My Heart for You (Eem Seerdl Yarees) - Kef Music from the Armenian Community of Michigan
Global Village CD 818
Songs I Learned in Ukraine
Global Village CD 819
Alan Lomax was spectacularly wrong in his warning of impending 'cultural grey-out', some thirty-plus years ago. Lomax warned us that "Soon there will be nowhere to go and nothing worth staying home for" (Folk Song Style and Culture, Washington American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1968, p.4). It has indeed turned out to be an increasingly joined-up world, which was partly what worried Lomax, but that hasn't meant that we've all ended up doing the same thing. Instead, it is as if obdurately, recalcitrantly, in the face of so many of the same pressures, we insist on finding our own answers. Bloody-mindedness is not, of course, the only force for cultural diversity that remains, but it is perhaps too-little celebrated. Oddly, a couple of years' residence in the People's Republic of China hasn't yet endowed me with a clear understanding of the Marxist concept of the dialectic, but there could be a useful and very human one in our needing to insist that we're at once basically all the same and (bloody well) all fundamentally different.
This is what these two new discs from Global Village do, although they don't put it quite like that. How they put it is to put forward some good-sounding music from what might be called minority sources with a minimum of notes (two sides of the liner). Each track gets a sentence or two acknowledging sources and theme. Each performer gets a quick biography. The label's producer (Michael Schlesinger) then adds a short-but-worthy postlude on the style in question and the selection or recording strategy. He is presumably the one who has to take the fall for the tracks not being ordered on the disk as they are on the label on the Erevan CD. (Track 2 on the disk is actually the one described as track 8, and track 8 on the disc is that described as track 3, for instance.) It is as if the music, on the one hand, has to be a little obscure, threatened and hard to find (there must be a paper on folklore as dragon quest to cross-reference to at this point), the liner notes do little more than reassure us of this, even when the ordering isn't garbled,and, on the other the music speaks for itself, needing little introduction (or even to fit with its notes). And, in a way, of course, it does speak for itself. There are two reasons for this - first, both CDs are designed and ordered for listening; these aren't intended to be 'reference' discs. Second, we are dealing with transnational musics here.
Transnational is an interesting term, one that draws attention, just as the label name Global Village does in its own, less trendy-academic way, to the ways in which musical currents have ebbed and flowed over the international scene in the last century or more (or really, since Year Dot, just more quickly since the mechanisation of transport and invention of recording and broadcasting). From this point of view, Global Village is a bit of a misnomer for the CDs produced under its name, in that this increasingly joined-up world of ours isn't really very village-like at all. Global Highways and Byways might be nearer the mark - but we can probably all think of one or two unfocused Topic records, say, so this isn't a game to take too far.
The Erevan Ensemble's disc, played by a quintet of clarinet, dumbek goblet drum, bouzouki, electric guitar and oud lute (with a little bit of doubling, including on voice), illustrates one take on the transnational dynamics that have played such a key role in the music history of the last hundred years. Here we have a group of men, several of whom are simultaneously church deacons, music teachers and ex-rockers - that is to say, general pillars of the community - brought up in Michigan as third-generation descendants of immigrants from Western Armenia. Their music, in the kef (party) style now represents an Armenian-American tradition primarily characteristic of the earlier twentieth-century period and now apparently under threat from new, synthesizer-driven dance groups. The unfamiliar listener, at least, is likely to hear in this music first the imprint of Greek café music, not only in the instruments used but also in the way they are combined, and there are also direct overlaps in repertory. (Greek music too was shaped by the commercial forces of the New World earlier in the twentieth century and then exported back from there to the home country.) The use of the clarinet will remind some listeners further of klezmer, yet a third American-renewed and -mediated musical form, although its tone is less assertive here, merging into the general melodic line rather than directing it or cutting through. Or perhaps the clarinettist is just a long, long way from the recording microphone? The result is that we hear the oud, percussion and guitar all quite distinctly, clarinet lurking in the sonic half-distance. It is all very competent, pleasant and inoffensive, but, in the end, there isn't a huge amount of spirit. Still, if you're exploring American (or East Mediterranean) minority musics, then this might be an intriguing disc.
Mariana Sadovska's Songs I Learned in Ukraine is a bit similar and a bit different. It is similar in that it is pretty hard to imagine anyone actively disliking the disc. Sadovska has a nice voice (of a neutrally Western music school-trained type), she adds simple yet atmospheric harmonium parts (perhaps a concession to the fact that she performs these songs concert-style to seated audiences) and, according to the liner, she goes round Ukraine collecting songs first-hand - learning not from books but the way they should be sung, it says. (Presumably, and judging from the disc, this means with a nice, equal-tempered voice and simple-yet-atmospheric harmonium. It is in this sense, the impact of the Western classical tradition, that this disc's performances are transnational, but of a different kind from the previous one.) If it all sounds a bit romantic, well-meaning but ultimately somewhat short of aural Weetabix, then it probably is. Many of us, I suspect, would rather hear the voices of the village women from whom Sadovska has acquired her repertory.
If we thereby open ourselves to the charge of being exoticists who care only for 'source' singers, it is because we also know that we can't quite imagine how they would sing this music. Listening to them would probably be hard - not a disc to put on while relaxing in the garden - but this one is too easy by far. Sadovska's performances lack emotional authenticity. Her otherwisely cultivated voice and harmonium might be deployed to make something rather striking of the materials she has collected, but it doesn't happen very often in the 67 minutes on record here. In the end, there just isn't very much to listen to here. Lomax may have heard this one coming.
Jonathan P J Stock - 18.8.01
Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, University of Sheffield
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