Standing at the crossroads: From historical to technological

Alan Lomax - Popular Songbook
Alan Lomax – Popular Songbook
Alan Lomax – Popular Songbook (Rounder Select, 2003)

Oriental Garden (vol. 2) (Soul Star Records)
Compiled & mixed by Gulbahar Kultur

Musically speaking, the last century brought us a variety of technological advances including everything from recording devices, tape manufacturing and digital technology. The infamous and now legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax who began collecting field recordings of what is now called Americana as well as, preserving several European traditions experienced these technological
advances, first hand. According to the liner notes that accompany Alan Lomax’s Popular Songbook released on Rounder Records, “Throughout his career, Alan employed the most-up-to-date technologies in the task of diversifying the cultural content of our communication network. He anticipated new developments, and, as they emerged, he had purpose for them as conduits for voices of the world’s diverse peoples–singing, dancing, talking and telling us their dreams.”

Alan’s first encounter with new technology occurred in 1933, when his father John Lomax was given a cylinder recording machine. Before that time, folk tunes were transcribed with paper and pencil, leaving out the nuances of an audio medium. As the years rolled on this technology was replaced by various tape formats and then eventually, the digital format of today.

Musical genres evolved as well. Bluegrass developed into country western, blues into jazz and rock music, but even more important, many of Alan Lomax’s field recordings of folk, blues, blue grass and other genres were crucial to the evolution of popular music. For instance, popular artists such as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Cash and Nat King Cole just to name a handful were inspired by or covered songs that appeared on Lomax’s field recordings. Alternative pop artist Moby infused the earthy recordings of blues singer Vera Hall’s Trouble So Hard, Willie Jones and Joe Lee Rock as well as, Bessie Jone’s Sometimes with electronically enhanced music.

The 22 tracks that appear on the Popular Songbook fall mostly into the American blues genre. However, folk singer Woody Guthrie (Do Re Mi and Going Down the Road Feeling Bad), the Spanish Alborada De Vigo, the calypso standard, Ugly Woman and Caribbean folk song, The Histe Up John B.’s Sail (Sloop John B) are also featured on this disc. The recordings although recently digitally enhanced, sound a bit scratchy with voices fading in and out at time. I see this as a symbolic reminder as we rush forward into a technological future that in my opinion lacks soul power of the historical recordings.

Alan Lomax embraced rock n’ roll in a statement from 1959, “I’m sticking up for rock and roll because even though some of it is destructive and crude, it is essentially a creative American impulse. It’s made by young people for young people. It’s a rebellion against the puritan ethic which has decreed from the beginning of our society that Americans are not allowed to have pleasure.”

However, Lomax has proven like most of us to be a complex individual. And he wasn’t too pleased when American folk singer Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric-driven folk rock in the early 1960’s. And even though Lomax has embraced computer technology, especially as a tool for researching and analyzing musical origins (cantometrics) and his interactive media project, The Global
, he didn’t care much for mechanical beats.

In his Urban Strain study with Roswell Rudd, “Alan was concerned about the potentially dangerous effect of mechanized, metronomic beat–a beat that doesn’t breathe like a human being…He felt that essentially human qualities of music were at risk.” In a conversation between Alan and Roswell, Alan remarked, “I believe the principal difference is that the music that they are
trying to imitate is genuine dance music, and in Africa that means that the orchestration is playing with dancers…it’s the dancer that supplies the extra excitement. So the dancer is really in command of the music—the music is background for the dancer. But in this disco stuff, the whole thing has been
reversed, the music is in command of the dancer

This remark took place during the 1980’s and both men noted that more music was being produced with repeating loops and driven by mechanical clocks. Not much has changed over the years with the exception of a few sensitive DJs that breathe some human qualities into this mechanical setting. However, a trend has developed that has taken music once held sacred from varying traditions from
India, North Africa and other parts of the world and given those sacred songs electronic beats. And mostly to market this music to popular taste or to take the sacred and to a mundane dance club atmosphere. Perhaps this is why world electronic groove music disturbs me so much. My soul spits it out and if someone were to lock me in a room and forced me to listen to mechanical beats for 8
hours, they would have to remove me with a straitjacket. Due to the fact that I am shamanic my body circuitry is overly sensitive and the older I get the less I can tolerate synthetic beats, especially in regard to music from spiritual practices. And this does include synthesized new age music as well. Why not listen to the real thing instead?

Oriental Garden (the world of oriental grooves), a 2 CD set featuring some of the world’s hottest artists, sets off alarms in my head and heart. Granted some exquisite musicianship and vocals appear on the discs and a few tracks are undeniably gorgeous including Kostas Pavlidis’s Spread Your Wings and
Souad Massi
‘s Ghir Enta. I enjoy hearing glimpses of exotic instruments such as the sitar appear alongside other Silk Road instrumentation, but all of this is tarnished with thumping bass and mechanical beats. What I am sure was thoughtful creativity on the DJ’s part to me sounds like the type of music one would encounter in a shopping mall. It’s the kind of music that lulls listeners
into a trance so that they find themselves standing at a cash register purchasing an item against their best wishes. It’s pop wearing the guise of world music.

Now I am unsure of the origins of the tracks that appear on Oriental Garden. Many of them carry a spiritual aura, but they could have easily originated from Arabic pop or alternate folk traditions. I have searched the web and found little written about the tracks on this compilation. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Indian ragas and music derived from the Sufi tradition appear somewhere on this collection. Without proper liner notes, I have little knowledge to make this assessment. And of course I recognize a few of the artists as coming from the world groove or dance genre including
Khaled, Natacha Atlas and hosts of DJs that appear here.

It’s not so much the musical fusion that bothers me, but the fact that in some cases, sacred music has been taken out of context and given over to a commercial mentality. Some artists recognize the sacredness of the music they perform and enhance the sacredness with electronic instruments. The Sami yoiker Wimme is a musician that comes to mind, but his music derives from his own cultural and
spiritual tradition. And I am sure there are other artists that fit this bill and who truly honor their cultural traditions. But adjectives such as sacred, shamanic and tribal have been tossed about for marketing purposes when the people using these words probably unaware of the power behind an authentic spiritual experience. At least Oriental Garden doesn’t outwardly make that claim. However, a poem by the premier Sufi mystic Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi is printed on the CD jacket and this compilation has little in common with the mystic poet, unless people connect to God by dancing to mechanical beats.

There are people who will tell me that nothing is sacred any longer, but I would disagree. Sacred music still resonates with me and I wish that others would respect the sanctity of this music. Also I wasn’t born during the digital age, but in the analog age so I realize that I must practice tolerance to those music audiences who were literally spoon fed digital music during this sped up technological era in which we find ourselves immersed. And by coming from a different mindset, perhaps younger generations encounter the sacred on the dance floor. I have no way of knowing otherwise. Perhaps this is a new way of expressing spiritual intentions, but I kind of doubt that since dance clubs also
feature the consumption of alcohol and other stimulants. Even when a shaman goes into a trance, he or she is consciously aware of both their body and soul.

However, I still believe that we must stay aware of our motives when purchasing, promoting and listening to music. Does it really feed our souls or our wallets? Are we listening to it only because the media considers it to be hip or are we really embracing the music for the sake of music? Is this music a passing trend or will it completely obliterate the music that came before?

As we stand at the crossroads of our musical past and musical future we need to open our eyes and take a hard look at where we are heading? Our souls are at stake and are easily given to the lowest bidder. And when sacred music is fused electronic heartbeats it’s like building a large structure in front of a majestic forest. There might be a party going on in the new structure, but ultimately the sacred can only be met in the original forest setting. And if we choose to decline the call of the sacred we are left with nothing but empty vessels we call bodies.

Buy Popular Songbook and
Oriental Garden, Vol. 2