World Music?

Submitted by Charles A. Pratt on Friday, 10/8/2010, at 12:57 AM


World Music?

            When asked to compare a long list of artists that obviously vary in musical style, the first theme that sticks out is a shared method of musical production.  Many of these artists take a major piece of a formerly existing song, whether that is a beat or even the lyrics, and transform it into something new.  For example, M.I.A uses the rhythm from “Straight to Hell” in order to form the backbone of her song, “Paper Planes”.  Jaan Pehk does the same with Veljo Tormis’s production of “Laulis Isa, Laulis Poega”, and ironically, Tormis composed this opera song based off of a unique Livonian cultural song.  Along the same lines, Deep Forest created a trance inducing song from the “Rorogwela” lullaby song.  On a sonic level, the original lullaby seems so personal and unique, whereas the remix creates a feeling of detachability described by Feld.  The original lullaby becomes so broken up that the main point of concentration becomes the fantasy land one enters upon listening. 

            After hearing all of these samples, one can’t help but wonder what should be classified as original music.  While the tracks are creative in their own right, the previously mentioned tracks all rely on raw, unrefined music composed by their predecessors.  Although the original music was most likely influenced by an even further removed source, the lines of derivation seem to never end.  While I have come to accept this fact, it is still worrisome in an age where music can be transformed at the click of a button.  The music of our most esteemed artists, like Michael Jackson and Hall and Oats, is quickly transferred to those of our contemporaries.




“World Music”, as Feld puts it, would not have been much different had the genre been coined 3rd world music.  Although non-Western music was being marketed as exotic, primitive, and traditional, World Music fits a very broad artistic category undeserved of being classified as its own sub-type.  On the other hand, global ghettotech has arisen as “a radically synthetic counter to ‘world music’” (Bailey).  What enables ghettotech to earn its right as something majorly different from world music is its unique technological creation, along with the culture that surrounds the movement.  The social circumstances in many 3rd world cities have created a major class divide, resulting in a “cyberpunk dystopia”.  The resulting sound is a rough and rugged, up-beat metallic sound produced from the sequencing of electronic equipment. 

The main difference between ghettotech and “World Music”, aside from its sonic qualities, is the way in which it is labeled.  The many genres of “World Music” available are so diverse that its categorization as one entity largely discredits the individuals responsible for its creation.  But, on the positive side, the listener tends to convey more joy than critical response when addressing a certain musical type.  Despite all the implications surrounding the concept of “World Music”, “nu whirled music” reiterates the idea that in our global age of accessibility, one generally fine tunes her reality by channeling in material of interest.  With a marketplace more fragmented than ever, perhaps more “World Music” will enable the listener to expand upon one’s musical interests.          


We Are the World

Submitted by Matthew H. Hartzler on Monday, 10/4/2010, at 12:01 PM

The belittling and demeaning of Africa by outsiders in a “neo-colonial” fashion appears to be the central theme of this week. It starts with the Meintjes about Paul Simon stealing the South African sound and unethically repurposing in his own manner, and the detailed descriptions of his not giving credit, where credit was due. It ends with Congotronics, which as Pemberton elaborates. The idea that this innovative and provocative form could have come from Africa was astounding. These general feelings of African disenfranchisement and losing agency in themselves are powerful claims. In class, many of us did not feel very strongly against Paul Simon. We felt his apolitical goals made it difficult to criticize his means. However, there may prove an example that is a bit more imperialistic considering our readings than thought before.

            “We Are the World” was sung by USA for Africa, essentially an artist “supergroup” of 47 musicians to raise money for mid-19080’s famines in Ethiopia.  Led by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, the group released the 1985 song, which was top in the US and UK charts. The song is very clearly 80’s. Sonically, it sounds as though one could make the underlying drum rhythm and piano lower rhythm using a cheap electric keyboard. The vocals are a smattering of artists than come in and out with Jackson as the lead singer of the chorus, with all of the artists together replacing him later in the track.

            Now, this is all nice and good, but considering the evil Paul Simon was part of this group, one starts to wonder what its true intentions are. The concepts behind the song and videos were to help Africa, but doesn’t that indicate that Africa needs our western help? Meintjes might argue that this is simply an imposition of our colonial views. Why couldn’t a congotronics band create a similar song and have Africa help itself. The dimensions of this issue go even deeper.

This past year, “We Are the World” resurfaced as “We Are the World 25 for Haiti”. With the Haitian earthquakes occurring on the same year as the 25th anniversary of the original release, the song was rerecorded with contemporary artists (for example, the song starts with Justin Bieber) and released during the opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics. This garners the question of if the one 25 years ago was colonialist against Africa, then is Bieber and others neo-colonialists towards Haiti?

The problems with invoking such strong attacks against Simon and the “We Are the World” singers is there is simply no malicious intent on their part. These artist have the technology to go and record and broadcast, where as in some parts of Africa that might be difficult. With media distribution as it is today, not everyone can help raise money by putting a song on iTunes or a CD put into stores. The Internet could be changing this though.


Shortly after the celebrity version of “We Are the World” was released, a YouTube Edition was released featuring 57 unsigned and relatively unknown artists collaborating on the same “We Are the World” song. Hopefully, in the future, the Haitians or Africans won’t need western help in producing their own collaborative charity song, thus leaving Paul Simon and Justin Bieber out of the crosshairs of another imperialism argument.

Collaborating, Incorporating, and Creating

Submitted by Theresa L. Kelley on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 10:46 PM


It is easy to look at all facets of the music-making process and reduce it and compartmentalize it, and forget to take it for what it really is. Paul Simon’s Graceland can be looked at in very different ways. It can be seen as a somewhat contrived attempt “bridge” two very different worlds, or it can be seen as a musical collaboration innocently pursued. Either way, the collaborative process that is demonstrated here calls upon many different social and cultural implications. The Meintjes article highlights some very interesting aspects that one might not pick up on by simply listening to the album, mostly concerned with behind the scenes features of the process. I believe that Paul Simon was initially sincere in his fascination with the music of South Africa and that he entered the project with a desire to collaborate, incorporate and create something new and interesting, but as the level of production continued to escalate, the genuineness of the project diminished. Paul Simon asked musicians to simply play, and he gleaned what he could from their music and manipulated the sounds to fit the concept that he had in his head. There is nothing wrong with this, because it was his creative process and it evolved into a highly produced album, but it reduced the level of collaboration dramatically. I don’t think that the production level in correspondence to the success of the album and mainstream appeal that it garnered should be overlooked either. Meintjes quotes a musician who played on the album, who says that he felt very detached from the finished product because his involvement in the project felt very minimal as the album neared completion. This is really too bad, because I think that musical collaborations that can meld genres and at the same time destroy barriers are what make the process of musical discovery so amazing. The greatest products occur when the collaboration is not so one-sided like this one, and when you don’t feel like there is a small charity element going on where the feeling that one of the artists is giving the other their “big break.” I feel like that is what comes across when a western audience listens to Graceland, even though many of the musicians were very popular and well known in their respective countries.

Congotronics takes creative aspirations in a different way. By melding the traditional and electronic components to create a very original sound and genre, bands like Konono no. 1 are testing the global community. They have an extremely organic and refreshing way of producing music and the roughness of many of the tracks instills almost a sense of luck in a listener in being able to enjoy it. You can tell that the mediums through which the music is being made are very unrefined and that is what gives the whole genre its authentic appeal.


Jayna Brown mentions in her article that M.I.A. put “people on the map who never seen a map,” which seems to hit the whole collaboration debacle and reality right on the head. M.I.A.’s song “Hussel” featuring Afrikan Boy is one of her great collaborations. And on another note, the album that “the blind couple from Mali,” Amadou and Mariam made with Manu Chao, “Dimanche A Bamako” is a collaboration that is worth several listens!

Audio icon 05 Hussel [Ft. Afrikan Boy].mp36.08 MB
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Music and Power Formations

Submitted by Risa Nakamura on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 8:32 PM

     Picturing myself at a music shop or even in front of my laptop, looking at hundreds of CDs or images of songs and albums online, I would definitely choose to buy Paul Simon’s Graceland over Konono No. 1’s Congotronics. Why? Because it’s Paul Simon. Suppose I did not take this class ─ I would not have known of the existence of the Congo band even if I spent hours searching for music to buy. This gives me a hint in observing a relationship between dominant media networks/power formations and musical creativity/aspiration in those two CDs.

     I would buy Paul Simon’s Graceland because it’s Paul Simon. He is a big name. I might not like the music, but I am sure I would not end up buying Congotronics instead. I believe most people in the U.S. would do the same unless they are a big fan of any African kind of music, of electronic music, or of dance music, a hater of Paul Simon, a professional at some sort in music, or taking Global Sound at Amherst College. If they had to choose one of the other without much information on the music, they would probably choose Paul Simon. That makes a big difference in musical creativity/aspiration in Graceland and Congotronics.   

     Louise Meintjes explains in his article ‘Paul Simon’s Graceland, South Africa, and the Mediation of Musical Meaning’ that music in Graceland integrates various musical styles and different linguistic styles. Meintjes goes on to say that it is by Simon that the integrations were done. In the Graceland case, it is not too much to say that Paul Simon and his fellow Americans were the ones who were positioned in the dominant media networks. All the integrations inGraceland considered, you can still hear the dominance of Paul Simon over South African music. Graceland would be more accurately described if labeled ‘Paul Simon featuring South African musicians’ rather than ‘the collaboration of Paul Simon and South African musicians’.

     The Konono No. 1’s Congotronics case, on the other hand, is crucially different in that it does not have Paul Simon or any big name in it. It was not the band, Konono No.1, who enthusiastically promoted themselves to a music market. Rather, since neither the band nor the producer/ the record company was big enough to meet any customers’ expectancy, they were, in comparison with the Graceland case, able to  balance the formations of power between the band and the producer/the company. With that, the musicians in the band and their producer could work more freely on music-making.

Big Voice Jack

Submitted by Michael Milov on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 8:16 PM

I'm curious what anybody thinks of this series of videos. During a portion of their 1998 summer tour, the Dave Matthews Band included a South African pennywhistle player nick-named Big Voice Jack. A documentary was filmed about his experience with the band. From readings and discussion, my perception about these videos has been distorted from its original reaction, which was an entirely positive one.

Since the tour, the pennywhistle has been featured in a few Dave Matthews songs, played by Leroi Moore and Jeff Coffin. It's presence is most significant in Bartender.


Bartender Fast Forward to about three minutes to hear the pennywhistle solo.

Music, Culture, and Media.

Submitted by Gaju E. Muhigi on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 8:12 PM

                 Paul Simon's Graceland album incites a mixture of controversy and accolades among critics. On the one hand, Simon is praised for blending various forms of music from two very different cultures, and for exposing South African musicians, such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to western listeners. On the other hand, Graceland can be interpreted as rather insulting, as it seems to insinuate that traditional South African music - such as Mbaqanga, Kwela, and Mbube - can be improved via western recording techniques, and are made better with a more polished, clean sound. Presenting these traditional styles of music in their raw forms would thus not be palatable enough for a western audience.

                  Leaving the politics of the album aside, I think it is obvious to see that the collaboration and production of Graceland is a direct product of the American media. For example, American pop music is sonically characterized by clean, high-quality production. The pennywhistle featured on the hit track, "You Can Call Me Al" is a signature of the traditional Kwela style of music. However, Kwela pennywhistles are often very low-quality, whereas the pennywhistle in the Graceland track is clean and pitch perfect.

Whether or not Simon "cleaned up" the pennywhistle sound for the specific purpose of creating a more western sound, the fact that he did so reflects a distinctly American style of music production.

Conversely, Konono No. 1, a 12-piece music group from Kinshasa, Congo, creates music that reflects many aspects of its country of origin. Most musicians in Kinshasa don't have the equipment to produce the high-quality sound that American musicians do. Because of this, Konono No. 1 performs very lo-fi music that represents the Congolese media of culture and community. The tracks on Konono No. 1's Congotronics have a very ambient, improvisational sound. One gets the feeling that each track is merely a recorded jam session, that none of the songs are planned, pre-thought, or even written down.

This is certainly unlike any American pop group you'd see today, where every single aspect of music and performance are calculated and pre-planned by record companies. Konono performances are lively, energetic, playful, and above all, casual. American pop musicians (Lady Gaga, for example), put on performances that are energetic and highly theatrical, but not nearly as inclusive as the Konono performers. American pop musicians are put on a pedestal to be adored and worshiped by their fans. The connection the Konono performers have with their audience represents how the Congolese place a high value on relationships within the family and community. The fact that American pop musicians are ultimately puppets of the record companies they are signed to is a reflection of American capitalism, and how music is a commodity to be packaged and sold to the masses. 

One final thing to note about the Konono No. 1 band is their instruments. Most of them are made from objects such as hubcaps and trashcans, and simplistic, such as the likembes ("thumb pianos"). It is remarkable that, though the band does not have the resources to purchase "proper" instruments, they still possess the desire to make music out of whatever they can. Having a father who was born and raised in the Congo, I know that much of every-day life in Congolese society involves hard work and resourcefulness - farming, gardening, gathering food, etc. The instruments of the Konono band are an indirect representation of the Congolese work ethic, and of Congolese society in general. 

"You know I don't find this stuff amusing anymore..."

Submitted by Katherine W. Cole on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 8:01 PM

Does where a song comes from matter? As Kenis says in the Hermes article, “One thing I like about the electronic music world is that people don't care if the music comes from Africa or the planet Mars. If it sounds good, it's good.” That claim seems debatable to me, as there’s a certain kind of music listener (in the “electronic music world” as well, I think) that values the source and story of a piece at least as much as its musicality. After all, I don’t think the New York Times would feature a piece on this music if it were created in the cocoon of a studio in L.A. For many people, a beat from South Africa has a lot more interest and cred, for lack of a better word, than an identical studio-created beat.

At the same time, that L.A. beat will probably be played exponentially more than the other. Graceland has been played in countless rooms/cars/raucous parties, while Konono #1 remains completely unknown to all but a tiny fragment of the world’s population. I had danced away to “You Can Call Me Al,” complete with an air-bass solo, for years without realizing the backstory of the different elements of that song. I don't think I can do that anymore.

We talked about that song in class, but I don’t think we mentioned one of its most obvious characteristics: the massive synth riff. The song begins with this blasting melody, and despite the awesomeness of the bass line and the scrubbed clean but still cool pennywhistle solo, if you mention the song to a random person on the street they’ll probably think of the synth riff first. This quintessentially Western beginning sets the tone, saying, This is an American pop song, containing different cultural elements manipulated in order to fit into that framework. I stumbled across a making-of video for Graceland, in which one of the producers says they maintained control of the different elements of the songs in order to prevent “a mess,” which is apparently what would’ve resulted from giving the South African musicians free rein:

Of course, this whole situation is a lot more complicated than sanctimoniously judging that producer’s words. Let’s say Graceland inspires a young songwriter to explore the rhythms and textures of African music in greater depth. That has broadened, not limited, the creativity and musical aspirations of that person. But if that musician writes outside of the dominant Western structure, will s/he get any exposure/make any money/live a life of notoriety? I’d say probably not. Will that person still want to put their heart, soul, time, and effort into such projects? I hope so, but they might need a day job too.

Representation in the Media

Submitted by Taylor L. Heacock on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 8:00 PM

After listening to the original penny whistle sound in class and then listening to how it was altered into a much crisper cleaner sound for Graceland, I thought that if this had not been pointed out to me, I would have thought with my untrained ears  the sounds came from two different instruments. This small change in sound in a way mimics the larger changes to African music by western music industries as a means to market and sell. This is to me where Congotronics and Graceland differ in their type and level of western influence and infiltration. Vincent Kenis did not majorly alter the sound of the Congolese band, Konono No. 1. However, both the Hermes and Pemberton articles reflect the importance placed on the efforts of a western mediator. It would be naïve to think that without the help of Kenis Konono No. 1 would have been anywhere near as popular around the world. This is where the power of western music industry is able to monopolize the sounds that we hear. The sound of Konono is electronic and therefore easily accepted by western audiences, Kenis notes this in the Pemberton article:

''When I encountered it, I thought it was the equivalent of punk music in Africa,'' said Vincent Kenis, a Paris-based producer who first heard Konono No.1 on a French radio station in 1980.

The result of this being a limited representation of African music. 

Both the popularization of Congotronics by Vincent Kenis and Paul Simon’s Graceland exemplify the power and influence of the domineering western music industries. However, Graceland and Congotronics are at opposite sides of this spectrum. The ability for record producers to take sounds from less familiar artists and regions of the world grants them an opportunity to claim a greater portion of for ownership.  The credit they receive is plainly the result of power inequalities between western and non-western, namely African, music industries. As long as the globalization of music takes place through the projects of western artists and producers such as Paul Simon there will be a discrepancy between authentic African music and its portrayal outside of its native area. There is a much different marketing technique used by Crammed Discs and Paul Simon. The following is an excerpt from the biography of the band, Konono No.1: "Konono N°1's "Congotronics" album introduced the world to the strange and spectacular electro-traditional mixtures which are being concocted in the suburbs of Kinshasa, Congo.” The site places all of the attention on the Congolese band rather than the Kenis who found the band and recorded them. Congotronics represents a much more untouched version of global sound whereas Simon’s Graceland is a more constructed collaboration of global sounds:“There is a deliberate effort to convey a sense of mutual cooperation and benefit in the composition and production of Graceland-in the inter-national promotional tour organization, in the integration of musical styles and languages, and in the metacommentary about all of these aspects of the project”( Meintjes 5). Here Meintjes relates the idea that Graceland is not a "mutual collaboration" at its core, but rather that this is only its superficial appearance, reinforcing the idea of a dominant western power in Paul Simon. 

Truth and the Studio-Instrument

Submitted by Ernesto A. Alvarez on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 8:00 PM

Although the instances of Congotronics and Graceland are different in their ultimate result, both stand to reveal a ubiquitous attraction to native African music and its raw and soulful sound. Despite this almost superficial commonality, though, Congotronics and Graceland stand a world apart—quite literally. Paul Simon's eclectic endeavor to gather and capitalize on South African music during the turmoil that was the Apartheid, and also during a waning time in his career, resulted in a project that reverberates the divisive nature of studio production and wired sound. The polished furnishings and clean-cut crispiness that characterizes every track on Simon's(?) album stand in direct contrast to the preservation of rootedness in Congotronics. In this respect, Graceland exemplifies both a dystrophic violation of African essence and also, on a more positive note, the creative potentiality that lurks in the studio. The studio itself emerges as an instrument in Graceland, albeit a very Western one. Throughout the album, Paul Simon's voice is modified to sound higher and more sonically tuned than his South African counterparts, so as to almost domineeringly save himself from a drowning out by voices that are far more alive than his. Such modification, which incontrovertibly happens within the padded walls of the studio-instrument, symbolizes the presence of a singular power inherited exclusively by Simon's vision and, ultimately, by Simon's pocket.

Graceland's hegemonic unilateralism stands in remote distinction from the organic collectivity of Congotronics, while simultaneously retaining the studio as a sort of experimental control in such comparison. Vincent Kenis, a white Western musician demographically very similar to Paul Simon, succeeds at channeling his appeal to and passion for the konono artists to the world, in a way which leaves their quintessentially urban and uncut sound relatively untampered with. The organic coming-together of Congotronics, music which at its heart serves a social function, is maintained in its transition from the streets, to the studio and out to global consumers. In this way, Congotronics exposes the studio-instrument as one which is versatile, especially in its capability to capture the truth of the do-it-yourself unity inseparable—as the linked video below demonstrates—from the Kinshasa society. In summation, then, it must be agreed that the studio can act as an instrument, both in the postmodern sense of an 'apparatus' and in the more narrow sense of a 'musical tool.' When considered in this Foucauldian, postmodern sense, as an apparatus where power meets knowledge to elicit meaning, the studio engenders quite the pivotal role. The studio-instrument becomes the medium through which the world digests truths about either South African mbaqanga or the Kinshasan use of the likembe. Whereas, Paul Simon authors his project to an eye for his own exposure and uses the African music and the studio towards this aim, Kenis uses the studio-instrument to capture the esoteric sound of konono while simultaneously preserving the socialistic truth of its roots for the world to consume.

Click here to see the organic, coming-together mentioned above.

Simon and Konono No. 1

Submitted by Joseph W. Higgs on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 7:55 PM
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Media networks and power formations definitely play their part in the musical endeavors of Paul Simon and Konono No. 1 because they provide the paradigm through which these artists understand what they want to accomplish musically and through what means they can do it.

Take Paul Simon's Graceland for example, the album was a commercial success because Simon was able to intelligently incorporate traditional South African music into a Western rock and roll context. However, if you look at the intentions behind the album it seems like there might be influences from power formations and/or media networks. According to Meintjes, for Paul Simon, “the early 1980s served as a challenge for him as he sought to regain the level of the album sales to which he had grown accustomed.” The search for album sales sounds to me, like the influence of certain “power formations” on what type of album Simon should strive for. With the perspective of making money, then there are obvious steps to take in order to achieve this goal. First would be to avoid repeating the flaws that led to him having “several unsuccessful albums” in the early 1980's. I think the obvious way to avoid a stagnant sound would be to look for new influences, which Simon found in traditional South African music. I'm sure that there are more pop artists today that are more “in it for the money” than Simon was in the 80's, but the intention of making money, (for me) nullifies Simon's role in the positive effect of exposing the world to a new type of cultural music.

Another example of power formations influencing musical inspiration can be seen in Konono No. 1's Conogotronics. This influence is more symbolic but interesting nonetheless. One of the most distinctive aspects of Congotronics is the sound of an amplified likemb. The “appealing distortion” and “raw, electric quality” of the likemb comes from the fact that the amplification system used by Konono was built from “pick-up microphones made from the magnets in car alternators and loudspeakers left behind by Belgian colonists in 1960.” The power formation (White Europeans) influenced the perspective through which Mingiedi (the leader of Konono) could create an amplification system because Belgians used automobiles in South Africa.

A difference between the two cases of influence is that Paul Simon used power to find inspiration, whereas Konono's inspiration came a direct result of the power exerted on their country. I find the later to be more genuine, even though the former is not necessarily a bad thing. In both cases, people are just using the resources available to them to make music (and sometimes, maybe a little extra money) and I can't imagine any artist approaching music any differently.

What's technology doing here?

Submitted by Rohan Mazumdar on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 7:54 PM

Undoubtedly, technology has found increasing relevance in defining the political, cultural and social realities encountered today. At the same time, that has to do more with the people who use it and the contexts within which it is used, rather than any innate, magical qualities it may have. I actually found it a bit challenging to provide a direct comparison between Graceland and Congotronics on the basis of how their technologies and innovations have affected the political and cultural atmosphere around them.  Simply put, the processes by which they were created and developed, and in turn affected their spheres of influence, do not run completely parallel, leading to a more nuanced link between them.

What they do have in common is the theme of ‘peripheral’ music jostling for recognition within the ‘central’ mainstream.  African musicians, and their place in a global musical consciousness, are the protagonists of our studies. However, given that that idea constitutes a separate prompt, I’ll forego delving into that.

 The manner in which Graceland came into being was very different from Congotronics. The album is very clearly a Western pop album. Although infused with South African elements, Paul Simon is at the heart of its structure. I do not believe that technology was the hot topic in this debate. The intense political outcome that it produced in South Africa centres around the idea of foreign invasion. It’s true that the ‘cleaning up’ of the pennywhistle and featuring Mbube singing in a bass guitar’s glissandos were important talking points. But identity politics was already at the forefront of South African collective imagination, and Graceland was just another battlefield. This is reflected in the long-term cultural impact that the album had on South Africa and the world. I doubt that South African has been definitively affected by Graceland. Given the nature of the audience listening to Graceland, I also doubt that most listeners would note the great technological feat of mixing different musical styles beyond a simple “Oh, that sounds cool.”

On the other hand, technological innovation is hugely responsible for bringing Congotronics to the world. Kenis may have provided an access opportunity, but the musical genre would not exist – and hence not have any political or cultural impact whatsoever – if not for the technology at its heart. Far more ‘homegrown’ than Graceland, Congotronics, thus far, has been more a product of political change than an active participant. While it remains to be seen whether it can become a vehicle for national identity in Congo, the cultural impact that it has had is currently far more pertinent. It speaks more to the essence of “here we (the people of Congo) are now” rather than “what does the world want to hear from us?” and that makes it a more powerful cultural phenomenon.

New Music and its role in Connection.

Submitted by Nikki M. Takemori on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 7:54 PM

The creation of new music incorporating different ideas and images can play a big role in unifying a community. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and Vincent Kenis’ Congotronics break down the barrier between black and white and creates music representing both sides. Both take in South African sounds with western ideals and inspiration, creating unification between the races. Although this unification may be criticized at some point, the music of Simon and Congotronics plays a role in connecting different cultures that were separated by Apartheid and war.


Inspired Paul Simon traveled to South Africa in search of relevant sounds to incorporate into his new album Graceland, in hopes of earning recognition and money. He took the sounds of African instruments, such as the penny whistle, digitalized it with western technology regenerating the same sound only in much better quality. Simon also incorporated western sounds, such as the synthesizer, and as a result created music that blends together music representing South African and the west, creating a sense of togetherness of the blacks and the whites. Yet this exact process can be seen as controversial, for the South African collaborators hardly were recognized in Graceland, while Simon profited. Also the significance of the penny whistle’s high-pitched, raspy, local sound is lost when altered by technology. Thus the racial border reappears, with listeners questioning if collaborations can really create unity or not.


Congotronics approaches the racial blend in a different way. Unlike the sounds created with music technology in Graceland, the music in Congotronics, inspired by Afro-Cuban music, are performed by the Congolese with homemade instruments. The Do-It-Yourself instruments from trash and old car parts reflect the community’s engagement of making music, the makers seeking for the best sound that will please the local people and energize the dancers. Congotronics’ music reflects the people of South Africa – it is their music created by their people. The Congotronics sound did not spread out far at first; with no connections to transnational music industries or to advanced music editing programs the Congotronics music had no need to reach every other country. Kenis, trying to preserve the raw sounds of the DIY instruments, did his best to display South African local music to the rest of the world by collaborating with Konono No.1. He declares to be successful, stating “the public that doesn’t care about African music immediately catches on to this music.”


Perhaps the album names have hidden messages in them. Graceland could imply a land where racial barriers are gone, where blacks and whites can live in grace with no animosity towards each other. Congotronics, a mix of Congo and electronics, could mean the spread of Congo sound through electronics, new technology. The electronics could also imply the genre of music; the title could mean the creation of a new genre in the world. When new music is created, it becomes the bridge across the river of separation, connecting different groups together.

Time To Take Off The Safety?

Submitted by Michael Milov on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 7:53 PM

It is almost impossible not to see the elephant in the room once he’s been spotted. Similarly, upon reading about Graceland’s controversial history, my feelings and thoughts about the album have been permanently altered. It is now difficult to reconcile my enjoyment of, for example, the bass groove on “You Can Call Me Al” without thinking of the consequences related to the musician playing the riff and to traditional South African music as a whole.

It would be hard to argue that Graceland, aesthetically speaking, isn’t a wonderful piece of music to our Western ears. It provides listeners with a powerfully inviting combination of exotic adventure into South African music with enough familiarity to not drive us away. It’s an example of Western enjoyment of ethnicity at it’s best—from a safe distance away. Yet it’s precisely the safety of Graceland that makes it such a controversial album.

Due to a strict Western paradigm of musical production, traditional Mbube and Kwela music would be inherently turn-off the international listener. Western ears value a polished, crisp sound, especially in pop albums of which Graceland is one. Listening to Soloman Linda or a traditional South African penny whistle player, one can see how in they’re unaltered, “rough” form such styles of music would not fit on a Western pop album. There is an intrinsic openness, airiness, and sweeping, yet subtle, inaccuracy involved in Mbube and Kwela music—of voice and pennywhistle, respectively. It is this intrinsic component that Simon diminishes for our Western ears, and in the process stifles the creativity and aspirations of South African music as a whole. In the single from the album “You Can Call Me Al,” this is explicitly manifested. Rather than typical Mbube bass voice carrying the song, an extremely polished bass guitar has replaced it. Even when voice does come in about 30 seconds into the song, it is precise in a way that traditional Mbube musicians would probably strive not to have. Similarly, the pennywhistle solo is equally as polished, “cleaned up and exact.” It is an easy solo to follow in stark contrast to traditional open, fluid, and rounded Kwela pennywhistle music. Thus, fundamental aspects of what makes Mbube and Kwela music their own styles of music has been reduced by Simon at the music’s expense in exchange for our own “safety.”

Had the musicians on this album been given complete, or at least more freedom, a more accurate representation of traditional South African music would have been the product. Yet this would never function within pre-existing media networks because, frankly, the music wouldn’t sell. Graceland won the Grammy for best album of the year in 1986 exactly because it fit so perfectly within what the media constructed, at the time, as being great music and as music we enjoy. In this case, the media fostered an interested in world music—but not “too worldly”—in which Graceland fit exactly. The way in which media networks shape what music our Western ears are attracted to, as a whole, is the same today. White, middle-class suburbia populations are attracted to “hood” hip-hop exactly because the media portrays hip-hop lifestyle as something exotic and pleasurable—women, money, and drugs—in comparison to their lives. Yet, just like the international audience of Graceland, the middle-class can look on and enjoy from a safe distance away.


In contrast to Graceland is Konono No. 1’s Congotronics. Congotronics is a piece of music that remains almost untouched by Western hands, specifically Vincent Kenis. The album was recorded in its natural environment on the streets with people dancing and with as little Western influence as possible. Qualities that make it unique, Rumba and Soukous feels, have not been diminished in the way that Mbube and Kwela were in Graceland. It remains rough, open, distorted with huge room for improvisation, all of which are qualities that are generally not particularly attractive to Western ears. The creativity of the individual musicians in the group remains free.

This album has not shared the success that Graceland had. Yet considering it does not have a huge name like Paul Simon or a political controversy like Apartheid to give it a running start, it’s important to see and explore the international success that it has had. In some ways, Congotronics fills in the void that contemporary media networks have fostered within our Western ears, just like Graceland did in 1986. One need only look at the growing success of world artists such as MIA or even Sigur Ros to see that exotic, in some kind natural form, might be starting to gain traction. This is not to say we as Westerners are ready to strip ourselves of all safety, but it looks like we might be going in that direction. Congotronics is a testament to that.

Translating Sound.

Submitted by Kyrha Lever Ruff on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 6:50 PM

I thought a lot about just how gullible and naive I must have been and probably still am when it comes to believing everything I hear. Yet the biggest question that I had this week was whether congotronics was a way of glorifying or redefining South African music. And the words, “authentic” and “captured” kept coming to mind.
To be honest, when I first heard Paul Simon’s “Homeless”, I did not think that Simon was cutting through or establishing some kind of “superiority” over the Ladysmith Black Mombazo group until we brought attention to the call and response aspect of the track. I suppose I considered this musical role-play to emphasize an experienced-leader and ignorant-follower flare that I had never considered before.

                                    In his New York Times article, Hermes claims that the similarities between Konono and Western music “are purely fortuitous” and I do not agree. These alleged similarities, are a product of the power of resources in the hands of the distributer. As Paul Greene states, “the feedback loops of sound communication and musical influence back and forth from music’s production centers to local settings of reception have accelerated dramatically. Music can now no longer be adequately modeled as something that happens in a local context and employs only the expressive means specific to a locality.” Since the necessity of technological innovation is faster in some nations as opposed to others, the circulating music is less worldly as its paths of distribution are more concentrated and direct. This concentrated flow of music puts the power, ownership and cultural credit aspect back into the mix…regardless of who “started it”. Once a sound, like the penny whistle, has been “processed” by another source, does that still make it original…again? I found it interesting how the Konono music was given a “sonically distorted” label in our texts when I feel like it is closer to the natural, unchanged, post-war, utopian character it was made to be, regardless of how “crystal clear”, “refined” and “organized” the westernized sound may be. I believe it is perceived as “distorted” because it would be otherwise “misunderstood”. This suggests that music with cultural barriers must be reinvented to appeal to a different local group a different society.

            When Kenis captured the Konono sound and redistributed it, he says it gave the “revived Konono a bigger reputation abroad than at home.” The Congolese’s’ sonic message may still whisper under the melody or through the instruments themselves but as Mr. Kenis says, ''the public that doesn't care about African music immediately catches on to this [refined version of the] music.” I began to think about this in regards to the Lion King soundtrack vs. Paul Simon’s Graceland I grew up listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland and the Lion King soundtrack. They were a couple of my favorite albums from around ages 3-8 until the Harry Potter series surfaced. However looking back on my particular album and film choices with what I learned this week about Cognotronics, I see that I most likely appreciated the distinct correlation between the Congolese undertone of the two cultural phenomena. And yet, both the Lion King album and Graceland have studio spinoff characteristics of this South African style. The fact that Solomon & Linda were not able to claim the rights to their song until after their death made it apparent that the controversy all goes back to the power of the distributer. How quickly, efficiently, far and “loudly” they can spread their music. The group was a hidden contributor to the African sound of the track that is immensely popular in Western society, most of whom believe the sound is purely authentic. 

As we discussed in class, there is a necessity of unity and collaboration that is unique part of Konono/Congolese music that is eluded once that sound has been copyrighted. There is a feigned respectful nod to the South African sound in the more glorified, measured layering of the sound. The character of the South African undertone in mainstream media counterparts may have been similar but when the message is adapted to fit another cultural niche, the entire culture meaning of the music changes as well.

          While at first I believed that the art of distributing worldly music was to appeal to “the moral conscience of Westerners” (Jaya Brown) I realized that this cultural awareness does not happen if the sound is refined for the desires of the receiving audience. While it may appeal to Western ears, it does not convey the initial message or feeling behind the piece. However, maybe the original message of the work will trickle through the retuned cracks and will be heard and understood and cease to be just a musical translation.

Simon says while the Congo plays

Submitted by Adam D. Ketchum on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 6:36 PM

Two very different examples of music that was shaped by their respective cultures is Paul Simon’s Graceland and Congotronics by Konono Nº1.  Despite their obvious differences sonically or otherwise, the two share a connection: Africa.  Graceland features various influences from South Africa.  Some of these, such as the inclusion of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, are very obvious.  Other inclusions such as the way the bass line in “You Can Call Me Al” or the slide whistle on the same track are references to traditional African music called Mbaqanga.  On the other hand, Congotronics connection to Africa is very obvious.  This is music born in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  What is far more interesting than the similarities between the two are the differences.
    Graceland is an album that holds a deep significance to me personally.  The album seems to feature a theme of loneliness and dejection, and if what I’ve heard is correct, it was written shortly following Simon’s divorce from actress Carrie Fisher (yes, Leia from Star Wars).  The first time I listened to it, I had just reached the point were a relationship of significance was falling apart.  I had a plan to visit my sister in Memphis, TN and see Elvis Presley’s home.  I listened to Graceland the whole way down from Massachusetts.  It was the most profound experience I had ever had with pop music.
    Since Graceland hit me on a such a personal level, it was extremely disappointing to discover that Simon’s borrowing Mbaqanga was tantamount to “musical colonialism”.  Simon takes various elements of the traditional South African musical form (which at the time of the recording was very much frowned upon, as people had instituted a boycott on all things South African in response to the apartheid) and essentially westernizes them.  This is most notable in his appropriation of the slide whistle from Mbaqanga.  He takes something with a certain set of aesthetics attached to the Mbaqanga musical form (a wheezy sound due to the whistle’s cheap quality of construction), changes it to a set of aesthetics that would be pleasing to a western audience (very clean and refined sound), then sells it for his own personal benefit.  There is no acknowledgement of his source material.  It is presented as a Paul Simon invention.  It represents a domineering and ego-centric attitude, one that is similar to that of the colonial powers who imposed their own standards on the indigenous people of Africa centuries ago.
    The track “Homeless” is an obvious preemptive response to the charges which would eventually be leveled agains Simon for breaching the boycott.  It features the well known South African acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and offers them co-writer's credit.  In fact this is one of the few tracks that intricately details the creative process it went through to be created.  If one takes the song’s mournful tone and lyrics (those I am able to understand) along with the title of the track itself, it’s clear that Simon’s intent was to create something that would draw attention to the reprehensible and repugnant political system in place in South Africa at the time.  Ironically if one listens to the structure of the music, it almost mirrors what happened in South Africa.  The song begins with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing in their traditional style.  Then Paul Simon enters.  Where by accident or design, he dominates the track upon his arrival.  Suddenly he becomes the dominate figure.  All the South African singers are following his lead.  This may be the result of a need to market the song as a Paul Simon song, or merely something that Simon thought would sound good.  Regardless the similarities one can draw between colonialism and what Simon is doing on this album, and especially the “Homeless” track are rather disturbing, even in light of the ostensibly socially conscious message of the song.
    In stark contrast to Simon’s glossy pop album stands Congotronics.  This music is very raw sounding.  It was created in a country ravaged by war, by people who had to improvise instruments out of whatever they could find.  There are traditional African instruments made with car parts, and amplifiers made from giant scavenged magnets found in junkyards.  The result is a unique and authentic sound.  This is the difference between traditional music, and imitation.  Even though at first listen one wouldn’t think of Congotronics as “traditional” African music (critics would say that it has too much of a rock music sound to be traditionally African), it very much is.  It was developed in Africa, and when performed there, it’s performed for the community.  This music isn’t some sterilized pop song created for mass appeal.  It’s real, raw, authentic traditional African music.  It’s due to this that it sonically dominates over the Paul Simon album, despite it’s sentimental value.  It’s just more real and sounds so much more interesting.  Hopefully Crammed Records, the Belgian record company who has been releasing Congotronic music won’t attempt to clean up the sound.  It’s appeal lies in the buzzing raw energy that cannot be recreated in a studio.