Sunday, February 7, 2010
The African Casiotone Hand Clap Crisis
Guys, I've been thinking about the prevalence of Casio keyboards in contemporary African cassette culture and in the Middle East.
It's something you don't hear in America's presentations of 'world music', like the Putomayo releases. You know, the little cardboard, biodegradable cases with cartoonish looking drawings of people in a cafe that spell "Mexico" with a chili pepper.
According to the Putumayo Web site, “the label has become known primarily for its upbeat and melodic compilations of great international music characterized by the company's motto: 'guaranteed to make you feel good!'”
Getting Americans to enjoy that stuff means they need to leave the hand claps at home, despite that the synthesizer's affordability and flexibility have made it a standard for folk musicians around the world. But the Casio isn't just an annoying handclap-making machine. In a digital culture, it's the new washboard. And this is the new (Western) folk music:
But heard in 'folk music' from other cultures - cultures that we usually associate with poverty - it's also evidence of globalization, and Putomayo releases give white folks a satisfying mirage of 'uncorrupted peoples' whose cultures haven't been 'tainted' by the West. Because that would be too 'real'.
The Casio hand clap is the bastard child of Western culture, a sonic baby so disfigured and inauthentic that we have literally banished it to foreign lands. And reminding Westerners of its existence informs us of the hand clap's infection of these cultures, which brings our romanticism of 'the simple poor folks' to a messy, sloppy halt.
The Putumayo problem keeps true folk movements away from representation, presenting a tranquil, peaceful music at odds with the reality of global politics. After all, a lot of these countries are war zones. Why would they be listening to music that is “guaranteed to make you feel good?”
(The irony of a Palestinian Hip-Hop group subverting footage from middle-class "weed-rap" Snoop Dogg concerts is great).
The Putumayo approach to world music presents the most uncomplicated version of any culture's sound, often recorded in European studios by immigrants, or even second-generation immigrants, of the culture it claims to present. African music, as heard through a Putumayo release, will include a number of talking drums, a marimba and a group chant and, for whatever reason, some European flair to water it down. The end effect is an admittedly sentimental, pleasant and uncomplicated music that is simplified enough for Westerners to consider safe, but exotic enough to consider 'authentic.'
This form of world music is the aural equivalent of Binyavanga Wainana's ironic advice to Western writers in Africa that “African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.”
On a Putumayo release, you will not hear, for example, the quirks of second-hand '80s Casio keyboard tones, including hand claps, that are all over the underground folk cassettes of Africa. Or in Middle Eastern dance music:
The Casio is grating to the American ear; the sound of a chintzy toy instrument. When it becomes an influence on folk traditions in the developing world, the '80s Casiotone hand clap smashes the mundane realities of globalization into the exotic fantasy of the 'other'. The '80s Casiotone hand clap in a folk song is a moment of distinct rupture between Putumayo's mission “to make you feel good!” and the reality the troubling power relationship Western culture imposes.
Greg Barz, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Vanderbilt University, says that libraries often rely on archiving releases from labels such as Putumayo, which are often produced in European studios, rather than seeking out and archiving cassettes available in Africa of actual African musicians.
“It would be like us only collecting people who covered other people's music, which is ridiculous to even think about,” he told the Vanderbilt Community Register. “But when it comes to other people's cultures we very often will only trust interpretations rather than going to the source.”
Barz notes that “cassettes are the reality of everyday music in Africa,” and a number of online resources are dedicated to making digital copies of the music available online and (as you can see) YouTube. This has opened up a kind of globalism feedback loop, as American indie rock bands have picked up on sounds of the African underground and translated them into American rock. Vampire Weekend, which borrows heavily from JuJu and Highlife music from Northwestern Africa, has even been covered by a Malawi immigrant to England, Esau Mwamwaya, and the American band's frontman performed on a song written by Mwamwaya, bringing the cycle of globalism to its completion.
In the New Yorker's review of musician Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a MIA, whose music is a global pastiche incorporating the hip-hop of UK street culture with the droning siren-music of her native Sri Lanka, Sasha Frere-Jones writes: “It’s a voice from a place where kids throw rocks at tanks, where people pull down walls with their bare hands. It could be the sound of a carnival, or a riot.”
Not sure what that means on a global scale, guys. But it seems to me like Putumayo is making CD's that let us ignore Western interaction with other cultures, and sells a dream that this process isn't taking place.
This globalization is already here - and irreversible - so there's no reason to assume that a folk tradition wrapped in fake amber is any more 'authentic' than a folk tradition infected with Casio synths and drum machines hand claps. But one offers us a genuine insight into the world, and the other one just preserves a series of Western myths.