Thursday, May 31, 2007

Rappers in Iran

The Loneliness of an Iranian Rapper
05/31/2007 01:11AM
Contributed by: WMC_News_Dept.

Articles Contributed by Amir Azizmohamadi

[Warning: This article contains sexually explicit language. If you are offended by such language, please do not continue reading the rest of the article]

Why d'you hate my guts?
'Cause I'm a rapper?
'Cause my voice is not tame?
Or 'cause the streets' deed's in my name?
Gotta mind your business
'Cause in this wilderness
The rule's hard and fast:
"The ones with power
Will the weak devour." (rap singer Hichkas)

About two hundred years ago in Iran, Moshtagh Ali Shah, a mystic musician, was stoned to death when caught singing the Koran to the tunes of his setar, a traditional Iranian musical instrument. Trying to digest the shock of listening to the noise that Iranian rappers call "Rap-e Fars" (Persian Rap), you are doomed to ask whether the climate is any better today for a musician fiddling around with musical and social norms. Their message is no softer than Moshtagh Ali Shah's heretical combination of music and the Koran. Erfan in "One Hundred Oaths" sums up their manifesto:

Gonna make mock of every limit.
Gonna overstep every mark.
Yes, after two millenniums
It's time we broke the cast.

To date no "rap kown" (Iranian rapper) has been stoned, tortured, flogged, or jailed. But only these are what they haven't been going through. Iranian society has employed all the means of silencing and all the silence of indifference to fight back Iranian rap. From every direction all sorts of knives are out against these street bards.

Rap-e Fars is underground, unofficial, and illegal. It is uncompromising, vigorous, and prolific. It is frank, fresh, experimental, and, most of the time, musically stunning. Even if it sometimes has its musical imperfections, Rap-e Fars is still unbelievably popular. It is everywhere in the Iranian teenage world. Pouring out of the windows of cars speeding on Tehran motorways, brightening up teenage parties, and palely leaking out of teenage headphones where there are infidel ears around. The music and words of Rap-e Fars flow quite audibly in most teenage conversations.

Yet even if it were not popular, Iranian rappers would still have to be given the right to produce and sell their songs freely. The right to be watched and heard and talked about publicly. Their failure would have to be left to the public to decide about and to best-seller lists. The prospect of a boisterous rap vanity fair, however, is what dramatically disturbs the inscriptions carved deep in the Iranian psyche.

The Iranian government has never had a brilliant track record in its dealings with music in general. During the Islamic revolution in Iran, pop singers accounted for a big proportion of political exiles and escapees. Over the last three decades, not even once a musical instrument has been displayed on the state TV. More socially accepted forms of music than rap, like pop and rock, are aging in lengthy queues "before the law" for concert permits. No. The government does not seem to be willing to even start flirting with the idea of legalizing rap even in the far future.

And indeed, the words that Iranian rappers are penning make the prospect of an official rap in Iran out of the question. In an interview with Article 19, a London based human rights organization, Sefryan, an Iranian writer, explains that one of his philosophical works "was rejected because of its failure to reference Islam as a factor in the attainment of human happiness." An Iranian national newspaper, the Hambastegi reported on 18 Jan 2007 that the Farsi translation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying had been denied a publication license and considered "unpublishable." Meticulous censorship has, edition after edition, replaced the word "breasts" with ellipses in the line "I'll hide you between my …," from a poem by Forogh Farokhzad, one of the biggest names in contemporary Persian poetry.

Such a system will never tolerate the lyrics of Rap-e Fars, whose dictionary does not contain the word "taboo."

Hichkas, one of the founders of Iranian rap addresses the issue in "The Law":

There is an unwritten law
That no one recorded, no one saw:
"Silently silence the bad voice
Voicelessness is the only choice."

Rap-e Fars, however has broken this law. They "won't stand ceremony," says Yas, an outspoken critic of the follies of society, in a podcast interview mushrooming on fan blogs. Shayan in "Lord" sings: "Let's define a young Iranian: Prison, stick, and flog." Nor does Shayan shy away from singing about alcohol and teenage parties and the consequent punishment:

It's evening and party starts
You get drunk and they flog out
All the booze you had tonight.

And Tigheh in "From Yesterday Until Today" shouts:

You, God.
It's time you stepped down
It's time, the turn is mine

Iranian rappers do not really bite their tongue when it comes to sexual taboos either. Canbean in "Hey, Hooker" advises Tehran prostitutes:

They'll tear your cunt
Rip open your bum
Feed you a pecker
But won't give you a penny.

The unofficial nature of Iranian rap will keep it financially vulnerable and half dead. According to Wikipedia, Zed Bazi, one of the most popular Iranian rap bands, has had more than eight million free downloads. The money they could have made would be enough to revolutionize Iranian pop culture.

However, to consider the government as the only hindrance Iranian rap has faced is an error. Next to "the oppressor's wrong" and "the insolence of office," one should not underestimate "the proud man's contumely."

A respected pillar of traditional Iranian music, Majid Kiani, in his article "A Comprehensive Categorization of Different Types of Music in Iran," published on the official website of The House Of Music—a union-like gathering of influential musicians—does not even make a passing reference to anything called Persian Rap. Ironically, if googled in Farsi, his name will be found on 1680 websites, which in comparison with Zed Bazi's google results, 12500, is not very impressive.

Ali Reza Hejazi, one of the managers of Neinava, a prosperous traditional music school in Tehran, does recognize the existence of Iranian rap but calls it "a load of crap" and labels its fans as "music-illiterate." "It's a silly imitation of American rap and nothing else," he asserts. I remind him of the attempts Iranian rappers have made to Iranify their tunes, for example using traditional instruments in their pieces. Indignation runs all over his face: "These instruments deserve reverence. This is musical blasphemy." I ask him if they should be allowed to have a music school like Neinava to teach their music and make money. He bursts laughing: "Teaching what? Yelling and swearing?"

Rap kowns are well aware of this criticism. In "I Said" Hichkas raps:

People who know about rap zilch
But keep wagging their chins
Make me feel sick, sick, sick.
Some of these bastard masters
Have called my rapping artless.
So please rap for us once
With my voice and my style.

Surprisingly, the members of the political opposition's musical wing, based mostly in Los Angeles with a dozen of international TV channels, who sometimes dabble in making anti-government political songs apart from bad quality pop they mass produce, have not been eager to welcome Rap-e Fars either, even to exploit their anti-system potentialities.

In a massive Las Vegas concert for the Iranian diaspora in December 2006, not even one single Iranian rapper was given the chance to appear on stage. Their music videos are not broadcast on their channels and no interviews are granted by their patriotic hosts.

An exiled pre-revolution pop star, Sattar, in an interview on Voice of America Persian on 20 January 2007, while admiring the music his generation produced, did not hesitate to attack the music made in Iran stating that in Iran anybody could sing. "What they need in Iran is an experienced committee to approve of the music and lyrics of every song before their release," he prescribed. I ask Ali Reza Hejazi, the traditionalist teacher at Neinava, why he thinks Los Angeles producers have ignored Persian rap. "As soon as Hichkas and Zed Bazi are established on TV screens, they'll have to kiss show business goodbye," he puts it bluntly.

Disappointed with musicians, one might as well try to see if anybody else in the Iranian elite has taken any notice of Persian rap as, to say the least, a cultural or sociological phenomenon. You flip through piles of writings by critics, intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers, and you are only stranded in deafening silence. Iranian thinkers have turned a deaf ear to their children's heroes.

On a chat show broadcast on 16 Jan 2007 by Jam-e Jam, a state run international TV channel, Reza Kianian, a praised Iranian film star and a respected academic teaching theatre and cinema gave a description of Iranian underground cinema which could also echo what he might have said about underground rap too. He said, "They are a bunch of opportunists who stir the filth in society to make a name. It's not difficult to criticize. A true artist would show a gem in squalor."

Ali Zarnegar, 25, a young poet whose book was not given a publication license by the government, doe not see any literary merit in the rappers' lyrics. "If I were to give them a mark, it would be 1 out of 10," he speculates. I ask him if he would let them sell their music freely, and he answers "only under a strict word-by-word supervision of their lyrics."

Despite all the venomous self-righteousness around them, these teenage songsters—in the claustrophobic room they live—are fostering some precious values that their critics and oppressors have hardly happened to respect—some values desperately needed in today's Iran.

Apart from their party raps, songs about their everyday life, and descriptions of their neighborhoods, which are a rich source of detailed documents reflecting the true picture of daily life in Iran—including details as minute as the brands of bootlegged booze Iranian teenagers consume—Iranian rappers enjoy the possession of a sensitive social conscience and determined moral commitment, and at the same time, the bravery of expressing what they are concerned about. They have sung about poverty, unemployment, addiction, prostitution, child labor, economic corruption, homelessness, Iran-Iraq war and the soldiers killed in the fronts. They have also been quick to react to what is happening around them in the world; they have rapped about George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, terrorism, 9/11, the massacre of civilians in the Middle East, peace, and strong defense against possible American military measures against Iran.

They are honest. They are democratically frank in their dialogues and criticism of one another's rap. They gang up, pan each other in their songs, go solo, and come together again. Their supremacy in rap and credit in society, when claimed in their songs, stem from the power of people and their popularity among their zakhars and baks (fans and friends), not a big boss or a guru. They are self-assertive and individualistic and there is nothing humble in their ways, nothing meek and obedient.

Rap-e Fars has been round for about seven years now with rap kowns struggling underground. It is difficult to predict what future holds for Iranain rappers. They are realistic. Pishro in "Prisoner" weighs the situation: "They stroked me with nightsticks / A rapper with a blind and deaf audience." But he is still optimistic: "You will crowd me some day soon for autographs." So are Hayoola & Felakat:

Let me tell you what the truth is
My rap is not gonna cease.
No one can crack Persian rap
It will aspire like a firm spire.

Hichkas also echoes his fellow rappers:

There will be a day
When cover captions say
The biggest rapper of the world
Is rapping in the third world.

Iranian rappers are as lonely as the last minutes of Moshtagh Ali Shah. But they won't give up without a fight. They have a dream.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dr. Marten's Awful Dead Rock Star Ads

Where they have dead rock stars wearing their shoes in heaven. The ad only ran in Britain, where they didn't have to get estate permissions. They've been pulled, I hear.

Marilyn Monroe In The Public Domain

From the Stanford Center for Internet and Society:

Marilyn Monroe In The Public Domain
by Anthony Falzone, posted on May 17, 2007 - 9:09am.

Post-mortem publicity rights -- the right that lets celebrities' heirs control their likenesses and persona after they die -- have always puzzled me. They are a pure windfall to the heirs, with no possibility of creating the public benefit IP rights are supposed to incent. (Is a post-mortem publicity right really going to incent folks to do anything they wouldn't do anyway, e.g. become famous?)

Post-mortem rights have also frustrated me, as they are often raised as barriers to free discussion of historical events and figures.

The Southern District of New York has just issued a bombshell decision in this area. In Shaw Family Archives v. Marilyn Monroe LLC, it held that Marilyn Monroe's heirs cannot claim post-mortem publicity rights because she died before the enactment of the statute that creates them in California (and, for reasons that are not important here, Indiana). So, according to this Court, her image, likeness and persona are all in the public domain. Put it on a t-shirt. Or a bottle of wine. Use it to sell widgets. No permission necessary. (But please remember, copyrights to the photograph you might want to use are a whole spearate issue.)

Is this a big deal? You bet. Licensing dead celebrities is a multi-million dollar business. But California -- the center of the celebrity universe -- only passed the statute creating post-mortem publcity rights in 1984. Lots of the hottest dead celebrities (licensing-wise) died long before that, and millions of licensing revenue stands to disappear under this decision. The beneficiaries of this windfall will not let that money go without a fight. So I expect to hear a lot more about this issue.

Video Explaining Copyright: A Fair(y) Use Tale

"Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University provides this humorous, yet informative, review of copyright principles delivered through the words of the very folks we can thank for nearly endless copyright terms."
[he means Disney, of course! a clever cut and paste tour de force, all with a point]

Here is the link to the original host page at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.

And here is the YouTube version:

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Interview with LSU Professor Helen Regis on New Orleans' Second Lines/Jazz Funerals

Interview: Helen Regis with Ned Sublette in New Orleans, 2006

Place and Date: New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Ned Sublette

Helen Regis is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography & Anthropology at Louisiana State University. She has lived in and conducted research in France, New Orleans, Cameroon, & Mississippi. In addition to International Studies, she is affiliated with Women’s and Gender Studies, and African and African American Studies programs.

NS: Who am I talking to?

HR: I'm Helen Regis, a resident of the 7th Ward, and an associate professor of anthropology at Louisiana State University.

NS: And what do you study?

HR: African American social and pleasure clubs, and the second line parades that they sponsor. I've been looking at second line parades pretty intensively since '95, but I actually started in '88.

NS: So you've been going on second lines for almost 20 years.

HR: That's right. It's weird to say that. The people who would say that when I started doing it seemed ancient.

NS: Well, we gotta get used to that. Could explain to people who have never seen one: what is a social aid and pleasure club and what are its historical origins?

HR: Today a social aid and pleasure club is a club that's brought together by people who are friends -- many of them went to high school together -- and who have a common goal of sharing conviviality and pleasure as well as mutual aid. Most historians trace the origins to the 19th century, around [the time of] emancipation. And certainly 19th-century organizations were really focused on benevolence and mutual aid. They were insurance companies, they were health insurance societies. Basically kind of face-to-face organizations of people who would help each other. You would put in your dues and those dues would go to help aid a member who was ill, or would go to help a member pay for the funeral of a family member, or of course if a member of the club died, then the club would sponsor that funeral. They didn't just pay for the funeral, but they also organized the ritual procession, the ceremonial aspect of the funeral, and they insured that the deceased got a dignified burial, in a period when that wasn't taken for granted by any means.

NS: And this had something to do with the tradition of jazz funerals, then?

HR: Right. The jazz funeral tradition definitely originated out of those benevolent societies. Jason Berry would be a really good person to talk to about that. He's writing a book on the history of jazz funerals in New Orleans , and I think the dancing associated with it is one of his main interests. I have not done historical research on this. I've been mostly looking at the contemporary performances as contemporary history of the city. I'm really interested in how, within any one moment in time, you can go to a second line and you can find out what's happening in the city, because people are talking about it, people are singing about it. The whole interaction that happens between club members and their community, and between people and the police, is often really revealing of the mood of this city. So, for example, right now we're seeing these spontaneous lyrics that people sing behind the bands that are often improvised in the moment, are often a commentary on what's going on in the city right now, kind of like the conga chants in. So that right now, you know, there are chants about FEMA, there are chants about particular political leaders, there are chants about insurance companies. People are voicing their woes. As well as celebrating life, which is a big part of the tradition, too.

NS: How old are the oldest extant clubs in the city? Do we know?

HR: The oldest organization of which I'm aware that's involved in the street parades is the Young Men Olympian Junior Benevolent Aid Society, which recently celebrated its 120th anniversary.

NS: Wow.

HR: And that's the juniors. So you have to think that they were a division of young people whose parents or whose uncles or grandparents had the previous version of that organization. And today that organization is still structured along specific divisions. They can have up to six divisions, so that young people get incorporated into the group, but then they have their own organization. So they parade together, but they're separate and that allows people to develop their own style and their own leadership, and to have some autonomy and yet still be part of the larger corporate group.

NS: Do you have an idea how many clubs there are?

HR: Some people have estimated up to 70 clubs. I don't know if there are that many who are actually parading, but it's sometimes hard to measure, because clubs sometimes band together and share a parade permit and parade together. So for example the Young Men Olympian, they have all these divisions. When you see them on the street you think of them as one club, but they may have six divisions, so . . . There's certainly been a huge increase since the early 90s, and I think a real renaissance of brass band music. There's just been a huge infusion of interest among young people. A whole new generation of people started organizations.

When I first started going to parades in the late 80s, the season started around Labor Day and it went pretty much to the end of the year. So you had parades into December, and then there started to be a few parades in January. And then you started having parades going all the way to Mardi Gras, and they stop parading in the Mardi Gras season because the city's already overloaded with activities, and they start again during Lent. Now we have parades going all the way through June, so there's a club – the Perfect Gentlemen, which has often had a Fathers' Day parade. So there's been probably a doubling of social organizations that participate in this particular tradition.

NS: So new clubs have continued to be formed?

HR: Absolutely. We recently had on January 15th an all-star parade of organizations from throughout the city, with several groups who had never paraded before. They had been planning on parading this fall, and because of the hurricane had to delay their coming-out parade, so they paraded for the first time as part of this larger group which had assembled to state their intention to return and to demand affordable housing, among other things.

NS: I want to ask you about that particular parade in a minute. How have you seen it change in the years you've been observing?

HR: One change a lot of people talk about is that some clubs have experimented with having floats as part of the parade, which in New Orleans we think of being more part of the carnival tradition. Second lines have always been marching parades, where everybody's at ground level – musicians, clubs, followers. There's a special kind of social interaction that comes from that, from sharing the street together. But I think it's understandable that some people – and many of the clubs to have royalty, or honorary members, and they want to show respect for those folks, and while they sometimes ride in convertibles, they've recently experimented with having floats, which some traditionalists say is not appropriate for a second-line.

NS: Have you heard any change in the music?

HR: I'm sure the music has changed radically, but I'm not really a musicologist, and I don't necessarily have that vocabulary to talk about it. I think that when I first started going to second lines in the late 80s, the Dirty Dozen were already touring widely nationally and internationally, so they were no longer playing regularly in the streets, although they certainly come out of that tradition. Being on tour they were unable to make commitments to particular clubs, to say, "We'll play for you the 4th Sunday in September," and the clubs need that. So the Rebirth was already stepping into their shoes in that respect. There were a few other bands playing at the time – the Pinstripe Brass Band, the Tremé Brass Band, and the Olympia Junior Brass Band was still playing on the street in those days. And all those bands were already well into the pattern of incorporating funk and blues and r & b into the music, but Rebirth is the first band I remember bringing rap into it. With, in my opinion, mixed success. Playing riffs familiar to people from the radio stations, and having people sing along to particular lyrics -- that's something I've really seen Rebirth do more than any other band. And that was definitely happening more throughout the 90s than it had previously.

NS: I'm impressed by Rebirth's repertory of calls that the public knows how to respond to. Like, this particular flourish is the cue for everybody to yell "Hey!"

HR: And I think that's because Rebirth, unlike the Dirty Dozen, really made the commitment to keep playing on the streets. They're very loyal to the social organizations that have been hiring them for 20 years. So they have a really loyal following among club members and organizers, but also among second liners. They've had this ongoing dialogue with black communities in New Orleans all that time. So, yeah, we know their songs. And they know us.

NS: How far do the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs extend? Do they have them in Algiers? Do they have them in Jefferson Parish?

HR: I've only seen them in Orleans Parish, but we could very well with Katrina be seeing them reorganizing –

NS: In Portland?

HR: Maybe not in Portland, 'cause I don't think there's enough critical mass, but in Houston, or Atlanta, it's very possible. Now a lot of people have been speculating about that, saying, well, you can't in a suburban context really have the dynamic interaction between crowd and musician that you can have in the densely settled streets of a central city environment. But even before the storm, we already had a suburban club that was performing in New Orleans East. They've been parading, I think at least four years – the New Orleans East Steppers. The parade I went to, they started at the Plaza, which was a shopping mall, so a real contradiction for the second line tradition. And I had my doubts, but I wanted to go experience it, and it was a beautiful parade, in spite of the fact that it was very different. The stops would be at a daiquiri shop instead of at a corner store or a neighborhood bar or the home of a friend. But of course the reason they were in the east is that they were displaced from center city apartments or public housing developments that were being torn down. In the late 90s we saw a huge change in the residential pattern of the city, because we had 10% of the population living in public housing prior to the Hope 6 initiatives and the demolition of public housing. The St. Thomas was torn down, the Desire was torn down, and large portions of the Magnolia. And those were very important places for social club members, especially the Magnolia and the St. Thomas, which were close to downtown.

NS: It certainly seemed last year like many Sundays you could find a second line somewhere. But you have to know where they are.

HR: Yeah, you have to know where they are, and you have to have a sense that this is an okay place to be. I mean, I think for newcomers to the city it can be a little bit intimidating to go into some of the neighborhoods where the second lines happen.

NS: It seems sometimes like the second line is a ghetto day pass to go into places where normally you would not be able to go.

HR: I think that's definitely the way a lot of people have experienced it. Including, by the way, middle-class African Americans who don't necessarily feel comfortable walking around in a housing development unaccompanied. So, yeah, when you're following a second line, you're accompanied. You have the band and the club saying it's okay to be here.

NS: It seemed to me there are two kinds of second lines: the kind that makes a circuit and ends up where it started, and the kind that ends up miles away. And then you have to get back to your car.

HR: Right, so there's really two ways of doing it. Either you have [a sheet outlining] the route in advance, or you know, because you already know this club quite well, basically what their route is. And so you say, well, I'm gonna catch it at such-and-such a point in the parade. I'm gonna go to Joe's Bar and wait for them to come, I'll have an elegant drink while I'm waiting, dance for a while and come back to the bar, get back to the air-conditioning, and then head for home. So that's one way to do it. Many people do that, who don't want to walk or dance for four hours.

NS: Do clubs keep pretty much the same route every year?

HR: Some clubs seem to alternate between uptown and downtown routes, but most clubs have long-term relationships to particular places. They may always go to a particular bar or stop by a club member's grandmother's house.

NS: Now, I had you describe what a social aid and pleasure club is. Now could you explain, for people who've maybe never seen one or heard one, what is a second line? What are these parades?

HR: Well, first, it's kind of misleading to call it a parade, because we often think of parades as something that you watch. A second line is not really anything to watch. You have to really jump in. Jump into the flow, move into the music, and become a part of it. So that's the first thing. The only way to really get a sense of what a second line is about is to be a part of it. And if you're standing on the sidelines while the parade is going by, people within the crowd will urge you to come in and dance. You get this kind of urgent invitation, so the main thing about a second line is walking or dancing down the street with hundreds of people or maybe thousands of people who are all moving to the same rhythm. That's the most powerful thing about it, I think, is that feeling of togetherness of people from all walks of life. People say the name ["second line"] comes from the idea that the first line is the club, or if you talk to the musicians, the first line is the band, and then the second line is those who follow the band. So anyone who feels like following a band, who likes their sound, or who's a fan of that particular social organization, is going to be a second liner. So that's what makes it what it is, I think: that massive following. If you just have a band walking down the street, it's not a second line. It's a procession, but it's not a second line, because it doesn't have that massive group of followers, or that intense interaction between people – rubbing shoulders with people, moving down the street in a way that seems kind of impossible when you first look at it. But then when you're in it, people are just amazingly gentle and polite, and someone steps on your foot and they say, oh excuse me, pardon me, so there's this real sense of sharing space and making it comfortable to be in.

NS: How long does it take? What's the rhythm of the parade?

HR: Most parades today are limited to four hours. We're talking about the Sunday afternoon anniversary parades. So they usually start at 12 noon and go to 4 p.m. Now in the past, the early part of the 20th century, these parades went all day. People talk about getting up early in the morning and starting their parade, and then stopping for a leisurely picnic in the park, and then going again. So there was a really different pace in those days, but they're limited by the police to four hours now. So depending on the club, the pace can be very fast. There can be this sense that, we really need to get to such-and-such a part of town, and there's a real sense that the club is investing its reputation in being able to finish their route. So if you're delayed, if your band members are late [laughs], or if something happens and the money doesn't come together and the parade gets delayed, there's a real question of public reputation involved. And also your reputation's involved in maintaining the pace, so you can move pretty quickly down the street and then have a leisurely stop for five, ten, fifteen minutes, and then you've gotta start again, or else you won't make your route. Now if you don't make the end of your route in four hours, the police will disband the crowd. And I think there's a real sense of what a shame that is, if you're not able to bring people all the way home.

NS: My impression was that the police do not like second lines.

HR: Yeah. I don't fully know why that is. I mean, sometimes I think that the antagonism between the police and the second liners is almost part of the tradition. Sometimes they seem to almost egg each other on. Sometimes the police use their sirens to push people up the street. Why are they doing that? I don't know, but it makes people mad, it really does. Sometimes the dancers in a second line will start gyrating against the police car in a provocative way that seems designed to make the police mad. So then the police are being challenged to keep their cool and not worry about it.

NS: In Cuba – the congas of Cuba are not second lines, but they're cousins – and there is, and possibly since the 16th century has been, a theater of ritualized confrontation with authority almost as part of the activity of a conga. The play of the crowd against the police is part of whatever the game is. I had the impression here [in New Orleans] that the police are just nervous about seeing thousands of people romping down the street together, drinking and taking over the street.

HR: Yeah, that's a really interesting thing. I think if you're a police officer and you're asked to work at the second lines, you have this experience that you're not in control. Here's this huge crowd of people dancing and to the extent that there is order, which I believe there usually is, it's the band and the club members who are really providing that order, and the second liners, who are self-policing, as I was saying, being really polite to each other, or breaking up fights or making sure they don't get into disagreements. Conflict mediation is a well-practiced art in the black communities, and certainly in New Orleans . People know what the costs are to conflict, and they're usually very, very good at preventing that. But the police are clearly not in charge. And that's bound to be hugely frustrating. But when you think about that nervousness about possibly the crowd getting out of control, it's really interesting to think about that having a history too. When the history was really rigidly segregated – legally segregated – surely having black folk march down St. Charles Avenue would never have been allowed. And there are a few clubs today who march at least one or two blocks – I think the Prince of Wales Social Club marches down St. Charles . I was told that in the 60s some clubs were marching down Canal Street, and that they were banned from doing that by some merchants who were afraid that their store windows would get broken. So I think there is this fear of disorder and violence on the part of officials and to some extent business owners. A lot of businesses close their doors when the second line goes by, even though second liners are very eager to buy water and buy drinks, especially on a hot day.

NS: As the second lines go around, part of the rhythm – on the ones I went on, anyway – there were usually six stops. And each one was a little neighborhood bar. I assume that the second lines are an important part of the bars' business.

HR: Absolutely. Not only on the day of the second line, when huge crowds of people will stop by and buy drinks, but also the clubs themselves become patrons of particular bars. Some clubs have their regular meetings in a bar, or they will have social events there, and they're bringing their friends and neighbors to those bars. And very literally, when a club publishes a route sheet, if they name a particular business on their route sheet, they're putting them on the map, they're putting them in public consciousness. So if I was starting a bar, let's say right here in the 7th Ward, I would want to have an affiliation with a social club, so that the name of my business would become known.

NS: Do the clubs have other activities than second lines? Or is producing the annual second line the sole focus of their activities?

HR: Most of the clubs function year-round as social organizations, so they're having fund-raisers four, five, six times a year. A lot of clubs have dances as fund-raisers, so they're inviting friends, family, neighbors, and other clubs.

NS: Is it fair to say that they're part of the glue that holds the town together?

HR: Most definitely.

NS: Could you talk to me about that?

HR: Although they're no longer providing health insurance for their members, they're still providing a benevolent function in a more subtle way. [If] you lose your job and you want to find another job, who are you gonna ask about where there are job openings? You're gonna ask your club members. And I think that, again in a more subtle way, they continue to organize major events in people's lives, from birthday parties to funerals. Some clubs meet once a week. So they really provide a kind of solidarity and a kind of emotional and social connection for people.

NS: How many people would be at a meeting of a social club that meets once a week?

HR: Typically, I would say, between 10 and 20 people. Most clubs don't go above 20. If they do, then they start having different divisions. That seems to be the size that people can really relate to each other on a face-to-face basis, where everyone can talk at a meeting, where you can make decisions by consensus.

NS: So 20 people handle the work of producing an event with several thousand people and run it all themselves?

HR: That's right. In most cases, nearly everybody at those parades knows one of the club members. So they're really deploying their social network, and that's why most parades, you have a beautiful peaceful event. Because people are there to support their friend who's in the club.

NS: What is the membership in terms of African Americans versus non-African Americans? Are white people part of the social club network at this point?

HR: Absolutely, although not in numbers proportional to our presence in the city. These clubs definitely come out of a black cultural tradition in New Orleans , and I think that, although there are white participants, many of us feel that we're participants in a black cultural event, or a black institution, I guess. A number of clubs have had white members. There's even one club, the Bayou Steppers, that was founded as a multiracial social organization. The founding presidents were black and white.

NS: And of course, we were both on that parade, and you remember how that parade ended. Could you describe that, since you were there?

HR: The parade you're talking about ended right near the interstate overpass on North Claiborne at a little club called the Mother-in-Law Lounge, which is run by Antoinette K-Doe, the widow of Ernie K-Doe. The parade ends at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, it was a beautiful four-hour parade, just a perfect day, and there's a wonderful feeling among second liners at the end of a parade. People are feeling great about having been dancing and walking for four hours, and you have friends that you want to talk to, now that the band is taking a rest. And the police began to use their sirens to disperse the crowd. These were not ordinary sirens, because they were parked under the interstate in order to be able to use the amplification of the cement structure of the interstate. And so their sirens, which were already loud, were being amplified by the interstate. And there were several cars that were doing this, and they were directing it at this club. We couldn't have a conversation outside on the sidewalk, or inside the club. If you lived in a home in that area, you couldn't hear yourself think, even within your home. It was extraordinarily abusive. What happened that day is really part of a larger pattern of the police intentionally disbanding the crowd after a parade. I feel positive that this is not an individual initiative on the part of a particular police officer. This is an NOPD policy coming from the top down.

NS: Which reached a climax a little later with the debacle of the Mardi Gras Indian gathering.

HR: Right. March 19, 2005, just last St. Joseph's Day, the police dispersed a crowd of Mardi Gras Indians and their supporters and followers. In the paper it was reported as being about 200 people. One of the police officers was quoted as having said: take them fucking feathers off or go to jail. That really conveys the attitude toward this tradition, that this is something that's not worthy of respect. I hate to think this, but this seems to be the attitude informing these policies, that any gathering of working-class people or of African Americans in New Orleans in public space is inherently a problem and they want to disperse that. Now it may be that gatherings of people do create higher risk that something unfortunate could happen in a crowd. But a lot of things are risk factors that we don't choose to ban, and this is such an important cultural tradition in New Orleans, that I really think that this is not a reasonable approach to policing.

NS: What is the right way? Certainly, if you talk to people in town, you will hear some of them express nervousness about second lines. A lot of people won't go anywhere near one because they're afraid there'll be a shooting. Things do sometimes happen. What do you think is a reasonable way of looking at this?

HR: Again, I think the second line really does reflect what's going on in the city, and to some extent New Orleans reflects what's happening in America more generally. We like to talk about how unique we are, but in many ways we share the same problems that all American cities share. We have too much poverty, we don't have good jobs, and we have a lot of people who end up in the informal economy in ways that are really self-destructive and hurtful to others. And there's a lot of violence associated with that. So we really do have these problems, and some people choose the second line as the place to settle scores, and to do so violently. So that does happen. And I can completely understand that that concern causes some people to decide, I'm not gonna do this anymore, I'm not gonna go. Unfortunately, we can't really solve the problem of policing second lines in an appropriate way without solving our social problems. But on the other hand, no one's really looked carefully at the pattern of violence at second lines. There have been shootings. I've been on second lines where there have been shootings. And it's a terrible thing. But there are shootings in poor neighborhoods in New Orleans every day -- before the storm, anyway. So being poor is a risk factor for violent crime. Just like being married is a risk factor for spousal abuse. There's a relationship there, but we're not gonna ban marriage. So second lines do occasionally provide a forum for people to settle scores, but I don't think it's reasonable to ban second lines, any more than you would ban marriage because marital violence is linked to marriage.

NS: There's also the tradition of the informal second line, not an annual planned parade, but something that springs up more spontaneously.

HR: I guess the Tremé neighborhood is really known for having spontaneous second lines, or second lines that are not in any way official, and sometimes I've been aware of second line parades happening during, for example, the period between the death of a relative or a friend and the funeral. For one well-known musician, there was a second line every night between the night he died and the funeral. And the Rebirth were playing there. That was James and Troy Andrews' brother, D-Boy [Donnell Andrews], who was quite young [he was 17] when he was found killed. And so, yeah, this incredible kind of wake of a second line moving through the streets, moving through the neighborhood he had lived in, with hundreds of people and no sign of a police presence. That's definitely an informal second line. And a lot of people say that the Tremé neighborhood, more than any other neighborhood in the city, are fierce defenders of this tradition. They really have not accepted the idea that you have to pay for a police permit in order to gather peaceably in the streets and perform this kind of sacred dance.

NS: It seems like the issue of who can assemble in the street is a fundamental one here.

HR: Absolutely. I think a lot of second liners – you know, they might not have law degrees, but they have a really profound understanding of public space, and the value of public space. I believe that public space is really important to a democracy, that we need to be able to gather in public and be together, whether that's discussing politics or dancing in the streets. And certainly in New Orleans it feels like a fundamental right to those who participate in this tradition.

NS: A right that's been exercised since the days of Jim Crow.

HR: Absolutely, and this is where I think funerals take on special significance. Because during slavery, black folk in many parts of the South – enslaved people – could not gather except for a funeral. That was one of the only occasions when the people in charge would allow them to gather. I think as Christians, they [the slaveowners] had to recognize that a funeral was an important event. Funerals, I believe, became especially important in the black community in part because there were so few occasions for people to gather and to enact or to talk about or to perform the values that they hold dear and to celebrate their dignity and the sacredness of life.

NS: I always felt from the first time I went on a second line that if you haven't been on one, there's something about jazz you don't know.

HR: A lot of people refer to the second line tradition as fundamental to the origins of jazz. Louis Armstrong talks about having played at second lines as a child, and certainly having admired jazz musicians. He wanted to be like them, and he saw them for the first time during jazz funerals, during anniversary parades. And you know, the social organizations in the black community that hired these bands week after week – not only for parades, but for dances and balls and other social events – really were crucial to that connection between the music and the community. And I guess – yeah, when you hear a brass band playing in the streets and you really begin to understand the kind of interaction between musicians and dancers, you can really see how fundamental that is to the kind of dialogue that's happening in jazz music. There's a wonderful quote [on p. 72 of] in Mick Burns's book – have you seen that? – Keeping the Beat on the Street: The Brass Band Renaissance, and it's an interview with Gregory “Blodie” Davis of the Dirty Dozen, who talks about how their music really grew out of the interaction between the band and the dancers, and the dancers challenging the musicians with their dance and the musicians having to come back and do one better. And the band practicing all week, thinking about what the dancers were gonna be throwing at them, and so there's that sense in which dancing is already very musical.

NS: I realize this is hard to do, but could you take a stab at describing how second line dancing works, how it moves, how it goes down the street, what the movements are?

HR: There's kind of a basic second line step, which is almost a strut that you do while you're moving quickly down the street with a brass band. But then there are people who are doing something entirely different, and they're the virtuoso performers, the virtuoso second liners, and they can be of all ages. When they start to really get into their dancing, there's often a circle that forms around them, and people start watching them and encouraging them. And then someone else will move into the circle and challenge them. It's often men dancing with men as well as men dancing with women or women dancing with women. So there's a real competitive challenge happening on the street, which then gets translated into the challenge between the dancers and the band members as well.

The feet are usually really close to the ground, but people are really light on their feet at the same time. There's also this incredibly athletic dancing, with people jumping up in the air and twisting, going down in splits, the kind of dancing that you would expect to see on stage somewhere, instead of . . .

NS: . . . on concrete.

HR: Yeah, and these people are wearing tennis shoes, because they're going to be walking for a very long time, so that has an effect on the kind of dancing that you see.

NS: It's an exhausting thing to go on a full second line parade. I always wonder how the musicians do it. Of course, they do take breaks, but even so, four hours of blasting away, making all the many feet of metal in a sousaphone vibrate by pushing air through it with your jaw muscles as you dance down the street in hot sun, dehydrated, and the tuba player's usually overweight to start with, which is why he wound up playing the tuba. It seems like a real physical ordeal.

HR: The brass bands who really have a commitment to the second lines, they're fit. And so are the club members and the regular second liners. Sometimes you'll see a band coming back to the street after having been away for a while, and you see them huffing and puffing and taking a break between songs, and at times the second liners start to become quite outspoken – "why don't they play something?" You don't get a lot of slack from the second liners if you're trying to rest.

NS: Do you have any idea how much distance is covered by a typical second line?

HR: I would say it's not unusual to cover six or seven miles, but some of them may cover even more.

NS: That's a long march.

HR: Yeah, absolutely. And when you think about dancers who are really into this – they go into this clowning mode – "clowning" is what they call it in New Orleans . They start doing things like climbing up telephone poles and dancing, or climbing onto rooftops and dancing. There's something about that. It's usually young men who do this. But think about all the miles they're climbing, as well as walking! And then they have to walk ahead of the group in order to be up there by the time the second liners pass by and see them, and then climb back down and run ahead again. The photograph that's above you is from the Circle Food Store, on St. Bernard Avenue and Claiborne, and you can see there's a dancer, dancing on the roof during a second line parade.

NS: I took a bunch of pictures of two dancers up on the overpass on Claiborne, that big overpass. It didn't look like much in the picture, actually, you couldn't really get the sense of these thousand of people watching these two guys dancing way up in the air on this concrete air. But the whole crowd was like . . .

HR: . . . stunned. One of the things about being in the second line is, you can't really see it when you're in it. You can see the people just around you, which might be 10 to 20 people, but if there's six thousand people at a parade, you're obviously not seeing most people. But if the route allows you to go over a bridge, then you're able to really look back and you can see the expanse of people. Some clubs try to design their routes to include a bridge or an overpass so that they can have that experience. There are two clubs that I know of that are doing that right now – the CTC, the Cross the Canal Steppers, they go over the Industrial Canal over into the Lower Ninth Ward, so that allows them to really have this incredible panoramic view. And they're going over this rickety old metal bridge. It's not really rickety, but it feels like it when you're on there, the whole bridge starts to move as people are dancing. And another group, the Nine Times, which is out of the Desire area, goes over the Almonaster Bridge , which is over a railroad track. When they talk about their route, they talk specifically about the importance of being on that bridge, and being able to see all the people you've brought out, and the people you've brought together, and they just take great pride in that accomplishment. And so at some point in their route, they're going to be able to look around and see all the people who have come together to support them.

NS: Let's talk now about what's happened since Katrina. Of course, Katrina happened just before Labor Day . . .

HR: Well, the Sunday before Labor Day is traditionally the second line of the Black Men of Labor, which is a social organization started in the mid-1990s. And as you can tell from their name, they were very self-conscious when they organized that they wanted to honor the dignity of black working men, and they also embrace a really traditional approach to the music, and to their clothes and their decorations. They make all their decorations themselves, and they often wear shirts and suspenders instead of expensive suits. The idea was to really honor the musicians and put more money in the music and less on their clothing. And since they're Black Men of Labor, they often wear clothes that recall a working-class heritage as well.

NS: And that of course didn't happen this year.

HR: Yeah, the Labor Day weekend was – well, just the weekend after Katrina, so of course the members of the organization had evacuated before the storm, or they were in the process of evacuating, or they were back in the city helping people, working in the city in boats and helping people get out.

NS: Would you care to speak in general terms about what has happened since the disaster?

HR: [long pause]. Well, we're talking right now in February of 2006, so it's been over five months since the storm, and the majority of the city's African American population is still living in exile, so I think for that reason alone the future of the second line tradition and the music that the second line organizations support is very much in question. The storm and the flood affected people from all walks of life, and it affected many areas of the city, and in many ways it cut across race and class in the way that it affected people, but now the floodwaters have receded. People's ability to return is very much determined by class. So many of the people who were the creators of the second line culture and the music really come out of working class families and neighborhoods, and most of the city's public housing developments remain closed. Even those that didn't flood. So it's hard not to feel that there's a major transformation happening in New Orleans and we don't know what it is yet, because it's changing all the time. But there really is a sense that this city will be dramatically different, and certainly right now it's a much whiter and a much wealthier city, and I don't think that that city can really support the second line tradition as it currently is.

NS: Now there have been some second lines since Katrina.

HR: We've had a few second line parades.

The first club to come out since the storm was the Prince of Wales. They had their anniversary parade, which would originally have been scheduled in October. They were delayed by a couple of months, but nonetheless, they came back, they came together, and they managed to put on a beautiful parade. Their route goes through uptown, and they were fortunate in that most of their route didn't flood, so they were able to go to some of the bars where they traditionally stop, and those bars were open. The Rock Bottom Lounge, which is where the club was really founded, on Tchoupitoulas Street, is on high ground, because it's basically on the natural levee. Many of the people in the Prince of Wales came out of families where the men were longshoremen, so they lived close to the river for that reason. So partly for that reason too, most of their route is still navigable, by foot anyway.

Most of the other clubs, their routes reflected where their members lived. Most of those clubs paraded through neighborhoods that were farther from the river, what people in New Orleans call Back of Town. And that means that they were downhill, you know, downslope in terms of the natural levee sloping down into what people call the Bowl. So some of the lowest areas of the city that were settled in the 20th century ended up with high concentrations of working-class folks and high concentrations of African Americans, so the majority of the social organizations that sponsored second line parades were in those Back of Town areas, and they were heavily flooded. It's not clear if that housing stock is gonna be repaired.

There was another parade that was organized since the flood. That was the All-Star Parade. And that involved numerous social organizations. I want to say, between 20 and 30 different clubs helped to organize it. They all wore basically a black T-shirt that just said, Renew New Orleans. And listed the sponsoring clubs on the back of the shirt. And this is certainly the first time that I know of in the history of second lining that clubs have paraded not so much as a club but as part of a larger whole, this All-Star second line parade. And in that way it was really a beautiful event. And because it was the first massive second line parade in the city, it also drew people from all walks of life who wanted to see a second line. People come to second lines looking for – now more than ever – looking for a sign that black culture is alive and well in New Orleans, and I think that a lot of people came, a lot of middle-class folks, white and black, came looking to see that New Orleans was coming back. Because the parade was well organized and planned in advance, people were able to get tickets to fly in from Atlanta and Houston and in some cases New York or Portland, and probably I would say at least half of the people who were in the clubs who paraded are not living in New Orleans. But they were here for that event. And sadly, after the parade, they had go back and leave the city. But at least during the parade they were announcing their intention to reclaim their city, to come back to New Orleans one way or another.

NS: It was a very large parade, as I understand, in terms of the turnout.

HR: It was huge. I counted – very approximately – eight thousand people, but I was doing that after the height of the crowd. And a lot of people leave. New people come in and join it, but a lot of people leave after a couple of hours, so the parade went until four o'clock, and I was probably counting around three o'clock.

NS: And the parade ended with a shooting.

HR: Yeah. Most of the paraders had already finished parading when the shooting started. I was not near the gunshots. I didn't even hear them. But I did feel the crowd kind of surging forward, and of course people in New Orleans do run when they hear gunshots and try to get out of the way. I think only a few intrepid reporters were trying to go toward the shots, but most people run in the other direction. So I felt the crowd surging forward and I was hoping it was a false alarm, but I found out later that there was a shooting. [It was] extremely saddening for the organizers of the event and the people who came back for it. And so far, the response of the police department has been – I think somewhat predictably – fairly severe. So they've announced that they're raising the fees for parade permits from approximately $1600 per club to $3605 dollars per club. And that's just for the permit.

NS: And that's what a lot of the clubs do all year long, is raise the money for those permits, right?

HR: For the permits, for the band, for their clothes.

NS: What's the budget of a typical second line? Any idea?

HR: You'll have to ask some club members. I have no idea. I think there's a huge range, because some people are quite proud of the fact that they'll spend ten dollars on their shoes. It's not about that for them. Whereas other clubs are quite proud of the fact that they've spent fifteen hundred dollars on their shoes. Showing that you're able to spend money is important for some of the clubs. So you'd have to say that the basic expenses for the club have to be ten thousand dollars, and for some clubs, considerably higher than that.

NS: Is there anything else that you'd like to say that I haven't asked you about? Do you have any other observations in general about this?

HR: I think I want to get back to the idea of the ghetto pass. I don't want to use that phrase, but I think there's definitely something to that. I've interviewed a lot of second liners who evidently didn't grow up with the tradition. Some of them aren't even from New Orleans , but they've come here and fell in love with this tradition. For many of them, the second line is the kind of event in New Orleans where they feel like they can be part of the whole city. It seems like, even though desegregation was forty years ago, in many aspects of our everyday lives in New Orleans we're still very separate from each other. And the second lines have created a place where people from different walks of life can share space. It's not for everyone -- there are lots of people who don't like second lining. But for many of us, it's provided an entree into the larger city. I first moved to New Orleans in the 80s to go to school, and I was told, don't go here, don't go there, don't ride the bus, ride the streetcar, don't go into the areas that are known as black neighborhoods, and it was through the second line tradition that I started to see that the city was – for one thing – much richer than I ever thought culturally, but also that I could be a citizen. That I could really live in the city. That I didn't have to be cloistered in only certain sections of the city, and that's really liberating.

We usually think of the ghetto as enclosing – obviously, in Jewish history, being a place where Jewish people had to be, or where black folk have had to live in American cities. But in a way, white New Orleanians have been very much sequestered by differences – perceived differences or actual differences – in wealth, race, class status.

NS: Ghettoization in New Orleans works very differently than any place else I've ever been, just because of the peculiar nature of the city's layout.

HR: People always talk about the checkerboard pattern that defined New Orleans historically, but when I moved to the city in the 80s that had already started to change. So what some people call Central City really became a black neighborhood, or you could call it a black ghetto. But that really was produced partly through legally segregated housing during the Jim Crow and then partly through white flight, starting in the '60s.

NS: And also in the 60s when the projects became all black. The St. Thomas [housing project] was originally for white people.

HR: Right. The projects were from the beginning racially segregated. But yeah, they went from being pretty much all white to being all black fairly quickly.

NS: Magnolia and the St. Thomas were both built in 1941. Magnolia was built as a black project, the St. Thomas was built as a white project. I talked to an older lady from the neighborhood, who told me that on St. Mary, by the St. Thomas, that's where the country-and-western bars were.

HR: Yeah, it's really interesting to think of the musical landscape having changed with the landscape of residence. And public housing had a huge impact on that. If you check out the Soul Rebels' piece "Free Yo’ Mind" there's a really amazing lyrical sequence about the projects in New Orleans , calling them out one by one as if they were cities.

NS: Do you have any observations about the relationship between the Mardi Gras Indian organizations and the second lines? I’m thinking of the Tambourine and Fan second line, which last year was a tremendous parade, and was also [the Mardi Gras Indian event] Downtown Super Sunday.

HR: The Tambourine and Fan event, which is usually the Sunday after St. Joseph's Day, so the Sunday after March 19, brings together social clubs and Mardi Gras Indians. The focus is definitely on the Mardi Gras Indians, but the clubs are there, so there's this kind of celebration of black street culture as a whole.

NS: Is Tambourine and Fan a social club?

HR: It's unusual, in that I think it's primarily educational, and [it's] modeled almost as a freedom-school concept. They put on this public event, but [the club] functions year round as a series of after-school programs, and a summer camp, and headed by Jerome Smith, who'd be a really interesting person for you to interview, who's a veteran of the civil rights movement. Something else about the Indians I wanted to say: we were talking about how strenuous the playing is for the brass band members, you know, playing and walking for four hours? But they do take breaks, there are these stops, where you go in and get some water or something else to drink. And what you see a lot of times is that the crowd is gathered outside the bar, because the overwhelming majority of the crowd can't go in the bar, wouldn't possibly be able to fit. But people often start to play the tambourine or other percussion that they have, and sing Mardi Gras Indian chants. So the Mardi Gras Indians take over when the band members take a break, during the second lines. When you start paying attention to who's walking directly behind the band, you see that the percussionists are also Mardi Gras Indians, so they're really amplifying the sound of the brass band, and contributing to it musically as well. They're often the ones who are calling out the lyrics. If the band members aren't singing, it's usually the percussionists right behind the band who are singing. So there's this real dynamic interaction between the brass band and the people walking right behind them. And those are often Mardi Gras Indians. Now they may not be men who sew elaborate suits for Mardi Gras day, but in terms of their social identity in the community, they identify as Indians. We usually think what makes you a real Indian is having callouses on your fingers showing that you're sewing, but it's also a social identity, and the music is one of the ways that people express that.

NS: Thank you, Helen.

HR: Thanks, Ned.

Mardi Gras Indians Story in The Nation online

On the Porch in the Seventh Ward


[posted online on May 22, 2007]

Late in the afternoon on the final day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the six-day music event that everyone here calls Jazz Fest, red-, fuchsia- and purple-necked revelers in straw hats and baseball caps wandered between Steely Dan on the Acura Stage, the Greater Antioch Full Gospel Choir in the AIG Gospel tent and the Natchitoches meat pie stand. In the middle of this cultural smorgasbord, they were treated to a genuine embodiment of New Orleans vernacular street culture in the form of a parade by a Mardi Gras Indian Gang, the Black Feathers.

The parade started right on schedule, at 3 pm, next to the outdoor showroom tent in which shiny new Acuras were parked to attract passersby, beneath the big blue open sky above the New Orleans Fairgrounds, and framed against the city skyline in the distance, which, viewed closer, still bore the scars of Hurricane Katrina in the form of stories upon stories of broken windows in downtown office buildings and hotels. The gang strutted their stuff in elaborately sewn suits made of brightly colored beads and feathers covering them from head to toe. The first was all in green, with a large, sequinned fishtail sewn to his back. Then another, all in white, with careful embroideries of heroic deeds of Native Americans on his stomach and chest. Then the "Big Queen" in pink, came chanting and dancing down a paved path, lined on either side by people awed by this vision, to the rhythm of tambourines and drums.

Wanting a bit of this beauty, people asked the Indians if they would pose for pictures, and took home photos of themselves in shorts and T-shirts with a black man covered in a thousand beads sewn over the course of a year in a tradition that he likely learned from his father or uncle, or with the "flag boy," with sweat pouring down a proud face framed in orange, with the gang's beaded mantle, spelling out "7th Ward Gang Flag."

Indeed, while many people paid $45 a day to come to Jazz Fest this year to see ZZ Top, the Allman Brothers, New Edition (less Bobby Brown, sadly) or Rod Stewart, the soul of Jazz Fest, the thing that you can't find just anywhere, is the distinct music and culture of this city, which is why the logo of the whole damn thing is four dancers with umbrellas and handkerchiefs doing a Second Line, the distinctive dance of the New Orleans streets. Though I think that Jazz Fest is swell--I go to as much as I can every year--and gives visitors access to living forms of American folk culture, it feels far from the Seventh Ward, the shotgun homes and Creole cottages of the Indians and St. Augustine Catholic Church, in the heart of the Treme neighborhood, where Big Chief Tootie Montana, the "Chief of the Chiefs," was laid to rest two months before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, wearing a suit and tie but framed between two of his elaborate Indian suits.

Like many things in New Orleans, the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians aren't crystal clear. Some say that the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians began 120 years ago, with black New Orleanians creating full Indian regalia based on pictures and Wild West shows that they had seen. Their rituals honor the role Native Americans played in helping slaves escape and elude bounty hunters, celebrating a historic sense of common cause between black New Orleanians and Native Americans. That tradition has remained alive in some of New Orleans's poorest neighborhoods at parades on the high holidays of Mardi Gras Indian culture. They include St. Joseph's Day, which comes every year on March 19; Mardi Gras, the day before the commencement of Lent on Ash Wednesday; and "Super Sunday," a sort of Mardi Gras Indian Christmas, which occurs in late spring and is observed on different days by Mardi Gras Indians depending on whether they live in Uptown or Downtown neighborhoods. According to James Trask, a "spyboy" in the Red Hawk Hunters, whom I talked to in the hot sun of the Seventh Ward Festival, an arts and cultural event that occurred on a late spring weekend in a mostly black, poor, but proud old Creole enclave, the tradition is passed on within families and neighborhoods. "I learned to sew from my dad, the Big Chief of the Ninth Ward Flaming Arrows. It goes generation to generation; we pass it on," he explained to me, before showing off his elaborate blue suit, which had taken him months to make, spending five hours a day after getting off work at Catholic Charities.

He told me, with evident satisfaction, that his 4-year-old son was also an Indian, to whom he was passing down the beading and sewing art and with whom he would take to the streets on the downtown Super Sunday the following weekend. Ronald Baham, known as Big Chief Buck, the Chief of the Seventh Ward Warriors, had invited the Red Hawk Hunters to this "first annual" festival put on by the Seventh Ward Porch. The Porch is an organization committed to fostering the cultural life unique to this neighborhood. It seeks to do this by advocating for the community from which culture arises and by creating a space where people can come together and where children can learn about their neighborhood and the world beyond it.

When I spoke with him there, Big Chief Buck seemed disappointed that his gang couldn't perform for his neighbors, since many in the Seventh Ward Warriors hadn't yet managed to return to the neighborhood and some, him included, had come home after Katrina to decades of suits--twenty-two in his case--in a musty clump of waterlogged beads and feathers. He promised they would be singing and dancing on these streets by Mardi Gras.

In addition to the time it takes to make these suits, Big Chief Buck estimated that each one cost more than $5,000 to make, explaining, "How pretty you wanna be? That's how much you will spend." And this money comes out of his own pocket because, though the city's airport, hotels, convention center and restaurants are adorned with photos of Mardi Gras Indians and the $5 billion annual tourist industry uses these cultural icons to keep people coming here, the individuals buying the beads and pricking their thumbs with needles receive very little support from the city or the tourist industry. As Big Chief Buck explained, "Everybody makes money off the Mardi Gras Indians but the Indians."

A similar dynamic appears at all corners in the world of New Orleans street culture--from musicians who play New Orleans jazz music, to Second Line groups, to Mardi Gras Indians--where there is a sense that the city and its tourism business have exploited neighborhood culture while offering little to keep it alive. Even the most high-profile effort to date to provide housing for New Orleans musicians, the Habitat for Humanity New Orleans Musicians Village, for which Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have raised millions, and at which every passing politico--from George Bush to Barack Obama--have hammered nails, has been roundly criticized by many of the intended beneficiaries.

It turns out that many of the musicians and cultural ambassadors of our city have lousy credit (because, of course, they are neither compensated nor valued for the enormous economic contribution that they make to the city) and don't qualify for Habitat for Humanity loans. To this Marsalis and Connick responded defensively with the patronizing old saws of charity work, employing the condescending "give a man a fish...teach a man to fish" platitude.

Because New Orleans culture has survived for so long without anyone's free fish, however, it seems likely that even the bruising New Orleans post-Katrina housing crunch will not do it in. The genuine antagonism for Second Line groups and Mardi Gras Indians shown by police is a much more discouraging and troubling sign of the lack of appreciation for street culture. In fact, the passing of Tootie Montana was no doubt hastened by the conflict that the 82-year-old chief of chiefs had with police on St. Joseph's night, a night marked by well-documented instances of police brutality against Indians and about which the chief addressed the city council before expiring at the podium.

More recently, New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs, the groups that throw Second Lines, sued the Police Department for assigning arbitrary and prohibitively expensive fees to escort these parades. Fortunately, with the threat of litigation supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, New Orleans civil rights attorneys Carol Kolinchak and Katie Schwartzmann were able to get the city to relent and provide more reasonable fees for the street parades that it profits from in mock-form in the touristy areas of the French Quarter and at big business conventions.

Helen Regis, a cultural anthropologist at Louisiana State University, an expert in New Orleans Second Line culture, and one of the organizers of the Seventh Ward Festival, explained the possible pernicious effects of suppressing New Orleans's street culture in a 1999 essay published in the journal Cultural Anthropology.

This minstrel-like appropriation of black cultural tradition by the city's elites and tourist industry goes without any acknowledgment of the black popular tradition on which it is based.... What is erased by these representations is the experiential meaning...for the performers themselves--their agency, their deployment of received cultural forms in new and innovative ways, which revise and recast tradition to speak to the concerns and experiences of participants and their communities. As with turn of the century minstrel shows, predominantly white audiences do not know precisely what it is that the staged shows are reproducing and thus cannot be aware of the significant differences between them and the community based parades.

This is all to say that New Orleans culture is specific to its place in the world, just as creating human castles is wedded to the towns of Catalonia and as sand paintings are to the Hopi and Navajo. And while we can enjoy and appreciate it when it is presented to us, we need to be mindful of the fact that it is the expression of a neighborhood or a community, not merely a performance that we can pay to see.

Willie Birch, a prominent black New Orleans artist who grew up in the Magnolia Housing Project, whose work now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and who was one of the driving forces behind creating the Porch, believes passionately in this culture, explaining, "Art is a means of transforming communities."

He emphasizes the reciprocal process in which artists "are fed by the communities that they live in." For this reason, he questions the very basis of an idea like the Musician's Village as a means of supporting New Orleans culture as it removes artists from neighborhoods, rendering both poorer and less vital. He is put off by those who attempt to exploit this culture but is bullish on its future, explaining, "Jazz Fest could not exist without this, but we could exist without Jazz Fest." He continued, "It's our goal to keep this culture alive, and it is living, it's not a museum." As proof, he pointed to a throng of young neighborhood children surrounding Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indians, covered in African-style beadwork including a massive headdress that covered his face. (Both the African pattern and the closed headdress mark innovations in the evolution of Mardi Gras Indian culture.) Little girls hugged the legs of this masked giant as though he were Mickey or Pluto at Disney World and begged him to let them try on his heavy, and somewhat frightening, mask. Birch observed that this culture cannot be supported without supporting the community from which it comes, telling me that Victor lived right around the corner, "See, this is about the community, not the individual. And this can create cultural leaders out of these kids."

Cultural leadership was far from the mind of the small black girl who finally prevailed and got to wear the mask of Fi Yi Yi but its realization seemed almost inevitable. Because if you could, if you knew it was available to you, if you came from this struggling but dynamic neighborhood, if it was yours, who could turn this down? Who wouldn't want to be an Indian Chief or Queen, or play snare in the hottest band in New Orleans, to the joy of people from all over the world, but more important, to your friends and neighbors?

Plunge in CD Sales Shakes Up Big Labels

May 28, 2007
Plunge in CD Sales Shakes Up Big Labels

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles album often cited as the greatest pop recording in music history, received a thoroughly modern 40th-anniversary salute last week when singers on “American Idol” belted out their own versions of its songs live on the show’s season finale.

But off stage, in a sign of the recording industry’s declining fortunes, shareholders of EMI, the music conglomerate that markets “Sgt. Pepper” and a vast trove of other recordings, were weighing a plan to sell the company as its financial performance was weakening.

It’s a maddening juxtaposition for more than one top record-label executive. Music may still be a big force in pop culture — from “Idol” to the iPod — but the music business’s own comeback attempt is falling flat.

Even pop’s pioneers are rethinking their approach. As it happens, one of the performers on “Sgt. Pepper,” Paul McCartney, is releasing a new album on June 5. But Mr. McCartney is not betting on the traditional record-label methods: He elected to sidestep EMI, his longtime home, and release the album through a new arrangement with Starbucks.

It’s too soon to tell if Starbucks’ new label (a partnership with the established Concord label) will have much success in marketing CDs. But not many other players are.

Despite costly efforts to build buzz around new talent and thwart piracy, CD sales have plunged more than 20 percent this year, far outweighing any gains made by digital sales at iTunes and similar services. Aram Sinnreich, a media industry consultant at Radar Research in Los Angeles, said the CD format, introduced in the United States 24 years ago, is in its death throes. “Everyone in the industry thinks of this Christmas as the last big holiday season for CD sales,” Mr. Sinnreich said, “and then everything goes kaput.”

It’s been four years since the last big shuffle in ownership of the major record labels. But now, with the sales plunge dimming hopes for a recovery any time soon, there is a new game of corporate musical chairs afoot that could shake up the industry hierarchy.

Under the deal that awaits shareholder approval, London-based EMI agreed last week to be purchased for more than $4.7 billion by a private equity investor, Terra Firma Capital Partners, whose diverse holdings include a European waste-conversion business. Rival bids could yet surface — though the higher the ultimate price, the more pressure the owners will face to make dramatic cuts or sell the company in pieces in order to recoup their investment.

For the companies that choose to plow ahead, the question is how to weather the worsening storm. One answer: diversify into businesses that do not rely directly on CD sales or downloads. The biggest one is music publishing, which represents songwriters (who may or may not also be performers) and earns money when their songs are used in TV commercials, video games or other media. Universal Music Group, already the biggest label, became the world’s biggest music publisher on Friday after closing its purchase of BMG Music, publisher of songs by artists like Keane, for more than $2 billion.

Now both Universal and Warner Music Group are said to be kicking the tires of Sanctuary, an independent British music and artist management company whose roster includes Iron Maiden and Elton John. The owners of all four of the major record companies also recently have chewed over deals to diversify into merchandise sales, concert tickets, advertising and other fields that are not part of their traditional business.

Even as the industry tries to branch out, though, there is no promise of an answer to a potentially more profound predicament: a creative drought and a corresponding lack of artists who ignite consumers’ interest in buying music. Sales of rap, which had provided the industry with a lifeboat in recent years, fell far more than the overall market last year with a drop of almost 21 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (And the marquee star 50 Cent just delayed his forthcoming album, “Curtis.”)

In other genres the picture is not much brighter. Fans do still turn out (at least initially) for artists that have managed to build loyal followings. The biggest debut of the year came just last week from the rock band Linkin Park, whose third studio album, “Minutes to Midnight,” sold an estimated 623,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan data.

But very few albums have gained traction. And that is compounded by the industry’s core structural problem: Its main product is widely available free. More than half of all music acquired by fans last year came from unpaid sources including Internet file sharing and CD burning, according to the market research company NPD Group. The “social” ripping and burning of CDs among friends — which takes place offline and almost entirely out of reach of industry policing efforts — accounted for 37 percent of all music consumption, more than file-sharing, NPD said.

The industry had long pinned its hopes on making up some of the business lost to piracy with licensed digital sales. But those prospects have dimmed as the rapid CD decline has overshadowed the rise in sales at services like Apple’s iTunes. Even as music executives fret that iTunes has not generated enough sales, though, they gripe that it unfairly dominates the sale of digital music.

Partly out of frustration with Apple, some of the music companies have been slowly retreating from their longtime insistence on selling music online with digital locks that prevent unlimited copying. Their aim is to sell more music that can be played on Apple’s wildly popular iPod device, which is not compatible with the protection software used by most other digital music services. EMI led the reversal, striking a deal with Apple to offer its music catalog in the unrestricted MP3 format.

Some music executives say that dropping copy-restriction software, also known as digital-rights management, would stoke business at iTunes’ competitors and generate a surge in sales. Others predict it would have little impact, though they add that the labels squandered years on failed attempts to restrict digital music instead of converting more fans into paying consumers.

“They were so slow to react, and let things get totally out of hand,” said Russ Crupnick, a senior entertainment industry analyst at NPD, the research company. “They just missed the boat.”

Perhaps there is little to lose, then, in experimentation. Mr. McCartney, for example, may not have made it to the “American Idol” finale, but he too is employing thoroughly modern techniques to reach his audience.

Starbucks will be selling his album “Memory Almost Full” through regular music retail shops but will also be playing it repeatedly in thousands of its coffee shops in more than two dozen countries on the day of release. And the first music video from the new album had it premiere on YouTube. Mr. McCartney, in announcing his deal with Starbucks, described his rationale simply: “It’s a new world.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

Musical Bones paper (~1975) by Sue E. Barber

Found this image of a 1856 painting (The Bones Player) by William S. Mount on Wikipedia:

Article taken from a page from the Rhythm Bones Society
by Sue E. Barber

What folk instrument is

* eminently portable (in a pocket)
* inexpensive to buy or make (from various scrap materials)
* easy to play (compared to other instruments)
* entertaining to hear and watch (evoking laughter and hand-claps)
* still played (especially at folk and ragtime festivals)
* relatively little known?

One more hint. The generic name identifies the scraps from which the original models were made. Ah yes. This has to be the bones.

Despite their many appearances in various places and times during man's sojourn through history, the bones have not been widely known or played in the past fifty years. They have been displayed in some antique/junk shops in the "does-anybody-know-what-this-is" bin. Often people will exclaim, "Hey, I think my grandpa played those! But I've never seen any. What are they?"

Fortunately, a recent revival of interest in folk music and culture has generated something of a bones revival as well. In the past several years they have clicked and clattered at folk festivals from Mariposa to Wolftrap. They clattered at the Smithsonian's Bicentennial Folk Arts Festival. Some of the remaining players of bygone days have sought out their counterparts to trade lore and techniques. A new generation of enthusiasts is demanding instruction from the few masters of this waning art.

Their ancient origins and continued popularity notwithstanding, information on the history of the bones is sparse and scattered. The researcher most commonly finds a sentence or two concealed in a text on some other subject. The rare paragraph is an occasion for elation. Data on how to play the bones is virtually nonexistent. This paper is, then, a first gathering of the widely scattered information on bones playing in the United States and Europe. It is also a "how to" primer, describing the fundamental movements and combinations of bones playing technique. I have been fortunate in working with one of the masters of bones playing, Percy Danforth. It is to Percy that this paper owes its inspiration and a good deal of its information. He and I talked, taped, and analyzed bones playing in the attempt to transfer it from musical performance to verbal format. Percy learned to play the bones as a boy under the gas street lamps of Washington, D.C. in 1909. He has played off and on ever since. In the past five years he has traveled from his home in Ann Arbor to play at numerous folk festivals, seek out and talk with his fellow players, make video tapes for libraries and schools, and work with a pilot music program in Virginia. With his time, travels, and enthusiasm he has contributed to the revivals of interest in what he calls, "this bones thing."


According to the Sachs-Von Hornbostel classification of instruments, bones are most broadly defined as idiophones, "... the substance of the instrument itself, owing to its solidarity and elasticity, yields the sounds.... " Further, bones, numbered 111.1 in the Sachs-Von Hornbostel system are "... concussion idiophones or clappers, two or more complementary sonorous parts struck against each other." (Von Hornbostel and Sachs 1961: 14) Sachs adds that instruments of this type are extensions of striking or clapping hands or stamping feet. The two complementary sonorous parts were originally, indeed, two pieces of bone. Later, various types of woods were used. The two parts, held between the fingers of the hand, strike together as the player, manipulating wrist and arm, produces varied rhythmic patterns. The bones shown in the photograph are about six inches long and 1/4 inch thick, although the length and thickness can vary with the material of which particular bones are made. (the photograph is not available at this time) The pieces are usually slightly curved, allowing greater ease in holding them and greater flexibility of movement.

Mention of the bones throughout available historical sources and eras invariably associates them with folk tradition. Folk music grows out of and is closely tied to daily life.

Folk instruments ... are usually made by the country people themselves. This is in contrast to art music instruments, which are the work of specialized instrument makers or factories. The basis of solo parts played on folk instruments is formed by song and dance. Whereas in the performance of art music the audience plays a purely passive part, folk music in its true surroundings forms an inseparable entity with dancing. For the folk musician his performance on a musical instrument is an artistic reflection of his own life, an organic component of his environment, a specific occasion without which musical expression could not exist in his consciousness... but music arises at the very moment when the musician feels the inner need of expressing himself in this way. (Buchner 1961: 6)

Bones certainly were often associated with dance and daily life, as this discussion will reveal. They have formed the rhythmic underpinnings for various kinds of religious and entertainment activities in many cultures and times.

Research reveals that bones in some form date back almost as far as man himself. The specific origins of the instrument are hidden in the mists of prehistory, but they were probably among the earliest instruments made by man. Archeological finds, while not numerous, do yield instruments made of stone and bone which have resisted the damages of time. Clappers of bone have been found in graves excavated at Uychvatince in Moldavia, dating from the second Millennium BC. Their primary functions seem to have been to drive away evil spirits, help cure the sick, and provide amusement for children. (Buchner 1961: 10) The relieves and mosaics of Ur document the existence of clappers in Mesopotamia. A number of centuries after Ur, clappers appear on Egyptian relieves of the New Kingdom. Vases dating prior to 3000 BC. show female dancers playing clappers, two held in each hand and struck against each other. These clappers were made of metal, bone and ivory. (Sachs 1940: 88) Called krotals or krotala in the ancient Greece, bone clappers appear on vases and amphora dating from 500 BC. The artist of ancient Greece "...interpreting in their art their impression of daily life..." show clappers of wood, bone, or ivory, many decorated with the head of Hathor, goddess of heaven, joy and death. Sachs notes that "The clapper seems to have been an instrument frequently associated with the worship of Hathor and probably every woman had her clapper to worship the goddess, as today every Catholic women owns a rosary." (Sachs 1940: 89)

After the demise of classical civilization there is a time gap of several centuries in the knowledge of the development of musical instruments. This turbulent period of migration of peoples has left little specific evidence to the music historian. Fortunately, a few scattered references to clappers or bones remain from the Middle Ages. Jongleurs in the Sixth Century, using instruments and airs from Rome, wandered around Europe, singing and dancing, using tambourines and clappers. (Their rambling, desolate life style led to public censure by the church in 554 AD.) (Edgerly 1942: 365) The Bible of Charles the Bald, which dates from the Ninth Century, shows players with horn, clappers, harp and lyre. The Anglo-Saxon Psalter of the Eleventh Century shows harp, rote, crowd, panpipes and clappers. A Fourteenth Century book illustration shows fiddle, psaltery, lute, tambourine, portative, clappers, bagpipe, shawm, drums and trumpets. In addition to their musical functions, the bones were also used in the Middle Ages by lepers who were obligated to sound them as a warning of their approach. (Marcuse 1964:105) One wonders if the choice of this instrument as a warning device had to do with the rather macabre nature of the bones themselves, this providing a reminder of the terrifying affects of this awful disease.

By the 1500's the bones seem to have centered themselves north of the English Channel. Shakespeare mentioned them in Act IV, Scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nick Bottom says, "I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and bones." By the Seventeenth Century the bones were commonly called "knicky-knackers" in England and are represented in Inigo Jones" designs for court masques, (Galpin 1910:190) The marrow bones and cleavers are still a recognized form of ready-made music among the butchers of England and Scotland, especially for weddings. Besides being a child's toy, they are also played today in the pubs of northern England and Ireland in ensembles to accompany dancing.

In pursuing the history of the bones, one finds an amusing theory which places their origin in Africa. "The cannibals of Africa probably originated the idea when they wanted a little music after having feasted thoroughly upon their enemies." (Paskman 1928: 28) This kind of statement is racist hyperbole of a type common in earlier research; one can only hope we are beyond that now. Documented evidence of the existence of bones in Africa does exist, however. Marcuse mentions the amatambo, clappers of the South African Zulu, made of cattle rib bones. She says, "They are similar to European bones and quite possibly an imitation of them." The Zulu use them as a rhythmic accompaniment to singing and dancing and play them on festive occasions. Percival Kirby describes Chwana bones or marapo, also made from rib bones.

I have not been able to determine whether the Zulu got the idea of using this instrument from the Europeans or not. The Chwana almost certainly did. The Rev. A Sandilands, who has been for years a missionary in Bechuanaland, assured me that fact is admitted by the Chwana themselves. (Kirby 1934:10)

Ample evidence is available that the bones were part of the musical tradition of the slave quarters of the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. James Weldon Johnson describes this early Negro entertainment.

Every plantation had its talented band that could crack Negro jokes, and sing and dance to the accompaniment of the banjo and bones, the bones being the actual ribs of a sheep or some other small animal, cut to the proper length, scraped clean and bleached in the sun. When the wealthy plantation owner wished to entertain his guests, he needed only to call his troupe of black minstrels (Johnson 1930: 78)

Precisely how bones arrived in the United States is open to conjecture. There seem to be two possibilities. One is that the black captives abducted to fill the slave quotas of the traders brought the bones with them from Africa. Certainly the slaves continued their traditional musical activities, clinging to their native drums, triangles, jawbones and quills. (White 1928:24) The biggest problem with this theory is that comment in the standard literature on musical instruments places bones among the Zulu and Chwana of South Africa. Most slaves came not from South Africa, but from the west coast of the continent. While it is possible that these slaves had contact with the blacks of South Africa, it seems unlikely that the contact was substantial. Further, although the slaves may have carried the idea of the bones with them, their forced departures would not have allowed them to bring actual instruments.

The more likely possibility is that the bones came to the Western Hemisphere from Europe. Evidence documents the existence of the bones in Europe from the Sixth Century until the present day, usually as part of the musical traditions of the common people. It was, after all, the poorer classes who left Europe seeking a new life in the New World. In addition to their meager belongings they brought familiar musical traditions and instruments. Slaves saw the bones being played by these whites. Because the materials were readily available and the techniques of playing were easily learned, the blacks appropriated the bones as their own. In the process they added the syncopated rhythmic sensibilities unique to the African musical tradition.

Many slaves made instruments of various sorts. Among them were "...long, hollow bones, clicked together like castanets, but five times as large." (Hughes and Meltzer 1967:18) With the instruments available to them slaves formed bands that provided entertainment both for themselves and their white masters. One elderly Virginia woman in a letter to a friend described seeing slaves singing and playing the bones.

When I was about ten years old a family from Fluvanna County settled within a half mile of us. They had several slaves who sometimes came to our house at night and gave us music, vocal and instrumental, their instruments being banjo, jawbone of horse, and bones (to crack together, two held in each hand.) (Scarborough 1925: 102)

Slaves and freedmen also formed bands that roved city streets, playing for a few pennies on street corners. One group of slaves played so well that they formed a traveling band. This particular band was so successful that it toured its way from Louisville to Cincinnati, and then on to Canada and freedom. (Lovell 1972:159) These street bands must have seemed haphazard to many observers. Their instruments, in addition to guitar or banjo and bones, often included such devices as frying pans, lard tins, a washtub bass, and perhaps a harmonica.

The itinerant black street band was a part of the cultural milieu which gave rise in the 1840's to the blackface minstrel show, an entertainment phenomenon which became an instant success all over the country. Transferred from the street bands to the minstrel show, the bones player became one of the featured musical and comic performers. The prototype of the blackface show was established in 1843 when four men joined forces in New York City and put together the first minstrel band. All four men were white and all had prior experience as blackface performers in road shows and circuses. Dan Emmett played violin, Dick Pelham played tambourine, Bill Whitlock played banjo, and Frank Brower played bones. They called themselves the Virginia Minstrels, and although they claimed to have originated the combination of instruments typical of the minstrel band, black street bands had in actuality been using similar combinations for some time. The performers, all in blackface, sang, danced, played and told jokes. They arranged themselves in a semi-circle with the bones player, known as Brudder Bones, on one end and the tambourine player, Brudder Tambo, on the other. In order to keep the show moving, comic repartee was interspersed with songs and dances. The two endmen, Bones and Tambo, were the comedians. In the center was Mr. Interlocutor, the co-ordinator, M.C., straight man, and the brunt of the jokes. The show was fast-paced, funny, homey and had instant popular appeal.

Minstrelsy was an art indigenous to the United States. A number of forces unique in the American social context combined to give rise to this entertainment form. One of the crucial elements was the songs and dances of the plantation blacks. The early minstrel men, while white, were certainly familiar with black street bands and black folk song. This music influenced the subject matter, form, rhythm, melody, and harmony of the minstrel song. Plantation life was presented as a pleasant compound of "singing, loafing, attending massa or missus, making love, hunting coon or possum...." (White 1928:10) Such a view of plantation life was decidedly inaccurate, "...a mere travesty... but it still was a sort of tribute to the charm and power of the real thing." (Blesch 1950:84) It also fulfilled a need felt by audiences to whom the minstrel show played. The "middle" American was emerging for the first time as an important political and social force during the early 1800's. The minstrel show, earthy, vital, unpretentious, based on popular culture, was an entertainment package that appealed to the common man. (Toll 1974:3) These people were the workers, the middle and lower class whites, often transplants from rural areas or from Europe. They felt disconnected, powerless, uprooted. Minstrelsy, in proporting to present a true portrait of the black slave, gave these Northerners an impression of what slaves were like at a time when the issue of slavery was becoming a national controversy. It allowed these free, white, middle and lower class Americans to believe they differed greatly from black slaves. (Toll 1974:34)

Where do the bones fit into all this? By the 1840's bones were commonly part of the makeshift black bands found both on plantations and street corners. Their association with blacks and plantation life continued when they incorporated into the minstrel band that formed the nucleus of the show. Brudder Bones was a ludicrous comic character. He was flamboyantly dressed, made up with large eyes and gaping mouth with huge lips. He talked in heavy dialect, all the while contorting his body in exaggerated gestures, twisting his words in endless puns. He foolishly discoursed on things he knew nothing about. He might state that of course the world didn't rotate. If it did, everything would fall off once a day. This kind of foolishness assured Northern whites that "no matter how bewildered or inept they felt, blacks were much worse off than they were." (Toll 1974;69)

The bones came to minstrelsy through Frank Brower, one of the original "Big Four." Brower had played the bones, which he originally made from the ribs of a horse, in other shows before the minstrel format began in 1843. In 1841 in Lynchburg, Virginia, he appeared with Dan Emmett, playing bones for one of the first times before an audience. He seems to have been one of the first bones players to incorporate them into an act to be used on stage. Brower employed the bones to provide a rhythmic kick, producing patterns of rhythm with the constant clicking of the two pieces of bone. Besides playing the bones, Brower and later endmen often tossed their bones in the air, catching them between fingers and juggling them. The rhythmic articulations of the bones provided a steady beat for the singing and dancing, much in the manner of a modern rock or jazz drummer. The following sentences give an idea of how it must have been.

The bones produced single clicks as well as "trills" or shakes of long or short duration. Their crispness was varied by dynamic shadings ranging from pianissimo to fortissimo. It was the precision of the clicks which lent articulation to the ensemble. In the main, the bone player followed the meter, but like the banjoist and the fiddler, he may have occasionally disturbed it by entering on ordinary unaccented boats. (Nathan 1962: 127

One early player observed, "It's hard to play the bones well; it brings the skin off." (Fox 1966:26) Performances on the bones could be even more elaborate than mere rhythmic clicks and syncopations. G. S. Buckley, one of the players of minstrelsy, imitated drums, marches, reveille, and two horses running a race. Other performers gave similar imitations. The song, "De Rattle of De Bones," published in The Ethiopian Glee Book of 1850, was an onomatopoetic description of the sound of the bones. Any Brudder Bones played from the souls of his feet, using his whole body as an extension of his instrument. Olive Logan, in an article published in 1879, described a typical performance.

He dances to the tune, he throws open the lapel of his coat, and in a final spasm of delight...he stands upon his head on the chair seat and for a thrilling and evanescent instant extends his nether extremities in the air. (Troll 1974:54)

In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century the minstrel show evolved into an elaborate extravaganza with little resemblance to its simple beginnings. In the process the bones were shoved aside in favor of more sophisticated instruments. So, they went underground.

They were played on street corners and in school yards, homes and dance halls. It was on such a street corner that Percy Danforth learned to play the bones. In 1909 Percy's family lived in northeast Washington, D.C., not far from the black section of town. Beyond that was the city dump, a treasure house of adventure for both the black and white children of the area, all of whom played there. Feelings between the groups were not exactly friendly, as Percy puts it, but the black and white boys did know one another. In the evenings, since there were no street lights in the black part of town, the black youths came over to the lighted street corner in front of Isaac Clayman's Grocery Store, where Percy and his friends hung out. The streets were macadam; the gas street lamps cast a soft-edged glow into the summer nights. The black youths threw sand from the gutter onto the sidewalk, took their bones from their pockets, and without speaking a word to those gathered to watch, danced a kind of soft shoe in the sand, accompanying themselves with the bones. Their feet shuffled in the sand, their bones chattered, their bodies swayed. So many years later Percy recalls, "It still makes my hair hurt to remember how beautiful it was." The bones played by these black youths were real bones; Percy remembers that they looked like spare rib bones. An eager and interested lad, Percy watched closely as these young men played. They showed him how to hold the bones; he thinks his father may also have known how to hold the bones. "I don't remember a time when all of a sudden I could play." he says. "I just kinda learned."

Bones playing was apparently not unusual in the Washington area during those dawning years of the Twentieth Century. Frederick Sparrow, a retired University of Michigan professor, grew up in Washington at the same time Percy did, although they did not know each other. Sparrow recalls that every year in the early spring bones appeared in the pockets of many of his classmates, boys eight to fourteen years old. During recess and lunch periods the boys (all white -- the schools were segregated) practiced the bones. Many of them just rattled a little, but "some of them got to be pretty good." The black youths also played bones in the market on Saturdays. As they waited to unload freight from incoming vehicles, they passed the time dancing and playing the bones. About these players Sparrow says, "Those guys were really good.! Even today, in fact, it seems that numerous grandfathers, uncles, and old family friends played the bones. I have learned of such players, now mostly elderly men, from California to northern Michigan to the east coast.

That American bones playing is a unique style is obvious when one compares it with contemporary British techniques (1). British players use bones held in only one hand and usually play sitting down. The bones are held in the same way, but the moving bone is manipulated differently by British and American players. The former allow the moving bone to swing freely; the latter hold the moving bone tightly so that it acts as a spring. In Britain bones are used unobtrusively as part of the rhythmic backup for dancing. There are no flamboyant movements or fancy rhythms. The rhythms duplicate the rhythms of the jig or real, keeping the beat obvious and steady. The British playing style and techniques, solid and unpretentious, suit the purpose for which the bones are used. Because American bones playing was traditionally part of entertainment form, it required movement, speed, and showmanship. The technique, bold and flashy, allowed elaborate rhythmic patterning. Moreover, the two playing styles are not readily interchangeable. The jigs and reels of Britain have a tactus fundamentally different from that of the minstrel and ragtime tunes of the United States. Bones players from the American heritage cannot instantly adjust their techniques to accommodate the different feel of the British songs. British players find it similarly difficult to switch to the syncopated rhythms that American songs require. Let no one doubt that playing the bones is a real skill that requires practice and virtuosity.


Just how is it, then, that the bones are played? Obviously, one must know first how to hold them properly. They are placed parallel to each other between the fingers of the hand, extending downward. In performance the bones move so rapidly that it is impossible with the unaided eye to see that only one bone actually moves. The moving bone is held between the third and fourth fingers. The other is held stationary between the second and third digits of the hand. This is the anvil against which the moving bone strikes. The player maintains enough tension on the moving bone so that it acts as a spring, allowing him precise control of its movement. A simple experiment will demonstrate the manner in which the bones work. Tape a quarter to the heel of the hand. Then place one of the bones between the third and fourth fingers. Appropriate movements of the wrist will produce sound as the bone strikes the quarter. Replacing the quarter with the other bone allows greater range of sound, but the operating principle is precisely the same. The key to playing the bones is not, as one might suspect, in the fingers, but in the movements of the wrist, arm and shoulder. The fingers, in fact, do not move at all. Their function is to keep the bones in proper playing alignment. The player must stay loose as he moves, causing the moving bone to flip against the stationary one, providing sound. American players, from Frank Brower to Percy Danforth, stand up when they play. The bones are an extension of the body itself. The virtuoso does not merely play the bones; it would be more accurate to say that he dances the bones. Their sounds are the oral manifestation of the movements of the dancer/player's body.

When observing a bones player in action, one sees a plethora of rapid motion. It is possible to reduce this flurry of activity to its simpler component parts. The simplest form of rhythm is a single click. The two bones hit together when the player snaps his forearm and wrist up and down. Two clicks, one after the other, result from a flipping over of the hand and wrist. A triplet pattern is produced with a crosswise motion, beginning with the arms extended to the sides and pulled sharply in toward the center of the body. To follow a triplet with a single click, a common pattern, the arms are brought toward body center for the triplet and moved back sideways to add the concluding click. A roll or trill results from continual shaking of the hand back and forth from the wrist. Another common pattern used by bone players involves rolling with one hand while adding a cross rhythm with the other of single, double, or triplet clicks.

Even before confronting the question of syncopated rhythms, it is evident that playing the bones is not as simple as might be supposed. A bones player must be extremely ambidextrous, able to produce different rhythms with each hand at the same time. He must also be able to think a rhythm and almost instantaneously reproduce that rhythm with his instrument. If one assumes that there is a slight time lag between the thought processes and the actual working of the sound-producing apparatus, the bones player then has two sets of rhythms operating at the same time. One is actually heard by the audience; meanwhile the other is going on in the player's head, preparing the next rhythmic pattern to be produced.

It is impossible to describe every syncopated pattern that a virtuoso can produce. All rhythms are variations of the basic single, double, triplet clicks and trills. In altering the regularity of the clicks by extending or delaying them, the player rearranges the order of the sonic events into complex rhythmic patterns. The possible combinations are virtually endless. Also, the rhythms are constantly crossing from hand to hand. Often a pattern is started in one hand, picked up and continued by the other, perhaps tossed back to the first. One can produce a crescendo by controlling and manipulating the relative position of the two bones. To begin softly, the bones are held so that they strike high up near the hand. As the crescendo builds, the moveable bone strikes against the anvil lower and lower down, ending with the bones aligned at the tip in their normal position, thus producing full volume.


Bones are made of various materials; different materials allow different tone colors. Bones were originally, by definition and nomenclature, bones. Homemade bones can be either crude and unfinished or highly refined, depending on the care taken by their maker. Shin and rib bones are the most commonly used because they are naturally of the proper size and shape. They must be allowed to dry thoroughly before they will produce their characteristic hollow click. Wood sticks also make acceptable bones. Different kinds of woods give different sounds. Bones of rosewood or teak emit a piercing, shrill click that literally makes a listener's ears ring. The sound of teak bones could cut through that of a large orchestra in the same way a piccolo does. Balsa wood bones produce a muted effect. Their lilting shuffle is characteristic of a soft shoe dance, White pine bones have a sound between teak and balsa. They are solid and authoritative without being ear-spltters. Bones, like everything else these days, come in plastic models. They are available commercially in some music stores and by catalogue order. Their sound is quite similar to bones made of bone. The innovative player can also experiment with various alterations to discover new kinds of sounds. For example by sawing one of a set of plastic bones partially in two lengthwise, one comes up with a flutter effect. Mounting a steal tube in the end of a pair of wooden bones gives a slightly metallic sound. Other experiments and alternations are certainly possible as well.


The time has come to look in on what actually happens during a bones performance. Playing techniques are mastered. Music is available; whether piano, banjo, fiddle, or band, it must be lively. The artist has selected the type of bones he wishes to use. Now he must take these raw materials and play. The bones are a percussion instrument; their raison d'etre lies in rhythm. The bones player may elect to simply reinforce the tactus of the tune. More likely, while never ignoring it, he will elaborate on the tactus by using infinite combinations of clicks, rolls, syncopations and embellishments. He may at times use only one hand; most of the time he will use both. The inventiveness of the player is combining patterns of rhythm is a mark of his virtuosity. A lot of the appeal in a bones performance lies in never knowing what to expect next.

A brief description of the bones movements and patterns used by Percy Danforth with a particular tune will illustrate the combinations and how they work. The tune is "Stop Time Rag." It has many syncopated rhythms in the piano part, thus allowing the bones player to use his full repertoire of rhythms. As the tune begins, Percy plays simple clicks, moving quickly to combinations of single and double clicks. Rolls follow, than off-beat clicks that lead into more rolls. A backward circular arm motion produces a continual pattern of sound. In the next section of the piece, Percy uses a crosswise outward-inward-outward motion and an up-and-down, higher-to-lower and back up motion in front of the body that combines triplets with double clicks in various orders. He eases up a bit by using only one hand as the next section of the tune begins; the other soon joins in. He continues the number with a series of alternating off-and-on the beat flips of the wrist and arm. The piece concludes with a series of two-handed clacks in unison with the piano on the final beats of the song.

It must be emphasized that a bones performance is a visual as well as an aural phenomenon. Mere words cannot adequately describe the excitement generated by a Brudder Bones style player who swings and dances his way through a tune." Playing through the soles of his feet," the bones virtuoso soon passes his enjoyment on to the audience. Audiences, in turn, never cease to be amazed by the amount of intricate noise produced by four sticks clacking together in the hands of an expert. Percy described part of the appeal of his performance in this way: "People are amazed to see this silver haired old bunny get up and dance and jump around with a couple sticks in each hand." One of the best audiences was three elderly black gentlemen at a street fair.

I did several numbers with pianist Jim Ford on a stage erected downtown at the corner of Huron and Main. The stage was about five and a half feet off the ground. That's where these old black guys were standing, leaning on their arms. Just the upper part of them was there, and all I could see was this trio of faces. And this one guy, after one number was over, shook his head. "Das it, boy, das it, das it ."

As interest in bones playing has grown, one of Percy's concerns has been the development of teaching techniques. Since there is no commercial instruction book on bones playing, he is attempting to devise nomenclature and notation for neophyte players. The accompanying practice sheet (not available on this Web page) contains a few of the basic rhythmic movements and combinations. They are to be practiced at leisure, in relaxed circumstances, in 4/4 meter at various tempi. The student is advised to start slowly and increase the tempo as his/her skill improves. After mastery of even the most elementary movements, the player is urged to try his new talents with appropriate musical accompaniment. Percy prefers ragtime tunes, but the beginner should probably began with something a bit less complex and work up to the syncopation of ragtime as he masters the instrument. Ideally, the student should work with an accomplished player. At present, the absence of an instruction book makes such tutelage virtually mandatory if one wishes to learn to play virtuoso bones. The swell of interest in bones playing would seem to indicate that the time is right for such a publication.

The bones offer many possibilities for expanded use. Because they are so inexpensive, they could conceivably provide a means of rhythmic training for large groups of students at a small cost. Since anybody can produce simple movements with relatively little instruction, bones can provide such groups with musical experience in which everybody can participate. With links to both black and white heritages, they allow students, and others, to interact with a bit of their pasts. Perhaps most important, playing or listening to the bones is fun. In a society that is lamentably devoid of inexpensive, good-time, participatory musical activities, bones playing is an art well worth preserving and reviving.


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