Two Rivers

This is a story of two rivers. One of my existence and my own history. One in my dreams. One preserved as a photograph in my own archives. One as a place I dream of seeing someday. One with a story I can  tell with my photos and words.  One with a story that comes out of songs and music from a far off land.

This is a story of two instruments. One popular and played throughout the world by millions on a diverse range of styles. One tied to a cultural and historical heritage of a small group of nations in West Africa and played by a much smaller number of people.

This is a story of two men. One older and seasoned player forging his own deep rooted sound out of six strings. One much younger player coaxing intricate patterns from an ancient 21 string instrument.

This is a story of two directions-north and south. Two places within the boundaries of the same nation with dramatically different languages, culture, traditions and music.

This is the story of In The Heart Of The Moon, a groundbreaking album released in 2005 by the late Ali Farka Toure on guitar, and Toumani Diabate on the kora.

For some reason or another, I have been thinking about rivers a lot recently. About everything they represent-movement, calm, strength, division. Actually this isn’t the first time I have had these thoughts. In an earlier post I wrote about how Jimmy Cliff’s classic song Many Rivers To Cross seemed apt for this time of year as people go through lists of resolutions and aspirations. One river at a time we try to cross over only to be confronted by another obstacle on the other side.

But I was also thinking about rivers in an even more personal context over this past weekend while listening to In The Heart Of The Moon. Rarely a month goes by without me playing it at least once. It was recorded in a portable studio alongside the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, Mali. Astonishingly it was recorded unrehearsed by the two men who come from vastly different musical and cultural differences within the country of Mali.

Ali Farka Toure, came from the northern part of Mali and ethnically was Songhai. Ali’s bluesy guitar style won him many fans in the West. It was not a stretch to  recognize his guitar playing as being the origins of the earliest Delta blues recordings made in the U.S. So much so that over the years you will see his name on blues compilations right next to guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. His songs and guitar go deep to the soul. It isn’t flashy playing like so many rock guitarists but comes from the soul itself.

Toumani Diabate on the other hand comes from the southern part of Mali and by heritage is a griot-renowned story tellers and preservers of tradition. Toumani’s own line of griots goes back over 70 generations and the kora, a harp instrument the typical (though not exclusive) accompaniment. Despite his traditional background Toumani was well versed in American rock and soul at the same time he was developing his skills on the kora. He has showcased this on a range of projects both contemporary and traditional, all the while putting the kora in the forefront with his astounding skills.

What is astonishing about In The Heart Of The Moon is that it has the movement of a river itself throughout the entire album with the gorgeous interplay between the kora and the guitar. You feel the movement and stillness of the river. You feel the gentle cooling breeze and the stifling heat. You hear the gentle sound of water crashing against rocks or the squawking of birds. You sense the calming rays of sunrise and sunset, you feel the movement of people and boats on the water. You feel life.

As the years have gone by since first hearing the album I have tried to transport myself along with the music to the banks of the Niger, imagining that same sort of ebb and flow. The beauty of music, much like the beauty of photography is that it can transport you anywhere you want. It invokes emotion, memories from the past or even dreams. In The Heart Of The Moon may have been recorded along the Niger River but the music is of any river where you have ever experienced this type of feeling. I think about the distance rivers go from the mountains to the sea. The people along the way. The fish and birds that run its course. Times when the river floods and causes devastation and times when a moment in time can be frozen perfectly in its beauty, be it a photograph, a painting, or even a song.

I spent time the past few days really thinking about ‘my’ river-the mighty Hudson River here in New York. From its humble origins up north, winding its way down the beautiful Hudson Valley past towns and cities all the way to the mouth of the ocean in New York Harbor it has its stories, and I have my stories that go along with it. I have seen it up close by boat. I have hiked alongside it. I have kicked back with a glass of wine alongside its banks basking in the sunlight.  I have witnessed sunrise and sunset, ice and snow. It is never too far away from both  my mind or geographically. When I listen to In The Heart Of The Moon I am reminded how lucky I am to have this sort of inspiration in my life. Especially for my art of photography.

The photo I used in that earlier post about Jimmy Cliff was taken alongside the Hudson several years ago on a rainy, foggy June day. This photo comes from that same day. The album cover for In The Heart Of The Moon has a faded image of an old sailboat on the Niger. I did not take this photo as an homage to that album cover. It was merely something I thought looked interesting at the time. As I have been thinking these thoughts about rivers the last few days, I thought this photo  seemed a perfect match to present this music. A way of expressing the river of my story, and the river of this music. A river that flows from far away bearing beautiful music to the world.  A river where my photos can drift and be seen in the same way. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate’s river of music. My river of photography. What more do we need?

Below is a short promo film about the making of In The Heart Of The Moon as well as my own favorite song on the album. I urge you to listen to them both and feel the river drifting towards you as well.

Kadi Kadi-Music By Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate

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50 Things@50-#5

#5-Learn a whole song on the guitar

One of the things I really wanted to do with this list was to try new things and have new experiences. But I also wanted to challenge myself to complete some long overdue goals. This is one that was 10 years in the making but I’m excited to cross it off the list and share it with all of you.

10 years ago I got an acoustic guitar for my 40th birthday. I’m ashamed to admit that being such a music lover that I don’t play any instruments. I figured I would try my hand at guitar finally. When I started off I was excited, but I realized that either I was not putting the effort and practice in…or that it just wasn’t coming natural to me. Honestly it was both.

Sure, I learned some notes, some chord changes and snippets of songs and all of that but that was not the hard part. It was seamlessly shifting between chords where I felt my short stubby fingers were always fumbling. And that frustrated me and led me to letting the guitar sit there for weeks at a time.

But I wanted to give it one more serious try when I put the list together. A few weeks ago I thought wait….a Christmas song might be just the thing. So I went through some of the well known songs trying to pick one before settling on Silent Night. At first I was fumbling with the changes, but I watched some tutorials and practiced every day for a bit. I worked on a strumming pattern that made sense for me. I think I channeled some of John Fahey’s wonderful solo Guitar Christmas albums and added a few subtle touches of my own. I was learning a song!

So here it is…a little rough perhaps, and I was a little freaked out by filming myself but here for you all is me playing Silent Night.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

Silent Night-Written By Franz Gruber & Joseph Mohr

2018 In Photos-Part 2

As promised, following on from last weeks post of my favorite photos I have taken this year, here are some more. These were taken in many of the same places. One thing I tried focusing on this year is stepping outside of my comfort zone and experimenting with my photography more. Case in point is the taxi cab light streak photo. I actually stood on that corner for awhile, making subtle changes to the settings until I found one that I was happy with. I can’t wait to have some time (and good weather) in 2019 to get started taking more photos for all of you again. For now, enjoy these. Make sure you click on them to see them large as they are supposed to be seen. And as always, any likes and shares are always appreciated.

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2018 In Photos-Part 1

As part of my year end roundup last week I shared my favorite posts of 2018.This week I give you Part 1 of my favorite photographs I have taken this year. Some of them have worked their way into posts, but some might be new to you. Remember to give me a follow on my Facebook page and Instagram (links below) to see even more photos. This year is probably more focused on NY area locations, but there are a few taken in Paris as well. As every year goes by I feel more comfortable with the photography choices I make. There are less that I delete, less that I edit, more that I am comfortable with the second my eye looks into the viewer and my finger finds the shutter release. Which makes me feel good about where I am with my photos. Make sure you click on the photos to see them full size the way they are meant to be seen!

Part 2 next week!

Top Posts Of 2018

Not only do I love this time of year as a season, since beginning this blog 5 years ago I also love that it allows me a chance to sum up some of my favorite posts written the past 12 months. This year has been challenging personally, but as we are in the home stretch for 2018, I feel it is a good idea to see where I have been as a writer/photographer as well. So whether you saw these the first time around, or it is  your first time reading them, join me as I look back at some of my favorites of 2018. In no particular order I give you-

For The Music In My Head I wanted to answer a few questions that I have been asked many times. Namely, how do you know so much music, and how do you bounce around from one style to another so quickly? I wanted to describe how playing one song can lead to an exploration of an entire genre, or one particular artist for days on end. This post also is about meeting some very special people I came to know as a result of this blog.

Art Deco In The Sky. Looking back, if you had asked me if I would be writing about or referencing Duke Ellington twice within the same year I would have thought it highly unlikely. This post is about my love of skyscrapers, and especially one in particular. Its also about a love for art deco…and a tune by Duke Ellington

Storms came about from the photograph used in the post and a conversation with a friend and fellow blogger. This is a rarity on this blog in some ways in that it is an instrumental track. I love instrumentals of course but have found it difficult to express the emotions of my photos without the aid of song lyrics. This is an exception by Bruce Cockburn I found especially fitting.

To me the discovery of new music is always exciting no matter when or how you hear it the first time. But when you hear that music live and in person, it hits you deep. In Where Do We Go From Here? I relate such an experience with a band I came across over the summer. I urge you to listen to the music of Jules & The Jinks. My jaw dropped the first time I heard lead singer Julissa Lopez sing, and I know yours will too.

Retro ‘things’ are in now it seems. Actually I feel that most of them never truly go away. Along with vinyl records and film photography, one of my personal favorite retro obsessions has long been old Signs painted on buildings. It used to be a common sight but seemed to fall out of favor. But like those vinyl records and typewriters, they are making a resurgence. Musically I needed a song that incorporated some retro elements. So a song by BR549 about a punk rocker going country and trading her Doc Martens in for cowboy boots seemed perfect!

When you get right down to it, music is quite often about The Right Time. I have long observed people who proclaim to loathe an artist or a song, only to surreptitiously tap their foot or fingers to a song by said artist when it comes on. But it can also be about when a song you know takes on a new meaning. A song by Scissor Sisters did precisely that when I added it to my running playlist.

It is no exaggeration to say that I struggled with creativity here this year. So much so that I took a break for about 6 weeks in the spring to recharge. That it coincided with Spring was probably not a coincidence. It also coincided with me getting out and trying some different approaches to photography, and I hope it came through in the photo I used.

Stepping away from music briefly, when I turned 50 in July, I decided I wanted to create a 50 Things @ 50 bucket list. I chose one of the more difficult and terrifying ones on the list first. I was genuinely surprised at the reaction. I decided to write about one of my favorite subject matters. Here is my first attempt at writing a Poem

When I started to write this blog I suppose in some ways I wanted to expand on the lyrics of a song and relating them to my own experiences and ideas. When the song is written by the fantastic Ralph McTell that is a tough place to start. He has been one of my favorite songwriters for years now, and his classic song Michael In The Garden has an awful lot to think about.

Finally, last month I celebrated five years of Soundtrack Of A Photograph. Despite the ups and downs, highs and lows, I still think about ideas constantly. And for a fifth anniversary I thought about ways to celebrate. And having Stevie Wonder’s song (there’s that Duke Ellington again!) Sir Duke, there is no better way of celebrating. Because with Stevie, You Can Feel It All Over.

Join me next week for a look back at some of my favorite photographs I have taken in 2018. Thank you all once again for your support of this site. I appreciate you all!

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50 Things@50-#22

Number 22-Visit The Neue Gallery In Manhattan

I knew when I made this list that a lot of them were going to be seasonal. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to a few of the outdoors one before the cold weather settled in so I will focus instead on the ones I can do now through the remainder of fall and winter.  As several of them are more locally based, I hope to make a real dent in the list. I was therefore happy to cross Number 22 off the list.

Sometime back, I saw a documentary series on Netflix about the ‘business’of stolen artwork, particularly by the Nazis in World War II. One episode featured the story of Gustav Klimt’s ‘Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Now I studied a bit of art history in college, and I enjoy going to art museums wherever I happen to find myself. There are an awful lot of artists, and even more great works of art out there, and I’m honestly not sure if I ever was aware of this painting before seeing the documentary. If I had seen it in an art book before I failed to notice its splendor. Once the camera panned in and out of view looking at the ornate details of the work I was mesmerized.

Klimt relied heavily on gold and silver leaf for the painting. Broad swaths of gold and smaller decorative motifs give it the feeling of a Byzantine work of art. As the documentary continued, I was surprised to find that it was actually housed in a museum in New York City. I made a mental note that one day I had to see it in person. So finally this past Sunday, I made my way up to Fifth Avenue and 86th Street (part of what is known as Museum Mile) to visit a new museum for me-The Neue Gallery.

Actually in terms of museums, the Neue Gallery is still quite young, having been established in 2001 and dedicated to twentieth century art from Germany and Austria. It sits within what was formerly the William Starr Miller House. As I get older I seem to find myself appreciating the smaller museums more and more. The big museums like the Metropolitan Museum Of Art have something for everyone of course, but I find myself overwhelmed and over saturated at times by the scale of it all. So smaller museums such as the Neue, dedicated to a specific type of art or era appeal to me now.

On Sunday I started meandering through the galleries. I remember going to the Louvre once and watching the mass procession to see the Mona Lisa ignoring everything else nearby. So I decided that I wanted to stumble upon Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I organically. To turn a corner and realize it was in front of me. When I did it was more magical than I could have imagined. The gold was just so much more vibrant than the pages of a book or a TV show could possibly show. There was a seat directly behind the painting and I sat for a few moments scanning every detail of the work. Even when I got up and began exploring the other paintings in the gallery, I kept glancing at it. Almost as if it was saying-you can’t look away. It is I feel one of the special paintings in all of the art world.

So special in fact that its legend seems to be growing more by the year. There are books and other documentaries and last night I watched ‘Woman In Gold,’ a 2015 film with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds about the true story of Maria Altmann’s (Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece) efforts to return ownership of it and several other Klimt paintings back to the Bloch-Bauer estate. Those efforts eventually led to the painting being purchased and now permanently housed in the Neue Gallery.

So I definitely recommend a visit to the Neue Gallery to see this little gem of a museum, but most of all to see the Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer. You will not regret it! https://www.neuegalerie.org/

Photo of Neue Gallery By Robert P. Doyle

Photo of Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer- Public Domain/Wikipedia

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You Can Feel It All Over-5 Years Of Soundtrack Of A Photograph

“Da da da dah, da-da-da-daddata-dah”

Five years.  Today is five years to the day since I nervously assembled what I hoped was a cogent idea for a blog combining my love for photography and music together in one place. I remember posting it late at night here on WordPress skeptical that anyone would bother to read it. Skeptical that it was any good. Skeptical that the idea would make sense. I shared it on Facebook, sent it out via email to some people and posted it on a music forum based in the UK and promptly went to sleep. A few short hours later I woke up and nervously checked my phone first thing to see what if any reaction there was.

That I am still here now writing this post is the proof  that the reaction was positive. In fact, recollecting that time I was overjoyed. Not just from the comments people were leaving for me, but because of the way it satisfied me personally. I have written about this before but it bears repeating-once I committed and defined this idea of giving a still photograph its own soundtrack I knew that I had created something unique that satisfied me deep down. It touched all the right buttons for me-combining the disparate thoughts and themes of my life into something that made sense. Where urban meets nature, where art meets architecture, where transportation meets history. All with a song to go along with the photo that seemed fitting no matter the genre.

‘You can feel it all over’

And it still  satisfies me to this day. The writing has changed, the understanding of how to promote posts has changed, there have been false starts, one-offs, mistakes, highs, lows and there have been surprises. I have been touched by the response to my words, and I have touched others with my words. I have made deep lasting friendships with people literally around the world.  Most of all there has been a  feeling that no matter how many views or comments I receive, I am on a path that remains meaningful to me five years on with over 200 posts published and being read in 122 countries to date.

It is inevitable during occasions like this to look back. To dig through the archives and see the evolution. I have been doing that for the past few weeks, reading posts I haven’t read in a long time, grimacing at the mistakes I spot easily now and surprising myself at  passages that came out of nowhere. I saw moments where I lost the point and ones where the focus was sharp, focused and completely on point. On the photography side I realized that the earliest posts were typically a ragtag assortment of recent and old photos made to fit the theme whereas with recent posts I quite often took photos with an idea and a song lurking in my head before I had written a single word. As a result In the five years since I started, I think this has made me a better photographer as well.

‘Music is a world within itself

With a language we all understand’

It is a useful thing to look back. Regrets can make you shake your head in amusement at what once was important in your world-the jacket you wore in 1977, that song you swore in 1983,would never get old, a book that became your ‘philosophy’ in 1991. Years later you might be embarrassed to own up to any of them, but you know they were a part of you regardless. Looking back at my old posts I have that same feeling about some of them.  However rife they may be with wordiness or so-so photographs they are still a part of me. I am especially fond of my four previous anniversary posts. For the first I took a walk across the Manhattan Bridge accompanied by the sounds of Red Baraat. For the second I imagined myself in the director’s chair assembling the opening scenes of a movie to the accompaniment of guitarist Dan Ar Braz. For the third I wrote a letter to the young ‘me’ from the old ‘me’ with a fitting song by Jack Lukeman and a series of self-portraits. Last year I wrote a fictionalized account of a concert setup using songs from Bob Seger.

I had two stipulations for the song I wanted for this post. First it had to be an artist I have not written about before, and secondly, I wanted it to be a fun, upbeat and celebratory song. But then I had a third thought- to find a song that was about music itself. About how music makes us feel, about the emotions of music.  The beat, the groove, the hook, the lick, the riff, the pulse, the rhythm, the melody, the harmony. Music is the universal language and all of these elements are contained in practically every song. Thinking about those stipulations I realized the song I wanted was lurking on one of the most perfect albums of all time-Songs In The Key Of Life by Stevie Wonder. And that song (in case you haven’t already been grooving in your seat) is the infectious ‘Sir Duke.’

‘Music knows it is and always will be

one of those things that life just won’t quit.’

Songs In The Key Of Life is one of those special albums that just takes you in right from the start with ‘Loves In Need Of Love Today’ all the way to the end with ‘Another Star’. The reason it still sounds fresh today is because the songs and arrangements were performed with real care and thought. Recently I have been reading about the great music studios such as Stax, Muscle Shoals and Motown. They all had in common a group of musicians who knew how to make great music not just for the hits, though the track record for all three studios speaks for itself in that regard.  Yet they also made music you feel deep down with arrangements more complex than they let on.  Songs In The Key Of Life is nothing but intricate arrangements in fact.  Song after amazing song goes by and does not let up for a second.

But on an album of such stellar material, Sir Duke is my favorite, and one of my  favorite songs by Stevie Wonder period. Beyond that killer horn intro and singalong chorus is a song about what actually makes music so compelling. Think about that for a second…when you are in the business of making music, you write about the things and people in your life. Social injustice, religion, love. Songs In The Key Of Life has songs about all of those things. Then along comes Sir Duke. Partly an homage to some of Stevie’s own musical hero’s-Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, and the ‘king’ Duke Ellington,  Then it informs you what the key to a great song really is-

‘But just because a record has a groove

Don’t make it in the groove

But you can tell right away at letter A

When the people start to move.’

I wanted to use a song that was about music for a reason.  In  five years of writing I have attempted to  make a case for how special music truly is for me. How much I think about it daily in good times and bad. How much I feel the music be it from the Scottish Highlands or the Sahara, Donegal or Detroit. In five years of writing and pairing my own photographs what songs like Sir Duke reinforce for me is that –

Music is life

Music is love

Music is challenging

Music is bewildering

Music is happy

Music is sad

Music makes you groove

Music makes you dance

Music takes you in

Music makes you question

Music lies deep in your soul

Music is for sharing

Music is personal

Music is of course ultimately personal in how we respond and feel about it. Everyone is right and no one is wrong-the woman on the subway bopping along to the music on her headphones, the oboe player in the orchestra, the bass player thumping out a funky beat, the singer in a metal band all feel music differently. But on the really special albums like Songs In The Key Of Life these forces unite into something special and satisfying. You really feel it all-challenged, happy, sad, questioning life. You feel the love. You want to dance and sing along to every song.

The reason I wanted to use a song about music itself in this post was to make a point.  All I have ever wanted to do here is make my own contribution to the music I love so much. When combined with my photographs it made me feel like I was doing precisely that. I realized that music has broad enough shoulders to hear my contributions to it without me actually singing a note or playing an instrument. Stevie sings in Sir Duke that music is something you just don’t quit. And despite occasional frustrations, Soundtrack Of A Photograph is not something I will be quitting. I can share my feelings about music because I really do feel it all over. And that will never go away.

The video of Sir Duke posted below is something I made as a celebration.  It runs through the main photo I have used in every music post from the past five years to the present in the order published.  Short of reading all those posts it shows you where I have been the past five years. Seeing that past I now have a glimpse of where I want to go in the future. I plan to take this blog to some new and challenging new places in the very near future with even more evocative photographs than ever before, so please stick around!

Thank you to EVERYONE who has read, liked, or commented on any one of my posts in the past 5 years. I am truly humbled by your support.

Extra special thanks must go to all of the following-

I have been blessed that many of the musicians I have written about have liked and shared my posts on their social media. Several of them have gone further and became friends. In no particular order, I would like to thank some artists that have gone above and beyond- Ralph McTell, Jimmy Castor, Chris Trapper, everyone at Daptone Records, Saundra Williams, Christa Nia, The Coral, Red Baraat, Dan Ar Braz, Carrie Newcomer, Fairport Convention, Orphan Colours, Ahab, Julissa Lopez,  Jules & The Jinks, Oysterband, Runrig, Jake Shears, The Mint Juleps, Thea Gilmore, Jackie Venson, Horslips, Danny Thompson, Alan Doyle, Toli Nameless, Rosanne Cash, Jack Lukeman, Altan, The Travelling Band, Angelique Kidjo, Ray Cooper, Joanne Shenandoah, Sarah Cahill, Leyla McCalla, and Ginny Mac.

To my parents Bob & Mary, my sisters Noreen and Eileen and their husbands Mike & Jose and my niece Kenna. To all of my dear cousins in Ireland and England-Brian, Niamh, Kellyann, Nora, Sarah, Laila, Mona & Hannah and all 3,743 spouses, kids and everyone else too numerous to mention!

Friends far and wide. Some from the blogging community, new friends & old alike. But all people whose kindness, generosity and friendship I truly value- Jennifer Andrus, LaTasha Robinson, Scott Swenson, Patty Hillingdon, Trudy Louis, David Kenney, Ben, Alex & Mickey! Amrita Sarkar, Erica Weir, Adam Robey & Maritte Rahav, Lynn Aley Howe and all of the Aley family, Celina Wigle, Marquessa Matthews, Sandra Bretnall,  Sasha Berry, Liza Fernandez Zapata, Joe Blackburn, James Maxstadt,  Pratyusha Jain, Neece McCoy, Soranny Mejia, Aakansha Srivastava. Kristin Summers Overstreet, Linda Weal,  A Jeanne-Francois Marie Poitiers, Brendan Byrne, Wendy Westphalen, Carol Amezquita, Anna Koppenhofer, Armando Garcia, Janani Viswanathan, Sandra & Ron Schoeffler, Shelley Langaine, Dan Braz & Shelley Olsen, Danielle Des, Tony Lorenzen, Paula Couture Palmerino, Jhaneel Lockhart Veronica Dominguez, Shalini Mandhyan, Amy Sivco Kierce,  Daiana Bispo, Laura Macaddino, all at Talkawhile Forum-especially Alan Standing, Jenny Parsons, Andy Leslie, Bill Wallace, Jules Gray, Zoe Buck, Michael Caddick, Jim Campbell, Dan Ogus, Trevor Rickards, Addie Burns. To all of my Instagram family too numerous to mention I thank you all for being part of my community. Anyone else I may have left out forgive me!

Sir Duke-Written By Stevie Wonder

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