The pleasure of being stuck on the Tarmac at O’Hare International is having the time to read some of my favorite mags (along with watching old Entourage episodes). As serendipity would have it, it was Burkhard Bilger’s profile — no, his portraiture — of Questlove, the ambitious bandleader and drummer for the Roots, in The New Yorker I most unexpectedly dug. A few weeks earlier my colleague, Stefn’i Bell, across the cubicle aisle said that she was going to “stop following Questlove on Twitter” because he’s so active on it. I hadn’t even heard his name before so I had no clue whom she was talking about, despite watching him on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon so many times.
After reading the piece, you can’t help but have a deep admiration for the musician and the man. Two days later? A video of Questlove in studio listening to and breaking down the original multitrack recordings of Marvin Gaye’s single “What’s Going On” is showing up in my Facebook feed.
Wow, this is groovy: Questlove breaking down the rhythm tracks of the original multitrack studio recordings of Marvin Gaye’s single “What’s Going On.”
“What’s so cool about it is that this is one of the most undefined drum songs of soul music. I don’t think of drums when I think of ‘What’s Going On.” I think of the conga, but I always felt like it was a ritual syncopated…
I always wondered though why didn’t they just bring the… like, it could’ve been a whole different song had the drums just been the force of it, but I guess that would’ve taken away from it.
And here Questlove discusses how he thinks of “What’s Going On” as a winter song and marvels at the perfection of its “crude harmonies”:
Then they break down how the single was recorded nine months prior to the release of the album, the piano being used as a percussion line, and the “infamous football players”:
(Big thanks to Mikel Ellcessor of WDET to turning me on to this.)
Hallelujah from Quinhagak, Alaska
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Rachel Naomi Remen, a former guest at On Being, passed on this delightful video made by the residents of Quinhagak, Alaska, a small village of less than 600 people near the Bering Sea. Enjoy!
Happy Birthday to Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel
by Chris Heagle, technical director
Mahalia Jackson would have been 100 years old
today on October 26th. To celebrate, here’s one of her best-loved interpretations, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
She recorded over two dozen albums in her lifetime, won five Grammy awards, and was honored from nearly every direction — from gracing a 32-cent stamp to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She appeared in a few films, most memorably perhaps in Imitation of Life and was a smash at the Newport Jazz Festival. Hers was the chosen voice for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral. Though she was often courted by other artists to crossover and sing jazz or blues, she never did, saying famously, “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.”
Editor’s note (10.16.2011 1:53pm): Thanks to an astute reader, we made a factual error in this post. Mahalia Jackson’s birthday occurs ten days from the date of this posting, on October 26th. We apologize for the error and got a little too excited about sharing this great gospel hymn and remembering this wonderful singer.
Bobby McFerrin’s Daily Singing Exercise
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
The musician Bobby McFerrin describes the art and act of improvisation as “simply motion, just the courage to keep moving.” In the audio above (from this week’s show “Catching Song”), he offers a three-week challenge for building improvisational muscles and describes how it works. Here are the steps:
- Set a timer for 10 minutes.
- Open up your mouth and sing.
- Don’t stop for 10 minutes.
- Do this every day for three weeks.
Sounds pretty simple, right? McFerrin, however, warns that every inch, atom, and molecule of your being will want to bail. Self-judgment will creep in. But don’t falter. Keep going. McFerrin holds open the tantalizing promise that, in a few short weeks, you’ll see a change.
So, who’s up for the challenge?
Once you’ve tried McFerrin’s improvisational workout, we’d love to hear what it was like. What surprised you? Delighted you? Share your reflections here in the comments section. You can even record yourself and send in your improvisational vocal creations here at (612) 326-4044. If enough people participate, we’ll produce an audio montage and post it to the blog.
Are you in?
Palestinian-Lebanese Daughter Sings Despite Father’s Wishes
by Jon Dillingham, guest contributor
Camellia Abou-Odah was three months old the first time she ever sang: her mother says she belted out an impromptu tune to accompany her father, who casually filled the kitchen with Islamic melodies. Though it was her father’s extraordinary voice that first inspired her to sing, that few minutes in the kitchen was the last time they would ever share a song.
Born and raised in Kansas City to a strict Muslim father from Gaza and a self-described liberal Muslim mother from Lebanon, Camellia has struggled to stay true to traditional values while at the same time nurturing her passion for singing, which her father prohibits.
She’s now in the middle of recording her first songs with Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Danny Sembello, and she smiles confidently as we talk over Thai iced coffee near the University of Southern California in South Central Los Angeles. It’s casual sweatpants and sandals this afternoon, but it’s hard not to notice her boisterous brown curls and big smile when she walks in. She looks like a slender, young, Arab Chaka Khan. The ease and grace with which she speaks betray the fact that the long, arduous road to this point has broken family bonds and challenged her sense of self and identity.
Camellia’s father is often chosen to lead prayers at his local Islamic center in Kansas City thanks to both his piety and mellifluous voice. Her mother, Dr. Basimah Khulusi, says her ex-husband had even entertained notions of becoming a singer himself, before dismissing the idea as “a childish notion.” He came to America from a prominent family in Palestine but was far from a religious fundamentalist, until his daughter was born.
“When I met him, he was different, and then he flipped,” says Camellia’s mother. “He went back to the old traditions that he grew up with. Having a daughter was a driving force because in the Muslim tradition his honor lies in what ends up happening with his daughter.”
A Singing Career in the Making
Rossini’s “Meow!” by “The Little Singers of Paris”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Ilona, our first Web intern, posted this video on my Facebook wall with the comment: “I know you’re all dog lovers at SoF but here is some cat love for ya.” For the first minute, I thought this was one person’s attempt at some humor-filled dubbing of a concert given in Seoul, Korea in 1996. But, when the boys and the pianist cracked smiles, doubt disappeared.
Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois (also known as “The Little Singers of Paris”) is a century-old boarding school based in the outskirts of Paris. The Catholic institution admits boys from ages 9 to 15 and integrates traditional studies with arts and the humanities. A core component of the the school is social action in which they are “sensitive to people and populations in need” and “maintain the right to education, fight against discrimination and help the weak and the victims.”
Although similar in spirit to a previous video we posted of Les Freres de St Francis de la Sissies, this choir is a legit. The boys sing both sacred and popular music, often performing little-known French folk music. They tour throughout France and the world as part of their mission. I’d dig being able to hear them live.
I don’t read French, and the translations I pulled up about the school are pretty spotty. If you know more about the school’s efforts, please post a comment and share your knowledge.
Leonard Cohen in a 19th Century Vernacular
Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern
Last week I took a microphone to a “singing” that happens regularly at the University Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where a group gathers to sing four-part a cappella spirituals from a book called The Sacred Harp. We’ve had several listeners over the past few months write in to suggest producing a show about this folk singing tradition (and we have been looking for a music show). Developed in the southern United States in the late 19th century, it’s called Sacred Harp singing, after the title of its song book, and there are now groups all over the country who meet weekly to sit in a square and sing together.
The sound clip here is of the University of Minnesota Student Singing last week. Each singing begins with an hour of song, followed by brief announcements and a short break, then another hour of song. Any of the participants can propose a song, stand in the middle of the hollow square (the name for the square sitting formation), and direct the rhythm. There is no official leader. The first thing you’ll hear on this recording is preparation for the song: a woman announces the number, 455. You can hear silence as people find the page. A bus goes by outside. Then they begin to tune, deciding where the pitch of the song should be. They raise the pitch. They sing the first chord together, then the whole song once through on the syllables fa, sol, la, mi. Then, finally, they sing the song once through on the words, “I want a sober mind, an all sustaining eye.” After the song is over the next song is proposed, and they begin again (though, as you’ll hear, there is no rule against a joke in between).
I am fascinated by this tradition, in part because of its unusual musical notation, which you can see in the image above. More deeply moving, however, is the enthusiasm these songs inspire in the singers and the communities that grow up around the songs. Small groups are proliferating all over the country. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association lists singings in 35 states. From Hoboken, Georgia, where there is a group of singers (mostly family, mostly Baptist) who have been singing together for so long that they don’t know how long, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the singing takes place above a bar, people in many parts of the United States are finding connections across the hollow square.
I am moved by the joy and kindness these people demonstrate to each other, and I am excited about one woman’s project to arrange Leonard Cohen for her Sacred Harp group. Maybe there, some day, we’ll find our music show.
Meredith Monk and Ann Hamilton Ascend at the Walker
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
It is possible that Meredith Monk is not entirely of this world, but I am very glad that she is visiting us on earth. She and the visual artist Ann Hamilton have collaborated to create a riveting and beautiful performance at the Walker Art Center entitled “Songs of Ascension,” which opens tonight and runs through Saturday.
I was able to attend the dress rehearsal last night, curious to know whether this might be a show for us, and indeed the haunting vocal acrobatics and evocative use of film create a compelling sensation of the soul in movment — I would say, “spiritual propulsion,” if it made any sense.