Belafonte II: The Long Road to Freedom

Seeing Belafonte @ Berklee yesterday couldn’t help but make me think back to the time when he came to our NPR studios in 2001 to record a couple of programs around a project that was near and dear to him….but took nearly 4 decades to produce!

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001  (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001 (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

It was called “The Long Road to Freedom,” and aspired to be nothing less than an authoritative anthology of black music in America…from the earliest war crys, work songs and shouts, imported from Africa, to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” and a musical setting of a speech by MLK called “I’ll Never Turn Back No Mo.”   Once completed, it contained no fewer than 80 tracks across 5 CDs, as well as a beautifully-produced 140-page hardbound book of photos, essays, and commentary about the black musical experience in America.

It was an amazing, lavishly packaged, and carefully produced set, which Belafonte had undertaken at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.  Belafonte had the run of RCA’s thoroughly “modern” studio facility, and as a Music Director the legendary (and now shamefully forgotten)  arranger and choral director Leonard De Paur, famed at the time for his work with the pioneering De Paur Infantry Chorus, an all-male black chorus that became a top-drawing attraction for Columbia Artists in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

And, at the start, Belafonte and De Paur had a budget big enough to bring in some big names to the exercise into chronicling what the singer called “African-matrixed music,” Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Joe Williams.

And Belafonte was deeply invested in the project: “We in America know very little about the history of our nation, especially as applied to the black experience,”  he said in an interview.  “So I always felt that my mission was to use music as a way in which to impart ideas and thoughts that would awaken curiosity.”

But whether is was for reasons of budget, time, or interest, the journey of the Long Road project got a lot longer.  The sessions came to a halt around 1971, and the entire project languished in the vaults of RCA – and its ever-evolving corporate ownership – without a single note from any of the sessions making its way to the public.  My guess is that at some point, the bean-counters at RCA decided that the ROI would never be realized; the project got put on the shelf, and then institutional amnesia took over.

But, miraculously, three decades later, The Long Road to Freedom materialized in much the form that Belafonte and De Paur imagined it — if not more so.  (Ironically, the set was released on Sept. 11, 2001, which may help to explain why it did not get more attention when it was released…).  So after a lot of back-and-forth negotiations,  one crisp autumn day Harry Belafonte was at NPR, recording a Morning Edition interview with Bob Edwards, cutting tracks for a long documentary special I was producing around the anthology, posing for photos with practically everyone in the building, and sitting down for one of the most extraordinary lunches I’ve ever had in my lifetime.

It actually started the moment we left the building on Massachusetts Ave. for our half-block-walk to the restaurant.  Harry Belafonte does not blend in to the crowd; the man oozes charisma.  Truck drivers, pedestrians, and even bike messengers all had to say hello to The King of Calypso, which meant that our half-block walk took about 40 minutes.  As for the meal itself: the food was profoundly unmemorable, but the the conversation anything but.  There is no such thing as “idle chatter” with Harry Belafonte.  It wasn’t just the fact that Belafonte has been an eyewitness to history – he had a way of describing his arguments with JFK, or his bailing MLK out of jail, or visits to Africa that were both sharply etched in a journalistic sence, but also deeply philosophical.  And he wasn’t content to just tell war stories; like many people of real greatness, he asked as much as he answered.   And when Harry Belafonte leans into you and asks you a probing question, you don’t dare give a dishonest response!  For all of his struggles for racial equality, you could tell the Belafonte remains a curious and optimistic student of the human condition.  Reminds me of how he quoted from Paul Robeson in his acceptance speech at Berklee:

“It’s a wonderful path to be in the arts, because artists are the gatekeepers of truth. Art is the radical voice of civilization.’ From that time until now, I always knew that I would have a life in the arts. My pursuit was to do what Robeson said, take advantage of this gift of art and to develop myself, and to apply it the way other people needed to be inspired.

Back to the Long Road for a moment: Over time, this collection has become an invaluable resource for schools, critics researchers, documentarians, and, yes, a radio producer or two….though the early-sixties aesthetic of the recordings and arrangements is very much a product of its era.  Some of it can sound a little quaint to our ears, but other parts are breathaking, like hearing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers singing Kneebone Bend, or Belafonte himself doing Boll Weevil   You can listen to the interview Harry did with Bob Edwards here.

(Aviso: it’s from 2001, back when NPR was using RealAudio, and it may not play on your fancy smartphone….)

 

 

A Prayer for Ukraine

TARAS SHEVCHENKO 1814 - 1861 BARD OF UKRAINE

TARAS SHEVCHENKO
1814 – 1861
BARD OF UKRAINE

When shall we get ourselves a Washington
To promulgate his new and righteous law?
But someday we shall surely find the man!

Taras Shevchenko, 1848

Witnessing the dramatic events happening in Kiev this past week made me think of two of the original “freedom fighters” for Ukrainian nationalism: The country’s “national bard” Taras Shevchenko, as well as the Ukrainian composer who set his words to music, Mykola Lysenko.

I discovered Shevchenko quite by accident.  There is a statue erected in his honor at the corner of 22nd and P Streets NW in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks away from the old NPR headquarters on M street, and across the street from the legendary DC beer joint The Brickskeller, (“featuring beers from Argentina to Zimbabwe”) the preferred postgame pizza-and-beer location for the NPR softball team.  And at about the same time, we received an over-the-transom submission to Performance Today of a concert devoted to works by Ukrainian (!) composers – quite a novelty in the late ’80s.  (As was, by the way, the idea of offering scores of imported beers on tap…).

But 1988 was a Millennium Year for Ukraine, marking the 1000th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in the forerunner state of Kievan Rus.’ Sure enough, the recording featured an abundance of works by both Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) and Lysenko (1842-1912), with many of the latter’s pieces featuring texts by Shevchenko. Turns out the Lysenko set more than 80 of his fellow Ukrainian’s works to music.  One of the most famous was “The Days Pass By,” long a staple in the repertoire of Ukrainian-American bass Paul Plishka (whom I think sang it on the program but can’t be sure.)

Paul Plishka: Days Pass

Both Shevchenko and later, Lysenko were imprisoned in their fight for Ukrainian independence – and it’s hard not to read the lyrics as sort of Shevchenko’s version of MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  Others interpret the words as Shevchenko’s scorn for the laziness of his compatriots, “in which somnolent inactivity is seen as far worse than death in chains,” according to the Encylopedia of Ukraine.  Regardless, it’s a powerful mixture of music and text, and easy to understand why it’s still a part of Ukrainian culture to this day:

 
 
The days pass by, the nights pass by
As does summer. Yellowed leaves
Rustle, eyes grow dim,
Thoughts fall asleep, the heart sleeps,
All has gone to rest, and I don’t know
Whether I’m alive or will live,
Or whether I’m rushing like this through the world,
For I’m no longer weeping or laughing
My fate, fate, where are you now?
I have none;
If you begrudge me a good one, Lord,
Then give me a bad one!
Let a walking man not sleep,
To die in spirit
And knock about the entire world
Like a rotten stump.
But let me live, with my heart live
And love people.
And if not then curse
And burn the world!
It’s horrible to end up in chains
To die in captivity,
But it’s worse to be free
And to sleep, and sleep, and sleep
And to fall asleep forever,
And to leave no trace
At all, as if it were all the same
Whether you had lived or died!
Fate, where are you, fate where are you?
I have none!
If you begrudge me a good one, Lord,
Then give me a bad one! A bad one!

 

Sadly, I couldn’t find any recordings by Plishka of that song to share via YouTube, but I remember to  decipher enough Cyrillic to find this ancient recording by the Ukrainian baritone Mikhail Grishko, one of the great voices of the Stalin era, and almost completely unknown in the West.

Back to the composer, Mykola Lysenko.  Seems I’m not the only one whose curiosity has been stirred about the story of this early Ukrainian nationalist of late. Here’s an excerpt from a recent syndicated Washington Post called “9 Questions about Ukraine You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask:”

5. This is getting complicated. Can we take a music break?

Great idea. Ukraine has a rich tradition of folk and popular music, including one of their many classical greats, Mykola Lysenko. A Ukrainian nationalist, and by his death in 1912 a major star, Lysenko loved to incorporate Ukrainian folk melodies into his compositions – for example, his simple but beautiful Second Ukrainian Rhapsody for piano.

Lysenko’s life, more than a century ago, charted many of the same issues driving today’s crisis. Ukraine was then a part of Imperial Russia, which pushed composers and musicians to use only the Russian language. Lysenko refused, composing two operas in Ukrainian, which he refused to translate into Russian, even though this meant they could never be performed in Moscow. Because an 1876 Tsarist decree banned the use of Ukrainian in print, Lysenko had to have his scores printed in secret abroad. He died a hero to Ukrainians, his music cherished by contemporaries like Pyotr Tchaikovsky, but recordings are criminally difficult to find today.

Then there’s the Feb. 21 edition of Classicallite: “Ukrainian Unrest, or what the late Nationalist Composer Mykola Lysenko would do to President Putin.”

Mykola Vitaliyovych Lysenko, the late Ukrainian composer, pianist and scholar, was lauded for his nationalism. He refused to write his operas in Russian, which were eventually banned by the czars in 1876. Not too surprisingly, modern day Russia seems vaguely similar to imperial Russia, what with both admins trying to buttress the motherland like a rabid dog cornering a small child (who speaks half-Russian, half-Ukrainian, I might add).

Alas, recordings of Lysenko’s compositions–like the identity of that masked pianist–are criminally difficult to procure. And as the flames of revolution further engulf a war-torn nation, his work will likely become more difficult to find.  Regardless, he died a hero to Ukrainians everywhere, cherished by his sympathetic contemporary Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And as Lysenko’s land turns to charred rubble today, I know that he would still be a vocal proponent of Ukrainian independence.

Then there’s the unofficial Ukrainian National Anthem: “A Prayer for Ukraine,”  composed by….you guessed it:

Oh Lord, Almighty and Only
for us our Ukraine, please, keep
by freedom’s and the rays of light
you set her in light.

Oh, and by the by, the story of getting the Schevchenko statue erected in Washington is another fascinating tale of Cold War intrigue, richly detailed in an article in Ukrainian Week:

The dramatic campaign to build the Shevchenko monument continued for five years. “Two superpowers, American and Soviet, were pitted against each other,” wrote Antin Drahan in his book Shevchenko in Washington. The Soviet embassy twice appealed to the U.S. Department of State demanding plans for the monument be scrapped. It was joined by the puppet representation of the Ukrainian SSR in the UN.
Hostile anti-Ukrainian forces rallied around The Washington Post. The newspaper painstakingly portrayed Shevchenko as a hater of Catholics, Orthodox, Russians, Poles, and Jews and, at the same time, as a harbinger of communism. Reputed as a respectable and liberal periodical, it pressed the Congress to repeal the resolution it had passed. Tensions mounted after the site was dedicated when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall decided, influenced by an anti-Ukrainian article in The Washington Post, to revise the already decided question. However, these attempts eventually failed.
Sure enough, the statue was unveiled 50 years ago, to these words by then-President Lyndon Johnson:  “[Shevchenko] was more than a Ukrainian — he was a statesman and citizen of the world. He was more than a poet — he was a valiant crusader for the rights and freedom of men. He used verse to carry on a determined fight for freedom.”

Emmylou Harris: For No One

So after writing up the Paul McCartney – Loma Mar Quartet connection the other day, there he was on the tube last night, as part of the WGBH “Beatle Month” of programming.  Last night was a re-airing of the 2010 Gershwin Prize Concert for McCartney, held at the East Room of the White House in 2010 – with an additional concert at the famed (and tiny) Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, which administers the prize on behalf of the Gershwin estate.  (That’s where the footage of “Yesterday” was shot.)

A dizzying (and somewhat baffling) array of special guests sang and played Macca tunes before the honoree and the First Family, including Stevie Wonder, the Jonas Brothers, Faith Hill, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl (an uncanny ability to channel McCartney’s high tenor in “Band on the Run”), and even pianist Lang Lang.

But my hands-down favorite interpretation of the night came from Emmylou Harris, who managed to turn “For No One” into a convincing Appalachian ballad:

The Loma Mar Quartet: McCartney’s Other Band

In the previous post I mentioned the Loma Mar Quartet in passing, and they deserve further mention.  For it strikes me that as a part-time ensemble they have a rather fascinating resume.  I mean, what other string quartet on Earth can claim a repertoire that includes Haydn, McCartney, (“Working Classical“),  Chilean-born jazz chanteuse Claudia Acuna, and 18th-centuryt doublebass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti?   Here’s the group’s official bio:

Loma Mar was formed in 1997 after being invited to perform Haydn String quartets at Bard College in New York State. Equally at home in many musical genres, they have established a reputation for the broad stylistic range of their programs, from medieval to contemporary.  They worked with Paul McCartney in a recording for EMI, entitled Working Classical, that includes nine of his songs arranged for string quartet and two original compositions by Sir Paul written for the Loma Mar Quartet: Haymakers and Midwife. Shortly after the release of Working Classical, then at the top of the classical charts, the Loma Mar Quartet appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra in a live concert from Liverpool which has been broadcast worldwide.  Continuing their eclectic career, in 2002 the Loma Mar Quartet recorded The Rhythm of Life with jazz singer Claudia Acuna, bassist Dave Holland and pianist/arranger Billy Childs.  In 2008, the quartet with bassist John Feeney began the DNA project, or Dragonetti’s New Academy, and have since released two award-winning CDs of world premiere recordings of the chamber music of Domenico Dragonetti.  Volume ll includes a recently discovered Joseph Haydn divertimento for two violins, cello and bass. Most recently, they were invited to perform Yesterday (solo quartet with singer and guitar) with composer/singer and guitarist Paul McCartney at the Library of Congress, the evening before President Obama presented Sir Paul with the Gershwin award. They are all either members and/or principal players of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s as well as internationally recognized soloists and chamber musicians.

Indeed, the group came to Macca’s attention during the Standing Stone rehearsals I mentioned in the last post. But they were quite well known in classical circles, and they were familiar names on many a Performance Today broadcast.  Check out the bios for violinist Krista Bennion Feeney, (concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a regular violinist with the famously non-female-friendly Vienna Philharmonic), violist Johanna Hood (also a member of the Lafayette Quartet), as well as violinist Anca Nicolau and cellist Myron Lutzke of Smithsonian Chamber Players fame.

The video at the top shows the quartet backing McCartney in the original George Martin arrangement of what is arguably the most covered song in history – and doing it on Strads, to boot.   And below, you check out a little bit of their work on the “DNA Project.”   Long live Loma Mar!

November Numerology: JFK and the meaning of 11/22

Think piece I wrote for WCRB Classical New England for this rather remarkable day on the calendar…\

November Numerology: JFK and the Musical Meaning of 11/22

“Kiki” at the Ken Cen

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa backstage at the Kennedy Center with Yr Hmble Srvnt and WDAV supporter Catherine Connor. Next day I had an hour on stage with KTK hosting her “exit interview” at the New Zealand Embassy, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society. (For all of her trips to DC this was the first time the native Kiwi had ever been there, and the Embassy folks were suitably thrilled!). A fascinating discussion that sadly was not taped (I know, I know, but those were the ground rules…). More later on our discussion.