Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949: A Review

Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949
Basta DVD with mp3s plus 2 CDs.

Armenian mystic Georges Gurdjieff (1866-1949) placed considerable emphasis on music as a spiritual tool, a manifestation of his ideas regarding cosmic law, and an accompaniment to the various dance/movement exercises that he encouraged his disciples in Europe and America to practice. Gurdjieff was best known for his piano music, scored and arranged by his Russian disciple Thomas de Hartmann. Although Gurdjieff was not himself a professional musician, he also improvised and composed on the harmonium after his famous, well attended talks. In the last two years of his life, his disciples recorded a number of these improvisations, many of which receive their first public hearing on these disks.

Harmonic Development is an exemplary archival production, executed by Dutch musician and producer Gert-Jan Blom. The centerpiece is a DVD with 20 hours of mp3s, containing intelligently restored copies of all of Gurdjieff’s harmonium recordings. An attached 2 CD set includes selected highlights from the recordings. The whole thing is encased in a 140 page book with photos and numerous reminiscences of the circumstances under which Gurdjieff played – in particular at the Hotel Wellington in New York where Gurdjieff took over a suite and made dinners for 50 to 150 people, copiously watered with top-notch armagnac, conducting numerous toasts to all the types of “idiots”, as he liked to call them, in the room, before retiring to the salon to play the harmonium.

The testimonials to the effects of this music on his disciples range from ecstatic to indifferent, though it’s notable that there are few attempts in the documentation to solidly link the “noo moosics” heard to Gurdjieff’s philosophy. While devotees will be moved by these material traces rescued from sonic oblivion on paper tapes stored in a small shed by a pool in a villa in Southern Spain (amongst other places), to the non-devotee the recordings sound like sad Caucasian folk music, improvised around slowly building, simple forms. Or La Dolce Vita-style film music. Or, as a friend said to me, “some dude playing an accordion in a bar”. But there’s something going on that makes you linger with these sounds – contemplative, emotionally rousing, lacking in gimmicks or distractions – music perhaps for concluding something: a dinner, an investigation, a life.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

Group Inerane – Guitars From Agadez: A Review

Group Inerane – Guitars From Agadez
Sublime Frequencies LP
Guitars from Agadez is the second of two recordings of extraordinary electrified guitar music from various parts of the Saharan diaspora issued by Sublime Frequencies this year. Like Group Doueh’s startling Western Saharan fusions of Hendrix and Sahrawi music, Group Inerane will be filed under “ethnic” music, and indeed they are strongly related to traditional musics, in this case Touareg music from Agadez in northern Niger. But setting aside the trademark feminine north African ullulations which explode whenever things really get going, these disks sound not unlike vintage Sun City Girls — amplified, turbulent, complex, abstract while at the same time, hard and funky. In other words, as “modern” as anything made in Europe or America today.
Touareg guitar music was born when these nomads of the Sahara inhabiting a vast desert area spanning parts of Mali, Niger and Algeria were exiled to refugee camps in Libya during political unrest in the early 1980s. Amplified guitars, songs containing otherwise banned political commentary and bootleg cassette tapes became a cultural/political rallying point for performers such as Abdallah Oumbadougou, who also hails from Niger, and the better known Tinariwen, from north east Mali.
Those familiar with Tinariwen will recognise the sound here, but Hisham Mayet, who also made the terrific DVD of music from Niger released by Sublime Frequencies (which also features a performance by Group Inerane), gives a rougher, more lo-fi sound to the group, which threatens to distort and at times disappear entirely in ways that are refreshing after the slickness that still dominates “world music” recording.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.

Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-9: A Review

Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-9
(Honest Jon’s CD)

We are living in a golden age of archivists and curators, from which are coming music that eclipses in interest most of what individual musicians and artists working today are producing. While recent CDs such as Dust to Digital’s Black Mirror and Victrola Favorites are built around the eclectic tastes of particular collectors of 78s, Honest Jon’s is issuing a series of disks drawn from The EMI archive in Hayes the second of which, Give Me Love is drawn from recordings made by the company (then known as The Gramophone Company) in Baghdad between 1925-9. These disks offer a fascinatingly specific look into the history of the recording of the musics of the world: the sound quality is excellent and there is the promise of much more to come.
Iraq in the 1920s was under British control and recording engineers traveled several times through Baghdad, making over a thousand recordings which were issued in Iraq on the Company subsidiary His Master’s Voice, where they were eagerly bought up by coffee house owners who played records for customers until the advent of radio in Iraq in 1936. The city itself was a complex, cosmopolitan place where many histories and cultures intersected caught in the enormous rupture created by European colonialism. Indian movies, Egyptian music, British marching bands all fed into complex network of Kurdish, Shiite, Jewish folk musics which were eagerly consumed even in places like the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, where public sale of such recordings was virtually impossible.
The history of this archive and the process by which these recordings were made, issued and consumed is so complex and fascinating that it almost overshadows the actual music which, despite its topnotch quality, and intelligent documentation via copious sleevenotes, translations and reminiscences might sadly remain opaque to listeners unfamiliar with the many styles of music collected here. There is music from Bahrain and Kuwait, Hebrew hymns of praise featuring hearty cries of “Allah!” courtesy of local Jewish musicians, terrific Kurdish fiddle improvisations, gorgeous laments by Baghdadi chanteuses some, we are told fulfilling dual roles in nightclubs as courtesans, while others sang a religious repertoire for women-only gatherings. Still, lyrics like the following from Mulla Abdussaheb’s “Ya Yumma Weya Baba” – “Ooh, just look at her black headband, so ‘a la mode’ …/You’re trouble — I have abandoned my family for your sake/ The tribulations of your love have turned my black hair into grey/ My family and tribe persecute me because of you” also go to show that some things never change.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

FM3 + Dou Wei, Hou Guan Yin: A Review

FM3 + Dou Wei — Hou Guan Yin
Lona CD

The Beijing based duo FM3’s popular Buddha Machine distilled improvisations and sounds shaped in the course of several years of live explorations down to a series of thirty second loops, set to infinitely repeat. As disks like Staalplaat’s Mort aux Vaches testify, American born Christiaan Virant and Szechuan native Zhang Jian’s live improvisations have a real strength to them, that goes beyond concept and packaging. Zhang Jian began his career as a live musician, playing keyboards in various Beijing based rock ensembles in the mid 1990s. Dou Wei, who plays drums on Hou Guan Yin, is a key figure in the Beijing rock scene, dating back to the early 1990s when he had a goth band called The Dreaming. He’s collaborated with Zhang before in the Bu Yi Ding (“Not Sure Yet”) Band, and with FM3 on 2004’s Story of Flowers in Mirror.

Recorded live in Beijing in 2004, the sound on Hou Guan Yin (Guan Yin being the female Buddha of compassion in China), is firmly ambient, slow repeating loops, with a film soundtrack feel to them that connects with Zhang’s other musical career as a composer for Chinese film and television. Virant contributes some moody guitar lines, while an array of samples from all over the map chatter in the background. The drums are sparse, atmospheric, minimal, often playing an ornamental or improvisatory role while the loops keep up a throbbing rhythm. On other tracks, the extensive use of dub effects starts to sound like Vladislav Delay or vintage Chain Reaction. The whole has a strangely gothic atmosphere, like music for a particularly dark and forlon sequel to celebrated Hong Kong mystery films like A Chinese Ghost Story.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Henry Flynt, Purified by the Fire: A Review

Henry Flynt — Purified By The Fire
Locust CD

Purified By The Fire is the latest installment of Locust Records program of previously unissued recordings by philosopher and fiddler Henry Flynt. A colleague of La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, who revolted against modern classical music, developing his own avant garde hillbilly sound, Flynt made a remarkable series of recordings from the 1960s to the 1980s when he abandoned music for lack of any audience. In the 1970s, Flynt studied with Hindustani classical vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, and in 1980-1 made a series of recordings with fellow Pran Nath student Catherine Christer Hennix supplying tambura drone tapes. These are gorgeous sprawling pieces that, aside from their debt to Pran Nath, fuse sarangi master Ram Narayan’s elegance, with classic hillbilly riffing and the ecstatic quality of early 1960s John Coltrane. That of course is no small achievement. A single 41’ 41” track, Purified By The Fire, holds up well in comparison to the more trebley, tart C Tune and the explosively psychedelic You Are My Everlovin’. The sound is warmer, more meditative perhaps – and along with its siblings, it remains utterly remarkable, 23 years after it was recorded.

Originally published in Signal to Noise.

Éthiopiques, Volumes 22 & 23: A Review

Alèmayèhu Eshèté – Ethiopiques 22: More Vintage!
Orchestra Ethiopia – Ethiopiques 23: Orchestra Ethiopia
(BudaMusique CDs)

Alèmayèhu Eshèté will already be a familiar name to followers of Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques series – a major star of the thriving Ethiopian pop scene of the 1960s and 1970s, up there with the more driving rock sounds of Mahmound Ahmed or the soulful vocals of Tlahoun Gèssèssè. More Vintage! makes available all the Ethiopian disk recordings Eshèté made that were not issued on Ethiopiques 9, which was also devoted to his work. Eshèté was strongly influenced by American R and B, both in terms of his James Brown style haircut and Mr. Please Please Please moves, and his sound which fused cutting funk-style guitar with pentatonic scale horn riffs, psychedelic keyboards and arrangements by the great Girma Beyene. The tracks on offer here, which date from the 1972-4 period, don’t offer any particular new news concerning this period of Ethiopian music – if anything , the grooves are less frenzied than on Ethiopiques 9, and a swinging sixties R and B Little Willie John style vibe is more prevalent – but almost everything here is exquisitely nuanced pop music, drenched in a nostalgia all the more powerful because of the brutal years of dictatorship that silenced the music.

Orchestra Ethiopia was an ensemble that existed from 1963 during the period of Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia, to preserve and develop Ethiopian traditional music. Originally borne in the Haile Sellasse University in Addis, the Orchestra was the love-child of an Egyptian composer Halim el-Dab who, funded by a Rockefeller Foundation ethnomusicology grant, wished to bring together many different Ethiopian folk forms and musicians. Later the ensemble was run by American Peace Corps worker Charles Sutton and others, who all contributed their own compositions, so the Orchestra itself could hardly be called an embodiment of pure folk form. The CD’s accompanying booklet describes the fascinating complexities of a group trying to represent and fuse diverse “Ethiopian” traditions at a moment where modern westernized sounds of the kind so well documented by the Ethiopiques series were in the ascendant. Predictably, it was a successful tour of the US in 1969 that finally got the Orchestra real respect back home. The sound on these previously unissued recordings is terrific and the performances, combining vocals, with traditional woodwinds, strings and drums are vibrant, although they could also be described as generically ethnic, at least to someone not familiar with the forms being mixed and matched. Ironically, the Azmari minstrels who formed part of the backbone of the Orchestra, are still alive and strong in Addis Ababa today, a timely reminder that living folk musics don’t require preservation. Nevertheless, the reconfigured traditions on display here certainly have their own unique charm.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

Eric Chenaux – Dull Lights: A Review

Eric Chenaux – Dull Lights (Constellation)
Eric Chenaux is a key figure in Toronto’s improv and alternative music scenes, co-curating the excellent Rat-Drifting label, while playing in a variety of ensembles including The Reveries, Drum Heller and The Draperies. Although Chenaux’s guitar style is emphatically post-Derek Bailey he and fellow Rat Drifter Martin Arnold, who contributes banjo to this disk have long had a taste for British folk music, and traditional song structures. A number of songs on this disk, Chenaux’s first solo record, have already been interpreted by other Toronto folks, notably the wonderful Ryan Driver Quartet, who play the songs alongside “You Go To My Head” and others. Still, if this is British folk music, it is Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy on too many downers, drifting away from each other and back again in the night.
If this is folk music, it is truly some of the most washed-out, abstract folk music ever made, a tenth generation cassette copy of an old Topic recording, listened to outdoors on a windy day. These are indeed “dull lights”, barely visible to the naked eye – or audible to the casually listening ear. At first, it sounds about as catchy as a Francisco Lopez record, as sensual as a Robert Ryman painting. But as with the Reveries strange decision to physically gag themselves and obstruct their arm movements when they play jazz standards, the obstacles and austerity here serve to intensify the attempts to communicate something, and to allow an intense soulfulness to emerge in a most unlikely way. Difficulty in communicating, or aversion to it, might be a Canadian motif (think of the trauma victims of Atom Egoyan’s movies or David Cronenberg’s The Fly for that matter). Although Chenaux’s music has little to do with ideas of a national music, the pathos of these ghostly folk forms, transmitted with fierce sincerity through time and space, has considerable depth and honesty to it, and feels more real than the retro gestures and irony of many of the new folk folks. Abstract they may be, but flying low beneath the emotional radar, these songs can nevertheless break your heart.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

Eliane Radigue – Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream: A Review

Eliane Radigue – Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream (Lovely Music, 1987)

Milarepa was a legendary Tibetan saint who, after a youth spent in banditry and pillage, embraced Buddhism, achieved enlightenment and became a wandering ascetic Crazy Wisdom master. Milarepa taught villagers the dharma by singing spontaneously formed didactic songs known as dohas, and both these songs and the tradition of spontaneous song-teaching are alive today in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1987, Paris-based composer and Buddhist Eliane Radigue, known for her remarkable just intonation tuned synthesizer droneworks such as Adnos I-III, produced this remarkable recording, simultaneously an hour plus drone, an English language narrative retelling of part of Milarepa’s life story by Sonic Arts Union composer Robert Ashley, and a Tibetan language rendition of some of Milarepa’s songs of enlightenment. Much of the piece’s charm comes from Ashley’s sly storytelling style, which resituates Milarepa as a blissed out but crafty old timer in a Spaghetti western, or a signifyin’ Southern Brer Rabbit character. If Radigue’s exquisite drone represents the perpetual presence of the infinite and timeless, and the story, the manifestation of relative, impermanent names and historical events within that infinite flow, the songs of Milarepa affirm the possibility of the union of the absolute and the relative in sparks of gorgeous melodic and linguistic form. And this union, as song or otherwise, is in fact what Mahayana Buddhists call enlightenment.

Originally published in The Wire.

Eccentric Soul: Mighty Mike Lenaburg and Good God! A Gospel-Funk Hymnal: Review

Eccentric Soul: Might Mike Lenaburg and Good God! A Gospel-Funk Hymnal
(Numero Uno)

In 2006, after 25 years plus of rare funk and soul compilations, it’s a wonder that there are any crates anywhere in the world left that have not been thoroughly dug through. The most interesting diggers, compilers and DJs have developed increasingly baroque tastes and collections, focusing on highly local or obscure scenes. Numero Uno has put out disks of little known labels from Columbus, Chicago, Miami and Detroit in its Eccentric Soul series – and, as the title indicates, specializes in songs that barely fit in the genre of soul, whether through lyrical extravagance, bizarre genre hybridizations, or ruthlessly lofi production values that make the average Pebbles garage psych band sound like the Blue Oyster Cult. Mighty Mike Lenaburg concentrates on the soul and funk scene in the unlikely location of Phoenix, Arizona. Lenaburg, actually born in the UK in 1946, became a DJ in Phoenix in the early 1960s, and started putting out soul ‘45s later in the decade. While some tracks here are fairly straight ahead soul, others like Michael Liggins and the Super Souls’ “Loaded to the Gills” and We The People’s “Function Underground” match blasting horns with clip-cloppy latin percussion, flutes and rock guitar, creating an improbable but delightful Tejano-funk-psychedelia fusion, equal parts mariachi, JBs and Sir Douglas Quintet.
Good God! covers the gospel-funk scene of the 1970s whose best known exponents are probably the Mighty Clouds of Joy. The sound here is much rougher than the tracks found on Soul Jazz’s excellent Gospel Soul collections – this is definitely “funk” complete with chattering scratch guitars, breakbeats and ferocious call and response vocals that attempt to overpower their musical accompaniment through their zeal and devotion. John Fahey observed in his notes to Revenant’s pre-war gospel collections that beneath the heavenly harmonies and Christian words of African-American spiritual music lurks an unbowed pagan spirit. That goes doubly here for the James Brown screams and booty-bumping bass whose sensuous, electronically amplified bump is heading across town at high speed on the down-low, away from the church and back to the players’ lounge. The quality of the selections is terrific – from The Voices of Conquest’s 1968 choir meets breakbeat “O Yes My Lord” to simultaneously raw and overproduced rolling funk monsters like Cliff Gober’s “A Poor Wayfaring Stranger”. The disk ends on a particularly high note with the mind-boggling Hustler’s Convention meets Sunday sermon of LaVice and Company’s “Thoughs Were the Days” (sic), a nostalgic look at the joys of hell, taken from an unlikely church basement musical in Philadelphia called “Two Sisters from Bagdad” (sic).

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture: A Book Review

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture
Amy Spencer
Marion Bowers Book, $15.95 US

The idea of tracking the history of the DIY ethic that has become such an important part of the cultural landscape over the last twenty years is a brilliant one. Zine writer and record label founder Amy Spencer is correct in seeing that DIY is an idea that encompasses more than just music, and in this book she tracks the idea across a variety of fields and cultural styles, focusing on two: writing and music. The book is written in a very approachable style, obviously designed to appeal to teenagers who are getting into making zines, forming bands or other aspects of the DIY ethos.
The “reader-friendliness” of the book is something of a problem for older jaded sophisticates such as myself, since the level of analysis is often condescendingly basic and resembles a strange children’s TV show or high school textbook, designed to educate teenagers about things like the Situationists or Riot Grrrl, without offending the sensibilities of parents who fear what their children are getting up to when they’re out of sight.
The histories that are set out here are well known, but putting them alongside each other is both useful and original. Thus, the history of zines is tracked back through punk, the alternative press of the 1960s, the Situationists, fluxus and the Beats, back to the little magazines of the early 20th century avant garde. Alternative music is likewise surveyed from grunge and indie, through punk and post-punk to the 1960s and skiffle, with sections on pirate radio and independent record production. There are some notable absences, such as the lack of any mention of Japanese or non Anglo American fandoms or alternative scenes, but at the level of content it’s pretty good.
The book is clearly addressed to an audience for whom the internet is second nature and the 1960s might as well be the 1690s. But what does DIY or lo-fi (terms which are by no means equivalent) mean to such an audience? The book’s refusal to take the politics of culture serieously (the Situationists are dispatched to eternity with the observation that they were “typically abstract and difficult to understand”) ends up replaying and repeating the fate of DIY itself: the transformation of a set of practices of cultural autonomy, generated in opposition to the prevailing economic and political system, into a set of styles that can be appropriated by the mainstream culture and sold back to individuals as a smorgasbord of “choices”. MySpace. MyIndieRock. Or, to quote the back cover of the book: “if you can’t find the cultural experience you are looking for, create your own alternative!” Even the folkloric aspect of DIY, which suggests that since the beginning of time, people have come together to make and do things using whatever comes to hand (what Lévi-Strauss called bricolage) is skipped. All of this is unfortunate because the relationship between the internet and subcultures, alternative scenes and the like is something that badly needs to be understood, as does the amazing proliferation of hacker type activities today. In her attempt to provide a “useful” “service”, Spenser seriously undervalues DIY – one only hopes that some people will be turned on enough by the book to investigate further.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2008.