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Poetry & Music: Haiti’s Infatuation

Wooly St Louis Jean
Wooly St Louis Jean

Haitian musicians have recently been seriously focused on making music out of poetry. It is an interesting practice that has produced countless gems, such as the albums of Wooly St Louis Jean and Tamara Suffren.

In 1570, during the French Renaissance, a well known French poet Jean-Antoine de Baif founded the “Academie de musique et de poesie” along with composer Joachim Thibault de Courville. They aimed to combine music and poetry in order to revive the Roman and Greek practice of putting poetry to music, amongst other things, and for some time put on infamous concerts attended by the high society of the time. Combining music and poetry either for theater or for non-theatrical song had been prevalent in both ancient Greece and in ancient Rome but the middle ages had put an end to the vitality of the practice.

Chorus from The Bacchai

Euripides (480-406 B.C.)

Where is the home for me?
O Cyprus, set in the sea,
Aphrodite’s home in the soft sea-foam,
Would I lend to thee;
Where in the wings of the Lovers are furled,
And faint the heart of the world!
Ay, or to Paphos’ isle,
Where the rainless meadows smile
With riches rolled from the hundred-fold
Mouths of the far-off Nile,
Streaming beneath the waves
To the roots of the seaward caves!

Jean Antoine de Baif’s would not be the only time in European history that poets would be interested in working with musicians and vice verso. By the 20th century, ancient Rome and Greece were again through infamous collaborations such as Jean Cocteau and Edith Piaf’s and Leo Ferre and Aragon’s.

The Europeans were not the only ones doing it this time and in the nations of the Americas, colonies and former colonies, turning poetry and to song came to be practiced. A song like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very popular example of the practice. In Haiti, artists of upper class and middle class backgrounds also aspired to turn poetry into music. The very first successful version of this was “Choucoune” a poem by Oswald Durand written in 1893 composed into a song by Micheal Morton. It is still very well known in Haiti and was copied by Harry Belafonte as the song “Yellow Bird.” It was originally about a woman named Marie Noel Belizaire whose eyes “shone like candle light.” The practice continued on with classic interpretations of one of Haitian poet Emile Roumer’s poems “Marabout de mon coeur”, or ‘Marabout (a dark skin woman with very long hair found in the north of Haiti probably of Senegalese descent) of my heart’ and other lesser known songs.

In the 21st century, the practice of putting poetry to music continues in Haiti as it also does in Europe. The poet is are most put to song is Syto Cave. The internationally known Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot is a major advocate of turning poetry into music and many of his poems have been composed into music. A singer Wooly St Louis Jean has made an entire career out of turning poetry into music. Tamara Suffren, an incredible singer, has also done the same, though she does not call her music “poetry turned into music” unlike Wooly St Louis Jean. The combination has produced songs that explore imagery and language as only poetry really ever does. Their songs are beloved and though most are not popular, some crossover and become radio hits feeding the weak polity that Haiti is and its agora of cynicism with humanity and profound beauty.

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Hathor: Ancient Egypt’s Goddess of Music

Depiction of Hathor (left)
Depiction of Hathor (left)

Understanding Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess of music, is understanding how one of human kinds most fascinating civilization’s thought of music’s relationship to life. Understanding Hathor can help us judge what aspects of life we associate music with.

The Egyptian civilization of the very long Egyptian antiquities is one of the most thrilling in human history. To this day, fascinates millions if not billions and Egyptian pyramids are visited by large numbers of tourists whereas neighboring Sudan’s Meroe pyramids are not as well known. What’s mind boggling about the civilization of the Egyptian antiquities is many of its practices and concepts it found their way into both European (Athens), are the heart of carnival culture, and also into West African civilization and thus into American life. Examples of this are many. Barack Obama’s father was a Luo, belonged to the Luo ethnic group in East Kenya, an ethnic group who are direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, and so the President of the United States today is direct descendant of ancient Egyptians.

Music played a central role in the life of ancient Egyptians and the goddess, or the idealization, of music was Hathor. She was one of the ancient Egypt’s most popular goddesses. According to brittanica.com, the Greeks equated Hathor with Aprhodite. She was also a goddess of fertility, of women, of mirth, of fertility, of beauty, and of love. The Oxford Dictionary of Ancient Egypt adds happiness to the list. She was also a goddess associated with mining and in particular with Turquoise. She was represented as a woman with cow horns or as a cow, obviously to signify giving life. She was considered to be the daughter of Re, the sun, and her cult centre was in Dandarah, of which ruins exist today. She was celebrated side by side with Horus, the god of both power and healing symbolized as a falcon.

The following epitaph is a translation of an song used to praise Hathor. It is from the book Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion by Claas Jouco Bleeker, a Dutch historian of Egyptian religion.

We laud thee with delightful songs

For though art the mistress of jubilation

The mistress of music, the queen of harp playing,

The lady of dance,

The mistress of chorus dance, the queen of wreath-weaving

How do our own conceptions of music compare to Hathor traits? We each conceive of music in different ways but all or most seem to agree on some of its uses. We agree that it dances us and that it makes us happy. Mirth, or amusement, s certainly a reason why we listen to music.

Some societies do equate music with fertility and do celebrate music when celebrating power of healing (Hathor is celebrated alongside Horus.) Not all do however and there is a lot of sobriety silence in contemporary life. Very little music is composed to celebrate fertility in some areas in the world though in other areas the practice is prevalent. Do we equate music with beauty? We do, but the art elites seem to equate it more with paintings. Beauty seems to be fixed or affixed to as opposed to in movement. However, most people would equate a beautiful time with participating in beautiful dance to a beautiful song.

There is a certain sobriety that comes with gems and with the contemplation of a cow that is unlike celebrating Hathor. A cow today would mean prosperity through work and very little of us globally sing work songs wen compared to how we sang them one or two centuries ago.

Its hard not to agree with the ancient Egyptian’s definition of music through their god or shall we say theology of music. Music is certainly the grand way to celebrate and seems to be agreed upon by all of our senses as communing with beauty, life, mirth and happiness. May it continue to be the case, and may we compose and perform a few more fertility songs and work songs

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Kinshasa: a Musical City & The Pictures Jean Depara Took

Like Dakar, Bamako, or Nairobi, Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is one Africa’s great cities for music and has been for some time. Some would argue that Kinshasa has eclipsed the other cities in terms of producing music that has dominated all of subsaharan Africa. It is debatable. One photographer Jean Depara spent an entire lifetime participating and photographing Kinshasa’s night life and urbanity, leaving behind him brilliant photographs that illustrate the gourmand consumption of Congolese rumba in Kinsasha and the world of emotions that propelled the rise of the musical powerhouse soukous.

Jean Depara was born in Angola but made a name for his self as a photographer in DRC. He focused Kinshasa’s nightlife from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, when he became an official parliamentary reporter in 1975. At the heyday of Depara’s career, around the time and right after “Les Independances” or when African nation states became independent, the great name in DRCongolese music was Franco. Franco, short for Francois Luambo Makiadi, like many other African musicians, was first well known for playing in an orchestra that fused Afro Latin American and African rhythms, OK Jazz.

Cuban rhythms were especially beloved in many African cities and it was the case in at first the Belgian Congo and then in the many names that the DRC has gone by where a Congolese rumba was developed. Franco not only played a terrific guitar but was also an incredible vocalist. He was the king of songs that hid messages and often political messages. OK Jazz would go on to develop into TPOK Jazz and become one of the country’s major figures in the soukous movement and dominate the music of subsaharan Africa in general. It would soon be globally recognized.

In 1954, Depara became Franco’s official photographer. He was granted access to the life that fed Franco’s music. TOPK Jazz’s only real rival was Grand Kalle et L’African Jazz who were well known for the phenomenal “Independance cha cha cha,” though Zaiko Langa Langa and Tabu Ley Rochereau were as well known on the music scene though not as well loved. They all thrilled Kinsasha. In addition to Franco’s TPOK Jazz and its rivals, there were many other groups. DRCongolese groups were the major acts of subsaharan African music of the time both in terms of popularity and critical acclaim.

Depara’s subjects were often under strain though it does not seem to be the case. As Latin-African fusion and eventually soukous made their way into DRCongolese hearts, DRCongo’s politics began to know its highs and lows. The much loved Prime minister Patrice Lumumba was violently followed by Kasavubu and then violently by the dictator Mobutu Sese Soko in 1965 until 1997.

By the beginning of Mobutu’s reigns, DRCongo’s great orchestra and Kinshasa’s nightlife were already in existence. With Mobutu came a time of general absurdity that included both harsh dictatorship but also a campaign of authenticity and of pride in one’s own history. The DRCongolese people, for some time renamed Zaire by Mobutu, lived to the rhythm of daily national life imposed by Mobutu Sese Soko as much as they did to Soukous and their other musical rhythms. The people of Kinshasa’s continuing to attend nightclubs and their living along to DRCongolese’s many musical rhythms created the sort of life that fed soukous and the songs of Franco.

Jean Depara captured the emotion in Kinshasa’s living that came from cultural glory and from political doubt; the living that fed music’s brilliance and perpetuity.

headline photo: Congolese rumba master Franco – Photo by Jean Depara

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Kingston’s Summer of ’66

In the history of Jamaican music, there is a before and an after the summer of 1966. Jamaican history had always been both turbulent and productive because of its social movements and polarized politics but this time it was hot weather that would go on to make universal cultural history by creating the demand for in Jamaica for rocksteady and reggae.

Jamaica is a pretty small island and were it not for the explosive character of its cultural innovations would be considered as such. However, history has placed the island’s society and cultural history at the center of global interest and its especially the case for the music that it produces.

Even before reggae, Jamaicans produced the internationally acclaimed ska (as just one of their indigenous music genres.) Ska came into being during the 1950’s of commercial radio, hotels and the advent of nightclubs and of Jamaica’s sound systems and slowly exploded into global significance. At the time, mento and ska were the indigenous musical genres that dominated in Jamaica.

During the summer of 1966, both ska and mento’s popularity came to a halt. Kingston experienced a massive heat wave and the demand for ska dancing immediately went down. The demand for ska had previously enlarged with the migration of many young Jamaicans to Kingston, the island’s capital. Suddenly, these youngsters needed a new music to dance along to and to meet this new demand rocksteady’s popularity was born.

Rocksteady had much less instrumentals than ska and much more vocals. The drums and the bass were slowed down and arrangement was much less stressed. It was a crooner’s music and its songs told tales. It was immigration music at first and was created by the interaction of a Trinidadian in Kingston, Lynn Taitt, and the Jamaicans that he played along with. It was sort of a slow calypso turned Jamaican. Its name was coined from a song by Alton Ellis named “Rock Steady.” It was also born at the same time as commercial soul music was thriving so it was profoundly influenced by soul music. Musicians like Roy Shirley, The Maytals and The Heptones became the new dancehall pleasers.

The Maytals - Never Grow Old
The Maytals – Never Grow Old

Rocksteady’s popularity would only last until 1968, when reggae overtook it. By then, Kingston had changed into a city with many more slums and “dreadlocks”, to quote the Jamaican anthropologist Barry Chevannes, or rastafarians who fashioned themselves like mau-mau fighters by wearing dreadlocks, living in them.

The rastafarians had danced to rocksteady but with “dreadlocks” ideology came the need for a change in “sound” that matched their new ideologies.

Rastafarians had typically stayed out of politics and been a rural movement. It was no more the case. From rocksteady, reggae was produced to be less slick and as a much more raw expression. It was not yet purely political as it would get with Max Romeo’s classic album War Ina Babylon but it was different.

What’s important to note, however, that reggae became popular in large part because of the heatwave of 1966, which had brought along popularity for the new music rocksteady. Without the heatwave, there would have been much less of a receptiveness for either Max Romeo or Bob Marley.

Headline photo: Lynn Taitt

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Azel

In 2007, several Tuareg groups rebelled in Niger and in Mali. It was the not the very first instance of Tuareg rebellion in Niger and in Mali and the same had happened and belongs to a history of Tuareg rebellion in the region. The Tuareg are an ambitious people forever in search of a new political reality and the project can only influence their cultural ambitions.

Tuaregs produce many great musicians and one of them is Bombino. Bombino’s most recent album Azel, released on Partisan Records on April 1, is an album abundant in beautiful guitar playing. The fact that Bombino sings as he plays the guitar makes this an album that will be partially misunderstood by any English speaker, unless if the songs’ Tamasheq (Tuareg language) lyrics are translated. However, it is possible to be fully invested in this album without understanding the lyrics.

 

Bombino - Azel width=

 

The album’s abundance of guitar playing is the most striking part of the whole affair and delivers an incredible experience for the listener. The word abundance is generally used to denote a very large quantity of something in a positive way; an abundance of anything alludes to an amount of wealth.

Abundance can get very close to being saturation and is a balancing act if being purposely produced. In music, when it’s good, an abundance of anything is celebrated by most. Minimalism is often applauded by professional critics but never as popular as rhythmic, melodic, harmonic abundance, or the abundance of a single instruments participation in a song. It’s hard to pull off however and can become very annoying.

 

 

An economy of instrument playing is easier to pull off. In the societies of less developed countries, a song’s abundance can make heroes of out certain musicians: an abundance of chords or poetry in a song’s lyrics can momentarily change day to day morbidity or hardship or affirm one’s existence.

This album is not what is expected from Tuareg music and it’s clear that Bombino did not want this album to be. Bombino combines American idioms with African string playing. He does this with erudition and by never once seeming not confident in his aesthetic.

Azel is an album to listen to attentively.

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Micheal Manley & Max Romeo: The Songs Politics Produced

Mr Big trembling in his shoes saying he’s got a lot to lose,

Don’t want to hear about suffering at all

(Joshua said)

One man have too many, while too many have too little,

Socialism don’t stand for that, don’t stand for that at all

The stanza above belongs to the song “Socialism is Love” by Max Romeo. It was a single composed to galvanize Jamaica into adhering to Micheal Manley’s politics. It is one of many great songs that span the relationship between a two-time Jamaican president and a legendary Jamaican musician.

“Socialism Is Love” was released in 1974. It is a very clear song and its lyrics are straight to the point. It is as political as a song can get and feels like it is pushing an ideology more so than offering melody, harmony or rhythm to a listener. It sounds like populist politicking.

Jamaica in the 1970’s had bred strong political opinions that stemmed from plantation society reinforced by an adherence to the political ideologies that were in vogue, whether it was the traditional right wing or communism or socialism. Members of its society were born into a conflict that had begun way before their birth and that continue on to this day – how to administrate the island and how its riches should be separated. It was a time of strong opinions and as such a very dangerous time. One was either on the socialist side, the PNP, or the liberal side, the JLP.

Jamaica in the 1970’s was, as a society that had bred strong political opinions, one of strong political alliances. Max Romeo and Micheal Manley’s friendship was such an alliance: a vow to change a nation marketed as beach and Sun but full of oppression through the potent combination of music and politics. Each would gain something from the other. One would win office, the other cultural grandeur. How could they have met? It is not specified.

Maxwell Livingston Smith, Max Romeo, was not born into Jamaica’s landed class whereas Micheal Manley was. Manley’s father Norman Manley became the president of Jamaica whereas Max Romeo worked on a sugar plantation when he was young.

Max Romeo came to record a song “Let The Power Fall on I” for Micheal Manley’s victorious 1972 presidential campaign. Manley used a whole host of Rastafari cultural signs to persuade the demos and Romeo’s song belonged to his campaign’s communication scheme.

Oh let the power fall on I, Far I

Let the power fall on I

Oh let the power, from Zion, fall on I

Let the power fall on I

Oh let the wicked burn in flames, Far I

Let the wicked burn in flames

“Joshua Row The Boat Ashore,” “No Joshua No, ”and “Joshua Gwan” were further recorded by Max Romeo to plead Manley’s cause. Manley was known as “Joshua” by Jamaica’s populace.

Max Romeo’s political music went beyond supporting Manley. His other great songs seem to be all better than the ones he made for Manley, but it is undeniable that the ones he produced for Manley are superb. Propaganda? The relationship between music and politics goes a long way back and Jamaican politics is no exception to the rule. They sound like propaganda and the lyrics seem flat because they are. However, it is obvious that they worked given that Manley won the 1972 Jamaican presidential race.

The songs that stemmed from Manley and Romeo’s political alliance, one becomes President and the other bard of the socialist revolution, are testaments of a time past and are all engaging. The collection of them merits a serious listen.

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the green and gold: an incredible song of Jamaican diaspora

It’s always hard to know exactly what a musician means by a song at first listen, unless if the musician in question has explained the song. Sometimes even the musician has no idea what the song means exactly. Also, to use a quote of Jean Paul Sartre’s about literature, a song’s meaning becomes the listener’s own and not the musician’s when it is heard. Great songwriters seem to be great at offering ambiguity, letting a listener interpret a song, and also being direct about the song’s subject and being topical.

Lianne LaHavas’s song “Green & Gold,” on her most recent album Blood, is a narrative hymn to her love for Jamaica and because it is both not traditional about the sound of loving a homeland (does not use quintessential Jamaican rhythm) and direct by using the words green and gold to invoke the Jamaican flag all the while using lyrics that allow for enjoyable ambiguity has the components of a great song. It is one of the most remarkable songs of diaspora in general and Jamaican diaspora in particular in recent years.

I’m looking at a life unfold
Dreaming of the green and gold
Just like the ancient stone
Every sunrise I know
Those eyes you gave to me
That let me see
Where I come from

LaHavas’s song details a young woman’s relationship in hymn to her mother’s homeland: mythical Jamaica. It is an honest song and therein lies the value of its lyrics: it explains a passionate relationship honestly and with erudition. For example, it is honest about a woman’s questions about self (staring at my nose / in the mirror.) The words flag or country are not used and this lets the narrator’s humanity seep through and allows for this song to be a love song to any listener. Rhythmically, it burns both slowly and well.

Lianne LaHavas - Blood
Lianne LaHavas – Blood

It is not the very first Jamaican diaspora song; even Bob Marley belonged to the Jamaican diaspora in England for some time. Diaspora songs generally make it to commercial radio as pop songs. This song is art pop. Ever so often a musician claims two homelands and it thrills for a second but the song is never really an art pop song about being from there but not living there.

Diaspora is a condition shared by millions if not billions of humans and is very much a part of the traditional human condition. LaHavas’s treating the subject is a sign of her art’s maturity and her understanding of human society and human history – the pop narrative that I am rooted in something similar to my neighbor is not the truth. On the contrary, singing each other’s truth is what will lead us to understanding our habitat and communing with it beautifully through music.

The album in its totality is a solid album. “Green & Gold” is the album’s most significant song because of its audacity of being truthful and human. It is not it’s most popular though and that’s alright. It’s a song to make a note of however as the rhythm or melody of human melody – that once upon a time a little girl in wealthy country was introduced to her mother’s less wealthy homeland and from her mother’s homeland found a sense of self strong enough to become song.

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Manno, the Accomplished Political Troubadour

Manno Charlemagne is one of Haiti’s greatest singers. His albums are all gems of Haitian culture rooted in informed political expression – in place – but open to the world; both wise and beautiful.

In 1957, Francois Duvalier became president of Haiti. In 1963, he proclaimed himself president for life. With his second presidency came an eventual complete control of Haitian space and life. This included music. No music could publicly go against his self-declared ‘revolution’. Duvalier’s complete control of Haitian space and life was not new. It was a Neo-colonial, not in the racial sense but in an administrative sense.

St-Domingue, colonial Haiti, was typically led by a military leader. He established political, social, and cultural ‘order’. That control led to the banning of some african dances and musical practices in order to establish order. Toussaint Louverture, not the liberator of Haiti but the person who established the first instance of national (a ‘black’ nation that wanted to end slavery) independence, without territorial independence, (I.E. Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s Haiti is a project that goes past black independence) also banned certain musical practices by banning the use of drums. Alexandre Petion, the first Haitian president, banned the African choir, a choir that is present in Vodou as the Hounsi choir. And so on and so forth.

Not only did Duvalier stop others from singing, but he also introduced his own propaganda through song.

“duvalier..

duvalier..

duvalier..

president a vie..”

(duvalier ..

duvalier ..

duvalier ..

president for life ..”)

“yon nonm konsa

chita chita l

na p enmedel ..

(a guy like that

is sitting comfortably

and u’re bothering him..”)

“mache pran yo duvalier

mache pran yo ..

(get them duvalier

get them ..”)

se le nwa se le nwa

tout tan ou la

neg new toujou o pouvwa ..

(“it’s the black the black

as long as you are here

black humans will always be in power ..”)

Starting with his first album Manno et Marco, Manno brought back sung political sentiment to Haitian space and to political life.  He’s released 5 albums so far.

Manno Charlemagne began his career during Jean Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship, at great personal peril. Songs such as “Pouki”, written by internationally renown Haitian writer Lyonel Toruillot, ask burning political questions like why things are not separated 50 / 50 and that Haiti is a forest and has lions and tigers told and still tell of Haitian life.

Manno’s music is much more than just political. It’s beautiful. It’s easy to hear Manno’s aesthetic in Italian madrigals and in west African griot song, in terms of the depth of the artistic intent. His aesthetic is very close to the latin american Nueva Trova without being it. It is a product of the terroir all the while looking out to the world.

It’s important to note that Manno is not a Prometheus however, though he was the first of his era to sing political troubadour songs. Haitians, immigrating back to Haiti, brought back the guaracha from Cuba and founded the contemporary Haitian Troubadour tradition. He belongs to the tradition. But, he surely brought politics and intellect to a form of music that normally sang romances like no one else.

Manno Charlemagne, the political troubadour, has accomplished.

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Fama denke: An old Malian song

“Fama Denke” is a traditional Malian song to make a note of.

One of the joys of traditional Malian music is that its corpus is a repertoire that spans thousands and thousands of years; some songs let us into the psychologies and mentalities of humans living in historical conditions that we cannot fathom who first composed these songs. The fact that the song continues to be sung is the icing on the cake. Not only are we let into ancestral psychologies and the mentalities but we along with others enjoy being let in. Some old songs are just incredibly beautiful however obscure their lyrics may feel. One such song is “Fama Denke.” Malian heavyweight Ballake Sissoko, amongst many other greats, has interpreted it on his album Tomora. “Fama Denke” translates to “Son of the King.” It is a song that reminds a fallen Prince to keep his composure despite having to face capital punishment because of his betraying his father in 1898, as West African Kingdoms had all fallen into the hands of colonial powers.

Ballake Sissoko - Tomora
Ballake Sissoko – Tomora

The prince in question’s name is not fully agreed upon. Some say that his name was Diaoulé Karamoko and others say that it was Djale-Karamorgho. What’s agreed on is that he was the son of Almamy Samory Toure, who belongs to the same lineage as the Guinean ex-President Sekou Toure. Almamy Samory Toure founded a short lived Empire, the Islamic Kingdom of Wassoulou that encompassed parts of present-day Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. Samory Toure is a considered a major figure in West African political history because of his conquests. Diaoulé was sent by has father to be an Ambassador in France and when he returned, he had conceived of his own projects and began to influence the Empire’s army. He was put to death b popular verdict.

“Fama Denke” begins with a display of instrumental prowess before any of lyrics are sung. The griot then proceeds to sing what sounds like a lament but is not. The Kora playing is generally easier to fall into then the words, given how removed the lyrics are from contemporary life. It is not a universal song that speaks to average conditions and that’s what’s fascinating about it standing the test of time. It is incredibly composed and a gorgeous song more so than anything else.

There are traditional several ways to play “Fama Denke”. The most traditional “Fama Denke” is played on a Kora in Sauta tuning or Tomora Meseng tuning. Both Sauta tuning and Tomora Meseng tuning are traditional ways to tune a Kora and are used to reflect local dialects. Tomora Meseng is meant to be a thinner pitch than the Tomoraba, the oldest way to tune a Kora.

Both Sauta tuning and Tomora Meseng are Eastern Gambian tuning, though Malian players most likely brought the tuning with them during their migrations. “Fama Denke” can also be played on two balafons as a purely instrumental song. Finally, the song “Fama Denke” gave birth to the more popular song “Kana Kassi,” which translates to “Do Not Cry,” a song which much more attuned to contemporary life that is often sung as a lullaby or even as a love song.

The song Fama Denke is a great listen and a great introduction to the end of the West African 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Most of all, however, it is a beautiful composition that has stood the time because of its magnificence.

Headline photo: Ballake Sissoko

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Smt. Kalyani Varadarajan – Outstanding Carnatic Music Woman Composer of the Century

Kalyani Varadarajan
Kalyani Varadarajan

Smt. Kalyani (1926-2003), daughter of Sriman Nadadoor Ammal Narasimhachariar and Srimati Singarammal, has been one of the very few modern woman composers of Camatic music of 20th Century. She has the distinction of composing in all the 72 melakarta ragas and also in very rare/Apoorva ragas. Her father Sriman Narasimhachariar who was a teacher, Head Master and then Inspector of schools, was a distinguished poet in Telugu and Sanskrit in Andhra Region.

She had an in-born quality to compose lyrics and set them into music herself from an early age. Being brought up in family of scholars in Telugu and Sanskrit, Smt. Kalyani started her initiation in Camatic music in Veena and vocal at a very early age under her mother and sister and also under able gurus. Thereafter she learnt Violin in Madras. She started composing songs at a very early age on Lord Yoga Narasimha of Gatikakshetrarn – Solangipuram- Tamil Nadu, who was her Ishta Daivata. Her first debut in Veena concert was in AIR Madras at the age of 16.

After her marriage with Sri Varadarajan, who was then working in the Indian Army and then in Indian Railways, Smt. Kalyani shifted to Mumbai and settled there. In the year 1956 she performed in the Maharashtra Sangeeta Sammelan where she was honored with gold medal by the then Chief Minister Sri Morarji Desai. That was the time when she joined All India Radio, Mumbai by invitation in the Camatic music department (perhaps one of the first in that department). During her tenure in AIR, for about 30 years, she has accompanied a number of artists on Violin and has participated in orchestra (s).

Her quest for composing kritis in Camatic classical music in Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil was ever growing with her. She could compose with ease number of kritis in different rare ragas. Due to her rich study and knowledge in Hindustani Music and her acquaintance with great musicians like Pt. Gajaanan Rao Joshi, VV Jog and others. She was able to sing/play Hindustani ragas effortlessly. This she applied in her kritis also. She has composed a number of kritis in Hindustani ragas like Bahar, Dundubi, Bagasri, Jayajayawanti (Dwijavanti) Gowda Malhar, Jonpuri, Gurjari Todi, Madhukauns, and Chandrakauns.

Smt. Kalyani’s compositions are on different God/Goddess/Godheads in different language. Her Kaanada composition on Lord Venkateswara – ‘Saptagirisam sada Bhajeham’ is a popular kriti sung by many veteran artists of Camatic music. She has composed kriits in rare ragas like Bhavapriya, Bhavani, Yagapriya, Vijayanagari etc. She has composed on Lord Venkateshwara (Saptha Girisham in Kaanada, Maha Venkateswara in Raga Bahudari), Ranganatha of Srirangam temple (Vainatheya Vaahanam in raga Mohanam).

It is understood that she composed songs when ever and where ever she visited a temple. That was her way of admiring and expression of feelings. For instance when she had visited Yadagiri district, Jwala Narasimhan temple, she composed a kriit in the raga Kanada. Similarly when she visited Chamundeshwari temple she composed ‘Chandikeshwareem Asrayamyaham’ in the raga Abhogi. Apart from this she has composed two vamams – one tana vamam in raga Subhapanthuvarali (Pahimam Payorasi Putri) and One pada vamam in the raga Vachaspathi on Raja-rajeswari- This is a Pada vamam is more apt for the dance concert. She has composed a Thillana in the raga Bhushavali and a raga malika in rupaka tala. Her compositions are well appreciated and rendered by many musicians all over. Her works were popularized and propagated by various senior performing musicians like (late) Prof. Sh. T.R. Subramaniam, Tanjore S. Kalyanaraman, Madurai Somasundaram (Somu), S. Rajam etc.

Her compositions carry Chittaswaras, madyamakala sahitya and a careful application of grammatical aspects of Camatic music like Yati, Prasam, Samasam, Vibhakti etc. Perhaps she has followed the footsteps of Muthuswami Dikshitar in her compositions. The words incorporated in the sahitya are of very high order with appropriate usage. She used the Svanama Mudra ‘Kalyani’ or ‘Kalyani Varada’as her signature in the compositions. The mudra blends with the sahitya, as it appears.

Smt. Kalyani Varadarajan had the rare distinction of being a performing musician in three different genres and graded in Vocal, Violin and Veena and has given concerts on the AIR (All India Radio) and also on the stage. She has toured to USA and Japan etc. for concerts during the days when global travel was not all that common like the present day.

Smt. Kalyani passed away on 28th October 2003, and her memories are cherished through her compositions.

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