Saturday, November 27, 2010

Missed the Disco Party

That I am in fact writing (and you, are reading) this at this moment is a wonderfully acute but cruel illustration of the phrase, ‘all dressed up and no where to go.”

You see some months ago our dearest and oldest friends sent us a warning that we were to keep this night free of all engagements and excuses so as to present ourselves at their inner city warehouse in brazen samples of 1970’s sartorial travesties. As the date approached I was pleased at the conjunction of several events that portended a great evening: a babysitter had been arranged, my contribution to raising issues of men’s health during this Movember would fit nicely into the general ghastly environment, an important business trip to Africa would have ended a few days prior and a boring State election would be behind us.  The outrageously cool costumes my wife, Yvonne, and I managed to find this morning, seemed to be the cherry on the top of a very large cream cake.

All dressed up.
720 pm. With kids bathed, fed and about to be tucked in for the night, we get a call from aforementioned babysitter informing us that she has a migraine and won’t be able to make it. Really sorry.  Panic stations leads to the decision (the only sane one) that Yvonne goes. She’s been dancing to Abba on YouTube all afternoon and looks smashing in her outfit. And at last she admits, “I’d hate you if you went and I stayed home.”  

That settled, I settle into heating up the leftover meatloaf and cracking open a bottle of my favorite beer.  And here I sit, blogging about the ‘one that got away’.

The disco era, like most horrible epochs in history, looks better in retrospect. At the time I distinctly recall bemoaning ‘all this disco shit’ to whoever would listen. Progressive radio stations (yes, these did exist at one point in the USA) railed against canned music and sponsored (very unprogressively) disco disc bonfire nights. Surly bumper stickers breathed heavily about some sort of violence to be meted out against those who continued to put live music venues on the back burner in preference to discotheques.  But in the midst of this bluster and cringing there was actually quite a bit of fun, dare I say, damn good, music on the airwaves and in the clubs.  Everything from Earth Wind and Fire and Chic, to Abba and the Bee Gees, from The O’Jays and Stevie Wonder to Lou Rawls and Boz Scaggs.

So as the long-awaited 70s party heats up across town, let me console myself by sharing some of the all time great disco-era musical treats with you. Available as podcast and zip file! What a bargain!

Track Listing:
             01.     What Can I Say  (Boz Scaggs/ Silk Degrees)
             02.    Affirmation (George Benson/ Breezin’)
             03.    The Love I Lost (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes/ The Ultimate Blue Notes)
             04.    Adventures of Flash on the Wheels of Steel (Grandmaster Flash/ New York New York)
             05.    Jive Talkin’ (Bee Gees/ The Best)
             06.    Waterloo (ABBA/ Gold)
             07.    Sir Duke (Stevie Wonder/ Songs in the Key of Life)
             08.    Le Freak (Chic/ Dance, Dance, Dance: The Best of Chic)
             09.    September (Earth Wind and Fire/ The Best)
             10.    Georgia (Boz Scaggs/ Silk Degrees)
             11.    You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine (Lou Rawls/ All Things in Time)
             12.    I Love the Nightlife (Alicia Bridges/ OST Priscilla, Queen of the Desert)
             13.    Discotheque (Jimmy McGriff/ Greatest Hits)
             14.    Texas Twister (Melvin Sparks/ The Best of Acid Jazz)
             15.    You Are Everything (The Stylistics/ The Very Best)
             16.    Backstabbers (The O’Jays/ Super Hits)
             17.    Could It Be I’m Falling in Love (The Spinners/ The Best)
             18.    I Wish (Stevie Wonder/ Songs in the Key of Life)
             19.    Stayin’ Alive (Bee Gees/  Best)

         To get the zip file click here.  To enjoy this set as a podcast click here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Riding the Iron Horse: Train Songs

Riding the Iron Horse: Train Songs

Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Well that long black train, got my baby and gone


There is probably no more potent and frequently used image in popular music than the train. You don’t have to delve too far into the blues or rock ‘n roll  or country or gospel repertoire before you smell the smoke, feel the sway or hear the clickety-clack and lonesome whistle of a train lumbering down the line.  Whether its carrying your baby away, or bringing her back, whether its taking you home or carrying you away, whether its transporting you to sweet glory or pulsating with sexual desire, the train is everywhere.

For your listening pleasure I’ve collected into several volumes a collection of train songs the crisscross the wide landscape of American (and in volume 3, some other countries) popular music.  And before you raise your eyebrow at the volume of songs, let me assure you this is but a sampler.  You could fill a dozen CDs with terrific train songs and still have parts of the terrain uncovered.

Rather than offer any commentary on the individual artists or songs I’ll let the music speak for itself. Enjoy the ride!

Track Listing (Volume 1)     
 01.  My Baby Thinks She’s a Train  by Asleep At the Wheel (23 Country Classics)
       02.  Number 12 Train  by Josh White (Collectible Jazz Classics)
       03.  Big Black Train by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (‘Tis Sweet to Be Remembered: The Essential  Flatt and Scruggs)
       04.  How Long Blues by Big Joe Turner (The Boss of the Blues)
       05.  Runaway Train by Roseanne Cash (King’s Record Shop)
       06.  Can’t Let Go by Lucinda Williams (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road)
       07.  If Love Was a Train by Michelle Shocked (Short, Sharp, Shocked) 
       08.  Train Fare Blues by Muddy Waters (His Best 1947 to 1955)
       09.  Train Home by Chris Smither (Train Home)
       10.  Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight and the Pips (Gold)
       11.  B Movie Boxcar Blues  by Delbert McClinton (Second Wind)
       12.  I’m a Long Gone Daddy by Hank Williams III (Timeless)     
       13.  Love Train  by The O’Jays (Super Hits)
       14.  Freedom Train by Toots (Toots in Memphis)
       15.  Engine Number 9  by Wilson Pickett (Greatest Hits)
To get Volume 1 click here.

            Track Listing (Volume 2)
01.   Night Train by James Brown (Sex Machine: The Very Best of James Brown)
02.   Down There by the Train  by Johnny Cash (Cash: American Recordings)
03.   Let the Train Whistle Blow  by Johnny Cash (Cash: American Recordings)
04.   This Train is Bound for Glory by Johnny Cash and June Carter (A Believer Sings the Truth)
05.   Life’s Railway to Heaven by Patsy Cline (Jubilation! Country Gospel)
06.   Gospel Train by Larry Sparks (The Rough Guide to Bluegrass)
07.   Smokestack Lightning  by Howling Wolf (Moanin’ at Midnight)
08.   The Monkey and the Engineer by The Grateful Dead (Reckoning)
09.   Like a Freight Train by John Hiatt (The Open Road)
10.   That Train Don’t Stop Here by Los Lobos (Wolf Tracks: The Best of Los Lobos)
11.   The Train is Leaving by Lowell Fulson (Classic Cuts 1946 to 1953)
12.   The Midnight Special  by Harry Belafonte (The Very Best of Harry Belafonte)
13.   Freight Train by Taj Mahal (Music Fuh Ya)
14.   Fast Train  by Solomon Burke (Don’t Give Up On Me)
15.   Tulsa Queen  by Emmylou Harris (Luxury Liner)

To get Volume 2 click here.

            Track Listing (Volume 3)
      01.  Title Music from the film The Burning Train by R.D. Burman (The Bombay Connection: Vol. 1 Funk From Bollywood Action Thrillers 1977-1984)
      02.  Take the ‘A’ Train by Duke Ellington (Masterpieces by Ellington)
      03.  Stimela (The Coal Train) by Hugh Masekela (Hope)
      04.  The Mozdok’s Train  by Anouar Brahem Trio (Astrakhan Café)
      05.  This Train  by The Staple Singers (Freedom Highway)
      06.  People Get Ready  by Al Green (Higher Plane)
      07.  Chalte Chalte by Lata Mangeshkar (Pakeezah)
      08.  Il Rail wa Hamad (The Railway and Hamad)  by Ilham al Madfai (The Best)
      09.  Win My Train Fare Home by Robert Plant and Justin Adams (Sahara: Blues of the Desert)
      10.  The Train Won’t Wait  by Unknown (Unknown)

To get Volume 3 click here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Trumpety Bumpety

The Trumpet

The trumpet is the one and only musical instrument I have tried to befriend.  I took lessons, played in the school band and brass ensemble and on one horrific occasion embarrassed myself as a soloist.  I had some fun along the way but all in all, the journey was a struggle. The trumpet won. It demanded commitment and respect in return for its melliflousness, but those were gifts I was didn’t provide. I thrashed away, as if it were a stubborn, brassy donkey, cursing its refusal to sing. But it stood its ground, the haughty thing.  It gave in the same measure as it received. When, in the end, I packed it away in its velvet-lined case for the last time we both experienced a sense of relief, but also, not a little regret.

The trumpeters whose music I’ve selected for this post treated their dears far better than I. They gave their all and were rewarded. And so were we by the music they produced together.

I Love ParisEddie Calvert was known as the ‘Man with the Golden Trumpet’ and very popular in the 1950s and early 1960s. Unfortunately, his reputation, built around the clarion tone of his trumpet, was coupled with distasteful political views. He moved to South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where he was popular with the ruling elites, especially after arranging the old hymn, Amazing Grace, into a bit of apartheid heraldry he termed, Amazing Race.  This piece is the earliest bit of trumpeting I remember and was on an album (jet airline on the cover) in my folks record collection.

The Ring of FireJune Carter wrote this barnstorming tour de force with her then husband Merle Kilgore. Her lover, Johnny Cash, introduced what seemed an incongruous ingredient, the Mexican trumpets, and overnight he had the biggest hit of his career.  The names of the trumpet players remain unknown but it is their work that makes this song one of the greatest trumpet songs ever performed.

The Lonely Bull (El Solo Toro). Herb Alpert more than any other trumpeter inspired me to take trumpet lessons. I just couldn’t get enough of his light, joyous and sparkling sound which still epitomizes for me, America in the 1960s.  It is the sound of California, summer and shopping malls.  Though this was recorded as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, there was in fact no Tijuana Brass until several years later. Albert recorded most of the group’s early records by overdubbing the trumpet tracks himself. It was only when the records become so popular that he was forced to put a group together (the already-named Tijuana Brass) and hit the road.  They were one of the biggest groups of the 60s but Alpert was always a reluctant ‘star’.  He eventually had to call an end to the group, after surviving a near mental breakdown on stage.  He immediately sought out a therapist and tried to reclaim his life.

Meeting Across the River. Bruce Springsteen has a knack for bringing all sorts of characters alive in his songs.  This song, from Born to Run, by my reckoning the greatest of all rock n roll albums, is a master lesson in storytelling.  A small-time crook desperate to get a break briefs his young side-kick, Eddie, on how to act when they cross the river for a meeting with a real Goodfella.  Randy Brecker’s trumpet, which accompanies the song from the opening bar, provides the perfect sonic atmospheric for the song, conjuring up the lights of New York twinkling on the dark surface of the Hudson River.

I’m Crazy ‘Bout my Baby.  Louis Armstrong sings this Fats Domino song, as well as delivers an infectious, prancing trumpet accompaniment.

Ah Leu Cha. John Coltrane duels it out with Miles Davis on this track from ‘Round About Midnight, one of my favorite jazz albums.  The fast moving piece, which Miles plays without a mute, is performed with perfection and precision, and is a nice contrast to the ultra ‘cool’ sound with which Miles was about to revolutionize the entire jazz universe.

The Return of the Prodigal Son. I chose this song because I have a deep love for Jesus’s parable of the same name.  But also because Freddie Hubbard, my favorite trumpeter, is such a master and this is but one of hundreds of great tracks by the man who defined trumpet artistry when he was at his peak (60s and 70s). His warm and honeyed tone had no rival and can be heard on a huge catalogue of albums.

Where y’all At? This is an angry, passionate jazz rant by a man who has probably been the subject of more rants by jazz critics than any other contemporary musician. When he burst on the scene in the early ‘80s Wynton Marsalis was hailed as jazz’s savior but soon fell foul of the cogniscenti who labeled him ‘traditionalist’ and a dogmatist.  This track has some good trumpet playing, but ultimately it is about the anger and frustration.

My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It. Wynton teams up with Willie Nelson for a fun take on the Hank Williams song. Both ham it up but Wynton manages to deliver some good trumpet breaks as well.

Bombshell Baby from Bombay. A Hindi movie’s interpretation of Elvis rock ‘n roll. Wonderful jazzy trumpet playing from some faceless Bollywood studio musicians.

African Marketplace. I love this song for the same reason I love Meeting Across the River.  It conjures up a scene that is vividly alive, in this case, a busy frenetic African market. The seeming chaos of the trumpet, drum and clarinet also reminds me of the wedding bands that used to blare their way through the streets of Allahabad and Mussoorie where I grew up. The trumpeters always in the lead and often drunk as skunks.

Trumpet Highlife.  West African pop/jazz from Victor Ola-Iya and His Cool Cats!

If Joe Fas Me. Another wild trumpet led romp with a singer nearly delirious with hilarity.  Go the Twinkle Stars!!!

Get the songs (MP3)  If you'd like the songs in podcast format.

Al Hirt (Live)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gnawa and Qawwali: Gospel Protest music of Islam

Gnawa musician
Many years ago while trawling the pirate CD market in Ho Chi Minh City I picked up a strange item, which is the focus of today’s musing.  It was a CD, entitled, Le Meilleur De Nass El Ghiwane. I don’t speak French but I knew it was music from the Islamic world. Probably North Africa, I deduced with Holmesian acuity!  I bought it mainly for the incongruity of the circumstance (North African music in SE Asia) and half expected it to be a mislabeled ABBA disc.  Indeed, I didn’t listen to it for several weeks, but when at last I desultorily popped it into the player I was blown away. And not by Dancing Queen!

I was hit by a wave of driving acoustic intensity that immediately brought to mind the ineffability of qawwali and Fela Kuti’s unrelenting fierceness. Those were days before Google and Wikipedia and all I managed to find out about the performers was they were Moroccan. They sang in Arabic but there was no way I could miss they were singing political lyrics. Palestine came up a lot as did Sabra and Chatila sites of the horrific 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Phalangists.

Nass El Ghiwane are a group of musicians who came together in the 1960s out of the poor industrial areas of Casablanca, Morocco. Turning their back on the prevalent Arabic pop music culture they chose to perform in the gnawa tradition. Their instruments are entirely acoustic and traditional as is their singing style. Their innovation was to add political commentary and subject matter to this essentially mystical form of music. In Morocco and throughout North Africa and indeed, across the oceans in North America and Europe, from whence rock and jazz musicians came to sit at their feet, their influence and impact has been deep, immediate and enduring.

The gnawa tradition, which they brought to the attention of the wider world is a distinctly Moroccan form of deeply mystical Sufi trance music used for celebration, healing and worship. “The term Gnawa has three important meanings. First, it refers to black people who were enslaved in West Africa.   It is commonly believed that Gnawa of Morocco were originally black slaves and who over time had become free under various historical circumstances.  Historians believe that the Gnawa population originated from black West Africa - from Senegal to Chad and from Mali in the north to Nigeria in the south.  Many of these enslaved people are thought to come from Old Ghana (a kingdom north of Mali) in the 11th through the 13th century.  These enslaved groups were called ‘Gnawa.’  There is also some historical evidence that a large enslaved population came from the great market of Djenne in Mali, and that Gnawi is a slight deformation of Jennawi.  The term Gnawa is thus a color designation.  It historically means ‘the black people.’
“Second, it defines both a religious/spiritual order of a traditionally Black Muslim group.  The Gnawa are traditionally a mystic order which marks their exclusiveness within Islam and the religious and spiritual components of Gnawa practice incorporates references to their origin and their enslavement.

“Third, it denotes the style of music associated with this order.  The ancestral memory (turath) of the displaced and enslaved people that were brought to Morocco is preserved mainly in their songs and dances.” Quote from: The Gnawa Music of Morocco by Dr Chouki El Hamel

To hear Nass El Ghiwane’s rocking version of gospel protest music click here.
Track List:
1.  El Maana

2.     2.  Mahmouna
3.     3.  Sabra et Chatila
4.    4.   Zad Alhame
5.    5.   Saif Albatar
6.     6.  Alkassam
7. Palestine

Gnawa music has played a major role in the assimilation of Islam among the peoples of North Africa in a way that is not dissimilar to qawwali  and sufiana  music has in South Asia.

Wadali Brothers

Qawwali, especially, is culturally, spiritually and musically an integral and unique part of the Indian subcontinent. Essentially a form of worship and way to spiritual ecstasy, qawwali has been ‘secularised’ and ‘dumbed down’, especially by the film makers of Bollywood, but it still a widely accessed form of mystical spiritual expression. Indeed, there are few experiences more moving and mighty than a late night mehfil-e-sama (traditional name for a qawwali performance) in which the ‘party’ (performers) sing, clap and drum ever more intensely for 30-40 minutes at a stretch.

I’ve included two examples here.  The first is by the very interesting Wadali Brothers who are Punjabi Hindus deeply committed to the Sufi tradition. Strange as this may seem at first blush, the Wadali Brothers are the very personification of the Sufi Way, which fundamentally refuses to recognize any religious categories/labels.   The qawwali I’ve selected is in a slightly more polished style, called
Bulleya Ki Jana Main Kaun (Baba Bulleh Shah).

The second selection is from the inimitable Shahenshah (Emperor) of qawwali Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It is a qawwali with a very traditional subject, Allah, Mohammad Char Yaar (Allah, Mohammad and the Four Companions).

Finally, I conclude this entry with a song by Fela Kuti, Water No Get Enemy. Definitely not a Sufi, but his music, like that of Nass El Ghiwane and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is spiritual in its own way, and full of protest. 

Click here>

Happy listening!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Iron Curtain Raisers: Popular Music from Eastern Europe

Good rockin' from groovy Zagreb!

If you’re like me, the countries that made up Eastern Europe, were  a bit of a mystery until the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.  In 1989, I was living in Pakistan and for some reason two German backpackers were my houseguests. The Velvet Revolution was in full force but my Teutonic friends insisted, “The Wall will not come down in our lifetime.”  About three months later they were proven wrong. The Wall not only came down, it was followed in pretty quick order by the utter collapse of the modern world’s alternative political and social model.

In later years I had occasion to work in the Balkans (Bosnia, Albania and Croatia) and the FSU (Former Soviet Union, if you must know). In Former Yugoslavia I was taken with the landscape’s beauty and the heretofore unimagined (by me) ethnic complexity of the area. The wars that raged in those regions during the early 90s had not attracted my attention; I was working in Africa and Asia.  Europe was not just in another part of the world. It was a different world altogether.

As is always the case, it is only when you travel through a land that you begin to appreciate it. And the more frequently I visited Bosnia, Republika Srpska, Croatia and Albania the deeper that brooding Slavic air got into my blood. What amazed me was how quickly a country (Yugoslavia) can come to an end after decades of physical, psychological, political and emotional effort to put it together. And how far back the enmities that drove the wars of the 90s reached.  “When we tell our children our history we speak as if 600 years ago was last week,” one of my colleagues told me.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of books on that part of the world, fascinated I suppose that for my entire youth, half the world was a complete blank spot.  Recently I finished an imminently readable and deeply insightful book,   Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.  The author, Stephen Kotkin, examines in detail case studies from Poland, Romania, East Germany and Hungary and argues persuasively that each of these societies, despite displaying  a façade of power and total control, was in fact a structural house of cards unable to respond to change of any kind.  Hence the immediate and complete collapse when the time came. 

During my travels and times in the former Communist world, my only encounter with music was the abundant access to pirated CDs. From every trip I would return with a dozen or so of the latest releases all purchased for less than what a single CD would cost me in Britain.  It has been only in the past few years that my musical explorations have turned up some amazing Eastern European music.  Behind the Iron Curtain, a whole universe of music was going on from traditional/gypsy folk to some of the most amazing rock ‘n roll and accomplished jazz.

This is a part of the musical world that is still relatively unknown to me but in this collection, Iron Curtain Raisers, I’ve collected a few of my favorite tracks from that part of the world.

Track Listing:

1.    1.  Vi Bist Du Geveyzn Far Prohibish'n? by 3Mustaphas3. The Mustaphas were a tongue in cheek ‘Balkans’ band from the UK which performed a giddily eclectic but largely East European-inspired style of music.

2.     2Gili ( Béga Sitya ). From the soundtrack of the film Latcho Drom, a documentary on the gypsies. Performed by the Hungarian gypsy outfit, L'ensemble Kek Lang.

3.     3. Szolj Ram Ha Hangosan Enekelek. Good old guitar driven rock n roll from 1970s Hungary.

4.     4. Balkan Reggae. A contemporary Romanian gypsy band from their bombastic album Ghetto Blasters.

5.     5. Poszlabym za toba. Heavy electric blues-based rock from Poland, anyone?

6.    6.  ivot moj. A nice ballad from Croatia’s Josipa Lisac.

7.     7. Sve sam poku˚ala da te zavolim (with Alenka Pintariè). Breezy flower power pop from 1960s Yugoslavia/Croatia. Performed by Zlatni Akordi.

8.     8. Przeminelo z wiatrem tyle dni. Polish pop from 1970, performed by Grupa ABC Andrzeja Nebeskiego.

9.     9. Skull And Crossbones. Vladimir Vissotski was a hugely influential Russian/Soviet artist who not only sang but was a poet and actor as well. This is from the album Le Monument.

.     10. Got No Money. Performed by Dusko Gojkovic, a Serbian jazz trumpeter who played extensively in the United States with some of the major jazz stars of the 1960s and 70s.

11  11. Magdalena. A passionate pre-Leonard Cohen hallelujah hymn from Czechoslovakia’s Marta Kubisova, an artist frequently (and for long periods) out of favor with the authorities.

12  12. Skad my sie znamy.  More sparkling pop music from Communist Poland.

      13. Ja i ti (We Are Brotherhood Of Man). Performed by Nada Knezevic one of Serbia’s most popular jazz and pop singers.

14  14. Wodo zimna wodo. Halina Frackowiak started out as a backup singer but then had a successful career in as a lead singer in Poland.

15  15. Kalimankou Denkou. The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir attained considerable visibility in the West in the late 80s for their mysterious, eerie and celestial a capella sounds.

      16. Ar Vera Un Eschimos.  It is hard to imagine Nicolae Ceausescu grooving to rock n roll but Phoenix was a popular Romanian band in the 60s and 70s.

      17. My Strange Uncles From Abroad. Gogol Bordello is in part a contemporary New York answer to 3Mustaphas3 and as such a fitting bookend to this collection.

  To get Iron Curtain Raisers  click here.