Category Archives: Popular music

Huapango arribeño and the voices of migration

 

From New Year’s festivities in the highlands of Mexico to backyard get-togethers along the back roads of central Texas, Mexican people living on both sides of the border use expressive culture to construct meaningful communities amid the United States’ often vitriolic immigration politics.

Huapango arribeño, a genre originating from north-central Mexico, carries the voices of those in Mexico, those undertaking the dangerous trek across the border, and those living in the U.S. The genre refigures the sociopolitical and economic terms of migration through aesthetic means, illuminating the ways transnational music-making is at the center of everyday Mexican migrant life.

This according to Sounds of crossing: Music, migration, and the aural poetics of huapango arribeño by Alex E. Chávez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017; RILM Abstracts 2017-45167).

Above and below, Guillermo Velázquez, one of the musicians discussed in the book. Don’t miss the step dancing toward the end!

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Filed under North America, Politics, Popular music

K-pop and political activism

 

For those who are new to K-pop fandom, a fancam is a video closeup filmed by an audience member during a live performance by a K-pop idol group. Fancams have been the bane of many Twitter users, however, who often find their own viral threads hijacked by users posting fancams to capitalize upon the thread’s popularity.

Following the murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police force, K-pop “stans” redirected their energies to posts on Twitter and Instagram made by police departments seeking to identify protestors against police brutality—jamming them instead with videos of K-pop stars. Other strategies used to subvert such efforts, and to promote Black Lives Matter, include hashtag derailment, rickrolling, and weaponizing Disney’s heavy-handed copyright policing.

This according to “How K-pop fans are weaponizing the Internet for Black Lives Matter” by Aja Romano (Vox 22 June 2020; RILM Abstracts 2020-2918).

Below, a brief documentary on K-pop political activism.

Related article: The music of Black Lives Matter

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Filed under Curiosities, Politics, Popular music

Talking Heads and “Remain in light”

 

On their first three albums, Talking Heads made anxious, self-aware art-punk with enough pop appeal to notch a couple of minor hits and edge toward the mainstream. Their landmark fourth album, Remain in light, was a radical departure that nevertheless felt like a continuation of and improvement on everything that had come before.

The album was born in a recording studio, where the group arrived song-less and ready to jam. This communal approach was curious, given that they had typically brought in nearly finished compositions. The producer, Brian Eno, constructed the tracks by looping rhythmic sections and layering instrumentation—a method that initially left the group’s frontman, David Byrne, unsure of how or what to sing.

Written and recorded mostly after the instrumentalists left the studio, Byrne’s songs have a freeform, impressionistic, cut-and-paste quality; but even so, Remain in light is a record with very recognizable—and very Talking Heads—themes of alienation and the search for identity.

This according to “Talking Heads’ Remain in light at 35” by Kenneth Partridge (Billboard 8 October 2015; RILM Abstracts 2015-85008).

Remain in light was released 40 years ago today! Below, the full album.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Ray Charles and “What’d I say”

 

In an interview, Ray Charles recalled the genesis of his 1959 hit What’d I say:

We happened to be playing one of my last dances, somewhere in the Midwest, and I had another 12 minutes to kill before the set closed. A typical gig of that kind lasted four hours, including a 30-minute intermission. It was nearly 1 a.m., I remember, and we had played our whole book. There was nothing left that I could think of, so I finally said to the band and The Raeletts, “Listen, I’m going to fool around, so y’all just follow me.”

So I began noodling—just a little riff that floated into my head. It felt good and I kept going. One thing led to another and I found myself singing and wanting the girls to repeat after me. So I told ‘em “Now.”

Then I could feel the whole room bouncing and shaking and carrying on something fierce. So I kept the thing going, tightening it up a little here, adding a dash of Latin rhythm there. When I got through, folks came up and asked where they could buy the record. “Áin’t no record,” I said, “just something I made up to kill a little time.”

The next night I started fooling with it again, adding a few more lyrics and refining the riffs for the band. I did that for several straight evenings until the song froze into place. And each time I sang it, the reaction was wild.

Quoted in Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ own story by David Ritz (New York: Dial, 1978; RILM Abstracts 1978-5376).

Today would have been Ray Charles’s 90th birthday! Above, the album cover (note the keyboard and hands reflected in his glasses); below, the recording itself.

BONUS: The scene as it was recreated in the 2004 film Ray.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

The Stax/Volt Revue

 

The Stax/Volt Revue was a central event in the history of the Stax record label and a key moment in the transatlantic appreciation of soul music. It was the first time that many of its participants visited the U.K., and it offered British soul fans their first opportunity to see the musicians who played on the label’s recent hits.

The Revue played to sold-out audiences in many of Britain’s major cities during March and April 1967. It cemented the appeal of Stax artists like Otis Redding and Sam & Dave in the U.K., confirming them as transatlantic soul icons.

At the time, the Revue was ignored by the national and local press, with coverage limited to the British music magazines. This sorely underestimates its significance, for it proved to be a transformative experience both for the musicians and many audience members; indeed, the response of young British soul fans to the Revue indicates that it was among the most important musical events of the decade.

This according to “The Stax/Volt Revue and soul music fandom in 1960s Britain” by Joe Street, an essay included in Subcultures, popular music and social change (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014 195–217; RILM Abstracts 2014-89164).

Below, the finale of Sam & Dave’s set.

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Filed under Popular music, Reception

Rosie Flores and “Working girl’s guitar”

 

In an interview, Rosie Flores discussed the title cut of her 2012 album Working girl’s guitar:

There’s a friend of mine who does, well, everything. He does bodywork, he’s written books on rolfing, how to play the banjo, and how to play the upright bass. His name is Ritchie Mintz.

I went to him a couple years ago and said, “You know, I’ve got too many guitars, and I need to come up with some money. Are you interested in maybe getting one of my Taylors?” I brought it over, he looked at it, turned it over and said, “Man, this is a working girl’s guitar! Look at all the scars on it. This has been on some airplanes and trucks and cars, hasn’t it?” “Yep, it’s been around!” I said.

And so that night he bought the guitar. He called me up the next day and said, “Rosie, you’re not going to believe this, but your guitar wrote a song for you.” I said, “For me? My guitar wrote a song for me?” And he went, “Yep!” So I came over and listened to it, and was just blown away. I said, “That is such a cool song, Ritchie!” So I just turned up the distortion and the overdrive pedal and went to town on that riff and just had a great time with that.

Quoted in “Guitar girl’d: Interview with Rosie Flores on the release of Working girl’s guitar” by Laura B. Whitmore (Guitar world 25 October 2012; RILM Abstracts 2012-45948).

Today is Flores’s 70th birthday! Above, Flores at the 67th Annual Peabody Awards in 2008; below, a live performance of the song.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Zao and “champagne socialism”

 

 

In the mid-1980s Congo-Brazzaville was chafing under the heel of a military regime that fed its impoverished people irrelevant political slogans while the elite dined on champagne and caviar. Zao, a humorous band led by Casimir Zoba, a former schoolteacher in a comical pseudo-military uniform singing in an extravagant mixture of Senegalese French and local slang, seemed to pose no real threat to the authorities.

But Zoba was no ordinary humorist or village idiot, and underneath his buffoonish image was a hard-edged political and social critic. While Zao’s music was tolerated as comic relief, the group delivered sharp critiques of bureaucracy, corruption, gender relations, and abuse of power in the “champagne socialism” of the military dictatorship.

This according to “Couching political criticism in humor: The case of musical parodies of the military in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville” by Lyombe S. Eko, an essay included in Music and messaging in the African political arena (Hershey: IGI Global, 2019, 87–107; RILM Abstracts 2019-16663).

Below, Ancien combattant, Zao’s most popular song, and a case study in the article.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Audra McDonald and Lady Day

 

In an interview, Audra McDonald discussed Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille, for which she won the Best Actress in a Play Tony Award in 2014.

“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”

“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”

“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”

Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts 2014-89300).

Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Stevie Wonder’s turning point

 

Stevie Wonder’s extraordinary burst of productivity after his 21st birthday in 1971—a time now celebrated as his “classic period”—was a direct result of his contractual maneuvers with Motown Records.

On his 21st birthday, when he was no longer a minor, Wonder gained access to 10 years’ worth of royalties that had been accruing in a trust set up for him when he’d signed his first contract, at age 11.

He also allowed his Motown contract to expire at that moment, meaning that one of pop music’s hottest stars was now both financially secure and a free agent. If Motown wanted to keep him, it would require a deal unlike any the label had previously granted.

Wonder negotiated a new contract with Motown that granted him full artistic control over his music, his own publishing company, and an unprecedented royalty rate. It was a revolutionary deal that initiated one of the greatest sustained runs of creativity in the history of popular music.

This according to “The greatest creative run in the history of popular music” by Jack Hamilton (Slate 19 December 2016; RILM Abstracts 2016-48645).

Today is Stevie Wonder’s 70th birthday! Above, in his turning point year; below, Superstition, his #1 hit from 1972.

BONUS: Tearing the roof off Sesame Street in 1973.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Willie Colón on salsa

 

Born in the South Bronx, New York, Willie Colón has been a leader in the salsa tradition for over 50 years. In an interview, he discussed the music and its background.

“A lot of people like to characterize salsa as a pastiche of Cuban son. There’s no denying that there is a Cuban influence and a Cuban base to it, but it’s so much more.”

“Salsa is not a rhythm, it’s a concept. It’s a way of making music. It’s an open concept and the reason that it became so popular is because it was able to evolve and accept all of these other musics. We put the bombas and plenas in it; we put calypso, samba, bossa, and cumbia in it. It’s definitely not even a Puerto Rican or a Cuban music. It’s a reconciliation of everything you can find.”

“I think it could have only happened here in New York, where you had so many different kinds of people living and playing together. We used to get a lot of the black jazz players. They wanted to come and play salsa so they can blow over the changes. Where are you going to find players like that other than in a big city like New York? This was not going to happen in Cuba or Puerto Rico; it had to be here.”

Quoted in “Willie Colón: Salsa is an open concept” by Frank J. Oteri (NewMusicBox 1 March 2009).

Today is Colón’s 70th birthday! Above, an iconic record cover from 1971 (right-click to enlarge); below, a 2018 performance.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music