Pablo-Picasso-Girl-Before-A Mirror-1932-Aganju

Aganjú ~ Music and Spirituality

 

Pablo-Picasso-Girl-Before-A Mirror-1932-Aganju
Pablo Picasso, Girl Before A Mirror, 1932

Aganjú was the last song I worked on yesterday in the studio for my new album Ipanema Lounge. I had actually gone through a bit a of a crisis with it and I think this was our third studio session working on the song.

The rhythm section, Sandro Feliciano (percussion) and Isaias Elpes (electric bass), both from Brazil, had created some amazing grooves and my vocal track was in a complementary, nicely contrasting sultry style. I was aiming for a similar style like on In The Still of the Night, a groovy nujazz version of the Cole Porter classic, which features my voice.

But I still thought Aganjú was – how can I say – ummm, boring. And that we didn’t “own” the song.

I was actually close to taking the song off the record…

I had first heard the song Aganjú on Bebel Gilberto’s album Tanto Tempo. It was written by the Brazilian musician, songwriter and record producer Carlinhos Brown, whose musical style blends tropicália, reggae, and traditional Brazilian percussion. Later, especially the Latin remix by Thievery Corporation, caught my attention. It expresses my love of a Brazilian and European Nu jazz style that never quite took a foothold in America the way it did in Europe. It was a movement derived from drum & bass that started in the early 1990’s.

Always seeking new material and ideas, I thought Aganjú would be a nice tune to play live, which we still do. Even with a very sparse instrumentation as a trio; with voice, bass and guitar, it works very well as a groovy, atmospheric lounge style song.

When it comes to recording a song that has already been recorded before, you have to make it your own. I absolutely did not want it to sound like a cover version. Or, like Billie Holiday said,

You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.

I had already contemplated horn arrangements but thought it would be too costly and time consuming. But then I thought of simply asking one of my favourite saxophone and flute players to add some movement and interest with some horn tracks in a very last recording session. I booked a three hour session, which was supposed to give us enough time for recording horns, an additional vocal track, some last mixes and mastering. I admit, I did wonder whether it was a bit daunting with so little time…

Veteran jazz musicians

Robert Kyle, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, who also just released a new album himself, came in to the studio. I was thrilled with my co-producer’s idea of creating some friction and dissonances, which was ultimately the direction in which I had planned on going with the vocals. Robert played and improvised multiple amazing tracks on tenor and soprano saxophone and some beautiful and haunting parts on the alto flute that you will recognize in the intro of the song. I added another vocal track, the mix was done – et voilà! The track became a wonderful conversation between the vocals and the wood winds over a very infectious Nu jazz groove.

 

Listen and download the track here:

This is exactly where not only excellent players, who can sight read and improvise on the spot, but a production team like Greg and Nolan Shaheed are crucial for any record to sound as good as Ipanema Lounge simply does. Nolan, whose studio I have been recording in for years, is a veteran trumpet player who has toured with greats like Stevie Wonder and recorded with many others. You can hear him on two songs of the album too. He played Flügelhorn on One Note Samba and on Sway you can hear his sassy trumpet ad libs that add a flair very reminiscent of Cuban Mambo bands of the 1950’s.

Magical Connections

Suddenly, sitting there in the studio, while the end mix was being done, my thoughts started to drift. I think the fact that Nolan is also a world class, medal-winning runner made me think of the current 2016 summer Olympics. They were being held in Rio de Janeiro – the very place the song Aganjú stems from. Athletes, like any performer won’t survive if he or she is not dedicated to their craft by striving for continuous improvement and stamina. It occurred to me that this was occurring at the same time we were recording those last fragments. It all seemed magically connected and suddenly I realized, that’s exactly what the song is about.

Despite the Portuguese lyrics being really hard to translate, the essence of the song and the name “Aganjú” is that of the African deity of volcanoes and deserts, who spreads magic and protection from Brazil, whose religious culture was originally brought to the country by the African slaves. In an interview Bebel Gilberto, said about the phrase:

‘Aganjú’ ‘Aganjú’ is everywhere, in San Francisco, in New York. People get so hypnotized by this song, so maybe that is a good thing, they see the religion in my music.

Music has always had a place in the history and practice of all religions of the world through the meditative use of chant and hymns during liturgical celebrations. In his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the British neurologist Oliver Sacks underscores the power of music to console, nourish and even save us from despair. Both Aganjú’s lyrics and in its trance like mood – which was ultimately, what I was looking to reinterpret – are expressed as devotion to the saints for protection, good health and a better life.

aganju

I suddenly remembered another interesting link. The origins of the Olympic games in ancient Greece were deeply rooted in mythology, and attributed to the gods. The athletes believed their training honoured these gods, and that victory was a sign of favour from a deity.

Musical Dedication & Inspiration

I finally felt it was all coming together but not only musically. I was suddenly so aware of the principle of dedication and inspiration. Of how deeply connected they are. That one doesn’t exist without the other.

While olympians were performing at their highest skill level in Rio de Janeiro, after decades of practice, determination, and sacrifice, we as musicians were the same way. And during that very recording session, the god Aganjú had seemed to have blessed us with that magical spark that even, when the most virtuous musicians record or play together, can sometimes be missing.

That magical spark, the essence of spirituality was created for that song, that very link that connects us humans to music and something larger, divinity.

 

DOWNLOAD your copy of Aganjú here

 

Or – if you liked this post, why not simply…

Creative Influences ~ Poetry. Sun at Midnight

BLOOD Moon

I had first come across the sonnet Midnight Sun a few years ago. It was around the time of the first studio recording of my song Mr. Moon, a jazz tune, which is centred around the various characteristics of the moon with its magical and comforting but also seductive elements. I had been singing it a lot live but on one tranquil Sunday afternoon, I started doing some research; curious to see what poets had written about the moon. That’s when I came across Joseph Mary Plunkett’s Sun at Midnight, which is known as a deep meditation on the love of God.

Sun at Midnight                             

by Joseph Mary Plunkett and Frances Livings

I saw the sun at midnight, rising red,
Deep-hued yet glowing, heavy with the stain
Of blood-compassion, and I saw it gain
Swiftly in size and growing till It spread
Over the stars; the heavens bowed their head
As from its heart slow dripped a crimson rain,
Then a great tremor shook it, as of pain—
The night fell, moaning, as It hung there dead. [1]

Before the day could claim me
I had awoken from this dream
limbs heavy from humidity, languid from this scene
as pearls of sweat, trickled like raindrops from my brow
the earth creaked and ached, again the heavens bowed
and from my heart slow dripped a crimson rain
A great tremor shook me – in agony, in pain—
from my sun at midnight bled the last drop of you.

(The night fell, moaning, and life claimed me back again)

© Frances Livings

[1] by Joseph Mary Plunkett circa 1900

I felt inspired by what I perceived as a very beautiful and mystical poem and had freely swapped out his last verse[2] with mine, changing the whole direction from God to a loved one. I was going through a very difficult separation at the time so I took the blood red moon as a metaphor for deep but very intense, painful and sometimes inexplicable feelings. Besides, love to me, whether towards a mortal being or a heavenly figure, like a God, will always stay a quite mystical phenomenon.

The mysterious allure of the moon goes back to the beginning of human history. And despite man having now even set foot on it, it still has that effect on us. Like many, I am always fascinated by the moon. Most of all I find its transitions wondrous. It can change so vastly in size and shape, growing from the slightest sliver of a crescent moon – with as little as 1% of its surface illuminated – to a full round globe.

Depending on the light, its colour and texture can also dramatically vary: A low hanging, fat harvest moon will look welcoming and generous when in October, it takes on a golden, orangey-yellow glow. In the winter, a small bluish-silvery moon can seem like a distant reminder of magical, outer worldly spheres, unknown and intangible, so far away in the sky.

So this past Monday, on April 14 2014, just two days after my birthday, I was sitting out in the garden, letting the pictures of a wonderful weekend glide by, sipping some wine and simply enjoying the mild night. I was mindlessly gazing into the sky when I spotted the full moon. I suddenly remembered that we were approaching a total lunar eclipse which made it even more special.

Later I learnt, that it was the first in more than three years to be visible and uninterrupted by sunrise. I also didn’t know that when a total lunar eclipse occurs, dispersed light from all the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets falls on the face of the moon at mid-eclipse which gives it a reddish hue and has coined the name “blood moon”. So a few nights ago, the moon had yet again undergone a transformation when after midnight it turned into an amazing, coppery red blood moon.

The moon will glow red three more times in the next 18 months, scientists say. It’s part of a lunar eclipse “tetrad”; a series of four consecutive total lunar eclipses that happen at about six-month intervals. The moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, and will begin to appear bright orange or red because of the way sunlight bends through the Earth’s atmosphere. The sunset hue can last up to an hour. According to the NASA, the next one is due October 8, 2014, followed by blood moons April 4, 2015 and September 28, 2015.

I hadn’t though about Plunkett’s poem in a long time but the next morning I searched in my files and retrieved it again and posted it here in my blog. I am now sure that if I found a moon calendar of the late 19th or early 20th century, Plunkett’s night of inspiration, his sighting of a blood moon could be pin pointed. I find that quite amazing and symbolic: The cosmos – all elements of nature – will autonomously and relentlessly pursue their cycles. Which shows yet again in a very beautiful and haunting way that on earth we are all just visitors. On the other hand, for thousands of years, man- and womenfolk have made these very same experiences, have been in awe or threatened by nature’s moods and spectacles, gazed at the same moon, sun and stars. This means we are all connected which makes the poem and that night indeed a very spiritual one.

_________________________________________________

[1] Comprising 390 poems by 162 authors, this unique anthology strings together “such poems as contain intimations of a consciousness wider and deeper than the normal.” Spanning five centuries, every era of the great spiritualists is represented: from the Metaphysical Poets, like Donne and Traherne, to the Romantics, including Tennyson and Browning, to the Moderns, such as Yeats and Noyes. The Irish poet, journalist and author of Sun At Midnight, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1879-1916) was born in Dublin and educated at Catholic University School, Belvedere College and Stonyhurst College. His study of the mystics, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and Francis de Sales was discernible in his poetry. However, as one of the signers of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, he was imprisoned by the English army and executed in 1916 at the age of only 28.

[2] Plunkett’s last verse is: O Sun, O Christ, O bleeding Heart of flame! / Thou givest Thine agony as our life’s worth, / And makest it infinite, lest we have dearth / Of rights wherewith to call upon Thy Name; / Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth / And for our glory sufferest all shame. His sonnet, I Saw the Sun at Midnight, Rising Red, which is the original title, was published in Plunkett’s first poetry volume “The Circle and the Sword” in 1911. Another volume of his poetry, “Occulta” was published posthumously. A year after his death Sun at Midnight was also included in “The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse”[1], by D. H. S. Nicholson and A. H. E. Lee, The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1917. An online edition was published November 2000 by Bartleby.com.

 

Midnight Sun by Sarah Vaughan (Pablo Records 1978)

The Mystery of Unicorns

One of my latest findings on a day trip to the wildlife and holiday resort Catalina Island, California, was a long spiraling sea shell. It felt somehow magical when I weighed it in the palm of my hand. Its spiraling shape, the shimmering tones of cream, redbrown and white somehow reminded me of unicorn horns.

As a child I had been an avid reader of the Narnia Chronicles by the novelist C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), in which unicorns were characterized as both beautiful and very noble and honorable creatures.

The unicorn is a powerful symbol of good in early pagan mythology. Almost all images of unicorns depict a white horse of slender build, with a single large, pointed and spiraling horn projecting from their forehead.

I asked myself how contemporary artists were exploring this topic, whether this magical creature is still associated with fairytales and the mystical landscapes of King Arthur in Britain and Cornwall…

 

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008.

Damien Hirst first shot to fame with his “shark tank”. But the image of the beloved mystical figure, the unicorn (he used a real white foal) in formaldehyde is somewhat sad.

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008

“The Dream” belonged to a highly publicized (and criticized) auction of 233 works by the contemporary artist Damien Hirst in 2008. Nearly 20,000 people visited Sotheby’s New Bond Street premises to see what looked like a polished retrospective. With the Sotheby auction called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” the artist sidestepped the traditional gallery system to sell works directly through an auction house for the second time.

Ben Hopper, Unicorn Girl (from the series Naked Girls with Masks), 2010

Ben Hopper is an Israel-born London-based commercial and fine art photographer. His work includes scenery, movement, and mood. He primarily photographs conceptual fashion, portraits of dancers, circus artists, musicians, and risqué nudes. His latest series, Naked Girls with Masks, falls squarely into the last category. Naked Girls with Masks, the series from which this photograph stems, was previewed at the underground London group art exhibition ACT ART 8 in July 2010.

Camomile Hixon, Missing Unicorn, New York 2010