Archive for December, 2014
December 22nd, 2014
I’ve got an article in The Wire‘s new issue devoted to “Freedom Principles” (December 2014). I was inspired by the call for submissions to thread the idea of freedom through the story of Dutch bubbling, which I think embodies it in a number of important ways.
After having the privilege to visit with some of bubbling’s pioneers and torchbearers in Aruba this September, I’m feeling as inspired — and required — as ever to give this wonderful story of translocal music culture and creativity the telling it deserves. This is a start.
I’ve also put together a “portal” of audio and video examples for the Wire’s site; check it out and sink deep into the sounds and images of bubbling!
The essay that appears in the print issue follows below. Big up Moortje, Chuckie, Coversquad, Fellow, & everyone else involved in this remarkable story! Thanks for sharing with me. Keep bubbling free!
Moortje on the decks in ~92
Is there any sound so free as DJ Moortje’s mid-1990s track “Donna”, his remix of Singing Sweet’s 1992 lovers rock rendition of Richie Valens’s 1959 hit pitched to chipmunk levels and propelled by doubled-up dancehall drums in double time? With such feathers in its cap, Dutch bubbling should have long ago established the Netherlands on the global bass map. A hyperkinetic, hyperlocal, sample-centric take on dancehall, bubbling thrived in obscurity throughout the 1990s, and today it continues to enjoy a certain liberty on the margins of international reggae culture. Obscurity is but one of several key forms of freedom embodied by its almost implausible existence. Its very genesis and gestation, never mind its spectacular and strange shapes, are products of the buttressing effects of inherited traditions with liberating aesthetics, technologies with plasticity, and the social support and political economy of small scenes.
Networking Holland’s immigrant enclaves in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague, bubbling took root in dancehalls where African-Antillean youth could gather, socialise and dance. Notably, the music of choice for first and second generation migrants from Aruba, Curacao and Suriname was supplied not by these islands or the Netherlands, but by Jamaica. At clubs such as Voltage in the Hague or Imperium in Rotterdam, dancehall reggae provided a soundtrack for couples to rub-a-dub, schuren (that’s Dutch for rub), or, in the parlance of the day, bubble along with sensuous, polyrhythmic Jamaican music that sounded at once Caribbean and global, ancestral and utterly modern. Bubbling — or bobbeling — channelled the energies of a new youth culture that gave people united by their experience in postcolonial Dutch society a common platform for creativity and community, especially as DJs and dancers together pushed tempos beyond reggae’s comfort zone and twisted dancehall into a shape that became more recognisable as a local innovation.
Bubbling’s DJs, MCs, producers and dancers took flight from reggae’s DJ driven and remix-oriented music culture, an imperative to revisit and revise familiar forms accentuated by hiphop’s relentless flipping of scripts. Inspired at once by hiphop sampling and reggae versioning, the practitioners of Dutch bubbling remade dancehall in their own image, manipulating samples of well-worn riddims in ways no Jamaican producers ever would. In this way, bubbling’s referential yet irreverent chop and stab approach to dancehall — more directly derivative than a reggae relick but less faithful to a riddim’s integrity — makes it an uncanny twin of reggaeton; they even share a love for the same canon of riddims: “Fever Pitch”, “Bam Bam”, “Dem Bow” and pretty much anything featuring Cutty Ranks. With a premium on transformation, skirting the line between recognition and surprise, Dutch-Antillean DJs like the pioneering DJ Moortje would take reggae B side versions and make them the basis for new performances, quite as they were intended — if not in the wildly distorted shapes Moortje and cohorts would make of them. Recording new vocals over an instrumental is one thing; combining loops from multiple riddims, some pitched to double time and some screwed to molasses, spiked with whimsical samples from the hardcore gabber of Rotterdam Termination Source or Snoop Dogg album skits, is another thing entirely.
Moortje enjoyed a critical degree of creative freedom thanks to the affordances of vinyl and turntables. Exploiting the limited but profound capacities of these playback technologies, he took the familiar records that made dancers bubble and pushed their tempos into uncharted territory by playing 33 rpm records at 45 rpm and sliding the pitch fader right up to and beyond its upper limit. Given the opportunity, Moortje would sometimes remove the turntable platter from a pair of Technics to access an internal knob controlling the pitch adjustment range, allowing him to shift 100 bpm riddims into a far more uptempo terrain.
Moortje showing me, in the sand, how he would modify the Technics’ pitch range
Later, audio software vastly expanded bubbling’s creative possibilities. Moortje’s innovative performances planted the seed for speed bubbling, a digital development first enabled by Amiga 500 tracker software that allowed production crews like The Coversquad to take tempos upwards of 150 bpm, much to the bemusement or dismay of visiting reggae artists experiencing bubbling’s love of chipmunked and screwed vocals and drums. Commissioned by dancers requiring dramatic, sample-packed soundtracks for their choreographed, competitive routines, producers would suture audio from films and rap albums onto the breakneck bubbling beats that impelled dancers to move like marionettes doing the butterfly. Indeed, the strikingly experimental nature of bubbling productions was predicated on an intimate feedback loop with audiences who appreciated how the music had coalesced as a genuinely local style. Such a supportive setting was fostered and enjoyed by MCs like Pester and Pret, who helped to push the tempos and excitement levels as they added their own accents to the mix. With their Dutch and Papiamento lyrics chanting down Babylon or simply telling people to shake it, bubbling’s MCs further imbued the music with local resonance.
For better or worse, bubbling’s deeply idiomatic qualities may also grant the genre a certain freedom from external forces. In its heyday, it only happened live or on recordings informally circulated on cassette, meaning its heavy use of samples bypassed the attentions of the mainstream pop industry. Whether mainstream Dutch house has since effectively sublimated bubbling’s mojo is an argument for another day. And even as the music’s artefacts finally mount up in online archives like YouTube and Soundcloud, or as musical references percolating through the releases of Fade To Mind, Mad Decent, or Planet Mu, bubbling’s baseline weirdness might yet guarantee that its signature sound will always be free.
December 22nd, 2014
I reviewed Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis, a re-issue of the classic salvo in Brazil’s tropicalia movement, for Issue 367 of The Wire (September 2014). Happily, this one’s also a nice chunky review; nice to get a little leeway on the wordcount for a verbose dude like yours truly. Here’s a director’s cut of sorts, somewhere between the semi-final and final version.
Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis
Soul Jazz Records CD/LP
A charming but sardonic cha cha for Christopher Columbus, a rock anthem quoting Latin liturgy as it bears witness to the hungry poor and the bloodstained tables of the rich, a dada-esque word puzzle that possibly alludes to Batman, a dreamy bossa nova telling listeners to eat ice cream and learn English (in Portuguese) — these are just a few points of contrast and conversation threaded through an album that aspired to no less than naming and giving voice to a new cultural movement, and succeeded spectacularly.
Yet despite its firm place in the history of Brazilian music, Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circensis, the coproduced and collaborative creation of Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Nara Leao, Gal Costa, Rogério Duprat, and many more, has long suffered from a conspicuous lack of circulation beyond Brazil. All the more strange considering the album’s uncanny incorporation of UK psychedelic rock into a Brazilian idiom.
“We were ‘eating’ The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,” remembers Caetano Veloso in his memoir Verdade Tropical, invoking a foundational imperative to cannibalize — culturally, that is — proposed in the 1920s by modernist poet, Oswald De Andrade. Taking to heart Andrade’s call for Brazilian artists not to imitate but to devour whatever they encounter, in the late 1960s the tropicalistas would initiate a cultural turn by their brave commitment to a voracious aesthetic at the height of a military dictatorship that would later arrest and exile both Gil and Veloso (who would return years later as luminaries, with Gil eventually serving as Minister of Culture in the 2000s under Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva).
In the decades since its resonant debut, much ink has spilled over tropicalia’s significance, and listeners outside of Brazil have been introduced to the music via retrospectives released by Soul Jazz, Luaka Bop and others. Still, the album’s singular expression of the movement has yet to enjoy widespread reception on its own terms. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, with segues and sequencing, Tropicalia wants to be heard as a unit, in a single setting, or over and over.
As if responding to the dearth of access to physical copies for so long, Soul Jazz is only releasing the album in physical form and with faithful, facsimile repackaging, including the original art (an inclusive, symbol-laden, family-style photo), unusual approach to song credits, and dramaturgical liner notes from the back of the record sleeve. They do so with reason. As with other concept albums of the day, Tropicalia was produced as a total package and placed remarkable emphasis on acknowledging the contributions of all involved while underscoring the collaboration at the heart of the project. Beside the song titles sit the songwriters’ (first) names, followed by the performers’ names in parentheses. Writing and performing each other’s songs, and honoring as they blur the distinct voices of the group, Veloso, Gil, et al, appear more as a true collective — a movement, even — than a conventional group.
Boxed in by an opposition between the West and the Rest that they wanted neither to deny nor accept, the tropicalistas developed a pointedly diverse sound by drawing as much on resilient local accents as international codes. “We wanted to participate in the worldwide language,” Veloso recounts, “both to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.” Eschewing homogenous fusion for a chunky syncretism, the music on Tropicalia moves with conviction from psych rock fantasia to tweaked bossa nova, cheeky mambo to treacly ballad, sometimes within the span of a single track.
The album is tight but never stiff, at once made supple by ebullient performances and substantial by the critiques smoldering between the lines. The opener, “Miserere Nobis” sets up this double-edge straight away with its church organ intro and chorus plea to “have mercy on us”, deploying Catholic referents and what Veloso refers to as “noble images enveloping a political commitment that is far more implicit than stated”. As the track shifts from quick, jangly strumming, rolling drums, and a double-time shaker to a staccato, reedy riff, Gil rehearses a simple set of ideals in Portuguese: “Hopefully one day, one day…for all and always the same beer” and that “the table of the people has bananas and beans”. Language aside, “Geléia Geral” would hardly sound out of place on Pet Sounds with its elaborate, layered arrangement, except for the samba section that erupts half-way into the song. The chorus, “Ê bumba iê iê boi”, in arch-tropicalist fashion, slyly coaxes a rock-inflected “yeah-yeah” out of a folk song from the North East of Brazil.
Elsewhere, using a Dylan inspired mix of plainspokenness and oblique metaphor, Os Mutantes’ “Panis Et Circensis” explicitly needles the complacent middle class during a moment of crisis and possibility: “I unfurled the sails on the masts in the air / I set free the tigers and the lions in backyards / But the people in the dining room / Are busy being born and dying”. After a couple minutes of haranguing the bourgeois, the hurdy-gurdy dirge slows to a stop, as if the power went out and the record stopped spinning. Seconds later, the “busy being born and dying” line returns as a mantra chanted over a galloping, Beatles-esque backbeat complete with twittering trumpets. The music gathers speed until it crashes with a hard tape splice into the mundane din of clinking glasses and inane chatter over muted strains of Blue Danube.
If elaborately orchestrated rock, especially the kind of multitracked whimsy and ambition of Sgt Pepper’s, is the album’s most obvious exotic touchstone, then arranger Rogério Duprat, who stands as a central member of the motley crew on the album cover, is the collective’s George Martin, providing a swell of strings or bursts of fanfare when needed, or, say, a bass clarinet figure bubbling briefly in the left channel. Duprat’s soaring arrangement for Veloso’s cover of Vicente Celestino’s “Coração Materno” supplies crucial support to a triumphant tribute, reanimating reviled schmaltz in order to undermine a prevailing elitism that the tropicalistas wished to resist.
Occasionally the lyrics and sonic signposts are less veiled — as when Gil and Veloso ironically sing the praises of Cristóvão Colombo “who, to our delight, came with three caravels”. Then there’s the pathetic pomp of the final track, “Hino Do Senhor Do Bonfim”, a nationalistic anthem which eventually brings the album to a close with eerie moans, the cavernous knocks of a distant cannon, and silence. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way a military dictatorship might interpret such a work of smoking agitpop.
[hear clips at the Soul Jazz site]
December 22nd, 2014
I reviewed Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil, a new compilation from Brazil’s Mais Um Discos, for Issue 365 of The Wire (July 2014). Given my prolix proclivities, I was glad to get a little longer leash (i.e., wordcount) for this one. Nice to be able to stretch out a bit — and dig in — given how short record reviews tend to be. I was also especially happy to get the phrase “Carne vale, my ass” into print!
Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil
Mais Um Discos
As prior Mais Um compilations have also trumpeted new waves, it’s striking that so many of these forty-three tracks spanning ten Brazilian states sound deeply familiar, even on first spin. In terms of sound — of musical forms and signs — little here seems new. The recordings were made recently, sure, but as far as the music’s references, nearly every track grins like a cat with a carnival feather dangling from the side of its mouth. Carne vale, my ass. The so-called new sounds of Brazil are still fully in thrall to the time-honored Brazilian tradition of anthropofagia, or cultural cannibalism.
If you enjoyed Luaka Bop’s retrospective takes on tropicalia and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), much here will resonate as an extension of that mongrel approach to Brazilian and international influences alike. Stewing together such bottomless local wellsprings as samba, bossa nova, capoeira, and tecno brega with rock, cumbia, electro, and afrobeat, the compiled acts give voice to the fecundity of the present moment’s access to the recorded past.
Amidst an omnivore’s dilemma of musical choices, the iconic instruments and accents of Brazil serve as rudders in the flow of international currents. The opener, very much in this vein, may be the best of the bunch. Brimming with allusions, effects, and textural shifts, Lucas Santtana’s “Amor meu grande amor” emerges from a cocoon of vinyl crackle and street static as a sweet song with clarion, close-miked vocals redolent of canonical bossa nova. A swirling organ sets the voice on an anthemic pedestal before a deep, dubwise groove moves in to support and unsettle. Santtana’s neat trick, anchoring an otherwise slippery arrangement with a suave singer, appears again on the very next track and threads its way through the compilation. Apanhador Só’s “Mordido” begins as a glitchy, frantic bossa buoyed by calm crooning but after two twitchy verses culminates in a grungy dirge that, to its credit, doesn’t feel nearly as non sequitur as it should. These salvos are followed by swampy cumbias that borrow beats from cheesy axé thigh-burners and fuzzy guitars and sundry other permutations of familiar sounds and signposts, local and non.
The compilation is organized into two parts, the second half allegedly devoted to “post baile-funk” dance music though it features as many live ensembles and mid-century styles as the first disc includes samples and synths. Moreover, a lot of the tracks on “Disc Dois” could have been made before funk carioca’s national and global diffusion and hardly seem to register its influence. But several fun, bass-propelled productions manage to capture the spirit, if not the sound, of the funk ball: Lurdez da Luz’s “Ping pong” channels Missy Elliott while teasing a berimbau sample; distorted cuicas drive another sort of musical feijoada on Thiago França’s off-kilter, one-minute interlude, “Picardia”; pandeiros float above the digital thump of DJ Mam’s smoothly recalibrated take on classic carioca forms, “Cuz Cus De Canô”; and it’s fitting to hear US producer but longtime Rio-resident Maga Bo contribute a dancehall reggae romp in which the Jamaican presets have been replaced with local inputs, a slowly building track that puts vocals front and center all the while threatening to usurp their pride of place with growling bass.
More apparent than funk carioca here is the familiar boom-ch-boom-chick of Afrodiasporic genres like reggaeton or zouk, most popularly localized via axé and tecno brega, two genres often dismissed as proletarian schmaltz — brega means cheese — but clearly a presence in several selections, from the electronic grooves of Strobo’s “Amazônia bang bang” to the nu-tropicalia of Tulipa’s “Megalomania.” Peba’s “ARROZX” sounds almost like a Jersey club take on tecno brega, while Gang do Eletro point toward the genre’s eletro melody wing, as well as funk, with their carioca-cadence raps, half-time habanero, and the kind of cloying synths that drive dancers mad at Belem bailes.
Whether or not they meet the conceit of “post baile funk” dance music, other tracks here merit your time. Joined by no less than Tony Allen on drums, Meta Meta’s “Alakoro” is a jittery jam with angular, interwoven riffs and starkly rendered instrumentation. Bixiga 70’s “Kalimba” engages soukous and afrobeat with its latticework guitars, horn blasts, and propulsive drumming, only to nod to cumbia and classic rock a few minutes in. It’s somewhat startling to hear such straightforward, synth-driven cumbia as Sistema Criolina’s “Pequi week bar,” but there it is, and it’s not bad.
The mix of fresh and rote on Rolê suggests a different kind of curation might have produced a more broadly representative collection of Brazil’s newest new waves. Conspicuously absent here are rough-and-ready uploads to Soundcloud or the scandalous, viral dance tunes that garner millions of views on YouTube and inflect all manner of Brazilian pop, from MPB to axé to the country-pop of sertaneja. Such grassroots productions and their mainstream reflections are crucial constituents of the Brazilian soundscape but they go unheard on this otherwise ambitious compilation. Plumbing the ongoing give-and-take between the legacies of tropicalia and the insurgencies of funk could have made for a more trenchant take on the new, or at least contemporary, sounds of Brazil.
This track is the standout for me, by far (but you can listen to the whole thing here) —
December 22nd, 2014
I reviewed Salvadora Robot, the latest album from Colombia’s Meridian Brothers, for Issue 364 of The Wire (June 2014).
Cutting their own odd swath though a tangle of urban musicians now embracing their country’s regional, grassroots popular traditions, Meridian Brothers’ newest offering is a genre-hopping, funhouse reflection of the Colombian music landscape. On Salvadora Robot, the Bogota based musicians set their nimble jazz hands to wringing fun, funny songs out of charged local materials, cosmopolitan flourishes, and a battery of resonant, vintage sounds. Inflecting local idioms like vallenato and salsa with gestures and arrangements more redolent of Tom Zé or Tortoise than Joe Arroyo, the group scrawls its skittery signature all over the map.
While the warbling electric guitars sometimes tug at the surf-rock roots of Andean cumbia – “El Gran Pájaro De Los Andes” is audibly steeped in Peruvian chicha – the combination of tropical and psychedelic takes many shapes on the album, including the psych-rock salsa of “Doctor Trompeta”. Surprising, delightful synth lines dart in and out of several songs, and a panoply of intricate riffs and rhythms, especially the interplay between the drums and keyboards, conjure all manner of classic Colombian band traditions – and perhaps other allusions as well: “Somos Las Residentas”, the frisky album opener, recalls Raymond Scott with its slinky horn-riffs and locomotive drive. Throwback keyboards and guitars often jump out of the texture, but the lively kit drumming is the album’s combustible engine.
Salvadora Robot is expansive and inclusive in its references, and finds Meridian Brothers attentive to the bounds of tradition but willing to take risks. Several songs end in maniacal laughing, entranced singing, or animal braying, and the album’s lyrics are colorful, uproarious, and often surreal, with “burning butterflies”, “pregnant dolls in the trash”, and a tale of a man sentenced to the electric chair for dancing to reggaeton. That song, “Baile Último”, despite its conceptual bite, offers a rare moment when the group seems to stray from the prevailing spirit of the project. Salvadora Robot carries a studious attention to local wellsprings without slavish devotion to convention, but when the tribute turns tongue-in-cheek, it undercuts the song’s critique, which is leveled not at reggaeton, but its elitist critics. The group’s lurching, out-of-sync take on reggaeton, more for the bourgeois than the boulevard, falls flat. But for the most part Salvadora Robot is a thoughtful and fruitful engagement with, and resistance to, the twin trappings of nostalgia and novelty.
December 22nd, 2014
This past year I began reviewing records regularly again, mostly for the wonderfully serious London-based publication, The Wire, which has been pushing lots of interesting releases across my desk.
It’s been a great experience working with the editors over there and trying to bring my prolix, punny, occasionally-too-precious style in line with their more exacting house rules (e.g., no using the word band!). As per usual, if a bit late, I’m going to archive the pieces here at W&W.com, usually in the form they appeared in the magazine. Sometimes it’s a little tricky to track down the final draft after many backs-and-forths, so there’ll be a mix of “director’s cuts” in these re-posts as well.
We’ll start at the beginning. First up: Beyond Addis, a compilation of new groups — dare we call them bands? — working in the Ethio-jazz style, as reviewed in Issue 363 of The Wire (May 2014).
Beyond Addis compiles recent interpretations of Ethio-jazz from outside of Ethiopia, bearing witness to the remarkable recent diffusion of this distinctive style. Thanks to the Éthiopiques compilations, the Broken Flowers soundtrack, and such longstanding musical torchbearers as the Either/Orchestra, the swinging Addis sound of the early 1970s has grown into a repertory of its own for jazz groups and kindred groove collectives, especially those that like vintage funk with a loping waltz, or wah-wah guitar with baritone sax. At once foreign and familiar, and suitable for ensembles of all sizes, Ethio-jazz’s moody, modal melodies and triple-time romps have won over a new wave of devotees.
Like the explosion of Afrobeat a decade ago, Ethio-jazz is the new frontier of fusion in the broadest sense, enticing sundry instrumentalists to play with its recognizable but varied palette. Beyond Addis showcases kindred tunes, rhythms, and forms – all head-solo-head instrumentals – carefully rendered by groups from across Europe and the US. For all their devotion to a classic Ethio-jazz sound, each puts forward their own take on the synthesis of free jazz, psych rock, hard bop, funk and traditional music that Mulatu Astatke and compatriots were exploring four decades ago. Paris group Akalé Wubé open the collection with the reverent but distorted “Jawa Jawa”, and several other tracks are cut in that mold, but London band The Heliocentrics bend piano, harp, and flute around jangly percussion and a lurching beat; Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Geneva) offer up a sweet, swaying ballad; New York’s Budos Band grind out a dirge punctuated by blasts of brassy noise; and Boston’s Debo Band close the proceedings with an accordion, violin, and tuba driven composition that channels Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus as much as the spirit of Swinging Addis. While some performances may be more devoted than inspired, and although the whiff of sonic orientalism or 1970s nostalgia may always haunt such gestures, many of the ensembles here have collaborated with Ethiopian musicians and labor to execute a vision that is faithful without being inert and innovative without contortion. In this way, the best of the groups on Beyond Addis not only bring the great Ethio-jazz fusion project full circle but carry it to new places too.