Archive of posts tagged with "anthro"

October 24th, 2010

Feeling the Unheard

The following text is the comment I delivered as the discussant for Steven Feld’s presentation this past Friday at Sensing the Unseen, a year-long seminar at MIT seeking “to join more familiar attention to material culture with an innovative focus on immaterial culture” in order to explore, in a variety of ways, the realm of the unseen.

Acoustemology is a profound and useful idea. It serves as a crucial corrective, of course, to a prevailing ocularcentrism that this series, Sensing the Unseen, also seeks to critique. It is an especially attractive concept to those of us consistently enraptured, intellectually and otherwise, by the worlds of sound, whether “humanly organized” or not (to invoke musicologist John Blacking’s famous attempt to distinguish music from sound per se). But it should come as a welcome proposal for anyone interested in thinking about, recovering, or foregrounding other sensorial ways of knowing.

Dr. Feld‘s work as a soundscape recordist and composer is equally important, calling attention to an effect of ocularcentric privileging with regard to the production and valuation of academic knowledge — that is, the assumed inferiority of audio mixes to written texts. With his documentary sound art, and the rigorous, vigorous explications that often accompany them, Dr. Feld has helped create space for such efforts within the conservative world of academic publication, though they remain second-class works to be sure.

Feld’s work prefigures, and provides a foundation for, important strands within the burgeoning transdisciplinary field of sound studies, which has opened up sonocentric inquiry to new methods, perspectives, and lexica. For ethnomusicologists long seeking to participate in broader conversations about music and sound across disciplinary boundaries, this is a welcome turn. And indeed, Dr. Feld’s own interest in this realm was motivated precisely by a concern that, as he once put it, “ethnomusicologists were artificially separating the patterning of sound called ‘music’ … from the full human and environmental world of sound.”

An attention to sound, to its shapes and forms and ecologies, creates openings for moving beyond a specialist language that too often erects a hard wall between music and related cultural studies. Building on Schafer’s concept of the soundscape, Feld’s work has helped to midwife the term, to expand and refine it, and to make it available — if even today he calls it “boring” and “vague” — to those outside of music studies, not least in anthropology, his home discipline. As several prominent ethnomusicologists, writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology recently proposed:

Soundscape opens possibilities for anthropologists to think about the enculturated nature of sound, the techniques available for collecting and thinking about sound, and the material spaces of performance and ceremony that are used or constructed for the purpose of propagating sound. (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, and Porcello 2010:330)

Perhaps even more promising, just as the idea of the soundscape can open up sonocentric inquiry beyond music departments, the recording, remixing, and release of particular soundscapes invites an even broader participation, a more public engagement, drawing in a variety of actors and audiences interested in sound, especially as recording, editing, storing, and sharing sonic data becomes easier and easier, and the skills to do so increasingly become part of a commonplace orientation toward interacting with a world of multimedia.

A recent explosion in grassroots efforts to produce “soundwalks” and “soundmaps” of various sorts, especially in cities, stands as one realm of emergent public engagement with the world of sound and its relationship to one’s sense of place. Whether we see the phenomenon as trickle-down theory or not, it is clear that attending closely to sound, and representing soundscapes, are emerging as increasingly common practices in our brave new world where most everyone carries around pocket-sized devices able to record and upload sound (along with locative data).

But amid optimistic signs, there are important challenges to consider. Not least of which, given the attempt in this forum to stage an inclusive conversation about sensorial experience, is the possibility that a move toward sound studies and soundscapes simply replaces one unisensory bias with another. Steve Goodman, for instance, in his recent book Sonic Warfare (MIT Press 2010) argues that, as he puts it, “the evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academy” must be tempered by an attention not only to what he calls “bad vibes,” or the deployment of sound as repellent force and the use of music in torture, but by an acknowledgment of the profoundly synaesthetic experience of sound. Goodman offers his own corrective by concentrating on sound as vibrational force and giving emphasis to ultrasound and infrasound, dimensions of sonic experience which cross the threshold from the heard to the felt, and which thus exceed, as he puts it provocatively (especially for music and sound scholars), “the narrowband channel of the audible” (9).

Acknowledging sound’s power as vibrational force presents quite a quandary for something like soundscape composition. In rendering a soundscape, there is of course an attempt to present specific sound worlds as emplaced. But audio recordings, especially when experienced via everyday playback technologies, are limited in their capacity to replicate the physical experience of sound as embodied vibration in a material space. This impasse suggests perhaps that, if one is to worry about something like schizophonia, one might as well worry about something like schizo-hapto-phonia, the separation of sound from an emplaced and embodied experience of vibrational force. Such ontological, and hence epistemological or acoustemological, challenges could be taken, however, as just that: as offering openings for new theoretical and methodological approaches, new conversations across disciplinary and procedural orthodoxies.

It makes me wonder, as a brief aside, whether those of us working in the realm of soundscape might consider the ways that video productions, never mind the still unfulfilled promise of haptic simulations, might aid us in such a daunting task as representing the ways that sound informs what we know about ourselves and our surroundings.

In this regard, one especially laudable aspect of Dr. Feld’s work in soundscape composition is his explicit embrace, rather than disavowal, of the artistic and aesthetic choices that one must make in assembling such things. As he has stated elsewhere, “The idea is to turn my ear-witnessing into an invitation for your ear-witnessing.” As with any mode of communication or signification, an inevitable subjectivity haunts the encoding and decoding process, lingering over both the act of recording in an originary, emplaced point in time and space, and the act of listening in another one altogether. The inherently and perhaps more obviously fraught epistemological status of sound recordings therefore would seem in some ways an essential, unavoidable, and yet also utterly useful attribute.

Even before he began working in more explicitly “creative” ways, bringing together, as on Bufo Variations, soundscape recordings and musical interpretations thereof or interactions therewith, Feld’s editing aesthetics already audibly foregrounded an underlying poetics. The layering of sonic vignettes, the use of reverb, sudden cuts, and other post-production procedures, whether remarked on or not, would seem to offer an appropriate response to inevitable questions about framing, about the unavoidable hands-on aspects of working in sound –- questions which may seem more salient in audio and multimedia work, but which of course raise themselves with regard to any sort of academic or artistic production.

Feld’s approach thus seems to speak to a special and longstanding problem in music studies, which Charles Seeger liked to refer to as the “musicological juncture”: the yawning gap between communicating about one system of human communication (music) through another (speech). Seeger’s vigilant warnings about the shortcomings of linguocentrism in music scholarship and his attempts to think through precise models for talking about music -– not to mention new technologies for representing music, such as the melograph –- represent important precedents for the advocacy and use of music-technologies to reconcile some dilemmas presented by this impasse. Feld has himself helped many of us to think through this juncture, in part by reformulating Seeger’s distinction in an influential essay penned some 25 years ago, proposing that music represents an “instantaneously apprehensible metaphorical expression of one symbolic order” while speech about music constitutes “metaphorical expression of another order that reflects secondary interpretive awareness, recognition, or engagement” (Feld 1984:95).

I’d like to close then by noting how much I’ve myself been guided by Dr. Feld’s elucidation of this difference, and the orientation toward working-in-sound it engenders. On one hand, this has led me to think about, and to make, DJ mixes and mashups akin to “musically expressed ideas about music.” On the other, it has motivated me to attend closely to the interplay between the sounds, humanly organized and otherwise, of particular places, and the senses of place they inform.

It was while doing doctoral research in Kingston, Jamaica that I began making soundscape recordings, influenced by the work of Dr. Feld and others, but also — and especially when it came to editing them — by sample-based hip-hop, the tradition from which I learned most of my audio editing tricks. In addition to interviews with Jamaican performers, I also recorded dogs and roosters, radio transmissions and taxi drivers. The products of my recordings, beyond the dissertation itself, ended up as an addendum of sorts, as it seemed impossible to position them as the work itself. This also, however, granted me a great degree of creative license.

In some contrast to Dr. Feld’s soundscape work, then, but, I’d like to think, deeply resonant with his ideas about acoustemology–not to mention his interest in the sound worlds of taxi drivers–I’d like to end my comment today with a sound collage I made comprising nothing but audio I recorded in the many, many cab rides I took around town. Noting how important sound was to these taxi operations–not just the communicative and expressive beeping, but the calls and responses between the cabbies and their dispatchers–I wanted to pay tribute to the importance of the sonic in their worlds, but I also felt compelled to render this world according to the aesthetics of dancehall reggae, which so strongly seemed to animate, as it drew on, Kingston’s soundscape. And so I worked up something akin to a “Taximan” riddim over which the cabbies might declaim like reggae deejays over the beat, especially considering how much their competitive verbal and expressive styles seemed to parallel sound clashing performers. This sort of approach, of course, brings us well beyond thinking of soundscape recordings as serving a documentary function, but the way it registers my playful, heavy hands is precisely part of the point.

W&W (ft. Express Taxi Co.), “Taximan”

Thanks for listening.

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September 16th, 2010

nature mashing (riddim meth0d repost)

In anticipation of tomorrow’s opening session of MIT’s Sensing the Unseen series, which, in October, will bring to campus Steven Feld — a scholar of music and sound who has deeply influenced both my field (ethnomusicology) and my own work — I am re-posting yet another riddimmeth0d mashup. This particular mash was even more of a conceptual joke than most of the others I’ve made, and the tongue-in-cheek write-up should attest to that. I’m not sure it’s particularly funny, nor whether all the irony comes through, but I still chuckle when I think about “entomusicology” and “avian sonic subjectivities.” I hope you do too.

As for Dr. Feld, I kinda hope he never gets wind of this. While I was thrilled to be asked to serve as discussant for his talk in October, I’m also fairly intimidated by the prospect. His work is rigorous, often challenging, and usually takes me some time to absorb. (I still try to read this essay, perhaps my favorite piece on the semiotics of music and the mechanics of the listening process, at least once a year; and there’s no writing about “world music” — which y’all know I like to do — without reckoning with this and this.) Trying to riff on Feld’s talk in more-or-less real time will be a challenge to say the least. That said, I am really looking forward to it! If you’re interested in sensorium (and sound) studies, and you happen to be in the Cambridge area, please join us for any and all.

This was originally published on 9 November 2005.

never mind all that talk about culture mashing, nature mashing is the future.

as evidence, i present you with my own example, a mash of “morning fanfare” (from broken-hearted dragonflies, a collection of “insect electronica” recorded by tucker martine in thailand, burma, and laos) with “keafo, morning” (from rainforest soundwalks, a collection of “ambiences” of bosavi, papua new guinea, recorded by steven feld).

w&w, “morning, morning”

first, i should note that the temporal convergence of these sounds — i.e., morning — presents one of several significant unities brought out by the juxtaposition of the two recordings. despite this obvious alignment, however, the sounds and sound qualities — a product as much of the microphones, media, and mastering as their specific spatial sites — are rather different in a variety of ways, and these divergences are similarly highlighted by their simultaneous sounding. the resulting tensions across the mash’s spatio-temporal resonances produce an alternating, enveloping effect/affect of location and dislocation.

indeed, by bringing together here several geographically-distinct but diurnally-linked sound sources, the mashup displaces as it triggers one’s sonically-informed sense of place. as the sounds of the new zealand forest, in characteristic form, lift-up-over the southeast asian soundscapes, what emerges is an acoustic ecology that is — at once — here and there, where and frere.

along these lines, what i find most striking about this mashup is the way it calls our attention to the overlapping qualities between the two sound sources in question. it has long been my (casual) hypothesis that the bugs of southeast asia have influenced, as they have been influenced by, the bugs, birds, and waterfalls of new zealand. indeed, a cursory glance at migratory patterns and informal pitch- and rhythm-based analyses suggest that not only do the dragonflies in question appear to “riff” off the unique sounds of the bosavi rainforest, the latter sounds themselves appear “broken-hearted” in their warbles and woops. in these intertextual moments, such seemingly serendipitous combinations reveal themselves to be, perhaps, less than coincidental, to be — indeed — crucial to the constitution of insect and avian sonic subjectivities, not to mention human ones.

as such audible interplay pushes the very edges of ento-/ornitho-musicology (two fields in which i am, admittedly, but a dabbler), i humbly submit this sonic example as an outsider’s ear’s view on worlds heretofore unconnected in the acoustic imagination and yet, as you can hear, deeply and soundly intertwined.

hope that doesn’t bug anyone.


September 28th, 2009

Hip-hop Japan Man

Tonight’s guest at Beat Research is my friend & colleague at MIT, Ian Condry, author of Hip-hop Japan (Duke U Press, 2006). He’ll be joining us this eve to celebrate the translation of his book into Japanese, and he’ll do so by offering a set that traces the broad contours of Japanese hip-hop.

I hope he’ll play a few tracks like Seeda’s “6 Milion Ways,” a song featured on a mixtape he made this summer, which pushes my hip-hop/reggae crossover buttons with its Sleng Teng bassline and Cutty Ranks chorus —

Seeda, “6 Milion Ways”

You can get a taste of Ian’s research on this page, which includes a brief history of hip-hop in Japan along with audio and video samples, but I highly recommend the book. Allow me to quote a few passages to give you a sense of Ian’s analysis, which seeks to get beyond the dichotomies (global/local, authentic/non) through which we tend to appraise such things as hip-hop outside the US —

In contrast to symbols of cultural globalization, such as Coca-Cola, Disney, Nike, and McDonald’s, which take their cues from huge multinational corporations, hip-hop in Japan draws attention to an improvisatory working out of a cultural movement in the language and among peer-groups of a particular generation of youth. (12) …

Borrowing from Cornel West (1990), I argue that Japanese rappers are engaged in a “new cultural politics of affiliation,” that draws inspiration from African American struggles while generating distinctive approaches to race and protest in Japan. Race forms a part of Japanese hip-hop, but it operates in the context of an identity politics different from that in the United States. When Japanese artists proclaim that they are yellow b-boys, they are not asserting a pan-Asian identity, but rather drawing attention to their specific location in a differently configured racial matrix. In this, they suggest the possibilities for a transnational cultural politics of race that improvises on their understanding of hip-hop’s core values. (20) …

West’s perspective emerges from a different context, but the lessons for a study of black culture in Japan are profound. In particular, the application of his ideas exposes the limitations of searching for the local or the Japanese in overseas hip-hop. Indeed, although I use the term black culture, we should bear in mind that the term is shorthand for a complex range of practices, ideas, and discourses, never meaning any one single thing. Similarly, highlighting the local features of hip-hop in Japan risks reproducing images of the Japanese people while underplaying the ways in which Japanese emcees are engaged in critiquing mainstream standards of what it means to be Japanese, among other artistic and political goals. … I would argue that many uses of hip-hop in Japan attempt to produce a kind of political affiliation, but that the politics must be situated in the spaces and contexts in which they are performed. This reorients our attention away from questions of whether the Japanese “get it” or “don’t get it” when it comes to race and hip-hop, and instead draws us toward questions of what Japanese hip-hoppers are doing with the music in their own worlds. (29)

Come on out to the Enormous Room tonight to hear some of this fascinating stuff in motion. Ian will be playing from 10:30 – 11:30 and Flack and I will pick up the slack. 567 Mass Ave, 9-1, FREE.

BTW, I gotta report that we have a very exciting autumn at Beat Research. Check the allstar lineup!!!!!!

Oct 5 – Teleseen
Oct 12 – DJ Super Squirrel
Oct 19 – Poirier (new mix!)
Oct 26 – Valeo (the DJ/blogger formerly known as Khiasma)
Nov 2 – Gypsy Sound System
Nov 9 – Vince the Prince (Generation Bass)
Nov 16 – Sonido Martinez
Nov 23 – WordSound
Nov 30 – DJ Pace + Brian Coleman (RepDaBean throwdown)

Oh man oh man oh man, r u as psyched as I am? Monday nights RULE this fall. See you 2nite mebbe?

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July 21st, 2009

Nettles, Neighbors, and Nu World Music

I’ve received repeated requests to share the text I delivered in my pre-concert talk for the Nettle residency at Brandeis. It’s only taken me four months to post it here finally. Regular readers of this blog may find certain passages familiar; some are literally cut-n-pasted from posts here (where I do a lot of my thinking-aloud / work-in-progress). I’m glad so many attendees found the talk provocative — it was supposed to be — and I hope that people reading it here will also find food for thought. If I come across as something of an advocate, that’s because I am. Thanks again to Nettle for being so generous with their time and their thoughts, many of which helped to shape this speech and continue to resonate as I try to make sense of “new”/”nu” “world” music. Thanks also to all the thinkers and writers and scholars and poets, linked & quoted below, who’ve helped me shape and reshape these ideas.

Nettles, Neighbors, and Nu World Music
21 March 2009

I would like to echo Judy‘s thanks to the Rose, and to all the organizations and individuals that have made this event possible. Special thanks to Scott Edmiston and Ingrid Schorr in the Office of the Arts. And, of course, to thank all of you for attending tonight’s concert, the culminating event of what has already been a wonderful residency.

Thanks especially to Judy Eissenberg, the soul of the Music department and a crucial voice and mediating presence in the Brandeis community. MusicUnitesUS should rightly be recognized as a hallmark institution here at Brandeis, in part because it so powerfully speaks to so many of the university’s would-be core values, as I hope to suggest here tonight.

It was very important to all of these people, to all of us, to make this MusicUnitesUS program, this spring residency, a reality. This is important for its own sake, as I’ll discuss in a moment when I tell you about our guests, Nettle, but important also because of the precarious position that the arts finds itself at this moment of institutional and financial crisis.

Our commitment to and our ability to put on as challenging and interesting and lively a residency as Nettle’s should serve as a potent reminder of the treasured and critically important role that artistic practice plays in our communities.

It feels quite appropriate to speak about such issues here in the Rose. In all the talk about the value of the museum — and in particular, its holdings — that has animated so much contentious chatter in recent weeks, we often lose sight of the more intangible reasons the Rose is so valuable not just to us at Brandeis or in Boston, but to the worldwide arts community. The Rose has, simply put, been a champion in promoting contemporary art, art which provokes us to think and rethink our situation and our selves. Art that does so by operating on the cutting edge, beyond canon, or at the margins of putative mainstream culture.

In this way, it offers a service to the community — to various overlapping communities — which finds a parallel, a partner, in MusicUnitesUS, both institutions projecting into several public spheres — and we can imagine campus, local, national, and global publics — art and artists that deserve that humble push from margin to center.

This spatial metaphor is not inappropriate in coming to terms with our guests tonight, and this week, at Brandeis. Nettle offers what we might hear as a form of decentertainment — and this is crucial, I contend, to the idea of a NU world, and of a NU WORLD MUSIC which not only reflects our new social configurations and cultural repertories but informs the shapes they take.


The Nu World I am describing here (and signifying with NU so as to be clear that I am not simply referring to the Americas) is a strange kind of neighborhood, made to feel as such despite its global scale because of the ways that new technologies create social and discursive networks that allow us to imagine and interact with our respective communities in heretofore unimaginable ways.

The Nu World phenomenologies, if you will, which emerge from these new configurations are not, however, simply a product of an unprecedented degree of access and connection to far-flung places; these new ways of feeling — of inhabiting and refashioning selfhood, nationhood, and neighborhood — are coalescing at the same time because of the ways that our cities have been radically transformed in the wake of decolonization and globalization. Not only are we more able to access some “world” out there, we are increasingly aware that the world is all around us.

This shift in our socio-spatial position demands a new understanding of world music — not as something simply produced by the rest for the west, but something that instead embodies the profound and ubiquitous degree of interpenetration, intercultural contact, and interpersonal exchange that has become quite commonplace in our contemporary cities. A world music in which different cultural registers operate on an equal plane perhaps expresses what Paul Gilroy terms “vernacular” or “everyday” cosmopolitanism, what he understands as the ethics of living in a multiculture, or as he also puts it, a “twentieth-century utopia of tolerance, peace, and mutual regard.”

“The challenge of being in the same present,” Gilroy argues,

of … articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather than imposing it downward from on high provides some help in seeing how we might invent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal value and go beyond the issue of tolerance into a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness. There is another quite different idea of cosmopolitanism to be explored here. … This cosmopolitan attachment finds civic and ethical value in the process of exposure to otherness. It glories in the ordinary virtues and ironies — listening, looking, discretion, friendship — that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding.

This notion of everyday, mundane difference, an otherness that can easily collapse into recognitions of sameness, is precisely what too often is missing from or distorted in the marketing category of “world music,” a category which, nonetheless — as we discussed with Nettle yesterday — remains a useful way for musicians to find audiences and patrons.

In a provocative article titled “World Music Does Not Exist” Tim Brennan argues that “world music characterizes a longing in metropolitan centers of Europe and North America for what is not Europe or North America: a general, usually positive, interest in the cultural life of other parts of the world found in all of the major media.” Unlike NU WORLD MUSIC, which foregrounds its constitution in the jumble of globally circulating signs and people and technologies, world music, Brennan contends, lulls us into other ways of listening and imagining the world, not as all around us, but as somewhere out there: “World music,” he writes “expands our field of cultural perception only by narrowing it, forcing us to admire artifacts that were made slowly and finely under irreducible conditions, but whose power to awe is then nullified by a uniformity of reception.”

To my ears, and as they would have it themselves, Nettle militates against this uniformity of reception. Even as they pragmatically embrace the term world music because of the cultural work it does and economic doors it opens, they also simultaneously subvert it. They abandon the easy fusion of World Music clichés for the intricate realities of border-crossing and cohabitation.

Despatializing and respatializing with their geography-defying mix of traditions, textures, and timbres, Nettle seems to embody one rich set of possibilities within the flexible matrix of nu world music and culture. The group troubles facile distinctions between the world and the West by giving the lie to these false binaries, bearing witness instead to a world of routed roots and rooted routes, of traditions with multiple origins and fractal futures, diasporas within diasporas, turtles all the way down.

DJ and producer Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rupture), a native of Massachusetts, formed the group earlier this decade while living as an ex-pat in Barcelona along with several other ex-pats (one from Scotland, a couple from Morocco, others from the US) — all of them speaking second or third languages in order to converse with each other. All of them, as they told us this week, feeling equally uncomfortable, out of place in their new home, and hence seeking a common place — and this is where music comes in — but NOT striving for unity. Rather, they sought to create and inhabit heterogeneous spaces, enjoying what they had in common but also what made each member distinctive in what they brought to the group.

Briefly, we hear in Nettle a collision of traditions, from Afrodiasporic electronic dance music to Berber folk songs, Arab and Andalusian pop to the Afro-Arab trance music of the Gnawa. The Maghreb via Spain via the Maghreb filtered through the black boxes of a globe-trotting DJ.

Although some members might think of themselves more explicitly as members of a diaspora than others, it is worth noting how diasporic discourse overlaps with the ideas about cohabiting amidst otherness. As anthropologist James Clifford notes, “Diaspora discourse articulates, or bends together, both roots and routes to construct … forms of community consciousness and solidarity that maintain identifications outside the national time/space in order to live inside, with a difference.”

Indeed, the distinctive sonic space Nettle creates seems to signal this desire to live with difference, a desire which more often finds the group preferring metaphors having to do with holding one’s ground and inhabiting spaces than with crossing borders, with deploying various notions of noise, with embracing friction as a creative force.

This place of friction, where the rubber meets the road, if you will, stands in contrast to other metaphors for globalization, especially those that emerge not from social and cultural spheres of activity but from economic ones, where capital is said to be frictionless and where fluid and easy crossings and flexible accumulations are the order of the day.

In this manner, Nettle’s music fingers the pulse of contemporary social theory _and_ social experience. Friction is not about culture clash, it is a more complex and subtle force than that. Friction is what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls “the grip of worldly encounter” — especially in “zones of awkward engagement.” The metaphor of friction suggested itself to Tsing b/c of the “popularity of stories of a new era of global motion” so commonplace, perhaps triumphant even, in the 1990s.

We see in some ways how these stories of global motion are true: all the musicians in Nettle did, after all, find themselves and each other in Barcelona, a home away from home for them all; but these stories are also clearly, resolutely untrue in other ways: take for instance, the group’s thwarted attempts to travel together in the past, or the fears and precautions and difficulties we worked through to ensure they could make it here this time.

For all the promise of an integrated and deeply interconnected world — A NU WORLD — and more tolerant, diverse cities where any and all may inhabit and enjoy, we suffer from an insidious tendency to ignore the divorce between rhetoric and reality, to embrace the symbols of diversity and tolerance and forget enduring inequalities and asymmetries.

A NU WORLD aesthetic demands that we resist romanticizing and aestheticizing the conditions of globalization. Ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes draws a clear line here:

Socially, it is important not to assume a direct relationship between aesthetic strategies (i.e., those operating in texts and performances of various kinds) and those of everyday life, particular among migrants and others living lives of enforced, rather than chosen, cultural fragmentation and hybridity. … At a general level, the fantasies characteristic of migrant music, film and dance, modernity, cosmopolitanism, upwardly mobile romance, and technological mastery must be understood in relation to the limited life chances and the endless and humiliating accommodations for the bureaucracies and work routines of host societies that characterize migrant everyday life. The cosmopolitanism of the rich thus must be clearly distinguished from the cosmopolitanism of the poor, even when the techniques and imaginaries of such cosmopolitanisms have common elements.

Given these constraints and concerns, something like “boundary smashing” — a world music cliche if there ever was one — is not an aesthetic project that appeals to Nettle. Despite their philosophical suspicion of, perhaps even hostility to, all kinds of imaginary borders — lines drawn between genres, places, people and so forth — we run into real walls and fences all too often to pretend they’re not there. Friction and dynamism are, instead, the group’s metaphors of choice.


My research often focuses on issues of nationalism and transnationalism, but lately I’ve been thinking less about nationhood and more about neighborhood — not in terms of an actual space or place (though that’s part of it), but something more akin to neighborliness, to being a good neighbor, to finding an ethics of neighborhood in an intensively globalized/mediated era. I’m curious about a musically-mediated aesthetics more specifically — one that responds not to the condition of living in a world of strangers, as Anthony Appiah might put it, but in a world of neighbors. This is a concept that I hope will be useful in coming to terms with what I’ve variously, loosely, referred to as nu-whirl music.

My embrace of “neighborhood” is meant as a way of reading nu-whirled music and movements in an engaged, positive manner. It, hopefully, moves away from notions of the foreign to the familiar. It recognizes that we become familiar with our neighbors when we have some regard for them, when we listen and play collectively. It proceeds also from a concern that if we are moved to work towards mediating the myriad conflicts in our world, especially those geopolitical conflicts that engulf and destroy so many people and places, that we must necessarily begin in our own backyards, as the saying goes — or in our own neighborhoods.

This is part of what underlies the mission of MusicUnitesUS. When I met Judy Eissenberg last year and she told me about the program & how she was inspired to start it in the wake of 9/11 as a way of embracing and exploring cultural difference though the special, mediating powers of art and music, I thought almost immediately of Nettle.

Whereas MUUS residencies in the past have offered an opportunity for intercultural exchange, bringing representatives of some ‘non-Western’ society to share their traditions with the Brandeis community, what is crucial about Nettle is that the group already embodies that process of encounter and exchange, and, moreover, that they choose to embrace moments where they “get under each other’s skin,” as bandmember Jace Clayton puts it. After all, that’s what Nettles do.

This metaphor for intercultural process, “getting under each other’s skin,” stands in contrast to a different model of cosmopolitan engagement, as recently reshaped by Anthony Appiah, who urges “that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement but because it will help us get used to one another — something we have a powerful need to do in this globalized era.”

Similarly, Paul Gilroy asks “Why should the assertions of ethnocentricity and untranslatability that are pronounced in the face of difference have become an attractive and respectable alternative to the hard but scarcely mysterious work involved in translation, principled internationalism, and cosmopolitan conviviality.”

But we might wonder whether Appiah fails to go far enough — “getting used to each other” is a relatively weak, if gentle, model for learning to live with difference; and we might ask whether Gilroy goes too far in demanding so much translation.

The music of Nettle, and they way they talk about what they do, seems to suggest that not everything is translatable or need be translated for us to agree to be convivial. Indeed, in seeking to translate everything, we also run the risk of erasing difference. In this manner, Nettle resists the temptation, if only rhetorical, of smashing boundaries or knocking down walls — at least certain kind of walls.

Perhaps good fences make good neighbors, as the old saying goes, even if the most famous projection of that phrase turns up, in Robert Frost’s poem, of course, in a rather critical or at least ambivalent context. For it is not Frost but his neighbor who utters the truism; Frost, on the other hand, ruminates on the ways that nature seems to seek to undermine the artificial boundaries of culture:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Frost’s sentiment seems undergirded by a less suspicious perspective, which is perhaps an outdated notion of the neighbor, the one who dwells near — but perhaps one that could use some new life breathed into it.

Ian Biddle, a musicologist concerned with what he calls “the political economy of musical neighbors,” and with “noisy neighbors” in particular, notes that

the figure of the neighbour … is rapidly becoming (if it has not already become) one of danger, marking the potential malevolence of dense living, of a community too close to our sovereignty. And it is precisely at this interface of community and sovereignty, at the imaginary line that separates ‘them’ from ‘me’, that the story of the noisy neighbour can be told.

For Biddle, neighbours “far from being the site of a guarantee of communal support” “have become the porous membrane between that guarantee and the threat of violence; neighbours speak to us now, it would seem, of a devastating ethical ambiguity”:

the neighbour, the bearer of noise, becomes the symptom of the new sonic disposition and it falls to the neighbour therefore to bear all the anxiety of his or her Other as one with whom we fight for limited resources.

According to Biddle, modernity has “imbued” neighbor “with a particular kind of ambiguity that blurs the boundary between what might be termed autonomy or sovereignty (and territory, privacy) on the one hand and the communal/public on the other.”

For all of the ambivalence around neighbors, however, that is, despite that they may remain, as Biddle puts it, “harbinger[s] of disquiet, … literally, the bringer[s] of noise,” I suppose it depends on how we feel about noise, at least we city folk. For exploring that shimmering line between sovereignty and community, self and other, music and noise, is, and must be, an ongoing project for all of us. Perhaps, as some suggest, that process of exploration is foundational to our very ability to learn and grow.

Biddle appears to think so. “The desire to know the neighbour,” he concludes, “is also (or, perhaps better, leads to) the desire for knowledge in general.”

Gilroy goes a step further, however, adding an ethical injunction to preserve the differences among us: “The self-knowledge that can be acquired through the proximity to strangers is certainly precious,” he acknowledges, “but is no longer the primary issue. We might consider how to cultivate the capacity to act morally and justly not just in the face of otherness –imploring or hostile — but in response to the xenophobia and violence that threaten to engulf, purify, or erase it.”


I wonder whether we might hear this important impulse in the music of Nettle — in particular the way the group draws on music from North Africa and the Arab and Islamic world, employing musical signs that have become deeply fraught with contradictory meanings, overdetermined in the War on Terror. Despite this embrace and projection of the symbols of one of Europe’s most contentious and yet constitutive Others, we might do better to hear Nettle’s music not as another instance of orientalism, but advancing a kind of disorientalism, which seems especially appropriate in a world which has lost a great deal of its coherence as grand narratives have collapsed, as the integrity of cultural borders falls away, as we all increasingly draw on a fragmentary set of resources and symbols and texts to make sense of who and where we are.

Music, in its unique form as a figurative and temporal art, plays an especially powerful role in a world where sense is made from fragments. As ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes puts it, seemingly talking about Nettle but actually talking about how the spread of Irish folk music prefigured and made space for the emergence of the Irish pub as a global institution: “Music, clearly enough, plays an active role in creating and shaping global spaces that otherwise would not have ‘happened.'”

Likewise, for musicologist Phil Bohlman, it is in the reassembling of musical fragments that the New Europe finds its postcolonial voice:

Festivals, choral movements, folk-music collecting projects, the mixing and remixing of Europop repertories. These are the musical sites at which fragments are gathered and new processes of reconciliation converge. The struggles of nationless Europeans. The revival of repertories by the most repressed of Europe’s Others. The sounds of a New Europe thrive because they are fragmentary and because they belie the hegemony of empires and new world orders alike.

Nettle challenges us to hear suggestive fragments and elusive wholes. As we hear hip-hop and dub, gnawa and sha3bi, flamenco and genres unnamed, we also hear New Spain, New Europe, Nu Worlds to explore and inhabit. At the same time, we should resist hearing a series of discrete authentic traditions coming together to form a new authenticity, that of the hybrid. For if we do so, we risk overwriting the map-less-ness that the group pursues and projects.

Perhaps we would do better to hear Nettle as residing not in Barcelona of the New Spain or in the interstices of internet nodes, but in what Zadie Smith calls “Dream City,” a place that seems not unlike our contemporary polyglot cities but a place that is as much state of mind, a phenomenology and an ontology, how we feel and how that shapes our sense of who or what we are. It is a condition that marks the in-between experiences of people of mixed family backgrounds, but it is a sensibility that has come to resonate more widely, as evidenced, she proposes by the election of Obama and the multiple voices with which he speaks.

“In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various,” she writes:

You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That’s how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you’re not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white. It’s the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously, because “I” feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun “we.”

Obama, she continues,

had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can’t see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives. … It was a high-wire strategy, for Obama, this invocation of our collective human messiness. His enemies latched on to its imprecision, emphasizing the exotic, un-American nature of Dream City, this ill-defined place where you could be from Hawaii and Kenya, Kansas and Indonesia all at the same time, where you could jive talk like a street hustler and orate like a senator. What kind of a crazy place is that? But they underestimated how many people come from Dream City, how many Americans, in their daily lives, conjure contrasting voices and seek a synthesis between disparate things. Turns out, Dream City wasn’t so strange to them.

Smith goes on to see this sensibility in Shakespeare as well, who, “in response [to far too much Manichean violence in his day], made himself a diffuse, uncertain thing, a mass of contradictory, irresolvable voices that speak truth plurally.”

In other words, if you will, “We do the police in different voices,” to remix a particularly heteroglossaic eruption in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which, of course, winds to a close with the fitting acknowledgment, still seeming to speak so powerfully of how we imagine a place like Europe, like the US, like the world — the acknowledgment that “we shore up these fragments against our ruins.”

And isn’t this sense of plurality, for all the difference and dissonance it necessarily entails, all the eruptions of untranslatable noise — isn’t this what harmony is really about — seeking sweet moments of interplay which can only be sweet in the presence of the unsweet?

Isn’t this a model not of conflict, but of acting in concert?

Let us recuperate then, recultivate a sense of neighborhood, of noises and nettles and unfamiliar idioms as things to be embraced for precisely their resistance to our tendencies to retreat into likeness and familiarity.

Let us appreciate how noises and neighbors — and the walls they erect — allow us also to hold our ground, to inhabit spaces with a difference, even as we seek still to let certain walls fall, walls that can prevent the dynamic process of musical collaboration from happening at all.

This seems to be what the group was getting at in our conversation yesterday when they reminded us that it’s good, even necessary, at least sometimes — maybe often — to knock down certain walls. The walls of suspicion or guardedness for instance — since improvisation and sensitive group interplay demands a certain degree of trust and openness.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

wrote Frost, and music is surely one such force, an elemental groundswell, a thing that resists boxes and borders, that permits sacred signs to enter secular spaces, among other magic tricks.

I was quite struck by how the group described itself yesterday as, in some sense, more of a “social project” than a musical one. Music unites them, gets under their skins.

As Clayton has written elsewhere, we make a border real by policing it.

We would do well to bear this in mind as we prepare to listen with open ears to Nettle, as we let down some of our own walls in order to appreciate the interpenetration so central to their sound and signification.

Or in other words, returning again to Frost’s poem and anticipating Nettle’s joyful jumble of folk and dance and art and noise and untranslatable sociability —

Good fences make good neighbors, yes, but so do good parties.

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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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December 21st, 2008

Mirrors, Mics, and Membership

There is much that might be said about why urban Africans in the
Northern Rhodesia of the late 1930s should have been so interested in ball-
room dancing and formal evening wear. But the Rhodes-Livingstone anthro-
pologists were right about at least one thing: when urban Africans seized so
eagerly on European cultural forms, they were neither enacting ancient African
tradition nor engaging in a parody of the whites. Rather — as Wilson recog-
nized — they were asserting rights to the city (cf. Caldeira 2001; Holston 1999)
and pressing, by their conduct. claims to the political and social rights of full
membership in a wider society.

As Wilson noted, the acquisition and display of European clothes and
other goods was the only domain available in colonial society in which Afri-
cans could assert their claims to “a civilized status, comparable to that of the
Europeans.” Urban Africans did not want to be regarded as “decorative bar-
barians” but as “civilized men.” They wanted, that is, to be full and equal citi-
zens of a modern urban society. If they enthusiastically adopted elaborate
forms of European dress and manners, it was to press their claim “to be re-
spected by the Europeans and by one another as civilized, if humble, men,
members of the new world society” (Wilson 1941:19-20, emphasis added).

This crucial claim to membership is denied by interpretations …
which suggest that such urban Africans were performing modernity
only to appropriate its magic for use within an indigenous cultural order. But
the most vital political question raised by practices of colonial emulation did
not concern the incorporation of Western symbolic materials into African local
cultural systems. Rather, it concerned the place Africans were to occupy in a
global sociocultural order — their status in a new “world society” — a point that
both Wilson and his informants seem to have understood very well.

           — James Ferguson, “Of Mimicry and Membership”

do you see why it’s amazing
when someone comes out of such a dire situation
and learns the English language just to share his observation?
probly get a Grammy without a grammar education,
so fuck you school and fuck you immigration,
and all of you who thought i wouldn’t amount to constipation.
and now i’m here without the slightest fear and reservation.
they love me in the slums and the native reservations.
the world is a ghetto administ’ring deprivation.

a lot of mainstream niggaz is yappin about yappin
a lot of underground niggaz is rappin about rappin
i just want to tell you what’s really crackalackin
before the tears came down this is what happened…

           — K’Naan, “Somalia”

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December 4th, 2008

Odes on a Popular Plugin

videyoga :: (via)

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October 30th, 2008

Postcolonoscopy Transnotionalism

  • Don't take this elegance as anything less than a disaster
    Oh my adorers, don't take me as made out of hard soil

    It takes a little silk, it takes a little glass
    Diamonds and pearls come together, it takes a little gold
    Such a fair body is then made

    Oh, applying the ailment of love to the heart,
    Wounds need to be made
    With a bleeding heart the flowers of desire have to blossom

    Thousands of pains arise, so many thorns pierce
    A flower garden is then made
    It takes a little silk, it takes a little glass
    Diamonds and pearls come together, it takes a little gold
    Such a fair body is then made

    Laughing, you haven't even had two words, you've already become a lover
    First ask their price, then take my arms
    Heart, money, the world, when one loses all three in love
    He then becomes my lover

    It takes a little silk, it takes a little glass
    Diamonds and pearls come together, it takes a little gold
    Such a fair body is then made
    It takes a little silk, it takes a little glass

  • prof. michael wesch (of "the machine is us/ing us" fame) offers a 1hr anthropological tour of YouTube (h/t billtron)
  • MTV's gone all web2.0 all a sudden — here's a sleek alpha site for all things (MTV) asian :: "which culture do you feel warm & fuzzy about?" "desi," "korean," "chinese," or "global"?

videyoga ::


October 10th, 2008

Big Farma

videyoga ::

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July 11th, 2008

Where Do I Begin (To Tell the Story)?

As long as we’re on the topic of “Arab Face” I’ve decided to dust off and finish up this post that’s long been sitting in my drafts folder. (It’s post #100, and I’ve recently published #400, if that’s any indication of how long it’s been on a backburner.)

There are countless twisty, tangly stories of sounds & images & ideas going from there to here and back again. They make for rich discussions of allusion, appropriation, borrowing, copying, re-use, remix, and the like. And they’re often a lot more complex than any ol’ East/West, North/South dichotomies can explain. The question of exploitation — of big pimpin’, eh? — typically looms large, especially in an asymmetrically dominated/accessed global economy. But the evidence of cultural vitality, and the degree to which that depends on mimetic representations, is perhaps what should assume the foreground.

What I like about the example clustered around Truth Hurts’s “Addiction” is how it calls attention to the both-waysness of such phenomena. I’m afraid it’s a LOT more complicated than any of the accounts I’ve yet encountered online. And the misconceptions around the case are quite telling, especially as they’re used to cast aspersion on this party or that. It’s taken me quite some time to try to piece things together, verify certain claims and discount others, and I have to admit that there remain a number of details I’ve yet to pin down. Perhaps putting this out there will help tie up loose ends.

Most readers are no doubt familiar with the Truth Hurts song&video —

As you probably know — given that the initial $500M lawsuit made some news — the filmi sample for “Addictive” comes from a song called “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai (Kaliyon Ka Chaman)” as composed by Bappi Lahiri, sung by the great Lata Mangeshkar, and featured in this scene in Jyoti (1981). That initial lawsuit was instigated by Saregama India Limited, a major film and music firm based in Kolkata which, presumably, owns the mechanical rights to Jyoti and its soundtrack. Later, the composer himself would also sue Dr. Dre & co. (“Addictive” was produced by DJ Quik for Dre, who exec produced the Truth Hurts album), for the more modest sum of slightly more than $1M. Both cases, predictably/typically, were settled out of court.

And yet, one bit of misinformation among others is the falsehood that Lata herself instigated a suit. Richard Roughinhere, for example, whose nu-whirled blog has become increasingly devoted to Bollywood, is unfortunately guilty of spreading that rumor when he wrote about hip-hop sampling B-wood a while back. Unlike MIA’s apparently licensed versions of filmi songs, Richard writes that “Addictive,”

was done without permission and resulted in a big law suit from Lata Mangeshkar, which I think is kind of unnecessary…but never mind.

Now, I appreciate Richard expressing his liberal opinion about sampling practices, but it doesn’t serve anyone — least of all a towering figure like Lata, who nonetheless (presumably) holds no rights for most of the 30,000+ (!) songs she recorded — to get the facts wrong when we’re talking about allegations of appropriation and exploitation.

[Update (7/14): Richard has been in touch, and I owe him an apology for the accusation above. He points out that there are several sources which seem to allege that Lata either sanctioned the lawsuit or was perhaps even party to it. I still need to see some more conclusive evidence (i.e., legal docs or Lata’s own words), but plenty of reporting and discussion on the web — thin as it is — does suggest that Lata might have, at the least, given her blessing to the lawsuit by Saregama. I’m eager to know whether she holds any rights to the recordings, or whether it’s a matter of pride / permission / “moral rights” for her.

Update II (7/14): I found one legal document pertaining to the case, from August 07. It names Lahiri and Saregama as plaintiffs (not Mangeshkar) and discusses the interesting fact, which the defense — for Universal / Interscope / Aftermath / Dre — attempted to use to its advantage, that the two parties (Lahiri and Saregama) each separately filed in early 03 for the US copyright to “Thoda Resham.” I have read in a few places that both claims were settled out of court. As late as fall of 07, however, the case was proceeding. Interestingly, a judge ruled that Lahiri did not appear, under Indian law, to own the copyright for “Thoda Resham” as recorded in Jyoti having signed that away long ago to Pramod Films, the production company which made the film and later sold these rights to Saregama. Given that ruling, I don’t see why UMG / Dre would settle with Lahiri except to put the thing to sleep.]

Another major source of confusion around this case is that another song, “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” released the same year as “Addictive,” is sometimes identified as having refashioned the Lahiri composition first. Even though it’s an “interpolation” rather than a direct sample, in Indian parlance this “cover” version is known as a “remix.” Notably, “Kaliyon Ka Chaman” has stood at the center of some rather contentious local debates about the value/originality of “remixes” in India, inspiring such alarmist turns of phrase as “musical terrorism.”

A huge hit in India, “Kaliyon” helped to launch Meghna Naidu‘s buxom, er, career. Interestingly, like “Addictive,” it was distributed by Universal, which, oddly, decided to license the rights to “Thoda Resham” for “Kaliyon” in India while failing to do so for the Truth Hurts song:

Coincidentally, UMG’s foreign subsidiary Universal India sought and was granted permission to license the song for an unrelated use as a cover 12 days before Truthfully Speaking was released June 26, furthering the suit’s claim that “the defendants clearly and admittedly knew their activities were, and currently are, infringing on [Seragama’s] copyrighted work.”

A Universal Music Group spokesperson had no comment on the matter.

Here’s the video for “Kaliyon Ka Chaman.” Look familiar?

Sometimes people are pretty quick to point fingers. The person who posted the above to YouTube declares that Truth Hurts “ripped” the above “off” rather than vice versa. (Indeed, the video has been titled “truth hurts addictive kaaliyon ka chaman ripped off” — lest one miss the description.) Although I haven’t been able to verify the comparative release dates, I have to admit that I find it really implausible that the song&video for “Kaliyon” were not themselves directly influenced by the Truth Hurts production rather than vice versa. (Please, correct me on this point if you have any evidence.) There are several bits of circumstantial evidence that seem to affirm the “originality” of the Truth Hurts version, including that quotation above which notes that the Lata sample was cleared for “Kaliyon” only 12 days before Truth Hurts’s album was released (and well after her single had entered heavy rotation).

Let’s agree on this much (though I hope to confirm this soon, and I think the genealogy is obvious): the two songs and videos are so similar in structure and imagery that any thesis of independent emergence seems absurd. The choreographed Indian-inflected bellydancing, the shots panning up and down the bed, the same use of the same parts of the Lata song, the same overlayed drum patterns, the mutual use of melodies unrelated to the Lata original — all suggest that one came first.

Beyond the licensing timeline (and in the current absence of release dates for both), DJ Quik’s story about how he encountered and hooked-up the sample would seem to offer strong evidence that it was Jyoti rather than “Kaliyon” which inspired the making of “Addictive.” According to Kevin Miller, whose “Bolly’hood Remix” explores the practice of sampling Indian music in hip-hop,

DJ Quik first heard the Lata Mangeshkar song while watching the Hindi film Jyoti on Z-TV, and subsequently looped large sections into a framework over which the R&B lyrics were laid.

Elsewhere, Quik has described it himself in the following manner, which seems to square —

“I woke up one morning, … I turned on the TV and landed on this Hindi channel and just turned it up real loud,” Quik explained this past summer. “There was a commercial on, and I just got up and went into the bathroom and started brushing my teeth. I’m brushing, and before I knew it, I was grooving. … [The beat on the TV] was just in my body. I went back in there and looked at the TV — there was a girl on there bellydancing, just like real fly. So I pushed record on the VCR.”

Moreover, a blurb from March 02 about the making of the video suggests that the choreography and setting was, if cliche, also in its way “original” — a classic bit of US orientalism, conflating South Asia with the Middle East:

The video, directed by Philip Atwell (Real Slim Shady, Bad Intentions), complements the song’s East Indian sound with belly dancing choreographed by Fatima Robinson, and her body decorated with henna art.

And yet, if one checks the Wikipedia entries for “Addictive_(song)” or “Truth_Hurts” one finds the following text pasted, verbatim, into each article:

Though the original song, Lata Mangeshkar’s Thoda Resham Lagta Hai, was used as the main base of the track within the chorus, the modern-style beats, rhythm, melody and even the video was copied from the original remake (first version), UMI10’s Kaliyon Ka Chaman Jab Banta Hain featuring Meghna Naidu. This original remake was highly popular amongst the youths in South Asia, though it was almost non-existent within the West due to the language barrier. The first version was therefore only deemed popular to a specific niche market and culture. Although very little was changed to the original remake of the classic song, Truth Hurts’ version was more marketable for mainstream release and therefore became more popular internationally whilst the original remake wasn’t known to exist.

That’s a lazy bit of revisionism there, Media Research (if that’s your real name) — and offers no evidence to support its rather far-reaching claims. That this blurb now turns up in the descriptive texts for YouTube instantiations of these videos, and fuels ignorant debate which can spiral into nat’list&racist vitriol, is troubling to say the least.

Setting the record straight here is important, not least because misunderstandings about the (multi)direction(ality) of influence and borrowing and copying and ripping off can so quickly lead to charges of “cultural imperialism,” as Lahiri himself gave voice when bringing forth his lawsuit.

In an age of waning/maintaining Empire, such charges should not be taken lightly (that is, if we believe in cultural politics and understand how they can be linked to subjugation as well as subversion). Indeed, there is already enough to address w/r/t what Sunaina Maira would call the “imperial feelings” staged by “Addiction” and its video, without needing to discuss questions of international copyrights and wrongs.

The conflation of Arab / Middle Eastern symbols and the sounds/images of South Asia has been a common thread in hip-hop’s new millennial orientalism. Such careless, ethnocentric representations are problematic not least because they contribute to the kind of us/them discourse which subtly and powerfully dehumanizes people who can easily enough end up on the wrong side of a Blackwater scope. Or, to return to Kevin Miller’s analysis:

Other Indian elements—such as henna hand designs and head movements characteristically used in Indian dance—are freely mixed with Middle Eastern elements—most apparent in the profusion of belly dancing. An indulgent fantasy space is thus created through the collapsing of two or more distinct cultures—an action that denies an accurate reference to the geopolitical origins of the Mangeshkar sample, yet at the same time pays homage to the eclectic fantasy sequences so common to the Bollywood cinema.

Maira goes a step further in her work on bellydance in the US, concluding that

Belly dancing is seductive, not just because it is sensual or titillating, but because it lures viewers into a liberal Orientalism that evades the violence of U.S. penetration of the Middle East and assaults on Arabs and Muslims in the United States and taps into a larger, and quite pervasive, cultural imaginary of “un-free” Arab and Muslim women needing emancipation by Western modernity and “democracy” that is used to justify the War on Terror.

Maira’s critique would appear to apply to all instances of bellydancing in the US (at least by non-Arabs), regardless of how conflated Arab gestures may be with, say, Indian ones (or New Age ones for that matter). This is especially true since, as she argues, such mixtures are endemic: “The belly dancing subculture loosely mixes symbols and references to the Middle East, various parts of Asia, and Africa.” But before we rush to condemn Indian-accented bellydancing as, in itself, a form of orientalist conflation, we should note, as Maira herself does, that the story of bellydance is inherently one of international hybridity, with roots in the subcontinent among other places. Indeed, it is more significant that despite such hybridity — in the form’s historical formation as well as reinterpretation in the comtemporary US — bellydance is repeatedly, ironically, perniciously reduced to a symbol of an “ancient” Middle East:

… while belly dance is hybrid in its origins — variously linked to India, Egypt, North Africa, Central Asia, Turkey and the Levant — its reinvention as a putatively “ancient” Middle Eastern dance form in the West is significant becase it has continued to be a popular site where actual Middle Eastern or Arab individuals step out of public view.

It’s worth noting, in this light — at least in defense of the dancing in “Addictive” — that the routine cooked up by choreographer Fatima Robinson for Truth Hurts, which certainly seems to my eyes to offer a mix of Arab & Indian movements and postures (however stereotypical), has direct precedent in the scene from Jyoti which included “Thoda Resham” and which DJ Quick taped from the TV. I confess that I know little about the history or forms of bellydance in India, but I think the dancer/actress in Jyoti, Aruna Irani (herself of Iranian-Indian heritage), actually is bellydancing (if with an Indian accent). Her routine may be a hodgepodge, as a lot of bellydancing is, but it certainly seems to contain elements related to bellydance — at least to my amateur eyes (expert opinions welcome).

[Update: while reading Nabeel Zuberi’s informative article “Sampling South Asian Music” this morning (12 July), I encountered the following, albeit brief, affirmation of the use of Arab forms in Jyoti: “DJ Quik’s account is testament to Bollywood’s exotic fascination with Arab culture…”]

So despite that one critique of the Truth Hurts video is its conflation of such (presumably “ethnically” / nationally distinct?) things as henna and bellydance — not unlike Erick Sermon rapping about scooping up “an Arabic chick” over a filmi sample — the Indian-accented bellydance in the Truth Hurts video (just see the image at the top of this post), which appears to have inspired rather similar moves in “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” is not itself necessarily a particularly American invention.

Opposing US military/economic imperialism is one thing; opposing US hip-hop producers’ forays into “foreign” territory is another (despite parallels to US bellydance). Bracketing (for now) a discussion of Lahiri’s own “sampling” practices, is the composer right to charge “cultural imperialism”? For Chris Fitzpatrick, a former features editor @ popmatters, it would seem so. In an article on “Addictive” penned for the website, Fitzpatrick advances an overbearing but by no means invalid critique of hip-hop orientalism in the would-be New American Century. But he undercuts his argument by voicing a bit of paternalistic orientalism of his own, playing preservationist for the pure, pristine, and timeless traditions of the East (/Third World). Writing about hip-hop’s orientalist producers (e.g., Timbo, Dre, E.Double, R.Kels), Fitzgerald argues that —

They set imperialism to a new bass-heavy beat, claiming traditional “third world” art forms as hot commodities.

The aural and visual epitome of this “new beat” is the Henna-soaked music video entitled “Addictive” by Truth Hurts, featuring Rakim. DJ Quik produced the song, sampling traditional Hindi music. Although the track is centered on sounds from India, the video features choreographed belly dancing: a Middle Eastern dance form. This odd combination is indicative of a typically totalizing Western mentality: India, the Middle East, what’s the difference? The entire “third world” is one big backwards and “underdeveloped” wasteland, right? Wrong, but such assumptions are embedded into every note, chant, beat, image, and dance in “Addictive,” relying on the romantic notion that the Middle East and India are inherently mystical and sexy, as if everyone studies the Kama Sutra, practices Tantric Sex, rides magic carpets, and belly dances naked in the moonlight.

While the video’s “exoticism” may seem exciting to the average Westerner, who’s more used to grinding and grabbing on the dance floor, it comes with imperialist undertones. “Addictive” paints a Westernized Middle East, offering a luxurious palace-turned-nightclub, full of beautiful models slinking and gyrating sexily on the dance floor, in “ethnic,” sequined costumes and Henna.

Bollywood may indeed be “traditional Hindi music” in its way (and draws on what might rightly be called “traditional” Indian music of all kinds), but not in the way that Fitzgerald imagines or projects here. “Assumptions,” you say? “Chants,” eh?

The question arises: If it’s not so clear-cut that the direction of influence / appropriation / exploitation / representation is a one-way (East–>West) street, how do we proceed with any conversation about musical/cultural value that grapples honestly with the question of cross-cultural exchange?

I ask because charges of cultural imperialism — whether overblown, reflexive, or sincere — can distract us from some of the more positive politics of culture on both sides of the fence (you make a border real by policing it). In these cases above, and in those below (just wait), we can hear — in addition to rehashed stereotypes — examples of what we might consider “convivial appropriation,” attempts to take part in global modernity (and local multiculture) by expressing a cosmopolitan orientation, to demonstrate open-minded, up-to-the-time tastes, all the time vibing ineluctably — I’m afraid — with the shimmer of difference under advanced global/gunboat capitalism. This is as true in LA as Bombay — sorry, Mumbai (which raises the question, shouldn’t we be calling it Mollywood now?). To put it another way, per Michael Taussig, we can hear&see in “Addictive,” “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” and even in “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai,” the power of mimesis to “explore difference, yield into and become Other.”

Although an argument about musical mimesis — whether we want to call it copying, allusion, or influence — arguably extends to all instances of performance and production, it merits emphasis that in genres such as hip-hop and filmi the incorporation of previously recorded riffs, rhythms, and all manner of musical material is especially essential to the creative process and often crucial to the production of meaning in moments of reception.

Dancehall too. Many readers are no doubt familiar with yet another recent use of “Thoda Resham” — and, like “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” one inspired directly by “Addictive”: the Bollywood riddim, aka “The Indian” as it was known in Jamaica, a place where East Indians have been a visible minority since the L19C. One review of the riddim notes that its appearance accompanied several other eastward-looking productions (a trend that I discuss in a piece I penned a few years back for XLR8R on Jamaica and the War on Terror):

“Bollywood” is a great bouncing riddim, actually Computer Paul’s JA rub from “Addictive”, the worldwide hit by Truth Hurts, which was produced by DJ Quick from the Dr Dre camp. Musician Paul “Computer Paul” Henton has used a sample of “Kalyon Ka Chaman” sung by Lata Mangeshkar and has also added an indian-like riddim drum pattern in order to keep up with trendy dancehall riddims like for example “Tabla”, “The Return” and “Diwali”.

There’s actually a lot more going on in Computer Paul’s / In The Streetz’s “rub” of “Addictive” than the addition of an “indian-like riddim drum pattern” (whatever that means — it actually sounds more like a stripped-down version of the percussion lines in both “Addictive” / “Thoda Resham”), including a wheezy synth line, a buzzy bass (giving it that ol’ 3+3+2 bomp-bomp), and the kind of layered variation one expects with post-millennial riddims. And when one takes into account the various other songs, melodies, & texts alluded to by the artists who “voiced” the riddim, this is — par for the course — one deeply intertextual production. As is typical for riddims these days, the Bollywood supported around 2 dozen official/sanctioned voicings, including such local hits as Beenie Man & Robyn’s “Red Red Red” (which interpolates as it critiques Khia’s “My Neck, My Back“) and, my fave, Tanya Stevens’s, “Addicted” — an obvious nod to the Truth Hurts song (and perhaps a bit of counteraction to Truth Hurts’s sometimes submissive lyrics) which includes some wonderfully assertive innuendo about men who brag about their prowess yet “cannot pitch a tent.” But I digress.

Back to filmi. No one well acquainted with the filmi tradition would deny that it too is an inherently intertextual genre, and composers have long drawn from local folk, classical, and pop music as well as the folk, classical, and pop traditions of the wider world. One favorite of mine, an example that I often use when teaching classes about Bollywood/filmi, is “Engal Kalyanam” (from Worlds of Music, a textbook I once used), which alternates between obvious rock’n’roll tropes and more local sections and includes Woody Woodpecker’s trademark® laugh as a recurring interjection —

As I reported last summer, after a great overview of the “musical bondage” between Bollywood diva Asha Bhosle and her husband, composer RD Burman, one of the presenters, Shuchi Kothari, was quick to point out — when asked whether hip-hop appropriations of Bollywood were more “ignorant” than vice versa — that Burman was quite “cavalier” in his borrowings. And the same could be said for just about any Bollywood composer.

Lahiri is no exception. Indeed, this page details but a few of his many, many “borrowings” from the likes of Beethoven, Barbara Streisand, Boy George, and Beverly Hills Cop, to name a few beginning with B. (Interesting, innit, that in all the discussions of MIA covering the filmi hit “Jimmy Jimmy” few mention that Lahiri “borrowed” liberally from a Canadian disco group for the “original.”)

Given the degree of intertextuality in Bollywood, and the craze for “remixes” (i.e., covers), it is perhaps of no surprise that other composers attempted to capitalize on the success and resonance of “Kaliyon Ka Chaman.” (And, lest we forget, so did Lahiri, rather forgettably.)

A Kannada-language film called Rakta Kanneeru, for instance, includes a song called “Ee Deshadali Karunaadu Ide” which quite obviously and audibly takes its cues from “Kaliyon Ka Chaman” (and hence from the Truth Hurts and Lata versions as well). Perhaps predictably, given the degree of “derivation,” some viewers/listeners do not regard it very highly and accuse the director, Sadhu Kokila, of the same sort of “blatant” “copying” as Dre/Quik. As posted on a Kannada-centric messageboard (note, interestingly, the assumption that Meghna Naidu’s version is itself an unauthorized remix.):

Innu blatant copies irbekaadre intha chikka putta songs na bittbidbeku :)

Another example –

Kaliyon ka chaman by Lata ==>
Silently stolen by Dr. Dre to make Truth Hurts ==>
Back to unauthorized remix in Hindi featuring Meghna Naidu ==>
“Ee Deshadali Karunaadu Ide” … Terrible song in Raktha Kanneru by Sadhu Kokila

Judge for yourself. Here’s that one — a clear rip-off of a clear rip-off of a clear rip-off, right?

Listen to Raktha Kanneeru – kannada Audio Songs at

As I hope I’ve been able to show to this point, setting the record straight — or telling the story right — is important not just b/c of charges of imperialism or orientalism and their implications, but b/c of our very understanding of commonplace cultural practice, especially in the age of mechanical/digital reproducibility.

Given this state of affairs, I’d like to recuperate the idea of “copying.” Sometimes in copyright/left/wrong conversations “borrowing” starts to feel like a euphemism, especially when we’re talking about digital sampling. So let’s call a spade a spade, but more than that, let’s use the more inclusive term, for it is true that sampling and recomposition each constitute, in their own ways, direct forms of copying. One may seem more “exact” to certain observers because of the way it approximates the sound of the original at such an infinitesimal level of detail. But they are both uses of rather precise, powerful technologies (digital sampling and “Western” notation) to do essentially the same thing: to recontextualize a previous performance for a new creation. Indeed, along these lines, it’s interesting that the term remix refers to this very process — making new, audibly, from old — in both “teh West” (and the wider world) as well as in India, though in the former(s) as a result of sampling and in the latter via recomposition / rearrangement.

A lot of this is, of course, nothing more than mental hand-wringing. For despite the occasional chilling effect brought on by a lawsuit, culture continues to make copies. Or to put it another way, people do. Copying and transforming cultural forms — sometimes (often?) just by making a bad copy — is not simply commonplace but crucial, and our world is richer and funnier and more connected (intertextually, symbolically, even socially) for it.

The advent and mainstreaming of the mashup is a prime example of how copying continues unabated and takes still more ostentatious forms because of the magic of binary code (0s and 1s are waaaay easy to cut’n’paste). So isn’t it fitting that a (presumably Indian?) bloke who calls himself DJ Brown Fiyah (a layered, appropriative name in its own right) mashed together “Kalion Ka Chaman” and Usher’s “Yeah” —

Or — look ma, an analog “appropriation”! — what about this blazing new joint from Maga Bo, which ended up in my inbox earlier in the week and, wouldn’t you know, opens with a pretty familiar vocal melody (which has nothing to do with Lata, btw; it’s all Truth Hurts, and yes it turns up in “Kaliyon Ka Chaman” too) —

Both examples above are, I submit, rather clear instances of how people use recognizable bits of “foreign” / global culture to articulate something new — and, notably, something locally meaningful which nonetheless can resonate in the wider world.

Just culture at work here, people. Plain and simple Rich and complex.

But in case your sense of injustice is still seething, perhaps in sympathy to Lata Mangeshkar, who, if anyone, is perhaps the artist most deeply uncompensated in all of this (not that she’s doing too badly, all things considered), allow me to pose a commonsensical counterfactual: how much do you think Stevie Wonder should sue for Lata for her performance on “Aate Jaate Hanste Gaate” (from Maine Pyar Kiya [1989])?

It’s a silly question, isn’t it. Not least of which because Stevie and Lata are both quite well-off. But the example gets us back, yet again, to one of the most troubling aspects of all this: the tendency for people to couch their (often ignorant) criticisms in value-laden double standards. The Wikipedia page for Maine Pyar Kiya, for example, currently reads:

The opening track, Aate Jaate, is said to have been inspired by Stevie Wonder’s 1984 single, I Just Called to Say I Love You, while the track Mere Rang Mein Rangne Wali was directly inspired by Swedish rock band Europe’s 1986 single, The Final Countdown and theme from Love Story’s Where Do I Begin. The track Antakshri was a medley of various Bollywood songs based on the Antakshari game, which was popularized with this film’s release. The remaining tracks, including the popular Dil Deewana, were original compositions.

“Said to have been inspired by”? Really? Is that level of vague attribution not a little odd in such an audibly obvious case? I mean, I guess if you put it that way (who “said,” btw?), that’s not, like, copying at all. But please explain, given this wording, how other instances of “borrowing” on the soundtrack can be described as “directly inspired by” (my emph) or a “medley of” or, even, “original”?!? There is a spurious sort of double standard at play here, which is one reason I’m so interested in the particular, tangly, but in many ways representative & suggestive case of “Addictive.”

As a sidenote, tho — incidentally but not insignificantly — I am very pleased to be better acquainted with all of these tracks, including the one I’ve used for the title of this post, as well as Europe’s over-the-top synth anthem and the filmi track that combines the two —

Yes, there are structural/financial issues at issue here and I’m far from an apologist for imperialists or capitalists, but these lawsuits and biased Wiki edits are not going to correct anything. It’s the latter that cause me more concern. I’m happy to let rich people sue the pants off each other. Who cares? I take issue more strongly with the sticky memes of originality and ownership projected so strongly by the plaintiffs of such suits. They propagate notions of “intellectual property” (a bad idea to copy, IMO) wholly out of step with cultural — indeed, intellectual — practice. They favor certain notions of musical labor or process or value that primarily or exclusively benefit themselves (and often hypocritically at that).

Truth hurts.

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March 23rd, 2008

linkthink #0735: Happy Easter Edition

videyoga ::

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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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