Tag Archives: Curiosities

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and “I put a spell on you”

 

Selected as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, “I put a spell on you”—written, composed, and performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—proved to make him one of the early pioneers of both goth rock and shock rock.

Hawkins originally intended the song to be a relatively innocuous love ballad, but, as he recalled in an interview, the recording producer “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version…Before, I was just a normal blues singer; I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”

Quoted in Contemporary musicians. VIII: Profiles of the people in music (Detroit: Gale, 1993, p. 117).

Today would have been Hawkins’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 1979; below, the original 1956 recording.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music

Hula, colonialism, and countercolonialism

 

Hula performers began touring throughout the continental United States and Europe in the late 19th century. These hula circuits introduced hula and Hawaiians to U.S. audiences, establishing an imagined intimacy, a powerful fantasy that enabled Americans to possess their colony physically and symbolically.

At vaudeville theaters, international expositions, commercial nightclubs, and military bases, Hawaiian women acted as ambassadors of aloha, enabling Americans to imagine Hawai’i as feminine and benign, and the relation between colonizer and colonized as mutually desired. Meanwhile, in the early years of American imperialism in the Pacific, touring hula performers incorporated veiled critiques of U.S. expansionism into their productions.

By the 1930s Hawaiian culture, particularly its music and hula, had enormous promotional value. In the 1940s thousands of U.S. soldiers and military personnel in Hawai’i were entertained by hula performances, many of which were filmed by military photographers. Yet Hawaiians also used hula as a means of cultural survival and countercolonial political praxis.

This according to Aloha America: Hula circuits through the U.S. empire by Adria L. Imada (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

Above, dancing the hula for servicemen, 1944; below, Hal Aloma with Lani McIntyre and his Aloha Islanders, 1949.

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Filed under Australia and Pacific islands, Curiosities, Dance

Captain Beefheart’s “Trout mask replica”

 

The release on 16 June 1969 of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Trout mask replica, a double album comprising 28 stream-of-consciousness songs filled with abstract rhythms and guttural bellows, dramatically altered the pop landscape.

Yet even if the album cast its radical vision over the future of music, much of its artistic strength is actually drawn from the past. Beefheart’s incomparable opus, an album that divided (rather than united) a pop audience, is informed by a variety of diverse sources. Trout mask replica is a hybrid of poetic declarations inspired by both Walt Whitman and the beat poets, the field hollers of the Delta Blues, the urban blues of Howlin’ Wolf, the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman.

The album was not so much an arcane specimen of the avant-garde, but rather a defiantly original declaration of the American imagination.

This according to Trout mask replica by Kevin Courrier (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Today is the 50th anniversary of Trout mask replica’s release! Below, a lively and informative introduction to the album.

BONUS: A detailed analysis of Frownland, the album’s first track:

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, 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

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

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

The Kominas and taqwacore

 

The Kominas is a Pakistani-American Desi punk band known for its iconic role within the punk-inspired, Muslim-affiliated music culture self-labeled as taqwacore.

Since its national tour in 2006 the group has been creating a radically translocal social geography comprised of musicians, listeners, artists, filmmakers, and bloggers on- and off-line. The Kominas concocts a transnational sound, combining elements of Punjabi and punk music, while on social media the band members contemplate their troubled sense of national belonging and build a diasporic space that is digitally produced and unified by minoritarian politics.

This according to “Mapping The Kominas’ sociomusical transnation: Punk, diaspora, and digital media” by Wendy F. Hsu, an essay included in 2nd Inter-Asia Popular Music Studies Conference (Asian journal of communication XXIII/4 [2013] pp. 386–402).

Below, live in Morocco in 2017.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music

Sonic control devices

 

For almost 60 years, media technologies have promised users the ability to create sonic safe spaces for themselves—from bedside white noise machines to Beats by Dre’s Hear what you want ad campaign, in which Colin Kaepernick’s headphones protect him from taunting crowds.

Noise-canceling headphones, tinnitus maskers, LPs that play ocean sounds, nature-sound mobile apps, and in-ear smart technologies illuminate how the true purpose of media is not information transmission, but rather the control of how we engage our environment. These devices give users the freedom to remain unaffected in the changeable and distracting spaces of contemporary capitalism, revealing how racial, gendered, ableist, and class ideologies shape our desire to block unwanted sounds.

In a noisy world of haters, trolls, and information overload, guarded listening can be a necessity for self-care, but our efforts to shield ourselves can also decrease our tolerance for sonic and social difference.

This according to Hush: Media and sonic self-control by Mack Hagood (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

Below, the Beats by Dre/Kaepernick commercial.

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Musiri’s moustache

 

The revered Karnatak vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer only acted in one film: Thukkaram (1938), in which he portrayed the 17th-century Hindu poet and saint Tukaram.

The shooting of the film ran into an unusual problem. The hero had to sport a bushy moustache, and in those days makeup materials were crude and even primitive. Moustaches and beards were stuck to the actor’s face with spirit gum, and when the gum dried the skin would burn and pull, the degree of irritation depending on the sensitivity of one’s skin.

Musiri suffered unbearable irritation, and he threatened that he would walk out if he had to endure the suffering any longer. Left with no choice, the producers permitted him to grow his own moustache. The shooting had to be stopped while Musiri waited for his lip hair to grow to the degree of bushiness required by the script.

This according to “Filmsinger in saint’s clothing: Tuka-ram” by Randor Guy (Sruti 176 [May 1999] pp. 35–38).

Today is Musiri’s 120th birthday! Above, a publicity shot for the film.

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Filed under Curiosities, Film music, Performers

Sad news

 

The British artist Rod Summers created the audiotape collage Sad news with razor blade, splicing block, and tape in 1979; it alternates between snippets of BBC News reports and a distinguished male voice saying “I’m sad, very sad.”

Summers put the piece in a self-published compilation as part of his cassette underground project VEC Audio Exchange, and sent 63 copies around the world. Copy no. 40 was sent to the Canadian audio artist Dan Lander, who found it “profoundly inspirational” in the way that “it offered such a simple, yet powerful message by stating the obvious and letting the news speak for itself.” He places the work in the same period and category as the Scratch video movement and works by Negativland.

The humor (and sadness) of the piece arises with the surprise of the initial interruption and then continues with a fascination with the subtle applicability of further interruptions, and how repetition itself begins to take on different guises.

This according to “Where does sad news come from?” by Douglas Kahn, an essay included in Cutting across media: Appropriation art, interventionist collage, and copyright law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 94–116).

Below, the piece in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor