This Blog Needs More Washboard!

I decided that since I so brazenly hijacked the ax[1] of the washboard player in Chubby Carrier‘s band — his name is Earl Sally, by the way — the least I could do is make an effort to learn a little more about the instrument.

First off, its proper Cajun-French name is the frottoir, or, in English, the rubboard. Its origin as a clothes-washing tool is all but lost in the mists of time — for which we can be grateful, n’est-ce pas? ๐Ÿ˜‰

The rubboard has no wooden frame like a washboard typically does; it’s simply a sheet of corrugated metal, with large curved “hooks” at the top that go over the player’s shoulders. It’s much more comfortable to wear than it looks — at least that’s my recollection, which was, I confess, slightly margarita-enhanced. ๐Ÿ˜›

The instrument was designed specifically for zydeco music, the product of a collaboration in the mid-1940’s between zydeco musicians (and brothers) Clifton and Cleveland Chenier, and their metalworker friend Willie Landry.[2] Willie’s son Tee Don Landry carries on the family tradition, making rubboards by hand in Lousiana. His website has the rest of the rubboard story, plus videos demonstating rubboard playing!

I checked them out, because I was curious to see if my attempt at wielding the spoons was even in the ballpark. Here’s the basic zydeco beat:

Hmm… that’s not too complicated — steady eighth notes with one hand, single strokes on beats 2 and 4 with the other. For those of you who are hip to the notation jive, it looks like this:

I believe, though, that when I had my big moment in the spotlight, it didn’t occur to me that the hands could be so independent. Shame on me, I’m a pianist! But like I said, there were extenuating circumstances. To the best of my recollection, I did something kinda like this:

Not as interesting, but the enthusiasm was there!

Couple more rubboard fun facts that I learned from Tee Don’s site:

  • The Smithsonian now has a rubboard in its collection, thanks to Tee Don’s advocacy.
  • There’s a rubboard specially designed for women, with an attractive shapely design. But I have to ask: where are the matching shoes and handbag?! ๐Ÿ˜‰

So there you have it: my tequila-fueled antics led to a musical learning experience! Please, kids — don’t try this at home! ๐Ÿ˜€


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    [1] “Ax,” by the way, is how super-cool, extra-hep music cats refer to their instruments. As in, “Oh, sh!#, I left my ax in the cab!”

    Here’s another term you can use to increase your musical street cred: any brass or single-reed instrument can be referred to as a “horn,” even if that’s not its proper name. Trumpet, clarinet, sax — but not oboe, as far as I know. Those double-reed players are sticklers for precision! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    [2] Landry, Don. “Key of Z Rubboards Made by Tee Don.” Key of Z Rubboards Made by Tee Don. 25 Jul 2008.


    Miss Music Nerd’s Zydeco Debut!

    Hรฉ, toi!

    As I hinted at briefly in my last post, I got a chance to do some impromptu music-making while I was in Austin, Texas this past weekend at the Netroots Nation convention. I hadn’t expected to perform until Sunday morning, when I was to play for the Multifaith Worship Service. But when life provides you with an opportunity like this, you’ve just gotta laissez les bon temps rouler, bรฉbรฉ! ๐Ÿ˜€

    It happened on Friday night: after a long day of keynote speeches, panel discussions, and really disappointing box lunches (sorry, but MMN gets cranky when she’s hungry!), it was time to party! Austin is known as the live music capital of the world, after all, and I was looking forward to escaping the over-air-conditioned sterility of the convention center to get a little taste of what the city is famous for. (Oh, that reminds me — I should balance my complaint about the convention food by reporting that dinner at the Iron Cactus was fabulous!)

    Chocolate fountain!

    Sampling the chocolate fountain!

    We gathered at Maggie Mae’s for a party sponsored by the seminal political blog, Daily Kos. The conventioneers enthusiastically enjoyed the fabulous food and terrific margaritas, as we took over the two-story venue, with its courtyard downstairs, patio upstairs and indoor areas all around. I’d already had dinner, but I was very grateful that my friends directed my attention to the chocolate fountain near the entrance (When they saw me walk in, they yelled “Virgo! Chocolate fountain!!!” from the staircase above. I understood; they were speaking the universal language of chocoholism! ๐Ÿ˜› )

    Now, I must confess that I don’t usually love going to bars; the music tends to be so ear-splittingly LOUD that I can neither fully enjoy it (I’m too worried about what it’s doing to my hearing) nor carry on an intelligible conversation. So I spent the first part of the evening hanging out with friends old and new at a relatively quiet indoor table. But after awhile, the zydeco music that drifted in from the patio worked on me like a siren song, and I had to go check it out.

    It all started innocently enough. Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band was playing the kind of music that you can’t help but dance to, so my friends and I got down to business. I was watching the band at the same time, though, and I was fascinated by the washboard player, and the variety of complex and interesting rhythms he managed to coax out of that simple sheet of corrugated metal. I was so transfixed that when he stepped to the edge of the stage, I assumed he was looking for an audience volunteer to try a few scrapes with his spoons, and I went right up to him. He didn’t hand me the spoons though — instead, he grabbed my hand and led me up onto the stage! I was game. But when we got up there, he still wouldn’t give me the spoons. Instead, he took the washboard off his shoulders and put it on mine! Cool… Now, may I have the spoons, please?

    I was unclear on the concept. He didn’t want me to play the washboard. He wanted me to be the washboard! Okay, I was still game. You see, even though I’m more introverted than 90% of the population (really! I took a test!), being a musician and all, I am also a total ham — under the right circumstances. My friends on the dance floor went wild — and started snapping pictures furiously!

    It was fun and all, but I wasn’t completely satisfied. After the washboard-ist played a nice long solo on, um, me, I tried one more time to convince him to lend me his spoons. Of course, I can’t blame him for hesitating — after all, he had no way of knowing how many margaritas I had in me (only one — honest!), let alone whether I had rhythm. But he finally gave in. Once I held the right tools for the job in my hands, I took a moment to feel the music for myself (being an instrument had distracted me a bit), then I let it rip, imitating one of the rhythms he had played as best I could. When the song ended, he told me I sounded pretty good… and my friends were seriously impressed.

    The bandleader thought it was pretty funny — he said maybe they need to recruit a new washboard player! I gave him my card. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    What can I say — still waters run deep, mon cher! ๐Ÿ˜€

    photos by mik, a.k.a. mr. brillig.


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    Austin Touch-Blogging!

    Howdy, y’all! MMN is currently in Austin, TX, where, yes, it is hot! I’m here attending Netroots Nation, a conference for political bloggers. Of course, I’m a music blogger, but I’m politically engaged as well, and there’s lots of cool stuff going on here… not the least of which is the chance to meet in person with friends I talk online with all the time. I’ve also had the chance to invite people I’ve met here to check out this blog, so if you’re here because of that, welcome and thanks for visiting!

    Austin is a legendary place for live music, of course, and I did get a chance to hear a great zydeco band last night. I even got to sit in briefly — would you believe it? I will post photographic evidence very soon — watch for it!

    I’m posting from an iPod Touch, which is very cool, but I need to keep my thumbs from seizing up, so I’ll keep this short. But there’s more to come, so y’all stay tuned! ๐Ÿ™‚

    “Such a really good version”!

    Yesterday on NPR’s Fresh Air, I heard an interview with singer and composer Theo Bleckmann, a German native who moved to New York in 1989 and has been, according to his bio, “a steady force in the New York downtown music scene for over 15 years.”

    Now, don’t worry if you don’t know what “downtown music scene” means. It’s an umbrella term for a lot of different music and performance art, from Yoko Ono to Bang on a Can. If I had to summarize it in just a few words, I’d say it’s experimental, iconoclastic and embarrassingly easy to parody. ๐Ÿ˜› You can learn more than you could possibly want to know from this Wikipedia entry. But that’s not so important here, because the interview features his latest CD, which is a collection of music theater songs.


    If you find that combination of musical interests unusual, you’re not alone; here’s how Fresh Air host Terry Gross opens the broadcast:

    There’s not a lot of people who love show tunes and avant-garde music — even fewer who can perform both well. So let me introduce you to Theo Bleckmann, who’s full of vocal surprises.”

    I suppose what she says is true, although I’ve met many others who belong to that narrow category she describes — heck, I belong to it myself! Oh well… my arms stay nice and strong, what with all that swimming upstream! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Anyway, the juxtaposition is less surprising when you consider the particular show tunes we’re talking about here. The CD is titled Berlin: Songs Of Love & War, Peace & ExileHigh School Musical it ain’t. Think something more like… Cabaret maybe? But darker and more political, with music by composers Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht.

    The Fresh Air interview is really worth listening to for several reasons — it covers the gamut from The King and I to Tuvan throat singing. Oh, and there’s a wonderful Mondegreen moment, when Bleckmann talks about listening to American records while growing up in Germany:

    I wish I was a porno star
    and wake up where the clouds are far…”


    What I was most drawn to, though, was Bleckmann’s performance of the Brecht/Weill song “Surabaya Johnny.” Or, as Terry Gross puts it, “such a really good version of Surabaya Johnny.” ๐Ÿ™‚ I used to play this song with a singer friend of mine, so it has a special place in my heart. In its original context, it’s sung by a female character, so hearing it sung by a man is a fascinating experience. But the really wonderful thing about it, as far as I’m concerned, is what Bleckmann accomplishes with the German language. The stereotype is that German is angular and harsh, and that anyone speaking it automatically sounds angry. Bleckmann gives the lie to that with his haunting performance, which alternates between achingly lyrical singing and a hurried, urgent sprechstimme — he makes the language sound positively velvety, like dark chocolate melting in your mouth. You can hear the first half of the song right at the beginning of the Fresh Air interview. Go listen to it, and stay for the rest of the interview while you’re at it!


    If you enjoyed this post, would you considerโ€ฆ

  • Dropping some change in the Miss Music Nerd Tip Jar?
  • Emailing it to a friend?
  • Thanks — you make the world a better place! ๐Ÿ™‚

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