Listen Traditional -- He's Gone Away
Aug 27, 2015
Listen Traditional Arabic -- Lama bada yatathanna
Aug 27, 2015
Allow me to paint a picture with my imagination brush: late night New York City in the early 1940s, a posh nightclub with low lighting, plush booths, and a smoky atmosphere. The ladies are in their best dresses with fine jewels and long gloves, while the men wear tuxedoes. They drink Manhattans and gin martinis. Seven hours earlier, across the ocean in Paris, musicians in a secret basement café try to sustain the morale of Parisians during the Nazi occupation. In both settings, the band is pretty small tonight, with just a female singer, a guitarist, and a double bassist who sometimes also does some scat singing.
When I listen to the Ladyslipper Ensemble — Sahar Hassan, mezzo-soprano; Chris Kachian, guitar/harmonica; Chris Brown, bass/scat singing — I feel that I am no longer in a school gym, but have been transported back in time. Ladyslipper Ensemble play a variety of literature — about half of it actually from the WWII era — but what ties it all together is a jazzy interpretation that would make each song appropriate for a nightclub or café, as described above. The singing is simple and melodic, but the guitar and bass bring the jazz by changing up the tempi and time signatures, improvising around the chord changes and sometimes adding some foot tapping and scatting.
The song with which Ladyslipper begin their set is a staple of American jazz and opera culture. One of George Gershwin's most famous songs, "Summertime," opens one of his most famous works, "Porgy and Bess." Debuting in 1934, it used an entirely African-American cast of opera trained singers — something that had never been done before. Gershwin explained that the characters would have sung folk songs and spirituals (hence he called it a folk opera). However, since he wanted all the songs to come from one source, he composed his own rather than including pre-existing folk songs, expertly creating a melange of jazz and African-American folk styles. "Summertime" is the lullaby that the young mother, Clara, sings to her baby as the audience is introduced to Catfish Row, a black tenement in Charleston, South Carolina. It became (and continues to be) one of the most popular and most recorded jazz standards of all time. It seems only natural that a selection from the Great American Songbook makes an appearance in this program.
Speaking of songs that everyone knows, "Oh, Shenandoah" has been sung on boats and ships, around campfires, arranged for all sizes of vocal and instrumental ensemble — and in the case of Ladyslipper Ensemble, interpreted as a jazz standard. The title doesn't actually refer to the Shenandoah River in Virginia as is sometimes mistakenly assumed, but rather the Oenida Iroquois chief Oskanondonha, "Deer Antlers," a.k.a. Shenandoah who lived in the town of Oneida Castle in central New York state in the early 1800s. This song originated from Canadian and American voyageurs — men in the beaver fur trade — who would travel regularly down the Missouri River in their canoes. The voyageur life was lonely and often the voyageurs became friendly with the local Native American tribes that they encountered. It was not unusual for a voyageur to fall in love with a native girl and take her for a wife; hence the narrator telling Shenandoah that he loves the chief's daughter. The song evolved into a popular river and sea shanty by the mid-1800s. There really are several variations of the lyrics, but they all revolve around this same story (though certain versions are less savory as they involve selling the chief alcohol and kidnapping his daughter when he's drunk). It is a testament to its emotional melody and story that it has lasted so long and is open to a variety of musical interpretation.
Not all songs that were popular at the time of World War II were written by Americans. Kurt Weill was a German Jewish composer who escaped Nazi Germany and took up residence in New York City. After he left he never wrote in German again, as he was disgusted with what Germany had become. However, in America he achieved great popularity for his musicals and art songs. One of his wartime duties was serving as the production chairman of the Lunchtime Follies, a series that curated war-related songs and sketches to perform for New York City factory workers to produce moral and productivity. In 1942, the year after the United States entered the war, Kurt Weill (along with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein), wrote the song "Buddy on the Night Shift" for the Follies. The narrator is just coming off the second shift at the factory and says "hey buddy" to the guy replacing him in the assembly line for the third or "graveyard" shift at 11 p.m. The narrator wishes they knew each other better, but as their paths only cross when they're switching shifts, they don't even know each other's names, hence the narrator refers to his replacement as "buddy." Clearly this song is aimed straight at the round-the-clock workday that sustained the war effort. Jazz was again a clear influence on Weill's style, and his many art songs and musical theatre selections would have been perfect material for an evening cabaret production.
The French embraced jazz right from the start. It was so pervasive in their music in the early 20th century that even classical composers like Francis Poulenc slipped its influence into his French-style art songs. He composed "Les chemins de l'amour" as incidental music for the 1940 Jean Anouilh (who also contributed the lyrics) play "Léocadia." This song was specifically dedicated to the successful actress and chanteuse, Yvonne Printemps, who debuted it on stage and in recording. In the play, the Duchess is trying to re-create three wonderful days that her beloved nephew, the Prince, spent with a beautiful singer called Leocadia before she was tragically strangled by her own scarf as she tried to tie it. The Prince, who is actually rather spoiled and self-involved has been pining for this girl so his aunt has re-created the memories of those three days in a park complete with everywhere they went — a bar-tabac, an ice-cream stall, a nightclub, a taxi — and the exact same staff who catered to them. She summons a young Parisian milliner named Amanda to replace Leocadia as she bears a striking resemblance to the dead woman. The Duchess hopes that the Prince will fall in love with this live girl instead of continuing to think of the dead one. The Prince is rather nasty to poor Amanda at first, but naturally over the course of their time together he falls completely in love. It also transpires that Leocadia herself wasn't actually as wonderful as he thought, so all ends well. Amanda sings this valse chantée (sung waltz) about always looking for the paths of love and trying to retain the memory of first love without being overcome with despair by the fact that life keeps moving on even after love is lost. It's a song that would not be out of place at a French café of an evening.
It's unlikely that one would ever hear an ancient Arabic folk song in a nightclub, but Ladyslipper makes it seem possible. Mezzo-soprano Hassan is a native of Egypt and fluent in Arabic. She tries to sing more simply for this song with less of a full voice and less vibrato. The melody and poem for "Lama bada yatathanna" are from the 15th century or earlier. It's a secular form of music that came from the Moorish/Andalusian era in Spain called Muwashah, and it's not unusual for the poet and composer to be unknown as is the case here. The poem tells of missing someone who is walking away and watching their gait until they disappear over the sands. Kachian and Brown arranged the accompaniment for their instruments, with the former adding a middle-eastern flair to his improvisation.
Ladyslipper closes with the joyous Negro spiritual "Ain't a that good news" arranged in 1940 by African-American composer and scholar, J.W. Work. The 19th century African-American song style actually informed the creation of jazz, so this is a good tie-in to the rest of the program. The guitar is put to the side for this song and replaced with a harmonica. The harmonica interacts with both the singer and the bassist — trading off improvised phrases for a verse with the scatting bassist. This interpretation, whilst retaining jazz elements of improvisation, feels like it would almost be more at home at a backyard barbecue, as the use of harmonica instead of electric guitar gives it more of an everyman feel.
The lyrics are about having a place in heaven when the singer dies; they'll leave their earthly troubles and go to meet Jesus. The form is pretty simple for each verse, the only difference being what ever is waiting for them in heaven — a crown, a harp, a robe, slippers, a Saviour. "I've got an X in the Kingdom/Ain't a that good news" two times followed by "I'm going to lay down this world/Going to shoulder up my cross/Goin' to take it home to Jesus/ Ain't a that good news." Although it was written by slaves looking to escape their horrible existence, I imagine that it probably would've resonated with soldiers at the front or in POW camps in Europe or Asia during the war.
There is something magical about Ladyslipper's selection of music. It's so evocative of another time and place that it's natural to feel like you, as an audience member, just dropped into the early-mid 20th century. Just like the evolution of jazz, there is also so much history and purpose behind each song which is so interesting to delve into. Whether it was written to boost wartime morale, or for a larger musical production, or has been passed down for hundreds of years and then officially transcribed, each song has its own story to tell.