San Francisco Chronicle
How do groups like the Grateful Dead come up with their songs? Sometimes it's as simple as listening to music from other cultures. "I Bid You Goodnight, " one of the Dead's more popular numbers, first came out in the late 1960s on an album called "The Real Bahamas," which Jerry Garcia heard and loved.
"The song became a rock hit out of that record," says Peter K. Siegel, who recorded the Pinder Family performing "I Bid You Goodnight" for Nonesuch Records in 1965. "There are all sorts of musicians who will tell you they learned this and that from the Nonesuch series. Various minimalist composers have credited the series with inspiration."
The series to which Siegel refers, Nonesuch's Explorer Series, was a landmark project that highlighted ethnic music from around the world, including the Caribbean, Africa, East Asia and Central Asia (especially Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran). Almost 100 recordings were made and released on Nonesuch from 1967 to 1984, so it's news that Nonesuch is rereleasing the whole series on CD, starting this week with a package of titles from Africa that covers the continent from east to west.
This is world music before there was a marketing label for it and before Western producers saw it as a potential gold mine that could be re-created and mixed in big studios. Siegel (who recorded "I Bid You Goodnight" with musician Jody Stecher), ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner and others associated with the Nonesuch series were in it for the purity of the music. They recorded the songs in remote villages and crowded cities for posterity, not as a means to make money.
That doesn't mean they were trusted initially by some of those they recorded. When Berliner lived in Zimbabwe in 1971, he was one of the few white Americans residing in a southern African country that was experiencing ethnic strife and a groundswell of anti-colonial sentiment. Berliner was then a graduate student studying the mbira, a thumb piano that is played by the Shona people, who have lived in the region for more than 1,000 years.
"I thought it was so important to document and preserve the music," says Berliner, who teaches at Northwestern University and was a research fellow at Stanford. "There was very little known about the mbira in the United States. It was largely treated as a toy instrument."
Not anymore, thanks partly to Berliner's "Shona Mbira Music" and "The Soul of Mbira: Traditions of the Shona People," which Nonesuch originally released in the 1970s and is among the rereleased CDs. Today, there is an annual Zimbabwe music festival in the United States (the location changes every year) that features mbira musicians. And Zimbabwe's best-known voice, Thomas Mapfumo, whose albums always include mbira playing, lives in Oregon and regularly tours the country.
"People in the West now understand Zimbabwean music much better," says Cosmas Magaya, a mbira player from Zimbabwe who performs on some of the Nonesuch recordings. "Thirty years ago, we had not been recorded, especially by someone like Paul. He was the first white man to record me and my group. Our first thought (when we saw him) was that he wanted to get our music like the colonizers. There was some suspicion.
"He said he wanted to get to know the language and the music, so we started teaching him. In a way, we were testing him to see if he was genuine."
Magaya and Berliner eventually became good friends. At his home in Durham, N.C., Berliner keeps photos of a recording he made with Magaya and musician Simon Mashoko in Harare in 1971. One image shows the heavy recording equipment that Berliner carried with him to Africa and hid under his bed until he gained the trust of Magaya and others.
"It was about 25 pounds," says Berliner. "My right arm got an inch longer from lugging it around. It took a portable battery to run it -- like a car battery."
Like Berliner, Stephen Jay recorded two Nonesuch albums during a period of study in Africa. Now a Los Angeles-area musician, Jay lived in Ghana in the mid-1970s.
"I studied with John Cage at the University of South Florida -- it was a great period, where lots of (musical) barriers were being broken down," says Jay. "After graduating, I wanted to live in a place where there was less conceptualization about the music -- where the music was simpler."
The music on the Nonesuch series may seem simpler compared to new studio- produced works from Africa and around the world, but appearances can be deceiving. This is music with intricate patterns and rhythms, and a history that stretches back for generations. Nonesuch is taking three years to release all the CDs, making sure each region gets the public attention they deserve.
"It's being released at the right time," Magaya says. "The fact is, this is really authentic music."
Friday, March 9, 2007