Thursday, July 15, 2010

You're sounding too darn white!

I think African music has three great attributes: rhythm, movement, and richness.

I'm going to talk about these attributes, and also going to briefly discuss a few white musicians who are almost good enough to be black. And give you what I view as their "secret ingredient" that makes them so great.

Read on...

Rhythm

African music - and black music generally - dances in a way that white music just...doesn't. The rhythms are interesting, catchy and live.

It's music you have to learn and know. You can't read it in a concert off the page, and expect to do it justice.

So tough luck suckers, if you didn't attend the rehearsals and take the time to learn it!

This is music that, in many cases, has hung around for a long, long time before being written down, and oftentimes the notes on the page are just a very rough approximation of how things should sound.

It's actually kind of funny, because African music can really stump white music's highly trained experts. They don't "get" it.

So you see them scratching their heads, looking at the notes, singing everythng a bit too precisely and purely - and sounding altogether too..."white".

Because that's what that "white" sound is, of course - it's a reluctance to let go, to feel, and to really grok the music on a deep level.

Sounding white is about keeping the music in your head instead of in your belly and soul.

Do I dare say it? - a white sound is never a sexy sound, because it is anchored completely in the brain. But black music can be incredibly sexy, because it embraces the body-mind connection.

No wonder rock n roll, which has its roots in gospel and african music was so challenging to the white establishment when it first started taking hold in music!

Movement

The thing that struck me when I went to my first choral concert (which was when I was in my 20s) was how stiff and bored the singers looked.

Sometimes you couldn't even see them over their scores. Nothing but a tuft of hair. If they were bald, not even that!

The choir seemed to be totally disconnected with the music they were singing.

I just couldn't get it. Like - huh?

But I totally understood why the auditorium was three quarters empty.

Think of your typical white choir - or think back to how you stood in your last choral concert - and compare it to the choir in the clip below, taken from the classic movie, The Blues Brothers.


Nothing still and stiff about this!

Of course, a lot of what you're seeing in the clip above is Hollywood fooling, but if you watch the choir in the back (purple gowns), you'll see they're moving about, getting into the music, grooving with it.

They're fun and interesting to watch, and you just know there's no way they could sing half so well if they stood still and straight with their books up in front of their faces!

Music and movement are interconnected. You cannot have the one without the other - you really can't.

Unless performers feel the music in their bodies and react to it, providing cyclical positive rhythmic and tonal feedback within themselves, they're just providing a half-hearted show.

If it were me running our rehearsals I'd have us all up on our feet, stomping, dancing and grooving to the music. You should probably be thankful that it isn't me up front!

But you can hear whether a choir is moving or not in the quality of their sound. Just have a listen to one of my old choirs singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

You can tell the choir was up on their feet, dancing around - you can hear it on the recording.

And yes, the audience loved it! And yes, the choir performed to packed audiences time and again, because word got out that they'd provide a performance - not just a bit of dull sound coming at the audience from behind black folders held up high!


[Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus, The Lion Sleeps Tonight]



Richness

African music, gospel music, black music - and actually some of the music we're now starting to hear coming out of maori and island culture - has an intense richness to it.

I think that part of this is definitely genetic.

I've lived in Hong Kong (Asia) and in West Virginia (USA), and I've seen quite clearly that vocal placement is genetically based, to a point.

Whether you're a soprano or alto, tenor or bass, is due to the size of your vocal equipment, and the size of your body generally. But it also depends on whether you've been encouraged to train "up" or "down".

Hong Kong and China, having smaller people generally than Europe on average, naturally tends to produce more sopranos and tenors. Smaller bodies, smaller vocal equipment resulting in higher vocal ranges and lighter choral sounds.

And in West Virginia I couldn't help noticing that the larger, more solid black men and women were all basses and altos - real, deep, glorious altos, with the kind of voices I would kill to have!

Listen to black music, and you'll hear the strength of these deep, rich voices coming into their own.

In black music, alto isn't the middle-of-the-chord afterthought. It's up front and center stage. Alto power!

Sure, you'll hear soprano over the top, and counter-tenor too - but it's never the pure, light, laser-beam Cathedral sound we appreciate and produce en masse in the West.

Instead, it's a dramatic, rich, full-bodied, totally supported, chesty, throaty, rounded sound. Supported by solid, rich, deep notes in the bass line that are thrilling and inspiring and enticing.

And I could listen to it for years!

Good enough to be black!

The final secret ingredient is conviction.

This is why Freddie Mercury was Freddie Mercury - he sang with more conviction than just about any singer that ever lived.

And yes, Freddie Mercury was good enough to be black.


Singing with conviction. Compare his singing with Brian May's opening verses. May isn't a bad singer (he's actually quite good), but he lacks the conviction Mercury has in spades. And notice the body movement of Mercury. He couldn't have sung this well sitting still. RIP, Freddie.

Elvis knew this secret, final ingredient too. Hear him singing "Amazing Grace" and you would think you were listening to a black man. A large part of his popularity was due to the fact that he managed to recreate a black(ish) sound in a hunky white man.

New Zealand's Hollie Smith has conviction in bucketloads.

She's awesome, and was in Dunedin recently. Peggy and I went along to see her at refuel. Our response: WOW.

That's my assessment of black music.

So if you think you're not getting the African music we're doing right now, you need to get up, get grooving, sing with conviction, and feel the rhythm.

Your brain might not get it, but your body will!

2 comments:

Leta said...

Awesome Leanne, well said! Love that word: grok. Yes, we really need to grok the music and get dancing in the groove! I agree moving with the music is essential - but can you imagine Eddie falling off the risers again!

daharja said...

Oh, Leta - Eddie will be the grooviest groover that ever hit the stage, once he gets going! He won't fall.

But the audience might fall over in astonishment when they see and hear how awesome we're going to be!