Apr 30, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 2: Major-Minor "Mbombela"

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear.

With the music I cherish most, it’s the sound that matters first and above all. I don’t just mean sound in the purely aural sense—i.e., the timbre of the instruments, the resonance of the voices, the dynamics and tone and pitch. These are not unimportant. But harmonic content is the real substance of music to me—the chords, basically, and the mysterious ways they work together to create something more than the sum of their notes. Harmony is as elemental to the meaning and potency of music as color and shape are to visual art, or time and space are to theatre and film, and it is the thing my ear, and my soul, most hungrily seeks out and clings to. The unique harmonic sound worlds of Weill and Ravel, for instance, are what put them at the top of my pantheon, as much or more than their brilliant orchestrations or compositional technique. And harmonic fluency or daring or pungency, whatever you want to call it, are what draw me, initially and decisively, into the orbit of any artist, whether it’s Joni or Jobim, Rameau or Rihanna.

All of which is preamble to attempt to explain my abiding love for “Mbombela,” the opening track on the 1965 collection An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. I happened upon this as an LP in the wake of Paul Simon’s ecstatic Graceland tour, which was arguably as important as the record itself, as it introduced his fans (including me) to two South African musical giants, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba. An Evening is misleadingly titled, as it’s not a live record and features only two duets between Belafonte and Makeba, who mostly offer reverent solo renditions of traditional tunes in Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, and Swahili, backed by choral arrangements not unlike the isicathamiya later made popular by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Mbombela” is one of the duets, which means it has harmony in a more basic sense—that of two voices entwined.

The song also has an intrinsic harmonic power both delicate and searing. One key reason it stands out is in its departure from the mostly-major-key world of popular and traditional South African music. (I remember Paul Simon telling the slightly condescending but apparently true story of how guitarist Ray Phiri introduced a relative minor chord into the song “Graceland,” a rarity in South African music, in an imitation of something he’d heard in Simon’s other music.) "Mbombela" starts with an achingly subtle guitar ostenato that hovers with a ghostly glow throughout, with four chords topped by a D: G9 (essentially Dm over a G), a Csus2, G9 again, and a D major.

Over that Belafonte begins with a 7-note melody marked out mostly in fourths, at the heart of which is a very strange, almost microtonal shift from Bb, which over the G chord forms a minor-key sound, to A, over the C chord—a 6th interval that evokes C’s relative minor (Am). Sixths are famously smudgy, ambiguous chords; they were a favorite Weill’s and are a tic of Elvis Costello’s, among countless others (as I detailed in this post). Between that odd G-minor over a G9 in the guitar, slipping into a C6 (with a discordant D, or suspended 2nd, atop it), we’re already in thick harmonic territory.

When Makeba comes in, she sings a lot of fourths and fifths over Belafonte—bright, splintery intervals that catch in the ear. And then, her keening rasp complementing his duskier rasp, she both sweetens and sharpens that minor-major chord change, singing a B natural over Harry’s D, for a sunny major G chord, only to drop to the G over his Bb, a passing minor cloud, but oh what a mark it leaves. Her final slide down to an F gives us a glimpse of G7, but then hangs over the next chord, creating the sound of a C11 (or, more precisely, with Belafonte’s A and the D suspended over the C in the guitar part, something like a D-minor chord over a C). That is some seriously stacked harmony! And damn if it doesn’t wound the ear in the best possible way.

I knew that “Mbombela” meant “Train Song,” because the record sleeve said so and you can hear it plainly in the chugging rhythms and the “Shuku, shuku, shuku” refrain and the winding accordion solo—this is literally a “choo choo” song. But it’s not a cheery railroad chanty but a version of “Wenyuk’umbombela,” a protest song by Welcome Duru about the trains that carried migrant workers long distances to work in apartheid South Africa. And while I discovered many other lovely renditions online, none has quite the intoxicating chord voicings of the Belafonte/Makeba version. My research tells me I should attribute these to arranger Jonas Gwangwa, who clearly resonated with the aching melancholy of the song’s lament, “The train is departing,” and found an ideal musical—which is to say a harmonic—expression for it.

Apr 22, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 1: Ven Bernabe y Lamento Jarocho

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear

In my decades of listening to and thinking about, and occasionally making, music, I’ve had some widely shared crushes and obsessions (Beatles, Jimi, Eilish) and joined plenty of fervent cults (Yes, Costello, Sondheim). But I’ve also developed what I think of as my private canon—deep cuts or relative obscurities that I rank among my favorites but which don’t seem commensurately well known or highly acclaimed. Tunes like Peggy Lee’s “Sans Souci” or Dylan’s “No Time to Think,” or the Harry Belafonte/Miriam Makeba duet “Mbombela,” or a wild punk waltz called “Palindrome” by the Ophelias, or the entire catalogs of English guitar goddess Charlotte Hatherley or Texas gypsy jazz combo Café Noir...I could go on like this all day. These are the songs I loved putting on mixtapes for friends back in the day, songs I wish someone would make a hit by covering or dropping into a popular movie.

Or blog about. Many or most of the songs I love I couldn’t possibly get away with covering myself, and my moviemaking dreams were put out to pasture even before I finished film school 30 years ago. But I can apply my critical ear and pen to them here, as I’ve done for a series of formative album replays and other assorted music. As the hours of social isolation stretch ahead, I plan to do just that.

I’m going to start with a favorite I’ve taken for granted for 25 years and just recently made some new discoveries about—and how often can you say that about a beloved song?

I went through a Latin music phase in the early ’90s, inspired after a woman I briefly dated mentioned in passing that she liked salsa dancing. That was enough to send me to Ritmo Latino to snap up some cassettes (yes, cassettes), including some cherished Tito Puente joints and a Celia Cruz/Sonora Matancera hits collection, Tesoros Musicales. The woman and I soon parted ways, but I was left with some lifelong companions. I’ve already written about my love for Tito’s Tambo, but the Cruz/Matancera tape had a lot of great stuff on it too (“Pulpa de Tamarindo” is a particular favorite). For me the real keeper, by a long shot, is “Ven Bernabe,” three-and-a-half minutes of mysterious perfection, alternately sinuous and punchy, with the rhythmic equivalent of an earworm in its title phrase—a hard clave variation with its strongest accent on the 4—and a resolute refusal for much of the song to land on a strong downbeat. Though it has the horn blasts of classic son montuno and the angular piano filigree of Latin jazz, they don’t follow the usual patterns, to my ears at least; they keep eluding capture, even as they spin their own fascinating nets. This persists even after something curious happens exactly halfway through, at 1:45: The song shifts down to a slower gear for some ballad-like verses, only returning to the springy opening riff for the last 20 seconds or so. Before we go any further, here it is:

Until last week I hadn’t looked under the hood of the song or checked its lyrics. I discovered that it first appeared in 1959 on the album Cuba’s Foremost Rhythm Singer, and that it is not one song at all but a mashup of two: “Ven Bernabe,” by Santiago Ortego Gonzalez, a Cuban composer who also wrote another Cruz/Matancera song, “De Cuba A Mexico”; and “Lamento Jarocho,” a bolero by the legendary Mexican troubadour Agustín Lara.

Mexico is a relevant connection here, as well as what I would call a certain race consciousness. While “Ven Bernabe” seems to be about an ornery malcontent who’s broken up a “fiesta” of “los negros” (the “barracon” to which the singer calls him was a term for barracks holding Black slaves), “Lamento Jarocho” is an ode to the “bronze race” of Veracruz, who perhaps not coincidentally gave Mexico its preeminent folk music, son jarocho. Lara’s lament is far more sympathetic than the harsh street cry of “Bernabe,” lifting up an “an entire race full of bitterness” that is nevertheless “born brave” enough to “suffer all (their) misadventures.” While I’m not versed enough in Latin American colorism or the intra-racial dialogue around Celia Cruz’s Afro-Cuban heritage to speak of this authoritatively, there is clearly a Gulf-of-Mexico exchange, a bit of folkloric cross-representation, going on in the marriage of these two songs, and it goes deeper than its musical stylings. You can get some sense of it here, in a later concert Cruz did in Mexico with the Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco. When she breaks into “Lamento” (at 2:00), you can hear applause of recognition from the Mexican audience:

Throughout a career spent mostly in post-revolutionary exile from her native Cuba, Cruz was a kind of ambassador of the Americas—not only of music from Cuba, but of sounds circulating around the Gulf of Mexico from throughout and within the African Diaspora, fused with Indigenous and colonial musics—and in this sense she was clearly one of the great American artists. It turns out that “Ven Bernabe” isn’t just a banger that happened to catch my ear—it may be among the finest artifacts of that unique ambassadorship.

In my research I turned up this great broadcast version:

I was able to find only one recording of “Ven Bernabe” by itself, without “Lamento Jarocho” fused to it, from a 1981 record by Leo Soto:

This cover of the Cruz/Matanera arrangement, by Federic y Su Combo, embellishes both the piano and vocal parts, divertingly if with diminishing returns:

As for “Lamento Jarocho,” this is the lachrymose Lara original:

And a popular, big-bandish version by Toña La Negra:

Bringing it full circle, this “Lamento” by Orquesta Aragón is strongly in the Cruz/Matancera vein. "De Cuba A Mexico" indeed: