Wednesday, September 29, 2010

VOA Rap-Style on the new YouTube VOAWorldMusic channel

When the VOA Creole Service began its regularly scheduled broadcasts in February 1986, the audience in Haiti, and other Caribbean countries, quickly became aware of the mission of the Voice of America: To broadcast accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news and information to an international audience.

A few months later Jean Lyonel Desmarattes, a well-known Haitian journalist, playwright and artist, joined the Service. Over the years, he has developed a unique and novel way to bring news and information to the audience.

His performance, which presents VOA's mission in rap style in English, Spanish, and Creole, is from the 6 May 2009 celebration of VOA's annual Diversity Day. You can see the video of his performance by clicking here for the new VOAWorldMusic channel on YouTube.

Click here to see the YouTube video of Steve Frank's fine performance of his original song, "The Immigrants," from this year's Diversity Day celebrations at the Voice of America.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

America's "Living National Treasures": The National Heritage Fellows

Each year the National Endowment for the Arts selects a number of traditional artists and artisans in many genres, who, whatever their national origin, currently practice their skills as residents of the United States. They represent the many cultural currents, and the myriad artistic motives and achievements, embodying both individual and group genius, of the American "melting pot." Last Friday night at Strathmore was the 28th annual celebration of this year's National Heritage Fellows:

(To enlarge, click on the photo.) In the back row from left to right are: NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts Barry Bergey; Bharatanatyam Indian dancer Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan, fiddler Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor, bluegrass guitarist and singer Del McCoury, Irish flute player Mike Rafferty, and NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman. In the front row, from left to right, are: lauhala (palm leaf) weaver Gladys Kukana Grace, folklorist and editor Judith McCulloh, sweetgrass basketweaver Mary Jackson, and Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy. (Afro-Cuban drummer and drum-builder Ezequiel Torres is not pictured.) The above photograph was taken by Michael G. Stewart (and used with permission from the NEA) at a ceremony at the Library of Congress on 22 September 2010.

As noted, the musical genres represented this year included Ghanaian and Afro-Cuban drumming (Afro-Cuban drummer and drum builder Ezequiel Torres does not appear in the picture), bluegrass music; and the Irish flute. The music of South India (also known as the Carnatic tradition), moreover, is the idiom of Bharatanatyam dance.

I very much regretted being unable to attend this year's Strathmore "concert" (I was in Denver for the fiftieth reunion of my high school class--of which more later), for the event has always been for me a high point of of the cultural year. I had attended my first National Heritage Awards celebration when I had come 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. The splendid narrator for the evening was the late Charles Kuralt, 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.

Since 1999, the Strathmore program has been ably hosted by the eminent folklorist Nick Spitzer, whose weekly program, American Routes, is heard throughout the U.S. on more than 200 public radio stations. (See a future posting on this fine series.)

This year, thanks to the medium of the internet, the 2010 program was streamed live on the Web and is due to be archived, and we are now able not only to access audio or video samples of performances by the musicians and dancer, but the audio and text of interviews with them (click on their names below), as well as with the other award recipients:

Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor, fiddler from Rockwall, Texas. At the Library of Congress Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman gave this citation: “A master of the intricate and ornamented style of fiddling known as the Texas style, Jim Chancellor could fill a trophy case with the local, state, and world championships he has won. He is a patient and skilled teacher of a new generation of fiddle artists across the country, but one who will remain always a sincere student of the tradition he loves.”

Del McCoury, bluegrass guitarist and singer from Nashville, Tennessee (feature podcast here, and MP3 feature for download here.) Landesman's citation: “Del McCoury is a distinctive singer whose penetrating vocals epitomize bluegrass standards of tradition and excellence. He is an innovator who has adapted the work of contemporary songwriters to reach new and broader audiences.”

Mike Rafferty, Irish flute player from Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey (feature podcast here, and MP3 feature for download here.) In the words of NEA Chairman Landesman, “Mike Rafferty is a master of the Irish flute who learned from family and friends in a small village in East Galway. He is an artist who brought his musical excellence to his new home in Hasbrouck Heights and has increased our appreciation of Irish music throughout the United States.”

Yacub Addy, Ghanaian drum master from Latham, New York. (Click here for an article on the music of Ghana.) In Landesman's words, “A master of the traditional Ga music, Yacub Addy is a generous mentor of aspiring drummers as well as a collaborator with jazz and popular musicians, who has created new works that speak to issues of social and cultural relevance today.”

Ezequiel Torres, Afro-Cuban drummer and drum builder from Miami, Florida. (Click here for an article on Cuban music.)

And finally, Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan, Bharatanatyam Indian dancer from Mastic, New York. Landesman's citation: “Narayanan is a master of south Indian classical dance whose name is synonymous with the art form. She is both a performer who has danced before queens, prime ministers, and presidents and a teacher who has trained students for the past three decades.”

I'll update this site as further possible podcasts and the archived video of the event become available. Last year's Strathmore program was featured on the 23 December 2009 edition of American Routes, and can be heard here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Khwaja Khurshid Anwar and music in Pakistan

Readers may notice a new picture of me on this blog, as well as a slightly modified layout, and therein lies the "hook" of this blog. Here is the story:

Earlier this year I was visited by Rabiah Khajah, granddaughter of the late Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, one of the towering figures in Pakistan's musical history (photo at right). She came to my VOA office with her husband, Salman Gauhar, and we shared many reminiscences of her grandfather. As it turned out, Salman took the picture you now see on my profile. But in any case, that attribution gives me the occasion to share some of my own memories of my first meetings with Khwaja Sahib ("sahib" being the honorific title in Urdu equivalent to the English "Mr.," only somewhat more respectful.)

In 1976, when I was teaching Urdu at Harvard, I spent the summer in Lahore (the cultural center of Pakistan), as Language Teaching Coordinator for the Berkeley Urdu Program in Pakistan. In connection with my work there, I met for the first time the late Saeed Malik, one of Pakistan's leading authorities on the traditional classical music of that country, with numerous newspaper articles and at least three books on the subject to his credit.

When Saeed learned of my longstanding interest in that music (it had in fact been music that led me to Urdu, but that is another story), he said that it was essential that I meet Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, who, as he explained, had been a major figure in composing some of Pakistan's most popular film music. Khwaja Sahib, he said, was now devoting most of his energies to documenting, preserving, and championing the traditional classical music that had been performed in Pakistan since the birth of the country in 1947, in what is usually referred to as Independence, or Partition, when India also became a separate independent state.

In our first meeting, Khwaja Sahib explained the center of his dilemma: the classical music of Pakistan--previously called Hindustani music ("Hindustan" being the historic Urdu name for the Indian subcontinent)--could not now 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. As a solution, 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.

At the end of our first meeting, Khwaja Sahib invited me to come again the following Sunday morning. I arrived as planned, only to find an array of television cameras and tangles of cords and cables in his living room, and it soon became clear that a national television program was scheduled, with Khwaja Sahib addressing all of Pakistan. I tried to excuse myself, seeing that he was busy, but he insisted not only that I remain, but that that he wanted to be speaking directly, in person, to me--a westerner who had studied and practiced the music of the area--to emphasize that this music was of international interest.

Portions of the resulting program are available on YouTube in installments as the "Khurshid Anwar Raag Mala Interview," with Khwaja Sahib speaking to his countrymen about the historic contributions of Muslims to their classical music tradition, and this writer, back to the camera (and complete with prematurely balding head) appearing periodically in some of the footage. The photo at left was taken at that session. . . .

In our earlier conversation, Khwaja Sahib had explained that his task of championing Ahang-e-Khusravi 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 fact, as he emphasized in his television address to the nation, most of the leading gharanas (historical traditions, usually associated with a specific princely state in what was then British India), were established and propagated by generations of Muslim musicians, and that it was the cultural responsibility of Pakistanis to honor and continue the efforts of their Muslim predecessors.

In addition to this nationwide broadcast, Khwaja Sahib had already begun earlier to work for the continued patronage and recognition of this music. He had alaready established the Classical Music Research Cell in Lahore 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 Hindustani 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 in the traditional fashion--now rarely heard--on the sarangi (a box fiddle whose sound is the closest instrumental approximation I have heard to the human voice) 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, maestros) in existence.

After returning to Lahore in the 1997 and 1998, and impressed as I was with the quality of both these extraordinary series, I made two concentrated efforts, with the blessings of the late Salim Bukhari (the head of EMI Pakistan) to offer both series to EMI India--then the leading producer of long-playing records in that country. I tried to make the case that Khwaja Sahib had done in recordings what the late Indian musicologist V. N. Bhatkhande (1860-1936) had done in written notation: the classification of the major ragas into ten modal categories, a system which Khwaja Sahib himself followed in his recorded documentation.

Unfortunately, neither of these attempts succeeded. But as noted in my posting earlier this month on how the Internet has facilitated the widespread availability of an enormous range of music from around the world, I am very happy to note that the entire Ragamala Series is available on the Website, complete with the elegant commentary spoken by Khwaja Sahib himself, as a preface to each raga, in his incomparably rich and smoky voice.

Additional material on Khwaja Sahib is available on subsections of, created by one Dr. Surjit Singh, who describes himself as a "diehard movie fan(atic), period," and who sounds quite colorful; his home page (like all his pages, perennially "under construction") is prefaced with "This page should really be called Surjit Singh's Ego corner. I just blab on and brag about things I have accomplished. Enter at your own risk." But there is, in fact, much there of interest:

many audio and video clips of Khwaja Sahib's beloved film songs,
a documentary film from 1984,
and a miscellany of articles and tributes.

Finally, to return to the beginning of this entry, Khwaja Sahib's daughter, Rabiah, has established a Facebook group in his honor.

Thank you, Salman, for my new picture, and you, Rabiah, for the two photos of Khwaja Sahib. And a particular thanks to Khwaja Sahib himself, for all his rich contributions to our world of music.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ye Olde Record Shoppe: New York 1

With the advent of the Internet and the option of digital downloads and online CD purchases, the world of music has seen a significant change in the physical landscape of music sales, particularly where record shops--retail on-the-street establishments specializing exclusively in the sale of pre-recorded discs--are concerned. It has probably been two or three years since I last purchased a recording in a store here in Washington; since the closing of Tower Records (the Wikipedia article on the chain has the caveat "This article's factual accuracy is disputed") here in Washington in 2006, I have used the Internet as the avenue for all my U.S. purchases of new CDs, as well as out-of-print items--for which I have used eBay. Accordingly, I had assumed that the number of U.S. stores specializings in the U.S. had been drastically reduced.

Still, the lost world of actual record shops came flooding into my memory this morning as I was cleaning out my files while I am parked in my temporary office, and came across a folder of old business cards, including one for the Gryphon Record Shop, an establishment on the upper west side of New York City that I used to patronize frequently in the 80's and 90's in search of old and rare items.

Upon calling the number on the card, I was pleased to find that the store still exists, now under the name Westsider Records. Click here for their Website, whose photographs (two included here with permission) filled me with nostalgia for the old days when it was possible to walk into a store, browse at length through the extensive stock, and perhaps buy some joyfully discovered treasure. The store--managed under several owners (most often in combination with the Gryphon Bookshop on Broadway, now also Westsider Books) by Raymond Donnell, a man of great musical knowledge who died in 2008--continues to stock a vast selection of out-of-print long-playing records, as well as more recent CDs. (For those coming of age in the era of the digital CD, or Compact Disc, analog records in the 12" 33 1/3 rpm long-playing format pressed on vinyl were the dominant medium for serious music from the mid-50s into the 90's, and are still considered by most audiophiles to be of superior quality in the "warmth" and "presence" of their sound.)

Another card in the bundle announced the opening of G&A Rare Records, also on 72nd Street: "Gary Allabach, former manager of Gryphon Records and Jerry Gladstein, anounce the opening of an unusual shop for the purchase and sale of LP vinyl records--collections from 10 to 100,000 wanted." A call to the number on the card produced an out-of-service announcement, and a Google search led to a New York Daily News article noting that Allabach, "whose knowledge of records was encyclopedic," died in 1998. Discovering the demise of this store further reinforced my impression of the recent decline of record stores.

I again turned to Google to search to determine the number and diversity of actual record shops in New York City, to test my impression that times have been hard on the retail store. One of the first sites that I found was a 1997 entry on the Website of the Archive for Contemporary Music, (of which more in a subsequent post) which lists dozens of local New York record outlets, often combined with the sale of other products, particularly books. (When you open the Web page, the print is nearly illegible with black type on a dark purple background; but all you need to do to read it easily is highlight the entire page, and it appears as black on a lighter blue.) The witty and erudite annotations are obviously made by ARCMusic's colorful founder, Bob George:

"Horrible pressings, terrific music." "Where does he get his stuff? All the CDs, used or new, are (re)shrinkwrapped. This place has a slightly sleazy feel, albeit homey and harmless." "An odds-bodkin World section that can easily sprout something great for under $6." His listings are certainly comprehensive. For Chinatown: "Stores too numerous to mention. Walk through the ever-expanding Chinatown. . . . (slowly evolving into Thai-Town), jam-packed with video and CD/cassette stores that carry lots of teen Canto-pop with the occasional political Cui Jian or metallic-lite Tang Dynasty album. Gone are the days of Revolutionary People's Opera 102 records."

While George lists 135 record outlets (again, not all exclusively devoted to music sales), a presumably up-to-date listing on broken down into "Music Megastores and Music Store Chains (15); Music Stores (49); Specialty Music Stores (Jazz, Classical, Ethnic) (24); Jazz/Blues/Reggae/Country (1); LP's and Vinyl Records (20); and Websites (4)"--for a total of 113 stores, with many overlaps with George's list 13 years earlier.

In any case, it seems clear that, at least in New York City, the record shop is not an endangered species. I don't have the time to confirm that all the listings in Citidex are current, but the prospects are extensive enough to re-awaken my decades-old itch to collect . . . .

But more of that in later entries.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

And imagine a world without music . . . .

For some time, I've had it in the back of my mind to write about Walter Van Tilberg Clark's chilling story, "The Portable Phonograph," published in 1942 and set some time in the future.

But before proceeding there, let us briefly review the dizzying range of technologies by which music has been recorded, played, and heard (to use the late astronomer Carl Sagan's memorable catch words) "billions and billions" of times in the last 150 years up to the present: through the broadcast media of radio and television, and the Internet (see my last posting); on wax cylinders; on gramophone records (10- and 12-inch 78 rpm, and 7-inch 45 rpm, and 10- and 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm, as well as a wide range of less common sizes and speeds); on magnetic wire and reel-to-reel tape recordings of various materials, sizes, and speeds; on 8-track tapes and "compact cassettes" and micro-cassettes; on digital audio tapes (DAT); on compact discs (CDs), minidiscs, and digital video discs (DVDs); and now on compact flash cards of unprecedented capacity (i.e., hours of continuous recording on an electronic "card" the size of a thumbnail).

But from a tiny flash card which can contain whole symphonies, let us consider a world in which virtually all the technologies mentioned have been lost, a world in which only a small portable wind-up phonograph is left to commemorate the miracle of centuries of music throughout the world.

I read Clark's tale more than once in my youth, though I don't remember which years. But the dark, stark scene captured in that story has haunted me over the decades, even now as a scenario to contemplate, from the rich musical realms of the present, with both gratitude and dread.

* * * * * * *

After three paragraphs describing a chilly, desolate post-apocalyptic world, Clark writes: "Around the smoldering peat four men were seated cross-legged." The ragged quartet's host, an old man, was re-wrapping, "like a prehistoric priest performing a fateful ceremonial ritual," four books--the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy--and he is thanked by one of his companions for his reading from Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Sensing some further expectation, the host said, grudgingly: "You wish to hear the phonograph."

The youngest of the group responded "anxiously, between suppressed coughs, 'Oh, please,' like an excited child." Slowly, painfully, the old man retrieved a small portable phonograph from its hiding place back in his "cell," carved above a frozen creek "like the mouth of a mine tunnel."

After carefully opening the case containing the phonograph, the old man said: “'I have been using thorns as needles. . . . But tonight, because we have a musician among us'—he bent his head to the young man, almost invisible in the shadow—'I will use a steel needle. There are only three left.'”

A brief discussion ensued as to which to use--the thorns or the needle--but the old man selected one of the three remaining metal needles, saying that he would only play one record: “'In the long run we will remember more that way.'

"He had a dozen records with luxuriant gold and red seals. Even in that light the others could see that the threads of the records were becoming worn. Slowly he read out the titles, and the tremendous, dead names of the composers and the artists and the orchestras. The three worked upon the names in their minds, carefully. It was difficult to select from such a wealth what they would at once most like to remember."

After some discussion, it was decided to play a nocturne by Claude Debussy--the young musician's choice.

"At the first notes of the piano the listeners were startled. They stared at each other. Even the musician lifted his head in amazement, but then quickly bowed it again, strainingly, as if he were suffering from a pain he might not be able to endure."

The four men listened, motionless.

"The wet, blue-green notes tinkled forth from the old machine. . . The individual, delectable presences swept into a sudden tide of unbearably beautiful dissonance, and then continued fully the swelling and ebbing of that tide, the dissonant inpourings, and the resolutions, and the diminishments, and the little, quiet wavelets of interlude lapping between. . . In all the men except the musician, there occurred rapid sequences of tragically heightened recollection. He heard nothing but what was there."

The story ends with the group disbanding, agreeing to meet in a week to listen to another record. The host carefully replaced his treasures--the books, the phonograph, and the records--in their hiding place, a hole in the back of his cell, covered by a board and then raw earth until nothing unusual was visible. Aware of the inestimable value of what he has hidden, the old man lay down to sleep facing the entrance of his cell:

"On the inside of the bed, next to the wall, he could feel with his hand, the comfortable piece of lead pipe."

Let us treasure all the music that we now have . . . . .

All the music in the world . . .

Listening to music reproduced by mechanical and/or electronic means has increasingly become a fundamental aspect of the human experience over the of the last century. Today, most of us take that experience for granted.

A recent VOA news story highlights the release of Apple's latest iPod:

"Fans cheered as Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs unveiled the company's redesigned iPod music players in San Francisco, California, the smallest one just slightly bigger than a person's thumb."

Of course I have my own iPod and iPhone, both of which allow me to have access at any time to hundreds of hours of whatever music I have chosen. And I have my laptop, with its own vast iTunes library of many different types of music.

Music, it seems, now has not only infinite portability, but an unprecedented accessibility from myriad sources on the Internet. An earlier posting here features an interview with Tim Westergren, founder of the leading on-line "radio" station, Pandora. And a Google search of "online radio stations" brings up an astonishing 6,620,000 hits!

YouTube in particular offers possibilities of virtually unlimited availability of western popular music, (as well as potentially infinite options for the propagation of various genres of music from around the world.) Of all the hundreds --thousands?--of popular music songs on the internal playlist of my life, there is only one that I have been unable to locate on YouTube: "Got No One" by (as far as I can recall--the 45 rpm disc is long misplaced) The Delgados. In the years following my life as a teenager until today, Sanford Clark's "The Fool" from 1956 has always been my secret "here's one I bet you don't remember!" item of musical trivia. Yet that rarely heard and marvelously innocent proto-Elvis song has multiple entries on YouTube, with the first focusing on a still photograph, of the 10-inch 78 rpm record itself, which morphs dramatically into a video of that very disc spinning on an old-style portable record player (keep that image in mind as you read my next posting . . . . )

And speaking of YouTube: that Website has provided us with the opportunity to create (at no cost whatsoever!) our own new VOAWorldMusic video channel with world-wide accessibility. VOA English Producer Steve Frank's rendition of his fine original song, "The Immigrants," is now online--the first video of several performances to be posted from within the VOA community.

With this enormous universe of online music in mind, I'm moved to consider the alternative in my next posting: a world virtually bereft of music, with echoes of what little remains being treasured almost as much as life itself . . . .

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Following Falu (Falguni Shah), "Sufi rock singer"

Video excerpts of my 2008 interview with singer-songwriter Falu (Falguni Shah) are now posted on the new YouTube VOAWorldMusic channel. It seems worthwhile to note that in the ensuing period since that interview, Falu and her group have performed at a number of prestige venues, including Carnegie Hall and Joe's Pub in New York City (with several performances at each) and the Monterey Jazz Festival in California; she also will be appearing at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York this coming October. Since the interview she has collaborated with such well-known musical figures as Philip Glass, DJ Rekha, Blues Traveler, and perhaps most notably, in two appearances with India's musical giant A. R. Rahman (who won two Oscars, for Best Soundtrack and Best Song, for his participation in the film Slumdog Millionaire) on two occasions, the latter being in November 2009 at the White House for President Obama's first State Dinner as President, given in honor of India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

My interview provided the basis for a fine brief video feature produced by VOA's senior correspondent Ravi Khanna, including a short excerpt of "Copper Can", one of Falu's most compelling songs.

Later in the year I posted more extensive excerpts from my interview (filmed by the ever-capable Ilyas Khan of VOA's Urdu Service) in an extensive report on this blog, which appears below for those interested:

Falu, a.k.a. Falguni Shah, was kind enough to give me a television interview when she was in Washington as the opening act for the Pakistani supergroup Junoon.

I began the interview by asking Falu who her first music teacher was:

In the course of her answer, after crediting her mother for her initial training, she refers to her next teacher, Ustad Sultan Khan. (The term "ustad", on one level, is roughly equivalent to "maestro" among Muslim musicians, and is used on another level to describe one's honored teacher, equivalent to "guru" among Hindu musicians.) She also appends the honorific "Sahib" after his name, again as a sign of respect. You may notice her touching her ear when she says his name--this, too, is a customary indication of humility when speaking of one's ustad or guru, or of some great musical figure of the past. (The gesture is distantly related to the practice in South Asia of having naughty children cross their arms and pull both ears, sometimes while bouncing up and down as though sitting on their heels, as penance for bad behavior. . . .)

Ustad Sultan Khan is one of the world's leading masters of the sarangi, a fiendishly difficult box fiddle with a skin head, four main strings, and up to 40 sympathetic strings, with a haunting sound and expressiveness close to that of the human voice--which accounts for the fact that it historically has been used to accompany classical vocalists, mimicking almost exactly their improvisations after a split second.

Falu next mentions that she studied singing in the purely classical style with Vandana Katti, a disciple (the customary word for lifetime student) of Kishori Amonkar, one of the greatest vocalists in the Hindustani (Northern South Asian) style of classical music. She represents the Jaipur gharana, or musical/hereditary tradition associated with the princely Indian city of Jaipur. (I'll have more to say on the phenomenon of gharana in a later post.)

Next I asked Falu whether she remembered her first lesson, playful or formal:

Demonstrating how she was taught as a baby being fed by her mother, she sings (very quickly) the seven basic notes of the basic musical scale, or sargam, prevalent in South Asia (the same basic musical system exists in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, but in common parlance--and hereafter in this blog--the music is generally referred to as "Indian" music.). The word sargam is formed from the first three of the seven basic notes, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni (Sa), which correspond roughly to the western Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti (Do). Click here for my more detailed description of the Indian sargam.)

She then sings the sargam--in a scale corresponding to the western major scale--shifted up one tone, in a musical process called modulation (key or chord change) in the west, but keeping the same names for the notes, since there is no absolute pitch in Indian music.

Then she changes the scale to that based on another mode or raga, Bhairav, with a flatted second (flat Re/Re) and sixth (flat Dha/La) and the rest of the notes natural. A raga is the format for the basic melodic structure in Indian music; click here for my brief definition of raga.

When I asked her what brought her to the U.S., she replied that while she felt extremely loyal to her classical Indian roots, she was attracted by western music and its various genres: jazz, blues, rock and pop, and the opportunities they offered her for innovation:

Knowing that improvisation is an integral part of Indian classical music, I was curious as to what circumstances led to her writing her first song. Her answer was immediate!

The next logical question was: "What was that first original song?"

Toward the end of her answer, I couldn't suppress a brief off-mike reference to "Both Sides Now", the seminal song by the legendary Joni Mitchell, and she agreed: "Yes, blame the clouds!"

She notes that the song was based on a classical raga, Bairagi Bhairav, a pentatonic (five-tone) raga, with the scale Sa Reb Ma Pa Nib (Sa) (Do Reb Fa Sol Tib (Do)--the "b" indicating the flat interval. In the course of the song, for a brief passage she actually sings the sargam of the scale, with the names of the notes as the words! (If I may be permitted a comment in my capacity of ethnomusicologist: the blending of Indian elements--including the raga--with a western pop sensibility and instrumental idiom in "Hey Baby" is stunningly effective, to the extend that no western listener is likely to hear anything foreign in the song, while at the same time someone familiar with South Asian classical music will most probably recognize immediately, at least subconsciously, the modal structure.)

Finally, I referred to one reviewer's description of her as the happiest singer he had ever heard. Her response:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"The Immigrants" - an original song by VOA's Steve Frank

The attached video of "The Immigrants (click here), an original folk song composed and sung by VOA's Steve Frank, marks the reactivation of this blog, VOAWorldMusic. "The Immigrants" was composed several years ago after Steve observed--from the sidelines--an immigration rally here in Washington. The rally was protesting the idea of a barrier between Mexico and the U.S. After this experience, Steve was moved to compose, in the hours beyond the office, this original song, very much in the tradition of American folk music, which acknowledges the role of immigration in the history of the United States.

By replacing "they" with "we" in the last stanza, the lyrics subtly emphasize the fact that virtually every living American--except those descended from the original Native Americans--has participated in the immigrant heritage.

By day, Steve Frank is the Executive Television Producer for the English Division of the Voice of America. But this year (2010), Steve volunteered his hitherto shadowed singer-songwriter identity to perform his song as the opening offering in VOA's ninth annual Diversity Day Talent Show, which showcased a roster of accomplished artists--musicians, dancers, and actors--selected entirely from VOA's eight Language Divisions. In the coming days this blog will present further video examples of the 2010 Diversity Day performances, to the extent permitted by copyright.

VOA's Diversity Day is sponsored by the Office of Civil Rights of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is VOA's parent agency; the BBG is comprised of all the U.S. civilian international broadcasting entities.

More to come . . . . .

Note: The blogspot platform (which currently hosts VOAWorldMusic) somehow no longer enables significant video content--hence the creation today of the VOAWorldMusic space on YouTube. We will continue to explore further avenues to bring video content to this blog's coverage, on behalf of VOA, of world music.