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- Name: Brother Ephraim McDowell
- Location: Los Carolinas du Amerique
I'm a musician who plays the banjo as-well-as many other instruments. My Kentucky Appalachian roots are just the starting point - that banjo/fiddle music continues to be the magic carpet I ride throughout this here world upon. With my partner & love Tina Mangieri we've made homes & worked from Yemen to Palau, Zanzibar to Honolulu... I can & will go on about the "nooks & crannies"... Music ( the jam on the bread), the design arts, food, dance, kava, archaeology (our bread & butter for some time), Questioning the amerikan ideas about progress & primitive - east & west, All of that is my real work. Africa, Appalachia, the Near East, Oceania - Diasporas & nomads... New tribes, lost tribes & no tribes...
TransFrontier SoundSystem is one vehicle utilized by Ephraim McDowell to explore, contexualize & offer up resources/directions for others & myself along this way. No geo-political borders respected here. Humanity & the Groove, the Beat we dance to, that's where we start. No need for a compass we'll read the stars & feel the tidal swells... The Country & Eastern Dancehall is now open...
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Return to the Real Work front
Sunday, March 06, 2005
Monday, February 28, 2005
Country music has always been a form of â??World Music,â?? from the very faint glow of the first embers. Old-time southern mountain music absorbed the European fiddle & pipe tunes, African blues, Irish ballads & minstrel tunes from New York and London. The accepted father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers was not shy at all about borrowing from blues, jazz, Hawaiian & Mexican musicians, taking the riffs & tunes stirring them together into a stew of his own Mississippi low-country self. Bill Monroe & Bob Wills did the same, using different combinations of spices and flavors â?? then a fork appeared in the road. Soon afterwards country music went down the wrong avenue of shopkeepers who hemmed it into a tight little package, barely recognizable from its former outgoing â?? lively â?? homespun self.
True vernacular artist have the most to say about the living world & the others, while boutique artist are bought & sold, under the tight control of marketers, being ready-made. Now lets go back to the fork in the road and take the other road rarely taken that meanders through the countryside where our souls run free.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
C'est bien ici?
BLACK BANJO GATHERING - press release
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
The secrets of the Griots, their music, was only transferred to their offspring, kept in the blood, until very recently, with a shift to teaching others, secular cultural education apart from the cast systems, in state supported art schools.
The problem now faced here in Senegal is with the youth of this place who don’t care to learn the riti or the xalam. Same problem in much of the world, a great lack of appreciation for ones own culture, giving way to the temptations of the “modern”. Wholesale loss of ones culture for a cheap commodity substitute culture that makes us fell more unique, rebels without a cause.
Because human cultures are living breathing constantly changing by nature, we can never tell someone else how or what they should be or do, as hard as that might be. Each of us, as individuals and cultures must do our own decision making of what direction we take. What will we uphold as being important, and treasure as being the fiber of our culture. Without knowing our past we make poor decisions for the future.
where'd you come from, where'd you go?
The lure of the exotic and unexpected is perhaps the most common fuel for travel to those few far-removed spots left on earth. As we people of the Western, developed, world have become more and more technologically advanced and reliant upon the grand global economy, so to has our craving for exotica increased. Be it tribes in the jungle, trains across Siberia, or the Travel Channel, we’re constantly searching; perhaps as a reaction to the fact that our world is making us all very much the same, as we wear the same jeans, drink the same pop, and watch the same news. Though the corporate marketers have so cleverly found many ways to make us feel special, privileged to belong to a unique culture of consumption, the cost of progress unquestioned, we nevertheless yearn for more. As the homogenization of our own land nears completion, we set off on individual/group tour crusades bolstered by confidence in our capital and technology, yet spurred by our anxieties of identity and longing. We now traverse landscapes and oceans effortlessly, seeking out the exotic truth. However, as is the case with truth, it’s not always what folks expect to hear. In days gone by, when Americans wanted to hear truth in song, the answer was straightforward - country music. There’s no greater truth than that. Unfortunately, with the onset of corporate America’s control, engineering every facet of our cultural and material lives; we’ve lost our own bit of exotic truth. Country music and radio are now highly designed formats, based upon complex fast food formulas, conjured up by highly paid consultants often doubling as songwriters. All sense of the local voice, understanding and dealing with nearby human conditions, has vanished from our audible topography. Personally, I’ve taken this bit of reality with an often sad yearning for those songs now labeled old fashion or old timey, only to find them scattered in some of the most unexpected nooks and crannies.
It’s only fitting that our journey for real country music takes us on a long plane ride, plumb across the Pacific Ocean, to an area of the world called Micronesia [from Greek, meaning ‘tiny islands’]. This is a part of the world that many of my fellow Americans have no idea about, unless they’re old enough to remember the horrors of World War II. In order to describe the setting of Micronesia, you must visualize an area of ocean east of the Philippines, north of Melanesia, and west of Polynesia, with over two thousand islands scattered about, like broadcast seeds. Micronesia includes three archipelagos (the Mariana, Caroline, and Gilbert Islands), and two parallel chains (comprising the Marshall Islands). Politically, Micronesia includes the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam (an unincorporated U.S. territory), and the Republics of Palau and the Marshall Islands. In various waves since 1668, when the Spanish claimed control over Guam and the Marianas, Micronesia has played host to an unwanted party of colonizing foreigners. One after the other have come - Spanish, German, Japanese, and American, each bringing it’s own faith, clothing, language, and music. U.S. hands have been active in this part of the world since the Spanish-American War when Guam became an important base of operations for America’s interest in the east. The Second World War magnified foreign interest in Guam, as well as in the rest of Micronesia, as an active war stage between the U.S. and the Japanese. Micronesia shares this common bond with Asia, Africa, and The Americas, a bond of colonization and forced destruction of distinct cultures. Perhaps this all seems as ancient history to many of us now living comfortable lives, but a person need not travel further than their open eyes to witness the fact that we live in the continuum of history, not beyond. Within Micronesia, a dozen or more different indigenous peoples live, each with their own distinct customs, and although they’ve all been forced the tongue of the colonizers, their languages live on in the daily lives of the people.
As the journey continues, landfall is made in the hub of Micronesia - Guam. The largest Micronesian island, as well as the most populated, and a safe bet, the hottest. From the west coast of America you can expect a fourteen-hour flight, some four thousand miles. Any percolating fantasies of a tropical paradise soon melt away as you exit the artificially icy international airport and make the sticky dash toward a rental car. With the air conditioner on full blast we turn on the radio, and to your surprise it all sounds very much like home - soft pop, rap, and new country. A large initial disappointment for the country music pilgrim, only magnified by the sight of perhaps the world’s largest K-mart, prominently placed before you, amongst bumper-to-bumper traffic. This is Guam and this is Guam’s unashamed glory. Guam began growing as a major United States military complex in the 1940’s, bringing with it all the bells and whistles of an American frontier outpost. The most visible American development on Marine Drive, the main road between the military bases, was and remains wall-to-wall massage parlors, strip clubs, bars, and steak houses. Now, in years of relative peace, Guam has become a shopping mall, for the Far East to get its duty free slice of American culture. As the slogan of Guam states, “America’s day starts here.” Guam is very proud to be an American Territory, on the other side of the International Date Line, only a short two-hour flight from Japan and Taiwan. It is important to take note of all the high dollar shopping boutiques and flocks of tour buses hauling the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese shoppers to their glorious plunder. I’ve never seen such a frenzy of shopping before, as on the island of Guam.
Before a rash of disappointment sets in from the lack of promised country music, let’s head down Marine Drive to a half-dilapidated, tin-walled, shed, with a large sign reading “Acme Trading Company.” This little general store is the perfect place to begin our search, because it houses the chart of genuine country music, both in this world and my own. Entering the sweltering shed is an instant dose of non-air conditioned reality, as two fans blow hot stagnant air. I can’t say that the store is like stepping back in time, because it’s actually stepping into time. A real country store where you can buy a pocketknife, fishing gear, army surplus, Bob Marley posters, empty dime bags, whistles, and dobros. What is that back there in the corner? A Dobro, mandolin, and guitars. Now we’re starting to get somewhere, as we meet the blue-eyed, six-gun wearing proprietor, Mr. Jesse Denton. Now around 80 years old, he came to Guam in 1945 as the war ended. As a pleasant surprise to my ears, Jesse speaks with a strong, gentle, southern accent. Jesse, born and raised in Texarkana, Arkansas, where he worked the family farm and performed as a country musician. He was literally raised on the sounds of The Louisiana Hayride and The Grand Ole Opry. I stood in shock the first time I visited him and inquired if he knew anything about the Dobro. He picked it up and started playing “Fireball Mail,” by Roy Acuff and The Smokey Mountain Boys. And as if I knew everything about the last seventy years in country music, he told me that without a doubt Bashful Brother Oswald was his favorite dobro player, although that Leon McAuliffe who played steel with Bob Wills, “could sure get around.” Unbelievable, as if it was just yesterday when Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, and Lefty Frizzell took center stage of the Opry. A virtual time capsule of classic country music, even as Jesse assures me that although he’s lived the last fifty years on Guam, he’s stayed in touch with the music he loves. He goes to the back of the store and brings out stacks of country music magazines, most of which being fan-oriented. Not your average fan though, as he also brings forth electric mandolins, steel guitars, and such, knowing his way around on each. To visit Jesse and talk about country music requires an investment in time, because he’s got stories to share. One such tale relates how he’s managed to see the big names in country music even on Guam. Since the Big War, during the years of Korea and Vietnam, the military always brought shows on island for the troops and locals. Jesse proudly states, “Why, I shook Roy Acuff’s hand, just down the road from here.” He can supply you with an impressive list of hands he’s had the pleasure to shake on island. “But, those were the days when people were friendly and seemed to care,” Jesse laments as he explains the reason why he wears a six-gun.
Typhoons and modernity both aggressively bombard Guam’s shores as seen through the window of the rental car. As we turn the radio back on, we find the local college public radio station. Just like back in America, you pick up Morning Edition, Car Talk, Prairie Home Companion, and on Tuesday nights, a local bluegrass show. Another thing at the college that might come as a shock is an expatriate Israeli computer programmer, with a passion for playing clawhammer banjo and collecting the old instruments. Although completely in a vacuum, he loves the old time southern fiddle tunes, in the revivalist tradition, and keeps up via the Internet. This being my personal favorite music to play doesn’t stop me from feeling a need to search outside of the protective bubble of a college environment, for on Guam as throughout America, nationally syndicated public radio shows have spawned a stagnant, generic, “alternative.” But where’s the real country? I suppose it’s time to leave the development of Guam, for the rural islands of Micronesia.
Heading north some sixty miles in the Marianas, we come to a couple of islands separated by a three-mile channel - Tinian and Saipan. Both hold the honor of being former Japanese colonies, and the sites of hellish, bloody battles during World War II. The smaller, much less developed island to the south, Tinian was the base of operations for the B-29 bombers, which hauled the A-bombs unleashed upon Japan. At that time, Tinian was the site of the largest airfield in the world and a base for tens of thousands of U.S. troops. After the war, the native Chamorro people returned after three centuries of forced exile, most of whom live in the only village on the island. Life on Tinian is indeed life in the slow lane, although recent Asian interest has come back to haunt the island in the form of casino resorts, now sprouting up large marble halls. One required activity on Tinian involves a rental car again, and that’s hitting the road. During the war years the Seabee’s pulled off an incredible feat by building miles and miles of roads and airstrips all over the island, in a period of a few weeks. Because of the shape of the island, Tinian became known as the Manhattan of the Pacific, with all roads and avenues given the Manhattan parallel in name and alignment. While the jungle has certainly reclaimed the land on which the military bases, churches, hospitals, houses, theatres, and bars once stood, the roads and airstrips hold their ground, as good as the day they were paved. Under the thicket of the jungle, the concrete pads once forming the foundations of those structures lie dormant. And beneath the vines, roots, and rusted tin, strangely enough, sleeps the birthplace of the modern American landscape. During the war, a young Seabee named Levitt witnessed the miracles of transformation, in the shape of modular construction, which took place on these Pacific isles. Two years after the war ended, the first modern American suburb was built in Southern California, called Levittown.
Onward we go, with a gentle, pleasant, breeze blowing, windows rolled down, and the radio turned up to 104.5 on the FM dial. That’s Coconut Country coming across the channel from Saipan. And we’re in luck today, as we’ve got two local Chamorro guides in the car with us, Chris and Justo. As we head up 5th Avenue, toward the old bombed-out Japanese command post, the sounds on the radio take me home - “Uncle Pen” played by Ricky Skaggs. Then the D J comes on air, speaking only in Chamorro, “Skaggs” being the only word understood. Chris and Justo, however are very helpful in translating the D J’s long talk breaks - this one’s about a cock fight on Saturday night and someone’s birthday party coming up. The next song up has a real familiar melody, but relies heavily on the Casio keyboard. Chris and Justo start singing full voice with the radio, all in Chamorro. As the song ends I call it out as being “John Hardy,” the same melody used by the Carter family 65 years ago in Virginia. “Oh no, that song’s Chamorro, it’s about a volcanic island to the north that erupted and they had to helicopter the families off,” came the quick, local, rebuttal. I’m not one to argue with the folk process… That’s what country is all about - recycling. I am reminded of a time on Guam, driving around listening to a tape of a new, old time string band from North Carolina. In the car with us, middle-aged women named Aty from the distant atoll of Satawan, in the Mortlock Islands, Chuuk, FSM. As the tape played through various fiddle tunes, “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” began, another old Carter family song. What a surprise as our guest began singing along, only to stop and state that this was one of her favorite songs. She learned it as a child in the outer islands, and can sing the words in Chuukese as well. How did the song get there? Aty thought the missionaries might of brought it, though by any account it’s a Chuukese song now. Back on Coconut Country, the Chamorro version of “Hey Good Looking” twangs, while Chris and Justo talk about the local Tinian senator who’s famous around the Marianas for playing Chamorro country music and raising fighting cocks. Chris assures us that the senator might show up at a party we are attending that night. Any night’s a potential party night on Tinian, but be forewarned, things can get a bit rough. The recipe for a good party on Tinian consists of breadfruit, rice, pig, chicken, fresh reef fish, local made salsa, and always Budweiser beer. A bunch of kids, old folks, and women thrown in keep things safe. The trimmings for a bad party are always the same, lots of Budweiser beer and all men. That’s about all it takes for the shallow brewing depression and anger to surface and create the real life makings for many a country song.
A short hop over from Tinian to Saipan, and back to Guam, provides the jumping-off point to fly two and a half hours south to Palau, a mecca for divers, archaeologists, and American lawyers alike. Palau’s geographical placement sets the island country in a gray zone, somewhere between remoteness and being right in middle of everything. A true frontier, not because it was previously unsettled (people have lived in Palau for thousands of years), nor due to our recent parental embrace of Palau. This is one of the real places on Earth where country meets eastern, joining in an uncontrived, sweaty dance. P.F. Kluge, in The Edge of Paradise, captures a vivid image: “Out here they turn radios on when they buy them and never turn them off: they’re like fishnets, set to catch whatever music is swimming around in the dark.” Following World War II, Palau witnessed another changing of the guard, from being a Japanese colony to a United Nations Trust Territory under The United States. Same tune throughout Micronesia, just different players at different times. Before the Japanese teahouses in Koror, the capital of Palau, the Germans governed over the rock islands, relinquishing control to the Japanese with The Treaty of Versailles in 1919. A living reminder of each occupation can be found in the generations of Palauans and what second language they speak. The very few people now eighty years or older speak Palauan and German. Folks fifty-five to eighty years old remain conversant in Japanese, and for the younger generations, American slang fills the linguistic gap. The upside to this story is that the Palauan language continues to be spoken by all Palauans, and in 1994 Palau received it’s self-determined independence as a Republic, though bound by a Compact of Free Association with the United States. America gave Palau back to itself, and promised to be of assistance, by sending down young American lawyers to help write a constitution, and getting the Army Corps of Engineers to build a not-yet-materialized highway on the largest island of Babeldaob.
Palau is made up of literally hundreds of limestone islands, only a few of which are inhabited. Around Koror, the islands are connected by causeways and bridges. This is where the majority of the population lives, although modern settlements and traditional villages are scattered throughout Palau. There are probably not ten miles of paved road in the entire Republic, but in the last eight or ten years the people have become car crazy. As if trying to keep up with their cousins on Guam, they go “strolling,” the local term for car cruising, compact disc swinging from the rearview mirror. The pervasive lack of pavement stops no one; while aid from a bulldozer cutting a virgin swath through the mountainous terrain, makes the raw jungle momentarily manageable. The sport utility vehicle assumes an unthinkably literal role, at least by American suburban standards. The utility is found in the fact that this is the only way to traverse the wet, eroded, red clay trails that have become known as roads. The sport consists of staying alive, depending upon how well you negotiate mud crevasses. In a bright yellow Toyota Landcruiser, that lived a former life in Japan as a fire truck, we head out around Koror - nothing like a little shopping and sightseeing to get the pulse of a place. The first stop being one of the two big department stores in Palau, Ben Franklin. The name alone conjures up small town America. This place has all of your island needs - from fashion footwear to spam; you’ll find it here. In the entertainment department, an array of Japanese stereos and TVs line the wall, followed by a section of cheap Korean guitars and electric keyboards. Two racks of cassettes give ample testimony to either musical taste or the dumping ground location for the unwanted dead stock music of America. Tapes run fairly cheap; so let’s see what looks good. There are couple of old Decca Bill Monroe tapes, The Ethiopians, a convoy of Red Sovine, James Brown, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, British ska, Roy Clark, and most of Hee Haw, including Grandpa Jones. From Ben Franklin, we drive over to Ace Hardware and upon entering this familiar setting comes an even more familiar sound. The storewide stereo is playing an entire Hank Williams album. After lingering in the rigging section for four or five songs, I ask about the music, only to learn it is the local radio station. In Palau they figure one song is not enough, so they like to play the whole album. In the truck listening to Radio Palau, the vision of the country and eastern melting pot becomes fully realized, “Put Your Sweet Lips A Little Closer to the Phone,” melts effortlessly into “Get Up, Stand Up,” then a Japanese shamisen folk tune, followed by “Coal Miners Daughter.” If you ask around about the radio station, you’ll find that everyone listens and has an opinion about the owner. It appears that the DJ and the owner are one and the same, a true one-man operation, filling his down time with prerecorded music. The owner is a Palauan who lived away in mainland America for twenty years. Upon returning home, he opened the station as a means of voicing his personal views toward the importance of both traditional Palauan culture and Palau’s stake in the future. I asked Priscilla, the daughter of a village chief, what she thought of this guy. Her response, “he talks too much,” indicated he’s made many enemies by speaking freely on the air about local politics, even at the cost of having his house burnt down. A resilient example of freedom of speech, he continuously uses the time between songs, gliding in and out of Palauan and English.
Crossing over the Australian built floating bridge, we’re now upon the largest Palauan island of Babeldaob. This is where the pavement soon ends and the embryonic signs of explosive growth become jagged and less obvious. A pit stop at a small country store before the end of the crushed coral road, finds an unexpected Saturday night pleasure. A father and son are out front, entertaining a group of about ten people sitting on the hood of their trucks. The father plays a cheap nylon strung guitar and the son, of about seven or eight years old, sings a high tenor to his dad’s voice. As we pull around the corner, the sounds of “The Banks of The Ohio” are bellowed out, followed by “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” and a Palauan version of “Jambalaya.” Our final destination on this journey takes us to the remote north of Babeldaob, where electric power has just very recently meandered it’s way into the villages, bringing with it all the goodies that plug in. After a dinner of coconut crab, taro soup, and rice, it’s nice to sit back and watch the fruit bats fly around the galaxy of stars, and then plug the radio in and see what AM stations come floating through the night time air. Another all-too-familiar voice is heard, that of a southern evangelist, out to save the repeatedly saved natives on some nearby island. I turn the dial and tune in a ballad about the death of Magellan. More stations from the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and somewhere in the distance, maybe Indonesia, a Muslim call to prayer beckons all followers to visit with Allah. All of this coming together without the loyal aid of marketing research or format consultants. But somehow in these green lands, surrounded by blue seas, I am never able to get very comfortable with the fact that all this good country music that I love and grew up with is found here at the cost of these people’s own culture. Yet, maybe they too resonate with the universality found in old country songs? It’s truly ironic that as we travel Micronesia looking for old country music, and find it still enjoys a stronghold here, and as the plastic incarnate called “New Country” takes the world by storm, true country people the world over are going the way of the dinosaur. This is evident in America, with increasing levels and intensities since the Second World War. Recently, throughout Micronesia, the pace to catch up has done just that as well. Now in America, country or farm work is done by Mexicans, who work for next to nothing. Sadly, our last real country generation is passing away and country has devolved into a fashion aesthetic. In Micronesia we see the same dynamic eroding the culture, which up until very recently was traditional and self-reliant, even in the face of colonialism. Throughout the Marianas and Palau, most hard and dirty work is now done by the Filipino, Bangladeshi, and mainland Chinese indentured servants, who usually support large families back in their homelands with their pitiful earnings - yet again, the makings of another common lament found in true country music. As this journey in search of real country music in Micronesia winds down, another journey, on the heels of the evaporating country person, begins just beyond the sunset.