music - photography - scholarship
2 - 9
It's been a few years in the works but I am releasing a new record with pianist Michael Murray, drummer Thomas Wendt, bassist Tony DePaolis, and percussionist Lucas Ashby. I've missed playing with this band, which has lost members to different cities, but am glad we could document the group's interplay with a record and reunite for some gigs in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Erie.
This record is built around three suites, each of which explores a specific musical influence and period of listening. I wrote many of the songs with Michael's playing in mind, which I feel provides a missing piece in many of my compositions. In a way, his improvisations on the composition are so strong that they become collaborative efforts. Tony, Tom, and Lucas also bring the music to a place far beyond the original idea. And so, while these are compositions, I feel they came to life through our collective dynamic and so offer something between beyond one's musician's perspective on a musical landscape.
"Moth to the Flame", "Asa Nisi Masa", and "OCD" comprise the Bahia Suite, which grew from a visit to Northern Brazil. In the summer of 2007, I spent six weeks in Salvador, Brazil studying Portuguese and percussion. I spent my days wandering the old neighborhood of Pelourinho and taking on teachers of Bahian music. I ended up focusing on the Brazilian frame drum or pandeiro, which is an unassuming instrument though one of seemingly infinite possibilities and voices. For these songs I let the rhythms be a guide for composing melodies.
"Fool's Resolution", "Belly Up", and "Evil Eye" comprise the Suite for Astor Piazolla and pay tribute to his body of work. I spent a period of time immersed in the music of Piazolla and other Argentinian composers and had organized a Tango group to play milongas in Pittsburgh. The melodies sunk into my head and I found myself creating new compositions to explore this musical language.
The final suite is dedicated to the jazz scene and communities that keep it alive and developing. “Cloud Gate", "East Coast Time," and "New Seasons" comprise the East Coast Suite and are offerings to the shifting landscape of improvised music in New York City and beyond.
Tony's arrangement of "Head Over Heels" by Tears for Fears rounds up the album.
Photos by John Caldwell
Rock in Ghana
The band Dark Suburb is an anomaly in Ghanaian popular music: a creative voice playing with images and sounds that invoke local prejudices to reveal themselves while challenging the region’s music industry to rethink the dominant models for popular music - no small task for a rock band in West Africa.
Since their official launch in February, their goal has been to create an awareness and appreciation for rock in a place where most people either have no exposure to, or hold a negative opinion of, the genre. With only three shows to their name as of June 2015, the attention they have received attests to the appeal of their sound, the intrigue of their stage personas, and the power of marketing and social media.
Read full article in Music in Africa: Dark Suburb: Rock Summons its Voice in Ghana
5 - 5
Guitarist Jimmy Ponder (1946-2013)
I first met Jimmy when he was teaching at a jazz camp for high school students in Pittsburgh. I was 15, recently turned on to Wes Montgomery, and trying to make sense of the music. Ponder was the first guitarist I had heard in person who embodied the music. He poured himself through the instrument. The sound of his thumb on the Gibson Super 400 was rich, warm, lyrical, and immediate. It was as if he had a quartet in the palm of his hand.
I made sure to catch his sets around Pittsburgh where he worked regularly with bassists Mike Taylor, Dave Pellow, Dwayne Dolphin, Jeff Grubs, and Tony DePaolis, drummers Roger Humphries, Thomas Wendt, and Alex Peck, and pianist Howie Alexander among many others. I remember his sets with Mike Taylor at the Church Brew Works. The duo, tucked into an apse of the converted church, would link up on a telepathic level. A grin would grow across Mike's face and Ponder would explode into laughter as they delved into "Misty," transforming the song into something neither had heard before.
It was years later that we began to sit down together to talk and play music. I would go up to his apartment in the hills above Pittsburgh's Northside and we would go over solo guitar techniques. He always put emotion at the forefront, "What is your purpose!" He listened very closely to what I had to say and play never shying from criticism or praise. After the lesson, he would cook and we'd listen to Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Lou Donaldson, and many other artists over a beer. Music is more than a structure to be learned, it is something you have to consume.
Jimmy was not protective of the stage or his guitar. Music was always something to be shared, not hoarded away for a few sets. Sitting in on a set was always a transformative experience. Jimmy's Super 400 had absorbed his energy over the decades and listened just as intently as he did. I always felt that my honesty was being tested. Was I really cutting out the bullshit and saying something? Last March we finally arranged to play a gig together. Ponder had cut his finger the day before and the bandage made playing impossible. He laughed off my attempts at putting a silicone wrap on the deep cut and ended up playing the evening with no bandage. It was a great honor sharing the stage with Jimmy and we made plans to do it again. Unfortunately, he fell sick not long after.
Ponder was both a sun and a storm. He carried a great weight on his shoulders from past regrets but also stood defiantly with a smile on his face. It came out in his music where deadly seriousness, jest, and joy met. He lived to express and lift the pain of others using his gift from God. We will miss his laughter, his stories, and his song.
Many thanks to Jason Verlinde and Fretboard Journal for their tribute to Jimmy.
Fretboard Journal - Jimmy Ponder
“What These Hands Have Seen: Guitarist Jimmy Ponder” (Fretboard Journal 28), is my tribute to the great jazz guitarist Jimmy Ponder. Many a day I've spent with Jimmy playing music, talking, and cooking in Pittsburgh's Northside. You can learn more about him from my Masters Thesis, which has a discography of his recordings as a leader and sideman.
Hear Jimmy play an absolutely swinging version of "Autumn Leaves."
“After Dark” is a collaborative digital photographic project between Colter Harper and Carolina Loyola-Garcia, that employs long-exposure “light-painting” techniques to portray nine artists who have shaped Pittsburgh’s cultural landscape: Karla Boos, Ayanah Moor, Thaddeus Mosley, James Simon, Ben Opie, Phat Mandee, Brian Brown, Adrienne Wehr, and Sarah Humphrey. These artists, whose work includes drama, music, sculpture, videography, painting, and dance, represent a sample of the city’s creative community and serve as the muses for these highly stylized images. The photographic portraits, though set in the artist’s respective workspaces, reject realism for the realm of fantasy. Each carefully composed portrait requires the orchestration of many moving lights during a series of thirty-second exposures. The resulting images explore the artist’s personalities while placing them in a world of illusions. These portraits were presented in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s 707 Penn Ave Gallery Space from November 2012 to January 2013.
The photographic process requires the subject to undergo several hours of posing in darkness while maintaining still. For each thirty-second exposure, the artist sits, stands, or lays in a composed space while we apply a range of colored lights to the subject and space in order to expose the image. The technique requires many trial runs in order to achieve the desired exposure and depends a great deal on the chance combination of various elements of light treatment. We’ve shot largely with a Canon 5D Mark II and a 24mm 1.4 fixed focal length lens. The images are highly composed, and due to the long exposures, the camera must be placed on a tripod and the shots must be carefully framed. While “light-painting” has been widely used in photography, we believe this project stands apart in its scope as well as it artistic goals. The images should stand on their own as visual explorations of fantasy and illusion within the creative spaces of the given artists.
3 - 20
I was surprised when Ghanaian friends would ask me where the seperewa was from. It goes to show that the instrument, once widely played in Ghana's Ashanti region, has faded from public memory after being replaced by the guitar in the early 20th century. As a fan of the harp traditions of the Sahel and Sahara, the seperewa gave me a way of hearing how these styles had filtered down to the West African coast and been shaped by Akan languages, dances, rhythms, and philosophies. Osei has dedicated his life to carrying this tradition forward as well as sharing it with Ghanaian and Western students. His artistry and humility is readily apparent in the album we produced during my time at the University of Ghana. I hope it will make new fans of the seperewa, both at home and abroad
Osei: "I call it 'sit down' music. If you look at the way the music is, I'd say most of seperewa music you don't have to stand up and dance because the person is sending a message across, a powerful message about sanitation or the environment... When I composed a song, I didn't want it to be rude but the way things are going it needs to come out. We may not even have time to dance because it's like giving a presentation. The music I love is the one that has a message to tell. I always want to listen to stories. You can't dance, I'm just talking to you and saying, 'The next generation will blame us if you continue doing things in this way'."
Interview with Osei Korankye and John Collins
Performance with Osei Korankye
Bridget Kearney and Ben Lazar Davis - Bawa EP (2015)
I met Bridget Kearney and Ben Davis while they were visiting Ghana in 2014. They began studying with the great xylophone master Aaron Bebe and reworking the ideas on guitar while I was in the process of getting Vivivi Studios functioning with available equipment and soundproofed with the help of a carpenter friend. Over two weeks we tracked three songs they wrote as well as the three gyil compositions that Aaron had taught them. Luckily, the lack of sound proofing in the main room served for some great reverb on backing vocals.
Bridget and Ben's song "Slow Rider" is based on parts of the song "Sisala Sebrew," from Nana Danso Abiam & the Pan African Orchestra's album Opus 1 (Real World Records, 1995). Ben and Bridget slow down the original which uncovers a new groove and way of hearing this music.
2 - 7
Aaron Bebe's performance on gyil
2 - 8
Vivivi Studios is located in West Legon, Greater Accra and offers a live rehearsal and recording space. The studio seeks to develop recording and performance projects with local and visiting artists who are interested in finding new ways for Ghanaian music to speak to the world. Vivivi Studios is managed by executive producers Yaw Owusu-Frempong and Ekow Andzie Quainoo.
11 Pieces for Solo Guitar
I first encountered the gyil (a xylophone traditionally played in Ghana's Northwestern region) as a student at the University of Ghana in 2000. John Collins, for one of his processes of art classes, invited Kakraba Lobi and Valerie Dee Naranjo to perform for students at the music department. They spoke briefly and then launched into an hour of powerful and mystifying music. The songs had a way of engulfing you with buzzing overtones, mind-twisting ostinatos, and virtuosic improvisation. As a student with Kakraba's son SK, I began to unravel some of the instrument's mystery. It was on several trips to Kakraba's village in the North that I was able to hear the music performed in the contexts of a funeral and witness the powerful role this music plays in celebrating life in the event of a death.
I began transcribing several gyil pieces as taught by SK and worked ideas and inspirations from the music into 11 pieces for solo guitar (with guidance from the master composer Eric Moe). You can listen to the first six pieces below and also download the scores here: 11 Pieces for Solo Guitar + Gyil Transcriptions
8 - 13
Life, Death, and Music
My introduction to West African funeral music was at the University of Ghana in the fall of 2000. Prof John Collins had organized a performance with the gyil (xylophone) masters Valerie Dee Naranjo and her teacher Kakraba Lobi. I became completely lost in the sound of their instruments and the interplay of the two musicians. I didn't know it at the time but this music was an important part of funerals and festivals in Ghana's Northwest region. As I took on teachers from various regions of Ghana, I found that many of the songs and instruments were an integral part of the process of mourning and celebrating life. This led me to question how it was that West Africans could dedicate so much time and cultural expression to the passing of life while much of the Western world was so busy hiding from death. In the states, death smacks of failure. The failure of medical science to stop what we have come to view as unnatural. The failure to remember how to mourn. The failure of our collective nature. The failure to live.
Back when the iPhone 4s was cutting edge, I spent some time taking photos and processing and reprocessing them into abstractions that had some connection to the original, mundane landscapes and portraits yet became a kind of Rorschach test. My subject was the hours that one fills while on tour with a band. Hours filled with staring out windows, joking with friends, sleeping, walking, and killing time in random American locations. These are the results of the chance compositions that emerge from processing a jpeg through multiple iPhone apps.
11 - 35
I'm reminded by my time in Morocco how people make the place. For me, the efforts of travel are justified when you cross paths with individuals who have dedicated their lives to their art, who love to share what they have learned and also to learn from what others have to offer.
Unlike Ghana, there is a hard outer shell of tourism in Morocco (particularly Marrakech, Essouira, and Fez) that can be difficult to crack (particularly for a failed French student). The Madina (old city) of Marrakech is busy and choked with foot, bike, and motorcycle traffic and vendors. Coming from Accra, I felt at home with the overbearing sellers but sensed an edge of slight desperation with some. Business has suffered with the Euro-crisis. It took a few days to feel settled with the chaos, exhaust fumes, and incessant sales pitches.
Locals live their lives amongst the throngs of tourists ogling snake charmers, acrobats, and musicians in Jamaa el-Fnaa, the renown square that has been sleepless for 900 years. When evening drops, the food stalls are quickly assembled from piles of metal and cloth tarps wheeled in from the surrounding streets. Cooking begins and the dinner crowds file in. Local know the best spots and crowd around driving the tourists to the less-popular stalls. One spot had a crowd patiently waiting for bench spots to open while ten feel away another food seller with the same menu had one customer.
I had heard about Mallam (master) Hassan Gidiri from the great oud, ngoni, and guitar player Brandon Terzic. Carolina and I came across an instrument seller who wrote Hassan's address for me. The next day, people directed me through the labyrinth of the Madina, I rang a door bell, and was welcomed into Hassan's beautiful home. The choked energy of the street disappeared behind the heavy door. Light bounced down from the open ceiling of the living room/courtyard and people sat around drinking tea and talking.
In the coming weeks I was introduced to great food, music, and conversation with new friends. The Gnawa tradition of music and philosophy drew me back to conversations I had with guitarist Jimmy Ponder, always one for vision and spirituality mixed with the rawness and irony of daily life.
I first heard Gnawa music on Pharoah Sanders and Mahmoud Ghania's Trance of Seven Colors, a record produced by Bill Laswell in Ghania's home in Essouira in 1994. I kept coming back to this recording over the years because of the controlled abandon and a deep pocket. To me, it sounded like the John Coltrane quartet if they had been born in the Sahara though it had echoes of music I had heard in Ghana, Spain, the US, and Brazil.
Essouira's status as the capital of Gnawa music is bolstered by the greatly popular Gnawa World Music Festival, which started in the early 2000s. We left Marrakech to ring in the New Year by the ocean and to see the small city known for its laid back vibe. It was a few hours before the new year and Carolina and I were meandering through the Madina trying to find a spot to hear Gnawa music. It seemed every place we walked into had someone setting down a gimbri and saying they would be right back only to disappear into the night. After a few hours of spot-hopping, we passed an open door where we could hear a gimbri playing. Inside we found Maalem Zine el Abidine sitting on the floor of a hotel lobby accompanied by a younger karkaba (percussion) player and dancer. It was a fortuitous meeting Zine because not only is he a beautiful musician, he is also a master woodworker who produced intricately designed gimbri that are truly works of art.
Through Zine, Carolina and I met several other Essouirans who enjoyed talking music, history, and art. I got the impression that it was a culture that valued inner peace through prayer, music, art, and cooking. I look forward to returning.
16 - 17
Downtown Accra is a tangled mass of informal exchange. Streets give way to sidewalk sellers who give way to rows of shops. You follow a flow of foot traffic that weaves through standing traffic, over ditches, and by women with trays of goods balanced on their heads. It is hard to grasp how all of the buying and selling translate into a living for so many people. Walking sellers pedal water, fruit, bread, candy... Seated sellers lay out shoes, electronics, vegetables... Shops display stereos, cloth, generators...
Everyone's hustle is connected. I'm looking for a charger for some portable speakers and so head to Zongo lane, the downtown street with electronics kiosks. A ten minute walk from the tro tro station I find the cluttered street and approach a shop owner to tell him what I am looking for. This is his world so rather than tell me he doesn't sell what I'm looking for he walks me to another shop where we dig through the chargers and adapters and test one that fits. We settle on a price for that seller and he takes a small gift for his help. We exchange numbers in case I need something else there in the future. It's the basis for a relationship that may lead to other transactions and will undoubtedly involve middle man and middle-middle-man systems of negotiation and exchange. Here you have to arm yourself with knowledge and respectfully defend what you wish to pay. The fast reap and the slow lose but you learn quickly that all business transactions are first and foremost social interactions.
3 - 6
The sound of the bell cut in and out against the din of the ocean. I woke at 5am and wandered the few hundred yards out to the beach to find that it was already busy with the fishing community. The bell that I had heard was being played by a group of men on an early morning run. Saying that the bell pattern was keeping time can be a bit misleading when describing music in daily Ghanian life. I find rather that, the experience of running, as with all gestures that creates rhythm (pounding yam...), does not exist in and of itself. Those involved (watching or participating) always hear a rhythm as a complimentary pattern to another rhythm. A way of always hearing what's not there.
I came to a group of fisherman pulling in the catch and joined them. The rope was being hauled from about 400 yds out with the slack being tied up to palm trees about 100 yds from the water. In an hour, we made four trips pulling the rope from the ocean shore to the tree line. A bell player also acted as a reference again the bouncing of the rope and the whistle player signaled when the waves were breaking so we could work with the undertow, which was pulling the weight of the catch back into the ocean. My hands began to rub raw and my legs and arms ached. Immensely hard work for a catch that could be either a small fortune or worthless.
1 - 6
Early Bird - Allison Miller
Jazz can be a strange art. Many of its musicians bear the immense achievements of innovators and the indifference of mass audiences like a golden cross. Too often does it result in the paradoxical attitude of self-deprecation and esoteric elitism. Jazz in 2013 is both a threshold to innovation and a boundary to honor. Maybe it's always been this way, but the artists who speak the most truth find a way to reconcile the music's Janus personality. Allison Miller has the perspective to achieve that balance. She is a musical and spiritual force to reckon with but listens with a hungry curiosity.
I was excited to take on the video project for "Early Bird" because the music has a level of honesty that is hard to find in improvised music. "Early Bird" has a strong narrative structure in how it unfolds and weaves together themes. It's as much a story as music can be without lyrics. I tried to compliment that mood by letting it create a narrative for me to follow. Listening to it, I began to think about the struggle that artists often have in relationships where the pursuit of art becomes a third party in the relationship. The song, for me, encompasses all the unfolding arguments, resolutions, mundane moments, and struggles that make up the average day of someone seeking a higher level of expression while maintaining a relationship and a "normal" life. Doubt this has anything to do with the origin of the song but she gave me free reign so I ran with it.
For those who are interested, I used final cut X to edit the video. I decided to try and get many of the effects and textures in front of the lens so I wouldn't have to overly rely on the final cut effects and filters. With the exception of some sampled footage from one of my favorite childhood Hitchcock movies, all of the raw footage was shot on a Canon 5D with either a canon 24mm 1.4 or canon 100mm macro lens. I raided an arts supply store for colored foam, feathers, and whatever else seemed interesting. From this I created some bird silhouettes that were used to filter colored lights onto a white wall. I also shot the feathers against the colored backgrounds with the macro lens. The orbs are heavily treated clips of the ocean. The seagull silhouette footage came from the Rock Boat Cruise that I played on with Rusted Root in late February. Basically, Carolina and I had a plate of fries and the dedicated attention of a seagull on the 13th floor of a cruise ship pounding through the Caribbean evening (Please see David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" if you have never been on a cruise. It will clarify many things).
Pittsburgh, Memory, & Jazz
I became aware of the Hill District in 1994 when I moved to Pittsburgh. It was my junior year of high school and I wanted to play guitar like Wes Montgomery. And so I began seeking out jam sessions in the city. A friend told me about a Sunday afternoon session in the Hill District neighborhood and so I began going regularly and sitting in. The jam session took place in a community hall run by the Hill House Association and brought together veteran and beginner musicians to play jazz and blues standards. The audience, largely made up of neighborhood residents, brought food and drinks and would relax and talk while listening to the music. It was at this jam session that I began hearing stories of a musical past where you could listen to Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, George Benson and many others in the neighborhood’s various small clubs. Listeners and musicians talked about these places with reverence and I began to wonder what had happened to replace such a vital world with the empty lots that remained.
Around the same time that I began attending the Hill District jam session, I met a man who sold black and white photos of the Hill District. He often set up his van on Saturdays at an outdoor market and I later learned that these photos were taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris and were a piece of one of the largest visual archives of a minority community in an American city. In 2000, the negatives were won in a court case between this individual and the Harris family and they were subsequently purchased by the Pittsburgh Carnegie Museum, which established the Charles Teenie Harris Photo Archive in 2002. Charles Teenie Harris was a photographer who ran a private studio from the late ‘30s through the 1970s and also worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of three nationally distributed black newspapers. Teenie had a great love for photography and for the Hill District and produced over 80,000 large format black and white negatives and approximately 30,000 color negatives. Popularly known as Teenie, the local media community called him “One Shot Harris” because of his economy of shooting photographs. For instance, if on assignment to photograph a politician’s speech he would patiently observe the context, plan his framing and lighting, and study the movements and expressions of the subject. When he felt the time was right he would take a single photo, dispose of the spent flash bulb in his pocket, and leave. Many subjects of his photos remarked that his smile was so infectious that they couldn’t help but return it. Teenie also carefully planned many his images to reflect the perspectives and experiences of those he photographed. Because Teenie focused on context and was free to move and photograph any perspective, many of his images tell a multitude of stories.
In my dissertation, The Crossroads of the World: A Social and Cultural History of Jazz in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1920-1970, I explore the history of jazz in the Hill District using conversations with musicians and neighborhood resident about photos from the Teenie Harris archive to examine intersections of place, social life, and music.
The Hill House Jam Session c.1996 (photo by Douglas Harper)
African Guitar Styles
The guitar - arguably the most well-traveled and widely played instrument in the world - has played a prominent role in the development of African music over the past century, providing a medium through which African and Western audiences continue to engage. The distinctive approaches to the guitar throughout Africa provide insight into Africa’s musical diversity as well as the great changes it has undergone in the past century.
Read full article with examples in Music in Africa: African Guitar Styles
7 - 7
Mathew Tembo, Colter Harper, & Jeff Berman
I met Zambian vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mathew Tembo in Pittsburgh in 2010 and instantly connected with him musically and personally. Joining with percussionist Jeff Berman, we approached the songs as open ended grooves, leaving room for spontaneous arrangements and musical dialog. Mathew's songs, played on either silimba (xylophone) or mbira (thumb piano) with accompanying lyrics, have a completeness on their own that presents the challenge of making the sound bigger while keeping the intimacy of their original conception. These two tracks come from a concert at James Simon's Sculpture Studio in November (2015) before Mathew's return to Ethiopia and Zambia.
Mathew Tembo (vocals, silimba, mbira), Colter Harper (baritone, seperewa, pandeiro, looper), & Jeff Berman (drum kit).
Rock + Ghana
Jimmy Ponder (1946-2013)
After Dark - Light Painting
Brooklyn + Ghana
Vivivi Studios, Accra
11 Pieces for Solo Guitar
Life, Death, & Music
Pittsburgh, Memory, & Jazz
African Guitar Styles
© Colter Harper 2016