Writing about World Music

Section X, Fall 2016

Improv Jamming-Teachable?

This past Thanksgiving weekend, I had the good fortune to drive down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and attend the South Carolina State Bluegrass Festival. This year marks the third time I have been, and although the festival is relatively small compared to large ones like the International Bluegrass Music Festival and Merlefest, I have always enjoyed the lineup of performers and the musical community present. This year, I spent many hours out of each day at the festival jamming with other musicians. Usually, I would listen to some bands from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or so and jam until 5 p.m. I would then listen to a few more bands and grab a bite to eat. Around 7 p.m. I would continue jamming backstage with several musicians until about midnight, then climb into my bed and wake up the next morning to repeat the cycle.

Although my traditional jamming binge has not been altered much in the three years I have attended the festival, the setting changed in one particular aspect: this year, the festival hosted one of Pete Wernick’s “Jam Camps.” The idea is pretty simple: regional instructors are brought together to teach beginning and intermediate musicians the art of playing with other people in a jam context. While me and several older musicians were jamming in one room, the Jam Camp was taking place in the room adjacent. During our jam, I heard one picker joke about the Jam Camp: “I oughta go over to that Jam Camp and learn the Pete Wernick method! Then I’ll be good enough to play with y’all!” he exclaimed and then jokingly laughed. The other musicians laughed as well. From this encounter, I realized that many of my own criticisms of a Jam Camp were shared by other musicians. Mainly, these older musicians believe Jam Camps are superfluous and unhelpful because jamming is something you learn to do through casual interaction with other musicians. Jam Camps reduce the casual, improvisational nature of jamming by structuring the volume, tone, breaks, and other musical aspects.

Over the weekend, I got to witness several differences between the traditional jammers who I normally played with and the Jam Camp instructors. Late one night, I found myself jamming with a few of the Camp teachers by the bar at the convention center. I noticed that the Camp teachers usually let all musicians play a break during the song. This would sometimes cause the song to last for 6 or 7 minutes as there were about 10 musicians jamming. Camp teachers also played a lot of bluegrass material from the 1960’s and 70’s– songs from counterculture bands like Old and in the Way, the Grateful Dead, and Seldom Scene. Generally, the older, more traditional musicians played material from the founding generation of bluegrass pioneers (1940’s and 50’s) or from the modern, neo-traditional genre. These distinctions revealed that the Jam Camp teachers generally valued musical inclusiveness over quality. Contributing to this difference is the fact that this school of musicians performs newgrass and counterculture bluegrass musics as opposed to the traditional music that musicians like myself jam on.

To signify these distinctions, I’ve included two videos of songs that were performed in the separate jams. The first clip is of a reunion of Old and in the Way almost forty years after their band dissolved. Their music is full of minor chords and vibes that are not present in traditional bluegrass music.

The next video is of a song we played in the more traditional jam. This Russell Moore classic is one that pushed his band to fame in the 1980’s bringing in a new age of traditional bluegrass music.

Music and its Effects on People

I am really interested in the point Will proposes in his final project, that live music affects the mood of audience. Actually, I think not only live music, but all music plays certain role in regulating people’s mood. An amusing example is that if we listen to some comedy music when watching horror movies, the film will be much less scary and even funny to some extent. The horrible atmosphere of these movies are set up by some musical elements in the background music as well.

Thus that is not weird that people can hear various kinds of music in different occasions. Music represents the characteristics of a certain place, and this could affect people in it. During Christmas all shopping malls plays Christmas music, which makes the shopping area cozy and warm, potentially make customers to consume more. Restaurants often play some soft and elate music, creating a comfortable atmosphere for customers and leaving them good impression of the place, while modernly decorated restaurants tend to play some soft but electronic songs, catering its characteristic and needs of customers. In party people have more chance to hear rock because rock and pop music generates people’s energies for the party, but in good hotels people generally hear classical music, because this usually shows the loftiness and quietness of the hotel, and further demonstrates the connoisseurship of the customers.

The reciprocate process of music between musical players and audience by Will also worth discussing. During the Thanksgiving Break, I took a trip to DC. When riding a bike around the city, I was listening to some music with fast tempos. I was happy that time, and with some extra music, I felt more happiness. I felt refreshed and celebrated. Then I changed my songs to maybe several of my favorite songs, and after listening to them, I became more elated. I am not sure which one happened first, the music affected my mood, or my mood made me choose the coordinate music, but finally they became reciprocal. One the contrary, when I first break up, I kept listening to songs on breaking up. The lyrics and rhythms are depressing, and they remind me some bad things, which makes me even more gloomy.

However, there are some opposite examples of this reciprocal process. People love songs on breaking up. From Adele to Taylor Swift, many of their hottest songs are on this topic and have received millions of responses. The melodies of these songs are sad, or at least not positive, not to mention the lyrics. I always hear these songs when hanging out with friends or on the car to dinner outside. It is confusing, because though they are depressing, these do not affect the atmosphere at all.

When writing this blog, I accidently click on a playlist on Christmas songs in Spotify. As the peaceful and light-hearted melodies arises, I suddenly feel energetic and cheerful. To some extent, music is magical to people’s mood.

The Funk

Even though everyone’s music tastes change over time, one genre has always been among my favorites: funk.  Part of what I like so much about funk is its ability to blend in with and fit in easily with many other genres.

My first exposure to funk was when I stumbled across Snarky Puppy’s song “Quartermaster.”  Snarky Puppy employs a sound of jazz funk fusion and uses many types of instrumentation to create songs that are often loud and fast but sometimes smooth and rhythmic.  In “Quartermaster,” the composer wrote the song so that it sounds like each part is trying to do their own thing, and the result is hectic and sounds pretty cool to me.

I’ve always been a big Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, but only after I started listening to more and more funk music did I begin to truly appreciate the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik.  This album is a great example of funk being synthesized with other genres; RHCP’s unique blend of punk, rock, and funk are awesome.  The Chili Peppers don’t really sound that funky in some of their more recent stuff, but BSSM has some of the greatest funk rock grooves I’ve ever heard.

Another one of my favorite funk bands is Vulfpeck, a band that takes a more minimalist approach to funk than other bands (like Snarky Puppy).  Vulfpeck consists of drums, guitar, bass, keyboards, and vocals in a few songs.  I really like their bass-heavy grooves coupled with high-pitched vocals, like in the song “1612.”

BadBadNotGood are another band who combine funk with another genre to great effect.  Their funky style and collaboration with hip-hop and rap artists like Ghostface Killa and Tyler the Creator.  Their music is very experimental and avant-garde, and some may say that is transcends all genres and creates something unique.

Authenticity in Disney’s Moana

My post is both a follow up from another post and based on this npr article

http://www.npr.org/2016/11/20/502572461/in-moana-new-voices-both-uphold-and-challenge-the-disney-tradition

This article chronicles Disney’s production of the musical score of Moana, the most recent Disney princess movie about Oceania. The director Ron Clements has been working since 1970 with Disney, and has worked with Disney after their rut. Their hit The Little Mermaid included music, and the animation with music has been the framework for Disney films ever since. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were working on Broadway, and Disney’s success on Broadway can be attributed to this.  This time around Disney has picked Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of broadway hit Hamilton. He hails from the Caribbean and is very focused on the authenticity of the music. The creators of the music have done lots of research and studying on the music of Oceania and some native artists even appear on the musical score of the new movie.  “The studio has taken flak in the past for appropriating other cultures in misguided — and sometimes insulting — ways” so this time around, they are working on the authenticity of their piece. The writer of the musical score Mike Mancina, who also wrote the score for The Lion King is also focused on the authenticity of the piece.

The problem is how authentic can they be? This time around they have put lots of work into the music making sure it is authentic, but are leery of making sure they appropriate the culture respectfully. They are working to make  the music authentic, but as we have seen with the Lion King, that is not always the case. I think Disney has gotten better with cultural sensitivity and is doing great work to make sure that the music that appears in the musical score of their new movies both represents the culture well and is a reasonable hit. I think that Disney is going to do great work in the future, and I think that although they have not done justice to the cultures in the past, they may be able to redeem themselves now.

 

Open Mic Experience

On Tuesday night, my friends and I got together and jammed a bit. We had picked a couple times before playing mostly folk, gospel, and bluegrass; however, I never really sang many songs during our jams. We played a couple of songs, and the other musicians asked me to sing lead on most of them because I am a tenor, which, in there opinion, was more suited to bluegrass than their lower voices. After we picked several tunes, we decided to head over to the open mic at Nummit and played a brief performance.

We arrived at Nummit around 8:30 and sat through several performances before we got on stage. The other musicians were very good players and singers–there wasn’t an act that was “bad” or lacking in any musical quality. Yet, as the evening progressed, I grew bored with the music. This was a very different and strange perception as I normally am very interested in most musical genres and styles from jazz to classical to rock. As each new performer played, I realized that they were essentially performing similar styles of music. All of the songs played were at a very slow pace. The originals normally had a minor chord and maybe a I, IV, and V (Nashville Numbering System Chords), but besides that they seemed to lack flavor and energy. This is not a negative thing for the most part. In fact, most people at Nummit were studying, and the quiet slow music made for good background noise. Yet, as an active listener, I was not motivated to hear songs and artists that stuck strictly to a prescribed musical formula. Finally, the mold was broken. A jazz combo took the stage, and the combo hammered out some amazing tunes. One of my favorites was “All of Me,” a tune covered by Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, and Ella Fitzgerald. After three songs, the combo moved off the stage, and we started setting up our instruments and gear for our brief performance.

After prepping our instruments, we lit into a very fast song called “Lonesome Road Blues.” The song was in a very high key challenging my vocal abilities. However, this gave the song more of an edge and drive which contributed to our performance. After this song, the guitarist sang a folk ballad called “Roll on Buddy,” and we rounded the set off with a gospel song called “Angel Band.” After our performance, we got several compliments. The audience seemed to enjoy our set and Live Thursday organizers talked to us about performing in the future. Reflecting on this, I don’t believe it was necessarily the quality of our music that garnered a positive response. I believe that several of the audience members were like myself: slightly bored with the musical monotony. The diversity of a bluegrass group and a jazz group helped to spice up the musical setting and livened up the atmosphere.

Latina Identity and Perception

I read the Moehn chapters and as a women the perception of Fernanda Abreu as a female singer in Brazil was very interesting but also saddening. I feel as though Brazil and America are both very male dominated societies which makes it harder for women to excel in any field. I think the music industry in particular because the female artists that are common in pop culture are highly sexualized and objectified unlike their male counterparts. Women especially in Brazil are under extreme pressure from society to be good mothers and housewives rather than successful in business. Abreu was actually criticized for not giving enough time and energy to her family and instead was focused too much on her successful singing career. The men in this society don’t have this same pressure to be loving and faithful husbands and fathers. I know I sound like a crazy feminist but for me the perception and pressures women face are so sad and unfair and I feel that this may not directly pertain to music but it still influences the creating of music. In the lyrics of some of the Brazilian music presented in the book and commonly found in rap lyrics is the objectification and sexualization of women. Men are not presented in this way and are actually glorified for their roles are suave womanizers. Since we are doing ethnographies in class I thought this would be interesting to bring up because the role and perception of women in society play into the context and background necessary to understand Moehn’s book. As per usual in this class I have no solution to this problem with the presentation of women in society but I can only open this topic up for discussion and hope that more discussion will lead to a more accurate and less objectified view of women. My last point is that this perception of women obviously impacts their opportunities because there are way more men discussed in the book than women probably due to limited opportunities for women.  I thought that this needed to be brought up because I view this as a problem but not everyone may.

Shoegaze and it’s Restricted Nature

I’m going to use this blog post to talk about shoegaze, a genre brought up in class which it seemed most were unfamiliar with.  Shoegaze is a genre that I personally find interesting since the foundation of the genre is built upon the legacy and quality of only three albums: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Slowdive’s Souvlaki, and Ride’s Nowhere, in order of decreasing influence and notability.  It is simply unavoidable for any shoegaze release to not be compared with these albums, as they set the baseline for their three variations of shoegaze: Loveless being the more noisy, Slowdive being the more dreamy and melancholy, and Nowhere being the most poppy of the three.

Most of you are probably wondering what shoegaze actually is, understandably, as the name of the genre really gives nothing away about its sound.  To put it best, shoegaze is a fusion of noise rock and dream pop, which may not mean much to people who don’t memorize overly-specific genres like myself.  Noise rock is an evolution of rock which incorporates more dissonant, loud, and powerful noises than typical rock, the most notable examples being Daydream Nation, White Light/White Heat, and Filth.  Dream pop is vocals-oriented like regular pop, but generally the vocalists have higher voices, and their backdrops are lush, creating songs where the songs have aerial qualities, the most notable group being the Cocteau Twins.  Combine both noise rock and dream pop, and you get shoegaze, which has heavily distorted guitar playing and other noisy elements creating a wall of sound, while someone sings in dream poppy vocals over (or beneath, frequently contributing to the wall of sound) it.  The term shoegaze came from a critique of a live My Bloody Valentine performance where the critic noted that the band had nearly no stage presence and just “gazed at their shoes” the entire time.

The origins of the genre primarily come from noise pop band, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and their album Psychocandy, which popularized the idea of dreamy vocals over harsh noise.  From there, My Bloody Valentine took up the helm of shoegaze, releasing a string of successful EP’s, along with their album Isn’t Anything, which in retrospect has been regarded as shoegaze despite coming before Loveless, which is really the album which founded the genre.  Slowdive pushed the creation of shoegaze just as early, and nearly as much as My Bloody Valentine, releasing their album Just For a Day in 1991, the same year as Loveless.  It is their album Souvlaki which is generally regarded as one of the most foundational in shoegaze however, due to its successful blend of dreamy vocals, and ambient, mellow guitars to create a highly melancholy album in contrast with Loveless’s more forceful bliss.

One of the most interesting aspects of shoegaze to me is how apparently small the variation in the genre has been, with seemingly every notable shoegaze band being heavily influenced by Loveless and Souvlaki (and to a lesser extent Nowhere), despite being a genre more than 20 years old.  That is not to say that the genre is bland or bad aside from its 3 foundational albums, the bar Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride set in the early 90’s has just proved critically insurmountable, as many regard Loveless as one of the greatest albums of all time with Souvlaki not too far behind.  Recently there has been a “shoegaze revival,” so with any luck there will finally be one more album affixed in the shoegaze canon.

Famous Jazz Musicians

Information comes from this article:

http://listverse.com/2010/02/27/15-most-influential-jazz-artists/

When researching jazz music for my project, I thought it was strange how I was quite unfamiliar with several influential jazz musicians. Not a huge fan of jazz, I thought it would be interesting to learn more of a topic that I did not know that much about. When I think of jazz, I typically imagine old black and white movies with affluent hotel lobbies and cocktail parties.  World War II connotations also come to mind. In pop music of the twenty-first century, hip hop and electric undertones commonly express themselves in music as opposed to brass. Even though jazz itself is less prevalent in pop culture than it was in prior decades, influential jazz musicians are still respected and revered.

One of the less influential musicians that is still given credit for being extremely skilled. Art Tatum, nearly blind, “revolutionized the role of piano in jazz.” Playing up the sound of cacophony, Tatum was at his apex about ten years before the advent of bebop, yet paved the way for this phenomenon. Other artists similar to Tatum include Theolonius Monk, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey. Each overcoming his own difficulties such as Mingus’s depression, they all remain in the canon of American jazz music. While these artists primarily used American sounds, Dizzy Gillespie traveled to Cuba and incorporated some Cuban rhythms into his music. Not only a trumpet player and singer, Dizzy Gillespie was also a composer. He did much to advance the sound of Afro-Cuban jazz. As a great improviser, Gillespie remained true to bebop throughout his career and is remembered for his horn-gimmed glasses and improvisatory jazz style. Apart from trumpet, Max Roach is remembered as a renowned percussionist. Along with a few other jazz musicians, he is responsible for the modern techniques of jazz drumming. Capable of giving solo performances, Roach sometimes played alongside other famous musicians.

While they are mostly men,  jazz musicians were not always restricted to the male gender as a lot of the singers were women such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Receiving numerous posthumous Grammy Hall of Fame awards, Holiday is shown to have been quite successful as her music continues to resonate with so many. With a strong voice, Holiday used her song “Strange Fruit” to inspire because of its “powerful theme and topic” as well as the fortitude of her “performance.” Unfortunately, she only wrote but few songs; however, those she did write are able to carry the messages of several.

John Coltrane, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Goodman also hold sway over the halcyon days of jazz music. They each made their marks on jazz music by engaging in implications to promote racial equality such as Goodman’s dogma not to tour in Southern states.  Miles Davis, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Duke Ellington are typically recognized at least in part by non experts in jazz. Along with their astounding repertoire of music, each’s ability to perform should not go without credit.

Arguably the most famous jazz musician is Louis Armstrong. Called “Satchmo,” Armstrong played the trumpet with a skill not like any other. One of the first scat singers, Armstrong holds prodigious influence over aspiring jazz musicians as well as music historians of the early twentieth century. Although jazz music is still prevalent in certain areas and among certain people, the influence of jazz musicians remains ubiquitous.

 

Mood in Live Music:

My interview with Jacob Ball was very insightful. We discussed Catfish Disco’s performance at “Live Thursday’s” last week, and ended up with a lot more than Catfish Disco. Instead of just focusing on the group, we rather discussed the relationship between performers and audience members in a live setting.

It seemed like everything we talked about came back to the mood of the performer. Song choice, musicality, stage presence and energy all come back to the mood, which is then transferred into the audience in reciprocation. Jacob said:

“I think that the mood of the performers really sets a precedent over       everything else because if the performers are willing to get lost in the music and forget about everything else that’s going on, then the audience follows suit. And I think it’s hard to say ‘oh each person has their own mood in the show’ because it’s hard to go into the show where everybody’s high energy and happy and be down on yourself because I think you would be lifted up by everyone else”.

Therefore the mood of the live music depends on the performer, as it is then transferred to the audience which is reciprocated.  And there is a mob mentality that brings people to the same mood in the audience.

There is also a cyclical relationship between the audience and the performer.  Jacob said ““the performer lets the audience in, which increases their mood, which feeds back to the performer, whose mood is increased by the audience being happy”.  This cyclical relationship adds onto each of the components’ mood until the end.  For example, this interdependent relationship fueled Catfish Disco’s courage to do an encore at the end because the mood that Catfish Disco gave the audience throughout the concert was returned to them and they fed off of it.

I think this is some of the appeal of live music.

 

An Open Letter to My Students

I’ve been wondering since Tuesday night how to broach the topic of the presidential election with you all. It’s a hard thing to consider, not least because the fact that I feel the need to say anything at all could be interpreted as inappropriate partisanship.

But nonetheless, I feel that I must say something, and I hope you’ll bear with me here. I’ve been trying to find a way to understand the outcome of the election as anything other than a rubber-stamping of hatred: of people of color, of women, of non-Christians, of immigrants. But at the moment, all I can see is a slew of vile, hateful assaults, physical and verbal, on the people for whom our president-elect has shown such contempt throughout the past several months of campaigning. I see all the reports of men harassing women; of African Americans being told to go back to Africa; of Latino schoolchildren being told by classmates that they’re going to be shipped off to Mexico; of people threatened with guns and sexual violence. And we see all of these attacks being perpetrated explicitly in Trump’s name.

(Also, there’s the case of Texas State University, which hits close to home for me and my academic colleagues: flyers have appeared on their campus suggesting that it’s time to “go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage”—again, explicitly in Trump’s name.)

This is unique in my lifetime. I’m not claiming any “listen to your elders” cred here—only that I remember the 2000 election (the last time the winner of the popular vote lost the presidency), and I remember how contentious was the political discourse and maneuvering in that year. And I remember that no matter how heated those political debates got, they rarely challenged the basic right to exist and to be part of the American project that is cherished by so many of the people who have been assailed by Trump supporters in the last couple days. What we are seeing now—and have seen this whole year—is in an entirely different realm than anything we’ve seen in recent American history. (People plenty older and wiser than myself have said that they haven’t seen anything like this in their lifetimes, either.)

So, like many of my colleagues at Davidson College, I’ve been struggling with how to handle this in my classes. Ignoring it is not an option, because it effects all of us. I know very little about what you all must be going through in your day-to-day lives with your classmates, but I imagine that, like elsewhere in the country, the divisions between those on the left and those on the right, the Clinton supporters and the Trump supporters, is stark and entrenched at Davidson, and that it is rarely breached. I have heard from people that they are frustrated by the seeming impossibility of constructive discourse with classmates. This is true of people on both sides of the political divide.

Beyond the frightening emboldening of overt displays of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, this impossibility of discourse is what I find most troubling about this election and the months leading up to it. It is opposed to everything that I personally and professionally value: constructive argument, critical thought, the capacity for self-reflection. These values are broadly shared by my colleagues at Davidson and across the country. These are the values of the academic project as we know it. These are values that I have hoped you would take away from our writing course. These are not partisan values—although they have been sabotaged by partisan politics.

And then there’s the value of listening to people—the heart and soul of the ethnographic research you are doing now, and of what all ethnographers do. Our work is fundamentally about empathy—about being able to understand how another human being is feeling. When we, as a campus community, had a meeting at the flagpole last month and a march through town in support of Davidson’s students of color, I was (and am) dismayed at the perception that this is a “liberal” show by the college. It was not. This was a show of empathy for people who are telling the rest of us that they are afraid, that they are suffering, that they feel vulnerable and at risk. To listen to someone say “This is how I feel” and to respond, “No you don’t”—that’s pathological. If people in our community are feeling vulnerable, they need to be supported by us in the community. That’s not a partisan value; that’s simple human empathy.

A friend expressed much better than I can what I am hoping you all will take from my meditation on current events:

I believe the people I know (and love) who supported Trump when they say that they don’t like parts of his campaign, but were persuaded by others – so in the midst of this time of divisiveness, when a lot of people feel like the country elected a person who is actively hostile to them on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, I’d ask the people who support some, but not all parts of Trump’s platform to rally against the things they find objectionable. This is the “coming together” that we need – a rejection of the scarier parts of the campaign, and a promise from people who voted for things other than the bigotry to help fight against it.

This “coming together” is meaningless if it is not deep, personally challenging, and crossing the boundaries that we often perceive to separate us so completely. If you support(ed) Trump because of economics or whatever else, then you have an obligation to stand against the hate that has so clearly resulted from his campaign, that may be making your classmates and friends fearful for their own lives, or the lives of others. If you opposed Trump, you also have an obligation—to be open to the perspectives of his supporters, to listen honestly and generously, just as you do in our classroom.

These are both challenging tasks. It’s far easier to self-righteously dismiss the perspectives of people we don’t agree with, and so much of the media we consume encourages us to do just that. But I know you’re better than the shallow “hot take” media culture that seems to engulf us; you prove that to me every day we discuss a challenging text or work shoulder to shoulder to make each other better writers and thinkers. This is why all of us are here—the belief that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, we are still a community, and we can still support each other, as a community, through our intellectual and emotional trials.

I am here to support you however I can.

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