Genre of the Week: First Generation Ska Revival

This one annoys me. I guess many of you will have heard of ska. A supposed "revival" of this sound was done in the late seventies/early eighties, known as second wave ska revival. Then in the nineties there was a pop-punk-influenced third wave of ska revival. Do you spot the fucking gaping hole?

That's right, where on earth in this very common story (retold countless times) is the first wave of ska revival? A lot of people just slate over it and pretend second wave revival is in fact just "second wave ska", but the standard nomenclature suggests otherwise.

It would just be a meaningless quirk of music history if first wave ska revival didn't exist. But it does, however briefly and trivially.

In 1969, by then ailing ska legend Prince Buster released a rocksteady-tinged early reggae track called Big Five, a "slackness" (bawdy) cover of Brook Benton's Rainy Night In Georgia. It was a moderate hit among the skinheads, but Buster was unable to follow it up properly. So a previously unknown london night club bouncer named Alex Hughes stepped in and released a follow-up (Big Six) under the name Judge Dread, and had a substantially bigger hit with his version. Then he spent the rest of his surprisingly long career releasing a number of other novelty reggae tunes, including obvious re-follow-up (and substantially bigger hit) Big Seven and a cover of Je T'aime.

They all sound a lot more early reggae than ska but there was a lot of nomenclature confusion in the early seventies, and Prince Buster was (supposedly) a "ska" artist so Judge Dread got labelled one too. There are also some ska artefacts in his music, like the harmonic progression. And anyway, sounding much more early reggae than ska never hindered later ska revival artists.

Judge Dread is a crucial bridge in the seventies between the ska of the sixties and the "ska" of the eighties. These days he's occasionally lumped together with the (by then dying) skinhead reggae, and sometimes with the later second wave, but he stands all on his own as the bearer of tradition and as the first wave of ska revival.


The Conflation of Modes of Expression: A Continuing Trend for 2007

Time for my New Years' reflection.

This post stems from a conversation I had with a group of friends from my class a couple of months ago, and I've been meaning to blog it ever since. We were discussing the future of music and tried to point out trends that were coming for the future, touching on new forms of distribution and the related changes in music, on a potential for anti-music, on the rise of Japan as a musical center and a bunch of others. But one thing stood out as something we all could agree on from our vastly different backgrounds (punk/kraut, synth/goth, geekcore/metal and my, er, hip-hop/disco/reggae): we saw our genres' hardened limits of expression quickly being eroded.

At a certain point in the evolution and fragmentation of popular music, probably around the mid-seventies, strong instrument taboos appeared even outside folk and trad genres. Giorgio Moroder proudly claimed "only electronic keyboards were used on this recording" in his liner notes while heavy metal adopted a staunch, almost traditionalist anti-synthesizer stance. In commercial products the guitar's atmosphere and the keyboard's punch were mixed together, but the offending instrument was buried deep in the mix so as not to be too obvious.

As late as the 01/02 season this division into guitar-based music and computer-based music was fully intact. The trendy sounds of the moment were detroit garage rock with its distorted sweat-based creed and electroclash, detached and distant. Hip-hop was at a synthetic peak. Metal had brought out the turntables but the synths were still buried deep in the mix.

Today's situation is in complete contrast. Bands from every vaguely vital genre have seemingly abandoned all rules and are using strong, distinct, highly-mixed live instruments and equally distinct computer instruments together. The 06/07 season has seen bastion after bastion of self-contained music fall to the lure of combinatronics, and met little resistance from the fans that a half-decade ago would have spit on them.

To begin with, those good ol' trendy garage/electro sounds have completely crossed-over. A band like CSS fully merges both living guitars and robotic synths, while even a austensibly pure elctro band like Does It Offend You, Yeah can afford to add live rock'n'roll drums and put on a rocking live show. Old bands that fit the new "strong electro, strong garage" idiom, like Polysics, are suddenly becoming huge stars.

At the edges of metal, the music has turned a corner and suddenly bumped into IDM. 65 Days of Static can unproblematically use a whole bunch of glitch percussive sounds and bleeps. Every self-respecting avant-metal band uses at least a loop pedal but more likely all sorts of dirty synth sounds, like the very hip These Arms Are Snakes.

Over at the dance end, bands like The Presets, Cut Copy and Digitalism are going completely indie on us. Or just mixing little bits of guitar music in there. Last year's nu rave hype with bands like The Klaxons is obviously a flirtation the other way.

And then there's hip-hop where live instruments have been crashing in again after many years of being frowned upon. You don't even have to make them "sound like samples" à la Dr Dre, just party like a rock star and interweave guitar riffs to your heart's delight. With producers like The Runners or Montana Traxx, live instruments are turning up all over the mix and blurring indistinguishably from the synthesis.

I guess this development is a kind of fracturing, really, but the splinters are becoming so small it's all turning into a smear along the horizon from the vantage point of this quickly speeding train called music. The social divisions are still there, of course, and subcultures are in no danger of dying out, but it seems no-one is condemning any way of making music anymore. Whether that's a good or bad thing time will only tell, but this trend can only continue and deepen as we dive into 2008.


A Christmas Novelty and a Big Question

I was browisng through the 'tubes to see if I could find good christmas songs in various interesting genres. One of them was manele, at least sort of:

Now, a commenter helpfully informed me that the melody of that track is borrowed from the 1976 Bollywood classic Kabhi Kabhie:

Which is rather fun and makes sense in the Asia-obsessed world of manele. I quite understand why it was chosen, too - it's a very pretty melody, even when detached from its original context like this or when Nelly Futardo sings it.

There's definately something Indian about it too. I'm sure there are many connoiseurs of Indian music who would readily be able to analyse the melody and recognise its quality of "Indianness" even if it weren't for the fact that it's a known filmi track. In general, the melodic construction of indian popular music has, I hope, been well studied and I definately need to read up on the subject since it interests me a lot, a melody detached like this from its cultural context.

There's another side of the same issue though which interests me even more, and that's the Romanians' perception of Indianness. When Denisa and Florin Peste sit down and chose a song with Indian qualities, what is it they're actually hearing? And when they're creating a new track which they want to sound Indian, how do they construct the melody?

The concept of someone else's conception of a musical system fascinates me, and the Indian one is unusually widely spread. What do the Greeks, the Indonesians, the Tanzanians, the Guyanans see as Indian melodic structure? What do second-generation, culturally detached diasporadic immigrants in Britain and the US? What did the hippies in the 60s?

If I ever get around to doing higher-level research in this subject, that's definately a strong contender for something I'd consider studying.


Genre of the Week: Christmas Carols

I'm on christmas vacation in the north of Sweden (therefore the lack of posts this week), so what could be more appropriate than a rather older and more festive genre of popular music? I was originally going to do christmas pop songs, but the history of carols proved fascinating enough to do on their own, so I'm saving that one for next year.

So what's a christmas carol? A "carol" is a type of English secular song that has some sort of seasonal theme, starting in the middle ages but blossomming in the renaissance. They often have religious components but were not performed in church or at religious events. A lot of original carols still exist in print or manuscripts, especially from the late renaissance onwards, but precious few are still sung regularly. (The ones that do have usually moved into the church setting.) The practice died out with the puritan interregnum when festivities were banned.
No, a christmas carol isn't a real carol at all. It's a pastiche. Or a bowdlerised update. (Who would write a carol about slaying children today?) The vast majority are written during the romantic era of the 19th century, when fascination with folk history and early popular music was at its highest and most warped. With little attention to actual history (and a lot of attention to "grand traditions" and "morality"), the Victorians cut up, rewrote, nicked melodies, copied and parodied in order to create acceptable music for the young national spirit.

Take, I dunno, "Deck The Halls". It's hundreds of years old and has absolutely nothing to do with christmas originally (being a new year's song). In 1881 a new lyric was written by a man named J. P. McCaskey and suddenly it became a "traditional" christmas carol. "Ding Dong Merrily On High" is a few notches worse, with its ridiculous faux-mediaeval lyrics (from 1924!) and its melody stolen from a renaissance French dance book. "Good King Wencelas" is (funnily enough) Swedish originally, and a spring song at that, updated in 1850s by an english pastor.

Quite a few others, like "We Three Kings" or "O Holy Night", are original compositions. A few ("Joy To The World", "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing") are resecualrised hymns and probably the most "genuinely traditional" of the bunch. But practically none are actually carols...

So what's so special about the 19th century that has left these songs behind and imprinted them so deeply into tradition? This period is when a lot of today's christmas traditions first appeared, of course, like christmas trees and santa claus, but that just raises the futher question of why all the traditions seemingly originate here.

I think it's because this period of increased modernism and the accompanying industrial revolution was causally accompanied by a move towards secularisation - carols, trees and santas represent the establishment of a rival christmas tradition to that of the church. That might also explain why the new carols were based in spirit on the older secular tradition and not on the bountiful christmas tradition of church music.

Once our secular christmas tradition was established it seemingly became very hard to move. I've not found any frequently performed christmas carols written later than 1941. After that, everything carolesue has been classified as a christmas song, and that, dear children, is a different story entirely.

Merry Christmas everyone!


Music's top 10 most influential countries

Okay, I realise the ideas of "national" music and geographical bounding of music is probably fallacious. And that the concept of influence is extremely vague at best. But nevertheless I've often caught myself wondering: what countries in the world have had the greatest impact on today's popular music? And I mean that on a worldwide, decentralised basis, where Africa is the strict equivalent of Europe.

I think I've listened to a fair bit of the world's contemporary musical expressions, but obviously it's still a sisyphean task. So this will be my own subjective ranking based on guesswork and feel. Feel free to criticize it if you can think of any reasons to change the countries or the order.

1. The United States
For every obvious reason imaginable. The driving force behind every major worldwide genre from Blues and Jazz to Dance music and Hip-hop and the reference point for the very concept of "popular music" in just about the entire world. I'm not sure I need to delve deeper into this one. 2. Jamaica
Now it gets a tad more controversial. But if you count in the dancehall-derived reggaeton and its huge recent infleuce across the Latin world, I think it just edges it. That's obviously on top of being the main influence of most young popular music across Africa, very important in large parts of Asia, and a crucial background influence on both dance and hip-hop via dub and deejay toasting.

3. India
Now this one will take some explaining. Mostly it's this high because of its truly worldwide reach, just as the Indian diaspora is worldwide. Indian-tinged musics appear from the caribbean to indonesia and everywhere in between (across africa, the balkans, the middle east) and everywhere they feed back into the national traditions. Nothing else (except the western tradition) is so widely dispersed.

4. The United Kingdom
Obvious sparring partner for the United States throughout and a big part of worldwide commercial pop sounds, but the only truly british tradition to have a global reach is Heavy Metal.

5. Cuba
Mostly its influence lies in the past but much of what we think of as "latin" music originates from here.

6. Egypt
Main country in the extremely strong middle-eastern musical tradition which is important in african, asia and the balkans.

7. Japan
Okay, another controversial one as the music there is crap. But what would music stand today without the TR-808, the Technics turntable or the DX7?

8. The Democratic Republic of Congo
Soukous has been a huge influence on music throughout africa and the caribbean.

9. Germany
Two artists: Kraftwerk. Giorgio Moroder. Enough said.

10. France
Instrumental in the development of Zouk and a clear reference point for all Francophone countries.

Bubbling under:


Genre of the Week: Takeu

Sheer and beautiful with a punchy bite of euphoria. International and unplacable yet very closely linked to its place of birth. American, European, Indian, Arabic, Caribbean but very clearly African. Modern and danceable without clichéd masculinity. It's takeu, quite possibly the best of all the genres coming out of the incredible musical boiling pot in East Africa.

And it starts here. Mr Nice is East Africa's by far most popular performer, an R Kelly-type figure touring the world among adoring fans with a supposed 4000 dollar a night fee. In some ways, takeu is his style. He's its most high-profile performer, his albums are called things like "Takeu Style" and "T.A.K.E.U" and most prominently, he named the style - an acronym of the three principal countries in East Africa, TAnzania, KEnya and Uganda.

And indeed, you can feel the presence of all three countries in the music. Some stuff is clearly related to pan-regional trends, like the fascination with ragga, most convincingly realised in Uganda. You can also feel the influence of the last generation of regional styles, like taraab and musiki wa dansi.

But also, somehow, the best aspects of the music of all three countries have been combined in takeu. Ugandan artists, for instance, tend to be very good at sharp production both of fairly copyist material and of hotted up traditional fare. But the identity can sometimes be lost and that's not at all the case with the very feel-oriented takeu. Kenyan genge has an effortless pop sensibility and a great upbeat feel, but the production often tends towards being, well, just standard pop under a different name. Takeu certainly isn't.

Tanzania's bongo flava scene has of course dominated the region's music output for over a decade now and its synth carpets, melodic basslines and heavy top emphasis are significant contributors to the takeu sound. The Asian influences in bongo flava that I like so much are also noticable, and you can feel how bongo flava's thrust of innovation has been the spur that's driven takeu's. But this new genre has none of bongo flava's dourness and predictability, it's much more playful and dynamic. And of course, it has features (like that occasional deep sub bass and that epic euphoria) that seem to have sprung up on their own.

Takeu's performers come from all over the region. Tanzania provides a large portion, but some of the best are from Kenya, Uganda or even Burundi (!). Such a large spread means there's inevitably a lot of local innovation constantly taking place in the strangest of places, though the center of the style's popularity tends to be somewhere in northeastern Tanzania.

I've been trying to figure out why I like all these songs and I think there's something in the sentimental bigness of their approach that reminds me of the most euphoric period of 70s disco. I think a lot of local producers have latched onto this similarity (and that to the most epic dance sounds) and there's plenty of stuff in takeu that lies a lot closer to electronic dance music than to hip-hop:

It is perhaps this nature of takeu as East Africa's trance mixed with East Africa's R&B that means it's never going to have a major breakthrough outside its regional borders. Because no matter how brilliant, how modern, how innovative it is in terms of pop values, it doesn't have the booty-oriented starkness that is all the rage in hipster circles, nor the exoticality and oldness of traditional world music. Still, I firmly believe in these post-ironic age that there is a definite place for deleriously, innocently, euphorically happy music, and I sincerely hope that we will grow to embrace takeu as well.


One final thought on mapouka

So I (finally) got a response on my one post about something sexual, which probably goes to show that sex does indeed sell. And I think the fact that these are African girls shaking their behind hardly hurts either. There's plenty of examples of that kind of exotica titilating the white western middle class, from Paul Gaugin's paintings of nude Tahitians and contemporaneous depictions of harems to today's "Savage" pornography.

I think that helps to explain mapouka's rise to internet popularity and its descent into pornography. Doesn't this BBC News report linger a little too long on the "nude" aspects of the dance? Journalists have to sell copies too; anything with a sexual undertone will be put into the spotlight. (Especially in Britain!)

I'm wondering, does this apply to booty music as well as to booty dance? One of the first mentions of Brazilian baile funk in the mainstream western press was in a very similar story in The Independent, about a series of graphically depicted sexual acts including the infamous "chair dance" which in hindsight supposedly was just an urban legend... The sexual fantasy of the westerners entering into shallow-breathing myth.

Is part of the obsession recently with hard, sexualised, third-world genres a product of exotic titilation with their subjects?


More African dances

Since I actually got a response to my last post, I'm gonna make this week Africa week. Look out for a rather enjoyable genre of the week this weekend.

But to begin with I thought I'd see how many modern African dance types I could readily find on EastAfricanTube, the panafrican Juju Nation, plus international sites YouTube and Dailymotion. If nothing else, these genre names should give you an idea what to search for on the various sites if you want to find out more... All are fairly sedate (compared to mapouka) but inevitably involve females and/or males swinging their hips in a way that might be deemed inappropriate in an office environment.

Somali niiko:

Ivorian wolosso:

The inevitable coupé décalé (of which, by the way, at least a couple of others are novelty variants):

Cameroonian bikutsi:

The also inevitable (though brilliant) kuduro:


Kwaito (aka inevitable entry #3):

As far as I know Zimbabwean Urban Grooves doesn't have an official name for its dancing styles yet, but here's a video:


I'm sure there are many more and I'm just scratching the surface, please add more if you have any.


Dancing Clean and Dirty on EastAfricanTube

EastAfricanTube is one of my favourite YouTube clones, being totally superior in finding genge and Bongo flava videos. But it also has a great depository of dance videos that besides a "traditional dances" category is broadly divided into two sections: mapouka dance and Bongo dance.

Mapouka is the archetype of a risqué dance style (yes, even more so than perreo) and some of the videos featured on the site are definately not safe for work, bordering on the pornographic. Or, in some cases, blasting right through the border. Looking around the net (do, or rather don't do, a google image search), "mapouka" is well on its way towards becoming a code-word for pornography in general.

This kind of forbidden dance (literally forbidden in the Ivory Coast!) as a vehicle for youth rebellion is common throughout the history of music. The incredibly obscene waltz, the tango, ragtime, Elvis shaking his hips, Line dancing if you're Ian Paisley - all once subject of parental and social dissaproval and thus irresistable to perform. There's plenty of interesting things to look out when it comes to this socially rebellious kind of dancing, but right now I'm more fascinated by its opposite.

Where mapouka is dangerous, Bongo dance is extremely safe by african standards. "Bongo" is a nickname for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and one would expect a connection to bongo flava based on the name. Indeed, some of the videos that have made it into this category have fleeting connections to that style, but most are extremely sedate swahili dance music/musiki wa dansi of the old style.

In sharp contrast to the modern Coupe Decale used in mapouka videos the music is slow, light, controlled, high-end-oriented and conservative. The dancers, of mixed gender, are shown from the front and only swing their hips gently. Everyone dances alone or barely touching each other, salsa-style. Often, group choreography is involved. The performers are conventionally good-looking and the feel is generally rather boy-band.

It's fascinating to see social dance as a vehicle for conservatism and good family values as well as for change, especially seeing as the Bongo dance videos outnumber the mapouka ones by 2:1. The edgeless commercial alternative seemingly wins out even in a country like Tanzania with its quickly progressing music industry...


Genre of the Week: Eurocrunk

What do you do when your internet connection is broken and you have to blog the Genre of the Week from a public library computer with no sound in twenty minutes? You inevitably pick a genre that's brief enough to match the time. And that, bascially, will have to be a one-band genre.

Now, bands who try to name their own genre have always existed and some have been successful where others have failed. For instance, I see real possibilities for Bongo bhangra to succeed as there's no better way to describe the music coming out of Tanzanias indian community. Whereas "softgrass" (which I spotted off TV the other day) is just a vanity name for country pop.

Eurocrunk you can't be certain about. On the one hand, the american genre that gives it its name is pretty much gone, which means it should search for another name. On the other hand it seems to have established itself pretty well. Search for the term on Youtube and you get 28 different videos which is a decent start, and not all of them by french artists either! Plus it has a comprehensive last.fm page and a (small) french wikipedia entry.

Not so bad for a genre created a couple of years ago by a very small Swedish hip-hop band - Stacs of Stamina coined the term back in 2003. Since then it's spread to mostly the francophone world, where the band has many connections. To be perfectly honest, at this point there is little more to eurocrunk than a subset of the dirtiest dance sounds mixed with conbtemporary american hip-hop, but hey, what great genres haven't started out that way?


Radio's lost seventies

Sweden didn't have a baby boomer generation or a generation Jones. Our big birth periods are the early forties, during the war, and the late sixties/early seventies. And that makes this list of the most played songs on US radio incredibly fascinating to me from my Swedish perspective. I'm struck by just how much of the music never made it across here, and if it did it certainly doesn't get played on the radio these days.

Most of the music on the list, generally the oldies hits of the sixties and a lot of the eighties material, is obviously familiar to me. But it's interesting (considering how much I love music, and especially American music) that there's so much stuff from the Soft Rock side of the late sixties and early seventies that I've quite simply never heard of. I'm obviously missing out on huge chunks of American culture!

Already in the top five there's a song that I'm only very vaguely familiar with: Never My Love by The Association. I'm not sure if I've ever heard it before, and it's actually fairly good, slightly folk-rock, slightly Beach Boys. Apparently there's a whole (hugely successful) genre of "Sunshine Pop" that almost completely passed us Swedes by: Up, Up And Away by The Fifth Dimension is another top 25 song I've never heard of, what a totally psyched-out hippie track to make it that high up the list! It is about drugs isn't it?

The top 25 has some more unusual surprises: two astoundingly cringeworthy whitebread covers of soul classics Baby I Need Your Loving and (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher by some guy named Johnny Rivers and some woman named Rita Coolidge respectively. I thought that practice died out in the fifties? Apparently not! I'm also positively surprised at the inclusion of a song about masturbation in the top 25, but that one I've obviously heard before. Still great though!

The questions keep amassing as I go down the list. Like, who on earth are these clean-faced bozos?

Why does this obscure early soul track and this obscure soft soul track rate so highly? Why does this get played more than anything else Don Henley has ever been involved in? Who is Anne Murray? Matt Monro? Mason Williams? Eddie Rabbit? Bertie Higgins?

It also answers a couple of questions, like: Why did Carol Williams do a cover of More as her big number at Salsoul? The original was a huge hit! (It doesn't feature on Youtube, just like a surprising number of tracks on the list.) Why does the Monkees last hit Daydream Believer get played so much more in clubs than their other stuff? It's a radio favourite!

It's certainly been an interesting dig through lots of crap going down the list. But it's definitely been worth it to find the glimmers of gold. Who knew Brook Benton did such menacing Doo-Wop? The intensely weird Little River Band and the wonderfully weary-voiced Sammi Smith are two other acquaintances I'm definately looking to make again.


Genre of the Week: Power Pop


Usually it's a term that means that the music is merely great and possible to cover across generations. A lot of pop music aspires to it, the best stuff usually ends up there by accident.

But then there's music that's actually without a time - whose characteristic sound doesn't limit it or pin it to any one musical period. I guess country music fits but within the rock'n'roll idiom you'd be hard pressed to find something quite as universal as power pop.

Not only does it sound pretty much the same in 1971 and 1991, but in neither age does it feel conciously retro. There was never a power pop revival movement. (A few revitalisation movements, sure, but not a major gap followed by a historically accurate revival.) Nor does it feel outdated at either time, in fact I don't doubt a lot of people would identify the Teenage Fanclub sound as being typical early nineties just as The Raspberries are typical early seventies!

Of course, you could (trivially) say that the combination of sweet vocal harmonies and jangly Rickenbacker guitars (as borrowed off The Byrds) with the empty "power chords" (of The Who or The Small Faces) is a fairly natural one with the combination of sweetness and bite. But that doesn't explain why the sense of melody and chord progression suggested by those bands (and some Beatles songs) also survived in the power pop world for over twenty years, only being majorly influenced by other music some time in the mid nineties. Today, "power pop" sounds significantly different in many ways - mainly due to the influence of the closely related genre of pop punk, itself once clearly influenced by power pop.

But for most of it's history it's been almost too consistent. Starting out in the hands of The Raspberries and Badfinger in the early seventies as a kid of counterreaction to the heavier rock sounds and insipid pop of the time, it was quickly supplanted by the similarly hard-sweet glam in the UK and became a very clearly US-centered phenomenon. Then while those two originator bands were imploding in insipid commerciality and drug-fuelled suicide respectively, a series of awkward, off-the-map squares appeared to take on the reins.

In Memphis, Tennesee, gawky former child star Alex Chilton and his band Big Star created perfect little pop symphonies to practically no audience. In Berkeley, California, a bunch of bands on the tiny Beserkley label (including the increasingly weird Jonathan Richman,
the well-haired Rubinoos and the puntastic Greg Kihn) barely charted despite some of the sweetest pop ever created. Virginia foursome Brat became Artful Dodger and struggled in vain on a bad major deal and folded below a non-comprehending audience. A group called Cheap Trick consisting of a fat man with a moustache, a silly-hatted guitarist, a fair-haired girly man and a ludicruous 18-string bassist didn't chart anywhere but in Japan.

But then suddenly the genre, still sounding pretty much the same, broke through commercially. With the advent of New Wave, it was suddenly hip to be square. Cheap Trick was probably first (with live classic "At Budokan"), but The Knack's My Sharona was probably the biggest hit. If you feel that's a touch too New Wave, listen to one of their other songs:

That coupled with other hits by great groups like the dB's, Nick Lowe, The Records, The Romantics etc. created what's seemingly one of the greatest period combining good music with commercial viability in history. Strangely, this period barely had time to die through overproduction before it got a new shot in the arm through bands like the aforementioned Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Material Issue and the Posies, and that carried it into the nineties. Still not really cool, but this time helped by a new sweet-and-hard genre, indie rock...

It's so interesting to see how the genre has always had a fruitful relationship with other softish, sensitive lower-middle-class white male genres, influencing and being influenced by glam, new wave, indie and pop punk in turn. Power pop has always run through as a universal streak and now it's turning up again in bands like The New Pornographers and Babyshambles. Perhaps the answer as to why the sound stays the same is that it's actually truly timeless, buried deep down in the collective conciousness and always sounding fresh because it's always the sound of the young, awkward, slightly feminine boy whose image is deeply ingrained in our minds.



I think it's interesting when a word within a fairly limited field like music takes on two totally distinct meanings. "Break", for instance, means totally opposite things in 20s jazz and 70s funk - is it when the bass and percussion briefly stop playing, or when all instruments except the bass and percussion stop playing, often for an extended period? It goes to show just how diverse music is, how much thought is put into its terminology and how many different influences it has.

This post is about another of those dualities, albeit a considerably subtler one: the two distinct meanings of the word "minimalism" in popular music. Neither messes with tonality and both work towards some sort of reduction, but beyond that they're very different.

The first meaning comes from descriptions of popular music. "Minimalism" in this case involves the reduction of the number of tracks, the simplification and "cleaning up" of timbre and melody, the removal of traditional harmony and progression, quite simply the creation of as reduced a pop track as possible. Something along the lines of Laffy Taffy by D4L, striving towards bouncy rhythmicality and tiny, economical hooks.

This type of minimalism is very consistent with the development of popular music as a whole for the past 40-odd years. Going back as far as the mid-sixties we see attempts to conciously reduce the complexity of music as much as possible to increase impact. Twine Time by Alvin Cash and the Crawlers has (almost!) no harmonic progression, James Brown's Cold Sweat also removes the melody instrument. And then we've basically got funk, which gets increasingly simpler for the next decade before culminating in something like this. Meanwhile the English, the Jamaicans and, slightly bizzarely, The Welsh were adding their influences and it's basically flowed on from there.

The other type of minimalism is a transculturation from contemporary classical music. Here, "minimalist" music retains its complex timbre, has big harmonics and complicated melodies. These are all very important elements of classical music. Instead, it is reduced by having a section repeat over and over again, possibly with a series of permutations or small additions. There's no conventional structure. It also tends to be a bit detached and not so grandoise. Phillip Glass's Strung Out would be a fairly typical minimalist composition. Or Terry Riley's In C.

This type of minimalism tends to square less well with pop's simplicity and heavy structuring and the examples of popular music that completely embrace this minimalism are certainly much fewer. The obvious one is the band Polyrock:

But that was produced by Phillip Glass so that's kinda cheating. Then there's genres that are explicitly labeled as "minimal", they tend to tap into this type of minimalism too. Like minimal house/microhouse. Or minimal techno. The influence appears in certain post-rock bands but not in others. Same with other post-rock-derived styles. Or with good old krautrock. You can find some indie electronica with definite minimalist influences.

But I guess since minimalist classical music was influenced by rock in the first place a lot of the stuff you could consider this type of minimalism might just be correlated. Is an endless James Brown workout minimal? Is a repeated sample? Is a hip-hop instrumental in general? Heck, is Laffy Taffy? And round and round we go...


Esoteric research methods #2: Wikipedia vandals

This one is a little bit related to the last ERM. It's also about people trying to push through a message, a self-promotion, in the entirely wrong place. The difference is that here, they're earnestly to make it appear to be pure fact.

Wikipedia's 2 million plus articles and completely free editing aren't the easiest thing to police in the world. There's plenty of examples of people putting up a page about their own obscure little band, or just linking to their myspace page from the article of a bigger band or genre. However, these usually dissapear fairly quickly, as they tend to be fairly straightforward to spot.

For longer-lasting self-promotion, a clever Wikipedia vandal will tap into wikipedia's vast web of genres and post their own genre. Being less obviously based on notoriety, genres are much more difficult to disprove and tend to stay up much longer. And maybe, just maybe, one of them is hiding the next big thing...

The gold standard example of a successful genre placement is the "local scandinavian" (in reality, one group of friends) genre of skweee. Not only has the genre page been up for a year, but they've managed to keep a reference on the page of much more notable genre electro for almost as long! I'm sure I'm not the only one who's discovered Skweee (what a fucking stupid name, btw) this way. It's not bad stuff, and might well stay on Wikipedia as it seems to stand a decent chance to breach noteriety. Ironic - Wikipedia writing music history instead of describing it!

There are a few others that probably stand a smaller chance. Genres with tiny stub pages and few links to them like thizz, birdcore or Brick City club (and that's just from the genres of hip hop page) will probably be edited out eventually unless someone rewrites them better. But they still last longer than those pure band pages!

Finally, another sly way of self-promotion on Wikipedia: this map is prominently located on the hip hop of the United States page and includes at least one genre too obscure to have a Wikipedia article that has stayed up! The "Bamabounce" music that's created by seemingly just one person (the annoyingly named DJ (7)+->) and possibly one of his friends is way obscure (plus it's just bmore, really) but nevertheless it's managed to place itself in a considerably more illustrious circle...

Update: This page of "music genre stubs" (short articles describing music genres, often automatically labelled) is a great source for finding tentatively launched genre labels, trying to get into the mainstream discourse. A few of them will make it (heck, a few of them don't belong there at all, they should have proper length pieces) but many of these labels will inevitably dissapear. Catch them before they're gone!


Genre of the Week: Hi-NRG

Most advances in electronic dance music have been made by either homosexuals or total freak-out technogeeks. Gays have driven dance music on in the clubs and geeks in the backrooms and bedrooms, and while many pioneers have been both the flamboyance and the social ineptitude have tended to tone down each other.

Not in Hi-NRG though. There most of the main players were both flaming homos and introveted knob-fiddling nerds.

Take Ian Levine. A key player in the mainstream popularisation of the genre, he brought Hi-NRG into England a few years into the eighties, produced the genre-cementing "High Energy" by Evelyn Thomas, and has consistently been the main advocate of the genre to this day. On the one hand, he was a complete burning shirtlifter, producing videos like this great one below where the highly masculinised Miquel (pronounced Michael) Brown romps around in a room of heaving torsos singing about one night stands:

But he is also one of the world's most infamous science fiction geeks with an unhealthy and ascerbic obsession with british TV series Dr Who, as well as a major comic book collector who supposedly owns every DC comic ever printed.

The music Levine had brought across to the UK soon became an important factor in the country's clublife and hit the charts big time before being retooled into mainstream pop with the addition of guitars and bubblegum harmonies by HDH wannabies SAW and consequently dissapearing in the underground in favour of new sounds. The once almost completely American genre of Hi-NRG ended up dying in the same continent it had once been born in.

Giorgio Moroder was a highly over-coiffed novelty bubblegum producer who easily fits the "gay and geek" model as this video clearly demonstrates. Somehow, for a few years in the late seventies, he managed to become one of the most innovative producers in the world and his increasingly electronic disco productions were hugely influential. Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" is the obvious starting point for Hi-NRG with its arpeggiated staccato melody, pulsating rhythm and disco sensibility, and Giorgio's solo material goes one step futher to create almost perfect electronic pop songs. (They don't have Hi-NRG's typical wavering bass line yet. Contemporary instrumental hit "Magic Fly" by Space does, though.)

It was another gay geek who brought the increasing flora of electronic disco songs together into a consistent genre, and that happened almost 10 000 km away from Munich. San Francisco's Patrick Cowley was a technological wizard who twiddled the knobs (Giorgio-style) on Sylvester's best records as a studio musician before producing a series of excellent solo singles in the first few years of the eighties, probably the best ones the genre has ever seen. Then in 1982 he started hosting the infamous Menergy night and the EndUp where he brought together all manner of electronic disco and pretty much created Hi-NRG as a concrete genre. In hindsight, 1979 obscurity "The Ultimate Warlord" by The Immortals (how geeky is that title?) was probably the first song to fit perfectly into his format.

Unfortunately, Cowley died (of the new disease, RIP) later that year and couldn't produce many records. The task of popularising the genre fully instead fell on a man who was (exception that proves the rule) very cool indeed - Bobby "O" Orlando, a New York producer who might have been one of history's most prolific. His hits with dozens of throwaway bands like The Flirts have that complete Hi-NRG sound with all the chaff stripped away, perfectly adapted to the charts and the dancefloor. If you feel a Pet Shop Boys vibe in some of his material it's because he was their main inspiration musically and even produced their first single...

On top of that Hi-NRG was obviously a major influence on the more evolved and disco-divorced italo, discofox and latin freestyle, and I kinda doubt Africa Bambaataa was unaware of it when he created "Planet Rock". It's also, at least initially, one of those great wavering uncertain genres that signal there's real creativity going on. But it's left precious little impact in the history books, because the parallel development of equally disco-derived dance and garage music became such a much more significant influence on house, and by extension all electronic dance music since.

It's a pity, because at its best moments the swirling, primitive, polyphonic sounds of the best Hi-NRG is right up there with the best of music. Hopefully the vogue for primitive synths we've seen recently might mean Hi-NRG will also get a little bit of an upswing.


Selling in: Musical Gentrification and Its Effects

A frequent concept in the lay history of popular music, as it exists, is the idea of going mainstream. A musical genre is dislodged from its original community (a subculture or a high-culture setting) and enters a broad, generally well-known and generally well-liked central stream in the world of information, being frequently featured in all media. It reaches the lower-middle class and probably the working class, and in the process gets looked down upon and becomes uninteresting for the participants in the original subculture.

This certainly happens, and happens reasonably frequently. But it's perfectly possible, though significantly rarer, for the opposite to happen - for a broadly working-class, declassé genre to become a hip cultural expression for the clever, upper-middle-class subculture, what Swedish magazine ODD at Large called the "sharp culture".

Think of it as a process of musical gentrification. Without passing through a middle-class, "mainstream" phase first (like happened with rock'n'roll), a contemporary working-class music becomes the musical expression of choice for a cultural elite. It is made possible entirely by separation - the lower middle-class shuns the musical products of the working class but the elite who never encounters them can well embrace it.

Nevertheless it is rare. Let's exclude "the tradition in Britain [...] of being interested in declining forms of Negro popular music" (Gillett) and other purist folkie roots-seeking, focussing only on contemporary moves. Let's also skip all the music stuck in the initial stages of (a) people being interested in the music and (b) people being the interpreters and distributors of the music and focus on the music that's actually become the music created by the sharp elite. Only a contemporary sublimation where the music goes from being created by the working class to being created by an elite.

I can only think of a small number of examples. Alt. country is a textbook one - a small, artistically inclined elite picks up totally contemporary working-class music and adapts its imagery, musical themes and methods of creation. Eurodisco, for a brief period before going completely mainstream, is a straightforward adaptation of contemporary African-American music by a european elite, admittedly via a New York one which, at the time, didn't create music itself. Currently, in Brazil, the highly elite "Não Funk" crowd with bands like Bonde Do Role and Edu K are busy taking the music of the favelas to the upper-middle-class suburbs.

And then there's the global ghettotech of Ghislain Poirier and MIA. I guess that's a fairly good example as well, despite (or perhaps because?) of the great distance between the artists who have inspired and the artists who have taken it up.

I really wish I had a good reason to dislike this kind of music, because I mostly prefer the original stuff that inspires it, but I struggle to think of one. Unlike the "adaptation of declining styles" it doesn't necessarily slow down progress; in fact it can be highly innovative. Nor does it, being so narrow and all, usually have a major impact on the original scene, thus not destroying anything and just adding new music to the spectrum. Being artists themselves, the musicians act considerably less like interpreters/potential warpers, and only stand for their own music.

Nevertheless, I can see two potential effects that can be seen as negative. Firstly, it is quite possible as the disco example illustrates that the musical gentrification is only a stage towards the genre going mainstream. I'm not sure this is always a bad thing, but still. Secondly, it's perfectly possible for the "new" genre to totally block out the original's resources and media space, the new artists having the verbal ability and the participatory voice necessary to reach out better.

What do you think? Is "gentrified music" a good thing or a bad thing, and why?


Help identify a musical instrument

Can anyone identify the midi controller/synthesizer/whatever shaped like a bright turquoise clarinet that appears in this Manele video? (Closeup from the 2:17 mark.)

It's not a Saxxy or a USB Electronic Wind Instrument. Any other clues what it could be? It's fucking cool and I want one.


Esoteric research methods #1: Hackers and scriptkiddies

Under this heading I'll look at ways to find new music beyond the normal suggestions and links. This week I'm just gonna repost an anecdote I've told before to give you a taste of the type of thing I'll feature.

Back in April 2005 I was reading popular British tech news site The Register when I came across this story. Basically, a virus author had created a virus that wiped out all files of Manele music, an eastern-influenced pop genre from Romania, and the tech site thought it was interesting as an example of how virus writers can use the technology to bring personal vendettas. Me, I decided to look the genre of Manele up... and today it's one of my favourite types of music. :)

Practically any genre is worth looking up, but I say look out for the ones people hate. They're inevitably the ones that are the most interesting finds, because they tend to be more rebellious and more upsetting to middle-class bourgeois sensibilities.

(The Register does a great line on news that mention Balkan music as an aside apparently. Here's a story which just caught my eye a minute ago which lead me to look up Azis - totally quality Chalga! Note that he, too, is presented as controversial...)


Genre of the Week: Rhythm & Blues

"I don't understand why they call this new stuff R&B," a punk rock friend of mine once told me. "Isn't R&B meant to be stuff like The Who?"

Well, R&B can be The Who. It can, without breaking any genre rules, be Ne-Yo. The reason for this is that Rhythm & Blues is not a tenuously connected genre at all, but a supremely well-timed standardised description of a market segment that has managed to outlast pretty much every other. That's because it's not really a subcultural marker like Disco or Indie. It's a racial marker. R&B started out as a description for and still pretty much means only one thing: what are the African-Americans buying?

At least since the age of W.C. Handy record companies have known there was a potential market in selling records to blacks. Back in the jazz age of the roaring twenties these were usually catalogued as "race records", but marketing techniques progressed and by the time charts started to appear regularly during the war mildly less offensive terms like "sepia", "ebony", "harlem hit parade" and indeed "rhythm and blues" took over on the catalogue pages. In 1949 leading trade publication Billboard magazine picked the last term and since this pretty much coincided with when "race" records started going a little bit mainstream the term stuck. And how it stuck!

Right from the start there was no question of this being a genre in the regular sense of the word - it would include everything from bouncy dancehall blues to sweet vocal groups and gospel. The artists were mostly black originally, sure, but by the late fifties even that was no longer a factor. In 1959 over half of the records on the Rhythm & Blues charts were white! (In Britain, where they tend to take things too literally, they honestly thought it was a genre you could work out of. Therefore The Who etc.)

The term survived a brief "it's just the same as pop really" shut-down in the sixties (because tastes started diverging back). Then after the term "soul" took over the chart name in the mid sixties it returned to functioning as a collective term for the wildly diverse stylings of contemporary funk and soul. It was no stretch to apply the term to the newer sounds coming out in the eighties and once it had become that ingrained in the world of charts and radio formats it's no surprise it continues to this day.

A bigger mystery is why hip-hop was never included in the term. Billboard tried for a while (renaming the chart "black singes" in the eighties, sounds like a dating agency) but ultimately gave up and created a separate rap chart, eventually renaming the main chart "Hot R&B/Hip-hop Songs" as well. Some would say it's because the mainstream sounds of the R&B world in the eighties had such a radically different aesthetic to the hip-hop of the time the two markets were no longer compatible. But there was plenty of stuff that bridged the gap, like this wonderful Midnight Star track:

Teddy Riley, the producer credited with creating modern R&B, might well have been initially successful because he put the early recordings of his style, new jack swing, much closer to the better bits of the mainstream than to contemporary hip-hop, thus further cementing the difference between the styles. Still, his funkier sense of rhythm appealed enough to hip-hop audiences to cross over, and it certainly wasn't unheard of for the biggest hip-hop producers to do R&B on the side as an experiment. (Here's The Bomb Squad doing a Bell Biv DeVoe track.)

At this point comes a dichotomy in the historiography of R&B. Is it pointless to talk about R&B as a music separate from hip-hop past this point because they were fully integrated? Or was it the case that real, serious hip-hop producers never touch the genre because it was too feminine, leaving people like Babyface in charge? I've heard people advocate both, and obviously the truth lies in between.

It's not quite as simple as just pointing out that several high-profile hip-hop producers did R&B as well. For example, Puff Daddy's The Hitmen certainly did do R&B, but though the sound of their slower hip-hop releases would potentially make great R&B backing tracks to our modern ears, their R&B material nevertheless maintained the seemingly anachronistic stylings of new jack swing. So not the same style at all then? But other producers, like Organized Noize, practically contemporaneously did both hip-hop and R&B that sounded if not the same then fairly similar.

The issue is not a simple one, and a stylistic breakdown doesn't help. For example, there's no obvious G-funk R&B (except questionable belated entries) while there's plenty of bass R&B - and which is the supposedly more macho genre?

I'm not sure all this matters. Because in my mind there's a third possible option. Hip-hop might have scorned R&B or tried to influence it, but around 1996 it didn't matter anymore, because suddenly it was R&B that rushed far ahead of its plodding cousin.

Timbaland's sound, evolving very distinctly out of the very standard new jack swing of proteges Teddy Riley and DeVante Swing, was the hottest thing on the hip-hop scene in the late nineties. And since then, certainly, hip-hop and R&B have been on much more equal footing.

Maybe we're coming back to the position R&B started in where it was the big catch-all term for black music? Because now, absolutely, it's the same people that produce the best hip-hop and the best R&B.


That's My Swedishness And I Can't Take It Off

"My Cool" by Adam Tensta is not just one of the best Swedish singles this year but it also has a peculiar quality: It doesn't sound very Swedish. When I first saw it on TV I had no idea it was made by a Swede, and as far as I can tell on repeated viewings there is nothing in the song or the video that betrays its origins, short of the name Tensta.

You may not find it a particularly noteworthy achievement but musical Swedishness is something that's not very difficult to spot. Even when the language and looks are factored out, it's not hard (I think!) to tell that Arash is Swedish, that Chupa Chupa by El Medico is Swedish-produced or what tracks from the Eurovision Song Contest are written by Swedes.

Yes, I think I can safely hear when a track is Swedish. But I have no idea how. The only study I've seen on the subject is a decade old and centered around rockist music circa 1987, so no help there. Besides a specific factor there's the very real possibility it's just psychological self-deception and it's all in my imagination. Or, more likely, it's a tentative and multifaceted combination of timbre, mixing techniques, production sound, melodic fragments, typical harmonic progressions etc. etc. that's very hard to define. I would definately like to see someone try.

Along these lines, I think I've got a fairly decent feel for Danishness, Norwegianity and Hungarianity. Futhermore, I would hope I can often spot Americanness, Britishness and Jamaicanness, if more selectively. And obviously countries with very strong pop music cultures of their own, like India, Egypt and Turkey, have very distinct sounds one can easily spot. I'm sure you have a different set off countries you can tell music comes from.

One more thing: It's way more difficult to do this if the melody is snatched out of context. I've been listening to a lot of Romanian Manele and 60s Greek Laíko lately and they were both, in two distinct generations, influenced by precisely Arab, Indian and Turkish music. The melodies are often taken straight from the pop songs of those countries. But despite this I often have extreme difficulty telling where a particular melody has come from - stripped of clues from the vocals and production it's much more difficult than one might think.


I'm a Musical Anti-Miscegenationist

I've read quite a few critiques and commentaries of Sasha Frere-Jones's blogfamous article about the lack of intermixing of black and white music, but I haven't seen yet anyone disputing the central premise. Well, I do. I'd very much rather listen to the two extremes presented in Frere-Jones's discourse than the supposed mixture between them. I like alt. country and The Arcade Fire, just as I like very pure, very narrow hip-hop in the southern minimalist vein. Whereas I find the slightly overworked artfunkmetal of Frere-Jones's band kinda boring. In the same way, I much prefer both Frank Sinatra and Louis Jordan to Pat Boone.

There are a myriad of different ways music moves across cultural borders. Traditional ways, like borrowing musical elements and trying to copy the music of others. More contemporary ways, like sampling, remixing and versioning. They're all for part of processes and work within a cultural context - people trying to create as cool music as possible for themselves and their community. Borrowing based on what they themselves value.

Explicitly setting out to combine two styles of music is different. In many ways, it's considerably more modernist in approach. Whole styles, without their inherent cultural baggage, are reduced to a set of readily-identifiable attributes and supposed attitudes. Then they're combined, within the context of a modern, culturally cosmopolitan pop production. The underlying value is one of universalism - all music is one music and it's perfectly possible to combine them all temporarily without any mumbo-jumbo "process".

The problems with that kind of approach are pretty much the problems of modernism in general. The "cosmopolitan society" where such combinations can take place is very much a Eurocentric, middle-class western one. One modernist paradox, I guess, is that this universalism is itself very culturally specific - you very rarely see any attempts at specifically "crossover" music from anywhere other than the white west.

Even more pressing is the issue of power. Who decides what cultural content gets put in the crossover music? By what criteria do they do it? Who benefits from the results? There are some fairly harsh criticism one can make along these lines. Timothy D Taylor or countercultural mass-pseudonym "Hakim Bey" in the "synergy" quote near the bottom of this page has some fairly strong ones - it's inevitably the stronger (i.e. white) party that benefits and directs. However, by suggesting truly cross-cultural collaborations as the solution they're missing out on what's perhaps equally pertinent a question: Who is it for?

I think that's perhaps the cusp of this argument.

I can't imagine Frere-Jones's band Ui ever doing anything whose main audience is going to be in the black community. Nor can I see Johnny Clegg selling significant numbers in Soweto, or Zap Mama doing significant sales in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If the aim truly is to create "equal" music that reaches a middle ground, why doesn't the audience reflect this at all? The answer is that the music, like most music, is created for its own community, no matter how many "exotic" elements are brought in. Claiming anything else is disingenuous.

Society in the sixties when white kids brought out "black" music was one where the consumers were mostly white. Black music for white people. It was all mediated, becoming completely "white" music in the sense that it reflected only what the white customers wanted.

It's time for "artistic" modernist middle-class whites to acknowledge that the music that they make is directed to themselves. Then perhaps any pretense that what they're doing is anything other than white music is swept away. If they indeed love black music (and we're still allowed to, I hope) then there's plenty of real black music, made for a black community, for them to consume. And they do! For the first time since the late fifties, the main music consumed is similar across the black and white communities. And this time it's not white music, it's black music.

That, surely, is more wonderful for a lover of black music than any mixed music ever can be.