Peace, Love, Ukulele

This past Friday night, I had the unique opportunity to see the ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. As I was walking back from class at the end of the day, I saw that the arts center was selling $10 tickets to see him and decided to go, just for the hell of it.

After 2 hours of watching him jam out, I was speechless. It’s hard to explain what made the concert so special. Individual parts stick out to me, like Jake’s near-constant goofy grin whenever he was playing something that he knew sounded awesome, or when he would headbang to his music as his hands flew back and forth along his strings.

His composition was incredible, especially his ability to capture emotions of what each piece was inspired by. One piece stuck out to me in particular, leaving me on the brink of tears. It was called “Ichigo Ichie,” which is an Japanese idiom referring to the idea that every single time we meet someone, that individual moment is something that will only occur once-in-a-lifetime and thus must be treasured. The piece somehow captures the beauty of each moment we spend with each other. It was difficult to keep myself from tearing up – the emotions were as visible on his face as they were audible in the music.

I was awestruck by every piece, as the tiny four-stringed instrument from Hawai’i filled the air with beautiful vibrations. After ending with a tribute to the recent loss of life with Schubert’s Ave Maria, I had the opportunity meet Jake. My legs were shaking while waiting in the line to get a picture and an autograph. I had loved his music for years and had always felt like I knew him through his music. In the meeting that was less than a minute, I was touched. He didn’t get my name, but I had never met someone so genuine and felt like someone cared for me in such a short time. He truly lived the idea of ichi-go ichi-e.

Beyond his music and just the incredible genuineness he showed in a fleeting moment, Jake Shimabukuro’s entire journey is unique. As someone who fell in love with the ukulele at age 4, Jake never let go of his passion for the instrument, instead allowing it to become his livelihood.

Before Jake, the ukulele was rarely considered a serious instrument. Many just thought of it as a “toy guitar” or a gimmicky beach-style instrument at best. Jake was unaffected, releasing albums and just doing his best to make his best stuff. Eventually he got a big break when a video of him playing went viral.

Jake’s dedication to his craft is inspirational. Nothing in his life stops him from following his love of the ukulele, not even the fact that there had never been a successful touring ukulele player. Each and everyone of us could learn something from him. Each and everyone of us should try to love as Jake does.

Day 68: Band Names

People love to say certain phrases would be great band names. Of course, I am one of these people and also sometimes like to think about xkcd’s alternative.

Despite the huge possibility of so many names for bands, we still end up with bands with un-google-able band names that are just normal words, like Jet or Eels or Girls. Honestly, these bands are making a huge mistake with their branding. Google is one of the most important means of music discovery and in the impatient world of today, an easy-to-find band is going to be more listened to than one that you have to search with “[band name] band” rather than just “[band name].” For example, when I first started listening to him, rapper Logic didn’t have a huge level of popularity, so googling Logic would always result in philosophical links that I really wasn’t looking for and I felt lazy about trying to find his music.

On the other hand, a good name can make someone (like me) more likely to listen to one’s music. It’s just like how everyone says to not judge a book by its cover but everyone judges books by their cover and title. A perfect illustration of this is the musical project Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, which may be the greatest name of a musician ever and the only reason I listened to it.

All I’m saying is that bands need to not be lazy and pick a random cool phrase that comes up in conversation rather than wasting their time with names that are impossible to find.

Of course, a post about phrases-turned-band name would be incomplete without a couple of phrases that I think would make good band names. First is Gin and Sonic, which I think would be an electronic-influenced folk or jazz band. The one that inspired this post was the phrase Sparse Droplets, which I think would be a sappy emo band like My Chemical Romance.

Day 66: Chet Baker

Over the last few days, there has been one album on repeat on my Spotify account, Chet Baker Sings. Released in 1956, it’s the debut vocal album of American jazz musician Chet Baker. The album is filled with smooth vocals about love over a smooth jazz composition.

One morning, as I was getting out of bed, I was browsing through Spotify’s suggestions to me and remembered the couple of days where I listened to nothing but Miles Davis and decided to try jazz again. I chose Chet Baker because of a modern artist named Chet Faker. Australian Chet Faker chose his name as an ode to the original singer and also produces amazing music.

I’ve talked a lot about how I’m open to all types of music. However, despite my openness, it’s rare that I will find something that I like so much that I will continue listening to the artist or genre after an initial obsessive period. For example, there was a period of time where I listened to nothing but experimental beats like Burial and Boards of Canada. However, since that time period, I don’t think I’ve listened to a single song belonging to that genre of music.

It remains to be seen if jazz will stand that test. Currently, I’m listening to it mixed in with other music, which bodes well as it shows that it fits into my personal library. Today I went from listening to Young Thug’s Barter 6 to Chet Baker. Whenever I can switch from one very different genre to another, it probably means that I like both of those genres with equal amounts, but have a sudden mental shift towards one. My beats phase was mainly brought upon by hopes of being more concentrated on my studies, but didn’t have that same level of attraction that jazz brings me, with the smooth layering of horns and piano and a light coating of Chet Baker’s voice.

Day 51: Kendrick as Joyce

My brother and I were discussing A$AP Rocky’s latest album AT. LONG. LAST. A$AP when he began to compare it to Kendrick Lamar’s recent album To Pimp a Butterfly. Without a doubt, both are definitely quality albums, yet comparing them is rather difficult to do. It isn’t common that any album is called perfect by a major publication, let alone the second album of someone whose debut album is already considered by some a classic.

A$AP Rocky has had an enormous progression since his career start and become a much stronger artist in nearly every regard, but comparing him to Kendrick is like comparing James Joyce to any of his contemporaries who may have written more popular works, yet have as of now faded to obscurity. This means no offense to A$AP, who I have tremendous respect for and his story, but the amount of artists who are widely remembered past their era are very few and generally ones who create amazing works that are considered classics and create a new way of creating.

Both Joyce and Lamar had a semi-autobiographical works that were considered their first completely great works in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and good kid, m.a.a.d. city, respectively. These works were harder to get into than the average popular work at the time, yet considered masterful works and incredibly important to their time periods. Joyce’s work made him a leader of literary modernism while Lamar’s gave him a reputation as the creator of the first incredible story-oriented album, rather than a collection of related songs.

Another two works that I think are related between these two creators are Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (FW) and Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB). Finnegan’s Wake is considered one of the most difficult novels to read in the English language. Despite it’s difficulty, it holds an incredible place in literature, sometimes causing comparisons between Joyce and the likes of Shakespeare and Dante. Similarly there is TPAB, an album demonstrating the nature of being black in America. It’s themes are strong and its structure is incredibly complex. Both make it a very provocative piece that holds more meaning than most hip hop albums released in the last year combined. Yet, in a world where hip hop is frequently an escape and a way to relax, TPAB is extremely difficult to listen to. I would listen to A$AP’s album any day over Kendrick’s just due to the sheer simplicity. However, just like FW, To Pimp a Butterfly already holds regard as one of the greatest works of hip hop of all time.

The arts all seem to come together in some ways or another. Parallels between people from different eras doing completely different things arise regardless of time or place. Who would’ve thought how similar the works of an Irishman from the early 20th century would parallel those of a black man from Compton in the 21st?

Day 48: A Defense of Hip Hop

As you can tell through my post about Linkin Park, I’m in favor of openness to different genres of music. For music creators, it serves as a creative outlet and for listeners it serves as something that aurally pleasing, along with other elements that vary from genre to genre. For example, a genre like metal has a greater emphasis on guitar and drums with a specific sort of vocal, while country focuses on storytelling and jazz focuses on improvisation.

Hip hop as a genre is quite different from many other genres in its focus on lyrics and use of music (often referred to as “beats”) as a background. Beats are easily the most diverse portion of hip-hop, with everything from electronic influences to jazz as a part of the common practice of sampling. The idea of sampling frequently is called “unoriginal” for being derivative of other music; however, this argument fails to take into account the fact that nearly every genre does the same, with the similar guitar riffs in various rock songs to the constant borrowing of the same four chords in all pop music.

A major criticism of hip hop is aimed at how some songs fail to have much content, and the content is rather vapid and derogatory. However, critics fail to see that this is merely common among a specific subset of hip hop music known as “mood rap,” which aims to have a vibe of partying and dancing in the club. This idea is common among songs aiming to become mainstream hits and also is shared by many pop hits. Because of these high energy mood rap songs’ marketability, many young artists aiming to make it rich try to entire the genre. Because they have nothing to talk about except their lives, they often end up having misogynistic content that stems from their poor background since a huge amount of rappers grow up in impoverished areas. In addition, the level of insecurity coming from these rappers when they finally get money after living in terrible conditions makes them more likely to flaunt their money and lifestyles.

Beyond mood rap, there exists an enormous amount of hip hop music that can be compared to poetry in terms of literary merit, such as nearly everything from Kendrick Lamar’s last two albums and many other artists like Earl Sweatshirt and Lupe Fiasco. For example, in Earl’s song “Chum,” he dives into his past and struggles with his father leaving with various metaphors and literary devices while having a hook referencing Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Ultimately, these are all defining characteristics of the genre of hip hop, yet these aren’t what I think validate it as a musical genre. The fact that there is instrumentation that is aurally pleasurable and it serves as a creative outlet for the creators is the only thing I need to know that hip hop is music. I’m sure people don’t like it, but discounting its musicality is criminal.

Day 45: David Choi

There’s this Korean-American singer named David Choi who is mainly popular for making music independently and posting videos on YouTube. For much of middle school and a little bit of freshman year, DChoi’s music served as the soundtrack to my life. His various covers of popular music and love songs were much simpler than a lot of music and felt relatable.

Every now and then, I revisit his music and listen to all of those songs that would always accompany everything I did back in the day and am overwhelmed with feelings of nostalgia. In addition to the basic songs I would listen to, there were a few Christmas songs of his and songs that felt Christmas-y that made the feeling so much more intense.

Nostalgia is honestly one of the most powerful emotions for me and the most interesting. The strange mix of sadness and happiness accompanying a long-lost memory is incomparable. Nothing triggers nostalgia like music. My love of music naturally transfers into a love for nostalgia.

For example, the song “Always Hurt” has the chorus of “Can somebody please stop me from falling for this girl/I don’t wanna have to go through love again/’Cause it always hurts” which I thought was the most relatable thing in the world whenever I had a crush in middle school. Even in the past couple of years, I would hear this song in my head if I could feel myself developing a crush. Whenever I daydreamed about whichever crush I had, I would listen to the song “By My Side” with the super cheesy lyrics of “I just wanna hold you/I just wanna kiss you/I just wanna love you all my life.” I’m fairly certain these words still have an influence of my ideas of love.

To say that David Choi just gives me nostalgia is somewhat an understatement, considering how so many of my ideas of “love” (whatever that means) stem from listening to his music in middle school. David Choi has no idea how much he has impacted my way of thinking, which is an amazing quality of music – the unknowable impact.

Day 31: Solace

Solace: n. comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness. “find your solace in your Self.”

I think solace is my new favorite word. First of all, it sounds beautiful, rolling off the tongue with smooth elegance. Its meaning is also very smooth and relaxing – a comfort or oasis in the desert of distress. Unsurprisingly, my source of solace is music. 

In fact, the inspiration for this post was Earl Sweatshirt’s 10 minute EP project thing called “Solace” where he talks about his dead grandmother among other things such as coping with fame in his distinctive depressing brooding style. His lyrics are filled with beautiful poetic devices. It’s no wonder that Kendrick Lamar, considered the best rapper of this generation considers Earl his favorite artist. 

Earl’s story is part of what makes him unique –  a son of a famous African poet raised by a single mother who has him study in the Pacific islands when he began to be involved in shady behaviors, only for him to return and become a hip hop sensation, dropping back to back critically acclaimed albums with a fairly unique style and earning praises from everyone. 

I don’t have much else to say, I just don’t want to get more than a day behind on my posts. 

Day 29: “Death with Dignity” by Sufjan Stevens

If you have no idea what this is supposed to be, check out my last post. In short, I’m breaking down Sufjan Steven’s album Carrie & Lowell track-by-track to try to find new meaning in it. You can check out the lyrics to this song here. I am using Genius, which has explanations for a lot of stuff, but I’ll try to stay away from reiterating what the annotations say for that.

Before I begin, I want to give some context to the album as a whole (a lot of this information comes from this interview with Stevens). First, the title refers to the name of Stevens’ late mother and her ex-husband Lowell. Lowell serves as Stevens’ father figure despite after his divorce from Carrie and is currently involved with Stevens’s record label Asthmatic Kitty. As a child, Sufjan lived with his mother and stepfather for three summers in Oregon. Other than that, he barely saw his mother, who struggled with addiction and mental illness until her death. Stevens explained that her death struck him much more than he expected and more or less serves as the inspiration for this album.

The song begins with the sounds of guitars plucked in a rather light and happy tune. It continues throughout the song but gets quieter when the vocals come in. It serves as the only instrumentation we really hear other than a few piano notes interspersed within. This is intriguing for Sufjan, known for having entire orchestras in some of his projects. Because of how little instrumentation there is, it’s immediately clear that there is an emphasis on the vocals and lyrics in this song, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The apparent lightness of the sound contrasts with the heavy subject-manner, creating a balance.

The title of the song refers to the Death with Dignity Act, which was passed in Oregon in 1994 and allows for terminally ill patients to receive physician-aided death. We can only assume that this is the way that his mother left the world. With the title of the first track, Stevens has shown us the main subject of the work: the death of his mother.

The first stanza of the work talks about the “spirit of [his] silence” and how he is more or less afraid of it. Silence is associated with internal reflection and beginning to accept his feelings. This makes a lot of sense, because Stevens has never been so direct when talking about his life through his music. Up until now, he has always “mixed his own life history with fantastical images and stories of the ages” and never directly addressed his feelings. Thus, it makes perfect sense when he voices his apprehension, “I don’t know where to begin.” He begins without knowing where to begin, a sort of honesty that you generally don’t see and that makes the work more relatable.

In the rest of the song, there are a few lines that are repeated more than once, other than “I don’t know where to begin” (which appears four times in the song). In a similar vein, Stevens asks “What song do you sing for the dead?,” providing a similar level of honesty and confusion in the wake of the death of a close one. He doesn’t know what to sing and what to do, but at the same time, he realizes that he has “got nothing to prove” (also repeated), giving him the ability to move forward and face the spirit of his silence and attempt to find the beautiful forest “somewhere in the desert,” representing the emotional renewal and return to a pleasant life hidden away in the sadness and grief of death.

The final stanza holds a great amount of meaning in a very direct manner. First, in a line structure resembling the first stanza, he tells his mother that he “forgive[s] her” and “long[s] to be near” her. After living his life with little interaction with her, this is an outstanding development, albeit a depressing one. Only after her death has Sufjan acknowledged and voiced his love and desire to be with his mother. The repeated lines of “every road leads to an end” and “you’ll never see us again” remind us of the finality of death and how it haunts him, like an “apparition.”

Day 28: Music Analysis

I’m gonna try something different with the next few posts, as a part of an idea I have for a new blog. Basically, there is an enormous presence of music blogs on the internet. However, nearly all of them either focus on reviewing music or finding smaller artists and sharing their music.

Yet, to me, these don’t even cover a fraction of what music means to me and I’m sure there are people who want to get more out of music and may be willing to read about it. I’ve been thinking about writing about what specific songs or albums really mean, the underlying messages of the lyrics and how they interact with the tones of the actually music. Beyond that, I would hope to give a reasonable amount of context as to where each artist is coming from. This definitely goes against the formalist idea of the “Death of the Author” that I’ve learned a lot about. There a lot of forms of literary theory, but the ones that align most with my goals and ideas towards where meaning lies would be Reader-Response Criticism and a little bit of Cultural Studies, as the culture of an artist plays heavily into why certain elements are included.

After taking a class on literary analysis in AP Lit, I’ve been thinking in more analytical ways when reading anything, including lyrics. Despite this, I don’t really have a huge background in literary criticism or music theory, so I hope that this can double as a learning experience.

To complete the effect, I sort of want to self host a WordPress blog for it and give it some witty musical pun title to try to make it look like a legitimate site. Heck, if I can write for it consistently and build any sort of readership, that would be fantastic. In the next few posts, I’m going to try to break down some songs from Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell, which is my current favorite album and I know is filled with meaning.

Day 24: Mashups

I’ll give you one guess on what this post is about and if your guess is not music, you’re clearly not a regular reader around here (because I write about music a whole lot).

For those of you that don’t know what a mashup is, it’s basically a song that mashes up two or more other songs to create a song that’s vaguely familiar but completely fresh in a way. For example, here’s a mashup that combines m83’s “Midnight City” with Kanye West’s “Good Life”.

If you’ve read my opinions on music before, you know that I am a huge fan of being open-minded when it comes to listening to music. I think judging people based on music taste is a childish waste of time and try to listen to all types of music. Of course I have my preferences, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try to listen to whatever someone suggests to me. So, the idea that there’s a genre that mixes other genres and exposes people to other music is incredible. Even more incredible is the idea that some music plus other music results in awesome music.

Despite my love for the concept of mashups, frequently I’m disappointed with the quality of the mashups I do find. My favorite sort of mashups are those that bring together different genres, like hip hop and ambient or electronic. In particular, bringing in 90’s rap verses over modern beats just works really well, making the songs more accessible to those who are put off by the older style. For example, I’ve always had difficulty getting into Notorious BIG because of the fact that the recording wasn’t the highest quality because of its age. Yet, songs like this one make the music a lot easier to listen to and seems to add another dimension to it.