A Quick New Year's Resolution: More Value-Judgements

I'm currently cooking new year's dinner for my in-laws (which will include two types of venison) so I don't really have time to blog. But since resolutions are meant to be delivered today I thought I'd sneak mine in. And since I've preoccupied my mind lately with my personal relationship to music, it'll have to have something to do with that.

Once, in what seems to have been a time when my taste in music was an entirely different one, I was posed a challenge by some friends. I had written a lot of forum posts and articles describing seemingly every aspect of music, but they all relied on facts to work - I effectively told the story of the music and relied on its greatness being conveyed through that. But my friends challenged me to write an entire article without mentioning a single identifiable extra-musical fact, merely how the music felt and worked.

It was hard. I chose to write about a track with an extreme energy level, namely this one:

Unfortunately the result is lost in the annals of cyberspace, and I'm not sure if the result had not been a lot better if I'd been allowed to mentioned (say) the secularisation of gospel tradition and so on. But nevertheless. I described the music with adjectives, feelings, effects, and to be excessively musicological, with value-judgements. I'm still not entirely comfortable with actually evaluating specific pieces and details of music, but I've been experimenting a bit with a slightly more verbose style like this here and here.

I think I need to have this side to my writing as well so as to not lose touch. So for next year, I'm going to do something which for most people is normal but that I've completely lost touch with.

I'm going to spend the year listening to whole albums and singles, and rate them internally, and post a best-of list at the end of the year. Feel free to ignore it. It's mostly for me.


Eartha Kitt RIP

The A side of Eartha Kitt's hi-nrg album "I Love Men" is easily the best thing Jacques Morali ever produced and often runs repeatedly on my vinyl player. The purring exotica delivery contrasts beautifully with the clockwork-precise soar of the arpeggiation, layer upon layer of polyphonous pop perfection. As if that wasn't enough, it also contains one of my favourite Orientalist cod-middle-eastern exercises, a genre La Kitt had obviously dabbled in before. A magic carpet ride indeed.

Eartha Kitt - Arabian Song


Recession music anyone?

There's an old truism that pop music supposedly gets better during economic downturns. I don't necessarily agree with this - in a capitalist system there's hardship for some sectors of the population all the time, and a lot of the happy-time music is great too. But certainly there's quality to be had in the darker or more desperately escapist music popularly associated with recessions. For whatever reasons, not necessarily just economical, music often weaves in and out of happiness and darkness, as anyone who's read Energy Flash can attest.

So I'm wondering, has any reader noticed any trends in music that could be somehow attributed to the current economic recession? I guess it's probably a little early to tell yet, but I'm definitely keeping my eye out for it during the next few months. In fact, there's only one genre where I'm properly sensing it at the moment. And strangely enough, that genre is the once so slick R&B.

I've had a huge surge in my interest in R&B in the past few months, downloading massive amounts from Im1 and (in the past few weeks) following great new R&B blog Plain Gold. The genre is certainly as fascinating as its ever been. A lot of the best stuff right now is made by songwriter-producer-singers like The Dream and James Fauntleroy, and the breadth even within the single artistic oeuvre is staggering.

And that definitely includes music that plays right into the recession. To take a couple of examples from Plain Gold's current best of 2008 list: the angsty, desperately militaristic "16 at War" by Karina Paisan and the plaintive, dislocated "Heated" by James Fauntleroy. You can feel the icy synth pads piercing and weaving through the multi-layered desperation, a perverted twighlight on the most exuberant Miami sound a few years ago.

But my absolutely favourite song recently has been "Keep Dancing" by Ciara featuring The Dream. Perhaps the best recession song in decades, it encapsulates both the sombre menace and dionysian abandon of the hopeless, in an endless, maddening dance leading to bitter-sweet insanity and final dissolution. Love, death and escape enveloping each other in an endless vortex of serenity and shadow. Could it be the best melancholic song about dancing since Delroy Wilson?

I know several of these songs were produced before the bunt of the meltdown and that they're part of a field that includes a whole lot of other stuff. But nevertheless, this is the kind of music I'd want as the soundtrack to my recession.


Esoteric Research Methods #5-#6: The Freedom Map and Youtube Playlists

Very straightforward this one, really, but it's proven productive so far.

I've been using this map of relatively free countries to search around the world, based on the reasoning that if there are lots of good countries that produce great music because they've got good civil liberties, other countries with good civil liberties must have decent music scenes too. Not entirely true, of course, but the very act of going around the map is a great ERM, just sitting with an atlas, Youtube and Wikipedia and randomly punching in countries, cities and regions can yield surprisingly decent resluts.

Just a couple of weeks ago this was a much more tedious task than it has to be, but thank goodness that Youtube has brought back playlists from the dead. These used to be incredibly annoying, stopping whenever they encountered a broken video or seemingly if you just coughed gently, but now they're smooth, plentiful and (with some working around) embeddable. A great way to access a local's selection of the music, as a sort of answer to the dilemma posed in the last post.

Just to take a couple of products of the combined approach of the two above:

Picking Liberia as a relatively free country, looking up Music of Liberia on Wikipedia, searching for "hipco" on Youtube, and getting this playlist:

Cool. Next: picking Namibia, repeating the procedure with "namibia kwaito" and producing this:

And that's pretty much it. I'm off to listen to more stuff...

Posed or Distant? Does music resemble photography?

This post about photography on zunguzungu struck a very deep chord with me. Not because of the shoot-from-the-hip night photography, although that's an interesting type of topic in itself. No, I really recognise the behaviour of taking photographs of the relatively marginalised either from a good distance or explicitly posed. All my shots of places like the Refugee camp at Marsa on Malta have that paparazzi-like, zoomed-in quality about them, and have been taken at a distance, or they're explicitly posed for me by willing participants.

Zunguzungu does it because he doesn't want to appear to be the typical tourist. I do it out of guilt. Deep in my heart, I know photography of strangers (especially those belonging to marginalised groups) is wrong. And I think the argument why could be an interesting analogy for music as well.

I've not read that Susan Sontag book (though I'd like to). But I'm a journalist by training and our photography course was a real eye opener to the profoundly undemocratic nature of photography.

The subjects of a photojournalistic shot have absolutely no power. Subjects can't, short of violence, prevent the photographers from depicting them any way they chose, and there's an incredible array of semiotic signifiers at the photographer's disposal to control precisely what message the subject conveys. By framing, colour manipulation, depth of field, reflections, depth perception, the photographer can chose exactly what a photograph says, whereas the subject has no say. It's the photographer that choses the "best frame" to tell his story, and can discard all the rest. And it's the photographer who benefits, gets the credit, earns any money the photograph makes.

Were it resources and not mere images we'd be talking about it would rightly be called neo-colonialism. Two parties collaborate, but only one reaps all the profits, only one decides what product to make, only one is the person the photograph is for. And so to dull our shame we stand back so they can't see us and don't get angry with us, or alternatively make it explicitly clear what we're doing by posing.

The music analogy, if you've been following my blog, should be fairly clear by now - the "collaborations" of world music are very much like posing, because everyone involved knows that the power and interest only lies with the dominant party. Since the production, distribution and market are all in europe and north america, all power essentially rests there, too. And isn't it the case that the kind of musical tourism where we only pick up random MP3's off the internet is pretty much photography from a distance? Still the power of choice is ours. The DJ, like the photographer, is perfectly able to pick only those shots that confirm his world view. And it's not like we let them DJ for us.

Still. Photography, and DJing, has a very great appeal, the creative and documentarian rush is too great to stop it. But in order for it to be properly ethical, it needs to be much more democratic.

There's a lot we can learn here, I think, from Malian photographer Seydou Keïta and the later photography of compatriot Malick Sidibé. Here the collaboration is very clear with definite creative input from both parties, and the photographs are posed for the benefit of the subject and to make the subject happy. And indeed both parties explicitly benefit. Sure, part of it is because it's a much more egalitarian and familiar form ("joking cousins"). But part of it is actually a deep respect, a "clientism" if you will (from the link above) where you let the subjects decide how they want to be depicted. Maybe that's a lesson we need to think about in music as well.


Batfascist quickie

I just saw the film Batman Begins, and it's honestly the second most right-wing film I've ever seen. I know right-wing radicalism is supposed to be a feature of the super hero genre, but this is fucking extreme! Without revealing too much of the plot, basically Bruce Wayne joins a Nazi organisation, then leaves them because they're not conservative enough. Then he goes back to Gotham to fight the corrupt and probably socialist government, allying himself with a pro-vigilante, law-and-order policeman. (While being Patrick Bateman during the day.) Finally he defeats the main villain, The Elders of Zion.

Horrendous. I dread to watch The Dark Knight, which is next in my pile.

I much prefer this Batman:

(cf here and previously on the blog here.)


More self-depreciating hipster comedy

I realise this is so last month, everyone is doing it now. But I've just recently borrowed a copy of the comic strip compilation This Is Stockholm, which gathers comics from the comic strips Stockholmsnatt and Disco Sucks, both by Stefan Thungren and Pelle Forshed, and it shows flashes of absolute brilliance.

The strips of a group of twenty-something fashionistas (or "fashionists" as the book's internal scheme of ideologies would have it) as they navigate the treacherous world of trend cycles, indie kids, art school Christmas markets, neo-mods, goths and sarcasm. There's a family of relentless wiggers, a trustafarian anticipating Ras Trent, two friends born on different sides of 1980 (and thus self-consciously having different mentalities), sixteen-year old video bloggers with Kanye West electro shades, and a whole lot more.

One by one the strips can often be very funny indeed, peppered with self-depreciation and obscure hipster references, but taken together they leave a bit of a sour taste in your mouth from the relentless progression of changing styles, the uncool slowly being written out, the same empty posturing year after year. There's also a notable weakening around the beginning of 2008, but whether it's because the writer has lost touch with the notoriously fickle winds of hipster fashion or whether we're just not ready to joke about our own time yet is a bit unclear.

A couple of the less Stockholm-specific examples which I've taken the liberty of translating into English. This first strip should hit home with a lot of readers in this blog. I know it did for me.
The second one is rather more typical. I swear I used to live next to this office last year, although the one next to me had cult Japanese plush toys and a projector-screen X-Box instead.
I don't know whether I should laugh and thus join into the hipster self-depreciation (since I get all the references) or whether I should just feel a bit sick and dismiss it. I think, perhaps, that was the cartoonists' intention.


How Conceptuality Destroyed My Taste In Music

My girlfriend has a much better taste in music than me. I keep being reminded of this fact as I look at compilations of year-end "best albums" lists and realising that I've heard at most a couple of albums off any list.

It's not that my girlfriend has listened to more of them, she doesn't like the majority of new music, but at least she has the capacity to. Me, I've lost the ability to listen to albums properly, like I used to. And it's got nothing to do with losing touch with the current music climate, I may really be more updated than ever, but somehow my listening for absolute pleasure and listening uninterrupted to whole pieces of music has completely dissipated.

Part of it is information overload and my general championing of functional over absolute music. But mostly, I blame conceptuality.

See, my girlfriend's taste in music is very literal. It's not that she has no understanding of what makes music good - far from it, she can point very specifically to features she likes. No, the thing is that she likes what she likes - doesn't try to put it in systems of thought, doesn't worry about where its coming from a great deal, and ends up picking music she likes to listen to because she likes the lyrics, or melody, or the feel. If she finds a track she likes, she's got no problem listening to it over and over again until she's tired of it - after all, it's a good track, isn't it?

Me, I listen to music to make frameworks of understanding in my mind. I barely ever listen to music repeatedly or even deeply, preferring to listen to a lot of music superficially. My greatest music experiences are usually epiphanies, not moods, and I have a hard time listening to music without being able to put it into context. Conversely, I often revisit music I've previously scorned after learning more about it and suddenly finding it wonderful.

It didn't use to be this way. Circa 2001 I was just as literal as she is now, but reading, radio-making, blogging and academia has made me approach music in a totally different way. I still derive enormous amounts of pleasure from it, but somehow, I have a niggling feeling I no longer quite get what makes music good. Or rather, I can see it in other people's picks, but I keep getting excited over music that's not really very good at all.

Lucky I have my girlfriend who can select good music for our common daily life...


Pop Culture Fragment: My 1920s Hungarian Wall Hangings

I've just spent some time getting my apartment in order for a big party (therefore the seldom-posting), which has given me time to put up what's one of my most-treasured pop culture artifacts: my small collection of circa 1920 Hungarian wall hangings. Unlike the communist-era poster art I've also got tons of around the house, no-one comments on how "cool" these are, and indeed they can be got almost for free on flea markets in Hungary, down-valued like all traditionally female crafts.

Still, I think they're extremely interesting and (since they're made by the women themselves) they reveal a lot about the attitudes and lives in the villages of Hungary ninety years ago.

"My husband, my good sir, don't wander about in the kitchen, wait for lunch in the sitting room"

This one is a favourite of mine, despite the extremely gendered and sexist message which is typical of a lot of these. Part of the reason is the details of the "dream" home most peasants wouldn't have afforded at this time - running water, metal pestles, fashionable clothes - which seem humble and naive in retrospect. The details of that upward aspiration are fascinating and revealing. I also love the cartoonish expressiveness of the needlework.

But the message also has an undertone of, well, sass. The woman is asserting the limited power she's got in her home, and doing it in an underhanded way with a jocularly dismissive, mock formal tone. The third-person tense used is either over-respectful or talking down, and it's definitely from the woman's point of view.

"I've driven my geese onto the pasture, that's where I'm expecting my darling tonight"

This one is considerably less challenging and indeed bears the hallmark of a professionally-designed pattern with its composition and carefully measured size. Still, it's also got a bunch of interesting details, not least the wading and the considerably more everyday dress than in the first one. The at once romantic and highly mundane message is typical of these.

"My rose is beautiful, has no flaw, her kitchen is excellent"

A very common theme on these hangings is boasting. Usually, it's boasting about how good a housekeeper you are (again, gendered, sexist, I know) and here it's unusually enough the male who gets to be the voice. Otherwise it's almost always the woman speaking.

Lots of marvellous details here, too, like the Trangia stove and the teapot-patterned border. Based on the hairstyles and clothing styles I'd place this one somewhat later, maybe in the forties, and the text and image are almost certainly not designed to be together since they're made with different thread and rather clumsily spaced.


Offending muslims is pretty much like offending everyone else

I've been talking to a Muslim friend of mine about the two recent controversies involving Quranic verses being used as lyrics for popular music: first the removal of a track from video game Little Big Planet, then Busta Rhymes' supposed quotation in a recent remix. I asked her about whether the use of Quranic material in music is forbidden in Islam or not, and she told me, totally obviously in hidsight, that it's entirely dependent on the context.

Because, honestly, offending Muslims is not radically different from offending anyone else. Muslims are not only diverse but for the most part thinking human beings who understand things like intention and effect, and can understand perfectly well where a supposed offence comes from and what it means.

There's in fact plenty of Quran-quoting pop music even in the heart of the middle east. Literally Islamic pop music exist just as much as literally Christian pop, without any problematic connotations whatsoever except to some extremist cliques. British-Azeri artist Sami Yusuf sells millions and millions of albums of western-sounding pop with a deeply Islamic message. Even borderline use of the Islamic message to further political goals is largely accepted without much grumble: for instance, there's plenty of Hamas Anasheed which in social position is probably vaguely the equivalent of gang rap and has a kind of Hollywood-cinematic-synth sound, yet has very obvious Islamic lyrics.

Why is this accepted? Because these people are Muslims. They're doing it out of faith. They're not wantonly associating the message with drinking and sex and racist stereotypes, like Busta. Or (as it were, not) using it as a soundtrack to mindless gaming, like Sony. It's honestly not that strange, and I'm sure people of all faiths have similar relationships with their holy books.

So why is there this tendency in the media to portray Muslims taking offence at something as somehow exotic and irrational? It always has to be portrayed as a "religious ban" on a certain expression, and the exotic-sounding words "haraam" and "halal" end up in a lot of the coverage. There seems to be an undertone that there's no rational reason for the anger, that it's arbitrary just like not eating pork is arbitrary. That way, it can be straightforwardly dismissed as something "they" do.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the now infamous Danish Muhammed cartoons. Almost uniformly, the outrage that many Muslims felt over these cartoons was attributed to the Islamic ban on pictorial representations of the prophet, despite the fact that such a ban is far from universal and that Islamic art history has a long tradition of Muhammed paintings. Devout muslims have, and still are, depicting Muhammed with religious chastisement and discussion as the only potential result, but Jyllands-Posten's publication was something else entirely: an acknowledgedly racist newspaper, printing cartoons with the explicit intention of denigrating Islam, with the effect of futher marginalising the oppressed Muslim minority in Denmark. Of course Muslims were angry! I was angry too. So why the need to relate it to the exotic and supposedly arbitrary?

And of course this latest controversy is not as "bad". Neither Busta or Sony have had the intetion of insluting Muslims, however insensitive they might be, and therefore it's not raised much of a furore. In fact, my Muslim friend tells me the Sony delay has been highly praised on Islamic message boards, which opens up the possibility of it being merely a deft marketing move. And Busta's sort of passive, unintentional stereotyping is not nearly as worthy of anger as the very prevalent active racism against "Muslims" that we see everywhere, and the vast majority of Muslims recognise it as such. Seeing as they are in fact thinking human beings, just like the rest of us.


This year's first legitimate Christmas music post

Legit because of the well-selected posting time, of course.

This weekend I'm having a house warming party (any readers are welcome to show up, comment for details) and the theme is going to be appropriately seasonal, including the music. Since the new apartment is large enough, there's going to be two separate sound sources, and since CDs are useless and boring, we're going for the computer vs. the vinyl player. The former is easy enough: It's going to be all-parang. As usual, Imeem is the best source for trini music, and I've found this enormous parang playlist:

2008 & Back Christmas Parang Holiday Music*** (New)

115 songs, that should last all night. Or until my girlfriend decides to switch to Spotify, which should be about fifteen minutes.

The vinyl, that's trickier. I had about four Christmas albums plus the odd extra track last week, and so I've spent several days hunting down as much as I can, with I must say surprising success. (A convenient record fair helped.) I now have eighteen Christmas albums, plus a single, an album with a Christmas song on it and an unfortunate duplicate, all for about 400 kr. About half are actually reasonably good, too, including some bona fide classics like A Christmas Gift for You, Christmas Jollies and Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.

But I also have some albums that are less well known. I thought I'd go ahead and highlight three of them quickly.

Ramsey Lewis Trio - More Sounds of Christmas

This is a surprisingly tight package of instrumental jazz (mostly in some sort of vague cool-jazz vein) with some seriously different interpretations of Christmas classics coupled with originals. If I have one complaint it's that some of the originals are a bit too much jazz and a bit too little christmas for their own good. As a sample, here's the radically redone version of "We Three Kings".

The Whispers - Happy Holidays To You

Somewhere (1979 to be exact) on the border between modern soul and eighties R&B, this has a somewhat similar problem to to the last album - the interpretation of standards is great, very soulful, but the originals tend to be a bit clichéd and cheesy. "Funky Christmas" is probably the best of the lot, although it's uncharacteristically disco.

Half Man, Half Biscuit - All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit (from Back again in the D.H.S.S.)

Right, this isn't really a Christmas album at all, but this particular song is one of the greats in the genre. It shows painfully, I think, what indie fucked up from punk's legacy: this is in equal parts a story of a pained childhood, a total absurdism and a subtle piece of social critique. It's the last bit most indie bands today tend to forget.


Genre of the Week: Eurobeat

Sometimes a genre just clicks as the missing link in your personal puzzle of music discovery, leaping between continents and time periods and immediately grabbing your attention. For me, eurobeat is definitely one of those genres. It connects, in a way which is really fascinating, the eighties dance genre of italo disco with the latest ringtones and video game sounds. And what's more, its existence raises many more questions than it answers.

Eurobeat is a genre of music produced entirely in one country, Italy, and consumed entirely in another, way on the other side of the earth: Japan. It's been running as a genre more or less constantly for twenty years now, without slowing down much. And it's got its own huge subculture, which involves one of the strangest looks to appear in the part decade, in any country: the blackface Ganguro girls.

As good a place as any to start exploring the genre is the Swedish eurobeat site eurobeat.se. Iocc, the site's owner, claims to have 71 Gb of the stuff, collected from strange and esoteric FTP servers in Chile and Finland starting eight years ago. Apparently, he says, one guy in the US claims to have more music, but he's at least #2 in the world. The obsession in foreign countries with this phenomenon is perhaps natural seeing as to the Japan fascination that's been sweeping Europe in the past few years, but this stuff is truly marketed only to Japan. Iocc keeps returning to this irksome fact during our interview.

What does eurobeat sound like? Well, Iocc's favourite track might give a hint as to what sort of thing is on offer. "Go Go Dance" by the Go Go Girls (a completely fabricated group whose members switch constantly) is fast, carelessly happy, rhythmically quite complex and insanely energetic, constantly switching portions of its content around.

Eurobeat has its roots in a familiar story from the history of music: fashions changed in Europe with the arrival of house music in the late eighties. Japan, however, had grown attached to the older music and its crazy lyrics and image, and wanted more. Enterprising producers gave it to them, and the earliest eurobeat from the late eighties sounds distinctly like just more italo. But then, slowly, it began to evolve - new instruments and musical styles emerged, and the tempo accelerated to upwards of 155 BPM circa 1995 before dropping somewhat again. The typical style and image emerged: more or less anonymous rent-a-face artists always singing in (bad) english, tracks who borrowed the names (but not any of the music!) from major hits...

Just how this evolution took place is one of the great mysteries of the genre for me. Practically the entire musical output of the Italian studios who produce eurobeat is distributed and owned by a Japanese company called Avex Trax, and there's no direct feedback from any of the marketing. Also, most of the tracks are sold in compilation form (like the famous Super Eurobeat series) and it must hard from the vantage point of Italy to tell just how well an individual track has done. And yet, the music evolved and changed with the times and is now thriving in its third decade. One music studio I talked to, out of about six or seven still in business, produces around half a dozen tracks every month. How it's worked? The cryptic answer I got was that they sense what their customers want, but that's just mystical ESP bullshit, isn't it?

Well, part of the longevity is probably due to its subcultural moorings. Besides the fantastical (and from a racial point of view eminently analysable) ganguro girls, there's a huge scene centred around the arm-based dancing style para para, including at the now-closed mega club Velfarre where eurobeat was often the main genre of the dance floor. Here's another Go Go Girls track (with more post-colonial goodness to analyse) with some para para dance stylings:

There's something about eurobeat that's immediately familiar to your ears even though you've never heard it before. Part of it is probably its immediately noticeable influence on other Japanese culture: you can hear eurobeat (or something like it) in video games, in anime, on television. But Iocc also points out that it might well be the other way around: a lot of the familiarity might be from the old disco styles in europe in the eighties it's based on, and not least from older video games. That bright, two-oscillator synth that you hear in a lot of this stuff, for instance, is basically lifted as an idea entirely from one of the typical sounds of the classic SID chip on the C64.

So with over fifteen thousand songs in this breakneck genre's history, where would you get started if you're interested in the genre? Iocc recommends the "Euro Mach" series of compilation albums (should be pretty easy to find online), which were released during the ganguro craze's commercial high point around 1999-2001. Supposedly, they're even happier and more upbeat than the average eurobeat tracks...


How four-on-the-floor can R&B get?

Apparently all of Sweden's R&B bloggers are joining together in a couple of week's time, leaving Sweden without any current R&B blogs and the new blog without any competition. Since I've spent the last couple of weeks mostly listening to R&B (via the brilliant iM1) I thought I'd attempt providing both. At least for one post.

As you all probably know hip-hop has recently taken up a lot of influence from electronic dance music of various kinds to the point of sampling it directly. Well, R&B if anything permits itself to go even more trancey. There's plenty of effervesynths going around, and more and more beat and sound ideas from house, trance and techno are burrowing into the music. Hard to get more chillout room than this new Polow Da Don production, for instance:

Crishan - U

All well and good so far, because the harmonic and song-building qualities of R&B are still perfectly intact. (And it's a great track.) But what's considerably more shocking to me is just how much the beat has gone full-on four-on-the-floor. Sure, even in a song like the above those first beats are emphasised, but compare it to this:

Adonis - Senses

No, it's not the 80s house producer Adonis, but you'd be forgiven for thinking so. The first fifteen seconds has no percussion but four-on-the-floor kick drum, and then adds a hand clap as well until a slightly more rhythmically complex chorus a minute in, but nothing vaguely resembling syncopation. I realise the producer has done similar things before, but this is damn extreme, both in single-mindedness and volume.

This trend has got to have reached the end of the line soon, right? Pity. I kinda like it.

PS. Listen to it making its way into dancehall as well. How four-on-the-floor can dancehall get and still be dancehall?

Jah Cure and Wayne Marshall - So High


Freedom and Music Quality

In the last couple of days I've posted a couple of blog posts that have given the illusion that good music can be produced in countries with extremely oppressive regimes. This summer I posted about decent music in a communist dictatorship.

Well, the thing is, if indeed these claims are true they're very much exceptions. Actually, it's fairly amazing how clearly freedom correlates with good music worldwide, generally. Today I came accross (via) the web site of Reporters Without Borders, and this year's edition of their famous Press Freedom Index. And I think the map and table of the freest countries is pretty startling.

Some of the freest countries in every region read like a who's who of recognised music producers and blog favourites.

In the Caribbean: Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago.

In Africa: South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, Mali (Ivory Coast & Angola are okay).

In Asia, though the general level is lower: Turkey, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, Lebanon.

The correlation is far from perfect either way, especially in Europe and the Americas, but it's still a bit too much to be a coincidence, I think.


Hip-hop crackdown in Burma

I'll freely admit to never having heard of Zayar Thaw before reading about him in the news and on the net today. You know I love Asian hip-hop and try to find it in the strangest places, but I honestly have never thought of looking at Burma as a possible country it could be big in. But apparently it is. Or was. Zayar Thaw, one of the biggest stars, was sentenced to six years in prison yesterday for his part in the 2007 uprising. Another big star, Yan Yan Chan, is still awaiting sentencing, and last year they came and took G-Tone, after he took off his shirt to show a tattoo in support of the monks. He was released, but banned from ever performing again.

The scene wasn't bad. There was plenty of stuff I could well have blogged about. Here are a couple of videos, a little old-fashioned perhaps but vital nonetheless.

Yan Yan Chan - Lite Kye

G-Tone and others freestyling

Acid (Zayar's and Yan Yan's group)- Ma Ya Kyout

Burmese C-Walk

Do you think we from the international hip-hop/globetech/whatever community have a special responsibility towards these people? We gladly accept their wares, play their records, encourage their independence. All this material would certainly have ended up on my old radio show. On one level I guess it's horrible when a dictatorial regime cracks down on anyone, or on any artist. But just like the PEN club defends writers specifically, I think this is precisely the sort of thing we need to engage in if we're not just going to be irresponsible surface skimmers.

What do you think?


Jesus fucking horrendous Christ

I thought there was no cultural activity going on in Kista compared to it's more vibrant neighbours. I was wrong.


The enemy is here! Dammit!

Something is brewing in Zimbabwe

Wow, Zimbabwe's blandly-named-but-sometimes-brilliant local genre urban grooves is really picking up pace! Less than a year ago I was googling it and finding nothing, but now there's tons of material, much of it newly produced. It's great to see music springing up in a country that hasn't had a happy last few years, and for it to be fresh and unsettled the way good new genres are supposed to be. (Though a lot of it seems to be made by expats.) There are influences there from the two regional power houses, Tanzania and South Africa, and you can kinda hear some sort of warped kwaito-meets-bongo-flava thing going on in there. Like on this track, by the unfortunately named Street Niggaz out of Bulawayo, which clocks in at a very discoey 116 BPM and samples the bassline of Madonna's Holiday.

Street Niggaz - C'Zobalimaza

I love the houseyness of a lot of this stuff. There's stuff that almost borders on straightforward gospel house! In general, there are loads of warm deep-housey synth mats, which I'm usually ambivalent about but it works great here. But it's far from universal: there's plenty of material here, still, that copies the usual American and Jamaican suspects, and it's still developing. (A lot of stuff is actually labelled "Zim Dancehall", they've even got their own riddims.) Then there is material that ties into older Zimbabwian music as well: plenty of Kalimbas and Kwassa kwassa guitars going on here.

There's plenty more tracks in the genre to be found on the youtube page of zimvibes.


Social Class III: Stuck In The Middle With You

If the first post in this series was, vaguely about the working class and the second about the elite, then this is the post about the middle class. Probably the hardest to analyse, since I'm from some sort of middle class background myself.

But then, who isn't? In a discussion with blogger tray here, there was a discussion about two posters, one supposedly elitist and the other one supposedly working class. Yet I can pretty much bet you that both posters were made by people who consider themselves middle class. And yes, certainly, as Gavin points out here, so do many party oriented rappers, Lil Jon among them. Or David Banner, who's got a masters degree in business administration. Isn't he middle class? Obviously what's middle-class varies from caricature to caricature, just as the term hipster does.

A university, for one, is a largely middle-class environment (having free universities like in Sweden barely changes that). Yet on any campus you're going to find vastly different attitudes - from the small town kid there to receive some sort of professional training and to party, to the utterly pretentious wannabe academic pursuing a Bildungsideal. The square and the hipster and the nerd coexist, all middle-class. Hardcore punk? Middle class. Easy listening? Middle Class.

The middle-class, quite simply, diverges. According to Neo-marxist Nicos Poulantzas (link in Swedish) it's because they have a choice. Unlike the upper class, who are bound for leadership positions, or the working class, who are bound for subservient manual labour, the middle class can go one of several ways. They can become "intellectual workers" (not, says Poulantzas disdainfully, intellectuals) who occupy a position similar to the working class when seen from above, low-level white-collar workers. Or they can be close to the high bourgeoisie in various management positions. This choice is made as early as middle-school, by selecting out some students over others. I can see this in my own family, where I'm the intellectual kid who's gone on to adopt (like it or not) bourgeois values to some extent, whereas my three older siblings have had a very different attitude. My sister went to college for four years and she's a naprapath, but she's certainly not the kind of middle-class person who'd be invoking neo-marxists in a blog discussion. She's not part of any silly Habermasian bourgeois public sphere.

Still, there's something about the choice idea that rings hollow. I certainly felt expectations from my upper-middle-class parents to go to university for my personal development mostly, and I'm not sure the white-collar worker's kids look at it the same way. Maybe the biggest distinction between the fractions of the middle class is not strictly economical but a divide between different attitudes? Or to put it another way: I can well conceive of Lil Jon's parents being doctors. But I could never, ever conceive of them being artists. Or sociologists.

There's a complex system of attitudes in the middle class, dividing up people into different groupings. Liberal social worker? Read the Guardian, shop at second hand stores, listen to Michael Franti. And so on. Actually, supposedly taste in music is a great sociological predictor for the other attitudes - and the recently publicised study on the subject is entirely missing the point. It's not your personality determining your taste in music - it's your role in society that determines both how you're supposed to act and what music you're supposed listen to.

Maybe intellectual parents who are worried about their kids underperforming in school should make them become fans of progressive house or something, and everything will be all right...


Quickie (literally)

I'm doing a course on he historiography of music, which mostly consists of reading books like this. One topic that comes up a lot, in traditional music history, is periodization: how to divide history into blocks, which for some reason is considered important.

Our teacher, obviously stuck in the usual elitist Eurocentric (aka "western") tradition, talked about the length of periods, and mentioned how some claim you can have sub periods as short as maybe 25 years! Some people claim Sturm und Drang as a subperiod even! Obviously, as a pop genre buff I scoff at that sort of numbers. In pop music discourse it's not uncommon to have genres that everyone agrees only lasted for five years or so - grabbing something out of thin air, say, post-punk.

This got me thinking. What, when it comes to generally used and agreed-upon genre names, is the shortest-lasting genre ever? Tentatively I've started thinking of really short genres with definite starts and stops, and I've come up with Rocksteady's two short but incredibly, incredibly creative years as a first shot. But surely there must be even shorter ones?


Evangelical Shoegaze

I've been subscribed to the StumbleUpon topic "christian music" for ages now out of curiosity and this is the first time it's thrown up anything vaguely interesting. Jars of Clay, the rabid christian shoegazers. Wow.


One year on, I've moved

I've been blogging for a year now. Since it feels like I just had a big celebratory post (#100), I thought I'd do an update of what my life looks like instead, and make it an annual, November 8 me-post.

Well, apart from solidifying my musicology student identity and messing about with the usual interpersonal relationship issues, the one big thing I've done recently is moved. So I thought I'd do a quick presentation of my new neighbourhood, Kista.

View Larger Map

Kista is a suburb of Stockholm. Because I know that I have many American readers, I'd better explain that this means it's considerably poorer than the inner city. Although not technically part of the Million Programme, it is surrounded my areas built in the sixties and early seventies, and shares many of its features. However, it is also a strange, dynamic boom town. Stockholm is growing, and verging on becoming the kind of multi-centred city that is practically standard with cities of two or more million inhabitants, and Kista is often touted as the potential "northern centre". People come here rather than leave here during the day.

As such, it has two large draws, neither of which is particularly pleasant for the residents. The north-eastern part is Sweden's equivalent of Silicon Valley, full of high-tech companies and tech-oriented university campuses. (It's practically a dead area to walk around in, though.) Cutting us residents off from the office zone is an enormous, lengthwise oriented mall, one of the biggest in Stockholm. (Which makes shopping and eating out nearby expensive and annoying.)

As for the residential portion, roughly the south-western third, it's all condominiums (unlike the surrounding areas, where it's mostly rental). This means that, while it's still considered an immigrant area, it's the "middle-class immigrant area" - where the residents are still close to the cultural centre/run-down banlieue of Rinkeby, while being safely tucked away from the welfare class. The closeness to the IT campus also attracts a fair number of students (like me, though I don't study there) and IT professionals, and it's thus supposedly one of the best-integrated areas in all of Sweden. I've not noticed it much myself (beyong seing all kinds of people down at the shop), but then I've only lived here a month.

On the other side of the residential area is, thankfully, nature, in the form of an old military excercise field turned barely used green belt. Great place for walks.

So that's where I live. I'm going to give a shot at discovering the local music life as soon as I have time, but we'll see. Strange as it may sound for such a dynamic, price-rising area, there's almost no feeling of actual life.


Social Class II: C'est Beau, La Bourgeoisie

Congratulations Obama supporters! Now, while the iron is still hot, I thought I'd better give you a word of advice.

I've been following the US elections from a distance, and some of the most interesting texts I've read about it have been from a distance too. And they paint up a fairly worrying picture. First, Swedish blogger for a major right-wing newspaper (and ardent Obama supporter) Martin Gelin wrote about the Joe the Plumber shtick (in Swedish):
It's a real laugh to see how Swedish "middle class journalists" are falling for it. Can we call it a low education complex? Intellectuals who have a a complex towards the working class and desperately try to understand what the working class likes: cosy hockey moms who say "youbetcha" but don't offer a single pragmatic solution for low income earners.
Second, style journalist Marcus Dunberg took it one step further in a column in the free newspaper Metro (again in Swedish). Following Gelin's thought to its logical, Palin-bashing conclusion, writing about how all the candidates fought about who had the most regular-Joe background, and how, in his eyes, it had created a backlash:
If Sarah Palin is an anti-elitist, then by extension the diametrically opposed stance has to be something good. [...] On the streets of Manhattan more and more people are turning up wearing T-shirts that say "Liberal Elite" on them. It's about time us elitists are able to run free, without being judged by the commoners.
Well guys, trust me, if any of you have started falling into this shit then stop it. An elitist is not something you want to be. And yet, there seem to be little signs everywhere that, in fact, a consciously self-labelled elite is starting to appear even among the young, And I for one won't attribute it to Sarah Palin. (I do realise that "elitist" has come to stand for women and upwardly-mobile blacks, and for liberals in general. But adopting it yourself is a total cop-out to the forces that rather would not associate with the working class at all. Whatever new type of radicalism is emerging, I just have to ask them: don't ignore the working class. The class system is still one of the chief sources of inequality in the world.)

When I was still very politically active politically a few years ago, the kind of "complex" Martin Gelin talks about was still very much alive, and no-one pointed it out in order to mock it. People would try to reach out to the working class. They would hide their high levels of education and buy "anti-fashion" clothes from charity shops. The enemy was a traditional establishment consisting of both a cultural and an economic elite, who oppressed the working class and its (popular) culture in equal measure.

But now we're seeing this kind of shit, radicals dressing in fashion labels, and a seemingly conscious distancing from the working class in all sorts of contexts. Whatever you think about backpacker rap (I hate it, myself) and the dull roots reggae that was the soundtrack to a lot of demonstrations a few years ago, at least it never celebrated the upper-class lifestyle that's enjoyed in this post's titular track:

The song is from this fall, a period when (indeed) the new elitism seems to have accelerated. Just look at the iconography on the posters for this London club:

Can you imagine a club that plays kwaito, kuduro and baile funk having a poster so obviously designed to turn away the diaspora and the working class a few years ago? It's way past the sort of art-school faux DIY you still see around, it's deeply entrenched in a horrible sort of Victorian colonialist exotica. The concept, and the poster, has already been copied in Stockholm, of course:

It's taking working class music and planting it into a context the working class has no access to. (Like I said, little things. But what if the bear is real?)

How did we get here? Well, the right-wing appropriation of equality rhetoric in one thing. Another is the loss of a credible cultural elite to fight and the appropriation of the symbols of youthful rebellion by big business. But I think maybe part of the blame can be attached to the recession - is it a coincidence that some of the most elitist youth cultures ever have hit during recessions? Bereft of financial markers of success, the upper class takes to refinement as the dividing line between them and the mob. We've got better taste, even if we don't have more money, ergo we're better than you.

We'll see if, indeed, we're seeing a new elitism emerge. But I hope, for the sake of the left wing in general, that you Obama supporters won't be the ones spearheading such a movement. Now start by not trying to distance yourselves from the working class and for god's sake, please don't use the label "elitist".


Social Class I: Watermelon

I was at a party at the home of a fellow blogger recently when I fell into a conversation with another blogger, prompted by my assertion that I don't much like East Coast hip-hop, especially not the rather middle-classy Native Tongues type material. At which point he retorted, in paraphrase:

"So you like your hip-hoppers poor and out in the country, eating watermelon? You don't want any uppity black people, right?"

He was joking, of course, but it hit home more than he realised at the time. Because it's basically true: I prefer small-community, dance-oriented, working class hip-hop to cosmopolitan, underground, middle class hip hop. Does that mean I'm buying into the Jim Crow stereotype of the carefree Negro in a straw hat?

What I'm basically facing here is an issue of intersectionality. The ethnic minority of black people in the US and in Europe are, as a group, marginalised, and the majority of them are relatively poor. The struggle to escape poverty, for them, is twofold: not only is it economically problematic, but the stereotype society has of them is that they're poor/untrustworthy/criminal, making it all the harder to get anywhere else. In fact, in the US at least the idea of "black" and "working class" seem so closely intertwined that we get phenomena like this.

So it's difficult to honestly claim a growing black middle class is a bad thing - it's definitely a crucial step in the breaking down of the negative stereotype and in integration. But the question really is what do we mean by integration? There seem to be hundreds of models, both of what is desirable and what we actually mean, and often integration is defined purely in terms of economic success. I don't think it's nearly that simple. One favourite model of mine, from when I studied journalism and which I despite incessant googling have not been able to find the source of, has three levels:
  1. Segregation, in which the marginalised group is excluded from the public sphere entirely and does not have access to the higher positions in society. The culture of the dominant group is completely prevalent, while the culture of the marginalised minority is actively repressed.
  2. Partial assimilation, in which the vast majority of the marginalised group is still excluded and its culture relatively repressed, but in which a small elite within the group is allowed to rise, but only if they actively adopt the culture of the dominant group.
  3. Integration, in which both groups have adapted to each other, and both cultures are considered equally good and are both part of the public sphere.
I really like the emphasis on cultural rather than just economic equality in a model like this. In particular, I think the idea of the second level is very apt for a lot of groups in society - here in Sweden, for instance, there's plenty of Kurds in very high positions with largely mainstream values, maybe even disproportionally many, but that doesn't mean the majority isn't oppressed and that Kurdish culture isn't oppressed. Likewise, when it comes to black people there are successful ones (like these two that are in the news a lot today, Monday), but they're a relatively small minority and, crucially, they've been forced to adapt to the mainstream culture to gain success. Like women who have to be more "masculine" than the boys to succeed in management, successful black people often have to be extremely mainstream in every way in order to not appear as an "angry black man" or some other stereotype.

This partial assimilation may be needed for there to be equal access for a greater variety of black culture in the future, but (and here comes the point of the post) it doesn't make for very good music. Completely assimilated artists are one thing (yes, liberals, there are black people in all sorts of music) - no shadow falls on Bad Brains or TV on the Radio; they're basically part of a mainstream white culture. But a lot of the sort of partially assimilated half-measures, the "black" music created to garner acceptance with a mainly white audience, often comes across as superficial, trying too hard, a bit hesitant, not daring to go towards any interesting extreme. And that, to give a fuller answer, is why I'm not so fond of De La Soul. (And global fusion music.)

So what of the minstrelsy Negro in the straw boater and the toothy white grin? Well, as a destructive intersectional stereotype it goes two ways. Yes, it's a conflation of the categories of "working class" and "black". But in its details, it's also a demonisation of actual black working class culture. Mainstream middle-class white society (which, of course, is the public sphere really) has a great tolerance for middle-class black culture of the kind above - all my middle-class hip-hopper friends here in Sweden are fond of "true school" hip-hop and underground hip-hop. Meanwhile, there's a great intolerance of working-class black music - again, the Swedish hip-hoppers usually deride it as "LCD Rap". The watermelon man is a thinly veiled depiction of the hate felt towards actual working-class, rural blacks.

I think there's a great value in working class black culture, and I try to do my best to promote it. I'm not going to go around saying it's the "real" black culture, that sort of essentialist statement only leads to dismissal of legitimate expression, but I do think that in order for there to be full, positive integration its value needs to be recognised and it needs to be stopped looking down on. We need to stop assigning stereotypes of all sorts and appreciate whatever someone wants to do, and whatever they chose to communicate. And I don't know about you, but I'm always happier when ABN comes up with something introspective than when Atmosphere does.

This is the first in a series on class. Next time I'm going to deal with segregation, elitist Obama supporters and how class issues are affected by a recession.


A liveist holdout

For the past couple of weeks, I've been following Swedish national television's broad new Saturday night family entertainment show, Dansbandskampen. And I've totally been enjoying it. It's trying to reinvigorate one of Sweden's most fascinating music genres, and doing it in the context of an idol-style, big-budget live show.

Dansband is Sweden's comfortable rural working-class genre, in terms of social status similar to nashville country. Yet it's position in the culture is very different. Rooted deeply in the unique social dancing history of Sweden, in which communally owned, alcohol-free Dance halls provided the main venue, they're thoroughly adapted to dancing, with little off-the-beat expressive content to distract from the dance itself. The dansband is a visual living sound system, totally in the repetetive category of music posited by Rasmus Lindgren (in swedish).

Yet it also presents a puzzle. While it is a thoroughly popular genre, increasingly so among young people, it's surprising in its resilience. Largely unchanged since the late sixties, it's still all about the same instrumentation, the same mixing strategies (with the very special reverb use), the same formations. (Compare the seventies, eighties and nineties.) What's perhaps the most striking is the way they've not tried to go electronic at all. In fact, there were plenty more synth experiments in dansband in the seventies than they are today, simple keyboards excepted.

Contrast this with the attitude in Germany, whose schlager music of the seventies was quite similar to the Swedish material, but where it's now morphed completely into techno-derived schlagerfox. Meanwhile, any band in Sweden which steps outside the boundaries will inevitably end up being labelled pop instead, a fate which hit the above featured Barbados. Like I said, it's curiously resilient.

So Sweden is stuck with a very thoroughly liveist holdout. My professor at university singles out the live-like nature of the recordings as their main strength, and of course the bands are designed to tour and play venues constantly. On the TV show this becomes very interesting as the bands are required to cover a pop song (which, of course, they do regularly in any case in an effort to keep up to date). Highlights so far have included dansband covers of Apologize and Take On Me, re-liveifications of largely electronic tracks that (in that spirit) remind me of that cool Kurdish village dance video I posted a while ago.

I'll keep following the show and try to understand this music, which I've yet to fully do. Especially the judges' verdicts are often a mystery to me (what made this band good or bad?) and unlike Idol I can't comfortably say they're wrong.



Some types of music are never going to be exchanged over the counter in record stores. Some types of music you'll never stumble accross while browsing through Amazon, because they're not there. Some types of music no blog is ever going to link you to.

The obvious one is white power music, universally reviled and touched by no-one in mainstream society. (Well, except maybe YouTube, which has hundreds of clips. I'm not going to link to them for obvious reasons.) With white power music, we're never going to see any feedback into mainstream music - it's the very end of music in that sense. Whatever goes in is never going to come back. If music is a tree, white power music is the very end of a branch, a little twig that's never going to feed back towards the stem.

In a language magazine I read I found another twig - Esperanto pop. As a language without a country which has an ever dwindling population and no commercial presence, the likelihood of any influence seeping onto another genre from here is minimal. And yet it's a vibrant enough scene: there are record companies, dedicated websites with news, even supposedly cult classics.

In a world where everything is seemingly interconnected, these branch endings are becoming increasingly rare. Bhangra in the UK, for instance, used to be one, with separate record distribution channels and mostly desi listeners, but then it seeped across, as anything creative usually is wont to do. I guess it makes for a vastly more interesting world - certainly the Bhangra influence from Tanzania to Bulgaria is fascinating.

But there's something about the twigs that appeals to me. Maybe it's the sense of seeing my own society in a different way. Sure, I can always find some remote local music on an obscure Myspace page, Singaporean shoegazer, whatever, but here's stuff right under my nose that's seemingly equally inaccessible in "the tree". Maybe I should get around to those Kenyan Stockholm groups again...