Category Archives: Politics

A military brass band in the Riau Islands

The “Sultan of Lingga’s brass band”, as it was dubbed by the Singapore press, or korps musik as it was known locally, was a European-style military band located in the former Netherlands East Indies, owned and operated by the Sultan of Riau-Lingga, not by the colonial Dutch regime. Formed in the 1820s, the band was particularly prominent from the installation of the last sultan, Abdulrahman Mu’azamsyah, in 1885 until he was deposed in 1911.

Despite this history, there is no surviving tradition of military band music practiced in the band’s former home on Penyengat Island and few discernible traces of the band exist in the cultural memory of the Riau region. After reaching its height of prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the history of the Sultan of Lingga’s brass band is now all but forgotten. In this regard, the Sultan’s band differs from examples of military band traditions elsewhere that have grown and thrived long after the withdrawal of colonial regimes that introduced them.

Below: The last Sultan of Riau-Lingga, Abdul Rahman II.

This according to “The sultan of Lingga’s brass band: Music, politics and memory in the Riau-Lingga sultanate” by Anthea Skinner, Performing arts and the royal courts of Southeast Asia I: Pusaka as documented heritage, ed. by Mayco Santaella (Leiden: Brill, 2023, 239–258; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2023-13007).

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Filed under Asia, Politics, Popular music

The Hawaiian queen composer

Queen Liliʻuokalani was born into an extraordinarily musical family and was probably the most musically gifted of her class and time. She became Queen of Hawai’i in 1891 and reigned for two years, until she was deposed by the U.S. settlers under Sanford B. Dole, a Hawaii-born lawyer and judge who advocated for the Westernization of Hawaiian culture and government, and who later became the first and only president of the Hawaiian Republic. Under Dole’s orders, Liliʻuokalani was arrested in January 1895 and sentenced to life imprisonment; however, she was kept under house arrest in lolani Palace until her release in September of the same year.

Liliʻuokalani in 1853.

Her Hawaiian national anthem, composed circa 1868, was played at official functions for 20 years until a new anthem was written. In 1898, Liliʻuokalani wrote that her song compositions ran into the hundreds (after 19 years of composing at the time); even if that number was only half correct, it would still make her the most prolific Hawaiian composer of the 19th century.

Liliʻuokalani began her musical training around the age of seven with missionaries who taught her to sing. She was a multi-instrumentalist who was proficient on guitar, piano, zither, autoharp, and organ and was an adept sight-singer known to have developed perfect pitch. Liliʻuokalani’s early training took place during a unique period of Hawaiian history where Indigenous Hawaiian music traditions blended with Western cultures brought to the islands by sugar plantation owners and pineapple farmers.

Her aristocratic background exposed her to both worlds, as she learned about Hawaiian music, legends, and poetry along with Western waltzes and hymnody. Liliʻuokalani’s compositions often combined the melodies of hymns with storylines grounded in Hawaiian traditions. Although best known for love songs such as Aloha ‘Oe, many of her songs addressed political themes. For instance, the lyrics to one of her less-known compositions, Mai wakinekona a iolani hale, was published in a local Hawaiian language newspaper and informed people about the conditions of her imprisonment after being overthrown.

Read more in International encyclopedia of women composers (1987); find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

The painting at the beginning of the post is by Linda Ruiz-Lozito.

Listen to a 1904 recording of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s composition Aloha ‘Oe (Farewell to thee) below performed by Quartet of Hawaiian Girls from Kawaihao Seminary.

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Filed under Australia and Pacific islands, Musicology, Politics

Isang Yun: Composer and freedom fighter

Isang Yun’s youth was dominated by his involvement with resistance movements against the Japanese occupation of Korea, which began in 1910. His political activities deeply affected his development as a musician, which was characterized by the constant conflict between his artistic interests and the political commitment that he felt was necessary. Nevertheless, at the age of 17, Yun traveled to Japan, despite his father’s warning, to embark on a college education focused on the study of Western music. After two years, he returned to Korea to continue his studies and his involvement in the Korean liberation struggle. Yun was arrested by Japanese occupation forces in 1943, and it was not until 1948 that he returned to music, this time as a music teacher at an all-girls high school in his hometown. He later began lecturing at a university in Seoul where he received several awards for his compositions.  

These awards enabled Yun to continue studying music in Europe at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik (Berlin University of Music). His frequent participation in Darmstadt’s summer courses for new music led to his acceptance by the European avant-garde, within which he remained an outsider, albeit a respected one. Yun settled in Berlin in 1964 as a Ford Foundation scholarship recipient but the political conflict in his now divided homeland was never far from his thoughts. He was especially critical of South Korea’s leadership and refused several invitations to perform there. Yun hoped for the reunification of Korea, and to make this happen, he made a daring visit communist North Korea in 1963.

The brazen visit concerned South Korean officials, who had Yun kidnapped from Berlin in 1967 in a spectacular operation by the South Korean secret service. He was charged with treason and sent to prison where he endured torture, attempted suicide, and was forced to confess to espionage. After a trial, Yun was sentenced to life imprisonment, a charge that was later revised after massive protests internationally. Subsequently, Yun left Korea in 1969 and returned to Berlin and later became a German citizen. From 1970 onward, he worked as a professor and taught composition while lecturing on various occasions throughout Europe and North America. In 1972, Yun composed the piece Sim Tjong based on a popular Korean fairytale specially for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. When asked in a 1987 interview whether he was consciously trying to combine Asian and Western elements in his music, Yun replied,

“No, that would be too artificial.  The inner truth is, in actuality, a music of the cosmos. Realistically seen, I’ve had two experiences, and I know the practice of both Asian music and European. I am equally at home in both fields. I’m a man living today, and within me is the Asia of the past combined with the Europe of today. My purpose is not an artificial connection, but I’m naturally convinced of the unity of these two elements. For that reason, it’s impossible to categorize my music as either European or Asian.”

Celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month by reading the entry on Isang Yun (also spelled Yoon) in MGG Online. Listen to Yun’s composition Muak dance fantasy below.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Asia, Musicologists, Politics

Musical expressions of the Harlem Renaissance: An annotated bibliography

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

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

The Cotton Club in New York City

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

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

Duke Ellington and his orchestra

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

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

–Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Editor, RILM

__________________________________________

Newton, Elizabeth. “Ethnic irony in Melvin B. Tolson’s Dark symphony”, Journal of the Society for American Music 15/2 (May 2021) 224–245. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-2157]

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

Doktor, Stephanie. “Finding Florence Mills: The voice of the Harlem Jazz Queen in the compositions of William Grant Still and Edmund Thornton Jenkins.” Journal of the Society for American Music 14/4 (November 2020) 451–479. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-12258]

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

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

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

Lassiter, Fran L. “From toasts to raps: New approaches for teaching the Harlem Renaissance”, Pedagogy: Critical approaches to teaching literature, language, composition, and culture 15/2 (2015) 374–377. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-85442]

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

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

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

Melba Liston

Price, Emmett G., III. “Melba Liston: Renaissance woman”, Black music research journal 34/1 (2014) 159–168. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5983]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makmende, the Kenyan global pop icon superhero

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

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

Read more in “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s collective reimagining as a meme of aspiration” by Brian Ekdale and Melissa Tully (Critical studies in media communication 31/4 [2014], 283–298).

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

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

The corrido and Cesar Chavez

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

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

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

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

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

Western classical music as sonic weapon

Western classical music has been celebrated for its capacity to enlighten, to move, and as proponents of the Mozart effect suggest, improve listeners’ mental capacity. However, over the past 30 years in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, classical music has also come to function not just as art or entertainment but as a sonic weapon. It has been used as a means of dispelling and deterring so-called “loiterers” by making certain public and privately owned public spaces, including shopping malls, bus stations, shop fronts, and car parks undesirable to occupy.

The origins of such practice began in 1985 when a branch manager of a 7-Eleven convenience store in British Colombia, Canada began broadcasting classical and easy listening music into the store’s parking lot to prevent local teenagers from congregating. Since then, classical music has been used as a deterrent on public transport systems in Portland, Oregon, in library foyers to deter smokers and loiterers in Canada, and in train stations of northeast England, where the broadcasting of music by the composer Frederick Delius targeted what was described as “low level antisocial behavior”.

Ted Crow/Washington Post

In such cases, the weaponization of Western music can be recognized as an audio-affective technology of what Neil Smith (1996,1998) called “the revanchist city”, resonating with the spatial logics of urban revanchism–drawing comparisons with the mixture of militarism and moralism that characterized the bourgeois, reactionary revanchists of late-19th century Paris. In this context, it becomes a means to affectively police the boundaries of public space, guarding against unwanted and threatening populations. There is also, however, an apparent tension in the audio-affective functioning of Western classical music as a deterrent. Although classical music is thought to improve the undesirable behavior attributed to loitering because of its capacity to soothe and calm, it also drives away and inhibits loiterers by generating negative affections (i.e., sensations of irritation, alienation, and annoyance). While affect has been posited as a site of freedom by comparison to the predictability of social determinisms, weaponized classical music exemplifies how musical affect can reproduce social stratification.

Learn more in “To soothe or remove? Affect, revanchism, and the weaponized use of classical music” by Marie Thompson (Communication and the public II/4 [December 2017], 272–283). Find this journal in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Listen to Frederick Delius’ On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring below.

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Filed under Politics, Sound, Space

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 (New York: Da Capo Books, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-4720].

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

Max Roach, jazz drummer and Civil Rights activist

Referred to as the “dean of modern jazz drumming,” Max Roach spent his formative years in Brooklyn and received a degree in composition from the Manhattan School. While still in his teens, Roach became one of the innovators of the bop drumming style at jazz fountainheads such as Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem. Among his collaborators have been Coleman Hawkins (with whom he made his first recording in 1944), Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and many others. Known for his melodic, formally structured solos, and compositional experimentation, Roach moved from bop to cool and free jazz styles, and his creative talents were recognized with commissions and awards from various sources, including the MacArthur Foundation and Down Beat magazine.

Roach’s We insist! Freedom now suite, recorded in 1960, moves from depictions of slavery to Emancipation to the Civil Rights struggle and African independence. The work draws on both long-standing symbols of African American cultural identity and a more immediate historical context. It is a modernist work as well, as Roach and his musicians used African and African American legacies in new and novel ways. In a 1987 interview, Roach commented on whether by the time he recorded the Freedom now suite, he had become a Civil Rights activist:

“Well, I guess [Black jazz musicians] always have been [activists], you know? I go back to Bessie Smith with Black mountain blues and then to Duke Ellington’s Black, brown and beige. It’s always been there. Leadbelly always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old Black folk singers from the South to street musicians dealt with it. I’ve always been an activist. At that time [in the 1960s], my children were young. But you’re always thinking about their future as well. And if they’re going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education, and the things like everyone else has. And society has to accommodate that. So, I guess I’ve always been activist because of them.”

Listen to the entire We insist! Freedom now suite recording below.

Decades after its initial release, the Freedom now suite remains fresh and significant, foregrounding the ways that jazz has been in consistent dialogue with social and cultural movements, and has been at its most inspired when engaged in social commentary.

Celebrate the beginning of Black History Month by reading the entry on Max Roach in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and “Revisited! The Freedom now suite” by Ingrid Monson (JazzTimes XXXI/7 [September 2001], 54–59.

Below is a performance of We insist! by Abbey Lincoln and the Max Roach group in 1964.

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Filed under Black studies, From the archives, Jazz and blues, North America, Politics, Popular music

Turkmen genocide and the Geök Tépé muqam

The 1881 genocidal massacre of Turkmen people by imperial Russian troops in the village of Geök Tépé forever altered the musical culture of the Muslim nomadic tribes of Central Asia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tsarist Russia’s thirst for conquering new territories fueled a desire to access commercial routes and the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. Occupying the Turkmen lands was as a primary goal as the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle in the area presented a threat to the stability of the southern part of the Russian empire. Russians decided to attack the Tekke Turkmens who lived in Akhal to subjugate them. The vast conquest was accompanied by the mass killing of people to gain access to their lands and resources while expanding the Russian empire. In the battle fought at Geök Tépé, approximately 15,000 Turkmens, mostly innocent civilians, were killed while the Russian army suffered only around 400 casualties.

In the absence of written history, Turkmen collective memory predominantly relied on songs and melodies. For the Turkmen, the most important events, including the massacre, were remembered in music passed down from generation to generation, thereby building a collective cultural identity. The melancholic instrumental and vocal muqam performed by traditional musicians have for generations expressed collective grief. Turkmen muqams include three main categories: music inspired by real events in society, heroic and lyrical muqams, and descriptive muqams. In the music inspired by real events in Turkmen society, bagşys performed the role of historians or narrators of the Turkmen history and communicated historical facts through their music. These muqams are often found in times of war conflict, or injustice. The Geök Tépé muqam is likely the most famous of them all.

Learn more in “Geok Tepe muğam: A musical narrative of Turkmen massacre in 1881” by Arman Goharinasab and Azadeh Latifkar, an essay included in the volume Music and genocide (Peter Lang, 2015).  Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Below is a video featuring a contemporary muqam performance by Zuleyha Kakayewa and Hatyja Owezowa on television show in Turkmenistan.

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Filed under Asia, Politics, Popular music, World music