there is no cumbia on Puerto Rican radio…

January 19, 2011

… and knowing why that is (and why there’s generally no cumbia in the islands) might tell you a lot about both cumbia and the Caribbean. But sorry, honey, I ain’t the one.

There’s a lot of other stuff of course, from 80s grocery store pop — Tears for Fears may be the world’s most ubiquitous band — to rock en español, salsa, merengue, reggae, and corporate pop. Heard some of that Ke$ha for the first time, and can I say, this is what media conglomerates throw money at these days? To quote the name of a tourist trap Mexican place in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, “Orale, guey!”

The urban stuff rules of course, which means LOTS of merengue de calle, a bit of dancehall, a (tiny) bit of U.S. commersh hip hop — the latter a music that conquered the globe five years ago only to all but completely recede into U.S.-centered provincialism a few years later. It would seem Lil Wayne doesn’t export well. And oh yes, Pitbull, who, along with mentor Lil Jon, anticipated the way to maximize international saturation would be to go deeper into the club, mining the trendiest house tracks of the year. They certainly speak Americano in this respect.

And, oh yes, reggaeton! You’ll hear the big pop tunes that you get on the radio in the states, autotune ballads. And Don Omar’s self-conscious global cross-pollination never sounded better pumping from a Jeep Wrangler on the north coast of the island.

This is of course the watering down of the wilder cacophonic kuduro that pricked up the ears of a thousand bloggers a few years back, smoothing things out for something more Carnival-ready. Gotta say I miss the dreds, Don.

What doesn’t make it over here, or at least to the Latin radio dominated by Central American tastes in the DC area, is reggaeton’s current throwback phase, exemplified by two of the best songs on PR radio. The first recalls the teched-out DJ Blass stuff that knocked me head-over-heels back in ’04, but with some of-the-moment (at least in Latin pop) autotunage. In PR, they don’t stop at the club, they tear the beach up too. And you’re in the right place if you can’t tell the difference between the two.

Quick digression: one of my favorite tracks of 2010 was the similarly Blass-inspired remix of Bomba Estereo’s “Fuego” by the Frikstailers. With this and moombahton, ersatz reggaeton was killing it last year.

Next, a track by reggaeton’s prettiest pretty-boy, Tito el Bambino. His last album was almost totally ballads underscored by gentle dembows, but here he teams up with my favorite spanish “ragga moofin,” Don Chezina, for a deliberate recall of the proto-reggaeton era of DJ Playero. The beat switches up mixtape-stylee, with some vintage Playero-riddims thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps post-crossover-crash, reggaeton’s nostalgically revisiting its roots.

Speaking of Playero, I scored a couple of mixes (37 and 39) at a record store at the seen-better-days mall/market of Rio Piedras, along with an Omega bootleg. You would think this would be the ideal place for CD-R mixtapes, but you’d be wrong. It does have an amazing food court, though. You know your roast pork’s coming from the right place when you’re getting it from a 350-poung guy named Junior who’s being assisted by an older gentleman with a prominent bypass surgery scar.

Speaking of Omega, he’s more prominent than Daddy Yankee these days. His CDs were everywhere. Check out his own Dembow homage. Fuerte!

I finally came across that universal figure of hood modernity, the bootleg guy, hanging at a pool hall on Luquillo Beach, where the cars are hot, the music is loud, and the ballcaps are askew at impossible angles. And the mixtapes are more expensive than what I get in DC. I tried to go for the 3-for-10 deal I get from the go-go dudes at the Florida Market, only to be told by my very stoned vendor that he works for someone else and can’t make deals. Todos somos trabajadores!

The mambo I got there was some of the most creative music I heard on the island. As it emerges from its convention-establishing phase, mambo is mixing with club sounds in a variety of weird ways. Zombie Nation’s soccer anthem “Kernkraft 400” makes an impromptu appearance among Dominican polyrhythms:

Fútbol is really the path towards global crossover, which, just like capital, is where pop music wants to go.

The compilation closes with a timely remix of MJ’s “Remember the Time” (labeled presumptuously “Omega FT Michael Jackson”). I noted the explosion of mambo remixes of Michael Jackson acá.

Here’s the whole compilation, which is the first I’ve ever purchased with a prominent twitter link printed on the cover. Don’t sleep on the merengue remix of 704 Boyz, or the soon-to-blow-up Prophex.



Neocolonialism, Authenticity, and the Ethics of World Music

September 17, 2010

Boima has a post on the neocolonial aspects of crate-digging that caused some furor when said crate-diggers descended on the comments section, but the result was interesting, and I’d like to weigh in on a few dynamics of contemporary global music the discussion crystalized.

The first thing that struck me was that authenticity is not the dead horse the popists beat to a pulp back in the early Oughts. Its spirit has migrated away from production — in which authenticity was ascribed to certain types of sounds and their presentation — into the realm of consumption.

The cataloging tendency tends to be a colonial one. Also, many of the DJs and label owners, perhaps because of its shared lineage with Hip Hop, have concentrated on Afro-Beat, or have given more weight to genres that are popular in the west like Rock and Funk. For African artists, these are generally styles that artists often used as tools, or influences to fuse with their own popular local styles. The reissue train has been slow to recognize larger genres in Africa like Soukous, Highlife, or Benga, unless they find an artist that has an added funk or rock influence. In the past the tendency was to look for “authentic” music that sounded more “traditional.” Are they now shying away from things that sound too … African?

Certainly a weird reversal is at work here. Previous critiques of world music accused compilers (and by extension, yuppie listeners) for exoticizing non-Western music, for fetishizing its lack of modernity, and finally, for ascribing authenticity to what was essentially constructed for Western tastes. We have moved to a new periodization. Boima criticizes compilers (and by extension, hipster listeners) not for exoticizing Africans, but for disregarding actual tastes of Africans in favor of music that sits alongside American funk and rock more comfortably. Now hybrids — music that belies a fusion of African and Western — are inauthentic for not being “African” enough. “African-ness” is no longer a pre-modern essence as it was for first-gen world music. Now it’s been filtered through the analytic lens of our best science of consumption, market research: In the words of a recent Guardian article, “African music the actual African diaspora likes.” Actual. Real. Authentic.

The “authentic listener” is even more flawed concept than the “authentic artist.” For one, it’s difficult to pinpoint why particular music strikes someone in a particular way. Does that French DJ like Afrobeat because it’s exotic or because it’s Western-sounding? Unfortunately for both marketers and sociologists, demographics never match easily with musical tastes. But there’s a bigger problem: the frame of analysis. To examine and criticize individual actors in a tiny corner of the music industry, itself but a portion of the economy, is to miss what is important and revealing about the phenomenon Boima is commenting upon.

Boima makes an analogy between these vinyl tourists and colonial extraction: “it does seem that the current mad-dash for rare African vinyl could be analogous to Europe’s 19th Century Scramble for Africa, a mad-dash for rare African minerals.” He gets raked over the coals in the comments by the diggers, who don’t exactly appreciate being associated with violent exploitation. They argue variously that they listen to a wide variety of African music, that they make little money, that they are actually helping some of the artists on their compilations. Boima is taken to task, and rightly in my view: his resort to the “authentic listener” is just a shaky defense for an argument that was falling apart even before the diggers pile on in the comments section. Even if we had a bunch of European DJs releasing benga and soukous, we could still use this argument. Whenever “non-Western” music is released to “Westerners,” it provokes anxiety for the more multicultural-minded. It even pushes left-leaning people into defending things you wouldn’t think they would: property, nation, the buying and selling of culture, “tradition,” and yes, authenticity.

What Boima gets right is his analogy. There is a connection between Westerners crate-digging in Africa and 19th Century colonialism. But to narrow in on a tiny section of Western operations in Africa, and castigate the individual operators misses the point. The heritage of imperialism, which is not the past at all, but our very real and ongoing present, is not their fault. The presence of Western music and technology in Africa, the infrastructure that enables tourists to fly there, the economic imbalances that allow a European of modest means to purchase thousands of rare records, the lack of distribution channels for commodity export on the continent — these are larger, structural factors. Even on the level of desire — for the rare, for the exotic, for the familiar, for the exotic-but-not-too-exotic, for the authentic — are conditioned and manufactured by a system that has compressed time and space, thrown disparate peoples together, and fused and warped culture in uncountable ways. The practices examined in the debate, and the debate itself, are symptoms of much larger, much more insidious processes: actually existing imperialism. The crate-diggers are in a sense enabled in their task by Leopold chopping off hands in the Congo and by Shell dumping oil into the Niger Delta. They are part of this story. But they are not the villains.

This historical perspective is obscured by another problem lurking in current world music (fuck it, that’s what it is) discourse — the version of authenticity it draws upon. The authenticity-as-essence (especially pre-modern essence) argument is pretty much dead, so we can leave that in the dustbin of shitty NPR shows. But the more ethical stance that Boima raises — the one of responsibility, of being an ethical musical tourist — is alive and well, and also problematic.

Philosophers of the liberal tradition such as Charles Taylor and Lionel Trilling argue that authenticity relies on a kind of relational stance towards others, one of mutual recognition and sincerity. Without getting too theoretical, these positions rely on a long tradition of thought about the liberal subject — self-contained, self-directed, individualist, tolerant. If I am a good liberal subject, and you are a good liberal subject, then we can find a way to behave ethically, authentically, towards each other, and make the world a better, more civil place through recognizing each other as legitimate beings. But if I don’t recognize you, if I “fetishize” or “exoticize” you, or improperly represent your cultural artifacts, I’m acting unethically. You see this argument pop up all the time; one of the commenters, “wills,” states

if we continue to fetishize the psychedelic African past at the expense of a more mature, nuanced relationship with the present (and other eras), we might end up stuck in graceland (or on some blog).

There’s no shortage of advice on how the proper relationship you should have with African music. The problem is, no one knows what it means. How do you listen to something in a “mature” and “nuanced” way? How is releasing a compilation of Afrobeat “fetishizing” and making an mbalax remix of Akon not? These words are what Adorno would call the jargon of authenticity — they are essentially meaningless, erected only to set arbitrary boundaries. As a good dialectical materialist, Adorno has no patience for this stuff about mutual recognition and ethical stances. The liberal subject position assumes that we have ultimate control over our actions, which leaves out the history that inflects and conditions so much of who we are and what we do, the travels we take, the art we consume and how we react to it, the blog posts we write. We are not independent, self-contained actors in the world; we move through larger structures that determine more than we care to admit. And so any critique of transnational production or consumption, especially if you want to politicize it (as you should) has to discuss this, and not haggle over the tastes of individuals. The “colonial tendency” is both ours and not ours — it is there, we must acknowledge it, but attempting to ameliorate it in ourselves while ignoring actual imperialism just makes imperialism function more smoothly. Our responsibility is not to our taste — it is to ending the neocolonial project.

This starts at home.

Musical Tourism in Armenia; or, Second World Ghettotech + Armenian Bangers Mix

July 27, 2008

So, as alluded to earlier, I travelled to Armenia (AKA Hayastan), a place simultaneously marked by an ancient, uninterrupted history as well as by its relatively recent past as a Soviet socialist republic. Armenia’s current status is a small, landlocked, ethnically homogenous nation-state of around 3 million.  There’s a large diaspora of around five million Armenians throughout the world, people who fled either the Turks, the Soviets, or the current poverty rampant in the country.  This scattered nation is held together by a shared alphabet and language, religion (the Armenian Orthodox church), and foods (pomegranates and apricots are national symbols). And, of course, genocide recognition. Although I read stories that lauded Turkey’s Eurocup achievements as sticking it to White Christian Europe, it shouldn’t be forgotten that for many, Turkey was the imperial aggressor. I caught the Germany-Turkey match at a bar in Yerevan; when the Turkish team sang their national anthem, the bartender immediately muted the TV to raucous applause. Nevertheless, Armenia’s president sees soccer as a means to bridge borders. Music too provides a common bond for Armenians, but to me Armenian pop music belies its external influences more than a coherent internal character.

The Soviet Union looms as the largest influence when one wanders the centrally planned streets of Yerevan: lots of concrete, large garish buildings that are at once imposing and cheap, and a personal sense of style devoted to major European luxury brands and excessive ornamentation — were I of less proletarian sympathies, I might call it nouveau riche. Armenia, like most of the Soviet world, never had the tension between elites, bourgeoisie, and workers to create tricky strata of “taste” and “sophistication” in fashion: quite simply, more means more. If you can add screen printing, ruffles, rhinestones, or bows to a dress, you do it and charge that much more for it. And like Russia today, Armenia has its own class of oligarchs in charge of the nation’s industries (the guy who owns the sugar monopoly also owns the tobacco monopoly, hence Grand Candy and Grand Tobacco), as well as its own mafia in charge of smuggling and sex traffic. They hang at the numerous strip clubs around the city, as well as the karaoke bars that wouldn’t let me in. There’s such a market for Soviet kitsch in the former USSR that the markets have bootleg Soviet goods. There’s even a commie theme restaurant in the center of the city.

Russian pop music, itself in thrall to European dance-pop, is everywhere on the radio, as well as on television — Yerevan gets about 20 TV stations, half of which are Russian, and several which show music videos throughout the day. In fact, the major pop radio station (there are several devoted to classical music and jazz as well as Armenian traditional music) is instructive in tracing the influences running through this tiny country. About a third of the music is straight-up Russian pop and dance music. Perhaps the most arresting of these was a remix of 50 Cent’s “Ayo Technology” by DJ Baur.

Yes, the 50 Cent global hegemony is in full effect in Yerevan. Hip hop is popular, but only the biggest rappers — 50 Cent, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg — show up on the radio. Tupac has a presence due to the large Armenian diaspora population in Los Angeles. There are also Armenian rappers, most of whom hail from LA (Glendale specifically), none of whom I found very interesting. Hip hop is either club music or the realm of a few over-serious acolytes with lots of dour beats — if there is any insurgent or politically-aware hip hop, I didn’t find it. If you are the rebellious type of Armenian, you are probably into metal. Super Sako is one of the more successful Armenian rappers: his latest hit “I Love You” features English rapping and traditional style Armenian singing on the hook, an oft-repeated formula for Hye-rap division of labor.

More compelling to my ears was the increasingly strong native pop industry. Following the progression of Turkish popular music (a strong, if stridently unacknowledged influence on Armenian pop), Armenia has incorporated “R&B” structures into the relentless Eurodance onslaught, with melismatic singing and danceable syncopation. They even have some nice video budgets on occasion. The biggest song in Yerevan during my visit was the quite excellent “Vortekh Gitnem” (Where I Find) by Sofi Mkheyan, which is also probably the most entertaining music video I saw.

Sofi is about as close to girl power as it gets in Armenia; unlike most female pop stars, she eschews tight dresses and sexpot sultriness for straight up kicking ass. An older Sofi hit shows her battling between her good girl persona (preferring trad Armenia ballads) and her more defiant “hip hop” persona who wants to jam to Daddy Yankee. Oh yes, reggaeton is popular here (along with salsa), but again, you only hear the biggest hits.

Rivaling Sofi’s chart domination was Arame’s “Ur E.” Arame has recently ventured into R&B after sticking largely to ballads, surprising to many Armenians because as someone unnaturally tall (6 feet!), it was assumed he could not dance. He probably won’t win contests with his moves in this video, but he has some!

Notice the celebrity cameos, ripped from films and pasted in the video. Bruce Willis shows up in his Fifth Element gear, and I’m pretty sure he’s not getting any royalties from this. Armenia shares Russia’s cavalier attitude towards intellectual property, and bootlegs can even be found in official videos! Bootleg DVDs and CDs were the norm — there were no places to buy “official” licensed copies, although the bootlegs claimed their own copyrights in a bid to imitate every aspect of a legitimate release.


Note the All Rights Reserved

Note the "All Rights Reserved"


You have two choices — a top-of-the-line bootleg compilation for 1500 dram ($5), or a much more economical MP3 CD which holds 6-10 albums for about the same price (even cheaper in the countryside). I bought several of each, and perhaps my most interesting MP3 CD was “Best of Rabiz Music” by Grisha Aghakhanyan.

Rabiz” is a hard-to-translate slang term that was variously described to me as “flirt” or “low-class,” but essentially means an Armenian version of an East Coast “guido.” Grisha is part parody, part homage to rabiz culture. Most of his songs are covers of songs popular in Armenia, many of them American (Grisha now lives in LA). Here’s his version of “Gasolina,” which I am pretty sure is bemoaning high gas prices (about the same price as the U.S. with a much lower per capita income) while lampooning Armenian car culture.

“Bom Bom Ashotik”, which interpolates the Macarena at the end, strikes me as very ghettotech:

National questions always loom large for Armenians, especially since they have been without a state for so long. What makes all this stuff “Armenian,” or any music part of a nationality)? The language plays an important part: Mesrop Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet, is still revered as a national hero.

And partially it is music produced for a specifically self-identified Armenian market, which spans the globe in spite of its largest distribution channels existing in the nation itself. But it’s also Armenian because of the parts from “outside” seeping in: the Russian electropop, the Turkish melodic structures, Middle Eastern instrumentation, U.S. fashion. There is no ontological core of Armenian-ness to any of this music, and just as Armenia historically had to shift alliances with larger powers to preserve its autonomy, so it selectively appropriates foreign musical traditions to shore up its sense of ethnic identity, without which those dollars and rubles and Euros and pounds and lira made by diasporans wouldn’t be converted back into dram in the motherland. 

Ok, enough reading – time for the bangers!

Armenian Bangers 2008 Mix

1. Sofi – Vortekh Gitnem (best Armenian pop song ever!)

2. Arman – Khutchutch Aghchik (“curly girl”)

3. Gayane Torosyan – Zepiur Nman (“like a breeze”)

4. Grisha – Tash Tush (“Tash Tush” is slang for “party” – a cover of “I Like To Move It”)

5. Super Sako and Hayko – I Love

6. Kreativ Techno Hamuyt – SMS (This sounds JUST like Brazilian eletro)

7. Arame – Ur E

8. Gayane Seobyan – Manushak (“Violet”)

9. 50 Cent feat. Justin Timberlake – Ayo Technology (DJ Baur Mix) (Ok, it’s technically Russian)

10. Serjo – P.S. Club (Serjo is the biggest dance producer in Armenia)

11. Grisha – Bom Bom Ashotic

12. Vartan Sargisyan – Mi Kayl (“One Step”)

13. Grisha – Yerevan (cover of a song by Tata, the biggest Armenian pop star)

14. Vache – Hishatakner

15. Arame – Inch Eh Katarvum (“What’s Going On” – not a cover!)

16. Lilu – Im Sere Kez Hamar Eh (“My Love Is For You”)

17. Sofi – Qez Kanchum Em (Sofi’s earlier, more Turkish-style pop)

18. Kreativ Techno Hamuyt – Hayastan-Hrazdan-Zodiak (Hrazdan is the district where they make bread)

19. Grisha – Loer Misha



“…perhaps they too are tourists…”

July 16, 2008

Theo Parrish interview.

Armenia post very soon (knock on wood).

Musical Tourism, Ethical Consumption and other blog resonances pinging through my mind

June 21, 2008

Around the neoworldmusic/”global ghettotech” (Wayne, I confess to disliking this term) blogosphere and beyond, ethics of consumption remain a high priority. This is the commandment of self-reflexivity upon one’s subject position taught in liberal arts programs amongst other places: think about your subject position (class, race, gender) when engaging in critique and analysis, and results in a lot of intellectual labor devoted to the divide between the privileged position of the educated middle class listener/writer and that of the producer of the music: poor/ghetto/third-world. I’ve certainly done plenty of soul-searching about my own relationship to enjoying reggaeton or funk carioca or merengue de calle or whatever, though that usually comes after the thrill of initial engagement and discovery, and is usually far less enjoyable. It’s penance though, right? The price I pay for free music from people I will most likely never meet (though I feel less inclined to pay this price for downloading Justin Timberlake mp3s, and I’ll probably never meet him either). 

There’s really no shortage of “UR DOIN IT WRONG” examples of engaging with world music, and you’ll see the specter of the tourist (an increasingly perjorative term among the cultured) lurking in the shadows. “[A]t best a musical tourist” Eric Grady inveighs against Diplo, who has been the poster-child for UR-DOIN-IT-WRONGitude for so long he’s had to form an NGO to keep the booty-bass-intelligentsia at bay. The often-excellent Greg Scruggs calls him out along with serial offenders Sublime Frequencies for scrubbing out the names of artists on their mixes.

“If indeed they are “explorers” on the “urban frontier” of Rio de Janeiro seeking to “portray” a particular “moment,” then they are uninformed explorers who make no effort to explain the parameters of that moment – where, when, why.”

SF aren’t explorers, they are vaunted musical tourists, giving us a mere snapshot of the favelas, forcing us to provide our own contexts based on our own prejudices. Over at Dutty Arts, gex reminds us once again that we should translate the lyrics of what we hear if we are to listen (and DJ) in good conscience. We should be active listeners if we are going to travel into the third word internet, instead of being passive tourists who rely on paid bilingual intermediaries — tour guides — such as Diplo and SF. Ethnomusicology, a heavy influence on the global ghettotech discourse, has been hating on musical tourism for years now.

Which brings me to this interesting post on tourism as a particular mode of consumerist existence, broadly put as “a certain nostalgia for objects, coupled with a strange identification.” Cultural logic of late capitalism, y’all! This is of course what most of us word music consumers steeped in the liberal arts tradition want to avoid: we should be anti-tourists, cultivating a fair, ethical, meaningful relationship with music. But there are problems with this stance as well, things that niggled at me before Traxxus’s post crystallized some (and I do mean only some) things for me. It’s a desire to be the “heroic exception” to mindless consumers looking for the next cool thing (*cough* hipsters *cough*), but one that’s highly problematic in the academicky parlance of our times.

“Incurable observers who run up against their own limits respond, like marketers, with another absurd fantasy, that newness depends on the rearrangement or rejection of old categories (which were impositions to begin with), or that we need to ’stop being’ tourists, critics, adventurers, consumers, and replace them with something new and improved, though assembled from their remains, that the future is determined aesthetically by committee. Oblivious to the creativity it pretends to value, this brand of criticism kills the living and mystifies the dead.”

We try to shuck our inherited identity as tourists or consumers or Orientalists or neocolonialists, and build new identities in their places. Ethical, authentic identities that will assure us that our musical choices match up with our liberal politics — no Boom Bye Bye, no simple indie/thirdworld mashups, no missing tracklists, no mistranslations, no middle class appropriators. But this faith in the progressive power of self-fashioning is itself part of the problem, and anyway, we are all tourists now.

Calling Diplo a “neocolonialist” is missing the point. Diplo is not occupying any foreign countries, installing client regimes or coercively extracting resources. That he got big off a bunch of music made in the favelas is a symptom of neocolonialism, not a cause, and becoming ethical consumers isn’t going to change it (I’m actually more skeptical of the NGO angle). Sublime Frequencies certainly exoticizes its subjects (and I would love tracklistings on several of their releases including C.V), but they don’t actually have much effect, good or bad, on the music scenes they (inaccurately) document. Spank Rock doesn’t have much sway over the sounds of Baltimore’s clubs, and the favelas aren’t rocking Bonde do Role. The case could be made that they help provide a small part of an ideological screen to an influential class of Westerners which allows Western governments and corporations to continue to exploit the places where this music is made. But I wonder if castigating the middle class appropriators is rooted more in a desire to fashion ethical identities for ourselves than in correcting inequality. The increasing appropriation of the third world in music of all levels of popularity reflects our neoimperialist economic situation, in which Western (musical) economies are propped up by the exploited (creative) labor of the Global South, but I’m not sure to what extent it causes or creates it.

I’m not sure if I have some overriding point or position, more like nagging thoughts I tried to collide in a way that would help me make some sense of this. I agree with the sentiments of the bloggers mentioned above, and respect a lot of their writing. I don’t want to help reproduce exploitation or exoticization, I want to understand where the music I like comes from, what the lyrics are (even if most of them are about sexy girls), I want struggling artists to be compensated for their work. I want music to support the political causes I value. But I also want to be realistic about the limitations and pitfalls of the ethical consumerist approach to political problems. And hey, maybe get rid of some of this anxiety around one of the chief pleasures in my life.