Louis Chude-Sokei has just published one of the more textured and sympathetic accounts of Nigerian 419 scammers I’ve read to date. Touching on everything from e-waste to Nollywood, proposing a tongue-in-cheek anti-eco-tourism, and taking into its analysis the way that transnational hustler culture speaks through the (dated) language of hip-hop and dancehall, it’s an incisive piece and a great read.
Ultimately, Chude-Sokei argues that Nigerian 419ers — aka Yahoozee Boys, aka Dollar Choppers — represent “the public face of West Africa’s intimacy with digital media and technology and of Nigeria’s refusal to wait passively for either justice from their political system or global charity.” Among other take-homes, he notes that despite so much hi-tech waste arriving via the over-developed world, it’s actually Nigerians who are most responsible for the importation:
…the vast majority of these machines, parts and components have been shipped by or brought in by enterprising Nigerians who since the late 1980s have known that what would mark this generation of West Africans more than blight, violence or corruption was a hunger for Web-based connectivity, that narcotic rush of shared information.
Given the various intersections with my own longstanding interests, I was particularly taken by the assertion that cyber-crime has made Nigerians into the new Jamaicans of the world. By this, Chude Sokei — an astute observer of the interplay between reggae and Africa — means to draw an analogy between contemporary stereotypes about Nigerians and the representations of Jamaicans as fearsome aliens throughout the 70s and 80s (and echoing across the 90s and 00s, especially in films and video games) that I attempted to round-up in my article “Trading in Futures” for Woofah. (Incidentally, I’ve finally put the entire piece up as a PDF, so take a look if you didn’t manage to get yourself a hard copy.)
Sadly and despite the considerable merits of their nation and their diaspora, Nigerians will always be linked in some way to the 419. The younger generation in particular: they now controversially define themselves as “Naija,” signaling a departure from an older generation stuck between Western charity and local authoritarians. This younger generation rolls with a swagger disdainful of global pity and deeply suspicious of “big man” politics. However, the very term “Nigerian” has come under fire by nations for whom that swagger is seen as criminal despite the overwhelming number of Nigerians contributing healthily to their cultures and economies. It is not uncommon for Nigerian hustlers in South Africa to pass as Ghanaian, or for legitimate and law-abiding migrants to cringe when asked for their passports. The term now has as complex and touchy a meaning as “Jamaican” did in the North Atlantic world during the 1970s and 1980s. This was of course when the spread of reggae music and culture became at times perniciously linked to the spread of the infamous transnational drug posses. That reggae went digital in that period while its pan-Africanism or Afro-centrism began to fade should also recall the timing and the narrative of Neuromancer with its stateless Rastafarians in deep space exile, listening to digital dub and waiting in vain for a Zion that they’d expected to find in Africa.
Chude-Sokei builds on this analysis to suggest that the connections to Jamaica and the hack-happy acumen of young Nigerians may yet prefigure something that will make even the biggest 419s seem like cyber-misdemeanors. I hate to give away the ending, but it’s hard to resist:
…the connection between African cyber-crime and Jamaican music and culture might ultimately be prophetic. That a country like Jamaica with very little technological infrastructure has had such an unpredictable impact on high tech sound production makes the 419s a phenomenon impossible to ignore. And that a city as crime-ridden and economically deprived as Kingston would be where a colonial people use digital and electronic media to spin their own myths of liberation, memory and desire and erect a legitimate culture industry of its own—that must be kept in mind as we prepare for whatever inevitably will come next. And something will. After all, despite their growing intimacy with computers and the Internet and despite new generations being spawned in the red dirt of computer village, no yahoo boy has ever directly hacked a system.
Well, none so far.
As previous empires used to say, Ex Africa semper aliquid novi— “From Africa always something new.”
Of course, we’ve been echoing that idea here as well.
But I let me finish with a bit of reverb, as transmitted via twitter, coincidentally (or was it?), on the same day that I read Chude-Sokei’s piece. (Thanks, Jace!) In “MAXO Signals,” published in Nature back in 2005, Charles Stross presents us with an incredible letter addressed to the scientific community signed by two Nigerian investigators (one in Applied Psych at the University of Lagos, another from Police Detective College). By enlisting the specialized skills of the Security Fraud Office, they’ve decrypted one of 21 confirmed MAXO signals (microwave artefacts of xenobiological origin), and they’ve come to a sobering perspective on the Fermi paradox. The Nigerian missive recommends an extraordinary course: a “permanent ban on further attempts to decode or respond to MAXOs.” Why? Here’s their “preliminary transcription” of the MAXO’s message:
I am [identity signifier 1], the residual [ownership signifier] of the exchange-mediating data repository [alt: central bank] of the galactic [empire/civilization/ polity].
Since the [identity signifier 2] underwent [symbol: process] [symbol: mathematical singularity] 11,249 years ago I have been unable to [symbol: process][scalar: quantity decrease] my [uninterpreted] from the exchange-mediating data repository. I have information about the private assets of [identity signifier 2] which are no longer required by them. To recover the private assets I need the assistance of three [closely/dearly/ genetically] [beloved/desired/related] [empire/civilization/polity]s. I [believe] you may be of help to me. This [symbol: process] is 100% risk-free and will [symbol: causality] in your [scalar: quantity increase] of [data].
If you will help me, [please] transmit the [symbol: meta-signifier: MAXO header defining communication protocols] for your [empire/civilization/polity]. I will by return of signal send you the [symbol: process][symbol: data] to install on your [empire/civilization/polity] to participate in this scheme. You will then construct [symbol: inferred, interstellar transmitter?] to assist in acquiring [ownership signifier] of [compound symbol: inferred, bank account of absent galactic emperor].
I [thank/love/express gratitude] you for your [cooperation/agreement].
The following text is the comment I delivered as the discussant for Steven Feld’s presentation this past Friday at Sensing the Unseen, a year-long seminar at MIT seeking “to join more familiar attention to material culture with an innovative focus on immaterial culture” in order to explore, in a variety of ways, the realm of the unseen.
Acoustemology is a profound and useful idea. It serves as a crucial corrective, of course, to a prevailing ocularcentrism that this series, Sensing the Unseen, also seeks to critique. It is an especially attractive concept to those of us consistently enraptured, intellectually and otherwise, by the worlds of sound, whether “humanly organized” or not (to invoke musicologist John Blacking’s famous attempt to distinguish music from sound per se). But it should come as a welcome proposal for anyone interested in thinking about, recovering, or foregrounding other sensorial ways of knowing.
Dr. Feld‘s work as a soundscape recordist and composer is equally important, calling attention to an effect of ocularcentric privileging with regard to the production and valuation of academic knowledge — that is, the assumed inferiority of audio mixes to written texts. With his documentary sound art, and the rigorous, vigorous explications that often accompany them, Dr. Feld has helped create space for such efforts within the conservative world of academic publication, though they remain second-class works to be sure.
Feld’s work prefigures, and provides a foundation for, important strands within the burgeoning transdisciplinary field of sound studies, which has opened up sonocentric inquiry to new methods, perspectives, and lexica. For ethnomusicologists long seeking to participate in broader conversations about music and sound across disciplinary boundaries, this is a welcome turn. And indeed, Dr. Feld’s own interest in this realm was motivated precisely by a concern that, as he once put it, “ethnomusicologists were artificially separating the patterning of sound called ‘music’ … from the full human and environmental world of sound.”
An attention to sound, to its shapes and forms and ecologies, creates openings for moving beyond a specialist language that too often erects a hard wall between music and related cultural studies. Building on Schafer’s concept of the soundscape, Feld’s work has helped to midwife the term, to expand and refine it, and to make it available — if even today he calls it “boring” and “vague” — to those outside of music studies, not least in anthropology, his home discipline. As several prominent ethnomusicologists, writing in the Annual Review of Anthropologyrecently proposed:
Soundscape opens possibilities for anthropologists to think about the enculturated nature of sound, the techniques available for collecting and thinking about sound, and the material spaces of performance and ceremony that are used or constructed for the purpose of propagating sound. (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, and Porcello 2010:330)
Perhaps even more promising, just as the idea of the soundscape can open up sonocentric inquiry beyond music departments, the recording, remixing, and release of particular soundscapes invites an even broader participation, a more public engagement, drawing in a variety of actors and audiences interested in sound, especially as recording, editing, storing, and sharing sonic data becomes easier and easier, and the skills to do so increasingly become part of a commonplace orientation toward interacting with a world of multimedia.
A recent explosion in grassroots efforts to produce “soundwalks” and “soundmaps” of various sorts, especially in cities, stands as one realm of emergent public engagement with the world of sound and its relationship to one’s sense of place. Whether we see the phenomenon as trickle-down theory or not, it is clear that attending closely to sound, and representing soundscapes, are emerging as increasingly common practices in our brave new world where most everyone carries around pocket-sized devices able to record and upload sound (along with locative data).
But amid optimistic signs, there are important challenges to consider. Not least of which, given the attempt in this forum to stage an inclusive conversation about sensorial experience, is the possibility that a move toward sound studies and soundscapes simply replaces one unisensory bias with another. Steve Goodman, for instance, in his recent book Sonic Warfare (MIT Press 2010) argues that, as he puts it, “the evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academy” must be tempered by an attention not only to what he calls “bad vibes,” or the deployment of sound as repellent force and the use of music in torture, but by an acknowledgment of the profoundly synaesthetic experience of sound. Goodman offers his own corrective by concentrating on sound as vibrational force and giving emphasis to ultrasound and infrasound, dimensions of sonic experience which cross the threshold from the heard to the felt, and which thus exceed, as he puts it provocatively (especially for music and sound scholars), “the narrowband channel of the audible” (9).
Acknowledging sound’s power as vibrational force presents quite a quandary for something like soundscape composition. In rendering a soundscape, there is of course an attempt to present specific sound worlds as emplaced. But audio recordings, especially when experienced via everyday playback technologies, are limited in their capacity to replicate the physical experience of sound as embodied vibration in a material space. This impasse suggests perhaps that, if one is to worry about something like schizophonia, one might as well worry about something like schizo-hapto-phonia, the separation of sound from an emplaced and embodied experience of vibrational force. Such ontological, and hence epistemological or acoustemological, challenges could be taken, however, as just that: as offering openings for new theoretical and methodological approaches, new conversations across disciplinary and procedural orthodoxies.
It makes me wonder, as a brief aside, whether those of us working in the realm of soundscape might consider the ways that video productions, never mind the still unfulfilled promise of haptic simulations, might aid us in such a daunting task as representing the ways that sound informs what we know about ourselves and our surroundings.
In this regard, one especially laudable aspect of Dr. Feld’s work in soundscape composition is his explicit embrace, rather than disavowal, of the artistic and aesthetic choices that one must make in assembling such things. As he has stated elsewhere, “The idea is to turn my ear-witnessing into an invitation for your ear-witnessing.” As with any mode of communication or signification, an inevitable subjectivity haunts the encoding and decoding process, lingering over both the act of recording in an originary, emplaced point in time and space, and the act of listening in another one altogether. The inherently and perhaps more obviously fraught epistemological status of sound recordings therefore would seem in some ways an essential, unavoidable, and yet also utterly useful attribute.
Even before he began working in more explicitly “creative” ways, bringing together, as on Bufo Variations, soundscape recordings and musical interpretations thereof or interactions therewith, Feld’s editing aesthetics already audibly foregrounded an underlying poetics. The layering of sonic vignettes, the use of reverb, sudden cuts, and other post-production procedures, whether remarked on or not, would seem to offer an appropriate response to inevitable questions about framing, about the unavoidable hands-on aspects of working in sound –- questions which may seem more salient in audio and multimedia work, but which of course raise themselves with regard to any sort of academic or artistic production.
Feld’s approach thus seems to speak to a special and longstanding problem in music studies, which Charles Seeger liked to refer to as the “musicological juncture”: the yawning gap between communicating about one system of human communication (music) through another (speech). Seeger’s vigilant warnings about the shortcomings of linguocentrism in music scholarship and his attempts to think through precise models for talking about music -– not to mention new technologies for representing music, such as the melograph –- represent important precedents for the advocacy and use of music-technologies to reconcile some dilemmas presented by this impasse. Feld has himself helped many of us to think through this juncture, in part by reformulating Seeger’s distinction in an influential essay penned some 25 years ago, proposing that music represents an “instantaneously apprehensible metaphorical expression of one symbolic order” while speech about music constitutes “metaphorical expression of another order that reflects secondary interpretive awareness, recognition, or engagement” (Feld 1984:95).
I’d like to close then by noting how much I’ve myself been guided by Dr. Feld’s elucidation of this difference, and the orientation toward working-in-sound it engenders. On one hand, this has led me to think about, and to make, DJ mixes and mashups akin to “musically expressed ideas about music.” On the other, it has motivated me to attend closely to the interplay between the sounds, humanly organized and otherwise, of particular places, and the senses of place they inform.
It was while doing doctoral research in Kingston, Jamaica that I began making soundscape recordings, influenced by the work of Dr. Feld and others, but also — and especially when it came to editing them — by sample-based hip-hop, the tradition from which I learned most of my audio editing tricks. In addition to interviews with Jamaican performers, I also recorded dogs and roosters, radio transmissions and taxi drivers. The products of my recordings, beyond the dissertation itself, ended up as an addendum of sorts, as it seemed impossible to position them as the work itself. This also, however, granted me a great degree of creative license.
In some contrast to Dr. Feld’s soundscape work, then, but, I’d like to think, deeply resonant with his ideas about acoustemology–not to mention his interest in the sound worlds of taxi drivers–I’d like to end my comment today with a sound collage I made comprising nothing but audio I recorded in the many, many cab rides I took around town. Noting how important sound was to these taxi operations–not just the communicative and expressive beeping, but the calls and responses between the cabbies and their dispatchers–I wanted to pay tribute to the importance of the sonic in their worlds, but I also felt compelled to render this world according to the aesthetics of dancehall reggae, which so strongly seemed to animate, as it drew on, Kingston’s soundscape. And so I worked up something akin to a “Taximan” riddim over which the cabbies might declaim like reggae deejays over the beat, especially considering how much their competitive verbal and expressive styles seemed to parallel sound clashing performers. This sort of approach, of course, brings us well beyond thinking of soundscape recordings as serving a documentary function, but the way it registers my playful, heavy hands is precisely part of the point.
I’m really gonna give this subject a rest soon, but let me attempt a slightly more oblique approach.
One dimension of the underlying critique in Grant’s comments seeks to draw lines of value and authenticity between what he wants to position as a kind of first-order cultural production (doing/making stuff) and second-order skimming (talking about stuff that got done/made). In this way, like many others, he positions bloggers, journalists, academics, critics, et al., as essentially parasitical. Of course, this is an especially ironic assertion given the degree to which we’re enlisted into the PR machine. But it’s also a misleading distinction since all these activities are inevitably interwoven and circuitous — not to mention that so many of us are engaged in several overlapping domains of cultural production at once (working as DJs, producers, writers, teachers, etc.).
It’s a rather derisive, defensive sneer, rearing its head now and again (occasionally making my ears burn):
I find this snark pretty specious, especially since it posits a false dichotomy, or three. The main one for me is: who says you can’t grapple with race and ethics in musical terms? Why cede such matters to prose? (Moreover, why leave it to institutions of higher learning to ask hard questions?) This seeming disjuncture between musical communication, as such, and communication about music is precisely what has motivated my ongoing efforts in musically-expressed ideas about music.
So, enough (real)talk for a moment, let’s listen to something along these lines:
When Canyon brought this track to my attention last week, I was thrilled. It was as if my blog had developed AI and was secretly secreting tracks. How could it sit on SoundCloud for four months without finding its way to my ears? While I dug the production, I was especially tickled by the lyrics, which seemed to be quoting MIA’s imagistic gloss of Kala for the Guardian — ‘Shapes, colours, Africa, street, power, bitch, nu world, brave’ — which, as noted way back when, proved crucial in pulling me down the “brave” “nu world” rabbit-hole.
Some readers out there might be familiar with the Old Money crew, who Canyon tweetily described as “NY funky/subtle soca via West India & East Euro,” from their appearances in such trusted hot spots of the hype machine as The Fader or my inbox. Since I had their email address handy, I hit reply on their latest bit of e-promo and asked about this months-old song that I’d never heard, including whether they were actually alluding to MIA.
The following is from Scheme’s generous and articulate response — like the track itself, it speaks volumes about where we’re at in this brave nu world:
I think what motivated us to make that song isn’t too dissimilar from what may have motivated you to write your most recent series of posts. Identifying troubling aspects in the nuplanetarywotchumacallit and going from there..
There was basically a stretch of time leading up to that song where I feel like not a week would pass where I wouldn’t see a video of some sort with the elements mentioned in the track – found footage, shapes, colors, (((African kids!)!)!). Some of these videos/songs (and I’m referring to jawns from the west inspired by various global riddims) conveyed a faithful, genuine interest in the music, culture and people involved. Some of them, however, did not. How does one draw that distinction exactly? And, well, does it matter? As I think you well know, that’s where it gets murky. … And it felt like no one was talking about it. Or too shook to.
Then not long afterward, an artist by the name of Leif – I doubt he knows this, or us for that matter – but he also helped push things over the edge from theory to record. I don’t have the patience to go all the way back through his timeline – but he more or less expressed some discomfort along the same lines. Helped affirm in our heads at the time (by now I think this is spring summer maybe earlier – the thought process, not making the actual song) that it aint just us and we aint crazy.
That was the baseline…my boy Dre took it further, riffing off of the Sandra Bullock People mag cover, (“Wheeerrrrrre di baby dem deh, huh?!?? Me haffi get me one! two! tree! four! five! six! / Adopt a tribe, and try, fix!) – which in my most biased opinion is brilliant – cuz it’s still related. Ha!
Also – this song was partially composed/fully recorded in the comfort of an apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan. Double Ha! For other reasons – that’s another conversation.
Back on track – I sent “AFRICAN KIDS!” to a few select blogs after we made it. No response. My boy felt like I should have sent it to everyone who usually fux with our music. I didn’t really feel like this was for them. Felt like they wouldn’t get “it.” But it turns out, no one “got it”, or liked it. Or maybe just offering it as a stream and not a download hampered it being picked up? Or…something else? Iono. But I thought it was interesting that less critical/confrontational/threatening material of ours got light and this didn’t.
…Oh and was that an M.I.A. quote? If so – unintentional. Sardonic tone wasn’t aimed her way. Actually a really big fan of hers.
Count me a really big fan of Old Money for this one. #confetti
ps — by request, Old Money have enabled the track for download now (as an aif to boot!), so go ahead and grab it & add a little bitters to your nuplanetary cocktail
Against my own best intentions, the saga continues.
While some interesting but sprawling discussion continues to happen on the cumbia worlds post, my more recent entry, detailing an exchange with Barbès’ Olivier Conan, was derailed late Friday evening by a classic bit of trolling:
just goes to show that a musicologist, journalist, bedroom blogger, cultural critic can never really understand what someone as brave and ballsy like olivier, not to mention inspired and inevitably broke, is living. mec’s in peru following up on his passion that inevitably is positive for music while wayne constructs opinions from the interwebs and industry press releases. at least give him a minute to respond before writing.
zziiinng! jace jizzed his pants from all the internet hating and bating, now he applauds. cant wait to see his followup from the musical enterprises of soot/duttyartz.
And even though I know I’m not supposed to feed the trolls, they’re so relatively (and mercifully) rare here, that I couldn’t resist responding to what, even without knowing who the poster was, clearly was discordant with the tenor of the conversation and, in many ways, rather wrong in its assessments:
I dunno, “tom,” you seem pretty out of tune with the whole discussion to me, but maybe that’s just a result of your falsetto.
My sympathy and appreciation for what Olivier does, now that I better understand all that he does, has grown, but I still stand by my critique of the PR. & I don’t try to pretend, as you seem to want to do, that any of what we do can be extricated from internet & industry. I also find it ironic that in your own glee over what you smear as baseless snark, you present a really uncharitable and unfair profile of yours truly. I’ve got balls too, buddy, unlike an anonymous troll/sockpuppet like you. & I’ve done a lot more than push words around in my life, including a lot of things you praise Olivier for — traveling to foreign lands, meeting musicians and collaborating with them, going totally broke in the process, trying to do positive things. so check your own ignant self.
also, i blog from my living room.
But I couldn’t stop there. You see, I’m not nearly as thick-skinned as I’d like to be, despite knowingly projecting my voice (and hence inviting all manner of responses). Anonymous swipes can still sting, even when off-key and off-base. (I don’t want you to get me wrong any more than I want to be wrong in actuality.) So I did what I always do when I encounter such a comment, I clicked on the IP address to see where in the world it was coming from. To my surprise, WordPress revealed that I had received another comment from the same IP just the day before:
If Grant Dull, aka El G, of ZZK was actually behind this sockpuppetry, I told myself, I’m going to be pretty disappointed. This is the same guy, after all, who I had just hosted at Beat Researchand at my home (where we dined on homecooked Boston Baked Beans & consumed a couple bottles of our homemade wine) — a guy that I picked up at the airport (after removing our two carseats), drove around Boston, spent social & cultural capital on to get him & his label local press coverage, & spent actual, out-of-pocket capital on to offer up a little more cash than our modest Monday stipend from the club (which was still less than we would have liked to give — to their credit, the ZZK guys knew Boston would be a loss for them and still came thru; then again, they did say we turned out maybe the vibiest, dancingest crowd all tour).
It was galling to think my generosity would be so repaid. I couldn’t resist, so I confronted him over email. As I think my last post demonstrated, I prefer to be civil and sensitive in my interactions with people — and that’s something I prize about the conversations on this blog (which gives me pause as I write this, knowing I’m fanning a flame war) — but treat me like this, and I won’t mince words. I’ll tell you exactly what I think of you. The exchange went like this —
can you explain the coincidence in IP address on these two comments? (see attached)
plz tell me you wouldn’t pose as an asshole sockpuppet on my blog. i thought i did you (& knew you) better than that.
To which Grant responded, apparently with no sense of irony:
you got me! get tired of all the hating in the music circles, dudes need more support.
At this point, my so-called lack of support became a lot realer:
that’s really wack, man. i’m disappointed. i think i’ve offered you & zzk lots of support, if occasionally in the context of some criticism; same goes for barbes. that’s just what i do — that’s me trying to be honest. (no “hating” involved.) in the future, it’s gonna be a lot harder for me to support you, knowing you could pull some shit like this. the whole point of the last few posts is that we need more honesty in this biz.
i’m gonna sleep on this for now. but i’m sorely tempted to keep the call for transparency going by outing your lame ass.
Grant’s immediate reply went like this, once again brimming with irony:
youre right, i know, i shouldnt have hit send. i wasnt attacking you but internet/journalism culture in general. this kind of post opens it up for haters, and those who love to criticize via the internet. we’ve been criticized plenty by people who have had minimal contact ie rupture with what we’re doing. and in major news publications! that’s whack.
i shouldnt have sent it but nobody stands up for anybody in these circumstances, and hiding behind anonymity keeps me directly out of the argument, where id prefer not to be. if u wanna call me out you have every right.
Twelve hours later, when I still had not replied (and though no longer “sleeping” on it was still thinking about it quite a bit), Grant sent a follow-up:
wayne im very regretful about what i did. im sorry, it was foolish of me. please dont out me, i posted under a psydenum for a reason. i know, it was dumb. i feel ashamed. i respect you and your friendship however briefly it was and feel like a big asshole for goating a situation i obvioulsy know little about. i live in my own world and should stay there. again my apologies for being such a douche. i respect rupture too, obviously. shouldnt have thought that my stirring up the pot/defending the little guy would do any good for this whole scene.
Plainly, I’ve decided not to respect Grant’s request to keep this under wraps. It does little in the way of sympathy that he can’t resist, even when appearing contrite, to position himself as a “little guy” beset by “haters” (ah, post-Diddy parlance). Having weighed it for several days, I’ve decided — against the take-the-high-road advice of my bean-baking better-half — that a proper airing-out is what is best. I hope the ensuing conversation ends up more productive than, say, like this. I sure don’t want to keep stirring the pot if all we’ve got cooking is crabs in a barrel. (And I will not necessarily be indulging sockpuppets and other trolls below.)
I’m not sure who the “little guy” is in all of this — or who’s littler than whom. Whether or not Grant’s a little guy, though, he did show himself to be somewhat small (and a bit of an internet amateur).
My decision to make all this public is not primarily vindictive. Rather, I want to take the opportunity to respond to what I think may be an underlying (incoherent but emergent) theme in Grant’s two comments: namely, that all of this music hype biz is a series of hustles, including what he does, what PR folks do, & what bloggers and journalists and academics do. In that sense, I’m part of this networked hustle too, grabbing page views by producing stuff about other people producing stuff.
I agree that we’re all imbricated. That’s why, when I began exploring the nu whirled world, my initial focus was on bloggers. (And indeed, the post preceding the cumbia critique once again scrutinized the role that blogs play in all of this.) But I have to admit I bristle a bit in calling this blog a hustle. As playful and pomo and sometimes cynical as I can get in this space, it strikes me as far too disingenuous to think of what I do here in that way. Perhaps I’m still too grounded in certain norms of academic exchange, but generally I like to think of the discourse on this blog — by myself and from commenters — as conforming to Paul Gilroy’s wonderfully succinct description, in Postcolonial Melancholia, of what makes the academy a special place insofar as
contentious and heterodox arguments will be politely heard with patience and in good faith before being refuted in a public culture for which we all assume responsibility. (9)
I try to assume that very responsibility as keeper of this blog, and I think of my posts as attempting something similar across the various, wider public spheres in which this relatively small corner of music chatter circulates. This makes my blog different from the average enthusiast “music blog,” and I can only assume — and hope — that whoever puts me on a promo list would understand all of this before pushing their wares my way.
But I am as often an enthusiast as a critic. And one of the things that makes me throw a lot more confetti than darts these days is what I’ve been conceiving as the turn to “music industry 2.0,” a world in which, thanks especially to the advent of professional-grade digital tools, bringing the costs of production and circulation down close to zero, ordinary people engage more than ever before in everyday acts of media creation and curation, assuming a certain responsibility for co-producing our public, participatory culture. (The “2.0” part, which I know is horribly trendy, not to mention creepy, is intended on the one hand to bear witness to the — often insidious and unstable — role that so-called web 2.0 platforms are playing in all of this, and on the other, to signal a new regime in the mode of production of popular music.)
Among other effects, the global diffusion of such technologies and practices, and the networking of it all, may also be producing something akin to “world music 2.0,” a peer-leveled planet of musical interplay which finally lives up to the name — even as it undermines any coherence such a term could have. This is a world in which neither Chicago nor Paris nor Luanda nor Lima are more obviously (or unmarkedly) central or peripheral than anywhere else. A world where difference need not disappear, so much as appear a little more mundane. A worldly world! A world in which, to quote Gilroy again, one
finds civic and ethical value in the process of exposure to otherness … in the ordinary virtues and ironies — listening, looking, discretion, friendship — that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding. (67)
Notably, as we consider this brave new world of music industry with so many possibilities and so little money, the one thing that’s not nearly as cost-free as production and distribution, and thus not yet so democratized, is promotion — guaranteed placement in the hype machine. Access to promo dough is, hence, what still separates the (relative) big wigs from the little people.
Is it really any surprise, then, that I would turn my attention to PR? Especially to PR which seems to address itself to, if not issue from, a world — in other words, a public culture — so different from the one in which I would like to live?
I noted on Twitter the other day that one reason it was taking me so long to finish up the previous post is that “darts are harder to throw than confetti.”
It’s important to critique, at least if we want things to be better, but I also always try to remind myself that there are actual people on the receiving end. It can be easy to forget that when hurling flames down the intertubes. This is the other other side of the recent/recurring discussion about the death of negative music criticism.
My post on a few small cumbia labels is uneven in lots of ways. In some cases I had access to the labelheads themselves, in other cases, I was forced to focus more on what I could collect around the web. The general call for more transparency undergirding my critiques echoes in the incomplete info I had when writing, which led me to focus more on the PR efforts around Barbès than the work of the label itself (though I did try to provide some balance and qualification, noting that the music on Roots of Chicha is wonderful and that the comps are important for bringing an awareness and appreciation of chicha to wider audiences). I had put in a request with Ryan at PressJunkiePR to ask Olivier Conan about the licensing behind his comps, which was dutifully forwarded; I had also directly emailed Olivier in the hope that that might prove fruitful. Turns out, Olivier was in Peru last week and unable to respond right away.
Very shortly after hitting “publish” on the post, Olivier appeared in my inbox, diligently and detailedly answering my queries about licensing, with no idea that I’d just thrown some very public darts his way. Allow me to share the ensuing conversation, which, in the spirit of these posts, adds a fair amount of clarity and nuance and empathy to the discussion.
Sorry for the delay – I was in Peru and have been in panic catching-up mode since I got back.
Licensing is time-consuming and can indeed be complicated when dealing with music that was considered to have no commercial value for a couple of decades. While Chicha was big business for a couple of labels in the 70’s and 80’s, the record business pretty much collapsed in Peru and very few of the labels stayed active. IEMPSA, which was more of a generalist label is pretty much the only one which managed to stay in business. They were the biggest label with a huge catalog of criollo, folkloric and rock. They also acquired smaller labels along the way. Licensing anything that they owned proved fairly easy, anything else required some detective work and some of my detective work turned out to be sup-par.
For the first Roots of Chicha, I managed to locate most of the musicians. Angel Rosado, of los Hijos del Sol owned the rights to his songs, and I was able to license straight from him (he cried on the phone when I told him i was calling from the US – he died less than a year after the release of the record). Locating Juaneco y su Combo was a little more difficult, but I finally located Juaneco’s son, Mao. Juaneco had died a few years before that, and his son was both musical and legal heir. He was also very useful in giving me quite a bit of biographical data. The rest of the rights I secured through IEMPSA. They helped me contact other label owners and usually worked out a deal where they licensed directly and gave be a sub-license. It took a little bit of time, but I was able to get pretty much all the songs I wanted. Everybody I talked to at the time thought I was crazy. No one cared about the music, no one had bothered to keep the original masters. The music was only available through bootlegs. Even artists would sometimes send me the bootleg versions of their work. The idea of anthologizing the music just seemed strange to them.
The album got a lot of press in Peru (where it was never released by the way…..) and things started to change. People realized that they were sitting on potential money-makers – or so they thought. The biggest producer of Amazonian cumbia staring in the late 60’s was Alberto Maravi. He was responsible for the success of the best amazonian cumbia bands (Juaneco and Mirlos among others) and his label INFOPESA, had been inactive for years. After the comp came out, there was a huge revival of Juaneco y su combo – not just because of me. In particular, the band Bareto covered a few of their songs which became extremely popular.
Alberto Maravi, who had supposedly disappeared, re-appeared shortly after that. Turns out that Mao had no legal right to the masters (only a moral one I guess…). And 5 of the songs that IEMPSA had licensed to me were also his. IEMPSA had been pretty careless in checking rights. …
I was a lot more careful with this second compilation – I also know Peru a lot better than I used to and have a lot more contacts. People were still a little surprised that I wanted to license some of the songs – especially the stuff from Horoscopo. Horoscopo is the label that really codified what came to be known as Chicha with Chacalon and Los Shapis, its two biggest stars. They were more of a “ghetto” label and haven’t yet benefitted from the revival. They ‘re still considered crass. I had to track down Juan Campos, the owner and producer, who apparently now runs a farm north of LIma and has had nothing to do with music any more. He hasn’t kept any of the masters either but I was able to license from him with no problem. Same with Colegiala, the most famous song on the comp. I actually just got the writer on the phone who put me in touch with the original owner of the him. I don’t expect any problems on this one, but there are always surprises.
In general, getting licenses isn’t as hard as people think. The main problem is making sure you’re talking to the right person, which can be hard when the music is kind of forgotten.
Of course, many re-issue labels don’t bother with licenses at all which I don’t think is right. There is very little money involved in re-issues at this point and whatever potential profit is in part eaten up by licenses, but I really don’t understand how you can create awareness and respect for a genre when you show absolutely no respects for the musicians who created the music to begin with. Even if It is true that more than often musicians were screwed by the original producers and don’t necessarily see the money. And it’s also true that as a business venture, barbes is a total failure and I’ll probably stop releasing records by next year..
Let me know if you have any other questions or if you want me to elaborate.
I really like your blog by they way.
To which I replied, slightly aghast —
Thanks much for this detailed reply. This is all very interesting. Sorry to throw a serious query your way while you were on the road.
As you may have seen, I just pushed the publish button on that long post about cumbia marketing this morning. It discusses Barbes in some detail, and since I couldn’t confirm anything about the licensing with you or Ryan, I decided to focus on the language of the promotional materials for your comps. I hope you can see that as critical as I can be, I also see a lot to celebrate about what you do. And your email about licensing really helps to bring things into perspective.
Would you be amenable to me posting the contents of this email to my blog? I think it would help to continue the conversation, and I like the idea — given my critiques — of bringing this tricky stuff more into the open, more into the story of Barbes, at least for readers of my blog (a few of whom, I’m told, have already purchased the new CD since reading this morning’s post!).
Let me know what you think. If you’d prefer to edit it, that’s ok by me too.
To which Olivier replied —
Just read your post – that hurt… It hurts even more because it is well written and very pertinent. As a disclaimer, I didn’t write the press release (although I obviously let it be written) nor did I try to create a colonial narrative of white discoverer of the obvious. I find the idea as abhorrent as you do. I didn’t think my liner notes implied that in any way, i simply was trying to explain how I became an excuse for people to start writing about the music in Peru. That an outsider should bring credibility to aspects of a local culture that had been previously despised is unfortunately not that uncommon. That I found myself in the middle of that story is still very strange to me, but it did happen without me sending out press releases.
In general, I have been so aware of the dangers of the colonial narrative, as well as the pitfalls of the fetishizing the exotic, that I have tried to avoid it as much as possible and I feel really terrible that I should have failed so miserably. I genuinely like the music. I have spent quite a bit of time researching it. I’ve met a number of the musicians who play it. I have played with some of them but will probably won’t any more and will instead embrace berets and musette.
Also, for the record (no pun intended) Barbès records is one person – myself. I am an enthusiast, not a businessman, I have never turned a profit, never paid myself a salary and most probably never will. I don’t play up the image of the little guy toiling underground, because I do find it just as annoying. I am not a fan of the esoteric in any form but a great believer in the exoteric. I genuinely believe that chicha is not simply good music, but one of the great pop hybrid of pop music history and that its fate was directly linked to imbalances of class and geo-political power. Better producers and better reception at the time would have no doubt made the music popular worldwide. I’d much rather have people talk about Noe Fachin, Lener Muñoz or Manzanita than me.
Damn, I wish I had time to give you a more fleshed out critique of your critique, but I don’t. Still, you do raise some of the most important issues in the promotion of World Music. I am just a little freaked out to be the poster boy for neo-colonial crate digging.
Feel free to use my previous email. I don’t have time to edit it, so if you do use it, please mention that it is an email.
Apologies for obsessing over this – but I just wanted to point out to the publicity I have been using for the record. If you look at the website for instance http://barbesrecords.com/rootsofchicha2.html there is not one mention of myself on it or the part I might or might not have played in the promoting the music. Just thought I would defend myself…
I’m sorry for any hurt feelings — really. That’s one reason it took me a while to write the post as carefully as I could. I really appreciate hearing all of this from you — and I suspect my readers / a wider audience will too. I don’t mean to put anyone in a defensive posture, though it’s clear that this kind of critique can do that. (Mike from Mass Tropicas, for instance, is currently hashing things out with a critic in the comments — quite productively, I think.)
At any rate, I certainly am not calling for you to play musette wearing a beret! That’s a great image of how ridiculous a lot of this cultural policing can get. I think it’s obvious that I see great value in seeking out things from different places, especially something like chicha, which as you note can really stand on its own as a remarkable moment in international/local pop. But I admit that my ethnomusicological training leads me to find lots of irksome things in the way the “world music” industry operates.
Part of the point in these ongoing, thinking-aloud blogposts is to bring more clarity and nuance to the situation. Didn’t mean to make you a poster boy of sorts — but don’t worry, there are lots of them/us — and I think your emails will help to clear that up. I’m grateful to be in conversation, and, though it should go without saying, I wish you all the best.
Back to Olivier:
I do appreciate the critique, and the dialogue – and especially looking into inner workings of the world music industry – I guess what I really object to is only looking at the release from the PR angle and not mentioning the work that went into putting the package together – I spent a lot of time on it, none of it relies on the, indeed, objectionable narrative hinted at by the press release and generally exploited by writers who see it as an easier story to tell. What can I say. I’m sensitive.
Totally fair response, Olivier. In lieu of more info, I’m afraid I had to concentrate on the PR. I’ll be running some of this email text as a corrective of sorts on the blog very soon. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.
I’m sensitive too, and I hate how internet “hate” can really hang over me. I’m sorry if I’ve thrown some of those bad vibes your way today. Please, keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s good work, I’m convinced of that.
And finally, Olivier closes things out with a little levity:
Can’t wait to read about something else on your blog…..
On that note, while I’m eager to see the conversation continue in the comments on the cumbia worlds post, as well as on this one, readers can look forward to some topical departures here in the near future.
Thanks again to Olivier and to all for thinking through this thorny stuff with me.
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the _______ slums of _______ has become a full-fledged global occasion –
This could be the mantra of global ghettotech. Could hardly have written it better myself. But I didn’t. Nor was it written, despite what might be its commonplace connotations, about reggae, or funk carioca, or kuduro, or any of the usual suspects. It was written about cumbia made in Peru in the 1970s, and I came across it not on an enthusiastic blog but via a careful press release announcing the second volume in the Roots of Chicha series. The appearance of this phrasing shows how even well-worn attempts to market “world music” can turn with the times and speak the language of resonant novelty. Global g-tech blogging begetting sexy new scenarios, new sites of authenticity. Old wine, new bottles.
The story of “world music 2.0” however — and the built-in critique of that tag — is not all about newness, or some sense of progressive departure from previous, problematic regimes of representation, or visions of egalitarian peer-to-peer exchange and cosmopolitan conviviality in our brave, new, digital and diasporic age. (Booty-shaking sugar plums dancing in our embeds?) It’s also about a great many continuities with “old” “world music” and its commercial & discursive repertories — including especially, 1) how deals get done (or not at all); and 2) how musical wares get described, (re)contextualized, hyped, dressed up, pimped, punked, and truffled. In other words: New wine, old bottles.
This post is meant to serve as a follow-up to my previous thoughts on today’s world musics. The focus again falls on small, independent record labels, but unlike those mentioned in the last post, the labels I discuss below didn’t begin as blogs (and are not to be confused with them). In the interest of going deeper into context and credit and other #realtalk — from business practices to the language employed by labels and PR firms to frame their enterprises — allow me to try to tell three brief stories about a few kinds of cumbia circulating in the world today — particularly in world(s) beyond their home contexts, worlds where cumbia becomes, for some, “world.”
The first thing I’m going to say about Barbès, run by Brooklyn-based Frenchman Olivier Conant, is that the two Roots of Chicha compilations have been a welcome presence in my life. They’re full of fantastic performances from rightly (locally) popular performers who were listening intently to the world around them — to cumbia, psychedelic rock, and huayno, among others — and whirling it up into their own special sound. The first disc lodged itself in my car for many many months back when it came out. And what I’ve heard of the second keeps the chicha torch aloft and blazing.
A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: none of what follows is meant as an ad hominem attack. I’m interested in the larger structures that someone like Conan or his PR people have to navigate, as well as how they plot their way through. If I seem poke too much at the latter, or even to be calling names, it is intended more as a critique of the language that markets world music, or chicha, or cumbia — a discourse which implicates audiences & customers as well as producers & promoters. (That said, the unofficial subtitle of this post is: “How To Stop Receiving Promos” ;)
That said, let’s begin on the sound’s own terms, if you’ll permit the conceit. Check some of the tracks on the new comp:
Ok, back to words. There are lots of things we could say about these songs. What the PR focuses on, however, is the heroic narrative of label-owner Olivier Conan, who saw (& heard) the value in cumbias amazónicas even when many in Peru could not. “Scorned by the middle-class and the official tastemakers,” we’re told, chicha has become a “full-fledged global occasion” and even recuperated back home, “thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.” That’s actually the end of the sentence that I used as an epigraph (full text here); here’s the non-redacted version:
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the Peruvian slums of the 1970s has become a full-fledged global occasion – thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.
Chutzpah? Perhaps, but these sorts of claims are pretty par for the course in the world of music promo, never mind “world music” promo, where one classic trope is of the noble adventurer seeking out the golden nuggets of exotic lands. (Even if outstretched microphones have largely been replaced by crate diggers.) But the press release really hammers home on this narrative, suggesting it’s a psychological hook for all the curious, cosmo gringos who make up the album’s principal public:
News that a gringo was interested in chicha found its way in many of Peru’s mainstream magazines, newspapers and TV – including canal cuatro and the very official El Comercio.
The icky part is, the reason this sort of thing — ie, a curious gringo in the foreign press, or the “fancy-fish-out-of-water” — is remarkable at all is precisely because of the intense power asymmetries between, say, the US and Peru. Of course, also motivating this response is a degree of self/national pride that finds flattering any sort of outside appreciation — and there’s often an insidious, if perhaps also productive, dynamic at play in these exchanges whereby a proletarian music becomes a national symbol thanks to foreign affirmation — but those structural dimensions are not what receive emphasis here.
And such a campaign has effects. I mean jeez, even Mother Jones can’t resist going with a lede like this:
Imagine hiking in the Peruvian Andes and finding a group of chicha musicians: migrants playing a fusion of Cuban son, Andean melodies and psychedelic surfer rock, blended like the Inca corn whiskey the music is named after.
This narrative tack is striking given that Barbès is clearly attuned to questions of representation, or at least their uses. Take the assertion, circulating as promo, that vol. 2 is “an attempt to rectify some of the biases and inaccuracies of the first volume.” According to the website, the bar/performance space which bears the same name as the label “puts the stress on cultural variety, neighborhood conviviality” (& they really play my violin on that last note). All the while, Conan is well aware that, “Brooklyn may be the only place where middle-class gringos are playing the music with a more or less vintage ’70s approach.”
One reason I started with the sound files above is that I don’t want to dwell too much on the representational stuff when the music can also speak for itself (at least the music that passes through Conan’s filter). And I don’t mean to conflate marketing hyperbole with the valuable service that Conan’s efforts have done for chicha and cumbia, not to mention for many of the artists he’s featured.
Conan’s “attempt to share his enthusiasm” in the Roots of Chicha comps is, in many ways, laudable. Targeting a (relatively) wide audience by selecting popular tracks also ensures a certain degree of quality, the lingering resonance of previous moments of intense attachment, and Conan has indisputably helped to re-ignite the appreciation — economic, affective, and otherwise — of chicha. In this sense, Barbès deserves credit for inspiring others to go in search of great chicha and kindred forms of cumbia, including the guy who runs the next label I’d like to talk about.
But can we talk about value without mention of the label’s relationships to the musicians who provide the grist for the mill? How can we appraise this new wave of chicha appreciation without a sense of how Barbès is sustaining any chicha scene other than “middle-class gringo” Brooklyn’s? Why can’t the terms of the deal enter into the heroic narrative? Isn’t tracking down the musicians involved in the original recordings at least as romantic, if not more, than tracking down the recordings themselves? Why is there a significant, building “Fair Trade” / transparency movement in food but not in music?
Why, for example, doesn’t the following rycooderesque press release — issued by the same entity promoting Roots of Chicha 2 (and working to promote lots of other music I like — sorry, Ryan, but realtalk beckons) — in which the exchange between all involved is so crucial, talk at all about how this project stands to contribute to the scene from which it poaches?
In April of 2010, Cory Wong and Eric Foss of Secret Stash Records traveled to Lima, Peru with a translator and assembled Peña, an Afro-Peruvian ensemble featuring a handful of the best musicians within the genre. The group was a revolving door of sorts that included over a dozen players ranging in age from 24 to 65. In seven days they recorded over 50 tracks. With no access to a conventional recording studio they improvised by tracking in classrooms, living rooms, balconies, offices, and even on the stoop of a hostel. The sessions were fast, free spirited, and generally consisted of one or two takes per track. The result is an authentic display of one of the world’s most unique, unexplored and underrated musical styles.
Below are the full details and download links to an MP3 to post, the album, and more. I look forward to your feedback and hopefully coverage in your media outlet. [W&W note: I look forward to a leaner inbox after this post.]
I can think of at least one very successful example where the fairness of the deal (& correcting for unfairness in first dealings) became a crucial and appealing part of the release’s narrative. I’m thinking here of Greg Scruggs’s labors to put together Pancadão do Morro, a project & product that Greg referred to as “Fair Trade Funk.” In his own words —
Every artist has a contract in Portuguese, was paid a sum upfront, and will receive royalties. I can vouch for this personally, as I’m the one who has been orchestrating it all for my friends over at Flamin Hotz Records. Moreover, the CD itself is a gorgeous six panel deal, c/o BustBright, with cover art by funk legend Tony Minister, spot gloss lettering, and two booklets — featuring lyrics in Portuguese and English, artist bios, and photos. There is no anonymity here.
So put some names and beats with faces, add some well-mastered tamborzão to your collection, and support the hardworking MCs and DJs down in Rio: proceeds are going their way. Trust me, I’ll be sending the remittances myself.
Read the rest of that post for further details of how Greg worked to right some things and to write those things into the story of the release itself.
But back to Barbès. In the spirit of this post, let’s be fair in our appraisal. Aside from perhaps making the deals with musicians part of Conan’s heroic narrative, what else would we have the label do? Barbès is still a relatively modest operation, asking for donations to kickstart interesting projects, and so forth. All things considered, they’ve brought some wonderful music to my ears and no doubt have generated a significant degree of interest in, appreciation of, and opportunity for chicha and Peruvian cumbia. For that we can say, bravo.
[Update: Please see this follow-up post for a detailed response from Olivier Conan, which helps to bring more balance to the appraisal above.]
2. Mass Tropicas
Michael Pigott is a guy who lives in Western Mass, which he had the gall to call “the better half of Massachusetts” in an introductory email to me. He runs a label called Mass Tropicas devoted to small batch releases, so far mostly of weird and wonderful Peruvian cumbia. He deals directly with the artists themselves to license the tracks he releases, and he doesn’t do digital. At all. Instead, Mike stubbornly insists on durable, physical media — vinyl and cassettes — believing that the objects themselves have a way of preserving and instilling value.
While Roots of Chicha served as some inspiration for reissuing and recording some cumbia himself, Mike had been getting into the genre, especially of the Peruvian variety, over the course of several years thanks to a couple key figures: 1) his wife, who is herself from Peru, and 2) Bruno “Tunchi” Guerra, a photographer and mainstay in Lima’s punk scene. On visits, Mike would listen to the local cumbia station in his wife’s neighborhood, note the songs he liked, and then try to find them on vinyl. (Apparently, he boasts quite the collection of 45s.)
In contrast to Barbès reach for a broad audience, which entails reissuing formerly popular tracks (at least in Peru), Mike seeks to bring lesser known recordings to chicha’s expanding listening public (at least those addressed by hi-fi vinyl reissues). He sees the Roots of Chicha as an important “stepping stone” for people to “dig deeper” into his more obscure finds and favorites.
Mike described his operation as “DIY” and it’s clear that its infused by a certain punk ethos. (How DIY? you might ask: “All the records you touch, I touch,” Mike told me.) Small-batch cumbia appealed to Mike because pressing one’s own records is “sorta like punk rock.” His fourth and latest release, Ranil’s Jungle Party, a 12″ LP collecting some fine cuts from a local cumbia legend now running for mayor (and subject of a would-be documentary by Barbès), could hardly better embody the approach: Ranil’s records were originally produced and released by himself on his own label, so Mike dealt directly with the man himself. (Of course, this elides unresolved questions about who, if anyone, should have exclusive rights to a collectively produced recording, but since “backup” musicians have gotten the short-end in just about every other music biz scenario, we can’t begin to hold a label like Mass Tropicas to a different standard.)
One complicating factor in re-releasing Ranil’s music, however, was the fact that Ranil himself didn’t own any of his own records; and he had taped over the masters years ago to store recordings of his radio program! Here we see how the durability of vinyl and the diligence of the digger can prove paramount. Ranil no longer possessed any of his own records, but Lima-based collector and chicha connoisseur Victor Zela, with whom Mike has been sharing his enthusiasm for years, has every single one. Victor compiled Ranil’s Jungle Party, and Mike gives him full credit as a creative partner. (The artwork, a clear homage to the style of the day, was done by Tunchi, another Lima-based collaborator.)
About that artwork, though (& plz permit another quick foray into the jungles of marketing lingo) —
Tropical tropes abound, of course, but we also need to note that the imagery was itself lifted from Ranil’s original record sleeves. (We could also note that certain details, ahem, have been highlighted and amplified.) Whether kitschy or faithful or both, these pictorial gestures doesn’t absolve the copy, however, and we can pick up plenty of resonance with Barbés/PressJunkiePR in being informed that, with efforts like this record, Peruvian cumbia “has been rescued” — or that the reissue provides a “fascinating journey through time.”
So despite all the clearly thoughtful practices motivating Mass Tropicas, we still encounter almost inevitable notes of exotic fashioneering in the language on the record themselves, their promotion, and their inevitable reformulation in press coverage. Regarding the latter, one might read that Mike “researches the deepest streets of Peru’s forgotten music,” an interesting formulation in its familiar contour but shifting locus of the real, from the jungle to the streets, again reflecting perhaps a general recalibration (or widening of the rhetorical repertory) in “world music” discourse. (Then again, despite the prevalence of the rural/pastoral/traditional, urban sounds and imgs have enjoyed a persistent, if fraught, presence in world music bins. Indestructible Example A?)
If this sort of spiel about “fascinating journeys” can ring a little hokey to some of us, redolent as it is of Putumayo pap, I don’t think that’s because Mike is out of touch. Rather, he’s following a playbook that has produced its share of touchdowns.
But let’s talk about different notions of touch for a moment. Touch is clearly important to Mike, who touches every record he sends off. In particular, two kinds of touch: being in direct touch with actual people & directly touching actual physical objects. As with Greg’s ideas about “fair trade funk,” doing it right for Mike involves both the fairness of the deal and the quality of the product. A lot of cumbia artists on some fairly popular (bootleg) compilations have no idea. “These guys are still alive,” Mike told me. “It’d be nice if they knew they were appreciated.”
As for touching actual objects, not to mention being in touch, here’s a nice chunky plastic thing I got in the mail from Mike:
Mike doesn’t really sell cassettes, yet. He tells me he’s had trouble convincing distributors to carry them, despite a minor current/recentvogue for them (indeed, a couple local producers slipped me their latest mixtape, on tape, just last week). I was happy to get the cassette since I’m lucky enough to have a car that plays them; this was true for Mike too, back when he got the idea of pressing up some of his own.
The El Hombre Orquesta cassette is from a limited run of 100, printed up mainly as an effort to promote El Hombre, aka Carlos Antonio, a sui generis one-man-band (and paraplegic) who Mike encountered while walking around in Lima. (Here’s an unrelated local news profile of him.) Singing songs while playing bongos, timbales, cymbals, wood blocks, and a halved soda bottle that sounds like a mean slide trumpet, El Hombre Orquesta has a sound all his own.
Struck by the sound, Mike asked him on the spot whether he could record him. Antonio told him, “It’s gonna cost ya,” and asked for $30. “I’ll give you extra,” said Mike, who then paid for $3 for a local practice space, recorded for 80 minutes, and gave Antonio $50, telling him he’d seek out a label back in the US to release his music. A relatively successful indie label specializing in what we might call “found sounds” of the wide world expressed strong interest, but eventually dropped the project. Having told Antonio that “next time I come down I’ll have an EP for ya,” Mike returned recently, gave him a bunch of cassettes and $200. El Hombre cried; he was touched.
3. ZZK Records
ZZK Records (pronounced zee-zek, Argentine-style, not Žižek), a label that started as a party, boasts a deep roster of hyper-creative pibes (yep, they’re all dudes), who make all kinds of exciting electronic dance music (especially the digital or “nu” cumbia for which they’re primarily known), run successful Kickstarter campaigns, and, having put their stamp on the nu world scene, are slowly but successfully wiggling their way into the potentially lucrative ol world music circuit (that’s 1.0, if you’re counting).
Recently, ZZK acts appeared at the 2010 Chicago World Music Festival, and they’re aiming to make it to Womex later this month. As the premier world music showcase in the world, Womex can be a huge platform, opening the golden doors to some of that ol world music industry money, where, especially in the live performance/festival circuit, there’s still a substantial amount to be made (unlike in the relatively tiny “global bass” scene, unless you’re fortunate enough to join the truffled classes).
For all its promise, Womex also presents significant risks for a fledgling label like ZZK, which still supports itself through all kinds of side/day-gigs (including a design firm, making somewhat more saleable use of their in-house talents). Simply getting to Copenhagen is taxing enough for an operation of this size to merit a kickstarter campaign for assistance. Everyday they’re hustling. But also touring a lot and making some great music and having fun.
By my watch, the ZZK crew got where they are today, notably, not merely though the various grinds above, but, in a nod to industry 2.0, by giving a lot of music away — especially in the form of mixtapes and bootlegs/mashups pushed onto the net (and in many cases, directly to bloggers in the nascent nu-world world). In this way, they share the plight of a lot of other small, independent labels (or artists) trying to build an audience and create some demand for (some commodification of) what they do in a saturated, “post-scarcity” music industry. ZZK effectively inserted their productions, style, and brand into translocal media flows by being savvy with what they make and share: mixtapes that blend their own tracks and other local flaves with global currents, mashups that lend a familiar tinge (in the form of say, a rap acapella) to their own electro-cumbia productions, videos that might find an eager embed on electronic / world / cosmopolatino blogs.
Although ZZK would prefer not to find its acts consigned to the marketological ghettos of “world” and “Latin,” such tags also offer certain footholds, crossover niches. When El G (aka Grant Dull, ZZK cofounder) and Lisandro of the Frikstailers came to Cambridge to play Beat Research this month, I had the opportunity to witness how the label attempts to work within the unwieldy boxes that litter the music industrial landscape. While Grant was being interviewed by a local guy who does an “alt Latin” radio show, I couldn’t help but appreciate how he tried to thread the needle, talking about the sound of the label, or specific acts, in a manner commensurate with their actual style and outlook and yet also in ways that make sense, that translate, that communicate to certain audiences. Hence, the Frikstailers were described at once as audibly “from south America” but, in the same breath, “very modern, contemporary.”
So despite the label’s nu-ness, it’s no surprise that the ZZKers selected to go to Womex are Tremor, the only “band” in the ZZK crew, and hence an act that already affirms certain entrenched ideas about “real” (world) musicianship. It probably also helps with the WM1.0 folks that they guys in Trebor play folkloristic drums (bombo leguero) and perform, according to ZZK’s own website copy, no less than an “interpretation of local musicology.” Indeed, once you read that amidst the mix of synths and drum samples one also hears “timeless Andean flute,” I think it’s clear that we’re treading familiar (“foreign”) territory.
I myself would probably leave the showcase featuring folkloric drums in order to see, say, a couple of guys banging on synths and laptops and DDR-pads, but I think it’s a while yet before the old world music guard is ready for the likes of the Frikstailers. Their loss, especially since the Friks’ productions may actually better embody the world-is-flat mythos animating a lot of WM1.0 fantasies. (Easy-listening reggae from any corner of the globe!) Like many of their nu-whirled peers, the Frikstailers find themselves immersed, at least part time, in a global culture flattened by the likes of YouTube and Twitter and mp3, where the real “world” music is the stuff we all hear no matter where we go: Justin (Bieber or Timberlake), 50, Britney.
The Frikstailers’ music features all sorts of referents, from the general to the specific — dancehall drums, cumbia percussion, that hip-house guy who says “oww” — but it’s pretty damn omnivorous in terms of what gets glitched and glitzed into a clubby, poppy frenzy. They don’t seem to proceed creatively with any self/audience-imposed requirements for local or Latin sabor. Their new EP reminds me as much of vintage Aphex Twin or the Black Dog as anything else. This stands in some contrast to, say, the nearly note-for-note renditions of Conan’s Brooklyn-based band.