Monday, September 14, 2015

I Just Scraped the Surface

Last month I reported on the wealth of music CDs in the Arts, Literature and Sports Department of the Central Library in a blog article called “Big Range of CDs at the Library.” Big range was an understatement. It’s a very wide range indeed, the Big Kahuna of the free CD world. Here are a few more CDs submitted, as Rod Serling would put it, for your approval.

Zimbabwe: The Soul Of Mbira
Not only one of the best CDs from Africa ever, but one of the best world music CDs of all time. I’ve been listening to it since the seventies. The mbira, or thumb piano, is a time-honored Sub-Saharan musical instrument. It’s handheld, played with your fingers which hit metal strips that are situated over a wooden sounding board. Other instruments accompany it on the disc. The cover photo of a mbira suggests a row of forks lined up side by side; the metal strips of the instrument look like the main body of forks. The mbira’s sound is rhythmical and celestial. In fact, if there’s any justice, angels will play these in addition to harps. Unlike that kind of harp music, The Soul Of Mbira will make you want to dance.


Edda : Myths From Medieval Iceland
Ultima Thule is a radically different place from Zimbabwe, and if you go back to Iceland’s Middle Ages, it’s of course even further removed. This is music with Viking sensibilities. Some of it’s pagan, some more Christian, some a product of the layering that every culture gets as religions and customs blend over the course of centuries. The sheer apartness of Iceland comes through in a powerful way on the record. Medieval music specialists Sequentia (who always do a bang-up job in my experience) have preserved medieval characteristics such as wonder, myth-robustness, fear, and awe inherent in these myths. Medieval Iceland was a largely pre-scientific world that had its own effective artistic ways of dealing with the challenges of life. Sequentia revives this gestalt in a winning way.


Flor Nocturna / Marta Topferova
Authenticity is good, it’s important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. If you get too rigid about it, you’d miss out on Marta Topferova, a Czech-born, U.S.-based singer of Spanish-language songs. I’m very familiar with vocal music from the Spanish-speaking world, but far from an expert. I’m not Hispanic and don’t speak Spanish. But I know a good thing, and Topferova’s it. Not just good—excellent. Proof that you don’t have to be raised in a culture to do justice to that culture’s music. Exhibit A against authenticity-retentiveness.


Tibetan Buddhism: The Ritual Orchestra And Chants
A wag once said that male chanting Tibetan monks sound like an 18-wheeler idling. They do at times. But an 18-wheeler won’t bliss you out. The monks will. Then there’s the orchestra, which includes monks who play conch shells, shawms, short trumpets, and very long trumpets that have to rest on the ground and sound like a herd of vengeful elephants. If you get really involved in it, the chanting starts to sound like the background hum of the universe. Then the percussion and reeds come in to add punctuation or to overthrow everything and create a sonic cataclysm. The cosmos throbs along, stars explode, things get quiet, the cosmic humming resumes, eternity continues. That’s fairly Buddhist.


John Wesley Harding / Bob Dylan
When everyone was doing psychedelia in 1967, people thought it was the last word. Then Dylan comes along at the end of the year and releases this, the most unpsychedelic album anyone could imagine. It quickly made almost all the Day-Glo sounds seem overdone and embarrassing. The last cut even sounded country and pointed toward 1969’s Nashville Skyline. Dylan’s never excelled at following trends. This isn’t one of his best-known or most popular records, but it’s one of his best. Plain-sounding songs that reveal themselves to be anything but plain in meaning, mystical visions, inscrutable but involving tales, existential dirges that can make you laugh. Hank Williams might’ve liked this had he been a generation younger and a more fully-fledged bohemian. He might’ve made it. It’s not at all dated and I’ll bet people will be listening to it a hundred years from now.


Rubber Soul / The Beatles
On many days, I’d say this is the best rock or pop record ever made. The Beatles, transitioning from the richest teen-related pop ever to a more adult-focused orientation, made this, their first wholly adult-oriented album. It was here that rock could vie as art, two years before Sgt. Pepper, when most people thought it happened. This is highly-sophisticated music but it’s also a lot of fun. There’s never been a more singable or hummable Beatles record, nor one that’s more world-weary. Joyous, subversive, bitter, heartbreaking, glorious—you can come up with many superlatives, and it won’t be enough. How about unwearoutable? Another one they’ll be listening to a century from now.


Richard Grooms
Fiction / Government Documents Departments

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