Tuesday, December 18, 2007

BBC: 'Bah humbug' to punkers' carol

Censorship can be a wonderful thing. If a British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) radio station hadn't censored one of Great Britain's chart-topping Christmas songs this week, I wouldn't have known it existed. The song is "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues, an English-Irish punk band and the late vocalist Kirsty McColl, and it was No. 1 in holiday charts even before the controversy.

A little back story. The Pogues -- and still are -- were a punk Irish band of the 1980s, fronted by Shane MacGowan. Sort of an early version of bands like Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys today. In 1987 they cut "Fairytale" as a duet between MacGowan and Kirsty McColl, who later died in a boating accident. "Fairytale" has become a very popular Christmas novelty song in the U.K. It's about two musicians who tried, but failed to make it in the big city.

Some of the humor is teddibly British, but the tune is catchy in an Irish pub band-ish sort of way. And the video is a nice bit of black-and-white pastiche ... mostly scenes of New York, incuding pipers in a police band, and shots of MacGowan's and McColl's characters, both obviously drunk, all but shouting at each other. The lyrics feature a duet in which McColl sings:
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last.
It's a nice bit. The melody is sort of an Irish jig, and lines like "You scumbag, you maggot" go rolicking along in 6/8 time. The internal rhyme is appealing, too.

But, to make a long story short, BBC decided "faggot" would be offensive to listeners and took to playing an edited version.

Reaction was swift.

Interviewed on another BBC station, McColl's mother, Jean McColl, told another BBC show host she thought the decision to pull the original version was "pathetic ... absolute nonsense ... too ridiculous."

And a spokesman for the Pogues put it in perspective for The Guardian, a London broadsheet.

This song now goes with Christmas like the Queen's speech and mince pies, and all of a sudden it's offensive. It strikes me as very odd and I'm sure the band will be very amused.
One last word. In an interactive feature on the BBC website, readers were asked, "Should radio stations censor The Pogues' Fairytale of New York?" Answers (at 9 a.m. CST today): Yes, 4.61 percent; No, 95.39 percent (10,288 votes cast). And one reader/listener, identified as Sophie Shinigami of Belfast, gets the last last word in a pull-quote:
"No! It's a cracking tune about two people having a blazing row at Christmas. They're meant to be offending each other!"
The video is fun to watch, even though it trades on an outdated stereotype of New York City and I suspect a lot of it goes right over my head since I'm not British. I'm grateful for the censors at BBC Radio 1 for calling it to my attention.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ole Amund Gjersvik: Jazz bass player

Heard this afternoon on Radio Norway, an instrumental piece titled "Joik" by Ole Amund Gjersvik. He plays acoustic bass, according to his website, and he makes his living as "a freelance doublebass player and composer." His styles include "jazz, blues, pop, rock, country, folk, Argentinean tango, bossa nova, samba, Greek and classical music." I think I heard them all in "Joik," which is a style of Lapp or Sami traditional singing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Singabahambayo" (and how do you spell that again)?

Singabahambayo (known variously in English as "We are marching for freedom" or " "Hallelujah! We sing your praises") is a South African song from the struggle against apartheid. YouTube has a fine video clip of the St. Olaf Choir singing it and a chorus from Georgetown University singing a gospel version. The video from Georgetown is grainy, and St. Olaf's shows illustrations from a children's book titled "Bongo of the COngo." But they'll give you an idea of the melody and two very different arrangements. An Australian named Karl Aloritas has a four-part arrangement, on which he has waived copyright, posted to Karl's Choral Music Webpage ... along with other choral works from "Now is the Month of Maying" to "Bogorodyitse Dyevo," a hymn to the Virgin Mary from Rachmaninov's Vespers. Also MIDI files of parts on all his songs. A website well worth checking, especially if you like choral music and can't sight-read any better than I can.

Best background on Singabahambayo I found on the Internet is from an eighth-grade lesson plan by Amy Thomas of West Chester University:

This song is in reaction to the apartheid that was once a part of South African society. The words are translated to "On earth and army is marching. Weíre going home. Our hearts are filled with song. We sing out strong. Halleluia." The words show the importance of music in the African culture. The game involved with Singabahambayo relates to actions of the people of this culture as they marched together toward freedom. When people join hands with each other during the game in the song, it is representing the unity of the blacks in South Africa during their struggle for freedom. African music demands much participation through singing, moving, dancing, and drumming. This song involves many of the characteristics common to African music. This song also includes a polyrhythmic percussion section and repetitive phrases, which are typical of African music.
Great song.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Soulfège: Band features 'Afro-diasporic Groovalicious Funkadociousness!'

A band mixing the sound of Afropop, hip hop, soul and, yes, I can hear a little gospel, Soulfège is based in Boston, now doing a Sweet Mother Africa tour. Infectious music.

Also an awesome example of a band using new media. You've read about "sticky" websites? (If you're not sure, see below.) Well, this is how a sticky website works. Here's the band, in their own words:
So what is Soulfège? Glad you asked. Put it like this - if Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Lenny Kravitz and Gwen Stefani were all jammin' with the same band, it would be this one.

Fusing funk, reggae, hip-hop, and highlife, Soulfège is more than a band...it's a big FUNKY band.

Electrifying audiences, from Boston to Ghana and beyond, with its positive vibe and relentless groove, the members of Soulfège have performed with and for some of the world's most talented artists and distinguished dignitaries, including Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Bobby McFerrin, Nelson Mandela, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Dr. Cornell West, and Al Gore.

The group is known for building sonic bridges that fuse the influences of the African Diaspora into a musical vision all its own. Soulfège not only shines with creativity, it thrills audiences with a golden foundation in rhythm and harmony.

In general, the band tries to present a positive view of life and of culture, both American and African. Frontman Derrick N. Ashong, who is from Ghana, told The Boston Globe the band "was in a position to help change misperceptions on both sides." Says Daniel T. Swann of the Globe:
Soulfege has one foot in Africa, one in America. Its core members -- Ashong, Jonathan M. Gramling, and Kelley Nicole Johnson -- were brought together by their alma mater, Harvard, where all had been in the Kuumba Singers, a gospel choir. But Ashong was born in Ghana, and many of the band's lyrics reflect a connection to the African diaspora. "Yaa (dis be fo radio)," for example, includes lyrics in Ga (spoken in Ghana), as well as in Portuguese and English.
Plenty of YouTube clips and other eye candy -- ear candy? -- on their website. Quotes from and links to the Globe's laudatory story on the band and the SMA tour.

Here's how Erin Jansen's NetLingo.com website defines sticky content:
Information or features on a Web site that gives users a compelling reason to revisit it frequently. Stickiness is also gauged by the amount of time spent at a Web site over a given period of time. This is often maximized by getting the user to leave some information behind on the site, such as a personal profile, an investment portfolio, a resume, a list of preferred cities for weather reports, personal horoscopes, birthday reminders, and the like.
How many sticky features do you see on the Soulfège website? How many do you see on NetLingo, for that matter?

Monday, December 03, 2007

HUM 223 - Final Exam - Fall 07

HUM 223: Ethnic Music
Springfield College in Illinois
Fall Semester 2007

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art. -- Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker

Final Exam – 1:30 p.m., Dec. 5, 2007

Below are three essay questions – one worth fifty (50) points out of 100, and two shorter essays worth 25 points each. Please write at least two to two and a half pages (500 words) on the 50-point essay and one page (250 words) each on the 25-point short essays. (This means you answer all three questions.) Use plenty of detail from your reading in the textbook, websites we have visited on the Internet, videos and handouts, as well as class discussion, to back up the points you make. Your grade will depend both on your analysis of the broad trends and the specific detail you cite in support of the points you make. This is an open-book exam. It is due at the regularly scheduled time for our exam, 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 5.

1. Main essay (50 points). On July 5, 1954, Sam Phillips of the Sun record label in Memphis heard a group of white musicians jamming on “That’s All Right” by African-American blues artist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. It was like nothing he’d ever heard before, and he had them cut a record right away. According to Robert Palmer, author of Deep Blues, that record was “the beginning of something very, very big, something anybody could have predicted, nobody could have stopped and perhaps only one person, Sam Phillips, could have started.” It was also an example of cultural appropriation, or expropriation, which occurs when an art form crosses over from a minority to a majority culture. More occurred when white British musicians like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones adopted the blues style and made it their own in the 1960s and 70s. How well, in your opinion, does blues transcend cultural and racial boundaries? What was lost when the music crossed over cultural boundary lines? What was gained? Be specific.

2a. Self-reflective essay (25 points). What do you consider the most important thing you have you learned in HUM 223? Why do you say it is the most important? What did you learn that affected your taste in music for better or worse? Be specific. Consider what you knew at the beginning of the course, what you know now and what you learned. In grading this essay, I will evaluate the relevance of your discussion to the main goals and objectives of the course (in the syllabus posted at the address above); the detail you cite to support or illustrate your points; and the connections you make. So be specific.

2b. Short essay (25 points). Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson once said it made her “so sad and so sick” when she heard a gospel song performed in a nightclub “packed with white people who were laughing and eating and drinking and hand-clapping.” She added, “When they take gospel singing into nightclubs and put out ‘pop gospel’ records, they are blaspheming against the Holy Ghost.” Yet gospel is one of the most important sources of American popular music, and songs like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Amazing Grace” are beloved by religious and secular audiences alike. What is lost when the music crosses over to a secular audience? What is gained? Again, be specific. Always be specific.