were, and all knew exactly where they preferred to be, but the differences between their relationships to those reviled and desired places [were] being expressed in ways that exaggerated the temporal, spatial, and cultural experiences that had been their karmic destiny, seemingly muting their commonality.
Diehl goes on to ponder the competing claims to cultural authority in Tibet and in exile. The singers visiting from Tibet were not making explicit claims to “tradition”, but, rather,
employing the range of their musical knowledge […] to express conservative and religious sentiments. Because they had recently come from the physical homeland, their potential space-based authenticity was actually a liability in the context of Dharamsala rather than a resource for claims to cultural propriety. […]
Young Tibetans in Tibet and in exile are not faced with a simple either-or choice between traditional or modern “styles”. […] It is difficult to assess most traditions as simply “preserved” or “lost”. *
Still, cultural pundits in Dharamsala see the risk of Chinese influence as more pernicious than that of other kinds of foreign music such as rock-and-roll. Exiles have criticised the vocal timbre of Dadon, a Tibetan pop singer who escaped Tibet in 1992, as sounding “too Chinese”; even more strident was the controversy over Sister drum.
Chapter 3, “Taking refuge in (and from) India: film songs, angry mobs, and other exilic pleasures and fears”, discusses refugee life in the here and now of contemporary India, when
few voices in the conversation grapple with, or even acknowledge, the Indian context in which the exile experience is actually taking place for the great majority of Tibetan refugees.
The shared disdain of many Westerners and Tibetan refugees for the day-to-day realities of India—hardship, corruption, poverty, and filth—is an important ingredient in the often-romantic collusion between these groups.
The Indians’ resentment of the refugees is “restrained by considerations of economic self-interest”, but ethnic conflicts sometimes arise, as in April 1994, when a fight between a Tibetan and a local gaddi led to a rampage against the refugees. The Dalai Lama’s offer to move out from Dharamsala was clearly in no-one’s interest, and so peace-making gestures were made.
Living in India, Tibetan refugees are no more immune than the rest of the subcontinent to the ubiquitous Hindi film music, with all its “fantastic dreams of sin and modernity”, in Das Gupta’s words. Commenting on the wider consumption and production of such songs among Tibetan refugees, Diehl reflects in a well-theorised section on the similarities and differences between the original and the mime.
Although Hindi film songs had long been adopted by Tibetan refugees as “spice” (or “salt-and-pepper”) at weddings and other events, they were to make a more conflicted choice for Tibetan rock groups. Diehl takes part in the Yak Band as they perform concerts that include some such songs, featuring the demure young schoolteacher Tenzin Dolma, who imitates the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, “the Nightingale of India”. Tibetans’ enjoyment of this repertoire is a guilty pleasure. The Yak band were aware of the risk that the “salt-and-pepper” might become “bread and butter”.
Having added India into the mix, Diehl reflects further on her time with the Yak Band in Chapter 4, “The West as surrogate Shangri-La: rock and roll and rangzen as style and ideology”, exploring the often-idealised romance with the West, and the quest for independence.
Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton have been part of the lives of Tibetans born in exile since childhood. Western rock brings as much cultural baggage as the soundscapes of traditional Tibet, modern India, and socialist China. Diehl notes the scholarly tendency to interpret youth culture in terms of “resistance” or “deviance”, downplaying cases where it may be conservative or centripetal. Referring to Bishop and Lopez, she surveys the Western fascination with first the “spirituality” of Tibet and then the high profile of the Tibetan political cause.
Social divisions in Dharamsala are further amplified when Tibetans who have gained residency in the USA return for a visit; those still left behind in India, not realising the hardships their fellow Tibetans have had to endure in the States to gain a foothold there, envy their apparently affluent lifestyle. But as refugees continue to arrive from Chinese-occupied Tibet, opportunities for those still in India remain limited; the lure of the West is strong.
Still, plenty of Tibetans of all ages in Dharamsala (including “new arrivals”) felt that Western pop and rock “have no place in a community engaged in an intense battle for cultural survival”.
On the one hand, there are very strong, politically informed reactions against any Tibetan music that sounds too Chinese, too Hindi, or too Western. On the other, many Tibetan youth respect traditional Tibetan music but find it boring.
In Chapter 5, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down: making modern Tibetan music”, Diehl ponders the challenges of creating a modern Tibetan music. She provides a history of the genre from its origins around 1970, introducing the TIPA-affiliated Ah-Ka-Ma Band before focusing on the Yak Band.
Paljor was brought up in Darjeeling, trained by Irish Christian missionaries. His late father was a Khampa chieftain who had been trained by the CIA in the late 1950s to fight Chinese incursion. Thubten, grandson of a ngagpa shaman, had escaped as a small child from Shigatse to Kalimpong in 1957, going on to spend seventeen years in the Tibetan regiment of the Indian army. Phuntsok was born in Dharamsala; Ngodup was an orphan schooled in Darjeeling.
In a community wary of innovation, even traditional musicians have a lowly status. Whatever people’s private tastes within the family, public musicking is subject to scrutiny.
Chapter 6 turns from sound to the crafting of song lyrics, with their narrowly solemn themes such as solidarity for independence, and nostalgia for the loss of a beautiful homeland—themes which demand expression in a language that is largely beyond the literary skills of the younger generation. Diehl talks with the official astrologer for the government–in-exile, who provided poetic lyrics for the local bands, and introduces the early work of Ngawang Jinpa, Paljor’s teacher in Darjeeling. Diehl cites a rather successful lyric by Jamyang Norbu (former director of TIPA, editor of the 1986 Zlos-gar, an important resource at the time; see e.g. The Lhasa ripper, Women in TIbet, 2, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes), “poetic yet accessible, evocative rather than boring”.
She gives a theoretically nuanced account of what song lyrics communicate, and how; and she explains the refugees’ rather low level of literacy, official efforts to create a standard language among a variety of regional dialects, and the link with sacred sound. Love songs are also composed, but hardly performed in public. It is considered more acceptable to write lyrics in bad English than in bad Tibetan, but such songs are rarely aired in public.
Chapter 7 unpacks public concerts that “rupture and bond”. In January 1995, the Yak Band made a major trek to the Mundgod refugee settlement in south India to coincide with the Kalachakra initiation ceremony there, with the Dalai Lama presiding. Their choice of repertoire over fifteen nightly performances revealed “a comfort with cultural ambiguity and a passion for foreign culture that is disturbing to some in the community”.
Over the course of the concerts the band agonised over their set list. While their inspiration was to share their songs of praise for the Dalai Lama, their longing for a homeland they had never seen, and compassion for their compatriots left behind in Tibet (exemplified in their opening song Rangzen), they varied the proportion of modern Tibetan songs, “English” rock songs, and Hindi and Nepali songs in response (and sometimes resistance) to the reactions of the multi-generational audiences—which included, at first, young monks, before their abbot imposed a strict curfew on them. While hurt that the audiences preferred “silly Indian love songs” to their core Tibetan offerings, the Yaks reluctantly succumbed to popular demand.
One of the Yaks’ reasons for their visit to Mundgod was to get their tenuous finances on their feet by selling their cassettes, but they returned to Dharamsala having made a loss. Moreover, they now suffered from hostile public opinion about their repertoire.
Disillusioned by the lack of support in Dharamsala, the band drifted apart, but they were able to put on a reunion gig for the Dalai Lama’s 60th birthday—when their preferred Tibetan set list was eminently suitable.
In the Conclusion, Diehl reminds us of the importance of musicking
as a crucial site where official and personal, old and new, representations of Tibetan culture meet and where different notions of “Tibetan-ness” are being confronted and imagined.
In a brief coda she updates the stories of the Yak Band.
* * *
For all the book’s excellent ethnographic vignettes, some sections bear the hallmarks of a PhD, with little adaptation to a more reader-friendly style—which is a shame, since the topic is so fascinating. I’ve already confessed my low tolerance threshold for heavily theorised writing (see e.g. my attempts to grapple with Catherine Bell’s outstanding work on ritual).
From within the goldfish bowl of Dharamsala, Diehl only touches in passing on the changing picture inside Chinese-occupied Tibet. While repression there has been ever more severe since 2008, research on regional cultures there had already become a major theme, with a particular focus on Amdo (see e.g. here, including the work of Charlene Makley, Gerald Roche, and others, as well as chapters in Conflicting memories). For the pop scene, useful sources are §10 of the important bibliography by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (including work by Anna Morcom), and the High Peaks Pure Earth website (see also Sister drum, and Women in TIbetan expressive culture). Within occupied Tibet, performers of popular protest songs have been imprisoned, such as Tashi Dhondup; in another thoughtful article, Woeser explores the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions.
Diehl refers to a variety of publications such as those of Marcia Calkowski and Frank Korom, and I cite some more recent sources in n.1 here—among which perhaps the most useful introduction to the topic is
Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile? Comparative observations on doing research among Tibetans in Lhasa and Dharamsala”, in Sarah Turner (ed.), Red stars and gold stamps: fieldwork dilemmas in upland socialist Asia (2013).
For contrasting lessons from occupation and exile, see also Eat the Buddha. Despite the presence of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala has begun to occupy a less iconic position in our images of Tibetan culture. For all the growing disillusion with the political promises of Western countries, refugees continue to move on, while “new arrivals” have come to make up a significant component of the town’s Tibetan population—see e.g. Pauline MacDonald, Dharamsala days, Dharamsala nights: the unexpected world of the refugees from Tibet (2013), critically reviewed here. The growing popularity of satellite TV from the PRC, and the issue of Tibetan culture in the growing Western diaspora, further complicate the story.
* One of my own more disconcerting moments came while hanging out with young performers from TIPA on their tour of England in May 2004. Several of them were refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, but they were quite happy to speak Chinese with me. Much as I am attracted to Tibetan culture, apart from lacking the language skills, my whole background in Chinese culture has always made me wary of doing fieldwork in Tibetan areas. Whenever I meet Tibetans I am at pains to point out that my Chinese peasant mentors have also suffered grievously at the hands of the state, but I’m still anxious that they might consider me tarred with the brush of the invaders. Still, incongruously, several of the TIPA performers who had fled the PRC were now keen that I should sing them some Chinese pop songs to remind them of their old home, and were somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t oblige.
In the late 60s, fatefully indoctrinated in the classics, my awareness of pop was largely limited to The Beatles, and it took my ears a long time to open up to the gutsy, intense physicality of unmediated rock and blues. Still, even I couldn’t help noticing the genius of Jimi Hendrix (YouTube channel; wiki), a shooting star who exploded onto the scene, as if the 60s weren’t already wild enough.
Born in Seattle in 1942, following a stint of army service he moved to Nashville, touring in backing bands. After a brief stay in Greenwich Village, in September 1966 he moved to London, “like a Martian landing”. Lured there by Chas Chandler, himself just starting out as a manager, for Jimi it was a leap in the dark; but when after just a week he got to jam with Cream, Eric Clapton was amazed by his playing of Howling Wolf’s Killing floor.
He soon formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience band, with the dynamic energy of Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. In London he experienced less racism than in the States, and brought an Afro-American tinge to what was still a largely Caucasian pop scene, a “black hippie”. When he returned to the States in 1967 for the Monterey festival, he was still largely unknown there.
A deeply serious musician, he synthesised blues (already unfashionable among the new generation of African Americans), soul, folk, R&B, jazz, and psychedelic rock. He was at the heart of the whole countercultural zeitgeist; even his exotic sense of fashion was iconic. His vocals (“warm, wistful or lascivious on cue”) make a counterpoint to his astounding guitar playing. Like Coltrane, he was gentle and softly spoken.
His three studio albums are
Are you experienced (double LP, 1967, contemporary with Sgt Pepper!):
Jimi’s appearance at the 1967 Monterey festival must have been one of the great gigs of all time. The band opened with yet another stunning rendition of Killing floor, immortalised here; in Hey Joe Jimi plays guitar with his teeth, and behind his back (like the pipa players of the Tang dynasty…):
Yet Jimi never indulged in empty virtuosity; such iconic scenes are integral, sincere. He ended the set with Wild thing, setting fire to his guitar and smashing it (“I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of a song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar”):
For the Woodstock festival in 1969 Jimi had a new lineup. I must confess it took me some time to tune into his legendary reworking of The star-spangled banner (for some other versions, click here). I’m used to jazzers transforming standards with complex melodic and harmonic changes, and our ears are tuned to the dense, manic textures of rock; so, misled by Jimi’s sparse monodic rendition (Like, Hello?), it took me a while to hear that the meaning resided in the timbre—“an act of protest”, as Paul Grimstad observed, in which
bombs, airplane engines, explosions, human cries, all seem to swirl around in the feedback and distortion. At one point, Hendrix toggles between two notes a semitone apart while burying the guitar’s tremolo bar, turning his Fender Strat into a doppler warp of passing sirens, or perhaps the revolving blades of a helicopter propeller. […]
All the exalted ideals of the American experiment, and the bitterness of its contradictions and hypocrisies, are placed in volatile admixture through an utterly American contraption, a device you might say is the result of a collaboration between Benjamin Franklin, Leo Fender, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mongrel machine that Hendrix made into a medium for a new kind of virtuosity. In the Woodstock performance of the national anthem, we find that an electric guitar can be made to convey the feeling that the country’s history could be melted down, remolded, and given a new shape.
Typically, Jimi deflated all the hype:
All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it… It’s not unorthodox … I thought it was beautiful.
Amidst legal disputes, Jimi parted with Chas Chandler, continuing to explore; his new band Band of Gypsys was an all-black power trio with his old friend Billie Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. Despite mixed reviews, their live album at the Fillmore East includes stunning solos from Jimi like Machine gun:
There’s something cute about Hendrix being a neighbour of Handel in Brook street, albeit not at the same time. Both were migrants catering to a changing modern market, both experimenting in different styles—but while some of Handel‘s arias are admirable, he can hardly compete with Hendrix’s genius… *
* That’s how I originally wrote that last sentence—in the interests of brevity, not wanting to try the patience of Hendrix junkies. In view of Eric’s entertaining comment below, I might now augment it, perhaps like this:
While some of Handel’s music is admirable (see my tribute to some gorgeous arias), over his long career the ratio of drudge to ecstasy is rather high (and “I’ll have you know, I’ve played more Messiahs than you’ve had hot dinners”!). Handel found himself, as you do (or at least, as baroque composers did), dutifully churning out a lot of mundane fugues by the square yard. I’m not knocking the routine, bread-and-butter craft of artisans, but this is far from the evanescent genius of Jimi—and, I’d say, in a more sensible comparison, far from the constant spiritual inspiration of Bach. OK, for a more refined assessment of “the class of ’85”, see John Eliot Gardiner, Music from the castle of heaven, ch. 4 (cf. A Bach retrospective, Rameau, 1707 at the Proms, and many posts under https://stephenjones.blog/category/wam/early-music/).
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):
Writing in the LRB, Miranda Carter gives a thoughtful and entertaining survey of the history of Desert Island Discs.
Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (as the weekly broadcasts still continue to remind us), its reassuringly familiar format has borne witness to changing times and tastes. We can hear 2,360 episodes online:
Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.
Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, In the early days “the musical choices were criticised for being too highbrow—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so until the 2010s [?].
Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.
When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. “It was a great improvement”, Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put “properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character”. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. […]
Thatcher : When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.
Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?
And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:
Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.
Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four. […]
Still in the 1960s,
the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]
But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways—younger, more candid—began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians.
As to the luxuries requested, besides booze, inflatable dolls began making an appearance:
Ronnie Scott asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead.
I note that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.
As the rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air.
After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking more probing questions and getting more personal answers. This was the first time castaways listened to their choices during the show. Under Sue Lawley the programme
became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio—a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.
And she reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy.
Carter considers Kirsty Young, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the best presenter in the programme’s history—more like a therapist. The current incumbent Lauren Laverne is “warm and cheerful”:
A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island.
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:
* * *
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):
We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.
Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.
Li Shiyu with his wife, 1993. My photo.
Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong.  Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).
After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.
And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 , pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.
In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.
With the Mayor of Philadelphia.
My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.
Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”.  Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).
In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”
Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.
To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):
Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).
I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into  when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:
After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.
Mother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.
In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.
Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.
Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.
Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.
Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.
Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor.
Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.
 The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.
 Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.
Now is a suitable time to listen to Gogol Bordello, a Manhattan-based “gypsy punk” band (website; wiki). Their lead singer Eugene Hütz was brought up in Kyiv, making his way to the USA in 1990 at the age of 17. Now he is active in raising funds to relieve the plight of Ukrainians suffering from the Russian invasion (cf. Jamala and other artists).
Formed in 1999, inspired by Roma music with elements of punk and dub, Gogol Bordello was originally titled “Hütz and the Béla Bartóks”, but he recalls that they decided to change the name because “nobody knows who the hell Béla Bartók is in the United States” (cf. the missed opportunity for an early punk band Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers). In the revised title, the name Gogol pays homage to the way the author “smuggled” Ukrainian culture into Russian society, rather as the band was doing with east European music in the USA.
Hütz and the band have appeared in several films, including Everything is illuminated (Liev Schreiber, 2005), a drama about the Nazi purges in Ukraine. Here’s a trailer for the documentary Gogol Bordello non-stop (Margarita Himeno, 2008):
Here’s American wedding (2007):
And Pala Tute, opening track of their 2010 album Trans-continental hustle—here live in Paris (with funky fiddling from Sergey Ryabtsev):
The band has long been subsumed under the alternative Manhattan world music scene—and it’s “not that Hütz himself originally set out to educate the world about eastern Europe”:
Believe me, that’s not really my thing. And, truth be told, Ukrainians are pretty humble. Which is probably why things were easily hijacked from them for so long. We’re like, well, we’re rich in culture, so it ain’t gonna hurt us.
But the Russian invasion has given Hütz an urgent new mission as cultural ambassador. His benefit single Zelensky: the man with the iron balls, with Les Claypool, Stewart Copeland, Sean Lennon, Sergey Ryabtsev, and Billy Strings:
Hütz also draws our attention to a recent song by the choral group Bortnichanka in Kyiv:
The unsuspecting world music fan might easily mistake it for a nice bucolic wheat-threshing song—but no:
And armoured personnel carriers were in flames The Muscovites stood nearby They were in complete stupor Burning bastards were in flames…
The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in
Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).
Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.
Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces the work of Martin Stokes work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.
All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:
Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.
Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.
If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.
Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multi-ethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.
He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses its transgressive edge once transplanted from its underground neighbourhood hangouts into the safe settings of commercial clubs, concert halls and CDs. Since the 1960s it has become a classical, popular musical genre rather than a subversive one. New forms of music such as hip-hop have emerged to serve as commentary on, and resistance to, exclusion, and as community connective tissue and a link between marginalized communities and the world. This leads to Kevin Yildirim, “ ‘Poorness is ghettoness’: urban renewal and hip-hop acculturation in Sulukule, Istanbul”.
Resistance to the condominial agency of the state and finance capital in the gentrification of the low-rent neighbourhood is internationalized through the dissemination of hip-hop performances on social media.
Before Sulukule was destroyed by an urban renewal project in 2009, it was an established Romani neighbourhood in the central Istanbul district of Fatih. Its entertainment houses (eğlence evleri) were the main source of income for the community, but they were closed down in the early 1990s on the grounds that they were hotbeds of drugs and prostitution.
Now officially called Karagümrük, the neighbourhood is still known as Sulukule. As one analysis comments, the neo-Ottoman style of the new project is “in the direction of reviving a mythical ‘Ottoman past’ and an Islamic ethos”, and that it was decided upon so that Sulukule would “acquire new, impeccable morals based on Islam and the tourism sector”.
But the destruction kickstarted young people’s interest in hip-hop. Here’s Wonderland by Tahribad-ı İsyan, deploring the destruction (lyrics here):
But Yildirim looks/listens beyond video to “the aesthetics of everyday life in Sulukule as displayed through speech, within personal style, and in spaces”.
He notes that rappers in Istanbul must confront the irony of expressing their localized and rebellious identity through a globalised music genre. Here’s Istanbul by Nefret (lyrics here):
The Sulukule hip-hop scene is not homogenous in ethnic, gender, or social terms. Over the course of my visits to the Atelier [a youth centre that operated from 2010 to 2015] I interacted with male and female attendees who self-identified as Romani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Armenian; Sulukule residents and outsiders; those whose homes were destroyed in the renewal process, and those whose weren’t.
In conclusion Yildirim observes:
Instead of indicating a wholehearted rejection of capital accumulation in Istanbul, the rebellious urban identity of young Sulukule rappers and dancers may well signal their cautious entrance into the formal circuits of urban production.
While I’m clearly very far from home with Istanbul hip-hop, I’m uneasy too with the theoretical vocabulary that, however well-meaning, seems to assert another kind of ownership over it. Like the rappers, scholars seek to carve a niche for themselves in their own market.
Thomas Korovinis, “The âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).
The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.
Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]
Shuttling between marginality and victimisation (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalised by the commodification of their music.
This leads suitably into UlaşÖzdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,
Inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.
As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:
The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:
I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.
The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:
An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.
This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.
Papadopoulos provides an Afterword,“Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Park protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.
Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.
Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s, social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:
You are saying this and that We are fed up Your one-man decisions, your commands We are fed up We are so bored What kind of a wrath this is What is this anger? Take it easy When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares Everywhere it is shopping mall I don’t like to pass from your bridges What happened to our city? It is full of buildings with hormones.
The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.
In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:
Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.
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”).
No great surprise that squaw, one of the few supposedly Native American terms that my generation absorbed in our youth through the insidious influence of TV, is now widely considered “offensive, derogatory, misogynist, and racist”, as an interesting wiki article observes.
In English the word was first used in colonial literature in 1622. An article in Indian Country Today makes a token attempt at balance (“squaw is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman”; see also here); but even if linguists are correct to query the connection of the S-word with the C-word, there are plenty of reasons to reject the term.
In 1968 Loretta Lynn (herself of Cherokee heritage) could still sing Your squaw is on the warpath (1968)—an otherwise impeccably feminist song:
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
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.
Don’t know much about history, Don’t know much biology. Don’t know much about a science book, Don’t know much about the French I took…
—Thank you very much Mr Cooke, now perhaps we might focus on your particular areas of expertise…
Don’t know much about geography, Don’t know much trigonometry. Don’t know much about algebra, Don’t know what a slide rule is for…
—Well Mr Cooke, I must say you’re very modest—such a disarming interview technique! We quite appreciate that you “don’t wanna get into specifics“. Indeed, I know I can speak on behalf of the board in saying that you seem ideally qualified to assume the post of Dean at the Donald J. Trump Academy of Arts and Sciences.
This video montage takes the idea further:
I’m most taken by the languid, dreamy cover of Sandy Lam 林憶蓮, with the subtle eastern flavour of its harmonies underpinning the pentatonic melody—and she adds a telling further verse:
Don’t know much about the Middle Ages Look at the pictures and I turn the pages Don’t know nothing about no Rise and Fall Don’t know nothing about nothing at all…
Chinese folk music (in the sidebar, scrolling down below the image gallery—with commentary here) including the Li family Daoists, the Gaoluo ritual association, searing shawm bands, and numinous recordings from the Zhihua temple (1953) and Xi’an (1961)
An eclectic Playlist of songs, with Billie Holiday, fado, Bach, Amy Winehouse, Purcell, Michel Legrand, Mahler, Nina Hagen, Ravel, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Hannigan, and more
Links to a varied selection of north Indian ragas, including “diatonic” (Yaman), “minor” (Kafi Zila), pentatonic (Malkauns), with augmented intervals (Bhairav), the beguiling Marwa (“A major over a C drone”)…
A series on the great Beatles albums, with the aid of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack
My ear-scouring homage to the brilliance of Emma and Leylah, tailored to their respective cultural backgrounds, makes a succinct world music playlist—Chinese shawms, Transylvanian fiddles, Inuit vocal games, nanyin ballads from the Hokkien disapora, Andean wind bands, trad French-Celtic Canadian….
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.
*Click here for my series on the great Beatles albums, with introduction!*
In my series, based on the work of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack, somehow I’ve left The white album (aka The Beatles) (1968) till last.
Sandwiched between Sgt Pepper and Abbey road, The white album may seem rather less cohesive as a suite, but it has all the hallmarks of the Beatles’ late style, and again the effect of its songs is cumulative. Mellers highlights the parodistic, retrospective elements of the album, with simultaneously innocent and ironic incorporation of a variety of styles (music-hall, Country, R&B, children’s rhymes…), with what Pollack describes as a “rapid string of costume changes”. But the more we listen, the more enthralling it is.
The Beatles conceived most of the songs while on a Transcendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. While (in keeping with their late style) the lyrics are trippy, the influence of Indian music, heard on their other albums around the time, is barely evident here.
The austere cover of the double album made a deliberate contrast with the exuberance of that for Sgt Pepper.
Here’s a playlist for the 2009 remastered version:
As usual, Pollack’s analyses are stimulating (links below), often making use of the “Esher demos” to explore the creative process.
Back in the USSR. Pollack: “hard edged rock-and-roll”, with “the fresh impact of a palate-cleansing, eye-catching, and ear-opening album opener”, channelling the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry:
Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the West behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia’s always on my mind.
—a satire of naïve patriotism that was issued with unfortunate timing, just months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Dear Prudence. Mellers: “a new type of Eden song”, with a pentatonic melody over a D pedal; Pollack: “taking that same droney aesthetic with which George was so enthralled”.
Glass Onion: an up-tempo rock number, its tune “obsessed by the disquieting interval of the tritone” (Mellers).
Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, “a Liverpudlian-West Indian music hall that deflates love by way of deliberate vacuity” (Mellers).
Wild honey pie, an entr’acte, “a little bonsai tree of a song” (Pollack).
The continuing story of Bungalow Bill, “a total deflation of the tough guy myth, […] the irony given an extra twist by the romantic flamenco-style guitar prelude and the lyrical postlude for solo bassoon” (Mellers).
Happiness is a warm gun, satirising cabaret, soul-cum-blues, and corny balladic waltz (for Beatles waltzes, see here), with changes of metre—Pollack even spots hemiola in Mother Superior jumps the gun.
Martha my dear: related to Ob-la-di, affectionately ironic. The brass-band riff was arranged by George Martin.
The folk-poetic identification of light and dark in this refrain complicates our response to what appears to be a straight little song about freedom, but which turns out to be unexpectedly moving in its fusion of naïve white country guitar with black blues. This may be why the squeaky blackbird noises that erupt into the song affect us as being pretty, comic, and scary all at the same time.
Piggies, a critique of materialistic greed, with pseudo-classical mannerisms.
I will: Pollack describes Paul’s song as inscrutably hymn-like, even “religious” in tone:
Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to, I will.
Julia. Eschewing the usual contrast between tracks, John concludes Side Two in somewhat similar vein, “elegiac, entirely devoid of irony” (Mellers). Analysing the shifting harmonies, Pollack finds it almost agonisingly exquisite in its restrained, laconic poetry. He adds:
Though you probably treasure your knowledge of the poignant personal history that underlies Julia, do you ever stop to wonder how relatively incidental and non-essential that knowledge is to the effect that the song has upon you? Oh, I understand that knowing that Julia was John’s mum unavoidably adds a new dimension to your so-called appreciation of the song, but what I’m asking now is how much less does the song speak to your heart in absence of that knowledge?
Side 3 opens again with a burst of blues-tinged rock-and-roll, in
Birthday. As Pollack comments, once you probe more deeply, you quickly discover that this is no mere rote revivalist knock-off.
As they matured they likely found that, in spite of all early interest, the strict blues form was not an idiom that they felt all that comfortable with in terms of self-image and expression. Interestingly, they never quite forgot or expunged the technique from their vocabulary, but it did remain for them something to be used sparingly, for special effect and exotic tang.
On a personal note, I note this felicitous addition to my inventory of Stammering songs:
I would like you to dance (Birthday) Take a cha-cha-cha-chance—(Birthday) I would like you to dance (Birthday).
Yer blues. Not just “a parody of the British blues scene” (Lewisohn), but as Mellers notes, a deeply serious song.
Mother Nature’s son. Another “hymn-like folk song” from Paul, inspired again by Country mythology.
Long, long, long: stylistically eclectic, George’s low-key song (with more tears) ends Side 3 rather as Julia ended Side 2.
Revolution 1, an ultra-stylised blues, rather laid-back, with a fashionable reference:
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao You know you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.
Honey pie, a quaint rags-to-riches fairy tale, with period detail, described by Mellers as a 1930-ish Fred Astaire number, the wit of the chromatic harmonies nostalgically recalling Rodgers or Cole Porter.
Revolution 9. By contrast with Revolution 1, this is a long “electronic freak-out and collage piece, distorting and mixing muzak of various kinds” (Mellers), with sung melody banished. Even here, Mellers suggest that the Beatles are parodying their recent electronic experiments in Sgt Pepper.
Good night. Deploying a range of dreamy, sentimental Hollywood clichés,
The effect is quite different from the emotive strings in Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, or She’s leaving home, for we saw that in those songs the lush accompaniment preserved a virginal frailty that, in context, was at once sentimentally committed and ironically detached. […] The kitsch does not discredit the tenderness of tune and harmony. […] Its beauty, despite the cinematic scoring, turns out not to be in inverted commas. (Mellers).
This final sequence leads Pollack to make a fine point:
In order to fully appreciate the uncanny aptness of ending The white album with Good night, you need to first back up and consider why the penultimate album slot is such as logical place for Revolution 9.
Where else could you put Revolution 9? [SJ: he doesn’t consider the option of not including it at all…] Too early in the running order would make the rest of the album seem a bit anti-climactic at best. At worst, you could lose most of your audience well before you’ve trotted out the rest of your best stuff. Putting it at the very end lends it too much emphasis. Maybe put it at the end of one of the other sides, but no-one will be sufficiently motivated to turn the record over. Next to last feels just right.
Now then, what kind of act could possibly follow Revolution 9? You clearly need a sharp contrast, but exactly what kind? Virtually any other song from the album would sound a combination of anti-climactic, stylistically repetitive, underwhelming, or too weird.
Good night has the simultaneous virtues of providing musically arch-conservative ballast, a change of style as refreshingly surprising as anything else on the album, and a clever, self-referential way of telling you the music’s over; turn out the lights.
The fairy-tale dénouement of the US Open women’s singles was an even more intense and moving contest than anyone dared imagine. Just exhilarated by this rare moment in sporting history, to celebrate youthful inspiration I’d like to offer a wacky little playlist in homage to both players—a paean to migration, riffing freely on their cultural backgrounds. Some of these connections may be approximate, but you get the idea.
Her mum Zhai Dongmei 翟冬梅 comes from Shenyang in northeast China:
so here’s a powerful, majestic, gritty shawm band from nearby Liaoyang (#6 in the Music Player as you scroll way down in the sidebar of this blog, with commentary here)—two players striving in unison, occasionally pulling apart, with the drum evoking the sound of the tennis ball (the very opening perhaps satirising Nadal’s pre-serve routine)?! See also Ritual groups of Liaoning; and click here for Emma speaking excellent Chinese (Yeah I know…).
From the Canadian background of Emma’s parents, some Inuit throat-singing—another joyous ritualised game (whereas both Emma and Leylah are decorously silent on court, perhaps this evokes a speeded-up soundtrack of the vocalisations of certain other tennis players):
Moving on to, um, Bromley, how about David Bowie:
* * *
Just as inspiring—both on court and for a playlist!—is Emma’s opponent Leylah Fernandez.
For the Philippine heritage of her mum,
the elegant passion of nanguan (nanyin) ballads from the Hokkien diaspora of southeast China:
Leyla’s dad comes from Ecuador, suggesting a somewhat imprecise connection with
festive wind bandsfrom the Bolivian Andes (see Music and the potato), grounded in seasonal rituals (Wimbledon and the other majors):
And for the family’s Canadian heritage,
in French-Celtic mode, the irresistible energy of La bottine souriante playing La tuque rouge:
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.
In the melodic lines of both late romantic and popular music, upward leaps of both minor and major 7ths are common—the latter is a particularly striking expressive feature.
A few instances, over sumptuous harmonies: Mahler relished the interval, such as in the finale of the 9th symphony:
andRichard Strauss favoured it too, such as this glorious passage in Ein Heldenleben, where the massed horns hijack the recapitulation, with a repeated phrase ending in a minor 7th leap, then—amidst heady modulation—yet another one, culminating in a blazing major 7th:
I’ve already offered you Carlos Kleiber‘s version(with the above passage from 23.39); here’s Mengelberg and the New York Phil in 1928 (from 25.00):
And a gorgeous major 7th leap adorns the glowing string melody of the slow finale (from 35.40, in three flats):
In the Four last songs, Beim Schlafengehen is animated by the leap—as at the opening, in the gorgeous dialogue between violin and singer, and the final horn solo. Here’s the beginning of the violin solo (in five flats):
and the climax of the vocal part, with leaps of first a minor and then a major 7th:
The leap of a minor 7th can be highly expressive too, as in Billie Holiday’s extraordinary You’re my thrill.
Patsy Cline’s Crazy has some expressive intervals: the first phrase opens with a descending 6th (and then an A major arpeggio!), then the second phrase has a descending minor 7th followed by an ascending minor 7th on “crazy for feeling…”!
And I love the ascending minor 9th that opens Plus fort que nous in Un homme et une femme, leading to a sequence of ascending 7ths. The minor 9th leap pervades the 2nd movement of Mahler 5.
This tranquil interlude before the end of the 1st movement of Mahler 4 (Abbado’s performance there, from 14.30) has a succession of gorgeous leaps:
In north Europe we are unlikely to pray for rain, so I have much more practical use for umbrellas than do the dwellers of drought-prone north China.
Left, “Place this immediately above your own. Saves getting it wet”. Right: top, paternalistic umbrella; lower left, umbrella for dry climates “for collecting the water of life”. From Jacques Carelman, Catalogue of extraordinary objects (1969).
On a personal note, it may be thanks to my great-aunt Edith Miles that I warm to the topic:
For the plucky resistance of British street-signs to continental conformity, see here.
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.
You may be disappointed to learn that the plot concerns not a tomato but the Judgment of Paris, with the prize of the Golden Apple. Still, I can’t help wondering if early performances prompted giggling (I’m like, “Hey guys, Cesti’s gone and written an opera about a tomato!”).
The opera is mentioned in the fascinating, mouth-watering
David Gentilcore, Pomodoro!: a history of the tomato in Italy (2010),
whose basic culinary ingredients are liberally seasoned with wise observations on social and economic change.
The tomato’s uses were continually subject to change, from production to exchange, distribution, and production. […] The tomato is an ideal basis for examining the prevailing values, beliefs, conditions, and structures in the society of which it was a part and how they changed over several centuries.
In Chapter 1, “Strange and horrible things”, Gentilcore dates the recorded history of the tomato in Italy from 31st October 1548, when Cosimo de’ Medici presented a basketful to the excellencies of Pisa—who seem to have been bemused:
And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.
Remarkably, it would be well over 300 years before the tomato gained widespread favour among the Italian population in the pasta sauces we now know and love, belatedly becoming a national symbol—for Italian emigrants abroad, during the Fascist period, and later. Other New World imports (such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans, chillies, cocoa, vanilla) gained acceptance more quickly.
Cesti’s opera was premiered in Vienna; the composer died the following year, and I haven’t yet seen evidence of further performances—staging it would have been a massive undertaking. So audiences in Italy may even have been denied the opportunity of a good giggle, although word must have spread. Still, in Italy, over a century after the tomato was first recorded there, one might suppose that the word pomodoro (the pomo referring generally to fruit, not to the apple) at least had become part of the vocabulary of the elite who were the audience for such spectacles. But then, they would also be familiar with the ancient story—although from the simple synopsis one might not imagine that it called for elaborate stage machinery to depict tableaus like shipwrecks and collapsing towers:
The gods ask the Trojan prince Paris to decide which of the goddesses Venus, Juno, and Pallas (Minerva) is the most beautiful and thus deserving of the Golden Apple. Paris gives the prize to Venus. The spurned goddesses try to get their revenge until Jupiter decides to end the confusion, turns to the audience and awards the golden apple to the Empress Margaret Theresa [“Typical!”].
An early Miss World contest, then, with Paris in the role of Bob Hope.
The tomato had been introduced to Europe by Cortés, reaching Italy by way of Spain, as a botanical specimen. The physician-botanist Mattioli described it in 1544, using the name pomo d’oro in his 1554 revision. But confusingly, the term also continued to denote the fruit in the ancient myth of the Hesperides.
Gentilcore notes the early association of tomato and eggplant (or aubergine, splendidly advertised by British greengrocers as OBOS). The latter, incidentally, reached Europe from Persia by way of Andalucia.
In 1628 the Paduan physician Sala regarded tomatoes as “strange and horrible things”, following
a description of locust-eating in Ethiopia, spider- and cricket-eating in Padua, and ant- and worm-eating in India.
Indeed, to eat them was still commonly regarded as harmful, even poisonous.
Yet, as both Durante and Sala inadvertently suggest, someone was eating tomatoes, regardless of the dietary advice. Costante Felice, a physician near Urbino, tells us who: “gluttons and those eager for new things”.
Left, Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c1590; right, door frieze, Cathedral of Pisa, 1600/1601. Artistic depictions of tomatoes were very rare before the mid-18th century; the emperor’s mouth is more likely to contain cherries than cherry tomatoes.
In Chapter 2 Gentilcore broadens the theme to consider Renaissance Europe’s apparent aversion to fruit and vegetables—based on the advice of physicians of the time (cf. Sleeper!). Consumption of vegetables increased through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an Italian culinary manual from 1590 contains not a single reference to them.
Still, health warnings were not necessarily heeded by either princes and courtiers or the common folk—as we’ve been noticing recently… Other treatises attest to a great variety of common vegetables and plants being consumed. In 1596 the English courtier Robert Dallington wrote:
Herbage is the most generall food of the Tuscan, at whose table a sallet is as ordinary as salt at ours; for being eaten of all sorts of persons, and at all times of the yeare: of the rich because they love to spare; of the poore because they cannot choose; of many Religious because of their vow, of most others because of their want. It remaineth to believe that which themselves confesse; namely, that for every horse-load of flesh eaten, there is ten cart-loads of hearbes and rootes; which also their open markets and private tables doe witnesse.
Indeed, the religious institutions made a virtue of a diet rich in vegetables. And Gentilcore notes the importance of markets; the ortolani market gardeners of Turin had their own religious confraternity. He offers an aside on what was described as the “incomprehensible predilection” in Rome for broccoli, later to become “le vainquer de macaroni“. To the consternation of English observers, salad (“the mixing of diverse and various things”) came into vogue. Olive oil was still used more for lighting lamps than for cooking.
As he comments, historians always have difficulty finding information regarding the diet of the poor. From an early-18th-century French report on the dietary habits of Naples, it’s clear that much of the population not only ate vegetables but subsisted on them—along with bread rather than pasta; and tomatoes were part of this regime.
Methods of preparation remained basic because the kitchen utensils remained basic. The peasant kitchen thus was basic, with only a few clay or wooden implements.
Chapter 3, “They are to be enjoyed”, explores the acculturation of the tomato in 18th-century Italy. By 1759 a survey of farming in Tuscany included it among the “fruits prized by men [sic: see below] as foodstuffs or as condiments for them”. Gentilcore surveys the different varieties of tomato.
Sardinia was a Spanish possession until 1720, and the Sardinians, at all social levels, may have been “the first [in ‘Italy’] to take the tomato seriously”. Disappointingly for those of us who supposed that sun-dried tomatoes were invented in 1970s’ Hampstead, they appear in a Sardinian recipe from the mid-18th century.
By the 1830s, but probably earlier too, enterprising peasant women in the Cagliari area were selling sun-dried tomatoes. This is an important reminder of the role of gender in agrarian change. Indeed, women frequently were responsible for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of foodstuffs, and tomatoes were becoming an important element of domestic production, if not consumption.
We now find tomatoes not only eaten cooked and raw, but preserved in a thick paste, and in sauces. Still, their appreciation was regional: for southern peasants they were a major ingredient of their ordinary food, but they played only an occasional role in northern cuisine—and this remains true today. **
Tomatoes were now becoming so common that people were throwing them away—or at least were throwing them. In Italy, tomatoes were the missile of choice to show disapproval of public performers, and the activity came to be known as a pomodorata.
An 1863 report refers to the poor of Naples eating something called pizza, “seasoned on the top with an abundance or oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish”. As Gentilcore observes, tomato was not yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several.
Moreover, that report may also contain the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food accompanied by tomato sauce—the subject of Chapter 4. It coincided with the movement to unify the different states and islands into a single nation.
Indeed, the triumph of pasta was also remarkably late. Types such as lasagne, vermicelli, and maccheroni were already established by the 16th century (spaghetti was a latecomer), but pasta was eaten soft, cooked for long periods, and thus accompanied by dry condiments; it was still a side dish. The two best-known regions for production were the Ligurian coast and the Bay of Naples.
By the mid-19th century the Neapolitans commonly ate pasta in taverns and as street food. It was now served slightly hard (vierd vierd: the expression al dente only became common after World War One)—a novelty that soon spread.
Making the preserve for the sauce (conserva, passata, salsa) was still largely a small-scale, local activity. Towards the end of the 19th century a French traveller in Calabria commented:
We are, in effect, in the season in which, in every Calabrian house, tomato preserve is made for use during the rest of the year. It is a solemn occasion in the popular life of these lands, a kind of festive celebration, an excuse for get-togethers and gatherings… Neighbours, and especially the neighbourhood women, get together in different houses one after the other for the making of conserva di pomi d’or, a procedure that culminates with a large meal; and they gossip as much as they can while crushing and cooking the tomatoes. It is here that for several months the locale’s chronicle of scandal is identified and commented on; it is here that those old rustic songs, which are today so avidly collected by scholars keen on folklore, are repeated from generation to generation.
By the 1880s tomato paste began to be exported to the USA. Its industrialisation was concentrated (sic, as Gentilore notes!) in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, and Campania. Tomatoes were first canned in the USA and Britain; in Italy, Parma took a leading role in both cultivation and preservation. Tomato ketchup was already becoming the national condiment of the USA.
The marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples around the 1830s. Pasta al pomodoro only gradually became a national stereotype from the late 19th century—just as millions of Italians started crossing the ocean to the New World, where the tomato had originated. It was to make repeated crossings.
So while I find it a challenge to imagine Botticelli and Michelangelo not tucking into a plate of penne arrabiata, such dishes would have been hardly more familiar to Verdi as they were to Monteverdi. Even as late as the 1930s when Umberto Saba met Gabriele D’Annunzio, he was more impressed by the novelty of the plate of pasta with tomato sauce (“a crimson marvel”) than by the Fascist celebrity himself.
The first acclaimed pizza was cooked for Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889; of three pizzas prepared for her, one was seasoned with tomato, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the new national flag. In fact, its history goes back considerably earlier.
Above we saw a folk version of pizza in 1863 (for much earlier antecedents, see wiki). Pizzas were publicly made and sold in Naples by late in the 17th century. During his stay there in 1835, Alexandre Dumas described it as the staple diet of the city’s poor—with pasta eaten only on Sundays. By the middle of the century the city had over eighty pizzerie. In the 1880s Carlo Collodi, writing for a young audience, was underwhelmed:
Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a flat bread of leavened dough, toasted in the oven, with a sauce of a little bit of everything on it. The black of the toasted bread, the off-white of the garlic and anchovies, the greeny yellow of the oil and the lightly fried greens, and the red bits of the tomatoes scattered here and there give the pizza an air of messy grime very much in keeping with that of the man selling it.
The juxtaposition of hunger and gluttony is one theme of Collodi’s Pinocchio, first published in book form in 1883.
Pinocchio jumps into the sea, only to find himself in a fisherman’s net. Pinocchio explains to the fisherman that he is not a fish to be eaten, but a puppet. The fisherman replies that he has never caught a “puppet fish”, and asks how he would prefer to be cooked: “Would you like to be fried in the frying pan, or would you prefer to be stewed with tomato sauce?”
Meanwhile bread, often eaten stale, remained a basic foodstuff. In Puglia there was a popular proverb Ce mange paene e pomedaore nan ve me’ o dattaore (“He who eats bread and tomato, to the doctor will never go”).
In Chapter 5, “Authentic Italian gravy”, the scene shifts to the USA, along with successive waves of migrants. From 1876 to 1945 over nine million Italians crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life, most of them arriving between the 1890s and 1920s (cf. Accordion crimes).
Left, making tomato paste the Sicilian way, Madison WI, mid-1920s; right, supper on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1915.
Ventura’s 1886 short story “Peppino”, set in New York, describes pasta with tomato sauce, then still a novelty. Gentilcore goes on:
Making homemade tomato paste (conserva) was, for many immigrant families, partly a symbolic link to the town left behind, partly a matter of taste preference, and partly good economic sense.
Many immigrants also resorted to canned tomato paste. At first, such preserves were imported from Italy, but local production soon competed. The discussion subsumes the varieties of tomato, and the history of additives—including coal tar and formaldehyde.
In the early 20th century, the UK was the second main importer of Italian tomato preserves; meanwhile the British took to growing their own, with the growth of the suburbs and the increasing availability of greenhouses.
Ironically, American immigrants were often unaware of how much change was taking place as they strove to maintain continuity.
As emigrants, they had left Italy because of “hunger”, but as immigrants nostalgia and longing quickly set in. This was not nostalgia for the “land of poverty”, of course, but for the festive foods and the community to which they belonged. Consequently, they reproduced the food production and consumption patterns that were more dreamed of than actual in the world left behind. The “old country” became a mythologised place, which immigrant parents described to their children as a place where poverty and hunger coexisted with food that was good and natural and where they all ate together as a family.
The ritual of the Sunday dinner signified that the family was living the American dream, and
the focus for the transmission (or, if you prefer, the inculcation) of cultural mores and aspirations from parents to children. The place of origin that parents described to their children on these occasions was not so much a real place as a place remembered, a place imagined. The immigrants gradually filled it with idealised constructions, which had a very real function [for them]: to interpret, explain, criticise, and even deny the New World present, to both themselves and their children.
An account from 1940s’ America remains true today (note the typical use of the male pronoun!):
The Italian forced to live far away from his homeland, wherever in the world he sets his table, rejects every kind of cooking in order to establish his own, the simple but tasty cooking of his native land. And more than anything else he does not give up his traditional dish of macaroni with tomato sauce.
The new hybrid of the Italian-American restaurant too became stereotypical to the point of caricature—the “red-sauce joint, with its dishes smothered in tomato sauce, its red-checked tablecloths, and its candles stuck in Chianti bottles”.
By the 1930s the clientele of such restaurants had shifted from poor single immigrant bordanti to “bohemians” in search of an “Italian experience”.
Somewhat gleefully, Gentilcore also documents the invention of canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, dating from the early 20th century.
The sight of GIs opening cans of tomato spaghetti must have been a strange one to southern Italian peasants as the allied forces made their way up the peninsula in the latter stages of World War II. […]
It is easy to look down on such products, but it was a new way of eating food. After all, both spaghetti with tomato sauce and the invention of canning began about the same time, in the mid-19th century, so why shouldn’t they be united? It is just that we attribute different meanings, different values, and a different social status to pasta al pomodoro and canned spaghetti.
Returning to Italy, Chapter 6, “The autarchical tomato”, takes the story on to the Fascist era.
The mass migration of millions of Italians across the Atlantic had a positive effect on dietary practices in Italy in the form of remittances and return migration. […] For the first time, these remittances gave many Italians a chance to put aside money or goods.
Thus food preservation flourished as never before. But as economic prosperity grew, expectations and aspirations continued to change.
Gentilcore continues the story of the industrialisation of tomato processing—noting a company in Felino near Parma that rejoiced in the name Società anonima di coltivatori per la produzione delle conserve di pomodoro.
Changing patterns of organised labour had been giving rise to social unrest since early in the 20th century. Despite labour laws, even in the 1940s much of the burden for cultivation was borne by women and children. After World War One strikes and riots erupted. Mussolini’s Fascist Party sought to restore order—and to make Italy self-sufficient in food.
While the campaign of the Fascist Futurist Marinetti to abolish pasta was fruitless (indeed, Neapolitans came out onto the streets in protest), he didn’t extend his proscription to the “light and adaptable” tomato. Even ketchup survived the regime, though with their aversion to foreign words, it was renamed Rubra. Much Fascist food advertising was aimed at the resourceful housewife.
After 1924, when the USA restricted immigration, the Italian regime sought to replace it with Libya as a destination; as they proclaimed autarchia, or self-sufficiency, tomato cultivation was propounded there too. None of these projects bore much fruit.
On the eve of Italy’s fateful entry into World War Two in 1940, it was exporting virtually all of its fresh tomato crop to Germany; Gentilcore observes that Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany that year might as well have been called the “tomato pact”.
Chapter 7, “The tomato conquest”, opens with a reminder of the poverty of Italy (particularly the chronically afflicted rural south) in the 1950s, as depicted in the neo-realist films of the day. But industrialisation, urbanisation, refrigerators, and the rise of supermarkets further transformed people’s eating habits. In the two decades from 1950, Italians grew in height but not in weight, despite the ever greater popularity of pasta. As stereotype and reality began to fuse, Italians could now eat spaghetti al pomodoro to their heart’s content. It was increasingly popular in Britain and the USA too, although pundits like Elizabeth David resisted the cliché, stressing the regional variety of la cucina Italiana.
Gentilcore’s material is now supplemented by feature films, such as two scenes, both from 1954—Totò’s spaghetti scene in Miseria e nobiltà (1954):
and Alberto Sordi’s scene from Un Americano a Roma (also 1954):
The recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce included in Sophia Loren’s In cucina con amore (1971) is a tribute to the earthy recipes of her grandmother.
The disparity between north and south persisted. In his song Siamo meridionali! (1980) Mimmo Cavallo referred back to the family bathtub of southern migrants, classic receptacle for the growing of tomatoes (coltiviamo pomodori ddint’e vasche ‘e bagno):
Such migration from the south influenced the eating habits of both the migrants and the hosts.
In the Hollywood “pasta paradigm” (see e.g. this 1978 article by Daniel Golden), “the tomato sauces prepared and consumed by gangsters echo the bloody acts they commit”. One thinks of two scenes from Goodfellas (1990)—at home:
and in prison:
Pomodoro! can’t quite find a place for one of the great spaghetti-eating scenes: in Tampopo, Japanese debutantes are strictly schooled in the etiquette of eating them properly (another failed project, like Mussolini’s Fascism):
Nor does Gentilcore mention the “pizza effect” of anthropology, whereby elements of a nation or people’s culture are transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported to their culture of origin (cf. Tibetan “singing bowls”). The tomato played a role in the dubious “Mediterranean diet”.
By the 1980s, EU subsidies were further transforming the food economy, with Puglia benefitting notably. The Epilogue surveys the current tomato scene in Italy and beyond. As multinationals service our demand for year-round supply of “fresh” foodstuffs by sending them on vast, irrational journeys, Gentilcore addresses the global problem of labour slavery, organised crime, and trafficking. As immigrants began performing the tasks that Italians now shunned, the organisation and exploitation of labour by gang bosses was already featured in Pummaro’ (Michele Placido, 1989). Heavily staffed by African immigrants, and more recently eastern Europeans, the labour force is more vulnerable than the giornatori of yesteryear. Polish gang bosses exploit the Poles who work for them.
In a justly nostalgic passage which will strike a chord in Britain and elsewhere,
Nowadays, tomatoes look the same everywhere in Italy. Whereas “the real tomato has different, complicated shapes, with splits and streaks, and often pronounced baroque features, which so pleased the Neapolitan painters of the 17th century” [actually not yet, as Gentilcore points out], tomatoes today taste of nothing; they are full of water.
EU subsidies were not only unwelcome to producers in California, but hit West African countries hard. In turn, Italian growers have been hostile to Chinese imports, with the term “yellow peril” rearing its ugly head again (cf. Fu Manchu).
Gentilcore notes the Chinese term fanqie 番茄, “foreign eggplant”—the tomato was introduced there quite early by European missionaries, but still remains quite niche. BTW, it’s also known as xihongshi 西红柿 (“Western red persimmmon”), which reminds me of yet another story that I heard from Tian Qing (e.g. here, and here): during a phase of reviving Maoist “red songs” in Xi’an, some wag suggested the city might be renamed Tomato (Xihongshi 西红市 “Western red city”). I must also put in a word for the succulent tomatoes grown by Li Manshan.
This book will make you hungry—not just for knowledge.
* * *
All this is yet another instance of how things we assume to be eternal and immutable, like harmony and democracy, turn out not to be so. Another reason why I’ve cited Pomodoro! at some length is because its integrative approach, while perhaps a hallmark of most research worth its (um) salt, bears an affinity with that of ethnomusicology, including reception history—as for musicking, so for tomato-ing.
* Not to be confused with his long-lost Russian cousin Cestikoff, whose opera Il trasporto del pompino, regrettably not about fire-engines, was banned in St Petersburg. Allegedly.
** Cf. The Monty Python cheeseshop sketch: Cleese: “How about Cheddar?” Palin: “Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, Sir.” Cleese: “Not much call—it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!” Palin (smugly): “Not round here, Sir.“
Further to my series on the GDR (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), some random notes on Deutschland 89, the final series. Within the stylish format of the thriller Anna Winger and Jörg Winger manage to subsume a range of thorny issues (see their reflections here and here).
The whole series is also a visual feast, with the “riot of beige and formica” that I noted at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, contrasting with the more lurid colours of expeditions in foreign locations.
The pop soundtrack for the whole series is evocative too—there’s a good selection here. And in the first episode the Kyrie Eleison from Bach’s B minor Mass makes a fine choice to accompany original footage of the scenes of elation upon the breaching of the wall, capturing the depth of people’s emotion—however transient.
There’s much to savour in the dialogue. As the functionaries of a suddenly defunct regime seek to reinvent themselves, I like this briefing at the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service HVA, when the desperate bosses are trying to send their dour operative Schweppenstette on a mission to the Deutsche Bank, for which he is to be portrayed as a psychological anthropologist:
“An anthropologist. They study, analyse, and interpret societies and their behaviour. Just like us.”
This definition may come in handy for fieldworkers in China trying to explain their brief to the authorities (cf. my own run-ins with the constabulary, and Nigel Barley in Cameroon). In a meeting with the bank, Schweppenstette concocts the title of his fictional thesis: The East German political elite: attitudes towards taboos and moral failings.
And a West German businessman is unconvinced by the new invention of another GDR operative, a computer that allows users to see each other. To him it suggests he must be from the Stasi:
This thing may be normal to you, but in an open, democratic Western society, nobody will ever allow people to look into their offices and homes.
Surely there was a place on the series’ soundtrack to feature Someone to watch over me, a suitable nominatation for the GDR anthem?!
Learning of the uprising in Romania, a West German comments:
The unstoppable rise of democracy and freedom. The era of the autocrat is over once and for all
writes in a lyrical style reminscent of French philosophy, with examples of historical discussion from Galen and Francis Bacon to Freud. Some readers may be more amenable than I am to this kind of thing:
The voice is the vehicle and the arena of this agon between dissipation and replenishment. Our celebrations of the voice are too monotonously pitched in the register of fullness, richness, clarity and penetrativeness, the privilege is too regularly accorded to the energetic out-loud and the “haute voix”. The autumnal, deciduous voice, which is heard in illness, fatigue, ague and age, is not epically shredded by passion, but rather silted with lilting circumstance.
I would love to hear a group of stammerers, or indeed anyone, trying to get their tongues around “paradoxical polyphiloprogenitiveness”.
Call me superficial (You’re superficial—Ed.), but With All Due Respect to Ancient and Modern Sages, I’m intrigued by some of the asides. Connor notes Marc Shell’s observation that when animals were given human speech in animated film, they often, like Donald Duck, or Porky Pig, suffered from speech impediments. I see that Porky shared his stutter with the voice actor who originally played him; but because he couldn’t control his stutter, recording sessions took hours and production costs became too high (cf. my own attempts at voiceover). Here’s a helpful roundup:
Stammering’s material culture of the past lends itself to historical analysis and therefore allows us to gauge how medical and social attitudes toward the impediment have changed.
The impediment not only provided (pseudo) medical actors with a lucrative market for various curative objects and practices, but also propelled the (sheet-) music business. Stammerers themselves appear in this story of materialisation and market as both agents and objects. The cheap self-cures, medical manuals, sheet music and (later) recordings that were produced not only for, but also by, them, show how easily the impediment was aligned with the modern consumer’s identity and how the persona of the stammerer was, ultimately, lodged in the Western collective memory in very material ways.
Writing of the “collusion between consumerism and stammering” in the late 19th century, she observes:
The cures targeted a middle-class audience that would presumably care most about speech impediments (they were in a profession requiring fluent speech), but—more importantly—would also have the means to afford a cure. Self-help manuals seem to have targeted a similar audience: they were relatively cheaply produced, but a book on stammering would necessarily have been a “luxury” item, requiring its owner to be literate. This image of the consumer of self-help manuals dovetailed conveniently with the image of what most scientists considered to be the typical stammerer: a white middle-class man, the victim of the modern “strenuous” life, but also autonomous and capable of curing himself.
It was often claimed that stammerers were typically found in the professional classes and characterized by an extraordinary intelligence. Hoegaerts cites an 1896 paper:
“Children of weak intellect rarely stutter because their thoughts are slow, and their speech always keeps pace with their thoughts.”
And she observes:
That the stammerer was “civilised” was shown by the fluent speech of “savages”. Travelers were called upon to show that no one had ever encountered speech impediments in the uncivilised world. “All travellers, who have long resided among uncultivated nations, maintain that they never met with any savages labouring under an impediment of speech”. This was because, according to scientists like Hunt, its inhabitants were not subjected to the stress and strain of civilisation: their fluent speech was owed to “their freedom from mental anxieties and nervous debility, the usual concomitants of refinement and civilization.” Likewise, the lower classes did not appear to seek the help of therapists and were considered to be relatively free of the impediment. […]
Women, on the other hand, were not so much thought of as uncivilised, but rather as more suited to civilisation and its rhythms of speech than men. Individual cases of female stammerers occasionally surfaced, but they were thought to represent a very small percentage of stammerers. According to Richard Faulkner, women expended less energy on speaking. “We have compared subsequently the energy developed in conversing by the voice of a man and that of a woman, and have found that women are fatigued, in talking, four times less than a man”. Others had already suggested that women were naturally good at speech. What made women’s speech so fluent, these theories surmised, was that most of it was idle chatter anyway.
Whereas “savages” could not speak of anything beyond the concrete and women did not move beyond the trivial, the (male, middle-class) stammerer’s laborious speech betrayed his intelligence.
Hoegaerts goes on,
That a woman could appear at her most attractive and intelligent by not talking at all would easily have been accepted by therapists and gentlemen-scientists of the period.
Women came to acquire the authority in the field of speech therapy—although I note that many of the most famous therapists have been men, while women comprise a majority of the work force—Typical!
The sound of stammering Stammering became a popular theme for Tin Pan Alley songs, further popularised by sheet music. Yet
The popular representation of stammerers in songs, at the turn of the century and up until the 20s, seems very far removed from this image of the privileged, highly intelligent modern individual.
Composers treated stammering as a poetic and commercial opportunity, rather than as an impediment. It is no coincidence that almost all stammering songs were romantic and/or humorous in their content. The impediment was, in that sense, not the subject of the song, but merely a rhythmic device, the means to emotionally engage the audience, or the set-up for a joke. Sometimes, it was all three.
Of course, the rhythmic syncopation of stammering is an extrapolation by composers: the real sound is unpredictably non-metrical, aleatoric.
The connection of stammering to race allowed for rhythmic license. More specifically, the halting sound of stammering allowed composers to ride on the lucrative wave of ragtime music. Most explicit in the “use” of the sound of stammering was the 1913 song Stammering Sam, in which a young black boy’s stammer is presented as the “origin” of ragtime:
Then Stammering Sam sang, and the company sang “babababa! Babababe!” Singing his stuttering song with glee and that was the very first ragtime melody.
Like the stammering girls, these stammering “coons” defied scientific knowledge: their ethnicity as well as their social class should have protected them from speech impediments. Yet there they are, imaginary creatures proudly claiming syncopated speech in order to entertain.
Of course, in many ways the “stammering coons” are images of manifold oppression: their almost clownish representation derided their ethnicity, the connection arguably degraded ragtime music as it refused to take it seriously as a style, and the depiction of their accented, lower-class speech placed them firmly at the bottom of the social ladder. Being put on show, after all, also meant being subjected to the harsh gaze of the audience, to become an object of consumption. Significantly, the songs would most likely be performed by non-stammerers for other non-stammerers (although those who did stammer could, of course, hear them as well). The stammerers in the songs were mere figments of their writer’s imagination, specifically created to be “performed”, “bought”, and “used” to serve the purposes of entertainment and consumption. Whereas stammerers were approached as agents on the market in therapeutic manuals, popular music banked on the characteristic sound of stammering in order to “sell” stammerers, rather than selling something to them. […]
In an ironic reversal of the therapeutic logic, [the stammering song] turned fluent speakers into stammerers (thus perhaps proving that speech could indeed be manipulated to a great extent). […]
The culture that emerged from this “modern” consumerist world was shaped by women, down-at-heel sailors, and young black boys as well. […] One could wonder if the worlds of the privileged stammerer and the imaginary one in songs coincided at all.
It’s good to see the factors of race, gender, and class featuring in the analysis of disfluency.
I’m grateful to Sophia Loren, well, for everything—but right now, for introducing me to Lucio Dalla’s song Caruso(1986), her own favourite among her excellentDesert island discs recently.
Over a slow pulse, the text is delivered in an urgent parlando-rubato style, the intensity of the melody highlighted by a vertiginously high register, suggesting flamenco deep song:
Lucio Dalla (who actually came from Bologna) was staying at the Excelsior Vittoria Hotel in Sorrento, coincidentally in the very same room where many years earlier Enrico Caruso had stayed shortly before his death. As the owners told him about Caruso’s last days and his turbulent love life, Dalla was inspired to compose the song—the melody and lyrics of whose refrain are based on the 1930 Neapolitan song Dicitencello Vuie. (As a foil to the male gaze, the background of Naples is a fine pretext to remind ourselves of the brilliant novels of Elena Ferrante.)
While in both its theme and its style Caruso clearly invites versions by tenors like Pavarotti and Bocelli, it makes a good instance of how such music is better heard without polished artifice (here Dalla sings it with Pavarotti).
Qui dove il mare luccica, E tira forte il vento Su una vecchia terrazza Davanti al golfo di Surriento Un uomo abbraccia una ragazza, Dopo che aveva pianto Poi si schiarisce la voce, E ricomincia il canto.
Te voglio bene assaje, Ma tanto tanto bene sai è una catena ormai, Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai.
Vide le luci in mezzo al mare, Pensò alle notti là in America Ma erano solo le lampare Nella bianca scia di un’elica Sentì il dolore nella musica, Si alzò dal pianoforte Ma quando vide la luna uscire da una nuvola Gli sembrò più dolce anche la morte Guardò negli occhi la ragazza, Quelli occhi verdi come il mare Poi all’improvviso uscì una lacrima, E lui credette di affogare.
Te voglio bene assaje, Ma tanto tanto bene sai è una catena ormai, Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai
Potenza della lirica, Dove ogni dramma è un falso Che con un po’ di trucco e con la mimica Puoi diventare un altro Ma due occhi che ti guardano Così vicini e veri Ti fan scordare le parole, Confondono i pensieri Così diventa tutto piccolo, Anche le notti là in America Ti volti e vedi la tua vita Come la scia di un’elica Ma sì, è la vita che finisce, Ma lui non ci pensò poi tanto Anzi si sentiva già felice, E ricominciò il suo canto.
Te voglio bene assaje, Ma tanto tanto bene sai è una catena ormai, Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai
Here Dalla sings it live, for an audience who are clearly just as enraptured as Sophia Loren:
So returning to Sophia Loren, in her Desert Island discs she discusses her most recent project working with her son Edoardo Ponti on The life ahead. And she recalls her illustrious early career, such as the filming of Two women(La Ciociara, Vittorio de Sica, 1960)—a story about the horrors of war, based on the book by Alberto Moravia (cf. The conformist). Here’s a trailer:
The film ends with Loren and Brando dancing a tango—in the words of this review:
Chaplin was a sexual revolutionary long before the sexual revolution, and here, at the age of 77, he foresaw—even unto the film’s concluding tango, half a decade before Bertolucci’s—a world in which sex would break down the doors and come out of the closets.
Though the film wasn’t a great critical success, at least it was admired by John Betjeman and Jack Nicholson—more unlikely bedfellows…
Back with Desert island discs, how delightful is Sophia Loren’s final greeting—making us staid Radio 4 listeners feel even more grey and reserved:
Making an elegant bridge between the enchanted worlds of Aretha and ancient gagaku, here’s Hideki Togi playing Amazing Grace on hichiriki—aptly uploaded to YouTube on Inauguration day:
Do click on those links above—the first to Aretha’s overwhelming 1972 sessions, the second to the great Toru Takemitsu’s captivating explorations of Japanese traditional soundscapes—notably gagaku.
I find myself more amenable to this arrangement than to the “world music fusion” that I churlishly characterised as “throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, Balkan brass, kora, and didjeridu…” (cf. Bach, um, marches to the world!).
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 my post Detroit 67, among several clips of the great Aretha Franklin I featured her extraordinary live sessions in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. The double albumAmazing Grace was released that year to huge acclaim, but the documentary had to wait right until 2018 to see the light of day. For anyone who hasn’t yet managed to do so, you can still find it on BBC i-Player (here)—otherwise, one can always buy it… 
BBC2 followed the film up with the documentary Respect.
Recorded over two evening sessions, the film Amazing Grace is all the more effective for showing its workings, complete with its calculated planning, technical hitches, and even piano-tuning. Yet despite the constraints of live recording, these were clearly inspired celebrations—just like many musical gatherings around the world (see What is Serious music?!, under “Serious world music”).
Between numbers, Aretha’s focus sometimes makes her look pensive, almost frail—but as she sings she becomes a spirit medium, a vessel for the Holy Spirit, possessed with all the joy and pain of Gospel.
With the MC Reverend James Cleveland adroitly mediating sacred and secular, Aretha is backed by the Southern California Community Choir, who are also spurred on by the balletic Reverend Alexander Hamilton. Among very few white faces in the ecstatic congregation are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.
On both evenings the tone is set by a devotional opening song (Wholy Holy and Mary don’t weep), followed by rousing up-tempo numbers like What a friend we have in Jesus, How I got over, All go back, I’m climbing higher mountains, as well as the ensemble interactions of Precious memories (“Sacred secrets will unfold”) and Precious Lord, take my hand/You’ve got a friend in Jesus.
The way Aretha opens in slow free-tempo is always moving—her final song (from 1.12.01), I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ‘Tis the beautiful home of the soul where we shall never grow old, is a whole seven-minute alap in itself—just as inspired as Indian dhrupad.
Most miraculous of all is the title track Amazing Grace (from 37.04; for the audio version, see under Detroit 67)—a long, slow meditation (without clearly defined beat or melody!) that leaves the congregation, the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Aretha herself in tears.
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.
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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:
aptly dedicated to the fine anthropologist and film-maker Rahile Dawut, who is among countless Uyghurs “disappeared” into the “re-education” camp system.
Integrating expressive culture, religion, society, and politics, it’s complemented by the website http://www.soundislamchina.org, where we can find audio and video examples discussed in the text.
Though Rachel has been unable to return to Xinjiang since 2012, alongside others like Rian Thum and Darren Byler, she has been assiduously documenting the whole cataclysm there with a whole series of articles, some of which form the basis for chapters in this volume. Since then too, her research has benefitted from the perspectives of visiting Uyghur communities in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Indeed, even her fieldwork in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2012 was hampered by tensions that came to a head with the protests and inter-ethnic violence of 2009 in Urümchi. Since 2016 for Xinjiang Uyghurs to have any contact with relatives and friends abroad has become highly dangerous.
After a long period of research on the largely masculine worlds of the muqam and Uyghur pop music, Rachel turned late to the less visible world of female culture, studying a group of pious women in a village in southern Xinjiang who recite the Qur’an and intone zikr religious formulas. Their schedule was busy, including calendrical and life-cycle rituals, rituals for the dead, and to heal sickness, for individual families and the whole community. The village women were “immersed in a perpetual cycle of reciprocal hospitality and mutual aid. […] Moral propriety and communal responsibility were intertwined with being a good Muslim.”
By contrast with media images, these women were not isolated, but highly networked and responsive to social change. They continued practising, often clandestinely, throughout the Maoist era, becoming more open after the 1980s’ reforms—until being suppressed since 2014.
The seven chapters flow compellingly in an escalating sequence of tragedy, moving from poor villages to labour camps
.Chapter 1 is an exemplary exposition of the main themes, adding to our material on society and soundscape, always striking just the right balance between cross-cultural theory and grassroots fieldwork. The chapter opens with insightful sonic vignettes:
The massive development of recent decades in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has brought rapid advances in infra-structure, the wholesale extraction of natural resources, and large-scale Han Chinese immigration into a region until recently dominated by Turkic Muslim peoples, the most numerous of whom are the Uyghurs. This development has wrought huge changes, not only in the landscape but also in the soundscape. By 2012, coal mines and oil refineries had come to dominate the desert landscape, and heavy trucks thundered up and down the new highways transporting minerals and building materials. In Xinjiang’s provincial cities, bulldozers rumbled over demolition sites and mud-brick shacks crashed to the ground, fracturing precarious communities of Uyghur rural migrants. The thudding of pile drivers echoed around the high-rise residential developments that were shooting up in their place. In the manicured town squares, the evening soundscape became carnivalesque. Groups of Han Chinese women performed American line dancing or Chinese yang’ge dancing to techno soundtracks that competed with tinny music from children’s fairground rides. In the Muslim graveyard in Ürümchi, there was an audible hum from the electricity pylons and the mass of wires that passed overhead; relatives complained that the noise was disturbing the sleep of the dead. In the Uyghur villages of the rural south, the roar of motorbikes had all but replaced the groan of the donkeys, and the nights throbbed to the sound of water pumps as farmers took advantage of cheap electricity to pump water to their cotton fields. The village loudspeaker, that supreme sonic marker of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was once again filling the village streets with a mixture of popular songs and news of the latest political campaigns.
But just as important is silence: “equally important for an understanding of the soundscape are the sounds that are not heard, sounds that do not circulate in the public sphere”—such as the call to prayer. Even the women’s religious gatherings, the main subject of the book, were held furtively behind closed doors. And by 2018 people didn’t even dare to talk (cf. The whisperers).
Rachel introduces the religious history of the Uyghurs, and the revival since the reforms of the 1980s, noting increasing piety among local communities, and placing it within the wider context of transnational flows of Islamic ideologies and practice, notably activity within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But already on the eve of 9/11 even the most routine of Muslim practices were coming to be targeted by the Chinese state in campaigns against “extremism” and “separatism”. Nor were Uyghur communities unified in their faith, with a growing debate around stricter forms of Wahhabism. She notes the interpretation of religious revivals as a response among marginalised and deprived people to the upheavals prompted by the introduction of globalized capitalism.
She presents fine perspectives on “Why sound?”, “Is it music?”, and “Thinking about music”, and among “Contested soundscapes”, she draws attention to gendered aspects. With “music”, singing, and dancing all subject to scrutiny within Uyghur communities themselves, she highlights the experience of the participants, and notes the social circulation of religious media via recordings and the internet, finding similarities with the transmission of pop music.
As an interlude, a village woman tells her story in 2009, growing up under the Maoist commune system, and her experiences since the 1980s’ reforms, cautiously taking part in the village’s ritual events. Rachel reflects on the account in Chapter 2, which focuses on the khätmä healing ritual, also used for commemorating the dead. She explores the role of büwi, the senior ritual specialist who leads the women in reciting and weeping in trance. The role is often hereditary, but one of Rachel’s mentors had begun her path after a dream, like many spirit mediums in China (see e.g. here, with many links) and further afield.
The authority for their learning is often conferred by a period of study with male ritual specialists. Some identify as tariqa, people of the path, and she traces the connection with Sufi lodges and the wider history of organised Sufism.
Rachel gives a detailed account of a khätmä ritual she attended in 2009, alternating surah verses in the Qur’an and zikr short repeated phrases of prayers. With the affective power of sound more important than lexical meaning, she focuses on bodily, rhythmic entrainment, as well as ishq (divine love, passion) and därd (suffering), expressed through weeping (some links here), which she explores with yet another detailed cross-cultural analysis. As one büwi commented on watching the video of the climax of the ritual:
The oil is sizzling in the pot [qazan kizip kätti]. Their love for Allah is so strong that they can’t stop themselves crying, just like the pot on the stove. When the oil is hot, you must throw in the meat otherwise the oil will catch fre. It’s just like that. Then you must put in the vegetables, otherwise the meat will burn. So just like that the women cry a lot. . . . Their love [ishq] for Allah is like the hot oil in the pot, their love for Allah is so strong.
She notes that
reciting the khätmä and weeping not only is for alleviating one’s own sin but can also serve as an act of intercession on behalf of the families of the deceased, or even for the whole community.
Chapter 3 discusses the hikmät sung prayers of the women’s rituals, the complex interactions of text and performance, and debates over style. Acknowledging the work of Chinese musicologist Zhou Ji (see here, under “The muqaddime“), she again gets to the heart of religious practice. She describes a healing ritual in 2012, when the political climate was already tense; and a 2015 ritual across the Kazakh border, with insightful comments on the modern history of the region (cf. The Kazakh famine).
Chapter 4 continues to incorporate material from Uyghur communities beyond Xinjiang, exploring patterns of circulation of Qur’anic recitation, and how they are discussed and strategically deployed in public spaces, digital media, and daily practice.
Under the more relaxed conditions of the 1980s and 90s, travel and trade helped satisfy the longing for engagement with the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East. The growing influence of Saudi and Egyptian styles of recitation as heard on media platforms brought a certain dilution of local styles, which was not always welcome. Rachel’s attuned ear notes both the tajwid rules for recitation, including nasal timbre, and the taste for reverb in recordings.
She makes adroit comparisons with modal improvisation and changing styles in Egypt and Indonesia. With all this in mind, she looks again at the vocal style of the khätmä ritual in her adoptive village in south Xinjiang, in another detailed analysis of a “spiritual aesthetic in transition”. She notes the apparent contradiction in the rural büwi incorporating the Saudi style, which preaches against the “superstitious” Sufi practices that they represent. While she notes that “many observers of the Islamic world have pitted supposedly tolerant and hybrid forms of local Islam against the purifying practices of reformist individuals and groups”, the distinction is far from clear-cut. While internalising their marginality,
For them, mimicking the sounds of Salafism did not necessarily denote an adoption of Salafi ideology. For Aynisa, as for other reciters, rather than indexing rival ideologies, what both the Egyptian and Saudi styles indexed was modernity.
felt the need to make herself strong and to make herself modern, in part in response to pressure from state religious policies, in part in response to criticism of her own practice by Uyghur reformists. Cyborglike, magpielike, she mimetically absorbed and deployed foreign styles of recitation within a very local form of ritual, using them to resist backward status and to lay claim to alternative styles of modernity.
After another interlude translating the anonymous satirical poem “They’ll arrest you” posted on WeChat in 2014, showing clearly that the campaign’s true target was normal moral behaviour for Uyghurs, Chapter 5,“Mobile Islam: mediation and circulation”, explores depictions of religion and Uyghur identity (not least through the sensory, affective experiences of images and sound) that thrived briefly on social media platforms, and the complex debates among Uyghurs about how to be a good Muslim—in particular a good, modest Muslim woman. With state repression escalating after the 2009 unrest (fed by the Global War on Terror), virtually any form of Uyghur behaviour became vulnerable to accusations of “religious extremism”, and debate was silenced. Countering the state discourse, she notes:
Together these phenomena helped to produce new structures of feeling within Uyghur society that may be best characterized as a crisis of suffering—both personally and collectively experienced—to which only Islam, in different guises, could provide a solution through its capacity to enable personal and collective transformation. For the majority, this spiritual awakening and quest for greater religious knowledge, and the projects of practice and self-discipline impelled by their new faith, were primarily personal. For some, they converged with experiences of the increasingly repressive state policies and took on a more overtly political dimension.
In July 2014 violent confrontations in Yarkand county in southern Xinjiang began with a police raid on an “illegal religious gathering” by a group of village women. Rachel returns to the ubiquitous theme of därd suffering, now denoting national as well as spiritual pain, and expressed in religious worship and pop music alike. The latter often took the traditional—and transnational—a cappella form of anashid, sung poetry in praise of Allah, only in a breathy popular style remote from the nasality of tajwid recitation. Though their main theme was the call to prayer, Rachel confronts the radical message of some of these items. And with typically instructive cross-cultural examples, she contemplates the power of rumour.
Agents of the state reacted with horror at the spread of what they perceived as alien, antimodern, and hence threatening ways of being, and they invoked the globally circulating trope of Islamic terror, which enabled new violence to be unleashed against the supposed terrorists and against the Uyghur people, who were now coming to be collectively defined by this trope.
Chapter 6, “Song and dance and the sonic territorization of Xinjiang”,notes people’s alienation from the formal musical performances promoted by state media since the intensification of campaigns since 2014. The chapter opens by unpacking Little apple, a bizarrely kitsch video adopted nationally by the security forces to promote stability and ethnic unity. Rachel utilizes research on Tibet. Uyghur culture and the Chinese state have irreconcilable images of the landscape; noting the rebuilding, and bulldozing, of sites like Kashgar and Qumul to bolster the Chinese agenda, she discusses sonic territoralisation. Since 2015 the soundscape of urban Xinjiang has been dominated by Chinese propaganda songs, evoking the mass propaganda of the Maoist era—cue for further instructive introductions to Muzak and shopping malls, and to the use of sound in warfare.
She now discusses the campaign against religious extremism in detail.
Rather than targeting the small number of people who might reasonably be judged vulnerable to radicalization and violent action, the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang sought to eliminate all visible and audible expressions of Islamic faith—veiling, beards, public prayer, fasting, religious gatherings, instruction, and media—from the landscape and soundscape.
Among the targets were visible signs of religiosity, including women’s clothing. “By 2016, veils and beards had disappeared from the landscape.” Also to be eliminated was “noise”—meaning Muslim noise, inside unofficial mosques, in restaurants and family homes, and on social media. Listening was dangerous.
Again we are reminded of the debate within Uyghur communities with a discussion of the proper observance of weddings. But the state now fabricated a simplified and misleading opposition: “foreign” religious extremism versus “traditional” song and dance.
To replace Muslim noise, the commodified Chinese song-and-dance style was heavily promoted. In another fascinating discussion Rachel unpacks the meanings of smiling in such performances—by contrast with the Uyghur emphasis on weeping.
If China’s professional minority performers had long been accustomed to smiling to service the requirements of nation building, the unfolding of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang made it clear that it was no longer sufcient for paid professionals to smile; now ordinary Uyghurs from schoolchildren to büwis were required to silence their weeping and publicly demonstrate their happiness. From 2015 on, local cultural bureaus across Xinjiang organized villagers to participate in song-and-dance performances, mass dancing displays, weekly sessions for singing revolutionary songs, and weekly mäshräp gatherings in order to counter extremism.
The mäshräp had long been a contested and regionally variable forum—see her 2020 article, also bearing on the incongruous attempt to gain UNESCO status under the Intangible Cultural Heritage; and in similar vein, “You shall sing and dance: contested ‘safeguarding’ of Uyghur Intangible Cultural Heritage”, Asian ethnicity 21.4 (2020), by an anonymous (apparently Uyghur) scholar.
Again referencing the Maoist era, another focus of the campaigns was singing “Red Songs”, which even religious personnel were required to perform.
With the Uyghur diaspora responding by declaring such performances haram, Rachel has to clarify that “music”, song and dance, including muqam and the songs of the ashiq Sufi mendicants, had long co-existed with more orthodox, austere modes of religious expression, constituting another historical object of debate among Uyghurs. And even the staged song-and-dance style had a history going back to the early 20th century: “a rejection of this culture implied, in the view of many urban intellectuals, a rejection of the development of the modern Uyghur nation”.
Such issues were hotly debated on Uyghur forums in exile.
It was in this context, with music and Islam in Uyghur culture fixed into positions of opposition, and musical performance deployed as a tool of control by the state, that Uyghur pop singers like those mentioned in chapter 5 fled the country, arrived in Turkey “repenting of their sins”—sins that might well have included performing patriotic or revolutionary songs praising the Chinese Communist Party—and atoned for these sins recording radical anashid supporting the mujahidin.
The Xinjiang campaigns were an attempt to replace one form of embodied practice with another—secular, modern, patriotic. While Rachel notes that such compulsory gatherings weren’t invariably experienced as the imposition of an alien sonic regime,
the fact that these experiences of singing and dancing were coercive and underpinned by state violence was completely consistent with past precedent, and this juxtaposition of song and dance and state violence would come still more sharply into focus in the new context of the mass internment camps that were already under construction across the region.
And so the reeducation techniques in the camps are the subject of Chapter 7, “Erasure and trauma”. Among much coverage, this too is a masterly account.
By 2017 the campaigns had extended way beyond the religious sphere.
Increasingly the term “religious extremism” seemed to serve as a gloss for Uyghur culture and identity, which was now regarded as a “virus” in need of eradication.
Again, coercive musical performance played a key role in the reeducation programme of the camps. I remain unclear how making inmates sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for foreign journalists might ever be expected to convince anyone—I suppose it’s more of a demonstration of power.
The chapter continues with an astute discussion of trauma, subsuming the Cultural Revolution and other societies.
Rachel finds the binding theme of repetition—in Red Songs and forced confessions, as in zikr and repeating the shahadah 72,000 times for a death ritual. She reads the securitisation of Xinjiang as a colonial project, prompting further global comparisons. Yet—or thus,
we should not assume for one moment that the effects of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang will be a permanent erasure of the religious sensibilities and the cultural identity of its subjects and to rewire them as patriotic automatons.
Simple acts of remembering “suggest the inevitable failure of state projects of social reengineering”.
She adopts scholars’ metaphor of the palimpsest to evoke unsuccessful attempts to erase previous layers.
Far from internalizing understandings of their culture and faith as an infectious disease that led inexorably to terrorist violence, I suggest that Uyghurs are well accustomed to the periodic and transient nature of political campaigns, and they know how to attune themselves to the requirements of the present.
While it will hardly console those grieving over bulldozed gravelands or mourning their loved ones, it’s a remarkably far-sighted and optimistic conclusion.
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While some sections on Islamic transmission are highly technical, Rachel has a gift for integrating theory with ethnographic detail. In all, despite pertinent reminders in the later chapters, Xinjiang faces firmly west, not east: Han Chinese culture may be highly visible, and audible, in the towns, but here it hardly appears except (as Barnett observes for Tibet) as an “inanimate or malignant force”. In Xinjiang and further afield, the whole culture is dominated by the diverse practices of Islam—which are precisely what the Chinese state is now trying to erase.
For a comparable case, see posts under the Tibet tag. These themes should never have been considered marginal in studies of the PRC, and now they seem all the more urgent.