Category Archives: Creativity

Apollonian v. Dionysian Music Experience

January 28th, 2016

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The other day, while listening to KCRW’s weekday program, Morning Becomes Eclectic, I was listening to a new Coldplay song called “Major Minus”, a big and absorbing musical tapestry that you can get lost in. I also thought about the film premiere of the Electric Daisy Carnival on Hollywood Boulevard the other night, where Kaskade and Jason Bentley were deejaying and the crowd went over the edge.  Several people got hurt but most had a great time.

Then I saw a picture taken the other day at the El Rey performance of the punk rockers Pink Eyes, where the lead singer was handing the microphone over to an ecstatic fan held aloft  in the mosh pit.

It occurred to me that all three musical items, the Coldplay song, the Pink Eyes show, The Electric Daisy Carnival were modern day versions of the Dionysian concept from Greek mythology that was revived by Nietzsche’s book The Birth of Tragedy.

Let me explain: According to Greek mythology, both Dionysus and Apollo are songs of the über god Zeus. Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, and intoxication. Dance.  Body. Music.

Apollo is cerebral: the god of the sun, reason, and dreams. Head music. Music to meditate or levitate by.

I listen to a lot of classical music and jazz. Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Coltrane, Miles Davis. Also tropical latin music by Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Celia Cruz, and others. I like dancing to Latin music, but have to remember various steps and combinations moves. And as listeners to my KCRW shows know, I love the Brazilians too: Jobim, Dori Caymmi, Gal Costa, and many others.

I guess my preferences run more to the Apollonian. I sit in my living room, enjoy a glass of wine, and focus my listening on these artists regularly. I sit still in the sweet spot, focus on the music, and absorb the beauty.

The Electric Daisy Carnival, Kaskade, electronic music, the Coldplay song, raves, mosh pits are a collective flight into ecstasy, where people happily leave their normal senses behind and become engulfed in music. Ecstasy, after all, means “out of body”. It can and does get wild. That’s the essence of the Dionysian experience.

Apollonian involves stillness and thinking. Dionysian involves movement, dancing, individual and collective trance and ecstasy. The later sufi works of John Coltrane are a combination of both—works like A Love Supreme and Ascension seek closer union with the Divine. Ditto for works of the late qawwali (qawwali=sufi music from Pakistan) singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

I guess I enjoy both musical experiences, but my musical lifestyle tends to be more Apollonian than Dionysian. Which one defines your musical preference?

toms

Tom Schnabel, M.A.

Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Blogs for Rhythm Planet
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons
www.tomschnabel.com

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Six Great Music Educators

November 12th, 2015

A good music teacher can infuse inspiration and instill a lifelong love of music. I couldn’t relate at all to my super straight, rigid piano teacher when I was seven or eight, plus there was simply no great music to be had in the Schnabel household, save for the 45 rpm 7″ R&B sides my older brother brought home. So I stopped taking lessons. I resumed piano lessons in the late 1960s but lost inspiration.

I bought a cheap flute in a pawn shop near USC where I was in school and had several teachers, but none worked out. One was classical only so I couldn’t relate. Another teacher later on just wanted to get high and blow. The next one left town. Four years ago, however, I found a great teacher, a multi-reed player who has taught me a lot and I’ve studied with him ever since.

So, here is my humble tribute to honor six great teachers who not only taught well but inspired many great musicians onto greatness:

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979):
Nadia

Based in Paris and living a long and productive life, she taught such a wide range of young musicians: classic titans such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, but also young turks like Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, and Astor Piazzolla, who studied with her and once told me “she taught me how to be Astor Piazzolla”. She also was a fine conductor, leading the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic Orchestras. She taught the basics to musicians and composers who were puzzled at first because they thought this was beneath their talents. Philip Glass told me that Boulanger told him to “play a C scale for the next week, and perfectly”. Her students came to realize that she knew what she was talking about.

Walter Dyett (1901-1969):
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Many prominent jazz musicians I’ve interviewed credit this Chicago Public Schools music educator as starting their careers as musicians. His name was Walter Dyett, and they called him Captain Walter Dyett. He taught at DuSable High School, where he was known for being a strict disciplinarian but, more importantly, he encouraged his students to open their ears and minds to all kinds of music. Like other great teachers, he was a great motivator. He also helped students find private instructors at low cost. Among his students were Gene Ammons, Johnny Hartman, Milt Hinton, Richard Davis, Bo Diddley, Wilbur Ware, Pat Patrick, and Oscar Brashear. Quite a stable of greats, indeed.

Gerald Wilson (1918-2014):
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Gerald Wilson was a jazz trumpeter and band leader, arranger, composer, host and teacher. He took over arranging duties for the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, replacing Sy Oliver when just out of his teens in 1939. He also arranged for Nancy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and many other top jazz stars.

He was host of an informative jazz radio show on KBCA in the early 1970s at 12 noon every weekday, and I listened and learned from him. He became the most popular teacher at Cal State Northridge, later duplicating this feat at UCLA. He taught thousands of students about jazz music and history, and mentored countless young musicians during his long career. He had a mind and memory like a steel trap, and could remember the set list of a Dunbar Hotel show on Central Avenue in the 1940s. He taught and inspired so many musicians who rose through his ranks and played in his orchestras: Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy, Oscar Brashear, and many others. I would always attend his Pilgrimage Theater (now John Anson Ford Theater ) show back in the day. He lived a long and productive life teaching, arranging and conducting for Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, Lorez Alexandria, and others. He was truly one of my heroes. I helped arrange Mayor Garcetti’s tribute to him and presented a plaque and commendation to him at the Angel City Jazz Festival in September, 2014. He died just two days later at the ripe old age of 96.

Samuel Browne (1906-1991):
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This great teacher and mentor taught many great jazz musicians during his long tenure at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles from 1936-1961, and a who’s who of great jazz musicians have sung his praises: Dexter Gordon, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Wardell Gray, Hampton Hawes, Frank Morgan, Chico Hamilton, Buddy Collette, Charles Mingus and Horace Tapscott are just a few who got there chops and careers together at Jefferson High during his long tenure. Browne would scout around LA during Central Avenue’s heyday during the 1940s and early 1950′s recruiting talent from other local schools for his crack jazz orchestra. Everybody gave him the honorific title “Count” Browne à la Count Basie. Browne was one of only three black high school teachers in the LAUSD when he was hired at Jefferson in 1936, after earning a master’s degree in music from USC.

Joe Allard (1910-1991):
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Joe Allard is probably the least-known of this sextet of music educators, but ask any professional saxophonist and you’ll hear plenty about him. Based in New York City, where he taught at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, he also taught at Boston’s New England Conservatory. He played sax and clarinet for the NBC Symphony Orchestra as well as doing radio and TV shows. HIs importance came not only in teaching technique but also in the range of styles he taught. Among his students were Michael Brecker, Eddie Daniels, Dave Liebman, Bob Berg, Eric Dolphy, and Dave Tofani. Again, a who’s who of great reed players were inspired by him.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990):
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Perhaps the greatest polymath of all, Bernstein did so many things well, and was obviously at home in both musicals (Westside Story, Candide, etc), the New York, Philharmonic, and jazz. He was a prolific writer and speaker (The Unanswered Question / The Harvard Lectures), and a champion of the new music of Charles Ives as well as Mahler’s great symphonies. His series Young People’s Concerts / Jazz in the Concert Hall brought jazz, classical, and music education to thousands of people young and old. Here is an excerpt where he is teaching the difference between classical music and jazz.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.

toms

Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Blogs for Rhythm Planet
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons
www.tomschnabel.com

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Top Mindfulness in School Resources

October 2nd, 2015

It’s a new school year and I’m excited about all of the momentum building to support mindfulness in schools at all ages. Here is a shortlist of favorite resources and programs available now to foster social-emotional intelligence, resilience and overall wellness in school communities.

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Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom
By Patricia A. Jennings

I’ve been following Tish’s work for years and never ceases to inspire with her heart for real learning and mind for good research. Want to stay current on what’s happening in mindfulness? Follow Tish. Want to start the new year in support of mindfulness in your child’s classroom? Give their teachers this book.

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Wisdom Within
By Alison Morgan

For my son’s 4th birthday, this was the party favor. Great for young children and old, this book issues a powerful reminder of the power of listening to and trusting our inner guidance. A wonderful addition to pre-k and elementary classrooms.

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Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids and their Parents
By Eline Snel

My son’s teachers had this book on display during their mindfulness month at pre-school. I found it simple, refreshing and practical. This book will give you lots of solid ideas to integrate mindfulness in your after school hours.

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Mindful Schools

For teachers ready to take the plunge deeper into the world and practices of mindfulness, Mindful Schools offers online and in-person courses for adults to learn mindfulness and use it with youth. This program is comprehensive and supported by quality research. Let your teachers know this is a possibility for them!

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Shanti Generation’s Partner Yoga for Teens ONLINE

With our new streaming service, Partner Yoga for Teens is now online for teachers to access resources designed to complement and bolster mindful practice in the classroom. Our first set of online content, Partner Yoga for Teens, is available for educational licensing to schools to integrate into existing mindfulness programs, or to begin to plant the seeds of mindfulness.

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Mindful Life Skills for the Classroom

Stay tuned for Shanti Generation’s NEW mindfulness program that offers teachers a myriad of practical, simple ways of integrating mindfulness into every day. We have chosen the best and simplest of what works in mindfulness for youth and tailored the practices to meet the needs of the classroom. We are putting the finishing touches on the project now.

Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We will let you know as soon as it is available and we’ll send you a Mindful Educator’s Toolkit including video and audio segments you can use now.

Abby Wills

Abby Wills, MA, E-RYT

Shanti Generation, Co-Founder, Program Director

Abby brings her passion for developmental education and deep respect for the tradition of yoga to her work guiding youth and teachers in contemplative arts. Abby’s approach is informed by studies in social justice and democratic education at Pacific Oaks College, as well as two decades of training in yoga.

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The Otherworldly Voice of Soeur Marie Keyrouz

July 09, 2015

Soeur Marie Keyrouz
Soeur Marie Keyrouz

You may remember Nuns Who Rock. I featured the big 1963 hit “Dominique,” sung by Soeur Sourire or ‘The Singing Nun,’ and then the Sicilian nun-rocker, Sister Cristina Scuccia.

Now I’d like to spotlight a nun of another order: Soeur (or Sister) Marie Keyrouz, who has recorded numerous albums over the years with her Ensemble de la Paix (Ensemble of Peace). Based now in Paris, she has yet to appear in Los Angeles, and I don’t know that she’s ever performed in the U.S. I tried to bring her group to Los Angeles back when I worked for the L.A. Philharmonic, thinking that the Walt Disney Concert Hall would be an ideal venue, but unfortunately, the cost of doing so was prohibitive.

Cantiques de l’Orient, 1996.
Cantiques de l’Orient, 1996.

Soeur Marie Keyrouz was born in 1963 in Deir el Ahmar, Lebanon. She relocated to Paris and received her doctorate from the Sorbonne in both musicology and anthropology. She belongs to the Congrégation des Soeurs Basiliennes Chouerites and is president of the National Institute of Sacred Music in Paris.

She sings hymns from the Lebanese Maronite Christian church, as well as sacred songs and chants from the Greek, Syriac, and Arabic liturgies. In her crystal clear soprano voice, Soeur Marie Keyrouz embellishes her song with exhortatory ululations and other Arabic touches. I find her music to be utterly mesmerizing, even levitational. The term, ‘otherworldly,’ would not be overstating it.

Start with Soeur Marie Keyrouz’s glorious Cantiques de l’Orient.

Hers is a version of “Ave Maria” unlike any you’ve ever heard before.

toms

Tom Schnabel, M.A.

Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Blogs for Rhythm Planet
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons
www.tomschnabel.com

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Time Traveling with Music

February 26th, 2015

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In just the past couple of weeks, here at ACEI, we have been suddenly blessed by a flow of credentials from individuals with degrees in music. Holders of these degrees are from all corners of the world and studied at conservatories and universities from Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Italy, South Korea, to Canada. They are all seeking teaching positions at various high schools and colleges throughout the U.S. Coincidence? Perhaps, but a very happy and encouraging one to know that music education in this country is alive and highly talented and qualified individuals will be teaching our young people.

Having just watched the film “Whiplash,” the story of a promising young drummer as a first year jazz student at a prestigious and cutthroat music conservatory and his abusive and demanding teacher, I was reminded of my early childhood experience with learning the piano. The actor J.K. Simmons who plays the role of the teacher in “Whiplash,” won this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a much-deserved award, though his character’s personality is nothing like my former piano teacher, Suzi.

I was seven when I first met Suzi. She was twenty-five. A recent graduate of the Vienna Conservatory, the daughter of upper middleclass Armenian parents living in Tehran, Suzi was a virtuoso. She could have been a concert pianist performing around the world, yet for reasons unbeknownst to me, she had chosen to return to Iran, move in with her parents and teach piano to children of privileged Iranian families.

Finding me a piano teacher had been my mother’s idea. After seeing “The Sound of Music,” I had pestered my mother that I wished to learn a musical instrument and the piano was my number one choice. She had surprised me with news of fulfilling my wish by picking me up from school one chilly afternoon in Autumn and taking me directly to Suzi’s house. She met us at the entrance to her house that like most Iranian homes was hidden behind high walls and a large iron gate. Tall and rail thin with pale skin and light green eyes, she struck me as a ghostly figure emerging through the plume of her cigarette smoke. A far cry from Julie Andrews’s timid Maria of The Sound of Music, Suzi commanded a regal presence in her designer tailored dusty rose suit with pumps displaying the famous Chanel logo and the short single strand of pearls adorning her swanlike neck.

We followed her through the inner courtyard carpeted with yellow, russet and orange leaves, past the decorative shallow pool empty of water but a few layers of leaves. She led us to the house, a two story building its façade bathed in pale yellow offset by white shutters and two white pillars standing on each side of the front door looking like sentries guarding the inner sanctum. Suzi’s music room, or the “studio” as she called it, was on the ground floor as was her apartment. Her parents lived on the second floor.

As we parted with our coats in the marbled foyer, we trailed Suzi down the hallway carpeted with a well-worn Persian runner, past large oil paintings of landscapes mounted on cream-colored walls. The faint sound of classical music I had heard earlier in the foyer got louder and louder as we neared what I assumed to have been her studio. It was the most sublime piano music I had ever heard. “It’s Chopin…nocturne,” Suzi whispered as though our natural voices would somehow disturb the pianist on the recording. “Someday you will be playing these very pieces, my dear,” she said to me, her tone sincere and filled with optimism of my abilities, though until that day, I had neither played nor touched the keys on a piano.

Her studio was spacious with French windows opening to the courtyard. A pot bellied stove had been lit heating up the room. A full-length Persian rug with rust and creamy white floral design covered the entire marbled floor. A partially drawn sliding glass door separated the studio from another that remained dark but I was able to make out the silhouette of a black grand piano. It stood alone in the center of the room like a king holding court with the low hanging chandelier as its crown.

Bookshelves and framed oil paintings of pastoral landscapes hung on the walls. Perched atop the mantle and squeezed between books on the shelves and coffee table were small statues of men’s heads. Stacked against one wall was a collection of LPs, displaying covers of recordings by symphonic orchestras.

Two upright pianos rested side-by-side against one wall. “Perfect for duets,” Suzi said, sensing my curiosity and invited me to look around while she and my mother sat on the sofa to talk. I jumped at the invitation and headed toward the framed photographs on the wall and on the pianos. They were mostly of Suzi sitting behind a piano or standing next to one on a stage with various people. In some photos she was dressed elegantly in an evening gown and in others she looked as she did on that day. Framed documents in an unfamiliar language adorned with gold seals and red ribbons covered another portion of the wall above the upright piano. The language wasn’t English but used the English alphabet. I was able to make out the word Vienna and Konservatorium, and of course, Suzi’s name. Graduation diplomas, I concluded. Little did I know then that thirteen years later I would be examining and evaluating diplomas like Suzi’s at a company based in the U.S.

My snooping was cut short by Suzi inviting me to join her on bench in front of the piano where we sat side-by-side. I breathed in her perfume and stared at the empty pages of an open book with lines unlike any notebook I had seen before. “This is going to be our sheet music. You’ll be learning a new language that will help you play beautiful music.”

Still curious at the objects around me, I pointed at two busts atop the piano. “Who are those?” I asked.

“The one on the left is Schubert, and that one on the right is Ludwig von Beethoven,” she replied. “Soon you play their pieces,” she added with confidence. “Here’s a little taste of Chopin, it’s one of his Nocturnes.”

I didn’t know what a nocturne was but as soon as her long fingers touched the keys, the room was filled with the sound of music so glorious unlike anything I’d heard in my short seven years of existence. Suzi may have seemed fragile and almost frail on the outside, but the music that was emanating from the piano was powerful, yet intensely graceful and melodic evoking so much emotional sentiment that I found my skin tingling with goose bumps. So overcome I was by its sheer beauty that I fought hard to hold back tears as she played.

Patiently, Suzi began the instruction and over time, I had not only learned to read musical notes but played them with confidence. By the time I was ten, Beethoven’s sonatas, Mozart’s piano concertos, Tchaikovsky’s mazurkas were my go-to pieces of music. I continued with my piano lessons at Charters Towers School (CTS), the boarding school I attended for the next six years in England. At CTS, not only did I take lessons, I also prepared for exams with the Royal School of Music and participated in competitions playing solos and duets. I fared well and won a few awards and collected certificates. But it was during those brief visits to Iran for the Christmas or summer holidays when I’d resume my lessons with Suzi, that I felt a oneness with the piano. At Suzi’s I was able to enjoy playing the piano for the sheer love of the composers and their creations; free of the drudgery of competitions and pursuit of awards.

It was at one of the lessons with Suzi during a summer holiday that she introduced me to a collection of Chopin’s nocturnes. “Let’s start with this piece,” she said, turning open a page from a book bearing a portrait of Chopin on its cover. I had just turned 13. I must have balked at the sight of the open page in front of me filled with a complex line-up of notes. “I’ll play a few bars and then it’s your turn.” As soon as she began to play, I was overcome by a sense of déjà vu. She was playing the very piece I had heard six years earlier when my mother and I had first stepped into her studio…the same piece she had played for me on that first day. Suzi had promised me that one day I too would be playing Chopin and she had kept her promise.

I was sixteen when I last saw Suzi. I was heading to America to study but had plans to return for the long summer holidays. Unbeknownst to both of us, our lesson in summer of ’78 was to going to be our last. “Find yourself a piano at the university and practice, practice, practice!” These were Suzi’s last words.

At the University of San Diego, I did find a piano and after graduation bought a piano and continued to play. To date, the piano is my go-to instrument to unwind, relax and create. I still play the classics but I’ve learned to improvise and free form. On occasion, I’m invited to play with a talented group of friends in their music studio. No sheet music, no notes, just stream of consciousness creating and performing.

Thanks to Suzi, my dream of learning the piano had come true. Had I not pestered my mother to find me a teacher after seeing the film “The Sound of Music,” I may never had the musical experience that is part of my life even today. I wonder if I would have felt the same had I seen the film “Whiplash.”

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Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert is the President and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute (ACEI), an international credential evaluation company, based in Los Angeles, CA. She is a leading expert on world education systems, and is also writing her memoire “Cinema Iran,” offering a glimpse into pre-Islamic Republic Iran as seen through the eyes of a young girl. This blog includes excerpts from a chapter in her memoire entitled “Tehran Nocturnes.”

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Rubén Blades’ “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés”

February 12th, 2015

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Grammy Award-winning Rubén Blades is a wonderfully gifted Panamanian poet and songwriter whose works often take on a political tinge. Raised in a progressive family, his grand-uncle was a revolutionary during the Cuban War of Independence against Spain. His mother was an actress, his father a musician, and the girls in his family attended college. Ruben himself studied international law at Harvard on a full scholarship.

I knew Rubén back when he lived in Santa Monica. I once had him over for my mother’s famous bolognese spaghetti, along with his wife and an architect friend, Bob Ramirez, who designed my home.

Rubén’s Grammy Award last week for Tangos and the recent news about Pope Francis’ declaration of the slain Archbishop Óscar Romero’s martyrdom brought to mind a tribute he wrote back in 1984 titled “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés” (“Father Antonio and His Altar Boy Andrés”) from the album Buscando America. The song was performed by his great then-band Seis del Solar, fronted by Oscar Hernández (who now leads the Spanish Harlem Orchestra).

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Ruben Blades posted this selfie on February 3, 2015, along with a letter to Monsignor Romero.

Archbishop Romero, like Pope Francis, championed the rights and struggles of the poor in Latin America. He was a proponent of liberation theology, an interpretation of the Scripture that dictates working actively toward social and political justice by aligning oneself with the less fortunate, like Jesus did. The Archbishop publicly opposed El Salvador’s right-wing government and its brutal military repression at the very onset of the country’s 1980–92 civil war and was consequently assassinated at the altar for his convictions, by order of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista founder. A formal apology was finally issued for his murder by the El Salvadorian government as late as 2010.

Rubén wrote “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés” during the time of the civil wars in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, the Reagan administration and the Iran-Contra affair. Former President Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Ed Meese, et al were in support of El Salvador’s military dictatorship, working to oust leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Buscando America has always been one of my favorite albums of Rubén Blades. And now 35 years later, thanks to Pope Francis, Archbishop Oscar Romero is one step closer to sainthood, bringing closure to “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés.” Have a look at the lyrics translated below.

“El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés”

“Father Antonio Tejeira came from Spain
Searching for new promises in this land
He went to the jungle without any hope of becoming a bishop
And in spite of the heat and the mosquitoes he talked about Christ.
The priest didn’t go to the Vatican
Among papers and air conditioned dreams
So he went to a small town in the middle of nowhere to give his weekly sermon
For those in search of salvation.
Andrés Eloy Pérez is 10-years-old
He attends Simon Bolivar Elementary School.
He still cannot recite the Holy Scripture properly
He loves the river, playing soccer, and playing hooky.
He’s been given the task of altar boy at the church
With the hope that this connection will “fix him.”
And his family is very proud because they also believe
That once you have one connected to God, by default you are connected to Him as well.
Bells are tolling, one, two, three
For Father Antonio and his altar boy, Andrés
Bells are tolling again, oh, oh, oh
For Father Antonio and his altar boy, Andrés, Andrés
Father condemns violence.
He knows by experience that is not a solution.
He speaks to them of love and justice
The news of God shining through a sermon.War found the Father one Sunday, in Mass,
Handing out communion with his sleeves rolled up.
The killer came in halfway through the Lord’s Prayer,
and without confessing his guilt, fired at him. Antonio fell, Host in hand, not knowing why
And Andrés died at his side, without ever meeting Pelé.
Between the screams and the astonishment,
There in agony, was the wooden Christ nailed against the wall.
No one ever knew who the criminal was
Who killed Father Antonio and his altar boy Andrés.
But the bells still ring, one, two, three
For Father Antonio and his altar boy, Andrés.
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Tinariwen, The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer

November 13th, 2014

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Tinariwen’s Emmaar (2014)

Tinariwen, The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer sounds like a gruesome scene from the Kel Tamashek uprising of 1963 in northern Mali that saw the death of messianic Tinarwen frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s parents when he was a small boy. But in fact, it’s actually the group’s playbill for the North America tour for their latest album, Emmaar.

When The Harpoonist (Shawn Hall) and the Axe Murderer (Matt Rogers) walked onstage last weekend at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex to open for Tinariwen, not many people knew who these two guys from Vancouver were. The duo’s name apparently references the blues harp(oon) from a line in country music singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson’s hit, “Me and Bobby McGee”: “I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana.” “Harp” being slang for the harmonica (Shawn Hall); “axe” is a common term for the guitar (Matthew Rogers). These two bust out the sounds of a full live blues and roots band playing their respective instruments while stomping and tapping out beats with both pairs of feet on kick drum, snare, foot tambourine, and shaker. (Check out the video at the end of this post to see them in action.) It’s no wonder why Tinariwen booked this Vancouver duo as the opening set for their entire North American tour.

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The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer

Perhaps it’s that DIY nature with which Saharan ‘desert blues’ band Tinariwen feels some kinship. As the story goes, Tinariwen was founded in 1979 by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib while he, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, and Alhassane Ag Touhami were scraping by in the Algerian refugee camp of Tamanrasset. The following year, they answered Muammar el-Quaddafi’s call to create a Saharan regiment of Tuareg fighters and received infantry training while performing their soulful dirges and finding fans amongst other sympathizers seeking to establish a single independent Tuareg republic. Their anthemic music became “the soundtrack for Tuareg independence and reconciliation,” spread via bootleg cassette tapes by their Kel Tamashek fans who began to call them “Kel Tinariwen,” derived from the word ténéré, which means ‘of the deserts.’

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Tinariwen founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib

After the Tamanrasset Accords of 1991, Tinariwen left the military to fully devote themselves to music. Ibrahim says, “I had long ago realized that I was a musician and poet, and that these were better weapons with which to achieve what I wanted.” Performing their songs in mostly minor keys with static harmonies, like “Tahalamot,“ guitarist Abdallah layers consistent modal rhythms over a signature bass key, painting a vast ever-changing desert landscape.

Tinariwen’s blues sound is one of ‘assouf,’ expressing a deep loneliness and eternal yearning. Due to the political instability of Mali, they remain nomads, unable to return to their native homeland for risk of incarceration or worse. Now a multi-generational collective of musicians and songwriters, their timeless music sings of exile, struggle, and division, but also of “the beauty of the desert, the sky, the lands, our blues, and the nostalgia of an old time.”

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Exiled from their native Mali, Tinariwen recorded their latest album, Emaar in Joshua Tree, CA.

Raised on North African protest music, Berber traditions, and raï music, Tinariwen were exposed in the military camps to the Western sounds of Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, and the “guitar-driven anthems of Jimi Hendrix and the American blues.” Also hugely influential was Malian bluesman Ali Farka Touré, who reinterpreted native kora and djéli (griot) music for electric guitar, creating a sound reminiscent of the Mississippi delta blues. Most African slaves brought over to the U.S. were originally from the Sahel region and kept the musical, cultural, and spiritual traditions of their native homelands, which would pave the way for the early twentieth century American blues tradition.

Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche says, “I’m told that a lot of the Africans who went to North America came from West Africa, from our part of the world. So it’s all the same connection. I think that any people who have lived through something that is very hard, feel this [assouf], this pain, this longing. That is what will make [our] music sound similar to each other.”

Tinariwen perform “Islegh Taghram Tifhaman” from their album, Emmaar.

The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer perform “Love Me ‘fore Ya Leave Me.”

Tom Schnabel, M.A.

toms

Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Blogs for Rhythm Planet
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons
www.tomschnabel.com

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