Auto-tune: Intimacy With the Digital

Submitted by Michael Milov on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 9:30 PM

As much as many of us can’t stand the excessive amount of auto-tune being used in music, YouTube, and even television, its prevalence suggests to me that it a special case among effects being used today. There has been much debate about the use of auto-tune in contemporary music. Many music critiques and sophisticated listeners scoff at its exploitation, immediately dismissing auto-tuned music as inauthentic and auto-tuned artists as lazy singers. Yet how could an effect become so popular if its only purpose is to fix “lazy” human error? If listeners enjoy such an effect, have they too become inauthentic and innately lazy people? With little real evaluation of auto-tune available, I propose an examination of the history of the use of auto-tune to get some background traction and then an analysis of its use with the hopes of getting to its core to answer the question: Why has auto-tune permeated most media in such a short period of time and with such extreme application? I think the answer to this question lies in our longing for controlled intimacy with technology and the digital.

Auto-tune began as a tool developed by Exxon engineer Andy Hildebrand. Hildebrand was using sound waves to locate oil reserves under the ocean using a technique called “auto-correlation,” in which sound waves were sent into the Earth and their reflections were then recorded with a geophone (Frere-Jones, "The Gerbil's Revenge"). Hildebrande soon discovered that his technique could detect pitch in addition to oil. In 1997, Hildebrand’s firm Antares released “Auto-tune,” a plug-in that corrects pitch in vocal and instrumental performances (A Brief History of Antares). Basically, auto-tune can locate the pitch of a recorded instrument or voice and then adjust this to the correct pitch in a “user-specified scale (including minor, major, chromatic and 26 historical and microtonal scales),” matching human input with virtual scale pitch (Auto-tune 7). When the retune speed is set to its maximum, natural bending between notes is replaced by “zig-zag” movement, resulting in the “gerbil” or “robotic” sound we know today as the “T-pain effect” or the “Cher effect” (Frere-Jones, "The Gerbil's Revenge

The history of auto-tube begins with Cher. In 1998, Cher released “Believe,” becoming the first song to make use of auto-tune as an explicit desired effect and as we know it today. 

Throughout 1999, the song peaked number one on the Hot 100, number two on Pop Songs, number one on Dance/Club Play Songs, number three on Adult Contemporary, and number five on Adult Pop Songs, and it remained on the charts for 31, 26, 15, 1, and 16 weeks respectively (Billboard, Believe-Cher) With such popularity, it is clear that there was something special about this effect even in its early stages. If the effect had died here, or even maintained a relatively short period of popularity, one could argue that its attractiveness was due to a fascination with something new. However, this is just the beginning of a story that is continuing some 12 years later. 

After “Believe,” auto-tune took a break from its explicit role in “Believe,” making small appearances correcting pitch errors in pop songs such as Maroon Five’s “She Will be Loved,” Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” and Unkle Kracker’s “Follow Me” (Auto-tune Abuse In Pop Music — 10 Examples). However, the most significant chapter in auto-tune, and the part of its story I wish to explore, begins with T-pain. Beginning in 2005, T-pain released a serious of auto-tuned hits such as “I’m Sprung,” “Bartender,” and “Freeze” that changed its role in music. Where sparring use of auto-tune had become the norm before T-pain, its use shifted to back to an explicit, desired, computerized effect. “Freeze” by T-pain is a quintessential example of the type of robotic sound we are familiar with today. 

In a single week in 2007, T-pain had four songs in the Billboard top 100 all making heavy use of auto-tune (Frere-Jones, "The Gerbil's Revenge"). With such hits, T-pain started a revolution. Auto-tune became and still is now everywhere on the radio, with uses ranging from moderate, with artists such as Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, to extreme pitch correction, with artists such as Lil’ Wayne, Rihanna, Snoop Dog, and Chris Brown. Almost all songs go through some form of auto-tune, and pop songs are especially extreme in their use of the effect. It is often likened to the Photoshop of music. Like in Photoshop where a nip-tuck here or there eventually turns into a fully altered photo perhaps even no longer recognizable as the original, so too did auto-tune begin in small doses and grow into huge use. The stigma of non-authenticity associated with Photoshop also carries over into the parallel with auto-tune.

Auto-tune has found its way into television as well. Glee as well as the United Kingdom’s X Factor both makes heavy use of auto-tune. “Teenage Dream,” receiving the most iTunes downloads of any glee song to date, is an example such use in television. 

Even commercials, like a Wendy’s frosty commercial, have made use of auto-tune (Jay-Z Blames Wendy's Commercial — Partially For His 'Death of Auto-tune). Beyond television, Auto-tune has become entertainment in itself through Youtube parodies, remixes, and mashups. There are auto-tuned cats, wolves, Congressmen, laughter, children, and really anything that makes a sound. Auto-tune the news epitomizes the effect’s use as entertainment. 


Finally, there is even an I-phone application called I Am T-Pain which allows the speaker’s voice to be auto-tuned. This app reached number two on I-phone app sales charts (Sonja Sharp, Music Monday: T-Pain, Jay-Z, and Auto-tune Death Prediction).

It is important to note that this phenomenon is not strictly occurring within the United States. Auto-tune has spread to the Jamaica, Mexico, Europe, and is especially prominent in North Africa (Clayton, Jace "Perfect Pitch") For example, Moroccan producer Wary claims that it difficult to find an album of Moroccan Berber Pop that does not make use of auto-tune since Algerian Chaba Djenet got the ball rolling in 2000 (Clayton, Jace "Perfect Pitch). 

Here is another example of its use abroad in “Champion” by Dj Bakko from Cote d’Ivoire in which an auto-tuned baby serves as the primary sample.

Through tracing its history, we see that auto-tune has shown its face everywhere in a relatively short amount of time. Whether in small, subtle doses or in large explicit ones, we simply cannot get away from the effect. Antares auto-tune plugin remains the best selling plugin to date. I think the secret to the success of auto-tune, especially in its explicit extreme use, lies in its intimacy with the digital. Auto-tune "actively responds to human error and pitch subtitles" yet in a controlled environment—we manipulate the notes to which human voice and instrument is corrected (Clayton, Jace Pitch Perfect"). In this way, we simultaneously penetrate into the virtual as closely as we can while still maintaining a degree of control. Furthermore, we are given the opportunity to use the voice and even instruments beyond their natural capacity, singing impossible vocal runs and “grabbing notes in a way that is totally inhuman” (Frere-Jones, "Perfect Pitch"). It is this give-and-take relationship with technology that is the attractive force of auto-tune. In a world in which technology is permeating and even beginning to dictate our lives, auto-tune provides a controlled relationship with technology. Its boom since 2005 directly correlates with other such intimate relationships to the digital such as Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, and Friendster. Auto-tune thus provides one more outlet, a uniquely musical one at that, with virtual expression and identity manipulation between the virtual and the real. 

Still, like other mediums which maintain an intimate relationship with technology, auto-tune is not without ramifications. Through the auto-tuning of practically all music on the radio, what is thought to be a controlled relationship to the digital has been violated. Our ears have adapted to perfection. There is an assumption now that at least pop songs and most rock, country, rap, and R&B get run through some degree of “photoshop polishing.” Where once a vocalist’s unique dissonance and mistakes were the qualities that listeners enjoyed—they both made the singer interesting and provided a connection to the imperfect humanity of our idols, ala Bob Dylan—auto-tune erases such imperfections, generating artistic flawlessness in its place. And we enjoy this now. As musican, producer, and New Yorker contributor Sasha Frere-Jones People mentions in an interview that artists “expect you to tune them.”  Frere-Jones recognizes that “old records have stuff out of tune and out of time,” and that this is basically non-existent in contemporary popular music (Frere-Jones, "Perfect Pitch"). 

With such a boom, one has to wonder when and even if auto-tune will be going away, or at least when its use will move from extreme to moderate. Because previous pop phenomena such as the talkie-box had their period of obsession and slowly trickled out, it would seem, at least on the surface, that “the T-pain effect” will follow this pattern. Yet, as we have discovered, auto-tune is a special case, and I do not think we will be seeing an end to it anytime soon. Just as Facebook continues to become ever popular, I think auto-tune will continue to be used in the way that it is today because it provides yet another outlet to fulfill our desired intimacy with the digital and because our ears have become impatient with imperfection. Until a more intimate and controlled relationship with technology is available, auto-tune will be around. Thus, to dismiss auto-tune as simply lazy singing, while easy, misses out on what is going on its core—an intimation of our desire to maintain a controlled connection with “the virtual”. As long as our obsession with Facebook and YouTube remains, as long as our longing to sustain such a participatory relationship remains, auto-tune will be around, and our ears will remain its victim.

Ethnic Disney

Submitted by Jenna Iden on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 8:49 PM

The Disney Renaissance, the 1990s return to hand-drawn feature films, presented the company’s first true investment in non-Western worlds and heroes. Exoticism was not a gimmick, but a focus. The new Disney was met with a storm of praise and controversy; the move past pale princesses was laudable, but the inevitability of visual stereotypes acted like catnip to race and social critics. While much has been written on ethnic depictions in animation, little exists regarding the “global” songs even the harshest critics are humming for weeks. Three of these films, Aladdin (1992), Lion King (1994), and Mulan (1998), demonstrate an evolution in Disney’s film scoring. Disney’s musical depictions become increasingly lush and authentic as the allure of the exotic takes a backseat to the true appeal of a disparate world’s music.

Aladdin offers the most flawed non-Western score. Disney’s earliest attempt to craft a Middle Eastern narrative, it reveals little insight into Arabic musical styles. The music, composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, picks and chooses when to incorporate the Middle Eastern traditions of the fictional Agrabah. Notably, the positive character building songs—“One Jump Ahead (Reprise),” “A Friend Like Me,” and “A Whole New World”—entirely lack non-Western elements. Menken then attaches these missing elements to the ominous depictions of deceit and evil—“Arabian Nights” and “Prince Ali.” These songs sound especially foreign in contrast to the cheery Charlestons and sweeping ballads, sonically associating Middle Eastern tonality and instrumentation with evil and Western sounds with bravery and love.

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["Arabian Nights", Aladdin, 1992]

The song “Arabian Nights” functions as a prelude to the prologue, establishing the setting even before introducing characters. It also solidifies Menken’s translation of Arabic music as the soundtrack for a terrifying world. The singer, Caucasian Broadway performer Bruce Adler, uses an elaborate Middle Eastern accent. Extravagantly rolled Rs, overly aspirated consonants, and tendency to drag syllables just past their note value make Aladdin’s narrator seem mysterious and untrustworthy. Adler almost caricatures a witch, only adding a generic nasal accent to identify him as Arab. The arrangement also relies on stereotypes. The opening melodies (:07) are played in unison, monophony common of Arabic music. The instrument used, however, the violin, did not appear as a traditional element in popular music until the 19th century, decades after the setting of Aladdin.  Menken relies on finger cymbals and hand drums (meant to imitate the tar) to make the track sound exotic. These additions, while the most authentic of the Arabian elements, are immediately lost in transcriptions and reproductions of Menken’s score. Aladdin’s attempts to sound foreign merely serve to localize it to an ignorant Western audience.

Lion King presents a step forward, albeit small. Elton John composed the fundamental music and his English piano pop style contrasts the intended pan-African setting. The film’s four composers, however, did include South African arranger Lebo M., the man responsible for the soundtrack’s many choral sections. The soundtrack was immensely popular (certified Diamond) and inspired a follow-up album “Rhythm of the Pridelands” to capitalize on Lebo M.’s success with South African music. South Africa sold quite well to Disney consumers. Unfortunately, the film’s setting is artistically modeled after Hell’s Gate Park in Kenya, not South Africa. These incongruities force a perception of Africa as one lump sum: a Western selected collage of appealing sounds, images, and cultures.

The score resorts to Western orchestral comforts in emotional moments. Fittingly for Western consumers, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is the least South African composition and earned the greatest critical acclaim—the song won an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Grammy, winning over other, less Western tracks from the Lion King soundtrack. The music, however lush in its full arrangement, does not require the African elements. Popularly released sheet music easily removes the intricate arrangements, leaving a fairly Western set of compositions. Lebo M. is not even listed as a contributor on these scores; his influence is erased in print.

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["Hakuna Matata," The Lion King, 1994]

“Hakuna Matata” provides a varied Lion King experience. It employs some of the most diverse instrumentation and styles in the entire soundtrack, but also reveals the Western crutches of any Disney production. The track makes ample use of African percussion, especially the kalimba, a thumb piano with a ringing tone like a marimba, and hand drums. Some percussion is supplemented by Western drum kits, played with felted mallets to keep within the naturalistic sound. Electric guitars and basses make a noticeable appearance coupled with the percussion. The effect strikes audiences as nearly Caribbean. A far cry from Africa, the song continues to sample traditionally “black” sounds and pass them off as authentically African. (Only the kalimba and rich, South African choral background singing locate the track as African.) When the drama heightens at 1:07, the music shifts to a gospel style. Heavy-handed piano clearly enters the instrumentation and the singers begin to mimic a church setting. Gospel, while popularized by African-Americans in the United States, is not African. John uses the style for dramatic effect—earlier, at :44, he uses strings, an accordion, and an operatic style to musically exaggerate Pumba’s lyric—but seems entirely oblivious to the irony of a white composer placing gospel music in an African setting. At the end of the track, Simba, who grows from a cub to a full lion throughout the song, shows his independence by soloing and improvising on the title lyric. He sings against a saxophone and muted trumpet, both typical jazz instruments. Simba’s interplay with the brass section of a jazz band is another displacement of an African-American style—easily linked to New York or New Orleans—into a purely African setting. These ridiculous transplantations, comically ignorant on paper, pass without reproach in music; sound is the last factor in political correctness.

Better than Lion King and certainly Aladdin, Mulan’s score almost fully embraces the non-Western. The film’s story, art, and music agree on setting: firmly and purposefully in China. Animators and artistic supervisors were sent to China to absorb Chinese culture and style; this effort to authenticate the art is reflected in the music. Even in pared-down piano scores, Mulan’s songs keep a strong emphasis on the pentatonic, a staple of Asian tonality. While it is not without flaw—“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” replaces Asia with horns, electric bass, and Donny Osmond—it uses Chinese musical elements as focus and not just embellishments. Mulan was even allowed to play in China in 1998, one of the few Western movies allowed in the country each year.

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["Girl Worth Fighting For", Mulan, 1998]

“Girl Worth Fighting For” is the fourth of Mulan’s few songs—the film, released at the end of the movie musical craze, only features four songs sung by characters—and neatly sums up Mulan’s music. Sung by a gang of misfit soldiers marching off to battle, the track translates the traditional woodwind and strings interplay of Chinese silk and bamboo ensembles to a militaristic sound. The men often sing in a deep-throated unison. This, while perhaps pointing the Chinese army as a large de-individualized mass, helps Matthew Wilder avoid the trap of revealingly Western ionian harmonies. The use of the gong and large, resonant drums conveys a feeling of spaciousness, sonically invoking the Chinese mountain landscape. The only problematic element of the track is the absence of Chinese elements on pointedly feminist lyrics—the song, talking about women’s great love of war heroes, takes a consistently chauvinistic tone. When Chen Po suggests he “couldn’t care less what she wears or what she looks like” at :50 and Mulan offers “a girl who’s got a brain who always speaks her mind” at 1:35, the instrumental texture notably lacks the woodwinds and Chinese percussion. Only strings are left over, sonically associating feminist ideals to a typically Western ensemble. As soon as another character cuts in, the song is whisked back to China. This, perhaps super-subtle, reading of “Girl Worth Fighting For” should not detract from Mulan’s great success in foreign scoring.

Aladdin Theatrical Poster              Lion King Theatrical Poster              Mulan Theatrical Poster

Within the six years between Aladdin (1992) and Mulan (1998), Disney grows from utter ignorance to considerable authenticity. Disney movies reflect what was palatable at the time. Disney did not invent racism in 1992 with Aladdin; they merely crafted a story around certain assumption we now recognize as bigoted and out of date. The scores reflect an increasingly aware consumer. The allure of the exotic has changed. The growth is even reflected in the advertisements. Aladdin was advertised as a great mystery, a lamp shrouded in darkness. Lion King focuses on the landscape of Africa, marveling at its scope. Yet, by Mulan, the poster advertises the characters. China adds to the appeal of a new story, but is not the focus of the allure. Ethnic characters can draw crowds because they are fascinating characters, not just fascinatingly foreign.


John, Elton, and Tim Rice. The Lion King. H. Leonard, 1994.

Lau, Frederick. Music in China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Marcus, Scott Lloyd. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.

Menken, Alan, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice. Aladdin. Hal Leonard, 1994.

Morgan, David. "A Friend Like Me: Alan Menken on Howard Ashman and the Rebirth of the Film Musical." Knowing the Score: Film Composers Talk about the Art, Craft, Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Writing Music for Cinema. New York: Harper Entertainment, 2000. 101-29.

Stone, Ruth M. Music in West Africa: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Wilder, Matthew, and David Zippel. Disney's Mulan: Piano Selections. 1998.

Opening Doors: Synthesized Sound and Global Musical Discourse

Submitted by Rohan Mazumdar on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 7:37 PM

Throughout the duration of this course, characterizing the sonic aspects of ‘Global Sound’ has, quite naturally, been the fundamental exercise. However, our ability to extricate music and sound from the political, economic and cultural webs that are intertwined with the ‘global’ context has often been limited. In fact, one might argue that understanding geo-political dynamics is a necessary prerequisite to tracing global media flows. Yet, my observations of the music-making process, or rather, the rapid changes in the process, would lead me to believe that we are fast approaching the ‘dichotomous ideal’. In other words, treating music as a global entity in and of itself, by sifting it from the other narratives surrounding globalization, is only going to get easier. At the heart of this change in treatment is technology, as specifically related to synthesizers and electronic sound. Prior to my exposition as to why this is true, it may be worthwhile to note that we’re not quite there yet. Rather than trumpet the wonders of current technology, I intend to illustrate an arc in the development of sound technology that continually leads us further towards that desired dichotomy.


The invention of the Moog Synthesizer in 1964 is likely the most convenient starting point for this discussion. Originally developed by Robert Moog, this device allowed for the generation of the waveforms that form the basis of sound, and for their subsequent manipulation through electronic processes. In the early days of its usage, the kinds of sounds it could create had characteristic ‘electronic’ tonal features, and were distinct from the analog instruments of the day. The device itself was mostly controlled using a piano-style keyboard– which later led to the commonly interchangeable wording of electric keyboards as ‘synths’. What is critical to note is that even with relatively rudimentary sounds in their arsenals, early synthesizers were large and prohibitively expensive. Usually occupying the equivalent of a small room, such devices would require a team of trained engineers to achieve their full potential. The natural outcome was that only the most advanced studios – with the vast majority located in industrialized nations – would have access to these new sounds. However, capitalizing on a public fascination for the futuristic quality of these sounds, record studios would leap at the opportunity to include them. Hence, in terms of the centre/periphery paradigm we encountered in class, these few studios became musical focal points. Their creative output – with the use of these hard-to-access machines – became the defining popular sound of the era. From a producer-consumer perspective, there were a few producers in the form of these well-funded Western studios, and many consumers in the form of listeners throughout the world. Economic and geographic access played pivotal roles in the musical realms of creation and distribution.


What began to shift this modern musical process, from the familiar power-dynamic driven story to the ideal that I espouse, were the exogenous shifts in technological prowess. As the microchips became smaller and less costly, so did the music-making tools – but on two different fronts. On the first front, the development of cheaper electronics materials allowed common engineers to develop their own sonic creations. I would liken this to the instrument-designing expertise that the Indonesian artisans of ‘Brass Unbound’ acquired. The freedom of musical production – however altered or unconventional the sound may be – in both cases implies a release from a form of hegemony. While for the Indonesians it was the remnants of Dutch cultural imposition, for the modern sound engineer it was the reliance on studios backed by capital-heavy record labels. However, the two are also not the same, in the historical baggage that the former implicitly bears. This points to a salient feature of the interplay of technology and music: in its modern incarnations, it is increasingly ahistoric and apolitical. While these narratives are not irrelevant, they are becoming more so over time.

The second front of technological development – which breeds other interesting issues – consists of user-end devices. While corporations create their core technological foundations, these platforms allow for a large number of consumers to become producers. The only hardware requirements are laptop computers and the relevant software – which, together, are significantly cheaper than the original Moogs. This dissemination of low-cost production materials is a step towards further autonomous music-making. By lowering the barriers to entry in the industry, the erstwhile strong correlation between musical and non-musical hegemony becomes more tenuous.

However, this hopeful advance should be taken with a grain of salt. Currently, the sonic capabilities of synthesizers are still defined by the likes of Western production establishments such as Native Instruments and Propellerhead. The resource investments required for R&D in the field remain in the hands of certain privileged ‘centres’. Indeed, even assembling the components of a basic studio could be beyond the reach of many aspiring musicians, as elucidated by Paul Greene in his introduction to “Wired Sound”. He cites the situation of South Asian recording studios and how relatively simple sonic production technologies such as reverb are viewed as “highly prized prestige markers”. In spite of this continuing economic narrative, I would argue that the movement towards the ‘pure’ treatment of Global Sound is still gathering momentum. To describe examples that highlight this trend, I use the term ‘crossovers’.

In using the idea of ‘crossovers’, I refer to the cultural exchanges that take place through musical technologies. While there are varying levels of access to listening and production across the globe, there is no doubt that that access is only increasing (save for certain issues surrounding sampling and copyright). This has resulted in the possibility of exchanges that are not just unidirectional – from centre to periphery. We have already witnessed a crossover in Konono No. 1 and congotronics. In this case, the flow of sound runs nearly counter to the traditional non-sonic issues involved. Despite the use of western electric guitars and mics, the creation of ‘home-made’ amplifiers – through which the genre received its iconic sound – was a technological breakthrough that provided a gateway into ‘crossover’ territory. Perhaps more interesting are the crossovers that enter from the other end of the spectrum. As sounds originating from different corners of the world enter the globalized stream of consciousness, the same technology houses that create synthesizers have begun to emulate these sounds. That Native Instruments should invest in the development of a ‘sitar’ virtual instrument speaks to a further detachment of the political from the musical. We wouldn’t imagine that America would look to India for political or economic inspiration, but American (and other) musicians may certainly want to incorporate Indian classical sounds into their music – especially if they were not required to pay a sitar player to do it. Technology in the form of relatively accessible synthesizers allows for that exchange on a large scale.

If this view of innovation as leading the way to a new paradigm of global sound seems idealistic, I would reiterate my emphasis on the predictive – and not descriptive – slant of this project. Technology is not going to solve any of the world’s problems, including its power dynamics, but a trend towards greater autonomy of music production and a greater breadth in musical possibilities is promising. For our purposes, a perfect world is not one without social, economic and political problems, but one where music can be made and enjoyed universally, regardless of the other global narratives present.

A Closer Look into the Dynamics of Global Sound Through the Music of Nneka

Submitted by Taylor L. Heacock on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 5:58 PM

Nneka, a Nigerian artist whose political music and hybrid sound have earned accolades all over the world, began her music career in Hamburg, Germany. Born in the oil rich Delta of Nigeria, Nneka Egbuna moved to Hamburg to further her education at age nineteen but became early on interested in pursuing music(Biography). But how does Nneka, an artist from Nigeria, have her music and social and political commentary heard all over the world? How does any artist’s music from any country achieve global popularity? With all the technology we have (YouTube, MySpace etc.) that allows us to hear music from all over the world there is no way we can sort through it all, so European and American record companies who have the economic and social advantages are the ones who play the biggest role in popularizing music. They control what we hear and appreciate as aesthetically pleasing. While technology and ease of travel make the exchange of sound much easier, attaining global popularity outside of the underground music scene, where people are active in selecting music, relies heavily on the economic and social power of the Western music industry and its recording labels. Nneka is just one of many artists who have had to rely on the power of the western music industry for promotion Even the popularity of two globally recognized artists Fela Kuti and Bob Marley are the result of the record companies of the west. This networking consists what Arjun Appadurai calls ethnoscapes, technoscapes, and mediascapes where ethnoscapes are the landscapes of the artist and the mediascapes and technoscape are a result of the company and the artist coming together to produce and spread music. Nneka, a musician from Warri, Nigeria who is half Nigerian and half German exemplifies the importance of networking with Western recording companies, as she and her music were not popularized until a German record label, Four Music Productions GmbH, signed her.

Because her music is about political issues that are specific to Nigeria, Nneka wants to reach Nigerian people across the world and reach those who may not know about life in Nigeria. In one interview Nneka did in January 2010 with T-Love, Nneka says that she wants to remind Nigerians who have migrated from their home about the problems that Nigeria faces. And in another interview she states that the album that she released in 2010 in the United States titled Concrete Jungle is meant to “Africanize America.” By this Nneka means her intent is to share African politics and social issues from an African’s perspective with the United States.


Nneka’s highly political and socially conscious lyrics in Concrete Jungle are sung to a very diverse range of music. The sounds that Nneka works with are sounds that a global audience has already accepted. Two of Nneka’s most popular songs from the album Concrete Jungle express her ideas on political and social situations in Nigeria and Africa, but the music that she sings to has little Nigerian influence. The track “Heartbeat" is produced with heavy use of the piano coupled with a very electronica sound, both of which add very Western sound to lyrics that are very nonwestern. The timing for the song is 4:4 which adds to the songs ability to take on hybrid elements as the most popular timing for global music is 4:4. The lyrics speak of the suffering due to corruption and poverty that goes on in the Delta of Nigeria where oil is taken from. Her song “Africans” is produced with a very reggae beat. The reggae influence that Nneka’s music features is a genre globally appreciated for its sound. In “Africans”, Nneka tells Africans that although colonization did have adverse effects on the African continent; Africans must stop blaming their colonizers for their problems because the only way to progress is to move on.



As a Nigerian, Nneka can say things about Nigeria that a non-Nigerian could not, and with her connection to Germany Nneka can spread her opinions across several continents that she would otherwise not be able to reach. Nneka’s success as an artist is due to the interesting position from which she is able to speak her mind and can be attributed to what Arjun Appadurai would call her "ethnoscapes.” Appadurai states in “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” that an ethnoscape is: “the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guestworkers and other moving groups and persons constitute an essential feature of the world…” ( Appadurai 7). Nneka’s success results from the ethnoscape of her parents coming together, their travels, her travels, and the Nigerian diaspora.

The expansion of Nneka’s personal ethnoscape allowed her to also expand her impact on the technoscape and mediascapes between Nigeria and the Western world. According to Appadurai, technoscape refers to “the fact that technology, both high and low, both mechanical and informational, now moves at high speeds across various kinds of previously impervious boundaries…” (Appadurai 8).  Under the definition that Appadurai gives, one can interpret the spread of music through record companies across borders as a manifestation of the interdependence of countries on one another to produce music. Western record companies want to diversify their sound and nonwestern artists want a way to break into the “world music” scene. Appadrai defines mediascape as, “the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information… [and] the images of the world created by these media”(Appadurai 9).  Signing with Four Music Productions GmbH allowed Nneka to produce and distribute records for a German audience, and by doing so making enough money to personally distribute records in Nigeria where the record companies are somewhat inept in that they do not have the experienced promotional teams or economic resources. GmbH is a big record company that has more capability to work in the global community to promote artists and control the flow of music, sounds, and for Nneka her message. In this dynamic, the agency of an artist is not only influenced by a nonlocal record company when presenting herself to the rest of the world but also when presenting her work within her own country because the music that Nneka distributes in Nigeria is a product of the Four Music Productions GmbH label.  Being under the Four Music Productions GmbH enabled Nneka to produce her record for the United States when GmbH and Sony joined forces.​

Many music critics make comparisons between Nneka and two of her influences: Fela Kuti and Bob Marley, and while there are certainly similarities between Nneka and her influences, there are key differences in sound. All of their music is about more than the aesthetics of an appealing sound; the music of these three artists is meant to make people conscious of political and social issues with their commentarial lyrics. However the ways in which Western music companies marketed global hybrid sound for each artist is different. Fela Kuti sang about political issues in Africa during the 1970s to very hybrid West African music called AfroBeat, a fusion of jazz, funk, highlife and African rhythm (Moore). His music was produced in Nigeria but under several Western companies such as EMI, Wrasse and Barclay(Fela Kuti).While Fela certainly has a fan base that extends farther than Nigeria, his recognition is not purely musical it; he is a part of Nigerian history as an activist and  politician. His popularity is most likely due to the large number of Nigerians that live outside of the country, and now due to the help of the new Broadway musical that is being put on in the United States. The music of Jamaican artist Bob Marley is arguably some of the most widely known music in the world. Marley’s political messages were universal messages of peace and love, and his music was a hybrid of local Jamaican reggae. He produced music under local Jamaican labels and his own label “Wail N’ Soul”, but his music achieved global popularity after signing with Island Records a western label(Bob Marley). The first album Marley did with Island Records was Catch a Fire, and ironically a track on the album is titled  "Concrete Jungle" Like Fela and Bob Marley, Nneka’s popularity can be attributed to her hybrid global sound and signing with a western music label, but unlike them her hybrid sound incorporated less of what would be considered authentic Nigerian music. Her sound is almost completely dominated by western production.

Creating a hybrid sound by teaming up with a western record company with economic power, Nneka has the ultimate platform to reach both the Nigerian diaspora with whom she is eager to connect with and a broader international audience. Because while some people seek foreign sounding music to please their auditory senses, most want to hear music that their ears have become accustomed to appreciating, and for both westerners and non-westerners this often means Western music is at least a part of the accepted aesthetic. The western music industry allows artists like Nneka, Fela, and Bob Marley to create hybrid sound with the technological and economic advantages that they have over nonwestern record companies. Because of the manipulation “global sounds,” artists whose political messages are either culturally or territorially specific can be spread to audiences around the world through music. The monopoly the west has on global sound is hard to reverse because of its control of technoscapes mediascapes regarding music. Therefore, music that is appreciated across the world is largely in the hands of the western music industry, and for this reason  having universally accepted sound (or Western backed sound) makes an artist's music and therefore message more receptive to the world. Thus, artists will remain dependent on the west to promote their sound and message until nonwestern industries are the economic and equals of the western counterparts. In this era of such expedient and varied technology for the exchange of sounds, the artist still needs the support of a powerful record company to provide him or her with the opportunity to create a hybrid sound that resonates with a global audience.  


*Sources attached in word document.

Solving Europe's Identity Crisis: Bosnia and Eurovision

Submitted by Katherine W. Cole on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 5:25 PM

       What does it mean to be European? Contentious debates about the expansion of the European Union reveal how much room there is for interpretation. Increased mobility throughout the continent, and the world at large, has created a new Europe of many faces. At the same time, the EU strives to unify this ever-diversifying region on some principle of “Europeanness.” With the continued dominance of the United States and the rapid acenscion of China and India on the world stage, Europe has found itself in a transition period. The tension between unifying based on some intrinsic shared value and while still acknowledging its very distinct cultures has Europe experiencing an identity crisis.

         These issues are quite literally played out on an international stage. The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is like the Olympics mixed with American Idol, with a television audience twice that of the Super Bowl. Through its half-century of existence, the main idea of Eurovision has remained constant. Each participating country selects a representative to perform, all performances are broadcast live throughout Europe, and each country then gives the others a certain number of points. Unlike American Idol, and even more than sport, Eurovision has great cultural implications. Through music, dance, costume, language, and lyrical content, cultural values permeate Eurovision performances. The same tension Europe faces on a political level between a largely Western-based universalism and recognition of cultural distinction is both eminently visible and highly consequential in the Eurovision contest.

         How exactly Eurovision achieves European integration, or whether it does at all, is under debate. The contest is clearly meant to bring nations together, literally and figuratively. By this perspective, some have argued that the widespread popularity of Eurovision signifies a new, unified, happy Europe. Others believe it demonstrates the hegemonic influence of Western pop. Looking at the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a small country in southeastern Europe, provides a lens through which to examine these issues. Questions of nationalism and identity take on a great amount of significance in Bosnia. From 1992 to 1995, the world watched as the country’s three ethnic groups killed each other largely on the basis of vicious ethnic nationalism. Bosnia’s Muslims (Bosniaks) were the victims of countless Serb-perpetrated atrocities, their place as Muslims in Europe directly attacked. Even now, fifteen years after the end of the war, the atmosphere of ethnic mistrust has remained all too prevalent. Any expression of national identity is fraught with potential implications, and this increases dramatically on a stage as public and international as Eurovision.

        Bosnia and Herzegovina first entered the Eurovision contest as a country independent of Yugoslavia in 1993. In the midst of the war, the midtempo rock song “Sva Bol Svijeta” (All the World’s Pain) was unmistakeably Bosnian. The video features the lead singer walking past bombed-out houses, walls rife with bullet marks, and freshly-dug graves while singing “All the pain in the world is in Bosnia tonight...never let evil happen again.


“Sva Bol Svijeta” was an unmistakable message to the world. In the end, it was just another appeal for help that, like the others, the West all but ignored. It placed 16th in a field of 25, and no subsequent Bosnian entry would reference the war so directly. This is hardly a coincidence, as the mission of the competition is largely based on unification and positivity, not vicious wars of difference.

            In contrast, Bosnia’s 2004 entry, Deen and “In the Disco,” lacked any specific cultural references:


This Eurotrash dance number would fit in at a (certain kind of) club in any European country. The lyrics, in English, are simple: “I’m tired, I’m late / I’m losing my weight / Because I want to dance all night / In the disco.” The pumping club beat and gyrations of the performers have no distinguishably Bosnian characteristics.

In 2005, Bosnia’s Femminem (certainly the best performer name of the competition), commemorated the 50th anniversary of Eurovision with the Abba-esque “Call Me”:


The lyrics describe (and idealize) the contest itself: “Singer after singer, remembered / Different flags, but nations gathered / From the north to the south, all standing side by side.” Three indistinguishable and scantily-clad blondes sing in shaky English. Without the information bar at the bottom of the television screen, it would be impossible to discern which European country they represent.

         “In the Disco” and “Call Me” are perfect examples of the Eurotrash genre that critics of Eurovision, and Europop in general, love to hate. The insipid and often-puzzling English lyrics sung by performers with heavy accents, mainstream dance beats, and general overproduction of these songs make them easy targets. The songs, critics argue, lack any semblance of authenticity and blend together in a saccharine, forgettable (but often not forgettable enough) mass of bad pop. Yet what these critics do not seem to grasp is that Europop has its own distinct identity that matters on a greater level. It represents the universalistic, capitalist, democratic, self-involved, sexually liberated New Europe. The Bosnia case makes these questions of identity all the more significant. In their very shallow poppiness, these English-language songs endeavor to promote a certain image of Bosnia. This identity is firmly located in the modern West, challenging the stereotype of Bosnia as a Balkan backwater. Promoting this identity is a distinct and calculating choice.

           Bosnia would make a different choice in 2006 with “Lejla,” performed by Hari Mata Hari. The contrasts with “In the Disco” and “Call Me” are numerous and immediately distinguishable. The Bosnian language, the presence of real instruments, the  slow tempo and soft tone, the restrained performance place it on the opposite end of the Eurovision spectrum. It is a celebration of cultural distinction rather than indistinguishable Europeanness.

          The song is a classic example of a sevdalinka, which comes from the Turkish word for melancholic yearning. This traditional Bosnian folk genre emphasizes the intense pain of love. The lyrics of the first verse of “Lejla” illustrate the general tone of a sevdalinka: “Down a field, a scent of wind / And pain follow me like a shadow […] Lejla, could you really love another?” This particular sevdalinka takes its inspiration from an Arabic folk tale, “Layla and Majnun.” As the story goes, Majnun falls deeply in love with Layla, but her father refuses to allow the marriage for fear of scandal. Layla marries someone else, and Majnun’s obsession with her drives him mad. This story also served as the inspiration for Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” written about his love for Pattie Boyd, then George Harrison’s wife. The name Layla has a rich tradition, and fits perfectly within the sevdalinka genre.

        “Lejla” is rich with traditional Bosnian sonic elements. The instrument most historically tied to the sevdalinka, the accordion, lightly riffs in the background of the softer moments. One band member plays the saz, a longnecked Turkish instrument. “Lejla” is intimately connected with Bosnia’s Ottoman—and consequently Islamic—heritage. The Bosniaks, the continent’s only non-immigrant Muslim population, have posed a dilemma for modern Europe. The headscarf controversy in France is only one example of the way Western fears of Islam play out, showing the general apprehension and misunderstanding surrounding Europe’s Muslims. The Bosniaks are the most Western, liberal, and progressive Muslims in the world, and most emphasize that they are European first and Muslim second. “Lejla” complicates this trend by coming from a distinctly more Eastern sonic tradition.

          The lyrics and music are only parts of a larger whole, as the Eurovision is, at its heart, largely about spectacle. Eurovision revolves around the concert, both for the live crowd and the hundreds of millions watching on television. The performance of “Lejla” is centered around the lead singer and namesake of Hari Mata Hari, Hari Varešanović. And he certainly has a commanding presence. He sings softly, his voice breaking as he asks, “How could you love another?” The theatricality of his performance might seem heavy-handed, but the genre demands it. And Varešanović clearly loves the drama, alternately smiling wistfully and grimacing painfully, raising his arms as if they were wings in the instrumental sections, and nearly shaking with feverish intensity as he builds up to the final note. Other elements of the performance are more subtle. Members of the band are dressed in simple costume meant to be reminiscent of a classic Greek tragedy, a choice no doubt influenced by the competition’s location in Athens and a universalizing characteristic. While the performance has almost no explicit sexuality, the costumes do make concessions to the expectations of a modern audience. The slit in the gown of the accordionist goes much higher than would be generally appropriate—or historically accurate.

          At the climax of the performance, the five band members join Varešanović and link arms, walking forward. This symbolism evokes ideas of unity and progress for this divided country without distracting from the context of the song. The musicians then leave Varešanović alone for his money note, which despite being slightly off-key in the televised performance is the culmination of the song’s elemental pained desperation. “Lejla” may seem restrained in comparison to the outrageous costumes and choreography of other numbers, but its lack of superficiality makes the song’s more authentic intensity stand out all the more.

          This authenticity is crucial to the song’s effectiveness. Without it, audience members who do not understand Bosnian—all but a tiny fraction of Europe—would not be able to access the song’s emotional power. It does not take a dictionary to identify with Varešanović as he wails Lejla’s name in desperation at the climax. Something certainly clicked with the audience, as the song came in third place, the highest result Bosnia has ever achieved in the contest. “Lejla,” with its deep and varied cultural roots, remains universal at its core.

         Europe’s identity crisis reflects the linguistic difference between Bosnia’s Eurovision entries, but on a much larger scale. By singing in English, Deen, Femminem, and most Eurovision performers both achieve greater universalism and yield to the spreading Anglo-American linguistic hegemony. By singing in Bosnian, Hari Mata Hari celebrates their native culture but at the expense of wider accessibility. This identity crisis has no easy solution. Diversity is both a blessing and a curse for Europe, as the continent boasts an astonishing array of cultures but no obvious innate unifying characteristic. A new, ideal European identity would sacrifice neither universalism nor diversity. Is it possible? “Lejla” comes close, embodying this idea in its sound and meaning, combining universal emotions with distinctive cultural elements. Combined with the widespread excitement surrounding Eurovision, that kind of identity would have power. Take note, EU: Eurovision just might hold the key to Europe’s future.



 “BH Entries,”

Bjonberg, Alf. “Return to ethnicity: The cultural significance of musical change in the Eurovision Song Contest.” In eds. Ivan Raykoff and Robert Deam Tobin, A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007

Bolin, Goran. “Visions of Europe: Cultural technologies of nation-states.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 9, 2: (2006).

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. London & New York: Routledge, 2003.

Lane, Anthony. “Only Mr. God Knows Why.” The New Yorker 86, 18: (June 28, 2010).

Vuletic, Dean. “The socialist star: Yugoslavia, Cold War politics and the Eurovision Song Contest.” In eds. Ivan Raykoff and Robert Deam Tobin, A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Evolution of the Synthesizer

Submitted by Joseph B. Nassirian on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 5:18 PM

The synthesizer is an electronic instrument that combines simple waveforms to create complex sounds.  The synthesizer’s name derives from its’ exact purpose: it “synthetically” produces sounds of various other instruments and such as the electric guitar, the violin and the organ amongst many others.  The synthesizer can also produce different sound effects such as birds chirping or the horn of a car.  The synthesizer is an instrument that has revolutionized global sound.  Not only has this electronic instrument played an integral role in changing aspects of global sound that already existed and such as funk, rock and roll, jazz, hip-hop, and even classical music, the synthesizer has created new types of global sound like house music, synthpop, new wave, and techno.  Formerly, if an artist wanted to recreate a certain sound while performing he or she would need to use dated recording technology.  With the synthesizer technology available to us today, thousands of sounds and notes can be recreated instantly with the touch of a few buttons. 


The history of the synthesizer does not begin in the late twentieth century as most might think, but rather the nineteenth century with a man named Elisha Gray.  Though he is better known for his work on the telephone and the telegraph and by modern standards his instrument was primitive, Gray’s work paved the way for other inventors to come up with the advanced models for the synthesizers we have today.  After Gray’s invention people attempted to replicate the instrument with little twists of their own.  The synthesizer was not very successful until 1967 when Robert Moog, a man who had a Ph.D. in engineering with physics, created the Moog synthesizer.  The Moog synthesizer was unique from its predecessors in a few ways.  While previous synthesizer models used dials, buttons and levers, the Moog used the piano as its primary controller, which is why the synthesizer is often associated with the piano or keyboard (there are means by which one can synthesize sound without an electronic keyboard model i.e. a Guitar synthesizer).   Moog’s model was also innovative because it was easy to transport while preceding models were too large to take anywhere making it difficult to stage live performances featuring the synthesizer.  Though today’s synthesizer models are more complex than Moog’s, the changes Robert Moog made for the instrument proves to have a lasting effect on the way synths are made.


There are three main types of synthesizers used in music today: the Synth Pad, the Synth Lead and the Bass Synth.  The Synth Pad creates a sustained chord or tone usually used for background harmony and atmosphere.  Typically the Synth Pad holds the same note or uses a half or whole note while someone sings or plays the main musical phrase.   The sound of a Synth Pad is reminiscent of an organ or string.  The Synth Lead is used to play the main melody of the song.  It can also be used to create bass effects.  Though it used to be mainly for electronic dance music in the 1980s we begin to see the Synth Lead being used in hip-hop music.  The Bass Synth is used to create sounds in the bass range, from simulations of the electric bass to distorted artificial bass sounds.  Though a few notable artists used it, Stevie Wonder put this synthesizer on the map in the seventies with his songs “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and “Superstition


            The synthesizer made a considerable impact on twentieth century music.  Micky Dolenz of the Monkees was one of the first people to buy the commercially available Moog Synthesizer.  In 1967 the Monkees released their album “Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd.”, which is one of the first albums featuring a Moog synthesizer (featured on the songs “Daily Nightly and “Star Collector”).  They used the synthesizer because of the unique, “outer-space” type sound.  This album reached number one on the charts.  A few months later, the Doors used the Moog on the title track of their new album “Strange Days”.  Eventually, the moog sound reached the mass market and was used by bands like The Beatles on their album “Abbey Road”, Simon and Garfunkel on their album “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and The Who on their album “Who’s Next”.  But rock and roll was not the only music being affected by the synthesizer phenomenon.  In 1968 Wendy Carlos’ album “Switched-On Bach” was recorded using moog synthesizers and is one of the most popular recordings of classical music ever (Carlos’ score to the movie “A Clockwork Orange” was also recorded using synthesizer technology and is another example of classical music using the synthesizer to record).  This Moog synthesizer craze led to the creation of Electronic music albums such as “An Electric Storm” by White Noise, “All Good Men” by Beaver and Krause and “Zero Time” by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, which would influence rock musicians such as Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright and Yes’ Rick Wakeman to use the synthesizer more extensively on their albums.  Until these electronic music albums, the synthesizer was used as a background instrument that would provide the music with an intriguing new sound, not an instrument that was considered pivotal to a band’s existence.


The synthesizer was not an instrument exclusive to musicians from England and the United States.  The 70s saw a number of electronic music pioneers from around the world.  The creation of the synthpop genre is credited to the groundbreaking work of the German bands Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.  In the 1976 Jean Michael Jarre of France released his album “Oxygene”, an album he recorded in his homemade studio using various types of synthesizers and effects.  “Oxygene” sold an estimated 12 million copies.  He followed that album with “Equinoxe” in 1978.  In 1979 Jarre performed at the Place de la Concorde for a record-breaking audience of more than a million people, which shows how popular the synthpop sound was around the world.  Vangelis, a Greek composer, also did a lot of great work with synthesizer technology.  He is most famous for his Academy Award winning score for the movie “Chariots of Fire”.  Not only did he win an Academy Award for the score, he paved the way for other movies to use the synthesizers extensively when creating the music for their film.  As one can see the synthesizer has become a worldwide phenomenon.  Contemporary artists such as David Guetta (France), DJ Tiesto (Germany), and Benny Benassi (Italy) compose their music through heavy synthesizer use. 


Since its creation the synthesizer has increased its sphere of influence from rock to classical music, funk, jazz, hip-hop, and has even created new styles of music such as Techno, house music, and trance.  The synthesizer’s unique sound combined with its convenience for traveling and performing has spread the use of the synthesizer across music genres.  The synthesizer also makes sense economically.  Vangelis, the Greek composer mentioned earlier, was given a small budget to write the score for the movie “Chariots of Fire”.  Using synthesizer technology with the help from a piano and a few percussion instruments, he was able to win an Academy Award for the score and the feature song “Titles” hit the Hot 100 charts (the song “Titles” has become the quintessential inspirational music). The synthesizer has gradually become one of the most crucial technological advances in music around the world.  Though at first it was merely an instrument that could make obscure yet intriguing sounds in the background of rock and roll music, it is now one of the most important instruments in the music business.


Johnny Cash and Cover Song Implications

Submitted by Charles A. Pratt on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 2:07 PM

After sifting through many musical critics’ top ten Johnny Cash songs, it becomes apparent that most lists contain around five songs that were covered (  Although Cash wrote and recorded many esteemed originals, one cannot avoid mentioning his cover songs among his most popular work.  Despite avoiding copyright troubles throughout the process, some moral implications arise.  Essentially, does his celebrated career rely on unoriginal composition and overshadow those lesser - known artists?  Overall, the answer to this question is no: Cash utilizes the work of others in a transformative manner, effectively adapting musical works to fit his own personalized style.  In effect, cover songs should be conceptualized for their positive qualities, such as the ability to spread songs to a varying demographic.  However, the ubiquitous copyright age seems to emphasize originality and creative composition.  Since this may translate to a negative outlook on cover songs, the way in which Cash became famous may no longer be an option for aspiring musicians.

            Ironically, originality has always been a highly contested ideal in the West despite the fact that the reworking of borrowed music has occurred as far back as history allows.  Contemporary ideas about how musical production occurs are reliant on the prior notion that music was produced autonomously (Arewa, pgs. 584, 597).  During the mid 20th century, the era in which Johnny Cash emerged on the music scene, technological advancements restricted the ease of musical circulation.  Currently, music is easily accessed through the Internet, satellite television, or even CDs.  When Cash began his career, music could only be accessed through the radio, the purchase of records, or live performances.  In light of this, Cash’s earlier popular cover songs were most likely perceived by the general public as the original, even though copyright obligations necessitated the need for obtaining a license.  Although the perception of Cash’s covers as the original may seem problematic, his musical style transformed the original in a way that greatly expanded upon it.  When Anita Carter recorded “The Ring of Fire,” a song referring to falling in love, her sister June was experiencing feelings for Cash.  After June helped Anita with the lyrical composition, Anita recorded the song in a vocally dominant fashion.


Cash respectfully allowed Anita’s version some time to blossom as a hit, and was quoted as saying, “I’ll give you about five or six months, and if you don’t hit with it, I’m going to record it the way I feel it” (Wikipedia).  Cash made the song unique through emphasized instrumentals outlined by the dominating ring of mariachi horns.  Due to the fact that he adequately expanded upon the original, there should be no qualms about his version overshadowing Anita’s.  However, had he largely imitated Anita’s version, the moral implications would be imminent.  Also, since the song’s motivation stemmed from June’s love for Cash despite his drug addiction and alcoholism, he covers the song in a personalizing manner.


            Although Cash creatively expanded upon most borrowed works and avoided copyright infringement issues, “Folsom Prison Blues” exemplifies a case where Cash took another’s property as his own without permission.  The version Cash created exemplified more talent, but he shamelessly copied the basic melody and lyrics from Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues.”  The version Jenkins composed employs slow moving, divergent instrumentals, and in effect, it becomes difficult to follow the narrative that the vocalist presents.  Conversely, Cash’s rendition utilizes a more structured arrangement, both instrumentally and vocally.  The story of the “Folsom Prison Blues” is told with conviction and clarity, and as a result, should qualify as more sonically pleasing than the original. 


The negative moral implications of this act are undeniable, and makes one wonder whether Cash believed he could avoid crediting individuals in order to become perceived as an autonomously creative artist.  On the other hand, perhaps he was unaware of the ethical questions that applied, seeing as society became much more sensitive to copyright issues post - 1960s (  Johnny Cash released the song in 1955 and it wasn’t until 1965 that he settled out of court with Gordon Jenkins (  This example strengthens the idea that the music that is best expanded will persist.  “Folsom Prison Blues” has been one of Cash’s most notable songs, and if not for cover songs, the powerful narrative may have become forgotten. 

Perhaps this copyright infraction served as a wake up call for Cash.  “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” originally written and recorded by Kris Kristofferson and Ray Stevens in 1969, was well received by the general public.  Though already popular, Cash covered the song in 1970 and won the award for country song of the year.  One may be led to think that Cash’s version unfairly overshadowed Kristofferson’s original, given that Cash even stated, “I’ve been singing it so long I’ve kind of claimed it all for my own” (see video below).  In a joint performance between Kristofferson and Cash, Kristofferson responds to Cash’s comments by saying that “Up till now [Cash singing his song] has been the proudest moment of his life, but [performing the song with Cash] this may be the proudest” (see video).  This type of joint performance demonstrates Cash’s respect for the source of his musical inspirations.


Kristofferson’s feelings toward being covered by such an icon may imply that an overshadowed artist may feel more honored than disrespected.  If Kristofferson’s notions are applied universally, creative covering proves more beneficial than detrimental.  This may not be the case, however, if a lesser - known artist covered a song for which he or she became famous.  Since Cash already established himself as a musical icon (albeit covers played a major role in doing so) the resulting effect of covering seems less controversial from an ethical standpoint.  Original artists generally seem privileged that Cash exhibited the wherewithal to expand upon their music.         

            While attempting to refute the assumed popular notion that cover songs carry along a negative stigma stemming from a lack of creativity, it is also important to take note of the expansive power of covers.  Regardless of the moral implications, covering songs allows an artist to spread a story or message to a demographic that may find the cover sonically appealing.  In most cases, a music fan is drawn to a particular sound or style, and consequently, neglects many of the accessible genres.  Essentially, a cover song allows fans to experience the messages and stories from one genre applied to their preferred genre.  In one of Cash’s most famous songs, “Hurt”, he transcended the stylistic gap between industrial rock and country.  The original, produced by Nine Inch Nails, generally appeals to one with more of a disposition for hard rock, whereas Johnny Cash seems to draw fans from many interest groups.  He incorporates a style of blues, folk, traditional, rock, and country to form a style attracted to many.  “Hurt” incorporates a slow rhythmic beat to accompany the dark, gloomy lyrics.  This song fit Cash’s style extremely well due to his voice and gravitas, compounded by Cash’s storied background of hardships.  Through Cash’s cover of “Hurt”, he creates an authentic work with the capability to spread the story of misery to a wider audience.

            Even if the cover remains within a similar genre, the proliferation of a cover would most likely result in an increase in the amount of listeners touched by a song.  For example, The Band originally recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1969, a song about the last days of the Civil War, and as a music critic for Rolling Stone magazine said, “Nothing I have read…has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does” (Gleason).  The song’s portrayal of the Civil War is from a soldier’s point of view, and thus creates a powerful perspective of what that time in history entailed.


When Cash recorded the song in 1975, he de-dramatized the lyrics in comparison to The Band.  The lyrics become annunciated through Cash’s booming, baritone voice, and comparatively, limited the inflection utilized by The Band.  The genre Cash appealed to seems similar to The Band, in that they both include elements of rock, country, and roots.  Both versions seem quite similar from a genre and melodic standpoint, but through covering, the story of the Confederacy from a first person point of view results in an increase in the amount of listeners it affects.  Although cover songs have proved to creatively expand upon the original work, they can provide a tool that allows a listener to hear the same message from a different musical point of view.


            Cover songs can also transcend international borders.  In 1968, Eric Burdon and The Animals recorded a version of “The Ring Of Fire”, which ultimately landed within the top 25 songs in the UK, Germany, Australia, Austria, and the Netherlands (Wikipedia).  Eric Burdon and the Animals creatively rendered Cash’s version by adding elements of pop and psychedelic rock.  Though not indistinguishable from Cash’s version on a sonic and lyrical level, this piece personifies the creative and influential capabilities of cover songs.

                In conclusion, although the positive qualities of cover songs have been outlined, the current stigma attributed to musical borrowing may prevent future artists like Johnny Cash from achieving stardom.  Many of his early hits owed credit to the composition of former artists, and contemporarily, the copyright culture would most likely reject an aspiring musician’s vastly covered work.  Also, musical circulation has historically been limited by technology, but currently, the accessibility of music prevents the ability of a cover song to completely overshadow the original.  As a result, the original song becomes much more transparent.  On the other hand, one could argue that Cash’s style was too unique to have not been successful.  All factors put aside, it seems apparent that current prospering covers reach critical acclaim in light of the artist’s already achieved fame.  Once a successful musical platform becomes established, the opportunities for one’s freedom in composition seem endless.  While it’s not out of the realm of possibility to become idolized through one’s creative covering, it seems as if this formerly utilized method has reached its end.        


"The Johnny Cash Project"- By Charlie Pratt







Arewa, Olufunmilayo B. "From J.C. Bach to Hip Hop: Musical Borrowing, Copyright, and Cultural Context." North Carolina Law Review (2007): 548-642. Web. Dec. 2010. <>.


Famous Copyright Infringement Plagiarism Cases in Music." Fair Wage Attorney | Fair Wage Lawyer | Wage and Hour Attorney | Employees Rights Attorney. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <>.


Gleason, Ralph.  Original review in Rolling Stone (US edition only).  October 1969.  Accessed at


"Johnny Cash-plagiarism-Folsom Prison Bl." The Mudcat Discussion Forum. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <>.


"Ring of Fire (song)." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 21 Dec. 2010. <>.

The Five W's of Consciousness Within Hip-Hop Music

Submitted by Shyloe Katherine Musu Jones on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 1:06 PM

Modern-day media inundates the casual listener with countless forms of songs, sounds and other music every day. It is up to them to determine what sounds hold the most entertainment and musical value, a decision generally influenced by their culture and environment. Many factors contribute to a listener’s decision to endorse and support a given artist: quality of sound and lyrical content as well as rhythm and background beat. Hip-hop as a genre began as a means of alleviating the tensions and hardships of its audience, originally the underrepresented and underprivileged citizens of New York City’s slums and ghettoes. As new artists emerged, a new, “socially conscious” brand of hip-hop was created.

Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” proved to be the pioneer of this new movement of ‘socially conscious’ hip-hop, as evidenced in this clip:

“The Message” marked the first time an artist chose to utilize hip-hop as a vehicle of social commentary and awareness concerning poverty in inner-city neighborhoods throughout America. The full song illustrates a typical scene in the neighborhood of the ‘ghetto’ in stark language hip-hop followers were unaccustomed to hearing.

From the lyrics, including the iconic “Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head” mantra to the easily recognized and oft-sampled beat leaves a distinct impression on his listeners. His effect was not on other artists, however: as self-proclaimed ‘hip-hop historian’ Davey D explains, “Not only did the positive voices in rap from decades past help create enlightened ideas, but they also provided guidance and awareness for youth seeking direction”. By speaking out about the widespread poverty and struggles witnessed on a daily basis, Grandmaster Flash succeeds in imbuing his music with a sense of ‘social consciousness’, elevating it from simply catchy sound effects and clever one-liners to actual commentary and social advocacy.

This initial filtering of ‘socially conscious’ hip-hop from the rest of the genre results in the formation and categorization of sounds. In the early days of hip-hop, music glorifying domestic violence, gangs and crime were tempered by songs promoting love as well as political and socially sensitive ideals (Muhammed). In this way, ‘conscious’ hip-hop functions as a subcategory of the larger genre of hip-hop music. How, then can this subgenre be defined? How is it different from other categories such as gangsta rap? Surely, the difference must lie deeper than the fact most conscious hip-hop artists are awake and “conscious” when performing their songs. Most importantly, why does conscious hip-hop matter in the greater scope of global sound?

The term ‘conscious hip-hop’ refers to hip-hop music with a lyrical and contextual focus on social issues, themes and conflicts. ‘Consciousness’ is defined as “being awake and aware of one’s surroundings”. Therefore, conscious hip-hop focuses on commentary and responses to the artists’ greater surroundings, environment and society as a whole. Artists may superficially provide an organic description of the world at large, or provide commentary in a way that provides a critique and unique perspective.

Generally, artists promoting a socially conscious and sensitive agenda produce their music ‘underground’, or outside the realm of commercial and “mainstream” hip-hop. These artists sign with smaller, sometimes independent record companies and receive less radio/television time and overall media exposure than artists operating on the main stage of hip-hop. Some artists hailed as being “conscious” find their way to the mainstream, however, as evidenced by Brooklyn-born MC Talib Kweli in his single “Get By’, off his 2002 debut solo album “Quality”:

While some of the song’s success may be attributed to Kanye West's inclusion as producer and R&B singer Nina Simone providing the vocals for the chorus samples, this song demonstrates the literal definition of “conscious” hip-hop: awareness and acknowledgement of one’s surroundings and environment. By using “we” throughout the song, Kweli includes himself in the descriptions, therefore making the song more relatable at the audience and average listener’s level. He takes the next step and presents a critique in the second verse:

“Yo, our activism attackin’ the system,
The Blacks and Latins in prison
Numbers of prison they victim black in the vision
Shit and all they got is rappin’ to listen to"

Like Grandmaster Flash, and similar to the artists mentioned in Muhammed’s article “What Happened to Hip-Hop’s Social Consciousness?”, Talib Kweli promotes a sense of responsibility and accountability in claiming that hip-hop can penetrate prison walls and be a positive influence to different demographics.

Thus far, we have established the socially conscious hip-hop concerns itself mainly with social issues, themes and conflicts. These do not have to necessarily be political, but critical in nature and representative of a definite viewpoint. Dead Prez’s 2010 album “Turn Off the Radio Vol. 4: Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz” comments on the state of today’s hip-hop industry as a whole, as displayed in the Drake-sampled “Far From Over”:

It's important to note that throughout this album, Dead Prez chose to sample various popular rap songs and even creatively cite the rhythms and nuances present in the originals.  However, the lyrical content varies greatly, and holds much more substansive subject matter than Drake's "Over".  Dead Prez's version deals with 'the real world', in which "[we] don't have no boundaries and fears/This word, sound, power that we put in their ears can change the world".  All examples of conscious hip-hop/rap emphasize the importance of the music itself, and how it can uplift downtrodden peoples and even change the world.  This self-imbued importance, as evidenced by the urgent tone of "Far From Over"s chorus, establishes ethos within the artist and leads the listener to consider the music as a complete product of sound, rhythm and lyricism.

Next comes the issue of degrees of consciousness: do they exist?  If so, what are they and what determines how 'socially conscious' a hip-hop artist or song can be?  Music critics and listeners alike hail artists such as Mos Def, Common, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Hi Tek, The Roots and others as being at the forefront of the 'conscious' hip-hop scene - interestingly enough, most of these artists are borderline 'mainstream' in the levels of exposure and attention they garner from the media.  However, Muhammed argues that in hip-hop and rap culture today, major record labels have forsaken artists with more valuable and substantial messages to present.  How, then, can these artists be successful while advocating a 'conscious' agenda?

The answer lies in collaboration.  As artist Mos Def puts it, "the real joy is when you can kick it with everyone".  Throughout the semester we have explored the impact sampling and creative citation has on particular songs and musical works, and hip-hop artists especially use this to create new levels of meaning in their music and lyrics.  Common's "Like Water For Chocolate" is a testament to this feature: his song "Time Travelin'" features Femi Kuti in a tribute to Femi's father, noted Nigerian activist/musician Fela Kuti (song at bottom).  The background choral singers as well as the rhythm provides a sonic tribute to Fela as much as the lyrics emulate his activist ideals concerning human rights.

Another song utilizing sampling and creative citation comes from Dead Prez, called "Malcolm, Garvey, Huey".  The title refers to Marcus Garvey, civil rights activist Malcolm X, and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers.

While still lacking the universal exposure and attention rappers like Lil' Wayne or Drake, these artists push their agenda through media outlets by critiquing the very popular culture most casual listeners hear all day.  The true value of conscious hip-hop lies in more than just its sound, lyrics, and artists, but in the sum of their parts.  Consciousness within hip-hop deals with artists attempting to do more than entertain their listeners: they also are critiquing and offering their own views on both social and societal issues at large.  Consciousness remains an integral part of the hip-hop genre due to its roots in illustrating the experience of its listeners: by functioning as a vehicle for raising awareness and representing the ever present 'struggle', consciousness brings a new depth into hip-hop previously absent in the genre.

Related Articles: What Happened to Hip-Hop’s Social Consciousness? - Cinque Muhammed

Visual Representation's Impact on the Authenticity of Music

Submitted by Nikki M. Takemori on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 12:35 PM

Films and images are powerful tools in promoting music. Take, for example, the sound “boom!” If you are provided with an image of the night sky with colorful lights, then the “boom” resembles an explosion of fireworks. If the night sky scenery is substituted with a war zone visual, then the “boom” represents firing cannons and gunshots.  Background music is like a star on a Christmas tree – it is a necessary ornament to films. The tree alone would signify Christmas with a lack of festive sensations. The star alone could relate to many things other than Christmas – a shooting star, the magical star in Mario video games, and many more implications. Films without music portray a lack of emotion and color, while music alone allows us to interpret the sounds in any way we can think of. So that means films limit our imaginations with sounds – they mark a label on sounds, which will serve as a standard for future films to use.


What about the so called cultural films? There is no exception of not having “ethnic” music in films based in foreign regions; what would be the point of showing a monk meditating while gangsta rap is playing?

(Japanese Monk rapping)

This ridiculous mismatch in image and sound would suit a comedic film rather than a cultural film emphasizing on ethnic values. Considering these cultural, and not comedic, films leads us to an important question. Is it purely the music that presents the film’s traditional values, or does the visual representation take part in promoting the indigenity of the film? In other words, do the images help make the music authentic, rather than the music itself? It is important to study the connection between music and images to understand the development of our knowledge on global sound.

A great way to ponder about this question is to analyze animated films, which allow for desirable images that can be altered to fit the theme of the film. Disney and Studio Ghibli produce great examples of films with ethnic motifs. Disney is considered to be the world’s best known animation film producer, where Studio Ghibli, dubbed as the Disney in Japan, is praised for its appealing storyline and drawings to all ages and gender. Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) along with Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1997) are all films that incorporate many aspects of their representative regions; the Arabian world, Africa, and historical Japan, respectively. The images are convincing enough to show the audience that the films are relating to traditional values. Is their music just as influential and persuasive as the images being shown?


(Aladdin, Lion King and Princess Mononoke from left to right.)


Aladdin opens with a very authentic sounding song called “Arabian Nights” (a reference to the famous compilation of Middle Eastern and South Asian folkore, One Thousand and One Nights.) The enourmous sun is setting, eliminating the desert with its orange and red rays. A man on a camel slowly walks through the harsh winds with sand blurring the vision, depicting the environment found someplace faraway in North Africa or the Middle East. The music incorporates traditional Arabian instruments such as the Zill (finger cymbals) and drums that strongly resemble either the Tombak or the Darbouka. The tambourine enters in the latter half of the song along with the timpani after the big gong crash.

("Arabian Nights" from the Aladdin Soundtrack)

The visuals with the music give you the perfect set up of the Arabic atmosphere.

However, if we take a closer look at the components of “Arabian Nights” the composer seems to be cheating, relying on the images to send the message that the sounds produced is ethnic Arabic music. The composer Alan Menken, a Jewish man born and raised in America, was right to include the Zill and the Tombak or Darbouka sounding instruments – all of these instruments are used in traditional Arabic and Turkish music. The tambourine is a shout out to the Arabic riq and the timpani to the Turkish naker. Unfortunately, the gong is traditionally an East Asian instrument not common to the Arabic world. Menken disregards the Arabian microtone, or pitches that occur between the familiar Western scale of 12 notes. “Arabian Nights” is also Americanized due to the fact that it has harmony – Arabic music has no harmony. The Sound of Arabian Music, an article in The National Association of Music Education Volume 49 points out in detail the unique aspects of Arabic music and how it sounds unpleasant to American ears. The author uses Iraqi folk song “Ah Ya Zain” as an example to analyze Arabic music. “Ah Ya Zain” is a great song to compare Arabic music by a Middle Eastern man and what is thought to be Arabic music found in “Arabian Nights.”

("Ah Ya Zain" by Mohammed El Bakkar)

Listening to just “Arabian Nights” with no visual representation can still give us an image of the Arabic World. Switch focus to The Lion King’s opening song and the ethnic quality is harder to find. To set the mood, “The Circle of Life” greets us with a man singing in Swahili and in a style not commonly heard in the states. He is then followed by a chorus chanting in Swahili, bringing more of the tribal image of Africans singing together in a group. The music is accompanied by a sun rise beaming light over the vast grassland, catching the attention of many wild animals not found in America. This time Disney collaborated with well known Elton John as well as South African composer Lebo M. (Lebohang Morake) for the film’s soundtrack.

("A Circle of Life" from the Lion King.)

Even with a native working on the piece, “The Circle of Life” does not encompass authentic African music (to be more specific, Kenyan music for The Lion King is presumably based in Kenya.) The beginning of the song does seem very ethnic, yet if the later part of the song is heard the value of the “African-ness” of the song is somewhat lost. The chanting is gradually overshadowed by gospel singing in the background behind the main vocals.

(Play to hear the gospel choir.)

Gospel music usually associates with religion, most notably Christianity. It also resembles the work songs African slaves sang during labor. So the gospel choir subtly adds an imperialistic, European layer to the song. The emphasis put on the drums and the percussion section is overwhelming; the drums heard at the beginning strongly resemble those of the Sukuti style drums of Kenya while the shekere (a gourd with beads that sounds similar to maracas) keeps the beat in the background. The song reaches its climax with the entrance of the drum set, the hi-hat replacing the beat-keeping shekere. As if to remind the audience that this song is “ethnic,” the drum set fades away as a flute (that sounds like the Asili from the Luo community in Kenya) is featured along with the chant with no gospel chorus. But then the drum set is brought back along with the gospel choir, dominating all the way until the end of the song. If the Swahili chant and the flute solo of the song were erased from the song, “Circle of Life” would sound far from ethnic African music.   


Now traveling to Japan, Princess Mononoke takes on a different approach to present ethnic music. The historical film takes place sometime during the Muromachi period, when arquebuses (and thus iron) were introduced to the Japanese by Portuguese traders.

The film’s theme revolves around the destructive consequences of iron and industrialization on nature, or perhaps the West’s effect on the East.  Princess Mononoke’s instrumental song “Tatari Gami (Demon God)” is very orchestral with traditional music weaved in. The scene with “Tatari Gami” shows the main character Ashitaka, a prince in a small tribal village, battling a demon which turned out to be the respected boar God infected by an iron bullet shot by the people of Iron Town. In “Tatari Gami” there is a contrast between the orchestral instruments (such as the strings and the brass instruments) between the Japanese festive instruments such as the Chanchiki and the Shimedaiko, both used in the traditional Awa-dance.

The Shimedaiko is played by the man in the very front. The Chanchiki is the metal, clanking sound.

The Japanese percussion instruments stop when the timpani enter, reflecting the East versus West notion of the movie. Yet “Tatari Gami,” like with “Circle of Life,” does not truly represent ethnic Japanese music; take away the Japanese instruments and then you’re left with a song that could be used as Darth Vader’s theme (Check out 5:28). One important thing to note for “Tatari Gami” and Princess Mononoke, however, is that this is a film on historical Japan, presented to Japanese people, who generally know the connection between the traditional instruments to traditional Japanese culture.


It can be concluded that the so called ethnic music presented in these animated films rely on the images to bring the traditional atmosphere to the audience. To see the impacts of visual representation with music, I made a test for a music class to take. There were five samples of folk songs from different regions around the world; two of the songs were presented with the image associated with the region of the folk song while three had mismatched images. The results were astounding; on average, only 7% of the class answered the mismatched songs correctly, while almost 90% of the class answered the matched songs correctly. The influence of visual representations greatly affects the judgment on the authenticity of music.


The impact of images on music is huge; visual representations have the power to determine which sounds will associate with regions around the world. Are we, then, presented with biased interpretations of the producers of films on ethnic music? Are our teachers for global music the CEOs that spend their life on the 40th floor of a mansion? Our knowledge on global sound is largely structured through other’s perspectives; those with authority and enough money to spread their interpretations of ethnic music are our instructors on world music. How will we be able to break through this bubble of standardized regional sounds, so we as individuals can decide on the ethnicity of music?


There is no answer to this psychological issue; everyone has their own biases and opinions on music and where the unique sounding notes come from. It is a matter of what you were exposed to during your childhood; animated films are the most likely contributors to these biases. If Disney were to feature bagpipes in a film about a New Zealand fisher, then many viewers would indeed connect the sounds of bagpipes to Oceania. Next time when you watch a cultural film, try listening to just the music. Does it transport you to a faraway region? Or do you find yourself at home, sitting right in front of your Christmas tree?


(Happy Holidays everyone!) 

Facing The Music: How Record Companies Transform The Artist

Submitted by Kaitlin R. Silkowitz on Tuesday, 12/21/2010, at 3:04 AM

             It is an all too familiar story: artists that make it big in their own country, but want to take it to the next level, will often seek out or be sought after by a much larger, mainstream record company that can satisfy them financially and help them reach a much larger audience.  Consequently, once the artist is sucked into the system of a trans-national record company, a power play exists between the artist and the record label.  The music of the artist is transformed, some more drastically than others, in terms of style, use of sampling, language, sound and material.  Oftentimes, these artists are willing to compromise the aesthetics of their original sound in order to please these trans-national record companies.  Though varying in degree, the transformation in the artist by these record companies is seen as necessary to create a marketable product that today’s youth will be attracted to and want to buy. 

            The Somali-born artist K’naan has produced entirely different sounding albums depending on the label it was produced under.  His live album, The Dusty Foot on the Road, was released in 2007 on Wrasse Records and was heavy on African hand percussion and rapping more than singing.  Here, K’naan stays true to his roots and incorporates many different sounding African drums and other quite unfamiliar (to “mainstream” hip-hop) instruments.  The second song on the album, “The African Way,” opens with K’naan’s explanation for using such different sounding instruments to rap over: 



 “Now when we talk about hip-hop starting in Africa, we talk about this, we talk about that drum right there.  And then we sayin’ that there is a poet, an MC, that may say something relevant, something fantastic over that drum.  That’s what we call hip-hop in its origination.  I'm going to show you some of that right quick, check it…”

K’naan’s attempt to make African drums and other instruments receptive to “mainstream” hip-hop listeners was not always celebrated.  The first review for The Dusty Foot On the Road on is entitled “Good But Not Great.”  Though the listener admits to greatly enjoying the lyrics on the album, he found “the most annoying thing” to be “the lack of any decent music accompaniment…It has a nice rhythm to it but because all you can hear for a lot of the tracks is K'naan's voice and a drum, I fast grew irritated of this album.” 

            Though it may avoid the bluster of mainstream hip-hop, the album should be appraised because it truly captures the atmosphere of Somalia— musically reflecting on the violence and anarchy of K’naan’s home country.  Along with the instrumental and lyrical depiction of Somalia in The Dusty Foot On The Road is a visual one.  Many of the music videos from the album also depict images and footage of the people and culture of Somalia, and thus allows his listeners to attain a visual accompaniment to everything he is talking about:



Furthermore, in “The African Way,” K’naan describes how rap understood him and “made my ghetto heaven,” in the same way as he understood rap to be “the new poor people’s weapon.”  Hip-hop is exactly that: the new poor people’s weapon.  The line, however, offers some ambiguity.  In describing rap as a “poor people’s weapon,” is K’naan referring to rap as a weapon in which he can musically reveal the horrors he endured in Somalia?  Or rather a weapon in which poor people can channel into financial success and fame?  In the case of “The Dusty Foot On The Road,” K’naan undoubtedly proves to be using rap as a weapon of awareness—not only about the poverty and social injustice of his home country, but also about the beauty of its people, instruments and musical sound. 

            Ironically, rap can only be used as both a weapon of awareness and a weapon of financial success if entering the mainstream scene—to which the original, foreign sound will almost always be changed in some way.  On that note, it was one of K’naan’s later albums to which he truly entered the mainstream hip-hop scene, gaining extreme financial success and notoriety at the expense of his earlier sound.  K’naan now tours with a larger, more traditional rock-style electric ensemble.  He has gotten an even bigger push since signing with Octone A&M Records and releasing his most recent  2009 album, Troubadour, which emphasizes singing more so than rapping.   Prior to the release of Troubadour, K'naan performed with a small acoustic band, consisting of Rayzak (back-up vocals), Kierscey Rand (acoustic guitar) and UDOGG-The Funky Drummer (djembe and drums).  This musical style was an essential element of what set K'naan apart from most hip-hop acts.  It also reflected K'naan's value of meaningful lyrics and performance over shallow theatrics.  Nathan S., a hip-hop album critic from, describes how “Troubadour’s wandering sound often has as much in common with hip-hop as a square dance party in an Iowa retirement home:” 

“Bang Bang:”   

“People Like me: ”

The drums K’naan described earlier to be the very essence of hip-hop are gone.  “Bang Bang” features Adam Levine of Maroon 5, and in my opinion, the entire song itself is reminiscent of the Maroon 5 sound.  Unlike The Dusty Foot On The Road which had only one song (“My God”) feature a guest star throughout the entire album, Troubadour is  filled with them.   K’naan collaborates with such high profile artists as Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Mos Def, Chubb Rock, CHali 2na, Damian Marley and Kirk Hammett of Metallica.  Having these stars appear on the album has helped to shift K'naan more into the mainstream flow of the music industry—helping him gain exposure to a wider audience.   Undeniably, the progression in number of collaborations is a marker of K’naan’s commercial success. 

            Mainstream record labels frequently make prudent decisions from a commercial perspective.  Oftentimes these decisions can diminish or misrepresent work of the artist. Though K’naan may have vocally and instrumentally abandoned his earlier style, his subject matter still remains substantially different from today’s mainstream, hardcore “gangsta rap.”  An interesting comparison between The Dusty Foot On The Road and Troubadour is the presence of the label “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.”  While The Dusty Foot On The Road did not have the label, Troubadour did.  It is not uncommon for some albums to receive “Parental Advisory” labels even though the  albums contain no use of strong language, sexual references, or violent lyrics at all. Today, "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content," is a fact of music-buying life.  The most popular mainstream rap/hip-hop artists of today, such as Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, and Eminem, have continually put out albums that include, and very much deserve that label.  What explains the fact that Troubadour has the label when there are few to no instances of strong profanity, violence, or sexual situations in the lyrics?   The parental advisory label is not a rating; there are no agreed-upon standards for when it should and should not appear on the cover of an album.  It is the record company's decision whether an album needs one or not.  Perhaps Octone A&M believed that the album would sell better if it featured the label—that it would be seen as “hardcore” and “gangsta” like the more well-known, popular artists of today and people will want to buy it. 

            K’naan has built his image so distinctly on being this refugee of Civil War, rapping in a way to connect and bring awareness to people all over the world.  After following him on twitter, I was extremely surprised to read a recent, November 9th tweet of the following:

            “Hmm a sudden influx of Black People in America listening to my music?”

K’naan is saying that there is a big difference between Africans and African Americans.  He comments on the stereotype that hip-hop repeats over and over again: black people are the violent young males who live in the ghetto.  In fact, there are all kinds of black people in the US, many of who would not call themselves African American because they are from somewhere else.  Only one individual responded to this curious tweet: “but why would they be annoyed? :).”  K’naan never answers, and is intentionally being opaque.  Perhaps he is implying that it is ironic and somewhat curious that his music is taking root when he is not certain that people (“Black people in America”) are hearing his material the way that he wants them to.  Maybe K’naan was less surprised that his best-known song off Troubadour, “Wavin’ Flag,” formed the basis of Coca-Colas $300 million World Cup of Soccer marketing campaign after the company formed a partnership with Octone A&M.  It is because he has become such a popular, mainstream artist that he is speaking out against this idealization of Africa in the way that African Americans might idealize all things African.  K’naan is reacting against the sort of stereotypical expectation and making a statement about class—all black people in America are poor and oppressed, so how can they possibly buy and relate to his message?

            Similar to K’naan in the sense that he is an artist willing to compromise his initial music aesthetics is Chinese-American rapper “MC Jin.”  Ruff Ryders discovered Jin after winning seven straight Freestyle Friday competitions on BET’s “106 & Park.”  He won the crowds not only with his clever rhymes, but also with his blunt, irreverent nods to his race:

 Jin vs. Sterling:


Arguably, it was Jin’s shown willingness to mock his own race that appealed to Ruff Ryders, which immediately signed him.  To this day, Jin’s signature song was his very first single off Ruff Ryders in 2003 called “Learn Chinese.” )

No longer freestyle rapping in Cantonese in the streets of Hong Kong, Jin’s claim to fame is his ability to make fun of his own race—something Ruff Ryders knew would be seen as clever and attractive to mainstream American rap listeners.  Though MC Jin’s “Learn Chinese” track openly mocks the Chinese race, does the fact that Jin himself is Chinese make it okay?  Should this be considered “global music,” as it is a Chinese-American man rapping about how people “learn Chinese?”  This is in no way an example of global music.  From the start of Jin’s mainstream rap career, his fan base has become one that likes the fact that he has adopted the same stereotypes about his race that we have.  This fan base, along with Jin himself, are not rapping about Chinese people and culture in a way that is accurate or informative.  Aside from the fact that in “Learn Chinese,” he refers to the Chinese multiple times throughout the song as “chinks,” he seems to be obsessed with the idea of pairing the Chinese race with the stereotypes of chicken wings and pork fried rice.  The song opens:

“Yeah, I'm Chinese and what?

Yeah, you know who this is, Jin

Let me tell you this

The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings

coming to your house five years is over”

A later verse begins with:

“This one goes out to those that order four chicken wings

And pork fried rice and throw dice

In the hood, you think this is all good?” 

Also within the lyrics of this frivolous song is Jin’s admission to being lyrically inferior to some of the most popular, esteemed mainstream rappers of today simply because of his race: “I ain't ya 50 Cent, I ain't ya Eminem, I ain't ya Jigga Man, I'm a Chinaman.”  In making this statement, Jin deems himself a comical enigma from the very start of his mainstream rap career.  That was how he was marketed, how he portrayed himself, and why he has not gained more validity in the years proceeding the release of “Learn Chinese.”  Whether it was Ruff Ryders, or Jin himself that led him to believe this is unclear.  What we do know, however, is that before Jin joined Ruff Ryders, he demonstrated his lyrical ability and language diversity within his music.  K'naan and MC Jin are just two artists that demonstrate the power of trans-national record companies to transform their artists.  It is not uncommon for artists to be a willing to compromise the aesthetics of their original sound.  In signing a contract with a record company, these artists give away the prior sense of total control over their own image and sound.  They are now in the hands of someone much more powerful--someone who will often tell them that to be successful as a mainstream artist, they must dress, act, and sound somewhat different then before.  Far too often, they are right.  Finally, These artists are satisfied financially, and their music is more widespread.  The only question that remains, and is perhaps unanswerable is: If the music that makes someone a popular mainstream artist compromises his or her original sound, lyrical content, and overall values, is the financial success and recognition even worth it?  "Keeping it real" means authenticity.  It means keeping all of one's original musical aesthetics.  Though "keeping it real" may be worthy of honor and high respect, it is usually not what today's youth want to hear.  What is commercial, sells.  That is simply the way of the music industry.  

Cumbancha: [Trying to Rule The] World Music

Submitted by Phoebe Smolin on Monday, 12/20/2010, at 11:07 PM

In his article “Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music,” Simon Frith says, “World music, in short, might have come from elsewhere but it was sold in a familiar package.” The idea of world music is constantly debated for its neo-colonialist tendencies. A few months ago, when I was sitting in my room listening to one of my favorite bands right now, Rupa and the April Fishes, I was led to something that I initially thought would be the exception to all of this. I thought I found something that turned the “world music” label around and focused on the differences within the world instead of turning the world into a marketing ploy. The closer I looked, however, the more mistaken I realized I was.

Rupa and the April Fishes is signed by a record label called Cumbancha Records, which is an offshoot of the popular Putumayo Records. Jacob, the founder of Cumbancha, is actually the head of music research at Putumayo, and the founder of Putumayo assisted in the development of Cumbancha in 2006—thus creating something like a world-music clique. Cumbancha was founded by Edgar because he wanted to continue with “some of the artists he felt deserved wider recognition and assistance in bringing their music to the world stage” ( He is running with the belief that music can be a common ground that “overcomes some of the barriers that separate people from different walks of life” ( This reason, alone, was why I supported Edgar’s motives in the first place, as I believe in similar values concerning music. This is only the surface of his appeal, as I later found out.

I decided to do some searching when I realized that the only face attributed to Cumbancha was Edgar’s. After reading some biographical information as well as interviews, I came up with the following information. Jacob Edgar was born in San Francisco to somewhat eccentric parents, as he describes. He attended college at Oberlin College in Ohio and then got his Masters in Ethnomusicology from UCLA before settling down in Charlotte, Vermont, which is where Cumbancha records is based (an interesting location for a so-called “diverse world music label, in my opinion”. The head of Putumayo, where Edgar worked before (and still does, from home), helped fund and publicize Cumbancha. Cumbancha’s first release was ¡Ay Carumba! By the UK-based ska band, Ska Cubano. Before signing with Cumbancha, they were only popular throughout Europe. Cumbancha then helped them gain fame on the transnational platform, allowing them to play in massive venues such as Central Park. Cumbancha’s first worldwide release was the Idan Raichel Project, which is a fusion of Ethiopian folk music and traditional Israeli music. The front man, and Israeli piano player and composer, Idan Raichel, advocates diversity and unity both between Israel and Palestine and in general.

The type of music that Cumbancha sponsors is carefully selected by Edgar. It is usually some type of fusion with a social message behind it. “I suffer so you don’t have to!” Edgar says ( With comments such as these, Edgar gives me no proof that Cumbancha is any different from other corporate record labels, which also carefully select music based on the perceived profit. Edgar, here seems to be countering the very principle that he claims Cumbancha is founded on: to expose people to otherwise unknown music from the world. Instead, he seems to be attempting to expose them to his own version of what the world sounds like. It is for this reason that I initially was dissuaded by Cumbancha. Edgar claims to be this facilitator of communication through music (which would imply an absence of manipulation)—that music can reach across borders left secured by politics and economic inequality, though he employs the very capitalist mentality he’s trying to avoid by choosing which songs are marketable to possible. This realization threw me off, as I thought Cumbancha was finally a label that understood the real, non-monetary values of music from around the world. The more I read about Edgar, however, the more my optimism was degraded. Edgar has recently come out with a new television series called “Music Voyager” which gives the viewer “a backstage pass to the world’s most exciting music” ( After watching this one-minute preview for the show, my doubts about Cumbancha and Edgar as a benevolent music-appreciator were solidified.

Music Voyager Sizzler from Cumbancha on Vimeo.

In the video, Edgar embodies the images and attitudes that are usually associated with neocolonialist capitalists. He goes into “foreign” countries searching for their music and sifting through it to find the sounds he thinks are best representational of where he is. If it isn’t his awkward sunglasses and khaki pants emblematic of the rich American tourist, it’s his attitude towards the world that delegitimizes the “authentic” image he’s trying to create. When describing why he liked doing the show he says, “ The good thing about working on the show is I get to do crazy things I wouldn’t otherwise do on a trip, like stay in a Maharaja’s palace in Rajasthan, get Dancehall dance lessons in a gang-ridden ghetto in Jamaica, eat bulls testicles, and so on...” ( With this statement, Edgar reveals his cursory view of the world as a collection of small puddles that he can rightfully dip his toes into and walk away before it gets too cold or real. He reveals his ultimate privilege as an Anglo-American man, as he has the luxury of traveling around the world as well as the comfort of an 1830s Vermont farmhouse to take refuge in once he gets enough of a tan.

In talking about music, Edgar has revealed multiple times that he views music as a product (though, of course, he would never blatantly say it). In an interview with in May 2010 he says, “I have a soft spot for Brazil, which offers the perfect blend of amazing people, natural beauty and incredible music.” In saying this, Edgar gives away his consumerist view of the world—it is something he can take samples of without getting too deep. In another interview in which he was only associated with Putumayo, he said, “A lot of people believe that Mali will be the next Cuba,” which portrays the same kinds of capitalistic ideas. Also, with that, Edgar is doing exactly what Feld scrutinizes in his paper, “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music”: Edgar is marketing poverty simply with the label “World Music (which he admits to hating, though also admits to feeling powerless against because it helps him sell records). As Feld says, “The label World Music masks “the exploitative labor relationship of the very powerful transnational corporations with the ‘Third World’ musicians, let alone with those of the Third World with only their photogenic poverty to sell” (153). It is thus questionable what Edgar’s actual relationships are with these musicians and projects. It seems as though he simply wants his name associated with them and doesn’t do much in terms of supporting the causes that all of the artists he carefully chooses stand for. Edgar is thus creating a marketable starbucks-friendly image, rather than a musical movement of any kind.

Jacob Edgar has been described on his website as “a global explorer with an insatiable curiosity for the diverse ways in which people express themselves through music.” Though he likes to portray himself and his projects with a bohemian and authentic image, everything he does seems to be a massive contradiction. Edgar claims to take an un-academic approach to finding his music, though having been trained in Ethnomusicology, his perceptions have been tempered by the world of academia. Though this is not to be an automatically terrible thing, it is easily criticized when Edgar is in clear denial of his educational background. He also denied his privileged position in society and that fact that, in trying to break down barriers with his record label, he is actually reinforcing global hierarchies, as he is the privileged Anglo-American who is using music of the global South to his advantage. In this way, he also becomes the neocolonialist world music paradigm that he often attempts to shoot down.

My perception and the beginning and end of this project has changed dramatically. At first, I was hopeful that Cumbancha was finally an exception to the world music stereotype. I thought that because it sponsored individual artists it worked toward promoting difference instead of homogenizing the world with its own sound. The more I read and saw, however, the more wrong I realized I was. The head of Cumbancha, Jacob Edgar (who is the only face associated with the running of the label), embodies the exact reason why world music is constantly scrutinized—it is simply a profit-driven venture in another costume. This realization led me to a frustration not only with Cumbancha, but in the idea of the record label in general. Though I still am optimistically holding onto the belief that music can be used to communicate across language, political, and other barriers, but I think there is a better way to do that than through an Americanized and hierarchical label. If Americans are genuinely intrigued by music from all over the world, it may be an option for them to help like-minded labels develop in their places of interest—putting power in the hands of the producers, and possibly aiding in the reversal the global pattern of domination. Ultimately, it would be wonderful if the entire mentality of record labels could be reverse, but, of course, that would mean the altering of an entire economic system, which is extremely unrealistic. Until that happens, I will keep believing in the power of music to communicate and educate, however, I don’t believe that record labels can truly accomplish this due to their capitalistic and power-driven mentalities. It is in the power of the listener to look at record labels skeptically and to expose themselves to the music of the world as untainted by a western mediator such as Jacob Edgar.