Hungary Pictures + MP3s

Sabina is finally back with my camera after a summer of travelling around Europe, so at last I'm able to upload my pictures from this year's Hungary trip. Split between the village where my parents' summer house is and frequent trips to Budapest, it was a short but pleasant diversion and I came back with nice memories, a bunch of pictures, two CDs and a dozen vinyl records.

Flickr Hungary photoset

With no MP3 player or radio along the soundtrack to our journey was the music coming from sources around us. An old accordion-player at a neighbour's house playing what sounded like strangely Mediterranean tunes. The house where The Doors was always played late at night. From the house attached to the doctor's office: hip-hop sampling M People's excellent version of Don't Look any Futher by Dennis Edwards. In Budapest: trendy but boring local acts like Yonderboi. At the weekly village market, surprising Manele.

But most of all, blasting out of cars everywhere: Bódi Guszti. Not only was his music heard all over the village and in deepest, most cosmopolitan Budapest, but it was what was immediately recommended to me by both the CD stalls at the market when I asked for interesting local pop music. So I gave in.

The music is best described, I guess, as gypsy disco - it's fairly broad european pop music with a distinct bent towards roma culture (with portions of songs in romani) and tacked on beats somewhere in the field between disco and trance/house/techno. Bodi Guszti is an artist, band leader, producer, impresario and label owner, and I've got two of his group-effort "Roma Sztárparádé" collections from which the following files are taken. Three are from the biggest hit album, Roma Sztárparádé 2, while the last is from the more techno-oriented and considerably less hit-filled Sztárparádé 3.

Bódi Guszti - Bulizz velünk (Zshare): Straightforward party tune (title means: "party with us") and probably the tune with the most recognisable "gypsy" flavour.

Notár Mary - Itt a piros hol a piros (Zshare): Mary is the young star (20 at the time of recording) of the Bódi family's stable. The title ("here's the red where's the red") refers to the classic street hustler game of "find the red card", similar to cup and ball. Here it's used as a metaphor for the singer's seductive powers, and it's interesting that the street hustler role which roma traditionally adopt is used as a positive marker.

Sárközy - Neked adom mindenem (Zshare): No, not the president of France, though maybe a relative. This one has a nice melody, a long romani section and a straightforward love message (title: "I give my everything to you").

Bódi Csaby - Ne Szeress (Zshare): This strangely soca-flavoured track by Guszti's son is highly moralistic, asking his beloved not to love him as she has cheated on him ("Don't love me/you gave someone else your heart finally/your soul/your body"). "Don't love me" is a great title I think.

I'm trying to put together a set up to digitalise tracks off vinyl, and once I've got that going I'm going to upload a whole bunch of eighties tracks from Hungary that are probably more interesting than that lot. But I still think there's a certain quality to the Bódi Guszti stuff beyond the cheesy melodies and beats...


Parties at the end of the record collection

For the past week I've been serendipitously included in the closed beta test of streaming service Spotify, which apparently my cousin's brother's friend works for. Essentially, it acts as an Itunes-lite media player, except instead of playing music files off your hard drive it streams any music you chose off its servers. I don't like it much, as software - it's hard to browse, there's no user-driven content, the advertising is too intrusive - but it pretty much does what it says on the tin and it's certainly replaced MP3s as the background music of my fiancées web browsing. If it was done properly, it could easily with time be the final death-knell for the digital music libraries we've all spent the past decade building up.

I've briefly talked about the end of archiving before, though others do it much more eloquently (link in Swedish) and that's certainly one of the effects. But right now I'm mostly curious how software like Spotify (or Deezer, or Jiwa) will affect the way people act at parties.
When I started going to parties in my teens a lot of the conversation would be sparked off the host's CD collection. People would occasionally go browse it, laugh at the compulsory Hanson album, and pick out some smart CD that would spark off some sort of connection with the host and hopefully other guests. The savvy party-goer might even bring their own mix CD which would then immediately be put on the stereo until someone (usually a metalhead or a mainstream pop person) got annoyed and changed it to something else. Now parties are usually run off a computer with an MP3 collection and the conversation tends to be a bit more limited. But it still can work along similar lines and people still sneak off to change it regularly, unless the host has made a "perfect party playlist" which is damned annoying.

But what's going to happen with Spotify? I can see it perfectly. Wise-asses in dick-waving contests will change the music to whatever they want to. The host's music taste will no longer matter and there will be no relation-building around the records. There's every Hanson album available, but the host hasn't picked them. There's no record shelf to browse in quiet moments. Not even an MP3 collection. Maybe it can still be fun, but the way it works is going to be totally different.

But then I've been to a couple of parties recently where we sat around playing records for each other and talking about music and record collections. And that was all on vinyl. Maybe the resurgence of communal vinyl can be read as a counter reaction to the Spotifys of this world? To travestly the song that just blipped past my Spotify playlist: in the wee small hours of the morning, that's when you miss records most of all.


Is great art automatically less racist?

Just a quick reflection.

Read in the newspaper the other day about the CinemAfrica festival here in Stockholm, where a spokesperson claimed they only showed films by African film-makers to get a "proper inside perspective". Then I watched a film that was clearly done from an outsider's perspective: Colors, Dennis Hopper's film about gang violence in Los Angeles. It wasn't very good. The characters were a bit simplistic (helped a bit by Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in leading roles as two partner cops), the plot thin and disjointed, and the portrayal of street gangs as far as I can tell inaccurate and simplified. I quit watching 2/3 through the film.

Jeff Chang claims most gang films, like The Warriors, Assault on Precinct 13 and Fort Apache, The Bronx, are fundamentally racist. I'm fairly sure he'd attack Colors as well - it's got a similar set up of one-dimensional gangsters, most black and Latino, attacking the protagonists, who are somewhat more fleshed out.

But I was thinking, what about The Wire? Everyone likes The Wire, which is (at least in part) a "gang tv series", and no-one claims it's racist. Sure, you say, in that all the gang members are complex, living and totally not dehumanised. And that's probably the difference. But isn't that quite simply a sign of good art? Could it be that high-quality art is, by virtue of its aesthetic qualities, somehow less racist?

I'm not really up on my classical aesthetics, but there's plenty of angles on The Wire that you can claim makes it a great piece of art. It's complex. It's subtle and refined. It brings out universal themes. It's got a deep humanist heart. Etc. etc. By contrast Colors is not very good art at all. Since by its form it's totally simplistic and one-dimensional, it's no surprise that the black characters are depicted as one-dimensional and defined by their ethnicity, making the film racist. Bad art is way easier to make racist than good art.

I'm sure there's plenty of examples of this kind of think in music, too, stuff that's actually just bad and insensitive and that becomes racist through just not being good art. But the only one I can think of straight off the bat is "Fattig Man Söker Efter Mat" by wonderful kooky eccentric Hans Edler, whose depiction of third-world life is fucking ridiculous, fucking simplistic, bad art, and quite a bit racist no matter how well-intentioned. Unfortunately I've not been able to track down a copy to post a link, but it's in Swedish anyway.

Anyone got any other ones? Or tracks rescued by being very good art indeed?


Little girl blues

That little-girl lip synch story has made quite a big splash in the news today, and for good reason. I can obviously totally see why the feminists are upset - again, a female (and this time even a child!) objectified for her looks! - but it's a bit strange that no-one really questions the main premise. What's a little girl doing singing at the olympics in the first place, in fact taking a huge central role?

Even allowing that they stole the idea completely from the incredibly tacky Sydney Opening ceremonies, it's hardly a coincidence that the little girl appeared in a propaganda pageant like this, or that she had to be "flawless". The little girl, in a role that's practically never ascribed to the little boy, has come to embody the idea of perfect pure-hearted innocence in all manner of media and propaganda types.

Hitler mostly used boys.

Yeah, sure, there are propaganda items for the Bund Deutcher Mädel, but in the context of Nazi Germany with its masculinity cult the propaganda items involving the Hitler Youth are considerably more plentyful. A large section of Triumph of the Will is devoted to it. But the role here for the boys is considerably different than little Lin Miaoke's. Even the youngest ones are taking an active part in pretending to be adult - they're all little soldiers. The Jungmädel may be trained primarily for motherhood (see link above) but the few times they appear there's no attempt to present them as "little mothers". (It would take Capitalism to go that far.)

Little girls are hardly part of Soviet propaganda either, though I did find this. No, it's in the liberal West the little girl is all-prevalent in all sorts of more-or-less propagandistic imagery, and always as an innocent. As an innocent poser of pure questions. (Note the boy, who is playing at being a little soldier.) As a victim. (On either side.) As the ultimate object we fear to lose, both then and now. (Well, okay, the latter has boys but the girl is the iconic one.)

Little girls are plenty more prevalent in popular music too compared to little boys.* Millie, who was eightieen but played at being a child. Lena Zavaroni. A million other talent show contestants, up to Bianca Ryan. Here in sweden, Alice Babs, again acting younger than her age. Here they might have "adult voices" but they're never presented as miniature adults (exception: Helen Shapiro); again the purity and innocence is vital for the appeal.

The madonna-whore complex, strongly fought against by feminists but originally posited by Freud, is probably at work here. Society strongly opposes anything that suggests sexualisation of little girls. (Much more so than of little boys, again, witness the attitudes towards sexual abuse by male and female teachers.) The pre-pubescent little girl, who doesn't have sexual feelings, is the ultimate "madonna" in a lot of ways, making the symbol just as destructive as any "whore"...

Maybe society should consider opposing anything that represents a little girl as "flawless" too.

* Except in hip-hop for some reason, where the boys prevail. Maybe it's a masculinity cult thing again. Or a reality thing - "innocence" is not a big hip-hop commodity.

P.S. With the hip-hop context in mind, try searching for "hitlerjugend girl" on Youtube. :-D


Isaac Hayes, Stax and Black Power

The recent death of Isaac Hayes has been reported in loads of blogs, but it seems the political aspect of his life has been a bit overlooked. The thing is, even though his political angle was far from controversial, I think it's interesting and well worth considering, even today. I might even have agreed with it.

Because it goes to the heart of the issue of race and cultural collaborations.

Stax records is legendary in part because it was the ultimate race-integrated collaboration. Its producers were defiantly cross-cultural, controversial during the tail-end of the segregationist era. Its house band, Booker T and the MGs, was perfectly 50/50 split between black and white musicians, with a black band leader. Everyone was working together and the result was some completely stunning work that ranks among the best soul of the 60s – not least on Isaac Hayes's production collaborations with David Porter. Isn't it marvellous to see the black Al Bell and Booker T Jones in that clip, perfectly gelling with the white Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunne? Doesn't that hit right at the spirit of Stax?

Isaac Hayes was the one who destroyed it.

Well, obviously, he wasn't alone. And although his lawsuit of the label in 1974 might have been the thing that pushed it over the edge of bankrupcy, the seeds of discord were sowed much earlier than that. When Al Bell took over half the label in 1970 Stax ended up splitting into separate camps, then falling apart altogether, along cracks that had started appearing several years earlier.

Because at some point in the late sixties Isaac Hayes started realising that the perfect race mix wasn't enough. He started asking questions like: who benefits from my music-making? Who earns the profits? Who, ultimately, decides? (This was around the time he was being most strongly hampered creatively by the rigid (though brilliant) "Stax Sound", so that probably has something to do with it.) Well, who made the profits, and who ultimately decided, were white people. No matter how independent and how "r&b" the label was, it was run by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. And with the widly successful tour of Europe in 1967, the market was also increasingly the white kids across the Atlantic.

Isaac Hayes started protesting. He wasn't going to be part of a pat, "race-blind" operation in the increasingly concious seventies. With new co-owner Al Bell (who was black) brought in and Jim Stewart and the white elements pushed out a few years later, Stax became a different company all together, one full of Black Power rhetoric. Maybe a change for the worse creatively, but I personally don't think Isaac Hayes was wrong in asking those questions.

Maybe there are some people who ought to still be asking them today.


Let's see some insightful analysis AROUND the music!

A comparison of the apocalyptic visions of T.S. Elliott and Cormac McCarthy. A harrowing tale of union rigging and horrendous work conditions in a cultural environment. An in depth discussion on the idea of "disruptive design", creativity intentionally hampered by limitations in order to create greatness. Conceptual procedural art. A discussion about gender and cultural budgets.

What snobbish literary journal am I describing? The July issue of video gaming magazine Super Play. Which is the best selling in Sweden for its subject, selling tons more than music magazines do.

Specialist magazines for other pop culture subjects have really been stepping up their game recently. I leafed through some in the library and found football mags about economics, larp mags about queer theory, skateboard mags about the concept of art. The question is, really, why isn't music writing pushing to catch up?

As I understand it, music journalism has a history of being fairly advanced. But to be honest, as long as I've been reading music mags it's been fairly tepid. Fan-oriented, full of meaningless "personality-establishing" interviews, occasional opinion pieces that deal purely with the actual music and the experience of listening to it. You don't get very much of the world around the music. This insularity worries me a bit - is there any other type of culture that should be open to deeper analysis as part of society? And why isn't it?

Is music too abstact to get decent reporting on the working conditions of musicians, and union issues? Even music creation articles tend to be very sketchy, perhaps because music writers don't tend to know the technicalities of musicianship, but equally likely because there's no tradition of this kind of writing.Why are there no "design principle" articles for music? Why are there no articles on music technology in fan-oriented music mags, only in specialist ones? I know I'd be interested.

Where are the big society-oriented questions? Where are the gender analyses of the music industry? "It's been done" you'd say, but why isn't it done more often, as a big source of new articles? And where are the articles dealing with culture around music, beyond just "look at this cool subculture"? Super Play have huge features on the music of video games, why are there no features on the visual (or something) aspects of music?

Let's face it, music journalism is the granddaddy of all pop culture journalism. But maybe this initial advantage has been wasted in our arrogance. If even video games magazines can effortlessly blend in deeper questions, why can't we?


Cooking and traditionalism

I've been involved in the past few days in an exchange over an article which has turned mondo unpleasant for all concerned, which I feel a bit responsible for (though it's escalated way beyond anything I had in mind). I've been trying to defend my world-view that rich white kids like myself should stick to making music that is culturally our own and/or relay the music of others, but honestly, all I've been able to think about is cooking.

Because when cooking, I'm either being very hypocritical or I've somehow been able to arrive at a totally different set of standards that seem to be in complete conflict with what I say about music. And I'm not sure I can decide which.

When cooking, I behave pretty much exactly as the article writer describes. I try to immerse myself in the culinary culture of a place, learning its "language" of correct ingredients, secrets of how to prepare them, traditional uses for food. I buy ghee and jerk sauce and kaffir lime leaves at specialist stores. I know, honestly, that I'll never get it completely right, but I try to make other people's food anyway. And I try to do it to perfection and with full understanding.

And while I'm right there in the exchange above defending white kids who make their own thing out of influences from elsewhere, there's nothing I detest more in cooking. "Cross-over" is the cooking equivalent of "global fusion" in music, and it totally sucks. It generally means just bringing "wacky ingredients" from foreign traditions into standard western cooking, so "Indo-French" cooking is quite simply French cooking with a few extra spices. (The two are totally incompatible generally, with nouvelle cuisine especially being totally anathema to a lot of the ideas of Indian cooking.)

It makes me wonder a bit how I'd react if it happened the other way, ie. the cooking equivalent of so-called nu whirl music. I can quite seem myself reacting with less enthusiasm than when cultures in the third world pick up modernity in music, because modernity in cooking has often been given very negative connotations. Anything non-traditional, "processed" is considered inferior in general by a lot of writers, and I kind of semi-subscribe to that, too. (Though I am fascinated by molecular gastronomy, I'm sure I'd be very questioning of an Indian chef using its techniques, fearing they'd been "lured by westernised cooking". Compare with how great I think it is if an Indian musician uses synths.)

One thing I generally celebrate in music is when a culture casually absorbs influences from another, with, say, Colombians making "African music". But do I like Europeanised Chinese fast food? Hell no. I'm even suspicious of stuff-like Indian Chinese cuisine, which is totally between two equals, but which still seems like a watered-down second-rate to me. I'm so much more a folkie in cooking than in music! And this is while realising that all cooking, like all music, is in a constant state of flux and that even interesting and complex, deeply cultural cuisines like the Anglo-Indian one have been developed in a clash between traditions, just like good music does... Yet somehow I can't agree to the same process today.

So, am I being a big fat hypocrite? Should I start embracing processed foods, especially the ones made in China or somewhere? Or is there an intellectual way out? I can't tell, myself.