Archive of posts tagged with "review"

May 23rd, 2012

Dances With Words

Following up on the last post/review, I’m running the next in the triad I described there: a series of book reviews written over the last few years which together bring matters of form — and its institutional (re)production — to the fore.

This one — a review of Mark Butler’s Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music (Indiana 2006) — was written first of the three, and is a lot less recent. Indeed, this first saw the light of day (if in the dark corner of a subscription-only music theory journal) way back in 2009, though I wrote it in 2006! And here I am finally sharing with you in 2012. Don’t ask me why it took so long. (One funny result is that one term I use throughout, EDM — an umbrella-term long wielded by scholars of “electronic dance music” — has in the last year or so become a new buzz word in the music biz, more or less akin to electronica in the late 90s. I do not mean it in that way here.)

Ok, I’ll tell you, at least in part, what took me so long. One reason I’ve not re-publicized the review until now is that I had an email exchange with the author where he bristled at the treatment the book was receiving. “Thus far, then, my work has been reviewed solely by ethnomusicologists,” he explained to me, since at that point — the point where he also happened to be up for tenure — the only reviews to emerge were by me and Vijay Iyer (who, no, is not an ethnomusicologist). Butler also took umbrage at my suggestion that disciplinary pressures served as a significant force in producing his book. He wanted to own it as a work of theory, which I understand, and which I agree with.

If that’s the case, I guess I still find such works of theory lacking. And I’m glad that one of the premier journals of the field, Spectrum, gave me the chance to say so, even if the implication to Butler was that they didn’t care to send it to a theorist. I can see how one might feel doubly on the margins in such a situation, and as a (white) popular music scholar trying to work in either Music or Africana Studies departments, I can relate. All that said, I’m happy to report that Butler received tenure some years ago and enjoys some stature as a Professor with a big P. I, on the other hand…write a well-regarded blog.

Anyway, here’s one thing I said in my emails to him, to put too fine a point on it:

Frankly, I respect your work immensely and I’m glad that you’re doing it. The gist of my review is that, for all of the book’s strengths, it still seems reigned in by the rearguard of Eurocentric/elite/art theory. I’d rather read the book you’d write if you weren’t up for tenure, if you know what I mean.

I mean, I do think it’s important to be generous in a book review, but I’m no fan of simple summaries. Given how much time goes into them (and how little career reward), I also think it’s important to say something with teeth — to take the opportunity to make an essay out of it. That’s what I was invited to do by Spectrum at any rate.

So, although Butler’s objections gave me pause, I still stand by the piece and its critiques — which are, in my opinion, more about institutions than about one particular scholar. And I remain proud a few turns of phrase, which aspire to the ideal I’m arguing for. At least, I do think I finish with a kicker of a kicker:

…music scholarship not only needs more theorists that dance, it needs more theory that dances.

And though I don’t think I myself often (ever?) match up to that standard, it’s certainly something to strive toward, and I’m heartened by increasing signals that the sea is changing in this regard. I’ll excerpt the juicy intro below, but it’s far too long to reprint here in full; if you want to read the whole dang thing, here you go.

Music Theory Spectrum 31 (2009): 192-99

WAYNE MARSHALL

Butler, Mark J. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006, xi + 346 pages.

In an infamous exchange set up by The Wire magazine in 1995, Karlheinz Stockhausen was asked to comment on music produced by several contemporary electronic music makers thought to be, according to well-worn narratives, his techno-musical heirs. Taking the so-called “Technocrats” to task, Stockhausen decried their use of what he called “permanent repetitive language” and recommended that they each listen to various compositions of his own that might lead them away from “ice cream harmonies” and other “kitschy” indulgences. To Richard D. James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin), he offered the following advice:

I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work Song of the Youth, which is electronic music, and a young boy’s voice singing with himself. Because he would then immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look for changing tempi and changing rhythms, and he would not allow to repeat any rhythm if it were [not] varied to some extent and if it did not have a direction in its sequence of variations (Witts 1995, 33).

Yoking his unrepentant elitism and staunchly Eurocentric modernism to Adorno’s critique of the culture industry and the fashioning of fascism, Stockhausen raises the specter of corrupting, repetitive “African” rhythm yet again in order to assail a track by Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman):

It starts with 30 or 40—I don’t know, I haven’t counted them—fifths in parallel, always the same perfect fifths, you see, changing from one to the next, and then comes in hundreds of repetitions of one small section of an African rhythm: duh-duh-dum, etc., and I think it would be helpful if he listened to Cycle for percussion, which is only a 15 minute long piece of mine for a percussionist, but there he will have a hell to understand the rhythms, and I think he will get a taste for very interesting non-metric and non-periodic rhythms. I know that he wants to have a special effect in dancing bars, or wherever it is, on the public who like to dream away with such repetitions, but he should be very careful, because the public will sell him out immediately for something else, if a new kind of musical drug is on the market (Witts 1995, 33).

Although Stockhausen and the Technocrats seem to talk past each other rather than truly converse (“Do you reckon he can dance?” asks James in a cheeky retort), the exchange is a valuable one at least insofar as it provocatively puts questions of (electronic) musical craft in the context of a broader conversation about the cultural connotations and social implications of quite divergent—if, for many, rather related—musical aesthetics. The value for today’s music theorists, perhaps, is that Stockhausen issues a challenge, at least to those whose iPods place Hawtin next to Haydn, to find a new language, a more appropriate poetics to describe, defend, and even to dissent from today’s “electronic music.” For it would seem clear that Stockhausen demonstrates to anyone who values the kind of music one hears in “dancing bars,” or wherever, the utter inadequacy of traditional (or even avant-garde) music theory for understanding the power and, if one must, the complexities of electronic dance music (EDM).

The central position of repetition in the debate, and its dubious racialization as “(post-)African,” is not only deeply revealing of the texts and subtexts at hand, it directs us to the vexing question of so much discourse around electronic dance music: how to argue for the aesthetic value of deeply repetitive music—a quality utterly taken for granted and celebrated by EDM devotees—without falling into two common traps: (1) searching for the hidden complexities of seemingly simple sounds; (2) foregoing any sort of music analysis at all, in favor of socio-cultural exegesis, and thus implying that EDM does not need it (but also, perhaps, does not merit it). A great many journalists, cultural critics, ethnomusicologists, practitioners, and aficionados have been involved in the intertwined projects of explicating and celebrating EDM as social phenomenon, as cultural product and practice, and—if, ironically, less commonly—as music. Music theorists may be (fashionably?) late to the party, but I reckon they can dance (if they want to). More important, I reckon that if anyone can convince the Stockhausens of the world (if one could possibly posit such a singular plurality) to attend more closely, and openly, to the forms and contents of EDM, it would be music theorists. The next obvious question, of course, might be: why bother? But let’s set that aside for now.

[Read the rest here.]

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May 8th, 2012

How To Wreck a Nice Book

How To Wreck a Nice Beach

This Thursday at MIT, Dave Tompkins will be giving a talk based around his book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop. I’ve not given the book a full treatment on the blog, but I’ve been recommending it to anyone I talk to about music or technology or writing. It’s really one of my favorites of the last couple years.

Like some of the obscure, amazing devices & recordings & stories Dave seeks out and recombines in his inimitable way, I had heard for years about the “vocoder book”; and I was more than pleased when it finally arrived — and delivered on a decade’s (or, really, lifetime’s) work putting together some rather odd-fitting puzzle pieces. I’ll let Dave mix it up for you (via the teaser for his talk on Thurs) —

Invented by Bell Labs in 1928 to reduce bandwidth over the Trans Atantic Cable, the vocoder would end up guarding phone conversations from eavesdroppers during World War II. By the Vietnam War, the “spectral decomposer” had been re-freaked as a robotic voice for musicians. How To Wreck A Nice Beach is about hearing things, from a misunderstood technology which in itself often spoke under conditions of anonymity. This is a terminal beach-slap of the history of electronic voices: from Nazi research labs to Stalin gulags, from World’s Fairs to Hiroshima, from Churchill and JKF to Kubrick and Kinski, The O.C. and Rammellzee, artificial larynges and Auto-Tune. Vocoder compression technology is now a cell phone standard–we communicate via flawed digital replicas of ourselves every day. Imperfect to be real, we revel in signal corruption.

Dave’s writing is deeply by textured by hip-hop, and so much else. I wish everyone could so pursue their own muses and speak in such tongues and find their voice as he has. I argued as much in a review I wrote of the book for Current Musicology a couple years back. Indeed, I took the opportunity to recommend that more academics read and teach books like Dave’s (or at least Dave’s book — not sure what else is like it) — and that we also challenge ourselves and our students to write with less care for convention and more attention to voice and narrative. I guess I’m just a hopeless humanist / postmodernist or something (but both of those things sound kinda wack to me too). More likely, as with Dave (I venture), I might lay the blame at hip-hop’s altar, where cultivating and appreciating distinctive voices are time-honored forms of worship and devotion.

Anywayyy, ironically, the prose in my review seems pretty strait-jacketed itself, despite what I critique and what I endorse. Maybe I’m just not able to do it. Or maybe there are unhelpful institutional pressures making us all write like computers, and not very funky ones. Either way, all one can do is try to refreak the machinery.

I’m going to post my review below for those who’d like to read it. It’s been “published” for a while, but that hardly makes it public in any significant way. I’m happy to report that I managed — or attempted anyway — to bring Dave’s book into conversation with Steve Goodman’s (aka Kode9’s) Sonic Warfare, another recent text that made a strong impression on me. The two books’ subject matter overlaps to a striking degree, but the writing is very different. Even so, while I may not be as big a fan of Steve’s prose, I do think his book is profound and provocative, issuing important challenges to scholars of music and sound and really to anyone who fancies themselves a listening agent.

But if you’re in town, go see Dave talk this Thursday at 5pm in room E14-633 at MIT. For my part, much as I love the vocoder stuff, I sorta wish he was talking about his current project — a really promising “natural history of Miami bass” that takes the phrase sustained decay and runs absolutely wild. I heard a preview at EMP which predictably knocked off socks, even without working A/V.

One more thing: I understand the piece below as one of a trio of reviews where I take the opportunity to critique the disciplines and institutional elitism that seem to produce writing about music which, in my mind, too often fails to rise to the occasion. (I’m saying: if you’re gonna dance about architecture, you better be a damn good dancer.) Some of these reviews are more supportive, some are more critical. I do, for the most part, attempt to be generous as a reviewer. At any rate, I’ve been wanting to share them, together, for a while. So look out for the other two to follow soon.

Current Musicology
number 90/fall 2010

WAYNE MARSHALL

Dave Tompkins. 2010. How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks. Chicago and Brooklyn: Stop Smiling/Melville House.

Steve Goodman. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.

At first glance, Dave Tompkins’s How to Wreck a Nice Beach and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare would seem to have a lot in common. Both books feature the creative “abuse” of military technology by musicians, an abiding appreciation for Afro-sonic futurisms, prose styles at times so idiosyncratic as to be arcane, and brief but key appearances by William Burroughs. Both also depart, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the general preoccupation with form still guiding the musicological status quo. This formalist bias affects both how we tend to listen as well as how we write. Instead, these books, each in their own way, propose novel and provocative modes of grappling with and making sense (or nonsense) of music and sound.

In contrast to the lion’s share of academic writing about music, these texts eschew too straightforward a tack. They take shape in a manner often as unpredictable as their strange and slippery subjects. Goodman’s work, while principally written for other scholars, proceeds in a seemingly non-linear manner, using non-chronological dates to mark each brief chapter, suggestively (but often without explication) yoking each unit’s theme to a particular historical moment. His lexicon is at times dense, at other times playful, bearing the marks of British cultural studies, continental philosophy, and Afrofuturism. Writing for a more general audience, but in perhaps an even more abstruse register, Tompkins generally proceeds chronologically while worm-hole hopping, juxtaposing chapters on military experimentation with those on musical innovation, an estranging effect that serves to heighten the topic’s unexpected intersections of Cold War technology and hip-hop. Neither author talks much about pitch content, harmony, or song form; in place of musical transcription, we encounter viruses and anarchitectures, robots and dinosaurs.

In other respects, these books could hardly be more different, especially with regard to tone and language. But reading them, especially together, makes for a refreshing exercise. By investing in and projecting their own idioms so strongly, both offer something sorely lacking in music and sound studies: theory that dances.

Tompkins’s book is a study of the “double life” of the vocoder, which, for those who aren’t aware, is “perhaps the only crypto-technology to serve the Pentagon and the roller rink” (20). A vocal encryption process that enjoyed a second life as a musical effect, the vocoder attained a sort of audible ubiquity in the dance-pop of the 1970s and 80s, appearing on hundreds of records and spanning such disparate genres as progressive rock and electro-funk. Appropriately, in rendering this amazing story, the author himself becomes a cryptologist. Because Tompkins is not an academic and not beholden to its disciplines, he hardly writes like one. But despite publishing regularly in such outlets as the Wire, Vibe, and the Village Voice, he doesn’t exactly write like a journalist, either. He writes like Dave Tompkins. “The best hip-hop writer ever born,” blurbs similarly lauded hip hop historian Jeff Chang, only half-joking, on the back of the book. Tompkins describes writing the book as something that he felt he “owed” to hip-hop, and he has clearly absorbed—and made his own—hip-hop’s love of language, of whimsy and slippage, orthogonal riffs and sudden twists, personified things and dehumanized folk. In some cases, it’s not clear that anyone but Tompkins will understand how certain non-sequiturs actually follow. Plenty of readers will be frustrated by passages that defy comprehension. I recommend granting him some poetic license and going happily, dizzily along for the ride.

Tompkins manages something that few music writers do: to rise to the occasion, to meet what Charles Seeger called “the musicological juncture” head-on, to make words make sense about sound—or, when such a task seems utterly impossible, to sing along in noise and nonsense. The book’s title embodies this fundamental problem as well as Tompkins’s tack. How apt that the phrase, a machine-mangled version of “how to recognize speech,” also happens to describe what happened, as coordinated via trans-Atlantic vocoder duets between Roosevelt and Churchill, at Normandy or Iwo Jima. This is one of dozens of landmine-like puns that Tompkins finds scattered across IBM technicians’ notebooks, in wartime cables, and on obscure electro-funk jams. Is it only a coincidence that one of early hip-hop’s deftest musicians, Pumpkin, bears a nickname that was also a misheard word in a Churchillian vocoder transmission (224)? Most likely, but Tompkins doesn’t miss a chance to make the connection for us in a cheeky caption (and the book’s margins are crawling with such side-commentary).

Or take, for example, though no single passage can stand for the sprawling range of his style, the following description of Peter Frampton performing his talk-box anthem, “Do You Feel Like I Do,” in the concert immortalized as Frampton Comes Alive (1976):

Imagine ice cubes and Doritos cracking up inside your head. Replace that with Madison Square Garden losing its voice. Replace larynx with guitar. Listen to teeth. Calcareous conduction. Frampton opens mouth, drool catches light and there it is, a word, or at least the shape of one. “Eeeeel.” (131)

Without sacrificing the sort of economy on display here, Tompkins seems to squeeze into the book every bit of signification he can, enlisting chapter titles, subheadings, captions, epigraphs, and all manner of marginalia along the way. The creative use of oblique epigraphs in particular illustrates how Tompkins approaches his craft and burdens the reader. They are figurative, funny, and sometimes fictional. (On page 281, for instance, he offers a “misheard” lyric from a Mobb Deep recording.)

Research and reading are interpretive endeavors, and Tompkins’s kitchen-sink style, where jokes and personal anecdotes sit alongside archival documents and vinyl plates, serves to remind readers that, as with vocodered vocals, it helps to know what goes in to understand what is coming out. In this sense, it is fitting that the author interweaves stories of his youth, and of myriad odd encounters with the vocoder and other talking machines, into the narrative. Indeed, the idiosyncratic inflections that give the book its distinct shape and tone seem, to this reader, among the text’s most important (and hopefully influential) features. Tompkins interweaves the personal, the popular, and the geopolitical, as if all are of equal importance. Tompkins does an admirable job of cross-fading all the crosstalk about this machine and how it affected so many people’s lives, including his own. After a while one starts to suspect that the vocoder was invented so that Tompkins could write this book.

While the vocoder never recedes from earshot, Tompkins’s investigation takes the reader to many unexpected places. Among other things, readers receive: 1) an overdue and alternative narrative of early hip-hop that centers on New York, Los Angeles, and the seemingly peripheral but fascinating site of North Carolina, where Tompkins grew up and where we learn a lot about rap’s early circulation and reception; 2) a secret history of late twentieth century robot-enraptured pop culture, connecting Neil Young and Herbie Hancock, Georgio Moroder and Laurie Anderson, Detroit techno and Disney’s Dumbo; 3) some truly astounding and unexpected musical genealogies and circulations of material culture, like how a vocoder-ed imitation of a record executive saying “fresh” became the most scratched syllable of all time (250-5), or how ELO’s machine ended up in the hands of Man Parrish, “the gayest vocoder expert to make a hip-hop ode to the Bronx” (212). The book also includes what must have felt like an obligatory afterword on Auto-Tune (302-3), the popular software plug-in often mistaken for the vocoder but actually a distant cousin, which itself emerged from Cold War science to help people sing like machines.

It is easy to be glib about crooning cyborgs, but Tompkins offers a more nuanced portrait—a gallery, actually—of how humans dance with technology, of the deep drive so many of us feel to transform, with a little mechanical help, our voices, our realities, and ourselves, often from an early age. Or, as he puts it, “Talking to fans is as much a part of growing up as interrogating ants with a magnifying glass” (268). In the end, the book is less about machines than human characters: Alan Turing and Afrika Bambaataa, Homer Dudley and Michael Jonzun, and Tompkins, his late brother, and his childhood friend, Nate. One of the most interesting and touching parts of the text is the penultimate chapter, a profile of vocoder devotee and pioneer Rammellzee, the sui generis hip-hop iconoclast who passed away earlier this year. It reads as a fitting coda to everything.

Although he synthesizes an impressive amount of odd information—much of it encyclopedic and hitherto uncompiled—Tompkins burdens readers additionally by taking a great deal of knowledge (or perhaps just Google-ability) for granted, allowing him at times to say what he wants, rather than, perhaps, what he should. This represents another way that the author departs from certain scholarly norms. (There’s no glossary, either.) But don’t get your cables twisted: despite few genuflections to standard scholarly procedure, there is a great deal of evidence throughout that Tompkins has done his share of research, especially when it comes to combing archives and interviewing everyone from retired World War II-era scientists to classic rock icons to hip-hop vocoder freaks. (To their credit, the hip-hop guys he talks to—Bambaataa, Grandmaster DXT, Rammellzee—are all convincingly unsurprised to learn about the vocoder’s crypto-military provenance.) This book was a decade in the making, but it reads more like a life’s work.

Finally, and this is not to be underappreciated: the book itself, published by Stop Smiling Books, is a beautiful thing. Elegantly laid out and lavishly illustrated, with photographs and drawings appearing on nearly every page, the book is best appreciated as a chunky hardcover, despite that it might be fun—whenever the e-text arrives—to hear it read by a robot.

In Sonic Warfare Steve Goodman, a lecturer in Music Culture at the University of East London, calls the vocoder “the upside to the militarization of everyday life” (166). It is one of the few optimistic notes in the book. The rest of the text examines all the downsides, with particular attention to the role of sound—and sonic technologies—in producing what Goodman calls, after Mike Davis (2000), an “ecology of fear,” a sonically triggered state of agitation and foreboding, produced under an increasingly global regime of “military urbanism” and the looming threat of preemptive capitalism foreclosing possible futures. On the way, Goodman proposes some radical ways of approaching how we theorize sound, the transmission of culture, and the power of popular music. Sonic Warfare is an occasionally paranoid, consistently provocative text, all the more so because of how it takes explicit aim at prevailing frames of musicological inquiry.

Unlike Tompkins’s book, which mounts an implicit critique of contemporary music writing, Goodman’s includes direct salvos at music and sound studies. If, as he relates, the Italian futurists proposed an “assault on the harmonic order” (6), Sonic Warfare might be said to launch a similar campaign. Goodman’s route to a critical position vis-à-vis musicology’s “harmonic order”—its lingering biases toward musical form, semiotics, and phenomenology—is not via recourse to sound, seeking to flatten longstanding hierarchies between pitch content, rhythm, timbre and the like, but through a focus on frequency and an exploration of what he calls “unsound.” Vibrating at or beyond the peripheries of the audible and the tactile, unsound includes infrasound (lower than 20 Hz) and ultrasound (higher than 20 kHz), as well as— in a bit of poetic license—the “unactualized nexus of rhythms and frequencies within audible bandwidths” (xv). It may come as little surprise that many of the weapons surveyed in Sonic Warfare target this synaesthetic threshold of the heard and the felt. The way that sound and unsound can physically affect bodies means that, for Goodman, they operate at the level of affect, a “subsignifying” realm. He is primarily concerned, then, not with “sound as text” but rather “sound as force” (10). For those in music or sound studies who might bristle at an approach so concerned with what “impresses on but is exterior to the sonic,” Goodman throws a small but sharp dart, referring almost dismissively to “the narrowband channel of the audible” (9)!

Ultimately, he contends, a “nonrepresentational ontology of vibrational force” (xv) can productively “sidestep” recent preoccupations of music studies, namely “representation, identity, and cultural meaning” (9). While not naming names, Goodman professes no love for popular music studies’ “dismal celebrations of consumerism and interminable excuses for mediocrity” (17). (He also includes some snarky asides—troll bait for popular music scholars—for instance, when he remarks that this is not a book about “white noise—or guitars” [xv].) While acknowledging recent work on the use of music to produce pain or torture (e.g., Cloonan and Johnson 2002; Cusick 2006 and 2008), Goodman seeks to counter “the evangelism of the recent sonic renaissance within the academy” by focusing on sound’s “bad vibes,” including the use of pop as torture, never mind LRAD cannons and Mosquito™ repellents. Further, he charges that any account of sonic culture must grapple with that which exceeds unisensory perception, with so-called “sonic” experience that opens into tactile realms, for instance (9).

Barbed critiques notwithstanding, Goodman is writing from sound’s corner. While his academic training and affinities span media and cultural studies as well as philosophy, his scholarly attention has consistently been devoted to the reggae-inflected sound system culture of the Black Atlantic, especially the UK-based genealogy of styles and approaches—from jungle, through garage, to dubstep—famously and controversially dubbed “the hardcore continuum” by critic Simon Reynolds; moreover, under the moniker Kode9, Goodman is a practicing producer of electronic dance music, a globe-trotting DJ, and the head of acclaimed record label Hyperdub. Notably, he seems to prefer metaphorical language that borrows from sound, rather than, say, as we “see” more typically, from ocularcentric discourse. So we’re told, for instance, that vibrational force is an important missing dimension in music and sound studies because of the “ethico-aesthetic paradigm it beckons” (xv, emphasis mine). We also hear of things resonating and rippling, while modulation, if borrowed more directly from Deleuzean philosophy than compositional techniques, figures as a key term throughout. But while such subtle linguistic choices may stem from efforts to resist an ocularcentric framework, Goodman’s focus on sound as physical force, as something subpolitical and pre-ideological, is intended to needle the more profound bias in music and sound studies toward an overriding emphasis on phenomenology and signification, rather than ontology and affective mobilization. For Goodman, such preoccupations miss the boat by overlooking the more elemental workings of sound. His wide-ranging and deeply synthetic project—drawing from philosophy, cultural studies, physics, biology, fiction, and military and musical history (81)—constitutes an important and incisive contribution to our growing, shifting appreciation of how sound works and how it figures in the sensorium.

Opening with the 2005 sound bombing of the Gaza strip, Goodman’s narrative would appear to be firmly situated in a certain politics, but the author also takes pains to theorize at a more micropolitical level. He seeks to understand and explicate how sound produces “virtualized” fear in individuals as well as populations, whether in Palestine or elsewhere. Like the sound of an actual incoming shell, sound bombs and other sonic weapons possess power to trigger “the same dread of an unwanted, possible future” (xiv). Considering military-urbanism’s “full spectrum dominance,” an analysis of how sound works—and how certain technologies exploit sonic force—is imperative. For Goodman, the sonic is “particularly attuned” for examining “dread,” one strand of the ecology of fear, or one key dimension of the affective status quo at a historical juncture in which the “militarization of the minutiae of urban experience” turns war into an “ontological condition” that “reconstitutes the most mundane aspects of everyday existence through psychosocial torque and sensory overload” (33). As an “affective tonality,” modulated by vibrational force, fear enters the remit of sonic warfare. Thus, even while writing against a “unisensory” perspective (and continually returning to sound’s crucial “viscerality” [220]), Goodman finds it useful that, within the affective sensorium, “Sound is often understood as generally having a privileged role in the production and modulation of fear” (65).

Given the permeation of everyday urban life—not simply in warzones of the Global South but in city soundscapes of the so-called developed world as well—by what Goodman terms the “military-entertainment complex,” sonic warfare extends beyond obvious weapons such as sound bombs and nausea-inducing crowd-control devices to forms of (preemptive) sonic branding, including “predatory earworms” and holosonics (186), or precisely targeted “beams” of sound that might implant a commercial jingle into a moving body. With regard to the latter phenomena, Goodman dabbles in speculative fiction, imagining a future, if one in tune with contemporary capitalism, in which we’re bombarded with audio advertisements for products that don’t yet necessarily exist, subconsciously building brand loyalty. Mirroring the unreliable and often occultist information about sonic weapons under development—whether issuing from government reports or press accounts, or circulating among conspiracy theory enthusiasts—Goodman is refreshingly candid about the ways that dystopic projections can seep into thinking about such matters: “For sure, a certain amount of paranoia accompanies this micropolitics of frequency” (188). The deployment of the Mosquito, a device used at malls and other quasi-public, commercial spaces that emits a tone so high it repels teenagers while remaining inaudible to adults, suggests to Goodman that (pun intended), “the future of sonic warfare is unsound” (183).

If this all sounds rather dire, Goodman develops another side to the story of contemporary sonic dominance. Counterposed to the military-entertainment complex’s insidious deployments of sound and unsound is another set of experiments in vibrational force and affect modulation: sound systems, patterned on the Jamaican model but today dispersed globally, serving as labs for “affect engineering and the exorcism of dread” (5). Considering Goodman’s overarching concern with ecologies of fear, it is a convenient bit of resonance that a complex notion of dread is already emically embedded in reggae discourse. Goodman hears and feels the forceful—and often subsonic—projections of sound systems, whether playing dub reggae or funk carioca, as meeting a certain “masochistic” desire for the “active production of dread” (27) or, in other words, “fear activated deliberately to be transduced and enjoyed in a popular musical context” (29). This is an innovative and suggestive reading of practices that have already been examined in great detail in the reggae literature (e.g., Bilby 1995; Stolzoff 2000; Henriques 2003; Veal 2007).

He pursues the idea of an alternative and recuperative practice of sonic dominance, and inflects it with a Black Atlantic (if not Jamaican) accent, by examining what he calls “dub virology,” a model of “affective mobilization”—later glossed as a way “to move the body in dance” (157)—rather than the “modulation of preemptive capital,” the use of sound and unsound to manipulate mood and incite creativity and commerce (155). Goodman argues, without offering much detail about the techniques in question, that “the virologies of the Black Atlantic … constitute a wealth of techniques for affective mobilization in dance,” but that, in turn, “virosonic capital hijacks these techniques … for modulation” (162). The “core focus” of an audio virology is, therefore, the “decreasing gap between mobilization and modulation” (162).

In chapters 24-27 Goodman carefully sketches out what is entailed by an “audio virology” and how such an approach is better suited than memetics for understanding how power relations infuse the contemporary circulation and transmission of culture. Given the intense uptake around memes in the Web 2.0 era, Goodman’s intervention here is useful. If memetics carries an intrinsically cognitivist bias with its focus on information, in contrast, an audio virology “entails a nexus that synthesizes the flows of information, matter, and energy into a virulent rhythmic consistency” (138). Such an “assemblage,” according to Goodman (nodding again to Deleuzian philosophy), goes beyond memetics in recognizing that “replicators” are always “embedded in an ecology,” in a material environment. Memes themselves “are material processes,” pulse patterns emitted by “billions of networked neurons.” Rather than transmission networks, Goodman suggests we think of “affective vectors” and “affective contagions,” and though he notes that we already have the fairly neutral but useful concept of affection available to us, a model of infection appeals to him as a way to “dramatize” the concern with power that he accuses memetics of lacking (130). Viruses, or virological models, are also important to Goodman because they pose “threats to cybernetic control societies” (179), the looming threat of capitalist affect modulation.

If there is a clear politics in this book, the most specific it ever gets is anti-capitalist, but the best way to characterize it might be, more broadly, anti-colonialist. Goodman’s perspective is informed by the anti- and postcolonial discourses running through British cultural studies and Afrofuturism alike, and his concerns move from geopolitical frames to the more subtle but perhaps more worrisome micropolitical colonization of our thoughts, our bodies, our futures. For this reason, mobilization—and understanding sound’s relation to it—stands at times as an idealized end in itself. Goodman stops short of discussing why one would want to mobilize collective populations, however, and he takes pains to distance his analysis from obvious ideological commitments. He is far more interested in “models for affective collectivity without any necessary political agenda” (175). The battle ground for Goodman—and it is a literal field of combat—is the affective status quo, modulated by sonic weapons of all sorts. More generally, Goodman appears concerned with understanding “how audition is policed and mobilized” (189), which, to his credit, is not really the sort of question that musicologists ask. He makes a persuasive case that music and sound studies would do well to turn some attention this way.

The closest Goodman comes to offering an interpretation of sonic mobilization is to suggest that bass materialist affect modulation—that is, using palpable bass frequencies to vibrate bodies—constitutes a “cultural pragmatics” that can “make existence bearable” in what is increasingly, again following Mike Davis (2006), a “planet of slums” (172). Theorizing across contemporary global sound system culture (“Planet of Drums”), Goodman argues that they construct “temporary bass ecologies to hijack sonic dominance” and to “attract and congeal populations” (173). But it would be naive, he contends, “to pretend that there is a necessarily politically progressive agenda” underlying the organization of sound system parties (174). Goodman’s overall aim here is laudable: to shift focus from questions of content and meaning and toward understanding the “more basic power of organized vibration” (172). For the most part, this allows him to purposefully sidestep a great number of questions about the discursive realm. It’s a provocative bit of bracketing, with enough barbs planted in the introduction and the footnotes to set seminar discussions ablaze.

Ultimately, Goodman allows sound to guide his project. He places sound, via vibration, at the center of everything. “One way or another, it is vibration, after all,” he notes, “that connects every separate entity in the cosmos, organic or nonorganic” (xiv). Although his theories of affect and rhythm are underpinned by some heady philosophical discussions, stretching from Spinoza through Deleuze to Massumi and connecting the dots between Bachelard, Lefebvre, Bergson, and Whitehead, Goodman claims to be less concerned with bringing theory to bear on sound than in the reverse. Instead, sound “comes to the rescue of thought,” undermining the “linguistic imperialism” and “phenomenological anthropocentrism” that animate “almost all musical and sonic analysis.” But rather than resorting to a “naive physicalism,” Goodman asserts that what is key is “a concern for potential vibration and the abstract rhythmic relation of oscillation” (82). Using sound to unsettle theoretical frames, while synthesizing a diverse and demanding philosophical literature, Goodman’s efforts recall more than any other recent work Shepherd and Wicke’s ambitious Music and Cultural Theory (1997), another text that could have resonated more strongly in musicological circles.

It remains to be seen whether Sonic Warfare will speak to musicologists and the increasingly transdisciplinary enterprise of sound studies. If I express some pessimism here about its potential uptake, that has more to do with the text’s unorthodox and challenging dimensions. While brimming with ideas and sharp provocations, the book sometimes seems designed to stymie comprehension. Although Goodman rarely takes anything akin to Tompkins’ flights of fancy, his prose can be disorienting and at times nearly impenetrable. (At least there’s a glossary for help.) Although each chapter, most of them quite short, could no doubt be read as an autonomous “singularity,” as the author recommends (xvii), there are several chapter-spanning sections of the book sustaining arguments that, a la carte, might go unappreciated. (Chapters 15-20, for instance, elaborate on the philosophical core of “rhythmanalysis.”) His use of non-chronological but pregnant dates to mark each chapter, although interesting conceptually, also proves problematic. Many of the dates go entirely without explication, so they can seem arbitrary or orthogonal to the discussion. As much as I appreciate and would like to see greater formal experimentation in music and sound studies, too often the organization of Sonic Warfare comes to feel like a conceit of sorts, an afterthought, or an evasion of hard, connective writing.

As the asymmetry in this joint review suggests, these books also differ insofar as one, written from within and directed toward the academy, is working at the level of an overarching argument which can be summarized, debated, and re-deployed in future research, whereas the other resists any sort of boiling down or segmentation. Tompkins’ book is an irreducible thing, not least because of its often untranslatable idiom, and I like that about it. I do not mean to privilege one or the other, nor to confer some greater degree of legitimacy on either. In the end, what makes these texts relevant to an academic readership—to those working in music and sound studies, whom I address here—should have little to do with their institutional pedigree or even their form and everything to do with how they contribute to rigorous debates about the place of music and sound in our world. Do their ideas effectively invite response, revision, and/or citation? Both books have the power to continue opening up the musicological conversation, to let some new vibes in, and to shake things around a bit.

Taken together, these books should help to retune (or is that detune?) the study of music and sound. They force us to ask hard questions of ourselves: What is our subject? What is our lexicon? How do we make sense of our audible past and present without foreclosing possible sonic futures? How do we engage, or ignore, the role of sound and music in the context of creeping, global militarism? If taken up with the vigor they merit, Sonic Warfare and How to Wreck a Nice Beach may better prefigure the future of music and sound studies than many other contemporary offerings.

Bibliography

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

Cloonan, Martin and Bruce Johnson. 2002. “Killing Me Soflty with His Song: An Initial Investigation into the Use of Popular Music as a Tool of Oppression”. Popular Music 21(1): 27–39.

Cusick, Suzanne G. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Revista Transcultural de MĂşsica/Transcultural Music Review. 10:1–18.

_______. 2008. “’You Are in a Place That is Out of the World…’: Music in the Detention Camps of the Global War on Terror.” Journal of the Society of American Music 2(1):1–26.

Davis, Mike. 2000. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Vintage.

_______. 2006. Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class. London: Verso.

Henriques, Julian. 2003. “Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System Session.” In The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 451–80. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.

Shepherd, John and Peter Wicke. 1997. Music and Cultural Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Stolzoff, Norman. 2000. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham: Duke University Press.

Veal, Michael. 2007. Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

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September 29th, 2010

What Lamin Did

Last week Dutty Artz released a lovely, largely unpredictable set of 4 tracks produced by longtime blog/label staple but debuting artist, Lamin Fofana. (You can hear & buy individual tracks at Amazon and elsewhere around the web.) I wasn’t sure what to expect, never having heard any of Lamin’s productions. Sure, I’d heard mixes and podcasts, and I knew a thing or two about what Lamin likes through his steady blogging. Oh, and that he’s been working hard behind the scenes at MuddUp radio for a couple years now. But the staggering variety of those efforts still really left me wondering.

Lamin’s obviously a great listener, and I hear What Elijah Said as audible, irrefutable evidence of that. He packs a lot into these four tracks: sudden turns, suprising textures, development, drama and arc. Resisting genre-tags-as-(forestalled)interpretation through their promiscuous relationship to stylistic orthodoxy, his productions are little worlds of music all their own.

Speaking of which, Lamin also cooked up an interesting and apt promotional mix for the EP. #Calypso doesn’t directly feature any elements from What Elijah Said, and yet on the other hand, that’s precisely what it seems to contain: another kind of crucial context, a kindred or parallel sonic universe, something into which one might pass from the EP, and back, via emergent audio wormholes of varying size and character. Slip through and loop around again, & you’ll never grow bored —

Lamin Fofana, #Calypso
[audio:http://nyc.duttyartz.com/l4m1n/calypso.mp3]

You could try to make a certain sense of Lamin’s music via his biography’s knotty routes (via DA) —

Lamin Fofana was born in the West African country of Guinea. When the political situation got bumpy, he moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where his routine involved listening to Goodie Mob and Organized Konfusion as well as attending Quranic schools/mosques. In 1997 Lamin’s family had to flee worsening conditions in Sierra Leone – losing friends, belongings, documents, a home. They spent several days crossing roads and bridges destroyed by rebels to prevent people from escaping. At the end of the year, Fofana found a new home in Harlem, New York, where he lives today.

But I actually think it’s the EP (and mix) which helps one to read his bio, not the other way around.

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August 5th, 2010

Review: Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House

Continuing my tradition of posting “director’s cut” versions of the reviews I freelance from time to time, here’s the latest: a review of a recent compilation from Germany’s Outhere records, Ayobaness!, which showcases the rich, vibrant South African house scene. This one was an interesting endeavor, as my editor, Derek, pushed me to foreground a discussion of the sound (understandably) while I was, as usual, a little more interested in the narrative framework (as offered by the compilers, and beyond). Both aspects are, IMO, crucial to how listeners and practitioners make meaning from these recordings, but short reviews don’t always permit an equal engagement with both. The “director’s cut” below contains two extra paragraphs that couldn’t make the cut for the print edition.

An edited version of this review was published in the June 2010 issue (#316).

You can preview tracks, place an order, and watch some awesome videos over at Outhere Records.

Various Artists
Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House
Outhere Records

House music’s big tent contains multitudes. And South Africans are no strangers to the show. An early local love of house, from about the same time the UK was embracing and reworking Chicago’s jacked-up disco-tech, famously paved the way for kwaito’s bridging of township rap and house rhythms, serving as suggestive soundtrack for post-apartheid jubilance and impatience alike. South Africa’s affinity for house qua house, however, continued unabated, and expanding access to production and distribution tools has given rise to a burgeoning scene that threatens to reabsorb kwaito, if not offer some course correction for house itself.

At a time when metropolitan house variants traverse a global network of labels, clubs, and DJs, South Africa’s convivial mix of soft synths, hard drums, and local vocals should find plenty of complimentary grooves to slip into. Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House, a new compilation from Germany’s Outhere Records, makes a strong case for South Africa as a hotbed for the genre. Thanks to YouTube’s projection of township youth cutting asphalt rugs, tracks by such standouts as DJ Mujava, represented here on the rollicking “Mugwanti / Sgwejegweje,” have recently enjoyed eager uptake abroad, mixed and remixed into the kindred forms of UK funky, dubstep, electro.

While some of the scene’s biggest tracks are off-kilter instrumentals with spooky synth leads and chunky percussion, Ayobaness! highlights vocal numbers. Male and female voices mix judiciously, as do the forms they take, from raspy rap verses to sweet, full-throated call-and-response choruses. In contrast to a lot of house tracks, even of the diva-propelled variety, the tracks collected here sound a lot more like songs. Spiky riffs, needling leads, and fuzzy washes interplay with snare drum cross-rhythms, bongos for days, and a panoply of voices. Take DJ Cleo’s “Nisho Njalo,” which dresses up house’s four-four kicks with a clave-shaped tom-and-piano riff, some laser beam skanking, interlocking synth melodies, and polymetric percussion rolls while kwaito sensation Bleksem recites coquettish rhymes to a skeptical chorus of women. This level of density and detail, conjuring local and global tropes all the while, is utterly typical.

Despite the music’s uniqueness, the sound of South African house is not so much a product of peripatric speciation as it is an aesthetic committed to local style while audibly attuned to contemporary currents in the wider world. The detailed liner notes boast that the scene has “deep, tribal, electro and minimal” sides, and discerning listeners will pick out nods to various tropes of the genre, old and new. The convivial mix of synths and skins is enough to win one over; no need to be cute and call this “shanty” house, or dub it the “most crazy house culture in the world” as it has been promoted.

Ayobaness! continues a line of releases from Outhere portraying African popular music that is, you know, actually popular (not just what might best fit outsiders’ expectations of African difference). From bongo flava to hiplife to roots reggae, Outhere’s compilations help to round out a picture of what contemporary urban Africa sounds like, including how much it sounds like the rest of the world. Amidst the ongoing Afrodiasporic jam across the Net Atlantic and a growing interest in African club sounds like kuduro and coupé décalé, the sound of South African house should resonate widely, but it’s best embodied on its own sure-footed terms.

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July 16th, 2010

Review: Dancehall (Vol. 2)

As some readers of both this blog and The Wire might have noticed, I’ve started to contribute now and then to their reviews section. As per my usual practice, I’ll be reprinting the reviews here on the blog, once they’ve enjoyed their print run, usually offering something of a “director’s cut” (more words! glorious words!), even though I’m quite grateful for the magic of concision and clarity that editors like Derek can wring out of my prolix prose. My reviews no doubt read sharper in the magazine, but blogs — at least this one — are great places for picking up clippings from the cutting room floor and giving people a little more to read, and comment on.

An edited version of this review was published in the February 2010 issue (#312).

You can preview tracks from the compilation, and place an order, over at Soul Jazz.

Various Artists
Dancehall: The Rise Of Jamaican Dancehall Culture Part 2
Soul Jazz 2xCD

So rooted in local music venues that it became synonymous with them, dancehall captured Jamaican audiences by staying down-to-earth and up-to-the-time. It remains reggae’s prevailing style even as detractors wonder, in an era of autotuned vocals and fruityloopy beats, if it still merits the name. Some stakeholders, including the compilers of the second double CD in Soul Jazz’s Dancehall series, argue that dancehall has met its demise. Their project is one of reverent exhumation, and though that blurs one line while drawing another, dancehall’s seminal sides can speak to skeptics and boosters both.

Despite the break that dancehall marks — most notably in the ascension of rapping deejays to primary frontmen — the compilation’s tracks bare their roots. Nearly all feature re-licks of classic riddims, including Studio One perennials Rockfort Rock, Heavenless, and Full Up. Small, tight studio groups reanimate well-worn instrumentals, offering spare interpretations–often two-bar, taut but supple grooves–that leave space for deejays to toast and soundmen to dub. Showcasing dancehall’s domination by microphones and mixing boards, the comp includes several longer cuts comprising a few minutes of deejay recitation followed by the producers and engineers taking their turn, flinging horn snips, vocal clips, and renegade snares across the stereo field. Errol Scorcher’s hilarious “Roach in De Corner,” clocking in close to 9 minutes and featuring classic interjections (“Bim! Kill him! Shhh!”), rides a heavy Ansel Collins version of Real Rock which, over its last five minutes, breaks down in every imaginable way and a few others as well. The compilation focuses on major mic-men — like Lone Ranger, Nicodemus, and Yellowman — who draw heavily on humor and critique, revel in local (and lower-class) slang, and rap more melodically than often acknowledged, but it includes the day’s top singers, many of whom, like Johnny Osbourne or Half Pint, navigate dancehall’s spiky topography with a spry delivery.

While these tracks connect dots between roots and dancehall, the compilation redraws an old line by shying away from the synthesized productions that have dominated since the mid-80s. Notable exceptions are Papa San’s deeply digital “Money a Fe Circle” and the Steely & Clevie produced “When” by Tiger — drum machine driven dancehall at its bouncy best. More often one hears subtle touches of digital tricknology, like the syn-drum percussion pioneered by Sly & Robbie, as on Ini Kamoze’s “Trouble You a Trouble Me,” wielding a synth clap like a machine gun. The compilation finally betrays its bias when nodding to latter day dancehall but offering only modern roots throwbacks. Shabba Ranks’s “Respect,” riding a wicked Hot Milk re-lick by Bobby Digital, is almost overbearing in this regard. In their defense, the series aims to cover The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture (though promotional materials make broader claims), but what feels left out, ironically, is a sense of how dancehall has remained rooted in the spaces which branded it, even three decades later, precisely by staying up to date.

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May 2nd, 2008

Disco Stew

Been a while since I did any freelancing, but I’ve got a review in the most recent Fader (#53). Mucho props to J Shep for the invitation. I’m glad I came to mind when Funky Nassau arrived in the mail.

I’ve pasted my take below, where, as I’ve done in the past, I’m publishing my original draft. Not that I’m not happy with the final version, which may be the better for it and which I’m glad is available via pdf (p.142, or 74 in Preview) but, as often happens in the editorial process, the words no longer sound quite like my voice — not least b/c I didn’t actually get a chance to interview Chris Frantz, to my dismay. But someone else did, and I’m glad they added his voice to the piece. The original is a lean 400 words — quite the trick for a prolix mu’fucka such as myself. It also contains some dry humor that, alas, ended up on the cutting room floor, analogically speaking.

The brevity of the review means I didn’t get to say as much as I’d have liked about the whole thing and that I accentuated the positive. (Why waste words when there’s nuff niceness to note?) In sum, it’s a fun and interesting compilation. I enjoyed wrapping my ears around it. No reason a lot of the tracks couldn’t play right into the current enthusiasm for all things touched by disco — reggae and nerdrock alike.

My favorite track, sin duda? Grace Jones’s “My Jamaican Guy” (12” version) — what an oddly awesome mix of sounds and styles! Synth riff juju over Sly&Robbie disco dub?! What’s not to lub?

Funky Nassau
Wayne Marshall

It sounds improbable, or like a recipe for overcooking: Island Records’ Chris Blackwell sets up a state-of-the-art studio in the Bahamas, invites New Wave / No Wave awk-rockers (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Ian Dury) to come on down, adds an international club icon or two to the mix (Grace Jones, Guy Cuevas), hires a crack house band driven by Parisian-Beninian keyboardist, Wally Badarou, and reggae’s dynamic duo, the drum-and-bass production partners Sly & Robbie, and hands the boards over to influential disco DJs like Larry Levan and François Kevorkian to give the taut, crisp, subtly dubbed-out sounds a proper club mix.

It was Blackwell’s attempt to create a studio that was an island in itself, with a sound as distinctive as Studio One, Motown, or Stax. And although the results now sound dated in their own charming way (though many tracks could once again take dancefloors by surprise), the recordings made at Compass Point Studios from 1980-86 didn’t simply distill the era’s post-disco, post-punk zeitgeist, they defined it. AC/DC and the Rolling Stones may have recorded there too, but this is, as the title says, a funky compilation, representing the dance underground of the early 80s, a cosmopolitan scene bridging London, Paris, New York, and Kingston. The tracks brim with an open-minded adventurousness, drawing on the funk, reggae, hip-hop, and African pop animating these cities’ soundscapes and cooking it all down into a lean, mean disco stew. Intended for the club, many of the cuts (collected here in their 12” versions) stretch out into extended instrumentals, seven minute drum and bass workouts that can make one forget the sometimes silly, often whimsical lyrics and focus on the groove.

“Reggae’s expanding with Sly and Robbie,” sing Tom Tom Club on their immortal single, “Genius of Love,” and they hit the nail on the bloodclaat head: if nothing else, Funky Nassau affirms the central role that the “riddim twins” played in shaping late 20th century pop. A dubwise approach pervades the proceedings (nuff reverb, echo, flanging, and stereo panning). Sly’s drums sizzle and pop while Robbie’s basslines keep things grounded, making room for the avant-rockers’ flights of fancy. They achieve a remarkably consistent sound despite bringing together so many eclectic styles and idiosyncratic performers. Offering a punchy tour through early 80s international club culture, Funky Nassau arrives just in time to inspire today’s improbable soundtracks for increasingly polyglot cities.

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January 19th, 2007

Taking the Boat to the Bank

Got a brief review of Pitbull’s El Mariel in this week’s Phoenix. As it happens, I also have a quotation in another, longer review by Jose Davila for the Miami New Times, also published this week.

In short, I like the album, esp any tracks propelled by Mr.Collipark’s ATLien Afro-Cubist crunkstep, and i admire Pitbull’s skills and fluency. But I also find myself — as a listener, critic, and mixmaker — tripping over various misguided attempts at blatant crossover, run-of-the-mill misogyny, and quasi-political appropriations of powerful symbols of immigrant, Cuban, and “minority” rights. But you should read it for yourself (and/or go cop the album, DJs especially — some real bangers on there). I’m especially proud to have gotten this sentence in print:

And though some listeners might be put off by Pitbull’s various macho exhortations — i.e., “Move Bend over, girl, show me what you workin’ with”Âť — those looking for a little more balance in their booty music will be pleased to know that going down on El Mariel about as often as shoot-outs and coke deals is Pitbull himself, who repeats on several occasions his desire to please orally the objects of his gaze.

Here are a few scraps that didn’t make it into the 600-sump’m word review:

  • Occasionally mistaken for a reggaetonero, Pitbull may nod to various Latin predecessors, wear the Cuban flag on his back, and throw off a guest verse for Don Omar or Daddy Yankee from time to time, but he also presents himself, simply and fairly, as a rapper “who also happens to be Latin”Âť (at last year’s Latin Alternative Music Conference — a description widely touted in promotional materials) and his music remains firmly anchored in the bass and crunk music that has been rattling cars and clubs in the South (and recently more widely) for decades. Though he doesn’t associate himself explicitly with the sound/movement, I love that elsewhere in Miami some of Pit’s peers — Spanglish rappin’ over crunk’n’latin beats — call what they do crunkiao, which is something like a double past participle (if we already hear crunk from crank — as in “speakers on crunk” — as well as -iao/-eao as slrrd Spanish -ado). Indeed, there is something doubly cranked about a lot of Pitbull’s music. (FYI/disclosure: Jose Davila, who wrote the piece I linked to above, is contributing an article on crunkiao — and the Miami “hurban” scene more generally — for Reading Reggaeton.)
  • re: sonic afrocubanfuturism (via imaginary but resonant signifiers) — if we hear Cuba’s rumba rhythms in jazz’s “Latin Tinge” and rock’s “Bo Diddley” beat, why not hear crunk’s 3:2 kick-snare patterns as rap’s own version of the clave (see’n’hear, e.g.), not so much the son montuno in this case as the son montana, combining the Miami gothic of Scorcese w/ the fluorescence of Crockett and Tubbs (but what, no Jan Hammer samples?)

  • … Lil Jon’s e-rush synths (“Voodoo”Âť) are bombastic, cinematic — par for the course for crunk & (strip)club music, nodding at rave and film and nu-pr0n/YouPr0n all at once; “Miami shit” = slow crunk grind, distorted guitar power chords over 808 drum rolls, with 4/4 clubby breaks and ascendant horns; “Que Tu Sabes D’eso” = a wicked Spanglish cover of TI’s “What You Know”Âť w/ Fat Joe; “Bojangles”Âť = another straight-up banger (w/ a beat that knocks like a door, a backboard, a bedboard !?); nuff duds, tho: some of the slower crunk romps drag, despite the double time teases and screwed aesthetic, and some of the sincere songs are painfully so — no reason sincerity need = ghetto hallmark platitudes, Pitbull’s plenty sincere in his guise as a freak-a-leek cunning linguist; plenty of gems, too …
  • The stylistic diversity on El Mariel is not always a strength, and sometimes the album stumbles in its attempts, esp the anthem-by-the-numbers “Latin pop”Âť stab ft. (who else?) Wyclef Jean. Elsewhere dancehall producer Donovan Bennett tries his hand at Scott Storchian orientalist bombast, w/ Vybz Kartel on the track to boot (who drops some nice lines) but it’s not a memorable turn, a standout track, despite no little promise in the collaboration (why is it that we don’t hear more fruitful collaborations between dancehall and hip-hop and/or reggaeton?). Other experiments, however, such as the oddball sampling of the B-52’s “Rock Lobster”Âť to support some 2 Live Crew frat-chant allusions, succeed spectacularly.
  • Sure, Pit’s cynical/critical of US foreign policy, but he’s clearly not about to give up the good life; this one big commercial for the good life (but that’s just our self-consciously capitalist context speaking itself, innit): “I don’t own jewelry, motherfucker I own property,”Âť he bragraps. Indeed, sometimes it seems that for Pitbull the greatest injustice dealt to Cubans in Cuba would seem to be their inability to engage in the great American hustle. At least, I get the impression that that’s what he means when he calls Cuba “la opresiĂłn más grande del mundo.”

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December 7th, 2006

Studio One Stocking Stuffers

Got a piece in this week’s Phoenix reviewing the latest offerings in Heartbeat’s ambitious Studio One reissue series, running the gamut from ska to dub. Check it out. As usual, see below for the “director’s cut.”

Studio One Love, pt. 2
by Wayne Marshall

Heartbeat Records’ Studio One reissue series continues not only to shore up the legacy of Studio One honcho Coxsone Dodd, but to present an expansive, rich portrait of Jamaican popular music more generally.

Ska Bonanza, a 2-CD set collecting 44 songs, offers listeners a wide-lens perspective on the pre-reggae sound of 1960s Jamaican pop. Gaining prominence just as Jamaica gained independence from England in 1962, ska emerged at the same time that jazz, R&B, and Latin dance styles defined cosmopolitan cool from Chicago to Cape Town. Swing was king, even in Jamaica, and many of the island’s jazzmen played in big bands and on cruise ships, cutting their teeth on Lester Young solos over romps borrowed from Basie. Spurred by Coxsone to record for the local market, ska gave Jamaica’s best musicians a chance to play to hometown tastes, blowing soul jazz style over hopped-up, localized R&B songs, mambo numbers, and movie themes. The music features more elaborate chord changes and 12/8 shuffles than most subsequent Jamaican pop, but the players sway as much as they swing, bouncing nuff 3s against 2s and adding a characteristically Caribbean lilt to that ol’ American push-pull.

For all their localization, many tracks on Ska Bonanza demonstrate a sustained engagement with American and international pop, sometimes in the form of awkward imitations but often in delightful, distinctive funhouse-mirror manner. The many covers of familiar pop songs on Ska Bonanza are fine examples of the cherished tradition of “versioning” in Jamaican music: Smokey Robinson gets interpolated, to use the contemporary legalese, as his “Choosy Beggar” becomes Rita Marley’s “A De Pon Dem,” while the Four Tops’ well-worn “Same Old Song” gets a new set of lyrics and an otherwise remarkably reverent treatment on The Gaylads’ “Stop Making Love.” On the more local side, a young Lee Perry sings a charmingly bawdy bootie tune (“Sugar Bag”), but he sounds downright demure next to the nonnuendo of Jackie Opel’s “Push Wood.” As numerous as the vocal cuts are instrumental numbers, serving as fine vehicles for the sinuous solos of Don Drummond, Roland Alphonso, Tommy McCook and their woodsheddin’ brethren. There are lots of songs about broken hearts and rude boys and plenty of proto-beatboxing. The collection runs the gamut from inspired anthems to treacly ballads, and while some songs are brilliantly and warmly recorded, lovingly touched-up, and transcendent in form and content, others sound more dated but are valuable nevertheless in providing a good sense of ska style.

Despite its foreign infusions, ska embodied for many a modern Jamaica coming into its own, embodying people’s hopes and dreams in its bouncy, uplifting grooves, cosmo cool, and indubitably local character. As ska gave way to the slower strains of rocksteady a few years later, many heard the music expressing a fading ebullience. But people still sung of Jamaican aspirations and once again the sounds of black America served as crucial symbols. A trio of Heartbeat’s other recent releases help to chart this complex terrain, with collections representing the peak rocksteady and foundational reggae recordings of Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, and John Holt. Under Dodd’s hand and supported by Studio One’s inimitable band, the three singers rose to prominence in the mid- to late-60s. Motown and Memphis figure big on these recordings. Steeped in the Sam Cooke school of soul crooning but with an edge all his own, Ellis’s smooth tenor helped to herald the shift from ska’s forward march to rocksteady’s easy skank. Often featuring Alton’s sister, Hortense, I’m Still in Love with You showcases the Ellis siblings on a solid set of songs about longing, love, and the Lord. Another early star for Studio One, Delroy Wilson got his start as a 15-year-old weapon for Coxsone’s soundsystem, recording “specials” to ridicule their opponents. Wilson’s young start may explain why his soulful turns often sound less self-conscious than those of his predecessors or contemporaries. His take on the Temptations’ “Get Ready,” for instance, shows at once how undeniably original Jamaican versions of American pop songs can be. John Holt has a haunting voice, which seems especially appropriate when he’s singing the sort of over-possessive long songs that were once all the vogue (and now are mercifully rare, if not quite quaint). Not unlike his contemporaries, Holt gives shape to worlds of possibility amid bleak social and political landscapes, and embitterment and disappoint exist alongside celebration and faith. Supported by the Paragons on the cautionary “Change Your Style,” the singer addresses Kingston’s infamous, rebellious youths: “Hooligan business cold,” Holt harmonizes, “Let only love fill your soul.” And he throws in a cover of George Harrison’s famous R&B ripoff (“My Sweet Lord”) for good, mirror-mirror measure.

Although such seminal rocksteady and early reggae recordings would seem sufficient to affirm Studio One’s unique legacy, Heartbeat has gone further in its recent reissues, releasing some heavy, 70s-era roots reggae from the famous imprint. Featuring another Studio One child prodigy, Freddy McGregor’s Bobby Babylon stands as one of reggae’s stronger albums. Recorded in the late 70s and released at the dawn of the dancehall era, the album sounds at times almost sentimental in its pop-song structures and prevailing plaintiveness, but militant songs such as “Take Over Now,” “I Am a Revolutionist,” and the title track leave little doubt about McGregor’s engagement with historical and social themes–or whether ska really did represent “independence” for the people of Jamaica. The reissue includes a number of bonus tracks, including an extended mix of McGregor’s “When I’m Ready” featuring the talented talkover of Lone Ranger, as both ride the riddim underlying John Holt’s 1970 smash “A Love I Can Feel.”

Collecting 18 bass-heavy, slow-as-syrup cuts–all B-sides, or “versions,” of Studio One offerings from 1966-82–Version Dread may be the gem of the bunch, especially for the “meditative” listener. Selected from Wilson’s own prized collection of Studio One 45s, the disc presents Studio One’s somewhat restrained approach to the arts of “versioning” and “dubbing” (i.e., manipulating previous recordings with studio technology to create new forms). Less showy than the work of Scratch Perry or King Tubby, the dubs on Version Dread are distinctive and deep all the same. Of course, Studio One possessed an unrivalled catalog from which to version, and here one hears some of reggae’s biggest songs and riddims tweaked and remixed in reverent, subtle fashion. Between Dodd’s expert ears and the sonic magic worked by his indispensible engineer, Sylvan Morris, there’s plenty of play at hand: sounds tumble across time and space, pinging around the stereofield and spinning off in polyrhythm against beats which seem concrete ‘til they melt in mid-air; snatches of singers and DJs ghost over hard drums and big bass while echoes of horns and guitars, filtered down to shadows of themselves, lurk beneath the texture and erupt occasionally into focus.

If this is the sound of a legacy, it is one that is rock solid but infinitely malleable, classic but forever modern.

-

October 20th, 2006

ÂżQue Fue?

That review of the new Tego album in the Phoenix that I’ve been telling y’all about has finally seen the light of day. You can find it in the digital fishwrap here, but I’m going to go with my standard practice of reprinting the original on this humble blog since inevitably a word or two (or three) has been changed or excised and it doesn’t always sound like my voice anymore (for better or worse, I suppose, depending on your aesthetics).

For all the Idolators out there who have strong opinions about who’s hipper than you journalistic integrity, allow me to provide full disclosure: everything you are about to read is a fabrication, an invention of my active imagination — shit, some of it’s a translation. How that affects how you hear Tego, well, you’ll have to let me know.

///

Tego Calderon’s debut album, El Abayarde (White Lion / BMG 2003) caught the ears of both the reggaeton street and the critical elite. Its diverse stylistic palette, politically-charged rhymes, and easy swagger presented a striking alternative to the assembly-line, in-your-face reggaeton flooding the market. It also set a high bar for future efforts. On Tego’s new disc, The Underdog / El Subestimado (Jiggiri / Atlantic 2006) the Afro-sporting, gap-toothed grinning rapero returns with another genre-busting effort, and this time he’s got Atlantic records, the label that gave Sean Paul just the right push, to help him project his distinctive, deserving voice.

Those who find reggaeton monotonous would have a hard time lodging the complaint at Tego. Despite the dembows (and plenty of those), Tego’s music brings together a greater variety of styles than most of his contemporarie — and not just his fellow reggaetoneros. Although it has become commonplace to describe reggaeton as a mix of hip-hop, reggae, salsa, and even such traditional Afro-Puerto Rican genres as bomba and plena, few reggaeton productions live up to this motley model. Tego proves the exception, however, and The Underdog revisits all these influences while breaking new ground.

Warning Tego’s challengers that he will return to “kill” them again and again, the lead single, “Los MatĂ©,” gestures both to contemporary hip-hop and further across the Latin musical spectrum by giving a classic Mexican ballad, “El Preso Numero 9,” the chipmunk soul treatment. The track resolves its far-flung connotations with a solid reggaeton groove, layering chopped and filtered loops from such well-worn dancehall sources as the Dem Bow and Bam Bam riddims and adding some subtle synths to fill out the texture. A fitting first shot, “Los MatĂ©” puts Tego right back at the vanguard of the genre, nodding to hip-hop and reggae routes, an expansive, diasporic vision, and a musical talent unconstrained by genre.

In contrast to his peers, many of them participants in the dancehall-heavy pre-reggaeton “underground” or “dembow” scene during the 1990s, Tego cut his teeth on hip-hop, in part while living in Miami as a teenager, and his flows and beats bear witness to an aesthetic steeped in that ol’ boom-bap. While Daddy Yankee and similar vocalists spit double-time rhymes and strain their voices (purposely, mind you) to propel high-pitched melodies cribbed from dancehall reggae, Tego keeps it nonchalant in his smoky baritone, more indebted to Tupac Shakur than Shabba Ranks. He’s more likely to cite Bob Marley as an influence than any dancehall DJs, and he’s quick to add the names of such seminal MCs as Rakim and such skillful soneros as Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, who gets a number of shout-outs on The Underdog. The album employs hip-hop beats alongside reggaeton pistas and reggae riddims (of both dancehall and roots varieties), often infusing them with additional polyrhythmic percussion, evoking the traditional Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean styles Tego has been known to embrace and bringing hip-hop’s Afro-Latin roots back into the foreground by recalling the Latin-tinged funk breaks which provided a rhythmic foundation for the genre. Two acoustic interludes, “Son Dos Alas” and “Por Que,” make audible connections between traditional Afro-Puerto Rican styles and the island’s most contemporary expressions.

Tego has long distinguished himself through his poetic politics, and to his credit he balances such sentiments with cutting humor, a strong sense of fun, and a wide range of topics and concerns, presenting himself as fully human, if that means he must show his seams. The Underdog offers, among other portraits, a poignant plea about a father estranged from his child and restrained by a biased legal system (“Oh Dios”) as well as a genuinely touching tribute to Tego’s late father (“A Mi Papá”), supported by a sweet, nostalgic beat provided by Miami-based producers Major League. The necksnappin’ “Payaso,” produced by Salaam Remi and featuring Puerto Rican hip-hop veteran Eddie Dee and Tego’s up-and-coming labelmate Voltio, effectively reanimates a well-worn Herbie Hancock sample (from Headhunters‘ “Watermelon Man”) in order to assail wannabe gangster reggaetoneros as “clowns,” calling for fewer street stereotypes and more range and substance. Non-Spanish speakers shouldn’t worry too much about missing every detail, for even native Puerto Ricans have trouble keeping up with Tego’s wide-ranging slang, which includes obscure regional references and terms from his grandparents’ generation. As he says in a rare English phrase on the album, “You might not understand, but it’s hot.”

And Tego’s just as happy to balance his more thoughtful turns with tracks telling the girls to “move it.” So listeners looking for some plucky, in-the-genre bangers will not be disappointed by the boom-ch-boom-chick of “Pon La Cara,” “Comprenderas,” or the sole Luny Tunes production on the album, “Cuando Baila Reggaeton” (featuring Yandel). Even Tego’s synth romps tend to stand up to, if not trounce, the competition, while the album’s regular stylistic shifts prevent the dembow fatigue that the genre’s other offerings can produce.

This is not to say that there aren’t missteps on The Underdog, but that’s the price of experimentation. “Mardi Gras,” a bluesy reggaeton grind, is too full of aimless guitar noodling to redeem its bold attempt at another fusion (though Tego’s cartoonish, gravelly chorus almost redeems the track’s southern kitsch). “Badman,” a dancehall tune featuring Buju Banton feels uninspired and gratuitous in its tough guy posturing and “gun lyrics” by-the-numbers. The quasi-live funk of “Bureo Bureo” probably should have been saved for a misguided unplugged album, and though “Chillin'” (with Don Omar) features strong vocals, the producers’ chock-a-block attempt at roots reggae is a little too square. Tego turns in solid performances throughout, but he seems to shine most on The Underdog when he goes out on a limb.

On the tracks where he decides to indulge his love for salsa and to emulate Maelo, “El Negro Calde”Âť takes a strong step forward for reggaeton and salsa alike. DJ Nelson offers up some salsaton accompaniment for Tego and venerable Venezuelan singer Oscar DĂ©Leon. But it is on “Chango Blanco,” an avian allegory about black pride, where Tego shows himself to be a budding sonero in his own right. Supported by a full salsa band, Tego sings with brio the story of a black bird painted white who learns, thanks to some rain, to love his true color: “I want to stay / I want to stay black,” Tego intones, “I was born with this color / And it looks good on me, good.” Improvising his way skillfully through a call/response montuno, Tego occasionally dips into some rap-style vocals for contrast.

At the end of the song, he pronounces “weak salsa” to be done — something to provoke the anti-reggaeton old folk, no doubt, but not necessarily off the mark given how much salsa, especially in its romantica guise, has become cheesy and decidedly apolitical. Tego’s turn here hints at the reinvigoration both genres might receive through such an exchange. He may not yet be the “sonero mayor,” or premiere improviser, that Maelo was, but he’s well on his way.

///

Buy it here.

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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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