Archive of posts tagged with "latin"

April 12th, 2011

Lambada Is a Feeling

I’m happy to report, just in time to soundtrack that new spring in your step, that I’ve cooked up a new mini-(mega)-mix! This one follows the circulation and permutation of a song I’ve tracked here before, “Llorando Se Fue” — better known to the world as “Lambada.”

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You can get some sense of the history here, but that Wikipedia page only scratches the surface (for now; here’s hoping this bit of mixxage can help aid expansion). I’ve been hearing the tune turn up in some unexpected places over the years — in hardcore dancehall reggae, for instance, which despite a certain capaciousness still surprises with what seem to be far-flung borrowings. As with similar projects, I’ve grown fascinated by the way such a spreadable song can draw attention to the inflections of individual interpreters as well as the very conventions that give genres their ability to uniquely address an audience.

What I’ve put together here is hardly comprehensive, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. For one, 15+ renditions is already pushing the limits of monotony, I suspect, despite the subtle twists and turns the tune takes in new settings; moreover, it would be quite impossible to catalog the song in full, especially given how it continues to spread. (I’m sure that J Lo’s global imperial club version will inspire many more.)

So, like Nguzunguzu’s magisterial Moments in Love, which I think of as offering another bit of inspiration for this effort, Moments in Lambada is simply an attempt to give a sense of the shape-shifting the tune undergoes. Who knows? Perhaps someday there will be a part two. (Feel free to bring to my attn any versions that seem conspicuously absent; only learned this morning that I left out a new Don Omar take!)

Whirling together a world of Lambadas is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but the impetus finally came in the form of an invitation to contribute to a new online magazine devoted to creative engagements with contemporary music and arts, Cluster Mag.

Go check out the post to grab the mix and scan the tracklist — and don’t miss my little write-up, which concludes thusly:

[Update (April 2016): alas, Clustermag seems to be down; you can find the archived post here, and the audio is here (or via the button below). I have reposted the entirety of the original text at the bottom of this post.]

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Over the course of the mix, we dip into forró, UK funky, dancehall, reggaeton, lambahton, lambow, norteña, global guettatech, panpipe pop, and other club-ready confections that may or may not have real or invented genre tags, with some delightful, surprisingly recurrent nods to vintage house. Palimpsests push their way through the texture, as when J Lo seems to retrace phonemes from “Llorando Se Fue” before singing along with Vakero’s everyman adaptation (“la la la la la”). Her zigzag jetset cartography in “On the Floor” could as easily be following the circulation of “Lambada” — Brazil, Morocco, London to Ibiza, straight to LA, New York, Vegas to Africa — but the earthy sentiments that Vakero expresses in a local tongue — “vamo a beber, vamo a joder” — are just as global.

Finally, after giving a listen, I challenge you to dispel the wriggly earworm embedded in this sweet song of a thousand dances, forbidden like fruit. Lambada is a feeling. Enjoy! (<-- MPfree)

Originally printed at Cluster Mag (April 2011):

Nodding to Nguzunguzu’s magisterial Moments in Love mix, which knits together countless covers and echoes of a seminal Art of Noise track, I’ve threaded along a similarly diverse collection of related riffs. Moments in Lambada retraces the flexible but familiar contours of one of the most popular melodies of the last 30 years. A 1981 Andean pop song (“Llorando Se Fue” by Los Kjarkas), popularly translated for Brazilian audiences in 1986 (Márcia Ferreira’s “Chorando Se Foi”), and transformed three years later into a worldwide worldbeat hit by French group Kaoma, “Lambada” was the unauthorized anthem that inspired and propelled The Forbidden Dance, a film which opened on the same day in 1990 as a rival bit of bandwagon-hopping, the less salaciously titled Lambada. In the years since, the tune has hardly receded from earshot, cropping up in both predictable and unexpected quarters over and over again.

A stretchy bit of ear candy, the song has been reworked like so much tropical taffy, twisted and folded into an impressive array of styles, sometimes as part of the same release. To maximize exposure across club scenes, Kaoma’s version was itself made available in remixed form, entering the world in several shapes and styles at once, including two “Dub” mixes, an “Extended” mix, and a “Club” mix (all of which I’ve worked into Moments). Although we begin — after a brief Incan incantation and station identification — with Los Kjarka’s 1981 recording, the mix doesn’t proceed in chronological order. Instead, tempo and formal correspondences dictate the direction. Certain segues demanded creative, but not inapt, tweaking: to stay in key (loosely speaking), a cumbia version needed to be pitched down, a procedure resonant with rebajada tradition; likewise, I’ve dubbled dub mixes and made club edits of club edits.

Over the course of the mix, we dip into forró, UK funky, dancehall, reggaeton, lambahton, lambow, norteña, global guettatech, panpipe pop, and other club-ready confections that may or may not have real or invented genre tags, with some delightful, surprisingly recurrent nods to vintage house. Palimpsests push their way through the texture, as when J Lo seems to retrace phonemes from “Llorando Se Fue” before singing along with Vakero’s everyman adaptation (“la la la la la”). Her zigzag jetset cartography in “On the Floor” could as easily be following the circulation of “Lambada” — Brazil, Morocco, London to Ibiza, straight to LA, New York, Vegas to Africa — but the earthy sentiments that Vakero expresses in a local tongue — “vamo a beber, vamo a joder” — are just as global.

W&W, Moments in Lambada

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Tracklist
Los Kjarkas, “Llorando Se Fue”
Inca Son, “Llorando Se Fue”
Jorge Rico, “Llorando Se Fue”
Grupo Chiripa, “Llorando Se Fue”
Red Foxx and Screechy Dan, “Pose Off”
Wisin y Yandel, “Pam Pam”
Kaoma, “Lambada (Dub Mix)”
Max le Daron, “Lambahton Remix”
Kaoma, “Lambada (Extended Mix)”
Kaoma, “Lambada (Llorando Se Fue?) (Dub)”
Kaoma, “Lambada (Club Mix)”
Metal de Durango, “Llorando Se Fue”
Elephant Man, “Hate Mi”
Vakero, “La La La (Lambow)”
Kiko e As Jambetes, “Chorando Se Foi”
Terror Tone, “Kaoma – Lambada (Terror Tone Remix)”
Jennifer Lopez (ft. Pitbull), “On the Floor”

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March 9th, 2011

Best African Dance Ever

So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing

Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire —

Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.

Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”

When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.

Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into —

It looks like you can get pregnant from that dance

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

DA DANCE IS MAMA AFRICA!

All manner of associations and explanations are proffered —

sumwere in east africa yall..

Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).

People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.

But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) —

Dagga dat.

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

And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:

That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:

As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:

EMOSXESUALESHPPPATAS

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

dandyism at it's most based?

My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicólogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)

Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.

This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:

Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:

And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic —

Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and Chocó dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.

For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:

Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:


note the mambo outro

According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-Caleño-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)

While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?

Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:

Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in Bogotá, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.

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

PORQUERIASSSSSSSSSSSSSSS??

Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in Bogotá doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story

Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:

Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquería” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.

And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:

As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.

It’s practically a post-script.

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March 7th, 2011

Now That’s What I Call Enculturation 2011

via Dave Quam’s tumblr (sorta) ~~

which cannot be posted with out this kneejerk embed-again also:

further reading:

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February 9th, 2011

New Lambada New Lambada New Lambada New Lambada

Thanks to DJ Effresh for putting me on to yet another interesting instantiation of the “Lambada.” Here’s Vakero, one of the DR’s fiercest MCs, jumping on a dembow-influenced reworking of a truly perennial tune, as hashed out here, way back when

Discussing this over at my/our Buzz, Birdseed pointed out that there’s a recent UK funky version of the tune as well:

Kaoma – Lambada (Terror Tone Remix) by Terror Tone

Obviously, this sort of thing is very up my musicological alley. I love to tell a good audible story, where a particular set of materials is transformed over and over again, according to its new context(s).

And while I’m not really interested in abstracting any rules for what makes one tune more transposable than others — IMO, there’s far too much contingency involved to open into the realm of the generalizable — one consistent thread that emerges across such case studies is that, as with participatory culture more generally, they very often present, in the words of Henry Jenkins, “relatively low barriers” to entry and engagement.

This is certainly true for the “Lambada,” and nothing says it better than Vakero’s shameless chorus on the track above: “la la la la la la la la la la la la la laaaaaaaa.” I mean, c’mon, anyone can do that! That’s how I’ve been singing “Lambada” for years.

Which brings me to my second example (and explains the repetitive title above): Juan Bago’s “Pan con Queso” (h/t Monika Fabian):

I’ve been a big fan of Wiz Khalifa’s relatively vapid but awfully catchy ode to his favorite colors ever since it first came out. (Indeed, I even cooked up a quick mashup to draw out the beat’s relation to the Triggerman.) I think it was Catchdubs who, in my feeds, first pointed out the obvious: You can change the chorus to be about anything! Any four-syllable phrase anyway.

And I can absolutely vouch for the plasticity of the tune. Indeed, since it entered regular radio rotation, my two toddlers have been singing it non-stop (they easily relate to songs about colors, of course), and we’ve all had fun for the last few months slotting all manner of four-syllable phrases into the hook. (Especially other color combinations, duh, in order to, say, suit the sippy-cup of the day: pink and purple, pink and purple, pink and purple, pink and purple.) [Update! Sharesister Lily notes that there actually exists a lilgirls’ version of the song called “Pink and Purple“! My daughters are delighted.]

So it doesn’t surprise me that there would be dozens and dozens of remixes (or whatever you insist on calling them) in which people substitute their own favorite four-syllable phrase. But few (that I’ve seen anyway), have come close to approaching the panache and piquancy of “Pan con Queso.” Washington Heights representando! Long live the Dominican YouTubosphere! Viva la “Lambada”!

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February 8th, 2011

El Gasodoble Magnífico

El Magnifico

To assist with the launch of NWLA (New Weird Latin America — read all about it), a new curatorial effort by some friends in the DF, I cooked up a video mashup I’ve long been wanting to assemble. The piece stitches together 13 performances of “España Cañi,” as collected on YouTube. It pegs them all to the tempo and (more or less) the key of the instrumental, or pista, from Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.”

As I wrote in the opening of my reggaeton chapter, to my ears Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina, produced by Luny Tunes, “galloped up the charts” on a “riff befitting a bullfight”:

The harmonic movement of the track, shifting a semitone or half-step every other measure—especially with its galloping figures, adding 32nd note flourishes to propel the pista forward—may suggest to some, including listeners who first heard such clichés via the producers’ namesake (i.e., Looney Tunes cartoons), the classic contours of bullfight music or pasodoble, as typified by Pascual Marquina Narro’s well-worn sporting anthem, “España Cañí.”

I mean, could it really be a mere coincidence that Yankee raps, “En la pista nos llaman los matadores”?

At any rate, whether or not a suggestion simply planted in my own head (and now yours?), I wanted to explore the strange overlap between arguably the biggest Spanish song of the last decade and one of the biggest Spanish songs of all time. So I went to YouTube and rounded up a baker’s dozen “España Cañi” instantiations. I like how the search itself, and the video below, help to highlight the amazing array of contexts for which “España Cañi” provides a model and soundtrack: from classical guitar etude to lounge piano standard, bullfights to ballgames to ballroom dances, baroque visions of Gypsy Spain to trippy scenes of liberated bulls and beefcake matadors jamming at Charo’s club, Pascual Marquina Narro’s composition sure seems alive and well — and often weird.

gasodoble workflow #2

Here’s the post at NWLA where you can read about it in Spanish and stumble upon new romantic mixes, DJ Orion’s latest genre-blending EP, and all manner of odd Latin Americana. (Here’s their twitter which, awesomely, described the piece as “un alucinante video mashup del mítico himno de la tauromaquia con ‘Gasolina’ de Daddy Yankee.”)

Or just watch it right here:

Gasodoble from wayneandwax on Vimeo.

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January 11th, 2011

A Country That Was In Another Country

Since we’re back to the topic of the wide and contested world of reggaeton, it felt fortuitous to find in my inbox this morning a link to a new interview with Renato, Panamanian pioneer of reggae en español. With the effective prodding of Peter Szok, a history professor from Texas, Renato helps to further flesh out the picture of how reggae has been translated and transformed in Panama. Go read the whole thing, but allow me to highlight some illuminating excerpts below.

If you didn’t, you should know that Renato, of Bajan and Jamaican parentage, grew up in the Canal Zone alongside other English-speaking labor migrants from the Caribbean (and their children), and that he strongly identified with US pop culture before moving to Panama City as a teen, where he learned Spanish and participated in a number of crucial ways in the emergent reggae scene: MCing parties, recording songs for drivers of diablos rojos or mini-buses (which Renato describes as “like radio stations”), and, among other things, assisting the rise of Edgardo Franco, aka El General, who got his start as one of Renato’s 4 Estrellas.

Renato’s tale of making the transition from Canal Zone to Panama, from americano to panameño, deserves a little quotation at length:

What I knew was “Buenos días,” “Hola,” and “¿Cómo estás?” So I had a lot of problems. Since I came from the Canal Zone, the kids jumped on me and called me the americano. Once I took an apple to the teacher. That was something they taught us in the Zone, and they went after me for being a brown-nose. So you know, from those experiences, I had a lot of fights. They didn’t like me, because I came from the Canal Zone. The whole experience was a bit confusing. When we moved to Panama, my grandmother told me, “Son, I have to tell you something important. You’re Panamanian. We never told you before, because we thought that you knew.” I initially had a hard time believing. But she explained that we were Panamanians, but grew up American-style, because we lived in the Canal Zone. That’s why we knew the National Anthem of the United States and not the Panamanian song. And that was another problem. When I was at school, I had to sing the Panamanian anthem, and I didn’t know it. This also created a lot of problems. Because you’re Panamanian, and people think that you don’t love your country. But it’s not that. I grew up in a country that was in another country.

And here’s Renato describing how he and Wassanga, a local DJ, made their foray into production — for the buses/busdrivers, before music on buses was banned — using reggae instrumentals:

I’m learning now how to speak in Spanish and sing in Spanish, and so we start doing tapes with the reggae instrumental versions. The guys from the diablos rojos were a big deal for us. The bus drivers would tell us, “Hey I want you to do a song, saying that I’m the number one driver in this sector. I’m the best conductor. I’ve got the girls.” So I’d do something like, “Yeah, this is the number one conductor. Yeah, he’s got the number one structure. Girls like him, so get on the bus.” And we would do it in Spanish and put it on a tape, and he would play it on his bus. Remember that Panamanians had music on their buses. Panamanian buses were like radio stations. What you heard on the buses, was what was hitting. So after we started getting this popularity in Spanish, we began to write our own songs.

Here’s Renato on rap and the Canal Zone’s relationship to the US/NYC:

Rap started in Panama with “Rapper’s Delight.” It was a big hit, The Sugar Hill Gang was really popular. Then came Run-DMC. They brought in the breakdancing. I used to breakdance. Remember that I came from the Canal Zone, and so everything from the United States was my style. And so while I was in Panama and trying to do Panamanian stuff, it was still my style. I used to try to go every day to Balboa, because I was so accustomed to my style of living that I couldn’t stand being here in Panama. I used to go every day and spend all my money on bus fairs and taxis, just to be in Balboa, just to be in Pedro Miguel with my people, my friends. You know it was hard for me to leave my friends and to live in a place where I didn’t know anyone. Then everyone started to leave for New York. Almost everyone who grew up with me now lives in the States.

Finally, Renato gets to parsing the difference between Panamanian reggae (or plena / bultron) and Puerto Rican reggaeton:

But if you hear…the way we sing, then you’ll understand that it’s different from the Puerto Ricans. It’s a little more suave, and you can understand the Spanish more. Puerto Ricans like to invent a lot of words that most people don’t understand. In Panama, we have a different type of reggae. We have the most romantic reggae, because we are a romantic country. We don’t have so much gangster music. I can tell you how many gangster rappers we have. It’s like six or seven. But we have so many romantic singers, almost six or seven hundred singers who don’t sing about gangster stuff. Because we are not a violent country.

And when it comes to explaining reggae vis-a-vis “black identity,” Renato draws the lines pretty starkly, in blood red:

Yes, because we took it from Jamaica, and it has a black culture. And remember something. The majority of Panamanian reggae singers are black. In Puerto Rico, they’re white. The Puerto Rican reggae singers are white. Over here, they’re black. Why? To them, it was like something new, these new moves that they wanted to do. But for us, it was something from our families, something we loved.

He paints in some broad strokes here, and perhaps fans a few flames, especially with such sweeping generalizations about national difference, but I appreciate the greater sense of context he gives us for hearing how reggae resonates in Panama.

To read more from Renato, download the full chat here, and see our book for two additional interviews.

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October 14th, 2010

Cumbia Worlds from Ol’ to Nu to You

a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the _______ slums of _______ has become a full-fledged global occasion –

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.”

1. Barbès

The first thing I’m going to say about Barbès, 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:

The Roots Of Chicha 2 (Sampler) by pressjunkiepr

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 amazónicas 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 – 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 Peru’s mainstream magazines, newspapers and TV – 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 Barbès is clearly attuned to questions of representation, or at least their uses. Take the assertion, circulating as promo, that vol. 2 is “an attempt to rectify some of the biases and inaccuracies of the first volume.” 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, Barbès 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 Barbès 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 Peña, 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 world’s 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.]

Is this exchange or extraction?

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 Pancadão 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 I’m 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 — 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 tamborzão to your collection, and support the hardworking MCs and DJs down in Rio: proceeds are going their way. Trust me, I’ll 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 Barbès. 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? Barbès 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 Barbès 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 Barbès), 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 Barbés/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 Peru’s 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:

El Hombre Orquestra

Mike doesn’t really sell cassettes, yet. He tells me he’s had trouble convincing distributors to carry them, despite a minor current/recent vogue 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 Žižek), 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.

But, of course, the choice is yours.

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July 23rd, 2010

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

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

SAMBAS

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

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

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

PERFECT FOR DANCING

SAMBAS

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

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

samba tracklist

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

Fafa Lemos and His Orch., “Brazil”

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

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

// .. Digesting the World .. //

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

Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER

The Wonderful World of Popular Music

8. Latin Rhythms for Dancing

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

MUSIC FOR DANCING

mambos

SAMBAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Slavin and his Orchestra, “Brazil”

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

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

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

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

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

// .. Italians do it .. //

Dick Contino, It's Dance Time

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

Dick Contino and his Orchestra, “Brazil”

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

Now Americans do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred Astaire

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July 9th, 2010

DJ El Niño Presents: Dancehall Reggaespañol 2010

I first got in touch with DJ El Niño several years ago, dead in the middle of a little research project that would finish like this. (Incidentally, my co-editor Deborah Pacini Hernandez just publlished a new book which is well worth checking: a sweeping and deep synthesis of the history of Latin American popular music, Oye Como Va! includes a stellar chapter on cumbia’s migration from Colombia to Mexico, and beyond, which begins with a quote from former Heatwave specialist, Gervase de Wilde!)

Although his contribution to my research goes beyond what made it into the chapter I wrote, I do quote some of my correspondence with El Niño a couple times in the piece, complete with “lols” and such in order to maintain a sense of, as I put it in a footnote, “the tone of the exchage.” Here’s one of my favorite such bits:

According to DJ El Niño, the embrace of bachata by reggaeton producers was a marriage of convenience: “people who were into reggaeton hated bachata,” he recounted via email, “it even got dissed on some early reggaeton tracks…as things became more mainstream (including bachata) and not so underground it became ok and then u see watt happens now they all have at least 2 ‘bachata’ tracks per cd…lol!!”

As a DJ who had already been playing Latin dance/club parties in the tri-state area and beyond for many years, El Niño had some great perspectives on the historical arc of reggaeton, and how it related to all the other styles he played: bachata, merengue, salsa, house, freestyle, Latin hip-hop, reggae, pop. In the years since, we’ve continued to go back and forth, connecting dots between Jamaican dancehall and what some call reggaespañol, IDing riddims and cover versions, etc.

Doing the research for my chapter, and digging into what was also (maybe misguidedly) referred to as Spanglish Roots N Hall, turned me into a big fan of the early days of Spanish-language reggae. Sometimes it tips toward the cheesy, but a lot of reggae walks that line, especially in the synth era. It was by listening to a 1991 compilation on Columbia records, putting Jamaican originals and Spanish covers side by side, that I began to better appreciate reggae’s routes and reggaeton’s roots — the transmission / translation / transmogrification of Jamaican reggae into Panamanian plena and Puerto Rican reggaeton.

Keeping the torch aloft for the somewhat liminal genre, DJ El Niño has put together a comp of his own devoted to reggaespañol. (I love that it’s called “Dancehall Reggaespañol 2010” despite featuring songs that are all about 20 years old! #atemporality) Like the Columbia comp, it also draws audible threads through the recordings, as registered in the riddim-wise tracklisting. Apparently, our exchanges about this stuff have been deep enough that El Niño even gives W&W a shout in the artwork! So consider this something of a W&W “exclusive” — but do spread it far and wide!

      >> DJ El Niño, Reggaespañol 2010


Oh yeah, yo DJs!: this isn’t one big mixed mp3, it’s a collection of non-mixed, meta-massaged, mastered tracks for your listening and mixing pleasure. But you should really appreciate the level of detail provided by a working DJ like El Niño himself. As noted in Gmail

1.cd is non mixed
2.properly tagged(bpm,date of release,cover,riddim name, etc… so its serato/dj friendly)
3.all songs were edited(eliminated silence space, fixed volume and eqd)
4.all songs are 192k and ripped by me from original cds (unless indicated)
5.all songs come from cd except track 15 (vinyl rip converted at 160k) and track 14 (ripped by a friend at 128k from cd)
6.all songs are in their original state except track 15 is pitched up a bit(not much) and track 11 which is the club version from the maxi single(i cut the instrumental section at the end which rides close to 2 min)(all shabba ranks cds use the club version but fade it out at the last chorus all i did was let the last chorus ride and fade it out after)
7.some jamaican songs have differnt versions (ie gregory isaacs song was done by arzu and included in the original cd,papa san song was also done by shabbacan/shabakan..the version i included is by ledesma which was a big hit in ny and dr radio)
8.the only non panamanian/jamaincan on this cd is ledesma…..hes dominican
9.theres some tracks marked with an arterisk which means the riddim is not the original(redone)
10.i have tracks to do at least 2 more cds
11.i included some songs from the original cd cus i felt they are better situated in this compilation
12.i think i said it all…ure the first person to have this…review it ,posted in your site(added it to the cover), give it to ppl, do what u must to “spread” the knowledge(cd).once you have done what u could i will posted in every forum imaginable(feel free to help)

ps once again all songs come from original cds except track 15 .theres some songs that u can hear a “pop” here and there.thats because the cd was done from a “vinyl master”(which sucks) examples are trailer lleno,te ves buena,noche enferma

And for those of you who’d like to continue compiling some summer mixxage for your mobile devices and such, El Niño also shares his latest confection (and I use that term purposely). But be forwarned: this short “pop” mix is bookended by Ace of Bass and Cher, but it takes some nice twists and turns in between.

      >> DJ El Niño, Pop Music Mix (2010)

Or for those who are looking for something very different, here’s a 1999 mix devoted to “Latin Hip Hop.” In typical fashion, El Niño reports: “some goodies in here including tegos first song and a blend i did with puff daddy…lol”

      >> DJ El Niño, Latin Hip Hop Mix (1999)

Finally, you can find much more from El Niño & crew, Lo Maximo Productions, on this page.*

* One of the mixtapes listed there is Sensato’s El 28 (por DJ Scuff) — I don’t know what LMP’s role in that is, besides spreading it further, but it’s well worth grabbing if you’re over there. We listened to it last weekend on the drive from NYC back to Boston, and it had my mind blown / side in stitches over & over. Dude can flo! [Update: El Niño clarifies.]

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March 10th, 2010

Watagataparatext (EL QUÉ?!)

In my recent post on “Watagatapitusberry” I wondered aloud, in so many words, where “the text” in question might reside, given that most people have been exposed to an intermediary “fan”/peer-produced text (a video) more popular than the original “text” (a recording), tho perhaps soon eclipsed by a new “official” video with potentially greater reach (I’m sayin: Pitbull is second only to Miley Cyrus for most viewed music video, all time on YouTube). That said/wondered, I was happy to stumble across Henry Jenkins’s recent interview with Jonathan Gray in which they discuss the notion of the “paratext.” As Gray explains:

I draw the word from a book of that title by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist. He was interested in all those things that surround a book that aren’t quite the “thing” (or “the text”) itself. Things like the cover, prefaces, typeface, and afterwords, but also reviews. His subtitle to that book – “Thresholds of Interpretation” – is the intriguing part, since it suggests that meaning might be constructed and might begin at these textual outposts, not just at the site of “the thing itself.” And that in turn offers a pretty radical proposition, namely that the item that we’re studying, whether it be a film, television show, book, or whatever, becomes meaningful and is interpreted in many sites, some arguably even more important than the site of thing itself. The purpose of the book, quite simply, then, was to examine those sites.

I prefer the word paratext precisely because it has a pretty academic background, and from within textual studies at that, and thus isn’t encumbered by a lot of the connotations that surround many of the other words that we usually use. Your readers may be more familiar with “hype,” “synergy,” “promos,” “peripherals,” “extratextuals,” and so forth. But hype and synergy frame paratexts too definitively as wholly industrial entities. Certainly, paratexts are absolutely integral in terms of marketing, and in terms of grabbing an audience to watch the thing in the first place. But we’ve often stalled in our discussion of them by not moving beyond the banal observation that hype creates profits. What I wanted to look at is how they create meaning, how our idea of what a television show “is” and how we relate to it is often prefigured by its opening credit sequence, its posters, its ads, reviews, etc. Meanwhile, “peripherals” belittles their importance, since they’re not at all peripheral, at least in potential. “Promos” is fairly innocuous, and yet I’m interested not just in how the things that surround a film or show create an image of it before we get there, but also in how reviews, DVD bonus materials, fan creations, and other after-the-fact paratexts might change our understanding later on, so that too seemed inadequate. And though I like “extratextuals” (the title of my blog!), “extra” means “outside of,” whereas “para” suggests a more complicated relationship to the film or show, outside of, alongside, and intrinsically part of all at the same time. Hence my fondness for that word in particular.

Interesting stuff, though I’m not sure — thinking through several musical examples I’ve had on my mind lately — that the notion of the paratext can be so easily ported over to the messy, p2p musical culture we witness on the web. Rather, it seems a better fit when we’re talking about mass media broadcast models (TV shows, films, books), where it is relatively easy to posit a central text and peripheral (if also crucial) ones.

Let’s take “Watagatapitusberry” yet again as our object of analysis: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? Can we really say so clearly that the pseudo-“Official Video” made by a group of NYC teens is simply a paratext when it’s the version that most people have engaged as “Watagatapitusberry”? When we behold that so many other “Watagata” videos — including, notably, the slick new production ft. Pitbull and Lil Jon — seem to take their cues from those dudes dancing in their kitchen, their high school, their backyard and bathroom, who will make the argument that it is nevertheless a paratext? Does the concept of paratext prove useful in this instance, or does it in fact — for all the useful intellectual/cultural work it might do around TV or Hollywood — prevent us from apprehending something even more radical about the ways that texts are co-produced and circulate, with value added, in today’s media ecologies.

(Perhaps it goes without saying, since this is common for any popular song these days, that “Watagata” has also been remixed widely, e.g. by Toy Selectah, Allen Cruz, A.C.T., and no doubt many more. These are perhaps more easily subsumed under the notion of the paratext — so long as they don’t end up more important to people’s interpretation and engagement with “Watagatapitusberry” than “the text” itself, whatever that is.)

We could add to “Watagata” the example of “You’re a Jerk” (as my previous post also suggested), a song which, as the New Boyz have recounted, jumped from MySpace to YouTube and inspired dozens of people to dance along in their own videos (many of which are now muted/missing), all of which positioned the New Boyz to sign a deal for major production/promo/distro, which produced, eventually, an “official” text of its own (which includes a glossy video but should maybe also entail the audio-ID fingerprint which Warner Bros adds to its takedown-DB). Indeed, as far as Warner is concerned, the audio-ID fingerprint may as well be the text (which they can monetize), and everything else just a paratext — some more parasitical/piratical than others.

Of course, the template for “You’re a Jerk” is “Crank Dat,” which perhaps best illustrates the problem with trying to apply a theory of para/texts to music culture in the age of YouTube. Really, re: “Crank Dat,” which is the text and which are the paratexts? Is the text itself the song that Soulja Boy recorded (relying heavily on Fruity presets)? Or is it the easily-mastered set of dance steps so crucial to its spread? Is it the initial video that made the rounds featuring SB’s friends doing the dance in their living room? Is it the white-out-on-my-sunglasses tutorial-in-a-pool that SB put out there to help people learn to do the dance (and spread the song)? Or is it the official video / release? What about the dozens, if not hundreds, of other versions of people dancing to or mashing up the song? What about the dozens of “Crank Dat” spinoffs? I realize that as I go down this list, things can get more and more para/meta, but the first few questions, to my mind, show how hard it is to locate “Crank Dat” in any singular instantiation.

Or, take, “Super Freak” & “U Can’t Touch This” (which I discussed a ways back) — whose text has merged with whose? Which is now primary and which is para? It’s not simply a matter of which came first. And who can ever say when it’s all been settled? Don’t count a good paratext out. Ever.

Against this backdrop, I find more persuasive the idea that a musical text is less defined by a textual object per se and more by a set of relations, ever reconstituting themselves. Along these lines, I’m eager to hear more from Georgina Born, presenting at a symposium in which I’ll take part at Princeton next month. Born seems to be arguing — in proposing what she calls the “provisional work” — that the notion of the “assemblage” might better describe how musical culture works, at least in certain realms of creativity and collaboration. From her abstract

it is possible to discern an alternative ontology of music to that historically enshrined in intellectual property law … the ‘provisional work’ … To grasp the alternative ontology requires us in turn to engage analytically with music in the expanded sense of the assemblage: that is, as a constellation of mediations – sonic, but also social, material and technological, discursive, corporeal and temporal – that together constitute what ‘music’ and musical experience are held to be.

If this is like the Death of the Author all over again, maybe it’ll go down easier this time?

We can reify all we want. In the end, it’s all music as social life. And that’s irreducible.

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March 8th, 2010

Wata Gwaan?

watagatapitusBERRY

Mil gracias a Marisol LeBron, who not only first brought to my attn the wonderful nueva-media phenom of “Watagatapitusberry,” but who has offered some interesting thoughts on its homosocial joi de vivre (check her initial round-up of home videos) and has kept up on the latest developments around the song. Most recently, the launch of a slick new video/remix featuring Pitbull and Lil Jon —

What i find most fascinating about the Watagatapitusberry phenomenon — though I still need to tease a lot of this out, and I wish YouTube would make it easier to do so — is that the most popular instantiation is neither the “original” video by Del Patio & Blackpoint (a static image w/ audio, uploaded in early summer 09 — plz correct me if I’m wrong), which has, nonetheless, had over 1M views, nor (at least not yet) the new remix w/ Pitbull & Lil Jon, but the loopy, casual, creative theatrics of a handful of young DominicanYorks which has racked up over 3.5M views since it was posted in early August. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out; get cultured–

I love that the dudes who made the video above had the cojones to label it the “Official Video.” It may as well be, for it has arguably done more to popularize the song — to make it what it is — than anything else.

I confess, though, that I have been able to glean relatively little about how all these productions are related. Does anyone know if there’s any (formal) connection between these Wash Heights kids and Sensato del Patio & Blackpoint? Whether or not, it sure offers a fine example of how legions of YouTubers can add value to something by making it their own.

Let’s hope that the new, Big Music-funded version doesn’t produce the kind of collateral damage on the YouTubosphere that, say, the signing of the New Boyz seemingly caused to many of the videos that helped make “You’re a Jerk” the career-breaking single that it became — the majority of which either suddenly disappeared once the song’s audio became Major Label property, became unfortunately muted, or even more oddly, took the option of “swapping” the song for something “legal.” Of the latter camp, this is my favorite, surreal example (click thru for some sad/hilarious comments about the “African” music now soundtracking the Action Figures’ moves):

Sounds more like Avatar than Africa to me, but whatevs…

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Wayne&Wax

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

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

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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