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STEWARTS OF BLAIR
By Elijah Wald, The Boston Globe, 1985
"It's good to have fun, isn't it?" Belle Stewart asks, leaning forward in her armchair at a friend's house in Waltham. She has just sung a ragtime song, a far cry from the traditional Scots ballads for which she is known. She urges her grandson Ian to sing something and, when he demurs, prods him with "Well, if you can't sing, then take off your shoes and hum." Three generations of Stewarts laugh heartily.
The Stewarts of Blair are Scotland's foremost musical family. Tonight at 8 at Harvard University's Paine Hall they will be presenting a program of ballads and pipe music. Belle Stewart and her daughter Sheila will sing and Sheila's son Ian MacGregor will play the pipes.
The Stewarts arc not typical Scots. They are of the "traveling people" and even their oldest songs are English rather than Gaelic. "Long, long ago they called them tinkers" Belle explains. "Because they worked with tinware, making pots and pans and that. They were all self-taught, because they had never been to school, couldn't read nor write. That's what happened to the ballads as well. They couldn't write them down and learn them, they just passed down from one to the other."
Belle's father-in-law was champion piper of Scotland for many years and her father "was counted the best singer In the whole of Perthshire." She herself was discovered through her songwriting. Blair, a small town in the western Highlands, draws pickers from all over the country to its annual berry harvest and Bell wrote a song about them, "The Berryfields of Blair."
The song was learned by other singers and in 1954 a folklorist came looking for the author. "The directions pointed to our house," Sheila recalls. “So he came and asked my mother if she had written that song and she said yes. That was the start of our career. It just went from there."
Belle, her late husband Alec and their two daughters have toured all over Europe and America. Sheila represented Scotland at the US Bicentennial and, when the Pope visited Scotland, was chosen to sing for him. Everywhere they have found an eager welcome. "My husband and I came to the States in '74," Belle remembers. “We were only booked for three weeks, but they kept us for 11 weeks and four days and wanted us to stay for six months.”
The Stewarts are also subjects of a soon to be published book on tinker life by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. “There’s more goes to our tradition than just the song," Belle explains. “The folktales, riddles, superstitions, our cures for illnesses and our own language, which is not Gaelic. It’s called Cant.” Cant, the tinkers’ secret language, is now dying out, but not among the Stewarts. "I've a small dog at home, a very, very small dog, and he knows every word of Cant,” Belle insists.
Ian is now 29, Sheila 50 and Belle almost 80. “God’s good and I’m still here,” she says. Whether it’s according to my behavior or not I don’t know. But I'm still here and very pleased to be here." They are still learning new songs and trying new approaches "We never sang wi’ an instrument in our life,” Sheila says. "And we Just started now singing wi' the goose, that’s what they call the small parlor pipes.” And they still like to meet new people and take time to sit around and sing with them. “The man who made time made a lot of it,” Belles smiles, “and there's a lot of days not touched yet."
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By Elijah Wald
Martin Carthy has been a leading light of the British folk scene
for some 30 years. He gave Bob Dylan the melody of "Bob Dylan's
Dream," taught "Scarborough Fair" to Paul Simon and
became familiar to American listeners as a member of Steeleye Span
and through regular visits as a solo artist and with the Watersons.
His work combines a devotion to old ballads with an innovative and
amazing guitar style that has influenced a generation of European
and American players.
In recent years, Carthy has been touring with his late '60s playing
partner, fiddler Dave Swarbrick of Fairporl Convention fame. "In
1988 Dave phoned up and said 'Come along, for heaven's sake, let's
do some work,' " Carthy explains, speaking from Philadelphia.
"So we did, and we've done a tour of England every year since
We've not made a permanent relationship of it, because there's
too many other things to do — that makes life interesting.
But we came to the States in '90 and '91."
In a folk scene polarized between singer-songwriters and hardcore
traditionalists, Carthy is generally placed in the latter category.
Talking to him, however, or seeing him in concert, the historical
roots of his music are less striking than the immediacy of his presentation.
His first interest is direct communication, and he insists that
even the fact of playing traditional music has a contemporary message.
“Standing up there and singing a folk song these days is
a political statement,” he says. “For a start, you’re
flying in the face of the ‘me generation,’ talking about
‘us music’ rather than ‘me music.' That is about
as political as you can get. For me, it makes it socialist, and
I'm a socialist. A democratic socialist, I would hasten to add."
The serious tone dissolves into laughter, and Carthy explains that
"Dave's giving obscene salutes and goose-stepping around the
room." As the talk turns to songwriting, however, he is back
on track. Carthy says he wrote his first song, "Company Policy,"
in 1983, as a response to the Falklands war. "I realized that
the whole folk scene had become depoliticized, and I was absolutely
horrorstruck," he says. "So I determined to try and write
a song. It took me bloody ages, but I did it and it was good, actually."
He is clearly proud, but says the experience did not lead to a
spate of songwriting. "I find it very difficult indeed,"
he explains. "And the songs I've been singing for the last
30 years and the songs I've become more and more in love with are
so bloody good. The standard set by folk song is so high that I
wouldn't want to write anything below that. I mean, why do it? Why
write some simpering crap when you've got stuff with real spine
to it that's been handed down to you?"
Of course, part of carrying on that tradition is making it personal,
refraining the songs so that they do not become inert museum artifacts.
Carthy notes that, while most of his songs come from rural singers,
his approach reflects his own background. "What I do isn't
country music, it's urban music, by virtue of the fact that I'm
a city person," he explains. "I'm not an actor. If I'm
doing a Scottish song I won't try to sing like a Scotsman, I won't
try and put on a regional accent. That's nonsense; it makes the
whole thing into a pantomime, and it's much more serious than that
for me. And much more fun as well, because you're able to concentrate
on the song, to concentrate on the job at hand, which is communicating
an idea from me to you.
"I feel these songs, and I don't feel as though I'm condescending
to anybody, past or present. That's the important thing. It seems
to be a direct line. Finally, after a lot of effort, I feel entirely
comfortable with the repertoire that I have and I don't feel as
though there's any kind of a pose involved. Anything I've learned
about music I've learned on the road, on the hoof. So I don’t
have an academic approach; to me, it’s real.”
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Something happens when you get a family singing together,"
Michael Waterson says. "The voices blend and create harmonies
that aren't actually there. I mean, we sing plenty of harmonies,
but we also do a lot of unison lines which create chords because
of the way the voices blend. It's just something magic.
"Of course, I'm prejudiced because I'm part of a singing family,"
he continues, laughing. Waterson is a founding member of the Watersons,
one of the most popular and respected groups on the English folk
scene. The Watersons, who have been performing together for more
than 30 years, will be at Old Cambridge Baptist Church on Dec. 4
in a special holiday program, "Driving Cold Winter Away"
The group consists of Michael and his sister Norma, her husband
Martin Carthy, their daughter, Eliza Carthy Waterson, and family
friend Jill Pidd. All except Carthy are natives of Hull, with lilfcing
Yorkshire accents, and they sing the old songs unaccompanied, as
they have been sung for centuries.
"I think a lot of the time the instruments actually limit
you. if you're going to harmonize and move around in a song,"
Waterson says. Besides, he adds, "I play guitar badly. Norma
plays, but wouldn't dream of playing on stage. So we just decided
that we sang better than we played." He laughs again, before
adding "Perhaps if more people realized their limitations there'd
be more unaccompanied singing."
The Watersons have sung together for as long as they can remember.
"We were brought up by me grandmother, and we always sat 'round
the fire and sang," Michael says. "The songs weren't strictly
folk songs; we used to do hymns and music hall stuff. [British folklorist]
A.L. Lloyd put it very nicely: he said we learned the process without
the songs. Then, when we came across the old ballads and folk songs,
we liked 'em and they fitted in perfectly with the way we were singing
"Driving Cold Winter Away" is a new collection of songs,
rhymes and stories, based on English winter festivals. "We're
doing from November through to the New Year," Waterson says.
"It starts with lighting the bonfires, the fire festivals,
then the build-up to Christmas, the carols, through to hunting the
wren, the New Year and the wassail songs."
Many Of the festivals he mentions are unfamiliar to most Americans,
but Waterson is happy to explain. "Hunting the wren,"
for example: "On St. Stephen's Day, little boys would go out
into the fields and catch a wren, loll it, dress it in ribbons,
put it in a box and go from door to door, knocking on the door and
going 'Please to see the king.' Because the wren was so small, you
see, it was considered a magical bird and therefore a king above
all of the birds."
Clearly, this is a Christmas program that goes beyond the standard
Christian observance. "To me, it's the everlasting circle,"
Waterson says. "You were born, you live, you die and you come
back again, even if you're only minerals in the ground. You move
on. Many of the old religions were based on the idea that every
year the year is reborn.
"What we have left in Europe and in England and America is
just a few of the bones of what were ways of life to people,"
he says. "Not black magic or mysticism; just something they
knew. When summer was finished and winter came on, if they lit a
fire they helped to warm the sun up so it would come again the following
year. It's a lovely idea, and you don't have to believe in it to
believe in it, if you see what I mean."
The Watersons seem to replenish themselves as well. Members leave,
new ones join, and a second generation has joined the first. Michael's
daughter sang with the group for a time, and his nephew is also
a musician, albeit in a heavy metal band. So will the Watersons
be out singing folk songs 50 years from now? "Why not?"
Waterson asks, cheerfully. "Some of us old ones might even
be stubborn enough to still be here."
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LA MUSGANA (1995)
By Elijah Wald
La Musgaña is a leading group in the Spanish folk revival,
but member Luis Delgado is not surprised to find American listeners
unfamiliar with its music. "Even in Spain this music is almost
unknown," he says, laughing ruefully.
To many Spaniards and virtually all foreigners, Spanish traditional
music begins and ends with flamenco. In reality, though, Spain is
probably the most culturally and musically diverse country in Europe.
There are the Celtic, bagpipe-playing Galicians, the Catalans, the
Andalucians and the Basques, each with their own folk styles. The
members of La Musgaña have studied all of these, but their
special love is the music of the central plains, the old Spanish
heartland of Castilla.
Castilla, especially the region of Salamanca, has preserved one
of Europe's oldest musical instruments, the pipe and tabor. The
local variant, gaita charra y tamboril, consists of a three-hole
flute fingered with the right hand while the left keeps time on
a large drum suspended at the player's side. "In Salamanca
the man who played this was a very important part of the community,
present in every wedding, every celebration," Delgado says,
speaking thickly accented English. "But the tradition has been
almost lost. Our idea was to take this music and try put it on a
Traditionally, the pipe and tabor is a solo instrument, but in
the transition to stage performance La Musgaña added such
unaccustomed companions as clarinet and electric bass, creating
a sound that sometimes recalls the great French group Malicorne.
"We had to make...it's not exactly changes, but musical arrangements,"
Delgado says. "You have to do this in trying to keep the music
alive, so it doesn't become like a museum thing."
The difficulty was to broaden the music's appeal without losing
its special flavor, and in this La Musgaña has succeeded
impressively. Their latest album, "Las Seis Tentaciones"
(Xenophile), conveys the group's unique flavor. There are hints
of outside influences, from Steeleye Span to Japanese classical
music, but the players have deep roots in their own tradition, and
in the end they sound only like themselves.
Their strength is in combining the courage of innovators with the
devotion of disciples. "This a difficult music," Delgado
says. "It's not easy to play, especially the three hole flute
and the tabor. You have to go to Salamanca and try to find a master
teacher who shows you the way to play. It's an oral tradition, and
you have to stay there and try to learn. That's what [group founder]
Enrique Almendros did many years ago."
Once the traditional music was learned, the group tried to arrange
and reshape it without losing its special flavor, a task Delgado
says is far from simple. "What you play with the three hole
flute is a natural music that comes out of this instrument,"
he says. "This is a diatonic instrument, it plays only one
scale, but all the time jumping from octave to octave. When you
have to play this on a clarinet or accordion or a modern instrument
it is not at all easy. If you think it is, talk with Jaime [Muñoz],
the man playing the clarinet."
After eight years together, though, La Musgaña sound thoroughly
at home in their style. Like any good ensemble, they have found
a sound that lives and breaths, and despite its ancient roots it
sounds anything but academic. "This is dance music," Delagado
says. "For people who do not know it, it is not easy to dance
but it's easy to enjoy. It is exciting, not like easy listening
music. It isn't possible to sleep in one of our concerts."
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French Canadian Revels (1997)
By Elijah Wald
Benoit Bourque still laughs when he tells the story of how he became
involved in French Canadian folk dancing.
"I started when I was 13 years old,'' he says. "I was
at school, and I did a lot of sports, and one of my friends said,
'Oh, Benoit, would you like to come with me and join the folkdance
group at school?'
"I said 'Dance? Are you crazy? That is for girls.' And he
"So that's why we started.''
Today, Bourque is one of the best known traditional step dancers
in Canada, as well as an acclaimed accordionist and a master of
"kitchen percussion,'' the rhythmic clatter of spoons and bones.
With his partner, Gaston Bernard, who sings and plays violin, mandolin
and guitar, he will be a featured performer at this weekend's Midsummer
Revels at the DeCordova Museum.
The Revels, which provide a seasonal counterpart to the better-known
Christmas Revels, are a celebration of the Summer solstice, and
each year they are based on a different theme. This year, they introduce
Bostonians to Les Feux de Saint Jean, an annual French-Canadian
festival in honor of John the Baptist. There will be dancing and
singing by a large cast of local performers, both professionals
and amateurs, as well as Bourque and Bernard, the locally based
Cape Breton fiddler Joe Cormier, and a Franco-American singer and
storyteller, Michael Parent.
Bourque says that the St. John festival is the major cultural event
of the year. "If you really want a good time to get the French
Canadian spirit, this is the festival. Usually, it's on June 24,
but we always have things happening all around that date and, when
you're a folk musician, you are always busy, even more than at Christmastime.
The origin is strange, because St. John the Baptist is something
religious, but the origin was more secular. Around 1826 they started
this big event to represent the French in Canada. At first it was
not a religious thing, but the church realized that it was a very
important event, and needed to be related to the religion. So now,
there is something religious in it, but it is still very open.''
Patrick Swanson, the Revels' artistic director, traces the origin
of the event even further back, to pagan agricultural festivals.
Throughout Europe, Midsummer is celebrated with huge bonfires, the
"Feux'' of the festival's name, representing destruction and
rebirth. The fires will be represented here by votive lights and
a torchlight procession, and there will also be a maypole, though
not quite as people may remember it from their schooldays.
"It is quite different from what people think of now, the
pretty ribbon dance with young ladies in white dresses,'' Swanson
says. "That's a very Victorian idea of it. The maypole is really
quite ancient, and the older idea was this kind of giant pole with
garlic and mirrors on top, the idea being to attract the sky to
mate with the earth. We'll have a maypole dance, which we invite
audience members to join in, and a torchlight procession with a
young John the Baptist, who is represented by a young boy having
a bad hair day, dressed in a sheepskin, and we put him and a chair
and carry him around.''
Bourque is perfectly comfortable with the mix of traditions in
the Revels, and points out that the French Canadian tradition is
itself very much a cultural melting pot. He says the first European
arrivals in Canada, after the Vikings, were Breton fishermen with
French Celtic backgrounds, but that they were followed by other
French, English, and Irish immigrants, and there was also a strong
influence of Native American music and dance.
He was also charmed by the troup of local musicians that has been
brought together to join Bernard and him in the oddly named Big
Mama's Kitchen Band. "They are very interesting people,'' he
says. "And what is really special for me is these people, most
of them don't make their living from music and being on stage, so
they have the excitement of young people. I spent many years playing
with people older than me, and they were very good musicians, but
sometimes it was like they had played it all before. But the Revels
people, though they are not all so young, they have that freshness
and excitement. They do a different show every year, so it is always
new for them, and I think you will see that excitement on the stage.''
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Sophia Bilides (Greece 1997)
By Elijah Wald
WEST ROXBURY-- Sophia Bilides sits on the couch in her living room,
looking a bit nervous. Though an experienced performer, she has
done few interviews, and she wants to make sure to get everything
right. She speaks slowly and carefully, often modifying her remarks
to make them more precise.
Bilides (pronounced "Bee-LEE-thees'') only moved to Boston
from Western Massachusetts this summer, but she has been an established
presence on the local music scene for a decade. She is the foremost
practicioner of the Greek singing style known as smyrneika, a close
cousin of the more popular rebetika.
Both styles have their roots among ethnic Greeks in what is now
Turkey. In 1922, the Greco-Turkish wars forced a mass emigration
of Greeks from Asia Minor. Smyrneika is the music the emigres brought
with them, named for the city of Smyrna (now Izmir). "My grandparents
came from a village called Permata in central Asia Minor, and most
of the residents of Permata eventually resettled in New Haven,''
Bilides says. "Growing up, I was part of this uniquely Anatolian
"village'' within the larger Greek-American community. The
Permata elders spoke to each other in Turkish, while my parents'
generation spoke Greek, and my generation spoke English - which
illustrates the route the refugees traveled.''
Bilides was interested in music from an early age. "I had
a very rich musical upbringing as far as all the different influences
that came my way,'' she says. "I was in a Greek household,
and I also heard Greek music in the church and at dances or weddings.
But my mother was Italian, and when we went to her house my aunts
and uncles would burst into Neapolitan songs. And then the neighborhood
I grew up in was African-American, so I had that culture influencing
me as well.''
As a singer, Bilides first pursued a classical career, getting
a degree from New England Conservatory. Soon, though, she found
herself drawn to the American popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s
and, even more, the Greek songs of the same period. At the time,
this was considered a distinctly odd choice, even in the Greek community.
"I would often get the question, 'Why are you doing this old
music?,' '' she says. "There was a tendency to want to look
forward and not to look back, which is common with any immigrant
But I thought the songs were wonderful. I loved the way they encompass
both ends of the emotional experience: You have the great masters
singing these very virtuostic laments that are so emotionally compelling,
and then on the other hand you have songs that say 'Let's eat and
drink, dance and sing and make music and make love, precisely because
we are refugees and our spirit can not be broken.' The body of songs
that came out of that experience just touches me.''
The music's obscurity, however, presented Bilides with a problem.
"There was no one to learn it from,'' she says. "The best
teacher I ever had was my variable speed tape recorder. I would
listen to the virtuoso singers on those old 78s -- Dalgas, Eskenazi,
Kanaropoulou, Roukounas -- and I would slow it down so I could hear
all the notes. The only way I could learn the musical language was
to imitate what they were doing. Then, after a while, I reached
a point in my development where I could add my own ornaments.''
Bilides also had to find musicians who were willing to adapt themselves
to the music she loved. Currently, she performs with simply a trio,
including her husband Tom Groggan on guitar and Mike Gregian on
doumbeleki, a Greek drum. Bilides fills out the musical mix, playing
the santouri, a sort of hammer dulcimer. "I had never intended
to accompany myself,'' she says. "I felt the singing was more
than enough to occupy me, and the tradition definitely did not include
female instrumentalists. But I fell in love with the sound of the
santouri as soon as I heard it -- rich and dark, and at the same
time delicate and shimmery -- it just mesmerized me. ''
Bilides' CD, "Greek Legacy,'' has a larger ensemble of musicians,
and shows the depth to which she has submerged herself in the tradition.
"I had to unlearn a good portion of my classical training,''
she says. "Because Greek singing is much much more in the nose
and the throat than the head tone that you strive for in classical
singing. I was tempted to use that, but I thought it was disrespectful
to the tradition, because you either try to emulate the sound or
not. I've never presumed to represent this music as a Greek-born
person might, but I try to sing it the way I hear it.''
To Bilides, the proof of her success has been the reaction of older
Greeks. "They love it,'' she says, beaming. "That's the
best validation, after any concert, when the elderly people come
up to me and grab my hand, and they're effusive about it. They say,
'Thank you so much for singing this. I remember hearing it as a
little girl or a little boy.' Or 'I remember my mother singing this.'
Bilides has devoted roughly equal attention to singing at Greek
cultural events and bringing her music to outsiders. "I like
staying in the community and singing for them, but also getting
the music out,'' she says. "I can't recreate the cafe-aman
[where the music was traditionally played], but I like to try to
place the audience there as much as possible, to have them picture
the sense of a Greek cabaret as it might have been in the '30s and
'40s. I love sharing this tradition, because I love the songs and
I think they're fun. And I like trying to get people to join in,
and to sing along on a few choruses.'' Sophia Bilides and her trio
will perform a concert of smyrneika at Devlin Hall, Boston College,
on Friday evening (325-3987).
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By Elijah Wald
It is no easy feat to describe Iva Bittova's work. The Czech singer-violinist,
who normally performs solo, plays music that includes elements of
both deep folk tradition and the contemporary avante garde, while
sounding completely natural and organic. Both her singing and playing
have their roots in Balkan folk styles, transmuted through some
twenty years of experimentation into something new and different.
"I say this is my own folk music,'' Bittova says, speaking
in strongly accented English from her home in a village near Brno.
"Some people say it's kind of alternative music, or avante
garde music, but for me it's more folklore, my own folklore.
Its inspiration is from nature, and also when I was a child I listened
to a lot of folklore music from East, like Balkan, Romanian and
Hungarian. My father played classical music, so I also listened
to that. But I like very much authentic folklore music, but really
On her first American album, "Eva Bittova'' (Nonesuch), the
pieces tend to start simply, with the tonalities and melodic feel
of Balkan traditional music, then to expand in surprising directions
as Bittova explores the possibilities of the original sounds. Her
technique, both as a singer and player, is formidable, but what
is most impressive is the imaginativeness of her excursions. When
she plays a familiar piece, the Yiddish theater song that Joan Baez
made famous as "Donna, Donna,'' it is so transmuted as to be
"It is very hard to have a category for this music, because
it is not usual.'' Bittova says. "When I start first to play,
some people in the audience are smiling at what I do, because it's
a special sound for them. But I think my music is quite natural.
Most of the inspiration is from nature, silence, and my children.
I live in the village, a very quiet place, I have a garden and forests
around and this is something what I really like. And in my music
there's no affect, no special image, it's really straight to the
people with the emotion.''
Many modern musicians who speak of nature and quiet produce work
that is so amorphous as to be a sort of aural wallpaper, but Bittova's
work is anything but background music. Often warm and beautifully
melodic, it can also get weird, with shrieks and odd bowing techniques.
At its best, it really does have the strengths of a self-created
folk music, the direct, stark power of the Balkan vocal tradition
or Hungarian fiddling.
In keeping with this sound, Bittova says that she prefers to play
without any amplification, though this is often not possible. Playing
acoustically gives her a natural sound, and also allows her to move
freely around the stage and even up to the audience. Indeed, she
has been noted for the theatrical movement of her live performances,
though she downplays the importance of this aspect of her work.
"I studied as an actor, but I never feel my performance as
acting,'' she says. "I was very happy and successful in the
theater, in very avante garde theater, so I have some experience
of this and I can feel very relaxed to walk on the stage and to
make some little effects, but this is not my [primary] plan, to
make show for the people. The first point of my work is to make
good music. Then, just for relaxing, improvising, I can make some
kind of humor on the stage, and I can use some little effects. Some
people say it's a very big difference to see my concert live, some
people they prefer it, but I heard also that some people like to
close their eyes and just to feel the energy and listen to the music,
and don't see what is happening.''
Bittova has been in the United States before, but without an album,
and her work has been known only to a tiny audience of cognoscenti.
This tour will presumeably reach a somewhat wider range of listeners,
but, unlike many performers reaching for the American market, Bittova
speaks of her previous visits with marked ambivalence.
"The U.S. is a huge country and the style of life goes very
fast,'' she says. "This is something which is extremely different
from what I really like. I like to be in quiet. Of course, I just
have experience from the big cities -- for sure there must be some
beautiful, quiet places -- but for me the feeling is that the life
goes very fast and if the people go to see a concert it's just one
flash and one moment in the whole day, they have so many pictures
and so many sounds in the mind. So I like to come to play, but I
hope that I will bring to the people some part of my place, my silent
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By Elijah Wald
Though few people noticed the fact, last year’s visit to
Symphony Hall found Paco de Lucía, for the first time, working
without his brother Pepe as the vocalist for his group. Instead,
he had a young singer whom many consider the finest of the new generation
of deep flamenco cantaores: Juan Cortés, or, as he is known
to the flamenco world, Duquende.
The name, Duquende explains on the phone from his home in the Sabadell
neighborhood of Barcelona, is the Russian Gypsy equivalent of "duende,"
the Spanish word that is usually translated as "soul."
It was given him when he started performing professionally. That
happened very young, even by flamenco standards.
"I started singing when I was only nine," Duquende says,
speaking in fast, street-accented Spanish. "Camarón
de la Isla played guitar for me. He was here in Barcelona, and he
invited me onstage, saying he would play the guitar. For me, it
was marvelous, to be able to say that had happened to me."
Camarón, who died in 1992, was the greatest singer in modern
flamenco. Like de Lucía, he was from Algeciras, and the two
were frequent partners. He was a singing star, who very rarely played
guitar, and for him to back up a child was the highest possible
form of support and encouragement.
For Duquende, that moment shaped his future. "Camarón
was my roots, that is where I come from," he says. "As
I see it, for everything in old-style flamenco, and everything that
can be, Camarón was the perfect singer. He had the tone,
the rhythm, everything. He had all of flamenco. He had his own style,
but based on the old ways. He always listened to the old singers
and was a great aficionado of singing."
For a flamenco artist, afición is the most important single
attribute. It is not traditionalism, exactly: Duquende, like de
Lucía, has worked with horn sections and electric instruments.
It is, rather, an understanding and passion for the essence of the
music. Anyone can be born with a great voice or fast fingers, but
to truly be flamenco one must be immersed in its world, studying,
listening, eating and breathing it. Duquende was born into a family
of Gypsy aficionados, and the sound was around him from birth.
"My grandfather played guitar and sang as well," he says.
"It was a traditional thing, a family thing. Even today, in
my house there is always flamenco. After eating, all the time, there
is always a guitar playing."
Duquende says that it is this that sets Gypsy musicians and dancers
apart from Payos (non-Gypsies) who have studied flamenco: "This
is our custom. We get it from the old women, the old men. The Payo
does not live this, and I think it is very important. One can hear
the difference. I very rarely make a mistake" guessing if an
artist is or is not a Gypsy.
Though, then again, there is de Lucía, who is by birth a
Payo. "No, no, no," Duquende laughs. "He is in the
life. Paco is not Payo, he is a myth, a star of flamenco. He is
more Gypsy than the Gypsies."
After Camarón’s death in 1992, Duquende became something
of a standard-bearer of the harsh, deep flamenco vocal style. He
worked together with Camarón’s longtime guitarist,
Tomatito, who accompanied him on an excellent solo album in 1993
(available only as an import). Thus, it was perhaps logical that
de Lucía should choose him as a vocalist. Still, Duquende
says that the invitation was quite unexpected.
"He had heard me on tapes, and at parties, Gypsy parties,
flamenco parties," he says. "He would be there, drinking
his little glass and listening. Artists like to do this, when they
don’t have to work they like to get together in a bar with
four or five aficionados and listen to singing, dancing. But it
was a very great surprise when he called me at my house. It was
my dream, the dream of my life, that Paco would call."
One wonders if it was the similarity to his old partner Camarón
that attracted de Lucía to the young singer, but Duquende
thinks not. "My style resembles his, but everyone has his own
weapon, and does what he can in the moment, when the duende comes
out," he says. "And a guitarist looks for a singer who
can be his weapon. It is not a question of style, he wants someone
who speaks, who has something in his singing."
Duquende has been touring with de Lucía for two years. He
has a vocal on the guitarist’s new CD, "Luzia" (Blue
Thumb), and de Lucía plays on two cuts of a recording Duquende
hopes to complete before flying to the U.S. Since flamenco has traditionally
been a singer’s music, some vocalists might not want to live
in the shadow of a guitar virtuoso, taking only a couple of solos
a night, but Duquende says it was his goal to be with de Lucía,
and he intends to remain in the sextet as long as he is welcome.
After all, flamenco singers do not normally tour around the world.
In flamenco, as in blues, the lack of aficionados has put the spotlight
on instrumental virtuosity rather than vocal soul. Guitar flash
is more accessible to a new audience than the darkly passionate
sound of a great cantaór.
Which is something of a tragedy. Like deep blues, deep flamenco
is in danger of disappearing. "There are very few young aficionados,"
Duquende says. "Few young people take the time to listen to
the old people, to gather roots from below in order to do new things,
to base themselves in the classic style, el flamenco puro."
So, will the music survive, or are we now seeing its last gasp?
"That, one never knows," Duquende says. "Flamenco
is a mystery, and enchantment." He pauses, and laughs: "One
never knows how the hare will jump."
Back to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald
In medieval Italy, women overcome with what would later be called
hysteria were said to have been bitten by the tarantula. They would
go into a sort of trance, and dance what came to be known as the
tarantella. Over the years, the tarantella became a popular folk
dance, but never completely lost its roots in mythology and folk
Alessandra Belloni has devoted her life to researching and performing
the tarantella and other traditional musics and dances of Southern
Italy. She has also become a virtuoso percussionist, written up
in such magazines as “Modern Drummer” and “Percussion
Source.” Which may surprise some people, since her principle
instrument is the tambourine.
“The tambourine is a very complicated instrument,”
Belloni says, on the phone from Sao Paolo, Brazil, where she is
conducting a series of concerts and percussion workshops. “Of
course the silly version of tambourine playing is just to hit it
like that, you know, but it is a very important instrument in many
cultures. In North Africa, Turkey, Egypt, the tambourine is even
a classical instrument, in the orchestra.”
Belloni, who appears at Johnny D’s on Wednesday, was born
in Rome, but her family was from the south and she had a grandfather
who played tambourine, snare drum and mandolin. “He played
this folk music,” she says. “And when I was little I
was really embarrassed at family gatherings when they used to play
this music, because we all wanted to listen to rock ’n’
roll, you know. But then, in the '70s, there was a big revival of
Italian folk music and theater and I got interested in that, and
I saw people play this tambourine, especially Alfio Antico.”
Antico was a shepherd from Sicily whose playing inspired a tambourine
revival. “In Italy he's really like a legend,” Belloni
says. “Because he was the first one to take this technique
to a very high level. When I saw him perform, something clicked,
because my grandfather used to do that. He inspired me, but I really
learned the most in the street, by following these rituals that
happen mainly in the summer in very remote areas in the South of
Italia, in Campagna, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily.”
Belloni sought out villages that had maintained ancient, often
pre-Christian traditions, and did her best to join in and learn
the local music and dances, which often lasted from evening till
dawn. At first, she encountered a good deal of suspicion, but as
her drumming technique improved, so did her reception: “In
the beginning I would get suspicious looks and a lot of challenge
-- especially the men would check me out to see if this woman could
really drum. But once I reached that point where I could just play
without getting tired, I don't have to prove myself. People now
know who I am and I'm really well received and it's fun.”
Today, Belloni says, nearly all the percussion is played by men,
but traditionally the style she plays was a woman’s style.
“The large frame drums go back to the ceremonies of Isis,
they come from Egypt, and also were used in ancient Greece and Rome.
Women priestesses used this drum a lot for rituals, for the Earth
Mother, for Cibele in Rome and also for the Moon Goddess. Men played
it too, but there was a whole specific ceremonial aspect that was
a women’s tradition.”
Belloni says that, much to her dismay, this tradition has largely
died out in recent decades. The women who played in honor of the
Black Madonna, for example, a practice with pre-Christian roots,
were from a culture that has virtually disappeared. “They
were peasants, working the earth. The frame drums that they used,
the tambourines, they used to make with the sifters that they used
to plant seeds into the earth. They used to just put a goat skin
and the little jingles on these, and make a tambourine.
“So, all of this was totally connected to the rituals for
the earth. Now, the women don't work in the fields so much, and
they've been taught by the modern society to be different, to be
civilized. So they take a job or try to look sexy and imitate the
women they see on TV. It's the same problem that is happening all
over the world, with the society. They lost touch with the earth,
and with that they lost both physical and inner strength. That's
what I believe very much. This is very profound for me. To learn
this style is not just to learn the technique, to develop the skill,
but it gives an immense amount of power, inner power, and I rediscover
a female energy that comes from the earth.”
Belloni first came to the United States in her teens, and has been
based in New York ever since, though she has often returned to Italy
to study and perform. In 1980, she was co-founder of the South Italian
music and dance group I Giullari Di Piazza, and she has collaborated
frequently with the acclaimed frame drummer Glen Velez. At Johnny
D’s, she will be accompanied by African drummer Tony Vacca,
in an effort to explore and reintegrate the African influences in
“It's gonna be my first time to do this repertory with mainly
African percussion,” she says. “It appeals to me, because
I do believe that this form of music therapy and this healing drumming
originated in Southern Italy, but in the history most of it comes
from Africa, because Africa is closer to us than Northern Europe.
All of this connected in the ancient times, and it makes a lot of
sense to do it now in America, because it really is like continuing
the normal evolution of this music.”
Belloni will be playing and singing music from all over Southern
Italy, as well as from other Mediterranean countries, and dancing
both the “Tarantella di Ogliastro,” a musical exorcism,
and the “Pizzica Tarantata,” a trance dance to cure
the mythical spider’s bite. While, to her, this music and
dance is both deeply spiritual and medicinal, and she will be doing
a workshop the following Saturday on that aspect of her work, she
adds her performance is not just for anthropologists, historians,
or healers. “This music is really live, with an immense energy,”
she says. “It's really a lot of fun.”
Back to the Archive Contents page
Greek traditional music
By Elijah Wald
Greece boasts one of the richest and most ancient musical cultures
in Europe, but in general the Greek concerts on this side of the
Atlantic are limited to contemporary pop. That makes next week’s
Festival of Greek Music and Dance at Brookline’s Hellenic
College particularly welcome. The most extensive festival of Greek
traditional styles ever to come through town, it will include instrumental
ensembles from Epiros and Crete, an Epirot polyphonic chorus, a
Cretan dance troupe, and a rembetika group, performing and giving
workshops on their respective styles.
None of the groups will be familiar to many readers -- or even
to most Greeks -- but a sample cassette proves all to be first-rate.
Their styles are, in a sense, the ancestors of modern "world"
fusions, formed at a crossroads of cultures and showing influences
from Europe, Asia, Arabia, and all the varied seafaring peoples
of the Mediterranean. They can sound like medieval European ensembles
one moment, Arabic orchestras the next, or a fascinating blend of
While the musicians come from different regions and traditions,
all have deep roots in the folk past, the days when music-making
was an avocation rather than a profession. "In the older days
it was something you did part time," explains Michalis Skoulis,
who plays in the ensemble of his father, the lyra virtuoso Vasilis
Skoulas. "They mainly participated in weddings, in baptisms,
in any social events, just where they lived. Because back then they
didn’t have cars to go around. They would be invited to play
and the weddings would take place for three or four days in a row,
and they wouldn’t stop at all. And then, when they didn’t
have weddings, they would have sheep to take care of or different
The lyra, which reaches back to the Minoan period, is probably
the oldest surviving European member of the violin family, a three-stringed,
mandolin-shaped, bowed instrument that he rests on his knee to play.
His Cretan quintet also includes mandolin, guitar, and two laoutos,
or Greek lutes, long-necked descendents of the Arabic oud.
Skoulas explains that Cretan music comes in two styles: love songs
and the "revolutionary" music they will play for the Anogia
Dance Ensemble. "They’re all rebellion dances,"
he says. "Rebels used to dance them to exercise their bodies
before they would go to fight. The rhythm that they use is quite
fast, and the dance itself it reveals a revolution within it. And
you need strong men to dance it."
Skoulas’s group and the polyphonic chorus will be performing
the oldest styles on display at the festival, music that harks back
to the dawn of European civilization. Similar traditions underlie
the somewhat more instrumentally modern ensemble of Petroloukas
Halkias, a revered clarinetist whose quintet includes two clarinets
and violin along with laouto and percussion. At 66, Halkias can
boast more than 50 years as a professional musician, including 19
living in New York, but could not be interviewed, as he speaks no
All the above groups give workshops on their styles on Thursday,
and perform a concert next Friday. Friday’s workshop and Saturday’s
main concert will feature Maryo and the Tombourlika Ensemble, playing
the most popular of Greek folk styles, rembetika and smyrneika.
Rembetika, often compared to flamenco or blues, appeared in Greece’s
harbor cities around the turn of the last century as the music of
sailors, criminals and prostitutes. "The first of the rembetiko
songs they come from jail," explains Yiannis Alexandris, the
band’s leader, who is based in the northeastern port city
of Thessalonika. "In Thessalonika there was a very old jail,
and there have been many people suffering in the older times."
Maryo, whose strong voice shimmers with Mediterranean melisma,
is one of the few divas of traditional rembetika, a music that has
been adapted and popularized by recent Greek stars, but is rarely
heard in its pure form. "The pop singers, between other things
they sing some rembetika songs in the modern way sometimes,"
Alexandris says. "But Maryo is a traditional singer, she has
been singing since she was about 13 years old, and playing the accordion
with her father around the country[side] of Greece. And only in
the last 5, 6 years she starts to make recordings and things like
that. She’s one of the last singers who can sing very good
rembetika music, the real rembetika."
Alexandris’s group will also be playing smyrneika, an older,
related style brought by Greek immigrants from Asia Minor, or Turkey.
In keeping with its geographical roots, the music mixes instruments
from the Greek and Eastern traditions, and the sextet will include
bouzouki, accordion, violin, the Arabic oud, the Persian santouri
(a hammer dulcimer), and the baglama, a sort of tiny bouzouki ("so
small that you can put it in your pocket," Alexandris says).
Old as all of these styles are, all remain popular in their native
regions, and the musicians say that there is no shortage of work.
Skoulas, for example, says that their concerts and tavern appearances
are crowded with young dancers who show the same enthusiasm as their
parents or grandparents.
"It’s a minority music, but it is very strong,"
he says. "My father says that it has always been the same situation,
and that the young people are always there. Because you’re
born in a certain place and you have certain ways of growing up,
certain things that come out without anybody teaching you how to
do them. You understand what I’m trying to say? It’s
something like the accent. Like the New York people, they grew up
in New York, they hear other people talking in a certain way and
they grow up talking the same way. This is the same thing: You grow
up in a certain place, you see all the people around you dancing,
and you dance as well."
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