Musical expressions of the Harlem Renaissance: An annotated bibliography

Emerging from a New York neighborhood in the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance was a period of vibrant intellectual and artistic development in the African American community. Considered a turning point in Black history, the Harlem Renaissance offered African American writers and artists the chance to express their cultures and experiences during a time when they continued to face racism and discrimination. The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 brought many African Americans in the South newfound freedoms and hopes for inclusion economically, politically, and socially within society. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed by white supremacy and the rise of Jim Crow Laws that legalized racial segregation on state and local levels. Such laws existed for nearly the next 100 years, making African Americans second class citizens while denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, and become educated.

Many Southern Black people were denied ownership of land and were exploited in a system of sharecropping, a form of farming where families rented small plots of land from a landowner in exchange for a portion of the crops they had grown. Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan also terrorized Black communities through murder and intimidation, discouraging Black communities from exercising their newly won rights. Conversely, Northern cities offered industrial jobs in fast growing economies to people of all races. Many African Americans left the South in search of such opportunities, leading to what was termed the “Great Migration” in the 20th century.

The Cotton Club in New York City

The Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan during this period drew more the 175,000 African Americans and quickly became one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the United States. African Americans of all social backgrounds congregated in Harlem based on their shared experiences of racial oppression, slavery, emancipation, and future aspirations as a free people. Harlem also served as a cultural node where artists and writers lived and creatively shared their ideas of modernity, folk culture, and religion. In this sense, the Harlem Renaissance represented a rebirth not only for intellectuals and artists but for all Black people, providing a cultural space to reshape the existing predominant narratives on Blackness.

In this context, it is nearly impossible to explore the Harlem Renaissance without considering its music. Despite being known as a genuinely American art form today, jazz emerged from small urban bars, clubs, and halls to the national stage during the Harlem Renaissance, announcing the arrival of renowned musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith. These early jazz artists reconfigured African American folk musical elements into expressions that were more distilled and elegant, and ready for mass consumption.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra

Like other Harlem Renaissance writers and visual artists, musicians such as Josephine Baker (pictured at the beginning of this piece) were in continuous conversation with audiences beyond Harlem and the United States. In Europe, Baker became an icon of the early jazz age as many European audiences had never seen such a visually striking Black chanteuse who could sing fluently in French and perform such suggestive dance moves. In this context, the Harlem Renaissance sounded in the rhythms of jazz and swing a radically new and modern Black subject that was central to the development of international modern art. It also made Harlem (and venues like the Cotton Club) the place to be modern in the early 20th century.

The selected texts below taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature reflect the diverse expressions of the Harlem Renaissance and its lasting impact on music, theater, visual art, poetry, and other fields in the arts. The bibliography foregrounds the significant contributions of jazz women, including Florence Mills and Melba Liston, as well as themes of voice, community values, modernism, migration, and the paradoxical qualities of Blackness.

–Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Editor, RILM

__________________________________________

Newton, Elizabeth. “Ethnic irony in Melvin B. Tolson’s Dark symphony”, Journal of the Society for American Music 15.2 (May 2021), 224–245. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-2157]

Abstract: Historicizes musical symbolism in Melvin B. Tolson’s poem Dark symphony. In a time when Black writers and musicians alike were encouraged to aspire to European standards of greatness, Tolson’s Afro-Modernist poem establishes an ambivalent critical stance toward the genre in its title. In pursuit of a richer understanding of the poet’s attitude, the poem is situated within histories of Black music, racial uplift, and white supremacy, exploring its relation to other media from the Harlem Renaissance. The changing language across the poem’s sections is analyzed and informed by Houston A. Baker Jr.’s study of mastery and deformation, the poet’s tone is theorized. While prior critics have read the poem’s lofty conclusion as sincerely aspirational toward assimilation, here the ambiguity, or irony, that Tolson develops is emphasized: he embraces the symphony’s capacity as a symbol to encompass multiple meanings, using the genre metaphorically as a mark of achievement, even as he implicates such usage as a practice rooted in conservative thought. The symphony, celebrated as a symbol of pluralistic democracy and liberal progress, meanwhile functions to reinforce racialized difference and inequality–a duality that becomes apparent when this poem is read alongside Tolson’s concurrent poems, notes, and criticism. Such analysis demonstrates that Dark symphony functions as a site for heightened consciousness of racialized musical language, giving shape to Tolson’s ideas as a critic, educator, and advocate for public health.

Doktor, Stephanie. “Finding Florence Mills: The voice of the Harlem Jazz Queen in the compositions of William Grant Still and Edmund Thornton Jenkins.” Journal of the Society for American Music 14.4 (November 2020) 451–479. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-12258]

Abstract: After her performances in Shuffle along (1921) on Broadway and in Dover Street to Dixie (1923) in London, Florence Mills became one of the most famous jazz and vaudeville singers. Known as the “Harlem Jazz Queen”, Mills was revered by Black Americans for her international breakthrough and because she used her commercial success as a platform to speak out against racial inequality. Extensive descriptions of her performance style and voice exist in writing, but there are no recordings of her singing. The sound of Mills’s voice is considered in two compositions written for her: William Grant Still’s Levee land (1925) and Edmund Thornton Jenkins’s Afram (1924). It is shown that Still and Jenkins imagined a much more musically complicated and politically powerful voice than that found in the racialized and gendered stereotypes permeating both her vaudeville and Broadway repertoire and the language of her reception. While scholars have written about how Mills’ outspokenness regarding issues of race and omission of sexually explicit roles made her central to 1920s Black political and artistic life, the sonic properties of her voice positioned her as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Banfield, William C. “Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1935: Artistry, aesthetics, politics, and popular culture”, Ethnomusicologizing: Essays on music in the new paradigms, by William C. Banfield (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 223–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-11893]

Abstract: The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Arts Movement (1920-1935), was a period in U.S. cultural history where preserving the life and culture of community was simultaneously an investment into cultural relevancy at all levels through music, literature, arts, dance, education, and business, and social-cultural engagement. People from New York’s Harlem community–extending across the national, artistic, entrepreneurial, and educational lines–were asking: What do we value now, and why? What and how are the best ways forward to create, project, and live in those values? What are we investing in, and what do we believe in for our future? In addition, for the first time in U.S. history, artists and thinkers worked to address needs, projections, and outcomes. The interests in these questions and arts movement as critical historical cultural markers, the artists and artistry from this period, and with that, the processes that led to the creation of progressive U.S. culture. A secondary theme is the impact those art questions and results have had on commercial political and cultural currency and relevancy on at least two other musical arts periods: the civil rights/social protest/soul period (1960-1975) and hip-hop, X, and millennium generation music (1980-2010s).

Lassiter, Fran L. “From toasts to raps: New approaches for teaching the Harlem Renaissance”, Pedagogy: Critical approaches to teaching literature, language, composition, and culture 15.2 (2015) 374–377. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-85442]

Abstract: Outlines the use of contemporary hip hop lyrics to access the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. A strategy is outlined for tracing the progression and evolution of African American political and social resistance in literature and music, introducing students to forgotten or overlooked texts of the Harlem Renaissance by exploring the connection between sociopolitical protest and artistic expression.

Colbert, Soyica Diggs. “Harlem Renaissance theater and performance”, A companion to the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (Malden: Blackwell, 2015) 285–300. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-84653]

Abstract: Explores how theater and performance of the Harlem Renaissance depicts paradoxes at the heart of modern Black cultural production. Theater and performance emerge in response to competing generational, artistic, aesthetic, and market demands and desires. Blackness appears here as a paradoxical category in the themes, characterizations, and formal attributes of the work. Social practices such as lynching and the separation of public space due to Jim Crow defined Blackness as an easily decipherable physical category. At the same time cultural practices including passing, the cakewalk, and signifying demonstrated the slipperiness of Blackness. Harlem Renaissance theater and performance changes the optics of Blackness from a biological category able to be regulated in the social sphere to a contingent category that emerges in distinctive forms of embodiment.

Melba Liston

Price, Emmett G., III. “Melba Liston: Renaissance woman”, Black music research journal 34.1 (Spring 2014) 159–168. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5983]

We might better understand Melba Liston’s (pictured above) achievements, importance, and influence, as well as her artistic and political motivations by viewing her and her work through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement’s terms and cultural politics provide insight into Liston’s personal experiences and professional realities. Melba Liston is revealed here as a renaissance woman as defined by an expanded reading of the intellectual zeitgeist of the New Negro, gleaning historiographical insight about Liston (and other jazz women) through the experiences of better-, but still under-documented Renaissance women writers.

Reid, Grant Harper. Rhythm for sale. (North Charleston: CreateSpace Books, 2013) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-37077]

Abstract: Ventures into the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance through the life of the author’s grandfather Leonard Harper. Born the son of a poor singer in Birmingham, Alabama, Harper performed on the street for pennies as a child. He became a talented performer, and after his father died, he studied soft-shoe to provide for his family. Young Harper traveled with vaudeville shows until he found his way to New York, where he went solo at 16. By his early 20s, he found himself at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, and he worked with such legends as Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. An account of the era’s racial tensions is provided, with white producers often swindling Harper and his fellow African American theater professionals out of the rights to their works. However, Harper was resourceful enough to successfully stage dozens of shows. His barrier-breaking achievements are chronicled, including his 1929 debut of Hot chocolates, an African American production that received great acclaim on Broadway. Though the book is full of praise for Harper, it also recounts his extramarital affairs and some of the more colorful stories of gangsters and burlesque dancers in the Harlem nightclub scene. Through this biographical profile, a revealing profile is drawn of early 20th century Black American music, dance, culture, and the racial politics surrounding all of it.

Young, Kevin. “It don’t mean a thing: The blues mask of modernism”, The poetics of American song lyrics, ed. by Charlotte Pence (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012) 43–74. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-13801]

Abstract: The rise of modernism coincided with the emergence and reach of the blues. The influence of blues music on modernism is explored here, focusing on the importance, intricacies, and intimacies of the Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance. It is argued that the achievement of African American writers, sculptors, and artists should be considered one of the high points of modernism. The recent disregard heaped upon the notion of Africa as a popular theme in the Harlem Renaissance is also discussed, along with how this attitude denies the power of place in the Black imagination.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. The muse is music: Jazz poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to spoken word. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-6634]

An interdisciplinary study that traces jazz’s influence on African American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary spoken word poetry. Examining established poets such as Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange, and Nathaniel Mackey as well as a generation of up-and-coming contemporary writers and performers, it highlights the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within the jazz tradition and its representation in poetry. The prosodic analysis to emphasize the musicality of African American poetic performance examines the gendered meanings evident in collaborative performances and in the criticism, images, and sounds circulating within jazz cultures. Some of the poets who participated in contemporary venues for Black writing such as the Dark Room Collective and the Cave Canem Foundation, including Harryette Mullen, Elizabeth Alexander, and Carl Phillips are also key in this discussion. The Black Arts Movement, the poetry-jazz fusion of the late 1950s, and slam and spoken word performance milieus such as Def Poetry Jam, exemplify how jazz and hip hop influenced performance artists. The attention to cadence, rhythm, and structure fills a gap in literary scholarship by attending to issues of gender in jazz and poetry. The analysis includes exploring the formal innovation and queer performance of Langston Hughes’s recorded collaboration with jazz musicians, delineating the relationship between punctuation and performance in the post-soul John Coltrane poem, and closely examining jazz improvisation and hip hop stylization. This elaborate articulation of the connections between jazz, poetry and spoken word, and gender offers valuable criticism of specific texts and performances and a convincing argument about the shape of jazz and African American poetic performance in the contemporary era.

Patterson, Jody. “It don’t mean a thing…: Jazz, modernism, and murals in New Deal New York”, Music and modernism, c. 1849-1950, edited by Charlotte De Mille. (Newcastle upon Tyme: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) 229–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-2812]

Abstract: Examines the ways in which jazz was taken up by the U.S. painters Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) and Stuart Davis (1892–1964), who both sought to achieve a rapprochement between modernist aesthetics and leftist politics within the context of the New Deal arts projects. Douglas painted a four-panel cycle of murals, collectively entitled Aspects of Negro life (1939), under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP; 1933–34), which were commissioned for the Assembly Hall of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Douglas’s use of abbreviated forms and his repetition of schematized motifs within each composition not only demonstrate his understanding of the lessons of cubist composition but represent a self-conscious effort to engage the compositional strategies of jazz. Davis, one of the political left’s most vociferous and visible artist-activists, connected his paintings to swing, a musical form that was decidedly modern and which attracted a mass audience. Through the unexpected placement of accents on beats where they would not conventionally occur, swing musicians deliberately interrupt the regular flow of rhythm. This approach to abstraction is amply demonstrated in Davis’s 1939 mural for the New York Municipal Broadcasting Company’s Radio Station WNYC and the mural Swing landscape (1938), also executed under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Literature, North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Richard Taruskin: Musicologist, music critic, and interpreter of early music

Growing up in a liberal Jewish family, Richard Taruskin was encouraged by both his parents to regularly engage in intellectual political debate and music making. His father Benjamin was a lawyer and amateur violinist and violist, while his mother Beatrice was a piano teacher and school librarian. Taruskin learned cello at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan and studied musicology at Columbia University, where he graduated in 1976 with a dissertation on opera and drama in Russia during the 1860s. He spent a year as an exchange student at the Moscow Conservatory on a Fulbright scholarship in 1971, and soon thereafter began teaching at Columbia University.

While in New York, he led the Renaissance choir Capella Nova and was a member of the Aulos Ensemble, in which he played viola da gamba. Taruskin began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley in 1987 and retired there in 2014. He has been honored many times for his work, including becoming the first recipient of the Noah Greenberg Award of the American Musicological Society (1978), recipient of the Alfred Einstein Award of the American Musicological Society (1980), the Guggenheim Fellowship (1986), the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association (1987), and the first musicologist to receive the prestigious Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy (2017).

Read the full entry on Richard Taruskin in MGG Online.

Below is the the Kyoto Prize Commemorative Lecture given by Taruskin in 2017.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Musicologists, Musicology

Makmende, the Kenyan global pop icon superhero

The video for the song Ha-he by the Kenyan experimental pop music group Just a Band features a character named Makmende Amerudi as its protagonist. Within a week of its release on YouTube, Ha-he received nearly 25,000 views and fans began creating their own original Makmende tales, videos, and artwork, leading global media outlets to label Makmende “Kenya’s first viral internet sensation”. Using a contemporary style of hand-held camerawork and shallow depth of field, the video’s graphics, characters, and storylines are reminiscent of 1970s blaxploitation films. As the mysterious tough-guy protagonist, Makmende appears more comfortable sneering than smiling, and like other blaxploitation characters, he sports an Afro hairstyle, open dress shirt exposing his chest, disco-style pants, and dark aviator sunglasses. Other male characters in the video are similarly dressed, while the only female (the damsel in distress) wears a natural short hairstyle, large hoop earrings, a headscarf, and tight pants, reminiscent of blaxploitation icon Pam Grier. Multiple camera angles in the video are reminiscent of the “bullet time” visual effect in The Matrix, and near the end of the video, Makmende ties a red necktie around his head, drawing parallels to Japanese samurai and cult vigilante Rambo.

As technological innovators, young, urban Kenyans seized the moment to reappropriate outdated stereotypes of weakness into aspirations of strength as they projected Kenya into a global online conversation. Through this meme, Makmende became more than a fictional superhero; he represented Kenya’s present and future. While some have considered Makmende as an example of a transnational cultural flow originating in the Global South, this meme, in its cultural and social context, can also be attributed to how and why Kenyans used Makmende to represent themselves. While many video memes are rooted in imitation and parody, the participatory playfulness surrounding Makmende created a “meme of aspiration” through which certain Kenyans collectively reimagined a hypermasculine hero who could lead the nation toward political and economic stability at home and cultural and technological prominence abroad.

Read more in “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s collective reimagining as a meme of aspiration” by Brian Ekdale and Melissa Tully (Critical studies in media communication 31.4 [2014], 283–298).

Watch Makmende in action in the video for Just a Band’s Ha-he below.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, Gender and sexuality, Mass media, Politics, Popular music

Public Enemy brings the noise

Photo: Jack Barron

Formed in Long Island, New York, the U.S. hip hop group Public Enemy emerged from a DJ sound system called Spectrum City DJs, founded by Hank Shocklee in 1975. Although the sound system originally consisted only of Shocklee and his brother Keith, the group eventually added rapper Chuck D, DJ Mellow, who later became Terminator X, and Professor Griff, the security team leader for the Spectrum City DJs’ mobile parties and a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI).

In 1979, Chuck D and others from the group who attended Adelphi University in Long Island began hosting a hip hop show on the local college radio station WBAU where they regularly created their own DJ mixes. Later, a fellow student who called himself Flavor Flav joined the show as a host and soon thereafter joined the Spectrum City DJs crew as well. In 1984, Spectrum City played a demo on the radio for a song titled Public Enemy No.1, which inspired the group’s name. The band also adopted a political message inspired by the hip-hop activist and journalist Harry Allen, a fellow student at Adelphi. The concept emphasized the group’s African American roots and adopted some of the narratives of various past Black political movements.

Album cover for It takes a nation of millions to hold us back

In addition to the performance group known as Public Enemy, a separate production team called “The Bomb Squad” was formed around Hank and Keith Shocklee in the 1980s; they worked not only for Public Enemy but also for other hip hop musicians including Slick Rick and Ice Cube. Part of Public Enemy’s sonic aesthetic, crafted primarily by The Bomb Squad, has been the copious use of samples and noise. For instance, their album It takes a nation of millions to hold us back (1988) uses saxophone samples in many songs that act in tandem with the lyrics to counter the code-structuring messages found in popular music conventions. Public Enemy’s examples, in this context, are comparable to the use of dissonance in the music of jazz legends such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Public Enemy created noise with saxophone squeals, erratic drums, and countless scratches on a recording that influenced numerous hip hop artists and stands today as one of the most critically lauded albums in the genre. Their use of saxophone samples as a strategy of creating noise is representative of ideals contrary to conventional Western musical practices and as a bridge to African American musical practices and suppressed voices of the past.

Read the new entry on Public Enemy in MGG Online and “We wanted our coffee black: Public Enemy, improvisation, and noise” by Niel Scobie (Critical studies in improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation 10.1 [2014] in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Below is a 2011 performance of Fight the power.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Black studies, Popular music

Celebrating Tyagaraja ārādhana in South India

The social organization of musicians in South India is often reflected in the Tyagaraja ārādhana, the annual death-anniversary celebration in honor of the revered composer Tyagaraja (1767–1847, pictured above). Thousands of musicians appear at this huge annual celebration, including men and women of different social communities and performance traditions. These musicians include performers in the Karṇāṭak art music tradition–ubiquitous in the contemporary concert halls of South India–as well as two closely related performance traditions sharing the Karṇāṭak musical language of raga and tala: the periya mēḷam instrumental tradition of Hindu temple ritual music and the music ensemble (formerly known as cinna mēḷam) that accompanies the South Indian classical dance form bharatanāṭyam.

After Tyagaraja’s passing in 1847, some of his disciples (śiṣya) would visit his gravesite at Tiruvaiyaru on the anniversary of his death each January. The commemorations were at first extremely simple; the disciples would pray, sing songs, and return home. As Tyagaraja’s lineage of students and students’ students multiplied, more musicians came to the site to offer their worship. About 60 years after Tyagaraja’s death, the commemoration became institutionalized, due to the efforts of two Brahmin brothers from the village of Tillaisthanam, adjacent to Tiruvaiyaru. These brothers, Narasimha Bhagavatar and Panju Ayyar, collected sufficient money and food to feed the Brahmins who would assemble for the rites. Narasimha Bhagavatar, a disciple’s disciple of Tyagaraja, also published a major edition of Tyagaraja’s kriti compositions and a biographical account of the composer in 1908.

The dynamic nature of the Tyagaraja ārādhana, which takes place over three days each January, in the town of Tiruvaiyaru, Tanjavur district, in Tamil Nadu, facilitates the study of two parameters at the heart of India’s changing social organization: gender and caste. Attention to these two central parameters illuminates other aspects of social organization such as the patronage, presentation, and transmission of music, and people’s attitudes about music, musicians, and music making. In locating caste and gender relations within the history of the Tyagaraja celebration, the roles played by two important transitional figures, namely Sri Malaikottai Govindasvami Pillai and Srimati (Smt.) Bangalore Nagaratnammal, illustrate the changes in the gender and caste organization of South Indian musicians in the 20th century.

Read on in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is a video of the 172nd Tyagaraja ārādhana circa January 2019.

Comments Off on Celebrating Tyagaraja ārādhana in South India

Filed under Asia, Performers, Religious music, World music

Nash The Slash reinvents classic rock

Electric mandolin and violin player and vocalist Nash The Slash (Jeff Plewman), whose name comes from the 1927 Laurel & Hardy movie Do detectives think?, is well known for his instrumental soundtrack work and reinvention of classic rock cover tunes while his image, that of a bandaged, walking, Invisible Man has made him instantly recognizable. During a performance in the late 1970’s to raise awareness of the threat from the Three Mile Island disaster, Nash walked on stage wearing bandages dipped in phosphorous paint and exclaimed: “Look, this is what happens to you!” Since that appearance, the bandages became his sartorial trademark. Although he was a guitarist for the late 1960’s Toronto band Breathless, Nash The Slash made his auspicious debut on 17 March 1975 sporting a top hat and tails (the bandages came later) at the Roxy Theatre to perform his soundtrack to Luis Buñuel’s silent film Un chien andalou (1929).

Nash The Slash would put out a half dozen releases between 1980 and 1984 as writer, producer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist as well as work doing engineering and production. His album Children of the night was produced by Steve Hillage and eventually became Nash’s biggest selling solo record with estimates at 100,000 copies worldwide. A fledgling engineer named Daniel Lanois later produced the single Dance after curfew from the And you thought you were normal album. Nash played violin on Gary Numan’s Dance album and was invited by Numan to tour the UK through 1980 and 1981. His long career included numerous appearances on various television shows in Canada and elsewhere, studio recordings, collaborations, and film soundtracks. In 1989, Nash The Slash landed a movie soundtrack deal with Toronto’s Sinister Cinema which hired him to add soundtrack scores to old silent films such as Lon Chaney’s 1925 Phantom of the opera and the 1919 German The cabinet of Dr. Caligari specifically for home video release. Nash The Slash would later perform the works live at special screenings in Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall.

Read the full entry on Nash The Slash in The Canadian pop music encyclopedia (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is the video for Nash The Slash’s 1982 classic Dance after curfew and his cover of The Rolling Stones’ 19th nervous breakdown.

Comments Off on Nash The Slash reinvents classic rock

Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Performers, Popular music

The corrido and Cesar Chavez

The corrido is a Mexican folk music that narrates a story or series of events in verse. The genre has developed in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States over the past 200 years. Similar to how the jarabe genre is closely linked historically to Mexican Independence (1810-1821), the corrido is linked with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). Unlike the former, the corrido is not typically danceable. It was one of the most popular song manifestations of the early 20th century, although its origin dates back to the Spanish colonial era. In the 18th century, the corrido was a popular type of country song found primarily in the states of Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. A significant difference between the corrido and other forms of Mexican narrative song is that corrido verses tend to feature many syllables with narration usually in the second or third person.

Toward the end of the 20th century, drug trafficking or illegal trafficking of narcotics, especially between Mexico and the U.S. southern border, became a popular theme of contemporary corrido songs with the term “narcocorrido” attributed to such songs. According to Rafael Acosta, a professor at the University of Kansas who has studied narcocorridos, the genre narrates the stories of “people who feel, many times justifiably, that they are neglected by state and economic apparatuses and look for possibilities of rebellion and socioeconomic advancement”. Acosta compares the stories in narcocorridos to films and songs about Italian gangsters of the early 20th century or outlaws trafficking moonshine in the era of 1920s prohibition.

Corrido musicians, however, have primarily sung about oppression, history, the daily life of peasants, and other socially relevant topics. For instance, listen below to the song El corrido de César Chávez written by Felipe Cantu and first performed in 1965 at the California state capitol in Sacramento, the endpoint of a three-week march led by Chávez and the United Farm Workers union from Delano to protest unfair practices against farmworkers.

Celebrate the civil rights and labor movement activist César Chávez on 31 March (César Chávez Day) by reading more about the history of the corrido genre in Diccionario enciclopédico de música en México. Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Comments Off on The corrido and Cesar Chavez

Filed under Labor, North America, Politics, Popular music, World music

Courtship dance step sounds of the blue-capped cordon-bleu

While vocalizations have been elucidated in various songbird studies, non-vocal sounds have received less attention. In the blue-capped cordon-bleu (Uraeginthus cyanocephalus), both sexes perform courtship displays that are accompanied by singing and distinct body movements (i.e., dance). A previous study revealed that cordon-bleu courtship bobbing includes multiple rapid steps. This behavior is quite similar to human tap dancing, because it can function simultaneously as a visual and acoustic signal.

In many cases, the acoustic signal value of such steps (along with the high-speed step movements) produce non-vocal sounds that have amplitudes similar to vocal sounds. In this sense, step behavior strongly affects step sound amplitude. Additionally, the dancing step sounds were substantially louder than feet movement sounds in a non-courtship context, and the amplitude range overlapped with that of song notes. These observations support the notion that, in addition to song, cordon-bleus produce acoustic signals with their feet.

Read more in “Songbird tap dancing produces non-vocal sounds” by Nao Ota, Manfred Gahr, and Masayo Soma (Bioacoustics: The international journal of animal sound and its recording 26.2 [2017], 161–168). Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Below is the step-dancing performed by male and female Uraeginthus cyanocephalus (blue-capped cordon-bleu) captured on a research video by the authors.

Related Bibliolore posts:

https://bibliolore.org/2018/05/21/angelic-bird-musicians/
https://bibliolore.org/2014/11/13/afghan-perceptions-of-birdsong/

Comments Off on Courtship dance step sounds of the blue-capped cordon-bleu

Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Dance, Nature, Science

Qamar: A pioneering singer of Iran

In the post 1970 revolution era, women musicians in Iran, especially women vocalists, have represented a challenge to societal norms and have inspired new musical trends. Such trends, however, have largely been inconsistent with the gendered restrictions of the Iranian state’s cultural policies which limit the musical activities of women, especially singing in public. Iranian society has long been one where religion and politics have been integrated into everyday life. With Islam as the official state ideology, this integration has been felt even more deeply. There is, however, a significant gap between such cultural policies, dominant official discourse, and the changing spiritual, intellectual, and cultural needs of Iranian society.

In this context, the emergence of women solo singers performing in public is unprecedented in Iranian history and must be understood in terms of the political, social, and intellectual changes of the late 19th and early 20th century. These changes included different processes of modernization including greater communication politically with the international community, the opening of modern schools, the establishment of a printing press, the creation of a modern educated or intellectual class (munavar al-fekr), the emergence of a literary renaissance movement (Bazgasht-i adabi), and a change in the country’s constitution. The Iranian public, especially the urban educated class, at the turn of the 20th century longed for changes in gender norms and for the participation of women in social and cultural spheres, including in the public performance of music. The early period of the Constitutional Revolution marked the beginning of Iranian classical music concerts performed in public. It was not until 1924, however, when the singer Qamar al-Moluk Vazirizade (better known as Qamar) gave her first concert at Tehran Grand Hotel, that an Iranian woman would perform before an audience of men in public.

Qamar was born in the small city of Qazvin but later moved to Tehran where she adopted her family name in honor of Ali-Naqi Vaziri, an Iranian musician who improved the social status of musicians and expanded the role of women in music. Qamar lost her father a month before she was born, and her mother died when she was only 18 months old. She was raised by her grandmother, Khair al- Nesa’, a reciter of the Qur’an and a religious professional narrator for women-only audiences (rouzeh-khani). Khair al Nesa’, who was known for her strong reciting voice, quickly took notice of Qamar’s interest in singing and encouraged her to join the performances–making them more captivating and helping Qamar to cultivate her singing voice. Qamar later recounted, “Those singing experiences in my childhood gave me the courage to sing in public”. Similar to the renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, Qamar’s professional career as a singer was influenced by and connected to her religious background.

From 1927 to 1937, Qamar’s career flourished, and she became one of the first Iranian singers to record for the gramophone market. Some of her songs reflected the social conditions and hardships faced by Iranian people after World War I. Furthermore, her recordings were even performed in public spaces such as theaters. Qamar is generally known to have played a significant role in the development of Persian classical music as a genre and expanded its popularity in aristocratic circles to wider society in the early 20th century.

Learn more in “Voicing their presence: Postrevolution Iranian female vocalists in context” by Malihe Maghazei [Popular communication XV/3 (2017), 233–247]. Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Listen to a recording by Qamar al-Moluk Vazirizade below.

Comments Off on Qamar: A pioneering singer of Iran

Filed under Asia, Popular music, Voice, Women's studies, World music

Kaija Saariaho’s sound worlds

From 1972 to 1974, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho studied at the University of Industrial Art and Design in Helsinki. Although she had played violin since childhood, she initially did not pursue her interests in music and composition because she saw no professional prospects in music as a woman. By 1976, however, Saariaho had enrolled at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki where she studied with Paavo Heininen until 1981. After completing a degree in composition, she continued her studies at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg (Freiburg University of Music), where she studied with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber before moving to Paris in 1982.

Saariahobegan her career with short compositions using serial techniques. Generally, her music was considered rather avant-garde for Finland in the 1980s, a period when she was began composing with computers and other digital technology. After moving to Paris, Saariaho further developed her techniques for computer-assisted composition in the music studios of IRCAM (Institut de recherche musicale et coordination acoustic et musique) and GRM (Groupe de recherches musicales). Throughout the 1980s, her compositions (particularly her electroacoustic compositions) increasingly gained international recognition, and some were performed in Europe, Japan, and the United States.

Besides her training in serial composition techniques, Saariaho’s musical thinking was deeply influenced by the performing arts and above all, by the color theory of Goethe and Wassily Kandinsky. They inspired her to experiment with the transition between vowels and consonants and to generate transition processes between sound and the human voice. In a 2014 interview, she discussed her use of the human voice as an instrument and a vehicle for text, including poetry and literature. According to Saariaho,

“I have such an affinity for the human voice–and a personal predilection for texts! In a sense, it’s the richest form of expression because the instrument is inside a human being and there are many things that cannot be falsified when using your voice. Whether or not a work for voice originates from a text, it’s necessarily a different mode of communication than instrumental music. Of course, using a text adds another layer of richness and meaning. I really love using voice, but it was difficult for me to write for it at first, probably because the historical context was difficult. I’ve always loved Berio, for instance, and what he did with voice, but I don’t like music that imitates Berio–and at some point, it felt as though you could only write for voice in that way, you had to write that way. So, it took time for me to find a certain freedom and my own way of writing for voice–and to accept it.”

Read the full entry on Kaija Saariaho in MGG Online.

Below is Saariaho’s Verblendungen (1984), a piece commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company that sees her experimenting with electroacoustic music by manipulating pre-recorded sounds on a tape to create eerie textures.

Comments Off on Kaija Saariaho’s sound worlds

Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers, Voice