American Voices, further thoughts

The American Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center, November 22-24, 2013.

The American Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center, November 22-24, 2013.

In 1958,  Franco Migliacci and Domenico Modugno’s “Nel blu dipinto di blu” (popularly known as “Volare”) won the US Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

This is the first (and only) year that a “foreign language” song won in these categories.  All subsequent winners have been in English.  By the 60s Anglo-American rock and pop in English would come to dominate this Industry award.

In a recent piece, America is the acceptable face of cultural imperialism, Simon Heffer comments that:

“Where America has started in a cultural enterprise at the same time as or just ahead of Europe – say in film, television, concrete and steel architecture or pop music – it dominates the genre. This may be a simple question of market forces – American culture has 310 million people in its home audience. If they take something up, it is likely to make an impact around the world. This is also why overseas artists must make it in America if they are to go global: what would we think of the Beatles now had America simply yawned and looked the other way in 1964?”


“When pop music took off in the 1950s, a number of acts tried to sound as American as possible – not so much to crack the American market as to convince the British they were at the cutting edge of what was, essentially, an American form.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, “I was in the middle of composing a summary of a facebook discussion about my American Voices post,” and while that post is still in draft form, I’ve written this more concise version of that one.  As I mentioned in that American Voices post, Steven Victor Tallarico (aka Steven Tyler) was suggested as an American voice that should have been included in Renée Fleming’s American Voices Festival final concert.

Ok, rather, “Steven Tyler,” was suggested, not “Steven Victor Tallarico” – son of Italian/German-American, Victor A. Tallarico, and Polish/English-American Susan Blancha (original family name was “Czarnyszewicz”).”  Tyler is the “Demon of Screamin’” of the Boston based Rock band, Aerosmith.

That facebook discussion brought up the fact that the ethnic backgrounds of popular artists (e.g. Stephen Perry/Stephen Ray Pereira – Portuguese-American; Jon Bon Jovi/John Francis Bongiovi, Jr. – Sicilian/Slovakian/Russian/German-American; Freddie Mercury/Farouk Bulsara – Persian-English; Eddie Van Halen/Edward Lodewijk van Halen – Dutch/Indonesian-American) isn’t usually highlighted.

While Modugno was never an American–most of the American crooners from that era (some of whom who sang and recorded “Volare” with English lyrics) were of Italian descent: Frank Sinatra (Francis Albert Sinatra); Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti); Connie Francis (Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero); Perry Como (Pierino Ronald Como); Tony Bennett ( Anthony Dominick Benedetto).  These artists (as well as non-Italian-American artists from the period) did occasionally record and sing songs inspired by or from their homeland.

One thing that also came up in that facebook discussion is how a number of the bands I mentioned in the prelude to the American Voices post, are comprised of Immigrants or children of recent immigrants.  They still bear their surnames (or even personal names) of their homelands; they don’t feel as compelled to anglicized their band names either–and they sing and play music inspired by or from their homelands.  In some cases the bands are comprised of multiple ethnicities, so there’s a fusion of non-Euro-American influences in their music and lyrics.

In a sense, I think we’ve come full circle, musically, in the pop world (and as I mentioned this is also happening with “Classical Music” ensembles and Large Orchestral styled ensembles)–where we don’t have to sanitize (or as one of the posters in the facebook thread said, “Whitenize”) personal and musical identities to be an “American Voice.”  We’re in a musical age where we don’t have to change our name from “Steven Victor Tallarico” to “Steven Tyler;” sing in English; and call our band an aglicized “Aerosmith”–but for folks who think we’re on the cusp of a musical revolution, it seems ironic that a Steven Tyler would need to be included in an America Voices Festival final gala concert for the concert to be considered “more populist” (or more relevant).

What is also ironic is that, in some ways, this is the pop music industry trying to catch up to what classical music has always been doing (albeit in a relatively parochial Eurocentric way) in that we find songs (and music) in French, German, Italian, English, Spanish, and increasingly more languages (I adore listening to Szymanowski’s “Stabat Mater” in Polish!). Sadly, there is still room to grow even in this field–most Classically Trained vocalists and musicians wouldn’t have to first idea how to sing Mugham Opera and Near Eastern Choral/Orchestra repertoire much less Art music repertoire which doesn’t even use Western instruments such as Chinese Opera.  Then again, we also now have groups doing that in the US, so maybe some of these “new” American voices from both the pop and art music side will see itself in a future American Voices Festival.

For now, I’m just pleased to see so many musicians who aren’t ashamed of their ethnic heritage in the US playing out in clubs rather than just the old “ghettos” of Ethnic and World Music Festivals and events.

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