Josie Moon

Writer, Musician and Community Artist

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Umm Kulthum: Enta Omri

Umm Kulthum was born Fāṭima ʾIbrāhīm es-Sayyid el-Beltāǧī on 31 December 1898, or 4 May 1904. Birth registaration was not enforced in Egypt at that time. She died 3rd February 1975. She was a singer, songwriter, and film actress working between the 1920s and the 1970s. She was given the honorific title Kawkab al-Shar meaning Star of the East.

Umm Kulthum was renowned and admired for her vocal ability and style. She sold over 80 million records worldwide, making her one of best-selling singers of all time from the Arab World. In her native Egypt she is regarded as a national icon and has been dubbed the voice of Egypt and the fourth pyramid

Part of my reason for undertaking this Listening to Women project was to ensure I explored music beyond my usual ranges of taste and experience. Music from different cultures and traditions is much more readily available now than when I was growing up and discovering music for myself in my teens. In the 70s and 80s I was listening to music via Radio 1, Top of the Pops and whatever my parents were playing – which to my good fortune was curiously eclectic, ranging from Chris Barber to Earth, Wind and Fire to Tammy Wynette. The latter will always have a place in my heart.

My tastes have expanded over my life but have been firmly western for the most part. Furthermore, I have realised that I was listening to a lot of men, with women being in the minority of artists that I regularly turned to. This lack of balance is a reflection of the wider culture and the sheer dominance of male voices, musicians, producers in the music industry. I am making a deliberate and concerted effort to address these imbalances and to seek out work by women, not only in music but in every field.

Listening to Umm Kulthum has been a beautiful experience. Her voice is complex, with range and depth that has a profound emotional impact. She has been lauded by fellow artists, as diverse as Bob Dylan and Maria Callas and it is clear why. Her voice reaches in and demands a response. I listen and find myself emotionally engaged in her music, committed to it, following her voice note by note. She sings in a language I don’t speak but her music transcends that. I have looked at lyrical translations but of course in English the words do not have the same resonance. I decided not to worry too much about that and to focus on the sound, the emotion, the sheer beauty of her work.

Umm Kulthum was politically engaged and post the revolution in Egypt in 1952 she became persona non grata for a while. Her music was banned from airplay. Nasser insisted that she be restored to her prominent position and even timed his broadcasts to not interfere with her performances on the radio. She became friends with Nasser – who is of course a problematic figure. Her story illustrates yet again that politically engaged artists can and often do face danger in countries and regimes where their work is considered a threat to power.

Listen for yourself and prepare to be captivated: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9wW8QIeBi4

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Diamanda Galas: The Litanies of Satan

The Litanies of Satan is the debut album by American avant-garde artist Diamanda Galás, released in the UK  by Y Records in 1982; it was released in the USA in 1989.

The text for “The Litanies of Satan” is taken from a section of Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire. According to the album notes the work “devotes itself to the emeraldine perversity of the life struggle in Hell.”

I have nothing but admiration for Diamanda Galas and her ferocious commitment to using her art to speak up for victims, whether that be victims of the Aids crisis, political injustice or war crimes. She is utterly unique and uncompromising in her presentation of her work. The energy and passion of it is indisputable.

I have been listening to her work for the past couple of weeks and considering her artistic courage and absolute refusal to produce within the narrow parameters of what is so wearyingly expected of women. She is bold and brave.

I found her work deeply upsetting and a difficult listen. I don’t know if I can go back to it. I am pleased to have heard it and to have spent some time with it but It has disturbed me greatly. Perhaps that is a good thing.

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Mercedes Sosa: Mercedes Sosa en Argentina

Mercedes Sosa en Argentina is a double album by Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. It was recorded live at the Teatro Opera de Buenos Aires in February 1982 and released on the Philips label. The concert and recording marked Sosa’s return to Argentina after three years in exile.

Described as the driving force behind the nueva canción movement, singer Mercedes Sosa was born and raised in Tucumán, Argentina. She began her career as a performer at 15 after winning a radio hosted competition. The nueva canción movement was a political movement of protest music that spread across Argentina and Chile during the 1960s. The movement was attacked as part of the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup which overthrew democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende.

Because of her repertoire of songs championing human rights and democracy, Sosa was treated as a serious threat by the military regime which came to power in Argentina. In 1975 she was harassed and arrested during a live performance. Audience members were also arrested and imprisoned. Death threats followed and she left Argentina in 1979, and she lived in exile in Paris and Madrid for three years, before returning to Argentina in triumph in 1982.

Over her long career, Sosa collaborated with artists as diverse as Joan Baez, Pata Negra and Luciano Pavarotti. She was loved and admired across Latin America and lived a life of extraordinary musicianship, political principle and engagement in human rights and other causes.

Here she is performing one of her signature songs, Gracias a la Vida with Joan Baez: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMuTXcf3-6A

Mercedes en Argentina is a remarkable and moving listen. Her voice is extraordinarily rich and textured, exuding humanity, compassion and integrity. Listening to it led me to the equally powerful Misa Criolla, composed by Ariel Ramirez in 1964. This was one of the first non-Latin masses, written in the vernacular. It is a mass composed using folk and traditional instruments alongside soloists and choirs. Ramirez recorded with Sosa in 1999. It is a beautiful and haunting work and can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJPZXSpxBkE

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Aretha Franklin: Young, Gifted and Black

Young, Gifted and Black is the eighteenth studio album by  Aretha Franklin, released on January 24, 1972 by Atlantic Records. It takes its title from the Nina Simone song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“, which was originally recorded and released by Simone in 1969.

What a complete delight and pleasure it has been to spend time listening to the undisputed Queen of Soul. Her perfect voice, immaculate diction and sheer emotional depth and authenticity have helped me in the past couple of weeks to find some inspiration and joy.

There is a plethora of writing about Aretha Franklin and every plaudit she has is richly deserved. I am not going to add anything other than my respect and admiration for her.

I am particularly moved to learn that she held women’s rights and civil rights as central to her life and values. Not only this but she quietly and privately supported the struggle for the rights of indigenous Americans. She refused to perform at Trump’s inauguration as an act of protest from artists and musicians. She led a principled life and is a powerful role model for women everywhere, not just in music. She spoke up for Angela Davis when she was arrested and jailed in 1970 telling Jet magazine :

“Angela Davis must go free … Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.”

I was spoilt for choice over what link to share, so here’s a couple. Treat your ears:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7qV3BJoES8&list=RDA7qV3BJoES8&start_radio=1&t=4

Aretha Franklin, I salute you.

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Iris DeMent: My Life

My Life is the second album released by singer-songwriter Iris DeMent. Released in 1994 on Warner Bros, the album was dedicated to her father, Patric Shaw DeMent, who died in 1992.

Sometimes life interrupts your plans and so I have been spending longer with Iris DeMent than I’d planned and I’m not sorry. My Life is an extraordinary, tender and evocative album that is definitely worth a fortnight. In fact, several of the albums and artists I have visited thus far have remained in my head and I am looking forward to compiling a lengthy playlist featuring all of these exceptional women.

Iris DeMent came to prominence in the early nineties with her song Our Town which was used to close the final episode of the run away television hit Northern Exposure. By a strange coincidence, serendipity or just a fortuitous moment, we are currently watching Northern Exposure, a show we have chosen as an antidote to the rotten times in which we live. I wonder how many people shipped out to Alaska after watching the show in the nineties, and if Alaska is currently open to disenfranchised Europeans in search of a seemingly gentler place to live.

More recently, the title track of My Life was used in another hit TV show, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that took on extraordinary resonance during the Trump years and which stands as a terrifying imagining of the horrors of authoritarianism combined with extreme misogyny. The song was used for the opening sequence of Season Two Episode Seven, when the handmaids attend the funeral of other handmaids, killed during a failed attempt to overthrow the regime. The sight of a trembling and tearful Aunt Lydia wishing for a ‘peaceful world’ when she herself is a weapon of state-sanctioned violence against women brings bile to to the throat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrzYwYGt-p0 Iris DeMent’s beautiful, haunting music juxtaposes the horror of the moment, a sweet, life-affirming and poignant song against a backdrop of blood-soaked horror.

Iris DeMent’s voice is pure country, dripping in sorrows and heartaches, simple living, family, home and of course love. It is unsentimental, cracked and honest, reminding me of Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. She has worked with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and John Prine and is an artist who seems intent on her own authentic path, pursuing her truth and telling stories in her songs with profound resonance; stories of the reality of being, of love and death.

Here’s something special to finish, Iris and Emmylou. I defy you not to cry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FikZwgj89HI

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Oumou Sangare: Moussolou

Oulou Sangaré recorded her first album, Moussoulou (“Women”), with Amadou Ba Guindo, a renowned maestro of Malian music. The album was very successful in Africa, with more than 200,000 copies sold initially on tape. The album was released in 1990 when Sangare was twenty-one years old.

In the midst of a bleak week, Oulou Sangare’s voice brought shafts of sunshine and warmth. Listening to her debut album, its rich rhythms and feisty vocals, I was lifted out of the challenges of the days for some bright and beautiful moments. Prior to listening to this album I knew nothing of Oumou Sangare. Part of the point of this year is to listen to more diverse women’s voices and to educate myself about the cultures these artists come from.

Moussolou means women and in the album’s title song Oumou Sangare speaks to the women of Mali about their lives and their positions. She has written extensively since her first album about women and the low status that women endure in society. She is an advocate for women’s rights, and is critical of child marriage and polygamy, having experienced the effect the latter had on her mother when Sangare was a child.

Sangaré has worked as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, but when asked about politics says: “While you’re an artist, you’re free to say what you think; when you’re a politician, you follow instructions from higher up.”

Oumou Sangare has performed all over the world since her success with Moussolou and has worked with numerous artists including Herbie Hancock and Bela Fleck. She is a vibrant and inspiring artist with a captivating voice and commanding musicality.

If you want to get a flavour of Oumou as she is now, then watch her here, live in London in 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQtibyqDyZE

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Ms Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the debut solo album by American singer and rapper Lauryn Hill. It was released on August 25, 1998, by Ruffhouse Records and Columbia Records.

In 1998 Ms Hill exploded as an artist in her own right after extraordinary success with The Fugees. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an opus, a personal and political album that combines soul, hip-hop, reggae and R&B. The album is rich, complex and full of detail referencing Ms Hill’s religious sensibility, her struggle as a woman to assert herself in a musical culture towered over by men, her influences and her personal experience of young motherhood.

Ms Hill’s struggles and scandals have been well documented, including her battle with New Ark (her band for the Miseducation sessions), her notorious lateness to performances and considerable diva-ish traits. In truth, I knew little about her and haven’t followed her career or paid much attention to her work. Coming to such a lauded album twenty- three years after its multiple award winning success, reading about her life and career and considering the culture in which she was working I have found considerable respect and admiration for Ms Hill. She was so young in 1998 and made an enormous impact with her work which was described as genre bending. She left a lasting mark on the scene she was so much a part of with her soulful voice, clever rhymes and spiky content.

The album launches with the excoriating Lost Ones and then weaves through changes in mood and style for one hour and seventeen minutes. The album has a huge cast of musicians, singers and producers including Mary J Blige and D’Angelo but is universally acknowledged as Ms Hill’s vision in action. Stand out tracks for me include the cautionary tale Doo Wop (That Thing) which mixes doo wop with R&B creating a clever groove fusing past and present. The video is illustrative of the theme. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6QKqFPRZSA The song is hypnotic with its sample piano chords, layered vocals and brass.

The whole album is worth a proper listen, and if you’re a listener who wants a truly deep dive, check out Dissect, a podcast that takes apart great albums track by track: https://castbox.fm/vb/99609373

In 2019 Ms Hill contributed the track Guarding the Gates to the Queen and Slim film soundtrack. The film is exceptional and the track gives us a mature, confident Ms Hill full of soul. You can listen to the track here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG_JfVAOifA

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Madonna: Ray of Light

Ray of Light is the seventh studio album by American singer-songwriter Madonna, released on February 22, 1998 by Maverick Records.

I was looking forward to revisiting this album, the only work by Madonna that I ever liked. Back in 1998, I played it to death (bar the track Candy Perfume Girl which I never liked) and I particularly loved the William Orbit production. The album won four Grammys and universal critical acclaim.

Did it stand up? Did I dive back in and find it as exciting and engaging as I did all those years ago? The short answer is no. The more interesting answer is that I have spent time this week thinking about the album, about Madonna and why I find her problematic.

The album deserves the accolades it received on its release. It marked a sea change in Madonna’s career and changes in the pop world, particularly the advent of electronica. William Orbit’s production is sublime in places. My ‘deep listen’ happened, lying in bed in the dark, listening to it on a good quality speaker. I heard all the nuances and tricks of Orbit’s style, the subtle segues between songs and the unifying motifs of minor keys and melancholic tones. The album does have beautiful moments, no doubt, and Ray of Light, the title track is still a corker of a high octane dance number.

The album provoked nostalgia. I found myself reminded of a different time in my life when I was a different person, living a different life. I was able to sit with that difference, with some of those memories and rather than pushing them away, I stayed with them a while and then released them back to where they belong.

Madonna is problematic for me. She burst onto the music scene in the early 80s. Her presentation was provocative and sexual. She was unafraid to use sex and to be a highly sexualised performer. My feminist sensibility was burgeoning at the time and I simply did not like her or what she was doing with her image. I didn’t find watching her or listening to her empowering. I still don’t. I admire her for having had a stellar career, in which she has clearly been in charge of her creative destiny, transforming with the times, controlling her image and her business. That has to be a positive achievement for a woman in an industry that chews up and discards artists, especially women, on a daily basis. Madonna made it in a man’s world but used tactics that left many feminists uncomfortable. Madonna said of her ‘regressive’ image in Cosmopolitan that ‘they didn’t get the joke’ and told Newsweek in 1985, ‘when someone like Prince, Elvis or Jagger does the same thing they are being honest, sensual human beings,’ failing to acknowledge the persistent and pernicious objectification of women in patriarchy and the uphill fight women have to be both taken seriously and not degraded through sexual objectification.

Ray of Light marked a departure, a more interesting Madonna, at least to me, but watching the accompanying music videos again, there is a lot of preening and posing and focus simply on her. The most interesting video is for Frozen where she seems to be channeling a version of The Morrigan, goddess of death. Other videos feature erotic chess, moping, running away from the paparazzo press or vaguely Sado-erotic imagery that doesn’t really cohere and is uncomfortable to watch.

I am pleased to have revisited the album, but I won’t be going back for more or exploring any of Madonna’s other work. She is a great entertainer, a woman who has earnt her place in the canon of iconic pop artists, but she doesn’t speak to me.

Check out Frozen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS088Opj9o0&list=OLAK5uy_mLiMT3gmghnluUT76rtTZ_QMGzlPmjXJ4&index=9