Blog break #3: Bulgaria

In a spiritual continuation of my Malta and Hungary trips this year, I'm going even futher east to spend a week celebrating my girlfriend's mother in law's birthday with her entire family, 16 people in all. The destination is the black sea coast of Bulgaria, a prime tourist destination for Swedes these days. But, what's more interesting for me, also a country with a fascinating culture of pop music. As usual, I hope to bring back CDs and pictures.

Bulgaria is a typical Balkan country in a lot of ways, but maybe more extreme than most in its split identities, living with both an Ottoman heritage and a status of being absolutely ur-slavic (Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the russian-orthodox chuch, comes from here).
It struggles with both a desire of ancient purity (typified by the communist-nationalist regime of Todor Zhikov and the international success of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares) and a constant radical "corruption" of that ideal... Chalga, the local east-seeking equivalent of Manele, has more to face than just pure gypsy-hating racism. This despite it being rather more safely "European" than its Romanian cousin.

Still, at its best it's still a wonderful genre. As is Bulgarian hip-hop, one of the best integrated in the region.



And the combination of the two:

I'm particularly in awe of Azis in that last video, easily one of my favourite performers in any genre. So expect a lot more results from this trip than the last two - If I get any time I'm going in deep in my attempt to be a good musical tourist.


The counterpublic and its parasitic counterculture

This may well be one of the best articles I've ever read on the internet.

Nearly two weeks ago Transpontine over at History is Made at Night (which is one of my favourite blogs) posted a response to my article about feminine men and their subcultures (a topic which, from another perspective entirely, has been getting a lot of interesting discussion over at Wayne & wax). In it, he pointed out an article on the blog Pop Feminist, entitled "Can Women Be Part of Counterculture?"

It's been spinning madly in my head ever since. It's a brilliant read and it's helped me get my mind straight on loads of issues I've posed questions over on this blog, issues of class, race and not least gender.

At heart, the article picks up a question which I've never given deeper thought before: why does the counterculture, or hipster culture, or alternative culture, consist almost entirely of kids from privileged groups? White, middle-class, heterosexual boys? If I'd offered up an explanation previously, it would have had to do with class almost exclusively – the counterculture is a middle-class culture and society excludes other ethnic groups and many women from economic gain.

Pop Feminist, on the other hand, offers a much more persuasive argument. Based in part on a critique of the "white negro" of Norman Mailer, she offers up a distinction of two types of marginal groups:
Let me suggest a basic foundation for counterculture:
Elective marginalization

Women and other disenfranchised groups, on the other hand, constitute a counterpublic:
Forced marginalization
Whereas Mailer talks about the "psychopathology" of blacks, Pop Feminist puts in much more clear sociological terms. Counterculture, hipsterism, etc. is the concious approach towards a marginalised state from those who are privilidged enough not to have to be there. Those who are already marginalised have no place in it, and constitute a counterpublic. It really puts words on my distaste for a lot of the hipsteristic activities that I encounter, and it seems to me to be a very profound insight that I've still yet to fully digest. (As you can tell by this rather rambling post.)

It's frightening how many issues this cuts across that I've been dealing with in this blog and elsewhere. For instance, the whole discussion on slumming/trustafarianism/wiggerism that stirred so much controversy here suddenly appears to be of central importance after all. The attraction of hipsters to working-class and black culture that I've discussed here is given a good explanation, as is why the two nevertheless never meet.

And, of course, the issue Transpotine was responding to also makes much more sense. If the "feminine" men are thought of as "gender slummers", the exclusion of women that they participate in is a natural step – women can't be part of the counterculture since they're part of the counterpublic.


The Sidestepper Parallel Problem

It's funny about parallel evolution and how fashion and marketing works.

As you may know, I've spent quite a bit of my net time hanging around with a group of hipsters in the so-called nu-whirl community - DJs and fans, mostly from the US, who make bass-driven music from the third world fashionable and release it through Mad Decent or Dutty Artz or something. What's fun about these guys is how they often can co-exist in a city with a large immigrant community and play exactly the same music as them without meeting up very closely- in effect two parallel structures, clubs and communities for the same music.

What's even more fun, though, is that they can be just as parallel with other groups of hipsters. Take this example:

Maga Bo is an American DJ who's spent seven years living in Brazil, where he collaborates with both local and foreign artists and mixes beats and local pop genres from around the world. You can detect little bits of hip-hop, Jamaican music and drum&bass in most of his work.

Sidestepper is a british DJ who's spent fourteen years living in Colombia, where he collaborates with both local and foreign artists and mixes beats and local pop genres from around the world. You can detect little bits of hip-hop, Jamaican music and drum&bass in most of his work.

And yet Maga Bo is a fixture, more or less permanent, of these "global ghettotech" blogs while Sidestepper never makes a look in. Is he obscure? Haven't people heard of him? On the contrary he's well-publicised and appears regularly in the media. Is the sound very different? Judge for yourself - I'd say Maga Bo is a bit sharper but certainly Sidestepper has quite similar qualities. Do they work differently? Actually I'd say Sidestepper probably collaborates even more deeply than Maga Bo does.

No, the real reason is, of course, that they are part of different groups of hipsters. Sidestepper has a history of working with Peter Gabriel and has appeared on several Putumayo compilations. He appears at regular rock festivals with a group of live musicians. Obviously, this is all a big no-no on the scene.

Funnily enough, when it comes to marketing, Sidestepper was pitched with a more "urban" (ie. global ghettotechy) image in the beginning. Compare the original album cover for his first CD with the one that it was re-released with once Putamayo et al accepted him:


Industrial Cool, Heroin Chic and Pop Culture as Slumming

Researchers usually strive vainly to be objective but sometimes you can read out devastating critiques between the lines. Like last week, when I read an article about urban exploring in a big Swedish newspaper, in which an ethnologist explains the values of the movement:
"There's an aesthetisation of the decay," he says. "People see something exciting in old houses, where corrosion has started to form patterns and nature is taking its environment back."

Robert Willim sees this as an exotification, even if it can appear to be a search for something authentic. Those who explore abandoned factories rarely have any previous experience of the place they visit. The places can bring up associations to history, but just as easily to fictional worlds, he claims.
(Emphasis mine.)
I'm definitely going to check out his book, because I've always seen urban exploring as something essentially positive. Yet it totally hits me how essentially correct the man is: we're never going to gain essential insight into industrial buildings. We've never been part of their world, or lived under their system. We don't get the depth of their complexities of meaning.

And I'm wondering whether we're completely guilty of this kind of thing in the music world as well.
The week before last me and my girlfriend were making a package to send to a friend. I proceded to "artfully" put gaffa tape and stickers on the package to make it look a bit fun and designer sloppy, or so I thought. My girlfriend, who comes from a working class family, asked me: "You rich kids think it's cool to make things things look badly and rushedly put together. Are you trying to be working class?" Well, are we?

Abject poverty, just like those oppressive industrial locales, is surprisingly often considered cool. Heroin Chic is the classic example, or more recently that spread in Vogue India with the poor people carrying fashion items. We're exotifying without having experienced the places we visit. I say "we" because I'm certainly (at least on the surface) part of the charade as well, listening to music from a series of poor ghettoes.

Maybe ultimately all of popular culture is like this? Oh, it certainly can be deep, and interesting, and compulsive, but it's not really my culture. It's not directed at me. In my social situation, as a graduate student in musicology, I should be listening (at best) to Ólafur Arnalds or something. Some people in my situation access popular culture through who they once were, going to nostalgia nights and collecting seventies Japanese toy robots, but I've never been a homeless kid on the streets of Luanda. (Thankfully.)

Where does that leave us? I can understand the impulse of wanting to understand and empathise completely with the poor, however foolhardy it might seem. I can just as well understand the desire to steer clear of it all and construct your own system of music where the poor are circumvented. But yet it's clear that those with less media access than me have something important to say that needs to be heard. Rather than be a trustafarian maybe I can somehow be a contact that helps bridge the access gap?

It's another very vain hope. But next time I go urban exploring, whether in real life or in music, I think I'd like my guide to be one of the old workers.


Diaspora inna de Märsta

I think I finally found some reasonably interesting diasporadic music up in cold, cold Sweden. I've always been jealous of other countries with their fun minorities, but now there's a scene here as well: the Swedish-Kenyan music scene. Don't know very much more at the moment than what I get through the (occasionally fascinating) Kenya Stockholm blog, but I'm determined to find out more. I think I'll send out some e-mails.

Africa Unitez - A-A

J-Jay - Microphone Playa

I do find it slightly amusing that two of the principal artists are both called JJ.


Nude dancing and peripheral tourism

I'm sorry if I'm slowly becoming the world stripping analysis blog, but I want to make a return to a subject I've touch on a couple of times before. First I wrote (flightily and naively) about mapouka, the west-african answer to booty dancing and its transformation into a type of pornography, and about the media's response to it. Then I wrote something about Indonesia's obsession with sexy dangdut, with another repertoire of highly provocative dances.

I think I've been dealing in a fairly liberal way with these types of strip and sex dances, focusing on them as an engagement with modernity rather than as repressive exercises in male power, but then I read a couple of things that gave me pause. First, last week I read about ekimansulo, Ugandas strip-dancing phenomenon. This article seems to suggest it is used to attract sex tourists to Uganda. Then blog Womanist Musings posted an article about the reed ceremony, a "traditional" practice that's deeply patriarchal and that also attracts foreign sex tourists. Searching around a bit also turned up a video of "Andhra village girls" stripping (which I'm not going to link to), but I've not been able to find a context for that.

But it doesn't matter. The pattern that emerges from all five practices is clear: here we have all these largely conservative societies with hard pornography and prostitution bans - yet sexualised and nude dancing seems to be relatively okay, even encouraged by authorities in some cases.

The obvious question is why. I'm sure Transpontine over at History is Made at Night is better able to theorise on the differences between porn photography (universally banned - and almost hyper-concrete?), prostitution (banned but often tolerated - and concrete?) and dance (widely tolerated - and abstract?). I'm sure there's also a tradition of allowing much more on the stage than off, with jesters and cabaret often being allowed to be risqué and politically uncomfortable. Certainly, Amanda's Angels seems to fit right into that sort of tradition, with it's flamboyant leader and full night shows.

One thing that strikes me, though, about these particular exotic dances (if you'll pardon the expression) is their actual exoticism. None of these are straight-forward copies of western stripping, a practice that in most of these communities would very likely be banned. Possibly it could be a way to legitimise the practice but to me it seems very strongly connected to the tourism angle - is it a coincidence that authorities see ekimansulo as a tourist draw or that most of the searches for "mapouka" that end up on this blog are from the US, UK and France?

"Sex tourism" may be an unpleasant euphemism for white rich men using their power to coerce sex, but let's not forget it is also a form of tourism. It works under similar rules. The buyer decides. The exotic pulls. (Just like with the media, I guess.) Even the sex tourists, at least those in Swaziland, are engaged in trying to catch hold of that elusive authenticity. And, willing to supply it, are the collaborating elites of the local community (in this case the males), exploiting their women in a classic system of core-periphery. As a study claims on the Wikipedia page:
Economically underdeveloped tourist-receiving countries are promoted as being culturally different so that (in the Western tourist's understanding) prostitution and traditional male domination of women have less stigma than similar practices might have in their home countries.
Yet seeing "world stripping" (by analogy to "world music") as a practice designed purely for western eyes is probably fallacious too. Certainly, the audience that goes to many of these shows seems to be mainly local. But just as the elites in the periphery help the core achieve its aims, it also often shares its values. What's not to say that what we're seeing in a sexy dangdut show (or whatever) isn't merely domestic sex tourism? The traditional and exotic is a draw even for regular domestic tourists. And what's not to say a local man won't being equally attracted by the prospect of playing the male part in "traditional male domination of women"?

I don't think seeing these practices as isolated manifestations of cultural empowerment really cuts it any more. The tourism angle really hammers into place the fact that the global patriarchy is far from being merely the sum of its parts.


The Bravest Mercury

By the time you read this the Mercury Music Prize winner will probably have been revealed. Everyone says it's going to Burial, which means it's probably going to be Laura Marling or something.

The Mercury Music Prize is an annual music award to an album by a British act, implicitly modelled after the standard format for literary awards. It tends to get a lot of publicity in the UK, perhaps because it might be the only music award which has reasonable credibility, treading a fine line between taste and populism and largely pleasing everyone. The winners, in retrospect, have been either bona-fide classics (Different Class) or largely forgotten but fondly remembered critical favourites (Ok) and almost every choice has stood the test of time with critics, perhaps at the expense of some rather unexciting picks. Sure, occasionally they've slipped up, like when they gave the good but hardly innovative Ms Dynamite an urban-crowd-appeasing Mercury a few months before the grime phenomenon broke, but they corrected it straight away the next year by overlooking the usual indie candidates and picking Dizzee Rascal.

Only one album in the history of the prize stands out as truly controversial. 1994 was one of the portal years of britpop, with huge critical and commercial success for Pulp and Blur. Other albums, like those by Therapy? and The Prodigy, are still classics within their respective genres. And yet, for the first and (so far) last time, the prize instead went to a pure commercial pop act, and one at that that's largely forgotten today. To most people, it was a mistake. To me, it was probably the bravest decision the jury ever made, totally at odds with the press-pandering careful taste that's been their hallmark ever since.

Elegant Slumming by M People is, to me, perhaps the finest album of the 1990s altogether, and certainly the best album the Hacienda scene ever produced. Not only that, but it completely symbolises everything that was good about 90s music.

Usually, I have to say, I appreciate the harder-edged, multi-levelled music of the eighties and the new millennium more. But Elegant Slumming is the nineties done good. Rather than aiming for the cleanly recorded, sharp, spacious eighties sound the album is almost wholly organic, using warm textures in appropriate amounts to bind together the songs without (as was common at the time) outmudding the textural detail. Correct balance like that, and subtlety in general, is another definite nineties quality that permeates the album - nothing stands out, the sharp edges have been oh-so-softly rounded off, yet only just the right amount. The cover of the very eighties track "Don't Look Any Futher" is only such a subtle transformation, a little flipping of focus, but it suddenly is made to feel very elegant and very nineties and totally fits into the album as a whole.

And then there's the sense of unification that permeates the album. The creators have wildly different backgrounds in soul and post-punk and underground dance, yet it's hardly noticeable where different things come from - there are just there rhythms and instrumental tracks and melody snippets that seem to belong yet actually come from somewhere else. There's bits of synthesizer sounds and sampled live instruments, sometimes extending into whole solos, that you can't quite put your finger on where they come from because they all sound so natural and fresh in the context. When you do find something you recognize the source of, it's usually something esoteric like phrygian modal jazz. The only occasion this subtle organic unification breaks down is the only weak track on the album, the cod-merengue "La Vida Loca".

All this wouldn't matter if it the songs weren't any good, but they are - the song craftsmanship is structurally impeccable and instantly memorable, if (you guessed it) done in a very subtle way. Together with the level of detail (you constantly discover new ideas, new rhythms and new textures on every listen, especially in stereo) it makes an album that's a pleasure to listen to repeatedly, rare for such seemingly throwaway fodder. And am I wrong in thinking that as we move on in this decade, there are definitely sings that the kinds of values offered by Elegantly Slumming might be reconsidered again?

I would set up an MP3 download link, but the album is widely available both legally and illegally. I know, for instance, that one particularly demonic BitTorrent site has a lossless FLAC copy.


AWESOME Kurdish hip-hop folk dancing video

I live my blog life for moments like this.

This video was tipped off to me by a Kurdish acquaintance, and it depicts an evening dance by a group of young girls in the village of Korancikur outside Elazig in Turkish Kurdistan.

I'm completely awestruck. Just look at it! Four girls (not boys!) from a tiny village, doing a perfectly balanced thing between modernity and tradition in both dance and music. The dress, the cool moves. The traditional musicians, doing what's obviously a re-acoustification of an electronic track - just look at the old dude with the bass drum beating out the house four-on-the-floor!

I don't know anything else about it, and neither does my tipster who found it searching for village names. All I can tell is that it seems to be very popular (the many versions of the same video have millions of views together), and that the words Halay (which is a traditional dance), Mircan and Semame/Semami seem to turn up a lot around it. Also, here's another video of what seems to be the same group dancing to pre-recorded music. Perhaps someone with regional insight can help me find out more?


Happy manele news! (for me)

I just came back from a meeting with my head of department, and he's approved my suggestion of writing my master's thesis in musicology on manele and its relation to asian pop music. (Pending if he can find an appropriate supervisor.) He even seemed fairly enthusiastic about it. So expect loads more manele-related posting in this blog in the next two years. Yay!


American white suprematist hip-hop disguised as underground radicalism

You know, it's weird. I never thought American nazis or pseudo-nazis would actually use hip-hop to convey their message, at least not yet. I must be painfully naive or something, but I thought hip-hop was, you know, the enemy.

But lo and behold:

Q-Strange - Pop

Good lord. The entire track is dedicated to graphically depicted lynching fantasies of a series of black musicians: Terror Squad, Akon, T-Pain, Soulja Boy, Young Dro, DJ Unk, Mims, Black Eyed Peas, Beyoncé, Rhianna, Ciara, Dannity Kane.

Don't ever come running again saying underground rap isn't essentially racist.


Feminine Men's Peculiar Misogyny

Despite the precence of the patriarchy, women have been prevalent in some of the most extreme hard subcultures on the planet. But what about the soft subcultures...?

A couple of months ago I posted about the new subculture, täbb, which is making inroads into the Stockholm social scene. (I saw a couple get off at Rissne tube station last week, and if it's there too then it's spread far.) Donnie followed it up with an admirable post connecting the phenomenon to the guidos of New Jersey and the pretty boys of Denmark, two other subcultures of feminine-looking men. I'm especially fond of the latter group, whose sense of style is marvellous and radically different:

Look at the pictures in that last link and one thing should become obvious: the overwhelming Y-chromosome dominance. there aren't any "pretty girls". Nor, in fact, are there any female täbb or guidos. It's as if the very adoption of traditionally feminine gender roles in these subcutlures has come at the expense of actual women.

And, I think, that's hardly a new phenomenon. Take hair metal from the eighties, possibly the preceding wave of androgynous male fashion. For years, until it finally collapsed and let women in, it was extremely dismissive of female fans and strongly misogynistic. When it started to appeal directly to girls, it was pronounced dead. Glam rock in Britain in the seventies has a similar story of late-coming female bands, all previous efforts failing, but at least there the female fans were allowed to be glam too.

Let's see, what else? Gay men and their subcultures, of course, but that's obvious. But then there are all the "soft, feminine" musical styles where the bands almost always consist entirely of men: power pop, for instance. The female fronted Shivvers are an exception, but why are there so many more female "masculine" crust punk bands than "feminine" power pop bands? Or so much crunk- and booty-bass based R&B but so little "softer" G-funk R&B?

Perhaps (and I'm venturing into territory way beyond my level of ethnological knowledge here) the very act of being subcultural is about breaking boundaries? There aren't any "feminine" female subcultures (except otherwise boundary-breaking ones like femmes or sweet lolitas) because mainstream culture already casts women in that role. Still, I think that explanation misses the fact that it's probably the men doing the exclusion. It's a curious thing that all these extreme-looking men hang around and promote fairly normal-looking women - or is it simply that we've got a distorted view of what a "normal woman" is supposed to look like?

Or maybe it's this: all subcultures have misogynistic men in them. But the ones where you're supposed to be "tough" allow women to fight themselves in. How are you supposed to smash your way into a subculture where soft and smooth is the ideal? Anyway, it's a complex issue and I'd welcome people's thoughts on the matter.