Later this week, on Friday April 19 from 2-3:45pm, I will have the pleasure of hosting a panel of some dear friends & colleagues & all-around awesome folks at the EMP Pop Conference at NYC (at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts @ 721 Broadway). An experiment of sorts, this year’s Pop Conference will take place in five cities at once over the course of the weekend: the EMP Museum in Seattle, NYU/NYC, Tulane in New Orleans, USC/LA, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Each will take on a different theme. For NYC, it’s “After the Deluge” — a reference to Hurricane Sandy, if interpreted farily loosely.
As a longstanding admirer of and participant in the #PopCon, it was an honor to be asked to curate a conversation at the conference, and I’m taking the opportunity to bring together several of my favorite artist/writer/smartfolk to talk about some overlapping and intersecting music scenes across the boroughs. Here’s the skinny –
In the wake of a different kind of deluge, this roundtable aims to explore how particular waves of migration — a constant if dynamic feature of the city — serve to initiate new senses of locality across NYCâ€™s boroughs. Each panelist, all drawing from a wealth of experience as artist-practitioners as well as public critics of sorts, will explore how immigrant cultures have reshaped the sound of the city through an often diffuse but undeniable soundscape presence, savvy use of club spaces and informal commercial networks, and in culturally charged interplay with other new and established scenes. Building on years of engagement with cumbia communities from Buenos Aires to Monterey, Jace Clayton (aka DJ /Rupture) will describe how transnational cumbia today flows through Mexican Brooklyn; Jazmin Soto (aka Venus X) will discuss how Dominican music textures Harlem life as well as how it serves to address a wider GHE20G0TH1K public; “Chief” Boima Tucker will report on the burgeoning African club scene in the Bronx and Queens; Dr. Larisa Mann (aka DJ Ripley) will tease out the ways that Jamaicans work within and beyond established diasporic spaces; and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs will add crucial perspective on African-American Harlem to flesh out our picture of how places gets made and remade by the arrival of newcomers. Hosting the roundtable is Wayne Marshall (Harvard University / wayneandwax), whose work on reggae, hip-hop, and reggaeton consistently revolves around NYC’s vibrant, variegated, sonically-mediated encounters between established and emergent groups.
I’m pretty sure none of these panelists need any introduction to readers of W&W. But just to whet appetites a bit, allow me to share some recent items from/on them all:
1) Jace Clayton’s latest project, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, has been receiving great critical praise. A recent profile in the Guardian does a nice job of exploring his aesthetics and how this latest effort makes sense within his varied oeuvre.
2) Venus X continues to make waves with the GHE20G0TH1K movement. Check out this piece published last week that examines the wider ripples she & partner Shayne HBA are having on the fashion world & NYC culture more broadly.
3) Chief Boima’s always cooking up something. Look out for his forthcoming report for RBMA delving into the African club scene he’ll be talking about at #PopCon. Meantime, get a sense of the sounds swirling through the club scenes he deftly navigates as a DJ, this time with Dutty comrade Geko Jones:
4) For her part, Dr. Ripley has also recently issued a blistering Dutty mixtape, an ode to her roots & abiding interest in high tempos & dark moods:
5) Latasha Diggs has just published TwERK, a book of “poems, songs, and myths” that ask “only that we imagine America as it has always existed, an Americana beyond the English language.” Allow me to quote the mighty Vijay Iyer’s blurb:
This long-awaited compendium of works by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs will blow your mind with its delirious play of signs, its cultural repurposings and reclaimings, its endlessly spinning polyglot wheel, and its breezy repertoire of ribald, faux-naif cyberfolk myth-science. With dazzling rigor and imagination, Ms. Diggs shares with us a view from Harlem that shines a knowing light on every place in the observable universe.
Given the recent attention on Harlem as both real and imagined space of ebullient dance, I can’t wait for our panel to, ahem, shake out some new perspectives on the musically-suffused significance of the many waves of culture constantly washing over the place. If you’re in NYC, hope you’ll be able to join us. If not, do tune in! (And follow the hashtag on Twitter: #PopCon.)
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 EstĂşdios SĂˇ 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 â€śmusical borrowing,â€ť 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 Ă‰thiopiques 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.
Hard to believe the fall semester is already coming to a close, but we’re going out with a bang in Technomusicology (see & hear some of our projects here and there): Thursday’s final class session will feature a visit from none other than Jace Clayton, aka DJ /Rupture, globe-trotting artist, writer, label honcho, three-turntable magician, & one of the finest non-card-carrying technomusicologists in “the field”!
Jace will be presenting Sufi Plug Ins, his recently launched, semi-crowdsourced, collaboratively-produced, free (!) audio software / art project. As described over at Beyond Digital, Sufi Plugs Ins includes
four software synthesizers hardwired to North African maqam scales with quartertone tuning built-in, a device called DEVOTION which lowers your computerâ€™s volume 5 times a day during call to prayer (presets include Agnostic, Fervent, Devout), and a drone machine
Now that’s what I call technomusicology! Check it out –
Jace is always very thoughtful (see, e.g., his own post on the project), so I’m quite looking forward to the demonstration & conversation. My students have been using Ableton all semester while reading across the history of sound technologies and how people have made them musical — what Jonathan Sterne refers to as their plasticity — so they should have a good vantage on the ways Sufi Plug Ins exploits the special affordances and constraints of contemporary techno-musical media.
Whether or not you too have been reading along and messing with Ableton, the event is free and open to the public, so if you’re interested in joining us from 3-5pm this Thursday, Nov 29, please do.
This is my new favorite thing in the world, and somehow it makes it make more sense that Luanda is the most expensive city on the planet. Sure is rich anyway (here’s a little background, fyi) –
/big tip of the proverbial hat to Farrah Jarral, whose awesome voice I first encountered on Keysound’s classic 00s London mosaic, Margins Music, which I still owe a massive big-up/break-down of a postâ€¦
It begins with a six minute opening from me, then I introduce my esteemed co-panelists — Boima, Poirier, Ripley, Max, and Jesse — and we finally REALLY get into the convo about 10 minutes in. From there it’s a solid 50 minutes of discussion (but not a minute more! #realtalk), followed by another 15 of tantalizing open-mic action (just joking; stop watching at that point; really).
These are some of my favorite voices in wot-ever-we-wanna-call this thing (though the labeling, as we discuss, remains inextricable and carries consequences), so they may be of interest to you too –
Africa Is a Country, a wry but passionate blog devoted to “Africa” — the idea, not (simply) the song — in contemporary media (but “not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama”) has been threatening to make a weekly series out of the genuinely remarkable resonance of Toto’s 1982 soft-rock anthem. It’s a begrudging tribute of sorts to the song’s “resilience as a piece of media about Africa.” Did you know that in addition to dozens of covers, which they promise to feature, the song is also popular sampling fodder for hip-hop producers (among them, Madlib)?
It promises to be entertaining, whether or not you can withstand the earworm. This week they pointed to a new appearance of what they’re calling “the Toto ‘Africa’ meme” courtesy of r&b crooner Jason Derulo, which, I have to admit is both “inane” as they note over there and a pallid by-the-numbers attempt to reproduce the feel and form of “Watcha Say,” his debut single and highest charting song (it hit #1).
I can’t help but be reminded of a strange and oddly apropos discovery about Toto’s “Africa” I made a few years ago, which may be of passing interest to some of you, especially fellow followers of Africasacountry.
Here’s how it happened: my dear friend and colleague, Sharon, is a doctoral student in anthropology who studies the transmission of traditional Malian dance, especially in transnational contexts. A longtime trad-African dancer herself, she has studied and danced in Mali, the US, and France. Anyway, long story semi-short, when Sharon was getting hitched a few years back she asked me whether I might help her arrange some music for her reception (an awesome & lively affair, full of drums and dance, in which a young & chubby Nico got to prance about with the august & strikingly spry Dr. J. Lorand Matory).
Her idea was to take one of the common rhythms from the Malian repertory and mash it up with some pop or hip-hop tracks that employ the same patterns. The idea was suggested to her by the fact that her local teacher, Joh Camara, himself would reference Will Smith’s “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” as a sort of mnemonic device when introducing students to the didadi rhythm. You know, the na-na-na-na-nana-nah bit. You can hear it pretty clearly in this performance I turned up on the ‘Tube (esp between 0:40 and 1:00):
This seemed like a fun task, especially given how much I love tracing patterns across different repertories. But after a few days of intense humming along to myself and attempting to trigger things in the recesses of musical memory, I had come up with relatively little. However, while I had only located a couple tracks that make reference to the rhythm, I had seemingly stumbled across an almost incredible possibility: that Toto’s “Africa,” which seemed like one of the least African songs I could imagine, might actually be based around an actual African rhythm. (And I use actual there twice because it’s a magic word, like Africa.)
Here’s what I shared with Sharon:
I have to confess that I’ve found it rather challenging to think up other songs that employ the same rhythm(s) as Didadi (aside from the tight fit that is “Gettin Jiggy Wit It”). Been racking my musical memory, which has led to some false leads and close fits, but nothing else — until this afternoon — save for a funny refrain from a Cypress Hill song (“la la la la la la la la” in “Hand on the Pump”).
Funny enough — actually I think you may find this discovery fascinating — as I was trying once more this afternoon to think of other songs that might match (and I’m being fairly exacting in wanting a good match — a direct rhythmic overlay), I started humming the rhythm to myself: buh-duh-duh-duhduh-duh-duh. Eventually a vaguely familiar bassline / chord progression emerged from my murky brain. I couldn’t place it, though, and couldn’t remember any words, so I just sang along with the melody until I reached the chorus, where, I hoped, I might remember a single Googlable word. When I got there, I was stunned: the word was “Africa” and the song, natch, “Africa” by Toto! What a hilarious coincidence! I have no idea whether the group was intentionally figuring Africa with that rhythm — it’s never sounded very African to me, but it sure does now!
Anyhow, I’m afraid that means I have only turned up 3 songs that use the same rhythm(s) as Didadi. And two of them are quite cheesy. But this is all in good fun, right? Anyhow, see attached and tell me what you think. For now, I’ve chosen to leave Joh’s performance unedited, so you hear the entire ~2:00 rendition that he gave us, the full arc, including all his variations and the general accretionary/crescendoing dynamic. If that works for you, that’s cool. If not, we can do some editing. Just let me know what you think. It’s easy enough to loop any of the measures he plays or to cut something here or add something there. I could extend any of the songs mashed with the drums, or shorten them, or change their order. I could also change the tempo so that it is faster or slower or gets faster over time (Jo does gradually get faster, and that’s one change I’ve made: now he stays at the same tempo, which helped me to mash/match things up).
Now, judging by this Wikipedia entry and it’s detailed accounts by members of Toto of the way the song came together, it sounds like the guys in Toto might have more or less entirely stumbled upon this felicitous rhythmic concordance. Meter minutiae aside (however fascinating), I find this quotation from drummer Jeff Porcaro most pregnant:
… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.
At any rate, you can imagine the bizarro eureka moment as I pulled that schmaltzy tune out of some dark corner of my mind. As for the main keyboard riff’s Africanness, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Here’s the “mashup” I sent to Sharon (which, suffice to say, was a little too goofy to work for the wedding):
It may be tempting to read something like “Karibu Ya Bintou” as a relatively straightforward exercise in “indigenizing” or localizing hip-hop, but the story of Baloji’s transnational musical moorings — especially his ambivalence toward Congolese pop — complicates such an interpretation:
His first rap outfit, Les Malfrats Linguistiques (“The Linguistic Hustlers”), morphed into Starflam and Baloji became something of a Belgian hip-hop heartthrob. Meanwhile, living above a legendary record store, Caroline Music, in LiĂ¨ge did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everythingâ€¦PiL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, the Smithsâ€¦”
Despite suffering from the rampant racism of smalltown Belgium â€“ he was almost deported back to the Congo at the age of 20 â€“ Baloji can thank his adoptive country for the eclecticism of his style. Until recently, however, he hated most African music, especially Congolese soukous, the bedrock style of post-independence pan-African pop. “For me, it was the worst music in the world,” he says. Nonetheless, when he received a letter from his mother out of the blue, in 2007, his Congolese heritage came back into his life with a vengeance. It inspired Baloji to return to his roots and record an album â€“ a kind of soundtrack without a film â€“ to tell his mother what his life had been like over the past 20 years.
That said, it’s perhaps telling — as with the success of Crammed Discs’ marketing of Konono NÂ°1 as Congotronics — that Baloji would find the greatest interest in his work at precisely the moment he decides to place himself on a map that is easy enough to read.
Legibility does have its advantages. So it’s not terribly surprising that Baloji’s surrender to soukous on another song, “Independence,” ends up serving as a vehicle for a sort of Congolese nationalism, if one that strongly resists the authority of the state. As with “Karibu Ya Bintou,” the video is directed by the duo Spike & Jones, who have an awesome name and seem to make pretty awesome clips:
Most poignant though, I think, are Baloji’s own words on the matter of musical heritage and nationhood, or of signifying Africanness vis-a-vis certain source material. Here he shows himself to be, among other things, a thoughtful student of hip-hop, which, for all the dots it connects around the world, clearly draws plenty of lines in the process–
I want to make music that is very African and very modern. You have to be proud of who you are. You can sample Bob James or Curtis Mayfield, but it means more when Talib Kweli or Kanye West sample them because that’s their heritage. But we Africans also have an interesting heritage, which has richness and a diversity that is huge and under-exploited. We can also go deep into it and make it modern, celebrate its value, just like the Americans.
If I may be allowed one last little addendum, I’d like to share a recording that seems somewhat germane. While revisiting The Noise 6 for the post I wrote for LargeUp, I came across a real gem of a pre-reggaeton track. Don’t get me wrong, the Ivy Queen and Bebe songs are standouts, to be sure, but the final track — #16 to be exact — is definitely the biggest eyebrow-raiser. It’s worth noting, if you don’t know, that the last tracks on proto-reggaeton albums are often the weirdest, and this one, simply labeled “Bonus Track” (mp3), is an interesting outlier indeed:
As you’ll hear, there’s definitely a nod to “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and no doubt a few other jams from the Miami-Atlanta axis (though all the percussion can make it sound a bit like drum’n'bass at times, save for the tempo). Oh, yeah, and there’s the appearance of that ol’ “Egyptian” melody.
Although plenty is going over my head, no doubt, I suspect this is about as allusive as any other track from this era, which means it’s utterly full of vocal references and direct samples. It definitely gives a good sense of how widely Puerto Ricans were listening to hip-hop and contemporary club music as they sought to synthesize their own thing. No doubt for plenty of listeners — and maybe the producers and performers themselves — such a track might even sound both “very African and very modern.”
I’m headed down to the University of Delaware tomorrow for “The African Americas Project,” a two-day symposium bringing together quite a mix of artists, musicians, and scholars to explore the connections between Latin America, the Caribbean and the US.
For my part, I’ll be talking about “Reggaeton’s Afro-American Address,” by which I mean the ways that reggaeton — despite a certain divisiveness — is best understood as a genre articulating a powerful synthesis of Afrodiasporic style which directly (and indexically, musically/semiotically speaking) addresses an Afro-American listening public (and here I use “Afro-American” — an outdated term in the US — in the broadest sense, as a term encompassing Afro-Jamaican, Afro-Puerto-Rican, Afro-Panamanian, and African-American styles and practices).
I’ll make this argument by revealing the secret of the mystery of the mighty dembow. Here’s a hint: the loop that turns up in the lion’s share of reggaeton productions is not sampled from Shabba’s seminal song, despite what Wikipedia and everyone else says. Nope. What you think was made in Kingston actually hails from Long Island! But you’ll have to catch the talk, or wait for a forthcoming article, to get the full scoop.
It’s an honor to be part of a program featuring so many distinguished speakers, among them keynoter Franklin W. Knight, a towering figure in Caribbean Studies. You can see the full program here (PDF), but let me also note, with some excitement, that another participant is none other than Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter, who will be screening Better Mus Come and other works tomorrow afternoon (and, awesomely, offering comment on the music panel I’m a part of on Friday).
If you’re in the area, do drop by. Should be a stimulating session.
Also, how refreshing to be described as a “DJ, technomusicologist, and journalist”! Works for me.
So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing –
Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire –
Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.
Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”
When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.
Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into –
All manner of associations and explanations are proffered –
Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).
People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.
But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) –
And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:
That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:
As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:
My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicĂłlogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)
Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.
This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:
Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:
And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic –
Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and ChocĂł dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.
For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:
Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:
note the mambo outro
According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-CaleĂ±o-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)
While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?
Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:
Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in BogotĂˇ, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.
Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in BogotĂˇ doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story –
Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:
Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquerĂa” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.
And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:
As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.
Last week month marked the release of Airtime, an EP from Masalacism Records. A happy convergence for me, the project brings together two sets of friends from far-flung parts of the world: Canada’s Masalacists and Botswana’s Ruff Riddims. The EP features the singular style of MaSuper Star, a dynamic duo who teamed up last year with local producer Red Pepper, aka Moemedi Ramogapi, for an epic recording session at his studio in the town of Palapye, about 150 miles northeast of Gaborone.
I’ve been in touch with Moemedi since the spring of 2005, when he showed up in my inbox to thank me for some beat-making tutorials I had posted to the web — fruits of the digital music workshops I was giving in schools, community centers, and prisons in Boston, MA and Kingston, JA. He had tracks to share and questions about linking up with reggae vocalists and getting his stuff out there. I thought his early productions showed a lot of potential. I encouraged Moemedi to keep at it and sent his rough riddims around to friends like Ghislain Poirier and other DJs/bloggers with an interest in African hip-hop and reggae. I also recommended he check out Versionist, back when that existed, where his productions landed plenty of praise and constructive commentary. (Ah, the early days of p2p music industry.)
Moemedi and I have been corresponding pretty regularly ever since — mostly via gchat — and I’ve admired the ways he’s refined his operation, whether steadily improving his tools and skills as a producer, or crowdsourcing a design and building a beautiful studio –
Like lots of music-industrial activity today, it’s all an experiment, so in addition to collaborating with these three labels, Moemedi’s also releasing stuff directly. (Ruff Riddims’ biggest hit to date has probably been Skeat’s kwasa-house anthem, “Dumelang,” which spread like blogfire and found itself in regular rotation among the Dutty Artz and Ghetto Bassquake crews, to name a couple kindred collectives.)
When I first heard MaSuper Star, I couldn’t help but agree with Moemedi that, “they are FIRE, MOLELO.” I was quite struck by the combination of the duo’s stripped-down sound and Moemedi’s digital beats — especially on the title track, where the drums remind me a lot of the post-Coolie Dance riddims of 2004 (Scoobay!). Give it, and the rest of the EP, a listen:
I was convinced that this fusion of contemporary dancehall rhythms and acoustic elements could find an audience, especially overseas where the soukousy guitars would dovetail with a resurgent interest in afropop of all sorts (whether stoked by the likes of Vampire Weekend, The Very Best, or loving re-issues). Interestingly, and a little ironically, precisely because of this same presence — what Moemedi calls the “kwasa influence” — MaSuper Star might prove a difficult act to promote via popular media in Botswana. Local radio DJs, for instance, have refused to play some of Ruff Riddims’ productions because they’re supposedly “not urban”; according to Moemedi, they just want hip-hop. Apparently, a certain target audience rejects familiar guitar figures for differently accented signs of the global modern. But this all remains to be seen. I’m hoping, as is Moemedi, that his stable of artists can catch fire in Botswana as well as abroad.
The other odd side to this strange kind of currency is that Ruff Riddims’ more straightforward reggae and hip-hop productions are less likely to succeed in the metropoles of the so-called Global North, so suffused by such sounds as New York, London, and Toronto already are. To my ears, then, Ruff Riddims has a better shot at finding support in North America and Europe by pushing the productions that signify the difference being in Botswana should make (at least for certain listeners). In other words, to go for the niches opened up by “world music” as aesthetic and institution.
Far as I can tell, at least from reviews such as David Dacks’s recent piece in Exclaim, this hunch about the music’s resonance may be borne out with the release of Airtime:
MaSuper Star aren’t the future of music: they’re the present. These superstars are a duo from rural Botswana, composed of Kenny and Soops, who find their music being released in Canada thanks to the internet-driven forces of World Music 2.0. Soops plays a homemade guitar fashioned from a can, while Kenny sings. â€¦These are street songs, simply executed and instantly hypnotic. MaSuper Star’s themes are universal, though far from the boilerplate topics of peace, love and world unity. Rather, title track “Airtime” is a plea from a long-distance love to send phone credits. Its hook is intoned by a plummy, British-accented voice: “You have no available minutes, please recharge and try again.” Everyday problems. â€¦Kudos must go to the Masalacism label for making this available; they are changing Canada’s relationship with world music.
If you like this stuff. And I unabashedly do. I urge you to support all those involved by plucking down some digital dollars. This EP embodies a model of music industry that merits our investment: small-scale (but scalable), fair and collaborative, generous and open.
According to the guys at Masalacism, they’ve got a 50/50 deal with Ruff Riddims, after expenses (#realtalk). Guillaume elaborates,
Our expenses are quite limited but we’re doing a proper mastering in a pro studio (which as I understand isn’t that common for a net label) and some mailing expenses for Radio and Radio tracking, + some minimal marketing expenses in order to put the music in the store. The rest is pretty much DIY. Music is on sale on Itunes all over the world, Amazon and Emusic + on our own store: http://store.masalacism.com
The Masala guys also deserve credit for commissioning an amazing kuduro remix of “Airtime” from Portugal’s DJ Mpula, which cranks up the tempo a good 15bpm. And I guess somewhere in the calculus, according to David’s Q&A with Moemedi, I may myself merit some credit for serving as a crucial node in the network.