Unlike the seamlessness of its previous appearances, last Saturday's concert by the Mindanao Kulintang Ensemble at FIT was uneven. The first half revolved around a musical narrative, Baharana, or "Eclipse," based on the folk belief that darkness comes about when a dragon devours the moon. Because doomsday is thought to follow, villagers unleash waves of music to chase off the monster. The usually accomplished musicians, led by guro Usopay Cadar, seemed intermittently listless. By marking all the right time signatures, they were just marking time—good enough for us to be still, though not entranced. They might have felt hampered by the storytelling format, which required bouts of narration, thus interrupting the music's continuity.

In contrast, the second half, Pakaradia-an, or "Celebration," was indeed just that. Beginning with the stately Kasayao sa Singkil (with musician Liz Reyes performing a courtly dance), the ensemble demonstrated its virtuosity, its six members taking turns playing the dabakan (a large single-headed drum) and the various gongs, from kulintang to the gandingan—referred to as "talking gongs," for answering the melody laid down by the kulintang. The ensuing dialogues were quick, quirky, and even witty, with one number, Kasolampid, poking fun at elaborate courtship rituals swains undertake to impress their lasses. It was thrilling to see the gongs fly. Like thoroughbreds, they are at their magnificent best when at full gallop. Such flights moved me, rendering me a Yeatsian perne in a gyre. —Luis H. Francia

The dark end of songwriter street: Gelb (left) with trumpeter Noah Thomas
photo: David Atlas
The dark end of songwriter street: Gelb (left) with trumpeter Noah Thomas

Dave Van Ronk, 1936-2002

Some say he was the gravelly-voiced, guitar-picking John the Baptist to Bob Dylan's gravelly-voiced, guitar-picking Jesus. I say he was the Ramones of the early-'60s folk revival. Primitive and sophisticated, forward-thinking and backward-looking, he broke open a door that no one could ever completely shut again. Call it the white blues, call it postmodern, call it skill and intuition, call it a mixture of Louis Armstrong, the Reverend Gary Davis, and folkie bohemia. Whatever it was, it changed things.

MacDougal Street was the aesthetic center of the universe back then, and the album Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger (on Prestige) was a message of cultural importance from that center. Thirty years later, when I bought the CD reissue, I was shocked to find I remembered every note, even though I'd never even owned the original vinyl version. You just heard it back then. It was everywhere. And I recalled us 1963 college freshmen analyzing the album cover for significance in someone's dorm room and a friend saying she'd spent her Christmas vacation forcing herself to learn to listen to it, even though—or maybe because—it was so rough, so blunt, and so hard. She knew she had to understand it if she was going to understand everything that was going to come next.

For the record, Dave Van Ronk, who died earlier this month of colon cancer, was only a folksinger by default. A trad jazz vocalist who saw that revival dry up in the mid '50s, he brought his swinging sensibilities to the finger-picking guitar-blues scene around Washington Square Park. As he tells it in the CD reissue notes of his earliest Folkways recordings, "There was no G.I. Bill for veterans of the Moldy Fig Wars. [But] . . . the sight and sound of happily howling Stalinists offended my assiduously nurtured self-image as a hipster, not to mention my political sensibilities . . . In due course I came to realize that there were some very good musicians operating on the fringes of the radical Rotarian sing-along."

By the time I caught him at the Gaslight in 1963, he was already bemoaning the passing of the good old days in the Village, but it wasn't out of bitterness. At the height of his powers, he was too hip to take any cultural moment too seriously. In the '90s, at his frequent appearances at the Bottom Line, he was just as funny and still a pleasure, even though there wasn't much left of that gravelly voice. Unlike some old '60s folkies, his music never promoted the idea that paradise was just down the road. So toward the end of his career he never sang, as some do now, as if he'd been betrayed by history. Like other postwar existentialists, he knew that life was a joke, but not a stupid joke. Someone that smart who worked that hard at his craft so he could sound that rough and direct yet swinging must have thought it was worth passing on the news that the joke was a good one. —Tom Smucker

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