Music Notes – May 2012

Celebrating working-class culture

 This month labour arts festivals are again bringing Canada’s working-class culture to centre stage. From its beginning in Toronto in 1986, when Mayworks was founded by the Toronto Labour Council, the idea has sunk roots in Winnipeg, Halifax, Windsor and several other Canadian cities. In the present era of intensified class struggle the growing importance of such festivals should be obvious. Whereas in the past cynics might have dismissed them as small centres of cultural resistance, now it is increasingly possible to imagine them as catalysts for a broader progressive culture. While Mayworks festivals offer a full spectrum of artistic activity, here are some musical acts to check out: Greg Crowe & the Scarlet Union (Winnipeg), Dub Trinity (Toronto), Ian LaRue (Winnipeg), Norma MacDonald (Halifax), Evalyn Parry (Toronto), Deedee Slye (Halifax). For more info visit: www.mayworks.ca.

 Hip-hop responds to Trayvon’s killing

 The fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on February 26th has focused international attention on the flagrant racism that persists in American society. The scandalous reluctance of Sanford police to press charges against community watch vigilante George Zimmerman has led many African-Americans, especially young males, to conclude that it must be open season on any black youth sporting a hoodie. Hip-hop artists were quick to express their outrage and solidarity. Mos Def, Dead Prez, Nas, Young Jeezy & Immortal Technique all took to the airwaves to release statements, and Pittsburgh MC Jasiri X released Trayvon, a powerful protest track (check it out on his YouTube page). Only after 45 days and the protests of millions was Zimmerman finally arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Once again the hip-hop community has reminded the world that the alleged “post-racial” character of contemporary American society is a sham.  

 Peggy Seeger: Swim to the Star

 On the centenary of the sinking of the Titantic, observed with much fanfare last month, eminent Anglo-American folk musician Peggy Seeger has released a poignant tribute to the people who perished on that April evening in the North Atlantic. Swim to the Star (co-written with son Calum MacColl for BBC Radio) has been released as a single, as well as with a haunting video. Seeger and MacColl have not forgotten that the majority of the victims, those denied access to the limited supply of lifeboats, were the crew and the second and third-class passengers. They’ve also remembered the grieving families on both sides of the Atlantic, in particular, relatives of the crew in Southampton and Belfast. The Titanic disaster is often interpreted as a metaphor for the collision of industrial civilization with the forces of nature. It takes on richer metaphorical meaning if one looks at the logic of a malevolent capitalist system that will, if not stopped, destroy the earth’s eco-system in its pursuit of profit, leaving behind countless millions of victims. Look for “Swim to the Star” at http://www.peggyseeger.com/.   

 Planting seeds of peace

 Hanna Khoury is an outstanding Arab-Israeli musician currently residing in Philadelphia. On March 31st the violinist gave a masterclass on Arabic music at Toronto’s Palestinian cultural centre Beit Zatoun. Khoury was accompanied by Palestinian percussionist Hafez Ali and qanun master and York University musicologist George Sawa. The next day the artists, under the banner of Intercultural Journeys, were joined by Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David, Syrian singer Youssef Kassab and students from the Royal Conservatory of Music for a concert at the RCM’s Koerner Hall, where they presented Arabic music from Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, and engaged in a cross-cultural experiment they called “Vivaldi gone wild.” Intercultural Journeys was founded in 2001 to promote concerts and discussions between musicians who might, because of political conflict, be unable, or reluctant to play together. Hanna Khoury and his colleagues are making a vital  contribution to peace in the Middle East. For info: www.interculturaljourneys.org.

 Earl Scruggs: 1924-2012

 Earl Scruggs, the virtuoso of the five-string banjo, died March 28th at the age of 88. Tributes to the former textile mill worker from North Carolina poured in from around the world. Bluegrass music features distinctive instrumental and vocal stylings, usually with a combination of banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin. From its Appalachian birthplace it was carried to American cities by migrant workers in search of economic opportunity. Like the rural blues musicians who were its African-American counterpart, bluegrass met up in the sixties with a younger generation looking for an alternative to the commercial music mainstream. Scruggs is one of the key figures in this history. A bluegrass band is not complete without a banjo played in the unique three-finger picking style he developed. Check out Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ classic 1950 recording “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on YouTube. Bluegrass continues to flourish as a distinctive part of the contemporary roots music scene. To learn more visit http://bluegrasstoday.com/.

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