No Drums Allowed: Afro Rhythm Mutations in N. America (re/x/post)

(this article originally appeared on This Is Africa, republishing here since it is not on their new site)

Street bands playing Rock’n’Roll in Berlin, Marvin Gaye in a local bar in Thailand, Nas blaring on the streets of Johannesburg, House Music in the mega-clubs of Shang Hai – where ever one goes in the world today, no effort is needed to find African American music and its derivatives.

The embellishment of African derived rhythm/melody with European harmonics gave birth to Jazz, arguably the worlds most significant musical explosion of the millennium.  In the 100 years since, African American music, which became largely synonymous with American music, has been exerting a tremendous amount of global influence.  The spread of this influence accelerated even more after WW2, as the US became a global economic and military super power, aggressively pursuing a program of cultural imperialism, which increasingly saturated the world with its ideas, stories, images, and sounds.

But there is one peculiar thing which nearly all American music has in common – and the more one considers it, the more peculiar it becomes – an extensive emphasis on a unique rhythm, a rhythm very different from that which is found almost anywhere else in the world.  It goes like this: Boom – Bap – Boom – Bap, with a kick drum on the 1 and 3 or all 4, a snare drum precisely on the 2 and 4, with nearly nothing in between except maybe a high hat, and no major hits ever landing off the grid.  This rhythm is called the “Duple” in music theory, and you can find variations of it driving all modern popular American music styles: Blues, Motown, Soul, Funk, Rock, Disco, Hiphop, House, Pop, and beyond.

Duple Rhythm (beginning of video):

Classic Blues:

Motown/Disco/Pop:

The pervasive dominance of this simplified, rigid, and mechanical mono-rhythm, minimizing poly-rhythmic elements in the music to the role of embellishment, sometimes to the point of non-existence, is very different from the focus on complex polyrhythms in various forms of modern South American and Caribbean music. Cuban Son and Rumba, Brazillian Bossa Nova, Haitian Gwo Ka and Compas, Trinidadian Calypso; none of them rely so extensively on the Duple (besides sub-genres which were directly influenced by US exports, such as Ska Reggae, which heavily borrows from the Rhythm’n’Blues of the 50s).

Cuban Son:

Haitian Compas:

And if we zoom out to look at great traditions of music of the world: Asia, Middle East, and of course, Africa, with zero exceptions, the Duple beat is never a central element, and hardly even exist at all in the major bodies of music produced by these ancient cultures. All of them are based on intricately interlocking polyrhythms arranged in hypnotic, complex mathematical patterns. (the much younger European classical tradition, which developed as entertainment for royalty and the rich, has always regarded rhythm as an element of the under classes and “primitives”, and has “long discarded African music as an oddity of the animal kingdom” – Piero Scaruffi. With very few exceptions, these attitudes and a refusal to accept African music and its offspring continued all the way through the 20th century until today, which explains the increasing gap between it and the rest of the world.) (01)

Indonesian Gamelan:

Indian Classical:

Persian Classical:

Siamou Music in Burkina Faso:

So how did North American modern music become so different?  Why did the evolution of American rhythm take this unique path?  The answer is surely very complex, including many elements such as Native American tribal influence and the folk music of the European colonists, most of which used relatively simple rhythms.  But there is another, perhaps even more important factor which might explain this phenomenon, a single historical process which began in the early days of America.  Historians and scholars have written much about it, but the story remains relatively untold in the public sphere.  The following is a condensed, brief, and generalized version.
When first brought to North America during the 1600s and 1700s, slaves from the West coast of Africa used drums to communicate with each other in much the same way as they did at home, sending coded rhythmic messages over long distances, which the Europeans could not understand.  In this way slaves held in different encampments could stay in contact, and rebellion could be planned.  But after some time the masters realized that the drums could talk:
“…it is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”  – Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 (1740)
Starting on the plantations of the Carolinas and Georgia, this ban soon spread nearly everywhere.  Without drums, slaves used whatever was around to make beats: spoons, washboards, furniture, and their own bodies with hand-clapping, drumming on various surfaces of the body (Patting Juba), and foot-stomping and shuffling (Ring Shout).  “It always rouses my imagination,” wrote Lydia Parrish of the Georgia Sea Islands in 1942, “to see the way in which the McIntosh County ‘shouters’ tap their heels on the resonant floor to imitate the beat of the drum their forebears were not allowed to have.”(02) These earlier practices are also the origin of modern forms such as Tap Dancing.

Slapping Juba (the teacher in this video actually recounts a version of the actual incident which result in the first banning of the drums: the murder of a slaver by a slave named Juba, his execution, the subsequent large scale revolt organized with talking drums, and its brutal suppression. From that point on, any slave caught with a drum would have his hands cut off, or hung):

Ring Shout:

The most widely used substitute for drums, partly because of its ready availability, was the human voice. Field Hollers, Call and ResponseWork Songs, Prison Songs, and all kinds of Vocality were developed, with the voice often replicating drum patterns and to create counterpoints, using standard singing, chanting, as well as extended techniques such as guttural effects, interpolated vocality, falsetto, melisma, etc.  Sounds of the work itself such as chopping wood or marching, as well as foot stomping or hand clapping during off hours, provided a basic, skeletal time signature, over which the polyrhythmic vocal sounds could improvise (the roots of Scat Singing).  Sometimes imitating the beats of many drums in one line, these vocal elements filled the incremental temporal spaces between each clap of the hand or fall of the hammer, and played an important role in the preservation of African rhythmic heritage.

Slave Song:

Work Song:

Thus Afro rhythm traditions survived through mutation and adaptation, and formed the drum-less foundation of American music.  The descendants of these earlier styles later became wildly popular beginning in the 19th Century: Ragtime, Minstrelsy, Spirituals, Salon Music, Jubilee, Blues, and Gospel (which has been called “percussion music without drums” by historians).  The appropriation of Black slave music by White mainstream society started at this time, with the phenomenon of Blackface Minstrelsy.  One of the first and most enduring artist/thieves was Stephen Foster, who took African derived rhythms played on the African derived instrument the Banjo, and incorporated them into songs such as “Oh Susana” (which became one of the most popular American songs ever).  This, and the mixing of African slave traditions with European folk music were the origins of Country Music: “One of the reasons country music was created by African Americans, as well as European Americans, is because blacks and whites in rural communities in the south often worked and played together” – DeFord Bailey (03)

And because the drums were taken away, the forms of West African music which either were purely vocal or featured the voice prominently, traditionally played without drums, using simple instruments, such as many kinds of narrative song cycles in the Griot traditions of Mali and Senegal, took root in a big way and gained wide popularity in the deep South.  No specific African musical form can be identified as the single direct ancestor of the blues, but many elements of the Blues, such as the call-and-response format and the use of blue notes, can be traced back to the music of Africa. (04)

Historians have also speculated that the Spanish slavers, who first set up colonies in the Americas in South America, at that time had not long expelled the North African Moors after 800 years of Islamic rule back home, preferred not to import Afro-Muslims.  Thus a higher concentration of people from the Sahel/Mali/Senegal regions, many of whom were Muslim, ended up in North America, bringing with them their more vocal and string based traditions.  While more people from the Congo/Ghana/Nigeria regions arrived in South America and the Caribbean, with their more extensive drumming traditions.

A classic sound collage (Alan Lomax) comparing traditional vocal music from Africa and vocal music from the Delta, alternating, line by line, between American and Senegalese singing:

the direct ancestor of the banjo was the Malian/Senegalese instrument Xalam or Ngoni, widely used by Griots:

There was one exception to this drum-lessness: due to the Catholic laws in Luisiana being different from the protestant ones in Georgia and the Carolinas, drums were not banned in New Orleans, the center of the American slave trade, until much later, the second half of the 19th Century. This and other crucial social conditions were the ingredients of a series of cultural/musical explosions that would change the course of the entire world.

Prior to new waves of repression that would come, this port city directly connected to Cuba and the Caribbean, run by the French and Spanish, included a substantial Creole of colour land-owning middle class, so that “black” was not automatically equated with slavery – an anomaly in the South at the time, to say the least. Before the 1890s when this mixed race group suddenly lost their privilege and equality, they participated in every level of society including politics, making a huge difference in terms of racial tolerance, inclusiveness, cultural exchange with Cuba, and the development of both local music as well as music in Cuba.

An economy based on trade meant less regimented attitudes and more respect for difference: “Untouched by the industrial revolution and less socially stressed than other plantation-oriented economies, New Orleans was able to retain the traditions of the various ethnic groups while they were rapidly being annihilated in the rest of the USA.” – Piero Scaruffi (01) Also, Southern Europeans had somewhat different ideas from the Northern Europeans in their treatment of slaves, due to their countries of origin being closer to Africa, and already heavily influenced by African culture. New Orleans brothels allowed sex across the colour line (not just unheard of but completely INSANE in the 1800s) all the way until 1918, when the US government forced the mayor of New Orleans to segregate.

In this atmosphere of relative tolerance and less repressive laws, for much of the 19th century this opulent melting pot city was host to a vibrant nightlife, exotic rituals, tribal dances, pagan festivals, funeral marches and all kinds of parties which never seemed to stop. Further, there was one place, indeed the only place on the entire continent, the “Congo Square”, in the Tremé neighborhood, where slaves had for a long time been allowed to make music: “In Louisiana during the 18th century, slaves were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They were allowed to gather in the “Place de Negres”, informally “Place Congo”, where the slaves would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music.” – Peter Kolchin (05)

nola congo square sign

The dominant rhythmic figure popular in New Orleans and performed on Congo Square during this time, with origins in the many different slave musics of the Caribbean, is the three-stroke pattern known in Cuban music as tresillo (06).  Louis Armstrong must have heard it plenty as a boy, growing up mere blocks from Congo Square.  “Tresillo is the most basic and by far, the most prevalent duple-pulse rhythmic cell in sub-Saharan African music traditions, and the music of the African Diaspora.” – David Peñalosa (07)  In the post-Civil War period, African Americans in New Orleans were able to obtain surplus military bass drums, snare drums, fifes, trumpets and saxophones.  As a result, an original African American drum and fife music arose, featuring tresillo and related syncopated rhythmic figures.
And so it was in the brothels and bars of the red-light district of New Orleans where a potent combination of Blues, Ragtime, Quadrilles, Salon Music, Afro-Latin music, Native American music, European folk music and Marching Bands, played by multi-racial musicians who shared a passion for syncopation and improvisation, with discarded military brass and reed instruments, first came together to form what we know as Jazz.   

“It is probably safe to say that by and large the simpler African rhythmic patterns survived in jazz … because they could be adapted more readily to European rhythmic conceptions. Some survived, others were discarded as the Europeanization progressed. It may also account for the fact that patterns such as [tresillo have] … remained one of the most useful and common syncopated patterns in jazz.” – Gunther Schuller (08)

A few decades later a new hybrid style with even more reduced, simplistic, and obvious drum beats was born in the same city, in fact the exact same neighborhood: the first Rock ‘n’ Roll records were made in the Tremé district.  “Without New Orlean’s rich musical contribution there would have been no Elvis Presley or Beatles. Because both acts were heavily influenced by the songs recorded by Fats Domino and Little Richards at Cosimo Matassa’s Studios (close to Congo Square).” – Fabian Jolivet.

So there you have it: Jazz and Rock’n’Roll, probably the 2 most significant American cultural exports ever, both born in the only place in America where for a few decades slaves were allowed to play drums and dance. 

Though New Orleans Jazz did sometimes use rhythm patterns more subtle and complex than the Duple (but still much less intricate and nuanced than its influences: Afro-Latin and African music), the much wider and older history of drum-lessness had a deeply profound effect on American music in general, and the Duple fundamentally shaped all popular music to come in the 20th Century.  

There were of course other sources and reasons, both historical and modern: Native American music and Irish, Italian, German folk music such as the Oompah or Polka all used simple mono-rhythms; as well as modern environmental factors such as the rigid and repetitive sound of machines, factories, automobiles and trains in the industrialized landscape.

Native American Ritual Music:

Irish Folk Music:

German Volkstümliche Musik:

All of these cultures contributed to the complex hybrid which is American music, but from where i’m standing, as a person from East Asia, an outsider to American music, to European music, and to African music alike, the origins of Jazz, Rock, Hiphop, etc. are clearly located much more in the blues and slave music from both at home and Latin America than traditions represented by the above 3 videos. If one accepts the seminal, foundational influence exerted by transplanted African culture, this legacy of drum-less evolution might just be the most important piece of the puzzle, the main answer to the question of how the Duple came to dominate American modern music.

But unlike African Americans who RE-invented their African musical heritage through memory and forgetfulness in a completely new context, Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean large preserved homeland drumming traditions, which survive nearly intact until today. (09)

Trinidadian Steel Drums:

Drums were also banned in the Caribbean, in places like Trinidad, but much later in the 19th Century.  So the slaves had a stronger connection to African rhythm culture, which was apparent when they started using frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums after the ban (as oil was an important national product), forming the Trinidadian tradition of Steel Pan and Steel Drum music (10).  Similarly, drums were taken away from slaves in Cuba at a later time, and the roots of Rumba lies in Afro-Cubans playing African music with “household items: the side of a cabinet functioned in the role of the present-day tumba or salidor (the primary supportive drum), while an overturned drawer served as the quinto (the lead drum) and a pair of spoons played the cáscara part on whatever was available.” – David Peñalosa (11)  The handmade percussion instrument Claves, which came from hitting wooden pegs together in shipyards to accompany slave work songs, is now a ubiquitous in all Cuban music and its derivatives from Son to Mambo to Salsa to Timba, playing the Clavérhythm pattern of African origin.

Afro-Brazilian Percussion:

Other reasons for the stronger ties with African culture in the Caribbean and South America include the much greater number of slaves (North America: 0.5 million, Caribbean: 5 million, South America: 5 million); as well as slavery lasting much longer:  Brazil until the 1880s, and Cuba until the 1890s.  Also important were certain practices in slavery: in places like Cuba, unlike in North America, slaves were literally worked to death to increase the profit of the sugar trade.  Since they were not bred to be sold (like in North America), fresh supplies had to be imported directly from Africa, a practice that continued in Havana until 1873. Thus Africans continued to arrive in South America constantly and much more frequently during the later period of the slave trade, maintaining their folkloric traditions through secret societies (particularly Yoruba and Kikongo) (12), producing amazing cultural hybrids such as Capoeira and music like in the videos above. 

As we have seen, rhythm in America took on a very much unique and drastically different character, as result of a particular historical process, a specific evolutionary path.  This can be acutely felt today: consider Hip Hop: the simple, skeletal “BOOM – BAP” beat is the modern version of foot-stomping and hand-clapping, performing the same function of time-keeping, and just as 500 years ago, complex vocal delivery (rap) fills in all the fractions of time between, imitating and substituting for drum patterns – a mutated continuation of African musical heritage.

Usually the first reaction from Americans when this story is told is defensiveness.  But while it is indisputable that American rhythm is in general relatively more simplified and rigid compared to most of the rest of the world, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The raw physical force of simplicity, that kick-you-in-the-gut-and-make-you-see-stars brute power of American modern music can not be denied.  Due to its development through the legacy of oppression and misery, American music is without a doubt the best for expression of intense class and racial tension in a modern world filled with injustice.  As we have seen, the rhythm is literally born of the actual sounds of slavery, thus no wonder the best expression of the joys and sorrows of life as slaves (are we not all slaves of global capitalism?)
On another level, perhaps rigid, mechanical rhythms just suits our rigid and mechanical urban lifestyles better than organic polyrhythms; and the information saturated and sound polluted environments in which we live might explain the modern taste for stripped down and minimalistic beats.  Besides, the understatement of subtle, implicit, or suggested polyrhythms in a lot of African American music gives it unique formal qualities and new possibilities not found in African music.  (with that said i personally prefer Fela Kuti to James Brown :P)
But in many ways strong and explicit African polyrhythms is returning to African American music, from the self-conscious attempts to reconnect with Motherland culture made by musicians in the 1960s and 70s to the Chicago Juke/Footwork of today.  It seems unlikely that only 1 type of rhythm can sustain all these different kinds of music for long, and i think we are currently in the process of a global polyrhythmic revival.

Juke/Footwork:

Chicago Street Percussion:

Now we come to the grand finale, rainbow-in-the-sky, lighters-in-the-air, closing message of this long and dense story which spans half a millennium: African rhythm heritage not only survives, but THRIVES, in any hostile environment, despite every hardship, against every repressive measure, in defiance of all forces that tries to destroy it.

Thanks to Keith Jones, Wayne Marshall, and Darius James.

(01) Scaruffi, Piero. A History of Popular Music before Rock Music.
(02) Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. 
(03) Kingsbury Paul. The encyclopedia of country music: the ultimate guide to the music.
(04) Barbara Vierwo. Andy Trudeau. The Curious Listener’s Guide to the Blues.
(05) Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery,
(06) Sublette, Ned. The World that made New Orleans: from Spanish silver to Congo Square.
(07) Peñalosa, David. The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins.
(08) Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz; Its Roots and Musical Development.

(09) Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues.
(10) Saldenha, Robert. Another Look At The History Of The Steel Band
(11) Peñalosa, David. Rumba Quinto.
(12) Sublette, Ned. A History of Cuba and its Music.

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ADDENDUM:
Over the years i’ve heard people say things like “at least slavery gave us good music”, or “without slavery music would be boring”.
To this i respond:
1. Cultures mix via trade and other means all the time, such as the cultures all along the “Silk Road” trade routes: for example Turkish ideas inspired Chinese music and vice versa, without war or violence, and the resulting Uyghur music is anything but boring.  Similarly, Africa could have met Europe in a number of different ways, without subjugation or slavery.
2. Given that much of American music was born in the only place where slaves were allowed to make music, what kinds of creativity would have blossomed from the meeting of African and European musical ideas, if the slaves were allowed to make music all over America?  What If there was no slavery at all and musicians could collaborate and inspire each other on equal footing??  And what if Europeans were never blinded by ignorance and racism, and had combined their developed harmony with sophisticated African rhythm starting from a much earlier time???
3.  Slavery created the need to express anger, sadness and resentment through music, and we have come to prize and “enjoy” these qualities in music.  But we should not get confused and believe these qualities to be inherently, naturally good.  Because without that legacy of abuse we would not enjoy angry and sad music at all, and would have come to appreciate other qualities instead.
4. Yes something good can come out of any catastrophic and violent injustice; but this is because of the strength of people and endurance of culture, not because of the injustice.
5. Any argument that any part of slavery, how ever small, was good in any way, is an attempt to justify racist violence.

Cut Hands: Between Silence and Violence

A follow up to Josh Hall’s piece “Fascism and colonialism in the work of Cut Hands and Blackest Ever Black”  – published here because i seriously doubt any music publication is willing to address these very serious issues.

i’m sure William Bennett was aware of King Leopold’s favorite punishment* for Congolese rubber plantation workers when he chose the name Cut Hands.  (* a wide spread colonial practice not restricted to the Congo, but also popular in the Americas, especially Cuba and Brazil, as well as in the Caribbean, in places such as Haiti)

There are fundamental differences between Bennett’s exploration of “human transgression” and “artistic immersion in taboo areas of human expression” (his own words) and other artists who make use of violent imagery, like Hermann Nitsch, whose obsession with ritualistic sacrifice is not specifically related to current power imbalances in the real world, the wide spread actual violence born of these imbalances, or entangled in the dynamics and history of racism and colonialism.

William Bennett is a European working from a position of privilege afforded by the colonial spoils of his country, who makes exclusive use of the culture of the victims of colonialism. Cut Hands almost entirely consists of direct transcriptions of rhythm patterns from cultures and people formerly enslaved by Europeans, yet the context of a European using these beats is not addressed. The meaning of a white man directly appropriating the creative labor of people previously enslaved, and currently still economically exploited by white men, is not even touched on, at all, in or around the work.

Further, with the name of the project he references the widespread colonial practice in places where a lot of the rhythms he uses comes from, of punishing slaves by cutting their hands off. Elsewhere William’s work makes use of explicit images of violence suffered by Africans, while actual violence from the legacy of colonialism and enabled/sustained by current western economic imperialism has been, and still is taking place, on a massive scale, in Africa. The safe non-transparency, the alleged neutrality of “leaving the work open to interpretation”, where the artist refuses to answer any questions, reveal political motives or position, or take any kind of moral stance, in a case like this, is not only not enough, but is problematic.

Is silence not consent?

When does art collude, by virtue of its silence, with the structures which sustain systematic injustice? Does the combination of depicting violence and refusal to take a position in relation to it, not reenforce structural relationships which perpetuate violence? Relationships which, for example, is indirectly but surely responsible for the violent killing of 8 million people in the Congo during past decade alone.

If one doesn’t speak out against violence and injustice perpetrated by one’s own culture, by a violent and unjust global economic system from which one benefits, while reveling in images of that violence and injustice, does it not mean pardoning or even giving tacit approval?

When does poetic license become, at best unethical shirking of responsibility, and at worst complicit in crimes against humanity?

Whether he is an actual Neo-Nazi or not is besides the point (allegedly parodic printed racist statements from the past and recent statements notwithstanding).  The point is reproducing colonial attitudes as well as cynically exploiting images of wide spread suffering caused by colonialism and exploitation, in a pornographic sense. And it’s not about if his interest or love of the music is genuine or not, it is the way he is largely presenting African music as his own, and the meanings which accrue around the context of him doing so.

If he is, as the statement on his blog says, an “anti-racist” and “anti-colonialist” and “anti-fascist”, maybe he should directly address and confront these issues in his work, and with text or images position the work in unmistakeable solidarity with the global south. The work may have the potential to raise awareness of how multi-nationals have kept the Congo in conflict, for instance. He is articulate and intelligent, why not get directly involved politically and stand with the people, against injustice? (or does this even make sense at all? Here I am reminded of a part in a recent documentary film in which a Native American answers a white woman who asks “what can i do to help?” with: “don’t march with us. just stop consuming so much.”)

In the end he is using the awesome power of African rhythms for self aggrandizement, while projecting his fantasies of violence onto “The Dark Continent“, which amounts to nothing more than cliche art-school libertarianism, garden-variety-Satanism, and “will to power” for sad, emasculated white men. To these people, like Boyd Rice, “Do What Thou Wilt” means doing evil, and “Beyond Good and Evil” means freedom for the privileged to exploit the powerless, with zero accountability.

The Space Between Us

Space Between Us
PARTY 
9 October, 10pm / open end
WAU, Wirtshaus am Ufer, Hallesches Ufer 32, 10963 Berlin
DJ Zhao, Stefanie Alisch, Mma Tseleng, Bongani Madondo, Garnette Cadogan, Kimba Mutanda u.a. // Kwaito / SA-House / Kuduro / Juju / Shangaan

………..

CONVENTION 
7 – 9 October, daily from 4 to 9 pm / Täglich von 16 bis 21 Uhr in English
Picnicrecords: Stendaler Straße 4, 10559 Berlin/Moabit

Music is a companion in the trans-African movement display.
Stefanie Alisch, Rangoato Hlasane, Bongani Madondo, Kagiso Mnisi, Garnette Cadogan, Charles Mudede, Kimba Mutanda, Tanka Fonta, DJ Zhao, Alfred Mehnert and others will talk about, play music and touch on relations and shifts in the trans-African space.
Broadcasts and podcasts of the convention will be available on air on REBOOT FM

talks by the other guest speakers are here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

PROGRAM:

Monday 07.10 – Echoes, back and forth
12:00 am Visit of the exhibition THE SPACE BETWEEN US at ifa-Gallery Berlin
04:00 pm Opening & welcome at Picnicrecords
04:30 – 05:30 pm Rangoato Hlasane & Kagiso Mnisi, Sekele – Bitsa Maphodisa: Street-bash as a marker of space for black youth in post-apartheid South Africa
06:00 – 06:30 pm Garnette Cadogan

Tuesday 08.10 – Writing: about / against /down /with
04:30 – 05:00 pm Charles Mudede, About Drumming
05:30 – 06:30 pm Dj Zhao (Ngoma Soundsystem, Berlin) The vitality of African musical
heritage and its deep connection to music today and tomorrow.
07:30 – 08:00 pm Bongani Madondo, Malombo & Ma-Mlambo
Healer’s Brew:Blues, African Healing Systems and the Punk in JAH’zz
– in discussion with Kagiso Mnisi and Alfred Mehnert, Percussion

Wednesday 9 October – Telling
04:30 – 05:00 pm Tanka Fonta, Being, Music, Confluences & the Evolution of Expressions
05:30 – 06:30 pm Stefanie Alisch, “The future’s what it’s all about” – Broken Beat London
07:00 – 07:30 pm Kimba Mutanda, The personal journey of a Hip Hop artist from Malawi,
told from the meeting point between traditional and modern times
10:00 pm – open end Party – with Rangoato Hlasane, Kagiso Mnisi, Garnette Cadogan, Dj Zhao, Stefanie Alisch, Kimba Mutanda

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Music Convention in collaboration with / in Kooperation mit
 Holger Zimmermann, Picnicrecords, Stendaler Straße 4, 10559 Berlin, www.picnicrecords.com
 | Diana McCarty, REBOOT FMhttp://reboot.fm | After Year Zero, Geographies of Collaboration since 1945, Haus der Kulturen der Weltwww.hkw.de/de/programm/2013/after_year_zero/

THE SPACE BETWEEN US, ifa-Galerie Berlin, 27.9.-22.12.2013 www.ifa.de  | | Funded by Auswärtiges Amt, Aktion Afrika |  Hauptstadtkulturfonds |  Goethe Institut Johannesburg

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Music Is Not Music

“… with people who are into music, for some it is about partying, for some it is about relaxation, for some it’s a spiritual thing, for some it’s an intellectual thing, and for others it’s an emotional outlet, etc. For people like me, music has to be about all of these things, as much of them at the same time as possible. Like in many African traditions: Music is Not Music.  It is play, it is mathematics, it is magic, it is politics, it is get-your-freak-on, it is spirituality, astronomy, sports, theater, intoxication, sensuality… Music embodies all of these, and performs all of these functions, often at the same time.”

“… People sometimes tell me that I’m “open minded”. I guess because i’m a Chinese dj who works with African music. But no. Fuck that. I’m not “open minded”. I only recognize quality where ever i find it, and don’t allow myself to be restricted by bullshit boundaries, by incidental, meaningless, senseless borders.”

Rest of it here – i do try to say different stuff at these things so y’all don’t get bored.

The Real Roots of Kwaito

(bigup This Is Africa for publishing this!)

The few times western publications have written about Kwaito and South African House, styles which have thrived for many decades, the story is almost always told in terms of a unidirectional migration of House Music from the United States to Africa.  This is problematic because 1 central factor is not only understated, but entirely missing, including from the South African voices sometimes interviewed.

This central factor is the wealth of Southern African musical traditions which was the real precedent, the main cultural lineage, the Mother (with Chicago perhaps being the Father, which might be an exaggeration) of Kwaito and SA House.

Mbaqanga, Township Jive, SA Jazz, music styles from Tsonga (Shangaan), Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu, Swazi, Venda, Sotho, Ndebele, etc., tribes, numerous other Southern African 20th Century and traditional styles, and influences from other parts of Africa, these are the true ancestors of contemporary urban electronic music.

In many classic, pre-80s South African jams you can hear the 4 to the floor kick, the consecutive high-hats (sometimes done with clapping), the off-beat snares (as opposed to on the 2), additional percussion, distinct baselines, driving chants — all elements which live on in today’s SA dance music.  Many older recordings sound almost exactly like Kwaito played on acoustic instruments:

modern Kwaito:

2 examples of unmistakeable precursors to SA house, 1 of traditional music, the other of classic Jive:

During the earliest days of new urban music in the townships, as a new wave of Afro-American and Afro-European imports landed in the form of disco and house, SA artists took a lot of inspiration from these refreshing electronic sounds, incorporating the influences and sometimes outright imitating.   Western sounds had the effect of an initial stimulant and inspiration, but its impact did not last, and soon after this initial phase, Kwaito, and a little later SA House, began to mature, and became its own thing, less and less influenced by outside sources, more and more taking ideas from indigenous Southern African musical heritage.  Eventually, as African musical roots fully manifested themselves, these genres took their rightful places in the history, the lineage, the continuum, of South African music.  Important was the shifting of rhythmic emphasis: as early as the 90s, Kwaito started to use more and more the homegrown “Dembow” rhythm pattern with offbeat snares, distinctly different from the mechanical Duple 1-2 beat of Western House.

Today, if one looks at canonical artists of SA House, those most emblematic of the genre, such as Dj Cleo, Dj Clock (most recent releases of these 2 artists excepting), Black Motion, or Dj Vetkuk, the music is clearly, much more than anything else, the descendent of deep African roots, with American or European characteristics largely left behind, almost as if it was never there.  Indeed, a very good case can be made, through analysis of musical form, that South African House is now a related but entirely different breed from Chicago House, with its own rhythm signature, its own palette of sounds, attributes, textures, and stylistic conventions; its own family tree, genealogy, and history.

Yet western journalism to this day nearly always focus entirely on the American Father, to the point of completely neglecting the African Mother.  Franky Knuckles was surely seminal (unlikelihood of the gay brother impregnating anything aside), but this influence needs to be seen in the context of a larger cultural womb rich with musical nutrients which nourished and gave birth to modern SA music, and its limits recognized.   Too much importance, as always, is given to Western exports, as if SA is only doing an African version of an American thing, as if Kwaito is only “Slowed Down US House” – a distorted view so common that it is on the Wikipedia page.  Even more extreme, This article absurdly compares the relationship of SA House to Chicago to that of the Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters, demonstrating plain ignorance and ethnocentricity. Grossly over-simplified, reductionist, and simply false claims such as these are made too frequently, perpetuating structurally West-centric points of view.  Even those with the best of intentions, such as Dj Lynnee Denise, often subconsciously take the hegemonic position, inadvertently denying Africans of cultural and historical agency.   And it is not surprising that South Africans themselves often reproduce these skewed perspectives, being a people recently liberated, and still largely in awe of everything from the wealthy people up north, often under valuing their own, in every way much more significant cultural heritage.

When it comes down to it, African Mother is much older and possessive of much larger bodies of deeper and more varied musical knowledge than American Father; the later being himself, of course, only one of her many children.

Sound culture in the Heart of Light

and here is a repost from the old blog, of classic Congolese Rumba, literally the sweetest sounds i have ever heard.

tracklisting: volume 1 / volume 2.

Big big thanks to Bolingo69 for the original upload.  It is criminal that these heavenly sounds are out of print and commercially unavailable anywhere.  Here are both volumes together on mediafire.

And I’ve been meaning to do an official NGOMA volume of modern dance floor Soukous for some time…  it will happen soon.  But until then, there are lots of awesome tunes in this episode of Radio Ngoma:

South Africa Tour 2012

Additional shows:

Fri. 28/09 —- Disofeng Dobsonville
Sat. 29/09—– Club Ozone (N. West)

Sat. 29/09 — Panyaza (with Zinhle)
Sun. 05/10 -– Panyaza
Sat. 06/10 — Vintage life style (pimville)
Sun. 7/10 -— Mofolo Park Stadium (w/ Nick Holder)
Sun. 7/10 -— Pandora Chesa Nyama (Ekhuruleni)
Sun. 7/10 -— Liquid Chef (Rosebank)

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(for a version of this article without so many photos, go to This Is Africa.)downtown Johannesburg

At once after touch-down i noticed the modern, international air of Johannesburg, which looked wealthy and stable; and of the friendly, smartly dressed and hip Africans around me, who seemed as informed as anyone in the East Village or London.  But soon a more complex picture emerges.

Soweto (South Western Township – photo curtesy of Sacha Evans)

One’s experience of any city can be of course very different depending on where and with whom you spend time.  For the grumpy travel writer Paul Theroux, arriving by bus from Botswana, Joburg was scary; for a media person i met in Berlin prior to the trip it was boring, having experienced only the affluent suburbs; for me, it was charming, exhilarating, sad, endearing, informative, familiar, strange, challenging, inspiring, frustrating, and awesome.(part of the) Paint of Coloured Streets team – bigup bigup bigup bigup!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!dude on the right is kwaito star Professor’s brother.shot of city center (close to business district) from inside a taxi, parked outside of a shop which was blasting Dj Cleo. outside of Chaf Pozi (below), a club/restaurant located underneath and between the 2 painted towers, from which you can also bungee jump.This was a water-testing show…  went pretty well, and as an educational experience it was very valuable as afterwards i had a much better feeling for SA crowds.A Chinese person in Soweto must be an extremely rare occurance; and i have been assured that i was the very first to ever enter a local club, not to mention on stage, behind dj decks.  Yet the most extreme reaction from strangers to this very odd anomaly were curious glances, welcoming smiles and delightful disbelief before my sets started, and high fives, cries of joy and hugs when my different but surely recognizable sounds begin.  Nearly everyone i met were friendly, inclusive, warm, and open minded; the only garden variety asshole who did not shake my hand when offered, rude and almost hostile, was this dj who spun, perhaps not so incidentally, top-40 American Rap.   my main dude Mpho.  Bongani with a wicked MC Hammer haircut!A soul singer which i regrettably did not end up jamming with…  next time!  Soweto TV interview, which aired weekend of 29 September.  Also did a short interview with CCTV (funny enough they just happened to be at Chaf Pozi because it was National Heritage Day), as well as Channel-O “Basement” show: 1 hour live video mixing, first time manual beat matching in 6 years, classic Kwaito and Mzansi House 1 take at 10am after 3 hours sleep the night before… will be on rotation all over Africa in the coming weeks.  this was a rather cheesy club located within a casino, the only mixed crowd i played to during the entire tour.mixed crowd, unified response!Among the live acts was Family Business – sweet and groovy original dance pop, SA’s answer to D’banj and P-Square?  5 hours at the Museum of Apartheid rendered razor sharp the reality of life under the system named by this Afrikaans/Dutch word, a word which was only an abstraction for me before.  The systematic oppression and violence against South Africans in every sphere of life continued in broad day light until 1994: slave labor, abject work conditions and low wages; suppression of education and erasure of African culture; lack of health care; forced segregation; forced relocation of entire communities; normalized hunger, disease, depression; routine degradation, humiliation and violence – a system in which “people were arrested, abused, beaten and banished for trifles”.   People who fought for equality and justice (including a few coloureds and whites), who were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the police, were nothing but Terrorists in the eyes of most world governments, until as recent as 2008 (when Nelson Mandela was finally taken off of the US Terrorism Watch List).  Many nations continued to not only tolerate, but collaborate with the “followers of Goebbels” (Nadine Gordimer) which was the Apartheid regime, until the very end.

All such official edifices to crimes of the state against humanity, be it a museum like this or streets named after civil rights leaders, tell 2 big lies at the same time as acknowledge and commemorate. The establishment makes the struggle seem 1. a part of the past, instead of very much ongoing, and 2. a part of itself, instead of its actual enemy in real life, as it has always been, and currently is.  As i absorbed the collection of photographs, films, recordings, text, and objects in this museum (yes, owned by a white guy) which document but a tip of the Apartheid iceberg, i kept in mind of the fact that many injustices continue and that the struggle is far from over.

in 2012, 10% of the population in South Africa is white, yet own 90% of the land (info from a director at the Museum), and hold most of the high paying jobs.  With the influx of refugees and impoverished immigrants from other African countries, and add to it corrupt politicians, there is a high level of income inequity.  And where ever there is uneven wealth distribution, there is of course crime. in Soweto, which is obviously still very poor, it is actually very safe because of tightly knit communities and their brand of tough street justice.  In the rich areas it is also relatively safe because of high security.  But in the black suburbs between Soweto and city center and many other areas, where i stayed, it is not good to go out alone at night, as muggings, robberies, and car-jackings are fairly common.

During my 3 week stay close to Soweto, besides the malls in city center (Sandton), a cheesy mixed club within a casino, and tourists in the museum, i saw 6 or 7 white people (who comprise 10% of the population), and 0 East Asians (despite there being hundreds of thousands living in the city).  In Sandton groups of friends were nearly always of the same ethnic background, and i saw no mixed race couples at all (but many flamboyant pretty boys holding hands, which was refreshing).  The separateness of social spheres in Johannesburg along lines of class and race seems, in my estimation, significantly more pronounced than NYC or Paris.The legendary Panyaza is a world famous spot where people eat fresh braai (BBQ) and rock to pumping South African House and Kwaito delivered by a constant rotation of DJs.  An outdoor area enclosed by shops under a huge tent holding 1000 people or more, every Sunday the party starts at noon, gets packed by 2pm, and good vibes flow steadily late into the night.  The best sets i heard were deep, techy and tribal house: funky, driving, and percussive, sometimes with vocals in Zulu and other languages, and that unmistakeable South African oomph: “woza woza wozawozawozawoza”.   The patrons are very picky, and are known to shut DJs down after the first 5 minutes.  The music policy basically boils down to the phrase “no mainstream”, but the word must have slightly different meaning than in Europe and America, as a few played tunes infused with Kenny G type smooth jazz, or cliche R’n’B crooning.  My set around dusk of mostly classic Ngoma mashups and edits in the 125bpm range, which included Yoruba Ritual Singing, Ghanaian Jazz, traditional South African drumming and Ethiopian funk all underpinned by Afro-House beats and bass, won over not only the crowd but the club owners and resident djs – the booker welcomed me back any time, and told me on Facebook 1 week later that people were still asking about it.  Some mistook the Cameroonian, Pigmy derived flutes of Francis Bebey on one of the edits for Chinese music, which was funny but also makes sense: thise flutes do have an unmistakeable East Asian feel.  The sun set as the rhythms got heavier – an unforgettable night.  

In a place where the parents of people my age nearly all love Kwaito and new House Music (quick to enter into a discussion of Dj Clock’s recent releases, for example), the “underground” and what constitutes it is also different from the West.  Without much generational gap or cultural fragmentation, In South Africa the word seems to mostly mean “music which has not yet made it big”, including the freshest sounds in the streets (Sgubu, for instance, is a new breed of house music stemming from the Mujava camp in Pretoria) I was very disappointed to find out, after searches in vain, that distribution channels for such new sounds simply do not exist in Joburg, often the only access is directly from the artists themselves, at their gigs.  In a country so rich with rhythmic and musical ideas it is sad to see so little infrastructure, compared to the rows of neatly stacked white label just-out-this-week dance 12 inches in the specialty shops of rhythmically impoverished Europe. In fact Independent record shops are themselves a rarity in Joburg; there are only, often not well stocked, chain outlets.  proper party at Club Ozone in North-West Township, a few hours from Joburg – madness!  At this i was able to drop the hard and up-tempo crazy bass set (with plenty of NGOMA percussion edits of course), and the place went bananas!  This big outdoor event had a “retro” theme, to which some local fashion labels came out to represent.  Mixing up traditional African tribal decorative motifs, patterns, and jewelry with classic western designs and contemporary global trends, the funky outfits from chic and elegant to eye-brows raising unusual were just as deliciously creative and wonderfully varied, often as refined and polished, as style on the hippest streets of Tokyo.  One girl pulled off a stunning Goth B-girl Lolita Glam outfit the way only an African beauty can, and next to her a handsome dude in a well fitting thin tweed jacket, Keffiyeh and knee high boots, successfully combining professor, outdoorsman, and international hipster protest.  But the sad thing is they told me their brand was “Ancient Reality” (which particularly resonates with me), and that all i have to do is google to find contacts — but later when i tried many searches there was not a single mention of them on any web pages at all.  (apologize for lack of more and better photos of some of these great outfits, but if you look closely at the photos above, you can see 1 or 2 indications of what i’m on about)

Althought there is a LOT of great music in Joburg, people’s general taste reflects the business and industrial nature of the city: more commercial compared to places like Pretoria or Durban. But much more troubling is that, judging from my new friends who are really into music, other djs and everyone i spoke to, people in Joburg all know and accept mainstream American ( c )rap and generic Euro Ibiza fodder, but have very little to no idea about new movements in other parts of Africa such as Angolan House, Kuduro, Hiplife or Naija; and no exposure to underground sounds from the West such as UK Funky, Juke, or Moombahton (there are now parties which play Dubstep and Drum’n’Bass, usually of the predictable variety).  And when it comes to the incredibly varied and bottomless wealth of African traditional music, South Africans generally seem just as ignorant as Europeans or Americans, having never even heard of Soukous (!). And like many Post Colonial theorists have pointed out, the South to South communication lines desperately needs to be opened: South Africans seem entirely disconnected from India or South America: when i mention Cumbia, Tribal Guarachero, Baile Funk or Bhangra, the response is blank stares.

Glossy US exports with high production value is generally valued more than local culture, which is to me, without a doubt, artistically, intellectually, much more sophisticated, beautiful, and rewarding.  When i asked for Shangaan music people in the shops all thought it was HILARIOUS, and start to do little sarcastic rump shaking dances.  Even though it is clear that they all enjoy it, they have to make fun of the music because it is not “cool” at all, being perceived as rural and backwards – no one knows that in 2011 the Shangaan tour rocked Berlin’s Berghain, one of the top 10 most famous and prestigious dance clubs in all of Europe.

Life in South Africa is saturated with Kanye and Beyonce, Cosby Show and the Fresh Prince, McDonalds and KFC.   Agents like these make up the current tide of insidious cultural imperialism, which asserts dominance with pure economic might, while marginalizing, replacing, and destroying local narratives, melodies, and forms.  Between 2 reputable book sellers in Joburg, they had exactly 2 books by black South African writers, while Eurocentric versions of history is taught in schools.  With the now adult generation largely deprived of higher education under Apartheid, and the quality of the current under funded education system being among the lowest in the world, US hegemonic brainwashing is particularly effective.

Between 2 reputable book sellers in Joburg, they had exactly 2 books by black South African writers. i picked up one of them by Zakes Mda, (the other one being rare and expensive), along with Jay Naidoo, Rian Malan, and several by Nadine Gordimer. Luckily was given a biography of Julius Malema, and found some titles from other parts of the continent: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Osita Okoroafor, Ferdinand Oyono, and Nozip Maraire.   What i was told is that books by black authors, especially the conscious, which is to say often outlawed or exiled ones, were never printed in large quantities if not banned altogether, often circulating only in the underground, and many or most remain out of print.

if the world is living in “the long intellectual shadow of the Age of European Empire” (Satya Mohanty), South Africa is reeling in the immediate aftermath of Apartheid.  Yet despite ongoing segregation and injustices as well as foreign cultural infestation, vibrant and strong forms of local cultures survive, mutate, and thrive.

This is all of course, only a tiny slice of life in 1 city in South Africa…  i can not wait to get to know the other parts.   Big love and thanks to Mpho, Bongani, Jackie, Hermina, Gugu, and the Paint of Coloured Streets team!!!

Interview – This Is Africa

“In Europe, rhythm was seen as something “primitive”, “animalistic”, and characteristic of the music of “savages” and the lower classes. These attitudes still persist today: serious music is for silent contemplation, and dance music is largely seen as “entertainment for drunk idiots’. But the opposite is true: European classical music was developed precisely as pure entertainment for the rich, and dance music is descendent of the true musical and cultural heritage of our species.”

from interview by This Is Africa.

Steve Albini on “Piracy”

(from reddit, thanks to The 13th Tribe for heads up)

Fan:  What is your opinion about music Piracy? Does it hurt you economically?

Steve Albini:  I reject the term “piracy.” It’s people listening to music and sharing it with other people, and it’s good for musicians because it widens the audience for music. The record industry doesn’t like trading music because they see it as lost sales, but that’s nonsense. Sales have declined because physical discs are no longer the distribution medium for mass-appeal pop music, and expecting people to treat files as physical objects to be inventoried and bought individually is absurd.
The downtrend in sales has hurt the recording business, obviously, but not us specifically because we never relied on the mainstream record industry for our clientele. Bands are always going to want to record themselves, and there will always be a market among serious music fans for well-made record albums. I’ll point to the success of the Chicago label Numero Group as an example.
There won’t ever be a mass-market record industry again, and that’s fine with me because that industry didn’t operate for the benefit of the musicians or the audience, the only classes of people I care about.
Free distribution of music has created a huge growth in the audience for live music performance, where most bands spend most of their time and energy anyway. Ticket prices have risen to the point that even club-level touring bands can earn a middle-class income if they keep their shit together, and every band now has access to a world-wide audience at no cost of acquisition. That’s fantastic.
Additionally, places poorly-served by the old-school record business (small or isolate towns, third-world and non-english-speaking countries) now have access to everything instead of a small sampling of music controlled by a hidebound local industry. When my band toured Eastern Europe a couple of years ago we had full houses despite having sold literally no records in most of those countries. Thank you internets.

Dance Music’s So Called Progressiveness

Morgan Geist commented on a pretty scary NYT article on the commercial success of Electronic Dance Music.  For now i will leave the numerous serious problems with the article itself aside, and focus on the quote of a quote:

“Let’s remember a quote from a Detroit techno pioneer (possibly Jeff Mills) that I think of often: “At rock concerts, people scream when they hear something they know and have heard before. With techno, people scream when they hear something they’ve never heard before.”

While on the surface it rings true, the much applauded and alleged “progressiveness” and “open mindedness” of electronic dance music culture, now nearly 30 years on, is debatable to say the least. A more accurate description would be:

“techno crowds scream when they hear something they’ve never heard before, but which bangs exactly in the same manner as something which they have heard many, many times before.”

By now, to me at least, a lot of the innovative, genre-defying, unconventional and potentially insurrectionary energy of many forms of Electronic Dance Music such as house and techno has solidified and genrified into a stagnant, closed minded and xenophobic conservatism which still worships exactly the same few sacred recordings: for example, you will find ZERO Acid Techno since the release of Phuture’s Acid Trax* which pushes the genre further, in any significant ways, by even 1 centimeter.  Not that there is anything wrong with screaming at the recognition of a sound**, we are all creatures of habit after all, but if you play some EDM which is objectively, formally speaking at least equally as “banging”, “deep” and danceable as Jeff Mills, but which is truly rhythmically and sonically fresh, truly boundaries pushing in the context of western clubs in 2012, say, some Kuduro or South African Electro, at a techno party a lot of people will head for the door.  (i know from many personal experiences).

The illusion that Electronic Music is somehow “inherently, by its very nature, more progressive” than anything that came before will not benefit anyone, least of all electronic music makers or lovers — in the history of modern western Louis Armstrong was much more revolutionary than Derrick May.  But musicology aside, in the most-boring-argument-ever between “real music” and electronic music, if the EDM heads want their bleeps to be taken seriously, just like “real instruments”, they need to also, at the same time, realize and admit that just because it is done with synths and drum machines don’t make it necessarily any more wild and crazy and new and “futuristic”** than anything else.

* Actaully, now that i think about it, i do miss playing acid techno a hell of a lot.  Maybe will get back into it, nostalgically, a little bit :)

** This quote of a quote also embodies the kind of out-dated modernism typical in the serotonin depleted rhetoric of Electronic Dance Music — the self proclaimed but in fact disingenuous obsession with newness actually sets up a reactionary and conservative dichotomy between “new” and “old”, in which the essential truth of the nature of creative progress, that the ideas which drive the discovery and development of the new always arise from the old, is sidelined and dismissed.  Techno routinely wheels out the ideas of visual artists from 1910 – 1930 as if they were at all original or even relevant in the 21st Century; the geometric minimalist forms and surfaces betray a wholly retrograde consciousness.

Authenticity

It is important to critique interpretations of Authenticity and the restrictive ways it is used, point out its limits and flaws, expand upon its reductionism, and demonstrate how its uses can be harmful for individuals as well as culture at large.  But the concept is still useful, and can be readily defined:

In the sphere of cultural production, Authenticity is a relative, mutable, non-fixed, non-singular, and non-universal concept which connotes:

A. a product having resulted from the actual subjective life experiences of its maker, created with his/her aesthetic and otherwise decisions, as opposed to decisions made from more impersonal and alienated methods such as statistical information, focus groups, etc.

B. a product originating from within a collective historical body, the shared language and customs of a social group, the cohesion of distilled individual subjective experience over time, which we can here call Culture; as opposed to imitations of such products, by superficially appropriating its language, aesthetics, or characteristics, from agents which exist outside of the particular tradition, the particular culture.

a paper on music and racism

musicology article from Black Music Research Journal published by Columbia University, detailing the inherent contradictions and dynamics within 2 post-war British youth cultures centered around Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American music — the Skinhead movement and the Northern Soul experience.

Voices of Hate, Sounds of Hybridity: Black Music and the Complexities of Racism (PDF: 1MB)

probably nothing mind shattering and even if none of it is news to you, still some interesting first person accounts of what went on in London and other places in the 60s and 70s, perhaps giving us insight into the political dimension of music and its consumption in our own time.

lets get it straight once and for all

Many still view European classical music as “high culture” / “serious art”, while dance music is frivolous, “primitive”, and inconsequential.  But the exact opposite is true: European classical music was created and largely functioned as pure Entertainment for royalty and aristocracy during its time; while today’s dance and club music, however misguided, convoluted, or lost it may often be, is directly descendant of the true, central, spiritua/cultural heritage of our species.

NGOMA Manifesto

1. FUSION

“The boundaries of objects are vague – and that goes for us too… Describing the world in terms of discrete objects is a useful fiction.” – Kees van Deemter

Well worn cliche or not, everything is connected. Borders and separation, in the spheres of physics, of politics, of “race”, as it is of culture, are illusions fostered by narrow and fearful minds, often purposefully fabricated by those who seek control and to benefit from alienation, antagonism, and the suffering of millions.

Today our conceptions of the cultures of the world, of their history and relationships to each other, is sadly still under heavy influence of 18th and 19th century revisionist versions of history. During those colonialist times in the United States, education reform initiated by the wealthy elite of powerful industrialists applied sweeping changes across university campuses, teaching a fundamental and intrinsic divide between “East” and “West”, painting the former as largely superstitious, backwards, repressive, and the later progressive, modern, liberal. While in Europe racist German and English scholars began erasing the African and Asian foundational influence of classical Greece out of history, replaced by an absurd Euro-centric story of the “Cradle of Western Civilization” developing more or less autonomously, with the only outside influence from “Northern Tribes”, separate from much older and more advanced civilizations in close physical proximity. The dissemination of this fictional dichotomy between the “occident” and “orient” has always been politically motivated: it furthers the aims of the ruling class, provides a necessary ideological backdrop for colonial and neo-colonial agendas, and is still instrumental in world affairs today (the structural basis for “the war on terror” as related to the demonization of Islam).

But there is no essential divide between “East” and “West”, their relationship being more like parent and child. And in the realm of music, the inter-relatedness of all cultures and the character of their specific relationships becomes apparent and clear. For instance the guitar was a direct descendent of the Oud, the grand parent of all plucked instruments, the first record of which appears in ancient Mesopotamia during the Acadian period (2359-2159 BC). The Romans around 40 AD made a version of it called the Cithara, which spread to the Vikings in Europe; and later Gypsies living in Islamic Spain created the modern guitar based on that. And if one traces the history of 20th Century North American pop and dance music, a crude and very abbreviated but basically sound genealogy describes a line going back to Disco, to Soul, to Funk, to Motown, to Gospel, to Blues, to Jazz, to work songs of the slaves, and indeed, to Africa.

Continuities are everywhere one chooses to look: the Balkans are connected to Israel to Iran to Spain to Egypt to Morrocco to Mali to the Congo to Haiti to Cuba to Colombia to New York City. Yet there is still this prevalent vantage point that “World Music” is indeed somehow fundamentally different from “Western Music”, and it is still shocking to some that non-Western sounds are making such a ripple in 2010 (the success of artists such as Omar Suleyman, and a new wave of indie musicians citing non-western influence). As if Rock and Roll itself wasn’t African American, and less directly, African in origin. As if Led Zeppelin wasn’t heavily influenced by Turkish music, or the Rolling Stones by Morroccan traditions, the Beatles by Indian Classical, Can and (early) Kraftwerk by East Asian sensibilities and African percussion, Debussey and John Cage by Indonesian Gamelan, Steve Reich and Georgy Ligetti by African polyrhythms, etc, etc, etc. Forward thinking and ground breaking modern music in the “west” has always taken cues from much older non-western sources (similar to the way modern visual art owes much to pre-modern, so called “primitive” forms).

2. RE-ENTRY

“Those piles of ruins which you see in that narrow valley watered by the Nile, are the remains of opulent cities, the pride of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia. There a people, now forgotten, discovered while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences.” – Count Volney

Humans have surely forgotten much more than we know today, with the ravage of time, after countless wars, destruction of entire cultures, libraries burnt down. By the same token, ancient musical traditions contain forms which are more advanced, more inventive, more structurally challenging, more revolutionary in every sense of the word, than any “futuristic” electronic dance music today. And in terms of the expansion of minds or total ecstatic celebration, the bits and pieces passed down to us, remnants of musical traditions reaching back to ancient times, often embody methods far superior to what you might find in today’s dance clubs. One man sitting on the island of Madagascar, singing over an insistent Rhythmelody plucked out of a single-string instrument contains all the elements of minimal techno, and with more ingenuity, more grace, more efficiency, more innovation, more raw power, than anything produced in the last 30 years.

All rhythm certainly comes from Africa, as the drum itself was invented somewhere around Kenya tens of thousands of years ago. But African music is much more than drumming, for example the various Kora traditions weaving complex melodic structures that would make Bach dizzy. To be more precise, in much of African music one finds an un-differentiated oneness of rhythm and melody, never divorced from each other by over analytical minds. Examples of this can be found in Soukous guitar, various Mbira (thumb piano) musics scattered through out the continent, Yoruba talking drums, and multiple traditions of tuned percussion instruments such as the Balafon or Marimba.

What we have seen in the last few centuries of Western musical development is a return to rhythm, after being largely divided from it for many centuries under the European Classical establishment, which reduced its importance and saw it as “primitive” and “plebean”, emblematic of the music of savages and the underclass. But in the melting pot of the Americas, a traumatic confrontation between European and African traditions became probably the most important source of innovation in the past mellenium, forming the seeds of the myriad kinds of musical styles we know today.

The only way to move forward is to look back upon the treasures of our collective past. It is indeed this re-entry of indigenous musical heritage, fused with urban bass culture, this combination of ancestral musical ideas and modern sound, which is now giving rise to irresistible next level dance music on every continent. Crucial new scenes thrive and vital new styles are born in almost every corner of the world, challenging and displacing the centralized hegemonic culture manufacturing machine which attempts to fill the world with its vacuous regurgitation. But despite the spread of information technologies, there is a pointed lack of communication between musical communities of the world today, and many scenes remain relatively isolated and insular, inaccessible to their potential global audience who hunger after new sounds. For instance Kwaito, the South African House/Hiphop hybrid style based on traditional Zulu music, flourished for 2 decades within the townships while being virtually unknown outside, and only recently began to make waves in the world at large.

3. the Responsibility of DJs

“who cares? it’s just music!” – anonymous

Economic, political, and other arbitrary factors entirely other than artistic merit often determine which music rises to global prominence, and which is relegated to obscurity and silence outside of it’s region. As the pioneering early 20th century ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax put it half a century ago (i paraphrase): “mass media broadcasts the voice of the privileged, while often times more deserving, more beautiful voices in poverty stricken places remain unheard.” Thus djs in these neo-colonialst times, as cultural workers whose particular role gives them direct access to large audiences, must be aware of the many levels of inequity in the world, and do his/her job with this awareness in mind.

Of course, above all other concerns, djs must rock the party. We must create unforgettable experiences on the dance floor, and fascilitate that most important (no, it is not frivolous at all!) of social functions: the celebration of life despite its hardships. But there is more than 1 way to mash up the dance, and djs do not have to pander to the charts or appeal to lowest common denominators to please a crowd.

It is possible to simultaneously entertain and educate the audience. DJs can transcend the here and now, go beyond (or destroy completely) the status quo, if they choose to. Music is never “just music”, but always an expression of subjective social reality.  The world around us and the particular dynamics and situations we are in, from the macro to the micro, should to some degree inform each dj set, with site specific references and conceptual links, infusing the musical experience with many levels of meaning. A good Dj does in depth research into her/his chosen styles, studies its history and lineage as related to other strands, and find and make unexpected connections.

In this day and age, many members of society and especially other kinds of artists still view the DJ as a clown-ish, superficial, unsophisticated and unimportant character, who exists solely to entertain drunk idiots. If all other reasons fail, this might be motivation enough to start taking ourselves and what we do more seriously.