'round-the-dial - The Alan Lomax Collection
Wednesday 23 June @ 17:51:39
by Tom Hallett
Once upon a time, in lands far, far away, a steadfast and eminently curious musicologist by the name of Alan Lomax lugged an ancient tape recorder through mountains, jungles and forests and captured some of the true root sounds of the music you hear and love today. But that's not all he captured—along the way, he managed to preserve for future study the very cultures and traditions of peoples who've since disappeared or been assimilated into the modern societies they presaged.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Alan Lomax is a completely central figure in 20th century culture. Almost any line you could draw through the whole field of popular musical culture would have him somewhere on it. Probably in several places."
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Deeper Well”
On Carribean Voyage: The 1962 Field Recordings/The French Antilles—We Will Play Love Tonight, and Deep River Of Song: Louisiana—Catch That Train And Testify (just two of the 150 or so of Lomax's recordings that are or soon will be available from Rounder Records—others include The Southern Journey Series, Prison Songs, World Library Of Folk And Primitive Music, Italian Treasury, Folk Songs Of England, Ireland, Scotland, And Wales, Spanish Recordings and Christmas Songs) the man rolled tape for the very first time ever on some of the most fascinating, exciting and historically important songs, chants, rituals, wakes and celebrations to survive into our times.
Lomax had traveled extensively with his father, John, in the early part of the 20th century, recording prison and slave songs in the Deep South, searching for the roots of modern folk, blues, and jazz styles, but a return to Louisiana in the mid-’30s convinced him that the trail was only beginning there. After spending months listening to and recording French, Cajun, and bastardized island music in and around the Evangeline country in Southern Louisiana, he decided that one day, he would follow those wispy trails and ghostly voices to the places they'd originated—or at least directly descended—from.
Thus, our tale begins a bit in the reverse, since we'll first look at the 1962 journey Lomax took to the French Carribean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Bart's, and then segue into the American recording sessions of the 1930s, when he was first exposed to these sounds and styles. This will require a bit of a history lesson, which, thankfully, is provided in the extensive liner notes of both packages.
Martinique and Guadeloupe, French sugarcane colonies, began as quite lucrative New World establishments—for the European settlers and plantation owners who settled there in the 1600s. Slave labor provided a profitable work force for the French colonists, until around 1840, when the practice was abolished.
Thereafter, the non-white population and the poorer settlers suffered in horrible poverty and received deplorable treatment through the 1940s, when both islands, along with French Guyana, voted to incorporate into the French nation as overseas departments. Though they were now, in essence, French citizens, the working class of the Antilles continued to live in sub-standard conditions as the white landowners shut down their rural farming operations and concentrated their fortunes on building and refurbishing cities, resorts, and beach playgrounds for the rich.
Nowadays, although the black and minority populations of the islands enjoy more political and religious freedom than ever, the areas outside the major population centers remain mired in unemployment and a lack of proper educational and medical opportunities.
Visitors and tourists, however, would have a hard time believing those facts unless they ventured outside the larger urban areas—on the surface, at least, the islands appear to be prosperous, with decent roads, communications, social programs, schools, and import businesses. Just outside the bright lights and rollicking night spots, however, the real islands—the ones Lomax visited in the ’60s—are filled with the descendants of African slaves and French expatriates who continue to eke a meager living from the land and to practice the time-honored musical and religious traditions of their ancestors.
Meanwhile, over on St. Bart's, a tiny speck in the Carribean which, due to soil and space considerations, never became a major farming community, a small but hardcore population of mostly white, French fishermen and hard-bitten agriculturists lived, bred, and passed down their multicultural heritage to generation after generation of offspring. In 1946, the island became an administrative dependency of Guadeloupe, though it remains a free port, which eventually made the tiny protectorate a magnet for luxury tourism and a very profitable trade center. Aside from the small bands of native residents, St. Bart's is populated mainly by wealthy Americans and Europeans. As the liner notes to these recordings state, these changes were gradual, and only just becoming apparent when Lomax visited the islands in 1962. His recordings are one of the few mementos of a culture on the wane, one that's nearly gone today.
The CD itself is divided up into three categories; one for each island and its particular styles/rituals. The first section, for Guadeloupe, focuses on what are called the Lasserre recordings, and present Gwoka drumming and songs, bamboula drum dances, and kout tanbou events. Ready for a translation? In the 1700s, Guadeloupean slaves held dances on holidays and special events, or anytime they got a break from the field bosses. Known as bamboula, or gwotambou (which is pidgin French for big drum), the parties were organized and held partly for entertainment and partly to raise funds for funerals, weddings, and other life celebrations, or to purchase their freedom from landowners.
By the 20th century, the dances had morphed into swarelewoz, or what you might, today, call soireés. In the ’60s, the island was in the midst of something of a cultural reawakening, with the youth of the day (much like Dylan and his ilk drew inspiration from Woody Guthrie and the folk traditions in the U.S. at the time) seeking out the old masters of the craft and soaking up as much of the old ways as possible.
Gwoka, which probably comes from the Bantu ngoma (drum) or gros ka (French for big, or fat, and Creole for drum), and describes two to five boula drums and a make'. The boula are "... squat barrel drums with goatskin heads and are played transversally, the drum is laid on the ground and the drummer sits astride it, sometimes using one heel to change the pitch." The make' is smaller, and has a higher pitch. It's held upright between the legs, occasionally transversally.
On these recordings, the drummers may have added a snare to the drumhead, which was a common practice ..."
There are seven traditional gwoka rhythms: toumblak, woule', lewoz', graj, padjanbel', mennde', and kaladja. The most popular are toumblak and graj, and make up most of Lomax's recordings. Dancing at a soireé is largely improvised, and follows a common West African choreographic form: successive soloists of either sex are spotlighted within a circle of musicians and tribal members. The tunes are call-and-response, often in Creole, and discuss such matters as love, politics, daily events, death, and sometimes just the plain old silliness of everyday life. Mainly, they were used to entertain, but traces of the original author's/performer's intentions to pass on taboo info, slave news, and anti-government sentiments remain. It's hard, at times, though, to suss out much of that simply because of the pure joy emanating from every note, drum lick, and holler running through the songs.
A few examples from the collection that illustrate how closely tied these rhythms and stories are to the American/European blues, folk, and rock of today would have to include "Dede' Mwen Kale'," which translates as "Dede'-oh, Dede' I am leaving tonight/Dede' I am leaving/Dede' I just arrived tonight/Dede'-oh, Dede' I am leaving/I just arrived here, listen to the sound of that drum..." and could (lyrically, anyway) be the cultural precursor to such disparate rock and blues cuts as Eddie Holland's "Leaving Here," Mississippi Fred McDowell's version of "You Got To Move," or The Who's "Goin' Mobile."
"Soulaje' Do-A Katalina," a call-and-response number backed by furious Toumblak drumming, sounds dire and full of ancient warning, until you read the translated lyrics and find that the story-teller is recounting the woes of a farm animal: "Soothe, soothe Katalina's back/O Katalina, Katalina, my mother's pet ... O Katalina, my mother's mule ... soothe the back of the poor thing ..." A dark but accepting sense of humor—the kind that's hard-won through pain, suffering, and hard labor—runs through many of these tracks, and are obvious cousins of the later field and work songs (I say later because many of these numbers were already old by the mid-19th century, despite the fact that Lomax didn't record them until the 1960s) that would come out of America's Deep South.
"Kaladja Vivilo" is a smart-ass love song (Vivil is outdated, Vivil my husband dear/Vivil my sweet heart dear/Vivil my companion dear/Vivil went to the woods dear/I did not leave Vivil, oh ..." (Translated to today's lexicon, the verse would probably go something like this: "Vivil? He SO five minutes ago/Vivil baby/Vivil my mack daddy/Vivil my pod'ner/Vivil roll to the sticks, baby/I popped a cap in his ass ...") that conjures the Appalachian death ballads of the 1800s and later; "Adolin Do La, Bwa Kase'" a classic work song performed by Les Roses—as are many of the first nine cuts here—that lays it all out on the line: "If your arm is broken there are hospitals/if your arm is broken there are doctors/If your neck is broken there are cemeteries ..."
Other traditional numbers on part one include wake songs like "Bo! I Pati," which features men sitting in a circle and performing mouth drum, or bouladjel, a call-and-response competetive, percussion vocalization, describes the short-lived French practice of dynamiting fish by the ton to expedite their catches: "Boom! It went off/When the load went off it killed fish in La Lezarde'..." The most recognizable sound in modern rock and roll music using this practice would have to be the odd vocal phrasings used by English prog-rockers Pink Floyd on their classic cut "Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Grooving Together In A Cave With A Pict..." but even that's stretching it.
"Dodo," a gorgeous children's lullabye, is revealed to be closer to a Grimm Brothers' tale upon reading the translated liner notes: "Sleep mama's little one/Sleep papa's little one/The big cat in the woods is coming to eat mama's little one ..." "Priest With Chorus" and "Madras Drums" both capture an actual sacrificial ritual to the goddess Kali, replete with the killing of a goat and devotionals that have been otherwise lost in the mists of time, and the frantic pounding and heartfelt prayers cut right through the years and into your soul here, and leaving you with the feeling you've just seen/heard something you really weren't supposed to.
One main factor running through all of these recordings is that most of it is a blurry mix of French/Creole party and drinking chansons and African music, worship, and story-telling, a combo that makes for both some of the saddest and some of the most gleeful music ever recorded. And don't forget that most of these musicians had never heard themselves on tape before—Lomax was considered a true friend and an honest record-keeper for these people and their traditions, and taking into account that most of the older folks involved in these recordings are long dead, it's a blessing that he was allowed into these most intimate cultural moments, let alone with a tape deck running. The varied and colorful personalities which make up the singers, dancers, and performers here deserve an entire article of their own. Without them, the songs would not only have died out before we were able to preserve them, but they wouldn't have had the fresh life that each successive generation breathed into them. Truly amazing stuff.
Section 2, which deals with the decidedly lighter-skinned population of St. Bart's, and features metrical and strophic forms which evoke medieval European story-lines and characters that weren't an actual part of St. Bart's physical history, showcases the accordian-laced dance music of the area, much of it performed by the late Manuel Magras, who was in his 70s when Lomax visited the island. Much of today's French/Creole/Cajun/Louisiana sound comes from this tradition, and these tracks prove that he was truly a giant in the field.
One of the most beautiful examples of the pure form is represented in "La Belle Elizabeau," a French sailor's song from the pre-Revolutionary War era. Elizabeau, the bride of a traveling sailor, fears he'll find another, better-looking lover and not return to her. "You abandon me, guilty one..." she cries (though the song is performed by Magras, singing from her point of view), then curses him in the same breath: "When you are in the middle of the ocean/There will come bitter weather/That will break up your ship/You will perish in your vessel/You and all your sailors ..."
Section 3 covers the island of Martinique, and focuses on Lomax's visit to the Grivalliers family compound in the tiny town of Perou. The Grivalliers family has provided several generations of expert dancers, singers, and drummers to the area, and the singer showcased here, Raoul, is considered one of the three most important North Atlantic singers of the time, an honor he shares with Emile "Ti Amile" Caserus and Simeline Rangon. One of Ti Raoul's characteristics is to put new words to old standards, and his lyrics covered everything from politics to scandals to everyday events. The music is heavy on accordian, fiddle, snare, and joyous chants, and immediately transports you to a long-dead, time-fogged past.
One of the most prevalent styles on Martinique is Danmye', a competetive sport for (mainly) men that combines music, dancing, martial arts, and wrestling. "Danmye' drumming has a specific basic rhythm pattern," the liner notes stress, "... but improvisations are frequent and elaborate. Drummers follow the contestants closely, timing their accents and rolls to the fighter's blows." Thus, the performers are both bolstered and celebrated during the live action, something akin to having singing, rocking cheerleaders pushing you physically while at the same time writing a musical tribute for future generations to enjoy and learn from.
The bottom line with this incredible batch of songs, dances, chants, and stories is that they're a direct line in Lomax's search for the beginning of the American styles and genres he came across in the ’30s and ’40s and beyond, and that he managed to capture many of the last of a dying breed as they were still in fine musical and singing form. To quote once again from the album's excellent liner notes, "These recordings reveal that within a common process of creolization, several other unifying strands link the islands ... versions of European figure dances such as the quadrille and the lancers, brought in by the French and English settlers, are found everywhere.
Jigs and reels from the British Isles were transformed in an almost identical fashion on different islands through contact with African musical practices, as were the Protestant songs, in the same process that gave rise to black American gospel music. Folk instruments such as the cocoa lute (mouth bow) and local versions of the banjo also form a line of connection that runs from North America through the Carribean to Brazil."
Lomax was eager to suss how such elements all linked together, but he also retained a serious respect for the varied styles and cultures he came across, and attempted to present as broad a view on the music as a whole as he possibly could. In the decades before he came to the islands, the music and culture of the previous generations was not only in a serious decline, but was actually frowned upon by the status quo in the area. Lomax brought a respectability and a new-found appreciation to these classic forms that was sadly lacking, and in return gave the people and their descendants back the pride, knowledge, and continuation of their heritage in a way most modern white men couldn't imagine. The heartfelt laughter, soul-deep howls of joy, and on-the-money performances running through these recordings prove what a deep respect the people afforded him. Lomax was/is truly a musical hero, not only to the islanders, but a whole new generation of musicians and music fans the world over. A wonderful entry in what promises to be a monumental series of recordings.
Next: Deep River Of Song: Louisiana—Catch That Train And Testify! Until we meet again, make yer own damn news.
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