Monday, February 25, 2013

"Goin' to North Carolina, and from there onto China"

About two weeks ago, I went to two concerts at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall that were tied to a conference on Music and the Global America South. I hadn't heard any of the acts before, but they were both pretty exiting, fun, and musically interesting, so I thought I'd say a few words about them.

The first concert featured two groups, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and South African singer and guitar player Vusi Mahlasela. On stage, the Grammy-award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops are very likable and unassuming. The four of them sit down to perform, perhaps evoking playing on a old-time Southern porch. They all play a few instruments, at least one being some sort banjo (I've never seen so many types). Dom Flemons (guitar, banjo), one of the group's leaders, is quite a character. He dances while he plays bones and just has a high-energy singing style. Rhiannon Gibbons (fiddle, banjo) was classically trained in voice, and you could tell she knew how control her breath. Despite their mostly Southern repertoire, probably my favorite piece was a Scots-Gaelic mouth-music medley, to which they added bones, bass drum, and cello.

Vusi Mahlasela is an outspoken (outsung?) advocate of the end of apartheid, and most of his songs were about African unity. Unfortunately, the words were either in a foreign language or hard to understand, and the music from the different tunes blended together. Perhaps the most interesting number of the concert an encore featuring everybody, "Diamond on the Soles of her Shoes" from Paul Simon's Graceland. Many view Graceland negatively because Paul Simon didn't give enough credit (or proceeds from the best-selling album) to his South African collaborators . But it was interesting to hear the music played by a South African band and I could hear the similarities with the rest of their music (the bass player in Mahlasela's ensemble played on Graceland).

The second concert was with Abigail Washburn, Kai Welch, and Wu Fei. Banjo player Abigail Washburn (who, I found out, is Béla Fleck's wife) was the headliner, having just made her second album, City of Refuge. But I had the feeling this show had evolved since the initial announcement. Kai Welch (who collaborated with her on City of Refuge) brought his trumpet, harmonica, guitar, and also digital looping to the show. Washburn got the conference to fly in her friend Wu Fei, a guzheng (Chinese zither) player from Beijing. Washburn has spend several years in China and had really fallen in love with the culture. While they performed several songs off the album, they also did some crazy things! For the second half of the concert, they convened in what they called "The Wu Force," which was as much an art-concept as a musical group. It was a bizarre mix of Southern and Chinese folk music. Not just clogging to Chinese folk songs (which they did), but some real genre mixing. It was true music without borders, and I felt like I was experiencing something that had never happened before, which was also exciting. One example of their mix was the song "Uyghur–Gaga," which mixed elements of the Chinese sub-culture Uygher's music and Lady Gaga's music.

The Wu Force exploited one musical feature common to both Appalachian and Chinese traditions: pentatonicism, which is using a scale that only has five notes. Most often (including this case), the pentatonic scale means basically a major scale with the half-steps removed (the 4th and 7th degrees), or the five black notes on a piano. It turns out that many melodies in both traditions are based on the same five notes, though the style in which the notes are sung are very different. I think the almost-seamless mixing was possible because of this correspondence.

Have you seen these groups or heard their music? What do you think?

If you are interested in Chinese/Appalachian hybrid music, a friend recently told me about Matteo, a group that plays American music on Chinese instruments. Maybe I'll include some of these instruments on a future Noteworthy Instruments post.

Speaking about going to China, I am! In about 10 days, I'm headed to Hong Kong for a week of fun and culture. Maybe I'll buy an exciting musical instrument to add to my collection.

Vocab: looping, pentatonic

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