Below is a wonderful sampler of music, via Baltimore-based Canary Records, from across the Balkans, culled from albums produced from the 1930s to the 1970s, so ‘modern,’ but not that far removed from the pre-radio, pre-recording, pre-nationalist past. One of the enduring legacies of the Ottoman Empire is the vast, diverse, yet inter-related soundscape of music practiced by the various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups that dwelt in and moved across the Ottoman realms, carrying and transmitting and sharing their musical traditions, to the extent that no musical tradition remained sealed off from others. One can hear that multiplicity and interconnectedness in this lovely sampler; another good example, drawn from recent field recordings, is the album Mountains of Tongues, an assembly of contemporary ‘traditional’ music from the Caucuses, a region that, like the Ottoman Empire (which indeed included parts of the Caucuses) was and is a tapestry of traditions and identities.
The following is one of four truly gorgeous and insightful short films of contemporary Chechen Sufi rituals. They are all well worth watching, as is the veritable treasure-trove of material the film-maker, Vincent Moon, has accumulated over the past few years, not only in the Caucasus but across the world.
Also see the write-up on the Smithsonian website: Wu Man Brings East and West Together in New Album. The album is definitely worth getting, I might add. A wonderful variety of musical styles and deeply skilled musicians, that makes for very rewarding and enjoyable listening.
First, the music: if you’ve never heard of Lee Bozeman, well now you have, and you ought to go and listen to his work, all of which you will find linked to on his blog. His project from a few years back All Things Bright and Beautiful is one of the loveliest, lushest art-rock/post-rock albums to have come down the pike in a while. Besides being beautiful to listen to, Bozeman is a skillful lyricist, weaving the malaise of contemporary society, reflections from Western Christian thought and Orthodox theology and liturgy (Bozeman is currently attending St. Vladimir’s). It’s not a combination you get everyday in any genre of music, to be sure.
Next, two films, neither of which are especially recent, but I only lately got a chance to see them. First, Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film Offside works through a very straight-forward storyline: several Tehrani girls want to watch the World Cup qualifier game but are barred from the stadium by Iranian law. Their attempts to sneak in and blend into the all-male crowd fail, and they are placed in an impromptu holding pen just out of sight of the game. The rest of the film focuses a tight lens on their interactions with their guards. There is a lot of potential for straight-up propaganda here, and the film does engage in some rather obvious castigation of the quite ridiculous law and the young soldiers’ participation in it. However, what saves the film is its willingness to humanize the soldiers, revealing them to be more or less unwilling agents, drafted and stuck and not wanting to get stuck deeper in. The film’s final scene takes place in a police van with the girls being driven to the Vice Squad headquarters, accompanied by two of the soldiers. The journey is interrupted by the joyful anarchy of the post-victory celebration, and the film ends on a decided high-note.
Also hailing from an Iranian director, Majid Majidi’s Baran is in many ways a quite different creature: it is on one level an extended allegory of the path of the Sufi aspirant to the Divine, and is suffused with imagery taken from Rumi and others. The plot revolves around a young Iranian, Lateef, who is presented, ‘pre-repentance,’ as a hot-headed, vindictive kid who deeply resents Rahmat, the young man (or so he initially thinks) who replaces his position as tea-wallah on a Tehran construction site. Upon discovering the young man’s secret- he’s no young man at all, but a girl disguised as such in order to support her family, Afghani refugees from that country’s endless conflicts. Upon the discovery- the initial ‘tasting’ of the divine in the allegory- Lateef is transformed, and the rest of the film is devoted to his devotion to the Beloved, whom he does not truly ‘draw near’ to until the end of the film, and then only briefly. In between, Majidi paints a beautiful picture of the aspirant’s spiritual journey, concluding with Lateef’s losing of his identity for the sake of the Beloved (in this case, selling his precious ID card) and his transformation after the moment of fana’ in meeting the Beloved.
As you might have gathered, a prior knowledge of Sufi themes and practices (and, I ought to add, themes and practices also found in Shi’a Islam, whose relationship with Sufism is long and complicated), especially as revealed in Persian poetry, helps a lot in enjoying this movie. This is a philosophical, ‘mystical’ even film, and much of the pleasure of watching it comes from an awareness of the multiple layers of meaning and significance at work. That said, it is not as philosophically challenging as, say, an Abbas Kiarostami film. The story is straight-forward enough and can be appreciated on the external- zahir- level. Like Majidi’s other films, this one is visually beautiful, especially the scenes shot in the countryside around Tehran. There is also a political undertone- Afghan refugees and their struggle with immigration law (and anti-immigrant sentiments) is central to the film, and will strike American (or European or South African or Mexican or…) viewers as terribly familiar. While Majidi does not assault state power as head-on as Panahi, the critique is certainly still there, and quite effective. But at heart this is a film about something that transcends any particular political situation: the love of man for God, the love of one person for another, (the two having a way of mingling together and overlapping) love that both transforms and consumes, love that is not safe but all-consuming.
It’s almost the end of the year, which means end of year best-of lists. It could also mean worst-of lists, but I’m a pretty nice guy, and besides, you can just turn on your television or radio to get plenty of rotten crap. I can get books and music out of the way quickly: the only books I’ve read that were published this year were highly specialized academic tones that only libraries could afford, and I can only think of four movies that I went to see in theatres: Waltz With Bashir, Up, the new Harry Potter movie, and District 9. The Harry Potter movie was blah, the others were excellent. I think technically Waltz With Bashir was released in Israel in 2008, but I wasn’t able to see it until this year. At any rate, seeing movies in the theatre has never been a huge priority for me: if I really want to see the film, I can wait until it comes out on DVD or the library gets it.
Music is another story. This year was pretty decent music-wise; below are some of my top picks for 2009’s music, live and recorded. As always, my music tastes are pretty eclectic, and I make no pretensions at having selected the best music of the year. In terms of live performances, several stand out. Numero uno was the final Silver Jews concert ever, held in the bowels of Cumberland Caverns, outside of McMinnville, TN; only three hundred tickets were sold. I only managed to snag mine because the coffee house I frequent had purchased a handful for resale. The show was a convergence of awesomeness: hundreds of feet underground in a grand room with a chandelier dangling overhead, it was David Berman’s last show which he played with great heart and verve. At the end he came down and mingled with the crowd; lots of us- myself included- got a picture with him. Then we all trundled out of the cavern to make long drives back to population centers, warm with the afterglow of what has to have been one of the more singular of musical events to have come down the pike in a while.
Other especially excellent live shows this year: a few months ago I had the immense pleasure of seeing Bela Fleck, Zakhir Hussein, and Edgar Meyers play at the Tennessee Theatre. I’d been listening to Fleck for a while, and had recently come across Hussein; Meyers I had not heard. The three together are amazing: it’s hard to describe the sounds produced by these three men. As the cliche goes, you had to be there. Hussein can tear up the tabla like nobody’s business- it was hard to believe that one man, two hands, were making so much music from such seemingly straight-forward instruments. If you’ve the opportunity to see any of these three musicians, you must must take it. You’ll be glad you did.
I also got to see two shows in a row by Grupo Fantasma, which is always really fun. They played in Hattiesburg, MS, at the dear to my heart Thirsty Hippo, on the last day I was down visiting my family; I drove back to Knoxville and saw them play again out on Market Square. At K’ville’s premier (is that the right word?) hipster dive, the Pilot Light, the best show of the year was easily A Hawk and a Hacksaw, who wear touring with a full band, right down to a bouzouki player. You can’t go wrong if your band includes a bouzouki. The show was gorgeous, marred only by the incessant jumping around (think hipster moshing, which is as pathetic and annoying as it sounds) and general obnoxiousness of a cluster of scenester kids at the front. The band stopped playing mid-show and politely- well, pretty politely- asked the obnoxious kids to kindly shut up and stop acting like animals. The band continued the show with instruments unplugged and down in the crowd. Maybe it’s a sign of my ingrained music snobbery and elitism, but the chastising of the obnoxious hipsters warmed my heart…
Not that, mind you, I imagine myself to occupy a position vastly removed from hipster-dom. I’ve got a couple scarfs and sort of trendy hats, and besides, I’ve just listed a Silver Jews concert as the highlight of my live musical experiences of the year. To top it off, I head off my favorite albums of the year with:
Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca: A Pitchfork et al darling, this is a wonderful album even under all the buzz and hype; I’ve listened through it repeated times and continue to enjoy it. Production values are better than previous Dirty Projector projects, which makes for crisp lovely listening. Each track stands out and makes for scintillating, renewable listening pleasure; however, “Stillness is the Move” has to be my favorite, followed by “Two Doves,” an exploration/expansion of parts of the Song of Songs, which is pretty commendable.
The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You: After hearing the title single on Knoxville’s WDVX (best radio station ever, by the way) I went and picked up this wonderful album by the up-and-coming Avett Brothers. It is by turns mournful and exuberant, alternating between gently-paces and rolicking-tempos. There is no smug irony here, but rather well-crafted sincerity and emotional depth.
Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart: Fleck collaborated with a number of African artists, working his awe-inspiring banjo music into a wide range of musical styles and forms, in a collaborative project that works really well, for the most part. On a few tracks Fleck is a little too intrusive, but for the most part, while his own music is in force, it is in a truly effective interweaving with the African musicians. My favorite track, which is fairly straightforward musically, is ‘Jesus is the Only Answer,’ a song by Fleck, Ruth Akello, and the Ateso Jazz Band, that is wonderfully, beautifully joyous, and has garnered many, many plays on my part.
Girls in Trouble: Girls in Trouble: A new band, fronted by Alica Jo Rabins and signed to the ever-wonderful JDub Records, Girls in Trouble draw the subject matter for their songs from the Bible, in a vein similar to the artists discussed here. Who would have thought Biblical exegesis could be a sub-genre of indie music? Rabins and her band mates surround their examinations of Biblical passages- usually involving women of the Bible- with lush instrumentals, including Rabin’s beautiful violin-work, often dividing each song into two or three distinct movements.
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: Infectious stuff, this. You’ve probably already heard it- I’ve heard at least two tracks off this album used as commercial soundtracks (selling cars, I think?). It’s upbeat, fun music, that doesn’t rot your brain for being fun and infectious. Maybe not the most musically complex and sophisticated album on this list, and the lyrics can be rather odd and nonsensical- but English is a second language for the band, so it’s forgiveable.
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has been turning out beautifully crafted, insightful songs for quite some time now. On nearly all of his projects there are continual echoes and allusions to Biblical themes and verses; Scriptural language permeates his songs in a way rarely matched by other contemporary musicians (including the explicitly confessional ones!). Darnielle is himself a self-described lapsed Catholic, who has- whatever the current state of his religious practice and devotion- assimilated Scripture to a remarkable degree, enough that it simply is there in his music- not a forced presence, but integral to the stories he tells in his music.
While most of his albums have been full of Scripture, this year he has put out an album that is entirely composed of songs developed out of his interaction with specific Scripture verses. Lest there be any ambiguity in the project, titled The Life of the World to Come, each song is titled with the verse reference. So far I’ve only listened to the free track- Genesis 3:23 (get it here, left side bar)- but will hopefully get a hold of the full album before too much longer, and perhaps offer a more detailed evaluation. This song, at any rate, is quite good: Darnielle meditates on the loss of Paradise, his Adam breaking into the place he used to live but knowing he cannot really return. The Garden is not really there, it is no longer home and cannot be. Darnielle’s Adam here is not an epic character- few of Darnielle’s lyrical characters are, but rather ordinary people caught in the immensity of a fallen world with occasional glimmers of grace. The emphasis for Darnielle though is usually on the desperation, the longing, the search for signs of redemption in a world that very obviously is in need of it.
If Darnielle has only this year gone to direct Scriptural exegesis of a sort, John Ringhofer’s project Half-Handed Cloud (several free tracks on the right hand column there) has produced a whole commentary on the Bible, built out of quirky (sometimes really, really horns and toy piano and found sounds swirling all around quirky), short (almost never over two minutes in length) songs that usually draw directly upon a Scriptural verse or story and expound upon them. Ringhofer moves just as well in the familiar stories and great Christian themes as he does in the more obscure and difficult Old Testament stories. In all of them, his exegesis is deeply Christological, tying Eden and Abraham and Levitical regulations into the mystery of Christ. The quirky, psychedelic even (and certainly not for everybody), disjunctive nature of his music serves as one of his best exegetical devices, if you will, startling the listener into a new appreciation of the text, as the often times familiar passages and verses are transformed into new-yet-old texts, meanings bursting to sudden life- and then moving on into another joyous meditation, exploration of another Scripture passage.
One of the important functions of good exegesis must surely be to draw the reader/listener back into the text, to refresh the Scripture in her mind and heart, so that her reading/recitation/listening does not, as al-Ghazali puts it, simply exist on the lips, but enters into the heart. Or rather- the heart becomes present to the words, they become a single unit, Scripture and the heart united and alive. I could list similar understandings across the spectrum of late antique and medieval writers, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim: true understanding must pass from the surface to the heart, must break through the ease of familiarity and rote reading. I suspect that our ancient exegetes would have understand what John Ringhofer’s Biblical songs are doing: joyously connecting with the heart of Scripture, and through this exploration of the Bible, reaching out to God and rejoicing in His grace and incarnated presence. For Ringhofer is always directing the listener, through his psychadelic two-minute singing Scripture exegesis, to the grace and love of Jesus:
Not that I know,
But that I’m known,
You told me I’m Yours and now You’re making me Your own,
And it’s a gift
Because You lifted me out of the past
I tried to honor
What You commanded with my labor,
But now I haven’t just been told
I have been loved.
Throw Your arms wide,
Taking Your bride,
Making us like Yourself and cleansing us inside,
We wore out our sponge,
The dirt didn’t budge
‘Cause the fudge was all cake-on and corroded,
And we just wouldn’t let You hold it,
That’s when we found You pure but messy with our blood.
Oh in the past we tried to honor,
What You commanded with our labor,
But now we haven’t just been told
We have been loved.
Now that I’m known
A beautiful live performance by Brooklyn Rider- a New York City based string quartet- and the great Iranian-Kurdish master of the kamancheh, Kayhan Kalhor:
The album this composition appears on, Silent City, is easily one of the best “fusion” pieces I have heard. Well worth a listen, even if Persian classical isn’t normally your cup of tea.