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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sao Paulo - The IASJ Meeting (Part 2)

The second part of my report on the recent IASJ meeting in Sao Paulo in July 2011. For part one go here

Day 4

Today is a very Brazilian kind of day – it begins and ends with Choro.

Opening up the day we’re treated to an explanation and demonstration of Choro music by Pedro Ramos, one of the teachers at Souza Lima, our host school. Choro is a wonderful music typically played by at least two guitars (a small one called a Caviquinho, and a big 7-string guitar), one or more melody instruments (saxophone, clarinet, or flute usually) and Pandeiro – the Brazilian tambourine. It dates to the early part of the 20th Century and is sometimes described as Brazil’s Ragtime. It is full of counterpoint and the voice-leading prowess of a good Choro player is really something to behold – the 7-string guitar acts as a bass, but a constantly moving bass, playing wonderful obbligato lines underneath the melody. In fact the way the melody and accompaniment switch back and forth between the different instruments is in itself reminiscent (in terms of instrumental roles rather than sound) of traditional jazz. But the rhythms are unmistakably Brazilian, with that slightly behind, triplet-y samba so unique to the music of this country. Pedro also gave a handout that outlined the racial history of Brazil and how the very striking variety of races and skin colour that one sees in Brazil came about and how unique to Brazil that was.

(Pedro Ramos Group)

After we’ve all been uplifted by the Choro music we go to Masterclass again and this time Herbie Kopf takes the helm and has some great things to say about dealing with sound issues in venues of different types and also some very valuable stuff on practice techniques. The students weigh in with some great stuff too – questions and suggestions. This is exactly what IASJ Masterclasses are about – the sharing of ideas rather than stuff being handed down in a hierarchical way. In the afternoon, more student rehearsals and ongoing dialogues for the teachers, and then in the evening we go off to finish the day with the same music we started it with – Choro, and the legendary Ó Do Borogodó club.

Ó Do Borogodó is a unique place – small, very basic, with a tiny bar and space for maybe 100+ people, but it is THE place in Sao Paulo to go and hear Choro and other Brazilian music, and dance. Every time I’ve been to Sao Paulo I’ve come to this club, and every time it’s been great – the vibe is extraordinary. The gig starts at around 10.30, and it’s usually packed out. There are tables and chairs on the floor, but usually these gradually disappear as the dancers commandeer all available space and the music really gets going. The musicians sit behind a table, which acts both as something to place their drinks on and as a barrier to keep the dancers from actually falling on top of them! Another interesting thing is the age of the dancers – it’s totally mixed, with young and older people dancing together unselfconsciously – no age apartheid here!

And these musicians really work! Their first set will usually be almost 2 hours long, then they take a break and play for another two hours, finishing after 3am – it’s reminiscent of jazz in the old jazz club days in that respect. And the music has an insistent quality to it, where the intensity level gets raised over a period of time and just goes and goes. A singer will usually join them after a while and then the dancers really get going, singing along to the Anthemic choruses of these songs and just having a great time. What amazes me about this place is that it is totally packed, with no room to move for anybody – dancers, staff, musicians - but the vibe is universally good humoured with no sense of any annoyance or suggestion that things could get ugly. And this is at 3am - in Europe and the US, late night places that sell alcohol are usually places to avoid in the small hours – but not here.

Here’s a video I shot in Ó Do Borogodó, but not on the night in question (there were too many people there that night to film – the locals were astonished to arrive and find the place already packed with jazz musicians at 9.30pm!) - I shot this a few weeks before the IASJ meeting on a previous visit, but it gives a good idea of how the music sounds and what a great vibe this is.

Day 5

A relaxed day – traditionally at IASJ meetings the middle day of the meeting week features a trip of some kind which introduces the participants to some aspect of the city or area that we’re in – something they wouldn’t be able to experience anywhere else. On this occasion the host school has organised a trip to nearby Santos Beach - birthplace of Pele! Since Brazil is synonymous with beach life (at least in the minds of non-Brazilians!), this seems like a great trip to do. However, it being winter here at the moment, and the weather has been cold, I decide discretion is the better part of valour and skip the trip in favour of rehearsing a little with Carlos and George (we have a couple of gigs at the end of the week), and doing some school work on the computer.

After dinner the second jam session of the week is organised for a nice club called Ao Vivo – after the spit and sawdust vibe of Ó Do Borogodó the night before, Ao Vivo seems positively opulent! Before the jam session itself, Marcelo Coelho’s group plays a set of his rhythmically involved compositions for soprano sax, trombone, bass, drums and percussion. The difficult music is very well played and Emilio Martins’ percussion playing is particularly impressive.

After Marcelo’s set, the jam session starts and this time, after my previous experience, I decided not to bring my instrument. However I again make a strategic error since this time there are much less people here because the bus taking a lot of the participants to Santos developed mechanical problems and is very late getting back. So this time I could easily have played if I’d brought my instrument, but I didn’t and console myself by having a great time listening to Herbie Kopf, and American expat and SP resident, drummer Bob Wyatt swinging the band into bad health on two pieces! It’s a pleasure to hear a great bassist and drummer really lock in together and drive the band along – listening to Herbie and Bob is almost as much fun as playing! Almost.......

(Lieb playing at the jam session)

At the end Lieb turns up and plays two tunes with one of the teachers and two of the students – ‘Milestones’ and ‘I Hear A Rhapsody’ get the Lieb treatment – total commitment to the music, everything stretched almost (but only almost) to the point of the dissolution of the form. Always great to see him playing standards..... There is a bit of controversy when the student playing the piano, visibly displeased with his own playing, abruptly leaves the stage after the first tune, the keyboard then being ably taken over by Cliff Korman, author of a fine book on the Brazilian Rhythm Section.

The night ends up being a late one due mainly to the length of time it takes to pay the bar tab – they have a very inefficient system where you’re given a card at the beginning of the night and the drinks you get are marked on it. At the end of the night you pay the tab – but of course when the music ends then everyone tries to pay at the same time so a huge queue forms and it takes more than 45 minutes for everyone to pay, and then we have to get on the bus and be taken back to the hotel, so it’s after 2am by the time we get back.

Day 6

We’re at the business end of the Meeting now – literally and figuratively. The business of the IASJ is taken care of at the General Assembly which takes place in the afternoon – the housekeeping of the organisation is dealt with including the venues for upcoming meetings (Graz in Austria in 2012, Denmark in 2013, and very excitingly, Cape Town in South Africa in 2014).

But before all of that, in the morning there is another lecture and another Masterclass. The lecture is given by Emilio Martins and some colleagues on Afro-Brazilian rhythms and it’s just fantastic! The sheer variety of styles and approaches demonstrated is amazing and also gives the lie to the idea that Brazilian music is only about Samba or Baossa Nova. The guys switch effortlessly from one regional style to another and the whole thing is a revelation to all of us.

(Emilio Martins and group)

At the Masterclass, due to some confusion in scheduling, I am the only teacher there and so I spend some time talking about, and demonstrating, the benefits of playing solo bass – solo bass as opposed to bass soloing – i.e playing on your own and figuring out ways to make that work so that the music rather than the instrument becomes paramount. I demonstrate some techniques and ways of thinking about it and we get into some very interesting discussions about this and related topics. A very nice way to finish the Masterclass series.

So that evening, the empirical evidence of the value of the IASJ meeting is on display – the student concerts. Tonight is the first one, featuring three groups, with the other three performing on the following night. The gig takes place in a nice theatre about 30 minutes away by bus. I while away the journey by having a great conversation with Francois Théberge about the history of Ireland and Francois’ native Quebec. On arrival we find that Lieb has been struck down with severe laryngitis and will not be able to do his normal MC role for the student concerts, though he will be at the concerts. However his place is ably taken by his daughter Lydia and she does a great job of introducing all the groups and telling the audience about the IASJ. As usual the concert itself is full of good music and it’s amazing to hear how well these young musicians play together only 5 days after their first meeting......

Barry, the student I brought with me, performs with his group tonight and does very well – the band is a killer (see the video clip at the end) and they bring the evening to a suitably spectacular close.

I haven’t seen much of Barry since we arrived, just brief chats here and there - and that’s how it should be at these meetings. He’s been off hanging with the other students, making friends and connections and talking incessantly about music, as have I................

(Student Concert)

Day 7

The final day and it begins with the traditional Lieb rousing speech to the troops! Every year Dave talks directly to the students, encouraging them, cajoling them, making them realise what a special thing they’ve become involved with by choosing to play this music at this level. He gives them practical advice as well as a lot of philosophical stuff to chew on. I’ve heard versions of this speech about 20 times now and I never tire of it! It’s always inspiring and send the stiudents off in high spirits and full of determination and the will to win. And I always hear something new or something I hadn’t noticed him say before – this year it’s about how the difference between a good player and a great player is how the great players take care of ALL ‘the details’. And how right he is.......

The fact that he manages to give this talk despite his ongoing laryngitis problem is amazing, but after the meeting he asks me if I will go and sound check with the students for the final concert tonight, since he’s not feeling up to it. So, after a farewell reception, off we go to the theatre at 5pm – earlier than last night and what was a 30 minute journey the previous evening turns into one more than an hour long due to the heavier traffic at the earlier time. SP has 5 million cars and tonight I think we were on the road with at least 3 million of them........ The soundcheck is relatively painless thanks to the amazing Jesse – (the guy who seems to look after EVERYTHING at Souza Lima – from the sound in a huge theatre, to getting a glass of water for Lieb during his morning speech – what a guy!) and also thanks to the help of Carlos Ezequiel who blends his musician’s knowledge with an ability to speak Portuguese to great effect. Pretty soon the job is done, time for a quick dinner and then the final three concerts.

(Me and the amazing Jesse!)

Again, great music, great playing, great spirit – to see these young musicians, from all over the world, communicating together through the medium of jazz is truly touching.

After the concert comes the 'long goodbye' where everyone says goodbye to everyone else - with more than 200 people involved, this can take a while! I manage to get a photo opportunity with Dimos Dimitriades from Greece and Bruno Santos from Portugal. Our three countries are currently in hock to the International Monetary Fund to the tune of about 400 billion Euro, so we dub ourselves the 'IMF Trio' - the world's most expensive jazz group!

(Bruno, Dimos and I - the IMF Trio!)

The IASJ Meeting is a truly wonderful event – every one is different but each meeting has one thing in common – a demonstration of the true spirit of jazz – creativity, generosity, individuality, collective spirit. It is a musical language that started in America but is now truly international. To see the proof of all of that – watch the clip below - The full personnel is:

Darren Craig English - Trumpet (University Of Cape Town, Cape Town,South Africa)
Kasperi Sarikoski - Trombone (Paris Conservatoire/Sibelius Acdemy, Helsinki, Finland)
Florian Wempe - Tenor Saxophone (Royal Conservatory, Den Haag, Netherlands)
Kaneo Ramos - Guitar (Souza Lima Conservatorio, Sao Paulo, Brazil)
Christian Li - Piano (Berklee College of Music, Boston, USA)
Barry Donohue - Bass (Newpark Music Centre, Dublin Ireland)
Ariel Tessier - Drums (Paris Conservatoire, Paris, France)

Barry Donohue's 'Anti-Matter' at the IASJ... by NewparkMusic

Sao Paulo - The IASJ Meeting (Part 1)

I recently attended the International Association of Schools of Jazz Meeting at the Conservatorio Souza Lima in Sao Paulo. The IASJ is an organisation which is the brainchild of the great saxophonist Dave Liebman who in 1989 contacted a group of people from around the world who were involved in jazz education with a view to forming an organisation that would allow for the free-flowing exchange of ideas, students and teachers between schools that teach jazz. I was one of the people who sat in that room in Germany over 20 years ago, and I’ve seen the organisation grow into what it is today.

The jewel in the crown of the organisation is the Annual Meeting which takes place in a different country each year, and in which schools of the organisation send teachers, students and representatives to meet for a week, exchange ideas, do masterclasses and have the students play together and play a concert together at the end of the week. It’s an amazing week and one that really emphsises the notion of jazz as an international musical language.

These are some of my memories and impressions of this year’s meeting...............

Day One

Arrived with my student Barry Donohue (a very talented young bassist) in the early hours after the long Dublin-London-Sao Paulo flight – it’s winter here , but in Sao Paulo that means a pleasant 17 degrees even at this ungodly hour. Sao Paulo is HUGE – it has more than 20 million people and more than 5 million cars, and is a city with little architectural merit. But its real treasure is its people who are just fantastic – friendly and laid-back in a way that is extraordinary considering what a huge Metropolis they live in and how stressful it must be to live in such a huge place.

I left Barry to go to the student hotel with some other arriving students and went to my own hotel. Lucky enough to get into the room early (7am) and decided to go down and have a quick breakfast. Of course this being the IASJ, of which I’ve been a member for more than 21 years, the ‘quick’ breakfast turns into anything but as I run into so many friends. The internationalised nature of jazz these days becomes really clear from the composition of the assembly at the breakfast table – Mike Rossi of the University of Capetown, Gary Keller from Miami, Micu Narunsky (a very old friend of mine who was a fellow student with me at the Banff jazz workshop way back in 1986!) from Israel, George Kontrafouris from Greece and Martin Mueller from the New School in New York. All are great musicians with the exception of Martin, who is not a musician but has very dedicatedly and successfully lead the New School’s jazz programme for more than 20 years. So a couple of hours are spent catching up and by the time I get to the room I’ve got a very impressive level of exhaustion which can only be partly alleviated by a couple of hours sleep.

The afternoon is spent taking care of some logistics for myself and trying to deal with hotel bureaucracy for Barry at his hotel, where extraordinarily for such a big hotel in such a big city, nobody speaks any English..... Then it’s off to the celebratory opening concert, the legendary Brazilian singer and guitarist Guinga playing with the equally legendary Dave Liebman (who is the Artistic Director of the IASJ and the guy whose idea it all was back in in ’89) and Marcelo Coelho on saxophones, a great saxophonist from Sao Paulo, and the founder member along with me and my brother Conor of IRSA). There’s a 6pm call for the bus to take the delegates to the gig, but the bus gets stuck in the traffic snarl and eventually Mario – the founder and director of our host school - in an an incredibly generous and expensive move, hails a fleet of taxi to take almost a hundred people to the concert.

(Lieb and Guinga)

The gig itself is packed and for me, sitting there a bit jet-lagged, it brings home to me again what a great player Liebman is. All the material is comprised of Guinga’s downbeat yet harmonically rich lyrical songs, and Dave plays them with him with extraordinary sensitivity while sounding completely like himself. He plays piano, soprano and a little wooden flute, and what he plays is just magical. Talking afterwards with some of my musician friends we all agree that Dave has been around for so long and has played so consistently great in all that time, that it’s easy sometimes to almost take him for granted, but on a night like tonight you’re reminded of just how great he really is. Marcelo Coelho plays some beautiful soprano saxophone on a couple of pieces also.

Myself George Kontrafouris and two great Brazilian musician friends of ours – Lupa Santiago and Carlos Ezequiel– finish the evening in a Churascarria one of those temples of grilled meat that are a Brazilian speciality – you sit at the table and they just keep bringing you a multitude of different kinds of perfectly cooked meat until you beg them to stop! It’s a vegetarian’s nightmare and a recipe for meat poisoning, but as a devoted carnivore I have to say I felt it was the perfect way to end the day.

Day 2

Jetlag........ Awake at 5am SP time. Gave up the struggle to sleep after a while and got up and did various killing-time things until the hotel restaurant opened for breakfast. It’s cold today! A brisk 11 degrees – not what one traditionally associates with Brazil.......

This morning is the first day proper of the meeting, and it begins with a few opening remarks from Liebman and Mario – the school director here, and then goes on to the ‘auditions’. These are not really auditions, but are a way for us to get the hear the students play and for the students to hear each other play. So the students play together - it’s like a jam-session format – pick a tune and off you go. As usual, since each school sends their best students, the standard is very high, with a couple of students being outstanding, most of the others being very good and a couple slightly weaker but no major problems.

When it’s over Dave and I sit down together and put the ensembles together. Since the standard of the students is broadly similar this is an exercise in internationalisation – we try and mix the ensembles by country to ensure that the students get a real cosmopolitan experience and have a chance to work together for a week with colleagues from many different countries. Dave’s original idea for this all those years ago was to form ‘a real United Nations of jazz’ - and this is pretty much what it is except without the factionalism, power struggles and incessant bickering! Each ensemble has a pair of teachers working with them – not teaching them as such, but working with then to make sure everything’s working effectively. Once the ensembles get going the teachers melt into the background and leave them to it.

The students go to their ensembles after lunch, and the teachers who are not working with ensembles the representatives go to the ‘ongoing dialogues’ forum – a meeting to discuss various pedagogical issues relating to the teaching of jazz.

After that the teachers get together to put together the ‘Teacher’s Concert’ - a chance for us to play with each other, and to play for the students. Various teachers will put together bands and ask other teachers to play with them. This is always fun, but of course there’s almost no rehearsal time so the material has to be practical and have the possibility of being put together in a short space of time.

After dinner it’s jam session time – I hum and haw about whether to go, and whether to bring my bass. I decide (foolishly) on doing both those things and the bus takes us to the jam session place which of course is jammed (no pun intended), and a) there is no way I’ll be able to play a tune unless I’m willing to fight my way onto the stage – which I’m not – and b) there’s nowhere to safely leave my bass either, so I have the cumbersome object with me for the whole two hours of the session before getting the bus back. I should have listened to my wiser self earlier, who was urging me to at least not take the bass. We live and learn – or in my case, not..................

Day 3

(Antonio Adolfo)

This morning the great Brazilian pianist and educator Antonio Adolfo starts the day with a wonderful lecture on the rhythmic underpinning of Brazilian music – it’s erudite, informative and delivered in a wonderfully soft spoken way, leavened with gentle wit.

Following this we have Masterclass in which the instrumentalists group together by instrument – all the bassists in one room, all the drummers in another etc. Since the IASJ meeting isn’t a typical workshop, and each school sends a teacher, it’s never clear how many teachers of a particular instrument there are going to be until arrival day. Sometimes there are many piano teachers, sometimes only one etc. This year there are about 8 drum teachers, so they have to work carefully together to give the masterclass a decent structure. As for bass, this year it’s just me and the wonderful Herbie Kopf from Lucerne, so it’s a relatively simple matter to organise the masterclass between us.

It helps that the students are a very nice bunch of people too and very receptive – there’s a theory that I’ve heard that says that certain personalities are drawn towards certain instruments, and while I know this is a highly debatable idea, I must say I do find that bassists as a rule are very easy going people and quite generous. And I think these are qualities that you need as a bassist – if you’re a nervous, narcissistic, egotistical bassist, you’re unlikely to get much work! Over the 20+ years I’ve been attending the IASJ meetings there have been occasional conflicts of ego among students, but these rare conflicts have never involved any bassists. Of course we all know a bassist who may not fall into the ‘nice guy’ category, but I think there’s enough evidence there to at least start a damn good argument on the band bus about the personality=instrument theory!

One of the students asks me about playing in odd metres, so I give a little demonstration of some strategies for that and we try a few things out together. The Masterclass continues with discussions of various other topics and eventually a little duet between two of the students – it’s been a nice way to start.

(Teacher's Concert)

Since this concert is one night only there are always a lot of groups. These concerts are also marathons...... Tonight there were 13 groups playing! Each one played for about 10 minutes, so if you add in time between pieces for the groups to set up (very quick actually) and a few announcements – well, you can do the maths yourself, but it was long! But good. This year (naturally) there was a real Brazilian influence on the music and a lot of energy in general, which kept things moving along nicely. I play with three different groups, all fun – the last is one I put together myself consisting of Francois Théberge (tenor), Mats Holtne (guitar), Dimos Dimitriadis (alto), George Kontrafouris(piano) and Carlos Ezequiel (drums). Carlos and George are of course my partners in crime from the tour of the Far East we did last year and it was great to hook up with them again. We play a piece of mine called ’Traditional’ , a time-no-changes piece based on lots of different bebop-type motifs put together in an unusual way. It was a lot of fun and finished the evening off with a rabble-rousing finale!

For part two go here

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Give the Drummer Some!

I originally wrote this post over a year ago, and also posted it on my website, but having recently listened to yet another multitude of drum solos over vamps, I thought it might be useful to re-publish it in the hope of putting some ideas out there that might be helpful for musicians who want to feature the drums as a solo instrument and are interested in putting a different wrinkle on it.....

For one reason or another, I’ve been listening to a lot of concerts and performances in recent weeks. And one thing I've heard SO many times in all kinds of contexts, is the drum solo over a vamp. Time was when the drummer’s soloing opportunities were limited to trades with the horns, or maybe a solo at the end of the night or on the obligatory burner at the end of the set or performance. This came to be seen as a cliché and other ways were sought to include the drums as a solo instrument without going to the obvious trades/solo option. Enter the solo over the vamp.

I'm not sure when this entered the vocabulary of jazz musicians -- I can think of Billy Cobham soloing over complex vamps with the Mahavishnu Orchestra back in the early 70s, but it was probably done before that, no doubt an enlightened reader can fill in the gaps for us. But only in the last 20 years or so that this become really ubiquitous, and is a stock in trade of most bands in contemporary jazz. And it’s only when you listen to as many performances back to back as I have in recent weeks that you realise that the solo-over-vamp thing has become as big a cliché in itself as the drum breaks/big solo was before it.

This is not to say that the drum solo over a vamp is not an effective device – it is and, like the drum break/big solo before it, it’s precisely because it is so effective that it’s become so ubiquitous and now somewhat tired. So is there a way to incorporate the drummer as a soloist in a piece without resorting to either of these rather overused devices? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Drum Breaks.

As usual it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel in order to come up with something fresh to do – just a bit of finessing of what’s already there can often yield interesting results. Take the ubiquitous drum break for example – drum breaks are still a cool idea, it’s just that they’re always done in the same way – i.e after all the other solos are finished. But here’s a suggestion: Let’s say you’re playing a changes/form kind of piece, (could be swing or not) why not have each soloist begin their solos with a chorus of exchanges with the drums? So each soloist will start with 8s (or whatever) with the drums for a chorus (or two depending on the form length), then continue with their own solo, the next soloist in turn will do exchanges with the drums and then continue on with their solo and so forth. In this way the drummer gets to both play and interact with the soloists yet the breaks are more incorporated into the structure of the piece than in the traditional way.

2) Drum Solo

Again this is just a variation on what’s already done. So if we imagine again it’s a traditional form piece, why not have the drummer play a solo chorus in between each soloist rather than a big solo at the end? Once again this will make the drum solo into a more holistic element of the overall piece and give the drummer a lot of material to work with since he/she will be soloing after more than one soloist. Each soloist in turn will be given a lift into their own solos by the preceding drum solo.

If the piece is less conventional, then other ways to incorporate this drum solo as interlude idea can be brought into place. So if the piece is multi-tempo’d for example, the drums could set up the new tempos with some solo improvised passages, or announce the different sections with a small solo section.

3) Solo Over Vamp!

The very cliché that started this train of thought can also be used in a fresh way – like so: Let’s imagine that you’re playing a piece at a brisk tempo – 200 or above – and you want to give the drummer a solo over a rhythmic vamp....... Well instead of playing the vamp over and over again while the drummer plays over the top of it, why not have a few members of the band (3 at most – any more than that and it can get messy), come in and out, and play any section of the vamp at any time? In this way it becomes a very playful thing with nobody knowing which part of the vamp will be played by any one of the players. It’s more challenging too for the players since everyone has to keep the vamp in mind at all times in order not to get lost!

4) Duets

Have the drummer solo with somebody instead of on his/her own, a series of duets (or at least one), probably (though not necessarily), without bass can be both stimulating for drummer and other soloist alike and also create a fresh texture for the ears of the audience.

5) Write longer sections for the drummer to solo over

Instead of writing a bare vamp for the drummer to play over, why not write something a bit more involved? This can be particularly nice in a slower tempo piece where drum solos are rarely heard. If you have a good creative drummer there’s no reason why they should only be given a chance to solo over ‘wham-bam-thank you ma’am’ kind of tunes. A slower piece with some nicely written passages for the drummer to interpret as a soloist rather than an accompanist can make a welcome change for everybody and freshen things up.

There are many more possibilities for using the drums, (or any instrument), as a solo instrument - like so much, it’s just a matter of having a think about the various possibilities available to us instead of always going for the default position. As we know, jazz has a fantastic tradition of drum soloists, and this continues to the present day - there are so many great drummers out there. So let’s try and take advantage of that by using our imagination on how best to incorporate solo drums into our music as an organic constituent rather than always as a flag-waving rabble rouser. Let’s give the drummer some

To finish - here's a piece by John Zorn's Masada where the drum solo is not only incorporated into the piece but almost IS the piece! This is quite an old-fashioned 'drum feature' in a way, but still great nevertheless - especially since it features one of the great contemporary drum soloists - Joey Baron

Saturday, July 16, 2011

No Culture

I was in the huge branch of FNAC in Sao Paulo recently, looking for some Brazilian music, and while I was browsing, some kind of anodyne generic pop music was playing over the sound system. It’s the kind of thing you hear all the time – female singer, the sound processed to the Nth degree, some kind of one-size-fits-all beat – and usually I pay little or no attention to it. But there was something about being in Brazil and listening to Brazilian music on the sound post devices they have in FNAC (that allows you to listen to CDs before buying), and juxtaposing that with the aural schlock on the sound system that made me think about this music.

And what I realised was – this is probably the first time in human history that a music has arisen that is derived from no national, or linguistic, or tribal or indigenous culture. It has no geographical centre – apart maybe from being vaguely positioned in the western world. It is something that can be heard anywhere in the world, yet represents no individual part of it. It is not American, though it has American influences, it is not British though though it is sung in English. It is some kind of featureless bland bromide that has its roots in no particular society, that speaks of, or for no particular people. Whose rhythm is not derived from or based on the rhythm of any language. It is a culture-less music – manufactured and spat out for the sole purpose of making money.

The songs do not speak of anything other than anodyne teenage love pangs, the voices are a bizarre electronic soup, compressed and manipulated to the point where they lose any semblence of being a real human voice. If someone sang in your livingroom and produced a sound as bizarre as the sounds that allegedly emanate from the throats of such singers as Madonna or Britney Spears it would be a truly scary experience. To hear that kind of robotic synthesis coming from a real human being would be just bizarre.

Yet it’s the norm in this music – this no tone, no passion, crocodile tears flat-line voice..........

If you go to India and hear the people there speak you can understand how the music links with the culture and the speech patterns of everyday life. The same goes for Brazilian music, Hip Hop, or jazz. The Beatles (possibly the first group whose music became truly global), are clearly British and represent a time and place. Go to Vienna and look at the 18th century buildings and the culture from which they arose and you can get a clearer understanding of classical music. Go to County Clare and listen to Irish Traditional Music in its natural environment and you will again see how music arose from and is aligned with linguistic, cultural and environmental factors – and history. The history, geography and culture of races and peoples are inextricably linked with, and represented by their music.

This other music on the other hand – this sticky treacly manufactured international pop goo, whose sticky effusions have polluted the entire planet, springs from no culture other than money. It represents only the international corporate business behemoth that has taken the name ‘music’ into its title, despite having no interest in the concept of what music really is.

It is unprecedented in human musical history – a music without any culture. A music without any message. And ultimately a music without any true humanity.