Do you like sound? Do you like art? How about music and media, and their aesthetics and histories? Would you enjoy telling some stories about music and media through sound art? If you’re tired of dancing about architecture and ready to do some musicking about music — and you’ve got the time and means — I hope you’ll consider joining our collective technomusicological endeavor this spring.
I’m offering Technomusicology through the Harvard Extension School once again this semester. We will meet on Thursday evenings in a computer lab in Harvard Square, and our sessions are also streamed live (along with livechat) — and recorded — for anyone taking the class online or participating more asynchronously. Our first meeting is on Thursday, January 28, two weeks from today.
I will make a few more tweaks to the syllabus before class begins, but the general shape will be the same: over the course of the term, students will produce a total of 7 short pieces (which I call “études” or studies) in particular media forms. We approach these “media forms” as historical objects: first we discuss how their aesthetics pertain to their techno-cultural circumstances; then we think about how to approach such forms as creative resources. This semester we will produce soundscapes, sample-based beats, mashups, YouTube montages, DJ-style mixes, and podcast-style audio. (I am still making up my mind about the final project.)
As always, I welcome novices as well as experienced media producers, as I believe technomusicology offers substantive conceptual and creative challenges to all comers. We embrace the affordances of music software such as Ableton Live — both powerful/flexible and surprisingly intuitive/usable — in order to produce audiovisual digital art, whether DIY and rough-and-ready or highly polished and refined.
Speaking of refinement, an important dimension of the class is the collective workshopping of our projects. Each étude is submitted as a rough and then a final draft. We spend roughly half our time auditioning and discussing each other’s work, and we aim to cultivate an atmosphere of generosity and constructive criticism in order to get the best out of everyone.
I do think some really wonderful work has come out of this class, and I hope you’ll consider becoming a contributor. You can check out previous semesters’ highlights here and here and here and here and here.
I’ll leave you with this sweet, wry bit of technomusicology. Loop and learn!
My recent post involving a Boston sound session focused on the use of the zunguzung meme, so I didn’t discuss some of the other interesting and awesome things about the recording — and how I found it.
I’ve been turning my attention back to the story of reggae in Boston — a story that I first tried to put together a decade ago. Indeed, I resumed my search by returning to a piece I published back in 2005 in a local zine, “Reggae-Tinged Resonances of a Wicked Wicked City.” (Geez, can I really be insufferably wordy sometimes; I like to think I’ve improved on that count.)
As I was re-reading, I decided to google some of the old soundsystems to see if — praise be to Jah — some vintage sound tapes had finally made it online alongside counterparts from Kingston, New York, London, et al. In 2005 it was damn near impossible to hear any of this stuff; it seemed far more likely in 2016, as the recorded past continues to make its way, however willy-nilly, to the internet.
I CNTRL-C’d on “Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot” and was feeling lucky. And what do you know? The top return was for a 1985 Evertone session including a visiting crew representing King Jammy’s from JA! As I started reading the description, I got a strange sense of deja vu before recognizing it as the same paragraph I had just copy-n-pasted from — a paragraph I wrote a decade ago…
In the early 1980s, Boston’s reggae scene was blessed by a number of soundsystems and selectors working mostly in clubs in Dorchester, where Boston’s West Indian population has been based for decades. Echo International (which later changed its name to Capricorn Hi-Fi), with its eponymous selector, Echo, was one of the more well-known sounds in the area. Evertone Hi-Power, with selectors Wheely and Robot, ranked among the best in town and is remembered as one of the biggest soundsystems in Boston during the 1980s. They even clashed with legendary Jamaican sound, King Jammy’s, in Dorchester in 1986. Apparently, Unity Sound, with selectors Reggie Dawg and Warren, was the “gal favorite,” while Supersonic was known as the “bad boy” sound, with connections to the infamous Dog Posse. Cambridge’s Western Front earned a reputation in the 1980s as a spot for “bad men” as well as for serious reggae music, especially from local live-bands such as the I-Tones and Cool Runnings. Aside from the Front, though, most of the top spots to hear reggae in Boston were based around Blue Hill Ave in Dorchester: Black Philanopies, Manny’s Bar, Windsor Cricket Club, 4 Aces, Carver Lodge, Kelekos, and, of course, 3 C’s—the Caribbean Cultural Center, which opened on 1000 Blue Hill Ave in 1981 and has been hosting big reggae events ever since. Veterans of the Boston reggae scene also note the popularity of house parties during the 80s, many of which, not unlike dances in Jamaica, would often last until 7 or 8 in the morning.
It was unattributed, but how could I bother to care about that? The story is not mine, for one; I am but a humble chronicler and interpreter. More important, though, was that my text had led me to something that I REALLY WANTED TO HEAR. This was the best possible scenario. It was as if 2005 Wayne had left a trail of digital bread crumbs for 2016 Wayne. Give thanks!
Cherry on top: the session itself is gold. Great vibes, local color, and a fine dancehall session in solid 1986 stylee. It’s great to hear the deejays reworking all the musical figures that enjoyed currency in that moment, from melodic contours to slang to riddims to ways of “selecting” or playing them (e.g., turning a skanking 4/4 track into a 3+3+2 break using the volume knob/fader). If you’re into dancehall culture, the session offers a wonderful glimpse at the state-of-the-art in the mid-1980s. Reverberating from Kingston to Boston, this is the sound of an institution at work, a resonant diasporic resource, an alchemical production of live sociality from recorded sound–
If I’m hearing correctly, Jammy’s crew come in after a half-hour or so (launching with a zunguzung riff at 35:20) and then rock for a solid 1.5 hours. Before that, the Bostonians hold their own. Skilled deejays pass the mic around and offer a mix of impromptu declamations and more rehearsed routines over the big riddims of the day — and occasionally, in the name of good vibes, playing whole records/voicings in their own right (including some Jammy’s productions — a notable and explicit gesture of respect).
When one of the deejays says “Boston is a island of itself, seen?” at 8:48, it’s as if he’s *trying* to title a compilation or a book. (So much better than the title I came up with a decade ago!) Local references erupt with some frequency, especially in original routines — including a nice set of tunes over the Golden Hen riddim. It’s quite a ride even without the offkey cover of “Karma Chameleon” that I very much wish were a satire.
From my perspective, recordings like these (and I found others) stand testament to reggae’s vitality in Boston in the 1980s, at once grounded in local sociality and in diasporic networks. In that sense, they are a crucial complement to other artifacts that represent Boston’s reggae heritage, most notably the recordings made by local bands and locallabels.
So while I’m here, allow me to share a couple selections from two reggae bands working in Boston at this time. Many of these bands included Jamaican musicians living in Boston, and nearly all seem to bring a reverent, faithful, yet distinctive approach to the music.
First off, check out the dubby stylings of Zion Initiation, as released by a small local label in 1979:
And don’t miss this ambitious video (on location in Paris?!) from the I-Tones. Fronted by the Luke “White Ram” Ehrlich and featuring Chris Wilson on guitar (a Jamaican ex-pat who would later run Heartbeat Records), the I-Tones were one of the biggest reggae bands in town in the 1980s. A song like “Walk On By” shows how their sound was grounded in reggae’s abiding love for sweet pop and R&B. (According to the YouTube page, Ram was not thrilled about the sax solo!) Gotta love that falsetto.
Will share more as the project develops, but do drop a line if you’d like to add anything. Just scattering some digital breadcrumbs here, seen?
Among other recent publications, I’m especially happy to share a paper I co-wrote last year with my ol’ friend and colleague, Pacey Foster. As some of you surely know, Pace has been working for several years to collect, curate, and explicate a very special cassette archive documenting the early Boston rap scene. (Check these articles in the Boston Globe, the Phoenix, and Wax Poetics for further info — not to mention Pacey’s blog.)
Pace and I have been wanting to situate the archive — and such a project/subject more generally — for an interdisciplinary academic readership for some time, and so when we saw the call for a special issue of the Creative Industries Journal below (c/o the mighty Eric Harvey), we knew we found a great place to share some tales of the tape(s) —
CFP: Technologies and Recording Industries
Creative Industries Journal, Special Issue 8.2 (Fall 2015)
The past 15 years have proven transformative for music recording industries around the world, as digital technologies from the ground up (mp3s) and the top down (streaming platforms) have helped transform the landscape of production, promotion, distribution, retail, and fandom. Yet while these transformations have recently upended assumptions about musical practice for artists, industry workers, fans, journalists, and researchers, a broader historical perspective situates them in a legacy more than a century long. Indeed, a history of recording industries told from a media and technology perspective is one of constant flux. The introduction of new media technologies has continually reorganized the practices, regimes of value, discourses, and power relationships of the recording business.
This issue of the Creative Industries Journal seeks to address the constitutive roles of technologies in shaping recording industry practices. How have the introduction and adoption of new tools of production, distribution, promotion, or consumption facilitated changes in the creative and industrial practices surrounding popular music in a variety of global contexts? Following Williamson & Cloonan (2007) and Sterne (2014), we specify “recording industries” instead of “music industries” to focus attention on the myriad creative and industrial processes related to music (or, broadly, sound) recordings, and to evade the tendency to group a variety of disparate music and sound-related industries (licensing, instrument sales, live performance) under one heading. We use the plural to assert the multiplicity and variety of recording industries that have emerged over time, which may not have anything to do with the current corporate-owned, multinational recording industry.
We respond to this call by discussing the Lecco’s Lemma radio show (and cassette archive) as an example of how DIY media technologies facilitated the emergence of a local hip-hop scene here in the 1980s. In addition to some media theory and a brief history of the cassette and its special affordances, Pace and I examine three telling anecdotes about Lecco’s Lemma — stories bearing witness to a remarkable moment of collective effort and creativity, a self-contained “recording industry” that networked a community of amateur artists and supporters.
One vignette revolves around this amazing artifact in the collection, a fascinating glimpse of Gang Starr’s Guru (aka, MC Keithy E) in his early days —
But I don’t want to offer too many spoilers here. For the low down on the incredible thing that Guru appears to have done to his recording of the broadcast above — an intervention that bears witness to the importance of the show, and of cassette technology — go ahead and read the article:
Foster, Pacey and Wayne Marshall. 2015. “Tales of the tape: cassette culture, community
radio, and the birth of rap music in Boston.” Creative Industries Journal 8(2): 164-76. [PDF]
Here’s the abstract to further whet your reading appetite —
Recent scholarship on peer-oriented production and participatory culture tends to emphasize how the digital turn, especially the Internet and the advent of the so-called ‘social web’, has enabled new forms of bottom-up, networked creative production, much of which takes place outside of the commercial media. While remarkable examples of collaboration and democratized cultural production abound in the online era, a longer view situates such practices in histories of media culture where other convergences of production and distribution technologies enabled peer-level exchanges of various sorts and scales. This essay contributes to this project by examining the emergence of a local rap scene in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid-late 1980s via the most accessible ‘mass’ media of the day: the compact cassette and community radio.
And there’s lots more Lecco’s Lemma for your listening pleasure:
Last year I published a couple reviews that land somewhere between the realm of ethno/musicology and music criticism — a netherworld I obviously like to explore. One piece engages with the multimedia work of Arca; the other with a cheeky French rap video. One appeared in an academic journal devoted to Latin American art and literature; the other in a museum in Europe alongside an installation of the video and other critical commentary (and then, in an actual book). See below for links and excerpts.
Marshall, Wayne. 2015. “Contortions to Match Your Confusion: Digital Disfigurement and the Music of Arca.” Literature and Arts of the Americas 48(1): 118-22. (PDF)
“Día de los Muertos,” a mix released in late October 2014 by Houston’s Svntv Mverte (aka Santa Muerte), a DJ duo with a name invoking “Mexico’s cult of Holy Death, a reference to the worship of an underground goddess of death and the dead,” opens with an ominous, arresting take on reggaeton. A moody, flickering bed of synths struggles to spring into action before the snap of slow, syncopated snares whips up a perreo-worthy dembow over a bassline so deep that its pitch seems negligible, indeterminate, a force more palpable than audible. As the low-end nearly collapses under its own weight, an upper register synth slices through the atmosphere, soaring and faltering, more Icarus than Superman. The haunting but hopeful lead flutters across a foreboding sonic landscape, ghostly trails of reverb in its wake. A bittersweet tune, it could be cloying but for its warbling, almost pathetic qualities. Instead, a poignant frailty undercuts the digital promise of perfection. The baleful melody traverses a shifting ground of textural breaks and freaky filters, shimmering as it shape-shifts. Remarkably through-composed for loop-centered music, Arca’s “Thievery” seems as committed to repetition and rhythm as variation and development. As such, it is an excellent opening for a set, and a fine introduction to the distinctive sound of Arca, aka Alejandro Ghersi. …
Marshall, Wayne. “Who Deserves It?” Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World, Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti (eds.), 54-5. Bern: Norient Books, 2015. (HTML)
… Low-fi but slick, Charni employs repetition, rhythm, and simple but delirious digital effects to furnish Banane, Waltaa, and friends with Tumblr-esque cascades of free-floating objects of desire: cash, weed, sportswear, nostalgic devices like skypagers and flip phones. Also, French fries and kebab. And faces – many faces, often close up, showcasing a crew as motley as proletarian Paris. They are so fresh that their fashion and facial gestures, in the hip register of the day, appear as flat in affect as their vintage clothes are crisp. Less like they’re looking into a camera than a mirror, or a smartphone. …
As published in issue 377 of The Wire (July 2015), here’s my joint review of two recent books about soundsystem/DJ culture, each of them impressive efforts of deep documentation and deliberate framing even as each takes a rather different approach to the project. Together, they further round out our understanding of the soundsystem as global form and local culture.
Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews In The San Francisco Bay Area Oliver Wang Duke University Press, 232 pp
Sonidero City: Exploring Sound Systems In Mexico And Colombia
Mirjam Wirz & Buzz Maeschi (Editors) Motto, 224 pp
The sound system has been a paradigm of musical experience for over half a century, but only recently has a global picture begun to emerge. While such legendary sites as New York, Chicago, Kingston and London boast substantial literatures devoted to the genesis and development of disco, hiphop, house and reggae, the amazing stories of how record-wielding disc jockeys and discerning, dancing audiences reshaped the musical and social lives of, say, Rio de Janeiro, Rotterdam or Cairo are only just coming to light. Oliver Wang’s Legions Of Boom and Mirjam Wirz’s Sonidero City offer welcome contributions to this emerging world history, bringing rich portraits of the San Francisco Bay Area’s mobile DJ crews, Mexico’s sonidos, and Colombia’s picós into the mix.
At a glance, the two texts provide rather different portraits of mobile sound system scenes. While one is written in academic but accessible prose, collegially situated in the domain of popular music studies, the other is nearly wordless and self-published, a collection of hundreds of poignant and telling images. But both stand as impressive, textured documents that should be of interest to anyone curious about how sound systems take on local colour and meaning.
Of all the local scenes that have gathered around the live playing of dance records, few outside the pantheon have enjoyed so detailed and attentive a treatment as Legions Of Boom gives to the Bay Area’s mobile DJ crews of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a scene centred around disco-derived, blend-oriented continuous mixing and underpinned by a burgeoning Filipino community. Wang’s account strikes a careful balance between oral history and analysis, grounded in ethnography while also working to interpret and elaborate the significance of the story. He chronicles the rise and fall of the scene, charting its course from suburban garage parties to spectacular large scale showcases to the emergence of scratch DJs who would one day play a part in the scene’s dissolution. The Bay Area has, of course, long been on the map thanks to such Filipino turntablist luminaries as Q-Bert, Shortkut, and Mix Master Mike, and Wang’s book gives their sudden appearance on the world stage crucial context, explaining how “the scratch scene’s roots grew in soil first tilled by the mobile crews”.
While narrating according to the scene’s chronology and its participants’ testimony, Wang also considers more abstract questions, such as what it means to be a scene (and not, he insists, a subculture), how the lack of mass media access encouraged peer to peer interactions, and why class and gender are often elephants in the rec room. Wang devotes two central chapters to the scene’s “preconditions” by which he refers to such “internal” factors as “the allure of social status, the aura of work as a DJ, and the appeal of homosociality” (and the consequent reproduction of masculinity), as well as to such “external” “soft infrastructure” as the social networks connecting crews and audiences: “peer-run student and church groups, middle-class parents and relatives, and Filipino community groups”. He also gives an apt amount of space to the remarkable degree of collective labour involved in producing a single mobile DJ event, never mind an entire scene.
Wang develops his account of the scene over a series of chapters, each framed with an event flier that serves as a focal point for a particular moment in time and dimension of the scene. These help to give a vivid picture of the do it yourself material culture at the heart of the mobile DJ scene. For all its crucial images, however, as an annotated oral history at its core, Legions Of Boom is a book centred on the words of the scene’s participants and Wang’s insightful perspectives as a scholar, a journalist, and a DJ.
In contrast, Sonidero City puts images front and centre in its representation of sound system culture in Mexico and Colombia. Mirjam Wirz presents herself as a photographer, a humble explorer inspired by the world of sound system cumbia to go on a “spontaneous research undertaking”: “I headed out onto the streets, talked to people, visited living rooms, courtyards, and dance events, and captured with the camera whatever the trail led me to”. Indeed, there is little in the way of framing in the book save for that of the photographs themselves. As for those, they are often powerful, ranging from documentary snapshots of audiences and sonideros in action to more intimate, artful portrayals of individuals and their cherished artifacts: luridly painted speaker boxes, handwritten signs and well worn vinyl, yellowing stationery and posters. On their own, many shots are arresting, carrying a sense of intimacy and eye for detail; in the aggregate, they produce a sensuous, variegated picture of sound system communities in Mexico City, Monterrey and Barranquilla.
Sonidero City includes a small booklet offering context and credit, including an annotated index of every image in the book as well as some suggestive fragments. Wirz rehearses a big picture history of cumbia but turns quickly to the more recent, local histories of cumbia as working class sound system culture in Mexico, where sonidos have reshaped cumbia and salsa as hip-hop did funk, reggae did R&B, and disco did soul, and in Colombia, where soukous has served as musical muse and raw material for local reinvention. The booklet effectively intersperses brief histories with interview excerpts as well as a transcription of a sonido talkover session (with cumbia lyrics in capital letters), a direct but playful representation that speaks volumes without explication: “THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF YOU, LOVING YOU – here goes for Angelo, the Incorrigible… Curly from Moctezuma and his old lady, because Susanita is old. LOVING YOU…”
I recently added a few “new” instances of ye olde zunguzung meme to the list, each helping to tease at this knotty tapestry we’ve been weaving.
First, thanks to the attentive ears of NYC-based Puerto Rican electronic act Balún, we discover that PR-based Nuyorican reggaeton pioneer Ivy Queen once wove a zunguzung allusion rather seamfully into her verse at ~1:52 in the Noise 6 excerpt here:
The reference appears as one would expect it might: as yet another of many, many nods to reggae and hip-hop knit together in the “Spanish reggae” (i.e., proto-reggaeton) of San Juan’s distinctive mid-90s underground scene. Indeed, the production is deliciously typical if you like connecting musical dots: it opens with the well-worn sample from ESG’s “UFO” (possibly a reference to Kane and, by 1996, who knows who else), then layers on a detuned loop of the “Method Man” riff while Ivy comes in chanting “Noise! Clan!” like “Wu! Tang!” before unloading a barrage of laser-precise syllables. At this menacing tempo, Ivy’s doubletime fliptongue bars — a clear stylistic nod to raggamuffin flows — manage to sound like the elder cousins of the Migosflow they are.
So with this allusion Ivy Queen joins such compatriots as Mr. Notty and Ñejo — and no doubt other reggaetoneros whose references have thus far eluded my dragnet. At this point, far as I know, she’s the first on record — in reggaeton — repping reggae with the zunguzung.
Like many other carriers of the meme, Ivy Queen invokes the tune at precisely the moment when she directly addresses the audience — no doubt something she also did in numerous live “freestyle” sessions in San Juan and Nueva York — which brings us to our next example(s)…
The second example — or perhaps, second-umpteenth — reveals how zunguzung works as a distinctive resource for live reggae performance practice, something that Ivy Queen’s reference registers in its desire to serve as functional address, as live and direct. In this sense, the session “tape” below can be heard alongside the myriad zunguzung deployments in other sound sessions, especially in the mid-80s.
In this case, and in Boston no less, we hear how zunguzung figures in state of the art toasting practice circa 1986. The tune cycles in and out of the performances, one of several stock figures on the tips of deejays’ tongues (alongside “call the police,” “money move,” and other allusions to allusions that don’t have proper names). And yet, zunguzung also emerges here as a powerful and special signal, a musical trigger nearly always hitting with the weight of a forward / pullup / wheel, or a chorus.
In this session featuring Jammy’s sound on a visit to town, I count no fewer than a baker’s dozen zunguzungs over the course of the 1.5 hour excerpt (and that’s omitting the repetitions when used as a chorus). That’s 13 distinct moments in the session — roughly, every few minutes — when the zunguzung erupts into presence, often stopping the music in its tracks.
Shifting shape as it goes by, the melody serves to big up the “Boston posse” as well as “all Yardies” — and as is so often the case with the zunguzung, the deejays here use it as a special means to enlist audience participation, crooning at listeners to push up a hand “if you love Jammy” or “beca’ you’re expensive.” The strong responses of both performers and audience to each of the zunguzung’s invocations bear consistent witness to the signal force of this tricky likkle earworm:
See, e.g., ~0:43, 4:00, 21:00, 26:40, 28:20, 38:30, 48:20, 51:20, 58:55. 1:11:20, 1:13:40, 1:17:25, 1:20:35 — or, better, just listen to the wole ting. Vibes nice, enuh.
The final addendum is perhaps more of a “footnote,” less interesting to this zigzagging genealogy given that it’s a novelty production nodding to Tupac rather than, say, grassroots media invoking Yellowman and dancehall tradition. On the other hand, as I’ve also pointed out, the ways the riff grows distant from being a reference to reggae culture is, in some sense, perhaps as interesting as its explicitly intertextual resonance in reggae, hip-hop, and kindred genres.
In 2011, the remarkably well-produced satire act Baracka Flacka Flames released a version of 2pac’s “Hit Em Up” and (inadvertently) invoked our familiar contour —
I gotta admit, though — research aside — for my money/time, “I Run the Military” is far superior: