Mainstreaming Music 1: How Decreasing Diversity May Be A Good Thing

One of those supposedly unchallengeable truths about the development of music in the past three decades is the idea of fragmentation.

Music, the thinking goes, has undergone a process whereby previously unified groups of people (say: all the consumers in a country) have split up into ever-smaller fragments, listening to localised, community-based music to an increasing degree. Within each faction, in turn, there are myriads of little facets, each with its own named genre, and there's absolutely nothing any more that even vaguely unifies whole countries, let alone the whole world. This is then explained by a bunch of fancy theories involving post-modernism, long tails and so on.

I think it may be time to challenge this view, which I've definitely held myself. Because it seems to me that with the increased production values in so many parts of the world, and with the unified contemporary aesthetic covering all chart pop, we're hitting a time where, indeed, a lot of music is starting to sound pretty much the same. And for me, right now, that's a good thing.

The videos above are from Nigeria, Kenya and Haiti respectively. Different genres and backgrounds, yet they're all pretty much some sort of international pop, produced up to extremely high technical standards and with quality videos that could, for the most part, pass unnoticed on any MTV channel. For the first time, recording technology has progressed to the level where artist from the "third world" can make music that sounds just as good as any "western" pop, and they're taking the opportunity. In droves. And it's super-popular, racking in fans and awards.

Diaspora and minority populations are certainly following suit. Like bhangra? Well, the subcontinental diaspora increasingly favours RnB-soundalike urban desi instead - and so, seemingly, do the rest of us. And if urban desi is indistinguishable from other pop, it's got nothing on how much mainstream "black" and "white" music has melded completely into one genre. The biggest smash hit this year across almost all charts (including the latin one) defiantly crosses all gaps, racial and geographical, in melding what is very clearly one world pop - a multi-ethnic band with hip-hop roots doing a guitar-driven number produced by a French DJ, hitting number one from Brazil to Japan.

And this development is good, I think, in all sorts of ways. One very obvious consequence is that we're less likely to think in terms of us and them if it's all the same. Both traditional world music and global ghettotech has been extremely good at defining what The Other does as something radically different from "the west", but what happens when the music becomes so indistinguishable? Does it signal a chance to see beyond some of the steotypes, and perhaps embrace the diasporas and the rest of the world on more equal terms? That's gotta be good, right? (Next post I thought I'd have a look at global ghettotech's response.)

But I also think it can be good creatively. By my reckoning what we're seeing in terms of coming together right now is perhaps most comparable to the so-called rock'n'roll era of the 50s, where all over the world people of different ethnicities made similar-sounding music. Was that a bad thing? Not at all! The 50s are considered one of the most explosively creative periods of all time, when "black" and "white" completely came together and kept churning out great material. What's to say we won't see the same now?

Music trends move and waver back and forth. Every time and style has its own greatness and worthy moments. Yesterday may have belonged to local genres, while today even the subcultures are defiantly cosmopolitan. Perhaps, for those stuck in the metaphorical hood, it is time to think about what we can all accomplish together?


What a monster bass line!

Ever since Boima clued me onto the importance of the low end in zouk love music a couple of months ago, I have been obsessively collecting the stuff. Of course there are low ends...

...and there are low ends.

The breakdown especially, from about 2:10, rivals even the most depth-digging Dubstep.


Tikitech the EP

Yes, it's bloody Radioclit again. And Douster. Etc. Via Discobelle.

"For this first episode of a series of mini-compilations curated by Mental Groove’s most cherished artists, trend defying duo Radioclit pick their favorite youngster producers and let them paint their own picture of Africa. The Fader-favorite Douster, über-productive Frenchy Lazy Flow and Myd deliver a collection of dancefloor anthem and the perfect balance between African funk and heat-inducing house. Radioclit, still burning hot from producing the monumental The Very Best album, add a bomb ass bonus. C’est l’aventure, it’s Saga Africa!

Already supported by support by Sinden, Mumdance, Riva Starr, Brodinski, Crookers, Duke Dumont and many more."
"Paint their own picture of Africa" indeed. And if that wasn't enough, here's the release party flyer:

"Curse of the Voodoo" is an especially charming epithet when talking about African music, too. Well done guys. (Party, of course, at "Le Zoo".)


2009 is the best year in the charts, ever

Apparently, there are more singles sold now in Britain than at any time in history. I bet there are lots of fancy explanations for this from market analysts and academics, but for me there's another totally overwhelming reason: commerical pop music right now is just amazingly good. In fact:

There's never been a year in history where the most commercially successful pop music has been as good as this.

I'm trying to make good on an unfortunate promise from last year and pick the best music of 2009 for a feature on this blog, and as a dutiful anti-rockist reader of Freaky Trigger's Popular one obvious place to start looking is on top of the British charts. Looking at the list of all the UK number ones this year, I count three, I say three tracks that are more or less crap - a charity single, and two retro boy band tracks. But the rest are all good tracks, ranging from the more-than-decent to absolutely brilliant. That has never happened before. Not in the mid-sixties, not in the late seventies, certainly not for the past twenty-five years.

There are some amazing tracks on here, too, some of the finest ever to grace the charts. All the wonderful features of 00s music that makes the last decade the best there's ever been have born fruit at the commercial end. Love that rising, energy-injecting soar of the Ying Yang Twins' finest crunk hour? Or that beautifully chiming 3+3+2 riff in an otherwise dull indie track? Here they are, combined with a massively beautiful house diva vocal and an explosive dancefloor thump! Fantastic!

The finest artists in electro, hip-hop and grime are all up there, there are gay icons and indie darlings. Even the stuff that should be dreadful has generally been completely enjoyable: the talent show contestants have been sharp, intelligent and stylish. The retro artists have struck a perfect balance with modernity. And the once so annoying Black Eyed Peas have been BRILLIANT. There's no pathetic pop-rock, no has-beens (!), no novelty (except said charity single). Nothing cheesy. All the very finest grade of commercial pop, all with edges and production touches that marks out the classic from the merely well-crafted.

Fuck, just listen to this latest track that has made it up there. Those screw-autotune-distorted vocals, the noise, the ridiculously amazing chord sequence in the chorus and the perfectly attuned new wave references. The charts of 2009 are, quite simply, ART.


In front of

"Malcolm X was bisexual. Get over it" says the Guardian headline, via Boingboing. The article behind the headline impassionedly argues for greater recognition for LGBT people within the African-American and black British community, and accuses Black History Month of "straight-washing" black history. It's not an uninteresting argument.

In fact, there's only one thing wrong with the article - that it's written by Peter Tatchell. Many fans of Jamaican music will know who Tatchell is, as the man who initiated the campaign against "Boom Bye Bye" - an outspoken and highly radical British gay rights activist. The most neutral thing one can say about Peter Tatchell is that he tends to be rather divisive, forming highly impassioned camps for and against his statements. Right now a minor internet brouhaha is under way about Tatchell suing an academic publication in a rather overbearing manner, and he's previously had tussles with other radical activists over Islam, pop music and (perhaps most relevant to this blog) African gay rights activism. I'm absolutely not sure if the allegations in the last link are true, but in any case his response (as featured in the comments) is clumsy and inflammatory in a very unfortunate manner. He's not Mr. Nice Guy.

But I'm not sure all that matters. What's problematic about the article is that Mr. Tatchell is a cultural middle class white man. And you know what? So am I.

DJ Umb is a recent frequent commenter on this blog, and one of his blog comments back when he was slightly more mad at me stuck me as having a lot of truth to it. "Let the colonized peoples speak for themselves," he said. "They don't need white, middle-class, westerners doing it for them. Cause that happened far too often in the past and actually led to colonization in many instances."

Fuck it if he isn't right. Extrapolating, what bothers me about Tatchell's article is that this is a message that ought to have been delivered by a black LGBT activist, not a white one. I'm retreading fairly obvious ground here, but an article that defends the right to be seen of a particular group of people is a touch hypocritical when it's a person from a more privildged group standing in front of them talking. And yet, here I am doing pretty much the same thing, right?

Being an ally is fucking difficult. I don't think anyone will go around saying there should be no male feminists, straight gay rights advocates and so on, people using their relative position of power and their access to an audience to push forward an agenda that benefits someone else... yet it's a super-precarious path to thread since people like me and Peter de facto don't share the relevant experiences, and need to listen to an enormous extent instead of just following instinct. I'm running for the Stockholm city council next fall as a member of a feminist party (announcement! details forthcoming), and not a day goes by when I don't question my own role in the greater power scheme of things. The price of alliance, just as with freedom, is eternal vigilance.

One example. One thing Peter Tatchell does, which I continuously try my best never to engage in, is criticise other marginal groups. In the piece above he attacks the black community in Britain from outside, and his attacks on Jamaican reggae artists, Muslims and those African gay rights groups all have the effect of decreasing the power of an already marginalised grouping. In a classic intersectional scenario, the gain for gay rights is offset by the clambering over other identities to get there. I think that offers a significant clue as to why he's so reviled in large circles on the left.

Other definite principles I hope to follow is to direct attacks to my own in-group, try to help people discover how to find actual artists, and if at all possible link to actual voices and sources. Please - if you find me breaking any of this shit, call me out on it.


Big Budget Tikitech

Me (on Google Reader): *slaps forehead*

Boima Tucker: Ha!

Rachel: sigh. oh radioclit. explorers pwnt by the natives? vid was wack even before the kalashnikovs, cannibalism.

DJ livingstone, i presume?

Me: I think I should just put it up, really. Oh dear.


Triple Threat Tikitech

It's great sometimes not to have to find anything by yourself, I get new tikitech entries sent to me continuously. DJ Umb, whose reading-posting-commenting workrate is incredibly impressive, sent me some absolute gems for futher inclusion.

Grabbing randomly out of the bag, there's this mixtape, which is both fairly tikitech in itself - mainly European-and-Argentine produced, chanty "tribal" - and boasts the full-on jungle theme in image and title:

[Mixtape artwork from Globalibre]

The idea of "Dschungel-Jazz" is especially charming, as "jungle music" of course was one of the most common racists epithets against Jazz in the first place. When Louis Armstrong first played Sweden in 1933 contemporary reviewers described him as a "clean-shaven hippopotamus" and a "gorilla".

Next up, from the same site, is this party flier:

[Flier for Club LeGrande in Dortmund from Globalibre]

Again this is South America rather than Africa, but the jungle theme is super-clear, and it could almost be from the same clipart series as this Swedish example from last year.

More South American jungle next:

[Mixtape artwork for Efrita from Cooliado]

Which is followed immediately the next post down by this:

[Blog post illustration for El Diario Secreto de MIA mashup on Cooliado]

Now, the sheer mass of bananas could indicate a semiotic critique of colonialism... But even though I don't read Spanish, I'm fairly sure the subsequent text talking about "monkey" and old kitsch-explorer cliché "the interior of the congo" indicates otherwise.


A Small Balkan Pop Primer For The Uninitiated

What is it with the continual association of the Balkans with brass bands, klezmer and "gypsy" breakbeats? For the past 20 years, the Balkans have been the site of an almost Caribbean-like explosion of different styles in the wake of the fall of communism, and for those of you who're not really into this stuff I thought it'd be worth it to put together a very brief primer, a few sentences per genre and one or two Youtube vids. The social context is super-interesting too but I'll leave that for another time.

Generally, all the genres of Balkan pop exist in a continuum where they're more or less synth-driven, more or less associated with the Roma or other ethnic minorities and more or less take their musical cues from what happens in Istanbul. Other influences felt across the board are Arabic and Indian music, commercial pop, European dance music, hip-hop and, to a surprising extent, reggaeton.

Here's some of the major genres developed in the past 20 years, roughly in a sweep from the south-west to the north-east:

The occasionally controversial pop music of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia used to have less Eastern influence than the rest (and still does in Slovenia to horrendous result) but now it's right there on Istanbul's heels as well, or sometimes up in space. Often, this stuff is touted as what should eventually heal the old enmities of the former Yugoslavia.

The brassiest thing you'll see on here today:

Tallava is music from Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, to varying degrees the music of the Roma, the Albanians themselves and of the Ashkali. It values weird synth equilibrism and has this drone-like quality which lends well to being mixed with dub and psychedelic sounds. At another end it's got a whole hip-hop remix culture set up, and can be some of the more funky music of the Balkans.

Endless, rambling tracks like this one are de rigeur, don't miss the invitation to "dansu reggu" near the end:

Oh, and in case you're missing the Dembow, it's alive and kicking in Macedonia:

Greece has more continuity to its music scene than the former communist countries, and more connection to the west, so the Balkan pop scene here tends to be a tad ill-kempt (Skyládiko means "doghouse"). On the other hand it's close enough to the very commercial and very successful greek pop scene that it sometimes hard to tell the difference.

I mean, stuff like this is good but more Eurovision than dancefloor:

I posted a whole mix-tape's worth of Bulgarian music a year ago, which I could re-upload if anyone wants it. In any case, Chalga, or Popfolk, is probably the most commercially successful and well-balanced music of the lot and very much mainstream music in Bulgaria. At its best it's totally at the level of quality commercial hip-hop, and well worth listening to.

It's also unusually house-club-remix friendly:


As it's used today in Bulgaria, this is Chalga's low-production-value Turk-Bulgarian cousin. Cheezy synth and/or clarinets set to belly dance rhythms by various funnily-named Orkestars, this can be topical, silly or dancey and is certainly more fun than some of its straight-laced cousins.

I mean, look at the dude ass-dancing in this video:


Okay, this is my favourite genre in the area and it's going to be the topic of my master's thesis, so you'll hear lots more about this in the winter and spring. Nevertheless, Romania's contribution to the spectrum is the most compelling to me - it's super-diverse, it's got the most wide-reaching influence set, the most heart-felt vocals and just the right mix between rough-hewn and interesting. Some songs are achingly beautiful, some are about butts and feature a reggaeton rapper or something. How can you not love this stuff?

Here's both a dancehall toaster and diva tragedy in one package:

The only reason I'm including this is because it appears on Wikipedia's bare-bones Balkan Pop page. That and the great portmanteau name. It's Balkan in the sense that it's Turkish-influenced European music, but the origin of the genre is Germany, which I admit is a bit of a stretch. Still, it's fairly cool as a decidedly lo-fi example of how interesting diasporadic music can be.

Apparently this guy is a huge star:

Well, there you go. Diversity, depth and more involvement is just around the corner if you do some digging!