Monday, July 13, 2009

Martin guitars--an amazing coincidence!

A few minutes ago, just as I was finishing up the blog below, my eyes fell on the silent TV screen (volume turned down while I worked) to see . . . two men discussing guitars, including a Martin! The until-that-point unwatched show flickering in the background was the popular Antiques Roadshow, and by sheer serendipity, one of the items being appraised was nothing less than the subject of the entry below!

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This is the first of a series of posts based on music features from the VOA YouTube channel. One that particularly caught my attention was Susan Logue's fine piece on C. F. Martin and Company, probably the world's best known manufacturer of steel-string acoustic guitars, and the manufacturer of my first guitar, which I obtained as a teenage aspiring guitarist in 1957.

I can still remember not only the feel in my hands of that finely crafted instrument--the top-of-the-line Martin classic guitar, with nylon strings--but also its fragrance: the eternally captivating scent of richly seasoned rosewood. As I look at e-Bay prices for vintage Martin guitars today, I now regret to some extent that I sold that gem after obtaining an equally fine José Ramírez, in the Flamenco style, from Spain as a surprise high school graduation present from my late mother. (But how many unplayed guitars can one keep around a small row house already crowded with recordings and books and a range of Indian musical instruments . . . ?)

At the risk of being repetitive for those who know the instrument, guitars come in two varieties: acoustic and electric. The former, like traditional violins and cellos, are designed to be played without direct electric amplification, and can have either steel or nylon strings. Steel string guitars tend to be used more commonly for popular music and the blues (see my earlier posting on the latter subject), while nylon string guitars are the exclusive vehicle for classical music, and for much of traditional folk music (though steel string guitars are also popular in much of country and "old time" music. Most popular musicians, and a majority of jazz guitarist as well, play the steel string version, usually electrified.

That introduction out of the way, the C. F. Martin and Company has set the standard for American-made acoustic guitars for well over a century. Founded in the early nineteenth century by a German immigrant to New York City, Christian Frederick Martin, it is still the most popular steel-string acoustic guitar among musicians performing in a wide range of genres, with the Gibson brand being a distant second.

Susan Logue's VOA feature gives us an introduction to the company, and the Martin Website is a source for a wealth of information about the wide range of guitars currently being manufactured. The lead item in a quick perusal of eBay moments ago under the citation of "Martin guitars", skewed in order of "highest price first" price, brought up a limited edition D-100 in Brazilian rosewood for a whopping $109,999 (from the eBay merchant WeBuyGuitars), with an additional five instruments with prices over $10,000 available on line!

It goes without saying that the better the instrument, the better a musician will be able to play. To my thinking, the instrument maker shares equal importance with the performer in giving voice to musical ideas. The better the instrument--both in construction (for ease and precision of playing) and in acoustic quality (for superior sound production)--the better the music that can be created. Two breeds I know very well--guitarists and sitarists--tend to be understandably obsessive about the quality of their instruments, with a few makers standing out far above the others, and historical instruments being particularly prized. I'll write at a later time about sitars and sitar-makers.

This is not to say that superior guitars can be obtained only from a manufacturer such as Martin. There is a wide range of custom guitar builders in the U.S.--and around the world--for that matter, who can produce truly outstanding instruments. In the specific category of the nylon-stringed classical guitar, Herman Hauser III stands in a prominent position; according to a page on the Website DreamGuitars, this master produces only 17 instruments a year, with a five-year waiting list. Hauser's grandfather, Hermann Hauser Sr., made the guitar played in his later years by Andrés Segovia, who established the classical guitar as a front-rank concert instrument, and who is arguably still the greatest master of that instrument, which is now widely heard in concert halls around the world. (See Wikipedia for concise articles on the history and construction of the classical guitar.)

The DreamGuitars Website lists a host of other custom guitar builders, with elaborate and detailed descriptions, as well as a range of sumptous photos, of their instruments. A random click on a name I had never heard before turned up a "pre-owned" (i.e., used) 1987 acoustic "Thomas Humphrey Millenium guitar" for the estimable price of $24,495, discounted 10%-- possibly because of the economic downturn!

Browsing the glorious color photos, I'm reminded (allow me a tangent here) of a splendid book I obtained some years ago, La Guitarra Española, which is a catalogue of an amazing exhibition I was fortunate to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1992. The book (following the rare instruments displayed in the museum) traces the origins of the instrument from the middle ages--again, with color photographs depicting instruments of stunning beauty, either in simplicity or elaborate decoration.

By sheer coincidence, having more or less finished this posting, I just glanced up at the silent TV screen to see--AMAZING!--a Martin guitar featured in a segment of the popular series, Antiques Roadshow, on WETA (one of our local PBS television stations)! This being near the end of my workday, I'll cease writing an admittedly somewhat rambling entry to watch the show, and will subsequently post a link if the TV segment is available on the Web.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

VOA reports on Michael Jackson

As promised earlier this month, this blog will now highlight coverage of music and musical events by VOA reporters, and accordingly, below is a rundown of the wide range of Voice of America reports about responses to the death of Michael Jackson on 25 June.

Radio reports of reactions came from around the world:

from Catherine Maddux in Pakistan, where the news of his death saturated television channels and brought a widespread response from a broad range of fans;

from Stephanie Ho in Beijing, who reported on responses throughout East Asia;

from Africa, with Scott Stearns writing about Jackson's rich Legacy in Liberia, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Alisha Ryu reporting from Nairobi, Kenya, on East African responses; and Scott Bobb in Johannesburg giving the perspective from South Africa;

and from Tom Rivers in London, where Jackson had planned his much-anticipated comeback.

In the U.S., Victoria Cavaliere provided New Yorkers' reactions, and Mike O'Sullivan in Los Angeles gave responses from African-Americans in particular, and from a spectrum of fans from all over California. O'Sullivan also reported on the early planning of the memorial service in Los Angeles; the emotion-charged service itself on Tuesday, 7 July (with related video by Chris Simkins); and the aftermath, with fans still coming to Los Angeles from far afield to honor the departed singer.

More general radio reports were provided by Ed Kowalski, who focused on Jackson's broad appeal across racial and cultural boundaries, and by Chris Simkins, who wrote of the widespread shock and outpouring of tributes from around the world following the 50-year-old Jackson's sudden and unexpected death. And on VOA's Hip Hop Connection, host Rod Murray and his guests paid tribute to the music superstar.

And finally, Deborah Block produced a TV feature on Jackson's death, including a tribute spoken by Berry Gordy, Jr., founder of the history-making record label, Motown Records.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Music and Michael Jackson

The media coverage of Michael Jackson's sudden and unexpected death, flooding television, print, and radio outlets in recent days has been, to be brief, at pure saturation level.

There has been so much exposure of every aspect of this unique individual's life (so many, many complex dimensions there . . . . ) and art (and yes, I say art, NOT entertainment), that I am probably not the only one numbed by the extent (on the one hand) of the time spent reporting this angle or that of his personal life, and the corresponding neglect (on the other hand) of what in a broader journalistic perspective might be called more pressing news: developments in the nations inhabited by the rest of the nearly seven billion beings of this world in which we more or less manage to coexist, amidst numerous, often dreadful and horrifying, conflicts. . . . .

These days, sadly, the American media can never be accused of a failure to focus on celebrity, nor on sensationalism, often at the expense of incomparably more urgent matters--just watch BBC news along with any of the American networks. And yet, Michael Jackson's death has been more covered than (if memory serves me correctly) similar past "celebrity" reportage on the unending year-after-year saga of O. J. Simpson, the dead Anna (sorry, tragically, I can't remember her full name)--a celebrity possibly only for celebrity's sake; or similar "breaking news" on those myriad "stars" whose names blaze/blare out from supermarket tabloids while one is waiting quietly in line to buy paper towels, bananas, and milk.

Granted, sometimes the urgency of political news, both sensationalist and sobering, overtakes the usual pablum in the the 24/7 news cycle as in the last week: Sarah Palin, and fresh deaths in Iraq, and ethnic riots in China. . . . . But only for so long.

Still, it seems that half the time now when I turn on the television it is about Michael Jackson--and to return to my Manifesto of May First, I have to ask "why?" Why music?

I got a glimpse last night, in the opening portion of the ABC Evening News, watching a rather extended report on the memorial ceremony in the Staples Center--when I heard only flashes (a visual image, to be sure) of a few seconds of some of his most memorable songs, which nonetheless literally struck me breathless with their musical power.

Having sustained last month the death of the greatest until now still-living Indian musician --Ustad Ali Akbar Khan--whose landmark Angel recording from 1955, and countless performances and recordings since, have transformed me, and whose gracious company and artistry and eloquent humanity in not-enough-time together since my first meeting with him in 1966 immeasurably enriched my life, both personal and musical. . . . .

And, having heard in the dark pall of Ali Akbar's death two days later the news of the passing of Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, a pioneering world-class ethnomusicologist and sometime sitarist who had been a mentor to at least two generations of those of us, both in the East and the West, who have worked the make Indian/Hindustani/Pakistani music more meaningful in the academic and media and public sectors of life outside South Asia. . . .

. . . . I learned one night on the evening news of Michael Jackson's sudden death. I had of course been aware of the ruthless media coverage of so many aspects of his admittedly complex and most probably tragic personal life, and I do have to admit confusion in sorting out the outpourings of genuine grief by literally (as far as I can reckon from media reports), literally millions of individuals around the world, from the merciless gabble gabble news babble about custody, estate, royalty, autopsy (where will it end?) issues that still--I imagine--reverberate hourly on all the television channels that I am not currently watching.

What remains for me, as uttered or murmured in so many of the eloquent "sound bites" of . . . fans (is "fan" too trivializing a word? I prefer the Persian/Urdu word aashiq--lover and follower of an artistic and spiritual ideal)-- well as in the love-and-grief-filled Facebook entries that I peruse as a responsibiity of my most blessed new job:




So many flares--again a visual sinaesthetic phrase--of musical brilliance (light again, not sound) of musical eloquence that I had never really identified directly with him--rather as just part of the richly textured aural landscape of my own plain life, as well as of so many more lives, previously unrealized for me but now so clearly the expression of a unique genius.

An artistry--not mere entertainment ("The Greatest Entertainer of . . . --gawd, what a tacky and limiting word and concept), but a visionary multidemensional musicality I had never before consciously acknowledged, in the midst of the rest of the journalistic hype 'bout Michael over the last decades, until those few glimpses last night in the evening news of his utterly galvanizing, iconic presence in the arts of composition, singing, dancing, drama, pantomime . . . .

I was always puzzled, when I was working with VOA's Urdu Service. why Michael Jackson was the only American musician who consistently received favorable ratings in our surveys in that so mightily challenged country.

And now I look forward to my own, albeit belated, discovery of how, in the midst of all the other complications and excesses and alleged sins and pathos-precipitating behaviors of the individual artist himself, it is his music that still echoes in the soul and heart after his blood has stilled, and it is his music that yet flows in the unfolding of our lives.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bookmark for things to come.

After a period of retooling and reconsiderations, the VOAWM blog is back. There have been a number of exciting developments in recent days, to be noted here in a variety of ways.

Most importantly, the VOAMusic blog, which in the past has focused on the fine work done by my colleagues at VOA, will now be incorporated into the VOAWorldMusic blog in the interests of efficiency and expanded focus.

In addition, shorter posts--with a range of discoveries of interesting Websites as well as news developments--will become regular.

And all of this is in the hope of encouraging greater interaction with the audience--who until now has been reticent to share thoughts or discoveries. So here is my request to anyone who reads this: Please take just a moment to send along whatever musical thoughts or treasures you have, so that we all and celebrate them.

With best wishes,