What's that riff?

Okay, musical similarity headtazer #1 coming up: What on earth does the opening riff of "Jacket Hangs" by The Blue Aeroplanes remind me of? The first 5-6 notes are totally similar to another riff that I-just-can't-place.

Help me! Songtapper was no help.


Khmer, Mon, an update for you

Well, the show about Cambodian hip-hop that was suggested to me after my last post has finally aired. Papa's Kappsäck turned out to be an interesting show and well worth watching, even if a lot of airtime was wasted on silly stunts. (There's a link to a podcast above. Probably watchable even for an international audience, especially the last half hour - love the bit where Papa Dee spontaneously finds harmonic similarities between sixties Cambodian material and The Temptations.)
Unfortunately, the show really didn't provide the answers I was looking for. It featured the same artist and producer I'd already linked to (and even the same street dance teacher), explained the beginnings of the style with returnee refugees and confirmed my impression of the scene as fairly small but dynamic and growing.

As for the two main questions I had in my last post, there was little information on offer. I still have no idea how most cambodians (and the cambodian elites, and the middle class in the countryside) view the music. As for the class and social position of the participants, they're obviously not of the absolutely poorest cadre of the population, but I got the impression that they're not in the richest quadrant either - the environments and clothing were a bit contradictory, as were the statements made. I've had some experience of third world country living standards (used to live in Tanzania) but what do you make of a man in a worn-out t-shirt who lives in a fairly big but ill-maintained house and who speaks about "underground culture"?

There was one piece of new information that very much interested me: that deportees, former Khmer Rouge refugees convicted of crimes and deported from the US, played such a significant role in the scene. This involuntary injection of a culturally detached group of american urban poor makes for a very interesting and dynamic process in the creation of new culture - I wonder how other deportee groups, like those in central america, have faired in this respect?

I obviously didn't quite get the answers I wanted from Papas Kappsäck, but they might have during the filming. I'll send off an e-mail to the production company and see if they might be able to help me...


The problematic issue of the white audience

"The litmus test for the authenticity of a particular artistic expression can never be the people who consume it. It has to be the issue of what you intend." - Professor Michael Eric Dyson on Black Tree TV.

Hello. My name is Johan, and I am a white male.

Twice this week I've been reminded of this fact (as if it would normally escape me). First, Anton Hultberg Hansen wrote something really interesting in a commentary thread at Swedish hip hop blog Kinky Afro (in Swedish, unfortunately). Then I tried my utmost not to get drawn into a flame war by an unpleasant troll at Counterglow, and my moderately sloppy attempt at reasoned debate again brough out the race card. So whether I've wanted to or not, I've had to think about the issue of what white-maleness means in terms of the consumption of culture, and more disturbingly what my white-maleness means when I consume culture.

In the video quoted above (that Anton clued me on to) Professor Dyson says something else interesting. "Blues music today is primarily consumed by white people. Does that mean B. B. King has sold his soul [...] to white suburbia?" It's meant to be a rhetorical question, of course, but that doesn't mean it can't be answered in an interesting way. As a starting point for exploring this thorny issue, here's pretty much what my reply would be.

We white men excert a disproportionate amount of power in this world. We largely control the capital and a significant proportion of the buying power. We excert most of the political control. And because of our generally better access to education and outlets, a large part of the discourse about our world is performed and set in stone by us.

Generally I think we can all agree that there's a persuasive argument to be made for looking beyond this discourse. History (as dictated by us) and taste (ditto) has cast away a lot of interesting cultural expressions through the years, mostly those by women and ethnic minorities, and it's definitely worthwhile to try to reexamine that which conventional tastemakers have skipped over. I don't think anyone (short of a bunch of conservatives) can object to the idea of broadening the listening repertoire and reinstating the forgotten.

A more controversial approach would be to try to examine the roots of the pervailing discourse and explore its motivations and underlying presuppositions. In the case of B. B. King, one could ask what exactly it is about him that makes him appealing to whites to such an extent, and if your answer is age, unthreatening exoticism, the prevalent desire for the primitive and his direct marketing aimed at whites then you're inevitably in for a fight. (If you answer quality, life-wisdom and closeness to tradition you're probably safe.) Connecting the arts to a wider society, especially if you question the basic premises of the ruling elites, is never going to be easy.

Still harder assualted would be the proposition that, yes, B.B. King is a sell-out. He's chosen to make a music that's directed and sold towards a white male audience, one might contend. Isn't that practically the definition of a sell-out? Someone who chiefly markets to those outside their own core group? I've known myself to make this argument on occasion, and argue from quality that music that's marketed mainly towards it's own group has been "good" and that if it goes on to sell to the powerful it is "bad". It's not difficult to pick out examples like Washington go-go, which in a matter of years went from excellent to tired solely on the basis of the switched audience. I also have often made a colonialism-type claim, saying that the labour of the musicians mainly benefits the already powerful.

This sort of scheme is fairly easy to apply to contemporary music (or historical music that was at the time designed to appeal to The Man) but what about historical music in general? In his early days B B King never envisonaged his later appeal to a broader audience. Does the fact that it appeared taint that stuff too? What about something like northern soul?

That's another genre of black music where white men provide the expertise and audience. However, it is on records and the records were, at the time, created mainly for a black audience. So does that make it alright? And is it even true? Motown's chief revenue was, after, all, white people. Is that a reason to devalue Motown? It was explicit in selling to white people, so it never sold out, right?

Which brings us around to the main issue in the video, Hip-hop. Newpaper columnist Stanley Crouch makes a claim that 80% of hip-hop is consumed by "white guys in the suburbs". I've no idea if this is true but it might well be the case. The difference, if one was to base a critique of B.B. King and his audience on this sort of figures, is that here it is not the intended consumers that matter but the actual consumers - the very fact that white people are buying it is problematic, independent of who the music was created for. (Hip-hop is generally marketed towards a black audience, with the exception of the most commercially viable set and backpacker rap, making it not sell-out if you only care about intended audiences.)

Even I balk at this fourth possible approach (which Anton advocates in his biggest post in the thread) but some of the things it implies hit unfortunately close to home. For instance, if like me you're mainly interested in music created for those who are very different from me then aren't I also promoting the exotic and participating in a neo-colonial game? There's a huge gap between me and the poor kids in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Am I a "global hipster", naively glorifying poverty? Then there's the issue of expertise - if we white males learn too much about this music could it be that we're the ones who write its history and discourse? Are we just as bad as any previous generation of white male as per above?

These things worry me, and yet I don't feel like taking the defensive approach and only listen to music from my local cultural context. I think the solution is self-distance, humility and constantly questioning your own premises, therefore this post among others.

So, is B. B. King a sellout? Probably not. Maybe in some contexts.

Is his music irrelevant because it's being bough by whites? No. But certainly it's no more relevant than all the music white males have passed over.

Can I, as a white male, legitimately promote this "passed-over" music without integrating it in the discourse of "music accepted by white males" which I'm trying to defeat? Probably not that either. But at least I can try.


Genre of the Week: Pop, part 1

When the term was first concieved in the United States "pop" meant broad, mass-appealing commercial music, while more avant-garde music had special genre names. Today, in Sweden, it is the mass-appealing genres that have very specific names, like "hip-hop/R&B" or "schlager", while the more avant-garde music goes under one big collective name - "pop"!

This amazing tranformation shows the nebulousness of the term pop, and not least the huge gap in communication between Europe and the US, where "pop" still refers very specifically to commercial music and the genre "indie pop", however soft it is, is still referred to as "indie rock". With Sweden being extreme the other way (Best Pop at awards shows is the narrowest, least commercial category) the situation is almost as absurd as with the word "liberal", which means "social democrat" in the US and "hardline economic conservative" in Sweden!

The term pop goes back to the 19th century at least and originally referred to all of what we today think of as "popular music". I guess it was naturally so - this was an era of sharp divisions between "high" and "low" music and the concept of "non-commercial" popular music would have been anathema to the Victorians as indeed it was to philosopher Theodor Adorno, who famouly denounced pop in 1941. At about the same time, however, the popular music form of jazz took a decidedly anti-commercial turn and suddenly there were strata within popular music to consider... It is no surprise that "pop" came to be applied to the commercial end - these first few years of the forties also saw the first charts being published and categorisation becoming important.

When the teenagers in the US finally rebelled against the establishment a decade and a half later, their new-found energy was directed against pop. No great shock there. It becomes considerably more problematic when the new music reached Europe without its subcultural context - here the new terms "pop" and "rock'n'roll" became largely intertwined, and the rebelliousness was stripped of its character of authenticity. It was the new unfamiliar music the kids wanted, not "real music". Larry Parnes's manufactured no-talents like Tommy Steele had the same level of credibility as Elvis Presley here in Sweden, and both were definately "pop".

Still, it was the American definition of the word that retained importance for a while. New sounds manufactured along the old models were still labelled pop - teen pop, Brill Building pop and later sunshine pop, bubblegum pop were all american genres with a highly commercial bent. Typically, the aspect of these genres that took hold in europe was not the commerciality but the lack of hard, mean edges - as the rocker/mod rivalry in england came to a final climax in the mid-sixties, there was no problem for non-manufactured mod-derived british invasion bands to label their music pop. Sweet vocal arrangements, orchestrations, pretty melodies instead of commerciality became the hallmarks of pop in England, as futher cemented by the creation of genres like psychedelic pop and power pop. In the US, there was still no problem calling similarly soft material "rock", leading to nomenclature like folk rock or soft rock.

The latter term would have been especially surprising to the English, as during the seventies one more crucial dimension were added to the layers of meaning of pop. In England commercial orientation towards a female audience appeared as a pop attribute to contrast with the male-oriented rock genres like pub rock, prog rock and hard rock. When traditionally feminine attributes became popular again, with disco (a definate pop genre in both countries, at least eventually) and even more so with synth, it was inevitable the term for this music would be "pop". In an echo of the sixties mod/rocker rivalry, the eighties saw a new romantic/greaser rivalry where the former group went towards the pop end to contrast themselves against the highly testosterone-fuelled maleness of the latter.

Today's pop, here in Sweden, is derived from the similarly early-eighties-created genre of indie pop, and is indeed soft and anti-testicular as well as being sophisticated. The only piece of the puzzle left is the dissapearance of the name from the mainstream end - why isn't commercial music still labelled "pop"? Well, from the sixties onwards, other types of commercially successful music have appeared - soul, dance, R&B and dansband/schlager - that eventually squeezed pure pop off the charts. I guess the Idol phenomenon has occasionally thrown pure pop back onto the charts but discount Idol stars and the current swedish hit list is all hip-hop, dance and R&B, plus a small selection of long-established stars like Britney and Lenny Kravitz.

Pop is dead, long live pop. Next week I'll take a closer look at the musical characteristics of the most commercial pop, which have stayed surprisingly constant over the decades.


Two Malta CDs

Well, I've had a listen to the material I brought with me from the Med and I have to say the stuff is fairly underwhelming. I had two priorities when shopping on the island, buying some local hip-hop and checking out the local genre ghana, and I guess both of those are fulfilled. Still, I was hoping for more from the descriptions I've read that instilled me with a sense of false hope.

On friday I bought the hip-hop CD, in what seems to be the only independent record store on the island. Hooligan is Malta's best-established rapper (probably a bad sign, in hindsight) and puts out fairly tepid hip-hop with dull beats (but fun titles, that's what drew me in I guess). As you might guess the hip-hop scene on Malta is not exactly huge. Two decent picks from a bad bunch below, one with an interesting use of strings and the other one veering towards hip house.

Now Ghana (pronounced aa-na, and like most folk music genres meaning "song") is a different matter entirely. Because it's actually fairly interesting, it's just that the descriptions offered veer quite a distance from the truth. I guess the romatic notion that the arabs would have left a still-existing musical tradition behind when they left over a milennium ago is fairly ridiculous when you think about it, but it's very frequently repeated, even in the supposedly scholarly article above.

I bought two CDs from a pirate stall at the big Valetta sunday market. Piracy is very frequent in Malta as the copyright laws were only recently instated and are very badly enforced. One of the CDs I bought at the behest of the stallkeeper, and one because I saw an old man buying the same one before me; that way I felt insured against both old men with bad taste and tourist traps.

Turns out the stallkeeper's CD was miles better (the other one was rather poppy). Here are the supposedly two initial tracks on the CD, but to my ears they blend into just one, 30 minutes long.

There's no doubt in my mind that this material is fairly deeply entrenched in the European tradition. The guitar and the melodic base are obviously tonal, complete with some sort of cadences that are apparent even in the song. Substract all the idiosyncratic preformance elements and it's not terribly distant from Neapolitan song or something else fairly classical in nature.

The length, the singing style and the wavering tonality in the voice are also plentifully represented in other ur-european traditions - serbian guslari for instance contains similar heterophonic arrangements, microtonality and wavering rhythm. Come to think of it, ghana may actually be fairly exceptional in southern european music because it's so Non-arabic in nature - Portugese, Spanish and Greek folk music all contain a much stronger eastern influence!

So while the Arabic invasion is felt in the architecture, language and probably in the culture, it's not present in the music as much. It's such an appealing idea that it might be there, but alas it's not. Of course, "arabic" has come to mean something else according to the research paper above - the pre-modern, what is not recognisably a modern invention. I guess that's why the myth persists.


Malta Travel Report

What an interesting, beautiful, compact country!

I've had a great week in Malta with some excellent sightseeing, agreeable weather, interesting walks in historic environments and literally hundreds of pictures of cats (my fiancée asked me to take them). Malta is a dream holiday destination but its culture is equally fascinating, stuck between the east and west, between the past and the present.

Close out the modernity for a moment and you could almost be in some far-off tropical land, with gaudily painted old 50s buses, tailors sitting behind unmarked wizened doors and a strange semitic language full of harsh sounds and glottal stops. Yet it's also recognisably modern and western with all the trappings of our culture, like handicap parking spaces, a powerful environmental lobby, and skate parks.

The mixed heritage of a succession of different reigning powers has left an indelible mark on Malta, not least in the housing which happily mixes Arabic flat-roofed buildings, Spanish balconies and British terraced rows. That creolisation mixed with some other curious aspects of maltese culture (like the extreme and very public Catholicism) makes it a potential goldmine for any social or cultural scientist.

That goes for the muisic too, to some extent. Ghana, the traditional working-class music that's Malta's equivalent to greek Rebetika or portugese Fado, is a fascinating mixture of Neapolitan or Sicilan song and strange foreign-sounding microtonality. An island of its diminuitive size (roughly a third of the size of Stockholm, both geographically and population-wise) is never going to be a hotbed of cultural diversity, but it's remarkable how many unique things they've pressed out.

My mother (who is Hungarian, another frequently occupied nation) offers up the theory that an opressed culture holds on very tightly to its own visible (or audible!) expressions and will try to retain as many as possible in the face of a dominant ruler. That would also help explain why nothing very much new seems to be appearing on the music scene except for fairly dull western rip-offs and a bit of house - they're holding on to traditions and don't have room for any more.

I'm hoping another invasive group will give the music scene the boost it needs to get started. Malta, as Europe's southern outpost, recieves thousands of African refugees that travel in small boats, paretas, hoping to make it to shore. These predominantly young men are recieved with some hostility by the homogenous Maltese society and mostly (for now) live in the refugee camps of Marsa and Hal Far. The camps are free to access and free to leave and many take illegal unskilled jobs to supplement their meagre government allowance.

I visited both camps (by mistake, call me the accidental social tourist) and there was plenty of music playing all round in the little camp bars. Since Africans (from all over west and north africa, we met Ghanaians, Togolese people, Moroccans...) are increasingly becoing very prevalent in the society, that music is likely to spread. Malta has a no deportations policy and it's likely we'll see plenty of interesting mix culture coming along in a generation's time. There's definately hope.

I bought some CDs while on Malta that I will be posting assessments of in my next post. Meanwhile, here's some more photos from the journey.


Fun meme game + brief hiatus

I've been enjoying the "create your own (prog) rock artwork" meme game on and off for the past week. It's a nifty little excercise in the relationship between music and visual arts, the nomenclature of album titles and the genre-based design of album covers. I don't think I realistically "hit" the genre of either of the below two examples, but you see what I'm getting at:

Anyway, the meme has spread enough to have 923 hits on Google, so other people are probably enjoying it too. It's certainly fascinating to see what everyone else comes up with... Not so much in the apt combinations as the way you can use just little bits of graphics and typography to convey meaning.


I'm off to Malta for a week-long holiday with only brief internet access, so there will be no Genre of the Week this week unless I really take a fancy to ghana. Still, I'll see what I might catch of the music life of the island (Mathematikal seems to be a promising band) and there could be pictures, I got an IXUS for Christmas and I plan to use it. (Any tips on what music to look out for would be appreciated.)

See you in a week!


Genre of the Week: Khmer Rap

For once I'm going to pose questions about a genre in one of these. Because even though I usually research stuff fairly thoroughly, on this occasion I think I might have been fooled.

I was convinced after watching a whole lot of Cambodian hip-hop videos from all sorts of sources that something seriously cool was going on there. Could this be the first "real" (well-integrated) Asian hip-hop scene? (Someone shout out if you know of another!)

So after looking at a dozen or so videos I plonked it down as an "integrated style" in my last post. But then I put in an "increasingly" as a caveat, because a quick google definitely rang some alarm bells. First there was this article, which (in hindsight) probably describes the beginning of the scene. What worried me there was the diasporadic status of the main rapper, the small numbers of records sold, and especially the mention of "trendy" young people, "inspirational" music and the fact that it's even mentioned in AsianWeek. Then it was the fact that most of the best videos I'd seen on Youtube were by a producer named Cream who is very articulate and uses the web fully, appearing on MySpace etc.

So, was I fooled? Is this a "cosmopoiltan" music by a small upper-middle-class elite? Well, maybe. But is there even such a thing as an upper-middle-class elite in Cambodia, one of the 40 poorest countries in the world? (Pakistan, which is "poorer", definately has one.) I googled on, and maybe my "increasingly" label is indeed accurate. Blog posts like this, or these, or even a throwaway mention like this does suggest that there's more to it going on than just a few rich dudes playing around. Then I came across this article and I started feeling a whole lot better about the genre...

With a bit of source criticism, a whole lot more listening (mostly trying to avoid more cream391 videos) and a whole bunch of mentions, I can fairly safely say the following, at least:

1. Khmer hip-hop is a very creative genre which differs significantly enough from the original American stuff to be very interesting indeed, with a great range of sample sources (love the old Khmer pop samples from the sixties) and some good-quality songwriting and vocals. New material is released on a constant basis.

2. The rap scene is fairly large in Cambodia, though not as big as the by-now-traditional pop scene. There are numerous bands and it's fairly well-distributed. Different competing artists spur each other on and it's caught on with at least some subsections of the youth, especially in the capital.

But obviously I want to know more, stuff that google can't give me. What's the actual popularity of hip-hop in Cambodia? How big is it in the regions? What social groups are buying it, making it, distributing it? Is there an "oppositional resistance" (thanks Wayne) baked into the music or is it seen as fairly "safe" pop even by the elders? I'd love for someone who knows the scene to give me some info on it, because I really do like this stuff.


Who Put the 'Hip' in Global Hip-Hop?

Sorry if I drift into ethnomusicologist territory, but it's fascinating I think how music is percieved so differently by different individuals, groups, societies. This perception will impact the role of the music in the society and ultimately the sound of the music itself (which of course steers the perception et reductio ad absurdum).

This applies not least to hip-hop, which is global enough to spin off into all sorts of directions. Communities of musicians in different places will each have a different "hip-hop" as theirs. How exactly this divergence happens is very curious and occasionally seems totally arbitrary - the music can have one position in one country and be something else entirely in its neighbour.

Here are four of these possiblities, roughly in order of how well-integrated they are in the local musical culture and coincedentally in vague downwards order of social class. I'm not sure if the two are related.

Firstly, hip-hop can be reduced to a series of purely musical attributes to be strongly integrated into pop music. Japanese hip-hop, for instance, tends to be just as manufactured, fractured and wonderfully strange as the rest of that country's music - "hip-hop" becomes another dialect of the broadest pop music and is not treated as any kind of cultural separate. As a consequence it tends to be a tad superficial, and it's hardly a coincidence that the only area where Japan can fully compete in the urban stakes is street clothing.

A similar attitude can be found in other countries with strong domestic pop traditions like Thailand, but also to a surprising extent in Kenya where it is very much part of a broad pop vocabulary. I guess the vaguely hip-hop oriented local urban styles like kwaito in South Africa could also qualify in this category, but they're not hip-hop per se.

Another fairly superficial approach to hip-hop is to see it as a movement (as cemented circa 1989) with a rigid set of "four elements" and definite ideological rules. In Britain, for instance hip-hop tends to be a strongly middle-class affair where purists weed out any non-believers. Such an approach tends to produce very few hits, and indeed domestic hip-hop never really worked as a genre in the UK (until it was parodied).

Brazil also has a largely middle-class oriented hip-hop subculture, as did South Africa until a few years ago. Significantly, each of those countries had a strong working-class urban style at the same time, blocking a potential trickle-down of hip-hop (jungle/UK garage/grime, kwaito and funk respectively).

Most hip-hop in the world seems to fall into a third, broadly subcultural category like the Hungarian video above. Throughout Europe, for instance, hip-hop tends to be a clear community-formed subculture that tends to go beyond any social categorisation - it's just music. Here in Sweden, our best-selling rappers can unproblematically be from an affluent background or academics or hippies or owning catering companies, it is a freely accessible subculture like any other.

At the deepest level, though, hip-hop takes over near-completely as the predominant working-class (or minority) urban youth expression, where it acquires a dual role as the voice of the poor and as great music. Hip-hop has this "kwaito role" in France, in Tanzania, in Senegal and increasingly in Cambodia. Maybe all this music will eventually settle in new local styles as the Tanzanian and Cambodian examples are clearly in the process of doing, but in some areas it's been going strong since the mid-eighties.

Perhaps the fact is, though, that hip-hop is (even in the US) pretty much all of these things. It is a broad, popular style. It does have a strong history that some groups will strongly defend. It is a subculture that cuts across society. And it is a deep expression of the opressed urban youth. Perhaps it is futile to see hip-hop as any one thing in one country if it is as multifaceted and global as it actually is...