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UMS Playlist: Social Change and African Popular Music

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by UMS staff, artists, and community. Check out more music here.
Oliver Mtukudzi
Oliver Mtukudzi. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zimbabwe’s Afropop legend Oliver Mtukudzi performs in Ann Arbor on April 17, 2015.

“Tuku” has created 61 solo albums to date, many of which focus on political and social themes. His band The Black Spirits got its start performing songs protesting the white colonial rule of Zimbabwe in the 1960s and 70s.

Throughout his career, Tuku has refrained from direct political criticism, instead using metaphor to communicate his ideas: “The beauty of the Shona language is that it is endowed with all those rich idioms and metaphor…and the beauty of art is that you can use the power of language to craft particular meaning without necessarily giving it away. So, I used the beauty of Shona to communicate in my own way and people got the message.”

Themes of social change are common in popular African music. In this listening guide, explore some of the history of this connection.

1. Nelson Mandela commissioned the group “Sipho Hotstix Mabuse” to write a campaign theme song for his bid to be South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Simply titled “Nelson Mandela,” the song speaks frankly about the Mandela’s hopes to promote unity in the country.

2. Angelique Kidjo (who last performed in Ann Arbor in 2013) blends musical traditions from her native Benin with Western popular music, singing in English as well as her childhood languages of Fon and Yoruba. Many of her songs include themes of peace, tolerance, and liberation. In “Kulumbu,” Kidjo speaks about the nececsity for women to participate in conflict resolution after suffering disproportionately during war.

3. The title of Bassekou Kouyate’s song “Jama Ko” translates to “the gathering,” and urges for peace and reconciliation in Mali. Bassekou Kouyate last performed in Ann Arbor as part of our 2013-2014 season.

4. Tuku’s song “Wasakara” describes the corruption and violence of the government of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. He sings, “Admit it, you are wrinkled/You are worn out.”

5. Thomas Mampfuno also criticizes the government in “Mamvemve,” with the lyrics “the country you used to cry for is now in tatters.” Zimbabwe’s political environment is so restrictive that Mampfuno has not visited the country since 2004.

6. In “Ndakuvara,” Mugabe is represented by an ox too stubborn to learn from its elders. Through metaphor, Tuku writes protest as subtext subtle enough to allow him to remain in Zimbabwe.

What did you think about this playlist? What songs would you add?

UMS Playlist: Evolution of Chamber Music

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by UMS staff, artists, and community. Check out more music here.

eighth blackbird
eigth blackbird. Photo by Luke Ratray.

The Chicago-based chamber ensemble eighth blackbird performs in Ann Arbor on January 17. eighth blackbird is on the new frontier of contemporary music. As Los Angeles Times explains, “the blackbirds are examples of a new breed of super-musicians. They perform the bulk of their new music from memory. They have no need for a conductor, no matter how complex the rhythms or balances… [They are] stage animals, often in motion, enacting their scores as they play them.”

How did chamber music, which originated in the Middle Ages, evolve into the music of the blackbirds? Explore the history with our listening guide:

1. Chamber music originated during the Middle Ages as a form of entertainment for guests in palace chambers. “Mille Regretz” by Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) is an example of the style and structure of sacred music translated to a secular song that describes the pain of a lost love. The earliest chamber music often also included lutes, recorders, and early versions of the violin, viola, and cello.

2. The string quartet, one of the most common chamber ensembles, developed into its current form in the early 17th century. Since then, composers from Haydn to Beethoven to Shostakovich have revered the string quartet’s form because of the challenge of writing four unique parts that constantly change and interact with one another. The string quartet includes two violins, viola, and cello. In this track, listen for Beethoven’s mastery of “counterpoint,” the relationships between the voices.

3. Chamber music in the 20th century brought together new instrument groupings. The brass (featuring two trumpets, trombone, French horn, trombone, and tuba) rose in popularity in the 1940s. Victor Ewald is widely considered to the first composer of brass quintet music.

4. Chamber music concepts extend across genre; though “chamber music” is primarily used to describe classical music, the John Coltrane Quartet exemplifies excellent chamber music playing.

5. eighth blackbird illustrates the vast range of 21st century chamber ensembles. On this track, the group performs Steve Reich’s minimalist composition “Fast: 8:39.”

6. eighth blackbird showcases its virtuosic ensemble connectivity with Thomas Adés’ rhythmically complex “Catch.”

7. eighth blackbird collaborates with electronic music composer Dennis Desantis on the track “strange imaginary remix.”

What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.

Tweet Seats 1: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Editor’s note: This season, UMS is launching a new pilot project: an experiment at the cross-section of live performing arts and technology commonly known as “tweet seats.” Read the complete project description and pre-interviews with participants here.

For the first tweet seats event, we saw Aspen Santa Fe Ballet:

This week’s  participants:

  • Leslie Stainton, U-M School of Public Health Findings magazine editor and contributor
  • Paul Kitti, writer for iSPY magazine
  • Mark Clague, U-M Associate Professor of Musicology and UMS Board member
  • University of Michigan Director of Social Media Jordan Miller

Read the whole tweet seats conversation here.

UMS: How did tweeting affect your experience of the performance?

Paul Kitti: Tweeting about the performance to people I knew weren’t in attendance made me more conscious about not only how I was perceiving the experience, but how others might. I also feel if I hadn’t been actively thinking about things to say about what I was seeing, I would have viewed it more passively – almost as if in a trance. I think it was a good thing to be viewing the performance analytically, but at the same time, it somewhat took away from the dreamy, ethereal effect of the ballet.

Mark Clague:  I was looking forward to the performance with added anticipation knowing that I’d be participating in the Tweet Seats experiment. For me, the result was positive in that it focused my attention into distilling my experience into pithy statements that could be shared via Twitter. There certainly were times when I had to check out from watching the dance to attend to writing a tweet, although as it turned out, I think tweeting could easily have been limited to the breaks between dances. I did feel a bit uncomfortable tweeting, knowing that I was “breaking the rules” of typical concert behavior and that the glow of my smart phone’s screen on my face might distract others. This distraction factor would seem to be maximized in theatrical presentations and dance where the audience is in complete darkness and the stage is lit with colored lighting and other effects that are vital to the aesthetic of the performance. Dance / theater must be watched so it prompts the question of whether an instrumental concert might be more hospitable for tweeting as one can hear and look at a handheld device at the same time, plus audience lighting is low but not black for say an orchestral concert which would make screen glow less remarkable.

Leslie Stainton: I think I felt a bit the way I did in third grade, passing notes back and forth during class and hoping I didn’t get caught, meanwhile missing most of what the teacher was trying to teach. I’m afraid the experience has not changed my (admittedly biased) opinion that tweeting–and much of social media, for that matter–is a largely superficial, narcissistic activity beloved by people with a tendency toward ADD. I didn’t mind tweeting during intermission, but when I did it during the performance I completely missed what was happening onstage and disrupted any sort of narrative continuity. I found myself thinking more about how clever I could be tweeting than about what the pieces were trying to say to me. It kept me from delving more fully into the experience. I was “present,” yes, but mostly to myself and the small gaggle of people who were tweeting and following tweets. In retrospect, I think I got the lesser end of the deal.

Do we really need to “perform” as we watch performances? And what about those audience members who were spending their time tracking tweets rather than engaging fully with what was happening onstage? And what about the poor performers–going through their extraordinary paces to a distracted audience?

Jordan Miller: I think that the tweeting greatly enhanced my experience. I was able to share my thoughts with a whole variety of people, and to hear what they had to say. There were some people tweeting with a much greater knowledge of dance than I have, and that helped me appreciate aspects I wouldn’t have even thought about.

UMS: Did you expect this effect or are you surprised by this outcome?

Paul Kitti: I really didn’t know what to expect, but I wouldn’t say I was surprised. The ongoing tweet conversation made it feel more like a community experience, which I thought was cool.

Mark Clague: One surprise to me was that our tweeting didn’t really amount to a conversation. I think this was because we were sitting together at the back of the hall and thus our dialogue happened by turning to each other in response to a tweet rather than using twitter. Several times one person would turn to another at an intermission break to say “nice tweet,” or to discuss a topic that might have been too sensitive to post to the world — for example, the sexual overtones of the opening dance. In this sense, tweets did create a conversation and introduced me to new people, but tweets served as conversation starters for a face-to-face dialogue rather than the conversation itself. I can imagine a twitter section doing something similar in that those who choose to sit there are making a statement that they are engaged in the performance to search for things to share and discuss. Therefore, one doesn’t feel awkward in turning to a neighbor during the show to find out their twitter ID name and to ask a face-to-face followup based on some observation. I’d love to experience a performance in which several dozens of tweeters were engaged as I wonder how the momentum of the electronic conversation might be different. I made new friends at the Santa Fe performance via Tweeting and what surprises me is that I’d recognize them today if they sat next to me on a campus bus. Rather than substituting for person-to-person engagement with virtual friends, my twitter seat experience created real world connections.

Leslie Stainton: I’m not convinced the activity of tweeting enriched my experience of the concert in any way. I’ll try it again Thursday (though can’t promise how actively I’ll tweet during a show, in French, that has no intermission!). It certainly doesn’t seem to be the same sort of reflective activity as, say, blogging, or writing up a comment for the Lobby. Maybe I’ll change my mind? Doubt it!

Jordan Miller: I hadn’t expected the conversation to be so robust. Not only were the official “tweeters” engaging, but there were other audience members tweeting during intermission and before and after the performance as well, and that was very cool. In fact, I was able to meet up with a student who was at the show and talked to her afterward.

Stay tuned for the next tweet seats event: Théâtre de la Ville’s Ionesco’s Rhinocéros on Thursday, October 11.