Zoukfest 08, Day 03.
Hump day, when the lack of sleep, increased altitude, enhanced intake (physical, musical. mental, and psychological), and overall intensity begin to take effect. It's a bit of a rolling buzz: you're all there, and having a great time (mostly), but your motor skills tend to erode a bit, you leave things in places you can't recall, and you catch yourself singing or playing one tune while thinking of another one (or ten).
Wednesday of Zoukfest is also, historically, when some people hit the wall emotionally, and experience a bit of crisis. It's understandable really: for many people, particularly those who have not attended ZF in the past, the anticipation and excitement are so high, the hopes and expectations for the week so great, that along about Wednesday, when the initial rush of nervous adrenaline has passed, and you're overwhelmed with new ideas, new music, new people, and (especially) new musical and personal challenges, you might veer into thinking "I can't do this...I just can't do it!"
Fortunately, at ZF the level of wisdom and tolerance is really remarkably high. The returning staff, faculty, and students have seen, and often experienced, it all before, and they can help somebody navigate the sleep deprivation and emotional overload. They know not to take the quiet freak-outs or unexpected tears personally, they know that folks will weather these storms, and they know that acceptance goes a long way toward building community. Any community, by definition, depends upon a shared sense of value, set of behaviors, and conceptions of being human. For this 8 days, most everyone present has stepped right out of their familiar worlds, and have been forced (whether anticipated or unanticipated) to surrender to a very different environment. It's mostly a better, more tolerant, more inspiring environment than we encounter the other 51 weeks out of the year--but even a better environment can be profoundly disorienting. The ZF community know that the Wednesday break-downs as personal or permanent (see Kaila Flexer's heroic example at last year's Wednesday concert) and that everyone will come through unscathed--even if the parties in question do not. The staff are remarkably gentle and good-natured, even with the intensity, cross-questioning, unexpected problems-to-be-solved, and general stress.
In a late-night hang yesterday with the Reverend Mister Thompson, web-wizard and general internet-gunslinger John Farr, and a few of the other Usual Suspects, we talked about the way that, if you travel a lot, you develop a "Road Metabolism" which is quite different from your Home Metabolism. If at home you get 8 hours of sleep nightly, on the Road you learn to make do with 4. If at home, you're used to being able to cook your own meals (a crucial part of my own personal general equilibrium), on the Road you learn to pick and choose amongst what's available in a fashion that'll do you the least nutritional damage (thank the Universe for College of Santa Fe's excellent catering). If at home you drink lightly, or not at all, then on the Road you may find yourself in playing or social situations in which a whole hell of a lot more imbibing goes on. You learn to pace yourself, to anticipate and ride-out your own freakouts, and to be tolerant with others'.
And, you learn to really cherish the unique and magnificent experiences that the Road provides. Last night, it was the chance to hear Eliot Grasso and Dave Cory, back to back in solo and duo acoustic performances. Eliot, playing a beautiful set of "flat" uilleann pipes (that is, lower-than the standard fundamental of concert D), gave a masterful recital of the solo piper's art, what was, in Ireland's West, the classical, high-art listening music of the Gaelic nobility. Pipers wouldn't play for just anyone and they wouldn't play just anywhere: they expected courtly treatment and informed attention. It's remarkably complex and rewarding music to hear, full of nuance, complex figuration, elegant (and challenging) manipulations of tone and dissonance, and it stands, in Eliot's hands, complete and on its own. Almost no-one is asked to record a solo disc of unaccompanied piping by the piper's organization called Na Piobairi Uilleann (a notoriously tough-minded and rigorous advocacy group), but when they are--as Eliot was--that's the highest stamp of approval from the guardians of the tradition. He's also a superb flute and whistle player...and if that were not enough, he's a top-notch pianist and scholar. He'd be singularly intimidating if he weren't so damned kind and such a fine teacher (Mac Tire had a lesson this morning on flute and was walking a foot off the ground afterward), and even in the midst of the week's intensity, he keeps his temper: when the end-cap of his pipes basically exploded in Santa Fe's minimal humidity (the instrument is held together by corked joints, like a clarinet--and when cork gets dry, it shrinks--and Things Move), he just made the joke, re-assembled, and continued. A beautiful recital of an Ceol Piobairi.
He shared a few tunes in the overlap between solo mini-sets with his musical partner Dave Cory, a terrific banjo and guitar player, late of the music sessions at Boston's legendary pub the Burren and the Magic Square recordings that come out of those, and now relocated, like Eliot, to the Pacific North West. My home town's loss is Seattle's gain, for sure: Dave's a wonderful musician and friendly, self-effacing guitar, who has that ability, like some few other musicians I've known and have written about, to stand up on stage, banjo in hand and backwards-baseball-capped, introduce the tune, and then, from the first couple of notes, just go someplace else: to (at least seemingly, from the outside) shut off all the anxiety about execution, reception, or where the party is after the gig, and just get lost in the music. Son House could do it; some great gospel singers could do it; Keith Jarrett solo did it regularly; my old friend Dean Magraw showed me how to do it (when I could--once in a while--get out of the way of my own ego).
Such a performance as Dave's is by no means oblivious to the audience or the situation--it's rather that, the commitment to and engagement with the music is so deep, the player simply hears the music as so important, that she or he doesn't need to give any space to the ego or even to much sense of self. The music just flows, and all the thousands of hours of practice and learning tunes and playing with others seem to simultaneously fall away and also flow together, the course of the planets, the pattern of waves, or the whorls of a whelk's shell all swirl together into a singular one-pointed attention in which the music pours out, remarkably unconstrained and free.
And then the tune ends, the music stops, the applause erupts, and he (and we) come back to the world. What a privilege to take that kind of journey together. What a gift that he gives to us.
Sitting in on Kaila Flexer's great "Turkish and Greek Music" class, in a free hour when I'm not otherwise teaching. A chance to begin to learn to play the lavta that I brought from Samir Azar of Syria. Dharmonia and I heard Roger Landes's Samir lavta--a long-necked Arabic lute with tied quarter-tone frets--and both immediately flashed on the long-necked lute our mentor Tom Binkley had played. I knew I had to get one.
But, it's hard to learn an instrument in a vacuum, particularly if there are no players around you to inspire you (or kick you in the butt, as the case may be). It's possible to learn from recordings, but it can be damned difficult even to do that if you have no idea which recordings might be the most useful. So the opportunity generously extended to ZF staff, to sit in on others' classes, was one I couldn't pass up. Kaila is a wonderful violinist and composer, well-loved by the ZF community, and she creates a remarkably inspiring, safe, and rewarding environment in the classroom (any teacher who can put up with Coyotebanjo and a precocious eight-year-old percussionist in the same room, and provide space for that range of personalities, is remarkable), and the sheer joy and humility with which she approaches the music she loves set a wonderful example. And, it's a sovereign remedy for any teacher, and especially any college professor, and especially any tenured musicology college professor, to damned well go back to being a beginner: to be barely capable of finding the notes on the instrument (OK, some slack: the modes of Turkish and Greekl music are singularly different than those of the West, and those damned quarter-tones, specific and unique to specific modes or compositions, are pretty challenging). It's a very useful and constructive reminder to be on the other side of the skilled/unskilled continuum and to be reminded of what the students you are teaching are grappling with.
Second half of the Tuesday concert was Dharmonia and self, playing a grab-bag of repertoire, which at least in intent sought to find the connections between the diverse musics that we both play and have played, and to provide space for old friends to join in.
Here's the set-list:
"Short Jacket and White Trousers": a comic "cross-dressing sailor song" from A.L. (Bert) Lloyd by way of June Tabor;
"Reynardine": one of many versions of a shape-shifting tale about a fox and a girl--or a girl and a fox--which we have from various sources, but in Dharmonia's mighty pipes, anyway, pays homage to that earth-mother pagan folk-rocker Sandy Denny;
"Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore" / "The Month of January" / "The Humors of Ballyloughlin"
Two songs and a tune, in medley format. The stunning mixolydian melody that was borrowed not only for both of these songs (one of immigration from Old World to New, the second of Appalachian love lost) but also for Francie Mooney for his great Gaelic ode to his home, Gleanntan Glas Gaoith Dobhairn. Mason Brown (on pardessus viol) and Chipper Thompson (on bouzouki) joined us, Coyote sang "Paddy's", Chip gave us "January", and Mason led us into the titanic D mixolydian piping jig of "Ballyloughlin." We were elbow-to-elbow on that tiny stage, but that just made it feel more like old friends around the hearth.
"Rally 'Round the Flag"
I'm still working on that goddamned minstrelsy book (I'm going to finish it or die trying) and I thought it'd be nice to have at least one song--on National steel guitar--from that time. This is one of dozens of gorgeous Civil War-era melodies, but unlike many others, its text has actually worn reasonably well: sure, it's full of some of the naive triumphalism that made all those 19-year-old think, in 1861, that the traitors would be defeated and the Union saved by 1862--a presumption that damned sure didn't survive past then--but in hindsight it's just infinitely sad, whispering to us like the voices of ghosts at Shiloh or Chancellorsville. And, the line about how we'll "sweep that fascist crew from the land we love the best" seems to resonate now more than ever.
"So Early in the Spring" / "La Lamento di Tristano" / "La Rotta"
Something else that Dharmonia and I share with Zoukfest Generalissimo Roger Landes is that we all came to serious-business medieval music performance through the same medium--the overwhelming presence and inspiration of Tom Binkley--Roger through the medium of recordings, Dharmonia and myself through recordings first, and then later through working directly with him, a story I've told elsewhere. This arrangement, of the old Anglo-Celtic chestnut "So Early," was developed for the Coyotebanjo record as a three-way nod to Tom's influence on all our lives and music. We followed it with two tunes (slow-tune/fast-tune, a time-honored strategy, as Dave Cory had previously commented) that are surely part of the medieval Top Ten Hits. Joined here also by the mighty Mason Brown and Zoukfest's go-to hand-drummer, the great Polly Ferber. Rehearsal? We don't need no stinkin' rehearsal!
Finished up with a shout-out for two greats we lost two soon: Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips, singer, writer, labor activist, street-corner rabble-rouser, Ani DiFranco collaborator, keeper of Joe Hill's eternal flame, and the last of the true Wobblies, the anarcho-syndicalists who intended to build One Big Union, avoiding the cynical factional divisions which the rich always seek to impose upon the poor; and Ellas McDaniel, the mighty Bo Diddley, who famously said of the rock 'n' rollers who came after him, "I opened the door, and them boys went through and left me holdin' the knob."
There's an image that's come up in my minstrelsy research, a crude anonymous folk drawing from before the Civil War, called "Dancing for Eels 1822 Catharine Market." It depicts a black man, dressed in nautical clothing, dancing hard-shoe on a ships' wharf while another man pats hambone, and a group of "Bowery B'hoys"--the hard-hatted Irish toughs depicted in gangs of New York--smoke cigars and look on. That's where American popular music begins. Right there. Right Then. That's the moment that--at least in our music, and in our imagination of our nation's possibilities-- realized the possibility that we could all become one.
Bo found a way to take the ancient, ancient, hambone rhythm, the one that reaches all the way back to the wharves and canals where blacks and Irish first encountered one another and where American popular music was born, and bring it all the way up to the present. So Professor Goodhart laid down the bell pattern, yours truly came in on the hambone (the 3-2 clave that is the virtual heartbeat of most African music in the Americas), Rev Thompson slapped on the greasy slide licks that came from India via Hawaii and the Sears Roebuck catalog to Mississippi (and North Alabama), Mason Brown added-in the "weedly-weedly" guitar licks on the pardessus, and we sent this one out for Mr Landes:
I walked 47 miles of barbed wire,If Zoukfest teaches us anything, it's that All Music--and All of Us--are One.
Used a cobra snake for a neck tie.
Got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made out of rattlesnake hide.
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of human skulls.
Now come on darling let's take a little walk, tell me,
Who do you love,
Who do you love, Who do you love, Who do you love...
I wanna tell you how its gonna be
Youre gonna give your love to me
Im gonna love you night and day
Love is love and not fade away
And my love is bigger than a cadillac
Ill try to show it if you drive me back
Your love for me has got to be real
Before youd have noticed how I feel
Love real not fade away
Well love real not fade away
Every day I get in the queue (Too much, the Magic Bus)
To get on the bus that takes me to you (Too much, the Magic Bus)
I'm so nervous, I just sit and smile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
Your house is only another mile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
Thank you, driver, for getting me here (Too much, the Magic Bus)
You'll be an inspector, have no fear (Too much, the Magic Bus)
I don't want to cause no fuss (Too much, the Magic Bus)
But can I buy your Magic Bus? (Too much, the Magic Bus)
I 've got spurs that jingle jangle jingle,
as I go riden merrily along,...
Hush, little baby, don't say a word.
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama's gonna buy you a looking glass...