Sunday, October 15, 2017

Music is a Woman

I'd been remiss in my global folk.

Although I've been at the Folk Fest the last two days, I'd yet to see anything but American music. Oh, it had been some fine American folk music - Memphis soul, western swing, soul blues, go-go, zydeco - but I couldn't be happy with my festival experience without hearing music from further afield.

It's not like the world revolves around this country.

So after the disappointment of finding that my Sunday Washington Post wasn't waiting for me on the front porch, I set out for the river, hoping to beat some of the slow-moving hordes on the Folk Fest's final day.

At the Westrock stage, I slid into a seat adjacent to a large, multi-generational Iranian clan to see Shaba Motallebi and Naghmeh Faramand school us in their instruments - Shaba on tar, a long-necked stringed instrument and Naghmeh on goblet drum and frame drum - and play classic Persian music, which we were told was all about improvising.

Shaba played a song she wrote during the birth of her second child and dedicated it to all the mothers in attendance, saying afterward that she always relives the birth when she sings that song.

Explaining how a tar was made (they're only made for a specific person and only after the maker has seen them play), she mentioned walnut and mulberry being used for the frame and the front being made with "baby lamb skin...unfortunately."

Even that disturbing bit of information didn't rouse the green and purple-haired teenager sitting in the row behind me next to her purple-haired mother. She stared stonily ahead to show her Mom her disdain for the being at the Folk Fest (or perhaps just for a mother with purple hair).

We also heard about the daf, a frame drum comprised of a large circle of goatskin in a wooden frame with rings attached to the back so it sounded like two instruments at the same time. Naghmeh shared that because of the way it was played, with hands toward the sky, it was believed to harness the power of nature,

"It sounds like Buddy Rich!" a guy behind me noted once she began playing.

Midway through a classic Persian song that was supposed to segue into improvisation, a ridiculously long coal train rumbled through and after trying to sing and play over it, Shaba gave up. "That's the longest train I ever saw. We'll wait for it to pass."

Not only was it worth it, but the closer was just as beautiful, sung in Farsi and a melding of Persian and Indian music.

The Iranian clan left when their set ended, and were replaced by two older couples, one from Bon Air and the other from New Kent County and they proceeded to argue about the best way to get "that damn horse track" (Colonial Downs) reopened so they could enjoy it again.

"Pass legislation to tax the hell out of the owner, that'll make him sell!" one suggested. Clearly he's never heard the fable about the wind and the sun.

Despite their inane conversation, I stayed put for Nicolae Feraru, a master of the hammered dulcimer, and his Chicago band playing traditional Romanian music that the announcer warned us about. "You're going to hear danger and espionage."

Turns out there were two hammered dulcimer players and a lot of the music did have a sinister sound to it, though not everything they played sounded that way.

Even so, it wasn't long before the man behind me whispered to his friend, "My bride says she wants to go," and they made tracks.

After the first few notes by the accordion player, a woman behind me clapped and grinned. "We finally get a polka!" she squealed and began dancing in her folding chair.

I spotted an old guy dressed as Uncle Sam and carrying the American flag heading toward us and all I could think was, don't let this be about the fact that it's a group of immigrants playing onstage, but happily, he and the Mrs. were just looking for seats in the shade now that the sun had come out.

Wow, there was a time when such a thought never would have crossed my mind, but that was before last November 8th.

Heading up the hill, I managed to not only catch the last part of Innov Gnawa's set of Moroccan trance, but run into a former Balliceaux regular I used to see almost weekly. He's still lamenting the loss of regular jazz in his neighborhood, but was willing to settle for another beer to lighten the mood and catch up.

At that point, I was finished with the Folk Fest, having earned my global credits in one fell swoop of an afternoon (and feeling pretty good about it), but not with the subject of music entirely.

That was because the Richmond Jazz Society was bringing Duke Ellington's granddaughter to town today as part of the "Virginia Jazz: The Early Years" exhibit currently at the Valentine and I had a ticket to be there.

Although she's a talented and well-respected dancer and choreographer, of course what people wanted to hear about was life with her grandfather, who asked his own son to dye his gray hair brown so as to make Sir Duke not seem so aged.

Sure that such a man wouldn't dig being called Grandpa, Mercedes asked him what he wanted her to call him. He suggested "Uncle Edward" and he forever called his granddaughter "Aunt Mercedes." That's some serious male vanity right there.

She shared stories about growing up in Duke's orbit because she was raised by her grandmother in New York City and went to a Catholic school where she learned Irish jigs and reels (predecessors to tap dance, she said) and a love of dance was spawned.

There were stories of Sir Duke's favorite singer, Ella Fitzgerald, babysitting her and how, because the band toured year round, any time they were playing in NYC, it was a celebration for the families with presents and fried chicken.

When asked about being around so many musicians, Mercedes diplomatically said, "They were unique. I was going to say strange," and went on to clarify based on "Uncle" Edward's theories.

Trombone players were "very slippery" and sax players who didn't play any other reed instrument were "not very bright." Bass players were "the salt of the earth" and "drummers were fine after they'd had their first nervous breakdown."

It was a good thing it was a mostly older crowd when the subject of the old Jackie Gleason show came up, because no one else would remember the show's June Taylor Dancers, of which Mercedes was the first and only black member, eventually moving to Miami when the show began taping there.

Given that she began dancing with the troupe in 1963, she had plenty of stories that reflect the sad state of race relations in this country.

Trying to rent an apartment in Miami, the landlord took her friend aside to ask "what" Mercedes was. The friend said she was Hawaiian so she got the lease. Traveling with family to Hawaii after a 7-month gig in Australia performing "West Side Story," a woman on the beach wanted to know why she was there since she didn't need a tan.

The mortification of being a white person never ends.

She reminded the room of rapt listeners that Duke always advocated for "a mixed bag of people" and made sure his orchestra had both black and white musicians. The Broadway musical based on his songs, "Sophisticated Ladies" was likewise cast.

His advice to his granddaughter was to move to Europe because there were more opportunities there for blacks and that home is where the work is. His mantra, Mercedes said, was to keep moving.

On that point, Duke Ellington and I are in full agreement. I don't know know how else you could describe my day...or even my life.

Meanwhile, like with an annoying train, I just wait for the interruptions to pass.

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