As published in issue 377 of The Wire (July 2015), here’s my joint review of two recent books about soundsystem/DJ culture, each of them impressive efforts of deep documentation and deliberate framing even as each takes a rather different approach to the project. Together, they further round out our understanding of the soundsystem as global form and local culture.
Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews In The San Francisco Bay Area Oliver Wang Duke University Press, 232 pp
Sonidero City: Exploring Sound Systems In Mexico And Colombia
Mirjam Wirz & Buzz Maeschi (Editors) Motto, 224 pp
The sound system has been a paradigm of musical experience for over half a century, but only recently has a global picture begun to emerge. While such legendary sites as New York, Chicago, Kingston and London boast substantial literatures devoted to the genesis and development of disco, hiphop, house and reggae, the amazing stories of how record-wielding disc jockeys and discerning, dancing audiences reshaped the musical and social lives of, say, Rio de Janeiro, Rotterdam or Cairo are only just coming to light. Oliver Wangâs Legions Of Boom and Mirjam Wirzâs Sonidero City offer welcome contributions to this emerging world history, bringing rich portraits of the San Francisco Bay Areaâs mobile DJ crews, Mexicoâs sonidos, and Colombiaâs picĂłs into the mix.
At a glance, the two texts provide rather different portraits of mobile sound system scenes. While one is written in academic but accessible prose, collegially situated in the domain of popular music studies, the other is nearly wordless and self-published, a collection of hundreds of poignant and telling images. But both stand as impressive, textured documents that should be of interest to anyone curious about how sound systems take on local colour and meaning.
Of all the local scenes that have gathered around the live playing of dance records, few outside the pantheon have enjoyed so detailed and attentive a treatment as Legions Of Boom gives to the Bay Areaâs mobile DJ crews of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a scene centred around disco-derived, blend-oriented continuous mixing and underpinned by a burgeoning Filipino community. Wangâs account strikes a careful balance between oral history and analysis, grounded in ethnography while also working to interpret and elaborate the significance of the story. He chronicles the rise and fall of the scene, charting its course from suburban garage parties to spectacular large scale showcases to the emergence of scratch DJs who would one day play a part in the sceneâs dissolution. The Bay Area has, of course, long been on the map thanks to such Filipino turntablist luminaries as Q-Bert, Shortkut, and Mix Master Mike, and Wangâs book gives their sudden appearance on the world stage crucial context, explaining how âthe scratch sceneâs roots grew in soil first tilled by the mobile crewsâ.
While narrating according to the sceneâs chronology and its participantsâ testimony, Wang also considers more abstract questions, such as what it means to be a scene (and not, he insists, a subculture), how the lack of mass media access encouraged peer to peer interactions, and why class and gender are often elephants in the rec room. Wang devotes two central chapters to the sceneâs âpreconditionsâ by which he refers to such âinternalâ factors as âthe allure of social status, the aura of work as a DJ, and the appeal of homosocialityâ (and the consequent reproduction of masculinity), as well as to such âexternalâ âsoft infrastructureâ as the social networks connecting crews and audiences: âpeer-run student and church groups, middle-class parents and relatives, and Filipino community groupsâ. He also gives an apt amount of space to the remarkable degree of collective labour involved in producing a single mobile DJ event, never mind an entire scene.
Wang develops his account of the scene over a series of chapters, each framed with an event flier that serves as a focal point for a particular moment in time and dimension of the scene. These help to give a vivid picture of the do it yourself material culture at the heart of the mobile DJ scene. For all its crucial images, however, as an annotated oral history at its core, Legions Of Boom is a book centred on the words of the sceneâs participants and Wangâs insightful perspectives as a scholar, a journalist, and a DJ.
In contrast, Sonidero City puts images front and centre in its representation of sound system culture in Mexico and Colombia. Mirjam Wirz presents herself as a photographer, a humble explorer inspired by the world of sound system cumbia to go on a âspontaneous research undertakingâ: âI headed out onto the streets, talked to people, visited living rooms, courtyards, and dance events, and captured with the camera whatever the trail led me toâ. Indeed, there is little in the way of framing in the book save for that of the photographs themselves. As for those, they are often powerful, ranging from documentary snapshots of audiences and sonideros in action to more intimate, artful portrayals of individuals and their cherished artifacts: luridly painted speaker boxes, handwritten signs and well worn vinyl, yellowing stationery and posters. On their own, many shots are arresting, carrying a sense of intimacy and eye for detail; in the aggregate, they produce a sensuous, variegated picture of sound system communities in Mexico City, Monterrey and Barranquilla.
Sonidero City includes a small booklet offering context and credit, including an annotated index of every image in the book as well as some suggestive fragments. Wirz rehearses a big picture history of cumbia but turns quickly to the more recent, local histories of cumbia as working class sound system culture in Mexico, where sonidos have reshaped cumbia and salsa as hip-hop did funk, reggae did R&B, and disco did soul, and in Colombia, where soukous has served as musical muse and raw material for local reinvention. The booklet effectively intersperses brief histories with interview excerpts as well as a transcription of a sonido talkover session (with cumbia lyrics in capital letters), a direct but playful representation that speaks volumes without explication: âTHINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF YOU, LOVING YOU â here goes for Angelo, the IncorrigibleâŚ Curly from Moctezuma and his old lady, because Susanita is old. LOVING YOU…â
Later this week, on Friday April 19 from 2-3:45pm, I will have the pleasure of hosting a panel of some dear friends & colleagues & all-around awesome folks at the EMP Pop Conference at NYC (at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts @ 721 Broadway). An experiment of sorts, this year’s Pop Conference will take place in five cities at once over the course of the weekend: the EMP Museum in Seattle, NYU/NYC, Tulane in New Orleans, USC/LA, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Each will take on a different theme. For NYC, it’s “After the Deluge” — a reference to Hurricane Sandy, if interpreted farily loosely.
As a longstanding admirer of and participant in the #PopCon, it was an honor to be asked to curate a conversation at the conference, and I’m taking the opportunity to bring together several of my favorite artist/writer/smartfolk to talk about some overlapping and intersecting music scenes across the boroughs. Here’s the skinny —
In the wake of a different kind of deluge, this roundtable aims to explore how particular waves of migration — a constant if dynamic feature of the city — serve to initiate new senses of locality across NYCâs boroughs. Each panelist, all drawing from a wealth of experience as artist-practitioners as well as public critics of sorts, will explore how immigrant cultures have reshaped the sound of the city through an often diffuse but undeniable soundscape presence, savvy use of club spaces and informal commercial networks, and in culturally charged interplay with other new and established scenes. Building on years of engagement with cumbia communities from Buenos Aires to Monterey, Jace Clayton (aka DJ /Rupture) will describe how transnational cumbia today flows through Mexican Brooklyn; Jazmin Soto (aka Venus X) will discuss how Dominican music textures Harlem life as well as how it serves to address a wider GHE20G0TH1K public; “Chief” Boima Tucker will report on the burgeoning African club scene in the Bronx and Queens; Dr. Larisa Mann (aka DJ Ripley) will tease out the ways that Jamaicans work within and beyond established diasporic spaces; and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs will add crucial perspective on African-American Harlem to flesh out our picture of how places gets made and remade by the arrival of newcomers. Hosting the roundtable is Wayne Marshall (Harvard University / wayneandwax), whose work on reggae, hip-hop, and reggaeton consistently revolves around NYC’s vibrant, variegated, sonically-mediated encounters between established and emergent groups.
I’m pretty sure none of these panelists need any introduction to readers of W&W. But just to whet appetites a bit, allow me to share some recent items from/on them all:
1) Jace Clayton’s latest project, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, has been receiving great critical praise. A recent profile in the Guardian does a nice job of exploring his aesthetics and how this latest effort makes sense within his varied oeuvre.
2) Venus X continues to make waves with the GHE20G0TH1K movement. Check out this piece published last week that examines the wider ripples she & partner Shayne HBA are having on the fashion world & NYC culture more broadly.
3) Chief Boima’s always cooking up something. Look out for his forthcoming report for RBMA delving into the African club scene he’ll be talking about at #PopCon. Meantime, get a sense of the sounds swirling through the club scenes he deftly navigates as a DJ, this time with Dutty comrade Geko Jones:
4) For her part, Dr. Ripley has also recently issued a blistering Dutty mixtape, an ode to her roots & abiding interest in high tempos & dark moods:
5) Latasha Diggs has just published TwERK, a book of “poems, songs, and myths” that ask “only that we imagine America as it has always existed, an Americana beyond the English language.” Allow me to quote the mighty Vijay Iyer’s blurb:
This long-awaited compendium of works by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs will blow your mind with its delirious play of signs, its cultural repurposings and reclaimings, its endlessly spinning polyglot wheel, and its breezy repertoire of ribald, faux-naif cyberfolk myth-science. With dazzling rigor and imagination, Ms. Diggs shares with us a view from Harlem that shines a knowing light on every place in the observable universe.
Given the recent attention on Harlem as both real and imagined space of ebullient dance, I can’t wait for our panel to, ahem, shake out some new perspectives on the musically-suffused significance of the many waves of culture constantly washing over the place. If you’re in NYC, hope you’ll be able to join us. If not, do tune in! (And follow the hashtag on Twitter: #PopCon.)
Estoy muymuy emocionado about tomorrow nights guest(s) at Beat Research.
Dorchester’s own Trizlam, no stranger to BR, will be accompanied by his very own picĂł — or piquito anyway — a mini-replica of one of the Colombian Caribbean coast’s classically souped-up soundsystems, one of the very outfits that developed the local genre known as champeta by rinsing rare Cuban-by-way-of-Congo soukous sides. This is an amazing story expertly told and framed by mi colega estimada, Deborah Pacini Hernandez, in this classic 1996 article.
But Triz offers a nice narrative of his own over on his blog. Exploring the specific story of El Gran Fidel, Triz appends an important chapter to champeta’s story by discussing the mini-picĂł replica movement as both a reverent and nostalgic memorializing of the golden days. Allow me to cull a bit —
El Gran Fidel is one of Colombiaâs foundational sound systems â referred to as picĂłs from the English phrase âpick-upâ â taking its place in the pantheon of Barranquillaâs immortalized picĂłs alongside other heavyweights of the seventies and eighties like El Timbalero, El Coreano and El Rojo.
Originally owned and operated by Jaime Alvarez, El Fidel became known as âEl Ministro de La Salsaâ dictating sounds and selections at verbenas and casetas (outdor soundsystem events) around the city. The aesthetic of the picĂł was decidedly militaristic â drawing on the imagery and reputation of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. The original artwork portrays a powerful Fidel, victoriously riding a camel across the front of the speaker box, with figures or mascots from other picĂłs reaching up, attempting to hold him back or rise up to his level. The image at once conveys the potency of the picĂł, and references the well-known photographs of Cuban Revolutionaries riding into Havana in 1959 amidst throngs of onlookers and supporters. Curiously, the illustrations also draw heavily on orientalist symbology â Fidel rides a camel (not a vehicle of choice in either Cuba or Colombia) from a desert environment containing arabesque architecture and distinctly middle-eastern features, into a more familiar tropical/Caribbean terrain with palm trees, blue sky, and mountains on the horizon.
Arguably, El Fidel â along with its contemporaries â occupies a âgolden-oldiesâ style nostalgic space in Barranquillaâs current day musical geography. The physical and sonic qualities of picotero culture have evolved significantly through the nineties and into the twenty-first century. Tube amps, intricate illustrations and coveted Congolese records have in large part been replaced by larger speaker sets, drum machines, live mcâs and modernized champeta music and dance styles. Still, there remains a veneration and respect for the older traditions that is alive and well among many in Barranquilla who continue to admire the music and culture of yesteryear.
Among these veteran picoteros, vinyl enthusiasts, and melomanos, a space has been carved out for the celebration of this historical culture. A number of estaderos (outdoor bars/music venues) around the city feature replicas of the golden-era picĂłs, including the legendary venue La Troja, where patrons dance to the sounds of vintage salsa records lovingly selected from the clubâs cherished collection of Lps and 45s. Replica picĂłs have also become something of a hobby for fans, as events, clubs and associations dedicated to building and playing them have popped up around the region.
In addition to this history, Triz adds the details of how he and his novia colombiana commissioned a replica of their own and managed to actually get the strange object all the way to Boston —
During our stay in Barranquilla, Carlota and myself had the crazy idea of commissioning a replica picĂł that we would bring back to the states. After meeting many members of ASOREPIK, and visiting various events, we were deep enough under the spell of these multi-colored sound systems to undertake the process of transporting one across many miles of ocean to have a small taste of Colombia in cold, drab Boston. ASOREPIK member and carpenter by trade, Edilberto De La Hoz is a Soledad native responsible for building many of the picĂł replicas in the area. Being a devotee of El Gran Fidel, with a beautiful replica of his own, it was only right that we decided on El Fidel for the picĂł to have him build for us. So with our fingers crossed that shipping a decorated speaker box to Boston would be possible, we made arrangements for the creation of our own El Fidel (picĂłs are something of a curiosity in most of Colombia, not being widely known outside of the Caribbean coastâone can only imagine the response of US customs to this strange object adorned with a painting of Fidel Castro).
After some pretty difficult last minute maneuvering we were able to pack away the finished product and ship it off just before getting on a plane back to Bogota and eventually to Boston. A few weeks later our improvised padded box arrived at my doorstep with only minor damageâEl Gran Fidel had reached its destination. Mounting the speakers themselves into the box was not quite as easy as I had envisioned, but within a short time the picĂł was up and running. And that is the story of how El Gran Fidel made its way from a yard in Soledad, Atlantico, to an apartment in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
So, we’re very excited to be able to host the local premiere of El Gran Fidel(ito) tomorrow night, which, in addition to the booming system at the Good Life, should make for quite the listening & vibing experience. Unseasonably, Boston hasn’t been all that cold and drab lately, but a small taste of Colombia is always welcome. Cereza on top, Triz will no doubt be reaching deep into his cumbia crates for the occasion. (See here for previous mixes.) Material culture meets vibrational force downtown, baby!
ps — As it happens, just this weekend Gervase (formerly of Heatwave fame) pointed to an excellent mix of “African music via the Caribbean coast of Colombia.” Check out “Terapia Africana Mix (a selection of pico african hits)” over Muzzicaltrips to whet your appetite some more.
Tonight at Beat Research we’re happy to have Trizlam, a Dorchester native and crate-digging scholar interested in the circulation of musical media — he wrote an extensive essay on the importance of “yardtapes” in the Jamaican diaspora — who recently returned from a three-month tour of Colombia where he engaged in some serious picĂł peeping with the help of Fabian from the Africolombia blog.
In addition to visiting various old picĂłs, replicas of the old greats (one of which he’s apparently shipped to Boston!), and new-style picos alike, he also got lots of great photos and conducted some interviews — & of course, he picked up a bunch of champeta, cumbia, and mĂşsica tropical, a fine selection thereof he’ll be sharing with us at Enormous Room tonight. (No report on whether he’ll have any choque versions that I’ve yet to hear, but rest assured I’ll be asking him, especially since his tour also took him to Buenaventura.)
Since arriving back in the Bean, Triz has been blogging up a tropical storm, including a post on the picĂłs he visited. In a case of great timing, the latest features a cumbia mix culled from all over South America. Go get a taste of what you might hear tonight, and add Ruff Luxury to whatever it is you add URLs to these days.
Last week a daily newspaper from Abu Dhabi, The National, published a piece I wrote about “nu world” music under the title “Sounds of the wide, wired world” (29 Oct 2010). As usual, while I think my editor — here, the mighty Dave Stelfox — did an utterly admirable job of making my prolix prose ring pretty damn clear, it still feels weird for stuff to fall under my byline that didn’t come directly from this horse’s mouth. And there are lots of words and phrases and names and things that I’d rather like to cram back in. So as with other things I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’m providing here at W&W a “director’s cut” (which nonetheless preserves many of Dave’s careful cuts and amendments). Thx again, Dave!
Sounds of the wide, wired world
In the autumn of 2009, Dave Nada, a Washington DC-based DJ, was playing a midday party in a basement for his cousin and a couple dozen of his high-school-skipping friends. The DJs preceding Nada warmed up the room with bachata and reggaeton: mid-tempo dance music from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico that offered deep, familiar grooves to the Latino crowd.
At 32, Nada was the oldest person at the party, and more of a techno/electro guy. In a flash of inspiration, he decided to drop something out of the ordinary on his young audience. Afrojack’s remix of Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie’s “Moombah” – a typical example of Dutch “dirty house” – already had all the elements of a reggaeton club banger: thumping kick drums, piercing synth-lines, cut-and-paste party chants, and a distinctly Caribbean cross-rhythm in the snares. The only problem was that it was too fast. To make the track fit the vibe of the gathering, Nada reduced its speed by 20 beats per minute. This simple adaptation sent the kids into a frenzy.
Unexpectedly, it also birthed a new genre that embodies a much broader phenomenon: a reclamation and redefinition of global street music for the internet age that we might call world music 2.0. Spurred by the success of his experiment, Nada recorded an MP3 edit of his Afrojack remix and constructed several more slowed-down interpretations of house tracks. These were circulated on the internet, representing a sound that its creator, perhaps not entirely seriously, dubbed “moombahton.” Ever hungry for the new, the global dance music blogosphere seized upon this strange, hybrid sound. By March of this year, Nada had been featured on the website of The Fader magazine; by summer he was running a popular weekly club night, Moombahton Mondays, in DC.
Back in the Netherlands, meanwhile, an aspiring producer stumbled upon Nada’s work during a routine trawl of the web. Like the kids at the party, he was floored. A 20-year-old Dominican, born and raised in Rotterdam, Rayiv “Munchi” MĂźnch was a long-time fan of bachata and merengue, especially a recent streetwise version of the latter, known as mambo; Dutch bubbling – a mid-1990s collision of hyperspeed gabba techno and Jamaican dancehall; and hip-hop of all kinds. In moombahton, however, he heard a new future for reggaeton, a genre he loved but believed had become creatively stagnant.
He worked all night long, emerging the next morning with a digital “promo” package of five new songs. Rather than editing pre-existent tracks, Munchi built his productions from the ground up. Using samples from his ecumenical music collection, he injected influences from Brazilian funk carioca, Angolan kuduro, Latin American cumbia and more. In April, he wrote to a number of bloggers, myself included, to share his music. Over the next few months he maintained a prolific work rate, producing 50 tracks in all and releasing concept-driven online promo packs every four weeks. These circulated rapidly via blogs, tweets, and the SoundCloud account where he streams them and provides links for free downloads, either there or at free (but ad-riddled), temporary âdigital lockersâ such as MediaFire.
The feedback loop doesn’t stop there. In just the last month DJ Orion, a producer from Austin, Texas, uploaded 30 tracks to his BandCamp site (where customers are asked to pay as much or as little as they like to download the music), in a style he is calling “boombahchero.” Many of the songs are second-generation interpretations of Nada’s and Munchi’s remixes. However, Orion has gone a step further, infusing his edits with the strains of Mexican tribal guarachero, an emergent form of electronic dance music mixing cumbia, techno, and a distinctive triple-time swing – often produced by teenagers, the genre has been making the rounds recently as the latest local fusion of global elements to resound more widely than, say, the clubs and communities in Monterrey and Mexico City where it sounds right at home.
These interconnected stories form but one knotty vignette in the wider narrative of world music 2.0. Largely brought together online, this tangle of diverse street-level sounds is bound by common tools and shared reference points. Its accelerated interactive pace is driven by the proliferation of accessible music and video-production software, and the connective possibilities of the social web or, in marketing parlance, web 2.0 – the key feature of which is the explosion of networked platforms that enable anyone with access to publish their music and dance moves to a limitless audience. Needless to say, this is precisely what thousands of young people are doing.
The commonplace use of cracked or demo software in many of world music 2.0’s more rough-hewn productions produces a patina of piracy, an unintentional but marked aesthetic effect that privileges participation, immersion and immediacy. On YouTube, Colombian teens dodge “Free Trial Version” watermarks as they do a modified Melbourne shuffle at the local mall. Robotic voices interrupt homespun raps from Los Angeles to remind us that weâre listening to music made with unlicensed programs. Pop-up ads piggyback on the networked DailyMotion of young people across the Francophone world trying on and showing off the latest steps from the tecktonik and logobi scenes. Chains of compression lend a sizzle to MP3s of reggaeton and Baltimore club music, filled with uncleared samples and made everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Romania.
Because most of this activity happens on corporate “platforms,” the unruly openness of online enterprise is constantly vulnerable to the caprice of bottom-line logic and rearguard legal attacks from twentieth-century copyright giants. Videos disappear regularly, sniffed out by audio-detection algorithms. Entire sites vanish overnight. In the last year alone, imeem and Jamglue, two popular audio-streaming sites which played host to such burgeoning scenes as Chicagoâs juke and LAâs jerk, suddenly shuttered, falling prey to licensing nightmares and hostile takeovers. Down the ether hole with them went thousands of conversations, personal playlists, home-produced gems, and peer-to-peer connections.
But who cares about quality control or posterity? Clearly not the kids who keep uploading. They’re hacking their way through contemporary media ecologies, motivated more by making and doing than by legal strictures or commercial profit. The result is a vivid picture of a truly global youth culture. Kids doing what kids always have done: dancing, performing, goofing around. The difference is that they now broadcast it to the world – if often as an afterthought, the result of default settings that encourage openness.
Public culture is being remade by all this so-called “user-generated content,” including the ever curious category of âworld music.â In some contrast to its creation by a consortium of British music-industry players in the 1980s to market recordings that represented musical traditions of the non-western world, a multinational network of grassroots producers, DJs, and bloggers are now renegotiating and redefining this freighted yet inclusive term.
Their work embraces a fluid but thoroughly urbanized idea of worldliness. The stylistic signposts of world music 2.0 are utterly contemporary, grounded not in traditional instrumentation but the ubiquitous structures of hip-hop, reggae and house. The music’s themes are more often than not as unvarnished as its sound: sex, social domination and the travails of life in the big city – be it London, Johannesburg or Rio. Nonetheless, and more than likely as a direct result of this fact, it resonates widely.
A wealth of websites have sprung up, bringing these far flung sounds together. On Ghetto Bassquake (London), Generation Bass (Tilberg, Holland), Dutty Artz (New York) and many others, New Orleans bounce, Colombian champeta, Jamaican dancehall, desi bhangra and South African house all find common ground. Many of these sites have also become record labels, releasing music from and inspired by urban dance scenes from around the world – and around the corner.
A prime example is Dave Quam’s It’s After the End of the World, an open-eared blog from Chicago focused on the city’s juke scene but often extending its remit to Dutch bubbling and Memphis rap. Quam launched a digital label called Free Bass last month by giving away a three-song EP by Cedaa. A teenager from the small city of Bellingham, Washington, Cedaa’s music takes flight from juke’s stuttering drum machinery and adds a certain, synthesised Pacific Northwest pastoral. It’s glorious stuff that could only have happened now.
As the vibrancy and resiliency of youth culture from the inner-cities of the world inspires urbane curators and globe-trotting DJs, it animates another new strain of world music: Trinidadian soca filtered through Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier, funk carioca via MIA and Diplo, the cumbia of Buenos Aires’ slums recontextualised by the uptown crew ZZK. In a sense, this slicker, commercially released music by savvy interpreters of the Global North recalls the earlier, successful mediations of Paul Simon and David Byrne – albeit rather more modestly, at least in terms of sales.
Informed by the diasporic settings that so many cities have become, the “bottom-up” revision of world music is a valuable development, offering new ways of engaging with the world, often undergirded by intimate, everyday experiences of cosmopolitan conviviality. However, certain queasy connections with its earlier incarnation also persist. Despite the necessary translation and filtering provided by metropolitan mediators, the xenophily animating their work can cloak familiar fetishes of otherness in slum chic.
Another name for world music 2.0, in this regard, might be “global ghettotech” – a term I floated on my blog a few years ago, hoping its implicit critique would be clear. Surprisingly, it has since been unironically embraced by a number of artists and entrepreneurs across Europe and the Americas. The ghetto remains a major signpost in this new world, but its romanticization or exploitation as a signifier of edginess, especially by those not of it, will always create tensions. Teamed with a recent embarrassment of tropical tropes and neo-tiki motifs, it’s almost enough to return us full circle to hearing the world as kitschy exotica rather than the noise next door.
Fortunately, critiques are not the sole preserve of critics. They can come in musical form, too. In June a New York/Vancouver collective called Old Money, with Jamaican, Guyanese and Polish membership, posted a track to SoundCloud called African Kids! A sardonic send-up of the use of generic African imagery, it fits seemingly random lyrical fragments – “shapes, colours, African kids!” – to a bass-wobbling beat that nods to several recent UK dance genres all at once. The only tag added to the track reads “TribalTribalAfricanKidzzz,” a lyric in the song. It was amusing, but also discomfiting. Old Money sent it around to the usual network of websites and blogs, some of whom had helped hype their previous recordings. No one wanted to touch it. Perhaps it hit a bit too close to home. Or maybe it’s not such a brave new world after all.
Against my own best intentions, the saga continues.
While some interesting but sprawling discussion continues to happen on the cumbia worlds post, my more recent entry, detailing an exchange with BarbĂ¨s’ Olivier Conan, was derailed late Friday evening by a classic bit of trolling:
just goes to show that a musicologist, journalist, bedroom blogger, cultural critic can never really understand what someone as brave and ballsy like olivier, not to mention inspired and inevitably broke, is living. mecâs in peru following up on his passion that inevitably is positive for music while wayne constructs opinions from the interwebs and industry press releases. at least give him a minute to respond before writing.
zziiinng! jace jizzed his pants from all the internet hating and bating, now he applauds. cant wait to see his followup from the musical enterprises of soot/duttyartz.
And even though I know I’m not supposed to feed the trolls, they’re so relatively (and mercifully) rare here, that I couldn’t resist responding to what, even without knowing who the poster was, clearly was discordant with the tenor of the conversation and, in many ways, rather wrong in its assessments:
I dunno, âtom,â you seem pretty out of tune with the whole discussion to me, but maybe thatâs just a result of your falsetto.
My sympathy and appreciation for what Olivier does, now that I better understand all that he does, has grown, but I still stand by my critique of the PR. & I donât try to pretend, as you seem to want to do, that any of what we do can be extricated from internet & industry. I also find it ironic that in your own glee over what you smear as baseless snark, you present a really uncharitable and unfair profile of yours truly. Iâve got balls too, buddy, unlike an anonymous troll/sockpuppet like you. & Iâve done a lot more than push words around in my life, including a lot of things you praise Olivier for â traveling to foreign lands, meeting musicians and collaborating with them, going totally broke in the process, trying to do positive things. so check your own ignant self.
also, i blog from my living room.
But I couldn’t stop there. You see, I’m not nearly as thick-skinned as I’d like to be, despite knowingly projecting my voice (and hence inviting all manner of responses). Anonymous swipes can still sting, even when off-key and off-base. (I don’t want you to get me wrong any more than I want to be wrong in actuality.) So I did what I always do when I encounter such a comment, I clicked on the IP address to see where in the world it was coming from. To my surprise, WordPress revealed that I had received another comment from the same IP just the day before:
If Grant Dull, aka El G, of ZZK was actually behind this sockpuppetry, I told myself, I’m going to be pretty disappointed. This is the same guy, after all, who I had just hosted at Beat Researchand at my home (where we dined on homecooked Boston Baked Beans & consumed a couple bottles of our homemade wine) — a guy that I picked up at the airport (after removing our two carseats), drove around Boston, spent social & cultural capital on to get him & his label local press coverage, & spent actual, out-of-pocket capital on to offer up a little more cash than our modest Monday stipend from the club (which was still less than we would have liked to give — to their credit, the ZZK guys knew Boston would be a loss for them and still came thru; then again, they did say we turned out maybe the vibiest, dancingest crowd all tour).
It was galling to think my generosity would be so repaid. I couldn’t resist, so I confronted him over email. As I think my last post demonstrated, I prefer to be civil and sensitive in my interactions with people — and that’s something I prize about the conversations on this blog (which gives me pause as I write this, knowing I’m fanning a flame war) — but treat me like this, and I won’t mince words. I’ll tell you exactly what I think of you. The exchange went like this —
can you explain the coincidence in IP address on these two comments? (see attached)
plz tell me you wouldn’t pose as an asshole sockpuppet on my blog. i thought i did you (& knew you) better than that.
To which Grant responded, apparently with no sense of irony:
you got me! get tired of all the hating in the music circles, dudes need more support.
At this point, my so-called lack of support became a lot realer:
that’s really wack, man. i’m disappointed. i think i’ve offered you & zzk lots of support, if occasionally in the context of some criticism; same goes for barbes. that’s just what i do — that’s me trying to be honest. (no “hating” involved.) in the future, it’s gonna be a lot harder for me to support you, knowing you could pull some shit like this. the whole point of the last few posts is that we need more honesty in this biz.
i’m gonna sleep on this for now. but i’m sorely tempted to keep the call for transparency going by outing your lame ass.
Grant’s immediate reply went like this, once again brimming with irony:
youre right, i know, i shouldnt have hit send. i wasnt attacking you but internet/journalism culture in general. this kind of post opens it up for haters, and those who love to criticize via the internet. we’ve been criticized plenty by people who have had minimal contact ie rupture with what we’re doing. and in major news publications! that’s whack.
i shouldnt have sent it but nobody stands up for anybody in these circumstances, and hiding behind anonymity keeps me directly out of the argument, where id prefer not to be. if u wanna call me out you have every right.
Twelve hours later, when I still had not replied (and though no longer “sleeping” on it was still thinking about it quite a bit), Grant sent a follow-up:
wayne im very regretful about what i did. im sorry, it was foolish of me. please dont out me, i posted under a psydenum for a reason. i know, it was dumb. i feel ashamed. i respect you and your friendship however briefly it was and feel like a big asshole for goating a situation i obvioulsy know little about. i live in my own world and should stay there. again my apologies for being such a douche. i respect rupture too, obviously. shouldnt have thought that my stirring up the pot/defending the little guy would do any good for this whole scene.
Plainly, I’ve decided not to respect Grant’s request to keep this under wraps. It does little in the way of sympathy that he can’t resist, even when appearing contrite, to position himself as a “little guy” beset by “haters” (ah, post-Diddy parlance). Having weighed it for several days, I’ve decided — against the take-the-high-road advice of my bean-baking better-half — that a proper airing-out is what is best. I hope the ensuing conversation ends up more productive than, say, like this. I sure don’t want to keep stirring the pot if all we’ve got cooking is crabs in a barrel. (And I will not necessarily be indulging sockpuppets and other trolls below.)
I’m not sure who the “little guy” is in all of this — or who’s littler than whom. Whether or not Grant’s a little guy, though, he did show himself to be somewhat small (and a bit of an internet amateur).
My decision to make all this public is not primarily vindictive. Rather, I want to take the opportunity to respond to what I think may be an underlying (incoherent but emergent) theme in Grant’s two comments: namely, that all of this music hype biz is a series of hustles, including what he does, what PR folks do, & what bloggers and journalists and academics do. In that sense, I’m part of this networked hustle too, grabbing page views by producing stuff about other people producing stuff.
I agree that we’re all imbricated. That’s why, when I began exploring the nu whirled world, my initial focus was on bloggers. (And indeed, the post preceding the cumbia critique once again scrutinized the role that blogs play in all of this.) But I have to admit I bristle a bit in calling this blog a hustle. As playful and pomo and sometimes cynical as I can get in this space, it strikes me as far too disingenuous to think of what I do here in that way. Perhaps I’m still too grounded in certain norms of academic exchange, but generally I like to think of the discourse on this blog — by myself and from commenters — as conforming to Paul Gilroy’s wonderfully succinct description, in Postcolonial Melancholia, of what makes the academy a special place insofar as
contentious and heterodox arguments will be politely heard with patience and in good faith before being refuted in a public culture for which we all assume responsibility. (9)
I try to assume that very responsibility as keeper of this blog, and I think of my posts as attempting something similar across the various, wider public spheres in which this relatively small corner of music chatter circulates. This makes my blog different from the average enthusiast “music blog,” and I can only assume — and hope — that whoever puts me on a promo list would understand all of this before pushing their wares my way.
But I am as often an enthusiast as a critic. And one of the things that makes me throw a lot more confetti than darts these days is what I’ve been conceiving as the turn to “music industry 2.0,” a world in which, thanks especially to the advent of professional-grade digital tools, bringing the costs of production and circulation down close to zero, ordinary people engage more than ever before in everyday acts of media creation and curation, assuming a certain responsibility for co-producing our public, participatory culture. (The “2.0” part, which I know is horribly trendy, not to mention creepy, is intended on the one hand to bear witness to the — often insidious and unstable — role that so-called web 2.0 platforms are playing in all of this, and on the other, to signal a new regime in the mode of production of popular music.)
Among other effects, the global diffusion of such technologies and practices, and the networking of it all, may also be producing something akin to “world music 2.0,” a peer-leveled planet of musical interplay which finally lives up to the name — even as it undermines any coherence such a term could have. This is a world in which neither Chicago nor Paris nor Luanda nor Lima are more obviously (or unmarkedly) central or peripheral than anywhere else. A world where difference need not disappear, so much as appear a little more mundane. A worldly world! A world in which, to quote Gilroy again, one
finds civic and ethical value in the process of exposure to otherness âŚ in the ordinary virtues and ironies — listening, looking, discretion, friendship — that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding. (67)
Notably, as we consider this brave new world of music industry with so many possibilities and so little money, the one thing that’s not nearly as cost-free as production and distribution, and thus not yet so democratized, is promotion — guaranteed placement in the hype machine. Access to promo dough is, hence, what still separates the (relative) big wigs from the little people.
Is it really any surprise, then, that I would turn my attention to PR? Especially to PR which seems to address itself to, if not issue from, a world — in other words, a public culture — so different from the one in which I would like to live?
I noted on Twitter the other day that one reason it was taking me so long to finish up the previous post is that “darts are harder to throw than confetti.”
It’s important to critique, at least if we want things to be better, but I also always try to remind myself that there are actual people on the receiving end. It can be easy to forget that when hurling flames down the intertubes. This is the other other side of the recent/recurring discussion about the death of negative music criticism.
My post on a few small cumbia labels is uneven in lots of ways. In some cases I had access to the labelheads themselves, in other cases, I was forced to focus more on what I could collect around the web. The general call for more transparency undergirding my critiques echoes in the incomplete info I had when writing, which led me to focus more on the PR efforts around BarbĂ¨s than the work of the label itself (though I did try to provide some balance and qualification, noting that the music on Roots of Chicha is wonderful and that the comps are important for bringing an awareness and appreciation of chicha to wider audiences). I had put in a request with Ryan at PressJunkiePR to ask Olivier Conan about the licensing behind his comps, which was dutifully forwarded; I had also directly emailed Olivier in the hope that that might prove fruitful. Turns out, Olivier was in Peru last week and unable to respond right away.
Very shortly after hitting “publish” on the post, Olivier appeared in my inbox, diligently and detailedly answering my queries about licensing, with no idea that I’d just thrown some very public darts his way. Allow me to share the ensuing conversation, which, in the spirit of these posts, adds a fair amount of clarity and nuance and empathy to the discussion.
Sorry for the delay – I was in Peru and have been in panic catching-up mode since I got back.
Licensing is time-consuming and can indeed be complicated when dealing with music that was considered to have no commercial value for a couple of decades. While Chicha was big business for a couple of labels in the 70’s and 80’s, the record business pretty much collapsed in Peru and very few of the labels stayed active. IEMPSA, which was more of a generalist label is pretty much the only one which managed to stay in business. They were the biggest label with a huge catalog of criollo, folkloric and rock. They also acquired smaller labels along the way. Licensing anything that they owned proved fairly easy, anything else required some detective work and some of my detective work turned out to be sup-par.
For the first Roots of Chicha, I managed to locate most of the musicians. Angel Rosado, of los Hijos del Sol owned the rights to his songs, and I was able to license straight from him (he cried on the phone when I told him i was calling from the US – he died less than a year after the release of the record). Locating Juaneco y su Combo was a little more difficult, but I finally located Juaneco’s son, Mao. Juaneco had died a few years before that, and his son was both musical and legal heir. He was also very useful in giving me quite a bit of biographical data. The rest of the rights I secured through IEMPSA. They helped me contact other label owners and usually worked out a deal where they licensed directly and gave be a sub-license. It took a little bit of time, but I was able to get pretty much all the songs I wanted. Everybody I talked to at the time thought I was crazy. No one cared about the music, no one had bothered to keep the original masters. The music was only available through bootlegs. Even artists would sometimes send me the bootleg versions of their work. The idea of anthologizing the music just seemed strange to them.
The album got a lot of press in Peru (where it was never released by the way…..) and things started to change. People realized that they were sitting on potential money-makers – or so they thought. The biggest producer of Amazonian cumbia staring in the late 60’s was Alberto Maravi. He was responsible for the success of the best amazonian cumbia bands (Juaneco and Mirlos among others) and his label INFOPESA, had been inactive for years. After the comp came out, there was a huge revival of Juaneco y su combo – not just because of me. In particular, the band Bareto covered a few of their songs which became extremely popular.
Alberto Maravi, who had supposedly disappeared, re-appeared shortly after that. Turns out that Mao had no legal right to the masters (only a moral one I guess…). And 5 of the songs that IEMPSA had licensed to me were also his. IEMPSA had been pretty careless in checking rights. âŚ
I was a lot more careful with this second compilation – I also know Peru a lot better than I used to and have a lot more contacts. People were still a little surprised that I wanted to license some of the songs – especially the stuff from Horoscopo. Horoscopo is the label that really codified what came to be known as Chicha with Chacalon and Los Shapis, its two biggest stars. They were more of a “ghetto” label and haven’t yet benefitted from the revival. They ‘re still considered crass. I had to track down Juan Campos, the owner and producer, who apparently now runs a farm north of LIma and has had nothing to do with music any more. He hasn’t kept any of the masters either but I was able to license from him with no problem. Same with Colegiala, the most famous song on the comp. I actually just got the writer on the phone who put me in touch with the original owner of the him. I don’t expect any problems on this one, but there are always surprises.
In general, getting licenses isn’t as hard as people think. The main problem is making sure you’re talking to the right person, which can be hard when the music is kind of forgotten.
Of course, many re-issue labels don’t bother with licenses at all which I don’t think is right. There is very little money involved in re-issues at this point and whatever potential profit is in part eaten up by licenses, but I really don’t understand how you can create awareness and respect for a genre when you show absolutely no respects for the musicians who created the music to begin with. Even if It is true that more than often musicians were screwed by the original producers and don’t necessarily see the money. And it’s also true that as a business venture, barbes is a total failure and I’ll probably stop releasing records by next year..
Let me know if you have any other questions or if you want me to elaborate.
I really like your blog by they way.
To which I replied, slightly aghast —
Thanks much for this detailed reply. This is all very interesting. Sorry to throw a serious query your way while you were on the road.
As you may have seen, I just pushed the publish button on that long post about cumbia marketing this morning. It discusses Barbes in some detail, and since I couldn’t confirm anything about the licensing with you or Ryan, I decided to focus on the language of the promotional materials for your comps. I hope you can see that as critical as I can be, I also see a lot to celebrate about what you do. And your email about licensing really helps to bring things into perspective.
Would you be amenable to me posting the contents of this email to my blog? I think it would help to continue the conversation, and I like the idea — given my critiques — of bringing this tricky stuff more into the open, more into the story of Barbes, at least for readers of my blog (a few of whom, I’m told, have already purchased the new CD since reading this morning’s post!).
Let me know what you think. If you’d prefer to edit it, that’s ok by me too.
To which Olivier replied —
Just read your post – that hurt… It hurts even more because it is well written and very pertinent. As a disclaimer, I didn’t write the press release (although I obviously let it be written) nor did I try to create a colonial narrative of white discoverer of the obvious. I find the idea as abhorrent as you do. I didn’t think my liner notes implied that in any way, i simply was trying to explain how I became an excuse for people to start writing about the music in Peru. That an outsider should bring credibility to aspects of a local culture that had been previously despised is unfortunately not that uncommon. That I found myself in the middle of that story is still very strange to me, but it did happen without me sending out press releases.
In general, I have been so aware of the dangers of the colonial narrative, as well as the pitfalls of the fetishizing the exotic, that I have tried to avoid it as much as possible and I feel really terrible that I should have failed so miserably. I genuinely like the music. I have spent quite a bit of time researching it. I’ve met a number of the musicians who play it. I have played with some of them but will probably won’t any more and will instead embrace berets and musette.
Also, for the record (no pun intended) BarbĂ¨s records is one person – myself. I am an enthusiast, not a businessman, I have never turned a profit, never paid myself a salary and most probably never will. I don’t play up the image of the little guy toiling underground, because I do find it just as annoying. I am not a fan of the esoteric in any form but a great believer in the exoteric. I genuinely believe that chicha is not simply good music, but one of the great pop hybrid of pop music history and that its fate was directly linked to imbalances of class and geo-political power. Better producers and better reception at the time would have no doubt made the music popular worldwide. I’d much rather have people talk about Noe Fachin, Lener MuĂąoz or Manzanita than me.
Damn, I wish I had time to give you a more fleshed out critique of your critique, but I don’t. Still, you do raise some of the most important issues in the promotion of World Music. I am just a little freaked out to be the poster boy for neo-colonial crate digging.
Feel free to use my previous email. I don’t have time to edit it, so if you do use it, please mention that it is an email.
Apologies for obsessing over this – but I just wanted to point out to the publicity I have been using for the record. If you look at the website for instance http://barbesrecords.com/rootsofchicha2.html there is not one mention of myself on it or the part I might or might not have played in the promoting the music. Just thought I would defend myself…
I’m sorry for any hurt feelings — really. That’s one reason it took me a while to write the post as carefully as I could. I really appreciate hearing all of this from you — and I suspect my readers / a wider audience will too. I don’t mean to put anyone in a defensive posture, though it’s clear that this kind of critique can do that. (Mike from Mass Tropicas, for instance, is currently hashing things out with a critic in the comments — quite productively, I think.)
At any rate, I certainly am not calling for you to play musette wearing a beret! That’s a great image of how ridiculous a lot of this cultural policing can get. I think it’s obvious that I see great value in seeking out things from different places, especially something like chicha, which as you note can really stand on its own as a remarkable moment in international/local pop. But I admit that my ethnomusicological training leads me to find lots of irksome things in the way the “world music” industry operates.
Part of the point in these ongoing, thinking-aloud blogposts is to bring more clarity and nuance to the situation. Didn’t mean to make you a poster boy of sorts — but don’t worry, there are lots of them/us — and I think your emails will help to clear that up. I’m grateful to be in conversation, and, though it should go without saying, I wish you all the best.
Back to Olivier:
I do appreciate the critique, and the dialogue – and especially looking into inner workings of the world music industry – I guess what I really object to is only looking at the release from the PR angle and not mentioning the work that went into putting the package together – I spent a lot of time on it, none of it relies on the, indeed, objectionable narrative hinted at by the press release and generally exploited by writers who see it as an easier story to tell. What can I say. I’m sensitive.
Totally fair response, Olivier. In lieu of more info, I’m afraid I had to concentrate on the PR. I’ll be running some of this email text as a corrective of sorts on the blog very soon. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.
I’m sensitive too, and I hate how internet “hate” can really hang over me. I’m sorry if I’ve thrown some of those bad vibes your way today. Please, keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s good work, I’m convinced of that.
And finally, Olivier closes things out with a little levity:
Can’t wait to read about something else on your blog…..
On that note, while I’m eager to see the conversation continue in the comments on the cumbia worlds post, as well as on this one, readers can look forward to some topical departures here in the near future.
Thanks again to Olivier and to all for thinking through this thorny stuff with me.
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the _______ slums of _______ has become a full-fledged global occasion â
This could be the mantra of global ghettotech. Could hardly have written it better myself. But I didn’t. Nor was it written, despite what might be its commonplace connotations, about reggae, or funk carioca, or kuduro, or any of the usual suspects. It was written about cumbia made in Peru in the 1970s, and I came across it not on an enthusiastic blog but via a careful press release announcing the second volume in the Roots of Chicha series. The appearance of this phrasing shows how even well-worn attempts to market “world music” can turn with the times and speak the language of resonant novelty. Global g-tech blogging begetting sexy new scenarios, new sites of authenticity. Old wine, new bottles.
The story of “world music 2.0” however — and the built-in critique of that tag — is not all about newness, or some sense of progressive departure from previous, problematic regimes of representation, or visions of egalitarian peer-to-peer exchange and cosmopolitan conviviality in our brave, new, digital and diasporic age. (Booty-shaking sugar plums dancing in our embeds?) It’s also about a great many continuities with “old” “world music” and its commercial & discursive repertories — including especially, 1) how deals get done (or not at all); and 2) how musical wares get described, (re)contextualized, hyped, dressed up, pimped, punked, and truffled. In other words: New wine, old bottles.
This post is meant to serve as a follow-up to my previous thoughts on today’s world musics. The focus again falls on small, independent record labels, but unlike those mentioned in the last post, the labels I discuss below didn’t begin as blogs (and are not to be confused with them). In the interest of going deeper into context and credit and other #realtalk — from business practices to the language employed by labels and PR firms to frame their enterprises — allow me to try to tell three brief stories about a few kinds of cumbia circulating in the world today — particularly in world(s) beyond their home contexts, worlds where cumbia becomes, for some, “world.”
The first thing I’m going to say about BarbĂ¨s, run by Brooklyn-based Frenchman Olivier Conant, is that the two Roots of Chicha compilations have been a welcome presence in my life. They’re full of fantastic performances from rightly (locally) popular performers who were listening intently to the world around them — to cumbia, psychedelic rock, and huayno, among others — and whirling it up into their own special sound. The first disc lodged itself in my car for many many months back when it came out. And what I’ve heard of the second keeps the chicha torch aloft and blazing.
A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: none of what follows is meant as an ad hominem attack. I’m interested in the larger structures that someone like Conan or his PR people have to navigate, as well as how they plot their way through. If I seem poke too much at the latter, or even to be calling names, it is intended more as a critique of the language that markets world music, or chicha, or cumbia — a discourse which implicates audiences & customers as well as producers & promoters. (That said, the unofficial subtitle of this post is: “How To Stop Receiving Promos” ;)
That said, let’s begin on the sound’s own terms, if you’ll permit the conceit. Check some of the tracks on the new comp:
Ok, back to words. There are lots of things we could say about these songs. What the PR focuses on, however, is the heroic narrative of label-owner Olivier Conan, who saw (& heard) the value in cumbias amazĂłnicas even when many in Peru could not. “Scorned by the middle-class and the official tastemakers,” we’re told, chicha has become a “full-fledged global occasion” and even recuperated back home, “thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.” That’s actually the end of the sentence that I used as an epigraph (full text here); here’s the non-redacted version:
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the Peruvian slums of the 1970s has become a full-fledged global occasion â thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.
Chutzpah? Perhaps, but these sorts of claims are pretty par for the course in the world of music promo, never mind “world music” promo, where one classic trope is of the noble adventurer seeking out the golden nuggets of exotic lands. (Even if outstretched microphones have largely been replaced by crate diggers.) But the press release really hammers home on this narrative, suggesting it’s a psychological hook for all the curious, cosmo gringos who make up the album’s principal public:
News that a gringo was interested in chicha found its way in many of Peruâs mainstream magazines, newspapers and TV â including canal cuatro and the very official El Comercio.
The icky part is, the reason this sort of thing — ie, a curious gringo in the foreign press, or the “fancy-fish-out-of-water” — is remarkable at all is precisely because of the intense power asymmetries between, say, the US and Peru. Of course, also motivating this response is a degree of self/national pride that finds flattering any sort of outside appreciation — and there’s often an insidious, if perhaps also productive, dynamic at play in these exchanges whereby a proletarian music becomes a national symbol thanks to foreign affirmation — but those structural dimensions are not what receive emphasis here.
And such a campaign has effects. I mean jeez, even Mother Jones can’t resist going with a lede like this:
Imagine hiking in the Peruvian Andes and finding a group of chicha musicians: migrants playing a fusion of Cuban son, Andean melodies and psychedelic surfer rock, blended like the Inca corn whiskey the music is named after.
This narrative tack is striking given that BarbĂ¨s is clearly attuned to questions of representation, or at least their uses. Take the assertion, circulating as promo, that vol. 2 is âan attempt to rectify some of the biases and inaccuracies of the first volume.â According to the website, the bar/performance space which bears the same name as the label “puts the stress on cultural variety, neighborhood conviviality” (& they really play my violin on that last note). All the while, Conan is well aware that, “Brooklyn may be the only place where middle-class gringos are playing the music with a more or less vintage ’70s approach.”
One reason I started with the sound files above is that I don’t want to dwell too much on the representational stuff when the music can also speak for itself (at least the music that passes through Conan’s filter). And I don’t mean to conflate marketing hyperbole with the valuable service that Conan’s efforts have done for chicha and cumbia, not to mention for many of the artists he’s featured.
Conan’s “attempt to share his enthusiasm” in the Roots of Chicha comps is, in many ways, laudable. Targeting a (relatively) wide audience by selecting popular tracks also ensures a certain degree of quality, the lingering resonance of previous moments of intense attachment, and Conan has indisputably helped to re-ignite the appreciation — economic, affective, and otherwise — of chicha. In this sense, BarbĂ¨s deserves credit for inspiring others to go in search of great chicha and kindred forms of cumbia, including the guy who runs the next label I’d like to talk about.
But can we talk about value without mention of the label’s relationships to the musicians who provide the grist for the mill? How can we appraise this new wave of chicha appreciation without a sense of how BarbĂ¨s is sustaining any chicha scene other than “middle-class gringo” Brooklyn’s? Why can’t the terms of the deal enter into the heroic narrative? Isn’t tracking down the musicians involved in the original recordings at least as romantic, if not more, than tracking down the recordings themselves? Why is there a significant, building “Fair Trade” / transparency movement in food but not in music?
Why, for example, doesn’t the following rycooderesque press release — issued by the same entity promoting Roots of Chicha 2 (and working to promote lots of other music I like — sorry, Ryan, but realtalk beckons) — in which the exchange between all involved is so crucial, talk at all about how this project stands to contribute to the scene from which it poaches?
In April of 2010, Cory Wong and Eric Foss of Secret Stash Records traveled to Lima, Peru with a translator and assembled PeĂąa, an Afro-Peruvian ensemble featuring a handful of the best musicians within the genre. The group was a revolving door of sorts that included over a dozen players ranging in age from 24 to 65. In seven days they recorded over 50 tracks. With no access to a conventional recording studio they improvised by tracking in classrooms, living rooms, balconies, offices, and even on the stoop of a hostel. The sessions were fast, free spirited, and generally consisted of one or two takes per track. The result is an authentic display of one of the worldâs most unique, unexplored and underrated musical styles.
Below are the full details and download links to an MP3 to post, the album, and more. I look forward to your feedback and hopefully coverage in your media outlet. [W&W note: I look forward to a leaner inbox after this post.]
I can think of at least one very successful example where the fairness of the deal (& correcting for unfairness in first dealings) became a crucial and appealing part of the release’s narrative. I’m thinking here of Greg Scruggs’s labors to put together PancadĂŁo do Morro, a project & product that Greg referred to as “Fair Trade Funk.” In his own words —
Every artist has a contract in Portuguese, was paid a sum upfront, and will receive royalties. I can vouch for this personally, as Iâm the one who has been orchestrating it all for my friends over at Flamin Hotz Records. Moreover, the CD itself is a gorgeous six panel deal, c/o BustBright, with cover art by funk legend Tony Minister, spot gloss lettering, and two booklets â featuring lyrics in Portuguese and English, artist bios, and photos. There is no anonymity here.
So put some names and beats with faces, add some well-mastered tamborzĂŁo to your collection, and support the hardworking MCs and DJs down in Rio: proceeds are going their way. Trust me, Iâll be sending the remittances myself.
Read the rest of that post for further details of how Greg worked to right some things and to write those things into the story of the release itself.
But back to BarbĂ¨s. In the spirit of this post, let’s be fair in our appraisal. Aside from perhaps making the deals with musicians part of Conan’s heroic narrative, what else would we have the label do? BarbĂ¨s is still a relatively modest operation, asking for donations to kickstart interesting projects, and so forth. All things considered, they’ve brought some wonderful music to my ears and no doubt have generated a significant degree of interest in, appreciation of, and opportunity for chicha and Peruvian cumbia. For that we can say, bravo.
[Update: Please see this follow-up post for a detailed response from Olivier Conan, which helps to bring more balance to the appraisal above.]
2. Mass Tropicas
Michael Pigott is a guy who lives in Western Mass, which he had the gall to call “the better half of Massachusetts” in an introductory email to me. He runs a label called Mass Tropicas devoted to small batch releases, so far mostly of weird and wonderful Peruvian cumbia. He deals directly with the artists themselves to license the tracks he releases, and he doesn’t do digital. At all. Instead, Mike stubbornly insists on durable, physical media — vinyl and cassettes — believing that the objects themselves have a way of preserving and instilling value.
While Roots of Chicha served as some inspiration for reissuing and recording some cumbia himself, Mike had been getting into the genre, especially of the Peruvian variety, over the course of several years thanks to a couple key figures: 1) his wife, who is herself from Peru, and 2) Bruno “Tunchi” Guerra, a photographer and mainstay in Lima’s punk scene. On visits, Mike would listen to the local cumbia station in his wife’s neighborhood, note the songs he liked, and then try to find them on vinyl. (Apparently, he boasts quite the collection of 45s.)
In contrast to BarbĂ¨s reach for a broad audience, which entails reissuing formerly popular tracks (at least in Peru), Mike seeks to bring lesser known recordings to chicha’s expanding listening public (at least those addressed by hi-fi vinyl reissues). He sees the Roots of Chicha as an important “stepping stone” for people to “dig deeper” into his more obscure finds and favorites.
Mike described his operation as “DIY” and it’s clear that its infused by a certain punk ethos. (How DIY? you might ask: “All the records you touch, I touch,” Mike told me.) Small-batch cumbia appealed to Mike because pressing one’s own records is “sorta like punk rock.” His fourth and latest release, Ranil’s Jungle Party, a 12″ LP collecting some fine cuts from a local cumbia legend now running for mayor (and subject of a would-be documentary by BarbĂ¨s), could hardly better embody the approach: Ranil’s records were originally produced and released by himself on his own label, so Mike dealt directly with the man himself. (Of course, this elides unresolved questions about who, if anyone, should have exclusive rights to a collectively produced recording, but since “backup” musicians have gotten the short-end in just about every other music biz scenario, we can’t begin to hold a label like Mass Tropicas to a different standard.)
One complicating factor in re-releasing Ranil’s music, however, was the fact that Ranil himself didn’t own any of his own records; and he had taped over the masters years ago to store recordings of his radio program! Here we see how the durability of vinyl and the diligence of the digger can prove paramount. Ranil no longer possessed any of his own records, but Lima-based collector and chicha connoisseur Victor Zela, with whom Mike has been sharing his enthusiasm for years, has every single one. Victor compiled Ranil’s Jungle Party, and Mike gives him full credit as a creative partner. (The artwork, a clear homage to the style of the day, was done by Tunchi, another Lima-based collaborator.)
About that artwork, though (& plz permit another quick foray into the jungles of marketing lingo) —
Tropical tropes abound, of course, but we also need to note that the imagery was itself lifted from Ranil’s original record sleeves. (We could also note that certain details, ahem, have been highlighted and amplified.) Whether kitschy or faithful or both, these pictorial gestures doesn’t absolve the copy, however, and we can pick up plenty of resonance with BarbĂŠs/PressJunkiePR in being informed that, with efforts like this record, Peruvian cumbia “has been rescued” — or that the reissue provides a “fascinating journey through time.”
So despite all the clearly thoughtful practices motivating Mass Tropicas, we still encounter almost inevitable notes of exotic fashioneering in the language on the record themselves, their promotion, and their inevitable reformulation in press coverage. Regarding the latter, one might read that Mike “researches the deepest streets of Peruâs forgotten music,” an interesting formulation in its familiar contour but shifting locus of the real, from the jungle to the streets, again reflecting perhaps a general recalibration (or widening of the rhetorical repertory) in “world music” discourse. (Then again, despite the prevalence of the rural/pastoral/traditional, urban sounds and imgs have enjoyed a persistent, if fraught, presence in world music bins. Indestructible Example A?)
If this sort of spiel about “fascinating journeys” can ring a little hokey to some of us, redolent as it is of Putumayo pap, I don’t think that’s because Mike is out of touch. Rather, he’s following a playbook that has produced its share of touchdowns.
But let’s talk about different notions of touch for a moment. Touch is clearly important to Mike, who touches every record he sends off. In particular, two kinds of touch: being in direct touch with actual people & directly touching actual physical objects. As with Greg’s ideas about “fair trade funk,” doing it right for Mike involves both the fairness of the deal and the quality of the product. A lot of cumbia artists on some fairly popular (bootleg) compilations have no idea. “These guys are still alive,” Mike told me. “It’d be nice if they knew they were appreciated.”
As for touching actual objects, not to mention being in touch, here’s a nice chunky plastic thing I got in the mail from Mike:
Mike doesn’t really sell cassettes, yet. He tells me he’s had trouble convincing distributors to carry them, despite a minor current/recentvogue for them (indeed, a couple local producers slipped me their latest mixtape, on tape, just last week). I was happy to get the cassette since I’m lucky enough to have a car that plays them; this was true for Mike too, back when he got the idea of pressing up some of his own.
The El Hombre Orquesta cassette is from a limited run of 100, printed up mainly as an effort to promote El Hombre, aka Carlos Antonio, a sui generis one-man-band (and paraplegic) who Mike encountered while walking around in Lima. (Here’s an unrelated local news profile of him.) Singing songs while playing bongos, timbales, cymbals, wood blocks, and a halved soda bottle that sounds like a mean slide trumpet, El Hombre Orquesta has a sound all his own.
Struck by the sound, Mike asked him on the spot whether he could record him. Antonio told him, “It’s gonna cost ya,” and asked for $30. “I’ll give you extra,” said Mike, who then paid for $3 for a local practice space, recorded for 80 minutes, and gave Antonio $50, telling him he’d seek out a label back in the US to release his music. A relatively successful indie label specializing in what we might call “found sounds” of the wide world expressed strong interest, but eventually dropped the project. Having told Antonio that “next time I come down I’ll have an EP for ya,” Mike returned recently, gave him a bunch of cassettes and $200. El Hombre cried; he was touched.
3. ZZK Records
ZZK Records (pronounced zee-zek, Argentine-style, not Ĺ˝iĹžek), a label that started as a party, boasts a deep roster of hyper-creative pibes (yep, they’re all dudes), who make all kinds of exciting electronic dance music (especially the digital or “nu” cumbia for which they’re primarily known), run successful Kickstarter campaigns, and, having put their stamp on the nu world scene, are slowly but successfully wiggling their way into the potentially lucrative ol world music circuit (that’s 1.0, if you’re counting).
Recently, ZZK acts appeared at the 2010 Chicago World Music Festival, and they’re aiming to make it to Womex later this month. As the premier world music showcase in the world, Womex can be a huge platform, opening the golden doors to some of that ol world music industry money, where, especially in the live performance/festival circuit, there’s still a substantial amount to be made (unlike in the relatively tiny “global bass” scene, unless you’re fortunate enough to join the truffled classes).
For all its promise, Womex also presents significant risks for a fledgling label like ZZK, which still supports itself through all kinds of side/day-gigs (including a design firm, making somewhat more saleable use of their in-house talents). Simply getting to Copenhagen is taxing enough for an operation of this size to merit a kickstarter campaign for assistance. Everyday they’re hustling. But also touring a lot and making some great music and having fun.
By my watch, the ZZK crew got where they are today, notably, not merely though the various grinds above, but, in a nod to industry 2.0, by giving a lot of music away — especially in the form of mixtapes and bootlegs/mashups pushed onto the net (and in many cases, directly to bloggers in the nascent nu-world world). In this way, they share the plight of a lot of other small, independent labels (or artists) trying to build an audience and create some demand for (some commodification of) what they do in a saturated, “post-scarcity” music industry. ZZK effectively inserted their productions, style, and brand into translocal media flows by being savvy with what they make and share: mixtapes that blend their own tracks and other local flaves with global currents, mashups that lend a familiar tinge (in the form of say, a rap acapella) to their own electro-cumbia productions, videos that might find an eager embed on electronic / world / cosmopolatino blogs.
Although ZZK would prefer not to find its acts consigned to the marketological ghettos of “world” and “Latin,” such tags also offer certain footholds, crossover niches. When El G (aka Grant Dull, ZZK cofounder) and Lisandro of the Frikstailers came to Cambridge to play Beat Research this month, I had the opportunity to witness how the label attempts to work within the unwieldy boxes that litter the music industrial landscape. While Grant was being interviewed by a local guy who does an “alt Latin” radio show, I couldn’t help but appreciate how he tried to thread the needle, talking about the sound of the label, or specific acts, in a manner commensurate with their actual style and outlook and yet also in ways that make sense, that translate, that communicate to certain audiences. Hence, the Frikstailers were described at once as audibly “from south America” but, in the same breath, “very modern, contemporary.”
So despite the label’s nu-ness, it’s no surprise that the ZZKers selected to go to Womex are Tremor, the only “band” in the ZZK crew, and hence an act that already affirms certain entrenched ideas about “real” (world) musicianship. It probably also helps with the WM1.0 folks that they guys in Trebor play folkloristic drums (bombo leguero) and perform, according to ZZK’s own website copy, no less than an “interpretation of local musicology.” Indeed, once you read that amidst the mix of synths and drum samples one also hears “timeless Andean flute,” I think it’s clear that we’re treading familiar (“foreign”) territory.
I myself would probably leave the showcase featuring folkloric drums in order to see, say, a couple of guys banging on synths and laptops and DDR-pads, but I think it’s a while yet before the old world music guard is ready for the likes of the Frikstailers. Their loss, especially since the Friks’ productions may actually better embody the world-is-flat mythos animating a lot of WM1.0 fantasies. (Easy-listening reggae from any corner of the globe!) Like many of their nu-whirled peers, the Frikstailers find themselves immersed, at least part time, in a global culture flattened by the likes of YouTube and Twitter and mp3, where the real “world” music is the stuff we all hear no matter where we go: Justin (Bieber or Timberlake), 50, Britney.
The Frikstailers’ music features all sorts of referents, from the general to the specific — dancehall drums, cumbia percussion, that hip-house guy who says “oww” — but it’s pretty damn omnivorous in terms of what gets glitched and glitzed into a clubby, poppy frenzy. They don’t seem to proceed creatively with any self/audience-imposed requirements for local or Latin sabor. Their new EP reminds me as much of vintage Aphex Twin or the Black Dog as anything else. This stands in some contrast to, say, the nearly note-for-note renditions of Conan’s Brooklyn-based band.
The young Moroccan at the music stand didnât get that I was looking for vinyl. Iâve searched for records all around the world, and been shot the same puzzled looks and second-guesses many times before. âCD?â he asked in accented English. âNo, the old ones,â I countered, approximating twelve inches with my hands. âYou know: big, black.â
He uttered a groan and tossed his head, returning his attention to a rack of small discs with photocopied covers that apparently deserved a careful rearranging.
âEveryone threw those away,â he said with his back to me. âBullshit,â I thought.
Wherever I dig, I refuse to think that these stubborn digitalists donât know at least one old neighborhood jazz cat or a parent or grandparent who held onto their clunky plastic music platters.
Sam’s own stubbornness eventually leads him to a trove of sorts c/o Gam Boujemaa, a longtime record collector & seller in Casablanca. A stockpile of vinyl, yes, but great stories too — telling tales about how vinyl from all over the world ended up in one little shop in western Morocco. For anyone who caught Boima’s provocative post last week about the neo-colonialism of digging for records in Africa, no doubt some sentiments in Sam’s piece will seem familiar, irksome even. (Check the rather interesting and contentious debate which has erupted in the comments! Fresh wounds all around.)
Given the trenchant questions Boima raises, I need to note how much I appreciate the nuance and ironies in Sam’s narrative. For all the notes of romance and curiosity that animate his search, he also shows the digger of today — i.e., guys like Sam — to be following, if in a sort of reverse, the steps of diggers before him — guys like Gam — with their own desires to transform themselves, by collecting just the right things, into something else, other, cosmopolitan, cool:
Gam Boujemaa sold newspapers on the street until he turned twenty. By that time, it was 1964, and he had heard enough jazz and seen enough Marlon Brando movies to know he wanted to own a leather jacket and sell the dayâs best music to a cosmopolitan clientele.
The city was, and still is, a world away from Fez and Marrakech, the ancient trading hubs of the Moroccan interior where the smells of mint, olives, and live animals pervade all commerce. Casablanca had an Atlantic orientation that brought the Beatles and Otis Redding to Gamâs attention, and to his record storeâs shelves years before his countrymen in the Atlas Mountains could know that rock and roll or R&B even existed. âŚ
With between thirty and forty thousand records lining the shelves of his store on Boulevard de Paris, Gam isnât the explorer he used to be. Some locals bring him their old collections, but his main business is selling to foreigners. French, British, Dutch, and Turkish collectors dominate his clientele nowadays, but the store recalls the time just after Moroccan independence from France when Gamâs excitement brought the newest sounds from overseas to his shop.
For example, between 1966 and 1970, Gam added thousands of Bollywood film 45s to his stock. Then, in 1970, he turned the storeâs name into its own music label. He released records by popular singer Naima Samih, and drafted the folk-influenced troupe Jil Jilala to his imprint.
I like that Sam calls Gam an explorer. There’s a sense of commonality there, of certain shared notions and practices, despite their differences. And I like that the portrait Sam offers of Gam complicates too easy a reading of how either of their activities fit into an imperial/colonial order. But I’ll leave further analysis to the hive mind for now.
Instead, let’s let the music speak a little too, if thru Sam’s filter. Here’s the mix Sam made to accompany the Wax Poetics piece, featuring records he picked up in Casablanca and Fez, & liberated from its streaming-only status by yours truly and DownloadHelper:
Complicating things further, Sam offers up another “hand-dug” (his term) gem — this one “exclusive” to W&W — for our listening and debating pleasures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it brings us into contact with another hot-spot for contemporary cool-vinyl hunters: Amazonian cumbia. Although he turned up the following track in Lima, it’s by Costa Rican soloist and bandleader Alfredo Barrantes, who found such success in Ecuador he became known as “EL PILOTO DE LOS EXITOS” (THE PILOT OF HITS). Note the telltale snaps’n’crackles at the outset:
Incidentally, if you dig sounds like these, we’ve got a real treat coming up in a couple of weeks: on Oct 4, alongside El G and the Frikstailers, representing the digital cumbia of the ZZK collective (!!!), we’ve also got Michael Pigott of Mass Tropicas, a label based in Western Massachusetts specializing in ethically-licensed high quality vinyl reissues of obscure Amazonian cumbia. I’ll be posting in greater detail about that in the coming weeks. But be sure to put Oct 4 on your calendars. It’s gonna be cumbiariffic!
Finally, if you’re looking for a sense of what he might sound like in the mix, here’s a relatively recent and wide-ranging set c/o Balagan:
Just yesterday I was flipping over his Amen-breaking, dembow-dripped, synth-cackle, “Datsik – Firepower (Munchi Moombahcore Rmx).” And then this morning I find the following in my inbox. Readymade blogpost hype? I’ll take it. Seriously, though, I really love the way Munchi explains his thinking behind each track and his general tracing out of all the influences (confluences?) coming together in his mad, moombah-fried mind:
I have been listening to alot of Cumbia/Chicha/Guaracha/Tribal these days
and it inspired me to dedicate this months promo to it!
After the Moombahton Promo things got pretty wild and it appeared almost everywhere.
While still experimenting with this genre (now Moombahcore), i found myself listening to more and more Cumbia. Especially when i got introduced to Sonido Martines’ Sonambulo Orientalista Mix. Without exaggerating, the mix was on replay for weeks.
More and more Cumbia seemed to cross my path and after hearing alot of
mixes (especially Toy Selectah’s), Eric Rincon, DJ Icon, Sonido Del Principe,
Uproot Andy, Kumbia Queers, etc. it was Tribal that really caught my attention.
This sound -although completly different- seemed so familiar and close to me for some reason.
Hearing this reminded me of Brazil’s Funk, Dominican Republic’s Mambo, Angola’s Kuduro, Puerto Rico’s and Panama’s Reggeton, Jamaica’s Dancehall, Baltimore/Philadelphia/Jersey’s Club Music, Chicago’s Juke Music and more recently Dave Nada’s Moombahton.
All these genres have these simalarities in them which i personaly like, they are from a located area and carry the tradition of those areas. I think Toy Selectah described this best. He said it was all Hiphop. The Hiphop of those reigons. Also they have a certain rawness, alot of bass and a straight-to-the-point-ness with often sexuality as theme. In the case with Mambo the FL-cheapness that i really appreciate.
So i started experimenting and while making the tracks i realized it has very much in common with Kuduro. Unexpected turn, but proven when i changed some things up. It went from full Tribal to 100% Kuduro. I kind of like these type of connections and also found myself making this tracks with Mambo ‘heart’. The rawness and ‘cheapness’ were elements of Mambo that i put into this ep. Also turning the sexual vibes a notch up as that was the only thing that seemed to be missing in comparison with the other genres. I didn’t want to exaggerate and experiment too much as the key for the promo’s still remains staying true to the genre.
So here it is! Cumbia XXX EP. let me give you a short explanation:
Mujeres Tan A Jarro
The vocals from one of my favorite mambo tracks ever. DJ Sensual has made so much good its ridiculous. matter of fact, search him on google and see if you get some hits. You probably another dude with the same name. I guess he stopped making music.. because after the transition of the computer mambo to the mambo we know now, he dissapeared in thin air. The little ‘faults’ are on purpose, as in the whole ep. They are everywhere: progress of the track, the beat,
effects, etc. Out of tone accordeon, annoying melody, Sensual’s cheesy voice, random moaning.
Damn, i fucking LOVE cheapness!!!
When the track starts you might think ”Dude, this isn’t Cumbia.” I know, have patience my friend after you hear the oh so familiar and overused reverse crash of reggeton, it introduces a rather non-hype buildup that is made of ingredients that cause hypeness. Afrojacks familiar b-more kickpattern with Bmore a la Cumbia.
And after the girl tells you what she is expecting from you, you get this Cumbia track oozing of Baile Funk (thats why the title is Portuguese of course) with a hint of Bmore. I didn’t spare the use (read: overuse) of random moaning. True story: I sampled random Brazilian Porn for this track.
You know, i get this feeling all the time with Cumbia. Especially with this track, like this relaxed type of hypedness. Its like “Shhh, im getting hype to Cumbia. Do it quietly tho.” while rockin Native American inspired dancemoves. No agressiveness, just vibin. Its all good manito, it is all good.
Starting with a dosis of epic cheapness. A lot of reverb, explosions, overused Reggeton effects and airhorns. It gives you: the out of tone accordeon. Dude seriously, i thought that i loved the way Mambo used dirty hihats as guiros or the timbal of Reggeton’s Dembow. The cowbell, man that shit is gangsta. I mean, there is even a break in it that consists only of cowbell and bass. After that it gets wild with a good old Dutch House synth. Btw the b-b-b-b-Bellakeooooo is me! Recorded in 05/06 or something and now i could finally use it!
This one is my favorite as this is the cheapest of the bunch. The synth is made of a phone sound, when you press a button. Not sparing you on the obvious reference, the track will make it clear to you when a random rooster thinks its time to wake you up. Couldn’t leave this EP without the overuse of Dembow’s timbal. But no in contrary of what you might think, this track reminds me of this crazy ass dude in D.R. which nickname was El Gallo. This dude thinks about
sex and women all the time, drinks Brugal as it were water constantly and watches girls at night with his binoculairs as a hobby (they all know it and leave the windows open on purpose lol). Did i mention that he is funny as hell. Gallo, this track is for you!
Deja Tu Vaina Mujer
Ay Tan Sucia!
my bad Dave, you know i had to give a shoutout to the Moombahton movement, ya tu sae!!
O yeah and btw, deja tu vaina mujjjjerrrr!
Well thats all for today lol.
Let me know what you think of it!!
A few recent projects of note landed in my inbox last week. And though I don’t have the time to really give them the write-ups they deserve (and don’t get me started on the backlog of projects I need to big-up), they each grabbed my attention — a remarkable feat in this age of info-glut — and I’ll definitely be giving them some spins tonight at Beat Research. So allow me to pass along some links —
1) DJ Orion, who’ll be appearing on MuddUp Radio this evening, has just released a collection of cumbia remixes, which I definitely endorse. You can stream and/or buy the tracks over at bandcamp, where you can name your price too. Orion says, “anywhere between 0-$1 Million will help, thanks!”
2) DJ Delay keeps the brass’n’bass connections going with his own “album” of remixes of, as he puts it, “mostly south eastern european” sources, done up “in a dub aesthetic but not always inna reggae style.” The first track revisits Tremor’s “Viajante,” keeping some cumbia in the whirled mix.
I’m also well overdue for another “Mix, A Lot” post, but it’s hard enough to find the time to listen, never mind recommend. In lieu of that proper accounting, let me point you to this amazing page collecting every BBC essential mix from the last 15 years! SINK DEEP, like so —