August 5, 2013
Rita Coolidge’s vibe is beautiful, buoyant and timeless, like the songs she sings and the stories she tells. Throughout a genre-blending musical career of 40-plus years she has gained fame as a headliner and a back-up vocalist in the worlds of rock n’ roll, country, blues, adult contemporary and pop. Billboard chart busters like “Higher and Higher” and “Me and Bobby McGhee,” with former spouse Kris Kristofferson, still comprise her signature sound. But interpretations of jazz and roots music expressing her Scottish-Cherokee heritage and Walela (the name of the vocal group she founded with her sister Priscilla and niece Laura) represent her also. Coolidge is a musician for every era, whichever one she’s in.
She credits her artistic endurance to a Walela nature, referencing the Cherokee word for hummingbird and the characteristics of the small, iridescent bird which range from the ability to fly backwards and change directions on a dime to being the only species able to sustain long-term hovering. Coolidge’s creativity is similarly adaptive. These instincts, she says, guide her as much today as they did when she was the somewhat shy but active youngest of four children humming around her childhood home in Lafayette, Tennessee.
In the free-wheeling, hippie counter-culture of the 197os, record labels had tried to make the lanky pop princess in cowboy hat, jeans and dark glasses a mainstream artist. Instead she veered musically everywhere and cajoled her A&M label to let her record an album with jazz idol Barbara Carroll. They did, but wouldn’t release the record. Coolidge played the beloved album for her friend Willie Nelson. He loved it and found inspiration for his album Stardust. Today, Nelson’s album is certified multi-platinum.
Coolidge doesn’t claim her album would have done as well but believes authenticity and being true to self are core strengths. The hummingbird creativity, she says with a laugh, “is probably the reason I never became a huge artist, but it’s why I’ve been steady.”
In August, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will get to hear this musical pioneer when Coolidge performs August 8 and August 10 at the museum in New York City and Washington, DC, respectively, for a free concert series honoring the exhibition “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.” The exhibitions (slated to close in New York City on August 11) pays homage to Native artists who built America’s pop music culture. Though their Native identities were often obscured or denied recognition, their sound wasn’t. The list reads like a Who’s Who of American music: Mildred Bailey (Coeur d’ Alene), Illinois Jacquet (Lakota), Peter LaFarge (Narragansett), Ritchie Valens (Yaqui) and Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee heritage).
“It’s important that the Smithsonian recognize Indian people in music. Music is such an integral part of all Indian culture,” says Coolidge. “It’s our voice. I feel that in my heart and body.”
Performing, Coolidge says, is her gift to the world, how she offers “happiness and service,” values learned from her minister father and mother, and siblings. ”I feel like a bird with broken wings when I’m not singing.”
Both parents passed away in 2012, her father in February, her mother in August. They were married 75-years and modeled “a generosity of heart and spirit” that inspired family and community, she says. Lessons learned are present with her now “as I carry on their life purpose.”
She was present for both transitions, spurred to her father’s side “because the message literally came to me through Spirit while I was on the road, to get to northern California where they lived. I sang two hours with my mother,” each of them holding a hand.
“I feel that you get the blessing to be chosen, to be there when the person passes over. Daddy prepared me to be there to help him.”
Her musical activist sister Priscilla, described by Coolidge as “the one who always carried the feather, the message” composed the song Cherokee in tribute. ”It expresses who he was and still is, a great, powerful and gentle man who is a visual artist, musician and poet. He lives on in such beauty.”
Coolidge and her husband were at their home with her mother when the time came for them to sing her over.
Stories pour forth from her easily, with a nectar-like richness that feed the soul bits of known and unknown history of defining moments in American musical culture.
In 1970, after graduating from Florida State with a degree in art, Coolidge headed West to California with friends and music contemporaries Delaney and Bonnie and Leon Russell. She was plunged full throttle into what she calls “Rock n Roll University” as a singer and choir director for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour with British rocker Joe Cocker.
The tour marked a defining moment in Coolidge’s life and American pop culture. Cocker had just concluded a grueling, exhaustive schedule and relished rest. Naively “he didn’t grasp that he couldn’t decline a seven week tour” already booked by management. “Joe wasn’t stupid,” Coolidge says, searching for the right words, “but he was so innocent at that time. He was a young guy from Sheffield, England, who took way too many drugs and walked around in a state of wide-eyed wonder.”
Russell saw a chance to help a friend and himself, recruiting Coolidge to find and prepare a choir who could hit the road in a week. Rehearsals ran 12 hours a day or more, she recalls. But a week later 55 men, women and children, including Cocker, and a dog boarded a chartered DC-8 to begin a 48-night, 52-city tour.
The tour’s name references a song composed by British playwright and composer Noel Coward. Allegedly it also refers to Cocker’s feelings at the time. The results, however, are uncontested. The Mad Dogs and Englishman Tour produced rock history, an album considered one of the greatest live albums of all time, and a documentary with legendary performances of Delta Lady (composed by Russell and inspired by Coolidge), The Letter, and Little Help From My Friends, featuring Led Zepplin guitarist Jimmy Page and Procol Harem drummer BJ Wilson.
During the tour she says “I met great people and some who didn’t have such great intentions. It was like a battleground. I would get on the plane at night and usually sit with Joe. I was 5’7″ and weighed under 100 pounds.” When she finally told Cocker she was quitting the tour, she remembers how quiet he became before saying, “You can’t leave. You’re the only friend I’ve got.”
It was years, she says, before she could watch the documentary without falling apart. At the premiere she’d sat trembling in her seat, the tears flowing.
Coolidge offers two final stories. In the 1990s, Native musician and composer Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) asked her to bring family members together to help him develop authentic Native music for the television mini-series the Native Americans. “Robbie knew the family sang.” The project gave birth to the group Walela.
During a concert with Carlos Nakai, Mary Youngblood and several other Native artists Coolidge recalls being asked to conclude the concert with them all performing together. ”I said let’s do Amazing Grace.” The response was “You mean that old Anglo song?” Indeed she did. The reason why has become a core part of her performing repetoire: “If I feel the audience has the the capacity to have the reverence or ability to honor the song. And I can read a crowd pretty well,” she says.
In the 1830s when Andrew Jackson was president, the Indian Removal Act mandated the removal of Indians east of the Mississippi from their homelands to make way for white settlers. Their act resulted in a death march for thousands known as The Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee was one of five tribes known as The Five Civilized Nations, says Coolidge. “Intimate unions of lives and faith” had integrated Native and non-native people culturally, she says. Indians were Christians and hymns like Amazing Grace were learned in white churches and integrated into Native culture and music.
“Amazing Grace was the song most sung on the Trail of Tears. When sung in Cherokee, it is the Cherokee National Anthem, she says.
“I sing it in 99 percent of the concerts I do and tell the story,” says Coolidge. “In most cases people stop their fidgeting or eating. It’s like an arrow that pierces peoples’ hearts so they can stop and remember something beyond time that connects them to the song.”
UPDATE: The date of the concert in Washington, D.C. is August 10. We regret the error.
May 13, 2013
In a career spanning nearly four decades, jazz artist Gil Goldstein’s talents have earned him kudos as educator, performer, composer, producer, arranger and film scorer. But perhaps his most notable role is as collaborator and mentor. Drawing on a formula of humility, curiosity and seemingly boundless creative energy, Goldstein’s collaborations have earned him worldwide recognition and the respect of A-list musicians exploring uncharted musical territory.
He has arranged for artists as diverse as Chris Botti, David Sanborn, Milton Nascimento, Randy Brecker, Manhattan Transfer and Al Jarreau, and performed with Pat Martino, Lee Konitz, Gil Evans, Billy Cobham, and Ray Barretto, among others. Film and TV music projects include performances, orchestrations and arrangements in ABC After School Specials, the films De-Lovely, Little Buddha, Frida, and dozens of others.
Not bad for a kid who got his musical start playing accordion in Baltimore, Maryland, where he recalls a TV show that had ”maybe 100 kids” featured on accordion. “When it was no longer hip, I said I’d better get rid of this thing,” he says explaining his move from accordion to piano and synthesizer. Still the accordion is a great instrument to learn to play music on, he says. “It’s always been part of my consciousness.”
Goldstein’s current collaboration is with ten-time Grammy-winning vocal innovator Bobby McFerrin. On May 13, the pair will perform at the Kennedy Center with Goldstein lending his talents as arranger and performer on piano and accordion to support McFerrin’s new Spirityouall, a concert series and recording project featuring some of the beloved spirituals he recalls from his youth.
McFerrin’s project also pays tribute to his father Robert McFerrin, Sr, the first African-American male to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the singing voice of Sidney Poitier’s Porgy in the film Porgy and Bess. Arranged and produced by Goldstein, the project is the kind of comfort zone stretching challenge that Goldstein relishes to expand his musical education and creativity and take him in new directions.
“I didn’t grow up with spirituals,” Goldstein says of his unfamiliarity with the music. While working on the project an encounter with jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, who he’d collaborated with on her jazz chart busting CD, provided needed insight and inspiration. “She turned me onto an African American hymn book. It was perfect! I learned so much. I’m always learning.”
His respect for lifelong learning and the exchange that comes from “good” mentoring and collaborations are staples of Goldstein’s creative process. When he co-arranged and co-produced Spalding’s third CD, Chamber Music Society, neither knew it would become the best-selling contemporary jazz album of 2011, selling over 100,00 units, a rarity in modern jazz. They just knew they were creating something mutually satisfying and exciting.
Spalding went on to be named #1 in the Contemporary Jazz Artist Category that year and become the first jazz artist to win a Grammy in the Best New Artist Category, beating out pop idol Justin Bieber. It was her first Grammy win. (Spalding was also a recipient of Smithsonian magazine’s first annual Ingenuity Awards in 2012.)
“Esperanza had a concept for Chamber Music Society. I just enabled it,” says Goldstein. He connected her to the best string players and encouraged her artistic vision for a jazz/classical/world music music fusion album that incorporated the work of 18th-century poet William Blake. Supporting an artists’ vision ”is a kind of mentoring,” he says. ”That was one of those good ones, a win-win.”
A 2010 commission from the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin’s birth also sparked a collaboration with McFerrin. This time Goldstein adapted Chopin’s piano music to big band and McFerrin’s voice. Polish folk music that had influenced Chopin was added for zest along with compositions by Debussy and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, both artists inspired by Chopin.
The best mentoring and collaborative relationships are mutually beneficial, he says, a two-way street fueled by creativity and respect. As an accompanist, he says he strives for flexibility, leaving “space” for artists “to express themselves. That’s how I learned,” he says. “I was a terrible student who didn’t take well to someone telling me this is how you have to do it. I became an arranger by making it up, by being prepared to fail.”
That learning style might partly explain why his music education stretched out over five colleges. He spent two years at American University, one at Berklee College of Music, and another two at the University of Maryland, before receiving a BA in music. He then earned a masters in music at the University of Miami (where jazz guitarist Pat Metheny was a classmate) and a doctorate at The Union Graduate School.
Today Goldstein teaches at New York University, the Mead School for Human Development and the New School. He says he encourages his students to retain a healthy respect for and awe of musical elders that have been trailblazers. He credits guitar influences like Jim Hall and Pat Martino as inspirations, and remembers college classmate Metheny ”being very clear and humble about who his influences are. I think that’s a healthy thing to have a degree of respect for somebody. No one develops in a vacuum.”
May 7, 2013
With his quiet dignity and self-assurance, leadership becomes Slack Key guitarist Reverend Dennis Kamakahi. Whether leading a cultural renaissance in his home state or a day of recognition at the Smithsonian, the Grammy-award winning composer, recording artist and Episcopalian minister exudes a presence as solid and beautiful as the music he composes and performs. Kamakahi was a member of the folk music group “The Sons of Hawaii” from 1974 to 1992 and his music was featured in the award-winning 2011 George Clooney film, The Descendants.
Kamakahi’s achievements as an Hawaiian folk musician and cultural historian recently found a welcome spotlight as curators at the National Museum of American History accepted his 6-string guitar, albums, sheet music and personal photographs as part of the museum’s music and history collections, a first for a modern Hawaiian composer.
A representative from the office of Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) read a message praising Kamakahi as “one of the finest musicians Hawaii has ever known.”
“Through your humility, grace and love for others,” she said, “you have positively influenced so many and have represented Hawaii with dignity.”
“This is an experience, to be alive at a time you can donate something and pique the curiosity of people,” Kamakahi, told an audience of well wishers. He then used the donated guitar to play and sing songs with stories and melodies as exotic and mysterious as his state.
Kamakahi’s role as cultural ambassador is as much family mantle as professional choice. His grandfather and father were guitarists. His father played trombone in the Hawaiian Royal Band and jazz with his mentor James “Trummy” Young, trombonist with the Louis Armstrong All Stars. Hawaiian culture dictated that the eldest grandchild ”be given” to the grandparent of the same gender to mentor as guardian of the cultural heritage.
Music is in Kamakahi’s blood and his story is a fascinating one. His goal to become a classical music conductor was abandoned after a music theory teacher encouraged him to “to go back to your roots, to Hawaiian music.” In 1973, Eddie Kamae, ukelele virtuoso and co-founder of the Sons of Hawaii, invited the 19-year-old Kamakahi to join the group.
Now “we’re the last two left,” he says of the legendary band. “He’s the oldest. I’m the baby. You are what your teachers are.”
That makes Kamakahi a cultural activist, who along with Kamae, ushered in Hawaii’s cultural renaissance of the 1970s, helping to lift stigmas that had repressed Hawaii’s indigenous music and traditions for decades. Slack Key guitar music, predating ukelele music, rose like a Phoenix from cultural ashes.
Slack Key music history is steeped in the lore of the Vaqueros, Spanish and Mexican cowboys who developed cattle ranching as a business and culture in the American Southwest and West. Vaqueros were brought to Hawaii to tame an overpopulation of cattle and taught Hawaiians to become cowboys or Paniolos. They also brought guitars, trading tunes and songs around camp fires. When the Vaqueros left, the guitars remained, adopted by Paniolos who invented their own tuning—slack key—to accommodate Hawaiian music.
“It was mostly tuned to the voice,” Kamakahi explains of the style. “The high falsetto style of singing emerged because of [the Paniolos].” Every tuning has a nickname. Families guarded tunings so closely they became family secrets. While the term Paniolo is used generically, today, to mean cowboy, it was originally reserved only for students of the Vaqueros, says Kamakahi. It’s a ”high title” going back to those days. Descendants of the original Vaqueros still live on the Big Island of Hawaii. And Kamakahi’s songs herald their histories along with those of Hawaii’s culture, religions, landscape, heroes and traditions.
“I write for story telling,” he says of his music. Hula, considered only a dance form by most mainlanders, is actually a form of storytelling that presents Hawaiian music and narrative through motion. Koke’e, a Kamakahi tune that became a Hula standard, was composed on the guitar donated to the Smithsonian.
“Original slack key music used maybe two chords,” he says. Two stories demonstrate the music’s influence and progression over the years.
Kamakahi counts the late legendary blues singer/composer Muddy Waters as a friend who used the Delta G slack key tuning throughout his career. He used to ask me, ‘Why don’t I sound like you when I play?’ I told him it’s because you don’t live in Hawaii.”
The 2011 film The Descendants, starring George Clooney, became the first feature length movie offering a full slack key music score. Kamakahi’s tune Ulili E performed with son David was featured in the film and in promotions. He said the power of the music and Clooney’s insistence on cultural authenticity won over the director after he and others invited them to a jam session at a local club.
“You can sing Hawaiian songs, but if you don’t know what you’re singing about (culturally) it’s not Hawaiian.”
While in DC he turned 60. Alumni and friends of the National Capital Region Chapter of the University of Hawai’i Alumni Association celebrated with a feast of Hula, food, music, and fundraising to support student interns. Kamakahi says he’ll still perform but wants to focus on educating others in and outside of Hawaii about the region’s history, music and culture.
He marvels that Slack Key has loyal fans as far away as Russia, Finland, France and South Africa. Exposure from The Descendants generated mail from around the world. Yet he’s concerned about the music’s future in Hawaii.
“It’s a sad time for Hawaiian music. It’s an exported music now,” he says. “It used to be in Waikiki,” a staple of tourism where musicians like Don Ho developed careers playing music lounges. That changed in the 1980s when hotel general managers recruited from outside Hawaii cut costs by replacing live music with karaoke. “Musicians like me had to go to the mainland,” says Kamakahi.
His hopes for young Hawaiian musicians is that promoting the culture will support its survival and evolution.
“Most people in Hawaii don’t know what the Smithsonian is,” he says. But Kamakahi knows the recognition validates his artistry and his culture. “I hope the Smithsonian recognition will place focus on the music back home. This honor will outlast me because it’s not only for me. It’s for those who came before me and for those who come after me.
“I tell young musicians you need to travel the world so your music will affect others, and theirs yours. Music is a communicator. It breaks down barriers. Music is the universal language that brings us together.”
He explains with an anecdote.
“I was playing at the Vancouver Music Festival and played with a West African band whose rhythms,” rooted in the blues “we hear every day in Hawaii. The bass player was in nirvana that we knew their rhythms.
“Rhythm is everywhere. Your heartbeat is the first rhythm you hear. The heartbeat is the first thing that connects you to life,” he says smiling broadly. “That’s why we’re all musical. We have a heartbeat.”
Hear from the Slack Key legend himself in an episode of the American History Museum’s podcast, History Explorer.
April 2, 2013
Dave Brubeck. The legendary jazz pianist, composer, and cultural diplomat’s name inspires awe and reverence. Call him the “quintessential American.” Reared in the West, born into a tight knit, musical family, by age 14 he was a cowboy working a 45,000 acre cattle ranch at the foothills of the Sierras with his father and brothers. A musical innovator, Brubeck captivated the world over six decades with his love for youth, all humanity, and the cross-cultural musical rhythms that jazz and culture inspire. In 2009, as a Kennedy Center Honoree he was feted by President Barack Obama who said “you can’t understand America without understanding jazz. And you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.”
In 2012, Dave Brubeck passed away a day before his 92nd birthday, surrounded by his wife of 70 years, Iola , his son Darius and Darius’ wife Cathy. To understand Brubeck’s legacy one must know him as a musician, a son, husband, father and friend. In tribute to Dave Brubeck during the Smithsonian’s 12th Annual Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and UNESCO’s International Jazz Day, his eldest son, Darius, offers a birds-eye view into life with his famous father and family and how their influences shaped his personal worldview and career as a jazz pianist, composer, educator, and cultural activist, using music to foster intercultural understanding and social equity. A Fulbright Senior Specialist in Jazz Studies, Darius Brubeck has taught jazz history and composition in Turkey, Romania, and South Africa, among other nations. He has created various ground breaking commissions such as one for Jazz at Lincoln Center that set music he composed with Zim Ngqawana to extracts of speeches from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, read by actor Morgan Freeman.
What did you learn from your father as a musician and cultural ambassador that guides and inspires you today?
Nearly everything. But here is what I think relates to JAM and this UNESCO celebration. Dave combined being as American as you can get—raised as a cowboy, former GI, always in touch with his rural California roots—with being internationalist in his outlook. People in many countries regard him as one of their own, because he touched their lives as much as their own artists did. If it were possible to explain this with precision, music would be redundant. Of course it isn’t.
He was always curious, interested in people, intrigued rather than repelled by difference, and quick to see what people had in common. I realize, now especially, that I absorbed these attitudes and have lived accordingly, without really thinking about where they came from.
How was it growing up with a famous jazz musician father who had friends like Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis?
In retrospect, the most important thing was seeing what remarkable human beings these musicians were. They had their individual hang-ups and struggles, but in company they were witty, perceptive, self-aware, informed, and, above all, ‘cool.’ I learned that humor and adaptability help you stay sane and survive the endless oscillation between exaltation and frustration— getting a standing ovation one moment and not being able to find a place to eat the next. Dave and Paul (Desmond) were extremely different people but their very difference worked musically. You learn perspective because your own vantage point is always changing.
For your family music, and jazz in particular, is the family business. How did that shape you as a person and your family as a unit?
It made us a very close family. People in the ‘jazz-life’ really understand that playing the music is the easiest part. The rest of it can be pretty unrewarding. My mother worked constantly throughout my father’s career, and still does. Many people contact her about Dave’s life and music. In addition to writing lyrics, she contributed so much to the overall organization of our lives. We were very fortunate because this created extra special bonds between family members as colleagues, and as relatives.
Performing together as a family is special. It’s also fun. We all know the score, so to speak. We all know that the worst things that happen make the best stories later. And so we never blame or undermine each other. There have been big celebratory events that have involved us all. Dave being honored at the Kennedy Center in 2009 must count as the best. All four musician brothers were surprise guest performers, and both my parents were thrilled.
During the seventies, my brothers Chris and Dan and I toured the world with Dave in “Two Generations of Brubeck” and the “New Brubeck Quartet.” Starting in 2010, the three of us have given performances every year as “Brubecks Play Brubeck.” We lead very different lives in different countries the rest of the time. The professional connection keeps us close.
The Jazz Appreciation Month theme for 2013 is “The Spirit and Rhythms of Jazz.” How does your father’s legacy express this theme?
I know you’re looking for something essential about jazz itself but, first, I’ll answer your question very literally. Dave wrote a large number of ‘spiritual’ works, including a mass commissioned for Pope John Paul’s visit to the U.S. in 1987. His legacy as a composer, of course, includes jazz standards like In Your Own Sweet Way. But there is a large body of liturgical and concert pieces in which he shows people how he felt about social justice, ecology, and his faith.
The ‘spirit of jazz’ in Dave’s music, as he performed it, is an unqualified belief in improvisation as the highest, most inspired , ‘spiritual’ musical process of all.
Cultural and rhythmic diversity is what he is most famous for because of hits like “Take Five,” “Unsquare Dance” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” The cultural diversity of jazz is well illustrated by his adaptation of rhythms common in Asia, but new to jazz. He heard these during his Quartet’s State Department tour in 1958.
You were a Fulbright scholar in jazz studies in Turkey. Your father composed “Blue Rondo” after touring the country. How did Turkey inspire him? What did you learn from your time in Turkey and touring there with your father?
Dave first heard the rhythm that became the basis of “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in Izmir, played by street musicians. I was actually with him in 1958, as an 11-year-old boy. He transcribed the 9/8 rhythm and when he went to do a radio interview, he described what he heard to one of the radio orchestra musicians who spoke English. The musician explained that this rhythm was very natural for them, “like blues is for you.” The juxtaposition of a Turkish folk rhythm with American blues is what became “Blue Rondo.”
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s music encounter with Indian classical musicians at All-India Radio was also very significant. Dave didn’t perform the music of other cultures, but he saw the creative potential of moving in that direction as a jazz musician, especially when it came to rhythm.
Jazz is open-ended. It always was fusion music, but that doesn’t mean that it is just a nebulous collection of influences.
When I was in Istanbul as a Fulbright Senior Specialist in 2007, my first thought was to encourage what musicologists call hybridity, the mixing of musical traditions. This was met with some resistance from students and I had to re-think my approach. In effect, they were saying, ‘No! We’re not interested in going on a cross-cultural journey with you during your short time here. We want to learn what you know.’
They were right. When, and if, they want to combine jazz and Turkish music, they’ll do it themselves, and vice versa. Jazz is world music. It’s not ‘World Music’ in the sense of ‘Celtic fiddler jams with Flamenco guitarist and tabla player.’ Rather it is a language used everywhere. Anywhere you go you’ll find musicians who play the blues and probably some ‘standards’ like “Take the A-Train” or “All the Things You Are.” The other side of this is that local music becomes international through jazz. Think about the spread of Brazilian, South African and Nordic jazz.
In the eighties in South Africa, you initiated the first degree course in jazz studies offered by an African university. Jazz is known globally as ‘freedom’s music.’ South African was under apartheid when you did this. Why was it important for you to do this on that continent, in that country, at that time?
Before I answer, I have to say that my wife, Catherine, is South African. Her political and music connections led to my going to Durban in 1983 to teach at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal).
There wasn’t a university degree in jazz studies in the whole of Africa. It is somewhat ironic that the first one should be taught by a white foreigner in apartheid South Africa. The ANC in exile was in favor of my going or we wouldn’t have gone. They knew they would be in government sooner or later and saw that transforming important institutions from the inside was a positive step.
There was already an established jazz scene in South Africa that had produced great artists like Hugh Masakela and Abdullah Ibrahim, but they couldn’t work in their own country. So this was a crucial choice for me at the time and an opportunity to do something that mattered. Local musicians didn’t have the training for the academic world; working in a university certainly isn’t the same as gigging and giving music lessons. A lot of ‘improvisation’ made it work. For example, changing entrance requirements so that African students and players could join the program.
How we progressed is too long a story to go into here, but the new opportunities and, eventually, the especially created Centre for Jazz & Popular Music visibly and joyfully changed the cultural landscape on campus, in Durban, and also had an impact on higher education generally. Today, 30 years later, there are numerous universities and schools that offer jazz.
What are your aspirations as a jazz musician and educator? What impact do you want to have on the world?
I’ve just described the biggest thing I’ve done in my life. It took up almost 25 years and I’m in my sixties now. So that might be it, but who knows? I’m back to playing music full-time because I love doing it, not just the music but the life-long friendships and connections that develop in the jazz world.
Also the travel, the especially strange and wonderful opportunities like playing in Israel and Saudi Arabia within a few months of each other. I secretly hope that in some instances my concerts and compositions help people see beyond the barriers of race, nationalism and ideology. That’s what I try to do, anyway.
I don’t have particular career aspirations, except the desire to continue improving as a musician. When I feel I’ve gone as far as I can, I’ll quit. Meanwhile I enjoy having my own quartet, touring sometimes with my brothers, and also lecturing and teaching when the occasions arise.
What’s on the horizon for the Brubeck Institute and your career that most people don’t know?
I hope the Brubeck Institute will take on an even more international role. While it is historically fitting that the Institute and the Brubeck Collection be located at the University of the Pacific in California where my parents studied and met, the true mission is global.
At the start of this conversation I said my father was instinctively internationalist. I think the Brubeck Institute should carry this spirit of cooperation and ecumenism into the future. I will certainly help where I can.
This year I’m hoping to play in far flung Kathmandu, where they have a jazz festival, also to return to South Africa for some reunion performances. I really appreciate that although I live in London, the university where I taught for 25 years has made me an Honorary Professor.
JAM 2013 explores jazz and world culture with Smithsonian museums and community partners in a series of events. April 9, free onstage discussion/workshop with Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez at American history; free Latin Jazz JAM! concert with Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo and Latin jazz stars at GWU Lisner Auditorium; April 10, Randy Weston and African Rhythms in concert w. guest Candido Camero/onstage discussion with Robin Kelley and Wayne Chandler ; April 12 Hugh Masakela at GWU.
March 27, 2013
A warm thought for a cold Spring Day. Aloha reigns in Washington, DC!
For decades thousands of Hawaiian transplants and local natives of the islands’ ancestry have transplanted their cultural roots into the city’s hard clay soil. The result has been a flowering of ethnic education, dance schools and music, cultural exhibitions and slack key guitar concerts that have now created the area’s first Slack Key Guitar Festival at the Birchmere, and the rise of troubadors like the Aloha Boys.
The Aloha Boys, Hawaiian transplants, met 20-years ago at Halau O’ Aulani, a Hawaiian cultural school in Arlington, VA., where their children were studying. The “dads” formed a group to provide much needed Hula music to the school. The rest, as they say, is history. DC cultural history.
Since then the Aloha Boys have performed everywhere from school functions and backyard picnics to the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum and its American History Museum, and the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. They have even represented Arlington County heritage events in Rheims, France. In May, they perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Guitarist Glen Hirabayashi, a founding member of the group, said the catalyst for the group’s founding was their wives. One wife was reared in Hawaii. Another is a native of McLean, VA. “My wife was a military brat who grew up most of her life in Arkansas,” Hirabayashi said. Yet each of the women held dear their cultural roots and insisted that their daughters, then two and three-years old, learn Hula. Hirabayashi says the children grew up enmeshed in Hawaiian culture and learned to seamlessly meld their East Coast identities with their Hawaiian enculturation.
“We go back (to Hawaii) once a year,” Hirabayashi said of his family. “And you couldn’t tell that they weren’t local kids. They do everything that everyone else does. It’s wonderful seeing my kids appreciate the things I kind of took for granted.”
His youngest daughter, Amy Melenani (her name means “beautiful song”) is now a junior at Virginia Tech and a notable Hula dancer. She will be a featured performer at the 2013 National Cherry Blossom Festival. His oldest daughter, Ashley Hokunani (her name means “beautfil star”) is married and relocated in North Carolina. Yet. she still talks about her favorite song, Koke’e, and “her best memories ever” being when the legendary Slack Key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi “played and sang that song in our basement.”
Hirabayashi says Hawaiian music has a solid following in the Washington area, with concerts at Wolf Trap and Birchmere, selling out. Ukelele music is experiencing a renaissance, he says, with the popularity of artists like jazz ukelele player Benny Chong, and music industry leaders like NAMM offering more than 50 ukelele exhibitors at its recent show.
But its Slack Key guitar and artists like Kamakahi that he would like to see more widely exposed, to preserve the music’s rich heritage and cowboy culture, Hawaiian style. According to history, King Kamehameha III imported Spanish and Mexican cowboys to the Big island of Hawaii in the 1830s to help control a cattle boom that had overpopulated the island and become a nuisance. The cowboys brought their guitars and played music with the Hawaiian locals, known as Paniolo. Eventually the Paniolo adopted the guitar for their own ancient chants and songs. Unfamiliar with or unlearned in how the Spanish tuned the guitar, the Hawaiian cowboys developed their own tuning style that became known as Slack Key.
Tuning styles became so secretive “That families have their own tunings,” said Hirabayashi. “It wasn’t until recently that it (tuning) was shared. Legend was that the Spanish cowboys didn’t teach Hawaiians how to tune them. So they (Hawaiians) came up with their own tuning.”