THE BLOG
07/25/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

The Lost Audience: Adventures in Ethnomusicology

I have always had somewhat Catholic tastes that encompassed Pete Seeger to Pete Townshend, the Sex Pistols to Sunny Ade. I used to have to explain this, but now it seems expected of me. Then and now, all of this is bound together.

For example, starting last Thursday morning, I opened my email to find a copy of the soundtrack to the forthcoming film Finding Fela. a documentary about the late Nigerian agit-pop superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti. While I have long been a fan, and wound up interviewing him three or four times, I hadn't put his music on in a while, and this collection is a great distillation of his considerable body of work -- including a track I had never heard before of his early sixties proto-afrobeat band Koola Lobitos. While it did not include one of my personal favorites, the 1969 London Sessions track "Funky Horn" (a track WBGO should pick up on!), it hits most of the high points: "Zombie," "Chop and Quench," "Coloinal Mentality," and "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense." If you do not own a Fela Album and have any kind of curiosity what he was all about, check this out. Looking forward to the film.

That evening, my youngest son and I ventured into Lincoln Center to see veteran Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia and his new working band Low Mentality. Low Mentality had the Afro-beat sound down, and fused with Mergia's East African Arabic modes, it was infectious to the max. Hopefully, the energy and precision of this performance will carry over to their promised recordings.

The final stop on the agenda, the opening program of this summer's Lincoln Center Out Of Doors, Seegerfest found several dozen artists celebrating the legacy of Pete and Toshi Seeger. Dar Williams, Tom Chapin and the Chapin Sisters, Peter Yarrow, The Paul Winter Consort, and Judy Collins were some of the better known performers, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. The last of the living Weavers, Fred Hellerman came onstage looking wan and old. He sat down to read his piece, which he did in a somewhat wavering voice. Just when I thought he was done, he stood up, and someone handed him a guitar, and he performed in such a strong voice, he seemed to have lost decades, reminiscent of his long time comrade, Seeger -- who, into his 90s, would still make extemporaneous appearances at the Beacon Strawberry Festival. However, while there was rousing rendition of apartheid codesong "Wimoweh" and a lovely performance of "Guantanamera" featuring a choir of children from Washington Heights, the focus was largely on the popular and political Seeger, as opposed to Seeger the ethnomusicological songcatcher or the Seeger who sang songs for children. It was in these l roles that Pete Seeger, about half a century ago, exposed me to the first African music I ever heard with another South African song (and story) called "Abiyoyo."
It's all connected.