Month: December 2016

Being White and Playing Black Music

Being White and Playing Black Music

A tricky one to talk about without seeming ridiculous (a great fear of mine). But since starting this blog 13 months back I’ve come upon too much good stuff not to share. I’ll take a personal approach. Hope you enjoy it!

I was thinking back over some of the most influential gigs I’ve been to in my life:
The Headhunters in the Sugar Club; Killer Joey in Liberty Hall; The Candidates at Cork Jazz; Soweto Kinch in JJ Smyth’s….

I noticed that the most magical memories from those nights were the moments when I’d shouted out in reaction to the music.

Then I noticed a similar feeling surrounding memories of mind-blowing workshops I’d seen in college. One by Frank Gratkowski (about reacting instantaneously in a free jazz context) and one by Chander Sardjoe (about picking up tempo and feel information from a very short musical cue).

And there was a similar magic about musician parties I’d been to where, at drunk o’clock in the morning, we’d end up freestyle rapping in a circle.

Okay, enough nostalgia. But did you notice the common factor in those situations?

Later, I was re-reading Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which posits a special culture of that name uniting black people in the UK, Americas, Africa and the Caribbean.

Gilroy claims that musical¬†call and response (that was the common factor up there) creates moments of “fleetingly experienced” racial identity; “the imaginary effect of an internal racial core”, which may also be “socially reproduced by… mimesis, gesture, kinesis and costume”. “Lines between self and other are blurred and special pleasures are created as a result of the meetings and conversations that are established between one fractured, incomplete and unfinished racial self and others.”

On reading this, I immediately felt I’d discovered an explanation for my reactions at those gigs, and to recorded music. I always loved the unexpected moments of slickness in blues, hip hop, jazz or funk. Great timbre, time feel, syncopation, phrasing, etc., make the listener feel good, move their body and likely exclaim aloud. In this blog I’ve discussed such moments in the music of Monk, Sonny Boy Williamson II, The Fabulous Thunderbirds (a good example because you can hear band members making those exclamations), Muddy Waters, Big L, and so on.

(I’m being wildly subjective and general here. However a) I’m discussing big ideas in a short article, and b) the ideas themselves encourage subjective reaction because they come from a counterculture that resisted objectivity due to its association with rational scientific racial terror.)

Those moments had in common a mood or depth I found difficult to verbalise. I had to fall back on (black) slang: “bluesy, funky, hip, ill, dope, cool.”

Gilroy provided an explanation for what I’d glimpsed: within the structure of call-and-response, a listener becomes a participant, feeling part of something bigger: a style shared by evoking and tuning into body sensations and movements, spiritually and historically loaded with a consciously black identity.

…And that’s a problem. How can I be part of something black if I’m a white European?
Exploiting the identity of another less-privileged ethnicity or community is something we know to be wrong nowadays: cultural appropriation.

Which I’ve committed myself. Some merely embarrassing examples would be addressing a Nigerian taxi driver as “meng”, or giving some kind of rap hand gesture as a farewell to a girl I liked when leaving the country. (It’s best for us all if you don’t try visualise that.) A party of young white people I attended where, upon the music getting funky, someone called out “Let’s get real black in here” crosses the line to become offensive.

So how the heck can I square this? Isn’t it immoral for me to invite myself into a black communality by imitating these styles?

Let’s turn back to Gilroy’s powerful ideas for a sec.

The black Atlantic – a dispersal of consciously black culture echoing and re-echoing across the Atlantic, and also all over the New World, beginning with the slave ships. Some familiar manifestations are Afro-Cuban music and musicians in bebop, the Jamaican influences on hip hop and the US rhythm’n’blues/Jamaican reggae/UK bass lineage.

Using found objects, that is, black appropriation of white forms and reconfiguring them e.g. the English language. Blues lyrics coming from English poetry/folk music are a favourite example of mine, and tonal harmony in jazz is another basic one. By harsh necessity, black Atlantic culture was not purely African but hybridised.

As soon jazz and blues become at all widely known, they were listened to and performed by whites – more hybridisation. Many whites profited by selling black music as mainstream entertainment, obscuring its origin. This process is justifiably a massive sore point for black commentators, taking place as it did in a context of every kind of cheating of blacks. Cultural theft was committed wholesale.

Some white musicians were distinguished by unusual respect. Alan Wilson’s deep blues knowledge let him teach the aged Son House¬† his own repertoire from recordings so he could perform again. Wilson’s crowning achievement was a recording session with John Lee Hooker, during which the latter said, “I dig that kid’s harmonica. I don’t know how he follow me, but he do. You musta listened to my records all your life.”Note that it is skill at call and response, “how he follow me”, that Hooker praises.

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Hooker and Wilson

(There are still question marks, though, to be raised about the band’s profiting off traditional black material.)

Jazz provides examples such as Bill Evans and Dave Lambert. These also have their complexities: their performance with black bands promoted an integrationist ideal of anti-racism that by the 60s and 70s looked inadequate. That is, those images of mixed bands seemed to be merely papering over deep, structural injustice that Africentric and African nationalist movements took a harder line on.

Having recognised that, we can examine the technical achievements. Bill Evans caught the attention of the premier black jazz theorist, George Russell, and the most influential black bandleader, Miles Davis, of his time. He could not only hold his own with the best improvisors, but brought new sounds and dynamics to Miles’ band. (Hybridisation.) He achieved this having deeply studied black greats such as Nat King Cole and Bud Powell (who he named as his greatest influence).

Dave Lambert worked in the popular jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, performing with jazz greats such as Basie, Ron Carter and Clark Terry. This film shows him vying with Jon Hendricks in a display of swinging interplay. I see and hear joy, elegance and stylistic mastery here.

Skip to 6:10 to get straight to it – check the other singers’ reactions at 6:15, 6:24, 6:32 and the trades at 6:49.

So perhaps there’s a way forward for a musician like me: a ton of work until the traditional material is mastered and sounds and feels good, leading eventually to acceptance in musical communities, cemented and ritualised by participating in call and response with good time feel. Of course, this resembles the standard narrative of how to make it in jazz. But I have a slightly better grasp now of its racial meanings. Although, as those examples show, there are always moral, political, racial complexities.

One more wrinkle before I sign off. Gilroy talks of “fragmentary racial selves” meeting in the call and response…. How did Bill Evans and Alan Wilson act out their race? (Perhaps unintentionally) they played up stereotypes of whiteness: uptight, withdrawn, unhappy. (David Ake notes something similar about Keith Jarrett.) I think these white codings may not be a negative thing – they are simply an appropriate “fragmentary racial self” for a white boy to bring to the table. So maybe I should freely represent my own nerdy European identity while doing, as skilfully and respectfully as I can, black processes.

Again, we’ve come to a jazz trope: individuality within tradition.

I’ll wrap up now, much as I’d love to delve into some political, spiritual and historical stuff raised by Gilroy’s fantastic book. In particular, I want to talk soon about the emancipatory political power in much of the music. Also how the power of tradition can be nurturing. And I’ll post soon about a composition project for January aiming to put some of this babble into action.

Thanks for reading!

Beats, Windows 98-Style

Beats, Windows 98-Style

It’s been a while since I blogged here. In the meantime I’ve been working a lot on my rock band Mescalito… but some blog ideas have been simmering in the back of my mind.

Today’s post is a quick chat about a creativity-boosting project I thought of. I’ll be making a drumloop a day, every day of December 2016 and uploading them to my Soundcloud.

I was recently producing beats for my trio with Dyl Lynch and Max Zaska. I enjoyed trying to imitate the likes of Madlib, using compressor and EQ plugins etc. to make our live performances as fat as possible. For this month’s project, though, I’ll just focus on drum programming. I’m inspired by another bandmate, Ben Prevo’s, song-a-day project where he used whatever was at hand to make a more-or-less finished product each day.

To avoid the rabbit hole of tweaking FX plugins, and for a healthy dose of nostalgia, I’ll only use software available in the year 2000!

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Hammerhead Rhythm Station (Bram Bos, 2000)
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Drumsynth 2.0 (Paul Kellett, 2000)

To me, these programs evoke a different world. I imagine bedroom tinkerers sharing coding techniques, knowledge of analog and digital hardware, and a love of dance music. Bram Bos’ program even displays his student email address, from a Dutch university. The last days of a smaller, less consolidated internet.

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The intro screen for Hammerhead

If you had a PC back then, your music-making options were limited to MIDI sequencing, basic layering of samples, trackers – or free programs like these.

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This screenshot took a bit of effort to find – it’s easy for the history of a scene like PC music software to disappear into the ether … Massiva, another program I was messing around with around the year 2000

The nicest thing about (my fantasy of) the 90s is the DIY mentality. The tools are by amateurs and rely on no-one else’s file formats or software. These guys saw a problem, coded up a solution and gave it to the world. That still happens today but you are far less likely to hear of it in the hyped and moneyed tech/startup landscape of today.

Admittedly, some of those pioneers monetised their work. Drumsynth 2 is now bundled with FL Studio.

I say “pioneers”, but the reason there was a space for pioneering, is that the professional music world had little time for PCs. PC music was a nerdy little field, obsessed with emulating “realer”, cooler sounds – a vibe you can pick up by browsing old magazines.

The presets in Drumsynth 2 do try to emulate iconic drum machines – but the little synth can’t really hack it and the noises are crude. I kind of like that though. To recap, I’m using 20-year-old free software to get a sound roughly (but not convincingly) like 40-year-old drum machines.

Having a small number of samples (20 preset, 6 custom, only 6 channels) in Hammerhead, my drum machine, forces me to listen closely to how sounds work together. No delay or reverb makes me strive for other ways of creating depth: volume differences, layered and interlocking syncopations, and expressive, varied timbres.

I’ll be pushing the software past what it was designed to do. Hammerhead does 4/4 beats in 16th notes only. By using odd numbers of bars, though, this can be got around (e.g. 5 bars of 4/4 can be 4 bars of 5/4). Similarly, the shuffle control can be abused for some beat-bending tricks, if the given 4/4 grid is disregarded.

So in a humble way this project might represent some DIY values from the hacker and demo-scenes of my idealised 90s – which were all about overcoming computational limitations.

By the way, those 4/4 grids are how I first learned rhythm, at the age of 12 or so (first in a MIDI sequencer, then in Hammerhead). Here is my first ever beat, from 2001:

And here is the first drumline of my month of beats, Windows 98-style. (Try this direct link if the soundcloud embedding doesn’t display below.)