Archive for July, 2010

July 23rd, 2010

Musical Travels with Seymour and Bernice, pt. 2: Brazil

This is the second post in a sporadic series here at w&w, an ongoing excavation, digitization, and interpretation of my wife’s grandparents’ record collection — i.e., the historico-musical profile of Seymour & Bernice. See here for the previous entry, and here for a note remembering Seymour.

SAMBAS

Of the many delights I’ve come across in Seymour and Bernice’s record collection, perhaps none is outweighed by the substantial number of kitschy, exotica-tinged, midcentury dance records. They reflect a time in American life when Afro-Latin forms such as mambo, rumba, samba became ballroom and parlor staples. The fact that these words all look and sound similarly is probably no accident. As Ned Sublette notes in Cuba and its Music

The largest number of African words that have come into the common Cuban vocabulary are of Bantu origin. Phonologically its legacy is instantly recognizable. Okra in Cuba is called quimbombó. That intervocalic “mb” cluster — the one that turns up in countless words like tumbao, mambo, bemba, bombo — is often (though not necessarily) a Bantu touch… (179)

But despite their semi-exotic origins (Cuba is not Long Island, though New York City was pretty Cuban by mid-century) and the way these dances and genres were marketed as ‘spicy’ and ‘flavorful’ — terms which continue to narrate the circulation of Latin-Caribbean sounds — what is particularly striking about their appearance in the record collection of a Jewish family in Rockville Center is their simultaneous mundanity, their utter familiarity, their almost unremarkable commonplaceness. Already by the mid-50s, these styles had been carefully and pretty thoroughly domesticated and popularized — i.e., successfully marketed to a non-Latin/Caribbean audience — under the direction of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios (and, no doubt, companies of its ilk), which issued a series of Perfect for Dancing compilations via RCA/Victor, complete with how-to instructions and steps. Bernice and Seymour ended up with several —

PERFECT FOR DANCING

SAMBAS

samba steps
and where, exactly, are the women’s steps? oh yeah…

Despite their somewhat campy and squarish presentation, the music collected on these discs is pretty damn good. The bands who popularized these styles were, after all, often led and staffed by seasoned performers from across the Afro/Latin/Caribbean diaspora. As you can see, the tracklist for the SAMBAS record features such renowned midcentury Brazilian musicians as violinist Fafa Lemos and singer Carlos Galhardo, as well as the likes of New York-based Cuban bandleader, José Curbelo. Not to mention — que nome! — the Carioca Swingtette (!), who may or may not be Brazilian; far as I can tell, this is their only recording.

samba tracklist

I could choose lots of tracks to share from this odd but rad compilation, but for this particular post — and for reasons that will become clear below — I’m going to highlight Fafa Lemos & co.’s version of “Brazil,” aka “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Watercolor of Brazil”) — a song composed by Ary Barroso back in 1939, and no doubt a song familiar to many, whether due to Terry Gilliam, or Walt Disney, or any number of other eruptions in popular culture (just take a glance at all these “notable versions” and appearances in film of the tune). But it’s not simply beloved abroad: in 1997, it was named “Best Brazilian Song of the Century” by a jury of 13 “experts” convened by the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Fafa Lemos and His Orch., “Brazil”

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As with the rest of the Astaire collection, the arrangement here is on the schmaltzy side. But there’s a rather satisfying richness in rendered chicken fat, isn’t there? For one, you’ve gotta love that moony french horn (?) in the opening, and Fafa’s violin work is quite fun throughout, playing around the melody without straying too far. Also delightful are all the little details in the orchestration, offering sweet little responses to the soloists’ calls.

But I should be more frank: there’s an unexplainable personal affinity motivating this Brazil-ian excursion. Like certain friends (check the only comment on that post), I’ve long had a softspot for the song — I love the plaintive melody over the softly chugging samba rhythms — and I was thrilled to find it a recurring theme across Seymour’s and Bernice’s record stash.

// .. Digesting the World .. //

A similar treatment to the Fred Astaire / Fafa Lemos recording, for example, can be found on volume 8, side 2 (Latin Rhythms for Dancing) of an amazing/amusing 10 record collection called Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER published by Reader’s Digest sometime in the early 1960s, I’m guessing. (Someone has taken the trouble of rapidsharing the entire boxed set, if you’re interested).

Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER

The Wonderful World of Popular Music

8. Latin Rhythms for Dancing

This being Reader’s Digest, the long-reigning “best-selling consumer magazine in the United States” before finally being unseated by Better Homes and Gardens in 2009, the packaging nods toward the (lightly) informative —

MUSIC FOR DANCING

mambos

SAMBAS

A closer look, however, reveals some pretty telling tropes, including a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too deployment of “culture” and “tribe” that primitivizes certain forms of dance music and elevating others while implicitly erasing the African heritage embodied by so many of the genres on display:

Dancing is a vital part of the lives of every culture. There are rain dances, fertility dances, war dances, marriage dances, death dances, harvest dances, and a few enlightened (or naïve) tribes even have dances with no purpose other than the pleasure of the dance itself.

The more primitive the tribe, the more primitive the music. It may only be a man beating two sticks together in rhythmic cadences. If his job is to provide an accompaniment for dancers, he is creating dance music.

Today’s dance music is considerably more sophisticated, but its essential quality is still the best — the rhythm. Underneath the melody of the mambo, the waltz, the fox trot, there is the drum — the direct descendant of the man beating two sticks together.

Nevermind that forms like mambo (elsewhere called “a musical half-breed“), included on this record, still often feature a man “beating” two sticks together (i.e., clave), or that the drum as we know it — and as it figures in this music — is basically African. The editors here draw a squiggly line from cavemen to sophisticates.

It’s not the only oddity in the notes. Ironically, for all the information proffered, the names of the musicians involved only appear in small print on the records themselves. Perhaps it’s because bandleaders like Martin Slavin, a British music director who worked in Hollywood for many years, don’t quite cut the right cloth for this sort of slighty salacious contextualization? At any rate, he whipped up a pretty entertaining version with “his orchestra” (whoever they were) —

Martin Slavin and his Orchestra, “Brazil”

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This recording is actually a medley, beginning — and mostly concerned — with “Brazil” but then moving into two other Brazilian standards of the day, “Tico Tico” and “Copacabana” (incidentally, if you’ve never seen Ethel Smith tearing up “Tico Tico” on a Hammond organ, supported by a gaggle of percussion playing kiddies ladies “hot” for some “South American jive,” it’s not to be missed). Whoever the musicians are, they smoke, and the arrangement is surprisingly whimsical. I love the piano tinkles, the ever-present and fairly foregrounded percussion, the unexpected and repeated quotation of that ol’ circus theme song, the jazzy guitar lead, and so on. The segues are pretty damn smooth too.

I’ve wondered about what made “Brazil” so popular that it seems almost ubiquitous at the historical moment during which Seymour’s and Bernice’s record collection coalesced. Of course, there’s a strong romantic nationalism at the heart of the song, and, related to my thoughts in the previous post, I think there’s a very interesting way that such dreamy visions of foreign nationalism could serve simultaneously to shore up postwar US (not to mention US Jews’) notions of national attachment and belonging and identititity. It’s not too surprising that such a compelling portrait of another country would resonate elsewhere too. For some, conjuring a sense of national unity out of diversity and inequity is what the mystery of samba is all about.

The resonance of “Brazil” here in the US goes deeper though. As Gregzinho Scruggs explains, discussing the appearance of the song in Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942),

…while the cartoon might well have served as a tourism promotion tool, it was actually part of much larger geopolitical machinations. Disney traveled to South America and received government backing to produce films lauding our new South American friends, products of the “Good Neighbor Policy” designed to keep them under the Allies’ sphere of influence. In addition to Saludos Amigos, the American viewing public also got 1944’s The Three Caballeros. In a disappointing linguistic blunder, both chose Spanish titles even though the Portuguese-speaking Zé Carioca was a main character in both and Carmen Miranda’s younger sister features in the latter. Carmen Miranda, meanwhile, was an in-the-flesh Latin promotion effort, a story told probingly in the documentary Bananas is my Business. The symbolism and imagery of these efforts to promote Brazil to the American public were naturally one-dimensional, especially having a lily white (and Portugal-born) chanteuse singing samba, which a scant generation earlier was derided as too African.

Of course, the kind of samba being promoted was itself far from the spontaneous, impromptu tradition from which the music sprang. “Aquarela do Brasil” was a samba-exaltação (exaltation samba), patriotic in purpose and serving the interests of the dictatorial and quasi-fascist Vargas regime. It was Vargas who had institutionalized the samba parade in Rio during the 1930s, turning it into a tool of nationalist pride, making it rigid, orderly, an almost military processional. The state, in essence, co-opted a cultural form — or at least one major manifestation of it — steeped in resistance to the dominant order.

// .. Italians do it .. //

Dick Contino, It's Dance Time

The final example brings things back home in a funny but apt sort of way, as Hollywood nationalism, Ausländisch stereotypes, and American exceptionalism all seem to congeal in Dick Contino‘s swingin’ romp through the tune’s familiar strains:

Dick Contino and his Orchestra, “Brazil”

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The Latin-ate percussion is here subsumed into jazzster kit drumming, and, in contrast to the other ensemble versions above, this one seems arranged more principally as a showcase for a supposedly showboat soloist. Contino’s relatively understated performance, however, hardly rises to the level of the liner notes’ incredible superlatives —

Now Americans do it.

“ever heard anywhere” … “never been matched” !!! — then again, even on his own current website, Contino is called “The World’s Greatest Accordionist” — & he does seem to inspire a certain admiration, strange story and all:

Dick Contino is an icon of cool. Dick Contino plays the accordion. These are not contradictory statements.

It helps that he is probably the best-looking guy to ever play the accordion for a living, handsome enough to have had his own groupies back when hardly anyone except Sinatra had groupies, handsome enough to have appeared in a few movies–and without an accordion. It also helps that he had enough scandals and brush-ups in his career to earn his tough guy merit badge. And it helped to have crime writer James Ellroy come along and mythologize Contino just about the time when he might otherwise have become a forgotten nostalgic act.

Contino’s father bought him his first accordion when he was seven, but he didn’t really take it seriously until he was 12. Within a few years, he had become so proficient, he was travelling to San Francisco, 180 miles away, for regular lessons. His big break came in 1946, when he competed on bandleader Horace Heidt’s “Youth Opportunity Talent Show.” Contino gyrated around while his fingers flew through “Lady of Spain” (condemning that song to accordion hell forever after) and won the night’s show. He returned to win the show’s grand prize for the season, and soon, he was a star in his own right, with his own string of fan clubs around the country.

Unfortunately, a couple of years later as his career was hitting full-stride, he received notice that he was being drafted to serve in the Korean War. For reasons he’s never fully explained, he ignored the notice and wound up being jailed for six months. Although he did eventually enlist and serve honorably in Korea, the “draft dodger” label hung over him for years and knocked him out of the ranks of the top stars for good. It also later provided Ellroy with the raw material for his story, “Dick Contino’s Blues,” which appears in the collection, Hollywood Nocturnes.

Contino lost his movie and recording contracts with Paramount and RCA Victor, and although he was picked up by Mercury within a year or so, his movie career dropped down to the realm of B-movies. Ironically, this raised his tough guy status significantly, for one of the few roles he got after his discharge was the cult B-movie, “Daddy-O.” Playing a badass rock ‘n’ roller and part time drug smuggler, Contino did his own driving for one of the earliest showcase car chases, doing a little Evel Knievel number to get past a roadblock. “Daddy-O” is certainly not great cinema (“That thing was like a class Z picture,” Contino said), but it ranks up there with “The Wild One” as piece of 50s rebel iconography.

This places his recording of “Brazil” — which I believe was made in the late 50s — in the second-wind of Contino’s career. And I have to say, while I wouldn’t apply such superlatives myself, I find his playing perfectly passable, tasteful even (to commit a revealing Bourdieuian sin), and the arrangement sure keeps up with the other big bands we’ve heard above. It’s pretty darn brash, really — peppy even, offering a nice contrast to the more stately, “exalted” march of other interpretations.

But beyond the inflated prose and other obvious points of interest in the liner notes — e.g., the array of (European, if incl “gypsy”) peoples who are, ahem, “doing it” — I want to call attention to the twice-used italicized phrase all yours. That sentiment, of course, is a central myth of the midcentury recording industry: that the music encoded on this slab of vinyl can in fact be possessed by the owner. This claim is distinct from earlier attempts to sell musical commodities. As Tim Taylor outlines in his excellent article, “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’,” the makers of player-pianos and player-piano rolls initially took great pains to assure consumers that they were in fact still the players of the music, that they retained control and power, that they remained central to the process of filling one’s home with music. We see by this point, however, that the rhetoric has firmly shifted: it’s not about possessing the ability to make music, it’s about possessing the music itself.

By extension, we might wonder what it means for a song like “Brazil” to become one’s possession by virtue of buying a somewhat schlocky dance record by a had-been like Dick Contino. Listening to these three instances of “Brazil” in Seymour’s and Bernice’s collection, I have to surmise that the song must have felt, in some way, as if it was all theirs, at least as long as it could also be made one’s own by their friends and neighbors and others in the (imagined) communities or various publics created/addressed by widely-circulating records like these — no doubt, markers of a certain sort of cultural distinction, an everyday worldliness available even to a modest middle-class family living out on Long Island.

At least, that’s how it sounds in my imagination. We’ll see what my daughter’s daughter’s son-in-law, should he ever exist, thinks of that.

Fred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred Astaire

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July 22nd, 2010

musical travels with seymour and bernice, pt. 1: points of embarkation (riddim meth0d repost)

I’m reposting this, originally published to the now-defunct Riddim Meth0d site back in January 2006, in tribute to Seymour, who passed away earlier this week. A long overdue part 2 will follow…


i don’t think we’re in rockville center anymore

with this champagne-bust of a post then, we embark.

and hence we commence our sonicultural adventure, a trip across (real) time and (imagined) space, a journey into the middle of the last century, into a middle-class home, into the middle of long island.

you may be surprised, if reminded, that the middle stands between near and far, high and low. it mediates these extremities, quite literally.

but we’re not interested so much in the literal on this voyage (at least not at this point). we’re interested in the symbolic, in the narratives that music mediates and which themselves animate musical meanings. but let’s begin with some literalities, if simply to couch the symbolic in a more meaningful, relatable context.

seymour and bernice are my wife’s maternal grandparents. they’re not my own grandparents, so i don’t know all that i should know to attempt such an excavation as this, though i hope to learn much by way of listening. recently, as becca and i visited her grandparents, seymour and bernice offered me their record collection. they haven’t had a record player for years, and bernice just got an ipod nano, so who needs a few big, heavy boxes of vinyl sitting around? i guess i do, since i accepted their offer without hesitation. there was something just too tantalizing about all those records, not just for their hidden gems and samplables, but somehow for the sum-total of their expression of a life of record collecting. what would these records say about my in-laws and their lives and the way society and culture looked and sounded to them? i had to find out.

when we returned from long island, i unpacked the boxes, went through each and every one, putting the records in piles according to the imaginary maps in my head, listening to any that caught my eye, putting aside a stack of favorites, and attempting to come to terms with the collection and what it expressed. some of the records seemed rare, some utterly common. there was more classical (and opera, specifically) than i had hoped for, but this was significant in itself (and a fine collection in its own right). the records mainly represented the era in which they were collected (i.e., the 50s and 60s), with relatively few big surprises and a fair number of delights: plenty of swing and standards, pop and dance records, a good whiff of exotica, lots of neo-folk stuff (a la pete seeger), but then a fair amount of jewish music, from the kitschy to the cantatorial, russian and yiddish folk songs to jazzed-up klezmer and israeli nationalist anthems. mostly 12s, a few 10s, and a handful of 78s. i was told that some records (mainly the russian ones) were inherited from an aunt, and that some were probably the kids’ (one of whom, my mother-in-law, will no doubt be gassed to hear the records released by her childhood summer camp — limited pressings indeed, and for good reason).

the music i plan to share with you as i go on these travels with seymour and bernice will mainly be those tracks or records which caught my attention, those that are most curious to me — and, of course, those that sound best. all things considered, this will undoubtedly be a strange trip, and i will acknowledge at the outset that it may well ultimately express my own musical imagination more strongly than it expresses anything that might relate to seymour and bernice, or their family, or mid-twentieth century long island, new york america. but that, i hope, is what might save this exercise from being the sort of thing that should be confined to one’s parlour (if one has a parlour these days). i hope that my role as curator or interpreter or whatever-you-wanna-call-me makes these travels not just bearable but enjoyable — perhaps even something in which you can participate.

i envision this venture/project/travelogue as taking a road somewhere between pace’s L.O.V.E. and jace’s vinyl rescue service (as well as the seemingly defunct stickershock). i see it as another way that riddim = method, which is to say, another way that music can express ideas, can open up into broader conversations, can provoke us to think, to contemplate, to make sense of the world. it seems that this medium’s (i.e., the internets’s) ability to share and revise, discuss and debate, tag and archive media is unparalleled in its power, and i hope to tap into that — if only partially, suggestively — to tell this story. i invite you to build the narrative with me, to riff off of it, and to start your own. i’ll lend you my ears if you lend me yours. so many record collections, so little time. but worlds upon worlds to discover. and this is as good a way in (and out) as any…

// i wish you L.O.V.E. //

the first track i will offer is from a record that caught my eye on that first day home, partly because of the stereotypically gay-parisian scene (and thus its kitsch potential) and partly because of the shiny sleeve. the song is a midcentury french pop standard, “que reste-t-il de nos amours?” — written by charles trenet. it appears on living strings at a sidewalk cafe, an LP issued in 1963 by camden RCA, whose other releases included living strings play henry mancini, the shimmering sounds of living strings, and where did the night go with the living strings. (i’ve left the telltale, and cherished [by us hip-hop folk], vinyl static around the song so as to frame it with reminders of the sound’s original material form.)

living strings, “i wish you love”

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right away, i’m struck by the sentimental, if not outright schmaltzy, strings — typical of pop arrangements of that era and hallmarks of what came to be known as easy listening music. the second thing that grabs my attention, though, is the mellow, latin-ate percussion. one thing that emerges from the experience of listening across many of these lounge-y records from the 50s and 60s is the degree to which latin styles permeate the parlourscape of the period. after a certain point, such signs are not exactly exotic anymore, and it’s interesting to hear the way american music absorbs various “foreign” currents to the point where they become so ubiquitous as to seem utterly unremarkable, utterly american.

after these initial impressions, i find myself following the melody, finding pleasure in tracing its romantic contours. the arrangement erupts into wonderful little surprises, however scripted, as when the flutes bubble-out their transitional riffs or when the accordian takes up the melody, giving it a decidedly (if imaginatively) french sound. (the hanging vibraphone arpeggio that concludes the song is just the sort of thing that amon tobin might employ to end one of his sample-based epics.) the song’s swelling grandeur, while predictable, is not only audible and visible (see below), it’s downright palpable — and that’s a sign of affect accomplished.

france here appears both foreign and familiar, dressed in the dulcet tones of international pop and yet fairly exotic too. the sounds themselves, and the record sleeve’s promise of “music to whisk you away to cafes international!“ express both a longing and an affinity for the foreign, perhaps even a cosmopolitanism that we might hear as progressive. but is it articulating an individual’s desire to experience different senses of place? or a generation(s)-removed nostalgia for the old world? or, perhaps, an international alignment — e.g., NATO — that may have seemed appealing in post-WWII, cold-war-era

the language of escape and difference, fantasy and distance running through the sleeve notes would seemingly point us more toward nostalgia and desire (e.g., to go abroad — a relative novelty given the recent advent of mass air travel), at least as far as the marketing team was concerned. here’re the notes from the back of the sleeve:

It’s the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, the Caffe Doney in Rome, the Cafe Demel in Vienna, and a state of mind and wistful dreams anywhere at all. This is the sidewalk cafe, a relaxed, alfresco world of wicker chairs, marble-top tables and aproned waiters – part club, part meeting place, alive with laughter and talk.

Here is the music of the sidewalk cafe – gay songs, sad songs, songs of memory.

From Germany, music of love and the warm atmosphere of “Gemutlichkeit”: Du du liegst mir im Herzen (“You Are in My Heart”); Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart; You Can’t Be True, Dear from a German Hit called “Du kannst nicht treu sein,” and the classic Lili Marlene, adopted as a world-wide favorite by American G.I.’s in World War II.

From Austria the lovely waltz Vienna, My City of Dreams.

From France, I Wish You Love (“Que reste-t-il de nos amours”), written by the French idol Charles Trenet; another French favorite, J’attendrai (“I’ll Be Yours”).

From the U.S., three lovely hits which have become sidewalk cafe favorites the world over: Play, Fiddle, Play, an entrancing waltz; My Heart Cries for You, one of the big hits of 1951, and the enchanting Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo from Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer‘s movie hit “Lili.”

it’s interesting to me that germany, austria, and france have been so thoroughly recuperated in the american imagination by this point (“warm atmosphere”?!), as well as how these particular european places don’t necessarily seem to matter so much at all. indeed, one could have one’s “wistful dreams” anywhere at all if one wants. and, what do you know, there is a direct reference to WWII and the way that europe came home, and went ‘round, with the boys. finally, the comforting notion of american global influence rears its head in the last paragraph and yet, interestingly, it appears alongside the explicit acknowledgment of the french actress who popularized the song to which they refer and of the composer, the only american composer mentioned and a man with a conspicuously cuban name.

so, i’m thinking “ambivalence,” but that’s a no-brainer. this is obviously more complex territory than that, and the decades between its production then and its reception here, as an mp3, will obviously make our hermeneutical endeavor that much more tricky (if fun).

listen again: what does it sound like to you?

// tighten your beltz //

the second example i offer you is from another record that grabbed me at first sight. again, it something about the design, rather than a verbal description of the contents, that caught my eye. the bold lines, the simple color scheme – it recalled for me various jazz records from that time, especially the modernist blue note sleeves. of course, the barry sisters are a handsome pair as well. and when i looked closer and saw the yiddish titles, my curiosity was piqued.

i put the record on immediately, and the first song proved to be the most arresting of the LP, a collection of yiddish folk/popular songs released by cadence records in the 1960s (no exact date found) under the unassuming title, the barry sisters sing.

the barry sisters, “beltz”

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as the song begins, plaintive strings conjure a sense of melancholy which seems to hang in the air, heavy with dreadful anticipation, as the opening gesture comes to a rubato resolution. when the sisters’ voices enter along with the rest of the arrangement, they quickly confirm these intimations of sadness: they sound tormented by grief, like souls longing for another time and place. they embrace the tune’s minor harmonies, drawing deep pathos out of chordtones and semitones, slurring syllables and bending pitches around their heavy hearts. they sound — if i may — like jews with the blues, and that’s not meant to be a pithy cliche: on the contrary, it’s meant to describe the very sound and sentiment underlying “beltz.”

known early in their career as the bagelman sisters, the barry sisters were among the most prominent exponents of yiddish swing, a jazzed-up approach to yiddish folk songs that emerged in an era which produced swing ballads and ethnic novelties alike (and in spades), and a genre that found favor among (second and third) american jews looking for a modern expression of their cultural heritage. as you can hear, the MOR arrangement bears witness to the degree that this subcultural style partook in mainstream popular musical vocabulary (another ending on a hanging vibraphone?!), but there’s something unnervingly distinctive about the accompaniment all the same. those sweeping strings could almost evoke nat king cole or dean martin in their cartoonish sentimentality, but then, they’re a little too ominous, especially against the barry sisters’ voices. allusions to and uses of the yiddish musical vocabulary and repertory would seem partly, if not largely, to account for this elusive but qualitative difference between the music of the barry sisters and their easy listening contemporaries. and perhaps they explain why — despite the looming threat of kitsch — the song sounds, even today, not so much a curio as a hauntingly beautiful performance.

of course, it gets a little goofy in the middle, with some uplifting strains which still manage to sound fragile, fleeting. the middle section doesn’t resolve, it leads right back to the beginning, the sad refrain, the painful memories. and then, a dreamy instrumental chorus, allowing us to fill in the pictures before the sisters return at the bridge to take us slowly, (bitter)sweetly home.

as it turns out, the sisters are singing about a far-away place after all, a former home of sorts (if only in metaphorical terms), a place called beltz/belz — a small town in ukraine which was also home to a hasidic dynasty. but their song is a more generalizable tale. it is a story of mourning, of grieving for a childhood memory — of life in a shtetl — that is no more. again the historical context of the record’s production is crucial to guess at its range of reception and resonance: post-WWII, holocaust hanging heavy over the lieu de memoire that is the subject of the song. the shtetl could thus be heard as a metonym for a former life that has been destroyed, ruined, lost. i didn’t get all of this upon my first listening, but i do think the song’s power of affect evokes this sentiment rather well — almost precisely. the only words i really recognized when i first listened were “mein shtetl,” which were enough in themselves to suggest a few possible themes to me, especially when paired with the lyrics’ sorrowful setting.

the sleeve notes provided me with more grist for the mill, including no little astonishment at the strange sort of self-deprecation with which the author (identified by the initials S.D.) introduces his/her remarks. allow me to share some excerpts:

You are now reading the opening sentence of a rambling essay of some five hundred words covering the entire reverse side of this album. But, truthfully, even if you were to stop reading right now, you would still know most of the facts in the case. You have already seen the front cover. You have been advised that here are a dozen familiar and beloved melodies which have their origins in Yiddish folk and popular music. They are sung in the warm and flawless style of the Barry Sisters. Some of the songs have been composed, and all of them arranged and conducted, by Abraham Ellstein. So, then, why continue to peruse the rest of this less than immortal prose? Shouldn’t an album of music, any kind of music, speak, or, rather, sing for itself? It should. And this one does. But there is a reason for this writing. It’s a reason that has to do with a normal reaction to a new musical experience. When you hear a work of genuine beauty, stature and originality for the very first time, you just cannot let go of it. There’s that exciting urge to examine it, think about it, talk about it. And so we thought that perhaps you would care to know just a little bit more about the background of the songs and the singers since never before has there been an album of music exactly like this one.

In one sense these are melodies and rhythms that might be said to possess a definite flavor and feeling even though no two of the songs are exactly alike. Several of them are popular tunes written by well known composers but the origins of some of the others will always remain a mystery. Who knows how many thousands of years ago a Palestinian shepherd first played the original strains of Hi Hora on a primitive reed? How old is a folk song like Rozenkes und Mandlen, and who wrote it? We will never know. What we do know, however, is that each song in the album has undergone a remarkable transformation. While losing nothing of their original charm, they have taken on an illuminating and new dimension. They are still Yiddish songs but now they speak to us in the universal language of music. They belong to everyone regardless of speech or background. My Yiddishe Momma is now everybody’s Momma. Gesselle is now everybody’s street of heartbreak, nostalgia and unrequited love. Beit Mir A Bisselle and Abi Gesunt are as modern and as swingy as anything in the juke boxes.

Quite sincerely, we believe that these will be your conclusions after you have heard the album. You are probably asking yourself how was it done? Well, it didn’t happen by accident. It would be altogether accurate to say that this album has been years in preparation. It was made by people who grew up with this music, who have known it, nurtured it and loved it. First, we have the Barry Sisters, Claire and Merna. All right, they were born lucky. They discovered, quite early in life, that they had voices. Claire’s voice is high and beautiful; Merna’s is sweet and low. Constant study and arduous practise succeeded in producing the breath-taking and seemingly effortless blend that is so characteristic of their unique and lovely style. The songs in this album go back to their childhood. But even at the beginning, Claire and Merna heard these melodies in terms of other rhythms and other notes. They were born in New York and were raised on the popular music of America. From the very first, they brought a new world interpretation to an old world tune. For a while, as their many recordings, broadcasts, and club dates might indicate, they were the country’s leading exponents of what was termed Yiddish Swing. But the girls were proving something else to themselves and the public. They were demonstrating beyond any shadow of a doubt that good music can break any language barrier. Today, they are one of the country’s leading singing acts, at home with any type of song anywhere in the world. To them, this album represents a return to an early, never forgotten and still active love.

The result is music that is older than all of our ancestors and as new as this morning’s paper . . . music that springs from a single nationality, and is as universal as the United Nations.

yep, it’s pretty quaint stuff, couched in terms of newness and normalcy, of foreigness and familiarity. it describes the music as modern and “swingy” and yet timeless, as being of universal appeal — they belong to everyone — and yet “from a single nationality.” i wonder whether the universalist rhetoric was meant to appeal to non-jews or simply to jews ambivalent about their jewishness? or am i simply being naive about midcentury, metropolitan jewishness? it is interesting to me also that, apparently, zionist discourse had not yet divorced the term palestinian from any association with jewish heritage.

i could say much more, but this entry has already grown too lengthy. suffice it to say that this complex gem of a recording points us to what will inevitably be another thread running through our musical travels with seymour and bernice: the weirdness and wonders of negotiating jewishness in the post-war era, a historical moment in which israel loomed large, across which the holocaust cast its long shadow, and during which many american jews of the post-post-pogram generation (i.e., born to first- or second-generation parents), were going secular, embracing cultural notions of jewishness, and trying to figure out which traditions and values and symbols to maintain and which to let go.

or at least that’s what i imagine i hear, at least at this moment.

what do you hear?

btw, if you want to hear more from the barry sisters, stay tuned, as i will surely revisit their catalog in another installment. and for more music along these lines, check out the yiddish radio project from NPR as well as josh kun’s hippocampus. [update: see also, the idelsohn society for musical preservation, involved with such salutary projects as jews on vinyl.]

// . . . //

more perhaps than even this monstrous first entry might portend, i hope to unpack a great deal of this collection in due time, working through it and learning as i go. on the way, i hope to get some feedback from you, dear reader and listener, as well as from seymour and bernice, who will surely be tickled by all of this and who will hopefully be happy that i’m enjoying their records.

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July 21st, 2010

Nothing Ever Ends

nesson-marshall-feb14-201018nesson-marshall-feb14-201013

Last weekend Rebecca’s grandfather, Seymour, passed away. It wasn’t a total shock — his health had been on a slide for the last few years, worsening in recent weeks — but he wasn’t hospitalized at the time, and you can never really prepare for the still sudden-seeming void left by a loved one who leaves.

Becca’s uncle, Bruce, found a note that Seymour had apparently composed during the final days of his life. I took a picture of it on Seymour’s desk, sitting alongside an old letter addressed to him in Rockville Center, where he lived most of his life, as well as a fragment of a photograph of Bernice, Seymour’s wife and longtime life partner. It makes a pretty poignant visual vignette, I think.

MY OWN RECORD THAT CAN CHANGE

The note reads:

I TRY TO SEE THE WORLD AND REACT TO IT THROUGH MY PHOTOGRAPHY —

LIGHT IS THE KEY TO THE WORLD AND SEEING IT HELPS ME FEEL I AM PART OF LIVING — AND BEING ABLE TO CHANGE THE WAY I CAN LIVE — NOTHING EVER ENDS AND I CAN ALWAYS BE PART OF IT — AND MAKE A PERMANENT RECORD OF IT — MY OWN RECORD THAT CAN CHANGE —

Clearly, Seymour saw himself through the lens of a photographer. As those who knew him know, it was photography through which Seymour chased his muses, adored his family, and framed many moments of extraordinary beauty. Speaking at the service for Seymour, Becca noted his penchant for pronouncing beautiful with a strong E in the middle, which gave it a nice effect. I always enjoyed it, especially as spoken in his gentle, semi-hoarse, post-Yiddish New York accent. Strikingly, many of the most BEAUTYful pictures Seymour took were of utterly ordinary things — the miracles of the blowing clover and the falling rain, or kids playing street hockey in Hell’s Kitchen.

Street Hockey in Hell's Kitchen

A few years ago Seymour asked me if I was interested in his and Bernice’s record collection. It was taking up too much room in their house, especially among the dozens of boxes of photographs, and no one ever listened to them anymore. I gladly accepted and have been hauling several hundred extra records around ever since. It’s a wonderful collection, ranging from post-war exotica and Judaica to the classical canon (and considerably beyond) and painting a complex picture of a certain sort of ad-hoc aural heritage, dimensions of which no doubt will develop and deepen as I listen through it all — and wonder about how it sounded, & what it meant, in a Long Island living room many years ago. I’ve wondered aloud about this before, and, in tribute to Seymour, I’ll be re-running that post next, followed by another long-stewing and overdue episode of Musical Travels with Seymour and Bernice.

So long, Seymour. Thanks for the record(s) —

thanks for the records

THAT CAN CHANGE –

5 comments

July 20th, 2010

The Lemon-Red Mix (riddim meth0d repost)

Two birds, one stone: in the ongoing effort to re-host some adventures in riddim meth0dology, this post also continues the recent trend of recommending mixes well-suited to summering. (But plz note — I really do think of this mix as suitable for all seasons.) I’m very happy to (re)present: our Lemon-Red Mix!

>>> The Riddim Meth0d, “Lemon-Red Mix”

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As initially hyped over at Lemon-Red (back in April 2006):

The Riddim Method is a collective of DJs, producers, and ass-shaking academics who formed like Voltron to embark on a group-blog experiment. After years of playing together in various configurations — from Toneburst days to present endeavors in Beat Research — the Riddim Methodists decided in ’05 to share their musico-tricknological discoveries, creations, and conversations on the internerd, hoping others might add their two fifty cents.

From bases in Beantown and Oaktown, the six Riddim Methodists play local and link global. There’s DJ C, who, with remixes for Kid 606’s Shockout Records and for XL Recordings (on MIA’s “U.R.A.Q.T.”) — not to mention raggacentric productions for his own Mashit Records — has been burning up dancefloors on tour and at his weekly residency back in Boston. There’s DJ Flack, C’s co-host at Beat Research – a multimedia maestro who makes video music when he’s not making beats. Then there’s Ripley, rootical rallycry-roaring, breakcoring, copyfightin’, blog-writin’ DJ-slash-activist. There’s Kid Kameleon, a smash’n’mash mixmaster, globetrottin’ DJ, and music scribe (XLR8R, Grooves, Pitchfork). There’s Pace, the vinyl librarian and riddim networkian, a b-school b-boy with deep crates and nothin’ but L.O.V.E. And there’s Wayne&wax, hip-hop scholar since being knee-high to a duck, prolix mu’fucka, and all-around Boston Jerk.

For their Lemon-Red mix, the Riddim Methodists take turns connecting the dots between dubstep, hip-hop, dancehall, bass, merengue, soca, bmore, rai, dub, electro, doo-wop, ragga house, and boston bounce, among others–a genre-mashing jawn that can work in your earbuds and speakerboxxes alike.

Check the Method.

Check the method, but don’t believe the hype :P

Actually, speaking of hype, I would like to note that our mix even got a little Pfork love back in the day, c/o erstwhile (and missed!) music-writer Dave Stelfox. About the mix, Dave wrote

Assembled by a team including Harvard musicologist Wayne Marshall, DJ Ripley, Kid Kameleon, DJ C, DJ Flack, and Pace, it could fit comfortably in any of Pitchfork’s specialist columns, needlestitching together an array of genres, from dubstep to Dirty South hip-hop, Egyptian shaabi to Baltimore club, reggae to techno. It’s an inspiring ride, cohesive yet omnivorous and proves there are no boundaries in music if you’ve got a little imagination and a whole lot of love for it.

Yeah, that basically sums it up. (For the record, though, I don’t think I could ever be accurately described as a “Harvard musicologist,” though I have done some teaching over there and I do hold a degree — in English — from the place.)

But seriously, this one was a double honor for me. First, it was a pleasure and a privilege to contribute to the illustrious Lemon-Red mix series. Many of us are still missing Lemon-Red. Or to paraphrase everybody’s favorite Guru non-sequitur (again): Lemon-red was a popular blog, and it still is.

For my money (or lack thereof), the L-R mix series, which popped off with DJ /Rupture’s stellar Low Income Tomorrowland, marked the beginning of a new era: the age of internet mixes. Ever since, my iPod/Phone has been filled with 15min to 2hr blocks of sound. I hardly ever listen to discrete tracks anymore, at least recreationally, as I much prefer going on a little ride provided by some careful curator. The two hallmarks of Chris Lemon-Red’s series were A) his fine choice of DJs — and I don’t mean this to be self-aggrandizing (I’m humbled to join the ranks) — and B) the relatively reasonable lengths of the mixes: at least for the first several, they tended to clock in at around a half-hour, perfect for a quick, music-addled jog around Fresh Pond. Of course, being a six person team, we couldn’t really deliver on brevity, but we were certainly inspired by the funky, chunky mixes turned in by the likes of /Rupture, Poirier, the Rub dudes, Cap & Jones, Emynd & Bo Bliz, etc. Fine company, fi true.

Second, it was a blast to collaborate with five of my favorite DJs in the world — and to attempt to stitch together a coherent mix out of a half-dozen different visions. Given our asynchronous exchange (combined with a few realtime building sessions), I think it holds together pretty well. (And Jake, aka DJ C*, deserves some credit for doing the work of pasting things together and smoothing over the edges.) I ended up with the slightly dubious honor of closing out the mix. Dubious only because it takes almost an hour to get to my wee 6 minute section. But it was definitely fun to cook up a climax! For that reason, way back when and again today, I’m also offering up a standalone mini-mix of my contribution:

>>> wayne&wax, “Lemon-Red Mix Bit”

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(You can read more about the mashing up of Lil Jon, Del Shannon, and some bubbling loops here.)

* FYI — DJ C will be returning to Beat Research, the night that he founded some six years ago, this coming Monday, July 26, to rock alongside Flack (and me) just like old times. Come help welcome him home for the evening!

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July 16th, 2010

Review: Dancehall (Vol. 2)

As some readers of both this blog and The Wire might have noticed, I’ve started to contribute now and then to their reviews section. As per my usual practice, I’ll be reprinting the reviews here on the blog, once they’ve enjoyed their print run, usually offering something of a “director’s cut” (more words! glorious words!), even though I’m quite grateful for the magic of concision and clarity that editors like Derek can wring out of my prolix prose. My reviews no doubt read sharper in the magazine, but blogs — at least this one — are great places for picking up clippings from the cutting room floor and giving people a little more to read, and comment on.

An edited version of this review was published in the February 2010 issue (#312).

You can preview tracks from the compilation, and place an order, over at Soul Jazz.

Various Artists
Dancehall: The Rise Of Jamaican Dancehall Culture Part 2
Soul Jazz 2xCD

So rooted in local music venues that it became synonymous with them, dancehall captured Jamaican audiences by staying down-to-earth and up-to-the-time. It remains reggae’s prevailing style even as detractors wonder, in an era of autotuned vocals and fruityloopy beats, if it still merits the name. Some stakeholders, including the compilers of the second double CD in Soul Jazz’s Dancehall series, argue that dancehall has met its demise. Their project is one of reverent exhumation, and though that blurs one line while drawing another, dancehall’s seminal sides can speak to skeptics and boosters both.

Despite the break that dancehall marks — most notably in the ascension of rapping deejays to primary frontmen — the compilation’s tracks bare their roots. Nearly all feature re-licks of classic riddims, including Studio One perennials Rockfort Rock, Heavenless, and Full Up. Small, tight studio groups reanimate well-worn instrumentals, offering spare interpretations–often two-bar, taut but supple grooves–that leave space for deejays to toast and soundmen to dub. Showcasing dancehall’s domination by microphones and mixing boards, the comp includes several longer cuts comprising a few minutes of deejay recitation followed by the producers and engineers taking their turn, flinging horn snips, vocal clips, and renegade snares across the stereo field. Errol Scorcher’s hilarious “Roach in De Corner,” clocking in close to 9 minutes and featuring classic interjections (“Bim! Kill him! Shhh!”), rides a heavy Ansel Collins version of Real Rock which, over its last five minutes, breaks down in every imaginable way and a few others as well. The compilation focuses on major mic-men — like Lone Ranger, Nicodemus, and Yellowman — who draw heavily on humor and critique, revel in local (and lower-class) slang, and rap more melodically than often acknowledged, but it includes the day’s top singers, many of whom, like Johnny Osbourne or Half Pint, navigate dancehall’s spiky topography with a spry delivery.

While these tracks connect dots between roots and dancehall, the compilation redraws an old line by shying away from the synthesized productions that have dominated since the mid-80s. Notable exceptions are Papa San’s deeply digital “Money a Fe Circle” and the Steely & Clevie produced “When” by Tiger — drum machine driven dancehall at its bouncy best. More often one hears subtle touches of digital tricknology, like the syn-drum percussion pioneered by Sly & Robbie, as on Ini Kamoze’s “Trouble You a Trouble Me,” wielding a synth clap like a machine gun. The compilation finally betrays its bias when nodding to latter day dancehall but offering only modern roots throwbacks. Shabba Ranks’s “Respect,” riding a wicked Hot Milk re-lick by Bobby Digital, is almost overbearing in this regard. In their defense, the series aims to cover The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture (though promotional materials make broader claims), but what feels left out, ironically, is a sense of how dancehall has remained rooted in the spaces which branded it, even three decades later, precisely by staying up to date.

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July 15th, 2010

The Munchiton March Continues

Considering the prodigious and idiosyncratically imaginative output of Mr. Munchi, it’s seeming more and more apt to call what he’s doing something like a genre unto itself. Moombahcore? Nah, Munchiton!

Just yesterday I was flipping over his Amen-breaking, dembow-dripped, synth-cackle, “Datsik – Firepower (Munchi Moombahcore Rmx).” And then this morning I find the following in my inbox. Readymade blogpost hype? I’ll take it. Seriously, though, I really love the way Munchi explains his thinking behind each track and his general tracing out of all the influences (confluences?) coming together in his mad, moombah-fried mind:

I have been listening to alot of Cumbia/Chicha/Guaracha/Tribal these days
and it inspired me to dedicate this months promo to it!

After the Moombahton Promo things got pretty wild and it appeared almost everywhere.
While still experimenting with this genre (now Moombahcore), i found myself listening to more and more Cumbia. Especially when i got introduced to Sonido Martines’ Sonambulo Orientalista Mix. Without exaggerating, the mix was on replay for weeks.

More and more Cumbia seemed to cross my path and after hearing alot of
mixes (especially Toy Selectah’s), Eric Rincon, DJ Icon, Sonido Del Principe,
Uproot Andy, Kumbia Queers, etc. it was Tribal that really caught my attention.

This sound -although completly different- seemed so familiar and close to me for some reason.
Hearing this reminded me of Brazil’s Funk, Dominican Republic’s Mambo, Angola’s Kuduro, Puerto Rico’s and Panama’s Reggeton, Jamaica’s Dancehall, Baltimore/Philadelphia/Jersey’s Club Music, Chicago’s Juke Music and more recently Dave Nada’s Moombahton.

All these genres have these simalarities in them which i personaly like, they are from a located area and carry the tradition of those areas. I think Toy Selectah described this best. He said it was all Hiphop. The Hiphop of those reigons. Also they have a certain rawness, alot of bass and a straight-to-the-point-ness with often sexuality as theme. In the case with Mambo the FL-cheapness that i really appreciate.

So i started experimenting and while making the tracks i realized it has very much in common with Kuduro. Unexpected turn, but proven when i changed some things up. It went from full Tribal to 100% Kuduro. I kind of like these type of connections and also found myself making this tracks with Mambo ‘heart’. The rawness and ‘cheapness’ were elements of Mambo that i put into this ep. Also turning the sexual vibes a notch up as that was the only thing that seemed to be missing in comparison with the other genres. I didn’t want to exaggerate and experiment too much as the key for the promo’s still remains staying true to the genre.

So here it is! Cumbia XXX EP. let me give you a short explanation:

Mujeres Tan A Jarro

The vocals from one of my favorite mambo tracks ever. DJ Sensual has made so much good its ridiculous. matter of fact, search him on google and see if you get some hits. You probably another dude with the same name. I guess he stopped making music.. because after the transition of the computer mambo to the mambo we know now, he dissapeared in thin air. The little ‘faults’ are on purpose, as in the whole ep. They are everywhere: progress of the track, the beat,
effects, etc. Out of tone accordeon, annoying melody, Sensual’s cheesy voice, random moaning.
Damn, i fucking LOVE cheapness!!!

Leite Condensão

When the track starts you might think ”Dude, this isn’t Cumbia.” I know, have patience my friend after you hear the oh so familiar and overused reverse crash of reggeton, it introduces a rather non-hype buildup that is made of ingredients that cause hypeness. Afrojacks familiar b-more kickpattern with Bmore a la Cumbia.
And after the girl tells you what she is expecting from you, you get this Cumbia track oozing of Baile Funk (thats why the title is Portuguese of course) with a hint of Bmore. I didn’t spare the use (read: overuse) of random moaning. True story: I sampled random Brazilian Porn for this track.

You know, i get this feeling all the time with Cumbia. Especially with this track, like this relaxed type of hypedness. Its like “Shhh, im getting hype to Cumbia. Do it quietly tho.” while rockin Native American inspired dancemoves. No agressiveness, just vibin. Its all good manito, it is all good.

Bellakeo

Starting with a dosis of epic cheapness. A lot of reverb, explosions, overused Reggeton effects and airhorns. It gives you: the out of tone accordeon. Dude seriously, i thought that i loved the way Mambo used dirty hihats as guiros or the timbal of Reggeton’s Dembow. The cowbell, man that shit is gangsta. I mean, there is even a break in it that consists only of cowbell and bass. After that it gets wild with a good old Dutch House synth. Btw the b-b-b-b-Bellakeooooo is me! Recorded in 05/06 or something and now i could finally use it!

El Gallo

This one is my favorite as this is the cheapest of the bunch. The synth is made of a phone sound, when you press a button. Not sparing you on the obvious reference, the track will make it clear to you when a random rooster thinks its time to wake you up. Couldn’t leave this EP without the overuse of Dembow’s timbal. But no in contrary of what you might think, this track reminds me of this crazy ass dude in D.R. which nickname was El Gallo. This dude thinks about
sex and women all the time, drinks Brugal as it were water constantly and watches girls at night with his binoculairs as a hobby (they all know it and leave the windows open on purpose lol). Did i mention that he is funny as hell. Gallo, this track is for you!

Deja Tu Vaina Mujer

Ay Tan Sucia!
my bad Dave, you know i had to give a shoutout to the Moombahton movement, ya tu sae!!
O yeah and btw, deja tu vaina mujjjjerrrr!

Well thats all for today lol.
Let me know what you think of it!!

Download Link [320 Kbps]:
http://www.mediafire.com/?k0ndmwo3nzzgmzo

I think it’s an awesome earful. How about you?

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July 13th, 2010

Post Postopolis Unpacking, Part 3: Reggaeton en DF

I don’t have as much to say about reggaeton in Mexico City as I do about hip-hop and graffiti, though it has often been an elefante in the room. Also, you don’t have to understand much Spanish to read this sort of writing on the wall —

PUTOS REGGE TONE

There are other kinds of reggaetony writing on the walls too, however, and so reggaeton’s status in DF seems to me, at best, ambiguous. For instance, though I didn’t get any shots of them, when I was in DF in November 2009 I saw several brightly-colored, professionally-rendered, wall-sized paintings advertising upcoming shows from Wisin y Yandel and Ivy Queen.

And while visiting the city last month for Postopolis, I did happen to get a snap of this:

DESDE LA ISLA DE LOS GANGSTERS - PUERTO RICO

This curiosity — which I’m guessing must be a few years old now — announces a concert from Don Chezina, billed here as hailing “from the island of the gangsters”! (Way to go, Puerto Rico!) Interestingly, the poster itself declines using the term reggaeton. I’m not sure how deliberate that evasion was, but it’s interesting that instead Chezina is referred to as “el maestro del perreo boricua.” As I’ve discussed before, reggaeton sometimes seems to travel easier as a dance form — as perreo — than as a musical style.

Given the ongoing popularity of Latin Caribbean dance music in Mexico, this may not be too surprising. I’ve bought cumbia villera and reggaeton romántico CDs from the same vendor. As Deborah Pacini Hernandez details, this embrace is central to cumbia’s story of transmission and transformation. And I witnessed this affinity registered on other posters in the same neighborhood —

Viva la Salsa
SALSA CUMBIA GUARACHA
GUARACHA MERNGUE

Still, from what I can tell, save for pockets of popularity (about those in a moment), reggaeton is pretty much genre-non-grata for participants (and gatekeepers) in DF’s hip-hop scene. Mirroring Tego Calderon’s story in PR, Big Metra, once among the DF’s most revered and popular MCs, was shunned by many of his peers after embracing that ol’ dembow and aiming at pop crossover. (Despite collaborating with the likes of Jadakiss and Twista.) Consider, then, the following account of opposition to reggaeton within Puerto Rico’s hip-hop scene, which, as Marlon Bishop relates —

split ways with the reggaeton scene in the mid-90s and went down a more conscious, political path.

I spoke with rapper-scholar Welmo Romero about this difference. Welmo grew up in Puerto Rico of Haitian and Dominican parents, and was on break from studying to defend his master’s thesis when we got together.

“One of the most important things about hip-hop to me, it’s way of being ‘in your face,’ of using poetry to talk about a very crude reality,” said Welmo. “So until reggaeton went mainstream, it maintained this spirit of defiance, of questioning inequality, poverty, the lack of resources…

“Reggaeton, I think, is a genre that had its moment. Once the major labels came in, it began to lose that defiance, and the image and music of the rapper was softened, and even the environments in the music videos changed. The ghetto disappeared and became the mansion, the cars, and the bling bling.”

Then watch this Big Metra video:

An antipathy to reggaeton came through loud and clear in the conversations I staged at El Eco with some of DF’s important hip-hop purveyors. During his talk, in an aside akin to spitting on the ground, Tomás Álzarez Brum called reggaeton “mierda” — a common charge, especially among a certain set of “underground” torchbearers. My other guest, 2phase, agreed in so many words, though I confess that I can’t recall the particular phrasing. (Any recollection, Camilo?)

It’s the sort of objection that keeps rearing its head in places like this 15 second YouTube video I posted a few years back. It’s actually rather surprising — or, I suppose, revealing — how often the mierda (i.e., shit) is applied to reggaeton (see also, basura / trash). It’s a form of diss implicating matters of taste and value. As I’ll explain, however, it’s not so easy to say that reggaeton is rejected either because it is seen as “low” or, alternately, as some sort of foreign import for the local jetset. Ironically, reggaeton in DF is (dismissed as) both of these things. Naco y fresa.

At one end, we find reggaeton used as a stylish signal of metropolitan fashion, a globally-circulating symbol of cosmopolatino cool, the sort of thing you’re careful to put on your flyers and email-blasts if you’re, say, promoting “LUXURY HIP HOP” at a super-swank club in one of the schmancier parts of town (h/t Daniel H) —

LUXURY HIP HOP

Given the way that reggaeton figures into fresa fantasies, you can understand why some might revile it. But interestingly, the disgust and dismissal of the genre also feeds into animosity toward the poor kids (literally) who make up reggaeton’s other main constituency in Mexico City. Camilo Smith has an excellent post on the intense anti-reggaeton sentiments he encountered when pursuing more information about the so-called “cult” of San Judas (a phenomenon recently profiled in the NYT). Here’s Camilo’s take —

The anti-reggaeton sentiment, I think, is more classist than anything. The reggaetoneros are viewed as thugs and neardowells, when in fact, most are just young kids among the desperate and needy whom San Judas is supposed to protect. Albeit with airbrushed and rhinestone caps.

One Facebook fan site, is filled with pictures tagged with racist and mean captions and comments. Odiamos a todos los reggaetoneros ke van a la iglesia de San Judas los 28′s (We hate the reggaeton fans who go to the San Judas church on the 28ths) has over 4,000 fans.

You can see a few of its mocking portraits below, and after the jump. There tends to be special distaste for reggaeton’s doggy dance or perreo that the kids do.

Go over to Camilo’s blog to read the whole post and see the pics (he really dug up some digital gems), but I can’t resist sharing this mashup of San Judas and Yandel —

And since I stay steady scratching the surface of what reggaeton means in Mexico City — how it figures in DF’s noisy, charged soundscape — I’ll have to come to a close with a few telling jokes culled from Camilo’s web wanderings. I’m not sure about the particular provenance of these (i.e., was the author posting them writing from DF?). But the way they simply cut-n-paste several classist cliches suggests that reggaeton, despite its uptake in places like Polanco, remains strongly anchored to images of poverty, crime, and lack of education:

Que le dices a un reggaetonero con trabajo? / Me puedes dar mas papas fritas?
(What do you say to a reggaetonero with a job? / Can you give me more fries?)

Que le dices a un reggaetonero en traje y corbata? / Que el acusado que se ponga de pie porfavor.
(What do you say to a reggaetonero in suit and tie? / Will the defendant please stand.)

2 reggaetoneros en un auto, no se oye musica a todo volumen. Quien conduce? / Un policia.
(2 reggaetoneros in a car; you do not hear music at full volume. Who’s driving? / A cop.)

Bringing it back home, this page, which includes the jokes above, even offers a list of places “where you can encounter a reggaetonero” in Mexico City:

>>>> DONDE ENCUENTRAS A UN REGGAETOÑERO <<<<

*LOS DIAS 28 EN REFORMA. LLENDO A VER A SN JUDITAS
*EN EL METRO O EN LOS TRANSBORDES DEL METRO ESPERANDO A ROBARTE TUS PERTENENCIAS
*AFUERA DE SUS VECINDADES
*EN MOTONETA CAZANDO GENTE
*TRABAJANDO DE COMERCIANTE EN EL CENTRO
*TRABAJANDO DE MICROBUSERO
*TRABAJANDO DE VAGONERO
*EN LA CALLE ROBANDO
*DE PORRO EN ALGUNA FIESTA
*JUGANDO FUTBOL SIN PLAYERA AFUERA DE SU CASA

Given such an evocative map, I clearly need to return to DF once more and see what I can hear while riding a minibus or getting robbed on the street.

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July 13th, 2010

Cow and Then

vermont-july-2010-39
nico &amp; cows

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July 9th, 2010

DJ El Niño Presents: Dancehall Reggaespañol 2010

I first got in touch with DJ El Niño several years ago, dead in the middle of a little research project that would finish like this. (Incidentally, my co-editor Deborah Pacini Hernandez just publlished a new book which is well worth checking: a sweeping and deep synthesis of the history of Latin American popular music, Oye Como Va! includes a stellar chapter on cumbia’s migration from Colombia to Mexico, and beyond, which begins with a quote from former Heatwave specialist, Gervase de Wilde!)

Although his contribution to my research goes beyond what made it into the chapter I wrote, I do quote some of my correspondence with El Niño a couple times in the piece, complete with “lols” and such in order to maintain a sense of, as I put it in a footnote, “the tone of the exchage.” Here’s one of my favorite such bits:

According to DJ El Niño, the embrace of bachata by reggaeton producers was a marriage of convenience: “people who were into reggaeton hated bachata,” he recounted via email, “it even got dissed on some early reggaeton tracks…as things became more mainstream (including bachata) and not so underground it became ok and then u see watt happens now they all have at least 2 ‘bachata’ tracks per cd…lol!!”

As a DJ who had already been playing Latin dance/club parties in the tri-state area and beyond for many years, El Niño had some great perspectives on the historical arc of reggaeton, and how it related to all the other styles he played: bachata, merengue, salsa, house, freestyle, Latin hip-hop, reggae, pop. In the years since, we’ve continued to go back and forth, connecting dots between Jamaican dancehall and what some call reggaespañol, IDing riddims and cover versions, etc.

Doing the research for my chapter, and digging into what was also (maybe misguidedly) referred to as Spanglish Roots N Hall, turned me into a big fan of the early days of Spanish-language reggae. Sometimes it tips toward the cheesy, but a lot of reggae walks that line, especially in the synth era. It was by listening to a 1991 compilation on Columbia records, putting Jamaican originals and Spanish covers side by side, that I began to better appreciate reggae’s routes and reggaeton’s roots — the transmission / translation / transmogrification of Jamaican reggae into Panamanian plena and Puerto Rican reggaeton.

Keeping the torch aloft for the somewhat liminal genre, DJ El Niño has put together a comp of his own devoted to reggaespañol. (I love that it’s called “Dancehall Reggaespañol 2010″ despite featuring songs that are all about 20 years old! #atemporality) Like the Columbia comp, it also draws audible threads through the recordings, as registered in the riddim-wise tracklisting. Apparently, our exchanges about this stuff have been deep enough that El Niño even gives W&W a shout in the artwork! So consider this something of a W&W “exclusive” — but do spread it far and wide!

      >> DJ El Niño, Reggaespañol 2010


Oh yeah, yo DJs!: this isn’t one big mixed mp3, it’s a collection of non-mixed, meta-massaged, mastered tracks for your listening and mixing pleasure. But you should really appreciate the level of detail provided by a working DJ like El Niño himself. As noted in Gmail

1.cd is non mixed
2.properly tagged(bpm,date of release,cover,riddim name, etc… so its serato/dj friendly)
3.all songs were edited(eliminated silence space, fixed volume and eqd)
4.all songs are 192k and ripped by me from original cds (unless indicated)
5.all songs come from cd except track 15 (vinyl rip converted at 160k) and track 14 (ripped by a friend at 128k from cd)
6.all songs are in their original state except track 15 is pitched up a bit(not much) and track 11 which is the club version from the maxi single(i cut the instrumental section at the end which rides close to 2 min)(all shabba ranks cds use the club version but fade it out at the last chorus all i did was let the last chorus ride and fade it out after)
7.some jamaican songs have differnt versions (ie gregory isaacs song was done by arzu and included in the original cd,papa san song was also done by shabbacan/shabakan..the version i included is by ledesma which was a big hit in ny and dr radio)
8.the only non panamanian/jamaincan on this cd is ledesma…..hes dominican
9.theres some tracks marked with an arterisk which means the riddim is not the original(redone)
10.i have tracks to do at least 2 more cds
11.i included some songs from the original cd cus i felt they are better situated in this compilation
12.i think i said it all…ure the first person to have this…review it ,posted in your site(added it to the cover), give it to ppl, do what u must to “spread” the knowledge(cd).once you have done what u could i will posted in every forum imaginable(feel free to help)

ps once again all songs come from original cds except track 15 .theres some songs that u can hear a “pop” here and there.thats because the cd was done from a “vinyl master”(which sucks) examples are trailer lleno,te ves buena,noche enferma

And for those of you who’d like to continue compiling some summer mixxage for your mobile devices and such, El Niño also shares his latest confection (and I use that term purposely). But be forwarned: this short “pop” mix is bookended by Ace of Bass and Cher, but it takes some nice twists and turns in between.

      >> DJ El Niño, Pop Music Mix (2010)

Or for those who are looking for something very different, here’s a 1999 mix devoted to “Latin Hip Hop.” In typical fashion, El Niño reports: “some goodies in here including tegos first song and a blend i did with puff daddy…lol”

      >> DJ El Niño, Latin Hip Hop Mix (1999)

Finally, you can find much more from El Niño & crew, Lo Maximo Productions, on this page.*

* One of the mixtapes listed there is Sensato’s El 28 (por DJ Scuff) — I don’t know what LMP’s role in that is, besides spreading it further, but it’s well worth grabbing if you’re over there. We listened to it last weekend on the drive from NYC back to Boston, and it had my mind blown / side in stitches over & over. Dude can flo! [Update: El Niño clarifies.]

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July 2nd, 2010

Mix, A Lot — Summertime Edition

cambridge peoples

Despite that the majority of what I listen to takes the form of DJ mixes, and that I probably download something around 3 per day, and that I probably like a good third-to-half of what I DL, I rarely find the time to write about all this great stuff I’m listening to. So aside from when I occasionally find myself with the impulse to tweet what I’m DLing, there’s this very occasional mix-a-lot series.

Given that this weekend offers many opportunities for road-trippin and cold-chillin — both of which go great with “mixtapes” — I thought I would take the moment to throw some mixxage your way. Included below are some recent rinses and oldies-but-goodies. Pardon the bullet points, but bang for your buck.

  • You can thank @pm_jawn for helping roll this ball down the hill yesterday with a request for “beach/driving/bbq music for the long weekend” — and of course one could go many ways with that range of related settings, them summery vibes. First thing that came to mind, though, were two beautiful African mixes that always find their way back on my device this time of year: Fatmix by Melonhands, and Slow Music from West Africa by Brian’s friend Simon.
  • Other recs for Alexis served to affirm my love for the sweet-and-sour dance-pop romps of Rich FourFour, one of the foremost interpreters of television reality today, the man for whom Jersey Shore would have to be invented if it didn’t already exist. His latest, No Enigma — “so named,” he writes, “because I could not bring myself to include anything from the weird drum-machine druids that helped define the sound I’m exploring here” — is a straight shot of adoiescent awesome (for me anyway). The mixing itself is not always pitch perfect — the first segue, from “Keep on Moving” to “Don’t Make Me Over,” two songs I adore, is, as Randy would say, “a lil pitchy, dawg” — but so are many of the tracks included, so it seems kind of apt. Also worth your time/drivespace are his New Jack Swing mix, his Freesytle freakout, and the one weh name Radio Dance 90s (I was a big fan of Kwamé — and those fckn polkadots — back in the day).
  • Summer always feels especially welcoming of that ol’ boom-bap bump. Maybe it’s the warmth letting the neck snap a lil easier. Anyway, it gives me another good excuse to return to a mix I’ve been digging for some time and haven’t had a proper chance to big up: the dense and definitive, despite the title’s humilty, “A Boom Bap Continuum” (note the indefinite article). Presented late last year by 2tall, Kper, and DJ Clockwork (including some great cassette-culture artwork), the mix traces out the state of the art in head-nodding hip-hop beats over the course of the last decade, with some tasteful connections/digressions into grime and ultimately more recent efforts in wonky leftfield abstrakt beats (but always with a good sense of snap). The pacing is amazing, reminiscent of another great hip-hop mix that works as summer soundtrack, Bobby Corridor’s Hip Hop Megamix. Most audibly, for me, it traces the wide and deep influence of the late great J Dilla, which, while we’re on the topic, I can’t help but recommend — despite them being a dime-a-dozen — a stellar, gorgeous Jay Dee mix by Deniz Kurtel for Wolf + Lamb (which, while on the topic of W+L, & even if I’ve mentioned it before, this mix by W+L artist Nico Jaar is still basically unfuckwitable at times like these). Also, if you dig Boom Bap Continuum, you might also like Kper’s/Laurent’s tributes to Digital Mystics & Loefah or what he calls post-rave bastard child music.
  • While we’re at a hip-hop angle, let me just make sure that you’ve heard DJ Primier’s mix-eulogies to Guru and Malcolm McLaren (you’ll have to scrounge around a bit for mobile versions of those). See also, Das Racist‘s inspired, hilarious mixtape from this spring, Shut Up, Dude (which is maybe topical again b/c Pfork finally got around to reviewing it? nah, this is just late notice — no worries, tho, they’re hard at work on a next one!). And if we’re riding for hip-hop straight-up, I gotta recommend, if you’re not already well familiar, the Rub’s History of Hip-hop mixes, which they’re rolling out one for every year, now spanning 1979 to 2004, with the last couple arriving just in the last week.
  • It kind of goes without saying that a large part of my phone’s gigs are occupied by the regular flow of amazing, future-present mixes coming from what I think of as the extended Night Slugs family, a bunch of great DJs on resonant wavelengths: Bok Bok, L-Vis, Kingdom, Girl Unit, Manara, Ikonika, Nguzunguzu, etc. I’m sorry to say that I can’t be bothered right now to go back collecting links for all these fine folks and their recent output (ok, here’s one), but a little googling will get you a long way. Better yet: follow them all on Twitter (see the links back there) for breaking news about the latest greatest.
  • Or maybe you’re in the mood for a globe-trotting exploration of the sound of house with Crooked Clef as your guide? How about a little Panama Doaba, aka MPC & Korg assisted “hiphop remezclas of Panamanian calypso, funk and cumbia from the 1960s & 70s” cooked up by the Gnawledge crew? Or perhaps a double shot of bubble’n’juke c/o Massacooramaan aka the driven, dynamic, and downright dope Dave Quam, who’s been grinding out one of the best music blogs out there and with whom I’m conspiring to kickstart a bubbling book.
  • I want to end, tho, by nodding to some mixes that knocked socks off well before the internet began belching them out at a rate that would humble an Icelandic volcano. I’m talking about the mighty Poirier’s Grimey Land, recorded on a request from Mary Anne Hobbs back in 2007 and recently re-upped for your listening pleasure. A half-hour of blistering African hip-hop (or “crunk and grime” in GP’s words), I quite agree with him when he says that “The tracks in the mix still sounds fresh!” That said, I confess that I remain more partial to his earlier effort in the same vein, originally dropped on his MYSPACE BLOG in Jan 07 (whatwhat?!), Mix Afrique, which is a little scarce on the webs these days thanks to some (c) disputes, but see what you can scare up if curious.

Pardon — and thanks! — to all the mix-makers out there that I’m unable to big-up right this very moment. Plz keep on!!

(& if anyone has anything to add, by all means…)

Happy long weekend & happy summer!

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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