Welcome to the October issue

Welcome to the October issue of Black Grooves. As a tie-in to our upcoming conference on the Roots of Techno: Black DJs & the Detroit Scene,” we’re devoting this issue to the Motor City. If you’re not familiar with techno, check out the two new documentaries, High Tech Soul: the Creation of Techno Music (specifically about Detroit techno) and Put the Needle on the Record (about house/electronica), along with a CD by Interstellar Fugitives (with Cornelius Harris) and an overview of the Women on Wax collective (with DJ Minx). To round out the Detroit scene, we’re also taking a look at an independent release by rap newcomer Brandon Hines, the posthumously released The Shining by rapper/producer J. Dilla, a bit of jazz from violinist Regina Carter, Blue by Diana Ross, and last but not least, the Complete Motown Singles and some rare Detroit soul. Also in this issue you’ll find gospel music by the Racy Brothers, a centennial tribute to Josephine Baker, the Smithsonian Folkways’ Classic African American Ballads, and string band music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music

high_tech_soul.jpgTitle: High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music
Director: Gary Bredow
Label: Plexifilm
Catalog No.: 029
Date: 2006

Finally, Detroit has its own techno documentary–High Tech Soul. As this title highlights, and the documentary makes quite clear, Detroit techno is a unique form of music in the world of electronic dance music because of it’s creation in the Motor City. “High tech soul,” a phrase expressed by producer/DJ Derrick May in the film, is an extraordinarily suitable label for Detroit techno.

The musical and cultural roots of Detroit techno are predominantly African American. In the early 1980s, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, three African American college kids from Bellville, Michigan (a small town outside of Detroit), began to create what is now called Detroit techno. These three men are highlighted in the film, along with Eddie Fowlkes, whose status as a founder of Detroit techno is explicitly and humorously addressed in the film. Major musical influences that these, and many other prominent Detroit DJs, claim are James Brown, Sly Stone, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, and Kraftwerk, as well as influences from musical genres like disco, electro-funk, house, and experimental electronic music. Considering these influences, thinking of Detroit techno as soul music created with high tech sensibilities becomes an appropriate way of understanding the music in the context of its history.

In addition to Atkins, May, Saunderson, and Fowlkes, a large number of DJs and producers contributed to this documentary. Some of these artists, in order of appearance, are Carl Craig, the “Electrifying Mojo,” Richie Hawtin, Nico Marks of Underground Resistance, Kenny Larkin, Jeff Mills, Stacy Pullen, Scan 7, John Aquaviva, Blake Baxter, Thomas Barnett, and Delano Smith. These artists commented on Detroit techno’s long and diverse history, highlighting important DJs, musical equipment, and endearing feelings about Detroit as a city.

This 64-minute documentary includes 17 minutes of extra footage. In these extras are Continue reading

Put the Needle on the Record

put_the_needle.jpgTitle: Put the Needle on the Record
Director: Jason Rem
Publisher: REM Entertainment
Catalog No.:060601
Date: 2006

In the 1970’s disco music became a pop culture phenomenon. But then just as quickly as it ascended, it was driven back underground by a vicious backlash from the rock music peace community. Disco, renamed dance or club music, re-emerged in the DJ set of Frankie Knuckles at a Chicago club simply called “The Warehouse.” The music that was spun there became known as “house music.” Almost thirty years later, house music, a mixture of many subgenres including downtempo, trance, techno, drum ‘n bass, and soulful house, continues be celebrated every year at the Winter Music Conference in Miami.

The film Put the Needle on the Record examines the history, classification, purpose, and future of house music and electronica through the eyes of the dance music DJ. Produced and written by Jason Rem, the film uses the Winter Music Conference in Miami as a backdrop for interviewing many of the top dance music DJs from around the world including Mark Farina, Jesse Saunders, and Donald Glaude. The DJs comment on many facets of dance music as an art and as a business. The DJs intimate that dance music is a very large family of music that includes many diverse styles united by the standard “four on the floor” beat, funk, and soul. The film also goes into further detail about many of the subgenres and their particulars.

The DJs passion for the type of music they play and their self-described roles as tour guides through a musical experience is evident. Although the documentary focuses on the DJ as the central force in house music, the other dominant force, the partygoers, are seen as the force that inspires the DJ. Since the purpose of dance music is to motivate people to dance, Put the Needle on the Record weaves in plenty of actual club footage to illustrate the critical rapport between the DJ in the booth and the frenetic crowd on the dance floor.

Put the Needle on the Record also includes bonus features such as footage of DJs in various clubs around the country. The film is a good introduction to dance music and a good retrospective for electronica/dance music fans alike.

Posted by Fredara Mareva

Women on Wax

minx.jpgArtist: DJ Minx/Women on Wax
Label: WOW

As the founder of the Women on Wax (WOW) label, DJ Minx has been at the forefront of the Detroit techno turntablist movement. DJ Minx’s latest project, The Essential EP, pairs her up with fellow WOW labelmate, Diviniti. Together they are known as A Taste of the Honeys. Minx’s intricate and trippy grooves are true to its techno origins yet accessible to mainstream electronica fans. As a part of the WOW collective, Minx has executively produced the workd of other DJs including DJ Genesis’ latest project, The Key to Life EP. Genesis’ offering is a downtempo and chill approach to techno that features ambient keyboards and synthesizers over a techno bass and beat. Lastly, Minx also helped guide labelmate’s Napi Hedz latest EP, The Blessed Bliss. This eclectic production is heavily influenced by Indian-inspired vocals and rhythms that give the music a global feel. These three EPs prove that DJ Minx and Women on Wax family are true to their techno roots while keeping their ears to the world!

Posted by Fredara Mareva

Editor’s Note: DJ Minx will be participating in the upcoming Roots of Techno conference.

Interstellar Fugitives: Destruction of Order

interstellar.jpegTitle: Interstellar Fugitives: Destruction of Order
Artist: Underground Resistance
Label: Submerge Recordings
Catalog No.: UGCD-UR2005
Date: 2005

Cornelius Harris (also known as “The Unknown Writer” and “Atlantis”) is a part of one of Detroit’s most talented techno DJ collectives, Underground Resistance (UR). As a member of UR, Harris has helped to spread the sound of Detroit techno around the globe through live performances. UR’s latest album release, Interstellar Fugitives: Destruction of Order, is a mix of highly metallic and melodic tracks united in a consistent techno vibe. Harris’ sound is true to the industrialized Detroit techno sound while drawing on funk influences. If it is left up to Harris and the rest of Underground Resistance, techno might not remain an underground phenomenon!

Posted by Fredara Mareva

Editor’s Note: Cornelius Harris will be participating in the upcoming Roots of Techno conference.

Northern Souljers Meet Hi-Rhythm

northern.jpgTitle: Northern Souljers Meet Hi-Rhythm
Artist: Various
Label: Soul-Tay-Shus
Catalog No.: STS CD 6357
Date: 2006/2004

The subtitle, “Rare and Unreleased Jams by Detroit Indies Recorded in Memphis 1965-1968,” sums up the concept of this CD, produced by Aaron Fuchs for Soul-Tay-Shus, a division of his Tuff City Records. Digging deep into the crates, the album includes material originally issued on the Detroit labels D-Town, Wheelsville, Premium Stuff, Sport, Sir Rah, and Wee 3.

The liner notes by Preston Lauterbach explain that Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg may have been the catalyst behind at least some of the Memphis sessions. The legendary black female deejay, who left radio station WDIA-Memphis in 1963 for Detroit station WCHB, was obviously well acquainted with the “Soulsville” scene. With scant studio space available in Detroit outside of Motown, Wheelsville Records (whose VP just happened to be Steinberg) arranged for their artists to travel to Memphis. All of the sessions on this CD were recorded under the tutelage of producer Willie Mitchell at Hi Records’ Royal Recording Studios, deep in southern soul territory. The back-up band was provided by the studio (these recordings pre-date the Hi Rhythm section), resulting in what Lauterbach aptly describes as “a head on collision with melodic Motown and Memphis funk.”

Numerous Detroit artists are featured on the CD: the Appreciations, Master Keys, Persians, Lil Soul Brothers, and the Fabulous Peps, along with Buddy Lamp, Lee Rogers, Jim Coleman, and Al Gardner. Additionally, five tracks (including four previously unreleased demos) are included by Hi Records singer/songwriter Don Bryant. In an interesting twist, three of the Bryant demos were also recorded by the Appreciations, the Master Keys, and the Persians (all included here), making possible an A-B comparison between Bryant’s original demo and the versions commercially released in Detroit. Here the Motown-Memphis “collision” is never more apparent. Though I prefer the straight-up soul of the Bryant tracks, it is very interesting to discover how these Detroit groups managed to capture a little bit of that Memphis funk.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Complete Motown Singles; Vol. 5: 1965

motownsingles5_cd.jpgTitle: The Complete Motown Singles; Vol. 5: 1965
Artist: Various
Label: Motown/Hip-O Select
Catalog No.: B0006775-02
Date: 2006

Hip-O Select, the Universal Music Group imprint started in April of 2004, has quickly emerged as one of the premier reissue labels in the country. In little more than two years, the company has released nearly 200 projects and racked up numerous awards along the way. One of its most ambitious projects to date is The Complete Motown Singles series, launched in January 2005. With the August 2006 release of Vol. 5: 1965, the series is now entering the peak Motown production years, when the legendary song writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland was still in Detroit churning out hit songs for the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, and the Four Tops.

What immediately captures one’s attention is the elaborate packaging, an ultra cool imitation of a 45 album. In fact, the 6 CD set actually contains a bonus 45 rpm disc inserted inside the front cover that features sides recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1965. But the real scene stealer, and one of the main reasons to purchase this set, is the 146 page booklet, loaded with stunning archival photos and featuring track-by-track annotations by Bill Dahl and Keith Hughes, along with complete indexes by artist, title, label, and a bibliography. Its enough to make a librarian weep for joy (though you may instead shed tears over what you’re going to do with that 45 rpm–when you figure that out, drop me a note!).

Unlike the two box sets previously released as Motown: the Complete Hit Singles, the Hip-O Select series strives for completeness. Yes, this is every single released in 1965, even including some alternate takes, from Motown and its subsidiary labels (Gordy, Mel-O-Dy, Tamla, Soul, and V.I.P.). And though major Motown artists dominate the set—including the Four Tops, Supremes, Miracles, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder—its perhaps most noteworthy for representing a number of lesser known groups. How many are familiar with the Downbeats, the Hillsiders, the Vows, and the Elgins??

The Complete Motown Singles are limited edition sets sold directly through the Hip-O Select website. Previous releases in this series include: Vol. 1: 1959; Vol. 2: 1962; Vol. 3: 1963; Vol. 4: 1964. Given the current rate of production, I expect we can look forward to the next volume in early 2007.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Shining

j.dilla.jpgTitle: The Shining
Artist: J. Dilla
Label: BBE
Catalog No: 77
Date: 2006

On February 6, 2006, the hip hop world lost legendary producer/artist J. Dilla (aka Jay Dee) to complications of lupus. Prior to his death, J. Dilla amassed one of the most impressive production catalogs in hip hop history. Working with artists as diverse as the Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, and Janet Jackson, J. Dilla consistently set new standards with his beat work. Earlier this year, his instrumental album entitled Donuts was released to rave reviews. Much of The Shining was produced by J. Dilla as he lay on his death bed and it was completed by producer Karreim Riggins after his death.

Although J. Dilla was dying as he produced this album, the sonic landscape of the recording is light and positive. The album’s first full track, “E = MC^2” features Common spitting battle raps over hard-hitting drums and intergalactic samples. On “Dime Piece (Remix),” neo-soul singer and fellow Detroit native Dwele muses about a girl over a smooth, but base heavy backdrop. The highlight of the album is “So Far to Go” featuring Common and D’Angelo. The song sounds like a left over from Common’s classic Like Water for Chocolate (2000) album. Common drops a few nice bars, but what makes this song truly special is J. Dilla’s signature, keyboard laden sound and D’Angelo’s extra-soulful voice. “Won’t Go” fittingly closes out the album as J. Dilla raps solo over sharp drums, heavenly keyboards, and a beautiful vocal sample.

Although J. Dilla’s production is solid throughout the album, it is very clear that this is not a polished product. Many of the songs are damaged by poor vocal performances and song structure. On “Love,” Pharaoh Monche wastes a great beat by randomly switching back and forth between lackluster rhyming and poor singing. Other songs like “Geek Down,” “Jungle Love,” and “Love Movin” fall victim to this same problem. In addition, at only 36 minutes and 12 tracks, the albums length leaves a lot to be desired.

All in all, J. Dilla’s The Shining has solid beats and nice vocal performances but winds up a bit underwhelming. Nevertheless, it does nothing to tarnish J. Dilla’s legacy. Very rarely are artists such as J. Dilla able to touch so many hearts with their highly creative, yet honest artistry. It is always sad when these artists are silenced in their artistic and physical prime. On “Can’t Stop This” from the Roots Game Theory album, rapper Black Thought said that J. Dilla had “a passion for life and music and will never be forgotten.” That is almost an understatement. Rest in peace J. Dilla.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

Editor’s Note: A collection of J. Dilla obits and tributes can be found on the Stones Throw website.

Love Music… Falling In, Falling Out

hines.jpgTitle: Love Music…Falling In, Falling Out
Artist: Brandon Hines
Label: Heavyweight Entertainment
Catalog No.: 3710116608
Date: April 16, 2006

Maybe it wasn’t just mythology that spurred 60’s soul artists to travel cross-country to record in Detroit, Michigan’s. Soul music newcomer Brandon Hines makes you wonder if there really is something about that Ford Factory air. As a native of the nation’s “Motor City,” and as a former student at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University (winner of the Mr. Howard pageant, in fact), soul music newcomer Brandon Hines has some huge musical shoes to fill. On his debut, independent album, Love Music…Falling In, Falling Out, Hines proves that these shoes may have to stretch for him.

Currently working on a second album with acclaimed producer Troy Taylor (Tyrese, Ginuwine, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Trey Songz and others), Hines’ climb to his current position has been the stuff of fairytales. Legend has it that Hines began his musical career with a boy group, “The Bachalaz,” of limited hometown notoriety. After an unsuccessful try at American Idol, Hines returned to Detroit, where he joined the R&B group “Vybe.” The hometown-famous group had one single, “Tonite,” that got play on Detroit radio stations. When Hines left the group for college, he found the spirit of community that has long been characteristic of Howard University musicians (Al Johnson and Tom Fauntleroy of the Unifics, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, the 90’s R&B group Shai). Howard-grown Heavyweight Entertainment signed Hines and released his album in April of 2006. The group started a grassroots promotion campaign that made Hines a campus favorite and a familiar voice in the clubs of “Chocolate City.”

With Heavyweight, Hines developed a sound that blends the heart of soul, the rhythm of hip-hop, and (in many songs) the sincerity of gospel. While Hines’s voice is large enough to stretch over these genres, the real brilliance of the album is in its production, which joins Hines’s voice in a marital bliss.

In “Lipstick,” Hines’s high tenor two-steps with the heavy base line that is similar to the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” of Motown fame. Another relic of the Detroit sound is Hines’s sweet, Smokey Robinson-esque falsetto, which soars on songs like “We Need We” and “Here I Am.” Songs like “Overdose” fill every moment with unique harmonies that move with Hines in an electrifying call-and-response. But it’s Hines’s vocal dexterity that will separate him from competition. The album’s piece de resistance is “Where Did You Go?” Here, in the tradition of Detroit native Aretha Franklin, Hines proves that he can stretch one syllable over seemingly infinite space, making it dance and shout and weep along the way.

Yes, there is something special that stirs the wind of Detroit. It will be exciting to see where it eventually blows its son in soul, Brandon Hines.

Love Music…Falling in, Falling Out is available for purchase online.

Posted by Asha Layila French   

I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey

regina_carter.jpgTitle:  I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey
Artist:  Regina Carter
Label:  Verve
Catalog No.: B0006226-02
Date:  2006

Violinist Regina Carter, recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, created I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey as a musical tribute to her mother, Grace Carter, who passed away in March 2005.  Her quartet on the album includes pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Matthew Parrish, and drummer Alvester Garnett, and is joined on various tracks by vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Carla Cook, clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, and accordionist Gil Goldstein.

Carter, who grew up in Detroit, played in the all-female jazz quartet Straight Ahead from 1987 to 1994, after which she worked with artists such as Max Roach, the String Trio of New York, the Uptown String Quartet, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Greg Tate and the Black Rock Coalition.  She recorded her first self-titled album as a leader for Atlantic in 1995, followed by Something for Grace in 1997, the title track of which Carter co-composed for her mother.  Carter switched to Verve in 1998 with the album Rhythms of the Heart, followed by Motor City Moments, inspired by her hometown, in 2000, Freefall, a duet album with pianist Kenny Barron, in 2001, and Paganini: After a Dream in 2003.

“Recording this project was a life saver for me,” Carter states in the liner notes to I’ll Be Seeing You.  Carter recorded the album to both celebrate her mother’s life and to make herself feel better.  She adds, “The songs on this CD are from the era that she knew and loved, and they are also songs that lifted my spirits.  Each times I play these tunes, I feel my mother’s presence and see her beautiful smile and that brings me joy.”  The tunes range from the exuberance of Edvard Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” to the cheerful melodies of “Little Brown Jug” and “A-Tisket, A Tasket,” to the introspective “Sentimental Journey,” “Blue Rose,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”  Carter’s own “How Ruth Felt” and the vocal renditions of “You Took Advantage of Me,” “St. Louis Blues,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “There’s a Small Hotel” add to the sense of combined reflection and celebration.  The result is a thoughtful and loving tribute to Grace Carter and all that she meant to her daughter.

Posted by Alisa White


diana.jpgTitle: Blue
Artist: Diana Ross
Label: Motown
Catalog No.: 000569402
Date: 2006

Many record collectors dream of getting their hands on that rare or previously unpublished work—only few are so lucky. Fortunately for Diana Ross aficionados, that day has come. From out of the blue comes the lost album (originally assigned catalog number Motown M749), simply called Blue. This was recorded on the heels of the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, in which Ross gave a brilliant portrayal of Billie Holiday. It is unclear why this recording was never released, but it is a reminder of the immense talent and flexibility Diana Ross has demonstrated throughout her career.

Born in Detroit in 1944, Diana Ross is best known for her work at Motown Records as lead singer in the Supremes. Her unique voice and presence helped the group produce many #1 pop singles that are still played the world over. Her solo career post-Supremes also netted many chart toppers and currently Ross is still in demand as an entertainer. Blue represents part of a turning point in her musical life. Ross always admired Billie Holiday, but had to reinvent herself to play the jazz singer in Lady Sings the Blues. After intense study of Holiday’s music, Ross was able to adopt a sense of relaxed time and reflection, and the ability to smoothly caress the song lyrics. Blue is fascinating because Ross channels the spirit of Holiday from the past, and blends it with her own talent.

The album begins with “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” a jazzy tune that really allows Ross to become a reflection of Billie Holiday. What a difference an album makes! This once-pop diva now has mastered the smooth, laid back vocal styling of the jazz singer. Another track worth mentioning is Ross’s cover of the standard “Smile.” One of Billie Holiday’s most alluring qualities as a singer was her ability to transmit emotion through her music. In this arrangement of “Smile,” Ross displays how she can control her voice, bringing it from subtle to very present. Ross matches her musical emotion to the song’s lyrics: at first there seems to be subtle despair in her voice (“Smile, though your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking”) and as the song progresses, there is a change in character to a more uplifting, positive vocal tone (“You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile”).

The liner notes by David Ritz are excellent, and he manages to tie the lives of Ross and Holiday together in a way that is succinct yet meaningful. The compilation producers’ notes provide details about the production of Blue and attempt to give credit to the musicians whose names were never written down during the 1972 session. The only thing that could possibly improve the notes would be the inclusion of the lyrics. Overall, Blue is a gem of a record. Ross captures the essence of Billie Holiday in a way that no one else can. She plays the part of the jazz singer so well, it’s hard to believe she was ever the pop diva most know her to be. Luckily for fans, we can now have a little piece of both sides of Diana.

Posted by Stephanie Fida


There’s Not a friend: Live in Little Rock

racy.jpgTitle: There’s Not a Friend: Live in Little Rock
Artist: Racy Brothers
Label: MCG Records
Catalog No.: MCG 7038 (CD & DVD)
Date: October 2005

The Racy Brothers’ There’s Not a Friend: Live in Little Rock, released in 2005 on MCG Records, is a tapestry of gospel melodies that is as warm as a grandmother’s quilt. Like that quilt, it is pieced together of elements that, alone, would be considered ordinary: scripture, three-part harmony, sayings, sermonettes… Together, however, these elements create a bold and brilliant pattern, and the Racy Brothers are a testament to the classic qualities of gospel quartet music that will survive the ever-changing gospel music industry.

The Racy Brothers were formed in 1988 around the nucleus of brothers Bobby and Vernell Racy, and their two nephews, Walter Witherspoon and Pervis Holly. They sing in the tradition of groups like the Might Clouds of Joy, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. Historically, quartets like these are credited with bridging the secular and spiritual worlds of black music.

Like these groups of old, the Racy Brothers sing gospel renditions of hymns and spirituals along with new gospel compositions. There’s Not a Friend includes their renditions of classics like “Build a Fence,” and “Remember Me.” The Racy Brothers breathe new life into these Baptist church standards, using the space of the repeated refrain to minister to the live audience with improvisation.

While each song features tight, 3-part harmony that follows the lead of a soloist, the real star of this recording is a voice that isn’t physically heard. The Racy Brothers’ late “M’dear” appears numerous times in the form of wisdom, sayings, and songs the close relative passed down to her family. It is her spirit that pushes the group through original songs about Heaven, like “What a Time” and “Walk Through the Streets.”

Spirit is a component that is central to the Racy Brothers’ musical performance, as is evident in “God’s Been Good, Parts 1 &2”. As the audience feels the spirit that the Racy Brothers invoke, the group extends the short song for as long as they are led.

There’s Not A Friend will satiate the hunger of those who have grown to love the ministry of the Racy Brothers.

Posted by Asha Layila French

Editor’s Note: This review refers to the CD release; the DVD includes additional tracks. Look for an in-depth interview with MCG founder James Bullard in the upcoming issue of the AAAMC newsletter, Liner Notes.

Josephine Baker: A Centenary Tribute

josephine.jpgTitle: Josephine Baker: A Centenary Tribute
Artist: Josephine Baker
Label: Sepia Records
Catalog No.: Sepia 1065
Release date: 2006

Josephine Baker may be remembered most in popular culture for wearing a skirt of bananas (and not much else), and captivating Parisian audiences of the 1920s with her unique blend of exoticism and theatrical sexuality. Her career, however, comprised a much broader span of years and musical media.  Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, she became a stage performer in her teens and came to Paris with La Revue Nègre in 1925. Baker’s career flourished in France, where she was celebrated as a singer on stage and screen throughout the next fifty years.  She embraced the French as much as they embraced her, working for the French Resistance and performing for the troops during World War II, for which she was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the Croix du Guerre, and the Rosette de la Résistance. Her professional reception in the United States was less enthusiastic initially, but she received greater accolades in the latter half of her career from American critics and audiences. She became involved in the civil rights movement in the U.S., taking part in the Freedom March in Washington, DC, in 1963. 

A new release from Sepia Records collects twenty-seven of Baker’s songs from 1930 through 1953, the period during which she recorded most heavily. Sung mainly in French and English, these numbers comprise a range of styles, from the Tin Pan Alley sound of “Pretty Little Baby”, to the mature Piaf-like chanson crooning of “J’ai lu dans les étoiles.” Included are some of Baker’s signature songs (“La petite Tonkinoise”, “J’ai deux amours”), as well as several that play up into her exotic image (“La Congo blicoti”, “Besame mucho”). There are notable instances of a French appetite for American popular styles, too: a Francophone rendition of  Alfred Bryan and Fred Fisher’s “Peg O’ My Heart” (here, “Peg de mon coeur”) appears, while another track, “C’est ça le vrai bonheur,” is credited to French songwriters, but bears a remarkable musical similarity to Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Most notably, this collection includes five songs recorded for French Pacific, previously not available on CD.

This compilation presents a vital image of Josephine Baker as a mature songstress at the height of her career. In its twenty-three-year span, we hear the changes apparent in her skills, vocal technique, and the popular musical styles that she embodied. Long after her youthful personification of the Jazz Age, she proved a talented and beloved entertainer who navigated the changing decades with apparent ease and style.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

Editor’s Note: the complete title of this CD is Hommage à Josephine Baker: disque du centenaire=a centenary tribute; [songs from 1930-1953].  

Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind

CCD_donagotaramblin1.jpgTitle: Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind
Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops
Label: Music Maker
Catalog No.: MMCD76
Date: 2006

…It was late in the night, they were fast asleep / Little Margaret appeared all dressed in white, standin’ at their bed-feet.

…saying, “How do you like your snow-white pillow? How do you like your sheet?” / …saying “How do you like that pretty fair maid, lays in your arms asleep?”

Rhiannon Giddens sings unaccompanied in “Little Margaret” – hauntingly, like the ghostly visitation she relates. Her tone hardly wavers through the tale, as the character William, struck by his nighttime vision, realizes he loves not his new bride but Little Margaret, and later, as he discovers Margaret “laying in a long black coffin with her face turned toward the wall.” Giddens’s voice softens very slightly for the final couplet:

…Three times he kissed her cold, cold hand, twice he kissed her cheek / and once he kissed her cold, cold lips, and he fell in her arms asleep.

“Little Margaret” stands out on the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ debut collection of North Carolina’s old-time music, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, not only for its eerie subject, but also as the only song performed without instruments. The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ sound is primarily built on the banjo, fiddle, and guitar. The three young members of this string band – Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Dom Flemons – hail from North Carolina and deeply love the traditional music of the region. Here, they offer fourteen selections in performances that could date (were it not for the CD’s overall clear sound) from the early decades of the twentieth century. The standard of musicianship is high – witness Flemons’s harmonica at the conclusion of “Old Cat Died” and the percussion that pervades “Black-Eyed Daisy” (played by Sule Greg Wilson). A forerunner of bluegrass, this old-time music has a rich history, stemming from folk idioms both of Africa and of the British Isles; unfortunately, the liner notes for Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind offer very little information about it.

One of the most memorable tracks on the album is Continue reading

Classic African-American Ballads

classic ballads.jpgTitle: Classic African-American Ballads
Artists: Various
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: 40191
Date: 2006

At first glance of the title of the recording, one might ask, “What is a Classic African-American ballad?” The black ballad tradition is an important, historic, and engaging aspect of America’s black music heritage but because of the popularity of the blues over the past thirty years, this tradition has been overshadowed. Not only is this a recording a monument to African-American life from 1885-1925, it provides foreshadows the protest and social commentary of the hip hop movement we are witnessing one-hundred years later.

Moving from an agrarian lifestyle to an urban one, black southerners moved northward and wrote ballads which provided glimpses of African-American city life at the turn of the century. Ballads in their purest form, will tell you a story, while the blues is more of a ritual where people think of ways of healing a situation. In traditional ballads, someone has to die. Stackolee shoots Billy, Frankie shoots Johnny, Duncan shoots Brady, or 1500 passengers go down on the Titanic. These are stories about death, murder, prison, protest, and work ranging from songs created from the heritage of the English ballad, to social commentary vilifying abusive white authority figures, to “blues ballads.” Simply put, this is urban music which combines storytelling and improvisation focusing on street culture protest, and violence. In this we find similarities to the hip-hop music of today. These are fascinating stories about life during the turn of the last century, and the music set to these stories is equally as intriguing and timeless.

This album features a variety of stirring performances and recordings by white and black musicians. Some highlights include Leadbelly doing the traditional “John Hardy” on his rarely heard accordion, a field recording called “Lost John” recorded at a Texas prison by Pete Seeger himself, and a chilling rendition of “St. James Infirmary” by New Orleans legend, Snooks Eaglin.

There is not a record label around that is better equipped to bring us up to speed on this tradition than the fine people at Smithsonian Folkways. They have been keeping the tradition of distributing records with integrity alive for decades now. This package is no exception. The CD includes over 67 minutes and 22 tracks of music, and a beautiful 36-page booklet that is chock full of information written by blues scholar and writer, Barry Lee Pearson. After being immersed in this recording and its material you will be able to answer the question posed at the top of this review. It might even beg the question, what is hip hop?

Posted by Christopher Mulé