Sunday, July 1, 2012


When VOA's English Division came under new management in May, I requested to remain in English to Africa, where I had been working part-time as Senior Editor on a voluntary basis since January. The work is new and exciting, and it is rewarding to be a member of such a congenial and dynamic team broadcasting to the great continent of Africa.

I hope to return to blogging at some point in the future, as time permits. Thanks for your past readership! In the meantime, do check out English to Africa's rich musical offerings:

VOA African Music Treasures

VOA Music Time in Africa

VOA African Beat

VOA Hip Hop Connection

as well as our main Web page for news in general:

VOA English to Africa

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Musical Manifesto for May First

Musicians and music lovers of the world, unite!

There is no question that music is one of the unifying forces in human society, a force which breaks down barriers and establishes avenues of communication, understanding, and love among the diverse branches of the human species.

And on this day (for me, as always, the beginning, not only of a new musical year, but also a year of new discoveries and collaborations), I like to ask:

What is music? What is its role in our lives? Why is it so inseparable from the most basic human experiences?

The current state of music in the world is that literally millions of people--sometimes as themselves, sometimes forming groups with individuals of similar convictions, sometimes aspiring to national stature, sometimes challenging and crossing an incredible complex of difficult, even deadly, boundaries—are committing their efforts to musical offerings, statements, masterpieces, or even failures, from no less a primal source than their very souls, and their deepest and most sacred dreams and hopes of simply connecting with other beings, with the prospect of sharing the magic of music with those who care to—or have the opportunity to—or are (by those around them) simply forced to—listen . . . .

Music is the other language of today’s media—sometimes called the lingua-franca of this world, or the universal language—of human hearts and throats and tongues, and if it is not too much to wish for, of the souls of our fellow inhabitants of this complex, constantly changing, and constantly evermore challenging planet (to our immediate knowledge, and infinite loneliness: the only proof-positive of the presence of life within the vastness of the perceivable universe. . . . )

So let us sing, let us play the music of our voices and hands and hearts; let us celebrate the myriad musics of our pluralistic world, to accompany the ultimate poetry and drama and philosophy of this miraculous—and yet gloriously ordinary—existence we share together today, and we hope, tomorrow.

When we think about music, many questions arise:

Why, since the dawn of human existence, have we been moved to sing, or to create musical instruments, however primitive, and play them?

Similarly, why has song, for millennia, been so fundamental an expression of the human spirit?

Why do humans sing when alone, as in tending herds of sheep, or together in vast choruses in towering cathedrals?

What joy, what fulfillment, is achieved by creating some new piece of music?

What reward is to be found in playing the music created by someone else?

Why are lullabies almost universal among human societies?

Why are gramophone records, or 45s, or long-playing records, or cassettes, or CDs, or now Mp3s, such important cultural artifacts collected by millions with such devotion, and often at considerable expense, even to the point of obsession and madness?

Why is music so ubiquitous on radio and television as defining themes of the news, of feature programs, of advertisements, from the epic openings of the nightly nightly news to the unavoidable jingles of petty household or cosmetic products?

Why can music be such a powerful emotional enhancement for the drama of plays and films?

Why is the music industry so huge?

Why is music used as a mobilizing force for religion, for sports competition, for war?

Why is music so essential for dancing, or other bodily expressions?

Why is some music beloved, even held to be sacred by some, while the same music may held by others to be despicable, even profane?

Why is music sometimes used as an element of torture?

Why can music provoke such strong feelings, either negative or positive, to send people dancing and celebrating in the streets, or to threaten or even kill those who propagate music, either by performing it or by being merchants of music?

Why does every nation have a national anthem?

Why does virtually every religion have some sort of liturgy, or hymns, to awaken and enhance religious feelings, whether of humility, or celebration, or joy?

Why can music be divisive, in separating generations, social groups, or national entities?

Why can a bugle, or drums, motivate soldiers to fight and kill?

Why is song, or at least music, so intricately intertwined with expressions of love?

Why do hymns and songs assist in comforting in times of grief and loss?

Why can music constitute an expression of absolute, transcendent joy?

Why does some music make us laugh, some make us weep?

Why can the cacophony, or sheer boredom, of one musical expression as perceived by one individual or group, express the quintessential nature of another individual or cultural or national expression for which it is a source of pleasure, inspiration, or succor?

Why are new avenues of musical expression and innovation constantly sought?

Then again, why are the newest musical creations and styles able to generate extreme hostility, even violence, as well as an exultant sense of discovery and liberation?

Why is it that music is able to bring people together in extraordinary displays of unity and common purpose, even across lines and divisions that otherwise promote violence and even slaughter?

Why are some simple sounds pleasing to some, and anathema to others.

Why is there such an extraordinary diversity of musics in the myriad cultures of the world?

How can one song or collection of songs mobilize an entire social movement, or express and comfort the aspirations and despairs of an entire generation, or a dissonant splinter group?

Why is song, and not just words, used to tell the history, sometimes in entire epics, of a tribal group that exists without the benefit of literacy?

Why can music bring such an intense, even mystical, personal experience, associated as it is with the processes of memory and nostalgia?

How does human music relate to the unchallengeable musicality of bird song, or the songs of whales?

Why do the songs of some insects and other creatures have, to the human ear, musical qualities?

How many musics are there in the soul and mind of man not yet discovered?

What is the relationship of music to science and mathematics—as in the Music of the Spheres, or the Pythagorean considerations of music.

Why was it considered necessary to include, on the space satellite Voyager 2, a Golden Record including samples of the music of various cultures and times in the history of humanity?

And are there other musics somewhere out in the vast universe . . . . . . ?

Brian Q. Silver
07.18.08, rev. 05.01.10, rev. 05.01.11, and again today

* * * * * * *

Once again, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on any of these matters, and continuing to share the rich experience of music with you.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Willis Conover Day concert video on 25 April 2009

Here is the previously referenced video on which VOA's videographer and producer Mike Burke and I collaborated on the concert Harry Schnipper organized on 25 April 2009, on the occasion of "Willis Conover Day" (see previous entry) at the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall

Willis Conover Day 2009 revisited

Willis Conover, the legendary VOA jazz broadcaster, was honored three years ago today 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 on a video on the concert Schnipper organized that day at the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall, which video follows this blog entry.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

99 years: In memoriam: Hyman Bloom

99 years ago today--a year short of a century, the great American painter Hyman Bloom was born. I last saw him in 2009, on the occasion of his 96th birthday celebration (he passed away a few months later, on 26 August 2009.)

Below is what I wrote about him in 2009 during and after his 96th birthday celebration:

It is my great good fortune to be staying in Nashua, New Hampshire, at the home of my first mentor in Indian music, the great American painter Hyman Bloom, who is today celebrating his 96th (!) birthday with friends and family. Hyman lives with his wife Stella, whom he married in 1978, in a spacious home, converted 25 years ago from a large hundred-year-old New England barn, with high ceilings, a loft entrance, and dark broad-timber floors, and now white plaster walls, many adorned with Hyman's work, from small pencil sketches to enormous canvases pulsing with turbulent colors and spiritual energy--some of the greatest achievements of Twentieth-Century American drawing and painting.

And on this rainy Sunday morning, the home is fragrant with the rich aromas of Stella's superb Greek cooking (with able assistance since yesterday from her sister-in-law Irene Caralis, and today, sister Anna Burland) for the guests who will be arriving shortly. Not that Hyman will be the seniormost among those celebrating the occasion; we are awaiting the arrival of Hyman's long-time physician and friend (and mine while I was teaching in Cambridge), the astonishingly alert Dr. Abraham Stone Freedberg, an eminent Harvard Medical School Professor Emeritus who is looking forward to his 101st birthday in May.

I first met Hyman in Boston when I was in college in the early 1960s. One of my roommates, knowing of my interest in Indian music (which I had discovered on recordings in the 1950s), introduced me to the daughter of Hyman's dealer, who arranged for me to meet the man who was eventually to continue, following my late mother's early nurture, the spiritual support for my music that I never received from my own father. I remember very clearly going to Hyman's studio on Newbury Street in Boston on numerous occasions, when we would sit, often with little or no conversation--and listen to some of the many 78 rpm recordings he had collected from India of the great masters--material which was totally unavailable at that time in the U.S.

It was with Hyman that I first heard the legendary Indian vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar--with her jewel-like improvisations in Indian ragas--and the equally legendary Ustad Bundu Khan, who had brought the magical sarangi from its role as a box-fiddle for accompaniment to vocalists to its current status as a virtuoso solo instrument par excellence. To my ears (then, and still) the voice of the sarangi was the closest instrumental equivalent to a musical cry from the human soul that I had ever heard, and Kesarbai's singing conveyed a haunting sense of the great timelessness and vast cultural expanses of India.

I knew little at the time of Hyman's enormous reputation as a painter. He was at one point considered by Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning to be the greatest American painter, and the de facto father of American Abstract Expressionism, with paintings hanging in many major American museums. As for his work itself: his studio in those days was filled with numerous canvases of various sizes stacked mysteriously against the walls, face-in; nor was there any work-in-progress on an easel with a palette of paints nearby that this Denver-born boy would have expected from having seen in his childhood Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas' impassioned portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh. (Only much later was I able to see in his home, or in exhibitions, many of Hyman's great paintings, whose use of ecstatic and vibrant color challenges, in a very different style, that of the great Dutch master himself.) But there were exotic Indian instruments on the shelves, and when I was there the studio was filled with the voices of Indian music--that extraordinary musical universe of which I had had glimpses, also in Denver, while hearing my own early LPs of Indian classical music.

One of Hyman's early teachers, Denman Ross, had used musical scales as a model for a systematic treatment of of the painter's color palette. In the 1930s Hyman began to collect recordings of Greek, Turkish, Jewish, and Indian music, probably as a source for alternate aesthetic inspiration. I've often thought these musical explorations must have touched upon the coloristic aspects (iridescence in visual terms) of the microtonal intervals, scales, and ornaments of the oriental traditions. In the 1940s Hyman became close friends with the prolific Alan Hovhaness, one of the most widely recorded American composers (he styled himself "Scottish-Armenian", and is generally grouped among the modern musical orientalists), whose oeuvre is as controversial among the cognoscenti as it is beloved by many--including myself--in the contemporary audience for classical music. By Hyman's account they talked often, and deeply, about the meaning and mysticism of music, and the creative forces behind it.

Then in the mid-50s, Hyman met the late James A. Rubin--another Bostonian whose persona, as a businessman and extraverted bon vivant--was vastly different from that of Hyman. In ensuing years their common interest in oriental music enabled this very odd couple (the scholarly and comparatively diminutive Hyman with his deep eyes, quizzically arched eyebrows, and long charcoal beard, vs. the towering Rubin with his booming voice and PR-man bonhomie and swagger) to collaborate in the formation of the PanOrient Arts Foundation (which I'll cover in a subsequent writing).

As noted, Hyman was an active collector of oriental recordings. After a few shared meals in Boston delicatessens and Greek restaurants, the two agreed to meet to see each other's collections. Jim later would tell the story of turning up at Hyman's studio with his two LPs of Indian music (checked out from the Public Library) proudly in hand, to be confronted with Hyman's very comprehensive collection of hundreds of 78 rpm discs of usic--as well as Turkish and Indian instruments.

It was through the peripatetic Rubin, that Hyman (who hated travel as much as Rubin thrived on it) was able to expand the collection of recordings and instruments which nourished his profound love of music, and which led him into auditory realms which at once comforted and inspired him. And it was that same love that enabled Hyman to accept me--with no expressed interest whatsoever in his painting--as a frequent fellow traveller on musical paths, generously lending me his own sitar during my senior year in college.

We continued to meet, often in the company of the irrepressible Rubin, after my two years of sitar study in India (1964-66), most particularly when I returned to Harvard to teach (1974-1983). During those nine years I would lunch with Hyman almost every week, initially at the original Legal Seafoods in Inman Square in Cambridge, which with its sawdust-covered floors and boisterous atmosphere providing a welcome change from the august and often arrogant institution back along Cambridge Street.

* * * * * * *
Now, after dinner, the birthday candles heroically blown out--if not all at once (Hyman sleeps with an oxygen tube at night), and certainly not 96 in number, the last of some twenty guests have departed. The gray, cloudy New Hampshire Sunday afternoon outdoors encloses with warm comfort the now quiet, richly hued luminosity in Hyman and Stella's home, with its amazing combination of Hyman's original thin-lined sketches and large-scale colorburst oil canvases on the walls, and on adjacent shelves, in a somehow natural visual counterpoint, a seemingly endless procession of glass vases and plates and bowls of the Carnival Glass style, which Hyman has collected over the decades for their infinite range of darkling iridescent shades and shadows, to be subjects for some of his own works of still life with their mystical, motionless dances of color.

And in quiet and thankful contemplation, I celebrate the 96 years of this gentle and visionary man, and his priceless gift to me of a paternal musical blessing.

Friday, March 16, 2012

St. Patrick's Day grand music rollout!

In appreciation of the musical aspects of tomorrow's melodious Irish holiday, I'd again like to introduce a few of the prominent Irish performing groups, with the approximate date of their founding, links to their Wikipedia entries, and to albums (with--in most cases--links to brief musical samples to provide a sense of the group's "sound" and musical approach; and of course, with further opportunities available on YouTube not only to hear but to see these groups). When available, a link to the groups' Website is also provided.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. (1950s) These artists were the first to establish themselves as Irish performers in the American folk music scene, presenting vocals with guitar and five-string banjo accompaniment--the emphasis being on the heartiness a of their singing.
*****Album: The Clancy Brothers - Greatest Irish Hits--click on the "Listen to samples" link under the album's cover. At the bottom of the page, under the rubric "Customers who bought this album also bought" are links to several other of their albums.
The Clancy Brothers' MySpace page

The Chieftains. (1962) Initially a four-man instrumental group, with Uilleann pipes, tin whistle, button accordion, bodhrán (frame drum), and fiddle. As noted in my review three years ago of their Washington concert, the group has collaborated for decades with a wide range of musicians, including in the reviewed performance a vocalist/drummer.
*****Album: The Best of the Chieftains. Click on "Track Listing"to listen.

The Dubliners. (1962) Again, basically a hearty-singing vocal group with a range of instrumental accompaniment and solos.
*****Album: Best of the Dubliners. Click on "Track Listing"to listen.
The Dubliners' Web page and Patsy Watchorn's Web page

Planxty. (1970s) Also mentioned in Gary Thomas' notes (see tomorrow's posting), this "supergroup" included, along with its vocals, guitar, bodhrán, bouzouki, mandolin, mandola, hurdy-gurdy, harmonica, Uilleann pies, tin whistle, and flute.
*****Album: Planxty.

The Bothy Band. (1974) With the addition of a female vocalist, similar to Planxty in approach and instrumentation (and adding harpsichord and clavinet), and also short-lived.
*****Album: The Best of the Bothy Band.

Clannad. (1970s) Radically different from the previous groups, Clannad, also with a female vocalist, won a Grammy in 1998 for The Best New Age Album.
*****Album: The Best of Clannad: In a Lifetime.
The Clannad Website and News Blog

The Pogues. (1982) Also departing somewhat from tradition, though in a very different direction from that of Clannad, this group incorporated elements of rock and punk.
*****Album: The Very Best of the Pogues.
The Pogues' Website and Shane McGowan's Website

The above is of course just a sampling from among hundreds of groups, and thousands of recordings. For those wanting to pursue their listening further, below are two Websites that specialize in Celtic music, some of which may include musical samples as above: A self-described "Mom and Pop store" which specialized exclusively in Celtic Music CDs. A large on-line CD company with a separate section for Celtic music containing more than 1,000 pages (¡)(!) of recordings, almost all with samples of each track.

There are also on-line radio streams dedicated to Celtic music: A Google search specifying "Celtic Music Radio" brings up a staggering 157,000 hits, up a bit from 143,000 hits a year ago, but more impressively, 23,500 hits two years ago, and 13,700 hits three years ago!

Good listening, and again, Happy St. Paddy's Day!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Togo duo’s song becomes unofficial Africa Cup anthem

A song called "Hoyee", by the Togolese group Toofan (picture above), has emerged as the unofficial anthem for the Africa Cup of Nations 2012. VOA's Ricci Shryock did the following story:

Togolese duo Toofan’s hit song “Africa Hoyee” is becoming an unofficial anthem for the Africa Nations Cup, which is kicking off January 21 in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

The song takes a continent-wide approach to the game, and the video celebrates an atmosphere of joy and hope, said Toofan member Barabas.

“In order to get everyone in the mood, we had to start from the ground, because not everyone is a football player and not everyone can relate to this place of music,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t just do a song with football stars. That’s why in the song, we featured children in a ghetto setting. To show people that in Africa, football comes from the streets first. It’s not something that’s very luxurious.”

Set in Lome, the music video features uniquely stylized dance moves and children playing on makeshift fields in what producer Micheal Kabom said is the ‘cool quartier’ style, drawing from the English word cool and the French word for neighborhood. Kabom, added that even though Togo didn’t qualify for the Africa Nations Cup, Toofan’s song cheers on all the teams of Africa.
“Soccer unites the whole continent of Africa, even though Togo did not qualify for the tournament,” said the producer.

The lyrics mention some of the continent’s most famous players, many of whom will be playing for their countries at the Africa Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea next week.

Click here for a writeup on the group on the video Website

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Willis Conover alert, and "Indian" jazz at Blues Alley

Willis Conover (1920-1996) was the Voice of America's legendary music broadcaster, (see previous VOAWM posts below), and as this blog is relaunched in the New Year, we'll introduce a regular feature of linking to references to Willis, whose influence throughout the world (and particularly the jazz world) is still remembered with reverence and gratitude 15 years after his death. The most recent is in a blog by Matthew Kassel, a New York-based blogger on Cold Jazz; his latest posting is about the four-time Grammy Award-winning Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. Kassel quotes Valdés as saying "We used to hear jazz on shortwave radio, the Voice of America 'Jazz Hour,' hosted by Willis Conover. . . . . I would write out transcriptions of the music on paper for myself, so I could figure out what they were doing."

Another reference to Conover's broadcasts is in an op-ed piece, expressing his own opion, by a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Gregory L. Garland, in American Diplomacy, published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "Thanks to the gift of a shortwave radio, I grew up [in Florida] listening to the Voice of America (VOA). . . . .Just like tens of millions of listeners in the former Soviet Union, I set my watch to VOA jazz master Willis Conover’s nightly broadcasts that made him a hero there while he remained unknown in his own country."

Speaking of jazz, this past week has been a busy one for me, in covering four nights of fine performances at Washington's historic Blues Alley, which the New York Times has called "The Nation's Finest Jazz and Supper Club," and which is the oldest such institution in the U.S. since its founding by Harry Schnipper in 1965. In a five night sequence title "Indian Jazz Series", the club featured jazz vocalist Sachal Vasandani on Monday, local guitarist Sanjay Mishra and Friends on Tuesday, guitarist Rez Abbasi on Wednesday, and Rudresh Mahanthappa (and Rez again) on Thursday and Friday.

This blog will feature a forthcoming radio interview with Sachal and a joint television interview with Rudresh and Rez (see photo below), as well as some comments on their performances.

Here are links to previous entries on Willis:

The Daily Kos: Another take on Willis Conover

Willis Conover Hosts Duke Ellington 5: "Rose of the Rio Grande"

Willis Conover Hosts Duke Ellington 4: "Flaming Sword"

Willis Conover Hosts Duke Ellington 3: " Sepia Panorama"

Willis Conover Hosts Duke Ellington 2: "Boy Meets Horn"

Willis Conover Hosts Duke Ellington 1: "Sidewalks of New York" and "Sophisticated Lady"

Note: Each of the above five entries features Ellington discussing with Conover the recordings in question, with many fascinating revelations emerging from their conversation. The recordings, unheard before Conover's interview with the jazz giant, became classics, with many subsequent reissues on LP and CD.

Willis Conover in his own words: From an interview with Gerry Mulligan

Music at VOA: Willis Conover - 3: An audio feature by VOA'S Special English

Music at VOA: Willis Conover - 2: A remembrance video by VOA's Russian Service

Music at VOA: Willis Conover - 1: Introduction and VOA video on "Willis Conover Day"