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
Wow, this is quite an amazing piece of work. Stephen Malinowski collaborated with Jay Bacal to make an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s controversial classic. I love tracking music this way, far more interesting than a static and graphically impoverished waveform. Now that’s what I call technomusicology!
Malinowski and Bacal have carefully pegged shapes and colors to elements of orchestration and pitch, which makes it even more edutaining! Very cool to see all those tone clusters in action. Pitches have been matched to a twelve color wheel, and each shape corresponds to a family of instruments–
ellipse: flutes (also cymbals and tam-tam)
octagon: single reed (clarinet, bass clarinet)
inverted ellipse/star: double reeds (oboe, English horn, bassoons)
rectangle: brass (also, with “aura,” timpani, guiro and bass drum)
See the YouTube instantiations for an FAQ and more info, but I’m embedding parts 1 & 2 here for your viewing pleasure —
Thanks again to my eloquent interlocutors, all of whom had colorful stories & trenchant perspectives to share, and to the Together panel people — especially Sara Skolnik and Ethan Kiermaier — for making it happen. And thx to everyone who attended the panel, tuned in, and/or wish to help continue the convo.
Remember when I asked — rhetorically and remixically — whether there were limits to your love for Soundcloud? Well, it took a little over two years, but the super smart sample-sniffers over at Audible Magic have apparently finally decided that one of the two mashups I made by way of commentary / limit-testing should be removed for possible copyright infringement. Here’s the notice I received today:
When one clicks through to options, note that there is no recourse for anyone who does not own the copyright or have permission. In other words, there is NO FAIR USE in this world. Soundcloud does not want to be in the business of adjudicating the lines of transformative use; it wants to be in the business of datamining and other forms of monetizing all the activity on the part of users which makes the site what it is: yet another popular privately-owned public space.
I won’t go into all the lurid details yet again. I’ve said enough about Soundcloud’s practices & policies, as have others. But I promised “to keep you posted” on this little experiment, so I had to share this development here.
I can protest all I want. I can include lines like the following in my description: “I contend, especially for the purposes of critical commentary and educational applications, that this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of all materials.” But the bots won’t care, and I doubt the humans will either. Best I can do, if I really care about this audio residing on Soundcloud (which I don’t), is to upload again, perhaps with a little more sonic camouflage.
No need to bother with that. The limit has been reached. That said, I’ll be curious to see when/whether the “content protection system” (a rather Orwellian ring to it, no?) figures out that the removed mashup’s mirror-image twin, the “Feisty version” — the better/weirder, and the more popular of the two, as it happens — is still just sitting there, brazenly violating copyright–
Plus, I’m happy to note that the Blakey version is still available, with helpful visual tracking, c/o Vimeo:
Finally, my commitment to never paying Soundcloud for their “service” remains strong as ever. We’ll see how long my account lasts over there. Considering that I neither hold the copyright nor have permission for ANY of my uploads (which I suspect is the case for the majority of users), despite all of them bearing rather audible marks of my creative labors, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them disappear one by one. Get em while they’re there, and when they’re not, come get them here.
I’m happy to announce that I’m headed to the Big Apple this Friday for a couple awesome engagements.
First, at midday on Friday (12:10-2:50, to be precise), I’ll be guesting in ethnomusicolleague Ben Tausig’s class at the New School this semester, MP3: A Global Perspective. Our topic on Friday will be the history of filesharing, which I’ve weighed in on here and there. If you’re not aware, Ben is pretty cool. When not teaching about MP3s or designing crossword puzzles, he works on sound in Bangkok.
The class is open to whatever lil public it might address! Come find us at 66 west 12th street, room 002.
Later that night (much later — like, 10pm-4am) I’ll be tag-teaming the decks with another dear colleague (and, as it happens, recent New School grad), Chief Boima, at Bembe in Brooklyn. Extending the family affair, Brooklyn Shanti (who has a new EP out on Dutty Artz) will be playing host. Should be hot like toast.
Consider it another mode of file-sharing (esp since Boima uses Serato and I Ableton), but with particular and powerful attributes: realtime, face-to-face, only in that moment and space, quite #rare and #based.
Plus, it’s Boima’s birthday, so trust vibes will be nice. We’ll be keeping things rootsy for the most part, a bit more old school than new, but these traditions are very modern traditions and the lines get plenty blurred (especially by remixes). Boima offers the following track as a “sonic preview”; for my part, I might have to dig into some of the deeeeep repertories I’ve been teaching about over the last couple weeks.
It’s always a treat to play in the city that never sleeps. Lookin fwd to seeing some ol New York frens — and maybe making new ones.
Here’s another ten-years-gone re-post from the initial instantiation of my blog, back in 2003 when Rebecca and I moved to Jamaica for six months of doctoral research — and, as a side gig (if one deeply intertwined with my research), a series of digital music workshops in schools and prisons.
What I’m going to do in this case is cobble together and remix two overlapping posts by yours truly and my “companion on Hope Road” — detailing a trip to a nearby high school where we conducted one of our first workshops after moving to Kingston, exactly 10 years ago today. Mainly, what I want to share here are the ebullient sounds of students at St. Andrew High School for Girls freestyling about an upcoming teacher’s strike — and working up some first-time beats.
Howard Campbell is a teacher at St. Andrew High School for girls, just down the road from us in Halfway Tree. He is the head of the computer labs and the coordinator for all kinds of technology education at St. Andrew. We met him at the Harvard-Jamaica Association meeting where he had come with his friend Marvin, not because they were from Harvard or cared at all about a Harvard Alumni Association, but because they were educators interested in our project. In fact, it seemed that from experience both Howard and Marvin had learned that top-down organizations, such as the association we were forming and the school system in Kingston-St. Andrew were not the best way to get things done. They encouraged us to start from the teachers in the schools if we wanted to get in and start working. After seeing Wayne’s demo, Howard offered St. Andrew as a good place to start. Yesterday we went to St. Andrew for the first time.
At 8am we had a class of 4th formers (10th grade). We were to do a demo with them in this period and then a workshop with them from 10-11 in the computer lab. When Wayne got Fruityloops up on the screen and started talking, the class was polite and paid attention. Once he hit the first kick drum, they began to look really interested. And as soon as he put up a little hip-hop beat and then turned it into the grindin’ beat, they were hooked. (Side note: from Cambridge to Kingston, it seems that kids everywhere are loving the grindin’ beat and banging it out on their desks. Way to go Neptunes.) They started dancing in their chairs when he showed them how to make some dancehall. Next he made a song with the class, getting a few brave souls to make some noises and sing a bit and putting it together into a dancehall rhythm:
[2013 Wayne here just pointing out the obvious reference here to “In Da Club,” another ubiquitous song at this time.]
At 9 they reluctantly left for their next class, seemingly a combination of a particular attachment to Mr. Campbell, interest in what Wayne was doing, and dislike of whatever they would have to do for the next hour.
At 10, girls piled in and sat one or two to a computer. Wayne managed to hold their attention for a few minutes to repeat some basics. And they got started. I was glad I had watched Wayne so much and messed around on Fruityloops myself because there were too many questions for Wayne to handle by himself. Girls went at different paces and made every kind of music from dancehall to techno. As they would run into trouble, Wayne would go to them and give them a few pointers to keep them moving in a good direction. At 11 they were all still going strong. Howard came and told us that it was their lunch period, but if we didn’t mind, they could stay. We didn’t mind. Most of them stayed through most of their lunch period and came away with some pretty good little songs.
Cue 2003 Wayne:
the workshop proved to be quite productive, if a little cacophonous at times. (half a dozen computers blasting beats together in a small room can create quite a sound clash, to use the local term; headphones are helpful). through their own predilections, and the contingent curve-balls of the creative process, the girls came up with some diverse stylings. “catherine’s rock rhythm” (as she titled it), probably takes its name from the “dirty-guitar” sample that, unfortunately, is missing here since i seem to be missing it in my own sound bank (i am converting it to mp3 on my laptop today, away from the school). nevertheless, it puts a strong foot forward with its bouncy bed of techno–not the most popular genre here but one in which a couple of girls decided to create.
sydoney and zelieka collaborated to create a rhythm that, while borrowing from the neptune’s ubiquitous grindin’ beat (in the third and fourth bars of each six-bar, AABBAA phrase), almost defies category with its future-funk, electro-slanted hip-hop.
and “shanika’s hip-hop beat” is, quite honestly, one of the illest things i have heard in a while. not bad for a first try!
we went home to have lunch and do laundry. at two o’clock we headed back to the school to do another demo–this one for an afterschool music club, which seemed like an appropriate audience. howard told us on the way down hope road that a buzz was already passing through the school, accelerated in part by my famous name. we had some time to see the grounds before the music club meeting, so howard showed us around. most impressive was a front courtyard where girls were hanging out and waiting to be picked up from school.
one group of girls stood in a circle under a tree, coaxing a makeshift rhythm out of an empty coke bottle and an igloo thermos. they were DJing, laughing, dancing and exhorting each other. it was an absolutely wonderful moment of improvisation and collective music-making. as howard (with his video camera), i (with mic and laptop), and becca (with her digital camera) moved in for some samples, it was clear that this cipher was no rehearsal. these girls were not only creating extemporaneous raps in DJ-style, they were humorously riffing on the topic of the hour: the imminent teachers’ strike and the small holiday the students would enjoy.
as the girls waited for the beat to begin again (having located another empty coke bottle), one called out for them to freestyle, dubbing the day “freestyle friday” — a reference to a popular segment during a music-video program on BET. the seamlessness of this reference in the context of the girls’ play is another testament to the fluidity of cultural forms here: hip-hop and other american exports are absorbed and spun back out, sometimes more and sometimes less like a copy. today was no copy. the girls may have assimilated the hip-hop term for in-the-moment rap, but their form was strictly dancehall. [Indeed, though I didn’t realize it at the time, they were closely riffing on a beloved Shabba ranks routine.]
hear the distinctive 3+3+2 dancehall beat, the staccato, end-rhyme style of the vocals, the chorus of gun-shot-big-ups that follow the first good rhyme, the “booyaka” refrain — more onamatopoetic gunfire — that cracks everyone up. listen closer for the topicality of the text: “ting-a-ling-a-ling / school bell nuh ring / go and mek the teacher buy the bling-bling.” the call to give the teachers some money to buy jewelry and other nice things [but also basics, like “dumpling”] is at once a crack at those not providing for their teachers and a good-natured ribbing for the teachers themselves (who are either impoverished or greedy by implication). and lest one think these students are disappointed about school being cancelled, they dispel any such notions with a “no school” celebratory chant.
back to Bec for a sec:
“No school, no school!” was the main refrain and the main topic of conversation. Why? A nation-wide teacher’s strike is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with the wage increase that the teacher’s union and the government have negotiated. Here, as in the U.S. but on a more extreme scale, the teachers are drastically underpaid and their work undervalued. Howard takes the problem quite seriously and is an active participant in organizing some form of peaceful resistance. He is clearly a caring and beloved teacher. He supports programs like ours as a way to move education forward in Jamaica. He is just the sort of person one would want to see standing up for the rights of teachers because it is teachers like him who demonstrate how much a teacher’s work is worth.
And I’ll pile on just a little more:
many of the students were worried about the strike, including a number of them pursuing a rumor that howard, a clear favorite at st. andrews, would be resigning. as various girls ran up to greet him after school, howard assuaged their fears and pointed out that, although he may be “on strike,” as they could see, he was still at school, and well into afterschool hours. as we continued walking through the grounds, on our way back to the computer lab, we came across a girl practicing piano in a large performance hall that stands in the middle of the campus. i got a little of her rendition of beethoven’s moonlight sonata on my laptop, a chord of which ended up in the song i created with music club, who decided to do their own little version of sean paul’s terribly popular, “gimme the light.” [n.b.: fairly horribly harmonized — or not at all, really — on my part]
after the demo, which was received positively, complete with (in true jamaican style) some fairly formal and very charming thanks from the music club’s spokesperson, i went back to the lab to collect the tracks that the students had created in the morning so that i could post them on the blog. at four o’clock on a friday afternoon, the lab was full of girls making music, most of them new. very promising indeed.
Ok, it’s more of a playlist, but now that I’ve got your attention…
Today in my other class, Music 97c (Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective), I threw a few limit cases at my students, inviting them to think about where people draw lines between music and non-music and why it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these as we seek to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity — but also the unity — of world musical practice.
One of our readings for this week takes on this project with full steam and inspiring empathy. John Blacking’s “Humanly Organized Sound,” a classic of the literature and the opening salvo in a profound larger work, How Musical Is Man?, seeks to understand what exactly constitutes musical capacity. Concise and provocative, the title of the chapter has become a useful shorthand definition of “music” for me and many others, if while drawing a possibly unnecessary and unfounded species-specific line around the phenomenon — but that’s a central part of the question.
“Humanly organized sound” is a very flat and encompassing way of defining music and its value to people. Among other trenchant points, Blacking wonders why the broadly distributed learned abilities to take part in musical happenings he observes in, say, Venda culture are oddly denied even as they’re exploited in the so-called West: in the US and UK, he notes, one hears on the one hand of exceptional musical geniuses and virtuosi and, on the other, of folks who learn to describe themselves as tone-deaf or left-footed. But at the same time, the near total suffusion of public and private spaces with music in these societies takes for granted — indeed targets — a baseline capacity for perceiving sonic order and interpreting it as music with meaning or message.
Against this background, having endured a little too much talk about who’s “primitive” and who’s made the most “progress,” Blacking minces no words, and his anti-elitist (indeed, anti-elite) politics ring clear:
Does cultural development represent a real advance in human sensitivity and technical ability, or is it chiefly a diversion for elites and a weapon of class exploitation? Must the majority be made “unmusical” so that a few may become more “musical”?
Recalibrating our sense of musicality in this manner demands, Blacking continues, that as good ethnomusicologists (aka, the scholars formerly known as comparative musicologists),
We need to know what sounds and what kinds of behavior different societies have chosen to call “musical”; and until we know more about this we cannot begin to answer the question, “How musical is man?”
Well, we now know a lot more about such matters, though to what extent that knowledge has redirected or reformed the prevailing ideologies of musical talent and value here in the US is another question. The fact that “Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective” remains a requirement of music majors at my present institution is itself a testament to the beachhead ethnomusicology has made and to the work that remains to be done.
At any rate, though this doesn’t directly speak to Blacking’s concerns as outlined above, here’s the first ontologically unstable sound object I played in class —
The description of the video reads as follows:
David Cope used his Experiments in Musical Intelligence program to compose Zodiac, twelve short works for string orchestra in the style of Vivaldi. This is Taurus. The video is also algorithmically created.
One might not fancy the rendition above all that much, if begrudgingly accepting that it resembles Vivaldi. Some might find it too computery to sound “human” — unnatural violin attacks like glimmers in a replicant’s eyes. But few would deny that it was in some sense a piece of music.
Arguably, Cope’s software’s opus is “humanly organized sound” in at least a couple ways: 1) a human organized the thing that organized the sound; and 2) human listeners perform acts of pattern recognition. In another way, of course — ie, having been generated by some lines of code — it is not. There is a degree of non-human input/output that unsettles. But should we care if we can’t pass a musical Turing Test? If human listeners — not to be confused with dolphins — organize the patterns of sound that reach our ears, why not call it music?
Well, by that reasoning, this would be music too:
But since we can’t really ask a hermit thrush or a line of code whether what they’re doing is “music” (at least not without being suspicious of the answer), we would do well to consider examples of patterned “non-musical” sound directly produced by humans.
For instance, this ol’ gem of the ethnomusicological canon:
If you’re not familiar, that’s James Koetting’s 1975 recording of postal workers cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office. The important gloss here is that although the workers were obviously whistling tunes (in this case a hymn by a Ghanaian composer) and banging out rhythms, the idea that they were making “music” instead of simply doing their job would have, according to Koetting, seemed quite strange to them and their co-workers. “It sounds like music and, of course it is,” writes Koetting,
but the men performing it do not quite think of it that way. These men are working, not putting on a musical show; people pass by the workplace paying little attention to the “music.”
Another example along these lines —
For certain devout Muslims, Koranic recitation (as well as call to prayer) is not to be confused with music. Indeed, for some (though Islam is a wide, wide world), “music” is haram, prohibited, an indulgence that distracts from virtuous worship. That said, a strong investment in sounding practices is more than audible here; it is practically crucial. To refit the Koetting prose above: This man is reciting, not putting on a musical show. But yeah, for many, to quote Koetting directly: “it sounds like music.”
This example led to a brief digression into a sound object about sound objects: a Radiolab segment which takes as its subject the tonal dimensions of spoken languages. The first 4.5 minutes result in host Jad Abumrad entertaining more or less the same question as our class: “What exactly is music, really?”
When speech — or anything else not performed as music per se — somehow, as a suddenly dialectical sound object, becomes music, has it also in some sense, then, passed beyond understanding? Beyond a certain degree of communication? From one metaphorical register to another, more ambiguous one? Is this implication of irreducible multivalence what makes “music” so odious, so haram, to some?
I raise the question of musical communication because it animates the other piece we read today, which will lead me to my final set of examples (though these aren’t about the same sort of ontology exactly). Steven Feld’s “Music, Communication, and Speech about Music” is a dazzling and humbling examination of how rich, complex, and slippery — or in Feld’s words “changeable” and “emergent” — the listening experience almost always is (not to mention the processes of communication it entails).
To illustrate the various, simultaneous, non-hierarchical “interpretive moves” we make as we listen, Feld offers the admittedly charged but usefully provocative “Spangled Banner Minor” by Carla Bley & her band. I’ve been working with this article and this piece for a while now, and let me tell you: it works every time.
Of course, I couldn’t resist pairing Bley’s recording with a more recent example, which you might say inverts the effect, rendering Michael Stipe’s ĂŒber-emo anthem far more shiny-happy than the wildly (and suprisingly?) popular original. I’m talking about “Recovering My Religion” of course, the Melodyne-assisted remix of REM’s 1991 hit which has raised hackles among the hey-kids-get-off-my-CD-tower crowd, but which is, especially for those of us who had the original tune brutally committed to memory by remarkably repeated exposure, a really striking twist of tone and, accordingly, message and meaning.
As fun and interesting as I think these philosophical/ontological questions about music(ness) can be — and as much as I subscribe to Blacking’s and Feld’s commitment to radical, relativist-universalist studies of music as social life — when it comes down to it, I think maybe humanly re-organized sound is what really pushes my buttons. But we’ll save that distinction for another date.
Here is the syllabus for a new course I’m teaching this spring at the Big H. It’s the culmination of a few years of piqued curiosity about “public” as term and concept, noun and adjective. As happy as teaching technomusicology made me, this sort of course — an intense, focused series of readings on a subject I find fascinating — has few parallels as far as intellectual pleasures go. Here’s hoping I have a good team of co-readers glad to read along. (I’ll note that, aptly, a great number of these readings are available, ahem, publicly.)
Without further ado…
Music 208r: Musical Publics
In the age of technological reproducibility and mass media, and especially since the advent of the Internet, the Web, and social media, the notion of the public is an ever shifting but paramount concern. Thanks to its special affordances and remarkable ubiquity, music offers a powerful lens into questions of publicness and public spheres. How do musicians and musical textsânever mind musicologistsâaddress particular publics, and how has this changed over time?
To better understand musicâs role in public culture, this course examines the idea of the public sphere in historical and theoretical perspective. From philosophy to the social sciences to more recent theoretical propositions and ethnographic work, we will consider a variety of publics, the (musical) media that bring them into being, and the implications for acknowledging music as part and parcel of collective experience. Our study will span the rise of print culture, the broadcast era, and the more recent development of what have been dubbed networked publics.
Week 2 / Feb 5 — Foundational Texts Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. (p. 1-78)
Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991 . (browse all, but esp: 1-56, 159-243)
Week 3 / Feb 12 — Critique & Elaboration Calhoun, âIntroduction.â In Habermas and the Public Sphere, 1-42. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.
Hansen, Miriam. âUnstable Mixtures, Dilated Spheres: Negt and Klugeâs The Public Sphere and Experience, Twenty Years Later.â Public Culture Vol. 5, No. 2 (1993): 179-212.
Week 4 / Feb 19 — Print Cultures & Imagined Communities Anderson, Benedict. âImagined Communities.â In Nations and Nationalism, a Reader, eds. Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman, 48-59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
Bohlman, Philip V. âComposing the Cantorate: Westernizing Europeâs Other Within.â In Western Music and Its Others, eds. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, 187-212.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay. âMusical Communities: Rethinking the Collective in Music.â Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Summer 2011): 349- 390.
Week 5 / Feb 26 — Mass Cultureâs New Musical Publics Middleton, Richard. ââRoll Over Beethovenâ: Sites and Soundings on the Music-Historical Map.â In Studying Popular Music, 3-33 (esp 3-16). Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990.
Suisman, David. âPrologue,â âWhen Songs Became a Business,â and âThe Musical Soundscape of Modernity.â In Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, 1-54, 240-72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Gitelman, “The Phonograph’s New Media Publics.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 283-303. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Hilmes, “Radio and the Imagined Community” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 351-62. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Week 6 / March 5 — Aural Public Spheres Hirshkind, Charles. “Cassette Sermons, Aural Modernities, and the Islamic Revival in Cairo.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 54-69. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Ochoa Gautier, Ana MarĂa. “Social Transculturation, Epistemologies of Purification and the Aural Public Sphere in Latin America.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 388-404. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Week 7 / March 12 — Racial Authenticity as Public Form Radano, Ronald. “Music, Race, and the Fields of Public Culture.” In The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, eds. Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton, 308-316. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Gilroy, Paul. ââAfter the Love Has Goneâ: Bio-Politics and Etho-Politics in the Black Public Sphere.â In The Black Public Sphere, ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective, 53-80. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995.
Diawara, Manthia. âHomeboy Cosmopolitan.â In In Search of Africa, 237-78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Novak, David. âCosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood.â Cultural Anthropology 25:1 (2010): 40-72.
Week 8 / March 19 (No class â Spring Recess)
Week 9 / March 26 — Counterpublics Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2002. (p. 1-188)
Bickford, Tyler. âThe New âTweenâ Music Industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop and an Emerging Childhood Counterpublic.â Popular Music 31/3 (October 2012): 417â36.
Week 10 / April 2 — Networked Publics (part 1) Castells, Manuel. âCommunication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.â International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 238-266.
Ito, Mizuko. âIntroduction.â In Networked Publics, ed. Varnelis, 1-14. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
Week 11 / April 9 — Networked Publics (part 2) Benkler, Yochai. âEmergence of the Networked Public Sphere.â In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 212-72. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
boyd, danah, “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In A Networked Self, ed. Papacharissi, 39-58. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Week 12 / April 16 — Publics & Social Media Baym, Nancy & danah boyd. âSocially Mediated Publicness.â Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56:3(2012): 320-329.
Marwick, Alice and danah boyd. âI Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.â New Media & Society, 7 July 2010: 1-20.
Crawford, Kate. âFollowing You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media.â In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 79-90. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Sterne, Jonathan. âThe MP3 as Cultural Artifact.â New Media & Society 8:5 (2006): 825â842.
Week 13 / April 23 — Precarious Publics & Platform Politricks Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere.” Constellations Vol. 10, No. 1 (2003): 95-112.
Gillespie, Tarleton. âThe Politics of âPlatforms.ââ New Media & Society Vol. 12, No. 3 (2010): 347-64.
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!
Hard to believe the fall semester is already coming to a close, but we’re going out with a bang in Technomusicology (see & hear some of our projects here and there): Thursday’s final class session will feature a visit from none other than Jace Clayton, aka DJ /Rupture, globe-trotting artist, writer, label honcho, three-turntable magician, & one of the finest non-card-carrying technomusicologists in “the field”!
Jace will be presenting Sufi Plug Ins, his recently launched, semi-crowdsourced, collaboratively-produced, free (!) audio software / art project. As described over at Beyond Digital, Sufi Plugs Ins includes
four software synthesizers hardwired to North African maqam scales with quartertone tuning built-in, a device called DEVOTION which lowers your computerâs volume 5 times a day during call to prayer (presets include Agnostic, Fervent, Devout), and a drone machine
Now that’s what I call technomusicology! Check it out —
Jace is always very thoughtful (see, e.g., his own post on the project), so I’m quite looking forward to the demonstration & conversation. My students have been using Ableton all semester while reading across the history of sound technologies and how people have made them musical — what Jonathan Sterne refers to as their plasticity — so they should have a good vantage on the ways Sufi Plug Ins exploits the special affordances and constraints of contemporary techno-musical media.
Whether or not you too have been reading along and messing with Ableton, the event is free and open to the public, so if you’re interested in joining us from 3-5pm this Thursday, Nov 29, please do.
Longtime W&W readers will no doubt hear echoes of my own experiments in this regard — namely, Gasodoble & Bump con Choque — and perhaps a little bit of YouTube collage master, Kutiman, as well. Despite that I have not found many other examples along these lines, I think there’s great potential for this sort of form, or method even, to demonstrate and delve into the wide, weird world of YouTube — which is to say, the wide, weird world, period — despite that the site is also an incomplete, ephemeral, willy-nilly archive hosted on corporate servers.
As you’ll see in selected submissions below, students embraced the assignment with panache, producing wonderful little documents of the varied social and cultural lives of such things as recent pop hits, well-worn war-horses, video game themes, public domain experiments, and Elvis impersonators.
First, a veritable YouTube chorus performing the 2012 pop hit, “Call Me Maybe,” showing how quickly a popular song can enter into myriad genres of performance, presentation, and play (including some YouTube-specific ones, like stitching together political speeches to make presidents stutter along too):
Or this one, combining a handful of home versions of the Halo theme, seeking specifically to document the “resurgence” (or at least newfound visibility) of “amateur” musical practice and appreciating how even people’s mistakes “actually add some character” to the performances —
Another student sought to plumb the YouTube depths for impersonations of Elvis, uncovering in the process not simply the expected plethora of examples but an interesting recent wrinkle: most of these would-be Kings are lip-synching not to an original Elvis recording but to Junkie XL’s popular 2002 remix of Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.” My student found it notable that so many of the Elvises he encountered on YouTube “aren’t so orthodox in their impersonation”; I do too!
Several students went beyond the American pop repertory (which provides no end of subjects thanks to its imperial ubiquity) in order to explore YouTube instantiations of tunes that originated and enjoy rich social lives elsewhere.
Take, for example, this beat-matched collection of performances of “Asa Branca,” which my student describes as “a classic Brazilian baiĂŁo composed by accordionist Luiz Gonzaga and lyricist Humberto Teixeira in 1947.” He continues —
This song has become so emblematic of so many things — Northeastern Brazilian regionalism, Brazilian diasporic identity, environmentalist movements, Brooklyn world music hipness — that I wanted to juxtapose as wide a variety of interpretations as I could, while choosing versions that retained the pulse of the original. From Korean fusion to muscle-metal play-along to small-town talent shows to arena TropicĂĄlia, with GonzagĂŁo himself making the occasional approving cameo as a backup singer.
Or this one, documenting the variegated “going public” of a recent lullaby from Taiwan. (Notably, the student has only made the video semi-public — requiring a direct link — given concerns about unauthorized use of children’s performances, which she’s seeking explicit permission to include. Such ethical questions have been a recurring theme of the course, and I always encourage students to think about them as they record, copy, and manipulate the sounds and images of others.)
Finally, here’s a montage of a tune popular in both Turkey and Greece (and in both Turkish and Greek): “Kalenin Bedenleri” / “Siko Horepse Koukli Mou.” One curious thing that emerges here is how songs outside of the (Western) pop canon tend to be characterized on YouTube less by remixxy, YouTubey confections and more by familiar stagings of home, community, and local TV contexts. That said, a few clips of webcam-style pedagogy — a popular YouTube genre to be sure — make it into the mix too.
Here’s hoping that our experiments might lead to others in this vein and beyond. No doubt there is material aplenty to work with: YouTube reports (currently anyway; these figures keep changing) that 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. What a willy-nilly, wonderful world!