Sunday, October 05, 2008
  My Desert Island Discs 7

Much as Pat Metheny has said (see DID 6), the methods that are used to quantify music - jazz, rock, pop, black, white, American, folk, European, avant-garde, etc. - have all dismally failed as terms that have any value whatsoever for me as a listener.

From my earliest listening to jazz sounds imported from America, to the rock and roll and the blues as sung by white boys of my adolescent years, I have always been aware of how music can cross national boundaries, regardless of colour or, indeed, creed.

When I was seven and my sister six, the Ojikutu family from Lagos, Nigeria, came to London. Mr.Ojikutu came to study law at London University and his wife worked as a telephonist for the GPO in order to support her husband. They had a son, Lawal, still a baby and he became our foster brother. As we wheeled him in a pram past our local shopping parade, neighbours would coo and say, "Ooh, isn't he just like a little doll."

Which he wasn't, of course, because he shat, cried at night and was the generally normal little infant. He also suffered terribly from eczema and asthma, possibly as a result of living in an alien environment. Later his sister, Bimbola, joined us all.

It was an alien environment for us too; every month or so we ventured across the river into North London to visit the Ojikutus. We listened to 78s, large records which predated vinyl 45s and 33s, of Yuroba dance music; I've got them on cassette somewhere in Jakartass Towers. It was at one of these gatherings that we met one of the world's great men, Chief Enahoro, later to be deported from the UK on a trumped up charge of treason, in spite of a writ of habeas corpus being issued in the UK. (I didn't realise until this week that Chief Enahoro is still alive and respected as an elder statesman in Nigeria.)

He gave my sister and I half a crown each, a lot of money in those days.
And all this is something of a preamble to say that I've always had an ear open for what is now termed 'world music' but which I'd prefer to refer to as indigenous music.

Music celebrates existence, even as it mourns the passing of time. It's marks the passing of Nature's seasons - the arrival of the rains and the collection of a successful harvest alike, and the passing of people - births, weddings and funerals.

We can all join in, whether by singing, dancing, clicking and tapping fingers, clapping hands, stomping feet, banging stones, rattling, shaking, plucking, scatting, clucking, whistling, humming, wailing ..............

In many societies, the links between Man and Nature are forgotten; thus urban rap and gangsta. Periodically, as now, there is a revival of English folk music, a reworking of songs about John Barleycorn, which some may deem an irrelevance. However, the songs, and their interpretations, do serve as oral history, if only for offering us a glimpse of a passing time.

What intrigues me, "an alien abroad', are the way musicians transcend cultural boundaries and blur their distinctions, thus remaining true to the musical values of the different 'styles'.

By now it is well-established1 that blues music is African in origin, a derivation of the slave trade.

Listen to Kulanjan (Hannibal Records - 1998) by blues master Taj Mahal and Malian griot kora (harp-lute) player Toumani Diabaté. It is a fusion of both their musics, yet even if you know, for example, that Queen Bee is a Taj composition, it still sounds as if it were a Malian folk song. Fanta, dedicated to Diabaté's wife, takes the Malian tradition of the praise song and renders it as an infectious Cajun blues, sung in French by Taj.

(Whilst typing this, I'm listening to the Canadian group The Tea Party who incorporated sitar in their blues, both metal and acoustic. Earlier I listened to the John Butler Trio from Australia using a didgeridoo to lead in their take on the blues.)

My seventh choice has to be Indonesian. Not Anggun who sings in English, French and Indonesian whilst sounding like Annie Lennox. And I'm not going for dangdut music. If I did, I might be accused of being kampungan (unsophisticated), but I don't actually enjoy this fusion of Arabic, Indian, Malay, rock and other stuff. I would be interested to give a listen to an album due out soon featuring a hitherto unknown American singer Arreal Tilghman. Apparently he sings in Indonesian as well as his native English; the album is rather imaginatively called Dangdut In America.

I could pick any number of CDs of gamelan music, although I do prefer to be entranced by a live performance in Yogyakarta or Bali. I could even pick a selection of Indonesian music such as the one pictured on the left, which is a single volume distilled from a twenty album series compiled by ethnomusicologist Philip Yampolsky.

But I'm not sure that anything mentioned in the last two paragraphs will give me the chill factor, the goosebumps which come when you know you're listening to a musician who's putting their soul into their performance.

For that, I choose Kedamaian, an album by Bubi Chen, Indonesian grand jazz piano master, in which, Keith Jarrett-like, he improvises over the gentle sway provided by kacapi suling from the highlands of west Java. There is a higher pitched kacapi (zither) rincik, the lower pitched kacapi indung and a suling (bamboo flute).

The music consists of instrumental pieces performed in two different scales; the first four in laras pelog convey a light mood, the last four, in laras sorog are more slow and grave. The change to laras sorog usually takes place at midnight and lasts til sunrise.

The album, which I'm not sure has been released as a CD, can be downloaded, no doubt illegally, here.

(I recommend that those curious about music from around the world, but who lack internet radio or access to good music shops should take out a subscription to Songlines. A magazine published eight times a year, it comes with a CD, sometimes two, of compiled 'world' music, most of which you are unlikely to have heard.)
1 Paul Oliver in his study of African retentions in the blues, Savannah Syncopators (pub.Stein and Day, 1970) sees many parallels between bluesmen and griots who were the musicians of Senegambia, and most of West Africa. Griots often used string instruments, and played a communal music that consisted of light percussion, hand clapping and call and response. Oliver notes that griots were labelled as their people’s ‘keepers of history’, and like the blues singers were often considered “lazy, lacking in industry and job application".
- fr. unpublished thesis Blues Culture In The Mississippi Delta 1890 - 1920 by Son No.1

I also enjoy this observation: ... respectable white citizens criticised the lack of cultivated black music forms and the savagery of their dancing whilst themselves performing the Charleston, which bore remarkable resemblance to a West African Ashanti ancestor dance.




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