Good lord, I found it again

I had a major scare the other day. Let it be a lesson to you.

I'm going to be writing my master's thesis in musicology on Asian influences on Romanian manele. One vital piece of the puzzle is a Youtube video I found a couple of years ago and commented on on wayneandwax. It's so far the only tangible evidence I have of a South East Asian influence on manele.

Well, I've just got a supervisor for the essay and I was going to send him the link. Only to find that it was dead. At which point I panicked, wrote a fruitless message on the Youtube community help forums, and spent hours searching through every manele video I could find in order to find it again. I despaired completely. Well, here it is, finally found today through searching for the video code number rather than the whole URL:

Florin Peste & Play Aj - Cheama Ospatarul

Kids, back your important web videos the fuck up.


Hip-hop "gipsy" to represent the Czech Republic at Eurovision

Interesting developments in Romani music today as Czech rapper Gipsy.cz has been chosen to represent the country at this year's Eurovision song contest (h/t ESC Today).

In some ways, this guy is rather divorced from the potentially similar scenes of chalga and manele, whose respective Eurovision histories are interesting and revelatory enough in themselves (chalga represented once already, manele systematically excluded from national finals). Compared to those genres' working class, scenius unity, Gipsy is considerably more world music in outlook and his music can be rather haphazard in its wild leaps along the modern-"traditional" scale. Still, I think that it's an interesting and inclusive choice at a time when the oppression of the Roma is unusually high, although it might just confirm the traditional cast(e)ing and acceptance of the Roma as entertainers. Apparently, the performer is highly popular among the Czechs.

The actual track has not been revealed yet, but here's his entry from last year's national contest and from 2007's, plus a few of the more successfully hip-hoppy tracks he's released. Not bad, all in all!


"A Milli", The Clave and Diatonic Rhythms

Note: This post disappeared off the server for no identifiable reason. I'm reposting it again (saved through the magic of Reader) in the hope that it was a random blip and not a DCMA takedown. (The DJ Phabyo track dissappeared earlier today, maybe DivShare and Blogger have a deal?) I'm also attempting to repost Wayne's comment, and mine.

Wayne's incessant posting on A Milli-type clones got me revisiting just what makes Lil' Wayne's A Milli great. The idea of using small, syllabic vocal samples to build up a groove is hardly new, and the genealogy inevitably includes some prog rock mellotron samples, and more relevantly this and this, but the totally rhythm-oriented use in A Milli makes it stand out. I made a comment over at Wayne's that it somehow reminded me of Baile Funk, and pulled up a random file for my computer to prove it:

DJ Phabyo - Ta Pensando O Que Boladao

About 1:14 into this file there's a section where the vocalist goes (and excuse my transcription because I don't speak portugese) "um-pa-da um-pa-da um-pa" and so on, which reminds me very strongly of A Milli.

Of course, the number of syllables and how they're used is not exactly the same. But the nature of their use is very similar. If you could the number of syllables per word in the track above you get 3, 3, and 2, which (noting the equal length of all the syllables) corresponds exactly to the 3+3+2 pattern which is prevalent in dancehall. Now, the A Milli beat goes like this:

Counting the syllables here we've got a 3+3+3+3+2+2 instead, or perceptually probably closer to a 3+3+3+3+4. This is another pattern that is very common in electronic music.

So what does 3+3+2 and 3+3+3+3+4 have in common? There's a very insteresting account of this in a book called "Unlocking the Groove" by University of Pensylvania scholar Mark J Butler which I've recently read. Butler claims that rhythms like these have two very distinct qualities. First, they're what he calls diatonic rhythms: they're the ideal way of distributing an uneven number of drum hits over an even number of beats - 3 hits in 8 beats for 3+3+2, and 5 hits in 16 beats for 3+3+3+3+4. (In this sense they're similar to diatonic scales that distribute 7 tone values over 12 semitones, hence the name.) Second, the "unevenness" helps establish meter by breaking the pattern of straightforward beats - you get the feel of a new measure being established when you hear one beat "too little" in 3+3+2 or one "too much" in 3+3+3+3+4.

It's not an unconvincing argument he makes (read the book!), but I think there might also be a historical reason for the affinity between these two rhythms and the frequency of their appearance, which A Milli demonstrates very well. The 3+3+3+3+4 pattern is joined and strengthened in some bars by a snare drum pattern:

In other bars the drum pattern is a basic crunk-influenced one, with a kick drum and a hand clap/finger snap. Now, as Wayne has demonstrated so marvellously in his Another Crunk Genealogy, this pattern is essentially a clave. What I'm considering is whether the snare drum pattern above can't also be read as a kind of clave. Look at all the longer notes present, the three dotted crochets and the dotless ones, and they correspond directly to the famous cuban rhythm.

Could it be that the 3+3+3+3+4 pattern in A Milli and other electronic music, which is only marginally different from a Clave anyway, is connected historically to it? Or the reverse, that they both derive from a similar source? I know a lot of people know their rhythm theory a lot better than me (though I'd like to learn more), so maybe someone out there has an answer for me on this one...


In Defense of the Copycat

A South African friend who was a member of one of the first African hip hop groups to tour Europe, once told me that critics were really expecting them to incorporate a certain degree of traditional sounds (samples), dress (on stage and in videos) and dancing. If they failed to do so, they were often dismissed as copycats!
-- Juma4, from the article Modern African music and the wall of exotism on Africanhiphop.com (h/t Wayne)

The complaint against western music critics pushing, as it were, tradition onto African performers is a familiar and reasonable one, but there's something about the wording in the quote above that gets to me. Because I think a lot of us, even the most progressive, still have a problem with the concept of the copycat. However much we've deconstructed the contradictory concept of the authentic and nuanced the idea of cultural imperialism there's still a distinct tendency, one that I've displayed myself, to cling steadfastly to the aesthetic value of originality. We may have left axiomatic and traditional values behind, but we're still holding onto our neo-modernism.

In a world of fractured genre divisions this desired originality, often as not, is not the originality of the individual but of the scene, group or culture. So in Africa we happily accept kuduro and the aging kwaito, both of which have messed with foreign formulas, but generally turn a blind eye to equally popular and modern but much more US- or Jamaica-faithful genres like Nigerian hip-hop or Ugandan dancehall. The scene as a whole has to be interestingly different from all others for us to readily accept it. (This applies within the continent too - when did you last hear any Namibian kwaito, an extremely popular and successful offshoot?)

Is music that straightforwardly copies another style insteresting? I've been wavering on the issue as late as a couple of days ago, and I'm still not sure, but here are a couple of arguments for accepting completely faithful copies of another culture's music.

1) The idea of the culture as a homogenous entity is suspect and the resultant values are often muddled and hypocritical. It's really interesting to look at what is accepted as being "within a culture" (and therefore acceptable as continued development) and what's considered copying. Something as vast and varied as African-American culture is often looked at monolithically and as an almost essentialist entity, where blacks are considered as having a certain tradition and way of making music to live up to. A strain of music that starts off in Miami can unproblematically be transported to Seattle, 4500 km away, but should they cross the Florida straights into the Caribbean it's suddenly copycat music. There are related ideas of selling out, proper diasporadic music and so on that can be equally mixed-up.

2) Does it really matter? Maybe we should start assessing individual pieces of music outside context. Or assess them from other criteria than originality. Or assess them out of their value within a culture. Or perhaps, honestly, not assess them at all.

3) There might be a difference you are as yet not able to hear. The old axiom that rock "all sounds the same" to the jazz musician and vice versa holds true - you might just not be onto the difference yet, so give the supposed copycat another chance. The first time I heard bongo flava I thought it sounded just like American hip-hop, but over time I've managed to pick up the differences in rhythm, mixing and harmony that make the style unique.

4) Things will change. Music is not static and does not readily form into singular structures. If you keep following a scene it will inevitably develop its own quirks if that's what you're after. For one, the idea of the "copycat" resonates within communities too, and there's a strong push to express identity through music. But even if conscious modification is not present, music always splits off and evolves as musicians grow tired of old sounds and "misuse" influences. The whole Jamaican music industry with its incredible vibrancy started off as a copycat of southern US R&B, but quickly evolved and changed. Baile funk was as late as the mid-nineties basically Miami bass. Leave the copycats alone, they can often surprise you eventually.


(Russian Music Picked Up) In a Latvian Market

The stuff I do for you guys. I've just spent hours parsing through four hundred MP3s of Russian crap, half sub-eurovision pop, half old-fashioned and/or US copyist* hip-hop, all encoded at too low a bitrate (even though one of the CDs explicitly said 192-320 kbps; it lied). I've done my best to carve out what I think is the most interesting material for your enjoyment, and it hardly presents a particularly unified genre of any kind - Russia is still at a very international stage of its musical development.

So what about Latvian music? Well, fellow couchsurfer Prokur set me onto some hip-hop, but I have to say it's kinda so-so. So I'm going with the Russian stuff for now, though you're welcome to convince me otherwise. I've redownloaded all the tracks at good bitrates.

Viagra - My Emancipation

This is the only track that really caught my ear off the pop CD. It's got a sort of updated "I Feel Love"-ish vibe, not just in the arpeggiator and synth sweeps but in the aloof minor-key melody, which also feels utterly Russian. Good stuff!

Seryoga - Mne S Toboj Harasho

808+HB-style autotune electro, but with rapping. Not bad, the drum programming is varied enough to keep it interesting.

Mnogotochie - Rasstoyanie

Strangely mood-fluttering production where an off-kilter female voice takes centre stage.

Trayektoriya Zhezni - Rifm' Na Ritmakh

The kind of hard, sparse produktion you'd usually associate with good eastern-european hip-hop, here with some unusually decent rhythm work.

Basta - Nu Ego Na

Scratchy nineties-inspired hip-hop of the kind I usually dislike, but this one has a great forward push and the bass sample is killer.

* I realise griping about US copyism is a problematic thing to do. I'll make a post about the issue soon.


Back from Riga Break

I'm not sure there's a point of pre-announcing my travels any more. Especially ones that last two and a half days.

Latvia was certainly interesting but it's hard to get a grip on a country in a weekend. Still, a couple of things were illuminating indeed. The gender politics resulting from a 3-to-1 female-to-male ratio in the 20-30 year-old age group, for instance. Or the oppression cycle which has now hit the Russians square in the face: my host told me that she has no Russian friends and that they're always frozen out by Latvian cliques in clubs. The citizenship issue is no closer to resolving and even the rioting is being blamed on the Russians, on national television.

No surprise then that the only vaguely cool music I was able to pick up was a couple of Russian MP3 CDs, bought off the shadier bit right behind the central market which seems to be nearly all Russian. (There's meant to be an even shadier bit where you can buy fenced stereos and stuff even further into the Russian neighbourhood beyond. Didn't dare venture there.) Symptomatically, there were no Latvian CDs on sale, only foreign material and Russian-produced pop. So look forward tomorrow to selections from Russkie superkhimy Pesnya Toda 2009 (pop) and Rap Ritm Zem' (hip-hop) which I'll try to parse and post.


Social Class IV: Everyone has an opinion


Of all marginalised groups, I probably "know" "the underclass" best (along with women and homosexuals). My in-laws, who I've spent countless weeks with, are part of it. They're both in early retirement from bottom-end care jobs and get by on welfare, gambling and semi-legal shady deals, plus hunting and fishing. They're perfectly all right people - my father-in-law is a large, super-sharp dynamo who loves animals and wants to be friends with everyone, my mother-in-law is a tiny Finnish woman who's got guts and a warped sense of humour.

This post isn't about them. It's about us and our relation to their social group. For some reason, we can't seem to let the lowest part of society alone. When it comes to "the underclass", it seems everyone has an opinion, and maybe necessarily so.

To begin with it's probably worth it to question the distinction of "the underclass" from the working class at all. My in-laws are decently well-off - they've got a house, only partly mortgaged, and they eat better than us what with the seemingly endless supply of moose meat, venison and whitefish roe. And yet their behaviour marks them out from us, and to a large part of the middle classes (including, I guess, my parents) they're disgusting.

Stephanie Lawler's brilliant 2005 paper "Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities" (PDF, via) penetrates deeply into the idea of middle-class identity building through being disgusted with the underclass, an idea I've less eloquently played with here. What Lawler is basically saying is that in order to appear distinct, universal and tasteful, the middle-class feels compelled to portray/other the less-well-off as lacking in something and degenerated from a proper noble working class. She provides a whole host of great examples of how the working class as an underclass (begging the question above), an undifferentiated, often feminised mass whose cultures and behaviours are disgusting. Whatever culture they actually have doesn't matter - attitudes shift along so as to make them always disgusting.

The left is certainly as guilty as the right in this regard. When it comes to music, the classic example is Adorno's "On popular music", where he indeed sees the genre as an undifferentiated, feminised mass he's disgusted by. Does that make his point about a "culture industry" producing standardized mass-pacifying products less valid? Probably. I think it's interesting to ask in relation to Lawler's paper when othering disgust turns into justified disgust, and I suspect the answer may be close to never; that makes a lot of leftist discussions about various capitalist industries enslaving the working class a mere sociological spiel. Perhaps Morgan Spurlock is as struck in the othering game as ever Adorno.

Once that sort of awareness (or false awareness?) sets in, it's highly tempting to go the other way, and bring out the privilege shame. This is certainly something I've been very guilty of myself. I'm extremely distraught at my own position in society - why was I given the chance to study? Why do I have the rich, educated parents? Why is my social status so high compared to theirs? The result, of course, is that us privilege-ashamed have a more positive view of the underclass than might actually be appropriate.

And so here I am, championing the culture of the subalterns. Perhaps by boosting them I can bring them up a notch, and perhaps I can bring myself down a notch in society's eyes by liking the supposedly naff and disgusting. Unfortunately, the underclass, the more "disgusting" it is, also has a draw to certain parts of the middle class because of its titilating remoteness, muddying up the whole idea. (Hello, Vice Magazine). That way, perhaps industrial cool and privilige shame are two sides of the same coin.

Poor underclass. What with disgust, privilege shame and industrial cool, no-one is ever going to leave them alone nor have a balanced view of their existence. There's always the option of ignoring it all, but then not caring about class injustice is not really an option either...


Ringtones and gramophones

The recording below is a lo-fi demonstration record. It's the precise opposite of those hi-fi demo records electronics stores have to showcase their best audio equipment.

Sonni - Goodbye

I just bought a new cell phone, and this was the song that came bundled with it. Listening to it on a hi-fi or even out of my decent computer speakers it sounds ridiculous - overcompressed, with extremely loud, featureless, thundering bass and non-overlapping mid-range sample bursts. But out of the mobile phone's tiny mono speaker it strangely works. The bass is reduced to normal level. The lack of polyphony makes it sound clear and uncluttered. And the vocals are in the only range that the phone can handle with any fidelity. On the phone it sounds like, well, a normal R&B record. Which of course is the point.

I realise I'm way behind in this game, but this is the first mobile I've owned which has the ability to use MP3s as ringtones. So I've been testing out a few tunes to hear which type of music sounds best, and the results are (unsurprisingly) stuff that's rather ringtoney, all uncluttered, detail-defficient mid-range and no dynamics. There's plenty of music that you feel is probably inspired by cell phone ringtones in the first place that works really well. This is so clearly an alarm clock signal, for instance:

Benga - 26 Basslines

But there's a lot of music too that, like Sonni's track, is just fairly unsophisticated music that just happens to work well with the primitive speaker output. For instance, there's this tecnobrega track (from a huge brega/melody torrent) which is quite boring on my computer but really came to life on the cell phone:

Banda Np7 - Super Pop

Mid-range and tweeter synth sweeps, clarity over definition, the usual stuff. What's perhaps more interesting is how well a lot of older music works. Berry Gordy, at Motown, famously had all their singles played on a crap transistor radio before they were released, to make sure they worked under normal conditions, and indeed Motown tracks work fine as a ringtone.

But even more so the tracks of a yet more primitive recording era. Before decent-quality recording became widely available in the fifties a lot of the released material is precisely what works on the telephone: tracks with a constant volume level, no really deep bass, and not dependent on clarity for their impact. Which means a lot of, say, early 50s R&B can work perfectly fine as a ringtone!

The Dominoes - Sixty Minute Man

What I settled on eventually though was ska, in the form of this instrumental classic:

Don Drummond - Man in the Street

It actually has a line that obviously doesn't work, namely the bass riff in the intro, but then it's near-perfectly adapted to the task at hand. Maybe ringtones could push a primitive-recording revival, a hand reaching out from the cell phone to the ancient gramophone...


Caspian Autotune

As the Autotune fad in the US is reaching a peak it's interesting to compare it to places where it's been running heavily much longer, just to see what the future holds for you guys. One such place is, obviously, Iran.

I've recently been intrigued by the newly put up signs at a nearby gas station for a "Caspian Food Store", thinking it would be full of wondrous South-Russian foodstuffs. Wrong end of the Caspian, unfortunately, since it was the usual Persian fare... But I was struck by the music they played, completely smothered in autotune. A bit of asking around and googling later I found the track: "Ashegh Shodam" by one of the few huge stars in the Persian world apparently still resident in Iran, Benyamin.

Ah, I thought, latched onto the T-Pain bandwagon have we? Well apparently not: the first Iranian track to heavily use autotune came out in 2002!

Apparently the auto-tune effect has been "the de facto style of singing" in Persian pop music for years, gelling well with the generally melismatic style the genre has anyway. (Although some of it goes way beyond that, rebelliously against heavy-handed repression.) And three years later, after the main wave blew over, the effect is still a somewhat common part of the vocabularly. On the Iranian MP3s Blog, at least a quarter of the tracks use audible autotune in some way. Curiously, it seems to have migrated down from the dance remix tracks to the ballads, where most of the manipulated vocals are found. Here are some of the better ones to my tastes:

Mohsen Yahaghi - Tamanna
(download from iranianmp3s.com)

Hamid Hashemi & Elina - Raftani (download from iranianmp3s.com)

Morteza Shahryari ft DJ Shadow [I'm guessing not that DJ Shadow] - Mina (download from iranianmp3s.com)

Bonus: the inevitable Reggaeton track. No AT though.