Rock News: Music's high and low notes

JOHN SWENSON, United Press International


This Sunday San Antonio's Gemini Ink will present a Reader's Theater piece, "Black and Blue," in honor of Black History Month. The work, compiled by playwright/director Sterling Houston, with music from the city's brilliant composer and improvisor Bett Butler, uses documents from the time of slavery. Included are public notices of escaped slaves complete with descriptions of the scars used to identify runaways, the San Antonio city ordinance detailing the fee to be paid by the owner if the marshall is required to whip a runaway slave, and searing first-person accounts of torture.


"It's a series of first voice found texts," Houston said, "some from John Hope Franklin's 'Runaway Slaves,' interspersed with nursery rhyme games, Langston Hughes poetry, accounts of slave capture and a letter from a slave who escaped to Canada. The ordinance, which dates from 1850, was brought to me by one of my students, who downloaded it off the Web, and when I looked at it the piece began to take shape.

"I tried to bring home the day to day reality of what it was like to live as an African-American under that system as well as how it dehumanized the whites who promulgated it," he continued. "It's tied together with musical interludes such as Duke Ellington's 'Mood Indigo,' Fats Waller's 'Black and Blue' and the spiritual 'A City Called Heaven.' We're very lucky to have Bett Butler available to perform the music. She has such integrity and she really knows the field."



A major online music subscription service Thursday announced the launch a promotional offer letting subscribers mix and burn CDs for just 49 cents per track, the latest step in the ongoing war with pirate Internet music sites. The offer by the Rhapsody service, available both through and Lycos Music, is the lowest price currently available online, the companies say. It is good through March 31, and is available to new and existing subscribers to Rhapsody. Subscribers will be able to download from more than 285,000 tracks and 20,000 albums of material from all five major music companies and more than 100 independent labels. also is offering a week of free access to Rhapsody, from Feb. 13-21. These rock-bottom prices reflect intensifying efforts to get subscribers for legitimate Internet-based subscription music services.


Nearly a quarter-century after Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" cracked the Top 30 and garnered him his first Grammy Award, a new album by that name, "Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan" presents 11 newly recorded renditions of songs from "Slow Train Coming" and "Saved." They are performed by today's leading gospel artists, including Aaron Neville ("Saving Grace"), Mighty Clouds of Joy ("Saved"), Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs ("When You Gonna Wake Up"), the Fairfield Four ("Are You Ready"), and Shirley Caesar, the queen of gospel herself, performing the title track.


The compilation allows these songs to be heard in a wholly new and fresh context, perhaps the very context in which they always were destined to be heard -- as pure, unadulterated gospel music. The title arrives in stores March 25 on Columbia/Integrity, a division of Sony Music.


For 7,000 years nomadic peoples have lived in and roamed the Sahara Desert in search of better living conditions. They search for a fertile oasis, the only beacon of hope for areas completely devoid of life. Since rain may visit the wettest areas of the desert twice in one week and then hide away for years, a traveler could drive more than 100 miles per hour for three days straight without seeing any vegetation or animal life in the largest desert in the world, which covers one-third of the African continent. For inhabitants of Bahr bela ma -- Arabic for "ocean without water" -- every aspect of life has formed around the continual search for this precious land of life and fertility, their refuge and source of hope. While traveling, traditional bards may carry small instruments like guitars or ngonis, on which, like the great American blues masters, they sing of life's tribulations, of survival in the middle of adverse conditions. They carry the tunes with an emotive voice, the kind that is so beautiful and heartfelt they turn persistent longing into perpetual serenity. In 1996, Network -- -- captured these rich North African ballads by gathering them on a well received two-CD compilation.


"Ambiances du Sahara: Desert Blues" sold in excess of 100,000 copies, as well as winning the German Phonographic Critics Prize and remaining in the European World Music Charts for three months. Network's Christian Scholze and Jean Trouillet have compiled a follow-up double album, "Rêves d'oasis: Desert Blues 2." The set covers the guitar music of 29 artists from 11 North African countries, 26 tracks over a broad spectrum from traditional to contemporary, featuring encounters between musicians of different cultures. Artists like Boubacar Traoré, Cheb Mami and Grand Papa Diabaté guide the listener through the plains of the Sahel to the subtropical forests of Guinea. The lyrics, accompanied by native instruments like the kora, Guinean "national guitar," balaphon, and djembe, disclose universal desires for love, peace, and freedom.


Celtic fiddle virtuoso Eileen Ivers has a new album, "Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul" (Koch) ready for release Feb. 25. Ivers describes the album as "a Bronx story" because of the musical melting pot it represents. African, Latin and Appalachian folk rhythms are deftly interwoven into Ivers' musical roots, creating a sound that, once again, "presses against the limits of traditionalism." The Bronx native was so adept she won the All-Ireland fiddle championship nine times, but she yearned to expand the music to include other cultural influences. After several acclaimed albums and a starring instrumental role in the original "Riverdance," Ivers put Immigrant Soul together in 1999. The current lineup includes Tommy McDonnell on vocals, harmonica, timbales and the bodhran; Ivan Goff on Uilleann pipes, flute and whistles; Bakithi Kumalko on bass; John Doyle on guitar and bouzouki; Emedin Rivera on Latin percussion; and tap dancer Tarik Winston.



Texas singer/songwriter Doyle Bramhall, who co-wrote several songs with Stevie Ray Vaughan including "Change It" and "House Is Rockin'," pays tribute to his roots on "Fitchburg Street," out Feb. 25 on Yep Roc records.

"I was born on Fitchburg Street in West Dallas in 1949," Bramhall said. "That was also where my music started. My family loved to listen to music and dance. My uncle Lloyd played harmonica in big bands in Dallas. Some of my earliest memories of Fitchburg Street are watching my mom, aunt Helen and sister Shirley dance to the pop tunes of the day in the 1950s."

At the time West Dallas was nicknamed "The Devil's Back Porch."

"We had a large family," Bramhall remembered, "and on Sundays, my brother Dale and I would sing at my grandmother's house for relatives and neighbors. I remember getting a nickel once after singing and thinking 'I like this.' Dale and I were 5 or 6 at the time. Later on, living in Irving a few miles northwest of West Dallas, my older brother Ronnie and four or five of his high school friends would get together at our house and listen to all these great rhythm and blues and blues records by Howlin' Wolf, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, Ray Charles, Lightnin' Slim and a lot of others. That music would totally grab me."


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