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Beauty All Around Me: Three Waves On A Wall


Morning Song – Amen, Brother

Let’s face it.  If you’re going to do an instrumental cover of “Amen”, you don’t have a lot to work with.  It’s an old folk gospel song, written to be easily sung and memorized.  Jester Hairston arranged it as the theme for a 1963 Sidney Poitier film, Lilies of the Field.  Curtis Mayfield saw the movie, loved the song and rearranged it for The Impressions who popularized it in 1964.  But perhaps most importantly, it’s a song that has one word for its primary lyric line.

So when The Winstons went into the studio in 1969 to cut an instrumental funk version (that they titled “Amen, Brother”) to fill out an album and release as a ‘B’ side single, they added a drum break (right there at 1:26) to stretch it out.  Those six seconds—now know as the “Amen Break”—with drummer GC Coleman’s driving, exhilarating, slightly-out-of-control-but-completely-on-the-beat rhythm are now the most sampled piece of music in the world, having been used on over 1,500 recordings by everyone from N.W.A. to David Bowie.

In much of the Christian world, today is Palm Sunday, commemorating the entrance of Jesus and his followers into Jerusalem in advance of Passover.  They thought they were going to change the world.  Whatever they were drumming and singing that day, you can hear echoes of it in “Amen, Brother”.

h/t: MPH

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

EmpressDowagerCixiIt’s often called the Victorian Era, but the Queen of England couldn’t hold a candle the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi when it comes to imperial power politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Despite there being no tradition of female political leadership within the Qing dynasty, Cixi seized and wielded power as de facto ruler of China not once, but three times in the course of her long life.

Born in 1835 to a Manchu family of Beijing officials, Cixi was selected at age 16 to join the royal household as a consort.  Her son, born in 1856, was the only surviving male heir of the Xianfeng emperor and this distinction led to Cixi being raised to a status just below that of the emperor’s wife (and her good friend), Ci’an.

When Xianfeng died five years later, the two women successfully conspired to seize power and ordered the execution of the three leading regents appointed by their late husband.  Ci’an had no appetite for politics, but Cixi effectively ruled China until her son, Tongzhi, turned 18 and became emperor.

He died two years later and, in the absence of any sons, his four-year old nephew was named the Guangxu Emperor and Cixi returned to power as regent again, a position from which she retired a second time in 1889.

Less than a decade later, in 1898, Cixi again retook power in a coup d’etat that stripped the emperor of all powers and left him a virtual prisoner in his palace.

Jung Chang’s unabashedly pro-Cixi biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, tells the fascinating story of Cixi’s tumultuous life and China’s rapidly changing place in the world near the end of the Qing dynasy.  (After Cixi’s death in 1908, the two-year old Xuantong Emperor served less than four years before abdicating the throne.)

Chang is clearly writing a revisionist history—making the case that Cixi was a forward-thinking, proto-feminist, national leader who laid much of the groundwork for China’s resurgence as a world power in the 20th and early 21st centuries.  I don’t know enough about late imperial Chinese history to assess how accurate her interpretation is, but given her extensive use of primary sources in both English and (more importantly) Chinese, it’s a persuasive argument that deserves to be taken seriously.

Morning Song – The Cat

It would be wrong to say that Jimmy Smith single-handedly made the Hammond B-3 organ a jazz instrument.

Because, in truth, it required both his hands—as well as both feet, his great talent and a prolific output fed by his incredible appetite for work (e.g., 40 sessions in eight years for Blue Note Records starting in the late ’50s)—to build the bridge between bebop and soul.

Here’s the title cut off one of his first albums for Verve Records, “The Cat”.

Morning Song – Turn The Beat Around

I’m going to guess that the rituals around introducing children to the different kinds of instruments that make up a band or orchestra hasn’t changed too much over the years.  Which means that the ritual of children, newly excited about their rapidly growing proficiency on their instrument, arguing over which instrument is “the best” still is going strong.

Vicki Sue Robinson’s one big hit, the swirling, infectious “Turn The Beat Around”*, is a reminder it’s not just children who have those arguments; adults do too.  In “Turn The Beat Around”—as in an ever-growing percentage of 20th (and 21st) century music—it’s the drums that win.

But you see, I’ve made up my mind about it
It’s got to be the rhythm, no doubt about it.

*By the way, two things from the 1970s that you just don’t see on television as much anymore today (and it’s a shame):  6″ jacket lapels on three-piece suits (0:05), and bass players wearing feather boas over white satin dresses while soloing onstage (3:16).

It Takes A World: Dismantling Overtly Racist Regimes In The 20th Century

RacismShortHistory(One in a series of posts on George Fredrickson’s 2002 book, Racism: A Short History.)

Why does Fredrickson spend much of the final chapter of Racism: A Short History writing about Nazi Germany, the Jim Crow South (US), and apartheid South Africa?

A justification for focusing on the admittedly exceptional and extreme cases of Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the Jim Crow South is that they taught the world a lesson about the consequences of rampant and unchecked racism that eventually changed the standards for internationally acceptable conduct.  The emergence of racism as a central human rights issue during the course of the century resulted mainly from the attention paid to these regimes by people beyond their borders.  Their rise and fall were major events, not only in the history of these countries themselves, but also in the history of the world.  They should not therefore be considered or compared in isolation but only in the international contexts that first influenced their emergence and then contributed to their demise.  The story of racism in the twentieth century is one story with several subplots rather than merely a collection of tales that share a common theme. (p. 103-104) Read more…

Morning Song – Bleeding Love

Leona Lewis’ monster 2008 hit, “Bleeding Love” is one of those musical guilty pleasures.  Guilty because, really, there’s no way the relationship it describes ends well.  At best, the narrator ends up with her heart broken.  At worst…well, she ends up with a lot more broken than her heart.

And yet.  It’s got that arresting church organ opening, a throbbing, infectious heartbeat-like drum loop, a string arrangement that lifts the song (and you—don’t deny, you can’t resist it).  Most of all, it has Lewis’ own incredible melisma-filled voice ranging gracefully and evocatively over four octaves.

The only bit of hope that this ends well is in the chorus.  There’s a chance (just a chance) that by singing, by saying out loud—over and over, almost hypnotically—how she feels, the narrator will pour out the depths of her feelings and find at the bottom…herself, worthy of love, worthy of better, able to survive a broken heart and move on, stronger and ready for a better love.

It’s that bit of hope that makes it worth listening to and coming back to time and again.


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