Funk Friday: “I Got The…,” Labi Siffre

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It’s too damn cold this week for me to be in an uptempo funky mood, so I pulled Labi Siffre off the shelf for today’s funk offering.  I love how spare this song is at first and then builds to a simple richness.  A nice and mellow sound while you pour yourself a drink and curl up indoors.

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Throwback Thursday: “Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp Major,” J.S. Bach

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These two pieces together sound like three friends going on a road trip.  The Prelude is all of them excitedly discussing where they want to go.  Some voices are heard more than others at which point they start getting into a minor (ha ha…hm) disagreements that are quickly resolved amicably.  The Fugue is the trip itself.  Friend One gets in his car and drives to Friend Two’s house, picks up Friend Two at 1:10, then they pick up Friend Three (who’s gone and gotten them all coffee) at 1:15.  These friends then tootle on their way.  There’s a bit of backseat driving after they take a wrong turn (1:34), but they finally get to their destination (2:27) and happily natter on about how great it is for a while until it gets dark (2:47) and they turn for home.

At least, that’s what it sounds like to me.

Worldly Wednesday: “Decent Days and Nights,” The Futureheads

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Oh man this song is such a trip.  The Futureheads are a great punk-oriented group from Sunderland, England, and so far, this is my favorite song of everything they’ve put out.  I am a complete sucker for weird changes in time signatures, and the lyrics are interesting and funny.  It’s a happy, lively song for the middle of the week, and the driving rhythm has earned it a top spot in my running playlist.

Termagant Tuesday: “Tokyo Traffic,” Dave Brubeck

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Classic Brubeck sound meets classic Japanese tonality = super cool.  This song is off the 1964 album “Jazz Impressions of Japan,” and while it obviously draws on international sounds, it wasn’t the first Brubeck record to do so.  That record was “Time Out,” and was released five years earlier in 1959.  The idea for “Time Out” came from a trip Brubeck took around Eurasia in (I believe) the late ’50s, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.  Evidently, he heard a group of musicians in Turkey playing in 9/8 time, filed it away, and came back determined to devote an entire album to odd time signatures – hence the title, “Time Out.”

I know, you’re wondering why I didn’t post a song from that album, and when I’m going to get back to “Tokyo Traffic.”  Hang with me, Tune-Up fans.

Columbia Records was extremely leery of letting Brubeck issue an album only in wacky time signatures and made him do an album of Southern folk standards first.  You know what the biggest hit off of “Time Out” was?  You guessed it – “Take Five.”  That song off that album launched a whole oeuvre of globally-inspired jazz music – Brubeck in Amsterdam, Brubeck in Berlin – which brings us to “Tokyo Traffic.”   (Told you this would all make sense.)

As much as I love “Take Five,” and I adore it (it’s on my Funeral Music list), there’s something really fun and exciting about “Tokyo Traffic.”  It’s the first song off the album so it sounds like his very first day off the plane, wandering around.  Brubeck in the liner notes talks about how overwhelming and wonderful it was to be in Japan, and I feel that when I hear this piece – it’s the musical equivalent of a guy being unable to stop swiveling his head around to look at everything.  It makes me want to travel.

Imagine if the State Department hadn’t organized that trip for Brubeck; that he’d never heard Turkish musicians playing in 9/8 time; that, for whatever reason, the idea of doing an album of odd time signatures hadn’t occurred to him.  No “Take Five,” no “Tokyo Traffic.”  Pretty lame.  And now imagine if way, way more people got out into the world a whole lot more.  One guy wrote “Take Five” – what would you be inspired to do?

Modernism Monday: “Don’t Fence Me In,” David Byrne

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love good cover songs.  I love them.  When they’re done well, they’re really a stroke of genius – they take the song to an entirely new level.  This is such an example.  What was a melodic but fairly hum-drum song about and sung by (sorry, I have to say it) a white guy becomes a global human rights anthem, an immigration song, a manifesto about personal freedom, and all the good and bad parts of America and its history, sung to a world beat rhythm by men and women of every color and background you could cram into three minutes.  It’s magnificent and it supercharges my social justice batteries when I need it, which, let’s face it, is pretty frequently.

Sacred Sunday: “Izithembiso Zenkosi,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo

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In case you aren’t familiar with them, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a ten-man acapella group from Durban, South Africa.  The name is a composite of three things: Ladysmith is the name of founder Joseph Shabalala’s hometown; Black refers to oxen; and Mambazo is the Zulu word for axe, which Shabalala chose to imply his group’s ability to “chop down” its singing rivals.  A well-chosen name, as the group has been singing for fifty years.

The group definitely sings about the Christian gospel, but Shabalala has said that he wants to make music that appeals across the religious spectrum.  “Without hearing the lyrics, this music gets into the blood, because it comes from the blood,” he says. “It evokes enthusiasm and excitement, regardless of what you follow spiritually.”  This makes me very happy.  This is my absolute favorite Ladysmith Black Mambazo song.  I love the rolling rhythm and the repetitive melody is very meditative while still being lively and uptempo.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo sounds like my childhood.  I grew up listening to my Mom’s cassette tapes, playing in one half of the basement while she refinished some antique piece of furniture in the other half.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo also sounds like springtime, and today is our last hit of warmth before the polar vortex closes in on us again.  Put this on and throw open all the windows.

Salubrious Saturday: “Washington At Valley Forge,” Jim Kweskin and The Jug Band

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Happy Washington’s Birthday!  …Or is it Merry Washington’s Birthday?  I can never remember.  Anyway.  Here are some interesting trivia facts about our first President, according to our friends at The Internet.

  • George Washington was 6’3″ tall, 200 pounds, and wore size 13 boots.  (No word on what size boat shoes he wore.  That’s pretty shoddy research, Internet.)
  • George Washington lent his name to 121 post offices, 33 counties, nine colleges, and seven mountains.
  • George Washington’s favorite foods included string beans with mushrooms, cream of peanut soup, and mashed sweet potatoes with coconut.  That can’t possibly be right, but…OK, Internet, I guess.
  • George Washington liked to breed hound dogs.  One of those dogs he named Sweet Lips.  …Dude.  Internet.  Seriously I think you’re just making this up now.
  • George Washington often was incapable of saying anything other than, “voh-doh-dee-oh-doh.”  …Dammit, Jim!

I think I first heard this song when I was four.  Seventeen years later, I majored in international relations.  Coincidence?  Well, yeah – what are you, into voodoo? – but I just thought I’d mention it.  I’d also like to mention that the weather in Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, is practically spring-like, so if you need me, I’ll be frolicking on the Mall, much like Washington himself used to do.  …According to the Internet.

PS: My excellent friend Ryan White over at The Wheelhouse Review has begun a haiku series celebrating our presidents.  I highly recommend you check it out.  Oh, and you can feel really awesome about yourself since you can say, “yeah – that ‘friend’ he references on the blog, the one who gave him that idea?  Yeah, I totally know her.'”  

Funk Friday: “Concentration,” Quantum MC’s

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This song is so wacky.  (Then again, it was 1999.)  It’s gotta be the most mild-mannered rap song I’ve ever heard, layered over a tight rhythm and feel-it-in-your-bones baseline.  I recommend starting any conversation with, “Yeah-yeah, yeah, yeah…oh yeah.”  Also, this has got to be the only song written ever, in any genre, that uses the lyric “flowing like soy milk over sweetened cereal.”  Quantum MC’s were a great group that included two favorite artists of mine – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow.  I find that I tend to start the song fairly soft and then crank it by the time it gets to 3:37.  What-what!  Happy Friday, Tune-Up Fans.

Throwback Thursday: “Abendlied,” Josef Rheinberger

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Humans are social animals.  We wither on the vine without interaction or companionship.  And yet, what wounds us more deeply than these same things, without which life is awful?  It’s a terrible truism, but a truism nonetheless, and one that I’ve been turning in my mind these past few days, for a variety of reasons.  It puts me in mind of a wonderful passage from C.S. Lewis:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

What nourishes will always wound; humans are imperfect.  What we need we will always ultimately lose; humans are mortal.  It is a far lovelier truism that the nourishment outlasts the wound, and that our mortality does not drain the memories and impressions we gave to others.  Let us bide with each other, then, while we are here.  Let us be vulnerable.

“Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, und der Tag hat sich geneiget.
Bide with us, for evening shadows darken, and the day will soon be over.”

In memory of Nancy Harris Smith.

Worldly Wednesday: “Amine,” Gaâda Diwane De Béchar

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I discovered these guys almost ten years ago outside Staoueli, Algeria, where I was spending a few weeks as an assistant trainer at a campaign training school for women political candidates.  The NGO I worked for at the time ran these incredibly cool schools that still help female political party members run for office.  Even though it was almost 11pm, it was finally cool enough to be outside, so dozens of families with young kids wandered around the open-air market eating ice cream.  The kids chased each other into and out of various stalls; parents tried to stop them but were too tired.  A pretty universal scene.  One of my colleagues, a lanky Romanian woman who was approximately nine feet tall, pulled me into a hut filled with CDs and the proprietor had this song playing on his beat-up Sony boom box.  I bought the album immediately.  I have absolutely no idea what the words mean but I sing vigorous phonetic approximations whenever this song comes on my music mixes.  I still don’t know what the lyrics mean but I do know that they play a type of very old Algerian spiritual music called Gnawa.

This song always puts me in a fantastic mood, and brings back wonderful memories of being somewhere sunny, hot, and interesting.