Que Viva

make way: american express meets el angel de la independencia uptown

Allow me a little (belated) unpacking, now back from Mexico City, where I swear I will return, clunky español and all, que pronto es posible. !Que ciudad!

My principal reason for going was, as mentioned, to attend the biannual international meeting of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (popularly, awkwardly referred to either as “yaspum” or “i-aspm”). The event was hosted by Universidad Iberoamericana in Santa Fe, a ritzy area on the outskirts of the city, which was — for me — not an ideal location given its remoteness (at least an hour’s commute from city center). That said, the students, staff, and faculty at UIA were gracious hosts, plying us with midday tacos & horchata, plush bus rides, and several field trips, including a private showing of the largest ever assembled exhibition of the paintings of Frida Kahlo, brought together for the first time in the gorgeous Palacio de Bellas Artes, a magnificent building with an art nouveau exterior and art deco interior which also houses a striking set of larger-than-life Diego Rivera murals (including this one, which is downright stunning upclose). Maybe it was the altitude — MX City’s on a high plateau, making for some extraordinarily pleasant, temperate weather — but it was a breathtaking trip.

Also agitproppy, I spotted the following sign hanging over the reception desk in the Office of Media Studies at UIA, an appropriate response to the striking number of “American” franchises littering the landscape —

Other highlights from my trip included an all-too-quick walk through the truly amazing Museo Nacional de Antropología, as well as — fortunately, given that the majority of my time was spent at the conf — several interesting, well-presented papers, esp:

  • Rob Bowman‘s discussion of the timbral aspects of Marvin Gaye’s singing, specifically the role of rasp — an elusive, allusive and subtle but powerful quality that Rob zeroed in on via the magic of the unheard acapella. While consulting on a Motown DVD reissue project, Rob convinced Universal to provide the lovely feature of allowing people to listen to the separated acapellas and instrumentals of some really classic performances. Not only does this enable casual fans and aficionados to hear the well-worn in a wonderfully new way, it presents a treasure trove of instrumentals and acapellas for dstep-blenders and mashup-makers. The discs appeal much more widely, natch: according to Rob, these sets, esp the Temptations’ volume, have outsold competitive offerings from U2 and Nirvana.
  • Anahid Kassabian‘s “Hearing as a Contact Sense” explored — in dazzling fashion — the physicality of listening, the haptic dimensions of music, hearing as a “specialized sense of touch,” and effectively & provocatively brought Kode9 & Joe Nice, Deleuze & Guattari, Laura Marks & Brian Massumi into a humming, productive friction.
  • Shuchi Kothari and Nabeel Zuberi offered an engaging, media rich interpretation of the “musical bondage” between Bollywood diva Asha Bhosle and her husband, composer RD Burman. Aside from giving an entertaining overview of the duo’s relationship, collaborations, and intertwined artistic growth, Kothari and Zuberi provided a far more measured take on hip-hop’s borrowings from B’wood than I usually see, representing it as the other side of the coin to Burman’s similarly irreverent, wholesale lifting from Mancini, Morricone, Cugat, and others. When, from the audience, Tony Mitchell wondered whether hip-hop’s borrowings didn’t demonstrate a distinctive sort of “ignorance” in their samples from filmi recordings, Kothari was quick to label Burman’s own practices as quite “cavalier” in their own right. She recounted an anecdote about Burman’s reaction to opera: he liked the fat women belting and the bombast of it all, she paraphrased (as I do her), & he could care less about what it was supposed to mean, there in Europe.
  • All the way from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Joshua Schmidt’s “Fused by Paradox: Interpreting Israeli Psychedelic Electronic Dance Music Culture” was a virtuoso video-assisted presentation that sympathetically portrayed as it critiqued the trance/rave scene in Israel. Elaborating on the scene’s relationship to wider shifts in Israeli society, Schmidt found parallels along axes of individualism, materialism, & hedonism. (As happens to me on occasion — given media practices here — I was reminded that a great deal of self-critique happens in Israel, and that to conflate the actions of Olmert&co with all Israelis is akin to conflating Cheney&co with all Americans: they’re inextricable, yes, but that’s not the whole story.) At any rate, it was a great video, quite informative and provocative. Apparently it will be online soon.
  • Finally, Benjamin J. Harbert’s “Fade to Black: The Catalysis of Politics and Aesthetics in Egyptian Heavy Metal” was, as the title might imply, totally honest-to-Satan awesome. Not only did Harbert put the various manifestations of metal in Egypt into rich, sensitive, complex context, he also pursued the distorted mirror-images and disquivalent meanings of the monster figure in US/UK and Egyptian metal, an abominable but attractive merging of self&other, classical&grotesque so iconic to metal imagery, and which surprisingly opens out into orientalist fantasies on one side and unironic appropriations thereof on the other. He drew a fine and detailed portrait, and offered up some awesome audio to boot. (Keep your ears out for a compilation of Egyptian metal from Harbert.)

Ben’s paper also holds the virtue of having introduced me — and everyone else in the room, I think — to the Alexandria-based band, Odious, who utterly and completely rock, as they say, with their combo of Egyptian traditional music and (cookie-)monster metal, and which this site (based in the “Central American Vastlands”) describes as “Exotic Black Metal Attack from Africa!!!

Take, for example, the full-on fieldrecording thrashup, “Poems Hidden on Black Walls” —

or the epic stylistic synthcollage of “Split Punishment” (but don’t mosh too hard, habibi)

I’m sorry to report that I didn’t get a chance to check out Kongatron y su Kongatronix @ La Bipolar (but thx for the tip, Srs. Frikstailers, and the invite, Hugo), nor did I get to go “digging” (subway CD-vendor stylee) for mucha banda para rebajar, as I had hoped to.

I really only hardly scratched the surface of Mexico City, so I have an intense urge to return soon.

Fortunately, one can find bits and bytes of Mexico, always and increasingly, all over the US. (Though Massachusetts is way behind Illinois, I gotta say: Chicago — I’ve been telling people — felt to me como una ciudad mexicana.) So the banda rebajada, is on the way, some way or other, yo te prometo.

All I can say for now is hasta pronto, you big, beautiful, sucio city!