No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
 |  Frank J. Oteri

My choice for the grand finale is this epic, literally, performance of “Cheddo” by Malamini Jobarteh and Dembo Konte, two djelis (or griots, a.k.a. praise singer/storyteller/musicians) who each sing and play on koras, 21-string harp-lutes tuned to specific scales that to ears only acclimated to 12-tone equal temperament might seem somewhat alien but to me sound deliciously spicy. Jobarteh and Konte are hereditary djelis who come from families who have been playing such music for centuries if not longer. Both hail from the tiny West African nation of Gambia, or as some people call it, The Gambia. Since Gambia just recently celebrated a return to democracy through the ballot box (one of the few political things to be cheerful about in these complex times), it seems fitting to listen to some music from there.




 |  Frank J. Oteri

“The greatest rock album ever made”, SMiLE, was scheduled to be released in January 1967 but remained in the vaults in its original form until October 2011. Much ink as well as pixels have been devoted to “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations,” which were to be bookended on SMiLE, but which wound up instead on the quickly sewn together, though still fascinating, Smiley Smile, which was released in September of that year. But I’d like you to listen to a song that had to wait much longer to see the light of day: “Surf’s Up.”




 |  Frank J. Oteri

The story of the song’s composition ultimately has little to do with the sublime brilliance of this extremely unorthodox 1962 interpretation of “You Are My Sunshine” by the George Russell Sextet which features the first prominent recorded experience of an extremely unusual vocalist named Sheila Jordan who now, at the youthful age of 88, continues to tour the world and mesmerize audiences everywhere with her singing. At first, it’s impossible to tell that this is “You Are My Sunshine”; it sounds more like music by Edgard Varèse. When Russell eventually introduces the tune’s famous melody, it is harmonized with abrasive dissonances. But just when things seem to be going totally out of control, there is a sudden silence and then Jordan sings the song completely alone though she is eventually drowned out by the ensemble when they resume playing.




 |  Frank J. Oteri

I should probably make my point about how a great poem can be made even greater through a sensitive musical setting with something in a language that everyone reading this blogpost can understand, so for that I’ll point you all to a fabulously creepy 1950 poem about a visit to the poet Ezra Pound in an insane asylum by the great American poet by Elizabeth Bishop called “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s.” A mere seven years later it was set to music by one of the most prolific art song composers of all time—Ned Rorem (b. 1923).




 |  Frank J. Oteri

The first song I want to feature here is a performance by a solo performer where music, words, singing, and instrumental accompaniment come together as a unified totality. It’s not quite as old as the Hurrian Hymn or the chivalric serenades of the Troubadours, though it’s from a few generations before the people we immediately call to mind when we think of singer-songwriters. “Sugar Baby,” recorded on March 9, 1927, was one of the earliest recordings of American country music.