thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: world music

On Techlust II: Native Instruments’ Maschine In Colombia

Recently an email from Native Instruments (NI), a music technology company, appeared in my inbox. NI occasionally sends out ads for its products, limited time discount offers, software updates, and so on, and as a NI software owner I always happily read these emails and then ignore them–unless we’re talking about the software updates, in which case I go and follow the links. Such is the nature of electronic music technology: once you buy into a brand, you’re constantly “attended to” by the company and encouraged to buy and update more and more. In this way, the lines between consumption and production and advertising are not only blurry, but overlapping too.

But back to that recent NI email. It was a promotion for NI’s successful hardware/software rhythm instrument, Maschine. I wrote about first experiencing this technology “in the flesh” (“in the plastic”?) in a blog post here last year. In this Maschine email, NI included a video of a musician using the instrument to improvise a sample-based music. The musician is Mario Galeano who lives and works in Colombia and leads the group Frente Cumbiero. (I’ve just begun listening to them.)

The video is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, Galeano is a combination of record collector, DJ, composer, and musicologist-historian who uses his love of traditional cumbia music to inform his electronic music making. This leads to me to a second interesting thing, which is that Galeano’s music isn’t your run of the mill electronic dance music. Rather, it’s built on syncopated samples of acoustic instruments from old cumbia records. Galeano’s music sounds–to use a clichéd way of distinguishing a music–more organic than synthetic. And this, in turn, may also be a by-product of the third thing that makes this NI video interesting: Galeano’s improvising on Maschine’s squishy square buttons to perform his music. At 2:10 in the video, we seem him play around with audio samples from old records from the 1960s and 70s.

It’s for these reasons that this NI video is such an effective promotional tool. It’s about a seductive technology, sure, but this technology is socially situated in a real musician’s life and naturalized by being shown to be a practical help to his ways of working– helping him sample old records and then play back those samples in what Galeano describes as “a very tactile way.” The meta-message? If this piece of gear helps him do all that, imagine what it might help me do?

You can read more about Galeano and Frente Cumbiero here.

On Philosophy’s Western Bias: Thinking Through “Non-Western” Music

The concept of “non-Western” music has long been both a cornerstone and a sticky issue for the field of ethnomusicology. Formed in the mid-1950s, the Society For Ethnomusicology was from its inception interested in the study of musical traditions from outside the Western classical music canon. Early on, its approach was musicological–studying music as an object rather than as a part of cultural field. Also, it was primarily non-Western art music traditions of from Japan, China, the Middle East, and India that were studied, perhaps in part because these traditions had surface similarities to Western European art music (e.g. like Western European art music they are the domain of highly trained specialists, their repertoire is built around mostly fixed musical scales, and their histories are preserved through various kinds of musical notation) that lent them a kind of perceived cultural prestige. In other words, they were similar the kinds of traditions that traditional musicologists might study. But as ethnomusicology was shaped by the field of anthropology in the 1960s and 70s and evolved as a discipline, the notion of its defining itself primarily through an interest in those musical practices that weren’t western eventually came to seem increasingly odd and untenable. First, what makes the West the default or central vantage point in our world, relegating all other geographies “non-western”? Second, why limit the ethnomusicological focus to geography anyway? Music, after all, is fluid because its social worlds were (and still are) constantly changing, with peoples moving about and what were once fairly distinct musical cultures becoming more and more interconnected, their stylistic lines blurred. Over time, ethnomusicology expanded to include the cultural study of any and all music traditions, an interpretive stance the field maintains today.

A few months ago I came across an interesting piece in the New York Times by the philosopher Justin E.H. Smith. The article not about music per se but about philosophy–specifically, the place of non-Western philosophy in Western philosophy curricula. In my reading, I found that many of Smith’s observations resonate in the world of teaching non-western music appreciation classes.

One of Smith’s main points concerns the strange treatment of non-western philosophy in western philosophy departments:

“…non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion. In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally ‘other.’”

One way out of this Othering quandary, says Smith, is “to stop describing it as ‘non-Western’ but instead to be explicit about which geographical region, or which tradition, we’re discussing.” Ethnomusicologists have been doing this for a long time now, of course, framing their classroom discussions of various traditions with careful explanations of the musics’ social and cultural milieus, and by using the indigenous terms musicians use to talk about their instruments and their soundworlds.

Smith also advocates opening up his discipline by treating “both Western and non-Western philosophy as the regional inflections of a global phenomenon.” But Smith points out that one of the barriers to the “rigorous and serious approach to the teaching and study of non-Western philosophy” is that some “philosophers remain attached to the article of faith that philosophy is something independent of culture.”

With that, let’s return to music.

In music departments it is common practice for Western classical music–the great music by composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms–to be studied as texts for harmonic decoding. In my university music theory classes some twenty years ago, we talked about the relationships between the notes and chords and rhythms of a piece, but never about what the music might mean–either culturally or emotionally. (It would have been cool if the teacher had taken a moment to ask us: “How does this chord make you feel?” I wonder what discussion might have ensued? And I wonder if I would have had anything to say?) In this way, the assumption of the class was that “serious” Western music was a set of artifacts independent of culture and fully graspable on its own formal terms. Western music, as Smith would put it, was “the unmarked category.” The late 19- century critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) had a label for this view of music supposedly separate from its messy social milieu: autonomous music. Building on this idea, Hanslick believed that the “meaning” of music is its form and nothing more. Today, that view of music is disputed. At the very least, the meanings of music are generated in a variety of ways–some of them sonic, some of them social.

Anyhow, non-Western music isn’t usually inserted into the pedagogical mix of Bach and the other Western composing greats. Case in point: in our music theory classes, my classmates and I didn’t analyze transcriptions of Indonesian gamelan pieces or Indian tabla drum solos (though elsewhere we did gain wonderful experience learning to play the music of some of these traditions). The musics of the rest of the non-Western world were relegated to an introductory semester of world music/ethnomusicology/music as culture inserted into an otherwise 100 percent Western music history curriculum. During these few months we learned indigenous music terms like mbira and qin, listened to what at the time I thought were difficult to grasp sounds, and–curiously enough–used western analytical terms like timbre and polyrhythm to make sense of it all. The class text, for those of you who are wondering, was the first edition of Jeff Titon’s fine Worlds Of Music.

Finally, Smith says that the value of the Western philosophical tradition “has always been a result of its place as a node in a global network through which ideas and things are always flowing.” So with philosophy, so too with music, I think. For it’s in Western classical and pop styles, after all, that ideas and sounds (and sometimes even instruments) from other traditions flow and assert their presence. (Remember the Beatles’ sitar? Lou Harrison’s American gamelans? Steve Reich’s West African drumming-inspired percussion works?) Thus, a class on non-Western music taught today would benefit from considering the considerable resonances of non-Western music on Western composers, bands, DJs, and so on–from John Cage, Steve Reich, and the Beatles through to Bjork, Diplo, and beyond.


This is a clip of the Beatles’ George Harrison taking a sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar:

This is a clip of Bjork performing with kora master Toumani Diabate:

On The Filtering Of World Music: A Nexus Percussion Performance

Formed in 1971, Nexus is a Toronto-based percussion ensemble that has been making hard to classify music using a massive array of instruments for over three decades. Their repertoire spans experimental free improvisation, West African and North Indian drumming, contemporary classical pieces (including commissioned works from the likes of Toru Takemitsu and Steve Reich), original compositions by the group’s members, and George Hamilton Green’s early 20th-century ragtime music for xylophone and marimbas. Nexus’s debut concert, by the way, was entirely improvised.

While extensively trained in classical music, the members of Nexus also came of musical age at a time of profound change in North American “serious” or “classical” musical culture–a time when it was beginning to open up to influences from vernacular traditions, instruments, and sounds from far outside the walls of music conservatories. Specifically, it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that so-called “world music” traditions from Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Indonesia, and Japan first became entrenched in a few American colleges and universities, largely thanks to pioneering graduate degree programs in ethnomusicology (the cultural study of music making) at schools such as UCLA and Wesleyan. So if you were a student at say, Wesleyan in the early 1970s, you could take lessons with master performers and learn North and South Indian classical music, traditional drumming pieces from Ghana, and play in a Javanese gamelan percussion orchestra. (Actually, you can still do this today.) Several of Nexus’s members did just that. And as they were inspired by their studies of global percussion traditions and their curiosity about these traditions’ complex rhythmic designs, the group also gradually amassed a huge collection of percussion instruments from all over the world, helping to expand and re-define the very notion of what a “classical” percussionist does in the first place. In a way then, the history of Nexus is in part a story of how “world music” traditions–from Africa, from India, from Indonesia, among many other places–have influenced and shaped the practices of Western percussionists and percussion music in general. Once upon a time, this kind of cultural encounter would have been called fusion, but the work of Nexus reminds us that all music is world music, blendable and blending together in one big sonic stew.

To illustrate, consider Nexus’s hour-long, non-stop set at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City earlier this week. They began with Fra Fra, their adaptation of a sequence of Dagomba rhythms from Northern Ghana played on talking drums, gun-gon (a buzzing bass drum), shakers, and a whistle. Then it was off to Zimbabwe for a rendition of a traditional Shona mbira (thumb piano) piece called Nhemamusasa, accompanied by African iron bell, gourd shaker, and a bass marimbula. The mbira piece faded into a long stretch of free improvisation, with each musician playing a small collection of instruments ranging from gongs, cymbals, and shakers to mouth organs, woodblocks, and bird whistles. It was during the bird call moments especially that Nexus’s subtly deep musicianship reminded the audience of the startling things that can happen when we listen and allow ourselves to be lead past technique and exotica and novelty towards micro sounds, quiet sounds, overlapping and uncertain sounds in close dialogue with one another that seem to surprise even the performers themselves as they’re making them. That’s a musical lesson I really want to remember.

The free improvisation and bird soundscapes segued into a rendition of Steve Reich’s early minimalist classic, Piano Phase (1967) played not on pianos but on custom-made wooden akadinda-style xylophones. For me, this was a particularly significant moment in the set as it was a beautiful example of Western and non-western musical traditions colliding and resonating together. On the one hand, we have a piece by Reich, one of the most significant of living classical music composers, who has made a career around repetition-heavy music. In his writings and in interviews, Reich has acknowledged the influence of West African drumming and Balinese gamelan on his composing. Indeed, in Reich’s repeating and hypnotic “phasing” processes you can hear rhythmic relationships, interlocking parts, and perceptual artifacts (weird echoes, doublings and resonances) that are also found in traditions from West Africa and Indonesia. On the other hand, we have Nexus’s custom-made akadinda (one of the group’s members, Gary Kvistad, is also an accomplished instrument designer who makes Woodstock Windchimes) which is originally an indigenous percussion instrument from Uganda. In its traditional setting, the akadinda is played by several musicians whose interlocking parts allow them to play at super fast tempos. Not only that, but in akadinda music you can hear the same kinds of weird perceptual artifacts (one ethnomusicologist once called them “inherent rhythms”) that grow out of Reich’s music (which Reich once called “resultant patterns”). All this to say that even though Reich never found explicit inspiration in traditional Ugandan music, the similarities are most definitely there. And as if to literally hammer home the point, Nexus then continued Piano Phase on a set of horizontally positioned tuned wind chimes and then, changing from mallets to ping-pong paddles, on a vertical set of tuned plastic tubes to make a more . . . wonky sound. The audience could be forgiven for thinking this was a page out of Blue Man Group. But what was happening is that we were hearing a demonstration of how rhythms are ever portable from one tradition and set of instruments to another. Music may not be a universal language (or a language at all), but its structures are like DNA–easily reproduced far from their native habitats.

And finally, as the Reich on wind chimes faded, its motif was picked up on the (western) xylophone, modulated a few half steps, and with that Nexus dove into a series of frenetic yet note-perfect early 20th-century ragtime pieces from the golden age of dance bands when the xylophone was king. When they were done, the audience was on its feet, cheering for encores as if surprised and wondering: Who knew that percussion could do all this?


Here are some YouTube clips of musics mentioned above:

“Nhemamusasa” performed on Shona mbiras:

Steve Reich’s Piano Phase:

Akadinda xylophone from Uganda:

Xylophone music composed and performed by George Hamilton Green:

On Damon Albarn’s DRC Music Collaboration

It wasn’t all that long ago that indigenous, folk, popular, and art musics from Africa, Asia, South America, the South Pacific, the Caribbean–heck from most anywhere outside of North America and Western Europe–were hard to come by, relegated to the “international” or “world music” bins at your local record store.  Then, in the late 1980s, we saw Western pop stars such as Peter Gabriel and David Byrne become curators of non western music.  Both Gabriel and Byrne started their own (successful) record labels (Gabriel founding Real World Records, Byrne Luaka Bop) to release music by artists from all corners of the world.  In general, this kind of curating been a good thing: many of the recordings are excellent and they’ve brought new sounds to the ears of many North American music fans formerly unaware of musics from outside their beloved western pop and classical canons.  The curators themselves have too, I imagine, also been deeply influenced by the musics they’ve released.

Damon Albarn follows in this tradition of rock star as curator but his intent is more about having a shared musical experience with his collaborators to create new, hybrid work.  His first such collaboration was Mali Music (2002), where Albarn packed his melodica and some recording gear and traveled to Mali to work with Malian musicians including Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate, and others.  Some of this music sounded quite traditional and some of it quite un-Malian–like this final track, “Les Escrocs”, which sounds like it’s built around a sample of a field recording Alburn made during his visit.  But from there, it moves into very different musical territory:

This year, Albarn formed DRC Music to release Kinshasa One Two (2011).  Like Mali Music, DRC Music is an Oxfam-sponsored initiative (with proceeds going to Oxfam’s work in Africa), this time bringing together Albarn and some other electronic musicians and producers who travelled to the Democratic Republic Of Congo to collaborate with local musicians there.  In addition to Albarn, the visiting musicians include Darren Cunningham (aka Actress), Richard Russell, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Dan The Automator, Jneiro Jarel, Marc Antoine, Alwest, Remi Kabaka, Rodaidh McDonald, and Kwes.  The Congolese musicians include Tout Puissant Mukao, Nelly Liyemge, Bokatola System, Evala Litongo, Yende Bongongo of Okwess International, Magakala Virginia Yollande, Jupiter Bokondji, Bebson, Washiba, and others.

Describing his solution to the question of how to structure his cross-cultural collaboration which has been characterized as “African pop futurism” (SPIN) and “thrillingly immediate & disorientatingly strange” (The Telegraph), Abarn says:

“I thought, well, an easy way to get around would be to invite a group of producers … give them five days, give them maximum access to the musicians in Kinshasa, and try to interpret what they were playing to us [...] The basic premise was that they would play and we would record, and then go off to our computers and sort of manipulate the sounds. There was one rule, which was that every sound we used had to come from the experiences we were having in Congo.”

Here is the promotional trailer for the recording, featuring its first track, “Hallo”:


So then, what is this music?  Is it a real collaboration or are the local Congolese musicians just Albarn’s latest musical muse?  It’s hard to say for sure.  Some songs like “Hallo” (which is based on a sample Albarn made while in Kinshasa) seem to be mostly-Albarn affairs, with guest vocals of Nelly Liyemge adding local flavor. Other songs like “Love” sound like straight up, unadorned field recordings.  The second half of the album especially gets into far-out sonic territory; you can hear snippets and samples of Congolese musicians but they’re melted into a dense electronic soundscape.

It’s interesting to me that Albarn says “they would play and we would record, and then go off to our computers and sort of manipulate the sounds.” Let’s clarify this: not sort of manipulate, but really manipulate: making field recordings, sampling instrument sounds and voices, and then cutting them up and re-organizing them on laptops.  While this creative process can and does lead to fascinating results, it isn’t exactly an even collaboration, is it? Indeed, it feels as if the local musicians are working for the visitors. It’s also significant that Albarn says that “every sound we used had to come from the experiences we were having in Congo.”  From this we get a sense of the Albarn’s sense of compositional rigor being as strict as a 12-tone composer using only this or that particular note set.  Maybe this self-imposed set of rules is to ensure that the project embodies some kind of “authenticity”?  You can hear this rigor on tracks like track 10, “Three Piece Sweet” which features the sounds of an ingenious homemade drum kit (like that shown in the pic above).

Sonically, there’s much here that is fascinating and rewarding of multiple listenings. One of my favorite tracks is track 10, “Virginia” that somehow combines a tuned percussive sound with field recordings of children and adults talking, and some computer processing.  It’s three minutes of almost unclassifiable sonics that don’t try to represent anything or be authentic in any way, yet still manage to be moving:

There might be good reasons to try to further dissect cross-cultural musical projects like DRC Music because of how they might shed light on (asymmetrical) power relations between what has been labelled “the west and the rest.”  Musical practice is as good a forum as any other for exploring the politics of power and who gets a “voice.”  Indeed, what kind of voice do the African musicians on this recording really have and is it the one that they wanted or imagined they’d have when they agreed to participate?  Also, when they played for those microphones were they compensated in any way or did they just get a free copy of the finished recording?  Or will there maybe be tour at some point?  I have no idea.  But listening to the recorded sounds on Kinshasa One Two makes me wonder about all the sounds that never made it onto the record, sitting on a hard drive somewhere, waiting to be used on some other project.

To learn more about one UK musician’s experience participating in the DRC project, go here.

Musical Collaborations: Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

Mandinka kora music is among my favorite sound worlds. The kora is a 21-string harp-lute traditionally played by oral historians in many parts of West Africa. I travelled to Mali (home to many Mandinka people) in 2002 to learn to play the kora.  Though I didn’t get all that far in three weeks, I learned the basic building block pattern (kumbengo) for an old piece called Allah lake and started to get a feel for how variations (birimintingo) are spun from this rhythmic web.  You play the kora using just two thumbs and two index fingers. To a complete novice like me, it feels tricky to negotiate those 21 strings in such a small space.  Even more daunting is playing a melody, its accompaniment, and variations on them–all while keeping alive that cycling smooth groove that makes kora music hum with life.

Here is a short clip of famous kora player Toumani Diabate showing how the elements–what he calls here the “bass”, the “accompaniment” and the “improvisation”– of a kora piece called “Salaman” are all woven together:

Ballaké Sissoko is a jali from Mali and also a virtuoso kora player.  I first learned about him through his duet recording with Toumani Diabate, New Ancient Strings (1999).  Recently, Sissoko collaborated with French cellist Vincent Segal to make Chamber Music (Six Degrees Records), a series of duets.  Here is a clip of the two musicians making music together:

It is perhaps notable that Chamber Music is distributed through Six Degrees, a record label specializing in hybrid musics that aspire to be truly global in scope (or at least in ambition), especially those that blend styles from the “world music” canon–musics from outside of the Euro-American pop and classical traditions and made by an international roster of artists–with the technologies, sounds and structures of electronic musics.

Sissoko and Segal’s Chamber Music isn’t electronic music in any way, but it is an overt kind of fusion of traditions–what the Six Degrees website describes as “a quieter, more refined ‘world music’”–and it reminds me of some observations of Michel Chanan which I quoted in an earlier post:

“Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce . . . Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?  Is the idea just another form of cultural expropriation and exploitation or could it possibly represent a true growth of awareness of other musics?”

At least within the realm of the Sissoko and Segal’s music making together, there does seem to be “awareness of other musics” on display.  You can hear, for instance, Segal play some of those kumbengo bassline-like patterns, melodies are traded back and forth, drones are offered in mutual support, and so on, in a musical dialogue that includes improvisation and new takes on old compositions.  One could probably safely say that for both musicians, “techniques are extended” too.



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