Thursday, April 17, 2014

Skokiaan—Or—How A Motion Picture Influenced The Southside Aces

Watch The Impostors. I’m not normally given to issuing commands, but this is highly important. I’ve mentioned this 1998 movie in a previous post, Recognizing DCD.
The Impostors was written and directed by Stanley Tucci, and starring himself along with Oliver Platt. I’m talking about a fantastically funny farce that tells the story of two starving actors who find themselves accidental stowaways on a cruise ship. You need every single one of your digits plus a few of your cat's to count up all the shenanigans, which begin the moment the movie opens, and don’t end until the credits are done rolling and you start watching Terms Of Endearment just to balance out all the laughing. I’ve hurt my gut from the laughter each of the eight times I’ve seen it so far. Laughter hernias. Plus, I say PLUS, it’s all accompanied by a soundtrack that knocks me out every time. This is how I was introduced to one of my favorite Louis Armstrong recordings, “Skokiaan.” From the movie to my brain, my brain to the Southside Aces book, and now what do you know, we’ve recorded it ourselves.

But first let’s head back to 1947, when The African Dance Band of the Cold Storage Division of Southern Rhodesia released the original, the B-Side of which was a rough but spirited version of “In The Mood,” By the way, I’m serious, that’s the name of the band. I mean, it would be like if the Southside Aces were called The New Orleans Traditional Jazz Band of the Men Who Are Aces Department of South Minneapolis. I’m not here to criticize marketing choices, but just imagine the band stationery! How much you’d have to pay to make teeshirts! In 1954, the same recording was released under the band name Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms:

Doesn’t that feel better to your tongue? Can you imagine there must have been some days before the name change when someone asked one of the musicians what the name of the band was, and they started, “The African Dance Band of…oh, forget it.” Sometimes a man can’t be buggered to finish a sentence. The leader of the band, August Musarurwa, published his tune in 1952—

This is the sheet music I have...Secret Weapon!

—and the 1954 release became a nice hit for the Zimbabweans. The melodies and rhythms really are great. I mentioned "rough but spirited." The rough playing may have had something to do with the source of the title. Skokiaan is a type of African homemade liquor. It’s usually pretty harsh stuff, a single-day brewed moonshine concoction that can sometimes include ingredients like kerosene or battery acid…for flavor. When you listen to the Bulawayo fellas play it, notice how the trumpet enters at about 1:08 and only lasts about twenty seconds. Like a barstool debater, who interrupts with slurry eloquence to say what's already been said, and subsides shortly afterwards when he forgets he's the one talking. Spirited indeed. Too much skokiaan will do that to a person. I imagine him tipping out of his chair. I don’t have any proof of the high proof—the session may have been a sober affair—but I may or may not have personal experience with how a horn sounds after an unwise amount of imbibery. 

The record reached the ears of the western world that year, and several diverse artists decided to cash in:

But my favorite, of course, was by Louis. His All Stars recorded it with the Sy Oliver Orchestra. If you compare the original instrumental’s great rhythms and melodies to the Armstrong recording, you can really tell Louis absorbed the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms version. But he also sings! Where’d those words come from!? Now, here’s the thing about the lyric. An American, Tom Glazer, added words during the 1954 American craze for the tune. It comes off like an African tourist bureau song. 

Oh, ho, Far away in Africa, happy happy Africa, (nonsense, nonsense, nonsense)…
Oh, ho, Take a trip to Africa, any ship to Africa, (nonsense, nonsense, nonsense)…

You get the idea. As far as I can find out, nobody consulted August to see if any insult was brought about by what I like to call “racist fluff.” “Skokiaan” was from that era of song when it was considered harmless popular diversion to write lyrics with minority stereotypes. But don’t underestimate Louis! He never was one to let a silly lyric get in the way of a superb performance:

Now here we are sixty years later about to put it on the next Southside Aces record! It was one of those where we go, "Eh, if we get a good take, we'll put it on the record." If it didn't make the cut, we wouldn't have exactly been despondent. As it turns out, it's becoming one of my favorites. It's a strong cut! We, however, dispensed with the singing. The Zimbabwe tourist office never got back to me. My arrangement, though, is obviously influenced by the Louis version; Zack even nails the high B-flats at the end. We’re in the mixing and mastering stage right now, so you’ll have to wait a little. In the meantime, get your hands on that movie, The Impostors. Do it! And if you can’t find it, let me know and I’ll have a screening over here at the house.