Issue 137 July/August 2006
The recent environmental, cultural, and political upheavals around the globe remind us of the fragility and volatility of Mother Earth and of how intrinsically bound we all are to the past, the present, and what we decide to make of the future. Music is often a barometer of the spirit of humankind and of how we are dealing with these trials and tribulations. Here are some reflections on music from some of these places and some thoughts on how music continues to offer hope during these times of great challenge.
The Indian Ocean Tsunami
On December 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake generated a tsunami, or tidal wave, that devastated coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, southern India, and Thailand, killing some 275,000 people. The tsunami caused destruction and death as far away as Kenya, on the eastern coast of Africa -- the most remote death was recorded in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake literally rocked the planet, and its overall physical, emotional, and spiritual effects will never be fully known. This part of the world has for centuries been home to many different religions and cultures. It is at once primitive and contemporary. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have remained virtually the same for centuries, while the beautiful, pristine beaches of Indonesia and Thailand now pulse to the modern vibrations of international tourism.
It took a tragedy of this proportion to once again remind us how unique, delicate, and breakable our small blue planet really is. It also has reminded us how rooted these cultures are in aesthetic, artistic, and musical styles that are hundreds of years old -- and how, at the same time, younger generations continue to reinterpret the ancient meanings of these styles. Indonesia and Thailand, in particular, offer glimpses into the relationship of music to place.
Since the December tsunami, the peoples and cultures of the Indian Ocean region have focused on survival and the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the destroyed areas. After such a sudden, violent change, it is likely that, once some time has passed and a semblance of normalcy returns, we will hear more new directions in their musics, both traditional and contemporary, not least because there will now be many new stories to tell.
Music from the Morning of the World
The Balinese Gamelan & Ketjak:
The Ramayana Monkey Chant
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79196-2 (1967)
Bali: Gamelan and Kecak
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79204-2 (1989)
Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once referred to Bali as "the morning of the world," in part because, at some point each year, practically every resident of this small bit of paradise rises early to participate in one of Bali's many temple festivals. These celebrations have made famous the unique music known as gamelan and the ensembles that perform it. There are many styles and variations of gamelan, but all share, to some degree, xylophone-like bronze-keyed instruments, tuned gongs, cymbals, drums, and flutes. The effect on the listener of the collision of rhythms and the skill and precision of the players is often overwhelming. Of the many recordings of this music, two of the earliest remain classics; both were recorded by ethnomusicologist and musical tourist David Lewiston, one of the creators of Nonesuch Records' Explorer Series. Recorded in 1966 and originally released in 1967, Music from the Morning of the World captures several styles of gamelan and the absolute tumult of Ketjak, a reenactment of the battle in the Ramayana epic in which a horde of monkeys came to the aid of Prince Rama in his battle with evil. The intense chattering of the monkeys is re-created by some 200 men seated in tight concentric circles surrounding a small central place and chanting the syllable tjak. At its emotional peak, this trance music takes many singers into a singular moment of ecstasy and shakes everything and everyone within its aural sphere. Lewiston recorded a companion album, Bali: Gamelan & Kecak, in 1989, just after an unsuccessful communist coup had shattered Indonesia. Lewiston noted that the island had become much more noisy and busy since his previous visits. While the music remains anchored in traditional gamelan, experimentation and change were inevitable as Bali grew into a destination for adventurers and gamelan became a fashionable tourist staple -- even an intellectual favorite of Western music schools.
Music of Indonesia 2
Indonesian Popular Music: Kroncong, Dangdut, & Langgam Jawa
Smithsonian Folkways CD SF40056 (1991)
This second of two CDs from the early 1990s chronicles the rise of two urban styles of Indonesian music, dangdut and kroncong. Dangdut appeared in the 1970s and is Muslim in orientation, combining elements of Indian and Middle Eastern music with a rock attitude: the lyrics question the inequalities of life, while the guitar rifts are reminiscent of Santana. Dangdut is an onomatopoeic word that comes from kendang, the name of a drum that resembles the Indian tabla. In Indonesia, this music's ever-present dang-dut-dang-dut-dang-dut beams from minivans and hangs in the air like the equally ubiquitous aroma of clove cigarettes.
Dangdut draws its audience mostly from Indonesia's fervent Muslim youth, especially the lower and lower middle class, giving them a voice in social events as well as a hard-edged dance rhythm. It is this group, in particular, that has transformed dangdut into modern techno and electronic forms collectively called a "dangdut trendy." Rhoma Irama and Elvy Sukaeish are known as the Divine King and Queen of dangdut for the masterpieces they recorded mostly in the 1980s.
Kroncong dates back to the 16th century and the initial influence on Indonesian music of Portuguese instruments and melodies. The kroncong is a ukulele-like instrument; a kroncong ensemble also includes a flute and a female singer. Although the instruments and vocal stylings are obviously derived from European origins, the chord progressions are distinctly Asian and take the Western listener by surprise, adding to the music a deeply unsettling and ethereal flavor. While much more derivative of older Indonesian styles and traditions, kroncong is still modern in its sound and has become popular among younger, more socially elite listeners. What the two musics share is having been disseminated through mass media: television, radio, cassettes, CDs, magazines, and national journalistic efforts that have declared dangdut and kroncong to be national musics belonging uniquely to Indonesia.
The Kashmir Earthquake
Like the Indian Ocean tsunami, the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that struck northern Pakistan on October 8, 2005, resulted in widespread destruction. The epicenter of the quake was in the territory of Kashmir, the control of which has long been disputed by India and Pakistan. The earthquake physically split an area that has been politically fractured since 1947, when it was divided between India and Pakistan as much for religious as political reasons. At last count, more than 80,000 people were killed in the catastrophe, and an equal number were injured. Many damaged areas still remain unapproachable.
Nestled up against the Himalayas, the Kashmir region includes verdant valleys; K2, the second highest peak in the world; and the legendary city of Srinigar. Like Indonesia and Southeast Asia, Kashmir has a long history of classical and indigenous music.
Call of the Valley
Shivkumar Sharma, Brijbushan Kabra,
IRS Hemisphere 32867-2 (1968)
This gorgeous album is one of the most evocative recordings to focus on Kashmir. Originally recorded in 1968 and reissued on CD in 1988 and 1995, it features three remarkable musicians: santoor player Shivkumar Sharma, guitarist Brijbushan Kabra, and flute virtuoso Hariprasad Chaurasia. All three were in their early thirties when they recorded this masterpiece, and probably none envisioned the destruction that would eventually pummel the landscape they describe in this suite, which musically depicts a day in Kashmir.
When they recorded Call of the Valley, the trio faced challenges of its own. Sharma, from the Kashmir town of Jammu, was working to raise the status of the santoor -- a type of hammered dulcimer long considered a folk instrument -- to the status of a respected classical concert instrument. Kabra faced a similar challenge with the guitar, which is considered both Western and nonclassical. Since Kabra's involvement in this project, the guitar has found a niche in many classical Indian recordings. For Chaurasia, the challenge was of an entirely different nature. The flute is not only a popular instrument in Kashmir, it is also considered sacred. Chaurasia had to bring the instrument of Lord Krishna convincingly into the company of the santoor and guitar. He succeeded.
The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
The Early Years, Volumes I and II: 1978 - 1984
Narada/EMI 19153-2 and 19221-2 (2005)
You've Stolen My Heart
Asha Bhosle, Kronos Quartet
Nonesuch 79856-2 (2005)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan hailed from the Punjab region of Pakistan, close to Kashmir. By the time he died in London, in 1997, he had become known to his legions of followers as the Pavarotti of the East, the Magnificent, the Voice of Ecstasy, the Messenger of Peace, the Singing Buddha. Khan had become perhaps the most important singer of qawwali, or Sufi devotional music, in history. Not only did he reach the pinnacle of devotional singing, he also collaborated in contemporary settings with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook, and Massive Attack. One wonders, had he lived to experience the earthquake in Kashmir, what qawwali magic he might have woven to help those in need.
The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Early Years, Volumes I and II is a two-CD compilation of recordings that place Khan as the most important contemporary voice of qawwali. The roots of qawwali can be traced back to eighth-century Persia; its present form in India dates from the late 13th century. Originally performed mainly at Sufi shrines throughout what are now India and Pakistan, it has gained popularity in the mainstream because of artists such as Khan. Qawwali is performed by a group, or "party" consisting of eight or nine men, including a lead singer and one or two side singers. Often there are two percussionists (tabla and dholak) and one or two harmonium players. Sometimes a stringed instrument, the sarangi, is still used. The singers also clap their hands.
The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion, and longing for the divine. The songs, usually between 15 and 30 minutes in length (some of Khan's songs last nearly an hour), begin gently, then build steadily to a high energy level in order to create a hypnotic state among musicians and audience alike. Trading passion, energy, and vocal acrobatics with his side singers throughout each piece, Nusrat became a master of inducing this hypnotic state. The songs end suddenly, leaving the listener literally vibrating.
Tragedy often triggers the human ability to leave the source of pain completely, to depart into flights of fantasy and realms of illusion and myth. Just as the media elevated new forms of music in Southeast Asia to contemporary popularity, so have movies done on the Indian subcontinent, and especially the music written for these films. At one point in the evolution of the Nonesuch Explorer Series, David Lewiston implored, "film music from Bombay -- it puts traditional music under stress." But in the face of earth-fracturing crisis, perhaps now is the time to listen to all of a region's musical styles to get a complete aural picture of the place and its peoples.
Indian films embrace both urban and rural themes, and there is always a happy ending. The Kronos Quartet's recent release, You've Stolen My Heart, features the exquisite singing of Indian songstress Asha Bhosle, who, with her sister, the equally renowned Lata Mangeshkar, has reputedly sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles combined. The album is a collection of uplifting songs from the films of Indian director R. Burman, all sung by Bhosle.
Hurricane Katrina, the sixth strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, first made landfall on August 25, 2005, just north of Miami. Four days later, on August 29, it touched down again, this time deep in the Mississippi Delta region of Louisiana, near the small towns of Buras and Triumph in Plaquemines Parish. The storm surge breached the levee system that had protected New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Most of the city of New Orleans was subsequently flooded by water from the lake. In a few days, the flooding and wind damage to the coastal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama had made Katrina the most destructive and costly natural disaster in US history.
Katrina literally cut a swath through the birthplace of Louisiana's Creole music. For decades, New Orleans jazz, Dixieland, French-inspired Cajun (European-American-derived roots music), and Zydeco (African-American-derived roots music) have entertained generations with beats and harmonies unique in the history of American music. But Katrina twisted the musical spine of the bayou country, momentarily silencing the soulfulness of the music that has long emanated from the region. For a reminder of just how diverse this bayou-oriented music is, listen to the music in these wonderful collections.
Cajun Music and Zydeco
Rounder CD 11572 (1992)
Based on the book of the same title by Philip Gould, Cajun Music and Zydeco spans the period from 1976 to 1992 and includes music by legends of both genres, including Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, Zachary Richard, John Delafosse, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Steve Riley. A great introduction to this accordion- and fiddle-driven music.
Putumayo Presents Zydeco
Putumayo 169-2 (2000)
This compilation covers a number of other well-known Zydeco artists, including two of its famous female performers, Queen Ida and Rosie Ledet.
The Rough Guide to Zydeco
Creole Accordions Dance
Rough Guide RGNET 1145 (2005)
This recent compilation includes still more prominent Zydeco musicians, such as Geno Delafosse, Rockin' Sidney, Keith Frank, and Chris Ardoin.
Dr. John and The Lower 911
Blue Note/EMI 3 45687 2 (2005)
Hurricane Katrina spawned a number of concerts and musician-backed fundraisers, but so far few recordings have been released that were inspired by or reflect on this major tragedy. Of these few, one stands out. Sippiana Hericane, by Dr. John and The Lower 911, includes a haunting suite in four sections: "Storm Warning," "Storm Surge," "Calm in the Storm," and "Aftermath" that musically chronicles Katrina from beginning to end and offers hope for the future: a musical bridge over troubled waters. All proceeds from sales of this CD go to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the Jazz Foundation of America, and The Voice of the Wetlands.
Our New Orleans 2005: A Benefit Album
Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Randy Newman, Irma Thomas, Buckwheat Zydeco,
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, others
Nonesuch 79934-2 (2005)
This reflection on the devastation caused by Katrina is built around songs that, when first written and performed, were deeply ingrained with the spirit of New Orleans. The enormously talented Allen Toussaint opens the set with the hopeful "Yes We Can Can," a tune he wrote for the Pointer Sisters. The rest of the compilation swings and laments its way through Irma Thomas's "Back Water Blues"; Buckwheat Zydeco's fearsome ballad "Cryin' in the Streets"; the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's classic "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now"; and Randy Newman's eerily somber "Louisiana 1927," which closes the session. Net proceeds from this recording will be donated to Habitat for Humanity to help in the rebuilding of New Orleans.
Sudan and Darfur
Even in the face of such horrendous natural disasters, politics and social upheavals continue their own stormy courses. Recent events in Sudan, and especially in the region of Darfur, are now being reflected in modern music.
The script for the unraveling of the failed state of Sudan reads much like that of other poor African nations. Over the years, Sudan has been invaded by Turkey, Egypt, and the British. It gained independence in 1956, but since a coup in 1958, the country has been largely controlled by the military. The problem of Sudan, however, is that while many other African nations have achieved some semblance of order and civility, Sudan has drifted backward. Two factors have made it difficult for the nation to find peace with itself: religion and oil. The Islamic north and the Christian south began to clash when oil was discovered in southern Sudan in 1978. The recent ethnic killings in Darfur have put Sudan in the news, but the region's remoteness has made it difficult to help resolve the serious ethnic and religious strife, which continue.
The unrest in Sudan had gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world until March 2004, when the Sudanese government struck down an uprising in Darfur that sent some 100,000 people seeking refuge in neighboring Chad. Although the UN then declared Darfur the worst humanitarian situation in the world, little was done to control the situation. Finally, in 2005, a peace accord agreed on by the Sudanese government in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the south established a fragile truce.
Emmanuel Jal, Abdel Gadir Salim
Riverboat/World Music Network TUGCD 1038 (2005)
The Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan: Desert Rhythms & Savannah Harmonies
Rough Guide RGNET 1152 (2005)
It is said that, during Sudan's decades-long struggle, musicians from the north and south of the country never recorded together. That's what makes the appearance of Ceasefire, by Christian rapper Emmanuel Jal and Muslim musician Abdel Gadir Salim, so significant. These musicians have let their voices become important parts of the peace process.
Jal is one of the most prominent rappers -- poet, really -- to break into the international market, and his teaming up with a revered veteran and master of vibrant northern Sudanese music was a stroke of collaborative genius. The partnership is musically rich, for Salim's group, the Merdoum All Stars, is essentially a big band. And for a rapper to front a big band is innovative in and of itself.
The lyrics are significant. Love is important, and "Aiwa" is a love song: "If we could love each other it would be so cool." "Elengwwen" is about the beauty of Sudan: "Let's enjoy this wonderful, blessed land of ours." "Ya Salam" is a tribute to the return of peace to Sudan. And thus it goes, these musicians from very different cultures teaming up to help us understand that hopes that once seemed untenable can become reality.
If Ceasefire piques your curiosity about the unique music of Sudan, you might want to listen to The Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan: Desert Rhythms & Savannah Harmonies. The compilation features songs by Emmanuel Jal, Abdel Gadir Salim, and established legends such as Abdel Aziz El Mubarak, as well as some of the better-known female artists, such as Rasha and Setona.
Somehow, musicians always seem to be able to help us make peace with the catastrophic temperament of Mother Nature, and to assuage the misery caused by our own brutality toward each other. These past two years have brought more than the usual share of such challenges. Fortunately, the great musics found in these places before the tragedies struck appear to be providing the accompaniment to new, more harmonious relationships after.
Jack Kolkmeyer is an urban and regional planner and writer who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his partner, Alexandra, their two sons, Nick and Sonny, and their faithful service dog, Kala. Since 1984, Jack has been the host and producer of the program Brave New World, currently broadcast on KBAC FM 98.1, Radio Free Santa Fe.