Author Archives: rilm

Oliver Mtukudzi: Instruction and reconstruction

Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi left a vast and rich body of music produced over a long and illustrious career. Through his skillful use of traditional Shona proverbs, textured idiomatic expressions, metaphor, and ingenious word play, he was able to teach while simultaneously entertaining his audience.

Through its dialogic nature, Mtukudzi’s music positioned itself at the service of both instruction and reconstruction in ways that differed markedly from those offered by Western formal education.

These pedagogical and reconstructive potentials are located in traditional forms of knowledge generation and knowledge transfer. Mtukudzi’s music must be viewed as a reconstructive pedagogy that raises the social consciousness of its listeners. Framed against current trends in Africa and other formerly colonized spaces for the decolonization of ways of learning and teaching, Mtukudzi’s music articulates reconstructive ways of thinking about knowledge, knowledge generation, knowledge transfer, and the archiving of lived experiences in Africa.

This according to “Music as pedagogy: The life, times, and music of Oliver Mtukudzi” by Gibson Ncube and Yemurai Gwatirisa, an essay included in The life and music of Oliver Mtukudzi: Reconstruction and identity (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022, 39–50; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-407).

Today would have been Oliver Mtukudzi’s 70th birthday!

Below, Mtukudzi’s Todii (What shall we do?) evokes the world of traditional proverbs to convey new messages of social commentary.

BONUS: In a collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mtukudzi’s Neria raises vital themes involving women, family relations, and politics.

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Filed under Africa, Performers, Popular music

Anne Brown and “Porgy and Bess”

Anne Brown literally put the Bess in Porgy and Bess by inspiring George Gershwin to expand the character’s part in an opera that was originally to be called Porgy.

Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the role of Bess, who was a relatively minor character in the original 1925 DuBose Heyward novel. As he composed the opera, often with Brown at his side, Gershwin added more and more music for her. Because Gershwin died at 38 in 1937, she was the only Bess he ever knew.

Brown was in her second year of graduate studies at Juilliard when she read that Gershwin was writing his opera. She wrote to ask for an interview, which his secretary granted. She sang music by Brahms, Schubert, and other classical composers; then he asked her to sing a Black spiritual. Brown hesitated at the racial stereotyping, but finally sang an unaccompanied spiritual. Gershwin was silent after she finished; then he told her that it was the most beautiful spiritual he had ever heard, and they hugged.

In the last days of rehearsals, Gershwin told Brown that he was expanding the title of the opera to include Bess, her part. Though critics initially weren’t sure what to make of the work, her performance in it received wide acclaim.

This according to “Anne Brown, who was Gershwin’s Bess, dies at 96” by Douglas Martin (The New York times 18 March 2009; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-633).

Anne Brown would have been 100 years old this month! Above and below, a filmed excerpt from her performance.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Black studies, Opera, Performers

Acusfere: Suoni_culture_musicologie

In 2022 Libreria Musicale Italiana launched Acusfere: Suoni_culture_musicologie, a multilingual, annually published, peer-reviewed print and online journal with abstracts in English. The journal’s scope is purposely broad; however, there are several general elements around which it coheres, including emphases on:

  • Research from the fields of musicology and anthropology
  • Musical writing, invention, improvisation, and composition in the contemporary world
  • Local and peripheral music traditions
  • Relationships between music and many other artistic and expressive activities
  • Musical instruments and technologies
  • Vocal expression as manifested in individual and polyphonic contexts
  • The processes of thought, theories, aesthetics, and structures that shape musical meanings
  • The multifarious behaviors detectable in the music-making of diverse cultures
  • The spaces and places of music, stable and concrete, but also mobile and ephemeral
  • Projections of music in media, rapidly changing and integrated into multiple perspectives

The journal’s tripartite subtitle—suoni (sounds), culture (cultures), and musicologie (musicologies)—reflects the pluralities and variabilities of viewpoints, processes, scenarios, contexts, and knowledges at the center of the critical reflection of music making.

Below, Marco Tomassi performs on his reconstruction of the 17th-century sordellina, the subject of an article in the journal’s inaugural issue.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Instruments, Musicology, New periodicals

Gilberto Gil’s big hug

On Ash Wednesday 1969, shortly after being released from a military prison in the neighborhood of Realengo, Rio de Janeiro, Gilberto Gil composed the song Aquele abraço (Big hug), which would eventually become a landmark in the history of Brazilian popular music.

 It was his last day in Rio de Janeiro before he was placed under house arrest in Salvador (where he developed the melody and instrumentation for the song) and sent into exile due to his confrontation of the military dictatorship. The song became a kind of unofficial theme song of the city of Rio de Janeiro. In it, Gil referenced many personalities, events, neighborhoods, and traditions, creating a musical picture of the city. After his exile, the song acquired an added poignancy, as if he were greeting his beloved city from abroad.

Between that time and his work as Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008, his musical innovations always went in tandem with his social and political activism, which were defining aspects of his career. Since the times of tropicália, Gil, along with his friend and fellow exile Caetano Veloso, has been at the center of some of the most important movements in Brazilian popular music. His imagination is boundless, his lyrics are superb poetic creations that honor the music and the cadence of the Portuguese language, and his effortless eclecticism continues to surprise.

Throughout his career, it was almost as if each new album stood at the beginning of something new. He has always been chameleonic and kaleidoscopic. No musical genre was beyond his reach: samba, choro, forró, reggae, rap, rock, folk song, ballad, candomblé. His works form a tapestry of the many musical traditions of Brazil, and it is literally impossible to single out any particular song as representative of his career.

His birthday comes two days after the traditional feast in honor of St. John (June 24), which is a major cultural event in northeastern Brazil, a showcase for the music, culinary traditions, dance, and costumes of the region. Here he is, donning a traditional hat from the heartlands of the northeast, celebrating the tradition in a live concert for the public of São Paulo. And so, “Aquele abraço” on his 80th birthday!

For a comprehensive biography, see GiLuminoso: A poética do ser–Gilberto Gil (São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial do Estado, 1999; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-49790). Above, Maestro Gil in 2012.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Krishnaveni Lakshmanan arrives

Writing in 2004, the bharatanāṭyam performer and teacher S. (Peria) Sarada recalled her first encounter with Krishnaveni Lakshmanan:

Rukmini Devi and I noticed a girl watching, day after day, from the window, the dance classes we were teaching in the Mirror Cottage in the Theosophical Society where Kalakshetra was then situated. The child did this invariably on her way back home from The Besant Theosophical High School.”

“Rukmini Devi—Athai—called the child inside and asked her: ‘Would you like to dance?’ The child’s joy knew no bounds and she readily tried to repeat the dance she had been viewing. Athai immediately arranged for her, Krishnaveni, to join Kalakshetra as a part-time student.”

Lakshmanan went on to become “a danseuse of exceptional talent, versatility, and genius. Indeed, a very rare combination of stage presence and presentation! Devoted and totally dedicated to her career, which balances both teaching and performing. Krishnaveni is God’s beautiful gift to the magic world of dance.”

Quoted from “Krishnaveni of Kalakshetra” (Sruti 241 [October 2004] 19–22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-34001.)

Today would have been Lakshmanan’s 80th birthday! Below, rare footage of her in performance.

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Filed under Asia, Dance, Performers

Jazz in China

The story of jazz in China spans a century, encompassing the introduction of jazz in the early 1920s, its interruption under Mao in 1949, and its rejuvenation in the early 1980s with China’s opening to the world under Deng Xiaoping.

As a highly democratic form of music characterized by improvisation and individual freedom of expression, in the 1920s jazz embodied the antithesis of thousands of years of Chinese cultural history. A hundred years later, Chinese jazz is engaged in a balancing act between consumerism, political ideology, and censorship.

This according to Jazz in China: From dance hall music to individual freedom of expression by Eugene Marlow (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-7991).

Above and below, Li Gaoyang, one of the musicians discussed in the book.

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Filed under Asia, Jazz and blues, Performers

Laurie Anderson and “O Superman”

“You know the reason that I really love the stars? It’s that we cannot hurt them. We can’t burn them. We can’t melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them or blow them up… But we are reaching for them.”

Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall (2018)

Typically, academic writing on Laurie Anderson’s performative electronic storytelling has not explicitly addressed its musical characteristics. Instead, Anderson’s pieces are often viewed as postmodern performance, video, or multimedia art, and analyses have focused on (hyper)mediation; the technological fragmentation of the subject; politicized language games and multiplicities of textual meaning; and Anderson’s androgynous, cyborg performance personæ. 

One major exception to this trend is Susan McClary’s chapter on Anderson in Feminine endings, which serves as the starting point for an analysis of O Superman that examines its harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic features, focusing on her resistance to establishing a tonic key, use of additive and subtractive processes, and avoidance of entrainable metric regularity. 

Ultimately, these features culminate in a kind of estranging ambiguity, inviting us to actively shift how we listen to—and interpret—one of Anderson’s most enduring musical negotiations of the social, political, and technological terrains of American life. 

This according to “Once again, on the music of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (for Massenet)” by Lindsey Eckenroth (American music review XLIII/2 [spring 2014] 21–24; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-6985).

Today is Anderson’s 75th birthday! Above, photographed by Annie Liebovitz; below, the official music video.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers

Mudrās in Karṇāṭak song texts

A longstanding tradition among Karṇāṭak composers involves weaving hidden meanings into their song texts; generally known as mudrās, such terms may serve to identify the composer through a pseudonym, or they may indicate aspects of the music itself.

The highly revered composer Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar typically included his signature pseudonym Guruguha somewhere in his song texts. He also often worked in the name of the rāga in which the composition is set, sometimes ingeniously encasing the reference in two adjacent words that, taken together, reveal the rāga mudrā.

This according to Rāga mudrās in Dīkshitar kritis by K. Omanakutty (Thiruvananthapuram: University of Kerala, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-50861).

Above, a depiction of Dīkṣitar on a stamp issued by India Post; below, Gayathri Girish sings his Sārasa daḷa nayana, one of the works discussed in the book.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities

David Byrne and performance

In a 2004 interview, David Byrne recalled “In hindsight I realize that at first I used to get onstage out of some desperate need—I was so painfully shy that strangely it was the only way I could express myself. So it was cathartic and powerful, but hardly what you would call pleasure.”

“When Talking Heads became a big funk ensemble, I sensed there was something more. I began to dance, to enjoy myself, to sense the connection between secular music and the gospel church, with the ecstatic religions like Candomblé and Santeria.”

“Now it’s completely pleasurable—just the physical and emotional pleasure of singing is completely transporting. The act of singing recreates the emotions that went into the songs in the first place—like adding water to freeze-dried food, the emotions get reconstituted and the singing is the water you add. And I still dance, sort of.”

Quoted in “An interview with David Byrne” by Dave Eggers (The believer II/6 [June 2004]; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-22964.)

Today is Byrne’s 70th birthday! Above, performing with Talking Heads in 1983; below, with his American utopia tour in 2018.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Rap as Mexican women’s protest

Mexico is not officially at war, yet violence is pervasive, and young Mexican women increasingly use rap music to protest the ubiquity of homicides, systematic violence, and widespread impunity in their country.

Non-activist rap songs encouraging introspection can be as political as explicitly activist ones, and the aim of both can be to shift people’s understandings and promote change. This is significant because it is only by attending to distinct actors’ positionalities, to their similarities and differences, that negotiation can be collectively enabled to fight violence in Mexico.

This according to “Contesting resistance, protesting violence: Women, war, and hip hop in Mexico” by Hettie Malcomson (Music and arts in action VII/1 [2019] 46–63; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2019-20968).

Above and below, the Oaxaca-based activist Mare Advertencia Lírika, one of the artists discussed in the article (photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies