Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sounds

The other night I traveled to Albuquerque to attend the Globalquerque! world music festival, which allowed me to sample half a dozen bands during the course of a single day.

“World Music” is one of those shifty categories that can mean anything, but a handy rule of thumb is to consider world music “indigenous music of any nation or ethnic group where they don’t sing in English.”

Including, say, Scotland.

First on the agenda was to meet Sage Walker in the afternoon, so we could attend a workshop by the Finnish group Gjallarhorn. Gjallarhorn is one of the “neo-Norse revival” bands that Sage has got me listening to. The band is fronted by Jenny Wilhelms, an ethnic Swede from Finland, a tiny blonde woman with a great big voice. My sense is that you never want her mad at you, because you’ll lose all your glasswear and most of your windows. She doubles on fiddle to back up their fiddle player (Scandinavian music is based on the fiddle when it’s not based on the accordion). Wilhelms sings in Swedish when she’s not singing in Norse or Icelandic.

The band also features the world’s first Swedish folk drummer. Apparently drums were suppressed in the 19th Century by the Lutheran Church, except for military music, and this guy has re-invented the art form. Given the slippery rhythms of a lot of this music, it’s more akin to jazz drumming than to rock, and he plays with his hands at least as much as a drumstick.

Bass for this band used to be supplied by a didgeridoo, which I do not believe is a traditional Scandinavian folk instrument, but the player left the band, and now they have a wind player who is a master of the contra bass recorder, a five-foot-long instrument that looks as if it were made by stacking a number of pine IKEA boxes on top of one another. The instrument is quite flexible, and can play bassoon-like melodies as well as the breathy and percussive sorts of sounds you can get out of a didgeridoo. It was enormous fun watching the player rocking out with this instrument. He looked like Chuck Berry having sex with a drain pipe.

After the workshop Sage and I caught dinner in the local Mexican café, then returned to the festival. There were three stages going at once, so we had to pick and choose.

One band I definitely wanted to see was Chirgilchin from Tuva. I delight in throat singers, and the Tuvans are the best.

The only throat singers I’d previously seen live were Tibetan monks, who could sing two notes at once, a deep droning sound made by vibrating the throat, on top of which was they sang a rather growly vocal. One of the odd effects I noticed during that concert was that the apparent source of the sound kept wandering around the auditorium— sometimes you’d think the singers were overhead and on your right, or on your left, or right behind you. But there they were on the stage.

Chirgilchin topped the hell out of the Tibetans by managing to each sing three notes at once, adding a trilling sound on top of the first two. Sometimes it sounded flutelike, sometimes like birdsong, sometimes like a theremin. I don’t know how the hell they did it, though they seemed to require a particular jaw position in order to accomplish this. Could they possibly have been vibrating their teeth?

I also noticed the tendency for the sound to wander— at once point I could have sworn it was coming from about two feet behind my head— but the band was miked and the sound was coming from speakers, so the effect was rare.

The trio were dressed in colorful silk robes and played homemade string instruments. “This is a song about a village,” the spokesman would say, and then, “This is a song about another village.” The “cowboy song” seemed to have behind it, somewhere in its dim ancestry, those robust brass-filled Copeland-cum-Hollywood sound tracks of the Fifties.

The audience was riveted for the whole show. I don’t think anyone there had heard anything like it. Certainly I hadn’t, and I like throat singing.

After the Tuvans came Gjallarhorn’s actual concert, ancient songs and melodies about fairies, kings, princesses, the evil Sea Witch, and the occasional Icelandic love triangle. The sound often achieved magnificence. One of the tunes was a long, fascinating piece collected in the early 20th century from a Swedish village in Ukraine— I had no idea there were such places, but apparently they existed— and it sounded exactly like the sort of song you’d sing if you walked a thousand miles from Sweden and ended up in a place like Ukraine.

After Gjallarhorn finished, we wandered to the outdoor pavilion where the Scots band Shooglenifty was halfway through their concert. Their sound has been described as “acid Croft,” but I never quite worked out what that was— I was distracted by saying goodbye to Sage, finding some drinks and snacks, and chatting with some friends, so I wasn’t paying the band proper attention. What I heard was pretty good, though not startlingly different from other Scots electric folk bands. The people crowding the dance floor seemed to like it.

From thence I wandered to the third stage, which seemed to have been set up in a library reading room. The band was Curumin from Brasil, which is fronted by a Japanese-Brasilian bass player whose actual name seems to be Lucian Nakata Albuquerque, and whose musical influences seem to have been drawn primarily from the oeuvre of George Clinton. I stayed for a couple songs, but nothing rang my chimes. The sound quality in the hall was absolutely dreadful, which may have had a lot to do with my reaction. Even if I liked the band, I would have had a hard time coping with the horrible mix.

So it was back to the outdoor stage for Les Yeux Noirs, a French Gypsy band that sings, oddly, in Yiddish. I wanted to check them out for that reason, and also I figured that they if they named themselves after a Django Reinhard tune they must have something on the ball. What they played is perhaps best described as French klezmer, quite infectious and fun when it wasn’t being gentle and melodic. The accordion player was extremely good, and since I don’t write sentences like “the accordion player was extremely good” very often, you can take my word for it that he was.

I left before the set was over, though that wasn’t the band’s fault. I realized I’d been listening to music for seven hours, and that I was exhausted, and so I made my way out.

Even now, two days later, I’m still struck with wonder at the Tuvans. What an incredible, unearthly sound.

We are our own aliens, even when we’re playing music and having fun.

6 Comments:

Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

Most of the time I prefer to stick to music in languages I speak, so I can understand the lyrics.

I can't quite grasp putting Scotland in the "world music" category either.

The Scottish folk and ballad traditions have been part of English-language popular music since the Border and Lowlands areas of Scotland became English-speaking.

And _that_ started around 500 AD, when the Angles of the kingdom of Bernicia overran Lothian and planted the language which eventually developed into Lallans. (Scots English).

Ditto pretty well all non-Gaelic Irish folk music.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous Sage said...

Jenny explained the term "kulning," which indeed means cattle call. It's a solo voice performance designed to (1) call cattle (2) call for help (3) echo from any convenient rocky surface.

And then she proceed to demonstrate. No cows came, but watching the festival crowd leave whatever else they were doing and walk toward the workshop stage entranced me no end.

(Visuals: autumn afternoon, black shade under a cottonwood, small children appearing from every direction, their hands clapped over their ears while they laughed in alarm and delight)

7:42 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Jenny demonstrating her kulning voice was definitely one of the highlights of the festival. I noticed that she needs to adopt a particular stance to do it.

I don't have a lot of problems with listening to lyrics in a foreign language, because over the years I've realized that most lyrics are inconsequential.

If it's pop music, the lyrics usually fall into one of three categories: (1) "Let's party!", (2) "I love you lots!", or (3) "You done me wrong!"

No harm is done by not understanding the nuances, here.

If it's a ballad that tells a story, one of the performers can tell you the story before the band starts, and then you can just concentrate on the performance.

The most interesting songs, at least from the perspective of lyrics, are those that don't fit into any of these categories. In which case you either read the translation in the liner notes, or try to work it out from the performance. And since the performer is going her best to communicate the meaning to an audience that doesn't speak her language, it's often surprisingly easy.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

Yeah, you can get the _plot_ of a song from a summary or a translation, but to me that seems sort of like the difference between reading about sex and doing it.

The interaction of the music and the meaning of the words and the _sound_ of the words is the big enchilada.

12:35 AM  
Anonymous sage said...

Translations of written texts always bother me because I know I'm not "hearing" the author's cadence or rhythms, much less her precise choice of terms.

The sagas are designed to be chanted, and, like other songs, they sometimes sacrifice clarity of meaning for melodic/rhythmic imperatives. As it happens, I'm the sort who would rather hear the work in "original" form, even if the meaning gets fuzzy. Isn't that how we learn languages as children? We fill in the blanks later?

2:13 PM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

And of course some periods of a language just produce better work than others.

Eg., the King James Bible was produced by a _committee_. A committee of _academics_. And it's often wonderful poetry(*).

Compare it to the current attempts!

(*) mind you, they were lousy translators. They rendered a Greek word meaning "poisoner" as "witch", and they translated "Do no murder" as "Thou shalt not kill", when Hebrew makes exactly the same distinction between "murder" and "killing" as English does.

2:17 AM  

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