Archive of posts tagged with "review"

August 7th, 2018

Prisma Tropical Liner Notes

As I mention below, I’ve been a Balún fan for over a decade, so I was utterly thrilled when the band wrote to me earlier this year and asked if I would write the liner notes for their stunning new album, Prisma Tropical. It was a dream(pop) assignment, especially since it’s their best work to date and, though I may be biased, it is my favorite recording of 2018, hands down.

A gorgeous, meticulous combination of dreampop, Puerto Rican styles old and new, and a world of music more, Prisma Tropical finds Balún exploring the space between Puerto Rico and Brooklyn that they traverse physically, imaginatively, and emotionally. I won’t say much more, since I say enough below, but I am delighted that so many outlets — from NPR, to Remezcla, to Bandcamp — have already recognized what a great, interesting, and important record this is. (And I confess to some satisfaction in seeing my liners helping to shape the music’s reception.) This project obviously pushes a LOT of my buttons, and I hope it will for you too.

If you’re a physical media person, you’ll be glad to know that vinyl and other versions are coming, and I’m psyched that my liners will appear there as well. In classic style too: the band was inspired by the format Ansonia Records used for their back covers, which always included an album description in English and Spanish (e.g., the Arsenio album above). Toward that end, my liner notes have been felicitously translated by Mariné Pérez, and they also have been published online en español at 80grados.

Ok, that’s plenty preamble — here’s the text. Go listen along (and support)!

When I first heard Balún over a decade ago, I was enthralled by reggaeton and wondered about other electronic music from Puerto Rico. What a thrill to discover a group of musicians making sparkling, shape-shifting synth-pop with nary a nod to dembow — as if I had found reggaeton’s chill cousin, humming techno lullabies and painting in the cool palettes of Berlin, London, or Reykjavík. San Juan? Not as obviously. But sights shift as sites shift.

Prisma Tropical reveals the band residing in Borinquen, Brooklyn, and in between — and making the most of it. Music of old cities and new ones. Sites and sounds of love and longing, home and away — electronic and acoustic, vintage and vanguard, roots and routes. Deeply local but never provincial. Heavy as luggage yet lighter than air.

Imagine all the Caribbean on one island. The saturation of the tropical prism. New York as tropical base. Resounding alongside dancehall, bachata, konpa, salsa, soca, and hip-hop, reggaeton sounds different in diasporic Greenpoint than in hometown Carolina. No longer the dominant soundscape presence, that old dembow might be recalled fondly, even missed. Lejos, más cerca.

While dreampop often evokes nonplaces, here Balún ground their otherworldly sound in Puerto Rican folk music, from the dembow to the cuatro. The band does not dabble in such traditions as guaracha, salsa, or reggaeton, however, nor do they nod in those directions without love and respect. They approach such sounds and instruments as deeply resonant resources, a musical palette charged with the power of accumulated listening, singing, and dancing. A repertory ripe for reinterpretation. Home as port of departure. Dreambow.

The opening track, “Vaivén,” sets the tone. Coquís chirping in the background. A slow melody plucked out on the cuatro. An idea from home. (To be processed elsewhere.) As the tones ring out into an enveloping wash, we’re transported. Going and coming, coming and going. A submerged dancehall beat builds steam, heralding the majestic, mysterious vistas of “La Nueva Ciudad.” Strange but familiar shapes come into focus as wispy vocals, dembow fragments, and fluttering bass tones conjure a new city, another planet, a hidden place. When the dembow loop finally fully drops for the chorus, cherished snare samples shifting every four measures like a maratón mixtape, we know we’ve arrived somewhere special. Far from a facile or ironic nod to reggaeton, the classic timbres and patterns support a new song of a different sort—a song of buoyant vocals and intimate thoughts, whispered aloud, of uplifting harmonies billowed by outboard synths, of swirling guitar ornaments channeling Reich and Fripp, of bomba barrel drums and jíbaro guitarrillos.

The album’s expansive, evocative sound is a consequence of each member playing and writing for a rotating cast of instruments and effects, from programmed synths and robotic percussion to accordions and guitar pedals, string quartets and traditional Puerto Rican lutes. Either the cuatro or its older, soprano cousin, the tiple — one built by Noraliz no less! — appear on nearly every track. (The tiple’s distinctive ring might be processed with delay inspired by the Cocteau Twins, of course, and while that may not be típico, for Balún it’s typical.) Between Nora fingerpicking across acoustic heritage, José on the beats and synths (ever in conversation with electronic subgenres old and new), Angélica’s clarion voice and soaring string arrangements, and Raúl providing mesmerizing, percussive guitar lines, Balún bring a wealth of resources and references into the mix.

This time around the lead instruments on each song are acoustic and meant to be played live. Producer Lawson White encouraged Balún to bring acoustic instruments to the fore and explore what they had to say. The approach speaks volumes, infusing the band’s music with new (and old) idioms. White, who has added countless ideas and production touches, horn arrangements and marimba lines, deserves praise for pushing the band to realize such an ambitious vision. The album is brilliantly conceived, recorded, mixed, and sequenced. It shines as it should.

While Angélica, Nora, José, Raúl, and Lawson steer the ship, Prisma Tropical is an extended ensemble work, including Antibalas horns, an all-female string quartet, drummer Henry Cole accompanying programmed loops with panache, and among other contributions, numerous appearances by Obanilú Allende playing bomba drums, Enrique Bayoan on Andean panpipes and an Argentinian drum that can be heard a league away, and various friends pitching in on production and backup vocals.

It would be a fool’s errand to list all that is packed into these songs, so dense is the album with allusion, collaboration, and inspiration. A multitude of colors and contrasts appear within and across tracks, a distinctive and remarkable stylistic versatility and fluency at the service of some wonderful songs. Cruzando bordes sin pensarlo. Whimsical turns make forms that delight and surprise, while a pop sensibility smooths experimental edges (but not too much). That Balún pack so much into a single hour of music is no small achievement. Listen closely and make the connections you need to make yourself.

But don’t miss the nod to the customary son montuno opening of “El Flamboyán,” a guaracha popularized by El Cuarteto Mayarí, on “Coralina,” which opens the B-side of the album. Or the glorious jungle coda of “El Espanto”! Or the way that “Pulsos” glides from Afrobeat to prog rock before building into a disco-era Salsoul burner that I wish David Mancuso could have lived to hear. Or the shimmering outro, “Reflejo,” five reverberant minutes of rippling guitar, occasionally interrupted by blasts of effects — a moment to gaze at one’s shoes and reflect, to wonder where we’ve been, where we’re at, where we’re going.

Wayne Marshall
May 2018

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August 6th, 2018

Listening to the Sound of Culture

Last summer I was invited by Small Axe, a journal I have long wanted to write for, to take part in a book discussion of Louis Chude-Sokei’s engrossing, ambitious The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics. I’ve enjoyed Chude-Sokei’s perspectives on dancehall, Nigerian 419 scammers, and Bert Williams for years, and I was already planning to give the new book a good read, so this was an excellent opportunity. The journal was looking for more of a “response” than a traditional review, so I decided to focus on the critical musical threads of the book and, in particular, how they might contribute to discussions in music (and sound) studies, especially for those of us concerned with histories of diaspora and race (and, yes, reggae–among other things).

My response, “Listening to the Sound of Culture,” appeared in Small Axe 55, and you can read it in context here alongside some great articles. But here is a separate PDF of the proofs for your convenience, and I will paste the introduction below to whet appetites. Read my response — then read Louis’s book!

Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics offers an intricately nested account of the historical relationship between race and technology, or in his words, “a broader reading of the historical and cultural context that allowed those equivalences between blacks and machines to be sensible in the first place” (5). As that framing suggests, the work offers an entwined genealogy of black claims to humanity and human fears of robot uprisings, with profound implications for how we continue to imagine the boundaries of humanity. Works of science fiction and key historical vignettes serve as Chude-Sokei’s primary exegetical texts, but he notably places black music–or more specifically, sound production–at the center of his account. What makes such an approach “structurally and philosophically possible,” he argues, “is the awareness that black music–from jazz to reggae, hip-hop to electronic dance music–has always been the primary space of direct black interaction with technology and informatics” (5).

Chude-Sokei is careful to stress, therefore, that “this is not a book about music”; rather, music serves as “a thread linking the various texts and contexts, secondary only to science fiction, which itself is subordinate to the mutually constitutive dyad of race and technology” (6). More to the point, this is not a book about music because the author is more concerned with sound, which is to say, with black music as media, or as audible interaction with technology. Without dismissing other forms of black invention, Chude-Sokei contends that music represents an exceptional domain of black technological practice: “the primary zone where blacks have directly functioned as innovators in technology’s usage” and “a space where black inventiveness has rarely or successfully been questioned” (5). Hence, to focus on music “as a space of sound and sound production is to reorient our listening … toward how blacks directly engage information and technology through sound” (5).

This focus on sound brings into relief a rich and complex history of interaction undercutting the persistent myth that blacks and technology are somehow opposed, or that blacks enjoy so little access to technology that such interactions can seem “either rare or adversarial, as in the well-known folktale of John Henry” (6). Chude-Sokei cites the so-called “digital divide” as a recent reiteration of this spurious story of black technological lack, a story that withers quickly in the face of the musical record: “Funny thing about these notions of race or blacks as having been victims of a digital divide is that in the very period that term gained such currency as to have become cliché, blacks in the Caribbean, America, and Europe were busy generating the most sophisticated electronic music and technology-obsessed music subcultures in history” (6). As that jump from the Caribbean to the wider world would suggest to scholars of electronic music, this is an analysis that builds on the remarkable resonance and influence of the Jamaican soundsystem and all that follows. It is more than convenient that one vernacular name for a soundsystem is simply a sound, a term that, as Chude-Sokei is quick to emphasize, “foregrounds technology and specific cultural interactions with it” (7) not unlike a great deal of Jamaican music itself, especially dub.

While it is true that the “mutually constitutive dyad of race and technology” persists as the core subject of Chude-Sokei’s book, I would like to focus on the text’s crucial musical threads in order to highlight how The Sound of Culture reorients specific histories of music, offers new openings for musicology and sound studies, and makes a case that the power of an audible, creole technopoetics can remake our very conception of the human. If, as Chude-Sokei posits, the black diaspora has generated the “most necessary theorizing and politicizing” of where we draw the lines between humans and machines “as a product of its extensive thinking about the African slave as an automaton” (8), and if, as he elaborates, this profound philosophical work has been no more forcefully put forward than by dub reggae, then there is a great deal to listen for in this work and all it brings into the mix.

[Read the rest…]

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January 6th, 2016

Arcademish Ish

Last year I published a couple reviews that land somewhere between the realm of ethno/musicology and music criticism — a netherworld I obviously like to explore. One piece engages with the multimedia work of Arca; the other with a cheeky French rap video. One appeared in an academic journal devoted to Latin American art and literature; the other in a museum in Europe alongside an installation of the video and other critical commentary (and then, in an actual book). See below for links and excerpts.

Marshall, Wayne. 2015. “Contortions to Match Your Confusion: Digital Disfigurement and the Music of Arca.” Literature and Arts of the Americas 48(1): 118-22. (PDF)

“Día de los Muertos,” a mix released in late October 2014 by Houston’s Svntv Mverte (aka Santa Muerte), a DJ duo with a name invoking “Mexico’s cult of Holy Death, a reference to the worship of an underground goddess of death and the dead,” opens with an ominous, arresting take on reggaeton. A moody, flickering bed of synths struggles to spring into action before the snap of slow, syncopated snares whips up a perreo-worthy dembow over a bassline so deep that its pitch seems negligible, indeterminate, a force more palpable than audible. As the low-end nearly collapses under its own weight, an upper register synth slices through the atmosphere, soaring and faltering, more Icarus than Superman. The haunting but hopeful lead flutters across a foreboding sonic landscape, ghostly trails of reverb in its wake. A bittersweet tune, it could be cloying but for its warbling, almost pathetic qualities. Instead, a poignant frailty undercuts the digital promise of perfection. The baleful melody traverses a shifting ground of textural breaks and freaky filters, shimmering as it shape-shifts. Remarkably through-composed for loop-centered music, Arca’s “Thievery” seems as committed to repetition and rhythm as variation and development. As such, it is an excellent opening for a set, and a fine introduction to the distinctive sound of Arca, aka Alejandro Ghersi. …

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Marshall, Wayne. “Who Deserves It?” Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World, Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti (eds.), 54-5. Bern: Norient Books, 2015. (HTML)

… Low-fi but slick, Charni employs repetition, rhythm, and simple but delirious digital effects to furnish Banane, Waltaa, and friends with Tumblr-esque cascades of free-floating objects of desire: cash, weed, sportswear, nostalgic devices like skypagers and flip phones. Also, French fries and kebab. And faces – many faces, often close up, showcasing a crew as motley as proletarian Paris. They are so fresh that their fashion and facial gestures, in the hip register of the day, appear as flat in affect as their vintage clothes are crisp. Less like they’re looking into a camera than a mirror, or a smartphone. …

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January 6th, 2016

Legions of Book

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 Wang’s Legions Of Boom and Mirjam Wirz’s Sonidero City offer welcome contributions to this emerging world history, bringing rich portraits of the San Francisco Bay Area’s mobile DJ crews, Mexico’s sonidos, and Colombia’s picós 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 Area’s 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. Wang’s 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 scene’s 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 Wang’s book gives their sudden appearance on the world stage crucial context, explaining how “the scratch scene’s roots grew in soil first tilled by the mobile crews”.

While narrating according to the scene’s chronology and its participants’ 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 scene’s “preconditions” by which he refers to such “internal” factors as “the allure of social status, the aura of work as a DJ, and the appeal of homosociality” (and the consequent reproduction of masculinity), as well as to such “external” “soft infrastructure” as the social networks connecting crews and audiences: “peer-run student and church groups, middle-class parents and relatives, and Filipino community groups”. 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 scene’s participants and Wang’s 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 “spontaneous research undertaking”: “I 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 to”. 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: “THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF YOU, LOVING YOU – here goes for Angelo, the Incorrigible… Curly from Moctezuma and his old lady, because Susanita is old. LOVING YOU…”

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February 20th, 2015

The Amplification of Souls (review)

Gilles Aubry’s The Amplification of Souls is a meticulously composed and conceived “audio-essay” (Aubry’s term) on Kinshasa’s charismatic churches and the broader soundscape they inhabit and inflect. I reviewed the CD, along with its 80 page booklet, in Issue 371 of The Wire (January 2015).

As usual, I am posting the final draft I sent my editor, or what I like to call the “director’s cut.” You can see the piece as it ran c/o Aubry’s website. Special thanks to David Font-Navarrete — ethnomusicolleague, friend, artist, and author of the incisive “File Under ‘Import’: Musical Distortion, Exoticism, and Authenticité in Congotronics” — for helping me think aloud here.

Gilles Aubry
The Amplification of Souls
ADOCS Verlag CD+8K

As speaker hum and empty plosives congeal into a stuttered mic-check for Jesus, a slight squeal suggests the looming threat of feedback. Because so many of Kinshasa’s churches are open-air affairs, the rumble of motorcycles and automobiles accompany the ambience of a band slowly tuning up and worshippers gathering. Preachers punch through the din with bursts of noise louder than anything else, the flat lines of distortion making palpable the power of their authority. Handmade PAs hit their limits as microphones bear witness to the possession of souls and of space. And then, sudden quiet save for the faint buzz of the sound system. Speakertowers of Babel from the Heart of Darkness, respectfully recorded and remixed for headphones and museums thousands of miles away.

The jump cuts are jarring, reminding that this is no straightforward documentary. The voice of the artist, Gilles Aubry, resounds here too. The Amplification of Souls is, according to its careful and copious framing, Aubry’s “audio-essay” on Kinshasa’s religious soundscape. Congolese charismatic churches are a laudable focus given the immensity of the phenomenon and the general indifference to it in the wider world, perhaps because megachurches and prosperity gospel seem more essentially American than African. Attempting what the artist contends is “a material-based form of cultural interpretation” the work stands as a studious, self-aware approach to sonic ethnography. Aubry’s project is so steeped in reflexivity and rigorous attention to the sounds and their contexts and meanings, it clearly seeks to pre-empt perfunctory charges of appropriation. “He doesn’t even understand what we’re saying,” says a churchgoer quoted in the liner notes, “Them, the whites, they record anything.”

What constitutes understanding here is a crucial, vexing point. A dozen minutes in, the tongues begin. The glossolalia is striking in itself, alien and arresting and enjoying an undistorted sonic clarity in contrast to the punchy preachers. It also seems to mirror the varied textures of the audio-essay itself, composed of multiple sound sources created by different people with different objectives: church services and evangelical street campaigns, radio and video, cooking and football. At one point, a burst of traditional music, full of clapping and ululation, points more toward continuities than contrasts, while the appearance of local rap and meandering Hawaiian guitar suggest other Others to be heard. All the while, Aubry’s own voice emerges in the layering of samples, their stereo spatialization, and the inevitable narrative arc that emerges from his rearrangement of such disparate sonic documents.

Presented as academic sound art, The Amplification of Souls comes with an 80 page booklet including an interview with Aubry that contains the phrase “neo-colonial representation” in its subtitle. It also boasts an essay on “The Sonic Materialities of Belief” by a musicologist and cultural anthropologist which notes, among other things, that Congolese charismatic movements themselves “appropriated” the patina, and hence the power, of noise and distortion from Pentecostal missionaries. Performed previously as a sound installation and now as an ongoing set of public performances, Aubry’s remixed recordings stand at once as an impressionistic refraction of Kinshasa’s soundscape and as the material embodiment of sounds that he would like to let speak for themselves. One way that Aubry does so is to pair his collage with a 34 minute excerpt of a spiritual deliverance service that provides a great deal more context and less composerly initiative, though the profound act of framing remains. In another show of transparency, Aubry’s original recordings of the service in full have been archived online.

Even so, what makes this anything other than churchy Congotronics? Why choose Kinshasa instead of Kansas City? Or, for that matter, Berlin? Not only does the city that Aubry calls home play host to numerous charismatic churches itself, some are even Congolese. Obviously, the specific site of these recordings is crucial to their circulation as art in Europe and the US, but it is deeply ironic that, against the coolness of Kinshasa trance traditionalists like Konono No 1, Aubry must seek out possessed Christians to locate the hot exoticism Western audiences expect. How would Kinshasa’s charismatic communities receive this project? Would it sound like understanding? Should that guide the way audiences elsewhere experience it? The emphasis on sound as material culture suggests that we’re not meant to attend to the content so much as the deracinated affects of the audio. Perhaps glossolalia itself offers an answer. Does the lexical register matter when all that we’re waiting for is the outbreak of the unintelligible?

Wayne Marshall

[listen to excerpts at earpolitics.net]

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December 22nd, 2014

Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis (review)

I reviewed Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis, a re-issue of the classic salvo in Brazil’s tropicalia movement, for Issue 367 of The Wire (September 2014). Happily, this one’s also a nice chunky review; nice to get a little leeway on the wordcount for a verbose dude like yours truly. Here’s a director’s cut of sorts, somewhere between the semi-final and final version.



Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circencis
Various
Soul Jazz Records CD/LP

A charming but sardonic cha cha for Christopher Columbus, a rock anthem quoting Latin liturgy as it bears witness to the hungry poor and the bloodstained tables of the rich, a dada-esque word puzzle that possibly alludes to Batman, a dreamy bossa nova telling listeners to eat ice cream and learn English (in Portuguese) — these are just a few points of contrast and conversation threaded through an album that aspired to no less than naming and giving voice to a new cultural movement, and succeeded spectacularly.

Yet despite its firm place in the history of Brazilian music, Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circensis, the coproduced and collaborative creation of Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Nara Leao, Gal Costa, Rogério Duprat, and many more, has long suffered from a conspicuous lack of circulation beyond Brazil. All the more strange considering the album’s uncanny incorporation of UK psychedelic rock into a Brazilian idiom.

“We were ‘eating’ The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,” remembers Caetano Veloso in his memoir Verdade Tropical, invoking a foundational imperative to cannibalize — culturally, that is — proposed in the 1920s by modernist poet, Oswald De Andrade. Taking to heart Andrade’s call for Brazilian artists not to imitate but to devour whatever they encounter, in the late 1960s the tropicalistas would initiate a cultural turn by their brave commitment to a voracious aesthetic at the height of a military dictatorship that would later arrest and exile both Gil and Veloso (who would return years later as luminaries, with Gil eventually serving as Minister of Culture in the 2000s under Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva).

In the decades since its resonant debut, much ink has spilled over tropicalia’s significance, and listeners outside of Brazil have been introduced to the music via retrospectives released by Soul Jazz, Luaka Bop and others. Still, the album’s singular expression of the movement has yet to enjoy widespread reception on its own terms. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, with segues and sequencing, Tropicalia wants to be heard as a unit, in a single setting, or over and over.

As if responding to the dearth of access to physical copies for so long, Soul Jazz is only releasing the album in physical form and with faithful, facsimile repackaging, including the original art (an inclusive, symbol-laden, family-style photo), unusual approach to song credits, and dramaturgical liner notes from the back of the record sleeve. They do so with reason. As with other concept albums of the day, Tropicalia was produced as a total package and placed remarkable emphasis on acknowledging the contributions of all involved while underscoring the collaboration at the heart of the project. Beside the song titles sit the songwriters’ (first) names, followed by the performers’ names in parentheses. Writing and performing each other’s songs, and honoring as they blur the distinct voices of the group, Veloso, Gil, et al, appear more as a true collective — a movement, even — than a conventional group.

Boxed in by an opposition between the West and the Rest that they wanted neither to deny nor accept, the tropicalistas developed a pointedly diverse sound by drawing as much on resilient local accents as international codes. “We wanted to participate in the worldwide language,” Veloso recounts, “both to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.” Eschewing homogenous fusion for a chunky syncretism, the music on Tropicalia moves with conviction from psych rock fantasia to tweaked bossa nova, cheeky mambo to treacly ballad, sometimes within the span of a single track.

The album is tight but never stiff, at once made supple by ebullient performances and substantial by the critiques smoldering between the lines. The opener, “Miserere Nobis” sets up this double-edge straight away with its church organ intro and chorus plea to “have mercy on us”, deploying Catholic referents and what Veloso refers to as “noble images enveloping a political commitment that is far more implicit than stated”. As the track shifts from quick, jangly strumming, rolling drums, and a double-time shaker to a staccato, reedy riff, Gil rehearses a simple set of ideals in Portuguese: “Hopefully one day, one day…for all and always the same beer” and that “the table of the people has bananas and beans”. Language aside, “Geléia Geral” would hardly sound out of place on Pet Sounds with its elaborate, layered arrangement, except for the samba section that erupts half-way into the song. The chorus, “Ê bumba iê iê boi”, in arch-tropicalist fashion, slyly coaxes a rock-inflected “yeah-yeah” out of a folk song from the North East of Brazil.

Elsewhere, using a Dylan inspired mix of plainspokenness and oblique metaphor, Os Mutantes’ “Panis Et Circensis” explicitly needles the complacent middle class during a moment of crisis and possibility: “I unfurled the sails on the masts in the air / I set free the tigers and the lions in backyards / But the people in the dining room / Are busy being born and dying”. After a couple minutes of haranguing the bourgeois, the hurdy-gurdy dirge slows to a stop, as if the power went out and the record stopped spinning. Seconds later, the “busy being born and dying” line returns as a mantra chanted over a galloping, Beatles-esque backbeat complete with twittering trumpets. The music gathers speed until it crashes with a hard tape splice into the mundane din of clinking glasses and inane chatter over muted strains of Blue Danube.

If elaborately orchestrated rock, especially the kind of multitracked whimsy and ambition of Sgt Pepper’s, is the album’s most obvious exotic touchstone, then arranger Rogério Duprat, who stands as a central member of the motley crew on the album cover, is the collective’s George Martin, providing a swell of strings or bursts of fanfare when needed, or, say, a bass clarinet figure bubbling briefly in the left channel. Duprat’s soaring arrangement for Veloso’s cover of Vicente Celestino’s “Coração Materno” supplies crucial support to a triumphant tribute, reanimating reviled schmaltz in order to undermine a prevailing elitism that the tropicalistas wished to resist.

Occasionally the lyrics and sonic signposts are less veiled — as when Gil and Veloso ironically sing the praises of Cristóvão Colombo “who, to our delight, came with three caravels”. Then there’s the pathetic pomp of the final track, “Hino Do Senhor Do Bonfim”, a nationalistic anthem which eventually brings the album to a close with eerie moans, the cavernous knocks of a distant cannon, and silence. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way a military dictatorship might interpret such a work of smoking agitpop.

Wayne Marshall

[hear clips at the Soul Jazz site]

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December 22nd, 2014

Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil (review)

I reviewed Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil, a new compilation from Brazil’s Mais Um Discos, for Issue 365 of The Wire (July 2014). Given my prolix proclivities, I was glad to get a little longer leash (i.e., wordcount) for this one. Nice to be able to stretch out a bit — and dig in — given how short record reviews tend to be. I was also especially happy to get the phrase “Carne vale, my ass” into print!

Rolê – Novos Sons Do Brasil
Mais Um Discos

As prior Mais Um compilations have also trumpeted new waves, it’s striking that so many of these forty-three tracks spanning ten Brazilian states sound deeply familiar, even on first spin. In terms of sound — of musical forms and signs — little here seems new. The recordings were made recently, sure, but as far as the music’s references, nearly every track grins like a cat with a carnival feather dangling from the side of its mouth. Carne vale, my ass. The so-called new sounds of Brazil are still fully in thrall to the time-honored Brazilian tradition of anthropofagia, or cultural cannibalism.

If you enjoyed Luaka Bop’s retrospective takes on tropicalia and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), much here will resonate as an extension of that mongrel approach to Brazilian and international influences alike. Stewing together such bottomless local wellsprings as samba, bossa nova, capoeira, and tecno brega with rock, cumbia, electro, and afrobeat, the compiled acts give voice to the fecundity of the present moment’s access to the recorded past.

Amidst an omnivore’s dilemma of musical choices, the iconic instruments and accents of Brazil serve as rudders in the flow of international currents. The opener, very much in this vein, may be the best of the bunch. Brimming with allusions, effects, and textural shifts, Lucas Santtana’s “Amor meu grande amor” emerges from a cocoon of vinyl crackle and street static as a sweet song with clarion, close-miked vocals redolent of canonical bossa nova. A swirling organ sets the voice on an anthemic pedestal before a deep, dubwise groove moves in to support and unsettle. Santtana’s neat trick, anchoring an otherwise slippery arrangement with a suave singer, appears again on the very next track and threads its way through the compilation. Apanhador Só’s “Mordido” begins as a glitchy, frantic bossa buoyed by calm crooning but after two twitchy verses culminates in a grungy dirge that, to its credit, doesn’t feel nearly as non sequitur as it should. These salvos are followed by swampy cumbias that borrow beats from cheesy axé thigh-burners and fuzzy guitars and sundry other permutations of familiar sounds and signposts, local and non.

The compilation is organized into two parts, the second half allegedly devoted to “post baile-funk” dance music though it features as many live ensembles and mid-century styles as the first disc includes samples and synths. Moreover, a lot of the tracks on “Disc Dois” could have been made before funk carioca’s national and global diffusion and hardly seem to register its influence. But several fun, bass-propelled productions manage to capture the spirit, if not the sound, of the funk ball: Lurdez da Luz’s “Ping pong” channels Missy Elliott while teasing a berimbau sample; distorted cuicas drive another sort of musical feijoada on Thiago França’s off-kilter, one-minute interlude, “Picardia”; pandeiros float above the digital thump of DJ Mam’s smoothly recalibrated take on classic carioca forms, “Cuz Cus De Canô”; and it’s fitting to hear US producer but longtime Rio-resident Maga Bo contribute a dancehall reggae romp in which the Jamaican presets have been replaced with local inputs, a slowly building track that puts vocals front and center all the while threatening to usurp their pride of place with growling bass.

More apparent than funk carioca here is the familiar boom-ch-boom-chick of Afrodiasporic genres like reggaeton or zouk, most popularly localized via axé and tecno brega, two genres often dismissed as proletarian schmaltz — brega means cheese — but clearly a presence in several selections, from the electronic grooves of Strobo’s “Amazônia bang bang” to the nu-tropicalia of Tulipa’s “Megalomania.” Peba’s “ARROZX” sounds almost like a Jersey club take on tecno brega, while Gang do Eletro point toward the genre’s eletro melody wing, as well as funk, with their carioca-cadence raps, half-time habanero, and the kind of cloying synths that drive dancers mad at Belem bailes.

Whether or not they meet the conceit of “post baile funk” dance music, other tracks here merit your time. Joined by no less than Tony Allen on drums, Meta Meta’s “Alakoro” is a jittery jam with angular, interwoven riffs and starkly rendered instrumentation. Bixiga 70’s “Kalimba” engages soukous and afrobeat with its latticework guitars, horn blasts, and propulsive drumming, only to nod to cumbia and classic rock a few minutes in. It’s somewhat startling to hear such straightforward, synth-driven cumbia as Sistema Criolina’s “Pequi week bar,” but there it is, and it’s not bad.

The mix of fresh and rote on Rolê suggests a different kind of curation might have produced a more broadly representative collection of Brazil’s newest new waves. Conspicuously absent here are rough-and-ready uploads to Soundcloud or the scandalous, viral dance tunes that garner millions of views on YouTube and inflect all manner of Brazilian pop, from MPB to axé to the country-pop of sertaneja. Such grassroots productions and their mainstream reflections are crucial constituents of the Brazilian soundscape but they go unheard on this otherwise ambitious compilation. Plumbing the ongoing give-and-take between the legacies of tropicalia and the insurgencies of funk could have made for a more trenchant take on the new, or at least contemporary, sounds of Brazil.

Wayne Marshall

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This track is the standout for me, by far (but you can listen to the whole thing here) —

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December 22nd, 2014

Salvadora Robot (review)

I reviewed Salvadora Robot, the latest album from Colombia’s Meridian Brothers, for Issue 364 of The Wire (June 2014).

Meridian Brothers
Salvadora Robot
Soundway CD/DL/2xLP

Cutting their own odd swath though a tangle of urban musicians now embracing their country’s regional, grassroots popular traditions, Meridian Brothers’ newest offering is a genre-hopping, funhouse reflection of the Colombian music landscape. On Salvadora Robot, the Bogota based musicians set their nimble jazz hands to wringing fun, funny songs out of charged local materials, cosmopolitan flourishes, and a battery of resonant, vintage sounds. Inflecting local idioms like vallenato and salsa with gestures and arrangements more redolent of Tom Zé or Tortoise than Joe Arroyo, the group scrawls its skittery signature all over the map.

While the warbling electric guitars sometimes tug at the surf-rock roots of Andean cumbia – “El Gran Pájaro De Los Andes” is audibly steeped in Peruvian chicha – the combination of tropical and psychedelic takes many shapes on the album, including the psych-rock salsa of “Doctor Trompeta”. Surprising, delightful synth lines dart in and out of several songs, and a panoply of intricate riffs and rhythms, especially the interplay between the drums and keyboards, conjure all manner of classic Colombian band traditions – and perhaps other allusions as well: “Somos Las Residentas”, the frisky album opener, recalls Raymond Scott with its slinky horn-riffs and locomotive drive. Throwback keyboards and guitars often jump out of the texture, but the lively kit drumming is the album’s combustible engine.

Salvadora Robot is expansive and inclusive in its references, and finds Meridian Brothers attentive to the bounds of tradition but willing to take risks. Several songs end in maniacal laughing, entranced singing, or animal braying, and the album’s lyrics are colorful, uproarious, and often surreal, with “burning butterflies”, “pregnant dolls in the trash”, and a tale of a man sentenced to the electric chair for dancing to reggaeton. That song, “Baile Último”, despite its conceptual bite, offers a rare moment when the group seems to stray from the prevailing spirit of the project. Salvadora Robot carries a studious attention to local wellsprings without slavish devotion to convention, but when the tribute turns tongue-in-cheek, it undercuts the song’s critique, which is leveled not at reggaeton, but its elitist critics. The group’s lurching, out-of-sync take on reggaeton, more for the bourgeois than the boulevard, falls flat. But for the most part Salvadora Robot is a thoughtful and fruitful engagement with, and resistance to, the twin trappings of nostalgia and novelty.

Wayne Marshall

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December 22nd, 2014

Beyond Addis (review)

This past year I began reviewing records regularly again, mostly for the wonderfully serious London-based publication, The Wire, which has been pushing lots of interesting releases across my desk.

It’s been a great experience working with the editors over there and trying to bring my prolix, punny, occasionally-too-precious style in line with their more exacting house rules (e.g., no using the word band!). As per usual, if a bit late, I’m going to archive the pieces here at W&W.com, usually in the form they appeared in the magazine. Sometimes it’s a little tricky to track down the final draft after many backs-and-forths, so there’ll be a mix of “director’s cuts” in these re-posts as well.

We’ll start at the beginning. First up: Beyond Addis, a compilation of new groups — dare we call them bands? — working in the Ethio-jazz style, as reviewed in Issue 363 of The Wire (May 2014).

Beyond Addis
Various
Trikont CD/2xLP

Beyond Addis compiles recent interpretations of Ethio-jazz from outside of Ethiopia, bearing witness to the remarkable recent diffusion of this distinctive style. Thanks to the Éthiopiques compilations, the Broken Flowers soundtrack, and such longstanding musical torchbearers as the Either/Orchestra, the swinging Addis sound of the early 1970s has grown into a repertory of its own for jazz groups and kindred groove collectives, especially those that like vintage funk with a loping waltz, or wah-wah guitar with baritone sax. At once foreign and familiar, and suitable for ensembles of all sizes, Ethio-jazz’s moody, modal melodies and triple-time romps have won over a new wave of devotees.

Like the explosion of Afrobeat a decade ago, Ethio-jazz is the new frontier of fusion in the broadest sense, enticing sundry instrumentalists to play with its recognizable but varied palette. Beyond Addis showcases kindred tunes, rhythms, and forms – all head-solo-head instrumentals – carefully rendered by groups from across Europe and the US. For all their devotion to a classic Ethio-jazz sound, each puts forward their own take on the synthesis of free jazz, psych rock, hard bop, funk and traditional music that Mulatu Astatke and compatriots were exploring four decades ago. Paris group Akalé Wubé open the collection with the reverent but distorted “Jawa Jawa”, and several other tracks are cut in that mold, but London band The Heliocentrics bend piano, harp, and flute around jangly percussion and a lurching beat; Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Geneva) offer up a sweet, swaying ballad; New York’s Budos Band grind out a dirge punctuated by blasts of brassy noise; and Boston’s Debo Band close the proceedings with an accordion, violin, and tuba driven composition that channels Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus as much as the spirit of Swinging Addis. While some performances may be more devoted than inspired, and although the whiff of sonic orientalism or 1970s nostalgia may always haunt such gestures, many of the ensembles here have collaborated with Ethiopian musicians and labor to execute a vision that is faithful without being inert and innovative without contortion. In this way, the best of the groups on Beyond Addis not only bring the great Ethio-jazz fusion project full circle but carry it to new places too.

Wayne Marshall

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January 24th, 2014

Groovin’ on Groove Music

Appended below is the “director’s cut” (or unabridged author’s version) of a book review I wrote almost a year ago, which will soon finally see the light of day in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. The book is Mark Katz’s Groove Music, and I say enough below that I needn’t say more here, but as you’ll see, my review is quite supportive. If you’re interested in the history of the DJ, or hip-hop, or just good music writing and scholarship, I highly recommend you check this one out.

Bonus beats: here’s an interview Katz did with/for the IASPM blog last year.

ps — here are the proofs if you like PDFs, but do see below for the full monty!

Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz
Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pages, ISBN: 9780195331127

With Groove Music, Mark Katz has written a definitive history of the hip-hop DJ, filling a conspicuous void in the hip-hop literature while contributing more broadly to studies of music technologies—or perhaps better, to our understanding of how people make technologies musical. For Katz, the transformation of the turntable from a mere playback machine to a remarkably flexible and responsive control device—a musical instrument, no less—stands as “the signal contribution of the hip-hop DJ to modern musical culture” (5). This is quite a claim, but Katz represents, as hip-hop parlance would have it, offering historical, ethnographic, and analytical perspectives on hip-hop DJing, from roots to offshoots, with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and attention to what matters to practitioners and audiences.

Like Joe Schloss’s authoritative works on beat-making and b-boying, Making Beats (2004) and Foundation (2009), which Groove Music should now sit alongside on shelves and syllabi, this is a lucid and deeply grounded work on a pillar of hip-hop practice and artistry informed by dozens of interviews, years of participant-observation, and deft close readings of live performances, canonical recordings, and oral histories. Groove Music fleshes out the growing (if still lagging) musicological literature on the DJ (Fikentscher 2000, Lawrence 2003, Butler 2006) by shifting focus from the relatively suave mixing of disco, house, and techno DJs to the more explicit performativity of hip-hop DJs, as embodied most audibly by the scratch—or zigga zigga as Katz sometimes glosses it.

To his credit, even while engaged in important acts of translation for his primary reading public (i.e., colleagues and students), Katz sets out to write the book that hip-hop DJs themselves would want to read. As such he commits himself to a chronological and narrative approach, and to a down-to-earth and occasionally playful prose style, peppering the text with such useful terms as “badassery” (168). The book is all the better for this approach, addressing the wider publics that these stories deserve to reach.

The rhythmically stuttered introduction of “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” (1989), a hallmark production of the hip-hop DJ as hands-on artist—Here’s a little story that must be told—serves as an unremarked but undergirding imperative. While DJs such as Premier have been telling the story themselves and various works in the hip-hop literature address the subject in some detail (Chang 2005, Fricke & Ahearn 2002), no single text prior to Katz has sought to synthesize an overarching story of hip-hop DJing from its beginnings in 1973 to the present. Moreover, with the literature so focused on the foundational work of hip-hop’s hallowed trinity (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), little attention has been paid to the changing aesthetics and contexts of the hip-hop DJ in the decades since the form’s origins in the Bronx, especially how scratching has moved in and out of the spotlight in hip-hop and more broadly in American and global popular culture.

Throughout the text, Katz touches on numerous signposts, among them: the crucial feedback loop with dancers (14-16); influences from funk, reggae, and salsa (23-32); hip-hop’s ties to disco, however disputed (32-5); the urban context of the Bronx (35-42); the world of DJ-producers (121); the Bay Area’s Filipino DJ scene, dominant in the world of turntablism (145-7); the rise of mix-and-scratch academies (230) and virtual video games like DJ Hero (237). But it is Katz’s clear periodization of hip-hop DJ history, always grounded in ethnographic analysis of the political economy, material culture, and aesthetics of the enterprise, which emerges as the key contribution of the book.

Most crucially, in chapter 2, “Mix and Scratch,” Katz details the development of the turntable as a musical instrument, focusing on the mechanical and stylistic innovations by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore (generally credited with inventing the rhythmic scratch). A centerpiece of Katz’s argument is his close reading of Flash’s seminal seven minute showcase, “The Adventures Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1982), elaborating the techniques and effects, technologies and repertories involved in the performance. Grandmaster D.ST’s standout scratching on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” (1983) also serves as a key text in the popularization and reimagination of the turntable as instrument. Katz’s simple but profound point is that these DJs took a technology of sound reproduction and used it for “real-time manipulation” of sound (62). This story of transformation finally comes full circle toward the end of the book when Katz examines the rise of digital vinyl (e.g., the Serato or Traktor systems), which embodies the utter shift of the vinyl record from a storage medium to a control surface.

Other chapters divide up the history of the hip-hop DJ according to the strange and sometimes circuitous paths the tradition has taken. Chapter 3, “Out of the Bronx and into the Shadows,” addresses the question of how hip-hop, despite its beginnings as a DJ-driven phenomenon, would soon enough be synonymous with rap. According to Katz, the rise of the MC and concomitant decline of DJ, relegated to back-up band or, by the late 1980s, even replaced by DAT machines, actually served in its way to make room for new forms of hip-hop DJing. Despite the DJ’s recession during hip-hop’s commercial and cultural ascent, where other hip-hop chronicles tend to depart and leave DJs in the shadows, Katz remains stalwart in his focus, turning to the expansions of DJ practice in chapter 4, both in terms of scratch technique (and Philadelphia’s specific contribution: the “transformer”), as well as the art of beat-juggling. Katz carefully describes new techniques as they develop, putting them into aesthetic, functional, and socio-cultural context, noting the emergence of new contexts for DJ practice, particularly the rise of the competition circuit. Indeed, chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the forms, rituals, tools, and techniques of the DJ battle, judiciously examining points of aesthetic conflict and consensus.

Given Katz’s abiding concern with the instrumentalization of the turntable, the advent of turntablism in 1990s is an obvious watershed, and chapter 5 explores this practically autonomous and increasingly abstracted realm of hip-hop DJ practice. Katz explores the symbiosis between turntable, needle, and crossfader design, noting that while initially many of these features were ad-hoc innovations on the part of tinker-DJs and their “vernacular technological creativity,” by the mid-1990s manufacturers were taking notice and incorporating them into their products. Here, as elsewhere, we’re treated to some sharp material culture analysis: new mixers and crossfaders enabled innovative new techniques such as the “crab scratch” where technical limits had previously made them impossible.

In chapter 7, Katz turns to the new ubiquity and legitimacy that scratching enjoyed between 1996-2002, not in hip-hop itself, notably, but in “almost every corner of popular music” (182): pop, rock, jazz, electronic music, and even the classical world. The scratch comes to mean any manner of things in a wide variety of contexts: “With the mainstreaming of hip-hop, signifiers started to float freely” (180). This creates further room for experimentation, giving rise to the “cult favorites” the DJ albums made by the likes of DJ Shadow, Qbert, and Kid Koala, rich and remarkable works to which Katz devotes some overdue analysis.

The question of “Falling Barriers” in chapter 8 reads as a fitting coda, bringing the story of the turntable’s instrumentalization back to its beginnings in important if unexpected ways. Contrasting the rejection of CDJs with the embrace of “digital vinyl systems” allows Katz to make an insightful point about vinyl’s place in hip-hop aesthetics as “precious,” “authentic,” “elemental,” and “fundamental” (218). Vinyl’s tenacity as a control surface not only speaks to these values, grounded in decades-old practice, but to the ontology of the turntable as instrument: a seemingly sudden crossfade that makes total sense in retrospect.

Notably, rather than a CD insert (which would have been an enormous tangle of licensing permissions), Oxford University Press offers a useful companion website full of media referenced in the text. These may be mostly links to YouTube videos, leaving their stability in question, but it’s a rich resource all the same, especially if readers use it soon, before the inevitable link degradation.

Groove Music represents a strong monographic extension of Katz’s previous work in Capturing Sound (2004) and the recent anthology he co-edited with Tim Taylor and Tony Grajeda, Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). All of these works are animated by a concern with registering the plasticity of sound technologies, or how people find their own creative uses for such things. In the history of sound recording and reproduction, there may be no more spectacular example than the advent of performative hip-hop DJing, and Katz has given the tradition a fitting monument. The specter of legitimation may yet haunt the hip-hop literature, but efforts such as Groove Music help to push beyond such entrenchments precisely by taking the subject so seriously that no hint of novelty or condescension corrupts it.

Works Cited

Butler, Mark. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.

Fikentscher, Kai. “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. New York: Da Capo, 2002.

Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Schloss, Joseph. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

_______. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Taylor, Timothy, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, eds. Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012.

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May 29th, 2012

No Logos?

Ok, rounding things out, here’s the 3rd review/polemic in the 3-part series I’ve been running here (see parts 1 and 2). This one’s the most recently published, hardly a year old! (That’s not bad for lag, as these things go.) On the surface, it’s a review of 2010’s Anthology of Rap (Yale); but again, while offering specific commentary on the text in question, I also take the opportunity to weigh in on some trends in music scholarship — in particular, with regard to ye olde juncture of writing-about-music.



First off, let me note that I think Kalefa Sanneh already had the last word on this basically, so my own “review” is pitched more directly at music scholars. For other sharp responses following the book’s publication, check out Sam Han’s own anti-logocentric critique and the comedy of errors examined by Paul Devlin at Slate.

My own take appeared last June in the Journal of Popular Music Studies‘ newly launched “Amplifier” section — a venue for short pieces that break from the traditional mold in published music scholarship. Yes, my own piece is relatively traditional as a book review, but, I’m also happy to report that it’s a far shorter piece than the other two reviews I’ve ran here in recent weeks. So this time I’ll let you get to the kicker — another good one, IMO — all on your own.

“No Logos?”
JPMS 23(2): 190–194 / June 2011
Wayne Marshall

This journal aims to encourage “writerly” approaches to our various encounters with popular music. And sensibly so. After all, despite some recent and relatively modest multimedia enhancements, this is a space primarily for words.

A writerly tack embraces the peculiar challenges of bridging what Charles Seeger referred to as the “musicological juncture,” or the inevitable slippages more folksily described as “dancing about architecture”: in other words, the problems inherent to translating sonic material and embodied experience into written text. As the quip about dancing implies, many seem to think that such a project dooms itself to reducing, recoding, and reifying its subject. But if such outcomes are, in their way, unavoidable, better to acknowledge the mediation and embrace the medium. To press our words to rise to the occasion, and dance. Or more modestly, we think there is space for such discourse, and we want this space to offer some.

Against this ideal, the recent publication of The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010), edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, offers a timely reminder of what can get lost in the translation from popular music—with all the p-word entails, from commerce to contexts—to words on a page. Admittedly, the enterprise of representing rap music as lyrics abstracted from recorded performances or any particular encounter with them—indeed, as poetry—goes well beyond questions of “writerly” approaches. But it also presents a sort of limit case. In an effort to perform a kind of alchemy on hip-hop’s texts, the anthology highlights, by their very absence, how crucial dimensions of popular music as actually encountered demand a special sort of textual recognition.

From the so-called “grain” of the voice to the inextricable entrainment of a lyric’s sonic shape and setting to the meanings these things take on in different times and places, the texts (in the broadest sense) of popular music beckon for language that registers as it grapples with questions of form and force, interpretation and affect. It may be unsurprising that a collection edited by two professors of English, seeking to read rap as an “estimable body of contemporary poetry” (xxxiii), would downplay the genre’s sonic dimensions. But in justifying their project, the authors go so far as to assert that rap’s poetics can be examined with no reference to matters of sound.

The Anthology of Rap exhibits a pervasive and often bald logocentrism even as it bears subtle and consistent witness to rap as a fundamentally musical phenomenon. In his foreword, Henry Louis Gates concludes that “the words are finally the best reason for the beat” (xxvi). He marshals this rhetorical flourish to affirm the larger goal of the anthology: positioning rap, as Gates puts it, in the “new vanguard of American poetry” (xxvi). Gates’s primary strategy here is to ennoble rap by linking its rhymes to the African-American oral traditions—the dozens, signifyin(g)—that Gates built his own career around recuperating and recoding. But, tellingly, in order to draw us into the narrative, Gates highlights a number of crucial, performative qualities that resist easy render to the page. Recalling what arrested him as a young man watching his father recite Stagolee stanzas, Gates calls our attention to “all that a virtuosic performer possessed: an excellent memory, a mastery of pace and timing, the capacity to inflect and gesture, the ability to summon the identities of different characters simply through the nuance of their voices” (xxii). Clearly, all of these aspects—many of which we might include in the realm of the musical—are indispensible aspects of a performance’s poetics, and yet the anthology, its editors, and Gates himself all ask us, implicitly and explicitly, to set them aside.

A bias toward the words of rap, and against its music, rears its head throughout the editors’ introduction, whether they’re casually referring to rap’s “fundamental literary and artistic nature” (xxix)—see what they did there?—or asserting, with no support other than their own authority, that lyrics constitute “the most enduring part” (xxxiv) of hip-hop songs and that, moreover, lyrics “generally retain much of their resonance and meaning when isolated from their music” (xxxv). O rly? Sounds scientific enough, I suppose. Adding insult to injury, the editors have the audacity to employ “the music” synecdochically: “The parody of rap as doggerel does not touch truly on much of the music” (xxii). In its way, of course, such a slip registers the music’s refusal to recede from our imaginative engagements with hip-hop.

For all this rationalization, the collection suffers from a central and ultimately unacknowledged paradox. “This anthology treats rap as a literary form,” write the editors, “albeit one primarily experienced as music” (xxxv). There’s a lot riding on that “albeit”—a lot that never truly gets addressed. Instead, sleight of hand is meant to suffice: “Far from denying rap’s value as music,” they defend, “readers stand to gain a renewed appreciation for rap’s music by considering the poetry of its lyrics” (xxxv).

What this means is profoundly unclear, especially as the previous page finds the editors willingly enlisting unwieldy Eurocentric critiques of rap as “unmusical”—a surprising and needless concession: “The very qualities that leave rap open to criticism as music—heavy reliance on 4/4 beats, limited use of melody and harmony—are precisely what make it such an effective vehicle for poetry” (xxxiv). Would a hip-hop waltz be better? Perhaps something in 7/8 time? Is a “limited use of melody and harmony” really an accurate or fair description of the staggering variety of rap’s tonalities and omnivorous musical borrowings? The editors’ eagerness to throw rap’s music under the bus raises flags, to say the least. Indeed, this is one place where the book’s inherent conservatism betrays itself: Bradley and DuBois seek to admit hip-hop’s spectacular vernacular into the hallowed halls where people teach poetry. To do so, they embrace, rather than subvert, the elitist politics of canon. But a paramount part of hip-hop’s poetics—and a central reason for the genre’s resiliency and appeal—is a refusal to measure up to old models (aka, “all that jazz”). Following an imperative to flip the script, hip-hop artists, producers, and entrepreneurs have consistently opened doors—whether aesthetic or commercial—on their own terms, smashing canons in the process.

Moreover, while rap is doubtless a verbose genre at heart, even a casual survey of listening habits reveals that devotees and even casual listeners attend to a great deal more than rap’s lyrics, sometimes ignoring lexical content altogether to focus on the beats or flows, on the timbres and textures and rhythms of a recording, all of which crucially contribute to a song’s poetics. The editors’ subordination of musical wholes to an abstracted logos is not only misguided, it’s irresponsible, playing back into the hands of rap’s rarefied critics rather than elucidating hip-hop’s poetics on their own terms.

It is especially ironic to find prose neglecting, if not dismissing, the musical dimensions of a musical genre in a book that carries a clear agenda of validation. Legitimacy has been a hobgoblin haunting much of the academic literature on hip-hop. Such a stance may have made sense at a certain time, when hip-hop was roundly attacked in public media even as it made its commercial ascent, and it may yet make sense in certain contexts (English and music departments come to mind). But it’s a revealing and distracting preoccupation, saying more about the academic contexts in which young scholars seek sanction to teach hip-hop in their classes than, say, the wider world, where hip-hop pervades popular culture. Rap conquered the world some time ago, and as it happens, universities are demonstrably eager to offer and promote large-enrollment courses centered on the genre. Tricia Rose called her groundbreaking book Black Noise for a reason—and began chapter 3 with the revealing tale of encountering some racist, and familiar, opposition from the chairman of Brown’s music department: “Well, you must be writing on rap’s social impact and political lyrics, because there is nothing to the music” (62). But she wrote that book—and had that conversation—nearly twenty years ago. Hip-hop has moved on, and so should we.

At a launch event in Cambridge last November, Bradley asserted that the anthology “can help sustain a culture that already sustains itself.” This seems disingenuous, or at best, wrong. As Rose herself told me as an aspiring hip-hop scholar some ten years ago, hip-hop needs no help from academics. If anything, the academy could use some help from hip-hop. And while we might read the anthology as an attempt to stage such an intervention, we might better see it as a telling symptom of the ways that elite institutions such as universities and university presses inform the shape of our own cultural production. Looking for a silver lining, at the same event Jamaica Kincaid praised the anthology as a “sanctifying” project—an interesting choice given the etymological linkage between canonization and sainthood. As Kincaid elaborated, however, what she meant by this was that this rather humanities-style elevation of rap’s lyrics to the level of poetry works as a humanizing gesture—for “the people and the situation,” as she put it, though she also said she didn’t want to “freight the thing.”

Obviously, it’s plenty fraught already. Still, I’d like to be a good relativist of sorts. It’s a wide world after all. And I don’t mean, in turn, to disrespect or dismiss a valid listening position on the part of the anthologizers: that one important set of meanings of popular music do stem from abstractions and analyses of song texts. Clearly, to the editors’ ears, and in their minds, the beats stand in the background, or, ironically, as the ground itself, “the perfect sonic climate for poetically sophisticated lyrics to flourish” (xxxv). But respecting the editors’ right to read rap as they will, and understanding their approach in relation to the political economy of scholarly production and academic promotion, does not mean that one cannot also remain a strong advocate for popular music scholarship that cares more about the power of music and the power relations shot through our various engagements with it, than in further consolidating power and prestige for certain kinds of academic labor.

The longstanding attempt to legitimize hip-hop for our colleagues and patrons distracts from more meaningful research, the sort of work that takes hip-hop’s artistic (or, if you must, “literary”) merits for granted, and then proceeds to ask other questions about how its poetics function (and, necessarily, how they’re anchored in sonic and social experience). If such work could also aspire to be writerly, to dance on the page in a manner commensurate with its subject, perhaps one of hip-hop’s “golden age” ideals—rap as “edutainment”—could finally find some real footing in the academy. Until we make that space for ourselves, we’re doomed to reproduce a certain wackness.

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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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