It’s a little astounding that this March marks 8 years of Beat Research. In celebration, we’ve managed to line up quite a month+ of very exciting guests, from locally beloved to internationally renowned. Indeed, the next 6 sessions will feature no fewer than 3 local DJs, 3 acts from NYC, and a couple exciting visitors from across the pond — Rotterdam and Oslo, to be exact.
If you’re a Greater Bostonian, get ready to mark your calendars & experiment with party music that will boggle your behind and make your mind wiggle. Without further ado, check the crew coming thru —
Tuesday, Feb 21: Teleseen
Tonight we’re happy to present the return of Teleseen, up from Brooklyn (and until very recently, Rio). Given his dubby priorities, the Goodlife’s subby system should suit. Teleseen put out an EP last year, Mandrake, full of woozy thumpers, and his remix of Maga Bo’s “Ransom” is a fixture in my sets when I’m in search of a little uneasy skanking. Last time Teleseen came through town he was working up a version of what finally became available (to all) as “Embarak,” which is good, because it meant I could stop asking him for it. Should be a vibes –
Tuesday, Feb 28: Munchi & Oxycontinental
We’re very pleased to announce that Beat Research will be hosting the Boston premiere of mighty Munchi! If you aren’t familiar with the moombahton wunderkind from Rotterdam, well, you haven’t been reading this blog, for one (or three or four). And you’ve clearly found other holes to stick your head down. Because Munchi — and moombahton — have totally been blowing up, turbo-boosted by the likes of Diplo and Mad Decent, Skrillex, and MTViggy.
W&W is proud to be a longtime champion of the kid (if not quite as early as Quam), so I was happy to oblige when Munchi asked me to pen the release notes for his upcoming EP for Mad Decent (dropping any day now), which rounds up what have now become classics of the young genre. I’ve seen Munchi live before, and it promises to be a blast. And as a special bonus, helping to warm things up with us will be a fine local stoker of fire: Oxycontinental, the party personaje of Jamaica Plains’ own Ricardo Delima.
Here’s an old, odd fave from Munchi that I still work into sets from time to time –
Tuesday, March 6: Old Money Massive
I can’t quite believe that the following week we again have the honor of hosting the local debut of a well renowned crew, Old Money Massive, straight outta NYC by way of Jamaica and Guyana. Readers of this blog should definitely be familiar with Old Money’s grimey, edgy take on so-called “global bass.” I still count “African Kids” as the unofficial (and reluctant / ironic) anthem of global ghettotech — that’s the dark twin of global bass, if you’re tuning in late.
So I couldn’t be happier that Old Money will be coming up to Boston — but not on a dollar van, I don’t think — to throw down a live performance and a DJ-style set. These guys deserve a lot more props for the special sound and fury they’re developing down there. We’re thrilled to share our humble but bassful platform, to be sure. For a taste of what’s in store, check out their debut EP, No.1 Champion Sound, over at iTunes. Or check the latest latest, posted to Soundcloud just two days ago –
Tuesday, March 13: DJ Day-Glo
Now, even though we’re so lucky as to be able to give space to illustrious out-of-town acts, Beat Research always holds it down for up-and-comers and loco locals of all sorts. On March 13, DJ Flack and I will be joined by a former student in Flack’s Beat Research class at MassArt: Kara Stokowsky, aka DJ Day-Glo, a JP-based multimedia artist whose work, according to her UNFINISHED WEBSITE, “tackles feminism, pop culture, memetics, religion, and technology with a fast-paced glitch aesthetic.” I suspect her current tumblr is a better indication of what you might hear than her slightly sparse and outdated Soundcloud. But do browse around, or just come on by.
Tues, March 20: DJ Super Squirrel
On March 20, we’ve got Cambridge’s own DJ Super Squirrel, an ethnomusicolleague and, in her own words, “Paper-writer, tiny-dancer, jargon-user, eight-armed DJ.” Her recent “Scamphall” mix — a little like a GirlTalk cookdown of upbeat reggae — has me looking forward to whatever else she might stew together that night:
Tuesday, March 27: Chief Boima
Finally, but hardly last, rounding out the month of March is none other than chief rocka Chief Boima. A longtime friend of W&W and Beat Research (not to brag or anything), Boima has really been picking things up since he relocated from the Bay to BK, including beginning grad studies at the New School, writing provocative and thoughtful pieces for Africa Is a Country and Cluster Mag, DJing all around town, and now, as of today, releasing his second album through Dutty Artz, African in New York. I’ve been playing Boima’s hip-hop remixes of African dance jams and African dance remixes of hip-hop jams for some years now, and it’s always a delight to hear the man doing it himself in the mix.
And while this may cap things off for Beat Research in March, it’s only the beginning of what is shaping up to be an exceptional year. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to put our thing and our friends on each week, and grateful for all the support, especially — when it comes down to it — to the people who put their bodies in the club and their feet on the floor. Happy 8 — here’s to many more!
Ok, mis local locos, tonight’s the night! We’re kicking off the Together Festival 2011 with none other than Geko Jones, Dutty Artz bredrin and co-host of Que Bajo?!, NYC’s awesomest Afro-Latin dance party (& honestly, probably the best night I’ve ever had the pleasure to play at).
Do come out and welcome Geko to town & help us show him how Boston gets down –
Beat Research w/ special guest GEKO JONES
& hosts Wayne & Flack
Enormous Room (567 Mass Ave)
Central Square, Cambridge
To get ready, here’s a recent remix cooked up by SĂąr Jones that I turned up over here; as Juan Data describes it –
In preparation for a Colombian carnaval event happening in New York, DJ/producer (and QuĂŠ Bajo?! co-brainchild) Geko Jones grabbed this bullerengue song by Colombian folklorist Maria Mulata and mashed it up with Frikstailersâ âDancehalleteâ from their latest EP Bicho de Luz.
The track above is rather appropriate to share today, for as it happens, I’ve roped Geko into sticking around through tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon in order to join me at a lecture-discussion I’ll be hosting in conjunction with the Together Fest (which has organized a number of free daytime events in addition to all the stuff at night). In discussing remixes like this one, Geko will be helping me to tiptoe through the tricky turf of “electro indigeneity and powwow rhythms” — in other words, what are the implications (the pitfalls, the possibilities) of “Remixing the Traditional and the Indigenous” in our digital age?
I’m happy to announce, and not a moment too soon, that I’ve arranged some festive music for today.
When I put together my first St. Patrick’s Day mix some years ago, it was an obviously tongue-in-cheek gesture. You might recall that I began with House of Pain before bringing in the romping stomp of the Timelords’ (aka KLF’s) “Doctorin’ the Tardis” — a formula-breaking (if formula following!) ravetastic classic that seems to anticipate mashups and jock-jams alike.
Consistent with the track’s logic — and often in shuffle-step with its triple-time roll — I mushed together a bunch of iconic Irish jigs & ballads and (corn-)beefed them up with electronic dance propulsion. Not all the festive selections had the 6/8 swing that interlocked with the proto-shaffel Timelords track, so I teased it in and out of the mix. Here ’tis again:
But that was then, and this is now.
Readers here are no doubt familiar with tribal guarachero, the Mexican techno mutation centered in Monterrey and DF, which has enjoyed an enthusiastic, international reception among DJs, listeners, and bloggers in the last year. You might also be aware that the genre’s distinctive rhythms happen to line up perfectly with some of these jiggy Irish jams. Or maybe that’s never occurred to you. Given this tempting correspondence, I decided to cook up a little tribal irlandese for El DĂa de San Patricio — or, if you’ll permit an irresistible but probably awful pun, tribal greengo.
Before I launch into the backstory, let me present the 2011 version for your St. Paddy’s party pleasure (some standalone tracks are available at the end of the post, FYI):
You may have heard the story, recounted here, that the term gringo derives from 19th century pop songs sung by Yankee invaders that began with (and repeated in every chorus) the words “Green Grow,” a sound that became so associated with foreign presence, it became the name for it.
John Ross, the longtime resident of Mexico (City), American activist, and recently deceased author of the epic El Monstruo (which I’ve quoted here before), tells the tale of the “greengos” in a section of the book bearing the heading, PINCHES AMERICANOS. “Of all the invading armies,” writes Ross, and he recounts a great many in Mexico’s history, “the Yankees were the most annoying.”
The US had long coveted and sought to annex, as Ross carefully puts it, “the vast, sparsely populated (except for 200,000 native peoples) northern territories of Nueva Galicia that Mexico had inherited from Spain.” In the mid-1840s, the “expansionist” President Polk began taking action. As Ross explains, despite its association with another set of conquistadors, “greengo” was not always clearly an epithet:
With his headlights set on the 1848 election, Polk promised the American people a “short war” (where have we heard that one before?) and orchestrated a Gulf of Tonkin-like provocation at Matamoros, drawing Mexican troops across the RĂo Bravo where they managed to whack a few Americanos. Polk wept at the death of the Yanqui soldiers — “our blood has now fallen on our own soil” (sic) — and organized a five-point invasion of Mexico. The U.S. Navy sailed into San Francisco Bay, and Los Angeles was besieged by Kit Carson and his irregulars in Alta, California. Marines landed at MazatlĂĄn on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Zachary Taylor would swoop south from Tejas, and grizzled old General Winfield Scott landed in Veracruz and followed Cortez’s footprints to the Halls of Moctezuma.
Starting out in the spring of 1847, General Scott directed his army to take TenochtitlĂĄn, encountering, as expected, little resistance from the Mexicans. Indeed, like Cortez, Scott forged alliances with disaffected Mexicans along the route — the “Polkos” rejoiced in the Americano invasion. As the Yankee Doodle Dandies climbed into the antiplano (highlands), the sang the popular songs of the day, one of which, “Green Grow the Lilacs Oh,” became their signature tune, and forever they would be known as “greengos.” (71-2)
Whether affectionate or pejorative initially, the term survives today, and over the years I think it’s safe to say that it has taken on some real sting. (That gringos remain perennial invaders of Mexico can’t help.) And why shouldn’t it sting? What we in the US call the Mexican-American War is remembered in Mexico as “El Gran Despojo — the Great Robbery.” Here’s Ross again, taking stock of what was settled by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed on 2 feb 1848), which
ceded the Americanos all the land from the RĂo Bravo to Wyoming, 13 western states from Iowa all the way down to California where gold had just been discovered, 1,572,741 square kilometers, a land grab the size of western Europe and fully 51 percent of Mexico’s geographical territory. Mexico got nothing in return. (74)
The story of the “greengos,” regardless of its veracity, offers a provocative opening for a little musical project I’ve been plotting. The prominence of music in the term’s myth of origins is, of course, a nice touch — not to mention the color green. But the Irish-Mexican connection, and the significance of this story (and this war), is deeper than a colorful coincidence. Irish people have been living in Mexico for centuries. (Indeed, an image search for some fodder for this post turned up a small cottage industry around “Irish-Mexicans” — with or without injunctions to kiss one.)
Perhaps the best known Irish arrivals in Mexico are a group of soldiers who famously switched sides during the Mexican-American War. These notorious turncoats, a preponderance of whom were Irish, are known (fondly in Mexico) as St. Patrick’s Battalion, or El BatallĂłn de San Patricio — national heroes of a sort, whose sacrifices (many were ultimately hanged as traitors) are celebrated every September 12 on the agreed-upon anniversary of their executions, as well as on March 17, today: the feast of Saint Patrick, patron saint of the Irish in general and this battalion in particular.
Many reasons are given for their extraordinary act: not merely deserting, but taking up arms for the other side. Like their European compatriots in the BatallĂłn, Irish immigrants enlisted in the US army in exchange for pay and land, many having fled the Potato Famine. Mistreated at the hands of Protestant superiors, some soldiers found themselves more sympathetic to the cause of their Catholic brethren in Mexico. (Notably, Catholic churches in Texas were terrorized in the years of provocation that became the “run up” to the war.) Indeed, such sectarian appeals were allegedly part of a Mexican recruitment campaign. They fought bravely alongside Mexican militia members — sometimes a little too bravely: a few desperate San Patricios, refusing to surrender (for it was death on the battlefield or death by hanging, perhaps after a good lashing and branding), physically rescinded their comrades’ attempts to wave a white flag, even killing a couple Mexican soldiers in the process.
While reading up on the Battalion, I discovered a felicitous fact: they “first fought as a recognised Mexican unit in the Battle of Monterrey on 21 September 1846, as an artillery battery.”
Battle of Monterrey? Artillery battery? Sounds like 3ball to me!
The foregoing isn’t intended as an elaborate bit of cultural baggage to freight some frivolous mixing and mashing. I simply mean to share some of what goes through my head as I work on such a juxtaposition and reflect on what it means for someone like me to make something like this. Far as my relation to the San Patricios, it’s not all that clear to me that we’re not already embroiled in a war with Mexico (and one with a grossly disproportionate deathtoll), but if the US ever did formally declare war on our neighbors to the south, I’m pretty sure where my sympathies would lie.
Beyond the connections I trace above, and the shared rhythmic sensibilities of jiggy & guarachero shuffles, tribal irlandese cultivates other types of possibly productive symbolic ground too. For just as St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage more generally (at least in the US) have been blown up into cartoonish proportions (certainly a sickly green sometimes) — in a sort of auto-essentializing practice — tribal/3ball producers in Mexico frequently play with figures of “tribal” identity whether Aztec or African (and often both, as Jace notes in his excellent profile of the scene). I didn’t go so campy on this mix as with Doctorin’ the Guinness (which includes a version of “Danny Boy” for chrissakes) but I want to note that a certain kitsch factor is unavoidable given my points of departure.
Essentially, what I’ve slapped together here is a series of mashups, in both mini-mix and standalone form. I didn’t have a lot of time to work on these (and, at bottom, it’s still a novelty act — I don’t expect these to be listened to beyond mid-March, or just today), so I went looking for relatively easy correspondences, matches that didn’t demand too much pitching around, tempo tweaking, or super-precise attention to form (though, naturally, I’ve attended in some detail to all those things).
If nothing else, mashups always offer a ripe opportunity for playing with titles. That said, I present to you: the mini-mix (again) & three standalones (y’know, just in case you’re DJing just the right gig tonight) –
I could have stuck to more percussive sections of the Mexican tracks, but I wanted to represent tribal bass and melody too, so I was glad when a needling guarachero synth melody seemed to dovetail with the pentatonic heterophony of the jigs and reels. I’m not saying these things ever really match up. There’s a fair amount of strange stuff going on here, harmonically speaking. Pardon any sour notes in your doctored Guinness! Generally, I hope I’ve been able to do the main things I wanted to: 1) let you hear these two musics alongside each other, and 2) give your St. Patrick’s Day just a little extra push in the tush.
Following up on recentposts, I decided to do a little looking into how many remixes of James Blake’s “Limit to Your Love” currently reside on SoundCloud. I confess that I stopped after combing through 20 pages of returns for my (somewhat sweeping) search, though SoundCloud indicated that there were another 30 pages or so! With something like 10 tracks per page, that’s a helluva lotta James Blake on SoundCloud (of course, I have no sense of how that compares to other artists — who’s down to crunch some numbers with/for me? I need coders! Holler.)
I’ve decided to be pretty inclusive about sharing some of these with you here. On the one hand, I want to demonstrate a certain stunning diversity and fecundity (which a mere glance at the waveforms suggests). On the other, I want to do a little experiment and see how long these various sample-based tracks remain up on SoundCloud. Check back later to count the tombstones, absent their metadata like so many scratched-out epitaphs.
Of the 25 remixes below, some are far more accomplished or interesting than others; some are radically transformative, others more faithful. Irrespective of questions of quality, there’s an impressive array of stylistic transpositions to behold. From boom-bap hip-hop to glitched-out ambience, hopped-up breakcore to global bass tropicalia, by-the-numbers drum’n'bass to brutalist brostep, Blake’s track — perhaps particularly inviting in its minimalism and spaciousness — clearly serves as fertile ground for a variety of “interlocutors” and co-producers.
I’m not recommending that anyone listen to all these, though there are certainly some gems (especially if you like the song). But I think they make a wonderful illustration of the vibrancy of (unauthorized) activity on SoundCloud, and though such productions may not be so easily quantifiable or directly “monetized,” as they say, I’d contend that they offer quite a measure of the enthusiasm for Blake’s music — and if he / Universal can’t manage to work with that, they’re no doubt missing out.
Without further ado, let’s take it to the “Limit,” one more time…
This isn’t a version, per se, but it’s an interesting thing that came up in my search: answering-machine-inspired audio music-criticism — a different sort of sonic engagement with the song on SoundCloud:
Before I call it a post, permit me two final, germane embeds; rather than remixes of “Limit to Your Love,” they remind us how young Mr.Blake himself made his name by working in (unauthorized) “remix culture”:
How many times do we need to be SoundClowned before we get wise?
Back in late December, tellingly/suspiciously right in the midst of the holiday vacation lull, SoundCloud started sending out the same sort of automated take-down notices to its users that YouTube has been using for years. Mix-style DJs and remix producers found certain of their uploads suddenly removed from circulation. According to an innocuously named audio detection algorithm, the tracks in question were allegedly guilty of infringing copyrights in their unauthorized uses of particular recordings. (Let’s not get distracted, I suppose, by the already stretchy notion that any of these things are substitutable “copies.”)
As Larisa “Ripley” Mann noted in the immediate aftermath, it seemed especially ironic that a site that so clearly courted users from across various DJ/remix communities — and, in turn, benefited immensely from said users’ (promotional) use of the service — would turn around and attack one of its core constituencies.
It’s ironic, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Because SoundCloud, like any other for-profit venture, is first and foremost looking after its bottom-line, of course it doesn’t assume the burden of contesting any of these assertions. Rather, per the DMCA, in order to remain in “safe harbor” territory, it complies with the data-analysis and auto-serves takedown notices. (And to its credit, again following YouTube, the company at least alerts people to the possibilities of submitting a “counter notice.”) This is, of course, reasonable behavior by a commercial company seeking legal cover against a content industry that has been known to drive similar platforms into the ground. But it’s not the sort of stance that is going to make SoundCloud the people’s champion (and ubiquitous audio app) it would like to be.
Despite the bloggy/tweety fallout, however — again, see Ripley’s round-up — SoundCloud has hardly seen its image tarnished in the wider world: last month, just a week or so after the first SoundClownings came to light, it was announced that the company had raised $10M in venture capital, and just yesterday I saw reported that the site has grown by 50% in just the last three months, now exceeding 3 million users. Far as I know, none of the users who allegedly gathered “in 517 cities around the world” for a âGlobal Meetup Dayâ earlier this week voiced any sort of discontent.
And so we bear witness again to platform politricks at work — once more with chilling implications for everyday musical practice, global popular culture, “fair use,” and the public domain.
So what are those of us who want a better platform to do?
I’d say there are two main options, which we might think in terms of tactics vs. strategy: 1) continue to support and invest in SoundCloud while pushing for a more robust defense of fair use there; or 2) build something else, something more able to resist the corporate enclosure produced by overzealous, automatic, and often erroneous copyright litigation.
Here, I’m going to propose a little bit of both.
Amidst all the SoundClowning last month screenshots like the one above hardly seemed to present a reasonable set of choices for people who’d like to defend ordinary DJ/remix practice. All the assumptions are clearly running in the wrong direction. (“Recognized as”? “By mistake”? “Explicit permission”?)
Honestly, how is one supposed to respond? And how is one supposed to respond honestly? It’s not that the detection of the Blake track is a “mistake” exactly, but the assertion that the Blake track is tantamount to the whole of the upload is wrong. Moreover, implying that one must have “explicit permission” to use the Blake track presents a false and dangerous picture of the scope of fair use, radically restricting the realm of the legally permissible. Because this is how things are structured — as captured in the form above — there exist few practical alternatives for someone like gregb. He could file a counter notice and fight it, perhaps all the way to a costly and potentially bankrupting trial. (Is this really a practical alternative?) Or he can sit by and watch his mixes disappear one by one. C’est la net.
These issues aside, the screenshot invites us to reflect on how SoundCloud, and mixes like gregb’s, contributed to the rise of James Blake. (Is it just me, or is it extra ironic that Blake’s aesthetic push toward conventionality accompanies a rejection of experimentation at the level of music industry?) Or we might think about how SoundCloud served as a launching pad for someone like Munchi, who really did exploit the site as a kind of launching pad, now garnering thousands of hits on his uploads. I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before astounding efforts like Munchi’s breakout year in 2010 — aided and abetted by a great many samples used without permission — become an impossibility on SoundCloud, as the company is brought to heel under 20th-century copyright law while attempting to host 21st-century audio culture.
Of additional worry, as highlighted in this TechDirt post, is the question of whether we should assent to automated processes adjudicating the various downstream uses that our constitution protects by granting a “limited monopoly” to copyright holders. The author of the post, Mike Masnick, calls this the “Automated Diminishment Of Fair Use,” and I hope that sounds as scary to you as it does to me. Despite that the audio-detection algorithms have already proven error-prone and predictably grabby, we’re letting bots decide what is fair — or more to the point, what is not.
Should we really cede that ground? Is that a good trade-off for the network effects of a massive socially-networked media-sharing site? Plenty seem to think so, and act accordingly, even if their concession is implicit.
Ah, sample-based music in the age of algorithmic detection! Won’t this be fun. We can play it like the 1990s all over again, when torch-bearing “underground” sample-based hip-hop producers like Primo, in the wake of chilling litigation, managed to stay one step ahead of the system, taunting catalog companies with dusty samples that weren’t easily recognizable even by hired-gun sample-sniffing snitches. Here’s an open letter from 1998’s Moment of Truth that still resonates:
In that vein, I present to you a remix (or two) of the very James Blake track responsible for some recent disappearances on SoundCloud, as mashed-up with its source of inspiration, Feist’s original, in a couple different ways. (As it happens, I opened a SoundCloud account two years ago this month, but this is the first time I’m uploading something.)
In a gesture of fairness, if you will, I decided to make two versions of the Blake-Feist mashup, one that keeps intact the cover and bends the original toward it, and another that performs the opposite procedure. I like the idea of “honoring” both versions in this way. (They get to have their integrity and we get to eat them too!) I myself have a preference for slowed-down female voices over sped-up males, but I’ll be curious to hear if anyone prefers the Feisty, chipmunky Blake version.
Without further ago, here are a couple of those trademark orange waveform widgets:
A few technical notes, as always, about what I’ve done here:
1) the two versions are several semitones apart, but more or less the same tempo, so all it took was some pitching up of the Blake to meet the Feist, on the one hand, and some pitching down of the Feist to meet the Blake, on the other
2) as you can see in their Vimeo instantiations (Blakey | Feisty), I have, in each instance, left one of the tracks completely whole while applying as few cuts as possible to the other; this required relatively minimal surgery, as the only real difference, time-wise, was Blake’s inclination to stretch things out, as in the intro
3) the Feist track actually has a long-ish intro that I, following Blake, completely bypass on each mashup; I saw no reason to begin the Feisty version with a Blake-free minute of music, though I did, in a departure from my generally hands-off approach here, suture some of the Feist intro to the long, almost silent section of the Blake version (as you’ll see/hear)
I hope both mashups do the job of drawing the listener into the questions of form, interpretation, and affect raised by these subtly divergent but simultaneously-sounding renditions. Let me be clear: I’m not pretending that these remixes are necessarily aesthetic triumphs; indeed, I think they both get a little muddy half-way through, especially once Blake starts getting freaky with the bass — but that sort of disjuncture is precisely the sort of thing that mashups like these are so good at highlighting. As I’ve argued elsewhere, mashups can offer poignant, useful resources for classroom discussions of form and content, not to mention re-use and fair use, self and other, etc., and it is in the twin spirit of education and critical commentary that I defend these tracks if they happen to be sniffed out by some clumsy algorithmic audio-sleuth.
I’ll be curious to see whether my remixes can weather the sample-sniffing. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Feel free to join me in a little bit of digital civil disobedience / remixxy fun!
Pro-tip: parodies are almost always a safe bet –
If I still have your attention, please allow me to briefly discuss plan B: i.e., rather than working from within SoundCloud — tactically, if you will — to resist spurious copyright policing, we instead seek a new way forward, a strategy for ensuring a certain sustainability and resilience for collective, interactive musical practice, for our peer-to-peer industry. Given the direction the White House appears to be heading with regard to “IP” and the increasingly pernicious and vicious legal tactics of the content industry, there is a clear and present need for better platforms on which to stage our shared culture.
Decentralization seems key. And it’s telling that much of the discussion in the wake of December’s SoundClownings came around to the obvious limits (despite the advantages) of massive corporate media-sharing sites. Channeling hip-hop in his own way, Timeblind reminded that “only toys buy their paint” and, hence, “pirates need to keep it on the D/L.” I hear him on that, but at the same time, I’m not comfortable ceding the high ground to the vested interests who have decided what is “piracy” and what is not.
what are other ways of having platforms of these kinds, which place their control in the hands of the folks who use them? and, more importantly, perhaps, what are ways of propagandizing these autonomous platforms, and of spreading the analysis that works against the continued use of the current corporate ones?
I’m wondering what it would require, technically, to start building decentralized control of our resources/platforms/online communities. What was the best, more successful aspects of an Imeem or Soundcloud + how can we start assembling + using alternatives?
In the week or two following the SoundClowned episode, a few of us were chatting about the different pieces necessary to the puzzle. Tim “Tones” Jones proposed some ideas over here, and we chatted a bit in the comments, but I’m sorry to say that, once again, the conversation has since tapered off.
I wonder, is it already too late to move from this moment? Has the iron cooled too much? That would be disappointing. As Rozele put it in a follow-up, “before some other corporate pseudo-solution starts lying to our friends,” we really need to answer some concrete questions, e.g.:
how many folks whoâre being evicted from SoundCloud will put up some cash to kick things off? and, more importantly, how many music-makers will commit to making this new space the only place to find their work online (or at least the primary one)?
There are, of course, major tradeoffs between scale and resiliency, and these same questions we’re asking of each other open into broader, current, critical debates about resiliency on the net. In this regard, we might see something like Wikileaks suggest some options for music culture in the embrace of an “alternative control structure.”
The comparison is not so far-fetched. See, for example, a recent piece by Clay Shirky, who trots it out:
Like the music industry, the government is witnessing the million-fold expansion of edge points capable of acting on their own, without needing to ask anyone for help or permission, and, like the music industry, they are looking at various strategies for adding control at intermediary points that were previously left alone, under the old model.
With dovetailing interests like these, maybe Somali pirate servers are our best bet after all.
Seriously, though, who’s gonna step up and build something? Are 4shared or Hulkshare the best we can do for scaling our (free) distro? Are pop-up ads and malware a necessary reality for the sort of peer-level music industry that seeks to evade capture? Do we really want to operate in a world where our own ideals, and values, and best practices must be compromised if we wish to continue making and sharing art on a global scale, in a public way? Must we be forced (back) underground, and coerced back into adopting practices that cut against our ethics, our desires to acknowledge as we build on the work of other musicians and artists and producers?
To return to Ripley (in a great follow-up post), there are deep implications for this sort of retreat-by-design:
Nameless reuse can erase the reality of difference, turning everything into a consumerist fantasy, where you don’t have to deal with the lived realities of different worlds and different lives.
Again, the big question is: will we rise to the occasion, and finally find a way to give the drummers some (and protect their legion interpreters), or will we continue to get clowned, and pawned, and toyed with?
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 âŚ 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.
I’m really gonna give this subject a rest soon, but let me attempt a slightly more oblique approach.
One dimension of the underlying critique in Grant’s comments seeks to draw lines of value and authenticity between what he wants to position as a kind of first-order cultural production (doing/making stuff) and second-order skimming (talking about stuff that got done/made). In this way, like many others, he positions bloggers, journalists, academics, critics, et al., as essentially parasitical. Of course, this is an especially ironic assertion given the degree to which we’re enlisted into the PR machine. But it’s also a misleading distinction since all these activities are inevitably interwoven and circuitous — not to mention that so many of us are engaged in several overlapping domains of cultural production at once (working as DJs, producers, writers, teachers, etc.).
It’s a rather derisive, defensive sneer, rearing its head now and again (occasionally making my ears burn):
I find this snark pretty specious, especially since it posits a false dichotomy, or three. The main one for me is: who says you can’t grapple with race and ethics in musical terms? Why cede such matters to prose? (Moreover, why leave it to institutions of higher learning to ask hard questions?) This seeming disjuncture between musical communication, as such, and communication about music is precisely what has motivated my ongoing efforts in musically-expressed ideas about music.
So, enough (real)talk for a moment, let’s listen to something along these lines:
When Canyon brought this track to my attention last week, I was thrilled. It was as if my blog had developed AI and was secretly secreting tracks. How could it sit on SoundCloud for four months without finding its way to my ears? While I dug the production, I was especially tickled by the lyrics, which seemed to be quoting MIA’s imagistic gloss of Kala for the Guardian — ‘Shapes, colours, Africa, street, power, bitch, nu world, brave’ — which, as noted way back when, proved crucial in pulling me down the “brave” “nu world” rabbit-hole.
Some readers out there might be familiar with the Old Money crew, who Canyon tweetily described as “NY funky/subtle soca via West India & East Euro,” from their appearances in such trusted hot spots of the hype machine as The Fader or my inbox. Since I had their email address handy, I hit reply on their latest bit of e-promo and asked about this months-old song that I’d never heard, including whether they were actually alluding to MIA.
The following is from Scheme’s generous and articulate response — like the track itself, it speaks volumes about where we’re at in this brave nu world:
I think what motivated us to make that song isn’t too dissimilar from what may have motivated you to write your most recent series of posts. Identifying troubling aspects in the nuplanetarywotchumacallit and going from there..
There was basically a stretch of time leading up to that song where I feel like not a week would pass where I wouldn’t see a video of some sort with the elements mentioned in the track – found footage, shapes, colors, (((African kids!)!)!). Some of these videos/songs (and I’m referring to jawns from the west inspired by various global riddims) conveyed a faithful, genuine interest in the music, culture and people involved. Some of them, however, did not. How does one draw that distinction exactly? And, well, does it matter? As I think you well know, that’s where it gets murky. âŚ And it felt like no one was talking about it. Or too shook to.
Then not long afterward, an artist by the name of Leif – I doubt he knows this, or us for that matter – but he also helped push things over the edge from theory to record. I don’t have the patience to go all the way back through his timeline – but he more or less expressed some discomfort along the same lines. Helped affirm in our heads at the time (by now I think this is spring summer maybe earlier – the thought process, not making the actual song) that it aint just us and we aint crazy.
That was the baseline…my boy Dre took it further, riffing off of the Sandra Bullock People mag cover, (“Wheeerrrrrre di baby dem deh, huh?!?? Me haffi get me one! two! tree! four! five! six! / Adopt a tribe, and try, fix!) – which in my most biased opinion is brilliant – cuz it’s still related. Ha!
Also – this song was partially composed/fully recorded in the comfort of an apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan. Double Ha! For other reasons – that’s another conversation.
Back on track – I sent “AFRICAN KIDS!” to a few select blogs after we made it. No response. My boy felt like I should have sent it to everyone who usually fux with our music. I didn’t really feel like this was for them. Felt like they wouldn’t get “it.” But it turns out, no one “got it”, or liked it. Or maybe just offering it as a stream and not a download hampered it being picked up? Or…something else? Iono. But I thought it was interesting that less critical/confrontational/threatening material of ours got light and this didn’t.
âŚOh and was that an M.I.A. quote? If so – unintentional. Sardonic tone wasn’t aimed her way. Actually a really big fan of hers.
Count me a really big fan of Old Money for this one. #confetti
ps — by request, Old Money have enabled the track for download now (as an aif to boot!), so go ahead and grab it & add a little bitters to your nuplanetary cocktail
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the _______ slums of _______ has become a full-fledged global occasion â
This could be the mantra of global ghettotech. Could hardly have written it better myself. But I didn’t. Nor was it written, despite what might be its commonplace connotations, about reggae, or funk carioca, or kuduro, or any of the usual suspects. It was written about cumbia made in Peru in the 1970s, and I came across it not on an enthusiastic blog but via a careful press release announcing the second volume in the Roots of Chicha series. The appearance of this phrasing shows how even well-worn attempts to market “world music” can turn with the times and speak the language of resonant novelty. Global g-tech blogging begetting sexy new scenarios, new sites of authenticity. Old wine, new bottles.
The story of “world music 2.0″ however — and the built-in critique of that tag — is not all about newness, or some sense of progressive departure from previous, problematic regimes of representation, or visions of egalitarian peer-to-peer exchange and cosmopolitan conviviality in our brave, new, digital and diasporic age. (Booty-shaking sugar plums dancing in our embeds?) It’s also about a great many continuities with “old” “world music” and its commercial & discursive repertories — including especially, 1) how deals get done (or not at all); and 2) how musical wares get described, (re)contextualized, hyped, dressed up, pimped, punked, and truffled. In other words: New wine, old bottles.
This post is meant to serve as a follow-up to my previous thoughts on today’s world musics. The focus again falls on small, independent record labels, but unlike those mentioned in the last post, the labels I discuss below didn’t begin as blogs (and are not to be confused with them). In the interest of going deeper into context and credit and other #realtalk — from business practices to the language employed by labels and PR firms to frame their enterprises — allow me to try to tell three brief stories about a few kinds of cumbia circulating in the world today — particularly in world(s) beyond their home contexts, worlds where cumbia becomes, for some, “world.”
The first thing I’m going to say about BarbĂ¨s, run by Brooklyn-based Frenchman Olivier Conant, is that the two Roots of Chicha compilations have been a welcome presence in my life. They’re full of fantastic performances from rightly (locally) popular performers who were listening intently to the world around them — to cumbia, psychedelic rock, and huayno, among others — and whirling it up into their own special sound. The first disc lodged itself in my car for many many months back when it came out. And what I’ve heard of the second keeps the chicha torch aloft and blazing.
A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: none of what follows is meant as an ad hominem attack. I’m interested in the larger structures that someone like Conan or his PR people have to navigate, as well as how they plot their way through. If I seem poke too much at the latter, or even to be calling names, it is intended more as a critique of the language that markets world music, or chicha, or cumbia — a discourse which implicates audiences & customers as well as producers & promoters. (That said, the unofficial subtitle of this post is: “How To Stop Receiving Promos” ;)
That said, let’s begin on the sound’s own terms, if you’ll permit the conceit. Check some of the tracks on the new comp:
Ok, back to words. There are lots of things we could say about these songs. What the PR focuses on, however, is the heroic narrative of label-owner Olivier Conan, who saw (& heard) the value in cumbias amazĂłnicas even when many in Peru could not. “Scorned by the middle-class and the official tastemakers,” we’re told, chicha has become a “full-fledged global occasion” and even recuperated back home, “thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.” That’s actually the end of the sentence that I used as an epigraph (full text here); here’s the non-redacted version:
a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the Peruvian slums of the 1970s has become a full-fledged global occasion â thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.
Chutzpah? Perhaps, but these sorts of claims are pretty par for the course in the world of music promo, never mind “world music” promo, where one classic trope is of the noble adventurer seeking out the golden nuggets of exotic lands. (Even if outstretched microphones have largely been replaced by crate diggers.) But the press release really hammers home on this narrative, suggesting it’s a psychological hook for all the curious, cosmo gringos who make up the album’s principal public:
News that a gringo was interested in chicha found its way in many of Peruâs mainstream magazines, newspapers and TV â including canal cuatro and the very official El Comercio.
The icky part is, the reason this sort of thing — ie, a curious gringo in the foreign press, or the “fancy-fish-out-of-water” — is remarkable at all is precisely because of the intense power asymmetries between, say, the US and Peru. Of course, also motivating this response is a degree of self/national pride that finds flattering any sort of outside appreciation — and there’s often an insidious, if perhaps also productive, dynamic at play in these exchanges whereby a proletarian music becomes a national symbol thanks to foreign affirmation — but those structural dimensions are not what receive emphasis here.
And such a campaign has effects. I mean jeez, even Mother Jones can’t resist going with a lede like this:
Imagine hiking in the Peruvian Andes and finding a group of chicha musicians: migrants playing a fusion of Cuban son, Andean melodies and psychedelic surfer rock, blended like the Inca corn whiskey the music is named after.
This narrative tack is striking given that BarbĂ¨s is clearly attuned to questions of representation, or at least their uses. Take the assertion, circulating as promo, that vol. 2 is âan attempt to rectify some of the biases and inaccuracies of the first volume.â According to the website, the bar/performance space which bears the same name as the label “puts the stress on cultural variety, neighborhood conviviality” (& they really play my violin on that last note). All the while, Conan is well aware that, “Brooklyn may be the only place where middle-class gringos are playing the music with a more or less vintage ’70s approach.”
One reason I started with the sound files above is that I don’t want to dwell too much on the representational stuff when the music can also speak for itself (at least the music that passes through Conan’s filter). And I don’t mean to conflate marketing hyperbole with the valuable service that Conan’s efforts have done for chicha and cumbia, not to mention for many of the artists he’s featured.
Conan’s “attempt to share his enthusiasm” in the Roots of Chicha comps is, in many ways, laudable. Targeting a (relatively) wide audience by selecting popular tracks also ensures a certain degree of quality, the lingering resonance of previous moments of intense attachment, and Conan has indisputably helped to re-ignite the appreciation — economic, affective, and otherwise — of chicha. In this sense, BarbĂ¨s deserves credit for inspiring others to go in search of great chicha and kindred forms of cumbia, including the guy who runs the next label I’d like to talk about.
But can we talk about value without mention of the label’s relationships to the musicians who provide the grist for the mill? How can we appraise this new wave of chicha appreciation without a sense of how BarbĂ¨s is sustaining any chicha scene other than “middle-class gringo” Brooklyn’s? Why can’t the terms of the deal enter into the heroic narrative? Isn’t tracking down the musicians involved in the original recordings at least as romantic, if not more, than tracking down the recordings themselves? Why is there a significant, building “Fair Trade” / transparency movement in food but not in music?
Why, for example, doesn’t the following rycooderesque press release — issued by the same entity promoting Roots of Chicha 2 (and working to promote lots of other music I like — sorry, Ryan, but realtalk beckons) — in which the exchange between all involved is so crucial, talk at all about how this project stands to contribute to the scene from which it poaches?
In April of 2010, Cory Wong and Eric Foss of Secret Stash Records traveled to Lima, Peru with a translator and assembled PeĂąa, an Afro-Peruvian ensemble featuring a handful of the best musicians within the genre. The group was a revolving door of sorts that included over a dozen players ranging in age from 24 to 65. In seven days they recorded over 50 tracks. With no access to a conventional recording studio they improvised by tracking in classrooms, living rooms, balconies, offices, and even on the stoop of a hostel. The sessions were fast, free spirited, and generally consisted of one or two takes per track. The result is an authentic display of one of the worldâs most unique, unexplored and underrated musical styles.
Below are the full details and download links to an MP3 to post, the album, and more. I look forward to your feedback and hopefully coverage in your media outlet. [W&W note: I look forward to a leaner inbox after this post.]
I can think of at least one very successful example where the fairness of the deal (& correcting for unfairness in first dealings) became a crucial and appealing part of the release’s narrative. I’m thinking here of Greg Scruggs’s labors to put together PancadĂŁo do Morro, a project & product that Greg referred to as “Fair Trade Funk.” In his own words –
Every artist has a contract in Portuguese, was paid a sum upfront, and will receive royalties. I can vouch for this personally, as Iâm the one who has been orchestrating it all for my friends over at Flamin Hotz Records. Moreover, the CD itself is a gorgeous six panel deal, c/o BustBright, with cover art by funk legend Tony Minister, spot gloss lettering, and two booklets â featuring lyrics in Portuguese and English, artist bios, and photos. There is no anonymity here.
So put some names and beats with faces, add some well-mastered tamborzĂŁo to your collection, and support the hardworking MCs and DJs down in Rio: proceeds are going their way. Trust me, Iâll be sending the remittances myself.
Read the rest of that post for further details of how Greg worked to right some things and to write those things into the story of the release itself.
But back to BarbĂ¨s. In the spirit of this post, let’s be fair in our appraisal. Aside from perhaps making the deals with musicians part of Conan’s heroic narrative, what else would we have the label do? BarbĂ¨s is still a relatively modest operation, asking for donations to kickstart interesting projects, and so forth. All things considered, they’ve brought some wonderful music to my ears and no doubt have generated a significant degree of interest in, appreciation of, and opportunity for chicha and Peruvian cumbia. For that we can say, bravo.
[Update: Please see this follow-up post for a detailed response from Olivier Conan, which helps to bring more balance to the appraisal above.]
2. Mass Tropicas
Michael Pigott is a guy who lives in Western Mass, which he had the gall to call “the better half of Massachusetts” in an introductory email to me. He runs a label called Mass Tropicas devoted to small batch releases, so far mostly of weird and wonderful Peruvian cumbia. He deals directly with the artists themselves to license the tracks he releases, and he doesn’t do digital. At all. Instead, Mike stubbornly insists on durable, physical media — vinyl and cassettes — believing that the objects themselves have a way of preserving and instilling value.
While Roots of Chicha served as some inspiration for reissuing and recording some cumbia himself, Mike had been getting into the genre, especially of the Peruvian variety, over the course of several years thanks to a couple key figures: 1) his wife, who is herself from Peru, and 2) Bruno “Tunchi” Guerra, a photographer and mainstay in Lima’s punk scene. On visits, Mike would listen to the local cumbia station in his wife’s neighborhood, note the songs he liked, and then try to find them on vinyl. (Apparently, he boasts quite the collection of 45s.)
In contrast to BarbĂ¨s reach for a broad audience, which entails reissuing formerly popular tracks (at least in Peru), Mike seeks to bring lesser known recordings to chicha’s expanding listening public (at least those addressed by hi-fi vinyl reissues). He sees the Roots of Chicha as an important “stepping stone” for people to “dig deeper” into his more obscure finds and favorites.
Mike described his operation as “DIY” and it’s clear that its infused by a certain punk ethos. (How DIY? you might ask: “All the records you touch, I touch,” Mike told me.) Small-batch cumbia appealed to Mike because pressing one’s own records is “sorta like punk rock.” His fourth and latest release, Ranil’s Jungle Party, a 12″ LP collecting some fine cuts from a local cumbia legend now running for mayor (and subject of a would-be documentary by BarbĂ¨s), could hardly better embody the approach: Ranil’s records were originally produced and released by himself on his own label, so Mike dealt directly with the man himself. (Of course, this elides unresolved questions about who, if anyone, should have exclusive rights to a collectively produced recording, but since “backup” musicians have gotten the short-end in just about every other music biz scenario, we can’t begin to hold a label like Mass Tropicas to a different standard.)
One complicating factor in re-releasing Ranil’s music, however, was the fact that Ranil himself didn’t own any of his own records; and he had taped over the masters years ago to store recordings of his radio program! Here we see how the durability of vinyl and the diligence of the digger can prove paramount. Ranil no longer possessed any of his own records, but Lima-based collector and chicha connoisseur Victor Zela, with whom Mike has been sharing his enthusiasm for years, has every single one. Victor compiled Ranil’s Jungle Party, and Mike gives him full credit as a creative partner. (The artwork, a clear homage to the style of the day, was done by Tunchi, another Lima-based collaborator.)
About that artwork, though (& plz permit another quick foray into the jungles of marketing lingo) –
Tropical tropes abound, of course, but we also need to note that the imagery was itself lifted from Ranil’s original record sleeves. (We could also note that certain details, ahem, have been highlighted and amplified.) Whether kitschy or faithful or both, these pictorial gestures doesn’t absolve the copy, however, and we can pick up plenty of resonance with BarbĂŠs/PressJunkiePR in being informed that, with efforts like this record, Peruvian cumbia “has been rescued” — or that the reissue provides a “fascinating journey through time.”
So despite all the clearly thoughtful practices motivating Mass Tropicas, we still encounter almost inevitable notes of exotic fashioneering in the language on the record themselves, their promotion, and their inevitable reformulation in press coverage. Regarding the latter, one might read that Mike “researches the deepest streets of Peruâs forgotten music,” an interesting formulation in its familiar contour but shifting locus of the real, from the jungle to the streets, again reflecting perhaps a general recalibration (or widening of the rhetorical repertory) in “world music” discourse. (Then again, despite the prevalence of the rural/pastoral/traditional, urban sounds and imgs have enjoyed a persistent, if fraught, presence in world music bins. Indestructible Example A?)
If this sort of spiel about “fascinating journeys” can ring a little hokey to some of us, redolent as it is of Putumayo pap, I don’t think that’s because Mike is out of touch. Rather, he’s following a playbook that has produced its share of touchdowns.
But let’s talk about different notions of touch for a moment. Touch is clearly important to Mike, who touches every record he sends off. In particular, two kinds of touch: being in direct touch with actual people & directly touching actual physical objects. As with Greg’s ideas about “fair trade funk,” doing it right for Mike involves both the fairness of the deal and the quality of the product. A lot of cumbia artists on some fairly popular (bootleg) compilations have no idea. “These guys are still alive,” Mike told me. “It’d be nice if they knew they were appreciated.”
As for touching actual objects, not to mention being in touch, here’s a nice chunky plastic thing I got in the mail from Mike:
Mike doesn’t really sell cassettes, yet. He tells me he’s had trouble convincing distributors to carry them, despite a minor current/recentvogue for them (indeed, a couple local producers slipped me their latest mixtape, on tape, just last week). I was happy to get the cassette since I’m lucky enough to have a car that plays them; this was true for Mike too, back when he got the idea of pressing up some of his own.
The El Hombre Orquesta cassette is from a limited run of 100, printed up mainly as an effort to promote El Hombre, aka Carlos Antonio, a sui generis one-man-band (and paraplegic) who Mike encountered while walking around in Lima. (Here’s an unrelated local news profile of him.) Singing songs while playing bongos, timbales, cymbals, wood blocks, and a halved soda bottle that sounds like a mean slide trumpet, El Hombre Orquesta has a sound all his own.
Struck by the sound, Mike asked him on the spot whether he could record him. Antonio told him, “It’s gonna cost ya,” and asked for $30. “I’ll give you extra,” said Mike, who then paid for $3 for a local practice space, recorded for 80 minutes, and gave Antonio $50, telling him he’d seek out a label back in the US to release his music. A relatively successful indie label specializing in what we might call “found sounds” of the wide world expressed strong interest, but eventually dropped the project. Having told Antonio that “next time I come down I’ll have an EP for ya,” Mike returned recently, gave him a bunch of cassettes and $200. El Hombre cried; he was touched.
3. ZZK Records
ZZK Records (pronounced zee-zek, Argentine-style, not Ĺ˝iĹžek), a label that started as a party, boasts a deep roster of hyper-creative pibes (yep, they’re all dudes), who make all kinds of exciting electronic dance music (especially the digital or “nu” cumbia for which they’re primarily known), run successful Kickstarter campaigns, and, having put their stamp on the nu world scene, are slowly but successfully wiggling their way into the potentially lucrative ol world music circuit (that’s 1.0, if you’re counting).
Recently, ZZK acts appeared at the 2010 Chicago World Music Festival, and they’re aiming to make it to Womex later this month. As the premier world music showcase in the world, Womex can be a huge platform, opening the golden doors to some of that ol world music industry money, where, especially in the live performance/festival circuit, there’s still a substantial amount to be made (unlike in the relatively tiny “global bass” scene, unless you’re fortunate enough to join the truffled classes).
For all its promise, Womex also presents significant risks for a fledgling label like ZZK, which still supports itself through all kinds of side/day-gigs (including a design firm, making somewhat more saleable use of their in-house talents). Simply getting to Copenhagen is taxing enough for an operation of this size to merit a kickstarter campaign for assistance. Everyday they’re hustling. But also touring a lot and making some great music and having fun.
By my watch, the ZZK crew got where they are today, notably, not merely though the various grinds above, but, in a nod to industry 2.0, by giving a lot of music away — especially in the form of mixtapes and bootlegs/mashups pushed onto the net (and in many cases, directly to bloggers in the nascent nu-world world). In this way, they share the plight of a lot of other small, independent labels (or artists) trying to build an audience and create some demand for (some commodification of) what they do in a saturated, “post-scarcity” music industry. ZZK effectively inserted their productions, style, and brand into translocal media flows by being savvy with what they make and share: mixtapes that blend their own tracks and other local flaves with global currents, mashups that lend a familiar tinge (in the form of say, a rap acapella) to their own electro-cumbia productions, videos that might find an eager embed on electronic / world / cosmopolatino blogs.
Although ZZK would prefer not to find its acts consigned to the marketological ghettos of “world” and “Latin,” such tags also offer certain footholds, crossover niches. When El G (aka Grant Dull, ZZK cofounder) and Lisandro of the Frikstailers came to Cambridge to play Beat Research this month, I had the opportunity to witness how the label attempts to work within the unwieldy boxes that litter the music industrial landscape. While Grant was being interviewed by a local guy who does an “alt Latin” radio show, I couldn’t help but appreciate how he tried to thread the needle, talking about the sound of the label, or specific acts, in a manner commensurate with their actual style and outlook and yet also in ways that make sense, that translate, that communicate to certain audiences. Hence, the Frikstailers were described at once as audibly “from south America” but, in the same breath, “very modern, contemporary.”
So despite the label’s nu-ness, it’s no surprise that the ZZKers selected to go to Womex are Tremor, the only “band” in the ZZK crew, and hence an act that already affirms certain entrenched ideas about “real” (world) musicianship. It probably also helps with the WM1.0 folks that they guys in Trebor play folkloristic drums (bombo leguero) and perform, according to ZZK’s own website copy, no less than an “interpretation of local musicology.” Indeed, once you read that amidst the mix of synths and drum samples one also hears “timeless Andean flute,” I think it’s clear that we’re treading familiar (“foreign”) territory.
I myself would probably leave the showcase featuring folkloric drums in order to see, say, a couple of guys banging on synths and laptops and DDR-pads, but I think it’s a while yet before the old world music guard is ready for the likes of the Frikstailers. Their loss, especially since the Friks’ productions may actually better embody the world-is-flat mythos animating a lot of WM1.0 fantasies. (Easy-listening reggae from any corner of the globe!) Like many of their nu-whirled peers, the Frikstailers find themselves immersed, at least part time, in a global culture flattened by the likes of YouTube and Twitter and mp3, where the real “world” music is the stuff we all hear no matter where we go: Justin (Bieber or Timberlake), 50, Britney.
The Frikstailers’ music features all sorts of referents, from the general to the specific — dancehall drums, cumbia percussion, that hip-house guy who says “oww” — but it’s pretty damn omnivorous in terms of what gets glitched and glitzed into a clubby, poppy frenzy. They don’t seem to proceed creatively with any self/audience-imposed requirements for local or Latin sabor. Their new EP reminds me as much of vintage Aphex Twin or the Black Dog as anything else. This stands in some contrast to, say, the nearly note-for-note renditions of Conan’s Brooklyn-based band.
The young Moroccan at the music stand didnât get that I was looking for vinyl. Iâve searched for records all around the world, and been shot the same puzzled looks and second-guesses many times before. âCD?â he asked in accented English. âNo, the old ones,â I countered, approximating twelve inches with my hands. âYou know: big, black.â
He uttered a groan and tossed his head, returning his attention to a rack of small discs with photocopied covers that apparently deserved a careful rearranging.
âEveryone threw those away,â he said with his back to me. âBullshit,â I thought.
Wherever I dig, I refuse to think that these stubborn digitalists donât know at least one old neighborhood jazz cat or a parent or grandparent who held onto their clunky plastic music platters.
Sam’s own stubbornness eventually leads him to a trove of sorts c/o Gam Boujemaa, a longtime record collector & seller in Casablanca. A stockpile of vinyl, yes, but great stories too — telling tales about how vinyl from all over the world ended up in one little shop in western Morocco. For anyone who caught Boima’s provocative post last week about the neo-colonialism of digging for records in Africa, no doubt some sentiments in Sam’s piece will seem familiar, irksome even. (Check the rather interesting and contentious debate which has erupted in the comments! Fresh wounds all around.)
Given the trenchant questions Boima raises, I need to note how much I appreciate the nuance and ironies in Sam’s narrative. For all the notes of romance and curiosity that animate his search, he also shows the digger of today — i.e., guys like Sam — to be following, if in a sort of reverse, the steps of diggers before him — guys like Gam — with their own desires to transform themselves, by collecting just the right things, into something else, other, cosmopolitan, cool:
Gam Boujemaa sold newspapers on the street until he turned twenty. By that time, it was 1964, and he had heard enough jazz and seen enough Marlon Brando movies to know he wanted to own a leather jacket and sell the dayâs best music to a cosmopolitan clientele.
The city was, and still is, a world away from Fez and Marrakech, the ancient trading hubs of the Moroccan interior where the smells of mint, olives, and live animals pervade all commerce. Casablanca had an Atlantic orientation that brought the Beatles and Otis Redding to Gamâs attention, and to his record storeâs shelves years before his countrymen in the Atlas Mountains could know that rock and roll or R&B even existed. âŚ
With between thirty and forty thousand records lining the shelves of his store on Boulevard de Paris, Gam isnât the explorer he used to be. Some locals bring him their old collections, but his main business is selling to foreigners. French, British, Dutch, and Turkish collectors dominate his clientele nowadays, but the store recalls the time just after Moroccan independence from France when Gamâs excitement brought the newest sounds from overseas to his shop.
For example, between 1966 and 1970, Gam added thousands of Bollywood film 45s to his stock. Then, in 1970, he turned the storeâs name into its own music label. He released records by popular singer Naima Samih, and drafted the folk-influenced troupe Jil Jilala to his imprint.
I like that Sam calls Gam an explorer. There’s a sense of commonality there, of certain shared notions and practices, despite their differences. And I like that the portrait Sam offers of Gam complicates too easy a reading of how either of their activities fit into an imperial/colonial order. But I’ll leave further analysis to the hive mind for now.
Instead, let’s let the music speak a little too, if thru Sam’s filter. Here’s the mix Sam made to accompany the Wax Poetics piece, featuring records he picked up in Casablanca and Fez, & liberated from its streaming-only status by yours truly and DownloadHelper:
Complicating things further, Sam offers up another “hand-dug” (his term) gem — this one “exclusive” to W&W — for our listening and debating pleasures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it brings us into contact with another hot-spot for contemporary cool-vinyl hunters: Amazonian cumbia. Although he turned up the following track in Lima, it’s by Costa Rican soloist and bandleader Alfredo Barrantes, who found such success in Ecuador he became known as “EL PILOTO DE LOS EXITOS” (THE PILOT OF HITS). Note the telltale snaps’n'crackles at the outset:
Incidentally, if you dig sounds like these, we’ve got a real treat coming up in a couple of weeks: on Oct 4, alongside El G and the Frikstailers, representing the digital cumbia of the ZZK collective (!!!), we’ve also got Michael Pigott of Mass Tropicas, a label based in Western Massachusetts specializing in ethically-licensed high quality vinyl reissues of obscure Amazonian cumbia. I’ll be posting in greater detail about that in the coming weeks. But be sure to put Oct 4 on your calendars. It’s gonna be cumbiariffic!
Finally, if you’re looking for a sense of what he might sound like in the mix, here’s a relatively recent and wide-ranging set c/o Balagan:
Apropos of noticing, this marks the 700th post since I moved this blog to my own server, way back in October 2006 — almost exactly 4 years ago, and well before Google/Blogspot starting alienating users en-masse. That’s a lotta posts, and I want to thank all of you who read here on occasion for the support, criticism, love, and feedback in general. (Speaking of, I also recently passed the 4000 comment mark — spam free! — which is maybe even more impressive than 700 posts.) As loyal readers know, I wax and wane like the name, and I’m grateful to those who can deal with the ebb and flow. Recently, it’s been more ebb than flow, but as you know, I’ve got my reasons. (Two of them, mainly.)
So, I thought I’d celebrate, and wax a little, with classic bit of “linkthink” for ya, mostly w&w + extended fam related –
First, I want to point you all to the latest helping of bass baditude c/o of my pardner in Beat Research, DJ Flack. Last month Flack boiled down a really tasty mix, full of weighted bangers, including a number of his own, for Mad EP’s radio show. It’s a great distillation of the sort of set he’s been rocking on Mondays at the Enormous Room, so if you like what you hear, come catch him live. I love how the mix brings Flack’s own bouncy, tuneful productions into conversation with the music that inspires him (from dub to garage, & lots in between). You can see the tracklist and grab the mix here, or head over to Soundcloud if you prefer that – StepDropAndRoll by dj_flack
Speaking of my man MadEP/MattyP, I was just enjoying one of his own latest productions last week, thanks to !Kaboogie records, which is releasing an EP on Sept 20 including heat from MadEP, Ed Devane, the Banker, and Sarsparilla. As I listened to MadEP’s track, which features at least 3 or 4 distinct species of bass, through headphones last week, I was struck by how the lows were resonating not only my eardrums but my cranium, face, and down into my neck. As I noted on Google Buzz (yeah, I still use that), “i thought my brain was gonna leak out my nose for a minute.” Which Matty took as a high compliment, which it was. Another charming part of the track is that it includes some vocal cameos from one of Matty’s dear kids, who, I’m told by proud pops, also helped design the bass-patch on the track! Now that’s proper parenting. (And if you want a true testament to his superdaddiness, read this tweet from last night!)
I’d also like to point people to the episode of WNYC’s Soundcheck that I appeared on a couple weeks ago. Our “world music 2.0″ convo will have familiar contours for many longtime readers, but I thought it was a nice summation of some of the major differences between what formerly (and still) gets marketed as “world music” and what a lot of us have been hearing as the music of a new “world,” a world of increasingly interconnected technologies and societies and marked by shared urban signifiers, random walks on YouTube, and banging club beats. I didn’t get to say everything I would have liked to, nor did I say everything the way that I would given a second chance, but that’s live radio for ya! (In particular, though, I want to note that I misspoke when I said that DJ Tito was sampling a reggaeton vocalist — actually it was mambo/merengue — and when I placed kuduro in “Brazil” rather than Angola/Luanda — total brain failures on those two.) You can access it here, or just stream it below. And don’t miss host John Schaefer’s sympathetic take on laptopping teens of the whirled vs. “rich producers manufacturing world music supergroups.”
In other news, I gotta thank Christina Xu once again for spotting yet the latest allusion to the good ole “zunguzung meme.” If you haven’t heard it yet, Vybz Kartelâs new track, âWhine (Wine),â produced by Max Glazer of Federation Sound, employs our familiar zig-zagging friend as a recurring, structural element (rather than a one-off reference)!
And I want to send a shout to Dan Hancox, who published an interesting, apparently provocative piece in the Guardian on “treble culture,” aka, “sodcasting” in London. It reads largely as a defense and celebration of the practice, and as such it invited a fairly strong bit of opposition in the comments. Since I’m still polishing up my own essay on the phenomenon, I’m grateful for the plenty more grist for the mill this provides. Also, to Dan for quoting me in the piece! e.g., –
On London buses, I’ve seen middle-aged gay couples playing South American pop on a wet Saturday afternoon, moody raver mums sodcasting acid house from their glory years; it’s not just the preserve of teenagers with attitude problems.
Nor, contrary to popular belief, is it an especially recent phenomenon, says the American anthropologist and musicologist Wayne Marshall, who is currently researching what he calls “treble culture”. “Sodcasting could fit into a time-honoured tradition of playing music in public as surely as reggae sound systems or the drums of Congo Square, never mind their antecedents,” he says. “Transistor radios and ghetto blasters are both good examples of a longstanding history of people making music mobile. The case of the transistor radio shows that people have long been willing to sacrifice fidelity to portability; while the ghetto blaster reminds us that defiantly and ostentatiously broadcasting one’s music in public is part of a history of sonically contesting spaces and drawing the lines of community, especially through what gets coded as ‘noise’.”
Finally, I want to point people to the Library of Vinyl blog, where Pacey Foster shares exciting news about becoming the trusted keeper of a trove of early Boston hip-hop demo tapes, as well as to b-ball blog supreme Freedarko, where I’ve got a guest post discussing this incredible cassette:
FD’s Bethlehem Shoals asked me if I might write up an “imaginary archaeology” of the thing, and since I can’t actually find anything on the interwebs about either the mysterious TROLL ASSOCIATES or the beat-boxing, tape-head-rocking Double D Crew, who have forcibly occupied the cassette since the mid-80s, that’s about the best I’ll be able to do at any rate. So here goes an attempt to channel my inner Dave Tompkins–
On one very merry late 70s Christmas morning, a young Markie D, yet to rise to local stardom as one of Boston’s several answers to Doug E. Fresh, found in his stocking a cassette boasting amazing contents: basketball “SUPER THINK” according to Julius Erving. Released by the suspicious but nonetheless seemingly credible TROLL ASSOCIATES, Dr. J’s informational and inspirational spoken-word performance had a reportedly noticeable effect on Markie’s ability to penetrate the perimeter. But when those dividends dried up around the same time hip-hop came to town, the tape was — somewhat ceremoniously — taped over, scotch guarding the knocked-out knockout tabs that tell cassette-players to keep their heads to themselves. (As noted clearly on the cassette, duplication was prohibited, but the word was mum on overdubbing.) For several years the tape played host to the latest greatest raps one could catch on the airwaves, or copy via visiting cousins from New York.
Eventually, it served as the eye-popping receptacle of 9 minutes of beatbox fury, bragadocious cautionary tales, and reverb freakouts, carefully packed and mailed to DJ Magnus, whose “Lecco’s Lemmas” radio show on WMBR (and later WZBC) was fast becoming the primary platform for the Bean’s aspiring rap talents, including a young, recently-relocated-to-Brooklyn M.C. Keithy E (aka, the late, great Guru of Gang Starr). The broadcast of these 9 minutes may have warped more minds than the TROLL ASSOCIATES’ original and perhaps even taught more listeners the proper method for driving the lane despite that the wisdom of Dr. J had by this point been encrypted into a series of throat clicks, pursed-lip bass bombs, and allusions to famous German automatons counting in Spanish.
We’re happy to welcome Kingdom back to Beat Research this coming Monday, Sept. 13. Readers of this blog need no intro to one of the dopest producers/DJs working the decks in the global bass scene these days. But if you haven’t checked his latest EP, That Mystic (Night Slugs), you need to get right on that (hear it here). Once again, the man delivers a clique of new tracks that work that half-time/double-time hinge where crunk and garage exchange digits, where things get all kinds of hazy clubby funky, and where chirping synths and warbling diva shards conspire to steal some of that low-end thunder.
Dude stays grinding, DJing constantly while managing to whip up fresh tracks and chunky mixes on the regular. I don’t know how he does it, but I’m happy to bear witness (and, on Monday, play host). If you haven’t been keeping up, go treat yourself to his summer mix for FACT magazine (which is no longer up at FACT but can be found around town). Or, if you’ve really been sleeping, go and DL his legendary set for Discobelle from last fall. It still holds up like a mofo, rare in an age of online DJ mixes for days and daze.
I guess I’ll have to hold off this Monday when it comes to playing a track like “Fogs,” which has insinuated itself into many recent sets of mine, leaving the man to his own oeuvre — all the better to hear how he sutures it to something else. The last time Kingdom came through — indeed, everytime — he played an impeccably bouncy, dark, deep mix of tunes, and the E Room felt like just the right setting. Come catch some feelings with us this time around.