Saturday, 19 September 2009

Wall of Sound

Berlin's Netaudio Festival kicks off on the 8th of October, bringing with it a wall of sound: a sonic map of the Berlin Wall, composed of field recordings taken all along its length. I asked J-Lab, musician and techno producer, about the genesis and development of the project, and the live performance, by TRIoon, which will grow from it.


"It all goes back to last January when we started talking about the Netaudio Berlin festival for this year. 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and we were talking about different things, about how netaudio and creative commons are breaking down barriers in the music industry, breaking down walls ... last winter I was living in the Lohmüle trailer-park, which sits on the former death strip, the no man's land between the two walls, so it was very much in my mind. I thought about all the different commemorations of the Wall, the chunks that are left remaining, the way the route has been marked through the city, and now the Mauerweg path that follows the Wall all the way round. And I thought, no one's done a sound map of it.

I put the idea around a couple of people and they liked it, so the thing then was finding a way of doing it technically. Actually going out and making a field recording is so easy these days - we use a digital Zoom recorder, running off SD cards, you get great quality recordings out of it. But the organization of it, trying to find a partner to host it, that was a bit difficult. Then we got in touch with Udo from Radio Aporee, which is a global field recording website. He was really keen, keener than some of the other people we spoke to, so we set it up. Me and [musical collaborator] Bogdan decided to go out and do chunks of it. Bogdan's a native Berliner, he grew up very close to the Wall in West Berlin, it was part of his life. We do a collaborative project, TRIoon, together with a visual artist called Servando Barreiro. We got asked to play at the festival, so we decided to create a musical performance that uses a lot of elements from these field recordings, cut up and spliced, looped, sequenced, whatever. That's basically the project in a nutshell. It's an open source project, it works on a creative commons basis, so anyone can load stuff up. We've had a few other contributors so far but mainly it's been me, Bogdan and Servando running round different chunks of the Wall.

- How much of it have you covered so far?

There's about 25km out of 163 which haven't been done yet.

- Do you do it absolutely systematically, every certain number of metres, or what?

No, not really, we decided to do it by feel. There was this idea that we could do it at every significant spot, make a recording where every person was killed trying to cross, for instance, where every checkpoint was or every watchtower, but that's just too much of a headfuck. The thing about it is to capture the essence of what has been left behind. Has that scar disappeared? Where is that scar? Because in some places of the city you'd never know the Wall was ever there. Then in other places, on the edge of the city for instance where the Brandenburg and Berlin boundary is, there's a huge scar in the forest 150 metres wide. Some of it's grown back, some of it hasn't, the ground was so screwed up with pesticide spraying that nothing's grown back. Then there's other areas where people are building yuppie houses on the site, you've got Club der Visionäre, a trailer-park, there's many interesting different environments that it passes through.

- Do you record at night as well or just in the daytime?

We do want to make some night recordings, the city centre's the ideal thing to record at night, places like Club der Visionäre, Yaam, Maria's ... you get a different acoustic environment.

- And what's the most bizarre sound you've encountered?

Where the Wall crosses Elsenstrasse, it's quite a famous spot because a tunnel was dug underneath it back in the 60s. There was some extreme South American death metal coming out of someone's stereo. Normally you get bicycles and stuff like that, fragments of people's conversations, a lot of traffic noises, a couple of drunks popped into the background of one recording ... nothing so out of the ordinary. But when you start processing it, chopping it up, getting it ready for the live set, listening to it closely and picking things out, then you start getting interesting sounds.

- So that's a spinoff project right? You take bits that you've done on the map and what do you do with them?

You just process them really, it's the same as grabbing any other sample. That sounds a bit simplistic ... the great thing about digital music technology is the fact that you can take field recordings, samples and stuff, and completely destroy their original reference and context, move things. It's like painting an impression in sound of what is now at the Wall, where the Wall stood. Some of it I've chopped up, detuned, turned into basses and things like that. But there's a few really powerful percussion sounds I've managed to pick out from background industrial and construction noise. You don't have to do anything with them, just clean the air and noise off the recording a little bit and you're ready to go. I've been jamming around with it, you can make complete industrial noisescapes and stuff like that, or you can use those loops to add a narrative or context to another recording or a song. I've put some musical motifs in and really all I do is select a sound which I think is apposite - just playing some field recordings, you get an emotional response to what you're hearing, colouring it, putting the recording in a kind of frame.

- I saw on the Berliner Fenster today that, according to a recent opinion poll, 15% of Berliners want the Wall back.

I've often said that, in light of what's happening to some areas, parts of the city that we know and love, maybe it would be a good idea to build a new wall, but this time around the entire city, not just through the middle, and make it out of dogshit. It'll keep the investors out for a few years.

- That wall is already well in progress in Neukölln and Friedrichshain.

It is, yeah, it's just not distributed in the right place in the city."

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

African Dancehall and Hip Hop Minimix

Keep warm in the approaching winter, cure colds, flu, toothache etc., with this bumping and grinding 30-minute minimix of African hip hop and dancehall. It features Nouakchott's 994 Crew (whom I've previously written about here), Pee Froiss (Senegal), African China (Nigeria), Pupa Bajah da Lyrical Bomber (Sierra Leone), Smod and the Zotto Boyz (both from Mali). The tracks are taken from a miscellaneous bunch of CDs and tapes, mostly purchased in Bamako, Nouakchott or in the African Union Headquarters in Neukölln, Berlin. Apart from the sites linked here, those interested should also check out futureafreeka and africanhiphop. Two small nuggets of information: Smod's next album is apparently being produced by Manu Chao. And I'm pleased to note that 'Our Government Bad' references my favourite Fela tune, Shuffering and Shmiling: '49 sitting 99 standing...'

994 Crew feat. Pee Froiss : Diogg Jengou [Art de la RIM]
Pee Froiss : Million [Konkerants]
African China : Men Wey Sabi [Crisis]
African China : Our Government Bad [Crisis]
Pupa Bajah : Raw War [Half Man Half Amazing]
Pee Froiss : High [Konkerants]
Smod : Racisme [Dunia Kuntala]
Zotto Boyz : I Sigi [Keledabila]

(Thanks to Amadou, Xuman, Robin Bah.)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

RAW dub style

Sooner rather than later, the stray dub fan in Berlin encounters the RAW.tempel. RAW stands for Reichsbahnausbesserungswerk – a defunct factory complex in Friedrichshain, used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for maintenance of trains. In 1998 the site was taken over by a project group who started to use it for artistic and musical events: it now houses several venues of different sizes, and hosts numerous workshops and activities – political, ecological and social as well as artistic. There’s also a climbing wall and a skate park. Prominent on the site is the RAW.tempel, which over the last decade has secured a reputation as one of the centres of gravity of the Berlin dub scene. Berlin’s a long way from London and accordingly the dub scene has a different history and a different focus. In late May 2009 I met up with one of the RAW crew, Raimund Reintjes, to ask him for his perspective on dub in Berlin. We talked about the history of the RAW.tempel, the evolution of dub in Berlin and the ever-present threat of gentrification, along with the influence of the netlabel scene and the ‘third wave of dubby ideas’ which has the city locked right now. But it all begins with psychedelic trance ...

"In the mid-90s dub was a big thing in Berlin, not in comparison with the techno scene of course, but there were regular dub events in lots and lots of venues. Towards the end of this movement, at the end of the 90s and early 00s, the psychedelic trance scene gathered at RAW.tempel. At this time psychedelic trance and dub were quite closely related, because dub was nice for the chill out area, along with the chai shops and everything. That was the first connection between RAW.tempel and dub. The psychedelic trance scene then moved away but the dub scene stayed, and it's really established itself there.

- So what kind of dub are we talking about here?

When we're talking about the mid-90s, most of the dub played here was UK style: Adrian Sherwood’s On-U sound, African Headcharge, Dub Syndicate, Audio Active, along with Dreadzone, Rockers Hi Fi, the Disciples, Zion Train and the Universal Egg crew - this is what I mean when I say UK sound. They were much more present than Jamaican dub, which had been ruling the scene for the previous 20 years but was not really recognized in Berlin. There was a time for reggae, the late 70s and early 80s, it was really big, but that was Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and there wasn't so much talk about King Tubby, Lee Perry, Sly and Robbie or King Jammy. Then the techno thing started, and it influenced dub production. So with new technology and fresh ideas from electronic music they formed this 90s electronic dub, which was mainly done in Britain. So the dub and reggae idea came up again but in a new 'coat', let's say. And this second generation of dub got quite popular in Berlin and some other German cities. A guy called Deeroy [proprieter of the celebrated Deeroy’s Dub Store on Pappelallee, now closed] organized the Dub Cruiser, and together with a guy called Lujah he opened the legendary Dub Club. Then the scene died down again, at the end of the 90s, and now it's coming up again mainly in the form of dubstep and dubtech. It gets fresh ideas again, it's kind of the third wave of dubby ideas.

- Do you find that the same people who listen to 90s dub listen to dubstep?

Yes, it goes quite well together. If you see what's going on in RAW.tempel, there's the Dub Wohnzimmer every week on Wednesdays, and for years they've been doing nothing other than UK dub, sound system dub, with some Jamaican roots, and now they're also heavily involved in dubstep. But many organizers or places where they do dubstep also come from the drum'n'bass side. It doesn't really matter which side you're discovering it from. What I'm expecting and hoping and really like is the idea that people are discovering dub because they have discovered dubstep.

- You said to me a while ago that you were really interested in European dub rather than UK dub right now.

It's a personal thing of mine, in the 90s I was listening to so much UK dub, I know it for some fifteen years already, and I’m always hunting after fresh ideas. And what I've found is that there's a large, growing scene in Europe, especially France, which has a completely different cultural input into their dub community, because they're not so related to the English speaking part of the world and they have a lot of immigrants from North Africa and Arabian countries. They often have a combination of a lot of different musical influences, so it's sometimes really hard to explain to anyone why I would call it dub, because if you're not into the subject you don't hear that there's a dub idea inside. So French dub has this drum’n’bass aspect, Arabian sounds, rai, hip hop, breakbeat, a nice unique mixture of different styles, open to a lot of things. This is what I really like, this is vital.

- Can you give us some idea of who you’re thinking about here, which artists?

Kaly Live Dub, Le Peuple De l'Herbe, Zenzile – though they’ve seemed to shift away from dub now. And above all Hi Tone and Brain Damage from the Jarring Effects label. It’s one of the most creative labels I know, where genre borders don't exist, a very fusion-orientated label. They get musicians from a lot of styles, a lot of countries, a lot of musical backgrounds, put them together and form new projects, but the dub idea is still linking everything or nearly everything. 60-70% of the output of that label is related to dub in any case. Led Piperz is a fantastic dubstep project also from France, and you have Fedayi Pacha. Led Piperz performed at the Jarring Effects night in Maria and I wanted to go home because it was early in the morning and I was kind of through with the day, but Vincent, the label manager, forced me to stay to see them: 'They do some dubstep, but it's not only dubstep ... if you've seen Benga and Skream already, forget about them, it's much better...' Well, I'd seen Benga and Skream at the beginning of the year at Club Transmediale, and was really impressed by their performance, so if someone's telling me that there's a dubstep project which is even more powerful than Benga and Skream I won’t miss it. So I stayed. And I really did not regret it. It was absolutely amazing!

Dubstep is really popular now and it's really pushing things in an interesting new direction. But there’s also the releases from the netlabel scene, the combination between electronic music and dub. All the techdub and dubtech, which is becoming more and more popular, I think it's a child of this netaudio idea, because I never heard something like this before and I discovered a lot of stuff on small labels who are releasing mp3s for free. There's a lot of labels in Europe now specializing in techdub, which also gives the development of dub a fresh and interesting direction.

- Again, give us a few representative names.

Ok, Deepindub, an Italian netlabel run by a guy called Maurizio Micelli. Qunabu, a Polish label run by Piotr Kaliński. Then we have the German spearhead Jahtari, for chip-tunes reggae, 8 bit dub. Disrupt, Jan Gleichmar, who is the founder of the label, has really done a lot of good networking, he's come around, spread the idea and people really like his kind of music. The label also promotes this Bo Marley thing, a Danish performance group with mobile soundsystem and some freaks in incredible outfits. The singer speaks German and the rest of the band take it as funny voice samples. So this is a funny dub project who don't take things too seriously, they sing about meat, for example, an anti-vegetarian song, but with a twinkle in the eye. When you follow the words, the beginning of the sentence is different to what they're telling you at the end, they mix things up, make mistakes, do illogical things. There’s some quite Dadaistic aspects in their music and performances. I like this because they play with everything, they make music which makes you smile. And Marko Fürstenberg, for example, from Leipzig, the same town as Jahtari, he's done a lot of excellent releases in the past years. Volphoniq from France is a big name in the netlabel community, great performers, and also in France there’s Fresh Poulp Records. In Germany Stadtgrün from Cologne have put out a lot of decent techdub. And then there’s Ornaments, a vinyl label who are re-releasing some netlabel dubs or new stuff from netlabel dub artists.

- When you say techdub, do you mean stuff influenced by Rhythm and Sound, Basic Channel, stuff like that?

Yes, but it goes further than that, it's much more related to the minimal techno sound. Techdub or dubtech, you can have hard techno beats with a dubby tune running through it, so you have this relaxed atmosphere inside a really hard beat. Also you can have a dub tune which is so minimal that it is really reduced to the very basic elements, so you can hardly call it dub any more. It's not this loungey deep house dub thing, it's really a dancefloor filler.

- Is it particularly a Berlin-associated phenomenon or not really?

It's a niche, it's not a big wave rolling through the streets which everyone's excited about, but there's a small community who really like it. So for example last weekend there was the Thinner label night in the Arena Club, and they had an exclusively techdub lineup: Das Kraftfuttermischwerk from Potsdam, Marko Fürstenberg, Gabriel Le Mar who was a big name at the end of the 90s in the psychedelic trance scene. The night was completely done by techdub artists. These kind of events don't happen very often. But three years ago no one would have been attending. So they're creating something which is strong and getting stronger hopefully.

- Back to RAW.tempel: it seems the RAW.tempel is more directed towards dub, while Yaam is more reggae and dancehall. Is this a deliberate policy?

No, it developed a bit like this but Yaam is now doing more dub things also. The dub festival [3-5 Sept. 2009] will take place at Yaam. There's a small amount of people who organize these kind of events, and a small amount of venues where you can organize them: Yaam is bigger than RAW.tempel, you can fit more people in, you have the possibility to do a second floor, outside things even, so it's much more suitable for festivals. I'll probably go as a visitor, it’s relaxing to enjoy two or three days of heavy dub music without any pressure. So really I'm fine with this.

On the other hand, RAW.tempel was really supporting dub in the darkest days, at the beginning of this decade, when no one was playing any dub at all, and dub was a lost idea from somewhere in the past. Dancehall grew stronger and all the venues jumped on the dancehall idea. But we did dub, dub, dub, and no dancehall, and only a little reggae. And now with the growth of dubstep and the return of dub into the clubs, techdub, we're benefiting from the fact that we've been doing dub for all these years without looking at whether anyone else is doing it, or if we are cool or hip. There was a small dub community who were able to do their thing, and now this small dub community has become a bigger dub community. We do concerts, we have the weekly Dub Wohnzimmer, a lot of people are involved and some of them also do the Dubstation at the Fusion Festival. We've also started doing dubstep events with a series called Interzone. Not at RAW.tempel, but as a kind of spin-off, there was an attempt to relaunch the Dub Club, in the spirit of the original venue from the 90s. Eventually this didn’t happen but some other projects appeared like the Dub Pub, which is done by a lot of people also involved in RAW.tempel. Then there's the Dub Camp at Rieben in June, a festival outside Berlin, which is also a spin-off of all the city's dub activities. And there’s dub in summer beer gardens and illegal open-air things in parks. So it's a good time to enjoy dub in Berlin these days.

- It seems that this is a time of a lot of change for Berlin, in terms of structures, venues, gentrification, the Mediaspree project ... is RAW.tempel affected by these currents?

On the one hand I have to disagree: the situation since the teardown of the Wall has been constant change, this city is always changing. There were massive changes in the 90s, when Berlin became capital of the reunited Germany, when they started to heal the wounds of the partition. So I wouldn't say that this is a time of specific change, it's been the same before: venues opening for a few months, closing, opening again on a different site, a new name, illegal, semi legal, vanishing again ... Berlin's been like this for 20 years. But on the other hand you're right. Development in the inner city districts, like Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, was the topic of the first 10-15 years after reunification, but now change is more or less over in these areas because they're settled in a certain way. But the things you were mentioning, Mediaspree, this is the third and maybe last big field of inner city empty space where you can really form attractive places, whatever attractive means, and whoever you want to attract ... Mediaspree is a huge area, with major pressure from money, investors, big companies, global players. Of course RAW.tempel is affected by this, though not so heavily as all the alternative projects situated directly in the Mediaspree area: Yaam, Bar25, Maria and the others which are going to close to make way for towers and office blocks.

I hope Mediaspree is the last really big mistake in Berlin, because the politicians should recognize that they've been going too far by allowing nearly everyone to buy out the right and left side of the Spree. They’ve got rid of an area which is so valuable in so many different ways, like recreation, alternative culture, the feeling that Berlin is not just a big city but also a very lively space for many different cultures and peoples and attitudes. So what they are doing is monostructuring all the Spree with office buildings and this kind of stuff, and pushing alternative projects, which have been there for ten years, out of the area. This is what we mean by gentrification: people who with creative energy and power get into a space, create something interesting, and are then thrown out on account of money, because they’ve been making the space interesting.

This kind of thing is affecting RAW.tempel, because what's actually happening is that the whole area – we're talking about an area larger than 80 football fields – has been bought by a company whose only interest is making money out of land speculation. They don't want to develop anything, they don't want to create city spaces, do something where you can discuss if it's good or bad, they just want to push the price of the land up and get money out of the fact that they own it. So in this case they bought the site for 4 million euros two years ago and they might sell it for between 11 and 20 million next year. So they triple or quadruple the money they invested. Of course 4 million is not a price which reflects real monetary value, it reflects a lot of circumstances and aspects which you have to keep in mind: you have to spend a lot of money just to get rid of great parts of the rotten old structures, get rid of the chemicals in the ground, build an infrastructure so that you are able to develop something. So you will have a lot of cost just to get the thing in shape.

The investors want us to be a project who they can throw out at any time, where they dictate the framework of what we can do and how we have to do it. We were the first who developed anything on this empty space, attracting people to come and see what they can do with it, so there's no way that anyone is going to tell us what we can do there and what not. So we're arguing this, and we're also arguing that the whole area should not be developed just for maximum profit, but instead they should keep in mind the needs of the people who live in the area around, who don't have any playgrounds, or any green, open space just to be in. Because we say this, and we mean what we say, we’re not just trying to get a better position in negotiations, it's difficult for the investors to deal with us. And this is why they'd like us to go. But I don't think they will manage this. There's a strong political will to keep RAW.tempel, because with the public voting about Mediaspree, political parties and responsible authorities have realized that people really don’t like things going on like this without anyone having a brake in their hand. So I don't think politicians will make the same mistakes in the RAW area as they did with Mediaspree, but of course it will not be heaven on earth. An investor wants to earn money, and he wants to develop the thing, so there have to be compromises in some or many fields. But that does also mean that there has to be space for alternative cultures, recreation space for the neighbourhood, away from the cars, the pollution and all the velocity of the city."

(Since this interview took place, RAW.tempel appears to have been the victim of a campaign of harassment, suffering several arson attacks of unknown motivation. Nonetheless, some signs are appearing that its future may be secured, on a legal basis, for another decade.)

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Sofrito and the Antilles

On an almost tropical May evening in Hackney, Musik Line met Hugo Mendez and asked him about his involvement with promoting the music of the French Caribbean islands: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica and associated places. Along with the other members of the Sofrito crew – Frankie Francis, Mighty Crime Minister and MC Kwasi – Hugo has been responsible for putting on some of London’s more kicking parties of recent years, rocking east-side warehouses (as well as more overground venues such as Cargo) with rarely heard highlife, calypso, gwo ka and cadence records, as well as releasing some tasty re-edits. He is currently working on a compilation of French Caribbean music, to be released later this year on the respected Soundway label. It’s a part of the world that isn’t that well known in non-francophone countries, so I asked him to tell us a bit about its musical context and styles: about forms such as compas, gwo ka and bele, which flourish alongside more well known rhythms like calypso and beguine. I also asked him about Sofrito, their parties, their releases and his project with Soundway.

- Start by telling me a bit about Sofrito, as a label and as promoters.

We're not trying to make it a world music listening thing, it's meant to be more a club / party thing. We think that the music is brilliant to dance to and it creates an atmosphere in a club unlike any other music. So even if it's quite cheesy, if you play a great old calypso record, people who have never heard that music or anything like it before can immediately identify with it and dance to it. Whereas if you get involved with the old music scenes, the rare music scenes like funk or soul or jazz, it tends to disappear up its own arsehole. People are trying to out-rare each other.

- Same in reggae!

Well at least the thing with reggae is it's all got big bass, it's fat ... but this stuff, it's irrelevant whether you know it or not, we're not trying to make it obscure, we're trying to make it accessible by playing really fun music. A lot of the musicians that have played at our parties, who are in bands that play funk or jazz or afro stuff, they're also into awkward, weird music – not to denigrate it, but they love Sun Ra, odd music - stuff not naturally intended for dancing. The point of the parties is to play stuff that's happy, it's not deep, introspective, weird, it's music to make you smile and dance and if it doesn't do that we don't play it. We might have a few records that are may be rare or interesting in some way but if you can't dance to them it's irrelevant. Luckily we've never had a trainspotty crowd come down to our nights and it's always been a good percentage of women to men. Something like dubstep, which is interesting, very well produced, my experience of going to a dubstep night is it's 95% geezers, stoned, in caps, staring at the DJ and not dancing. The music might be great but that's not my kind of party. I’d rather go somewhere where people are naturally smiling. Calypso, Latin, highlife, beguine, compas, it's not serious music. You can take it seriously in that you're really into it, but you can't be really serious and moody about compas because that's not the point. It's carnival music. So the atmosphere is only really made by everyone involved, not just everyone standing looking at a performance. It's a much more collective thing.

- How long have you been running parties in London for?

Only three years. The first party we did was at Passing Clouds [in Dalston], and it was too busy. The next party was at this warehouse in Whitechapel, which was far too busy, it was a bit bigger than Passing Clouds but it was very narrow. That was a wicked party. But unfortunately the people that ran that place had just started it the week before and we managed to shut them down. The party was so big that they could never do anything there again. Then we did it at the Old Boys Hall [in Dalston], we did three or four there, then again at Passing Clouds, we did one up in Stoke Newington somewhere, then the Empowering Church came along, which is really good, that's been the best venue so far. The Old Boys Hall was probably the best parties that we did but again it was too dangerous, too many people, there's only one exit.

- You generally have some live stuff as well as DJs.

We did put together a band, the Sofrito All Stars, for a while, which was great. We had some of the guys from Heliocentrics and some really great horn players and a guy called Alfred Bannerman, a Ghanaian guitarist who used to be in a band called Boombaya in the 70s, then in Osibisa. But it was too difficult to have a ten piece band. All of them had more financially viable things to be doing and it was very difficult to hold together a band like that for the odd gig. We did a few gigs with them and it was great, we'd love to do something again in the future. We did a kind of Latin thing with some of the same guys and some different people last year which went really well too. It's just a question of getting time to rehearse.

- The parties came before the releases?

The label was our effort to get people who were more into their house or dance music to listen to something slightly different. The releases are more on the kind of dance / disco tip. We cut an edit of the first track we did, using it as a dubplate to play out, and percussionists or horn players would play over the top. And then we cut a version of that. We took loops, built it up from the bottom again. The other track on the first 12” is a more recent thing, from Ivory Coast, that's an edit as well, a kind of mystery track. So far there's the two 12s, a remix for Far Out Records which is a Brazilian thing by Sabrina Malheiros, more straight forward and dancey, and then we've done a remix for the Akoya Afrobeat Band from New York, which is coming out soon. They gave us the whole session on DVD, about twelve hours of music for one song. We did a highlife version, got some people to play extra bits and completely changed the rhythm around, trying to take people away from the idea that African music is just Afrobeat. Afrobeat is amazing but actually for me, on the dancefloor, it's not the best African music. Highlife is as interesting, rumba is as interesting, there's a lot of music from Africa that is as interesting as Afrobeat, so we were trying to take it and give it a bit more of a bump. Ideally we’d like to be putting out new music. One of the reasons we wanted to start the label was simply to put out the kind of records that you might play in Cargo rather than a warehouse party, a bit more commercial. That seems to work because people pick up on the fact that it’s not big or clever, it’s something you can play out which has got a slightly different style. It’s the kind of thing you can stick in your bag and play.

- How many copies of the Sofrito 12”s do you press?

It varies. We don't expect to sell many, maybe 500, but we did three times that for the last 12”, and the next one, from the reactions that we've got from people that have heard it, should certainly do quite well. It's got to cross over from people who like African or Latin music to people who like house or disco, otherwise you won’t sell it. You've got to sit a very fine balance. The reason the last one went so well was that there was an edit of a Caribbean cover version of a jazz fusion track by Ralph MacDonald on it. All the jazz heads recognized the tune and bought it for that. That's something that's difficult to repeat. The next one is going to be a Caribbean / African disco thing and a really raw highlife thing, which is more what we play. Hopefully people will be more into the highlife stuff than the disco stuff at some point. Some of the African disco stuff is cool, but I guess for me what I like most is Latin and Caribbean music, calypso, beguine, Haitian stuff.

- Do you find it hard to get?

As long as you're not buying it in England it is – or was – pretty easy to get. No one valued it. Especially in France, people were still turning up shitloads of that stuff for nothing. If it hasn't got a funk track on it then no one wants it. You can go into a shop after someone that's looking for funk and they'll leave all the good stuff and take very second-rate funk records for a lot of money. Then you can go in and buy two-euro records that are great. Listening to bits and bobs on CDs, then going there and finding loads of stuff, meeting loads of people, developing your taste, you find out what you do and don't like. And then learning more about Latin music and understanding the huge exchange between the rhythms and all the different islands and countries. There are such similarities between music from the north coast of Colombia, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, it was just flying around. Change one bar of the rhythm and you've got a different style. People were covering each other’s records, and the bands were touring all around, on cruise ships. one of the most important bands in Guadeloupe and Martinique in the '60s was probably Ryco Jazz, a Congolese band. They moved to Paris in the mid-60s and then they were booked by a Congolese guy in Martinique to do a season there and ended up staying for five years. They went to Guadeloupe, did the cruise ships, and they brought Congolese rumba, which was already being sold in the French Caribbean but they caned it, they mixed it, a lot of the players in the band by then were Antillean percussionists and that's how that particular sound came about.

- Where have your own travels in that part of the world taken you?

I've been around a few islands but the main ones are Dominica, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Dominica's kind of different. It was French, then it was English, then it was French, then it was English again. Now it's wholly independent, it's not subsidized by anyone. The biggest investors are Venezuela, Cuba and China, so it doesn't have a whole lot to do with Europe. Guadeloupe and Martinique are obviously still part of France, colonies. There’s a huge amount of problems, and with the riots that were going on earlier this year there's some really heavy stuff going down. There's a fair amount of innate racism and most of the money is held by white old plantation families, Békés. The islands are very different in character. Guadeloupe is more rural, Martinique is more metropolitan. Martinique's a bit richer. But they're very cut off, the only airlines that really fly there are Air France or Corsair, although American Airlines flies once a week. For some reason the French don't encourage foreigners to go there, they keep it in the family. They're pretty neglected places. Compared to a lot of other Caribbean islands they're quite well off but they're more expensive than going to Paris, everything is imported. An average Guadeloupean will make ten times what someone from Dominica will make, but they're poorer because it costs so much money to do anything. The bureaucracy on the islands is stunning. If you're trying to do any work, license any music or anything like that, it's a mixture of French bureaucracy and Caribbean timekeeping, which is a stunning combination. But I've met some wonderful people in Guadeloupe, alongside some very awkward people. The first thing they ask you is "are you French?", and when you say no they're a lot nicer to you.

- So you were out there digging for tunes and looking for stuff to license for the forthcoming Soundway comp?

The first time I went there it was more just exploring, to see how the land lies. I had a few contacts but because they're small places if you go and ask one person, they'll know someone else and so on. I made most of my contacts the first time, interviewed a few people, tracked down a few people, found a bunch of tunes, came back and then a year later got it together to go over and license the tracks. The first time I went it was very vague. The second time I had a much better idea, I more or less had a track listing. I hoped I'd find loads of new stuff but I had a track listing and I think about half of the tracks I went out there with are still on the comp and the other half have been replaced by things I found out there the second time. It's going to be interesting to see what people think of the album because although it's similar to a lot of other things, it doesn't tick the funk box, it doesn't tick the Afrobeat box, it's not hip for the people that like psychy African music, it's not hip for the funky people. But it's great music and certainly through DJing now it's the stuff that gets the best reaction.

- So what sort of genres are we talking about?

It's early, we're doing 65 to 72-3, so it's before zouk. It's kind of "roots of zouk" I suppose, but there's some Latin stuff. The Latin stuff has got a particular flavour, it's quite shrill in the horns but it's a really interesting way they treat the rhythm. It's got some heavily Haitian-influenced stuff, it's got beguine, which is the standard style from Martinique and Guadeloupe. It's got some calypso, some raw gwo ka, Guadeloupean drumming, and bele in Martinique which is similar thing, a set dance which is really powerful. Going to see a bele in Martinique was an astounding experience. So it's got some of that. A few Latin things, raw, quite jazzy, a couple of merengues. Merengue comes from Dominican Republic and Haiti but it was picked up massively in Angola as well and a lot of the stuff sounds Angolan, which is practically nothing to do with the French Caribbean, so it’s interesting to see how the rhythms go around. Merengue from Dominican Republic is faster and harder, Haitian meringue tends to be a bit slower, a little jazzier. The merengue now from Dominican Republic sounds like rave music, 180 bpm stuff, much more four-four, much more African. That was big back then as well but it was much more mellow. Then there’s compas, a lot of early compas-style stuff.

- I'm never quite clear what compas is rhythmically.

The best way I describe compas is ragga, "boom ba-doom, boom ba-doom", it's that beat with a slightly different twist on it, it's that bounce, that bump. It's easier to hear in the later stuff. Earlier on it's more complex, big band stuff. That beat is obviously also in Jamaica, but in a sense it doesn't have that much to do with reggae, it's a different rhythm, it's come from the whole Caribbean I guess, in the same way that zouk is a mixture of many different things.

- What's the comp called?

Tumbele. It’s a rhythm, the rhythm that Ryco Jazz gave their name to, a slow bouncy semi-Haitian semi-Congolese rhythm. We put one track Haitian track on the album, although it was recorded in Martinique. We put it on because Haitian bands were touring all the time and they were influencing the music, so it's important to have a track from a Haitian act that recorded there. But a lot of the Haitian stuff that was recorded in Martinique is really badly recorded, it's very interesting music but sometimes difficult to listen to because it's got no bass and it's really shrill, which is unfortunate because some of it's killer. The early Haitian stuff, there's a label called Ibo, and Macaya, they used to record the stuff in Haiti and press it in New York. They didn't press many copies, they might have pressed a few thousand of the early releases. I've found a few and they all tend to be knackered, but there's some amazing stuff. There’s a lot of Haitian music on 78s, really mad shit. A label called Ansonia, which I think was originally based in Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, put out loads of Haitian stuff, some of which is good, some of which isn't so good. And they were putting 78s out, a long time ago.

- Have you got any?

None of the 78s, they tend to break. The 78s I've had in my hands, the sound quality is so terrible. They're great as artifacts, but I'd rather buy the CD reissue that someone's cleaned up. You can't really use 78s for Djing. But yeah, the Haitian stuff is brilliant, and again it's a beat that's not really known over here, but when you play it people respond to it immediately. It's accessible, that's why people made it, and that's the thing with Sofrito, just trying to be really simple and play something that works.

- Is this a big eBay market now?

I wouldn't say it's a huge eBay market, there's some of it on eBay but not many people buy it. Again, the things that club/DJ people are looking for at the moment don't tend to be on those records, although there are people that are really into collecting old compas and calypso.

- So it's a good time to be buying Haitian and Antillean music?

It kind of was. It's more difficult now. But even so, when there's no sound samples, it's just stuck up on eBay ... there's a guy in Paris, he deals records, and he was playing me some really killer Guadeloupean and Haitian stuff, saying "oh, I've never found another one of these and if I did I'd sell it for this much money...". I thought, all right, well, go and look on eBay, there it is, $5, I’ll have it - that doesn't happen too often, the ebay hype is all down to how things are presented. It's good to be able to buy a few. But I've never been a mental collector, I like to have nice records of course, but I've got other things to spend my money on, I'd rather go out and have a good time. If you're collecting records and you think, "oh, this is worth 200 quid", it's only worth 200 quid if it's mint and the cover's mint, which it tends not to be, most of the time it's going to be knackered. So it's not worth 200 quid, it's worth what you paid for it, but you're happy to have it, there you go. When you start thinking about records mainly in terms of money it gets a bit dangerous because they don't really have an intrinsic value.

- Do you find when you go to Martinique and Guadeloupe that people are quite attuned to European record collectors coming over and looking for stuff?

Not really - because no one's interested in records over there, the people that would have bought records back in the day have binned them all, they've gone; and all the people that are really into their music have got the records, they don't really care what they're worth, they are never going to sell them. I've dubbed stuff off people over there. I'm more interested in having the music than the object. Of course everyone loves a cool record, but it's not the be all and end all. And people get a bit funny about records.

- Very true! And presumably for every couple of days digging you have to spend months of licensing.


- How do you do it?

Mostly luck! And they're small places, so if you have one contact, that person might know everyone you need to know. Or they might know someone that knows someone else that knows someone else.

- Do you run into the classic kind of problem that you have in Jamaica of disputes over copyright and ownership? Because in Jamaica famously it's all pretty messed up.

It's messed up pretty much everywhere. The law has changed since the music was made and people have a different understanding of copyright ownership in different countries.

- Give us some background on the general music scene on the islands.

If you go to Guadeloupe or Martinique, they’re split into communes, like small boroughs, a lot of them are pretty rural. Each commune has its own celebrities and bands and music. In Martinique they have a bele, a drumming thing, on different nights. It's not a big concert, it could be in a car park, by someone's house, outdoors somewhere - it's just something that you do. This stuff's being going on for hundreds of years, you see people going down there and they're not wearing their national dress for tourists, they turn up in their tracksuits. They've been running or they've been to a bar or something, and they come down, hang out for a little bit, dance, go away again. It's just a part of what's going on and it’s not really trumpeted.

- Is there a sound system thing going on there as well? Do people set up stacks of speakers and play cadence and stuff like that?

Yeah they do. Zouk, cadence, ragga's big, there's a lot of live bands playing over massive sound systems as well. Then in Dominica, there's a couple of clubs in Roseau [the capital of Dominica] where they will invite DJs over from Martinique or Guadeloupe and the rest of it is they'll have a jam in the village, string up a small set. They don't have sound systems in the way that Jamaica will have many different named sound systems, you just go down to Melvina's bar and someone will be playing some music. They'll play bouyon, soca, ragga, a bit of reggae, cadence. And in all the villages they'll have a little thing now and then, get a barbeque going, sell some beers, play some music. It's not big enough to have clashing sound systems although there's some really good DJs. The bands all tend to be local bouyon bands, which is a bit like soca but even faster, with no basslines and lots of air-raid sirens. It’s super jump-up music, it's pretty intense but it's fun. There's two main bands on the island, WCK and Triple K. WCK are slightly older, Triple K are the youngsters’ band. They always play at the Creole festival, it’s in a big park with a stage, everyone's jammed in there, there’s a small gate so it's all ringed off. I've seen Triple K play maybe five or six times and most of the time they play there's some kind of fight in the crowd. They hype it up a bit, it's kind of the badman thing and all that, it's not for me. It's good fun to dance to but it's pretty relentless.

- Are the DJs playing CD or vinyl?

It's all CD and it’s all ripped. CDs are expensive there, if you want to buy an official release it will cost maybe EC$60, about £20, but you can go to someone, they'll make you a compilation of what you want for EC$10. So people tend to do that. And limewire. People have got internet, they're downloading stuff all over the shop.

- But it's all 128 bit mp3s?

Yeah. Played in bars through a slightly knackered sound system that's had one too many rums poured on it. It's interesting.

- Any other thoughts you want to add?

Music from South America and the Caribbean and Africa works so well in a club, and if you don’t tell people exactly what it is – this slightly nebulous idea that you could call tropical music – people love it. I think it's kind of a collective thing. If you listen to the raw gwo ka stuff from the Caribbean, or Afro-Venezuelan stuff or some of the Brazilian stuff ... it's capturing a moment in time. It's not just a band that have written a load of songs, sat in a studio for ages, polished and polished and spent like seven years making their magnum opus. It’s more pragmatic than that. I've always thought that, without getting philosophical about it, the greatest art is craft. And this stuff is not people trying to make some crazy record or anything like that, they're just knocking it out and this is the sound of what they do, capturing moments. And it’s a great sound.

(Photos courtesy of Hugo Mendez.)

1315 Broadway, 1988

Neil Ollivierra grew up in Detroit. In the late 80s and early 90s he managed Derrick May’s Transmat label; subsequently (among many other projects in various media) he produced several classic records under the name of The Detroit Escalator Company. Musik Line asked him for his reminiscences about the early days of Detroit techno. Here’s what he said:

I was first introduced to the Detroit Techno scene in 1988, by a female friend of mine named Michelle Warner. I'd asked her what her plans were one Friday night, and she responded: "Dunno; thinking about going to the Institute..."

I didn't know what she was talking about. "You never been to The Music Institute?" she asked. No, I'd never even heard of it...

She gave me an address, 1315 Broadway, and told me to meet her there around 2:30 am, with the caveat that the place didn't really get jumping until around 3 a.m. Now the thing about Detroit, Michigan circa 1988 is that there wasn't shit going on in that city at 3 am. The place still hadn't recovered from the 1967 riots. This was before the word "loft" was even a blip on the radar. At 2 am, you could literally lie down in the middle of Gratiot Avenue and take a nap without fear of being run over by a car...

So I got the surprise of my young life when I arrived at this storefront at 2:30 am and saw a queue around the block; about a hundred young black people were trying to get into a place that held around 150-200 people. I couldn't believe it.

An interesting aspect of this crowd is that none of them were geared up for what I then understood to be a night at a club. There were no dresses, skirts, slick shoes or pampered hairdos. There were no gold chains, fancy watches, earrings, or any other such trappings hanging off anybody's asses. These people were dressed to sweat. It was all about tennis shoes, sweat pants and t-shirts.

When I finally got to the front of the line, the tall, light-skinned bouncer working the door asked if I was a "member."

"Member?" I asked him, incredulous.

"Membership. You got a membership card?"

"No, I'm afraid not..." I replied.

"S'aright. Eighteen dollars."

At this point, it was as if I'd fallen down the rabbit hole. In Detroit, Michigan, circa 1988, there were maybe 2-3 proper "clubs," and none of them charged more than $4. And if you got there on the right night, you'd get $2 drafts all night long. Where was I? What the fuck was this place?

I paid the dough and went inside.

I got searched, and immediately checked in my jacket because it was over a hundred degrees fahrenheit in that place. It was literally packed with black people. There were no chairs. There were no couches. There was no resting place of any kind, though you could make your way over to the "bar," where a couple people were selling bottled water and soda for a buck a pop, and where the dancing decelerated to something more like a shuffle.

The place was one square room with a 30-foot high ceiling, an overhanging strobe light or two, and stacks of massive custom built speaker cabinets stationed in the corners. There were, I remember, one or two gel lights, but they were rarely used; I later learned they were turned on mainly at the end of the night to indicate that it was time for everybody to get out and go home. The DJ booth was a secluded box poised high above the dancefloor, with a rectangle cut out in the front. It looked like the supervisor's booth in an assembly shop of some kind, and at one point in time years ago that may have been exactly what it was. You could barely see the outline of the DJ's head through the rectangle opening. The DJ wasn't on a stage, there weren't any lights poised on him, and nobody was really paying attention to him anyway; it was what he was generating out of the sound system that was important. I later learned that you could only get up to the DJ booth by taking a staircase at the back of the building, which was blocked off by a locked door and a firm but friendly bouncer.

The sound system was loud as fuck. You couldn't talk to anyone, even if they wanted to listen to what you had to say; you'd have to holler dead in their ears at point black range for them to hear anything at all. A few noobs like myself were hanging on the sidelines, allowing ourselves to get crammed up against the wall. Everybody else was bouncing up and down, the strobe lights making them look like they were moving in slow motion syncopated fits and starts...

You have to understand the culture of Detroit at that time to be able to appreciate the wonder of this place. Detroit at that time was a very destitute place to try to make a living. It was renowned as the murder capital of the United States around that time, and prided itself on that fact. Unemployment and poverty were high, and for this reason so was crime. The very few people who lived there were generally unhappy, and there was a lot of brutal masculine energy to the city, especially at night, in the bars and clubs. It was a bad idea to look another man in the eye; god help you if you got caught staring at his girl. And a bunch of black people crammed together in a place like this was – I can tell you as a black man born and raised there – a fucking recipe for disaster. Fights, shootings, and cold-blooded murder were common occurrences in bars and clubs of that era.

Yet here I was, in the middle of a bunch of screaming, dancing black folk, all recklessly throwing limbs and elbows this way and that, bumping and grinding into each other, some dancing together, some dancing alone, some of them (holy fuck) clearly and openly gay, some of them straight... And without the exception of a single soul, they were literally having the time of their lives. They were switching dance partners, arbitrarily it seemed, with no thought whatsoever, much less jealous rancor. When certain key and familiar songs were introduced – stealthily it seemed – by the DJ, complete strangers would meet eyes and whoop, yell, and pound each other on the shoulders before biting their bottom lips, scrunching up their brows and flinging their limbs out and around in some of the most acrobatic and contagious joy expressed in dance that I'd ever seen in my life. It was literally beyond belief. I counted only three bouncers, and they weren't trying to make their presence felt. One was working the door outside, one was working the cash box inside the entrance, and the other was casually watching the door to the DJ booth staircase and chatting up some sweat-drenched girl gulping a warm bottle of soda.

I never even saw Michelle that night. The shit went on until after 6 am, and I walked out of there utterly flabbergasted...

Neil also selected a few tracks which were, as he put it, ‘considered seminal at The Music Institute at the time’. Here they are:

Mr Fingers : Can You Feel It
Suburban Knight : The Art Of Stalking
K Alexi Shelby : My Medusa
Baby Ford : Fordtrax
Tyree : Hard Core - Hip House

"There's also this one remix of 'Welcome to the Pleasure Dome' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood: the fruitness mix. At the time, I think, it was a bootleg. It was consistently the very last song that Derrick May would play at the end of the night at the old MI. It's the track that he'd play when they turned on all the lights and told everybody to get out. It wasn't a dance mix, exactly; it was very dynamic, and had a fast tempo, but key was the fact that it had rather a thoughtful and slightly melancholic vibe to it that was perfect to cool everybody out and calm everybody down after a night of thrashing and jumping around."

The Music Institute closed in 1990; the address is now occupied by Burt's, "an upscale downtown club [which] caters to the urban night lifers". Another interesting account of it can be found here.

Empty Barrels Make the Most Noise

A lesson in sound killing from Stone Love: from the LP 'Stone Love in JA & UK' (Sir George, SGLP 009). An excerpt from a clash in the Auckland Centre, Birmingham. There's no info on the record about who Stone Love were playing against or when this took place. This clip features a brutal counteraction to their opponents' previous tune, a Banana Man piece evidently (and optimistically) entitled 'My Sound Rules the World'. Stone Love's Wee Pow denounces this play ('joke dat') and warns the opponents that 'tonight is your night man ... you bruck up pon the stumbling block with Stone Love'. Selector Rory launches into an accapella followed by a solemn instrumental cut of the 'Burial' rhythm, Wee Pow shouting 'you gone' as the bassline drops. The crowd reaction speaks for itself. Stone Love then deliver the coup de grace in the shape of the Colonel Josey Wales, who goes on to refer back to Peter Tosh's famous earlier cut of 'Burial' ('they say that dreadlocks no go a funeral ...'). It's hard to imagine a soundboy recovering from this onslaught.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Gnawa: Music and the Black Diaspora in Morocco

Many visitors to Morocco will have encountered gnawa in some form or other, usually in the central square of Marrakesh, the Djma' el Fna, or at random in other towns, or perhaps in the more official setting of the Essaouira festival (established in 1998). Perhaps they have been irritated, amused or baffled by the sudden appearance of several men dancing around them, wearing dreadlocked hats, clanging large metal castanets and asking for cash. This is the most visible manifestation of a long tradition, the less obvious aspects of which can be found in esoteric musical ceremonies, carried out behind closed doors and involving therapy through possession by various spirits. This tradition traces its origins back to black slaves imported into Morocco in the sixteenth century.

It's not really possible to summarize in a few words the nature of these ceremonies, which take place after dark and are known as lila (the Moroccan Arabic word for 'night'). Books on the subject tend to rely specifically on one or a handful of informants, and therefore provide local or specific accounts of the phenomenon without being able to cover its whole range of regional differences. It's therefore difficult, and perhaps unwise, to give a generalized abstract account of gnawa. Some statements should be uncontroversial, however. The ceremonies involve healing or therapy of individuals regarded as possessed by powerful invisible entities. These entities, referred to as mluk, are a part of Islamic tradition (although their status therein is ambiguous) and are assimilated with related concepts of djinns and saints. As in tarantella and other musical healing practices, the musicians are able (within the proper ritual framework) to work on the relationship between the possessed individual and the entity possessing him or her. The ceremony takes place under the joint guidance of a male master musician (m'allem) and a female 'medium' or 'seer' (entitled moqaddema). The musicians play a three-stringed bass lute (hajhouj), metal castanets (qarqaba) and sometimes a drum (tbel or ganga). They also sing. Anthropologists have cited connections between the songs, the mluk they relate to, colours, smells, ritual objects and so on, not to mention various more complex symbolic patterns (see, for example, V. Pâques, "Le Monde des Gnawa", in L'autre et ailleurs, ed. J. Poirier and F. Raveau, Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1976, pp.169-82).

(A hajhouj. Source:

I don't intend to comment here on the precise nature of these ceremonies (nor am I qualified to do so). Instead I offer a brief note about the culture of which they are a part, namely, the black diaspora in Morocco. The most thorough published account of this relationship can be found in Pierre-Alain Claisse's recent work Les Gnawa marocains de tradition loyaliste (Paris: Harmattan, 2003). Claisse distinguishes between four related historical movements which together are encompassed by the term 'gnawa': the influx of slaves into Morocco in the sixteenth century; black soldiers serving the Moroccan royal family in the seventeenth century; the confraternity of ritual musicians; and a modern movement among marginalized Moroccan youth.

In the sixteenth century the Moroccan empire, under the Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour (ruled 1578-1603), expanded southwards in an attempt to profit from the trade links (specifically salt and gold) of the Songhai empire in what is now Mali. Moroccan forces progressed through the Sahara and captured the important desert trading posts of Timbuktu and Gao, dismantling the Songhai empire in the process. They were unable to consolidate their success, however, and remained in control of this distant territory only briefly. One result of this expansion was the importation into Morocco of black slaves. A number of these entered royal service and by the end of the seventeenth century, under the rule of the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ishmail (1672-1727), their descendants had come to occupy the position of bodyguards to the emperor, a sort of 'praetorian guard' with considerable power of intervention in state affairs. According to Si Mohammed, a gnawa master from Casablanca who was an important source for Pierre-Alain Claisse's book, this group should be distinguished from those who were not attached to the royal family, but instead pursued relatively humble careers as artisans. The former were able to an extent to maintain their military role until independence (1956) and finally lost their position following the attempted coup against King Hassan II at Skhirat in 1971. Meanwhile the latter, in the context of increasing urbanization and modernization, began to lose their traditional role of artisans and, Claisse says, started to find employment as bouncers, parking attendants and other such jobs. This group, however, maintained their identity as musicians engaged in rites of healing and possession, in a context which was avowedly Islamic, but nonetheless susceptible to charges of heterodoxy. Gnawa is often identified with Sufism, although Sufis do not necessarily agree with this interpretation. One Sufi adept, who gave me a lift in his freezer van through the Western Sahara in 2005, was scornful of the idea that gnawa was a Sufi movement. Women dancing and men playing instruments was not true Sufism, in his opinion: instead Sufism involved a path, tariqa, of quiet contemplation.

The potentially non-Islamic side of gnawa is underlined by the story, narrated to Claisse by Si Mohammed, of a gnawa master named Ba Dergo:
"Ba Dergo, a Gnawa from the land of the blacks, had scarification on his face; he went into the royal palace with a two-stringed hajhouj. This first hajhouj of the masters of the cult of possession was made from a big tortoise shell, as found in bilad-as-sudan [West Africa]. I know that two types of people in Morocco have scarification: Berbers and Jews. Now, Ba Dergo was a Jew. He was a Jew, a black Jew, because on his face he had, not tattoos, but scratches, incisions! What's so surprising about it? Since the Exodus, the Jews are to be found in every country on earth, including the bilad-as-sudan." (p.30)
On the other hand, as another scholar, Abdelhafid Chlyeh, points out, the gnawi would not themselves tolerate any assertion that they do not have complete adherence to Islam (Les Gnaoua du Maroc, Morocco: La Pensée sauvage, 1999, p.15). Overall, the spiritual entities whom they invoke appear to draw on a mixture of traditions from sub-Saharan, mainstream and Moroccan Islam and pre-Islamic Berber beliefs.

(Painting by Louis Endres. Source: P. Thornton, The Voice of Atlas, London 1936, p.94.)

Not all the descendants of black slaves are part of the confraternity of gnawa musicians, and not all gnawa musicians are black, many being of mixed heritage, Arab or Berber. The confraternity itself can be divided along various lines, geographically or in terms of practice, but generally all its adherents recognize as their ancestor Sidi Bilal, an Ethiopian, early convert to Islam, companion and muezzin (caller to prayer) of the Prophet Mohammed.

Since the 1960s, a subsidiary movement of 'gnawi' has gathered momentum, represented largely by disadvantaged youth who attach themselves to the idea of gnawa without necessarily having the expertise that the confraternity of masters have. To some extent, Claisse points out, this new wave, whom he refers to as 'gnawi sauvages', compete with the established masters in their ceremonial practice. They are viewed, however, as parasitical, and as potentially dangerous, in that through their less than complete understanding of the power of their music they can provoke trances which they are unable properly to control. The growth of this movement was to an extent promoted by the interest in 'folklore' shown by the Culture and Tourism ministries: tourists at hotels in Marrakesh and elsewhere are routinely entertained by groups of 'gnawi sauvages', who are not linked to the established confraternity of masters, whose work remains essentially underground, although they do on occasion perform in more public contexts (in which mluk are not invoked).

In the 1980s Morocco, like much of the rest of the world, was turned on to the sound of reggae (typically Bob Marley).
Young gnawa musicians rapidly came to identify themselves with these black singers, descended from Caribbean slaves, whom they perceived, via the media, as their trans-Atlantic homologues. "We represent the reggae movement in Morocco," they are fond of saying.
Claisse notes that he attended a 'very serious' ceremony, at the end of which, to his surprise, the musicians, with the agreement of their master, performed a sort of Bob Marley tribute in Marrakeshi gnawa style (pp.60-1). In this sense the music of the black diaspora can be said to have completed a circular journey, setting out in opposite directions from sub-Saharan Africa, and meeting once again in Morocco at the end of the twentieth century. It should be pointed out that there are also recent connections between gnawa and jazz, specifically in the work of the Tangier-based gnawa master Abdullah el Gourd and his recordings and live performances with pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Archie Shepp.

(Those interested in this subject should also check out the recent article by Chouki el Hamel, 'Constructing a Diasporic Identity: Tracing the Origins of the Gnawa Spiritual Group in Morocco', Journal of African History, 49 (2008), pp.241-60. Since writing this article I have also obtained a copy of the most comprehensive treatment of gnawa in English, Deborah Kapchan's Traveling Spirit Masters, Middletown CT, 2007, which I highly recommend for a more in-depth account. A set of CDs containing an example of a complete performance cycle was released by the scholar Antonio Baldassarre: see the review by Philip Schuyler.)

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Play the Music Stand Tall Man!

Part 1:

Part 2:

This was the first ever sound system session I attended. It was in a youth club or sports hall (the Salle ALJT), down at the end of the metro line in Chatillon Montrouge, in the south suburbs of Paris. It was 31 Dec. 1993; I had missed my rendez-vous with a friend and was alone. The hall was full of smoke and gyrating bodies. I had never heard music like that before and had no idea how it all fitted together: the records, the mic men, the selector, the operator, the guy with the keyboard doing samples and fx all seemed to combine mysteriously into something extraordinary.

Anyway, as luck would have it I picked up a tape of the session a couple of months later at Blue Moon, the now defunct reggae record shop just off Boulevard St Michel. So here it is: a wicked juggling selection played by one of France's premier dancehall sounds. Being New Year's Eve, it opens with the sound of bells (Big Ben, I do believe) before busting into Beres Hammond's 'Fire'. After that it's pure classics (although at the time they were mainly brand new and fresh).

Stand Tall's selector was Polino: among the mic men were Daddy Nuttea, Daddy Mory, Moodirow and MC Janick. Nuttea went on to release an excellent mini LP, entitled simply Volume 1, and also collaborated with the Marseille hip hop crew IAM ('La 25eme image' among others). Mory was part of the celebrated Raggasonic along with Big Red and Frenchie (who now runs the excellent UK dancehall label Maximum Sound). Janick can be found on an interesting early comp of French hip hop and dancehall, 'Les Cool Sessions', produced by Jimmy Jay, MC Solaar's DJ, which came out around the same time as this session.

Stand Tall myspace

Saturday, 11 April 2009


‘Beside the Adriatic sea, near Taranto, are found certain small animals, called tarantulas, which have perhaps taken their name from the place. ... Others call them spiders: but they are very different, since they are almost black in colour, and have only three feet on either side, and the male is not distinguished from the female... . Tarantulas bite more in summer, because their poison is then more intense; in the winter they withdraw into holes in the earth, lest their heat be extinguished by the cold weather. In summer they have a greater opportunity for biting, when the peasants are carrying the crops which they gather. Their bites or pricks have widely differing effects: some people sing, some dance, some sleep, some get palpitations, and of one peasant, it was said that after being bitten he evermore wanted to give orders and be in charge. Their poison is very earthy and torrid. From a bite or a prick, a small portion of it can penetrate the surface of the skin, where the motive and sensitive nerves are, although their teeth are too small to go as deep as the veins; and then the poison is carried through the nerves (or a branch of them) to the brain. There, because of its earthiness, it sits, and binds the thoughts which relate to the parts of the body which give rise to motion or sensitivity. It also affects the imagination and memory: for the thoughts are bound by fetters of poison, and the memory is compelled to continue in the form in which it was.’

Thus was the tarantula, and the phenomenon of tarantism, conceived in the sixteenth century, in this case by Ferdinando Ponzetti (1444-1527), author of the Libellus de venenis (‘On poisons’, 1521). He prescribed a cure of ten grains of mastic, taken with milk, the watery, loosening and warming effect of which would counteract the sludgy nature of the poison. And he also noted in passing that ‘sufferers are sometimes cured by dancing: because it dissipates the poison, or expels it in sweat.’

In later works, this connection between the tarantula, its victim, and music became more and more prominent. While a number of Renaissance scholars contributed to this trend, the central role belongs to Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), ‘the last man who knew everything’ as a recent work entitled him. Kircher was a prodigious polymath who composed vast tomes on many subjects, including Egyptology and hieroglyphs, the construction of Noah’s Ark, subterranean tunnels and volcanoes, and acoustics. Kircher regarded tarantism as a sort of magnetism; at this time, magnetism was much in vogue, and Kircher argued that everything – the action of the stars and planets, plants, even love – was due to different types of magnetism. The tarantula had its own magnetism, which manifested itself in a wondrous sympathy with music; music, therefore, was the only effective cure for tarantula poisoning. Kircher’s account of this sympathy was to become classic, and was repeated by a number of writers in the seventeenth century. Soon after its composition it was translated into English by Walter Charleton and included in his Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana (1654).

Kircher described how musical instruments caused movements in the air, which entered the head through the ear, and passed into the spiritus (a substance mediating between the soul and the body). The spiritus conveyed these harmonic movements to the muscles; in the muscles, the movements encountered the lurking poison and made it start to itch, which made the body twitch and jump and eventually break out into a dance. This in turn created heat, which relaxed the body and opened the pores, out of which the poison evaporated.

The practicalities of the cure, however, were rather more complex than this idealized theoretical sketch. In the first place the sort of music to which the victim would respond depended on his or her complexion and temperament. Some people were sluggish and melancholic, and would respond only to loud banging or noisy instruments, and not to strings; for others, strings were quite sufficient. The cure could be disturbing for all concerned, including the neighbours: ‘a certain Girl of Tarentum, being there bitten by a Tarantula, and affected with the stupendious symptome of Tarantism, could never be excited to dance by any sounds, but those of Guns, Alarms beaten upon Drums, Charges and Triumphs sounded in Trumpets, and other military musick.’ For others, however, the ‘Harmony of Lutes, Vials, Virginals, Guitarrs, Tiorbas, and other stringed Instruments’ was sufficient (Charleton, Physiologia, p.369).

(Page from Charleton's Physiologia. Source: EEBO.)

In the second place – and this, for Kircher and indeed for most seventeenth-century writers who discussed the matter, was cause for great astonishment – just as the music evoked a sympathetic reaction in the human victim, so it did in the tarantula; and just as the human victim danced in response to a certain type of music, so too did the tarantula. Kircher relates an account of an experiment, in which a tarantula was placed on a stalk floating in water, and a lute player summoned. The playing of the lute initially had no effect, until it hit upon the particular sound which was appropriate to that particular tarantula, at which point the creature began to wave its legs and shudder its body in time to the music, only stopping when the music stopped. Thus it is also recounted that in Taranto, when musicians are called to attend a tarantula bite scene, they first ask the victim where the event occurred, and what colour tarantula it was. They then go to the indicated place, catch a tarantula of the sort described by the patient, and ‘instantly fall to their instruments, and play over whole sets of Lessons one after another’ until it starts dancing. At this point they can return home, safe in the knowledge of how to treat the patient, a task in which they ‘seldom or never fail’ (Charleton, p.370).

This account, synthesized by Kircher and popularized by those who followed him, remained standard throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century. As Thomas Willis puts it, in his Essay of the Pathology of the Brain (1681):

‘Truly, musick doth easily carry men sound and sober, whether they will or no, or thinking of another thing, into actions answerable to the sound of the harmony; that presently the standers by, at the first striking up of the fiddle, begin to move their hands and feet, and can scarce, nay are not able to contain themselves from dancing: Let none therefore wonder, that in men bitten by the Tarantula, when the animal spirits being moved, as it were with goads, they are compelled to leap forth, and wander about hither and thither willingly, if they are excited to dancing and composed measures, at the stroke of an harp, so that as in these distempers, the spirit of the music, as it were inchanting the outrageous spirits, and in some measure governing, and changing their convulsive motions, serves instead of an antidote: for that the animal spirits, being very much, and for a long while exercised, after this manner, wholly shake off the Elastic Copula, contracted by the poyson, or otherwise; and they being very much wearied, at length rest from that madness, or its incitation.’

(The classic modern work on tarantism, which also contains a good account of medieval and Renaissance discussions, is Ernesto De Martino's The Land of Remorse:A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism, originally published in Italian in 1961 and now available in an English tr. by D. L. Zinn, London: Free Association, 2005. See also G. Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others, University of Chicago Press 1993.)

Shaka in Africa

Jah Shaka Sound System, from a 1989 session in Ashwin St, Dalston, London. Shaka runs a Gregory Isaacs tune on the Promised Land riddim ('I do love you'), then plays the version, giving the following account of his recent trip to Ghana and a history lesson about the repatriation movement, before dropping a thunderous bassline.

"Take a trip the other day
to visit my brethren inna Ghana...

My brethren, my brethren, greetings from Ghana
greetings from Accra, Ghana, y’know
been on the radio been on the TV
been on the radio been on the TV
they wanted to know about His Imperial Majesty
and a reporter said to I
you are a Jamaican
what is the connection with you and the Ethiopian Haile Selassie?
I said to him, is a long story
but I will cut it short
in 1930
the Kings of Kings was born
and we have a prophet by the name of Marcus Garvey
that told the people in Jamaica
about the coming
about the coming
he said look to Africa
where a king shall be crowned
the conquering lion of the tribe of Judah
[loud applause]
and I said to them
we are his children
and we hope to return to Africa some day.
[crowd shouts "Rastafari"; he rewinds tune to the top]

The promised land
going to the promised land.

And I asked the reporter
what happened to the Black Star Liner
that Marcus Garvey set up
cos Marcus Garvey have a link with the crewman
of Ghana
and he said to me the Black Star Liner is still running
and it comes to the dock in Tilbury, East London
[loud applause]
it runs under the flag of the Black Star Liner
[shouts from crowd]
I told them
we will fulfil Marcus Garvey’s dream
we will return with our treatments
we will return with our skills
we will build a better nation in Africa
and I spoke with the nurses at the clinic
they said to me
will the people of London adopt this clinic?
ya hear me?
I said the nurse said to me
will the people of London adopt this clinic as their own?
and I said unto them
we will endeavour to do the best we can
so all the nurses
all who had studied nursing and doctors
you can check I and I, give me your phone number and address.
We have a direct link with Ghana!
[bassline drops to loud shouting]

They ask for our quick return
they are longing for our quick return to Africa
bear that in mind.
The youth of today
are the man and woman of tomorrow."

Hip Hop in Nouakchott

From the archives ... a snapshot of hip hop in Mauritania, written in 2005.

Nouakchott, Mauritania, January 2005. Another dusty evening. On our way to a gig we get pulled over. Not that surprising – there were police at this junction permanently, stopping cars for whatever reason they thought fit. It wasn’t the car’s European passengers they were interested in. It was the driver, a young black man. The black community in Mauritania are to a large extent segregated from the Moorish ruling caste; they have few privileges in this nation where slavery was abolished, on paper, in 1981. Our driver, the police said, was contravening the law by acting as a taxi when not licensed to do so; in other words, by giving us a lift. They took away his driving permit and told him to pick it up the next day, with a fine. He returned to the car disgruntled but seemingly unsurprised.

The gig was the weekly hip hop jam, held every Friday evening in the Nouakchott ‘Maison des Jeunes’ or youth club. The door was run by soldiers; they took our ticket money, gave us our tickets and went back to controlling the crowd milling around outside. Inside it was incredibly hot. The building was evidently an old theatre and it still had its raked rows of seats leading down to the stage. The seats were all occupied and the crowd spilled out into the aisles and around the back of the hall. They were mostly young, male and female in equal proportions, and black, although standing next to me was one elderly Moor with a walking stick. At the foot of the stage was a sound system and video clips were projected onto the walls: the American hip hop pantheon, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Tupac.

The weekly jam provides an opportunity for a variety of musical goings-on. We saw a performance by a band called Walfadriji, who mix Mbalax and traditional Moorish music with their own brand of ‘Afro-Peul’ (the Peul, also known as Fulani, being one of the prominent West African ethnic groups). This was followed by a film interviewing Nouakchott rap crew Diam Min Tekki (who feature on the compilation reviewed below) and a series of performances by young local rappers, each of whom did one piece over a backing track of his choice, to generally thunderous applause. The event ended suddenly on the stroke of midnight, half-way through the last song; perhaps, I thought as I found myself suddenly swamped by a tidal wave of flying limbs, this was something to do with the soldiers.

On the strength of this evening I tracked down a copy of the only (to my knowledge) compilation of Mauritanian hip hop, a cassette put together by Nouakchott’s 994 Crew and entitled ‘L’art de la RIM’ – ‘RIM’ signifying both ‘rhyme’ and ‘Republique Islamique de Mauritanie’. It’s a collaborative work which, the sleeve notes say, aims to show the country’s African neighbours that the Mauritanian hip hop scene is active. Production and arrangement was the responsibility of Tom Select and Selecta Mani2; various rappers contribute vocal performances, which are partly in French and partly in Hassaniya, the local Arabic dialect, with occasional snatches of English. The beats and overall production are stylish: although the percussion sounds and synths are simple and sometimes seem maybe a little dated, they’re nonetheless imaginatively put together, with some well-chosen samples and heavy basslines. There’s a definite reggae flavour in the background of many of the pieces, notably the squelching ‘Diogg Jengou’, in which Senegal’s acclaimed Pee Froiss put in a guest appearance, and ‘Musicam’, which borrows the melody of Sister Nancy’s 1982 dancehall smash ‘Bam Bam’. The debt in this direction is rather more evident than that to traditional local music, although a kora-sounding sample makes an appearance on one occasion. ‘Amergua Guana’, meanwhile, is driven by a sparse but effective combination of accordion and melodica. There’s a softer, more R’n’B feel to pieces like ‘Mbeuguel’ and ‘Si Tu Savais’ but generally the sound is bouncy and gritty. Interspersed with the tunes are a variety of film samples and radio clips and overall the cassette adds up to an interesting and varied mix. Not being a Hassaniya speaker, a fair amount of the lyrical content escapes me, but I can say that the rappers’ flow is universally tight without being rigid.

For Amadou, the young enthusiast who introduced me to Mauritanian hip hop, its appeal is clear: rappers always tell the truth, he says – in contrast to other more established forms of communication. Six months after I left Mauritania a military coup – the fourth such attempted in only a couple of years – toppled the long-standing ruler Maaoya Ould Taya. The junta replacing him stated that their intention was ‘to create the appropriate circumstances for an open and transparent democracy’ and promised to hold elections in two years. I don’t know what effect, if any, this might have on Mauritania’s black community but I do know I’ll be trying to get hold of more Mauritanian hip hop to find out.

Here's a clip of Sene*Rim. Diogg Jengou is featured on the African Hip Hop and Dancehall Minimix.

(There's some more info about this tape here. The promised election did indeed take place, in March 2007.)