From left: Said Ag Ayad of Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen; Finnish singer Marja Mortensson; a Tuvan throat singer of the Alash Ensemble; Galbadrakh “Gala” Tsendbaatar of Mongolian folk-metal band The Hu. (Photos: Getty Images)
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“I’m not interested in heritage,” said musician Martin Carthy on the eve of his 70th birthday. “This stuff is alive.” With these words, Carthy, a celebrated and driving force in English folk music across several decades, appears to perfectly capture folk’s persistent prominence across the boundaries of language and geography. It is ironic, perhaps, that the genre is often portrayed as outdated, irrelevant, even elitist — because folk music is, in fact, the antithesis of all these things. It is a living, revolutionary art form documenting the social concerns of humanity, created by the people, for the people.
But folk music can also be difficult to define. Carthy himself cites African-American blues guitarist Elizabeth Cotton as a major influence. Mongolian band The Hu blends the sounds of horsehead fiddle with electric guitars and drums; in Japan, Wagakki Band incorporates the traditional three-stringed shamisen into its blend of heavy rock. This sort of recombinant cross-pollination isn’t new: Since the widespread commercialization of sound recordings began in the early 1900s, arguments around “authenticity” and the tension between tradition and innovation have raged across numerous cultures. Such debates reached an absurd height during Bob Dylan’s infamous mid-’60s tour of the U.K., when an audience member, appalled at the singer’s switch from acoustic to electric instruments, shouted that the musician was “Judas!”
Martin Carthy himself, who has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career both as a solo artist and as a member of renowned groups Steeleye Span and The Albion Band, is no stranger to blending modern electric instruments with traditional acoustic equipment. Yet the concerns outlined above, as we can see from some of the articles presented below, continue to this day, alongside fears that traditional art forms may die out altogether: abandoned by subsequent generations in favor of newer, shinier sounds; falling foul of commodification; even, in extreme cases, deliberately smothered by political forces.
Which brings us back to the definition of folk music itself. What can we say for sure? “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” So observes Oscar Isaac’s titular musician in Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ cinematic ode to the genre. I can think of no better way to describe this music, which continues to bring joy, pride, and hope to millions of listeners around the world.
Arctic Magic (Chris Campion, The Guardian, January 2007)
For some time, I have been fascinated by the yoik singing of the Sami people. Native to what is now Northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway, the traditional yoik song form serves many purposes. It can be an identity marker for individuals living or dead, a tool of communication with animals and nature, even a doorway to other realms. It is an ancient tradition, with roots in prehistoric times, but it is only relatively recently that this artform has seemingly been brought back from the edge of extinction.
To further explore the depth and richness of Sami music, this list of 10 essential albums, as presented in Songlines Magazine, is a great place to start.
This article by Chris Campion provides a magical peek into the world of the yoik as it is experienced and practiced firsthand, chronicling the efforts of two young Sami determined to preserve and revive their beloved tradition. Happily, in the 15 years since the publication of this piece, yoik appears to have flourished, with several artists and bands recording commercially. Besides the group Adjágas, who you will read about in this essay, albums by Ára, Áššu, Marja Mortensson, Hildá Länsman, and Viivi Maria Saarenkylä have garnered significant acclaim.
“Sometimes in adjagas I feel that I understand all the world,” says Sara. “I understand all the questions that I sometimes wonder about. You feel that and then you are really open for these yoiks to come. If I couldn’t yoik, I think I would die.”
Desert Blues | The Music Moves in Circles (Randall Grass, Kosmos Journal, Fall 2022)
Blues music’s standard 12-bar chord progression, which most experts agree developed from African American slave work songs and spirituals, underpins almost all Western popular music. What an absolute delight it is, then, to see the blues travel full circle, exported back to the country of its ancestry, reclaimed, repurposed, and revitalized. So-called “desert blues,” emanating from Africa’s Saharan region, has been steadily growing in popularity over the last 20 years, driven by the band Tinariwen, whose founding members first united while in exile in Algeria.
Tinariwen blends electric guitars with traditional instruments to create a beguiling blanket of sound that encapsulates the majesty and stark beauty of the Sahara, and their commercial success opened the door to a wave of like-minded musicians. The interaction between “Western” blues and the African continent, however, goes back much further, as explored in this fascinating piece by Randall Grass, in which the author recounts his experiences with local musicians while living in Kano, Nigeria, during the mid-’70s.
Afterwards, I shared a beer with Alhaji Liu in a little bar. As we talked, via a translator due to my limited Hausa, an Albert King blues song played over the bar’s sound-system. “I can play that,” Alhaji Liu said. That was my introduction to what has often been labeled “desert blues.”
Harry Smith’s Musical Catalogue of Human Experience (Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker, September 2020)
It is difficult to name a record (or records) more influential than Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which served as a virtual bible for ’50s and ’60s folk revivalists, Bob Dylan among them. Comprising recordings bought and selected by Harry Smith himself, this three-LP collection still stands as a cornerstone of Western popular music, and yet its genesis and rise to prominence form one of the strangest and most inscrutable tales in music history.
Central to this story is the wonderfully bizarre figure of Smith himself. A bohemian outlier with esoteric tastes, including a passion for magic and alchemy, he was only in his early twenties when he put together his “anthology.” A practicing member of The Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (a church founded by the infamous occultist and “magician” Aleister Crowley), Smith held a predilection for the arcane, as evidenced by some of the wilder cuts included in this set. Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” and Chubby Parker’s “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” are both fine examples.
In this fantastic essay, Amanda Petrusich explains exactly why this “strange cosmology of music” continues to enjoy reverential status.
Once, in a strange fury of obsession, I spent several months on the lower level of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, trying to track down Smith’s own 78s, some of which he had sold to the library before he died. Smith believed that objects have power; I thought there might be something to learn from holding those records in my hands.
A Revival of Indigenous Throat Singing (Joel Balsam and Stephanie Foden, BBC, April 2021)
The particular strength of folk song is that it intrinsically belongs to its people. The music unites communities, entertains them, and documents their loves, losses, and struggles. It’s a genre that has long been used to stir passions, swell pride, and resist injustice and oppression. Little wonder, then, that colonialists and dictators the world over have routinely sought to curtail, or even extinguish, the traditional music of the land. Folk music provides identity and hope, not least in the extraordinarily intimate tradition of Inuit throat singing.
In the early 20th century, Christian missionaries in the Arctic branded the music as blasphemous, even Satanic, in nature — and throat singing all but died out. This moving article by Joel Balsam and Stephanie Foden follows Shina Novalinga and her mother, Caroline, as they fight to reinvigorate the tradition via the distinctly modern means of social media.
In March 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic hit Montreal, Shina started sharing throat singing videos on TikTok. The videos also showcased the gorgeous handmade parkas sewn and designed by her mother along with facts about Indigenous history. “For me it’s so normal, but I realised how unique it is for everyone to hear that, and even just different aspects of our culture, our food, our clothing,” Shina said.
Rhythm in Your Blood: Meet the Young Artists Keeping Cuba’s Traditional Music Alive (Marisa Aveling, Pitchfork, June 2016)
Cuba occupies a special place in music history. Partly thanks to its unique blend of Spanish, African, and Caribbean music, the island’s creative influence extends across the globe, feeding numerous genres from jazz and rock to ballroom dance, classical, and even hip-hop. The spectacular success of the album Buena Vista Social Club and its accompanying documentary film, both of which showcased some of the best of the country’s talent in the mid-’90s, brought Cuban music to a new generation — but much remains to explore.
For more on the Buena Vista Social Club, including a full history, list of musicians involved and video clips, visit the project’s official website.
Ironically, Cuba’s vibrant traditional music scene may well have thrived within its borders in part thanks to its relative isolation from the outside world. However, with the country appearing to gradually temper its hard-line stance, that relaxation may catalyze change. As Marisa Aveling observes in this fascinating piece, some are concerned that, new freedoms and visions — not to mention alien influences — may well distract young people away from their historic art forms. Enter the Manana music festival, the first such international event to take place on the island, and one aimed squarely at preserving and developing Cuban sounds.
“It’s an expression of Cuban style,” says Geovani del Pino, the 73-year-old director of Yoruba Andabo, the Latin Grammy-winning 15-piece band that has been fundamental in representing rumba internationally. “I don’t think that someone who calls themselves Cuban feels a conga without his feet moving.”
Griot on Wheels (Joseph McLellan, The Washington Post, May 1978)
Almost every civilization, it seems, has its version of the West African griots: itinerant musicians and orators, revered for both their skills and the vital role they play in preserving history and continuing traditions. Celtic cultures had ancient bards; Vikings had their skalds; classical Greece, its rhapsodes. Griots, however, still form an integral part of contemporary societies from Senegal and Mauritania to Nigeria and Mali, serving as living libraries, genealogists, entertainers, and ceremonial functionaries.
In this beautiful piece from 1978, Joseph McLellan talks to Batourou Sekou Kouyate, a griot from Bamko, Mali, as he tours America in an old station wagon, making new friends, new connections, and speaking with passion about the ancient craft of his art.
“In my country,” he said in an interview at the Museum of African Art, “I can go with my kora to anyone’s house and say, “I want you to help me,’ and with three wives and 10 children, I could move into that house and spend my whole life there, and when I die my children could stay there after me. That is what we call nobility.”
Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, UK. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.
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