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Posts Tagged ‘folk music’

Photo: Ozy.
Thirty-year-old Abhinav Agrawal is helping India’s rural folk musicians survive and thrive. He uses a backpack studio developed by Latin Grammy winner Gael Hedding to go where the musicians are.

If there’s a moral to today’s story, it might be, “Stay close to your interests, to things you love.” Young Abhinav Agrawal loved India’s rural folk music.

As Tania Bhattacharya reported at Ozy in fall 2020, “In 2016, Abhinav Agrawal set off to Rajasthan to record folk musicians on the go and set them up with CDs, a website, videos and business cards free of cost so they can market themselves.

“His first find was Dapu Khan of the Merasi heritage community in Jaisalmer. But after Agrawal returned home to New Delhi, he couldn’t contact Khan. ‘We suddenly saw an article in the paper that claimed he had died as a result of communal violence,’ says Agrawal. Heartbroken, the musician-entrepreneur headed to Jaisalmer to look for Khan’s son, who began to cry the moment they met.

“As Agrawal consoled him, Khan’s son was surprised to hear his father had died. ‘But he’s in Germany, performing!’ The tears were of joy and gratitude, and Agrawal’s experiment of empowerment had succeeded.

“India’s countless folk communities are in dire need of funding and technical and creative upskilling to revitalize themselves in an increasingly globalized world. Live and festival-centric performances, which is all these musicians have known through generations, barely bring in money, and an online presence has become mandatory for creative mileage. Many music traditions are dying out, with practitioners taking up menial labor to make ends meet. And the pandemic has dealt a fatal blow, with performances off the table for the foreseeable future.

“Cue 28-year-old Agrawal, whose passion for folk music birthed the nonprofit Anahad Foundation in 2012, and the creation of the BackPack Studio that remains one of a kind in India. Developed by Latin Grammy winner Gael Hedding for Anahad, the portable recording studio is a high-quality wireless recorder with 12 mics that can run on battery for three days and shoot 4K videos. It’s designed to meet rural Indian challenges such as lack of electricity and the unwillingness on the part of musicians to leave their hometowns (and daily livelihoods) to travel to studios in cities.

“Anahad, meaning ‘limitless,’ is also aimed at preserving India’s oral folk traditions, and has extensively covered artists from Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Punjab and Rajasthan — helping 6,000 artists in all.

“Born and raised outside New Delhi in the historic city of Bulandshahr, Agrawal is a trained classical vocalist and tabla player, and was heavily influenced by folk songs. Much of the region’s traditional music revolves around nature and seasons, and Agrawal ‘felt closer to nature through music.’ Growing up, his town was very green, but rapid urbanization adversely impacted its scenic beauty.

‘When components of nature like the trees and birds began to disappear, the tradition of singing songs about them also began to die,’ Agrawal adds.

“With architects for parents, Agrawal also studied architecture but combined his love for nature and heritage by exploring the connection between music and urban spaces, because ‘architecture is frozen music.’ He formed an open music society, experimented with folk songs and set off on lengthy train journeys recording traveling artists and burning CDs for them. ‘All I had was a laptop, mic and sound card,’ says Agrawal. ‘But an interesting pattern emerged — these artists began to sell out their CDs.’

“He formed Anahad soon after, but the reality of running a nonprofit in India proved daunting. ‘I realized I needed business knowledge,’ says Agrawal. He headed to Berklee College of Music for an advanced degree, writing a thesis on how to design a music-based nonprofit in India.

“His organization now attacks all elements of a musician’s life, from approaching event promoters to legal tutorials. The idea has always been to empower these musicians toward dignified livelihoods as opposed to giving them handouts, which is unsustainable. Many singers have broken down in tears listening to their playbacks because they couldn’t believe how beautiful they sound. …

“Having raised some $400,000 over the years from the likes of Google as well as author and philanthropist Sudha Murthy, Anahad is now developing its own music distribution system via an app that will allow artists to earn through streaming. …

“ ‘His compassion for artists is beautiful, with no sense of envy despite being a musician himself,’ says partner and Anahad managing director Shuchi Roy. ‘At the same time, he is very tactical in thought.’ Roy, who is a lawyer and has practiced in India’s Supreme Court, handles all copyright and intellectual property issues for the nonprofit.

“Like a musical score, Agrawal’s journey has had its highs and lows — his music society’s first-ever recording that is yet to be released because the lead singer died a week after recording; dealing with depression after returning to India from Berklee in 2016; and making it to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list last year. ‘Whenever I’m frustrated with work, I play my music and instantly feel better,’ he says. ‘Now I carry my guitar everywhere.’ ”

More at Ozy, here. There’s music on Spotify, here.

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Photo: Michael Pierce
Nahko & Medicine for the People performs at the Four Corners Folk Festival in 2018. Recently, a local radio station agreed to take ownership of the festival.

There’s an Allen Ginsberg poem I love to the effect that sometimes things mysteriously appear just when they are needed. I thought of that poem when I read about a small radio station in Colorado’s Four Corners area taking on live shows it never imagined it could afford.

Braeden Waddell wrote about this at Current last summer.

“Public radio station KSUT in Ignacio, Colo., will assume ownership of two annual music festivals Sept. 30 as part of an agreement with local nonprofit organization FolkWest.

“No money will change hands as part of the arrangement. KSUT Executive Director Tami Graham said that the transfer of the Four Corners Folk Festival and the Pagosa Folk N’ Bluegrass Festival, both three-day events held in Pagosa Springs, Colo., was ‘an incredible donation’ to the station.

“The organizations had developed a relationship through a partnership of more than two decades, with KSUT sponsoring FolkWest in exchange for live studio sessions featuring artists playing for the festivals.

“ ‘My biggest goal with the acquisition of the festivals is just to maintain a really high level of production quality and a great experience for the musicians as well as the attendees,’ Graham said. …

“The decision was made after FolkWest Executive Director Crista Munro took on a new position heading the Sisters Folk Festival in Sisters, Ore. …

“ ‘It was a bittersweet moment for me, knowing that my chapter at the helm of FolkWest would be ending,’ Munro said in a post on KSUT’s website. ‘KSUT always seemed like a natural choice to take over our events. They do an amazing job with everything they produce, and Tami Graham brings a ton of live music production experience to the table.’ …

“Munro told Current that KSUT ‘believed in the vision’ she and her husband had for the festivals. ‘If it were anyone else taking this on, I would be a lot more nervous,’ she said. …

“In an interview with the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society, Munro said that the Folk N’ Bluegrass festival brings in about 2,000 attendees per day and the Four Corners Folk Festival draws nearly double that. …

“KSUT does not plan to make any ‘significant changes’ to the festivals but does aim to expand FolkWest’s Pagosa Folk N’ Bluegrass Jam Camps, which provide three days of music classes for adults and children.

“ ‘There’s a lot of grant funding available for music education … to support bringing in world-class stringed instrument musicians, for example, that want to want to teach and work with adults and youth,’ said Graham. … ‘This is just a perfect fit.’ ”

More here.

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This is the story of how a song saved a cultural center in the Catskills.

Dennis Gaffney writes for the NY Times that at a recent celebration of success,  “Jay Ungar, a fiddler wearing a black vest and hiking boots, and his wife, Molly Mason, playing guitar, stood on a stage in a barnlike performance hall that did not exist a year ago. ‘Can you stand to hear this tune one more time?’ he asked the audience. …

“The tune is ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ the bittersweet lament familiar to millions as the theme song that the filmmaker Ken Burns used for the emotional crescendos of his Civil War series. But most do not know that Mr. Ungar’s moving hymn helped save the Catskill place that inspired the song, resulting in the Ashokan Center, a $7.25 million campus here dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts. …

“Many still assume that Mr. Ungar wrote ‘Ashokan Farewell’ with the Civil War in mind. But he wrote it on a September morning in 1982, after the end of his third Ashokan summer music and dance camp on this property, which the State University of New York at New Paltz owned and had used since 1967 as a field campus for environmental education.

“ ‘I left on a cloud of utopian euphoria,’ Mr. Ungar said of that summer. ‘You try to keep it alive, but it evaporates.’ ”

The song went on to have a life of its own, and Ungar even performed it at the White House. NY Gov. Pataki had heard it, too, and when a dismayed Unger contacted him about the pending sale of the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge,  the governor took action.

Soon a lot of people were on board, with the wistful song always at the heart of their efforts.

Writes Gaffney, “Mr. Ungar has come to believe that his song, like a traditional hymn, evokes much more than loss. In the mid-1990s, he got an e-mail from a man in Africa who said he was driving in his car when he heard ‘Ashokan Farewell’ on the radio. ‘He started crying uncontrollably and he had to pull off the road,’ Mr. Ungar recalled. ‘He said that in his culture, after the age of 10, men don’t cry, but he needed to cry.’ ”

More.

Photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason playing “Ashokan Farewell” at the Ashokan Center.

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A 91-year-old Hindu gentleman has joined the tai chi chuan class I take Saturday mornings. His wife brings him a little after we have started, and he walks slowly between the wall of mirrors and the line of practicing students to sit in a folding metal chair, where the teacher explains the upper-body part of the exercises so he can join in. Age has not kept him from that.

After today’s class, I was driving home and heard Susan Stamberg interview Marian McPartland, 94, here, on National Public Radio. A fantastic jazz pianist, McPartland recorded her last Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show only two years ago — after 33 years — but continues as artistic director. She is also the subject of a documentary called In Good Time that highlights the day in August 1958 when she was part of a famous photo of jazz greats in Harlem, below.

Speaking of nonagenarians, folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, 93, showed up on Colbert recently. At first I thought he was not answering a question and was wandering, but it soon became clear he was unfurling a story in his own way and that it would end precisely on point.

Seeger still splits logs to heat his house with wood. And his banjo playing hasn’t aged a bit.

Photograph: Art Kane/Art Kane Archives

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The bimonthly magazine called the Utne Reader likes to showcase alternative and contrarian views on the news. Here’s a sort of hands-across-the world story about taking bluegrass music to Afghanistan.

“My name is Peyton Tochterman. I’m a musician from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I make my living writing, teaching and performing American Folk music—the music that tells stories in notes, chords and verse about who we are and what we Americans are all about. And I’m now in war-torn Afghanistan. …

“In little more than a week we have already met thousands of Afghans and found them to be kind, generous, hospitable, talented and honorable. They take great pride in their heritage and culture, but they also have a thirst for American Folk Music, for the stories we tell, our instruments and the way we play. The Afghan musicians with whom we played are some of the best in the world and were eager to share their masterful techniques and songs.

“Some might ask, ‘What difference can a folk singer from the Blue Ridge Mountains make in a tortured place like Afghanistan?’ It’s a valid question—partly answered by one of the State Department officers who said our visit did ‘more for diplomacy between Afghanistan and the United States than any diplomat had done, more then any road that was built, or any power plant that was constructed in the last year.’ ” Read more.

Photograph of Peyton Tochterman: The Utne Reader

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