“In a struggle against all the musicians of the world”

The nation of Mali has Africa’s richest musical tradition and most vibrant musical talent.  But Muslim radicals have taken control of that country and are stamping out the music–destroying instruments, forbidding singing, and driving musicians out of the country.   The article, linked below, is worth reading in its entirety. But I was struck by this quotation:

“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”

via In northern Mali, music silenced as Islamists drive out artists – The Washington Post.

Does anyone know where this attitude comes from?  Does the Koran specifically forbid music?  (I understand how its iconoclasm restricts visual art, but music is art without images.)  What is it in the radical Islamic worldview that sets it against music?   And, conversely, what is it in the Christian worldview that has made it so open to music–more than that, so creative and  influential musically?

Rock ‘n’ roll for adults

Bob Dylan came to the nation’s capital earlier this week, and I went to his concert with Pete Muller, frequenter of this blog, who initiated the whole expedition.  First he threw a birthday party for his wife with some other quite amiable friends who happened to be in D.C.  At my suggestion, we met at my favorite Washington restaurant, that temple of haute cuisine known as Hill Country Barbecue.  Then Pete and I walked a couple of blocks to the Verizon Center, a big venue that Dylan was able to pack out, even at age 71.

Yes, most of the people in the audience, like me, were similarly aged.  Lots of gray hair, not as long as it used to be.  Some were accompanied by their grown children.  Or grown grandchildren.  There were some whippersnappers in hipster glasses or concert T-shirts, serious music aficionados by the look of them.  But most defied Dylan’s earlier plea to be forever young.  It was an interesting crowd, and it wasn’t just aged hippies.  Pete’s a surgeon; I’m whatever I am; I saw Fred Barnes, the conservative journalist and Fox News contributor, sitting not far from where we were.

The opening act was Mark Knopfler, the English musician who was once lead singer for Dire Straits.  Remember them, back in the 1980s?  “Money for nothing,” the first song played on MTV Europe?  Now he is singing sober, intense, country-tinged songs that I’d characterize as Brittannia roots music, with his band of exceptionally fine musicians playing Celtic instruments along with the electric guitars.   Pete called it “rock ‘n’ roll for adults.”

And then came the one true Bob.  I had seen him about four times; Pete had seen him eight.  We had never seen him so animated.  Pete said that he had a touch of arthritis and so was no longer standing all the time playing his guitar.  Now he sits behind a grand piano, which he plays quite well, adding numerous harmonica solos, as at his beginning.  But on a couple of songs, Bob came out, took the mic, American-Idol style, and just sang.  Not only that, he was kind of dancin’ and jivin’.  And he was even smilin’.

The other times I saw him, he was concentrating on playing his guitar and often had his back to the audience.  Not this time.  He didn’t say much–“Thank you, friends!”–but he was engaged and connected with the crowd in a way that I found surprising.   He has a new album out that I am really enjoying, Tempest, and he played a couple of songs from that (the enigmatic “Early Roman Kings” and the lovely “Soon after Midnight”).  But he mostly played old songs (“Highway 61 Revisited,” All Along the Watchtower,” “Blowing in the Wind”).  The thing is, though, every time he plays those old songs, he does it in a different way.  The arrangements, the rhythm, the inflections, even the tunes are different.  And yet they are still the same songs.  This is what rewards going to Dylan concerts again and again through the years.  And it says something about Dylan and about all of us other old guys in the audience.

Postmodernists have talked about the myth of individual identity, arguing that we really are different people, depending on whom we are with and the different stages in our lives.  But Dylan is the same person, for all of the changes that he has gone through–including his religious changes–and the 60-year-olds in the audience are the same persons who were moved by Dylan’s music when they were young and are still moved by it in different ways, who have been following him through his changes and through their own.

P.S.:  For a good account of this particular concert, see this review in the Washington Post.

Also, I would like to make an off-the-wall prediction so that if it happens you will have seen it here first:  I predict that Bob Dylan will once again surprise his fans and confound the musical world, this time by joining the Roman Catholic Church.  In the Rolling Stone interview we posted about, he is evidently reading Roman Catholic theology.  (When asked about “transfiguration,” Bob tells the interviewer, “You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church.”) And then in “Duquesne Whistle,” the best song on the new album, he has the line, “I can hear a sweet voice callin’./ Must be the Mother of our Lord.”)

 

Here is the Hobbit soundtrack

The soundtrack for the upcoming Hobbit movie has been posted online, for free. Listen to it here:  Hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins is being played by Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in BBC’s excellent modern-day update of the Sherlock Holmes saga, Sherlock.  And the actor who plays said Sherlock, who has the splendid name of Benedict Cumberbatch, has a part in the Hobbit, playing the Necromancer.  (I believe that’s the mysteriously sinister figure who turns out to be Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.)  By the way, Sherlock is many times better than the American attempt at the same scenario Elementary.  Wouldn’t you say?

“For All the Saints”

Happy All Saints’ Day!  All Christians are saints–sinners, but also saints–and this is a day to celebrate the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints,  as it extends through time and space, in this moment and in eternity.  This includes your loved ones who died in the Christian faith and who now exult in Heaven.

Sometimes I find that when I sing a hymn, I rush past all of the poetry.  So let’s contemplate the lyrics from this classic hymn by William W. How (1823-1897):

1. For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

4. O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

5. And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

6. But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

7. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Alleluia! Alleluia!

8. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

via “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest”.

The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has an interview in Rolling Stone that is confounding some people for bringing back that whole religion thing.  You can’t read it online without a subscription, but David Zahl at Mockingbird posts some highlights:

Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see “Rainy Day Women” as coded about getting high.

It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts…

People thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?

Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has..

[When you talk about] transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?

Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like incarnation–or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time…

So live performance is a purpose you find fulfilling?

If you’re not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don’t get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed…

You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time–can you tell me more about that?

The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during soundchecks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision.

When you say religious songs…

Newly written songs, but one that are traditionally motivated.

More like “Slow Train Coming”?

No. No. Not at all. They’re more like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”…

Has your sense of faith changed?

Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who’s to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God’s hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation…

Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.

Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know?

There is more at The Transfiguration of Robert Zimmerman, or Just a Closer Walk with Dylan | Mockingbird.

The interview has other revelations, or at least disclosures, about Dylan and his work.  For example, we see that he is still irked at the  folk purists who charged him with betrayal when he started playing an electric guitar:

These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified…

This comment about the relationship between the artist, emotion, and the audience is a revelation:

The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.

Exactly!  And this is what many would-be artists don’t realize.  Art of whatever kind is not about just vomiting up your inner emotions.  Music, poetry, fiction, acting, painting, film, and other art forms require intense discipline, concentration, and objectivity.  An artist can’t just go up and go berserk in front of an audience.  (Performers who seem to do that are just acting.)  Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s.  What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

Thanks also to David Zahl for appending this sampler from Dylan’s new album, Tempest:

Bob Dylan is back

Bob Dylan has a new album, Tempest, and it sounds really, really good.  From Washington Post music critic  Chris Richards:

For his 35th studio album, “Tempest,” Bob Dylan wanted to write religious songs and ended up hopping a freight train to the apocalypse.

Couching images of end-times America in old-time American melodies, the 71-year-old has delivered his most compelling release in more than a decade. That’s faint praise for anyone who gave up on Dylan after the Carter administration, sure, but find me another rock demigod crafting tunes this violent in their golden years. You can practically hear the guy tapping his toes in puddles of blood.

But before Dylanologists had heard a bloody note of it, it was the album’s title that made them gasp. “The Tempest” is considered William Shakespeare’s swan song, which might mean that. . .

No, no. Dylan pointed out to Rolling Stone that Shakespeare’s “Tempest” was preceded by the word “the.” Dylan’s “Tempest” is just “Tempest.” Hadn’t one of the greatest lyricists in American song taught us anything about attention to detail?

Regardless, that retirement-rumor kiboshing comes as a relief, because Dylan has found some fresh gravitas in his withering voice. His pipes sound more trashed than ever, so he pulls right up to our ears, making these sinister songs feel eerily intimate. It was a tactic he hinted at with “Christmas in the Heart,” a collection of snarled holiday carols from 2009. The band keeps everything tender and mild while Dylan softly sneers something terrifying.

Listen for it on “Narrow Way,” a nimble jump-blues number that sounds like it survived a nuclear winter. “This is hard country to stay alive in,” Dylan rasps. “Blades are everywhere, and they’re breaking my skin.”

“Duquesne Whistle” employs a similar trick. It’s a classic American train song, its chirping steel guitars channeling hope and wanderlust. Dylan pushes so much wind through his throat that his voice starts to resemble the affectionate roar of Louis Armstrong. But instead of signaling the freedom of a fresh start, this train whistle is “blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart.”

It gets better, which means it gets worse.

“Tin Angel” recounts a love triangle that ends in gunshots and stab wounds. “Early Roman Kings” takes the 1 percent on a bluesy, five-minute frog march. And over the patter of “Pay in Blood,” Dylan yanks a refrain from his pocket and flicks it open like a rusty switchblade: “I pay in blood, but not my own.”

via – The Washington Post.

I’ve got to get this one.  I’m curious about the characterization of these violent tunes as “religious songs.”  (See this for a discussion of the album’s Christian themes.)  Has anyone heard this album yet?  You can buy it here: