I’ve had a wonderfully musical year this year. First there was the searching and yearning for a choir to join.
Then there was finding it, but not being able to join, but going to listen to colleagues’ bands.
Then there was meeting a fellow music lover with similar tastes (i.e. We both like singing!)- She knows lots of stuff, and I know very little, but neither of us ever seems to get bored with waffling on and comparing notes (Ha!) on our favourite things, so it works out pretty well. And we're going to do the Cantigas this spring.
Then there was joining the Coro Entredós, and having a perfectly lovely time, despite my limited Spanish - which is improving, no question about it. I did three of the four winter concerts, which were very enjoyable, and also gave more scope to get to know people individually on journeys to and from venues, and as we all relaxed after each concert.
Then, as I went bouncing about, happy because I was in a choir, and our Cantiga buddy did the same, for the self-same reason, we began to discover the other singers and musicians among colleagues and students, and discoverwhat rocks their boats. So we don't always talk shop in the staffroom. It had to be possible......
And then there was including Spanish carols – villancicos -in our carols-and-mulled-wine-and-mince-pies Christmas sing-song and inviting neighbours and students. Between flu, and flights, not everyone made it, but we had a lot of fun singing favourite carols, and trying to get our mouths around the unfamiliar foreign ones: The Twelve Days of Christmas? Hacía Belén va una burra, rin, rin?
For me, researching villancicos has added a whole new dimension to Christmas here, as I’ve almost-learnt Spanish carols, and read Christmas stories and Latin-American carols, from my gran libro de Navidad. (Yes of course it’s a children’s book!) I canvassed some of my students – adults and children – for the most popular carols, then Googled lyrics and sat with my dictionary to find out what they actually meant. I sang along to compilation CDs to try and get up to speed. And I mean speed! They do like tongue-twister choruses. (Habibi has not left home. Heroic.)
Spanish villancicos aren’t just not-in-English – they have a distinct aesthetic, a much more human – less awe-filled – focus, and a definite preference for waltz time alternating with lively 6/8 (6/12? 17/42?!) rather than good old English 4/4. They also have an entertainingly flexible approach to content and form: if there’s a particularly catchy chorus, or verse, or musical sequence, it pops up all over the place. The songs are fixed, and everyone knows them as well as I know Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, but several are more musical patchwork than whole cloth. This is a good chorus to know:
que el Rey de los Cielos
ha nacido ya.
And this might come in handy too:
Venid, venid, pastorcillos,
venid, venid a adorar
al Rey de los Cielos
que ha nacido ya.
It’s good: once you’ve learnt a few villancicos, the chances are that you’ll be able to join in with gusto on at least some of any new one you come across! For the record, my favourites so far are Los peces en el río; Campana sobre campana; Fum, fum, fum; and Hacía Belén va una burra, rin, rin – which I hope to be able to sing the chorus of by Christmas 2010….
The music goes on. We joined a group of Irish, Spanish and English people singing carols for charity in Calle Preciados a couple of Sundays before Christmas – mostly well-known American Christmas songs, rather than carols – with Feliz Navidad and Los Peces en el río for a bit of balance. Fun, in a my-throat-can’t-take-much-more-of-this sort of way!
In the weekend before Christmas, choir members did their own concerts and went to each other’s. We went to hear Coro Gaudeamus do Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols at the Prado two Sundays ago; and we’re going to hear Coro Valdeluz in the final Christmas concert next Sunday. And we’re going to see Sweeney Todd, in Spanish, at the Teatro Español.
We’ve got it on DVD. We’ve watched it in English. Next, I’m going to watch it in Spanish with English subtitles, then Spanish, and then, go see the live show. But I shan’t sing along. Promise.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
My romance with the music of North Africa began some twenty years or so ago, when I first heard a recording by Toumani Diabate, the Malian kora player (and prince, according to the blurb on the cassette I bought). I was enchanted.
I don’t know what led me to his music, though back then I was listening to Ry Cooder, Peter Gabriel, and Paul Simon’s Graceland album which featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo - and hearing about World Music and the WOMAD festival for the first time.
Tie this in with my discovery, in the late 70s, of Ethiopian – Byzantine - religious icons which I loved for their colour and strength of line, in such contrast to the western meek-and-mild iconography I'd grown up with. (Where did I come across them? How? Pre-Internet, I don’t know. Could it have been through……… the public library service and ……..books?!......) Until then, Ethiopia - like most of Africa -was only associated in my mind with famine and destitution. One more country in a tragic continent. As I've since discovered, the Ethiopia of Lalibela and the Byzantine rock churches, and the other ancient kingdoms and cultures of North Africa were as rich and splendid as those of the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas of Central and South America. Some elements have survived - those carved out of rock - and the musical traditions.
And in the textiles and handicrafts. Art at grassroots level. As a summer season waitress at Heathrow Airport in 1980, I used to spend my breaks in Terminal 4 watching the parade of gorgeous traditional robes and headdresses as passengers from long-haul flights from Africa and Asia came through Arrivals. What a contrast to western mass-produced business suits, yoof-black and denim, all practical, sensible, self-effacing, and dull, dull, dull. I had a taste for something more colourful, less urban, and less mass-produced than the clothes - and music - of my own culture.
I grew up with BBC Radio 2 in the background: middle-of-the-road easy listening, Terry Wogan and established pop rather than chart hits. Then there was my parents’ record collection – show tunes, Mozart, Dvorak, Latin American and ballroom. On the whole, I preferred these to the chart hits of my teens.
Then I started going out with a really talented guitarist, who spent hours coaxing all sorts of music out of his acoustic guitar, and also played lead guitar in an R&B band. (This isn't them.)
For me, R&B – of the Muddy Waters & B.B. King variety – is feel-good music, and it’s meant to be live: bars and clubs with tables crowded in the sweaty, noisy, half-gloom, within nudging distance of the band, where you can rock and stomp, and watch their faces and fingers, and listen to that sound – almost as much a part of the music as the band playing it.
And when did I last go to anything like this? Er……..
But I love live music, and, in recordings, I love the kind of music where I can hear instruments and voices. What grabs me is the sense of people making music, of it being live, I suppose. Perhaps the way I listen to music is akin to the way I watch a film, or read a novel: I get right in there.
Until this year, I’d only listened to Toumani Diabate, and the late Ali Farka Touré; but through the magic of Limewire, I’ve traced the musicians and singers that they’ve recorded with, and the musicians and singers that they’ve recorded with, in something closer to Ariadne’s web than Odysseus’s wanderings. Limewire’s also great for following up on people featured in film soundtracks – and here the African connection leads from the Matthew MacConnaughey / Penelope Cruz Sahara, and from Babel to all sorts of people and music. Papa Wemba. Brenda Fassie. Ismaël Lo. Myriam Makeba. Oumou Sangare. Angelique Kidjo. And Habibi bought me the Putumayo Women of Africa album for Christmas. I’m a fan of Putumayo: people like me get to hear people they won’t have heard on the radio - yet; and fabulously talented people get the recognition they deserve, and access to a wider market without having to remodel themselves on Barbie or 50Pence, record in English, or go Lounge. It’s a good thing!