Monday, October 30, 2006

All Rise for the National Anthem of Hip-Hop

October 29, 2006
All Rise for the National Anthem of Hip-Hop

THIS is a story about a nearly forgotten album and the birth of hip-hop music. Like many good hip-hop tales, and pop yarns in general, it involves unlikely characters rising from obscurity and is colored with creative passion, violence, drugs, thievery, paydays and paybacks.

It’s a story of a Bronx D.J. making his name with a record that began as the soundtrack for a B-movie called “The Thing With Two Heads.” And it suggests that the two most important drummers in rap history might be a guy who spent his career touring behind Neil Diamond and another who played with John Lennon and Eric Clapton before stabbing his mother to death and being committed to a mental hospital.

The record in question is “Bongo Rock,” a 1972 LP by the Incredible Bongo Band, which, after years of bootlegging, is being properly reissued by the Mr. Bongo label on Tuesday, paired on a single disc with its 1974 follow-up, “The Return of the Incredible Bongo Band.” Created by a group of Hollywood session musicians who never toured, it’s a set of sometimes thrilling, sometimes cheesy instrumentals built on tight brass charts, psychedelic guitar riffs, funky keyboard vamps and heavy percussion.

“Bongo Rock” is significant, however, for being one of the musical cornerstones of rap. While it’s hard to measure these things accurately, it is certainly one of the most sampled LP’s in history, if not the most sampled. Most every history-minded hip-hop D.J. has a copy, and the first few bars of its signature number, a driving cover version of the 60’s instrumental number “Apache,” can send crowds into overdrive.

The Bongo Band’s “Apache” has been recycled continually in rap songs over the years; just this past August, Missy Elliott won an MTV video award for the clip to her song “We Run This,” whose central motif is lifted wholesale from “Apache.” According to Kool Herc, the stylistic pioneer many people consider to be the father of hip-hop music, the Bongo’s “Apache” is “the national anthem of hip-hop.”

The story of “Bongo Rock,” however, begins far from hip-hop’s birthplace in New York, with Michael Viner, a white kid from Washington who worked for Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, Mr. Viner, then 24, roomed with his friend Rosie Grier, the football player turned actor, and returned to the film industry, where he had worked as a youngster. He rose through the ranks and was soon in charge of music for MGM.

“I did soundtracks for American International Pictures — Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello,” Mr. Viner said from his office in Beverly Hills. “I worked with Sinatra. My first big hit was ‘Candyman’ by Sammy Davis Jr. I signed him to MGM. I picked that song.”

Mr. Viner, who is 62 and runs Phoenix Books, a successful publisher and audio-book label that counts Bill Maher and the Kiss singer Gene Simmons among its clients, is soft spoken as Hollywood moguls go. But he’s a savvy businessman. Forthcoming, too.

“I was always a second- or third-rate musician,” he confessed. “I can play a few things badly. But I was always smart enough to get much more talented people to surround myself with.”

And so it was when he assembled a group to score a chase scene for “The Thing With Two Heads,” a ludicrous but racially provocative horror film starring his pal Mr. Grier and Ray Milland as, respectively, a black head and a white head attached to a single body. The resulting two tracks, “Bongo Rock” and “Bongolia,” appeared on the soundtrack LP and, later, on a seven-inch single, which became a surprise hit.

When R&B D.J.’s began playing it, Mr. Viner explained, “the record company spent extra money putting our pictures on the little 45 sleeves. But as soon as people saw all the white guys in the band, it stopped selling. So they went back to the generic blank sleeve.”

Flush with some success, the group reconvened to make a full-length LP. And befitting its name, the core of the band was two powerhouse percussionists. One, the bongo and conga player King Errisson, was a revered session man from the Bahamas who played limbo shows in a Miami strip joint before jumping into New York’s early-60’s jazz scene, where he befriended musicians like Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. Mr. Errisson eventually found his groove in California, where, among other gigs, he was Motown’s go-to guy for percussion in the late 60’s and early 70’s, after the label relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles. He played on sessions by the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five and the Supremes.

“I got my real education in L.A., which had the greatest musicians in the world,” Mr. Errisson said from his home in Las Vegas. “That was my universe. I was doing four or five sessions a day with different artists. If you didn’t learn then, you didn’t have an ear to learn.”

The drummer was Jim Gordon, a handsome California boy probably best remembered as part of the group Derek and the Dominoes. During that stint he came up with the famous piano coda for the hit “Layla,” written with his bandmate Eric Clapton. His fat, precise beats also turn up on recordings by John Lennon (the “Imagine” album), George Harrison, Traffic, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Merle Haggard and the Monkees.

“In my book, he was the No. 1 session drummer in town in the 60’s and 70’s,” recalled the Los Angeles producer and songwriter Perry Botkin, who arranged the material on “Bongo Rock.” “I would put off record dates just to make sure I could get him. He was absolutely incredible.”

“Bongo Rock,” credited to Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, was released in 1972 and did not set the world on fire. “It bombed,” said Mr. Botkin, who could barely recall the details of the recording. “It was just another session. It didn’t mean anything.” The band soon regrouped for a follow-up LP, “The Return of the Incredible Bongo Band,” which fared even worse.

And that, for all anyone involved could guess, was the end of it. Mr. Viner and Mr. Botkin turned their attention to other projects. Mr. Errisson began his tenure with Neil Diamond’s band, which continues.

Mr. Gordon, for his part, had dived headlong into the rock scene. After years of living the high life and maintaining his reputation as a consummately reliable player, he became a famous drug casualty. He stopped playing altogether and later claimed he was haunted by imaginary voices. After a series of violent episodes and self-elected stays in psychiatric hospitals, he murdered his mother — whom he identified as one of the voices in his head — with a knife in 1983.

“He was the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet,” Mr. Botkin recalled of Mr. Gordon, who is currently an inmate at the State Medical Corrections Facility in Vacaville, Calif. “We were very good friends. The drugs got him.”

Meanwhile, back in late 1972 in the Bronx, a young Jamaican immigrant who worked as a D.J at parties under the name Kool Herc discovered the “Bongo Rock” LP through his colleague, DJ Timmy Tim. He had heard the “Bongo Rock” single, which he thought was O.K. But “Apache” was something else. Beginning with the tandem drumming of Mr. Errisson and Mr. Gordon, the song peaks like a fireworks display, with bursts of organ, horns and surf guitar exploding amid a rain of bongo and kit-drum beats. It drove dancers crazy at the Hevalo, on Jerome Avenue between Tremont and Burnside, where Herc had a steady gig and where he first played the record for a crowd.

“I used that record to start what I called the Merry-Go-Round,” he explained in a telephone interview, retelling an oft-told story. “It was the segment where I played all the records I had with beats in them, one by one. I’d use it at the hypest part of the night, between 2:30 and 3 a.m. Everybody loved that part of my format.”

Soon, the Merry-Go-Round evolved, as Herc acquired extra copies of certain records, which allowed him to extend percussion-driven sections of songs indefinitely through hand manipulation of the turntables, creating hypnotic percussive loops. The “Bongo Rock” LP — specifically “Apache,” but other tracks, too — was the first record he used in this way. Others followed suit, using breakbeats (as the percussion samples became known) to undergird the chants and rhymes and exclamations of M.C.’s. Rap was born.

The “Bongo Rock” LP never fell far from favor as a hip-hop building block, from the Sugarhill Gang’s 1981 rap version of “Apache” to tracks by LL Cool J, Moby, Nas and countless other artists. The lure of “Apache” has obsessed fans as well. Last year Michaelangelo Matos, a music writer, compiled a history of the song, tracing its evolution from the British guitarist Bert Weedon’s mellow 1960 version through more uptempo versions by the Shadows, the Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann (who had a No. 1 hit with it in the United States) and the Ventures, up to modern-day sampled versions. A fellow music historian and blogger, Oliver Wang, picked up on Mr. Matos’s paper (first presented at the annual Experience Music Project Pop Conference in Seattle) and posted a clutch of “Apache” MP3’s on his music blog Soul Sides (

Eventually the creators of “Bongo Rock” became aware of their music’s rebirth. The original Bongo Band recordings had been contractually slated to revert to Mr. Viner from MGM after eight years. But the company had been sold and bought and sold again, so Mr. Viner had to do some detective work to claim ownership, which he secured in 1990. Attempting to track down the countless bootleggers, let along getting paid for what some guess are thousands of sample usages, was another matter.

“I just tried to get some of the illegal recordings off the market piece by piece,” Mr. Viner said, adding that he had been only partly successful. Scanning eBay during a phone interview, he laughed over his finds. “My favorites are records that we never even made,” he said. “Here: ‘Vincent Miner’s Incredible Bongo Band Promo CD.’ It’s amazing. ‘Killer Funk’ LP by the Incredible Bongo Band — $79.99.” (He noted that there had been one authorized reissue of “Bongo Rock,” in 2000, by a British label, now defunct, that he says never paid him.)

Mr. Viner recently hired someone to help him track down payments for sample usages in cases where a substantial portion of a Bongo Band recording was used in making a song. But most of their work will be backtracking. Current rap artists are happy to pay for the imprimatur of using the original Incredible Bongo Band recordings, which are not just laden with history but remarkably funky.

Perhaps the most notable is Nas, who has used Incredible Bongo Band samples on “Made Ya Look” and “Thieves Theme” (the latter using the band’s cover of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”), among other songs. “Those breaks are so hip-hop,” he said in an e-mail message via his label, Def Jam. “I’m going to continue using them again and again.” Mr. Viner said he was pleased that Nas has a new record due later this year that reportedly does just that.

And never one to miss a business opportunity, Mr. Viner has reconvened a new version of the Incredible Bongo Band, which is finishing work on a record he plans to shop to labels. There are also plans for the group’s first public performances, maybe even a tour.

The lineup isn’t the same: not only is Gordon absent, but Perry Botkin has retired from for-hire arranging in favor of making experimental electronic music at home. But there’s talk of Kool Herc being involved. And Mr. Errisson, who put the bongos in the original recordings, is back at the forefront (Neil Diamond is taking a year off, so he has time on his hands). This time, though, he’s a bit savvier about the business end of things.

“Back then, I was so busy and so biggity, I didn’t pay attention to the one percent he offered me,” Mr. Errisson said with a laugh, referring to Mr. Viner’s offer of royalties on the original recordings. “I said, ‘Just pay me,’ you know? I got what I asked for. But now the thing turned out to be a smash. There you go — those things happen.” His deal with Mr. Viner for the coming record, he said, is more favorable: a 50-50 split.

“That’s better than all the wives I ever married, that kind of deal,” Mr. Errisson said. “Michael has a lot of great ideas. He comes up with these corny tunes, but they’re great tunes that we can make work. He seems to know what he’s doing, so I think we’ll do O.K.”

And what is Mr. Viner’s working title for the new record? (Cue drummer’s rim shot.) “Sample This.”

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Whoa! a new Who album

NYT, October 29, 2006
24 Years Later, Believe It or Not, the Who’s Next

SIX years ago, at a press conference to kick off a tour by the Who, the singer Roger Daltrey announced that he was working on songs for the band’s new album. The bass player John Entwistle chimed in that he was doing the same. This news shocked Pete Townshend, the band’s guitarist and primary songwriter, though it was mostly a bluff meant to prod him into action.

After much further cajoling from Mr. Daltrey, Mr. Townshend finally sat down to try writing the music last year. But he had no idea what he wanted the new record to sound like — especially since the results would be the illustrious band’s first album since 1982.

“You come up against such enormous preconceptions about what would constitute material for a new Who album,” he said. “It had to deal with the past and the future and contain that magic ingredient, and I tried to figure out what that was.”

The result is “Endless Wire,” coming out Tuesday on Universal Republic Records. A sprawling work, it ranges from the first songs Mr. Townshend and Mr. Daltrey have ever recorded as an acoustic duo to some that hold their own next to the band’s finest stadium rockers. At its heart is “Wire & Glass,” a 10-song “mini-opera” that is Mr. Townshend’s latest foray into extended musical narrative, an approach he pioneered with the rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.”

“The stripped-down acoustic-vocal stuff is what slays me,” Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead singer and a longtime champion of the older band, wrote in an e-mail message. “After 20-plus years of not recording new Who material, they didn’t pick up where they left off — it’s where they are now.”

The album announces that one of the greatest rock bands of all time is back in business as something more than a touring heritage act. The release also puts the spotlight back on the notoriously spiky partnership that helped bring it into being.

Mr. Daltrey, 62, and Mr. Townshend, 61, are the two surviving members of the founding lineup, after the deaths of their incendiary drummer, Keith Moon, in 1978 and Mr. Entwistle in 2002. And though they seem lately to have attained an uneasy peace in their relationship, it was clear in separate interviews — Mr. Daltrey in a friend’s apartment high above Central Park and Mr. Townshend over the phone from a tour stop in Vancouver — that this hasn’t stopped them from taking the occasional swipe at each other.

“After John died,” Mr. Townshend said, referring to Mr. Entwistle, “I was left with one very clear relationship and that was with Roger — which was probably the least important to me in the band. We had a lot of discussion that our friendship meant more to us than anything else.”

Mr. Daltrey puts it another way: “He’s like the brother I never had. I love him dearly; I don’t like him sometimes, but I love him dearly. And I’m sure he would say the same about me.”

Mr. Daltrey recalled the day, just before Christmas, when some demo recordings arrived. “He told the press that he’d given me 26 songs,” said Mr. Daltrey, “yet I only received 4! So I was still very skeptical as to whether this was really going to happen, because I’ve been burned so many times before.”

After handing over that first batch, Mr. Townshend set the new songs aside to concentrate on a different kind of writing, which led to the mini-opera. “I’d written a novella as a possible basis for a theatrical play or a two-man show or maybe something in Las Vegas,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was.”

“The Boy Who Heard Music” (posted at is a tightly knit, hallucinatory tale of the rise and fall of a band made up of three teenagers from different ethnic groups, and an aging rock star observing them from a mental institution. (Mr. Townshend says his online research for the project led to his arrest in 2003 on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children; the charge was dropped, but he remains on a sex-offender watch list.) He reworked the novella into “Wire & Glass” — some songs that “had some teeth," he said. He then “knocked off the rest a bit Jack White style, using stuff from notebooks as far back as 1971,” and after more than two decades, a new Who album was ready to roll.

Still, Mr. Townshend was apprehensive about sending these songs to Mr. Daltrey. “Roger is always difficult to present new music to,” he said. “He operates rather like an editor. When you present him with finished material, he’s a fantastically positive interpreter. But I don’t think he knows enough about being an artist and the vulnerability of the creative process.”

Mr. Daltrey — who called “Wire & Glass” a “quirky, cranky idea” — suggested that Mr. Townshend’s narrative writing had as much to do with marketing as with art. “In the early days we used to call it hype, and it still is hype,” he said. “It was a device to get noticed in the press: ‘Oh, the Who have a new album, just like the Stones and the Beatles.’ But if you said you had a mini-opera, then all of a sudden they were interested.

“Whatever Pete wants to call it as the device that makes him write the songs, I don’t care,” he continued. “There’s still some interesting words on there. So I take all of that with a pinch of salt, and I don’t fight it anymore.”

Forty-two years after their first recording and 24 years after a Who “farewell tour” — a farewell that lasted seven years before the band went back on the road — the volatile chemistry between the singer and the guitarist still yields a powerful stage presence, as a series of recent shows in the New York area proved. (The touring band also includes Mr. Townshend’s brother Simon on guitar, Pino Palladino on bass, Zak Starkey on drums and John Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards. On the album, Pete Townshend plays numerous instruments and Peter Huntington plays drums on many tracks, since Mr. Starkey — Ringo Starr’s son — was touring with the band Oasis when most of the album was recorded.)

The band was the clear highlight of the Concert for New York City after the 9/11 attacks, an intensely emotional show that Mr. Townshend described as an example of “the Who mechanism working in ideal circumstances.” As this tour was starting, however, the band mates’ differing worldviews — which Mr. Townshend attributed to the contrast between his more bohemian art-school background and Mr. Daltrey’s more working-class roots — clashed yet again.

Mr. Townshend, always interested in new technology, announced that the concerts would be Webcast, only to retract those plans a few days later at Mr. Daltrey’s insistence. Eventually, the band made a deal with Sirius Satellite Radio to broadcast the shows as part of an all-Who channel that will continue throughout the tour.

“I don’t particularly like the world technology has created,” Mr. Daltrey said. “Has anything really gotten better with the computer, or are you just doing more and more of less and less? I’m incredibly paranoid about it, especially after what happened to Pete. I think the Internet is just an advertising device of very dubious returns.

“Also, I haven’t got the luxury of throwing the kind of money at it that he can,” he continued, referring to Mr. Townshend’s songwriting revenue. “I haven’t got the publishing, I’m just the singer. So I have to look at it much more hard-nosed as a business and ask if I can put a million dollars into it, and the answer is no.”

Mr. Townshend responded: “Roger likes things that are finished, and with the Internet, everything is a work in progress. I try not to bludgeon him with this stuff, but I can’t help it; it’s my passion.”

For Mr. Daltrey, “Endless Wire” closes a door for the band that was left open after the death of the high-flying Mr. Moon (about whom he is developing a film project, with Mike Myers committed to the role). “We were ill equipped to deal with Keith’s problems at the time,” he said. “If we’d known then what we know now about rehabilitation, we wouldn’t have lost him. So it always felt that if that had really been the end, it wouldn’t have been right. With this album, now there can be an ending. I don’t want it to be, but it can be, and I’m at peace with that.”

Mr. Townshend, characteristically, disagreed with that assessment. “It doesn’t feel like closure; it feels completely new,” he said. “Closure implies that we couldn’t do it again, couldn’t do another album with the same quality and dignity.

“This album isn’t some sort of Who miracle. It’s just two guys who’ve come together to do something creative. It just happens to be under a very powerful brand name.”

Thursday, October 26, 2006

composer Steve Reich turns 70

The Nation
A Rebel in Defense of Tradition


[from the November 6, 2006 issue]

Not since Aaron Copland turned 75 has the birthday of an American composer been greeted with the jubilation now surrounding Steve Reich as he enters his eighth decade. The classical establishment, which still hasn't figured out how to award Reich a Pulitzer Prize, has finally embraced a composer, and a movement, that it had relegated to the margins. Everyone else, it seems, has understood Reich's importance at least since 1974, when Deutsche Grammophon released a three-LP album of his music. The absurd delay in official recognition may be the price Reich has paid for his radical rejection of the habits of both the concert hall and of what used to pass for "new music." His radicalism, however, has turned out to be profoundly conservative. It returned American art music from the wastelands of academic atonality and neo-Romantic nostalgia to its most fruitful mission, the fusion of utopian ideals and the sounds of everyday life that we hear in Charles Ives's Three Places in New England, George Gershwin's Concerto in F, Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige. Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), an hour of elegant sonic splendor drawn from chords, riffs and colors you might hear in a shopping mall, belongs in that august company--and it is certainly not the only gem in Reich's body of work, though it remains my favorite.

As Reich turns 70, minimalist music is almost a half-century old. The founding fathers, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, met in Berkeley in 1960. They were both studying composition at Berkeley and admired the music of Bartók and Webern, but Young spent the summer of 1957 meditating on sounds and vibrations. This exercise yielded Young's Trio for Strings, an hour of music made of just a few sustained tones, now usually considered the first minimalist piece. But it was the performance of Riley's In C in 1964 that put minimalism on the map. Reich, who had studied at Juilliard with Vincent Persichetti and then at Mills College with Luciano Berio, performed in the premiere of In C. In 1966 Reich moved back to New York, where he got to know Philip Glass. At one point they had a moving company together; Glass also worked as a plumber while Reich drove a cab. Someday there may be a Mount Rushmore for the four first minimalists, but they still differ a bit on the details of who came up with what ideas and when, and they soon went very separate ways. Young and Riley had been jazz musicians; they were influenced by the conceptual ideas of John Cage and, even more, by the Indian music taught to them by Pandit Pran Nath. The European past held less interest for them than the Indian tradition, which they pursue to this day. By contrast, both Reich and Glass, though deeply involved with non-Western musical cultures, had studied at Juilliard, and Glass had worked with Nadia Boulanger--the epicenter of European musical pedagogy. While Young and Riley have remained cult figures far from the classical mainstream, Reich and Glass had larger ambitions quite early. With grandly scaled works like Glass's Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74), and Reich's Four Organs (1970), they set forth the claim that they, not the serialists, were the true successors to the composers of the European tradition, from Leonin and Perotin through Monteverdi, Bach and Stravinsky. The classical establishment assumed--at great cost to its cultural authority--that they were joking.

Perhaps most threatening to the classical world at the time was the easy coexistence of minimalism and rock music. The tension between "high" and "low" in the classical music world is at least as old as the 1924 premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, a work that everyone embraced except Gershwin's better-educated fellow composers, who were not amused. When Henry Pleasants's The Agony of Modern Music appeared in 1955, claiming that jazz was the true heir to the Western tradition and that modernism was a perverse dead end, Copland himself led the chorus of high-minded disapproval. By the '60s, though, high-mindedness seemed merely hidebound. In the decade of the Beatles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Brian Wilson, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and Frank Zappa, classical music offered little to justify its exalted cultural position other than its glorious past. And yet finding a fresh connection between classical and pop styles was hardly obvious; Leonard Bernstein's Mass struck many listeners then as a grotesque example of what happens when a classical composer, even one with a lot of pop credentials, heads south: a stylistic mishmash retaining the pretentiousness of the high and the banality of the low.

Reich's music was first heard in New York in the late '60s, mainly at art galleries and museums where the minimalism and conceptualism of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt formed an appropriate backdrop. At that time I was studying in England and discovering the very different vanguard idiom of Karlheinz Stockhausen. My closest brush with minimalism had been a performance I gave with three Cambridge friends of Riley's Keyboard Studies, a more intimate version of In C. I first encountered Reich's music in 1974, and it rearranged my musical universe. Reich's ensemble performed at Columbia, not at McMillan Theater (now reborn as the very hip Miller Theater), where serialism had reigned since the early 1960s, but in the even drearier expanse of Wollman Auditorium, part of a student union, now demolished, thrown up in 1960 without, it would seem, the services of an architect.

I was then a graduate student in English literature at Columbia, but on Wednesday evenings I played in a West African music group led by musicologist Nicholas England and Ghanaian master drummer Alfred Ladzekpo. I had read that Reich had also studied the Ewe music that we played with Ladzekpo, so I wanted to check him out. When I showed up for the concert Wollman was scantily occupied, and there was little in the way of a buzz. Reich's musicians were easily identified by their geek-squad uniforms: white shirts, black trousers. To begin Reich and, I believe, percussionist Russell Hartenberger performed Clapping Music, which has since become the ensemble's theme song. Clapping Music is absurdly simple, at least to describe: A single rhythm, related to the twelve-beat West African pattern you hear at the opening of All Things Considered, is repeated over and over by two players. One clapper, however, rotates the pattern one beat at a time until, five minutes or so later, the two players converge.

This rotational process, which Reich called "phasing," is at once the form and content of a piece that might have seemed like a mathematical exercise--except that it put a smile on your face the way a Haydn minuet can. The rhythm, whatever its ethnic and arithmetic roots, had a familiar swing--it's the kind of rhythm girls jump rope to, boys sass with and cheerleaders use to work up the crowd. But as the two clappers went out of phase, the unexpected happened. Reich and Hartenberger were clapping into a microphone. The mike didn't just boost the volume; it clarified the sound of four hands clapping so that you heard pitches, melodies, harmonies, overtones--it put the ping in clapping. The everyday rhythm, the everyday sound, the familiar action of ritualized approval--all had been put through a musical prism, refracted and magnified. The ordinary became magic.

And that was just the start. The lengthy, casually paced concert also included Reich's Drumming (1970-71) and his bliss-inducing Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973), which evoked the sound of a Balinese gamelan and also, somehow, memories of the Macy's toy department at Christmas. Although I was engrossed in the music, I slowly became aware of a sociological event in the hall. In the course of the performances, some audience members left--hardly unusual at performances of new music--but they soon returned with friends. Halfway through Drumming the hall was filled to capacity. I had never before seen contemporary music attract a crowd--or even imagined the possibility. The grim "new" music that was played at McMillan, one block north, seemed intended only for a composer's teachers and, perhaps, immediate family. At its most interesting, as in works by Stefan Wolpe, that tense, angular, disjointed "uptown" music challenged your tolerance for angst, but most of the music you heard there was by wannabe Weberns and Wolpes smugly turning out forgettable imitations of an expressionist style that had peaked a half-century earlier. My friends called its performers the Group for Contemptible (or Contemptuous) Music. As soon as I heard Steve Reich's works I knew that "contemptuous music" was dead and that I could set my own music on a brighter path--an experience shared by many composers of my generation (like John Adams) and those who have followed (such as Michael Torke and the entire Bang on a Can collective).

By opening the concert with the starkly simple Clapping Music, Reich created the impression that it was the seed for the larger works that would follow in the concert and in the years to come. In his writings Reich conveys a very logical sense of his own development. There seems to be a straight line from Clapping Music to Drumming to Music for Mallet Instruments to Six Pianos, each work building on its predecessor until Reich reaches nirvana in Music for 18 Musicians. As I came to know Reich's oeuvre, I learned that Clapping Music actually marked the beginning of a second phase in his work, following a near-fatal trip to Ghana in 1970. In 1964 Reich had come upon phasing by accident when he was editing a tape recording of a black preacher; he misaligned two tape loops, setting in motion a process that transformed the preacher's words into abstract sounds. The result was Reich's opus one, It's Gonna Rain. In 1966 he refined this technique in another piece for tape, Come Out, which premiered at a benefit concert for the retrial of the "Harlem Six," a group of black youths charged with committing a murder during the 1964 Harlem riots. The voice of Daniel Hamm, a 19-year-old member of the Harlem Six--five of whom, including Hamm, were later acquitted--is first heard clearly saying, "I wanted to come out and show them." The phrase "Come out and show them" is then transformed through phasing to become an evolving series of rhythms, timbres and pitches. These early works remain fascinating, but their politics is troubling. They seem to spring directly from the civil rights struggle, and yet the phasing process calls attention away from the meaning of words to their sounds. A similar critique could be made of Drumming, where Reich extracted West African rhythms from their context and imposed on them a sophisticated process of transformation unrelated to their traditional forms. Was Reich, like many modernists before him, simply going primitive? All of Reich's music, like much American classical music, stands in a complicated relationship to popular music in general and to African-American genres of popular music in particular. Reich's stylized African drumming fits neatly into the tradition of Ives's hyperactive imitations of ragtime and Copland's Debussyan reflections on the blues. Reich has described Drumming as a non-African extension of the phasing technique, but there is an African, or African-American, presence in almost all his music--most provocatively in the voice of a Pullman porter in Different Trains (1988)--hinting that more complex motives are at work.

At the time, though, Reich's stylistic turn with Clapping Music seemed simply aesthetic. He had dropped the use of tape loops (at least for a few years) and also had called a moratorium on the more arcane conceptualism of works like Pendulum Music; instead, his works were performed by live musicians and, as he predicted in 1970, re-embraced tonal harmonies. Already clearly opposed to "uptown" music, Reich broke any lingering connections he had with the bohemian Cageian "downtown." No more futuristic technology, no more conceptual games: Reich seemed to recast himself almost as a folk musician, or at least a musician with an ear for folk music. Going tonal for Reich did not mean going back to Bach; Six Pianos (1973) sounded more like the diatonic, folky sections of Petrouchka, while the luminously scored polyphony of the Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboard (1979) recalled Ravel. Tonal harmonies soon produced tonal melodies, or at least Stravinskian modal ones, as in Tehillim, the first of Reich's settings of Jewish texts. When I first heard it, Tehillim struck me as surprisingly close in style to Bernstein's popular Chichester Psalms; both works locate their notion of Jewishness in Israel rather than the shtetl.

Just when Reich seemed to be drifting away from his radical beginnings, he changed course again. With a series of pieces called "Counterpoint," written for soloists and prerecorded tapes, he reopened the technological explorations of his early works; and then in Different Trains, for string quartet and tape, he found a new use for the connections between recorded speech and musical patterns of It's Gonna Rain. Once again the music was political, but here the subject was the Holocaust. Reich addressed the central aesthetic and moral issue of post-Holocaust art head-on: The art can never approach the horror of its subject. Rather than trying to create an illusion of the horror, as Schoenberg had done in A Survivor From Warsaw, Reich built Different Trains on the impossible distance between those who had perished and those whose lives, thanks to the accidents of place and time, were untouched. During World War II, Reich and his nanny traveled back and forth comfortably between the homes of his divorced parents in New York and Los Angeles. In Different Trains, composed for the Kronos Quartet, he juxtaposed recordings of a black porter on the Super Chief he rode between New York and Los Angeles during the war with the voices of Holocaust survivors who had endured train rides to the camps. The musical patterns of their fragmented reminiscences generate melodic and rhythmic ideas played by a live string quartet and prerecorded strings. The live players, appropriately, seem trapped in a musical environment beyond their control or understanding.

Different Trains reflected not only Reich's deepening sense of his Jewish identity but also the influence of his wife, video artist Beryl Korot. Her work Dachau 1974 (viewable at is a four-channel "visual tapestry." Images of a visit to the camp are played on four TV screens. As Korot describes it, "Each channel is assigned a slightly separate rhythm of image and one-second black pause for the duration of the work. These pauses interrupt the narrative, allowing identical images to be played against one another but with slightly different timings." In other words, Korot employed a visual phasing process akin to the musical phasing of her husband's work. There is no music in the piece, however; there is only the sound of tourists plodding through the camp. At one moment, for no given reason, there is a short burst of laughter, which rattles horrifyingly as the phasing process amplifies and multiplies its sound. Korot's work seems the complement of Reich's, not just by being visual but more by dealing with areas of experience far from the joyous affirmation of his music. Korot's art challenged Reich to confront his own shadows.

Korot and Reich did not actually collaborate until The Cave (1990-93), based on taped interviews Reich made with Israelis, Palestinians and Americans at the biblical site of Abraham's cave. Their second collaboration, Three Tales (2002), deals with the crash of the Hindenburg, atomic tests at Bikini and the cloned sheep Dolly; in many ways its spiritual critique of technical progress makes it a parallel to Koyaanisqatsi, Philip Glass's collaboration with film director Godfrey Reggio. Critical opinion has been widely divided on the Reich/Korot collaborations. I like the way Reich has allowed the subject matter of Three Tales to broaden his sound palette and loosen up his harmonies--it is refreshing to hear him sacrificing his habitual and alluring sonic sheen. Reich has called these works his operas, and they may point the way to a musical theater where live performance and technology interact in much more interesting ways than they do in today's opera houses. But opera, for me, is erotic in its essence, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if Korot and Reich took on a subject where the politics was also personal.

In many respects Steve Reich reminds me of Aaron Copland. His music has a similar economy of means, an almost puritanical severity and control that seem justified when the music delivers, as it so often does, a vision of the promised land. Like Copland, Reich began as an uncompromising, hard-edge rebel (Reich's Four Organs is the equivalent of Copland's Piano Variations) and later revealed a warmer and more varied humanity. Reich's music, like Copland's, is American in its idealism--and that ideal is spiritual. Both Copland and Reich are religious composers, even though Copland did not consider himself religious whereas Reich is an Orthodox Jew. Although both composers write happy music, Reich gets to happy more easily than Copland did, maybe too easily: The lonely, blues-haunted mood of Music for the Theater, or the Piano Sonata, has, so far, little parallel in Reich's work.

Copland, though, made his peace with the concert hall, aided by two powerful conducting allies, Koussevitzky and Bernstein. Although Reich has had his champions in the classical sector, most notably Michael Tilson Thomas, he has resisted compromise with the habits of orchestral music-making. The plush sound of the Romantic orchestra holds little attraction for him; his Variations sound like Perotin, not Mahler. Reich writes for instruments with a precise understanding of their character akin to Stravinsky's, but he is not interested in conventional virtuosity and has, to date, written no concertos. From his early works, moreover, Reich, while rejecting most of the developments in electronic music, embraced the technologies of mechanical reproduction, overdubbing and amplification--all still anathema in the classical world. A Reich performance is a complex dance of hands-on musicianship and technical sophistication, as live musicians often must synchronize with rerecorded sounds and then the entire mix of live and recorded elements is carefully kept in balance. Perhaps surprisingly, the result--when all elements work--is neither loud nor synthetic but present, even intimate. Sometimes the avant-garde is right: Most composers today work with a sound engineer, and classical audiences have come to accept and even demand the artfully controlled, electronically enhanced ambience on which Reich's music depends.

For years Reich kept tight control over performances of his music and largely limited them to his own ensemble. This may have made good business sense, but any music benefits from varied interpretation. A good way to celebrate Steve Reich's 70th would be to buy a fistful of CDs. Nonesuch has re-released many of its Reich-led recordings on a five-CD set, Phases; the recording of the exquisitely fashioned Proverb (1995) is worth the price of the whole, though there is something about Nonesuch's production style that seems to take the edge off all the edgy music it admirably releases. Even more interesting are two performances a bit further from Reich's inner circle. On the Cantaloupe label you can hear a splendid performance of Tehillim and an even more revelatory reading of Desert Music (1984) conducted by Alan Pierson with Ossia, a student group from the Eastman Conservatory and the hot new-music orchestra Alarm Will Sound. Or for something further afield from previous recordings, try the Naiveclassique CD with David Robertson conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon of Different Trains and Triple Quartet, recently re-arranged by Reich for large string orchestra. These new arrangements put two major Reich works within the reach of most symphony orchestras. Now that's a reason to clap hands.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

School of Mariachi

from the October 23, 2006 edition - Christian Science Monitor
Backstory: This is your father's mariachi
As the genre grows worldwide, a school in Mexico teaches it the 'old way' - and decries pop imitations.

By Sara Miller Llana | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Isaac Escobar Bravo, an auto-parts salesman, looks as if he were heading to a nightclub, donning a leather jacket and designer jeans, his hair slicked back. But he is actually attending a mariachi class, and if he could have his way, he'd be dressed in his charro suit: a waist-length jacket, vest, and black pants with silver adornments running down either side - the signature costume of a mariachi musician.

"To put on a charro suit, it just feels right," says Mr. Escobar Bravo. "It's your roots."

Escobar Bravo stands in the cement courtyard of the School of Mexican Music, the only conservatory in Mexico City that teaches traditional folk music - the Juilliard of mariachi. He's waiting to join a dozen other students ranging in age from teens to seniors for a two-hour workshop. The building, an old silk factory, stands in one of Mexico City's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. But from its pastel-blue walls emanate the sounds of salterios and marimbas - traditional folk music the school hopes to preserve and expand.

It might seem odd that an institution in Mexico - the birthplace of mariachi - needs to promote the genre. But, in fact, that's what it's doing - and, in the process, is somewhat at war with the country's own pop music culture. Mariachi music today is undergoing a worldwide renaissance. Once simple street musicians, mariachis have turned into mainstream pop stars celebrated from Tijuana to Tokyo. They play with world renowned symphonies. In the US, hundreds of public schools now offer mariachi classes.

But along with the music's popularity have come glitzy adaptations, commercialized products, and often embarrassing wannabes. Purists consider some of today's sounds no closer to traditional mariachi music than the rock opera "Tommy" is to "La Boehme." Thus the conservatory's quest to turn out a generation of artists schooled in the old ways.

"Mariachi is getting so modern," says Daniel Garcia Blanco, a sprightly septuagenarian who founded the school in 1990 as an alternative to the classic conservatories of Bach and Beethoven. "We teach it the way it was."


Students mill about the old warehouse roofed with corrugated metal, their guitars and bongos in hand. Some 200 are enrolled in programs that last from one to three years. Some want simply to be able to play music at home. Others, like Escobar Bravo, dream of becoming professional musicians. Many know they'll never be famous, but see their instruments as their closest companions.

"For we musicians, our instruments are like a girlfriend: They won't respond to nothing, you have to give them care," says Isidro Roman, a student who works part-time at a law firm as a messenger.

The school's mariachi class has all the elements to form an ensemble: violins, Spanish guitar, a small five-string guitar called a vihuela, a guitarrón or bass, and trumpets. The class plays traditional sones (music from the western state of Jalisco) and is at turns both lively and melancholic, depending on the theme: love and unrequited love, war heroes, tragedy, patriotism. Though the image of mariachi is middle-aged men strolling in plazas, many of these students are women. At least half are young.

On a recent evening, Escobar Bravo sits slouched against the wall, as if his parents made him join mariachi class against his will, but his posture belies a deep dedication. At age 14, the most un-Mexican band - the Beatles - made an impression on him, and he asked for a guitar. His mother is a singer, but at age 16 he went to work for his father in an auto-parts shop.

Now, as he tries to balance work and art, he labors in the store from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and then heads to school. A third-year student, he takes 20 hours of classes a week, and practices his guitarrón at least two hours a night. He performs in a restaurant with a group on weekends - for free. "You have to sacrifice a lot: going out at night with friends or family events," says Escobar Bravo.


Once rejected by Mexico's uppercrust, mariachis became national icons in the 20th century - bolstered by their role in movies. In Mexico City, tourists flock to Garibaldi Plaza nightly, where mariachis have congregated for almost a century. Outside the country, mariachis play everywhere from orchestra halls to children's baptisms. They're contracted for weddings, funerals, and birthdays. Musicologists attribute the genre's global spread to its emotional range.

"It is one of the few music forms that marks the entire human life cycle, from birth to death, and everywhere in between," says Daniel Sheehy, director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington and an expert on mariachi.

As more people play, though, the sounds that come out of the vihuelas and violins don't always satisfy the purists. In Garibaldi Plaza, musicians say they're inundated with "imitators" who play poorly and sometimes turn out to be "thieves." "They might be taxi drivers during the week, and then on the weekend they come and put on a charro suit," huffs Juan Manuel Cruz. "I am a son of a mariachi. The pirates humiliate and denigrate us."

Efraín Reyes Perez, general secretary of Mexico City's mariachi union, says his group counts 1,050 members and more than 2,000 imitators. In November, the union will relaunch a program requiring mariachis to hold city-certified credentials, "so that wherever we go, we represent Mexican folklore," says Mr. Reyes Perez, a guitarrón player, "not robbery."

At the conservatory, musicologist José Luis Cerón Mireles complains that arrangers of mariachi today often add faddish twists to traditional compositions. He says mariachis have simply become "adornments" to sell music, which adversely affects young people learning the genre. "They just want to play the successes, the stylish music," he says, "whatever the stars are singing."

The conservatory's goal is to teach basic skills such as reading music, theory, and history and to provide a repertoire of classic music. But even the school doesn't dominate the moral high ground in the debate over what's authentic. Some musicians in Garibaldi Plaza doubt a school, even a well-intentioned one, can teach the art properly. They note it is something that has to be handed down through generations. "You have to feel mariachi to play it," says Mr. Cruz, a freelance musician.

The sound is just different, he insists. "Here, if I kiss a woman, I do it with passion," interjects his colleague, Erik Hernandez, pretending to dip a woman in the air. "In the US it's like this," he says mimicking a peck on the lips.

To watch Escobar Bravo play in a class, one might sense a certain stiffness. This is school, after all, full of seminars and tutorials. But hearing him talk of his dreams - to someday play with Mariachi Vargas, the country's most famous ensemble - reveals a passion and dedication that, surely, even the musicians in Garibaldi Plaza could appreciate. "I love Mexican music," he says. "And you play [the classic] 'El Son de la Negra,' and it's, you know, Mexico."

the Dearth of Divas

October 22, 2006
A Lamentation on the Dearth of Divas

IN 1995, when Matthew Broderick was starring on Broadway in a popular revival of the Frank Loesser musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” I asked him a rather naïve question during an interview.

Once the producers had decided to revive this show, I wondered, when did they approach him to take on the daunting lead role, J. Pierrepont Finch, a blithely self-assured corporate climber?

“They came to me first,” Mr. Broderick said, adding, “You don’t decide to put on ‘How to Succeed’ and then look for a Finch.”

His words apply just as well to reviving staples of the operatic repertory. Ideally, a company does not decide to put on a major production of, say, “Tosca,” “La Traviata” or “Aida” and then search for a soprano to sing the touchstone title role. So did Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, get things backward when planning the company’s new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”? To some opera fans, it looks that way.

Determined to revitalize the stodgy artistic profile of the Met and reach out to new audiences, Mr. Gelb boldly inaugurated his tenure last month with an arrestingly beautiful and highly stylized production of “Madama Butterfly” directed by the Academy Award-winning film director Anthony Minghella. To create more buzz, Mr. Gelb invited film-star associates of his and Mr. Minghella’s acquaintance to attend. And to counter the elitist trappings of a Met opening night, he simulcast the performance live before thousands of curious viewers in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square.

Mr. Gelb did everything right except for one thing: secure the services of a world-class soprano who could potentially take her place in the pantheon of greats who have sung this role at the Met — from Geraldine Farrar, who portrayed Cio-Cio-San (known as Madame Butterfly) at the 1907 Met premiere of the work, through Licia Albanese, Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de los Angeles and Leontyne Price.

To be fair, the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs gave a courageous performance as Butterfly that night. Though her singing was sometimes patchy, pale and shaky on climactic top notes, she made up in intensity and vulnerability what she lacked in vocal allure.

Still, there may be an obvious reason that general managers like Mr. Gelb present staples like “Madama Butterfly” as directorial adventures and play down expectations of sublime vocalism. It has to do with the dearth of singers today who can truly claim to carry on the illustrious vocal tradition in this crucial core role of the Italian repertory.

Who is the great Cio-Cio-San of today, the soprano Mr. Gelb should have hired? No one I can think of. Mr. Gelb and like-minded general managers elsewhere may be striving to refashion opera as an exciting form of musical drama, a most worthy goal. Still, when it comes to staples of the Italian repertory, their hands are forced to a large degree by the lack of singers in the grand old style.

Consider the heritage of sopranos, to focus on one voice type. In the period before and, for a time, after World War II, sopranos in Europe with marvelous vocal talent were swept into the system and prepared, essentially, to cultivate a dozen or so roles that formed the foundation of the repertory.

There is a 1949 recording of the 27-year-old Tebaldi singing, in Italian, the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s “Faust,” a French work. She sings with agile coloratura technique and bright, youthful tone. She might have continued in this lighter vocal vein. But no, by then she had already been steered to the lirico spinto repertory: roles that demand velvety legato phrasing as well as vocal heft and throbbing intensity, like Puccini’s Mimi, Tosca, Butterfly, Manon Lescaut and Liu, and Verdi’s Leonoras (in “Il Trovatore” and “La Forza del Destino”).

For lirico spinto sopranos who also had solid coloratura technique, there was Verdi’s Violetta. For those who had dark colorings and ample power, there was Verdi’s Aida. Ms. Tebaldi sang all these roles, and thank goodness for opera that she was pushed in this direction.

But things have changed. Though there is no lack of wonderful vocal talent today, young voices are not being nurtured for this particular repertory as they once were. Instead, fledgling singers have the option of forging a distinctive artistic persona in the much broader repertory that has been embraced by companies everywhere.

Take Renée Fleming. If she had come along during the Tebaldi era, she would probably have been pressured by teachers to build up her sound and steered by impresarios into the lirico spinto repertory. Her new Decca recording, “Homage: The Age of the Diva,” offers a hint of what might have been, with Ms. Fleming’s intimate and emotional account of the emblematic aria “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca.”

But from the start, Ms. Fleming had wide-ranging musical interests and keen dramatic instincts. As she has often explained, she wanted no part of being compared endlessly to immortal divas in roles like Mimi and Butterfly, not when she could sing Mozart roles with such distinctive elegance or bring a lighter vocal touch and rich expressivity to Strauss roles like Arabella and the Marschallin. Dvorak’s Rusalka, a role in Czech, has become a calling card for her. Later this season at the Met she will sing a Russian role, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s “Yevgeny Onegin.” And then there are the roles she has created in new works, like Blanche in André Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire.”

While sticking to her convictions, Ms. Fleming has gotten the Met to mount premiere productions of rarities like Bellini’s “Pirata,” Handel’s “Rodelinda” and the 1955 American opera “Susannah” by Carlisle Floyd for her. In the 2009-10 season, the imaginative stage director Mary Zimmerman is to direct another Met first for Ms. Fleming, Rossini’s “Armida,” in which a fearsome sorceress dispatches volleys of blazing coloratura.

So why should Ms. Fleming portray, say, Tosca, only to have many opera buffs, bloggers and critics carp that she is no Tebaldi? Look what happened when she took on Violetta at the Met in 2003. She gave a deeply personal and vocally elegant portrayal and enjoyed, over all, a fine success. Still, as predicted, a part of the opera world criticized her for daring to sing the role at all.

These days, it has often been said, most opera companies find it easier to cast works by Mozart, Rossini, Strauss, Janacek, Britten and other composers whose music demands of singers a literate feeling for text, solid musicianship and sophisticated dramatic instincts; works that rely less on the plush vocal richness essential to the core Puccini and Verdi repertory. Even Wagner is a little easier to cast today than, say, Verdi’s “Trovatore.”

A singer must have ample power, incisive attack and uncommon stamina to be a great Wagnerian. But unlike the Italian spinto tradition, the Wagner tradition has invited a wide range of vocal approaches and colorings. Both Birgit Nilsson, with her cool, gleaming, focused sound, and Nilsson’s contemporary Astrid Varnay, with her warm, dusky, vulnerable voice, were ideal as Isolde and Brünnhilde.

Yet in this Wagner wing of the repertory, too, some potentially legendary artists have been shying away from major roles in recent years, choosing instead to explore the new repertory options available to them. Deborah Voigt, for one, is a splendid interpreter of Wagner’s Sieglinde, Elisabeth and Elsa. To judge from a live recording of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Vienna State Opera in 2003 (a performance I attended), she might have the makings of a historic Isolde if she were to commit herself to the role. Then there is Brünnhilde in the “Ring” operas, a role Ms. Voigt would seem born to. She signed on to new productions of two of the works in the cycle, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung,” for 2008 at the Vienna State Opera, and was also ready to sing the “Ring” at the Met. But then she withdrew.

Why? In an interview last year Ms. Voigt told me that, for one thing, she was still adjusting physically and vocally to her much slimmer body after highly publicized gastric bypass surgery. Beyond that, she asked, why take on Brünnhilde just to face the inevitable comparisons to the greats of the past? (As a gesture to the Vienna State Opera, she has now agreed to sing just in “Siegfried” in that 2008 production.)

From the start, Ms. Voigt has seized opportunities to make personal artistic statements in enticing, lesser-known Strauss roles, like the Empress in “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” and the title role of “Die Liebe der Danae,” which I heard her sing enchantingly at the Salzburg Festival in 2002. This season the Met is mounting a true rarity for her: Strauss’s “Ägyptische Helena.” And she has just begun a run at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in a new Francesca Zambello production of Strauss’s “Salome,” a role she always had the voice for but, before her weight loss, not the body.

The point is, even if elements of the vocal heritage have declined, on balance the field of opera is better off with the much broader repertory that is currently available, not to mention the growing curiosity among audiences and companies for new operas. But there is a trade-off. Nurturing a vocally luminous Butterfly, Tosca and Leonora takes careful work within a narrowly focused tradition.

It takes something extra to produce a true Cio-Cio-San. Among all the Puccini roles, this may be the hardest to cast. To convey the adolescent innocence of this fatally trusting geisha, Puccini composed gently lyrical, Asian-tinged melodic lines that should be sung with clear-toned beauty. Yet the role also calls for viscerally emotional outbursts and, in the final scene, chilling intensity.

Farrar’s voice encompassed the whole range of emotions and colorings. Albanese also excelled as Butterfly, singing the role about 80 times at the Met. Tebaldi, de los Angeles and Ms. Price were short-lived Butterflys who performed the role fewer than 15 times each at the Met, though all three made classic recordings.

Mr. Gelb seems to understand that an opera company can no longer count on a new Tebaldi to take on the touchstone Italian repertory, nor a Mirella Freni, who has been called “the last prima donna” by commentators who see her as the last soprano with a direct connection to the old school. Still, there are many major artists before the public today who have forged unconventional career paths, like the thrilling Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who has brought her gleaming voice and stunning dramatic presence to an incomprehensibly wide range of roles, from Strauss’s Salome to, of all things, Puccini’s coquettish Musetta. This season she returns to the Met in her mesmerizing portrayal of Janacek’s Jenufa. Mr. Gelb has announced plans for a new production of “Tosca” starring Ms. Mattila in the 2009-10 season. Though this is an exciting prospect, Ms. Mattila will not bring to the role a Tosca voice in the storied Italian tradition.

Again, I welcome the broader repertory and new commitment to presenting opera as an adventurous genre of musical drama, as in the Met’s new “Madama Butterfly.” Still, I count myself lucky to have heard during my adolescence and early 20’s some of the legendary practitioners of that great tradition when it was still going strong. When you heard Tebaldi as Mimi, Nilsson as Brünnhilde, Ms. Price as Aida or Joan Sutherland as Lucia di Lammermoor, who even noticed the production?

Peter Norman: Third Man on the Podium,0,1869393.column?coll=la-home-headlines

M&C note: this article is a great example of why this blog exists. This was an illuminating story, an excellent article, and I cannot find online anymore, anywhere. I think it deserves to be read. If anyone finds an updated link, please let me know.

LA Times

His place in history went hand in glove with theirs
J.A. Adande

October 22, 2006

Have you ever watched a movie for the 10th time and noticed something that you've never seen before? Did you wonder how you possibly could have missed it?

That's the way I felt when I learned that John Carlos and Tommie Smith flew to Australia to serve as pallbearers in the funeral of Peter Norman, the third man on the medal stand with them in that iconic photo of their black-gloved protest at the 1968 Olympics.

I'd stared at that photograph until its image was burned onto my retinas and I never registered Norman. I'd read every article I came across about Smith and Carlos, including an exceptional two-part Sports Illustrated series by Kenny Moore in 1991, and I didn't have a clue about the Australian sprinter who won the silver medal in that 200-meter race.

"Then you don't really know about the story," Carlos said.

It's a lesson in how a single moment of solidarity can lead to a lifetime bond. It's an inspiring example of how people from different races and different countries can find unity in what is right.

"It's important for this story to be told," Carlos said. "Regardless of what your ethnicity is, you have to play and will play a very important part of what this society is."

It started after the 200-meter race, which was won by Smith. Smith and Carlos, the bronze medalist, wanted to use their moment in the spotlight to protest discrimination against black people in America. They would wear black socks to the medal stand to symbolize the poverty afflicting so many black people. They wore gloves to symbolize black power and unity. They also wore buttons with the logo for activist Harry Edwards' Olympic Project for Human Rights. Norman wanted to be involved.

"I merely asked Mr. Norman, 'Do you believe in human rights?' " Carlos said. "He said, 'Yes.' "

Carlos borrowed an OPHR button from American rower Paul Hoffman and gave it to Norman. Norman wore it during the medal ceremony and stood still, arms by his side, while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played in honor of Smith's victory. As the song started, Smith's right arm went up, straight as a flagpole. Carlos raised his left arm, bent slightly at the elbow.

It's one of the enduring images of the 1960s. Today the picture can be found on posters, on T-shirts and all over the Internet. Before Norman died on Oct. 3, it wasn't so easy to find an accompanying caption that included his name. Sometimes he's cropped completely out of the photo.

When San Jose State, the alma mater of Smith and Carlos, commissioned a statue to honor the moment, Norman wasn't included. His spot on the platform was left empty. That didn't keep him from joining Smith and Carlos on campus for the unveiling last year.

Of the 13,809 words in that Sports Illustrated series, only 96 were used in sentences about Norman.

But to Carlos, Norman's show of support was an integral part of the experience. For a white man from Australia to figuratively stand beside two black Americans who were sure to catch fire went "beyond" the average individual, Carlos said.

"It was about having an understanding as to who we are and where we were trying to go as men," Carlos said.

At Norman's memorial in the Melbourne suburb of Williamstown, Carlos expressed admiration for Norman's resolve, even when facing criticism in Australia. Like Smith and Carlos, Norman's post-Olympic life was challenging: His first marriage ended, an infection nearly led to amputation of a leg and he battled alcoholism.

"He never flinched," Carlos said. "He never reneged. He never denied us. He never said, 'Ouch.'

"He was stern about what he stood for. I respect him and love him for the rest of my life, as much as I did the first time I looked in his eyes. I think it was a divine moment, a spiritual moment from God to set a precedent for the world to see — even though they have never told the story."

Norman's nephew, Matt Norman, is bringing the tale to the big screen with a movie called "Salute — The Peter Norman Story" that he hopes to get into the Sundance film festival. (Carlos said he has met with Imagine Entertainment regarding a movie about his and Smith's saga. Through an intermediary, Imagine President Michael Rosenberg said he had not heard of the project.)

Matt Norman said that he would honor his uncle's memory by donating a portion of his movie's profits to Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. You've seen those New Orleans pictures. You know most of those faces look nothing like Peter Norman.

It's not always about making decisions based on surface similarities. It's about looking deeper and doing what's right. That's what we can take from Norman's 64 years on the planet. That's what inspired the 61-year-old Carlos to take time off from his counseling job at Palm Springs High and take a 14-hour flight to Australia for the funeral.

"I think Peter would have done no less had it been John Carlos in that box," Carlos said. "I was compelled. I had to be there."

He and Smith helped carry Norman's coffin out of the service, and said a final goodbye.

"You say, 'Man, that's the end of Peter Norman's life on this earth,' " Carlos said. "His history will go on."

For people like me, it's just beginning.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Celebrating Toru Takemitsu

music box
High Score
Who's the greatest film composer of all time?
By Jan Swafford
Posted Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006, at 3:19 PM ET

We all know that trying to decide who's "the best" in matters of the arts, and especially who's best in the art of music, is a bad idea. But let's be bad. Let's do it: Here's my nomination for best film composer of all time.

A little background. It's been said that to be a true film composer, you have to be a master of every style but your own. There's some truth in that, as rampant eclecticism is the rule. But in fact one style dominated movies for a long time: Max Steiner's faux-primitive ooga-booga music for the 1933 King Kong was the first full film score of the talkie era, and it set a number of precedents. Steiner was a Viennese who could emit late-19th-century music, redolent of Strauss and Mahler, by the kilo. Outside Skull Island, that plush orchestral sound would dominate film scores for the following decades: the Austro-German-Hollywood grand style epitomized by Steiner and another Austrian, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (In recent years, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and others have returned, or regressed, to that approach, as channeled by John Williams in Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and so on.) Second, Steiner's King Kong score established the idea of wall-to-wall music behind films—his Gone With the Wind score shuts up for only about 20 minutes of the movie. Third, he popularized the kind of obsessive musical mimesis called "Mickey Mousing." When a horse jumps over a fence in Gone With the Wind, Steiner's harp glissando follows her up and over.

Steiner scored hundreds of movies, but not everybody adored him. When Bette Davis was filming the scene in Dark Victory (1939) where she climbs the stairs in the middle of going blind, she stopped halfway up and came down to demand of the director: "Is Steiner doing the music for this?" The director admitted Steiner was. "Then I'm not going up those stairs," Davis said. "If Max is doing the movie it'll be me and him both going up the stairs, and it'll wreck my scene." The director promised Davis no music. In the end, though, Steiner did score the scene and, inevitably, mucked it up.

Then and now, producers and directors spoke a different language than musicians. What does a composer do with a direction like, "Write something hopeful, but with a sad undertone and a little sexy." You nod, do what you want, and hope for the best. When William Wyler heard one of Aaron Copland's cues for The Heiress, he said, "No, Aaron, it's all wrong. What I want for this scene is a nice lesbian tune." Nice lesbian tune, thought Copland. What he did was to go home and stick a few funny notes into the same tune, then bring it back to Wyler, who cried: "That's it exactly! A lesbian tune!" (Copland won an Oscar for The Heiress. I once asked him what he thought about writing for film. "It pays really well," was all he had to say.)

A lot of people will declare, as I would have at one time, that the greatest film composer of all, hands-down, is Bernard Herrmann. His résumé starts spectacularly with Citizen Kane in 1939, and he died virtually in the saddle in 1976, hours after the last recording session for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. En route, Herrmann scored Hitchcock films including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Herrmann's most famous moment is also, I submit, the quintessential movie-music cue: the shower scene in Psycho. It's one of those bits (the shark music in Jaws is another) that you only need to "sing," or rather, howl—as in Reeeek! Reeeek! Reeeek!—to conjure up the whole bloody affair. Psycho is as much state of mind as movie, and the shower scene embodies that. The music is utterly expressive of the action: The string glissandi make a nasty slicing sound that equally suggests female screams and the shrieks of predatory birds (recall Norman's little taxidermic hobby). Above all, the cue is perfect because it's nearly invisible, so imbedded in the moment that I suspect a lot of people don't realize there's "music" in the scene at all.

Herrmann did a row of classic movies and pioneered modern film-scoring, but he's no longer my nominee for greatest of all. My new champion is a composer who's scored nearly 100 films, from thriller to arty, who had an encyclopedic command of style as well as a singular voice of his own, and who is numbered in the highest rank of modern concert-hall composers—something many film composers aspired to but only one achieved: Toru Takemitsu.

Takemitsu was an amazing figure: a first-rate straight composer, detective novelist, and fanatic of film and pop music. ("My teachers," he said, "are Duke Ellington and nature.") Despite his success in the concert hall, he's not properly recognized in the United States for his movie work simply because many of his movies never made it here. But there's enough that can be found in your video store to show what he could do, including Woman in the Dunes and, near the end of his life, Akira Kurosawa's Ran.

In terms of imagination and musical technique, Takemitsu simply had chops beyond Herrmann or anybody else. And if you want to talk about style: Woman in the Dunes has unearthly music close to his concert-hall voice; Rikyu, about a tea-ceremony master, uses short, almost inaudible washes of sound alternating with Renaissance-style viola da gamba music that Takemitsu imitated dead-on. When I first heard the wonderfully cheesy, neo-Burt Bacharach title tune for Kurosawa's Dod'es-kaden, I thought, Takemitsu can't possibly have written this. But he did, and it shows in the scoring: Phrase by phrase, the saccharine little tune is rendered into something new and surprising, starting with marimba and ending with Bach trumpet and recorder. That title tune is the movie: A story about a retarded kid living in a junkyard, which could have been dark and maudlin but is made with a light touch. Takemitsu's sweet-sad tune tells us that from the start.

For the epic battle sequence of Ran, Kurosawa's version of King Lear, the director told Takemitsu he wanted something like Mahler. What Takemitsu gave him is and isn't Mahler. It has a big orchestral sound spread over wide spaces and a Mahleresque sense of doom, but the music is modern, keening with tragedy and horror, utterly unclichéd, as indelibly wedded to the images as the shower scene in Psycho. Together, the music and visuals make the battle in Ran, I propose, one of the most eloquent sequences in all of film.

As he lay dying, Takemitsu lamented that he'd been too sick to go to the movies. In his prime he went several times a week, and he had the means to turn that obsession into something marvelous in an art too little celebrated—and let's face it, much of the time not all that worth celebrating. The ultimate test of Takemitsu's talent is that, like some of Herrmann's, his film scores can work splendidly on their own. Listen to the waltz from The Face of Another. You've probably never heard of the movie, you'd certainly never guess who wrote it, but it sweeps you off your feet.

Addendum, Oct. 18: A helpful reader points out that the waltz from The Face of Another and other film music by Takemitsu can be found on a 1997 Nonesuch compilation, The Film Music of Toru Takemitsu, conducted by John Adams.


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Herrmann was one of the first to understand that the new recording technology allowed for colors and balances that can't be heard in a concert hall. So, he made a historic turn away from the old, creamy, neo-Romantic style to smaller, carefully chosen ensembles playing fewer but more subtle cues, and he wielded an expanded repertoire of styles. The opening of Citizen Kane is as revolutionary musically as visually: mournful strains from an idiosyncratic ensemble including moaning trombones, bass clarinets, and bassoons, plus dissonant vibraphone harmonies and sighing, low flutes. Herrmann was also one of the first to use the eerie electronic theremin—two of them, actually, in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Jan Swafford is a composer and writer living in Massachusetts. He is the author of Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Bebo Valdés

NYT October 13, 2006
Listening With: Bebo Valdés
Far From Cuba, but Not From His Roots


THE Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, who will receive a proper welcome from Jazz at Lincoln Center this weekend, lives here, just outside Stockholm, with his wife, Rose Marie, in a small ground-floor apartment. Its shelves and walls serve as a kind of index to his remarkable life.

There are books of sheet music by Rachmaninoff and Chopin; a photo of him in a tuxedo, tall and commanding, on the cover of “Cha Cha Cha & Mambo for Small Dance Bands,” a book he wrote and published in Havana in the 1950’s, aiming at the English-language market; paintings by Haitian artists; Joseph Schillinger’s “System of Musical Composition,” the dense theoretical books beloved by intellectual musicians of the 1940’s and 50’s that break down melody, harmony and rhythm into mathematic logic. There is, incongruously, a shelf of pop-music lead-sheet books like “100 of the Greatest Easy Listening Hits,” all well thumbed. Then there are some recent awards, including several Grammys, and a ceremonial key to the city of Miami.

To explain all this requires going back a bit. Slavery officially ended in Cuba in 1886. Ramon Valdés, universally known as Bebo, was born in 1918. His mother came from a Spanish family, and his paternal grandfather was a slave. Afro-Cuban jazz is the ultimate mixture of African, European and New World culture. It is not at all uncommon for a Latin jazz group now to put the batá, the two-headed drum of Yoruban religious music, alongside elements of European harmony and American swing. But hand drums were effectively prohibited in Cuba in the early 20th century, and Mr. Valdés remembers a time when the batá was never, ever used in dance music. He reckons he was the first to do so, in 1952.

He graduated from the Conservatorio Municipal in Havana. “It was the poor man’s conservatory, and the best,” he insists. A gifted arranger, he worked with his hero, Ernesto Lecuona — probably the greatest Cuban composer of the 20th century — after graduating in the mid-40’s.

Mr. Valdés was in the inner circle of musicians who developed the mambo, along with the multi-instrumentalist Orestes Lopez and his brother, the bassist Israel (Cachao) Lopez. For much of the 1950’s, during the height of the mambo’s popularity, Mr. Valdés was the pianist of the house orchestra at the Tropicana, the biggest nightclub in Havana, and the club’s musical adviser. He played with, or arranged for, most of Cuba’s star singers and musicians, including Beny More (who sang with the orchestra at Tropicana), Miguelito Valdés, Pío Leyva and Chano Pozo. When Nat King Cole, a habitué of the Tropicana, came to Havana to record his Spanish-language record “Cole Español,” Mr. Valdés played piano and arranged the album. He was the epicenter of a thriving world.

He had five children in Cuba, including Chucho Valdés, who has since become one of the greatest pianists in the world. In 1960, after the revolution, the senior Mr. Valdés fled Cuba — first to Mexico, where he worked in television and in the recording studios, and then to Spain. In Stockholm, on a European tour with a group called Lecuona’s Cuban Boys, he met and fell in love with Rose Marie Pehrson. He was 44, and she was 18.

It was 1963. He wanted to relocate to New York, but, as a black man with a white wife, he was warned by friends against moving to the United States. For a while he bided his time: he remembers being of the opinion that Castro’s regime would not last much longer.

He has never returned to Cuba. He stayed in Stockholm, starting a new family and playing piano in hotel lounges for more than 30 years. (Hence the easy-listening songbooks.) He has a working musician’s pride, and no regrets.

His reputation flourished again at a point in his life when most musicians are busy resisting decline. In 1994, at the behest of the Cuban jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, he recorded “Bebo Rides Again,” his first album in three decades. It was to be a loose, jam-session record, but Mr. Valdés insisted on structure. He arranged nine of his own songs for a nonet in two days.

In 2000 he took part in “Calle 54,” Fernando Trueba’s documentary film about Latin jazz. Subsequently Mr. Trueba formed a record label with the film and music historian Nat Chediak and made a series of recordings involving Mr. Valdés. One of them, “Lágrimas Negras,” an album of boleros by Mr. Valdés and the flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, sold nearly a million copies, mostly in Europe. In Madrid and Barcelona particularly, crowds have started to applaud him on the street and in restaurants. He has done better financially in his 80’s than at any other time in his life.

He has released three more albums since “Lágrimas Negras,” including “Bebo de Cuba,” a double disc that won a Grammy and a Latin Grammy last year. It includes his “Suite Cubana,” which will be performed tonight and tomorrow at Rose Theater with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

Mr. Valdés turned 88 on Monday. He and Rose Marie live not far from their two Swedish-born sons, Rickard and Raymond.

He is cheerful, and extremely punctual. He takes small steps and moves quickly, especially toward his piano. He claims he is never tired. (“And I’m not bragging,” he said.) He practices scales and arpeggios for 30 minutes daily and prefers to eat one meal, around lunchtime. He talks about rhythm analytically and does not dance well; he seems to take a kind of pride in this. He does not drink alcohol but takes in prodigious amounts of American coffee.

Mr. Valdés spoke in Spanish, with a translator, with little sprays of English. His memory for names and dates is sharp, and for a journalist’s visit, he prepared a precise list of music to listen to, each piece keyed to particular fascinations.

The first piece was by his hero, Ernesto Lecuona. We heard Lecuona himself play his short piece “La Paloma,” which incorporates late-Romantic rhapsodies and elegant dance rhythms in flexible tempo.

“I first heard of Lecuona when I was in conservatory, in 1934,” Mr. Valdés said. Was his music taught in conservatories then? “Oh, no, no,” he said, surprised by the idea. “Only classical. Everything we learned in conservatory was before Cervantes.”

He was speaking of Ignacio Cervantes, the Cuban composer who died in 1905. A conversation with Mr. Valdés goes this way. You are immersed in about 150 years of Cuban music, stretching from African- derived abakuá chants to contradanzas to boleros to mambo and modern Latin jazz. At the mention of Cervantes’s name, Mr. Valdés sits at the piano and performs all of Cervantes’s short, stately “Danza No. 1.”

“He was Lecuona’s favorite,” he remembered. “You couldn’t criticize Cervantes around him. He did wonderful things, but rhythmically, he copied Saumell.” (The reference was to Manuel Saumell Robredo, considered the father of Cuban contradanza.) He played part of “Danza No. 1” again, emphasizing the syncopated five-note pattern called the cinquillo, which he says is what makes the contradanza particularly Cuban.

He got back to the Lecuona. “He’s doing three things at the same time. The left hand plays the rhythm, the accompaniment, and the right hand the melody. On top of that there’s a lot of improvising.”

Mr. Valdés revered Lecuona for the prodigious keyboard talents lying underneath his gifts as a composer: he was performing at the age of 5.

“He was a great person, Ernesto, and a great musician. When he won a piano competition in Paris, in 1928, they asked him to play something of his own, and he played ‘La Comparsa.’ The ovation was enormous. With the money he made from winning the competition, he bought himself a farm, which he called La Comparsa. I think maybe it’s spiritual. When we were filming ‘Calle 54,’ I didn’t know what to play. So I played ‘La Comparsa,’ and for a lot of people, it’s their favorite part of the movie.”

We moved on to Art Tatum. “My favorite pianist,” he boomed. “He and Bill Evans.” Unstoppable, he played Evans’s “Waltz for Debby,” complete with a full chorus of rigorous improvisation. “I love to improvise,” he said.

We listened to Tatum playing “Without a Song,” solo, from the 1955 recordings made at a private party in Beverly Hills. It is fully animated, never staying in one rhythm, with tremendous, crashing, full-keyboard runs — always through appropriate chord changes — functioning as steppingstones. “It’s virtuosic in technique — totally classical, with modern harmony,” he said. “He was the first pianist I ever heard playing modern harmonies and playing them with heart.”

Tatum, he added, “was always improvising. He would change time signatures, put one harmony on top of another. I try to imitate him at times, but who am I?”

When Mr. Valdés was solidifying his reputation in Havana, several of his compatriots were making waves in New York. (Mr. Valdés never spent time there: offered a visa for only 29 days in the 40’s, he decided against such a short stay.) In 1947 Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was joined by the conga player Chano Pozo, who drilled the band in how to play the tumbao, the conjunction of rhythm-section lines in Cuban music. The band’s great document of the period is the song “Manteca,” which became a hit in the United States.

Mr. Valdés maintains that Gillespie’s American band played the Cuban rhythms perfectly. He put the track on. “What I hear most is the conga, and the changes in the bass. And the boom-bah, boom-bah,” he sang, imitating the baritone saxophone.

“That’s all the tumbao of mambo,” he said. “It’s completely the mambo style of Cachao.” Halfway through, the song lifts out of Cuban rhythm into jazz swing, with more arranged harmony, and he savored the shift.

Right after this, he put on a Frank Sinatra track from 1960, “Nice ’n’ Easy,” arranged by Nelson Riddle. It has the midtempo bounce of Sinatra records at the time, a rhythmic feeling that thrills Mr. Valdés. “Nobody can play music like that except in America, that kind of swing, that time,” he said. “It’s impeccable. The most difficult thing in the world is to play slowly and keep time. When I listen to this, I see American black people dancing.”

“Even though I’m Cuban, I’m really an American arranger,” he reflected. “Because the way I write has as much to do with American music as it does with Cuban music. And at the same time it has to do with the fugue.” (An example of his fugue writing comes in the middle of “Devoción,” a beguiling part of his “Suite Cubana.”)

It was pointed out to him that fugues have little to do with Cuban or American music. “Yes, but I do it anyway,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I, if I know how?”

He brought out the sheet music to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, to use as a reference as we listened to it. “I was studying composition and harmony when I heard this performed by the Havana Symphony, in the 40’s,” he said.

What he wanted to show, in the third movement of the piece, was how the composer builds a beautiful, fragile melody, then protects it as the orchestra swells around it. “When I hear the music build to a crescendo, I feel like crying,” he said.

I asked if he was able to use this device in his own arranging. “Whenever I can get away with it,” he thundered. He put on “Copla No. 4,” the guajira section of his “Suite Cubana,” to demonstrate. It has the same effect: big, brass-heavy crescendos, building in intensifying shades and colors around the melody.

“When you know classical music, you can do what you want to do,” Mr. Valdés said, and then he recited an old maxim to indicate that he had succeeded on his own terms: “Es mejor ser la cabeza de un perro que la cola de un tiburón.” It’s better to be the head of a dog than the tail of a shark.

Freddy Fender (1937-2006)

Freddy Fender, 69; Grammy Winner Grew Tex-Mex Appeal
Los Angeles Times
By Valerie J. Nelson
Times Staff Writer

October 15, 2006

Freddy Fender, a Grammy-winning musician who was one of the first Mexican American artists to successfully cross over to the mainstream pop market and who helped introduce Tex-Mex music to a wider audience in the 1990s, has died. He was 69.

Fender, who had been fighting lung cancer since early this year, died Saturday at his longtime home in Corpus Christi, Texas, a family spokesman said.

Open about his battles with drug and alcohol abuse, Fender also had struggled with diabetes and hepatitis C. He had a kidney transplant in 2002 using an organ donated by a 21-year-old daughter. Two years later, he got a liver transplant.

"I feel very comfortable in my life. I'm one year away from 70 and I've had a good run," Fender told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in August after his cancer was diagnosed as incurable.

His life as a performer could be viewed as three distinct acts and included an interlude in prison.

He began as a 1950s balladeer who performed rock covers in Spanish as El Be-Bop Kid, then came back in 1975 as a country act with the chart-topping hit "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." In the 1990s, he earned high praise as a member of the Texas Tornados, a Tex-Mex group of all-stars.

"Texas has been blessed with a handful of singular voices that define the sound of our state and the pinnacle of artistic expression," Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office in Austin and a former music critic, told the Dallas Morning News in 1997.

In 2001, Fender received a Grammy Award for best Latin pop album for "La Musica de Baldemar Huerta." He also shared two other Grammys for best Mexican American performance in 1990 with the Texas Tornados and in 1998 with another group of Latin all-stars, Los Super Seven.

With his pompadour haircut and Spanish-language cover of "Don't Be Cruel" ("No Seas Cruel") and other songs, Fender was considered the "Elvis of the Rio Grande."

"I was the first to take Hispanic rock 'n' roll south of the border," Fender told the Sacramento Bee in 2002. "I demand recognition for being the one that broke it in."

The curtain fell hard on Fender's early career when he was arrested in 1960 in Baton Rouge, La., for possession of a small amount of marijuana. He spent almost three years in the Louisiana state prison at Angola.

"I'm not bitter, but if friends ask, I still say the three years I had to spend in Angola state prison was a long time for a little mistake," he told the Associated Press in 1975.

After his release, Fender spent several years living in San Benito, Texas, and playing gigs on weekends. He worked as an auto mechanic and studied sociology at a community college.

He found fame on the national stage in the mid-1970s when record producer Huey Meaux persuaded Fender to bring his soulful tenor to country music. Recorded for a regional label in Texas, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" became the nation's No. 1 pop and country hit in April 1975. The mellow song included a verse in Spanish.

Later that year, Fender recorded a version of the Doris Day hit "Secret Love," which reached No. 20 on the charts, and remade his late 1950s recording "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," which climbed to No. 8.

Other pop and country hits followed.

The late 1970s were the "best years of my life" artistically, Fender told The Times in 1992, but drugs and alcohol had taken a toll by the mid-1980s.

"Even well into my career, my thing was always music and a good time…. Any problem I had, I would drink it away. I would cocaine it away," Fender told the Morning News.

His wife and friends persuaded him to seek treatment, and he spent time in a drug rehabilitation center in 1985.

After he emerged, his career took a mild Hollywood turn. Robert Redford called to ask him to appear as the mayor in the 1998 film "The Milagro Beanfield War." Fender also acted in several other movies.

In 1989, Fender was "playing bookings for peanuts" when he was asked to team with three other elder statesmen of the Tex-Mex sound — Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez — to form the Texas Tornados.

"You've heard of New Kids on the Block? Well, we're the old farts in the neighborhood," Fender, then 54, joked to People magazine in 1991.

Branded the "Tex-Mex equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys and Grateful Dead" by the Detroit Free Press, the group recorded and performed off and on through much of the 1990s.

They received overwhelmingly positive reviews for their classic Texas mix of country, rock and Tejano. One hit was "Little Bit Is Better Than Nada," which was featured on the soundtrack of the 1996 film "Tin Cup."

Still, Fender remained committed to a career as a solo artist, alternately touring alone and with the Tornados. In 1998, he reunited with Jimenez to appear with Los Super Seven.

Asked by The Times in 1990 if he hoped to use the Tornados as a vehicle to jump-start his solo career, Fender answered: "Is pork chops greasy? I guess we all want it."

He was born Baldemar Garza Huerta on June 4, 1937, in the south Texas town of San Benito and raised around traditional ranchera music, which is heavily influenced by polka. His father, who sang casually, died of tuberculosis in 1945.

With his large extended family, Fender started traveling north when he was about 10 to pick cherry orchards, tomato patches and cotton fields. His guitar was usually nearby, and he learned to appreciate the blues sung by the blacks he worked alongside.

Inspired by the 1949 John Wayne movie "Sands of Iwo Jima," Fender lied about his age — he was 16 — and joined the Marines. He served from 1954 to 1956. He had dropped out of school in the eighth grade.

After his military discharge, he decided to pursue a career as a rocker and was advised to change his name to soften his ethnicity to appeal to a wider audience. He renamed himself Freddy Fender after the Fender guitars and amplifiers he used.

In 1957, he married the former Evangelina Muniz, who survives him. The couple divorced after he got out of prison in 1963 and remarried two years later. They had five children; one son died in a car accident.

"The only thing that has ever been good to me is my music…. It got me out of a lot of predicaments," Fender told the Morning News in 1997. "When I open my mouth and I start singing like a little bird, everything is OK.",0,6811305.story?coll=la-home-obituaries

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Essay: Why I Gave Up On Hip-Hop

Why I Gave Up On Hip-Hop

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker

Washington Post
Sunday, October 15, 2006; B01

My 12-year-old daughter, Sydney, and I were in the car not long ago when she turned the radio to a popular urban contemporary station. An unapproved station. A station that might play rap music. "No way, Syd, you know better," I said, so Sydney changed the station, then pouted.

"Mommy, can I just say something?" she asked. "You think every time you hear a black guy's voice it's automatically going to be something bad. Are you against hip-hop?"

Her words slapped me in the face. In a sense, she was right. I haven't listened to radio hip-hop for years. I have no clue who is topping the charts and I can't name a single rap song in play.

But I swear it hasn't always been that way.

My daughter can't know that hip-hop and I have loved harder and fallen out further than I have with any man I've ever known.

That my decision to end our love affair had come only after years of disappointment and punishing abuse. After I could no longer nod my head to the misogyny or keep time to the vapid materialism of another rap song. After I could no longer sacrifice my self-esteem or that of my two daughters on an altar of dope beats and tight rhymes.

No, darling, I'm not anti-hip-hop, I told her. And it's true, I still love hip-hop. It's just that our relationship has gotten very complicated.

When those of us who grew up with rap saw signs that it was turning ugly, we turned away. We premised our denial on a sort of good-black-girl exceptionalism: They came for the skeezers but I didn't speak up because I'm no skeezer, they came for the freaks, but I said nothing because I'm not a freak. They came for the bitches and the hos and the tricks. And by the time we realized they were talking about bitches from 8 to 80, our daughters and our mommas and their own damn mommas, rap music had earned the imprimatur of MTV and Martha Stewart and even the Pillsbury Doughboy.

And sometimes it can seem like now, there is nobody left who is willing to speak up.

I remember the day hip-hop found me. The year was 1979 and although "Rapper's Delight" wasn't the first rap song, it was the first rap song to make it all the way from the South Bronx to Hazel Crest, Ill.

I was 12, the same age my oldest daughter is now, when hip-hop began to shape my politics and perceptions and aesthetics. It gave me a meter for my thoughts and bent my mind toward metaphor and rhyme. I couldn't sing a lick, but didn't hip-hop give me the beginnings of a voice. About the time that rap music hit Hazel Crest, all the black kids sat in the front of my school bus, all the white kids sat in back, and the loudest of each often argued about what we were going to listen to on the bus radio or boombox. Music was code for turf and race in the middle-class, mostly-white-but-heading-black suburbs south of Chicago.

One day, our bus driver tried to defuse tensions by disallowing both. Left without music, some of the black kids started singing "Rapper's Delight." Within a couple of lines, we all joined in:

Now what you hear is not a test

I'm rappin' to the beat.

Then the white kids started chanting: Dis-co sucks, dis-co sucks, dis-co sucks, dis-co sucks , repeating the white-backlash, anti-rap mantra of the era.

The white kids got louder: DIS-CO SUCKS, DIS-CO SUCKS, DIS-CO SUCKS, DIS-CO SUCKS.

So we got louder, too:




Then the white kids started yelling until their faces suffused with color.

And so we started yelling rhymes that I still know to this day, some of which my kids know and, I bet, so do some of the kids of those white kids who screamed at us from the back of my junior high school bus, raging against change, raging against black people, or, who knows, maybe just not appreciating our musical stylings.


We rhymed and the white kids disappeared before our eyes because we were in another world -- transported by the collective sound of our own raised voices, transfixed by our newfound ability to drown out their nullification.

We felt ourselves united, with the power of a language we didn't begin to understand. "Rap at its best can refashion the world -- or at least the way we see it -- and shape it in our own image," said Adam Bradley, a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College who is working on a book about hip-hop poetics. It has the capacity "to give a voice that's distinctively our own and to do it with the kind of confidence and force we might not otherwise have."

I grew older, and my love affair with the music, swagger and semiotics of hip-hop continued. There was Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel and the seminal Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five:

Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge

I'm tryin' not to lose my head.

I learned all the rhymes played on black radio, because do you remember when MTV wouldn't touch black music at all? I got to college and started getting my beats underground, which is where I stayed to find my hip-hop treasures. Public Enemy rapped "Fight the Power" and it could have been the soundtrack to CNN footage of Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall:

Got to give us what we want

Gotta give us what we need

Our freedom of speech is freedom or death

We got to fight the powers that be.

I was young and hungry and hip-hop was smart, and like Neneh Cherry said, we were raw like sushi back then, sensing we were onto something big, not realizing how easily it could get away from us.

* * *

Of course, the rhymes were sexy, too, part of a long black tradition starting with the post-emancipation blues. It was music that borrowed empathy and passion from exultations of the sacred, to try to score a bit of heaven in secular places.

It was college, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the post-civil rights, post-sexual revolution, newly grown hip-hop generation imagined that we had shed our momma's chastity-equals-black-uplift strictures anyway. So when MC Lyte rapped, "I ain't afraid of the sweat," well, you know, we waved our hands in the air. Besides, it was underground music, adult music, part of a wide range of expression, and it's not like we worried that it could ever show up on the radio.

Hip-hop was still largely about the break-beat and dance moves and brothers who battled solely on wax. It was Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Dana Dane, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest. And always and forever, Lonnae Loves Cool James. I knew all LL Cool J's b-sides and used to sleep under a poster of him that hung on my wall. I still have a picture of the two of us that was taken one Howard homecoming weekend.

And if, gradually, we noticed a trend, more violence, more misogyny, more materialism, more hostile sexual stereotyping, a general constricting of subject matter, for a very long time we let it slide.

In 1988, EPMD rapped about a woman named Jane:

So PMD (Yo?) Why don't you do me a favor?

Chill with the bitch and I'll hook you up later

She's fly, haircut like Anita Baker

Looked up and down and said "Hmm, I'll take her."

But by last spring, it was Atlanta-based rapper T.I.:

I ain't hangin' with my niggaz

Pullin' no triggaz

I'll be back to the trap, but for now

I'm chillin' with my bitch today, I'm chillin' with my bitch today.

Nearly 20 years later and T.I. can't even be bothered to give his "bitch" a name.

We were so happy black men were speaking their truth, "we've gone too long without challenging them," as Danyel Smith, former editor of Vibe magazine, put it. And now, perhaps, hip-hop is too far gone.

* * *

At the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, rappers Snoop Doggy Dog and 50 Cent embellished their performance of the song "P.I.M.P." by featuring black women on leashes being walked onstage. This past August, MTV2 aired an episode of the cartoon "Where My Dogs At," which had Snoop again leading two black bikini-clad women around on leashes. They squatted on their hands and knees, scratched themselves and defecated.

The president of the network, a black woman, defended this as satire.

Hip-hop had long since gone mainstream and commercial. It was Diddy, white linen suits and Cristal champagne in the Hamptons. And it was for white suburban boys as well as black club kids. And it now promoted a sexual aesthetic, a certain body type, a certain look. Southern rappers had even popularized a kind of strip-club rap making black women indistinguishable from strippers.

I don't know the day things changed for me. When the music began to seem so obviously divorced from any truth and, just as unforgivably, devoid of most creativity. I don't know when my love turned to contempt and my contempt to fury. Maybe it happened as my children got older and I longed for music that would speak to them the way hip-hop had once spoken to me.

Maybe as the coolest black boys kept getting shot on the streets while the coolest rappers droned: AK-47 now nigga, stop that.

Maybe as the madness made me want to holler back: "Niggas" can't stop AK-47s , and damn you for saying so.

Last year, talk show host Kelly Ripa gushed to 50 Cent, a former drug dealer turned rapper, about how important his movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " was while black women around the country were left to explain to their own black sons, " Sometimes, darling, black boys get shot nine times and they don't live to brag about it on the mike . "

And a few weeks ago, watching the Disney Channel cartoon short "Fabulizer," I seethed when the little white character lamented that his "thug pose" wasn't working.

While the mainstream culture celebrates the pimped-out, thugged-up, cool-by-proxy mirage of commercial rap, those of us who just love black people have to be a little more discriminating. "Sometimes," writes sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy, "when you dress like a gangsta, talk like a gangsta and rap like a gangsta often enough, you are a gangsta."

My husband, Ralph, and I try to tell Sydney that rap music used to be fun. It used to call girls by prettier names. We were ladies and cuties, honeys and hotties, and we all just felt like one nation under the groove. Sydney, I tell her, I want you to have all the creativity, all the bite, all the rhythms of black rhyme, but I can't let you internalize toxic messages, no matter how cool some millionaire black rappers tell you they are.

Sydney nods, but I don't know if she fully understands.

* * *

I was born to be the Lyte

To give the spark in the dark

Spread the truth to the youth

The ghetto Joan of Arc

-- MC Lyte

Last spring, I got together with some other moms from the first generation of hip-hop. We decided to distribute free T-shirts with words that counter some of the most violent, anti-intellectual and degrading cultural messages: You look better without the bullet holes. Put the guns down. Or my favorite: You want this? Graduate! We called it the Hip-Hope Love Project.

Others are trying their own versions of taking back the music. In Baltimore, spoken-word poet Tonya Maria Matthews, aka JaHipster, is launching her own "Groove Squad." The idea is to get together a couple dozen women to go to clubs prepared to walk off the dance floor en masse if the music is openly offensive or derogatory. "There's no party without sisters on the dance floor," she told me. In New York, hip-hop DJ and former model Beverly Bond formed Black Girls Rock! to try to change the portrayal of black women in the music and influence the women who are complicit in it. "We don't want to be hypersexualized," said Joan Morgan, a hip-hop writer and part of the group, but we don't want to be erased, either.

Finally, it feels like we've gotten back to what black women are supposed to have always known: that it is better to fight than to lie down.

My daughter says I don't like black voices and I could weep that it's come to this. But instead I listen to the most conscious hip-hop that comes my way: Common, Talib Kweli, the Roots, KOS, Kanye West, who blends the commercial with commentary. I close my eyes to listen as Mos Def says:

My Umi said shine your light on the world.

And still, always and forever, Lonnae Loves Cool James.

I keep my CD player filled with old-school tracks and I fill my kids' heads with the coolest, most conscious, most bang-bang the boogie say up jump the boogie songs from when hip-hop and I were young. Sydney says I don't like black voices and I say: Ax Butta how I zone/ Man, Cleopatra Jones .

I make Sydney listen to songs from when rap said something, but my daughter is 12 and she laughs at me. Rap says something now, Mommy, she says.

Lean wit' it

Rock wit' it

Lean wit' it

Rock wit' it

She snaps her fingers and I just nod. Change is gonna come. Meanwhile, her song is catchy. And there are no bitches!

At least not in the chorus.

Lonnae O'Neal Parker, a Washington Post staff writer, is author of "I'm Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work" (Amistad/Harper

Collins), out in paperback this month.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company