Friday, February 3, 2012

In review-Red Sparkling February

Jeff Hamilton Trio
Red Sparkle
Capri Records

February 2012 is already shaping up into a jazz month with Jeff Hamilton Trio leading the way.  The trio’s February release, Red Sparkle offers melodic jazz played seamlessly on piano (Tamir Hendelman), double bass (Christoph Luty) and kit drums (Jeff Hamilton).  While there are no Coltrane or Davis covers on this recording, anyone who enjoys listening to those artists will feel equally at home listening to Red Sparkle.  Certainly we are treated to jazz nostalgia with the classics Laura, Sleepin’ Bee, and Too Marvelous for Words.  And we are treated to a familiar rock song from ages ago, Stephen Bishop’s On and On, gone jazz of course.

The album opens on an upbeat tempo with a Hamilton original Ain’t That A Peach and then drives harder on Thelonious Monk’s Bye Ya.  But these musicians aren’t going anywhere because they’ve just begun.  The musicians perform a heavily nuanced version of Bishop’s nostalgic song, then break out into wild man jazz on Too Marvelous for Words, where the musicians swing hard, taking quick turns at the spotlight.  However, having said that, it’s difficult to tell where each instrument ends and the next one begins because these musicians play as one unit.  This is one of the best musical marriages I’ve come across in years and a real joyful listen.

For anyone who enjoys old-style jazz, let Red Sparkle act as your musical Valentine for this jazzy February.

In review--Blessings to the Homeland

Ramilla Cody with Herman Cody
Shi Kéyah
Songs for the People
Canyon Records

Diné (Navajo) traditional vocalist Radmilla Cody brings us her fifth album, Shi Kéyah Songs for the People on Canyon Records.  Cody sings a cappella with a traditional drum accompanying her. She sings songs about war veterans, lost lovers, bluebirds ushering a new day, and the homeland in the Diné language.  Her uncle Herman Cody composed the songs and he makes a vocal appearance on A Gift to Us.  With a voice similar in timbre and emotional color to another Diné singer, Sharon Burch (especially on Native Food Song), Cody offers her listeners an authentic Native music experience.

I especially enjoy the cadence of Cody’s voice as it travels through the stories she presents here.  Beautiful Mother Earth reminds me of some of Iroquois vocalist Joanne Shenandoah’s chants, thought Cody sings in a more upbeat tempo than Shenandoah.  Similar to Shenandoah and Burch, Cody possesses talent to burn as a singer, a humanitarian, and preserver of traditions.  She sings with love in her heart and you can feel this love as the singer caresses every word, even the humorous ones in the songs, Where are You and Commodity Blues, though a touch of irony presents itself.

After listening to Songs for the People, you might feel tempted to check out Cody’s other four recordings on Canyon Records.  In the meantime, enjoy this offering to Mother Earth, the Navajo homeland and its people.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Practice: Connecting to nature via music pt 2

photo by Patricia Herlevi
I was unable to round up enough students for my class Exploring Music with Ecological Themes, but I still think it's important for us to connect to nature through sound vibration.  So I'm including a short list of practices you can learn to do on your own.  I feel as humans in the modern world we have lost contact with the natural world.  We have given animals human personalities, treated the earth as a resource rather than a living being, and have forgotten how to communicate musically with the natural world or to truly hear its music. Those are the reasons why I created the class.  Too bad only one student signed up for it.

1) Sit in a natural setting (yes, outdoors), and focus on birds singing or another nature-based sound.  Meditate on this sound for at least 10 minutes.  Follow your body's rhythms and pulses as you listen to this natural sound.  Do you start hearing a melody in it? Harmony? How do you feel? 

2) If you are a musician (even if you aren't), compose a melody based on your meditation experiences.  You can compose this melody through notation or orally.

3) Next time you're in that natural setting and meditating on the natural sounds, sing or play your melody, sharing it with the natural world, and listen for a response.  This little exercise might surprise you.

4) If you don't want to meditate with natural sounds, and you play an instrument take the instrument outside and start playing something soft (acoustic instruments only).  See if birds or some other creature responds to your music.  Then if this does happen see if you can start a musical dialogue with this creature.  You need to listen carefully do this.

5) Do like the late Marjorie De Muynck and record sounds from the natural world then fuse that to sound healing or other types of music.  Marjorie recorded bees, a fruit bat, crows, frogs, crickets and hummingbirds. You can check out her recordings on Sounds True. 

6) Create a chant based on an experience with a creature or something else that's natural.

7) Listen to recordings by musicians who either recorded outdoors with nature surrounding them or used nature sounds in the studio.

8) Research musicians and musical practices from indigenous cultures since these people are still in touch with nature and respond to nature musically.  I gave some examples earlier on this blog.

9) Learn to play a wood, bamboo, or plant-based flute and take it outdoors with you to play.  Think of R. Carlos Nakai playing his Native American flute in the canyons of Arizona and Utah.

10) Make a list of all the European classical composers who composed pieces inspired by the natural world.  This list will take a while to compile.  Then check out these CDs from the library.  Give them a careful listen and journal about your listening experience.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In review--Got Gauchos?

Los Gauchos De Roldán
Button Accordion and Bandoneon Music
From Northern Uruguay
Smithsonian Folkways

When we think of South American traditional music the regions that usually surface in our minds are Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and the Andes.  And each country in South America also provides music audiences with diverse music traditions differing per region, ethnic group makeup and history--Uruguay is no exception.  In the past I’ve heard harp music from Uruguay, as well as, milonga from the Pampas region, (a predecessor to Argentine tango).

The jovial songs that appear on Los Gauchos (Uruguaian cowboys) De Roldán’s Folkways recording Button Accordion and Bandonoen Music from Northern Uruguay remind us that many folk music traditions are centered on folk and ballroom dances.  Lead by button accordion player Walter Roldán, the folkloric quartet is comprised of an accordion, a bandoneon (Luis Alberto Vidiella), and two acoustic guitars  (Bernardo Sanguinetti and Ricardo Cunha). They perform polkas, mazurkas, milongas, Maxixe (a predescesor of the Brazilian samba), waltzes, and Habaneras (dance music from Spain/Cuba).

The warm production certainly invites the feet to join the dances and it feels like these dance songs are wasted as I sit and listen to them while I work. Some favorites of mine are the milonga Como mi suegra which opens the CD, the polka La flor del bañada (The Marsh Flower) with its guitar arpeggios bouncing off the lilting accordion.  Passionate vocals accentuate the hard “r” sound of the Spanish language.  The mazurka that follows, The Gaucho in the Bar reminds me of Mexican rancheros and a little of Tex-Mex music (no surprises there since all of this Latin American music shares European roots). Also listen to the beautiful guitar work on The Little Polka of Tuna Cactus, which reminds me of folk music from Chile and Argentina.

And even if you have never heard traditional music from Uruguay previously the combination of accordion playing popular dance styles and the mix of Afro-Latin and European rhythms will sound familiar to your ears.  Both instrumentals and songs appear on the recording along with plenty of stories in the liner notes.  I have already listened to this recording several times and I enjoy it more each time.  Traditional music isn’t just for academics researching musical styles, but can act as musical entertainment for the curious at heart and globetrotters.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Essay: Indigenous Musical Explorers

Explorers of Music via Nature

During my years of listening to hundreds of recordings, including field recordings of indigenous musical traditions, I discovered a few musical traditions that still amaze me today.  While these traditions range from the didgeridoo ritualistic music from Australian aboriginals to the hula tradition of Native Hawaiians to folk songs of the Okinawan people of Japan, I’m focusing on three groups for this essay including the Wulu Bunun (Taiwan), the Saami (Nordic countries & Russia), and the Baka pygmies of the Congo/Cameroon and Gabon. 

We enjoy a myriad of ways of connecting to the natural world through the sound vibration.  We whistle at birds, sing like birds, perform trance music (drums) that connect us to the heartbeat of the earth or we can perform a vocal tradition that connects us to people, places, and creatures, as in the case with the Saami’s spiritual chant, the yoik.  As modern human beings we often look at indigenous traditions as primitive.  And the more naive among us wonder how sophisticated music can be performed on earth-made instruments as opposed to played with electronic instruments.  Yet, when I listen to field recordings of indigenous music traditions, I have the opposite reaction, that modern pop music is primitive even with the latest technology.  The harmonies are often banal overdubs, the rhythms monophonic played on a drum machine and I don’t feel connected to anything, much less nature when I listen to modern pop music.

Indigenous music has many purposes and comes with a built-in mindfulness. This music is employed for rituals, rites of passage ceremonies, seasonal celebrations, harvest ceremonies, hunting ceremonies, for magical purposes as is the case with the Saami whose music has supernatural qualities.  The music is used for marriage, funerals, and various types of labor.  Instruments range from drums, flutes, lutes, bagpipes, and harps.  And of course many of these musicians have guitars and other modern instruments these days depending on contact with other modern cultures and people.  For instance, the Saami wedded their traditional yoik to electronic music as in the case of Norwegian Mari Boine and Finnish Wimme.  But these musicians also sing a cappella yoiks.

So let’s take a look briefly at the music of the Wulu Bunun, Saami, and Baka people.  I’m not an expert on any of these traditions, but have a passing knowledge and a deep fascination for the musical traditional connected with these groups.  Also, in an effort to preserve ancient music traditions, and to promote my upcoming workshop, Exploring Music with Ecological Themes, I will provide details of the above groups.

Baka (African pygmies)

Region: Cameroon, Congo, and Gabon, also Central Africa
Religion: Animistic/pagan
Culture: Hunter/gatherers and grow crops found in forest environs 
Diet: Omnivorous

Musical note: The Baka people (who I came to know through the UK band Baka Beyond), compose sophisticated music via the oral tradition, passed down to generations.  They make instruments out of plant fiber, including rattles, drums, lutes, and harps.  The Baka also use natural elements to perform their music, such as imitating the sounds of birds, or water drumming (women cup their hands and play the river water--sounds like a marimba).

The music is performed for different ceremonies, men’s rite of passage (spirit of the forest), hunting, other work, and entertainment.  The vocals are often polyphonic and the rhythms are polyphonic.  The women perform a yodel-like call which you can hear on Baka Beyond’s albums and  other recordings.  Contemporary Ivory Coast musician Dobet Gnahoré performs this yodel on her Cumbancha recording, Na Afriki.  She’s not the only contemporary African artist to do so.

I, like many people who have heard Baka music find it joyful, celebratory, delightful.  It fuses well with other types of music, especially Celtic music as with the band Baka Beyond.


Region: Finland, Norway, Russia (Kola Peninsula), Sweden
Religion: Animistic with cosmology, magic/sorcery,
Culture: Previously nomadic centered around reindeer, some fishers (Norway)
Diet: Mostly reindeer and fish (past), most likely Northern European (current)

Musical note: The most important instruments to the Saami as far as I know, are the large frame drum (used for magical purposes) and vocals in the form of the spiritual chant, yoik (also magical in nature).  Other instruments include two types of bagpipes, a plant-based flute, and the Finnish zither (kantale).

Features of the yoik include a non-melodic, non-rhyming chant to a person, place, animal, or object in which the yoiker exchanges energy with its subject via the frequencies and intentions of the chant.  A yoiker might also employ throat-singing as part of the yoik.  And some yoiker such as Wimme of Finland can get complex mixing the yoik with vocables, Saami words, and throat-singing.  I have not heard the Saami bagpipes or flute.

The yoik can be taught orally from one person to another, but I’ve learned that the yoik comes to you and not you to it.  I wanted to learn how to yoik because of my Finnish ancestry.

Wulu Bunun

Region: Taiwan (mountainous region)
Religion: Animistic/pagan, based on the cycles of the moon
Culture: Previously hunter-gatherer, but also grow/harvest millet (and rice introduced by the Chinese)
Diet: Wild game, millet/rice...

Musical note: The Wulu Bunun are known mainly for their polyphonic chant tradition used for spiritual, practical, and entertainment purposes.  In 1943, an ethnomusicologist recorded the Wulu Bunun’s 8-voice (4-part harmony) sowing festival song, Pasibutbut and brought it to France.  Up until that point, no one believed that 4-part+ harmony was possible.  The song is only performed by men and it sounds akin to a beehive. The story behind the song features two lovers that fell off a bridge into a river and now haunt the river.  Cellist David Darling brought the chant/song to international attention with his recording Mudanin Kata (River Boat Records), in which the cellist partnered with traditional Bunun musicians.  Similar to the other two groups I mentioned, the Bunun also have chants/songs for different purposes such as hunting, harvesting millet, etc...

If you would like to learn more about these cultures here are a few links:

Photos: Found on Wikipedia, Saami yoiker--Sofia Jannok
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