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:
â€¦ 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 â€¦
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, itâ€™s a touchy thing. â€¦ But Iâ€™ve 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.
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.
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.