Tag Archives: Popular music

Haiti’s celebrity president

michael-martelly

With his country descending into its worst political crisis since the 2004 coup d’etat, and thousands of people demanding his resignation in the streets, in early 2016 Haiti’s outgoing president, Michel Martelly, went back to basics: He released a new song insulting and taunting in crude and sexualized terms a female journalist known to be critical of him.

Before becoming head of state in 2011, Martelly was a pop star known as Sweet Micky who performed Haitian compas (kompa direk). Micky was famous for saying or doing anything to get a reaction, and his genius was combining the image of the rock rebel with the anything-goes, upside-down spirit of kanaval, the Haitian equivalent of Mardi Gras—for example, one can find video footage of Haiti’s president performing in a halter top and miniskirt.

Bringing a similar strategy to his presidential run, he was the anti-politician who openly insulted competitors, critics, and the media. Before his election Martelly’s supporters argued that, because he was already so rich and famous, their candidate couldn’t be bribed or bought. The competition dismissed Martelly’s candidacy as a joke, at first, and the press did too, all the while giving him blanket coverage.

With support by foreign investors and the backing of the U.S., Martelly won a surprise victory. But after five years of stalled and canceled elections, rising insecurity and poverty, political violence, and accusations of corruption, Sweet Micky’s novelty wore off—and in his last weeks in power any vestiges of presidential restraint also wore off, as evidenced by the song referenced above. It may turn out that Haiti was, as it has been so many times, ahead of the historical curve, anticipating the rise of other populist celebrity political figures worldwide.

This according to “What happens when a celebrity becomes president” by Jonathan Katz (The Atlantic monthly 9 February 2016).

Above, Martelly dancing at a presentation ceremony; below, the song in question.

BONUS: Sweet Mickey performs in drag.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Eartha Kitt and feline metaphors

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From practically the beginning, critics gushed over Eartha Kitt with every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or was “like catnip”, she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws”, and her career was often said to have had “nine lives”.

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Appropriately, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series Batman, bringing feral, compact energy to the role (insert, click to enlarge).

Throughout her six-decade career Kitt remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit, maintaining her voice and figure through a vigorous fitness regimen. Even after learning that she had cancer, she triumphantly opened the newly renovated Café Carlyle in September 2007; The New York times reviewer wrote that Ms. Kitt’s voice was “in full growl”.

This according to “Eartha Kitt, a seducer of audiences, dies at 81” by Rob Hoerburger (The New York times CLVIII/54,536 [26 December 2008] p. 37).

Today would have been Kitt’s 90th birthday! Below, in one of her signature songs, purring in French (one of the seven languages that she sang in).

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The Golden Shower Waltz

emile-waldteufel

Émile Waldteufel (1837–1915) served as pianist to Empress Eugénie and was renowned as a composer of elegant polkas, waltzes, and other occasional pieces. His Pluie d’or valse (Golden shower waltz, op. 160) is one of several of his works that won acclaim beyond the court of Napoleon III.

Further information on Waldteufel and his family can be found in Skaters’ waltz: The story of the Waldteufels by Andrew Lamb (Croydon: Fullers Wood Press, 1995).

Below, a vintage recording.

#GoldenShowers

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January 11, 2017 · 1:32 pm

David Bowie and Japanese style

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Japanese fashion, theater, and music played significant roles in David Bowie’s pioneering career.

The Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto devised some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, and in the 1960s the singer studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a UK performance artist who was influenced by kabuki theater with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes and makeup, and onnagata actors—men playing female roles.

This training with Kemp inspired Bowie as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism, and alienation. The inspiration extended to the musical realm as well: on Moss garden from Heroes (1977) Bowie plays a Japanese koto; It’s no game (no. 1) from Scary monsters (and super creeps) (1980) features Japanese vocals; and the instrumental B-side Crystal Japan (1980) was released as a single in Japan and featured in a sake commercial.

This according to “David Bowie’s love affair with Japanese style” by Tessa Wong, Anna Jones, and Yuko Kato (BBC news 12 January 2016).

Today would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday! Above, Bowie models a Yamamoto design in 1973; below, It’s no game (no. 1).

BONUS: That sake ad.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Patti Smith and rock heroics

patti-smith

From her time as a young performance poet in New York in the late 1960s to her current position as punk rock’s éminence grise, Patti Smith has foregrounded the image of the poet as privileged seer.

Smith’s romantic impulses can be viewed within the context of her activity in the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church, the preeminent public face of the East Village poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her complex negotiations between her understanding of the poet as visionary and the adamantly playful, diffuse, and collaborative aesthetic characterizing downtown New York’s poetic community fed into the development of her performative stance as proto-punk rock icon.

This according to “‘Nor did I socialise with their people’: Patti Smith, rock heroics and the poetics of sociability” by Daniel Kane (Popular music XXXI/1 [January 2012] pp. 105–23).

Today is Smith’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in the early 1970s; below, her iconic 1974 recording of Hey Joe.

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Filed under Literature, Performers, Popular music

Oscar Levant, composer

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Today Oscar Levant is widely remembered for his mordant wit, his virtuoso interpretations of George Gershwin’s piano music, and his cameo appearances in numerous films. Fewer people realize that he was also a highly regarded composer who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg.

Levant’s hero worship of Gershwin stunted his confidence as a songwriter and a classical composer, though one of his pop songs, Blame it on my youth, has become a standard. Colleagues including Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson all considered him an immensely gifted composer.

This according to A talent for genius: The life and times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (New York: Villard, 1994; reprint Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1998).

Today would have been Levant’s 110th birthday! Below, Nat Cole’s classic recording of Blame it on my youth.

BONUS: The 1942 premiere of Levant’s piano concerto.

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

Eddie Palmieri and La Perfecta

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Eddie Palmieri recalled the early days of his band La Perfecta in 2013, on the eve of his acceptance of an NEA Jazz Masters award.

The year was 1961, and the group had scheduled a three-day recording session—but it turned out that the budget shrank each day, so the band had to follow suit. On the first day the horn section comprised four trumpets; on the second day Palmieri could afford only two trumpets and two less-expensive trombones; and on the third day he had to settle for a single trombone and a flute.

For a few months after the record was released, Palmieri barked in the street outside the small Midtown Manhattan club where La Perfecta was playing, trying to divert foot traffic from the nearby Palladium Ballroom where his more famous rivals were performing. “Not there, folks!” he remembers shouting, “Over here, folks!” But soon La Perfecta was hot, and Palmieri’s guerilla tactics paid off with a 90-day Palladium booking.

This according to “Eddie Palmieri: Rebellious perfection” by Giovanni Russonello (JazzTimes XLIII/1 [January–February 2013] pp. 28–33).

Today is Palmieri’s 80th birthday! Above, the group’s first album; below, a more recent incarnation of La Perfecta, still featuring a modest brass section and a flute.

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Pérez Prado and mambo

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Pérez Prado was largely responsible for establishing and popularizing mambo in the 1950s and 1960s, and was among the first arrangers to introduce full orchestration (including strings) to Latin music.

By his mid-20s, while working as a pianist in Havana’s clubs, cinemas, and casinos, Prado began to develop his own unique rhythmic ideas, which began coalescing into mambo—an upbeat and brassy dance music in which horns and percussion provide punchy punctuation.

Mambo was most likely a dance before it was a style of music; like the cha-cha-chá, it evolved from the traditional Cuban rumba. Prado sometimes claimed that he heard mambo emerging from the cross-rhythms of five or six guitarists simultaneously jamming after hours in Cuban clubs.

Though Prado—and mambo—grew increasingly popular, he left Cuba in 1947; some have suggested that Cuban music publishers considered him an upstart who dirtied their native rumba with forms like jazz, and so conspired to deny him work. He settled in Mexico City in 1948, and formed his own band. He gradually succeeded in becoming a multimedia sensation, regularly performing at Mexico’s most chic clubs and serving as musical director for a number of Mexican films.

The records that Prado cut for RCA in late 1949 helped to ignite the firestorm of “mambo mania”, and he settled into a career in New York City in the 1950s, scoring ten consecutive weeks at the top of the U.S. charts in 1955. Although he was almost certainly not the originator of mambo, he did more than anyone else to make it internationally popular.

This according to “Prado, Pérez” by Chris Slawecki (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 489); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Prado’s 100th birthday! Below, a rare piano solo.

 

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Women singer-songwriters in the 1990s

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The 1990s saw the emergence of a new kind of female artist, writing songs that focused on intimate topics of sexuality, gender, and the body in an explicit, direct way.

These women explored how everyday life is experienced through the body, and at the center of their songwriting was a specifically female experience, drawing on female agency and power, all experienced through an embodied self. These artists also embraced the confessional history of singer-songwriters, drawing in their audiences with closeness and intimacy through their bodily experiences.

This according to “The female singer-songwriter in the 1990s” by Sarah Boak, an essay included in The Cambridge companion to the singer-songwriter (New York Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 257–64).

Above, a photograph of PJ Harvey, Björk, and Tori Amos that was featured in the cover story of the May 1994 issue of Q; below, Harvey’s Dress. The Q article and Harvey’s song are both discussed in Boak’s essay.

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies

Tecnocumbia and Ecuadorian identity

jaime-enrique-aymara1

Peruvian tecnocumbia arrived in Ecuador in the 1990s, and the ensuing tecnocumbia boom fostered a new music scene that revitalized Ecuadorian popular music (EPM) and contested Ecuadorians’ perception of its national music.

Social, economic, and political factors triggered the increasing production and consumption of this music, and EPM, a stigmatized music that was barely heard in the mainstream media in the 1970s and 1980s, came to be perceived as música nacional by the working classes. The historical contexts, social relations, political economies, and physical landscapes that generate and maintain the EPM scene illuminate how working-class musicians, entrepreneurs, and fans from Quito responded to the social and economic crisis in the country that brought about a massive wave of emigration in the late 1990s.

This according to “The Ecuadorian popular music scene in Quito: Contesting the national imaginary” by Ketty Wong, an essay included in Made in Latin America: Studies in popular music (New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 89–98).

Above and below, Quito native Jaime Enrique Aymara, known as el rey de la tecnocumbia.

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Filed under Popular music, South America