Category Archives: Black History

Women’s History Month: Nina Simone’s “Four Women”

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Lately, between Andresmusictalk and my own blog Dystopian Dance Party, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists: a bold and daring a performer who nevertheless carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul.” And, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.

Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.

The place of Black women in feminism has of course been contested since the days of Sojourner Truth; it remains, unfortunately, an ongoing struggle, seen most recently in debates leading up to this January’s Women’s March on Washington. But with songs like “Four Women,” Nina Simone ensured that the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences were expressed, whether “mainstream” feminism chose to acknowledge them or not. And her music continues to resonate–as evidenced by the above cover version, performed by the Berklee College of Music chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is, as ever, sad that a song written about the plight of Black women in 1966 could remain so necessary over 50 years later; things being as they are, however, at least now we can be glad it exists.

Remember to check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for five more days of music by great women artists! See you soon.

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Filed under Berklee College Of Music, Black History, Black Lives Matter, black power, Blues, Nina Simone, pro black, vocal jazz, Women

Funky Stuff-The Best Of The Funk Essentials: The Full Story Of Getting From There To Here

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One of the most referenced music related events,which has now conceptually spanned two separate music blogs here on WordPress,is the story of how I first became involved in listening to funk. Delivered the story in two little bite sized pieces. And for a long time,it seemed as if there was no problem just keeping it that way. At the same time,I’ve told so many friends on Facebook and such about one little cassette dub of a CD compilation that really did ratify my entire musical focus from that moment on. And that would be hearing the 1993 compilation  Funky Stuff-The Best Of The Funk Essentials for the first time.

Its important to not that the cassette dub I mentioned was not the compilation in the correct order. My father put the songs together by sound more than anything. So the first song I heard on it was Con Funk Shun’s “Chase Me”. My first reaction (at age 14) was something to the effect of “this is very heavy disco” upon first hearing it. No idea who Con Funk Shun were. But it just stirred my creative imagination in a way I cannot explain even now. It reminded me of jazz in its sophistication and melodic changes,but it had this explosive rhythmic power. It was high energy. It was…funk.

Hearing songs such as “Rigor Mortis”,”Jungle Jazz” and “Let’s Start The Dance” for the first time gave me insights into artists that were new for me,such as Bohannon. It also showed me an earlier side of bands such as Cameo who I’d known earlier. And was my first chance to experience pre JT Taylor Kool & The Gang. Needless to say,there was a strong urge for me to seek out these records. Since they were so danceable and singable,the first question I asked myself was “why haven’t I heard a lot of these songs on the radio?”. That led me to the discovery about how fragmented even mid 90’s radio actually was.

The road hearing Funky Stuff led me into a far stronger understanding of the firm racial divide in American popular culture. Personally,I’m about as post civil rights as one could likely be. Being born after the 70’s and at the very start of the Reagan era. In learning about funk based on the literature I sought out after first hearing it,it became apparent why I hadn’t heard 70’s funk on the radio too much. I knew about the presence of the R&B and pop charts. But was unaware of the demographics behind them. In my home state of Maine,there was (and still is) virtually no black population. And therein lay the main issue.

Bands such as Earth Wind & Fire and Motown related groups in the 60’s and early 70’s had successfully crossed over to pop radio,which is nationally available and recognized. Yet many 70’s funk (and certain elements of 80’s hip-hop) tended to remain on R&B (black) radio. And without a strong black population,Maine had no R&B radio. As a largely rural state,it had no urban (often shorthand for R&B) radio either. So the lack of racial diversity where I was created a lack of R&B radio which…created a lack of funk. My father just happened to be deep into black music. That’s the only reason I probably heard funk at all.

Later on of course,I realized funk had always been in my life through its 80’s cross over moments. Michael Jackson,Prince,Cameo had the funk. Even new wave oriented British groups such as Level 42,Eurythmics and Wham! were providing funk based music to me via radio. Just never connected it with that powerful,rhythmic sound until hearing Funky Stuff.  Of course as my understanding of funk music grew,it was when I was high school age and developing my own personality more-which is pretty standard for when musical preferences develop. But it also opened me up to a broader personal understanding too.

Before diving deep into funk,I didn’t have a hugely strong concept of my blackness. As a biracial person,it sometimes seemed more important to my mom (herself mostly black Puerto Rican) that I acknowledge my  Irish back round from my paternal grandmother’s side. As I “went for the funk” as it were,that totally changed. Realized I was actually something now called an Afro futurist. Hearing P-Funk (and later Janelle Monae) really put a strong cap on this understanding. I loved Star Trek and thoughtful science fiction along with funk,soul and jazz. It even resulted in new and thriving friendships.

Henrique Hopkins,with whom I started Andresmusictalk,met me all because of funk. He saw my Amazon.com customer reviews of funk albums during 2006. And the result is now a decade of friendship. And learning more about the complexities of America’s racial understandings from him than I could’ve ever imagined. This hasn’t always made for great harmony in my life. But it did initiate change and evolution. Now I am in the processing of trying to pass on this broader cultural understanding to my closest friends and family. And it all started with one cassette dub of a funk compilation.

 

 

 

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Filed under Black History, compilation albums, Funk Essentials, funk music

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Black Man” by Stevie Wonder

Today being Martin Luther King Day brings up an event that occurred during my lifetime ,but of which I am also too young to remember fully. In the early 1980’s Stevie Wonder along with fellow musical artist/writer/poet Gil Scott Heron really championed the crusade to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday. He even wrote a song for the occasion called “Happy Birthday”,included on Stevie’s 1980 album Hotter Than July.  It was a song that was recorded and released five years earlier,however, that’s always gotten my attention-from hearing it on 8-track at the families lakeside camp growing up to my present day discussions with friend and fellow music lover Henrique Hopkins.

With an elaborate production taking two and a half years to complete,Stevie Wonder finally managed to release his double album plus four song EP which he entitled Songs In The Key Of Life. It continued the man’s commercial and creative winning streak that had began earlier in the decade. And did so by really reaching for even more imaginative and reflective instrumental,lyrical and compositional heights. One of the songs that impacted me on this sprawling opus was another example of being deeply effected by music that was not a huge commercial hit. But to me anyway,it’s the glue that made the entire album function as a strong musical statement. It was called “Black Man”.

Rhythmic intensity defines the groove from the get go. It’s a fast marching drum rhythm-accentuated by a lightly melodic ring modulated drum sound. A deep Clavinet solo is soon joined by a brittle Moog bass solo. A wandering,higher pitched synthesizer soon joins in along with the horns of Stevie’s band Wonderlove playing the melodic accents of his lead vocal parts. The bridge strips back most the instrumentation so the only things heard are the main rhythm,the modulated one. This leads into a intertwining pair of synthesizers playing a bluesy jazz melody before going back into the main theme-with a verbalized classroom recitation along with Stevie on Vocorder illustrating the songs lyrical theme.

The first time I heard this song,my mother described this song as a history lesson. And that is exactly what this is. Time has allowed me to appreciate on just how many levels it is. Stevie’s outlook on race relations here is not merely integrationist, but understanding the vitality and difference each race present in America brings to the nations continuity. Far as it’s place in black history goes names such as Benjamin Banneker,Garrett Morgan and Dr.Charles Drew would have remained unknown to me-as well as their contributions to the country. They all played a part,as Stevie sang  of who helped make our banner wave during the bicentennial year this song was written to celebrate.

One major element that permeated the entire Songs In The Key Of Life album (especially this particular song) was Stevie’s use of the Yamaha GX-1,known as the Dream Machine. It was a double keyboarded synthesizer with a rhythm machine. It felt like a Hammond B-3 organ, but was a very tonally advanced polyphonic synthesizer underneath. It allowed Stevie to build the sound of his own sound along with Wonderlove. The most important thing one can ever say about Stevie Wonder as a musician is his contribution of innovative tonal sounds. Herbie Hancock once pointed out Stevie’s ability to deal with synthesizers on an organic level allowed it to become it’s own instrumental element of the band itself.

Instrumentally speaking,this might well be one of Stevie Wonder’s most exciting compositions. The energy level is both high enough to reach a breaking point, and controlled at a level where the excitement is totally attainable to the listener. The tempo is a lot faster than it is for most funk. Yet rhythm is locked down to a point where the multiple melodic conversations of the different keyboard and synthesizer tones that define this song express tonally the cultural diversity of America for the next almost 40 years from when this song was created to the present day. It’s one of a view songs out there with the power to get every American,of every shade to dance to it’s rhythms.

 

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Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1970's, Black History, clavinet, drums, Funk, horns, Martin Luther King Jr., Moog, ring modulator, Stevie Wonder, synth bass, synthesizers, Uncategorized, Wonderlove, Yamaha GX-1