David Byrne Creates a Playlist of Creative Music From Africa & the Caribbean—or What One Nameless President Has Called “Shithole Countries”

Image by LivePict, via Wikimedia Commons

However many shades of disgust that may have run through me when a certain world leader referred to Haiti and countries in Africa as “shitholes,” within hours, my head was turned in every direction by defiant, creative responses to the morally bankrupt comment that exposed the thinking behind it as completely void of knowledge and respect for the vibrancy of the countries in question. However wearying this display of ignorance, it only threw into higher relief the vitality and resiliency of African and Caribbean countries.

Few American artists have been as tuned into, and influenced by, that vitality as deeply and for as long as David Byrne. His decades-spanning engagement with African, Caribbean, and Latin American music and his founding of world music label Luaka Bop give him as much credibility on the subject as any “colonizer” (as a certain Black Panther character might teasingly say). Byrne wrote on his website in sadness and anger in response to the infamous comment. In an attempt to co-opt the word, he shared a playlist of African and Caribbean music that he called “The Beautiful Shitholes.” The reference may seem trivializing, but his purpose was serious, as he outlined in his full comments.

The question Byrne asks is whether music can “help us empathize with its makers?” Many cultural critics might look around and shake their heads. Byrne leaves the question open. His angry note is direct and directive, but even he admits that it’s a moment to vent, not to resolve a moral crisis. “Got that off my chest,” he concludes, “now maybe I can listen to some music.” Whatever degree of power we may or may not have to change cruel, bigoted policies, we always have the choice to turn our backs to xenophobes and racists and our faces to the rest of the world. Byrne invites us to do just that.

The playlist starts with four tracks from Luaka Bop compilation albums of Cuban music, whose “Afro-Cuban musical identity remained recognizable,” the label’s description notes, for "almost 500 years." Then we’re off into 32 tracks of classic and contemporary African and Caribbean music from well-known legends like Fela Kuti and Amadou & Miriam, young upstarts like Nigerian Afrobeat prodigy WizKid, and the relentlessly funky Tuareg rock stars Tinariwen. Byrne has always seemed to believe in music as a site of universal cultural exchange. His curated playlist and its unsparing title remind us that, while outrage, and action, over injustice is warranted, we can also find solutions in celebration.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Hawking Picks the Music (and One Novel) He’d Spend Eternity With: Stream the Playlist Online

Image by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

In Aspen, Colorado they hold a music festival every year and, in 1995, Stephen Hawking—who joined the cosmos this week—was there. This is where he first heard Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, considered by many the composer’s masterpiece.

“You can sit in your office in the physics centre there and hear the music without ever buying a ticket,” he said. “But on this occasion I was actually in the tent to hear the Gloria. It is one of a small number of works I consider great music.”

In 1992, the physicist was a guest on BBC Radio4’s long-running “Desert Island Discs” program to narrow down a list of music he’d take to the mythical island. Except for two pop songs, he chose classical works. You can listen to a Spotify playlist we’ve made containing the works below, or listen to the full interview with excerpts of the music here.

“I first became aware of classical music when I was 15,” he said in a Cambridge University interview. “LPs had recently appeared in Britain. I ripped out the mechanism of our old wind-up gramophone and put in a turntable and a three-valve amplifier. I made a speaker cabinet from an old book case, with a sheet of chip-board on the front. The whole system looked pretty crude, but it didn’t sound too bad."

“At the time LPs were very expensive so I couldn’t afford any of them on a schoolboy budget. But I bought Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms because it was on sale as a 10” LP, which were being phased out. The record was rather scratched, but I fell in love with the third movement, which makes up more than half the symphony.” However, on the BBC broadcast, he says the first record he bought was Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, and he made that one of his Island selections.

The whole broadcast is worth listening to for Hawking’s very personal connections to all his choices, from Wagner to the Beatles to his all-time favorite, Mozart’s Requiem. Finally the show also asks for Hawking’s favorite book—George Eliot’s Middlemarch—and a Luxury Choice, for which he chooses creme brulee.

His two main pleasures in life, he said, are physics and music.

But his final choice is the most poignant and sums up a life well lived, especially since doctors told him he had two years left…in 1963. He proved them wrong, and then some. As Edith Piaf sings, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Download 10,000 of the First Recordings of Music Ever Made, Thanks to the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive

Three minutes with the minstrels / Arthur Collins, S. H. Dudley & Ancient City. Edison Record. 1899.

Long before vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and MP3s came along, people first experienced audio recordings through another medium -- through cylinders made of tin foil, wax and plastic. In recent years, we've featured cylinder recordings from the 19th century that allow you to hear the voices of Leo Tolstoy, TchaikovskyOtto von Bismarck and other towering figures. Those recordings were originally recorded and played on a cylinder phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. But those were obviously just a handful of the cylinder recordings produced at the beginning of the recorded sound era.

Thanks to the University of California-Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive, you can now download or stream a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings. "This searchable database," says UCSB, "features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings." You can also find in the archive a number of "personal recordings," or "home wax recordings," made by everyday people at home (as opposed to by record companies).

If you go to this page, the recordings are neatly categorized by genre, instrument, subject/theme and ethnicity/nation of origin. You can listen, for example, to recordings of Jazz, RagtimeOperas, and Vaudeville acts. Or hear recordings featuring the MandolinGuitar, Dulcimer and Banjo, among other instruments. Plus there are thematically-arranged playlists here.

Hosted by UCSB (UC Santa Barbara), the archive is supported by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and other donors.

Above, hear a recording called "Three minutes with the minstrels," by Arthur Collins, released in 1899. Below that is "Alexander's ragtime band medley," featuring the banjo playing of Fred Van Eps, released in 1913.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in November, 2015.

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Take a Long, Strange Trip and Stream a 346-Hour Chronological Playlist of Live Grateful Dead Performances (1966-1995)

I am not a Deadhead nor an expert on the Grateful Dead, by any means. I am an occasional listener and, one might say, occasional enthusiast of Deadhead culture, in that I find it equal parts mystifying and fascinating. I mention all these qualifiers fully aware that thousands upon thousands of dedicated fans have spent lifetimes listening to, following, and taping the Dead. It is possible that those people have absolutely no need of what follows below, a chronological playlist of 346 hours of live Grateful Dead, tracking the band’s career on stage after stage, from their very beginnings in 1966 with the talented and tragic Pigpen to their tragic end with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.

Completists may scoff and quibble—I can't tell what's missing here. I speak for those who kind of get it and kind of don't—somewhere between people “who believe that the Dead only ever stumbled,” as Nick Paumgarten writes at The New Yorker, and those who “believe that they only ever soared.” Sometimes, maybe a lot of times, the Grateful Dead just sounded awful, and I dare anyone to prove otherwise. But the same could be said of a lot of great bands, who have all had far less longevity and proficiency.

And so much depends on the quality of the recording, to be fair, not a given in most Dead tapes. Then there’s the “copious drug use, an aversion to rehearsal, and a genuine anarchic streak.” But when they were in phase and in time, and sometimes even when they weren't, they could be "glorious":

The chance at musical transcendence amid a tendency toward something less—was what kept us coming back. This argument is a little like the East Coaster’s on behalf of his weather: the nice days are nicer when there are crappy ones in between.

Writing, he says, as an “apologist,” Paumgarten claims that the Dead’s ups and down were largely the result of their most talented and “charismatic figure” Jerry Garcia’s erratic performances. “When he had a bad night, you knew it. The others, when they were off, could sort of hide.” When he was on, his “iridescent guitar leads” were transporting (check out his effortless country licks at the top in "Big River"). But his strength waned, and the band lost much of its energy in later years.

Another Dead fan, Marc Weingarten, writes at Slate in praise of the “famously varied… architecture of band leader Jerry Garcia’s frequently transcendent guitar work,” and blames not Garcia's decline for the band’s decline in general but, you probably guessed it, Deadhead fans, who harbor an “a priori assumption… that Dead shows were always magic and that the magic could be routinely summoned on a nightly basis.”

Perhaps unfair. Sometimes fans could make a bad show magical... ish. And it's impossible to imagine the Grateful Dead without their rabid fanbase, who crucially allowed the band to grow, expand, and experiment, always assured of a packed house. But a large part of the Dead’s appeal, to casual fans, at least, is that they were only human. Dudes you could totally get high with (on the power of music!). That’s right, I’ll say it, take a long strange trip. Come back in 346 hours and tell us what you found.

Stream the "Grateful Dead Full Live Chronology" playlist above, or find it on Spotify here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Marjorie Eliot Has Held Free Jazz Concerts in Her Harlem Apartment Every Sunday for the Past 25 Years

I spent a good part of a decade-long sojourn through New York City in Harlem—at the neighborhood’s threshold at the top of Central Park, just a short walk from its historic main attractions: jazz haunts, famed restaurants, theaters, architectural splendor and wide, vibrant avenues. After a while, I thought I knew Harlem well enough. Then I moved to Sugar Hill, at the very edge of the island, across the water from Yankee Stadium. Usually overlooked, leafy street after street of stately brownstones and pre-World War I apartment buildings, sometimes worse for wear but always regal. A few avenue blocks from my building: St. Nick’s Pub, which I became convinced, for good reason, was the city’s true remaining heart of jazz.

Shuttered, to the neighborhood’s dismay, in 2012, the humble bar—where, on any given night, Afro-jazz, hard bop, free jazz, and classic swing ensembles of the very finest musicians performed from dusk till dawn, passing the hat to an always appreciative crowd—was, as a New York Times obituary for the deceased nightspot wrote, “simply magical… one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Harlem.”  But then, I didn’t visit Marjorie Eliot’s apartment. I remember seeing her play at St. Nick’s a time or two, but never made it over to 555 Edgecombe Avenue, Apartment 3-F. This was to my great loss.

It’s not too late. Since 1994, Ms. Eliot, a jazz pianist, has carried on a grand tradition of Harlem's from its golden ages, with weekly house concerts in her parlor, “Harlem’s secret jazz queen of Sugar Hill,” writes Angelika Pokovba, “single-handedly upholding the musical legacy of a neighborhood that nurtured legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.”

Except she isn’t single-handed, as you can see in the videos here, but always joined by a talented crew of players whom she handpicks and pays out of pocket. The hat is passed, but no one’s obligated to pay, there are no tickets, door charges, or drink minimums; all you’ve got to do is show up at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon.

Marjorie greets each guest at the door. A full house is a crowd of up to 50 people. The atmosphere is reserved and family friendly, a far cry from the riotous rent parties of legend. But this is the place to be, say both the regulars and the musicians, like saxophonist Cedric Show Croon, who told NPR, “When you play here you have to be honest. You can only play in an honest way, you know.” You can get a small taste of the intimacy here, but to truly experience Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s—as a Harlem culture guide notes—you’ve got to travel uptown yourself.

“Rain or shine, with no vacations,” the free concerts have gone on for 25 years now, beginning, as you’ll see in the video above, with a tragedy, the death of Eliot’s son Philip in 1992. The following year, on the anniversary of his death, she arranged an outdoor concert on the lawn of Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. Then, the next year, the memorial moved to her apartment and became a weekly gig that carried her through more terrible loss—the death of another son and the disappearance of a third.

Eliot refused to give up on the music that kept her going, creating community in an easygoing, open-hearted way. “This idea of sharing and celebrating the music came real early,” she told NPR. “So I don’t do anything different now than when Aunt Margaret is coming over and come show what you did in your lessons.” As you’ll see in the videos here—and experience in full, no doubt, if you can make the trip: Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s is anything but an ordinary Sunday afternoon with Aunt Margaret.

Via Messy Nessy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Periodic Table of David Bowie: A Visualization of the Seminal Artist’s Influence and Influences

Mick Jagger ...

Dada poet Tristan Tzara

Chairman Mao…

What do these 20th-century icons have in common?

Correct! They’re also all elements on artist Paul Robertson's Periodic Table of Bowie.

The late musician David Bowie was a skin-shedding chameleon, and a remarkably stable isotope. His creative influences were varied.

Robertson's table debuted in 2013 as part of the Victoria & Albert David Bowie is exhibition, three years before rock's seminal Starman exited the planet. Following a 12-city tour, it's taking its final bow at the Brooklyn Museum.

“I’m not an idiot,” the artist confided in an interview. “I know that people are mostly interested in it because it’s David Bowie. But I think it’s still a valid artwork.”

In addition to positioning such influences as collaborator John Lennon, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and former roommate Iggy Pop as atomic numbers, Robertson's table allows for artists who came after.

"Fly My Pretties Fly (Thank You. We'll Take It From Here)" includes Lady Gaga, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, and fellow dandy, Morrissey, while Bowie's 90s-era costumer, designer Alexander McQueen and artist Jeff Koons hold down "History Is a Choice the Future Decides Upon."

Fittingly, author Oscar Wilde appears in the Hydrogen slot.

Buy a print of the Periodic Table of Bowie here.

Explore David Bowie is in person at the Brooklyn Museum through July 15.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Moog This!: Hear a Playlist Featuring 36 Hours of Music Made with the Legendary Analog Synthesizer

Part of what makes electronic music so wide-reaching and sonically far-seeing, so to speak, is its diversity of influences—classical composition, avant-garde theory, punk and funk energy, the sounds of factories and city streets worldwide—and its range of innovative instrumentation. But foremost among those instruments, many classic analogue synthesizers of old are now found in virtual environments, where their pots, keys, patch bays, and pitch wheels get simulated on laptops and MIDI controllers. Something is lost—a certain “aura,” as Walter Benjamin might say. A certain tremulous imprecision that hovers around the edges of synthesizers like those designed by Robert Moog.

Moog’s creations, writes David McNamee “ooze character” and are “the most iconic synthesizers of all time. FACT.” For this reason, Moog’s analog creations still hold market share as modern instruments while remaining legacy items for their transformation of entire genres of popular music since the 1960s, even though the engineer-inventor had no musical training himself and no real interest at first in making particularly usable instruments.

“Massive, fragile and impossible to tune,” a function Moog initially dismissed, once the Moog was made portable and liberated from specialized, wonky domains, it became a primary compositional tool and both a lead and rhythm instrument.

The Moog’s fuzzy, wobbly, warm sounds are unmistakable; they can purr and thunder, and the breadth of their capabilities is surprising given their relative simplicity. We’ve told their story here before and followed it up with a ten-hour playlist of Moog and Moog-inspired classics. Today, we bring you the playlist above, “Moog This!” which takes a leftfield approach to the theme, and will catch even serious electronic music fans off guard with its selections of not only obscure new sounds inspired by legends like Giorgio Moroder and Vangelis—the music of Firechild, for example—but also tracks from these legends that sit just to the left of their most famous compositions.

Rather than the usual, brilliantly futuristic Donna Summer dance track “I Feel Love”—the Spotify curator here goes for the similar-sounding, but much more elaborate instrumental “Chase” (top), the only track here from Moroder. Rather than the era-defining “West End Girls”—the Pet Shop Boys' perfect downtempo 1984 pop song—we get “Men and Maggots,” from their moody 2005 score for Sergei Eisenstein’s perfect silent film, Battleship Potemkin. That’s not to say there aren’t any vocal tracks here, but they are mostly of the abstract, highly effected variety, like those from Boards of Canada and Air.

All in all, “Moog This!” the playlist shows what the synthesizer is capable of outside the context of mainstream pop, while still capturing the qualities that make it an ideal vehicle for accessible, emotional music, a pleasing tension so well harnessed by the analog synth-obsessed Stranger Things soundtrack, which, like most of the tracks here, manages to sound both like the soundtrack of a much cooler past and of very cool future.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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