Posts Tagged ‘ bela fleck

The Depth and Broad Reach of Communal Music

On the way back from a gig last Friday, I was lulled from my late-night subway stupor by a dude serenading straphangers with his 12-string. I had run into Darrell a handful of times before, occasionally sung him songs at his prodding, and always listened to his renditions with pleasure though he understandably never remembers me among the ocean of weary-faced New Yorkers he attempts to rouse with song. This time, he handed me his guitar and entreated me to sing some Beatles tunes together. A girl sitting across the subway, an invisible face only minutes before, joined in. Other subway riders looked up– pleased, irritated, or distracted.

It’s a pretty fantastic feeling to be making music off stage with someone you don’t know. In a city of invisible walls, it’s even more special to reach across and make an instantaneous, if momentary, connection with other human beings.

Karen Loew published this beautiful column today in The Atlantic on “How How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life (And why we should bring it back)”.

The reasons why are legion. We are insecure about our voices. We don’t know the words. We resent being forced into an activity together. We feel uncool. And since we’re out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.

This is a loss. It’s as if we’ve willingly cut off one of our senses: the pleasure center for full lungs and body resonance and shared emotion and connection to our fellow man.

The more I work in the music industry, the deeper I get into the craft of making music– which I love dearly– the more that I believe that the richest music lies not on stages and concert halls, not in headphones or subwoofers, but in the spontaneous joining of voices. For thousands of years before BMI and ASCAP, before sheet music, wax cylinders, the phonograph or the mp3, music existed as something possessed jointly by everyone in a community and open for anyone to participate in its creation.

One of the (relatively few) places where this paradigm continues strongly is within Gospel music and churches of various denominations throughout the country. While pop artists are “dumbing down” their melodies and rhythms, simplifying their music in order to reach the widest potential audience, in churches, it is shocking and inspiring the number of non-musicians– “laypeople”, if you will– who feel so strongly attached to and participate in what is incredibly sophisticated, demanding music.

It’s not surprising, then, that gospel music has played an in-extractable role in the development of American music for at least the last century, and that churches have produced many of the best musicians and performers from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Billy Preston to Chris Dave.

During a trip to South Africa last year, I had the great treat to meet Fatima Asmal-Motala, who graciously took me to visit a small Muslim after-school program in a Zulu “township” about half an hour outside Durban. The poverty was absolutely shocking: as far as the eye could see, slums thrust about on the sides of hills, people living in overturned shipping containers, walls thrown together from various discarded sources makeshift dwellings.

The real treat, however, was to get to hear the children, ranging from what might have been ages 7-15, sing devotional songs together in Zulu, English and Arabic. The sound of their voices together and the smiles on their faces were as inspiring as the desolate setting left me, a sheltered product of the first world, speechless.

In her article, Loew points out the few instances of its survival in American society, including during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games:

Belting at baseball games is an example of something essential, Schmid said. “No one there is worried about whether they’re good enough. That’s a wonderful feeling—that’s what I think we need to restore. That sense that: I’m good enough. I’m a happy amateur singer. I’m just going to let it out.”

As I mentioned in my most recent post, along with the Clinton Curtis Band I’ve been selected by the U.S. State Department to embark on an American Music Abroad tour later in 2012 or 2013, during which we’re excited not only to propagate and provide a vessel for American folk music traditions, but also to engage with and learn from the communal music of wherever they choose to send us.

One other related aside– I recently got around to seeing Béla Fleck‘s 2008 film Throw Down Your Heart, in which he journeys through Africa in search of the roots and progeny of the banjo, performing with talented artists and folk musicians from a number of countries. Great music and inspiring fare from start to finish.

Banjo transcription: Béla Fleck’s “Half Moon Bay”

This year, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones are reuniting for a tour with harmonica and keyboard virtuoso Howard Levy, a former band member for their first several albums in the early 90’s.  In honor of the gathering of so much talent, I’ve dug out and updated a transcription I did years ago of a gem from the Flecktones first (self-titled) album: “Half Moon Bay“.

Back in the early 90’s, the group featuring more striking jazz edge, both in sound and composition– Béla had set out to prove that the banjo was a legitimate instrument to use in modern jazz. Years later, when he had undeniably achieved this, the group evolved to take on the sounds of numerous different musical cultures, but on their debut record, many of the tunes fit into standard 32 bar forms with melodies that could occasionally be called be-bop (“Hurricane Camille”).

“Half Moon Bay” is one of those– an AABA form with simple be-bop harmony that one might find in a Charlie Parker tune.  However, the composition makes brilliant use of the capabilities of the banjo, both of its open strings and of the 3-finger picking style native to bluegrass music.  Fleck weaves together counterpoint reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied violin and cello works (some of which he would later reinterpret for banjo on his 2001 record Perpetual Motion).

I’ve included 2 charts for this transcription: the banjo part, in both notation and tablature, and a lead sheet, with notation of both the banjo part and Howard Levy’s harmonica part.  Levy plays diatonic, not chromatic harp, and yet he has managed to develop a technique in which he bends the harmonica reeds in order to seamlessly reach chromatic notes.  This incredible feat is something like playing a piano with only white keys, but “bending” the piano strings to reach the “black” notes. Listening to him improvise fluidly on “Half Moon Bay” and the rest of the album is mind boggling.

So here’s to the reuniting original lineup of The Flecktones– and the strides that they’ve all continued to make in music in the twenty years since the release of that album.

You can stream Half Moon Bay here, and download transcriptions at the link above.

Note: The download link below will take you to a check-out dialogue but will NOT ask for any credit card information– it’s entirely free!

Bela Fleck Banjo Tab "Half Moon Bay"

Bela Fleck Banjo Sheet Music "Half Moon Bay"