Happy to be headed back to Kingston this weekend to be a part of this —
Readers here are no doubt familiar with TED talks, those little video gems of infotopian brain candy. I’ve certainly enjoyed and admired a few. As you may know, TEDx events are independently organized and produced, but the most popping presentations are eligible to go up on the main TED site.
TED’s tagline is “ideas worth spreading,” and I can think of a number of ways this applies to Jamaican music (which, natch, will be my subject). Moreover, as you can see, the local organizers of TEDxIrie have appended the slogan with another resonant phrase for thinking about the extraordinary impact and resonance of reggae: “Small Island. Big Ideas.”
Accordingly, I’ll be trying to give a snappy, 18-minute overview of what are, to me, some of the biggest ideas that have come out of Jamaican studios and soundsystems and soundscapes over the last 50 years. More specifically, though I won’t give away too much here today, I’ll be discussing how Jamaican musical innovations have contributed to a collective reclamation and recognition of “Songs as Shared Things” (as I’ve put it before) in age of music’s technological reproducibility.
I’m thrilled to be speaking alongside some distinguished and promising panelists, including the ever contentious and controversial — and I mean that in a good way — Carolyn Cooper, not to mention brilliant young artist, Ebony Patterson, whose recent exhibit Gangstas, Disciplez plus the Doiley Boyz offers a striking and poignant portrayal of skin-bleaching and other transgressive, if commonplace, cultural practices in Jamaica.
Thanks to the people at Panmedia for putting this together. See you in town?
In an edutaining essay published 5 years ago (prelude to a book) media scholar Jonathan Sterne examines the MP3 as a “cultural artifact” with its own particular, embedded “philosophy of audition” and “praxeology of listening.” After explaining the psychoacoustic tricks that MP3 employs to (relatively inaudibly) shrink large files, Sterne contends that, contrary to what you might fancy, the MP3 actually “plays its listener” by mimicking — and hence partly preempting — “the embodied and unconscious dimensions of human perception in the noisy, mixed-media environments of everyday life.”
As such, Sterne jokes (sorta), the MP3 puts the listener on a “sonic austerity program.”
The example above, an almost exaggerated embodiment of the aesthetics of making music mobile on proprietary platforms, no doubt already strikes us as an “artifact” in the archaeological sense (thanks to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, more liberal leaking practices, etc). That should be evidence enough, perhaps, for us to examine our present predicament and reflect on why and when we favor portability over fidelity. Perhaps.
To celebrate, we’ll be ringing the anniversary alarm with two of our favorite purveyors of bassculture-bred dance musics from the wide, wired world: erstwhile Bostonian DJ Ripley and Boston’s own Vice T.
Readers of this blog are no strangers to friend, colleague, collaborator, and commenter, Larisa Mann, aka DJ Ripley. She’s been rocking parties hardcore for years and blogging about as long as anybody. Ripley’s my kinda cat, if I can say that (why is that word either gendered male or vulgarly female? argh!) — and not just because we wear similar hats.
Larisa practices what she preaches, or better — she let’s (all manner of) practice inform her scholarly sermons. I can’t wait to read her dissertation, and neither should you. In the meantime, she’ll be sharing some ideas from her doctoral research (“decolonizing copyright: Jamaican street dances and globally networked technology”!) at a Berkman Center luncheon on Tuesday — that’s TOMORROW — so you can even watch / chat along.
As for this evening, I’m sure we can expect the sort of trans-genre half-to-double-time steppin stomp that we’ve all come to expect from the talented Ms. Ripley. Here’s a recent set to whet —
Our second special guest, Vice T, has been holding it down for future-now UK dance music in Boston for a few years now, ear to the whatever “ground” it is that runs so swiftly across the pond (one of these, I guess?). Along with the SUBduction crew, he’s been responsible for bringing London luminaries like Roska to the Enormous Room. This mix is a year old, but it still sounds like tonight —
Finally, I’m thrilled to announce that Beat Research will be helping to kick off this year’s Together Festival with a BOOM thanks to none other than our Dutty bredrin, Geko Jones! Come catch the Que Bajo?! spirit with us on April 18. Wonder what that sounds like? Here’s a slamming set by Geko, FYI —
Although I initially posted this mix in November 2005, springy days like today — it’s nearly 70 degrees and flowers are poking out of the ground! — always seem like just the right setting for my dubby take on dub, as prepared a little over 5 years ago for bredrin Brynmore‘s erstwhile weekly, Heavy Dread. The mix has really weathered the years, IMO, all the better with weather like this. (I’m still particularly pleased with the funny, sentimental ending.) Here goes again…
i call the mix “dubble dub” because i’m playing a bunch of dub tunes (from across the dub spectrum, and a few from beyond) and treating them as a dub producer treats individual tracks in a mix, applying plenty of echo/delay and reverb and working with layers of sound as layers of sound. i also apply some digital-age tricknology, cutting and looping fragments of tunes and often time-stretching tracks to maintain a steady tempo for much of the mix. because the tunes are already dub tunes, many of them brimming with effects and edits, i’m essentially doubling-up on the dub – thus, “dubble dub.” (a phrase which barrington levy, thankfully, almost said, which makes for a nice little intro.)
in terms of song selection, my idea was to try to represent the dub tradition in some breadth and depth. so i drew ecumenically from across the spectrum: early, classic dub/DJ experiments; later, dread-ful dub; 80s digi-dub; heavy UK dub mutations; european minimal techno dub; new york illbient dub; and a few tracks that aren’t dub at all but get the dub treatment, mashed up with dubby loops and echoing along with that lovely ol’ 3:2 jamaican/caribbean/west-african polyrhythm that dub consistently brings out of even the most foursquare music.
the sequence is guided by musical matches and mashes. for example, the vintage drum machine running through lee perry’s “dub revolution,” mad prof’s “boombox,” and shuggie otis’s “aht uh mi hed” (i’ve always wondered whether that’s an attempt at patois) provides a nice audible thread, among others, with which to weave these seemingly disparate tracks together. in other cases, it’s just a matter of time or tone. overall, i try to maintain a good vibe – a proper meds, seen? – while keeping the music and the mood flowing. mostly, i just enjoy the echoes: across beats and bars, land and ocean.
here’s the tracklist:
barrington levy, raw raw, dami d, wasp – intro
we – caya’s kids
lee “scratch” perry – dub revolution
mad professor – boombox
shuggie otis – aht uh mi hed
pole – silberfisch
jan jelinek – tendency
lou donaldson – ode to billie joe
wayne&wax – odes to billie joe
ernest ranglin – surfin’
tapper zukie – man ah warrior
ansel collins – nuclear weapon
big joe – glitter not gold
dennis alcapone – DJ choice
andy capp – poppy show
brentford all-stars – greedy G
burning babylon – addis red dub
timbaland – get to poppin’ (instrumental)
king jammys – megabyte
peego and fatman – dry your tears
the cars – drive
I’m happy to announce, and not a moment too soon, that I’ve arranged some festive music for today.
When I put together my first St. Patrick’s Day mix some years ago, it was an obviously tongue-in-cheek gesture. You might recall that I began with House of Pain before bringing in the romping stomp of the Timelords’ (aka KLF’s) “Doctorin’ the Tardis” — a formula-breaking (if formula following!) ravetastic classic that seems to anticipate mashups and jock-jams alike.
Consistent with the track’s logic — and often in shuffle-step with its triple-time roll — I mushed together a bunch of iconic Irish jigs & ballads and (corn-)beefed them up with electronic dance propulsion. Not all the festive selections had the 6/8 swing that interlocked with the proto-shaffel Timelords track, so I teased it in and out of the mix. Here ’tis again:
But that was then, and this is now.
Readers here are no doubt familiar with tribal guarachero, the Mexican techno mutation centered in Monterrey and DF, which has enjoyed an enthusiastic, international reception among DJs, listeners, and bloggers in the last year. You might also be aware that the genre’s distinctive rhythms happen to line up perfectly with some of these jiggy Irish jams. Or maybe that’s never occurred to you. Given this tempting correspondence, I decided to cook up a little tribal irlandese for El Día de San Patricio — or, if you’ll permit an irresistible but probably awful pun, tribal greengo.
Before I launch into the backstory, let me present the 2011 version for your St. Paddy’s party pleasure (some standalone tracks are available at the end of the post, FYI):
You may have heard the story, recounted here, that the term gringo derives from 19th century pop songs sung by Yankee invaders that began with (and repeated in every chorus) the words “Green Grow,” a sound that became so associated with foreign presence, it became the name for it.
John Ross, the longtime resident of Mexico (City), American activist, and recently deceased author of the epic El Monstruo (which I’ve quoted here before), tells the tale of the “greengos” in a section of the book bearing the heading, PINCHES AMERICANOS. “Of all the invading armies,” writes Ross, and he recounts a great many in Mexico’s history, “the Yankees were the most annoying.”
The US had long coveted and sought to annex, as Ross carefully puts it, “the vast, sparsely populated (except for 200,000 native peoples) northern territories of Nueva Galicia that Mexico had inherited from Spain.” In the mid-1840s, the “expansionist” President Polk began taking action. As Ross explains, despite its association with another set of conquistadors, “greengo” was not always clearly an epithet:
With his headlights set on the 1848 election, Polk promised the American people a “short war” (where have we heard that one before?) and orchestrated a Gulf of Tonkin-like provocation at Matamoros, drawing Mexican troops across the Río Bravo where they managed to whack a few Americanos. Polk wept at the death of the Yanqui soldiers — “our blood has now fallen on our own soil” (sic) — and organized a five-point invasion of Mexico. The U.S. Navy sailed into San Francisco Bay, and Los Angeles was besieged by Kit Carson and his irregulars in Alta, California. Marines landed at Mazatlán on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Zachary Taylor would swoop south from Tejas, and grizzled old General Winfield Scott landed in Veracruz and followed Cortez’s footprints to the Halls of Moctezuma.
Starting out in the spring of 1847, General Scott directed his army to take Tenochtitlán, encountering, as expected, little resistance from the Mexicans. Indeed, like Cortez, Scott forged alliances with disaffected Mexicans along the route — the “Polkos” rejoiced in the Americano invasion. As the Yankee Doodle Dandies climbed into the antiplano (highlands), the sang the popular songs of the day, one of which, “Green Grow the Lilacs Oh,” became their signature tune, and forever they would be known as “greengos.” (71-2)
Whether affectionate or pejorative initially, the term survives today, and over the years I think it’s safe to say that it has taken on some real sting. (That gringos remain perennial invaders of Mexico can’t help.) And why shouldn’t it sting? What we in the US call the Mexican-American War is remembered in Mexico as “El Gran Despojo — the Great Robbery.” Here’s Ross again, taking stock of what was settled by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed on 2 feb 1848), which
ceded the Americanos all the land from the Río Bravo to Wyoming, 13 western states from Iowa all the way down to California where gold had just been discovered, 1,572,741 square kilometers, a land grab the size of western Europe and fully 51 percent of Mexico’s geographical territory. Mexico got nothing in return. (74)
The story of the “greengos,” regardless of its veracity, offers a provocative opening for a little musical project I’ve been plotting. The prominence of music in the term’s myth of origins is, of course, a nice touch — not to mention the color green. But the Irish-Mexican connection, and the significance of this story (and this war), is deeper than a colorful coincidence. Irish people have been living in Mexico for centuries. (Indeed, an image search for some fodder for this post turned up a small cottage industry around “Irish-Mexicans” — with or without injunctions to kiss one.)
Perhaps the best known Irish arrivals in Mexico are a group of soldiers who famously switched sides during the Mexican-American War. These notorious turncoats, a preponderance of whom were Irish, are known (fondly in Mexico) as St. Patrick’s Battalion, or El Batallón de San Patricio — national heroes of a sort, whose sacrifices (many were ultimately hanged as traitors) are celebrated every September 12 on the agreed-upon anniversary of their executions, as well as on March 17, today: the feast of Saint Patrick, patron saint of the Irish in general and this battalion in particular.
Many reasons are given for their extraordinary act: not merely deserting, but taking up arms for the other side. Like their European compatriots in the Batallón, Irish immigrants enlisted in the US army in exchange for pay and land, many having fled the Potato Famine. Mistreated at the hands of Protestant superiors, some soldiers found themselves more sympathetic to the cause of their Catholic brethren in Mexico. (Notably, Catholic churches in Texas were terrorized in the years of provocation that became the “run up” to the war.) Indeed, such sectarian appeals were allegedly part of a Mexican recruitment campaign. They fought bravely alongside Mexican militia members — sometimes a little too bravely: a few desperate San Patricios, refusing to surrender (for it was death on the battlefield or death by hanging, perhaps after a good lashing and branding), physically rescinded their comrades’ attempts to wave a white flag, even killing a couple Mexican soldiers in the process.
While reading up on the Battalion, I discovered a felicitous fact: they “first fought as a recognised Mexican unit in the Battle of Monterrey on 21 September 1846, as an artillery battery.”
Battle of Monterrey? Artillery battery? Sounds like 3ball to me!
The foregoing isn’t intended as an elaborate bit of cultural baggage to freight some frivolous mixing and mashing. I simply mean to share some of what goes through my head as I work on such a juxtaposition and reflect on what it means for someone like me to make something like this. Far as my relation to the San Patricios, it’s not all that clear to me that we’re not already embroiled in a war with Mexico (and one with a grossly disproportionate deathtoll), but if the US ever did formally declare war on our neighbors to the south, I’m pretty sure where my sympathies would lie.
Beyond the connections I trace above, and the shared rhythmic sensibilities of jiggy & guarachero shuffles, tribal irlandese cultivates other types of possibly productive symbolic ground too. For just as St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage more generally (at least in the US) have been blown up into cartoonish proportions (certainly a sickly green sometimes) — in a sort of auto-essentializing practice — tribal/3ball producers in Mexico frequently play with figures of “tribal” identity whether Aztec or African (and often both, as Jace notes in his excellent profile of the scene). I didn’t go so campy on this mix as with Doctorin’ the Guinness (which includes a version of “Danny Boy” for chrissakes) but I want to note that a certain kitsch factor is unavoidable given my points of departure.
Essentially, what I’ve slapped together here is a series of mashups, in both mini-mix and standalone form. I didn’t have a lot of time to work on these (and, at bottom, it’s still a novelty act — I don’t expect these to be listened to beyond mid-March, or just today), so I went looking for relatively easy correspondences, matches that didn’t demand too much pitching around, tempo tweaking, or super-precise attention to form (though, naturally, I’ve attended in some detail to all those things).
If nothing else, mashups always offer a ripe opportunity for playing with titles. That said, I present to you: the mini-mix (again) & three standalones (y’know, just in case you’re DJing just the right gig tonight) —
I could have stuck to more percussive sections of the Mexican tracks, but I wanted to represent tribal bass and melody too, so I was glad when a needling guarachero synth melody seemed to dovetail with the pentatonic heterophony of the jigs and reels. I’m not saying these things ever really match up. There’s a fair amount of strange stuff going on here, harmonically speaking. Pardon any sour notes in your doctored Guinness! Generally, I hope I’ve been able to do the main things I wanted to: 1) let you hear these two musics alongside each other, and 2) give your St. Patrick’s Day just a little extra push in the tush.
NASA’s announcement in December about our impending arsenic-based overlords caused quite a stir, followed by a fair amount of disappointment. Despite oddly worded reports suggesting that “NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living on planet Earth” (his emphasis), it turned out that NASA scientists had not encountered an actual extraterrestrial lifeform, only that they had (allegedly) “discovered” — more like, tricked into being — a form of life that departed enough from conventional understandings (by processing arsenic in place of phosphorous) that it is practically alien, and as such has implications for the study of extraterrestrial life: namely, that we need not expect life from elsewhere in the universe to look quite like it does here.
Um, earth to NASA…
Of course, tantalizing as it may have seemed, NASA’s press release was also, in retrospect, fairly dry and careful, promising no more than “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” But for those who nonetheless had fantasized about a closer kind of encounter, do I have news for you.
Better than news, actually: remixes.
Put aside for a moment your suspicion that aliens might be sending us interstellar 419 scams. Why not audio edits? We did, after all, launch a big ol’ golden phonograph into space some 33 years ago. What if the Voyager record found its ways to alien “ears” (or intelligences, anyway) after all? What if the response was to scramble and reassemble our own sound and syntax and to send it back earthwards? And why not send remixes with a cosmic twist of the critical dagger?
That’s the contention, anyway, of the SETI-X collective, a group of scientists exiled from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence consortium responsible for the ’77 Voyager record. SETI-X has released a CD, Scrambles of Earth, which purports to present a collection of decoded remixes from outer space:
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft, fastening to each a phonograph album containing sounds and music of Earth. If the best calculations are to be believed, one of these records was intercepted and “remixed” sometime in 2005 by extraterrestrial intelligences on the edge of our solar system. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Exile (SETI-X), a dissident offshoot of the better-known Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in 2010 finished decoding signals believed to be transmissions of these “remixes.” Scrambles of Earth, unauthorized by a skeptical SETI, is SETI-X’s document of these audio signs of possible alien intelligence.
If we are to take the researchers at their word, this record would constitute no less than a close encounter of the fifth kind (though some might dispute the expansion of Hynek’s three-level CE model). In the words of CE5’s greatest proponent, Steven J. Greer, a close encounter of the fifth kind is “characterized by mutual, bilateral communication rather than unilateral contact.”
But beyond that, what’s striking about the discovery of these transmissions is that they would appear to offer a critique of everything from the original project’s colonial overtones to the absurdity of the copyright regime’s claims on the record. As the liner notes speculate:
It could also be that the aliens were unmoved by Voyager’s musical program and sought in their version to reprimand Earthlings with an obnoxious response to what Sagan and others modestly termed, in the title of the explanatory coffee-table book, Murmurs of Earth.
There are some stunning procedures on the disc, including a selection where the amplitude envelope of an excerpt from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is apparently used to modulate the pitch of Andean drums, or a number of looping sections that perhaps suggest, as the careful liner notes point out, “artifacts of earthly deconvolution technologies.” And yet —
Even through the translatory medium of all-too-human audio algorithms, however, it is apparent that the aliens are playing fast and loose with complex intercultural questions and flirting with copyright violation on an interstellar scale.
Take, for example, “Fifth World”:
Here, the aliens have worked with classically ethnomusicological recordings of two fourth world peoples, the Navajo and the Yoingu residents of Milingimbi, Australia. The resulting fusion of a Diné night chant with “Devil Bird” may at first hearing remind the listener of “world music” fusions, though unlike most of those efforts, here the indigenous voices are not snipped into small bits/beats. Rather, it is the chordal composition of a member of the first Viennese school, Mozart, that has been so treated. This interpretation depends, it must be said, on imagining that aliens parse figure and ground in ways similar to the purveyors of worldbeat music, whom, evidence suggests, they loathe.
The people at SETI-X are looking out for additional transmissions and transpositions. Let’s just hope, if any come in, they don’t start sounding too phishy.
PS — I’m pleased to report that representatives from SETI-X will be joining us TONIGHT at Enormous Room for a special Beat Research session. To help celebrate their stunning discovery, Flack and I have invited some local friends to dig through the cosmic bins of their record collections and unearth all their deep space footage. So in addition to the SETI-X reps, Tim of A Stack of Dusty Records, the co-owner of Mystery Train Records in Gloucester, MA, will offer some thematic accompaniment, VJ Dziga will mix’n’mash rare NASA footage and other alien sights on the big screen while TDOGG explores further levels of photon manipulation. It’s gonna be out of this world!
This Saturday I’ll be at Cornell, speaking on a panel alongside some esteemed colleagues. The subject at hand is, more or less, the animating force behind this blog in recent years: “(post-)regional dance musics and their transformation through the internet” —
The students organizing the event have an ambitious agenda for digging deeper into this stuff. They envision Saturday’s panel as “a way to introduce, contextualize, and start a dialogue that really hasn’t existed in (with a few exceptions) academic circles.” That said, I’ll be curious to see whether the turnout is largely students or whether some scholar-colleagues will join us as well. Although some of the speakers are (aspiring) academics, I’m told that our profiles as bloggers were central to the invitation, “an interesting statement on the role of the internet in the circulation of these regional styles.”
The organizers tell me that they hope this weekend’s event will pave the way for two future shows involving some of Chicago’s best and brightest. (Their wishlist includes DJ Rashad, DJ Deeon, DJ Clent, Jammin’ Gerald, and Traxman). Nick, one of the organizers, adds: “Admittedly, the shows are super Chicago centric, but this is what I’ve played the most and what I’m the most familiar with (I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio). Working on planning some stuff next semester and bringing some other folks up.”
Sounds like a plan to me. I’m happy to be a part of the conversation, and I’m thrilled to chat with some smart participants/observers who’ll bring to the (round)table years of experience in and research on such crucial sites as Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, and New Orleans. No doubt you all know blogging brethren like Gavin Mueller, a perennially sharp critic of world2.0 and longtime ghettotech interpreter, but I’m also looking forward to meeting Al Shipley, the guy who’s writing the (kickstarted!) book on Bmore club, as well as Matt Miller, scholar of bounce and other dirty southness, and, last but not least, Ghettophiles‘ Neema Nazem, who first came to my attention as an acid-tongued but well-meaning interventionist in London’s burgeoning love affair with juke.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a party Saturday night featuring the mighty Dave Quam on the decks? YES.
I don’t have much more to add for now. Longtime readers should know that my pantheon of everyday heroes in recent years is remarkably populated by some central players in this story: courageous (if often faceless) kids dancing up a storm at school, at home, on the street, & on the screen —
So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing —
Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire —
Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.
Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”
When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.
Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into —
All manner of associations and explanations are proffered —
Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).
People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.
But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) —
When I shared the “Best African Dance Ever” video with one of my favorite observers of Jamaican culture — @ProdigalJA (né @bigblackbarry) — he quipped (and I’m sorry I can’t find the tweet) that he knew it couldn’t be “African” when he saw the guy hit the girl’s butt with his head. Rasta nuh move so.
And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:
That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:
As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:
My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicólogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)
Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.
This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:
Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:
And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic —
Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and Chocó dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.
For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:
Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:
note the mambo outro
According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-Caleño-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)
While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?
Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:
Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in Bogotá, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.
Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in Bogotá doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story —
Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:
Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquería” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.
And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:
As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.
The Wizard of Oz + Dark Side of the Moon…. many folks have tried to put these two together and succeeded, sort of. The people that even know about this probably still argue on which lion roar to start the album on…wait, do you start when you drop the needle on the record or when you hit play on the cd player, shit?! I put it on Vimeo so no one has to worry about syncing this ever again…This is for all you stoners and once was hippies.
– Per your requests, I have extended the movie to it’s actual running time and looped the album throughout the film. It’s actually quite surprising how many moments line up later in the movie, but it doesn’t happen as frequently as the first time through.
– If you have an hour and forty five minutes to kill you could spend it watching this urban legend. Personally, I can only watch the first rotation of the album. I like Pink Floyd and all, but my human brain is only able to withstand around 45 minutes of concentration. …