Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gundecha gurukul goes global

One the most distinctive educational institutions in traditional Indian culture is the gurukul, in which students come to live with their teacher (guru), studying on a regular basis, and contributing to the domestic functioning of the household by performing both regular and extraordinary duties as required.

I am currently on leave in India, where I am staying in the historic city of Bhopal at the gurukul of the Gundecha Brothers, who are among the leading practitioners of dhrupad, the most ancient form of Indian classical vocal music. Known as the Dhrupad Sansthan, this is one of the very few contemporary manifestations of the gurukul system currently functioning in the realm of Indian music.

Yet as events here in the last 24 hours demonstrate, the concept has been expanded to assume an international dimension. Last night marked the departure eve of Deborah, a student from Belgium who has been studying here for the past year, with a farewell dinner cooked by her father, an artist who designs furniture and paints in oils and acrylics. Following the tradition of the bricoleur, he used various “foreign” ingredients he was able to track down in the local market—olive oil, cheddar cheese, mushrooms, cream, and spaghetti—to cook a fresh Indian version of pasta primavera, with tomatoes being the primary local ingredient. For dessert, he used apples, halved and sauteed in butter, with the cavity filled with a local sweet and drizzled with chocolate sauce in an ingenious multinational presentation.

Early this morning, when my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I visited the kitchen, we found a large karahi (wok-like cooking vessel) of plain left-over spaghetti, though almost all of the sauce from the previous night was finished. At the request of Akhilesh, the youngest Gundecha brother, the pasta was reprocessed by Shubha and my sister Judith (visiting India with her husband Peter for the first ime), who working with several students cooked an unplanned mid-morning meal featuring a desi (Indian) version of the pasta, with a sauce of ginger, onions, peas, and cauliflower sautéed in local soybean oil, with a sprinkling of dhanya leaves (cilantro) when the food was served and eagerly consumed. It is probably worth noting here that most Indian musicians take the art of cooking--as well as the pleasures of eating--very seriously.

Then Akhilesh, himself a master of the pakhawaj, the double-headed barrel drum which is used to accompany the vocal dhrupad performance, performed with Madhyalaya, his ensemble, to bid farewell to Deborah, with the gurukul audience including students from Austria, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and the U.S., as well as from several Indian states. The international students have come to know of the gurukul through the performances of the Gundecha Brothers, who are the most active of the current practitioners of dhrupad on the world concert circuit, as well as the most widely recorded.

The students live in a recently completed hostel (the Indian term for a dormitory) adjacent to the main educational building, and in the spirit of the traditional gurukul, most of the Indian students not only do not pay, but rather are given free room and board and an expense allowance, along with the daily music lessons from the brothers, all in the expectation of serious and arduous practice. The international students are usually charged a modest fee for their living and education.

The next highlight of the week will be a Thursday night concert at a local hotel featuring two of the more advanced students, in a semi-public performance, as part of their preparation for professional careers. The Sansthan, which has been fully functional for a little over four years, already has two graduates--including Aliya Rasheed, a young woman from Pakistan--who have completed the full course (which generally runs for four years), and have themselves embarked upon professional careers. Finally, on Friday night, Amita Sinha, the other graduate of the gurukul, will have a full-fledged concert performance at Bhopal's Andhra Bhavan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Silent Night . . . . .

It was late afternoon in Washington, cold and dark, and as the flow of evening commuters converged onto the the escalators descending into the bowels of the Washington Metro, a lone trumpet player was seated on a plastic milk carton with his trumpet case open in front of him, and a few coins and bills inside. He was playing the Christmas carol, "Silent Night, in a slow, dirge-like fashion, one fragment at a time, with pauses of varying length between the familiar phrases of the song, and occasional changes to the usual melodic contour. Unlike the recorded Christmas music that plays incessantly throughout America in stores and shopping malls, and on radio and television, beginning on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and running up to Christmas Day, the solitary musician's offering was anything but upbeat and commercial. His soulful interpretation reminded me of the alap of Indian music, or the awaz of Persian music, or the taqsim of Arabic music--in which there is no rhythm, no pulse, only a unique, timeless, melodic improvisation that will never again be repeated in just that manner. This "Silent Night" was meditative, and to my ears melancholy, and yet terribly moving--a veritable cri de coeur in response to the human condition--or at least, the state of affairs that I was projecting upon the species at the time.

In my last entry, I noted that the first news on Thanksgiving Eve of the tragic and disturbing events unfolding in Mumbai, India effectively removed me from the holiday spirit. And so it was the pensive trumpet solo yesterday evening that enabled me to begin my own reluctant entry into the experience of the American "holiday season", which customarily begins with Thanksgiving and runs through New Year's Day.

As noted above, holiday music, and Christmas music in particular, is an essential part of the marketing strategy of the American consumer economy. The variety of such music is enormous, ranging from the sacred to the profane. Such songs as "Silent Night," "We Three Kings of Orient Are," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", and "O Holy Night" are among my earliest musical memories (see my previous entry), and inevitably awaken in me, as in countless others, remembrances of Christmases past, as do the Hanukkah songs ("I have a little Dreydl, I made it out of clay . . . ") that were part of the holiday pageantry in Steck Elementary School as I was growing up in Denver, Colorado. For me the superb arrangements of the Robert Shah Chorale are the high watermark of Christmas music, and if I still had those recordings from my earlier years, I believe I could listen without my usual ambivalence to holiday music.

These conflicted feelings result, among other causes, from my adverse reaction to the extreme shopping mentality of the holidays, and it is with some comfort that I look forward to my departure for a month in India on Friday, so as to avoid the relentless onslaught of holiday music. Nonetheless, in the coming days, I'll try to share some personal reflections on holiday music in all its wonderful--or awful--diversity.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Musical memory

On Tuesday night, as I was trying to fall asleep, with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching on Thursday, I found myself having fallen victim to yet another earworm (see my posts on this phenomenon in early September):

The first and last verses of an old Thanksgiving song kept running through my mind:

Over the river, and through the woods,
To Grandmother's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow. . . .

Over the river, and through the woods,
Now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

I had planned throughout the week to sit down on Thanksgiving Day itself to write about the virtually universal association in human society of celebration with song. But my plans were altered by the dreadful terrorist attacks in Mumbai, with two locations--Victoria Terminus and the Taj Hotel--being places I had visited numerous times during my travels to India, spread over more than 40 years.

Only today am I able to resume my thoughts on topics musical, having been at the forefront of breaking news for 21 years as chief of VOA's Urdu Service, and habituated during that time to following hourly developments in such events, with the saturation coverage we have all experienced recently. At this point, not feeling very celebratory with all that has happened during the past three days, I will save my reflections on holiday songs until later in December, and turn briefly tonight to another subject that fascinates me: musical memory.

I think most of us have found that music in general, but more particularly individual songs or works of music, can form associations and emotions in our minds that may pass from consciousness for a period, but which may be suddenly awakened through a process of involuntary memory.

The term was coined by Marcel Proust in his great work, Remembrance of Things Past, to describe the transforming emotions he experienced upon tasting a cookie from his childhood.

I have found that I can chart the years and eras of my life, from my early childhood, by the songs and musical pieces I discovered at the time: I can capture the essence of my experiences by listening once again to the music--particularly when I am hearing that music after a long period--as in the case of the childhood holiday song, with which I began today's entry, that haunted me as I drifted off to sleep.

Perhaps this is too subjective a topic for the VOA World Music Blog, yet I am taking the chance of pursuing it in the interests of beginning to explore some of the more subtle ways in which music can influence our emotions and even our actions, and in the hope that some readers may send some of their own experiences in which involuntary musical memory can bring the past alive once again.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel and Il Sistema--bringing troubled youth to music

I have just learned that I will be able to attend a concert next year of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra here in Washington, led by the dynamic young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

This extraoridinary young man (and the equally extraordinary ensemble) had first come to my attention when, earlier in the year, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a feature on the Venezuelan musical phenomenon, called El Sistema (The System), in which over a hundred young people's ensembles have been developed in the Latin American country, not only to nurture young musicians, but also to give youngsters from economically depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods a chance to find self-esteem and confidence, and a future through music.

The concept was developed by Jose Antonio Abreu, an economist and amateur musician who had studied piano, harpsichord, and organ to supplement his academic work at institutions which included the University of Michigan. In his description of the effects of the program, "A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that comes from music."

Children as young as two years are initiated into the program, learning the basics of music. Thousands of trained musicians participate in teaching their young students, who, as stated on El Sistema's Website, number 350,000 in 180 ensembles throughout the country. During the past 32 years, according to Dr. Abreu, some 800,000 children have participated in El Sistema. In the words of one instructor interviewed for the CBS program, "when they sit in one of these churches in the orchestra, they think they are in another country, on another planet, and they start changing."

El Sistema has attracted widespread media attention (listen to a BBC/WGBH program, or watch a video critique on the TV Web page of the Boston Phoenix) and has been featured in a 2006 film documentary, Tocar y Luchar (To Play and To Fight), which has won a number of awards in international film festivals.

Performances of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, the program's flagship ensemble, have astonished audiences all over the world, under the leadership of conductor Dudamel, himself a product of El Sistema, and a prodigy who was recently appointed Musical Director of the prestigious Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, as illustrated in yet another episode of 60 minutes; see also a video portrait of the conductor by the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon, which has released three CDs by the SBNYO.

I look forward to the concert, which will include a performance of Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which was probably the most influential piece of classical music to which I was exposed in my childhood. But more on that personal note later. . . .

Friday, November 7, 2008

Washington Songlines: Lo ultimo de Mexico (The Ultimate Mexico)

Last night the Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble presented a far-ranging survey of the rich musical traditions of Mexico. This extraordinarily diverse program, set in the Shakespeare Theatre's striking Sidney Harman Hall, was moderated by Joseph Horowitz, the Artistic Director of the Ensemble, and Gregorio Luke, a prominent commentator on Mexican culture; the two last appeared together at the Library of Congress' comprehensive "Two Faces of Mexican Music" from March 11-16 earlier in the year. The evening's offerings were together a worthy embodiment of Luke's characterization of Mexico as the world's most polyglot country.

The program opened with Carlos Chavez' "Imagined Aztec Music," entitled "Xochipilli", (for the Aztec god of music and dance, among other things), with replicas of traditional Aztec percussion instruments accompanying a western percussion and wind ensemble (including a conch shell.) Throughout the performance of the piece, a slide of a statue of the deity was projected on a screen above the stage, with this and subsequent slides--apparently selected by Luke--providing throughout the evening a beautifully colorful and evocative sequence of visual images of Mexico in contrast to the near total-black of the stage and the performer's garb. The fluid conducting style--almost dance in itself--of Angel Gil-Ordonez charged the ensemble with both precision and an electric energy that prevailed through all the pieces under his inspired--and inspiring--direction.

The next three items revealed the richness of the Mexican Baroque choral style, performed ably by the Chamber Singers of Georgetown University, again led by Gil-Ordonez. Luke remarked that within a few years of the Conquest of Mexico, the churches there established a liturgical tradition that in many ways rivaled that of Europe. A sprightly Christmas villancico (an Iberian Renaissance genre) by Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (1590-1664), concluded the musical tryptych to the riveting accompaniment of cello and percussion.

Horowitz and Luke then introduced the Mexican Romantic era--noting that due to the fierce fighting that engulfed Mexico in the years following the 1910 Mexican Revolution, countless masterpieces of both the Baroque and Romantic traditions were irretrievably lost. "Vals Capricho", a spectacularly virtuosic 1901 set piece by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907), introduced the Mexican Romantic style, followed by two compositions in that style by Manual Ponce (1882-1948): Balada Mexicana (1914), and Intermezzo III: Andantino malinconico (1921.) Illustrating the Protean role played by Ponce, as Mexico's first great modern composer in straddling the Romanic and modernist traditions, Pedro Carbone (whose rendition of Castro's piece brought music literally exploding from the piano as his fingers cascaded across the keyboard) moved effortlessly into the more abstract progressions and often lambent colors of Ponce's 1932 "Sonatina"--in one section crossing his left hand effortlessly over his right in passage after passage.

In the second half of the program, Roberto Limon introduced the much gentler presence of the classic guitar, opening with portions of the canonic "Variations and Fugue on 'La Folia'"--said in its entirety to be the Bible of the guitar--composed by Ponce for the late Andres Segovia, who brought the modern classical guitar to the world's concert stage. Interestingly, though he published all 20 variations, Segovia never recorded them all. While I recognized a few of these (I was familiar with the repertoire of the classic guitar, having been with my colleague, the late Vaughan Aandahl, one of the co-founders of the Guitar Society of Colorado in the late 1950s), I was not as moved by Limon's performance here as by his sensitive interpretations of the more textured and nuanced "Three Pieces for solo guitar", written by Carlos Chavez in 1923, and which move expressively beyond the more didactic character of Ponce's variations. Again, interestingly, though composed by Chavez for the undisputed master of the classic guitar, Segovia never performed these three fine pieces.

Moving to the contemporary era, the Post-Classical Ensemble presented "Three Secular Dances" for cello and piano (1994), by Mario Lavista (born 1943), whom Luke introduced as "Mexico's greatest living composer"; the performance excelled in fulfilling Lavista's goal of "bringing new sounds from old instruments." Next was the exquisite "Serenata" by Ana Lara (born 1954). Sitting in dramatic symmetry in a semicircle with two halves--an array of winds on the right--piccolo and flute progressing inward to oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French Horn--and strings on the left--violins to viola, cello, and bass, the ten members of the ensemble presented a breathtaking range of shimmering timbres and tonal colors in six "sonic vignettes" (to use Horowitz' words) emerging, each after the other, from a backdrop of silence.

The program concluded with the often raucous masterpiece "Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca" (1936), by Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), in an eloquent performance by the Post-Classical Ensemble, including a haunting off-stage trumpet solo in the second movement--an expression of pure pathos, and as Luke observed, the piece played at the funeral of Revueltas after his tragic death at the age of 40. Revueltas has been the composer most performed by the Ensemble since its debut in 2003, having been founded by Horowitz and Gil-Ordonez. The group has been a tireless champion of this much neglected figure, and last night's rendition, evoking (again in Horwitz' words) "the screeching clarinets and booming tubas" of the village bands in Revueltas' childhood, captured perfectly the tensions between the surging, exhilarating hopes and dark, ultimate tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, one of whose greatest martyrs was the poet to whom Revueltas dedicated this unique and important work.

The evening's memorable performance demonstrated with incontrovertible eloquence that there is much of great value and richness to be discovered in the centuries of the musics of Mexico. For me, personally, it was a splendid extension of the revelations begun in Washington with the aforementioned Chavez-Revueltas week last March, and an inspiration to take full advantage of next year's meeting in Mexico City of the Society for Ethnomusicology. I would hope that in its deliberations, its panels and papers and concerts, the Society affords adequate recognition to the myriad musical achievements of our magnificent Southern neighbor.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Flashback to Middletown: the 2008 SEM conference.

The 2008 annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology concluded a week ago yesterday, and after my three initial blogging entries, I decided to give myself (and you) a break from my coverage. I spent the remainder of the conference sitting in panels on a wide range of subjects and attending concerts, gathering ideas for future postings, and renewing old friendships in the field as well as making new acquaintances.

The conference included several generations of participants--from graduate students giving their first "scholarly" paper to longer-standing members of the Society whose ages run into the 80s. (One highlight of the conference for me was an extended conversation with one of my mentors, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, who is about to celebrate his 81st birthday--more on this amazing man in a later post.) Last year's SEM conference in Columbus, Ohio, was the first I'd attended in 19 years, and I was delighted again this year to discover new and interesting developments in the field, among the mutltitude of avenues of research being pursued in the field during the last 20 years.

I first attended an SEM conference in New Orleans in 1966, freshly returned from two years of study of sitar and Urdu in India, and I continued to be active, attending conferences and periodically presenting papers during my academic period, ending in 1986, when I joined Voice of America as Chief of the Urdu Service, and turned my attention to journalism rather than teaching and research. My last contribution was 1988, in organizing a panel on "Public Sector Ethnomusicology," and presenting in that session a paper on "World Music at VOA." My colleagues in that panel were all employed by entities other than colleges and universities, and we felt we were breaking somewhat new ground in urging that the practice of ethnomusicology be extended beyond the halls of academe into a pro-active role that could extend beyond research to presentation, and even to advocacy.

Over the years, while continuing to examine the music of various cultures, the Society had begun to put the field itself under scrutiny, along with a critical examination of the ethics and responsibilities of the ethnomusicologist's work. An interesting example of this approach was evident in a highly controversial paper with the intriguing title (including the inevitable dual phrases separated by a colon), "Being Sneaky in the Field: The Ethics of Recording Surreptitiously." The discussion following the paper was spirited, to say the least, with a general consensus emerging that the culture being studied deserves to be respected, with complete trust essential on both sides regarding the process of documentation.

Morover, the field of ethnomusicology has expanded to explore and analyze that which is literally right at one's front door--one of the most fascinating papers being presented by Bill Boyer of New York University: "Spectacle and Performance in the New York City Subway System." He analyzed three aspects of his own experience in the subway: the observation and subsequent interviews of individuals listening to music on personal devices such as the i-Pod; a brief description of a woman discussing the sounds of the subway (the clackety-clack of the wheels, or the chimes of the closing doors) with her two sons; and an encounter with a performer on the Chinese bowed string instrument, the erhu, along with a recording of another erhu.

The paper led me to reflect on my own experiences of overhearing music being listened to (on headphones that failed to mask the sound) by fellow passengers on the Washington Metro, or the various musicians (Peruvian or Chinese, for example) I had encountered at the head of Metro escalators. Finally, it brought to mind a fascinating article on subway music written earlier this year by the Washington Post's Gene Weingarten.

Weingarten, ordinarily the humor columnist on the last page of the Post's Sunday Magazine, described the experiment of violinist Josh Bell, a world-class professional musician who played his Stradivarius violin in the Metro, to study the reactions of passersby. What is most striking about the April 8, 2007 article, which won the author the Pulitzer Prize, is that the superb music being performed by a leading violinist on a priceless instrument drew only the most cursory attention from most of those who heard it. Click here for the full article, along with a brief video of this unusual scene.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Let's get lost: Music on the New York airwaves

One of the recurrent themes at this year's conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (subject of my last few entries) was the importance of technology's role in the world of music today, as stated in numerous papers, the splendid Seeger lecture by Bob Garfias, and even the President's Roundtable.

To be sure, technological advancements were more than apparent in the various events at the conference, as well, of course, as technological impediments, which over the years of attending lectures and conferences I've come to refer to as "Projector Council Moments", from my school days more than fifty years ago, when some aspect of audio-video technology confounds the presenter, and an expert has to be called. (I was very proud in those days to be one of those "experts", and even now, as a member of the audience, I have to stifle the impulse to rush heroically up to the podium to attempt to assist when such a crisis occurs . . . .) There were more than a few of these at Wesleyan, given the diverse nature of computer hardware and software, as well as the varied technical capabilities of the presenters. But then, technical challenges have always faced speakers on musical subjects, earlier with tape or cassette recorders, slide projectors, and even simple microphones.

But I digress. In any case, it was on the return drive home that I was perhaps most grateful for technology, and at that, a technology that has been with us for more than a century.

My vehicle's radio has an automatic search function, and at some point driving down Interstate 95 toward the George Washington Bridge, I came across a station playing a most intriguing fusion of some form of traditional world music with wildly gyrating jazz.

This was one of those "Radio Music Moments" that I experience occasionally when I simply HAD to know what this music was, and who was playing. (Do others share this same compulsion?) As my auditory consciousness overrode my navigational priorities, I suddenly found myself in totally unfamiliar territory, proceeding south (according to the compass in my vehicle--the only clue to where I was) on Interstate 295, apparently in one of the New York boroughs, but still, most fortunately, in full range of the FM radio station, which had in the interim identified itself as WKCR, and the program was "New Music."

As the broadcast (which had begun at 3:00 that afternoon and was to run until 6:00) progressed, for once in my life I was grateful 1) to be lost, and 2) to begin to be stuck in traffic, as the Friday afternoon wore on and the weekend flow of vehicles thickened and slowed. The guest was Adam Rudolph--whose name I had heard over the years, but whose music I had never experienced. As details of his life emerged--high school days in Hyde Park in Chicago (where I had attended graduate school) I began to wonder whether he was related to (indeed the son of?) Professors Lloyd and Suzanne Rudolph, who so far as I could remember had a son about the age of Adam. The program host skilfully integrated musical examples into his interview, and as I listened and the minutes passed, I realized that this in-depth examination of the work of a single musician (and a "world music" practitioner at that) was most welcome--in contrast to the necessary limitations of the papers I had been listening to for the past five days, where the presenters had 20 minutes or so to cover the full range of their subject, including music or video clips.

It was an odd experience to savor--simultaneously--both geographical and musical disorientation. I am not familiar enough with jazz to understand conceptually much of the music that was being played. But being to some extent "lost", both as to where I was, and what I was hearing, was nothing short of exhilarating--with the various New York skylines shifting continuously on my right as I drove south, and sensing in my gut the strange magnetism of that city of infinite possibilities.

I have since learned that WKCR is of course a college operation, affiliated with Columbia University. What other than a university radio station would be able to avoid the commercial imperatives, as well as the shortening attention span of today's audience, in order to devote three hours to a single subject? Nor did the modest but most accomplished host inject his own name into the flow of conversation, or even the station IDs; a subsequent telephone call to the station was necessary to learn that his name is Ben Young.

It was a fitting experiential coda to the geographically static conference experiences for me to have no choice but to listen to the music and ideas of Adam Rudolph as I drove, drove, drove through the afternoon.

Of Adam Rudolph, WKCR, and music media in general, more later.

And as for the subject line of this entry, it refers to the splendid film on the life of the late jazz genius Chet Baker, "Let's Get Lost", one of the great musical film biographies of all time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Digesting a global musical buffet: update on SEM 2008

After four days (this being the fifth) of musical feasting (please indulge me in continuing my original motif), or even gorging, given the multiplicity of formal menus (panels, films, roundtables, business meetings, concerts--see the Society's Web page for the program) and hallway/roadside snacks--a veritable flow of planned or chance encounters, in panels or at their doorways, or in the lobby of the University’s Usdan Center or one of the hotels, or along the numerous walkways of Wesleyan's imaginative campus (a large greensward with both traditional and the austere concrete-block buildings of the Center for the Arts) with more than I can count of the some 1900 registrants here in Middletown.

It became clear after my last post that, given the richness of the conference's offerings, it would be unrealistic to attempt a running account, even daily, of my experiences here, if I wanted to take the maximum advantage of the opportunities for pursuing new musical subjects, and for making connections with as many old and new colleagues as possible. Following my last entry, I began four more commentaries in an attempt to remain current, begun in panels, or between panels in the Usdan lobby, which remain incomplete due simply to constraints of time or to chance meetings with someone passing the table where I was writing.

What seems now most practical is for me to make this last entry from the conference, with a few concluding observations, and then to return during the coming weeks and months to what I will have brought back from these five dense days and four vibrant nights (two with concerts ending after midnight).

As noted before, I am returning to the field after almost two decades, and I find that its scope has continued to expand in ways that I could not have imagined--to some extent because of developments in technology. For me--particularly in connection with my work as VOA Ethnomusicologist, and on this blog--the challenge will be to try to reconcile the often abstruse analytical approaches of the field (with its constantly evolving jargon and paradigms) to the study of the world's musics, with the clear presentation to the Internet audience of the astonishing range of these musics, enabling them to share my own exhilarating experiences of discovery.

At the moment I am sitting in a panel entitled "Contesting Genre in Indonesia and the World Stage" in the Crowell Concert Hall, the conference's second largest venue. There are several hundred seats, and perhaps 30 members of the audience. The panel began at 8:30 on the last day of the conference (always a risky time, when many people have already departed, or are departing), which also turns out to be a day of pouring rain. Having had the good fortune to visit Indonesia in 1965, I have always loved the music of the Javanes gamelan--in fact I played in the Wesleyan gamelan for two months in 1966--finding it perhaps the closest thing I know to the concept of "the music of the spheres." But what drew me to the panel was the opening paper, "Dangdut Is the Best: Popular Music, Genre Ideology and the Middle Class," by Jeremy Wallach of Bowling Green State University in Kentucky. I had first learned of this genre--by far the most popular form of music in Indonesia--from Norm Goodman, the Chief of the Indonesian Service at the Voice of America, in connection with a planned television feature on the Pittsburgh Dangdut Cowboys, a group consisting entirely of Americans of European Ancestry. Having pursued non-western music myself as a performer (in my case classical South Asian sitar), I was fascinated with discovering the motives of a group of non-Indonesian musicians to form such a group. What I hope in approaching this genre (and in collaborating with my VOA colleagues in covering it) is to combine the illuminating perspectives of ethnomusicology (while minimizing its jargon and paradigms) with the responsibilities of a journalist who brings to the audience a clear and easily understood portrait of the subject. But all that when I return to Washington.

So I will sign off now (having been multitasking, listening with one ear to the paper and watching with one eye the visual presentations), and listen to 'Scaling an Ocean of Sound': Worlding Music in Yogyakarta", by Rene Lysloff from the University of California at Riverside. His paper is taking me back to my own luminous two-week stay in that marvelous city forty years ago--a subject to which I will return anon.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Second course: Modernization, Identity, Media, and the Music of Iran and the Caucasus

Moving from the huge auditorium for the YouTube panel, I'm sitting in one of the small, intimate rehearsal halls in the World Music Center, listening to a paper presented by Piruz Partow of the Brooklyn Music School on Shirin-Nawazi, or "sweet playing" on the Iranian tar and setar in particular. The paper is of particular interest to me as a performer of Indian classical music, because it contrasts two very different approaches to the interpretation of the Persian radif--the more orthodox observation of the conventions and conceptions of this austere corpus of modes and motifs, vs. a freer, literally "sweeter" style that gives more scope to improvisation and personal interpretation. Since one of the central transitional figures of his paper is Muhammad Raza Lotfi, a master of the tar and sehtar with whom my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I had the good fortune to collaborate in the rehearsal for a planned Millennial Rumi program at Washington's Kennedy Center which, ultimately, never took place.

Yet the experience of working with Agha-e-Lotfi (with honorific title), and listening endlessly to his recordings, has radically changed my own style of playing the Indian sitar, to incorporate a significantly different right and left hand approach, as well as new developmental sequences, while continuing to play classical Indian ragas. I hope to have a sitting with him with my own sitar at some some time in the future, having learned that he will be returning shortly to New York

And so it develops that a scholarly paper leads me into an intensely personal meditation on performance, and on my own style reflecting some aspects of Persian technique and improvisation, and I take some small comfort in considering that my own playing of classical Hindustani music may represent an Indian equivalent of shirin-navazi, which while often used formerly as a derogatory term in Persian music for those who are considered by the orthodox as insufficiently trained or in practice, is now used, in a way parallel to "cool jazz" (vs. the orthodoxy of "bebop") in a kind of celebration of a calmer personal creativity . . . .

The next presentation is "'Flowers of Persian Song and Music,' The Golha Radio Programs" by Jane Lewisohn of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She discusses a series of radio programs from 1954 to 1976 created by a high-ranking pre-Revolution Iranian government official. The programs contained declaimed recitations interspersed with music, along with discussions of the meaning of the poetry. I remember being enchanted by recordings of these superbly produced features when I was teaching at Harvard, embroiled as I was in the teaching of both Urdu poetry and Indian classical music--with music and ghazal poetry having a very close connection, both in concept, ethos, and presentation to and reception by an audience. Given the challenges to twentieth century South Asian Society in maintaining the dynamism of classical music, with All India Radio making major contributions, the analogous efforts in Iran provide a very interesting parallel, adding the dimension of poetry--with the survival of full-spectrum Urdu (as opposed to the Hindustani amalgam of the Indian films), particularly in India, currently being at some risk.

In both cases, radio played an important role in exposing to audiences in the millions to the classical traditions of music and poetry. Following the previous panel on YouTube, one wonders whether the Internet might assume a similar responsibility in the current century.

An embarrassment of riches at SEM 2008: which culture to examine this morning?

Good morning. My dilemma is this: Which of at least four different panels should I try to attend:

1) YouTube: The Sites and Sounds of Viral Video
2) Music from Turkey in the Diaspora
3: Islam and Music in Indonesia I
4) What Makes it National? Popular Music and National Movements in the Middle East and Central Asia

These are only four of the eleven concurrent panels, but I think their topics may be of interest to my audience, as well as directly to me, with my own involvment in music of the Islamic world (an area addressed by three of the four panels . . . )

Because this is an academic conference, and the ideas in the papers presented (or the oral presentations made from notes) have not yet been published, I hesitate to go into much detail on these particular presentations without getting the permission of the authors. So let this just be a quick glimpse of a few items in the first course menu in the morning musical feast (8:30-10:00 am), with more details to come as I obtain the appropriate authorial clearances

But let me just end with my exhilaration at viewing the presentation of the final paper in the YouTube panel--with demonstrations of a few of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of videos of contemporary "viral" dance videos--those having millions of hits--that are an extraordinary demonstration of the dynamism and boundless energy of the global youth culture! Even better than my morning caffeine. . . .

Friday, October 24, 2008

The "global village" comes to ethnomusicology: the 2008 SEM meeting

This is my first entry during this year's meeting of the Society of Ethnomusicology, an international organization whose annual conference is being held this year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut--which has one of the longest running programs in the U.S. dedicated to the study of what is now more popularly called "world music" (see the link in the lower left hand of this page for a definition of ethnomusicology). But as we shall see in the course of this conference, the approach of ethnomusicology may be applied to an analysis of such western-based and contemporary phenomena as YouTube, as well as to traditional music systems from around the world.

At the moment, I am sitting in the Center for the Arts Cinema at Wesleyan, using the University's wireless Internet network to access blogspot.com, while an array of 12 international scholars are discussing at the moment the success of a new venture for the Society--an active scholarly exchange with colleagues overseas with the aid of the Internet.

It was in this very location that earlier today three interactive two-hour video conferences were held with China/Taiwan, Indonesia, and Africa, with the Wesleyan-based panel of scholars alternating with colleagues in those countries reading papers, and conducting discussions which included the audience here in the Cinema; in addition, anyone anywhere in the world who could access the appropriate Website could thereby contribute questions to the panelists, and view and hear their responses.

In fact, as I just now discovered, in proofreading the published version of this blog to make certain all the links are operable, TONIGHT's Plenary Session is also being streamed live--and visible to anyone anywhere on earth with the necessary computer hardware and software!. Ah, the global village of ethnomusicology!

During the next four days, I will, when time permits, bring you some of the details of this extraordinary experience, with participants in as many as eleven simultaneous panels examining a vast range of topics dealing with both historical and contemporary musics from every corner of the world. To see a preliminary listing of the panels and the papers being presented, go to The Society's Web page for the program, where you can download a pdf file with all the details confirmed as of 3 September 2008.

At the moment, a scholar from China is commenting (in Chinese, with a subsequent English translation) on her excitement this morning about having a first-hand visual exposure to research projects being conducted by colleagues in countries beyond China and North America.

And now, at THIS moment (since I am typing as the discussion continues), an ethnomusicologist from Indonesia--speaking in Bahasa, again followed by English translation--is sharing similar sentiments about how technology is bringing all of us who study world music closer together, in a new (21st century) incarnation of the oral tradition.

And finally, in his closing remarks on this evening's "plenary session", Professor Mark Slobin of Wesleyan is describing today's event as what he calls "an experience of cosmopolitanism", and while the experience is currently exclusive--in that it is limited to those who currently have access to computers and the Internet--he hopes that such an approach will result in "a rainbow effect" in opening up a system of cross-communication for ethnomusicology.

I'll return again tomorrow for further observations.

More to come.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Global Rhythm Magazine to go exclusively on line

Today's mail brought the sobering news that Global Rhythm Magazine, which has been publishing the leading U.S.-based monthly periodical on world music since 1992, will become an exclusively online publication, due, in their words, "to astronomical cost increases and our desire to reach a broader audience" with the goal of taking "the world's leading global music and culture publication completely digital."  

This development is not unusual in the "hard copy" publishing world, with leading newspapers feeling the losses of sales and circulation with the expansion of the Internet, and "niche publications" such as Global Rhythm, feeling the crunch as well.  Yet as I have myself discovered--as an old duffer who likes nothing better than to caress the newsprint of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Village Voice with my musician's fingers as I browse the latest news--there is a certain efficiency in reading the news on line.  

It was in connection with trying to keep abreast of music stories in the first two newspapers cited above for this blog--when "hard copies" were not always to be found in the office--that I began to go to the Web pages of the Times and the Post (mercifully, I have my own subscription to the beloved Village Voice--which has kept me abreast of cutting-edge musical developments for the past 35 years).  So, most reluctantly, when I arrived at the office in the morning, rather than scrounging (often unsuccessfully) for the previous day's Times or Post, I began to go on line to the NYT and WP Websites, and what I lost in the tactile sensation of caressing the pages of those wonderful newspapers, I found in the ease of searching out stories--not only in the daily paper, but in past issues which I might have missed.  In most cases I resisted the temptation to print out the stories--accustomed to reading from paper as I am--and simply tried to absorb in a purely mental process the stories that interested me, and then bookmarked them for future reference.

Well, it's a shade before two o'clock in the morning here in Washington, and here I am celebrating--yes, celebrating--Global Rhythm's courageous decision to commit itself entirely to the new digital media format--at the same time as mourning losing the pleasure of leafing through it's sumptuously glossy pages, with their constant revelations of musical talents that were yet to be discovered:  not only the music features, and reviews, and advertisements of oh-so-rich an expanding field of musicians of every imaginable category, but--dammit, yes--recipes from some of the countries and cultures profiled:  a wonderfully visionary expansion of the sensuous joys of food as well as music, and proof positive of the experience I have had with so many musicians (at least those from South Asia and the Middle East), who value superb cuisine as in indispensable part of their own musical experience of life.

I don't think my friends at Global Rhythm would appreciate a call from me at this hour, but I will be contacting them in the following days to find out more about their new plans, and look forward to sharing these ideas with you.  In the meantime, do go to their Website, www.globalrhythm.com, to begin to experience their rich and unique coverage of the various musics--and related cultures--of the world.

And please join me in wishing my old friend Alecia J. Cohen (Founder, Associate Publisher) and my newer friend, Tad Hendrickson (Editor-in-Chief), as well as Steve Bernstein (President, Publisher, whose acquaintance I've not had the pleasure of making) the best of good fortune in the new direction of their unique publication.   

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Classical music in Pakistan

Earlier this year, an e-mail from Pakistan brought the sad news of the death at the early age of 59 of Adam Nayyar, described in an announcement from UCLA Professor Emerita Hiromi Lorraine Sakata as "Pakistan's foremost cultural anthropologiest, ethnomusicologist, and cultural interlocutor."

While I only met Adam once, I'm using this occasion to begin the first of a series of entries on the classical music of Pakistan, spurred by the e-mail, mentioned above, from a musical colleague I had not met, Riaz Ahmed Barni, who is associated with an interesting Website, www.sadarang.com, which is devoted to traditional South Asian classical music as performed in Pakistan.

My first full awareness of the state of traditional music in Pakistan was given to me by the late Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (1912-84), a major figure in Pakistani film music who also dedicated a good part of his later life to championing the cause of classical music in Pakistan. Facing the dilemma of what to call this music, he originated the unique yet comprehensive phrase "Ahang-e-Khusravi", or the "the music of Khusrau", referring to the thirteenth-century polymath Amir Khusrau, who is mythically credited with the origination of the sitar, the tabla, qavvali music, and Urdu poetry, among other important cultural expressions.

As Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (hereafter used with the honorific "Sahib") explained to me when we first met in 1976, the music could not be called "Indian music" for obvious political reasons, nor could it be properly named "Pakistani music", because Pakistan had been in existence only since 1947--whereas the origins of the music, as currently practiced, date back to medieval times. His dilemma was complicated by the fact that most Pakistanis, simply associating the music with historical connections with Hinduism, were unaware of the enormous contributions that Muslim musicians had made to the development of this music over the centuries.

In order to work for the continued patronage and recogniction of this music, Khwaja Sahib established the Classical Music Research Cell in collaboration with the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84), arguably the greatest post-Independence Urdu poet. Together they established a library and archive which still exists in the offices of Radio Pakistan. But perhaps most significantly, they released through the recording company, EMI Pakistan, two important series of long-playing discs. The first, "Ragamala" ["garland of ragas"], presented the melodic structure of a hundred ragas along with brief performances in khayal style (the dominant form of South Asian classical vocal music) by Pakistan's leading vocalists. The second, "Gharanon ki Gayaki ["the vocal music of the historical traditions"], presented 80 of these ragas in more extended (10 minute) renditions by the same major vocalists.

Both series--featuring the incomparable melodic accompaniment on the sarangi and rhythmic accompaniment on the tabla by Pakistan's leading masters of these instruments--were subsequently released on cassette, but are now unfortunately out of print. Yet these recordings present the best and most comprehensive anthology of khayal performances by Pakistani Ustads (masters) in existence.

YouTube includes a number of videos (see the various installments of "Khurshid Anwar Raag Mala Interview") of Khwaja Sahib speaking to his countrymen about Ahang-e-Khusravi, with the back of this writer's prematurely balding head appearing as his one-person audience in some of the footage.

Khwaja Sahib was not alone in working for the survival of this tradition in Pakistan. The late Hayat Ahmad Khan (1921-2005), who founded the All Pakistan Music conference (in which my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I had the honor to perform a number of times), devoted his life to the cause. Raza Kazim, a prominent Pakistani attorney, founded the Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts in Lahore, which includes a music division devoted both to the documentation of musical performances and an exploration of the philosophical and aesthetic motives of music.

But to return to Adam Nayyar. At the time of his death, as noted in obituaries in Dawn and The News, he was Executive Director of the Pakistan National Council on the Arts, and he had previously Director of Lok Virsa, The National Institute for Folk and Traditional Heritage. In his passing, Pakistan has lost a great scholar, and an important cultural emissary.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Across the Great Divide: Cambodian-American musical links

In coming entries, I will continue to highlight some of the groups with multinational features (i.e., "world music" ensembles) who are currently performing in the U.S., and some of whom have been featured on the Voice of America--see the previous note on China-returned Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet.

Earlier this year, a VOA English radio program by described the evolution of a California-based band, Dengue Fever, that added a Cambodian dimension to its performances through the participation of Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimol, whom members of the group discovered singing in a Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach, California. The group's repertoire includes songs with both English and Cambodian lyrics, brief samples of which can be heard in the feature, along with interviews of members of the group, including Ms. Nimol.

Further samples of the group's music in full rendition can be found at on their MySpace page.

One of the songs to be heard there, "Singing Hands", has not only lyrics that are entirely Cambodian, but a singing style that reflects current popular trends in that country and throughout South and Southeast Asia. While the instrumental idiom remains within the realm of traditional rock, with guitars and drum set, some of the songs, such as Sri Bong, have an emphasis on modal structures reminiscent of traditional Asian music, with fewer harmonic changes than are customary in western rock styles.

In terms of intercultural communication, one of the songs, Tiger Phone Card, presents an exceptionally witty musical dialogue between a man in New York and a woman in Pnom Penh who are trying to manage a relationship while being on opposite sides of the globe, and in virtually opposite time zones. Some sample lines which combine New Age elements with the traditional trials of separated lovers: "It's 4 a.m. I check my e-mail"; "You only call me when you're drunk; I can tell it from your voice."

Moving directly to Cambodia, the VOA Khmer Service (who has had Ms. Nimol twice on their call-in shows) earlier this aired a radio feature on Bosba Panh, a phenomenal 11-year old singer whose idiom is essentially western in its instrumental presentation, and the lyrics are primarily Cambodian--though she does include even Bob Dylan songs in her repertoire!

charming write-up on her by a fan, with pictures and links to several of her YouTube videos, can be found on www.angkorthom.us, a fascinating Website dedicated to the interests of the Cambodian community in the U.S. Her success is evident in her family-run firm, La Compagnie BosbaPANH, which in its diversity and energy is in some ways reminiscent of the early stages of the Jacksons in the U.S.

In the middle of last year in another radio feature, the Khmer Service showcased Kong Nay, a blind singer (echoing the tradition of American blues masters who are sight-deprived) who was then performing in the annual Folk Life Festival sponsored every July on the Washington Mall by the Smithsonian Institution. On the same page can be heard examples of various traditional Cambodian performances (as opposed to popular music in the western style).

More information on traditional Cambodian music can be found at a Website from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which hosts a department of ethnomusicology, a constantly growing field within the global academic community.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Abigail Washburn, continued. . . . .

As they say, technical difficulties are delaying the posting of the audio of my fascinating interview with Abigail Washburn the afternoon before her superb concert with the Sparrow Quartet. So as to keep the continuity, I'm pleased to be able refer you to two previous fine programs by VOA music reporters: the first features an interview done by Catherine Cole in January, 2006, and the second in a piece by Katharine Gypson and Dana Demange--scroll down to the third item in the story to hear some of Abigail's music. Of course, you can also go to her Website, or Facebook page, where you can hear samples of some of her music.

Once again, more to come . . . .

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck: the banjo

When my wife and I had returned from a performing visit to the Peoples' Republic of China last October, the new VOA Beijing Bureau Chief, Stephanie Ho, brought me a recording of American folksinger Abigail Washburn, who had included a song in Mandarin, inspired by a poem by Meng Jiao (751-814 AD) on the album. It was refreshing to hear her style of playing the five-string banjo--an instrument I'd played at a semi-professional level in college, and while noting the Chinese connection, I set the CD aside, after being very pleased with the delicacy and sensitivity of her playing.

Now, it will be my good fortune to hear Ms. Washburn performing tomorrow night at the splendid Strathmore Auditorium (where the subject of my last post, the National Heritage Fellows concert, was held) with her ensemble, the Sparrow Quartet, which includes Bela Fleck, perhaps the pre-eminent performer of the five-string banjo. I'll be meeting the group tomorrow before the performance, and hope to be able to report on that meeting here.

As a preview to my coverage of that concert, I'd like to focus for a moment to the banjo--the instrument, which has its origins in Africa, is a mainstay of American folk music, with several distinct styles. Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the banjo is its metallic sound, created by the reverberations of a skin head stretched over a metal frame in the fashion of a drum.

The greatest living American folksinger, Pete Seeger (mentioned in a previous blog on censorship and music) brought the five-string banjo to the fore of the folk music revival in the 1950's and 1960s, and the great tradition of American bluegrass music features the distinctive three-finger style of picking the five-string banjo pioneered by Earl Scruggs.

Abigail Washburn plays in a gentle style which often identified as "clawhammer", but which I knew as "frailing," which essentially involves a downward strumming of the strings alternated with a striking by the thumb on the drone string. (For an interesting technical discussion of the differences, see a Web entry by Donald Zepp.) Bela Fleck, on the other hand, plays in a highly complicated plucking style--derived from but going far beyond the distinctive Scruggs technique--that over the course of his career has defined new possibilities of musical expression for the banjo.

As heard on the Sparrow Quartet's debut CD, the blend between Abigail's banjo playing and that of Bela Fleck is exquisite, with their plucking and strumming supplemented by the rich, deep-voiced bowing of Ben Sollee's cello, and the higher but equally captivating bowings of Casey Driessen's five-string bluegrass fiddle (violin). The creativity of this unique ensemble creates a very effective innovative fusion between folk music and chamber music (of which the string quartet is the fundamental ensemble.) The Sparrow Quartet itself reflects the sorts of diversification and blending of genres that is occurring frequently in the musical world, and I'll be writing further on this group, with a particular emphasis on their recent experiences in China, which they toured during the period of the Olympics.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Washington Songlines: American National Treasures: The National Heritage Fellows

Tonight was the 26th annual celebration of the the National Heritage Fellows, who as individuals represent an astonishingly broad and vital range of traditional artists and artisans in many genres, and who currently practice their skills in the geographical confines of the continental United States.

The musical genres represented this year included: rivetingly precise Korean-America choreographed drumming, and mystically hypnotic Ethiopian-American liturgical chant and drumming; Brazilian-American martial arts disguised strategically (for purposes of self-defense in the old times of slavery) as singing, instrumental music, and dancing; engagingly foot-tapping bluegrass string-band and vocal music (with the original honoree--as sometimes happens in these ceremonies--being too ill to be present personally); Native American a capella hymn singing (from a choir from the Oneida Nation), and warrior chanting and drumming (by a venerable elder from the Nez Perce Nation); and last but not least, New Orleans jazz--the last in a moving testimony to the human courage shown by those who not only survived Hurricane Katrina, but who (swallowing their pain and putting behind them their profound losses) fought back to transform their suffering into brave joy, with music as their life-raft and beacon.

The evening's "concert"--which also included, among other non-musical disciplines, presentations by practitioners of saddle-making, quilting, and traditional Peruvian miniaturist dioramas (with plaster-of-paris and flour mixture animal and human figures, brilliantly colored)--was sufficiently rich in musical resonance that I will make several future entries on each of the individual recipients and their arts and mastery. Let tonight's midnight musings suffice with a personal account of my own discovery of how this unique, but only too modest, annual occasion celebrates America's "national treasures."

When I first came to Washington in 1986 to join VOA as the Chief of the Urdu Service (having found the folkloric tradition as one of my avenues of discovery of the communicative powers of music), I attended my first National Heritage Awards celebration in Washington. The splendid narrator for the evening was the late Charles Kurault, host of the incomparable "CBS Sunday Morning" television show, which more than any other news program before or since quietly but eloquently celebrated the diversity, humanity, and vitality of the American heartland. I remember that evening with crystalline clarity (having moved after 26 years of university study and teaching to broadcast journalism) as carrying a spiritual message that inspired me, in my new and exciting career, to explore culture as a medium of understanding universal values among humankind.

And tonight, 22 years later, I am most fortunate to have the opportunity not only to witness again a few examples of individual and group genius--representing the many cultural currents, the myriad artistic motives and achievements, of the American "melting pot"--but to share the richness of tonight's celebration with my fellow citizens of the world, via this new and wondrous medium of the Internet. . . .

As we used to say in radio, "stay tuned" for more discoveries.

How crazy are the Chinese Olympic "Fou" drums?

Yesterday I received an e-mail notice that a fellow member of the Society for Ethnomusicology had been appointed the new editor of the Society's journal, and upon reading the note about his area of specialization, I was happy to see that it was China. I called him to ask him what he knew about the fou drums that--all 2008 of them--had been so impressive in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. (See my 2 September blog entry) His response was that, as far as he had been able to pursue, the claimed lineage of the instrument was somewhat suspect. I told him of my interest in trying to pursue the subject further through our VOA colleagues in Beijing, and he said he would be glad to collaborate. So stay tuned for further information on the fou ("crazy" in French--as indeed they are seeming to turn out to be) drums of the Beijing Olympics. . . .

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Censorship and music

In late June the Washington Post carried a story (picked up by numerous other publications) regarding a Sudanese singer/songwriter who is attempting to sow the seeds of peace through his music. Abazar Hamid has a constant struggle with government censors to approve the recording of his songs, with his goal being "using music to transform a country so often at war with itself." The on-line article, which includes a video clip of his performance, speaks of his spending time with the "Hakama" singers, women whose songs have lyrics exhorting the Arab militias, or "Janjaweed", to war, and trying to pursuade them to sing such songs of his as "Peace Darfur."

As noted in the previous post, musical censorship, official or unofficial, has occurred widely at various times in world history. America's greatest living folk singer, Pete Seeger, had enjoyed widespread success in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a soloist and member of hugely popular group The Weavers. However, after appearing in 1955 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy in his singular search (now widely acknowledged as a "witch-hunt") for suspected communists, Seeger was subsequently cited for contempt of Congress, and his broadcast appearances in particular were severely curtailed, not through official government restrictions, but by self-censorship by the networks, in an era when many artists, including ten Hollywood writers in particular, were blacklisted. Even as late as 1967, a scheduled September television performance of Seeger's song against the Viet Nam war, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," was cancelled by the network, though after pressure from various quarters advocating freedom of speech, Seeger did perform it on the Smothers' Brothers show in January 1968.

Government censorship of religious music in particular was policy in the Soviet Union prior to its final collapse in 1991. Last December VOA's Adam Phillips produced a fine report on immigrant Christmas music in New York City, giving examples of holiday music that had been long suppressed during the Soviet Era.

Currently, in Pakistan, as noted in a 2007 State Department Report, "throughout the reporting period, Islamic extremists attacked shops in the NWFP [Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] which sold local and foreign music and video cassettes. Shop owners were warned prior to attacks to stop selling items considered to be un-Islamic". And during the summer, the BBC reported bombings of video and CD stalls. Yet in spite of the repeated attacks, music continues to be an important cultural expression of the dominant Pashtun culture in these areas, as a search of YouTube will verify. In fact, the contradictions and tensions between orthodox Islamic values and the widespread popularity of music in most of the greater Muslim world provide a fascinating inquiry into the interactions therein between cultural and religious values.

In short, throughout history, music somehow has a way of prevailing in most cases over attempts to suppress it, given its unique ability to express the vitality and hopes of the human spirit.

Degenerate music? Once banned pieces played in California

The power of music to move people has been recognized by governments at various points in world history, when certain songs, or even whole genres of music, have been banned. The performance of classical music was forbidden in China during the Great Revolution. For a fascinating account of the return of classical music to China in the present era, see the recent New Yorker article by Alex Ross. (On a personal note, it was gratifying to read about the return to prominence of Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music, where my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I had the honor to perform in October 2007. . . . ) And the music of certain composers was banned in Nazi Germany, in many cases because these composers were Jewish.

VOA's Lonny Shavelson reports on a concert in California, featuring the music of composers whom the Nazis considered "degenerate": Erwin Schulhoff and Kurt Weill. Other composers the Nazis found objectionable are today major figures in Twentieth Century classical music: Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler--the continuing prominence of whose work comfirms that great music can survive repression and ultimately transcend all political restrictions.

(In this connection, I'm posting next a piece on censorship and music I wrote for the internal VOA Interweb earlier this summer.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The theft of music

Last night, after a gap of several months, I spoke via telephone with a close friend from the music business, the founder of a major world music label (whose name I am not using for purposes of his privacy and that of his company).  Back in the eighties, beginning with modest releases of music on cassettes, he established his fledgling business, which eventually grew to have a catalog of some one hundred CDs featuring traditional music from all the major continents of the world.

My friend was lamenting the lack of ethics in the American communication industry at large. He mentioned three instances in which, merely during the last three months, he had recognized musical excerpts from CDs his company had released which had been used without permission--and hence without payment. The first was in the background music for a highly popular, prime time major network crime drama; the second was in the soundtrack for a feature film which was set in a third world country; and the third instance of piracy was in a song included on a thematic compilation CD released by a major American periodical, and which most certainly had enjoyed widespread sales.

These infractions were troubling in themselves because they resulted in the failure of appropriate licensing fees to be paid to the company.  But in the case of this particular music label, it has always been company policy to pass a portion of the income from royalties and licensing on to the musicians themselves--or in cases where the musicians were deceased, to the heirs.  In some cases where there is widespread distribution of the material, these fees can amount to thousands of dollars--a very significant amount to the needy families of poor musicians on other countries.  

My friend said that these were only the most recent examples of the theft of his company's copyrighted material, and that it was frustrating and time-consuming to have to continue to seek payment from the violators of the law. But unfortunately such actions are all too common, even in the U.S., where intellectual property laws are observed much more closely than in many parts of the world.

Which leads us to remember that musicians must usually make their living from music, and that unauthorized copying of their material deprives them of a source of livelihood which they richly deserve, given their years of dedication to the development of their art.

Friday, September 5, 2008

All the pretty little horses, and labor songs

Well, the Republican Convention is over, and I must resume the normal routines of my life (in this case, going to exercise at the gym at 5:00 in the morning), despite little sleep last night.

I awakened before four o'clock, with a new song, yet another earworm, again a lullaby (see previous entry) burrowing gently through my brain, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to lure me back at least briefly to slumber:

Hush-a bye
Don't you cry
Go to sleepy little baby

When you wake
You will have
And all the pretty little horses

(Oddly, in my first recollection, the above line drifted up as "when you wake, you will have cake . . . ."--an interesting illustration of the process of mutation in the lyrics of folk songs.)

I first heard this in a college concert, perhaps 1961, sung by Pete Seeger, with a banjo accompaniment of exquisite, almost unbearable innocence and simplicity; as I could recall no such renditions from my own childhood (though I must ask my siblings if there were any in our family), this song settled into my mind as the quintessential gentle lullaby--full of comfort and the wonders of discovery:

Brown and bay
Dapple and gray
Coach and six a-little horses

This was the second time I had heard Seeger singing live, the earlier being when I had slipped away in high school (perhaps 1959) to what I now recall to be a union meeting--though logic suggests that this was more likely a public program with some union connection (perhaps sponsorship, possibly in a high school auditorium). I imagined that my father, a manufacturer and staunch Republican, would not have been happy at my excursion into the most Democratic of venues--though this was most likely a fantasy of rebellion. In any case, it was then that I became aware of the power of song to mobilize strong, even passionate political feelings, and to bring groups together in pursuit of a common goal (a later example of the political power of music was of course "We shall overcome," the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.) As he still does so beautifully even now, in his upper eighties, Seeger, with his signature powers of captivation, engaged the audience in singing along.

Last Monday being Labor Day--an American holiday established in 1894 to observe the dignity of hard work, particularly manual and factory labor--I was thinking of writing here about the genre of labor songs, many of which I sang in my college days as a "folkie", or folk musician. There are many sub-groups of labor songs, but perhaps the ones which spoke most powerfully to me were the songs of protest at the conditions that miners have had to endure over the ages. Perhaps my favorite (since at the time I was planning to be a geophysicist) was "The Ballad of Springhill", a song composed by the great Scots folksinger Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger (Pete Seeger's half-sister) which began

In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia
Down in the dark of the Cumberland Mine
There's blood on the coal and the miners lie
In the roads that never saw sun nor sky

And ended:

Eight long days and some were rescued
Leaving the dead to lie alone.
Through all their lives they dug their grave
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.

The song, based on an actual tragedy, describes the miners' hard lot, and the failure of the company to provide safe conditions for the workers, resulting in a number of deaths.

It is worth noting that the evocative power of the first song perhaps contributed to the title of Cormac McCarthy's Novel, All the Pretty Horses; and we are reminded of the title poem of Richard Brautigan's collection, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster.

Worker and union songs played an important role throughout the history of the labor movement in the U.S., and were a central to the repertoire of many of the singers in the folk revival mentioned in my previous posting, though the folksingers themselves may well have been raised in middle class families with no first-hand experience of the worker's struggles portrayed in the songs.

Interestingly, there seem to be no significant instances of management songs . . . .

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Politics, lullabies, and earworms

It has been interesting watching the Democratic and Republican conventions to observe, albeit as a sideline, the use of music to enhance the various messages being delivered, and to create drama, and to mobilize the energies of the participants. A topic worthy of discussion.

But somehow, after watching part of Wednesday night's installment of the Republican event--with its emphases from various perspectives on the family and children of Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate--I have found myself possessed today by what is sometimes called an earworm, which in my case was a lullaby, with simple but haunting lyrics, that I haven't been able get out of my mind since this morning:

Hush little baby, and don't you cry
For you know your daddy's born to die
All my troubles soon be over

was the first stanza as I sang it decades ago, accompanying myself on the guitar or banjo, and adjusting the gender (usually sung from a woman's point of view) to suit my own.

We'll be discussing folk music more in the future, but this genre underwent a major revival in the mid twentieth century, launched on a major scale by legends such as Pete Seeger and the Weavers in the 1950's, and carried on by such artists as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez in the early 1960's. I learned the version I sang from several recordings, especially one by a now forgotten singer named Cynthia Gooding; the nature of folk music was that it was not "owned" commercially in the sense of popular music, but was passed along and modified by individual practitioners, with no concern for copyright or royalties.

I am still puzzled why this song came back to me after so many years forgotten. Perhaps it was because imbedded in the current political rhetoric are certain stark realities and contrasts:

If religion were a thing that money could buy
All the rich would live and the poor would die
All my troubles soon be over.

In the timeless lyrics: religion, wealth and poverty, death--the stuff of life and politics . . . .

As I tried to remember other verses, this came to mind:

Jordan River is deep and wide
Milk and honey on the other side
All my troubles soon be over.

Upon checking the Wikipedia entry on the song, identified in the original as a Bahaman spiritual popularized by Joan Baez, I found her Jordan River lyrics to be:

The river of Jordan is muddy and cold
Well it chills the body but not the soul.
All my trials Lord soon be over.

I have no idea whether the earlier version is what I actually sang decades ago, or whether it has been reshaped subconsciously in my mind by the current currents in the political arena of hope for the future.

But whatever the reasons for the change wrought by my own thoughts (then or now), the song somehow speaks to something deep within me, speaks of human spirit and struggle, perhaps not coincidentally in the form of a lullaby, a song sung, usually by a mother, to comfort her young child. And it continues still to play like a stuck record (something lost in the digital era), a stubborn soundtrack, in the bedrock of my brain, along with the question--which subject we will address as well in future discussions--of why the lullaby is a virtually universal expression of love and comfort.

And perhaps in this case, as a preparation for the hard realities of adult life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

More music at the Beijing Olympics: The Fou Drums

It was with considerable anticipation that I sat down to watch the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Having recently visited Beijing in October 2007, and having felt at that time the palpable energy in the air as the city geared up for the event, I was reasonably certain that television viewers around the world were in for a spectacle. And I was not disappointed.

An array of 2008 drummers, performing upon a modified percussion instrument based on the ancient Chinese drum known as the fou, opened the ceremony. Etymologically speaking, the fou was originally used as a vessel for storage, often of liquids. As to how it came to be used musically, one Chinese site,
blog.chinesesession.com, whimsically notes ( after giving an account of practical functions of the venerable fou), "Then how did the Fou become a music instrument? Very simple. When you are drinking high and you want to sing, what will you do? Grab anything you can reach and make beat."

According to the authoritative Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the fou is an "ancient Percussion
idiophone . . . [which] appears to have been a large earthenware bowl, struck (on the rim) to make a sound." The article notes that "there is some suggestion that fou could be tuned and used in sets, and during the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) sets were made from bronze and contained water." Ironically, the entry concludes that the fou "appear to be in disuse in China." In terms of the pre-Olympic rarity of the fou, it is interesting to note that, as of today, the only reference to--but not appearance of--the fou in the Google Images search engine is in connection with the Beijing opening ceremony.

The 2008 fou drummers at the Olympics would seem to belie that observation from the 1984 Grove edition. Obviously the instruments used in the ceremony were very much Twenty-First Century, made of membranes which would withstand the fierce striking of the drumsticks, and including illuminating devices under the membranes that would provide a literally electrifying visual component to what must have been on site the deafening thunder of the drums themselves. I'll attempt in a future entry to trace the process of the introduction of the nouveau fou (I can't resist noting that "fou" in French means "crazy") drums into the contemporary setting of the Olympics. Suffice it for the moment to remember the Dionysian origins of the drums noted above.

As for the stunning effect of the 2008 drummers playing in tandem, past empires have used drums, sometimes gargantuan in size, at the forefront of their armies to herald the oncoming force, and it would be difficult to imagine a demonstration with more impact--both auditory and visual--than that of the massed fou drummers, moving together with extraordinary precision typical, in its imaginative choreography and stunning discipline, of the entire opening extravaganza, truly Olympian in scope and scale, while still Chinese in color and spirit.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

08.28.08 - An auspicious day for an overture?

After all the excitement of the 2008 Olympics, commencing in Beijing on
08.08.08, and at a similarly numbered evening hour (8:08), I'm launching this new forum a score (musical pun intended) of days later, hoping to take advantage of various numerological elements to speed us on our exploration of the wonders and mysteries of music. As there are eight basic notes in both Western music and Indian music (the latter my specialty), we have at least two solo 8's, and a third in compound (28), in today's date--I hope this marks an auspicious beginning of discussions to come. But enough for now of numbers.

Harking back to the Olympics, there have been numerous fascinating musical aspects of this global celebration to discuss, beginning with the spectacular opening ceremony and 2008 drummers playing in astonishingly precise synchronisation on the allegedly ancient fou drum (of which more later); the performance of the fetching young singer,
nine-year-old Lin Miaoke, who was subsequently discovered, as VOA reported, to be "lip-synching" her great anthem for the world to the haunting voice of another girl, seven-year-old Yang Peiui, who was perceived by Chinese officials to have "a chubby face and crooked teeth";.and finally, the widely published accusation that the renditions of the individual national anthems, as played by the Olympic musical ensemble at the presentation of each Gold Medal, were plagiarized from the distinctive orchestral arrangements of an American musician, Peter Breiner, and recorded (and hence widely available) on a major international CD label, Naxos. While I'll not attempt today a more extensive blog post today on these subjects, I will close with the first of many general questions pertaining to music that I hope to pose, and discuss with others in this space--the journalistic whats, wheres, whens, hows, and whys:

Why does every nation have a national anthem? How, and when and where, did the genre originate; and what is its significance?

More to come. . . .