Kwaito’s promise

 

In the mid-1990s South African apartheid ended, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of dance music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. Kwaito developed alongside the democratization of South Africa, a powerful cultural phenomenon that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.

Politicians and cultural critics criticize kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction, but these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Artists and fans aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito, but are using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that music is always political, kwaito thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.

This according to Kwaito’s promise: Music and the aesthetics of freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Above and below, Boom Shaka, whose It’s about time (1993) is widely regarded as the first kwaito hit.

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Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music

Riot grrrl and feminism

 

Notoriously difficult to categorize as both a genre of music and as a social movement, riot grrrl has come to be acknowledged as one of the most significant crossovers between politics and sound: feminism as music, music as feminism.

Riot grrrl embraced and propagated feminism through its music, lyrics, performances, zines, and everyday activities. It complicated the notion of gender-based aesthetics in both music and in fashion, demanding attention and pointing out the hypocrisies present in our social norms. In addition, the music and movement worked to expose the social and personal concerns of girls that were habitually excluded from the mainstream,  including sexual abuse, anorexia, and body image.

Through its incorporation of feminism, riot grrrl attempted to give a voice to girls, allowing for a self-representation that had never been accessible before. Yet their efforts at reappropriation also led to some alarming contradictions in their feminism. Riot grrrl’s use of irony and reworking of traditional gender roles and mores in some cases actually acted to reinforce those culturally sexist ideas of women. These complications deepened the political and social implications of a group of women trying to re-size control over how gender played out in our cultural landscape.

This according to “I predict a riot: Riot grrrls and the contradictions of feminism” by Shayna Maskell, an essay included in The Routledge history of social protest in popular music (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 184–97).

Above and below, the pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill in the early 1990s.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Kalbelia and cultural fusion

 

Since being listed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010, Kalbelia dance from Rājasthān is now generally conceptualized as an ancient tradition from India. However, this same dance practice, also known as a form of “Indian Gypsy” or “snake charmers’” folk dance, appears to have originated as recently as the 1980s.

Ethnographic research with Kalbelia dancers’ families has elucidated how this inventive dance practice was formed to fit into national and transnational narratives with the aim of commercializing it globally and of generating a new, lucrative livelihood for these Kalbelia families. As a new cultural product of Rājasthāni fusion, the dance finds itself at the crossroads of commercial tourism and political folklorism and is grounded in the neo-Orientalist discourses of romanticism and exoticism.

This according to “Kalbeliya dance from Rajasthan: Invented gypsy form or traditional snake charmers’ folk dance?” by Ayla Joncheere (Dance research journal XLIX/1 [April 2017] pp. 37–54).

Below, a performance from the archives of the Asian Music Circuit.

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Filed under Asia, Dance

The Mandé buzz aesthetic

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Instruments

Benny Goodman goes classical

 

Benny Goodman was only 28 years old when he reached the pinnacle of his career, bringing his big band to Carnegie Hall in January 1938.

Joseph Szigeti, who took an interest in jazz and admired Goodman’s playing for its expressiveness and technical proficiency, was present at that tremendously successful historic concert. That same year, he suggested the idea to Goodman to underwrite a commission for a short concert piece by Bela Bartók for clarinet, violin, and piano, with virtuoso candenzas in the vein of the violin rhapsodies.

Bartók completed the piece in September 1938, and Goodman returned to Carnegie Hall a year after his famous jazz concert with the premiere of two movements of Bartók’s work. The reviews of the sound recording of Contrasts, made during the composer’s visit to the United States in the spring of 1940, were unequivocal in their praise of Goodman’s performance.

This according to “Bartók: Kontrasztok, Benny Goodman és a szabad előadásmód” by Vera Lampert (Magyar zene: Zenetudományi folyóirat LIII/1 [február 2015] pp. 48–65).

Today would have been Goodman’s 110th birthday! Above and below, the 1940 session.

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

Drink, song, and disorder

 

“For a simple urban boy like me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell.”

Thus declared the government minister Kim Howells during a debate in the British Parliament, as he responded to arguments predicting a decrease in musicians’ employment opportunities as a result of his plan to make all performances of music on premises where alcohol was sold subject to licensing by agencies of the State.

The plan that Howells introduced came to fruition in the form of the Licensing Act 2003. While this Act was presented by its proponents as a modernizing piece of legislation, it can be placed in a long history of British attempts to rein in the unruly side of music making, alcohol consumption, and the conjunction of the two—a history that has been marked by regulation in the name of public order and moral improvement.

This according to “Drink, song and disorder: The sorry saga of the Licensing Act 2003” by Dave Laing (Popular music XXXV/2 [May 2016] pp. 265–69).

Above and below, The Wurzels—three Somerset folk singers whose song I am a cider drinker was a number three hit in Britain in 1976.

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Filed under Humor, Politics, Popular music

F, the keynote of nature

 

In The voice of the silence (1889), Helena Blavatsky (above) designated the pitch F as the keynote of nature. Blavatsky’s authority was Benjamin Silliman, a Professor of chemistry at Harvard; his source was probably The music of nature (1832) by William Gardiner. Beethoven’s sixth symphony had already established F as the favored “pastoral” key.

Blavatsky’s prestige perpetuated the designation among Theosophists, and it remains a popular New Age concept, though some maintain that the correct note is F sharp. Several musicologists have suggested ingenious rationales for the idea that F is a fundamental keynote.

This according to “Is there a keynote of nature?” by Joscelyn Godwin, an essay included in Esotericism, religion, and nature (East Lansing: Association for the Study of Esotericism, 2009, pp. 53–71).

Below, another endorsement of the natural power of F.

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Filed under Curiosities, Theory

Michele Pesenti: Complete works

 

In 2019 A-R Editions published Michele Pesenti: Complete works, a critical edition produced by an editorial team including a musicologist, a linguist, and a musicologist-performer.

While earlier musicologists assumed continuities between frottola and madrigal, more recent scholarship has refuted this idea: they were two different genres, cultivated in different centers of patronage, by different composers, and for different audiences.

Pesenti, however, composed in both genres thanks to changing professional circumstances. He composed frottole while working in Ferrara, and later, when he secured an appointment at the court of Pope Leo X, he (or someone acting for him) refashioned several of his frottole as madrigals: Textless lower instrumental lines are provided with text, converting a composition for a vocalist with instrumental accompaniment into one for an ensemble of four vocalists.

This pioneering edition of Pesenti’s complete works offers parallel editions of compositions existing in both these forms, as well as compositions for solo voice and instrumental consort that were later arranged for voice and lute. It further seeks to clarify the procedures used in expanding the abbreviated presentation of the frottola’s texts and music into readily performable forms.

Above, a page from an early edition of Pesenti’s Dal lecto me levava; below, a recording of the work.

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Filed under New editions, Renaissance

Maldita Vecindad and activism

 

La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (usually referred to as Maldita Vecindad, or La Maldita, for short) produces music that is frequently categorized as fusion, due to its blending of rock, ska, reggae, and punk with traditional Mexican styles like danzón and bolero.

Deeply rooted in the working class, Maldita Vecindad is a pioneer of the rock en español movement, and its easily recognizable fusion rock—as well as the pachuco fashions favored by the members—have helped it to become one of the most influential groups of contemporary Mexican rock music.

From the group’s beginnings in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, Maldita Vecindad’s members have drawn on their fame to make their fans more aware of leftist ideas and social causes, including the need for actively participating in relief efforts following the 1985 quake, political campaigns, and raising consciousness about HIV and AIDS. The group’s motto is paz y baile (peace and dance), a perfect combination of social message with ritual.

This according to “Maldita Vecindad, ritual, and memory: Paz y baile” by Lori Oxford, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 355–72).

Below, Maldita Vecindad performs in 2014.

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Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

RILM in the news, 1967

 

On Sunday 5 November 1967 The New York times published “Who’s writing about music and where”, a review of the first quarterly volume of RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. The volume had been published in August of that year.

The reviewer, Raymond Ericson, noted that the volume “looks, hopefully, like the first permanent attempt to describe regularly what is being written about in the world’s significant literature on music” and that it “obviously fills a great need in musicological circles.” He also included summaries of six of the volume’s 497 entries.

Below, something else that happened a couple of days later.

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Filed under From the archives, RILM