Saturday, March 01, 2008

All Along the Watchtower With the Pacing Wolf-Man

Notes on African Music
The music I have loved since I was about 2 years old is jazz--I was kept in a crib in our Oklahoma apartment that sat in one corner of my parents's room--the only bedroom in the tiny duplex apartment. One of my dad's proudest possessions at that time was a Victrola--a record-playing machine put out by the RCA Victor company--it was basically a portable turntable with a sound horn on top--it only played 78 rpm records--the sound horn a bell-shaped listening device attached to the tone arm out through which was amplified the music--and the uniqueness about this Victrola was that it was portable--and my dad would pull
his Victrola up by my crib and he would sit on his favorite stool--made out of deer antlers--and he would play his favorite records--his first favorite record always being the one he played first, a funny recording that featured a couple of old Vaudevillians Billy Jones and Ernest Hare doing "Yes, We Have No Bananas" on one side, and a thing called "The Laughing Song" on the other side during which Billy and Ernie begin trying to sing about their women though in a short time the tune dissolves into the Dozens and then into uncontrollable laughter from both

My dad, the Elder Wolf
gentlemen--"Ah-ha-ha-ha/Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha/Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha/And we laughed, ha-ha-ha/And we laughed, ha-ha-ha...." I remember that part of that old record. Jones & Ernie Hare

Then dad would put on his favorite of all his favorites, Fats Waller. "Fats" Waller
And dad had a whole stack of Fats Waller records and one of those was the one he played over and over again there by my crib, "Your Feets Too Big"--"Can't stand'ya 'cause your feets too big--I mean your peddle extremities are colossal...." To this day I hear "Your Feets Too Big" and I get teary eyed--Jeez, I just close my teary eyes and I can see the old man plain as day sitting there by his Victrola playing his records and laughing his ass off and making me laugh my ass off, too. Soon I got to where I imitated Herman Autry, Fats's trumpet player. You know, I would put my little lips together in a kiss-like shape or a whistle-like shape, except I couldn't whistle at that age, and once my lips were pursed, I blew through them, following the rhythm and syncopation of the music, especially attracted to the sound of the trumpet. One day my dad told my mother when she came in the room, "Wolfie's a natural-born musician--listen to him following Herman Autry note-for-note; the boy's a natural, I tell you." I was a natural and naturally that was what was wrong with my musical career, I was so naturally at home on the piano, I never technically learned it well, not like my piano teacher wanted me to learn it. "If you don't practice your scales and your fingering and your sight reading you'll never amount to a hill of beans." [Has anyone ever seen a "hill of beans"? I have. One night in Santa Fe, I borrowed a big stainless steel 5-gallon pot from the restaurant where my friend and I held jam sessions every Saturday afternoon, and I took it home and filled the damn thing up a quarter of the way with some presoaked dried red beans (pinto beans, my fav red bean), all spiffied up with garlic, canned tomatoes, onions, fat-back--and we set them to cooking on a low burner around 7:30 pm--and then we took off for a nightspot (the Big Chief's) to party a bit before we all came back to my house and I turned those beans into a huge pot of my special chili. We partied hearty and came back kind'a late from the club--totally forgetting the cooking beans until we were pulling in the driveway and we were all talking about our stomachs were growling we were so hungry.

My wife hit the kitchen first. "Holy Cripes, Wolfie, come'yere and check your beans out." Like I said, I had filled a quarter of the pot with the uncooked beans. While we were out those beans had expanded and then they had bubbled up volcanically to the top of the pot, edged the lid off, and it fell pell-mell to the floor, and then soon the beans came frothing over the top of the pot and began lava-ing off the rim of the pot cascading down onto the stove's top, then cascading off the stove top and ending in an ocean of beans all over our kitchen floor.

We scooped the beans up and put 'em back in the pot and then carried the pot out to our garbage area down the arroyo in back of our house. I just dumped the pot out on the ground there--I made a hill of beans.

About four in the morning my wife woke me and said she heard something out back of the house, like maybe somebody was prowling around out there. I jumped up and switched on our big flood lamp that lit the backyard up like fireworks from Hell and when that flood lamp's beam leaped out into that backyard space, Jesus and a herd of crazy Essenes, all around that hill of beans out by my garbage were tons of skunks--there must have been over a dozen skunks--and they were gulping down those damn beans like there was no skunk tomorrow. Next day, that hill of beans was gone--every last damn bean of it.

So I can easily understand the statement, "This is as worthless as a hill of beans."]

What's This Got to Do With African Music?
Oh surely you can figure that out--Fats Waller played incessantly by my crib when I was two years old. Now what kind of music do you think I veered toward when I got old enough to be mentally hooked by a certain type of music? Of course, first swing, then boogie-woogie, and finally be-bop, progressive jazz, modern jazz, and the new electric blues.

I just recently acquired Gunther Schuller's first volume, Early Jazz, in his intended 3-volume (he's done two so far) thorough investigation into America's unique form of African music to form a history of American jazz. I already have his masterfully constructed The Swing Era, which I've already highly praised as a gigantic completed amazing single-task for one human being to accomplish in a past post--over 700 pages of intensive and thoroughly superintelligent and massively conceived (Schuller listened to over 150,000 jazz recordings in writing these books) understanding of jazz that is, to me, an awesome work of art--Schuller is a musical genius as well as a very easy-to-read writer, plus this guy transposes a lot of these records into notational form, which Schuller uses as examples of his certain points he's making about every band and every musician who ever made a jazz recording (Schuller's true jazz love is Duke Ellington who he identifies as, to him, America's greatest-ever composer, jazz or otherwise).

Early Jazz begins with a discussion of African music. Coincidentally, I also at the same time have been reading a chapter entitled, "The Rif, to Music," in Paul Bowles's marvelous little book, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue. This chapter discusses in typical Paul Bowles's macabre way the difficulties and joys he had going around Northern Africa on a grant from the Smithsonian recording as many different instrumentalists and singers of the varied musics of the area as was possible given the crude equipment he had and the crude conditions of the roads and the crude conditions of the places where Bowles and his 2 friends had to stay while accomplishing this project--living at one time in a combination "hotel" room, unused kitchen, and urinal--the room was intoxicating with a smell of dried piss--and then when Bowles opens a window, the fluent and overwhelming odor of human shit comes wafting into the room--turns out, just outside his room window were several rows of dug trenches in the earth, the public restroom for the whole town, the citizens, men, women, and children, coming there to deposit their defecations--though, as is the ironic usual in a Bowles story, the men do not piss where they shit, so they come into the "hotel" and piss in that room's urinal, which is just outside the nonexistent door to Paul's room.

Bowles states in his opening paragraph to this chapter, "The most important single element in Morocco's folk culture is its music. In a land like this, where almost total illiteracy has been the rule, the production of written literature is of course negligible. On the other hand, like the Negroes of West Africa the Moroccans have a magnificent and highly evolved sense of rhythm which manifests itself in the twin arts of music and the dance.... At the same time, the very illiteracy which through the centuries has precluded the possibility of literature has abetted the development of music; the entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song." [p 83, Bowles, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, Ecco Press, 1984.]

Literature through song. Right there is enough concept for me to eat it like it was a great piece of German chocolate cake like my Texas-German aunt used to be the best at baking--I could eat on that phrase for a month or more.

From Bowles's astute view of Northern African music I moved right on into Schuller's Early Jazz and his definition of African music. Schuller writes: "African music is unquestionably the world's most complex music." Wow. I had never thought of it like that. Next Schuller mentions another music-book tour-de-force, A.M. Jones's Studies in African Music, which Schuller says is "undoubtedly the most exhaustive and exacting study of African music extant." Schuller continues, "He [Jones] alone among all researchers in the field realized that analyses based on field recordings by ordinary phonographic methods were inadequate. By the expediency of consulting with a 'master' African musician, and by using more exacting and reliable recording methods, Jones has at last revealed to the world the extraordinary complexity and beauty of indigenous, non-Europeanized African music." [p 10, Schuller, Early Jazz, Oxford University Press, New York, 3rd Printing, 1972.]

Remember my "parallel lines never meeting" theory of life based on a poem by Debbie Harry? I'm running into those same lines here--first between Bowles and Schuller (both successful composers; Bowles a really great novelist, too)--and then between a form of African music Bowles knows and the forms of African music Schuller knows. Great minds these two men. Bowles is dead; Schuller as far as I know is still kicking among the pricks.

Listen to this: "African music, including its drumming, is wholly contrapuntal and basically conceived in terms of polymetric and polyrhythmic time relationships." In a footnote on the same page, Schuller mentions my hero Charles Ives (America's greatest "classical" composer). "In 'classical' music until the 1950s, when significant experiments in this direction were made by such composers as Cage and Stockhausen, the lone precursor in the field was Charles Ives, who as early as 1906 composed polyrhythmic and polymetric structures which have long confounded 'classical' performers, but which are naive in comparison to the achievements of African musicians." [p 11, FN 12, Schuller, Early Jazz.]

Wonderful stuff and I'm looking forward to diving right into the middle of African music now. I'm fascinated by the couple of examples of African music (one a death dance from Ghana) notated by Schuller--polyrhythmic with 4 drummers each playing a different line--contrapuntal to each other's lines; then there are women hand clappers, and they have several rhythms within their clapping lines; then there are singers, with usually one lone singer singing the message line, the story line; then there are the instrumentalists, maybe someone's playing a zamar; then there are the various rattles and bells intricately weaving their polyrhythms in among the other polyrhythms--and since these performers don't read music, it's all done by individual memories, the lines passed on to each person by a master musician--all memorized--and all played in exact tempo and time--though not measured time like we Westerners know it.

"The basic African ensemble consists of a solo cantor answered by a chorus, one or two bell players who beat out an unchanging basic pattern, hand-clappers (among the singers) who do likewise, and an ensemble of three or four drummers. Such an ensemble will produce a minimum of seven musical lines and very often a maximum of eleven lines. What is remarkable, however, is not the number of lines, but that--in the case of a seven-part ensemble--six of the seven lines may operate in different metric patterns which are, moreover, staggered in such a way that the downbeats of these patterns rarely coincide. Indeed, two of the drummers may play at cross-rhythms to each other for entire performances, which often continue for hours." [pp 11-12, Schuller, Early Jazz.]

Fascinating to me. Music is an African's true language--their first language. Since I believe in the theory of African origin, African music is the world's music.

Before I Quit
I'd like to let you know that Languagehat's book of cursing in the world's many languages is out in Europe--published by the Oxford Press in London. Not out in the US yet due to publisher squabbling. It's called Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit and it's coauthored by Languagehat (Stephen Dodson) and Dr. Robert Vanderplank of the Oxford Press. It's out in England as I type this--soon to be out over here, too, I'll bet ya. America loves cursing--in several different languages, too. Notice how FUCK is recognized all around the world as a filthy word?

Here's an interview done with Languagehat about the book on The World on National Public Radio a few days ago:


The Daily Growler


Language said...

Thanks for the plug, and I love the bean story. Those Schuller books are great -- come on, Gunther, you fucker, finish the next one before you croak!

Marybeth said...

My mother is also a person who collects languages. She knows the phrase "little Shit" in nine languages and would run through all nine every time Bush the Second came on the blower after he was first appointed by the men his father appointed to appoint him. My poor father asked "Am I going to have to listen to THIS for the next four years?" and mother remarked, so seriously, as if the import of Bush's appointment had just hit her "I'm afraid so." My poor father didn't live long enough to be again in a house without "little Shit" blurting out in 9 languages every time the "president" came over the air waves.

Marybeth said...

Yeah, the sound of the trumpet! Isn't that one of the best sounds in the whole universe? Listen man, when you die and go to heaven, there ain't gonna be no fuckin' fiddles or guitars or pianos or any of that shit at the Gates of Heaven. It'll be solid trumpets the whole way. So said thewomantrumpetplayer.