Category Archives: Performers

MC5 and the American ruse

Rolling Stone magazine put the MC5 (short for Motor City Five) on their January 1969 cover before the world ever heard a note of their music. Considered the missing link between free jazz and punk, the MC5 were a raw and primal band, considered to be unstoppable when they were clicking. A generation of bands, including The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Motorhead, and Rage Against the Machine, would be inspired by their sonic and political blueprint. Led by guitarist Wayne Kramer, the MC5 reflected their times: exciting, sexy, violent, chaotic, and seemingly out of control–characteristics that ensured their time in the spotlight would be short-lived. Members of the band were galvanized by the racial and class politics of the 1967 Detroit riots, which left many of the local neighborhoods Kramer knew decimated. He and the MC5 toured the world, played with a number of music legends, and garnered a rabid following, their music acting as the blistering soundtrack to blue-collar youth movements springing up across the United States and elsewhere. Their vehement antiauthoritarian stance found especially fertile ground in the 1960s antiwar movement. The lyrics of their 1970 song The American ruse (from the album Back in the U.S.A.) perfectly captured the sentiment of the movement during that political moment.

“69 America in terminal stasis
The air’s so thick, it’s like drowning in molasses
I’m sick and tired of paying these dues
And I’m finally getting hip to the American ruse.”

Listen to American ruse below.

Kramer wanted to redefine what a rock ‘n’ roll group was capable of, and although there was power in that cause, it also was also a recipe for disaster, both personally and professionally. The band recorded three major label albums, but by 1972, it was all over. Kramer’s story is literally a revolutionary one, but it’s also one of deep personal struggle as an addict and an artist, as well as a survivor and rebel. From Kramer’s early days in Detroit to becoming a junkie on the streets of the East Village, from Key West to Nashville and Los Angeles, in and out of prison and on and off drugs, his life was that of a classic journeyman, only with a twist.

By 2009, Kramer had cleaned up and established Jail Guitar Doors U.S.A., a nonprofit organization that offers songwriting workshops in prisons and donates musical instruments to inmates. As Kramer described in a 2015 interview, “The guitar can be the key that unlocks the cell. It can be the key that unlocks the prison gate, and it could be the key that unlocks the rest of your life to give you an alternative way to deal with things.” Possibilities that Kramer understood well from personal experience.

Wayne Kramer passed away on 2 February 2024.

Read more in The hard stuff: Dope, crime, the MC5 & my life of impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (Da Capo Books, 2018). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below is a video of the MC5 performing live and outdoors at Wayne State University in Detroit, July 1970 (Kramer is on vocals and guitar for the first song Rambin’ Rose).

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Manu Dibango and “Soul makossa”

The Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango began his career by performing in the local church choir in his hometown of Douala. As a child, Dibango faced significant challenges growing up in a household where his father and mother belonged to rival ethnic groups in the region. His parents, however, did own a vast record collection, which deepened his interest in Cuban, U.S., and French music at a young age. After moving to France in 1949, Dibango learned to play the piano and later the saxophone. He developed a love for jazz while in France with the help of Francis Bebey and other musicians who inspired and taught him.

After moving to Brussels in 1956, Dibango joined Joseph Kabasele’s Congolese orchestra Le Grand Kallé et l’African Jazz, which was famous for its hit Indépendance chacha in 1960. Dibango traveled with Kabasele’s orchestra to perform in the city of Kinshasa in1961, where he decided to stay and open the famous Tam-Tam nightclub. In 1963, Dibango’s hit song Twist à Léo helped popularize the twist dance throughout the Congo, and his encounter with Congolese music inspired him to delve deeper into African music, especially makossa, the popular genre of his hometown Douala.

Dibango recorded the song Soul makossa in 1971 and positioned it as the b-side to the single Hymne de la Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, which was a tribute to the Cameroon football team. Local listeners were not initially impressed by Soul makossa, and even Dibango’s father scoffed at the stuttering vocal line in the song. A few copies of the single, however, found their way across the Atlantic Ocean and into the hands of radio DJs in New York City by 1972. The song became a hit on New York radio stations and in disco clubs. The few copies circulating in the city were immediately sold out, and the lack of distribution resulted in Soul makossa being recorded and released by several local New York City bands to meet the demand. Once distribution of the original single by Dibango resumed, Soul makossa immediately shot to the top of the charts.

Read the full entry on Manu Dibango in MGG Online. Below is a video of a performance of Soul makossa in 1983.

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Filed under Africa, Performers, Popular music, World music

Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in blue” premieres

At its premiere 100 years ago, on 12 February 1924, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue was received with a standing ovation after it was performed. At the time, the conductor Paul Whitehead requested that Gershwin write a “jazz concerto” for an event to be held at the Aeolian Hall, a renowned Manhattan concert venue located in the Aeolian Building–coincidentally, this building was also RILM’s original home before the CUNY Graduate Center. Given the centennial of Rhapsody’s premiere in 2024, it is likely to be heard in many different settings and contexts.

Since the piece premiered in early 1924, however, debates have arisen about how much Gershwin knew about writing music. Because his musical language was an unconventional blend of U.S. popular music and European art music, some of his critics assumed that he knew little about writing serious music. This premise has been confirmed somewhat by statements made in early Gershwin biographies, which alleged that he was self-taught.

The inherent complexity of Rhapsody in blue and other subsequent concert works written by Gershwin, however, suggest he knew a great deal about writing music. It is also known that Gershwin received training from the versatile composer and musician Charles Hambitzer as early as 1912, where he discovered the music of Irving Berlin and J.D. Kern, and later received special theory lessons from the composer and conductor Edward Kilenyi. Rhapsody was composed in only five weeks, in spare moments while Gershwin was otherwise occupied with the premiere of a Broadway show. On that time schedule, he had no alternative other than to put what he already knew about writing music into that work.

Celebrate the centennial of the premiere of Rhapsody in blue today by reading the entry on George Gershwin in MGG Online and “Rhapsody in blue: A culmination of George Gershwin’s early musical education”, a dissertation by Susan E. Neimoyer (2003, University of Washington, Seattle); find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below is the classic scene of the Rhapsody in blue premiere in the 1945 Gershwin biopic starring Robert Alda.

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

All hail the queens: Women in rap (1984-97)

Roxanne Shante on the mic.

Women have been part of hip hop expression from its early days, primarily as part of MC crews such as the Funky Four Plus One and Sugar Hill’s female group, Sequence. For most of hip hop’s recorded history, however, women MCs were mostly seen as novelty acts, with a few exceptions. In the mid-1980s, some female artists were popularized momentarily through answer songs, which ridiculed popular songs by male acts. These answer songs included Roxanne Shante’s Roxanne’s revenge (responding to UTFO’s 1984 song Roxanne, Roxanne) and Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy (responding to the Boogie Boys’ 1985 song A fly girl).

MC Lyte strikes a pose.
The early rap group, Sequence.

Some of the most enduring female hip hop acts released premiere albums in 1986. Salt-N-Pepa was the most commercially successful hip hop group with its first album, Hot, cool and vicious. Queen Latifah emphasized strong social messages and women’s empowerment on her first album, All hail the queen. MC Lyte recorded her first album, Lyte as a feather, at this time. Many women artists who appeared or recorded during the early 1990s adopted the extant masculine-oriented hip hop images prevalent in hardcore rap music. MC Lyte, for example, recorded a hardcore album in 1993 entitled Ain’t no other–the album’s first hit single, Ruffneck, was MC Lyte’s first gold-selling single. After the decline of gangsta rap music in the mid- to late 1990s, women remained on the periphery of mainstream hip hop, apart from the occasional pop hit, such as the platinum-selling Atlanta-based artist Da Brat’s Funkdafied (1994).

Cover art for Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore and Foxy Brown’s Ill na na.
“Supa dupa fly” Missy Elliot.

By the late 1990s, artists such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown publicly celebrated or exploited female sexuality through explicit lyrics and widespread publicity campaigns that presented these scantily clad artists as sex symbols. For the most part, however, women artists failed to receive respect within the hip hop community as competent MCs and recording artists, although achieving mainstream success. Many of the writers and producers for the female groups were men, particularly through the late 1990s. The year 1998, however, was pivotal for women in hip hop, especially as rapper-producer-songwriter Missy Elliot began gaining notoriety with her debut album, Supa dupa fly (1997).

Learn more in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. The United States and Canada (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below are some videos from this early period of hip featuring women rappers. First up is the music video for Queen Latifah’s Ladies first, followed by Roxanne Shante performing Roxanne’s revenge (on VHS tape from around 1984!), and a 1985 recording of Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy.

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Filed under North America, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Earl Scruggs, bluegrass banjo innovator

Earl Scruggs, born in North Carolina on January 6, 1924, taught himself the five-string banjo at the age of four and developed his trademark three-finger picking style before he reached his teens. At age 15, Scruggs was playing with a band that performed on a local radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee, and by 1944, he had joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, where he met his future partner, guitarist Lester Flatt. Scruggs played with Monroe’s band until January 1948.

Although the genre was yet to be named, the addition of Scruggs to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys provided the crowning moment in the definition of bluegrass. Scruggs astounded everyone with an extraordinary banjo style that allowed him to roll out a rapid barrage of notes that nevertheless sounded out the melody as clearly as the fiddle. What is now known as “Scruggs style” banjo playing became the critical component of Bill Monroe’s distinctive sound that would eventually be called bluegrass. In a 2012 interview, Scruggs described his love of the banjo saying, “It produces the sound that my ear’s looking for. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it, but I like the sound that I get out of [the] banjo. I feel at home with it when I take it out of the case and start–you know, when you start with another instrument, they all have their feel, and playing the same instrument, you know what it’s going to feel like when you take it out of the case and start to perform.”

Read on in Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century (2013, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and Homegrown music: Discovering bluegrass by Stephanie P. Ledgin (Westport: Praeger, 2004).

Earl Scruggs’ birthday is January 6! Below he performs Foggy mountain breakdown with some friends.

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Filed under Instruments, Performers, Popular music

Joni Mitchell and 1960’s women’s sexual freedom

Born in Fort MacLeod, Alberta in Canada, a young Joni Mitchell (born Joan Anderson) moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan with her parents shortly after World War II. Inspired by an older friend, she begged her parents at age 7 to allow her to take piano lessons which lasted for a year and a half. After moving to Saskatoon, Mitchell contracted polio, which she recovered from with the care of her family and her interest in music. As she recalled in a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe in 1979, “I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic. I was nine, and they put me in a polio ward over Christmas. They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder. The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham. That was the first time I started to sing for people.”

In her teens, Mitchell scraped together enough money to buy a ukelele and performed regularly at parties and coffeehouses in Saskatoon. Following high school, in 1964, Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but only for a year. Instead, she preferred performing at a local Calgary coffeehouse called The Depression—she moved to Toronto soon after in search of success as a folk singer. In 1966, she managed to secure a spot on the bill of the Newport Folk Festival. It was at this time that her marriage to fellow folk singer Chuck Mitchell ended, and with nothing to tie her down, Mitchell moved to New York City to be closer to venues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. With the recording of The urge for going by Tom Rush and other cover versions by a variety of artists, she was able to get bookings west to Chicago and south to Florida. New York was still elusive but with the help of manager Elliot Roberts she landed gigs in town. While performing in Coconut Grove, Florida she met David Crosby of The Byrds who was impressed enough with her talent to convince Reprise Records to record and release the Joni Mitchell album in 1968.

Mitchell’s early records mapped the sexual terrain of the mid-1960s–the period during which premarital sex lost its taboo status and became a normative part of maturation and development–from a woman’s perspective. Mitchell’s songs employed a strong storytelling component, putting into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices in a manner consistent with countercultural values while helping to legitimize the new choices available to young women of the 1960s.

Learn more in “Feeling free and female sexuality: The aesthetics of Joni Mitchell” by Marilyn Adler Papayanis (Popular music and society XXXIII/5 [December 2010], 641–656) and in an entry on Joni Mitchell in The Canadian pop music encyclopedia (2020) in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is Joni Mitchell’s 1969 performance of Chelsea Morning, a song addressing the moral codes governing so-called appropriate sexual conduct for women.

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music, Women's studies

Lionel Hampton brings the beat

Lionel Hampton is known to be responsible for popularizing the vibraphone in the jazz genre. Hampton grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and moved to the Chicago area in 1916, where learned snare drum from a nun at the Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He first performed as a member of the Chicago Defender Newsboys Band and later studied xylophone with Jimmy Bertrand and drums with Clifford Jones.

After making his debut on drums in 1923 with Louis Armstrong’s backup band (Les Hite) in Culver City, California, Hampton moved to Los Angeles in 1927 and worked with the Spikes Brothers, Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, and the Louis Armstrong/Les Hite Band (1930-34), making what is regarded as the first recorded vibraphone solo, on Memories of you, with Armstrong in 1930. Legend has it that Armstrong saw a set of vibes in a room and asked Hampton if he knew how to play them; Hampton immediately responded by playing Armstrong’s entire trumpet solo from Big butter and egg man as an audition!

Jazz critics and fans who admired other aspects of Hampton’s musicianship also criticized him for his raw blues riffing, hard backbeat, screaming and honking saxophones, and stunts like marching into the audience with his horn players while getting the audience to clap along. As Hampton explained in a 1987 interview, “I learned all that in the Sanctified Church: the beat, the handclapping, marching down the aisles and into the audience. When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she’d take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time. They’d have a whole band in the church–guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums–and they’d be rocking. I’d be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she’d get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I’d grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me.”

Hampton formed his first big band in 1940, toured throughout the world in the 1950s, and introduced new talent to U.S. audiences including Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, and Joe Williams. It is also believed that he was the first to incorporate the electric organ and electric bass in a jazz group. Due to financial issues, he dissolved the big band in the 1960s and established a touring sextet in 1965. His long career also included several film appearances, including  A song is born (1948), The Benny Goodman story (1955), and Rooftops of New York (1960).

Read on in an entry on Lionel Hampton in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and  “Lionel Hampton, who put swing in the vibraphone, is dead at 94” by Peter Watrous (The New York times CLI/52,228 [1 September 2002]).

Listen to Hampton on vibraphone on a recording of Buzzin’ around with the bee below.

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Filed under From the archives, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Shane MacGowan, the last of the spailpíns

The Pogues’ pugnacious punk frontman may well be the last inheritor of the wayward spailpín singers. Throughout its history, Ireland has found figures to express its dreams and torments, or at least its boisterous fighting spirits. Mid-19th-century Ireland found such figure in James Clarence Mangan. Mid-20th century Ireland discovered a few such figures in Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, and Luke Kelly. In Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan, a native of Puckane, a village in County Tipperary, Ireland found a late 20th-century inheritor to this wayward legacy.

Ever since planter colonialism beat down the haughty, aristocratic-minded bards, Ireland has maintained a consistent subaltern tradition of poets and singers. The tributaries that fed into this tradition, which for lack of a better term, might be called a spailpín culture, ranged from sean nós and folk ballads to music hall and dancehall fare. Songs of hard labor and hard living, of wandering and exile, resentment, and loss emerged from this culture, nurtured by two languages to form part of the musical repertoire.

The Pogues in 1990.

Shane MacGowan came of age in 1970s England when the rock world, no stranger to its own forms of dissolution, was being convulsed by punk, a raucous, aggressively atonal anti-musical genre that gave the finger not just to the soppy pop of the mainstream culture industry but to all bombastic stadium rock. Out of the merging of these two unlikely patrimonies was born the legend of The Pogues. If Riverdance announced the birth of a slick and synchronized new 21st-century neoliberal, post-nationalist Ireland, was it the fate of The Pogues, and specifically MacGowan, to be the last of the spailpíns, the tail-end of a tradition stretching back to Eoghan Rua and Cathal Buí?

Read on in the article “Shane MacGowan: The tail-end of a great Irish tradition?” by Joe Cleary (The Irish times [13 January 2017]). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below, MacGowan and The Pogues perform with The Dubliners an epic version of The Irish rover.

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Filed under Europe, Performers, Popular music

Leenalchi, Korean music, and nationalism

The South Korean pop band Leenalchi consists of four singers, two bassists, and a drummer. Their 2019 album, entitled Sugungga, was based on a pansori piece, and the song Tiger is coming saw significant success after the music video was used to promote South Korean tourism. Leenalchi’s creative interpretation of pansori’s rhythm and harmony attracted over 50 million views for the video and launched their international career. Behind this success, one can also see the historical development of gug’ak (Korean traditional music) and efforts to restore, modernize, popularize, and globalize it. Part of this modernization process has been the fusion of pop music and gug’ak.

After 35 years of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the subsequent Korean War (1950-1953), the restoration of tradition became a national priority for many Korean musicians. Under the direction of the Korean government, installed under the Japanese administration, various aspects of Chŏson culture, including the education system and performing arts, suffered a drastic decline–court music was no exception. In this context, Korean traditional music sought restoration, and moreover, an increase in its repertoire through new compositions. 

Nationalism played a significant role in the modernization of Korean traditional music. According to Kim Hee-sun, South Korea sought a cultural identity that was uniquely Korean, and traditional music became integral to the narrative of nationalism. Cold War politics further reinforced the role of Korean traditional music as a tool to promote anti-communist ideologies in opposition to the North Korean regime. Through numerous overseas performances during the Cold War, South Korea presented itself as a civilized and cultured nation. Furthermore, Korean traditional music was performed at world events like the Seoul Olympics in 1988 to bolster national pride and identity among South Korean people.

Cover art for Leenalchi’s 2020 album Sugungga.

The modernization process also included establishing Korean traditional music departments in higher education. Historically, traditional music was associated with those of lower social status, due to the lower position of musicians in Korean society. However, the establishment of these departments, with government support, elevated the status of Korean traditional music from a low status art form to a respected and even elite profession. For instance, the four singers in Leenalchi are graduates of Seoul National University’s Korean traditional music program, which was established in 1959.

At the end of the Cold War, Korean traditional music adapted to the global market and was used as a tool of national propaganda. The increasing number of young musicians graduating from Korean traditional music programs opened new doors, allowing musicians to explore new forms of Korean traditional music. For example, several projects involved Korean traditional musicians in transnational ensembles, situating Korean traditional music in a global context. In 1993, under the leadership of Park Bum-hoon, a group of musicians from Chung-Ang University joined Orchestra Asia, a group consisting of musicians from Korea, China, and Japan. At the 2009 ASEAN-Korea Summit, musicians from Southeast Asia were invited to perform together with Korean musicians in a large orchestra. More recently, Korean traditional musicians, such as the members of Leenalchi, have taken different approaches to fusing popular music cultures and positioning themselves in a global market.

Leenalchi performing at WOMAD 2023.

Developments in Korean traditional music, situated in a new social context beyond the court, enabled musicians to explore their creativity in novel ways. Listening to Leenalchi, free from the constraints of the static “Korean traditional music” label, one hears the breaking of the aural connections between traditional music and national politics–signaling a new era of Korean music as Leenalchi and others venture beyond the realm of tradition.

–Written by Shiho Ogura, RILM intern and MA student in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Below is Leenalchi’s well-received video promoting Korean tourism.

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Filed under Asia, Mass media, Performers, Popular music

Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq

Indigenous artists are often placed within the tidy binary of traditional vs. modern. Indigenous culture is considered frozen and incompatible with modernity. The creative and communicative outputs of Inuk avant-garde vocalist Tanya Tagaq demonstrate a larger political project of undermining mainstream representational practices regarding Indigenous identity (particularly in Canada) and presenting Indigenous-centered sounds and perspectives. While Tagaq has constructed an artistic identity that challenges the simple binaries of past/present and traditional/modern, mainstream media has relied on representational practices of a settler colonialist mindset. Tagaq makes her agency clear in both her artistic output and in her social media activity. Media coverage of Indigenous artists and Tagaq in particular, dismantle the self/other and modern/traditional binaries with reference to her albums–Animism (2014) and Retribution (2016)–and social media wars in which Tagaq’s celebrity status has incited both reactive and active critique of Indigenous (and specifically Inuit) representation in Canada. In turn, she presents her own narrative as a deliberate strategy of cultural and political self-determination.

Cover art for Animism

Tagaq’s music often tackles themes of environmentalism and Indigenous rights. The Inuk throat singer uses live performance and audiovisual media to engage themes of climate change and environmental violence. Her work diversifies the discourse of environmentalism to include the voices and environmental trauma experienced by marginalized peoples, specifically North American Indigenous-centered sounds and perspectives. Songs such as Fracking and Nacreous respectively are simultaneously expressions of ecological protest and healing, as Tagaq listens with urgency and uses embodied musical practice to explore the aurality of pipeline politics and other forms of ecological imbalance and harm.

Read on in “Welcome to the tundra: Tanya Tagaq’s creative and communicative agency as political strategy” by Alexa Woloshyn (Journal of popular music studies 29/4 [2017]) and “The aurality of pipeline politics and listening for nacreous clouds: Voicing indigenous ecological knowledge in Tanya Tagaq’s Animism and Retribution” by Kate Galloway (Popular music XXXIX/1 [2020], 121–144).

Below is an improvised throat singing performance by Tagaq, followed by the video for the song Colonizer (from her 2022 album Tongues).

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music