Sunday, February 27, 2011

Coming Home to Rome

This blog sure has led me to explore so many parts of my heritage. I braved the Mormon past, dug through my Southern heritage, and now, I am exploring the homeland of my maternal heritage: Italy. When I was growing up, I thought my whole family was Italian. Even my loud, passionate father. It is often said that the mother of the family usually has the responsibility of passing on the cultural heritage, and that was true in my upbringing. We ate pasta 4 nights a week, shouted in every conversation, and held grudges for lengths of time that only a Sicilian can brag about. In church, I used to sing without a microphone. Everyone was amazed at my ability to project, but I always gave the credit to my loud Italian family.  Music and art was also encouraged and supported in my home, and being in Italy now makes it easy to see why. The architecture here is amazing. Simply mind blowing. Every detail can be seen as important. Every position and shape has symbolism. Everything was well thought out. I used to think I was weird for being so intense in my thinking, but now I can see that I am just Italian.

My favorite stop was the Leonardo da Vinci museum. It is small, but the information was so inspiring. da Vinci was so intensely curious. His mind came up with design that gave us the car, the bicycle, diving equipment, and so many other machines. After walking through the museum, I felt inspired to be confident in being deeply curious about the world. We need more curious minds.

Of course I visited the Colosseum, a place famous for Gladiator fighting and other violent spectacles. Me being who I am, I found the place disturbing, knowing that fighting to the death was once a form of entertainment. That being said, the structure was mind boggling. How did they do it? How did they build that structure in 80 A.D.? There is so much I still don't understand.

The Pantheon was another mind boggling place. It was built originally as a Pagan temple in the 1st century. Again, my amazement in our human capabilities was overwhelming.

My only criticism of Rome is I only hear American music. I don't understand this. Italians have such a rich history of producing great music. In school, we only studied Italians for the first part of every music history class. The Romans invented musical notation. The greatest composers were Italian until the Viennese took over that title. Growing up, we listened to a lot of Opera, and in school, I studied Italian Art Song for 4 years, competing and translating, making sure every note was perfect, and every accent correct. Italian music, classical and folk, is gorgeous. I wish I could hear more of it. Even the spoken language has a musicality to it. When I listen to the locals converse, they all seem to speak in the same musical key. There is a melodic quality to their speech. It feels like music. I can see why music comes so naturally to this culture.

The most wonderful thing about being in Italy, for me, has been identifying with a culture I always felt I belonged too. Stepping off the plane, I looked around and thought I had stepped into a family reunion. There is something very comforting about recognizing all the faces in one city. I have never had that before. The most Italians I have ever been around where in Philadelphia visiting my sister, and that was still very different from this. Here, I recognize the mannerisms that have continued to be passed down into my American version of the culture. The hand movements, the projected voices, the appreciation for beauty, and the appreciation for good food. My cousin, Peter, told me that the first time he visited Italy, he felt like he was coming home. I have to say I agree. It's nice to be home.

Friday, February 18, 2011

When Do I Get To Be Called A Man? (1955)

Before the Civil Rights Movement, a Black Man was always called "Boy." Never Sir. Ever. Can you imagine how humiliating that would be for a man to be called "Boy" in front of his wife or daughter?

When Do I Get to be Called a Man
by Big Bill Broonzy

When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me
I was never called a man, and now I'm fifty-three
I wonder when
I wonder when
I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?

When Uncle Sam called me, I knowed I'd be called a real McCoy
But it was no different, they just called me soldier boy
I wonder when
I wonder when
I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?

When I got back from overseas, that night we had a ball
But I met the boss the very next day, he said Boy get you some overalls
I wonder when
I wonder when
I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?

I've worked on the farms, levee camps, and axer gangs too
But a Black man's a boy, don't care what he can do
I wonder when
I wonder when
I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?

I was called a plough boy on a farm and a soldier boy in camp hill
Now I'm just old and gray and they just calls me Uncle Bill
I wonder when
I wonder when
I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?

They said I was uneducated, my clothes was worn and torn
Now I've got a little education, but I'm a boy right on
I wonder when
I wonder when
I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Soundtrack For A Revolution

A few weeks ago, I was at a student's house discussing Black History Month and music. When I told them about my interest in how music played a role in the Civil Rights Movement, my student's mom whipped out a DVD and said, "Well you're gonna love this!" Turns out, my student's father created a film on this very subject! Amazing! That's what living in Los Angeles is like. You never really know who you are talking to.

I brought it home and watched the whole thing. About 15 minutes into it, I even saw a riot scene from my home town. Represent! ;) There are amazing performances by The Roots, Wyclef, Joss Stone. All of the musicians in the film perform songs that helped transform an entire nation during the unpredictable 60's movement. I have seen a lot of footage from this time period, and I think this film is the best introduction for modern viewers. Young people especially will be able to relate to very old spirituals re-done in a modern voice. I was very impressed with how relevant the songs sounded to the world today. The thing about the spirituals and protest songs of the past that I love so much is that I can relate to them today. When I hear someone sing "Oh Freedom" I think about Egypt, Gay Rights, Immigration, War. I think of everything that is happening today.

Music plays such an important role in changing the way society thinks. This is one of the best films I have seen in demonstrating this. I checked, and you can watch it on Netflix instant streaming. Enjoy!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Music Equals Love

Greetings from a tiny room in Los Angeles, piled high with books and consumed by a baby-grand piano. Happy Valentines Day. I hope you enjoyed that beautiful love song performed by two of my favorite guys, John Lennon and George Harrison.

There are many ways to feel love. There is love for yourself, when you decided to finally make those changes that will make you happier, and therefore, make others around you happier.

There is love for the world around you:

There is the kind of love you feel for your friends.

And of course, there is the love you feel for your first girlfriend in Kindergarten.

Have a great V-Day, everyone! No matter what, know that you are loved!!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Watching Waiting Dreaming

Today I found these awesome prints at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The prints of Gandhi, Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King, Jr are the work of Los Angeles artist Robbie Conal. Once we get them framed they will live happily in the living room, right next the John Lennon photograph I received as a gift this past Christmas. Yay!
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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

José González - Fold - A Take Away Show

I was listening to this song today on my walk.
Sometimes I think he is singing to the world.

"Please don't let me down this time,
I've come a long way to just Fold back into line."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Feist - When I Was A Young Girl (Paris)

What a fascinating mix of roots tribal music, dirty blues,
Euro-folk pop, and classic rock and roll.

Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday

The first time I heard this song was through headphones. I always loved Billie Holiday's voice, but to really  experience her music, you have to watch her. Her facial expressions are so honest and heartfelt. You can tell that she deeply understands what she is singing about. She has seen it. The term "Strange Fruit" is a metaphor for lynchings. In the old south, when slaves became liberated, the white southerners became very angry when their "state's rights" to own human beings were made illegal. They began intimidation of the freed slaves. This is when the Ku Klux Klan became very powerful.

Billie Holliday was raised in Philadelphia, but her parents remembered life in the south. Billie was aware of the lynchings that took place in southern neighborhoods to blacks who simply said anything that could be taken as "dis-resepctful" to whites (as a Yankee in the south... I know how easy it is to accidently do this.) The song "Strange Fruit," and especially her magnificent performance, pushed northerners to "understand" how terrifying life still was in the post-Confederate south.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Miles Davis

Arcade Fire

Ok, I know I am supposed to be talking about Black History Month, and somehow, by the end of this post, I will link it to the main topic. I also believe in living in the moment, and right at this moment, I have to share my thoughts on Arcade Fire...

Yesterday, I went on a long walk while listening to the Arcade Fire album "Funeral." By the time I finished my walk, practiced some yoga, and started my writing practice, I had listened to the album THREE times. I could not stop listening. Do you know that feeling of hearing an album that seems to speak right to your soul? Whatever emotional and mental processes you are going through at that moment in time comes up and is almost completely resolved by the end of the album? That was what happened to me, except it took me three listens...

I have heard reviews of Arcade Fire on NPR, and seen the hype all over the internet, but I do not pay attention to these things. Ever since I was 14, I knew the music industry was warped and controlled by profits (or is it prophets?), so I almost never pay attention to what others say about music. I try to always form my own opinions. Well, after hearing enough hype, and being emotionally pulled into a few songs, I decided to give it my undivided attention. WHOA. I get it!

There is a very deep reason why Arcade Fire is making such an impact at this moment in time. I am certain that many music nerds like myself have their own well-formulated opinions. My opinion is based on my personal experiences as a songwriter and a human, as well as my observations of the world around me. Listening to Arcade Fire brought me back to Middle School... that was the first year my family lived in the Suburbs.

"Funeral" is the first work of artistic expression I have experienced that takes me back to the odd mix of shiny new 90's "architecture" and isolation that exists in the suburbs. I remembered white kids from clean, middle class homes with giant chips on their shoulders, sporting big-puffy L.A. Raiders coats (in Florida, BTW...) and giant J'enco jeans, staring me down and saying the nastiest things you can imagine.  There was a lot of pent up rage in the suburbs.  It was confusing. On one hand, you would hear the rap music, that all of these suburban kids adored, on MTV playing as a soundtrack to videos shot in, frankly, scary ghettos.... Then I would go to school and see kids getting out of shiny new cars, kissing their parents goodbye, and then slinking around the school like little white gangsters...

For me, I could not relate. I liked guitars and singing and pianos and violins. And shaggy hair. So I was drawn to the Grunge scene. There were only a few of us in the neighborhood, and Arcade Fire reminds me of this time!

The song that hit me the most yesterday was "Wake Up."

"Somethin filled up my heart with nothin. Someone told me not to cry. Now that I'm older, My heart's colder, and I can see that it's a lie."

The song opens up with those totally heartfelt, honest lyrics. I relate to them. With every generation that passes, this secret becomes revealed. Boomers saw the giant facade they were forced to live in with their 1950's style game of pretend. The show "Mad Men" is such a beautiful re-enactment of that emotionally-cold time period, and if any of you have parents raised in that time period, I highly recommend it. It will most likely fill you with compassion for the ridiculous world they grew up in...

Anyway--the Boomers saw through this facade and fought with all their might with what tools they had. Gen-X pushed it along further, and I remember looking up to them and thinking they were so cool and rebellious and honest.  Arcade Fire reminds me of the dilemma of Generation Y. We have already seen two generations grow up and try desperately to fight against what society tells them is "normal" yet we still struggle with our own process of getting older...

I turned 30 last year and I am married, a home owner, but still no kids... I don't want to have kids! Yet, there is still a push in the culture to do this, and I often find myself struggling to explain to others why I do not want to conform to this norm. The music of Arcade Fire seems to pour out this same mix of confidence, hesitation, frustration, confusion, and isolation. The song "Wake Up" sings:

"Children, wake up. Hold your mistake up, before they turn the summer into dust. And Children, don't grow up. Our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up. We're just a million little gods causin' rain storms turnin' every good thing to rust! I guess we'll just have to adjust..."

That last line breaks my heart into a million little pieces. I know that feeling. At some point, we all finish adolescence, or our twenties or high school or college, and we realize, life is not going to be fun anymore. Reality is cold and I have to harden my heart in order to get through this existence.

Perfectly placed at the end of the album is the comforting song "Rebellion (Lies)"

"Sleeping is giving in, no matter what the time is. Sleeping is giving in, so lift those heavy eyelids. People say that you'll die, faster than without water. But we know it's just a lie, scare your son, scare your daughter. Everytime you close your eyes, lies, lies."

No matter what our age, we ALL know what that one feels like. After 10 years of fear-based media and government telling us to be on high alert and constantly afraid, we have been asleep just trying to avoid the fear of terrorism and war.  I love the verse that goes like this:

"Now here's the sun, it's alright! (Lies! Lies!) Now here's the moon, it's alright! (Lies! Lies!)"

Yes! Isn't that the truth? In this moment, everything is fine. The sun is out and it is beautiful. The moon lately has been more beautiful than ever to me. My life with my husband and friends and dogs is the most peaceful it has ever been, and that has absolutely nothing to do with the world around me. Why should I live in fear when there is so much beauty around me?

"I like the peace in the backseat. I don't have to drive. I don't have to speak. I can watch the countryside, and I can fall asleep." 

My mind is so active and alert sometimes, that I feel like I want to just fall asleep. This is why I meditate.  There are moments when it can all get to be too much. The world is in a constant state of chaos, it seems.  If you care at all, it can become quite overwhelming. Music helps me find a moment of peace. Listening to Arcade Fire pour their hearts out to me through my Marshall headphones (which I deeply love and recommend, btw) was just the retreat I needed yesterday! It's inspiring and so exciting to know about a group of musicians who are fearless enough to tell you exactly what is on their minds, no matter how vulnerable it makes them appear. We all need a lot of honesty right now to help get us through this shaky time period. Buy their albums and go to their shows. We need to support musicians like Arcade Fire.

Hmmm, how do I link this to Black History Month?

I spent about 10 minutes trying to write something that made an ounce of sense, and I couldn't do it. Please forgive me. I will write something inspiring about Black History Month tonight! Promise!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Videos for February

Here are some songs that I am finding inspiring lately:

I love Nina's version of this song.

I had no idea what this song was about until I saw this video! I'm young, I know...

Ahhhh. Can we just play this song over and over again for a few hours?
Give us something to think about.

The Times They Are Changing INDEED!

Legend has it that this song helped free the slaves!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

It's February: Let's Show Some Respect

My favorite month for music education has finally arrived! Every Januray, I start thinking about how I will teach readers and students about the importance of African American contribution to American music history. Oh-- sorry-- in case you didn't know, it's Black History Month! Yes, there are places where this fact may not be well known, unfortunately.  I worked for 4 years at an Orthodox Jewish girls school that didn't even celebrate MLK day...... I would often walk into the classroom in a huff and in an irritated voice say, "Do you know what day this is????" I've calmed down my approach since then...

James Weldon Johnson: Jacksonville Native, Composer, Poet, Activst

In a recent post, I mentioned being raised in the south. Jacksonville, FL is a very interesting combination of  beach cities, military town, and Civil Rights hotspot. When I was 6 years old, my New York executive father lost his job, and we had to move from our giant home in Danbury, Connecticut to a tiny town in North Florida. Back then, it was called "Fruit Cove," but now it is called "Julington Creek." Back then, it was a nice hybrid of northern transplants like us, and local southern natives. Very interesting.  That was the first time I heard the word "Yankee." The southern parents really hated that I did not call them Ma'am or Sir, and I remember thinking that they were very rude to their children! Talk about a clash of cultures! 

Zora Neale Hurston: Another North Florida Fave I Grew Up Hearing About

We lived there for about 6 years. It was all white, except for one Asian family, and my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Threet.  She was my hero. Probably the main reason why I care so much about this month. Ms. Threet was both a compassionate and inspiring teacher. She brought Whitney Houston tapes in for us to listen to, danced with us, and made us laugh constantly! I looked forward to seeing her every single day. I had perfect attendance in 5th grade, and that was an easy accomplishment.  When our Social Studies book brought us to the Segregation era, I remember the room being very still.  Ms. Threet was living in Jacksonville during that tense time period. We were living in the 80's version of that time-period.  We were all very quiet and reverent while Ms. Threet talked about the KKK and how they made it very difficult for progress to occur. 

The Author of This Book, A White Man, Brought Justice Against the KKK.
Oh yeah - I was in Ms. Threet's class with his granddaughter.

When audiences ask me why I, a white girl, care so much about this, I think of Ms. Threet. I think that was the first time in my childhood when I felt the most intense combination of sadness, compassion, and anger. I hated the thought of my hero being treated like a second class citizen, and I hated that she still was the only black teacher in the entire school. Didn't that make her feel lonely? She seemed to get along with us better than the adults, too. She always had a smile and a friendly joke for everyone, sure, but I remember feeling special, because she saved her best jokes and smiles for us. Even after I moved away from Fruit Cove, I would talk on the phone with Ms. Threet, and tell her how lonely I was in Jacksonville, and how strange this place was to me. She was very comforting, and I still get a little teary-eyed when I think about her.

The Civil Rights Movement was Strong in Jacksonville

When I finally got to high school, I auditioned for and attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (DASOTA). DASOTA was an all black segregated school up until the passing of the civil rights act in 1964. In the early 80's, a brilliant woman, Jane Condon, turned it into a NYC style arts school. We were proudly the most liberal of all the public high schools in the area. On my first day of school, as a Vocal Major, we had to learn the old Negro Spiritual "There is a Balm in Gilead." After that, we learned the song "Go Down Moses." It wasn't long before I began to learn more about the history of this great music. 

From there, the education continued. I learned about great black writers in my English classes and my History teachers never held back in describing the atrocities that happened in my own city just  a decade before I arrived in this world. We read "Invisible Man," "Their Eyes Were Watching God," "Beloved," "The Bluest Eye," "Raisin in the Sun," "Black Boy," and many, many more books that forced us to empathize with the racist past of the region. It made it very hard to genuinely love Jacksonville. 

Invisible Man taught me about Racism in both the North & the South

But the fascinating thing about Jacksonville is that the rebel spirit continues on both sides. The rednecks still exist and the freedom fighters are still going strong. I couldn't stay. I was too aware of the fact that there are other parts of the country that don't have the same kind of shameful past and racial tensions as the south. It was too painful to work in the ghetto for 3 years and see how intense the poverty levels and class divisions are. You can really see how the history still effects the present there.  My activist friends would often say that they would stay there and continue to help. I felt a bit like a coward when I left, but I think that living on the liberal west coast has helped me to process what I know, and figure out how I can continue to help. 

Ray Charles Grew Up In North Florida, Too!

Music education is what taught me about racism and Social Justice. It opened my eyes to the pain and suffering that existed in the past, and continues to exist today. A song captures a feeling in history. Not just a moment, but a feeling. When my choir sang "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the Black National Anthem, I couldn't get through it without feeling an intense amount of compassion, and I know I wasn't alone. It was a universal feeling, and I could tell that as I looked over at the great-great-grandchildren of slaves, knowing that I am a great-great-granddaughter of slave-owners, and there was a mutual feeling of sorrow in our eyes and voices. Our teachers taught us to never forget this dark part of our past, and to never let it happen again. So every year, I remind you! 

American music has evolved from the merger of African and European music. We are such a unique musical culture, but the history of that music culture is intense and some times, hard to honestly talk about. Our modern culture likes to brag about equality, and it is hard to admit to such a horrible history. But I believe, and many psychologists will back me up on this, that ignoring the history only stunts our growth. 

This month, I will do my best to bring you some wisdom about music and Black History in honor of all the musicians who fought hard to end segregation, lynchings, and many legal forms of racism. Musicians have always been integrated, and we have always had the responsibility of showing the world that races can easily come together to create beautiful works of artistic expression.