Archive of posts tagged with "nation"

January 7th, 2011

Dembow Criollo

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. Generally referred to as dembow (rather than reggaeton) — or dembow dominicano, to signal a certain national(istic) distinction — the Dominican artists and producers working in the style essentially proceed as if the reggaeton boom never happened, as if Luny Tunes’ once hegemonic synth-romps never held sway.

Instead, the same building-blocks that were in place in Puerto Rico in the 90s, back when Puerto Ricans were themselves often calling the genre dembow, remain the basic resources for new performances and recordings. And whereas Playero and the Noise had to wrest their cut-and-paste collages out of clunky if cherished hardware, today’s digital domain means its easier than ever for some kid to grab a snare here, a hi-hat there, a beloved synth-stab, etc. Consequently, dembow dominicano is catching grassroots fire, on the internet, on the island, and in the diaspora.

I’ve blogged a little about the offshoot style known as jerkbow and about the mini-mixes of DJ Scuff, one of the premier producers and party-rockers of the scene — in particular, in order to show that “reggaeton” (or whatever we want to call it) is, despite pronouncement after pronouncement, far from “dead” — but I think it’s time to take a deeper dive into some Dominican dembow rabbitholes, since I’ve just returned from a little virtual spelunking. (And in case you missed it in a recent post, here’s a link to DJ Effresh’s dembow roundup from last spring, and here’s a link to a followup from later in the year.)

My co-editor/compi Raquel Rivera is to blame for this most recent jaunt. Yesterday morning she brought to my attention a series of articles published in El Caribe this week. Mostly penned by local music journo José Nova, the series mixes reportage with a certain romanticism in order to offer an informative, supportive view of the formerly marginal but now ubiquitous sound.

An article on dembow’s origins nods to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Panama before rehearsing the genre’s local history, including nods to Dominican contemporaries of Playero’s such as DJ Boyo, who notes that they were listening to the same sources that inspired their PR brethren:

En el 1993 comencé a escuchar a Shabba Ranks y a otras grandes estrellas del reggae, y dije: esa música me gusta… tomé la pista de la canción “Wake the Man”, de Cutty Ranks, y le hice este sencillo que tuvo una buena acogida.

But before long the localized mashup emanating from San Juan clearly made its mark in DR, and productions there have more closely resembled PR’s dancehall bricolage than, say, Panama’s direct emulation. While a small, steady dembow scene appears to have persevered in the intervening years, Nova points to the “viral” success of Boyo’s “La Gorda Budusca” (w/ PR vocalists Maicol y Manuel) and, later, Doble T & El Crow’s “Pepe” as initiating a new turn for the genre — an era of unprecedented popularity and widespread participation.

One of the hallmarks of dembow dominicano in its resurgent form — certainly as typified by “Pepe” — is how much it marks itself as homegrown, especially in the videos made to promote the songs, artists, producers, and associated brands. The internet, especially YouTube, has been central to this development, though Nova is careful to connect the easy distro of web2.0 to previous alternative distribution and promotion methods, namely hand-to-hand “piracy” (which is how Playero’s early tapes circulated as well).

Indeed, according to Nova, dembow’s remarkable popularity in DR today is especially striking because it has managed to dominate the soundscape without traversing the traditional media route. Another article, focusing on the role of the internet in the dembow scene, begins thusly:

Se escucha por todas partes. Es el ritmo de moda. Ha dejado sin efecto la teoría de que para sonar en la radio o en las discotecas los cantantes deben pagar “payola” o ser una figura consagrada de la música. No es así.

[You hear it everywhere. It’s the rhythm of the day. It has invalidated the theory that to be heard on the radio or in clubs artists must pay “payola” or be a consecrated figure of music. Not so.]

And it ends by noting that the grassroots popularity of the music, as evidenced by millions of YouTube views as well as the sheer ubiquity of the beat in meatspace, has, in turn, forced established media outlets, especially radio and TV, to embrace the genre. Nova quotes radio disc-jock Sandy Vásquez (aka Sandy Sandy), who says that radio has to keep up with what’s hot on the streets and in the clubs, lest the kids just switch the station:

Si notamos, los temas primero se han pegado en las calles (lamentablemente para la industria, pero gracias a los discos pirateados), en las discotecas e indudablemente en el Internet, y luego la radio se ha visto obligada a sonarlos para entrar a la competencia, porque sino la juventud te cambia de dial.

One overriding point in the series is that dembow has emerged as a national style, a national music. It would seem that dembow has been nationalized — and is felt as deeply Dominican, at least by its legion devotees — in the same way as, say, the Congolese made “rumba” their own. The occasional use of the term “dembow criollo” (which I mainly find as a recurring cut-and-paste reference around the net) — as in calling DJ Boyo (or Bollo?), “el padre del Dembow criollo” — would seem to suggest a certain sense of local hybridization. Perhaps the clearest statement of this outright identification is a recent posse cut that brings together upwards of 15 of the scene’s biggest stars. It is titled, simply, “Yo Soy Dembow”:

Eagle-eared, reggae-loving listeners will no doubt pick out snatches of some of the most popular dancehall riddims of the 1990s, including Bam Bam / Murder She Wrote / Fever Pitch, Dem Bow / Pocoman Jam, Drum Song / Hot This Year, Stalag, and others — not to mention a nod or two to some iconic hip-hop beats (the “Mardi Gras” break, the beat from Slick Rick’s “Mona Lisa”). This is par for the course for dembow dominicano, or for PR’s proto-reggaeton — both of which (re)cycle through this set of sonic signposts ad infinitum.

Listeners less versed in the twisted transformations of Shabba’s “Dem Bow” into reggaeton’s dembow might be a little perplexed by this turn. Jamaicans in particular would no doubt be bemused by such a statement. “I am they bow,” it seems to say, at least to Jamaicans. We’ve gone from Nando Boom translating Shabba directly into Spanish and calling on audiences to “put up your hand if you’re not a bow” to artists themselves proclaiming “I am dembow”!

Of course, those questions are extra-local and academic to say the least. At this point, in the Dominican Republic, as in Puerto Rico, “dembow” simply translates as “this awesome music of ours with that great beat.” It’s no surprise that leaders of the new school such as Pablo Piddy have recorded several songs with dembow in the title, among them the self-consciously nationalizing “Quisqueyano Dembow.”

The video for Piddy’s “Si Tu Quiere Dembow” is a fine example of the genre’s largely rough-hewn, real-walk aesthetic, complete with contact numbers for bookings and other opportunities:

But while it’s a fully nationalized style, and pretty “throwback” in sonic profile, dembow artists and audiences simultaneously insert themselves into today’s global flows. The “jerkbow” stuff is, of course, one clear example of this, looking toward LA, but others nod to JA, giving glimpses of how, perhaps unsurprisingly, contemporary dancehall style — especially sartorial taste and dance moves — can comfortably fit pon top of yesteryear’s dancehall riddims:

Of course, for all its distance from reggaeton, Dominican dembow shares a great deal with it — everything except the slick industrial integration and accordant aesthetics, pretty much. Like reggaeton prior to its formal commercialization, dembow is pretty raw stuff, carrying DIY production values, issuing from “the street” (i.e., the underclass), and pushing plenty of bourgeois buttons. So you probably won’t be surprised, if you’re familiar with the arguments around reggaeton (and its forbears, dancehall and hip-hop), that the articles have already invited a couple comments dismissing any value the music might have and, indeed, calling for an outright ban on the genre:

juanito: Esa musica es la musica que insita a la violencia PROHIBANLA y YA!….JOder!

luis: esa musica entre comilla lo unico que trae es reverdia una reverdia pendeja poner los niños mas malcriaos de los que son gran musica no la ponga y ya denle banda a eso

Moreover, as this Chosen Few-produced posse cut shows, lots of DR’s dembow stars are also happy getting down with comtemporary reggaeton style (that is, “con adornos de música electrónica“). I’m sure, despite having a decent and distinctive thing going, that they see no good reason to cut themselves off from new avenues to promote themselves and sustain, or expand, what they’re doing:

As a sort of middle-ground, and perhaps a sign of things to come, Secreto’s “Pa Que Te De” manages to have its cake and eat it too, juxtaposing high-res imagery and production values with dembow’s signature low-fi sonic palette (including samples from “Murder She Wrote” and an awesomely pitched-around synth-stab from “Hot This Year”):

But for my clickthroughs (since g0d knows how one could spend money on this stuff), I’ll take a goofball homemade vid any day:

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September 2nd, 2010

Global Reggae

Next week I begin teaching my second course at MIT. It’s a new syllabus, though it draws on certain materials I’ve used before. In contrast to previous offerings, however, this will be the first time I teach a class with a primary focus on reggae outside of Jamaica — on what I’m calling here “global reggae” or “reggae as transnational culture.”

No doubt we’ll encounter a good number of themes resonant with the inextricably related subject of global hip-hop. But I’m also keen to identify particular dimensions of reggae’s transmission and transformation abroad that might, for significant reasons, diverge from the reception and refiguring of hip-hop around the world. We’ll let you know ;)

Meantime, if you happen to know any MIT students to whom this sort of course would appeal, by all means point them this-a-way. And if you spot any conspicuous absences in the syllabus below — a work-in-progress, as always — please do point them out, make recommendations, & feel free to offer critiques, supplements, and blessings.

global reggae: reggae as transnational culture

21F.035 / 21M.539 Topics in Culture and Globalization
Global Reggae: Reggae as Transnational Culture

Fall 2010
MIT

Wayne Marshall
Mellon Fellow in the Humanities
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Music and Theater Arts

Tuesday/Thursday 12:30-2:00 pm
Room 14N-217

COURSE DESCRIPTION

Reggae is incontestably one of the most popular musics in the world. Despite its origins in the working-class urban culture of the relatively small country of Jamaica, reggae artists have powerfully projected their voices outward (in part via the imperial networks of the UK and USA) and one can hear reggae today in almost any corner of the globe—not just Jamaican reggae, but local versions and fusions with nearly every other conceivable genre. Reggae precedes the global reach of its progeny, hip-hop, but, in its dancehall guise, it has also in turn piggybacked on hip-hop’s own impressive international spread. As remix approaches and massive sound systems have become increasingly common worldwide, reggae stands as a remarkably influential template for world music, electronic dance music, and popular music more generally. Itself constituted by international flows of music and musicians but increasingly produced outside of Jamaica, reggae thus offers a rich resource for the examination of today’s global circulations of music and media.

This course considers reggae, or Jamaican popular music more generally—in its various forms (ska, rocksteady, roots, dancehall)—as constituted by international movements and exchanges and as a product that circulates globally in complex ways, cast variously as Jamaican, Caribbean, Afrodiasporic, and/or black, and recast through the cultural logics of the new spaces it enters, the new soundscapes it permeates. By reading across the reggae literature, as well as considering reggae texts themselves (songs, films, videos, and images), we will scrutinize the different interpretations of reggae’s significance and the implications of different interpretations of the story of Jamaica and its music. We will attend in particular to how reggae informs notions of selfhood and nationhood, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, religion and politics—in particular places and at particular times.

Although Bob Marley still serves as the most ubiquitous symbol of reggae (and, indeed, of Jamaica), the reggae tradition and repertory go far deeper and represent a great deal to listeners and practitioners. In its shifting shapes and forms the genre has served for four decades as a potent symbol of independence and social critique, communitarian commitment as well as rugged individualism. While certain core values appear regularly in reggae, the genre also offers a rather flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions, from Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression. Perhaps most notably, reggae has made such scripts of personhood and nationhood available not only to Jamaicans but to people around the world who have adopted the genre’s gestures as their own.

Beginning with a consideration of how Jamaica’s popular music industry emerged out of transnational exchanges, the course will proceed to focus on reggae’s circulation outside of Jamaica via diasporic networks and commercial mediascapes. Attending to how the genre’s pliable but distinct forms have been, in turn, transformed in particular localities, the course will help to illuminate ongoing dynamics between the global and local. Among other sites, we will consider reggae’s resonance and impact elsewhere in the Anglo Caribbean (e.g., Trinidad, Barbados), the United Kingdom (including British reggae styles but also such progeny as jungle, grime, and dubstep), the United States (both as reggae per se and in hip-hop), France and Germany, Panama and Puerto Rico and other Latin American locales (e.g., Brazil), Japan and Australia, as well as West, South, and East Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Uganda).

COURSE SCHEDULE

JAMAICA

Bilby, Kenneth. “Jamaica.” In Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, ed. Peter Manuel, 143-182. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Veal, Michael. Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. [Intro & ch. 1, p. 1-44]

Thomas, Deborah. “Modern Blackness; or, Theoretical ‘Tripping’ on Black Vernacular Culture.” In Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, 230-62. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.

Chude-Sokei, Louis. “Post-Nationalist Geographies: Rasta, Ragga, and Reinventing Africa.” African Arts, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Autumn 1994): 80-84, 96.

Patterson, Orlando. “Ecumenical America: Global Culture and the American Cosmos.” World Policy Journal Vol. 11, No. 2 (1994): 103-17.

Watch: excerpts from Roots, Rock, Reggae, Harder They Come, Dancehall Queen, Third World Cop, Shottas

UNITED KINGDOM

Bennett, Louise. “Colonization in Reverse.” (1966)

Jones, Simon. Black Culture, White Youth: The Reggae Tradition from JA to UK. London: Macmillan, 1988. [ch. 2, 4, Conclusion, p. 33-56, 87-118, 231-40.]

Gilroy, Paul. “Between the Blues and the Blues Dance: Some Soundscapes of the Black Atlantic.” In The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 381-95. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2003.

Hebdige, Dick. Cut’n’Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music. London: Routledge, 1987. [ch. 11-12, p. 90-117]

Sharma, Sanjay. “Noisy Asians or ‘Asian’ Noise?” [p. 32-60] & Shirin Housee & Mukhtar Dar, “Re-Mixing Identities: ‘Off’ the Turn-Table” [p. 81-104]. In Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music. London: Zed Books, 1996.

Quinn, Steven. “Rumble In The Jungle: The Invisible History of Drum’n’Bass.” Transformations, No. 3 (May 2002): 1-12.

Watch: excerpts from Reggae In a Babylon, Babylon, Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music
Listen: “An England Story

UNITED STATES

Chang, Jeff. “Making a Name: How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent and Started Hip-Hop.” In Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005. [ch. 4, p. 67-88]

Kenner, Rob. “Dancehall,” In The Vibe History of Hip-hop, ed. Alan Light, 350-7. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Marshall, Wayne. “Follow Me Now: The Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme”
<http://wayneandwax.com/?p=137>.

Marshall, Wayne. “Hearing Hip-hop’s Jamaican Accent.” Institute for Studies in American Music Newsletter 34, no. 2 (2005): 8-9, 14-15.
<http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/isam/NewsletS05/Marshall.htm>

Koppel, Niko. “New Roots in the Bronx for a Lion of Reggae.” New York Times, April 12, 2009.
<http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/nyregion/13reggae.html>

Faraone, Chris. “Reggae Revival.” [on reggae in Boston] Boston Phoenix, May 21, 2009.
<http://thephoenix.com/boston/music/83777-reggae-revival>

Stephens, Michelle A. “Babylon’s ‘Natural Mystic’: The North American Music Industry, the Legend of Bob Marley, and the Incorporation of Transnationalism.” Cultural Studies Vol. 12, No. 2 (1998): 139–167.

Watch: excerpts from Sound Class, Marked for Death, Belly, Predator 2

COSTA RICA

Putnam, Lara. “The Weekly Reggee: The Greater Caribbean Jazz Age and Youth Dances in Limon, Costa Rica, 1930-1932.” Unpublished/forthcoming.

PANAMA

Bishop, Marlon. “Spanish Oil.” Wax Poetics 43 (September 2010).

Worfalk, Clayton. The Roots. Big Up Magazine, 2008.
<http://thebigupmagazine.com/blog/about/music/the-roots/>

Twickel, Christoph. “Reggae in Panama: Bien Tough.” & “Muévelo (Move It!): From Panama to New York and Back Again, the Story of El General.” In Reggaeton, ed. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 81-88 & 99-108. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Nwankwo, Ifeoma C. K. “The Panamanian Origins of Reggae en Español: Seeing History through ‘Los Ojos Café’ of Renato.” In Reggaeton, ed. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 89-98. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

PUERTO RICO

Giovannetti, Jorge L. “Popular Music and Culture in Puerto Rico: Jamaican and Rap Music as Cross-Cultural Symbols.” In Musical Migrations: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in the Americas, ed. Frances R. Aparicio and Cándida F. Jáquez, 81-98. New York: Palgrave, 2003.

Flores, Juan. 2004. “Creolité in the ‘Hood: Diaspora as Source and Challenge.” Centro 16, no. 2 (Fall): 283-289.

Marshall, Wayne. “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino.” In Reggaeton, ed. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 19-76. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

CUBA

Davis, Samuel Furé. “Reggae in Cuba and the Hispanic Caribbean: fluctuations and representations of identities.” Black Music Research Journal Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring 2009): 25-50.

Hansing, Katrin. “Rasta, Race and Revolution: Transnational Connections in Socialist Cuba.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2001): 733 – 747.

Baker, Geoffrey. 2009. “The Politics of Dancing.” In Reggaeton, eds. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 165-99. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Fairley, Jan. 2008. “How To Make Love With Your Clothes On: Dancing Regeton, Gender and Sexuality in Cuba.” In Reggaeton, eds. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 280-96. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

BRAZIL

Behague, Gerard. “Rap, Reggae, Rock, or Samba: The Local and the Global in Brazilian Popular Music (1985-95).” Latin American Music Review 27, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2006): 79-90.

de Araújo Pinho, Osmundo. “‘Fogo na Babilônia’: Reggae, Black Counterculture, and Globalization in Brazil.” In Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization, ed. Charles A. Perrone and Christopher Dunn (New York: Routledge, 2001), 192-206.

dos Santos Godi, Antonio J. V. “Reggae and Samba-Reggae in Bahia: A Case of Long-Distance Belonging.” In Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization, ed. Charles A. Perrone and Christopher Dunn (New York: Routledge, 2001), 207-219.

Neate, Patrick and Damian Platt. Culture Is Our Weapon: Afroreggae in the Favelas of Rio [ch 3, 4, 7, 8].

Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. [ch. 31, p. 171-5]

Watch: excerpts from Favela Rising, Favela on Blast

WEST, EAST, AND SOUTHERN AFRICA

Akindes, Simon. “Playing It ‘Loud and Straight’: Reggae, Zouglou, Mapouka and Youth Insubordination in Côte d’Ivoire.” In Playing with Identities in Contemporary Music in Africa, ed. Mai Palmberg & Annemette Kirkegaard, 86-103. Nordic Africa Institute, 2002.

McNee, Lisa. “Back From Babylon: Popular Musical Cultures of the Diaspora, Youth Culture and Identity in Francophone West Africa.” In Music, Popular Culture, Identities, ed. Richard Young, 213-228. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.

Savishinsky, Neil J. “Rastafari in the Promised Land: The Spread of a Jamaican Socioreligious Movement among the Youth of West Africa.” African Studies Review Vol. 37, No. 3 (Dec 1994): 19-50.

Remes, Pieter. “Global Popular Musics and Changing Awareness of Urban Tanzanian Youth.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 31 (1999): 1-26.

Gilman, Lisa and John Fenn. “Dance, Gender, and Popular Music in Malawi: The Case of Rap and Ragga.” Popular Music Vol. 25, No. 3 (2006): 369-81.

Watch: excerpts from Living the Hiplife, Buchaman

JAPAN

Sterling, Marvin D. Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae and Rastafari in Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010. [Intro, ch. 1, 3, 5, 6]

Dresinger, Baz. “Tokyo After Dark.” Vibe, 2002.

Wood, Joe. “The Yellow Negro.” Transition 73 (1997): 40-67.

AUSTRALIA & BALI

Maxwell, Ian. “Sydney Stylee: Hip-Hop Down Under Comin’ Up.” In Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, ed. Tony Mitchell, 259-79. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

White, Cameron. “Rapper on a Rampage: Theorising the Political Significance of Aboriginal Australian Hip Hop and Reggae.” Transforming Cultures eJournal, Vol. 4 No 1 (April 2009): 108-130.

Baulch, Emma. Making Scenes: Reggae, Punk, and Death Metal in 1990s Bali. Durham: Duke University Press, 200 [ch. 3, p. 73-90]

That’s it, for now. There are plenty of holes that I’m aware of (anything on roots reggae in Cuba, say [update: after one day of comments, that’s been ameliorated; new readings now above!]), and surely plenty more that I’m not. Then again, I’m finding the extant literature on local reggae scenes outside of Jamaica fairly impoverished at the moment. (Nothing on Italian sound systems? Really?) The course can’t exactly be comprehensive — we only have so much time — but I would love for this post to serve as a spot for collecting some good materials. So, as they say inna di dancehall, send on!

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July 23rd, 2010

Musical Travels with Seymour and Bernice, pt. 2: Brazil

This is the second post in a sporadic series here at w&w, an ongoing excavation, digitization, and interpretation of my wife’s grandparents’ record collection — i.e., the historico-musical profile of Seymour & Bernice. See here for the previous entry, and here for a note remembering Seymour.

SAMBAS

Of the many delights I’ve come across in Seymour and Bernice’s record collection, perhaps none is outweighed by the substantial number of kitschy, exotica-tinged, midcentury dance records. They reflect a time in American life when Afro-Latin forms such as mambo, rumba, samba became ballroom and parlor staples. The fact that these words all look and sound similarly is probably no accident. As Ned Sublette notes in Cuba and its Music

The largest number of African words that have come into the common Cuban vocabulary are of Bantu origin. Phonologically its legacy is instantly recognizable. Okra in Cuba is called quimbombó. That intervocalic “mb” cluster — the one that turns up in countless words like tumbao, mambo, bemba, bombo — is often (though not necessarily) a Bantu touch… (179)

But despite their semi-exotic origins (Cuba is not Long Island, though New York City was pretty Cuban by mid-century) and the way these dances and genres were marketed as ‘spicy’ and ‘flavorful’ — terms which continue to narrate the circulation of Latin-Caribbean sounds — what is particularly striking about their appearance in the record collection of a Jewish family in Rockville Center is their simultaneous mundanity, their utter familiarity, their almost unremarkable commonplaceness. Already by the mid-50s, these styles had been carefully and pretty thoroughly domesticated and popularized — i.e., successfully marketed to a non-Latin/Caribbean audience — under the direction of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios (and, no doubt, companies of its ilk), which issued a series of Perfect for Dancing compilations via RCA/Victor, complete with how-to instructions and steps. Bernice and Seymour ended up with several —

PERFECT FOR DANCING

SAMBAS

samba steps
and where, exactly, are the women’s steps? oh yeah…

Despite their somewhat campy and squarish presentation, the music collected on these discs is pretty damn good. The bands who popularized these styles were, after all, often led and staffed by seasoned performers from across the Afro/Latin/Caribbean diaspora. As you can see, the tracklist for the SAMBAS record features such renowned midcentury Brazilian musicians as violinist Fafa Lemos and singer Carlos Galhardo, as well as the likes of New York-based Cuban bandleader, José Curbelo. Not to mention — que nome! — the Carioca Swingtette (!), who may or may not be Brazilian; far as I can tell, this is their only recording.

samba tracklist

I could choose lots of tracks to share from this odd but rad compilation, but for this particular post — and for reasons that will become clear below — I’m going to highlight Fafa Lemos & co.’s version of “Brazil,” aka “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Watercolor of Brazil”) — a song composed by Ary Barroso back in 1939, and no doubt a song familiar to many, whether due to Terry Gilliam, or Walt Disney, or any number of other eruptions in popular culture (just take a glance at all these “notable versions” and appearances in film of the tune). But it’s not simply beloved abroad: in 1997, it was named “Best Brazilian Song of the Century” by a jury of 13 “experts” convened by the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Fafa Lemos and His Orch., “Brazil”
[audio:http://www.wayneandwax.com/wp/audio/fred-astaire-brazil.MP3]

As with the rest of the Astaire collection, the arrangement here is on the schmaltzy side. But there’s a rather satisfying richness in rendered chicken fat, isn’t there? For one, you’ve gotta love that moony french horn (?) in the opening, and Fafa’s violin work is quite fun throughout, playing around the melody without straying too far. Also delightful are all the little details in the orchestration, offering sweet little responses to the soloists’ calls.

But I should be more frank: there’s an unexplainable personal affinity motivating this Brazil-ian excursion. Like certain friends (check the only comment on that post), I’ve long had a softspot for the song — I love the plaintive melody over the softly chugging samba rhythms — and I was thrilled to find it a recurring theme across Seymour’s and Bernice’s record stash.

// .. Digesting the World .. //

A similar treatment to the Fred Astaire / Fafa Lemos recording, for example, can be found on volume 8, side 2 (Latin Rhythms for Dancing) of an amazing/amusing 10 record collection called Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER published by Reader’s Digest sometime in the early 1960s, I’m guessing. (Someone has taken the trouble of rapidsharing the entire boxed set, if you’re interested).

Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER

The Wonderful World of Popular Music

8. Latin Rhythms for Dancing

This being Reader’s Digest, the long-reigning “best-selling consumer magazine in the United States” before finally being unseated by Better Homes and Gardens in 2009, the packaging nods toward the (lightly) informative —

MUSIC FOR DANCING

mambos

SAMBAS

A closer look, however, reveals some pretty telling tropes, including a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too deployment of “culture” and “tribe” that primitivizes certain forms of dance music and elevating others while implicitly erasing the African heritage embodied by so many of the genres on display:

Dancing is a vital part of the lives of every culture. There are rain dances, fertility dances, war dances, marriage dances, death dances, harvest dances, and a few enlightened (or naïve) tribes even have dances with no purpose other than the pleasure of the dance itself.

The more primitive the tribe, the more primitive the music. It may only be a man beating two sticks together in rhythmic cadences. If his job is to provide an accompaniment for dancers, he is creating dance music.

Today’s dance music is considerably more sophisticated, but its essential quality is still the best — the rhythm. Underneath the melody of the mambo, the waltz, the fox trot, there is the drum — the direct descendant of the man beating two sticks together.

Nevermind that forms like mambo (elsewhere called “a musical half-breed“), included on this record, still often feature a man “beating” two sticks together (i.e., clave), or that the drum as we know it — and as it figures in this music — is basically African. The editors here draw a squiggly line from cavemen to sophisticates.

It’s not the only oddity in the notes. Ironically, for all the information proffered, the names of the musicians involved only appear in small print on the records themselves. Perhaps it’s because bandleaders like Martin Slavin, a British music director who worked in Hollywood for many years, don’t quite cut the right cloth for this sort of slighty salacious contextualization? At any rate, he whipped up a pretty entertaining version with “his orchestra” (whoever they were) —

Martin Slavin and his Orchestra, “Brazil”
[audio:http://www.wayneandwax.com/wp/audio/readers-digest-brazil.MP3]

This recording is actually a medley, beginning — and mostly concerned — with “Brazil” but then moving into two other Brazilian standards of the day, “Tico Tico” and “Copacabana” (incidentally, if you’ve never seen Ethel Smith tearing up “Tico Tico” on a Hammond organ, supported by a gaggle of percussion playing kiddies ladies “hot” for some “South American jive,” it’s not to be missed). Whoever the musicians are, they smoke, and the arrangement is surprisingly whimsical. I love the piano tinkles, the ever-present and fairly foregrounded percussion, the unexpected and repeated quotation of that ol’ circus theme song, the jazzy guitar lead, and so on. The segues are pretty damn smooth too.

I’ve wondered about what made “Brazil” so popular that it seems almost ubiquitous at the historical moment during which Seymour’s and Bernice’s record collection coalesced. Of course, there’s a strong romantic nationalism at the heart of the song, and, related to my thoughts in the previous post, I think there’s a very interesting way that such dreamy visions of foreign nationalism could serve simultaneously to shore up postwar US (not to mention US Jews’) notions of national attachment and belonging and identititity. It’s not too surprising that such a compelling portrait of another country would resonate elsewhere too. For some, conjuring a sense of national unity out of diversity and inequity is what the mystery of samba is all about.

The resonance of “Brazil” here in the US goes deeper though. As Gregzinho Scruggs explains, discussing the appearance of the song in Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942),

…while the cartoon might well have served as a tourism promotion tool, it was actually part of much larger geopolitical machinations. Disney traveled to South America and received government backing to produce films lauding our new South American friends, products of the “Good Neighbor Policy” designed to keep them under the Allies’ sphere of influence. In addition to Saludos Amigos, the American viewing public also got 1944’s The Three Caballeros. In a disappointing linguistic blunder, both chose Spanish titles even though the Portuguese-speaking Zé Carioca was a main character in both and Carmen Miranda’s younger sister features in the latter. Carmen Miranda, meanwhile, was an in-the-flesh Latin promotion effort, a story told probingly in the documentary Bananas is my Business. The symbolism and imagery of these efforts to promote Brazil to the American public were naturally one-dimensional, especially having a lily white (and Portugal-born) chanteuse singing samba, which a scant generation earlier was derided as too African.

Of course, the kind of samba being promoted was itself far from the spontaneous, impromptu tradition from which the music sprang. “Aquarela do Brasil” was a samba-exaltação (exaltation samba), patriotic in purpose and serving the interests of the dictatorial and quasi-fascist Vargas regime. It was Vargas who had institutionalized the samba parade in Rio during the 1930s, turning it into a tool of nationalist pride, making it rigid, orderly, an almost military processional. The state, in essence, co-opted a cultural form — or at least one major manifestation of it — steeped in resistance to the dominant order.

// .. Italians do it .. //

Dick Contino, It's Dance Time

The final example brings things back home in a funny but apt sort of way, as Hollywood nationalism, Ausländisch stereotypes, and American exceptionalism all seem to congeal in Dick Contino‘s swingin’ romp through the tune’s familiar strains:

Dick Contino and his Orchestra, “Brazil”
[audio:http://www.wayneandwax.com/wp/audio/dick-contino-brazil.MP3]

The Latin-ate percussion is here subsumed into jazzster kit drumming, and, in contrast to the other ensemble versions above, this one seems arranged more principally as a showcase for a supposedly showboat soloist. Contino’s relatively understated performance, however, hardly rises to the level of the liner notes’ incredible superlatives —

Now Americans do it.

“ever heard anywhere” … “never been matched” !!! — then again, even on his own current website, Contino is called “The World’s Greatest Accordionist” — & he does seem to inspire a certain admiration, strange story and all:

Dick Contino is an icon of cool. Dick Contino plays the accordion. These are not contradictory statements.

It helps that he is probably the best-looking guy to ever play the accordion for a living, handsome enough to have had his own groupies back when hardly anyone except Sinatra had groupies, handsome enough to have appeared in a few movies–and without an accordion. It also helps that he had enough scandals and brush-ups in his career to earn his tough guy merit badge. And it helped to have crime writer James Ellroy come along and mythologize Contino just about the time when he might otherwise have become a forgotten nostalgic act.

Contino’s father bought him his first accordion when he was seven, but he didn’t really take it seriously until he was 12. Within a few years, he had become so proficient, he was travelling to San Francisco, 180 miles away, for regular lessons. His big break came in 1946, when he competed on bandleader Horace Heidt’s “Youth Opportunity Talent Show.” Contino gyrated around while his fingers flew through “Lady of Spain” (condemning that song to accordion hell forever after) and won the night’s show. He returned to win the show’s grand prize for the season, and soon, he was a star in his own right, with his own string of fan clubs around the country.

Unfortunately, a couple of years later as his career was hitting full-stride, he received notice that he was being drafted to serve in the Korean War. For reasons he’s never fully explained, he ignored the notice and wound up being jailed for six months. Although he did eventually enlist and serve honorably in Korea, the “draft dodger” label hung over him for years and knocked him out of the ranks of the top stars for good. It also later provided Ellroy with the raw material for his story, “Dick Contino’s Blues,” which appears in the collection, Hollywood Nocturnes.

Contino lost his movie and recording contracts with Paramount and RCA Victor, and although he was picked up by Mercury within a year or so, his movie career dropped down to the realm of B-movies. Ironically, this raised his tough guy status significantly, for one of the few roles he got after his discharge was the cult B-movie, “Daddy-O.” Playing a badass rock ‘n’ roller and part time drug smuggler, Contino did his own driving for one of the earliest showcase car chases, doing a little Evel Knievel number to get past a roadblock. “Daddy-O” is certainly not great cinema (“That thing was like a class Z picture,” Contino said), but it ranks up there with “The Wild One” as piece of 50s rebel iconography.

This places his recording of “Brazil” — which I believe was made in the late 50s — in the second-wind of Contino’s career. And I have to say, while I wouldn’t apply such superlatives myself, I find his playing perfectly passable, tasteful even (to commit a revealing Bourdieuian sin), and the arrangement sure keeps up with the other big bands we’ve heard above. It’s pretty darn brash, really — peppy even, offering a nice contrast to the more stately, “exalted” march of other interpretations.

But beyond the inflated prose and other obvious points of interest in the liner notes — e.g., the array of (European, if incl “gypsy”) peoples who are, ahem, “doing it” — I want to call attention to the twice-used italicized phrase all yours. That sentiment, of course, is a central myth of the midcentury recording industry: that the music encoded on this slab of vinyl can in fact be possessed by the owner. This claim is distinct from earlier attempts to sell musical commodities. As Tim Taylor outlines in his excellent article, “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’,” the makers of player-pianos and player-piano rolls initially took great pains to assure consumers that they were in fact still the players of the music, that they retained control and power, that they remained central to the process of filling one’s home with music. We see by this point, however, that the rhetoric has firmly shifted: it’s not about possessing the ability to make music, it’s about possessing the music itself.

By extension, we might wonder what it means for a song like “Brazil” to become one’s possession by virtue of buying a somewhat schlocky dance record by a had-been like Dick Contino. Listening to these three instances of “Brazil” in Seymour’s and Bernice’s collection, I have to surmise that the song must have felt, in some way, as if it was all theirs, at least as long as it could also be made one’s own by their friends and neighbors and others in the (imagined) communities or various publics created/addressed by widely-circulating records like these — no doubt, markers of a certain sort of cultural distinction, an everyday worldliness available even to a modest middle-class family living out on Long Island.

At least, that’s how it sounds in my imagination. We’ll see what my daughter’s daughter’s son-in-law, should he ever exist, thinks of that.

Fred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred AstaireFred Astaire

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July 22nd, 2010

musical travels with seymour and bernice, pt. 1: points of embarkation (riddim meth0d repost)

I’m reposting this, originally published to the now-defunct Riddim Meth0d site back in January 2006, in tribute to Seymour, who passed away earlier this week. A long overdue part 2 will follow…


i don’t think we’re in rockville center anymore

with this champagne-bust of a post then, we embark.

and hence we commence our sonicultural adventure, a trip across (real) time and (imagined) space, a journey into the middle of the last century, into a middle-class home, into the middle of long island.

you may be surprised, if reminded, that the middle stands between near and far, high and low. it mediates these extremities, quite literally.

but we’re not interested so much in the literal on this voyage (at least not at this point). we’re interested in the symbolic, in the narratives that music mediates and which themselves animate musical meanings. but let’s begin with some literalities, if simply to couch the symbolic in a more meaningful, relatable context.

seymour and bernice are my wife’s maternal grandparents. they’re not my own grandparents, so i don’t know all that i should know to attempt such an excavation as this, though i hope to learn much by way of listening. recently, as becca and i visited her grandparents, seymour and bernice offered me their record collection. they haven’t had a record player for years, and bernice just got an ipod nano, so who needs a few big, heavy boxes of vinyl sitting around? i guess i do, since i accepted their offer without hesitation. there was something just too tantalizing about all those records, not just for their hidden gems and samplables, but somehow for the sum-total of their expression of a life of record collecting. what would these records say about my in-laws and their lives and the way society and culture looked and sounded to them? i had to find out.

when we returned from long island, i unpacked the boxes, went through each and every one, putting the records in piles according to the imaginary maps in my head, listening to any that caught my eye, putting aside a stack of favorites, and attempting to come to terms with the collection and what it expressed. some of the records seemed rare, some utterly common. there was more classical (and opera, specifically) than i had hoped for, but this was significant in itself (and a fine collection in its own right). the records mainly represented the era in which they were collected (i.e., the 50s and 60s), with relatively few big surprises and a fair number of delights: plenty of swing and standards, pop and dance records, a good whiff of exotica, lots of neo-folk stuff (a la pete seeger), but then a fair amount of jewish music, from the kitschy to the cantatorial, russian and yiddish folk songs to jazzed-up klezmer and israeli nationalist anthems. mostly 12s, a few 10s, and a handful of 78s. i was told that some records (mainly the russian ones) were inherited from an aunt, and that some were probably the kids’ (one of whom, my mother-in-law, will no doubt be gassed to hear the records released by her childhood summer camp — limited pressings indeed, and for good reason).

the music i plan to share with you as i go on these travels with seymour and bernice will mainly be those tracks or records which caught my attention, those that are most curious to me — and, of course, those that sound best. all things considered, this will undoubtedly be a strange trip, and i will acknowledge at the outset that it may well ultimately express my own musical imagination more strongly than it expresses anything that might relate to seymour and bernice, or their family, or mid-twentieth century long island, new york america. but that, i hope, is what might save this exercise from being the sort of thing that should be confined to one’s parlour (if one has a parlour these days). i hope that my role as curator or interpreter or whatever-you-wanna-call-me makes these travels not just bearable but enjoyable — perhaps even something in which you can participate.

i envision this venture/project/travelogue as taking a road somewhere between pace’s L.O.V.E. and jace’s vinyl rescue service (as well as the seemingly defunct stickershock). i see it as another way that riddim = method, which is to say, another way that music can express ideas, can open up into broader conversations, can provoke us to think, to contemplate, to make sense of the world. it seems that this medium’s (i.e., the internets’s) ability to share and revise, discuss and debate, tag and archive media is unparalleled in its power, and i hope to tap into that — if only partially, suggestively — to tell this story. i invite you to build the narrative with me, to riff off of it, and to start your own. i’ll lend you my ears if you lend me yours. so many record collections, so little time. but worlds upon worlds to discover. and this is as good a way in (and out) as any…

// i wish you L.O.V.E. //

the first track i will offer is from a record that caught my eye on that first day home, partly because of the stereotypically gay-parisian scene (and thus its kitsch potential) and partly because of the shiny sleeve. the song is a midcentury french pop standard, “que reste-t-il de nos amours?” — written by charles trenet. it appears on living strings at a sidewalk cafe, an LP issued in 1963 by camden RCA, whose other releases included living strings play henry mancini, the shimmering sounds of living strings, and where did the night go with the living strings. (i’ve left the telltale, and cherished [by us hip-hop folk], vinyl static around the song so as to frame it with reminders of the sound’s original material form.)

living strings, “i wish you love”
[audio:http://wayneandwax.com/riddimmeth0d/living-strings_i-wish-you-love.mp3]

right away, i’m struck by the sentimental, if not outright schmaltzy, strings — typical of pop arrangements of that era and hallmarks of what came to be known as easy listening music. the second thing that grabs my attention, though, is the mellow, latin-ate percussion. one thing that emerges from the experience of listening across many of these lounge-y records from the 50s and 60s is the degree to which latin styles permeate the parlourscape of the period. after a certain point, such signs are not exactly exotic anymore, and it’s interesting to hear the way american music absorbs various “foreign” currents to the point where they become so ubiquitous as to seem utterly unremarkable, utterly american.

after these initial impressions, i find myself following the melody, finding pleasure in tracing its romantic contours. the arrangement erupts into wonderful little surprises, however scripted, as when the flutes bubble-out their transitional riffs or when the accordian takes up the melody, giving it a decidedly (if imaginatively) french sound. (the hanging vibraphone arpeggio that concludes the song is just the sort of thing that amon tobin might employ to end one of his sample-based epics.) the song’s swelling grandeur, while predictable, is not only audible and visible (see below), it’s downright palpable — and that’s a sign of affect accomplished.

france here appears both foreign and familiar, dressed in the dulcet tones of international pop and yet fairly exotic too. the sounds themselves, and the record sleeve’s promise of “music to whisk you away to cafes international!“ express both a longing and an affinity for the foreign, perhaps even a cosmopolitanism that we might hear as progressive. but is it articulating an individual’s desire to experience different senses of place? or a generation(s)-removed nostalgia for the old world? or, perhaps, an international alignment — e.g., NATO — that may have seemed appealing in post-WWII, cold-war-era

the language of escape and difference, fantasy and distance running through the sleeve notes would seemingly point us more toward nostalgia and desire (e.g., to go abroad — a relative novelty given the recent advent of mass air travel), at least as far as the marketing team was concerned. here’re the notes from the back of the sleeve:

It’s the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, the Caffe Doney in Rome, the Cafe Demel in Vienna, and a state of mind and wistful dreams anywhere at all. This is the sidewalk cafe, a relaxed, alfresco world of wicker chairs, marble-top tables and aproned waiters – part club, part meeting place, alive with laughter and talk.

Here is the music of the sidewalk cafe – gay songs, sad songs, songs of memory.

From Germany, music of love and the warm atmosphere of “Gemutlichkeit”: Du du liegst mir im Herzen (“You Are in My Heart”); Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart; You Can’t Be True, Dear from a German Hit called “Du kannst nicht treu sein,” and the classic Lili Marlene, adopted as a world-wide favorite by American G.I.’s in World War II.

From Austria the lovely waltz Vienna, My City of Dreams.

From France, I Wish You Love (“Que reste-t-il de nos amours”), written by the French idol Charles Trenet; another French favorite, J’attendrai (“I’ll Be Yours”).

From the U.S., three lovely hits which have become sidewalk cafe favorites the world over: Play, Fiddle, Play, an entrancing waltz; My Heart Cries for You, one of the big hits of 1951, and the enchanting Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo from Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer‘s movie hit “Lili.”

it’s interesting to me that germany, austria, and france have been so thoroughly recuperated in the american imagination by this point (“warm atmosphere”?!), as well as how these particular european places don’t necessarily seem to matter so much at all. indeed, one could have one’s “wistful dreams” anywhere at all if one wants. and, what do you know, there is a direct reference to WWII and the way that europe came home, and went ‘round, with the boys. finally, the comforting notion of american global influence rears its head in the last paragraph and yet, interestingly, it appears alongside the explicit acknowledgment of the french actress who popularized the song to which they refer and of the composer, the only american composer mentioned and a man with a conspicuously cuban name.

so, i’m thinking “ambivalence,” but that’s a no-brainer. this is obviously more complex territory than that, and the decades between its production then and its reception here, as an mp3, will obviously make our hermeneutical endeavor that much more tricky (if fun).

listen again: what does it sound like to you?

// tighten your beltz //

the second example i offer you is from another record that grabbed me at first sight. again, it something about the design, rather than a verbal description of the contents, that caught my eye. the bold lines, the simple color scheme – it recalled for me various jazz records from that time, especially the modernist blue note sleeves. of course, the barry sisters are a handsome pair as well. and when i looked closer and saw the yiddish titles, my curiosity was piqued.

i put the record on immediately, and the first song proved to be the most arresting of the LP, a collection of yiddish folk/popular songs released by cadence records in the 1960s (no exact date found) under the unassuming title, the barry sisters sing.

the barry sisters, “beltz”
[audio:http://wayneandwax.com/riddimmeth0d/barry-sisters_beltz.mp3]

as the song begins, plaintive strings conjure a sense of melancholy which seems to hang in the air, heavy with dreadful anticipation, as the opening gesture comes to a rubato resolution. when the sisters’ voices enter along with the rest of the arrangement, they quickly confirm these intimations of sadness: they sound tormented by grief, like souls longing for another time and place. they embrace the tune’s minor harmonies, drawing deep pathos out of chordtones and semitones, slurring syllables and bending pitches around their heavy hearts. they sound — if i may — like jews with the blues, and that’s not meant to be a pithy cliche: on the contrary, it’s meant to describe the very sound and sentiment underlying “beltz.”

known early in their career as the bagelman sisters, the barry sisters were among the most prominent exponents of yiddish swing, a jazzed-up approach to yiddish folk songs that emerged in an era which produced swing ballads and ethnic novelties alike (and in spades), and a genre that found favor among (second and third) american jews looking for a modern expression of their cultural heritage. as you can hear, the MOR arrangement bears witness to the degree that this subcultural style partook in mainstream popular musical vocabulary (another ending on a hanging vibraphone?!), but there’s something unnervingly distinctive about the accompaniment all the same. those sweeping strings could almost evoke nat king cole or dean martin in their cartoonish sentimentality, but then, they’re a little too ominous, especially against the barry sisters’ voices. allusions to and uses of the yiddish musical vocabulary and repertory would seem partly, if not largely, to account for this elusive but qualitative difference between the music of the barry sisters and their easy listening contemporaries. and perhaps they explain why — despite the looming threat of kitsch — the song sounds, even today, not so much a curio as a hauntingly beautiful performance.

of course, it gets a little goofy in the middle, with some uplifting strains which still manage to sound fragile, fleeting. the middle section doesn’t resolve, it leads right back to the beginning, the sad refrain, the painful memories. and then, a dreamy instrumental chorus, allowing us to fill in the pictures before the sisters return at the bridge to take us slowly, (bitter)sweetly home.

as it turns out, the sisters are singing about a far-away place after all, a former home of sorts (if only in metaphorical terms), a place called beltz/belz — a small town in ukraine which was also home to a hasidic dynasty. but their song is a more generalizable tale. it is a story of mourning, of grieving for a childhood memory — of life in a shtetl — that is no more. again the historical context of the record’s production is crucial to guess at its range of reception and resonance: post-WWII, holocaust hanging heavy over the lieu de memoire that is the subject of the song. the shtetl could thus be heard as a metonym for a former life that has been destroyed, ruined, lost. i didn’t get all of this upon my first listening, but i do think the song’s power of affect evokes this sentiment rather well — almost precisely. the only words i really recognized when i first listened were “mein shtetl,” which were enough in themselves to suggest a few possible themes to me, especially when paired with the lyrics’ sorrowful setting.

the sleeve notes provided me with more grist for the mill, including no little astonishment at the strange sort of self-deprecation with which the author (identified by the initials S.D.) introduces his/her remarks. allow me to share some excerpts:

You are now reading the opening sentence of a rambling essay of some five hundred words covering the entire reverse side of this album. But, truthfully, even if you were to stop reading right now, you would still know most of the facts in the case. You have already seen the front cover. You have been advised that here are a dozen familiar and beloved melodies which have their origins in Yiddish folk and popular music. They are sung in the warm and flawless style of the Barry Sisters. Some of the songs have been composed, and all of them arranged and conducted, by Abraham Ellstein. So, then, why continue to peruse the rest of this less than immortal prose? Shouldn’t an album of music, any kind of music, speak, or, rather, sing for itself? It should. And this one does. But there is a reason for this writing. It’s a reason that has to do with a normal reaction to a new musical experience. When you hear a work of genuine beauty, stature and originality for the very first time, you just cannot let go of it. There’s that exciting urge to examine it, think about it, talk about it. And so we thought that perhaps you would care to know just a little bit more about the background of the songs and the singers since never before has there been an album of music exactly like this one.

In one sense these are melodies and rhythms that might be said to possess a definite flavor and feeling even though no two of the songs are exactly alike. Several of them are popular tunes written by well known composers but the origins of some of the others will always remain a mystery. Who knows how many thousands of years ago a Palestinian shepherd first played the original strains of Hi Hora on a primitive reed? How old is a folk song like Rozenkes und Mandlen, and who wrote it? We will never know. What we do know, however, is that each song in the album has undergone a remarkable transformation. While losing nothing of their original charm, they have taken on an illuminating and new dimension. They are still Yiddish songs but now they speak to us in the universal language of music. They belong to everyone regardless of speech or background. My Yiddishe Momma is now everybody’s Momma. Gesselle is now everybody’s street of heartbreak, nostalgia and unrequited love. Beit Mir A Bisselle and Abi Gesunt are as modern and as swingy as anything in the juke boxes.

Quite sincerely, we believe that these will be your conclusions after you have heard the album. You are probably asking yourself how was it done? Well, it didn’t happen by accident. It would be altogether accurate to say that this album has been years in preparation. It was made by people who grew up with this music, who have known it, nurtured it and loved it. First, we have the Barry Sisters, Claire and Merna. All right, they were born lucky. They discovered, quite early in life, that they had voices. Claire’s voice is high and beautiful; Merna’s is sweet and low. Constant study and arduous practise succeeded in producing the breath-taking and seemingly effortless blend that is so characteristic of their unique and lovely style. The songs in this album go back to their childhood. But even at the beginning, Claire and Merna heard these melodies in terms of other rhythms and other notes. They were born in New York and were raised on the popular music of America. From the very first, they brought a new world interpretation to an old world tune. For a while, as their many recordings, broadcasts, and club dates might indicate, they were the country’s leading exponents of what was termed Yiddish Swing. But the girls were proving something else to themselves and the public. They were demonstrating beyond any shadow of a doubt that good music can break any language barrier. Today, they are one of the country’s leading singing acts, at home with any type of song anywhere in the world. To them, this album represents a return to an early, never forgotten and still active love.

The result is music that is older than all of our ancestors and as new as this morning’s paper . . . music that springs from a single nationality, and is as universal as the United Nations.

yep, it’s pretty quaint stuff, couched in terms of newness and normalcy, of foreigness and familiarity. it describes the music as modern and “swingy” and yet timeless, as being of universal appeal — they belong to everyone — and yet “from a single nationality.” i wonder whether the universalist rhetoric was meant to appeal to non-jews or simply to jews ambivalent about their jewishness? or am i simply being naive about midcentury, metropolitan jewishness? it is interesting to me also that, apparently, zionist discourse had not yet divorced the term palestinian from any association with jewish heritage.

i could say much more, but this entry has already grown too lengthy. suffice it to say that this complex gem of a recording points us to what will inevitably be another thread running through our musical travels with seymour and bernice: the weirdness and wonders of negotiating jewishness in the post-war era, a historical moment in which israel loomed large, across which the holocaust cast its long shadow, and during which many american jews of the post-post-pogram generation (i.e., born to first- or second-generation parents), were going secular, embracing cultural notions of jewishness, and trying to figure out which traditions and values and symbols to maintain and which to let go.

or at least that’s what i imagine i hear, at least at this moment.

what do you hear?

btw, if you want to hear more from the barry sisters, stay tuned, as i will surely revisit their catalog in another installment. and for more music along these lines, check out the yiddish radio project from NPR as well as josh kun’s hippocampus. [update: see also, the idelsohn society for musical preservation, involved with such salutary projects as jews on vinyl.]

// . . . //

more perhaps than even this monstrous first entry might portend, i hope to unpack a great deal of this collection in due time, working through it and learning as i go. on the way, i hope to get some feedback from you, dear reader and listener, as well as from seymour and bernice, who will surely be tickled by all of this and who will hopefully be happy that i’m enjoying their records.

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April 29th, 2010

Moombahton, Munchiton, & Related Reggaetony Ear Candy


a moomba, apparently — no relation to afrojack, i don’t think

Reggaeton doesn’t die, it just continues to fragment and reconstitute in a thousand different ways. (Sorry about the passive language there — I don’t think reggaeton has viral/memetic agency, but I still find myself using that sort of shorthand/emphasis even when what I want to think about primarily is how particular people in particular places&times do something with the “genre”.) In this case, I’m not just talking about Dominican dembow or jerkbow, but other, equally odd revivalist fusions. I mean, it’s practically a personalized genre at this point!

First case in point: a couple weeks ago I got an email from a guy named Munchi, connecting dots and introducing prototypes —

There is this new thing going on that just has started but has huge potential. You see, I love Reggeton. But the things that came out these years (Regge-Pop) weren’t even Reggeton. I still have those great tracks on my mp3 in the time when Reggeton still was Reggeton. Althought there is a movement going on in my home country (Dominican Republic) where they use the Dembow with chopped up vocals or just make a party track, but that itself seems to be destroying the Dominican Hiphop market. Since everyone sees that the money is in the Dembow party tracks. But that is a whole other story. This type of Reggeton is just like those oldskool Playero songs.

This is a good thing but i dont see Reggeton getting out of the hole it is right now with this movement.

However, like i said there is a new thing.
You see i live in Holland and here we have Bubbling.

Holland always had its own thing i guess and with the Dutch House going strong at the moment, you certainly cant miss the Bubbling influence in it. Then of course when a couple of years ago Baltimore Club came out of nothing destroying every club in Holland ”Samir’s Theme” that influence got in it also. It evolved, just like the raggamuffin to bubbling and then dutch house (with the other genres of course). Puerto Rico and Panama had their own evolved version with Reggeton.

Now we come to the States, where the Dutch House thing is pretty big right now. Like the rest of the world. I don’t know about Reggeton but I guess it still gets played over there.

Those 2 genres met eachother there.

Dave Nada played Afrojack’s ”Moombah” (Huge Dutch House Track) & Sidney Samson’s ”Riverside” at 108 BPM. Almost Reggeton speed (96 BPM). He saw that the crowd loved it and he made the Moombahton EP.

This was just a month ago.

And I came across it and when I heard it, I couldn’t believe what i was hearing. The idea was so simple, yet THE chance for Reggeton to get out of its hole.

Eventhough that i love Reggeton, there are so many genres that are new and interesting to me. It’s all so inspiring and i want to make them all. So i haven’t been making Reggeton besides Dembow.

Yet when i heard this I immediatly made a Promo CD.
I worked the whole night and got 5 tracks.

You see Dave Nada had this fantastic idea, and with the Dutch House hype there is at the moment, its perfect. The genre is in its beginning, i dont know which way taht its going to go. I hear the Uncle Jesse rmx of whatyoudoin and i hear alot of percussion work. I hear people making the same as the original Dave Nada idea with just editing and slowing down dutch house. I also heard a juke moombahton rmx of Moombah which was fantastic. And what i did was make a house at a 108 speed with Reggeton samples. Also mixing it with cumbia/baltimore club/baile funk/merengue/miami bass/dominican dembow.

It felt so good that i could make ”Reggeton” again, with the inspiration i used to have while making it. I can see this becoming big. It has alot of odds for it, but im not even talking about that.

You see, like i mentioned before it all started with Raggamuffin. 2 different genres that evolved out of that in two different worlds are meeting eachother again after a long journey. And i think they will be stronger than ever.

Here are some links for you to check out:
http://soundcloud.com/davenada
www.nibootoo.net
http://soundcloud.com/unclejesse410/n-a-s-a-watchadoin-dj-alvaro-remix-uncle-jesse-moompatron-edit

This all happened today/yesterday, and im stoked.
I can’t wait to see this evolve and grow to something.
Let me know what you think and I hope to hear from you.

He included the five song EP, and I’ve been bumping it. (He also followed up with a buttload of bubbling videos, which I’ve not yet had the time to peruse. But, as Dave & I get grindin on that dreampipe of a book, I’ll be digging in.)

Up where they are, tempo-wise, Munchi’s tracks work well alongside Dave Nada‘s bangers and Chief Boima’s techno rumbas, and they flow well from slightly slower dancehall and reggaeton tracks. Like dembow or bubbling at their core, we hear a mix of styles indexed and flexed, suffused with some of the most cherished sounds and patterns casting about. And yet, for all their nods to the back and the side, they sound as here and now as anything. Which is to say, they sound inspired —

    >> Munchi, “La Brasilena ta Montao”

    >> Munchi, “Metele Bellaco”

I also kinda love that someone can be sent on a beatmaking binge like this. I suppose the same thing that Dave Nada put his finger on when he slowed down some Dutch house and sent a bunch of Latino highschoolers into frenzy is also vibrating over in the Netherlands (for Dominican kids especially?).

Or in California for college-going Colombian kids who grew up in Chelsea, Mass?

That’s what I have to surmise, reminded of some related sounds this past week when two Twitter frens tweeked out over the “Candy Flip Riddim”. The maker of that track, a guy named Johnny, first came to my attn last October via email from the moderator of dancehall.mobi, who pointed me to another track of his on YouTube, “Dembow Dynamics,” knowing that I’m a big fan of all things dembow. The email simply read:

I’m not sure if you guys do promo stuff but let me know if you like the sound. DIGITAL REGGAE for the world!

When I wrote to Johnny to ask about the track, he mentioned that a friend had played the track at a couple parties in Lawrence, MA, and “people were seriously diggin it.” Having done some beatmaking workshops up in Lawrence and neighboring Lowell, where I think I learned more about reggaeton than the kids learned about anything from me, I was intrigued to hear more about reggae/ton parties in Lawrence. Per Johnny:

Lawrence is the dancehall capital!!! (Strangely, I noticed that in Boston, reggaeton was bigger at spanish parties, yet in Lowell/Lawrence it was dancehall). I’m sure you probably heard of him, but if you haven’t, definitely check out Dj Styles on myspace. I remember in high school people would literally play the music straight from his page at parties, it was like the radio for Spanish people around Boston haha.

Although Johnny’s tracks could use a little help in the mastering realm (which I learned pretty quickly when trying to play them in a club setting — and which, yeah, kinda goes without saying in this brave new world of DIY/p2p music industry), I dig the mix of references in them and the way he mines the reggaeton oeuvre in the same way that reggaeton mines dancehall and hip-hop (and trancey techno too) for its own suggestive palette. Like Munchi’s experiments, Johnny’s music seems to express a return to roots (of a sort — DJ Blass is a root, right? rhizomatically speaking?) while offering an audible sense of reinvention.

I also found his description for “Dembow Dynamics” pretty interesting/provocative, especially the level of disclosure:

I want to sex dembow. This song is my representation of the night when dembow becomes a living female. My second credible riddim.

It’s funny how people say reggaeton is “dead” when in fact its creativity that’s dieing. Dembow is in my fucking SOULLLLLLLL!!!@!@!!!@!!!

I got shit from 7 different tracks:

Notch – Hay Que Bueno
Ranking Stone – Quiero Hacertelo
Don Chezina – Tra
Yaviah – Wiki Wiki
Unda Wata Riddim
Playero 41
Wisin & Yandel – Por Mi Reggae Muero

Those are directly in the track. other influences would include:

Dancehall, Diplo of course, Dj Blass, Electronica, SALSAAAAAAA, and whatever else I forgot.

Taking all these together, it’s striking how this sort of sound, shared among a few producers, can seem to voice a zeitgeist, to stand in for a multitude, when the evidence is emanating from 2-3 “bedrooms.” Funny how we can imagine a wider community of practice abstracted from but a few examples. (Or is that my tendency alone?) It makes me wonder how limited one’s claims about the meaning of this sort of “phenomenon” must be. But the fact alone of resonance — of, say, Moomahton especially, based on the rapid bloggy uptake and effusive, inspired acts like Munchi’s — seems to speak volumes about a broader (dare I say?) structure of feelings modulating with the music.

I hesitate to subsume this under the banner of global ghettotech or, as seen this week, “global ghetto house.” While there are global-ghettoey cross-currents here, as borne witness by Munchi’s and Johnny’s references to Bmore and Diplo, we might better attend to the far more specific genealogies that Munchi and Johnny draw, not to mention awesome myths of origins like Dave Nada’s. That the palette of what we’re calling here reggaeton (sometimes anachronistically) can go from largely based on hip-hop and dancehall to including a panoply of styles not limited to techno, (Dutch) house, electro, bachata, cumbia, and funk carioca, does seem to suggest that the old signposts have shifted.

The goalposts too?

[Update: Toy Selecta rightfully objects to me leaving raverton out of the constellation. He’s been mining the same turf for two years now, and raverton certainly fits into the picture here. Beyond simply rounding out the picture, Toy’s toying with reggaeton arguably made space for the likes of moombahton, finding favor at the Fader long ago. As it happens, just this week Toy unleashed his latest raverton opus, which I highly recommend.]

[Update II: Talk about timing, I see via Catchdubs that Munchi has posted a whole heap of other productions in this vein to his SoundCloud page. The Flashing Lights blog also includes a bunch of descriptions of several tracks, which go further into the sources & influences in the mix.]

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March 25th, 2010

¿Sueños de Jerkbow?

Sometimes it really does feel like I’m in Oz, some Wizard behind a curtain producing lifelike YouTubes of my swirling musical obsessions — or like that cartoon kid Simon for whom the things he drew came true

¡ via via via con dios !

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January 29th, 2010

Share Alike, Or

What Happens in Riddim Method Stays in Riddim Method

I’ve written a lot here about the “riddim method,” a cheeky term suggested by my co-author Peter Manuel to describe a well-worn practice (and in the case of our article, a distinctly Jamaican version of it). We jest, but we’re serious. In short, what we try to explain is an approach to musical materials as shared/public/communal resources which people feel a certain license to riff on, reinvent, rearrange, remix — an approach sharpened and modernized in some special ways in the soundsystem<->studio industry-ecology of L20C Kingston, and an approach long gone global via reggae’s own migrations not to mention as absorbed and additionally broadcast by hip-hop, house, jungle, garage, grime, you name it.

But just because people participate in riddim/remix culture doesn’t mean they aren’t quick to turn the screws of copyright when it suits them. As Peter and I note in our article and as Larisa’s thesis will no doubt illuminate in lots of nuanced detail, plenty of reggae artists, musicians, and producers have sued each other over the years over allegedly unauthorized examples of plagiarism or infringement or tiefing.

Take Nando Boom, for instance, one of the Panamanian pioneers of dancehall reggaespañol. My co-editor-y-compi, Raquel, told me many months ago that Sñr Boom was suing Don Omar (as well as Wisin y Yandel and their producers) for the unauthorized use of elements from his “Enfermo de Amor” in their relatively successful single, “MySpace” (a song initially discussed here way back when). So thanks to Raq for putting it on my radar, though I’ve been steadily wondering — even while sitting on a draft of this post — what’s been happening with the suit. In that regard, I gotta thank my tweep Tito for letting me know yesterday that the case was recently settled, at least between Nando Boom and Don Omar.

Indeed, it apparently was announced earlier this month that Sñr Boom was withdrawing “counterfeit charges” against Don Omar and would accept his $100k offer as “bastante” despite having turned up his nose at it for about a year and a half (he initially demanded a sum in the millions and is still waiting on W&Y to “square up”).

When I discussed “MySpace” back in June 2007, what I appreciated about it was the brief moments when Don Omar performs a retro style reggae/ton flow —

We hear a number of signposts of the new reggaeton — state-of-the-art synths, emotive harmonic progression, dembow loops — but we also hear a nostalgia for “old school” stylee in a few retro interludes (e.g., around 1:10, 2:10), complete with throw-back, flip-tongue rapping by Don Omar over a crunchy, skanking, digi-reggae loop (though I can’t quite place it) –

Jace was quick to note that the riddim itself seemed to be a version of “Night Nurse,” and about that he was right. What neither of us caught at the time was that Omar was actually directly alluding to — really, re-performing — a central phrase from Nando Boom’s own version of “Night Nurse” (and it’s worth noting that a good number of Boom’s songs, including his own big hits, have been covers of Jamaican dancehall recordings):

While taking more departures than Arzu’s siempre fiel (save for Spanish) “Amor” — including, of course, the very melody / flow and lyrics that Don Omar recites — Nando Boom’s song is itself quite audibly a version of Gregory Isaac’s rubadub classic, employing the Night Nurse riddim as well as some of Isaac’s vocal melodies (and, yeah, underlying medical conceit). Doing what Omar does in “MySpace” or what Nando does on “Enfermo” — i.e., inserting a musical mnemonic, invoking a familiar phrase — is not merely commonplace but arguably central to the poetics of reggae and its many musical kin. (Can I get a zunguzungung?)

Call it quotation, homage, allusion — we have lots of words for this sort of thing (including, I’m afraid, “interpolation,” which is an attempt to bend language & culture to the demands of commerce & its legal armature). So while there’s no disputing that Don Omar has, in a word, “copied” something from Nando Boom, there’s no way that Sñr Boom himself can avoid the same charge on the very song for which he is claiming ownership. (Or just about any other song in his “catalog,” to risk reifying another recording industry concept.)

Tego Calderon noted the inherent irony of the case a while back:



“Defamation”? Oh man, could the litigiousness get any more specious? (I better watch my mouth though, don’t?)

To his credit, Omar has essentially gone the genteel route, proclaiming himself a “caballero” all along, apologizing throughout, offering praise and respect for Nando, and offering $100k in recompense. Actually, it’s not clear how much they eventually settled for. Nando Boom will only say it’s “bastante”; he won’t specify p/q “hay secuestradores” (kidnappers).

Now, I’m not saying that Sñr Boom didn’t pay some serious dues. I feel too that, in some sense — indeed, in the same sense that applies to the pioneers of hip-hop who never got to profit from its eventual global commercial triumph — dude deserves some “reggaeton money,” if you know what I’m saying. Despite his seminal contributions to the genre, Nando Boom never made the kind of cheese that these guys have. And maybe that’s what Don Omar’s magnanimous settlement is nodding to. Still, I don’t know about shaking down random infringers participants in riddim/remix/REGGAE culture.

Among other things, it just adds to bad precedent — and I don’t mean actual legal precedent, since this never went to court, and I’m not really sure about the wider implications of a Panamanian ruling about reggae copyright infringement (except that it could be bad for a lot of Panamanian reggae artists) — I’m talking about how bad faith behavior can have chilling effects on an immense, international, interlocked system of peer-to-peer cultural norms.

I hope Wisin y Yandel and the producers of the song continue to stand their ground. Or maybe just break dude off with a micro-writing credit or something, if that’s what he’s getting at. That seems fair enough, especially if it can be dialed down to the degree to which his so-called “property” animates the song — good luck trying to calculate that, folks.

I can understand if the bad blood / press might have itself felt like bastante to Omar, but I still can’t believe he didn’t go to court over this. Would it really have cost him $100k in lawyers’ fees? (Did they really make that kinda dough with “MySpace”?) Then again, given that the Panamanian courts had apparently granted Nando Boom’s request to arrest Don Omar and Wisin y Yandel should they ever come to Panama (see last para here), who knows whether he could have beaten the charge. In a US trial, I think he might be able to make a decent argument, despite that I don’t have great faith in this country’s legal system when it comes to policing musical practice. But when the issue becomes a question of national patrimony (even if that so-called patrimony is also Jamaican), tensions can really flare.

As I’ve been noting for a while, this sort of geographical enmity / argument among reggaeton’s “stakeholders” (i.e., would-be stockholders) — in particular between Panama and Puerto Rico — animates a great deal of online discourse about reggaeton, and my chapter in the reggaeton book was an attempt to speak to and sort out the various claims. Ultimately, I try to show the various and distinctive ways that each node in the network — Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico, New York — have done their part to shape what we now call reggaeton. Clearly, not enough people have read it ;)

Nearly every blogpost, news article, and vaguely related YouTube video have played host to strongly jingoistic arguments about who is owed what in this case. See, for example, the comments from one particularly UNHINGED fellow on that blogpost about Tego pointing out Boom’s hypocrisy —

TWO DIFFERENT SONGS
P.RICANS KEEP TAKEN OUR MUSIC

CARLITO EL PANAMENO is practically calling for his gente to receive reparations from reggaeton. But shouldn’t that open the floodgates of such claims? Should reggae and hip-hop artists, in turn, shake down their legion interpreters in Panama and Puerto Rico alike? I mean, if that’s the game, better be prepared to play by those rules. If it’s true that, as is alleged, Hector El Father decided to drop a dime on Omar + W&Y, I wonder whether Nando Boom should worry about someone making a call to the Cool Ruler.

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January 11th, 2010

Acid Washed Genes

I’m thrilled that Joro-Boro is due to join us tonight for a little Beat Research. A few months ago, I received a fortuitous email from him, linking me to a new mix he’d put together, full of what he called his “favorite local dirty sounds” — a familiar if distinctive melange of polyrhythmic electronic dance music from around the world, quite in line with the kinds of kulturmash I’ve here described as nu-whirled / global-gtech / world2.0, but notably, at least as focused on sonic significations of Euro as Afro:

Decompressia Tremens Mix by joro-boro

It was a fortuitously timed email because I had recently posted a note to this blog announcing the appearance at BR of Gypsy Sound System, and the comments rapidly turned into a debate about the use of the term “Gypsy” to promote music, especially by performers who are not themselves counted among the members of the “stateless diaspora” that Rozele trenchantly invokes. Far as I can tell, entrenched as particular positions get, there’s no easy answer on this one given how dispersed and diverse the so-called Gypsy / Gitano / R(r)oma / Sinti / Tsigane experience has been and continues to be. The argument is not unlike disputes over the use of nigga/er (or black for that matter), though obviously there are important differences between these terms and their historical and contemporary uses. Put simply, while some understand gypsy as a slur, others use it in a far more neutral manner, including acts of positive self-identification. I’ve seen countless examples of the latter (now leaping out to me) in the months since.

Contentious as the discussion was, I was glad we were able to have it — and I remain grateful for the conversations that can happen here (especially as my rate of posting dwindles in the face of having two-kids-under-two). I was definitely glad that Joro-Boro decided to add his experienced and thoughtful voice to the mix, like so:

i’ve been struggling with this issue since my early days in mehanata and the release of the compilation (which i wanted to call ‘new york gadjo underground’). i realized that there is a reason why it is problematic to find a name for this music and the reason is this: there is no such thing as gypsy music!

‘gypsy music’ is a name given from outsiders, it is a totalizing machine that forces unity onto divergent cultural forms based solely on the ethnicity of their producers. yes, there are stylistic proximities between a soleá and a russian gypsy ballad, the question is can we just leave them to ethnomusicologists, since they are already in heavy market use on the festival circuit (both in the u.s. and in europe)? this reminds me of the discussions on this blog about nu-whirled music and global ghettotech. similar excluding/exoticizing operations take place when one talks about “world music” and about “gypsy music.” can one talk about “black music” today?

it seems that there was (and still is) a need to argue the historic continuity of roma identity as a tool for gaining political recognition and building a pan-roma identity (toni gatliff’s ‘latcho drom’), but that is not the same as selling tickets or cd’s by advertising a “gypsy music”. a friend of mine from berlin – dj soko – has always managed to avoid the issue by presenting his music (released on three compilations already) and his party as ‘balkanbeats’. when he started using it, the term didn’t refer to just club remixes, but any danceable music from the region (including ska, reggae, jazz and folk). soko is the only one to officially feature a popfolk singer from bulgaria (azis) on a compilation, thus breaking the brass stereotype. and on that note, i only know of one european dj who freely includes chalga and turbofolk in his mixes – dj rasputin. if you happen to know of other ones, please let me know. balkan music is surely more than just brass bands and i usually try to focus on that “more”: the decompressia mix (thank you for posting it wayne!) does start with a shantel track (covering/remixing ciguli’s ‘binaz’), but then also includes examples of both popfolk (ivana with the party mix) and chalga (amet – dogovori) and closes with a fantastic dub track done by a romanian producer with sampled vocals from esma redzepova (zgomot’s miri kamli). i attribute this to the influence of the american environment of hybridity, since it seems that european dj’s usually stay within the confines of one style (i might be wrong – birdseed, can you help me on this?)

but back to gypsy sound system: yes, it is insensitive of them to use that name for the project. and yes, they are “remarkably nice, gentle, warm people” and also my friends, but that’s beside the point. what about gypsy punk? i still think that gogol bordello should have stuck with ‘immigrant punk’ as a much more appropriate name for their style. balkan beat box attempted a neologism with ‘nu-med’ – new mediterranean music (with influences from roma traditions as well as the entire mediterranean). a poster can surely advertise ‘olah music from hungary’ or ‘wedding brass band from bulgaria’ and use “gypsy” only in a footnote as clarification (eugene from gogol bordello usually justifies his use of “gypsy” with american ignorance and fear of the audience confusing it with romanian or italian – from rome – music).

With all of that in mind, and the mix above too, I recommend you to some additional disorientalism from Joro-Boro while you note the nuances, esp in light of the comments above, of his self-description:

Joro-Boro was born in Bulgaria.

He plays and promotes Etnoteck – the dirty and uninhibited side of globalization force-fed back into a party without borders, a three-day Balkan wedding in a post-national state where noise, libido and extasy detonate the market mono-culture.

He established himself during his seven year residency at the Bulgarian Bar (Mehanata) in New York City where he produced the compilation ‘New York Gypsymania’. He is a monthly host of MoGlo (Modern Global) on Radio New York WNYE 91.5 FM.

Joro-Boro is not an artist / charlatan / mythologist. Joro De Boro could be just the opposite.

Finally, I’ll close pace Jace’s strikingly germane (and Germanic!) recent comments on how brassy Europea has worked its way into WM2.0 —

Most world music 2.0 seems to envision itself sweating in unspecified sultry climes – the word “tropical” bloomed across countless flyers this year, clueing clubbers in to a fashion aesthetic of bright colours and a non-genre-specific approach to music. Schlachthofbronx whitens up the tropical, grafting Bavarian pride onto black bass influences. Their embrace of the Euro-exotic is at once perversely funny and functional: anyone who so wishes can now spice up an Africa-themed dance party with conservative Munich volksmusik – and the crowd won’t miss a beat.

Come to the Enormous Room tonight and we’ll count together how many beats we don’t miss!

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July 21st, 2009

Nettles, Neighbors, and Nu World Music

I’ve received repeated requests to share the text I delivered in my pre-concert talk for the Nettle residency at Brandeis. It’s only taken me four months to post it here finally. Regular readers of this blog may find certain passages familiar; some are literally cut-n-pasted from posts here (where I do a lot of my thinking-aloud / work-in-progress). I’m glad so many attendees found the talk provocative — it was supposed to be — and I hope that people reading it here will also find food for thought. If I come across as something of an advocate, that’s because I am. Thanks again to Nettle for being so generous with their time and their thoughts, many of which helped to shape this speech and continue to resonate as I try to make sense of “new”/”nu” “world” music. Thanks also to all the thinkers and writers and scholars and poets, linked & quoted below, who’ve helped me shape and reshape these ideas.

Nettles, Neighbors, and Nu World Music
21 March 2009

I would like to echo Judy‘s thanks to the Rose, and to all the organizations and individuals that have made this event possible. Special thanks to Scott Edmiston and Ingrid Schorr in the Office of the Arts. And, of course, to thank all of you for attending tonight’s concert, the culminating event of what has already been a wonderful residency.

Thanks especially to Judy Eissenberg, the soul of the Music department and a crucial voice and mediating presence in the Brandeis community. MusicUnitesUS should rightly be recognized as a hallmark institution here at Brandeis, in part because it so powerfully speaks to so many of the university’s would-be core values, as I hope to suggest here tonight.

It was very important to all of these people, to all of us, to make this MusicUnitesUS program, this spring residency, a reality. This is important for its own sake, as I’ll discuss in a moment when I tell you about our guests, Nettle, but important also because of the precarious position that the arts finds itself at this moment of institutional and financial crisis.

Our commitment to and our ability to put on as challenging and interesting and lively a residency as Nettle’s should serve as a potent reminder of the treasured and critically important role that artistic practice plays in our communities.

It feels quite appropriate to speak about such issues here in the Rose. In all the talk about the value of the museum — and in particular, its holdings — that has animated so much contentious chatter in recent weeks, we often lose sight of the more intangible reasons the Rose is so valuable not just to us at Brandeis or in Boston, but to the worldwide arts community. The Rose has, simply put, been a champion in promoting contemporary art, art which provokes us to think and rethink our situation and our selves. Art that does so by operating on the cutting edge, beyond canon, or at the margins of putative mainstream culture.

In this way, it offers a service to the community — to various overlapping communities — which finds a parallel, a partner, in MusicUnitesUS, both institutions projecting into several public spheres — and we can imagine campus, local, national, and global publics — art and artists that deserve that humble push from margin to center.

This spatial metaphor is not inappropriate in coming to terms with our guests tonight, and this week, at Brandeis. Nettle offers what we might hear as a form of decentertainment — and this is crucial, I contend, to the idea of a NU world, and of a NU WORLD MUSIC which not only reflects our new social configurations and cultural repertories but informs the shapes they take.

NU WORLDS AND NU WORLD MUSIC

The Nu World I am describing here (and signifying with NU so as to be clear that I am not simply referring to the Americas) is a strange kind of neighborhood, made to feel as such despite its global scale because of the ways that new technologies create social and discursive networks that allow us to imagine and interact with our respective communities in heretofore unimaginable ways.

The Nu World phenomenologies, if you will, which emerge from these new configurations are not, however, simply a product of an unprecedented degree of access and connection to far-flung places; these new ways of feeling — of inhabiting and refashioning selfhood, nationhood, and neighborhood — are coalescing at the same time because of the ways that our cities have been radically transformed in the wake of decolonization and globalization. Not only are we more able to access some “world” out there, we are increasingly aware that the world is all around us.

This shift in our socio-spatial position demands a new understanding of world music — not as something simply produced by the rest for the west, but something that instead embodies the profound and ubiquitous degree of interpenetration, intercultural contact, and interpersonal exchange that has become quite commonplace in our contemporary cities. A world music in which different cultural registers operate on an equal plane perhaps expresses what Paul Gilroy terms “vernacular” or “everyday” cosmopolitanism, what he understands as the ethics of living in a multiculture, or as he also puts it, a “twentieth-century utopia of tolerance, peace, and mutual regard.”

“The challenge of being in the same present,” Gilroy argues,

of … articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather than imposing it downward from on high provides some help in seeing how we might invent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal value and go beyond the issue of tolerance into a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness. There is another quite different idea of cosmopolitanism to be explored here. … This cosmopolitan attachment finds civic and ethical value in the process of exposure to otherness. It glories in the ordinary virtues and ironies — listening, looking, discretion, friendship — that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding.

This notion of everyday, mundane difference, an otherness that can easily collapse into recognitions of sameness, is precisely what too often is missing from or distorted in the marketing category of “world music,” a category which, nonetheless — as we discussed with Nettle yesterday — remains a useful way for musicians to find audiences and patrons.

In a provocative article titled “World Music Does Not Exist” Tim Brennan argues that “world music characterizes a longing in metropolitan centers of Europe and North America for what is not Europe or North America: a general, usually positive, interest in the cultural life of other parts of the world found in all of the major media.” Unlike NU WORLD MUSIC, which foregrounds its constitution in the jumble of globally circulating signs and people and technologies, world music, Brennan contends, lulls us into other ways of listening and imagining the world, not as all around us, but as somewhere out there: “World music,” he writes “expands our field of cultural perception only by narrowing it, forcing us to admire artifacts that were made slowly and finely under irreducible conditions, but whose power to awe is then nullified by a uniformity of reception.”

To my ears, and as they would have it themselves, Nettle militates against this uniformity of reception. Even as they pragmatically embrace the term world music because of the cultural work it does and economic doors it opens, they also simultaneously subvert it. They abandon the easy fusion of World Music clichés for the intricate realities of border-crossing and cohabitation.

Despatializing and respatializing with their geography-defying mix of traditions, textures, and timbres, Nettle seems to embody one rich set of possibilities within the flexible matrix of nu world music and culture. The group troubles facile distinctions between the world and the West by giving the lie to these false binaries, bearing witness instead to a world of routed roots and rooted routes, of traditions with multiple origins and fractal futures, diasporas within diasporas, turtles all the way down.

DJ and producer Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rupture), a native of Massachusetts, formed the group earlier this decade while living as an ex-pat in Barcelona along with several other ex-pats (one from Scotland, a couple from Morocco, others from the US) — all of them speaking second or third languages in order to converse with each other. All of them, as they told us this week, feeling equally uncomfortable, out of place in their new home, and hence seeking a common place — and this is where music comes in — but NOT striving for unity. Rather, they sought to create and inhabit heterogeneous spaces, enjoying what they had in common but also what made each member distinctive in what they brought to the group.

Briefly, we hear in Nettle a collision of traditions, from Afrodiasporic electronic dance music to Berber folk songs, Arab and Andalusian pop to the Afro-Arab trance music of the Gnawa. The Maghreb via Spain via the Maghreb filtered through the black boxes of a globe-trotting DJ.

Although some members might think of themselves more explicitly as members of a diaspora than others, it is worth noting how diasporic discourse overlaps with the ideas about cohabiting amidst otherness. As anthropologist James Clifford notes, “Diaspora discourse articulates, or bends together, both roots and routes to construct … forms of community consciousness and solidarity that maintain identifications outside the national time/space in order to live inside, with a difference.”

Indeed, the distinctive sonic space Nettle creates seems to signal this desire to live with difference, a desire which more often finds the group preferring metaphors having to do with holding one’s ground and inhabiting spaces than with crossing borders, with deploying various notions of noise, with embracing friction as a creative force.

This place of friction, where the rubber meets the road, if you will, stands in contrast to other metaphors for globalization, especially those that emerge not from social and cultural spheres of activity but from economic ones, where capital is said to be frictionless and where fluid and easy crossings and flexible accumulations are the order of the day.

In this manner, Nettle’s music fingers the pulse of contemporary social theory _and_ social experience. Friction is not about culture clash, it is a more complex and subtle force than that. Friction is what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls “the grip of worldly encounter” — especially in “zones of awkward engagement.” The metaphor of friction suggested itself to Tsing b/c of the “popularity of stories of a new era of global motion” so commonplace, perhaps triumphant even, in the 1990s.

We see in some ways how these stories of global motion are true: all the musicians in Nettle did, after all, find themselves and each other in Barcelona, a home away from home for them all; but these stories are also clearly, resolutely untrue in other ways: take for instance, the group’s thwarted attempts to travel together in the past, or the fears and precautions and difficulties we worked through to ensure they could make it here this time.

For all the promise of an integrated and deeply interconnected world — A NU WORLD — and more tolerant, diverse cities where any and all may inhabit and enjoy, we suffer from an insidious tendency to ignore the divorce between rhetoric and reality, to embrace the symbols of diversity and tolerance and forget enduring inequalities and asymmetries.

A NU WORLD aesthetic demands that we resist romanticizing and aestheticizing the conditions of globalization. Ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes draws a clear line here:

Socially, it is important not to assume a direct relationship between aesthetic strategies (i.e., those operating in texts and performances of various kinds) and those of everyday life, particular among migrants and others living lives of enforced, rather than chosen, cultural fragmentation and hybridity. … At a general level, the fantasies characteristic of migrant music, film and dance, modernity, cosmopolitanism, upwardly mobile romance, and technological mastery must be understood in relation to the limited life chances and the endless and humiliating accommodations for the bureaucracies and work routines of host societies that characterize migrant everyday life. The cosmopolitanism of the rich thus must be clearly distinguished from the cosmopolitanism of the poor, even when the techniques and imaginaries of such cosmopolitanisms have common elements.

Given these constraints and concerns, something like “boundary smashing” — a world music cliche if there ever was one — is not an aesthetic project that appeals to Nettle. Despite their philosophical suspicion of, perhaps even hostility to, all kinds of imaginary borders — lines drawn between genres, places, people and so forth — we run into real walls and fences all too often to pretend they’re not there. Friction and dynamism are, instead, the group’s metaphors of choice.

NOTES ON NEIGHBORHOOD

My research often focuses on issues of nationalism and transnationalism, but lately I’ve been thinking less about nationhood and more about neighborhood — not in terms of an actual space or place (though that’s part of it), but something more akin to neighborliness, to being a good neighbor, to finding an ethics of neighborhood in an intensively globalized/mediated era. I’m curious about a musically-mediated aesthetics more specifically — one that responds not to the condition of living in a world of strangers, as Anthony Appiah might put it, but in a world of neighbors. This is a concept that I hope will be useful in coming to terms with what I’ve variously, loosely, referred to as nu-whirl music.

My embrace of “neighborhood” is meant as a way of reading nu-whirled music and movements in an engaged, positive manner. It, hopefully, moves away from notions of the foreign to the familiar. It recognizes that we become familiar with our neighbors when we have some regard for them, when we listen and play collectively. It proceeds also from a concern that if we are moved to work towards mediating the myriad conflicts in our world, especially those geopolitical conflicts that engulf and destroy so many people and places, that we must necessarily begin in our own backyards, as the saying goes — or in our own neighborhoods.

This is part of what underlies the mission of MusicUnitesUS. When I met Judy Eissenberg last year and she told me about the program & how she was inspired to start it in the wake of 9/11 as a way of embracing and exploring cultural difference though the special, mediating powers of art and music, I thought almost immediately of Nettle.

Whereas MUUS residencies in the past have offered an opportunity for intercultural exchange, bringing representatives of some ‘non-Western’ society to share their traditions with the Brandeis community, what is crucial about Nettle is that the group already embodies that process of encounter and exchange, and, moreover, that they choose to embrace moments where they “get under each other’s skin,” as bandmember Jace Clayton puts it. After all, that’s what Nettles do.

This metaphor for intercultural process, “getting under each other’s skin,” stands in contrast to a different model of cosmopolitan engagement, as recently reshaped by Anthony Appiah, who urges “that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement but because it will help us get used to one another — something we have a powerful need to do in this globalized era.”

Similarly, Paul Gilroy asks “Why should the assertions of ethnocentricity and untranslatability that are pronounced in the face of difference have become an attractive and respectable alternative to the hard but scarcely mysterious work involved in translation, principled internationalism, and cosmopolitan conviviality.”

But we might wonder whether Appiah fails to go far enough — “getting used to each other” is a relatively weak, if gentle, model for learning to live with difference; and we might ask whether Gilroy goes too far in demanding so much translation.

The music of Nettle, and they way they talk about what they do, seems to suggest that not everything is translatable or need be translated for us to agree to be convivial. Indeed, in seeking to translate everything, we also run the risk of erasing difference. In this manner, Nettle resists the temptation, if only rhetorical, of smashing boundaries or knocking down walls — at least certain kind of walls.

Perhaps good fences make good neighbors, as the old saying goes, even if the most famous projection of that phrase turns up, in Robert Frost’s poem, of course, in a rather critical or at least ambivalent context. For it is not Frost but his neighbor who utters the truism; Frost, on the other hand, ruminates on the ways that nature seems to seek to undermine the artificial boundaries of culture:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Frost’s sentiment seems undergirded by a less suspicious perspective, which is perhaps an outdated notion of the neighbor, the one who dwells near — but perhaps one that could use some new life breathed into it.

Ian Biddle, a musicologist concerned with what he calls “the political economy of musical neighbors,” and with “noisy neighbors” in particular, notes that

the figure of the neighbour … is rapidly becoming (if it has not already become) one of danger, marking the potential malevolence of dense living, of a community too close to our sovereignty. And it is precisely at this interface of community and sovereignty, at the imaginary line that separates ‘them’ from ‘me’, that the story of the noisy neighbour can be told.

For Biddle, neighbours “far from being the site of a guarantee of communal support” “have become the porous membrane between that guarantee and the threat of violence; neighbours speak to us now, it would seem, of a devastating ethical ambiguity”:

the neighbour, the bearer of noise, becomes the symptom of the new sonic disposition and it falls to the neighbour therefore to bear all the anxiety of his or her Other as one with whom we fight for limited resources.

According to Biddle, modernity has “imbued” neighbor “with a particular kind of ambiguity that blurs the boundary between what might be termed autonomy or sovereignty (and territory, privacy) on the one hand and the communal/public on the other.”

For all of the ambivalence around neighbors, however, that is, despite that they may remain, as Biddle puts it, “harbinger[s] of disquiet, … literally, the bringer[s] of noise,” I suppose it depends on how we feel about noise, at least we city folk. For exploring that shimmering line between sovereignty and community, self and other, music and noise, is, and must be, an ongoing project for all of us. Perhaps, as some suggest, that process of exploration is foundational to our very ability to learn and grow.

Biddle appears to think so. “The desire to know the neighbour,” he concludes, “is also (or, perhaps better, leads to) the desire for knowledge in general.”

Gilroy goes a step further, however, adding an ethical injunction to preserve the differences among us: “The self-knowledge that can be acquired through the proximity to strangers is certainly precious,” he acknowledges, “but is no longer the primary issue. We might consider how to cultivate the capacity to act morally and justly not just in the face of otherness –imploring or hostile — but in response to the xenophobia and violence that threaten to engulf, purify, or erase it.”

WE SHORE UP THESE FRAGMENTS, WE DO THE POLICE

I wonder whether we might hear this important impulse in the music of Nettle — in particular the way the group draws on music from North Africa and the Arab and Islamic world, employing musical signs that have become deeply fraught with contradictory meanings, overdetermined in the War on Terror. Despite this embrace and projection of the symbols of one of Europe’s most contentious and yet constitutive Others, we might do better to hear Nettle’s music not as another instance of orientalism, but advancing a kind of disorientalism, which seems especially appropriate in a world which has lost a great deal of its coherence as grand narratives have collapsed, as the integrity of cultural borders falls away, as we all increasingly draw on a fragmentary set of resources and symbols and texts to make sense of who and where we are.

Music, in its unique form as a figurative and temporal art, plays an especially powerful role in a world where sense is made from fragments. As ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes puts it, seemingly talking about Nettle but actually talking about how the spread of Irish folk music prefigured and made space for the emergence of the Irish pub as a global institution: “Music, clearly enough, plays an active role in creating and shaping global spaces that otherwise would not have ‘happened.'”

Likewise, for musicologist Phil Bohlman, it is in the reassembling of musical fragments that the New Europe finds its postcolonial voice:

Festivals, choral movements, folk-music collecting projects, the mixing and remixing of Europop repertories. These are the musical sites at which fragments are gathered and new processes of reconciliation converge. The struggles of nationless Europeans. The revival of repertories by the most repressed of Europe’s Others. The sounds of a New Europe thrive because they are fragmentary and because they belie the hegemony of empires and new world orders alike.

Nettle challenges us to hear suggestive fragments and elusive wholes. As we hear hip-hop and dub, gnawa and sha3bi, flamenco and genres unnamed, we also hear New Spain, New Europe, Nu Worlds to explore and inhabit. At the same time, we should resist hearing a series of discrete authentic traditions coming together to form a new authenticity, that of the hybrid. For if we do so, we risk overwriting the map-less-ness that the group pursues and projects.

Perhaps we would do better to hear Nettle as residing not in Barcelona of the New Spain or in the interstices of internet nodes, but in what Zadie Smith calls “Dream City,” a place that seems not unlike our contemporary polyglot cities but a place that is as much state of mind, a phenomenology and an ontology, how we feel and how that shapes our sense of who or what we are. It is a condition that marks the in-between experiences of people of mixed family backgrounds, but it is a sensibility that has come to resonate more widely, as evidenced, she proposes by the election of Obama and the multiple voices with which he speaks.

“In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various,” she writes:

You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That’s how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you’re not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white. It’s the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously, because “I” feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun “we.”

Obama, she continues,

had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can’t see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives. … It was a high-wire strategy, for Obama, this invocation of our collective human messiness. His enemies latched on to its imprecision, emphasizing the exotic, un-American nature of Dream City, this ill-defined place where you could be from Hawaii and Kenya, Kansas and Indonesia all at the same time, where you could jive talk like a street hustler and orate like a senator. What kind of a crazy place is that? But they underestimated how many people come from Dream City, how many Americans, in their daily lives, conjure contrasting voices and seek a synthesis between disparate things. Turns out, Dream City wasn’t so strange to them.

Smith goes on to see this sensibility in Shakespeare as well, who, “in response [to far too much Manichean violence in his day], made himself a diffuse, uncertain thing, a mass of contradictory, irresolvable voices that speak truth plurally.”

In other words, if you will, “We do the police in different voices,” to remix a particularly heteroglossaic eruption in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which, of course, winds to a close with the fitting acknowledgment, still seeming to speak so powerfully of how we imagine a place like Europe, like the US, like the world — the acknowledgment that “we shore up these fragments against our ruins.”

And isn’t this sense of plurality, for all the difference and dissonance it necessarily entails, all the eruptions of untranslatable noise — isn’t this what harmony is really about — seeking sweet moments of interplay which can only be sweet in the presence of the unsweet?

Isn’t this a model not of conflict, but of acting in concert?

Let us recuperate then, recultivate a sense of neighborhood, of noises and nettles and unfamiliar idioms as things to be embraced for precisely their resistance to our tendencies to retreat into likeness and familiarity.

Let us appreciate how noises and neighbors — and the walls they erect — allow us also to hold our ground, to inhabit spaces with a difference, even as we seek still to let certain walls fall, walls that can prevent the dynamic process of musical collaboration from happening at all.

This seems to be what the group was getting at in our conversation yesterday when they reminded us that it’s good, even necessary, at least sometimes — maybe often — to knock down certain walls. The walls of suspicion or guardedness for instance — since improvisation and sensitive group interplay demands a certain degree of trust and openness.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

wrote Frost, and music is surely one such force, an elemental groundswell, a thing that resists boxes and borders, that permits sacred signs to enter secular spaces, among other magic tricks.

I was quite struck by how the group described itself yesterday as, in some sense, more of a “social project” than a musical one. Music unites them, gets under their skins.

As Clayton has written elsewhere, we make a border real by policing it.

We would do well to bear this in mind as we prepare to listen with open ears to Nettle, as we let down some of our own walls in order to appreciate the interpenetration so central to their sound and signification.

Or in other words, returning again to Frost’s poem and anticipating Nettle’s joyful jumble of folk and dance and art and noise and untranslatable sociability —

Good fences make good neighbors, yes, but so do good parties.

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June 29th, 2009

Pop Goes the World

There’s little I can add to all the tributes and reflections gumming up the web these days, but like so many others I feel compelled to say something. Inspired even. I found Andrew Sullivan’s and Jeff Chang’s posts pretty resonant, Jason King’s too, among others, and I’ve been particularly struck by all the MJ music I’ve been hearing in the street and on the radio — and especially all the callers explaining to DJs how his passing feels like losing a family member.

Of course (of course?!), my experience of sharing the loss and the joyous, deeply-embodied memories of his music has probably been most strongly textured by Twitter, where I hardly needed a hashtag to hear from dozens of friends and “friends” about the man we all knew and loved (despite his serious problems). Many have made mention of the Twitter effect on MJ’s death — not to mention MJ’s effect on Twitter. Sasha Frere-Jones noted the irony in turning the radio off and letting the TV sit dormant while he and James Murphy’s people received and tapped out tweets on their phones and laptops. Ethan Zuckerman, who wrote a script to track Twitter activity (post-Moldova and the like), announced on Thursday night that 15% of all tweets were about Michael Jackson, a remarkable statistic given that he’d never seen Iran or swine flu top 5% (others have placed MJ’s footprint at 30%, though Ethan offers some important qualifications here).

I admit that it was pretty surreal “watching” MJ die via Twitter. One tweet it was cardiac arrest maybe, a few more speculated wildly, the stuff of rumor: a coma? stopped breathing? There were a couple dreadful say-it-aint-so’s, and then, before long, the news was pouring in, confirmed, unbelievable but not surprising.

Weird as it was initially, though, it quickly turned cathartic — in a beautiful way — as disbelief morphed into something more like eulogy and second-line at the same time and the “digital bouquets” began piling up. What was especially mindboggling, as I settled into a several hour face-to-face listening session with some friends, was the knowledge, repeatedly suggested by my phone, that millions of us (a wild extrapolation, I know) were listening to Michael Jackson’s music at the same time. A realization that made me wonder aloud whether anything like it had ever happened before in the history of world culture.

I suspect not — for Michael Jackson is a sui generis pop star, unrivaled in popularity (never mind Lennon’s claim to be “bigger than Jesus,” MJ just might), who, beyond his remarkable talents as a singer, dancer, and songwriter, happened to come of age at just the right moment in global media, a moment that may not ever be reproduced. In a piece published last Friday, Jody Rosen hits the nail:

Weeping for Michael, we are also mourning the musical monoculture—the passing of a time when we could imagine that the whole country, the whole planet, was listening to the same song.

Though that era may be over and the mainstream dissolved “into a trillion scattered data-bites,” at least on Thursday night and Friday, and to some extent through the weekend and still today, that’s kinda what it feels like, as if we’re all listening to the same thing. Not one song, but one artist’s oeuvre is suffusing soundscapes the world over in a manner that can only be unprecedented and seems unlikely to happen again. (But go ahead, make me myopic.)

I guess my relationship to MJ and his music is not unlike others of my generation. I know many of his songs by heart. A Victory Tour ’84 poster hung on our bedroom wall. Had a birthday cake with his face emblazoned on it sometime in the mid-80s. Wore a pin with his Thrillery face on it back when I was 8 (a tweeted remembrance that found itself in SFJ’s NYer post).

Michael Jackson was incredibly awesome and deeply flawed, and so was his music. He produced a bewildering number of absolutely flawless songs, don’t get me wrong, but he’s also responsible for some of the schlockiest, heavy-handedest pop ever crafted (as well as plenty of unremarkable clunkers). He practically invented the modern r&b power ballad, complete with gospel/kids choir and gear changes run amok (not a good look, IMO), so much so that soca star Machel Montano, mourning his loss, erroneously included R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (“I Can’t Believe It’s Not MJ?”) among Jackson’s anthems.

I’ve actually been a little surprised that I haven’t (yet) seen many Michael Jackson remixes and DJ sets making the rounds. Perhaps people have been too busy remembering in real time. So I was glad to see Hank Shocklee ask people to send some his way. I did a little digging and a little on-the-fly warping and I came up with a trio of tracks, one made by me, that offer some new angles on ol’ MJ, transposing him into house, jungle, and reggae —

     * Masters At Work’s remix of “Rock With You” (mp3 | YouTube)
     * DJ C’s remix of Shinehead’s cover of “Billie Jean” (mp3)
     * and my own mix’n’mash of MJ’s “Billie Jean” vox + Sly & Robbie’s “Billie Jean” riddim (mp3)

My own effort is a lot more slapdash than the sophisticated, detailed productions by MAW and DJ C. More mashup than meticulous. What I’ve done is added the acapella from “Billie Jean” to Sly and Robbie’s slinky reggae version of that song’s instrumental (actually, it’s just one of their versions — they also support the Shinehead cover that DJ C remixes, as it happens). I’ve applied a little delay and other bits of digital manipulation to MJ’s voice, hoping to estrange a little so well-worn a performance, and I’ve cut and pasted some chunks of the riddim around to maintain the right harmonic motion at points where they diverged.

While we’re on the subject of remixes and the like — or, of how Michael Jackson’s very public presence inspires waves of activity across public culture — it’s worth noting that there’s also already been a corrido composed in his honor:

MJ’s reign as global pop king is perhaps still ungraspable. Thomas Friedman-esque anecdotes only go so far. We need greater data, quantitative and qualitative, and more local histories of his presence and influence and resonance. Emma Baulch noted on the IASPM listserv that “In Indonesia, Bad and Dangerous were more successful than Thriller, in terms of official sales.” But she pointed out that this fails to account for pirated sales (and, I’d add, other forms of informal / non-commercial circulation).

Of course, there may be no better bizarro embodiment of MJ’s global reach than those memetastic Filipino inmates doing their pitchframe-perfect re-enactment of the “Thriller” video. Then again, we should bear in mind that the Philippines is perhaps something of a special case.

Given all this activity, not to mention the reports of off-the-charts sales in the wake of his death, I do wonder how we would begin to take measure of such a thing as Michael Jackson’s global popularity. How do we get a grasp on the actual immensity of the event? What do we know, for example, about MJ’s YouTube views? — & not only on the thousands of instantiations of his songs and videos that fans have uploaded but even on the handful of tracks that sampled his songs and also have become shrines of sorts?

Speaking of shrines, which indubitably contain a range of images of the man (as this post itself does), I have to note that when I think of MJ, I seem to picture him as the blur in between the black and the white, the lean mean singing-and-dancing machine and the media freakshow, the unbelievably awesome and the transmogrified tragic. Having first grown up with his music and later grappled with him as an embodiment of American racial imagination, I still have more questions than answers. And one of the most notorious questions is the one posed over 20 years ago by Greg Tate: What’s Wrong With Michael Jackson?

Upon reading Tate’s piece again, I wonder how much the man (in the mirror) was precisely that: a cipher upon which we read the twisted American story in growing contortion, progressive disfigurement, a grotesque from which we could not, cannot, turn our heads. A sad story, to be sure. But a narrative that, as Michael showed as well as anyone else, leaves plenty room for improvisation and for (occasional) transcendence.

This was my initial, and remains my lingering, impression on the death of Michael Jackson —

And I’ll leave it there for now. Thx for letting us rock with you for so long. So long…

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March 17th, 2009

But I’m Not a Leprechaun

Longtime readers have heard on previous March 17s this here mini-mix of “trad” Irish beats and stompin electronic shuffle. For those of you looking for a little seasonal soundtrack, here you go again —

      >> w&w “doctorin the guinness” (9 min / 9 mb)
      [audio:http://wayneandwax.com/riddimmeth0d/wayneandwax_doctorin-the-guinness.mp3]

This should be especially resonant if, say, you’re on your way to Harvard Square today to party with House of Pain at their swank sneaker launch.


Ah, ethnic self-fashioning in the age of hot kicks.


HOUSE OF PAIN / ADIDAS Sneaker Collaboration Trailer from Peter Dudgeon on Vimeo.

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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