Saturday, December 31, 2011

How to Revolutionize Music (Quickly): The Skatalites

Happy New Year! May 2012 be about two thousand and twelve times as productive, peaceful, stress-free, prosperous, lucky and serendipitous as 2011!  And may you travel many many interesting musical pathways.

To take you on your way into the new year the Washerman’s Dog shares a set of wonderfully upbeat musical blandishments and sweetmeats for your New Year’s Eve dancing party. Even if dancing means little more than tapping your fingers on the arm of the easy chair as you sip a warm single malt.

The Skatalites are to ska and reggae what the Beatles were to pop music and Hank Williams to country.  Both definition and inspiration. Super studio band that backed everyone from Anton Ellis to Bob Marley and Toots and Maytals they laid the basic soundtrack of 1960s Jamaica and what subsequently became known as reggae (and its many progeny).

In the story of The Skatalites are buried happy and sad lessons of poverty, passion and institutionalisation.  The group’s key members, Thomas McCook (sax), Johnnie ‘Dizzy’ Moore (trumpet), Lester Sterling (alto sax) and the mercurial and tragic figure, Don Drummond (trombone) came together at the Alpha Cottage School for Boys, a nicely named church run institute for trouble-seeking and trouble-wielding boys. Rather than flash blades or use their fists, a Catholic priest got them blowing into brass instruments, little realising that these discarded bits of humanity would go on to revolutionise a nation’s music and secure a rarefied and respected niche on the global scene.

The Skatalites

Starting out, the unlikely lads played in Kingston hotels and were soon joined by the seminal pianist Jackie Mittoo and Lloyd Knibbs on drums.  At the same time, the initial studios were opening up and the group found themselves to be in demand as everyone’s favourite back-up band.  In 1964, they began referring to themselves as The Skatalites, In between recording for others they criss crossed Jamaica playing their own gigs to a rapidly growing audience.

So important and omnipresent was the group that it is hard to know where their music started and other artists’ ended. Since they played on thousands of records that were released by countless other acts and musicians they often did not get the credit.  But their sound and drive and energy and ‘magic’ was what made the song a hit.  In this way, their influence and importance to creating and defining their ‘musical moment’ far exceeds that of the Beatles  and Hank Williams. They were everywhere, in every studio, backing every act and playing every weekend. They were making up a sound and an entire genre as they went.

Don Drummond

The musicality of The Skatalites is simply delightful. The horn playing is masterful but unassuming and laidback. Just like everyone’s idea of a Jamaican beach.  The licks are groovy and grabbed from any corner of the musical universe. Witness the direct ‘sampling’ of the Mexicali trumpets from Johnny Cash’s smash hit, Ring of Fire, on Music is My Occupation. Central to the beat and soul of the sound was the tremendous trombone work of Don Drummond.  Surely one of the best slide trombone  players ever but also one of the most troubled. His time as a delinquent and institutionalised (and brutalised) inmate of Alpha Cottage, affected his mental health. With the band barely a year old, he murdered his wife and the band’s vocalist and was reinstitutionalised in an Asylum. He died there in 1969. The Skatalites dissolved in 1965 but reformed in the early 80s and continue to play to adoring and hip crowds around the world even today.

These recordings are from their prime and short life as a band between 1964 and 1965.  Infectious, joyous and wonderous music.

Bye bye 2011!!!

            Track Listing:
            01 Guns Of Navarone
02 Eastern Standard Time
03 Garden Of Love
04 Latin Goes To Ska
05 (Music Is My) Occupation
06 Street Corner
07 Musical Storeroom
08 Green Island
09 Corner Stone
10 Musical Communication
11 Doctor Dekker
12 Feeling Fine
13 Don De Lion
14 Lucky Seven
15 Stampede
16 Silver Dollar
17 University Goes Ska
18 Knock Out Punch
19 Cool Smoke
20 Around The World
21 Alley Pang
22 Good News
23 Thoroughfare
24 Mesopotamia
25 Dragon Weapon

Listen here.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Dylan's First Muse: Odetta

If only one could be sure that every fifty years a voice and a soul like Odetta's would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time. (Maya Angelou)

On December 31, 1930 in Alabama, a girl child was born and given a name that meant ‘ode’ in French: Odetta.  This being the time of Jim Crow, the girl and her mother and sister moved away from Alabama to find work and a better life. They settled in Los Angeles.  “I didn’t know I had a voice. I just knew I loved music.  A teacher told my mom that I had a voice and might benefit from some training and that was the first time I understood I had a voice.

“I didn’t want to be anybody. Because I was a tall big black woman my teacher wanted me to be the next Marian Anderson. I adored Marian Anderson and still do but I didn’t want to be anybody else.”

Odetta was taught the art of opera singing. She began acting in musicals such as Finian’s Rainbow but left the world of classical and theatre music when she encountered the folk revival of the early 1950s.

“In San Francisco we were the last of the Bohemians. The beatniks came next. The times were a changing…you know just we called it something different. I went to the Joint and heard people with guitars singing. And I knew I was home. My classical singing was great but it didn’t mean anything to me. It was in folk music, the work songs, in which I could feel the anger, the hate, the pain that I got my rocks off.”

Her imposing presence and powerful voice made Odetta impossible to ignore. She released her first record of folk and blues tunes in 1956. The Civil Rights movement was beginning to set America aflame and Odetta was in the public vanguard of the fight for liberation.

“The folk and work songs were slavery songs but songs of Liberation. When you walk through life with the foot of society on your throat and there is no way you can get out from under that foot, you come to crossing in the road. Either you can lay down and die or you can insist upon your life. And those who wrote those work songs were those who insisted upon their lives. And they were a great inspiration to me.

“These songs come out of difficult times, and since the difficult times haven't been fixed, the songs are still here for us.

“The first wound I suffered was on a train to Los Angeles when the conductor came into our compartment and said, Coloured people aren’t allowed.  That was the first time I realized that who I was and where I came from wasn’t worth a thing.  The music healed me though.”

She sang in front of thousands and millions on TV watched her sing at the rally where Martin Luther King Jr gave his I Have a Dream speech.  A skinny young Jewish boy from Minnesota heard Odetta’s first record. 

"The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.  [That album was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record," confessed Bob Dylan years later.

In a few years when that skinny Jewish boy was the new object of affection of the folk singing crowd, Odetta repaid the compliment by making a recording of his songs.   And it is the subject of tonight’s post.

The music on the album is astounding.  Odetta’s deep authoritative voice makes each of these songs, only a year or two old when she sang them, seem as old the prison songs of Leadbelly and Bukka White. And to have emerged from the same blood sweat and tears.  As if Dylan was a natural and essential part of the same deep musical river of freedom.  

Dylan’s songs, especially Blowin’ in the Wind were already being covered by other folk artists when Odetta made this record. But most versions pale when compared to Odetta’s  ferocious renditions that give each song a basic legitimacy and vitality that must have meant so much to Dylan. Listen especially to Mr Tambourine Man.

Some have complained that this record is not a folk album. That Odetta’s classical training is too much in evidence.  I disagree. It is exactly her blending of the opera house and cotton field that gives these versions of what are now classic songs their gravitas.  Odetta’s voice is simply magnificent. Like a Ferrari driving down a busy city street, it is just bursting to break free and shake some bones.

“I'm not a real folksinger.... I don't mind people calling me that, but I'm a musical historian. I'm a city kid who has admired an area and who got into it. I've been fortunate. With folk music, I can do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.

Happy Birthday Odetta!

         Track Listing:
         01 Baby, I'm In The Mood For You
02 Long Ago, Far Away
03 Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
04 Tomorrow Is A Long Time
05 Masters Of War
06 Walkin' Down The Line
07 The Times They Are A-Changin'
08 With God On Our Side
09 Long Time Gone
10 Mr. Tambourine Man
11 Blowin' In The Wind
12 Paths of Victory

Listen here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Peace on Earth: Merry Christmas from Washerman's Dog

The Washerman’s Dog is pulling the shutters down for a few days. I wish all those who have dropped by in 2011, left your comments, shared your own music and become friends, Peace.

hòa bình

And I hope you agree that there is nothing as good as  good music from around the world as a gift to share over the Christmas season.

Peace and Good Music to All!

Track Listing:
01 D'leau coco (Les Leopards) Infectious dance music from Martinque.
02 N.E.S.T.A. (Never Ever Submit To Authority) (Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra) Afrobeat from the mean streets of New York.
03 Five Spot After Dark (Shirley Scott) Smooth Hammond B3 from USA. Perfect for sipping a hot toddy by the fire.
04 Dushanbe (Unknown) They love their capitol in Tajikistan.
05 Elevate Me Mama (Muddy Waters) Big slab of Chicago blues.
06 Idaho (Jeffrey Foucault) The potato state never sounded so good.
07 Under the Hammer (Gil Scott-Heron) Up to his usual funky tricks with Brian Jackson.
08 Ettaala Ya Bbulu (The Blue Light)(Bernard Kabanda) Lilting guitar and gentle vocals from Uganda.
09 Marfa (Les Ambassadeurs) Atmospheric Mandinka jazz from 1970s Mali. Get a load of Salif Keita’s vocals.
10 He Priya (Khairul Anam) Contemporary interpretation of the revolutionary, Nazarul Islam’s, poetry from Bangladesh.
11 Samraat (Abrasaz) German, Indian jazz qawwali.
12 Laila O Laila (Sunil Ganguly) Guitar ace Ganguly’s take on India’s biggest hit of 1980.
13 Kis Kiss Kisse Pyar Karoon (Mohammad Rafi) So many girls to kiss. Indian rock ‘n roll hijinx.
14 Elizabeth (Lou Donaldson) Soul jazz saxophone circa 1968 USA.
15 Whatever Possessed Me (Ruth Young) Smoky rendition of Chet Baker song by his long time lover and muse.
16 Bukom Mashie (Oscar Sulley) Heavy fast moving funk from Ghana.
17 Ez'zaman (Hamza El Din) Egyptian oud-based folk.
18  Mofutela n'dako (Youlou Mabiala) Sweet Congolese soukous from Franco’s one time collaborator and son-in-law.
19 Green Sowed (unknown) Ukranian field song sung acapella. Beautiful.
20 Baiyoti  Dutor (Unknown) Urgent and exciting traditional Tajik music played on the dutor (two stringed lute).
21 Nouba (Ali Hassan Kuban). Godfather of Egyptian Nubian music hits the groove.
22 Ya Mina El Habayeb (Fairuz) The Nightingale of Beirut and Arab world’s greatest living female voice live in concert.
23 Slow Horses and Fast Women (Nathan Williams & the Zydeco Cha Chas) Swinging Louisana zydeco from perennial favorites.
24 Slouchin’ (Lonnie Smith). No slouch this African American Sikh organ master.
25 Cry To Me (Betty Harris) Florida’s soul diva recaps her 1963 smashingly good smash hit.
26 Walk Around Heaven All Day (Jackson Southernaires) Mississippi’s mighty gospel group take a walk on the bright side.

All the best for the holidays!  See you soon.

Listen here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stellar Soundtracks: One From the Heart

In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola, hot off the success of Apocalypse Now released a ‘new kind of old fashioned romance’, One From the Heart. The movie was typical Coppola: ahead of its time, lush production, innovative and not entirely successful.  According to the NY Times which like everyone gave the film a half hearted endorsement, One From the Heart in Coppola’s hands was like “Rembrandt painting Easter eggs.”

While the film fell flat Coppola delivered a soundtrack that thirty years on, is still as sharp as a tack.  He brought in Tom Waits, after falling in love with his duet with Bette Midler I Don’t Talk to Strangers, from his album Foreign Affairs.  Midler was unavailable so Waits selected rather unexpectedly, a straight ahead mainstream country singer, Crystal Gayle to be his alter ego.

It was a brilliant choice. The film tells the story of Hank and Frannie who don't seem to be able to live together anymore. After a five-year relationship, lustful and dreamy Fanny leaves down-to-earth Hank on the anniversary of their relationship. Each one of them meets their dream mate, but as bright as they may seem, they are but a stage of lights and colours. Will true love prevail over a seemingly glamorous passion?

Crystal Gayle and Tom Waits

Waits’s rusty slurred growling contrasts perfectly with Gayle’s water-clear crisply annunciated singing. Waits’s wonderful lyrics plumb the many bittersweet corners of love from frustration to bravado and from pleading to unadulterated joy.  The musical accompaniment is tasty too, with bluesy trumpet and forlorn sax and spinning coins.  Most amazing, I think though, is Crystal’s voice.  Not a hint of Nashville and absolutely at home with the late night blue smoky jazz Waits is so loved for.

It’s impossible to pick one track that stands out from the others. Each one is simply beautiful and so full of that crazy little thing called love.

The title track’s lyrics follow.

I should go out and honk the horn, it's Independence Day
But instead I just pour myself a drink
It's got to be love, I've never felt this way
Oh baby, this one's from the heart

The shadows on the wall look like a railroad track
I wonder if he's ever comin' back
The moon's a yellow stain across the sky
Oh baby, this one's from the heart

Maybe I'll go down to the corner and get a racin' form
But I should prob'ly wait here by the phone
And the brakes need adjustment on the convertible
Oh baby, this one's from the heart

The worm is climbin' the avocado tree
Rubbin' its back against the wall
I pour myself a double sympathy
Oh baby, this one's from the heart

Blondes, brunettes, and redheads put their hammer down
To pound a cold chisel through my heart.
But they were nothin' but apostrophes
Oh baby, this one's from the heart

I can't tell, is that a siren or a saxophone?
But the roads get so slippery when it rains
I love you more than all these words can ever say
Oh baby, this one's from the heart

This is a rich, fun and mellow album. Perfectly suited for the ragged end of a long year.

         Track Listing:
         01 Opening Montage: Tom's Piano Intro/Once Upon A Town
02 Is There Any Way Out Of This Dream
03 Picking Up After You
04 Old Boyfriends
05 Broken Bicycles
06 I Beg Your Pardon
07 Little Boy Blue
08 Instrumental Montage: The Tango/Circus Girl
09 You Can't Unring A Bell
10 This One's From The Heart
11 Take Me Home
12 Presents
Listen here.