Bandung Buskers

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In this sprawling highland city, known for its technical university and indie music scene, buskers are as ubiquitous as they are persistent. One need to not seek them out, just take a seat at a food stall or hop on a minibus and a man with a guitar or ukulele will come to you. Along Dipatiukur Street, the slow traffic and busy market seem to be ideal terrain for these fleeting entertainers. They step onto passing busses, and after playing crouched in the doorway for about 30 seconds, extend a plastic cup for spare change. As soon as someone pays he is gone, almost as if we are paying him not to play, but go away.

On my way through Dipatiukur, I noticed a pair of musicians squatting besides the traffic jam, clearly not engaging in the guerilla performance tactics of their many colleagues. Later that afternoon on my return trip, I hopped off the minibus to pay them a visit. I asked if I could record something, and before I could even offer any money the guitarist and violinist launched into a pair of film songs that they learned off of YouTube. Apparently this is from the Korean TV series Full House.

IMG_1357When I asked the violinist how he learned music, he replied simply: “otodidak.” This cognate of ‘autodidact’ has somehow become an everyday term for ‘self-taught’ in Indonesia (besides autodidact musicians I have also met an autodidact audio engineer and guitar luthier). Their instruments were similarly DIY. The guitarist had tied together two strings in order to reach one of the tuning pegs, and he strummed with a piece of rigid plastic cut into a triangle. The violinist had added a fifth string to his instrument by drilling a hole in the headstock and inserting an extra tuning peg. Perhaps only in Bandung would you find such musically and mechanically inclined buskers. I gave the pair the equivalent of a few US dollars for their time; in this case at least their less aggressive approach to street performance paid off.

Soul Searching

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A 1979 article in Ebony Magazine asks in its title: “Can White People Sing the Blues.” An enticing subtitle draws the reader in further: “Ray Charles says ‘No,’ but a few are trying to prove him wrong.”[1] The idea that certain types of musical ‘soul’ are the sole birthright of certain types of bodies is long-standing and wide-spread, like the Portuguese Fado singer who says: ‘one does not learn to be a fadista; one is born a fadista.’[2] But for those of us not content to play only within the musical forms of our biological ancestors there has always been a kind of second best option. Lacking the right body, we can still go to the right place. That’s how it was for the Rolling Stones in 1969, when they took a break from their North American tour to record a few tracks at the famous studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where black artists like Wilson Picket and Percy Sledge had helped define the sound of American soul music. The very first night there, the band cut a traditional blues number, “We Gotta Move.” Guitarist Keith Richards explained the choice later: “If ever I’m gonna do it, it’s gotta be here.”[3]

As an American—albeit a white New Englander—I am used to thinking of my country as ground zero for soul, the place where British Blues players and Japanese Jazz cats come to find the real thing. But that has not always been the case. Two-hundred years ago, the United States grappled with its own musical inferiority complex, and sent its own brightest players abroad to soak up the ‘musical atmosphere’ of continental Europe, specifically Germany. The sounds they sought were quite different from what the Stones were after, but the language of the quest was not. American students of classical music flocked to Europe to find “real music” and “real emotion,” both of which were seen to be inherent to Germany. They were advised to seek out great masters such as Franz Liszt—who could apparently inspire tears with just a few chords—and to visit the graves of past masters to pay tribute. Many German music schools, including the prestigious Leipzig Conservatory, enrolled more foreigners than nationals. Americans represented a large percentage of this total, a trend that continued right up to the outbreak of World War One. Music was simply in the air over there, while America could boast little more than “savages and steam engines” according to some.[4]

A documentary about the Muscle Shoals studio, where the Rolling Stones came to tap the root of black American music, was released in 2013. It features sweeping shots of the Tennessee River and surrounding cotton fields, interspersed with an impressive cast of musicians recounting the magic of the place. Somehow Bono is positioned as the poetic scholar of the studio, and despite the fact that he never actually recorded there he is able to tell us how the “the music comes out of the mud.”[5] This tone runs throughout the film, and what bothered me about it (besides the assumption of Bono’s authority on the subject) is its failure to acknowledge that what really made the studio great was a handful of talented people: Rick Hall, Roger Hawkins, Spooner Oldham, and the rest of the house band. Their story is an obvious challenge to the notion that music is inherent to bodies—the producers and musicians were all white—but that doesn’t mean that it must be inherent to the place either. The film, just like American concert musicians in the 19th century, seems to give the physical place—the air and the mud—as much credit as the people. The thing is, when Aretha Franklin brought the Muscle Shoals rhythm section to New York to record a little tune called “Respect,” they sounded pretty good up there too.

[1] https://books.google.com/books?id=3hgmlzie_LkC&pg=PA53&dq=ebony+july+1979&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ohgPVf25CcKogwTG7YCoCw&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

[2] Lila Ellen Gray, Fado Resounding

[3] http://ultimateclassicrock.com/rolling-stones-muscle-shoals/

[4] Jessica C.E. Gienow-Hecht, “Music, Magic and Emotions” from Sound Diplomacy

[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/muscle-shoals-movie-review/2013/10/16/60975fe6-35bb-11e3-8a0e-4e2cf80831fc_story.html

Preserving the Voice

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I was always perplexed by the LPs of John F. Kennedy speeches—bought and cherished by my grandfather—that still had a place in my mother’s record collection. The jazz albums, children’s stories, and Bill Cosby stand-up all made sense to me, but I couldn’t understand sitting down to listen through the 1961 Inaugural Address or the ’63 State of the Union. Yet this is what the phonograph was made for. When Thomas Edison recorded his famous version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1877, it was not sung but spoken. It was the reproduction of human speech that most fascinated Edison: the separation of the voice from body, and its preservation after the latter had died. Edison said of the phonograph: “This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless utters your words, and centuries after you have crumbled to dust will repeat again and again to a generation that will never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.”

My grandfather left behind so many words. He was after all a writer, a Jazz critic for Downbeat, Metronome, and Jazz Today. Those words he wrote were meant to convey the experience of sound, like these liner notes to Miles Davis’ Blue Moods: “His are moods, blue ones if we can allow for a pragmatic spectrum. Not the kind of blue that happens on Mondays those lastNIGHTWASanight, now-it’s-five-days-till-Friday kind of blues. More like Sunday blue; nothing to do in the morning, no family dinner, only a movie in the afternoon and a gig at night kind of blues.” For me, the sound I search for in these stylized prose is not that of a horn, but the voice of my grandfather. I want to know his moods, troubled and unpredictable as they were, but as always words come up just short: the sound cannot be resurrected.

Blue MoodsThere have of course been attempts to recreate human speech. Joseph Faber, a 19th century inventor who immigrated to the United States from Germany, created a “Talking Machine” that could speak comprehensibly in several languages. This was accomplished using bellows, tubes, adjustable chambers and a fake “tongue,” all manipulated by sixteen keys. The effect, however, was a ghostly monotone. Alexander Graham Bell, a contemporary and competitor of Edison, attempted a similar machine, even going so far as to kill a neighborhood cat with his brothers in order to examine its larynx. The goal was to replicate—therefore capturing for eternity—the sound of speech. This was done materially with the construction of an artificial skull fitted with rubber cheeks and lips; and technically, with a system of physical articulations devised by Bell’s father, an elocutionist. The younger Bell was so fluent with this system that the two of them would put on public demonstrations in which Alexander imitated different sounds based on a series of cryptic symbols: the father speaking through the son.

euphonia-41Apparently I met my grandfather once, but I don’t remember the sound of his voice. I don’t know if it rasped or lilted, where he would pause and where he would stress; instead I just have his words. There are liner notes to dozens of albums from the fifties and sixties—John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus—plus the interviews, columns, and freelance pieces. Besides his published work there are pads and books filled with idle thoughts, observations, and little couplets of poetry. But there is no recording of him talking, nothing to help me sound out those words into speech. I have to wonder if the sound of his voice wouldn’t tell me more than the words he left. Isn’t that why he kept those Kennedy records?

Edison and Bell info: Douglas Kahn, “‘Death in Light of the Phonograph’ in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus” from Wireless Imagination

Liner Notes by Bill Coss: http://www.discogs.com/artist/1664353-Bill-Coss?page=1

Euphonia info http://cultureandcommunication.org/deadmedia/index.php/Euphonia_Speaking_Machine

Instruments of all kinds….

A podcast I produced recently on the relationships that scientists and musicians have with their instruments–featuring members of the Boston University school of Music, the Gray Lab at Harvard Medical School, and the staff of Harvard’s Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments. A special thanks to everyone who participated in the project.

Starting a Record Label in 2014

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This past month I helped to launch an independent record label with an old friend and a new one. The three of us met 6 months ago in a Brooklyn coffee shop to sketch it out, and today Fashion People Records has three albums out—on vinyl, cassette, and CD—all of which we celebrated with a recent triple record release show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Ma. The local press gave us some good love, with nice write-ups and album reviews in the Hartford Courant, Springfield Republican, Valley Advocate, and Daily Hampshire Gazette. Every journalist asked me the same question: why are you starting a record label now? Are you crazy?? Generally, I would agree that this is an unwise time to wade into the music industry; that is, if you aren’t caught up in it already. The fact is that when you self-produce and release music, you are by default your own record label. Somebody has to take care of test pressings, press releases, publishing rights, and digital distribution, so why not work together? Fashion People Records was conceived as a way for artists to collectively face the financial and logistical barriers to music production. In that sense, the label is already a success whether it turns a profit or not. But that would be nice too. For more info, check out fashionpeoplerecords.com and while you’re at it do us a favor and like our facebook page.