Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tunes: Learning to Polka

A few weeks back my teacher said I should learn a new tune, but that I should pick something other than a jig since my current repertoire leans heavily towards jigs. After considering a number of reels, I chose John Ryan's Polka, mostly because I didn't really get polkas.

I have a hard time recognizing polkas, much less playing them right. The 2/4 time signature sounds a lot like the 2/2 of a reel, especially if they're not articulated carefully. But my teacher pointed out an important difference between the reel and the Irish polka. The polka, he said, is the only type of tune in Irish music which has a backbeat, although I'm pretty sure he meant an emphasis on the half-beats rather than the second (last) beat in each measure. He told me that he played polkas "incorrectly" for ten years before someone told him about this.

Armed with this information I was able to go back and listen to track 5 of Mary Bergin's Feadóga Stáin 2 a bit more carefully and I can get a sense of what he means.

But it will be a good while before I can play polkas like she can.

Have a suggestion for a great polka recording? Leave a comment!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

WWW: Remembering a Kwela Master

Kwela is a genre of music created in South Africa in the 1950s, and characterized by an upbeat, jazzy pennywhistle lead. The name is a Zulu word for "get up," and the police vans which patrolled South African townships during the Apartheid era were slangily known as "kwela kwela vans." It seems that folks who ran illegal gambling games on the streets of the townships sometimes used kwela bands as cover or as lookouts:

Dice rattle, streetwise young voices call bets and argue, the dice stop rolling, cheers and groans as the coins are scooped up again.

Feet come running and an urgent voice calls: "E Bops, kom maak gou -- hier kom die kwela kwela van!" ("Hurry up, here comes the police van"). "Tom Hark" has been watching for police at the corner.

Dice and cash vanish, out come pennywhistles and guitars, and the gambling school becomes a kwela band (the music named after the police van) and they swing into the irresistible tune of Tom Hark. The police rumble past in their van.

Aaron "Big Voice Jack" Lerole was "discovered" by a record company scout playing his pennywhistle in the street with his brother. They recorded a record the same day which eventually sold around five million copies. Six months later he was sold into slavery by the South African police. He was beaten by the farmer who had purchased him, which permanently lowered his voice, resulting in his nickname in later life. He escaped slavery after the intervention of an activist lawyer, resumed music performance, went on to tour Europe and Africa.

The kwela scene in South Africa essentially died when Spokes Mashiyane, one of its chief exponents, took up the saxophone. The kwela sound fused with Marabi, another indigenous South African music, forming mbaqanga. But Big Voice Jack continued to play Kwela, and made a comeback of sorts in the 1990s when South African-born Dave Matthews heard him play at the Bassline Jazz club:

However, it was at The Bassline Jazz Club in Melville Johannesburg that Jack's finest moment was set in motion. Jack was playing at the club and Dave Mathews, guitarist, songwriter and singer with the internationally acclaimed Dave Mathews Band, was in the audience. Dave's saxophonist had asked him to pick up a few pennywhistles while he was visiting South Africa and Dave approached Big Voice Jack after the gig to ask him where he could find them. Big Voice Jack decided to rather give his own whistles to Mathews. "I thought that I would never play in a big stadium in America, so I wanted my whistles to be there," says Jack. "So I gave them to him."

Big Voice Jack's generosity was repaid when the Dave Mathews Band invited him to come over to the States and play two gigs with them at the Foxboro stadium in Boston and the Giants stadium in New York. This invitation from arguably the hottest rock act in America at the moment is a fitting tribute to the lasting contribution that Big Voice Jack has made to South African music, and went down a treat. Jack's gigs with the Dave Mathews Band were recorded in a documentary by South African filmmaker Johnathan Dorfman called "Back to Alexandra." The film shows Jack on stage before an 88,000 strong crowd, jiving and jamming with the band like a man half his age. He went down so well that the band even asked him to play one of his own tunes, "Back to Alexandra," a song in which Jack gives vent to his lifelong hatred for guns.

Big Voice Jack died of throat cancer in 2003. You can buy his CDs through South Africa's One World or Amazon or Stern's Music. The latter has M3U audio samples!

Thanks especially to Keith Addison for publishing much of the linked material.

Update: Here's an MP3 of Tom Hark.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

WWW: Free Irish Music Download Blog

This site has been around for some time, but it's new to me. It links MP3s posted by various bands — mostly smaller groups — and includes a short blurb about each band and information on where to buy their CDs if you like what you hear. All linked downloads are legal.

For some reason they don't link their Atom feed, but it's here if you'd like to subscribe.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Recordings: The Chieftains / Live from Dublin

This will be a somewhat unusual record review.

First things first: I like The Chieftains. They're a great band and seem to be fine people. "Live from Dublin" is a tribute to Derek Bell, their long-time harpist and all-around interesting guy. But I'm not going to buy it, because their record label, Sony, chose to include software which is not beneficial to people who legally own the CD, behaves like spyware and is dangerous to your computer.

According to Sony and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the software contains a defect which could allow malicious software to gain control over your computer. A similar piece of malware delivered on other Sony CDs in the name of copy protection was in fact exploited by virus writers.

According to Edward Felton, the software:

  1. Installs without meaningful consent or notification, even if you decline the license agreement
  2. Includes either no uninstaller or an uninstaller that fails to remove major components of the software
  3. Transmits information about you to SunnComm, the developer of the software, without notification or consent

If you already own this CD, don't put it in your computer. It is safe to put it in an audio-only CD player, however. If you have already put the CD into your computer then you may want to remove the Sony/SunnComm software from your computer. Don't use the so-called "uninstaller" included with the CD; like the uninstaller for Sony's other "content protection" system, it's as dangerous as software itself. However, the uninstaller linked on the EFF page has (at least temporarily) disappeared from SunnComm's site, and when you search SunnComm's site for an uninstaller, they try to talk you into updating the software instead. Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that the problems disclosed thus far are the only problems with the software. [Update: Well, that didn't take long. A new problem in the patched version was announced while I was typing the original version of this post!] When a record label appears to presume that their customers are criminals, why would they worry about their customer's security? Why would I want to run software on my computer which does nothing for me? The EFF is suing Sony over this.

Think this doesn't apply to you if you have a Mac? I wouldn't count on it.

Sony would like to sell me a laptop. But given that they try to install this software and other software which is even worse on computers which they don't produce, why would I trust them not to put such malware on a computer they produce themselves?

I have no reason to believe The Chieftains have anything to do with this software being on their CD. I presume, based on what I know about how the record industry works, that the decision to include it was made by the record label alone.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Practice: Hitting the High (Up) Notes

I was in Santa Fe, NM, a week ago for my brother's wedding, so while there I tried, without any luck, to find a session to sit in with. The closest thing I found was Celtic de Santa Fe, a dance school; the owner gave me the name of a local musician she knew, but by then it was Thanksgiving and I had to give up.

But I did manage to practice a little. I was playing really badly, and at first I presumed it was because I was somewhat out of practice with all the travelling that I've been doing over the past few weeks. Later on it hit me that I was close to 7000 feet (over 2000 meters) above sea level — higher than Denver by a good bit — and the air was much thinner. It didn't bother me so much when walking around the city or hiking, but I really noticed the difference while playing the whistle.

And that taught me something valuable: My breath control sucks. Or, at least, I wasn't giving it the attention it deserved.

I've thought a lot about breathing in the past, but mostly in terms of intake, how to get the air in. I've noticed that if I inhale too deeply or if I'm running out of air that the quality of the sound I get from the whistle suffers and I need to let some air out through my nose or inhale again, respectively. But when I strarted trying to pay extra attention to keeping my breath pressure consistent it really helped even out the timbre.

But what does "consistent" really mean? Obviously different pressure is required for notes in different octaves, and breath requirement changes across each octave as well. It also changes between different whistles. Rather than think too much about this I'm just trying to listen to the sounds I'm producing and aim for an even tone. This mostly works well, but I notice that I tend to over-blow when I play outside, since the whistle sounds quieter in the open air than it does in the small room where I usually practice. I have to consciously think about playing "quieter" to get it right.