Wednesday, December 10, 2014

LEFTOVERS (Scrabble Value Letters): Z Songs from Africa

Buy Mapfumo
Buy Kidjo

I don't recall submitting a post for this one and maybe I didn't, but, rather than checking, it seems a whole lot easier to start one. I'm a big fan of World music, a clumsy but useful epithet to cover the musics of the non-anglophone world. This can embrace any number of styles: ethnic folk shuffles, polyglot fusions,  genre-busting hybrids , using languages and instrumentation outwith the usual or expected, at least to our ears more familiar with the standard rock/soul/blues/jazz, though it can use all or any of these as well. African music has no one format, having as many as there are nations, as many as there are languages and as many as there are tribes. And many, many more, from the Rai in Algeria to the Chimurenga of Zimbabwe, and all in-between.

Thomas Mapfumo has long been one of the pillars of Zimbabwean music, being the embodiment, if not originator, of Chimurenga: Music of Struggle, one struggle being that with the authorities, pre and post independence. A boy in colonial Rhodesia, his was first attracted to the guitar music, the Beatles, the Stones, of his country's occupying white minority. However, through absorbing the local African pop music and American funk, he put aside these influences, drawing more on the traditions of his own Shona heritage, with political overtones leading to a spell of imprisonment in the late 1970s, being deemed a threat to the government. You would assume, thus, that he would be an eternal hero in the new Zimbabwe of 1980 and beyond, but not so, as his views began to portray his criticism of the Mugabe years, eventually leading to his exile in Oregon, where he remains, it nearly a decade since he last set foot in his native land. I was particularly lucky to see him play live, in less threatened days, in a poky Harare club, mid to late 90s, astonished at that opportunity, thinking he would only play stadiums, such as when he played alongside Bob Marley, at the Zimbabwean independence celebration concert, just over a decade before. The shona language is rich with Zs and so there is an abundance of choice. This song, Zvichapera, is a typical mix of mbira, the thumb piano, and marimbas, with a mix of western and traditional drums, over which Mapfumo drones, strumming electric guitar, female backing singers chanting the melody. There is not a huge amount of his music available on CD, but he is worth the search. Follow the link below for a Greatest Hits(!?) selection, which, whilst it doesn't include this song, does include, track 5, another Z song.

Further north from Zimbabwe is the Republic of Benin, where it is likely that Angelique Kidjo is the most celebrated of its people, at least in the west. Again she is a singer who has openly absorbed tribal styles and influences, but in a far wider mixing pot, embracing samba, reggae, jazz and funk, often undertaking collaborative work with any number of artists, often re-interpreting and deconstructing songs from elsewhere.  Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews and Bono have all sung with her, and she has sung songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield. All things considered, I think it is her more traditional work, in African languages, that I prefer. Perhaps inevitably, given the volatility of West Africa, her base is now Paris, arguably the world centre for the legion dispossessed African musicians. Here is her Z song, Zelie, the opening track from 2010s OYO.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Leftovers (Gravity): Gravity’s Gone

Drive-By Truckers: Gravity’s Gone

After Thanksgiving, we at Star Maker Machine have typically run a “Leftovers” theme, letting the writers go back and revisit the themes we wrote about in the past year, and either posting something that wasn’t finished in time, or an idea that never even got started.

When I looked at the 42 different posts I wrote in 2014, I realized that I had essentially written twice for each of the year’s themes, except for one—Gravity. I actually suggested this theme, and thought that it would be pretty popular, but it only prompted five posts. We’ve had problems for the past few years getting people to post. I don’t know if it is just the inevitable burnout effect, or that mp3 based blogs are fading out, or we haven’t recruited enough (or the right) writers, recently, the number of posts, and regular writers, has been dropping.

It’s a bit disheartening, because the decrease in new posts has translated into a decrease in the number of page views. Not only that, but I’ve personally written almost a third of all of the posts this year, so far. Four writers have accounted for nearly 85% of the posts on the site. I think that the writing remains strong, and we have at least one new writer who seems to be interested. However, there have been times, many times, in fact, that I’ve thought about quitting entirely, or starting my own blog to write about whatever I want. But I haven’t, and I think that as long as there are other people who want to keep the SMM flame alive, I’ll keep writing. Not just for the tradition, or out of laziness or out of some sort of duty, because SMM was the first place that I broke through my fears and put my writing out to the public.

No—I’m going to keep writing here because I like doing it. I enjoy the idea of having a prompt force me to make a musical connection. Now, when I first started writing here way back in December of 2011, the themes were surprises, and I would wake up on Sunday morning, eager to see what Darius had come up with. Now that I’m a co-moderator, though, I am involved, along with Kkafa, in picking the theme, which has changed the way I react to them, but even when I suggest one, I don’t always know what I’m going to write about. I enjoy contributing to this blog. I enjoy the creative outlet, I enjoy sharing my opinions and telling my stories, and I enjoy the feedback that I sometimes get (mostly on Facebook—and if you aren’t a member of our page, you should be).

The Gravity theme was, as I wrote at the time, inspired by seeing the band Barnaby Bright at a small concert at a local church. I was impressed by them, and their song “Gravity,” and realized that this force of nature was a common subject for songwriters. There is no question in my mind that I considered trying to get a second post in, about the Drive-By Truckers’ song “Gravity’s Gone,” but it never happened.

“Gravity’s Gone” is a Mike Cooley song. Until this year’s English Oceans, Cooley usually only had a few songs on each album, and most of them are gems. This one is no different. Written during a long, exhausting tour, Cooley felt that things were getting a little out of control, and although he has been quoted as saying that the song, “doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and it wasn’t supposed to,” you can hear his contempt for what was going on in the clever wordplay:

Between the champagne hand jobs and the kissing ass by everyone involved
Cocaine rich comes quick and that's why the small dicks have it all.

But, ultimately, the heart of the song, where you can hear Cooley’s frustration, is in the chorus—

So I'll meet you at the bottom if there really is one
They always told me when you hit it you'll know it
But I've been falling so long it's like gravity's gone and I'm just floating

And that’s sort of how I’m feeling about our little blog here. Are we heading down to the bottom? I guess if we get there, I’ll know it. As long as we are still alive, though, I’m going to keep floating along, putting my thoughts out into the interwebs.

Here’s a bonus video of the band, still including Jason Isbell (who left the Truckers after this album), playing a mostly acoustic version of the song at a record store in Nashville (I am compelled to note that my son met Mr. Isbell, his fellow Nashville resident, last week).