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Blue Collar #9: Ethnic Music
By Mick Polich - 10/23/2007 - 10:03 AM EDT

Ethnic Music


Good god, my friends – can you groove in ¾ time???

Hmmm, o.k. – a little too much to ask, I guess…

Oh screw it, yeah - you CAN groove it in odd-meters, can’t you???

No??? Come on, you CAN  - you just don’t think you can!!!

I’m a split puppy ethnically – part Lebanese, part Croatian. I grew up listening and experiencing music from both camps – music of the Motherland, rich, deep, challenging. Now, one of my fondest memories is at my aunt and uncle’s wedding anniversary party that they held downstairs in our parish rectory hall – they are dancing, DANCING ( this is an Iowa farm couple, for God’s sake – they’re suppose to be cooking and working in the fields!!!) to what sounds like Middle Eastern music, clapping hands, wonderful, happy, gyrating body movements, soulful, thankful to celebrate the event.

Now, the thing I walk away with from my aunt and uncle’s party to this day, was that EVERYBODY has got a music history. If somebody just plain hates music, art, the theatre, well, that’s a big problem (you hear that, Taliban governments? I can’t understand it!!). But every provincial piece of dirt, municipal, slab o’ continent, has got some music heritage (and no, it does not eliminate from Britney, Lindsay, or Paris  - lawdy, girlfriends, get a some fashion sense, parenting classes, and a clue, and hit rehab ONE MO’ TIME!!!). 

This is what I think is cool – every culture and society brings something to the musical table. What??!! Whaddya talkin’ ‘bout, dude, groast, man – the only music that matters is AMERICAN music!!! Well, lemme give ya some examples of the old-school variety : all the old farts out there past 35 – raise your hand or your beer when I mention the following to see if you dig these groups, o.k.? The Police, the Cars, Billy Squier, the Doobie Brothers, Cream, Cheap Trick – o.k., any takers? Now, let me x ‘plain, Loo-cee :

The Police – punk-influenced, briefly (even the ol’ Stingmeister hissef shows up as an ACTOR PLAYING A MUSICIAN in the Sex Pistols “The Great Rock And Roll Swindle” movie), mixing like weird alchemists jazz, r and b, plus punk, rock, and world beat influences. Billy Squier, Mr. “The Stroke” – a clear Led Zep line, which then can be traced back to blues, r n’ b, and even country, fer cryin’ out loud. Before you hit the Snooze button, where can you trace country, blues, folk, and jazz to ( and yes kids, it DOES matter – everything in music does NOT start with Fall Out Boy, Spoon, or My Chemical Romance….)? African chants,  and tribe musics, Scottish, Celtic, and European folk music, even Japanese indigenous music (major pentatonic scale, doo-dahs – test on Friday!!). As it is with most Americans, especially Mr. Bigshot Politics that forgets tests of history go back beyond the Greatest Generation, our long-term memory is not needed – if it’s beyond last Tuesday, fuggetaboutit dunderheads – it don’t matter as matter or space!!

Did anybody know that, several centuries ago, the Chinese had orchestras that were bigger than most crowds at a small, Division II A college football game (notice how I clarified that?)?  Imagine having a violin section of up to 9,000 players – talk about getting 1,000 guitarists together to play “Louie, Louie” for the Guinness Book Of World Records – YIKES!!!  You know, loud music that pissed off your parents just wasn’t born yesterday, or even in this country for that matter. Indigenous music from Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq was loud, raucous, and in multiple time signatures!!! Hey, if you can count in time to a beat of 5, 7, 9,15, or even 19 beats per measure, boy howdy and welcome Mr. and Mrs. America - you CAN understand ethnic music!!!

Recently in “Rolling Stone”, I read about Muslim punk rock groups here in the U.S. Think about that – personally, I find it cool, fascinating, and really, about time – but if you look at how much communications and electronic media have changed our lives in the past 60 years, and how cheaply a group of musicians can record to hard drive, disc, or any other storage – well, the days of the stereotyped man-in-the-turban-listening-to-the –transistor-radio-on-the-streets-of-Cairo have passed you by for several decades, pilgrim.

As I’ve stated in an earlier column, yes, when asked, can produce several discs of CD’s beyond the Putumayo and Rough Guide brands.  I think most people with a slight grasp of ‘world music ‘ reference it by going out to buy these brands first, which is perfectly fine, because both labels do an excellent job of assessing and promoting music ‘round the globe. Think of it as a front office entryway to a bigger warehouse. There is SO MUCH music happening around the globe, I mean it’s ridiculous. I have to laugh at what’s considered hip at any given moment in music and culture – so, enjoy your drink, people, because in 15 minutes, the bar crew is changing! Americans are particularly the worst in this aspect – hey, dig this shit, WE KNOW HIPNESS (or pick your relevant term for the moment …)!!!! There are so many rhythms from around the world that people are just now fusing together. I know I’ve quoted this in these pages before, but I really, really like my musician/best big toe buddy Wade Krieg’s observation of a lot of ‘younger’ music (and notice, I didn’t say ‘today’s’ music, because there are a lot of new, young artists, and always will be, that are putting out some great, great music.). Wade refers to the Ghana tribe in Africa that won’t let you be a member of the music circle until your forties – you need the salt and the seasoning, my friend. So, Britney – go back to the drawing board, get some SENSE, for god sakes, you can’t even take care of your KIDS, WOMAN!!!! Then, make a record when ya GROW UP!!! ( I know I really have been raggin’ on those poor girls, but golly, what easy TARGETS!) Yeah, tikes, I’m a parent (as opposed to being apparent), and reserved the right to talk like one to these young-buck pop stars, hell, mutter, mutter, spit……

The other thing I love about music from around the globe are the instruments, and the economical way some cultures ‘ use what they got’ to construct a device to make music.

Stringed instruments from Africa and the Middle East are particularly intriguing, especially some of the bass instruments. I have a CD in my library, “Sabil ‘a ‘ Salaam”, by a Moroccan band called Nass Marrakech – the grooves on this bad boy are so happening, you’re just swept along in a sea of sinters, tablas, udu drums, and djembes – a cross-pollination of African, Morroccan, Japanese, and Indian/Asian instruments, traditional Moroccan voice, and the influx of music from said countries with the aforementioned instruments. And the funny thing is, not including a few forays into microtones off the European scale, the band uses THE SAME TWELVE NOTES AS GREEN DAY DOES (except, in a different order, and without Marshall amp stacks on eleven)!!! B.B. King said that every being can get the blues – well, these are blues tunes by people called Abdeljalil and Mohamed….. 

When I was wee tot, ethnic music was pretty much represented in my mind by a very National Geographic – like scope: strange lands, tribal dancing and sounds, weird cultures. But, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum, in that I slowly got exposed over a time period some music from abroad via different channels (then, my own seeking-out of the source of this interesting music). Remember the band Weather Report?  I found out about my all-time favorite jazz group thru the small, dark “Imports” record bin/corner of Peeples Music, a long-time indie record/tape/CD shop that fueled a lot of my musician, and non-musician, friends’ music collections for thirty years. Back when I was old enough for a driver’s permit, my dad would grudgingly let me use his 1969 GMC half-ton truck (which STILL runs ) to drive into metro Des Moines to start to see what life was like with the DSM counter-culture near the Drake University campus. I know I pound this point down, but it was all a big, wonderful mystery unfolding – trips to all the indie record shops, then, after I got to the legal age of 18, beers and sandwiches at Beggar’s Banquet, a famed local boho deli.

Now, back to that ‘dark’ corner with the “Imports” record bin: during my Saturday afternoon search for anything interesting (mostly Hendrix imports on Polydor, with the rare ‘bootleg’ of some early Jimi live performance, probably on Track or small label, back when Jimi was Jimmy, of Jimmy and the Blue Flames…), I happen to glance at a record called “Weather Report: Live In Tokyo”. Hmmm, looks cool, who are these guys? Looks like they have members from all over the globe here. But man, what a price –can’t afford it now, file it away for later… 

Years later, I picked up “Live In Tokyo” on import CD from Sour Records in Westerville, Ohio, the last of the ’ indie record shop phase ‘ – we would have a tendency to move in an area that would have an indie record/CD shop within a 10 mile radius –quite handy, really.  I had heard bits of “Live “ before, and of course, had EVERYTHING Weather Report ever recorded up to that point, but the “Live” album made me realize that the fusion of jazz, world musics, ‘ music concrete’, and third stream classical/jazz was happening long before I knew it. That was the watermark CD for me as far as accessibility to so-called ‘ethnic’ music was concerned. Yeah, I had a ton of dub, some ska and reggae, and the odd “Music From (pick yer country, congressman) – I had got hip to the British ska stuff out of the late 1970’s movement, and of course, the Talking Heads were making funk beats with multi – player bands a reality ( not to mention big, white suits…).

One CD that amazes me as it continues to grow and grow on me is Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. Already a landmark, a classic for crossover music, I bought it when it came out in the mid-80’s (along with Peter Gabriel’s “So”, but alas coo-coo birds, another story, another day…). One of my ol’ homie bands, the Subdivisions, worked up “The Boy In The Bubble” and “ You Can Call Me Al” for our early ‘90’s gigs – impeccable lyrical imagery melded with African groove/ instrumental sensibility. I was playing bass in that band, and what always threw me about playing those two songs was the use of the multiple bass line - I usually just came up with the best groove I could to keep it together, and it seemed to work. One little nugget I found out a few years ago was on the Classic Rock “Making Of…” DVD of “Graceland” where Paul Simon broke down how they made up the bass break in “You Can Call Me Al” - they took an electronic imprint of the first half of the solo, then ‘ reversed ‘ it in the studio, and tagged it on the second half of the solo. SON OF A MONKEY – the s.o.b.’s!!!! Took a DVD 10 years hence to get me that information……  

O.k., forget what I said a paragraph ago – I WILL talk about the “So” CD by Peter Gabriel. To my ears, this is probably one of the most ‘perfect’ albums ever made – songs that float from arrangement to arrangement, giving a joyous, ethereal, yet thoughtful feeling to the flow. The songs on that CD were lyrically of hope, struggle, redemption – all I knew is that it was an idyllic message from an artist who I was just beginning to know about.

The music on “So” borrow from several sources – African, rhythm and blues, funk, rock, Middle Eastern, and other world beat ports. The cool by – product of getting hip to one artist is that you can get hip to another artist that channels thru, so to speak. This happen to me with Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and the paradigm of the electric Chicago blues scene, visavis the Stones, Eric Clapton, and all the other American/English white boys that were playing amped-up blues thru beefy Marshall and Fender amps. But whom Mr. Gabriel introduced me to was an African artist by the name of Youssou N’ dour.

Sometimes events coincide so nicely that it’s like getting double presents if your birthday is Christmas (and you happen to be some sort of Christian, which, er, would work for the double presents thing to, er, work…). I was visiting my folks in the Rio Grande Valley town of Mission, which is right at the Texas/Mexico border. I happened to be watching public television one evening when a concert by Mr. N’ dour and his band came on. Just like so many other times before witnessing an artistic breakthrough, I sat mesmerized thru the blazing set of African funk, complex vocal harmonies, rhythms, and chord changes. So, I ended up with three Youssou CD’s, and started down a path of checking out African pop and folk music, old and new.

The last item to cover is another experience with my own heritage of Croatian folk music. One important detail that I almost forgot to mention was the importance of the polka, and it’s rhythms, in my musical upbringing. Oh yeah, I can hear the groans, guffaws, and harrumps (“Hey! I didn’t get a harrump outta you!!” “Blazing Saddles”, sorry, but it was needed!!) out there in Internetville, but the ‘oompah’ beat is as old as the hills, and essential to so many musics world wide ( check out any Latino station, at least down South, and think about the musical influence of German and Czech settlers  on the ‘tejano’ beats of Tex/Mex tuneage….).

The polka was inescapable growing up in Iowa, and around my neck of the woods, with so many ‘old-timers’ – families who immigrated to America from Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern Bloc countries –plus the first and second generation Americans, such as my parents and myself, who carried on bits and pieces of the heritage. My dad was an excellent dancer in his heyday, and tried to teach me how to polka on a few occasions (in his words today, he would probably say the I didn’t learn ‘ poopy’ about polkas, but I grew playing more than a few polka bass lines in bands….). But the polka, and it’s beats, rhythms, and grooves, are as “American” to people of Eastern European descent as baseball. The ¾ time groove is in danger of being marginalized, though – it’s still thought of as “old country” and “granny” music. Anybody who resides their in thought ought to take a listen to “Boogie Woogie Waltz” form Weather Reports’ “Sweetnighter” album, or the “D-Flat Waltz” from the “domino Theory” CD by the Weather folks – man, those are some serious ¾ groove tunes, I tell ya true…..

The truth is, most of the uninformed tend to marginalize anything that smells of ethnic music as uncool, unhip, too ‘foreign’, and worse, a terrorist plot (which the same could be said of ‘ American ‘ music in other faraway lands…). Another truth is, all our musics are interconnected far more than what we all realize. So,why the dis, Maynard? The ignorant, the maligned, and the myopic – pretty much the majority rules on the planet (kinda like Bush doing those crazy gymnastics with that tribe – somebody call John Travolta quick – white man, teach rhythmically challenged white man DANCE!!!) – these folks can set the tone that says, “No, that isn’t cool to listen to, forget it, can’t understand it!” Again, the tone poem to the entire ethnic music conspiracy…..

The entire point is to open your ears and eyes to some music forms that have been around for centuries, yet are just now being acknowledged. Given access to technology, and a little listening patience, you could be in for one of the biggest treats in your life with ethnic music.

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