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.


Anonymous said...

Very well said sir!

James Earthenware said...

Hey, I see the point you are trying to make but I can't see any evidence of what you are saying. None of those clips feature a casio keyboard used in african music or even a sample of the Casio handclap. The SK-1 has NO handclap sound and the 202 doesn't even have drums sounds!!!

If africans or arabs do use handclap samples it is because that is probably how they made percussion before they had instruments.

By the way, the way casios sound has nothing to do with western culture other than the accompaniment patterns that follow popular 60's organ drum patterns (Ironically, many of which are latin beats anyway).

Some Casios have abrasive sounding presets, but that is to emulate things like harmoniums and kotos. Hence these are not western traits, they are eastern.

Furthermore casio released special versions of their keyboards in Arabic markets that had arabic tuning. What western ears cannot get used to are these quater tones, not the casios themselves. So you can't accuse westerners of "dumping" these sounds on developing nations, it's simply that the Japanese keyboard manufacturers realised it was important to cater for regional needs. Developing the technology for these instruments was a serious undertaking.

The most divisive thing about Casios is that either because of the computer game sounding square-wave accompaniment or the super high-resolution 14 bit sound chips which accurately recreate the high frequencies of acoustic instruments...there is a lot of overtones. Hence it is sort of an aquired taste. (but not if you like video game music or chip music, or ethnic music, or minimal electronic music.)

But anyway, the casio handclap sound is pretty unrealistic (too short decay time). It only appeared on a few models in the late 80's and sounds like a finger click. No one uses it in either western or eastern music, so you can't make claims that it has anything to do with folk music or cross-cultural exchanges or technological determinism.

All the videos you linked to sound like people using professional drum machines and keyboards, not home-keyboards, so you might need to leave Casio out of your theory.

Eryk said...

Hi James;
First, thanks for the polite nature of your comment.

Second, I'd like to clarify that the post is less about the impact that the west has on Africa and the Middle East, and more to do with what the West ignores about "authentic" music from Africa, and the reasons why we ignore it.

Yes, half-tones are a part of that, but I suggest that another part is the use of synthesizers and other "western" (seeming) instruments in a jarring context. Putomayo consumers in particular are unlikely to see "folk" or "world" music as something that uses the same technology that our pop music uses, because "Africa" and orientalism has made their music a nice, comfortable refuge from modernity.

I'd also argue that electronic intruments - Casios, for example - have plenty to do with Western Culture, so long as you're OK saying Japan is westernized. And you're right, if Africans do use handclap samples, it is because it's an extension of traditional percussion. I have no problem with Africans using whatever they want to make music. My only problem is that we ("the west" or whatever) then ignore the music they are making now in order to focus on the music they made 40 years ago (ie, Putomayo).

For this, the casio handclap is just a way of using shorthand for digital synthesizers; particularly the synthesized sounds that make no sense to the western ear; and again, mostly I'm concerned with the fact that the western world goes on to ignore that music because of what it "sounds like" (not necessarily because of what it is).

I could probably have made a better point by calling it the Yamaha Quarter Tone Crisis.

Thanks for your input. It's a valuable set of thoughts. I'll be sure to incorporate them if I ever revisit the topic.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eryk,

All good, sorry to be pedantic. I didn't realise that you were using the handclap as an expression of speech or a metaphor. The popular discourse surrounding these instruments is completely dissonant with my experience and knowledge of them, hence my confusion. (An inevitable hazard of knowing too much about a specific thing).

I agree with what you are saying, it is a shame that people will marginalise ethnic music if they don't percieve it as "authentic". Rock musicians make the same arguments against electronic music. A lot of people are looking for a refuge from modernism ;)

I'd probably still contend that Japan isn't fully westernised but my arguments would take us far beyond the scope of this article.

The Senegalese rappers were awesome. That's all that matters at this stage, so thanks for bringing those clips to my awareness.

It makes me happy that people think about these issues. Thanks for taking the time to clarify things purely for my benefit ;)