One of the most widespread platitudes about music is that it is a universal language: thus the golden LP of the Voyager spacecraft launched in the 1970s and since last year gliding effortlessly beyond the solar system contains greetings in human languages (and the songs of whales and birds) in addition to a musical repertoire that begins with Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto and then hops across continents from Java to Senegal to Zaire to Australia to Mexico. North American shores are reached eventually with Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, though even the great rocker’s energy doesn’t tip the scales away from the Eurocentric, nay, Teutonic bias. Bach is accorded three tracks and Beethoven two, and each of this Big Bs gets more than ten minutes of playtime in total. Even the early music movement that was gathering steam in the 1970s gets a rocket-fueled boost with Holborne’s Faerie Round played by The Consort of Early Music led by David Munrow; this Elizabeth fare was garnished to either side by Navajo chants and the strains of Solomon Island panpipes.
Needless to say, this brave attempt at multicultural diversity missed out far more than it could include. Such were the hard decisions that had to be made in those analog days of desert island discs and planetary platters. Less than forty years on you could probably fit all of human music on that probe. Maybe some little green men updated Voyager’s hardware and then downloaded billions of songs on the probe’s way out past Neptune and on to its interstellar odyssey during which the Golden Disc will chime in with the Harmony of the Spheres. Even if human music isn’t actually universal it is now quite literally galactic.
The cliché of music’s universality motivated the symbolic gimmickry of the Golden Disc: whatever their native language, all these tunes, both instrumental and vocal, speak to us—and whoever intercepts Voyager—if we or they care to listen.
Whatever its shortcomings and biases, the Golden Disc tries hard to convey earthly musical riches far-surpassing the snippets on that Golden Disc. For those less adventurous than Voyager, YouTube and iTunes have become boons to the armchair ethnographers trawling the globe’s remotest corners without ever leaving home.
However easy and accessible the present array of internet tools may be, these resources do not allow the stay-at-home musical traveller to sit in that proverbial armchair and hold a creatively and carefully designed and produced object—say an LP sleeve or even its more diminutive successor, the CD booklet—and admire the photographs on the cover and leaf through the notes and lyrics as Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and all the other gods intended.
Founded by Lance Ledbetter in 1999 and now run together with his wife April, Dust-to-Digital produces what its proprietors call “high quality cultural artifacts”; the Ledbetters unearth an ever-growing archeology of salvaged music and images, as in a recent release of snapshots from an improvised photo booth taken in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression. Surveying the Dust-to-Digital catalog is itself a journey into new and lost worlds right here on earth.
I’ve recently come into possession of a bold a beautiful Dust-to-Digital artifact produced in 2013 that weaves together a glowing tapestry of Yemeni music — Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen.
You can learn more about the people and culture of the tip of the Arabian Peninsula from a single track of this vivid, humane, and uplifting collection of songs lifted from 45s made between the mid 60s and early 70s than you can from a decade’s subscription to the National Geographic or the New York Times.
The material arrayed here was found and curated by the intrepid DJ, writer, and musician Chris Menist, who maintains an outstanding blog devoted to what might rather inexactly—and by now all too commercially—be referred to as “world music.” Menist claims in his illuminating notes to this colorfully produced CD that the traditions of Yemeni music are the most intact on the Arabian Peninsula because of its durable resistance to the commercializing influence of globalization, not to mention the colonial past that continues to mark and menace region.
Menist’s assertion rings through from the very opening track, Ya Mun Dakhal Bahr Al-Hwa (Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?), a solo for voice and sahn suhasi, which, as described by Menist, is “a copper tray balanced on finger tips, that produces delicate rhythms when struck.” The lilting and—dare I say it for risk of sounding like a crass orientalizer?—seductive rhythm drawn from this piece of metallic magic is something more complex than I can precisely calibrate with my own snapping fingers, perhaps 37/16; that weird time-signature is perhaps more usefully to be thought of as triple meter with a hesitation before each downbeat, a groove that has something in common with the properly Polish performance of Chopin’s mazurkas. Be they Middle Eastern or European, these metrical relations suggest something ineffable but true about the delights and pitfalls of passion. As for the incredible singer, Fatimah Al-Zaelaeyah: there is a grainy urgency and luminous pleasure-taking in her voice that translates itself out of the Arabic and into, yes, a universal language. Though recorded decades ago, the CD brings her unparalleled musicality to life as if she were in the same room, so communicative and persuasive is her performance.
What emerges is a ringing bluesiness and authenticity that even brightened the mood of my pair of grumpy teenagers parked at the breakfast table. “This is cool!” they said, almost in unison through bright smiles. And that was before they heard the rest of the fabulous singing, percussion and oud playing that follows on this disc. If Fatimah AL-Zelaeyah can convince American adolescents of her music’s power in but a few seconds, winning over extraterrestrials should be a piece of space-cake.
Over the disc’s nine tracks there is sensual joy and mournful desire, fantasy and realism in abundance, all reproduced with a disarming immediacy that CDs are so often hostile to. As is so rare in the digital age, one hears the people in this music, whether they bemoan an unattainable beloved in “The Owner of Beauty” or voice the refusal of a wife to prepare a feast for his husband’s rowdy guests because she’s too ill in “A Married Person.”
While the music speaks—or better sings!—for itself, the CD’s photographs are as compelling as Menist’s prose. The pictures show alluring 45s and jumbled shops, an owner chewing the qat (also spelled khat) of the disc’s title. This strenuously cultivated stimulant rich in amphetamine is often the dietary accompaniment of music listening, and an increasingly popular “panacea,” as Menist calls it, for the bleak prospects of a country in political crisis, with falling oil revenues and falling bombs, American drones overhead. Desperation in the country has led to qat trees being planted over ever more arable acres, even displacing the fruit and vegetable fields surrounding the landmark old king’s palace (the Dara Haga). The cultivation of the convivial drug now consumes a shocking eighty percent of the arid country’s water.
Perhaps the most memorable of the photos shows a group of smiling young men holding the James Brown LP The Popcorn! unearthed by Menist in a shop in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. This chance encounter with the vinyl expatriate allowed Menist to spin the disc and introduce his new friends to the soul man, conjuring music that would be burned faster than a funky chicken by Al-Qaida and its affiliates.
Menist also extolls the local coffee of the CD title—a bean many Yemenis claimed was first cultivated in their country rather than, as the usual myth has it, in Ethiopia, which is only twenty miles away across the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet.
The qambus that completes the title is an indigenous Yemeni stringed instrument apparently not heard on this collection because it has been supplanted by the ubiquitous and more forceful oud, that progenitor of the European lute. However lamented the demise of the qambus, the oud playing to be heard her is bracing stuff, ranging from the fiercely virtuosic to the lovingly caressed.
If shadows of hopelessness hang over Menist’s notes, irrepressible is the vibrant humanity of these songs, originally recorded nearly a half century ago. These melodies—and the disc’s title—remind us that music is a social act not an isolating exercise. I’m guessing that there is no more forceful a power trio to put out this message than qat, coffee, and qambus.
In Germany earlier this month the family of Imam Salim bin Ali Jaber sued the German federal government for knowingly allowing the U.S. to send piloting signals through Ramstein Airbase to the drone that killed him and his cousin in Yemen in August of 2012. A few days before his death, the Imam had preached passionately against Al-Qaida and its violent ways. As cautionary measure he had brought his cousin along as a bodyguard for his meeting with the men who were the target both of his sermon and the U. S. anti-terrorist gang. The U. S. drone indiscriminately killed the three members Al-Qaida along with Ali Jaber and his cousin.
A hopeless idealist might imagine that if Obama and his assassination squad heard this disc just once they might think twice about the next strike, and instead turn to the more benign project of launching rockets and music into space rather than dropping bombs on people on earth.