On The Beyond Digital Morocco Project

Over the past few weeks I discussed two examples of sound collecting in West Africa.  The first was the Digging 4 Gold project, the second was the Music From Saharan Cellphones project.  While these projects are not without their problems–foremost among which is the question of whether or not any of recorded musicians will ever be compensated for their work–they do go some way to circulate sounds from one part of our big world to other parts.  Clearly, new ways to “release” music are evolving all the time.

Over at DJ Jace Clayton’s mudd up! blog, we learn about an interesting fieldwork project that is slated to happen this summer.  Clayton and a small crew are headed to Marrakesh, Morocco, to explore how “creative adaptations of global digital technologies. . . are helping to transform youth culture and suggesting powerful alternatives to Western concepts of digital literacy.  One focus will be the use of technologies such as Auto-Tune in Berber folk music.  The goal of the Beyond Digital: Morocco project is to engage in a month-long art project with Marrakesh youth through teaching, collaboration, and documentation.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with this project as it looks like it could be a dialogue between musicians rather than just a taking of music . . .

You can watch a video about the project here.

On Music From Saharan Cellphones

I recently came across some interesting field recordings assembled by Christopher Kirkley, a music blogger who writes at sahelsounds.com.  Kirkley’s blog is about sound and music and his research interests include making recordings in the Sahel region of Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal.  The recordings in question are compiled on two releases, Music From Saharan Cellphones, Vol. 1 and 2.  What makes the releases (downloads) interesting is that Kirkley acquired the music from the MP3 memory cards of cellphones in the Kidal region of northern Mali through a casual process of trading music files with folks he met on the street. According to Kirkley, “the cellphone is such a fixture of west Africa. Everyone has a phone even in villages lacking reception.  They’re not just phones, they’re all-purpose media devices. In the west we maintain a repository of data on hard drives, in Sahel, the cellphone does the same thing.”  Contrary to some of the stories circulating around this project that describe it as derived from a collection of discarded cell phone memory cards (see for instance, a story in the Guardian here), Kirkley in fact copied tracks from other people’s phones, offering some country music in return: “In the effort of cultural exchange, I traded for a few Townes Van Zandt albums; we’ll see if they’ve survived next time I’m back in Kidal.”  Once Kirkley had a number of tracks, he put them onto cassette, which was then dubbed back into MP3, making for a low-fi chain of copying.  Observes Kirkley, “It’s a weird chain of analogue to digital to analogue to digital.”

You can download Volume 2 here.

If you do download these tracks, notice on Track 1, “Mdou – Niger” the heavy use of Auto-Tune on the voice.  Yes, you guessed right, Auto-Tune has made its way to the African Sahel.  (More about this in a later post.)

For some observers, the Music From Saharan Cellphones releases fill a “niche” in music releases from the African Sahel region.  Consider, for instance, this comment from Other Music (a wonderful record store in NYC) on another Kirkley-compiled release, Ishilan n-Tenere: Guitar music from the Western Sahel (Mississippi Records):

“Despite the ever-increasingly visibility and popularity of the guitar music of the African Sahel, its local context remains obscure.  Records by groups like Tinariwen, Tartit, and Etran Finatawa are prepared for export in well-appointed studios, and presented through the tourist-friendly Festival in the Desert and on the circuit of any number of Western “world music” showcases, but there’s been precious little presented of what’s listened and danced to in the poor neighborhoods, remote villages, and encampments of the Sahel.  Don’t get me wrong, the music made by the likes of Tinariwen is sublime but Ishilan N-Tenere is an exceedingly welcome addition to the catalog.”

Likewise, over at Pitchfork.com, Mark Richardson writes about Music From Saharan Cellphones in terms of “musical scarcity.”  For Richardson, Kikley has unearthed not simply some obscure tracks, but also a new way to ascribe value to what we listen to.  Simply put, if the compilations are unique and out there enough, they seem scarce and thus have value:

“In my world, this music is unheard and thus in its own way rare.  I don’t know what it is, or who made it, or when it was recorded.  I only have words like “Niger” and “AutoTune”, and otherwise I’m left with just sound.  No one else that I know has any idea what it is, not surprising considering how it was assembled and disseminated, so it seems more valuable.  Projects like Music From Saharan Cellphones Vol. 1 are satisfying at this moment because they create the illusion of scarcity.  Yes, I downloaded the tape from Megaupload, and you and a million other people could go there right now and do the same thing.  But the process of the tape, the lack of information, and the unusual origins of the music make it feel special…”

Digging4Gold: Record Collecting or Pilfered Music?

Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer traveling to West Africa in search of new soundworlds to capture and bring with you back home.  You’ve come equipped with a recording device and a mind open to cultural difference; in fact, you’re open to being changed by your encounters abroad “in the field”, as an anthropologist would call that space where they carry out ethnographic research.  In some ways, your trip does have the contours of field research, albeit in condensed form. For instance, your search for new soundworlds leads on you on local adventures and your life suddenly becomes entwined with people who actually live here. Even the spirit world is aroused by your presence (especially since you ran over an old woman by accident and she just may have put some kind curse on your research efforts), necessitating the pouring of libations and even the sacrifice of a small animal before good fortune bestows upon you permission to go ahead and pursue your sound collecting with a clear conscience.  This is sounding like one of those anthropological narratives where the author renders a social milieu in rich detail, in part to bring the reader into a lived world, and perhaps also to demonstrate the high stakes of the research and how difficult this cultural exploring can be.  Sounds fun though, right?

The scene I just described was in fact a synopsis of a short article I came upon called “Gold Mining In Ghana” at the tumblr site digging4gold.tumblr.com.  The “explorer” is a guy called Juan who has travelled to Ghana (Kumasi in particular) in search of old vinyl recordings of African popular music–Afro-funk, disco, High Life, etc.–from decades past.  He carries with him one of those portable turntables that plugs into the USB port on your computer, allowing the transfer of analog record grooves into digital files.  Juan is assisted by his local friend Lion, whose father is the one who suggested the libation pouring and animal sacrifice to clear the way to the pair’s successful hunt for rare vinyl.  And yes, Juan and Lion do indeed find some really cool, really obscure records that contain sounds that people back home have probably never heard of.  So far so good.

But at the end of the tumblr post, Juan says:

“Here’s a choice selection of some of the records we’ve acquired over the past few weeks.”

And then there’s a link to mediafire.com, and yes, dear reader, you can freely download (as I did) a dozen MP3 tracks collected by Juan in the field.  Vintage and obscure West African popular music for free.  Juan also includes a disclaimer:

“*Please note: All songs will be recorded by a portable turntable, converted into a lower bit rate (due to the slow connection while I’m on the road) and designed strictly for previewing purposes only.  In other words, All Sertato aficionados might be out of luck.”

I think this disclaimer is a little weak considering that the average music is listener is not an audiophile and probably can’t tell the difference between a lower bit rate recording and a higher one.  Also, the notion that listeners will download tracks just for “previewing” and later buy the real thing is unlikely.  (Further, in BMG vGonzalez, the defendant was charged with illegally downloading music from a peer-to-peer website.  The defendant tried to claim fair use claiming that they were merely sampling or previewing tracks in order to determine whether to legitimately purchase the tracks at a later date.  The court struck down this fair use defense claiming that one could not illegally download music even for previewing purposes even if it led to the bona fide purchase of the song.  In the age of iTunes, there are plenty of avenues to legitimately sample parts of songs without taking them wholesale.)  To put it plainly, most people just want free music for their iPods.  It doesn’t have to be top quality, just new stuff they can listen to.  Finally, downloaded music these days is often viewed as a virtually disposable commodity anyways, and for better or worse, Juan’s free offering of African rarities fills a niche in our listening habits.

I’m torn about this “release.” On the one hand, this is a great example of using the Internet to effortlessly spread the sounds of musics we might not otherwise have heard about.  On the other hand, many of the artists “discovered” by Juan have had their music released on record labels and you can still easily find their tracks and albums from recognized sources.  Spend a few minutes on iTunes, for instance, and you’ll find that the Senegalese Orchestre Baobab has releases on Stern’s Music, World Circuit and Nonesuch (and is currently touring and has a MySpace site!); Bunzu Sounds has releases on Luaka Bop; Dr. K Gyasi has music on Soundway Records (specifically, on the compilation Ghana Special – Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-81); Franklin Boukaka’s song (with Le Bucheron Africa) “Ata Ozali” is on a self-titled record (compiled in 2010 by Tamasha Corp. Ltd.); Ghanaian-Canadian musician Pat Thomas has an album called Mo Mme Menye (2008 Owusek Productions); Bunny Mack has an album called Let Me Love You (2008 Defected Records); Rwandan musician Matata’s song “Gimme Some Lovin'” is available on his album Feelin’ Funky (1994 President Records Ltd. London); and Ebo Taylor recently released a record called Love and Death (2010 Strut Records).

So what is the big deal here?  Why should we care about Juan’s vinyl finds when a lot of this music is already available to us from legit sources that may actually pay some of the artists? (Yes, most of the artists are still around!)  So: Go out there and buy some of this music (if you like it) and try to support the artists who make it and the labels that bring it to you.

But the story doesn’t quite end here.  I originally heard about Juan the vinyl collector via an enthusiastic Twitter post from actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (No, I don’t follow him on Twitter; the post was just brought to my attention!)  Here’s his pitch:

“My good friend from way back, Juan, has been adventuring around West Africa these days, looking for records.  Stupendous badass.  This guy’s been turning me on to good music since we were in high school.  At the bottom of this post, there’s a link to download fourteen beautiful, rocking, soulful songs he’s digitized from the vinyl he’s been collecting over there recently.”

Gordon-Levitt runs hitRECord.org, an online collaborative production company that allows filmmakers, actors, artists and musicians to work together on projects.  A lot of  hitRECord projects consist of artists remixing and juxtaposing one another’s work, and now I’m wondering why Gordon-Levitt would endorse his friend’s vinyl pilfering while he is so careful to remind hitRECord members that any content they upload for sharing/remixing must be their own?  Do you think Juan could get away with uploading to hitRECord.org some obscure vintage tracks of West African popular music?  (They might make a good soundtrack to someone’s short film.)
You can read the Gold Mining In Ghana post here.

Michael Chanan on “World Music”

Sometimes the best writing on music is done not by specialists, but rather by people who might be called generalists with a view and taste for the big issues that musical experience so often seems to frame.  The English documentary filmmaker, writer, and teacher Michael Chanan is someone I would consider to be such a generalist.  Chanan has written three critically incisive yet accessible books on music: Repeated Takes (1995), Musica Practica (1996), and From Handel To Hendrix (1999).  (In an earlier blog post of mine, I drew on Musica Practica in my discussion of how music has meaning.)  There is a link to Chanan’s website under the “Connections” section on the right side of this blog page.

One of the most stimulating parts of Repeated Takes, Chanan’s history of music and recording technology, is its brief final chapter, “Global Corporations and ‘World Music’.”  While numerous ethnomusicologists and musicologists have, since the 1990s, written articles and books on the topics of globalization and the circulation of musics through recordings, Chanan’s chapter remains a useful jumping off point, I think, for getting us to consider some important issues. Here, Chanan examines the impact of recording and recordings on the production and circulation of ‘world music’ and makes four points in particular that are worth repeated takes from us.

First, Chanan presents a bird’s-eye view of how recording has impacted almost all of our world’s musics:

“What goes on every day without drawing political attention to itself is the progressive transformation of the musics of different cultures which the market blindly throws into contact with each other” (176).

This leads to his second point, which is a description of the kinds of things that happen when different musics collide, so to speak, with one another in their recorded forms:

“Under the impact of electro-acoustic reproduction, musical cultures of every type develop new dynamics.  Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce independently, in musical revenge against technological alienation.”

Then Chanan starts to ask questions about what it means that the musics of different cultures come into contact with one another, and indeed, are changed by one another:

“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?”

“Is there any real exchange involved?”

And perhaps most pressingly:

“Is it changing our musical consciousness?”

The possible answers to these questions–which Chanan doesn’t presume to know–leads him back to his bird’s-eye view and a wondering aloud about the place of music (recorded or otherwise) in our lives.  He wonders about “which forms of music are signs of social health, and which are symptomatic of alienation, frustration and resentment” and if music–through its global circulation on recordings–“is becoming denuded or truly being democratized?” (177).

At the very least, this is the kind of writing that makes you take a moment to think about your own mediated listening practices and about how you use music and how it seems to affect you.