Friday, 28 May 2010

22 years on, and I still want to dance to mechanical instruments...

Back in February, I came across the Musical Museum by chance after a walk along the Thames from Richmond to Brentford. It's a bit of a hidden gem, featuring a theatre with a stage, film screen and the 'Regal' Wurlitzer organ, rescued from the Regal Cinema, Kingston-upon-Thames. There's also a violin player (which sounds like a cat - brilliant!), pianolas, pub pianos, orchestrions and barrel organs.

Here's a Violano-Virtuoso. This one's in much better condition than the one at the Museum, being reasonably in-tune, with only a hint of cat.

Some highlights of the Musical Museum

I got very excited about my discovery and have started volunteering at the Musical Museum on the reception and I'm going to learn to give guided tours when I'm settled in.

My mum reminded me recently of a favorite activity of my early childhood which may explain why I'm so excited by a place full of mechanical instruments now...

This is me aged three, at the Salop Steam Rally, in September 1987. Mum says that I 'stopped at every steam organ to have a dance totally oblivious of the people following to watch'. Perhaps, if I'm brave enough, I'll dance to some of the instruments at the Musical Museum...

...And aged 25 in front of a fair organ at the Musical Museum's 1940s Weekend, June 2010. I did dance a little bit!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

An Update: Morris Dancing, X-Factor, the BNP and English National Pride

A short article in the Spring issue of Soundsense's Sounding Board magazine, Folk music 'hijacked' by BNP, bought me back to some of the issues I addressed in my Morris Dancing post. The article discusses Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps, of Sunderland and Sheffield Universities, research project entitled Performing Englishness in New English Folk Music and Dance and mentions the 'folk world's strong and distancing response to right wing politics [...] supported by almost every big name on the folk scene', centred round the organisation Folk Against Fascism.

Winter and Keegan-Phipps' closing report makes interesting reading, especially their reasons for the resurgence in English folk traditions regarding immigration:

[I]t is felt by many within the English folk culture that the cultural traditions of other ethnic groups in England command greater respect – particularly from key policy makers and funding agencies – than that afforded the English folk arts (p.17)

Sadly, it's all too easy for far-right organisations to twist the desire for English folk traditions to be recognised as equally worthy of respect as other (immigrant) cultural practices to their own ends, which we have seen with the likes of Nick Griffin declaring his appreciation for Eliza Carthy.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Chad Gadya and the Jewish Reflections Project

I was reminded today of one of my favorite songs, Chava Alberstein's Chad Gadya, a version of the children's Passover song. The original is a cumulative song about a goat which is bought for two coins, which is eaten by a cat, which is bitten by a dog, which is hit by a stick... it ends with an appearance by the Angel of Death, then finally God Itself intervenes.

At the Passover Seder table, children traditionally ask four questions (with an extra 'introductory' question):

Why is this night different from all other nights?
Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matza, but on this night we eat matza?
Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?
Why is it on all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice?
Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?

Alberstein adapted the Chad Gadya lyrics to include her own questions:

Why are you singing this traditional song?
It’s not yet spring and Passover’s not here.
And what has changed for you? What has changed?
I have changed this year.
On all other nights I ask the four questions, but tonight I have one more:
How long will the cycle last?
How long will the cycle of violence last?

Given the context of when and where this song was first released, in Israel, 1989, during the first Palestinian Intifada, Alberstien's questions are charged with political comment.

I was prompted to search out Alberstein's song today when I found this version of Chad Gadya:

The music is performed by the Yiddish Twist Orchestra and visuals are by Miki Shaw (both London-based).

After pondering these two versions - Alberstein's is so despairing and oppressive with its feeling of being locked in a never-ending cycle without hope, whilst Miki and the Yiddish Twist have fun with a silly story, which reminded me of They Might Be Giants' children's music videos - I started searching for other versions of Chad Gadya.

Youtube yielded this clip by Ofra Haza, but it didn't really do it for me given that I was hoping for something deep-and-meaningful for my compare-and-contrast exercise...

...And then, I came across an absolute gem, the Jewish Reflections project, a collection of songs for Seder and other occasions collected from Jews in the UK between 2006 and 2009. It includes 15 recorded versions of Chad Gadya, along with sheet music, and biographies of the contributors. I'd found what I was looking for: lots of versions of Chad Gadya with accompanying life histories to read various insights into. What a great resource!

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Sad Demise of a Wonderful Music Degree Course

It is with great sadness that I bring you this post. Below is an open letter to the Principal of Strathclyde University, Glasgow, where I completed the BA Applied Music degree in 2008.
If you would like to show your support for former, current and future BAAM students and staff, please sign the online petition here and visit this page for information on who you can write to.

12 February 2010

Dear Professor McDonald,

I wish to express my concern and disappointment at the proposal to terminate the BA Applied Music course (known as the ‘BAAM’) at Strathclyde University and suspend entry from 2011.

I graduated from the BAAM in 2008 with a first class honours, specialising in performance. I went on to do the MMus Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. I currently work as a freelance musician, music tutor and workshop leader and am employed by Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service as a Wider Opportunities music tutor. I have also taught and given workshops for the Jewish Music Institute's Klezfest summer school, the SOAS Widening Participation Project, and Edinburgh Fiddle Festival, amongst others. I am currently studying on an Arts and Music Workshop Leader programme which includes the City & Guilds qualification Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector (Level 4).

Whilst studying for my MMus, I specialised in klezmer (the wedding celebration music of east European Jews) in both a research and performance capacity, studying performance with the UK's top klezmer musicians Ilana Cravitz and Merlin Shepherd, and developing a unique, historically informed, technique for cello playing in a bass role within a klezmer ensemble. My intention is to develop this further with study on a performance-based PhD programme in the Music department at SOAS.

As a cellist, I have a successful performance and recording career in the areas of klezmer, folk, rock/pop, theatre, experimental improvisation, and electronica. Highlights include live and session work with electronica artist Double Thumb, sessions with former BAAM and folk singer John Malcolm, session work with Project Earth Rock, Scottish Widows’ Staff Cultural Programme, and performances as an on-stage musician with Glasgow's Theatre Fusion. My current projects include an album of original and traditional klezmer music, an interactive performance piece in collaboration with other top UK klezmer musicians Ilana Cravitz (violin/dance), Carol Isaacs (accordion) and Laoise Davidson (vocals/mandolin/dance) and VJ Miki Shaw for Southwark Council's Silver festival in April, and a series of workshops on experimental klezmer and improvisation for adult musicians beginning next week.

The BAAM was the making of me as a musician. I went into the course having had a wonderful two years of development and discovery in a nurturing environment at Chetham's School of Music, Manchester, followed by an uninspiring year at a conservatoire. I was questioning what I wanted from the music industry and found answers I would never have dreamed of in the BAAM: free improvisation, community arts, folk music, the value of music in education, academic study of less accessible music by the likes of Berio, Mahler, Berg and Schoenberg and ways to unpack and understand it... and now I am making a career in several of these areas. The BAAM gave the space to develop and discover who I was as a musician whilst providing the structure and support to keep me on-track.

The BAAM is a hugely respected institution in Scotland, the UK and further afield. It is heavily over-subscribed, receiving 400+ applications every year for some 30 places. When I mentioned to other musicians, at all levels in the music industry, from school pupils to seasoned professionals with years of experience, that I was studying on this course, I frequently heard a response along the lines of ‘that a really great course, I’m hoping to do it’. High-profile BAAM alumni include: Scottish folk musicians Julie Fowlis, Anna Massie, Rachel Hair and Bethany Reid, composer and lecturer Colin Broom and singer songwriter Jamie Sellers to name a few.

The course has this formidable reputation because of its unique position in Further and Higher music education provision in Scotland. It attracts students from a diverse range of musical backgrounds, from experimental electronica to classical, folk to jazz, and brings them all together in an environment that encourages creative collaboration, sharing of knowledge and skills, and experimentation in a supportive atmosphere. Coupled with top-rate teaching and a course structure which allows for breadth and depth of study, permitting students to explore and develop their musical interests whilst equipping them with a broad range of skills and adaptability essential to those wishing to make a living in today’s fickle and financially insecure music industry.

For the finest artists (amongst which there are and will be several BAAM graduates), the music industry can yield huge financial rewards and I am pleased to inform you that, of the current and former BAAMs I have discussed this issue with, there is a definite feeling that we will not be donating any of our income to Strathclyde University’s Alumni Fund or any other financial appeal from the University if the BAAM is closed. Please take a moment to think about the implications of this:

The University will miss out on a steady drip of small donations from those of us who earn average incomes during our lifetimes and feel like ‘putting something back’ into the institution that launched our careers. We’ll be taking our spare cash somewhere else. Not really a big loss, BUT...

It only takes one former BAAM having a huge hit single single to make a few million which they may wish to share with the University in recognition of its help in forming their musical careers. However, this will not happen if this former BAAM feels aggrieved at the closure of the course that set them on the start of their musical career.

Never mind current BAAM graduates, what about the future BAAM graduates? It could be one of them who makes the millions which get generously shared with the University. Do you really want to stop investing in a course that could bag you so much cash?

By cutting this course, you insult future generations of musicians and those who benefit from musicians. That's schools, FE colleges, universities, social inclusion programmes, community organisations, individuals who engage in the arts through live performances and recorded media, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, charities, social services, religious organisations, theatres, private companies... I can think of more, but I have better things to do than list everyone. You get the idea: every sector of society benefits from musicians in some way and your proposed actions will have a deeply negative impact on future musicians.

Your policy of course closure is short-sighted. You are throwing away assets valuable to the University and the Scottish and wider UK economies as a whole. I urge you to examine your conscience carefully before committing to any decision that you will regret in the future.

I have read Sandra White MSP’s letter to you regarding the proposed cuts at Strathclyde University and your reply, which have been circulated in the public domain. I am appalled by the arrogant attitude betrayed by your suggestion that she advise her constituent that ‘the appropriate channel for raising concerns about internal university matters is through the Students Association’, not, I infer, through more high-profile channels such as his/her MSP. The entire tone of your reply suggests that you believe this matter to be of no concern to Ms White and that she should not involve herself in this legitimate concern raised by her constituent. I find this attitude a disgusting insult and I request that you treat future enquires, including this one, regarding cuts at the University with the respect they deserve.

I look forward to hearing from you in the very near future.

Yours Sincerely,

Sally Russell, BA Hons, MMus

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Morris Dancing, X-Factor, the BNP and English National Pride

On Boxing Day, I visited Greatham (north east England) to see the traditional mumming play which is performed every year.
I took a little video which you can see below. Dancing and singing are a big element, but as part of a script involving acting and monologues which tell a story.

In this particular play, some soldiers kill an old fool by cutting his head off, but he is bought back to life by the doctor who pours beer down his throat. The play was almost lost and forgotten, but was revived in 1967 by the Redcar Sword Dancers.
This got me thinking again about something I've been pondering for several years: What is English Culture and why doesn't the majority of the English population relate to English folk traditions, like morris dancing, folk music and mumming plays?
I lived in Glasgow for six years and, during that time, noticed how the Scottish are very connected to their own traditional cultures. All my friends who were educated in Scotland knew the core repertoire of dances when we went to ceilidhs because they had learned them in 'social dancing' classes at school. When I visited schools all over the West of Scotland region in my job delivering workshops on careers and post-16 education, I was surprised and delighted to find that many taught the Gaelic language.
There's a similar manifestation of national identity elsewhere in the British Isles: a Welsh friend of mine used a photograph of herself as a child in Welsh national dress in the programme for her final recital of her music degree, and my honorary brother-in-law often wears a kilt to parties and formal events as a symbol of his Northern Irish identity, even though he has lived in England since the age of two.
How many English universities have barn dances as part of their Freshers' Week? And when they do, are they one of the most popular events? Being English, and living in England, I find that I've never really had that connection to my folk traditions in the way that my Scottish, Welsh and Irish/Northern Irish friends have. Growing up, I was dimly aware that we had a folk culture and I think I had more exposure to it than most children in the 1990s: my mum took me to a few barn dances, I did maypole dancing for a term at school and I watched morris dances at local fairs.
Another thing I've noticed with the Scots, Welsh and Irish/Northern Irish is that compared to 'us' (I writing on behalf of the English), they're very patriotic. They take pride in their national identity whilst we often seem indifferent, even ashamed to be English. Sure, we rally round and have a collective surge of patriotism for the sporting events: the football World Cup, the Ashes, and the Six Nations rugby tournament, but we're not proud in a day-to-day way like the rest of Britain.
I have a not-very-well-researched theory on this, which you're most welcome to disagree with.
Firstly, I think our history has a significant part to play in this: beginning in Elizabeth I's reign and ending with World War II, England was the heart of the British Empire (this map shows our former colonies in pink). We ruled the world (or at least a very significant part of it). Even within Britain, we ruled the other nations (the Scots and Welsh are still upset about this). Now, in these post-modern, post-colonialist times, empires are rather embarrassing and the feelings of pride in being at the heart of a great Empire (Rule Britannnia and all that) get mixed-up with feelings of national pride, pride in being part of a group linked by a connection to a geographic place, a common heritage and a similar way of life.
There's also an unfortunate association for English folk traditions with far-right. The BNP (British National Party), in particular, play on these associations. This BBC article from 2009 discusses the use of English folk music (used without permission from the artists) on the BNP website. The BNP also tarnish the term nationalism for the rest of us and with it, sentiments such as national pride and solidarity with our fellow countrymen/women. This Demand for English Nationalism on the BNP website is an example.
I feel regretful about the English unease with national pride and our consequent failure to embrace our rich heritage. I really do want to feel patriotic and I'm jealous of my Scottish friends who have that feeling of being part of a proud, strong nation and express it through ceilidh dancing, kilt wearing, whisky drinking and the like. I think it helps to be oppressed, or at least to feel that one's nation has been oppressed in the not-too-dim-and-distant past. When yours is the nation that did the oppressing, it's harder.
It's probably unrealistic to imagine a glorious, utopian future where mumming plays are cool, but wouldn't it be great if we (I'm writing from the English perspective again) were aware of our folk culture and embraced it just a tiny bit? What's filling the hole left by national pride? The X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and the occasional sports fixture. Why should the BNP get to keep our rich folk heritage and lovely feelings of patriotism, community and pride all to itself, leaving the rest of us with the shallow rubbish they didn't think was worth hijacking?