Northern Thorns

Dance Rock | Seattle

Tag: African

Syllables, cont.

I should add to the thoughts from last entry, I love the sound of the syllables in the Lingala language. Tons of vowels, super round sounding and sung warmly. And the Congolese/Belgian pronunciation of French is also really beautiful, strong and smooth and not as slippery as French spoken in France itself. They occasionally sing in other languages, English and Spanish, though not often.

My own lyrical ideas almost always originate in syllabic sounds. The words and sometimes even the entire subject matter follow from that. I hear a melody, decide if it’s better suited to guitar or voice, and if it’s a vocal melody the next thing I hear is the sounds of the words. Filler or nonsense words, initially.

The other thing I wanted to mention today is that a single fiery Orchestre Viva La Musica song that I discovered (it’s in the blog post from the 14th) has got me on a new music kick again, and for that I’m grateful. Time to write and record some new stuff, very soon.

Sound of Syllables

I’ve never been a fan of poetry on a page. But since I started writing lyrics for this project (I hadn’t written lyrics in a very long time prior to this, long enough that my previous work is basically just teenage breakup angst), I’ve really observed that setting words to music adds something. Something that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s a piece of the puzzle, the whole story of a work, in a similar way that a music video will add yet more depth to a song. How much more profound is David Bowie’s Blackstar as a result of the accompanying video? The words written on a page just don’t hit as hard, at least they never have for me. In fact, many lyrics in print form I would mistake for completely trite. The song makes the poetry.

The words have to flow smoothly. This can mean they rhyme, and I’m a great fan of double couplet rhyming and deep rhyme schemes. But more important to me is that good vocal lines are always somewhat conversational. The notes in a vocal melody can convey inflection. A meandering line that has a lot of movement might evoke incredulity or anger, depending on the movement and the note order. If you were to speak the lyrics to someone else in conversation, and the sentence lilted up or downwards at the end of a phrase, the vocal melody should reflect that. Paul Simon is the guru of conversational singing, though I constantly look to the entire hip hop genre for great examples as well, whether rapped or sung.

And, the sounds of the syllables need to sit comfrotably on the tongue and in the song. I have often changed words that I like only because I can’t deliver them naturally in the song. Bjork is a master of syllables, probably the best I’ve ever heard. She has such a command of them that she can create striking new timbres with just pronunciations. I’m always amazed when I listen to her.

Paying heed to all these things will make the vocals in a song sound natural, classic, flowing. And the ideas conveyed in the words will come across more clearly and sink in deeper, without the listener being aware of it in a lot of cases. Great songwriting is a marriage of words and music. And lately I can’t get excited about instrumental music. That may be another thing Pollens did to me. I’m addicted to the human voice as instrument. It’s so old, so primal, so ecstatic, so unconscious.

All this is the main reason lyrics are so difficult for me. It’s like a Rubic’s Cube; they have to be approached from so many angles at once.

Viva La Musica

How many more of my undiscovered favorite records is DJ Moos hiding over at Global Groove? Great post, great bands. Never heard Orchestra Viva la Musica before this (though I’d certainly heard of them), and now I’m hooked. This Cherie Lipasa song really burns, and the rabbit hole goes deeper.l'Afrique Danse 360.126

Modular Band

Next up is April 1st at The Royal Room, with Maracuj√°. We’ll have several subs for this show: Sam Esecson from Maracuj√° on percussion, Scott Teske on bass and Whitney Lyman on vocals and possibly some more percussion. Writing the charts has paid off in this respect; I can have a modular collective band made up of people who read music, and not ask too much of anyone’s time. Scott showed up to rehearsal a few days ago and sight read all the music without even hearing it, and it sounded perfectly great.

I had struggled for months after deciding to start a band, trying to find people who could really be in the group, and that’s gotten impossible as I get older. The days of having a band that rehearses twice or even once a week are over, that’s a game for people in their 20’s. And I play in too many projects to even make that work for myself much of the time. So, the charts were the answer. They’ve paid off big, allowing me to have talented people like those mentioned above in Northern Thorns. I just wonder if it will eventually coalesce into a constant lineup. The guitar parts are more demanding than the other instruments, hence harder to sub out, and I haven’t had to yet thankfully. And I also have to wonder sometimes whether viewing the band modularly comes off as disrespectful to the people involved. I hope not. I got the idea from Mike Sparks (who played bass and sang wonderfully at the Vermillion show), who approaches his project Noonmoon in a similar way. A show gets booked, then he sends out an email and sees who is available and wants to join him to play the music. My band is more particular than his, but I really liked the concept and so I’ve copied it.

In any case, I’m excited to share the stage with all these folks on April 1st.

Analyzing the Highlife Guitar Style

A big part of what I like about soukous music and other Afropop is the contrast and oscillation within it. Rhythmically, each bar of the highlife guitar pattern is a tiny tension and release, the first bar or half bar syncopated and the second half straight quarter or eighth notes.

highlife guitar comp pattern

Harmonically it is typically a similar oscillation between two chords, an ad nauseum simpicity back and forth that contributes to the genre’s dance and trance sound. On a macro level, the best songs are structured with more tension and release within their parts, and as they are generally around ten minutes (four songs would fit on an LP or two halves of a song on a 45), there is plenty of room to build musical tension.

Repetition is key. The solos aren’t really solos generally, but “sebenes,” a term with a nebulous origin that I won’t speculate on. A sebene is an instrumental feature wherein a single player improvises around a theme without straying too far until a new theme comes along. This approach to instrumental sections really appeals to my musical tastes, as I couldn’t care less about the technical ability that solo sections generally showcase. The sebene is more about melody than chops, and the Congo artists were, and are, much more patient than American songwriters typically are.

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