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...


A cover of a cover (but not of a cover of a cover)

I don't know if it's a good or a bad sign, but I always hear new Kardinal Offishall singles coming out of that 21st-century ghetto blaster, the immigrant-kids' cell phone. Anyway, the other day someone was playing this new single:

Kardinal Offishall - Numba 1 "Tide Is High" (Feat. Keri Hilson)

A decent track on a slowed-down version of the Timeline riddim, which works surprisingly well in a hip-hop (maybe even crunk?) context. For some reason he's recorded separate versions of the track with Rihanna and with The Pussycat Dolls, too - with possibly the last being the best, they're largely interchangeable.

But what I want to talk about, really, is it's relationship to the original. Or maybe it's originals? The guy who posted the Pussycat Dolls version claims the "Original Version [was] Done by Atomic Kitten and/or Blondie", and that's two possible originals. And then, obviously, there's the original, which as you all probably know was done by The Paragons back in 1967. Making three originals.

Who is Kardinal Offishall covering?

I'd be surprised if he hadn't heard the original, considering his Jamaican background and the bit at the end of the video on the My Conversation riddim, which is another Rocksteady classic. The producers, too, would have been familiar with it. And yet... Compare the female vocals of the above track to the horrendous cod-exotica version Blondie recorded in 1980. Obviously, the female singers (all three of them) have accepted Debbie Harry's modifications to the melody, following the backing vocals rather than the lead in the chorus and having a short, unstressed "who" in "I'm not the kind of girl/who..." rather than John Holt's long, stressed syllable.

On the other hand, they could be covering Atomic Kitten's smoothed-over hit version, which is another cover of the blondie cover, but there's no evidence to support this - none of the additions Atomic Kitten have included are in these versions. In fact, the vocals here are more clipped and more solo than blondie's, in other words moving in the opposite direction.

So it's essentially a cover of a cover. Surely. The only question mark is over Rhianna's version, in my mind. Somewhere, perhaps where she emphasises that "who", she's indicating a possible knowledge of the source material...


Reader request: outstanding DJ sets

I need you guys' help again.

I'm doing a course on musical hermeneutics for school. Musical hermeneutics is "a study of interpretation", more specifically of the universal essence of a piece of music (old view) or the meaning in a cultural context of a piece of music, but not the ethnological meaning, oh no (new view). Basically it involves finding explanations for music from outside the music itself, understanding a piece of music as a struggle or an allegory or a metaphor or something.

Since my mission in my studies right now is to blast popular music into all areas of stale sonata-wanking, I've been racking my head for something from there to do a hermeneutic analysis of. What I've realised is: the ultimate popular music form to do a hermeneutic analysis of is the DJ set. Like instrumental classical pieces, it doesn't tell a literal story in words. But also like instrumental classical pieces, there's often an interesting underlying story told through the track order, mixing, etc.

Sadly, it's also not really my topic usually. So what I want is tips of great DJ sets available as recordings or podcasts, preferably with strong narrative qualities that are not expressed through liner notes or comments. Preferably in a genre I'm a bit familiar with, i.e. disco, hip-hop or related.

I'd be really grateful for any tips. Don't be scared of mentioning classics, I'm really not familiar with a lot of the mixed material.


I just came back from a few hours in a neck brace at the hospital

...after totalling my parents car against a railing. So therefore no blog post today. (Both me and the passenger are perfectly okay, so the CT scan says.)

Selection of forthcoming posts, once I have some time to recover:

Fear of the Working Class
The attraction of marginalisation
(A trilogy)

Acoustic versions of electronic tracks

Genre of the Week: Eurobeat
(Under heavy research right now)

Kenyan music in Stockholm


Hi, life!

I really should be angry at this sort of stuff (it being part of the whole "black and dead" thing, and probably more worthy of one of these than the example I actually used). But still, I can't help but think it's a bit charming that indie and electro artists have started aping mainstream African guitar playing. Yes, I realise it's a Paul Simon thing.

AJ Holmes - The Story of the New Electric Highlife

Vampire Weekend - Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa

And that's before we get to the involvement of this kind of sound into Funky House.


Fat Acceptance, Ultra Thin Fluo Kids and Marginal Affinity

One reason among many that I dislike 70s AOR bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd is that they're so fucking thin. Not an ounce of fat on any of them.

This may seem like a rather arbitrary objection. The surface explanation of hard living and amphetamines surely shouldn't be a problem. Or maybe it seems like jealousy, considering I'm rather overweight myself. But scratching the surface a bit I think the distribution of which genres contain fat performers and which ones don't forms an interesting pattern - one that's close to the idea of the counterpublic and which raises a whole lot of other fascinating questions.

Cheap Monday Jeans don't do pant sizes above a 36 inch waist, which honestly isn't much. Perhaps they reckon that tight pants look a bit, well, pants on overweight people, but on the other hand they're also making a concious choice: by not making their clothes in big sizes, they are able to exclude undesirable, unpopular fatties from among their customers. (It's certainly never going to be as controversial as trying to exclude other marginal groups. Bullying poor people who want to buy your clothes is also okay.)

Maybe it's not a huge deal, but it's fairly symptomatic of the current countercultural outlook. Here in Sweden, at least, you hardly see any fat emos or täbb, the way you used to see overweight pandas. And, just as significantly, the current generation of electro-based hipsters and fluo kids are dangerously lean-looking - unlike the preceding indie crowd, which idolised people like Daniel Johnston, Antony Hegarty and Beth Ditto. Interestingly, this comes together with a turn from the middle-class idolisation of indie to the upper-class idolisation of hipsterism...

Probably not a coincidence. The genres that have traditionally excluded fat people are the ones which have also excluded other marginal groups: they're straight, white, male, emphasising able-bodiedness, and so on. In genres like heavy metal, prog rock and hardcore punk, everyone is thin and buff. Walk around any "fashionable in-crowd area" in a city where the bourgeoisie are at play, and everyone is going to be thin. As are all their hip bands. Most of the truly manufactured mainstream is damned thin too.

So who gets to be fat in music? Well, "outsider" women and feminine men, like the ones listed above. Performers in gay culture-based genres, like disco. And musicians from ethnic minorities - to take the obvious example of African-American music, there's Solomon Burke, Baby Huey, the often chubby Aretha Franklin, onto Missy Elliott, Big Pun, Fat Joe, Rick Ross. In short: musicians from forced marginalised groups, that counterpublic, are the ones who are allowed to be fat.

The question is why. There's obviously a measure of intersectionality going on here, several different systems of oppressions interacting. One can, for instance, see it from the perspective of the powerful: allowing overweight or disabled artists to come forward from marginalised groups emphasises their otherness. One could also talk about the correlation between minorities and poor people, who are often symbolised in today's society by their obesity.

But I think there is also a more positive spin. I think marginalised groups can be remarkably tolerant of other marginalised groups, caricatures of gay-hating immigrants or whatever notwithstanding. Disco, that ultimate music of marginalised group plurality, accepted gays, women, black performers, ethnic minorities etc. etc. in a way no rockist or hipster genre has ever done. Since each identity is outsider in itself, it makes accepting other ones easier. In fact, the artists generally allowed to come forward by the mainstream white society are the very pretty ones - look at motown's old stable - whereas the fat and ugly performers tend to stay in their minorities.

One more possiblity: Simon Frith has suggested that those who end up being the most creative musicians are the outsiders, the ones that don't really fit in. Maybe having a complex system of marginalities simply increases that possibility?


Bulgaria 2008: The mixtape

A largish dose of musical tourism compiled from the CDs I bought in Bulgaria, plus web sources. I don't know about you, but I think this contains some real gems.

As an emblem for the compilation, it would be hard not to pick Bulgaria's brightest shining star, Azis. Somehow, this flamboyant and widely beloved performer and roma/gay rights activist manages to embody that perfect balance between the serious and the hedonistic that makes pop music brilliant.

1. Andrea & Costi - Samo Moi
2. Azis - Na Golo

The pop music of Bulgaria, as much as any in the Balkans, is torn between the cultures of east and west. The most popular genre itself has a dual identity, representing the strife towards the two extremes: it can be rendered as Eurovision-friendly "popfolk" or dangerously Romani/Turkish "chalga". And yet, as these two tracks illustrate, it's also always somehow both. Samo Moi may seem thoroughly westernised, with bits of reggaeton, house, R&B, hip-hop and ragga representing a far-off America, yet it has been thoroughly assimilated into a deeply balkanic structure. Na Golo may have set its sights east from the opening gong onwards, but it is just as much a modern DJ-driven track. It's also, very thoroughly, infused with the ideals of another genre: kyuchek.

3. Ramzi - Ramzi Ku4ek
It's got many spellings and it means many things. Kyuchek, kjochek, čoček, ku4ek, or most accurately кючек is, on the one hand, the easternmost outcropping of the Balkan Brass phenomenon. In the hands of various gypsy orchestras, it's a thoroughly modern hi-tech genre. Yet somehow, it's also the "Turkish" genre of Bulgaria, representing belly dance and Turkish-Bulgarian identity. Taken together with it's considerably less polished presentation compared to popfolk, it displays an astonishing variation of style elements and sub-genres. At this popular extreme, for instance, it is completely percussive.

4. Ork. Darik - Bim Bam
5. Orlin Pamukov - Daralej
6. Koka - Kokain Kiuchek
Most kyuchetsi, though, are instrumental. Here are three I've particularly taken a liking to, maybe 'cause I like the very strangled synth sound they all have in common and the deejay-like shouts of the last track.

7. Ork. Kitka - Bin Laden Kjochek
8. Dumi - Dzhet Bank Kredit
Vocal kyuchetsi tend to have an almost calypso-like topicality. Here are two that deal with current issues or personal topics. I intentionally left out the "crazy frog" kyuchek.

9. DJ Matry - Action Ku4ek (remix)
10. Sevced - Chokolada
11. Erik - 100 na 100
Of course, being two such similarly modern genres means pop-folk and kyuchek frequently mix. You get straightforward kyuchek remixes like DJ Matry's above. And you get the borderline cases: Sevced is a kyuchek artist (of Roma-Turkish origin) who has the production values and "Roma raggaton hip-hop" outlook rivalling any chalga. And Erik is marketed using the full popfolk slick machine yet can just as often sound very kyuchek. Or in this case manele - this is a cover of a Ionut Cercel song.

12. Raina & BO - Gulemi Dumi
13. Preslava - Novata Ti

Two of the biggest hits and two of the biggest stars of popfolk at the moment. It's interesting to note that almost all of the stars of the genre are, with the exception of some gay guys, women.

14. Teodora - Seks
15. Expose - Sexy Baby

And here is a potential explanation why: sex is a major topic and selling point of much of the genre. On the one hand, it's tempting to include these scantily-clad soft-porn women into the global league of leering, but there's a strength and self-confidence to a lot of the stars that's difficult to ignore.

16. Elena - Pyrvata Poslednata (DJ Cobricio 2008 Remix)
Bulgaria, believe it or not, also has an extremely strong house DJ culture, and you get plenty of popfolk remixes like this one. (Which 128 kbps doesn't do justice at all, couldn't find it at higher bitrates.) Deep Zone Project, this year's eurovision entrants, are also regular chalga remixers.

17. Erik - Nezakonno (DJ Peter Summer Tribal Remix)
18. Sofi Marinova & Ustata - Tolkova Silno (DJ M-Joy Reggaeton Remix)
The affection in the Balkans for reggaeton and Caribbean music in general apparently still surprises people. Well, as this compilation should make explicitly clear, the affinity seemingly goes beyond even the rhythmic similarities to kyuchek track 18 emphasizes. Besides these two remixes there are traces of something Caribbean in tracks 1, 8, 9 and 10 at least.

19. Ustata - Pusto No Ludo I Mlado
Marking the mixtape's transition from popfolk to hip-hop is Ustata, with a foot in both camps. This track is doubly interesting because it penetrates into the deeply problematic area of national styles and authenticity. Bulgarian nationalists hate chalga, passionately, because it's "Unbulgarian" (read: Roma and Turkish). Yet here Ustata is using the full set up of the wholesome traditional Bulgarian folk style, including a gaida and a female choir. Is he reaching out, mocking, or just picking up good sounds and not giving a fuck?

20. Misho Shamara - Tanzi Mrasni
21. Gamena ft. One Way - Rojden Den
22. Upsurt - 3 v 1
23. Ulichna Bolka - Razklati Gi
Finally, a smaller selection of Bulgarian hip-hop, which is generally strong in an international way. Misho Shamara, the strong man of Varna hip-hop, raps regularly in English, makes tracks featuring US artists and does A Milli remixes. Gamena, part of his stable, here features a German rapper. Upsurt are borderline comedy hip-hop, here in "discussion" with a journalist. Finally, my favourites are probably Ulichna Bolka, out of Burgas, whose record I bought on a whim. I know they're trying real hard to be hard and not pop-folk but don't tell me I'm hallucinating when I nevertheless hear kyuchek-like sensibilities deep in this...





Bulgaria Travel Report

Three days into my charter tourist life I had to escape. By contrast, the mid-size port city of Burgas seemed a small heaven.

To be fair, the corresponding hell wasn't our resort of Novi Nessebar, but the amoebic mass encroaching on it from the north. Sunny Beach, Bulgaria's biggest tourist destination, is a particularly awful result of the post-communist era, combining tumorous growth and rotting decay in one package of commercial monstrosity. The frequent comparisons to some kind of ghetto aren't too far off, and it's far from being a counterghetto - a portion of the working class of another country is shipped off to an almost hermetically sealed area, where they're ruthlessly exploited by the locals. The tourists hate their hosts, and the hosts hate the tourists.

So at first I thought my compulsion to escape to the city was a class issue - I've grown up doing city trips with my parents - but I'm thinking maybe it's mostly a rural vs urban thing. As a big-city boy, a lot of my street-smartness (hipness, if you will) is built on being able to read my environment, being able to tell by semiotic signs where to go, where to shop and where to eat. Bereft of choice, like in the tourist zone, I feel awful. By contrast the rural people I travelled with had no qualms about eating at the one, expensive restaurant and shopping at the first store they come across - that's what their village life is like, too. (Their wisdom, of course, lies elsewhere.)

Once I'd gone and come back, I actually ended up finding the cool places in Nessebar, too - they were just disguised as tourist traps, or hidden far from the beach. In general, I ended up enjoying myself a lot, the food was great, the sea was beautiful and Bulgaria an interesting country.

There was one thing that really shocked me though, and that was the role of the Roma. In both Sweden and Hungary, they're grossly discriminated against and treated extremely badly, but Bulgaria with Europe's largest romani population takes it to a whole other level. The segregation is utterly complete, with the Roma forming an untouchable caste doing only the most menial jobs - street sweeping, unskilled manual labour, begging - and eating at separate restaurants, living in separate areas, never interacting with the rest of the population. In the entire time I didn't meet a single shop keeper of romani origin.

Which makes it all the more interesting that the roma have so big a part in Bulgarian music. In what seems to be yet another perverse countercultural marginalisation thing, the bulgarians have completely adopted (a mainstream version of) romani pop music as their favoured musical style.

This "new" kind of Roma-influenced "pop folk", which dominates the airwaves, stands in abject image contrast to the often equally pop-oriented "traditional folk" which has an almost equal presence in the media as far as I could tell. It's totally a projection of whores versus madonnas, with the two contrasting styles often presented side-by-side to similar audiences but with very different ideals.

This article makes a valiant (and fact-filled!) attempt at understanding what makes pop folk tick, but I'm not sure the ideas of Said really apply here. Instead, I think the Turkish influence felt in much of the music is a result of the strong pull of Istanbul as the major music capital of the region, that all eyes turn towards. Rather than dominating over an ancient, depleted giant by exotifying it, pop folk producers are simply copying the most commercially successful sounds in the region - after all, Burgas is a lot closer to Istanbul than to Sofiya!

And let's not forget the enormous presence of yet another big ethnic group in the complex puzzle of Bulgarian demographics, the Turks. In particular, the genre of Kyuchek discussed extensively in the article was described to me by a man at the Turkish market in Varna as "Turkish music", and a lot of the gypsy and Turkish cultural ideals seems to overlap, as in the music of romani superstar Erik. Kyuchek, by the way, is a very interesting genre and my favourite discovery of the trip, I'll definitely be returning to it.

And then, of course, there's the hip hop, which on one edge cuts into the pop folk and on the other forms a totally vibrant genre on its own, very present not least in Varna, where the "R&B" empire of Misho Shamara has both stores, night clubs and record labels. But plenty more about that soon, when I post a mixtape of some of the music I bought.

PS. Can someone better versed in central European politics decipher this peculiar grafitti I spotted? Who except the Hungarians (who would write Vajdaság) would want a free Vojvodina, who crossed it out, why, and what does the symbol with the four Cs mean?


Back from Bulgaria

Flickr photo set

Travel report and mixtape of chalga, popfolk, kyuchek and hip-hop coming in the next few days.