‘Veiled Voices’ is a programme series written and presented for RTE FM3. The series was devised to present a varied choice of music, new information or ideas on music that one would have heard before or new releases that one might not have yet heard. The series focused on artists exploring issues affecting their culture, their people, and also touching on the power of music as a medium for the political, the social, or the spiritual, in our lives.
First to Ghana, and to an interesting cultural project underway, a traditional orchestra of 28 members, called the pan-African orchestra, established under the leadership of ethnomusicologist and composer Nana Danso Abiam. Through his input on a government-funded paper in which Abiam called for the establishment of a national orchestra, he was invited and accepted to direct the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra. Abiam quickly became frustrated by what he termed the ensemble's "colonial mentality" and "resistance to moving from European instruments and composers." Consequently, Abiam formed the Pan-African Orchestra in 1988 drawing together musicians who were well versed in the traditional instruments of Africa. The guiding philosophy to the orchestra has consequently been influenced by his education and contemporary understandings of traditional cultures. He had studied western music and education methods, however he has been insistent that rather than adapting the usual format of what he calls the western colonial orchestra that they would rather trust their own cultures vitality and their own artistic expression. Abiam created a large-scale ensemble with the instrumentation and musical material drawn from the broad spectrum of African culture. The process involved in organizing the ensemble is also worth noticing; apparently he went directly amongst traditional musicians in rural areas listening to their music, explaining the politics and the philosophy behind his idea so as to gain approval and agreement from the musicians involved. The music would generally be ‘re-composed’ where traditional themes collected throughout the villages, are reworked and expanded allowing for improvisation and an input of ideas from the musicians involved. So, from an afro-centric perspective, this is the Pan-African orchestra with a track called "Explorations_ Hi-Life Structures".
Track 1: Pan-African Orchestra, The (1995) "Explorations - Hi-Life Structures". On Opus 1 CD, Real World Records – CDRW 48
Some weeks ago, I spoke about the African ‘Griot’ tradition, where you had the mixed role of oral historian, social commentator, and the musician; similar I would think to the Bardic tradition in our own oral history. The echo of this Griot tradition reemerged amongst the music and literature of the African diaspora. It was the legacy of the black triangle connecting the Caribbean and the Americas with their roots in African histories and traditions. The performances would connect an understanding of the political issues with satiric wit and the ability to extemporize on current events. In the Caribbean the political calypsos or in later years the voice of one like Bob Marley would have carried on this role in society. The songs of Marley have a strong proverbial undercurrent delivering his message on many levels. But in main, he was brining African cultural memory to black youths in crises and by doing so he was proclaiming the right to dignity and equality for black identity. There is so much that one can say about Marley, but one reference that I came across might be new to some of you. It was the influence upon Marley of Marcus Garvey. Garvey was born in 1887 in Jamaica. He devoted his life to fighting racial discrimination. He had a ‘Back to Africa’ movement based around the idea of an African homeland for descendants of all black people sold into slavery. He went so far as to set up a shipping company in America called the ‘Black Ship Line’ to trade and help Afro-Americans to return to Liberia where he had acquired land for this purpose. For some reason, the American government interfered and deported him for tax evasion in 1922. Garvey passed in London in 1940. However, Marley and other artists in Jamaica rediscovered Garvey’s ideas in the mid 1960’s and also by the Black Panther movement in the United States. The particular track chosen is among quite a few of Marley’s songs, which portray Marcus Garvey’s ideas, but here Marley is also highlighting the authorities persecution of Marcus Garvey. In the song, he writes “ I never forget, no way, they crucified Jesus Christ, I never forget, no way, how they sold Marcus Garvey for rice”.
Track 2: Marley, Bob (1977) “So Much Things To Say” On Exodus. Recorded in Harry J. Studio, Kingston, Jamaica, 1976 and Island Studios, London, January–April 1977. Island Tuff Gong (reissue).
The consciousness of the role of the musician in society is a strong element in the work of the “Last Poets’ in Harlem. Their story is an impressive; three characters that met in prison and on the release connected with the fourth and established a writer’s workshop in Harlem. Their work was essentially a narrative poetry with social satire and political comment. When they performed, they used the traditional instrument of Africa, the drum, and combined with a voice, which in one sense was the ghettoized voice of a contemporary urban black. One African classical musician, Tunde Jegede, captured their effect eloquently, with the description, “at the street corner with a small drum and the spoken work, they caught the heart-beat of the people”. From the ‘writers workshop’ in Harlem, they were then to sell over a million copies of their debut album just by word of mouth; they went on to share on concert bills with Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Hendrix. In 1977, the FBI stepped in, concert organizers were discouraged from programming the Last Poets and distribution of their records was prevented. The Last Poets essentially disappeared from the public eye but continued their work on social and educational programmes locally in Harlem. Several groups of poets and musicians who arose from the late 1960s African-American civil rights movement's participated the version of the group led by Jalaluddin Masur Nuriddin and/or Umar Bin Hassan is the one that has penetrated mass culture to a significant degree. There have been recordings from 1984 and 1988 but the group was recognized as the godfathers of rap and hip-hop, but they remained in relative obscurity whilst the US mainstream version of rap, the commercial version went gold. There have been further releases from later group formations of the Last Poets from varied and combinations of poets that are well-worth looking out for.
Track 3: Last Poets, The (1999) “Mean Machine”, On The Prime Time Rhyme of The Last Poets - Best Of Vol. 1. Performed with Poets: Suliaman El-Hadi & Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin. CD, On The One Records: SPOA-21LP.
To continue this idea, the Jazzmatazz, Vol 2 is a 1990’s hip-hop hosted by one who calls himself ‘Guru’. I don’t know in the context of the Last Poets, where this fits in or the content of their work or indeed its integrity might be viewed from within this culture. But there is a quality to their word and to their music that I noticed. This release is from lyricist, K L Am and the co-producer and vocalist ‘Guru’. They would be known from their gangstar releases, but here they are with a host of the great in soul music, jazz and hop-hop. Some of the names featured you will recognise such as Micha Paris, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Ramsey Lewis, Kool Keith, Patra and Jamiroquai; Branford Marsalis, Courtney Pine, Ronny Jordan, Chaka Khan. The music speaks for itself and the vocalist is Micha Paris.
Track 4: Guru (1995) “Looking through the Darkness”. On Jazzmatazz Vol 2, Producer: Guru, Ronny Jordan, Donald Byrd, DJ Premier, Nikke Nicole, Solsonics, Mark Sparks, True Master. CD, Chrysalis.
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Afro-American music throughout this century in terms of musical styles and instrumental virtuosity. For me, I see the musicians that I have spoken of as the provocative side to the African diaspora, which has carried on this challenging role of the Griot, the Bard, the social commentator. Whether it is the voice of Bob Marley, the Last Poets or some of the hip-hop music of the 1990s, it maintains for its essence the tradition and value of the spoken word.
To take on a completely different area, I recently came across an unusual and intriguing cd recorded around the 1890s. It is a compilation of recordings from the turn of the century. It is a Turkish music and what was then Constantinople but now known as Istanbul. It was an unusual time. Constantinople was a cosmopolitan centre, blending influences from both the east and the west. What surprised me was that these extracts were not an archival or ethnologist’s record of the times, as one might expect; but one of many recordings issued from commercial, multi-national recording companies as such. In a sense, the early recordings can be a window to the music, the sound and vitality of Ottoman music from the popular songs of the day, to Gypsy music, and the sacred and songs of devotion. The piece chosen is an erotic song recorded by a female artist which I read was also quite usual and I noticed in the accompanying notes to the CD that they commented on her hoarse voice and off-beat sway of the rhythm, suggestive of the exotic music of the bordellos. Yet, it was also performed by an accompaniment in the style of their art music. It is an unusual combination for us, but maybe should not be so. I would like you to look out for the reedy sound of an oboe like instrument, it’s called the Zurna and this is apparently a rare opportunity to hear it. This is a track recorded between 1890 and 1914, and the song translates as “Miller, dear miller, here is my black hair for you”.
Track 5. Archive d’Musique Turque, Ocora Label, Radio France
And in keeping with the humours of the bordello tradition is Astor Piazzolla, an Argentine tango composer, bandoneon player and arranger. He was a key figure of the new style tangos of the 1920s; some would say the Charlie Parker of Buenos Aires. In this recording, Piazzolla retraces the tango history to the turn of the century, when the city was being promoted as the Paris of Latin America. It was a time of turbulent growth for the city, and a time when the tango emerged as the cultural expression amongst the underclass, which was a mix of the African and Hispanic immigrant and the indigenous communities. The music of this collection is called the ‘Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night. It forms part of a theatre production of ‘tango passionata’, described somewhat romantically as a world of conchilleros, conchitos, fast knives and fast dancers, rough melonges, rough mercanoes. Piazzolla’s music recalls this early history of the tango, a world captured in literature by Jorge Luis Borges, Argentine poet, writer and a key figure in Spanish literature. His work embraces the "character of unreality in all literature". Piazzolla remarked during the production that this record needs “the darkness of a nostalgic dream, music meant to be played by half drunk musicians in a bordello”. Piazzolla’s producer Kip Hanrahan, jazz musician, record producer and percussionist, commented “turn of the century Buenos Aires was never a geographical or historical location”. What does he mean? Maybe by this, he recognises it as a frame of mind, maybe that difficult times can be creative times and therein does the edge lie.
Track 6: Piazzallo, Astor (1987).“Tango Appassionado”. On The Rough Dancer and The Cyclical Night. Produced by Kip Hanrahan and Astor Piazzolla. CD Released May 1988 AMCL 1019. Re-release.
It must be said that music and the arts in general can be enjoyed in many, many different ways. But, sometimes then when the expression in the music, combines with a depth of content, it can reach another level, effecting a change of mind, of thought for ever and the role of the arts in asserting a principle can reach an audience with a more immediate impact than sometimes the appeals of a community for justice. The next track in the programme explores this idea to challenge the resurgence of racism, and the new right in Europe. The first thing that struck me was its title, The Caddish, the prayer being the Jewish mourners prayer for the dead. This composition is a setting of this prayer but includes a variety of texts, of poems, of Nazi polemic from recorded speeches, of psalms, and Jewish litanies and also then traditional songs of Bulgaria, Hungary and Crete. Márta Sebestyén, a Hungarian folk vocalist of Muzsikás, and the Cretan singer Theo, sings some of the traditional songs. There is a narrator, a cantor, and a rabbi from the Jewish Orthodox church. There is a string quartet, a choir, percussion and saxophone, and the instrumental textures and computerized samples by the orchestrators of the project. It is an immense project for film and music by the English group, the Towering Inferno A selection from the work follows from the final three tracks; one is called the Bell with Márta Sebestyén on vocals, and it continues with the setting of the mourners Kaddish ending with a Cretan song. The poem concluding this project Veiled Voices, with the words of the producers Towering Inferno, and as for them the project was to be “a beacon of light against the specter of the new right and resurgence of racism and anti Semitism in Europe”.
Track 7: Towering Inferno (Richard Wolfson and Andy Saunders), (1993) "The Bell, The Kaddish, The Weaver ” on the Kaddish. Performed with Wolfson, Saunders, Sebestyén, Szkárosi. CD, London: Island.