Monday, November 28, 2011

Major Dhrupad duet festival in Bhopal

During the previous four days, broadcast live on television througout India and the world, was an unprecedented major festival of Dhrupad music performances featuring jugalbandis (duets), by a wide representation of many of the leading artists of this genre, the most ancient and august form of classical music existing in the north of South Asia. For four consecutive evenings, commencing on Thursday, 24 November, each three-hour live broadcast featured three groups of two or three vocalists accompanied by the pakhawaj--the barrel drum so essential to Dhrupad--not only from all over India, but also including Pakistasn's leading practitioner of the art.

The even was jointly sponsored by Doordarshan, India's original and still prominent television network; and the Dhrupad Sansthan, a traditional residential academy or gurukul (of which more later), established and operated by the Gundecha Brothers, who are possibly the most active performers of Dhrupad on concert stages throughout India and abroad. The event was in many ways a tribute to Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, the seniormost living representative of the distinguished Dagar lineage, which has carried the tradition down through generations, and can safely be credited for bringing the genre of Dhrupad, after a period of relative decline, to world prominence during the latter half of the Twentieth Century

Limited Internet access prevents me from writing further at the moment, but in the coming days I will summarize the various performances and performers, as persuasive evidence that this previously dying art form is undergoing an exciting rejuvenation throughout India, and even in Pakistan.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spike Jones as ethnomusicologist? - 1

As I noted in a previous post, there weren't many opportunities in the middle of the Twentieth Century to hear we now call world music in the mainstream world of musical America. Some recordings of what was then call "ethnic" music could be found in the stores, or heard heard on the radio programs, of non-English language immigrant groups scattered around the country, particularly in large urban centers.

In my own experience growing up in Denver, Colorado in the 1950's, I was aware of Hispanic music playing on at least a couple of local am stations. But as for recordings of songs not North American in origin, I was dependent for international musical exposure on the occasional pop hit such as Eartha Kitt's "Uska Dara", which could legitimately be called "ethnic".

Another such piece from my childhood was the instrumental Skokiaan, which was introduced through American pop radio stations in 1954. Composed by Rhodesian musician August Musarurwa (d. 1968), the song refers, according to Wikipedia, to "an illegal self-made alcoholic beverage typically brewed over one day that may contain a dangerous ingredient, such as methylated spirits." (Such a subject brings to mind the hit song Tequila, by the Champs. which won the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording. . . . Something here about strong drink and music?)

Here is a sample of Musarurwa's 1947 recording with the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band:









(Click here to hear the complete recording.)

This attractive piece was quickly recorded by nearly twenty groups from around the world. I had purchased the 1954 release of Ray Anthony's "Skokiaan" on a 10" 78 rpm recording, and loved the energy and optimism of the solo saxophone's soaring over the band's accompaniment:









And the kid in me also absolutely adored the surprise element at the end of this version:









(You can hear the complete Ray Anthony version here.)

But not long hearing Anthony's Skokian for the firs time, I also discovered a rendition of this piece by master jazz comedian Spike Jones (see my earlier April Fool's Day entry on this amazing musician), and it is here that we return to the subject of today's entry: the explorations by a talented jazz musician, Spike Jones, of subjects outside the mainstream of American music as a source for his own witty creations. Here is the midportion of Jone's version of Skokiaan:









Given the delicacies of political correctness, I should probably keep my comments on this rendition to a minimum. While the Japanese-accented English commentary might be offensive to some, it is important to remember that more than any other Asian country, Japan has wholeheartedly incorporated western musical styles into its own vast repertoire. In college in the early '60's, when I was a fledgling folksinger playing, along with guitar, five-string banjo, and I remember learning to my amazement (and well, yes, envy) that one of banjo godfather Earl Scruggs' main disciples was a young Japanese man. Similarly, Japanese classical composers have produced countless instrumental and choral works in the western (as opposed to the classical Japanese) idiom, just as myriad groups have formed in Japan playing western-style jazz and rock. Suffice it to say here that while not imitating (other than the accent) in this piece, Jones is signaling to the fact that in 1953 western-style jazz was growing and beginning to thrive in Japan, as projected in the form of a hypothetical "cat" (as in "cool cat") named "Skokimoto" who is "the craziest cat we know, he can really make that be-bop flow, he's not a square but really cool", and adding, lest we be in doubt as to his authenticity, "in other words he's really not a schmoe." That is to say, he's the real thing.

In the next blog entry we'll examine two of Spike Jones' pieces that actually make use of non-mainland U.S. musical material, in the form of the "Hawaiian War Chant", and--both from Russia--the "Song of the Volga Boatman" and "Dark Eyes".

* * * * * * *

Just for the record, let me refer here--since I'm speaking of the "internationality" of the pop music of the 1950's in the U.S.--to another major hit song whose origins were from abroad: Volare ("Nel blu dipinto di blu"), by the Italian Domenico Modugno, which not only occupied number one position on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart for two months in August and September 1958, (as well as being Billboard's number-one single for the year), but which also received the Grammy Award in two categories in 1958: Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Sadly, we have no version of this song by the inimitable (and irreplaceable) Spike Jones.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Turkey and the boy: Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Some of the genres we now call world music did in fact exist here and there in America's musical consciousness under the rubric "ethnic" music when I was growing up in the 1950's, but in the mainstream world of musical America there was little of such offerings to be heard either on the radio or in the conventional concert venues.

But for the eleven-year-old that I was in 1953-54, two musical examples stand out that took my thoughts outside the United States: the songs "Istanbul (not Constantinople)" and "Uska Dara."

Before going into the background of the first song, let me just include the opening, from a 78 rpm recording I had by pianist Lou Busch, whose name on the record was Joe "Fingers" Carr (I found that name itself very catchy,) and his orchestra and chorus, which though dominated by a jazz approach, had a drum pattern that was distinctively exotic









To the musically ravenous pre-teen that I was (otherwise accustomed to the homespun stylings of Snooky Lanson, Perry Como, Doris Day, and the like that I heard on the pop AM radio of the time), the spectacularly shrill choral shout--"Istanbul!", followed by the downward cascading trumpet ending in a raunchy blare, was certainly an ear-catcher. Thereafter, the syncopated drumbeat under the melody continued to hold my interest until the chorus came in with its catchy (at least to my then immature mind) lyrics, as well as the chromatic wandering of the clarinet beginning with the lyric "Every gal in Constantinople lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople. . ." that added a vaguely oriental effect:









And to a young lad whose voice had still not changed, there was the irresistible and indisputably "groovy" effect of the very deep basso voice explaining "People just liked it better that way" in response to the chorus' question: "Why they changed it [New Amsterdam to New York] I can't say."

In the ensuing instrumental break, the band pursues an unmistakeably orientalist agenda both in instrumentation (somewhat shrill winds) and main melody--with its minor notes and chords and, in the second round (above the male du-du-du ostinato (repeated pattern), a return of the wandering chromatic clarinet:







And now a bit about the song itself. The lyrics make fun of the fact that the names Constantinople and Istanbul represent the same city in different historical periods, with the former version being founded (on the site of a Greek city previously named Byzantium) by the Roman Emperor Constantine a few hundred years BC, and assuming the name Istanbul. The central joke is "All the girls in Constantinople/live in Istanbul, not Constantinople/so if you've a date in Constantinople/she'll be waiting in Istanbul." Really cool for a kid who'd never had a date in his life. . . . .

Like many popular songs, this one was recorded by numerous artists, initially by the Canadian quartet The Four Lads in August, 1953, and peaked at number 10# on the Billboard Magazine Charts. (See the Wikipedia article for more detailed background, including a chronological list of "cover" versions of the original.)

I have no recollection how or why the Joe "Fingers" Carr record came into my possession (I still have the 10" 78 rpm record somewhere), but upon listening to the Four Lads version on YouTube, I find I much prefer the Carr recording.

Coming up: the most exotic "Uska Dara", by the inimitable and seductive Eartha Kitt.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Poor Wayfaring Stranger in Indonesia

Originally, the composer Jody Diamond was featured in a blog entry which unforuntately was lost, I just discovered, apparently due to a technical mishap. I'll be reconstructing the blog, with an interview with Jody, along witha discussion of Indonesian gamelan music, which is the idiom in which the song is presented, in the near future. For the moment, here is the complete composition featured in our radio program: Jody's setting of the well-known Appalachian song in a composition for gamelan, "In That Bright World."









Here are the lyrics, which begin about 2:45 into the recording.

I'm just a pooor wayfaring stranger
A-trav'llin' through this world of woe
And there's no sickness, no toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go

I'm goin' there to see my father
I'm goin' there no more to roam
I'm just a-goin' over Jordan
I'm just a-goin' over home

I'm goin there to see my mother
She said she'd meet me when I come
I'm just a-goin' over Jordan
I'm just a-goin' over home

I'm goin' there to seek the spirit
Of the song that's in my soul
I'm just a-goin' over Jordan
I'm just a-goin' over home

The recording is on New World Records (no. 80698--their Website is here), and is used with permission of the composer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Steve Reich' discusses "WTC 9/11" on NPR

photo by Wonge Bergmann, used with permission

As noted below, WTC 9/11", composer Steve Reich's original composition commemorating the events surrounding the attack on the World Trade Center ten years ago, was featured on Sunday's Weekend Edition of All Things Considered on NPR. As promised, here is the complete text of the feature, entitled "First Listen: Steve Reich, 'WTC 9/11'', by Anastasia Tsioulcas. As the writer notes, the initials WTC refer not only to the World Trade Center, but also to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach's major set of keyboard compositions, The Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as the conceptual phrase, "Beyond This World", which carries myriad spiritual connotations.

We are also fortunate to have on NPR a recorded narrative by the composer himself on the origins of the piece. (The streamed recording is also accompanied by an excellent article by Anastasia Tsioulcas that I had not seen before summarizing the interview below, but fortunately, there is only moderate duplication.)

Reich explains that the first movement draws from the official audio recordings of the New York City Fire Department and of the city's Air Traffic Controllers, as well as of his friends and neighbors. He says he followed one structural principle throughout--to extend the last syllable of the spoken phrase, and he speaks "of building up these textures of the memories, or the vapor trails of what people had said, and connect them harmonically."

The second movement draws on the spoken words of his friends and neighbors nine years after the event, captured on a digital recorder whose sonic clarity contrasts starkly with the gritty, grainy sounds of the official tapes during the emergency itself.

Regarding the third movement, he recalls reading an article in the paper after 9/11 about a group of women from Stern College, near the Medical Examiner's office at the New York University Hospital, keeping an extraordinary vigil over the bodies--and body parts--of the unidentified victims of 9/11. This vigil, part of the Jewish tradition, is called "shemira", ensures that a dead body not be left alone until it is buried, a practice connected with the belief, as Reich explains, that the soul hovers over the body of the deceased until it makes contact with the earth, at which time the soul is liberated. Since the process of identification could take up to seven months, these women continued going in shifts to observe shemira with the remains, while "not having the faintest idea" of who the dead were, in an act of extraordinary humanity and generosity.

When it came time for Reich to write "WTC 9/11", he recalled this article, and managed to find two of the women who had participated in the vigil, an experience which apparently enhanced the inspiration for the third movement.

In closing, he reflects on the urgency of the topic "that is not just reflecting back on an event which happened, like a pillar that stands by itself, it's just a marker for a bunch of events that preceded it and have continued to happen in an abundant sense."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

09/11/11


Just in the car (simply moving it around the block on a sunny Sunday, in the ultimate mundane exercise on a day like today, a mere mile from the U.S. Capitol . . . ), listening to the Weekend Edition of All Things Considered on NPR, I chanced upon an interview with Steve Reich, a major American composer, who had been asked by David Harrington, leader of the Kronos Quartet (one of America's most unique and dynamic musical ensembles) to compose a special piece in honor of 9/11, after Reich had previously refused invitations from other sources ("but I simply couldn't say no to David . . . )

I'll try to find a link of the entire interview to post when possible.

But in the meantime, I felt fortunate to find the link for "WTC 9/11" itself.

The piece is composed, with the first movement in one of Reich's distinctive styles merging voices from the day itself, or later (sometimes looped or clipperd or elongated) with the strings of the Kronos. A subsequent movement now playing, typically Reichian struck (wood, metal) percussion; then piano The entire piece is available here on line on NPR's Website.

Enough for me to listen now (archived, so it can be streamed later at your convenience, to hear, when spoken words fail--or, on the other hand, overcome--and feelings fall or become too full . . . . )

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pakistan's Take on Brubeck's "Take Five" - Second Take: The Man Behind the Music

(photo used with permission)

In my previous posting, I included excerpts of an interview with Izzat Majeed, who was responsible for the Pakistani version of Dave Brubeck's Take Five (which was recorded by the Sachal Orchestra and became an iTunes Number One hit in the last week of July), about aspects of his founding of Sachal Studios and the recording of the video itself.

In this second portion of the interview, we return to the subject of jazz itself. In addition to his exposure to traditional Hindustani music in his childhood, Majeed spoke of the regular visits, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, of such American "Cultural Ambassadors" as Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington (see my previous posts earlier this month), Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis, among others, who performed in the auditorium of the Nido Hotel (also a residence for government officers) next to his house in Lahore, in on a location where now stands the Avari Hotel:









But up till now, I've said nothing about the circumstances which enabled Izzat Sahib to undertake the construction of the multimillion dollar Sachal Music studios, as well as the Sachal Orchestra project. In the flood of publicity following the release of "Take Five", in articles in such newspapers as Britain's august Guardian and the business publication Blue Chip, which notes in and extensive and illuminating interview that Majeed "is famed for his landmark investments in Pakistan, most notably the purchase of Union Bank which was transformed into one of the top seven banks of the country. After establishing Union Bank as a leading player in Pakistan’s banking sector, Izzat Majeed sold the bank to Standard Chartered." In that article, Majeed, with his typical modesty, attributes much of the success of that venture to his colleague, Shaukat Tarin, Similarly, as noted before, a question about Izzat himself leads back to his father, who was clearly a decisive role model. Speaking of his businessman father's ventures into music, he says:









And while (again modestly) making no claims about his own musical pedigree, nor mentions of eminent teachers with whom he might of studied, he admits that he played a central role in the production and arrangements of many of the Sachal Orchestra recordings, though again, crediting his collaborator, Riaz Hussain:









(One can discover much more about this remarkable man in the aforementioned Blue Chip article, e.g., "As an advisor to leading Saudi entrepreneurs on energy, he gained renown for his honesty, reliability and trustworthiness." Majeed has also shown an indefatigable dedication to furthering the visions of moderate Islam--when I was scheduling my interview with him, he explained that at the time I had requested, he was scheduled to give a public lecture on the subject. And Blue Chip also reveals that Majeed is a poet as well, with his third volume, "Random Prose", has received high acclaim in both Britain and the U.S. (yours truly, an incorrigible bibliophile and occasional poet himself, is already lusting after a copy . . . .) When I asked him about the book, his answer was perhaps the most understated and self-deprecating example of self-promotion I have ever experienced from a writer:









"Allegedly", indeed!

And what of the future? Several of the articles mentioned a documentary film in the works, about which Majeed spoke with cautious non-commitment. When I asked about future plans, he said that he'd like to see a U.K. and American tour of the Orchestras at some point in the spring of 2012, but that planning was only at the exploratory stage, and which would of course have to take into account the increasing difficulty for musicians to obtain visas to perform in the U.S.

But in the meantime, the viral popularity of the Sachal Orchestra's Take Five continues to soar, as evident in the daily increase of views on the YouTube video above. In due course, I hope to write further on the Sachal Music Projects adaptation of my own particular interest--the traditional ragas and talas of South Asian music. "

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pakistan's Take on Brubeck's "Take Five" - First Take: The piece itself

In the last week of July a Pakistani orchestra's version of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck's epic hit "Take Five" reached the top of the iTunes charts for jazz single and jazz album in both the UK and the United States. You can see the Sachal Orchestra performing the piece in the official video below, used here with permission:



The solos are played by Ustad Nafees Ahmed Khan on the sitar, and Asad Ali on the western guitar, with Ustad Nadir Hussain "Ballu" Khan on tabla; not on camera are Tanveer Hussain on sarod, and Baqar Abbas on bansuri (the South Asian bamboo flute).

Upon first seeing this video, I contacted Izzat Majeed, the founder and creator of the Sachal Music Project, to learn more about the origins of this video, as well as the major project--Sachal Music--which generated it. Majeed explained that his motive for starting the project was to assist Pakistan's classical musicians, who had been languishing following the decline of the once-thriving Pakistani film industry (known as Lollywood, since it was located in the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore, as opposed to Bombay's Bollywood in India), which decline had begun during the reign of the military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (r. 1977-1988):









In order to help revive the music--and musicianship--of the old films (and as Majeed notes, "all our films are musicals") after the destructive "tsunami" of Zia ul Haq's puritanical Islamic regime, Izzat Majeed began in 2002 to look for a suitable venue for recording. As he began to produce music himself, he toured the extant recording studios, which he discovered had, like the musicians themselves, suffered from neglect and a lack of resources and support. He quickly realized that he would need to have a new studio constructed with all of the latest equipment and technology, in order to provide the musicians, who had begun to emerge from oblivion to approach Majeed when they heard of the project:









Determined to settle for nothing less than a state-of-the-art studio, Majeed asked for the assistance of the Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles had found their fame.

I asked Izzat Sahib (lapsing now into my customary Urdu idiom, where a person is honorifically addressed as Sahib, or Mr., after either his first or last name) where his interest in music had been born. He immediately spoke of his father, Mian Abdul Majeed, who though he came from an upper-class non-musical family, was trained, at the insistence of his own father (Majeed's grandfather, Khan Bahadur Mian Allah Baksh), by the ustaads (maestros) of traditional Hindustani classical music--a phenomenon not unusual among upper-class families in the richly composite culture of Delhi, where musicians, patrons, and aficionados from both the Muslim and Hindu communities interacted freely:









At this point it will be useful to clarify some definitions of the sorts of music we are discussing. The "classical" music that was learned by Majeed's father was the traditional classical music of northern South Asia--the present day Bangladesh, North India, and Pakistan, and to a slight degree Afghanistan--which is generally known as Hindustani music, to distinguish it from the classical music of South India, generally known as Carnatic music. This is music performed in the melodic structure of ragas, and the rhythmic structure of talas.

(For my own explanation of these topics, click here for the Indian scale, here for raga, here for tala, and here for the general historical background of modern Hindustani music, all on the Gardens of the Mughal Empire Website, part of a major archeological project sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.)

Traditional Hindustani music was, and is, almost always performed with a single solo melodist--either a vocalist (usually in the khayal style, much less commonly the dhrupad style)--or an instrumentalist on sitar, surbahar (to the sitar as is the cello to the violin), sarod, sarangi (box fiddle), bansuri (bamboo flute), santur (hammered dulcimer), or the now nearly extinct rudra vina (a double-gourd stick zither), with a single percussionist accompanying, usually on tabla (or on pakhawaj in dhrupad.)

Yet the "classical" musicians you see on the "Take Five" video are playing predominantly on violin and cello, which are western instruments imported into India in the 19th and twentieth centuries (along with many other western instruments) to be played in ensemble for filmi music, which has evolved intro a sophisticated amalgam of both eastern and western instrumentation, and eastern (raga and tala) and western (harmony and counterpoint) theory and practice. Among the soloists on this video, only the classical guitar, played with a plectrum, is western. The others--sitar, and sarod and bansuri (not shown)--are eastern.

But the point that Majeed was making in the first sound byte above is that most of the musicians playing in filmi music, whether on western or eastern instruments, had their basic training in Hindustani music. The designation of this music as Hindustani classical music in Majeed's father's time was not an issue, as the time he describes was before the partition of historic India (sometimes known as British India) in 1947 into two countries: India and Pakistan (East and West, with the eastern portion breaking off in a 1971 war to become Bangladesh.) In present day Pakistan the question is problematic but not really relevant here--for a further discussion of what this music is called in present-day Pakistan see my earlier blog on the late Khwaja Khursheed Anwar.

Then, of course, the piece under question is jazz--played on both western and eastern instruments, and in jazz' true spirit of freedom and amalgamation, the improvisations (with the distinctive gliding ornamentation known as meend) on the sitar are entirely consistent with the eastern idiom. When I pressed Majeed about the degree that "classical" Hindustani music was represented in other projects of the Sachal Orchestra, this was his response:









Next: Izzat Majeed--the man behind this extraordinary phenomenon.


But to return to the subject of jazz itself. In addition to his exposure to traditional Hindustani music in his childhood, Majeed spoke of the regular visits, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, of such American "Cultural Ambassadors" as Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington (see my previous posts earlier this month), Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis, among others, who performed at an auditorium next to his house in Lahore on a location where now stands the Avari Hotel:









But up till now, I've said nothing about the circumstances which enabled Izzat Sahib to undertake the construction of the multimillion dollar Sachal Music studios, as well as the Sachal Orchestra project. In the flood of publicity following the release of "Take Five", in articles in such newspapers as Britain's august Guardian and the business publication Blue Chip, which notes in and extensive and illuminating interview that Majeed "is famed for his landmark investments in Pakistan, most notably the purchase of Union Bank which was transformed into one of the top seven banks of the country. After establishing Union Bank as a leading player in Pakistan’s banking sector, Izzat Majeed sold the bank to Standard Chartered." In that article, Majeed, with his typical modesty, attributes much of the success of that venture to his colleague, Shaukat Tarin, Similarly, as noted before, a question about Izzat himself leads back to his father, who was clearly a decisive role model. Speaking of his businessman father's ventures into music, he says:









And while (again modestly) making no claims about his own musical pedigree, nor mentions of eminent teachers with whom he might of studied, he admits that he played a central role in the production and arrangements of many of the Sachal Orchestra recordings, though again, crediting his collaborator, Riaz Hussain:









(One can discover much more about this remarkable man in the aforementioned Blue Chip article, e.g., "As an advisor to leading Saudi entrepreneurs on energy, he gained renown for his honesty, reliability and trustworthiness." Majeed has also shown an indefatigable dedication to furthering the visions of moderate Islam--when I was scheduling my interview with him, he explained that at the time I had requested, he was scheduled to give a public lecture on the subject. And Blue Chip also reveals that Majeed is a poet as well, with his third volume, "Random Prose", has received high acclaim in both Britain and the U.S. (yours truly, an incorrigible bibliophile and occasional poet himself, is already lusting after a copy . . . .) When I asked him about the book, his answer was perhaps the most understated and self-deprecating example of self-promotion I have ever experienced from a writer:









"Allegedly", indeed!

And what of the future? Several of the articles mentioned a documentary film in the works, about which Majeed spoke with cautious non-commitment. When I asked about future plans, he said that he'd like to see a U.K. and American tour of the Orchestras at some point in the spring of 2012, but that planning was only at the exploratory stage, and which would of course have to take into account the increasing difficulty for musicians to obtain visas to perform in the U.S.

But in the meantime, the viral popularity of the Sachal Orchestra's Take Five continues to soar, as evident in the daily increase of views on the YouTube video above. In due course, I hope to write further on the Sachal Music Projects adaptation of my own particular interest,--the traditional ragas and talas of South Asian music. "

Friday, August 12, 2011

Willis Conover hosts Duke Ellington - 5

To conclude: "Flaming Sword", the final item from the last regular broadcast in August 1996 of Willis Conover's "Music USA", in which Conover and Duke Ellington discuss, in a program first broadcast in 1965, an historic and previously unreleased live recording of a concert by the Ellington Orchestra in Fargo, North Dakota, on 7 November 1940:

Ellington: "And now we go into another one of our performances which has more or less become a collector's item. We have great demands for it, but no arrangement, and [trombonist] Lawrence Brown [1907-1988] finds that he's performing with great reluctance when every time it's announced, but, however, he tries for a sterling performance. It's our conception of 'Rose of the Rio Grande.'" [The song was by Harry Warren, 1893-1981.]:

Conover: "And incidentally, on the occasion that this was performed, Duke, in 1940, Ivy Anderson sang. She was a little off microphone at the time. I don't believe you've heard this take of it since that time, and it gives a rather ghostly quality at the beginning of her singing."

Ellington: "Oh, really?:

Conover: "Yes."

Ellington: "I'll have to listen to that. . . .":









Conover: "Mr. Ellington at the piano, and on microphone in the Voice of America Studios. Thank you for the pleasure and the honor every time, Duke."

Ellington: "Well thank you very much, Willis. It's always a great pleasure to be here with you on mike, speaking to and playing for your wonderful audience, who know . . . that we do love them madly!" [the last phrase a reference to the title of one of Ellington's hit songs.]

* * * * * * *

In his final outro, recorded sometime in the 1980's, Conover repeats in his elegantly slow and measured tones: "That was Duke Ellington on the fourth of June 1965, discussing with me unreleased recordings made of the Ellington Orchestra performing in Fargo, North Dakota on the seventh of November, 1940--Recordings that, since our conversation, have been released to win the 1980 Grammy Award of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences as "'The Jazz Record of the Year.'

"Willis Conover speaking. This is the Voice of America Jazz Hour."

The program concludes with the following announcement by David Bodington, who was Willis Conover's last Studio Engineer at VOA, and who produced this final treasure--and to whom we are indebted for the recording you have been listening to here:

"The Voice of America hopes you've enjoyed today's broadcast from the archives of Willis Conover. This program is the last regularly scheduled daily broadcast of Willis Conover's "Music USA Jazz"--

The sudden, hanging silence following that announcement is deafening. . . .

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Willis Conover hosts Duke Ellington - 4

Ah, "the joy of discovery!" Yesterday you heard a brief snippet of a superb example of Willis' unique way with words--and timing--in the outro of "Sepia Panorama" at the end of the last entry. Here again are his remarks in full:

"'Sepia Panorama', in a rare performance--rare as it was performed, and rare in the sense that, so far as I know, this particular performance has not ever been broadcast before this Voice of America broadcast, and we are pleased to have the conductor, arranger, pianist, and, uh . . . general personality of the Duke Ellington Orchestra present to share the joy of discovery with us.

"And I should add 'influence'. Mr. Ellington is not only an influence upon composers and musicians, he is also an influence on the way people speak, as witness the flowery words I am coming out with. Duke?"

". . . . "

Ellington (laughing): "Is that my cue?"

Conover (also now laughing): "Yes."

The Duke: "Ohhhhhh . . . . . Yes . . . . Well, uh . . . [then not missing a beat] I'm glad you brought up the subject of rare, because that's the way a lot of people would order their shish kebab. You know, if you dig shish kebab, you can get the image of the College Inn, and the Sherman House, during 1940, when those cats were dressed up in these far-eastern outfits--the waiters--and walking around with these flaming swords and your meat flaming, and then serve it to you--it was very picturesque, and it inspired this title, "Flaming Sword":









Ellington: "Its solo . . . is by Ben Webster [1909-1973] of course. And if you didn't notice it, I might call your attention to the fact that Ben may sound a lot like "Hawk" [Coleman Hawkins, 1904-1969] in here, but Ben was deliberately doing this."

Tomorrow: "Rose of the Rio Grande", the final item in Willis' program featuring the historic performance of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in Fargo, North Dakota, on 7 November 1940.

(And again, our thanks to VOA's David Bodington, Conover's last Studio Engineer, for giving us a recording of this posthumous program, which he produced.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Willis Conover hosts Duke Ellington - 3

Today: "Sepia Panorama", with an important breakthrough for the role of the string bass in jazz

Again, from the last regular (and posthumous, produced by David Bodington, Conover's last Studio Engineer) broadcast in August 1996 of Willis Conover's "Music USA", in which Duke Ellington highlights an historic precedent from a previously unreleased concert by the his orchestra in Fargo, North Dakota, on 7 November 1940:

"We have a title here which was put on a number, one of the performances--one of the great perfromances of Jimmy Blanton [1918-1942], who--we have always felt brought about the renaissance of bass playing, and that gave much more freedom to the bass players."

Conover: "What had been happening up until the time that Jimmy Blanton began to solo with you, Duke?"

Ellington: "Well, it was a matter of the bass player being in the position of accompanist, or foundation man in the rhythm section, rather than doing anything that was outstanding, more or less, in the solo role. But Blanton, of course, had this wonderful faculty of combining the foundation, and also giving it a solo quality too, in spite of the fact that he was an accompanist, more or less."

Ah, an important milestone in the emergence of the string bass player as a soloist in his own right, and noted in Duke's own voice, no less!

He goes on to share, with his inimitable cadence, another delicious historical morsel: "Incidentally, the title of this number was given to us by Dinah Shore [1916-1994]. We had this number with no title on it, and she suggested it! And here it is, "Sepia Panorama".

If you listen carefully to this recording, you can hear frequent instances of Blanton inserting solo running melodic lines on his own in between the passages of conventional "walking" bass that was previously one the main idioms of the string bass--fulfilling, as Ellington noted, a primarily rhythmic role:









Willis announces, after playing the selection: "'Sepia Panorama', in a rare performance
--rare as it was performed, and rare in the sense that, so far as I know, this particular performance has not ever been broadcast before this Voice of America broadcast." Be sure to listen here to Willis' full outro, praising Ellington's verbal prowess, which leads to a rare on-air embarrassed "ooops" moment by the Duke.

Then listen again, in the next entry, to Ellington's quick and eloquent retort in introducing the next selection, "Shish Kabab"!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Willis Conover hosts Duke Ellington - 2

Today: An exquisitely playful "Boy Meets Horn"

Continuing our presentation of the final regular broadcast in August 1996 of Willis Conover's flagship jazz program, "Music USA", with Duke Ellington as guest in the VOA studios on 4 June 1965 discussing a previously unreleased concert by the Ellington Orchestra in Fargo, North Dakota, on 7 November 1940, we come to an historic rendition of "Boy Meets Horn", composed by Rex Stewart (1907-1967).

In his erudite spoken introduction, Ellington begins, "And now we come to one of the psychological aspects of our performance"--Willis interjects a single "Oh" indicated both surprise and anticipation--"As I said before this is opening night for Ray Nance and the Band, andof course he being a trumpet player, when Rex Stewart [the song's composer] came up, and of course he did a sterling performance to demonstrate the high level of performance that was expected upon Ray Nance's entrance into the band, and in spite of the fact that I didn't realize "Boy Meets Horn" was so slow, this is it--but I think it's a good performance."

To interject some observations here before playing the piece--I'm by no means either a jazz expert or even connoisseur (as it is said, "I know what I like"): Upon hearing for the very first time the opening boop!/beep! boop!/beep! back and forth between the soloist and the band, then repeated again at double speed, I began to smile, and continued to do so throughout the entire performance, which is a tour de force of shifting-tempo humorous dialogue between soloist and ensemble: witty, sly, sometimes even sneering--not, not actually sneering, but rather taunting (of course with a mischievous sparkle in the soloist's eye).

For this is ¡JAZZ! with all its subtle blurring and fuzzing of note (melodic) and beat (rhythmic), effortlessly (but also deliberately) slippery in its seemingly casual and informal bonhomie, yet veering into a complex virtuosity that confounds any attempt to describe it, and can only be experienced:









Hearing "Boy Meets Horn", I now begin truly to understand, perhaps for the first time in my life (even the splendidly ironic title of the piece "cracks me up", as we used to say in high school), the ineffable appeal of big band jazz.

Even the simple outro is informative, with a blurred memory suddenly coming into focus between the two giants:

Willis: "Rex Stuart, cornet?--Is that right?"

Ellington: "I think it was cornet . . . instead of trumpet"

Willis: "194o. Duke Ellington".

--the cornet being slightly mellower in tone than its close cousin, the much more common trumpet, with its distinctively penetrating sound.

And in terms of sound, be sure not to miss the saxophones (?) hunkering humorously down, just before the end of the selection, into an almost impossibly low register.

Tomorrow: "Sepia Panorama", which was at the time of this 1940 concert the Ellington Orchestra's theme song, before "Take the A Train" was adopted as the group's signature tune in 1941.

(And again, our thanks to VOA's David Bodington, Conover's last Studio Engineer, for giving us a recording of this posthumous program, which he produced.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Willis Conover hosts Duke Ellington - 1

Today: "Sidewalks of New York and Sophisticated Lady"

Recently it was my good fortune to be given a cassette of the last (and posthumous) regularly scheduled edition of Willis Conover's "Music USA" jazz program, aired (so far as I can determine) on 15 August 1996, after Conover's death on 17 May 1996, and hosted by David Bodington, who had been Conover's last Studio Engineer. In his introduction, Bodington notes that Conover began "Music USA" on 1 January 1955.

This final program reprises an interview that was first aired on VOA on 4 June 1965, and features Conover discussing with the American jazz grandmaster, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974), a previously unreleased recording of a Duke Ellington Orchestra concert in Fargo, North Dakota, on 7 November 1940. (See a postscript after the final piece of this historic program on the multiple versions of this concert that continued to be re-released into the Twenty-First Century!)

Bodington, who was kind enough to lend me the cassette, introduces his edited version of the final program, which begins with the famed Ellington rendition of Take the A Train, which was the theme song for "Music USA".

Willis introduces the program in his distinctively deep voice and his own slow, measured version of "Special English"--see my earlier posting of a Special English feature on Conover.

Following a request from Willis for a comment on the performance, Ellington responds:

"Oh, I'll be very glad to . . . . This is a strange sort of a thing, because I'm hearing for the first time what the band sounded like 25 years ago, which was coincidentally the opening night of Ray Nance with the band. It's . . . very impressive to me, and instructive as well, because I hear we're doing quite a few things in here that I had forgotten we had done. The opening side is "The Sidewalks of New York":











At the conclusion, Conover notes that Jimmy Blanton (1918-1942) was playing [double] bass, and "Tricky Sam" Nanton (1904-1946) played the trombone.

Ellington next introduces "one of the many arrangements we've had" of one of his own compositions, "Sophisticated Lady", for which, as the Wikipedia article notes through Ellington's own words, the "original conception was inspired by three of Ellington's grade school teachers. 'They taught all winter and toured Europe in the summer. To me that spelled sophistication'":









The piece concludes with a high note exquisitely sustained throughout all the bluster of the brass, probably, as Willis notes in his outro, by Otto Hardwick (1904-1970) on the alto saxophone, with Lawrence Brown (1907-1988) on trombone, and of course, Duke Ellington on the piano.

Tomorrow: An astonishingly witty version of "Boy Meets Horn".

Friday, August 5, 2011

Another take on Willis Conover

The four previous postings on Willis Conover have been from VOA sources, and for a change of pace, I find it refreshing to refer to a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of Willis from The Daily Kos, a political blog known generally for its progressive point of view, which in April of this year (2011) published two postings on Conover.

In the first, entitled Top Comments: The Willis Conover Edition, writer Ed Tracey refreshingly introduces Conover as "an Army brat who had an interest in science fiction, and even edited the Science Fantasy Correspondent – a 1937 fanzine of its day". (In an earlier posting on these pages I mentioned Conover's book on H. P. Lovecraft--"Lovecraft at Last--fetching generally high prices--though I just ordered an apparently quite crisp and fresh copy for $80--the Daily Kos blog links to an edition of Volume 1, No. 3 of the SFC, with an asking price of $495.00, on the antiquarian Website ABE Books.)

He goes on to say that "In recent decades, governmental efforts to propagate press-release information world-wide via the airwaves (with Radio Marti as an example) I can't help but marvel that the VOA was able to be very influential merely by reporting the facts. And Willis Conover was able to achieve world-wide stardom by merely presenting American music to the rest of the world. He had that perfect radio voice, as was already mentioned. In addition, he learned to speak what was referred to as Special English - slowly and to enunciate quite clearly - not only for the benefit of those who did not speak English, but also for those listening on short-wave and poor transistor radios." (You can hear the VOA Special English program on Willis Conover here in my posting two days ago.)

He goes on to note that "At his peak, Willis Conover's show was estimated to have reached 100 million world-wide - all broadcast from a cramped studio in Washington, D.C. And 30 million of that total was in Eastern Europe alone - especially at a time when the VOA (as well as jazz music) was banned in many Eastern European countries."

As he notes later in the month, the piece generated great interest: "I previously mentioned this man on a Top Comments diary - and had so many "I never knew this!" responses ... I've decided to reprise it here (in more detail).

Then, in "The Cold War hero .. you never heard of", Tracey expands his original piece with many more details and citations of musical influence, along with occasional partisan observations: "At the time, there were 'immediate grumblings in Congress about wasting taxpayers' money by broadcasting frivolous music'. Back then, that might have been a bi-partisan exercise (today, couldn’t you just hear the Tea Party warbling about this?)."

He closes his expanded piece with this moving observation: "So far, a campaign to have him posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - being led, interestingly, by the former Nixon aide Leonard Garment - has been unsuccessful. But fittingly, as a sign of Willis Conover's stature: he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in his adopted Washington, D.C."

Next week: Excerpts from Willis' interviews of leading jazz figures, as selected by Conover's last Studio Engineer at VOA, David Bodington, from among hundreds of taped programs in the weeks following Conover's death on 17 May 1996.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Willis Conover in His Own Words

Tuesday, in an incident of particular serendipity, when speaking with Dana Demond, producer of the radio program posted yesterday, I discovered she had CDs of two fifty-minute radio specials produced in 1996 by VOA Radio Broadcast Technician David Bodington, who served as Conover's last Studio Engineer in 1993. Next week I will begin posting the various interviews from these specials, beginning with--in a reversal of roles--jazz master Gerry Mulligan's interview of Willis on his own life story.

In the meantime, the VOA Public Relations Web Willis Conover Web page has a series of short audio clips of Willis speaking:

Willis tells how he got into radio--Excerpt from an interview on his 10th anniversary (January 18, 1965). Listen here.

Willis explains how he learned his favorite music was "jazz"--Excerpt from an interview on his 10th anniversary (January 18, 1965). Listen here.

Willis's view on developing one's personal taste in music--Excerpt from an interview on his 10th anniversary (January 18, 1965). Listen here.

Willis's thoughts on building a radio program--Excerpt from an interview on his 10th anniversary (January 18, 1965). Listen here.

Willis's feelings about working for Voice of America--Excerpt from an interview on his 10th anniversary (January 18, 1965). Listen here.

Willis describes leaving commercial radio for Voice of America--Excerpt from an interview on his 10th anniversary (January 18, 1965). Listen here.

Willis calls jazz a 'living music', growing and changing--Excerpt from an interview on his 10th anniversary (January 18, 1965). Listen here.

Willis tells of writing the song "Where Does the Moon Go?" while driving--Excerpt from VOA's "Mail Bag" program with Robin Rupli (1990s), Listen here.

Song "Where Does the Moon Go?" as recorded by a Romanian musician. Listen here.

Willis explains how he came to write a piece of music, "Far Off, Close By"--Excerpt from VOA's "Mail Bag" program with Robin Rupli (1990s). Listen here.

"Far Off, Close By" by Willis, with Willis whistling. Listen here.

Willis tells of writing and recording a lyric as spoken word over music--Excerpt from VOA's "Mail Bag" program with Robin Rupli (1990s). Listen here.

Song with Willis speaking his lyrics over Charlie Byrd's playing. Listen here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Music at VOA: Willis Conover - 3

In my continuing search for past programming on Willis Conover at VOA, I found the script for a show produced by the Voice of America's Special English Service, which was established in October 1959 as a daily news and information radio channel for people learning English at the upper beginner and intermediate levels. In broadcast, the texts are read at a somewhat reduced speed. You can listen (patiently, savoring each word . . . ) to the audio here:









And I've included the script below for informational purposes:

24 September 2005

Willis Conover Brought Jazz, 'the Music of Freedom,' to the World

by Dana Demange

(MUSIC)

VOICE ONE:

I’m Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Barbara Klein with People in America in VOA Special English. Today, we tell about Willis Conover. His voice is one of the most famous in the world. Conover’s Voice of America radio program on jazz was one of the most popular and influential shows in broadcasting history.

(SOUND)

VOICE ONE:
Willis Conover was not a jazz musician. However, many people believe that he did more to spread the sound of jazz than any person in music history. For more than forty years Conover brought jazz to people around world on his VOA music programs. An estimated one hundred million people heard his programs. He helped make jazz music an international language.

VOICE TWO:

Willis Conover was born in Buffalo, New York, in nineteen twenty. Because his father was in the military, his family moved around a great deal. When Willis was in high school, he played the part of a radio announcer in a school play. People told him that he sounded like a real radio announcer. Later, he competed in a spelling competition that was broadcast on radio. The radio announcer told Willis that he should work in radio. Willis had a deep and rich voice that was perfect for broadcasting.

VOICE ONE:

At first, Conover worked for small radio stations in the state of Maryland. He served in the military during World War Two. Because of his experience talking to people on radio, Conover was not sent away to fight. He was needed to interview new soldiers at Fort Meade, Maryland. After the war, he continued to work for commercial radio stations.

Willis Conover heard a lot of jazz music during the nineteen forties in Washington, D.C. This city was the center of a very important jazz movement. Willis Conover knew many of the jazz musicians in both Washington and New York City. He helped organize many concerts. He also helped stop racial separation in the places where music was played at night.
At this time, mainly white people went to music clubs even though many of the musicians were black. Conover created musical events where people of all races were welcome.

VOICE TWO:

Willis Conover wanted to be able to play more of the jazz music that he loved on his radio show. He did not like the restrictions of commercial radio. When he heard that the Voice of America wanted to start a jazz music program, Conover knew that he had found a perfect job. He had full freedom to play all kinds of jazz music on his show which began in nineteen fifty-five.

(MUSIC)

VOICE ONE:

Willis Conover once said that jazz is the music of freedom. He said that with jazz people can express their lives through music. And that the music helps people to stand up a little straighter.
Many people think that Willis Conover had great political influence during the period after World War Two known as the Cold War. This was a time of increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the nineteen sixties and seventies, listening to the VOA was not allowed in many Eastern European countries.
Also, the governments of these countries thought jazz was dangerous and subversive. But the people in these countries loved jazz. Many people became jazz musicians themselves. They first learned how to play this music by listening to Willis Conover’s “Music USA” program.

VOICE TWO:

During the many of years his program was broadcast, Conover presented his expert knowledge about jazz. He interviewed great jazz musicians such as Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He played the best music from the most current musicians. Here is a recording of Conover talking about the way jazz music changes over time.

(SOUND)

VOICE ONE:

Willis Conover not only talked about jazz music on his program. He sometimes wrote the music and the words to jazz songs. He usually wrote sad love songs. His many musician friends put the words to music. Here he is voicing the words to a song he wrote in the nineteen sixties. The music is written and played by the great jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd.

(SOUND)

VOICE TWO:

Very few Americans knew about Willis Conover’s program. Voice of America programs are not permitted to be broadcast in the United States. But, he was very famous in the rest of the world.
Audiences loved his program. When he traveled to Poland in nineteen fifty-nine, he saw hundreds of people gathered near his plane. People held cameras and flowers. They were cheering and smiling. Conover thought that they were waiting for a famous person to arrive. Then, he saw a large sign that said, “Welcome to Poland, Mister Conover”. The crowds were there to see him.

Willis Conover also worked to spread jazz in the United States. He was the announcer for many famous jazz festivals and concerts in America. He presented more than thirty concerts at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He even produced the White House concert in celebration of jazz musician Duke Ellington’s seventieth birthday in nineteen sixty-nine.

VOICE ONE:

Willis Conover once said that Louis Armstrong was the heart of jazz, Duke Ellington was the soul and Count Basie was its happy dancing feet. Here is part of a nineteen seventy-three interview by Willis Conover with the great Duke Ellington. This was one of the last times Conover talked to him. Duke Ellington died the next year. In this interview, these great men express their thanks to one another.

(SOUND)

VOICE TWO:

In his jazz programs Willis Conover played many kinds of jazz. He played songs he liked and songs he did not like. However, he liked to play the musicians he liked best, such as Duke Ellington, often. Here is the song “Chelsea Bridge” from his favorite saxophonist musician Ben Webster. Conover once said that nothing could quite match this song.

(SOUND)

VOICE ONE:

Willis Conover died in nineteen ninety-six after a long struggle with cancer. He was seventy-five. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. Though his programs are no longer broadcast, his influence is very much alive. Jazz music owes a great deal to this special man.

(MUSIC)

VOICE TWO:

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Barbara Klein.

VOICE ONE:

And I’m Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.

Coming up next: Sound clips of Willis speaking on aspects of his life and relationship to music.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Music at VOA: Willis Conover - 2

It was my good fortune to meet Conover several times after I came to Washington in 1986 as Chief of VOA's Urdu Service, though as it turns out, we ended up talking more about science fiction and fantasy literature (an obsession of mine in my youth), particularly the author H. P. Lovecraft, on whom Conover had written a book--"Lovecraft at Last"--the 1975 first edition of which is now a collector's item with a selling price of up to $1150!

But since I don't have any really memorable musical recollections of our meetings, I've spoken with VOA Radio Broadcast Technician David Bodington, who was Conover's studio engineer for the last two years of his life, and who has promised to share with us some choice recollections in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I'm happy to post (with their permission), a fine television feature on Conover produced by Svetlana Prudovsky and Alisa Krutovsky of VOA's Russian Service, voiced by VOA News' Wayne Bowman, and broadcast on 14 October 2010:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Music at VOA: Willis Conover - 1

While the broadcasting of news of current affairs remains the top priority at the Voice of America, music programming continues to be an important part of the VOA mission. This month, I plan to look back at the inestimable contributions to the music of the world by the late Willis Conover, VOA's legendary jazz broadcaster, whose towering presence dominated VOA broadcasts for more than forty years.

Conover was honored two years ago by a Congressional Resolution. According to the VOA press release that I was asked to write on that occasion, "Saturday, April 25, 2009, has been designated 'Willis Conover Day' by Resolution 324 of the 111th session of the U.S. Congress. Congressman John B. Larson (D-CT) submitted the resolution, which also states 'Whereas, on April 25, 2009, the Big Band Jam will honor the Voice of America and Willis Conover and the joint contribution toward spreading the language of jazz and American cultural diplomacy around the world over a span of more than 35 years.'

"Willis Conover, born in Buffalo, NY in 1920, joined the Voice of America (VOA) in 1955, hosting the first in a series of jazz programs that ultimately claimed tens of millions of listeners around the world—not the least behind the Iron Curtain. According to John Stevenson, currently Director of VOA's English Division, and as such, head of VOA music programming: 'At the height of his career, [Conover] was producing 17 shows per week, including Music USA, Jazz; Music USA, Standards; Music with Friends (one hour a week for the Polish Service and one hour for the Hungarian Service); and Willis Conover's House of Sounds for VOA Europe. These programs included interviews with popular Jazz artists including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and many, MANY more; literally hundreds.' When Stevenson visited Moscow some years ago, he found that the only American more famous that Willis Conover was Richard Nixon. Willis Conover died in 1996.

"The resolution is the result of efforts by Harry Schnipper, Executive Director of Washington’s Blues Alley, one of the nation’s most venerable jazz venues. Schnipper is the major moving force behind the Big Band JAM (for Jazz Appreciation Month in April), in whose series of concerts, more than three weeks long, Conover is being honored on April 25. The proclamation will be made at the commencement of a concert on the National Mall by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, under the musical direction of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master David N. Baker. As Schnipper notes, “Music transcends every socioeconomic genre; jazz is the sound of freedom”—an oft-sounded sentiment—“and people used to say that Willis Conover singlehandedly felled the Iron Curtain.” According to Conover himself, “Every emotion—love, anger, joy, sadness—can be communicated with the vitality and spirit that characterize jazz and our country at its best. Which, of course, is the same freedom that people everywhere should enjoy.”

VOA's videographer and producer Mike Burke and I collaborated in a video feature (now on VOA's YouTube channel) on the concert Schnipper organized that day at the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall. Here is the result of our effort:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Scenesetter: The National Folklife Festival on the Washington Mall

There are many benefits to living in, or traveling to, Washington, DC--the capital city of the United States--among which, during the summer, is the opportunity to participate in the annual Folklife Festival sponsored each year on the National Mall by the Smithsonian Institution, the American national complex of numerous museums and research institutions, as well as the National Zoo.

Beginning tomorrow (Thursday, 30 June 2011), the Festival commences with two five-day celebrations (June 30 through July Fourth, and July 7 - 11) of the diversity of American culture--as opposed to the usual four-day observances, given the fact that the national
Independence Day, the Fourth of July, falls on a Monday, so that it makes sense to the sponsor (one assumes) to add the two extra days this year.

Following is a guide, both for those of you who live in Washington or its environs, or those who can only explore the options online. We hope it proves to be useful, and we will be bringing you reports of the myriad activities, mostly musical, from the Festival in the coming days.

Each year the Festival ordinarily has three themes; for this year we have:

1) "The Peace Corps - Fifty Years of Promoting World Peace and Friendship", involving participants from a variety of countries: Jamaica, Guatemala, Peru, Belize, Morocco, Botswana, Mali, Kenya, , the Kyrgyz Republic, the Phillipines, and Tonga. For any VOA staff who may be return Peace Corps Volunteers, there will be a Reunion Hall as part of the Festival. For more information, go to www.festival.si.edu/2011/PeaceCorps

2) "Rhythm and Blues - Tell It Like It Is", presenting, with its rich history of development beginning in Africa, a somewhat broader spectrum of programming options than is often the case with the Festival. A variety of styles, including urban blues, doo-wop, soul, and funk, will be represented by continuous performances on two stages throughout the day by reputed artists, many veterans with decades of experience. For more information, go to www.festival.si.edu/2011/RhythmBlues

3) "Colombia - The Nature of Culture", with representation of the six ecosystems and the country's three largest cities. Roughly one hundred Colombian artists will "sing, dance, prepare food, tell stories, celebrate the harvest, and demonstrate religious ceremonies, traditional medecine practices, and agricultural sustainability at the Festival." For more information, go to www.festival.si.edu/2011/Colombia

A daily schedule of events can be found at www.festival.si.edu/2011/schedule_06_30.aspx

And each night will include a concert of music associated with some aspect of the festival: www.festival.si.edu/visitor/evening.aspx

A series of videos about the institution of the Festival itself (Festival 101) can be found at www.festival.si.edu/visitor/festival_101.aspx

More general information can be found at www.festival.si.edu/visitor/general.aspx

For a quick lunch or early dinner there are also food concessions--the links have pictures, so even if you're not able to attend, you see some mouth-watering delicacies . . . .:

Finally, there is a marketplace featuring items made during, or related to, the festival: www.festival.si.edu/visitor/marketplace.aspx

So visit the Festival if you can, either in person or virtually, and in the coming days we'll be bringing you glimpses of this rich tapestry of cultural presentations.