I had heard great things about Sam Lee’s performance at WOMEX 2012. (I missed it for reasons to boring to go into.) So I was determined to catch his set at GlobalFEST. He went on right after the PA crashed during Emel Mathlouthi’s set (to see how she dealt with that, see my post at inter-muse.com/emel-mathlouthi-unplugged-at-globalfest/). I think the sound man may have been attempting to reconstruct the settings from the earlier sound check, as Lee performed. As a result I felt a certain sonic confusion in the room that kept me from fully comprehending the arrangements. Or maybe it was the room itself that made it hard to hear every nuance. But Lee’s music is nuanced to an extreme, and so I kept shooting and hoping that if I could get the sound from the board, I’d be able to revisit what I was hearing. I was able to get that audio file, and so now I can present you with a marvelous rendition of “Moorlough Maggie” that takes a haunting and highly stylized Scottish folk song and turns it into a riveting piece of chamber music. Lee introduced it as an “end of day” song, one that is sung in appreciation of the stillness of nature. I would assume it is also meant to be sung in unison or unaccompanied, with no harmony singing to flesh it out. But Lee’s arrangement with cello, drums, violin, trumpet, and yoochin (Mongolian hammered dulcimer) milks every phrase of the song for textural, harmonic and melodic possibilities. Lee’s baritone voice is a wonderful folk instrument, true and flexible, and he savors the notes with real pleasure. Did he need the jew’s harp at the end? Perhaps his ethnically eclectic arrangement was hearkening to the Mongolian steppe, where the jew’s harp is widely used, and where nomads, like the Travelers he learned the song from, still herd sheep under silent skies.
For more about Sam: samleesong.co.uk/
Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi’s set took an unexpected turn at GlobalFEST. Webster Hall’s Studio room was packed. Described in the program as “Electro-inspired voice of Tunisia’s Arab Spring” she was accompanied by synths and drums and as such she was delivering a solid show, and keeping the audience of presenters and other music biz types swaying and clapping. I was having a tough time shooting in the crowded room, and after the 5th person bumped into me and ruined the shot, I got ticked off enough to rudely elbow my way into the front of the room. And that’s when it happened. The PA imploded. And that’s how I caught Emel’s most engaging song of the set; one in which her warmth and humor really shone. My thanks to Michael Jones for taking my camcorder sound and making it listenable.
As a music journalist it may seem out of place to bring up the socio-political issues of the day. But in the music that I have recently covered at the English Folk Expo, I found this song whose words and music stir me, and drove me to think about who we are and what we stand for as a species.
It’s a great song, written by Sydney Carter about the revolutionary cleric John Ball who preached against the class system. His sermons were a rallying cry for the Peasant Revolt of 1381.
In Ball’s own words:
“From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by…. unjust oppression…. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
These were radical thoughts for a time when Church, Manor and Monarchy were the only systems, and the working class were starving while the royalty feasted. The rebellion was harshly put down. Ball was drawn and quartered and his severed limbs put on display as a caution to anyone who might think to challenge the powers of the day.
But Ball’s words are remarkably close to the words of our own founding fathers, 400 years later. As an American attending the English Folk Expo, I found myself deeply moved by this song and its back story, and thinking about it repeatedly. It was also by far, the most often sung tune of the event.
The version I have chosen to post is by the glorious Melrose Quartet. These four people presented such a strong show that I truly wanted to stop my camcorders and just enjoy myself. In fact, this video only exists because I HAD stopped shooting, and then started with my handheld again.
For all the hope and idealism of the lyrics of Carter’s anthemic song, the reality is that we all carry within us the primal hard wiring that seeks to subjugate the “other.” Perhaps it is a survival mechanism, but whether by a fluke of birth, race, wealth or brute force, there will always be a battle between the predators and the prey, the haves and have-nots, or simply “us” vs “them.” Even the victims of yesterday can become the oppressors of today; no one is exempt. It is why all spirituality attempts to connect us to each other, to see the face of the godhead in the face of the stranger, and to become better than the isolated, selfish creatures we are.
It is the toughest commandment; “to be ruled by the love of one another,” but these days it is one we need to carry forth beyond the Holidays and into every day, and to everyone. It may even be more of a survival strategy that we ever thought. To quote a founding father “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
This song may not be a traditional Christmas Carol. But it should be.
The Concert at the Main Stage was part of the Homegrown Festival, a joint venture between the The Met Arts Center and the EFEx
For more about the Melrose Quartet: melrosequartet.co.uk
For more about the English Folk Expo: englishfolkexpo.com/
For more about The Met: themet.biz/