Friday, July 27, 2012

Alan Lomax: Producer of the people. Part 2

Alan Lomax in space

It seems somehow fitting that as the Civil Rights took off, so did the Space Race. Sun Ra in particular, was convinced that the salvation of the black race lay in the new lands of other planets, something that John Szwed of course touched on extensively in his biography of Herman Blount. Similarly, many of the black musicians who would pioneer electronic music would also return to future and space imagery as a way of advancing black society and equal rights, in particular Detroit techno artists like Juan Atkins, Underground Resistance and Drexciya whose Atlantean world of drowned slaves bears many similarities.

It is thus a curious and somehow poetic addendum to the Lomax story that he should be involved with Carl Sagan in choosing the music that would go with the Voyager Golden Record on the mythical 1977 Voyager expedition. Szwed elaborates a little here.

In the interview, Szwed mentions an album of Voyager remixes, the “Scrambles of earth remix” which is, apparently, a remix of the Voyager music by aliens.

Alan Lomax in Spain

Lomax arrived in Spain in 1952, arriving by train from Paris, first changing at Port Bou on the border, as everyone still does, and then driving down to Barcelona prior heading to Mallorca and a state-sponsored folk festival. Although the festival was a disappointment, largely from being rehearsed and manipulated to uphold Franco’s cultural ideas and soured by the omnipresence of police, Lomax was undeterred and went on to record some of the most beautiful music of the entire archive and at the same time undergo many cultural epiphanies.

“This is a great country. Day hot. The sea near. Figs, oranges, plums, pears ripening. The houses old and simple. The towns old and beautiful. The people the most pleasant I have met anywhere, I decided to settle for life in every town and marry every young señorita I see… For a month or so, I wandered erratically, sunstruck by grave beauty of the land, faint and sick at the sight of this noble people, ground down by poverty and a police state. I saw that in Spain, folklore was not mere fantasy and entertainment. Each Spanish village was a self-contained cultural system with tradition penetrating every aspect of life; and it was in their inherited folklore that the peasant, the fisherman, the muleteers and the shepherds I met found their models for that noble behaviour and sense of the beautiful which made them such satisfactory friends.”

Throughout his trip, Lomax was followed by the Guardia Civil essentially working as Franco’s secret police, which had been tipped off by the FBI as to his “potential threat.”

“The black-hatted and dreadful Guardia Civil had me on their lists - I will never know why, for they never arrested me. But apparently they always knew where I was. No matter in what God-forsaken, unlikely spot in the mountains I would set up my gear, they would appear like so many buzzards carrying with them their stink of fear.”

It was not only the police who Lomax had to contend with, but the priests (curas) who wielded their own influence in different regions and feared the corrupting influence of an outsider who could give a voice to the people. As always, there was also a distinct lack of money. However, the results of Lomax’s work are extraordinary.

There are several commercially available recordings of Lomax’s trip in Spain and the diversity of the music within is astounding, as is the quality and naturalness of the recordings with coughing and ambient sounds often entering into the mix. He relates one story

“I remember the night I spent in the straw hut of a shepherd on the moonlit plains of Extramadura. He played the one-string vihuela, the instrument of the medieval minstrels, and sang ballads of the wars of Charlemagne, while his two ancient cronies sighed over the woes of courtly lovers now five hundred years in the dust.”

Lomax represents Spanish folk music as more than just the obvious Flamenco sound, recording songs accompanied only by bells, drumming, tambourine, bagpipes, as well as children’s songs, group singing and poetry. But what Lomax’s recordings give back to Flamenco is a sense of the Orient. Many of them sound far more Gypsy than modern Flamenco, meaning that they sound like they still had their living roots sunk into Indian music with obvious traces of Moorish influences on many songs. Listening now to this music, it somehow seems to transform the whole country into a more exotic panorama.

Lomax and media – Cultural equity

As a man who recorded and produced music, who wrote books and academic papers, educational shows for radio in many countries and eventually evolved into studies of dance, Lomax understandably had many strong ideas about the medium of TV when it finally emerged. When trying to find cinematographers for the 1975 Smithsonian Folk Festival Lomax wrote in an open letter:

“One of the central problems of our culture, a source of sickness and of anomie in our culture and in the world, is that everything these days happens at the centre and is broadcast put from the centre to the periphery, to the small places. This makes anyone who is not from megalopolis a hick by inference… we have to make culture again grow on the periphery – where culture has always grown.”

In the ensuing years, Lomax went on to criticise television more closely. Lomax’s one time assistant and journalist friend Pete Seeger wrote to Lomax and other like-minded people in 1978 about his growing concern of American cultural imperialism being spread by “exporting reruns of soaps, teen music shows, sports events, political news, and advertising” (Szwed’s writing) including even Sesame Street. Lomax would contest that:

The puppets are great, but the people in it are terrible, and they’re teaching the world to be poker-faced Americans or square, clownish Americans.”

Lomax agreed whole heartedly with Seeger and suggested, again in Szwed’s words, that

“it was more than content that was the problem with television, it was the nature and use of the technology. It was a one-way, simultaneous, glitzy, loud assault that destroyed cultural styles, exported alien and inappropriate values, and forced people everywhere in the world into passive and potentially hostile and violent reaction. Lomax wrote “The result is, in the country where TV operates around the clock, America, we have a rising tide of evil. Evil is absolutely everywhere, in every part of the country and there is an awful feeling that has developed in the country… The best thing, of course, would be to turn television clear off, for good.”

Earlier in his career, Lomax had already expressed concerns about “the greying out” of culture by the centralised entertainment industries and part of the fears had already gone into his anthropological ideas of folk music. It is not surprising that Lomax should fear so much for the well spring of cultural creativity as he had been a man who had travelled well into the ill-defined realms of the periphery and drunk heartily from the well springs of cultural sources. Indeed, in the book “Mister Jelly Roll” written by Lomax and published in 1950 about another famous son of the divided south, Jelly Roll Morton.

Lomax perhaps best summed up his ideas about art, culture and society and the inherent dangers of cultural machines. Lomaxes words are passionate and naked, coming from a deep place within himself as well as the cultural in which he swam.

“Jazz was the hybrid of hybrids and so it appealed to a nation of lonely immigrants. In a divided world struggling blindly toward unity, it became a cosmopolitan musical argot. This new musical language owes its emotional power to the human triumph accomplished at the moment of its origin in New Orleans – a moment of cultural ecstasy. Two neighbourhoods, disjoined by all the sordid fears of our time, were forced to make a common cause. This musical union demanded that there be not merely acceptance and understanding, but respect and love on both sides. In this moment of ecstasy an interracial marriage was consummated, and the child of this union still jumps for joy wherever jazz is hot. Perhaps it is so wherever people share their treasures and a truly fresh stream of culture begins to flow. Such moments of cultural ecstasy may occur prior to all great cultural movements just as seeding precedes birth.”

Szwed analyses that “These lines may tell more about Lomax than they do about Morton, as they focus on his desire to put art at the centre of humanity and return us to the magic of creation.”

It is not surprising then, that one of Alan Lomax’s legacies has been to establish the idea of “Cultural Equity” to the point of founding a foundation, the Association for Cultural Equity, based on the principle of preserving and respecting cultural and linguistic differences.

“Scientific study of cultures, notably of their languages and their musics, shows that all are equally expressive and equally communicative, even though they may symbolize technologies of different levels… With the disappearance of each of these systems, the human species not only loses a way of viewing, thinking, and feeling but also a way of adjusting to some zone on the planet which fits it and makes it liveable; not only that, but we throw away a system of interaction, of fantasy and symbolizing which, in the future, the human race may sorely need. The only way to halt this degradation of man's culture is to commit ourselves to the principles of political, social, and economic justice."

Lomax’s ideas are not unique, but still their importance cannot be underestimated in the internet age, where access to the wealth of information is seemingly limited by the use of personal preferences and algorithms. The impact of globalisation and the continuing dominance of the cultural centre by big companies is still a threat despite the promises of easier and broader access to more peripheral cultural centres, a threat as dangerous as extinction in the Amazon or a coral sea. The legacy of Lomax stands tall and has much to teach and should serve to empower us to defend our differences.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Alan Lomax: Producer of the people. Part 1

A long post that I have split into two parts to make it a bit more manageable.

I have just finished reading John Szwed’s biography of the great American folklorist Alan Lomax. It’s an excellent, but albeit curious book in many ways. The subject is intensely fascinating and given the incredible activity of Lomax throughout his life, the 400 pages of text seems somehow too short without ever feeling overburdened with facts and figures. If anything, there is perhaps a lack of prose at certain times, in particular describing the atmosphere or some of the more personal events during some of the road trips to the Mississippi Delta region and small town America in the 30s,  or the European trip in the 50s. As described in one of the videos below, Szwed himself confesses the original text was cut by around a quarter which may account for these kinds of omissions. But as well as a lack of prose, there is at times a certain lack of analysis or deeper interpretation of the significance of Lomax’s work

One reason for this could be reading it as a non-American, my lack of knowledge of 20th Century American history and politics leaves me exposed and unable to join the dots myself. The other more practical reason is that Lomax’s contributions to society, not just American society, are perhaps too great even for an excellent and efficient author like Szwed to tackle in one comfortable volume. Indeed, comparing “The man who recorded the world” against Szwed’s great biography of Sun Ra, “Space is the place”, suggests just this: Sun Ra’s equal rights philosophy and plan for salvation of the black race in outer space is a complicated idea, but is essentially the only one running through the book and Szwed unravels the code with ease. Lomax instead builds himself as a champion not only of race politics, but workers’ rights and socialism, anthropology and the broader implications of art, as well as being a writer of books, radio and television programs and an international folk song collector. A lot of themes and a lot of context to supply. Nonetheless, the introduction to Lomax’s life and work provided by the book are resonant and easily build him to be a titan and deeply admirable figure of the 20th Century.

One of four videos of John Szwed talking about his book:

There are plenty of other internet sources for rounding up a brief summary of Lomax’s life, so I won’t double-up here, but instead focus on some of the more interesting aspects from an outsider’s point of view.

The DNA of folk music

Lomax’s archive consists of around 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 books and journals, numerous prints, documents and databases, and more than 120 linear feet of paperwork. The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) is custodian of the Alan Lomax Archive, and in March this year, they in association with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress have made much of this material available in digital form. In many ways, this represents the culmination of what Lomax had wanted to achieve in establishing a “Global Jukebox.” Lomax had developed the idea in the late 80s, having wanted to create an “intelligent museum” where uses could search the database for music and dance styles they were interested in from all over the world. However, the computing power at the time was not capable of such feats, whereas that moment now seems to have arrived.

Click here for the related Alan Lomax Youtube channel

Lomax’s ideas for this Global Jukebox had been permeating since the 50s however. In a letter to his family in 1954 he first sets out the philosophical ideas that he would go on to develop for the rest of his life:

 “The primary function of music is to remind the listener that he belongs to one certain part of the human race, comes from a certain region, belongs to a certain generation. The music of your place stands for everything that has ever happened to you when you were a kid, reminds you of what your family was like, what it was like when you fell in love – in fact is a quick and immediate symbol for all the deepest emotions that people of your part of the world share…. Naturally the musical style is only the outward manifestations of the deep river of feeling that produces it. This is shown by [the] fact that musical style tends not to alter because of musical reasons, but because of important changes in the lives of people who make the music.”

However, the Global Jukebox bore earlier fruit in Pandora (click here if you are in the US, but licencing restrictions apply outside) a project which aimed to develop the Music Genome. Here, four hundred “musical measures” similar to Lomax’s cantometrics, choreometrics, parlametrics and phonotactics are used to analyse songs in a database and see where they fit together. By entering several parameters of personal taste, one can find related songs based on inherent musical identity.

This is not to be confused with composer Todd Barton’s genomic compositions. Here, different pitch and instrumentation are assigned to different bases of the genetic code and the individual sequence can be obtained and the translated into a unique song. Barton has also transcribed protein amino acid sequences into song form.

Barton is not the only one to try and make music from DNA or protein sequences. An article in The Guardian  from 2010 also details another genomic composition by Michael Zev Gordon under the sponsorship of The Wellcome Trust which can be heard at the official site.

For a list of other examples of where DNA and genetic or protein information have been converted to music or compared with musical notation click here, though unless you really have a lot of money to burn, I would stay away from Your DNA Song. This company will sequence your own genome and make a unique song for you, for a nominal fee. One can already imagine the TV commercial: “…and that’s not all, we’ll also clone your DNA so that future generations will be able to listen to your song. Don’t wait. Call NOW!”

The legacy of Lomax’s ideas on the importance of maintaining the diversity of the DNA of music and culture will be discussed a bit more in the second part of this post.

Lomax on race, socialism and unionist policies.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the book is Lomax’s continued struggle to improve race relations in a segregated America and his sympathy and support of workers, sympathies that would end up getting his name on the FBIs black list of communist supporters for most of his life.

There are many interesting anecdotes of Lomax’s struggle with race politics. Szwed recounts here one of his first trips at age 17 in which Lomax broke all the rules in the deeply segregated south, travelling not only with a mature white woman, but a black one as well.

Lomax’s most significant work in this period was undoubtedly made with his father, John Lomax, also a celebrated folk song collector, in their trips to several of the more fearsome prisons of the time where they discovered many of the characters who would later exert an extraordinary influence on American popular music. One of the greatest of these was of course Lead Belly or Huddie William Ledbetter who the Lomaxes found and recorded in the fearful Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana in 1933 where he was serving time for attempted homicide. Some doubt exists over whether the Lomaxes really influenced his release or not, or if Lead Belly truly sang his way to freedom, but certainly Alan Lomax maintained a close relationship with him until his death in 1949 recording him on several occasions, writing books about him and including him in several of his radio programs.

An original newsreel with John Lomax and Lead Belly singing “Goodnight Irene”

The life of Lead belly in two parts.

Alan differed greatly from his father John about many social issues including “the black question” and his association with black people and musicians in the years before the Civil Rights movement would often lead him into trouble. One anecdote accounts Lomax punching a patron of a restaurant who had complained to the waiter that he didn’t want to sit next to a “nigger”, meaning Lomax, which has frightening resonance.

The prisons that John and Alan visited together also left a scar on his psyche. Writing many years later he said:

“The prison farms of the American South were living hells of violence, evil and despair. They were American Dachaus, where inmates worked from before sunrise to dark of night, supervised by trusties with shotguns. A surly look or even a reluctant move could get you killed by the guards, no questions asked. The existence of these prisons inspired a terror that kept the population in line throughout the South.”

Before becoming popularised in the later folk revival of the 60s, American folk music had also been heavily linked with the Union movement. Szwed explains at length:

“Lomax introduced Aunt Molly Jackson, the “pistol packing mama” to a wider and more city-based public. Jackson had made her name in the coal miners struggles of the time. She was bought in to sing with the Composers Collective who included within their members Aaron Copland, Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford amongst others. However, the clash of styles was not immediately fruitful. Jackson’s rough and natural approach did not sit easily with the more academic strains of the Composers Collective or other like-minded groups such as the Degeyter Club. Here the influence was set principally by Hans Eisler, a protégé of Arnold Schoenberg who had suggested that more traditional workers songs “like “The Ballad of Joe Hill”, were bourgeois products of the past and only put workers to sleep, the way they had always done.  “Modern life and its tensions demand dissonance,” Eisler insisted.”

But as should be well known, the American political landscape at the time was intensely anti-Communist as becomes subtly evident in this video. Here, Lomax is addressing a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) hearing:

Perhaps the take away phrase is Republican Sidney Yates, Illinois sub-committee chairman, who quotes someone [in the house of congress?] as saying

“That’s the most communistic art that we ever had.”

These tales of racial segregation, anti-unionism and anti-communism (of course leading up to McCarthyism) seem genuinely frightening to me as a non-American. The origins of racism in slavery are obvious, but still unjustified, whereas political repression is harder to fathom. I don’t understand how it is that Americans managed to convince themselves, whilst simultaneously selling to the outside world, of the idea of their country being a bastion of freedom and human rights when quite clearly it is not.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Important notice: floatinghead goes radio

The birth of Cabeza de Vaca.

I am pleased to announce that I will be commencing a radio program with Scanner FM  which will be called “Cabeza de Vaca” (Cow head), named after the fabled explorer and also in reference to the 1991 Mexican movie.

I will record a pilot/introductory program next week with more regular broadcasts beginning in September after the August summer break. Programs will be around 60-70 minutes long and appear roughly every 10-15 days and be available for streaming on the Scanner FM website (link permanently on the right) where set-lists will be posted as well as links to this blog where more information will be made available. The language of the show is preliminarily set for Spanish, but the information here will remain in English. There will be approximately 6-8 tracks of various genre and themes, mostly new, but there will also be a small focus (4-6 tracks) in each program on an artist, label or scene that is interesting or relevant to current developments in music.

The majority of music covered will be electronic from techno, house and dubstep as already appears here, but not exclusively so. In addition, approximately one in every three or four shows will be dedicated to ambient and experimental music. There will also be the occasional themed show focusing more in debt on particular topics of interest or musical themes, but more details of these will be announced as we go.
This is thus also a call for promos and any news items etc that you think may be worthy of broadcast or for collection and promotion here.

Some labels are already sending me things and of course I will make sure that they get a fair airing as we go, but I will try and contact them directly to let them know that there is the possibility of a broader audience. If you feel there is some music that I should be aware of or that you would like me to try and fit in, then please contact me through this blog or email floatinghead9[at] No promises, but I will always listen and do my best to find a place for as many things as possible.

Many thanks and looking forward to getting the show underway. Many thanks to Carlos Medina for having faith.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Recent gigs – Amsterdam

Two retired couples stroll leisurely over the bridge. When they reach the cross roads on the other side they hesitate. They begin to squint in the sunshine and look about them. They point in different directions, confer and huddle close together, one occasionally straying away from the group  to check the surroundings for some landmark or recognisable sign. Are they lost or intimidated? Are they looking for something nearby or admiring the view? Suddenly a suited man in sunglasses appears in a door next to them and descends a few stairs to the street by their side. He opens his arms and bellows a loud welcome:

“Come inside ladies. Come and see a big cock for the first time in your life”

Ahh, Amsterdam. Still the greatest show on earth.

Calling a trip to Amsterdam a “recent gig” maybe some false advertising, but then, there is a gig in here somewhere, and it sometimes feels more like a world tour than just a one off show. In any case, I have been visiting Europe’s most open minded city and one of the most beautiful man-made places on earth for around 15 years now, lately almost once per year. I still can’t get enough and am always happy to be lost somewhere on the canals, whether it be the Red Light District or the beautiful suburb of Jordaan.

The musical part of the trip started on the plane on Friday morning when I happened to be on the same flight as M>O>S label boss Aroy Dee. He was easily recognisable in his Newworldaquarium T-shirt and Aroy Dee jacket carrying a bag of records. He’d played at Moog two nights before alongside Marco “Ma” Spaventi and resident DJ Omar León, a gig I missed as I was still trying to finish off my reviews and interviews for Sonar as well as catch the semi-final of the European Championships. Dee has released two nice 12”s this year on his label, one shared with San Proper (“Perfume”) and the other split with Spaventi.

Needing no more inspiration, I made a quick visit to the Rush Hour store that was conveniently close to the hotel. However, I arrived just before closing and had to rush through several 12”s while the two English attendants waited with diminishing patience - sorry. Given the house label’s house sound it wasn’t a surprise to pick up half a dozen house records.

One I grabbed without listening was a Rush Hour release I already had as digital, the excellent “Decoded messages of life and love” by B.D.I. which came out late last year. The A-side in particular is immense and very addictive. The strictly regimented rhythm really contrasts well with the out-of-focus soundscape that almost seems nonchalantly laid on top. It all makes more sense after the drop when new percussive and drone elements come in to create a more fluid channel.

Of the newer things were two releases on Rush Hour’s distribution chain. The first was Max D aka Maxmillion Dunbar’s “Orgies of the hemp eaters” single on Washington D.C.’s Future Times label (check out Resident Advisor’s label of the month feature from last year for more info).
No Youtube for this release, but instead, a taste of Maxmillion at the wheels of steel: a short mix posted to Soundcloud a month or so ago which features the Terekke remix.

The second was Simone Vescovo aka Simoncino’s “Dreams EP” released on Long Island Electrical Systems (L.I.E.S.).

Simoncino has also released on a number of labels, including Mathematics Recordings and I picked up one of their 12”s, the first volume in their “Music from mathematics” series as well as one from label boss Jamal Moss aka Hieroglyphic Being, the “A Romance for 2 Planets” 12” from 2010 on the short lived Alter label. The latter purchase was partly inspired by the recent 3 hour mix of Hieroglyphic Being at FACT Mag  which was an astonishing blend of house and free jazz. While technically it is not the easiest music to pull off and can seem a bit clumsy fading from strict rhythms to more free flowing sounds, it is nonetheless a type of music that I would love to hear live to see how the floor reacts to the interludes. “A Romance for 2 Planets” is, however, totally absurd and some of the best and most original music I have heard for a long time. There is almost no describing it. Hardly danceable at times it excels in low fi, being difficult to grasp and coming across as almost a dirty house version of Oneohtrix Point Never covering Sun Ra in a Chicago house club.

The original runs the full A-side at nearly 13 minutes, but here is a brief excerpt:

The title track sits at the end of side B and is also fairly long and again in excerpt form here:

Of the Mathematics release, dating from 2009, one of the highlights was Sir KaTie’s cover of Tears for Fears “Shout” for which there is sadly no internet media available. The closing track is Moss’s own I.B.M. (Insane Black Men) project using the additional Violence FM moniker and the track “2 live and die” which has a slightly more electro tinge to it.

Finally, I also managed to keep my Innervisions back catalogue filling up with a copy of the Henrik Schwarz/Âme/Dixon release “D.P.O.M.B part 1”, a driving track from 2008.

The two guys seemed a bit annoyed when I peppered them with questions about gigs that night. I already knew the Awakenings Festival was happening outside Amsterdam and that Xhin was playing at Trouw, but they managed to convince me that the Nightwork/Fourth Wave night at the Up-Club was the way to go. Fourth Wave is the house sub-label of London dubstep imprint Ramp. One of the deciding factors was its proximity to the hotel, a sad excuse, but if truth be told I was pretty exhausted from a few weeks of post-Sonar late night writing, so wasn’t sure how long I might last.

The Up Club is nonetheless an intriguing place despite being found in Korte Leidsedwarsstraat, a street around the corner from the legendary Melkweg (Milkyway) and in the heart of a commercial tourist district that looks like it promises little. The club is upstairs and has two rooms. The front room is the main Up Club and has a basement feel despite the elevation from the street, whereas the back room, De Kring, is lighter with windows looking over trees and a nearby street. Its biggest downside is perhaps this; it’s feeling of exposure, not to mention the covered pool table at the back of the floor. However, the Up Club is all about intimacy and proximity to the artists as well as a decent soundsystem that fills the modest space. Beer is also cheap and the crowd young and relaxed.

The night was a bit of a mess though. Being tired probably didn’t help and neither did wandering in and out of the two rooms to get a glimpse of what was happening. Out back, it was pretty standard and consistent deep house all night long with a bubbly crowd. Plenty of hits on show, from the likes of Drumpoet Community, Dial and the like, not all of it new, like Efdemin’s “Just a track” which sounded great, but sent me into a panic of confusion about how old I and it might actually be, even though it (we) is (are) not that old..

But down in Club Up it was difficult to get a grasp on things. I have no idea who played at the beginning or when. Each time I looked there seemed to be a different DJ on, playing largely house with a stronger techno edge. Presumably one of these was resident Mattikk. But first of the headliners was Felix Lenferink also known as Steve Mensink a producer from Utrecht who has also released under the name Urkelle. Mensink was joined on the stage by female vocalist Loes Jongerlink who performs on several of his releases. The combination worked well live, with Jongerlink’s voice a particularly jazzy touch to Mensink’s often jittery music. Joining house and dubstep is hardly a new thing, but Mensink’s set at times seemed distinct for actually dividing the two exclusively, unleashing smooth runs of neat house and then dirtying everything with less cohesive runs of breakbeats, while  eschewing the urge to overdo the bass. Despite the invention and live interaction between players, the restlessness of the music was sometimes distracting.

For a rough idea, here is a solo live set by Mensink from berlin’s Boiler Room (featuring pre-recorded vocals).

The debut single by Felix Lenferink on Fourth Wave:

Felix Lenferink was followed first by a support DJ for about thirty minutes, a strange move maybe except for technical issues, and then by young Suffolk producer Gerry Read.  Read has so far released the majority of the Fourth Wave releases as well as having the distinction of opening Delsin’s new house label with his single “Yeh come dance.”

Read has several claims to fame. One is apparently his age, 19 years old for the moment, the other is his lo fi sound. It’s not quite the hipster house of 100% Silk, but nonetheless it is something that keeps cropping up in reviews and discussions. Certainly live it was evident, as was a certain messy take on mixing, contrasting volume, beat and almost anything in between. Perhaps it’s something endemic to the eclectic approach of Ramp Recordings that also feeds into their sub labels? Anyway, Read’s set was almost bizarre, hurtling from one thing to another. Just as strange, he played sitting down, twiddling at some kind of controller that looked like it belonged more to a video game than a DJ. By now, I was getting pretty tired and leggy, so I decided to call it an early night. Curious and pleasant, but somehow a little disappointing overall.
Read also has a new 12” out on Fourth Wave called “Rhino”.

But two final things about the Up Club. I sat upstairs in the passage overlooking the main floor for a while to rest. At some stage, a reveller came up to me and said. “I have been watching you from the dance floor. You have white hair and the changing coloured light from behind you made it look like your head was on fire with different colours.” Glad to be of help in the psychedelic experience! The other side of that was the number of security guys going around asking people and me if we were ok. I wasn’t sure if they were trying to find people on drugs to kick them out or merely helping people who might have had too much. In any case, I was asked several times during the night if I was ok, something that doesn’t happen in Barcelona at least.

Not sure how Xhin was, or the Awakenings Festival. One of the local papers ran the headline “Hard, harder, hardst” on Monday morning which may have said it all.

I also picked up several great gifts for friends while there. One of these was the BBQ Rockin’ Fork for Heavy metal grilling. The label says this:

“Forged over centuries by a mystical roadie at the top of the highest mountain, the legendary BBQ Rockin’ Fork is finally ready to be passed down to you, the master of the grill. Grip and flip or poke and prod your steaks with a steely heavy metal hand. For those about to grill, we salute you!”

A great idea for your baby sisters next birthday.

For someone else, perhaps, is a bottle of Spanish Fly. Not much to do with music, but still a curiosity. When I first came to live in Spain I asked my work colleagues about it and none of them seemed to know at all, to my great disappointment (that was my last chance for an authentic family recipe). Apparently a few drops under the tongue of you and the partner and in thirty minutes your old chap is young again! Ingredients would suggest that chemical Vitamin C and amino acids have more of a placebo effect than anything. But sometimes believing is seeing.

But for me, Spanish Fly is something almost mythical. I first came across it watching the legendary Colin Higgins directed comedy “Foul Play” from 1979. The film stars Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, but it is Dudley Moore who steals the show with a scene that clearly reflects the times and where the film was shot, in San Francisco at the end of the 70s.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Recent gigs – Sonar 2012

First post in a while and hopefully the first of a few to come in the following week or two.

For Sonar 2012 you can find my official round up over at Cyclic Defrost. Thanks to Bianca de Vilar for all the great photos, many more of which will appear in the print edition if you happen to be in Australia. But here just a few added things to complement the main text.

Starting at the top: my favourite individual show this year had to be Mouse on Mars which was something of a surprise. Why should it be a surprise? I was always a big fan, even of the unstable “Niun Niggung” and “Idiology” albums which threw a lot of people, perhaps more so those who’d entered the group more from the post-rock side of things via their connections to Stereolab and the Too Pure label, but who knows? Their recent album “Parastrophics” was also great, always rewarding a return listen with new details and new thrills. Perhaps it was more of a surprise to see the trio perform more of a dance set, underpinning everything with varied but quite driving beats and of course a strobe which compounded the intensity. Watching them career wildly through what seemed like all of “Parastrophics”, but little old material, also brought home how much these guys paved the way for that new breed of chaotic producers who excel on labels like Brain Feeder, Hyperdub and 50 Weapons. More striking about this was how MoM seemed to have something else, something new that said “We are still ahead of the times”. Perhaps it was watching them master this kind of music, this dance music, from what is ostensibly still a band set up? Perhaps it was the sheer sense of logic in the billowing chaos that they conjured? I can’t put my finger on it. In any case, there was a raucous cheer anytime the group came anywhere near what seemed like a pause and especially at the end. Brilliant.

This was perhaps the best track of the show, although in the end you could pick almost any one.

Cooly G was another surprise for different reasons. Without having paid any proper attention to her music before, I found her show to be the one that left the deepest mark. Perhaps as evidence of its power of persuasion was that I was at the back and kept trying to move nearer, but had just met a work colleague by chance. She was as surprised to see me as I was to see her. But despite the tangle of conversation, it was Merissa Campbell’s music that dominated, her lithe song forms floating across the crowd to the back of the Lab stage. It was hard to pin down her sound live, but it seemed like the whole set was a kind of ribbon, unravelling slowly, never overburdened with bass or beats, and yet never so light as to lose its presence. Her debut album should be out in a few weeks on Hyperdub where she has already released a handful of 12”S.

I also had the pleasure of listening to Brackles’ new album on Rinse in the week after Sonar. Here the vocals are shared between guests Lily McKenzie, Cherri V and Terri Walker, with Rob Kemp providing the music and production.

The two albums share many similarities, being essentially song based bass music. Both rely heavily on vocal mantras and a more massaged rhythm section, but both triumph by making the pop song format work. There are many significances to this: one is the direct threat to commercial chart music as these sounds are genuinely accessible without shying away from quality or invention. Surely it’s only a matter of time before someone crosses over and does more damage than Magnetic Man? The other importance here is the marked contrast between this type of gentile dubstep compared to the heavier, “blokish” type that seems to be spreading like wildfire, at least in the US. Crowd surfing at Cooly G? I can’t imagine that. Those in defence of this new, rougher trend should check out FACT mags 10 best “wobblers.” Over at Resident Advisor Jordan Rothlein also makes the important point that this kind of real singing (at last!) might herald something of a reprieve from the cut, pasted and stretched vocal technique reintroduced into bass music from its roots in Hardcore by Burial. Certainly this has become one of the most over used techniques in electronic music over the last few years.

One other interesting point was the predominance of dubstep everywhere. It only seems a few years ago that dubstep was making its humble debut on the Lab stage, whereas this year it was perhaps the most dominant music. Day and Night time shows seemed to depend more on bass and a breakbeat template than the straight four-four of house and techno, even if many of the bigger acts still adhered to these styles.

I only managed to catch the last half of New Order’s set due to arriving late, but the version of “Temptation” they did as the penultimate song was one of the most emotive moments of the festival. Many people had been bad mouthing the group from the crowd before the show and I had defended them without ever having been a big fan. The pent up emotion and fragile beauty of “Temptation” proved me right with its strange beginning ripped from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle”.

However, there was also plenty of fuel for the opposing fire in their choice of performing “Love will tear us apart” as the finale. A better version might have been half forgivable, but turning it into a kind of sweet up-lifting anthem without even a trace of the bitterness that makes it so poignant merely wipes out the meaning.

I have read in a few places some veiled murmurings about the excessive need to have a “show” in order to be able to present at Sonar, or indeed probably any festival. There is a dangerous divide somewhere here. Many will remember the rather bland years of watching a nerdy man hunched over a laptop (or decks even) with shivers. However, the opposite extreme is also possible, where the show becomes more interesting than the music. I can’t say that there was any one example of this at Sonar 2012, but I did feel a little for Squarepusher who somehow seemed swamped by his banks of lights and LED helmet playing to an ok, but relatively small crowd (why were they all at Fatboy Slim I will never know). It seemed a far cry from the bearded Tom Jenkinson who I saw from only a few metres away in a dingy club in Perth, Australia a decade ago. Nonetheless, Squarepusher’s music and show were great, with the lights  well choreographed with the music, which has a nice ravey twang to it that suited the big Sonar Club stage, even if it was a bit empty.

Perhaps it was ironic then that Nina Kraviz should have closed the Friday night after Squarepusher, armed with nothing but her beauty and her music.

There is definitely a grey area developing here, however, where on one side pure club music lurks in the dark, and the festival musicians who are essentially new media entertainers. In the latter case all technologies go hand in hand.

Just to finish, and still speaking of shows, there must be some form of congratulations again to Die Antwoord who continue to impress, not so much for their music (in my opinion at least), but for their stage presence, attitude and iconoclasm which extends to everything. Nothing is sacred in their eyes which can only be a good thing. One example will suffice for those less familiar with their music. Watching them perform their rap version of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” complete with masturbatory lyrics and the chorus “Sail away mother fuckers” while dressed ironically (one hopes) as some kind of South African red neck urban musician verges on genius. Not a fan, but always welcome at my festival while they can keep this up.

Sail away mother fuckers, until Sonar 2013!