Thursday, November 22, 2007

A big picture

I've got a lot of records. A lot of old ones, I mean.

I listen to the oldest music I've got and then I listen to records from a generation later. You can hear a difference. It sounds like time bombs popped off in musical brains across the western world between 1907 and 1927: You can hear Billy Murray, the Denver Nightingale, warbling into the western night five years before the Titanic went down and hear Louis Armstrong's trumpet shouting 16 years and 1000 miles away and sit in amazement that one country has enough space to contain such a cultural divide. What happened in those 20 years? I never stop wondering. There were huge cultural and technological shifts during those decades. Certainly the pace and composition of American life in the 1920s must have been substantially different to what it was in the 1900s -- you could read a US history textbook and, if you're hell of savvy, maybe you could reverse engineer the path from Billy Murray's tonsils to Louis Armstrong's and come up with a convincing explanation of why dudes on records went from recording well-enunciated pop songs to playing blues and jazz. You could explain things by talking about slavery and syncretism in a young country and you would be right to do so.

But then you've got to explain Cuba. You've got to start with a whole new national history and identity. If you're working with a 19th century American mindset built by considered readings of French and English treatises on the rights of Man, etc., you can pretty well toss that out when you get down Cuba way. Also nix searches for religious freedom, Manifest Destiny, capitalism as nationalism, or whatever the building blocks were that got the US into the 20th century and made Scott Joplin start playing ragtime or W.C. Handy start arranging the blues. In Cuba, you're working with fraying ties to a moldering empire that, nevertheless, shares your religion and imbues you with a national identity. The US embraced liberal ideals and the Spanish colonies -- Spain having once been occupied by that hard-rolling fomenter of liberalism and nationalism Napoleon Bonaparte -- distrusted them, at least until the 19th century. Also, Cuba is a frickin' island, not 1/3 of a continent. You can't talk about a physical space to roam around and work out ideas in. Nevertheless, when Scott Joplin was inventing ragtime, a dance music that applied African syncopations to European rhythms, Cubans were inventing danzón, which applied African syncopations to European rhythms. And when we were inventing the blues and jazz, they were inventing son and charanga. These forms fused with others and continued to evolve, so that as blues and jazz bred sub-genres, so did son and rumba -- and at more or less the same pace.

So if you explain Cuba, then you start to see a pattern. The US had African slaves. So did Cuba. The music that came out of the 19th century and started to show up on records in the 1920s was often European in form, but African in content.

The US and Cuba have their own versions of this syncretic process – each puts an African masks on European faces and vice-versa. This in itself would be enough to keep my head spinning for years to come and had the process stopped with just two places on the map I wouldn’t have to make whole blog about it just to keep my spinning head on straight. The deal is, it didn’t stop there. In that magical 20 year period, Brazil invented choro and then samba, both European ideas informed by African ones. Martinique and Guadeloupe had the beguine, Haiti and the Dominican Republic shared the mereng and merengue (respectively), but developed kompas and bachata individually. Colombia had cumbia and currulao, Argentina had the milonga and tango, Puerto Rico invented the bomba and plena, and countless other forms erupted across the African Diaspora like it was fucking magic, all with varying degrees of allegiance to the Mother.

These forms even made their way back to Africa, so that they set off eruptions of their own. Highlife popped off in Ghana, Palm Wine in Ghana and Sierra Leone, the rumba got a chokehold on the French and Belgian Congo, and in many cases, Africans used these new musics to re-introduce themselves to the old ones. It was like Africa sent itself a message in a bottle and the message was received, an idea that is so exciting, that speaks so well of human nature and understanding that it keeps me up at night.

Increasingly you can see the Western Hemisphere as a lab, where the constituent ingredients of the Old World re-arranged themselves in a new one. You have the remnants of the British, Spanish and French Empires, but also the Malian, Songhay, Kongolese and Ghanaian ones, all being reshaped and tooled by encounters with even older indigenous states. The Europeans get more press, because the idea of the "New World" was, after all theirs. But their history is only a third of the real story, and the other narrators of that story used more unconventional methods to tell it. And it's because we can only guess at what’s sitting in the shadows of our history that I buy a shitload of old records. It seems like the only place you can hear something that fills in the gaps.

This is a blog for the stories in those records. Hell of folks out there have their own, better blogs and I’m going to link to them. My record crates are shallow compared to theirs, so I will defer to their deeper ones in most cases. Feel free to sound off and send in comments about the things you hear in this music. Maybe we can piece something together.