Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dance Music: Too Fat Polka

Frankie Yankovic: Too Fat Polka


In 2009 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States eliminated "best polka album" as a Grammy award category. I was rather irritated by this decision as I grew up on polka, and while I hated it as a youth, it now holds a dear place in my heart. Those of us with Czech, Polish, German, Ukrainian, or other Central and Eastern European heritages have danced many a polka at family weddings and other festivals. My folks used to make me dance with their friend's sons at gatherings. Even Bob Dylan mentioned growing up with polka music and dancing in a 2009 interview in Rolling Stone.

Polka has a long and glorious history, and modern polka even extends to a Mexican sub genre called conjunto. It is believed that polka dancing originated in Bohemia in central Europe in the mid 1800s, and quickly spread across Europe. European immigrants brought it to the United States. The two most popular types of polka in North American are the Polish-style, with roots in Chicago, and Slovenian-style or "Cleveland Style." The Polish-style features the accordion, Chemnitzer & Star concertinas, upright bass or bass guitar, drums, and a clarinet and trumpet, or two trumpets. The Slovenian-style is similar, but usually very fast in tempo, and features accordion and saxophone or clarinet.

Frankie Yankovic (no relation to Weird Al), America's Polka King, popularized the Slovenian-style polka in the United States. He obtained an accordion at age 9, and was a working musician by his teenaged years. He had his first platinum record in 1947 with the tune "Just Because," and made 200+ original recordings in his long career. He was the first polka musician to appear on television, and the first to win a Grammy for Best Polka Album when the category was created in 1985.

The song "Too Fat Polka" is one of my favorites in Yankovic's collection. Not only is it gloriously politically incorrect, but you can hear all of the musical parts that make Slovenian-style polka so much fun. I believe that part of the song is sung in Slovenian too (please correct me if I am wrong). You can also hear a banjo in the background, which is one of the instruments that is unique to Yankovic's band and his polka style. I dare you not to tap your foot while listening to this song.

Dance Music: Put Your Cat Clothes On

For these guys, Elvis has never left the building

Carl Perkins: Put Your Cat Clothes On


One of the highlights of my visit to Tokyo last October was a Sunday in Shinjuku's Yoyogi Park. It's one of Tokyo's largest parks, hosted the 1964 Olympic Village, abuts the gorgeous Meiji Shrine, and is one of the best people-watching venues anywhere. On that Sunday (Halloween, coincidentally) I saw all sorts of groups and clubs coming together for whatever it was that caught their non-work fancy: cosplayers in their Gothic Lolita finery gathered near the entrance, martial arts clubs practiced together in a shady field, adult jump-rope clubs perfected their routines near the pedestrian bridge, teenaged girls worked out synchronized pop dance moves, dogwalkers paraded their pets on the main walkway. The variety of activity was astounding.

The most unusual gathering, though, has to be the Tokyo Rockabilly Club, who set up shop right at the main entrance and have been doing so every Sunday for years. In Japanese fashion, they uniformly dress to conform to a non-conforming greaser standard: leather jackets, massive pompadours and ducktails, sunglasses, and shocking (for Japan) tattoos. They crank up their boom boxes to feature both Japanese and classic American rokabiri (rockabilly) hits. And then they dance. The photo I took doesn't do it justice; you should check them out on YouTube.

Carl Perkins was one of Sun Records' biggest rockabilly stars in the mid-50s, loved and covered by both Elvis and The Beatles. His first hit was the classic Blue Suede Shoes, but the one I'm going with seems to suit the Shinjuku crowd scene better. Rock on!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dance Music: Fancy Footwork

Chromeo: Fancy Footwork

I don’t dance. That said, when I do dance, it’s typically only under the influence of excess. Excessive energy, excessive chemicals, and excessive beats. Chromeo really lays it on thick. All the time. Their music is saturated in babymaking funk grooves and shameless Romeo-lyrics. Their live performances are every bit as indulgent. Sporting glowing, feminine, high heeled legs as stands for their synthesizers, the duo pumps venues full of retro synthesizers and vocodered vocals to induce an indefatigable dance trance throughout fans of surprisingly varied ages.

When a friend called me with the invite of an extra ticket to Chromeo’s latest St. Louis show, I anticipated a dance club atmosphere, where I would either be submerged in an incessantly colliding crowd of people wearing their sunglasses indoors or sitting at a table in a futile attempt to have a conversation whilst under bombardment from the beat machines. We ended up standing on the balcony of The Pageant, overlooking the small sea of dancers, and not a single person in the concert hall was sitting down. Dance afflicted even the parents who had obviously only come to chaperone their eager children to what must have been one of their first shows. Within minutes (of finishing my first drink) I found myself shaking my hips and flittering about like the unfortunate victim of a spasm-heavy seizure, and I was loving it.

My friends and I danced all night at that concert, even through the choreographed, tailored-for-MTV, pop openers, Mayer Hawthorne. I can’t say that any of the songs Chromeo played were significantly distinguishable from each other. The same bouncy beat kept people’s feet moving at a pretty consistent rate, and the instruments and effects weren’t particularly diverse. But why do they need to be? Chromeo is a duo with a singular goal: make people dance. And that’s exactly what they accomplish.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dance Music: I Can't Dance

Tom T. Hall: I Can't Dance


And now a word from the loyal opposition.

Not that I’m opposed to dancing. Not at all. It's just that, like Tom T. Hall sings here, “I Can’t Dance.” His song speaks the painful truth for those of us who love music, but who can’t manage to bring our arms, hips or feet to move in time with it.

If you listen to Tom T.’s music, his confession that he can't boogaloo with the best of them hardly comes as a surprise. Many superlatives can be used to describe his music; “danceable” isn’t one of them. "I Can't Dance" came out just as "The Storyteller" was hitting the bigtime, writing and singing songs like "Harper Valley PTA," "Ode Salute to a Switchblade" and "The Ballad of Forty Dollars." Great stories, told with wit and keen attention to detail. When a Tom T. Hall song came on the radio, you didn't dance to it; you sat there and you listened to it.

One person who sat and listened was Gram Parsons. He covered “I Can’t Dance” on his final record, Greivous Angel; because of that record’s fame, Parsons’s version is better known than the original, which first appeared on Hall’s 1970 record, 100 Children.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dance Music: Boogie Wonderland

Earth, Wind & Fire with The Emotions: Boogie Wonderland


Earth, Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland" is not about what you think it's about.

The casual listener can be forgiven for believing "Boogie Wonderland" is merely a paean to the disco era: The bouncy rhythm, the cool vocals by Maurice White, the Emotions' soul-sister backing chorus. The song wants you to believe it's a magical place, this Boogie Wonderland.

But, for a moment, stop dancing and listen closely to the lyrics. "Boogie Wonderland" is actually a tale of lonely people at the end of their rope.

The mirror stares you in the face and says, baby, nuh uh, it don’t work. You say your prayers though you don’t care, you dance and shake the hurt.

"Boogie Wonderland" is about escaping into fantasy, and, perhaps even surrendering to insanity. In an interview on the SongFacts website, Allee Willis, the song's writer, says the lyrics were inspired by the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar. "It's really about someone on the brink of self-destruction who goes to these clubs to try and find more, but is at least aware of the fact that if there's something like true love, that is something that could kind of drag them out of the abyss."

I chase my vinyl dreams to Boogie Wonderland, I find romance when I start to dance.

Says Willis: "'Boogie Wonderland' for us was this state of mind that you entered when you were around music and when you danced, but hopefully it was an aware enough state of mind that you would want to feel as good during the day as you did at night."

As a listener, I'm a sucker for music like this -- songs that seem happy, even optimistic, on the surface, but are really about things much darker. "Happy Trails to You," which I wrote about a few weeks ago, is like that. So too is "We'll Meet Again," the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side," and even "My Window Faces the South."

But "Boogie Wonderland" stands out for me -- partly because it has a serious groove those songs lack, and partly because it's from my era. And maybe mostly because the song's writer, the amazing Allee Willis (read about her here), is my aunt.

Dance and shake the hurt. Boogie Wonderland!

Dance Music: Apparently Nothin'

Young Disciples: Apparently Nothin’ [purchase]

Acid Jazz.  A dreadful name for a wonderful little movement.  Back in the early 1990s, inspired by the likes of Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd, British soul and hip-hop musicians began to weld organic and traditional soul and jazz instrumentation and arrangements to sampled loops and beats to create a truly funky hybrid of old and new.  While the new genre was somehow named after one particular label, it was Gilles Peterson's Talkin' Loud imprint that seemed, for a while at least, to be churning out future classics at a remarkable rate.

In amongst these classics was Road To Freedom, the first and only Young Disciples album.  Featuring the remarkable voice of Carleen Anderson, daughter of Bobby Byrd, the record's lead single was this lesson in the futility of war and hate.  A worthy lyric, to be sure, and one that is as important now as it was when this album was released two decades ago, but that's not what makes this record so remarkable.

The fact is that this song - and indeed this is true of the entire album upon which it features - is one of those rare records that transcend time and place: it could just as easily have been released today as is in any of the last six decades.  On top of that, as soon as that bassline kicks in you just can't help but move.  Perfect dance music, in other words.

Dance Music: Jitter Joe

Girls From Mars: Jitter Joe


I was going to post this this week in any case, but the last post by 1001 Songs of Carolina Girls makes a great lead-in to this one. You see, now we are going to talk about swing dancing. I am old enough that this is the dance music of my parents’ generation. My father never talked about dancing, but my mother grew up in New York City during the swing era, and she liked to cut a rug in her younger days. Jitter Joe was a hit for the group Cats and the Fiddle, who were active during the 1930s and 40s. Girls From Mars take the inspiration for their version of the song from Cats and the Fiddle. The Girls, as they refer to themselves on their website, began performing for swing dance groups in the Philadelphia area in the 1990s. These days, members of the trio are living in Philly, Massachusetts, and New Mexico. They still manage to get together for small tours, which can be in any of those places, and can include dances, festivals, and house concerts.

Bonus: Here’s a video of Peter Strom Jandi Kim demonstrating a Lindy hop to a recording of The Cats and the Fiddle. You can see how the Carolina shag is related to this dance.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dance Music : Carolina Girls

General Johnson : Carolina Girls


Performed well, there isn't a  more graceful dance than the Carolina shag. I suppose it's a variation of a "swing dance" but with a lot of fancy footwork, hand holding and spinning clockwise then counter-clockwise. I lived in the Carolinas for ten years and never got the hang of it. I'd meet a girl at a creekside bar. The jukebox would play something mid-tempo like "Brown Eyed Girl" or a Beach Music classic like "Carolina Girls" and some sunburned shrimper would dance the night away with my date.

   One girl told me I should practice with a door. Turn the knob, open it, spin in a circle and catch the knob with the other hand, step in and step out, spin around the other way. At six and a half feet tall, I must have looked like a complete idiot to anyone who might have peeked through a window. The door soon began loudly creaking its complaint. I gave up.

So that's when I took up that other great Carolina dance: clogging.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dance Music: Kiss Kiss

Tarkan: Kiss Kiss

After our travels overseas last week to Ireland, maybe I can take you a little farther east? In my corner of the world (Istanbul, Turkey), it doesnt take much to get us up and dancing. Where a "western" concert audience would remain seated as they appreciate a lively, up-tempo song (maybe discretely tapping their feet or fingers), here, the audience breaks into spontaneous clapping in time with the song. All we need is a decent rhythm to get us going.

Several of the traditional Turkish instruments of folk music are well suited to bringing a crowd to their feet: the stringed "saz", the hand-held "darbuka" drum and the woodwind "zurna" among them. Many produce a raucus sound that is best appreciated when you yourself are on your feet.

Unfortunately, there arent many Turkish musicians who have made much of an impact on the US music scene. Ahmet Ertegun, who founded Atlantic records doesnt count: he wasnt known for his musical chops; rather, he discovered some of the best dance music of the 60s in the US.

One Turkish musician who has made some inroads in the US music scene is Tarkan. And in fact, at one point in Tarkan's career, Ahmet Ertegun recognized his potential and invited him to New York to sign with Atlantic records. "Kiss Kiss" may even be vaguely familiar to you (also named "Simarik" - although I have westernized several of the characters in this spelling so you can actually see them - in TR: Şımarık). Compared to classical Turkish folk music, his songs are much more highly engineered/produced. They do however retain many of the essential elements of Turkish music: the drum rhythm is authentic, the use of strings is true to the culture, as are the vocal gymnastics that include touches of the eastern pentatonic scale/wail.

While this may not be your type of music, I think you'll have to admit that it is hard to listen and sit still.  That's exactly what the lyrics say. A liberal translation could be "Hold still, girl/Don't dance (snap, snap). Man you're something else..." Tip: as you dance., raise your hands a-la-"Zorba". (We're not Greeks, but we're related).

Dance Music: Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble

Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble: Hopak Ukrainian Dance


I like listening to ethnic dance music because it inspires me. I hear melodies built on scales not common in western music. I perk up when tempos change. I imagine dancers moving to unique rhythms. Often called the "National Dance of Ukraine," the Hopak isn’t constrained by tempo or melody. That’s probably because it’s supposed to evoke improvisation that allows dancers to express themselves. They also usually end fast and furious, some even with lively Ukrainian marches.

When I first heard the Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble, it brought back memories of my many visits to the Northwest Regional Folklife Festival at the Seattle Center. That’s where I first heard the emotional, danceable tunes from the Ukrainian tradition. Based in Washington, D.C., the Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble formed in 1996. They play at venues like the Smithsonian, Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Russian Embassy and Ambassador's residence. Whether serving up polkas, waltzes, hopaks or songs, the group has established a cohesive sound emphasizing vocals, balalaika and accordion.

The two women vocalists (Anya Titova, Olga Rines) are folklorists with a strong calling to preserve messages of their traditional musical heritage. On their 2007 album, Some More of Our Best, songs are driven by feelings of the heart, with many allusions to the trees, river, garden, moon, fields, flowers, sea and wind. In some cases, these natural elements calm one's heart. In other cases, they serve as parties in conversations and lyrical discourses that may question or provide advice. The CD jacket includes both Russian (and English translations) for all of the songs.

Instrumentally, Samovar features Michael Nazaretz (accordion), Yelena Rector (prima domra), Rick Netherton (contrabass balalaika), and Ilhan Izmirli (alto balalaika, guitar). Netherton's showcase piece is "Korobushka" (Little Peddler Box) with his walking bass line and a featured break. The spotlight shines on Nazaretz when he becomes the sole accompaniment to Anya Titova's singing of "Odinokaya Garmon" (Lonely Accordion) that poignantly asks "Why are you roaming the whole night alone? Why are you keeping the girls awake?" The CD's closing tracks refer to gypsy songs. Samovar probably enjoys going to the forest where they can sing, dance, drink wine and eat borscht and caviar by a river.

The Hopak has parts where solo dancers, usually male, perform amazing acrobatic feats such as jumps, kicks, squats and spins. Other parts have everyone moving in unison. As in many Ukrainian dances, the dancers, especially the women, don’t stop moving until the dance ends. Because of the energy required to perform a successful Hopak, the dance is usually performed at the end of a program. Accordionist Nazaretz tells me that their arrangement intersperses the basic folk tune with three interludes, all written a decade ago by their mandolin player at the time, Alex Gakner. (Alex is celebrating his 90th birthday in late March, 2012. Happy Birthday Alex!)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dance Music: Seems To Want To Hurt This Time

Donna The Buffalo: Seems To Want To Hurt This Time


It was our first and last year volunteering at the Hudson River Folk Festival, a venue notorious among the folk crowd for demanding far too much of its staff. In our case, this meant opposite shifts for both my wife and I, as we could neither volunteer nor camp unless both took a turn; I forget what she had done during the day, but by the time this story begins, I had been up for two days after a midnight to morning shift in the security tent, and couldn't nap during the day because it was always my time to be with baby.

To say I was feeling a bit wobbly is an understatement. But it was father's day, and only my second ever. The music wasn't going to start until 11 or so. And so at my wife's urging, my daughter and I skipped off-site for the morning for some grub. We found a diner, and after about as much small talk as either of us could muster in my almost delirious state, a large gathering of fresh-faced middle-aged bohemian types at the next table over noticed my festival bracelet and gratefully interceded, asking if there was anyone good playing that day.

"I've heard really good things about Donna The Buffalo", I said. "Lots of other great singer-songwriter stuff on the docket for the day, but they're the ones I'm really looking forward to." And then the kid wanted something - more eggs, probably, or juice- and I turned away apologetically, missing their reaction entirely.

Moments later, check paid, coffee seeping slowly into my consciousness, we returned to base just in time for the morning sets, a set of sunny acoustic performances which passed quickly in my exhausted dream-state. Somewhere along the way, I handed the kid and her little red wagon off to her mother, the better to have my hands free for an hour or two to wander the grounds with lunch and festival program. And then, as promised, I headed off to the dance tent to catch Donna The Buffalo, and to meet the family.

Only to find that the band setting up was the same group I had breakfasted with.

Everything clicked into place as the band began to play. The exhaustion didn't fade so much as pass out of me like water down a drain as the music took over my body and brain. The funky bass adopted its reggae beat. The drum began to tap and crash, the washboard and fiddle brought the cajun roots and rhythm in. I kicked into the moves that every jamband engenders in its audience: head weaving, shoulders hunched, knees gently pumping, elbows up and arms akimbo in a sort of scarecrow's hop and shuffle. One of the band members - I forget which one - caught my eye mid-verse, and winked, and grinned, to let me know it was all good. And instead of bringing chagrin, the kind recognition lightened my step, sending a wave of gratitude to the universe up my spine.

And then, just as the chorus crescendoed and the ecstasy of the dance and music reached its peak, I looked out across the sea of bouncing, jumping hippie folk fans and into the sunlight on the far side of the dance tent. And there, in the field, I saw my wife passing, pulling our little red cart behind her.

And just behind her, like a mardi gras dancer on parade, I saw my beautiful child, legs stomping, body leaning into the music, chubby arms akimbo, dancing just like Daddy in the sun, the green grass all around, the river beyond her shimmery and wide.

Some moments live in your mind's eye forever. This one will never fade.

But just in case, I'm glad I've still got the pictures to prove it.

Dance Music: Hava Nagila

Boban Marković Orkestar: Hava Nagila

I was raised a secular Jew, and my fiancée was raised a secular Protestant, but we both knew that when we were planning our wedding, we wanted to have a hora, a traditional Jewish circle dance. In fact, someone involved in the planning, the exact identity of whom has been lost in the mists of history, referred to this as “ethnic circle dancing,” a generic term that has continued to be used ironically in our family since then.

I do not like to dance. I am not good at it, and am generally not graceful. But I am usually willing to participate in the hora at a bar mitzvah or wedding, because you just hold hands with people, make a circle and kind of whip around, and nobody seems to care if you actually do the steps. The most common song for a hora is “Hava Nagila.” I always assumed that it was an ancient song of my people, but one of the joys of contributing to this blog has been researching the bands and songs that I post about and finding out interesting things.

As it turns out, the melody of the song is from a Ukrainian folk song, and the lyrics are from 1918, written to commemorate the British victory in Palestine during World War I and the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government indicated support for a Jewish state in Palestine. It is a song of rejoicing and happiness, and is thus fitting for use at fun, life cycle celebrations such as weddings or bat mitzvahs.

This exuberant version is by the Boban Marković Orkestar, a Balkan brass band led by trumpeter/flugelhorn player Boban Marković, a Serbian of Roma (Gypsy) ancestry, from the Live in Belgrade album. Fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd or The Drive-By Truckers might love their three guitar attack, but check out the three flugelhorns of the Boban Marković Orkestar. Their version of “Hava Nagila” starts slowly, and builds speed. I would love to have these guys at my family’s next hora event, because I can envision my relatives dancing to them like dervishes, leaving the dance floor sweating and exhausted.

Irish Accents => Dance Music: The Stride Set

Solas: The Stride Set


This week on Star Maker, we will be taking a broad view of the term “dance music”. Human beings, in the earliest days of our existence, probably learned first to pound on things, next to sing, and then to dance. Dancing is common to every culture on earth. It can obviously have a social function, but some ritual dances are important parts of religious observances. And there are also dances created as forms of artistic expression, each with their accompanying music. So, there is a rich menu of music for dancing to choose from, and we will sample some of it this week.

Given all of that, I did not think it was time, musically, to leave Ireland quite yet. Hopefully, most of our readers know that there is far more to Irish dancing than just Riverdance. First and foremost, Irish dancing originates not as performance pieces, but as social dances. Jigs and reels are probably the best known forms, but there are also waltzes, polkas, and other more exotic types. The Stride Set is a set of reels. Irish dances are often played in sets. Musically, this serves the same function as dividing a song into a verse, chorus, and bridge. For the dancers, it creates an extra thrill in what is already exciting music. The Stride Set is made up of four reels: The Stride, Tom Doherty’s, The Contradiction, and Viva Galicia. The first and last were written by members of Solas, while the middle two are traditional. Each reel not only has a different melody, but also a different arrangement. The transitions are flawless, even as the band members join in or drop out. The Contradiction even has a conversation between two banjos, played by Seamus Egan and guest musician Bela Fleck. Many other Irish bands don’t perform their dance sets with quite this much abandon, but the excitement is always there. For an extra thrill, check out Bill Laswell’s remix of The Stride Set on his album Emerald Aether. I don’t have that one, or I would be sharing it here is well.