At the most recent Loop event in Berlin, music makers from all over the world came to share experiences and explore new ideas and approaches at the historic Funkhaus complex. For all the forward-looking ideas and novel perspectives presented and discussed at the summit, the format of the event itself recalled an earlier era when being in the same space at the same time was really the only way for music makers to meet their peers, share their work and get a sense of the current state of affairs.
Whereas previous generations may have discovered music and its makers through various forms of media (records, television, radio, magazines), any actual participation and musical activities were highly localized. That is, musical interaction with anyone outside your immediate surroundings meant physically transporting yourself to where these other people lived. As with so many facets of our lives, the internet has changed the way we go about this.
With so much of our social interaction and music consumption taking place online, what role does our local environment or region still play in music-making practice?
In many ways, instant access to mind-boggling arrays of styles and sounds, and the ability to connect and collaborate with individuals and scenes around the world offers incredible advantages and opportunities for the musician or producer. But during the discussions, workshops and informal conversations at Loop, one question that attendees and participants kept returning to was what has potentially been lost in our new hyper-connected reality? With so much of our social interaction and music consumption taking place online, what role does our local environment or region still play in music-making practice?
What is Local?
Without getting too deep into the realms of academia, it would be useful to look at what we mean by locality and region. In terms of music, locality refers to both an actual geographical space (a city, a neighbourhood, etc.) as well as the shared social and cultural experiences of that place. These experiences accumulate over time and make up traditions and cultural traits, which become a part of the musical identity of a place, person or group. Region looks at a wider geographical space (a country or part of a continent) and draws together similar traits that make up a continuum of commonalities such as can be observed in the musical idioms of North Africa, Latin America, Polynesia, and so on.
The desire to make music invokes a complex set of motivations and impulses – some, or perhaps even most of them subconscious. Part of the process is the technical element of applying learned skills, but perhaps equally significant are the various dialogues and conversations between the producer / musician and his or her fellow music makers, and beyond that, with the perceived public for the work.
Scenes often spring up as communities of like-minded people gather – groups of artists clustered in a place with a penchant for using a certain set of musical or cultural signifiers. Pre-internet, this would almost always be in actual physical spaces; a street corner, a club, a record store, a recording studio or some other space of social interaction. Once a scene coalesced in these spaces, it would leak outwards to the world via word of mouth, person to person distribution networks such as fanzines, specialist press coverage, label releases, local festivals, and radio play on local, regional and perhaps even national radio. During a panel discussion at Loop, producer and label owner Cora Novoa recounted how the electronic music scene in her hometown of Barcelona gained international notoriety thanks to the efforts of a couple local institutions:
Solitary Producers and Internet Communities
Apart from live performances or interaction in the context of club culture, the internet can now fulfill almost all the “scene-forming” roles mentioned above. The consequence of this for many producers, is that making music practice is very much a solitary activity – we mostly make music alone in front of a computer. But as Holly Herndon has observed, since our personal computers are the tools we make music with and our social networks, and the conduit for experiencing and relating to music, this makes “the laptop the most intimate instrument” people have ever used.
There are seemingly endless options for discovering, engaging with and even (re-)creating sounds and styles from every age or corner of the globe and communities dedicated to every possible sub-genre exist online. What is a new however, is the emergence of entire genres among web-based communities. Vaporwave is a fairly recent example – a scene built around a disparate set of artists that sources its aesthetics and inspiration from the internet itself.
While some may justifiably bemoan the internet’s isolating effects on individuals, it’s also clear that for younger music makers this newly de-territorialized access to listeners (along with inexpensive music production software) has allowed for new forms of creativity to emerge. Ironically, for such an apolitical aesthetic movement, the phenomenon of vaporwave resonates strongly with early utopian visions of the internet as a democratizing force, and can even be argued to be the latest iteration of punk’s anyone-can-do-it anti-elitism.
Global Connectivity and World Music 2.0
For the past 15 years or so, critics have lamented the death of local scenes, based around the slow erosion of the holy trinity of venue, record shop and label – the standard formation of many key youth movements, from grunge in Seattle to dubstep in London. As this has shifted and mutated, it is also clear that the sets of cultural signifiers a local scene often shared are not bound by a specific location anymore. In the face of globalisation, cultural commentators note how traditional / roots music all over the world is ghettoised into enduring but marginal structures, while at the same time musicians from outside the West are expected to conform to particular expectations of their “otherness”. A push and pull that Mumbai-based producer Sanaya Ardeshir aka Sandunes has also felt and observed:
The narrative that the internet has eroded our ability to connect with our environments, and resulted in the impoverishment of traditional cultures has gained a lot of ground as observers site young producers in Dakar, Tehran, Mombasa and Shanghai eschewing their local musical traditions and instead concentrating on decoding the production techniques of Kanye West or Jay Z records. The pessimistic take on the current situation says that music has split into infinitesimal sub genres and micro scenes, and the period of large scale musical movements such as punk, hip-hop or techno could never happen again.
Although there may be some truth in the latter, the former is challenged by the concept of World Music 2.0, a phrase coined in part by writer and DJ Jace Clayton (a.k.a DJ Rupture) as an attempt to capture the reality many producers now flourish in. In a recent interview in Harvard Magazine on his new book Uproot, Clayton explains “It’s made by people all over the globe who now have access to inexpensive computers, cheap or cracked versions of software, and YouTube on the one hand, and what their parents listened to or what is common to where they live on the other. When they’re making it in response to all of those situations, integrating the Internet’s incredible sprawl, that’s World Music 2.0.”
Locality and Folkloric Tradition
When we talk about local sounds, or the sounds of a region, we are often referring to what has established itself as the folkloric tradition of that place. This can range from specific instruments such as the oud in North Africa or Middle Eastern music, to rhythmic signatures and timbres such as the tabla in India. These musical traditions still maintain a role in the contemporary musical landscape, although more and more often as a starting point or sounding board for new productions. Artists looking to represent their cultural upbringing, or connect with a culture they feel a particular affinity with, have explored numerous ways to bring in the traditional. This can range from cross-cultural collaborative projects, the development of hybrid instrumentation, to the more straight-forward sampling / cutting and pasting of archival material.
Mayur Narvekar from Bandish Projekt, whose presentation on Creative Exploration Through Percussion at Loop delved into many of these topics, explains how his relationship to roots music is entirely different to that of technology, and its resultant music. “With roots music, it’s not competing with anything. Technology is the opposite, it’s a constant push and pull to be the best, the newest, the most something. Roots music for me is like a tree you grew up with – it stays the same, while you run around beneath it. You can learn from the tree, but it’s not trying to be anything else.”
Bandish Projekt are based in India, and Mayur grew up immersed in the culture of the tablas, which he began learning as a small child. His presentation at Loop focussed on how drums for him are language that he hears everywhere in his surroundings and a culture that is translatable to a younger generation – once a little spin is added. Mayur explains: “My music is preserving the culture – they might not listen to roots music if their fathers tell them to. But presented in a new form, it change the perspective of the generation. Preserving it is the most important. Because that will let you go to new places with music.“
Exoticism or Engagement
Not all projects are as carefully thought out or rooted in personal experience as that of the Bandish Projekt though. There can be a thin line between respectfully paying tribute or engaging with a community / tradition, and slipping into areas of exoticism or cultural appropriation. The recent rise of African music as a global trend on western dancefloors and beyond, has seen plenty of both sides of this equation. Basic and uninspired re-editing or sampling of African records or sounds has been rife for years, but plenty of projects, collectives and individuals have also found unique and respectful ways to engage with local cultures.
During Loop, South African Certified Trainer Emile Hoogenhout presented a workshop on Ethical Sampling and rack building in Ableton, having produced a series of well received instruments in 2016 for free download. The Santuri instruments were developed both as a creative endeavour itself, and to shed light on various forgotten musical trends of the East African region. What’s more, putting these esoteric sounds in the hands of producers from the region (and beyond) gave each a new lease of life – and can now be heard on various new tracks from Kenya to Berlin. Here’s Emile talking about the project and his motivation at Loop 2016:
Sounds and Sources
As discussed, one of the ways musicians and producers interact with localized musical idioms or regional styles is by identifying, isolating and using samples in their productions to add texture, edge or anchor the tracks in a particular context. This process can of course be taken to some interesting places, and with the purpose of creating art that has a specific message. The example of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s seminal My Life In The Bush of Ghosts album from 1981 is a case in point; a tour de force and an early example of a sampling-based production, the album juxtaposes music and audio fragments from around the globe into a kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory whole.
Over the years, Bush of Ghosts has been equally celebrated by music aficionados for its prophetic and trailblazing nature, and questioned in academic circles for its treatment of religious material and signifiers as mere sound sources devoid of their cultural underpinnings. Famously, the track ‘Qu’ran’ was removed from the LP after its first run due to sensitivities over a potential backlash for using the call to prayer of Algerian imams together with completely unrelated and secular musical elements.
Religious controversy aside, this attitude towards sample collage is highly interesting from an artistic viewpoint, touching on what Simon Reynolds describes as “a time warping pseudo event – something that could never possibly have happened. Different acoustic spaces and recording auras are forced into uncanny adjacence. You could call it deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence. It’s a kind of time travel, seance.” In this way, removing sound sources from their local context or culture is an act of creativity. But the question of whether it is ethically responsible to use sounds in ways that strip them of some or all of their intended meaning – especially if the sounds originate with oppressed or marginalized people – is still a matter of some debate.
Preserving Local Heritage and Bridging The Gap
The erosion of local musical traditions is not just a theoretical concept, but in many places a pressing physical reality. Many countries the world over have large archives of recordings on a variety of media that remain the only tangible link to certain musics. In Tanzania, for instance, reel-to-reels stand rotting in extremes of heat and humidity at the national broadcaster Radio Tanzania, without a real plan to tackle the issue by the government or cultural institutions. The archive contains in many cases the only recordings of some of the 120 different tribal groups in the country, diligently documented under Julius Nyerere’s independence-era government.
While other countries have fared better at preserving their cultural heritage (The British Library recently released nearly 8000 recordings from Guinea, thanks to the perseverance of one committed archivist), there also remains the question as to the relevance these archives still have on contemporary artists without further efforts to forge linkages or connections. Scouring an online archive can certainly unearth audio gems for the diligent researcher or musician, but often the real connections are made via specific artistic collaborations.
In 2012 UK producer Will Holland (Aka Quantic) and Mario Galeano Toro of Frente Cumberio teamed up to re-record some of the legends of Colombian cumbia – many of whom had fallen into obscurity since their heyday. The resulting project, Ondatropica, drew on diverse music influences to revitalize the genre and drew attention to the region in an analogous way to that of Buena Vista Social Club and Cuba. The project was celebrated for its respectful treatment of the tropes of Colombian cumbia, yet opened up the sound to a number of new directions that the project continues to explore with new releases.
Listen Local, Produce Global
Returning to one last discussion at Loop, it was interesting to note that the artists who took part in the Searching for Sound series of documentaries all came away from the experience with a new perspective on their own work. The series followed thee young electronic music producers (from India, Russia and Colombia) as they explored and recorded the places they had grown up in and around. Although not traditionalists in any sense, the more and closer they listened, the more they felt a sense of connectedness to the sound worlds and musical heritages of their local areas. And as Sanaya Ardeshir aka Sandunes explains, this abstract sense impacted and enriched her music making process and outlook in some very real ways: