Category Archives: music

Russians and Georgians in South Bend

The current issue of the NEH journal Humanities has an article about a chain of immigrants from Georgia and Russia, who have formed a vibrant and musically gifted community in South Bend, Indiana. The article is excerpted from a new book, From Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts (HarperCollins, 2008), by Joseph I. Horowitz, who received an NEH fellowship for the project. Here are a few paragraphs.

During the first half of the twentieth century—decades of war and revolution—an “intellectual migration” relocated thousands of artists and thinkers to the United States, including some of Europe’s supreme actors, dancers, composers, and filmmakers. For them, America proved to be both a strange and opportune destination. A “foreign homeland” (Thomas Mann), it would frustrate and confuse, yet afford a clarity of understanding unencumbered by native habit and bias. However inadvertently, the condition of cultural exile would promote acute inquiries into the American experience. What impact did these famous newcomers have on American culture, and how did America affect them?…

My close friends happen to include another Soviet defector: the pianist Alexander Toradze. Lexo is Georgian, born in Tblisi in 1952. His father was a leading Georgian composer. His mother was an actress. Groomed by the Soviet system, he entered Tblisi’s central music school at six and first played with orchestra at nine. He proceeded to the Moscow Conservatory at nineteen to study with Yakov Zak—then one of the great names of Russian pianism, after Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. When Zak proved unsupportive, Toradze left him—for a young Soviet artist, a bold and controversial move—for Boris Zemliansky, then Lev Naumov: intimate and intense relationships. In 1976 he was sent to compete in the Van Cliburn competition in Fort Worth and finished second. A flurry of Western dates ensued, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan soured cultural exchange with the United States. He festered. His fees were low. He felt suppressed as a Georgian. He was galled by the company of KGB “interpreters.” In 1977, he ran into Mstislav Rostropovich, a family friend, at a Paris airport. “When you go back, kiss the ground of our country,” Rostropovich told him. “But when are you going to do something?” On tour in Madrid with a Moscow orchestra in 1983, Toradze entered the American Embassy and requested refugee status. Within three months, he began a nine-city American tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic….

In 1990, he married an American girl, a fledgling pianist from Florida. In 1991, he accepted a piano professorship at Indiana University at South Bend—a place best-known for Notre Dame’s football team. Transplanted to northern Indiana, he proceeded to recreate the intense mentoring environment he had known in Moscow, as well as the communal social life he had known in Tblisi. To date, he has recruited more than seventy gifted young pianists, mainly from Russia and Georgia. They bond as a family, with Lexo the stern or soft surrogate father. They make music and party with indistinguishable relish. Lexo’s big house, on a suburban street without sidewalks, is their headquarters.

via A&L Daily

The New York Times review of the book begins, “It is hard to imagine where American culture would be today without the contributions of Hitler and Stalin …”

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Filed under migration, music, Russia, U.S., USSR

Tijuana’s Cultural Evolution, 1920-2000

From Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 171-172:

In 1920, Tijuana had been a village of eleven hundred. Eighty years later city officials could only guess the population neared two million people. There were entire neighborhoods populated by people from different Mexican states—Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Sonora, Mexico City. Yet the federal government in Mexico City kept Tijuana’s budget minuscule. So the city could neither control growth nor provide services for the newcomers. Shantytowns popped up on the ever-extending edge of town. “Cartonlandia”—Cardboardland, an awesome shantytown on the bed of the Tijuana River near the border—was almost a tourist attraction itself.

To the bureaucrats in Mexico City, and to most of Mexico, Tijuana was an ugly embarrassment, a virtually American city, and hardly Mexican at all. Government bureaucrats required extra salary to come staff federal agencies in Tijuana. In one sense, they were right. Tijuana resembled the global economy it depended on—an assault of random noises and images. “A modern-art painting” is how one Tijuanan described the city.

Yet Tijuana had a beauty that none of the country’s exquisite colonial towns possessed. Young and far from Mexico City, Tijuana was free of history and tradition. It was close to California, the wealthiest U.S. state. This created better jobs and educational opportunities in Tijuana than elsewhere in Mexico. As a crossroads, its people were open to new ideas. To Tijuana came the hardworking poor escaping the limits and decaying economies of their hometowns. Many of these folks intended to sneak into the United States; but they found lives in Tijuana and stayed.

“A more egalitarian society formed here. It’s part of what makes Baja California different,” said David Pinera, who is a professor of Tijuana history. “It was a society in the process of forming, a society in which the culture of hard work predominates and less the culture of privilege. There aren’t the closed social circles. The rich man here is someone who came from the bottom. His father didn’t give him any leg up. He was a waiter or street vendor and made it according to his own efforts.”

Thus a relatively large middle class could form. In the 1980s, banks, insurance companies, and auto dealers began to arrive to serve the middle classes. Tijuana then got its first supermarkets and shopping malls. Moreover, middle-class denizens naturally didn’t want their children exposed to strippers, shantytowns, drunk gringos, and naked-lady playing cards. They wanted music lessons, ballet, and art classes for their children. So a constituency for a more evolved city was born.

The quirky cast of characters in this chapter include:

  • Enrique Fuentes, who almost single-handedly nurtured a constituency for opera in Tijuana and who in 2001 opened an Internet cafe, El Café de la Ópera, with computers named Aida, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, and La Traviata, linked to a server named Turandot
  • Mercedes Quiñónes, who spent years in a cultural wilderness, volunteering as a choir director and supporting family as a hardware wholesaler, before finding a professional voice teacher and becoming, at age 51, Tijuana’s premier soprano when Pagliacci opened there in 2003
  • The Russian emigré musicians who during the 1990s formed Baja California’s first state orchestra, then its first state music conservatory, teaching a new generation of Mexican music students

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Filed under art, Mexico, music, U.S.

Authentic Mexican American Narcocorrido Polka

From True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2001), pp. 11-12:

His name was Chalino Sánchez. His singing career lasted just four years and he was killed when he was only thirty-one, yet he’s one of the most influential musical figures to emerge from Los Angeles or from Mexican music in decades. “When we were small, we always wanted to fit in, so we’d listen to rap. The other kids were all listening to rap, so I guess we felt that if we listened to Spanish music, we’d be beaners or something,” says Rodriguez. “But after Chalino died, everybody started listening to corridos. People want to feel more Mexican.”Six years after his death, Chalino Sanchez is a legend, an authentic folk hero. L.A.’s Mexican music scene and Mexican youth style were one way before Chalino Sanchez. They were another after him. After Chalino, guys whose second language was an English-accented Spanish could pump tuba- and accordion-based polkas out their car stereos at maximum volume and pretty girls would think they were cool.

Chalino renewed the Mexican corrido. In the Mexican badlands, where the barrel of a gun makes the law, for generations dating back to the mid-1800s the corrido recounted the worst, best, and bloodiest exploits of men. Corridos were the newspaper for an illiterate people in the days before telephones and television. Corrido heroes were revolutionaries and bandits—people who had done something worth singing about.

In Chalino’s hands, the corrido came to reflect the modern world. The corrido became the narcocorrido, the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap, with themes of drugs, violence, and police perfidy and an abiding admiration for the exploits of drug smugglers. And because of Chalino, Los Angeles, an American city, is now a center of redefinition for the most Mexican of musical idioms. Chalino democratized the genre, made it modern and American, and opened it to the masses. In Los Angeles almost anyone can have a corrido about him written, recorded, and sold. “In L.A., without exaggeration, 50 percent of the [Mexican] music that’s recorded here is based on the legacy he left,” says Angel Parra, the engineer who recorded most of his albums.

It boiled down to this, in the words of Abel Orozco, owner of El Parral nightclub in South Gate: “Chalino changed everything.”

Ever since I saw his interview with Ray Suarez on the NewsHour, I thought Quinones might turn into my new favorite writer on Mexican–American relations. My wife is reading his latest book, and I’m reading his earlier one, both of us enthusiastically.

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Filed under drugs, Mexico, music, U.S.

Appalachian Roots of the Klezmer Revival

Dumneazu (whom I think of as Klezmerescu) has a fascinating post about the Appalachian roots of the revival of Klezmer musical traditions in the U.S.

Like a lot of folks who play Klezmer music, I got my start playing American traditional folk music back in the 1970s. New York was a magnet for folk music, and there was a very active scene of people playing traditional Appalachian fiddle music and old-time southern music styles. One peculiarity of the New York Appalachian fiddle and bluegrass scene was that almost all of the local music enthusiasts were either Jewish or Italian…. Young New York musicians would make the pilgrimage south to North Carolina or West Virginia to learn to play at the feet of some of the old masters of traditional folk fiddling, like Tommy Jarrell of Toast, North Carolina. Tommy’s style (generally known as “Round Peak” style) became the New York City default mode for fiddling.

UPDATE: Nathanael at Rhine River sees the “Hillbilly Klezmer” pair of aces and raises the bet with a link to a current story in the Hartford Courant headlined However Unlikely, Connecticut Becomes A Center In The Ukulele’s Resurgence.

To stand in the Clinton home of Jim and Liz Beloff is to find yourself in an unofficial Ukulele Information Center.

The husband-and-wife team, both in their 50s, have carved out a rather singular niche for themselves as experts on all things to do with the plucky four-string instrument. They’re widely credited within the ukulele community (indeed, there is one) for the recent resurgence in uke activity….

Beloff figures we’re in the “third wave” of the ukulele (the first being in the early 1920s, the second in the 1950s). This new wave has produced a breed of ukuleleists, mostly from Hawaii, who defy expectations of what the ukulele can do. John King plays classical music on his uke (it sounds a lot like a harpsichord).

The current uke superstar is Jake Shimabukuro, a lightning-fast player who lists guitarists Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen as influences. In concert, he often uses guitar effects to manipulate the sound.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has brought an avant-garde sensibility to the ukulele by deconstructing old standards. Though not so big in its namesake country, the group is popular in Japan.

“Many started taking it up for the philosophy and for the iconography that the ukulele represented,” says Bill Robertson, whose recent documentary “Rock That Uke” chronicled the punk and alternative ukulele scene (yes, there is one). “Since that time, it has become the instrument for musicians to demonstrate their virtuosity.”

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Filed under Appalachia, music

Kunimoto Takeharu’s Bluegrass Shamisen

Hiroshima-based blogger Wide Island profiles Kunimoto Takeharu.

Yesterday I posted a picture of my daughter playing with her mother’s sanshin, a banjo-like Okinawan instrument that is the direct ancestor of the Japanese shamisen. I thought I’d post today about the shamisen player Kunimoto Takeharu and his foray into bluegrass, a style of music I vastly prefer (and I realize I’m in the minority here) to pop, J or otherwise.

Kunimoto was born in Chiba Prefecture. Both parents were practitioners of a form of storytelling called roukyoku. Unlike the older and better-known art of rakugo comic storytelling, in traditional roukyoku narrative is combined with singing, and the storyteller performs standing, accompanied by a concealed shamisen player. There is an improvisational element as well, and the same piece may be dramatically different from one performance to the next. Roukyoku was widely popular at the height of radio, but like many older arts has lost a great deal of its audience in recent decades.

There’s more. And the picture he refers to really is quite charming.

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Filed under Appalachia, Japan, music, U.S.

Naipaul’s Nashville: Music

Naipaul interviews Nashville songwriter Bob McDill.

No amount of questioning, no amount of explaining, even from someone as willing to talk as Bob McDill was, could take one to the magic: the calling up and recognition of impulses that on the surface were simple, but which, put together with music, made rich with a chorus, seemed to catch undefined places in the heart and memory.

Mama said, don’t go near that river.

Don’t go hangin’ round ole Catfish John.

But come the mornin’ I’d always be there

Walkin’ in his footsteps in the sweet delta dawn.

Almost nothing at first. But then the images and the associations come: Mama, river, catfish, footsteps, delta, dawn.

Bob McDill said he had had to learn the subculture. But the Southern images and words of his best songs are far from the stylized motifs of a good deal of country music. And though he makes much of writing in an office in a matter-of-fact, day-to-day way–and perhaps because he talks in a matter-of-fact way, since the mystery cannot be described–it is probably true that, when moved, he writes with that most private part of the self with which Proust said serious writers write.

He says that his best song is “Good Ole Boys like Me.”

When I was a kid Uncle Remus he put me to bed,

With a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head.

Then Daddy came in to kiss his little man

With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand.

And he talked about honor and things I should know.

Then he staggered a little as he went out the door….

I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be.

So what do you do with good ole boys like me?

Every detail there was considered. His aim, he said, was to get as much of the South as he could in a few lines. And the song has become very famous; many people I spoke to referred to it; the mood of the song spoke for them. A “good ole boy” … was a redneck; but it was also a more general word for an old Southerner, someone made by the old ways. The song might seem ironical, then celebratory. But below that it is an elegy for the South, old history and myth, old community, old faith.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 247-248.

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Filed under music, U.S.