I’m a little late sharing the good news of the John Wizards, a producer-singer duo from South Africa who put together my favorite recording of this year. But given that even some of my most musically voracious friends have still not heard them, I’m clearly not too late. So let me put it like this: John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba deserve some of your time. We’ve already given them a lot of ours.
In a year with nuff great releases from smallbatch labels & independent artists (see: exhibits A, B, & C), John Wizards’ self-titled debut most captured my ears — and lent itself to realtime, and virtual, sharing with friends — and so I feel a need to sing its praises more publicly.
Let’s start where they do, the opening track, “Tet Lek Schrempf” –
A careful but whimsical opening, the track gestures in almost overture-ish fashion to the diverse musical corners the album eventually winds its way into. Beginning with something reminiscent of Soothing Sounds for Baby, by 0:45 we dwindle into a slowing-then-speeding piano arpeggio, eventually mirrored and replaced by a plucky synth lead and, at 1:05, a rollicking triple-duple beat. By the time we hear “Greetings from John Wizards!” at 1:45, we’ve arrived yet somewhere else, with live-ish sounds evoking birds and crowds and a warbling melodic loop. Along with an increasingly menacing, bubbling bassline, these occupy the foreground for about a minute before shoved aside by a bluesy, wailing guitar line, teetering on the edge of schlock. When the guitar jumps an octave at 2:52, the whole thing comes to screaming life, synthclaps splattering, like that’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for. As we lurch toward the end with the brief appearance of an acoustic riff that seems (in a moment of good judgment) second-guessed before yielding again to the electric wail, we get a good glimpse at the music’s meticulous construction — a sly moment of subtraction amidst all the accretion and allusion.
John Wizards’ restless approach to form and sui generis stylistic synthesis make them pretty irresistible even for a recovering-rockist listener like myself. Sure, there’s something very rock band at work here — plenty guitfiddle, pretty chord changes — but it’s balanced by a wealth of electronic signposts and presence, from the waveform drums & synths weaving through every track, to the occasional Shangaan electro-esque freakout, even down to the misleadingly low-fi demotape disco / bedroom bubblegum vibes of “iYongwe.” John Wizards pack an enchanting number of ideas into their music, but never too many, and always executed with care and panache.
Another fine example is “Lusaka by Night,” including the video’s parallel, playful imagery –
Much as I attempt to listen independent of biography and other narrative frames, the strikingly peripatetic quality running through the music seems consistent with the group’s official backstory –
John Wizards might have started in Maputo. It also might have started in Cape Town. It certainly owes a debt to Dar es Salaam.
These are the three places that band leader and producer John Withers either travelled through or lived in, and he feels have had a marked influence on his musical output. They also happen to be cities in which Emmanuel Nzaramba, John Wizards’ Rwandan singer has lived too.
John met Emmanuel while he was working as a car guard, outside a coffee shop in Cape Town. Emmanuel noticed the guitar strapped to John’s back, and they began to talk about music. Emmanuel had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and John told him that he had been writing music requiring vocals. They didn’t get around to recording that time: Emmanuel quit his job, lost his cellphone, and moved to a new place and lost contact.
A year later (2012) John moved house and had got together some new songs and by chance ran into Emmanuel again: they were living in the same street. John invited him to his place to listen to reggae band The Congos, It turned out that he didn’t like them, but he did like some of the new songs John had written. He would listen to them once or twice, and start singing. The outcome of these evenings can be heard on their debut album.
It’s a compelling story, to be sure (except for that bit about not liking the Congos!). Tailormade for today’s vexed representational struggles and mixed modes of reception, the narrative seems to anticipate congealed frames of reference, playing into the enduring importance to audiences of place and experience, especially when we’re talking about Africa, even as it seeks to evade the cliches of cosmopolitanism and authenticity. It helps, then, that John Wizards’ music itself says as much — and more — about the serendipity and movement so central to their myth of origins. Narrative aside, this is great music which deserves to be heard far and wide. But can we put narrative aside?
Given the panoply of reference points and stylistic curveballs, could John Wizards’ relative obscurity in an ocean of new music have anything to do with the difficulty of finding a bin? In 2013? On one hand, I find that hard to believe. On the other, I suspect that the question of genre — and its enduring social and infrastructural contours — continues to shape circulation and reception of musical media fairly profoundly, even well into the digital era.
Personally speaking, I owe it to Gamall, the discerning dude behind Backspin Promotions — and to the fact that I blog and tweet and sometimes actually review new music for other publications — for bringing John Wizards to my attention. Gamall’s always on top of new electronic releases, affiliated with such stellar, dependable outlets as Hyperdub, Editions Mego, and Planet Mu — the latter of which, perhaps surprisingly, is responsible for bringing the John Wizards to the wider world. As such, John Wizards have been inserted into a rather particular musical ecosystem, and some of Gamall’s promo copy has been pretty straightforward in creating distance from certain frames of reference:
âŠ a unique sound that many have compared to Vampire Weekend in reverse (African music looking outwards taking in European influences). Don’t be confused and think this is some kind of world music project though – it isn’t âŠ
It’s telling that the few times I’ve seen John Wizards come across my radar have been via the likes of Catchdubs and Obey-City, two producers/DJs generally more drawn to the (wide) world of club music than tempo-hopping, shape-shifting, bedroom-studio guitarry stuff. So maybe this tack is working after all. I won’t be surprised to see a well-deserved late surge for John Wizards in years-end Best Ofs.
Suggesting that this approach to spreading the group’s music will continue, their second single arrives this week accompanied by two remixes which transpose the dubby, ethereal “Muizenberg” into different genres — new channels to surf.
Far as newness goes, though, the newest thing here is the synthesis, not the synths. There’s no reason that electronic music audiences shouldn’t be receptive to a stunning take on the world of sonic possibility grounded in southern African soundscapes. Drum machines and squealing, squelching synths are not, by any stretch, new to African music. In this sense, John Wizards offer one of various points of entry into a long, loopy history of musicians using technology to constantly reinvent the Sound of Africa.
Could this be a controversial thing to say about a duo comprising a heavy-handed white-dude producer and a black vocalist? As John Withers put it in an interview with Pitchfork (so, yeah, it’s not like these guys aren’t making the rounds — and good for them for that) —
If you’re white and playing an African style, even in Africa, itâs a touchy thing. âŠ But Iâve got no real problem with people drawing on anything — if the music is nice, the music is nice.
I’ve got to agree with that. John’s and Emmanuel’s music is nice indeed. May it touch you too.
Blue Gardens, the new release on Keysound Recordings, is the brainchild of a new musical talent who goes by the name E.m.m.a. Simply put, it’s some of the best music — and one of the more coherent albums and promising debuts — I’ve heard in years.
My fave tracks are ones like “Shoot the Curl” or “Marina” with their sweetly curdling tunes and clicky soca, where melodies accrue & break & creak & whirr against a solid but shifting Carib-UK backbeat.
Honorable mention to the first single and the album’s one vocal cut, âJahovia.” It’s great to hear Rebel MC riding the rhythm inna a classic reggae-rave fashion while E.m.m.a.’s newfangled textures let you know this is something else. Wicked video too, since somehow, synaesthetically speaking, the music already sounds like washed-out technicolor reels, full of sharp hue-turns –
Plus, you gotta love the array of influences E.m.m.a. pulls into the mix —
âAmerican Nostalgia, Point Break, American high schools, bubble gum, picture houses, Coney Island, Hollywood, proms, Long Island, picket fences, boardwalks, Baroque tonality, Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire, Jeff Wayne, Westerns, sci fi, spaghetti western soundtracks, Encarta â96: genuinely these are in my mind,â she explains. âI just think the idea of the monopoly the Encarta encyclopaedia had on knowledge is ridiculous in the context of the present day. Iâm not ashamed to say itâs my muse.â
And while I really should work to find more words to describe this music I’ve been enjoying so much, I like how it speaks for itself. And how E.m.m.a. does too. Plus, Joe Muggs sorta said it all already –
In essence, E.m.m.a. takes the rugged grooves of UK pirate radio, and adds an extra layer of melody and harmony which connects them back into the much longer history of synthesizer music as well as into a broader, vaguer realm of the imagination. Her synth timbres touch on sci-fi kitsch, Kraftwerk, early video games, the experimental home-listening techno of the 1990s, while the melodies they play have a suspended, dissipating quality, as if caught from a dream just at the point of waking.
Her beats, too, have an uncanny quality, generally touching on several points in UK soundsystem history â garage, rave, grime, the 2008-10 urban house sound of âUK funkyâ, the more undefinable sounds of âpost-dubstepâ â sounding familiar but not quite placeable in time. Despite the oddness of this, and despite its clear scholarliness in its sourcing of underground sounds, it’s a welcoming album, one which should be heard well beyond the usual circle of bass music fans. A haunting dream but one well worth getting caught up in.
I’d like to leave it there, but I want to take the opportunity to let this post stand as a long overdue bigup for Martin Blackdown’s Keysound label, consistently representing as it reimagines the sound of London. His program with Dusk on RINSE is, rightly, an international fave. I’ve had a few posts about their music & label sitting in my draft folder for literally years; and I’m remiss for not better publicly registering my enthusiasm for projects like Margins Music (which is, IMO, a 21st century London classic).
It may be high time to dust those drafts off. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get the good word about Keysound’s latest & greatest. Martin & Emma both bring big ears to what they do, and mine are grateful for it. Yours will be too.
Thanks to Todd Burns for the keen editing, making things nice and concise. Per usual, I’m going to take the opportunity to use my blog to run an author’s cut, or an unabridged version. A couple missing paragraphs below help flesh out the picture, especially regarding the Afro-Jamaican roots — and, hence, pan-Caribbean / Afrodiasporic resonance — of the dancehall riddim that started it all. A phrase like “Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim” might seem like a slightly cryptic reference without this particular passage (i.e., paragraph #4 below); but maybe people thought I was calling it post-colonial, which is also true.
I’m also happy to report that a forthcoming issue of Wax Poetics will feature an article I wrote entirely about the (once mysterious) origins of reggaeton’s bedrock riddim on the unlikely outpost of Long Island, heavily featuring Boom’s manager Pucho Bustamante (who I interviewed a few years ago on MySpace). Will let you know soon as that one’s ready to read!
For now, head over to RBMA for their slick version, see below for the full monty, & check out this video I whipped up (also at the RBMA site & embedded below) to see & hear how the various versions all relate. If you want to get even more dembow in your ears, there’s lots to find around the web, but here are a couple of mixes I’ve made that focus on it: Dembow Legacies, Dembow Dem.
Without further ado, let’s loop –
In the world of sample-based music, few recordings have enjoyed so active an afterlife as the Dembow. A two-bar loop with unmistakably familiar kicks and snares, it underpins the vast majority of reggaeton tracks as an almost required sonic signpost. Thanks to crossover jams like Lornaâs âPapi Chuloâ and Daddy Yankeeâs âGasolina,â the Dembow has spread its distinctive boom-ch-boom-chick to glossy Latin pop, raw electro-chaabi in Egypt, transnational moombahton, and Indonesian dangdut seksi, to name a few.
With such remarkable resonance and staggering frequency of appearance, the Dembow would seem to deserve a place alongside such well-worn loops as the Amen break, the Triggerman, the Tamborzao. All these brief but inspired moments âon tapeââand all of them rolling drum rhythmsâafter having been sampled and looped and diced and spliced by hundreds and hundreds of digital-age producers, have proven so crucial to the sound of entire genres that they have taken on names, and lives, all their own.
There are a few things, however, that make the Dembow an unusual member of the sample canon. For one, the recording most often identified as the origin of the sample is not actually the source of reggaetonâs favorite loop, not exactly anyway. Itâs true that Shabba Ranksâs anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem âDem Bowâ may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the songâs name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabbaâthe riddim in reggae parlanceârarely actually turn up in reggaeton. Jamaican studio duo Steely and Clevie deserve credit for the bouncy beat they boiled down for Bobby Digital, but not as the creators of a intensely re-used sound recording. Rather, their riddim planted the seed that would grow into what we now call Dembow.
Like other popular riddims the duo produced in the early 90s, especially Poco Man Jam (to which Dembow is audibly indebted), the track accompanying Shabbaâs rally-cry draws on the deep rhythms associated with Pocomania, a neo-African Jamaican religion with practices and aesthetics that run parallel to other post-slave cultures across the Caribbean. The driving boom-ch-boom-chick that emerges between the steady kick on each beat and the polyrhythmic play of the snares, can also be threaded through rumba, salsa, soca, bachata. Itâs at the heart of whatâs been called jazzâs âSpanish tinge,â known variously as the cinquillo or the habenera. This may help explain the broad appeal of these particular Jamaican recordings, why Puerto Rican hip-hop producers moved more or less wholesale into making Spanish dancehall, and how reggaeton so quickly swept across dance scenes across the Americas and beyond. Shabbaâs âDem Bowâ was a big chune in the wide world of reggae, and not just because of its bullish stance, colorful lyrics, and catchy chorus.
But rather than samples of Steely & Clevieâs riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaetonâs transnational roots, the set of sounds most often identified as the Dembow per se (as opposed to just the generalized rhythm which, confusingly, is also sometimes called Dembow), is a version cooked up by Jamaican and Panamanian collaborators laboring on Long Island, NY in the early 90s to create reggae en espaĂ±ol anthemsâand succeeding.
By the early 90s, Philip Smartâs HC&F studio was the premier spot for producing dancehall hits, Jamaica notwithstanding. A native Kingstonian who apprenticed under King Tubby, Smart moved to New York in the mid-70s and launched HC&F in 1982 enlisting as house musicians such fellow expatriates as Dennis âThe Menaceâ Thompson, the sole musician credited with âDub Mix II,â better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â a close translation of Shabbaâs âDem Bow,â Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en espaĂ±ol movement. The wordless version that would soon play backing track to hundreds of Puerto Rican rap parties was not actually released until two NYC-based Jamaican deejays, Bobo General and Smiley Wonder, recorded their own single over the riddim, âPounder,â with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (âA bad custom of the Jamaicans,â Bustamante once told me.)
When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a âDem Bowâ trackâand they always include at least oneâthe track labeled as such is nearly always based on the drums Dennis the Menace laid down for Nando Boom at HC&F. Likewise, do a search for âdembow loopâ on YouTube or 4shared, and youâll hear the same echoes there too. By this point, the instrumental has been looped, compressed, remastered, and reconstituted dozens of times over. But the lineage is audible, and it makes Dennis and companyâs Dembow one of a few recordings, like the Funky Drummer or the Apache break, which has provided the basis for hundreds if not thousands of other tracks.
The story of the Dembow and its legacy gets even more complicated, since beyond a relatively small circle of reggaeton producers and connoisseurs, when most people say Dembow, they refer to its rhythmâthe boom-ch-boom-chick patternâmore generally. And in practice, reggaeton producers have been chopping up dancehall riddims and recombining them with a greater interest in split-second allusion than faithful reproduction. While wholesale loops of Dembow do sometimes appear, reggaeton drum tracks tend more often to comprise samples drawn from a small storehouse of treasured timbres: a handful of reggae riddims which have animated Spanish-language dancehall for decades. Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Drum Song, and yes, Dembow, are all common sources, but the ingredients could come from almost anywhere if they sound right. Reggaetoneros swap sample sets like playing cards, and a willy-nilly archive of reconfigurable samples traverses the North and South American Hulkshare-osphere like a reggaeton robotics kit. For lots of listeners and producers, any of the snares from these well-worn riddims, or any snare with similar properties, could suffice to say Dembow.
A line can be drawn from Steely & Clevie, though Smart and Thompson and Bustamante, to what we call Dembow today, but for all that collective, transnational effort, the foundation for this single recordingâs remarkable resonance was most crucially fashioned in mid-90s San Juan by proto-reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero and The Noise. On their seminal underground mixtapes, these Puerto Rican producers took a hip-hop hatchet to dancehall riddims, chopping up favorite drum loops, baselines, and riffs to create dynamic, reference-laden collages of contemporary club beats for local rappersâ double-time, flip-tongue, street-level lyrics. Over the course of Playero 38 or The Noise 6 one hears a constantly shifting bed of beats composed of signature samples from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, and the like. Dembow was such a staple source that the entire genre for a time, after being known as underground but before reggaeton, was simply called dembow.
Crucially, around the turn of the millennium, the Dembowâand Puerto Rican reggae en espaĂ±ol more generallyâwas transmuted and extended by DJ Blass. With the rise of Fruity Loops and other software, techno-inspired bleeps, presets, and arpeggios could be sutured to Dembow snares for a killer club-ready concoction. Blassâs mixtapes like Sandunguero and Reggaeton Sex changed the sound of what would soon be crowned reggaeton while maintaining important links to predecessors. Namely, by chopping well-worn loops into discrete kicks and snares, Blass could nod to the riddims that dancers, vocalists, and audiences had come to love while shaping the sounds into his own lean patterns. Blassâs influential techniques carry forward into the productions of the duo who finally took reggaeton to the pop charts and the Anglo mainstream, Luny Tunes.
If you listen to the track Luny Tunes produced for their biggest hit, âGasolinaââor most of their other pistasâyouâll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playeroâs proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaetonâs rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially âpan-Latinoâ sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabbaâs chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of âDem Bowâ in 2003, the phrase has little to do with imperialism or sexual orientation and everything to do with the backbone beat and criss-crossing snares that compel people to perreo, or do the doggystyle dance so synonymous with the genre.
In the decade since reggaeton galloped into the mainstream, the Dembow has been Cubanized, Colombified, Peruvinated, watered-down, dressed-up, and recomposed to fit a thousand new contexts. Recently, the rhythmâand to a lesser extent, the riddimâhas even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nadaâs moombahton, where Dembow comes full circle in a strange and surprising way. Nada famously invented moombahton by slowing down Dutch house tracks to please a house of reggaeton-loving teens, but the reason this worked was precisely because Dutch house had itself absorbed Caribbean rhythms via bubbling, a short-lived but influential local club scene clustered around Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague. Producing personalized soundtracks for dance battles, first- and second-generation kids from Curacao and Suriname made hyperspeed, bricolage remixes of the same dancehall riddims that had Puerto Rican youngsters going nuts across the Atlantic.
Slowed down once again and rebranded as moombahton, Nadaâs wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdamâs Munchi heard ways to move beyond screwed house remixes and connect the burgeoning genre to its Puerto Rican cousins. Munchi was initially drawn to the genre because of his love of Dembow and reggaeton and the possibilities moombahton offered to revisit these irresistible rhythms: âThe idea was so simple,â Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as âTHE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.â Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that âIt felt so good that I could make âreggaetonâ again.â And while no one would confuse Munchiâs genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genreâs presence in his tracks.
For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldnât say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. âI’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.â
Moombahton may have already enjoyed its moment in the social media sun, but there are other corners of the so-called global bass scene where that old boom-ch-boom-chick still resounds. âThe post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,â says Rizzla, whose soca and reggaeton influences help to keep Caribbean polyrhythms in the metropolitan mix. Rizzla trawls 4shared and Hulkshare for Dembow tracks and samples but reports that, âMost of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.â
Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: âI personally have never sampled the Dembow riddim but have used various rhythmic cousin ‘Dembow’ loops in my productions. Most of these I’ve found via reggaeton sample packs downloaded from 4shared while searching for Mexican tribal and perreo tracks.â Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, âAdmittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.â Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: âOne of my favorite âDembow’ loops comes from the Fever Pitch riddim. That one keeps popping up at various speeds in a lot of my tracks. It manages to work flawlessly at just about any tempo, whether it’s a Dutch bubbling track or an 80 bpm reggaeton beat, which is sort of a rare quality for any loop to have.â
Not unlike their sample-raiding peers in reggaeton, then, producers such as Rizzla, Dubbel Dutch, and Uproot Andy tend toward an inclusive idea of what constitutes the Dembow riddim, complicating simple narratives of a single sampleâs afterlife. âI’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) âDembowâ loop is a better possible candidate,â Dubbel Dutch argued, âfor an Amen or Think type breakbeat.â
For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls âan hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,â even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: âThe opening track is a song I just made called the âWorldwide Dembowâ and itâs sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying âsi tu quiere dembow,â and the tune is basically a reimagining of Drum Song riddim (melodically), and Fever Pitch riddim (rhythmically), although it doesn’t actually sample either of them, but pretty much picks apart the elements and recreates them with more synthetic sounds.â
Uproot Andyâs reference to Dominican dembow bring us full circle for this lively, and living, story of a loved loop. No place today can lay stronger claim to bearing the Dembow flame than the Dominican Republic, where a rejuvenated version of San Juanâs proto-reggaeton, in all its referential richness, manages to move kids on the streets (and YouTube) and, increasingly, to move into the pop sphere as well.
In the mixes of DJ Scuff and countrymenâor, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud groupâthe Dembow (as such) is on constant, quicksilver rotation with chops and stabs from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Poco Man Jam and the like. But once again, enthralled as Dominican dembow may be with such well-worn samples, its restless producers also emulate the voracious and pliant approach of their mid-90s muses, Playero and the Noise. So a classic hip-hop break like Think, or even funk cariocaâs Tamborzao, might make it into the mix. But no matter how wide the circle of references, the name of the genre bears witness, at bottom, to the fact that Dominican dembow is built on a commitment to some relatively old riddims and some far older rhythms.
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the UK-based dub poet and bass culture theorist, the same dancehall riddims so central to the Dembow variations were popular precisely because they can sound at once modern and traditional. âOn one hand, this music is totally technological,â he notes, âon the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, KuminaâAfrican-based religious cults who provide the rhythms used by Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton. So despite the extent of the technology being used, the music is becoming even rootsier, with a resonance even for quite old listeners, because it echoes back to what they first heard in rural Jamaica.â
Uproot Andy offers a similar take: âIf reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.â
Here’s what you’re seeing/hearing in the video above:
first, shabba ranks’s “dem bow” produced by steely & clevie (for bobby digital)
then, nando boom’s “ellos benia” produced by dennis the menace (for philip smart & pucho bustamante)
then, the instrumental of the boom track, released as “dub mix II” on b-side of “pounder” by bobo general & sleepy wonder
then, a commonly circulating version of the dembow riddim (“original”), audibly related to the dennis the menace instrumental, if a bit beefed up and boiled down
finally, a return to “dub mix II” to hear how dennis the menace added subtle dub effects to his track — sounds which never turn up in reggaeton productions because of the way the loop circulates as a digital (re)sample rather than a vinyl b-side
Thanks again to my eloquent interlocutors, all of whom had colorful stories & trenchant perspectives to share, and to the Together panel people — especially Sara Skolnik and Ethan Kiermaier — for making it happen. And thx to everyone who attended the panel, tuned in, and/or wish to help continue the convo.
If you haven’t heard it yet, I finally cooked down a Zunguzung Mega Mix that features all 50+ instances that have come to my attention since I first started listening for that catchy likkle tune and, with the publication of this piece back in 2007, enlisting others to lend me their ears.
The impetus for finally bringing this together is that my friend and fellow music scribe, Garnette Cadogen, was visiting Yellowman last week and told him about my work. (Garnette reported, much to my delight, that King Yellow was “touched, truly touched” by my work on his legacy.) When he requested a full mix of the “Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme,” I could hardly refuse.
So here it is, for now anyway: 54 strikingly similiar contours! (See full track list below.)
1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, âCome Againâ
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1992 — Lecturer, âGal Yu Mean Itâ
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goinâ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, âPimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)â
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lilâ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, âPerfect Gentlemen Remixâ
2001 — Ăejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, âNow That You Got Itâ
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
Notably, with the exception of Nice & Smooth, K7, and Horsepower Productions, all of the echoes of Yellowman’s tune to date have been re-sung rather than sampled. Sometimes a one-off phrase, at other times it structures the chorus. The tune twists and turns in so many ways over the course of 30 years, I find it truly beguiling. I just want to sing it all the time. That’s a good riff for you.
[Update: Only took a day before another version popped up in the comments! Thanks to Noriko Manabe and Marvin Sterling for pointing out that Rankin Taxi's "You Can't See It, and You Can't Smell It Either" -- a 2011 post-Fukushima protest song -- also contains a zunguzung allusion. Guess I'll have to re-mix the mega mix, again, at some point. Nice to have an appearance from beyond the Americas & Europe.]
I can’t leave you with just that, however, as similar threads demand to be looped in.
When we make songs, Spanish people take it and sing it different, and we don’t speak Spanish, so we don’t realise. Because of that, the Spanish artistes don’t pay us royalties and it slips right under our nose. I think the Spanish owe reggae music millions of dollars right now.
Niney may be right. It’s true that this happens all the time. Indeed, the latest example I stumbled across is classic in its overt and simultaneously reverent and irreverent reanimation of a hit reggae song. Still, I wonder whether Ricky Blaze knows about this (or, for that matter, this) and what he’d think —
Niney offers additional barbs about white people owning ska & other perversions of property. He even raises the specter of the entire genre of reggaeton owing a grand debt to Shabba Ranks’s (and hence, Bobby Digital’s / Steely & Clevie’s) “Dem Bow” — though he reduces it to a general rhythmic pattern that is hardly copyrightable. And though I could discuss dembow for days, here I want to flag another specific allegation and its recursive riffs on riffs:
Songs like Murder She Wrote is in Spanish right now and I don’t even think Sly and Robbie know.
Niney’s reference to “Murder She Wrote” is interesting, especially as the first track mentioned in this light. Of course, he’s right, to some extent. But it’s not actually true that “Spanish people” are singing the song so much; more precisely, little loops and bits of the riddim from “Murder She Wrote” have, by this point, been as deeply embedded into the aesthetic code of reggaeton (especially Dominican dembow) as “Dem Bow” itself. (& I will add that I find Niney’s comments on “Dem Bow” quite timely given that I’ve got a piece in a forthcoming Wax Poetics detailing the surprisingly mixed-up and mysterious “origin” of reggaeton’s Dem Bow. Spoiler alert: reggaeton’s favorite loop was not recorded in Jamaica.)
As it happens, not only does “Murder She Wrote” live on in a thousand DJ Scuff mini-mega-mixes, it’s about to get as big a push into the US (& global) mainstream as it has received since the early 90s thanks to none other than French Montana (featuring, natch, Nicki Minaj), who additionally riffs on the vocal melody from Chaka Demus & Pliers’ warhorse:
As odd as I find the juxtaposition of two unrelated early 90s dancehall songs here, and as squirmy as such caricatured takes on dancehall make me, “Freaks” represents an exciting moment for the lil lilting riff that so defines “Murder She Wrote” (also known as the Bam Bam riddim) — a riff which, as I’ve explored in mini-mega-mix form, is itself quite caught up in international networks of creative riffing –
I hope French’s folks licensed those samples, though, since his jam is not as likely to fly under the radar as its Puerto Rican cousins. That said, I’d love to see a case like this actually go to court somewhere. (Not really.) It’s more than clear that this stuff goes around and around and around, and hence making claims to ultimate origins (and exclusive exploitation rights) always seems a little suspect. But who knows what a judge or jury might decide.
Along those lines, the last riff on a riff (on a riff?) I want to share here is based around a story BigBlackBarry told me when I was in Kingston last month. Check this set of echoes:
As complicated as this may seem, just because Bo Diddley recorded it “first” (and who knows who he may have been riffing off) didn’t stop Willie Cobb from shaking down Dawn Penn when her rocksteady hit was rejuvenated with a mid90s twist and became a sudden crossover success.
So I’ll leave it here for now: big up the one King Yellowman for recognizing how influence and allusion work, for relentlessly riffing on the sounds around him, and for never suing the many, many souls who did him the same service and extended his echoing chant into a realm of truly remarkable reverberation.
I’m thrilled to report that tomorrow morning I’m headed back to Jamaica for the first time in a couple years. It’ll also be the first time in a decade for Rebecca, and the very first time for Nico and Charlie. I can’t describe how excited I am to see their faces upon having a cold jelly, a sun-ripened banana, some ackee & saltfish, and other likkle wonders of the place. We’re very lucky to have the opportunity for a multigenerational vacation (Charlie 1.0 and Fern will be there too), to have dear friends in Kingston to receive us (bigup Sara & Marvin), and to have a lovely time ahead of us, both in town and up in Portland, arguably the most beautiful corner of a beautiful country.
Our vacation will no doubt stand in some contrast to the all-inclusive tourist-traps many college students and other folk are looking forward to this Spring Break. And so it seems as fitting a time as ever to re-run an excerpt from an ol’ “Jamaica Blog” post about our experience of an all-inclusive in Ocho Rios some 10 years back. (This was first published on 25 Feb 2003, so, yeah, still lagging a bit. Soon Come ;) I don’t feel like quite as strident a critic of other people’s experience of Jamiaca as I did 10 years ago, but I think it’s useful to register (and re-register) my experiences, aesthetics, and prejudices all the same. And I have to admit that the questions i raise at the end remain trenchant and recurring ones for me. We’ll see whether I have anything to say about all of that when I return next weekend.
L to R: sour sop, naseberry, naseberry tree, at our friend kush’s place, just outside ochi
after four weeks of living in jamaica, becca and i finally got a chance to spend a few days outside of kingston. becca was asked to speak at an internet forum being held in ocho rios by the ministry of utilities. for her part, she was provided accommodations at the hotel where the conference was to take place, the renaissance jamaica grande, a subsidiary of marriott, the largest and most prominent all-inclusive resort in the attractive coastal town. (ocho rios stands third to montego bay and negril as a tourist spot in jamaica.) despite the pre-packaged feel we suspected the hotel would have, we were both looking forward to spending some time on a beach and taking a little holiday. moreover, we were curious about the hotel, wanting to compare our experience in jamaica so far with the jamaica that most tourists are shown. we were glad to have a complimentary chance to check it out.
since i was conducting workshops at the american school on thursday, i decided to meet becca in ocho rios later in the day (she left at five am). i had planned to take a bus from kingston, which seemed to be an inexpensive and interesting prospect. it turned out, however, that one of the companies at the conference was offering a cruise departing at 5:30 that evening, so i chartered a taxi to get me there quickly (the ride can take well under two hours, depending on traffic and the driver’s desire to tempt fate). driving in jamaica is quite an experience. never mind the wrong side of the road problem, which, for the passenger (being a driver, i assume, requires more adjustment) quickly loses its jarring effect. taking corners and passing cars in kingston is often enough of an adventure. taking corners and passing cars (sometimes several at once) as one winds through the mountains, pedal to the floor, is a more grueling experience.
my driver was an excellent driver, which did a little to assuage my frequent fear of hurtling to my death. i don’t think he ever let up on the gas so long as he could accelerate, which meant down-shifting — not breaking — and speeding up around tight corners, getting as close as possible to the rapidly traveling (though never rapidly enough) car ahead, and passing caravans of slower cars if possible. that said, my driver did an impressive job. he was easily the fastest car on the road (no one passed us anyway), partly because he knew the winding road so well that he traced it incredibly efficiently. i asked him how many times he had driven this route. “how many times? nuff times, mon. sunday, tuesday, and wednesday of this week.” i got the point. he had been driving twenty-years, probably with this kind of weekly frequency through the mountains. he got me to ocho rios in the time he said he would (two hours), which was rather fast considering the thursday afternoon traffic.
having, towards the end, grown a bit nauseated by the twisting, turning, and lurching, i was not looking forward to a cruise. but it was refreshing and reinvigorating to pass through fern gully (a cool, damp stretch of road, surrounded by ferns on both sides, and covered overhead by a thick canopy of trees) and then into town, sun still shining. i shouldn’t skip over the beautiful ride by focusing on the dangerous driving. the roads through the mountains have granted me some of the most gorgeous glimpses of grand jamaica i have ever beheld. from kingston, you pass through spanish town (with its central-but-abandoned colonial-era courtyards) then you ascend into the hills, where before long, the vegetation grows denser and the air cooler. soon enough, you are driving along high mountain roads through bamboo forests. here and there people sell fresh fruit, mostly mangoes and otaheite apples. then the vegetation recedes a bit, villages spring up, and the descent begins. fern gully makes for a fitting cool down in the final stretch before the coast. once through fern gully, ocho rios springs up fairly quickly. dancehall reggae fills the air from several directions as soundsystems (advertising that night’s dance or a particular record store), cars, and vendor’s carts take part in an informal soundclash (the dancehall term for a competition between soundsystems). the jamaica grande is located right on the beach and right off the main road. i paid my driver JA$3000 (US$60), which is the standard fare for the journey in a taxi (the prices dive for buses: JA$125 – 250, or US$3-5), and not a bad price considering that my stay at the hotel would cost me nothing.
i met becca at the aptly titled “fantasy pool,” which, i noticed, was cleaned every morning by a shirtless dread, the stella-got-her-groove-back type. the cruise left from the hotel dock. (you really never have to leave the hotel.) it was not worth the breakneck pace of the drive through the mountains, but it was a good introduction to the culture of the jamaica grande (not, mind you, the culture of jamaica. oh, no. this was an entirely different animal). we shoved off with twin speakers blaring lovers rock at us, a little heavy on the treble, and set off down the coast to dunn’s river falls, a famous waterfall nearby. it was a nice enough view from the boat, but not quite worth the trip. still, the sunset was lovely, and then the stars. and the rum punch (white overproof rum mixed with water and syrup) hit the spot. the water got very choppy and we had to head in early because some people, myself not included (remarkably enough), were feeling ill. we cruised back into the hotel bay and camped out in the calm waters while a man entertained us all by eating fire, ripping apart a coconut with his teeth, and lifting up women by the belt with his teeth. then there was a limbo and a beer-drinking contest. i kid you not. participation was lackluster (we’re talking about internet service providers here), especially since the prizes were promotional company-logo polo-shirts. “hey, that would look sharp on the golf course! or on casual friday!” thoreau says beware any enterprise that requires new clothes, especially promotional polo-shirts.
the rest of the jamaica grande was less impressive than the boat ride. for an expensive resort, the lack of quality was astounding. the all-you-can-eat buffet was practically inedible, though becca and i knew quite well (and confirmed on friday night) that there was absolutely astounding food to be had around town. they couldn’t even put out fresh, local fruit or juice, never mind fish, bammie, and calalloo. (world of fish on james avenue, a short walk from the hotel, is not to be missed. even so, one is lucky to see another white face in the vicinity, especially after sundown.). it seemed as if, in truly contemporary jamaican fashion, everything was imported. the beach was a flimsy, artificial-looking strip along a stale bay. white girls aged 10-18 walked around with their hair in complimentary braids. a high percentage of guests — over half were american, and there seemed to be an inordinate number of italians this weekend — could best be described as resembling whales or lobsters, and there were plenty of lobsterish whales. the music and “culture” were completely canned. consider, for example, the dinner-time serenade of a smooth-jazz-ish reggae band doing lionel richie covers or the friday night faux-naughtiness of doing the limbo and conga-line-dancing to the lascivious sounds of trinidadian soca (“turn it around and push it back in” [repeat ad nauseum]). compare this music with the dancehall and roots reggae pounding away, day and night, in the center of town — just a stone’s throw away. to the detriment of their own experience, and certainly their cultural horizons, the all-included set miss out on the vibrant local music scene as much as they miss out on ochi’s culinary delights.
it would be incorrect to call the hotel’s bizarre mix of cultural signs a representation of jamaicanness, for the mix was too messy and the focus too vague. to be more precise, we might talk about the hotel’s “projection of caribbeanness,” which struck somewhere between exoticism and familiar fun. one wonders how much the presentation is fueled by the guests’ actual desire or by an assumption on the part of the proprietors (who are american) that such is the experience people desire. i am sure it is more of a push-and-pull than any supply/demand model could attempt to explain. still, i can’t help but feel cynical about the phenomenon. don’t get me wrong: i hold no delusion that there is some “authentic” jamaica to be found and presented, oyster-like, to fat, ignorant american tourists or to naive anthropologists or to reggae lovers. the real jamaica is, of course, all of the jamaicas anyone imagines. the projection of the idyllic and carefree jamaica creates some serious tension when compared with, say, the reputation of jamaica as the country with the highest murder rate. (the tension jumps out of the little pink booklet of dos-and-don’ts that the hotels distribute to guests.) for all of the fantasy, one always bumps up against the stark reality of poverty, of desperation, of hunger. but perhaps not if one never leaves the hotel.
i am deeply interested in the concept of authenticity, at least partly because i recognize that it operates on my own perception, my “reception,” or interpretation, of various texts, cultural and literal. i also see the way it plays into other people’s ideas about life and art, essence and appearance, soul and race. it is good to confront oneself about what one deems to be real and why. what is involved in such a value judgment? what kind of assumptions undergird the determinations we make, the reactions we have, especially to cultural materials (e.g., music, film, advertisements, language, social practices)? examining the way that i react to music that i deem to be authentic or not, and asking myself why and how i confer authenticity to something, is usually an edifying experience. the conversation about hip-hop, including and far-exceeding the lyrics themselves, is pervaded by the question of what, or more often, who, is real. i am curious about how authenticity is communicated in sonic terms — what are the musical signs which convey the real? i wonder how it works as a psychological process — is it a kind of elicited empathy? i wonder about the negative ideas that often travel with things deemed authentic — how are one’s ideas about race, about the inherent differences and aptitudes of groups of people, informed, reinforced, or challenged by the experience of the “real” in music? i wonder whether by making the machinery of authenticity more visible, i can challenge people’s complacency about their received knowledge. i wonder whether happy italian tourists give a damn. i doubt it.
me & naseberry tree, in a quieter and prettier (if less “grande”) part of ochi
That’s “Ewe” — the latest from Throes + The Shine, a project out of Portugal which, as the + implies, is essentially a merger between two groups: (migrant) Angolan kuduro duo The Shine and, as my tipster Ana PatrĂcia Silva puts it, Portuguese “post-hardcore/noise band” Throes. (The b-boy formidably rocking out between bowls of TV-addled oatmeal is, I’m told, a national champ of sorts.)
Ana first told me about The Sine + Throes last May. (I know, I’ve been sleeping, but you should see my drafts folder: 62 and counting!) At the time, Ana reported that the group had “pretty much been taking everyone by surprise here in Portugal.” She continued —
They have a growing cult due to their live shows, which are absolutely explosive and make everyone – from headbangers to hipsters to hip-shakers – go absolutely nuts! It’s really interesting how they are able to unite such different crowds under one roof and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
A brief profile here helps to make sense of what might seem at first like an implausible fusion:
It’s hard to disagree, especially when seeing the whole crew in action. Here’s a less ventriloquized video, for instance, their first single, “Batida” –
Describing a concert she attended, Ana was deeply impressed by the wide net the band’s performance cast and vibe they created, despite the harsh edges and insistent sensuality –
I saw them live last summer in the middle of the afternoon at an all-ages outdoor festival. During their show I remember seeing old people clapping hands, little kids jumping around, parents nodding their heads and teenagers and young adults pretty much losing their shit. It is impressive how something so aggressive and so sexual in its essence is capable of connecting with so many different people from different age groups, races and social status. It’s the beauty of music, I guess. How it manages to unite such different people in the same space and time. For that whole hour, the world did seem like a great place to be living in.
And just as the perhaps irreducibly jarring juxtapositions of the group are what make their shows so compelling, apparently there are subtler, but perhaps no less affecting, modes of mixture at work in the making of their sound:
There’s another interesting detail that I forgot to add. Their entire album was recorded, mixed and mastered in analogue tape. It was made at EstĂșdios SĂĄ da Bandeira, a music studio in Porto that specializes in analog recording and vintage equipment (which is very rare in Portugal).
I don’t think I had ever heard kuduro recorded in 100% analog format! That’s part of the reason why their sound is so warm and with a bit more emphasis on the rockier side. Every single instrument they used (guitar, drums, bass, synths, marimba, xylophone, etc.) is fully analog, no computer was used in those sessions. And that’s also part of their appeal, I guess: it’s a completely different experience (especially live) to listen to something as effusive as kuduro music backed by the raw power of a drum kit, the melodies of a guitar and the groove of an actual bass.
A touch of rockist romanticism perhaps — and perversely enough, I might like my kuduro best in 128k gritty wifi realism — but I have to admit the group’s sound is awfully warm and punchy.
That said, Throes + The Shine are (obviously) hardly purist, and I was delighted to find that such friends and colleagues as Daniel Haaksman & Emynd have recently done remixes for them. Emynd’s is particularly amazing, departing from the band’s primary genre references to explore kindred vibes. Shuffling between breakbeat techno / protojungle and that ol bmore bounce, with a little trappist jam to stick things together, dude really takes it there, then somewhere else again (compare to the original):
You can sink your teeth into a lot more if you like, including their full first album, Rockuduro (streaming below) — & given such a strong start, I expect we’ll all have a chance to hear plenty more.
update (2/7): All of the above is worth considering against and alongside Alexis Stephens’s probing investigation into Os Kuduristas and the slick PR machine that represents Angola through kuduro.
This Friday, February 8, Harvard’s “African Musics Abroad” seminar will stage a one day conference called “Africa Remix” with an aim to
probe the global circulation of African musics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, featuring presentations by major producers of African sound recordings, discussions with presenters of African musical performances live and mediated, and insights from and a performance by musicians who are themselves engaged in the process of remixing African music worldwide.
While African musics have been traveling (and transformed) for centuries, not least via the slave trade, the conference will focus on more recent musical movements and mixtures — namely those that have followed in the wake of the era of African independence beginning around 1960. According to the organizers:
The increased physical mobility of many African musicians has been amplified by an active recording industry. The global circulation of African musics has opened a space that accommodates both dialogue and dispute, one that has both reshaped musics from the continent and transformed musical creativity and performance internationally. Issues include questions of who is representing African music, the ethics of âmusical borrowing,â and the economic dimensions of remixing practices for African musicians who are the sources of circulated musical materials.
The bulk of the day will be devoted to three panel sessions bringing together producers, practitioners, and scholars — “Producing Global Sounds,” “Shaping Local Reception,” and “Collaboration or Appropriation?” — and I’m happy to report that I’ll be chairing the third one, a conversation around a well-worn debate but, hopefully, offering some fresh angles thanks to the rich ethnographic and interpretive work the panelists will draw on in their presentations (which will range from roots reggae in Israel to Malian dance in diaspora to, possibly, Die Antwoord, though I have yet to confirm that last one).
The keynote speaker is Francis Falceto of Buda Musique in Paris, who will explore the conference theme through a discussion of his renowned Ăthiopiques series, which to date has issued twenty-seven albums from the century-long history of Ethiopian sound recordings.
Rounding things out at the end of the day, there will be a free concert by Boston’s breakout Ethio-jazz group, Debo Band, following a conversation between bandleader (and erstwhile ethno student here) Danny Mekonnen and Prof. Kay Shelemay.
Actually, for those who are interested in really rounding things out, the perfect nightcap will involve following me & Chief Boima over to the Good Life, where he’ll join King Louie from Texas’s Peligrosa crew, Boston’s/Austin’s own Swelta (#FEELINGS), and resident DJs Riobamba & Oxycontinental for a very special edition of PicĂł Picante. After a long day of thinking and talking, actually embodying some “Africa Remix” vibes will be a welcome culmination & break, and these are the DJs to take you there –
Should be quite a day (& night). Here’s the full program:
Shaping Local Reception, 11:00 am Maure Aronson, World Music/CRASHarts
Jacob Edgar, Cumbancha
Banning Eyre, Afropop Worldwide
Russ Gershon, Either/Orchestra
Chair: Carla D. Martin, Harvard University
Collaboration or Appropriation?: Issues in Remixing African Styles, 2:00 pm Sarah Hankins, Harvard University
Sharon Kivenko, Harvard University
Warrick Moses, Harvard University
Chair: Wayne Marshall, Harvard University
Discussion: Remixing Ethiopian Music Danny Mekonnen, Debo Band
Chair: Kay K. Shelemay, Harvard University
Concert by Debo Band
Concert is free, but tickets are required. Free tickets available at Harvard Box Office (617-496-2222).
Cosponsored with the Department of Music, Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities, Department of African and African American Studies, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and the Office for the Arts at Harvard.
Ok, it’s more of a playlist, but now that I’ve got your attention…
Today in my other class, Music 97c (Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective), I threw a few limit cases at my students, inviting them to think about where people draw lines between music and non-music and why it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these as we seek to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity — but also the unity — of world musical practice.
One of our readings for this week takes on this project with full steam and inspiring empathy. John Blacking’s “Humanly Organized Sound,” a classic of the literature and the opening salvo in a profound larger work, How Musical Is Man?, seeks to understand what exactly constitutes musical capacity. Concise and provocative, the title of the chapter has become a useful shorthand definition of “music” for me and many others, if while drawing a possibly unnecessary and unfounded species-specific line around the phenomenon — but that’s a central part of the question.
“Humanly organized sound” is a very flat and encompassing way of defining music and its value to people. Among other trenchant points, Blacking wonders why the broadly distributed learned abilities to take part in musical happenings he observes in, say, Venda culture are oddly denied even as they’re exploited in the so-called West: in the US and UK, he notes, one hears on the one hand of exceptional musical geniuses and virtuosi and, on the other, of folks who learn to describe themselves as tone-deaf or left-footed. But at the same time, the near total suffusion of public and private spaces with music in these societies takes for granted — indeed targets — a baseline capacity for perceiving sonic order and interpreting it as music with meaning or message.
Against this background, having endured a little too much talk about who’s “primitive” and who’s made the most “progress,” Blacking minces no words, and his anti-elitist (indeed, anti-elite) politics ring clear:
Does cultural development represent a real advance in human sensitivity and technical ability, or is it chiefly a diversion for elites and a weapon of class exploitation? Must the majority be made “unmusical” so that a few may become more “musical”?
Recalibrating our sense of musicality in this manner demands, Blacking continues, that as good ethnomusicologists (aka, the scholars formerly known as comparative musicologists),
We need to know what sounds and what kinds of behavior different societies have chosen to call “musical”; and until we know more about this we cannot begin to answer the question, “How musical is man?”
Well, we now know a lot more about such matters, though to what extent that knowledge has redirected or reformed the prevailing ideologies of musical talent and value here in the US is another question. The fact that “Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective” remains a requirement of music majors at my present institution is itself a testament to the beachhead ethnomusicology has made and to the work that remains to be done.
At any rate, though this doesn’t directly speak to Blacking’s concerns as outlined above, here’s the first ontologically unstable sound object I played in class –
The description of the video reads as follows:
David Cope used his Experiments in Musical Intelligence program to compose Zodiac, twelve short works for string orchestra in the style of Vivaldi. This is Taurus. The video is also algorithmically created.
One might not fancy the rendition above all that much, if begrudgingly accepting that it resembles Vivaldi. Some might find it too computery to sound “human” — unnatural violin attacks like glimmers in a replicant’s eyes. But few would deny that it was in some sense a piece of music.
Arguably, Cope’s software’s opus is “humanly organized sound” in at least a couple ways: 1) a human organized the thing that organized the sound; and 2) human listeners perform acts of pattern recognition. In another way, of course — ie, having been generated by some lines of code — it is not. There is a degree of non-human input/output that unsettles. But should we care if we can’t pass a musical Turing Test? If human listeners — not to be confused with dolphins — organize the patterns of sound that reach our ears, why not call it music?
Well, by that reasoning, this would be music too:
But since we can’t really ask a hermit thrush or a line of code whether what they’re doing is “music” (at least not without being suspicious of the answer), we would do well to consider examples of patterned “non-musical” sound directly produced by humans.
For instance, this ol’ gem of the ethnomusicological canon:
If you’re not familiar, that’s James Koetting’s 1975 recording of postal workers cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office. The important gloss here is that although the workers were obviously whistling tunes (in this case a hymn by a Ghanaian composer) and banging out rhythms, the idea that they were making “music” instead of simply doing their job would have, according to Koetting, seemed quite strange to them and their co-workers. “It sounds like music and, of course it is,” writes Koetting,
but the men performing it do not quite think of it that way. These men are working, not putting on a musical show; people pass by the workplace paying little attention to the “music.”
Another example along these lines —
For certain devout Muslims, Koranic recitation (as well as call to prayer) is not to be confused with music. Indeed, for some (though Islam is a wide, wide world), “music” is haram, prohibited, an indulgence that distracts from virtuous worship. That said, a strong investment in sounding practices is more than audible here; it is practically crucial. To refit the Koetting prose above: This man is reciting, not putting on a musical show. But yeah, for many, to quote Koetting directly: “it sounds like music.”
This example led to a brief digression into a sound object about sound objects: a Radiolab segment which takes as its subject the tonal dimensions of spoken languages. The first 4.5 minutes result in host Jad Abumrad entertaining more or less the same question as our class: “What exactly is music, really?”
When speech — or anything else not performed as music per se — somehow, as a suddenly dialectical sound object, becomes music, has it also in some sense, then, passed beyond understanding? Beyond a certain degree of communication? From one metaphorical register to another, more ambiguous one? Is this implication of irreducible multivalence what makes “music” so odious, so haram, to some?
I raise the question of musical communication because it animates the other piece we read today, which will lead me to my final set of examples (though these aren’t about the same sort of ontology exactly). Steven Feld’s “Music, Communication, and Speech about Music” is a dazzling and humbling examination of how rich, complex, and slippery — or in Feld’s words “changeable” and “emergent” — the listening experience almost always is (not to mention the processes of communication it entails).
To illustrate the various, simultaneous, non-hierarchical “interpretive moves” we make as we listen, Feld offers the admittedly charged but usefully provocative “Spangled Banner Minor” by Carla Bley & her band. I’ve been working with this article and this piece for a while now, and let me tell you: it works every time.
Of course, I couldn’t resist pairing Bley’s recording with a more recent example, which you might say inverts the effect, rendering Michael Stipe’s ĂŒber-emo anthem far more shiny-happy than the wildly (and suprisingly?) popular original. I’m talking about “Recovering My Religion” of course, the Melodyne-assisted remix of REM’s 1991 hit which has raised hackles among the hey-kids-get-off-my-CD-tower crowd, but which is, especially for those of us who had the original tune brutally committed to memory by remarkably repeated exposure, a really striking twist of tone and, accordingly, message and meaning.
As fun and interesting as I think these philosophical/ontological questions about music(ness) can be — and as much as I subscribe to Blacking’s and Feld’s commitment to radical, relativist-universalist studies of music as social life — when it comes down to it, I think maybe humanly re-organized sound is what really pushes my buttons. But we’ll save that distinction for another date.
I’m happy to report that the semester has been going swimmingly. Sorry for the dearth of posts here, but I’ve been rather engaged with reading, for one course, across a vast and dense literature on music, race, & nation while exploring, in another, the history and potential of music’s (and sound’s) deep entanglement with technologies of transduction & reproduction.
As we barrel almost unbelievably toward the end of the term, we’ve managed to produce a pretty striking set of technomusicological etudes. While two big assignments remain (a video montage and a DJ mix), the students have produced soundscapes, radio collages, sample-based beats, and mashups. Impressed and entertained by them all, I want to share a few exemplary pieces to give people a (musique) concrete sense of what we’ve been up to. We recommend listening with headphones.
First, a couple entries from the soundscape assignment (including requisite if brief prose descriptions):
Sunday afternoon shopping [for soy sauce!] at the Boston Chinese Supermarket (C-mart).
In this tasty space, life takes many different forms: the entrance music that occupies its own territory 0:00-0:20; 2:36-end); people conversing on their wants and needs in Cantonese (0:21 – 0:40; 2:10-2:22); living lobsters/crabs breathing in tank [with running water] waiting to be picked, killed and consumed (0:45-1:15; 2:23-2:35); frozen dumplings resting in ice cases (1:22-1:26), listening to the check-out machine busy reading barcodes (starting 1:27 through 1:53, transposed); butchers cleaning, peeling and chopping off fish head using their fine/scary collection of life-taking tools (1:46 – 2:09).
All is intertwined and yet at the same time irrelevant. One eats to live, others live to be eaten. Together we breathe.
This recording encompasses the tragedy I face in procrastination â enjoyment of the meaningless which ends as soon as it metamorphoses into the meaningful. This tragedy is composed of five chapters. At first, the frustration with the ominous âpaperâ becomes not only overwhelming, but overwhelming to the point that I must abandon work with a very definitive âfuck this paper.â I venture outside into Harvard Square where meaningless interaction forms a melody. âHeyâ defines the relationship I have with the grand majority of my acquaintances â an acknowledgement of each otherâs existence is all we share. However, âheyâ leaves me craving for real social interaction, and I do summon a friend upon stumbling on a musical gem in the Harvard Square âpit.â However, reality freezes the real pressure I have found in The Square. I am reminded that the ominous paper is still, in fact, in need of being submitted, and I am forced to retract into my study lair. âWhy, why, whyâ is procrastination always halted when it gets good? The answer: itâs procrastination, itâs temporary. Oh, the tragedy that is procrastination.
The second pair of examples comes from the week we devoted to (Boston) radio collages, and each offers a rather interesting portrait of a particular slice of the local airwaves:
This soundscape/radioscape takes all of its material from a cheap radio clock in a bedroom in Cambridge, MA. The sounds were collected at about 2:00 PM on a weekday afternoon.
The goal in creating a weekday afternoon radioscape of Boston is to represent Boston radio at a time that I’ve always considered to be the least interesting time of day for radio. Because it lacks the audience that rush hour in the morning and evening (and to some extent lunch hour as well) draw, radio in the afternoon does not cater to a specific audience other than those who happen to be driving, are listening to radio as they work, or have nothing better to do for one reason or another. The music tends to be generic and fairly random, the talk shows discuss mundane topics in order to save more important thoughts for the busier hours, and there is no concerted effort to create a certain ambience, as in evening radio.
Strangely enough, though, this all serves to loosen radio to a certain extent, encouraging hosts to let their hair down a bit, and allowing each station to be a little less authoritarian in their choices of music. While listening to the radio for easy entertainment or interesting concepts may be difficult in the afternoon, listening with a critical ear at this times can become immensely entertaining. It is that strange combination of humor, flair, mediocrity, and commercialism that I am trying to convey in this piece, representing most of the material I found while striving to keep the pace entertaining for the listener, who doesn’t have the comfort of being at the control. I used a lot of layering, blending, and automation to splice events together convincingly, as well as some other effects like looping, delay, reverb, and mixing in cleaner recordings of songs in order to give a little surrealism and extra realism to the sound, which was limited by the reception of the radio.
The piece starts out with quick flipping through a few channels, then settles in with a couple of announcements about the time and place. The first section mainly moves back and forth between songs on different channels, but as we go on, new characters are and themes are introduced, such as talk radio, advertisements, a discussion about receipts, a sportscast and the ever-present (in New England) Dunkin Donuts. Finally, we close with a “goodbye” and a contrast between upbeat folk-classic music that evokes a kind of “simple gifts” feel characteristic of old-time New England and some inspirational words in Spanish. And maybe one last quip about Dunkin Donuts and their great coffee.
The voice is often used as a symbol of personal interaction. In early descriptions of radio, the feeling of such interaction and indeed of intimacy through the radio was often dependent on speech and the voice. In this exercise, I have edited short clips of radio recordings taken on October 14 and 15 in Allston, MA. The resulting mix produces a simulated radio world that is all talk, all voices speaking in different registers, different levels of excitement, and different languages. The listener’s relationship to the various voices depends on many markers of identity – religious, political, linguistic, sports, etc. This collage is thus a reflection on the limits of radio voices to convey intimacy.
Our third assignment required students to get into the aesthetics of sample-based hip-hop, combining samples of their choice with two classic breakbeats I provided (the Funky Drummer and Apache). Here’s a few fun standouts (including one dubsteppy excursion):
On the surface, this piece is a hip hop beat that goes on for a couple of minutes, and this is probably all that’s really apparent when listening. In some ways, it’s all that really needs to be apparent; when putting this together I was trying to make a new piece out of the materials that I sampled from a few other songs, but there is some thought that went into the choices of material. The beat takes sounds from the Funky Drummer and Apache breakbeats, cut up and made into new rhythms: pretty standard. The harmonic and melodic material, though, all comes from a couple of songs by Billy Joel and Elton John. For some reason, maybe because they’re both rock/pop pianists, I’ve always considered Billy and Elton to be two sides of the same coin, so I wanted, at least intellectually, to put them together in one piece. I don’t really feel like the interaction is audible, mostly because I limited myself to just one or two samples each from two songs by Elton and one by Billy, cut down to the point where they are really just a note or two in most cases and often edited until they don’t resemble the original at all (for instance, slowed and deepened until a medium-high synth sounds almost like dubstep) but I still like the idea of them both being in there.
Turkey is sometimes known as the crossroads of the world, and here, the shape (Dilli DĂŒdĂŒk) and electronic sounds (Ăakk?d?) of Turkish popular music mix with the rhythms (Funky Drummer) and jazzy lines (Apache) of Western samples. Their interaction makes a dense sonic fabric, and there is some tension scattered throughout, but ultimately, the two pairs of samples serve to reinforce and advance each other.
I decided to be quite liberal with the Funky Drummer sample provided to us, and chopped it down to individual sounds. I then put this on a new drum rack and treated it with a filter delay, reverb, and a couple other elements to create a dub-like effect. The tempo and syncopation is reminiscent of most dubstep tracks, with a BPM of 140 and the snare falling on the third beat. The melody and vocals of the track come from chopped samples of the 1970’s Angolan protest song ValĂłdia by Santocas. Samples are treated with various filters and reverb as well as sidechained to the kick drum via a compressor. We hear a looped verse, “Bem longe/ OuvĂ aquele nome/ InesquecĂvel/ dos filhos de Angola” (Far away/ I heard that name/ Unforgettable/ to Angola’s children).
And one last example, a rather esoteric mashup from one of the grad students in the course:
Here’s a mash-up of a Brazilian maracatĂș (“SerĂĄ” by Siba e a Fuloresta) and an unaccompanied Cretan rizitiko song performed by Vasilis Stavrakakis. Instead of mashing two pieces of similar tempo, I decided, inspired by the a capella intro to “SerĂĄ,” to liberally chop up the unmetered Cretan song and manipulate it in various ways (pitch changes, overlapping punches, the creation of drones) to frame and comment on various musical events in the Brazilian song. Aside from a small gap inserted near the beginning, “SerĂĄ” is basically intact; the challenge was to isolate and reconfigure phrases, both short and extended, from Stavrakakis’ performance to give the impression of a melodic, harmonic, and phrasal dialogue with Siba, the chorus, and the brass band. I especially like how, though the melodic trajectories of the two songs are similar, they often treat the second and sixth degrees of the scale in opposite ways (minor second and major sixth from Crete, major second and minor sixth from Brazil). This adds a nice pinch of tension without spoiling the soup (at least to my modally biased ears), and points to the manufactured nature of the operation.
It’s been a real thrill to hear what these talented students have cooked up this term. The best of these productions really speak for themselves. And that’s the point: how can we make audible stories about audition in the age of technological reproducibility? Toward that end, I was delighted to stumble across these thoughts just yesterday:
I think of the Marshallâs taxicab soundscape, how it captures not only the sonic communications of Jamaican cab drivers, and the broader dancehall soundscape in which they live, but also something of the musicologist himself. Itâs just an essay transduced. What if students and academics were to pursue the craft of phrasing and editing sound, photographs, and film with the same doggedness with which we pursue the written word, aiming for the same sophistication that we do in our written texts? What would anthropology sound, look, feel like then?
“It’s just an essay transduced”! I like that. Gonna run with it — or take it for a ride? On that note, let me leave you with an intentionally schizophonic video mashup of my “Taximan” piece (as discussed here) set to soundtrack a trip down the Palisadoes to Norman Manley International Airport, where I chat a bit (in my own odd wavering accent) about Sunday radio in Jamaica (an old fave topic) with the driver:
Marvin’s the guy responsible for bringing me into Jamaican schools back then, including to Camperdown, where he formerly taught and where the segment below was shot. He also provided the link to RETV, which was an especially exciting institution in Jamaica in the pre-YouTube days, finally offering a platform for local videos in an MTV and BET dominated media landscape.
The video catches me toward the end of our 6-month sojourn on Hope Road, one product of which was my dissertation (which I’m planning to finally post here soon), another was Boston Jerk, and another was, as you’ll see, a rather skinny me — a downright mawga man in local parlance. Quite a trip, e?