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Play It Forward: Singer Constance Hauman On Harmony, Rhythm, Opera And Funk

Originally published on July 7, 2021 4:41 pm

On the last edition of Play It Forward, All Things Considered's chain of musical gratitude, funk legend George Clinton spoke about opera singer and funk keyboardist Constance Hauman. In particular, he praised Hauman's many musical talents, which extend across genres.

"I had no idea about the opera part" of Hauman's career, Clinton explained, "until somebody ... showed me a video and I'm like, 'Oh my god — what?' I had to call her up and say, 'You didn't tell me about this.' " Later in the interview, he added that he's ready to tour with Hauman, as they have in the past. "I'm ready to hit the road again. Are you ready to hit the road again? We've got some unfinished things to do. We were right in the middle of recording some of the shows live when the pandemic started ... I'll see her in outer space."

Hauman says Clinton's words moved her to tears.

"You know, he was an idol, and Parliament Funkadelic was such a huge inspiration and something I always listened to on the road when I was doing opera to keep me going," she says.

Hauman spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro about her new album, Tropical Thunderstorm, her experiences as a multi-genre musician and an artist she's grateful for: Daf player Asal Malekzadeh. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On performing as Cunegonde in Candide with the London Symphony Orchestra

"I would say it changed my life in that, as George said, 'I went to outer space.' It was like being transported to another galaxy to have that experience and then have to come back to Earth and go back to having a 'normal' opera career ... My whole life for the future was contained in that one moment, and I think that's what — years later — gave me the courage to just say, 'Okay, you know what? That happened. Why couldn't it happen again?' I'm gonna get this band to George Clinton."

On her evolution as a musician

"Well, again, I have to take it back to Lenny [Leonard Bernstein, who also composed Candide] and the Young People's Concerts [a televised CBS series that brought classical music to a wider audience] ... As [Bernstein] would always say, 'There shouldn't be genre prejudice because good music — no matter what genre it is — is the same music.' ... [He showed that] there shouldn't be a psychological block in people to listen to different types of music, and he was the first and only conductor to do that."

On performing both opera and funk

"Yes, I mean, I think you become a better musician by being open to everything because rhythm is rhythm ... If you really take apart [Alban] Berg and [Arnold] Schoenberg and [Claude] Debussy and Maurice [Ravel] and all those harmonies they were experimenting with at different times you can hear it translated then into funk harmonies and R&B harmonies ... It's harmony and rhythm; it's sound and light."

On the professional Daf player Asal Malekzadeh, who Hauman has nominated for the next Play It Forward...

"Well, Asal Malekzadeh, and she is an Iranian Daf player...[A Daf is] an ancient instrument from Persia. And she has a 90-piece female percussion band, and she's a driving force in the music there."

... and a closing message for Malekzadeh

"Asal, you don't know me, and I don't know you. But, I know your music. And your music makes me feel like I know you. And I'm so inspired by everything that you're doing as a teacher and a mentor to other musicians. And I think your rhythms are so beautiful and inspire me. And I hope [that] I meet you sometime."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for another episode of Play It Forward, where artists tell us about their music and the musicians who inspire them. On our last episode we spoke with funk legend George Clinton, who told us about Constance Hauman, a pianist who plays in funk and rock bands and who also happens to be a world-renowned opera singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEORGE CLINTON: She opened up for us at B. B. King's in New York. We've been working together almost two years all through Australia, Europe, everywhere. But I had no idea about the opera part of it till somebody said Constance sing opera herself. And I said, yeah? And they showed me a video. And I'm like, oh, my God. What?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CLINTON: I had to call her up and say, you didn't tell me about this.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Constance next. So what would you like to say to her?

CLINTON: I'm ready to hit the road again. Are you ready to hit the road again?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CLINTON: Tell her I'll see her in outer space.

CONSTANCE HAUMAN: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.

SHAPIRO: Constance Hauman, welcome to Play It Forward.

HAUMAN: (Laughter) Hi. Thank you. I'm so happy to be here. I just - I love George so much. When I hear his voice, it just - I am so full of joy. Just - I can't even tell you.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What's your reaction to what he just said?

HAUMAN: I mean, it moves me to tears. I mean, I - you know, he was an idol, and Parliament-Funkadelic was such a huge inspiration and something I always listen to on the road when I was doing opera to keep me going. And so, to me, it just seems like it's a total miracle amazing story that I took the band to United Sound in Detroit, where Parliament had recorded all their records, with this crazy idea that maybe George would listen to it, if I could get it to him and he would see that we recorded at United Sound. And it worked, I think.

SHAPIRO: That's amazing.

HAUMAN: And it ended up that we - you know, I just thought, OK, the record's coming out. We'll be so lucky if we even get five minutes to open, you know, play one song. And it turned into one show, led to five shows, which led to a tour, which led to another tour and another tour and another tour - just a dream scenario, like a movie (laughter).

SHAPIRO: What's so wild to me is that this is not the first time you've had one of these kind of incredible stars-aligning scenarios in your life. I mean, if we could go all the way back to 1989...

HAUMAN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S, "GLITTER AND BE GAY")

SHAPIRO: You were 28. You were trying to make it as an opera singer. And the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein called you with basically 24 hours notice to sing one of his most difficult roles, Cunegonde in the musical "Candide," with the London Symphony Orchestra live on television.

HAUMAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: You killed it, and it changed your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S, "GLITTER AND BE GAY")

HAUMAN: (Singing) Glitter and be gay.

I would say it changed my life in that, as George said, I went to outer space. It was like being transported to another galaxy to have that experience and then have to come back to Earth and go back to having a normal opera career (laughter). But it seemed that the whole - everything that - I don't know. My whole life for the future was contained in that one moment, and I think that's what years later gave me the courage to just say, OK, you know what? That happened. Why couldn't it happen again? I'm going to get this band to George Clinton (laughter).

SHAPIRO: I love the image of you as a young opera singer traveling from gig to gig, listening to funk music, because over the course of your career, you have explored music in so many ways, in so many genres, in so many directions. I mean, just to give listeners a small sense of it, here's a track from your funk band, Miss Velvet and the Blue Wolf, where you play keys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISS VELVET AND THE BLUE WOLF SONG, "BAD GET SOME")

SHAPIRO: And then here's the title track from your new solo album, "Tropical Thunderstorm," which is a completely different sound.

HAUMAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROPICAL THUNDERSTORM")

HAUMAN: (Singing) Cannot weather. Though I know it's not very royal to express my emotion.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about this evolution that has just defined your career, branching out in so many different ways.

HAUMAN: Well, again, I have to take it back to Lenny and the "Young People's Concerts." And...

SHAPIRO: For people who don't know, the "Young People's Concerts" was this televised CBS series that was really instrumental in bringing classical music to a wider audience.

HAUMAN: Yes, as well as bringing the idea that, as he would always say, there shouldn't be genre prejudice because good music, no matter what genre, is the same music. And he had a - you know, showed Beethoven compared to the Beatles and the chord changes and how there's not really - there shouldn't be a psychological block in people to listen to different types of music. And he was the first and only conductor to do that.

SHAPIRO: Are there things that you take from your classical training that you think make you a better funk musician, that you think apply to these other genres that you're exploring in your music now that people might think of as it being, you know, at the opposite end of the spectrum from opera?

HAUMAN: Yes. I mean, I think you become a better musician by being open to everything because rhythm is rhythm. And if you really take apart Berg and Schoenberg and Debussy and Ravel and all those harmonies they were experimenting with at different times, you can hear it translated then into funk harmonies and R&B harmonies. It's harmony and rhythm. It's sound and light. And you just pull it in.

SHAPIRO: Constance Hauman, it is now your turn to play it forward. Tell us about a musician who you're thankful for, whose work you appreciate, who maybe looks and sounds different from you.

HAUMAN: Well, Asal Malekzadeh.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HEMMERSAM, ASAL MALEKZADEH AND EVELYN GLENNIE SONG, "RESTLESS HANDS")

HAUMAN: She is an Iranian Daf player.

SHAPIRO: Which is a percussion instrument.

HAUMAN: Yes, an ancient instrument from Persia. And she has a 90-piece female percussion band, and she's the driving force in the music there.

SHAPIRO: Is there a track of hers we can play to introduce listeners to her music?

HAUMAN: Yes. I mean, she's got many, so many. "Restless Hands" is a perfect one.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HEMMERSAM, ASAL MALEKZADEH AND EVELYN GLENNIE SONG, "RESTLESS HANDS")

SHAPIRO: So that's her on percussion there.

HAUMAN: Yeah, on Daf and playing her other percussion.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HEMMERSAM, ASAL MALEKZADEH AND EVELYN GLENNIE SONG, "RESTLESS HANDS")

SHAPIRO: Tell us what this is doing for you.

HAUMAN: It's an ethereal, powerful sound. She's channeling it. I mean, what can I - she's not - it's not calculated. It's so inspired. All her beats are - that it's something that's coming from inside, and you don't know what's going to happen. And I can feel that in her playing.

SHAPIRO: Well, I know you've never met her, but we're going to go to her next. So...

HAUMAN: That's so exciting.

SHAPIRO: What would you like to say to Asal?

HAUMAN: Asal, you don't know me and I don't know you, but I know your music. And your music makes me feel like I know you. And I'm so inspired by everything that you're doing as a teacher and a mentor to other musicians. And I think your rhythms are so beautiful and inspire me. And I hope I meet you sometime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASAL MALEKZADEH SONG, "DANCE OF HANDS")

SHAPIRO: Constance Hauman, her new album is "Tropical Thunderstorm." Thank you so much for talking with us.

HAUMAN: Thank you. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: And we will talk with Asal Malekzadeh on the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASAL MALEKZADEH SONG, "DANCE OF HANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.