Home Masthead Vocalastics: Cascades From The First Instrument

Vocalastics: Cascades From The First Instrument


Vocalastics-Billie-Holiday-JDG-finThen we heard it in the small, supple and sensitive vocalastics of Billie Holliday. There was no other interpreter of the cascading human emotions of the dispossessed, as Billie Holliday. Her cornerstone of protest against racial discrimination – “Strange Fruit” – a great wailing, allegorical tale of ‘strange fruit’ hanging from a tree, i.e., the body of the African American – an almost indelible image of our cruel past. She ‘cried’ the song – yes Billie Holliday did! In her plaintive understatement, we wept in our mind’s mind more bitterly than we would if we were assaulted by a grand passionate unrestrained expression in an operatic ambience! In Billie Holliday’s classic understatement the weight of life was almost always an internal avalanche that was set in motion by a ‘little girl’ voice. Yet we were somehow forced to feel the full weight of its emotional assault on our senses. Always the elemental sadness of the voice, juxtaposed by the visage of that big beautiful woman, who – it appeared – had carried the burden of history in her heart too long. Suddenly the scars of her life leapt out at you. And the joy at being released from this weight through the art of the song…

As suddenly as you were assaulted, were you set free by a voice so pure that everything else – including the physical presence of the singer seemed to vanish, leaving behind just the song and the multiplicity of its emotions. There was also pathos in Billie Holliday’s voice. You hear it in “Tell Me More”, which she recorded in 1940, with Roy Eldridge and Teddy Wilson. But it was also the charm and urbane elegance, the suppleness and sophistication in the understatement of her vocals. That was the greatness of the musician that is Billie Holliday. It also speaks of the greatness of her singing; the vocalastics with which she was able to transform life itself…

Vocalastics EllaThe baton was also held fast by Ella Fitzgerald, who right from the 30s on until this day, reigned in the domain of the art of vocal music. Miss Fitzgerald was also the mistress of the ‘blues-line’ in jazz singing, yet she was also the great diva. She innovated; it’s true – especially when, with Chick Webb’s band, she swung through “A Tisket, a Tasket”. In the 40s, when Bird and Diz blazed through the skies like comets, fashioning the pain of the day into bebop, Ella scatted her way through “How High the Moon” and “Lady Be Good”. There was talk of ‘bop’ vocals then.

Yet Ella Fitzgerald continued to ‘change’ remaining unharmed by passing fashions and trends. Her interpretations of the ‘songbooks’ of the American songwriters – Gershwin, Kern, Berlin and Porter – belong to the greatest documents of modern American music. Indeed, in assuming the role of Bess to the great Louis Armstrong’s Porgy, I believe that Ella (and Louis, of course) has given us one of the finest lessons in the art of rendering story in song. No other singer – with the possible exception of Abbey Lincoln today – has been able to tell a compelling story with just the use of human voice.

When she undertook the challenge of interpreting Max Roach’s tour de force, Freedom Now Suite Abbey Lincoln gave notice of ‘taking over’ the mantle of becoming the urban griot of African-America. Today she is the queen of vocalastics. Whether she is singing wordlessly – on Roach’s “Garvey’s Ghost”, on the classic album, Percussion Bitter Sweet, or telling the story of “When Malindy Sings” on the same album, Abbey Lincoln brings together both the sophistication and plaintiveness of Billie Holliday as well as the raw power of Bessie Smith, and takes vocal music to a new level.

In the 2000 set Over the Years Abbey Lincoln has surpassed the highest standards of vocal art. Her joyful discovery of life, “When the lights go on again” warms the heart and stirs the soul as it fills us with hope that all may yet be well someday ‘all over the world’. You hear the echoes of the end of apartheid, the joyful union of Mandela and his people and even a simple love story between man and woman come alive in that song. Lest we forget the hurt of a woman mistreated listen to “I could sing it for a song” and the tragic “Tender as a Rose”. Sure in this set alone, there is evidence of who rules the empire of vocal music today – especially in the art of interpreting a story in song.

Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.


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