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

 

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

Candy’s Caravan. A Song about a Prostitute

 

I released my single Candy’s Caravan in December 2010 in my jazz label Moontraxx Records. Stylistically the song is a blend of Nu-Jazz, electronica and pop – reminiscent perhaps of artists like Portishead and Annie Lennox. It features two characters with different perspectives: myself as the narrator and the prostitute Candy who is the main character – like the title implies. Atmospherically it sounds slightly theatrical, like a short and dark Burlesque piece.

I had completed the lyrics for Candy’s Caravan long before I had even started on the music, which fell into place when I was experimenting on the piano along with a simple pre-recorded trip-hop loop. The structure and arrangement for the piece I then further developed on live gigs.

It marks one of my first pieces that evolves around another woman’s very specific fate. I focussed thereby on a very narrow window of her everyday life and struggle. I have since then explored an array of typical female topics from different socio-economic statues and cultural backgrounds. Some are in song form, other are spoken word or musical poetry pieces. The paths of women, their stories and their dreams, have always intrigued me. In a patriarchal society, we face completely different challenges than men. As a writer and a woman myself, I have experienced many traumatic events, unexpected changes and terrible losses. So even if I haven’t made that exact experience personally, I try to deeply empathise. Often through images I then research and reimagine what those struggles may be.

 

Listen to a full-length recording of the song here:

Although I have never worked as a prostitute, the lyrics of Candy’s Caravan actually mirror a combination of different experiences, made during my student years in Hamburg, Germany. Another influence is my theatre background, most obvious in the usage of dialogue. I worked for two small theatres on the famous Reeperbahn in St. Pauli, Hamburg and these experiences definitely coined the piece.

Slightly Unusual Student Jobs

Like most students getting themselves through college, I took on a vast variety of jobs and gigs. These jobs not only varied in certain skills I had to quickly learn and apply but also in their social environment.During the summer holidays before I started junior college, I worked in a tile factory. I was intrigued and sometimes intimidated by the gritty working class women. Many even had children to care for and households to run. But they stood there every morning at 6 am on the dot from Mondays to Fridays for a physically strenuous 8-hour shift. The parallel universe was later working in an office, a proper office with buzzing computers, a synthetic carpet, bad coffee, fashion magazines and lots of gossip, where I helped translating technical terms.

Another interesting experience was being an extra on TV productions. During those years, in the nineties, Hamburg was a huge media metropolis before a lot of production companies moved to Boomtown Berlin after the wall came down. So there were lots of well paid TV jobs. I did have a hard time sometimes, being the impatient and curious person I am. I found all of the waiting, the “hurry up and wait!” hard to endure, which is why I so loved the theatre and love performing live because it’s all about being in the moment. Anyway, for two episodes of a German evening TV series I played (or rather posed as) a prostitute which turned out to be a very interesting experience.

Livings as a Prostitute?

One of the gigs was quite well paid because it was not only in the middle of the night and absolutely freezing cold but we were also, naturally dressed in the most skimpy clothes you can imagine. In retrospect, it would be fun to have a few photos but that was before the selfie-era. My friend and I were hardly able to stand in the patent leather boots we were strapped into, the fishnet stocking were cutting into the flesh of my toes and the layers of thick make-up seemed to be the only form of insulation we had against the freezing cold. Although we flirted with the role, it did in a way feel uncomfortable that the mostly male technical crew changed the way they looked at us the moment we were clad in over-sexualized, skimpy mini skirts and revealing lace-up tops.

It seems as if we stood under this dark and eerie railway bridge in a barren industrial area near the train station in Hamburg-Altona for hours, pretending to chat up the drivers cruising by, until finally, I suppose, the lead actors got their lines right. Daylight was already lingering on the horizon as we fled home with numb toes, chattering teeth and blue lips. I realized what a terrible and humiliating profession this must be: exposed to the cold, to investigative stares, like being live stock on a meat market. Despite working on the Reeperbahn, I had never really seriously thought about these women before. But I needed to pay my rent too.

Fishnet Stockings and Lonely Tissues Boxes

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman reflection dim light window blinds
© Jane Burton, The Other Side, 2002

It was a pure coincidence but the next gig I took on was playing a prostitute in a bar. But at least it was indoors and warm.  The most interesting part was the location: The scene was actually shot in a real bordello in Sankt Georg, a very seedy area of Hamburg, like often districts in close proximity to central train stations tend to be.

After a wardrobe person handed us each a hanger with our skimpy costumes, the production assistant showed us our dressing rooms: They were the actual bordello “bedrooms” (for lack of a better term) and we were supplied with one each. Mine was a fair sized room with red padded walls, sporting gigantic gold-framed, mirrors. It was dominated by a gigantic king sized bed that was stripped bare of bedclothes, revealing a smooth red plastic sheet that covered the mattress. Even the tall standard lamp with a pleated silk shade was protected – against body fluids – by a fitted plastic cover. The humungous bed was flanked by two night stands, each crowned with a singular, lonely tissue box.

It was extremely weird to get undressed and changed in that room. There was a bed – but nobody ever slept there. Was anyone watching? What was behind the mirrors? I panicked for a second thinking, any moment some John would be arriving. There was even a small extra room we had first entered before proceeding to the “bedroom”. It had a window and was sparsely furnished with two chairs and another tissue box – I think anyone’s imagination would have been triggered by this situation and it definitely delivered some interesting inspiration for my writing.

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely Window with lace curtains beaded red lamp female legs shoes dark
Image on the left © Jane Burton

The Famous Reeperbahn.

It was around this time I got a job at the St. Pauli Theatre, which is located on the famous Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn (also known as the “sinful mile”) is absolutely unique. To someone who has never visited, it could be described as a hybrid of the old strip in Las Vegas, London’s Soho on Fridays, the red light district in Amsterdam and the sex-tourist’s strip in Bangkok. It’s atmosphere alone has certainly influenced some of my writing (and many others before me) and coined reflections on topics like prostitution.

The German crooner and actor Hans Albers is strongly associated with St. Pauli, and wrote the neighbourhood’s unofficial anthem, Auf der Reeperbahn Nachts um Halb Eins in the 1940s. In the 1960’s The Beatles had stints on the Reeperbahn early in their careers. And in the first lines of his song Down The Reeperbahn the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits captures an a-typical scene:

Around the curve of The Parrot Bar
a broken-down old movie star
Hustling and Easterner
Bringing out the beast in her

I love Tom Waits as a writer and enjoy reading most of his lyrics. A lot of people recognize him by his distinctive voice that the critic Daniel Durchholz described most accurately as sounding as though “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”.[1] Exactly like a sound track of the Reeperbahn…

Short Memories and Long Tales…

I have always been drawn to the Reeperbahn. It’s simply an extremely interesting and seductive place. Because indeed, like Waits writes, “the memories are short but the tales are long, down there in the reeperbahn”. As a visitor, it is a fantasy-world full of false promises and illusions – like a theatre. I’ve also been to some of the best parties at great clubs there (like the legendary Mojo Club) when the European Electronica movement first started. I sang regularly at a dive bar called very suitably, Die Rote Laterne, where my co-writer and I practically founded and musically developed our band  4UrbanArtists. I often partied and sometimes sang atAngie’s Nightclub, where my singing coach Roger Cicero, performed regularly, playing piano and singing jazz, soul and pop songs before he had his big breakthrough as a German jazz singer and sadly died prematurely in 2016.Quote Tom Waits at piano smoking prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque

Often, after the curtain had fallen and we had wrapped up the show, I would step out onto the Reeperbahn, the air filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol and it would take me a while to adjust. Especially when you actually work there the contrasts can sometimes feel very strange. For the longest part of the evening I had been enveloped in the safe and abstract world of a theatre. Then after the show, I would walk out onto the street and be confronted with crowds of testosterone driven guys seeking sleazy sex and drugged twenty-somethings on their way the next hip club, crazed to dance, to drink and flirt.

So afterwards, my co-workers and I would often have drinks at the house bar. But on one of these slightly insane evenings even the bar was so crowded that some of the crew members and I decided to go somewhere else.

My Encounter with “Candy”

We went around the corner into a dark alleyway to a small, unknown (well, unknown to the tourists) bar. I had my bike with me that I pushed along side while we all chatted and then absent-mindedly decided to chain to a lamp post (yes, literally, Unter der Laterne…). Suddenly this raging fury shot out of the dark. Hobbling towards me on her neck-breaking high heels, violently swinging her handbag she yelled: “Du Schlampe…! Du…” (You bitch, you) I understood immediately. I fiddled with the lock as fast as I could, muttering, “‘Schuldigung! ‘Schuldigung!” (sorry, sorry) under my breath and then humbly entered the bar with my bike. The image of that woman was forever burned into my brain and lastly coined Candy’s wig and the high heels. The owners of the bar, a lesbian couple were gracious and let me park my bike in their dingy back yard. It was a tight and dingy space, where once a week, boxes of liquor and the large barrels of beer were delivered to. I have always been quite a street wise person and am also respectful of people’s space but this one time I did almost get beaten up by a hooker, whose territory I – in her eyes – hadn’t respected.

The Rhythm of the Reeperbahn

Especially at the weekends the energy on the Reeperbahn can almost be explosive. Depending on how much the crowds drink, which football team has lost or won, on how warm and humid it is (the colder, the calmer) and, I suppose, how business in general is going for the street girls. There’s a strong feeling of hierarchy. As a “normal” working woman you stay out of their way, mind your own business. In the ecosystem of the Reeperbahn the street girls are at the bottom of the ladder: Not seldomly are they heartbreakingly young, runaways and drop-outs, barely the age of eighteen. In neon-coloured hot pants, snow boots and fur-trimmed jackets and thick make-up they line the street, hustling the men and boys in front of Burger King. Street prostitution is only legal during certain times of the day on the Davidstraße. It’s the most curios sight at 8pm to see them suddenly all pop out of their rabbit holes to then later suddenly vanish again. But it is also very absurd for most tourists to see them lined up exactly opposite the historical Davidwache, the district’s main police-station located on the South side of the Reeperbahn, on the Spielbudenplatz.

It was always downright fascinating to watch the gaudy but also desolate nocturnal activities of the crowds. But working almost daily at the theatre at night and sometimes in the daytime, is very different. Despite the chaos, there is a certain rhythm on the Reeperbahn. I sometimes had to go to the theatre during the day to hang up washing, repair costumes or attend rehearsals. Often I could almost hear a big and long sigh, a feeling of general relief when the tourists and party animals had left during the daytime. This void is used to nurse hangovers and guilty consciences, stock up on cigarettes and alcohol for the night. The rhythm of the street then elapses into slow motion. What lingers in the air is the stale odor of beer, bad breath, sweat, fried onions, cigarettes and vodka – like the trail of cheap perfume or cologne women or men, void of any style or taste, leave behind. The buffed and mean looking door men suddenly deflate, look tired and tame. The sleazy, crooked eyed drug dealers slouchy, and coffee-thirsty and run-down, catty prostitutes look cold and worn.

Yet the closer it gets to dawn the more the pace speeds up again: Having barely recovered, the cobbled streets and the musty bars are hastily swept. Synthetic wigs are brushed and plucked and laddered nylon tights are the subjects of emergency cosmetic surgery. Once the revealing daylight has vanished the illusions are born again – luring and seducing, like Candy…

© Frances Livings. All Rights Reserved.

 

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prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely half naked woman topless dress smoking black and white photography art Bordello
© Vee Speers, Bordello series, 2001
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque bed satin heart shaped pillow
© Weegee, Bed with Heart
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman sandals dim light window curtains half light
© Jane Burton, The Other Side #8 2002
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque 1920's 1930's art photography bordello naked woman black mask
© Vee Speers, Mask (from the Bordello series)
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque women mannequins bubble wrap art photography
© Richard Kalvar, Women in Bubble Wrap
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely woman dim light blonde
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely naked woman satin bedspread white face make-up
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
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© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008