Music Interests: American Folk and African Rhythms / by Sam Abelow

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I find myself gravitating to historical music, which seems to have much more authenticity within the lyrics and concepts, which is enhanced by the retro, tubes, transistors, and tape the tracks were recorded onto. Along those lines I’ve also gotten interested in various types of World music, especially that of Africa. These sources of music from the past seem to resonate with me much more than a lot of the highly produced, electronic driven music coming out these days.

At first, about six months ago, during the writing and composing of my second self titled album, I got really into traditional folk music. My favorites are Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotton. They sang about the struggles and small joys in life. These simple lyrics, with subtle guitar parts really seem to suit my mindset. Cotton sings on the refrain of one tune: "You calls me your honey; you spends all my money. Then you think that’s funny. That’s why I’m going away.” There’s a hint of lightness in their suffering. As if to say, they know it’s all transient, and that hardship is just a part of the deal of life. The human condition is shared in such a immediate, yet uplifting way. I connect with with both songwriters use of juxtaposition. Using happy chords with a sad story is a technique I’ve often gravitated towards unconsciously. I began to identify it within their music.

Eventually I discovered The Band, which is now my favorite group to listen to. Along with that came Van Morrison, who similarly began to get back to the roots of music and express something soulful. The Band is the most unique group that I’ve come across. The way they are able to combine Country, Folk, R&B and Rock so seamlessly is totally inspiring. The songwriting ability, the lyrics and stories they tell hit somewhere deep within the reservoirs of collective struggle, the American sense of perseverance. Being of Jewish heritage, and living in New England all my life, songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, which references the South’s defeat in the Civil War, can still bring me to tears, despite an obvious, logical emotional connection. I believe it is the communication of emotion; that of despair which bypasses the mind and directly impacts the heart. The songwriter Robbie Robertson was from Canada and was able, through meeting Levon Helm, to understand, feel and express the culture of the deep South. This encourages me to explore writing about things that are non-autobiographical in the future.

I’ve always been intrigued by groups like Weather Report, which created a fusion between Western harmony theory, which evolved into Jazz, with the rhythms and sounds of the more exotic regions, such as South America and Africa. The sublime expressions of Joe Pass on recordings like “Trinidad”, make me feel like I’m sitting the room with the virtuoso himself. This introduction of Jazz artists incorporating the sounds of other nations really intrigued me to dig deeper.

My interest in spirituality really helps me understanding artist like Laraaji who’s peaceful, wandering pieces express the “All Pervading”. Still, without the direct reference to spiritual thought, I found something transcendent in Afro-Cuban rhythms and the chanting vocals of such artists as Emilio Barreto. Listening to drums, who’s beat I cannot follow and who’s lyrics I cannot understand, help bring me out of my mind and into the heart.

There is still an appreciation for all types of Pop-Rock types of acts within my ears, mind and heart, but expanding our musical palette can be really fun. The end result of music, philosophically speaking, is always dance. So, in the end, let’s be done intellectualizing, put something uplifting on the stereo, and move to the sound!