Best of Breed

•25 September 2007 • 6 Comments

Bobby McFerrin’s collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma was wonderful, and he did a great video with Robin Williams and the brilliant actor and clown Bill Irwin, but for my money, this song is one of his best:

I adore a cappella music. There’s something about the human voice, naked and unadorned, or at least unaccompanied, that is terribly moving. My first exposure to it was Barbershop music and Doo-Wop. The King’s Singers are credited with promoting interest in small-group a cappella performances in the 1960s. The Swingle Singers took the lead in pop music.

In the ’70s and ’80s, I started singing Renaissance music (Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, John Dowland, Orlando di Lasso) and madrigals (we recreated the court of Henry VIII for a banquet in college; I was Henry, and had all six of my wives alive and at table with me at the same time).

A cappella music attained renewed prominence from the late 1980s onward, spurred by the success of Top 40 recordings by artists such as The Manhattan Transfer, Huey Lewis and the News, All 4 One, The Nylons, and Boyz II Men. Then came Rockapella. Their popular success was primarily due to having done several catchy commercial jingles (Folger’s, Almond Joy) and children’s shows, like PBS’s excellent “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”:

However, this is perhaps a fairer representation of their style, if you can overlook the late 1980s clothing and hair styles:

The Bobs are, for me, the best of the breed (that’s also how they got their name: the BOBs, a term derived from dog competitions). The original members met while employed as deliverers of singing telegrams. The group is known for humorous original songs and avant-garde arrangement techniques. Instead of covering more traditional doo-wop songs, The Bobs started out with songs like “Helter Skelter” (The Beatles) and “Psycho Killer” (Talking Heads).

Here’s the song that started it all:

Although two of their albums are dominated by covers, the overwhelming majority of their repertoire is original, with songs discussing diverse subjects like lunar cattle farming, sleepy bus drivers, bumper stickers, laundry, hurricane-related flooding, graffiti, Oliver North, shopping-mall security guards, celebrity autographs, synaesthesia, post office violence, heart transplants, Heaven’s Gate, spontaneous human combustion, turtles, rebellious footwear, tattoos, nicknames for genitalia, and felines intent on ruling the world.

Members of the group are always credited with “Bob” as their middle name.

Here they sing everyone’s favorite rock classic, “White Room” by Cream:

From the Bobs website:

Another notable avenue of expression for the Bobs have been in collaboration with dance companies. Their first was the commissioning of a series of songs, “The Laundry Cycle” for the Oberlin Dance Collective. Later that year (1987) after returning from their first European tour they met the dance troupe named Momix, who later changed their name to ISO. Improvising with them was the source of creation for a show. Their continued work with ISO for a number of years was noticed sufficiently that they relieved a commission from Lincoln Center, a one-hour presentation on PBS and a spot in the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History! That’s quite an honor for the only New Wave a cappella group in history. It’s also a testimonial to just how important the Bobs have been to the flourishing world of contemporary a cappella music. They are among the elite handful of totally original creators who blaze the path which so many others follow it becomes a freeway.

You certainly can’t get more original than this Bobs classic, “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”:


“Yo, Yo-Yo Ma, My Man!”

•24 September 2007 • 8 Comments

There were three truly great cellists in the 20th century: Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma. Only one is left.

Yo-Yo Ma is my age. He was born seventeen days ahead of me.

Born in France, 馬友友 (in Pinyin: Mǎ Yǒuyǒu) had a musical upbringing. His mother was a singer and his father was a conductor and composer. His family moved to New York when he was seven years old.

Ma began studying violin, and later viola, before taking up the cello in 1960 at age four. The child prodigy began performing before audiences at age five. When he was seven, he appeared on American television in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein (unfortunately, the ower of this and the next three videos don’t allow embedding, so you’ll have to double click them to watch them on YouTube):

By fifteen, Ma had graduated from high school and appeared as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra. He studied at Juilliard and attended Columbia before enrolling at Harvard. He questioned whether he should continue his studies — until he heard Pablo Casals perform. That was all the inspiration he needed.

Ma has been referred to as “omnivorous” by critics. Besides the standard classical repertoire, he’s recorded Baroque pieces using period instruments; American bluegrass music; traditional Chinese melodies (including the soundtrack to the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon); as noted yesterday, the tangos of Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla; the music of modern minimalist Philip Glass in such works as Naqoyqatsi; and an eclectic and unusual collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, where Ma admits to being terrified of the improvisation McFerrin pushes him toward:

Here he is in an appearance on Sesame Street:

Ma was the first performer on September 11, 2002, at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack on the WTC. He played the Sarabande movement from Bach’s Suite in C minor (#5). Here he plays the same piece in performance at the Tôdai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan:

A 2002 article in Time Magazine wrote about Ma’s Silk Road Project:

[It’s] an organization he founded to explore the musical currents and cultural interdependence of countries along the ancient Central Asian trade routes. The group commissions works by composers representing 10 countries (including China, Turkey and Uzbekistan) and oversees performances of this new repertoire by a comparably international ensemble of traditional and classical musicians. This month the orchestra plans to make its first concert tour of Central Asia.

The vision for the Silk Road Project grows out of the time-honored notion of music as a universal language. If a Chinese musician understands that his erhu (Chinese fiddle) is a descendant of the Arab oud, Ma believes, maybe he’ll be able to more readily embrace his connection to another culture. In an increasingly globalized world, we have information about one another, Ma says, “but how can we actually feel that, yeah I know you, I feel like we’ve met before?” Playing the music of other cultures is as enriching as travel, says Ma: “Every time I go away from something that I grew up with, I come back practicing more because my ears are cleaner. After Brazilian rhythms, I suddenly go back to Haydn and think, I can get a groove there and I’ve never thought about it. I’ve rushed through this part for the 30 years I’ve played this piece.”

Here’s Yo-Yo Ma performing with Cyro Baptista in a live version of “Afro,” from the album Obrigado Brazil:

Now for thirty-six seconds of unbridled joy: Ma and McFerrin’s duet of “Flight of the Bumblebeeby Rimsky-Korsakov.

Ástor and the Brothels of Buenos Aires

•23 September 2007 • 5 Comments

Forget “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Forget “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets).” If you want to hear some serious tango music, you’ve got to go to Argentina.

It was, of course, where the tango originated. Well, Buenos Aires, specifically. The dance originated with the African community in Buenos Aires during the 19th century; it was based on ancient African dance forms, and the word “tango” comes from the Niger Congo. Most historians say the tango really took hold in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Certainly the overtly sexual energy of the dance tends to lend credence to the idea.

Tango music is traditionally played by a sextet, known as the orquesta típica, which includes two violins, a piano, a double bass, and two bandoneons (handheld accordions). Vocalists are optional.

It was Rudolph Valentino who brought the tango to new audiences, especially in the United States, with his sensual depictions of the dance on film. At the same time, tango was moving out of the brothels in Argentina and becoming a more respectable form of music and dance.

A second revolution came in the 1950s with the work of Ástor Piazzolla, who incorporated elements from jazz and classical music, morphing the traditional tango into a new style called Tango Nuevo. He is widely considered the most important tango composer of the latter half of the twentieth century. A formidable bandoneonist, he continuously performed his own compositions with different ensembles. He is known in Argentina as “El Gran Ástor” (“The Great Astor”).

You might be interested in seeing just a bit of this BBC documentary on Piazzolla:

In 1974 Piazzolla did an album called Libertango, featuring the song by the same name. In 1999 the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma did an album called Soul of the Tango, and this video is the result of their collaboration:

Tango music continues to evolve. Recent trends might be described as “electro tango” or “tango fusion,” where the electronic influences are available in multiple ranges, from very subtle to rather dominant. One of the most prominent groups who work in this genre is the Paris-based Gotan Project, and their most popular album is probably La Revancha del Tango (2001). Their sound features electronic elements like samples, beats, and sounds on top of a tango groove:

In 2001 Indigo Bunting, her wonderful husband Tim, and I traveled nearly an hour to a theater showing the Baz Luhrmann jukebox musical film Moulin Rouge! I absolutely hated that movie. If I recall correctly, Tim rather liked it, and Indigo was somewhat perplexed by it. The only piece I liked somewhat was Sting’s “Roxanne,” retitled “El Tango de Roxanne” in the film:

Finally, pop culture has begun to embrace Argentine Tango in earnest. On this past season of So You Think You Can Dance, a television dance competition, one young couple — he’s a ballet dancer, she’s a breakdancer — did an amazing tango to (of all songs) “Whatever Lola Wants.” For me it was the highlight of the season:

By the way, the first judge you see at the end of the clip is Adam Shankman, the director/choreographer of this summer’s wonderfully fun movie musical Hairspray. Fun factoid: He officiated at the wedding of Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Sarah Michelle Gellar, with whom he worked while choreographing Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


•22 September 2007 • 1 Comment

It’s frankly amazing how many of these September Songs have been on mix tapes of mine. Doubly amazing considering I haven’t listened to cassette tapes for years now, not to mention the fact that cassette tapes themselves are nearly as much of a dinosaur as I am.

My good friend Jim has made me a number of mix tapes over the years. He always discovered musical artists before I did. We don’t always have similar tastes, but he’s had a good feel for the type of music that I respond to. On one such tape were three songs by a singer-songwriter I had never heard of. Everyone else had heard of him, of course; he was one of the most popular artists of 1986, apparently, but I was a babe in the woods, pop music-wise.

The three songs were all from Peter Gabriel’s fifth album, So. I’ve heard it’s been hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time. I’ve never heard why it was called So; that too is probably common knowledge that I never discovered. Oh well.

looking down on empty streets, all she can see
are the dreams all made solid
are the dreams made real . . .

nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey
nowhere in the suburbs
in the cold light of day

there in the midst of it so alive and alone
words support like bone

dreaming of mercy st.
where you’re inside out
dreaming of mercy
in your daddy’s arms again
dreaming of mercy st.
‘swear they moved that sign
dreaming of mercy
in your daddy’s arms

Apparently So has become an oracle of sorts. Listeners wishing to consult Peter (though why they thought to do so in the first place is beyond me) will ask a question before starting the album, and then listen to the whole thing to receive an answer. Citing the vague, suggestive lyrics and the mystic cover, fans claim (despire his protestations to the contrary) that this was Gabriel’s intention all along. The ritual was even referred to on an episode of Seinfeld.

“Red Rain” refers to a old, recurring dream Gabriel had where he swam through red water. This developed (earlier in his solo career) into an idea for a movie, Mozo, in which villagers were punished for their sins with a blood red rain. According to the liner notes from the remastered version of So, it’s also a reference to acid rain.

I’ve read that the third song Jim chose for me, “In Your Eyes,” was a #1 hit in the U.S. Like many of his songs, “In Your Eyes” contains significant African influences, even more so when performed live (on the So tour) as an extended vocal duet with Youssou N’Dour:

The album ends with a pictorial and meditative piece titled “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds),” which features vocals with co-writer Laurie Anderson. Anderson had previously recorded a different arrangement of the song entitled “Excellent Birds” for her 1984 album, Mister Heartbreak, which also featured vocals by Gabriel. She performs the song in her concert film, Home of the Brave, released around the same time as So.

This fan video uses images by M.C. Escher, and is presented as “imaginings on the duality of life: Birds and Bats, White and Black, Ying and Yang, Good and Evil”:

flying birds
excellent birds
watch them fly, there they go
falling snow
excellent snow
here it comes. watch it fall

long words
excellent words
I can hear them now . . .

I see pictures of people, rising up
pictures of people, falling down
I see pictures of people
they’re standing on their heads, they’re ready

Garden of Eden

•21 September 2007 • 2 Comments

Old hotels are not all they’re cracked up to be, especially when they are repurposed as schools.

In some ways my high school was idyllic: sometimes it was hard to see the algebra problems because the glare off the noonday Caribbean was so bright; it was occasionally difficult to hear the French teacher because of the roar of the waves. There was no air conditioning, but none was needed with the Trade Winds blowing all the time. We had no lunch room; we brought bagged lunches from home, and ate them on the beach. After lunch someone would climb a palm tree with machete in hand (O innocent, halcyon days!) and cut down a coconut. The climber always claimed the milk, but the rest of us got to take chunks of fresh coconut meat to nibble on during our afternoon classes. It was a hard life.

In other ways, it was definitely a make-do situation. There was a vast room at the back of the school that I believe had once been the hotel’s kitchen. We used part of the area as an art room, and the rest was storage, except for the couple of times a year when there were school dances or other large gatherings, when all the clutter was swept to the corners to make room for chairs and a makeshift stage.

I remember one such school dance, in the spring of 1971.

Maybe it was just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning

Things were vastly different in the islands, and times were vastly different then than now. And while liquor and drugs were officially prohibited, none of the faculty chaperones cared that the punch had been spiked or that some of the students were getting high on the beach a few steps from the door. I was in tenth grade, and none of this seemed terribly remarkable.

What was remarkable was the music. Two of the band members were students; two were friends of theirs. And they were brilliant: driving, exciting, incredibly polished and professional. Brad was the drummer and the de facto leader of the group, and of course I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

When the band took a break, I was bold enough to tell him how much I was enjoying the music. He asked what I liked about it. I stammered something about music as an intoxicant or drumming as a drug, and he said, “Then you’ll like this,” put on a record and turned up the amp, and handed me a drink (punch spiked with vodka, spiked further with 151 proof rum).

The next seventeen minutes changed my consciousness forever:

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was a groundbreaking song, a groundbreaking album. I don’t recall ever listening to any other Iron Butterfly songs; I wasn’t even aware they had made other albums until many years later. There was only “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in my world.

I don’t remember when I first heard the term “psychedelic rock,” but it was long after I had become entranced by The Doors, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Brother and the Holding Company, or early Pink Floyd. Before “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” my musical taste seemed to be equal parts classical music (I was a huge fan of Dmitri Shostakovich), movie musical soundtracks (I know, what a surprise), and — I shudder to reveal this — Easy Listening music of the most atrocious variety. I was a very peculiar kid. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” popped my cherry, as it were, and overnight, Easy Listening had become intolerable to me, as well it should.

The opening few bars still make me shiver with anticipation.


Which made this snippet even more enjoyable.

Sacred Fires

•20 September 2007 • 5 Comments

In 1969 my family and I moved to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The island is about 28 miles long and 8 miles wide at the widest point, but the roads curve and double back upon themselves, so it seems much larger than it actually is. My high school sat on a beach overlooking the Caribbean; it was once a hotel that had been owned by Laurance Rockefeller.

There are only two towns on the island: Christiansted, the capital, on the northeast coast, and Fredericksted, on the western coast. Between them, the land is divided into Estates with fanciful names, like Whim Plantation, or Judith’s Fancy, or Hams Bluff, or Mount Welcome, or Rustoptwist (reflecting the island’s earlier Danish ownership).

Somewhere mid-island, off Centerline Road, there was for a brief time an enclosed mini-mall. Few shops ever opened up in it (it just wasn’t the island way), but a small café made a brave go of it for a year or so. My mother and I stopped in for lunch one afternoon in 1970, and the owners were playing the most amazing music over the loudspeakers: “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” from Santana’s second album, Abraxas. Then came the amazing second track:

My eyes grew wider and wider, and I couldn’t stop smiling in amazement. My mother wondered if I was having a seizure. When I could regain my composure, I still couldn’t tell her what had touched me so about the music. It had something to do with the intoxication of being a fourteen-year-old in this strange and wonderful place, and how this blend of salsa, psychedelic rock, blues, and jazz somehow encapsulated that period of my life so precisely.

Later that year I saw the documentary Woodstock, which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. And there they were again, dizzying in their intensity:

Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Country Joe and the Fish. John Sebastian. Arlo Guthrie. Joan Baez. The Who. Joe Cocker. CSNY, forever close to my heart. And so many more. But for me, it was Santana who captured the festival’s zeitgeist.

Abraxas. The title of the album comes from a line from Herman Hesse‘s book Demian:

We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas. . . .

The word Abraxas was engraved on stones and used as amulets or charms. The name is found in the Greek Magical Papyrii, and may be related to the word abracadabra; it is likely a Gnostic concept, representing God and Satan in one entity, or the duality of the divine essence.

But the music says it better than I do. Here’s “Incident at Neshabur” from that album:

A confession: While I am insanely in love with much of Santana’s music, there was a period from about 1973 through the early ’80s when I just didn’t care for anything they produced. It seemed as if they were trying too hard to be mystical, maybe. The music seemed soft and flabby. So I stick to the early stuff, and the latest stuff, which often consists of his old standards in new arrangements.

Consider, for example, this version of “Oye Como Va” (written by the great Tito Puente, by the way), recorded live in Tokyo in 1991:

Another song from Abraxas that I’ve loved was the classic slow-burning, seductive “Samba Pa Ti,” performed here in a 1998 concert in Zagreb, Croatia:

Two more, about which I really have nothing cogent to say. First, “Blues for Salvador” (from Carlos Santana’s 1987 solo album of same name):

And “Africa Bamba,” from his 1999 Supernatural album, which went fifteen times platinum in the U.S., and won nine Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year:

The Byrne-ing Time

•19 September 2007 • 4 Comments

I’m always coming late to the party, it seems.

One evening a few years ago, Indigo had me over to dinner, and she had some really kickass music playing.

“Who’s that?” I asked innocently.

She stopped short in the middle of the kitchen and looked at me incredulously. “‘Who’s that?’ What kind of a question is that?”

“It means,” I said carefully, slightly concerned about the large knife in her hand, which was swaying with emotion, “that I don’t know the music you’re playing.”

She paused, then enunciated, “The Dead,” as if speaking to a small and rather stupid child.

That’s the Grateful Dead?” I exclaimed.

The knife pointed rather distinctly at my midsection. Her sigh betrayed just a trace of exasperation.

I knew numerous stories about Jerry Garcia. I recognized the names of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. I had two Mickey Hart albums (Planet Drum and Drumming at the Edge of Magic) and knew of his work with archivists and ethnomusicologists at both the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution. But I had never actually heard any Grateful Dead music. I felt deeply ashamed.

She put down the knife, guided me into the living room, and sat me down with the CD liner, where I stayed put until she needed me to chop something.

What can I say? My head had been elsewhere, musically speaking. I worshiped at the altar of Cole Porter (and, as you’ve seen, Bertolt Brecht and Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway and Fats Waller — not your run-of-the-mill pop stars).

Another Big Name that I discovered all too late is David Byrne. I had heard “Burning Down the House,” of course, and somewhere along the way “Take Me to the River,” but otherwise I knew next to nothing about him or his work with Talking Heads.

Then came this video, and everything changed for me. I’m sure it was the fact that it was a Cole Porter song that caught my attention, but there was something clear and lucid about the way he sang, the way he looked straight at you, that made it so compelling:

It’s from an album and video (now re-released on DVD) called Red Hot + Blue. An eclectic musical homage to the legendary songwriter Cole Porter, it went platinum, spent twenty-four weeks on the Billboard charts, and generated $3 million dollars for AIDS charities worldwide. It featured such world-class artists as Byrne, U2, Annie Lennox, Tom Waits, and Sinead O’Connor, and videos by acclaimed directors like Wim Wenders and Jonathan Demme.

Once I started to immerse myself in Byrne’s music, I found myself being drawn to some of his lesser-known pieces. One of the more interesting, for a whole host of reasons that I have difficulty putting into words, is “Angels,” from his 1994 self-titled album:

I can barely touch my own self
How could I touch someone else?
I am just an advertisement
For a version of myself
Like molecules in constant motion
Like a million nervous tics
I am quivering in anticipation
Like the sunlight on their wings
I’m ready now (don’t look back)
I’m ready now (I’m ready for this)
I’m ready now

The sensuous world — the smell of the sea
The sweat off their wings — the fruit from the trees
The angel inside — who will meet me tonight
On wings of desire — I come back alive

In 1989 he put out an album called Rei Momo. It’s named for King Momus, an important figure in many Latin American countries (including Brazil) whose appearance signifies the beginning of Carnival festivities. Traditionally, a tall, fat man is chosen to fulfill the role, and he is usually presented with the key to the city. Byrne’s album featured many Afro-Cuban, Afro-Hispanic, and Brazilian song styles including merengue, salsa, samba, mambo, cumbia, cha cha cha, bomba, and charanga. Here’s a cut from that album, “Make Believe Mambo”:

About the time I discovered Rei Momo, I learned that Byrne did a breathtaking documentary that same year on Candomblé, the African-influenced spirit cult of the Bahia region of Brazil.

The 1989 film, Ilé Aiyé (The House of Life), explores the ways in which Candomblé has influenced the daily life and culture of the people of Brazil in music, art, religion, theater, food, dance, poetry and more. It uses experimental film techniques, music, and cultural observation to express the life and rituals of Candomblé and the symbolic manifestation of the Orishás, the deities that represent the wide range of natural and spiritual forces. The rhythms of the sacred drums and bells, a dance of spiritual ecstasy, offerings and sacrifices, divination and the visitation of the Orishás through trance are all part of the color and life of Candomblé. And of course Byrne wrote the score, which was complimented by ritual music recorded during ceremonies as well as popular Brazilian songs influenced by Candomblé.

How I wish even a little bit of it were on YouTube!

Content yourselves with this bit of lyrical beauty. It’s “The Great Intoxication,” recorded live at Union Chapel, London, in 2002:

Before you go, I wanted you to see another video from the Red Hot + Blue collection. Two, actually, but I don’t want to bore you, so one’s optional (U2’s stunning version of Night and Day, now a tale of obsessive love).

The first time I watched “So In Love,” performed by k.d. lang and directed by Bagdad Café’s Percy Adlon, I wept for long while afterward. I no longer weep, but it’s still very affecting: