Friday, January 7, 2011

Essay: Preserving Music Culture during a Sustainable Era

Purposeful Music & Preservation for the Sustainable Age:

A Filetta, Wikipedia
As I write this essay on bringing back the true intent and purpose of folkloric music, I’m listening to the Corsican polyphony group, A Filetta. In 2006 I co-produced a segment on Corsican polyphony music for “The Old Country,” a radio show produced at the community radio station, KBCS (Bellevue, WA). During my research (which took months), I discovered that this vocal music found its roots in the Corsican shepherds who took their herds up into the Corsican island’s mountains. In fact, I learned that the Corse language was nearly lost because of French bans placed upon it for several decades (I might be wrong about the time frame), and the language was only preserved because of this Corsican vocal tradition and the fact that the shepherds, the ones carrying on this tradition, spent that time in the mountains.

The Finnish language also nearly went extinct, but again was preserved through an oral tradition by folks living in the mountains. The language was preserved through an epic legend, The Kalevala and the runo-songs that accompanied the legend. Sadly, the shamanic roots of this legend have almost all been replaced by Christianity and its version, which of course would ban any pagan themes or do as the Christians have done for almost 2,000 years and replace pagan themes and elements with Christian ones. And sadly, when pagan stories, themes, etc are lost so is our connection to Mother Earth. But this essay is not about religion, but about purposeful folkloric music.

My theory is that when the Industrial Revolution broke out in Europe and replaced farm life, and hand-crafted labor with machines and turned humans into machines too, some of the music that went along with labor of the peasants or if you will, the workers, started disappearing too. Yes, song catchers such as Alan Lomax, Moses Asch and others came along in the 20th century to preserve the work, dance, celebration, and other oral tradition songs onto discs. So we still have physical record of these old fishing songs, sea shanties, communal dance music, etc and not just from Europe and United States.

Joseba Tapia, Basque musician 
And one could argue that some ancient music traditions are still going strong today such as Indian classical music, the griot music of West Africa and so on, but that’s not the point I’m making. While we can listen to this folkloric music in the safety of our living rooms, the intent of the original music and its true purpose has been lost. But in our psyches we still remember; our DNA still wants songs to accompany us while we go about our house chores, work in the yard, or on a farm. But what happens now is instead of joining others in singing work songs we just turn on the radio or pop in a CD of rock music to get our adrenaline pumping so we can complete a job.

While there’s nothing wrong with that, I think the act is an unconscious one. Whereas, the fisherman and sailors of the past sang sea shanties in a purposeful manner and often the lyrics reflected the work they were performing. I’m also thinking of the old cowboy and herding songs, which now just end up on quaint nostalgic recordings. But that’s just where we are now as the human race, employing music out of context. I catch myself doing this all of the time. Now we don’t just deal with the results of the Industrial Age, but also the technological one which leaves many of us isolated. Communal anything outside of religious organizations, seems like a thing of the past, unless you’re Amish and raising a barn with your neighbors.

However, I see a glint of hope in the form of the DIY (do-it-yourself) sustainability movement. With fair trade cooperatives, organic farm cooperatives, and eco-villages cropping up, I see the emergence of community again. I also see the return of artisans and crafts people, cheese makers, goat herders, communal harvesting, and people getting together to perform such activities as canning, planting, sewing (quilts especially), and other performing other types of group activity. So this is the right time to reintroduce work songs of past eras. If any of the elders still remember the songs they can teach the orally to the younger ones. Then this music can regain its true purpose.

I applaud all those song catchers who preserved songs for future generations. And I enjoy listening to field recordings, but feel unfulfilled if I can’t participate in some way. I love singing and I enjoy call and response type singing. And I’m not saying all is lost, because purposeful music still exists on the planet, and not just in religious settings. Plenty of dance music can be heard throughout the world and we still have the kitchen party music of the Quebecois and the morality tales of the West African griot, as well as, some of the healing music of the Native Americans.

As a music journalist who covers the world’s musical traditions, I have seen music deal with multiple threats, including industrialization and commercialization of the music industry. I have seen healing music traditions misrepresented and misused so that some new age practitioner can come off as a guru to people who know little about music besides what they listen to on their local radio stations. But then you have to discern with anything new age anyway because a lot of the ancient teachings have obviously been distorted in the name of commerce and mass appeal. The same happens to any genre of music, add a few drum machines to the traditional music of Provence for instance, and you have a new dance groove. And yes, I’ve heard the argument that musicians are preserving the music by enticing younger generations with the type of music they want to hear.

But I’m not talking music purism here. I have also heard the argument that music is a living language and of course it’s going to change with each generation making innovations, but it’s my hope that the language isn’t changed to a more popular one such as English and that the original drums aren’t replaced with machines. Then we lose the bigger picture and our ancestral connections. And most importantly, we lose sight of the purpose behind the music. Our ancestors are gone and we will forget them if we don’t preserve something from their eras. And when we lose the purpose behind any endeavor, we lose the thread and all that connects us to each other.

So my hope is that in this sustainable age where we’re heading, we can bring back music with intent and purpose. This doesn’t mean we can’t sit around listening to field recordings, but that when we do, we can envision the original purpose for that music and somehow apply it to our personal and communal lives. A lot of incredible music came out of old work songs. Think of the blues, jazz, and early rock music which hailed from the songs of slaves. The Brazilian samba also hails from former African slaves. And I’m not supporting slavery, but focusing on the work songs that came from it. Just like I would never promote colonialism, but some beautiful cultural exchange derived from it as some of the world music we listen to today.

So in wrapping up this essay, I hope that I expand your thoughts about folkloric music in some way. And that you connect purpose and intent with the music in your life; that you see the connection between sustainability, the green DYI lifestyle, and purposeful music. And most important, that you challenge any industry, group, or leadership that tries to replace diversity with a dominant language, culture, religion, or anything that robs us of our collective heritages.

Photos: A Filetta, Basque musician, Wikipedia

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In review--Rousing Russians, lailailaia, lai!

Caspian Hat Dance
We Say No Talk
Fishbowl Studios

I’ll admit on days like today when I find it challenging to crawl out of bed, I need rousing-kick-me-in-the-butt music. And if the band Caspian Hat Dance’s klezmer-Balkan-Russian extravaganza can’t do it, I don’t know what can. These days, dealing with a high degree of stress and time constraints, I regret that I don’t have time to visit a band’s website, read other reviews, and indulge in those luxuries of the past. Fortunately, this music on the recording, We Say No Talk speaks for itself—a bit wacko, but played with great finesse and enthusiasm. Darn, if these musicians aren’t in love with Eastern European gypsy and Jewish music. The only other band I can think of while listening to this recording is Les Yeux Noirs, though you would need to subtract the French gypsy swing element to get a taste of Caspian Hat Dance.

If Fiddler on the Roof meets Romanian gypsies is your thing, then you’d enjoy Caspian Hat Dance’s repertoire. While most of it speeds along like an Italian driver in a sports car, a few respites pop up here and there, including Humus Little Sunrise with its weeping violin backed by acoustic guitar and accordion; and the lament u rusciutelumare, to name two songs. MR L Dreams of Fish reminds me of soundtrack music from Amelie, with its old Parisian charm and morishej sabina with its Hungarian panpipes also stands out among the crowd. 

I don’t know what these guys put in their coffee to perform wild and beautiful music, but whatever it is I hope they keep drinking it. Sometimes you have to jump off the deep end to discover the world’s musical gems. And as in the case with Caspian Hat Dance, you also have to step off the beaten path and party with Russians, Romanians, and Eastern European Jews. and

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Practice: De-Stressing With Music

photo by Patricia Herlevi
Employing Music to Untangle Your Nerves

We've all had those days where every muscle and tendon in our bodies seems to have tied themselves in knots.  The head throbs, and one more loud noise could send us into a dark place, well, literally, if you end up with a migraine (like I do).  And those of you out there who work in the healing profession or in the arts lean towards oversensitivity to stimuli causing you to feel the stress of this burdened planet more than others.  I know, I'm one among you.  But because of my acute sensitivity, I learned how to employ the healing power of music in my life.

The problem is that someone could be extremely sensitive and not know it.  I went most of my life, until my late thirties before I knew why certain stimuli left me with a pounding head and a nauseated stomach.  I thought my jangled nerves were just a normal after-effect of living in the modern world, not that I cared to live in such a world with loud airplanes flying overhead and fire engine sirens disturbing my rare peace of mind.

So here are some signs to look for that you suffer from acute sensory sensitivity (that's my own term).  After meditation, deep sleep, or relaxing in a quiet place, you feel actual sickness in the form of nausea, dizziness, nervous tension, or get a headache after exposure to the everyday world.  You feel agitated by the timbre of certain people's voices, especially people who tend towards loud and boisterous.  It feels like the equivalent of a marching band tramping through your head.  You suffer from nervous tension on a regular basis, your muscles are usually in knots, and you find yourself wanting to retreat from the everyday world on a regular basis.  Even a work environment with all its daily stimuli gives you a headache.

I'm not a medical doctor and I don't possess a background in science.  I know about acute sensitivity because I experience it everyday and have met others in the same boat.  I tried just about everything to cope with all of it until I took a metaphysical workshop in which a woman who also was extremely sensitive told us that music acts as a saving grace.  Not only that through music, either listening to it or performing it, the sensitivities are transformed from a curse into a gift.  The main reason I can review CDs in the manner that I do is because of this sensitivity---I feel music so deeply, I can't even tell you what that's like.  Music feels like prayer or meditation, but it depends on the music.  Obviously heavy metal music is going to send me running to the nearest quiet cave. It sounds like the equivalent of an airplane flying over my house. (Please don't expose me to it).

The problem with reviewing music for a sensitive is that some music that possesses mass appeal will feel like torture.  The cells in the body rebel against some types of music and its different for each sensitive person.  Some can handle electronic sounds, others can't.  I have a hard time with the pitter patter of drum machines--I just want to scream when I hear it because this sound feels invasive to me and even controlling. And when you think along the lines of entrainment, it is controlling every cell in our bodies, leaving a residue of low vibration behind.

I'd like to come up with a list of music to recommend to you, but we're all different.  I recommend playing around with different genres, especially the world's classical and spiritual music traditions.  I'll also tell you that our moods and needs differ from day to day.  I'm mostly sensitive certain times of the month, and other times I can handle more stimuli.  So on some days salsa hits the spot, and on other days, it feels too stimulating.  Brazilian bossa nova seems to always hit the spot.  I can't tell you why though.  Remember I'm not a scientific researcher, but a sensitive journalist whose entire life has been infused in music.

I hope this essay proves helpful for you.  I feel concern for other sensitives who roam the planet without knowing that their sensitivity is a gift.  But retreating into a quiet place is necessary at times, and so is employing music to de-stress.

Some Helpful Tips:

1. Bathe your senses in silence (go to a quiet park if you must)

2. Meditation practice is necessary (with or without spiritual music)

3. Chanting helps

4. When you feel most stressed out, listen to slow to medium tempo instrumental music
(solo instrumental music is best)

5. Listen to soft music while bathing and before going to sleep

6. Spend some time listening to calming music before entering the everyday world

I don't suggests using portable players in public places.  You end up turning up the volume too loud, and have to strain to listen to the music above other noises

An alternative (if you're traveling), find a quiet place and listen to your portable player for
a few minutes only so you can wash the other energy off of you.  Again, I recommend slow tempo instrumental music.

In review--Soaring Heights, Plumbing Depths

Ballakè Sissoko
Vincent Segal
Chamber Music
Six Degrees Records

When we think of the cello, we hear a somber, melancholic sound, mostly attached to European classical music. And when we hear the shimmering sound of a West African kora, the mood that arrives, (though no less sedate than the mood of a cello), feels spiritually uplifting. So pairing these two instruments might seem awkward at first. That is until you hear the beautiful marriage of tones and timbre. While I’m not sure that I would call Ballak√® Sissoko (kora) and Vincent Segal (cello) album Chamber Music groundbreaking, certainly it represents one of the most spellbinding albums to come along. The moods of the cello and kora appear to balance each other out, leaving listeners somewhere between melancholy and relaxation. I find this music healing, even powerfully so.

Personally, I find Chamber Music deeply relaxing, so relaxing in fact, that I want to crawl back in bed and absorb its warm tones, rather than type this review. The gentle cadence of Sissoko’s masterful kora playing coupled with the deep, rich bass of Segal’s cello seems like music poised for daydreaming. That is until guest musicians contribute vocals, balafon, and ngoni to the mix. But even this musical village supplies us with a mellow mix.

I don’t know that I can pick out any favorites here because the music flows so seamlessly together like a river picking up stones, branches, and other elements along the way. Some tracks such as Houdesti gather momentum and Regret with its vocals pops and giving off a deep Malian signature. In fact, you might forget about the presence of the cello when you listen to the West African groove the song radiates. On some tracks you hear a strange fusion of European classical and griot kora, on other tracks you hear only the African side of the equation or the Euro-classical side. In any case, I consider the ancient music of the Mandika Kingdom classical in its own rite. After all, wasn’t it the music of the elite?

I recommend Chamber Music as a fine recording well worth your time and attention, not to mention, listening pleasure.  Crawl back into bed and let this music caress your cells.,