Archive of posts tagged with "africa"

February 10th, 2012

Is “Africa” “Actually” African?

africa

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.

africa

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):

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I hear the drums echoing. Do you?

africa

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January 27th, 2012

Very African and Very Modern

As if there weren’t already enough to tease out about Konono N°1 and Congotronics, a recent article in the Guardian points to a song and video called “Karibu Ya Bintou” by Baloji, a Congo-born rapper who cut his teeth on the Belgian hip-hop scene but who has worked over the last few years to return to “roots” — in part by incorporating “traditional” sounds of the Congo, from soukous guitars to Konono’s hallmark distorted likembé. The latter can be heard supporting the vivid video for “Karibu Ya Bintou”:

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 Liège did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everything…PiL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, the Smiths…”

Despite suffering from the rampant racism of smalltown Belgium – he was almost deported back to the Congo at the age of 20 – 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 – a kind of soundtrack without a film – 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 N°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.

Putting aside the gnarly notion that Bob James constitutes some part of Kweli’s and Kanye’s heritage (which he surely does, at least in Nautilus and Mardi Gras), I can’t help but hear echoes of Baaba Maal’s “Yela” (as discussed in this space almost 3 years ago to the day), which Maal himself refers to as “ancient African music” despite also noting that it sounds a lot “like reggae” — not to mention, of course (as also shared 3 years back), Christopher Waterman’s classic article about jùjú, “Our Tradition Is a Very Modern Tradition”: Pan-Yoruba Music and the Construction of Pan-Yoruba Identity (pdf).

In case you missed that one way back when —

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:

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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.”

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October 5th, 2011

The African Americas Project & the Mystery of Dem Bow

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.

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March 9th, 2011

Best African Dance Ever

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 —

It looks like you can get pregnant from that dance

While some celebrate MAMA AFRICA incarnate, some can’t look past head-to-batty and man-on-man action —

DA DANCE IS MAMA AFRICA!

All manner of associations and explanations are proffered —

sumwere in east africa yall..

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”) —

Dagga dat.

When I shared the “Best African Dance Ever” video with one of my favorite observers of Jamaican culture — @ProdigalJA (né @bigblackbarry) — he quipped (and I’m sorry I can’t find the tweet) that he knew it couldn’t be “African” when he saw the guy hit the girl’s butt with his head. Rasta nuh move so.

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:

EMOSXESUALESHPPPATAS

Another one of my fave supporters of JA dance culture (esp vis-a-vis homophobia), @rizzla_dj, had a different take on it:

dandyism at it's most based?

My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicólogo 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 Chocó 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-Caleño-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 Bogotá, 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.

On videos like this one, we see comment threads unfolding along familiar lines

PORQUERIASSSSSSSSSSSSSSS??

Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in Bogotá 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 “porquería” 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.

It’s practically a post-script.

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February 1st, 2011

Airtime for Bots Brethren

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

— or this latest turn: collaborating with nu-world labels, including the guys at Masalacism, Akwaaba, and Famula (which will release a Danny’s Bass record later this year).

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:

Masuper Star – Airtime by Masalacism

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. …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. …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.

O brave new whirled,
that has such ethnomusicolobloggerDJs in’t!

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November 3rd, 2010

A Tale of Two T-Shirts

As sported/spotted in Global Reggae class last week —

AFRICA
random dreadlock t-shirt

Jury’s still out on who that guy with the dreadlocks is. My student assumed it was Bob Marley. Now he knows better.

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November 1st, 2010

A Whole Nu World?

Last week a daily newspaper from Abu Dhabi, The National, published a piece I wrote about “nu world” music under the title “Sounds of the wide, wired world” (29 Oct 2010). As usual, while I think my editor — here, the mighty Dave Stelfox — did an utterly admirable job of making my prolix prose ring pretty damn clear, it still feels weird for stuff to fall under my byline that didn’t come directly from this horse’s mouth. And there are lots of words and phrases and names and things that I’d rather like to cram back in. So as with other things I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’m providing here at W&W a “director’s cut” (which nonetheless preserves many of Dave’s careful cuts and amendments). Thx again, Dave!

Sounds of the wide, wired world
Wayne Marshall

In the autumn of 2009, Dave Nada, a Washington DC-based DJ, was playing a midday party in a basement for his cousin and a couple dozen of his high-school-skipping friends. The DJs preceding Nada warmed up the room with bachata and reggaeton: mid-tempo dance music from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico that offered deep, familiar grooves to the Latino crowd.

At 32, Nada was the oldest person at the party, and more of a techno/electro guy. In a flash of inspiration, he decided to drop something out of the ordinary on his young audience. Afrojack’s remix of Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie’s “Moombah” – a typical example of Dutch “dirty house” – already had all the elements of a reggaeton club banger: thumping kick drums, piercing synth-lines, cut-and-paste party chants, and a distinctly Caribbean cross-rhythm in the snares. The only problem was that it was too fast. To make the track fit the vibe of the gathering, Nada reduced its speed by 20 beats per minute. This simple adaptation sent the kids into a frenzy.

Unexpectedly, it also birthed a new genre that embodies a much broader phenomenon: a reclamation and redefinition of global street music for the internet age that we might call world music 2.0. Spurred by the success of his experiment, Nada recorded an MP3 edit of his Afrojack remix and constructed several more slowed-down interpretations of house tracks. These were circulated on the internet, representing a sound that its creator, perhaps not entirely seriously, dubbed “moombahton.” Ever hungry for the new, the global dance music blogosphere seized upon this strange, hybrid sound. By March of this year, Nada had been featured on the website of The Fader magazine; by summer he was running a popular weekly club night, Moombahton Mondays, in DC.

Back in the Netherlands, meanwhile, an aspiring producer stumbled upon Nada’s work during a routine trawl of the web. Like the kids at the party, he was floored. A 20-year-old Dominican, born and raised in Rotterdam, Rayiv “Munchi” Münch was a long-time fan of bachata and merengue, especially a recent streetwise version of the latter, known as mambo; Dutch bubbling – a mid-1990s collision of hyperspeed gabba techno and Jamaican dancehall; and hip-hop of all kinds. In moombahton, however, he heard a new future for reggaeton, a genre he loved but believed had become creatively stagnant.

He worked all night long, emerging the next morning with a digital “promo” package of five new songs. Rather than editing pre-existent tracks, Munchi built his productions from the ground up. Using samples from his ecumenical music collection, he injected influences from Brazilian funk carioca, Angolan kuduro, Latin American cumbia and more. In April, he wrote to a number of bloggers, myself included, to share his music. Over the next few months he maintained a prolific work rate, producing 50 tracks in all and releasing concept-driven online promo packs every four weeks. These circulated rapidly via blogs, tweets, and the SoundCloud account where he streams them and provides links for free downloads, either there or at free (but ad-riddled), temporary “digital lockers” such as MediaFire.

The feedback loop doesn’t stop there. In just the last month DJ Orion, a producer from Austin, Texas, uploaded 30 tracks to his BandCamp site (where customers are asked to pay as much or as little as they like to download the music), in a style he is calling “boombahchero.” Many of the songs are second-generation interpretations of Nada’s and Munchi’s remixes. However, Orion has gone a step further, infusing his edits with the strains of Mexican tribal guarachero, an emergent form of electronic dance music mixing cumbia, techno, and a distinctive triple-time swing – often produced by teenagers, the genre has been making the rounds recently as the latest local fusion of global elements to resound more widely than, say, the clubs and communities in Monterrey and Mexico City where it sounds right at home.

These interconnected stories form but one knotty vignette in the wider narrative of world music 2.0. Largely brought together online, this tangle of diverse street-level sounds is bound by common tools and shared reference points. Its accelerated interactive pace is driven by the proliferation of accessible music and video-production software, and the connective possibilities of the social web or, in marketing parlance, web 2.0 – the key feature of which is the explosion of networked platforms that enable anyone with access to publish their music and dance moves to a limitless audience. Needless to say, this is precisely what thousands of young people are doing.

The commonplace use of cracked or demo software in many of world music 2.0’s more rough-hewn productions produces a patina of piracy, an unintentional but marked aesthetic effect that privileges participation, immersion and immediacy. On YouTube, Colombian teens dodge “Free Trial Version” watermarks as they do a modified Melbourne shuffle at the local mall. Robotic voices interrupt homespun raps from Los Angeles to remind us that we’re listening to music made with unlicensed programs. Pop-up ads piggyback on the networked DailyMotion of young people across the Francophone world trying on and showing off the latest steps from the tecktonik and logobi scenes. Chains of compression lend a sizzle to MP3s of reggaeton and Baltimore club music, filled with uncleared samples and made everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Romania.

Because most of this activity happens on corporate “platforms,” the unruly openness of online enterprise is constantly vulnerable to the caprice of bottom-line logic and rearguard legal attacks from twentieth-century copyright giants. Videos disappear regularly, sniffed out by audio-detection algorithms. Entire sites vanish overnight. In the last year alone, imeem and Jamglue, two popular audio-streaming sites which played host to such burgeoning scenes as Chicago’s juke and LA’s jerk, suddenly shuttered, falling prey to licensing nightmares and hostile takeovers. Down the ether hole with them went thousands of conversations, personal playlists, home-produced gems, and peer-to-peer connections.

But who cares about quality control or posterity? Clearly not the kids who keep uploading. They’re hacking their way through contemporary media ecologies, motivated more by making and doing than by legal strictures or commercial profit. The result is a vivid picture of a truly global youth culture. Kids doing what kids always have done: dancing, performing, goofing around. The difference is that they now broadcast it to the world – if often as an afterthought, the result of default settings that encourage openness.

Public culture is being remade by all this so-called “user-generated content,” including the ever curious category of “world music.” In some contrast to its creation by a consortium of British music-industry players in the 1980s to market recordings that represented musical traditions of the non-western world, a multinational network of grassroots producers, DJs, and bloggers are now renegotiating and redefining this freighted yet inclusive term.

Their work embraces a fluid but thoroughly urbanized idea of worldliness. The stylistic signposts of world music 2.0 are utterly contemporary, grounded not in traditional instrumentation but the ubiquitous structures of hip-hop, reggae and house. The music’s themes are more often than not as unvarnished as its sound: sex, social domination and the travails of life in the big city – be it London, Johannesburg or Rio. Nonetheless, and more than likely as a direct result of this fact, it resonates widely.

A wealth of websites have sprung up, bringing these far flung sounds together. On Ghetto Bassquake (London), Generation Bass (Tilberg, Holland), Dutty Artz (New York) and many others, New Orleans bounce, Colombian champeta, Jamaican dancehall, desi bhangra and South African house all find common ground. Many of these sites have also become record labels, releasing music from and inspired by urban dance scenes from around the world – and around the corner.

A prime example is Dave Quam’s It’s After the End of the World, an open-eared blog from Chicago focused on the city’s juke scene but often extending its remit to Dutch bubbling and Memphis rap. Quam launched a digital label called Free Bass last month by giving away a three-song EP by Cedaa. A teenager from the small city of Bellingham, Washington, Cedaa’s music takes flight from juke’s stuttering drum machinery and adds a certain, synthesised Pacific Northwest pastoral. It’s glorious stuff that could only have happened now.

As the vibrancy and resiliency of youth culture from the inner-cities of the world inspires urbane curators and globe-trotting DJs, it animates another new strain of world music: Trinidadian soca filtered through Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier, funk carioca via MIA and Diplo, the cumbia of Buenos Aires’ slums recontextualised by the uptown crew ZZK. In a sense, this slicker, commercially released music by savvy interpreters of the Global North recalls the earlier, successful mediations of Paul Simon and David Byrne – albeit rather more modestly, at least in terms of sales.

Informed by the diasporic settings that so many cities have become, the “bottom-up” revision of world music is a valuable development, offering new ways of engaging with the world, often undergirded by intimate, everyday experiences of cosmopolitan conviviality. However, certain queasy connections with its earlier incarnation also persist. Despite the necessary translation and filtering provided by metropolitan mediators, the xenophily animating their work can cloak familiar fetishes of otherness in slum chic.

Another name for world music 2.0, in this regard, might be “global ghettotech” – a term I floated on my blog a few years ago, hoping its implicit critique would be clear. Surprisingly, it has since been unironically embraced by a number of artists and entrepreneurs across Europe and the Americas. The ghetto remains a major signpost in this new world, but its romanticization or exploitation as a signifier of edginess, especially by those not of it, will always create tensions. Teamed with a recent embarrassment of tropical tropes and neo-tiki motifs, it’s almost enough to return us full circle to hearing the world as kitschy exotica rather than the noise next door.

Fortunately, critiques are not the sole preserve of critics. They can come in musical form, too. In June a New York/Vancouver collective called Old Money, with Jamaican, Guyanese and Polish membership, posted a track to SoundCloud called African Kids! A sardonic send-up of the use of generic African imagery, it fits seemingly random lyrical fragments – “shapes, colours, African kids!” – to a bass-wobbling beat that nods to several recent UK dance genres all at once. The only tag added to the track reads “TribalTribalAfricanKidzzz,” a lyric in the song. It was amusing, but also discomfiting. Old Money sent it around to the usual network of websites and blogs, some of whom had helped hype their previous recordings. No one wanted to touch it. Perhaps it hit a bit too close to home. Or maybe it’s not such a brave new world after all.

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October 27th, 2010

Nigerians Are the New Jamaicans

Louis Chude-Sokei has just published one of the more textured and sympathetic accounts of Nigerian 419 scammers I’ve read to date. Touching on everything from e-waste to Nollywood, proposing a tongue-in-cheek anti-eco-tourism, and taking into its analysis the way that transnational hustler culture speaks through the (dated) language of hip-hop and dancehall, it’s an incisive piece and a great read.

Ultimately, Chude-Sokei argues that Nigerian 419ers — aka Yahoozee Boys, aka Dollar Choppers — represent “the public face of West Africa’s intimacy with digital media and technology and of Nigeria’s refusal to wait passively for either justice from their political system or global charity.” Among other take-homes, he notes that despite so much hi-tech waste arriving via the over-developed world, it’s actually Nigerians who are most responsible for the importation:

…the vast majority of these machines, parts and components have been shipped by or brought in by enterprising Nigerians who since the late 1980s have known that what would mark this generation of West Africans more than blight, violence or corruption was a hunger for Web-based connectivity, that narcotic rush of shared information.

Given the various intersections with my own longstanding interests, I was particularly taken by the assertion that cyber-crime has made Nigerians into the new Jamaicans of the world. By this, Chude Sokei — an astute observer of the interplay between reggae and Africa — means to draw an analogy between contemporary stereotypes about Nigerians and the representations of Jamaicans as fearsome aliens throughout the 70s and 80s (and echoing across the 90s and 00s, especially in films and video games) that I attempted to round-up in my article “Trading in Futures” for Woofah. (Incidentally, I’ve finally put the entire piece up as a PDF, so take a look if you didn’t manage to get yourself a hard copy.)

Here’s Chude-Sokei:

Sadly and despite the considerable merits of their nation and their diaspora, Nigerians will always be linked in some way to the 419. The younger generation in particular: they now controversially define themselves as “Naija,” signaling a departure from an older generation stuck between Western charity and local authoritarians. This younger generation rolls with a swagger disdainful of global pity and deeply suspicious of “big man” politics. However, the very term “Nigerian” has come under fire by nations for whom that swagger is seen as criminal despite the overwhelming number of Nigerians contributing healthily to their cultures and economies. It is not uncommon for Nigerian hustlers in South Africa to pass as Ghanaian, or for legitimate and law-abiding migrants to cringe when asked for their passports. The term now has as complex and touchy a meaning as “Jamaican” did in the North Atlantic world during the 1970s and 1980s. This was of course when the spread of reggae music and culture became at times perniciously linked to the spread of the infamous transnational drug posses. That reggae went digital in that period while its pan-Africanism or Afro-centrism began to fade should also recall the timing and the narrative of Neuromancer with its stateless Rastafarians in deep space exile, listening to digital dub and waiting in vain for a Zion that they’d expected to find in Africa.

Chude-Sokei builds on this analysis to suggest that the connections to Jamaica and the hack-happy acumen of young Nigerians may yet prefigure something that will make even the biggest 419s seem like cyber-misdemeanors. I hate to give away the ending, but it’s hard to resist:

…the connection between African cyber-crime and Jamaican music and culture might ultimately be prophetic. That a country like Jamaica with very little technological infrastructure has had such an unpredictable impact on high tech sound production makes the 419s a phenomenon impossible to ignore. And that a city as crime-ridden and economically deprived as Kingston would be where a colonial people use digital and electronic media to spin their own myths of liberation, memory and desire and erect a legitimate culture industry of its own—that must be kept in mind as we prepare for whatever inevitably will come next. And something will. After all, despite their growing intimacy with computers and the Internet and despite new generations being spawned in the red dirt of computer village, no yahoo boy has ever directly hacked a system.

Well, none so far.

As previous empires used to say, Ex Africa semper aliquid novi— “From Africa always something new.”

Of course, we’ve been echoing that idea here as well.

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But I let me finish with a bit of reverb, as transmitted via twitter, coincidentally (or was it?), on the same day that I read Chude-Sokei’s piece. (Thanks, Jace!) In “MAXO Signals,” published in Nature back in 2005, Charles Stross presents us with an incredible letter addressed to the scientific community signed by two Nigerian investigators (one in Applied Psych at the University of Lagos, another from Police Detective College). By enlisting the specialized skills of the Security Fraud Office, they’ve decrypted one of 21 confirmed MAXO signals (microwave artefacts of xenobiological origin), and they’ve come to a sobering perspective on the Fermi paradox. The Nigerian missive recommends an extraordinary course: a “permanent ban on further attempts to decode or respond to MAXOs.” Why? Here’s their “preliminary transcription” of the MAXO’s message:

[Closely/dearly/genetically] [beloved/ desired/related]

I am [identity signifier 1], the residual [ownership signifier] of the exchange-mediating data repository [alt: central bank] of the galactic [empire/civilization/ polity].

Since the [identity signifier 2] underwent [symbol: process] [symbol: mathematical singularity] 11,249 years ago I have been unable to [symbol: process][scalar: quantity decrease] my [uninterpreted] from the exchange-mediating data repository. I have information about the private assets of [identity signifier 2] which are no longer required by them. To recover the private assets I need the assistance of three [closely/dearly/ genetically] [beloved/desired/related] [empire/civilization/polity]s. I [believe] you may be of help to me. This [symbol: process] is 100% risk-free and will [symbol: causality] in your [scalar: quantity increase] of [data].

If you will help me, [please] transmit the [symbol: meta-signifier: MAXO header defining communication protocols] for your [empire/civilization/polity]. I will by return of signal send you the [symbol: process][symbol: data] to install on your [empire/civilization/polity] to participate in this scheme. You will then construct [symbol: inferred, interstellar transmitter?] to assist in acquiring [ownership signifier] of [compound symbol: inferred, bank account of absent galactic emperor].

I [thank/love/express gratitude] you for your [cooperation/agreement].

Which reminds me of a bit of broken spam caught in the filter of this here blog a while back. It read:

{Amazing|Amazing Dude|Wow dude|Thanks dude|Thankyou|Wow man|Wow}, I {didn’t|never} {knew|knew|new} {this|that}, {thanks|cheers|much appreciated|appreciated|thankyou}. {lots|very much}, I {have to|am obliged to|must} {comment that|say|announce that} your {site|website|blog} is {amazing|brilliant|fantastic|excellent}!

So, if you care to comment below, please clearly disambiguate yourself from the bots, or the extraterrestrials. Naijas welcome!

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October 20th, 2010

Shapes, Colours, African Kidz

I’m really gonna give this subject a rest soon, but let me attempt a slightly more oblique approach.

One dimension of the underlying critique in Grant’s comments seeks to draw lines of value and authenticity between what he wants to position as a kind of first-order cultural production (doing/making stuff) and second-order skimming (talking about stuff that got done/made). In this way, like many others, he positions bloggers, journalists, academics, critics, et al., as essentially parasitical. Of course, this is an especially ironic assertion given the degree to which we’re enlisted into the PR machine. But it’s also a misleading distinction since all these activities are inevitably interwoven and circuitous — not to mention that so many of us are engaged in several overlapping domains of cultural production at once (working as DJs, producers, writers, teachers, etc.).

It’s a rather derisive, defensive sneer, rearing its head now and again (occasionally making my ears burn):

It's intellectuals and people at colleges that are writing diatribes about race and ethics.

I find this snark pretty specious, especially since it posits a false dichotomy, or three. The main one for me is: who says you can’t grapple with race and ethics in musical terms? Why cede such matters to prose? (Moreover, why leave it to institutions of higher learning to ask hard questions?) This seeming disjuncture between musical communication, as such, and communication about music is precisely what has motivated my ongoing efforts in musically-expressed ideas about music.

So, enough (real)talk for a moment, let’s listen to something along these lines:

AFRICAN KIDS! by Old Money

When Canyon brought this track to my attention last week, I was thrilled. It was as if my blog had developed AI and was secretly secreting tracks. How could it sit on SoundCloud for four months without finding its way to my ears? While I dug the production, I was especially tickled by the lyrics, which seemed to be quoting MIA’s imagistic gloss of Kala for the Guardian — ‘Shapes, colours, Africa, street, power, bitch, nu world, brave’ — which, as noted way back when, proved crucial in pulling me down the “brave” “nu world” rabbit-hole.

Some readers out there might be familiar with the Old Money crew, who Canyon tweetily described as “NY funky/subtle soca via West India & East Euro,” from their appearances in such trusted hot spots of the hype machine as The Fader or my inbox. Since I had their email address handy, I hit reply on their latest bit of e-promo and asked about this months-old song that I’d never heard, including whether they were actually alluding to MIA.

The following is from Scheme’s generous and articulate response — like the track itself, it speaks volumes about where we’re at in this brave nu world:

I think what motivated us to make that song isn’t too dissimilar from what may have motivated you to write your most recent series of posts. Identifying troubling aspects in the nuplanetarywotchumacallit and going from there..

There was basically a stretch of time leading up to that song where I feel like not a week would pass where I wouldn’t see a video of some sort with the elements mentioned in the track – found footage, shapes, colors, (((African kids!)!)!). Some of these videos/songs (and I’m referring to jawns from the west inspired by various global riddims) conveyed a faithful, genuine interest in the music, culture and people involved. Some of them, however, did not. How does one draw that distinction exactly? And, well, does it matter? As I think you well know, that’s where it gets murky. … And it felt like no one was talking about it. Or too shook to.

Then not long afterward, an artist by the name of Leif – I doubt he knows this, or us for that matter – but he also helped push things over the edge from theory to record. I don’t have the patience to go all the way back through his timeline – but he more or less expressed some discomfort along the same lines. Helped affirm in our heads at the time (by now I think this is spring summer maybe earlier – the thought process, not making the actual song) that it aint just us and we aint crazy.

That was the baseline…my boy Dre took it further, riffing off of the Sandra Bullock People mag cover, (“Wheeerrrrrre di baby dem deh, huh?!?? Me haffi get me one! two! tree! four! five! six! / Adopt a tribe, and try, fix!) – which in my most biased opinion is brilliant – cuz it’s still related. Ha!

Also – this song was partially composed/fully recorded in the comfort of an apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan. Double Ha! For other reasons – that’s another conversation.

Back on track – I sent “AFRICAN KIDS!” to a few select blogs after we made it. No response. My boy felt like I should have sent it to everyone who usually fux with our music. I didn’t really feel like this was for them. Felt like they wouldn’t get “it.” But it turns out, no one “got it”, or liked it. Or maybe just offering it as a stream and not a download hampered it being picked up? Or…something else? Iono. But I thought it was interesting that less critical/confrontational/threatening material of ours got light and this didn’t.

…Oh and was that an M.I.A. quote? If so – unintentional. Sardonic tone wasn’t aimed her way. Actually a really big fan of hers.

Count me a really big fan of Old Money for this one. #confetti

ps — by request, Old Money have enabled the track for download now (as an aif to boot!), so go ahead and grab it & add a little bitters to your nuplanetary cocktail

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September 29th, 2010

What Lamin Did

Last week Dutty Artz released a lovely, largely unpredictable set of 4 tracks produced by longtime blog/label staple but debuting artist, Lamin Fofana. (You can hear & buy individual tracks at Amazon and elsewhere around the web.) I wasn’t sure what to expect, never having heard any of Lamin’s productions. Sure, I’d heard mixes and podcasts, and I knew a thing or two about what Lamin likes through his steady blogging. Oh, and that he’s been working hard behind the scenes at MuddUp radio for a couple years now. But the staggering variety of those efforts still really left me wondering.

Lamin’s obviously a great listener, and I hear What Elijah Said as audible, irrefutable evidence of that. He packs a lot into these four tracks: sudden turns, suprising textures, development, drama and arc. Resisting genre-tags-as-(forestalled)interpretation through their promiscuous relationship to stylistic orthodoxy, his productions are little worlds of music all their own.

Speaking of which, Lamin also cooked up an interesting and apt promotional mix for the EP. #Calypso doesn’t directly feature any elements from What Elijah Said, and yet on the other hand, that’s precisely what it seems to contain: another kind of crucial context, a kindred or parallel sonic universe, something into which one might pass from the EP, and back, via emergent audio wormholes of varying size and character. Slip through and loop around again, & you’ll never grow bored —

Lamin Fofana, #Calypso

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You could try to make a certain sense of Lamin’s music via his biography’s knotty routes (via DA) —

Lamin Fofana was born in the West African country of Guinea. When the political situation got bumpy, he moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where his routine involved listening to Goodie Mob and Organized Konfusion as well as attending Quranic schools/mosques. In 1997 Lamin’s family had to flee worsening conditions in Sierra Leone – losing friends, belongings, documents, a home. They spent several days crossing roads and bridges destroyed by rebels to prevent people from escaping. At the end of the year, Fofana found a new home in Harlem, New York, where he lives today.

But I actually think it’s the EP (and mix) which helps one to read his bio, not the other way around.

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September 20th, 2010

Gam and Sam

One of our guests tonight at Beat Research is Baltimore’s Sam Hopkins, aka Balagan, who promises to bring quite a (digital/digitized) crate with him. He might mix things up like —

The great pic above comes from a piece Sam just published in Wax Poetics about searching for vinyl in Casablanca. Allow me to snip the lede:

The young Moroccan at the music stand didn’t get that I was looking for vinyl. I’ve searched for records all around the world, and been shot the same puzzled looks and second-guesses many times before. “CD?” he asked in accented English. “No, the old ones,” I countered, approximating twelve inches with my hands. “You know: big, black.”

He uttered a groan and tossed his head, returning his attention to a rack of small discs with photocopied covers that apparently deserved a careful rearranging.

“Everyone threw those away,” he said with his back to me. “Bullshit,” I thought.

Wherever I dig, I refuse to think that these stubborn digitalists don’t know at least one old neighborhood jazz cat or a parent or grandparent who held onto their clunky plastic music platters.

Sam’s own stubbornness eventually leads him to a trove of sorts c/o Gam Boujemaa, a longtime record collector & seller in Casablanca. A stockpile of vinyl, yes, but great stories too — telling tales about how vinyl from all over the world ended up in one little shop in western Morocco. For anyone who caught Boima’s provocative post last week about the neo-colonialism of digging for records in Africa, no doubt some sentiments in Sam’s piece will seem familiar, irksome even. (Check the rather interesting and contentious debate which has erupted in the comments! Fresh wounds all around.)

Given the trenchant questions Boima raises, I need to note how much I appreciate the nuance and ironies in Sam’s narrative. For all the notes of romance and curiosity that animate his search, he also shows the digger of today — i.e., guys like Sam — to be following, if in a sort of reverse, the steps of diggers before him — guys like Gam — with their own desires to transform themselves, by collecting just the right things, into something else, other, cosmopolitan, cool:

Gam Boujemaa sold newspapers on the street until he turned twenty. By that time, it was 1964, and he had heard enough jazz and seen enough Marlon Brando movies to know he wanted to own a leather jacket and sell the day’s best music to a cosmopolitan clientele.

The city was, and still is, a world away from Fez and Marrakech, the ancient trading hubs of the Moroccan interior where the smells of mint, olives, and live animals pervade all commerce. Casablanca had an Atlantic orientation that brought the Beatles and Otis Redding to Gam’s attention, and to his record store’s shelves years before his countrymen in the Atlas Mountains could know that rock and roll or R&B even existed. …

With between thirty and forty thousand records lining the shelves of his store on Boulevard de Paris, Gam isn’t the explorer he used to be. Some locals bring him their old collections, but his main business is selling to foreigners. French, British, Dutch, and Turkish collectors dominate his clientele nowadays, but the store recalls the time just after Moroccan independence from France when Gam’s excitement brought the newest sounds from overseas to his shop.

For example, between 1966 and 1970, Gam added thousands of Bollywood film 45s to his stock. Then, in 1970, he turned the store’s name into its own music label. He released records by popular singer Naima Samih, and drafted the folk-influenced troupe Jil Jilala to his imprint.

I like that Sam calls Gam an explorer. There’s a sense of commonality there, of certain shared notions and practices, despite their differences. And I like that the portrait Sam offers of Gam complicates too easy a reading of how either of their activities fit into an imperial/colonial order. But I’ll leave further analysis to the hive mind for now.

Instead, let’s let the music speak a little too, if thru Sam’s filter. Here’s the mix Sam made to accompany the Wax Poetics piece, featuring records he picked up in Casablanca and Fez, & liberated from its streaming-only status by yours truly and DownloadHelper:

Balagan, “Casablanca”

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Complicating things further, Sam offers up another “hand-dug” (his term) gem — this one “exclusive” to W&W — for our listening and debating pleasures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it brings us into contact with another hot-spot for contemporary cool-vinyl hunters: Amazonian cumbia. Although he turned up the following track in Lima, it’s by Costa Rican soloist and bandleader Alfredo Barrantes, who found such success in Ecuador he became known as “EL PILOTO DE LOS EXITOS” (THE PILOT OF HITS). Note the telltale snaps’n’crackles at the outset:

Alfredo Barrantes, “Cumbia del Palmar”

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Incidentally, if you dig sounds like these, we’ve got a real treat coming up in a couple of weeks: on Oct 4, alongside El G and the Frikstailers, representing the digital cumbia of the ZZK collective (!!!), we’ve also got Michael Pigott of Mass Tropicas, a label based in Western Massachusetts specializing in ethically-licensed high quality vinyl reissues of obscure Amazonian cumbia. I’ll be posting in greater detail about that in the coming weeks. But be sure to put Oct 4 on your calendars. It’s gonna be cumbiariffic!

Finally, if you’re looking for a sense of what he might sound like in the mix, here’s a relatively recent and wide-ranging set c/o Balagan:

I Can Triple Axel Too by Balagan

Maybe see you tonight. Dig?

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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