July 28, 2013

Global Channels

An argument can be made that everything comes from someplace else. Even jazz, frequently extolled as “America’s only original art form,” is a blend of disparate styles blended together into something new. British pianist Keith Ingham came to America to pursue a career in jazz, and described this unique blend with great passion:

MR:    Are there any counterparts of American musicians who’ve gone over to England and learned as much about your music as you have about —
Keith Ingham
KI:   What do you mean, the British music? I mean we never had anything as wonderful as jazz. You see, I think it comes from a melting pot society where you’ve got all these different strains coming together. That’s the whole point. You had Italians here, so you have these wonderful lyric qualities; you have African-Americans, that rhythmic thing they do they brought that looseness and that sense of swing; you had the Germans here so you have the correctness of intonation and things like that. You have that whole melting pot. And they all brought their music. You have the Russians with all that minor key, soul stuff. It’s wonderful. Gershwin is Russian but also very Jewish and that kind of sad, soulful feeling that’s in his music. It’s the melting pot that America is that made American music. That’s what it is. There’s nothing like it in the world. You’re so lucky, don’t lose it, because it’s your great contribution to world culture. I mean it’s your Beethoven, your Haydn, your Schubert, your Debussy, your Ravel, your Rachmaninoff, your Stravinsky, it’s all there. It’s Duke Ellington, it’s Fats Waller, it’s Henry “Red” Allen, it’s Bix, it’s Eddie Lang, it’s Joe Venuti, it’s up there. And God bless it.
Saxophonist and arranger Frank Foster expressed it succinctly: “we have such a melting pot here, we’re all into each other’s culture.”
Until the early part of the twentieth century, America’s music, dance and visual arts were mostly based on European styles. The cultural tables have turned in major fashion as we now identify music as America’s most significant export. It’s a shame that America can’t be compensated financially. If we could charge for the export of our creative innovations, our trade imbalance would immediately be in the black. Musically the world is now hard-wired. National and geographical borders are meaningless as musical genres spread globally via the internet.
It’s no secret that America’s musical seeds have been spread around the globe and found fertile ground. European musicians jumped on the jazz bandwagon as early as the 1920’s. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones learned their lessons well from American blues and rock & roll, and sent it back to us, new and improved.
I got my first taste of the pervasive effect of American popular music some years ago when I played a gig for a Korean fraternity at Colgate University in Upstate New York. On our break a student asked if he could play their music through our PA system. I obliged, and in my naïveté expected to hear something exotic and different, perhaps flute-based pentatonic melodies with some twangy plucked sound from an unknown instrument. What I heard was American-based pop music, rhythms, forms and instrumentation, with Korean lyrics. More recently I became acquainted with a Hamilton College student who had traveled to the college from Kenya. In getting to know him, I asked some basic questions about his home and surroundings. I was curious about the kind of music popular in his hometown. His answer was “Kenny Rogers.” Kenny Rogers!? And even in the last month, the evidence mounts. I recently played a lunchtime gig at a Chinese restaurant, run by immigrants from China. The presence of a saxophone player in the group prompted one of the young waiters to ask me “does the sax player know the song ‘Go Home’?” “Go Home?” I asked. “Come Home” he stumbled with his English. Then a vague memory surfaced. I think Kenny G had such a song. I said, “do you mean ‘Going Home’?” He said, “oh yes, Kenny G, Kenny G ‘Going Home’. Kenny G is very big in China.” Nelson Mandela has survived to recently see his 95th birthday. Outside the hospital his well-wishers sang to him, first in their Sotho dialect, then in the Dutch-based Afrikaans, and finally in English. The melody? But of course, “Happy Birthday,” written by two American nursery school teachers.
I am currently seeking to collaborate with musicians from Utica’s refugee population, especially those from countries in southeast Asia. In attending their cultural presentations I am hearing more of the same. The singers are being accompanied by play-along tapes that could just as easily be accompaniment for Justin Bieber.
But it’s not a one-way street. American musicians embrace influences from around the globe: Latin jazz, Celtic rock, and other combinations now are common concert fare, and many bands tout their ability to combine exotic styles.
Academia has also played a major role in exposing and presenting music from other continents. I recently attended a summer concert at the Eastman School of Music, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the country. On the bill was music from Indonesia in the form of a Gamelan Angklung (ensemble), an Mbira orchestra playing music from Zimbabwe, and a Pan-African percussion and dance ensemble led by Kerfala (“Fana”) Bangoura. It was a fascinating evening of music, with sounds and sights that were a first for many in the audience. As with our home-grown jazz and blues, America has now taken traditional music from other countries and placed it in academic and concert settings. It was informative to view the members of the Gamelon and Mbira ensembles, an all-encompassing cross section of gender and generations, all of them energetic and committed to the performance of this music from the other side of the globe, and all of them from Central New York.
Fana Bangoura
Only the African percussion and dance ensemble included members who can claim their performance as part of their native culture. Fana, the leader, was a longtime member of Guinea’s prestigious “Les Ballets Africans and Les Percussions Des Guinee” national performing group. A number of his members include djembe players from other West African countries, and the rest of his ensemble is made up of interested Rochester residents. I am happy to say that my own daughter held down an incredible anchoring pulse on a trio of drums known as the dun dun. Calling this music polyrhythmic would be a understatement. I’m sure everyone in the audience experienced a dramatic increase in their pulse and blood pressure as the six djembe players added to the groove of the dun dun, and Fana improvised over the top of it, like our finest jazz artists. The dancers in their native garb added a further rhythmic and visual component. There’s something primal, intoxicating and magnetic about the sound of drums. The wood and animal skin are made to come alive with the energy of human hands, triggering a visceral excitement, no matter where you are on the globe.
Our friend Dave Brubeck knew it. He said “rhythm is the universal human language.”

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