Hugh Masekela – “Grazing In the Grass”

Hugh MasekelaThis South African trumpeter scored a massive worldwide hit with “Grazing In The Grass,” becoming one of the biggest names in African music in the process.

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has at times been cursed in his life. But he’s emerged on the other side, coming back strong since the end of apartheid, settled back at home, having conquered demons personal and political. He is still making music on the cornet and flugelhorn and singing.

 

Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank, near Johannesburg. Masekela showed musical ability from a young age, and began to play piano as a child. Inspired by the movie Young Man with a Horn, Masekela began to play the trumpet, encouraged by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston, who helped him acquire the instrument.

At Huddleston’s request, Masekela then received tuition in trumpet playing form Uncle Sauda, who played for the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Municipal Brass Brand. Masekela soon mastered the trumpet, and began to play with other aspiring musicians in the Huddleston Jazz Band – South Africa’s first youth orchestra.

As the apartheid situation in South Africa worsened, Masekela left for London, then New York, where friends (principally countrywoman Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married) helped him land a place at the Manhattan School of Music. Masekela played on the Byrds’ classic rock hit “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star” and performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67.

Already unclassifiable because of the breadth of his music, the next year “Grazin’ In The Grass” made him a huge pop star with its laid-back, easy vibe, hitting the charts in several countries—it reached number one on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in America. The track itself was just filler, recorded in half an hour, but it brought him international fame; suddenly, he was a headlining name. Then, in 1972, he turned his back on all that, and headed back to Africa.

 

After moving through several countries, he hooked up with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who introduced him to the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Sound, with whom Masekela recorded a string of hits. In the 1980s, Masekela set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains. Masekela performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Masekela defended Simon vigorously when the tour was seen as a violation of the African National Congress’ cultural boycott. His 1987 hit ‘Bring Him Back Home’ became the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992.

Masekela then returned to England, co-penning the successful musical Sarafina before joining Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Finally, with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Masekela was able to return to South Africa, recording and touring there once more.

Orchestra Baobab – “Specialists In All Styles”

From ominous beginnings as the weekend house band at a Dakar club for government officials, Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, named for the club (which in turn took its name from the native baobab tree), went on to become one of the prominent bands of world music, with an influence that extended far beyond their national boundaries, throughout West Africa and into Europe. Put together by original leader and saxophonist Baro N’Diaye, the first version was a seven-piece group, three of them enticed away from Dakar’s biggest band, the Star Band, who had a regular gig at Ibra Kasse’s club. While they had a strong Cuban influence — Cuban music had been a prevalent sound throughout West Africa since the ’40s, imported by sailors and played on the radio — Orchestra Baobab added African music, in large part from griot singer Laye M’Boup, who had a vast repertoire of Wolof material.

In the glamorous world of Senegal’s 1970s nightclub scene, there was only one band worth dressing up for. Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 as the house band for Dakar’s Baobab club, where artists, politicians, intellectuals, movie stars and the occasional visiting dictator met to dance to the band’s mix of Cuban and Casamance (south Senegalese) rhythms. Hired to play the music that audiences wanted to hear from traditional songs to the latest chart hits, Orchestra Baobab rapidly outgrew their status as a house band and became famous all over Africa.


It wasn’t long before the new sound proved so popular that the group wasn’t just entertaining on weekends, but every night of the week, being hailed on par with Guinea’s legendary Bembeya Jazz National for their fusion of sounds. Inevitably, personnel fluctuated and the new musicians brought their own influences, expanding the feel and range of the band with Maninke and Malinke songs, which became integrated into the whole. Perhaps the most important addition was singer Thione Seck, who took over the lead vocalist spot after the death of M’Boup in a 1974 car wreck.

While Senegal’s élite danced till dawn with their soignée girlfriends, Orchestra Baobab began leavening the strictly Cuban diet with a rich array of African elements. Atisso brought his idiosyncratic version of the Congolese guitar style, Gomis the lilting ballads of the Casamance, Senegal’s forested southern region. Nigerian saxophonist Peter Udo introduced a touch of honking high life, while Ndiouga Dieng, a griot, a traditional praise singer, represented the neo-Islamic sounds of Dakar’s hinterland.

 

They continued to play the Baobab Club regularly, but also entertained at state occasions, such as official New Year’s Eve dances and even at the wedding of designer Pierre Cardin’s daughter in Paris. Finally, the Baobab Club closed in 1979 and the band went on to make their home at the Ngalam nightclub (or the Djandeer Club, according to some historians). Also during this time, they tried to make their mark in Europe by traveling to Paris in 1978. They recorded On Vera Ca: The 1978 Paris Sessions, one of their best discs and certainly the best-produced, although it leaned too heavily on their Spanish-language material. Other than that, the trip proved to be a disaster, losing money, and they returned home. At the beginning of the ’80s, they were indisputably Senegal’s biggest band.

They recorded regularly (two albums, Mouhamadou Bamba and Sibou Odia were edited into Bamba, a 1983 U.S. release), and continued to stretch their limits by bringing in more African influence, which reached its height with the classic Pirates Choice of 1982.

 

But while Baobab remained Senegal’s top group up to the late Seventies, the balance of society was changing. The band barely noticed it, but out in the quartiers populaires , the sprawling, largely impoverished suburbs, where nobody cared about suits, ties or the cha-cha-cha, a pop revolution was underway, centred round a young singer, Youssou N’Dour, and a raw new music called Mbalax. The African percussion that had been subsumed into Baobab’s gentle sound was brought right to the surface, alongside griot vocals, sax and rhythmic guitar; the linguistic medium was exclusively Wolof, the lingua franca of modern Senegal.

Suddenly finding themselves without gigs, and unwilling to adapt to the new trends, Baobab split and might have ended up a mere footnote in musical history were it not for the belief of a small number of Western enthusiasts, notably Nick Gold of World Circuit Records. While new African music was becoming increasingly formulaic – N’Dour’s huge-selling ‘7 Seconds’ with Neneh Cherry being a prime example – Baobab’s music harked back to the earthy, organic feel that had attracted Western ears in the first place.

They tried to compete by updating their sound, but it didn’t work and by 1987, Orchestra Baobab had disbanded. However, everything comes full circle and in 2001, with the European reissue of an expanded Pirates Choice (2002 U.S.), Orchestra Baobab, older and wiser, re-formed and played dates around the globe, going into the studio to make a new album — produced by the man responsible for their fall from grace, Youssou N’Dour.

 

Gregory Isaacs – “The Cool Ruler”

Gregory Isaacs is one of reggae music’s most distinguished singers. Famous as the “Cool Ruler” for his outstandingly smooth and moving voice, Isaacs recorded many successes during the 1970s and 80s, including the lasting favourite “Night Nurse”, and remained dynamic as a recording artist, live performer and producer in the decades that followed. Even though his best known for romantic ballads, delivered with an insinuation of helplessness, he also excelled at songs of social protest and work that expressed a resolute pride in his African heritage.

Gregory Anthony Isaacs was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 15 1951 and grew up in the poor neighbourhood of Denham Town. As a boy, Gregory was inspired by American soul artists such as Sam Cooke and Ben E King, by local acts and, above all, by the singing of his mother (whom his father abandoned when Gregory was a child). Encouraged by his peers at school and his teacher, he entered talent contests and soon became involved in the music industry, making his first (self-produced) recording in 1968; a duet with Winston Sinclair called “Another Heartache”.

 

After a brief period as part of a Motown-style trio named The Concords, who split in 1970, Isaacs launched his solo career. He founded African Museum with the singer Errol Dunkley, and had his first significant success with “My Only Lover”, often labelled the exemplary “lovers’ rock” song.

By the late 1970s, Isaacs was one of Jamaica’s major stars and frequently touring the United States and Britain. His casting as a street hustler in the 1978 movie Rockers aided to create the outlaw persona that would lead him later to claim of having been arrested more than 50 times.

As his songwriting abilities developed, Isaacs shifted attention to address social injustice, in work that expressed longing for his ancestral African homeland, and grew dreadlocks as a sign of his commitment to the Rastafarian faith. At Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio, he completed the anthem-like “Mr Cop” in 1976 and the censorious “Black against Black”, which decried self-destructive ghetto violence, and “Slave Master”, which became something of anti-colonial anthem in the slums of Kingston: “Every time I hear the music and I make a dip, a dip, Slave master comes around and spank I with his whip, the whip, But if I don’t get my desire, Then I’ll set the plantations in fire.”

Mainstream success, however, did not come until the 1982 album Night Nurse. The cheekily suggestive title track reached only number 32 in the UK charts, but it was a huge underground and club hit. But just when Isaacs might have capitalised on his biggest hit, he become caught in drug dealing and consumption, and found himself serving a six-month sentence in a Kingston jail. 

He was said to have both used and dealt crack cocaine. He struggled with addiction to various drugs – most of them far harder than the native ganja, or marijuana – eventually losing most of his teeth and the full range of his once-sweet voice. “Drugs are a debasing weapon,” he once said. “I graduated from the Cocaine High School. It was the greatest college ever, but the most expensive school fee ever paid.”

He returned in 1988 with the digital dance hall-era hit “Rumours”, one result of a fruitful period of collaboration with the producer Gussie Clark, and continued to record up to three albums a year during the last two decades of his life, appearing at festivals such as Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash and the Notting Hill Carnival as a respected if somewhat weakened elder statesman of Jamaican music. Nevertheless, he kept a faithful fan base, both at home in Jamaica and overseas.

“When people hear the name Gregory Isaacs, I want dem to think of ‘Night Nurse’ and ‘Red Rose For Gregory’ and ‘The Cool Ruler’,” he said. “I love it when somebody comes up to me and say, ‘I love your songs’. ‘Night Nurse’ is about a man and a woman. Only love can conquer war and it’s good for people to make love. The Gregory Isaacs feel is universal, trying to uplift who I can uplift. I sing music on a worldwide basis. That is made to be accepted in thy sight.”

Khaled – “The King of Rai”

For millions of people across the world, rai musician Khaled is not just an artist; he’s a phenomenon and the long established star of Arabic popular music. Like many fellow Algerians, Khaled flee to France in the late 80s to escape the brutal civil war.

Born Khaled Hadj Brahim in Sidi-EI-Houri on February 29, 1960, in Oran, Algeria, Khaled sang and learned to play guitar, bass, accordion, and harmonica as a child. He enjoyed the sounds of Moroccan music and Elvis Presley. Though his uncle played the accordion, Khalid’s family looked down on his musical aspirations. His father, a policeman, disapproved of it entirely. Khalid’s debut recording, La Route De Lycee, came out when he was just 14 years old. After that, he dropped out of school, left home, and formed a group called the Five Stars, and started to perform at local weddings, parties, and clubs.

Rai music was originally heard in seedy Algerian bars in the 1920s. This “sinner’s music” was sung to the beat of light percussion and an ancient rosewood flute called a gasba. Khaled released a handful of self-produced rai cassettes before he teamed up with producer Rachid Baba Ahmed, who had a greater pop sensibility. Under Ahmed’s influence, Khaled’s sound increasingly began taking on more of a Western sound, incorporating such Western instruments as synthesizers and guitars. Khaled became the most well-known singer of the revived “pop rai” trend that first became popular during the 1960s. Excite online likened his stage presence and effect on Algeria’s youth to that of Elvis Presley on American teenagers in the 1950s. Though Khaled was embraced by Algeria’s disenchanted youth during the 1980s, not all of Algeria shared the same enthusiasm for rai, which offended the sensibilities of Islamic fundamentalists.

Until 1983, Khaled’s music was censored by the Algerian government for both his candid lyrics about romance and his lyrics against Islamic fundamentalism. The Algerian government attacked what it considered to be outspoken hedonism, and Khaled’s music was banned from Algerian radio and television. In 1985, though, he was crowned the “king of rai” at Algeria’s National Rai Festival in his hometown of Oran. In the late 1980s, sensing trouble in Algeria, Khaled fled to Paris, as did many other Algerian artists and journalists. The 1992 Algerian elections were clearly going to be won by Islamic fundamentalists, so the military government cancelled the elections and violence broke out. Terrorists targeted and killed many artists, including the popular “prince of rai,” singer Cheb Hasni.

The mass exodus of rai musicians to France resulted in a change in the traditional rai sound. Used to shoddy equipment and a strict government, the Algerian singers suddenly had creative freedom and access to France’s high-tech recording studios.

“Khaled”  –  (The Album)

Khaled was the first Algerian expatriate to break out in France with his love song “Didi,” a crossover hit for his French record label Cohiba. On this album Khaled, the singer continued to globalize the rai sound and even began to incorporate funk, hip-hop, reggae, and the French chanson—a song style from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Though his songs had taken on an international flavour, Khaled remained true to the Arabic sound with his “seductive phrasing and nasal, soulfully gruff voice,” wrote Margasak. Khaled’s records became popular in France, the Middle East, and India. In the mid-1990s, Khaled dropped “Cheb” from his stage name, a term meaning “kid” that was given to singers like Khaled to make them distinct from older, more traditional artists.

“Mauvais Sang” starts with the classic Algerian vocal/keyboard intro and gets more complex as melodic motifs are woven in. But the rhythm is driven by keyboard bass blats and a drum machine and the instrumental break features sax over thumb-pop funk bass and James Brown scratch-rhythm guitar before the final call and response between David McMurray’s throaty R&B sax and Mustapha Kada’s Arabic keyboards. To say that’s a blueprint of what Khaled wants to accomplish here is true on one level, but ignores the range and variety of the material. Algerian homeboys Kada (keyboards) and Mohsein Chentouf (derbouka) are on every song and Khaled himself plays keyboards, accordion, oud, and bendir on the Brook-produced tracks. Reggae pops into the bubbling rhythm undercurrent on “Ragda”; “Sbabi” works violin against an atmospheric, Robert Fripp-like lead guitar over Khaled’s voice and a funky, chunky groove. With its near-flamenco acoustic guitar and accordion, “Wahrane” has a French café feel, but “El Ghatli” and “Harai Harai” take it all the way home to Algerian tradition.

“Ne M’en Voulez Pas” is sung in French, with more café accordion set against organ, bass solo, and clattering percussion, and winds up in a near-go-go beat. The song is too busy and never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be, but it’s a unique, invigorating ride, which may be the best capsule summary for Khaled. Some artists are born to try this kind of cultural crossover, and in the context of rai, Khaled is both trailblazer and standard-bearer.

Lastly, an interesting documentary about the origins of Rai music (French only)

Cartola – “The Samba Troubadour”

Dedicated to my dear friend Catarine Falcão and all African descendants in Brazil.

Paz e amor família!

Cartola (top hat) was born in 1908 in Rio de Janeiro, in a neighborhood called Catete. He got the nick name because he used a “coco hat” while working as a construction worker, so the cement did not dirty his hair. It was 1919 when Sebastião, Aida and their seven children arrived at the Buraco Quente, (Hot hole, a Mangueira’s hill district).

At 15 years old, his mother died and he lost the link between himself and his tyrannical father. Cartola abandoned school after completing junior high school, left home, and dedicated himself to Bohemianism and various part-time jobs. In April 28, 1928, he helped found the Samba School of Mangueira (a carioca hill over which the poor people established themselves) and was charged with being the school’s master of harmony. The school’s first parade, still in 1928, opened with the first samba composed by Cartola, “Chega de Demanda” (“Enough Fighting,” an appeal to the cessation of violence amongst rival sambistas and malandros of the hills).

At this point, percussive instruments used in samba already included the surdo, the tamborim, the pandeiro, and the cuíca. The first contest of samba of the city of Rio de Janeiro took place on January 20, 1929. It included the participation of the two Samba schools already existing, Mangueira and Portela, whose samba “Não Adianta Chorar,” by Heitor dos Prazeres, won. Mangueira presented “Beijos,” Cartola’s second samba, and “Eu Quero Nota,” by Arturzinho.

In 1932, he began a partnership with Noel Rosa with the Samba “Não Faz, Amor.” Noel began to frequent the Buraco Quente (Hot Hole), giving preference to Cartola. Even with the acknowledgment of critics and audience, money was always short. Cartola had to live by his wits, working as a fish, ice-cream, and cheese peddler, cambono de macumba (assistant for black magic rituals), and a mason. At the same time, though, he continued to perform functions of Mangueira’s master of harmony and to compose Sambas of Carnival and middle-year. In 1932 Mangueira was the champion with the samba “Pudesse meu Ideal,” by Cartola and Carlos Cachaça. In 1933, the scschool presented “Fita Meus Olhos,” by Cartola and Baiaco, which was recorded 45 years later by the author.

In 1934, Mangueira didn’t participate in the public contest, as it had won a specialized jury contest only one month before, and didn’t want to risk losing that title. In 1935, the acknowledgment of samba schools by the dominant class was finally given through their inclusion in the official Carnival schedule by mayor Pedro Ernesto Batista. Portela won the contest that year, but Cartola’s samba took second place, with the Samba “Brasil Terra Adorada,” with partnerships by Carlos Cachaça and Arturzinho. The prestige of Cartola and Mangueira was broadcast as far as Germany with the Hora do Brasil show on January 29, 1936. Among the songs, “Liberdade,” by Arlindo dos Santos and Cartola; “Pérolas para o Teu Colar,” by Maciste Carioca and Cartola; “Dama Abandonada,” by Cartola; “O destino Não Quis,” by Carlos Moreira de Castro and Cartola; and a selections of sambas de partido alto by Cartola.

Even after gaining extensive support by the press, journalists, politicians, and artists, his monetary prospects were still dim. “Sei Chorar” remained unpublished until 50 years later, and “Partiu,” a composition highly regarded by maestro Heitor Villa-Lobos, was unpublished. (The gold medal was pawned days after at the Caixa Econômica, due to his permanent financial difficulties.)

In 1940, as a consequence of F.D. Roosevelt’s good neighbor policy, which was stimulated by the intention of solidification of the relations between the U.S. and Latin America in face of the second World War, conductor Leopold Stokowski arrived in Brazil, accompanied by the musicians of the All-American Youth Orchestra, which he’d organized, as well as a group of sound and recording engineers from Columbia Records. Their mission was two-fold: to spread the culture of America via orchestral concerts, and to compile and record the musical production of each visited country for posterity. Stokowski looked for Brazil’s biggest erudite composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and asked him to choose the best carioca music. Villa-Lobos then gathered the town’s best composers and interpreters: Pixinguinha, Luís Americano, Jararaca, Ratinho, Donga, Zé com Fome, Zé Espinguela, Mauro César, and the young soloist Janir Martins, complete with the gang of Mangueira, all performing under the command of Cartola. Villa-Lobos was an admirer of Cartola’s music, and became a frequenter of his hut on the hill. He turned into a kind of godfather, introducing him to several opportunities, such as the movie Descobrimento do Brasil (1938).

Between 1941 and 1947, Mangueira was a vice-champion, always with Cartola as master of harmony and official composer. But the election of Hermes Rodrigues to the presidency of the school marked the beginning of a long period of ostracism for Cartola. Rodrigues who, interested in the commercial aspect of Carnival, hired a professor to judge the sambas in the school’s internal contest. With popular acceptance of his samba style declining, Cartola drowned himself in alcohol and disappeared from the artistic environment (he also barely survived a bout with meningitis and became even poorer and more miserable). His third wife, “Zica” (Euzébia Silva do Nascimento), a pastora who had been under his command at Mangueira, strived to make him return to artistic life, asking several artists and composers (Lan, Ari Barroso, Braguinha), to try to help, but ended up by failing due to their lack of interest of the old master.

He was washing cars in the humid dawn of Copacabana when he was encountered by a journalist, Sérgio Porto. With great effort and care, Porto brought Cartola to the Rádio Mayrink Veiga, for a short period; he also took him to other radio stations, made reporters interview him; and, in short, fought for his resurrection. At the end of the ’50s, Cartola worked for the second time in a movie, the famous Orfeu de Carnaval (“Black Orpheus”).

Soon after, he received permission to occupy a large house for free, the property of the city, where he created the idea of the restaurant and showroom ZiCartola, later established at the Rua da Carioca, 53. The ZiCartola was an enormous success from the start. It promoted cultural enthusiasm for samba and was an epochal event for spreading the hill’s music among the carioca middle class. But Cartola and Zica’s administrative amateurism made the enterprise a commercial failure, and the ZiCartola was sold to Jackson do Pandeiro in 1965.

In 1968, enjoying a more stable economic situation as a humble bureaucrat, Cartola received the donation of his lot, at rua Visconde de Niterói, 896, in Mangueira. With his own hands and old knowledge of masonry, he built his house with no help.

Cartola [O Mundo e um Moinho] Overall, between 1929 and 1952, 13 songs were issued by Cartola in 78 rpm records. From 1957 to 1974, 20 more appeared, besides other special appearances he made as a composer. But it wasn’t until 1974, at 65 years of age, that Angenor de Oliveira recorded his first LP, Cartola (Discos Marcos Pereira, 403.5007). Unanimously acclaimed by the critics and the public, the record wasn’t a commercial success, as the record company, specialized in historic documentation and didn’t have a competitive scheme of distribution.

In April, 1976, a second LP, Cartola (Discos Marcos Pereira, MPL 9.325) aroused even more enthusiasm in the press and presented the most successful of the Cartola’s compositions: “As Rosas Não Falam.” This record received the Golfinho de Ouro award from the Image and Sound Museum’s Council of Popular Music. Cartola, whose self-imposed absence from participating in the Mangueira contests since 1949, finally decided to return in 1977. He received countless invitations for shows and presentations, his music was included in broadly popular soap operas, and his figure was portrayed in several TV documentaries.

With close to 600 composed songs, and a tardy acknowledgment of his genius, Angenor de Oliveira the Cartola, died of cancer, November 30, 1980. His simple, authentic, and unpretentious way of being and writing can be admired in his testimony to the Movimento newspaper (Rio de Janeiro, November 16, 1978): “I have a profound love for the flowers and for the women who had pretended me. One doesn’t hit a woman even with a flower, and the flowers, one doesn’t give them to any woman at all.”

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Album Review)

Is 1971, EUA still engulfed in the Vietnam War, Nixon is the first President to visit Communist China. It was a year marked by social, political, international and economical mayhem. Musically, one of the perkiest moments during that time of uncertainty came on May 21st when Motown Records, located in Detroit, released the Marvin Gaye masterpiece What’s Going On.

The reason that What’s Going On stands out as a masterpiece is because it went beyond the music conceptually, and became a ‘concept’ in its approach as a social commentary. Marvin was Motown’s leading soul singer and until What’s Going On was made, he and others were never given the freedom to write or sing their own music.

Inspired in part by his brother Frankie’s harrowing letters home from Vietnam, the album was both an affirmation of Gaye’s Christian beliefs and a moving cri de coeur about contemporary social problems and issues – ghetto life, the poverty gap, heroin abuse, traumatised war veterans, ecology, child poverty, political paralysis – which still resonate today. Unsurprisingly, when Motown boss Berry Gordy first heard the title-track, he vetoed its release, believing the label’s famed “Sound of Young America” should not be this bleak. But Gaye stuck to his guns, threatening to never record for the label again unless his project saw fruition, then hurriedly finished the other tracks whilst Gordy’s attention was focused on Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles. What’s Going On would be the last album the company recorded in its original Hitsville USA base.

The album What’s Going On can be viewed as forms of music, poetry, or art. It can also be looked at as a protest, a statement or narrative. The album used all these different perspectives and combined them, creating a mosaic made of themes that questioned the social, political and economical condition of America. As a result, the listener is given a frame of reference in which to question his or her own living history.

The opening track, “What’s Going On” represents a statement that sets the stage for the rest of the album. There is a conversation already taking place, opening a proverbial ‘door’ to the listener, as if to invite them to ‘sit-in’ and take part. The sounds of people chatting, throwing out catch phrases that were hip to the 1960’s in particular, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Can you dig it?’ ‘Everything is everything.’ ‘Solid!’ act as reflections to a recent past since these terms were out dated by the time they were used and function to establish the time frame of the commentary. Marvin starts by referring to the conflict in Vietnam, “…You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate…” Then he shifts the listeners perspective to focus on the conditions at home,” everybody thinks we’re wrong/Oh, but who are they to judge us/Simply because our hair is long…Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality…” This refers to the Civil Rights movement that happened from 1954-1965. It could also refer to the white students gunned down at Kent State and the lesser-known black students, also gunned down, in their dormitory at Jackson State College. He goes on with, “What’s going on/ Yeah, what’s going on/Tell me, what’s going on/I’ll tell you what’s going on.” He starts to interpret the events in forms of questions that act to foreshadow the thematic nature of the album.

The second song, “What’s Happening Brother” Marvin uses the dialogue of the returning veteran to ask the question: what’s going on? “War is hell, when will it end, /When will people start gettin’ together again.” And he continues with “Are thing really gettin’ better like the newspaper said/What else is new my friend, besides what I read/Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend/Money is tighter than it’s ever been/Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land…” This song and “What’s Going On” foreshadow the disparity that starts to take place in the upcoming themes.

On the third track, “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”, the album lulls musically and creates a ‘drug-induced’ like state. According to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, between the years of 1960-1970, Detroit saw the active drug addict population increased by 89%. (649) That stunning change had to have some influence for Marvin to addresses the topic of drug addiction. The song’s implication is clear from the beginning, “Flyin’ high in the friendly sky/Flying high without ever leavin’ the ground…” Marvin sings a duet with himself, one voice as a ‘hooked’ addict, and the other as the soul of the addict struggling with that addiction. The addict sings “So stupid minded, /I can’t help it…I go to the place where good feelin’ awaits me and it’s bound to forsake me…” while in the background the ‘soul’ can be heard echoing “Can’t help it”, “Gotta have it” and “Self-destruction in my hand.” The addict ‘wins out’ over the soul in the end and faces his reality, “Well I know I’m hooked my friend/To the boys who make slaves out of men.”

Without missing a beat “Save the Children” continues the intentional slowdown of the tempo, which serves as the conscience of the album. Once again Marvin uses two different vocal styles, the spoken word and the singing voice, one talking and the other singing as if to symbolize oneness in duality. This is the first song to essentially pose a blatant question. Marvin in a low tone and sleepy style starts the song with, “I just want to ask a question/Who really cares? /To save a world in despair/Who really cares?” And then begins to answer himself by singing, “When I look at the world it fills me with sorrow/Little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow…You see, let’s save the children/Let’s save all the children/Save the babies, save the babies…” The duality of images are apparent and similar to “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky). The social commentary of “Save the Children” directly reflects the events that happened in Birmingham years earlier as described by Juan Williams in Eyes on the Prize. Children were marching and protesting when Police Chief Bull Connor ordered police dogs to attack and firemen to use hoses that sprayed “100 pounds of pressure per square inch”(190) into the demonstration. In an abstract reflection concerning children, the song also refers to the tens of thousands of young men fighting and dying in Vietnam at the time.

Marvin, as a child, spent time in the church where his father preached. The churches impact and influence on Marvin allowed him to explore salvation, through a redemptive belief in God, and is paid special attention to in the song “God Is Love”. In this song Marvin reflects the non-violence preached by Martin Luther King Jr. in a way that looks at love as an answer to the times of despair. Marvin emphasis on family, sings “Love your mother, she bore you/love your father he works for you/Love your sister she good to you /Love your brother, your brother.” Marvin implies that salvation can only take place by spreading love from family to community and a belief in a higher power, “God is my friend/Jesus is my friend/For when we call on him for mercy Father/He’ll be merciful my friend/Oh, yes he will/All He asks of us, I know, is we give each other love.”

Marvin’s music had influenced other artists, and he had been influenced by his immediate surroundings and national events. The Food and Drug administration, in 1971, advised “… [The] American public to stop eating swordfish because more than 90 percent of samples tested contained excessive amounts of mercury.” The day that What’s Going On was released The New York Times released a new analysis by Boyce Rensberger that read “Mercury and Man: A Puzzle for Ecologists.” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” combines the environmental issues of the times while offering a gloomy outlook of a possible future. He sings, “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury/Ah oh, mercy, mercy me…” He then refers to the ‘Mother Earth’ and asks “What about this overcrowded land/How much more abuse from man can she stand?”

In the song “Right On”, he merges the despair with the promise of salvation through God and love, “…Some of us are aware/That it’s good for us to care/Some of us feel the icy wind of poverty blowing in the air…Love can conquer hate every time/Give out some love and you will find peace sublime…” In the article “Trouble Man: The Art and Politics of Marvin Gaye,” Mark Anthony states that “Gaye’s solution to the deterioration of America’s social fabric, a solution indicative of King’s influence on Gaye’s work, was to re-evaluate the role of human respect…”

While the tempo of the music has slowly increased by this point in the album, “Wholy Holy” brings it back to a slower, somber pace that serves as the conscience similar to the earlier songs “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)” and “Save The Children.” Love, as a movement, resembles the non-violent activities of the Civil Rights movement and a hope can be seen in the lyrical content of the song. For example, “We can conquer hate forever, yes we can/Ah, wholy holy/Oh, Lord/We can rock the world’s foundation/Yes we can…Holler love across the nation.” In that regard, the Civil Rights movement could be an example to the world as a whole; instead of the segregated Southern states themselves.

The lyrics to “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” almost read like a daily newspaper or eleven o’clock news broadcast from 1971. The New York Times issue that published the article about mercury was also filled with headlines and stories that mirrored the contemporary events against those events that Marvin was singing about. They read: Allied and Enemy War Deaths Decline, Census Finds Inflation Erased Gain in Family Income in 1970, Nixon’s Racial Stance and Experts See Soviet and U.S. Nuclear Arsenals in Rough Balance. He refers to Government spending and taxes, “Rockets, moon shots/Spend it on the have nots/Money, we make it/’Fore we see it, you take it…” Inspired again by social events, Marvin explains the condition of urban developments, “…Inflation, no chance/To increase finance/Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die/Make me wanna holler/The way they do my life…”

What’s Going On is not only Marvin Gaye’s masterwork, it’s the most vital and ardent record to come out of soul music, brought by one of its finest voices, a man finally free to speak his mind and so move from R&B sex symbol to true recording artist.

Nina Simone – “High Priestess Of Soul”

Nina Simone died in 2003, at age of 70. Unquestionably, she was one of the most compelling and ground-breaking musical figures coming from the United States. Nina highly believed that music had a strong political purpose. When we listen to Nina Simone, we cannot but notice her proud voice, engraved with the authority of an high priestess. In almost every song she is able to take us to the dimmer reaches of emotions, wandering from a bitter imperiousness to private torments.

She was born Eunice Kathleen Wymon at Tryon, North Carolina, on February 21 1933, the sixth of eight children who grew up in poverty; their father was a handyman. By the age of three she could play the piano by ear; it is said that she was discovered playing, note-perfect, “God be with you till we meet again“, in the key of F, on the family’s organ.

nina_simone-293x307 egyptNina Simone was not an instant success, but in 1959 her first album, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, produced a gigantic hit in her version of Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy. The triumph of albums such as “Wild Is The Wind” allowed her to assume a prominent position within the civil rights movement and she developed close relations with eminent figures of the time, such as Lorraine Hansberry, who she dedicated the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Touré. During this turbulent period, Nina Simone is recalled to say that “America was my Daddy and he got under my skin.” Gradually her sound deliberately assimilated a gospel edge and famous work of black, notably Langston Hughes’s “Backlash Blues”.

She felt that black politics accounted for circumstances she had partially understood since childhood – the different worlds, for instance, when she had crossed the tracks to visit her white piano teacher. She declared then, that while love songs had been her principal inspiration, there was a love that superseded it, the one that could bring her people together to secure their rights. “Mississippi Goddam” was an enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963.

Through the civil rights movement, Simone grew increasingly absorbed with African-American history, and a longstanding interest in Africa began, culminating in a close association with Liberia in West Africa. However by the mid-1970s the movement was reaching a crisis point. Many of its leaders had been killed, and the growth of a grassroots movement rooted in the working class failed to mature.

 

Despite eight best-selling albums, Nina Simone, as many other black artists, had lingering money problems due to unpaid royalties. Increasingly disillusioned with American politics, she drew inspiration from  Third World struggles, left the US, and lived in Barbados, Liberia and Guinea-Conakry before settling in France.

In the late 80s, Nina Simone took exception to the agreed distribution of the royalties from “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, which had become a belated pop hit. An infamous incident Nina allegedly chased a record executive from a restaurant with a knife. Moving to Aix-en-Provence in 1995, she received a suspended sentence for wounding an unruly teenage neighbour with a shotgun.

Nina Simone left a wonderful legacy of music and song, and led an inspirational and political life, showing that great music comes from political commitment, not in spite of it.