Solitary bird in flight

There are times, here on Planet Vinyl, when inclusiveness is a challenge. Manuel’s syrupy strings. The testosterone-soaked roar of heavy metal. Not my thing, really – but all music is good music if it brings people joy, whether to millions of people or even only to the musician creating it. But yes, it is nice when the randomiser turns up something I love, and think the world should know about. I can just be the fanboy for a bit.

fiddleLong term readers already know that folk music, especially Irish and Scots folk, was my first love. Although I have broadened my horizons, Celtic folk still has a special place in my heart. One of the artists I most admired in my teens was Scottish fiddler and singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean. It was his songs which first drew me in, but this LP, Fiddle, is almost entirely instrumental. It uses the fiddle to explore an extraordinary range of tempos and emotions. All the compositions are original, though many sit squarely in the folk tradition.

There is one track, The Ferry, on which MacLean sings. It is only for a few lines, towards the end of the piece, which itself is well into the second side.

The boatman is waiting to take me away
And these aching hands have worked me through another day

These quiet lyrics almost shock the listener, coming as they do without warning. It is masterful touch, and such subtlety and restraint are key to MacLean’s art.

But it another track that I want to share, The Osprey. It is the album’s opening track, and it is as beautiful an evocation of a solitary bird in flight as I know.

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The osprey became extinct in Britain in 1916, but has since been reintroduced. The bird’s main stronghold is the Scottish highlands. Image: Earth Times

Dougie is still with us, so if you like what you hear I urge you to visit his website, where this and a dozen other records can be purchased. But first, just listen!

  • Artist: Dougie MacLean
  • Album: Fiddle
  • Track: A1 The Osprey
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dunkeld
  • Made in: Scotland
  • Catalogue: DUN004
  • Year: 1984

Something wonderful grew

Joseph Shabalala had a dream. He was to create a male voice choir which would sing with heavenly harmony and bring change to his land and to the world. All of which, for a black man in Apartheid South Africa in 1964, was preposterous. But Shabalala did form his choir, and though it took a long time, he did help bring change to his country, and to the world.

black miners

Black South African miners, c. 1960. Image: South African History Online

The music of the group later called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had its origins in South Africa’s mines. To support their families, many black men had to spend much of the year far from their homes and families, living in single-sex barracks near the mines. Their wives and children were forced to remain in designated “homelands”. Conditions for the miners were appalling: South Africa’s mines are so deep that they are heated by the Earth’s core – temperatures at the face can exceed 40 degrees. Safety gear scarcely existed.

From this hardship and loneliness and exploitation, something wonderful grew. The men, exhausted and far from home, formed choirs, and developed a style of singing which fused the traditions of miners from different regions, along with western church music.

Joseph Shabalala and his choirs (there were different ensembles and names over time) mastered this music, especially the styles known as mbube and isicathamiya. Mbube is a brasher style—the name means “lion” in the Zulu language—while isicathamiya is gentler, more subtle. Both incorporate a call-and-response pattern, with complex shifts in rhythm and extraordinary many-part harmonies.

Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala in 2010. Image: World Music Central.org

Like most people outside Africa, I first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. The group, already huge in their native land, toured the world and became symbolic of the struggle against Apartheid. White minority rule came to an end, more peacefully than anyone could have dreamed, in 1993

The journey since has been hard. As I write, South Africa is at a crossroads. The African National Congress, the one-time hero of the liberation struggle, is struggling to reform itself. Since the end of Apartheid, the ANC has continually been in power. As happens when any group stays in power for a long time, greed and corruption and mismanagement have crept in. But every revolution passes through growing pains, disappointment and reversal. Better days will come.

In politics, no one ever achieves harmony in the way Ladysmith Black Mambazo does in music. But such beauty, borne of such hardship, remains inspiring, a symbol of the best in humanity. Just listen!

  • Artist: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • Album: Homeless (compilation)
  • Track: A5 “Baleka Mfana” (roughly translated, ‘run away, boy!’)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dino Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DIN 084
  • Year: Unknown (compilation late 1980s)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and more than one thousand others, are for sale via Discogs

Tough love

The Beatles throw a long shadow, such that other parts of the rich musical tradition of Liverpool can get a bit lost. Like many other ports and industrial centres, Liverpool drew waves of migrants in search of work. Each community brought their own music, and the result was a melting pot of influences from all over Britain and Ireland and beyond. This is not to gloss over the poverty, discrimination and sheer hard grind Scousers often faced, but there was creativity, solidarity and humour as well.

spinners guardian

The Spinners. Image: The Guardian

One face of Liverpool as the Singing City was the Spinners, a folk group (not to be confused with the Detroit soul outfit of the same name) which formed in 1958. The Spinners became a fixture on the folk scene, and then took their music to wider audiences. Their repertoire was a mix of their own original material, traditional songs, and the work of other songwriters. This is one, “Liverpool Lullaby”, written by fellow Scouser, Stan Kelly-Bootle. It is a song of tough love, and is funny, dark and tender, all at the same time.

Just listen.

  • Artist: The Spinners
  • Album: The Singing City
  • Track: B1 Liverpool Lullaby
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Philips
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: 6382 002
  • Year: Unknown (early 1970s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

When the boat comes in

If you were around in the 1970s you are likely to remember When the Boat Comes In, a television drama set in a working-class British town in the years after the First World War. It was a drama about disillusion. The men who returned from “the war to end all wars” struggled to deal with their personal trauma, and the poverty and injustice they faced as workers.

wtbci

James Bolam and Susan Jameson in the TV series When The Boat Comes In, 1976. Image: Newcastle Chronicle

The theme to the show, “Dance Ti Thi Daddy”, became an unlikely hit. A traditional song from the Newcastle region, it is a bold and skillfully executed piece of music – a semi-funny, semi-dark traditional song, sung in full Geordie, with an ingenious arrangement, incorporating the sounds of a brass “works band”. It is wonderful.

The singer was a man called Alex Glasgow. I didn’t even know the name, though I remember the song well. A native of Newcastle-on-Tyne, he absorbed the musical heritage of that city: a mix of music-hall comedy, folk traditions, union songs, church music, and pub singalongs. Glasgow was a singer and songwriter of great versatility, and his music drew from all those sources. He was a political man: a working-class warrior. But what is most impressive is the maturity and depth of his songs. He was on the side of the union, but he was awake to the bullshit that unionists and progressives often spin.

“I Shall Cry Again” is a lament, sharp-edged and honest, of a true believer whose beliefs are being tested. Just listen.

  • Artist: Alex Glasgow
  • Album: Now & Then: Tyneside Songs Old & New
  • Tracks: A1 Dance Ti Thi Daddy; B5 I Shall Cry Again
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label:    MWM Records
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: MWM 1011
  • Year: 1976

Distributed in health-food stores

Back in the 1980s, there was a thing called “New Age”. It was a not-quite-religion, a mish-mash of spiritual practices and beliefs all broadly rejecting materialism and suggesting people slow down. Sort of Buddhism-lite, for prosperous Californians. It was a bit self-centred – long on attending health spas and short on volunteering at soup kitchens – but basically harmless.

My main objection to New Age stuff was olfactory. New Age markets and shops and such were invariably accompanied by the heating of essential oils and the burning of incense. Fine for those who like it, but incense makes me sneeze and get a sinus headache – it is almost instant. Hard to connect with your previous lives, dude, when you feel like someone is tightening a G-clamp across your temples.

wh smaplerThere was also a thing called New Age music. In hip circles, to call music “New Age” was a bit of an insult. There was truth in the caricature: dolphin calls echoing over synth washes, with maybe the odd didgeridoo and Tibetan musical bowl to add street cred. Incense of the ear.

But the best of it what got labelled New Age was worth a listen. The format offered talented musicians an opportunity to break out of the restrictions of commercial music. They could turn the volume down, riff on a theme and see where it led, trusting that listeners would give the sounds a fair go. If this sounds a bit like jazz, it is: a lot of the best practitioners of New Age had some jazz in their past.

One label which did New Age well was Windham Hill Records. They started out in the late 1970s in – you’ll never guess – California. A guitarist, William Ackerman, was asked to record some of his tunes on cassette for friends, and radio stations picked them up and vinyl records followed. Ackerman’s girlfriend, Anne Robinson, was a skilled graphic designer: she created a distinctive minimalist look for the label: avoiding rainbow tie-dye cliches she created restrained images, framed in white.

Windham Hill became underground-popular – initially the records were “distributed in health-food stores and book stores” – then broke into the almost mainstream. Billboard magazine, for well or ill, created a “New Age and Contemporary Jazz” chart, and Windham Hill became its star label for many years.

It all seems long ago and far away. The label was sold, then sold again, then merged, and now exists somewhere in the “legacy” section of the Sony catalogue – which is better than not existing at all.

This LP was a sampler, released in Australia in 1985. I discovered it, a few years later, at a dark time in my life. I was couch surfing, and in a bad place. One of the couches (my eternal thanks to the people who provided it) was in a room with a record player. There were not many records, but this was one, and I played it a lot. It is soothing, relaxing – all that stuff – but I also loved the folky-jazzy-“who cares, really?” style.

It is music which says: “just be”. You can call it “New Age” if you like, or “Contemporary Jazz”, or something else altogether. Okay, not “Easy Listening”. But just listen.

  • Artist: William Ackerman
  • Album title: An Invitation To Windham Hill (Various Artists)
  • Track: B4: “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Windham Hill Records
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: ‎WHA 1
  • Year: 1985

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Admire the calligraphy

Hearing the traditional music of China is like admiring a piece of calligraphy hanging in a temple. It is beautiful, no question. Clearly, great skill is required in its execution. But it can’t be escaped that this is a minute fragment of a rich and complex culture. The daunting truth: without a lifetime’s study and a gift for languages, you never will fully understand.

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Image: Taito Ward Calligraphy Museum, public domain

But still, we can admire.

I visited China with my wife nearly 20 years ago. I remember once, on a street in Xian, stopping and listening to a busker, a young man playing traditional tunes on an instrument, the name of which I do not know, but it’s a distant cousin to the violin. The melodies and rhythms were unfamiliar, but the man played with passion, and there was no denying the beauty of it. Another Chinese man, listening beside me, gave me a nod and a smile. It was one of those wordless moments: he was proud of his people’s culture and pleased that a stranger was appreciating small part of it. If he had been Australian, he might have said: “Not bad, eh?”

This track is similar in style, though with a small orchestra. It from a compilation of folk tunes by various artists. As is often true of Chinese products, the English translation on the sleeve is a bit wobbly. This tune is “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”.

I do not pretend to Chinese scholarship, but I can help a bit. A “Chinese mile”, the li, is only about one-third of the English mile, and is now standardized as equal to 500 metres. “Olea” refers to Sweet Osmanthus, a small tree which grows widely in Asia. As its name suggests, this tree has fragrant flowers. Literally the tune should be called “five kilometers of nice-smelling Osmanthus trees”, which is worse than the original.

So, ignore the name. Close your eyes. It is spring, in the Chinese countryside, and the trees are in blossom. Just listen.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Album title: Kweilin Scenery | Famous Chinese Light Music (Various artists)
  • Track: A4 “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Fung Hang Record Ltd
  • Made in: Hong Kong
  • Catalogue: FHLP 201
  • Year: Unknown (1970s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Eclectic is the essence

There is a lot of hostility to migrants and movement just now. Sometimes it is cloaked beneath talk of security. Increasingly it is rank bigotry. In the struggle against aggressive nativism, I offer … Sandii and the Sunsetz. Yes, really.

Sandra O’Neale was the child of a Japanese mother and an American father, a Navy man. She grew up in Japan and later Hawaii. There she became passionate about the dance and music of Polynesia. Returning to Japan in the 1970s, she became a DJ and performer, part of the emerging techno scene, collaborating with the likes of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. In a range of bands and under different names she recorded and performed an eclectic mix of styles and traditions.

Sandii

Image via Discogs

It was as Sandii and the Sunsetz that she had her one hit in Australia, “Sticky Music”, in 1983. It probably counts as the first example of J-pop making an impact in the west. Indeed, apart from Yoko Ono, Sandii must be the first Asian woman to enjoy mainstream success here.

It often happens on Planet Vinyl: artists I know only for one or two songs turn out to have unsuspected depth and range. “Sticky Music” is a clever pastiche, full of sly irony. This completely missed me (and, I suspect, almost everyone else) in 1983. It is not representative of Sandii’s work, though – indeed nothing is. Eclectic is the essence. A daughter of different cultures, she borrows from everywhere and anywhere.

Have a listen to this B-side, “The Mirrors Of Eyes”. It is a subtle, low-key mix of percussion, vocals and (guessing here) Japanese stringed instruments. It is mysterious, engaging.

Sandii is still with us, performing and teaching dance. She is witness to the good which comes when people are allowed to travel, to love who they wish to love, to move between cultures, and express themselves freely.

  • Artist: Sandii and the Sunsetz
  • A Side: Sticky Music
  • B Side: The Mirrors Of Eyes
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Sire
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 7-259701
  • Year: 1983

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs