Professor Longhair and New Orleans

 

Roy Byrd, known to the world as Professor Longhair, was an idiosyncratic piano genius who incorporated Caribbean rhythms into his music while singing and whistling in a cracked voice self-described as freak unique.

With his rambunctious left hand digging deep into rhumba-boogie island rhythms while his right added rolling R&B flourishes, “Fess” achieved legendary status and became the international personification of the sound and sensibility of the New Orleans music scene. While he was unlike any other musician the city produced, he was somehow representative of them all.

The swamp blues pianist Marcia Ball flatly stated “Fess is what New Orleans piano is all about. It’s not just those wonderful runs and rhythms; it’s all that life experience and personality of his that comes through so clearly. You can hear the entire city in his playing. Fess was New Orleans.” He was also a boxer, a cook, a card shark, and, ultimately, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This according to “Professor Longhair” by Michael Point (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] pp. 785–86); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Fess’s 110th birthday! Above, a 1973 photograph by Michael P. Smith; below, performing around the same time.

Wishing for more? So are we! Here’s a full live set:

Related article: Allen Toussaint’s legacy

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

“White Christmas” and fantasy proneness

 

In an experiment, 44 undergraduate students were asked to listen to white noise and instructed to press a button when they believed that they were hearing a recording of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas without this recording actually being presented.

Fourteen participants (32%) pressed the button at least once. These participants had higher scores on fantasy proneness and the Launay–Slade Hallucination Scale (LSHS) compared to participants without hallucinatory reports. Both groups did not differ in terms of imagery vividness or sensitivity to social demands.

Logistic regression suggested that fantasy proneness is a better predictor of hallucinatory reports than are LSHS scores. This might imply that hallucinatory reports obtained during the White Christmas test reflect a non-specific preference for odd items rather than schizophrenia-like internal experiences.

This according to “Another White Christmas: Fantasy proneness and reports of hallucinatory experiences in undergraduate students” by Harald Merckelbach and Vincent van de Ven (Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry XXXII/3 [September 2001] pp. 137–44). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this study to our attention!

Below, White Christmas and fantasy proneness in Hollywood; wait for the dialogue around 2:00!

Related article: White Christmas goes viral

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Science

Sanguma and cultural identity

 

During the turbulent decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Papua New Guinea gained political independence from a colonial hold that had lasted almost a century. It was an exciting time for a diverse group of pioneering musicians who formed a band they named Sanguma.

These Melanesian artists heard an imagined future and performed it during a socially and politically critical time for the region. They were united under one goal: to create a sound that represented the birth of a new, sovereign, and distinctly Melanesian nation; and to express their values, identities, and cosmology through their music and performance.

Sanguma’s experimental music sounded the complex expectations and pressures of their modern nation and helped to steer its postcolonial journey through music. Drawing from rock, jazz, and nascent world music influences, Sanguma reached audiences far from their home nation, introducing the world to modern music, Melanesia-style, with its fusion of old and new, local and global.

Their performances ranged from ensembles of Melanesian log drums (garamuts) to extended songs and improvisations involving electric guitars, synthesizers, saxophone, trumpet, bamboo percussion, panpipes, and kuakumba flutes. The band sang in a variety of local vernacular languages, as well as in Tok Pisin and English. To further emphasize their ancestral style, the musicians wore decorative headdresses and body decorations from all around the nation.

This according to Hearing the future: The music and magic of the Sanguma band by Denis Crowdy (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2016).

Below, excerpts from live performances.

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McCoy Tyner and “apart playing”

 

McCoy Tyner’s improvisation on Bessie’s blues, recorded with the John Coltrane Quartet in 1964, exemplifies the traditional Afrodiasporic performance practice of apart playing.

A formulation of the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, apart playing occurs whenever individual performers enact different, complementary roles in an ensemble setting. For interpretative purposes, the concept helps to provide a cultural context for certain pitch-based formal devices, such as substitute harmonies and playing outside an underlying chord or scale, which Tyner uses in the course of his solo.

This according to “Apart playing: McCoy Tyner and Bessie’s blues” by Benjamin Givan (Journal of the Society for American Music I/2 [May 2007] pp. 257–80).

Today is Tyner’s 80th birthday! Above, performing in 1973; below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performance practice, Performers

Chandralekha’s legacy

 

Having established herself as a leading performer of bharata nāṭyam, by 1960 Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel—professionally known as Chandralekha—felt a need to move beyond the genre’s boundaries and began to pursue ideas about fusing Indian dance traditions with modern idioms.

Chandralekha was a firm believer in the need for resuscitating older forms with contemporary energy, drawing also on martial art and therapeutic traditions. Always a controversial figure, she criticized plastic smiles, fake religiosity, and mindless repetition of mythological themes. A voracious reader, a gifted writer, and a poet, she lived a full life and influenced a whole generation of young dancers.

This according to “Rebel with a cause” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 269 [February 2007] pp. 16–19).

Today would have been Chandralekha’s 90th birthday! Below, a brief documentary about her life and work.

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Filed under Dance, Performers

John Hartford’s mammoth collection of fiddle tunes

 

John Hartford’s mammoth collection of fiddle tunes (Franklin, TN: StuffWorks, 2018) comprises 176 of Hartford’s original compositions. Most of these tunes are previously unpublished and unrecorded, taken from Hartford’s personal music journals.

Compiled and narrated by the fiddler Matt Combs, John’s daughter Katie Harford Hogue, and the musicologist Greg Reish, the book illuminates Hartford’s creative process through original tune compositions, his own reflections on the fiddle, and interviews with family and fellow musicians.

The volume includes more than 60 of Hartford’s personal drawings—ranging in theme from steamboats and the river, to fellow musicians, home and everyday life—as well as several never-before-seen photographs.

Above, a page from the book: Hartford’s Annual waltz as part of a holiday card and invitation to his 1980 wedding; below, the composer performs the song and tune.

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Filed under New editions, North America, Performers

Reggae as Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Each year UNESCO adds to its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and Jamaica submitted reggae for consideration in 2018. The genre was approved in late November of that year, joining a list of over 300 cultural traditions.

In its statement, UNESCO noted that reggae’s “contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love, and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, sociopolitical, sensual, and spiritual.”

The statement continued: “The basic social functions of the music—as a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice, and a means of praising God—have not changed, and the music continues to act as a voice for all.”

This according to “Reggae added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list” by Jon Blistein (Rolling stone 29 November 2018). Above, Bob Marley in 1980; below, a short film issued by UNESCO in connection with the announcement.

Related article: Bob Marley’s œuvre

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Filed under Popular music, Reception

The evolution of jùjú

 

Jùjú, a type of popular music that combines indigenous Yorùbá musical practices with Christian hymnody, was first popular in Lagos in the 1930s.

The tambourine, introduced in Lagos in 1920 by missionaries, was integrated into jùjú because of its musical and symbolic associations. The spiritual dimension of this instrument is partly responsible for the name jùjú, which is an extension of the term used by colonialists to describe the various African traditional belief practices. Other stylistic resources of jùjú include the samba of the Brazilian community of Lagos and songs and musical instruments of the Liberian Kru sailors.

In the 1940s jùjú bands began to experiment with new musical instruments such as gangan (talking drum), pennywhistle, organ, and mandolin. The projection of Yorùbá elements and the introduction of accordion and harmonica are identified with Isaiah Kehinde Dairo (above). The rapid changes in social and political structures of the 1960s and 1970s in Nigeria were reflected in further developments.

This according to “A diachronic study of change in jùjú music” by Afolabi Alaja-Browne (Popular music VIII/3 [October 1989] pp. 231–42).

Below, King Sunny Adé, one of the performers discussed in the article.

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Filed under Africa, Performers, Popular music

Not Luka Sorkočević

In 2015 the Hrvatska pošta produced a stamp honoring the eighteenth-century Croatian composer Luka Sorkočević, inadvertently illustrated with an image of the U.S. president Thomas Jefferson.

The mistake was discovered just before the stamp’s release, and the entire run was withdrawn and destroyed, though one post office had sold 22 examples of it prior to the release date.

In view of the events and given the fact that apparently no copies had yet reached the philatelic market, a 2018 advertisement from the auction house Barac & Pervan noted that this stamp should become widely sought after; and since this rarity is also important for the American philatelic market, its value is expected to increase over time.

This according to “Unissued stamp from 2015 supposed to show Mr. Luka Sorkočević” (Barac & Pervan 2018). Below, one of the composer’s symphonies.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Iconography, Reception

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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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments