Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Oh Happy Day: Edwin Hawkins Singers

The most popular post (not by far!) on the Washerman’s Dog thus far has been the Abyssinian Baptist Church Gospel Choir and so I thought it would be good post a bit more wonderful gospel music. I duly uploaded two collections of the Rev James “The King of Gospel Music” Cleveland’s uplifting, rousing choir music and was looking forward to sharing them with all friends and followers of the Dog.

Rev (?) James Cleveland
But while I was doing a bit of research on the man who is deemed to have virtually created the modern gospel music genre by drawing upon popular music and jazz elements and experimenting with the use of mass vocal choirs, I was stunned to learn that a hint of scandal surrounded his death. Heart failure say the official biographies and website. AIDS say others.  A little digging opened a huge can of worms that has left me so disappointed that I’ve decided I can’t promote the man’s music here.

It appears that in African American gospel music and black church circles it was common knowledge that Cleveland and many other prominent preachers, gospel singers and musical directors were publicly homophobic and pious but when the sermons were over, indulged in the most blatant homosexual predatory behavior. Leaving families, churches, and children destroyed in their wake.  Here is but one easily accessible link that exposes some of this distressing story.

While I let this really sad news filter through my consciousness, I’ll post another collection of equally excellent gospel music, this time from The Edwin Hawkins Singers. A trailblazing force behind the evolution of the contemporary gospel sound, Edwin Hawkins remains best known for his 1969 classic "Oh Happy Day," one of the biggest gospel hits of all time and a major pop radio smash as well.
Edwin Hawkins

Born in Oakland, CA in 1943, he began singing in his church youth choir while still a toddler, and by age five was playing piano; just two years later, he assumed full-time piano accompaniment duties for the family gospel group, making their recorded debut in 1957. A decade later, Hawkins and Betty Watson co-founded the Northern California State Youth Choir, drawing on the finest soloists from throughout the Bay Area to build the 50-member ensemble, which soon entered the studio to cut the 1968 LP Let Us Go into the House of the Lord, its modern, R&B-influenced production pointing the way to a new era in gospel recording. 

Among the highlights of Let Us Go into the House of the Lord was the track "Oh Happy Day," which unexpectedly found a home on underground FM play lists across San Francisco; the single soon began earning airplay on mainstream R&B and pop outlets across the country, and in the spring of 1969 it reached the U.S. Top Five on the on its way to selling an astounding seven million copies and taking home a Grammy award.

At this time the choir was rechristened the Edwin Hawkins Singers, although the featured voice on "Oh Happy Day" belonged to singer Dorothy Combs Morrison, who soon exited in pursuit of a solo career. Her loss proved devastating to Hawkins' long-term commercial fortunes, although in 1970 the ensemble did make a return appearance on the pop charts in support of Melanie on her hit "Lay Down (Candle in the Wind)." 

Still, Hawkins remained a critical favorite, and in 1972 the Singers won a second Grammy for Every Man Wants to Be Free. Recording prolifically throughout the remainder of the decade, in 1980 they won a third Grammy for Wonderful; a fourth, for If You Love Me, followed three years later.

In 1982, Hawkins also founded the Edwin Hawkins Music and Arts Seminar, an annual week-long convention that offers workshops exploring all facets of the gospel industry and culminating each year with a live performance by the assembled mass choir. Although Hawkins recorded less and less frequently in the years to follow, he continued touring regularly, including a series of 1995 dates with the Swedish choir Svart Pa Vitt. His Music and Arts Seminar continued to grow as well, with the 2002 choir including members from the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Hawkins also recorded throughout the 2000s, releasing All the Angels in 2004 and Have Mercy four years later.

         Track Listing:
         01 let us go into the house of the lord
         02 pray for peace
         03 Oh, Happy Day
         04 joy, joy
         05 Give Me a Star
         06 i shall be free
         07 to my father's house
         08 someday
         09 jesus, lover of my soul
         10 ooh child
         11 precious memories
         12 late in the evening
         13 A Long Way to Go
         14 blowin' in the wind
         15 i'm going through

Listen here

Monday, May 30, 2011

Grandfathers of Hip Hop: The Watts Prophets

With the passing of Gil Scott Heron the net is alive with references to his being the “grandfather of hip hop”.  The New York Times ended its obituary with a quote from GSH himself that sets the record straight: “[rap is] something that’s aimed at the kids. I have kids, so I listen to it. But I would not say it’s aimed at me. I listen to the jazz station.”

Along with Gil, commentators are (correctly) pointing out that there were other grandfathers responsible for hip hop, most notably The Last Poets, a band of urban street poets from Harlem who "With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop."
The Watts Prophets
Less feted, less famous and hailing from the other great African American con-urbation on the other side of the American continent, south central Los Angeles, the Watts Prophets, also played a huge role in raising black consciousness, exposing the nightmarish aspects of the American dream and generally, freaking people out with their uncompromising, ballsy rap.  With poems like, Fucked (My name is fucked/fucked/ I was given that name because of my luck/you might think its cool/but I’ll break all your windows as soon as you move) and Amerikkka, a litany of famous African Americans who have died in less than dignified circumstances in ‘one nation under God’, it is hard not to feel your knees quiver slightly.  Especially, when you consider these raps were first put out in 1969!

Put this record on and sit back and listen to it without leaving your seat. It’s the only way. 

Hip hop ain’t got nothin’ on these granddads.

         Track Listing:
         01 Sell Your Soul
         02 Take It
         03 Instruction
         04 Amerikkka
         05 Dem Niggers Ain't Playing.mp3
         06 Pain
         07 What Is A Man
         08 A Pimp
         09 Tenements
         10 The Master
         11 Hello Niggers
         12 There's A Difference Between A Black Man And A Nigger
         13 What Is It, Sisters
         14 Everybody Watches
         15 Watch Out Black Folks
         16 The Prostitute
         17 Fucked
         18 Celebration
         19 What Color Is Black
         20 Black In A White World

Listen here

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Finally Made it Home: Gil Scott Heron

Gil Scott Heron died on the weekend.

I first heard his music thirty years ago when Ronald Reagan was the fresh new face in the White House. I was young and my musical tastes were still pretty narrow. When I saw the album cover I wasn’t impressed. “Never heard of him, must not be much good,” I said to myself.

Then they started to play B-Movie, this long history lesson-cum war chant against Ronald Ray-gun and I grabbed the album to study the information on that man who was responsible for telling the world what we all felt but in our immaturity were unable articulate.  When B-Movie ended they flipped the record and the house warmed to the sound of Is that Jazz?  and Gun.  Excuse the lame pun, but I was blown away.

Since that wintry day  Gil Scott Heron has always figured high on my ‘favorites’. I bought his albums, read his poetry and even wrote to him in jail when he was a low point in his life and career.  And I am not taken to dashing missives off to my ‘heroes’ with regularity. Indeed, that letter to GSH is the only time I’ve done such a thing. Why? Because I truly believe in his vision and his music. And I felt it was the least I could do, as his music had been like a counsel and guide to me through many hardships in life. His vision is  honest, unadulterated, real, unidealistic but absolutely optimistic. And his music is funky, classy, bluesy, jazzy and ultimately uncategorisable.

I’ll not repeat what the net is buzzing with in regard to his life story. You can find any dozen of places to read up on that.

I just want to share with you, in honor of his memory, two of my favorite GSH albums (indeed just favorite albums period). Reflections which despite being 30 years old is still relevant. Ray-gun and Skippy may be ancient history but the White House is still the same, with all due respect for current resident. And with the recent attempted assassination of yet another politician in Tucson, Gun will remain eternally powerful and relevant.

Spirits from 1994 is more jazzy and hip hoppy and I love the authority with which he raps with the listeners, including himself. He is brutally honest about his community, his vision and his own struggles that have more often than not ended in failure and despair. And yet, as always, one ends the record full of hope.  Work for Peace one of his inimitable political raps is still immensely relevant with mention of Libya, Gadafi and the American military industrial complex!

As I listen again to this wonderful music I’m reminded that one of the strongest resonances is his constant theme of ‘home’. Home is where the Hatred Is, The Bottle, Grandma’s Hand, On Coming from a Broken Home and Back Home are just some of the songs that overtly refer to that place where you can find safety, love, the warm feminine, hope and healing.  The entire album Spirits is a cry for home.  For a young lonely boy raised in a boarding school where home (in all its meanings and manifestations) was always just out of reach, this was music that spoke to my soul.

Farewell Gil. Thanks for everything.

         Track Listing:
01. Storm Music
02. Grandma's Hands
03. Is That Jazz?
04. Morning Thoughts
05. Inner City Blues (The Siege of New Orleans)
06. Gun
07. B Movie
Listen here

         Track Listing:
01. Message to the Messengers
02.  Spirits
03.  Giver Her a Call
04.  Lady's Song
05.  Spirits Past
06.  The Other Side Pt. 1
07.  The Other Side Pt. 2
08.  The Other Side Pt. 3
09.  Work for Peace
10.  Work for Peace
Listen here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mystical Sindh: Ustad Manzoor Ali Khan (link restored)

Tomb of Shah Latif Bhittai

"You are the Beloved, you are the physician,
You alone are pain's medicine,
Within me are aches of innumerable kinds,
Lord! heal Thou my afflicted mind."
          Bhitai [Sur Yaman Kalyan]

Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (ڀٽائيِ عبدالطيف شاھ)  also referred to as Lakhino Latif, Latif Ghot, Bhittai, and Bhitt Jo Shah  was a Sindhi Sufi scholar, mystic, saint, poet, and musician (credited with inventing the tampura).   He is considered by most Sindhis to be the greatest poet of their language. Indeed, the Sufi mystical poet is the ultimate cultural touchstone of Sindh, and in particular, Muslim Sindh. His collected poems were assembled in the compilation Shah Jo Risalo, which exists in numerous versions and has been translated into several languages. His work frequently has been compared to that of Rūmī with  Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, describing Shah Latif as a "direct emanation Rūmī's spirituality in the Indian world."

Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai was born in 1689 in Hala Haveli's village Sui-Qandar near Hyderabad, Pakistan. Shah Abdul Latif was the son of Syed Habibullah and grandson of Syed Abdul Quddus Shah. According to most scholars, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai's lineage goes back to the Khwarizim Shahs. Some popular traditions claim he was a descendant of Mohammad  (PBUH) and  even a grandson of the Prophet.

After it was sacked by Timur, Shah Latif’s ancestors fled Herat in Afghanistan and settled in Sindh. His great great grandfather Shah Abdul Karim Bulri (1600s), was a mystic Sufi poet of considerable repute whose mausoleum stands at Bulri, about 40 miles from Hyderabad. Shah Latif received his early education in the school (maktab) of Akhund Noor Muhammad in basic Persian (the government language at that time) and Sindhi (local spoken language). He also learned the Qur'an. His correspondence in Persian with contemporary scholar Makhdoom Moinuddin Thattvi, as contained in the Risala-i-Owaisi, bears witness to his scholastic competence.
Tanpura, invented by Shah Latif

Shah Latif died at Bhit Shah on January 3, 1752. In his memory, every year, on 14th Safar of the Hijri calendar, an Urs is held at Bhit Shah, where he spent the last years of his life and where his elaborate and elegant mausoleum stands.

The Urs is a grand festival in Sindh, where people from almost every village and town of Sindh and from different cities of other provinces of Pakistan - rich and poor, young and old, scholars and peasants - make a determined effort to attend. The Urs commences every year from 14th Safar (2nd month of Hijri calendar) and lasts for three days. Along with other features, like food fairs, open-air markets selling ajrak and Sindhi caps among others, and entertaining and competitive sports, a literary gathering is also held where papers concerning the research work done on the life, poetry, and message of Bhittai, are read, by scholars and renowned literary figures. His disciples and ascetics, singers and artists, gather around and sing passages from his Risalo. Scholarly debates and exhibitions of his work and traditional Sindhi artefacts are also organised.

In his quest for spiritual truth, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai traveled throughout Sindh, Baluchistan and southern Punjab and parts of what is today Rajasthan (in India) staying with Sufi brotherhoods and visiting towns and cities to preach the teachings of Islam. In addition to his religious writings Shah Latif wrote of those he met on the way, local history as well as the flora and fauna. He wrote about the adventures of samundis (Sindhi sailors) and their voyages to Lanka and Java, in the Sur Surirag and Sur Samundi.  As a true mystic he travelled and studied and lived with holy men of all creeds and spent a considerable amount of time with Hindu yogis and sanayasis.

By the time he was 21 Shah Latif recognized his calling.  His ascetic habits, contemplation and his dedication to prayer attracted a large number of his disciples which, as expected, raised the ire of the local power elites. But ultimately they were unable to argue with his character and decreased their opposition. In 1713 he married Bibi Sayedah Begum, a virtuous and pious lady, who in time gained the respect of his followers as well. They had no children.
Wanting a place where he could devote his time to prayer and meditation, Shah Latif began to build a village near Lake Karar four miles away from New Hala. The place as known simply as 'Bhit' (the Sand Hill), but with his disciple set about creating a new  settlement. In 1742, whilst he was still setting up the new village which would eventually be called Bhitshah, he got the sad news of his father’s death. His father was buried there, in accordance to his will, where his mausoleum stands only eight paces away, from that of Shah Abdul Latif, towards its north.

For the last eight years of his remarkable life, Shah Latif lived at Bhitshah. A few days before his death, he retired to his underground room and spent all his time in prayers and fasting, eating very little. After 21 he emerged, bathed, had his disciples dress him in a white sheet and asked his disciples to sing mystical music. This continued for three days when the musicians, concerned about the motionless poet, found that his soul had already left his body.

He was buried at the place where his mausoleum now stands, which was built by the ruler of Sindh, Ghulam Shah Kalhoro. His name literally means 'the servant of the Shah'. He, along with his mother, had adored and revered Shah Latif and were his devoted disciples. The work of the construction of the mausoleum was entrusted to the well-known mason, Idan from Sukkur. The mausoleum, as well as the mosque adjoining it, were later repaired and renovated by another ruler of Sindh, Mir Nasir Khan Talpur. A pair of kettle drums, that are beaten every morning and evening even till today by the fakirs, yogis and sanyasis, who frequent the mausoleum, were presented by the Raja of Jaisalmer.

The women of Shah Abdul Latif's poetry are known as the Seven Queens, heroines of Sindhi folklore who have been given the status of royalty in Shah Jo Risalo. The Seven Queens were celebrated throughout Sindh for their positive qualities: their honesty, integrity, piety and loyalty. They were also valued for their bravery and their willingness to risk their lives in the name of love. The Seven Queens mentioned in Shah Jo Risalo are Marvi, Momal, Sassi, Noori, Sohni, Sorath, and Lila.
Although Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai presented an idealised view of womanhood, the truth remains that the Seven Queens inspired women all over Sindh to have the courage to choose love and freedom over tyranny and oppression. The lines from the Risalo describing their trials are sung at Sufi shrines all over Sindh, and especially at the urs of Shah Abdul Latif every year at Bhit Shah.

Ustad Manzoor Ali Khan

Ustad Manzoor Ali Khan, born in the small Sindhi provincial town of Tando Adam Khan, was the greatest classical singer of modern Sindh.  Like so many musicians of his type while highly regarded in his life time (he was the first Sindhi musician to receive Pakistan’s prestigious President’s Pride of Peformance Award) he lived a humble life. In death, he is forgotten, except by a dwindling handful of aficionados (Washerman’s Dog, being one) and beleaguered bureaucrats responsible for cultural affairs who recently inaugurated a music school in his home town.

These recordings are from another tape produced by Lok Virsa and will take you right back to the sort of music that Shah Latif’s followers sang for three days and nights not knowing he had already passed away.

Track Listing (apologies to Sindhi speakers for incorrect translations):

01 Unki jataan pind khech jo
02 Danura daach
03 Bund bara ji bahaar lagi
04 Sik marun ji samhit na di
05 Tambu tamaji  jamarja

Listen here.