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,, 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.