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, 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,, 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,, 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, 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 . . . .