Just A DJ In The Subway Or . . . ?

Well, this one threw me for a loop, but bear with my description . . .

A useful way for a musician to promote his or her music AND a musical event is to bring it directly to the commuting public by performing in the subway.  At Union Square this afternoon, a DJ demonstrated his audio finesse.  (You can listen to my low-fidelity phone recording here.)  Tokyo Circus is the name of both the musician and the party (?) he was promoting.  Costumed in sunglasses, platinum wig, and a doctor’s coat, he mixed his tracks using an iPod fed through a most low-fi portable guitar amp making a sound that was all squelch, grain and treble.  The sound and look were playful enough to attract a crowd of the curious, and yet upon closer inspection contradictions abound.  On the one hand, a handmade cardboard sign with “Feed Me” scrawled on it, and yet no empty case into which to put one’s cash donations.  (“Is he hungry?  Does he need my money?”)  On the other hand, glossy postcards advertising the upcoming dance party (?) available for us to take.  Finally, a glance at the DJ rig revealed a shiny new iPhone to boot.  Is this a struggling artist?  A piece of situated performance art?  A flesh and blood dance party flyer?  A commentary on the DJ’s life?  A take on remix and dance music culture?  What is this and should we pay attention? . . .

. . . So, it turns out that there is no party per se, or rather, the party is right here, right now, and Tokyo Circus is an international performing group that puts on street shows around the world with the simple aim of making us smile.  You can read more about them at http://www.tokyocircus.jp/Info.htm.

An Interview With Percussionist Junior Wedderburn

Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn is a master percussionist who has played drums for over forty years.  His music making draws upon the traditional Jamaican ritual styles of Kumina, Pocomania, Tambu, Bruckins, and Nyabinghi.  I interviewed Junior in November in New York City about Nyabinghi music as well as a documentary film he is helping produce.

* * *

T: When did you first get involved in Nyabinghi music?

JW: A long time ago.  Nyabinghi is a whole lifestyle really – Rastafarian lifestyle: it’s music, it’s the food, it’s everything.  We call it “The Order of Nyabinghi.”  When we have groundations or commemorations for certain events, we call it a Nyabinghi Groundation—with chanting and drumming.  I was introduced to the Nyabinghi tradition at an early stage: I grew up in the church but I was playing the traditional rituals such as Kumina, Pocomania, and Karamanti.  I grew up around those things and the whole Africa-consciousness was there.

TB: In the church?

JW: Yes.  In Jamaica, Nyabinghi is the ultimate representation of Africa-consciousness—Nyabinghi came out of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, and it came out of protest and resistance.  There’s a movement there and you can find protest and resistance in all these rituals: in Kumina, in Karamanti.  So I was pulled to Nyabinghi through wanting to know more and be more vigilant and grow up more protective of what we have as African retentions.

TB: Protest and resistance against what?

JW: Against colonization, against slavery.

TB: So where does Rastafarianism fit into this?

JW: Rastafarianism is cradled by protest and resistance.  This is what it’s all about.  It was inspired by Marcus Garvey’s teachings about protest and resistance, the Back to Africa Movement, and all the earlier Jamaican Freedom Fighters—people like Nanny [Queen Mother Nanny, the 18th-century leader of the Eastern Jamaican Maroons], and Paul Bogle [leader of the 1965 Morant Bay Rebellion].

TB: You have been living here in Brooklyn for a long time.  So how does all of this live on in what you do here?

JW: There are Nyabinghis here.  In Prospect Park there is a large Nyabinghi every 23rd of July—the birthdate of His Emperial Majesty Ras Tafari.  There’s Coronation Day: I just did a show down in Brooklyn for that on the 2nd of November.  This year was the 80th anniversary of the Coronation of Ras Tafari.  So, wherever the Rastafarian movement is there are Nyabinghi celebrations.  And also wherever reggae music is.  In my view, reggae music was created to evangelize to the teachings of Ras Tafari.

TB: It kind of gets [the teachings] in under the radar?

JW: Yes, exactly.  Reggae is a part of it since it too was born out of protest and resistance—so the line is there.  The Africans who arrived in Jamaica as slaves—their resistance to the colonizers—that resistance is the same thread through the years that becomes manifest in reggae music.  Dancehall music really came out of reggae, but the teachings—the real consciousness, the real culture of protest and resistance—are not always as prominent in dancehall.  So I think we need to remember that the rights we enjoy now as musicians—a lot of people have suffered for this.  Our forefathers suffered for us to be the way we are now.

TB: Are there recordings of Nyabinghi music?

JW:  It’s going to be difficult to find recordings of straight up Nyabinghi music.  You can listen to one of my recordings, “Take I Home” here.

And you can find a lot of material on YouTube.  You could begin with Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation:

There was an artist named Ras Michael whose main focus is Nyabinghi:

And there are lots of other examples too.  The group Culture has a number of Nyabinghi-inspired tracks such as “Marriage in Canaan”:

“Holy mount zion”:

“No sin”:

and “Weeping eyes”:

Bob Marley has some Nyabinghi tracks such as “Rastaman Chant”:

and “Time Will Tell”:

There’s Jimmy Cliff:

Peter Tosh, of course, and his songs “Rastafari Is”:

and “Creation”:

There’s Bunny Wailer:

Artists such as Anthony B:

And the song “Chalice” by Capleton:

So, if you listen closely to any of these tracks you can hear the Nyabinghi influence.

TB: Are there also field recordings of Nyabinghi music?

JW: No, no.  It’s kind of difficult to find those.  However there’s an album with Rastafarian elders that was done in Washington a few years ago that is available.

TB:  Can you find film clips of Nyabinghi celebrations?

JW: Yes, if you go on YouTube you’ll find things.

[Nyabinghi celebration, Jamaica, 1994]

TB: Earlier you described the connection between Nyabinghi and reggae.  Where would dub music fit into this?  Some of the famous dub remixers—we’ve talked about Lee “Scratch” Perry—talk in terms that sound mystical…

JW: You cannot divorce Jamaican contemporary music from protest and resistance. That’s what we are about.  It’s kind of hard for people who don’t have that kind of experience, who don’t have that kind of background in their heritage, to relate to it.  But it is expressed in the food we eat, the way we talk, the way we relate to one another, the music, the rituals—everything.  Even the Church traditions in Jamaica show the connection.

TB: What kinds of projects have you been working on lately?

JW: Well, for me the Ancient Vibrations thing [Ancient Vibrations is a drumming, dance, and singing ensemble devoted to Jamaican traditional repertoire] is ongoing.  I’ve done it all my life and ever since I’ve been in New York.  And now, more than ever before, I’m seeing the importance of having a group that is dedicated to keeping alive some of those traditions just to share them.  It still amazes me: I did a show in Brooklyn a few weeks ago and there were some Haitian drummers there.  I had a few Jamaican drummers with me and we went up and played some Kumina.  When we got off backstage these Haitian drummers said: “What?  Jamaicans have these [drumming] things?!”  They couldn’t believe that we share these kinds of drumming traditions.

TB: There were connections.

JW: Yes.  And the popular music today doesn’t do much to bring out the traditional thing and those connections, but I think that they’re there.

I’m also working in global music group called Uzalo and I’ve done many collaborations with artists from all over the world.  As musicians we’re ever evolving: we adapt, we change, we explore, but we still know our roots and try to keep those links.

TB: Recently you have been working on a documentary film too.

JW: Yes, I’m helping to produce a film with the anthropologists Deborah Thomas and John Jackson.

TB: What is the name of the project?

JW: We call it “Bad Friday.”  The title comes out of an incident that took place in the Western end of Jamaica in 1963 that addressed state sponsored violence against the Rastafarian community and their struggles.  Because there have been a few incidents over the years during Jamaica’s development, and every time there is a consciousness rising, a movement that takes place where people want to assert themselves and really declare who they are as a people, the Jamaican government—with the help of the colonial powers—did everything that they could to suppress it…

As a kid I used to be scared of Rastafari because they were considered the ‘black art men.’  So this film is about this one incident where it is said that a Rastafarian got into an altercation with some police officers.  It all started with people in Rose Hall—Coral Gardens, an area around Montego Bay—taking little plots of land to farm.  Rose Hall wanted them off the land and burned them off the land, and that escalated into a physical thing.  And Rastas were being blamed for that.  This then triggered government involvement, and the government of course wanted Rastas out of the way, being pressured by Britain to stamp out this movement.

So the film speaks of the atrocities and tribulations these people had to go through.  Elders who survived the Coral Gardens incident and were beaten for nothing at all—a lot went on.  Today, there is a Rastafarian organization called the Rasta Millennium Council that is negotiating with the Jamaican government over reparations, dealing with the situation in an organized way.  In this film we researched all these people, recordings their testimonies.  We even have testimony from a police officer that was involved then.

TB: Did he eventually change his tune, the police officer?

JW: Well he was conflicted even then, because he had to go in and destroy crops that were grown on these plots . . . But this was his job.

TB: So how does this documentary link up with music?

JW: The music is what has fuelled the Rastafarian movement.  It has conveyed us, so to speak, to this point where we have a voice.  So music is an integral part of it.

TB: Do people re-live any of this history through the songs?

JW: Yes, of course!  And every year on Good Friday we still have commemoration in Montego Bay.  I grew up in Jamaica but just learned about this a few years ago.  That’s the thing: in the broader Jamaican society a lot of these things are hidden.  It was reported in the papers and on the BBC, but as to how the information was sent out—it was kept very quiet.  As I see it, this makes us consider the possibility that sometimes a government doesn’t want a people who are too conscious—you don’t want a population that is too aware of what has been going on . . .

TB: Thank you very much for speaking with me today Junior.

JW: You’re welcome.

* * *

Your Musical Tastes, Automated

Virginia Heffernan has an article on the popular Internet radio service Pandora in today’s New York Times.  Pandora allows users to set up personalized radio stations that generate playlists based on users’ musical preferences.  All it takes is an initial song, and Pandora analyzes* (see footnote below) the music based on quantifiable qualities such as instrumentation, timbre, melodic contours and harmonic structure, and even the presence or absence of singing and lyrics.  As users agree or disagree with Pandora’s recommendations, the playlist refines its focus, seemingly becoming ever more acute.  What we have here is a quasi-intelligent technology that, as Heffernan observes, “refuses to group songs on the basis of their being good, bad, cool or otherwise enshrouded in cultural auras. Pandora explodes the aura. It turns music into math.”

What is interesting about Pandora is that it kind of does a good job at predicting the kinds of musics we might like based on just a few examples that we already like.  (You can try it for yourself…)  This idea of automating human taste can be unnerving, since we like to think that our aesthetic interests–including our musical tastes–are mysteriously organic, and that they allow us to “feel free and let us revel in our subjectivity” as Heffernan puts it.

To put the Pandora technology in perspective, Heffernan makes an analogy to the great chess master Garry Kasparov’s 1997 loss to Deep Blue, an IBM computer.  The point here is that Kasparov and Deep Blue weren’t really playing the same game; or rather, chess means different things to a human and to a computer: an intuitive sense of a game versus abstract number crunching.  Heffernan goes on to note there “is a spiritual exhaustion that descends when what is traditionally an experience with another mind (a musician, a chess player, a conductor, a D.J.) turns out to be an encounter with a machine.”

Does Pandora really make our listening tastes feel predictable though?  Perhaps it merely sheds light on the kinds of musics that speak to us.  At any rate, the next step we need to take ourselves is ask why: Why this kind of music and not that?  Why these kinds of sounds, and not those?

You can read the article here.

*Actually, this is a little misleading.  Pandora hires real people to analyze hundreds of thousands of songs, one by one, in terms of their quantifiable musical qualities.  Once analyzed, each piece of music is “tagged” with its relevant data points and then added to the Pandora music database–referred to by Pandora founder Tim Westergren as “The Music Genome Project.”  For a more in-depth exploration of Pandora, see Rob Walker’s article, “The Song Decoders” here.

More Cookery-Music Connections: Texture and Timbre

In a video podcast lecture available on iTunes U, the chef Grant Achatz discusses the creative process involved in arriving at new dishes.  In a short video from the lecture Achatz introduces what he calls “flavor bouncing.”  He begins with a single ingredient/flavor (white beans) and then maps a list of possible other ingredients/flavors (bacon, beer, almonds…) that could successfully “bounce off” or go with the first one.  The only rule of this creative game is that all of the subsequent ingredients must go with one another as well.  The approach is interesting insofar as it is at once straightforward, disciplined, and associative. There’s no firm right or wrong here, only something that either works or doesn’t.  (Similarly, the musician Daniel Lanois, in his recent book Soul Mining, uses a food analogy when he describes how “harmonic interplay is a result of a collision of ingredients.”)

Chefs spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of flavor and taste compatibilities.  In music, analogous issues are played out in the domains of what could be termed its euphonic (melody, harmony) and groove elements (rhythm).  Composers, like chefs, can play with affinities and expectations, consonance and dissonances in their compositions and performances.  Change a combination of pitches and you move from happy towards sad; construct just the right rhythm and you’ll compel a dance.

Chefs such as Achatz (and Adria mentioned in my last post) also think about the impact of a food’s texture to how we experience it.  Certainly texture finds an analogue in the musical notion of timbre. Achatz describes texture simply as a “sensation”–not a taste per se, but important enough to impact how we experience the food.  In music, the texture or quality or “color” of a sound is known as its timbre, and a shift in timbre can radically change how we perceive a sound.  Consider some different (electronically produced) timbres on the sound example linked here.

What you hear is the pitch d (i.e. the frequency 294 Hz)  but sounded through eight different timbres: a sine tone, a piano, a flute, a dulcimer, a violin, a steel pan, a marimba, and an electronic “pad” sound. Each instrument/sound is sounding at the same pitch but with a different timbre, and this makes each one feel different.

In many musics, timbre is somewhat preset due to enduring instrument combinations: the string quartet, the piano-bass-drums jazz trio, the gamelan, the electric guitar-dominated rock band, and so forth.  If you make electronic music with computer software, however, you undoubtedly have at your fingertips more timbres or sound textures than you know what to do with.  These days, sounds are often organized into soundbanks of presets which are themselves organized around timbrally similar groups of sounds (strings, pads, metallic percussion, etc.). And if that isn’t enough, you can create your own sounds from scratch or tweak the presets beyond recognition.  While there are conventions of musical style, there are theoretically no rules and you’re on your own figuring out which sounds suit your sensibility.

Whatever you choose to do, you’re faced–like a chef bouncing flavors around–with the question of timbre and which sounds “go” well with one another.  Some musicians address this question by severely limiting their soundsets (think about some really minimal techno), others by almost never repeating the same sound twice (listen to an Autechre album, for instance).

So, the world of cookery and chefs working with food, flavor, taste and texture makes an interesting parallel space for thinking about analogous issues facing musicians and composers working with sound; I think the similarities are there.  Moreover, cooking and music making are both ephemeral yet pleasure-filled and sensual activities that demand a full mind-body, feeling and thinking response from us…

Creative Strategies From elBulli’s Cookery

This blog post is not about music or sound per se, but about the creative process of cooking.  I am a big fan of books about cookery, and they can be read from a sideways perspective–thinking by analogy about how they may offer insight onto other domains.  With that said, every once in a while you encounter a book that is not only beautiful but inspiring and thought-provoking too.  One such book is A Day at elBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria (Phaidon 2008).  Adria is a Catalonian chef famous for his innovations associated with the “molecular gastronomy” movement in cookery.  In fact, one could argue that Adria is the prime architect of this meticulously adventurous and scientifically precise approach to preparing, cooking, and conceiving of food.  His restaurant elBulli is open just six months of the year, and Adria spends the other six in research and development mode, designing new dishes, new flavors, and trying things with food that have never been done before.  He’s a creative artist who just happens to work with edible things.

In A Day at elBulli, Adria and Phaidon have created a 528-page wonder of a manual on creativity that I think is applicable well outside of the culinary arts.  The book follows a typical day in the elBulli universe, from daybreak to closing time, beginning with the backdrop for the restaurant–pictures of Cap de Creus park and the natural textures of its environs: water, stone, trees and sky.  From here, the book proceeds in 5-minute increments, tracking the assembling of a multi-hour elBulli meal by a crew of cooks, from shopping to prepping and cooking and serving.  The rhythm of the day is documented through hundreds of photographs, recipes, and quotations.

But what really makes the book extraordinary as a creative manual are three different 4-page inserts (complete with different sized paper) titled “Creative methods” (I, II, and III).  Here we get a glimpse of the conceptual framework underlying the restaurant’s machinery, and Adria outlines a number of ideas that could be of interest to anyone interested in the creative process.  In Creative Methods I, he discusses traditional and local cuisines, influence, and technique-concept searching.  In Part II, he explains and defines the concepts of association, inspiration, adaptation, deconstruction, and minimalism as they apply to his work.  And Part III discusses the importance of the senses, including the sixth sense that Adria describes as “pleasure experienced by the mind.  [This] sense often relies on setting up a tension or a contrast between the guest’s own knowledge and experiences, and the elements in the dish in front of him.”

These inserts inspire the reader to think systematically about his or her creative process in whatever field they work in.  Not to control everything down to the tiniest detail, but rather to try to cultivate a sense of order over what is potentially an endless universe of flavor (or sound, or texture, or color, or textual) combinations made possible through transformative techniques.  A Day at elBulli chronicles that sense of possibility by documenting how experience is organized at a most singular restaurant.

Brian Eno on Improvisation, Computers and Music

One of the reasons why musician and producer Brian Eno’s words are worth reading is that he often has timely things to say about music and says them in a way that makes sense and makes you pause and think.  In a recent Pitchfork interview (my second Pitchfork-related post in a week), Eno discusses strategies for improvisation and the impact of computers on music making.  Below are some excerpts from the interview.

Eno describes various strategies he used to constrain and compel group improvisations for his recent release, Small Craft On A Milk Sea (Warp 2010):

“And some of the other structuring ideas are completely conceptual in the sense that I might say, ‘Imagine it’s the year 2064 and all digital music has been destroyed in a huge digital accident, an
electromagnetic pulse or something like that.  So, all we know about the music between 2010 or 2030 is hearsay. There don’t exist any recordings.  We’ve read about a kind of music that existed in the suburbs of Shanghai in 2015 to 2018, and this music was played on’–then you specify a group of instruments– ‘was played on, say, industrial tools, such as steel hammers, and augmented with samplers and various electronic versions of some Chinese instruments.  And it was intensely repetitive and played at ear-splitting volume,’ for example. So, we then…try to imagine what that music would be like, and we try to make it.”

And here Eno discusses making music with computers and the potential of new musical controllers:

“I think we’re sort of deep in the grid period of making music– well, we’re probably emerging from it a little bit now, I would say.  You know how eras always have a sound to them and you don’t realize it
until the era has gone?…You can hear the profile of a sound, in retrospect, so much more clearly than you did at the time.  And I think one of the things that’s going to be nauseatingly characteristic about so much music of now is its glossy production values and its griddedness, the tightness of the way everything is locked together.”

“It’s very interesting, to me, to be reminded… that there was a time when things were not that tight.  And we’re going through this super-uptight era, which I think comes entirely from literacy, actually.  It’s the result of machines that were designed as word processors being used for making music.  Because that’s what we’re doing, after all.  All the programs we’re using started their lives, really, as word processing programs and the concepts that typify word processing, like ‘cut and paste,’ ‘change typeface’…”

“The idea that the computer is a completely neutral device that doesn’t have a personality of its own and just liberates you to do anything you want–it’s complete cock.  You just make different music on a computer.  And you can make wonderful music on a computer, but don’t pretend that the machinery is transparent.  It makes as much difference to what you’re doing as it does if you play an acoustic
guitar as opposed to a kettledrum.  You’re not going to make the same music.”

“In terms of what has been happening recently, there have been, I think, some really interesting new instruments that have come out that sort of show me the direction of the future.  Korg has…a whole series now of these things called Kaoss Pads. They’re wonderful because they do get your muscles working again.  And what DJs do, of course, with their DJ turntables now, the CD turntables, which have pitch change and speed change and everything else.  They’re doing something that I think is interestingly physical.  Then…there’s another Korg instrument called the Wavedrum, which is a great, great instrument.”

“So, there is a sort of convergence starting to happen between the computer and musical instruments, but it’s still quite a long way off.  Basically, you’re still sitting there using just the muscles of your
hand, really.  Of one hand, actually.  It’s another example of the transfer of literacy to making music because the assumption is that everything important is happening in your head; the muscles are there
simply to serve the head.  But that isn’t how traditional players work at all; musicians know that their muscles have a lot of stuff going on as well.  They’re using their whole body to make music, in fact.
Whereas it’s quite clear that if the interface between you and a computer is a mouse, then everything of interest that happens must be happening in your head.  It’s a big step backwards, I think.  It’s back
to the biggest problem with classical music, which is [that] it’s head music. It doesn’t emanate from anything below the shoulders, basically.”

“We’ve had [years] of evolution to develop this incredibly fine set of muscles, which can do the most extraordinary, delicate things and which have their own memories and so on.  And then we fucking well discard it all; it seems completely stupid to me.  And also, I think, if you spend a day or– as many people do– a life working only with that aspect of your being, the cerebrum connected to a finger, I feel
that the rest of you atrophies, essentially.  It’s all wasted, and it feels wasted.  You feel dead.  You feel as if you’re not living a full life.  Which, of course, is why–it’s my theory about why so many people who are heavily into computers are also into extreme sports…It’s because their bodies are crying out for some kind of action.”

You can read the full interview here.