I’m a little late sharing the good news of the John Wizards, a producer-singer duo from South Africa who put together my favorite recording of this year. But given that even some of my most musically voracious friends have still not heard them, I’m clearly not too late. So let me put it like this: John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba deserve some of your time. We’ve already given them a lot of ours.
In a year with nuff great releases from smallbatch labels & independent artists (see: exhibits A, B, & C), John Wizards’ self-titled debut most captured my ears — and lent itself to realtime, and virtual, sharing with friends — and so I feel a need to sing its praises more publicly.
Let’s start where they do, the opening track, “Tet Lek Schrempf” –
A careful but whimsical opening, the track gestures in almost overture-ish fashion to the diverse musical corners the album eventually winds its way into. Beginning with something reminiscent of Soothing Sounds for Baby, by 0:45 we dwindle into a slowing-then-speeding piano arpeggio, eventually mirrored and replaced by a plucky synth lead and, at 1:05, a rollicking triple-duple beat. By the time we hear “Greetings from John Wizards!” at 1:45, we’ve arrived yet somewhere else, with live-ish sounds evoking birds and crowds and a warbling melodic loop. Along with an increasingly menacing, bubbling bassline, these occupy the foreground for about a minute before shoved aside by a bluesy, wailing guitar line, teetering on the edge of schlock. When the guitar jumps an octave at 2:52, the whole thing comes to screaming life, synthclaps splattering, like that’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for. As we lurch toward the end with the brief appearance of an acoustic riff that seems (in a moment of good judgment) second-guessed before yielding again to the electric wail, we get a good glimpse at the music’s meticulous construction — a sly moment of subtraction amidst all the accretion and allusion.
John Wizards’ restless approach to form and sui generis stylistic synthesis make them pretty irresistible even for a recovering-rockist listener like myself. Sure, there’s something very rock band at work here — plenty guitfiddle, pretty chord changes — but it’s balanced by a wealth of electronic signposts and presence, from the waveform drums & synths weaving through every track, to the occasional Shangaan electro-esque freakout, even down to the misleadingly low-fi demotape disco / bedroom bubblegum vibes of “iYongwe.” John Wizards pack an enchanting number of ideas into their music, but never too many, and always executed with care and panache.
Another fine example is “Lusaka by Night,” including the video’s parallel, playful imagery –
Much as I attempt to listen independent of biography and other narrative frames, the strikingly peripatetic quality running through the music seems consistent with the group’s official backstory –
John Wizards might have started in Maputo. It also might have started in Cape Town. It certainly owes a debt to Dar es Salaam.
These are the three places that band leader and producer John Withers either travelled through or lived in, and he feels have had a marked influence on his musical output. They also happen to be cities in which Emmanuel Nzaramba, John Wizards’ Rwandan singer has lived too.
John met Emmanuel while he was working as a car guard, outside a coffee shop in Cape Town. Emmanuel noticed the guitar strapped to John’s back, and they began to talk about music. Emmanuel had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and John told him that he had been writing music requiring vocals. They didn’t get around to recording that time: Emmanuel quit his job, lost his cellphone, and moved to a new place and lost contact.
A year later (2012) John moved house and had got together some new songs and by chance ran into Emmanuel again: they were living in the same street. John invited him to his place to listen to reggae band The Congos, It turned out that he didn’t like them, but he did like some of the new songs John had written. He would listen to them once or twice, and start singing. The outcome of these evenings can be heard on their debut album.
It’s a compelling story, to be sure (except for that bit about not liking the Congos!). Tailormade for today’s vexed representational struggles and mixed modes of reception, the narrative seems to anticipate congealed frames of reference, playing into the enduring importance to audiences of place and experience, especially when we’re talking about Africa, even as it seeks to evade the cliches of cosmopolitanism and authenticity. It helps, then, that John Wizards’ music itself says as much — and more — about the serendipity and movement so central to their myth of origins. Narrative aside, this is great music which deserves to be heard far and wide. But can we put narrative aside?
Given the panoply of reference points and stylistic curveballs, could John Wizards’ relative obscurity in an ocean of new music have anything to do with the difficulty of finding a bin? In 2013? On one hand, I find that hard to believe. On the other, I suspect that the question of genre — and its enduring social and infrastructural contours — continues to shape circulation and reception of musical media fairly profoundly, even well into the digital era.
Personally speaking, I owe it to Gamall, the discerning dude behind Backspin Promotions — and to the fact that I blog and tweet and sometimes actually review new music for other publications — for bringing John Wizards to my attention. Gamall’s always on top of new electronic releases, affiliated with such stellar, dependable outlets as Hyperdub, Editions Mego, and Planet Mu — the latter of which, perhaps surprisingly, is responsible for bringing the John Wizards to the wider world. As such, John Wizards have been inserted into a rather particular musical ecosystem, and some of Gamall’s promo copy has been pretty straightforward in creating distance from certain frames of reference:
â€¦ a unique sound that many have compared to Vampire Weekend in reverse (African music looking outwards taking in European influences). Don’t be confused and think this is some kind of world music project though – it isn’t â€¦
It’s telling that the few times I’ve seen John Wizards come across my radar have been via the likes of Catchdubs and Obey-City, two producers/DJs generally more drawn to the (wide) world of club music than tempo-hopping, shape-shifting, bedroom-studio guitarry stuff. So maybe this tack is working after all. I won’t be surprised to see a well-deserved late surge for John Wizards in years-end Best Ofs.
Suggesting that this approach to spreading the group’s music will continue, their second single arrives this week accompanied by two remixes which transpose the dubby, ethereal “Muizenberg” into different genres — new channels to surf.
Far as newness goes, though, the newest thing here is the synthesis, not the synths. There’s no reason that electronic music audiences shouldn’t be receptive to a stunning take on the world of sonic possibility grounded in southern African soundscapes. Drum machines and squealing, squelching synths are not, by any stretch, new to African music. In this sense, John Wizards offer one of various points of entry into a long, loopy history of musicians using technology to constantly reinvent the Sound of Africa.
Could this be a controversial thing to say about a duo comprising a heavy-handed white-dude producer and a black vocalist? As John Withers put it in an interview with Pitchfork (so, yeah, it’s not like these guys aren’t making the rounds — and good for them for that) —
If you’re white and playing an African style, even in Africa, itâ€™s a touchy thing. â€¦ But Iâ€™ve got no real problem with people drawing on anything — if the music is nice, the music is nice.
I’ve got to agree with that. John’s and Emmanuel’s music is nice indeed. May it touch you too.
Today is the final meeting of my last class at Harvard this year — and possibly my final class as a college-level instructor, but we’ll save that discussion for another day. For now, I’ll leave you with a few playlists I created in order to have some examples a click on during class.
In short, this was the one class this year that I didn’t completely make up myself. Music 97c (“Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective”) is a long-running requirement for Music concentrators here. Essentially an introduction to ethnomusicology — theories, methods, and repertories — it departs from standard “World Music” courses by eschewing the survey/smorgasbord and instead focusing on just a few geographical areas in some depth. I designed my own syllabus from scratch, of course, and perhaps unsurprisingly the emphasis largely fell on the Caribbean, North America, and Afrodiasporic matters. We did, however, also include units on Turkish and Balinese/Indonesian music. You can see the whole syllabus here, if you like.
Or you can just edutain yourself by perusing these playlists–
It begins with a six minute opening from me, then I introduce my esteemed co-panelists — Boima, Poirier, Ripley, Max, and Jesse — and we finally REALLY get into the convo about 10 minutes in. From there it’s a solid 50 minutes of discussion (but not a minute more! #realtalk), followed by another 15 of tantalizing open-mic action (just joking; stop watching at that point; really).
These are some of my favorite voices in wot-ever-we-wanna-call this thing (though the labeling, as we discuss, remains inextricable and carries consequences), so they may be of interest to you too –
Today I’ve got a Q&A with Jared Demick at his site The Jivin’ Ladybug, a “Skewered Journal of the Arts” or in slightly plainer terms, “an online arts journal devoted to word-whittlers, picture-pizzazzers, & sound-slingers, all over this here globe!” Though the latter most obviously describes me, and the middle option may seem more dubious, I like to consider myself all three. (I mean, look at that picture of a ladybug drawn in sidewalk chalk — full of pizzazz!)
At any rate, Jared asked a bunch of questions about the stuff that I do and think about, and because I think it offers a good glimpse at my current thoughts about blogging and DJing and meaningful mixes, world music 2.0 and appropriation, and platform politricks, to name a few, I’m cross-posting the convo here too. Without further ado–
How does your DJing & academic work connect with each other?
I discover a lot of music in my research, and DJing allows me to “activate” these tracks in a new social setting, to sit with them and hear and feel them in new ways, and to share them with other people. As someone who studies DJ culture, and as something of an old-school participant-observer, I think it’s pretty crucial to put my intellectual work into practice in this way. Another way to look at it, though, is that my abiding love for music propels all that I do, and I’ve managed — or attempted — to chart a course where sharing music is central to my life and work.
What got you blogging so extensively?
I started blogging back in 2003 when I moved to Jamaica to do research for my dissertation, which largely consisted of visiting dancehall events and recording studios and turning my own apartment into a collaborative space for making and talking about music. (One result of which, apart from the disseration, was my self-released album, Boston Jerk.) Initially I figured the blog would only be read by academic peers and family and friends, but I was happily surprised when it turned out that a wider readership of people who were interested in taking hip-hop and reggae (and their interplay) seriously had also found their way to my research-in-progress and thinking-aloud. More than anything, the deeply encouraging feedback loop of a community of co-readers (for I think of myself as engaged in a collective process of interpretation) is what turned the blog from a research experiment into the most important and fulfilling part of my work.
Does this â€śworld music 2.0â€ť (or as you cheekily dub it â€śglobal ghettotechâ€ť) phenomenon, this global mix nâ€™ match of genres, leading to greater musical variation or homogenization? In other words, is it a scenario of capitalism doing cultural colonization or is it reflective of increased diasporic movements?
As much as I’m suspicious of how capitalism shapes and circulates culture, I don’t buy the “cultural grey-out” anxiety that haunted so much globalization theory in the 1990s. Examining hip-hop or reggae as a global phenomenon (which is to say, a trans-local thing) gives the lie to any sense that local transformations of these forms are simply imitative. It has been well observed, of course, that capitalism thrives in the production of novelty, so one could argue that the lack of homogenization is, in a sense, just as useful for selling things. At any rate, I think it would be hard to make a case for anything other than greater variety in terms of the music to which we have access today, and whereas “world music” used to be a fairly exotic product, I find some optimism in the newly quotidian qualities of “the world out there” in an age when media travels so instantly and rapidly, especially when coupled with an increasing recognition that our own neighborhoods (at least in fairly cosmopolitan cities) are amazing and rich repositories of world culture. To the extent that exposure to new sounds — rather than simply the products of the media capitals of the US — might engender a more mutual regard for each other, a respect and tolerance for difference, is about as good as it could get. That, and radical wealth redistribution. (But I wouldn’t wait on “world music” to deliver that.)
Are these emerging musical trends sticking around or do they rapidly rise and fade? Who are the primary producers and consumers?
The whole “world music 2.0″ scene is still pretty small and definitely marked by a hype-cycle dynamic. This is perhaps reflective of the “Western hipster” base for a lot of this stuff — at least once it’s been remediated by DJs and bloggers. But for every bandwagoneer, there are people whose interest in new sounds serves to drive their curiosity about other places, about other histories and narratives, and even about other people in their own local communities. Of course, we shouldn’t let out of sight that lots of these exciting sounds from around the world are emerging from rich local scenes which could care less about a few downstream DJs and bloggers (although, on the other hand, there are clearly some opportunities to be had, lest only the middlemen make the metropolitan money). But the production of the music that circulates on blogs and Soundcloud as a sort of “WM2.0″ is no longer entirely “outsourced,” if you will. Rather, instead of simply “digging” for far-flung sounds and scenes (a la funk carioca, kuduro, cumbia), as the case of moombahton shows, new genres have emerged that partake of the templates and circuits for “global ghettotech” while being almost completely unmoored or grounded in any particular place, hence inviting a broader sort of participation (especially from more privileged corners) and perhaps entailing a different approach toward exoticism.
Why do economically disadvantaged urban areas (the ghetto, favela, barrio, shantytown, and its many other manifestations) play such a prominent role in the circulation of this material?
For all their actual impoverishment (or one might say because of it), ghettos are also immense sites of creativity — and, part and parcel of that, powerful repositories of authenticity. I would alter your question to note that while these places play a prominent role in the production of this material, they are less involved in its circulation. Increasingly, grassroots producers from around the world are using “social media” to share their productions with their peers and wider audiences, but a lot of the wider circulation of these genres is being initiated by web-trawling bloggers and DJs who are enthralled by the stuff they’re hearing. Sometimes the grounds for that fascination and/or empathy are spurious, sometimes sincere.
Do you see any political ramifications to this increased cultural dialogue?
It’s not always clear to me that this phenomenon entails a “dialogue” except in a rather vague (and one-sided) sense. I do think that playing music for local audiences (say, here in the US) which is not what they typically encounter can do a sort of political-cultural work insofar as it reforms ideas about us/them. I tend to reserve my greatest hope for the locally transformative power of these engagements — that is, we can work in Boston or New York to reshape our own sense of our soundscapes and our neighbors, and ourselves.
What makes the contemporary musical practice of appropriating and recontextualizing sounds so prominent and attractive?
The relatively novel ease of cut-and-paste is what accounts for the prominence of these methods. As for their attractiveness, I think that recontextualization, reframing, and remaking culture is simply an elemental way that we make sense of the world and share that sense with others. Of course, the advent of the global internet also means that distant appropriations are easier and more commonplace than ever.
Youâ€™ve talked about how this emerging global musical culture is precariously archived within corporate platforms. How could we create a public, non-privatized space on the internet?
This is a serious problem for posterity, and even for present practice. It reflects both a corporate capture of “public” spaces as well as a new prioritization on the part of music-makers and -sharers toward immersion and participation. Toward remedying that — to the extent that people care to — I think we really need to develop (and invest in) new platforms that allow people to personally host (or better, collectively distribute) the media that we make or care to share. I wish there were a will to do this at a municipal or even federal level — to really do it with public funds, as an investment in infrastructure — but there are too many conflicts, I suspect, to make this possible now. So, this has to start with a collective but individual move toward our own servers, and with insisting that we keep copies of everything we post to the corporate platforms whose only value — beyond the user-interface they provide — is entirely generated by our presence and participation there. An open-source alternative to Facebook / Twitter / Soundcloud / YouTube that allows people to maintain more control over their digital culture would be a killer app to be sure.
In both your essays and your mixes, you chart out the routes of particular sounds such as the dembow riddim or the â€śzunguzung memeâ€ť as they get reappropriated in a variety of different contexts. What kinds of insights about contemporary musical culture does such a method provide?
Since — as I think such mixes make audible — it’s not so easy to generalize about “appropriation” when a tune or drumbreak can clearly take so many forms and support such a diversity of messages, the most consistent insight has more to do with the fundamental flexibility and reconfigurability of musical forms (and cultural forms more generally). Although I think this phenomenon far predates the age of technological reproducibility — and results from the essentially mimetic basis of culture — I do think that, with regard to the contemporary, these mixes show not only that it’s easy and commonplace to appropriate or allude to or otherwise invoke and rework previous performances, but that a great deal of creativity, and localization of the power to affect an audience, is very audibly a part of the process.
Which of your currents projects are you most excited about?
I’ve got an ongoing project about the Boston soundscape that I’ve just extended recently with the publication of “Love That Muddy Ether” / Boston Pirate Party — a brief reflection on the rise of Caribbean low-power / pirate radio here in Boston and an audio collage that tries to encapsulate, and take some poetic liberties with, this city’s segregated soundscape. I’m also embarking, after a couple trips to Rotterdam last fall, on a book project about bubbling, the Dutch-Caribbean hyperactive twin of reggaeton, which seems, like kindred genres such as jungle and bhangra, to speak volumes about the musical mediation of a changing sense of place.
This week in Cluster Mag I’ve got a piece that follows up on my late summer production & performance, at metaLAB‘s openLAB_03, of a personal(ized) archive of Boston’s radio soundscape. The centerpiece of “Love That Muddy Ether” is Boston Pirate Party, an ode to an increasingly diversified sound of the city thanks to insurgent transmissions, especially from Boston’s Caribbean core, in and around Dorchester.
Initially, metaLAB’s Jesse Shapins suggested something along the lines of the Mashacre and Smashacre, and I like how this latest mix builds on these previous takes on Boston’s sound (or similarly, for Kingston, Jamaican Radio Edit); ironically, and to its credit, Boston Pirate Party offers a more accurate representation of the sound of Boston than any collection of music recorded by people who happen to be from hereabouts (which is what guided the selections, however iconoclastic, on Mashacre and Smashare).
“Love That Muddy Ether” presents a mix of reflections on the potentials and pitfalls of low-power radio in Boston (and the emphasis is definitely on power here) and an explanation of the poetics behind the mix I’ve made, which, though it has its moments, is not the typical zuper-smoove DJ mix; for all the looping and tweaking involved (and there’s a lot), it’s a bit more of a jagged and figurative thing. Might be best on headphones, or in a car. Anyway, let me lend you my ears for a minute and sing a song of Boston.
And here’s a video of the Ableton Live session if you want to visually track the audio objects –
As it happens, I get to share this latest endeavor in suggestive sound studies (which some might read as applied ethnomusicology) at the same time as some other fine ethno/musicological works are making the rounds. So let me point to a few kindred efforts — all well worth your time if your interests overlap with ours at W&W. (And I don’t say that sort of thing about ethno/musicological work all that often.)
The first is very much in the realm of remix-as-creative-archival-practice, and — it turns out — this very blog appears to have played a part in its genesis. After seeing A Tribe Called Red mentioned here, UCLA’s Nolan Warden got in touch with DJ NDN about working with samples from the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. Having noticed that although the group “sample from a lot of Native American music” their sources tend to be “commercial recordings of drum groups,” Nolan made the rather ethnomusicologisty gesture (that’s vergleichendemuzikwissenschaftig in the original German) of offering, via email, to connect A Tribe Called Red with some digitized cylinder recordings featuring members of their respective tribes (Cayuga and Ojibway).
Read the rest of the story here and check out the audio and some pics here — or hear it direct via ATCR:
Along the same lines but focusing on the realm of reissues — or in today’s theoretical parlance, “remediations” — of the music of the world (out there), David Novak’s new article in Public Culture, “The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media” is a crucial contribution to some longstanding debates. You can read a provocative excerpt here, and there’s also a supplementary page filled with linkthink. Also, as one who tweeted in annoyance when first noticing the full article resided behind a paywall, I’m happy to report that, like an increasing number of scholars, David has posted a pdf of the article on his page at UCSB.
[Next-day Update! I totally blanked on mentioning something quite important about the work of both Davids to whose papers I point above -- and something that more deeply connects their work to the other stuff I'm highlighting here -- namely, that both have been engaged in rather "applied" kinds of projects as well as bringing that knowledge to bear on their more formal/traditional scholarship. Dave Novak, no dabbler in electronic music, has himself done the sort of recording during his travels, for instance, that might make for a rather sublimey compilation of (putatively) foreign frequencies; and for his part, David Font-Navarrete's Elegua Records releases sparkly, gritty, slowly evolving productions that take into their abstracted orbits everything from mbira, to flamenco, to punchy static made from scratch. It's a tad remarkable that neither author situates their essays in these personal practices, but they are an important background to bear in mind when reading.]
simply demonstrates how those women’s semitones have nothing to do with discord, dissonance, horror films, stabbings in the shower or anything else commonly associated with such sounds in Western Europe, North America, etc.
& he adds,
Besides, personally I think those seven women kick proverbial butt with their semitones
A couple items to share, pardon the self-centeredness, but hey, this is a blog, right?
First, hot off the virtual presses: Radio Berkman has just posted a snappily edited podcast featuring yours truly in conversation with the one and only Ethan Zuckerman about world/whirled music, globalghettotech, jerkbow, tribal, moombahton, and platform politricks, among other things. Go check out the full post here (where you can also stream or DL the audio).
Second, it took the dedicated team that organized TEDxIrie just a week and half to edit & post the talks to YouTube. You can see them all here, including my own talk — which, in somewhat classic w&w form, tried to pack in a little too much and grooved a little too hard in places — but if you watch just one, it has to be Ebony Patterson’s “Fashion Ova Style” (which I’ll embed below).
For those of you who have been following some of dancehall’s style trends in recent years — whether we’re talking skinnyjeans and mantourages or bleaching — you’re no doubt aware that Jamaican masculinity appears to be undergoing some peculiar revisions. Unfortunately, a lot of the coverage of such turns — both on and beyond the island — tend toward a sort of surface sensationalism rather than a deeper grappling with their implications. But Ebony goes in DEEP in her art and her talk, and her discussion of dancehall’s “camp” dimensions and the structural relations between gender (roles and representations) and employment seems to me a thoroughly insightful reading. It helps, no doubt, that she is a genuine dancehall devotee who also works in other worlds (the art world, first and foremost).
Her talk is probably the smartest, most nuanced, and most creative engagement — Ebony is a stunning visual and conceptual artist — with these complex questions that I’ve yet to behold. I just wish you could see her art in full color, as we did on the big screen in Kingston a couple weeks ago. Nevertheless, this is well worth your time:
I’m happy to report, just in time to soundtrack that new spring in your step, that I’ve cooked up a new mini-(mega)-mix! This one follows the circulation and permutation of a song I’ve tracked herebefore, “Llorando Se Fue” — better known to the world as “Lambada.”
You can get some sense of the history here, but that Wikipedia page only scratches the surface (for now; here’s hoping this bit of mixxage can help aid expansion). I’ve been hearing the tune turn up in some unexpected places over the years — in hardcore dancehall reggae, for instance, which despite a certain capaciousness still surprises with what seem to be far-flung borrowings. As with similar projects, I’ve grown fascinated by the way such a spreadable song can draw attention to the inflections of individual interpreters as well as the very conventions that give genres their ability to uniquely address an audience.
What I’ve put together here is hardly comprehensive, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. For one, 15+ renditions is already pushing the limits of monotony, I suspect, despite the subtle twists and turns the tune takes in new settings; moreover, it would be quite impossible to catalog the song in full, especially given how it continues to spread. (I’m sure that J Lo’s global imperial club version will inspire many more.)
So, like Nguzunguzu’s magisterial Moments in Love, which I think of as offering another bit of inspiration for this effort, Moments in Lambada is simply an attempt to give a sense of the shape-shifting the tune undergoes. Who knows? Perhaps someday there will be a part two. (Feel free to bring to my attn any versions that seem conspicuously absent; only learned this morning that I left out a new Don Omar take!)
Whirling together a world of Lambadas is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but the impetus finally came in the form of an invitation to contribute to a new online magazine devoted to creative engagements with contemporary music and arts, Cluster Mag, edited & published by an enterprising dance-theory maven from here in Massachusetts, our own Max Pearl.
Over the course of the mix, we dip into forrĂł, UK funky, dancehall, reggaeton, lambahton, lambow, norteĂ±a, global guettatech, panpipe pop, and other club-ready confections that may or may not have real or invented genre tags, with some delightful, surprisingly recurrent nods to vintage house. Palimpsests push their way through the texture, as when J Lo seems to retrace phonemes from “Llorando Se Fue” before singing along with Vakero’s everyman adaptation (“la la la la la”). Her zigzag jetset cartography in “On the Floor” could as easily be following the circulation of “Lambada” — Brazil, Morocco, London to Ibiza, straight to LA, New York, Vegas to Africa — but the earthy sentiments that Vakero expresses in a local tongue — “vamo a beber, vamo a joder” — are just as global.
Finally, after giving a listen, I challenge you to dispel the wriggly earworm embedded in this sweet song of a thousand dances, forbidden like fruit. Lambada is a feeling. Enjoy.
NASA’s announcement in December about our impending arsenic-based overlords caused quite a stir, followed by a fair amount of disappointment. Despite oddly worded reports suggesting that “NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesnâ€™t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living on planet Earth” (his emphasis), it turned out that NASA scientists had not encountered an actual extraterrestrial lifeform, only that they had (allegedly) “discovered” — more like, tricked into being — a form of life that departed enough from conventional understandings (by processing arsenic in place of phosphorous) that it is practically alien, and as such has implications for the study of extraterrestrial life: namely, that we need not expect life from elsewhere in the universe to look quite like it does here.
Um, earth to NASA…
Of course, tantalizing as it may have seemed, NASA’s press release was also, in retrospect, fairly dry and careful, promising no more than “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” But for those who nonetheless had fantasized about a closer kind of encounter, do I have news for you.
Better than news, actually: remixes.
Put aside for a moment your suspicion that aliens might be sending us interstellar 419 scams. Why not audio edits? We did, after all, launch a big ol’ golden phonograph into space some 33 years ago. What if the Voyager record found its ways to alien “ears” (or intelligences, anyway) after all? What if the response was to scramble and reassemble our own sound and syntax and to send it back earthwards? And why not send remixes with a cosmic twist of the critical dagger?
That’s the contention, anyway, of the SETI-X collective, a group of scientists exiled from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence consortium responsible for the ’77 Voyager record. SETI-X has released a CD, Scrambles of Earth, which purports to present a collection of decoded remixes from outer space:
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft, fastening to each a phonograph album containing sounds and music of Earth. If the best calculations are to be believed, one of these records was intercepted and â€śremixedâ€ť sometime in 2005 by extraterrestrial intelligences on the edge of our solar system. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Exile (SETI-X), a dissident offshoot of the better-known Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in 2010 finished decoding signals believed to be transmissions of these â€śremixes.â€ť Scrambles of Earth, unauthorized by a skeptical SETI, is SETI-Xâ€™s document of these audio signs of possible alien intelligence.
If we are to take the researchers at their word, this record would constitute no less than a close encounter of the fifth kind (though some might dispute the expansion of Hynek’s three-level CE model). In the words of CE5′s greatest proponent, Steven J. Greer, a close encounter of the fifth kind is “characterized by mutual, bilateral communication rather than unilateral contact.”
But beyond that, what’s striking about the discovery of these transmissions is that they would appear to offer a critique of everything from the original project’s colonial overtones to the absurdity of the copyright regime’s claims on the record. As the liner notes speculate:
It could also be that the aliens were unmoved by Voyager’s musical program and sought in their version to reprimand Earthlings with an obnoxious response to what Sagan and others modestly termed, in the title of the explanatory coffee-table book, Murmurs of Earth.
There are some stunning procedures on the disc, including a selection where the amplitude envelope of an excerpt from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is apparently used to modulate the pitch of Andean drums, or a number of looping sections that perhaps suggest, as the careful liner notes point out, “artifacts of earthly deconvolution technologies.” And yet –
Even through the translatory medium of all-too-human audio algorithms, however, it is apparent that the aliens are playing fast and loose with complex intercultural questions and flirting with copyright violation on an interstellar scale.
Take, for example, “Fifth World”:
The people at SETI-X are looking out for additional transmissions and transpositions. Let’s just hope, if any come in, they don’t start sounding too phishy.
PS — I’m pleased to report that representatives from SETI-X will be joining us TONIGHT at Enormous Room for a special Beat Research session. To help celebrate their stunning discovery, Flack and I have invited some local friends to dig through the cosmic bins of their record collections and unearth all their deep space footage. So in addition to the SETI-X reps, Tim of A Stack of Dusty Records, the co-owner of Mystery Train Records in Gloucester, MA, will offer some thematic accompaniment, VJ Dziga will mix’n’mash rare NASA footage and other alien sights on the big screen while TDOGG explores further levels of photon manipulation. It’s gonna be out of this world!
If you’d like to hear more about how Masala’s collaboration with Ruff Riddims relates to the central questions of “world music 2.0″ — a term that has seemingly (thankfully?) gained as much traction as “global ghettotech” (if among the commentariat rather than, say, DJs and bloggers) — you should tune in to a recent episode of Spark in which I discuss the phenomenon with the show’s sharp host, Nora Young.
The full show, aired a week ago, is streamable/downloadable here, and it includes segments on Glenn Gould’s prescient technoptimism, online curation, toddlers and cavemen. You can listen to any of the segments individually over there (and check out a bloggy supplement I submitted), or you can just stream the world2.0 segment right here (it’s just under 10 minutes long, FYI):
Because the show is based out of Toronto, it seemed a fine occasion to talk about my Canadian brethren at Masalacism — what they’ve been up to and how they fit into world music 2.0′s distinctive media ecology. I’ve been reading their blog for many years now, and we’ve collaborated on a variety of things, from gigs (in Montreal and Boston) to radio shows.
Staying in Canada’s remarkably wide world, then, the show afforded an opportunity to listen to and discuss ATCR’s remix of “Red Skin Girl,” which I described as stunning — a response that lingers. Note how well it fuses Northern Cree traditions with contemporary dubsteppery:
ATCR deserve their own post, opening into the fascinating questions around hybridity, modernity, and refiguring indigeneity, but aside from what I said on the show — noting the marked difference between what ATCR appear to be doing (i.e., inserting themselves into the global bass scene with an air of local authenticity) and what previous sorts of native/indigenous “world music” sounded like (i.e., New Age synthflute fantasia) — I’ve got to bracket that larger discussion for now.
Meantime, you should definitely check their Soundcloud page, especially the Electric Pow Wow Mini Mix (DL), and some of their equally amazing videos, produced by crew-member Bear Witness, a few of which I’ll embed below. Their provocative, propulsive mix of global dance currents (hardly limited to dubstep), traditional music, and surreal pop representations of Indianness (“I’m an Indian Too”!) adds another important accent to the conversation, to be sure.
Last week month marked the release of Airtime, an EP from Masalacism Records. A happy convergence for me, the project brings together two sets of friends from far-flung parts of the world: Canada’s Masalacists and Botswana’s Ruff Riddims. The EP features the singular style of MaSuper Star, a dynamic duo who teamed up last year with local producer Red Pepper, aka Moemedi Ramogapi, for an epic recording session at his studio in the town of Palapye, about 150 miles northeast of Gaborone.
I’ve been in touch with Moemedi since the spring of 2005, when he showed up in my inbox to thank me for some beat-making tutorials I had posted to the web — fruits of the digital music workshops I was giving in schools, community centers, and prisons in Boston, MA and Kingston, JA. He had tracks to share and questions about linking up with reggae vocalists and getting his stuff out there. I thought his early productions showed a lot of potential. I encouraged Moemedi to keep at it and sent his rough riddims around to friends like Ghislain Poirier and other DJs/bloggers with an interest in African hip-hop and reggae. I also recommended he check out Versionist, back when that existed, where his productions landed plenty of praise and constructive commentary. (Ah, the early days of p2p music industry.)
Moemedi and I have been corresponding pretty regularly ever since — mostly via gchat — and I’ve admired the ways he’s refined his operation, whether steadily improving his tools and skills as a producer, or crowdsourcing a design and building a beautiful studio –
Like lots of music-industrial activity today, it’s all an experiment, so in addition to collaborating with these three labels, Moemedi’s also releasing stuff directly. (Ruff Riddims’ biggest hit to date has probably been Skeat’s kwasa-house anthem, “Dumelang,” which spread like blogfire and found itself in regular rotation among the Dutty Artz and Ghetto Bassquake crews, to name a couple kindred collectives.)
When I first heard MaSuper Star, I couldn’t help but agree with Moemedi that, “they are FIRE, MOLELO.” I was quite struck by the combination of the duo’s stripped-down sound and Moemedi’s digital beats — especially on the title track, where the drums remind me a lot of the post-Coolie Dance riddims of 2004 (Scoobay!). Give it, and the rest of the EP, a listen:
I was convinced that this fusion of contemporary dancehall rhythms and acoustic elements could find an audience, especially overseas where the soukousy guitars would dovetail with a resurgent interest in afropop of all sorts (whether stoked by the likes of Vampire Weekend, The Very Best, or loving re-issues). Interestingly, and a little ironically, precisely because of this same presence — what Moemedi calls the “kwasa influence” — MaSuper Star might prove a difficult act to promote via popular media in Botswana. Local radio DJs, for instance, have refused to play some of Ruff Riddims’ productions because they’re supposedly “not urban”; according to Moemedi, they just want hip-hop. Apparently, a certain target audience rejects familiar guitar figures for differently accented signs of the global modern. But this all remains to be seen. I’m hoping, as is Moemedi, that his stable of artists can catch fire in Botswana as well as abroad.
The other odd side to this strange kind of currency is that Ruff Riddims’ more straightforward reggae and hip-hop productions are less likely to succeed in the metropoles of the so-called Global North, so suffused by such sounds as New York, London, and Toronto already are. To my ears, then, Ruff Riddims has a better shot at finding support in North America and Europe by pushing the productions that signify the difference being in Botswana should make (at least for certain listeners). In other words, to go for the niches opened up by “world music” as aesthetic and institution.
Far as I can tell, at least from reviews such as David Dacks’s recent piece in Exclaim, this hunch about the music’s resonance may be borne out with the release of Airtime:
MaSuper Star aren’t the future of music: they’re the present. These superstars are a duo from rural Botswana, composed of Kenny and Soops, who find their music being released in Canada thanks to the internet-driven forces of World Music 2.0. Soops plays a homemade guitar fashioned from a can, while Kenny sings. â€¦These are street songs, simply executed and instantly hypnotic. MaSuper Star’s themes are universal, though far from the boilerplate topics of peace, love and world unity. Rather, title track “Airtime” is a plea from a long-distance love to send phone credits. Its hook is intoned by a plummy, British-accented voice: “You have no available minutes, please recharge and try again.” Everyday problems. â€¦Kudos must go to the Masalacism label for making this available; they are changing Canada’s relationship with world music.
If you like this stuff. And I unabashedly do. I urge you to support all those involved by plucking down some digital dollars. This EP embodies a model of music industry that merits our investment: small-scale (but scalable), fair and collaborative, generous and open.
According to the guys at Masalacism, they’ve got a 50/50 deal with Ruff Riddims, after expenses (#realtalk). Guillaume elaborates,
Our expenses are quite limited but we’re doing a proper mastering in a pro studio (which as I understand isn’t that common for a net label) and some mailing expenses for Radio and Radio tracking, + some minimal marketing expenses in order to put the music in the store. The rest is pretty much DIY. Music is on sale on Itunes all over the world, Amazon and Emusic + on our own store: http://store.masalacism.com
The Masala guys also deserve credit for commissioning an amazing kuduro remix of “Airtime” from Portugal’s DJ Mpula, which cranks up the tempo a good 15bpm. And I guess somewhere in the calculus, according to David’s Q&A with Moemedi, I may myself merit some credit for serving as a crucial node in the network.
Sorry for the silence here, dear readers. Been a busy month of literal and figurative heavy-lifting. I hope to strike things up again very soon, especially after next Tuesday, my final presentation of the semester, about which I’m very excited. I’ll be appearing in the Berkman Center’s Tuesday lunch series to talk about the “unstable platforms” and “uneasy peers” of brave new world music, which means I’ll have the privilege of a local & global audience of very sharp thinkers about internet architectures & practices. Also, since this is the Berkman Center, who’ve pioneered the webcast thing, you’ll be able to tune-in in realtime. As usual, it’ll be a short talk (15 min) followed by Q&A, please feel free to join us. Details below–
[TUESDAY] BERKMAN LUNCHEON SERIES on THE UNSTABLE PLATFORMS AND UNEASY PEERS OF BRAVE NEW WORLD MUSIC
12/14/10, 12:30pm ET, Berkman Center Conference Room @ 23 Everett St., Cambridge, MA
RSVP is required for those attending in person to Amar Ashar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This event will be webcast live
Topic: “The Unstable Platforms and Uneasy Peers of Brave New World Music”
Guests: Wayne Marshall, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT
Driven by the proliferation of accessible music and video-production software and the connective possibilities of the social web, public culture is being remade in the wake of user-generated content, including the ever curious category of world music. So-called platforms such as YouTube or Jamglue play host to new genres, dance steps, and remixes from around the world, incubating local scenes and circulating aspiring artists’ productions to peers near and far. In contrast to its creation by a consortium of British music-industry players in the 1980s, a multinational network of grassroots producers, DJs, and bloggers are renegotiating and redefining the freighted but inclusive term. But while this bottom-up revision of world music can be seen as a valuable development, queasy connections with its earlier incarnation, and the power relations and ideas about difference it embodied, also persist.
Wayne Marshall is an ethnomusicologist focusing on the musical and cultural production of the Caribbean and the Americas, and their circulation in the wider world, with particular attention to digital technologies. While a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, he’s writing a book on music, networked media, and transnational youth culture. He recently co-edited and contributed to Reggaeton (Duke University Press 2009) and has published in journals such as Popular Music and Callaloo while writing for popular outlets like The Wire and the Boston Phoenix. He holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has taught courses at Brandeis, Brown, University of Chicago, and Harvard Extension School. He is also an active DJ and maintains and runs the blog and website, www.wayneandwax.com.