Saturday, June 10, 2006

Breathe of Life: Marlena Shaw

One of my favorite music sites is breath of life: a conversation about black music, authored by Kalamu ya Salaam and his son Mtume ya Salaam, both formerly of New Orleans and now relocated post-Katrina. bol is the realization of the elder and younger Salaam's idea to dig into their respective extensive album and CD collections, and using internet jukebox technology create a virtual comparative music dialogue regarding musical styles, interpretations, and historical cross-pollinations. The weekly editions have featured Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, South African singer Thandiswa, and the Roots. This week they've turned their focus to soul and jazz chanteuse, Marlena Shaw. Now, I barely remembered Shaw myself, except this album title had been burned into my grey cells: Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?

Both Kalamu and Mtume are serious lay-musicologists and bring their unique perspectives to their multi-layered analysis, disagreeing with each other absent any hesitancy. An exchange from this past week regarding Kalamu's read on Nancy Wilson's cover of "I Feel Like Makin' Love," versus Marlena Shaw's version of the same:
Mtume to Kalamu: "What? Huh? I mean, what?! Baba, you have got to be kidding. I’m a Nancy Wilson fan, but this version of "Feel Like Makin’ Love" is average at best. Yes, Nancy is whispering and growling, but it’s Vegas-style whispering and growling. It’s all show and no soul.

And on Mtume's read of this week's hip hop/electronica selections:
Kalamu to Mtume: Mtume, man, am I glad you broke this down, otherwise, I swear, my finger would have stayed on the skip button. Kool Keith is sicque, tres sicque. I’ve heard accidents in the canned food aisle sound hipper than this. But what do I know? The DJ Food track is only marginally more listenable, perhaps because there is a greater use of melodic elements. Now the Gang Starr, I’m down with that all the way. You are absolutely right about DJ Premier, plus I’ve always liked Guru’s sound, the timbre of his voice.

Shaw's brightly-colored, sultry voice may have been relegated to the land of the almost forgotten because of her socially conscious work. A few years before Marvin Gaye was entering the Top 10 with cuts from What's Going On and War was hitting big with "The World is A Ghetto," Shaw was singing about black womanhood, "Remember me? I'm the one who had your babies. I am a woman of the ghetto." ("Woman of the Ghetto"). Somehow that wasn't crossing over as well. The Salaam's reintroduce us to classics from Shaw's oevre, as well providing and discussing tracks from three hip hop and electronica artists (Gang Starr, Kool Keith and Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, and DJ Food) who utilize samples from Shaw's single "California Soul" (1969). Watch out, bol is an addictive habit for sure, and the jukebox isn't archived so if you miss the sounds you're SOL.


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