'Praise Songs: Alice Coltrane in Sanskrit' by Hua Hsu, The New Yorker (24 April, 2017)

In the most recent issue of The New Yorker there’s a wonderful short essay on Alice Coltrane by Hua Hsu to mark the reissue of ‘World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’ (Luaka Bop) next month. The print magazine title is ‘Praise Songs’ (online it’s re-named ‘Alice Coltrane’s devotional music’).  

Hsu speaks of how he discovered the music of A. Coltrane on a blog ‘specialising in obscure “celestial” music’. He then adds: ‘I love anything that dares to try and describe the wholeness of the universe, and (that he is) a sucker for harps.’

‘When I listened to “Rama Katha,” Hsu writes, ‘I was startled by its quiet and its patience.’ Love his unexpected use of the word startled there. ‘It was so intimate and honest I almost felt that I shouldn’t be listening. I couldn’t tell if its ambient drones were the result of the poor digitisation of a hissing cassette or part of the music itself.'

(This amateur fan-made video for 'Rama Katha' includes the description: Published on Dec 5, 2016, filmed 12/5/16 in nyc and 6/14/15 in france, angel footage: mom, music: alice coltrane)

Hsu concludes his writing on Ms Coltrane with the following words: ‘Alice was backed only by her keyboard, which flickered and whirred from a comfortable distance. Her voice – never the instrument she was famous for – resounded with untroubled confidence. This wasn’t music that was pushing its makers and listeners to a higher plane. Alice was already there.’

The following extract, which is clearly written from a place of real connection with the work of Ms Coltrane resonated with me, not only for its beautiful prose:

Alice’s music was solemn and heavy, filled with stormy passages that felt like nervous attempts at purification—a struggling kind of transcendence. Like much of the more forward-thinking jazz of this era, it was music that felt in a hurry to get somewhere. Every now and then, though, a glistening sweep of harp would cut through the dirge, sounding the possibility of glory in the wreckage. John’s death was a theme, but so was a desire to surrender her ego, and to offer herself to something greater. In the ten years that followed, she released about a dozen albums on Impulse! and Warner Bros., many of them masterpieces that imagine a meeting point between jazz and psychedelic rock, gospel traditions and Indian devotional music. And then, after the release of “Transfiguration,” in 1978, she seemed to disappear.

Alice Coltrane, A Monastic Trio (Impulse! 1968) Personnel: Alice Coltrane, harp and piano; Pharaoh Sanders, flue, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Rashied Ali, drums; Ben Riley, drums.  

In praise of: Chinoiseries, Pt 3, Onra (All City Records, 2017)

I was juggling doing shows and seeking something that could inspire me … I finally found it by returning to my fundamentals: rap and R&B. I listen to so much music that it’s sometimes hard to find those feelings you had when you were a teenager, when you could listen to one track and be stuck on it for what seemed like forever. I just started listening to things I listened to when I was younger and it gave me the idea to write an album coloured by these feelings. I was looking for an aesthetic.

It was more about colour. I wanted to reproduce a sort of colour, a sentiment that I had when I was a teenager listening to this music.
— Onra speaking to FACT magazine about his 2015 record 'Fundamentals'

Central to the interest of hip-hop is the fact that it exists as a simulacrum, a simulation of music - in the traditional sense as a performed art - while insisting that it must be seen to be musical on its own terms. There is something quintessentially bold about this, necessarily attractive, where the artist is saying that yes, this is music stolen and re-imagined with the artful cunning of a thief, but it speaks to/of me.

With this, though there are potential dangers. At risk of being too solipsistic, too self-referential, lacking the dynamic that comes from live performance, the music can rapidly become formulaic, cold, lacking the essential feeling that comes from the alchemy of musicians together in a room (expressing something of their selves, coming together, challenging each other); or it can become repetitive, in that the music is confined by the limits of the producer’s imagination. Or possibly even worse, hip-hop music - and instrumentals, in particular - can transform into ‘easy listening/elevator music’ that fulfills the lowered demands of listeners who seek diversion (and to be entertained) above all else. 

Paris-based producer Onra has found a solution for all of this, via his Chinoiseries series (the first album in the series was released in 2007 ; the second in 2011  and the third, final record in the series last month in March).  

In the interview featured below, Onra refers to the way Gil Scott-Heron replied that his music was Blues when asked to put it in a category, because no matter what it sounded like, this tradition provided the foundations for his work and sensibility. Onra says its the same for him with hip-hop, not only because this is what he grew up listening to, but also because of the way he makes his music (old-school: digging in the crates, finding the samples, inputting it into the MPC …)

More than this, though, Onra's music enacts respect to the origins via the way he engages with the source material: he doesn’t speak or read Mandarin, can recognise record companies – maybe – but has no idea about the broader cultural context, what it means/how it could be interpreted, so when choosing the musical elements, all he goes on is the sound. This is what gives his music its heart. 

Nowhere here is that awkward sense of an outsider transplanting one musical tradition into a fundamentally different context (take the recent fashion to take ‘African rhythms’ and layer them over a mainstream pop-song, or use them to offer up the foundations, no African people present, aside from a few photogenic dancers in the video maybe). Onra’s music holds its own universe inside it that feels personal. This stems from the fact that he doesn't relate to the music, or sounds, in an intellectual sense: he doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t know it, he responds to it: this work is driven by instinct.

I don’t speak Chinese, or read it, so I’ve got no idea what I’m buying. I spent hours to find the samples for Chinoiseries no 1 with a taxi driver; it’s thanks to him that I could find the vinyl records for my first album. For the second I went everywhere in Asia, to China, Vietnam, Thailand where I found a lot more. For the second, it was even better, I went to Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, The Philippines. I even found some records in France, in a ‘brocante’ (trash & treasure) in Paris.
— Original interview with French magazine, La Vague Parallèle, trans by the author

Chinoiseries has a double meaning in French; first referring to a ‘decorative style in Western art, furniture, architecture (that became popular) in the 18th century and (was) characterised by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques. See, for example, this painting by François Boucher, ‘The Chinese Garden’ from 1742

But it also has another meaning (admittedly one that I have never heard living here in Paris) that has a pejorative element and refers to ‘complications’ – as in a chinoiserie could refer to red-tape (I found this a bit-off definition online for the word, which must be a mis-translation from the French: ‘I hope that this Chinese incident will not put you in an awkward position with your superiors, dear François').

This idea of complications, of irregularity was seen to be part of the original aesthetic of the Chinoiserie in the past, especially in garden design (and spurned for this reason by some as ‘…a retreat from reason and taste and a descent into a morally ambiguous world based on hedonism, sensation and values perceived to be feminine,' according to one critic mentioned in Wik.)

LVP: Speaking about imperfections, the crackling, dusty sound on the vinyl, was that added or is it authentic?

Onra: That’s real. The vinyl records were dirty and I left them like that, it didn’t bother me and I don’t hear it anymore, but I never amplified it. There’s nothing fake (fake, in the original English in the interview) here. The records are from 1960-1970, after 1990 there were no more vinyl records in China; so it’s Soul, Rhumba, Cha-cha-cha, things that were influenced by traditional Chinese music, or music from Latin America, or covers of European songs, say pop music, that were well-known. There are no modern effects.
— Original interview with French magazine, La Vague Parallèle, trans by the author

There are so many phenomenal tracks on Chinoiseries, part 3 (‘Zoodiac’ with its intense noisy, paranoiac vibe that retains an almost punk feel - it reminded me of the kind of sampling/cut-up aesthetic of bands like Crass and groups of their ilk - ditto for ‘Voices in my head’; or the mood-driven work, such as ‘Hold my hand’ or ‘A distant dream’ – the disco-embellishment of the slowed-down exposed beat that goes nowhere, fading in and out, on ‘Pearl Song’).

Again echoing its old-school roots, Chinoiseries, part 3 is a record that demands to be listened to as a coherent piece of work, as the impact of the tracks is not individual but cumulative; it's really special.

***

What is your most prized or favourite Jay Dee record that you were able to collect over the years?

For a long time, it was Jay-Dee remixes EP, that came out in ’96 on House Shoes’ label. That one was very important for me because he send it to me personally. It was his last copy on his own label. So, he sent it to me in exchange of another batch, which was a very rare Jay-Dee beat tape from ’98. I think he may had put it out himself, as a second bootleg of one of his most famous beat tapes from ’98: Vol. 2 Vintage Jay-Dee Instrumentals. I had 3 copies of it, now I have 4 of them. So, I sent him one of my own and he sent me back the House Shoes EP. It’s a green vinyl, a super special one which was very cool. But this year I was lucky to find a Slum Village Fantastic Volume 1 on cassette, that’s the original format it was released on! They made 500 copies and were released in Detroit only. I found that shit on E-bay, I don’t know how many times I searched for it, maybe a hundred times. There has never been a copy around, and on this one day I found one, it was $ 250, -! But I just needed it and clicked on the ‘buy it now’ button immediately. It’s the ultimate shit, like nothing can beat that!
— Interview with LosBangeles

Bio: Onra (Arnaud Bernard) was born in 1981 in Germany to French parents, although his father has Vietnamese ancestry moved to France at the age of three and shortly after, lived between France and Côte d’Ivoire, where his mother was based for over twenty years. He discovered a passion for music at the age of ten and started making music at the age of nineteen.

Professor Foufouna, Grand Artistic Director offering his services as graphic designer & artist (24/7)

(Poster on a wall in my neighbourhood)

Professor Foufouna writes: 

'Discretion and speedy results guaranteed.

Is your business facing difficulties, a lack of creativity, or imagination and motivation? Have you fallen victim to a bad spell (or it could be the word 'fate', MB) provoked by the ferocious jealousy of your competitors, do not worry, there is a solution.'

The Professor is 'well-known for his perceptiveness, his efficiency, originality and professionalism ... 100 % satisfaction guaranteed, or fees reimbursed (payment after the work is completed' - he is available now 24 hours a day, seven days a week). 

'From now on the world will be at your feet,' he writes. 

Rapsody 'Betty Shabazz' prod. 9th Wonder (Jamla is the Squad, Jamla Records, 2014) & recent collaborations with Anderson .Paak

The cadence is one of the most important part of a hip-hop song. Your voice is another important element. I used to rhyme with a high-pitched voice, so I had to find the right tone of my voice that wasn’t too high and not too low that I sound like man. Once you master flow, everything falls into place. I think my flow is poetic.

Before I started writing rhymes, I was writing poetry. I was in love in high school and got my heart broken, and I started writing poetry. I wasn’t known for talking about my feelings. I was reading the dictionary one day and I came across the definition of rhapsody. It’s poetry spoken with great emotion, and that is what music is to me. Poetry is my foundation.
— Rapsody, Interview with Alexandra Phanor-Faury, Ebony magazine in 2016

(Here is Rapsody's video for 'Betty Shabazz', with a multitude of multitude of views: I prefer to skip videos if possible, it’s just a preference of mine not necessarily universally shared ...)

Unquestionably, for me, the highlight of the showcase of talent from North Carolina - and elsewhere - produced by 9th Wonder/hosted by Statik Selektah, Jamla is the Squad, is this track by Rapsody, ‘Betty Shabazz’ which has an amazing moment at around 3’15” that is pure magic and possibly one of the best, or one of my favourite, rhymes in recent hip-hop.

Toying with, playing around with the ‘on’ sound, speeding up and falling apart at the same time and full of real joy, made manifest in Rapsody’s delivery. It’s unexpected and special and makes the song, ably supported by the chilled out music behind it.

I ain’t heard nothing hot since Control dropped
They taking longer than Detox
They don’t wanna Vol-tron and so on
Pour on, feel my forearm, wear it like Luanne Rohan
Heart on sleeve, chief smile because we move on
Mistubishi Galant, dupont
Been a mutant since mama slipping coupons for croisannts and croutons
Do some damage, get at em like I’m a neutron, bouton
Pass on em, recycle em like a Mormon
I rained, it ain’t storming

The verse ends with a reference to sexism to step over it: 'I’m ignoring all that female rapping shit’s ignorant/Competing with every emcee, come step if you wanna see us rap.' I really love this, especially the line: ‘Pour on, feel my forearm, wear it like Luanne Rohan’ just on the basis of the sounds of the words, Rapsody's facility with language and happiness to be found there.

‘Betty Shabazz’ starts all-dreamy Xanadu, with Blaxploitation notes descending and is beautifully recorded (if you listen to it with headphones you’ll notice this, the way the sound deepens at certain points, intensifies with the faux-backing vocals effect, increasing in density almost). A wonderful grace contrasts with Rapsody’s signature style; in that the musical deep space offers up a feathery bed for the knives of her delivery.

Such contrast is also why her collaborations with Californian musician Anderson .Paak work so well and is such a clever move. In many respects, they are the perfect match because they are so apparently different. While Rapsody’s persona is direct, to the point, possibly lacking ambiguity, Paak’s musical universe is lyrical, 70s-emotional and highly expressive (with lots of silvery turns; his music is gold lamé and chandeliers, Rapsody's is in a recording booth, headphones on). It makes sense for the two artists to work together, as the music they produce brings out something latent in the other, while smoothly upsetting gender stereotypes along the way.

See, for example, Rapsody’s verse on the track ‘Without you’ on Anderson .Paak’s album, Malibu that made me laugh; it’s hilarious in some parts (being funny was not something I had associated with her).

Or the over-the-top erotic charge, that remains light-hearted on ‘OooWee’ from Rapsody’s Crown, also released in 2016 …

Compared to the rest of the record which was just a bit too straight for me, when I heard this, I thought this is just great; so different, fresh and full of life and liked it immediately.  

When Kendrick Lamar was asked in an interview, why he chose to have Rapsody as the sole featured artist on his record, To Pimp a Butterfly, he replied simply: ‘She’s talented’. Impossible to disagree, especially as Rapsody continues to display her artistic gifts in unexpected ways, moving forward.

Here’s Rapsody talking about how she started out and her meeting with her colleague, 9th Wonder who has championed her work from the beginning.

EBONY: You have a core following who know you and know how much work you’ve been putting in to get to where you are today. For those who just discovered you on To Pimp a Butterfly, can you share with us what drew you to hip-hop and emceeing?

Rapsody: I wrote my first rhyme in the fall of 2005. I knew I wanted to be a rapper when I was 5. When I saw MC Lyte’s video for 'Poor Georgie,' I knew that is what I want: to do that. Seeing her doing it made me see that a girl can do it and be really good at it. I don’t think I had the confidence or the push growing up in a small country town in South Carolina to go after it. There is not a lot of culture or art there. My parents wanted me to get a job that would support me. It wasn’t till I was in college that I pursued it.

It took me being around people to get me motivated. A best friend of mine was rapping in a group, and he said let’s start a hip-hop organization. Hip-hop was missing on campus. We did it with four other guys. We would have rap battles, parties and a free show. Everyone either rapped, made beats, breakdanced or did graffiti. I was the only one who didn’t necessarily have a talent. 

A lot of times, if we had an event, I would host. For the last three or four years, I was writing poetry. So in the middle of a show, I may do a spoken word piece. One day I was hanging out with them while they were recording a mixtape. I had written a rhyme and they told me to try and get in the booth just for fun. I got in and recorded two songs for the first time. They put it on the mixtape.

One the guys was interning with 9th Wonder at the time. He told 9th Wonder about us and asked if he could come talk to us. He came and listened to the tape and gave us his criticism after every song. I sat as far away from him as possible. I’m scared he is gonna hate what I did. He listened to the song over and over. He looks at everyone and points to me and says, “that is your star right there.”

He listened to it again two more times after that. That’s all I needed to go forward. I mean, this is 9th Wonder! And he has worked with one of my fave artist, which is Jay Z. If he is telling me I have something, now is the time to go for it. He took me under his wing. I signed with him in 2008, and he has been pushing me ever since.

(…) He gave me a list of eight albums to study. He said, “Don’t listen to them like you normally do. Don’t listen to what they are saying but how they are saying it, how they are breathing, what words they put inflections on and where.” That’s exactly what I did.' 

Bach: 'Erbarme dich' St Matthew Passion - Andreas Scholl (and 'Ruht Wohl' St John Passion)

The subtly rhythmic “Erbarme Dich” is as meditative as “Ruht Wohl” but far more melancholy. It is no lullaby. And yet how could anything be sadder than mourning the dead? 

(...) The secret of the aria lies not in its melody but its rhythm. The time signature is 12/8, which is that of most slow blues ... Bach has 12 beats to play with per measure, each one worth an 8th note (yep, that’s why it’s called 12/8). Like any good bluesman, he arranges them in runs of triplets. His runs go down the natural minor scale of B (recall that natural minor scale = scale of relative major, which here would be D). Hamari - the singer - sustains that B over 9 beats: GGG-F#F#F#-EEE. (By all means, go ahead and count the 3 triplets by tapping gently on your keyboard 9 times.) This is just like a jazz walking bass line. But instead of Charles Mingus, we’ve got cellists plucking the strings of their instruments to evoke the tears flowing down Peter’s cheeks. (We know that from the prior recitative and the fact that Bach was always big on sound imagery ....) The descending line is relentless. The walking bass goes down and down and down, then comes up for air only to resume its plunge.

Yehudi Menuhin was crazy about the violin obbligatos. He called the “Erbarme Dich” solo the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin. To me, the genius of the music’s pathos is that it isn’t the slightest bit manipulative (that minor-mode affliction so common in popular music.) Here, it’s about the sting of remorse. I find the humility and intimacy of the music almost overwhelming. Like a blues tune, it is a deeply personal statement, not a collective one. 
— From 'Erbarme dich' Tiny Revolution website by Bernard Chazelle, http://www.tinyrevolution.com/mt/archives/002903.html

Paris Récit: Square des Batignolles (Barbara 'Perlimpinin' & Malik Djoudi 'Sous garantie')

'Let’s go visit the ducks,’ this used to be one of my most common weekend statements with my son when he was younger, and then I’d put him in his pram and we’d set out. Either up through Abbesses, that is currently ‘between seasons’, still selling thick jumpers and scarves (marginally discounted), or if he were still little and at that not-noticing age, down through Pigalle past the sex shops and revues to arrive at Place de Clichy.

When we first came to Paris, we (my son’s father, my son and I) stayed in a minuscule studio rental, first at Place de Clichy up the street from a transvestites/transsexual revue. Very early in the morning, when our little boy woke up, crying – still jet-lagged – his father would take him out to the all-night cafés and feed him some croissant in small pieces. 

We then moved to another short-term rental, just around the corner from the Square des Batignolles (one night our son woke up, making sounds that sounded like a barking seal, we called a doctor who gave him an injection to calm his lungs, I think that was what it was, and give him some peace and allow him to sleep).

The Square des Batignolles - an immaculate public park in the 17th arrondissement - is forever associated with the French chanson, ‘Perlimpinpin’ by the much-loved singer Barbara; there is a pathway, close to the water where the ducks are named after her ...

The video includes footage of children, filmed at Square des Batignolles in the 70s. This song was selected by the government as the symbolic tribute for the victims of the 13th November terrorist attacks during an official performance, it begins with these words: 

Pour qui, comment quand et pourquoi? Contre qui? Comment? Contre quoi?/ C’en est assez de vos violences./D’où venez-vous?/Où allez-vous? Qui êtes-vous?Qui priez-vous?/ Je vous prie de faire silence./ Pour qui, comment, quand et pourquoi? S’il faut absolument qu’on soit/ Contre quelqu’un ou quelque chose/

Je suis pour le soleil couchant/ En haut des collines désertes. Je suis pour les forêts profondes,/ Car un enfant qui pleure,/ Qu’il soit de n’importe où,/ Est un enfant qui pleure,/ Car un enfant qui meurt/ Au bout de vos fusils/ Est un enfant qui meurt./ 

The song ends with declaration of resistance, for want of a better word, and affirmation of life:

Vivre, Vivre/  Avec tendresse, Vivre/  Et donner Avec ivresse!

Today, then, I sit on the grass, bare feet, at the Square des Batignolles – listening to music, the radio (while circling exhibitions of interest in the weekly guide).

French composer Malik Djoudi ‘Sous Garantie’ (2017) described as the young hope of French synthesiser pop and dance of the ‘new romantic’ (in English, in the original text). 

I can’t make out the words, I don’t understand them, but I like the sound and the muted intensity. I’m in-between here. I try to find the lyrics when I come home, but they are not yet released. I’m surprised we can sit on the grass, normally an attendant comes and tells us not to; sometimes blowing a whistle at us, or running after people (again blowing the whistle) who go onto the grass, or when it is time for the park to close.

This is the sweetness of Paris for me, in essence, the way the locals make the most of the sunshine, trying to get some contact with nature in the public spaces. 

In front of me there is a father with a little girl aged around 18 months or less, she steps all over his chest, step step step step; all over his body, his legs. He doesn’t make a sound of any complaint. He picks her up and throws her gently in the air. This little girl is very quiet in her matching pink outfit and lime-green-rimmed sunglasses – that are perfect circles, protecting her eyes from the late afternoon sunlight. 

In praise of: Félicité, dir Alain Gomis (2017)

(Oh, how I adored this film): the winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival, directed by Alain Gomis - who is of mixed French-Senegalese heritage - offering up an expression of the cinema of the unheard that is full of beauty and mystery (I especially appreciated those scenes that represented 'the night') alongside a moving evocation of love; a mother's love and a love between two people, coming together despite or because of their imperfections. And the way it was filmed, all those close-ups that encouraged us to experience, alongside the characters, something of their daily fight to live a life of dignity, amid such cruelty - wonderful performances too and music, of course.      

See the press conference below from the festival where Gomis speaks of the orchestra as 'the ancient heart' (and later 'the beating heart') of the film and how this music symbolises the possibility of reconciliation.     

City of women: new writing @ in praise of ... spanning jazz, disco, neo-soul and ah, Nico

'Sisters, beware ... A man is lurking among us ...'

(description follows the order that I published the work on the site)

Writing on Nina Simone's melancholy lament 'He needs me' with her glorious piece of music - total/perfect construction - 'Good Bait' - Versions: 'So in love' (Shirley Bassey, Julie London and more) - disco divas, Loleatta Holloway & Gwen McCrae/Vanessa Kendrick - the super-talented new voice, Jamila Woods singing of escape, and also being satisfied where you are/where you find yourself in the current moment. And then Nico being Nico; totally present, sharing her strong sense of self via her incomparable cover of the Dylan song 'I'll keep it with mine.'