River of Empathy (Mississippi Records)

The earliest emotional I remember is isolation. Then came envy. The first – call it chicken or egg. The second, of all places, came from watching Sesame Street. The program was my first tangible lens to the outside world. Into the lives of others. It fostered curiosity, and a desire for a life other than my own. I wanted what flickered before me on the screen. Something urban and diverse. Kids of all shapes, sizes, cultures, and colors, playing together in the city streets – exploring an exciting, rich world around them. It was simple, but couldn’t have been further from the world I knew.

I grew up hours north of Boston, in a small town where nothing happened. It’s a sea of trailer parks. Front yards decorated with propped up trucks and falling down machines. It’s stagnant. Rot and rust. An end game of capitalism. There used to be industry, money and pride. These days it’s survival at best, and that’s hard found. You cling to what little you have and know. There’s strip malls out on the highway, and a tattered picture of white conservative America. Racism and fear flown as proudly as the flag. It’s a place with no counterpoint. No one moves. No one travels. Tourists come to other towns, not there. Neighbors rarely exchange more than a few words. Generation after generation, people are born and die within a few short miles. The blue light of television threads through it all. Isolation. Recently, there’s an influx of heroin – making a dire reality take new dimension. It’s bleak. I hated it there. I longed for escape.

Music was my lifeline. A living bridge to a world beyond. In sound I found culture. It shattered temporality and brought voices from the shadows of history, across cultural boundary. Echos of my own anger, loneliness, and disfranchisement. In music, I wasn’t alone. I had a sonic counter-culture. A home. Voices like my own. This drove my listening habits. I lived outside the mainstream, and found others there. Along the way, something changed. My own sense of difference faded, and a broader curiosity began to grow.

In 1996 I moved to Chicago. It wasn’t the utopia I imagined. Rather than a cultural rainbow, it was harshly segregated. Outside isolated pockets, Chicago is three cities. One White to the north, one Black to the south, and one Latino to the west. Diversity is often impossible to access. Here, for the first time, I witnessed American institutionalized racism. The systemic, sanctioned oppression of a people – Americans just like me. Politics, greed, and the pigment in our skin had drawn a line between us. It angered me. I hated the separation and fear that ran it. I talked about it, but I was far from understanding what I saw, or the reality in which I lived. The city divided us. I was consumed by my studies, and I allowed myself to believe it was the result of shit cops and economics. Like most White Americans, I didn’t dig deep.

This changed in 2000. I moved to the West Philadelphia to attend graduate school. The little apartment I had rented sight unseen, materialized on the line of racial division in a more polarized city. There was no turning away. You couldn’t ignore it. I watched my neighbors fend off the constant attacks of a class war. Separation wasn’t enough. This city wanted to sweep them away. The government, the cops, the school board – virtually everyone who was bound by social contract to protect and support, ignored their needs and scrambled for the ground they kept. These people were being fucked over. They were angry, disillusioned, and were I in their shoes, I wouldn’t have contained my anger with the self respect and reserve they did. The racial profiling, police harassment and brutality I witnessed was astounding. Unlike anything I have ever seen. I’m sure it wasn’t the worst of it. This wasn’t Birmingham, Alabama 1963. This was the “liberal” northeast, everyday at the dawn of a new century. I felt anger in that community as I walked down the street, and for the first time knew what it was like to be hated for my race. I was the same color as those pigs that brutalized their daily lives. Even if I wasn’t hurting, I sure as hell wasn’t helping. Fair enough.

I didn’t do a damn thing! I felt anger, but didn’t cross the line. I didn’t know my neighbors, and they didn’t know me. We couldn’t respect each other because there was no bridge between us. Without a bridge, we only had difference and a line drawn between us by years of institutionalized racist practice. If you’re White, American, and reading this, you’re probably in denial. Very few Americans will admit to being racist. We insulate ourselves within coded practices and careful language that attempt to untangle the question of race from our structure of perceived ethics. Let me dispel this. If you are a White American, and not addressing the question of race in our society, you are racist. Silence is consent. The only way to free ourselves from our own racism is by acknowledging it. This isn’t simple. I’m not saying that all White people hate people of other racial backgrounds. I don’t believe they do. Racism is more complex than we are lead to believe, and this is part of the problem. Most White Americans support, and are supported by, a system which oppresses and profits through the exploitation of racial and cultural difference. It does so without speaking explicitly of its intent. We take it for granted, without questioning what it offers, and how it achieves its ends. It employs misdirection, which in turn enables itself with our denial and complicity. By not acknowledging it, putting ourselves at risk, and fighting for universal social equity, by questioning, challenging and tearing these systems down, we are supporting racist institutions, and thus racist ourselves.

I have come to believe that racism and xenophobia are functionaries of capitalism and right-wing economics. Both are very much a part of all American lives, regardless of the belief systems we embrace. They are tools for exploitation and isolation. To separate us, deny the humanity of others, and mechanize us as cogs for profit. It operates on a global scale, fueling the poverty on our own streets, and everything from exploited labor and war in others. There is a paradox. The unwinding of racism in my own life, my conscious rejection of it, and the apathy that enables it, my fight against it, begins with an artifact of capitalism – the vinyl record.

Art – be it painting, music, writing, performance, film, sound art, etc, speaks to others across distance. It is a builder of bridges. It breaks down the walls that have been placed between us all – be they temporal, geographic, economic, or cultural. Because of the arts we can know each other without restriction. With its help, we can recognize similarity and celebrate difference. We can build empathy. In my own life, despite all the years I dedicated to making things, I never recognized this in my own practice. I came to know it in my life as a record collector.

In 2005 I moved to London; a city more culturally diverse and integrated than any I have known. The “melting pot” that America purports to be, but isn’t. Cultures and people from around the world, living side by side. Sharing their communities. In discourse. Each individual culture maintaining its character and integrity, while open, accessible, and changing to meet the world around it. I found a society in London which, though deeply stratified by class, does not bind class to race. Though racism exists, it is nothing like the construct I left behind in America. It is fear of difference, rather than an institutionalized mechanism for oppression and profit.

Shortly after arriving, I stumbled into Honest Jon’s Records. The shop quickly became a lens into my new life.  Few record stores have a cumulative taste whose scatology so closely resembles my own. More significantly, Honest Jon’s does something extremely rare. It puts aside the snobbery, that is often endemic in record shops, and takes it’s cue from the culture in which it sits. The racks are an image of the multicultural musical life of London, while refusing to neglect the larger global society in which we all live. The room overflows with Reggae, diverse African musics, Soul, Funk, Jazz, R&B, Hip-Hop, Indie Rock, music from Asia and the Middle East, Folk, Blues, contemporary experimental music, and the latest dance 12’s. It’s a place, despite my sprawling knowledge of recorded music, which puts me out of my depth. It has contributed endlessly to my growth and development. I can never thank them enough.

It was in Honest Jon’s that I discovered Mississippi Records, and my life as a listener, my relationship to music, was forever changed. In a world were the record industry sings sorrows, and clamors for your last shed of attention, Mississippi has a refreshingly low profile. The label doesn’t advertise. Information about them is scarce. They don’t have a website, only a simple Google page, which functions as a static billboard of coming and past projects. As far as I can tell, it’s run out of the Mississippi record shop in Portland, but even then, I’m not entirely sure. The label’s output is equally hard to pin down. It’s released everything from archival recordings of pacific northwestern punk, to compilations of old blues and gospel 78s, unearthed Alan Lomax recordings, an endless stream of international recording across a broad range of cultures and periods, to recent recordings by Peter Buck, Michael Hurley and Marissa Anderson. It doesn’t feel like a business. It’s an effort of love, taste and generosity – where music fans have found a means to share what they love with others. It’s a wonderful thing, and clearly executed with a level of care that few labels can match. Beyond the wonderful music, Mississippi can also boast some of the best cover designs I have ever encountered. Their sleeves are things of beauty. They have an eye for design and care for quality (printing, card stock, etc.), that few have ever matched. Despite this, in an age were the price of records are sky rocketing, and labels seem to be trying to squeeze the last drop from a stone, Mississippi keeps their releases affordable and accessible. Something that a fan like myself, who buys a ton of music and has to watch his pennies, is incredibly grateful for. When I looked over my collection while preparing for this piece, I realized I own over 80 of the labels releases. Outside of Blue Note, it’s the largest concentration of a single record label in my collection. It goes without saying that I am a big fan of what they do.

Love is love, but my affection for Mississippi Records, and the music they have released, is not entirely the reason for my writing about them. It’s how they’ve done it. What their cumulative efforts amount to. The label was the final element in understanding my own listening habits. A lens allowing me to see myself, what I hunt for, need to hear, and how that sits within the world around me. The architecture of the label itself, and its releases, had everything to do with making this possible. To truly understand this construction, it helps to rewind more than half a century, and look at what is arguably the most important compilation of music that was ever executed – Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Mississippi reissued this beautifully about a year ago – if you don’t own it already. Smith’s Anthology was originally released as a 6 record set by Folkways records in 1952. It’s a sprawling collection of folk songs pulled from Smith’s collection of pre-war Blues, Gospel, Folk, Hillbilly, and Cowboy 78’s. The importance of this collection, on many generations, hardly needs to be rehashed, but certain aspects of Smith’s curatorial construction of it, and the effect of his choices, is neglected. More than its music, what is important about the collection, is with how it was put together. Rather than arrange the selected songs regionally, stylistically, or chronologically as one might expect, Smith choose to group them thematically – Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. In so doing, he deified the presumption of a listeners preexistent taste, and forced music of divergent traditions to live side by side and in conversation with each other. In the respective collections, he was enforcing a belief that each song is of equal value, and contains an equivalent human experience – regardless of what style, taste or presumption might lead you to believe. He democratized music, which might have otherwise had different values applied to them. Remember, this is before the civil rights era. Cultural artifacts were not encouraged to integrate any more than people were. Smith’s gesture was of a radical political nature. I would venture that the involvement of the 1950’s and 60’s Folk Scene in the civil rights movement, can be traced, at least in some part, to this set. Smith built the bridge. He brought cultures from across time, as well as social and ethnic barriers and celebrated their beauty and humanity as one single intertwined body. He showed us we are the same, without neglecting the beauty of our difference. He brought us together.

Smith’s radical political gesture, is continued by Mississippi Records today. Despite all the joy they have brought into my life, it’s how I view their importance. I doubt their actions are conscious to a political end – at least to the extreme that I am presenting them. In all probability, they are part of an intuitive continuum which Smith began, rather than a self realized and active politic. It’s hard to say either way, but it’s the cumulative effect that counts. The importance of what Mississippi does, is bound to the diversity of music that they cover, and the way these musical traditions sit in relation to each other across the body of label’s output. They exist together in total equity, without hierarchy. They present the ideal world that Harry Smith proposed. Diverse musical traditions and their cultures existing in discourse without barrier. Mississippi collapses time, space and cultural divergence and brings the soul of others into our hearts.

Mississippi focused what I love about music, what I am building in my own record collection, and helped me understand it. Like the label, my bowing shelves are an ideal world. One where everyone gets equal voice and attention. Where they cross barriers and come together. A world built out of my profound love for other people, and an endless curiosity about them. One were I am the least interesting component. My shelves, and ultimately this site, are an attack on racism and xenophobia I witnessed living in American cities and the isolation born in my youth.

Conscious or otherwise, the actions of labels like Mississippi are incredibly important. They should be applauded and celebrated. By placing diverse cultures before us, side by side with equity, they begin to unwind our sense of difference and separation. They show us beauty in others. They show us the absurdity of the constructs handed down by the architectures of power. These labels, this music, reminds us that we are all human, and in that humanity we are so similar, difference should be celebrated not feared. They build the most important political force we have – empathy. When we recognize in others, the same emotion we ourselves feel, when we give a value to others that we might give ourselves, the fear with which our lives are ruled begins to fade. Not only do we regain personal agency, but we see the need for it in others. Mississippi breaks down walls and builds bridges. They are an attack on racism, xenophobia and the extreme form of capitalism that protects them. They are the great potential of music.

With so many of their releases in my collection, and the astounding bar of quality, it was very hard for me to make a selection of Mississippi records to talk about. I’ve had to neglect a great many whose voices are now nagging at me – Michael Hurley, Washington Phillips, Philip Cohran, George Coleman, Abner Jay, Marisa Anderson, Alemayehu Eshete, so many incredible Blues and international comps, their Alan Lomax Projects and on and on. In the end, I decided to focus on releases that sat well within this piece of writing, and for that reason I hope you will allow them to only be a beginning of your exploration of what Mississippi does.

 

grave

Various ‎– Oh Graveyard, You Can’t Hold Me Always (2008)

This is hands down my favorite compilation that Mississippi has produced. I might argue that it’s the single best collection of music ever assembled, and that’s saying something. It’s absolutely incredible. I love it so much, I’ve spent years trying to track down the original recordings that it assembles. I haven’t turned up a single one. The music found on these two sides is incredibly rare, and highlights one of the strange oddities in recorded music. The best stuff lives in the shadows, and is grossly neglected. I have no idea why this is the case, it’s counter-intuitive, but time and time again it proves itself, and reminds us of a great service being performed by all the reissue labels working today. Oh Graveyard compiles some of the greatest, and most obscure gospel recordings out there. Most are post-war. While Blues gets credit for the entomological origins of Rock & Roll, this collection tells a different tale. It opens the narrative and shows a close link between the church and “the devils music”. Most of the groups compiled here are small rocking, jangly guitar driven groups, often built around a family unit. It highlights one of America’s greatest and least talked about musical traditions. One that deserves so many acknowledgments, that it is impossible to know where to begin. In a world where religion increasingly separates us, this comp builds bridges. I can not recommend it enough.

 

MRP025LP

Tsege Mariam Gebru ‎– Spielt Eigene Kompositionen (2012)

I jumped for joy when this hit the racks at Honest Jon’s. I was aware it existed, but didn’t dare wish it might get reissued. Despite the success of the Éthiopiques series issued by the french label Buda Musique, a vinyl pressing seemed to much to hope for. Tsege Mariam Gebru is an Ethiopian nun who has spent most of her life in the seclusion. Her narrative is almost as fascinating and beautiful as her music. Gebru was born in 1923 to an upper upper class and politically connected family. She was sent to Switzerland at the age of six where she began studying violin. She continued this in Cairo following the second world war. I’ve read conflicting accounts of her return to Ethiopia, but it seems that her musical ambitions were thwarted from the highest levels of society, most probably because she was a woman, and in 1948 she withdrew from the world and entered monastic life. Thankfully, this did not shift her dedication to music. Every day, for the last 67 years, she has spent hours at the keyboard refining her practice and musical understanding.  Honestly, for my money, she is the greatest living composer/ pianist in the world. I can not begin to express how wonderful this album is. The reason it exists only serves to add to it’s beauty. Prior to it’s German issue in the 1960’s, Gebru’s musical life was solitary and private. In the 1960’s she began to the study of Ethiopia’s ancient sacred music, and witnessed the economic plight of many young students dedicating themselves to the same subject. Because she had no money to help them, she recorded this album to raise it. A simple gesture which displays the many layers and values of altruism. Not only did this album save people from hunger, but it helped preserve Ethiopia’s musical heritage, while giving it another. Simply beautiful. Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful records I expect you could ever hear. Gerbu’s thoughts and emotions laid out before you on the unaccompanied piano. It’s model and melodic, meandering and a thing of profound sensitivity.

 

 

mata

Various ‎– Mata La Pena (2009)

This compilation is a great illustration of what Mississippi does so well. It is a gathering of old recordings from  around the world, packed together to paint a beautiful image of the multifaceted world in which we live. It places us outside of the restrictions of time, and brings us into the hearts of unknown others. There are no liner notes or explanations. You just get what you’re given, so I can’t tell you than much about it. It begins with one of the most beautiful Thia ballads I’ve ever heard and is followed by everything from Trinidadian Calypso, Cowboy Yodeling, Hawain steel guitar, and Flamenco. It’s a wonderful trip.

 

thia

The Thai Orchestra ‎– The Thai Orchestra (2007)

This is another mystery record issued by Mississippi. No one seems to know it’s provenance or have a solid date. The best guess is that these are recordings made of an unknown Thai group, (judging from the sound – possibly a wedding band), made during the 1970’s. Anyway you look at it, it’s insanely good. It’s heavy, rocking druggy and psyched out. It’s a great trip. For anyone familiar with this tradition of Thia music, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For those of you who are not, it sounds a little like what International Harvester would have sounded like if they were Thia rather than Swedish. It’s one of those records that levels the field and makes you question everything you think you know about music. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

afbox

Various ‎– The African Guitar Box (2012)

I debated including this for a couple of reasons. On one hand, I love it, and I’m happy I own it. It’s a beautiful object, containing incredible music –  5 LPs of African Guitar songs, housed in a hand made box (constructed of wood salvaged from the old Mississippi shop in Portland). There were only 200 made, and many smashed in shipping. It was real labor of love for the label, and displays their ambition and commitment to music. It’s a shame there aren’t many out there. On the other hand – the set highlights certain grey areas in today’s record market. The historically mysterious quality of many of Mississippi’s releases usually works for them – operating as a great leveler of hierarchy. In this set it slightly fails the audience. Speaking broadly, and until very recently, African records tend to exist in two primary divisions. Recordings made as ethnographies – usually traditional folk musics, by westerners and for western ears; and recordings made by Africans for African listeners – usually regional popular musics. The recordings found on this box set are something of a historical anomaly, and set the tone for a number of young labels working today. They are of regionally popular musics (Tanzania, Zambia, Zaire, Kenya, Congo, Uganda, etc), recorded between the 1950’s and 70’s, but are also field recordings made by a westerner, as ethnographies, but disturbed as recordings for western popular (vs academic) consumption. The reason for my reticence for including this remarkable sprawling box, is that the label failed to provide much information about the origins of these recordings beyond a simple indication of country. What makes his slightly questionable, is that anyone who has delved into African music, is likely to recognize them as recordings issued in the 1950’s by Decca, as part of The Music Of Africa series issued by Kaleidophone in the early 1970’s, and in Original Music’s African Acoustic and Africa Dances series during the 1980’s. All three groups of releases were recorded by a single man – Hugh Tracey. Mississippi failed to credit him as the source, and for all the work he put into them. I have no idea if the recordings were properly licensed, and frankly don’t care. Money means nothing to me. I do believe that Tracey deserved some recognition, and feel compelled to call the label out for this omission. That said, the power of music trumps, and I decided to include this set as a way to give Tracey some due.

Sadly, Hugh Tracey’s name, and titanic efforts are lost to most. He was an English gentleman, and the Alan Lomax of African field recording. He was incredibly ambitious, and driven by a social conscious akin to what I described in Harry Smith’s work. He embodied, through his efforts, everything that I am trying to stress here. He was drawn to, celebrated, and tried to draw attention to, the beauty of cultures other than his own, at at time when they suffered great neglect. In the 1920’s, Tracey was pulled out of university by his mother, due to perceived of laziness, and sent to work on his brother’s farm in South Africa. When he arrived he was overwhelmed by the traditions of local music that surrounded him. He quickly realized that not only were his enthusiasms not shared, but they were actively discouraged by everyone from European decent. He was confounded by this indifference, scorn, and the belief that anything “non-western” was primitive. Rather than except this, and believing so strongly in the importance and beauty of what he heard, he set out to actively destroy those beliefs by documenting and recording what he heard. In so doing, he almost single-handedly created the discipline of Ethnomusicology.  Until his death in 1972, Tracey vigorously recorded everything he could across the entire continent of Africa. He is incredibly important in the history of music, and the way we think about music in cultural contexts. He is also responsible for documenting countless musical traditions that are now lost, and would have no record without his recordings.

The recordings, found on this box set, are a narrow sliver of what Tracey actually recorded during his lifetime, but make up a high proportion of what has been publicly released. They are particularly interesting because they display a multi-dimensional bridge between time and cultures. They show a fascinating loop, where western popular musics – the most significant of which, stemmed from African music, began to bleed into the African continent, join and mutate with the music it encountered there. Thus, these recordings bear witness to a long lost cousin coming home, and bringing the influence of centuries of isolated evolution. Frankly, you could make a pretty strong argument for an “Africans Do it Better” bumper sticker after spending some time with this box. It’s impossible to sum it up, so I’ll leave it to your curiosity to track the recordings down. Sadly, these days I’m pretty sure you’re more likely to come across the Kaleidophone, and Original Music issues than this box, given how few of them were made. Happy hunting.

 

Street

 Various ‎– Street Musicians Of Yogyakarta (2011)

Despite having been made on the opposite side of the globe, these recording bear many similarities to those found on the The African Guitar Box. At first listen, you might wonder what I’m talking about. They sound nothing alike, but what they display and how they came to be is incredibly similar. They’re field recordings made by a westerner (Jack Brody), of regional music in a period of transition. The recordings are of street musicians in Java during the 1970’s, and though what we hear is fundamentally folk music, much of it is clearly is evolving with the influence of western and other musics. We hear the two ends of the spectrum – the old and the new, side by side. It’s incredible. Every song on this record is beautiful. A window across time and into the rich musical life of a city. I could only wish to live in a place with so much music in its streets. The sounds stand on their own, but what I find particularly evocative are the bridges between cultures. What happens when similar tools fall into the hands of radically different people. In this case the guitar becomes the obvious example. There are moment of shocking originality and surprise. Things that no westerner could ever think to do, and there are moment of great equivalence, where were the language not different, you might wonder if you were listening to a lost American private press gem. This is a great record, both for its value as a document and the beauty of its music.

 

ishilan

 Various ‎– Ishilan N-Tenere (2010)

I’m lucky. My life is filled with incredible music. Every once and a while, there are moments that shine through all the others. That remind me what it’s all about, and knock me out of my chair. When I dropped the needle on this one, everything changed. Easily the best record I bought in 2010. I left it on my turntable for an entire month, playing it over and over. It cleared the slate. One of the things I like about Mississippi, is that they work with in conjunction with other small labels, and gain them exposure that they might not otherwise get. This, and the Idassane Wallet Mohamed record that follows, were released in conjunction with the excellent Sahel Sounds, whose releases I adore, and deserve their own dedicated profile. Ishilan N-Tenere is a compilation of contemporary guitar music from Mali and Senegal, and is unquestionably one of the most beautiful things you will ever here. Even after all the time I have spent with it, it still manages to bring tears to my eyes. The music found within displays the diversity and beauty of the region from which it springs. There are nearly as many languages and distinct cultures, as there are songs on this album. Like music from much of Africa, traditions are incredibly localized. The songs here are pulsing, rhythmic, raw and sensitive. They are everything I long for in my daily life and I can’t recommend enough, that you bring them into yours.

 

idassane

Idassane Wallet Mohamed ‎– Issawat  (2013)

Like Ishilan N-Tenere, this was released in conjunction with Sahel Sounds, and was my favorite record of the year. Idassane Wallet Mohammed is a Tuareg woman and part of a long history of music in that tradition. The Tuareg are a nomadic people who have lived in the Sahel and Sahara Desert for countless centuries. They are an ancient people without borders. The Tuareg’s musical traditions are broad. In recent years groups like Group Bombino, Group Inerane, Koudede, Tinariwen and the efforts of labels like Sublime Frequencies, have brought the sounds of their desert life to our ears. Idassane Wallet Mohamed is part of a completely different thread of their tradition, and makes a music unlike anything that you are likely to have heard. These are some of the most hypnotic and beautiful sounds to have ever reached my ears – chantey, droney, and ecstatic. The repetitive rhythms of her voice rise over a constant hum of male singers and incredible clapped rhythms. It’s absolutely overwhelming. This album also sits within a dangerous history and brings its echos into our lives. It points to the dangers of conservative ideologies. It almost never was. Shortly after the record was completed, the studio in which it was recorded was destroyed by Islamic extremists. Part of their larger war on diversity, culture and the arts. They are aware, like other members of the right-wing, that music is dangerous to their end goals. It bring us together, builds bridges, and breaks down walls. It builds empathy. In order for the right-wing – religious, or otherwise, to achieve their goals, we must be separate. Cut off from each other. We must fear. We must me silent. With albums like this, I can take the Tuareg into my heart, know some small part of them, and feel that despite all of our difference, we are human under the same sky and share in the beauty of their lives.

– Bradford Bailey

 

 

 

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