Last week a daily newspaper from Abu Dhabi, The National, published a piece I wrote about “nu world” music under the title “Sounds of the wide, wired world” (29 Oct 2010). As usual, while I think my editor — here, the mighty Dave Stelfox — did an utterly admirable job of making my prolix prose ring pretty damn clear, it still feels weird for stuff to fall under my byline that didn’t come directly from this horse’s mouth. And there are lots of words and phrases and names and things that I’d rather like to cram back in. So as with other things I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’m providing here at W&W a “director’s cut” (which nonetheless preserves many of Dave’s careful cuts and amendments). Thx again, Dave!
Sounds of the wide, wired world
In the autumn of 2009, Dave Nada, a Washington DC-based DJ, was playing a midday party in a basement for his cousin and a couple dozen of his high-school-skipping friends. The DJs preceding Nada warmed up the room with bachata and reggaeton: mid-tempo dance music from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico that offered deep, familiar grooves to the Latino crowd.
At 32, Nada was the oldest person at the party, and more of a techno/electro guy. In a flash of inspiration, he decided to drop something out of the ordinary on his young audience. Afrojack’s remix of Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie’s “Moombah” – a typical example of Dutch “dirty house” – already had all the elements of a reggaeton club banger: thumping kick drums, piercing synth-lines, cut-and-paste party chants, and a distinctly Caribbean cross-rhythm in the snares. The only problem was that it was too fast. To make the track fit the vibe of the gathering, Nada reduced its speed by 20 beats per minute. This simple adaptation sent the kids into a frenzy.
Unexpectedly, it also birthed a new genre that embodies a much broader phenomenon: a reclamation and redefinition of global street music for the internet age that we might call world music 2.0. Spurred by the success of his experiment, Nada recorded an MP3 edit of his Afrojack remix and constructed several more slowed-down interpretations of house tracks. These were circulated on the internet, representing a sound that its creator, perhaps not entirely seriously, dubbed “moombahton.” Ever hungry for the new, the global dance music blogosphere seized upon this strange, hybrid sound. By March of this year, Nada had been featured on the website of The Fader magazine; by summer he was running a popular weekly club night, Moombahton Mondays, in DC.
Back in the Netherlands, meanwhile, an aspiring producer stumbled upon Nada’s work during a routine trawl of the web. Like the kids at the party, he was floored. A 20-year-old Dominican, born and raised in Rotterdam, Rayiv “Munchi” Münch was a long-time fan of bachata and merengue, especially a recent streetwise version of the latter, known as mambo; Dutch bubbling – a mid-1990s collision of hyperspeed gabba techno and Jamaican dancehall; and hip-hop of all kinds. In moombahton, however, he heard a new future for reggaeton, a genre he loved but believed had become creatively stagnant.
He worked all night long, emerging the next morning with a digital “promo” package of five new songs. Rather than editing pre-existent tracks, Munchi built his productions from the ground up. Using samples from his ecumenical music collection, he injected influences from Brazilian funk carioca, Angolan kuduro, Latin American cumbia and more. In April, he wrote to a number of bloggers, myself included, to share his music. Over the next few months he maintained a prolific work rate, producing 50 tracks in all and releasing concept-driven online promo packs every four weeks. These circulated rapidly via blogs, tweets, and the SoundCloud account where he streams them and provides links for free downloads, either there or at free (but ad-riddled), temporary “digital lockers” such as MediaFire.
The feedback loop doesn’t stop there. In just the last month DJ Orion, a producer from Austin, Texas, uploaded 30 tracks to his BandCamp site (where customers are asked to pay as much or as little as they like to download the music), in a style he is calling “boombahchero.” Many of the songs are second-generation interpretations of Nada’s and Munchi’s remixes. However, Orion has gone a step further, infusing his edits with the strains of Mexican tribal guarachero, an emergent form of electronic dance music mixing cumbia, techno, and a distinctive triple-time swing – often produced by teenagers, the genre has been making the rounds recently as the latest local fusion of global elements to resound more widely than, say, the clubs and communities in Monterrey and Mexico City where it sounds right at home.
These interconnected stories form but one knotty vignette in the wider narrative of world music 2.0. Largely brought together online, this tangle of diverse street-level sounds is bound by common tools and shared reference points. Its accelerated interactive pace is driven by the proliferation of accessible music and video-production software, and the connective possibilities of the social web or, in marketing parlance, web 2.0 – the key feature of which is the explosion of networked platforms that enable anyone with access to publish their music and dance moves to a limitless audience. Needless to say, this is precisely what thousands of young people are doing.
The commonplace use of cracked or demo software in many of world music 2.0’s more rough-hewn productions produces a patina of piracy, an unintentional but marked aesthetic effect that privileges participation, immersion and immediacy. On YouTube, Colombian teens dodge “Free Trial Version” watermarks as they do a modified Melbourne shuffle at the local mall. Robotic voices interrupt homespun raps from Los Angeles to remind us that we’re listening to music made with unlicensed programs. Pop-up ads piggyback on the networked DailyMotion of young people across the Francophone world trying on and showing off the latest steps from the tecktonik and logobi scenes. Chains of compression lend a sizzle to MP3s of reggaeton and Baltimore club music, filled with uncleared samples and made everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Romania.
Because most of this activity happens on corporate “platforms,” the unruly openness of online enterprise is constantly vulnerable to the caprice of bottom-line logic and rearguard legal attacks from twentieth-century copyright giants. Videos disappear regularly, sniffed out by audio-detection algorithms. Entire sites vanish overnight. In the last year alone, imeem and Jamglue, two popular audio-streaming sites which played host to such burgeoning scenes as Chicago’s juke and LA’s jerk, suddenly shuttered, falling prey to licensing nightmares and hostile takeovers. Down the ether hole with them went thousands of conversations, personal playlists, home-produced gems, and peer-to-peer connections.
But who cares about quality control or posterity? Clearly not the kids who keep uploading. They’re hacking their way through contemporary media ecologies, motivated more by making and doing than by legal strictures or commercial profit. The result is a vivid picture of a truly global youth culture. Kids doing what kids always have done: dancing, performing, goofing around. The difference is that they now broadcast it to the world – if often as an afterthought, the result of default settings that encourage openness.
Public culture is being remade by all this so-called “user-generated content,” including the ever curious category of “world music.” In some contrast to its creation by a consortium of British music-industry players in the 1980s to market recordings that represented musical traditions of the non-western world, a multinational network of grassroots producers, DJs, and bloggers are now renegotiating and redefining this freighted yet inclusive term.
Their work embraces a fluid but thoroughly urbanized idea of worldliness. The stylistic signposts of world music 2.0 are utterly contemporary, grounded not in traditional instrumentation but the ubiquitous structures of hip-hop, reggae and house. The music’s themes are more often than not as unvarnished as its sound: sex, social domination and the travails of life in the big city – be it London, Johannesburg or Rio. Nonetheless, and more than likely as a direct result of this fact, it resonates widely.
A wealth of websites have sprung up, bringing these far flung sounds together. On Ghetto Bassquake (London), Generation Bass (Tilberg, Holland), Dutty Artz (New York) and many others, New Orleans bounce, Colombian champeta, Jamaican dancehall, desi bhangra and South African house all find common ground. Many of these sites have also become record labels, releasing music from and inspired by urban dance scenes from around the world – and around the corner.
A prime example is Dave Quam’s It’s After the End of the World, an open-eared blog from Chicago focused on the city’s juke scene but often extending its remit to Dutch bubbling and Memphis rap. Quam launched a digital label called Free Bass last month by giving away a three-song EP by Cedaa. A teenager from the small city of Bellingham, Washington, Cedaa’s music takes flight from juke’s stuttering drum machinery and adds a certain, synthesised Pacific Northwest pastoral. It’s glorious stuff that could only have happened now.
As the vibrancy and resiliency of youth culture from the inner-cities of the world inspires urbane curators and globe-trotting DJs, it animates another new strain of world music: Trinidadian soca filtered through Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier, funk carioca via MIA and Diplo, the cumbia of Buenos Aires’ slums recontextualised by the uptown crew ZZK. In a sense, this slicker, commercially released music by savvy interpreters of the Global North recalls the earlier, successful mediations of Paul Simon and David Byrne – albeit rather more modestly, at least in terms of sales.
Informed by the diasporic settings that so many cities have become, the “bottom-up” revision of world music is a valuable development, offering new ways of engaging with the world, often undergirded by intimate, everyday experiences of cosmopolitan conviviality. However, certain queasy connections with its earlier incarnation also persist. Despite the necessary translation and filtering provided by metropolitan mediators, the xenophily animating their work can cloak familiar fetishes of otherness in slum chic.
Another name for world music 2.0, in this regard, might be “global ghettotech” – a term I floated on my blog a few years ago, hoping its implicit critique would be clear. Surprisingly, it has since been unironically embraced by a number of artists and entrepreneurs across Europe and the Americas. The ghetto remains a major signpost in this new world, but its romanticization or exploitation as a signifier of edginess, especially by those not of it, will always create tensions. Teamed with a recent embarrassment of tropical tropes and neo-tiki motifs, it’s almost enough to return us full circle to hearing the world as kitschy exotica rather than the noise next door.
Fortunately, critiques are not the sole preserve of critics. They can come in musical form, too. In June a New York/Vancouver collective called Old Money, with Jamaican, Guyanese and Polish membership, posted a track to SoundCloud called African Kids! A sardonic send-up of the use of generic African imagery, it fits seemingly random lyrical fragments – “shapes, colours, African kids!” – to a bass-wobbling beat that nods to several recent UK dance genres all at once. The only tag added to the track reads “TribalTribalAfricanKidzzz,” a lyric in the song. It was amusing, but also discomfiting. Old Money sent it around to the usual network of websites and blogs, some of whom had helped hype their previous recordings. No one wanted to touch it. Perhaps it hit a bit too close to home. Or maybe it’s not such a brave new world after all.