Shaping of Graceland v.s. Congotronics

Submitted by Joseph B. Nassirian on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 6:24 PM

            To many listeners, Paul Simon’s album Graceland is merely a fantastic record put together by one of the best singer/songwriters of all time.  Most listeners would also agree that Congotronics is another great album put together by Konono No1, a band from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  But most listeners are not aware of what factors came into play to shape these two albums. 

 

Simon’s idea of collaborating with South African musicians was very novel and gave the album a unique sound.  While some people believe that Paul Simon was genuinely interested in the South African style of music and wanted to incorporate it into his new record many others believe money and the desire to appeal to the western world shaped the musical creativity of this album.  Graceland was well received in the western world, but was the cause of much controversy in South Africa.  Many complained that Simon compiled various popular styles of South African music and tweaked them to draw the attention of a western audience.  For instance, in one of the more popular songs on the Graceland album “You Can Call Me Al” Simon uses three prominent styles of South African music from different time periods and westernizes the sound so it sounds different, but not too different from what western popular music sounded like at the time.  This song features a white South African studio artist playing the penny whistle.  On this track the penny whistle has a very clean sound to it, but if one were to know anything about penny whistles in South Africa, they would know that the penny whistle is meant to have a not-clean almost scratchy sound.  This album was surrounded by much controversy because the people of South Africa felt that Simon did not give enough credit to the collaborating musicians and because of the indirect Apartheid political statements made by some of the songs.  South Africans also felt that Simon was an outsider intruding on their traditional music and giving it a western sound so it could be sold abroad. 

 

Congotronics has a much more authentic feel than Graceland.  This feeling of authenticity is vindicated because this style of music was shaped by the desire to console those who were killed or displaced by war and not by the desire to appeal to any “pop music” audience.  Many of the instruments and amplifying systems used on Congotronics were made with old car parts and various assortments of materials found on the streets left over from war, which gives the music a raw sound but an even more authentic feel.  This very raw and personal sound is exactly why so many people love this music.  

Global Collaboration: A Skeptic's Breakfast.

Submitted by Phoebe Smolin on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 4:04 PM

On Friday night, my housemates and I made a dinner that would only be possible in this modern world: empanadas and samosas with ice cream for dessert. Only in the modern, transnational world could five people in America incorporate elements of cultures they’ve never truly experienced into their daily lives. Only in this global culture could a group of American college kids forge a tradition of eating “exotic” foods on Friday nights. The impact of global collaboration extends far beyond my dinner table, however. In the music industry, the employment of technology for collaboration amongst worlds that have been completely isolated for ages has had effect that surpass the musical—the power of collaboration has found its way into the cultural and political fabric of countries, creating not only new sounds, but a new global consciousness.

The effects technology used for collaboration can be looked at optimistically. In both Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album and Congotronics, the use of technology can be seen as contributing to a new sense of unification. Vincent Kenis, the producer of Congotronics, made it a point to portray himself as equal to the members of Konono No. 1. “There was no cultural filter between us anymore,” he said, as he talked about the collaborative effort he took in producing their album. He claimed that he wanted to be the opposite of manipulative—he sat with them in a hotel room and took their feedback on every aspect of the production of the album. In Jayna Brown’s article about Congotronics, she says that the music “rises above power relations” and that equality is achieved. In Graceland, the blending of sounds from two vastly and historically different cultures can also lend to a feeling of unity that is achieved through musical collaboration. In the Meintjes article about Graceland, it’s said that “the fusion of White popular music with Black popular music is breaking down social barriers.” Though this is, of course, an extremely optimistic view of collaboration, it is charming nonetheless.

Another optimistic outlook on the effects of collaboration is the light it brings to overlooked communities. In the Meintjes article about Graceland, it is said that the album was widely received by Black South Africans because it provided a sense of hope for a community that was plagued with Apartheid—it illuminated a positive aspect of the culture. Congotronics holds true to this, as well, for as soon as it was produced by a European and spread to the western world, attention and interest was given to the Congo unlike it ever had been before. It instills a sense of pride and a view of the future for communities that have been continually exploited throughout history. The optimistic nature of global collaborations hasn’t faded in the least. Just the other day, I was listening to the radio and I heard an interesting (and extremely catchy) song that fused Arabic and Spanish. I later learned that it was a song done by an Egyptian artist named Hakim—a man who, I found out through later research—dedicates himself to using global collaboration as a powerful social message (he performed at the 2006 Nobel Peace Awards Ceremony—becoming the first person from an Arab country to perform at the event).

Take a look at this song that he did with none other than the amazing James Brown:

Of course, the technologies employed in musical collaboration and innovation can also have negative political and cultural effects. Just as music has the power to bring people together, it has the same power to pull them apart. In both the Graceland and Congotronics project, the creative authority is given to a westerner who is historically (and arguably still) superior. Paul Simon becomes the “invasive outsider” and the “benevolent musical colonizer,” according to Meintjes. Instead of portraying the musical credibility of South Africa, Paul Simon can be portrayed as trying to use the “authenticity” of the South African sound to tell the world that Black South Africa is somehow primitive compared to the modernized world. The same sentiment goes for Kenis and his production of Congotronics—though he tries to leave the sound untainted by studio manipulation, he can’t avoid his global position as the superior westerner. In a way, Kenis can also be seen as a musical colonizer, trying to take ownership of this music that he discovered and that he is spreading.

Just as a musical collaboration between a dominant and a peripheral culture can give a sense of hope to the latter, it can also result in a skewed view of the reality of that culture—a commoditization of sorts. In Graceland, the sound of South African music was sharpened to appeal to western audiences so it would be more widely received, thus leading western audiences to believe that this constructed sound is the reality of South Africa. This not only shifts the world’s view of South Africa, but, as Meintjes points out, it also gives White South Africans a tangible medium with which they can connect to South African traditions that they were never a part of. Collaboration, therefore, can become a gigantic daydream of the masses—creating traditions that have no roots. In the Konono case, the public is listening to a type of music, ripe with intentional distortion and mixtures of Sub-Saharan African and Afro-Caribbean musical traits, that was made originally as a reaction to an oppressive government. The music heard in the Congotronics project was intended for a community to band together, not to be performed on a stage in front of westerners who have no idea about the implications of the music. The west consequently begins to idolize Kinshasa for its innovative music and disregards its history. An extreme example of the imperialistic nature that collaboration can have is with Buena Vista Social Club, a project headed by Ry Cooder in Cuba. Ry Cooder, an American, recorded a group of Cuban musicians (all of whom were very old, therefore giving a romantic view of “old Havana”) and himself playing beautiful, “authentic” Cuban music (tying back to the Son style). Ry Cooder took the Buena Vista Social Club on tour with him, eventually ending up at Carnegie Hall in New York in front of a bunch of Americans who wanted desperately to believe that the history of Cuba had just disappeared and all that was left was this angelic music. Cuba, as a result, has used the Buena Vista craze as a way to define themselves and bring in tourists.

Here’s a video for one of the band's songs (featuring Ry Cooder in some scenes):

Technology has contributed to momentous collaborations and innovations throughout the world. It has expanded the musical world in enticing and beautiful sonic directions—from Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Congotronics to James Brown and Hakim. Global collaboration has cultural effects on the communities that they feature—sometimes good and sometimes not, depending on how you look at it. It is impossible to avoid the economic superiority of the west in any situation, and, seeing as they are usually (if not always) an authority in these collaborations, it is easy to accuse them of attempting to claim ownership over a sound. Though it is, of course, never a bad thing to be a little bit skeptical of the motives of someone in power, it also shouldn’t be a crime to enjoy these global collaborations. It’s easy to call Paul Simon and Vincent Kenis “musical colonizers,” (though the articles I've mentioned make it clear that their intentions weren't to dominate the music-- just to spread it to people who wouldn't be able to hear it without their help) but it is just as easy to simultaneously take the music they make for simply what it is—music.

Dance away!

The Shaping of Musical Creativity

Submitted by Katharine J. Planson on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 2:16 PM

The musical creativity in Graceland and Congotronics are shaped by dominant media networks and power formations in similar and different ways.  From the outside, it would seem Graceland was shaped by Paul Simon’s own personal aspirations for a new album, which is true but, his personal aspirations were influenced by western powers, media, and money.  The creativity behind Congotronics produced an entirely new kind of music that contains both modern and antique cultural sounds.  The creation of Congotronics was driven by political, cultural, medial motives and impacts.

Congotronics has a tremendously fascinating sound to it.  The combinations of homemade instruments, traditional Congolese instruments (like the likembe), traditional dance styles, and a homemade amplification system result in a new kind of sound.  The organic and somewhat raw sound was impacted by the displacement and results of war in the area.  The music is very much community based and, the community’s life has been undoubtedly and entirely affected by war.  The community is a population made up of refugees, economic migrants, local people, and others.   The music is based on the coming together of the community.  Even the materials their “do it yourself” instruments are made from are spoils of war.  They used old car parts, magnets, and trash.  The musicians made something that benefits and unites the community out of objects that were made to harm and tear apart the community.  The creation of the Congotronics music was shaped by war, tragic colonization, ancestral unity, partying, community, and funeral music.  When you listen to the music, you can hear the coming together of a community and the strengthening of this communal bond. 

Graceland was originally inspired by Paul Simons’ desire to release another album.  He was interested in the African sounds so he went to South Africa to record his album.  The album ends up being intensely controversial.  The album makes seemingly inadvertent political statements about Apartheid and, it wreaks many copyright and moral issues regarding music rights and references.  Although it would seem Paul Simon was simply interested in the sound of African music that he heard on Boyoyo Boy’s music, so he wanted to record an album that incorporated the sound, there is certainly more beneath this. The album Paul Simon released before Graceland was a disappointment with low sales.  It seems Paul Simon needed to produce something great to keep his name in the western music game and keep his music at the top of the charts.  So, his aspirations were almost definitely driven by commercial, monetary, and media influences and pressures.

Musical Creativity and Media Networks

Submitted by Charles A. Pratt on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 1:46 PM

                  Predating the modern times of hard wired sound, Paul Simon’s Graceland album was inspired by his listening to the Boyoyo Boy’s cassette.  Simon later wrote lyrics over one of the bands instrumental tracks, leading to a style of musical collaboration seen with more prevalence in today’s global network of music.  While the album encountered criticisms having to do with its political significance and copyright issues, at an objective level, the music Simon created can be viewed as a highly creative and innovative method of musical production.  “Listeners who adhere to a bourgeois aesthetic principle which privileges the inherent transcendency of art may evaluate the album in terms of the success of its musical collaboration only and regard the signification of social collaboration as irrelevant” (Meintjes).  Despite the excess social baggage Graceland triggered, its musical coordination is highly impressive and should not be overshadowed by the political discourse.  Contemporarily, Graceland’s style of collaboration and fusion is not abnormal.  But, the way in which Simon recorded and formed his album is a method that should be more respected than many of the recordings made today.  Like Greene says, recording studios have become “sponge like centers where the world’s sounds are quickly and continually absorbed, reworked, and reincorporated into new music.”  Instead of sampling South African beats in a studio with the intention of recording over them, Simon travelled to South Africa and sought out established musicians to record with.  Consequently, his album evoked a powerful sound as a result of direct collaboration.  Personally, the idea of creative, direct collaboration makes a major difference in the vitality of the music.

                The Graceland album and the Konono band are musical anomalies, in their own way, when looking at how musical creativity is shaped by dominant media networks.  As shown, Simon’s originality was a result of his proactive search for the most relevant musicians.  When thinking about media networks and musical creativity, someone like Kutiman seems to serve as a more befitting example of collaboration in our technology dominant society.  The Kunono band, while resourceful and unique, was not a result of Western influence or studio hybridity.  But, once their music spread through various media outlets, some producers began to realize they had a chance to capitalize on the band’s raw, distorted sounds.  In a successful attempt to share the traditional music, Mr. Kenis recorded each instrument separately and blended them to form a style of distorted electronica music.  Since the recording of Congotronics, the band has gained popularity in Europe and the US.  Compared to Simon’s style of collaboration, Congotronics demonstrates a method whereby traditional rhythms were utilized to form an irreplaceable style that can be appreciated globally.  Without the agency that Mr. Kenis provides, Congotronics would have never existed.  Even if he did manipulate the sound structure in a way that departed slightly from its original quality, Konono’s innovativeness is wildly transparent.   

A Question Of Authority

Submitted by Kaitlin R. Silkowitz on Saturday, 10/2/2010, at 9:27 PM

            Collaboration, musical authority, and sound play out differently in Congotronics and Graceland.  Though Paul Simon and Vincent Kenis are both the gatekeepers of their own collaborative adventure, each one uses his creative power and authority in a very different way.  Unlike Kenis who sat at a bar with his apple laptop, Simon’s more high-tech approach to producing his music (in none other than the Abbey Road studio in London) inevitably produced a much different sound.  Kenis’s more democratic and egalitarian method of production avoids the ethical dilemmas that the Paul Simon project has.  Undoubtedly, the creative power Simon had as overall gatekeeper makes the Graceland project sound a certain way.  He knows what you what and what you are used to, and thus part of his creative authority in the project is to steer the creative choices and performances in different directions.  The sonic foregrounding and familiarity of Simon’s voice in the album is packaged within these seemingly exotic (more or less superficial) sounds around the edges.  Perhaps the biggest difference here is that there is no equivalent to Paul Simon in Congotronics. The performers featured in Graceland become nothing more than raw material for Paul Simon to mix and remix.  Congotronics, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of mass-mediated music.  Its rough sound makes you not even draw a connection to nicely driven and refined studio created music, and the brilliance of it is that there is still so much interaction going on. Who knew that in some places distortion is actually a prized aesthetic value!? 

            Konono No. 1 illustrates this idea of alluring distortion perfectly.  Watching the video produced this sort of just “wow” feeling: Yes, I’m not just supposed to hear a bell-like crystalline tone, but I can hear other things around it…and it is beautiful.  In fact, the absolute wrong way to listen to Congotronics would be to think of the better ways to improve the low-tech nature of it.  It is that sort of raw edginess and rough sound that is part and parcel to the perfect sound that makes Congotronics, Congotronics.  It embraces the low-tech, do it yourself way, as opposed to musical elites (aka Paul Simon) who break down all types of barriers to get exactly what they want.

Even more intriguing is the idea that you simply can’t decouple the body from sound, an idea that can’t possibly exist isolated in a studio being told exactly what to play and how to sound.  Congotronics is the type of music that you can’t practice in isolation and which can’t even exist without the community.  The live recording we saw in class is the perfect example of how it is the environment that inspires the music, and is so far and away from the antiseptic idea of a studio recording.  The music can’t live without the guys all gathered around drinking their 40’s and without the physical response of local people dancing all around them.  The dancers are the qualitative aspect of the music, and for Paul Simon to get that raw, organic, super local feeling he would have to bring an entire village into the studio with him.  The “You Can Call Me Al” track on the Graceland album features these very short, melodic bits recycled over and over again.  The sound is super clear, with a sort of brass sound that has no depth whatsoever.  Simon is just merely referencing these South African styles and thus exerts a kind of control over the music, something that is completely embedded in music industries.  The edginess of the true sound of the penny whistle would not have fit in with the slickness of everything else.  Congotronics is anything but a sound that your average mainstream western music listener can listen to and enjoy. It represents unrelenting grooves that you are supposed to lose yourself in, and I am so glad that I have learned to appreciate that. 

            Collaboration, musical authority, and sound play out differently in Congotronics and Graceland.  Though Paul Simon and Vincent Kenis are both the gatekeepers of their own collaborative adventure, each one uses his creative power and authority in a very different way.  Unlike Kenis who sat at a bar with his apple laptop, Simon’s more high-tech approach to producing his music (in none other than the Abbey Road studio in London) inevitably produced a much different sound.  Kenis’s more democratic and egalitarian method of production avoids the ethical dilemmas that the Paul Simon project has.  Undoubtedly, the creative power Simon had as overall gatekeeper makes the Graceland project sound a certain way.  He knows what you what and what you are used to, and thus part of his creative authority in the project is to steer the creative choices and performances in different directions.  The sonic foregrounding and familiarity of Simon’s voice in the album is packaged within these seemingly exotic (more or less superficial) sounds around the edges.  Perhaps the biggest difference here is that there is no equivalent to Paul Simon in Congotronics. The performers featured in Graceland become nothing more than raw material for Paul Simon to mix and remix.  Congotronics, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of mass-mediated music.  Its rough sound makes you not even draw a connection to nicely driven and refined studio created music, and the brilliance of it is that there is still so much interaction going on. Who knew that in some places distortion is actually a prized aesthetic value!? 

            Konono No. 1 illustrates this idea of alluring distortion perfectly.  Watching the video produced this sort of just “wow” feeling: Yes, I’m not just supposed to hear a bell-like crystalline tone, but I can hear other things around it…and it is beautiful.  In fact, the absolute wrong way to listen to Congotronics would be to think of the better ways to improve the low-tech nature of it.  It is that sort of raw edginess and rough sound that is part and parcel to the perfect sound that makes Congotronics, Congotronics.  It embraces the low-tech, do it yourself way, as opposed to musical elites (aka Paul Simon) who break down all types of barriers to get exactly what they want.

Even more intriguing is the idea that you simply can’t decouple the body from sound, an idea that can’t possibly exist isolated in a studio being told exactly what to play and how to sound.  Congotronics is the type of music that you can’t practice in isolation and which can’t even exist without the community.  The live recording we saw in class is the perfect example of how it is the environment that inspires the music, and is so far and away from the antiseptic idea of a studio recording.  The music can’t live without the guys all gathered around drinking their 40’s and without the physical response of local people dancing all around them.  The dancers are the qualitative aspect of the music, and for Paul Simon to get that raw, organic, super local feeling he would have to bring an entire village into the studio with him.  The “You Can Call Me Al” track on the Graceland album features these very short, melodic bits recycled over and over again.  The sound is super clear, with a sort of brass sound that has no depth whatsoever.  Simon is just merely referencing these South African styles and thus exerts a kind of control over the music, something that is completely embedded in music industries.  The edginess of the true sound of the penny whistle would not have fit in with the slickness of everything else.  Congotronics is anything but a sound that your average mainstream western music listener can listen to and enjoy. It represents unrelenting grooves that you are supposed to lose yourself in, and I am so glad that I have learned to appreciate that. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKG6zN_EjWw

VERSUS

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNsqKpZpyPo&p=7C9B7C941D7AE182&playnext=1&index=42

Innovation in the Eye of the Beholder

Submitted by Jenna Iden on Saturday, 10/2/2010, at 8:40 PM

Graceland and Congotronics express entirely different understandings of power in media and intended audiences. Paul Simon’s work can be mentioned to strangers without fear of blank stares and wholly uncomfortable, polite nodding. Congotronics on the other hand, is embraced as a cult favorite. “You Can Call Me Al” sounds fantastic when played through an audiophile’s headphones. “Kiwembo” sounds gritty, unpolished, and out of place among other studio recordings. Yet therein lies each’s appeal.

 Paul Simon was looking to sell records. He wanted a new sound and found it in South Africa; he took local styles and made a record that appealed to a nonlocal fan base. And he absolutely changed things. Take, for example, the controversy over the kwela we discussed in class. The pennywhistle is airy and imperfect in traditional use, yet it sounds nearly like a piccolo in tone and pitch on Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” This type of correction—while embroiled in some definite racial controversy with the re-recording in America—is hardly something new for Simon. In his 1972 track “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” Simon features an extended whistling section with nearly perfect pitch (There is, admittedly, one very high imperfect note) and great tonal clarity.  Either Simon is a great champion of concert whistling or, as can be expected, he utilized his time in the studio to polish his sound. Mainstream Western audiences tend to appreciate a somewhat “worked on” sound, the appeal of studio singles over live records.

 

The whistle solo discussed above begins at about 1:15.

 Congotronics, of course, would be destroyed by a “worked on” sound. Its fans appreciate its raw combination of traditional instruments with makeshift technology. And, in this way, I think Congotronics stands far away from Paul Simon’s music (and not only in genre).  The audience does not crave a polished sound and the bands do not cater to any global media market. Whereas Simon cleaned up the kwela to match the bright synthesizers underscoring it, Congotronics 2’s “Kiwembo” capitalizes on the rough differences between the electronic buzzing vibrato and the natural lilts of the whistle.  The imperfections that wouldn’t appeal to a Top 40 world fit perfectly with the Congotronics clientele.

 Beyond their reactions to the polishing hand of the market, Paul Simon and Congotronics took nearly opposite paths in inspiration. Simon needed a new musical approach; he could scour the world over, record wherever and whatever he liked. The result: some fantastic music. Congotronics saw Western electric instruments and, instead of changing their sound to suit new instruments, attempted to replicate their old sound with a new, louder twist. Simon could innovate with money; he makes plenty of money from the venture. Congotronics could innovate with raw materials; they get plenty of prestige in scattered circles and college classrooms. Can global power structures modify music? Sure. Did they hurt these two artists? Musically, I think not.

Turning the Beat Around

Submitted by Ashley Hogan on Saturday, 10/2/2010, at 3:43 PM

Clichés aside, music really can be the great unifier (or perhaps equalizer)- generationally, geographically, and culturally. I find Meinjtes' assertions of an ever-pervasive colonial power structure in the proliferation of "world music" problematic. Similarly, Greene's fears of musical homogenization through "wired sound" seems equally apocalyptic and negative in its thinking. As with the Brass Unbound cases, Congotronics and Graceland is a testament to the musical and cultural richness and novelty that arises when cultures collide.

Dominant media networks, or, more righteously, "the man," work in mysterious ways, especially as it pertains to music. The flux of new styles and influences is nearly unpredictable and aren't as unilateral as some academicians would have us believe. In the case of Graceland, Meintjes views Paul Simon as a "music colonizer" orchestrating a grand overtaking of South African music styles to better fit a Western audience. The re-purposing of South African traditions in songs like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" is undeniable, but I don't think it's being done within any formal cultural power structure. In performances like the one below, I think it becomes evident that each side of the collaboration is given fair recognition and respect for their cultural input.



Obviously, as Paul Simon's endeavor, he has the ultimate stylistic say. But I think this performance shows the two collaborators' equal footing; Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the other South African musicians have a huge stage and musical presence and the seamless interweaving of styles is palpable to all of our senses.

Now the question arises as to whether the South African musicians are being "manipulated" into a Western mode of musical creativity and aspiration. This video may answer the question better than words ever could:

Ladysmith Black Mambazo are wildly popular outside the context of Graceland and are well aware of how dominant media networks work, and in fact, play into and utilize them with ease and confidence. I think any idea of victimization or cultural domination is absurd and caters to the very colonial ideas that view non-Western musical styles as inferior or unrefined.

The case of the rise in popularity of Konono N°1 is more relevant to modern avenues of the dissemination of "world music." Many media outlets have attached Western-derived characteristics to Congotronics, such as "D.I.Y." or as sounding like Krautrock. A NYT article even went so far as to say that Konono No. 1 wasn't trying to mimic Western styles of music- it was just "purely fortuitous." Perhaps this reveals the dominant attitude of "world music" aspiring to fit into a Western sound- but, as with white South Africans' view of Graceland as refining South African music, the artists' intention is sometimes muddled by its consumers. I think that Konono N°1 is unwavering in terms of their stylistic output and the way they make their music- which has gone largely unchanged for almost fifty years.

Regardless of creative output, Konono has become a cog in the mechanism of how the West packages and consumes music, but I don't think this has compromised the reception of their work. Below is a a performance they did at the Middle East in Cambridge; all of the key characteristics are still present- the raw electrifying sound, felt dancing and an overwhelming sense of personal involvement in the music. The question as to whether an essence or authenticity is being lost in relocating the performance warrants quite a few more blog posts and would involve spending more money on vinyl boxsets and time on Myspace (http://www.myspace.com/konononr1) than this blogger would feel comfortable with.



I think that these "subaltern" musicians are largely in control of the creative output of their music and if they adopt aspirations of reaching a wider audience, they very willingly playing into the Western modes of media networks. I also think it's important to look at how these subaltern artists can flip the traditional, hegemonic flow of influences on its head, effectively changing our initial ideas of how "world music" fits into the global scheme of popular music:



(The Ex- a Dutch band- has been a force in the underground music scene for nearly 30 years and I think relates to some of the ideas behind Björk's "Space Invaders")

Graceland vs. Congotronics

Submitted by Jasmine A. Slater on Friday, 10/1/2010, at 11:50 PM

After reading and listening to Graceland, I found myself caught in between two very persuasive perspectives of the goal and idea of Paul Simon’s collaboration. The collaboration, mixing South African and North American music received mixed reviews of controversy and applause. In Paul Simon’s track, “You Can Call Me Al,” a “cleaner” version of the pennywhistle is used, and the rhythm is more consistent than that of an original tune of mbaqanga. While some may enjoy this creative collaboration, others saw this exhibit as a political notion of power. “By branding Black South Africans traditional music and those who play it as inferior and therefore in need of reworking and updating, these White South Africans validate their superior sociopolitical positioning and their control over the inferior Other,” Meintjes states.

Others viewed this collaboration as a kind gesture of integrative interracial music. They associated this album with “racial cooperation,” “international exposure,” and jobs for black South Africans. “One the one hand”, Meintjes states. Graceland “…opens up opportunities on the local market for Blacks, since most record companies, major outlets, and performance venues are owned by Whites.”

I begin to read about the album’s crediting. Paul Simon holds the copyright. The South African collaborators received little credit.

As I read Meintjes persuasive argument, I begin to disagree with many objectives. Paul Simon, a musician, fell in love with South African music. The commentary from this book appears to be filtered from a Post -Apartheid aspect.  Paul Simon’s race is a factor of many of the controversial complaints. What if a Black American wanted to collaborate with South African musicians? What if Paul Simon wanted to collaborate with Chinese musicians? I do however disagree with the amount of credit given to the South African artists. Equal effort was put into the composition of the album and therefore equal recognition should be distributed.

Bob White discusses the movement of Afro- Cuban music to the Congo. We quickly begin to see a clear difference from Graceland, where American music was abruptly imported into South African music. Here in the Congo, the importation of Afro- Cuban music was a gradual emergence. Congotronic music is produced and recorded by those of the Congo. “Not very much is known about the specific arrangements between international record companies and local distributors,” White states.

Congotronic music is an example of the controversial evidence located in Graceland. Some worried that collaborating with a White American gives the impression of American collaboration being the only way African music could become internationally represented. In a way, these arguments were correct. Musically, both Graceland and Congatronic music exhibit great sounds and rhythms, but Graceland won a Grammy.

Are We Just Playin' music?

Submitted by Timothy F. Clark on Friday, 10/1/2010, at 6:22 PM

 

In the discussion questions used in class on Wednesday, one was whether we "see [Paul] Simon as a 'musical colonizer'...as someone who offers 'an important platform' to musicians who lack access, or as something else entirely" The same thing should be asked of Vincent Kennis with his production of Konono #1 and his own efforts at collaboration.

I do not see either artist as musical colonizers. Neither goes into Kinshasa or Johannesburg with preconceived notions of the 'superiority' of Western music and the 'barbarism' of non-Europeans. Indeed, both Simon and Kennis are insistent that their intentions with producing the music and engaging in this collaboration come from merely a personal attachment to the South African/Kongolesse sounds they heard--a largely aesthetic endeavor. Simon notes that "'... I didn't say "I'd love to bridge cultures somewhere in the world, and mmm... where? Maybe South Africa.' No, I just fell in love with the music and wanted to play.... My view is instinctualy cultural" (Meintjes 39). And we see this “love” reflected in the music itself. Graceland features many examples of South African music, such as the penny whistle, the lower bass rifts from Mbube, etc. Even Zulu is employed. And all of these are combined in very interesting and compelling musical ways. Kennis was much more explicitly hands off in his approach, rejecting the power and political dynamics of the studio. So, to an extent, the collaboration between these two sets of African musicians and these two white men (both of whom are from the country which colonized the people with whom they work) is not problematic, at least morally. 

But, on the other hand, as we have discussed, the story with both musicians is very much not that simple. There is a very murky element of what might be termed contextual divorcing going on with both of these pieces. In other words, by taking the African musics and either combining them into a totally new piece or in making a recording of Konono bands and modifying them to fit that recording, allowing them to be played outside their traditional contexts of the streets of Kinshasa, the music is presented to its listening audience in such a way that either its origins, its accompanying history, or original intent are, to an extent, lost. One of the main vehicles for this contextual divorcing is technology, specifically that of the recording studio, with its ability to mix melodies and change the very tenor of sounds, and of that which can distribute music world wide. For example, in totally modifying the penny-whistle's sound (in this case probably with a brand new instrument than by any technological means) in "You Can Me Al

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," the whole history of the penny-whistle as a shrill, harsh, extremely cheap instrument that only the black urban poor could purchase is smoothed over or even lost all together. This initial distortion is more likely a result of  a fresh instrument than technology but it is extremely crucial nonetheless. The exporting of this sound across the world (via the CD and mass media) further divorces the music from its original place. The free-flowing rhythms that that proletarian instrument typically plays—has historically played—are replaced by a repeating theme, probably a more technologically driven change as well, using the studio equipment to self-replicate the same riff. In Congotronics, there is little to no interference from Kennis in the music itself--he is not changing rhythms or notes.  However, using the technology of modern recording equipment, I am suspicious that he has--either consciously or not--softened what, at least from our readings, appears to be an extremely shrill and discordant music. The sense of konono as "music for death," as Brown terms it, as "extreme and dehumanizing," appears some in certain parts of the songs we have listened to but it is far from the dominant sonic element (126). There may not be anything going in here. But the disparity between the descriptions of the music as played in Kinshasa and the recordings we have is great enough to reasonably suspect alteration. Thus, one extremely important element of the konono music which referenced both the pain of horrible war and oppressive colonization and the creativity of using the refuse from that same traumatic history to make music appears to have been softened to a noticeable extent.   

If both elements of pure aesthetic collaboration and musical promotion but also of political and historical separation from technological usage are evident in both case studies, how do we answer the question we started with? I am really not sure. I do think musical collaboration that re-incorporates old, "traditional," ideas into something new is not only very cool but also even necessary at times to breathe new life into old styles of music. Technology can also be used to assist with this creative process, i.e. Kutiman, and is not merely destructive. I also understand the idea that to give a non-African (Simon=>Western) audience the African music in its totally natural form might, unfortunately, turn a non-African audience off completely. However, particularly given the seminal importance of history to this music, the original contexts and experiences that shaped it simply cannot be ignored--they are as much a part of the music itself as the notes and rhythms.  Thus, it would be good to keep this quandary in mind as we talk about and listen to other examples of music which crosses boundaries, of whatever kind, since this is an issue that is bound to come up with any example of this kind of collaboration.

What Is World Music?

Submitted by Wangene Hall on Wednesday, 9/29/2010, at 11:40 AM

Last night, I came back from Salsa dance classes, which were fun and rewarding, as always. As I left, I started thinking about the music that was playing while we danced. It was interesting to consider the mix of styles and rhythms present in the music played. The clave (rhythmic pattern) and underlying musical structure of each song should have distinctive ties to the history and development of the music, which, if traced backwards, could allow comment on globalization, power dynamics and remediation. In the moment, I just wanted to dance, so I didn't follow this line of thought as far as I could have. This desire to dance, thus participating in the music, juxtaposed with a desire to study the origins of the music, thus seeking to understand it, is an interplay that has been the subject of this week's discussions.

After both readings, and the analysis we did in class on Monday, the dominant question that stood out for me was whether detailed sociocultural and sociopolitical analysis was important. In essence, my question is whether art must be understood to be enjoyed. Part of me wants to explore and find the deeper meaning in music, but part of me wishes music could simply function as the utopian escape that it creates so effectively. As a performing musician who hopes to incorporate world music and pop music into my eventual sound, the question of message and intent is one I am concerned with greatly. I'd like to create music that others can enjoy and use to celebrate themselves with and while also paying homage to the culture presented in the music. The interesting thing about the articles we read is the process of analysis and deduction by which the author makes their point; the intellectualization of the music mutes the emotion and the experience conveyed.

One of my favorite artists, Angelique Kidjo, demonstrates how effectively music can be used to convey a positive message and cultural traditions without making sociopolitical statements that feel cloying. The music is about happiness and life, and anyone can enjoy it, no "ideological shit" necessary. 

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Audio icon 08 Afirika.mp35.88 MB
Audio icon 04 Tumba.mp35.3 MB

Two Approaches to War: Konono #1/Konono & Elgar

Submitted by Timothy F. Clark on Tuesday, 9/28/2010, at 11:38 PM

 

Jayna Brown's piece and the NY Times articles brought back the idea of context for the African konono music discussed in our material for tomorrow. Brown's describes the music as coming out of an extremely war-torn region (the Congo), as "music exclusively for funerals...reflect[ing] the extreme and dehumanizing environment" in which the music was created (126). "This was music for death in a region where a language of torture was the common tongue." While I don't hear the honono music as nearly as harsh or "sharp" as our readings attest, I do see with this song,  Lufuala Ndonga 

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some of what the authors are getting, particularlywith the singers singing very loud into the microphones. 


These discussions of music as a means to deal with war, pain, and social-political strife remind me a lot of one of my favorite works of classical music, Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor.  Elgar composed the piece just after the end of WWI--as a mournful lament to the pain and "suffering" induced by that conflict (http://www.elgar.org/3cellcon.htm).  While the concerto is obviously a totally different type of music than the konono music, there is at least one (and doubtless many other) big similarity. Like the sharp, raspy and harsh sounds emitted through the improved electronic equipment of Konono #1, Elgar begins his concerto in a similar fashion. Most concertos in classical music start with a several minute long orchestral introduction, establishing the main theme(s), essentially orientating the listener to what will come when the soloist finally enters. Elgar totally rejects this convention: the first notes of  the piece are several fierce chords from the cello followed by an agitated opening melody line. The pain of the war immediately hits us, just as the sudden start into the music disorients us somewhat--as Elgar and most of Europe must have felt following "the war to end all wars."   

Ghanaian Highlife music

Submitted by Ofori-Kwafo Yaw Amponsah on Monday, 9/27/2010, at 11:03 PM

 During part of the Brass Unbound movie, Flae visits Ghana  situated in western Africa. In one of his interviews with an ageing priest, we learn that the priest previously for many years had tried to convince Ghanaians love traditional western music. We soon come to find out that the priest had failed at his endeavor because Ghanaians just loved their highlife music. I being of Ghanaian decent ( My dad is from Ghana) was very intrigued by this idea of Ghanaian highlife music. So I set to find out what exactly it was.

Highlife as defined by Wikipedia is a genre of music that originated in Ghana in the early 1900s.  Following it inception it had become widely popular in many English speaking West African countries namely Nigeria, Sierra Leon and Liberia. It is characterized by its use of multiple guitars and Jazz inspired horns.  Also, through my exploration I found that highlife had many different variations. Some music much for dance inspired while other versions were much more traditional. One of the foremost musicians of this genre happens to share my last name. Daniel Amponsah better know as Koo Nimo is a very famous highlife performer. He became well renowned following Ghana’s independence in 1957.  He has been recognized as one the top 40 distinguished citizens of Ghana in 1997, at the national celebration of Ghana’s fortieth year of independence. Also, his music sounds pretty good.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik-cvwryMYQ

 

Also another artist who shares my last name Yaa Amponsah. This artist is more similar to the highlife we heard in class.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcO0t37xbp8

Impacting and Sharing

Submitted by Joseph B. Nassirian on Monday, 9/27/2010, at 1:04 PM

After reading Brass Unbound I realized that within globalization there is a pretty even balance between impacting and sharing.  For instance, on track six of the Brass Unbound CD, we hear the Tambunan Musik Balige's performance of a western song on the first half of the track (Near the Cross) and one of their Batak cultural songs on the second half.  The Batak's performance of Near the Cross at a funeral ceremony can be traced back to Western civilization because if one knew anything about Batak funeral ceremonies, one would know that they are supposed to be happy ceremonies with more upbeat music accompanying the occasion.  On the second half of the track we hear the band using western brass instruments to play their own traditional funeral music.  It is obvious that the people of the Batak culture were impacted by Western culture because of their performance of Near the Cross at a funeral, but at the same time they learned to share the instruments to create their own sound and play their own music.  On this track we can hear the balance between impacting and sharing in globalization.

I found a rather interesting example of globalized sharing in another song.  Though this collaboration is hardly a result of colonization, it is still interesting to see how different artists with different styles from different parts of the world can collaborate and share a song with Western Origins.  In this video the famous American soul singer, Barry White, sings his song "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" with the late legendary Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHCcM_uV-r8&feature=related

The difference in culture can be noticed even down to what they're wearing and yet they are still able to share a song and make wonderful music.  

Johnson Vs. Flaes

Submitted by Michael Milov on Sunday, 9/26/2010, at 10:37 AM

             In the last scene from the “Brass Unbound” documentary, Flaes blends together the same song by several bands from different countries. The profound contrast between Playing For Change, specifically “Stand By Me,” and this clip from the “Brass Unbound” documentary was particularly startling to me.

            Throughout the documentary, Flaes takes a hands-off approach to the film. The viewer is given little to no information about where Flaes is, where the musicians are from, whom the musicians are, and what kind of music they’re playing. In most of the film, the viewer feels like a spectator to the lives of the people of Ghana, Minahasa, India, Nepal, and Surinam. The most explicit example of this type of natural cinematography is the scene in which we follow a tuba around town. In this scene the viewer is shown the landscape, structure of buildings, types of people, and their everyday activities. The tuba is present sonically and visually throughout the scene and serves as a sort of guide through this particular town. The fact that Flaes took this approach in shooting his entire documentary makes the last scene even more significant in my mind. I doubt he sat all of these musicians down and asked them to play their rendition of this particular marching band piece and to add their own flavor to it; rather, he probably caught these bands playing the song on their own and filmed it as it occurred naturally with minimal editing involved.

            In contrast to this, Playing For Change seems unbelievably contrived. It seems to try to globalize music in an unnatural way that is closer to a utopian Western idea of how we would like music to be, rather than the way music can actually be globalized. The viewer is given information about each of the musicians in this film, including location and name. They all play the same song with a completely western feel, without local additions/adaptations with the exception of maybe instrumentation (I.E. The choir in South Africa and the washboard in New Orleans). But even that’s debatable because Mark Johnson and probably a few investors/crew-members dictated this format.

            Rather than creating a globalized sound to bring peace to the world, I think Johnson might be stifling the globalization of music. People who watch “Stand By Me” might take home the assumption that this is the way music is globalized—by local musicians from all over the world playing a Western song. They also might think that this form of global sound is what we should be striving for, neglecting to examine the larger musical world/globalization taking place all the time. From their website, the mission statement says, “No matter whether people come from different geographic, political, economic, spiritual or ideological backgrounds, music has the universal power to transcend and unite us as one human race.” This statement might be true on some levels, but Johnson’s choice of media through which he wants to showcase this idea is forced, striving for a particular type of “universal sound” that frankly doesn’t happen naturally in the world. It’s his idea of what globalization should be and what should come as a result of that. I watched these two clips back to back and was really frustrated by Johnson’s approach.

            Flaes on the other hand shows how globalization naturally takes place, leaving the viewers to decide for themselves what they should take away from it, and what could be done with music, if anything. World peace through a unifying music force isn’t an inherently bad idea, but if we are going to go that route, we should examine how music is naturally globalized, working from Flaes’s perspective, rather than Johnsons’s. 

Stand By Me

Playing for Change vs. We are the World

Submitted by Jasmine A. Slater on Saturday, 9/25/2010, at 10:11 PM

As I watched Mark Johnson’s, Playing for Change, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s, We are the World quickly approached my mind. In class we discussed the video’s stereotypical representation and exoticism of people of different cultures.  I then began to wonder, “What is an example of a better alternative?” When I thought of We are the World, I first thought of the video’s goal. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wanted to convey a message of world peace and unity by uniting the best artist of various genres into one song. The profits from this music video were intended to aid the famine in Africa.

In class we discussed Mark Johnson’s role of power. Each singer was chosen to sing in their country. They sang Stand by Me in traditional styles of their country, unintentionally exhibiting a stereotypical message. The intention of this project was to promote global unity by showing that people of various countries can sing the same song.

In We are the World, each artist is chosen my Quincy Jones (the director). The song was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, who also sang in the project.  In this project, various genres were brought together instead of various countries. Is it better to promote unity by using people from one country?  I asked many friends from various countries if they heard of the song, but they have not. I am still unable to think of a better alternative.