Heading into the massive ‘Northeast Leg’ of Fall Tour 2014. Balkan rhythms and we finally get around to Cartoon Time Signatures.
Roger CortonSo we’ve been talking about odd rhythms.
JCHWhen I lived in Detroit there were all these ethnic types. Serbs. Croats. Poles. Tsiganes. Etc. A lot of these groups have musics that are beat-based. By serendipity I got into these various ethnic wedding bands and they are just unbelievably well paid. You walk around some Serbian Banquet Hall and people stuff twenties in yer pocket for requests of tunes from the old country. It’s insane.
RCYou weren’t wearing pasties and a g-string?
JCHHey, I don’t do that sort of thing, fella. Well, not for that kind of money. But no, ethnic wedding bands like that used to be very common. Every group had a social club. I just learned the ‘phonics’. I never knew what any of that stuff means, but I remember all the patterns. And finally, after taking ten years to learn to read music like Bartok, it struck me as being just like old ‘country’ blues we talked about before. Just more so. There really are no ‘bars’. There are phrases with a certain number of beats. Maybe it’s a dance step or a group of words, but there are a number of beats. And you can hear this in the music.
RCI’ve had teachers try to convince me of that in terms of Flamenco, but it never rings true. It still sounds like bars to me.
JCHOK. Here’s a very simple trick. I call it ‘The Balkanator’. Sing the first line of ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’
RCDo I have to?
RC (sings) Do you know the way to San Jose?.
(sings in mock-Russian accent)
That’s nine beats. Instant Bartok. Get it?
RCSo each syllable is one beat?
RCI’m not sure if I believe this at all, but I have to admit, it does sound vaguely ‘Balkan’. Does that make me a racist of some kind? (laughs).
RCJust add a balalaika and you’ve got a party.
JCHActually, if I recall there would be two guitars, accordion, a mandolin and then this guy with a double bass on a little caster.
RCSo he could just roll between the tables? Practical.
JCHExactly. If you notate the above hit record, a lot of guys would flip. I certainly did for like ten years! (laughs) The funny thing is that I played this stuff, hundreds of times before I could read it. It’s not complicated–until someone tries to write out directions.
RCSo, I know there is a point in here somewhere right?
JCHThe -point-? The POINT!?! I’ll just keep going on and it’ll come back to me (laughs). That phrase I just Balkanated is just 8 beats, 8 beats, 5 beats, 5 beats, and 7 beats. The language of a lot of musics really is a language. There are these sentences that you memorise and stack together. You’re not thinking of them as ‘notes’ that fit into bars. You don’t worry about them all having the same length. A lot of folk songs are like this. With a little practice, you get it because, like I said, you just memorise the sentences. If you thought about words when you talk like we think of notes and bars we’d never say anything. We think and talk in terms of sentences.
I’ve played maybe a hundred ethnic weddings. I don’t have a fucking clue how the language or the songs or much of anything works in their culture. But you memorise a few dozen of these musical sentences and you’re good to go.
RCDrop your panties, Sir William. I cannot wait until lunchtime!
JCH(laughs) It kinda is like that. OK, I just remembered my point. So there are a lot of musics that notation doesn’t do very well. The notation makes them look much harder than they are. But more than that, it’s like the guy in that Monty Python sketch. He’s saying real stuff, but it makes no sense. When I played a Serbian wedding it was just the opposite: I was saying stuff that made musical sense, even though I had no idea what I was trying to say (laughs).
RCActors do that. The actor will play a foreigner and learn a few lines phonetically.
JCHExactly! And since all you’re trying to do is get the sound right and not worry about ‘words’ you can sound perfect. See the reason everyone, musicians, listeners, whoever find stuff like Balkan music tough to get next to is not just ‘familiarity’. It’s that ‘tyranny of the bar line’ thing. We all get so used to thinking about ‘bars’ that the brain just can’t even hear music any other way. Our minds just insist on cramming everything we hear into 4/4 or 3/4 instead of hearing the sentence.
And I don’t just mean that metaphorically. I mean if you hook a Serbian guy and a guy from New Jersey up to an MRI and play some Serbian wedding music, I’m pretty sure the waves or whatever they are, will look different because the Serbian guy hears it differently.
RCIf you can hear anything over the noise they make.
JCHYou have a point. But still I find this really interesting. I think we get imprinted with 4/4 so much that, if you’re a westerner you almost have to actually train yourself to stop that internal clicker in order to really enjoy other musics.
Where I lucked out was getting a chance to play in these situations where I was unconsciously deprogramming my brain.
RCThat sounds pretty new-agey. Like monks who learn to control their beta-waves and so on.
JCHNot really. If I had been fuckin’ Quai Chang Cain, I would’ve made the connection all those years I was struggling to learn to read music in 7/8. But I was too stupid. It was only after I could read those kinds of musics on the page that the light bulb went off. Er… ‘on’. You know what I mean.
RCBut I thought the whole point was that trying to interpret these kinds of music through notation was a fools errand?
JCHI thought that if I could only learn to read these kinds of musics in notation, I would understand or appreciate them more. Learning to read well is great for a number of reasons, but as a way to understand music which inherently does not translate well into western notation? Dumb. In order to like a music, you simply have to listen to it enough times.
RCSo… join a Serbian wedding band? That’s your ‘Dorothy’ moment?
RCDa! There’s no place like Belgrade. Except maybe one of those banquet halls on the east side of Detroit 30 years ago.