A long overdue mention of Chavez Ravine in a moment, but one of my favourite music items of last year is an 'audio film' on the Winter & Winter label called Metropolis Shanghai - Showboat to China. In the style of an earlier favourite - Uri Caine's Sidewalks of New York, which re-imagined the sound of popular song in the bars and pubs of 1900 New York - it's an ersatz aural recreation of 1930s Shanghai, comprising historical recordings, re-recorded songs and sounds originating from that time, and original music inspired by the particularly fascinating cultural collisions in the city leading up to World War II. Here's the context of this new re-imagination:
"Shanghai means "on the sea". The name comes from the Sung dynasty in the 11th century. At that time the story of Shanghai began as a small fishing village. It became a city in the 16th century, but was still unimportant until the Opium War during the 1840s when European powers took control of the city and opened it up to foreign trade. Because of its ideal location near the mouth of the Yangtze River and the foreign concessions, Shanghai became China’s main trading port and lost its Chinese self-determination. "Metropolis Shanghai - Showboat to China" is the sound story about the "Paris of the East", about the "Whore of Asia", about the "Golden Era" of the greatest city in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, about the most cosmopolitan place on earth, about the port of last resort for the Jews, about the fully-controlled Japanese base after the second Sino-Japanese War, about the "Old Shanghai" which was not a colony but ruled by foreigners, about the "Queen of the Orient". During the first half of the 20th century this metropolis was divided in different territories: the French Concession, the International Settlement ("owned" by England and the United Sates of America), the Japanese base and the Jewish ghetto. Nearly all residents were Chinese (4.5 million Chinese and 50.000 Europeans) but without any political power. Shanghai was one of the most extreme places that ever existed, full of speculation, entertainment, hunger, shelter, sex, death, life, war, hope, drugs, despair, business, and poverty. Shanghai was the worst and the best of everything. The city of quick money and masses of incredible poor people, every day dead bodies were laying in the streets, and girls sold themselves to survive and earned venereal diseases. The "Golden Era" was a very cynical name for that time period, only few winners and rich people created their own "Paris of the East" in Shanghai. Hotels, bars, whorehouses, vaudevilles, entertainment and the gambling places were booming tremendously." [From Winter & Winter website]
A Winter & Winter 'sound story' effectively deploys fake and recreated memories to conjure this place ... and its hugely evocative. A recording of the famous popular song 'Ye Shanghai' is later followed by the sound of a young girl humming the tune in the shower; the sound of a Japanese patriotic march on an old gramophone is slowly superceded by that of Chinese soldiers marching in step through the Nanking Road; traditional music such as 'Raindrops rattling on the leaves of bananas' and 'Bells and chants at the Long Hua Temple' is immersed in a heady brew of Offenbach and Chopin from the French Concession, cocktail jazz from the bar at the Peace Hotel, Austrian romantic classical wafting out of 'Little Vienna' and faux field recordings from Bubbling Well Road.
The contemporary klezmer band, Brave Old World, contribute several pieces, retouching their traditional Jewish music with this richly textured context. Their presence is a kind of hyperlink to a related release by Winter & Winter, who have moved into the DVD market recently, releasing several fascinating looking films. Effectively accompanying Metropolis Shanghai is Zuflucht in Shanghai - Port of last Resort, a startling documentary by Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy, with music by John Zorn. It's another story of "the most cosmopolitan city in the world":
"In 1937 the second Sino-Japanese war broke out and the Japanese occupied parts of Shanghai and controlled the city. During that time the biggest wave of immigration of Jews to Shanghai was caused by the Nazis, mainly from Germany, Austria and Poland between 1937 and 1943. About 20,000 central European refugees came to Shanghai, of which over 300 were musicians. Music - though in a difficult situation - was significant to these refugees, too ... Shanghai was one of the very few places on earth where nobody asked for any visas. And the Jews from Vienna, Munich and Berlin were playing Viennese music by Schrammel in cafe houses in "Little Vienna", a quarter that the Jews had built up stone by stone. In 1943 the Jews had to move in a ghetto and lost again what they had created with their own hands ..." [Excerpts from a text by Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy]
It's a gentle, traditionally made documentary but all the more affecting for that. Minimal narration leaves maximum space for utterly fascinating period photography and film, and interviews from the few living survivors. It stays with you for a long time. Here's a sense of what you'll hear:
"There is one place on earth where you can go without any paper, no permit, no affidavit, no special entry-permit, no visa. You just get there, that' s Shanghai." - Fred Fields
"Shanghai was a fake, a phony, neither occidental nor oriental. And yet – God forgive me – she was the most exciting and unique city in the world. She was poison, and the old-time Shanghailanders were addicts who never could free themselves of being in love with her." - Max Berges
"May 1947. All my dear friends, Is this all a dream or indeed reality? It has been four days since we have been underway and indeed on the high sea, withdrawing more and more from China for our new home, Australia. Around us the endless sea. We see flying fish and sometimes even sharks. The sea is steel blue, the top of the waves shines brilliantly. One comes to feel again like a human being, and no longer a refugee." - Annie Witting
Winter & Winter are creating a unique form of art here - audio imaginations of cities in history, augmented by short films and appropriately encased in beautiful physical packages. All credit to them. Unfortunately, the standards of the Winter & Winter website aren't that of its physical products, so I can't link directly to the CD and DVD. You'll have to look for Metropolis Shanghai - Showboat to China in this list of 'Audio Films' or from Amazon UK or Amazon US. Find Zuflucht in Shanghai - Port of last Resort in this list of 'Film Editions' or a region 1 DVD at Amazon.com.
Also on constant rotation for much of 2005, and worth mentioning here for the same reasons as above, was Ry Cooder's last album, Chavez Ravine. It's a fine fine record, also recreating a city in sound; in this case, a forgotten part of Los Angeles - the eponymous ravine home to a village and community buried under Dodgers' stadium, amidst a sorry tale of 'urban renewal'.
The immigrant community of Chavez Ravine was evicted, and their homes then demolished, in the early 1950s, ostensibly to make way for higher quality social housing designed by the iconic architect of '50s LAs, Richard Neutra. (I guess the album's almost worth buying just to hear the name 'Richard Neutra' worked into lyrics and sung.) That plan turned out to be wrecked too, due to the HUAC-fulled intervention of paranoid anti-communist politicians, and so the cleared slums were eventually sold as the site of the LA Dodgers' baseball stadium, itself a tale-within-a-tale of local culture wrenched out of place.
This lost neighbourhood is traversed by Ry Cooder and band, keen to explore every musical nook and cranny. In doing so, they contribute another chapter to LA's rich imaginary history, following Ellroy, Chandler, Chinatown and the rest, here using sound to conjure the heat on a Studebaker bonnet, or imagine up a loitering UFO picking up stray radio waves, La Cucharacha drifting in and out of phase, or recreate the tunes of ghosts, singers chattering in a dialect which is Spanish, English and American all at once. We actually hear the still-angry voice of 90-year old activist Frank Wilkinson, who was unfairly implicated in the scandal and died recently - as he sings on the records though, he "outlived those bastards one and all". And by curious chance given Metropolis Shanghai, a jaunty Spanish pop tune about Chinese immigrant laundrymen.
Interestingly, the album (and PBS film) was inspired by a series of photographs taken in 1949 by a then 19-year-old Don Normark. Echoes here of Geoff Dyer's thinking in But Beautiful on the possibilities of fictional histories written out of photographs.
The music itself can veer from the featherweight mariachi numbers to lumbering bulldozer blues, but lest you get the wrong idea that this might be approaching a kind of aural Disneyfied sentimentality, Cooder's project is shot through with resentment at the mishandling of Los Angeles and you can hear it.
"They knock down the famous coffee shops, and the restaurants that looked like pigs or barrels, which should have been precious heirlooms. The Brown Derby would have been worth a billion dollars if you had kept it but they didn't. How do I hate these people ... I like this airport but this is all that's left. I mean, Jesus Christ, but I'm old. I like the weather, I like the moisture, I like the light in the trees. I'm sad. California was heaven on earth but they fucking ruined it, the bastards.'" [Interview with Ry Cooder in The Guardian]
This righteous anger of Cooder's only obviously appears occasionally in the music, however, which generally feels like a hazy evocation of another time, another place, just as all our summers are remembered sunny. The sheer joy in music so beautifully alight through Buena Vista Social Club is evident here too. But hearing Cooder speak, you listen again to that plaintive guitar.
"The story of American pop music is the story of failure. The blues, country music, it's not the story of success. People don't win, they lose.' He looks up at a 1940s map of Chavez Ravine. 'These songs are brimming with disappointment,' he says. 'It's terrific.'" [Interview with Ry Cooder in The Guardian]
Whenever he hits those lonesome, hanging notes - he has an unutterably lovely sense of space as a musician, perhaps up there with Miles - you sense the contradiction in that statement. That despite his "terrific" joy in music, Cooder's burden is also to carefully, innately articulate regret, longing, grief and loss for the long lost inhabitants of Chavez Ravine, and those millions like them also displaced by history.
Chavez Ravine [Amazon UK|US]
The Guardian: Sounds of LA's lost souls echo down the year [interview]
Chavez Ravine: The Guardian review | The Observer review