Thursday, January 27, 2005

My Eclectic Musical Tastes and Instruments I Can Play

I don't think many people, who read my apologetic writings, realize how much into music I am. I always say that music and history were my first loves: long before I knew any theology from a hole in the ground. I can play (or have played at one time or another) seven instruments: piano (at least, earlier in my life, when I got good enough to play Chopin's Minute Waltz at age 11), trombone (I took lessons from the first chair trombone in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to get into a prestigious symphony band and symphony orchestra for the best public high school in Detroit: Cass Technical High School).

Cass has a long tradition of musical excellence. That was great: we played actual symphonies and other classical pieces. I played violin for a short time, then taught myself baritone, and (in 1980) guitar and blues harp (harmonica). I can also play the tin whistle. I'm sure I could also play drums if I had the chance, as I love percussion and rhythm. And trumpet and French horn would merely involve variants of the keys of baritone, so I'm sure I would be able to learn those if I wanted to (though they are more difficult, because of the smaller mouthpiece). The French horn is actually my favorite orchestra instrument to listen to.

By the end of high school, I was able to sight-read the score to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and play the trombone solo in Mahler's Third Symphony. In high school, the brass section of our band had the thrill of once playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But alas, I never kept up trombone after graduating in 1976. It's not exactly the type of instrument that you sit around and play in the house! You have to be in a band, or forget it.

These days, I restrict myself mainly to listening and collecting music (I must have at least 2000 albums), and occasionally writing about it. Here are some of the things I have been buying and listening to lately:

I've recently been on a Cajun kick. The word Cajun comes the original Acadian. Acadia is present-day Nova Scotia, and the Acadians were the French settlers there. On our vacation last summer we camped for several days near a beatiful Acadian fishing village, Cheticamp, up in Cape Breton, which is the gorgeous Northern part of Nova Scotia. While there, I had the pleasure of attending a Cajun concert (even got to dance a bit). I was told that Cajun culture is quite distinct from French Quebec culture. The French in Nova Scotia, were, unfortunately kicked out of the land after the French and Indian War of the 1750s. Most of them were forced to relocate in Louisiana (much like the American Indians were forced to Oklahoma for a time, and then to various reservations, when their land was being stolen and their culture raped by the dominant European-American culture).

Despite this sad history, the music produced by the Cajuns is incredible. In Detroit (which was founded by a Frenchman, Cadillac, in 1701, and has a great French heritage of its own), we have a free world music concert every July, called The Concert of Colors. I have heard some amazing musicians at this great annual event, including early rock stars, such as Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and the one and only Ray Charles (Los Lobos, one of my very favorite rock groups, has also played there twice). One of the groups I got to hear was called the Bluerunners: a sort of "alt-Cajun" band. I liked them immediately, and finally got around to searching and finding five of their albums the other night on the Internet. The albums are as good as I remember them being in concert. They're extremely infectious. So far, I have listened to To the Country (1998) and Le Grand Bleu (2001). Their self-titled first album (1991), is available in a used copy on amazon for only 99 cents right now. Go get it if you like this kind of thing!

Wonderful stuff. For those unfamiliar with Cajun music, it is usually heavy on violins and accordions, which play a repetitious, catchy rhythmic background. Guitars are also prominent in the sound. Apart from that, it is sort of an amalgam of bluegrass and old-timey footstompin' acoustic folk music, and sounds somewhat like rockabilly (early white rock and roll). That's how I categorize it, anyway. Amazon usually allows you to hear short samples of songs. Try it, you'll like it, if you like roots country, bluegrass, or folk music. It's irresistible.

I also picked up last week a four-disc box set at a discount price, called Cajun Early Recordings: Important Swamp Hits Remastered (2004). These songs go back to the 1920s and 1930s, and collect the important early stuff (much like Jimmie Rodgers' and the Carter Family's roles in the formation of modern country music). For more about Cajun music, see and Listmania! Cajun Music 101.

Excited about finding these albums, I looked for those of other musicians I had heard at the Concert of Colors. Prominent among these is Amampondo, an African group that offers some of the most exciting, pulsating music I have ever heard. Imagine the group Santana (their early stuff), only with far more complex African rhythms and additional percussion instruments, and ten times more intense and driving. I was able to purchase their album Vuyani (2000) for only 98 cents (that offer is still available for used albums on amazon). I also ordered State of Emergency (1995).

To get great deals on music, compare amazon (especially used copies) with the prices on the website Music Stack. Between those two, you're not likely to get a cheaper price. If you do, please let me know about other services!

Another African singer I was privileged to be able to hear for free, is the magnificent world artist, from Bénin: Angélique Kidjo. I have her albums Ayé (1994), Keep on Moving (Best of) (2001), and Black Ivory Soul (2002). Listen to the amazon song samples. You'll love it! When I first saw her in concert, I was also introduced to Trilok Gurtu, whom my jazz / world musician brother-in-law Ken Kozora was raving about as "the best drummer in the world." Here I was listening to a blistering concert by a recent version of the band, War, and, intrigued by his description, I decided to leave that and make my way to a smallish tent out of the main outdoor arena.

What I discovered there was so extraordinary that I would never be the same again. Gurtu (at least lately) plays a sort of hybrid of African pop, Indian traditional music, with funk and rock and jazz elements mixed in. I was absolutely overwhelmed. I was in this little tent listening to an absolute master of his craft. I was in "music heaven." It was like how I imagine it would have been experiencing (no pun intended) Hendrix or Coltrane in person. The music is amazing. I have his albums, African Fantasy (2000), and The Beat of Love (2001): both (obviously) enthusiastically recommended, with my highest rating.

Another one of my great loves is Celtic music. We saw the Chieftains in concert once, and recently I purchased the album Runaway Sunday (1997), by the Irish group Altan, whom many consider the finest Irish group today, even better than the Chieftains (which is putting the bar very high). That's still available used at amazon for $1.88! Their shipping price is $2.49 per disc, so you can buy the album for only $4.37 postpaid.

To switch over to a very different genre, I've loved the German synthesizer / electronic group Kraftwerk since the mid-70s. It turns out I was 15 or so years before my time, as many are now saying that Kraftwerk was a major influence on current techno-pop and (various kinds of) electronic music. I got to see them in concert in 1981, when their album Computer World had just come out (with the hit song, Pocket Calculator). Other good albums by them are Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), and The Man Machine (1978; featuring We Are the Robots). I ran across these albums on amazon and coudn't resist buying them, as I was dumb enough to get rid of all my old vinyl records from them (I had all of 'em).

I also picked up The Mix (1991), which slightly re-did some of their best songs, giving them more punch and rhythm (even a very infectious funkiness in some songs). It's fantastic. My kids love it! The most exciting thing of all was learning about a new album by them (the first since 1986): Tour de France Soundtracks (2003). It's excellent; more hypnotic and musically subtle than their old stuff. They've clearly been influenced, in turn, by all the electoric music that has come out soince their heyday.

I love rockabilly music. It's one of my very favorites. While in my local music store lately, I discovered new UK EMI releases (2004) of the best of Gene Vincent (of Be bop a lula fame) and Eddie Cochran (who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1960). These guys sizzle. It's great early rock and roll, with 30 and 32 songs on one CD.

I love 50s doo-wop vocal music, too. Recently I ordered the Very Best of the Spaniels (my favorite doo-wop group), and Very Best , Vol. 2. Anyone who likes this kind of music must (it's a legal requirement) obtain the The Doo-Wop Box and The Doo Wop Box Volume II (currently available for $40 and $30 used, on amazon).

Lastly (I could go on and on with this), I am crazy about a box set called Sam Cooke With the Soul Stirrers. I consider Sam Cooke to be the best singer of all time (in terms of actual voice quality and what he does with his voice). This music: sizzling 50s gospel which would make a dead man (even a mummy!) get up and dance and wave his hands (and perhaps get right with God, too), is extraordinary beyond description. I would say that in several respects it is even better than the bulk of Cooke's (very good) pop work. His singing in these earlier recordings is beyond belief: absolutely awesome. If you like either Sam Cooke or older gospel music, get this. You won't regret it.

I don't know a whole lot about 50s gospel, but I do know that another incredible group of roughly the same style is the Dixie Hummingbirds (Paul Simon had them sing back-up on his song, Loves me Like a Rock, in 1973). This is the stuff (speaking of gospel music generally) that led to R & B, which in turn was perhaps the biggest influence on the origin of rock and roll. It's an essential musical education.

It's really fun to listen to the sample on amazon of all these great old (and new) albums. Buying music is a lot less risky than it used to be, with all these advantages we have today, and you can get great deals on the Internet in such an easy way by just surfing around a bit (and knowing where to go to find them).

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