This week we have had the privilege of a brief residency with internationally renowned vocalist Denyce Graves. Let me begin by saying that her performance yesterday was among the finest live vocal performances I have ever experienced. Ms. Graves is the real deal. To repeat a phrase she used today, she is a “singing actress” of the finest quality. During the masterclass she offered for Claflin students this morning, she demonstrated that she is an equally good pedagogue.
As a matter of priority, Graves shows how deeply she cares for young artists. Her approach to positive reinforcement is textbook: she puts praise first and emphasizes the positive so that musicians can build from strength to strength. All the same, she does not spare the rod. Graves hears through singers like most people see through glass, and then she polishes them. She refuses to stop until the particular aspect she is working on with the student reaches sufficient levels of both sound and understanding. That also means that every session ends as strongly as it begins. Any good musician will tell you that this pattern resembles a successful practice session. In the form of what she does–as much as in its content–she shows students this consistent approach to excellence.
She speaks to students in beautifully illustrative metaphors. To get the sound she wants, she speaks of the “core sound” of a singer’s voice. She compares it to perfume, noting that audiences don’t want eau de parfum or eau de toilette when they can have the real parfum. The comparison works perfectly for getting students to think about space and overtones or vocal formants. She instructs students to “stitch vowels together” by allowing [i] to “inform” [ε], [a], [o] and [u]. If that makes little sense to readers with different musical or linguistic backgrounds, think of it this way: she’s telling a singer to keep the long horizontal space in her vocal cavity equally long even as she opens up the vertical space for other vowel sounds. She compares this “spatial crescendo” to the feeling of taking a quick breath right after a peppermint.
Part of what works so well about all of this is that the students come prepared. Dr. Lori Hicks has worked overtime with many of these students for the love of singing and teaching. The students, for their part, know the technical language and the repertoire well. That eases Ms. Graves’ task, allowing her to use these pithy metaphors as illustrations that students can use to remember the sensation of good singing when they get back to the practice room. As she puts it, that sensation is so much important than sound; for as singers know, sound changes with the room, the time of day, what foods we eat, the season of the year, and even our seasons of life.
This is a promising time in the life of the music department at Claflin University. It was a tremendous pleasure to hear our students sing today, and it was an even greater pleasure to watch this master at work. I hope all of our students, whatever their instrument, can find something useful to take from the experience.
[A note to long-time readers (all dozen of you): the time has come for this forum to adopt a fresh angle. In the past, I have done many artist features. Now those features will serve--along with other aspects of this blog--as means of tying what has been primarily a research and reviews blog to my teaching at Claflin University. I hope this new breadth will continue to engage current readers and begin to connect them with a new readership among this university community.]
[This post has been re-blogged from a private course blog for one of my music history and literature courses at Claflin University.]
On the heels of public commentary investigating and completely refuting the notion that classical music is dead, the Renée Fleming‘s rendition of the National Anthem at SuperBowl forty-eight tonight certainly made a strong statement. Her comments earlier in the week made the statement that much stronger. Moreover, Denyce Graves reminding her audience at Claflin’s own W.V. Middleton Auditorium this afternoon about the use of opera in advertising for pasta sauce–along with Lawrence Fishburne’s new sync on a Kia ad–remind us that cultural relevance is always relative.
It’s refreshing then that one of these very same commentators had some very sensible things to say last year about music and sports in what he called the “Glee generation.” Some people find the middle ground to be milquetoast. At times it can be, but in these cases, I find the balance to be pretty strong.
Still not convinced? Check out Bruno Mars opening the SuperBowl halftime show with a drum solo before getting up to sing with a full horn line and dance like the Godfather of Soul!
I don’t normally offer concert announcements or teasers here, but this one is just too good to resist.
This Sunday afternoon at 3 PM in W.V. Middleton Auditorium on the campus of Claflin University, Orangeburg audiences will be treated to one of the music world’s finest voices. Drawing on over twenty years of experience as a professional musician, vocalist Denyce Graves promises a performance that the Washington Post has called “almost too good to be true,” from a “vital artist, a beautiful woman, a regal presence.” Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear a voice that continues to receive international acclaim!
The performance is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Claflin University Office of Communications and Marketing at 803.535.5077.
Want a preview? Check out the media section of her site!
Here’s just one of many tributes to a great fallen musician this week. Evidently nobody could have written a better eulogy for Seeger than ol’ Pete himself! Rest in Peace, dear friend of the masses.
Originally posted on The Chawed Rosin:
TO MY OLD BROWN EARTH
by Pete Seeger
To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”
And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.
Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.
And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.
In memory of Pete 1919-2014.
Last night my wife and I witnessed a marvel of postmodern blues-making at North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center. Since shortly before the release of their June 2011 release of Revelator, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks have led the Tedeschi Trucks Band. They’ve been busy since then, building on a solid foundation to remain the biggest, baddest blues outfit I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing live. We’ve been closely watching Tedeschi’s career since her 2002 record, Wait For Me. Trucks we’ve only discovered more recently, but last night the band made a believer out of this listener.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band understands two things thoroughly: how well the distinction between bandleader and singer can work, and how to value every single contributor. While he’s soloing or listening to Tedeschi, Trucks calmly participates in various ongoing communications within the band. Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson stay locked into a singular groove–a formidable task for any band with two drummers–while they also manage to keep out of each other’s way and support the band with tasty exchanges. Brand new bassist Tim Lefebvre holds down the rhythmic and harmonic foundations with impeccably restrained taste. Kofi Burbridge wields his multi-keyboard setup masterfully, laying down basic harmonies on keys here, amping up the texture with a Hammond B3/Leslie combo there. Kebbi Williams, Maurice Brown, and Saunders Sermans each bring distinctive, entertaining personalities to the horn line. Behind them, a duo of highly versatile singers Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers alternate between providing stylized harmonic flavor and coming out front for their own features. Just don’t call them backup singers. Mattison began paying his dues well before singing lead on another Trucks project, and Rivers goes well beyond holding his own during shining moments in this band.
Meanwhile, capable leadership from Trucks keeps everything cued up and tight for Tedeschi, who has ample space to focus on bending phrases and wailing her way through blues idioms that make originals sound like classics. It is truly rare to hear a singer with rhythm as solid and consistent as hers. Every ornament, every nuance, every single rasp seems purposeful, but she delivers it all with a nonchalant humility, signaling to the audience that mastery is just part of her personal style.
To say that husband and wife both handle their instruments well as soloists would be a dramatic understatement. Tedeschi’s straightforward blues style has always served her well, and it’s a perfect compliment to the harder edge of her husband’s slide solo sound. Together with their collaborators they can bring the band from Metheny-esque soft subtlety to face-melting fever pitch, often within the same twelve-bar solo chorus.
This is unapologetic Blues with a capital B. Yes, they can funk it up with some tight horn lines, a good deal of interplay between their two drummers, and some good clean fun from a self-choreographed horn line. Yes, Derek Trucks can get his rockstar on with a bit of distortion, harmonics, and the help of some professional lighting that pales in comparison to his guitar lightning. But this music articulates a genealogy of American rock beginning with the Blues and only then moving through Jazz, Rock, and Funk in that order. The diverse backgrounds and personalities of the band come through this sound mightily. This music understands that all truly American art needs that variety in order to participate in moving sonic representations of who we are as a nation.
Tedeschi Trucks Band offered an evening of transcendent Americana last night. Soon they’ll take the show to Japan, India, and several European nations. They will make excellent emissaries for the venerable tradition of American Blues.
One of the common turns of phrase that seems to come up again and again in Luganda–or in Luganda-speakers’ English–is to ask not only about one’s family, but about one’s place. How is Ntinda? How is America? How is South Carolina? And my personal favorite, how are those ends? (Alternatively, when will you come back to this side/these ends?) Well, until September 2011, I had never considered that any of “these ends” could so closely resemble “those ends,” either socio-linguistically or culturally. Then I attended a kwanjula in Boston.
Well, the same bride who introduced her groom to her adoring family that weekend made him a very happy man this past weekend in Chicago. They have since relocated, and their wedding was no less a thoroughly Ugandan affair than was their introduction ceremony. The Boston contingent made the trek in large vans, by plane, and however else they could. I met others who traveled from Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and Ohio. But most–safely over 95%–were first or second generation Ugandan immigrants from Buganda. These are doctors and lawyers, nurses and fashion designers, students and teachers; they are a well-educated, high-achieving bunch, to be sure. It is easy to see how so many of the present generation of Africans in the Diaspora hold so much hope and promise for the future. As I look toward a new phase of research revolving around these Ugandan communities in the U.S., it is very exciting to see the great variety of things its members are doing in the world.
I had not intended my presence at this event to meet with the same conspicuous attention as my performance of the Ffumbe clan slogan at the kwanjula did in 2011. I had simply stayed in touch with the bride and groom, and I wanted to celebrate with them on their big day. As aunties have a tendency to do, however, the bassenga from Boston informed me that I would be reciting the bride’s paternal and maternal genealogies at the reception. As this had been become a major opportunity for networking and thinking about new research directions the last time I did it, I of course readily agreed. In any case, how could I say no to this bride, much less her aunties?
When I initially started writing about the 2011 event, the connections between kinship, music and tradition fascinated me. Between then and now, however, I had the opportunity to travel back to Boston and experience some of the rest of the music scene in one of the largest Ugandan communities in the U.S. Traveling to Chicago then came with the promise of new possibilities for discovering how things might be different there…and how different they were.
The nightclub that played almost exclusively Ugandan pop in Waltham, Massachusetts was interesting, and it’s a place I hope to return. But the aptly named Club Enigma in Chicago provided a fascinating contrast. Far from the local pub experience that tends to attract Waltham’s slightly older crowd, Enigma was like walking into a Kampala nightclub. The ten-dollar cover charge, the security at the door, the lighting, the overpriced drinks, and especially the DJ’s mix of contemporary Ugandan and American pop made it seem like the whole place had been transplanted directly out of suburban Uganda’s upwardly mobile communities.
I might have come to expect this from a younger crowd closer to the Chicago city limits than Waltham is to Boston, even if both places are fairly typical of immigrant communities in American suburbia. What I didn’t expect was the utter disorienting experience that this club offered two completely different cultural experiences in the same building. At the bottom of the main staircase, a right turn means Ugandan Urban Underground, but a left turn translates to Bulgarian Boom Boom Room. The latter was nearly three times as large, and attracted a crowd befitting the space. Managing sound bleed seemed only a matter of cranking the volume in each space loud enough to mask anything coming from the other. For the most part, people came with a culturally specific experience in mind, but they frequently walked over to “the other side” to check out what was going on, do some people watching, hear the music, scope out a fleeting physical interest, or even dance to a bit different beat. Let me just say that the kasiki (a Ugandan version of a bachelor party) and the wedding after-party the next night did not offer nearly enough time to try to parse this one out. Enigma indeed.
Two things remained consistent between Waltham and Arlington Heights/Chicago: these events are still all about networks of kin, and both communities still revolve around Roman Catholic church life.
Above: the groom, Godfrey, with the maid of honor, Vivian and yours truly
One of my favorite images came from the DJ booth:
I call it “Ain’t No Party Like a Messiah Party”
(glossy facsimile on turntable)