Sunday, September 29, 2013

New dispatches from the Bassanda Archives

Biographical sketch & image of Alexei Andreevitch Boyar, paratrooper, folklorist, and exponent of the Bassandan pipe organ tradition, and a fragment of poetry, translated from Old Bassandan, by Professor Homer St John, from the pre-literate shamanic chant. See (and scroll to the bottom).

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

Society for Ethnomusicology - Special Interest Group: Ireland

Group moderator asked fora bio and suggestions for SIG's topical focii; here's what I said:

Chris Smith here, director of the Vernacular Music Center at Texas Tech (; full bio here: Play (for this music) tenor banjo, bouzouki, button accordion. Record, tour, produce, etc. Day job is Chair of Musicology at TTU. Have published practical methods (Celtic Backup), book chapters (relevant to this group: on Irish film, session culture, community arts, Renaissance-period harmonic languages in Ireland, Seamus Ennis), CDs (3-disc set with Altramar: historical performance settings of medieval Celtic repertoire), theatrical dance show ( ), new book on Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean interactions before the US Civil War (, new book project on street dance as rebellion in American popular history. I'll be presenting at Indy on a related topic. I've served as External Examiner for dissertations at UC Cork and U Limerick, and for the BA program in traditional music and dance at UL's Irish World Academy; may soon be starting similar appointment with the MA program. Teach an annual spring-semester course ("Music, Folklore, and Tradition in Irish Cultural History") at TTU, whose capstone is a 2-week Maymester "roving seminar" field-trip to Connacht; lot of friends in Galway, Clare, Limerick, and Mayo. Drive the damned mini-buses ourselves :-/

I also know a ton of Irish musicians in Indy, Terre Haute, and Bloomington, as well as the spots where sessions are likely to break out. If the SIG wants it, I'm sure I can arrange a nice session with local players at a pub not far from conference site--I have one in mind.

As far as special questions or focii for the group during the Indy meetings: 

* In my observation, there's an unnecessary (not doubt inadvertent) distance b/w ethnomusicologists and musicologists working on Irish themes in the USA versus Ireland/UK. In part this is because musicology in Ireland is relatively young--the Society for Musicology only just marked its 10th anniversary--and in part because there has been disciplinary distance. A lot of my Irish friends (Aileen can attest to this) wind up presenting more research for ICTM/etc. What could SEM-SIG "Irish" do to build bridges both here and overseas?

* Similarly, how can we enhance partnerships with (especially Stateside) scholarly societies? I am thinking here, for example, of American Council for Irish Studies, which hosts good conferences and scholarship, but in which music is very, very subsidiary to other topical focii.

* I'm biased on this next, because it impinges on my own approach, but I'd always be a proponent for enhanced integration of historical approaches to ethnomusicology on Irish topics. Fieldwork is the core experience, of course, but historical methods have a lot of insight to provide, especially in Irish Diasporic contexts. 

* Enhanced contact b/w SEM-SIG "Irish" and ITMA (Irish Traditional Music Archive) in Dublin could only be good; Nic Carolan and his staff are a remarkable resource and responsive to partnership; another way to build trans-Atlantic bridges.

* Here's a big one, and a buzz word I hear a lot these days in university administration: how can we help one another brainstorm ways to frame our Irish music & dance research as "interdisciplinary" or "employing interdisciplinary approaches." This is more a matter of advocacy and marketing than a shift of procedures; ethnomusicology inherently draws from multiple analytical methods--that is, "we already do that." But how do we FRAME our interdisciplinarity such that it helps us with tenure, promotion, institutional support, and so forth?

* Likewise, there is currently a political opening for scholarship which can be "multi-modal", especially in the visual and performing arts. That is, how can a given piece of research manifest insights AND outreach (both traditional and non-traditional) in multiple fora: peer-reviewed essays, yes, but also other kinds of projects (radio, public television, web-sites, films, social-media feeds, etc)? The more that we can help one another and (especially) mentor junior colleagues in this fashion, the more fully those colleagues will receive due recognition of the breadth, depth and impact within the international communities of artists and teachers.

* And--how do we enhance opportunity for us to not only do research on these topics, but also to integrate these topics as part of our "day jobs" teaching? How many of us teach an Irish studies/folklore/music course or courses? How can we enhance opportunities for other colleagues to do likewise?

that's what I got. Oh, and then there's this new book, and stage show....

Sunday, September 22, 2013

CJS at TEDx Lubbock, on vernacular pedagogy "The Old Ways"

Disorganized, running very late, technology glitches, making it up as I went along. This is pretty much uncut CJS, slipping and sliding and trying to raise the loas.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pome (2001) 9.20.13


Skirl of pipes,

Chatter of mandolin,

Curlicue of istampitta and geometry of Bach,

Wail of the nyckelharpa and knotwork of the sean nos,

Smoke of the rebeticos in the hash bars of Smyrna and Athens.

It’s all there:

Flaked Etruscan frescoes, shouting horsemen under Central Asian skies, tea-houses on the Silk Road; Mughal courts and Katak sacred dancers, poets in perfumed Iberian gardens; Turkish asiks riding muddy Anatolian streets, singers lifting makams in Damascus studios; Berbers chanting verses at star-lit oases; black-porter poets puffing cigarettes in the back parlors of Gaeltacht pubs;

From crossroads dances, RTE broadcast studios,
Bronx tenements, Chicago kitchens,

                        To a river landing on the Missouri:

            It’s all there.

            For Roger Landes, in friendship. CJS 8/21/01.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Further to the previous: Mount's "Dancing on the Barn Floor"

Further to the previous: Mount's "Dancing on the Barn Floor"(1831--e.g., very early in his career: he was only 25): this would conventionally be understood as a conventionally pastoral idealization of rural experience: "lads and maids" dancing on the barn floor which, in the conventions of the time, is employed as a kind of theatrical proscenium. But, tracing some sketches from life which served as inspiration for this oil (most notably, as the book demonstrates, the remarkable pencil sketch "Comb and Brush"), it's possible to "see" elements of Afro-Caribbean / "creole" body postures and movements, especially in the dancing boy's hips, shoulders, and arms. This is the "hidden language" of the body that, among other things, the book identifies.

The Creolization of American Culture: from the Illinois U Press Author's Q&A

Q: Were there any common misconceptions of “creolization” that you examined in your research for the book?

I wouldn’t necessarily say there were “misconceptions,” so much as gaps in the record. The book certainly argues that creolization—the process by which two languages, or rhythmic vocabularies, or music & dance idioms, collide and create a shared dialect—was much more widespread in a much wider array of locations, and much earlier, than previous scholarship has perhaps understood. The argument would be that contact between disparate groups—black/white, African/European, slave/free, working-class/middle-class—would have yielded this exchange, whether participants intended or even recognized that it was happening. People heard other people’s music and they learned to move and experience sound differently, and in this new, shared dialect. I think, in fact, that this phenomenon—maybe we could call it “a creolization of bodily experience”—happens everywhere disparate populations come into close proximity with one another. I think it’s at the core of where urban culture arises.

I might suggest that one useful contribution the book provides to that sort of study is to develop a set of analytical tools (particularly rhythmic and iconographic) which let us “see” creole or Afro-Caribbean characteristics—rhythms, body postures, body movements—in tunes or scenes which, on the surface, seem to be “simply depicting” idealized Anglo-Celtic culture. The book suggests that we can identify creole motion—of the pelvis, hips, shoulders; of melodic shapes and rhythms—in the bodies of the dancers, even if they “seem” to be idyllic, pastoral shepherd boys and girls. I don’t necessarily think that Mount intended or consciously imported creole aesthetics into those body vocabularies—quite the contrary: I think that he was simply, accurately, precisely, and sympathetically providing visual reportage on the way that his neighbors and artistic models moved—and that those body vocabularies were already creole, even if the individuals he depicted didn’t consciously realize this.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Bassanda Manifesto

[In reference to this; and this; and this, coming your way in January 2014]

The Bassanda Manifesto

Bassanda does not actually exist.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it exists only temporarily, and outside the parameters of conventional chronology or geography. The great musicologist and teacher Christopher Small argued that musicians, in the act of performance, bring into existence for the duration of that performance the ideal society in which they wish to live. So perhaps we could say that, like Debussy's Cath√©drale Englouti√© or the mystical Irish paradise of Tir na nog, Bassanda is a temporary, imagined experience of a place: more gentle, artful, passionate, and creative than the failing universe in which we find ourselves; a place which we bring into existence, through active will and comradely collaboration, for the duration at least of our sung, danced, spoken, written, or imagined performances. In our parallel universe, musicians drink for free, artists receive medals, dancers are bound by no laws of gravity or decorum, no animals suffer, no wars are necessary or credible. In Bassanda, children have enough to eat, women and gays and those who differ are equal partners in the experiment of human community, empires’ armies stall impotently beyond the borders, and we are free to sit in a coffee house or raki shop and together create a better world.

Who we are:

We are writers and musicians, dancers and graphic artists, historians and re-enactors, scholars and teachers, both within and beyond the Ivory Tower: we are nearly as diverse a group as is the world of Bassanda itself. But we all share two crucial convictions: first, we believe in our friends and our friends’ work, and second, we believe at some deep level that the very best stories live not in fiction but in history, or at least in those idioms that lie closest to history.

So think of us as a kind of literary folk band, whose metier is not just group musical composition, but extends also to a series of riffs upon archetypal stories and character types and modes of expression; in the General’s locution, “it's like bringing a story to rehearsal and letting everybody make up their own parts.” In the world of Bassanda, the great tales and indeed the great history are as much a product of jam-session collaboration as the songs we sing and the dances we embody. We sit in the corner of the pub, or the corners of the Internet, and laugh and talk and drink and play and dance and, together, imagine into existence our better world.

Don't think of us as a group of individuals or as individual authors. We are both more and less than that. No individual character in the world of Bassanda is a one-to-one parallel to any of the contributing authors: even the originating “General Roger Landes (US Army, ret)” and “Right Reverend Colonel R.E.C. Thompson (Army of the Confederacy, ret)” bear only a passing resemblance to any similarly-monickered characters in the mundane world.  Of course, a “Friend of Bassanda” is free to select a persona, or eponymous anagram, or formal title, or autobiographical back-story, which bears some passing or amusing resemblance to her or his own—but we don’t feel bound by the limits of “characters” anymore than Bassanda itself is bounded by a specific or “factual” geography, topography, or chronology.

Artists can be as lazy, spiteful, or petty as any more “normal” humans—so if we can imagine, in Bassanda, a place more ideal than the fallen universe to which we are exiled, then we can also imagine, in our Bassandan counterparts, more ideal, generous, and expansive ways for ourselves to be human. We may riff on canonic tales of music, dance, culture, and history (see for example “Xblt Op. 16 – The Bassandan Rite of Spring”, the fabled Bassanda cottage industry in hand-wound electric bouzouki pickups, or the wild tale of Yezget Nas1lsinez witnessing bluesman Robert Johnson’s murder in Mississippi in 1936) because, as scholars, creators, teachers, and practitioners, it amuses us to imagine just-slightly-bent variants on better-known historical characters or events—but ultimately Bassanda is a place through which we can imagine a better world.

We are historians and storytellers, authors and actors and artists. Most importantly, we are friends. If the “best stories of all are the ones found not in fiction but in history,” then, as a break from our artistic “day jobs,” we sometimes allow ourselves to play together in the sandbox of history and historical convention. The great virtue of Bassanda is that, like the common lands which pre-Industrial communities shared for grazing, gathering, and leisure—before the curse of private property and “Mine, not Thine” descended upon the peoples of the earth—it has no boundaries except those of right conduct and ethical values, shared by a community of friends.

Anyone can become a Friend of Bassanda: like all human experience of any value, it is a product of effort, imagination, and love. And the greatest of these is Love.

Welcome to our world.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Michael Thelwell's "The Harder They Come"

In the 40th anniversary year of Perry Hensell's remarkable film--the first full-length feature ever made in Jamaica, the one that launched the astonishing riches of Jamaican syncretic music upon the world, the one that captured in remarkable verite techniques the based-in-fact but still archetypal story of the singer/gunman/Robin Hood character Ivanhoe "Rhygin" Martin--I have to give a shout-out to Michael Thelwell's remarkable novelization of the film.

Usually novelizations of existing films are just another way of merchandising the electronic media: I think of the execrable Rat Patrol novelizations I engulfed avidly at age 8, or the endless stream of Star Trek / Star Wars spin-offs, or the not-very-much better redrilling of the dry holes of the Bond or Zelazny "brands" long after their originators have passed on.

But what Thelwell has done is much different, much deeper, and still one of the best portraits of the roots of ska and reggae and of Rastafarianism I've ever encountered. Still assign it in my "Musics of the African Diaspora" seminar because, even if it is "fiction", it conveys the truth of those experiences more deeply, profoundly and truthfully than any ethnography of the region I've ever read. What Thelwell did, quite consciously and intentionally, was not to "novelize" the screenplay of the film--as is the usual, mundane practice--but rather to imagine the folk-story and ghetto myths upon which such a film might have been made. It's the same kind of thing that Peter Jackson et al did with The Hobbit. The originating book is a kid's book, but his mandate (no doubt economic) was to expand it into a tale that could sustain 2 or more feature-length films. So what they did, quite intentionally (and, I think, effectively), was to imagine that the children's book which Tolkien authored was in fact a "children's version" of a much more intense folk-tale of heroic grandeur. In this respect--whether Tolkien intended this or not--Jackson and crew are also able to draw upon the depth and richness of the world that Tolkien created in the Silmarillion. He wasn't a very competent storyteller, but (as the Bassanda experiment makes clear) there is a tremendous and engaging creative energy to be accessed by imagining, or recreating, a world.

That's what Thelwell does in The Harder They Come: he provides a nuanced, detailed, and rich back-story for Ivanhoe/Rhygin as Jimmy Cliff portrayed him in the film, but also a meditation on urbanization, the loss of home, modernization in Caribbean creole contexts, the roots of Rastafari (the way in which Thelwell compresses about 100 years of evolving Jamaican syncretic religion into one parade witnessed by Ivanhoe is a tour de force), the relationship between spirituality, ganja, and crime. It's a remarkable, virtuoso novelistic performance, and it accomplishes the remarkable trick of making the film deeper, more resonant, more profound.

Big ups to Ras Michael. Respect!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lead da Band

The bandleader, composer, and guitarist Frank Zappa (1940-93), one of the great touchstones of my own artistic consciousness, once write “A composer is somebody who organizes things—maybe sounds, maybe objects, maybe other stuff. Gimme some shit and I’ll organize it for you. That’s what a composer does.” As so often with Frank’s insights, it’s pithy and pungent and right down the line accurate. The job of the composer is to organize shit.

That’s also the job of the bandleader: to organize the shit that musicians do in a fashion that is unique, new, powerful, and expressive. The craft of the bandleader, particularly in the American musical traditions—in fact, the potential genius of that role, one that is largely ignored or neglected in the study of musicology because it involves organizing musical consciousnesses rather than musical objects—is putting people together. My friend & brother in music Roger Landes taught me that, with his remarkable festival-of-the-tribes called “Zoukfest”; he once said, “the whole point of having the festival is make it possible to put certain people in a room together at the same time, because you’re convinced that unique and beautiful things will happen.” Sometimes, as in the case of a festival or workshop or artists’ colony, you go to a lot of time, hassle, and expense in order to put those certain people (teachers and students, musicians and dancers, performers and audience) in a room together at the same time.

Because the craft and art of making musical, and musical events, is a time-bound phenomenon—unlike a sculpture or video or painting or installation, a music-dance-theatre event has to happen in the same chronological moment and (at least in the vernacular forms I work in) the same geographical space for both performers and audience. Yes, you can stream such events over the web, or live-cast on radio, and that at least permits audiences elsewhere to experience the event at the same time as those physically present: in Singapore, a highly secularized and regulated multi-ethnic city that also has a devout Muslim population, the Call to Prayer is broadcast over a certain radio frequency five times daily, so that the Faithful can at least hear the Call simultaneously as other others, even if in isolated physical environments; I had a Buddhist meditation teacher who said “all I need to know is that someone somewhere is sitting zazen at the same time as myself; if I know that, I know that I have a sangha, I know I’m not sitting “alone”.

But even the radio simul-cast or the web stream is imperfect and, in the case of the intimate communities of traditional music, it almost makes us sadder to know that our friends are out there somewhere in the world but can’t be here. Because vernacular/traditional events are about using music-and-dance to create community, sometimes in environments, locations, or circumstances that are far distant from the ideal, original, or remembered contexts in which the art forms began. The great gift of these forms is that they are so portable, resilient, and memorable that it is actually possible to engage in such re-creation.

But the best things happen when you arrange certain objects in relation to one another with a vision of those patterns’ expressive power, when you arrange for certain people to be together in a room because you have enough insight, experience, and sensitivity to recognize that simply arranging for that meeting will make good things happen. That’s why Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Art Blakey, Carla Bley, Buck Owens, Arthur Ailey, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, David Baker, Kim Pineda and so many others would be artists of genius even they themselves had never played, dance, or even composed a note or motion themselves: because they had the insight, experience, sensitivity and—let’s face it—sheer bullheaded stubborn insistence upon the validity of their vision to put certain people together in a room. And then to trust that the artistic potential of that meeting, the sheer unchained creative energy that emerges when artists find new companions and new challenges. Two dancers from Louisiana. A handful of crazy hippie Baroque (and “broke”) musicians in Indiana. A mandolin player from New Zealand and another from Ireland. A bouzouki player from Alabama and another from Kansas City.

And this lot.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

From the "Creolization" press kit...

Q: How did your experience as a musician inform the project?

It’s funny: I look back over the very long gestation and creation of this manuscript—whose earliest inspiration I trace, in the Forward, to a conversation with my roots-music friends Chipper Thompson and Roger Landes, on the porch of a slave-built tavern in Weston Missouri in 1998—and only with hindsight do I begin to realize just how many elements of my own musical life and values have coalesced in its creation. I’ve been an avid listener and dedicated student (later teacher) in the worlds of African American musics ever since the early 1970s, the year I heard Mississippi Delta Blues in New England coffeehouses, live in small rooms. I’ve studied a very wide range of other musics, as both player and scholar, within and beyond the academy, but blues and jazz and their earliest root-ancestors have been a touchstone I’ve returned to over four decades. At the same time, the other constant in my core musical identity has been Anglo-Celtic music—particularly Irish tradition dance music, another genre I’ve studied and played ever since those same early ‘70s coffeehouse experiences. So to stumble upon the cluster of antebellum idioms—both Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean—whose encounter was the seed from which minstrelsy grew, became a way to link two sides of my own musical consciousness with my professional identity as a historian.
I also have very extensive experience at the scholarly disciplines of both musicology—the study of musical behaviors in historically distant contexts—and ethnomusicology—the study of musical behaviors in culturally or geographically distant contexts. Both those academic music disciplines provided research and analysis tools which were crucial to the Creolization project: manuscript studies, iconography, demographics, kinesthetics, art history, semiotics, reception history, sociology, ethnography, and so forth. In that sense, one element of Creolization is absolutely a kind of “historical ethnomusicology”—a challenging but ultimately very satisfying and enlightening synthesis of scholarly perspectives and methods.
At the same time—and, I think, rather atypically for someone who specializes in 19th& 20th century American roots musics—I have over 25 years experience as a practitioner of historical performance—specifically, the reconstruction and performance of medieval monophonic song. Though that world of medieval performance practice is stylistically and chronologically very distant, indeed, from the wharves, canals, and ships’ decks of the creole synthesis, historical performance did teach me to look at musical behaviors within historical contexts, and to try to reconstruct both the physical performance practices—the motions of hands and body—and the expressive environments that shaped that musical experience. Staying conscious of, and seeking the reasons behind, the musical choices that individuals made in response to specific expressive contexts—using musical content (tunes, songs, body iconography, and so forth) to reflect contextual priorities, and analyzing performance contexts to try to illuminate musical choices, was thus truly essential to this study.
So in that sense I guess I could say that—not entirely intentionally, and certainly not with any prescience or “grand plan”—I’ve been working for over forty years to develop the skill-sets and analytical tools to understand just why in the world blackface minstrelsy was the way it was, and what it has to tell us—about that time, and our time.

Thursday, September 05, 2013