Category Archives: Instruments

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 2, 2019: Harmonica Used Aboard Gemini 6

Wally Schirra’s 8-note Hohner “Little Lady” harmonica. Gift of Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford Jr.

From turntables to banjos, drumsticks, pianos, and beyond, musical instruments tell powerful stories about the multiple meanings of music in everyday life, highlighting how musical objects are never just things. Rather, they are often the result of complex processes arising from their production histories and circulation, accruing multiple layers of meaning through their varied uses and their associated cultural, ideological, affective, and economic values. Enter the humble harmonica, the free-reed wind instrument also known as the mouth organ or the French harp. How did a harmonica reach outer space in 1965? And what might it mean that it was the instrument of choice for the first song ever to be played outside planet Earth?

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When you pack your astronaut bag, you might smuggle a harmonica and miniature bells, if you are anything like Walter “Wally” Schirra or Tom Stafford. There is always some extra room next to the oxygen and the medication. Schirra and Stafford packed a Hohner “Little Lady,” a harmonica now given “The space traveler” moniker on the maker’s website, capable of playing one octave through its three-and-a-half–centimeter body. Why a harmonica, of all instruments? For one, it is portable, possessing a travel-readiness that has allowed it to circulate globally. The history of the harmonica is linked to that of its sister instrument, the accordion, especially during the mid-19th century. German instrument makers offered an extensive catalogue of accordions and harmonicas, pioneering a transformation of musical instruments into mass-produced commodities. As part of its global circulation, it has become a ubiquitous fixture in imagery that is, appropriately, about travel, as in the prototypical American Old West scene; characters like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the harmonica, and Abraham Lincoln is reported to have often carried a harmonica in his pocket. Remarkably, it is also present as a shamanic instrument of power used in healing rituals within some Amerindian shamanic traditions in the Amazon. A small instrument can travel far.

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The rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the first song (just its melody) played in outer space, is a precedent to the famous 1977 Voyager recording and the first instance in a long list of musical activities in space. These have included, among many others, the recording of a music video for “Space Oddity,” played by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013 and the 20-day radio transmission of the song “Dongfang Hong,” or “The East Is Red,” from China’s first space satellite of the same name, in 1970.

Commander Chris Hadfield Performs a Version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Rare Earth Series, Published by Onward Music Limited 

“The East Is Red” with English Subtitles, Posted by User Joaquin2123

Other instruments that have traveled outside the Earth include the flute brought onboard by Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician and NASA‘s first female Hispanic astronaut, Carl Walz’s keyboard, and Aleksandr Laveykin and Yury Romanenko’s guitar, among many others. The recurrence of the musical within extraterrestrial voyages demonstrates the ubiquity of music as part of shared human activities, be it in mundane settings or in the extraordinary context of riding in a spaceship or living in a space station. Which is a more fitting rhetorical question: Why music in space? or, Why not music in space? If astronauts in close quarters going through physically and intellectually demanding activities of massive proportions still have to monitor closely their physical needs, such as eating, breathing, sleeping, and digesting, the presence of music in the spectacular encounter between the earthly and the extraterrestrial is a wonder in its own right.

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The first song played in outer space was “Jingle Bells.” The first SMS (short message service) text message, sent in 1992, read “Merry Christmas.” These instances demonstrate the embeddedness of technology with specific cultural contexts; even though the Gemini 6 mission was completed in December 1965, the song played by its crew could have been any other. “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–93) and first published as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was originally about a (sleigh) ride, but not one linked to the imagery of Christmas holidays beyond the shared snow. “Jingle Bells” is also reported to have been one of the songs selected in the first recording of a Christmas record in an 1889 Edison cylinder. As the theater historian Kyra Hamill has demonstrated, the song gained prominence in 1857 after being performed as part of the blackface minstrel repertoire. That Schirra and Stafford performed it for humorous reasons tells us something about music and comic relief at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, only a few years before the historic moon landing. That this specific context is one of many that are a part of the song’s history demonstrates the multi-layeredness and depth of any one musical object, no matter how trivial it might seem.

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On December 16, 1965, the following three-way conversation took place between Gemini 6, Gemini 7, and the NASA Mission Control Center (“Houston”), with a reported sighting of Santa Claus in outer space:

Gemini 6: We have an object. It looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory, traveling from north to south. It has a very high [fineness] ratio. It looks like it might be [inaudible]. It’s very low; it looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by, One. It looks like he’s trying to signal us. [Stafford and Schirra play “Jingle Bells”]. 

 Gemini 7: We got him, too! [Laughter].

 Gemini 6: That was live, Seven, not taped.

 Houston: You’re too much, Six.

Performance in Space by Astronauts Schirra and Stafford, Posted by User Buzzlab

The objective of the Gemini 6 mission was to test the ability of two crewed spaceships to rendezvous. The musical moment performed through “Jingle Bells” highlights the desire and possibility of contact and communication. Effectively, Gemini 7 and the Houston ground control were morphed into audience members, with Gemini 6 clarifying that what they had indeed witnessed was a live performance. Both of their acknowledgments close a communicational loop of great significance. Communicating with the beyond and the non-human has also been a constant preoccupation in space travel, as explored in the selection of “world music” onboard the Voyager, or in Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures Project,” which includes a “micro-etched disc with one hundred photographs, encased in a gold-plated shell, designed to withstand the rigors of space and to last for billions of years. Inspired by years of conversations and interviews with scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the images chosen for The Last Pictures tell an impressionistic story of uncertainty, paradox, and anxiety about the future.”

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The presence of the harmonica brings a certain nostalgia to the fore in the musical moment created by the Gemini 6 mission. As a quintessential travel instrument, the harmonica in outer space can be interpreted as an instance of employing the familiar in order to ground a sense of place in the face of novelty, given its mainstream recognizability as part of the folk revival movement that peaked in the decade of the 1960s. The juxtaposition of tradition and modernity could not be starker in the moment it was brought to life through a Hohner “Little Lady” playing a Christmas song with a troubled racialized history hundreds of miles outside planet Earth. Yes, it was a funny moment, but it was more than the laughter.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Andrés García Molina, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bermúdez Cujar, Egberto. “Beyond vallenato: The accordion traditions in Colombia”, The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more!, ed. by Helena Simonett. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) 199–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-10356]

Accordion music in Colombia has a much longer history than the music that is called vallenato, and is not confined to the Valledupar region that allegedly gave it its name. This essay examines the development of accordion music in Colombia (including Panama before its separation from Colombia in 1903) and its role in Colombian traditional and popular music. Drawing on archival research and oral history, the author begins with the accordion’s arrival in Colombian territory in the second half of the 19th century and concludes with vallenato’s incorporation into the national and international popular-music circuits. (author)

Field, Kim. Harmonicas, harps, and heavy breathers: The evolution of the people’s instrument (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-13329]

García Molina, Andrés. “Labor and the performance of place in the Upper Putumayo”, TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review 20 (2016) 27–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-45171]

I develop a problematic around two interrelated themes: labor and the performance of place. Drawing from fieldwork conducted among taitas, or shamans, from the Colombian Upper Putumayo region, I investigate the varied ways in which taitas understand and use sound in their ritual practice. Taitas sing and perform songs for long periods of time and under strenuous circumstances during tomas de yajé, rituals that involve drinking yajé, a psychoactive brew made from local plant species. Taitas claim one main reason they sing and play during the ritual is to recreate the sensorium of Amazonia, performing a ritual place that becomes replicable wherever they might conduct rituals, whether in rural Colombia or in urban centers of the West. I argue for the importance of understanding what taitas do—and conversely, shamanic practices in general—as a form of labor; in doing so, I propose a framework that permits theorizing the commodification of cultural practices that, even though embedded in present-day capital relations, exist concurrently in imaginaries that situate them in a distant precapitalist past. The increasingly common encounter between taitas, non-indigenous Colombians, and Westerners in general, allows us to reconsider basic questions of labor and place through the music—and more broadly, sounds—that taitas perform in ritual. (author)

Hamill, Kyna. “‘The story I must tell’: Jingle bells in the minstrel repertoire”, Theatre survey: The American journal of theatre history 58/3 (September 2017) 375–403. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-51193]

Krampert, Peter. The encyclopedia of the harmonica (Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12510]

Lankford, Ronald D., Jr. Sleigh rides, jingle bells, & silent nights: A cultural history of American Christmas songs(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-8609]

When Bing Crosby’s White Christmas debuted in 1942, no one imagined that a holiday song would top the charts year after year. One of the best-selling singles ever released, it remains on rotation at tree lighting ceremonies, crowded shopping malls, and at warm diners on lonely Christmas Eve nights. Over the years, other favorites have been added to America’s annual playlist including Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, the King Cole Trio’s The Christmas song, Gene Autry’s Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Willie Nelson’s Pretty paper, and of course, Elmo & Patsy’s Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Under the surface of familiar melodies and words there lie jolly Santas, winter wonderlands, and roasting chestnuts—both masking and representing an intricate cultural landscape crowded with the meanings of a modern American Christmas. Songs that most readily evoke those meanings, desires, and anxieties have become classics, painting a portrait of the American psyche past and present. Viewing American holiday values through the filter of familiar Christmas songs, the author examines popular culture, consumerism, and the dynamics of the traditional American family. He surveys more than 75 years of songs and reveals that the “modern American Christmas” has carried a complex and sometimes contradictory set of meanings. Interpreting tunes against the backdrop of the eras in which they were first released, he identifies the repeated themes of nostalgia, commerce, holiday blues, carnival, and travesty that underscore so much beloved music. (publisher)

Licht, Michael S. “Harmonica magic: Virtuoso display in American folk music”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 24/2 (May 1980) 211–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1980-3491]

In the USA a virtuoso tradition of harmonic playing developed that used special mouth, hand, and nose techniques. It was influenced more by African than by European traditions. Public competitions fostered the development of special effects such as the fox chase and the locomotive. With the growth of audiences (e.g., for television and radio), the practice of accompanying spoken narratives became increasingly widespread. The author explores the symbolic meaning of some harmonic music genres, referring to the conflict of man and nature (in fox-chase pieces), and the growth of industrialization (in locomotive pieces). (Jeffrey Rehbach)

McCrory, Knox. “Notes on the harmonica: Toy or musical instrument?”, Missouri Folklore Society journal 20 (1998) 159–166. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-23779]

Simonett, Helena, ed. The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! Music in American life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, no. 2012-10346]

An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable “one-man-orchestra” capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois commentators often derided it as vulgar and tasteless. This rich collection considers the accordion and its myriad forms, from the concertina, button accordion, and piano accordion familiar in European and North American music, to the exotic-sounding South American bandoneón and the sanfoninha. Capturing the instrument’s spread and adaptation to many different cultures in North and South America, contributors illuminate how the accordion factored into power struggles over aesthetic values between elites and working-class people who often were members of immigrant and/or marginalized ethnic communities. Specific histories and cultural contexts discussed include the accordion in Brazil, Argentine tango, accordion traditions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, cross-border accordion culture between Mexico and Texas, Cajun and Creole identity, working-class culture near Lake Superior, the virtuoso Italian-American and klezmer accordions, Native American dance music, and American avant-garde. (publisher)

Studwell, William E. “From Jingle bells to Jingle bell rock: Sketches of obscure or fading American popular Christmas songwriters, 1857–1957 (and a little beyond)”, Music reference services quarterly 5/1 (1996) 1–20. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-1302]

Although many people are familiar with the enduring and even classic American popular Christmas songs that are reprised every holiday season, the creators of these songs are obscure or fading from the collective American consciousness. In an effort to help preserve their names and accomplishments, biographical sketches of 34 writers of popular Christmas songs are presented.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, November 13, 2019: Art Blakey’s Drumstick

Art Blakey’s Drumstick, 1947-1990, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Peter Bradley

“Let the punishment fit the crime.”
-Art Blakey

Art Blakey, Stoker of Modern Music

During an interview published in a 1978 issue of Modern Drummer, Art Blakey (1919–1990) asserted, “It doesn’t matter what kind of instrument the drummer has. It isn’t the instrument, it’s the musician…I got the fundamentals and rudiments down pretty good. There’s no technique or anything. I don’t think it has anything to do with the stick, ‘cause most of the sticks that come out today are crooked.” Later, in 1986, Blakey relayed the surprised reactions he received from some musicians after they confronted his “unconventional” (read: “not classically trained”) way of playing: “You know, like in England, the guys was there from the symphony orchestras, and the great drum teachers was there, and I was playing. They said, ‘Well, you play so unorthodox,’ I said, ‘Well, what is orthodox? Whether I play orthodox or not, I get results’.” When asked to elaborate on what specifically was so unconventional about his playing, the drummer responded, “Oh, the way I’ll pick up my sticks, or the way I’ll do something. There’s no certain way to do it; you don’t hold the sticks a certain way.” Even a quick listen to his 1973 drum battle with Ginger Baker, throughout which he alternates using a traditional grip and a matched grip, convincingly demonstrates the power of “unorthodox.”

For a drummer often credited for the development of hard bop—an R&B-, blues-, Latin-, and gospel-inflected extension of the bebop jazz strain rhythmically pioneered by drummers like Max Roach, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, and Chick Webb in the 1940s to 1960s—Blakey’s disinterest in technique (or at least conventional conceptions of technique) seems somewhat counterintuitive. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, “bop,” along with whatever prefixes or qualifiers appended to it, was an industry and fan term for what practitioners typically called “modern music” (or just “music”). And as a self-taught musician honing his skills in the Depression era, it should not be surprising that, for Blakey, abandoning traditional notions of technique or “right” and “wrong” became a precondition for exploration, a liberation of sorts. During wartime, as Blakey recounts, “[Y]ou just couldn’t get no sticks. We played with chair-arms, and it sure did swing, man.” And for all his innovative spirit, swing remained at the heart of his craft.

The stick pictured above, even if just as sufficient as any other in Blakey’s estimation, played a role in transmitting that feeling of incessant drive, motion, explosive power, subtlety, dynamic contrast, and, most importantly, swing. Although it would be going too far to assume that Blakey considered drumstick type to be completely fungible, there is some evidence to suggest that he used different models at different times across his career. Advertised as being “reproduced exactly from his ‘60s model stick,” Bopworks’s Art Blakey Centennial Edition stick is an 8D with a length of 16” and width of .530”. This can be contrasted with the stick made for him by Gretsch—one of his sponsors for a time—which was a 1A. Classification systems vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it is hard to know the exact differences. With a height, width, and diameter of 15 7/8”, 5/8”, and 5/8”, respectively, the stick featured here approximates Bopworks’s commemorative stick in size, and its triangular tip presents another commonality.

The drumstick as shown here is well worn, particularly in its tip, shoulder, and upper shaft. As a right-handed drummer, we might speculate that this stick, with its gradual tapering and numerous nicks and gashes, was used for striking crash or ride cymbals. As the foundational time-keeper, replacing the kick drum’s danceable four-on-the-floor pattern, rhythms on the ride accommodated the modernists’ breakneck speeds, unconventional phrasings, and general fluidity. However, any such conjecture is likely futile, as Blakey’s exploration of “extended techniques” was part of his innovative spirit. Expounding upon the drummer’s time playing with Thelonious Monk around 1947—a collaboration that helped solidify the transformation from swing proper to modernist reaches—Burt Korall explains in his Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz—The Bebop Years that, “Blakey plays two basic roles: time player and interpreter-commentator. He adds both reason and the unexpected to the music. Using all the elements of the set, snare, tom-toms, the bass drum, the rims, the drum’s shells, the cymbals—all parts—the hi-hat cymbals and hi-hat stands, and even the sounds of the drumsticks themselves, he simultaneously defines Monk and himself.” One wonders how many “smokin’ press rolls”—Blakey’s common way to introduce soloists, as can be heard at 2:08 of the live recording of Bobby Timmons’s now classic “Moanin’” below—were executed on this drumstick.  

Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (drums: Art Blakey, trumpet: Lee Morgan, tenor sax: Benny Golson, piano: Bobby Timmons, bass: Jymie Merritt), ca. 1958-1959.

Regardless of time, personnel, or style, Blakey always sought to bring out the best in those with whom he shared the bandstand. Conceiving of his drumming more as a method through which to enliven others than as conduit for flashy drum solos—though there is no paucity of the latter, to be sure—one of Blakey’s greatest contributions was his ability to accompany, to facilitate, to empathize. In more than one interview, Blakey contends, “Let the punishment fit the crime”; when he played briefly for Duke Ellington, he “played Ellington,” and when he played with Monk, he played Monk, in the words of Burt Korall, “responsively and responsibly.”

Blakey’s impressive career has been well documented, if at times imprecisely relayed by the drummer himself. From the tale of his being forced at gunpoint in 1934 to move out from behind the piano to behind a drum set (to make way for Erroll Garner), to his work in New York City with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra from 1939 to 1941, to his time with Billy Eckstine’s band between 1944 and 1947 (playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944), to his brief stint studying religion and philosophy in Africa in the late ‘40s (around which time he adopted the Muslim name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, or just “Bu” to friends), to eventually taking leadership of his own ensemble, The Jazz Messengers, for roughly 35 years. But across all accounts of Blakey’s life, there is one constant: his vehement drive to accompany and support young, talented jazz musicians. The list of formidable young players who developed their own musical voice as one of Blakey’s Messengers include Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Wallace Roney, Benny Golson, Wynton Marsalis, and Keith Jarrett, to name just a small selection.    

Blakey’s success in accessing “the guts of the human soul” was fueled by a profound sensitivity to the desires and abilities of the musicians with whom he worked and the audiences he took care to entertain. If the drumstick here could tell a story, it would be just as much about the musicians it stoked to greatness as it would be the great musician who wielded it.   

 This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Blakey, Art. “Art Blakey”, Reading jazz: A gathering of autobiography, reportage, and criticism from 1919 to now, ed. by Robert Gottlieb. (New York: Pantheon, 1996) 205–213. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-23592]
Art Blakey, the dedicated and influential drummer, talks about his start, his career, and his ideas in this excerpt from a long interview recorded in 1976 in Jazz spoken here (1992). (editor)

Blakey, Takashi Buhaina, ed., “Art Blakey”, Art Blakey Estate, http://www.artblakey.com. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2015-82562]

Giese, Hannes. Art Blakey: Sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Schaftlach: Oreos, 1990). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-12184]

Goldsher, Alan. Hard bop academy: The sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-9125]
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was one of the most enduring, popular, reliable, and vital small bands in modern jazz history. Blakey was not only a distinguished, inventive, and powerful drummer, but along with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, he was one of jazz’s foremost talent scouts. The musicians who flowed seamlessly in and out of this constantly evolving collective during its 36-year run were among the most important artists not just of their eras, but of any era. Their respective innovations were vital to the evolution of bebop, hard bop, and neo bop. The multitude of gifted artists who populated the many editions of the Jazz Messengers are critically examined. In addition to dissecting the sidemen’s most consequential work with Blakey’s band, profiles are offered of everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Terence Blanchard to Hank Mobley to Wayne Shorter to Horace Silver to Keith Jarrett to Curtis Fuller to Steve Davis. Over 30 interviews with surviving graduates of Blakey’s hard bop academy were conducted, with many speaking at length of their tenure with the legendary Buhaina for the first time. (publisher)

Gourse, Leslie. Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-47104]
In the 1950s, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers introduced hard bop, a blend of bebop, blues, gospel, and Latin music that has defined the jazz mainstream ever since. Although Blakey’s influence as a drummer and bandleader was enormous, his greatest contribution may have been as a mentor to younger musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Wynton Marsalis. Leslie Gourse chronicles Blakey’s colorful life and career, from his hardscrabble childhood in Pittsburgh to his final years as an international jazz icon. (publisher)

Havers, Richard. Blue Note: Uncompromising expression—The finest in jazz since 1939 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2014-11338]
Purveyor of extraordinary music and an arbiter of cool, Blue Note is the definitive jazz label—signing the best artists, pioneering the best recording techniques, and leading cover design trends with punchy, iconic artwork and typography that shaped the way we see the music itself. The roster of greats who cut indelible sides for the label include Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Norah Jones, and many more. Published for Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, this volume is the first official illustrated story of the label, from its 1939 roots to its renaissance today. Featuring classic album artwork, unseen contact sheets, rare ephemera from the Blue Note Archives, commentary from some of the biggest names in jazz today, and feature reviews of 75 key albums, this is the definitive book on the legendary label. (publisher)

Hentoff, Nat. “Jazz Messengers: Jazz Messengers blazing a spirited trail”, DownBeat: The great jazz interviews—A 75th anniversary anthology, ed. by Frank Alkyer. (New York: Hal Leonard, 2009) 52–53. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-23860]
An interview with the group published in the 22 February 1956 issue of DownBeat.

Howland, Harold. “Art Blakey: The eternal jazzman”, Modern drummer 2/4 (October 1978) 16–23, 39. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1978-20471]

Korall, Burt. Drummin’ men: The heartbeat of jazz—The bebop years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-8511]
Biographical sketches based on interviews with drummers of the 1940s through the 1980s, tracing the transition from swing to bebop, and highlighting some of the most innovative musicians. These include Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Lou Fromm, Billy Exiner, Denzil Best, Irv Kluger, Jackie Mills, J.C. Heard, Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, Max Roach, Stan Levey, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Don Lamond, Tiny Kahn, Philly Joe Jones, Mel Lewis, Ed Shaughnessy, Art Taylor, and Ike Day.

Mathieson, Kenny. Cookin’: Hard bop and soul jazz, 1954–65 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-18555]
Examines the history and development of hard bop and its offshoot, soul jazz. Hard bop was the most vital and influential jazz style of its day, and today remains at the core of the modern jazz mainstream. Drawing on bebop and the blues for its foundation, filtered through gospel, Latin, and rhythm-and-blues influences, hard bop was notable for the instrumental virtuosity it required and the elaborate harmonic structures it was built upon. The founding fathers of the form are profiled, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, along with Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, and J.J. Johnson. (publisher)

Monson, Ingrid T. “Art Blakey’s African diaspora”, The African diaspora: A musical perspective, ed. by Ingrid T. Monson. Garland reference library of the humanities 1995 (New York: General Music Publishing Co., 2000) 329–352. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2000-8650]
Illuminates the principal political, religious, and musical contexts through which Art Blakey’s travels to Africa and his African diasporic musical explorations of the 1950s might be interpreted. Unraveling his relationship to the African diaspora necessitates exploration of three contexts pertinent to understanding the relationship of African American music and culture to Africa in the mid-20th century: anticolonialism, pan-Africanism, and Islam from the 1920s through the 1940s; African independence, Afro-Cuban music, and religion in the 1950s; and the indefinite nature of musical signification. The masterful disjunction between what Blakey said about his relationship to Africa and African music and what he actually played reveals the complex pathways through which music has mediated and continues to mediate the African diasporic experience. (author)

Rosenthal, David H. “Conversation with Art Blakey: The big beat!”, The black perspective in music 14/3 (fall 1986) 267–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1986-4417]

Squinobal, Jason John. West African music in the music of Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef, and Randy Weston (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-48924]

Discography

The Jazz Messengers. Moanin’. The Rudy Van Gelder edition. CD (Blue Note Records 724349532427, 1999). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-61955]

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 24, 2019: Grand Piano Gifted to Prince Albert from Queen Victoria, 1854

Erard grand piano

Anyone who saw the PBS Masterpiece series Victoria last year knows that Prince Albert was an avid music lover and a pretty good pianist. There are quite a few scenes in which the romantic feelings of both Albert and Victoria (not a bad pianist herself) are expressed at the piano. In this light, the gift of Victoria of a grand piano to her husband means more than just any gift of a precious object; the piano represented the emotional bond between them, which lasted until Albert’s untimely death in 1861. They often played piano duets together and, in the tradition of pre-recording times, this included four-hand arrangements of symphonies, operas, and overtures. Whenever they travelled, they brought a pile of sheet music for their own entertainment, and in each one of their palaces there was at least one piano. In addition, they frequently hosted chamber music concerts or piano recitals by all the famous artists of their time.

Victoria and Albert owned no less than three grand pianos made by the Erard firm: apart from the above instrument, Victoria commissioned an 18th-century-style gilded instrument in 1856, similar to one she had owned in the 1830s at Buckingham Palace, as well as the 1848 Erard piano, which was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1849. Reportedly, Prince Albert had designed the case: a tulip-veneer design with nine porcelain depictions of famous old paintings. 

White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace: S & P Erard grand piano, 1856 RCIN 2426
Drawing Room, Osborne House: Erard grand piano, c.1848 RCIN 41322

Why did the royal couple seem to have a preference for Erard pianos? The Erard firm was the most forward-looking piano firm of its time, in line with Prince Albert’s interest in the crossroads between art and industrial progress. The founder of the firm, Sébastian Érard (1752–1831), was born in Strasbourg and settled in Paris in 1768. In 1779 he first travelled to London with the intention of setting up a piano firm, a plan he realized in 1792, while at the same time running a flourishing piano factory in Paris where he sold hundreds of instruments each year. Most of the pianos he sold were square pianos, but he also built grand pianos from 1790 or even earlier. Initially, the piano actions Erard used were based on the so-called “English action” used by John Broadwood in London, but Erard modified it to create a lighter touch. In 1821 he revolutionized piano building with the invention of his “double-escapement action,” which allowed for a greater ease of playing and louder sound. In addition, Érard was famous for the wood artistry and decorations of the cases of his most expensive models, such as were found in palaces around Europe. There were some differences between Erard’s pianos made in London and those made in Paris: the London pianos (such as the 1854 piano) tended to be plainer and sturdier, and there were also subtle differences in stringing and hammer-covering. As one can see in the illustration, it does not yet have the full-size iron frame, but rather iron bars across the length of the instrument to help withstand the string tension.

For more on musical instruments in the collection of Victoria and Albert: https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/music-in-the-royal-collection/queen-victoria-1819-1901-and-prince-albert-1819-61

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM and its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Maria Rose, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Budds, Michael Joe. Music of the court of Queen Victoria: A study of music in the life of the Queen and her participation in the musical life of her time (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1987). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1987-2692]

Victoria was a patroness and an enthusiastic consumer of music. An accomplished amateur, she was known for her appreciation of opera and opera singers. Her understanding was broadened, though not defined—as is generally thought—by Prince Albert. (author)

Clarke, Christopher. “Érard and Broadwood in the Classical era: Two schools of piano making.” Musique, images, instruments: Revue française d’organologie et d’iconographie musicale 11 (2009) 98–125. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-9536]

French pianos of the Classical period have long been considered as having been copied from English models. While it is undeniable that there was a strong English influence on the French school, the inventive genius of Sébastien Érard led him to design both grand and square pianos that were ideally suited to the requirements of French musicians. Their demands for rapid repetition and a bright, powerful tone led him not only to invent a revolutionary series of piano actions which culminated in the famous double-escapement actions of 1821 and 1822, but also to re-think the structure and the tone-producing aspects of his instruments. Érard’s work is compared with his sources of inspiration; particularly the work of John Broadwood, but also that of Robert Stodart, the firm Crang & Hancock, Schoene, and others. In particular, two grand pianos and two squares, one each from Broadwood’s and Érard’s workshops, are discussed and compared. (author)

Epenhuysen Rose, Maria van. L’art de bien chanter: French pianos and their music before 1820 (Ph.D. diss., New York University, New York, 2006). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2006-13693]

Influenced by vocal styles, the development of French pianos and their music followed a different path from that in other regions of Europe. The Viennese-style piano, used in Paris concerts in 1784, was criticized for its lack of harmonie; the English piano for its heavy action. Sébastien Érard achieved a successful fusion of both types of piano in 1809 with the étrier-action piano. The reception of the piano in France is traced, using a variety of sources, including Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni’s 1794 list of confiscated instruments. Piano styles are analyzed in the works of Johann Schobert, Johann Gottfried Eckard, Nicolas Joseph Hüllmandel, Edelmann, Louis Adam, and others. Ca. 1790 a densely textured piano style became the norm, which relied on overlapping legato, rather than the pedal to create sustained sounds. After 1795, the focus on technique at the Conservatoire contrasted increasingly with the application of bel canto singing styles in private music making. (author)

Roudier, Alain. “Les pianos Érard en forme de clavecin (1790–1797)/The Érard grand pianos in the shape of a harpsichord/Die Érard-Flügel in Cembaloform”, Sébastien Érard: Ein europäischer Pionier des Instrumentenbaus: Internationales Érard-Symposium, Michaelstein, 13.14. November 1994, ed. by Rudolf Frick. (Blankenburg: Kultur- und Forschungsstätte Michaelstein, 1995) 12–14. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-3167]

It appears certain that the Érard firm made grand pianos before they patented them in 1794. The concept of this instrument and its English escapement mechanism reveal the influence of Broadwood, who had in fact been a source of inspiration to Sébastian Érard since 1779. The existence of an Érard grand piano from around 1790 is also confirmed by the firm’s register book, which lists numbered grand pianos, and by its sales books, which lists unnumbered instruments. Seventeen of these instruments—13 of them numbered—have been identified so far. A list of grand pianos made before April 1797 is included. (author)

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 27, 2019: The Stinson Banjo

John H. Buckbee (manufacturer). Banjo created for Charles P. Stinson. Late 19th century. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Clark and Sarah Case Family.

The Banjo at the Crossroads

The banjo is an instrument that sits at the crossroads of American culture. The legend of the crossroads is often framed in terms of a Faustian bargain—a site where deals are struck with powerful yet potentially malevolent forces. This fable’s best-known manifestation is set almost a hundred years ago when bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have visited a road-crossing in rural Mississippi to have his guitar tuned by a mysterious figure, usually thought to be the Devil. At the crossroads, Satan grants Johnson an otherworldly talent, and access to worldly pleasures, in exchange for selling his soul. Although the story was never related by Johnson himself it will forever be seen as a crucial part of his legend, where the crossroads’ perceived power as a liminal, transformative space, a space of both possibility and danger, resonates with audiences to this day.

This resonance may have something to do with how the origin story above aligns with the origin story of America—and how flexibly the crossroads narrative can be interpreted by different individuals and social groups. In Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow describes how the Devil-at-the-crossroads legend was born out of a collision between cultures, religious systems, and musical traditions not accorded equal status:

Some of the confusion on this [origin story] has to do with the way two different folklore streams, one from Europe (featuring the biblical devil, Satan) and one from Africa (featuring a pair of related crossroads trickster deities, Esu and Legba), seem to have fused on American soil, coalescing into a folktale that was well known in African American communities below the Mason-Dixon line. A Christian/Manichean worldview that understands the devil as the wholly evil antagonist who claims wayward souls doesn’t smoothly align with and subsume an African worldview that understands Esu and Legba as figures of constructive disorder who are also, when properly petitioned, teachers and guides.

In historical terms, much more than the guitar, the banjo is the best example of an instrument that’s forever been caught between colliding vectors of American culture—black and white, masculine and feminine, rural and urban, among others. The instrument served as a means of preserving and syncretizing various African aesthetics and belief systems among African-Americans, and also served as an emblem of cultural crossover and collaboration with Anglo-Americans; but equally, it was used as a tool of cultural exploitation, serving as an emblem of racist slander and stereotyping through its use in blackface minstrelsy in particular.
The following bibliographic sources deal with these overlapping currents in all their complexity—from the banjo’s seemingly inescapable linkage with slavery, to the near erasure of this linkage through white appropriations of and claims to the instrument, to the never-ending series of revivals and reclamations that navigate this rocky terrain—an instrument that perhaps more than any other tells the story of America, its potential and peril represented equally across a span of centuries. As always, the devil is in the details.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Conway, Cecilia. “African banjo echoes in Appalachia: A conclusion”, From jubilee to hip hop: Readings in African American music, ed. by Kip Lornell. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall Education, 2010) 15–22. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-54]

The banjo has long signified at the crossroads of the South and today remains a symbol of the mountain musician. The 20th-century folk banjo tradition, indeed, has persisted most strongly among southern mountain whites who continue to play on homemade banjos. Importantly, this living tradition is the complex result of more than a century and a half of exchange between African Americans and others. But the early written records prove that, even a century before the exchange began, blacks had brought the banjo with them from Africa. With a homemade banjo, driving rhythms, and sliding notes, the distinctive aesthetic of African-American musicians shaped the playing styles and song forms of their identifiable repertory and influenced white musicians. Even though African Americans have played banjos for more than two centuries, researchers have located, interviewed, and recorded very few in this century. Thus, North Carolina musicians such as Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and Odell Thompson are historically crucial, for, like the African griots, they have been the “praise singers” and have carried on some of the most important aspects of traditional culture: genealogy, rites of passage, and healing. Their traditions and practices have provided a means for reaching beyond the written records to an understanding of a continuous strand of African-American musical culture, its impact upon white tradition, especially in the Southeast and in Appalachia, and its contribution to American folk music. (author)

Dubois, Laurent. The banjo: America’s African instrument (Cambridge: Belknap, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-935]

The banjo has been called by many names over its history, but they all refer to the same sound—strings humming over skin—that has eased souls and electrified crowds for centuries. This book invites us to hear that sound afresh in a biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments. Attuned to a rich heritage spanning continents and cultures, the author traces the banjo from humble origins, revealing how it became one of the great stars of American musical life. In the 17th century, enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America drew on their memories of varied African musical traditions to construct instruments from carved-out gourds covered with animal skin. Providing a much-needed sense of rootedness, solidarity, and consolation, banjo picking became an essential part of black plantation life. White musicians took up the banjo in the 19th century, when it became the foundation of the minstrel show and began to be produced industrially on a large scale. Even as this instrument found its way into rural white communities, however, the banjo remained central to African American musical performance. Twentieth-century musicians incorporated the instrument into styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to Dixieland, bluegrass, reggae, and pop. Versatile and enduring, the banjo combines rhythm and melody into a single unmistakable sound that resonates with strength and purpose. From the earliest days of American history, the banjo’s sound has allowed folk musicians to create community and joy even while protesting oppression and injustice. (publisher)

Eacker, Susan A. and Geoff Eacker. “A banjo on her knee. I: Appalachian women and America’s first instrument”, The old-time herald: A magazine dedicated to old-time music 8/2 (winter 2002):http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-8/8-2/full-banjo-on-her-knee.html. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-26661]

In an article titled In praise of banjo-picking women published over 10 years ago in the pages of The old-time herald, Mike Seeger noted that in his fieldwork with “old-timers” in the Southern mountains, he had been told that their fathers and mothers played the banjo before the turn of the 20th century. Seeger went on to ask, “Why do we not have accounts of this—either visually or in the literature?” This article is a long overdue affirmation of Seeger’s findings and a response to his question. It was only after we began our research that we learned that most of these men had learned to play from a female relative. An extensive list includes such luminaries as Ralph Stanley, who learned to play clawhammer style from his mother, Lucy Smith. The fact that so many well-known old-time male musicians have been inspired and influenced by a female in the family should force us to rethink the ways in which banjo music in Appalachia has been promulgated and preserved. The evidence suggests that it was women who have historically kept old-time music—especially banjo and ballads—alive in the hills and hollers of the Southern mountains. The fact that 19th-century Appalachian women banjo players have remained invisible may be because mountain women and men were largely isolated and on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As social historians can attest, the marginalized leave few records, which may help to answer Seeger’s question of why such accounts are hard to come by. What’s more, ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp were keen on establishing a Celtic connection between Appalachians and their Northern European ancestors. To this end they sought after unaccompanied ballads with British bloodlines. The banjo was not a link in their musical canon and mountain men and women were discouraged from playing this indigenous instrument, instead encouraged to pluck the dulcimer, erroneously thought to have come from Great Britain. (authors)

Eyre, Banning. “Banjo adventure”, fRoots 31/9 (March 2010) 29–31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-20391]

In 2005 Béla Fleck traveled around Africa with his banjo and recording gear, inserting the instrument into music from its point of origin. The trip resulted in a Grammy-winning album, Throw down your heart: Africa sessions (2008), and transformed Fleck’s philosophy of music-making. Fleck has also toured under the banner of the Africa Project, performing with a host of musicians he met in Africa. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Gussow, Adam. Beyond the crossroads: The devil & the blues tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-28092]

The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He’s not just the music’s namesake (“the devil’s music”), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, there is much more to the story of the Devil and the blues than these clichéd understandings—linked to culture, the struggle against racism, and the syncretization of European and African religions (especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans). Thanks to original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past 90 years, the varied uses to which Black Southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure are exposed. A bold reinterpretation of Johnson’s music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as “The Crossroads” in 1999, claiming Johnson and the Devil as their own. (publisher)

John, Emma. “‘White people are so fragile, bless ’em’: Meet Rhiannon Giddens, banjo warrior”, The guardian (July 23, 2018):https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/23/white-people-are-so-fragile-bless-em-rhiannon-giddens-banjo-warrior-cambridge-folk-festival. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-4111]

A profile and interview with the banjo player, fiddle player, and formally-trained opera singer. On her most recent album, Freedom highway, Rhiannon Giddens pours fire and fury into powerful songs that target everything from police shootings to slavery, the civil rights era, and Black Lives Matter. Musically, the album reveals the breadth of her musical influences—including soul, blues, gospel, jazz, and zydeco—building on and expanding out from Giddens’s work with her Grammy-award winning group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In an interview, the musician reveals all about her mission to put the black back in bluegrass (and Shakespeare). She also describes her investigation into the history of minstrelsy, hoping to reclaim a genre that has become associated, in both the US and the UK, with blackface performance: “When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you see banjo, fiddle, and tambourine, you might think they’re all ‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural ideas have been crossing over forever. My projects are all going towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different’.” (author)

Marks, Ben. “Strummin’ on the old banjo: How an African instrument got a racist reinvention”, Collectors weekly (October 4, 2016): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-the-african-banjo-got-a-racist-reinvention.

“What’s the difference between a banjo and a lawnmower? You can tune a lawnmower.” “What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the middle of a road and a dead banjo player in the middle of a road? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.” There are entire websites devoted to such banjo jokes, and though they may produce casual chuckles today, these jokes are actually rooted in the racist put-downs that were once directed at black banjo players in America. The latest banjo revival arrives at a weirdly bipolar moment in Western cultural history. On the one hand, the five-string banjo has never been more popular. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons plays sold out concerts with a top-of-the-line Deering banjo strapped over his shoulder, as does Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. On Broadway, Bright star, which was co-written by the funniest banjo player alive, Steve Martin, enjoyed a spirited, if brief, run. At the same time, racism in the United States hasn’t been so naked in decades. What, you might ask, does racism have to do with the banjo, an instrument that for most people is no more controversial than the banjo-heavy theme song for The Beverly hillbillies? Race is actually central to any conversation about banjos, or at least it should be. That’s what makes the banjo so relevant in 2016. This article traces the history of the banjo, and the ways the instrument became bound up with both African-American identity and with the country’s virulent history of racism. (author)

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s hammer ring: Moving beyond black and white images of Appalachian music”, Kaleidoscope of cultures: A celebration of multicultural research and practice, ed. by Marvelene C. Moore and Philip Ewell. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010) 93–99. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-14904]

Sometimes I feel that I have been put on this earth to teach people one simple fact; the banjo is from Africa. Or, more accurately, the roots of the modern American banjo are traceable back through early African-American instruments to instruments from Africa. It is a simple fact about a well-known American artifact, so simple that it seems it would be common knowledge. But perhaps because the banjo is primarily associated with styles of music such as bluegrass, which are played by mostly white musicians, its origins have been shrouded from the American consciousness. In fact, I am constantly amazed as I teach college classes and travel to public schools across the heart of Appalachia how many students (and teachers!) are not aware of this fascinating and provocative piece of American history. In my work, I am often called upon to talk about the history of Appalachian music or to perform “traditional” music from the region. These seem simple enough tasks on the surface, but simply knowing about the banjo’s origins complicates things. When I pull out my banjo or mandolin, I am often met with comments such as, “I love bluegrass. It sounds just like Celtic music. Doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. This article examines how this comment misses the mark in a number of ways. (author)

Murphy, Con. “Stone & Sissoko”, fRoots 31/5–6 (November–December) 19. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-22415]

A profile of the duo–Jayme Stone, Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, Malian kora player. Their collaboration on the LP Africa to Appalachia is part of a recent movement returning the banjo to its assumed African source. The record brings together a series of updated West African melodies and occasional bluegrass standards. While it was released with little fanfare in early 2009, it has proven to be one of the year’s long-fuse albums, its subtle charms and subtle melodies creeping up and working their way into the imagination over the ensuing months. (author)

Shea, Andrea. “The banjo’s beauty, and its cultural baggage, is on display in a new digital museum”, WBUR: The ARTery (April 17, 2019):https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/04/17/banjo-project-digital-museum. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-2091]

Marc Fields and his production team are inside historian and collector Jim Bollman’s storied Arlington home. Bollman sits patiently on a stool with his rare, pre-Civil War banjo balanced on his knee as they set up their shot. “This room has more banjo history packed per square inch than any place on earth,” Fields said. “It’s a place I came to when I first started this project and realized how much there is about the banjo which people don’t know about and which people should know about.” Fields said Bollman’s trove of 200-plus instruments, banjo-related artifacts, and cabinets of research provide a unique portal into America’s past. For more than 15 years, Fields has been on a quest to capture, share, and contextualize banjo history. Now his work is on display in a new museum. But you don’t need to leave the couch to visit because Fields’ archive-in-the-making, called The Banjo Project, is all online. The site celebrates the banjo’s beauty while tackling its cultural baggage. As ethnomusicologist Greg Adams puts it, “You can’t talk about the history of the banjo, if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation,” but the instrument has also been a tool for liberation, as scholar Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture points out. Examples of the latter include the careers of Gus Cannon, Lotta Crabtree, and Rhiannon Giddens. (author)

Winans, Robert B., ed. Banjo roots and branches. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6748]

The story of the banjo’s journey from Africa to the Western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. This anthology presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument’s West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States. The contributors provide detailed ethnographic and technical research on gourd lutes and ekonting in Africa and the banza in Haiti, while also investigating tuning practices and regional playing styles. Other essays place the instrument within the context of slavery, tell the stories of black banjoists, and shed light on the banjo’s introduction into the African- and Anglo-American folk milieus. On the whole, a wealth of new information is offered to scholars of African American and folk musics as well as the worldwide community of banjo aficionados. (publisher)

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The Mandé buzz aesthetic

 

The widespread preference for buzzy timbres in African traditional musics has been notably borne out in the Mandé region of West Africa.

The two main types of buzzing mechanisms in Mandé music are metal buzzing rattles, which are attached to the neck or bridge of various string instruments, and mirlitons (vibrating membranes), which are placed over small holes on the resonating gourds of wooden xylophones.

Over the last seventy to eighty years, an older and rougher buzz aesthetic within Mandé music has become increasingly endangered, with buzzing largely disappearing from instruments such as the kora and the ngoni in favor of a more “clean” Western aesthetic. Considered in a wider cultural context, the incorporation of buzzing sounds within Mandé music might be connected to forms of esoteric, supernatural, and spiritual power.

This according to “The buzz aesthetic and Mandé music: Acoustic masks and the technology of enchantment” by Merlyn Driver (African music X/3 [2017] pp. 95–118).

Above and below, kora playing with nyenyemo (metal rattle attached to the bridge).

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How to destroy an organ

 

Part of the U.S. Army technical manual published on 13 November 1963 dealt with the installation, operation, and maintenance of the Hammond organ, which was then the instrument of choice in chapels on army bases.

One of the chapters details the destruction of the organ in the case of the capture or abandonment of the instrument to an enemy, urging all concerned to memorize the procedures so the manual will not have to be consulted in an emergency.

The chapter (above) is reprinted in “Your tax dollars at work for you” by Rollin Smith (The American organist LI/7 [July 2017] p. 88. Below, one way to do the job.

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Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.

Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.

We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.

Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.

In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.

This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2 [2018] pp. 175–83)

Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.

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The Mills violano virtuoso

 

Nobody knows how many of the 2,500 violano virtuosos manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company between 1912 and 1926 exist today, but one ended up in the Smithsonian Institution in 1959, where it was designated one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade.

A complex instrument, it contains a 44-note piano with bass strings in the center and treble notes on either side in addition to a real violin. An electric motor with variable speeds simulates the action of bowing through the use of electromagnets.

Arthur Sanders, a specialist in mechanical instruments, was engaged to oversee the instrument’s restoration. “I assumed theirs had been in operating condition when they got it,” Sanders later noted, “but the grease had jelled, the oil had become gummy, and it needed new strings.” Mr. Sanders worked on it with some spare parts from similar instruments. “Even the curators from the fossil section came around,” he said, describing what must have been an exciting moment for the famous museum.

This according to “Making music with machines” by James Feron (The New York times 17 June 1984, pp. 507, 529). Above and below, the rare double violano virtuoso.

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Père Castel’s ocular harpsichord

 

The Jesuit priest Louis-Bertrand Castel had his hour of fame in the 18th century thanks to his ocular harpsichord.

Starting from the idea of a physical analogy between sound and color, Castel conceived of a harpsichord that would diffuse a music of colors organized into a scale on the basis of their natural correspondence with sounds. In this way he sought to reveal the rational principles that determine the order of nature, grounding art in reason. Art would thus bear witness to a divine intelligence compatible with reason, and the music of colors would be a form of revelation.

In addition, this development would rescue people from boredom, the languor that takes away their feeling of existing, by ensuring continuous movement and surprise, renewing the pleasure of variety, and satisfying the natural inconstancy that goads them relentlessly to seek other objects of pleasure. From this to the preaching of a libertine art was a matter of a single step, which Castel took without realizing it. For him, amusement had achieved a respected place in the world.

This according to Le Père Castel et le clavecin oculaire by Corinna Gepner (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014).

Today is Castel’s 330th birthday! Above, a caricature of Père Castel and his instrument by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin; below, a brief discussion.

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Asante gold-dust weights

Until the second half of the mid-19th century, the Asante and related peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast used small brass castings made by the lost-wax process as weights for measuring their gold-dust currency.

These weights, made in large numbers by professional metal workers, came in all shapes and sizes. There were two sorts of weights: those which represent miniature objects, creatures, and activities from local life, and those in non-representational, geometrical forms.

Many of the representational weights depicted musical instruments, either on their own or being played, and activities which traditionally took place to the accompaniment of music. The great majority of these weights show only two types of instruments: ivory trumpets, and various types of drums.

This according to “Music and gold-weights in Asante” by Malcolm Donald McLeod (British museum yearbook 1980, pp. 225–42).

Above, a weight depicting a pair of atumpan drums of the Akan people; below, the atumpan in action.

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