Saturday, March 30, 2013

Songs of Ends And Beginnings

At the eve of Easter, it is perhaps appropriate that thoughts turn to peace and healing and - music.  To beginnings and ends.  I find myself thinking today of the Neville Brothers - a group of musicians from New Orleans.

Their music has filled our house and all of New Orleans for over two decades now, bringing to the fore issues of black rights, crime and drugs in ghettos, the fate of many African Americans and also beautiful gospel - songs of peace and courage.

For over twenty years this extremely talented family band has been closing the annual jazz festival in New Orleans and their farewell song is looked upon as a kind of benediction for jazz.  This year onwards they will no longer be performing together.  Aaron Neville (the lead singer) says the stress on his system is far too high for him to be able to cope with continuing as a band and singing his own solos.  New Orleans and many jazz lovers feel that things will never be the same no more.  But all good things do come to an end and from this end arise other good beginnings.  Perhaps this what we need to remember.

How can I describe the Neville brothers' music?  In the early seventies, George Landry made an album with the Mardi Gras Indians that included versions of American Indian chants, vocals by Landry (a.k.a. 'Big Chief Jolly') and other members of his tribe, and instrumentation and harmonies by Landry's nephews, the Neville Brothers.  This was the first time that the Neville Brothers performed together - and there was no looking back.  I am giving a link to one of the songs from this album - 'Meet De Boys On The Battlefront' - to give an idea of the incredible energy and vibrancy, the mix of cultures that created such distinctive and soulful music in New Orleans.

The Neville Brothers went on to make lots more original music and bring out several albums.  Many of their early albums were not very well received - publicity was hard to come by and their work did not fit into an established groove.  But I think they were also finding their own path and their later albums (released in the late 80s and early 90s) show a different (and more mature and unique) kind of music. My personal favourites are Yellow Moon and Brother's Keeper.

The Neville Brothers sang original lyrics that spoke of the pain and bewilderment faced by many innocent black Americans who are caught up in an unequal society, the problem of crime, drugs, guns and more that exist in ghettos, they sang a tribute to Rosa Parks (Sister Rosa, who refused to give up her seat in the coloured section of the bus to a white person, in 1955) and they also sang songs by other well known song writers such as Leonard Cohen (the most famous being Bird On A Wire), Jimmy Cliff (Sitting Here In Limbo).  They are one of the few to have been able to do justice to Bob Dylan's songs (they sang Bob Dylan's song on the impact of wars in history 'With God On Our Side' in a fearfully soul searching way). I give a link to this song just because of its powerful lyrics and singing (this is not a live recording).  I would suggest that you just listen to it without watching the images (that don't really do justice to the artists).  I quote, from one of the stanzas of this song:

'In many a dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side...'

I also give a link to 'Bird On A Wire', to show just how original their interpretation was and how it transformed a sad love song into a song of strength and beauty.

And finally, ending with a haunting hymn - Aaron Neville's version of Amazing Grace, and wishing all a happy Easter.

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