20 Years On, That Buena Vista Social Club Magic Endures

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The iconic cover photo for the 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club.

World Circuit/Nonesuch

 

Twenty years ago this month, Americans were introduced to the romantic sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was an unlikely group of stars: mostly elderly musicians from Cuba playing very old-fashioned music. But when the group’s debut album was released in 1997, it wound up selling millions of records around the world.

Buena Vista Social Club started out as a very different album from the one you know. The previous year, British record producer Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder had the idea to show the connections between Cuban and West African music. They arranged for a group of musicians from Mali to record in Havana with musicians from the island. But Gold says that, as often happens, bureaucracy got in the way.

“The Africans couldn’t make the trip because [their] passports were sent to Burkina Faso to get visas — and they didn’t come back,” he recalls. “So the Africans couldn’t come.” (Gold did eventually manage to realize that Cuba-Mali project; AfroCubismwas released in 2010.)

Studio time had been booked at Cuba’s national recording label, EGREM, whose main studio was built by RCA Victor in the 1940s. Before the revolution in 1959, everyone — from Cuban stars to Nat King Cole — recorded there. Gold raves, “The actual room has got the nicest sound I’ve ever heard in any studio. It has this beautiful natural reverb.”

“I mean, I don’t know if we knew that it would be financially or commercially successful, but we knew something amazing was going down,” Gold says. Some of these older musicians had once been famous in Cuba, and some had not. But Gold believed they were all ready for their moment in the spotlight: “They knew they had nothing to prove. They knew why they were there.”

A few of the musicians hadn’t performed in years. In a 1999 interview with Fresh Air, Ry Cooder recalled asking Juan de Marcos González if anyone still sang the old-fashioned ballads called boleros.

“We asked, ‘Does anybody still sing this way? This beautiful high tenor lyric voice?'” Cooder explained. “He says, ‘There’s only one guy left … and this is Ibrahim Ferrer. And he’s hard to find. He’s on the street somewhere.’ He went out and he came back two hours later with this really strange-looking fellow — he’s just very skinny, moves like an old cat.”

Ferrer was 69 years old at the time, and shining shoes to earn a bit of money.

“He says, ‘So, what do you want me for? I don’t sing anymore,'” Cooder continued. “I’m thinking, ‘This is somebody, you know, this guy’s heavy. Put him up in front of a microphone and see what he’s going to do here.'”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Hunter S. Thompson’s Widow Opens Doors To His ‘War Room’

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Years after his death, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s legend lives on. His widow takes Aspen Public Radio’s Claire Woodcock on a visit to The War Room in his home, where Thompson spent 16 hours a day locked in, writing such pieces as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

~~~  LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW  ~~~

Forebears: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Godmother Of Rock ‘N’ Roll

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a fearless black artist in love with crafting a new sound.

Chris Ware/Getty Images

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Rock ‘n’ roll was bred between the church and the nightclubs in the soul of a queer black woman in the 1940s named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was there before Elvis, Little Richard and Johnny Cash swiveled their hips and strummed their guitars. It was Tharpe, the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, who turned this burgeoning musical style into an international sensation.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Tharpe was always surrounded by music growing up. Born Rosetta Nubin in Arkansas to Willis Atkins and Katie Bell, Tharpe came from a family of religious singers, cotton pickers and traditional evangelists. She picked up the guitar at four years old, and at the age of six she accompanied her mother to perform with a travelling evangelist troupe in churches around the South. By the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, where they continued performing spiritual music. As Tharpe grew up, she began fusing Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel music into what would become her signature style.

Although Tharpe’s distinctive voice and unconventional style attracted fans, it was still the mid-1930s. Female guitarists were rare, and even more so was a musician who pursued both religious and secular themes, a fact that alarmed the gospel community. But Tharpe — young and innovative — was determined to keep experimenting with her sound. Her persistence and grit paid off, and by 1938, she had joined the Cotton Club Revue, a New York City club that became especially notable during the Prohibition era. She was only 23 at the time, a feat that was only amplified when she scored her first single, “Rock Me,” a gospel and rock ‘n’ roll fusion, along with three other gospel songs: “My Man and I,” “That’s All” and “Lonesome Road.”

Tharpe’s lyrics unabashedly flirted with her openness of love and sexuality, an approach that left her gospel audience speechless. “Rock Me,” which showcased Tharpe’s distinctive guitar style and melodic blues mixed with traditional gospel music, made her a trailblazer — as did the range of her voice, which resounded with conviction as she sang the words “rock me!” With this song, she made it plain that her words could not only transcend lines of faith, but could also represent a shift in popular music in real time.

~~~  READ MORE/WATCH  ~~~

Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans addresses removal of Confederate statues ~ a thoughtful, powerful talk ~

“It is the best I have heard in a long time.  This guy could be presidential material.”

Dr. Higdon

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~~~  LISTEN TO THE SPEECH  ~~~

On May 19, 2017, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered a moving speech about why the city took down four Confederate monuments that had been installed by supporters of the “Cult of the Lost Cause.”

Vice’s documentary on Charlottesville is worth watching

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~~~  WATCH  ~~~

If there was any doubt about what kind of person went to protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, Vice News’s documentary should put those questions to rest: One side was white supremacists, some of whom openly endorsed violence.

The documentary, posted online on Monday, follows a group of white supremacists, led by white nationalist Chris Cantwell, as they march and protest through Charlottesville — purportedly to stand against the city’s plans to take down Confederate monuments, but really to spread a message of white supremacy.

Here are a few quotes from the white supremacist protests and participants, made up of members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists:

  • “Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”
  • “When the Trayvon Martin case happened, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and all these different things happened, every single case it’s some little black asshole behaving like a savage, and he gets himself in trouble, shockingly enough. Whatever problems I might have with my fellow white people, they generally are not inclined to such behavior — and, you know, you gotta kinda take that into consideration when you’re thinking about how to organize your society.”
  • “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal n*****s! That’s exactly what it is.” “And that’s true, by the way.”
  • “We didn’t aggress. We did not initiate force against anybody. We’re not nonviolent. We’ll fucking kill these people if we have to.”
  • “Right now we have people on the ground at the statue with equipment, and they’re being told they’re not allowed to have a vehicle come through and pick them up or anybody come and pick them up. I’m about to send at least 200 people with guns to go get them out if you guys do not get our people out.”
  • The car attack by a Nazi sympathizer on counter-protesters, which killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, “was more than justified. The amount of restraint that our people showed out there, I think, was outstanding.”
  • “I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here, frankly. … People die violent deaths all the time. This is part of the reason we want an ethno-state. The blacks are killing each other in staggering numbers from coast to coast. We don’t really want to have a part of that anymore.”

This is who showed up to protest plans to take down a Confederate statue in Charlottesville. This is who President Donald Trump argued is equivalent to the counter-protesters who showed up to stand against racism and fascism.

Randy Newman Avenges a Murdered Bluesman on “Dark Matter”

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The standout track on “Dark Matter,” Newman’s first solo album in nine years, is “Sonny Boy,” about a blues musician whose identity and music catalogue were stolen posthumously.

Photograph by Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP

By

The New Yorker

In the early nineteen-seventies, when the Rolling Stones were at the height of their powers, the American singer-songwriter, composer, and pianist Randy Newman was taking a less conventional approach to rock and roll and the blues. In his music, Newman paired rolling New Orleans piano lines with mordant lyrics to write satirical songs about life, often conjuring narrators—both fictional and real—to help him get his point across. The results were sometimes hilarious, as on the 1971 novelty tune “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong,” a shambling waltz about failing to find your way around in the sack. But they were also controversial, as with “Short People,” from 1977, a catchy little pop number on which Newman channelled the voice of simple-minded bigots so successfully that he was accused of being one himself.

Newman grew up visiting soundstages in Hollywood; three of his uncles wrote film scores for a living. Later, Newman’s career would also include some significant work for film, most notably his music for Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies. Now, for the first time in nine years, the seventy-three-year-old has made a new addition to his solo catalogue with the release, last week, of “Dark Matter,” his eleventh studio album and perhaps his most topical. There is a song inspired by photographs of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, a song about the differences between science and faith, and another in which the Kennedy brothers discuss the Bay of Pigs. (There was even, in an early version of the album, a song aboutthe size of Donald Trump’s penis.)

The standout, however, is “Sonny Boy,” a languorous jazz tune about the tragic life and death of Sonny Boy Williamson, a successful blues singer-songwriter who was murdered in 1948 after a gig on Chicago’s South Side, and who had his identity and music catalogue stolen posthumously when another artist started performing his songs under his name. In it, Newman imagines the bitter resentment in Sonny’s voice from beyond the grave: “This man stole my name, stole my soul / They’re so holy up there, they don’t understand / But he even tried to steal my jelly roll!” Although Newman surely has very little in common with a dead bluesman from Tennessee, he manages to sound damn convincing.

~~~  LISTEN ~~~