Friday, February 26, 2010

Multicultural Music

It can be funny where coffee shop conversations can take you. This morning, Rawley was working on a crossword puzzle, and the clue "Balkan" was given for a four letter word beginning with s. He said he was going with "slav." (It turned out to be "serb," but that was later.) So when I went back inside, I asked Hessina, who is finishing a dissertation on Balkan music, if Balkan and Slav were more or less synonymous. She said there was overlap, but Slav refers to more specifically the Russian influenced part of the area, and Balkan refers to a broader area, heritage and culture. As she was describing various cultural influences in the area- Russian, Roma and Indian, among others- I thought of some of my favorite musical forms, and how they had arisen as cultures met and influenced each other.

In particular, I thought of the region of Spain known as Galicia. Following the Crusades, Arabic warriors conquered and held portions of Spain. As an aside, this was pretty important for the foundations of western science: it allowed Europeans the opportunity to rediscover classic Greek and Roman literature that Arab scholars had preserved, as well as a wealth of Arabic thought. Loreena McKennit is Canadian, and started out in her early work as a mostly solo Celtic harpist. As she grew, she became fascinated with the influence of the Arabic occupation of Spain on Celtic Music. The northwest corner of that country, Galicia, is Celtic in culture and music.

Now I love nearly all of Loreena McKennitt's music, but I have to admit I was a little startled when The Mummers' Dance started showing up on alternative rock radio and cable channels toward the end of the 90's. (I love this song, but that guy rockin' out on the hurdy gurdy cracks me up)

After McKennitt clued me in to Galicia, I was going through the folk section at a music store, and picked up an album with mostly Spanish text, but prominently labeled "Celtic Music From Galicia." It was a spur-of-the moment decision, but one of the most profitable such I've ever made. I had discovered Milladoiro. This is not on an album I owned, but it's one I liked: The Clumsy Lover.

This next is the closing song of that album, Castellum Honesti, a hauntingly beautiful farewell: Invernia.

And as long as I'm on the topic of cultural mashups with Celtic Music, I'd be remiss not to mention Afro Celt Sound System. This was more of an intentional project rather than a "natural" cultural merger, but I still love the result. The volume is awfully low on this, but I'd rather watch the musicians perform than a bunch of random pictures strung together. The song is Whirl-Y-Reel, off their first album.

I remarked to Hessina that I'd really like to track down some of the music she's studying, and that in my experience, a number of cultures interacting with each other often created fascinating and beautiful music. She agreed, thanked me for the question and opportunity to discuss a topic she enjoys discussing, and hurried off to an appointment.

It's not music per se, but random interactions with people in a coffee shop can produce much of the same effect. It can be funny where coffee shop conversations can take you.

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