One of my biggest inspirations for assigning students to make YouTube-sourced montages is the fact that musical supercuts are already an ordinary practice, whether we’re talking about the best Nae Nae Vines or, say, all the footage of Elvis doing “Hound Dog” one can find.
In that sense — and I think this is consistent with the technomusicological enterprise — our practice is informed by digital folk culture, if you will, not simply academic theory, and our products are meant to themselves circulate as a form of online art, hopefully to some of the same communities, audiences, and individuals who serve as the subjects of our work.
Beyond that goal, YouTube montages also serve to archive some of this wonderful stuff in an age when we can’t necessarily take its permanence for granted. Along those lines, let me take the opportunity to note that my anxious critique about “Platform Politricks” I posted here five years back, was recently given new life — a new platform even!? — thanks to this recent piece by Ann Powers in which I serve as a sort of protagonist:
The advent of streaming was a game-changer for someone like Marshall, a connoisseur of older and emerging music surviving beyond mainstream. Material that once could only be found through diligent fieldwork — whether that meant connecting directly with far-flung communities or digging like crazy in record store bins or basement library stacks — was now immediately accessible, and framed by lively exchanges that often included the music-makers themselves. Streaming was changing music scholarship, as well as the day-to-day pleasures of any curious listener who could now instantly pursue a new fascination.
All that said — and you should read the rest if you have the time — I’m really writing here to share some stellar mega-montages from this spring’s technomusicology class. Without further ado, allow me to present a few favorites.
In the standout montage this semester (though I may be biased by the number of hours I spent in front of an NES), one student painstakingly assembled a collection of renditions of The Legend of Zelda “Overworld Theme” in 25 different styles! Complete with titles and framed with rare footage, this montage shows a striking, collective “nerduosity” at work in the ongoing social life of this enduring 8-bit earworm — particularly, the remarkable profusion of Brady-Bunch-style multitracked one-man-band freakouts:
Another student decided to plumb the depths of YouTube’s most popular video, “Gangnam Style” (currently at 2.3 billion views). In the process of auditioning 150 spin-offs and ultimately selecting 60 versions of the song/video to mash together, he discovered a fairly amazing thing: together, these “parodies” have 5-6 billion views, outpacing the incredibly popular original. As the student wrote–
Clearly, Gangnam Style created a platform of its own atop the YouTube platform, inspiring videographers the world over to ride the Gangnam wave to YouTube fame. But the viral genius of the video exceeded the easy-to-learn horse dance, as novel as it was. Psy unknowingly created a video framework for portraying style of any kind. Instead of Gangnam Style, it was now London Style, Klingon Style, Farmer Style; Oregon Ducks Style, Skyrim Style, Motorcycle Style, Filipino Style, Gandalf Style, the list goes on. By framing his video with the English word “Style”, Psy triggered a global video meme, powered by a viral platform. Anyone and everyone could use his common platform to spoof their culture or lampoon another.
Here’s 60 of em:
Ok, one more to call attention to, worth your consideration for its conceptual coolness. Another student decided to compose his own video montage of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song from a concert he himself attended by combining the sound-board audio that he purchased at the close of the show with 8 other concertgoers’ hand-held recordings of the performance. I’ll let him do the rest of the framing:
For my etude this week, I chose not to focus necessarily on a “viral” spread. YouTube has encouraged countless amateur recordings; there were several examples shown in class about home videos that became viral, remixed, and spread. But there are also many videos that are uploaded without the intent of going viral: many people simply upload to YouTube so that their videos can be easily shared amongst family members and friends.
I wanted to show a way that this trend, combined with music, would do sort of the opposite of a viral spread: It would actually unite and bring a community of people together. I used to upload my own videos of concerts I attended, until I realized that if I truly wanted to reflect back, there would be tons of other people uploading that same concert. So I began enjoying the concerts in the moment, and finding the recordings later. I have made several online acquaintances from finding videos filmed by complete strangers that were standing next to me, so close that you can hear me singing.
To emulate this in my etude, I gathered various recordings of the same song from the same concert: 8 different people, all unrelated, in the same arena, enjoying the same performance. I chose “Otherside” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers because I had a high quality mp3 recording of that entire night, and Otherside was the only track in the set that was under 5 minutes. I used the mp3 as an anchor for the video: the other clips still play their audio, though considerably muted.
By shifting between the different clips, these 8 strangers come together and produce a fuller view of the same event, sharing their insight and creating a bond. The result almost resembles what the band would sell as a concert dvd, all produced by amateurs with cell phones.
During the draft/workshop/revision stage, we encouraged the student to mix more of the ambient sound from each camera/smartphone into the video in order to give the audio some of the personalized texture of the video clips. The final version is quite the document:
And that’s just a sampling. If you’re looking for more, you can check out others via this playlist —
My students have been hard at work in this spring’s session of Technomusicology at the Harvard Extension School (which I’ve just realized marks 10 years since I first started teaching there!), and I’m eager to share some standout projects.
We recently turned to the mashup as a media form to grapple with, thinking about the particular convergence of technologies that enabled its emergence (Napster, MP3, AcidPro) as well as the range of aesthetic approaches that mashups seem able to support.
Of course, as a technomusicological object, we also thought about how we might use the mashup to tell a specific story about musical relationships — an idea I’ve been exploring for a while under the heading of “mashup pedagogy.” Moreover, while the mashup might seem passé as a form, it’s actually an especially interesting time to study mashups based on their latest incarnation: as trial evidence!
So here are several stellar mashups made by this spring’s budding technomusicologists.
First, a mashy mini-mega-mix of nine varied renditions of the Spider Man theme!
Or perhaps you’d fancy a reflection on the theatricality of 21st century warfare in a layered mix of 7 iconic film soundtracks:
How about a musically-inspired mashup of “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy and music from Mega Man?
Or perhaps you’ve really been waiting to hear (and just never knew it) how Gloria Gaynor sounds over a thumping four-four and, alternately, how Kelly Clarkson rocks over some ol’ disco beats — a time-spanning mashup of anthemic feminism!
Ok, it’s true: what we all needed to hear was a mashy history, including commercial and amateur versions, of the genealogy connecting Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” to its go-go source, Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose”:
Well, that’s an edifying earful if I don’t say so myself! Here’s to my talented and dedicated students; stay tuned for some inspired, edutaining YouTube montages to follow!
Finally, if this sort of endeavor piques your curiosity and you’d like to join us on our next technomusicological journey, I’ll be offering the class next as a special, intensive 7 week session from June-August via the Harvard Summer School.
Gilles Aubry’s The Amplification of Souls is a meticulously composed and conceived “audio-essay” (Aubry’s term) on Kinshasa’s charismatic churches and the broader soundscape they inhabit and inflect. I reviewed the CD, along with its 80 page booklet, in Issue 371 of The Wire (January 2015).
Gilles Aubry The Amplification of Souls
ADOCS Verlag CD+8K
As speaker hum and empty plosives congeal into a stuttered mic-check for Jesus, a slight squeal suggests the looming threat of feedback. Because so many of Kinshasa’s churches are open-air affairs, the rumble of motorcycles and automobiles accompany the ambience of a band slowly tuning up and worshippers gathering. Preachers punch through the din with bursts of noise louder than anything else, the flat lines of distortion making palpable the power of their authority. Handmade PAs hit their limits as microphones bear witness to the possession of souls and of space. And then, sudden quiet save for the faint buzz of the sound system. Speakertowers of Babel from the Heart of Darkness, respectfully recorded and remixed for headphones and museums thousands of miles away.
The jump cuts are jarring, reminding that this is no straightforward documentary. The voice of the artist, Gilles Aubry, resounds here too. The Amplification of Souls is, according to its careful and copious framing, Aubry’s “audio-essay” on Kinshasa’s religious soundscape. Congolese charismatic churches are a laudable focus given the immensity of the phenomenon and the general indifference to it in the wider world, perhaps because megachurches and prosperity gospel seem more essentially American than African. Attempting what the artist contends is “a material-based form of cultural interpretation” the work stands as a studious, self-aware approach to sonic ethnography. Aubry’s project is so steeped in reflexivity and rigorous attention to the sounds and their contexts and meanings, it clearly seeks to pre-empt perfunctory charges of appropriation. “He doesn’t even understand what we’re saying,” says a churchgoer quoted in the liner notes, “Them, the whites, they record anything.”
What constitutes understanding here is a crucial, vexing point. A dozen minutes in, the tongues begin. The glossolalia is striking in itself, alien and arresting and enjoying an undistorted sonic clarity in contrast to the punchy preachers. It also seems to mirror the varied textures of the audio-essay itself, composed of multiple sound sources created by different people with different objectives: church services and evangelical street campaigns, radio and video, cooking and football. At one point, a burst of traditional music, full of clapping and ululation, points more toward continuities than contrasts, while the appearance of local rap and meandering Hawaiian guitar suggest other Others to be heard. All the while, Aubry’s own voice emerges in the layering of samples, their stereo spatialization, and the inevitable narrative arc that emerges from his rearrangement of such disparate sonic documents.
Presented as academic sound art, The Amplification of Souls comes with an 80 page booklet including an interview with Aubry that contains the phrase “neo-colonial representation” in its subtitle. It also boasts an essay on “The Sonic Materialities of Belief” by a musicologist and cultural anthropologist which notes, among other things, that Congolese charismatic movements themselves “appropriated” the patina, and hence the power, of noise and distortion from Pentecostal missionaries. Performed previously as a sound installation and now as an ongoing set of public performances, Aubry’s remixed recordings stand at once as an impressionistic refraction of Kinshasa’s soundscape and as the material embodiment of sounds that he would like to let speak for themselves. One way that Aubry does so is to pair his collage with a 34 minute excerpt of a spiritual deliverance service that provides a great deal more context and less composerly initiative, though the profound act of framing remains. In another show of transparency, Aubry’s original recordings of the service in full have been archived online.
Even so, what makes this anything other than churchy Congotronics? Why choose Kinshasa instead of Kansas City? Or, for that matter, Berlin? Not only does the city that Aubry calls home play host to numerous charismatic churches itself, some are even Congolese. Obviously, the specific site of these recordings is crucial to their circulation as art in Europe and the US, but it is deeply ironic that, against the coolness of Kinshasa trance traditionalists like Konono No 1, Aubry must seek out possessed Christians to locate the hot exoticism Western audiences expect. How would Kinshasa’s charismatic communities receive this project? Would it sound like understanding? Should that guide the way audiences elsewhere experience it? The emphasis on sound as material culture suggests that we’re not meant to attend to the content so much as the deracinated affects of the audio. Perhaps glossolalia itself offers an answer. Does the lexical register matter when all that we’re waiting for is the outbreak of the unintelligible?
I’m offering another semester of technomusicology this spring via the Harvard Extension School (Harvard’s open-enrollment option), beginning January 29. The class meets Thursday evenings from 5:30-7:30pm, but the course will also be available online for anyone who cares to join us from a distance (including realtime participation in classes, if you can make it).
A project-oriented approach to studying the relationship between technologies, audio cultures, and media regimes, technomusicology remains my favorite class to teach. I’m looking forward to another go-round with a new set of students who’ll bring their own interests and talents to the class and to their work. Check out some projects from the Classes of ’12 and ’14 to see & hear a wide range of examples.
Building on previous iterations, I’ve tuned up the syllabus, revising the readings and assignments; most notably, I’ve selected a new final etude: a short, sound-designed, documentary video, building on the audio production skills we’ve learned, offering a window into local sound or music culture (ideally with a focus on an individual and his or her sonic world).
I’ve also been collecting some great new examples that do wonderful technomusicological work. Here’s one that I hope will inspire a few students when we turn to mashups as critical/pedagogical vehicles:
Now that’s what I call technomusicology! Up there with the Migos Flow montage, or with the following video, which I’ve been playing in classes for years, a production that deftly pulls back the curtain on a submerged, fully flipped sample–
No doubt, there are all manner of undiscovered genres of meta-musical musicking along these lines — or orthogonal to them! I look forward to seeing — and, of course, hearing — the directions this spring’s forays into the technomusicological will take us. Do consider contributing to the collective effort if you have the time, inclination, and, yes, the means.
Or just go ahead and DIY and holler at a scholar if you cook something up you’d care to share ;)
I’ve got an article in The Wire‘s new issue devoted to “Freedom Principles” (December 2014). I was inspired by the call for submissions to thread the idea of freedom through the story of Dutch bubbling, which I think embodies it in a number of important ways.
After having the privilege to visit with some of bubbling’s pioneers and torchbearers in Aruba this September, I’m feeling as inspired — and required — as ever to give this wonderful story of translocal music culture and creativity the telling it deserves. This is a start.
I’ve also put together a “portal” of audio and video examples for the Wire’s site; check it out and sink deep into the sounds and images of bubbling!
The essay that appears in the print issue follows below. Big up Moortje, Chuckie, Coversquad, Fellow, & everyone else involved in this remarkable story! Thanks for sharing with me. Keep bubbling free!
Moortje on the decks in ~92
Is there any sound so free as DJ Moortje’s mid-1990s track “Donna”, his remix of Singing Sweet’s 1992 lovers rock rendition of Richie Valens’s 1959 hit pitched to chipmunk levels and propelled by doubled-up dancehall drums in double time? With such feathers in its cap, Dutch bubbling should have long ago established the Netherlands on the global bass map. A hyperkinetic, hyperlocal, sample-centric take on dancehall, bubbling thrived in obscurity throughout the 1990s, and today it continues to enjoy a certain liberty on the margins of international reggae culture. Obscurity is but one of several key forms of freedom embodied by its almost implausible existence. Its very genesis and gestation, never mind its spectacular and strange shapes, are products of the buttressing effects of inherited traditions with liberating aesthetics, technologies with plasticity, and the social support and political economy of small scenes.
Networking Holland’s immigrant enclaves in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague, bubbling took root in dancehalls where African-Antillean youth could gather, socialise and dance. Notably, the music of choice for first and second generation migrants from Aruba, Curacao and Suriname was supplied not by these islands or the Netherlands, but by Jamaica. At clubs such as Voltage in the Hague or Imperium in Rotterdam, dancehall reggae provided a soundtrack for couples to rub-a-dub, schuren (that’s Dutch for rub), or, in the parlance of the day, bubble along with sensuous, polyrhythmic Jamaican music that sounded at once Caribbean and global, ancestral and utterly modern. Bubbling — or bobbeling — channelled the energies of a new youth culture that gave people united by their experience in postcolonial Dutch society a common platform for creativity and community, especially as DJs and dancers together pushed tempos beyond reggae’s comfort zone and twisted dancehall into a shape that became more recognisable as a local innovation.
Bubbling’s DJs, MCs, producers and dancers took flight from reggae’s DJ driven and remix-oriented music culture, an imperative to revisit and revise familiar forms accentuated by hiphop’s relentless flipping of scripts. Inspired at once by hiphop sampling and reggae versioning, the practitioners of Dutch bubbling remade dancehall in their own image, manipulating samples of well-worn riddims in ways no Jamaican producers ever would. In this way, bubbling’s referential yet irreverent chop and stab approach to dancehall — more directly derivative than a reggae relick but less faithful to a riddim’s integrity — makes it an uncanny twin of reggaeton; they even share a love for the same canon of riddims: “Fever Pitch”, “Bam Bam”, “Dem Bow” and pretty much anything featuring Cutty Ranks. With a premium on transformation, skirting the line between recognition and surprise, Dutch-Antillean DJs like the pioneering DJ Moortje would take reggae B side versions and make them the basis for new performances, quite as they were intended — if not in the wildly distorted shapes Moortje and cohorts would make of them. Recording new vocals over an instrumental is one thing; combining loops from multiple riddims, some pitched to double time and some screwed to molasses, spiked with whimsical samples from the hardcore gabber of Rotterdam Termination Source or Snoop Dogg album skits, is another thing entirely.
Moortje enjoyed a critical degree of creative freedom thanks to the affordances of vinyl and turntables. Exploiting the limited but profound capacities of these playback technologies, he took the familiar records that made dancers bubble and pushed their tempos into uncharted territory by playing 33 rpm records at 45 rpm and sliding the pitch fader right up to and beyond its upper limit. Given the opportunity, Moortje would sometimes remove the turntable platter from a pair of Technics to access an internal knob controlling the pitch adjustment range, allowing him to shift 100 bpm riddims into a far more uptempo terrain.
Moortje showing me, in the sand, how he would modify the Technics’ pitch range
Later, audio software vastly expanded bubbling’s creative possibilities. Moortje’s innovative performances planted the seed for speed bubbling, a digital development first enabled by Amiga 500 tracker software that allowed production crews like The Coversquad to take tempos upwards of 150 bpm, much to the bemusement or dismay of visiting reggae artists experiencing bubbling’s love of chipmunked and screwed vocals and drums. Commissioned by dancers requiring dramatic, sample-packed soundtracks for their choreographed, competitive routines, producers would suture audio from films and rap albums onto the breakneck bubbling beats that impelled dancers to move like marionettes doing the butterfly. Indeed, the strikingly experimental nature of bubbling productions was predicated on an intimate feedback loop with audiences who appreciated how the music had coalesced as a genuinely local style. Such a supportive setting was fostered and enjoyed by MCs like Pester and Pret, who helped to push the tempos and excitement levels as they added their own accents to the mix. With their Dutch and Papiamento lyrics chanting down Babylon or simply telling people to shake it, bubbling’s MCs further imbued the music with local resonance.
For better or worse, bubbling’s deeply idiomatic qualities may also grant the genre a certain freedom from external forces. In its heyday, it only happened live or on recordings informally circulated on cassette, meaning its heavy use of samples bypassed the attentions of the mainstream pop industry. Whether mainstream Dutch house has since effectively sublimated bubbling’s mojo is an argument for another day. And even as the music’s artefacts finally mount up in online archives like YouTube and Soundcloud, or as musical references percolating through the releases of Fade To Mind, Mad Decent, or Planet Mu, bubbling’s baseline weirdness might yet guarantee that its signature sound will always be free.
I reviewed Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis, a re-issue of the classic salvo in Brazil’s tropicalia movement, for Issue 367 of The Wire (September 2014). Happily, this one’s also a nice chunky review; nice to get a little leeway on the wordcount for a verbose dude like yours truly. Here’s a director’s cut of sorts, somewhere between the semi-final and final version.
Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis
Soul Jazz Records CD/LP
A charming but sardonic cha cha for Christopher Columbus, a rock anthem quoting Latin liturgy as it bears witness to the hungry poor and the bloodstained tables of the rich, a dada-esque word puzzle that possibly alludes to Batman, a dreamy bossa nova telling listeners to eat ice cream and learn English (in Portuguese) — these are just a few points of contrast and conversation threaded through an album that aspired to no less than naming and giving voice to a new cultural movement, and succeeded spectacularly.
Yet despite its firm place in the history of Brazilian music, Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circensis, the coproduced and collaborative creation of Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Nara Leao, Gal Costa, Rogério Duprat, and many more, has long suffered from a conspicuous lack of circulation beyond Brazil. All the more strange considering the album’s uncanny incorporation of UK psychedelic rock into a Brazilian idiom.
“We were ‘eating’ The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,” remembers Caetano Veloso in his memoir Verdade Tropical, invoking a foundational imperative to cannibalize — culturally, that is — proposed in the 1920s by modernist poet, Oswald De Andrade. Taking to heart Andrade’s call for Brazilian artists not to imitate but to devour whatever they encounter, in the late 1960s the tropicalistas would initiate a cultural turn by their brave commitment to a voracious aesthetic at the height of a military dictatorship that would later arrest and exile both Gil and Veloso (who would return years later as luminaries, with Gil eventually serving as Minister of Culture in the 2000s under Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva).
In the decades since its resonant debut, much ink has spilled over tropicalia’s significance, and listeners outside of Brazil have been introduced to the music via retrospectives released by Soul Jazz, Luaka Bop and others. Still, the album’s singular expression of the movement has yet to enjoy widespread reception on its own terms. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, with segues and sequencing, Tropicalia wants to be heard as a unit, in a single setting, or over and over.
As if responding to the dearth of access to physical copies for so long, Soul Jazz is only releasing the album in physical form and with faithful, facsimile repackaging, including the original art (an inclusive, symbol-laden, family-style photo), unusual approach to song credits, and dramaturgical liner notes from the back of the record sleeve. They do so with reason. As with other concept albums of the day, Tropicalia was produced as a total package and placed remarkable emphasis on acknowledging the contributions of all involved while underscoring the collaboration at the heart of the project. Beside the song titles sit the songwriters’ (first) names, followed by the performers’ names in parentheses. Writing and performing each other’s songs, and honoring as they blur the distinct voices of the group, Veloso, Gil, et al, appear more as a true collective — a movement, even — than a conventional group.
Boxed in by an opposition between the West and the Rest that they wanted neither to deny nor accept, the tropicalistas developed a pointedly diverse sound by drawing as much on resilient local accents as international codes. “We wanted to participate in the worldwide language,” Veloso recounts, “both to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.” Eschewing homogenous fusion for a chunky syncretism, the music on Tropicalia moves with conviction from psych rock fantasia to tweaked bossa nova, cheeky mambo to treacly ballad, sometimes within the span of a single track.
The album is tight but never stiff, at once made supple by ebullient performances and substantial by the critiques smoldering between the lines. The opener, “Miserere Nobis” sets up this double-edge straight away with its church organ intro and chorus plea to “have mercy on us”, deploying Catholic referents and what Veloso refers to as “noble images enveloping a political commitment that is far more implicit than stated”. As the track shifts from quick, jangly strumming, rolling drums, and a double-time shaker to a staccato, reedy riff, Gil rehearses a simple set of ideals in Portuguese: “Hopefully one day, one day…for all and always the same beer” and that “the table of the people has bananas and beans”. Language aside, “Geléia Geral” would hardly sound out of place on Pet Sounds with its elaborate, layered arrangement, except for the samba section that erupts half-way into the song. The chorus, “Ê bumba iê iê boi”, in arch-tropicalist fashion, slyly coaxes a rock-inflected “yeah-yeah” out of a folk song from the North East of Brazil.
Elsewhere, using a Dylan inspired mix of plainspokenness and oblique metaphor, Os Mutantes’ “Panis Et Circensis” explicitly needles the complacent middle class during a moment of crisis and possibility: “I unfurled the sails on the masts in the air / I set free the tigers and the lions in backyards / But the people in the dining room / Are busy being born and dying”. After a couple minutes of haranguing the bourgeois, the hurdy-gurdy dirge slows to a stop, as if the power went out and the record stopped spinning. Seconds later, the “busy being born and dying” line returns as a mantra chanted over a galloping, Beatles-esque backbeat complete with twittering trumpets. The music gathers speed until it crashes with a hard tape splice into the mundane din of clinking glasses and inane chatter over muted strains of Blue Danube.
If elaborately orchestrated rock, especially the kind of multitracked whimsy and ambition of Sgt Pepper’s, is the album’s most obvious exotic touchstone, then arranger Rogério Duprat, who stands as a central member of the motley crew on the album cover, is the collective’s George Martin, providing a swell of strings or bursts of fanfare when needed, or, say, a bass clarinet figure bubbling briefly in the left channel. Duprat’s soaring arrangement for Veloso’s cover of Vicente Celestino’s “Coração Materno” supplies crucial support to a triumphant tribute, reanimating reviled schmaltz in order to undermine a prevailing elitism that the tropicalistas wished to resist.
Occasionally the lyrics and sonic signposts are less veiled — as when Gil and Veloso ironically sing the praises of Cristóvão Colombo “who, to our delight, came with three caravels”. Then there’s the pathetic pomp of the final track, “Hino Do Senhor Do Bonfim”, a nationalistic anthem which eventually brings the album to a close with eerie moans, the cavernous knocks of a distant cannon, and silence. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way a military dictatorship might interpret such a work of smoking agitpop.
I reviewed Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil, a new compilation from Brazil’s Mais Um Discos, for Issue 365 of The Wire (July 2014). Given my prolix proclivities, I was glad to get a little longer leash (i.e., wordcount) for this one. Nice to be able to stretch out a bit — and dig in — given how short record reviews tend to be. I was also especially happy to get the phrase “Carne vale, my ass” into print!
Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil
Mais Um Discos
As prior Mais Um compilations have also trumpeted new waves, it’s striking that so many of these forty-three tracks spanning ten Brazilian states sound deeply familiar, even on first spin. In terms of sound — of musical forms and signs — little here seems new. The recordings were made recently, sure, but as far as the music’s references, nearly every track grins like a cat with a carnival feather dangling from the side of its mouth. Carne vale, my ass. The so-called new sounds of Brazil are still fully in thrall to the time-honored Brazilian tradition of anthropofagia, or cultural cannibalism.
If you enjoyed Luaka Bop’s retrospective takes on tropicalia and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), much here will resonate as an extension of that mongrel approach to Brazilian and international influences alike. Stewing together such bottomless local wellsprings as samba, bossa nova, capoeira, and tecno brega with rock, cumbia, electro, and afrobeat, the compiled acts give voice to the fecundity of the present moment’s access to the recorded past.
Amidst an omnivore’s dilemma of musical choices, the iconic instruments and accents of Brazil serve as rudders in the flow of international currents. The opener, very much in this vein, may be the best of the bunch. Brimming with allusions, effects, and textural shifts, Lucas Santtana’s “Amor meu grande amor” emerges from a cocoon of vinyl crackle and street static as a sweet song with clarion, close-miked vocals redolent of canonical bossa nova. A swirling organ sets the voice on an anthemic pedestal before a deep, dubwise groove moves in to support and unsettle. Santtana’s neat trick, anchoring an otherwise slippery arrangement with a suave singer, appears again on the very next track and threads its way through the compilation. Apanhador Só’s “Mordido” begins as a glitchy, frantic bossa buoyed by calm crooning but after two twitchy verses culminates in a grungy dirge that, to its credit, doesn’t feel nearly as non sequitur as it should. These salvos are followed by swampy cumbias that borrow beats from cheesy axé thigh-burners and fuzzy guitars and sundry other permutations of familiar sounds and signposts, local and non.
The compilation is organized into two parts, the second half allegedly devoted to “post baile-funk” dance music though it features as many live ensembles and mid-century styles as the first disc includes samples and synths. Moreover, a lot of the tracks on “Disc Dois” could have been made before funk carioca’s national and global diffusion and hardly seem to register its influence. But several fun, bass-propelled productions manage to capture the spirit, if not the sound, of the funk ball: Lurdez da Luz’s “Ping pong” channels Missy Elliott while teasing a berimbau sample; distorted cuicas drive another sort of musical feijoada on Thiago França’s off-kilter, one-minute interlude, “Picardia”; pandeiros float above the digital thump of DJ Mam’s smoothly recalibrated take on classic carioca forms, “Cuz Cus De Canô”; and it’s fitting to hear US producer but longtime Rio-resident Maga Bo contribute a dancehall reggae romp in which the Jamaican presets have been replaced with local inputs, a slowly building track that puts vocals front and center all the while threatening to usurp their pride of place with growling bass.
More apparent than funk carioca here is the familiar boom-ch-boom-chick of Afrodiasporic genres like reggaeton or zouk, most popularly localized via axé and tecno brega, two genres often dismissed as proletarian schmaltz — brega means cheese — but clearly a presence in several selections, from the electronic grooves of Strobo’s “Amazônia bang bang” to the nu-tropicalia of Tulipa’s “Megalomania.” Peba’s “ARROZX” sounds almost like a Jersey club take on tecno brega, while Gang do Eletro point toward the genre’s eletro melody wing, as well as funk, with their carioca-cadence raps, half-time habanero, and the kind of cloying synths that drive dancers mad at Belem bailes.
Whether or not they meet the conceit of “post baile funk” dance music, other tracks here merit your time. Joined by no less than Tony Allen on drums, Meta Meta’s “Alakoro” is a jittery jam with angular, interwoven riffs and starkly rendered instrumentation. Bixiga 70’s “Kalimba” engages soukous and afrobeat with its latticework guitars, horn blasts, and propulsive drumming, only to nod to cumbia and classic rock a few minutes in. It’s somewhat startling to hear such straightforward, synth-driven cumbia as Sistema Criolina’s “Pequi week bar,” but there it is, and it’s not bad.
The mix of fresh and rote on Rolê suggests a different kind of curation might have produced a more broadly representative collection of Brazil’s newest new waves. Conspicuously absent here are rough-and-ready uploads to Soundcloud or the scandalous, viral dance tunes that garner millions of views on YouTube and inflect all manner of Brazilian pop, from MPB to axé to the country-pop of sertaneja. Such grassroots productions and their mainstream reflections are crucial constituents of the Brazilian soundscape but they go unheard on this otherwise ambitious compilation. Plumbing the ongoing give-and-take between the legacies of tropicalia and the insurgencies of funk could have made for a more trenchant take on the new, or at least contemporary, sounds of Brazil.
This track is the standout for me, by far (but you can listen to the whole thing here) —
I reviewed Salvadora Robot, the latest album from Colombia’s Meridian Brothers, for Issue 364 of The Wire (June 2014).
Meridian Brothers Salvadora Robot
Cutting their own odd swath though a tangle of urban musicians now embracing their country’s regional, grassroots popular traditions, Meridian Brothers’ newest offering is a genre-hopping, funhouse reflection of the Colombian music landscape. On Salvadora Robot, the Bogota based musicians set their nimble jazz hands to wringing fun, funny songs out of charged local materials, cosmopolitan flourishes, and a battery of resonant, vintage sounds. Inflecting local idioms like vallenato and salsa with gestures and arrangements more redolent of Tom Zé or Tortoise than Joe Arroyo, the group scrawls its skittery signature all over the map.
While the warbling electric guitars sometimes tug at the surf-rock roots of Andean cumbia – “El Gran Pájaro De Los Andes” is audibly steeped in Peruvian chicha – the combination of tropical and psychedelic takes many shapes on the album, including the psych-rock salsa of “Doctor Trompeta”. Surprising, delightful synth lines dart in and out of several songs, and a panoply of intricate riffs and rhythms, especially the interplay between the drums and keyboards, conjure all manner of classic Colombian band traditions – and perhaps other allusions as well: “Somos Las Residentas”, the frisky album opener, recalls Raymond Scott with its slinky horn-riffs and locomotive drive. Throwback keyboards and guitars often jump out of the texture, but the lively kit drumming is the album’s combustible engine.
Salvadora Robot is expansive and inclusive in its references, and finds Meridian Brothers attentive to the bounds of tradition but willing to take risks. Several songs end in maniacal laughing, entranced singing, or animal braying, and the album’s lyrics are colorful, uproarious, and often surreal, with “burning butterflies”, “pregnant dolls in the trash”, and a tale of a man sentenced to the electric chair for dancing to reggaeton. That song, “Baile Último”, despite its conceptual bite, offers a rare moment when the group seems to stray from the prevailing spirit of the project. Salvadora Robot carries a studious attention to local wellsprings without slavish devotion to convention, but when the tribute turns tongue-in-cheek, it undercuts the song’s critique, which is leveled not at reggaeton, but its elitist critics. The group’s lurching, out-of-sync take on reggaeton, more for the bourgeois than the boulevard, falls flat. But for the most part Salvadora Robot is a thoughtful and fruitful engagement with, and resistance to, the twin trappings of nostalgia and novelty.
This past year I began reviewing records regularly again, mostly for the wonderfully serious London-based publication, The Wire, which has been pushing lots of interesting releases across my desk.
It’s been a great experience working with the editors over there and trying to bring my prolix, punny, occasionally-too-precious style in line with their more exacting house rules (e.g., no using the word band!). As per usual, if a bit late, I’m going to archive the pieces here at W&W.com, usually in the form they appeared in the magazine. Sometimes it’s a little tricky to track down the final draft after many backs-and-forths, so there’ll be a mix of “director’s cuts” in these re-posts as well.
We’ll start at the beginning. First up: Beyond Addis, a compilation of new groups — dare we call them bands? — working in the Ethio-jazz style, as reviewed in Issue 363 of The Wire (May 2014).
Beyond Addis compiles recent interpretations of Ethio-jazz from outside of Ethiopia, bearing witness to the remarkable recent diffusion of this distinctive style. Thanks to the Éthiopiques compilations, the Broken Flowers soundtrack, and such longstanding musical torchbearers as the Either/Orchestra, the swinging Addis sound of the early 1970s has grown into a repertory of its own for jazz groups and kindred groove collectives, especially those that like vintage funk with a loping waltz, or wah-wah guitar with baritone sax. At once foreign and familiar, and suitable for ensembles of all sizes, Ethio-jazz’s moody, modal melodies and triple-time romps have won over a new wave of devotees.
Like the explosion of Afrobeat a decade ago, Ethio-jazz is the new frontier of fusion in the broadest sense, enticing sundry instrumentalists to play with its recognizable but varied palette. Beyond Addis showcases kindred tunes, rhythms, and forms – all head-solo-head instrumentals – carefully rendered by groups from across Europe and the US. For all their devotion to a classic Ethio-jazz sound, each puts forward their own take on the synthesis of free jazz, psych rock, hard bop, funk and traditional music that Mulatu Astatke and compatriots were exploring four decades ago. Paris group Akalé Wubé open the collection with the reverent but distorted “Jawa Jawa”, and several other tracks are cut in that mold, but London band The Heliocentrics bend piano, harp, and flute around jangly percussion and a lurching beat; Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Geneva) offer up a sweet, swaying ballad; New York’s Budos Band grind out a dirge punctuated by blasts of brassy noise; and Boston’s Debo Band close the proceedings with an accordion, violin, and tuba driven composition that channels Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus as much as the spirit of Swinging Addis. While some performances may be more devoted than inspired, and although the whiff of sonic orientalism or 1970s nostalgia may always haunt such gestures, many of the ensembles here have collaborated with Ethiopian musicians and labor to execute a vision that is faithful without being inert and innovative without contortion. In this way, the best of the groups on Beyond Addis not only bring the great Ethio-jazz fusion project full circle but carry it to new places too.
What can I say? It’s been a chockfull summer. Mostly with farming and teaching, but also, I’m happy to note, with writing and talking about music as well. And while I’ve found the time to do some “dancing about architecture,” I’m afraid I’ve been a little slack when it comes to linking/re-posting it here. So here are some items from the last few months that I’d like to call attention to if you haven’t already seen & heard em. (FYI, I’ve also been reviewing albums for The Wire, but I’ll be reposting those separately.)
First, I’m excited to report that I was asked by the nice ppl at Mixpak Records to pen an essay for Popcaan’s debut album, Where We Come From. Writing reggae liner notes is something I’ve always dreamed about doing, and I was thrilled to sit with this stellar set of chunes for a few months before it went out to the world. Here’s a little teaser, but definitely click through to read the wole ting — and do give the album a good listen, it’s well worth the time!
In turns uplifting and haunting, reverent and rude, Where We Come From gives voice, as the best reggae does, to the contradictions of life in a society rife with inequities and yet so rich. Whether odes to the ghetto or the good life, Popcaan’s lyrics bring realist portraits and utopian visions into dynamic tension. Songs about struggle and sex and happiness occupy the same space because they do. …
Like his predecessors in crossover without compromise, Popcaan appeals to listeners outside of Jamaica precisely because he brings a distinctively Jamaican voice to the proceedings. In a world gone global, Popcaan occupies that sweet space of possibility where a deeply local accent communicates to outernational listeners. With his patois lyrics, plainspoken and poetic, his own takes on the latest slang, and his vowels stretched in that Portmore twang, Popcaan is unapologetically uberlocal in address. But since dancehall is itself a globe-spanning style and symbolic code, Popcaan’s performances are also pitched to the world. For all the downhome detail, nuff translates—and plenty comes across in universal terms: hustle for the money, too damn evil, everything is nice.
Speaking of hustle for the money (and it shall appear?), the Popcaan essay dovetails with a conversation I had recently with Afropop Worldwide for their “Money Show,” which explores the role of money (or not) in music scenes spanning Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, Jamaica, and South Africa. The topic turns to Jamaica at around the 45 minute mark:
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggae’s success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. “The genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,” he explains, “from Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.” So whether it’s the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.
“You can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,” Marshall continues. “It really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.”
This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But it’s noteworthy – if not mindblowing – that someone uploaded it at all, and it speaks volumes about the political economy of contemporary music circulation. The intense compression artifacts may or may not be intentional – whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterne’s contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a «sonic austerity program». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation – like cumulative tape hiss or dusty record crackles for older ears. Due to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, and more liberal leaking practices, such distortions already strike us as «artifacts» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.
In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and “nuking” the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that “entire media ecosystems” might suddenly “succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.” I’ve been using the word “platform” throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use “platform” as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services “platforms” creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.
The fifth etude in our summer session required students to cook up short DJ mixes that follow a particular musical thread across time and space. As readers will know, I’ve made a fewofthese over the years, and I’m obviously enamored of such an audible form of storytelling about music culture in the age of digital sampling.
Of course, not every etude made it up on Soundcloud thanks to its algorithmic/automatic pre-screening according to a draconian and short-sighted copyright regime — sensors are the new censors, innit — but several are still standing, spinning, and shining there. Allow me to share a few.
Here’s a ton of Ashley’s Roachclips:
And here are several iterations of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby”:
Variations on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, perhaps?
Or echoes of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”?
How about a big playback for “The Big Payback”?
Finally, in quite an inspired, creative departure, here are some Polynesian war/rugby chants sutured onto remixed dubstep instrumentals: