I’m happy to announce that MIT’s Stefan Helmreich and I have been collaborating on a mega-mix devoted to music that evokes or otherwise represents ocean waves. Building on Stefan’s anthropological work with ocean scientists and my ideas about telling musical stories musically, this mix carefully stitches together 70 pieces in a 3 movement, 44 minute montage. The pieces were composed between 1830-2018 and range across a wide number of genres and approaches — classical, romantic, modernist, minimalist, electronic and experimental, not to mention surf rock, reggae, bossa nova, jazz, and techno.
We’re very pleased to have the mix published via The Wire as a Wire Mix, and I’m grateful to Stefan for putting together a video — see below — which tracks and traces the appearances and layering of each piece in the mix (including full credits) as well as for taking the lead on the brief, evocative essay that accompanies the video (reprinted below, with tracklist). It’s been a wonderful collaboration, over a year in the making — and, no doubt, the most intricate mega-mix I’ve ever worked on — and we’re thrilled to share it with the world and to see what sort of waves, in turn, this mix may make.
Thanks, always, for listening along. Here’s an MP3 (100mb, 44min) if you’d prefer to listen “offline,” whatever that means these days.
WAVE COUNT is a montage, in serial and parallel, of mostly instrumental musical pieces meant by their composers to evoke or represent the sense and sound of ocean waves. Selections range from the years 1830 to 2018 and include classical, modernist, electronic, and experimental compositions, with pieces drawn primarily, though not exclusively, from traditions in European art music, American avant-garde composition, Afrodiasporic musics, and Japanese experimental work. The sequence rolls out common and uncommon wave-inspired phrases, turns, and arrangements — cataloging and connecting recurring formal musical motifs (or “topics”) as well as the more acoustic, sonic, timbral, and onomatopoetic qualities that have come to texture compositional representations of waves.
The montage charts shifts across three loose epochal moments. Movement 1: Species of the Sublime, begins with Romantic composers’ attempts formally and texturally to represent the timbre and sublimely relentless arrival of ocean waves (and see Kieffer 2015), spooling out instances that suggest storms, martial enterprise, dreams of maritime glory, and fears of drowning, outlining the multiple meanings of the sea as a space of reverie, fantasy, memory, violence. Movement 2: Electricity and Experiment, charts more abstracted mid-to-late 20th century electronic-music emphases on the periodic, spectral, or mathematical quality of ocean waves, tracking compositions that treat waves as abstractions that might be lifted out of the water and given a parallel life in, say, synthesizer reproductions. Movement 3: Thalassocene, maps early 21st century trends to revisit and repurpose canonical wave motifs, but also registers how, with the rise of sound art and compositions based on empirical field recording and sonified data, waves have been pressed to get “back in the water.” In such compositions, listeners might almost be hearing the sound of waves with no human presence around to hear them — underscoring a concern with today’s ecological disasters and with a post-Anthropocene time to come, where waves wash over history and relic buoys send signals to no one.
Ocean waves — stormy, sublime, frightening, regular, rippling, underwater — manifest across the montage as untamed wildness, as meditative nature, as forces of foreboding, as abstract inspiration, and as harbingers of a world in the wake of death. At every moment, waves are represented or audited through conventions of listening; the splash, hiss, surge, and more are not mere facts of waves, but implicate shifting and varied cultural modes of hearing, experiencing, and thinking about the music, sound, and noise of waves.
by Stefan Helmreich and Wayne Marshall,
version of May 2019
Full discography with credits to performers and record labels at end.
1. Sometimes composers have mobilized musical icons: signs (and groups of signs) that they imagine to have some likeness to the way ocean waves sound or appear (think of arrangements of notes, chords, or rhythms — or of the timbre of specific instruments). At other moments, they have worked through indices: signs composers take to have a causal or existential relation to the waves they represent (think of field recordings of waves or of captures of frequency spectra of a crashing wave). At still other moments, composers have approached the matter through symbols: signs that stand for their object by convention (think of military march music to represent dynamics of disciplined, steady succession). Often enough, they have done all at once, rendering the distinction between those key semiotic terms — icon, index, and symbol — blurry, awash in overlaps and confusion. See Schweitzer 1911 on a “wave motive” (76) in Bach’s cantata, Siehe, ich will viel Fiscer aussenden (No 88). And see also Monelle 2000, which argues that “the commonest musical icons — portrayals of waves, clouds, storms, horses — are not at all ‘pure,’ but are dependent upon well-known conventions” (77), underscoring the porosity of musical icon, index, and symbol.
2. We are prompted to this recognition by the pathbreaking writings of electronic musician Tara Rodgers (2011), who has examined how sound waves have been given biographies — “lives” — in electronic composition.
Kieffer, Alexandra. 2015. “The Debussyist Ear: Listening, Representation, and French Musical Modernism.” 19th-Century Music 39(1): 56-79.
Monelle, Raymond. 2000. The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rodgers, Tara. 2011. “‘What, for Me, Constitutes Life in a Sound?’: Electronic Sounds as Lively and Differentiated Individuals.” American Quarterly 63 (3): 509–530.
Schweitzer, Albert. 1911. J.S. Bach, Volume II. London: Breitkopf and Härtel.
Thanks to Ian Condry, Walker Downey, Raviv Ganchrow, Marta Gentilucci, Josh Levine, Keeril Makan, David Novak, Emily Richmond Pollock, Tara Rodgers, Nika Son, and Evan Ziporyn.
First Movement: Species Of The Sublime
Johann Sebastian Bach Preise Dein Glücke, Gesegnetes Sachsen, BWV 215 (1734)
Felix Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, Op 26, Fingal’s Cave (1830)
Camille Saint-Saëns Prelude To Le Déluge, Op 45 (1875)
Richard Wagner Das Rheingold, Prelude And Scene 1: Das Rheingold: Scene I: In The Depths Of The Rhein: Weia! Waga! Woge Du Welle (1869)
Edvard Grieg 12 Melodies, Op 33 (Arranged For Piano), III Du Fatter Ej Bolgernes Evige Gang (You Cannot Grasp The Wave’s Eternal Course) (1873–80)
Giuseppe Verdi Otello, Act 1: Una Vela! (1887)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov By The Sea, Op 46, No 1 The Wave Breaks Into Spray (1897)
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger Frösöblomster (Frösö-Flowers), Book 2: No 5 Vagor Mot Stranden (Waves Against The Shore) (1896–1914)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov By The Sea, Op 46, No 5 The Waves Rise Up Like Mountains (1897)
J?zeps V?tols Song Of The Waves, Op 41, No 2 (1910)
Iosif Ivanovici The Waves Of The Danube (1880)
Juventino Rosas Sobre Las Olas (Over The Waves) (1888)
Claude Debussy Jeux De Vagues (La Mer, L 109, No 2) (1903–05)
María Grever A Una Ola (1903)
Ethel Smyth The Wreckers, Overture (1902–04)
Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No 1, A Sea Symphony: III Scherzo: The Waves (1903–10)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Meg Blane, Rhapsody Of The Sea, Op 48 (1902)
Max Reger 4 Tondichtungen Nach Arnold Böcklin, Op 128, No 2 Im Spiel Der Wellen (Waves At Play) (1913)
Béla Bartók The Wooden Prince: Dance Of The Waves (1914–16)
Jean Sibelius 2 Schybergson Songs, JS 224: No 2, Brusande Rusar En Våg (The Roaring Of A Wave) (1918)
Rued Langgaard Music Of The Spheres, BVN 128: IV Like The Refraction Of Sunbeams In The Waves (1919)
Ernest Bloch Poems Of The Sea: I Waves (1922)
Henning Mankell 3 Preludes, Op 56 No 1 Waves (1923)
Jean Sibelius Tempest, Op 109, Overture: The Ship Sinks Beneath The Waves (1925–26)
Heitor Villa-Lobos Seventh Symphony, Odisséia Da Paz (A Peace Odyssey) (1945)
Fletcher Henderson Tidal Wave (1934)
Nikos Skalkottas Island Images, III Sea Waves (1943)
Margaret Bonds Troubled Water (1952–67)
Second Movement: Electricity And Experiment
Vladimir Ussachevsky Underwater Waltz (1951)
Benjamin Britten Peter Grimes, Op 33, Glitter Of Waves (1944)
Xenakis Polla Ta Dhina For Children’s Choir & Orchestra (1962)
Guo Tai Gong On The Docks – Beijing Opera Symphonic Suite: A Single Stone Has Stirred Up Innumerable Waves (1964–65)
Dick Dale Tidal Wave (1964)
The Upsetter Tidal Wave (1969)
Yoko Ono Don’t Stop The Waves (1971)
Antonio Carlos Jobim Wave (1967)
Takehisa Kosugi Wave Code #E-1 (1975)
Luigi Nono ….Sofferte Onde Serene…. For Piano And Magnetic Tape (1975–77)
R Murray Schafer String Quartet No 2, Waves (1978)
La Monte Young/Marian Zazeela Oceans (1969)
Lisan Wang Impressions Of Paintings By Higashiyama Kaii: IV The Sound Of Waves (1979)
Patti Smith Wave (1979)
Barry Truax Wave Edge (1983)
Aaron Jay Kernis Symphony In Waves: IV. Intermezzo (1989)
Drexciya Wavejumper (1995)
Huichang Yan Fighting The Waves/Dauntless Spirit/Cuihua/Confronting The River (1994)
Tristan Murail Le Partage Des Eaux (1997)
Drexciya Digital Tsunami (2001)
Third Movement: Thalassocene
Kaija Saariaho Près (Pour Violoncelle Et Dispositif Électroacoustique) (1992)
Robert Paterson Deep Blue Ocean, III Accents And Waves (2010)
Mary Ellen Childs First Wave (2013)
John Luther Adams Dark Waves (2007)
Ying Wang Wave In D (2008)
Yuko Ohara The Wave Transformation (2013)
Bob Chilcott, Iain Farrington & The Sirens Making Waves (2009)
Keiko Abe The Wave (2008)
Ying Wang Wave In D (2008)
Peter Bruun Spejlbolger (Waves Of Reflection): IV Wave (2000)
Vijay Iyer Mutation VI: Waves (2013)
Annea Lockwood Water And Memory (2017)
Mary Ellen Childs Second Wave (2013)
Alexis Kirke Sound Wave (2012)
Justin Lombardi reverses Kanye West Waves (2016)
Nika Son The Wildness Of Waves (2016)
Jana Winderen bára (2017)
Ayako Sato Namimani (Among The Waves) (2011)
John Melillo/Algae & Tentacles Waves 1 (2013)
Bob Sturm Pacific Pulse (2003)
Spanner (Paul Bendza and Rob Power) Wave (2006)
Lou Hoyer Symphony For Wind And Waves (2018)
This month’s New York magazine features a set of articles about popular music today and why questions of plagiarism seem to dog so many hit songs. I was happy to contribute an article teasing out the controversies around Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” by taking a musicological deep-dive into the disputed musical figure in question, a resurgently popular rhythm that some would call a Scotch Snap.
You can find an online version, complete with technomusicological examples — a few mashups and a mini-mega-mix! — over at Vulture. They’ve gone and slicked up the Ableton screengrabs I made, which is nice, but I also like the charm and simplicity (especially the ability to track audio, notation, and video) of the originals. Here, for instance, is the Scotch Snap megamix I worked up — just follow the bouncing cowbell!
I first started noticing the Scotch Snap a while back, and I flagged it on the blog here in March 2014, proposing that the “remarkable spread” of the “stuttered, splattered, staccato syllables” popularized by Chicago rappers Lil Reese and Chief Keef made it second only to the Migos flow. I noted that it was already a trope among such pop singers as Rihanna and Beyonce, and I suggested that “perhaps I need to make a supercut to make my point.”
Well, it only took me 5 years, but here we are. How funny to look back, especially in the wake of this Ariana Grande piece, and see myself writing that “far as I can tell, that Chicago drill flow has less of a history than 8th note triplets.” Now I can tell farther. Far farther. As I explore in the article, while it’s important to recognize how rappers have crucially contributed to the vogue for this rhythm, the Scotch Snap has a long history, spanning all manner of music in the United States and pointing back to Scotland (as well as West Africa). In the words of musicologist Philip Tagg,
The Scotch snap is used by Henry Purcell, Béla Bartók, Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie, Stevie Wonder, Ry Cooder, James Brown, Buck Owens etc., etc., etc. You’ll find it in Strathspeys, traditional English ballads, Appalachian fiddling, string band music, spirituals, white gospel, black gospel, rock music, even in West African time lines, but you won’t hear it in mariachi, mbaqanga or MPB, nor in the musics of South or Central Europe, including (continental) European art music.
I’m indebted to Tagg’s amazing video on the Scotch Snap for helping me connect all these dots. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t reference his video in that blog post. I count Tagg as a technomusicological pioneer and have been assigning his videos in my classes for years. (Tagg’s Milksap Montage is a classic mega-mix of 52 midcentury pop songs using the same 4 chords, and it helped convince me that mega-mixes and montages could compellingly tell musicological stories.)
Going through my records, I see that I even emailed him back in May 2011, as soon as he shared his video with the IASPM list. I was eager to report that one could also hear the Scotch Snap in current rap songs, such as Travis Porter’s “Make It Rain” — an example that I probably should have included in my mega-mix, especially as it comes out around the same time as “Pretty Boy Swag,” which Soulja Boy would like to pose as patient zero for this rhythmic meme.
While we’re on the topic of additional examples, if I had another crack at the mega-mix — and thought people could deal with a few more minutes of follow-the-cowbell — I would definitely add Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” BTS’s “Fake Love,” Rich Brian’s “Dat $tick,” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Swerve,” each of which shows how the rhythm, as (re-)popularized by rappers, has gone global and jumped genre-lines.
But telling as much of the story as my mini-mega-mix does is maybe enough, and a little late is better than never. That said, having filed the story and produced the mix back in February, I was gutted to get scooped by popular YouTube music-explainer, Adam Neely, who published a Scotch Snap video covering a lot of the same ground — and also pivoting on Ariana Grande — in the middle of March, as my own work was slowly working its way through fact-checking and other editorial processes. So it goes. Like the rhythm itself, this story has been in the air, and “7 Rings” made as good a platform for telling it as any.
Neely’s a Berklee alum, and my students brought his work to my attention last year. I like what he does (especially his Giant Steps / music+math piece), and he did a fine job on the Scotch Snap story. In the end, Neely gets more into the musical and linguistic weeds, where my article focuses more on the historical context and questions of plagiarism and appropriation. They can complement each other, to be sure. (I just wish my own video could do numbers like his, which, in under a month, has netted nearly half a million views!) I’m grateful that he linked to my montage and added my name to the credits, where, par for the course, I discovered that a French fellow was walking this trail back in October 2018 (and used the same Purcell sample that I grabbed via Tagg).
That said, I suppose this blog is as good a space as any to express some skepticism over Neely’s suggestion that the beat of dancehall and reggaeton is derived from the rhythmic tendencies of Jamaican English and Spanish. While there may be some happy overlap between that 3+3+2 beat (aka dembow) and idiomatic stress patterns in those languages, that beat is at bottom a dance rhythm — not a speech rhythm — and is far older than those languages, and more African.
I’m also not convinced that the Scotch Snap is all that (relatively) rare in Jamaican music and language, especially given that Scottish-African cultural interplay happened there too. Off the top of my head, I can recall that Elephant Man’s “The Bombing” (2001) drops Scotch Snaps throughout the verses, though I’ll have to start listening more closely for it across the reggae repertory.
While we’re talking Jamaica, allow me to include here my favorite of the souped-up videos in the article. In this case, the video design, combined with the text I prepared, serves to make clear what we’re hearing when we’re hearing it (especially if you use headphones) — far better than I do waving around my cursor. I’m glad to finally share this story with the world, especially since, although Junior Reid apparently enjoyed the mashup, he lost interest in the lawsuit and it never went anywhere. I would have been quite curious to know how persuasive this may have proven in court (or in settlement negotiations), or in the court of public opinion, to which I now submit it.
One of the problems I noticed when scanning the Scotch Snap literature is that the data — i.e., the corpora — referenced in studies such as the Temperleys’ (PDF) are deeply Eurocentric, making it difficult to come to broader conclusions about the geographical distribution of the rhythm. I’d be very curious to know what sort of patterns and proclivities would emerge given a wider, larger, and much more global sample. Perhaps the increasing popularity and recognition of the Scotch Snap will help spur more research in that vein.
I’ll be keeping my ears peeled, and now, I suspect, so will you.
If I were writing my mega-essay on reggaeton today, I’d want to make a lot more space for the Dominican Republic’s local take on the genre.
And that has only gotten truer in the 8 years since, as Dominican dembow has continued to grow, change, and gather steam, including outside of the DR. So I was thrilled that People en Español’s CHICA decided to devote so much space to the genre last month. Jennifer Mota has written the definitive piece on the genre, and while I did provide some quotes and Jenny generously cites my research, it’s a piece that I would recommend whether or not you’re a W&W fan.
Among other things, the article is careful to place Dominican dembow in the longer transnational story of reggaeton, from Jamaica to Panama, New York to Puerto Rico, while also showing how the genre has taken a distinct path from its Puerto Rican cousin. Indeed, while I had long understood dembow as a direct DR response to Playero’s and The Noise’s seminal (proto-reggaeton) mixtapes, Mota shows that Dominican producers such as DJ Boyo had been concocting their own mixed up, hyped up version of Jamaican dancehall since 1993!
In addition to showing how dembow has developed according to a distinct Dominican aesthetic, Mota also attends to critical questions of colorism, gender, and the importance of dance, including the importance of collective/solo “display” dances (i.e., not perreo) — and how such street dance videos on YouTube have been a major vector in the genre’s increasing popularity and reach.
Of course, there’s a reason one might get the space for an article like this at this particular moment in time (though even then, this is of remarkable depth and substance): dembow is hot. The genre appears on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough, especially via the popularity of El Alfa, whose high profile collaborations with Bad Bunny and Cardi B have helped bring as much recognition to the genre as it perhaps has ever seen.
One of the things that has always appealed to me about Dominican dembow is its intensity and weirdness: the density of samples, the rapid tempos, the rough, repetitive refrains. Dominican producers seemed content to pitch their music to Dominican tastes, raised on breakneck merengue, and — like Dutch bubbling — this made the music, by some measures, quite strange to outside ears and perhaps so esoteric as to resist further popularization, never mind appropriation.
That may yet remain the case for Dominican dembow. As the article notes at the outset, El Alfa has yet to push the dembow side of his sound into the mainstream. His collaboration with Cardi B tends toward conventional reggaeton / “tropical pop” and avoids the bracing tempos (except, of course, in his flow) and jarring arrangements of dembow. Framing the question in the article is a telling quote from Chael Produciendo, producer of “Mi Mami,” the collabo with Cardi–
“We understood that to hit the [mainstream] public with it out of nowhere could be overbearing so what we did was create a more pop-influenced beat so that it can touch other waters and later introduce the sound.”
El Alfa’s work with Bad Bunny gets us closer to what mainstream dembow might sound like: “Dame Ga Ge Gi Go Gu” is relentless and noisy, and the beat switch in “La Romana” — notably, moving the song away from bachata-infused trap — gets us pretty close to a dembow sound less invested in the same cherished samples but still drawing broadly on the aesthetic that emerged from such samples being potent vehicles for familiarity and innovation. In some sense, this is not unlike what (Dominican) producers Luny Tunes did to change the sound of reggaeton, redirecting the genre toward the plasticity of synths and “Latin” musical signs while still nodding subtly to the sample-based aesthetic that gave rise to the genre. (Keep your ears on the snares ;)
Whether Dominican dembow’s future parallels reggaeton’s remarkable path to mainstream success and influence remains to be seen, though I agree with the author that 2019 may be the year we find out. If Dominican dembow does take off beyond the DR, Washington Heights, and certain corners of YouTube, this article will provide an excellent guide as to why, when, and how.
In October, I spoke to Rolling Stone (always wanted to say that!) about how, in their words, “reggaeton, dancehall, baile funk, afrobeats and other diasporic styles are mixing faster than ever — without much help from the U.S. music industry.” The topic has been a sustained thesis on this blog and in my work, of course, so I was happy to talk to Elias Leight about the phenomenon, especially its historical dimensions.
Leight’s article shines light on a number of contemporary intersections in this vein while framing them against the long view, especially with regard to the question of whether we’ve entered a new, internet-abetted era of diasporic interaction. Of course, I had to connect some of my favorite dots (and “dotted” rhythms). As the article opens–
Popular musical rhythms are always skipping and skittering back and forth between Africa and its diasporic communities, from Jamaica to Brazil to Colombia and elsewhere. “That’s a process that’s been going on for a long, long time,” says musicologist Wayne Marshall, who teaches at Berklee College of Music. “What was called, for a while, Congolese rumba and then evolves into soukous — the reason it’s called rumba is because it’s [based on] Cuban son records that became popular in the Congo. It’s circular: The son doesn’t exist without that African musical heritage in the first place.”
But in recent years, the musical conversations appear to be evolving more rapidly. “YouTube in particular has intensified and accelerated that process,” Marshall says.
That’s “nu whirled music” for ya, especially in an age when we bear witness to yet another iteration of this Afro-Atlantic exchange (and indeed, I could have noted that the African heritage that informs son cubano is, more specifically, deeply Congolese!). For more context, contemporary and historical, read the rest –>
Continuing the query into historical patterns of “borrowing” and exchange, I think it’s right for Light to raise the specter of cultural appropriation in the article. Many of the artists more involved in “lateral” Afrodiasporic circulation — i.e., between Brazil and the Dominican Republic, or Jamaica and Ghana, Angola and Oriente — are “structurally” disadvantaged when it comes to exploiting their productions in the global music industry to the same degree as their North American and European counterparts. Wizkid might get sampled on a Drake track and Janet Jackson can stay fresh with an afrobeats-inflected single, but we’ve yet to see a true paradigm shift where such (extractive?) gestures are enough to open up the stage. Shakira had the best selling reggaeton single of the century before Bieber helped Fonsi take the crown. Drake and Rihanna can’t help but eat Jamaica’s food, their heartfelt homages notwithstanding.
As the article does a good job reminding, there’s a lot more out there to listen for — and a lot more that people are listening to. These “lateral” movements across the diaspora can have resounding, inspiring effects everywhere. This was true in the days when recordings could more easily cross borders than people, and it’s as true as ever in the age of increasingly centralized online platforms (YouTube, Spotify) and a vast, diverse world of producers and participants with growing access and power. We’re not there yet but I still get the sense that the wave of the future, as far as global pop, is going to be a tide all its own, on its own terms, rolling along in its own way. We’ve been watching the ripples for a while, and they’re getting bigger and bigger: take, say, the remarkable dominance of Spanish-language bangers among all YouTube uploads in 2018. (Bigup to Elias for that article too! Can’t stop sharing it with students and colleagues.) Indeed, as Eddie Cepeda argues in Pitchfork this week, we might recognize that the sea change is underway and we’re already swimming in new waters. Latin pop is American pop is Afrodiasporic pop is global pop, and if that wasn’t always the case, it’s becoming harder and harder to deny.
At the end of 2018, I’ll leave it at this: what better represents this turn (and this blog — shoutout to ol’ rabbit holes!) than a 20-year-old slice of petróleo crudo by Cutty Ranks and El Chombo proving its enduring resonance (and/or prescience) by garnering nearly a billion views in a little over 6 months?! Talk about ahead of the curve. And while I can’t resist punning on the old Panamanian name for proto-reggaeton — i.e., petróleo — I really love that this track is sweeping the world this year unadulterated and un-remixed (if not unaccompanied). It’s as raw (and refined!) as it was in the first place, way back when it introduced Cuentos de la Cripta 2 in 1998.
Cutty may mean a lot of things when he says “Dame tu cosita” (or not), and while the music industry is not the first that comes to mind, suddenly I can hear it that way too. Here’s to even bigger cosas, y olas, in 2019–
ila, a German magazine devoted to Latin America published a special issue on reggaeton this summer, including an interview with yours truly. If you kann ein bisschen Duetsch lesen (like those of us who studied vergleichende Musikwissenschaft in graduate school), then you can click on that link in the last sentence and read it there.
If not, allow me to share our exchange in English, which is how it happened. This took place back in May, and I would have a lot more to say about some of these questions at this point in this year, but I’ll no doubt have another chance soon — yet another lingering “Despacito effect.” But more on that luego/pronto.
For now, please read on for questions by Britt Weyde, editor of ila, in italics, followed by some answers.
BW: After the „despacito effect“ in 2017 – What’s the actual position of Reggaetón according to your opinion?
W&W: Reggaeton is as popular as ever, at a grassroots and industry level, and on a national/regional as well as global scale. Reggaeton enjoys a strong presence across the pop / club landscapes of the United States, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, and the wider world. YouTube not only bears witness to Despacito’s staggering 5 billion views but to a remarkable presence of reggaeton artists and tracks among the top viewed videos of all time.
BW: The worldwide success of Reggaeton – is it simply demographics (increasing latino population in the US, migrated latino Diaspora in Europe, i.e. Spain)? – or are there other reasons, for example the immense possibilities/capability of the genre to merge/fuse/integrate always other/new musical styles? Is it because Reggaeton already had started as a hybrid genre it easily continues developing/integrating other styles?
W&W: I think demographics play a role in terms of the genre’s ability to establish metropolitan beachheads around the world, but I also think you’re right that there’s a broader aesthetic resonance there. To my ears, it has a lot to do with how reggaeton takes up dancehall’s modern, electronic distillation of a classic Afrodiasporic rhythm. It’s a rhythm that itself undergirds so much of reggaeton’s ability to integrate and fuse with kindred genres. Indeed, while the sound of reggaeton has changed profoundly over the last 20 years — in step with broader trends in hip-hop, dancehall, and global club music — that bedrock rhythm has remained its lynchpin.
BW: Who are the most important/interesting artists representing the genre nowadays (according to your opinion, male and female)?
W&W: This question demands that we think about the genre’s contents — and discontents. Who represents the genre? Who has the authority to say so? Depending on how and where you locate the genre (and its boundaries), you may find that the most interesting or important things, in terms of stylistic innovation and a re-imagination of the genre’s contents, are happening along those borders of the genre (which, as I’ve chronicled, are often intensely policed and debated by reggaeton enthusiasts).
Though it had been floating around since the mid-90s, the term reggaeton only really came to prominence around 2003. Prior to that, artists and audiences were as likely to call it dembow, underground, Spanish reggae, or just reggae — or possibly even melaza (molasses) in Puerto Rico or petróleo (oil) in Panama, terms clearly linked to the genre’s black, working-class base. During the genre’s 2004-08 heyday, all manner of artists were happy to hitch their wagons to reggaeton, but after the hype died down (and perhaps a certain oversaturation), a number of artists sought to distance themselves from it, preferring more vague terms such as “música urbana.” Someone like Residente of Calle 13 rose to prominence on the reggaeton wave but he has long since embraced a range of other styles. Is he (still) a reggaeton artist? He’s definitely making some of the most ambitious and incisive music on the planet right now.
More recently, we’ve seen the rise of Latin trap as an alternative approach for a new generation of Puerto Rican and Latin American artists, and something like the #neoperreo movement queers the genre in more ways than one. Should we consider any of the artists associated with those movements part of the wider reggaeton genre? Are “soundcloud rappers” and DIY dembow scenes part of reggaeton? Are artists from the Dominican Republic, or elsewhere, who use reggaeton rhythms as part of a broader musical palette part of the genre? In which case, Amara La Negra definitely deserves attention for the ways she challenges racism within the music industry.
If the Despacito effect now entails a new wave of reggaeton, branded as such, centered in Colombia, should we consider someone like J Balvin a reggaeton artist? He’s making a strong play for global pop crossover stardom; as such, he’s certainly interesting as a force in bringing Spanish-language songs into the Anglo mainstream, and via reggaeton’s hallmark rhythms. Inevitably, such efforts will reshape the contours of the genre yet again — and inspire no end of debates.
BW: Is Colombia the new Reggaetón hotspot (since Reggaeton Superstars like Maluma, J. Balvin come from there and Nicky Jam lived there for a while)?
W&W: Clearly, Colombian artists have been making major waves for a few years now, and I might go so far as to argue that, where it once resided in San Juan, New York, or Colón, reggaeton’s new capital is arguably Medellín. Although Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are Puerto Rican, “Despacito” was co-written with a Colombian songwriter, produced by Colombian producers, and initially pitched at the Latin American audience that increasingly looks to Colombia for reggaeton hits. The success of J. Balvin, Maluma, Karol G and others are part and parcel of this wave. Despite the expansion of audience and market-share for the genre this represents, this Colombian turn is not seen by all as a positive development. Some have argued that the Colombian industry has “sanded down” reggaeton’s rough edges to produce a slicker, pop-ready sound, an aesthetic form of gentrification, blanqueamiento / whitewashing, perhaps even appropriation.
BW: What about the postcolonial promise you named in your article “from Música negra to Reggaetón Latino” – that of a convivial, cosmopolitan multiculture – on the musical level we might have got another step closer, but regarding politics we seem far more away?
W&W: Indeed, one might hear global pop today sounding as convivial and cosmopolitan as ever, undergirded by Afrodiasporic rhythms, open to far-flung musical references, and even increasingly multilingual. Meanwhile, we seem to behold a deeply acrimonious social wedge being driven between people based on racism and xenophobia. The fact that a Spanish-language song like “Despacito” would dominate the US and global pop charts during Trump’s first year in office seems downright paradoxical. For me, it actually signals that the vast majority of people are not xenophobes and do not want to build huge walls, whether physical or cultural. For all the “top-down” industry meddling that can structure things, I still think of popular music as a deeply “bottom-up” movement, and the abiding (and sometimes surging) popularity of reggaeton perhaps prefigures the next political wave to come. People who have been voting “with their feet” so to speak, dancing along to beloved polyrhythms, may one day vote together with their ballots too, though that might be an optimistic assessment of the present political circumstances.
BW: With artists like Fonsi, Maluma, Nicky Jam, J.Balvin, Natti Natasha and even Europeans like Enrique Iglesias – Did we reach another stadium of whitewashing the original mostly black music? (exception regarding mainstream superstars is Ozuna)?
W&W: I think one can make the case that, yes, the artists most effectively able to exploit reggaeton in the mass market are artists who are less constrained by anti-blackness. The “mainstream” — which is to say, middle-class consumption — at least in the United States but also across the post-colonial world, is still a sphere of racialized class order. From Elvis and the Rolling Stones through Eminem and Justin Bieber, this has been the case. I believe this is less an indictment of any of the artists that we’re discussing here, however, and more an indictment of white supremacy.
BW: In mainstream reggaetón lyrics refer mostly to romanticism and love, in many hits the reggaetoneros not only rap, nowadays they also sing (p.g. Nicky Jam, Fonsi, Iglesias) – is this still reggaeton or simply latin pop?
W&W: This line, between reggaeton and Latin pop, has often been a blurry one. Certainly, many reggaetoneros have aspired to the level of success that would allow them to operate as pop stars rather than be confined to a smaller genre. Stylistically speaking, reggaetoneros have always mixed rapping with singing, which is the Jamaican way too. If anything, we can hear the recent pop-ification of reggaeton more in the “clean” production values that characterize the Colombian style. That said, Luny Tunes and other producers were pushing reggaeton in that direction during the genre’s initial heyday, and it’s worth remembering that reggaeton itself became Latin pop on its own terms before this more recent turn in which we might hear a more thorough remaking of reggaeton style by pop-leaning producers. Originally, reggaeton was a DIY music made by working-class producers who reveled in their ability to exploit recording technologies — and let these sonic seams proudly show; today, reggaeton is increasingly produced by middle-class or elite producers who approach it not as a tradition but as a stylistic palette.
W&W: As long as racialized, patriarchal structural inequality persists, we’re going to have these debates. Reggaeton itself emerges on the margins, but as a rather macho cultural formation, it also reproduces certain forms of oppression too — especially in terms of gender and sexuality. I’ve tried to chart certain openings with regard to some of reggaeton’s “harder” stances about gender roles or sexual identities, and I think there is a great deal happening in different local scenes that challenges some of these “established” features of the genre. Given a certain degree of exclusion and objectification, I think that women and queer artists should feel free to “appropriate” the genre for their own ends, especially if in service of political critique and intervention. As I explored in my chapter in our Reggaeton book, a great deal of ink has been spilled over whether reggaeton is essentially the property of Jamaicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, “morenos,” etc. Discussions about appropriation are, at bottom, about the question of who has the right to exploit some piece of (common / communal) property and whether they reside in or outside the circle.
BW: Some of the successful reggaetoneros of the moment are doing also Trap, recovering in these tracks the gansta/macho/blinblin/objectifying women “aesthetics” (p.e. maluma – cuatro babies, ozuna – la occasion) – is Trap digging Reggaetons grave?
W&W: Given reggaeton’s recent comeback and the fact that it has maintained popularity in so many places, it is hard for me to imagine it being swiftly or simply pushed aside by something like Latin trap. Because reggaeton moved away from hip-hop references at a certain point, the genres now seem further away from each other than, say, reggaeton from dancehall reggae. But hip-hop has always been a part of reggaeton, and Latin trap — and its inevitable intersections with reggaeton — just represents another set of possibilities for collaboration and stylistic innovation.
BW: Regarding gender – there are still not so many women doing reggaeton (or at least having big success) – why?
W&W: As I mentioned above, reggaeton remains a fairly macho genre, and the entire industry is, of course, part of the wider patriarchal culture and society we live in. This has made it difficult for women to succeed in the genre, until fairly recently, unless they were willing to play the sing-song, subservient foil: e.g., Glory or Jenny La Sexy Voz. One big exception of course is Ivy Queen, though it’s notable that she came to prominence by being as tough and fierce as any man in the genre. This is remarkably similar in some ways to the rise of women rappers, many of whom approached the art as hyper-competitive and took up the themes of powerful braggadocio that characterized their male peers’ performances. Over time, though, as we have seen in hip-hop, there are always ways to subvert or break that mold, and in the same way we’ve seen a wider range of possibilities emerge among hip-hop artists (and both men and women, notably), I believe reggaeton has that potential too. Indeed, the number of women participating as artists is as large as ever and offers quite a range of approaches.
BW: On the other hand: regarding lyrics, we don’t have the monolithic macho structures anymore, in J.Balvins “Ambiente” the girl he’s interested in is kissing another girl, or Maluma is up to a quite polyamory stile in his “Felizes los cuatro” – do you share these observations?
W&W: Yes, exactly, and I think this also mirrors popular culture more widely, which has softened in its ideas about policing ideas about gender and sexuality. This is as true for, say, mainstream television as it is for, say, hip-hop and dancehall and reggaeton.
BW: What are legendary producers like Luny Tunes doing today? In ´”The chosen few” they said they would like to do things together with “the Neptunes” (but Pharell is featured in Malumas “Safari” instead) … And some of the reggaetoneros present in “the chosen few” have still success nowadays (Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam …) what about the others?
W&W: I’m afraid I don’t know what they’re up to at the moment! I wish I’d had a chance to ask DJ Nelson last week. I haven’t really kept tabs on all of these artists, though their “disappearance” is in no way exceptional for popular music. There’s always a lot of turnover and churn. It’s not an easy way to make a career. That said, this does make the careers of Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam all the more remarkable. Twenty years of popular success is impressive in any genre.
Can’t believe it took me four years to track this down, but I was happy to finally find footage of an interview I did alongside DJ Moortje with Revolt TV while in Aruba back in 2014. The interview appears to have been incorporated into Revolt’s special on the Electric Festival where we were both speaking (and where Moortje was DJing). It’s fun to be reminded what a crazy time this was: the parties were one thing, but for me, it was all about hearing more from bubbling legends like Moortje and Chuckie and soaking up more of that loopy history (and some sun).
Check it out: your boy first appears around 7:45 showing one of his favorite videos by The Noise and tweaking some Ableton clips during a lecture on the history of bubbling, and then I offer a little break down for the crew between 7:53 and 9:00. We hear from Moortje himself (incorrectly ID’d as “Moorcha”), discussing how he “pushed and pushed” rub-a-dub into bubbling, from 10:08 to 10:48.
I look like I’m having a good time hanging with Moortje, which was 100% true! I’ll never forget how he drew turntables in the sand to show how he made the records play even faster.
As I mention below, I’ve been a Balún fan for over a decade, so I was utterly thrilled when the band wrote to me earlier this year and asked if I would write the liner notes for their stunning new album, Prisma Tropical. It was a dream(pop) assignment, especially since it’s their best work to date and, though I may be biased, it is my favorite recording of 2018, hands down.
A gorgeous, meticulous combination of dreampop, Puerto Rican styles old and new, and a world of music more, Prisma Tropical finds Balún exploring the space between Puerto Rico and Brooklyn that they traverse physically, imaginatively, and emotionally. I won’t say much more, since I say enough below, but I am delighted that so many outlets — from NPR, to Remezcla, to Bandcamp — have already recognized what a great, interesting, and important record this is. (And I confess to some satisfaction in seeing my liners helping to shape the music’s reception.) This project obviously pushes a LOT of my buttons, and I hope it will for you too.
If you’re a physical media person, you’ll be glad to know that vinyl and other versions are coming, and I’m psyched that my liners will appear there as well. In classic style too: the band was inspired by the format Ansonia Records used for their back covers, which always included an album description in English and Spanish (e.g., the Arsenio album above). Toward that end, my liner notes have been felicitously translated by Mariné Pérez, and they also have been published online en español at 80grados. [Update: you can now find both the English and Spanish versions on Balún’s own website too.]
Ok, that’s plenty preamble — here’s the text. Go listen along (and support)!
When I first heard Balún over a decade ago, I was enthralled by reggaeton and wondered about other electronic music from Puerto Rico. What a thrill to discover a group of musicians making sparkling, shape-shifting synth-pop with nary a nod to dembow — as if I had found reggaeton’s chill cousin, humming techno lullabies and painting in the cool palettes of Berlin, London, or Reykjavík. San Juan? Not as obviously. But sights shift as sites shift.
Prisma Tropical reveals the band residing in Borinquen, Brooklyn, and in between — and making the most of it. Music of old cities and new ones. Sites and sounds of love and longing, home and away — electronic and acoustic, vintage and vanguard, roots and routes. Deeply local but never provincial. Heavy as luggage yet lighter than air.
Imagine all the Caribbean on one island. The saturation of the tropical prism. New York as tropical base. Resounding alongside dancehall, bachata, konpa, salsa, soca, and hip-hop, reggaeton sounds different in diasporic Greenpoint than in hometown Carolina. No longer the dominant soundscape presence, that old dembow might be recalled fondly, even missed. Lejos, más cerca.
While dreampop often evokes nonplaces, here Balún ground their otherworldly sound in Puerto Rican folk music, from the dembow to the cuatro. The band does not dabble in such traditions as guaracha, salsa, or reggaeton, however, nor do they nod in those directions without love and respect. They approach such sounds and instruments as deeply resonant resources, a musical palette charged with the power of accumulated listening, singing, and dancing. A repertory ripe for reinterpretation. Home as port of departure. Dreambow.
The opening track, “Vaivén,” sets the tone. Coquís chirping in the background. A slow melody plucked out on the cuatro. An idea from home. (To be processed elsewhere.) As the tones ring out into an enveloping wash, we’re transported. Going and coming, coming and going. A submerged dancehall beat builds steam, heralding the majestic, mysterious vistas of “La Nueva Ciudad.” Strange but familiar shapes come into focus as wispy vocals, dembow fragments, and fluttering bass tones conjure a new city, another planet, a hidden place. When the dembow loop finally fully drops for the chorus, cherished snare samples shifting every four measures like a maratón mixtape, we know we’ve arrived somewhere special. Far from a facile or ironic nod to reggaeton, the classic timbres and patterns support a new song of a different sort—a song of buoyant vocals and intimate thoughts, whispered aloud, of uplifting harmonies billowed by outboard synths, of swirling guitar ornaments channeling Reich and Fripp, of bomba barrel drums and jíbaro guitarrillos.
The album’s expansive, evocative sound is a consequence of each member playing and writing for a rotating cast of instruments and effects, from programmed synths and robotic percussion to accordions and guitar pedals, string quartets and traditional Puerto Rican lutes. Either the cuatro or its older, soprano cousin, the tiple — one built by Noraliz no less! — appear on nearly every track. (The tiple’s distinctive ring might be processed with delay inspired by the Cocteau Twins, of course, and while that may not be típico, for Balún it’s typical.) Between Nora fingerpicking across acoustic heritage, José on the beats and synths (ever in conversation with electronic subgenres old and new), Angélica’s clarion voice and soaring string arrangements, and Raúl providing mesmerizing, percussive guitar lines, Balún bring a wealth of resources and references into the mix.
This time around the lead instruments on each song are acoustic and meant to be played live. Producer Lawson White encouraged Balún to bring acoustic instruments to the fore and explore what they had to say. The approach speaks volumes, infusing the band’s music with new (and old) idioms. White, who has added countless ideas and production touches, horn arrangements and marimba lines, deserves praise for pushing the band to realize such an ambitious vision. The album is brilliantly conceived, recorded, mixed, and sequenced. It shines as it should.
While Angélica, Nora, José, Raúl, and Lawson steer the ship, Prisma Tropical is an extended ensemble work, including Antibalas horns, an all-female string quartet, drummer Henry Cole accompanying programmed loops with panache, and among other contributions, numerous appearances by Obanilú Allende playing bomba drums, Enrique Bayoan on Andean panpipes and an Argentinian drum that can be heard a league away, and various friends pitching in on production and backup vocals.
It would be a fool’s errand to list all that is packed into these songs, so dense is the album with allusion, collaboration, and inspiration. A multitude of colors and contrasts appear within and across tracks, a distinctive and remarkable stylistic versatility and fluency at the service of some wonderful songs. Cruzando bordes sin pensarlo. Whimsical turns make forms that delight and surprise, while a pop sensibility smooths experimental edges (but not too much). That Balún pack so much into a single hour of music is no small achievement. Listen closely and make the connections you need to make yourself.
But don’t miss the nod to the customary son montuno opening of “El Flamboyán,” a guaracha popularized by El Cuarteto Mayarí, on “Coralina,” which opens the B-side of the album. Or the glorious jungle coda of “El Espanto”! Or the way that “Pulsos” glides from Afrobeat to prog rock before building into a disco-era Salsoul burner that I wish David Mancuso could have lived to hear. Or the shimmering outro, “Reflejo,” five reverberant minutes of rippling guitar, occasionally interrupted by blasts of effects — a moment to gaze at one’s shoes and reflect, to wonder where we’ve been, where we’re at, where we’re going.
The “Despacito” effect continues. That is to say, I continue to receive media inquiries about reggaeton a good year after the song’s triumphant run. And while I’ve started to get a little tired of the same questions, this newfound enthusiasm over and curiosity about reggaeton has also resulted in some cool invitations and some strong media. Allow me to round up a little of it here.
First, I want to say that I had an absolute blast talking with Uproot Andy, Riobamba, Isabelia Herrera, and, of course, reggaeton pioneer DJ Nelson at the Redbull Music Festival back in May. We did a live version of Andy’s and Sara’s internet radio show, “Bien Buena,” where the three of us essentially took turns asking Nelson to recount some of the highlights of his career and the genre’s history. Alas, I don’t think the audio is available, though I’m hoping it might one day appear. Really, though, I would die for a video of the event, especially the moment where Nelson reached over and played classic reggaeton drum sounds that I had loaded on my laptop, noting which particular drums he himself had sampled! (I was in reggaeton scholar heaven at that moment, as anyone who was there will attest.) At least I’ve got this sweet photo to show for it —
That said, I do have some excellent video to share courtesy of Al-Jazeera Plus, who recently produced two short pieces about reggaeton, race, gender, and a host of other issues. In addition to yours truly looking academic in a Berklee classroom, there are some really wonderful performers and scholars who contribute to the videos (and AJ+ was fortunate to find out about the Redbull festival in time to catch up with the likes of DJ Negro and Ivy Queen). Here’s the first one —
The second video, focused on the role of women in reggaeton, does not appear to be on YouTube, but you can watch it on Twitter or FB.
Recently, Eddie tweeted that “We need more reggaeton scholars.” I absolutely agree, though I can’t help but feel that Eddie is a little sick of citing me LOL. Anyway, the game is wide open, and work is being done. I hope all this activity can help to stimulate a next generation of people writing about this music, and I remain humbled by the contributions I’ve made as an engaged outsider.
Ok, one more thing, as reggaeton does figure in it (yet again). Below I will embed a video of my keynote, “From Breakbeats to Fruity Loops. Small Sounds and Scenes in the Age of the DAW,” delivered last December at the “Future Sound of Pop Music” symposium at Bern University of the Arts. As the title suggests, I’m interested in a variety of scenes in which creative re-use of communal, cherished sounds becomes absolutely central. In the keynote I discuss reggaeton in those terms (and demonstrate some dembow), alongside hip-hop, bubbling, and ballroom. Here’s the abstract for a little more detail:
In contrast to the aesthetics fostered by turntable practice in the 1970s and by the first generation of digital samplers in the 80s – both oriented toward vinyl-based repertories and familiar grooves – a more atomized approach to sample-based music has emerged over the last decade in the wake of widespread access to music software and broadband access to a global musical archive. The advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW), especially the virtual step-sequencer known as FL Studio (or Fruity Loops), has served to extend and intensify the sample-based practices of previous generations. This is especially audible in the establishment of new canons of cherished, iconic samples among certain circles of producers and of listening, dancing publics. A genre or musical public may now be based as much around a small set of samples – and their distinctive timbres – as, say, conventions of rhythm, tempo, harmony, or form. Notably, such samples can be surprisingly small as they speak volumes.
The resonant snares of reggaeton, the tamborzao toolkit of Brazilian funk, the “Ha” stab of the ballroom/vogue scene, the “Ice Rink” clink percolating through UK club music and beyond – and let’s not forget the myriad emulations of practically every drum machine Roland produced in the 1980s – all of these serve as potent cultural dogwhistles, addressing musical publics and shared among private and public networks of producers. Today, musical publics gathered around all manner of popular (and obscure) electronic dance music are more likely to be hailed by a set of brief sonic signifiers than by looping breakbeats or well-worn melodies; the new instrument of choice, the DAW, looms as large over this ascendant approach as the turntable or the guitar did in their own heydays.
This atomized, “timbral” turn in musical production would thus seem to reiterate the familiar story of how profoundly an instrument can shape the sound of music through its particular affordances and constraints – even an instrument so seemingly “neutral” as an “empty” DAW. At the same time, we also bear witness to the ways musicians (and the listening/dancing publics implicated by their productions) inevitably use instruments according to particular cultural logics, political economies, and social contexts. This lecture will explore and examine some of these scenes and sounds, probing the implications for creativity and authorship, ownership and participation, repertory and community.
Last summer I was invited by Small Axe, a journal I have long wanted to write for, to take part in a book discussion of Louis Chude-Sokei’s engrossing, ambitious The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics. I’ve enjoyed Chude-Sokei’s perspectives on dancehall, Nigerian 419 scammers, and Bert Williams for years, and I was already planning to give the new book a good read, so this was an excellent opportunity. The journal was looking for more of a “response” than a traditional review, so I decided to focus on the critical musical threads of the book and, in particular, how they might contribute to discussions in music (and sound) studies, especially for those of us concerned with histories of diaspora and race (and, yes, reggae–among other things).
Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics offers an intricately nested account of the historical relationship between race and technology, or in his words, “a broader reading of the historical and cultural context that allowed those equivalences between blacks and machines to be sensible in the first place” (5). As that framing suggests, the work offers an entwined genealogy of black claims to humanity and human fears of robot uprisings, with profound implications for how we continue to imagine the boundaries of humanity. Works of science fiction and key historical vignettes serve as Chude-Sokei’s primary exegetical texts, but he notably places black music–or more specifically, sound production–at the center of his account. What makes such an approach “structurally and philosophically possible,” he argues, “is the awareness that black music–from jazz to reggae, hip-hop to electronic dance music–has always been the primary space of direct black interaction with technology and informatics” (5).
Chude-Sokei is careful to stress, therefore, that “this is not a book about music”; rather, music serves as “a thread linking the various texts and contexts, secondary only to science fiction, which itself is subordinate to the mutually constitutive dyad of race and technology” (6). More to the point, this is not a book about music because the author is more concerned with sound, which is to say, with black music as media, or as audible interaction with technology. Without dismissing other forms of black invention, Chude-Sokei contends that music represents an exceptional domain of black technological practice: “the primary zone where blacks have directly functioned as innovators in technology’s usage” and “a space where black inventiveness has rarely or successfully been questioned” (5). Hence, to focus on music “as a space of sound and sound production is to reorient our listening … toward how blacks directly engage information and technology through sound” (5).
This focus on sound brings into relief a rich and complex history of interaction undercutting the persistent myth that blacks and technology are somehow opposed, or that blacks enjoy so little access to technology that such interactions can seem “either rare or adversarial, as in the well-known folktale of John Henry” (6). Chude-Sokei cites the so-called “digital divide” as a recent reiteration of this spurious story of black technological lack, a story that withers quickly in the face of the musical record: “Funny thing about these notions of race or blacks as having been victims of a digital divide is that in the very period that term gained such currency as to have become cliché, blacks in the Caribbean, America, and Europe were busy generating the most sophisticated electronic music and technology-obsessed music subcultures in history” (6). As that jump from the Caribbean to the wider world would suggest to scholars of electronic music, this is an analysis that builds on the remarkable resonance and influence of the Jamaican soundsystem and all that follows. It is more than convenient that one vernacular name for a soundsystem is simply a sound, a term that, as Chude-Sokei is quick to emphasize, “foregrounds technology and specific cultural interactions with it” (7) not unlike a great deal of Jamaican music itself, especially dub.
While it is true that the “mutually constitutive dyad of race and technology” persists as the core subject of Chude-Sokei’s book, I would like to focus on the text’s crucial musical threads in order to highlight how The Sound of Culture reorients specific histories of music, offers new openings for musicology and sound studies, and makes a case that the power of an audible, creole technopoetics can remake our very conception of the human. If, as Chude-Sokei posits, the black diaspora has generated the “most necessary theorizing and politicizing” of where we draw the lines between humans and machines “as a product of its extensive thinking about the African slave as an automaton” (8), and if, as he elaborates, this profound philosophical work has been no more forcefully put forward than by dub reggae, then there is a great deal to listen for in this work and all it brings into the mix.
The following piece was published in December 2016 in The Wire‘s special issue, Spirits Rejoice: Sacred Songs, Divine Drones, and Ritual Rhythms (#394). I was excited by the call for pitches because I’ve been connecting lots of dots in my music history courses at Berklee between sacred and secular traditions, and I’ve become more and more impressed by the profundity of their imbrication and the global heritage that has resulted from so many people insisting on what we might think of as a “funky” form of sacred, spiritual experience. (I was also delighted that they liked my title, which seemed quite irresistible in its own connecting of dots and blurring of lines.) As usual, I’m posting a slightly enhanced version here. You can download a scan if you prefer.
“The devil should not be allowed to keep all this good rhythm,” said an unattributed but oft quoted elder of the Holiness church. Staking claim to a cherished heritage of music and movement, this intent to worship funkily, it turns out, has carried the benefits of such practices well beyond the church. If not for the Holiness, Sanctified, and Pentecostal churches in the United States—particularly those embraced and transformed by African Americans–if not for their insistence on keeping rhythmic, ecstatic movement central to religious experience, the whole world might dance differently.
In traditional west and central African cosmologies, we are told, there is no song or dance that is not sacred, as there is no abstraction called music apart from communal singing and dancing. The sacred can be erotic and the erotic can be sacred. Why relegate the celebration of the body as a site of fertility, strength, and beauty to the secular? Why consider profane such forms of embodied worship, social communion, and ritual mythology? Why let the devil have all these good moves?
Prior to the Civil War, enslaved Africans creolized and reimagined traditional forms of song, dance, and ritual, most notably in the sometimes surreptitious institution of the Ring Shout. Here, to shout is not to yell but, essentially, to move together. A circle of participants shuffle counter-clockwise singing call-response refrains to polyrhythms produced with any available object, from broom sticks and washboards, to hands clapping, to feet on floors—often studiously avoiding lifting the feet off the ground, crossing legs, or other movements connoting the supposedly secular realm of “dance.”
Whatever we call such ritual movement, and wherever we draw the line between the sacred and secular, these practices nurtured by the “invisible church” of the enslaved would proceed to inform all manner of music and dance related activities across the United States and, eventually, with the circulation of popular, commercial media, far further afield.
While we don’t tend to associate the spirituals of the nineteenth century with dance music any longer, in accounts of the Camp Meetings where the genre emerged—rural, interracial gatherings of thousands that could last for days on end (sometimes with Ring Shouts in the wee hours)–contemporary observers hear the spirituals possessing a troubling connection to the rhythms of work and play. As John Watson noted in Methodist Error (1819): “the coloured people get together, and sing for hours together, short scraps of disjointed affirmations, pledges, or prayers, lengthened out with long repetition choruses.” Mashing up the hymns of the day with call-response refrains, African American worshipers enlivened these songs with the synchronizing, syncopating rhythms of work songs and hoe-downs (that is, breaks from work). “These are all sung in the merry chorus-manner of the southern harvest field, or husking-frolic method, of the slave blacks,” laments Watson, and they had “already visibly affected the religious manners of some whites.”
Scandalizing the orthodox with sacred songs that historian Eileen Southern calls “dangerously near to being dance tunes,” many spirituals share the same polyrhythms–syncretized and strengthened in the common crucibles of work and worship–as those that underpin the contemporary “secular” movements of country dances from the Virginia jig to the square dance to the Cakewalk, their caricatures in blackface minstrelsy, and their rebirth with ragtime, propelling the turn-of-the-century pop hits that got the whole nation dancing the same thrilling dances.
While the likes of Eubie Blake, Sydney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong all connect ragtime to the music of the church,* ragtime also emerges as secular dance culture via the post-emancipation rise of the jook–a new, autonomous, decidedly secular dance institution. In these raucous, raunchy spaces, group dances were pushed aside by simple steps for couples like the funky butt and the slow drag. Notably, the jook enabled a reinterpretation of time-honored ritual dances: here the buzzard lope–a form of danced mythology depicting a vulture circling carrion–could be reimagined as a coquettish flirtation with a partner. But for some, this movement from sacred to profane–is that a tailfeather or a moneymaker?–was a shame. Devil’s music. But others knew these rhythms never belonged exclusively to the devil.
Despite the jook’s ostensible monopoly on “dance,” it would be foolish to underestimate the ongoing interaction and influence between secular styles and sacred practices, especially with the rise of Sanctified and Pentecostal churches. “According to the evidence,” writes Southern, “the musical practices of the slave ‘invisible church’ were passed on to the post-emancipation folk churches with full vigor.” The Pentecostal church called for “full participation of the congregation in all its worship activities” and employed music “to a degree that probably is not attained in any other denomination.” In time, the increasing use of instrumental ensembles in churches brought “the kind of rhythmic intensity formerly associated with dance music” even more directly into sacred contexts—and vice versa. Lindy Hoppers doing the Big Apple in the late 30s broke from couples to form a ring and swing themselves around the ballroom counter-clockwise
By the time we get to the early 1960s and the Twist, a song and dance conceived by a black gospel quartet, one could argue that the dance–and the craze of related steps that soon followed–“owed a notable debt to black churchgoers,” as Elijah Wald contends: “steps that looked a lot like the mashed potato and the pony had been commonplace for decades in the less sedate black churches, where congregants seized by the spirit kicked out in footwork that the go-go dancers of the 1960s could only envy.” How ironic that Duke Ellington could be “amused to see his upscale white fans doing moves that had once been reserved for Cotton Club chorus girls” yet these same moves might be indistinguishable from movement otherwise construed as ecstatic, sacred practice.
A simple step that almost single-handedly ushered in the de-coupling of America’s dancefloors, the Twist gave women the freedom to dance on their own and to take the lead. It initiated a seismic shift in social dance norms culminating in the rise and eventual dominance of solo club dancing, an approach that comes into full flower in the 1970s underground dance scene that spawns disco–a genre with a striking penchant for churchy “divas” exploiting the full-range of gospel expressivity. Shifting from a single partner to a dynamic relationship with the dancing collective, this form of social dance can resemble a platonic ecstatic-cathartic release that even some church elders might approve. According to historian Tim Lawrence who argues that “the dance experience of the 1970s was experienced as a spiritual affair,” dancers at such seminal, proto-disco spots as the Sanctuary (a former church), the Loft, the Gallery, and other venues did not understand such dance as “the first stage of seduction”; instead, “[r]evelers refigured the dance floor not as a site of foreplay … but of spiritual communion.”
In this light, it should come as no surprise that many clubgoers, especially devotees of house and techno, think about going out dancing as “going to church.” This overlap convinced architects of Chicago’s post-disco underground to enlist powerful, church-steeped singers to belt songs over booming, entrancing beats. Jesse Saunders recounts how central “very soulful and uplifting,” gospel-inflected vocals were to the transcendent sets of Frankie Knuckles. When Saunders collaborated with Vince Lawrence on the breakthrough hit “Love Can’t Turn Around,” they recruited locally renowned choir performer Darryl Pandy for revealing reasons. “He was very churchy,” remembers Lawrence, “and we thought that the kids were into that spiritual shit, man, motherfuckers yelling and screaming on the records. So we thought that he would go over like gangbusters in the club.”
If it still seems farfetched that ecstatic religious movement could so closely resemble raving, simply seek out one of the various video mashups on YouTube tagged “church rave.” Juxtaposing footage of worshippers catching the spirit with vintage drum’n’bass sessions, these videos cheekily but compellingly make the case for the sacred, ecstatic roots of modern club dance. (Musical kinship too: check out some unadulterated “praise breaks,” often hovering between 180-200 bpm, to hear the sacred counterpoint to gabber or punk.)
Although the sacred and secular can seem so separate as to suggest such parallels are purely comical, it is important to remember how blurred these lines have long been. The ragged-up funeral marches and second-line festivities that prefigured jazz, and which continue to provide communal solace and celebration, offer enduring examples of African Americans’ persistent efforts to maintain a certain spiritual holism. Today in New Orleans that torch is carried not only by brass bands but by Big Freedia and other bounce artists who conduct twerking parties as part of a memorial service. The profanity and explicit sexuality of bounce would seem at odds with solemn religious ritual, but the elemental act of shaking one’s ass–at once, ecstatic, cathartic, expressive, and free–apparently taps into appropriately deep connections to ourselves and each other. Formerly a church choir director and still a pious Christian, Freedia has described what she does as “spreading the gospel of shaking your ass.”
Like so many of her musical forbears, Big Freedia approaches this mission generously, an ambassador of booty shaking and a believer in its therapeutic benefits. She’s even happy for the Mileys and Beckies** of the world to get their twerk on, if less sanguine about being unattributed while quoted. Forged and nurtured amidst all manner of repressions and travesties, the priceless joys of such dances constitute a hard-won prize for many, yet these deeply resonant forms have traveled beyond the circle rapidly at every historical juncture. They now stand as a kind of global cultural heritage, a way for all to dance together and transcend. If the devil were allowed to keep all this good rhythm, we’d all be damned.
* the paragraph has been condensed but I’ll paste the original here for the quotes from Bechet, et al.–
The New Orleans clarinetist Sydney Bechet resisted the term jazz as a sordid sign of white commodification and insisted that he played ragtime, a musical style he explicitly connected to the spiritual tradition: “When I tell you ragtime,” Bechet wrote in his memoir, “you can feel it, there’s a spirit right in the word. It comes out of the Negro spirituals, out of [my grandfather] Omar’s way of singing, out of his rhythm.” Fellow New Orleans legend Louis Armstrong noted similar connections between popular, secular music–from ragtime to rock’n’roll–and sacred traditions: “At one time they was calling it levee camp music, then in my day it was ragtime. … And all these different kinds of fantastic music you hear today–‘course its all guitars now–used to hear that way back in the old sanctified churches where the sisters used to shout til their petticoats fell down.” According to historian Dave Gilbert, the ragtime composer and piano virtuoso Eubie Blake “claimed to have first heard ragtime at his mother’s church, even though she would not have considered it that way.” This musical kinship also turns up in the popular compositions–some directly tied to downright dance crazes–of James P. Johnson, the pioneering stride pianist who wrote the “Charleston” and the tellingly titled “Carolina Shout” and who, like Blake and so many others, got his start playing piano and organ in church.
I think the jury’s still out on whether the so-called “Despacito effect” will translate into a sustained presence of Spanish-language hits in the Hot 100, in regular radio rotation, on top-level pop playlists (and not just reggaeton / Latin ones), and so forth. I’m sure the “YouTube factor” will continue to make these decisions increasingly less provincial, but so far, aside from Fonsi and Yankee, I’ve only otherwise heard J Balvin and Bad Bunny on the local Anglo hip-hop & R&B station.
I’d say, however, that there has been a pronounced effect on the public discourse about reggaeton / dembow / urban Latin pop, and that may prove a powerful factor in its own right. Despite that I get a kick — and maybe even wring a little hope — out of the implicit political statement of a song like “Despacito” dominating pop music under the most xenophobic president in decades, I agree that the song will not save us. And I am heartened to see so much critical conversation happening around the genre in the wake of new prominence and an expanding public.
Last week, I spoke with Riobamba and Uproot Andy — soon to launch a co-hosted monthly radio show called “Bien Buena” — about the history of dembow, and we discussed the implications of reggaeton moving from the social margins to the pop mainstream over the course of its history. This shift in the publics that reggaeton artists address, as I argued ten years back, paralleled the changing names and sounds of the genre: from “música negra” (a chant often heard on proto-reggaeton, underground mixtapes) to “reggaeton latino” (a Don Omar hit directly indexing a broader Latin American heritage), and from references to dancehall and hip-hop to suggestions of bachata, salsa, and other putatively Latin genres. In recent years, especially with the rise of the slick, “sanded down” Colombian sound — and a set of lighter-skinned stars — the genre has arguably undergone an additional process of blanqueamiento.
So I was glad to see — also last week — the issue taken up directly in the first post of a new column by Eddie Cepeda devoted to “reggaeton’s history, sociopolitical struggles, and its impact as a global force in music and culture.” (Notably, both the column and the radio show take their names from songs by El General, the Afro-Panamanian reggae en español pioneer who is as much a “godfather of reggaeton” as anyone.) Go ahead and read the whole thing, but I want to share the provocative and promising final paragraphs:
Reggaeton has come a long way from the besieged “música negra” of the caseríos. And it’s more important now than ever to tell the story of how it got here. Reggaeton’s increased visibility will undoubtedly lead to further dilution of the genre, which purists say is already coming in the form of the “sanded-down” new wave of Colombian artists leading the genre’s charge over the charts. The gradual blanqueamiento of a genre is nothing new. Jazz, blues, and disco have all suffered from similar battles – both from attempted regulation and from industry sanitization. The Larry Levans of yesteryear are replaced by the Diplos of today.
Musical commodification is never monolithic. There’s complex nuance in a genre’s growth. Reggaeton’s domination is important for Latinx visibility on a global scale, but at what price? As the genre increases in acceptance and popularity, it’s key to remember that it was considered low-class and dangerous when it was predominantly read as black. The image that reggaeton’s new wave of marketable, light-skinned stars portray sweeps its origins as “música negra” under the rug, and affirms colorism’s strong grip on Latin American culture. That’s not to say that the artists leading reggaeton’s pop surge shouldn’t be allowed to the party. But a truly inclusive understanding of Latinidad and its diverse, complex communities should represent all facets of it – especially the Afro-diasporic communities who created it.
I’m looking forward to reading more from Eddie, and I’m grateful for the nod/cite/link he provides to my chapter in the Reggaeton book. It’s a little stunning to me that the essay is now a decade old, and I’m thrilled that the story I tried to suss out remains relevant to the contemporary convo.
I’ve been wanting to share the article as a “freeDF” for years now, and this seems as good a moment as ever. So for those who haven’t read it yet and aren’t going to buy the book (but the book is good! get the book!) — you can download a PDF here:
Marshall, Wayne. “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization.” In Reggaeton, 19-76. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. [PDF]
I’ve also posted the PDF at this page, where you can find the musical figures / examples from the chapter and related materials.