The rest of the world knows something about Americans that we prefer to deny: We are lazy slouches. We're good at plenty of things, yes, but we're generally wary of pursuits that require intensive training, discipline or any physical discomfort.
We can't really be blamed, though. As a culture, we're encouraged to regard the most basic of tasks as too laborious: the individual spreading of both peanut butter and jelly onto a single piece of bread (hence the invention of peanut butter and jelly in one jar), and the shredding and melting of regular block cheese (where but America would E-Z Cheese be considered a major food source?).
We are lazy about our music, too. The old tradition of studying and practicing an instrument has largely become associated with the nerdy virtuoso or compositional conformist -- by performers and audiences alike. With a few notable exceptions (Alicia Keys is a Juilliard grad as well as a Grammy winner), today's popular musicians are less interested in learning scales and reading music than in making it up as they go along. While there's certainly something to be said for this auteuristic approach to making music -- true talent can transcend formal training, while the reverse may not be true -- we sometimes wonder how different things might be if American kids were still forced to endure piano lessons and band practice. Never mind whether Creed's Scott Stapp knows the difference between a metronome and a mega-mall; had his fans been brought up with an actual ear for music, they might not be so easily duped.
To rectify this situation, we could look to some unlikely sources for inspiration. Like, say, Mongolia. Those who aspire to become musicians in that small country are expected to begin training at the age of nine or ten and to attend specialized conservatories in addition to regular school, where they receive instruction in European and classical music along with the traditional Mongolian kind. Over there, music is a field that requires expertise and commands respect. In other words, you can't just fake it.
Local audiences will get the chance to glimpse a disciplined ensemble in action when the touring Winds of Mongolia appears at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Seawell Grand Ballroom on Thursday, March 21, for a benefit performance to raise money for homeless children in the Mongolian city of Ulaanbaatar, which is Denver's sister city. (Showtime is 7:30 p.m.) In this seven-person troupe led by a matronly female soprano, the players are considered masters of their assorted instruments, which range from the khuuchir, a dulcimer type of striking device, to the morin khuur, a stringed instrument made from carved wood and horsehair. A highlight of the evening should be the solo compositions performed by a young Khumii throat singer named Zulsar, who can produce four different vocal tones...simultaneously. To the casual observer, the sounds that escape Zulsar's pursed lips defy logic.
"People see him, they can't believe it is true," says Uuga, a Mongolian-born citizen now living in Denver who serves as interpreter for the Winds. "Even in Mongolia, the teenagers, they don't believe it."
Rock and roll this ain't -- but it is tight, and it can be rather intense. In many ways, the Winds of Mongolia is the most old-timey acoustic combo imaginable. This is music that has inspired a culture of players since the days when Genghis Khan was the closest thing to a rock star anyone had ever seen. For the audience, the sensation is like watching a sacred rite in progress. Catch it while you Khan.
Quick: Which David Lynch film does Sci-Fi Uterus have the most in common with? Surely not the G-rated and sweet The Straight Story, in which an elderly farmer drives a tractor across two states in order to patch things up with his estranged brother. Probably not Mulholland Drive, a film whose steamy same-sex love scenes led sexually repressed cinemaphiles back to the theater again and again; while thoroughly glam, SFU is a bit too clinical to be sexy (though I'm sure Mystic Antenna Chick's androidenal visage has a certain fetishistic appeal). No, SFU's forthcoming album, Songs to Lynch, is likely to conjure more of an Eraserhead/Naked Lunch/Lost Highway kind of vibe, with lots of digital effects (courtesy of fourth member Euterpe, the band's "computer companion"), atmospheric unreality, narrative-abating non sequitur and, of course, a romantic, otherworldly subplot.
The Uteri will present material from the Lynch-inspired album (and offer pre-release copies of it) during a rare live appearance at the Bug Theater on Sunday, March 24, at 8 p.m. Although many of Lynch's fans are no doubt planning to spend that evening around the tube, awaiting confirmation that the filmmaker has again failed to snag an Academy Award, SFU's show offers a multimedia alternative to the Oscars, complete with video and film installations and an always surprising stage presentation -- without the cloying, scripted celebrity-announcer repartee.
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Speaking of multimedia alternatives, Brother Jeff's Cultural Cafe and No Credits Production company present a unique combo of music and theater -- the radio play A Kansas City Phone Call: The Story of Nat King Cole -- on Monday, March 25, at the Gothic Theatre. Kansas City Phone Call stars Nat's younger brother, Freddy, who pursued his own musical career as a singer and pianist; Chicago-based actor, activist and composer Oscar Brown Jr. is also featured in the production. Part of the Destination Freedom/Black Radio Days series on KGNU/88.5 FM, the evening will be broadcast live from the Gothic. Check the frequency.
Other noteworthy events this week include an appearance by dearly departed local heavyweights the subdudes -- or, as they're calling themselves for these performances, the 'dudes. The band appears in three bona fide reunion shows: Thursday, March 21, at the Little Bear in Evergreen; Friday, March 22, at the Fox Theatre in Boulder; and Friday, March 29, at the Bluebird in Denver. The trio of gigs will reacquaint accordionist John Magnie (who still calls Colorado home and spends most of his musical time fronting the excellent Fort Collins-based roots trio 3 Twins), singer/guitarist Tommy Malone (who returned to New Orleans in the late '90s to pursue a solo career and released Soul Heavy on Louisiana Red Hot Records last year), and drummer/percussionist Steve Amadee. The 'dudes will be joined by Twins bassist Mr. Rutherford and members of the Tommy Malone Band.
Sounds pretty heavy.