Archive of posts tagged with "americana"

July 23rd, 2010

Musical Travels with Seymour and Bernice, pt. 2: Brazil

This is the second post in a sporadic series here at w&w, an ongoing excavation, digitization, and interpretation of my wife’s grandparents’ record collection — i.e., the historico-musical profile of Seymour & Bernice. See here for the previous entry, and here for a note remembering Seymour.

SAMBAS

Of the many delights I’ve come across in Seymour and Bernice’s record collection, perhaps none is outweighed by the substantial number of kitschy, exotica-tinged, midcentury dance records. They reflect a time in American life when Afro-Latin forms such as mambo, rumba, samba became ballroom and parlor staples. The fact that these words all look and sound similarly is probably no accident. As Ned Sublette notes in Cuba and its Music

The largest number of African words that have come into the common Cuban vocabulary are of Bantu origin. Phonologically its legacy is instantly recognizable. Okra in Cuba is called quimbombó. That intervocalic “mb” cluster — the one that turns up in countless words like tumbao, mambo, bemba, bombo — is often (though not necessarily) a Bantu touch… (179)

But despite their semi-exotic origins (Cuba is not Long Island, though New York City was pretty Cuban by mid-century) and the way these dances and genres were marketed as ‘spicy’ and ‘flavorful’ — terms which continue to narrate the circulation of Latin-Caribbean sounds — what is particularly striking about their appearance in the record collection of a Jewish family in Rockville Center is their simultaneous mundanity, their utter familiarity, their almost unremarkable commonplaceness. Already by the mid-50s, these styles had been carefully and pretty thoroughly domesticated and popularized — i.e., successfully marketed to a non-Latin/Caribbean audience — under the direction of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios (and, no doubt, companies of its ilk), which issued a series of Perfect for Dancing compilations via RCA/Victor, complete with how-to instructions and steps. Bernice and Seymour ended up with several —

PERFECT FOR DANCING

SAMBAS

samba steps
and where, exactly, are the women’s steps? oh yeah…

Despite their somewhat campy and squarish presentation, the music collected on these discs is pretty damn good. The bands who popularized these styles were, after all, often led and staffed by seasoned performers from across the Afro/Latin/Caribbean diaspora. As you can see, the tracklist for the SAMBAS record features such renowned midcentury Brazilian musicians as violinist Fafa Lemos and singer Carlos Galhardo, as well as the likes of New York-based Cuban bandleader, José Curbelo. Not to mention — que nome! — the Carioca Swingtette (!), who may or may not be Brazilian; far as I can tell, this is their only recording.

samba tracklist

I could choose lots of tracks to share from this odd but rad compilation, but for this particular post — and for reasons that will become clear below — I’m going to highlight Fafa Lemos & co.’s version of “Brazil,” aka “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Watercolor of Brazil”) — a song composed by Ary Barroso back in 1939, and no doubt a song familiar to many, whether due to Terry Gilliam, or Walt Disney, or any number of other eruptions in popular culture (just take a glance at all these “notable versions” and appearances in film of the tune). But it’s not simply beloved abroad: in 1997, it was named “Best Brazilian Song of the Century” by a jury of 13 “experts” convened by the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Fafa Lemos and His Orch., “Brazil”

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As with the rest of the Astaire collection, the arrangement here is on the schmaltzy side. But there’s a rather satisfying richness in rendered chicken fat, isn’t there? For one, you’ve gotta love that moony french horn (?) in the opening, and Fafa’s violin work is quite fun throughout, playing around the melody without straying too far. Also delightful are all the little details in the orchestration, offering sweet little responses to the soloists’ calls.

But I should be more frank: there’s an unexplainable personal affinity motivating this Brazil-ian excursion. Like certain friends (check the only comment on that post), I’ve long had a softspot for the song — I love the plaintive melody over the softly chugging samba rhythms — and I was thrilled to find it a recurring theme across Seymour’s and Bernice’s record stash.

// .. Digesting the World .. //

A similar treatment to the Fred Astaire / Fafa Lemos recording, for example, can be found on volume 8, side 2 (Latin Rhythms for Dancing) of an amazing/amusing 10 record collection called Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER published by Reader’s Digest sometime in the early 1960s, I’m guessing. (Someone has taken the trouble of rapidsharing the entire boxed set, if you’re interested).

Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER

The Wonderful World of Popular Music

8. Latin Rhythms for Dancing

This being Reader’s Digest, the long-reigning “best-selling consumer magazine in the United States” before finally being unseated by Better Homes and Gardens in 2009, the packaging nods toward the (lightly) informative —

MUSIC FOR DANCING

mambos

SAMBAS

A closer look, however, reveals some pretty telling tropes, including a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too deployment of “culture” and “tribe” that primitivizes certain forms of dance music and elevating others while implicitly erasing the African heritage embodied by so many of the genres on display:

Dancing is a vital part of the lives of every culture. There are rain dances, fertility dances, war dances, marriage dances, death dances, harvest dances, and a few enlightened (or naïve) tribes even have dances with no purpose other than the pleasure of the dance itself.

The more primitive the tribe, the more primitive the music. It may only be a man beating two sticks together in rhythmic cadences. If his job is to provide an accompaniment for dancers, he is creating dance music.

Today’s dance music is considerably more sophisticated, but its essential quality is still the best — the rhythm. Underneath the melody of the mambo, the waltz, the fox trot, there is the drum — the direct descendant of the man beating two sticks together.

Nevermind that forms like mambo (elsewhere called “a musical half-breed“), included on this record, still often feature a man “beating” two sticks together (i.e., clave), or that the drum as we know it — and as it figures in this music — is basically African. The editors here draw a squiggly line from cavemen to sophisticates.

It’s not the only oddity in the notes. Ironically, for all the information proffered, the names of the musicians involved only appear in small print on the records themselves. Perhaps it’s because bandleaders like Martin Slavin, a British music director who worked in Hollywood for many years, don’t quite cut the right cloth for this sort of slighty salacious contextualization? At any rate, he whipped up a pretty entertaining version with “his orchestra” (whoever they were) —

Martin Slavin and his Orchestra, “Brazil”

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This recording is actually a medley, beginning — and mostly concerned — with “Brazil” but then moving into two other Brazilian standards of the day, “Tico Tico” and “Copacabana” (incidentally, if you’ve never seen Ethel Smith tearing up “Tico Tico” on a Hammond organ, supported by a gaggle of percussion playing kiddies ladies “hot” for some “South American jive,” it’s not to be missed). Whoever the musicians are, they smoke, and the arrangement is surprisingly whimsical. I love the piano tinkles, the ever-present and fairly foregrounded percussion, the unexpected and repeated quotation of that ol’ circus theme song, the jazzy guitar lead, and so on. The segues are pretty damn smooth too.

I’ve wondered about what made “Brazil” so popular that it seems almost ubiquitous at the historical moment during which Seymour’s and Bernice’s record collection coalesced. Of course, there’s a strong romantic nationalism at the heart of the song, and, related to my thoughts in the previous post, I think there’s a very interesting way that such dreamy visions of foreign nationalism could serve simultaneously to shore up postwar US (not to mention US Jews’) notions of national attachment and belonging and identititity. It’s not too surprising that such a compelling portrait of another country would resonate elsewhere too. For some, conjuring a sense of national unity out of diversity and inequity is what the mystery of samba is all about.

The resonance of “Brazil” here in the US goes deeper though. As Gregzinho Scruggs explains, discussing the appearance of the song in Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942),

…while the cartoon might well have served as a tourism promotion tool, it was actually part of much larger geopolitical machinations. Disney traveled to South America and received government backing to produce films lauding our new South American friends, products of the “Good Neighbor Policy” designed to keep them under the Allies’ sphere of influence. In addition to Saludos Amigos, the American viewing public also got 1944’s The Three Caballeros. In a disappointing linguistic blunder, both chose Spanish titles even though the Portuguese-speaking Zé Carioca was a main character in both and Carmen Miranda’s younger sister features in the latter. Carmen Miranda, meanwhile, was an in-the-flesh Latin promotion effort, a story told probingly in the documentary Bananas is my Business. The symbolism and imagery of these efforts to promote Brazil to the American public were naturally one-dimensional, especially having a lily white (and Portugal-born) chanteuse singing samba, which a scant generation earlier was derided as too African.

Of course, the kind of samba being promoted was itself far from the spontaneous, impromptu tradition from which the music sprang. “Aquarela do Brasil” was a samba-exaltação (exaltation samba), patriotic in purpose and serving the interests of the dictatorial and quasi-fascist Vargas regime. It was Vargas who had institutionalized the samba parade in Rio during the 1930s, turning it into a tool of nationalist pride, making it rigid, orderly, an almost military processional. The state, in essence, co-opted a cultural form — or at least one major manifestation of it — steeped in resistance to the dominant order.

// .. Italians do it .. //

Dick Contino, It's Dance Time

The final example brings things back home in a funny but apt sort of way, as Hollywood nationalism, Ausländisch stereotypes, and American exceptionalism all seem to congeal in Dick Contino‘s swingin’ romp through the tune’s familiar strains:

Dick Contino and his Orchestra, “Brazil”

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The Latin-ate percussion is here subsumed into jazzster kit drumming, and, in contrast to the other ensemble versions above, this one seems arranged more principally as a showcase for a supposedly showboat soloist. Contino’s relatively understated performance, however, hardly rises to the level of the liner notes’ incredible superlatives —

Now Americans do it.

“ever heard anywhere” … “never been matched” !!! — then again, even on his own current website, Contino is called “The World’s Greatest Accordionist” — & he does seem to inspire a certain admiration, strange story and all:

Dick Contino is an icon of cool. Dick Contino plays the accordion. These are not contradictory statements.

It helps that he is probably the best-looking guy to ever play the accordion for a living, handsome enough to have had his own groupies back when hardly anyone except Sinatra had groupies, handsome enough to have appeared in a few movies–and without an accordion. It also helps that he had enough scandals and brush-ups in his career to earn his tough guy merit badge. And it helped to have crime writer James Ellroy come along and mythologize Contino just about the time when he might otherwise have become a forgotten nostalgic act.

Contino’s father bought him his first accordion when he was seven, but he didn’t really take it seriously until he was 12. Within a few years, he had become so proficient, he was travelling to San Francisco, 180 miles away, for regular lessons. His big break came in 1946, when he competed on bandleader Horace Heidt’s “Youth Opportunity Talent Show.” Contino gyrated around while his fingers flew through “Lady of Spain” (condemning that song to accordion hell forever after) and won the night’s show. He returned to win the show’s grand prize for the season, and soon, he was a star in his own right, with his own string of fan clubs around the country.

Unfortunately, a couple of years later as his career was hitting full-stride, he received notice that he was being drafted to serve in the Korean War. For reasons he’s never fully explained, he ignored the notice and wound up being jailed for six months. Although he did eventually enlist and serve honorably in Korea, the “draft dodger” label hung over him for years and knocked him out of the ranks of the top stars for good. It also later provided Ellroy with the raw material for his story, “Dick Contino’s Blues,” which appears in the collection, Hollywood Nocturnes.

Contino lost his movie and recording contracts with Paramount and RCA Victor, and although he was picked up by Mercury within a year or so, his movie career dropped down to the realm of B-movies. Ironically, this raised his tough guy status significantly, for one of the few roles he got after his discharge was the cult B-movie, “Daddy-O.” Playing a badass rock ‘n’ roller and part time drug smuggler, Contino did his own driving for one of the earliest showcase car chases, doing a little Evel Knievel number to get past a roadblock. “Daddy-O” is certainly not great cinema (“That thing was like a class Z picture,” Contino said), but it ranks up there with “The Wild One” as piece of 50s rebel iconography.

This places his recording of “Brazil” — which I believe was made in the late 50s — in the second-wind of Contino’s career. And I have to say, while I wouldn’t apply such superlatives myself, I find his playing perfectly passable, tasteful even (to commit a revealing Bourdieuian sin), and the arrangement sure keeps up with the other big bands we’ve heard above. It’s pretty darn brash, really — peppy even, offering a nice contrast to the more stately, “exalted” march of other interpretations.

But beyond the inflated prose and other obvious points of interest in the liner notes — e.g., the array of (European, if incl “gypsy”) peoples who are, ahem, “doing it” — I want to call attention to the twice-used italicized phrase all yours. That sentiment, of course, is a central myth of the midcentury recording industry: that the music encoded on this slab of vinyl can in fact be possessed by the owner. This claim is distinct from earlier attempts to sell musical commodities. As Tim Taylor outlines in his excellent article, “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’,” the makers of player-pianos and player-piano rolls initially took great pains to assure consumers that they were in fact still the players of the music, that they retained control and power, that they remained central to the process of filling one’s home with music. We see by this point, however, that the rhetoric has firmly shifted: it’s not about possessing the ability to make music, it’s about possessing the music itself.

By extension, we might wonder what it means for a song like “Brazil” to become one’s possession by virtue of buying a somewhat schlocky dance record by a had-been like Dick Contino. Listening to these three instances of “Brazil” in Seymour’s and Bernice’s collection, I have to surmise that the song must have felt, in some way, as if it was all theirs, at least as long as it could also be made one’s own by their friends and neighbors and others in the (imagined) communities or various publics created/addressed by widely-circulating records like these — no doubt, markers of a certain sort of cultural distinction, an everyday worldliness available even to a modest middle-class family living out on Long Island.

At least, that’s how it sounds in my imagination. We’ll see what my daughter’s daughter’s son-in-law, should he ever exist, thinks of that.

Fred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred Astaire

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July 22nd, 2010

musical travels with seymour and bernice, pt. 1: points of embarkation (riddim meth0d repost)

I’m reposting this, originally published to the now-defunct Riddim Meth0d site back in January 2006, in tribute to Seymour, who passed away earlier this week. A long overdue part 2 will follow…


i don’t think we’re in rockville center anymore

with this champagne-bust of a post then, we embark.

and hence we commence our sonicultural adventure, a trip across (real) time and (imagined) space, a journey into the middle of the last century, into a middle-class home, into the middle of long island.

you may be surprised, if reminded, that the middle stands between near and far, high and low. it mediates these extremities, quite literally.

but we’re not interested so much in the literal on this voyage (at least not at this point). we’re interested in the symbolic, in the narratives that music mediates and which themselves animate musical meanings. but let’s begin with some literalities, if simply to couch the symbolic in a more meaningful, relatable context.

seymour and bernice are my wife’s maternal grandparents. they’re not my own grandparents, so i don’t know all that i should know to attempt such an excavation as this, though i hope to learn much by way of listening. recently, as becca and i visited her grandparents, seymour and bernice offered me their record collection. they haven’t had a record player for years, and bernice just got an ipod nano, so who needs a few big, heavy boxes of vinyl sitting around? i guess i do, since i accepted their offer without hesitation. there was something just too tantalizing about all those records, not just for their hidden gems and samplables, but somehow for the sum-total of their expression of a life of record collecting. what would these records say about my in-laws and their lives and the way society and culture looked and sounded to them? i had to find out.

when we returned from long island, i unpacked the boxes, went through each and every one, putting the records in piles according to the imaginary maps in my head, listening to any that caught my eye, putting aside a stack of favorites, and attempting to come to terms with the collection and what it expressed. some of the records seemed rare, some utterly common. there was more classical (and opera, specifically) than i had hoped for, but this was significant in itself (and a fine collection in its own right). the records mainly represented the era in which they were collected (i.e., the 50s and 60s), with relatively few big surprises and a fair number of delights: plenty of swing and standards, pop and dance records, a good whiff of exotica, lots of neo-folk stuff (a la pete seeger), but then a fair amount of jewish music, from the kitschy to the cantatorial, russian and yiddish folk songs to jazzed-up klezmer and israeli nationalist anthems. mostly 12s, a few 10s, and a handful of 78s. i was told that some records (mainly the russian ones) were inherited from an aunt, and that some were probably the kids’ (one of whom, my mother-in-law, will no doubt be gassed to hear the records released by her childhood summer camp — limited pressings indeed, and for good reason).

the music i plan to share with you as i go on these travels with seymour and bernice will mainly be those tracks or records which caught my attention, those that are most curious to me — and, of course, those that sound best. all things considered, this will undoubtedly be a strange trip, and i will acknowledge at the outset that it may well ultimately express my own musical imagination more strongly than it expresses anything that might relate to seymour and bernice, or their family, or mid-twentieth century long island, new york america. but that, i hope, is what might save this exercise from being the sort of thing that should be confined to one’s parlour (if one has a parlour these days). i hope that my role as curator or interpreter or whatever-you-wanna-call-me makes these travels not just bearable but enjoyable — perhaps even something in which you can participate.

i envision this venture/project/travelogue as taking a road somewhere between pace’s L.O.V.E. and jace’s vinyl rescue service (as well as the seemingly defunct stickershock). i see it as another way that riddim = method, which is to say, another way that music can express ideas, can open up into broader conversations, can provoke us to think, to contemplate, to make sense of the world. it seems that this medium’s (i.e., the internets’s) ability to share and revise, discuss and debate, tag and archive media is unparalleled in its power, and i hope to tap into that — if only partially, suggestively — to tell this story. i invite you to build the narrative with me, to riff off of it, and to start your own. i’ll lend you my ears if you lend me yours. so many record collections, so little time. but worlds upon worlds to discover. and this is as good a way in (and out) as any…

// i wish you L.O.V.E. //

the first track i will offer is from a record that caught my eye on that first day home, partly because of the stereotypically gay-parisian scene (and thus its kitsch potential) and partly because of the shiny sleeve. the song is a midcentury french pop standard, “que reste-t-il de nos amours?” — written by charles trenet. it appears on living strings at a sidewalk cafe, an LP issued in 1963 by camden RCA, whose other releases included living strings play henry mancini, the shimmering sounds of living strings, and where did the night go with the living strings. (i’ve left the telltale, and cherished [by us hip-hop folk], vinyl static around the song so as to frame it with reminders of the sound’s original material form.)

living strings, “i wish you love”

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right away, i’m struck by the sentimental, if not outright schmaltzy, strings — typical of pop arrangements of that era and hallmarks of what came to be known as easy listening music. the second thing that grabs my attention, though, is the mellow, latin-ate percussion. one thing that emerges from the experience of listening across many of these lounge-y records from the 50s and 60s is the degree to which latin styles permeate the parlourscape of the period. after a certain point, such signs are not exactly exotic anymore, and it’s interesting to hear the way american music absorbs various “foreign” currents to the point where they become so ubiquitous as to seem utterly unremarkable, utterly american.

after these initial impressions, i find myself following the melody, finding pleasure in tracing its romantic contours. the arrangement erupts into wonderful little surprises, however scripted, as when the flutes bubble-out their transitional riffs or when the accordian takes up the melody, giving it a decidedly (if imaginatively) french sound. (the hanging vibraphone arpeggio that concludes the song is just the sort of thing that amon tobin might employ to end one of his sample-based epics.) the song’s swelling grandeur, while predictable, is not only audible and visible (see below), it’s downright palpable — and that’s a sign of affect accomplished.

france here appears both foreign and familiar, dressed in the dulcet tones of international pop and yet fairly exotic too. the sounds themselves, and the record sleeve’s promise of “music to whisk you away to cafes international!“ express both a longing and an affinity for the foreign, perhaps even a cosmopolitanism that we might hear as progressive. but is it articulating an individual’s desire to experience different senses of place? or a generation(s)-removed nostalgia for the old world? or, perhaps, an international alignment — e.g., NATO — that may have seemed appealing in post-WWII, cold-war-era

the language of escape and difference, fantasy and distance running through the sleeve notes would seemingly point us more toward nostalgia and desire (e.g., to go abroad — a relative novelty given the recent advent of mass air travel), at least as far as the marketing team was concerned. here’re the notes from the back of the sleeve:

It’s the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, the Caffe Doney in Rome, the Cafe Demel in Vienna, and a state of mind and wistful dreams anywhere at all. This is the sidewalk cafe, a relaxed, alfresco world of wicker chairs, marble-top tables and aproned waiters – part club, part meeting place, alive with laughter and talk.

Here is the music of the sidewalk cafe – gay songs, sad songs, songs of memory.

From Germany, music of love and the warm atmosphere of “Gemutlichkeit”: Du du liegst mir im Herzen (“You Are in My Heart”); Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart; You Can’t Be True, Dear from a German Hit called “Du kannst nicht treu sein,” and the classic Lili Marlene, adopted as a world-wide favorite by American G.I.’s in World War II.

From Austria the lovely waltz Vienna, My City of Dreams.

From France, I Wish You Love (“Que reste-t-il de nos amours”), written by the French idol Charles Trenet; another French favorite, J’attendrai (“I’ll Be Yours”).

From the U.S., three lovely hits which have become sidewalk cafe favorites the world over: Play, Fiddle, Play, an entrancing waltz; My Heart Cries for You, one of the big hits of 1951, and the enchanting Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo from Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer‘s movie hit “Lili.”

it’s interesting to me that germany, austria, and france have been so thoroughly recuperated in the american imagination by this point (“warm atmosphere”?!), as well as how these particular european places don’t necessarily seem to matter so much at all. indeed, one could have one’s “wistful dreams” anywhere at all if one wants. and, what do you know, there is a direct reference to WWII and the way that europe came home, and went ‘round, with the boys. finally, the comforting notion of american global influence rears its head in the last paragraph and yet, interestingly, it appears alongside the explicit acknowledgment of the french actress who popularized the song to which they refer and of the composer, the only american composer mentioned and a man with a conspicuously cuban name.

so, i’m thinking “ambivalence,” but that’s a no-brainer. this is obviously more complex territory than that, and the decades between its production then and its reception here, as an mp3, will obviously make our hermeneutical endeavor that much more tricky (if fun).

listen again: what does it sound like to you?

// tighten your beltz //

the second example i offer you is from another record that grabbed me at first sight. again, it something about the design, rather than a verbal description of the contents, that caught my eye. the bold lines, the simple color scheme – it recalled for me various jazz records from that time, especially the modernist blue note sleeves. of course, the barry sisters are a handsome pair as well. and when i looked closer and saw the yiddish titles, my curiosity was piqued.

i put the record on immediately, and the first song proved to be the most arresting of the LP, a collection of yiddish folk/popular songs released by cadence records in the 1960s (no exact date found) under the unassuming title, the barry sisters sing.

the barry sisters, “beltz”

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as the song begins, plaintive strings conjure a sense of melancholy which seems to hang in the air, heavy with dreadful anticipation, as the opening gesture comes to a rubato resolution. when the sisters’ voices enter along with the rest of the arrangement, they quickly confirm these intimations of sadness: they sound tormented by grief, like souls longing for another time and place. they embrace the tune’s minor harmonies, drawing deep pathos out of chordtones and semitones, slurring syllables and bending pitches around their heavy hearts. they sound — if i may — like jews with the blues, and that’s not meant to be a pithy cliche: on the contrary, it’s meant to describe the very sound and sentiment underlying “beltz.”

known early in their career as the bagelman sisters, the barry sisters were among the most prominent exponents of yiddish swing, a jazzed-up approach to yiddish folk songs that emerged in an era which produced swing ballads and ethnic novelties alike (and in spades), and a genre that found favor among (second and third) american jews looking for a modern expression of their cultural heritage. as you can hear, the MOR arrangement bears witness to the degree that this subcultural style partook in mainstream popular musical vocabulary (another ending on a hanging vibraphone?!), but there’s something unnervingly distinctive about the accompaniment all the same. those sweeping strings could almost evoke nat king cole or dean martin in their cartoonish sentimentality, but then, they’re a little too ominous, especially against the barry sisters’ voices. allusions to and uses of the yiddish musical vocabulary and repertory would seem partly, if not largely, to account for this elusive but qualitative difference between the music of the barry sisters and their easy listening contemporaries. and perhaps they explain why — despite the looming threat of kitsch — the song sounds, even today, not so much a curio as a hauntingly beautiful performance.

of course, it gets a little goofy in the middle, with some uplifting strains which still manage to sound fragile, fleeting. the middle section doesn’t resolve, it leads right back to the beginning, the sad refrain, the painful memories. and then, a dreamy instrumental chorus, allowing us to fill in the pictures before the sisters return at the bridge to take us slowly, (bitter)sweetly home.

as it turns out, the sisters are singing about a far-away place after all, a former home of sorts (if only in metaphorical terms), a place called beltz/belz — a small town in ukraine which was also home to a hasidic dynasty. but their song is a more generalizable tale. it is a story of mourning, of grieving for a childhood memory — of life in a shtetl — that is no more. again the historical context of the record’s production is crucial to guess at its range of reception and resonance: post-WWII, holocaust hanging heavy over the lieu de memoire that is the subject of the song. the shtetl could thus be heard as a metonym for a former life that has been destroyed, ruined, lost. i didn’t get all of this upon my first listening, but i do think the song’s power of affect evokes this sentiment rather well — almost precisely. the only words i really recognized when i first listened were “mein shtetl,” which were enough in themselves to suggest a few possible themes to me, especially when paired with the lyrics’ sorrowful setting.

the sleeve notes provided me with more grist for the mill, including no little astonishment at the strange sort of self-deprecation with which the author (identified by the initials S.D.) introduces his/her remarks. allow me to share some excerpts:

You are now reading the opening sentence of a rambling essay of some five hundred words covering the entire reverse side of this album. But, truthfully, even if you were to stop reading right now, you would still know most of the facts in the case. You have already seen the front cover. You have been advised that here are a dozen familiar and beloved melodies which have their origins in Yiddish folk and popular music. They are sung in the warm and flawless style of the Barry Sisters. Some of the songs have been composed, and all of them arranged and conducted, by Abraham Ellstein. So, then, why continue to peruse the rest of this less than immortal prose? Shouldn’t an album of music, any kind of music, speak, or, rather, sing for itself? It should. And this one does. But there is a reason for this writing. It’s a reason that has to do with a normal reaction to a new musical experience. When you hear a work of genuine beauty, stature and originality for the very first time, you just cannot let go of it. There’s that exciting urge to examine it, think about it, talk about it. And so we thought that perhaps you would care to know just a little bit more about the background of the songs and the singers since never before has there been an album of music exactly like this one.

In one sense these are melodies and rhythms that might be said to possess a definite flavor and feeling even though no two of the songs are exactly alike. Several of them are popular tunes written by well known composers but the origins of some of the others will always remain a mystery. Who knows how many thousands of years ago a Palestinian shepherd first played the original strains of Hi Hora on a primitive reed? How old is a folk song like Rozenkes und Mandlen, and who wrote it? We will never know. What we do know, however, is that each song in the album has undergone a remarkable transformation. While losing nothing of their original charm, they have taken on an illuminating and new dimension. They are still Yiddish songs but now they speak to us in the universal language of music. They belong to everyone regardless of speech or background. My Yiddishe Momma is now everybody’s Momma. Gesselle is now everybody’s street of heartbreak, nostalgia and unrequited love. Beit Mir A Bisselle and Abi Gesunt are as modern and as swingy as anything in the juke boxes.

Quite sincerely, we believe that these will be your conclusions after you have heard the album. You are probably asking yourself how was it done? Well, it didn’t happen by accident. It would be altogether accurate to say that this album has been years in preparation. It was made by people who grew up with this music, who have known it, nurtured it and loved it. First, we have the Barry Sisters, Claire and Merna. All right, they were born lucky. They discovered, quite early in life, that they had voices. Claire’s voice is high and beautiful; Merna’s is sweet and low. Constant study and arduous practise succeeded in producing the breath-taking and seemingly effortless blend that is so characteristic of their unique and lovely style. The songs in this album go back to their childhood. But even at the beginning, Claire and Merna heard these melodies in terms of other rhythms and other notes. They were born in New York and were raised on the popular music of America. From the very first, they brought a new world interpretation to an old world tune. For a while, as their many recordings, broadcasts, and club dates might indicate, they were the country’s leading exponents of what was termed Yiddish Swing. But the girls were proving something else to themselves and the public. They were demonstrating beyond any shadow of a doubt that good music can break any language barrier. Today, they are one of the country’s leading singing acts, at home with any type of song anywhere in the world. To them, this album represents a return to an early, never forgotten and still active love.

The result is music that is older than all of our ancestors and as new as this morning’s paper . . . music that springs from a single nationality, and is as universal as the United Nations.

yep, it’s pretty quaint stuff, couched in terms of newness and normalcy, of foreigness and familiarity. it describes the music as modern and “swingy” and yet timeless, as being of universal appeal — they belong to everyone — and yet “from a single nationality.” i wonder whether the universalist rhetoric was meant to appeal to non-jews or simply to jews ambivalent about their jewishness? or am i simply being naive about midcentury, metropolitan jewishness? it is interesting to me also that, apparently, zionist discourse had not yet divorced the term palestinian from any association with jewish heritage.

i could say much more, but this entry has already grown too lengthy. suffice it to say that this complex gem of a recording points us to what will inevitably be another thread running through our musical travels with seymour and bernice: the weirdness and wonders of negotiating jewishness in the post-war era, a historical moment in which israel loomed large, across which the holocaust cast its long shadow, and during which many american jews of the post-post-pogram generation (i.e., born to first- or second-generation parents), were going secular, embracing cultural notions of jewishness, and trying to figure out which traditions and values and symbols to maintain and which to let go.

or at least that’s what i imagine i hear, at least at this moment.

what do you hear?

btw, if you want to hear more from the barry sisters, stay tuned, as i will surely revisit their catalog in another installment. and for more music along these lines, check out the yiddish radio project from NPR as well as josh kun’s hippocampus. [update: see also, the idelsohn society for musical preservation, involved with such salutary projects as jews on vinyl.]

// . . . //

more perhaps than even this monstrous first entry might portend, i hope to unpack a great deal of this collection in due time, working through it and learning as i go. on the way, i hope to get some feedback from you, dear reader and listener, as well as from seymour and bernice, who will surely be tickled by all of this and who will hopefully be happy that i’m enjoying their records.

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October 9th, 2009

¿Como Se Dice “Talking Head” en Español?

I’m excited to announce, for a couple reasons, that next week PBS will begin airing the 4-part series, “Latin Music USA.” Episode 1 (Latin Jazz, Mambo) and Episode 2 (Salsa) will air on Monday, October 12; Episode 3 (Chicano Rock, Tejano, Norteño) and Episode 4 (Latin Pop, Reggaeton) will air the following Monday, October 19. It’s an ambitious and salutary project —

Latin Music USA is a story about American music. Fusions of Latin sounds with jazz, rock, country, rhythm and blues – music with deeper roots and broader reach than most people realize. It’s a fresh take on our musical history, reaching across time and across musical genres to embrace the exciting hybrid sounds created by Latinos; musical fusions that have deeply enriched popular music in the US for over more than five decades.

The multi-media project is anchored by a four-hour documentary series that will premiere in October 2009, during Hispanic Heritage Month, on PBS stations nationwide. Produced by a world-class production team at WGBH and the BBC, Latin Music USA invites the audience into the vibrant musical conversation between Latinos and non-Latinos that has helped shape the history of popular music in the United States. Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15th-Oct. 15th), a time to recognize the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the United States and to celebrate Hispanic heritage and culture, offers the series a perfect opportunity to further honor these influences. (via)

As if the series’ ambition and tribute to the USA’s Latin roots/routes wasn’t enough to be excited about, they’ve given me (and maybe you, dear reader) an additional reason to be enthused: Episode 4, touching on reggaeton and Latin hip-hop, features my first appearance as a TV talking head! That I get to offer some commentary alongside big dogs like Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderon, never mind the vast slate of distinguished musicians, producers, journalists, and scholars also featured in the series, is a humbling and awesome thing to report.


thx to the enormous room for the classy backdrop!

You can get a taste via a couple clips on their website, wherein I think I acquit myself ok:

1) me talking bout reggae en Panama después de Yankee discussing dembow
2) me talking bout Puerto Rican / Nuyorican hip-hop & reggaeton’s blingy incursions

I highly recommend poking around on the website. It’s quite flashy and interactive — you can browse texts, audio, and video by navigating swirling networks of places, genres, instruments, rhythms, and more. Check out, for example, the “universe” of Latin Jazz.

This series is a big experiment for PBS, a deviation from the standard programming targeting the PBS core audience (i.e., Masterpiece Theater, Antiques Roadshow). According to one of my contacts at PBS, they’re aware that the primary audience for this series (Latinos) does not typically watch PBS, and they’re hoping it will attract viewers from all over the spectrum. So, tusabes, plz help em out on their socialmedia campaign by friending, fanning, RTing, etcccc —

Special thanks to Juan Camilo Agudelo & Adriana Bosch for involving me in the project — congratulations on its completion, y’all, and all the best with reaching the vast viewership it deserves!

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June 29th, 2009

Pop Goes the World

There’s little I can add to all the tributes and reflections gumming up the web these days, but like so many others I feel compelled to say something. Inspired even. I found Andrew Sullivan’s and Jeff Chang’s posts pretty resonant, Jason King’s too, among others, and I’ve been particularly struck by all the MJ music I’ve been hearing in the street and on the radio — and especially all the callers explaining to DJs how his passing feels like losing a family member.

Of course (of course?!), my experience of sharing the loss and the joyous, deeply-embodied memories of his music has probably been most strongly textured by Twitter, where I hardly needed a hashtag to hear from dozens of friends and “friends” about the man we all knew and loved (despite his serious problems). Many have made mention of the Twitter effect on MJ’s death — not to mention MJ’s effect on Twitter. Sasha Frere-Jones noted the irony in turning the radio off and letting the TV sit dormant while he and James Murphy’s people received and tapped out tweets on their phones and laptops. Ethan Zuckerman, who wrote a script to track Twitter activity (post-Moldova and the like), announced on Thursday night that 15% of all tweets were about Michael Jackson, a remarkable statistic given that he’d never seen Iran or swine flu top 5% (others have placed MJ’s footprint at 30%, though Ethan offers some important qualifications here).

I admit that it was pretty surreal “watching” MJ die via Twitter. One tweet it was cardiac arrest maybe, a few more speculated wildly, the stuff of rumor: a coma? stopped breathing? There were a couple dreadful say-it-aint-so’s, and then, before long, the news was pouring in, confirmed, unbelievable but not surprising.

Weird as it was initially, though, it quickly turned cathartic — in a beautiful way — as disbelief morphed into something more like eulogy and second-line at the same time and the “digital bouquets” began piling up. What was especially mindboggling, as I settled into a several hour face-to-face listening session with some friends, was the knowledge, repeatedly suggested by my phone, that millions of us (a wild extrapolation, I know) were listening to Michael Jackson’s music at the same time. A realization that made me wonder aloud whether anything like it had ever happened before in the history of world culture.

I suspect not — for Michael Jackson is a sui generis pop star, unrivaled in popularity (never mind Lennon’s claim to be “bigger than Jesus,” MJ just might), who, beyond his remarkable talents as a singer, dancer, and songwriter, happened to come of age at just the right moment in global media, a moment that may not ever be reproduced. In a piece published last Friday, Jody Rosen hits the nail:

Weeping for Michael, we are also mourning the musical monoculture—the passing of a time when we could imagine that the whole country, the whole planet, was listening to the same song.

Though that era may be over and the mainstream dissolved “into a trillion scattered data-bites,” at least on Thursday night and Friday, and to some extent through the weekend and still today, that’s kinda what it feels like, as if we’re all listening to the same thing. Not one song, but one artist’s oeuvre is suffusing soundscapes the world over in a manner that can only be unprecedented and seems unlikely to happen again. (But go ahead, make me myopic.)

I guess my relationship to MJ and his music is not unlike others of my generation. I know many of his songs by heart. A Victory Tour ’84 poster hung on our bedroom wall. Had a birthday cake with his face emblazoned on it sometime in the mid-80s. Wore a pin with his Thrillery face on it back when I was 8 (a tweeted remembrance that found itself in SFJ’s NYer post).

Michael Jackson was incredibly awesome and deeply flawed, and so was his music. He produced a bewildering number of absolutely flawless songs, don’t get me wrong, but he’s also responsible for some of the schlockiest, heavy-handedest pop ever crafted (as well as plenty of unremarkable clunkers). He practically invented the modern r&b power ballad, complete with gospel/kids choir and gear changes run amok (not a good look, IMO), so much so that soca star Machel Montano, mourning his loss, erroneously included R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (“I Can’t Believe It’s Not MJ?”) among Jackson’s anthems.

I’ve actually been a little surprised that I haven’t (yet) seen many Michael Jackson remixes and DJ sets making the rounds. Perhaps people have been too busy remembering in real time. So I was glad to see Hank Shocklee ask people to send some his way. I did a little digging and a little on-the-fly warping and I came up with a trio of tracks, one made by me, that offer some new angles on ol’ MJ, transposing him into house, jungle, and reggae —

     * Masters At Work’s remix of “Rock With You” (mp3 | YouTube)
     * DJ C’s remix of Shinehead’s cover of “Billie Jean” (mp3)
     * and my own mix’n’mash of MJ’s “Billie Jean” vox + Sly & Robbie’s “Billie Jean” riddim (mp3)

My own effort is a lot more slapdash than the sophisticated, detailed productions by MAW and DJ C. More mashup than meticulous. What I’ve done is added the acapella from “Billie Jean” to Sly and Robbie’s slinky reggae version of that song’s instrumental (actually, it’s just one of their versions — they also support the Shinehead cover that DJ C remixes, as it happens). I’ve applied a little delay and other bits of digital manipulation to MJ’s voice, hoping to estrange a little so well-worn a performance, and I’ve cut and pasted some chunks of the riddim around to maintain the right harmonic motion at points where they diverged.

While we’re on the subject of remixes and the like — or, of how Michael Jackson’s very public presence inspires waves of activity across public culture — it’s worth noting that there’s also already been a corrido composed in his honor:

MJ’s reign as global pop king is perhaps still ungraspable. Thomas Friedman-esque anecdotes only go so far. We need greater data, quantitative and qualitative, and more local histories of his presence and influence and resonance. Emma Baulch noted on the IASPM listserv that “In Indonesia, Bad and Dangerous were more successful than Thriller, in terms of official sales.” But she pointed out that this fails to account for pirated sales (and, I’d add, other forms of informal / non-commercial circulation).

Of course, there may be no better bizarro embodiment of MJ’s global reach than those memetastic Filipino inmates doing their pitchframe-perfect re-enactment of the “Thriller” video. Then again, we should bear in mind that the Philippines is perhaps something of a special case.

Given all this activity, not to mention the reports of off-the-charts sales in the wake of his death, I do wonder how we would begin to take measure of such a thing as Michael Jackson’s global popularity. How do we get a grasp on the actual immensity of the event? What do we know, for example, about MJ’s YouTube views? — & not only on the thousands of instantiations of his songs and videos that fans have uploaded but even on the handful of tracks that sampled his songs and also have become shrines of sorts?

Speaking of shrines, which indubitably contain a range of images of the man (as this post itself does), I have to note that when I think of MJ, I seem to picture him as the blur in between the black and the white, the lean mean singing-and-dancing machine and the media freakshow, the unbelievably awesome and the transmogrified tragic. Having first grown up with his music and later grappled with him as an embodiment of American racial imagination, I still have more questions than answers. And one of the most notorious questions is the one posed over 20 years ago by Greg Tate: What’s Wrong With Michael Jackson?

Upon reading Tate’s piece again, I wonder how much the man (in the mirror) was precisely that: a cipher upon which we read the twisted American story in growing contortion, progressive disfigurement, a grotesque from which we could not, cannot, turn our heads. A sad story, to be sure. But a narrative that, as Michael showed as well as anyone else, leaves plenty room for improvisation and for (occasional) transcendence.

This was my initial, and remains my lingering, impression on the death of Michael Jackson —

And I’ll leave it there for now. Thx for letting us rock with you for so long. So long…

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June 22nd, 2009

Can We Talk About “Can We Talk About the Reggaeton Crash?”?

Gavin’s throwing darts again, and he hits a couple bullseyes — or offers some sharp prodding at any rate. The post is on par with his thoughtful and provocative ruminations on the ethics of musical tourism from almost exactly a year ago, and we can read it as something of a follow-up, a continuation not just of bloggy resonances but of nagging questions that must be asked.

The subject Gavin returns to is near and dear to me: (brave?) nu-whirled music / global ghettotech. He distills into a neat narrative arc a certain dynamic of the musical blogosphere (or at least one humble corner of it). As Gavin sees it, most of the nu-whirled/global-gtech genres follow a predictable pattern, the ol’ boom-and-bust of the hype machine —

The dominant narrative is well established: in the midst of urban poverty afflicting a community of color/nonWestern nationality, young people appropriate the techniques of hip hop/reggae/techno and make their own version of these established genres in their vernacular. A flurry of creativity creates an entire musical culture full of rapid stylistic changes and hybridity; meanwhile, the older generation and middle classes disdain the music as oversexual and immoral. Then the music hits the shores of the West, through immigrant diasporas, study-abroad programs, and canny journos looking for the next big thing. Gushing articles are written, cosmopolitan centers host parties centered around the sound, and the most recognizable sonic elements of these genres (dem bow, tamborazo) show up in remixes and DJ sets. A few artists are cherrypicked as leading the crop. A compilation album firms up the brand identity (what are genres but brands?). Tours and careers are launched. And then the genre fails to keep up with the rapid cultural turnover endemic to digital capitalism and interest fades. Luckily new genres from new locales spring up to fill the void.

A lot of this makes a lot of sense. And Gavin’s call for a close examination of the “political economy of global ghettotech” is imperative. Of course, the call for an attn to specific political economies seems in conflict with the impulse, on the other hand, to offer meta-narratives (i.e., “global ghettotech” itself) — but perhaps Gavin acknowledges this with his use of “dominant narrative,” a distancing gesture or sorts.

It’s funny, though, that Gavin picks reggaeton as his example — & funny for two reasons:

1) it’s misleading
2) it’s wrong

Wrt #1: As I initially commented on Gavin’s post, I think reggaeton is a misleading example for understanding the general dynamics of global ghettotech because it is, in some respects, exceptional. Although it may have been one of the first non-Anglo/non-mainstream genres to find uptake on the (world/whirled) music connoisseurosphere (getting lots of love here, & at Muddup, Ghettobassquake, Masala, etc.), it also departs from what I would consider more representative worldmusic2.0 genres (funk carioca, kuduro, nu-cumbia, juke) in significant ways. Perhaps most obviously, while we might be able to argue that nu-whirled bloggers played some role in the popularization of such genres as funk carioca and kuduro and (nu)cumbia — outside of their originary/primary sites of production, that is — I think we can hardly say the same for reggaeton.

Indeed, the economic arc of reggaeton’s story — which Gavin describes pretty accurately, actually — makes it seem like quite the outlier in all of this, since none of the other genres so popular among “global ghettotech” (for lack of a better term) DJs and bloggers, etc., have enjoyed even a modicum of reggaeton’s remarkable success within American (and global) commercial culture. One might be able to make an argument for cumbia — but not nu-cumbia — which has enjoyed a steady, and growing, level of popularity across Latin America for the better part of a century (though reggaeton’s incursions into English-language media still make it special in this regard).

Given the scale of the reggaeton phenomenon, it’s popularity among a relatively small number of DJs and music bloggers hardly seems remarkable. I do think it’s remarkable that reggaeton was among the first non-English genres to make inroads in the INTL urban DJ/enthusiast scene (for lack of better terms), and in this way it’s an important footnote in the story of global gobbledicunk, sin duda. Perhaps, and maybe this is what Gavin cares more about, the way in which reggaeton quickly fell out of favor for this set (which, yes, finds parallels in a broader “recession” for reggaeton) is endemic to the nu-whirled phenomenon. In that case, I would certainly agree. Nu-black is the new black.

Wrt #2: Despite all the chatter about it crashing or, more cutely, running out of gasolina, reggaeton is far from dead.

Among other indicators, as I tweeted the other day (pointing to this):


And I was happy to get some quick, on-the-ground affirmation from Brooklyn:


For my part, in the days since reading Gavin’s post I’ve counted several dembow-rattled trunks passing me on the street here in Cambridge.

And indeed, I was heartened to read this morning that Gavin himself has recanted somewhat. After attending Chicago’s Puerto Rican Pride festival this weekend (in my former hood, Humboldt Park!), he reports that, having heard a dosa buena de dembow, “[r]umors of reggaeton’s death are be greatly exaggerated.” That’s reassuring, especially since I think Gavin has long held a keen ear to the reggaetony (under)ground, as demonstrated in this relatively early piece on the genre.

Moreover, Gavin’s critical ears and eyes remain sharp. His description of the contemporary sound of reggaeton (or wot-ever se llama) hits the nail on the head —

The Dem Bow is definitely muted or completely absent in a lot of these tracks, instead there’s a kind of digital-dancehall feel, with lots of effervesynths and autotune. The way reggaeton (if you can call it that) is looking in 2009 is a hybrid of T-Pain R&B, Caribbean pop, and hints of trance.

But what more should we expect from a “genre” that has consistently engaged with contemporary hip-hop, pop, and dancehall for the last 15 years? To my ears, this is hardly a departure for what we call(ed?) reggaeton, but which has gone under many other names (and forms). If anything, the LunyTuny dembow orthodoxy of 2002-07 stands as a greater aesthetic aberration — a formal “distortion” produced by a timely collision with market “forces” — than the current crop of tracks coming out of PR (and the diaspora).

Even without an explicit dembow in the more recent productions (by the same people who produced hits during reggaeton’s heyday, to date), there’s still a recognizable aesthetic core there, I’d argue — one that emerges precisely out of the PR-based engagement with US and Caribbean and Latin American dance/pop/rap. You might miss it if it’s dembow orthodoxy you’re searching for (and I may be as guilty as any in pointing people to keep their ears on the snares). I could go on in some detail and elaborate, but, you know what, I already have. If you’re interested in this aesthetic history (and the role different genre names and forms have played), READ MY CHAPTER ALREADY.

To me, it’s more telling that reggaeton continues to generate such heated debate than that radio stations (and reggaeton stars) have shifted their strategies and broadened their palettes. That the genre still serves as such a (self-serving?) target speaks volumes.

For one, I’ll point any curious gawkers to the video I posted to YouTube in which Vico C demonstrates by beatbox the difference between hip-hop and reggaeton. Like a lot of other reggaeton-related postings around the net, it has become a vehicle for anti-reggaeton vitriol. How could something so dead generate such heat?

For two, consider a couple germane texts that my co-editor, Raquel Rivera, emailed to me recently: 1) the comments on her blog generated by her appearance on WNYC; and 2) an article in El Nuevo Dia in which salsa legend Willie Colon argues that reggaeton has peaked (the original is now behind a pay wall). My response was this —

i think reggaeton’s gonna be around (and popular) for some time to come. we’ll see what it sounds like, though. and whether people still call “it” reggaeton (they did, after all, used to call “it” any number of names).

colon may be right that the “euphoria” has passed, but that doesn’t mean the genre’s days are numbered. plus, this is clearly a bit of self-promotion for his own music, talking bout how people have returned to salsa. they never really turned away.

on another note, isn’t saying “música urbana” basically like saying “música negra”? it is in english — a pretty specious euphemism really. might as well say “race records.” so maybe we’re back where we started, but in a worse place?

The exchange made me think that if I were writing my chapter now, it might have to be titled “Música Negra to Música Urbana” — a sly story of commodification, accommodation, and shape-shifting.

I also spoke recently to a reporter asking essentially the same questions (is reggaeton dead? has it crashed? its moment passed?), and I told her I think it’s just as possible that 2004-06 represents the first of several “reggaeton” waves (que onda!), as opposed to but a flash in the pan. And I’m not simply talking in terms of the periodic Latin “booms” (and busts) that have punctuated US popular culture for at least the last century. It seems totally plausible to me that “Gasolina” and the other reggaetony blips on the “mainstream” radar were just the tip of the iceberg for Afro-Latin-American media finding a permanent place in American (in the broadest sense) mass culture. I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether history & demographics & (American/global) popular culture bear this out.

I think one could contend, at any rate, that reggaeton is as popular as it’s ever been, billboard hits notwithstanding: reggaeton stars still fill stadiums across the Americas, sell millions of CDs, and have secured a spot on urban Spanish-language radio and in the “Latin” wing of the Music Industry; moreover, there are more “bedroom” producers at work producing the music than ever before, and in more places. That reggaeton (whatever it gets called) continues to thrive at both the corporate and grassroots levels is not to be underplayed, whether or not the “euphoria” has passed (for whom?).

In a sense, this question of whether reggaeton is “dead” amounts to the PR-centric version of an odd question posed recently in the Jamaica Observer: “Is Dancehall Still Dancehall?” On the one hand, as I noted somewhat cheekily, with a nod to Norm Stolzoff, dancehall is now, was always, and ever shall be dancehall. On the other, it’s also reggae. But then again, it’s not. People distinguish roots from dancehall all the time, sometimes with the confusingly metonymic use of “reggae” as a stand-in for “roots reggae”; ask these sample people, however, and reggae is reggae is reggae (even if it’s ska). Or yet another angle: a good friend of mine, a Jamaican who grew up in Cambridge, wouldn’t consider Bounty Killer to be dancehall since, for him, Josey Wales chatting over some rub-a-dub reggae was dancehall (indeed, the music of Josey, et al., was the first style of Jamaican pop to be so strongly identified with the music’s social space — the dancehall — that it took on its name); rather, Bounty & Beenie, et al., represented something else, perhaps better described as rap (at least from my fren’s perspective).

As usual, I’m not saying there’s a there there. It can all get pretty tautological really. (Word to Wiley.) Some labels stick, some don’t. Some become brands, some don’t.

It’s still pretty astounding to me that something as clunky and freighted as “global ghettotech” might prove a useful brand, but DJs/bloggers like UMB are waving the banner, apparently with some modest success. Guillaume has some interesting thoughts about all of this, which I hope he’ll share soon. Lest we get carried away, I think we should keep in mind, as /Rupture noted, that

The exposure and interest is overrated. ‘Global ghettotech’ club nights are a minority, it is just a few individuals in a few cities doing it.

As I put these thoughts together, and commented on Gavin’s next post, it occurred to me that I might sound at times as if my own meta-narrative about reggaeton is akin to some sort of Afro-Latino version of TEH NUUM. And I hardly intend anything like that. The last thing I want to do is “overdetermine” a lot of fresh music by imposing some sort of totalizing theory on it. And I sure don’t want to produce for myself (and others) a myopic lens for interpreting new music by saddling it with the weight of tradition (e.g., bassline as hardcore?), much as that can seem inevitable. Kinda like missing the trees for the forest, innit.

On the other hand, sometimes these metanarratives can serve as profoundly meaningful frames for making sense of music (and cultural politics) as it engages our senses. For better or worse, that’s what “global ghettotech” has done / attempts to do — to contain within its ambivalent name(brand?) a set of questions, challenges, critiques. Not to beat a dead horse (or an undead one!), but one reason I employed the term “ghettotech” — problematic or confusing as that “appropriation” may be — is that it perhaps acknowledges the “uncomfortably romantic” dimension in so much of this engagement and activity. Then again, my hope — if I may risk such technoptimism — is that the (increasingly) p2p nature of all this musical exchange might promise some rapprochement between the celebraters and celebratees, the metropolitan DJs/promoters/bloggers/critics and their bredren on the peripheries (or right next door).

This is something I’ve been struggling with — in part c/o some provocative talks and interviews given in the last 6 months by Kode9 (occasionally with Kodwo Eshun). Honored as I am to find “global ghettotech” appearing alongside the ‘nuum and their own possible (afro)futurisms, I am definitely wary of creating a critical apparatus that somehow absorbs the future shock of new music. Grappling with this issue — with the critical effects of web2.0 discourse on worldmusic2.0 — seems very necessary, indeed central to my next/current project.

But I’d better stop here, as I’ve still got a lot to think through in this regard, and I’ve already written too much already. (Congrats if you made it this far!)

Thanks for the continued conversation, all –

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May 26th, 2009

B-Boy = Book Boy, and Other Uprock Narratives

Some bookish things to report, including the latest re: Reggaeton — namely, that tomorrow, Wednesday May 27 (which happens to be my born day), I’ll be appearing alongside co-editor Raquel Rivera on WNYC’s Soundcheck.



The show airs live at 2pm EST. I believe it’s carried by a number of NPR stations nationally, or can be listened to online. If you’d like to hear something like the /Rupture radio show but a little more NPR-ish this is your best bet.

[Late update: I couldn't make the trek to NYC today after all, so it's just gonna be my capable compañera-de-libro, Raquel. Check (and comment on) the segment here.]

There are two other new music books I’m excited about & I think you maybe shouldbe too —

1) Joe Schloss’s Foundation is an ethnography and history of b-boy culture just out on Oxford University Press. Joe is a good friend, a fellow hip-hop ethnomusicologist, and one of the most lucid and sensible thinkers about hip-hop I know. Check the technique from a recent review by Adam Mansbach

Both the coherence of b-boy culture and its under-the-radar status, Schloss argues, can be attributed to the form’s relative lack of commodification. Graffiti exploded onto the gallery scene in the early ’80s; rap records were selling millions of copies by 1979. B-boying proved more difficult to package. It was a process, not a product, so it escaped back underground, relatively unscathed.

The unmediated nature of b-boying also accounts for the dearth of scholarship on the subject. According to Schloss, writers are accustomed to analyzing the artifacts hip-hop offers the market; lamentably, this “puts the theory in the hands of the scholar” and “relieves [him] of the obligation to actually engage with the community.”

Schloss’s approach is quite different, and the result is the best work ever produced on b-boying, and one of the finest books yet to emerge from the swiftly proliferating ranks of hip-hop scholarship. In researching “Foundation,” the author spent five years attending every b-boy event in New York City; not only did he interview the craft’s leading practitioners, he apprenticed himself to them, learning the dance physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

Once a cornerstone of all hip-hop expression, the mentor-apprentice relationship is another victim of the culture’s marriage to mass media. Many graffiti writers, for example, claim that the biggest change their art form ever underwent occurred when professional photographers began documenting it; this allowed neophytes to learn style from photos instead of masters.

But in b-boying, apprenticeship is alive and well. “The vast majority of serious b-boys and b-girls in New York,” Schloss tells us, “have studied directly with the elders,” pioneers who have been “refining their aesthetic for upwards of three decades . . . and are barely even in their 40s.”

The second book is perhaps a little more eye-catching (though I quite like the Foundation design) —

2) Elijah Wald, a true pop-musical polymath, has a new book out (also on Oxford U, as it happens), bearing the provocative title, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Elijah, who is also a friend and who I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with at several music conferences (much to my edification), offers up a meticulously researched, funny, and sometimes surprising account of the history of US pop from the late 19th into the late 20th century, taking apart a number of myths and filling large lacunae while proposing a rather grand narrative of his own.

Here’s how he describes the work, and his rockist/poptimist motivation to write it, in an email I received today —

it began to bother me that virtually all pop music history has been written by roots, jazz and rock fans–people like me–who tend to take pride in our unique tastes and despise mainstream pop. And we tend to write the history of what we like rather than the history of what happened. So this is an attempt to give a clearer picture of how pop music evolved, looking at changing dance styles, technologies, and the lives of working musicians and regular listeners from the dawn of ragtime to the dawn of disco–with some fun stories to back it all up.

You can read more about it on Elijah’s site, while streaming some John Philip Sousa or, if you’d prefer, an hour of Top 40 radio from Scottsdale Arizona in the summer of 1964.

Elijah’s email also included some simple, sensible tips for those of you who are interested in supporting authors and booksellers in these strange days. I’ll leave you with these thoughts then, and the mild suggestion that you might consider doing the same for our querido librocito

Since book publishing seems to be getting shakier by the year, I
wanted to include a few ideas about what one can do to help out any book
or author one likes.

1. Spread the word–as the “mainstream” media are replaced by infinite
capillary streams, more and more of us are relying on the reports of
friends and acquaintances.

2. Call up your local library and ask them to order a copy. Libraries,
even in these days of tightened budgets, respond to readers’ requests.

3. As a dedicated browser, I always recommend that you buy from your
local bookstore (hoping that you have one), and if your local bookstore
doesn’t have the book, you can suggest that they carry it.

4. Wherever you buy the book (or take it out of the library, or
whatever), if you like it, take a moment and post a review on Amazon
and/or other online sites. Crazy as it sounds, positive reader reviews
really make a difference.

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February 19th, 2009

Old (and Not So Old) Weird (and Not So Weird) America

We’re visiting Becca’s sister, her husband, and their 6-month-old twins in North Carolina this week. Initially drawn to Durham/Duke, Leila&Sebastian und Sasha&Max now live in a small-ish town called Burlington, in an old mill house they rebuilt themselves (with a little help from their friends).

Yesterday, we escaped some rainy morning blues by heading to a nearby antiques mall. It was, to say the least, a trip. The building, essentially a warehouse (or maybe formerly a supermarket), houses hundreds of individual stalls, each of them a little shrine to some collector’s material muses.

Amusing indeed. But also, utterly utterly odd. I mean, was something like this “Jolly Chimp” actually intended to amuse (as opposed to, terrify) children?


Beyond marvelling at such oddities and artifacts in their own right, I couldn’t help but be struck by how the thorough juxtaposition of tchotchkes from across the ages seemed to flatten even as it called attention to the differences across the mythified decades of our collective past and their symbols, their peculiar fixings — often, in this case, in the form of cheap commodities — of the imagination of self, other, past, and future.

How easily the dated images from the 80s and 90s sit alongside counterparts from the 50s, 60s, 70s, &c —






Or how “African” art of various sorts (or carved wooden exotica more generally) found space alongside kitchen kitsch and cross-stitched masterpieces —



Perhaps unsurprising, given all the dirty laundry on display, America’s racist representations of itself also reared their ugly heads. Most frequently in the form of the mammy —




yes, alongside a wooden watermelon

Another strange refraction of racial representation was embodied by the following curiosity (of which I spotted two specimens): Big John, “the Chimpee Chief.” Given current controversies here in present-day post-racial America, I think it’s not too much to ask you to read this, with me (and Al Sharpton), as an insidious if everyday example of substituting one dehumanized subaltern for another —


And yet despite reservations aplenty (no pun intended), I admit that there were a couple objects that were quite arresting — charming in a different manner than those above, if still tainted with resonances of the primitive. Take, for example, this amazing “outsider ark” (and don’t miss the Scooby Doo detail), which is sui generis if anything ever was —



Will I forever regret not picking it up for a mere $50? Would I forgive myself if I did?

No matter, already made my day.

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January 21st, 2009

The Work of Oprah in the Age of Disturbingly Faithful Hypercompetent Reproductions

I agree with Sharon and Boima, searching for authenticity is a good way to miss the forest for the trees. In other words, authenticity is so vague. Or as I’ve put it elsewhere (see note #2), there’s no there there.

Back to forests and trees. In the revised version of that globalization theory classic, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Arjun Appadurai argues that many accounts of globalization are riddled by “a confusion between some ineffable McDonaldization of the world and the much subtler play of indigenous trajectories of desire and fear with global flows of people and things.”

Discussing said subtler play of trajectories, Appadurai contends that “Americanization” is a “pallid term” to describe, for example, the “disturbingly faithful” Filipino renditions of American pop song (see p. 49). For those who don’t want to read the excerpt, I’ll skip straight to the kicker:

American nostalgia feeds on Filipino desire represented as a hypercompetent reproduction.

Munch on that money mouthful for a minute. Or better yet, watch this (& see also) —


CHARICE on OPRAH Show [FULL] – Charice / Charice Pempengco

The cherry on top? Appadurai brings it all back home with a Jamesonian flourish —

I would like to suggest that the apparent increasing substitutability of whole periods and postures for one another, in the cultural styles of advanced capitalism, is tied to larger global forces, which have done much to show Americans that the past is usually another country. If your present is their future (as in much modernization theory and in many self-satisfied tourist fantasies), and their future is your past (as in the case of the Filipino virtuosos of American popular music), then your own past can be made to appear as simply a normalized modality of your present.

This unleashing of the imagination links the play of pastiche (in some settings) to the terror and coercion of states and their competitors.

If you dislike that elliptical leap, I suggest you read the whole thing. And if you’re upset that I left Ramiele Malubay out of the conversation, feel free to leave a comment!

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January 20th, 2009

Congratulations Obama, America, World!

“Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run,” said one boy. “Barack Obama ran,” said another, “so that all children could fly.” — Harper’s Weekly Review, 20 Jan 2007 (quoting Jeezy!)

Today, we hold heads high, jump for joy, savor this historic, hopeful moment.

Tomorrow, noses to the grind. Support and criticize. We have our work cut out.

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January 9th, 2009

Welcome to Brownsville

Former wunderkind hip-hop critic and now English prof at Vassar, Hua Hsu asks some great questions in his hot-off-the-press Atlantic cover story, itself a question, “The End of White America?” —

What will it mean to be white after “whiteness” no longer defines the mainstream? Will anyone mourn the end of white America?

I especially appreciated — and anticipated — how hip-hop figures in the story he tells. This merits quoting at some length:

Over the past 30 years, few changes in American culture have been as significant as the rise of hip-hop. The genre has radically reshaped the way we listen to and consume music, first by opposing the pop mainstream and then by becoming it. From its constant sampling of past styles and eras—old records, fashions, slang, anything—to its mythologization of the self-made black antihero, hip-hop is more than a musical genre: it’s a philosophy, a political statement, a way of approaching and remaking culture. It’s a lingua franca not just among kids in America, but also among young people worldwide. And its economic impact extends beyond the music industry, to fashion, advertising, and film. (Consider the producer Russell Simmons—the ur-Combs and a music, fashion, and television mogul—or the rapper 50 Cent, who has parlayed his rags-to-riches story line into extracurricular successes that include a clothing line; book, video-game, and film deals; and a startlingly lucrative partnership with the makers of Vitamin Water.)

But hip-hop’s deepest impact is symbolic. During popular music’s rise in the 20th century, white artists and producers consistently “mainstreamed” African American innovations. Hip-hop’s ascension has been different. Eminem notwithstanding, hip-hop never suffered through anything like an Elvis Presley moment, in which a white artist made a musical form safe for white America. This is no dig at Elvis—the constrictive racial logic of the 1950s demanded the erasure of rock and roll’s black roots, and if it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else. But hip-hop—the sound of the post- civil-rights, post-soul generation—found a global audience on its own terms.

Today, hip-hop’s colonization of the global imagination, from fashion runways in Europe to dance competitions in Asia, is Disney-esque. This transformation has bred an unprecedented cultural confidence in its black originators. Whiteness is no longer a threat, or an ideal: it’s kitsch to be appropriated, whether with gestures like Combs’s “white parties” or the trickle-down epidemic of collared shirts and cuff links currently afflicting rappers. And an expansive multiculturalism is replacing the us-against-the-world bunker mentality that lent a thrilling edge to hip-hop’s mid-1990s rise.

Coming back to Combs (preceding the passage above), Hua makes sense of Diddy’s embrace of WASPy-kitsch —

…consider Sean Combs, a hip-hop mogul and one of the most famous African Americans on the planet. Combs grew up during hip-hop’s late-1970s rise, and he belongs to the first generation that could safely make a living working in the industry—as a plucky young promoter and record-label intern in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as a fashion designer, artist, and music executive worth hundreds of millions of dollars a brief decade later.

In the late 1990s, Combs made a fascinating gesture toward New York’s high society. He announced his arrival into the circles of the rich and powerful not by crashing their parties, but by inviting them into his own spectacularly over-the-top world. Combs began to stage elaborate annual parties in the Hamptons, not far from where Fitzgerald’s novel takes place. These “white parties”—attendees are required to wear white—quickly became legendary for their opulence (in 2004, Combs showcased a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence) as well as for the cultures-colliding quality of Hamptons elites paying their respects to someone so comfortably nouveau riche. Prospective business partners angled to get close to him and praised him as a guru of the lucrative “urban” market, while grateful partygoers hailed him as a modern-day Gatsby.

“Have I read The Great Gatsby?” Combs said to a London newspaper in 2001. “I am the Great Gatsby.”

Moving backwards further, this brings us around to the place where the article begins, a reference made in Gatsby to what Hua calls an “eerily serene” E20C white supremacist tract which claims, among other things, that

“Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”

Apropos of that, here’s a visualization I stumbled upon yesterday (h/t johnnn) —


Immigration to the US, 1820-2007 v2 from Ian Stevenson on Vimeo.

Go read the whole thing.

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December 2nd, 2008

Iron Chic


videyogas ::

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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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