I don’t know if you dear readers get tired of hearing about dembow, but I sure don’t. That said, if my boom-ch-boom-chick narratives start to seem as monotonous a march as some allege with regard to the dembow beat itself, do let me know. Well-worn paths notwithstanding, I’m happy to share this latest riff on a loopy history I’ve been trying to put together for many years, especially since it was the result of some protracted detective work, including actual purchasing of vinyl (s/o Deadly Dragon), interviews conducted via MySpace, and a whole heap of Spanglish-spelunking through Panamanian plena chatroom rabbitholes and other lively niches of the net.
First things first, go over to Wax Poetics to read the article in its full multimedia glory:
I’m pleased to have placed the piece there, as Wax Poetics is a publication I’ve admired for a long time, but especially because the story of the dembow’s origins is, crucially, a story about a particular physical record, an actual piece of vinyl, a deeply generative slab of “wax” that thousands of producers have molded into their own shapes and forms since it first issued from a Brooklyn-based distributor in 1991.
It’s also a record that, hard to believe, I was unable to locate and listen to back when I was writing my epic chapter for our reggaeton book. At the time, though, close listening was leading me in the right direction, as indicated in footnote #55 (p.72):
Significantly, it appears (to my ears) that the most common versions of the Dem Bow riddim circulating in Puerto Rico may in fact be sampled from Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â produced by Dennis âthe Menaceâ Thompson, rather than directly from Shabba Ranksâs âDem Bowâ (though elements from the Bobby Digital version crop up as well).
While my ears had more or less figured out the identity of the actual samples traveling under the Dembow banner, I still didn’t know the story of how, or who, or when or where, someone first got their hands on the instrumental, which didn’t appear on any Nando Boom records (and never appears as a naked loop in “Ellos Benia”). Maybe most mysteriously, I hadn’t been able to figure out why Panamanian enthusiasts seemed to refer to the same riddim as the Pounda, or sometimes Ponda (a transformation / transliteration not unlike such Puerto Rican variations as Dembo or Denbo).
When I first read about the Pounda on Panamanian websites, the way people described it, I thought it might simply be a local way of naming âDem Bowâ not unlike the way that, say, the instrumental from Dirtsmanâs âHot This Yearâ — better known to reggae aficionados as a re-lick of the classic Drum Song riddim — sometimes masquerades as “El Chespa Riddim” in tribute to the stuttering repetition of Dirtsman’s “dress back!” in the vocal version: chespa, chespa ches, chespa, chespa ches, chespa! And because I couldnât locate an actual record called âPounder,â my best assumption, given what Iâd read, was that it was simply another name for the same riddim Puerto Ricans call Dem Bow. Which it is. (What it is not, however, is the same version propelling Shabbaâs influential performance on “Dem Bow.”) But I had no idea what that would have happened.
The identity of the Pounda, and its relationship to the loop people call Dembow, seemed crucial to understanding the transnational history of reggaeton. And though I felt I had done my best by the time of publication, it still nagged at me. Moreover, this missing link continued to complicate the fraught retellings of reggaeton history. Take, for example, this quintessential collection of lore from a 2009 article on reggae in Panama:
By some reports, Jamaican dancehall first arrived in Puerto Rico in the suitcases of visiting musicians from Panama. Another story has the Panamanian producer RamĂłn âPuchoâ Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of âdem bowâ called âpounda,â then handing it over to Puerto Rican producers. While the truth is likely less clear-cut than either yarn, the debate over who started reggaeton, or rather, how Puerto Rican artists discovered âdem bow,â rages on outside shows and on countless Internet message boards today.
Indeed, as a gringo gawker, but a devotee and champion of all this music, it was largely these online debates that served as a key set of texts for the meta-narrative I was trying to tease out, my story of the stories people tell about reggaeton. I would come across fascinating debates and tantalizing fragments hinting at a history still largely uncovered, or certainly unpromulgated —
EL PONDER REALMENTE ES UN RITMO JAMAIQUINO, HAY COMO DOS ESTILOS DEL MISMO Y DEL MISMO AĂO QUE UNO ES EL DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA LA CANCIĂN “PENSIĂN” DE NANDO BOOM Y EL OTRO DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS QUE ESE FUĂ HECHO POR STEELIE & CLEEVIE POR VP RECORDS. PERO EL PONDER DE “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS FUĂ EL MĂS FUERTE EN ESE TIEMPO Y LAS DOS DE NANDO BOOM CON LA BASE RĂTMICA HECHA POR DENNIS FUERON LAS QUE MĂS APOJEARON HASTA EN CANADĂ QUE LAS OTRAS EN INGLĂS. ——————– pAnAmAiCaN jAm
To get to the bottom, I had to go beyond reading Spanish wiki entries and their discussion pages, and even beyond Panamanian reggae discussion forum rabbit holes and email follow-ups with their authors. I had to track down one of the record’s producers on MySpace and, ultimately, at least for my peace of mind, I had to get my hands on a real, physical copy of the record, since there were no online instantiations of a song called “Pounda” or “Pounder” — never mind its instrumental b-side (given the distinctive label, “Dub Mix II,” I would later discover).
I have Marlon Bishop to thank for putting me back on the trail again, which is ironic since he contacted me while researching an article he was writing on reggae in Panama for none other than Wax Poetics. At any rate, Marlon’s reasonable inquiry about the Pounda riddim sent me back into the chat forums, which eventually led me to the Deadly Dragon guys, who actually had the record in stock. And of course, when I listened to it, and it contained precisely the same sounds propelling Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia” and appearing as “Dembow Original” on CDs like Pistas Famosas de Reggaeton, it came as a revelation.
Also revelatory, and useful for confirming some things, was getting to talk with none other than “Pucho,” aka Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante (a name bearing witness to his Jamaican heritage, recalling Jamaicaâs first prime minister). We had an illuminating exchange via MySpace, and I’ll never forget his funny opinion about Jamaica’s riddim tradition, or as he put it, “UNA MALA COSTUMBRE DE LOS JAMAICANOS” –
And that’s all she wrote. Or, at least, that’s all I’ve written so far. You might think that a 24,000 word essay might suffice, but apparently not. And as another way to share an amazing story, I’m grateful to have been able to put the pieces together. Thanks to everyone, from Pucho to pAnAmAiCaN jAm, Marlon to Wax Poetics, for aiding me in my not-so-quixotic quest. Always room for another dub!
There’s been a lot of news in the past week about the legal kerfuffle between the Beastie Boys and a company called GoldieBlox, which markets science/engineering toys aimed at girls (and their parents) seeking something beyond the standard pink princess fare.
Apparently, GoldieBlox has successfully leveraged the “viral” qualities of the net to project their “disruptive” brand, and the latest example does so spectacularly well, via a parody of the Beastie Boys’ well-worn, decades-old, silly misogynist ditty, “Girls.”
In fact, my first encounter with GoldieBlox’s version of “Girls” arrived via word of mouth (i.e., Gchat), just the way viral videos are supposed to. My wife shared the link with me, as we ourselves are constantly struggling with the balance between giving our daughters lots of options for growth and play, on the one hand, and indulging their seemingly irrepressible desire to parade around as princesses on the other. As that type of dad, I couldn’t help but myself be smitten by the ad —
So, I was as surprised as anyone to learn about the legal battle currently underway over this parody of a parody (if, in the initial instance, an ambiguous one). Obviously, GoldieBlox’s “Girls” is derived from the Beasties’ “Girls,” but it’s a complete re-recording, marshaling certain familiar elements — the riff, the refrain, and certain text/melodic lines — not all unlike the ways the Beasties themselves cribbed and borrowed and reassembled their own song out of prior performances.
Redolent of a schlocky musical and cultural past — and perhaps helping to give the song some of its parodic edge — the Beasties’ “Girls” makes audible nods to both the Isley Brothers and Bo Diddley. Beginning around 0:40 in the following video, you’ll hear Diddley play on guitar the very same riff the Boys coax out of their wonky synth:
And this mashup underscores pretty convincingly how much “Girls” is inspired by the Isley’s “Shout,” with parellels in terms of song syntax, repeated refrain, and even a few striking melodic parallels (e.g., “say that you love meâŠ” == “to do the dishesâŠ”):
What should we make of the Beastie Boys taking two songs deeply inspired by African-American religious ritual — the ring-shout in the case of the Isleys, and Diddley’s hand-clapping & foot-stomping “communion service” — in order to make a rearguard, if possibly parodic, song about women? On what grounds should the Beasties be allowed the privilege of doing something so derivative/transformative, while GoldieBlox should not?
For many, it would seem, the crucial point turns not on questions of musical borrowing and re-signification but rather, on the Beastie Boys’ stated wishes to keep their music out of advertisements, as articulated in their open letter —
make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
This is especially poignant given that Adam Yauch (aka MCA) made this same wish explicit in his will.
But then, GoldieBlox isn’t actually using the Beasties’ music. Or are they? It’s a question — and not an easy one to resolve. (For any of us, or for a judge or jury for that matter.) They’re certainly not using the Beasties’ recording, or even a sample from it. Why should we determine that the Beasties’ should be able to stop others from re-assembling the same pieces that they themselves assembled without licensing/permission in the first place? Should GoldieBlox respect the Beasties’ wishes?
What about, say, James Newton’s wishes? An avant-jazz flutist, Newton famously insisted that the Beasties’ use of a sample of his flute performance on “Choir” for the Beasties’ “Pass the Mic” constituted copyright infringement, but a court ruled that the snippet was too short to constitute a part of his composition, and since the Boys had licensed the recording from Newton’s record label (for a paltry $1000), they were allowed to go ahead and use it despite lacking Newton’s permission.
Generally speaking, as readers of W&W will know, I support that sort of relatively unbridled approach to transformative re-use. Songs are shared things, and if you don’t want someone to play or sing along, hold them close and sing them quietly in the corner. Once something is out in the open, in public, via commercial or even non-commercial circulation, it becomes available for sharing and reinterpretation. Courts and lawyers and some artists like to draw hard and fast lines between folk culture and commercial culture, but these are usually little more than language games having to do with claiming ownership, not stable definitions of cultural domains. (Sometimes, they’re struggles over power and money, which are not to be diminished, though they are hardly at play in this case between some rich musicians and a successful start-up.)
When did “Girls” escape the Beasties’ creative control? Perhaps as soon as it was commercially released and massively distributed. In its own way, the Beastie’s “Girls” was, in the first instance, itself an advertisement — an ad for an album, an ad for concerts, an ad for a sophomoric act that the Beastie Boys took to the world and to the bank.
All that said, it’s still a little odd for the likes of the EFF to step into the fray, and to argue for fair use simply because they agree with Glodieblox’s putative politics. Clearly, commercial instances of parodic fair use have been upheld before — s/o Luther Campbell & Henry Louis Gates — but it’s always a matter of convincing some judge/jury about the lines people want to draw around musical ownership. Toward that end, I think considering the big musical picture here helps.
I mean, just imagine the chilling effect on other renditions of “Girls”! In a world of personal branding, where do we draw the line between commercial and non? Between advertisement and not?
Tell this guy Bro Chuy he’d better not “go viral” –
Or this girl for that matter —
And someone should really warn these squirrels not to attempt to monetize their questionable “parody” –
For my part, as a dad, I’ll be sure to teach my daughters how to reverse engineer our favorite Beastie songs as soon as the girls are ready for some serious digital music trickery.
Thanks to Todd Burns for the keen editing, making things nice and concise. Per usual, I’m going to take the opportunity to use my blog to run an author’s cut, or an unabridged version. A couple missing paragraphs below help flesh out the picture, especially regarding the Afro-Jamaican roots — and, hence, pan-Caribbean / Afrodiasporic resonance — of the dancehall riddim that started it all. A phrase like “Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim” might seem like a slightly cryptic reference without this particular passage (i.e., paragraph #4 below); but maybe people thought I was calling it post-colonial, which is also true.
I’m also happy to report that a forthcoming issue of Wax Poetics will feature an article I wrote entirely about the (once mysterious) origins of reggaeton’s bedrock riddim on the unlikely outpost of Long Island, heavily featuring Boom’s manager Pucho Bustamante (who I interviewed a few years ago on MySpace). Will let you know soon as that one’s ready to read!
For now, head over to RBMA for their slick version, see below for the full monty, & check out this video I whipped up (also at the RBMA site & embedded below) to see & hear how the various versions all relate. If you want to get even more dembow in your ears, there’s lots to find around the web, but here are a couple of mixes I’ve made that focus on it: Dembow Legacies, Dembow Dem.
Without further ado, let’s loop –
In the world of sample-based music, few recordings have enjoyed so active an afterlife as the Dembow. A two-bar loop with unmistakably familiar kicks and snares, it underpins the vast majority of reggaeton tracks as an almost required sonic signpost. Thanks to crossover jams like Lornaâs âPapi Chuloâ and Daddy Yankeeâs âGasolina,â the Dembow has spread its distinctive boom-ch-boom-chick to glossy Latin pop, raw electro-chaabi in Egypt, transnational moombahton, and Indonesian dangdut seksi, to name a few.
With such remarkable resonance and staggering frequency of appearance, the Dembow would seem to deserve a place alongside such well-worn loops as the Amen break, the Triggerman, the Tamborzao. All these brief but inspired moments âon tapeââand all of them rolling drum rhythmsâafter having been sampled and looped and diced and spliced by hundreds and hundreds of digital-age producers, have proven so crucial to the sound of entire genres that they have taken on names, and lives, all their own.
There are a few things, however, that make the Dembow an unusual member of the sample canon. For one, the recording most often identified as the origin of the sample is not actually the source of reggaetonâs favorite loop, not exactly anyway. Itâs true that Shabba Ranksâs anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem âDem Bowâ may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the songâs name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabbaâthe riddim in reggae parlanceârarely actually turn up in reggaeton. Jamaican studio duo Steely and Clevie deserve credit for the bouncy beat they boiled down for Bobby Digital, but not as the creators of a intensely re-used sound recording. Rather, their riddim planted the seed that would grow into what we now call Dembow.
Like other popular riddims the duo produced in the early 90s, especially Poco Man Jam (to which Dembow is audibly indebted), the track accompanying Shabbaâs rally-cry draws on the deep rhythms associated with Pocomania, a neo-African Jamaican religion with practices and aesthetics that run parallel to other post-slave cultures across the Caribbean. The driving boom-ch-boom-chick that emerges between the steady kick on each beat and the polyrhythmic play of the snares, can also be threaded through rumba, salsa, soca, bachata. Itâs at the heart of whatâs been called jazzâs âSpanish tinge,â known variously as the cinquillo or the habenera. This may help explain the broad appeal of these particular Jamaican recordings, why Puerto Rican hip-hop producers moved more or less wholesale into making Spanish dancehall, and how reggaeton so quickly swept across dance scenes across the Americas and beyond. Shabbaâs âDem Bowâ was a big chune in the wide world of reggae, and not just because of its bullish stance, colorful lyrics, and catchy chorus.
But rather than samples of Steely & Clevieâs riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaetonâs transnational roots, the set of sounds most often identified as the Dembow per se (as opposed to just the generalized rhythm which, confusingly, is also sometimes called Dembow), is a version cooked up by Jamaican and Panamanian collaborators laboring on Long Island, NY in the early 90s to create reggae en espaĂ±ol anthemsâand succeeding.
By the early 90s, Philip Smartâs HC&F studio was the premier spot for producing dancehall hits, Jamaica notwithstanding. A native Kingstonian who apprenticed under King Tubby, Smart moved to New York in the mid-70s and launched HC&F in 1982 enlisting as house musicians such fellow expatriates as Dennis âThe Menaceâ Thompson, the sole musician credited with âDub Mix II,â better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â a close translation of Shabbaâs âDem Bow,â Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en espaĂ±ol movement. The wordless version that would soon play backing track to hundreds of Puerto Rican rap parties was not actually released until two NYC-based Jamaican deejays, Bobo General and Smiley Wonder, recorded their own single over the riddim, âPounder,â with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (âA bad custom of the Jamaicans,â Bustamante once told me.)
When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a âDem Bowâ trackâand they always include at least oneâthe track labeled as such is nearly always based on the drums Dennis the Menace laid down for Nando Boom at HC&F. Likewise, do a search for âdembow loopâ on YouTube or 4shared, and youâll hear the same echoes there too. By this point, the instrumental has been looped, compressed, remastered, and reconstituted dozens of times over. But the lineage is audible, and it makes Dennis and companyâs Dembow one of a few recordings, like the Funky Drummer or the Apache break, which has provided the basis for hundreds if not thousands of other tracks.
The story of the Dembow and its legacy gets even more complicated, since beyond a relatively small circle of reggaeton producers and connoisseurs, when most people say Dembow, they refer to its rhythmâthe boom-ch-boom-chick patternâmore generally. And in practice, reggaeton producers have been chopping up dancehall riddims and recombining them with a greater interest in split-second allusion than faithful reproduction. While wholesale loops of Dembow do sometimes appear, reggaeton drum tracks tend more often to comprise samples drawn from a small storehouse of treasured timbres: a handful of reggae riddims which have animated Spanish-language dancehall for decades. Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Drum Song, and yes, Dembow, are all common sources, but the ingredients could come from almost anywhere if they sound right. Reggaetoneros swap sample sets like playing cards, and a willy-nilly archive of reconfigurable samples traverses the North and South American Hulkshare-osphere like a reggaeton robotics kit. For lots of listeners and producers, any of the snares from these well-worn riddims, or any snare with similar properties, could suffice to say Dembow.
A line can be drawn from Steely & Clevie, though Smart and Thompson and Bustamante, to what we call Dembow today, but for all that collective, transnational effort, the foundation for this single recordingâs remarkable resonance was most crucially fashioned in mid-90s San Juan by proto-reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero and The Noise. On their seminal underground mixtapes, these Puerto Rican producers took a hip-hop hatchet to dancehall riddims, chopping up favorite drum loops, baselines, and riffs to create dynamic, reference-laden collages of contemporary club beats for local rappersâ double-time, flip-tongue, street-level lyrics. Over the course of Playero 38 or The Noise 6 one hears a constantly shifting bed of beats composed of signature samples from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, and the like. Dembow was such a staple source that the entire genre for a time, after being known as underground but before reggaeton, was simply called dembow.
Crucially, around the turn of the millennium, the Dembowâand Puerto Rican reggae en espaĂ±ol more generallyâwas transmuted and extended by DJ Blass. With the rise of Fruity Loops and other software, techno-inspired bleeps, presets, and arpeggios could be sutured to Dembow snares for a killer club-ready concoction. Blassâs mixtapes like Sandunguero and Reggaeton Sex changed the sound of what would soon be crowned reggaeton while maintaining important links to predecessors. Namely, by chopping well-worn loops into discrete kicks and snares, Blass could nod to the riddims that dancers, vocalists, and audiences had come to love while shaping the sounds into his own lean patterns. Blassâs influential techniques carry forward into the productions of the duo who finally took reggaeton to the pop charts and the Anglo mainstream, Luny Tunes.
If you listen to the track Luny Tunes produced for their biggest hit, âGasolinaââor most of their other pistasâyouâll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playeroâs proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaetonâs rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially âpan-Latinoâ sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabbaâs chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of âDem Bowâ in 2003, the phrase has little to do with imperialism or sexual orientation and everything to do with the backbone beat and criss-crossing snares that compel people to perreo, or do the doggystyle dance so synonymous with the genre.
In the decade since reggaeton galloped into the mainstream, the Dembow has been Cubanized, Colombified, Peruvinated, watered-down, dressed-up, and recomposed to fit a thousand new contexts. Recently, the rhythmâand to a lesser extent, the riddimâhas even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nadaâs moombahton, where Dembow comes full circle in a strange and surprising way. Nada famously invented moombahton by slowing down Dutch house tracks to please a house of reggaeton-loving teens, but the reason this worked was precisely because Dutch house had itself absorbed Caribbean rhythms via bubbling, a short-lived but influential local club scene clustered around Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague. Producing personalized soundtracks for dance battles, first- and second-generation kids from Curacao and Suriname made hyperspeed, bricolage remixes of the same dancehall riddims that had Puerto Rican youngsters going nuts across the Atlantic.
Slowed down once again and rebranded as moombahton, Nadaâs wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdamâs Munchi heard ways to move beyond screwed house remixes and connect the burgeoning genre to its Puerto Rican cousins. Munchi was initially drawn to the genre because of his love of Dembow and reggaeton and the possibilities moombahton offered to revisit these irresistible rhythms: âThe idea was so simple,â Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as âTHE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.â Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that âIt felt so good that I could make âreggaetonâ again.â And while no one would confuse Munchiâs genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genreâs presence in his tracks.
For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldnât say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. âI’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.â
Moombahton may have already enjoyed its moment in the social media sun, but there are other corners of the so-called global bass scene where that old boom-ch-boom-chick still resounds. âThe post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,â says Rizzla, whose soca and reggaeton influences help to keep Caribbean polyrhythms in the metropolitan mix. Rizzla trawls 4shared and Hulkshare for Dembow tracks and samples but reports that, âMost of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.â
Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: âI personally have never sampled the Dembow riddim but have used various rhythmic cousin ‘Dembow’ loops in my productions. Most of these I’ve found via reggaeton sample packs downloaded from 4shared while searching for Mexican tribal and perreo tracks.â Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, âAdmittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.â Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: âOne of my favorite âDembow’ loops comes from the Fever Pitch riddim. That one keeps popping up at various speeds in a lot of my tracks. It manages to work flawlessly at just about any tempo, whether it’s a Dutch bubbling track or an 80 bpm reggaeton beat, which is sort of a rare quality for any loop to have.â
Not unlike their sample-raiding peers in reggaeton, then, producers such as Rizzla, Dubbel Dutch, and Uproot Andy tend toward an inclusive idea of what constitutes the Dembow riddim, complicating simple narratives of a single sampleâs afterlife. âI’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) âDembowâ loop is a better possible candidate,â Dubbel Dutch argued, âfor an Amen or Think type breakbeat.â
For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls âan hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,â even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: âThe opening track is a song I just made called the âWorldwide Dembowâ and itâs sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying âsi tu quiere dembow,â and the tune is basically a reimagining of Drum Song riddim (melodically), and Fever Pitch riddim (rhythmically), although it doesn’t actually sample either of them, but pretty much picks apart the elements and recreates them with more synthetic sounds.â
Uproot Andyâs reference to Dominican dembow bring us full circle for this lively, and living, story of a loved loop. No place today can lay stronger claim to bearing the Dembow flame than the Dominican Republic, where a rejuvenated version of San Juanâs proto-reggaeton, in all its referential richness, manages to move kids on the streets (and YouTube) and, increasingly, to move into the pop sphere as well.
In the mixes of DJ Scuff and countrymenâor, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud groupâthe Dembow (as such) is on constant, quicksilver rotation with chops and stabs from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Poco Man Jam and the like. But once again, enthralled as Dominican dembow may be with such well-worn samples, its restless producers also emulate the voracious and pliant approach of their mid-90s muses, Playero and the Noise. So a classic hip-hop break like Think, or even funk cariocaâs Tamborzao, might make it into the mix. But no matter how wide the circle of references, the name of the genre bears witness, at bottom, to the fact that Dominican dembow is built on a commitment to some relatively old riddims and some far older rhythms.
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the UK-based dub poet and bass culture theorist, the same dancehall riddims so central to the Dembow variations were popular precisely because they can sound at once modern and traditional. âOn one hand, this music is totally technological,â he notes, âon the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, KuminaâAfrican-based religious cults who provide the rhythms used by Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton. So despite the extent of the technology being used, the music is becoming even rootsier, with a resonance even for quite old listeners, because it echoes back to what they first heard in rural Jamaica.â
Uproot Andy offers a similar take: âIf reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.â
Here’s what you’re seeing/hearing in the video above:
first, shabba ranks’s “dem bow” produced by steely & clevie (for bobby digital)
then, nando boom’s “ellos benia” produced by dennis the menace (for philip smart & pucho bustamante)
then, the instrumental of the boom track, released as “dub mix II” on b-side of “pounder” by bobo general & sleepy wonder
then, a commonly circulating version of the dembow riddim (“original”), audibly related to the dennis the menace instrumental, if a bit beefed up and boiled down
finally, a return to “dub mix II” to hear how dennis the menace added subtle dub effects to his track — sounds which never turn up in reggaeton productions because of the way the loop circulates as a digital (re)sample rather than a vinyl b-side
In honor of the late, great Aaron Swartz, pictured above, I’m making an overdue effort to get some of my own works out from behind walls of various sorts and into the open. (This is always my practice, but sometimes there’s more of a lag than I’d like.) I can’t say that I ever met Aaron, despite no doubt crossing paths in Cambridge over the years. But I have so many friends who counted him a friend, his loss resonates on a personal level as well as an intellectual one. Of course, I was well aware of Aaron’s work and keenly curious about the JSTOR case as it proceeded, and like many others I find myself disgusted and galvanized by the tragedy of his persecution and death.
While there is a general effort, if not concerted movement, among academics to take the opportunity to make their own articles openly accessible in tribute to Aaron, aptly enough the PDFs I want to share here are in their own ways deeply concerned with the (un)fettered and often creative circulation of texts, files, media, ideas, riffs — whatever you want to call em. In these particular two cases, mashups and remixes.
The first piece is something I wrote many years back but only published in book form more recently. “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice” grows out of a series of talks I was giving at the time, offering an aesthetic explication of mashups while also posing the form as one we might embrace for teaching and publishing alike. Obviously, it’s something of a technomusicological manifesto, building on earlier riffs about musicking about music and offering examples from my own bloggy oeuvre. Indeed, I did a little something along these lines in the mix I made to accompany the second PDF I’d like to share. But first, here’s a link & a cite:
Wayne Marshall, “Mashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice.” (PDF) In Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom: Teaching Tools from American Idol to YouTube, ed. Nicole Biamonte, 307-15 (Scarecrow Press, 2010).
The second PDF I want to share was co-written a couple years back with Jayson Beaster-Jones, an anthropologist who knows a heckuva lot about the Indian music industry and the role of “remix” therein. We casually started cooking up the article over coffee at UChicago — and later up on Devon Avenue — some 6 years ago, so this was really quite a welcome fruition of a longstanding project (which I first blogged about way back in July 08). For helping to bring this into the world, I’d like to thank another dear colleague, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, an old ethno-friend and the co-editor of the special issue of South Asian Popular Culture in which our article appeared:
Wayne Marshall & Jayson Beaster-Jones, “It takes a little lawsuit: The flowering garden of Bollywood exoticism in the age of its technological reproducibility.” (PDF) South Asian Popular Culture 10(3) : 1-12.
You may know the story of how DJ Quik sampled an obscure Bollywood song for Truth Hurts’s “Addicted” and got Dr.Dre sued for a cool $500M, but you might yet be surprised by some of its twists and turns. While the song has been written about quite a bit, especially as an example of US orientalism and illicit appropriation, for our article, Jayson and I wanted to focus on the meanings generated by each new iteration of the song, attending to content as well as context, and placing our emphasis on cosmopolitan agents making creative and, yes, charged choices about musical representation. As we write in our conclusion, we can’t bring ourselves to care nearly as much about rich guys suing rich guys than we do about all the amazing and wonderful stuff that people do in the midst of it all.
Here’s the abstract:
The Hindi film song âThoda resham lagta haiâ [It takes a little silk] written by the music director Bappi Lahiri for the film Jyoti (1981) was a long forgotten tune before being rediscovered in 2002 by American music producer DJ Quik. Based around an unauthorized 35-second sample of the recording, the Truth Hurts song âAddictiveâ famously inspired Bappi Lahiri to sue Quikâs associate Dr Dre (executive producer of the song), Aftermath Records, and Universal Music (Aftermathâs parent company and distributor) for $500 million. Beyond Lahiriâs claims of cultural imperialism, obscenity, and outright theft, DJ Quikâs rearrangement of the song was, in turn, adopted by music producers, including Lahiri himself, in a wide variety of international genres. This paper tracks the use and reuse of the melody in Indian, American, and Jamaican contexts, focusing on the songâs remediation for new audiences. Yet even as this well-traveled tune evokes different historical and local meanings, it evokes an eroticized Other in each context, including its original context.
And I’m pleased to note that while I only have a measly “supplemental materials” page for the mashup article, for our piece about the peregrinations of an apparently addictive melody, I’ve cooked up the obviously obligatory mega-mix!
In addition to hearing all the recordings we reference in the article, and a few more, you’ll also hear a variety of details that — for space concerns alone — must go unremarked in our essay but will not go unheard in the mix: surprise appearances by Lady Saw and Tanto Metro and Snoop Dogg (via England, the Netherlands, and Belgium, respectively); and a host of seemingly spontaneously generating remixes made by dhol-drum and sample-pack wielding desi artists across the globe (s/o to the Incredible Kid for helping source some of these!). Polytonality and recontextualization reign supreme as the riffing and remixing runs rampant. Mirrors reflecting in mirrors, it’s an all Other everything party. Legal briefs buried beneath transduced outhereness.
Among other things, I like how the mix can show how strong a stamp Quik put on the song — or/and how in Bappi’s own attempt to capitalize on its popularity, he modifies his own composition to resemble Quik’s while attempting to upgrade it with distorted but deadening drums and heavily reverbed vocals that pale in comparison to Lata’s legendary warble. I also like how it registers — with its variable levels of compression and inconsistent metadata — the very state of circulation, the shape media take when they travel unlikely distances, the footsteps of my digital sleuthing. “Real audio” becomes a Baudrillardian phrase when ripping clips from Kannada filmi vendor sites.
While more or less chronological, and so attempting to provide an audible sense of the chains and ripples of influence, toward the end of the mix I get especially playful with genealogy. When one starts tracking a melody in this way, one gets glimmers in unexpected places. I swore that I heard the familiar tune drifting in and out of a moombahton track by Max LeDaron (remixed by DJ Melo) — and indeed, I had been mixing it with versions of “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” and “Addictive” for months when I asked LeDaron if it was an intentional nod; according to him, it wasn’t an intentional homage, but he was struck by the resemblance and willing to cop to subliminal influence. (Can’t locate our Twitter exchange at the moment, but there’s this. [updated 1/16])
The other playful inclusion is more likely a stretch of my musical imagination, but I’ll leave it to your ears (with some suggestion on my part, as abetted by Ableton). It seems somehow more unlikely that a synth-stabbing Belgian would have seen Jyoti in 1987 than an African-American Angelino in 2001. Then again, if it’s true that the “typical elements” of the New Beat sound as heard on Nux Nemo’s “Hiroshima” include “the samples and the ethnic influences,” then, more than just hearing things, I may actually be hearing things. At any rate, to my ears, and perhaps evermore to yours, it will have to be a part of the strange and lively social life of a striking little contour and the rich complex of resonances around it.
Oh, and here’s the tracklist in all its mangled metadata glory, bearing artifacts and effects of circulation — and my own idiosyncratic paths to acquisition — that in their own ways also register in the audio:
08 Thoda Resham Lagta Hai
01 – Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)
04 Bollywood Riddim
02 – Addictive [Explicit]
02 Addictive Indian Mix
Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Unknown – 14. Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Dj Leikers vs.Dj doll – Kaliyon kachaman(Bubbling)
06 Kaliyon Ka Chaman
Ee Deshadalli Karunaadu
04 Bollywood Riddim
12 Soca Taliban
03 Max Le Daron – El Caramilo Diabolico (Dj Melo Remix)
El Caramillo Diabolico 2011
Since it seems befitting for a story with no real beginning to also have no ending, here’s to further circulations and recontextualizations. More FreeDFs to follow soon!
Update! [2/27] — I totally forgot that I uploaded some figures we had originally planned to run with the article but then scrapped because of the ridiculous permissions-culture that we would have had to navigate. Instead I’m posting them here with no permission from anyone. Fair use, mofos!
Check it out, my micropublic: I’ve got another “Throwback Thursdays” post over at Okayplayer’s LargeUp blog. This time I’m waxing nostalgic about a song produced by none other than El Chombo –
Incluye el tema…
Veteran readers of W&W may remember El Chombo as the producer of the notorious “Chacarron,” a song which — back in my blogspot days — consumed a seriesofposts as I attempted to document in relative realtime my endeavor to discover the story behind the song.
I’m not quite ready to reminisce about “Chacarron,” however; rather my post turns to “El Gato Volador,” which I also once discussed on this very blog. Alas, the brilliant homemade slideshow that inspired that ol’ post has since disappeared, but the official video is still on the ‘Tube, and this gives me a chance to discuss the song in a little more detail. And quite a song it is.
Here’s the frame:
While Panama is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of dancehall reggae en espaĂ±ol, Puerto Rico gets credit for eating up the faithful versions of Panamanian artists like Nando Boom and El General and spitting out something more hip-hop laced and sample-based, as heard on the Noisy collages that made dembow loops the centerpiece of maratĂłn mixtapes. But Panamanian producers deserve props of their own for developing and popularizing an equally distinctive and irreverent, sample-based approach to Spanish dancehall (though faithful approaches persist under the plena banner, sin duda).
Panama’s master of the style is El Chombo, aka Rodney Clark, a pretty Jamaican name, though the internet reports (very vaguely of course) that he was born in the US and moved to Panama in the late 70s as a youngster. None of these facts is remarkable in Panama, where people have been named Rodney Clark for a century (at the turn of the 20th, Panama was receiving 62% of all Jamaican emigrants), and where foreigners continually arrive, especially from the US in more recent times, drawn into Canal-related work as so many Caribbean migrants before them. “El Chombo” is also something dark-skinned people, especially Afro-Caribbean folk, have been called in Panama for a long time. El Chombo’s embrace of the term and intentional projection of blackness were central to his first mixtape series, Spanish Oil, which he was issuing annually in the mid-late 90s at the same time Playero and The Noise were circulating their seminal mixtapes. The reference to oil is, of course, a reference to blackness, and it’s telling that reggae in Panama was sometimes called petrĂłleo in the 90s, not unlike melaza (molasses) in Puerto Rico.
But go ahead and click thru to hear about (and watch) El Chombo’s “unlikely hit ostensibly about a flying cat but alsoâŠa joke of a song that seems to offer meta-commentary on the state of the genre itself.”
It should be said that these two songs — “Chacarron” and “El Gato Volador” — are obviously rather on the silly side, but El Chombo is also in his way a serious producer. Over the last decade he’s enjoyed quite a bit of success, and its remarkable that even his crossover hits (mainly in Latin American and European dance markets) bear the same trademark sampladelia, largely drawn from American crossover dance-pop.
His crown jewel in this regard (perhaps his flying cat?) is no doubt Lorna’s Dee-Lite sampling “Papi Chulo” (2003), the first reggaeton song to become an international hit, years before Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.” The song was a top ten hit in several European countries (#1 in France, #2 in Italy) and huge across Latin America. It’s really something of an underrated classic. (When I dropped it at Que Bajo a few years back, people went plĂĄtanos.)
So widespread is the song’s popularity that, among other spin-offs, it inspired a Pakistani cover which some, according to YouTube comments, even read as a pan-African gesture c/o “Makrani singer Younis Jani” (-Wikipedia). Makrani, I’m told (also by Wikipedia), is sometimes synonymous with “Siddi / Sheedi” (which is what one commenter calls Younis), which is also, far as I can tell, more-or-less Urdu for “El Chombo.” Now how do ya like that?
Africa Is a Country, a wry but passionate blog devoted to “Africa” — the idea, not (simply) the song — in contemporary media (but “not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama”) has been threatening to make a weekly series out of the genuinely remarkable resonance of Toto’s 1982 soft-rock anthem. It’s a begrudging tribute of sorts to the song’s “resilience as a piece of media about Africa.” Did you know that in addition to dozens of covers, which they promise to feature, the song is also popular sampling fodder for hip-hop producers (among them, Madlib)?
It promises to be entertaining, whether or not you can withstand the earworm. This week they pointed to a new appearance of what they’re calling “the Toto ‘Africa’ meme” courtesy of r&b crooner Jason Derulo, which, I have to admit is both “inane” as they note over there and a pallid by-the-numbers attempt to reproduce the feel and form of “Watcha Say,” his debut single and highest charting song (it hit #1).
I can’t help but be reminded of a strange and oddly apropos discovery about Toto’s “Africa” I made a few years ago, which may be of passing interest to some of you, especially fellow followers of Africasacountry.
Here’s how it happened: my dear friend and colleague, Sharon, is a doctoral student in anthropology who studies the transmission of traditional Malian dance, especially in transnational contexts. A longtime trad-African dancer herself, she has studied and danced in Mali, the US, and France. Anyway, long story semi-short, when Sharon was getting hitched a few years back she asked me whether I might help her arrange some music for her reception (an awesome & lively affair, full of drums and dance, in which a young & chubby Nico got to prance about with the august & strikingly spry Dr. J. Lorand Matory).
Her idea was to take one of the common rhythms from the Malian repertory and mash it up with some pop or hip-hop tracks that employ the same patterns. The idea was suggested to her by the fact that her local teacher, Joh Camara, himself would reference Will Smith’s “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” as a sort of mnemonic device when introducing students to the didadi rhythm. You know, the na-na-na-na-nana-nah bit. You can hear it pretty clearly in this performance I turned up on the ‘Tube (esp between 0:40 and 1:00):
This seemed like a fun task, especially given how much I love tracing patterns across different repertories. But after a few days of intense humming along to myself and attempting to trigger things in the recesses of musical memory, I had come up with relatively little. However, while I had only located a couple tracks that make reference to the rhythm, I had seemingly stumbled across an almost incredible possibility: that Toto’s “Africa,” which seemed like one of the least African songs I could imagine, might actually be based around an actual African rhythm. (And I use actual there twice because it’s a magic word, like Africa.)
Here’s what I shared with Sharon:
I have to confess that I’ve found it rather challenging to think up other songs that employ the same rhythm(s) as Didadi (aside from the tight fit that is “Gettin Jiggy Wit It”). Been racking my musical memory, which has led to some false leads and close fits, but nothing else — until this afternoon — save for a funny refrain from a Cypress Hill song (“la la la la la la la la” in “Hand on the Pump”).
Funny enough — actually I think you may find this discovery fascinating — as I was trying once more this afternoon to think of other songs that might match (and I’m being fairly exacting in wanting a good match — a direct rhythmic overlay), I started humming the rhythm to myself: buh-duh-duh-duhduh-duh-duh. Eventually a vaguely familiar bassline / chord progression emerged from my murky brain. I couldn’t place it, though, and couldn’t remember any words, so I just sang along with the melody until I reached the chorus, where, I hoped, I might remember a single Googlable word. When I got there, I was stunned: the word was “Africa” and the song, natch, “Africa” by Toto! What a hilarious coincidence! I have no idea whether the group was intentionally figuring Africa with that rhythm — it’s never sounded very African to me, but it sure does now!
Anyhow, I’m afraid that means I have only turned up 3 songs that use the same rhythm(s) as Didadi. And two of them are quite cheesy. But this is all in good fun, right? Anyhow, see attached and tell me what you think. For now, I’ve chosen to leave Joh’s performance unedited, so you hear the entire ~2:00 rendition that he gave us, the full arc, including all his variations and the general accretionary/crescendoing dynamic. If that works for you, that’s cool. If not, we can do some editing. Just let me know what you think. It’s easy enough to loop any of the measures he plays or to cut something here or add something there. I could extend any of the songs mashed with the drums, or shorten them, or change their order. I could also change the tempo so that it is faster or slower or gets faster over time (Jo does gradually get faster, and that’s one change I’ve made: now he stays at the same tempo, which helped me to mash/match things up).
Now, judging by this Wikipedia entry and it’s detailed accounts by members of Toto of the way the song came together, it sounds like the guys in Toto might have more or less entirely stumbled upon this felicitous rhythmic concordance. Meter minutiae aside (however fascinating), I find this quotation from drummer Jeff Porcaro most pregnant:
… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.
At any rate, you can imagine the bizarro eureka moment as I pulled that schmaltzy tune out of some dark corner of my mind. As for the main keyboard riff’s Africanness, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Here’s the “mashup” I sent to Sharon (which, suffice to say, was a little too goofy to work for the wedding):
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 –
All manner of associations and explanations are proffered –
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”) –
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:
My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicĂłlogo 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 ChocĂł 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-CaleĂ±o-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 BogotĂĄ, 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.
Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in BogotĂĄ 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 “porquerĂa” 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.
In this week’s Chicago Reader, Miles Raymer offers an informative and interesting account of SoundCloud’s recent policy shifts, as chronicled and critiqued here (and here and here) at W&W. I’m happy to note that I make an appearance in the article, alongside the one and only Catchdubs, providing some familiar points (if you’ve been reading here) in far less concise language than I typically try to use (ah, real time!).
SoundCloud’s decision to use Audible Magic points to a larger question: How big can a music-hosting service get while still supporting DJs and remixers? Is it possible for a site large enough to show up on the radar of the major labels to avoid accepting the majors’ strict-constructionist views of copyright?
“Deejaying is essentially playing other people’s music,” says Catchdubs. “Most people kind of realize that it’s 2011 and we know what the deal is with a DJ mix, especially when you’re not putting it up for sale. You know, I think there is a bit of a disconnect between the socially accepted uses of copyright and sort of what is legally down there on paper and, you know, the decision-making process of major-label legal departments and the RIAA and shit like that.”
SoundCloud is at a crossroads here. Right now its practices appear to defer to rights holders, allowing labels and publishing companies to determine almost unilaterally what counts as infringementâa stance that puts an undue burden on uploaders whose employment of copyrighted material might meet the criteria for fair use. Were SoundCloud to take the nobler and more difficult path, it would devise a policy that could differentiate between DJs and remixers on one hand and pirates on the other. Of course, it’s easier and cheaper for SoundCloud to just keep serving DMCA notices to its most passionate usersâthough taking that route could drive off enough of them to make it very expensive indeed.
“If it becomes too annoying,” Marshall says, “people are going to pick up and move to the next thing. That’s what I’ve been observing in all of these things. Either the platform completely disappears, or something easier with less hassle pops up.”
Cherry on top, someone over at the Reader shopped up the SoundCloud logo to make it rain on a DJ — and not in a good way — finally filling a request I made over two months ago!
In related news, I think James Blake might be baiting me. Mr. Next Big Thing recently told Spin that
Remixing is like musical prostitution. I think it’s really cynical and vacuous; I’m batting offers away like flies. It never used to be like that. Ray Charles didn’t need five remixes. The song speaks for itself.
As I’ve pointed out, taking the position of the haughty auteur who loathes remixes is especially ironic given how Blake built his own name by remixing the music of others, from Lil Wayne to D Child to Untold to — if we think of sample-based tracks as remixes of sorts, which they surely are — Brandy, R. Kelly, Kelis, and Aaliyah. All to overwhelming acclaim.
But I guess that act got tired once Blake found his “real” voice. Or once the whole business got sullied by money. There’s a big difference between pimping yourself out and just fucking around. Maybe Blake should take a cue from his legion fans and try just doing it for fun again?
Anyway, I can’t help but pick out another soundbite he offered the magazine–
Once I’ve made my music, where it goes is not my problem.
To keep the discussion moving (for I really don’t want the iron to cool too much, lest we lose our fire entirely), I want to talk about a couple interesting uploads I came across this week on SoundCloud.
Briefly, let me preface by noting that I’ve found it pretty remarkable throughout SoundCloud’s relatively short existence that I rarely if ever run across an example of flagrantly unauthorized filesharing. Some users occasionally upload other people’s tracks without explicit consent but more typically as a form of decentralized (and courted) promotional activity than in a yes-you-can-find-that-on-YouTube fashion. To me this seemed like evidence of a good faith approach, wherein SoundCloud was taking a gentle, supportive hand to remixed, DJ-mixed, and otherwise recontextualized music (including as part of field recordings) and balancing that strong stance toward fair use by vigorously removing any blatant examples of bald, untransformative filesharing.
Of course, December’s wave of automated take-downs let the air out of any dream of a concerted, coherent, or particularly robust defense of fair use on SoundCloud at the corporate level. Nevertheless, users of SoundCloud continue — both unintentionally and purposefully — to challenge terms of service, copyright law, practices of attribution, and notions of ownership. I’d like to examine here one example from each camp: the accidental and the intentional. (And, given the fraught status of each, we’ll see how long before this blogpost becomes yet another web2.0 graveyard.)
Here’s one that I would characterize as unintentional, though as I’ll explore, the lines get blurry:
Pop archivist and professor Hugo Keesing, building on the work of radio DJ Mark Ford (post-post update: see here for a detailed parsing of the tape’s twists and turns), spliced together the audio “embedded” in the player up there, just below his portrait in triplicate. It’s a piece he named Chartsweep back when in the pre-Napster 90s, an hour-plus collage comprising short, recognizable samples of every #1 hit in the US from 1956 to 1992 (according to Billboard/Whitburn).
Apparently, the montage, which may or may not have been made from reel-to-reel recordings and/or 45s (see some mythology here [and again, here]), circulated informally and anonymously among radio heads for many years before someone finally solved the mystery and tracked down Keesing. [Though to update again, according to this, the piece was "heard in national syndication, annually, by millions and millions of listeners," so obviously, and interestingly (given this week's amnesiac reception), it has enjoyed a massive audience in the past.]
Keesing discusses the project, and his background, in this interview with Jon Nelson. Allow me to excerpt a bit to show how the assemblage, which Nelson says he “couldn’t help but think of as art,” emerges both out of Keesing’s capacious love for popular music and his embrace of mashup poetics, if you’ll permit the anachronism, as a form of multimedia pedagogy:
The concept and term “Chartsweep” both originated in the late 60s with a syndicated radio show called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I listened to it on WOR-FM in New York and recorded portions of it on an old Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder. As you know, the ‘sweep presented segments of every Billboard #1 single starting with “Memories Are Made of This” (Jan 1956). I don’t recall where it stopped, but it was around 1968/69. Six years later I began teaching an American Studies course at the University of Maryland called “Popular Music in American Society.” To provide a setting for each class I dusted off the concept, took it back to January 1950, added a number of songs based on Joel Whitburn’s re-definition of #1 songs, and continued where the original had stopped. I added each new #1 until fall, 1991 when I stopped teaching the course. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was the 900th. At the start of each class I played a portion of the ‘sweep that corresponded to the years we were covering that night. To accompany the tape I made 35mm slides of either the original sheet music, 45 rpm record sleeve or something similar, so that students could see as well as hear the pop music history. Copies of each night’s tape went to the undergraduate library. I assume that an enterprising student or two made their own copies and it is a copy of a copy of a copy that remains in circulation. That’s the story in a nutshell.
But, of course, the saga continues. In the last week Chartsweep has risen to “viral” prominence after a complicated — and possibly incestuous — round of re-posting and re-blogging and re-posting and re-blogging. Although uploaded to SoundCloud just two days ago, as of this writing, the two parts have cumulatively garnered nearly 150k plays!
Key to this unprecedented explosion of exposure is, of course, the unauthorized uploading of Chartsweep to SoundCloud, the special affordances of which — namely, embeddability and scalability — make it a lot easier for Keesing’s collage to travel and be heard and shared than if it were simply residing as mp3s on a server here or there.
Precisely because Chartsweep has been around for years, enjoying a more modest audience and addressing a narrower public, the piece’s performance on the so-called platforms of web 2.0 could prove instructive as we dispute what constitutes fair use, and what doesn’t, in an age of “automated diminishment.” At the moment, it remains to be seen what — and whether/when — Audible Magic will have to say about all the unauthorized samples it sniffs in this.
The samples are sitting there, clear as day. Here’s part 2, stretching from Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” (itself embroiled in silly copyright wrangling) to the fitting closer, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”:
Now, Chartsweep It may not be the sort of thing you’d like to listen to all the time, and it’s certainly not a replacement for any, never mind all, of the songs it includes. I feel little need to explain why this sort of thing has the right to exist. The answer to that question is audible and obvious. Indeed, just a glance at the reactions Chartsweep elicits, whether at SoundCloud or on blogs, turns up a great variety of ways that such a transparently derivative and transformative work can reveal, uniquely even, all manner of things about pop and charts and us. Among other things it nicely demonstrates, as one commenter notes, “This is so awesomeâŠyou can actually hear the British Invasion happening in 1964″ (emphasis mine).
But what about questions of attribution and fair use and ownership not with regard to the maker of the montage but the uploader of the audio? It’s notable that mjs538 provided no information about who put the piece together — or anything else. Indeed, he even gave it a misleading (and erroneous) new title, “Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single.” But despite these possibly suspect procedures, plenty of listeners recognized Chartsweep immediately, and some — like DJ Empirical — felt compelled to leave a comment providing proper attribution. (The confusion here seems to stem from a case of lazy reblogging and meta-data erasure by the very same affective laborer, Matt Stopera, who (re)posted it here — where he oddly indicates that it was “Made by” Ubuweb, who have merely done the simple, if awesome, [& actually, slightly misleading] service of re-archiving the audio and interview — and who also re-blogs stuff like “The 30 Best Pictures Of Asians Wearing Engrish Shirts” — clearly a man of taste and honor.)
Can we imagine a better set of practices for sharing Chartsweep with a new set of publics? I suspect we can. Would as many people have heard it this week if such a system were somehow automated? Doubtful, at least at this point. Does that matter?
These thorny questions echo in the second example I’d like to discuss here…
Earlier this week, Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson took to his website, Facebook, eager amplifiers like Mad Decent and Resident Advisor, and, yes, SoundCloud, in order to clown a couple Italian producers who centrally employ an obvious sample of Saunderson’s 1987 classic, âThe Sound,â without giving credit (or publishing for that matter) where due. In response, Saunderson is giving away digital copies of the original track while posting a copy of the offending track to SoundCloud — for free, without Supernova’s permission, and in 82mb wav file splendor (not that it’s such a splendiferous track, a rather wan paint-by-numbers production rightly derided in comments as “beatport minimal” and “ableton techno”).
Here’s the story according to Saunderson (& hear the original here, if you don’t want to download it c/o his righteous largess); note the nuance in Saunderson’s position here — this is hardly copyright extremism:
I recorded âThe Soundâ back in 1987 and released it on my own KMS Records label. It was a massive hit at New Yorkâs Paradise Garage and in Chicago and of course Detroit. Once it hit the UK it became one of the earliest Detroit anthems right acround Europe, a huge underground record across the globe – a true desert island techno track. It is such a special record to me because it was one of my first really successful productions and I hope that you all will enjoy this free, fresh digital download of my original 1987 version.
The reason I have decided to give this track away for free is because of a situation that recently developed involving the unauthorized sampling of âThe Soundâ by Italian producers Giacomo Godi & Emiliano Nencioni (Supernova) in their release âBeat Me Backâ on Nirvana Recordings. It came to my attention that they are licensing and selling, with considerable success, this track which is nothing more than a continuous loop of the main hook from âThe Sound.â
For me to hear âSupernovaâ taking an extended loop of âThe Soundâ and claiming that this is their own original composition and production is both dishonest and disrespectful. My first thought was that they were perhaps naĂŻve, but as they have apparently been recording together since 2002 this seems unlikely. In any event this is completely unacceptable, we cannot continue to let this kind of wholesale rip off go unchallenged and tolerate âartistsâ who completely sample recordings, add nothing of their own and then release the results as their own work.
I have a huge affection for sampling, itâs how some of the most inspiring and ground breaking tracks of our times were created. Weâve pretty much all sampled records at some time, and cleared the sample so we can use it on our releases, but it is just not cool to take someone elseâs music, create a big old loop of it and then put your name on it and try to have success entirely off the back of another artistâs efforts. This really has got to stop. For this reason, I have uploaded the Godi/Nencioni version of âThe Soundâ to Soundcloud so that you all can download this for free if you so wish. These producers and their record label should not be profiting from my back catalogue… this is not their track to sell.
Here it is (and do note the title!), though I recommend clicking over to SoundCloud to check the convo happening there (and over at RA too):
As of this writing Saunderson’s instantiation of “Beat Me Back” at SoundCloud has been listened to over 10k times and downloaded almost 2k times. I can only hope that the original will enjoy a lush new life despite the strange circumstances of its revival. It’s definitely vexing that someone like Saunderson — who can be credibly described as an architect of the very sound, the very aesthetic conventions (never mind specific bassline), that Supernova are working in — might find himself so rudely excluded from deserved techno dividends in the age of Beatport. And I quite support the sort of public gesture he’s making.
I also look forward to hearing, if anything, what happens to something like this on SoundCloud. Will Supernova sue? Will they settle? Will SoundCloud / Audible Magic intervene first? It’s tricky terrain, to be sure. But I suspect there are plenty of “brave” lawyers ready to leap into the breach.
But before this seems like another round of ammunition for the copyright wars, I want to return to the importance of nuance and context when we make efforts to distinguish between fair and unfair uses of musical recordings. While I am sympathetic to Saunderson (and would happily help him make his case), I don’t think it’s so simple as to say that any track built on a loop in this way is necessarily subject to the kinds of ownership claims he’s making. In contrast, I can think of any number of hip-hop tracks that are similarly loop-based and yet still stand as undeniably “original” and perhaps even deserving of commercial (and, of course, non-commercial) lives of their own.
As it happens, this very example offers a fine test case, for Supernova are not the first to build a track around a central sample of “The Sound.” Way back in 1988, just months after “The Sound” started hitting clubs across the burgeoning post-disco diaspora, New York’s Todd Terry enlisted its distinctive bassline for one of his trademark sample-laced burners, “Back to the Beat” –
Listening to the three versions alongside each other, we’re invited to think about whether “Back to the Beat” > “Beat Me Back” — or, more precisely, what makes one loop hackish (and hence disrespectable) and another inspired (and thus tolerated). Note how this commenter on another instantiation attempts to tease out what Terry has borrowed from what he has created:
Of course, the amazingly amazing and idiosyncratic bassline was sampled from Reese & Santonio’s Detroit classic “The Sound” just as the the choirish sound has Kraftwerk circa anno? 1986 and “Electric Cafe” written all over it. However, the heavy rhythm, the eclectic melange of samples from everythere and – yes – the stuttering quality is very characteristic of Todd Terry productions.
I really appreciate the way a sense of community norms — however local or contested they may be — undergirds a comment like this, and it’s that sort of community-wide interpretation and peer-level censure (or approval) that should be at the heart of how we collectively regulate public culture in an age of click-and-drag remediation.
Notably — at least for this enthusiast of Jamaican culture bubbling through the American mainstream — to help stage Lil Wayne’s big comeback, producer Bangladesh contributed another a-milli-esque banger, in this case opting to deliciously substitute Harry Belafonte’s well-worn Jamaicanisms for Phife Dog’s more obscure ragga filigree —
What’s funny — and telling, in a lost-in-translation-but-who-cares sorta way — is that the centerpiece of the song is a sample of the part of Belafonte’s recording that departs oddly, and some would say wrongly, from the Jamaican folk song that is its source. A chorus chanting six foot, seven foot, eight foot, bunch! underpins Weezy’s relentless show-and-prove show, but as the Honorable Doctor Louise Bennett Coverly — better known as Miss Lou — would explain, bananas don’t come in feet, they come in hands. Or as she puts it, they don’t have toes, they have fingers!
You have to hear how Miss Lou puts it herself. If you aren’t familiar with the pioneering work of Miss Lou, you should know, at least, that she’s a towering figure in Jamaican culture, more responsible than perhaps anyone else for recuperating the distinctive twists and turns of Jamaican creole English, aka patois / patwa. (Miss Lou’s legacy on this count includes her legitimation of alternate spelling and pronunciation practices.) Not only was Miss Lou a walking, talking, singing vessel of Jamaican folklore, she also created a body of patwa poetry that has been committed to memory by generations of Jamaican children and which includes my favorite poem about reggae (even though it was written in 1966, before reggae hit the town).
Just hear how she tells the story of “Banana Boat Song” and coaxes a sympathetic call&response from her adoring audience (note: after thinking aloud about it — what year it was? — Miss Lou guesses it was the 1960s when she and Belafonte first sang the song together, but given that Calypso came out in 1956, she must have meant the 50s):
The only thing is I did teach him to say “6 hand, 7 hand, 8 hand” and him a say “6 foot, 7 foot” [laughter]. My dear! So I said, after it became famous now, I think, great. Singer of Jamaican folk songs. I say, “Harry, but what about this foot ting? Banana don’t have toe, y’know. Di banana have fingers.” Him say, “yes.”
Notably, Belafonte did apparently eventually correct his rendition. By the time he’s performing the song on the Muppet Show in 1978, we’re back to “hand” –
But the classic version, as heard on the old 78, as famously re-animated in Beetlejuice, and now again given new life by Bangladesh, most definitely says “foot” –
And, so, funny enough, the one part that Belafonte gets bizarrely backwards is the part that Bangladesh and Weezy fasten onto. This makes sense: it sounds like a proud, strong-backed boast in Belafonte’s rendition, fit for full-throated brag-raps and ennobling folkloric worksongs alike.
What’s especially interesting then, about Miss Lou’s exegesis, is that it’s not so much about the correct body part to describe clusters of bananas, it’s about the central meaning of the song itself. The workers may be strong and proud; they came to work, not to idle. But they’ve been working all night and they’re exhausted. They waaaaaaan go home, and they want the bossman and the tallyman to take it easy on them as they make the final, daybreak round of a backbreaking night.
Hearing Miss Lou provide the context makes one hear even the exclamation on “bunch” as less a matter of celebration and more of consternation — “Banana Boat Song,” she explains, is a good ol’ workaday kvetch:
That is a banana loading song, and you sing it when it coming on to morning time and the poor men — mostly they were men — working at this loading of the banana boat, the whole night, and when you coming out at like four o’clock in the morning, dem waan go home. And they wanted the smallest amount of bananas they can get. And you know the six-hand little? Of course, those stay. Seven-hand. Eight-hand. Bunch!? Nine. Ten. Bunch!?! Cooyah. Noh gimme so-so bunch, me no horse wid bridle. [laughter]
Now, Miss Lou’s explanation might itself merit some explication, at least for those who aren’t quite up on their patois proverbs or banana facts. About the horse and the bridle: this is a colorful and humorous worker’s plea, eager to intervene before he gets too heavily weighed down. He’s cool (cooyah) with the reasonably-sized stems, the smaller sets of clusters, the six-hands and seven-hands and so forth. But not a bunch! And certainly not a bunch like that, not so-so bunch. If he were a horse with a bridle maybe he could handle such a load, but poor overworked human that he is, a whole bunch at this point strikes him as unfair — and worthy of some patois-peppered protest.
The use of so-so here marks a significant way to voice the resistance of an Afro-Jamaican laborer. As this Dictionary of Jamaican English elaborates, so-so(h) is possibly derived from a Yoruba term (sho-sho). Of course, tellingly and a little confoundingly, it sources the very line Miss Lou quotes from the “Banana Boat Song” as an example of usage:
Now, if all that six-hand, seven-hand stuff is still not clear, we can look to, say, early twentieth-century accounts of the burgeoning banana industry for some good technical prose. In his 1914 work, Conquest of the Tropics: The Story of the Creative Enterprises Conducted by the United Fruit Company, Frederick Upham Adams provides the basic lowdown on counting clusters while specifically big-upping Jamaica and black Jamaican workers (who, we should note with a nod to reggaeton, were also crucial, as migrant workers, to the operation of plantations across Central America):
âŠA bunch of bananas consists of a stem, hands, and fingers. Each hand has from ten to fifteen fingers. A bunch of bananas is thus known to the trade as a “five-hand stem,” “a six-hand stem,” and from that up to the nine or ten-hand stems, which are average commercial limit, though Costa Rica has produced stems containing as high as twenty-two hands — a veritable giant of tropical fecundity.
In Jamaica the bananas range from five to nine hands to the bunch, with an occasional one exceeding this grading, but the individual fingers are smaller than those which grow in the humid lowlands of the Central American coast. But they are good bananas, wholesome and marketable. The Jamaican negro is the workman who has made possible the wonders which the United Fruit Company has achieved in Central America, and Jamaica can lay just claim as the birthplace of the banana industry.
And now, dear readers, as they say inna Jamaica, you done know.
It may not matter much to that Wayne and his flights of fancy, but it does to this one.
The following text is the comment I delivered as the discussant for Steven Feld’s presentation this past Friday at Sensing the Unseen, a year-long seminar at MIT seeking “to join more familiar attention to material culture with an innovative focus on immaterial culture” in order to explore, in a variety of ways, the realm of the unseen.
Acoustemology is a profound and useful idea. It serves as a crucial corrective, of course, to a prevailing ocularcentrism that this series, Sensing the Unseen, also seeks to critique. It is an especially attractive concept to those of us consistently enraptured, intellectually and otherwise, by the worlds of sound, whether “humanly organized” or not (to invoke musicologist John Blacking’s famous attempt to distinguish music from sound per se). But it should come as a welcome proposal for anyone interested in thinking about, recovering, or foregrounding other sensorial ways of knowing.
Dr. Feld‘s work as a soundscape recordist and composer is equally important, calling attention to an effect of ocularcentric privileging with regard to the production and valuation of academic knowledge — that is, the assumed inferiority of audio mixes to written texts. With his documentary sound art, and the rigorous, vigorous explications that often accompany them, Dr. Feld has helped create space for such efforts within the conservative world of academic publication, though they remain second-class works to be sure.
Feld’s work prefigures, and provides a foundation for, important strands within the burgeoning transdisciplinary field of sound studies, which has opened up sonocentric inquiry to new methods, perspectives, and lexica. For ethnomusicologists long seeking to participate in broader conversations about music and sound across disciplinary boundaries, this is a welcome turn. And indeed, Dr. Feld’s own interest in this realm was motivated precisely by a concern that, as he once put it, “ethnomusicologists were artificially separating the patterning of sound called âmusicâ âŠ from the full human and environmental world of sound.”
An attention to sound, to its shapes and forms and ecologies, creates openings for moving beyond a specialist language that too often erects a hard wall between music and related cultural studies. Building on Schafer’s concept of the soundscape, Feld’s work has helped to midwife the term, to expand and refine it, and to make it available — if even today he calls it “boring” and “vague” — to those outside of music studies, not least in anthropology, his home discipline. As several prominent ethnomusicologists, writing in the Annual Review of Anthropologyrecently proposed:
Soundscape opens possibilities for anthropologists to think about the enculturated nature of sound, the techniques available for collecting and thinking about sound, and the material spaces of performance and ceremony that are used or constructed for the purpose of propagating sound. (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, and Porcello 2010:330)
Perhaps even more promising, just as the idea of the soundscape can open up sonocentric inquiry beyond music departments, the recording, remixing, and release of particular soundscapes invites an even broader participation, a more public engagement, drawing in a variety of actors and audiences interested in sound, especially as recording, editing, storing, and sharing sonic data becomes easier and easier, and the skills to do so increasingly become part of a commonplace orientation toward interacting with a world of multimedia.
A recent explosion in grassroots efforts to produce “soundwalks” and “soundmaps” of various sorts, especially in cities, stands as one realm of emergent public engagement with the world of sound and its relationship to one’s sense of place. Whether we see the phenomenon as trickle-down theory or not, it is clear that attending closely to sound, and representing soundscapes, are emerging as increasingly common practices in our brave new world where most everyone carries around pocket-sized devices able to record and upload sound (along with locative data).
But amid optimistic signs, there are important challenges to consider. Not least of which, given the attempt in this forum to stage an inclusive conversation about sensorial experience, is the possibility that a move toward sound studies and soundscapes simply replaces one unisensory bias with another. Steve Goodman, for instance, in his recent book Sonic Warfare (MIT Press 2010) argues that, as he puts it, âthe evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academyâ must be tempered by an attention not only to what he calls âbad vibes,â or the deployment of sound as repellent force and the use of music in torture, but by an acknowledgment of the profoundly synaesthetic experience of sound. Goodman offers his own corrective by concentrating on sound as vibrational force and giving emphasis to ultrasound and infrasound, dimensions of sonic experience which cross the threshold from the heard to the felt, and which thus exceed, as he puts it provocatively (especially for music and sound scholars), âthe narrowband channel of the audibleâ (9).
Acknowledging soundâs power as vibrational force presents quite a quandary for something like soundscape composition. In rendering a soundscape, there is of course an attempt to present specific sound worlds as emplaced. But audio recordings, especially when experienced via everyday playback technologies, are limited in their capacity to replicate the physical experience of sound as embodied vibration in a material space. This impasse suggests perhaps that, if one is to worry about something like schizophonia, one might as well worry about something like schizo-hapto-phonia, the separation of sound from an emplaced and embodied experience of vibrational force. Such ontological, and hence epistemological or acoustemological, challenges could be taken, however, as just that: as offering openings for new theoretical and methodological approaches, new conversations across disciplinary and procedural orthodoxies.
It makes me wonder, as a brief aside, whether those of us working in the realm of soundscape might consider the ways that video productions, never mind the still unfulfilled promise of haptic simulations, might aid us in such a daunting task as representing the ways that sound informs what we know about ourselves and our surroundings.
In this regard, one especially laudable aspect of Dr. Feld’s work in soundscape composition is his explicit embrace, rather than disavowal, of the artistic and aesthetic choices that one must make in assembling such things. As he has stated elsewhere, “The idea is to turn my ear-witnessing into an invitation for your ear-witnessing.” As with any mode of communication or signification, an inevitable subjectivity haunts the encoding and decoding process, lingering over both the act of recording in an originary, emplaced point in time and space, and the act of listening in another one altogether. The inherently and perhaps more obviously fraught epistemological status of sound recordings therefore would seem in some ways an essential, unavoidable, and yet also utterly useful attribute.
Even before he began working in more explicitly “creative” ways, bringing together, as on Bufo Variations, soundscape recordings and musical interpretations thereof or interactions therewith, Feld’s editing aesthetics already audibly foregrounded an underlying poetics. The layering of sonic vignettes, the use of reverb, sudden cuts, and other post-production procedures, whether remarked on or not, would seem to offer an appropriate response to inevitable questions about framing, about the unavoidable hands-on aspects of working in sound â- questions which may seem more salient in audio and multimedia work, but which of course raise themselves with regard to any sort of academic or artistic production.
Feldâs approach thus seems to speak to a special and longstanding problem in music studies, which Charles Seeger liked to refer to as the âmusicological junctureâ: the yawning gap between communicating about one system of human communication (music) through another (speech). Seegerâs vigilant warnings about the shortcomings of linguocentrism in music scholarship and his attempts to think through precise models for talking about music -â not to mention new technologies for representing music, such as the melograph â- represent important precedents for the advocacy and use of music-technologies to reconcile some dilemmas presented by this impasse. Feld has himself helped many of us to think through this juncture, in part by reformulating Seegerâs distinction in an influential essay penned some 25 years ago, proposing that music represents an âinstantaneously apprehensible metaphorical expression of one symbolic orderâ while speech about music constitutes âmetaphorical expression of another order that reflects secondary interpretive awareness, recognition, or engagementâ (Feld 1984:95).
Iâd like to close then by noting how much Iâve myself been guided by Dr. Feldâs elucidation of this difference, and the orientation toward working-in-sound it engenders. On one hand, this has led me to think about, and to make, DJ mixes and mashups akin to âmusically expressed ideas about music.â On the other, it has motivated me to attend closely to the interplay between the sounds, humanly organized and otherwise, of particular places, and the senses of place they inform.
It was while doing doctoral research in Kingston, Jamaica that I began making soundscape recordings, influenced by the work of Dr. Feld and others, but also — and especially when it came to editing them — by sample-based hip-hop, the tradition from which I learned most of my audio editing tricks. In addition to interviews with Jamaican performers, I also recorded dogs and roosters, radio transmissions and taxi drivers. The products of my recordings, beyond the dissertation itself, ended up as an addendum of sorts, as it seemed impossible to position them as the work itself. This also, however, granted me a great degree of creative license.
In some contrast to Dr. Feldâs soundscape work, then, but, Iâd like to think, deeply resonant with his ideas about acoustemology–not to mention his interest in the sound worlds of taxi drivers–Iâd like to end my comment today with a sound collage I made comprising nothing but audio I recorded in the many, many cab rides I took around town. Noting how important sound was to these taxi operations–not just the communicative and expressive beeping, but the calls and responses between the cabbies and their dispatchers–I wanted to pay tribute to the importance of the sonic in their worlds, but I also felt compelled to render this world according to the aesthetics of dancehall reggae, which so strongly seemed to animate, as it drew on, Kingstonâs soundscape. And so I worked up something akin to a âTaximanâ riddim over which the cabbies might declaim like reggae deejays over the beat, especially considering how much their competitive verbal and expressive styles seemed to parallel sound clashing performers. This sort of approach, of course, brings us well beyond thinking of soundscape recordings as serving a documentary function, but the way it registers my playful, heavy hands is precisely part of the point.