August 1, 2013
In the latest issue of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, Boston-based musicologist Jeffrey Summit begins his essay on the Ugandan coffee cooperative Peace Kawomera with two tragedies: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013. Summit recorded the music of Peace Kawomera after the former and returned home in the aftermath of the latter. “In the wake of violence in my own city,” he writes, “I have been revisiting the music of this interfaith cooperative, and reflecting about the power and responsibility of each of us to create a climate of peace in our communities.”
Peace, the theme of the Spring/Summer issue, is of course a timeless ideal, but Summit’s words throw its current timeliness into stark relief. The issue takes an “international approach,” says managing editor Meredith Holmgren, “mak[ing] linkages of community peace around the world.”
The cover story, “Peace Songs of the 1960s,” brings the theme home to American readers and, in a Smithsonian Folkways first, compiles full versions of cited tracks in an embedded playlist. An essay by historian Ronald Cohen contextualizes these songs, including Bob Dylan’s “I Will Not Go Down Under the Ground” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” under the specter of nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War. Also featured is a video interview with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, whose songs were often made popular by other artists.
Former United Nations official Michael Cassandra discusses Nobel Voices for Disarmament: 1901-2001, a compilation of new and archival spoken-word recordings by notable proponents of peace. Michael Douglas, an Academy Award-winning actor and UN Messenger of Peace, narrates the album, which includes the voices of President Bill Clinton, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Progressive-era activist Jane Addams. The piece is accompanied by a multimedia lesson plan, which Holmgren says will become a recurring feature of the magazine.
In the Recording Spotlight is Peace Kawomera (Delicious Peace), the Fair Trade coffee co-op of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers—who happen to be excellent musicians as well. The collaboration, formed in response to 9/11, has proven both economically and artistically fruitful, underscoring the “importance of peace to economic prosperity,” says Holmgren. The article by Jeffrey Summit comes with photographs by Richard Sobol and video of a Peace Kawomera live performance.
This issue also marks the debut of “From the Field,” a Smithsonian Folkways Magazine partnership with the Society for Ethnomusicology which presents recent ethnomusicological field research to a general audience. The first installment, “Carnival of Memory: Songs of Protest and Remembrance in the Andes,” documents the music of Peruvian villages devastated by civil war in the 1980s. “People often seemed more willing to sing about the conflict than they were to talk about it,” writes ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter; their music helps them commemorate and come to grips with the violence. A photo slideshow and video recording situate these testimonial songs within the Andean carnival genre of pumpin. For Holmgren, the story exemplifies the difficult task of sustaining peace. “Peace isn’t something that happens,” she says. “It’s a process.”
July 31, 2013
The banjo conjures American musical icons: the overall-clad country band on an old porch, the bluegrass player in a sun-soaked field. Over the past century, famous players like Pete and Mike Seeger have established the instrument as an enduring piece of Americana.
Despite the banjo’s firm place in the American folk cannon, though, ethnomusicologist Greg C. Adams wants music fans to appreciate the eclectic, global contexts from which American banjo music grew. Since the instruments’ invention by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean nearly 400 years ago, the banjo has been picked up by a variety of cultures in and outside the Americas, each of which has contributed to the different ways America’s great banjoists have played.
For Classic Banjo, out this month on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Adams and archivist Jeff Place selected 30 of the past half-century’s best tracks by American banjo players that capture the diversity of American techniques and styles.
Adams, who has played the banjo for almost 20 years, recently talked to us about his love of the instrument, its history and what Classic Banjo means for a new generation of banjo enthusiasts.
Why make an album of American banjo classics?
Smithsonian Folkways is home to some of the most important recordings that reflect the ways the banjo is being used, especially in the 20th century. To have access to those materials, and to make those materials available, is vitally important to the ways in which we think about the broader history of the banjo. By the 1890s and moving forward, the banjo is increasingly used in the music industry. But how do we take what’s happened in the past century and compare it to how we understand the banjo’s broader history, which is a nearly 400-year history? How do we reflect upon the first 300 years of that history and embrace what we can learn from the 20th century forward? That’s why we put this album together.
What makes a good banjo track?
It’s a mix of the energy behind the performance, learning about the contexts of the performance and then learning who these people are and why they are significant. On the album, Tony Trischka and Bill Evans play the tune “Banjoland” with incredible precision. But you can also listen to “Golden Bell Polka,” by A.L. Camp, who at the time of this recording was a very old man. He’s playing this tune that would be associated with the late 19th and early 20th century, and so while you can tell he’s of an older generation by his performance, there’s still an integrity in his playing that says: ‘Yes, this man knew exactly what he was doing and in his day was an incredible player.’ It’s about appreciating not only the processes people go through as they learn to play the instrument, but how this process ties into the broader banjo tradition.
You had more than 300 albums to dig through in your search. How did you decide which tracks ultimately made the final cut?
We looked at several things. Who are some of the individuals that would need to be represented? What are some of the specific playing techniques that would need to be there? What kind of repertoire would help to reflect the vibrant nature of banjo music traditions? We have iconic people like Pete Seeger, Hobart Smith, or Mike Seeger, and we focus on playing techniques that are associated with, for example, bluegrass traditions, or with old time music—whether you’re talking about downstroke techniques such as clawhammer or frailing, as well as two- and three-finger picking styles. And then there are also people who are not picking the strings with their fingers, but using flat pics or plectrums.
How did these different techniques come about?
Different techniques materialize in different ways. In the 19th century, downstroke techniques were associated with the banjo’s commercialization through black-face minstrelsy and instruction books that taught African American techniques. This way of playing the banjo shares the same fundamentals with what we see in old time music circles, so if you see somebody playing clawhammer banjo—they would also call it frailing the banjo or thumping the banjo—you have a fundamental technique that unfolds in different ways, within different geographic locations, within different communities. Nobody’s going to play the banjo in the exact same way.
Banjo is increasingly prevalent in popular radio music, like songs by the band Mumford and Sons. What do you hope a young generation of banjo enthusiasts take away from this record?
What listeners are hearing people do today ties back to traditions that are hundreds of years old. It’s part of a much larger continuum. What they’re hearing in popular music, and perhaps what they’ll hear on a recording such as Classic Banjo, will inspire them to look deeper beyond just the sound of the instrument to the multicultural contexts in which the banjo exists. My hope is that we can reach as wide a public as possible.
What’s the benefit of the banjo’s growing popularity?
I feel like with the latest wave of popular awareness, we have a unique opportunity to really deconstruct the banjo’s use over time, coming out of slavery, its popular use though black-face minstrelsy, the way that it’s being gradually commercialized and what brings us to associate it more recently with old time and blue grass traditions. There’s a chance to have more of a conversation about the deeper aspects of this history. The banjo is not just a stereotype anymore. It is a gateway to understanding the American experience.
July 2, 2013
Gwyneth Glyn is a singer whose fans don’t always understand her. But her music speaks to them, even if her words don’t.
A native of Wales, Glyn sings most of her songs in Welsh. When she performs for a non-Welsh-speaking audience, she doesn’t worry about the language barrier. She once performed in Wales, and in the audience was an autistic girl from Scotland, who was inspired to learn Welsh after hearing Glyn sing. She has already made progress, and Glyn has stayed in touch with her since.
“I know from experience that even one song, one performance can affect a person’s life journey,” Glyn said.
Performances by musicians, poets and storytellers like Glyn might also affect the vulnerable status of the Welsh language, which is primarily spoken in and around Wales and in a few small émigré communities in Argentine Patagonia. Welsh has been officially classified as vulnerable by UNESCO, which is finding that new generations still speak the language but only at home and only in some regions of the country.
Glyn, who grew up in a hamlet in North Wales, speaks Welsh as her first language. Until primary school, the only English she knew was what she gleaned from watching Sesame Street on the television. The more she advanced in her education, however, the more she spoke English. At Jesus College in Oxford, she earned her degree in philosophy and theology speaking, reading and writing in English only.
Despite the prevalence of English, the Welsh language and traditional culture have begun to make a comeback.
“There has been something of a folk revival in the past, say, ten years . . . a resurgence of folk music,” Glyn said.
Although the language is undergoing a revival, the numbers don’t yet show it. According to a Welsh government census, the number of people in Wales who speak Welsh has decreased. The difference, however, is the renewed interest in learning Welsh and a new effort to teach it in schools, as well as recent government measures to promote it. Welsh has been a core subject in schools since 1988, but children are speaking it even more now as the popularity of Welsh medium schools has slowly increased. These schools do not teach Welsh as a second language, but rather integrate it into the lessons of other subjects, increasing fluency.
With its proximity to England and the prevalence of English-language entertainment, revitalizing the Welsh language is not a simple task. Its status as vulnerable means it has a greater chance of dying out, something supporters of the language know too well.
“I think you always have that at the back of your mind,” Glyn said. “It’s part of the psyche of the nation.”
Glyn sings both original songs and traditional Welsh songs, inspired by the folk stories her mother told her growing up and her father’s record collection, which included albums by Bob Dylan and his Welsh counterpart Meic Stevens, also known as “the Welsh Dylan.”
For her foreign audiences, who don’t normally speak Welsh, Glyn has found that the language still has an effect on them. A man from New York state recently sent her an email after watching a performance. He said that her song “Adra” transcended language and that it was one of the best songs in any language.
Her audience may not always understand her, but Glyn enjoys the cultural exchange, as do her fans.
“It’s really refreshing to cross pollinate culturally,” Glyn said. “It’s ironic that we have to go across the Atlantic to do that, but sometimes it’s when you’re away from home, you realize the wealth of your own culture.”
Glyn performs Wednesday, July 3, through Sunday, July 7, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her schedule is as follows.
July 3 — 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Talk Story Stage and 2:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage
July 4 — 2 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage and 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Talk Story Stage
July 5 — 12:30 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Song and Story Circle stage
July 6 — 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage and 3:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Song and Story Circle stage
July 7 — 2:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage
May 16, 2013
In high heels and flawless fashions, Sheila E. has been rocking the drums since she was a teenager growing up in Oakland, California. At 55, she’s still not slowing down. She’s collaborated with artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, toured the country and is currently working on a new album and autobiography, From Pain to Purpose, due out next year. In town for a show at the Howard Theater Thursday, May 16, she stopped by the African Art Museum for a performance with the Farafina Kan Youth Ensemble drummers. “I slowed down for a couple hours this morning,” she jokes about her hectic life.
It’s a pace and spirit that have become her signature no matter what genre she’s performing in. But those high energy concerts come with a cost. “It’s very demanding,” says the star who regularly ices her hands and feet after shows. “I just had a procedure done on my arm, my elbow and my wrist so it’s still painful to play,” she says. “It’s just things that happen from playing all of these years for so long but I love what I do.”
Sheila E. was born Sheila Escovedo, daughter of percussionist Peter Escovedo. Surrounded by a whole host of musical uncles and godfather Tito Puente, she picked up the drums at a young age. But, she says, “I didn’t know that music was going to be my career.” Instead, she had plans to be either the first little girl on the moon or an Olympic sprinter. Interrupting her training, she took to the stage to perform with her dad when she was 15. “And that changed my whole life.”
Her family and her hometown of Oakland provided precisely the kind of creative fertile ground she needed to experience all kinds of music. “My dad is totally the foundation of who I am,” says Escovedo. “He’s a Latin jazz musician, but he also brought different kinds of music into the house,” she says, adding that it’s this sort of artistic range that has helped her have such longevity in her career. Oakland also provided its own mix of music for the young artist. “I’ll tell you, it’s the best place to be born. I love D.C. but the Bay Area, oh my gosh.” Calling it a mecca for music with a rich variety of ethnicities, Escovedo cited the many bands that came from the area, including her uncle’s band, Azteca.
Though her father tried to persuade her at first to take up violin, he never let her think she couldn’t play the drums. “I grew up in a home where my parents never said that it was wrong to play because I was a girl,” says Escovedo. She remembers going to her friends’ houses and asking where all the percussion instruments were, thinking it was typical of all homes.
Once she got in the industry and began working with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Lionel Richie, she says she encountered some resistance as a female musician. But her parents told her, “Just do what you do, play from the heart, be on time, be early, learn your craft and when you get in there…be prepared so when you walk in you walk in with confidence.”
Anyone who’s seen her perform or watched her delight audiences during Drum Solo Week on the “Late Show with David Letterman” knows that she’s not wanting for confidence. She’s also not wanting for inspiration. The artist says she’s tried almost every genre of music, including polka, though she’s most well-known for her songs “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” collaborations with Prince. With one country song under her belt, she says she’s now trying to encourage her friend Garth Brooks to record with her.
When she’s not writing books or in the studio, she likes to search YouTube for up and coming female percussionists. “There are more women percussionists, young girls playing now than ever,” says Escovedo, and that includes girls from her own Elevate Hope Foundation, which seeks to bring music and art to children who have been abused or abandoned to help them heal and communicate.
Contemplating what item she would donate to the Smithsonian if given the chance, she says it’s almost impossible to decide, despite a garage full of instruments. “The thing is, everywhere I go, if I pick something up, you know, that tube over there or this water bottle, I can play it as an instrument.” In fact, she says, “On Michael Jackson’s album, the first one that he did, “Off the Wall,” he wanted me to come in and play this sound and to emulate it the only thing that I could think of was to get two water bottles, like two Perrier water bottles. I poured water in them to tune to the actual track, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.’” With two pieces of metal, she hit the glass. “So that’s me playing the bottles.”
After her show in D.C., Escovedo says it’s back to the studio to record a track for her album with Chaka Khan. “I say yeah, I’m going to slow down,” she says, but, “I get on stage and I get crazy. It’s in me. I’ve got to do it.”
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.”