MTV Iggy, November 29, 2011
by Simon Reynolds
Imagine the media as a hydraulic system: broadband has dramatically expanded the pipes and channels through which cultural data, including music, passes. The result has been a monstrous increase in the volume and range of music that the average listener can access. Before file-sharing, a music fan’s ability to explore the wide world of sound was restricted: the cost of buying records inhibited one’s willingness to risk checking out unfamiliar sounds.
All those Analogue Era deterrents and blockages have now been swept aside by the torrential every-which-way data flows of Web 2.0. The Internet is a gigantic archive, a collectively assembled and chaotic audio-video library that contains every form of popular (and unpopular) culture imaginable. Thanks to “whole album” blogs and YouTube, there is no financial disincentive to trying out stuff, and precious little exertion required beyond the expenditure of one’s time and attention.
Infinite choice + infinitesimal cost = nomadic eclecticism as the default mode for today’s music fan.
My book Retromania is primarily concerned with digital technology’s effect on our sense of time: because the entire past of pop music is splayed out as this instant-access archive, older styles of music feel as “present” as contemporary music, and this has the knock-on effect of encouraging music-makers to mix-and-match influences from all across the historical spectrum.
But the Internet’s effect on space has been just as profound. A new generation of listeners and musicians is emerging whose consciousness is post-geographical as well as post-historical. There’s a thirst for fresh musical stimuli that slips easily past geographical borders and cultural boundaries.
At once satisfied and stoked by album-sharing blogs, deposits of esoteric and outlandish treasure on YouTube, and a new breed of pan-global crate-digger label, this appetite for the alien could be called xenomania, a play on the term “xenophobia” and its less well-known sister-word “xenophilia.”
Xenomania and retromania are both forms of exoticism. The difference is that xenomania is about geographical remoteness, whereas retromania is about distance in time (as in L.P. Hartley’s famous maxim, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”). Sometimes the two fascinations converge: while one contingent of Western hipsters are feverishly tracking contemporary sounds from far-flung corners of the globe, another bunch are investigating the musical pasts of all these non-Western countries.
The first kind of globe-trotting xenomania comes out of dance culture, in the form of early-adopter beat-geeks who compete to find exciting new rhythms from all over the world. I say “new” but often the dance subcultures in question have actually been in existence for decades, it’s just that Western deejays and producers have only just discovered them. The first of these “global ghetto grooves” to become trendy was carioca funk, which was spawned in slums of Brazil. Next came kwaito house (South Africa), which was soon followed by kuduro (Angola), cumbia (originally from Central America but spreading in mutated forms through Peru, Chile and Argentina), coupé-décalé (Ivory Coast), and more. Recently there’s been a smatter of hipster chatter about the Egyptian dance music that gets played at Cairo street weddings.
There’s also bubblin’, an example of a related but slightly different phenomenon: a musical hybrid that hatched in the West but in the bosom of an immigrant community. The story goes that bubblin’ sprang into existence when immigrants from the Dutch Antilles to the Netherlands responded with unexpected fervor to a Den Haag deejay who accidentally accelerated a dancehall track (or in some accounts, a reggaeton track) by playing it at 45 bpm. Bubblin’ has subsequently gone on to spawn another hybrid dance sound called moombahton whose genesis is even more tangled and confusingly post-geographical.
Whether they’re spawned in European cities or the ghettos of the Southern Hemisphere, what all these exotic dance genres share is impurity: they are bastard and creole children based in the soundclash of folk forms with Western styles like hip hop, house, and techno. Ethnic vibes (traditional instrumental textures such as accordions, unusual polyrhythms) mesh with American/European staples like the booming 808 bassline or the house synth-vamp. Rowdy chanted MC vocals influenced by gangsta rap and dancehall are offset by cheesily tuneful choruses invariably given the cheap gloss of AutoTune.
Inspired by the circa-2005 fad for carioca funk, the writer Matthew Ingram coined the playful term “shanty house” to pinpoint both the common sonic traits these styles share and how they are rooted in social conditions that are sadly similar all over the world.
Made quick and cheap using pirated software, laced with unlicensed samples from mainstream pop songs, this is party-hard music for ruffneck youth from the urban areas that nobody wants to go (“favelas,” they call them in Brazil, which is roughly equivalent to “projects” in America, “estates” in the U.K., and “garrisons” in Jamaica). Despite growing up amidst poverty, when these kids go out to dance they dress “rich.” Style-wise they’re fluent in the international language of bling: gold jewelry, flashy man-made fabrics, name-brand sneakers.
Often there’s a link between this music and gangs: the lyrics tend to celebrate the fast-money lifestyle of criminality, when they’re not addressing perennial topics like the female rump and the urgent necessity of shaking it. The Angolan version of shanty house, “kuduro” actually translates as “hard ass”, although whether that means “tight buttocks” or “tough guy” I’ve yet been unable to establish.
All these global ghetto sounds have much in common with the bass-heavy street beats of America (local hip hop offshoots such as hyphy, footwork, Baltimore breaks, jerk, bounce), the U.K. (grime, bassline, funky, donk) and the Caribbean (dancehall, soca, reggaeton). And all face condescension and sometimes repression in their native context: feared by the political and cultural establishments for their underclass uncouthness and links to a shady nightlife underworld, they are typically scorned by more liberal-minded progressives and sophisticates too, who regard the music as cheap trash and object to the aggression, sexism, and hyper-materialism of the lyrics.
Divorced from the local context and its class antagonisms, it’s these very qualities of gritty menace and rude-boy raucousness that appeal to Western hipsters. That and the jagged inventiveness of the beats, which are often wilder and weirder than the self-consciously arty experimentalists of left-field dance music. The earliest of the early-adopting beat-geeks were deejays like Diplo (M.I.A.’s producer partner early on and someone wont to boast about how his quest for rare beats took him to Latin American urban danger-zones where no other “gringo” dared go) and DJ/Rupture (responsible for globe-roaming mix-CDs like Gold Teeth Thief and the blogs Mudd Up and Dutty Artz). Lately they’ve been joined by figures like Mosca, who emerged from the U.K.’s dubstep scene but as a deejay draws for super-obscure styles like Guadeloupe’s gwoka.
Recently the interest in non-Western sounds has moved beyond pure dance forms to include plaintively melodic music that is roughly equivalent to mainstream pop, perhaps even the local equivalents of Celine Dion for all anyone really knows. The Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies has released a series of CDs documenting the ultra-sweet pop fare of countries like Java, Sumatra, Algeria, Burma, Palestine, Thailand and Niger. Some, like Radio Myanmar, were taped directly off the radio, while others draw from cassettes picked up in street markets.
In nearby Portland, the Sublime Frequencies concept was taken to the next level by Chris Kirkley and his label Sahelsounds. His two Music From Saharan Cellphones compilations (initially distributed for free on the internet but set to be issued in vinyl form through a crowd-funding scheme) gather up songs by artists from Nigeria, Algeria, Niger, Morocco, Mali, Ivory Coast, and the Sahel region of Mauritania that circulate promiscuously throughout North Africa when cellphone users transfer and trade them in MP3 form.
As Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson noted, part of the appeal of Saharan Cellphones in particular and nu-exotica in general is that the music seems “rare.” Unlike most Western pop and unpop, where even the most obscure artist is exhaustively documented and annotated by fans on the web, the performers on the Saharan Cellphone comps remain shrouded in mystique, with some artists and songs only partially identified. So it “feels” like a throwback to the analogue era, even though the way the music is distributed (both in its original Saharan context and in the trend-chasing blog world) is totally digital.
For the exotic beat-freaks and the global street pop enthusiasts alike, something of the thrill of the hunt has been restored, it’s just that the safari now takes you through the deeper recesses of YouTube or the hinterlands of the web, rather than to an out-of-the-way record store or a street market in some dodgy neighborhood.
Other explorers are heading not just far afield, but far back into the past as well. In recent years there has been a surge in the number of reissue labels and music blogs that specialize in ethnological field recordings and in non-Western music from the Sixties and Seventies (i.e. prior to the original “world music” phenomenon of the eighties that led to major labels signing artists like King Sunny Ade and Youssou N’Dour).
This retro-exotica boom often draws on field recordings of tribal chants and gamelan orchestras that back in the day were released in the West by ethnomusicology specialist labels like Ocora, Nonesuch Explorer, Folkways, and UNESCO Collection. But increasingly people are digging much deeper. Witness the rise of a new breed of A&R archaeologist who ventures abroad to scoop up the battered vinyl and worn cassettes of music only ever released in its native land. Whenever possible these are then licensed for Western “reissue” (strictly speaking, that should be “issue,” since it was never available outside its homeland in the first place).
Prime movers in this ethno-retro field include labels like Finders Keepers, Honest Jon’s, Cherrystones, Secret Stash, Now Again, Soundway Records, Strut, Dust-To-Digital, and blogs like Awesome Tapes from Africa, Brain Goreng, Holy Warbles, Sea Never Dry, Ghost Capital, and Anywhere Else But Here Today. These labels and blogs pursue every imaginable kind of vintage exotica, from field recordings made with hand-held microphones by roving anthropologists in the Fifties and Sixties, to pop and showbiz (every nation seems to have a domestic equivalent to what Americans call schlock or schmaltz, what the Germans call schlager) to hipper sounds (everything from Indonesian hard rock to Turkish psychedelia to South African disco).
Because the music was usually recorded quickly in a rudimentary studio, because it’s a strictly analogue affair with none of the digital gloss and computer trickery of global-ghetto-groove styles like kuduro, these older styles of non-Western music seem “purer.” But when you look into them more closely, it turns out that is just an illusion caused by the passage of time.
Most of the stuff that gets reissued by the crate-digger labels is not traditional folk music handed down generation to generation. More often than not, it’s an already-hybrid style contaminated by Western pop: many of the troupes collected on the celebrated Ethiopiques series were heavily influenced by the flamboyant frenzy of James Brown’s Seventies funk, while the Indonesian hard rock and progressive rock bands on Now Again’s marvelous Those Shocking, Shaking Days compilation followed the template laid down by their British and American arena-touring models as closely as possible.
Indeed the pro-Western regime running Indonesia actively promoted the spread of rock music in parallel with their solicitation of investment from Western companies. As with the rap and rave inspired global-ghetto styles, there can sometimes be an unsettling sense that the attraction of this music is that it provides a distorted mirror image of Western pop: in other words, a slightly askew, exotic-but-ultimately-familiar version of things we already love.
As this decade unfolds, xenomania and omnivorous cosmopolitanism will spread and intensify – and tracking the impact on Western hipster music-making is going to be really intriguing.
We’ve already heard flickers of it in the music of Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer and The Dirty Projectors. On 2010’s brilliant A Sufi and A Killer, Gonjasufi samples 1960s rembetiko, a Greek style of low-down music that often gets compared to the blues and that dates back to the end of the 19th Century.
Battles’s less-brilliant but always interesting Gloss Drop slickly fuses everything from techno to Tropicalia, synthpop to soca. The band’s Ian Williams recently observed to The Wire magazine that “With the internet, everybody’s exposed to World Music now, and a much wider wealth of influence that come from everywhere. The library that people are exposed to is much bigger now.”
Of course the phenomenon of musicians looking outside the West for inspiration is not particularly new. Rock stars like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne embraced rhythms, melodies and instrumental textures from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America; Gabriel was involved in the founding of the U.K. world music festival W.O.M.A.D, while Byrne launched his own record label, Luaka Bop, as an outlet for music from South America and other worldy zones. For his debut solo album Duck Rock, Malcolm McLaren traipsed around the world in search of earthy roots-music antidotes to glossed-up, synthetic Eighties pop, in the process making bizarre collages of Soweto guitar pop, Bronx scratching ‘n’ rapping, and Appalachian square-dancing.
The trumpeter Jon Hassell coined the concept of 4th World Music, the merger of Western hi-tech and ethnic music. He also influenced the landmark Brian Eno & David Byrne project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, with its sampled voices from Folkways-style field recordings and Arabic pop. Ryuichi Sakomoto’s own version of 4th World was “Neo-Geo,” a cosmopolitan pastiche of panglobal flavors.
But Hassell, Sakomoto, Byrne and Eno were in many ways simply reiterating and developing 1970s notions of a “One World Music” as pursued by artists like Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Traffic, and Can. All that’s really different now is that the Internet makes it so much easier to “travel” far and wide in your listening, while digital technology means it is easy to harvest found sound off the web and to incorporate it seamlessly into your own music.
“I can hear everything,” proclaims a voice at the start of Eye Contact, the latest album by ethnodelic New York outfit Gang Gang Dance. “It’s everything time.” “But just because you can hear everything, it doesn’t mean you should try to. There are definite downsides to all this net-enabled hyper-eclecticism.
For listeners, the temptation is to pig out at the world’s greatest buffet, to heap your plate with a little of everything, savoring nothing in depth, overloading the palate with clashing cuisines and ultimately leaving you with indigestion.
For musicians, attempting to assimilate inputs of such diverse provenance can lead to the audio equivalent of fusion cuisine gone wrong: a cacophony of incompatible taste profiles. Intriguingly, New York magazine’s classical music critic Justin Davidson has observed this syndrome at work in the world of up-and-coming young composers. “A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” There is a faddishness to the chase for exotic beats and ethnic obscurities that is exacerbated by the high-turnover cycles of the bloggified music scene.
However, the impulse to seek out the alien sounds that already exist on the planet (that may indeed have existed for decades) but are effectively new to you could be a displacement of the future-hunger, the quest for the unknown, that used to be the motor driving the vanguard sectors of Western pop.
If our own rock and pop traditions seem stagnant and stalled, their forward motion obstructed by the sheer accumulation of glorious history, it could be that one way to escape the dead end is to step sideways. Get yourself outside the Western narrative altogether and explore all the elsewheres now accessible like never before.