Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday Soul - Como Now

"Deep in the heart of Panola County, Mississippi lies Como, a small rural town where children and grown folks alike have been living and breathing gospel for as long as they can remember. In the summer of 2006, Daptone Records placed a small ad in local papers and on the radio inviting singers to come down to Mt. Mariah Church to record their songs. The result is COMO NOW, a stirring collection of traditional and original a cappella gospel from the voices of Panola County’s own families."

Even before getting a chance of hearing the actual CD, the first thing that came to mind when I first learned about Daptone Records' latest release, Como Now, was John and Alan Lomax, the great American folklorists and musicologists who traveled all over the country in order to preserve music that was culturally rich and represented a heritage that would be a crime to lose. The Lomaxs gathered together field recordings (over 10,000) from rural folks from all walks of life which were then passed on to the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress, who then made them available to the public as LPs on 78s.

The Lomaxs believed in the cultural significance of the countries' folk heritage, including that of its African Americans (Leadbelly's career would be launched with the help of John Lomax). Along with the music were included liner notes penned by those who recorded the music, notes that make the music come alive even more (and within which the recorders passion for their work is evident). Here is an example which pertains to Trouble So Hard, a song recorded in Livingston, Alabama in 1937, which you can enjoy below.
Anyone who has visited a rural Negro church, where the congregation sings from the heart instead of out of hymn-books, cannot fail to have been touched by the fire, the solemn dignity, the grand simplicity of the Negro spirituals.

One of the elders of the congregation, an old man or woman whose long experience in the church enables the singer to match the song precisely to the tempo of the meeting, begins slowly. The congregation responds with a faint chorus. The leader singes his line again, this time more strongly. This time the response is stronger. By the end of the first or second chorus, the spiritual will have gathereed together all the voices of the church in to a swelling a rolling chorus. Each participant takes his own part, from the shrillest falsetto to deepest bass, and improvises within it. As the songs proceed, sometimes for hours on end, the rhythm of hands and feet joins the thunder of the singing with the thunder of a chorus of drums; the tempo increases slowly and inevitably until the whole audience sways with ecstasy. The air is punctuated with the shrill screams and the hoarse ejaculations of the worshippers who have become posessed, or, as they put it, 'got happy.' The posessed ones leap and fling their arms about in blind spasms of hysteria; they sometimes roll on the floor or walk across the benches; on occasion they lie on the ground for hours in a trance-like state.

Out of such passionate religious meetings came the Negro spirituals which provided comfort with visions of a heavenly reward. The setting and the manner of these songs are strongly reminiscent of African religious practice; but the content, flowing out of the Bible and the noble folk hymns ofthe whites, is distinctively Afro-American. These inspired and beautiful songs are more moving that almost any other American music.
Como Now carries on with this tradition, recording locals of Como, Mississippi, an area where Lomax gathered some of his recordings over fifty years before. It's pure, unadultered, a cappella gospel, sung by those who find great meaning in it. Much like Mavis Staples' album I wrote about last week, this is music that matters. Music that is not just for entertainment purposes, though it admirably suits that purpose in addition to its more divine ones. Music sung by ordinary, everyday people that transcends much professionally recorded secular music in beauty and power.

Visit the Daptone Records website.

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