What's an influence and how does it work anyway?

Scene: I'm in the studio of manele superstar producer Dan Bursuc. The big man hasn't woken up yet, but his arranger/songwriter/engineer (I would say "producer" but that's clearly Dan) is playing around with creating tracks for Lele, the tiny new star, who's also in the studio.

Suddenly, growing tired of a half-finished track, the arranger brings up a decade-old hit by Florin Salam to play around with while Lele takes a much-needed break. The track has a touch of reggae about its arrangement, and it seems the vocals have caught a tinge of that as well, feeling vaguely sing-jayish in phrasing while remaining manele-melismatic in melody. He samples and loops a section - starting at 1:42 - and dumps the arrangement right out, to try to create a new one for it.

He quickly puts down some General MIDI lines - in the real songs almost always VSTs or electronic instruments, of course - but then he gets stuck on what to do with the more high-pitched of the basslines. Using a cheesy Slap Bass patch, he thinks of doing some sort of funk arrangement, but what he comes out with instead is straightforwardly a clave, dom-dom-dom, dom dom. He doesn't like it much. He plays around with it, and to my astonishment (I'm sitting on the couch behind him) he suddenly plonks down a bassline that sounds extremely much like the Bam Bam riddim, except with the first and second bars in opposite order... After a bit of decoration, he decides the excercise is futile and dumps the whole file.

Time to record the next Lele track.

I relate this mundane bit of studio drudgery because I've been thinking about Boima's discussion on "the channeling of personal influences" here. I can definitely see what he's getting at - there does seem to be a difference between absorbing material slowly through listening to your surroundings (on the one hand) and actively seeking an exotic other to incorporate (on the, well, other). But the way Boima phrases his discussion (which is well worth a read) gives the impression that there's a palette of influences available, a conscious choice of material that the artist can pick and choose from. I think that might be true for the music Boima makes himself, because he spends so much time thinking about how music connects and the specificity of rhythmical components, but where does it leave our studio arranger?

I asked him about what he was thinking while building that bassline. He said (or rather hummed and mimed) that he wanted to do funky slap bass, and that was all. I doubt he'd be able to name a "clave" or "Bam Bam" if pressed. So what do I make of the connections? Am I over-reading his influences based on my own prejudices and "personal influences"? Is it rhythmic coincidence? Does the slightly reggae-ish tilt in the previous track result in a "pull" towards a certain expression in other lines as well? Or are these influences hardwired into his cultural background somehow, and just feel right to do?

In any case, there's inevitably a fair bit of negotiation going on in every direction. A utopistic vision of everyone having their own personal genre is one thing, but the influence-interpretation going on is stuck in a space between me as listener, the arranger, Florin Salam, the track's previous producer... On a more concrete level, the negotiation between the arranger and Dan Bursuc (when he eventually gets up) is very tangibly present, a conflict and co-operation between generations and cultural backgrounds. Dan Bursuc, around fifty, grown up in communist seclusion on Raj Kapoor movies and once a forbidden traditional lautari. The arranger, mid-twenties, classically trained, recorded "everything". (And Lele, eleven, grown up on manele alone!) They struggle over a particular vocal line Lele is to sing. Lele improvises something; the arranger writes it out, modified, in a harmonic minor key with glissandos; Dan Bursuc wants to change it and sings something microtonal back. The arranger struggles to find an interpretation in his own tonal language that will satisfy them both. And then Lele sings it differently anyway...

It's fascinating about music how it's always both individual and social at once. Certainly manele is rife with conscious, palette-based borrowings from every part of the globe, and individual creations, but it's also full of "feels" and modes of understanding, flitered through the background of both creator(s) and listener(s). Where to place the idea of the influence, or influence-network, in such a complicated matrix is not immediately straightforward. And I guess that's true of all music, however far the tightly-knit club culture of a poor neighbourhood is from the leisure-class bedroom-studio appropriator that copies it.

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