Ennio Morricone, one of the world’s greatest and most prolific film composers, picked up an honorary Oscar at the last Academy Awards. Clint Eastwood’s introduction was doddering, and the montage of “famous Morricone moments” could have been better (they didn’t even use the original music from the films in some cases!), but the gesture was appreciated and long overdue. “I have received so many beautiful, incredible prizes, but there was a little hole – maybe the Oscar fills the hole.”
Here’s 17 tracks from the man they call Il Maestro.
I’d written that Alejandro Jodorowsky had settled with Allen Klein, clearing the way for theatrical and DVD releases of his films, and now it’s been announced that May 1 is the release date for a boxed set of Jodorowsky’s El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Fando y Lis. Prints of El Topo and Holy Mountain are currently touring the country. Not as spectacular as the Japanese box, but fantastic news nonetheless.
Turns out Shiina Ringo’s solo career hasn’t ended after all: February 21 brings us Heisei Fuuzoku, featuring mostly orchestral rearrangements of tunes from Kalk Samen Kuri No Kana as well as other Ringo records. My guess is that this is Ringo’s bid for overseas recognition as the album will be available through iTunes UK, and Ringo sings in English on some tracks.
Basically, the ideal music for me is early ’80s exotic Japanese synth-pop with fretless bass and steel drums. —Patrick South
Haruomi Hosono is best known as the bassist in the Yellow Magic Orchestra, but his solo career is just as interesting. Before joining founding YMO with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, he played with psychedelic bands Apryl Fool, the folk-rock outfit Happy End, and the lounge-pop group Tin Pan Alley before starting on what ended up being called his “Exotica Trilogy” in the seventies.
America dreamt of a magical neverland with cloudless climes and starry skies (not to mention nubile natives) in the fifties — Martin Denny, Esquivel, Arthur Lyman, and Les Baxter made countless LPs with bird calls, marimbas, and steel drums setting the stage for the post-war peace. The beaches weren’t something you had to storm any more, you could just lie there and soak up the sun. Hosono asks that the exotic dream continue, but with himself as both spectator and participant. He sees the exotica phenomenon for what it is — silly and patronizing — but adores it and revels in it, singing a cover of “Fujiyama Mama” knowing full well he sounds ridiculous: “and when you start elupting ain’t nobody gonna make you stop.” In the three Exotica LPs you find pastiches within parodies; “Roochoo Gumbo” is at once Okinawan pop song and New Orleans shuffle. If you think too much about how the parody is eating its own tail, that this is “the Japanese way of exoticising American exoticism,” it’s dizzying.
The music of Tropical Dandy and Bon Voyage Co. roams over both East and West mashing genres as it goes: Polynesian chants, resort-lounge steel-band music, Buddhist ritual, boogie-woogie and rockabilly, all with a Van Dyke Parks nostalgic sheen. The third record in the series, Paraiso, is different in that it feels less like a series of takeoffs and starts becoming something else. The new element is the synthesizer, the varied texture of which is used extensively throughout the record. Hosono at this point had met Sakamoto and Takahashi, as well as Hideki Matsutake, who would become YMO’s invaluable programmer in the days before MIDI. The combination of exotica and electronics would be the template for YMO’s initial success with their first single in 1978: Martin Denny’s “Firecracker.”
Most people today know “Misirlou” (often spelled “Miserlou”) as Dick Dale‘s signature piece, extremely popular back when issued in 1961 and then again when used to great effect in Pulp Fiction in 1994. (Whippersnappers might know it better from The Black Eyed Peas sampling Dale’s version in a song last year.) But “Misirlou” is an old folk song, its origins obscure.
We can guess where it came from by the range of people who know it today: it can be heard at celebrations of Greeks, Turks, Arabs, or Jews. The logical explanation for this wide range is that it originated in Asia Minor, in what is now the borderlands of modern Turkey and Greece, i.e., between Salonica and Constantinople (the title means “Egyptian girl” in both Greek and Turkish). The song, surely one of the catchiest melodies ever, spread throughout Greece and the Ottoman Empire, and was also presumably picked up by the local Jewish community and spread from there. Who originally wrote it, of course, is lost to history; this, of course, doesn’t stop the Turks and Greeks from both claiming it, adding yet another dispute to their endless list of grudge matches (see the discussion page of the English Wikipedia article for amusing examples). We also don’t really know when it was written, although a reasonable guess would be late–19th-century.
Most sources state that the earliest known recording (spelled “Mousourlou”) was made in New York around 1930 by Michalis Patrinos, a Greek bandleader who had recently arrived in the United States. As of this writing, Wikipedia baldly states that Patrinos or his band wrote it; this is almost certainly baloney. It may not even be the earliest recording, despite claims to the contrary; Richard Spotwood’s Ethnic Music on Records, Volume 3: Eastern Europe lists a recording by Tetos Demetriades for Victor in 1927.
One thing everyone agrees on: the song was not written by Nick Roubanis, the credited songwriter. Like with many folk songs in the United States, the credit (and the royalties) went to the first person obnoxious enough to register a copyright. In this case, Greek-American bandleader Roubanis recorded a big band version in 1941 and listed himself as the songwriter, and that was that (c.f. “Love in Vain”, credited to Woody Payne on the original printings of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, or “Goodnight Irene”, absurdly credited to John Lomax to this day).
After Roubanis’s version, the song became a minor big band standard, performed by Harry James, Freddy Martin, Woody Herman, and Jan August (who had a hit with it in 1947). It was Xavier Cugat‘s version, however, that pushed it into exotica territory; versions would follow by nearly every notable exotica artist, including Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Esquivel, Dick Hyman, Enoch Light, and our old friendKorla Pandit (on his 1958 LP Music of the Exotic East).
In a parallel development, the “King of Yiddish Radio”, Seymour Rexite, and his wife, popular Yiddish theatre actress Miriam Kressyn, recorded a version in the late 1940s, with lyrics by Kressyn. It’s probable that Rexite and Kressyn had known the song from their youth, but they were also known for Yiddish versions of popular American songs (including, most entertaingly, songs from Oklahoma).
An indisputably traditional Jewish version was recorded in the early 1950s, however. Ethnomusicologist/filmmaker/magician Harry Smith spent two years recording elderly cantor Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, capturing hundreds of hours of traditional music and stories. One of the Rabbi’s songs was clearly Misirlou. A 15-LP limited edition of the highlights was released in the 1950s; only a handful of copies survive. Abulafia’s grandson, 81-year-old Lionel Ziprin (a former amphetamine-addicted beatnik whacko who has since gone back to his roots and hangs out with chasidim in his Lower East Side apartment), has been trying to get the recordings reissued; John Zorn has expressed interest in releasing them on his label, Tzadik Records.
In 1960, a ten-year-old boy walked up to Dick Dale at a local show and asked him if he could play an entire song on one guitar string. He said sure kid, come back tomorrow, and then wracked his brain that night trying to figure out a composition that would work. Lebanese-American Dale (his birth name was Richard Mansour) thought back to the weddings of his childhood and remembered the traditional number “Misirlou”, which fit the bill; he resolved to play it insanely fast. It would become Dale’s signature song.
It’s difficult to imagine a musical genre that was as shaped by one man as surf rock was by Dale. The vaguely Middle Eastern sound of all surf music is directly attributable to Dale’s Arabic ancestry; and Dale’s brilliant rendition of “Misirlou” ensured that it would become the surf anthem. Nearly every notable surf band would perform a version, undoubtedly unaware of its pre-Dale history: The Surfaris, The Trashmen, The Beach Boys (early in their career, when they were still a surf band), and The Astronauts all had versions, with varying results.
Below I’ve tried to post a representative overview of the song’s history. In addition to some of the versions mentioned above, we have a recording in the early style recorded in Greece in the late 1940s by “Danai”. Also, an oddity: while there weren’t too many R&B/African-American recordings of Misirlou, one of the few was a 1955 recording by doo-wop “bird group” The Cardinals, best known for “Come Back My Love”, recorded the same year.
Finally we have a version by Dale that’s (slightly) more traditional than his famous rendition, retitled “Tribal Thunder”, probably because he was sick of paying Roubanis’s estate undeserved royalties.
Shiina Ringo was a pop star in Japan. She courted all the right producers, appeared on all the right television shows. Each record was more successful than the last. But Ringo was an odd pop star: her voice could be grating, she was sexually aggressive, she had an edge. Eventually she got a producer and a contract that allowed her full control, and she vanished into the studio in 2003.
Fans lined up for another sunny pop excursion — but what they got was an art-rock concept album in the Björkian mold, with surreal and at times impenetrable lyrics sung in an archaic dialect, featuring a full orchestra and more than 30 instruments played by her hand-picked ensemble, credited on some songs as “Special Forces”. The album is short, but it is crammed to bursting with melodic ideas and meticulous attention to sonic detail — as shown by its mysterious symmetries: the CD is exactly 44 minutes and 44 seconds long, and is constructed in two parts, each song of which has lyrical and stylistic correspondences to the song on the other half. “Doppelgänger”, the second track, is followed by “Poltergeist”, the next-to-last track, for instance. At one point Ringo sings a line from an earlier song backwards phonetically, only possible in Japanese. Even the track titles are symmetrical, presented in formal kanji only used in legal documents. The CD’s spine from which the two leaves branch is a lovely tune without a twin called “Kuki”, or “Stem”.
The CD’s reception was confused: Ringo let her too-nasal voice careen from child to world-weary to vixen and back again, sometimes in the space of one line, like her heroine Fiona Apple (“ringo” is “apple” in Japanese). The packaging was back-to-front, only found on traditional Enka recordings. The gorgeous melodies were undermined by disturbing language, made more so by the fact that the lyrics (even for native speakers) were difficult to decipher. The title of the record is Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana, which could be translated as Chalk, Semen, Chestnut Flowers; on the bridge of “Shuukyou” Ringo sings“I can’t find a cup I like anywhere I go. Why/Even though so many buildings and streets are increasing/Do we stare at the unreasonableness of the bottle we can’t finish drinking?”
For Ringo making KSK “[had] been the realization of a dream — for a long time I thought J-pop was weird and really artificial sounding. I have always tried to create something more genuine.” Because of its uniqueness Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana sold more than 400,000 copies — but once it was completed Ringo decided that this record was the cap to her career thus far, that there had been a line crossed and retreat was necessary. She formed a band, Tokyo Jihen (Tokyo Incidents), which reduced the focus on herself, toned down the experimentation of the music, released a single formed entirely out of samples from her back catalogue (with a video that matched the concept), and most tellingly, had the mole on her face removed, as if these gestures shut a door on something — or someone — considered done and not to be revisited.
Ringo remains immensely popular in Japan, having released two records under the Tokyo Jihen name. She shows no inclination to make music like Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana again, and there has been speculation that the record is somehow more brilliant than she can be capable of — a masterpiece arrived at by accident. Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana is also thought of as the greatest J-Pop record ever made.
El Topo is his most highly regarded film, depicting a guru-gunslinger in a highly symbolic spiritual quest. The idea of the quest is repeated in The Holy Mountain, but the scope of the film is much larger, with elaborate sets, a large cast, and jaw-dropping scenes like frogs reenacting the Spanish conquest of Mexico and religious symbols made into weapons. Its filming was no less bizarre: Jodorowsky made the cast train for months under a human-potential guru he’d hired, insisted that the female members of the cast sleep with him (“No men. Only the women,” he laughs), and he was nearly killed in Mexico after being suspected of performing a Black Mass. All very hippy-dippy Carlos Castaneda Sixties, but Jodorowsky’s commitment to change people through art is intense: “Now I think is a fantastic moment for all of us because now we are fighting for our world, our life. Now is the moment to be awake or to die.” For Jodorowsky, Hollywood is “a child’s industry – for me, a good picture changes your life.”
After The Holy Mountain Jodorowsky attempted to film Frank Herbert’s Dune, which if completed would have floored cult-cinema junkies worldwide. Artists recruited included H.R. Giger and Moebius, both of whom would go on to work on Alien along with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. Pink Floyd was to score the film, and the cast was an absurdist parade: David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Alain Delon, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dalí (who demanded $100,000 for an hour’s shoot). Nothing this strange — and colossally expensive, and 14 hours long — could live, and the film adaptation of Dune would have to wait for David Lynch to come along a decade later.
After the collapse of the Dune project threemorefilms were made, none of which approached the madness and extravagance of his previous work. Plans were made for a sequel to El Topo starring Marilyn Manson (the two are close friends — Jodorowsky officiated Manson’s wedding), but nothing came of it, partially because the rights to both El Topo and The Holy Mountain were in the hands of Beatles manager Allen Klein who refused to release them. Existing DVDs (there have been legitimate relases in Italy and Japan) were of poor quality due to the lack of access to film elements.
Nothing was heard for decades but the news has arrived that both El Topo and The Holy Mountain are indeed being digitally remastered and released. Happy news, made happier by the thought that one day another Jodorowsky film will be made.
Featured here is the soundtrack to The Holy Mountain, credited to free jazz god Don Cherry and Archies keyboardist Ron Frangipane along with Jodorowsky. The quality could be better (it’s directly from the film so all the dialogue is present), but enjoy.
Update: thanks to Nick Scholl for sending the missing 17th track!