Strikes Against Geography
Another month, another Plan B: containing the usual tantalising but not-quite-penetrating-enough articles, this time on M.I.A., Tall Pony, Marnie Stern and Dirty Projectors. When I first started reading Plan B I was attracted by the range they covered, and the personal, almost improvised tone of the writing; since then I’ve found that the writers more or less skim over the surface, never actually trying to produce something from an article – the M.I.A. article promises to deal with her somewhat nebulous politics, but never quite gets there. I’m starting to prefer The Wire’s approach: it may take an extra 25000 words to get there, but they do actually get there.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. In the Reviews section is an interesting review from Louis Pattison of a batch of LPs from African musicians (and the newly Afro-percussive Whitehouse.) He begins with "a quick reminder of why you hate the term ‘world music’": either due to the "own rosy mental image of the ethnic other as a free-trade wonderland of happy natives" or its connotations of being "a sort of intellectual duty for the good liberal, a cultural transaction conducted in the currency of guilt." Um, not quite. The problem comes with the curatorial arrogance of the Western music industry: firstly, things like the Rough Guide To…series of CDs, which take the sounds of the continent as a homogenised mass (such as the African Hip-Hop volume), or screen out anything that does not fit their idea of what an area sounds like ("not sufficiently ethnic"). Secondly, the entire presentation of ‘world music’ as truly ‘authentic’ music: how exactly can we trust white, Western record executives to judge such things? This ‘authenticity’ usually comes in the form of some kind of connection to the cultural traditions of the indigenous people: an element of the exotic and communal, as opposed to the atomised and spiritually flat West (despite the fact that most of, say, World Circuit’s output, is coffee-table bland), perpetuating the racist discourse of ‘ethnology’ and ‘anthropology’, and continuing to turn human beings (whose societies, BTW, we continue to wreck) into mere microscope subjects.
At this point I must put my hand up and admit that this is one of the reasons behind my enjoyment of certain African and Asian musics (qawwali, rai and Palestinian and Berber folk song are personal favourites). However, we should keep in mind that what is familiar is never interesting, especially not in my neck of the woods, and sonic strangeness is as good a barometer as anything: so, you can put hardcore ragga, dub, the more consciously avant end of post-punk (Essential Logic, Mars, DNA, The Flying Lizards, early Whitehouse, Throbbing Gristle) and 1920s blues records on the same sort of level.
Indeed, this kind of kinship through sound, furthered by the easy availability of most music through the internet, forms the core of what looks like a shift in approach in the appreciation of non-Western music: as Pattison calls it, "a freer sort of exchange, a melting of borders", not merely in the increasing recognition given to non-Western music as its own, valid entity rather than a novelty Other-music (he points to the critical acclaim given to Konono No 1), but the international mash-up sensibility pioneered by a number of musical editors including Canadian DJ Ghislain Poirier (whose short Grimeyland mix is well worth listening to), Brooklyn’s Team Shadetek (who mix up grime, ragga, dubstep and hip-hop in their sets), Diplo (most famous for his popularisation of funk carioca), Radioclit (who mix southern African, Moroccan and traditional Asian music, alongside grime and Dirty South hip-hop), M.I.A., and, particularly, DJ Rupture. His Gold Teeth Thief mix, which I’ve been listening to lately, is a quite remarkable thing: a mix of international hip-hop, crunk, hardcore ragga, dub, digital hardcore, electronic noise scree, jungle, proto-dubstep and traditional and popular music from Africa, the Middle East, Caribbean and Latin America. If the man was trying to do eclectic, he nailed it: textures are so mashed up, genres so interspliced and juxtaposed that it’s usually impossible to tell where a track comes from (without consulting the tracklist.) This approach – the filtration and channelling of the diverse signals of the world’s musical consciousness – certainly has its attractions: because the focus is on the enjoyment factor of the music, the visceral dancefloor bounce (as proven by the increasing popularity of internationally-minded club nights like Poirier’s now-defunct Bounce Le Gros), the attitude of curatorial preciousness adopted by the guardians of so-called ‘world music’, whilst keeping a certain respect for the music.
Indeed, there is an increasing tendency for feedback between the music of the global core and periphery – aside from the influence of non-Western music on Western musicians (see the new Whitehouse album and Philip Bennett’s new Afro-Noise project, African influences on New York’s ‘fractal noise’ and psych scenes, (including Excepter, Gang Gang Dance, Black Dice and Animal Collective), and Asian influences on dubstep and the Skull Disco sound), non-Western musical forms evolved from congress with Western technologies and sounds (funk carioca, African hip-hop and grime, electronic variations of bhangra, klezmer, Congolese trance music, and others) are increasingly being absorbed and championed by Western hipster-musicians. What has been dubbed ‘ghettopop’ – both non-Western music borrowing Western forms and vice versa – is becoming increasingly visible, with the lines increasingly blurred between the two (for example, M.I.A.: Western dilettante borrowing African musicians, or Sri Lankan working within the Western pop industry?)
Aside from the nasty side effects – the tendency of hipsters to treat non-Western music as fads (Angolan kuduro being the latest, after funk carioca), or a residual tendency to treat the world’s music as something to be curated and consumed rather than appreciated – this approach seems about right, treating non-Western cultures as individual, changing entities, which, of course, they are, as Nicholas Rhodes points out in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives: "’authenticity’ derives not from stasis but because it bears witness to the continued development of its forms, reflecting dialogue with modernity".
So, it’s all good, right? Um, not quite. Whilst it always gladdens the heart to see people counteracting and confounding the stupidities of nationalism and cultural separation, and some very good music is, after all, coming to light and being produced, there’s something not quite right. There’s an implied politics at the heart of Rupture, M.I.A., etc.’s approach: a channelling of the music of the world’s dispossessed and disenfranchised – and any mix containing Dead Prez’ ‘Cop Shot’, Bounty Killer’s ‘Corrupt System’ and Welmo Romero and Splice’s ‘Si A Plomo Vives’ can’t be aiming at any other impression – presented as something inherently good. The problem is that whilst drawing lines between police brutality in Brixton, Kingston, Brooklyn and Nairobi is a valid (if a little naïve) approach, it comes up against the innate poptimism of the sonic internationalist approach. Most probably Rupture and M.I.A. care just as much as your correspondent about global injustice; but the politics of listening are, in this case, no more valid than those created by listening to manufactured pop. I'm not saying that being ignored is better, or that interbreeding with Western music is 'corrupting' non-Western, or that this feedback loop will lead to increasing homogenisation (although that is a scary possibility), or that the fun factor should be discounted from our listening decisions, or the production and distribution of music. But the End-of-Days-party musical culture of international hipsterism will never help advance the cause of the Third World. Conversely, the essential inequality between the Western and non-Western music industries will never be solved by capitalist globalisation - only by a decisive shift in world economics to create a level international playing field. Making the pleasure principle the guiding criterion of music ("Who cares as long as you can dance to it?") plays directly into the hands of international capital, the very mindless parasite keeping the Third World in its place. Internet internationalism, one of the few good spawns of globalisation, may begin to allow non-Western music to find new audiences, but it only strengthens Kapital.
It’s a great mix, sure. But don’t believe the hype.