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 we 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), also from Brazil, had created some amazing grooves and my vocal track was in a complementary, nicely contrasting sultry style. But I still thought it was plainly boring and that we didn’t “own” the song.

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

I 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…

 

A Track with 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. In the song Aganjú this devotion to the saints for protection, good health and a better life is expressed in both the song’s lyrics and in its trance like mood, which was ultimately, what I was looking to reinterpret.

aganjuI 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. Olympians were performing at their highest skill level in Rio de Janeiro, after decades of practice, determination, and sacrifice, in the same way as musicians do at recording sessions or live shows. And during that 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 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

 

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Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Musical Poetry Zane Musa Saxophone

Songs of the Soul ~ Musical Poetry and its Inspirations

 

Saxophone player writer tree struck by lightning grey clouds songs of the soul

 

One Sunday, on one of my searches to find a retreat, I paid the Self Realization Center in Los Angeles a visit. I had been working for some days on poetry and needed to relax and quieten my monkey mind. Besides that, I was slightly stuck and needed some inspiration. The Self Realization Center was dedicated in the 1950’s to the Indian Yogi and meditation guru Paramahansa Yogananda. It is an outdoor oasis with a large lake and a shrine that welcomes visitors of all religious denominations.

Tucked away from the famous Sunset Boulevard, the ten-acre site is only a quarter of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The natural spring-fed lake is home to a variety of flora and fauna. There are swans, ducks and a vast amount of large, colourful Koi fish and trees and flowers from around the world.

Like many landmarks in Los Angeles, its origins can be traced back to the movie industry. Like in the early 1920s, when the famous film studio Inceville shot silent movies on site of the Lake Shrine Temple. A few years later, the real-estate magnate Alphonzo Bell, Sr. bought the land. The surrounding hillsides were hydraulically graded to fill the canyon and make it level for future development. When these activities were stopped short, a large basin was left in the can­yon. It soon filled with water from nearby springs creating Lake Santa Ynez — the only natural spring-fed lake within the city limits of Los Angeles.

The grounds include a Court of Religions honouring the five principal religions of the world. A very special relic, a portion of Mahatma Ghandhi’s ashes, can also be found here. They are entombed in a small stone memorial on the north side of the lake. I could definitely detect a slight whiff of esoteric haughtiness in the air and it was obvious that a lot of money was sunk into the upkeep of the grounds. That said, I highly appreciated that this oasis was open to the general public. Unlike many areas of lush and precious green you see when driving around in Los Angeles – like the Veteran’s park in West L.A., the country clubs in Bel Air or Hancock Park. They are all gated and completely restricted to the members of those elite clubs or organisations.

Songs of the Soul – by Yogananda?

After walking in the gardens, I had a look in the small gift shop. To my surprise, displayed in one of the glass cabinets was a small publication of poems by the founder, Paramahansa Yogananda  titled Songs of the Soul. I lifted it carefully from the case, I flicked through it and learnt, that it had been first published in 1923. Book cover Songs of the Soul

It had exactly the same title as one of the first pieces I had written shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2005 and that I had been editing. I had no idea that this publication existed. Yogananda had also written most of these approximately 200 short poems during his early years in the United States, which I thought was interesting. But perhaps impressions come more easily to paper when we are in foreign situations. We are then especially vulnerable and therefore receptive for new experiences. Many artists in exile – which is exactly how I experienced Los Angeles – have found comfort and support in expressing their inner emotions in a creative way.

But unlike this book, presented in its showcase, my poem Songs of the Soul was unpublished. Perhaps because I somehow sensed that something was still missing. I just didn’t quite know what. Moved by this coincidence, and surrounded by so much beauty and spirituality, I decided to revisit the piece at home, where I discovered some other interesting similarities.

Religious Experiences in Nature

Yogananda describes in his poems, his deep and religious experiences in nature. Some of them depict his memories of his motherland India and profound impressions new friends and acquaintances had made on him. But most of all, his pieces are of spiritual nature, praising God. My poem, Songs of the Soul isn’t of religious nature at all, and at the very least about worshipping any kind of God. But it is, in a similar way, about encountering a form of deep spirituality – namely in music.

grey sky, dark clouds, tree being struck by lightning songs of the soulThus, I could translate Yogananda’s short foreword, “Love is the song of the soul, singing to God” into the sentiment “Music is the song of the soul, singing to its listener”. Inspiring the first drafts of my poem had been two very intense musical experiences that I had virtually channeled. From very pure and real impressions the piece had basically written itself. But suddenly I felt that words weren’t enough and wanted to make the translation of these experiences more viable.

That is when I decided to make live recordings of three poems; of Songs of the Soul, ‘The Maliciousness of Words’ and ‘During the Hours’ and release them as an EP. To support and interpret the atmosphere of each unique piece, I chose three of Los Angeles’ finest jazz musicians. I had seen and heard them many times and felt that not only their instruments but even their personalities suited each individual poem. You can read about that here in my post, My goal was to capture complete performances, of both the reading and the solo instrument, rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for endless overdubbing and editing.

 

Finally – In the Studio Recording Songs of the Soul

The recording sessions took place in November 2009 at the studio of Nolan Shaheed in Pasadena. The musicians had not heard or read the poems prior to their studio arrival. I wanted them to respond as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot which was exactly where I saw their greatness. Each piece was recorded live, with the individual instrument in dialogue with my recital of the poem: The atmosphere was electric and invariably my concept was achieved within two to three takes.

The Maliciousness of Words is a fun piece which deals with the characteristics and moods of individual words. I chose the jazz pianist Brandon Coleman because of his humour and his ability to convey such easiness which enabled him to fully compliment the poem.

During the Hours, which I also chose as the album title, is an ode to a loved one. It features the violinist Paul Cartwright whose gift in creating lyrical melodies with strong narratives complimented the romantic and scenographic notion of this piece.

Songs of the Soul Zane Musa saxophone for Frances Livings' musical poetryFor Songs of the Soul I found the perfect match in Zane Musa on tenor saxophone. Zane is unique for blending middle Eastern melodies with intricate jazz improvisation. He is an incredible live performer so I was proud that I was able to capture that side of his playing as well.

With my reading and his playing I had finally completed the piece ‘Songs of the Soul’. It mirrors musically, technically and emotionally the highs and lows of musical performance and the conflicts of creative angst I tried to capture.

I realized that during that tranquil Sunday, whilst gazing lazily at Koi fish, I hadn’t been closer to God but perhaps to myself and I was emotionally receptive for what needed to be done.

Listen to the piece and download it here:
Songs of the Soul

Exposed in the idle spotlight
awkward and unfashioned
almost uncongenial
bleak and inhospitable
transparent paper swaying
languidly waiting
lost, but no frustration
life, does it feel alien?

But then you strip down to the bone
start slashing at my flesh
emotions bluntly plundered
and torn out of my chest
as your songs of the soul
impatiently unfold
revealing dark obsessions
that violently evolve

Slave to your instrument
the bridge to each sentiment
the culprit of insanity!
or the medium of lucidity?
A lover lost in rapture
in haunting ecstasy
distilling good and evil
to disturbing melodies

That are darker than the darkest
side of a blood-shot moon
your notes a lake of indigo
spreading through the room

Longer than the longest
Arab caravan
drying my insides
winding through the desert sands

And sweeter than the sweetest
mistresses’ delight
sugar dusted lokum
in the heat of a vibrant night

Oh and softer than the softest
warm summer‘s breeze
ling’ring in the shadows
of ancient Cyprus trees

Steeper than the steepest
spiral stairway
as you climb to higher higher –
and your body folds in labour
bearing sighing melodies

Pain and passion synchronized
comprising unborn, old and wise
Songs of the soul
oh, in torment they are born.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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white coffee cup café au lait chocolate cake
© Frances Livings

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Here are some other artists who have explored “Songs of the Soul” in a variety of ways:

This video shows the two Swiss musicians Adesh (Sitar) and his wife Ajita (Tabla) performing as part of the “Songs of the Soul” concert tour in Zurich. The concert was commemorating the musical legacy of spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy who inspired thousands of people with his mantric melodies.

Another interesting find is a trailer for the documentary “Sacred Sounds: Music of the World, Songs of the Soul”. It explores the idea of sacred music. It asks, how it is used as a communicator with and in celebration of God? Why is it shared by almost every culture and faith in the world? Through dynamic musical performances, interviews with artists and religious figures, director Carmine Cervi breaks down cultural, political, and religious barriers to bring us to an understanding of faith through music.

More than a dozen artists from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions appear. Noa is a renowned Israeli singer bringing her message of Middle East peace to the Arab world; Sheikh Yassin, an Egyptian singer of religious hymns; Avay-e-Douste, an Iranian female quartet improvising songs in the Radif system; the Aissawas of Fez, a religious brotherhood performing Sufi ceremonial music famous for its trance-inducing ability; and Liz McComb, an American gospel singer who transmits her passion in a performance of intensity and emotion.

Sacred Sounds takes place against the exotic backdrop of Fez, a millennium-old city of twisting alleys and covered bazaars, bright-tile mosques and crumbling palaces. Busy souks, bundle-laden donkeys, and the call to prayer that flows from the city’s pervasive loud speakers contribute to a sensual, mystical experience in Morocco’s centre.

Also, recently this is a groundbreaking documentary on the science of Yoga Meditation and the life of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian Swami who came to America from India in 1920 to bring Yoga to the west, was released. This is the trailer to the film: