Friday, November 27, 2009

Afropop Extravaganza I: Mambomania in Another Continent

From the Honest Jon's label two compilations of Afro-Latino cuts that the Prof can't stop sneaking back to the player.

The first chronicles the Congolese love affair with Cuban rhythms and recordings just before the rise of the local style known as Rumba (a style which would develop into soukous by the end of the 70s and conquer the rest of the continent in popularity). The disc seems to capture the ineffable moment when folk styles metamorphose into "pop." You can hear the various indigenous forms in the acoustic strums and tentative vocal style meeting Cuban son montuno (itself an folk music form come into the city and turned into a virtuoso small-band format that influenced the Latin big band crazes to come from "El Manisero" ("The Peanut Vendor") to mambo mavens such as Miguelito Valdez, Machito, and beyond).

Two examples from guitarist Adikwa Depala make this mix clear. The plaintive tune of "Akei Cimetiere" would have been at home in a bolero-son you might hear from sextetos or septetos from the 30s and 40s in Cuba. But where the vocals there would be keening and penetrating, here the voice is more falsetto and even breaks in a few spots. The accompaniment by a raspy fiddle seems a rural throwback in a music now playing in Havana and imitated here in the urban explosion of Leopoldville (later Kinshasa) and Brazzaville.

In his excellent liner notes, Gary Stewart, author of Rumba on the River:A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos, evokes the sights and smells and sounds of a city night's Saturday entertainment beautifully. His comment on "Moni" serves for the other example from Depala:

"Local musicians swapped the Spanish of the originals for Congolese languages like Lingala or Kikongo. In his version of Peanut Vendor, included here, on top of his musical changes Depala replaces the seller's cry of 'mani', or peanut, with a lovelorn lament for a woman named Moni — a neat encapsulation of one step in the evolution of Congolese music."

Every track reveals a group of young musicians trying to create an appropriate soundtrack for their new environment, and they cobble it together from local traditions, newly imported styles from the immigrants from the coast, and the beloved Latino forms they'd been playing on 78s.
There are a whole handful of percussion instruments--shakers, claves, tambourines--flutes and whistles, and even kazoos! Throughout it all run guitars that haven't quite reached the assurance and intensity they'll have when the rumba craze arrives, but you'll probably feel you don't quite want it to come as long as you can keep playing this blessedly sweet CD.

(Here's the label's own blurb, most of it excerpted from Stewart's liner notes.)

Or that's what I thought all through the summer as I played The World Is Shaking over and over, never suspecting that October would bring the next volume, Africa Boogaloo.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"The Road" Directed by John Hillcoat

The anti-buzz on this film has already begun, but the Prof avers that it is a Good Film based on a Good Book. The "it's a literary zombie" meme has surfaced in half a dozen reviews I've read and the "Cormac McCarthy's prose is untranslatable to the screen" meme is right behind it. The book was a page-turner where you were so afraid of what might come next that you wrestled with the turn-urge, and the movie had me hunkered down tight in my seat. McCarthy stripped down his vocabulary and untangled his thorny syntax for this one and Hillcoat's staging is direct and simple in its translation to screen. The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (Vicky Christina Barcelona and (gasp!) Twilight: New Moon) washes a muted color scheme across the characters' quest--eerily beautiful and dread-filled. Kodi Smit-McPhee is surprisingly good as the boy, even in the crucial moments where he confronts his father with what may be an outmoded morality. Viggo Mortensen inhabits the character of a decent man without being self-conscious heroic, a kind of a post-apocalyptic Henry Fonda. The star cameos by Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, and Guy Pearce are unobtrusive and apt (and Garret Dillahunt is excellent, as usual). The audience I saw it with hated it--what a downer, they thought.
The Prof recommends it.

Update: Mr. Pink informs the Prof that he has been reading the buzz differently, and because the Prof is notoriously inept at predicting anybody's taste, let alone the American public's, he defers and wishes the flick well.

RIP H. C. Robbins Landon

We're nearing the close of the bicentennial for Haydn's death and the Prof hasn't gone a rant about the beloved Papa Franzjosef...yet. Today comes the news of the passing of the great musicologist who rescued most of Haydn from oblivion in the last third of the twentieth century.
Read the NYTimes obit for an account of an unusual man.

The Prof is something of a fanatic about Haydn, especially his string quartets. He has been obsessing this morning on the neglected three quartets of Op. 54, checking out recordings by the Tatrai, Angeles, Festetics, and Amadeus Quartets. (He desperately wants to hear the Salomon version again, but doesn't know where he put it a few days ago!) The Lindsays are closing in on the Prof's faves in this work, the Pro Arte quartet, whose version is still fresh, exciting, and, in the slow movements, meltingly lovely nearly eight decades on.

More on Haydn recordings and the Mendelssohn bicentennial in posts to come. And the dawning of the Chopin and Schumann bicentennial is only weeks away...

(Below--a photo of the Pro Arte Quartet.)

It's almost turkey time, cats and kittenheads, but the Prof is pausing long enough to update as he turns to North African guitar-slingers. New updates and more catching up ahead, especially with Afro-pop popping out all over. Before he heads out the door to visit folks and friends, the Prof may also post about a new flick. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Catching Up IV: PAFA and Azuka Theater at Drexel University

"Public Treasures/Private Visions: Hudson River School Masterworks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Private Collections" (on view until May 15, 2010--see here for more).

"Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool" (If you want to know more, you know what to do with the mouse, cats and kittenheads.)

Drexel Theater

Not the cast member we saw, but one of the same puppets below.

Catching Up III: Arshile Gorky and more at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Gorky retrospective (details here).

40th anniversary (Click here for more information.)

Catching Up II: "She Stoops to Conquer" at McCarter Theater, Princeton, 11/1/09

Reap the Freakin' Harvest

The TA sent this to me weeks ago and it's been making the rounds.

Read it and weep!

The Prof Returns: Catching Up I: Nichols, Drury, Takagi (and a touch of Duncan)

When the Prof got into this interwebs racket, he was determined that it was about fun--fun for the reader foremost, dear friends, but fun for the Prof, too. When the school year begins that proposition is sorely tested, occupied as the Prof becomes with reading the writing of about one hundred and twenty other folk. But here, at last, is the Prof again.

I thought this blog would be about the arts in general with a specific focus on the actual events I see and hear (you know, cats and kittenheads, the etymology of "blog" is "web" + "log") so the next few posts play catch up with October's and November's events. Posts will soon follow on anniversaries and new discoveries.

The biggest story in events is October's exhibition/concert in the New Gallery Concert Series at the Community Music Center Boston. Prof Pals Steve Drury and Yukiko Takagi played works for two pianos by Reich, Feldman, and Adams, and Beethoven's own transcription for four hands of the Grosse Fuga for string quartet. The Gallery was hung with the latest works by artist Warren Nichols (another Prof Pal known on this site by the handle Mr. Pink) and a further contribution by Prof Pal Barry Duncan (aka Master Palindromist, or should that be Profpalpalindromist?).

I'd seen most of the works in the show before, and my acquaintance with them varied over time.
But seeing them arrayed together in respective groups, carefully balanced throughout the space, gave them a cumulative force that increased their power. Apparently hanging them in these eloquent groupings took some doing on the artist's part in the brief time he had and in the, er, idiosyncratic geometry of the gallery's walls! By the way, check out Nichols' site for succinct explanations of the different groups. In different ways they re-conceive visually the classical notion of oracle as simultaneously revealing and concealing vital knowledge. I suppose by that I mean they explore the difference between information and truth. At first I felt the softly radiant colors of the Rapture series signaled some kind of hope after doubt, a kind of relief from the monochrome approach of the other pieces, like the three minutes of Andrei Rublev's frescoes at the end of Tarkovsky's film. But all the works are sensually inviting--the sure draughstmanship of the cluster of miniature studies and the luminous sheen of the white brushstrokes on the larger canvases alike.

In Warren's opening remarks he acknowledged Steve's crucial role in the art by recalling how Steve had helped open his ears to new music (and New Music) and how much listening had influenced seeing in his work. (Warren's quip: "He shares some of the culpability for what you see here today.") Steve and Yukiko's performance certainly resonated with what was on the walls. John Adams' "Hallelujah Junction" combines the rollicking rhythms of Meade Lux Lewis' boogie woogie "Honky Tonk Train" with gospel harmonies--the Pentecostal feel of the piece suited Warren's own brand of "speaking in tongues." Steve and Yukiko's fierce concentration on Steve Reich's "Piano Phase" left the audience breathless. The pianos begin with a unison statement of a twelve-note theme which is put through permutations as one begins to phase out with the other; the emerging harmonies nevertheless feel inevitable and not at all "wrong." Once again the apparent fact--here's the melody--gives way to a different sort of truth. If Warren's different groups seemed to hold up to the light different related subjects arranged in a way to illuminate each other, the Grosse Fuga certainly felt apt--the subjects of the most notorious modern music of its day (we're still catching up to it) weaving together in a soundscape that is clearly meant to convey some spiritual message, but one beholden to no specific creed.

As a lagniappe there was also Barry Duncan's contribution. Delivering on a long-outstanding commission from the artist, Barry framed a palindrome on the theme of aging in astonishing proportions--121 words in 431 letters--which imagined the metamorphosis of Mr. Pink's body and mind as he runs out of gas, "Re: No Gas in Age? Beware." The descriptions tersely and wickedly trace the amusingly horrifying breakdown of matter, time, and meaning ("Era we began is a goner"). Warren was so pleased with the results that he framed the palindrome and placed it beneath one of the groups of his work. The facts, ma'am? It reads the same backwards as it does forwards. The truth: puzzling through the auguries artists construct can lead to raptures no sacerdotal utterance ever adduced.