On That Note

This blog was founded to promote study of black music. In the last months anti-racism has become unprecedentedly mainstream with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the US and their global echoes. I support that cause and I’m glad to see this widespread shift in opinion affecting many organisations.

Closer to home, Irish people are channeling that energy into the End Direct Provision movement. Direct provision is a disgraceful, inhumane and wasteful system that deprives individuals and families seeking asylum in Ireland the right to work or cook their own food, for years on end.

The other anti-racism challenge for Ireland, from what I can see, is integrating immigrants, especially second-generation youth, at the community level.

I don’t play music or do musicological research anymore, but the respect I gained for black culture through both of those activities will always stay with me. I love black music so much, I could go on for days! And don’t get me started on the black philosophy, metaphysics, style and other wonders I glimpsed in the course of my old studies.

This blog stands for fairness for black people. How beautiful that will be when we get there, probably only song can express.

Thanks for reading Drum Chant!

Magic and Desire

A good friend sent me some clips of The Carbonaro Effect recently. It’s a hidden camera magic show with 5-minute segments, perfect for YouTube, of unsuspecting people in public places momentarily believing the seeming impossibilities manifested by creator Michael Carbonaro’s sleight-of-hand abilities (plus a lot of set and prop design).

Without intruding on anyone’s right to watch mindless entertainment as sheer relaxation, I want to explore what makes these little clips so compelling. Come and enjoy some magic with me!

In this trick, Carbonaro buys a Singapore Sling at a cocktail bar, and starts pulling out some of the tacky ornaments that normally go in such drinks, commenting on them and getting the attention of a young woman alone in the next chair up. Without in any one moment getting too utterly implausible, he removes a ludicrous quantity of objects, while keeping the girl at the edge of engagement and disbelief with his smooth, slightly dopey patter. She’s already murmuring “that is so cool” by the time he takes out an egg with a tribal mask pattern printed on it – just about plausible, for a second anyway, in a place called the “Tiki Bar”.

Getting the timing seemingly just right, he cracks the egg and a live green budgie flashes out, flaps around and settles on the rim of the glass (more of a vase, textured and opaque). The girl freaks out, and Carbonaro, still in his guileless persona, slips away to “wash [his] hands”.

In another trick worked in a cosmetics shop on a more sceptical woman who recoils at least twice but is drawn in by Carbonaro’s patter and intimate vocal tone, he apparently transmutes a chicken wing, buffalo sauce and blue cheese sauce into a lovely-smelling soap for men. Again, the timing and pacing are great, with a sealed plastic tub instead of an egg being opened for the climax.

They’re great little stunts. What makes them entertaining isn’t so much the trick, though, as the reaction of the mark, how it’s attained, and the highly emotive nonverbal story it tells. Carbonaro enlists a massive cultural context in bedazzling these women.

He initially comes on like a man who probably wants something from them, a phone number or a sale, in a mainstream, commercial setting. He then focuses on objects that women might associate with a respite from the predations of men or commerce, that might be oases safe from the sleaze, belittlement and bleakness of club culture and consumerism. Cocktails and handmade cosmetics appeal to the young child in us who loves potions, secret ingredients and sensual pleasure.

Appealing to the young child in us…

Carbonaro slips inside these feminine-coded zones of release, innocence and magic, using their childlike appeal to bypass emotional defenses and scepticism… and then sinks home a dose of joy and wonder: what if the little bit of magic allowed by mainstream culture, the small luxury you turn to when life is tough, really was magic; and the silver-tongued charmer really only intended you to bring you innocent delight?

Seeing someone filled with childish joy is great TV, all the more so if she’s a good-looking woman like many of Carbonaro’s targets are, and even more so if she starts off plainly presented or emotionally guarded so that we get some ugly-duckling thrills. But what grabbed me emotionally and had me pondering these clips is something deeper. Archetypally, these two tricks tell a story of female magic transfiguring the male!

In the cocktail trick, a bar-propping potential sleazebag (Carbonaro himself, in character) is transformed into a beautiful exotic pet to be adored. In the cosmetics one, the grossness and rankness of men, as we can presume the woman has encountered it – their barbecues, TV watching, beer guzzling, etc. (which are of course the masculine culturally sanctioned zones of release and indulgence) – are transformed into purity and heavenly scent.

At the deepest level, these tricks appeal to a female and perhaps feminist desire: that men would wash their hands of sin. The image of Carbonaro washing his hands caps both the tricks.

Washing his hands of sin…

(This appropriates the century and a half of investment in images of washing as a moral, prestigious act – a domestic magic, in fact – that is detergent/soap advertising. Something that since Victorian times has intertwined race, gender roles and colonialism with our domestic lives).

It’s female power that accomplishes the miraculous transformations, symbolised by the yonic closed tub (which is heated – think of the phrase “bun in the oven” to make the link between furnaces and wombs) and the opaque cocktail glass, as well as the strictly feminine coding of cocktails, handmade cosmetics, ingredients and fancy things.

Female power redeems the male. Hard to think of a more loaded narrative than that!

Okay, so I’ve riffed pretty hard off these two little videos. To restate what I think is happening:

Carbonaro gets deep inside our mainstream capitalist/retail/advertising culture which is hard on women but which a) gives them small zones of respite and pleasure and b) holds out the hope that, as desirable females, they might persuade their menfolk to be morally purer; Carbonaro then delivers an ephemeral, impossibly perfect realisation of these painfully felt desires for sanctuary and redemption, which more typically just sell e.g. washing powder.

Carbonaro’s skill is in how intimately he inserts himself into submerged, but emotionally charged parts of our culture. Different aspects of his persona subtly undercut each other: openly gay in real life, he can take on a stereotypical gay engagement with rituals of femininity or a stereotypical gay cosmopolitanism; as a prim white guy he can deliver science-y patter his trick needs – while remaining unthreateningly kind-of-dumb throughout.

Other desires he taps into are motherly fecundity (with an impossibly effective juicer); and cosmopolitan glamour (with an art supplies shop becoming a portal to Paris at night).

(And then, to be sure, a lot of the time there isn’t any subtext for me to chin-strokingly analyse; most of his clips are just I-can’t-believe-he-fell-for-it gags or gross-out.)

It’s very smart; but I’m not claiming this is woke entertainment. Carbonaro appropriates and manipulates tropes and interactions from advertising and retail, but he’s 100% participating in capitalist distribution systems himself – these clips are ads for his TV show on TruTV, owned by WarnerMedia. They are formatted for the exploitative and opaque adtech ecosystem of YouTube.

More fundamentally, the fantasy Carbonaro sells us in these clips, of redeeming the everyday, is predicated on that everyday being the bleak, inequitable cultural mainstream of Western capitalism and authority systems.

The setup of the series does nothing to challenge that mainstream. It grants no agency to the participants, even though their reactions form so much of the entertainment value (and are invariably used for the video thumbnails). They’re not credited – I don’t know if they’re even well paid – and by the nature of the show they don’t consent beforehand. In our contemporary #content-driven culture, privacy, renumeration and control of one’s depiction are lost values.

At times, the racist and sexist society which forms the background for magical tranformation, reappears in the painfully deferential way some participants address the white Carbonaro: “You think I’m crazy, don’t you”, or “I don’t mean nothing by it”. Even with careful editing and selection of takes, the fantasy of upending privilege and inequality is fragile.

Maybe also the very idea of a magician is a bit retrograde and creepy: winning acceptance by painstakingly practised, seemingly effortless performance that maintain a cloak of mystery around its methods.

So overall, I agree with the judgement of my friend who sent me these videos in the first place – they are indeed a trashy, addictive dopamine rush. But it seems to me it takes a lot of heart to make something so emotionally resonant. The videos certainly grabbed me enough that I had to sit down and pen this. Carbonaro made me ponder how I might make art or music that respects the heat of moral desire in people, the fervent secret wish for the world to be redeemed in a moment’s magic.

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.

db_hooker_wilson1_copy1
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!