Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples.
The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history—it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theater, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India.
An analysis of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography, and current performance practice illuminates new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.
This according to India’s kathak dance in historical perspective by Margaret E. Walker (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Above, Birju Maharaj, one of the consummate kathak performers of our time; below, in a rare seated performance, Maharaj depicts the sensuous world of a young woman as monsoon season approaches.
BONUS: The finale of a performance that includes some of Maharaj’s star students.
When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.
This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.
This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).
Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.
In most genres of Caribbean music women tend to participate as dancers or vocalists, but in Dominican merengue típico they are more often instrumentalists and even bandleaders—something nearly unheard of in the macho Caribbean music scene.
In a complex nexus of class, race, and artistic tradition that unsettles the typical binary between the masculine and feminine, female musicians have developed a feminine counterpart to the classic male figure of the tíguere, a dandified but sexually aggressive and street-smart tiger: the tíguera, an assertive, sensual, and respected female figure who looks like a woman but often plays and even sings like a man. These musical figures illuminate the rich ambiguities in gender construction in the Dominican Republic and the long history of a unique form of Caribbean feminism.
This according to Tigers of a different stripe: Performing gender in Dominican music by Sydney Hutchinson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Above and below, Fefita la Grande, one of the tígueras discussed in the book.
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  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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The eclecticism of Don Byron and his music reflects the decentralization of music in the U.S., where there is no single musical culture but rather mini-, micro-, and subcultures that continually mutate into new idioms.
While eclectic music seems to characterize culture in the U.S. at this moment, the discussion about it reveals certain cultural biases. Byron’s works highlight the tension between assimilation and difference and dispel prevalent assumptions regarding style politics and identity politics.
This according to “Making mischief in the melting pot: The intercultural music of Don Byron” by Barbara White, an essay included in Intercultural music. III (Richmond: MRI, 2001, pp. 15–37).
Today is Byron’s 60th birthday! Below, a track from Don Byron plays the music of Mickey Katz.