"Well, there's this Romanian stuff that's quite good..."

Well, it was inevitable I guess.

I went to the village market to try to buy some Hungarian gypsy disco and the heavily made up roma woman selling pirated CDs recommended me some Nicolae Guta.

To be honest she probably has better taste. Still, when I get back, I'll do some posting about Bodi Guszti's roma star parade.


Some vinyl off a flea market, today

I'm in Hungary at one of the worst internet cafés in history so I'll keep it short. I've bought up a pile of records at the flea market in Budapest, no idea if most of them are good or not but I hope. Maybe someone with better insight can ident and/or judge their quality for me?

MIKI - Jól nézünk MIKI (Seems to be some sort of breakdance/electro record. Exciting!)
Modern Hungaria - Szív, zene, szerelem (A discoish record by the same dude as the above, plus wonderfully named duo Plexi & Frutti)
Kovács Kati - Kovács Kati Tíz (This I know to be quality)
Neoton Familia - Neoton Familia (A classic of prole-pacifying disco)
R-GO - Szeretlek is + nem is (No idea, can't watch the video)
Hungaria - Hotel Menthol (Same as above. Fenyő Miklós seems to figure a lot in state Pepita releases)
Első Emelet - Első Emelet 1 (No idea again. Looks new wavy)

I probably should have researched more beforehand.


Those Mysterious Magyars + Blog Break

I'm mystified by one of my own peoples, the Hungarians. Why does their music suck so bad?

I mean, the country is surrounded by more-or-less interesting local pop genres. The Romanians of course have the awesome manele. The Serbians and Croatians have turbofolk, which is also interesting. The Bulgarians have chalga. The Poles at least used to have disco polo, though it's dying down a bit now, and currently have one of the most distinctive hip-hop scenes in Europe. Even German schlagerfox is okay.

But Hungary? What's up with my beloved Hungary?

Hungarian music is just generally god-awfully produced and god knows why. I'll spare you the straight-out-of-the-textbook pop and the frankly embarrassing hip-hop and go straight for the more working-class genres.

A typical Hungarian "folklore" pop song creation seems to be something like this: Take a popular song from before the rock era, tack on a really predictable house beat out of the demo bank of your keyboard, record a comedy video, and presto, a hit! Fekete Pákós hit from my previous post is fairly typical too; it's all like something straight out of The Manual. I don't mind this kind of simple superimposition of one type of music onto another, it is usually an important step in the development of coherent styles, but a little bit of imaginativeness wouldn't hurt. Or at least trying something a bit contemporary, like Alexander Marcus is doing in Germany.

You'd think the roma, Hungary's biggest minority group would be able to add something interesting with their massive musical heritage. Except it's possibly even more keyboardy and ill-produced. This video actually got a bit of blog attention recently (god knows how he got hold of it) and it's fairly typical of the Hungarian gypsy style - it all sounds like it's coming out of a cover band at a third-rate restaurant. The faster material is okay, I guess, but still doesn't hold a candle to its balkanic counterpart.

It's all a bit perverse because Hungary had one of the strongest pop scenes in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Especially in the eighties they had some damned brilliant material, from some totally modern-sounding eurodancepop to characteristic synth tracks. Depeche Mode used to be the biggest foreign act in Hungary for ages. You'd never guess that today.

I'm off to Hungary myself for a two-week holiday with no internet access starting on Tuesday, so any posts will be sporadic from internet cafés if at all. During my stay I honestly intend to delve deeper into Hungarian music to see if I can find anything recent of value, and barring that a pile of good-quality eighties vinyl. I'm hopeful for both and will post the results on my return.


Genre of the Week: Rigsar

Ancient kingdoms, inaccessible mountain passes, breathtaking nature, fruityloops riddims.

Yup, we're talking Bhutanese pop music here. I know that sounds like I'm perilously close to the slippery slope that leads to ideological death by Throat-Singing Tibetan Monks, but actually it's really good stuff. If nothing else then more interesting, certainly, than what's across the border in China, or the himalayan regions of India, or in Nepal. Bloody commercial Nepal. :)

At a very basic level rigsar is a great study in the effects of cultural isolation and yawning awakening. Bhutan might be one of the most remote countries on earth, with strictly regulated foreign influence and few tourists, strange archaic systems of conduct and strong, nationalist integration policies. Throughout the seventies and eighties it practically lived and breathed "traditional values" and as late as the end of the nineties both television and the internet was banned. Lately, reforms have opened up the country immensely, with a 2005 constitutional change leading to the (apparently "shocking") gradual introduction of democracy. And so the music industry has flourished, with over 140 albums released in the last decade and dozens of recording studios. Good show for a country of half a million citizens!

Of course, there's another side of the picture too. Bhutan is surrounded on all sides by highly professional, powerful music industries (China, India, Nepal) and it was inevitable it was going to be influenced, whether it wanted to or not. (Usually not. Try to find a single source on Bhutan that doesn't mention "traditional Bhutanese values".) In fact, this is how rigsar got started - with a cover of Bollywood classic "Sayonara" in the sixties; rigsar inevitably implying an indian influence. (Much like indoprepi or chutney.) It took well into the eighties before it became a proper, broadly-avaliable style and into the nineties before there was a proper music industry, so in any case we're honestly talking about a country fumbling to find its place and sound among the neighbours. The VCD tracks I'm linking to here are all very recent, the technology didn't exist until a few years ago.

You'd think it would inevitably end up as a pale copy of something. Instead, it's endearingly simple - just listen to this great track:

It's just a rhythm track, a drone-like synth line, a very basic chord progression and the melody of some filmi track or other. The metaphor, at least sound-wise, seems to be "band" (like in Indonesian, Thai and Nepali music) rather than "orchestra" (like in India and China), and the value is very clearly pop-like rather than anything deeper. (Inevitably annoying a whole generation/class, like most other pop genres.) For a country whose traditional music is patently unmetered and lacking in percussion, the rhythms can be quite interesting and complex too - triple meter, weird syncopations, etc. etc.

You know what it reminds me a bit of? Sebastien Tellier. The very simplest music of the newly awakened mountain yokels who've never made pop before, equivalent to the most decadent, ironic continental avant-garde. The gods must be laughing somewhere.

Actually, by Bhutanese standards, rigsar is fairly avant-garde too (this article is a great, though prejudiced source). It's certainly breaking down a lot of previously forbidden barriers, promoting minority languages like sharchop and, in the end, bringing in foreigners. For now they're respectful ones, like the South Indian teacher who's hit it big with "Khu Khu Khu", but you have to wonder how long the marvellous isolation and naïveté of the mountain kingdom will last once the proper foreign co-operations set in. But maybe they're just quirky enough a people to push themselves ahead then, too.


Tok Tok Heel

I honestly want to make my big post on Bhutanese pop music but I don't have time at the moment. (You'll get to see: June will be a rather poor month for posts in general).

So I thought I'd throw in a video to keep your appetites whetted. Notice that sexuality is apparently universal and the interesting rhythmical emphasis of the upbeat, which occurs in a lot of rigsar music.

Kuenga Dorji - Tok Tok Heel


The Sincerest Form of Flattery

It doesn't matter where in the world, as long as the country or community is small enough. It doesn't matter who is the target, or who is the artist. It's always going to come with a scent of success.

I'm talking about artists who come in to a culture from abroad and try their absolute best to fit into it. Nothing, it seems, makes people happier than someone foreign paying attention to our scene, to our country, to our culture, and loving it to the extent of wanting to join in. Great recent example is MC Gringo in Brazil - he's really immersed himself in his host culture, studied it's forms, tried his hardest, and they love him for it. He may not get it, not completely, but his very effort is pride-inducing.

This pattern of the hard-working foreigner is surprisingly common. And it doesn't seem to matter who is receiving who.

Here in Sweden it's a few years since we had any serious contenders, mind. But we still talk about them to this day. In the early fifties pioneering black vocal group The Delta Rhythm Boys, famous for bridging the transition from smooth jazz and rough rhythm & blues, did a tour of Sweden and were persuaded to record a couple of Swedish popular songs. They struggled through them phonetically (they never learnt Swedish), but the recordings were an instant success and the Deltas returned again and again to record and tour here. The songs were always very popped-up, but people really leapt at these old favourites redone by a proper, American jazz group! Here's a typical number, here with an unusual translation included:

The Delta Rhythm Boys - 01 - Domaredansen.mp3 - The Delta Rhythm Boys

In the sixties another group (that you might have heard of) had a huge success with a re-recording of a traditional tune, again learned phonetically: The Osmond Brothers. Had they not gone on to a hugely successful career in their native US (as The Osmonds) they might have become the rock era answer to the Delta Rhythm Boys.

Since then Sweden hasn't really had a huge success in this vein but we have exported one, to Thailand of all places. Jonas Anderson came to the country as a child and fell in love with Lukthung, traditional thai country music. Eventually, he started performing in the idiom and has become an enormous star in Thailand, performing lukthung in the original language as well as he knows how. Some say he doesn't have the right feeling, it is a kind of pop-lukthung, but people still love his trying.

My other country, Hungary, has another recent addition to this crowd: Nigerian Oludayo Olapite, who performs housed-up traditional Hungarian "folklore" pop songs under the name Fekete Pákó ("Black Paulie"). Again, a huge success, and a major star in the Hungarian tabloids.

Unfortunately he presents himself as a bit of a buffoon figure, a self-propelled racial stereotype that leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. He's obviously very media-savvy and intelligent, but pretends not to be in order to get publicity, and his relationship with the tabloids is extremely self-destructive. For instance, this video where he seems to be praising Hitler and making prejudiced remarks about the roma got him enormous attention - only it was all staged and scripted beforehand. No wonder his relationship with the African diaspora in Hungary is very complex indeed.

This problematic last issue aside (and the related issues of representation and image in other similar examples), I still find this kind of cultural dedication (whether done for money or out of love) an interesting and encouraging practice. I'd love to hear of more similar examples!


R.I.P Bo Diddley

I don't usually do brief obit posts, but Bo Diddley links together so many of my interests - musical translations, driving minimalism, influential pioneering, a whole bunch of different musical styles - that I just have to drop a few lines. The man is the missing link between the Caribbean and The Smiths, and a monster influence of everything from punk to funk, with his immensely repetetitive progression-less guitar riffing. Hard to imagine much of the driving rock-type excercises without him.

Here's a video of a proper live performance of Mona, one of my stand-out favorites of his.


Hiplife: Swedish TV done good

I don't know what's going on with Swedish television lately, but this past few months they've been really cramming in reasonable-quality programming about the kind of third-world popular music I enjoy.

First there was Papa's Kappsäck, six 40-minute shows that were a touch silly and conservative, but good-natured and well-researched. I especially enjoyed the shows about Cambodian hip-hop and Asian underground connections in London and India. Then they showed (as only the second TV company in the world, apparently) Danish documentary Good Copy, Bad Copy, which has a great section on Brazilian tecnobrega business models and production.

Now, as part of Scandinavian co-production about music cities, they've done an informative and well-presented documentary about the current state of hiplife music in Accra. (Podcast, mostly in English. Should be plenty to interest international viewers too.) Much as I gripe about the rest of the series (which so far has only featured tiny, middle-class indie pop scenes from Mexico City to Reykjavik that all sound remarkably like Swedish indie pop) this was actually not bad at all. And they didn't fall for the temptation to include some old geezer from a previous generation as a roots alibi.

Heavily featured in the show was Tic Tac's novelty dance anthem Kangaroo, which apparently even spawned a goal gesture during the African cup of nations:

Is this a sign that the music we love is gaining more mainstream acceptance?