Saturday, April 17, 2010

Political Music: When They Don't Know Or Understand What They're Singing About!

As irritating as actors like Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson can be when they mouth off about political issues they don’t understand, I think musicians and singers are even worse. That’s because they can shove any ignorant messages they want to into their songs and then immediately record them. Actors have to wait for the right film or play to come along that reflects their views and sometimes that never happens.

I was reminded of this while listening to a new Starbucks CD entitled World Is India, a compilation featuring Indian music spanning the last 45 years or so, including tracks from Ravi Shankar, R. D. Burman and Asha Bhosle. But it was a song, "Mother India," from a group I didn’t know named Fun-Da-Mental that caught my attention. The disc’s liner notes indicate that the group is a highly politicized (read left-wing) England-based group which was created to address the issues surrounding the Asian communities in Britain. "Mother India," which was recorded in 1995, is supposed to be a paean to the strong Indian women behind the country’s great men, so imagine my surprise when I overheard a reference to Palestine and on closer listen heard the group praise "Leila Khaled, freedom fighter of Palestine."

How an Arab terrorist who was involved in two major airline hijackings, fortunately without any attendant loss of innocent life (but not for lack of trying), finds her way into a song about India is odd. However, upon further research I discovered that the group, which is led by Aki Nawas, who is Muslim, takes many of its cues from the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam and has released albums with tasty titles such as Why America Will Go To Hell and All Is War (The Benefits of G-Had). They’ve also compared Osama Bin Laden to Che Guevara, which makes sense only if you recognize that the two men are both terrorists and not the heroes Fun-Da-Mental makes them out to be.

Friday, April 16, 2010


As a way to celebrate our 100th blog on Critics at Large, we've assembled samples of some of our favourite pieces over the last few months:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Books: Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir

Many years ago, when I was trying to come up with a good idea for a novel, I hit upon the notion of setting a murder mystery in Nazi Germany before or during the war - I don't quite remember which. I thought of having the hero work as a private detective in Berlin. I mentioned this idea to a friend of mine who said, "Oh, you mean like Omar Sharif in Night of the Generals?"

Yeah, uh, just like that. I dropped the idea, but Philip Kerr didn't. He went on to write an acclaimed series of novels about Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin cop who worked as a private investigator in Nazi Germany. The novels, now numbering six that go under the broader title of Berlin Noir, are set before or after the war, but not during. Now, I have no illusions that if I'd stuck with the idea that I'd ever come up with anything nearly as fantastic as Kerr has. His six books do many things well. First, they are well-structured murder/political mysteries, they’re exceptional character pieces, and third (and probably most importantly), his series of books has given me a far greater understanding of everyday life in Nazi Germany than most histories I've read. None of the books shy away from the rampant anti-Semitism of the time. In fact, in the early books, Gunther's clients are frequently Jewish asking him to look into the disappearance of a loved one. A Quiet Flame, the fifth book, even raises many disquieting questions regarding Argentina's anti-Jewish policies after the war.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lo-Fi Love: Really the Blues? A Blues History Compiled by Allen Lowe: Volume One (1893-1929)

In the case of this extensive history of the blues, the first of 4 volumes, the whole is definitely the sum of the parts. Allen Lowe, who compiled the set of 9 CDS, has carefully articulated the larger musical picture of blues by assembling spirituals, folk songs and jazz tunes that have been identified as blues-based compositions be the artist white or black. The sound of these old, lo-fi, monophonic 78s and cylinder recordings is as clean and clear as I’ve ever heard from a major label. But getting past the sound fidelity is the whole point here because it’s the music, the voices and the spirit of real performances that has been effectively captured. The remarkable musical and historical journey on disc is aided by Lowe’s companion essay on a CD-ROM. Highlights include “Viola Lee Blues” by Cannon’s Jug Stompers and “Crucifixion” by pianist, Arizona Dranes. The set also includes inspired performances by Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Johnny Dodds and Lonnie Johnson. These artists are mixed into a collection that includes early Minstrelsy, Appalachian Folk songs, Gospel and New Orleans Street bands.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sounds of Yearning: Coachella Music Festival

Before “Kandi” captivated me a few months ago, I had never heard of One EskimO, British indie-rockers who’ve been on the scene for six years. The four-minute song is a cut from their eponymous 2009 album woven around a much older number by Candi Staton that’s actually titled “He Called Me Baby.” My affection for the tune includes what I’ve since learned about her life story: From an Alabama farming family, as a child she picked cotton and sang in church before forming a gospel group with a sister in the 1950s. A decade later, her genre was soul, followed by disco in the mid-1970s and eventually what’s now known as Christian music. Along the way, there were about two dozen albums, four husbands (some of them abusive), five children and a bout with alcoholism.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Listen to the Lion: Greil Marcus's When That Rough God Goes Riding

When That Rough God Goes Riding, the new book by critic Greil Marcus (Mystery Train, The Shape of Things to Come) opens a lot of doors. It does so by going through the process of randomly dipping into the fascinating and turbulent music of singer/songwriter Van Morrison. Marcus isn't writing a biography here of this perplexing pop figure; nor is he setting out to draw a chronological study of his many albums, from the masterpieces (Astral Weeks), the vastly underrated (Veedon Fleece), the deeply satisfying (Saint Dominic’s Preview, Into the Music), or the failures (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Poetic Champions Compose); this book instead is about articulating how listening to Van Morrison is a rich and complex experience.

Morrison began life in East Belfast forming one of the hardest rock groups in the sixties called Them. Their hit song “Gloria” was a blast of teenage lust that left The Rolling Stones sounding mannered by comparison. His solo career, which began with the conventional 1967 pop hit “Brown Eyed-Girl,” turned mystical in the seventies where within his best music you could hear Morrison speaking in tongues and conjuring the foreboding voices of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and John Lee Hooker, as if he were inviting these ghosts to a poker game where they could all happily collect their winnings.

When That Rough God Goes Riding (named after the kick-off track for his sublimely unsettling 1997 CD The Healing Game) isn't trying to make any one point about Van Morrison’s music, rather Marcus takes us inside the meaning of Morrison's singular voice, a voice that can reveal unspoken truths when he sings. Therefore, there’s no summation of Morrison’s career, a career that’s both satisfying and desultory. Marcus delves instead inside the grooves of songs, albums and lost tracks, in order to map out what he calls a quest for “moments of disruption, when effects can seem to have no cause, when the sense of an unrepeatable event is present, when what is taking place in a song seems to go beyond the limits of respectable speech.” Marcus’s own writing in When That Rough God Goes Riding also goes beyond the respectable speech of conventional criticism and reveals the hidden impulses and pleasures that great artists call up in a critic who is drawn to their work.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

David's Punk Poem Send-Off: R.I.P Malcolm McLaren

"NOOOOO Future.....NOOOOO future......NOOOO Future FOR YOU!"

-- Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen.

Malcolm McLaren dead.
Dead as a dodo.
Pining for the fjords,
Left this mortal coil.