Estoy muymuy emocionado about tomorrow nights guest(s) at Beat Research.
Dorchester’s own Trizlam, no stranger to BR, will be accompanied by his very own picó — or piquito anyway — a mini-replica of one of the Colombian Caribbean coast’s classically souped-up soundsystems, one of the very outfits that developed the local genre known as champeta by rinsing rare Cuban-by-way-of-Congo soukous sides. This is an amazing story expertly told and framed by mi colega estimada, Deborah Pacini Hernandez, in this classic 1996 article.
But Triz offers a nice narrative of his own over on his blog. Exploring the specific story of El Gran Fidel, Triz appends an important chapter to champeta’s story by discussing the mini-picó replica movement as both a reverent and nostalgic memorializing of the golden days. Allow me to cull a bit —
El Gran Fidel is one of Colombia’s foundational sound systems — referred to as picós from the English phrase ‘pick-up’ — taking its place in the pantheon of Barranquilla’s immortalized picós alongside other heavyweights of the seventies and eighties like El Timbalero, El Coreano and El Rojo.
Originally owned and operated by Jaime Alvarez, El Fidel became known as ‘El Ministro de La Salsa’ dictating sounds and selections at verbenas and casetas (outdor soundsystem events) around the city. The aesthetic of the picó was decidedly militaristic — drawing on the imagery and reputation of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. The original artwork portrays a powerful Fidel, victoriously riding a camel across the front of the speaker box, with figures or mascots from other picós reaching up, attempting to hold him back or rise up to his level. The image at once conveys the potency of the picó, and references the well-known photographs of Cuban Revolutionaries riding into Havana in 1959 amidst throngs of onlookers and supporters. Curiously, the illustrations also draw heavily on orientalist symbology — Fidel rides a camel (not a vehicle of choice in either Cuba or Colombia) from a desert environment containing arabesque architecture and distinctly middle-eastern features, into a more familiar tropical/Caribbean terrain with palm trees, blue sky, and mountains on the horizon.
Arguably, El Fidel — along with its contemporaries — occupies a ‘golden-oldies’ style nostalgic space in Barranquilla’s current day musical geography. The physical and sonic qualities of picotero culture have evolved significantly through the nineties and into the twenty-first century. Tube amps, intricate illustrations and coveted Congolese records have in large part been replaced by larger speaker sets, drum machines, live mc’s and modernized champeta music and dance styles. Still, there remains a veneration and respect for the older traditions that is alive and well among many in Barranquilla who continue to admire the music and culture of yesteryear.
Among these veteran picoteros, vinyl enthusiasts, and melomanos, a space has been carved out for the celebration of this historical culture. A number of estaderos (outdoor bars/music venues) around the city feature replicas of the golden-era picós, including the legendary venue La Troja, where patrons dance to the sounds of vintage salsa records lovingly selected from the club’s cherished collection of Lps and 45s. Replica picós have also become something of a hobby for fans, as events, clubs and associations dedicated to building and playing them have popped up around the region.
In addition to this history, Triz adds the details of how he and his novia colombiana commissioned a replica of their own and managed to actually get the strange object all the way to Boston —
During our stay in Barranquilla, Carlota and myself had the crazy idea of commissioning a replica picó that we would bring back to the states. After meeting many members of ASOREPIK, and visiting various events, we were deep enough under the spell of these multi-colored sound systems to undertake the process of transporting one across many miles of ocean to have a small taste of Colombia in cold, drab Boston. ASOREPIK member and carpenter by trade, Edilberto De La Hoz is a Soledad native responsible for building many of the picó replicas in the area. Being a devotee of El Gran Fidel, with a beautiful replica of his own, it was only right that we decided on El Fidel for the picó to have him build for us. So with our fingers crossed that shipping a decorated speaker box to Boston would be possible, we made arrangements for the creation of our own El Fidel (picós are something of a curiosity in most of Colombia, not being widely known outside of the Caribbean coast—one can only imagine the response of US customs to this strange object adorned with a painting of Fidel Castro).
After some pretty difficult last minute maneuvering we were able to pack away the finished product and ship it off just before getting on a plane back to Bogota and eventually to Boston. A few weeks later our improvised padded box arrived at my doorstep with only minor damage—El Gran Fidel had reached its destination. Mounting the speakers themselves into the box was not quite as easy as I had envisioned, but within a short time the picó was up and running. And that is the story of how El Gran Fidel made its way from a yard in Soledad, Atlantico, to an apartment in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
So, we’re very excited to be able to host the local premiere of El Gran Fidel(ito) tomorrow night, which, in addition to the booming system at the Good Life, should make for quite the listening & vibing experience. Unseasonably, Boston hasn’t been all that cold and drab lately, but a small taste of Colombia is always welcome. Cereza on top, Triz will no doubt be reaching deep into his cumbia crates for the occasion. (See here for previous mixes.) Material culture meets vibrational force downtown, baby!
ps — As it happens, just this weekend Gervase (formerly of Heatwave fame) pointed to an excellent mix of “African music via the Caribbean coast of Colombia.” Check out “Terapia Africana Mix (a selection of pico african hits)” over Muzzicaltrips to whet your appetite some more.
As if there weren’t already enough to tease out about Konono N°1 and Congotronics, a recent article in the Guardian points to a song and video called “Karibu Ya Bintou” by Baloji, a Congo-born rapper who cut his teeth on the Belgian hip-hop scene but who has worked over the last few years to return to “roots” — in part by incorporating “traditional” sounds of the Congo, from soukous guitars to Konono’s hallmark distorted likembé. The latter can be heard supporting the vivid video for “Karibu Ya Bintou”:
It may be tempting to read something like “Karibu Ya Bintou” as a relatively straightforward exercise in “indigenizing” or localizing hip-hop, but the story of Baloji’s transnational musical moorings — especially his ambivalence toward Congolese pop — complicates such an interpretation:
His first rap outfit, Les Malfrats Linguistiques (“The Linguistic Hustlers”), morphed into Starflam and Baloji became something of a Belgian hip-hop heartthrob. Meanwhile, living above a legendary record store, Caroline Music, in Liège did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everything…PiL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, the Smiths…”
Despite suffering from the rampant racism of smalltown Belgium – he was almost deported back to the Congo at the age of 20 – Baloji can thank his adoptive country for the eclecticism of his style. Until recently, however, he hated most African music, especially Congolese soukous, the bedrock style of post-independence pan-African pop. “For me, it was the worst music in the world,” he says. Nonetheless, when he received a letter from his mother out of the blue, in 2007, his Congolese heritage came back into his life with a vengeance. It inspired Baloji to return to his roots and record an album – a kind of soundtrack without a film – to tell his mother what his life had been like over the past 20 years.
That said, it’s perhaps telling — as with the success of Crammed Discs’ marketing of Konono N°1 as Congotronics — that Baloji would find the greatest interest in his work at precisely the moment he decides to place himself on a map that is easy enough to read.
Legibility does have its advantages. So it’s not terribly surprising that Baloji’s surrender to soukous on another song, “Independence,” ends up serving as a vehicle for a sort of Congolese nationalism, if one that strongly resists the authority of the state. As with “Karibu Ya Bintou,” the video is directed by the duo Spike & Jones, who have an awesome name and seem to make pretty awesome clips:
Most poignant though, I think, are Baloji’s own words on the matter of musical heritage and nationhood, or of signifying Africanness vis-a-vis certain source material. Here he shows himself to be, among other things, a thoughtful student of hip-hop, which, for all the dots it connects around the world, clearly draws plenty of lines in the process–
I want to make music that is very African and very modern. You have to be proud of who you are. You can sample Bob James or Curtis Mayfield, but it means more when Talib Kweli or Kanye West sample them because that’s their heritage. But we Africans also have an interesting heritage, which has richness and a diversity that is huge and under-exploited. We can also go deep into it and make it modern, celebrate its value, just like the Americans.
If I may be allowed one last little addendum, I’d like to share a recording that seems somewhat germane. While revisiting The Noise 6 for the post I wrote for LargeUp, I came across a real gem of a pre-reggaeton track. Don’t get me wrong, the Ivy Queen and Bebe songs are standouts, to be sure, but the final track — #16 to be exact — is definitely the biggest eyebrow-raiser. It’s worth noting, if you don’t know, that the last tracks on proto-reggaeton albums are often the weirdest, and this one, simply labeled “Bonus Track” (mp3), is an interesting outlier indeed:
As you’ll hear, there’s definitely a nod to “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and no doubt a few other jams from the Miami-Atlanta axis (though all the percussion can make it sound a bit like drum’n’bass at times, save for the tempo). Oh, yeah, and there’s the appearance of that ol’ “Egyptian” melody.
Although plenty is going over my head, no doubt, I suspect this is about as allusive as any other track from this era, which means it’s utterly full of vocal references and direct samples. It definitely gives a good sense of how widely Puerto Ricans were listening to hip-hop and contemporary club music as they sought to synthesize their own thing. No doubt for plenty of listeners — and maybe the producers and performers themselves — such a track might even sound both “very African and very modern.”
The first time one of my daughters said “internet,” I was deeply curious about what she might understand it to be. So I asked. Here’s how it went down:
“Did you get it on the internet?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying ‘internet.’ … Internet.”
It was an awesome bit of backpedaling, but it’s not like Nico didn’t know what she was talking about. Surely I had told her many times before that I was getting some video or other “on the internet” (although this time I was just searching for an mp4 on our harddrive).
Of course, defining “the internet” in plain terms is no simple task, even/especially for experts — never mind elected officials (for whom even the proposal of a relatively reasonable metaphor, say a “series of tubes,” can lead to eternal ridicule).
Anyway, as tweeted, we had occasion yesterday to revisit the exchange. This time both Nico and Charlie offered up awesome answers — with no evasions — and I even got it all on video!
As we were getting back in our car after lunch at a local diner, Charlie asked me if I wanted to buy a newspaper. I told her I didn’t and then said something to the effect that I could read the same stories on my phone — that is, on the internet. At which point I had to ask, in a somewhat strange and serious and playful voice, “What. Is. The. Internet?”
To which Nico replied, rather reasonably, if in her own strange voice (a “boy’s voice,” she tells us)–
I thought that was great, so I took out my internet phone and asked her if we could re-run the Q&A for the camera. The kids love seeing themselves on video, so Nico agreed, and that’s what you see up there (with my question inadvertently truncated).
After which, natch, Charlie needed a turn. At first it seemed like she was just going to rehearse the same exchange herself (complete with funny voice), but instead, operator-style, she threw a curveball. A hilarious curveball, especially after my follow-up —
Not long after my last post went public, a savvy searcher quickly proved that what I thought was fairly ungooglable (at least without knowing Arabic) was, in fact, waiting for me on eBay. And beyond simply locating & IDing the music/CD in question, this kind commenter hit Arabkidsmusic paydirt.
First, I want to take back my description of the CD itself (pictured here) as “clutterred”; scans of the jewelcase reveal heretofore unimagined photoshop riches–
And the seller pointed to other visually alluring CDs that I now want to hear, including one clearly ‘shopped by the same artiste —
And one which departs significantly in visual style, but is no less tempting —
Plus, the seller decorates with nifty gifs to boot —
Taken altogether, even with my lack of Arabic, I find the whole ensemble to offer a rather fascinating snapshot of some of the various and sundry artifacts gathered around music culture today.
But the best part of all is that it turns out, not too surprisingly, that the tracks I shared yesterday are fairly popular songs by Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram, who — though we must keep in mind that its a bot’s list — has a YouTube channel with 13,000+ videos on it.
I’m not too surprised to learn it was Lebanese, since Boston and Cambridge and especially neighboring Watertown have a relatively large Lebanese (and more generally, Armenian-via-other-places) community. This is why we are so fortunately rich in hummus and other goodies. (Hands down, IMO, Eastern Lamejun beats any other hummus in the Greater Boston area, but I digress…)
The songs I posted yesterday appear, in the same “medley” fashion, in a rather fantastic (and apparently “big budget”) video, which the eBay site links to as a “preview.” They were released in 2007 on an album for kids after Ajram “discovered,” according to the Wiki page, that young people were a substantial part of her audience.
Here’s the must-see video, which, if the beginning gets too cutesy-pedantic you might fast-fwd to 1:20 or so to see Ajram-as-Tinkerbell descending into a city of children-dressed-like-adults:
My daughters, incidentally, really enjoyed this — the visuals as well as the music, though I have to admit I liked it a bit more when I could imagine reggaetoneros in the mix.
At any rate, while perusing the Wikipedia page for Shakhbat Shakhabit, I was slightly surprised to see what seemed like an obvious bit of moralist editorial —
The album & video were the most notable and successful work for children at the time, following a huge wave of works directed to children. The reason for this could be the fact that it was purely meant for children, unlike children works by other singers that included sexual content for adults.
This didn’t seem surprising, exactly. There’s plenty of oddly salacious stuff that gets marketed to children (and their parents) in the US too, of course. Still, “sexual content” seemed a bit strong. But then, in my ensuing random walk (or rabbithole spelunk) on YouTube, I turned up a few things that, in the immortal words of Arsenio Hall (or Freedom Williams), make you say hmmmm, e.g.–
But there’s a lot of fun stuff to be seen too — and lots of songs about telephones maybe? — such as the following, which is awesomely jarring in its treble-culturized teeveediation, but also depicts a roomful of kids having a lot of fun dancing to some classic rhythms:
Anyway, I’ll stop there for now & leave you to your own funky spelunks, but I’m glad to solve this mystery — thx mystery commenter! — and to have found another YouTube musical wormhole to wiggle through.
We found the CD above a few blocks from home as we were walking up Concord Ave last month. It was badly scratched, probably the reason for its unceremonious discard — and no doubt compounded by however long it had been kicking it by the curb. All the same, it was awfully alluring. I immediately twitpic’d it, tweeting to g0d that it might play, and stuck it in my pocket.
Back home, I couldn’t get much further than the second track (though, notably, it fared better in my car system than my computer), but fortunately Track 1 was a whopping 15 minutes and several songs long. The contents, though still pretty mysterious to me, are about as awesome as I had imagined they might be, considering the crazed white baby, intense pink, and unauthorized Tinkerbell cluttering the cover.
Appropriately, the opening is epic. I keep wanting it to break into an 808 State jam, and I keep wishing I had an inkling of what they were saying. Since the first two songs really run together, this first chunk I’m sharing is a good 8+ minutes:
At about 8:30 into Track 1, there’s an amazingly reggaetony riff and vocal (which I’m sorely tempted to sample), but from there, rhythmically-speaking anyway, the track heads more into saidi than dembow territory:
I can only really approach this at a fairly superficial level of sound & image, sorry to say, since I can’t read or understand the language at all. Any help with that, or with finding other (and less scratched) recordings like this one would be much appreciated. Decent kids cocktail is hard to come by these days!
Today I’ve got a Q&A with Jared Demick at his site The Jivin’ Ladybug, a “Skewered Journal of the Arts” or in slightly plainer terms, “an online arts journal devoted to word-whittlers, picture-pizzazzers, & sound-slingers, all over this here globe!” Though the latter most obviously describes me, and the middle option may seem more dubious, I like to consider myself all three. (I mean, look at that picture of a ladybug drawn in sidewalk chalk — full of pizzazz!)
At any rate, Jared asked a bunch of questions about the stuff that I do and think about, and because I think it offers a good glimpse at my current thoughts about blogging and DJing and meaningful mixes, world music 2.0 and appropriation, and platform politricks, to name a few, I’m cross-posting the convo here too. Without further ado–
How does your DJing & academic work connect with each other?
I discover a lot of music in my research, and DJing allows me to “activate” these tracks in a new social setting, to sit with them and hear and feel them in new ways, and to share them with other people. As someone who studies DJ culture, and as something of an old-school participant-observer, I think it’s pretty crucial to put my intellectual work into practice in this way. Another way to look at it, though, is that my abiding love for music propels all that I do, and I’ve managed — or attempted — to chart a course where sharing music is central to my life and work.
What got you blogging so extensively?
I started blogging back in 2003 when I moved to Jamaica to do research for my dissertation, which largely consisted of visiting dancehall events and recording studios and turning my own apartment into a collaborative space for making and talking about music. (One result of which, apart from the disseration, was my self-released album, Boston Jerk.) Initially I figured the blog would only be read by academic peers and family and friends, but I was happily surprised when it turned out that a wider readership of people who were interested in taking hip-hop and reggae (and their interplay) seriously had also found their way to my research-in-progress and thinking-aloud. More than anything, the deeply encouraging feedback loop of a community of co-readers (for I think of myself as engaged in a collective process of interpretation) is what turned the blog from a research experiment into the most important and fulfilling part of my work.
Does this “world music 2.0” (or as you cheekily dub it “global ghettotech”) phenomenon, this global mix n’ match of genres, leading to greater musical variation or homogenization? In other words, is it a scenario of capitalism doing cultural colonization or is it reflective of increased diasporic movements?
As much as I’m suspicious of how capitalism shapes and circulates culture, I don’t buy the “cultural grey-out” anxiety that haunted so much globalization theory in the 1990s. Examining hip-hop or reggae as a global phenomenon (which is to say, a trans-local thing) gives the lie to any sense that local transformations of these forms are simply imitative. It has been well observed, of course, that capitalism thrives in the production of novelty, so one could argue that the lack of homogenization is, in a sense, just as useful for selling things. At any rate, I think it would be hard to make a case for anything other than greater variety in terms of the music to which we have access today, and whereas “world music” used to be a fairly exotic product, I find some optimism in the newly quotidian qualities of “the world out there” in an age when media travels so instantly and rapidly, especially when coupled with an increasing recognition that our own neighborhoods (at least in fairly cosmopolitan cities) are amazing and rich repositories of world culture. To the extent that exposure to new sounds — rather than simply the products of the media capitals of the US — might engender a more mutual regard for each other, a respect and tolerance for difference, is about as good as it could get. That, and radical wealth redistribution. (But I wouldn’t wait on “world music” to deliver that.)
Are these emerging musical trends sticking around or do they rapidly rise and fade? Who are the primary producers and consumers?
The whole “world music 2.0” scene is still pretty small and definitely marked by a hype-cycle dynamic. This is perhaps reflective of the “Western hipster” base for a lot of this stuff — at least once it’s been remediated by DJs and bloggers. But for every bandwagoneer, there are people whose interest in new sounds serves to drive their curiosity about other places, about other histories and narratives, and even about other people in their own local communities. Of course, we shouldn’t let out of sight that lots of these exciting sounds from around the world are emerging from rich local scenes which could care less about a few downstream DJs and bloggers (although, on the other hand, there are clearly some opportunities to be had, lest only the middlemen make the metropolitan money). But the production of the music that circulates on blogs and Soundcloud as a sort of “WM2.0” is no longer entirely “outsourced,” if you will. Rather, instead of simply “digging” for far-flung sounds and scenes (a la funk carioca, kuduro, cumbia), as the case of moombahton shows, new genres have emerged that partake of the templates and circuits for “global ghettotech” while being almost completely unmoored or grounded in any particular place, hence inviting a broader sort of participation (especially from more privileged corners) and perhaps entailing a different approach toward exoticism.
Why do economically disadvantaged urban areas (the ghetto, favela, barrio, shantytown, and its many other manifestations) play such a prominent role in the circulation of this material?
For all their actual impoverishment (or one might say because of it), ghettos are also immense sites of creativity — and, part and parcel of that, powerful repositories of authenticity. I would alter your question to note that while these places play a prominent role in the production of this material, they are less involved in its circulation. Increasingly, grassroots producers from around the world are using “social media” to share their productions with their peers and wider audiences, but a lot of the wider circulation of these genres is being initiated by web-trawling bloggers and DJs who are enthralled by the stuff they’re hearing. Sometimes the grounds for that fascination and/or empathy are spurious, sometimes sincere.
Do you see any political ramifications to this increased cultural dialogue?
It’s not always clear to me that this phenomenon entails a “dialogue” except in a rather vague (and one-sided) sense. I do think that playing music for local audiences (say, here in the US) which is not what they typically encounter can do a sort of political-cultural work insofar as it reforms ideas about us/them. I tend to reserve my greatest hope for the locally transformative power of these engagements — that is, we can work in Boston or New York to reshape our own sense of our soundscapes and our neighbors, and ourselves.
What makes the contemporary musical practice of appropriating and recontextualizing sounds so prominent and attractive?
The relatively novel ease of cut-and-paste is what accounts for the prominence of these methods. As for their attractiveness, I think that recontextualization, reframing, and remaking culture is simply an elemental way that we make sense of the world and share that sense with others. Of course, the advent of the global internet also means that distant appropriations are easier and more commonplace than ever.
You’ve talked about how this emerging global musical culture is precariously archived within corporate platforms. How could we create a public, non-privatized space on the internet?
This is a serious problem for posterity, and even for present practice. It reflects both a corporate capture of “public” spaces as well as a new prioritization on the part of music-makers and -sharers toward immersion and participation. Toward remedying that — to the extent that people care to — I think we really need to develop (and invest in) new platforms that allow people to personally host (or better, collectively distribute) the media that we make or care to share. I wish there were a will to do this at a municipal or even federal level — to really do it with public funds, as an investment in infrastructure — but there are too many conflicts, I suspect, to make this possible now. So, this has to start with a collective but individual move toward our own servers, and with insisting that we keep copies of everything we post to the corporate platforms whose only value — beyond the user-interface they provide — is entirely generated by our presence and participation there. An open-source alternative to Facebook / Twitter / Soundcloud / YouTube that allows people to maintain more control over their digital culture would be a killer app to be sure.
In both your essays and your mixes, you chart out the routes of particular sounds such as the dembow riddim or the “zunguzung meme” as they get reappropriated in a variety of different contexts. What kinds of insights about contemporary musical culture does such a method provide?
Since — as I think such mixes make audible — it’s not so easy to generalize about “appropriation” when a tune or drumbreak can clearly take so many forms and support such a diversity of messages, the most consistent insight has more to do with the fundamental flexibility and reconfigurability of musical forms (and cultural forms more generally). Although I think this phenomenon far predates the age of technological reproducibility — and results from the essentially mimetic basis of culture — I do think that, with regard to the contemporary, these mixes show not only that it’s easy and commonplace to appropriate or allude to or otherwise invoke and rework previous performances, but that a great deal of creativity, and localization of the power to affect an audience, is very audibly a part of the process.
Which of your currents projects are you most excited about?
I’ve got an ongoing project about the Boston soundscape that I’ve just extended recently with the publication of “Love That Muddy Ether” / Boston Pirate Party — a brief reflection on the rise of Caribbean low-power / pirate radio here in Boston and an audio collage that tries to encapsulate, and take some poetic liberties with, this city’s segregated soundscape. I’m also embarking, after a couple trips to Rotterdam last fall, on a book project about bubbling, the Dutch-Caribbean hyperactive twin of reggaeton, which seems, like kindred genres such as jungle and bhangra, to speak volumes about the musical mediation of a changing sense of place.
I’ve got a brief contribution to LargeUp’s Throwback Thursdays series today. Returning to one of my favorite videos from the underground-era, The Noise 6 — a video you’ve likely seen if you’ve ever caught one of my reggaeton lectures — I provide a quick bit of exegesis and some points of entry.
Head over there to read all about it and watch the video!
I’m especially thrilled to finally contribute not just because of the good company — Jesse, Eddie, Rekha, et al. run a tight ship — but because, as you may or may not know, I’ve was a major Okayplayer devotee in a former moment of internet music nerditry. Back in 1999-2002, it was basically my main source for daily news and discussion (though I tended to be more of a lurker than participant). And, especially thanks to ?uestlove’s generous engagements there, it served a major source for my article on sampling in Callaloo.
So it’s an honor and a pleasure to finally show my face there — not to mention use my real name, which necessarily resulted in a fine bit of disambiguation from my Jamaican namesake!