1999: Toumani Diabaté with Ballaké Sissoko - New Ancient Strings
I wish I could say I was some sort of expert on world music, but the sad truth is I’m not. Every time I roll into a record store feeling awesome about picking up an album by some obscure sitar player, I inevitably walk out with literally dozens of new artists added to my future-purchases list that I’ve never heard of. The long and short of it: this isn’t going to be an article on the ethnomusicology of West Africa. All I can do is recommend one of my favorite world music releases from the last couple decades based solely on the fact that it sounds good to my ears. Damn good.
New Ancient Strings is a collaboration between Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko, two great kora players that play great together. The kora is a massive 21 string harp made from gourd, cowhide, and wood that is widely used in West Africa. It’s played with bare fingers and has a massive range, making it a captivating instrument for solo performance. Diabaté and Sissoko gathered in Bamako, Mali on September 22, 1997, almost forty years after Mali’s independence, and cut this entire album in one sitting. The virtuosity of this album is apparent from the opening notes of “Bi Lambam” and doesn’t let up for an entire hour as these two trade mind boggling phrases with what sounds like casual ease. But the real miracle of this album is that it never sacrifices its emotional tone for mindless kora wanking. Every note feels like it has a place, and both musicians provide excellent foundations for the others fingers to glide all over. This might not be the deepest cut of African music you’ve ever heard but I guarantee it can find an audience among almost any listener, something not many world music albums can boast.
1958: The Missa Luba
From the start you’re grabbed by the passion, the rhythms, and most of all by the sense of love put into the music. The Missa Luba, originally performed by Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin in 1958, has been making converts of people who would not normally be interested in church music, or world music for that matter. To brand this music with such labels would be a major misstep though, because the Missa Luba transcends such tropes.
The recording is a Congolese adaptation of the Latin Mass arranged by a Franciscan Friar Guido Hazaan, and recorded by a male children’s choir. It was recorded four years before the start of Vatican II when Latin was essentially phased out of the Mass. In the original liner notes Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel described the sound as being an example of a missionary learning from a new culture instead of forcing something upon people. When you hear the recording you probably won’t understand anything being said, but that never gets in the way of the sense of love and joy coming through. That sort of thing can be off putting at first, but the sincerity here manages to blow away any sort of cynicism. This has certainly allowed the Missa Luba to grow in respect over the decades and stretch its influence outward instead of being forgotten as a world music gimmick.
That overwhelming sense of bliss in the music brings me to a rather unexpected musical connection. If you listen to the Missa Luba with ears up to date with modern music, you might be shocked by how similar if feels to albums like Person Pitch and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Throughout their entire discography Animal Collective have nailed that same combination of spiritual power and tribal freedom; arguably one of the key reasons they have such a dedicated fan base. These share the Charles Ives philosophy of all music having equal value, from Church music to folk songs.
When Noah Lennox toured last year he would usually let Tomboy closer “Benfica” bleed into Person Pitch opener “Comfy in Nautica,” some of the most powerful moments on the respective albums. That moment felt strong enough to be playing in a church, it could have fit in during a Mass, and that is exactly what Father Hazaan accomplished with his choir: music that expressed a universal spirituality regardless of cultural boundaries.
1980: Dead Kennedys - “Pull My Strings”
As far as flipping a massive middle finger to the music industry goes, The Dead Kennedys might have locked up best “fuck you” of all time during the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards. After being asked to play their underground single “California Über Alles” at the show, singer Jello Biafra and drummer Ted (flashy name right?) took it upon themselves to pen a tune railing against the shitty state of popular music at the turn of the decade. The result was the one-off “Pull My Strings” which drew plenty of laughs from the audience and instantly bared the Dead Kennedys from ever attending the show again, not such a high price considering how brilliant the song was. Each member of the band came onstage with a giant S painted on their shirts and, right after the aborted bassline of “California Über Alles,” whipped out a concealed tie creating huge $ signs plastered across their chests. Then they tore into a bitingly critical rant on the music industry’s prefab, boring artists with big cocks and no brains. There’s even a reference to “My Sharona” in the guitar line with the phrase “My Payola” (a payment by a record label to get radio stations to play their songs) substituted. This is classic Dead Kennedys, as much wit as menace and equal parts smarts and pure punk fury.
2003: Open City - The Birth of Cruel
I heard of Open City through guitarist Peter Kolovos’ fantastic solo record from 2009, New Bodies. Kolovos’ uniquely fragmented approach to the guitar was honed in the Los Angeles-based improvisational trio Open City, so I tracked down a pair of their albums: L.A. We Revise Your Neglect (2002) and The Birth of Cruel (2003). I tend to prefer listening to the latter, which better documents the louder side of the trio, opting for a more abstractly textural sparseness than of the former.
The trio performs dynamic improvisations, able to sustain explorative loud sections about as well as more ponderous, haunting, and slightly silly parts. Hints of Kolovos’ guitar-toggling abuse further explored on New Bodies appear here; often, it’s thrilling how well Kolovos’ hiccup-y guitar echoes mesh with co-guitarist Doug Russell, even when the guitars tend to unexpectedly clip and morph. Drummer Andrew Maxwell is also dynamic in the same unpredictable sense, briefly rhythmic before going silent or scraping at his kit’s hardware.
The Birth of Cruel is constantly abstract, but not without a sense of group understanding – it’s even fun at points, with the guitars urged to perform nuanced glitches or richly textured drones at any moment. Best yet, the LP ends on a locked groove of humming low-frequency guitar drone – The Birth of Cruel has no end! Less cloyingly: it rewards active listening, so as to not miss one of the many scattered creative ideas being played between the trio.
Writing about Open City today, however, yields me with an uncommon problem: there’s really not much on the internet about this trio. No Youtube videos (at least none of Open City themselves, though a few videos of Kolovos playing solo are out there), less than a hundred listeners on last.fm, and their name is broad enough that an unspecific search merely yields several city development pages. Aside from pages on Thin Wrist’s website for their now out-of-print records, the trio’s online presence is nil. That leaves me with the basic facts –according to The Birth of Cruel’s liner notes: no edits, no overdubs. Better excuse to let the music speak for itself.
2002: Yo La Tengo: The Sounds of the Sounds of Science
Yo La Tengo are like the radio for many people: a constant companionable stream of distortion and static that throws up gems as frequently as they provide interludes of background music. The process of sound for them has always seemed to lead to songs as naturally as it leads away from them – not forcing a choice between one or the other. I’ve always thought that songs for Yo La Tengo were like motels or picnic sites. They were places where Ira and Co. would uncork flasks and thermos’ and settle with some plain conversation. At the time The Sounds of the Sounds of Science was released Yo La Tengo were in the middle of a particularly long diversion in favor of more muted, instrumental pieces, beginning with And Then Nothing Turning Itself Inside Out. Fans were worried, but they shouldn’t have been. YLT later returned with some cacophonous punishment on I am Not Afraid of You and I will Beat Your Ass. Since then, they have done quite a few soundtracks, which they collected on They Shoot We Score (2008), but The Sounds of the Sounds of Science was the first soundtrack they fully scored.
The films that Yo La Tengo scored on Sounds of Science were made by the controversial documentary maker Jean Painlevé. Painlevé’s films from the 20s onwards were mostly about undersea flora and fauna. However these films, normally the property of science’s exposition, were not dissections of behavior in Jean Painlevé’s hands, but abstract, surreal cinematography about undersea society, presented in a way that some criticized as anthropomorphizing or focusing on the aesthetic rather than the functional patterns of the habits of undersea creatures.
With a YLT soundtrack sea-life does not look alien, but as restless and comic as human life in a coffee shop setting. “Shrimp Stories” in particular is pure YLT comedy. Besides being a particularly good example of a typical YLT screwball jazz track, it also seems to anthropomorphize shrimp-life, as if it were a loose ‘n’ baggy Sesame Street kind of world. It reminded me that the reason we anthropomorphize the lives of other creatures is not necessarily to impose our perspective, but sometimes to remind ourselves that we’re creatures too.
The only unfortunate thing is that Yo La Tengo without the conversation can be a bit plodding. But there’s something about this trek through the lives of sea creatures that, when accompanied by the visuals, is very “sympathique” – the French word for ‘friendly’ – which, for this English speaker, connotes a kind of laid-back sympathy between creatures that Yo La Tengo can aptly describe.
1979: Robert Ashley - Automatic Writing
I recently revisited composer Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing after listening to several hours of Lil B The Based God. We live in an iPod-shuffled world of divergent tastes so this kind of thing can happen all the time. It always pleasantly surprises me though when this mode of listening offers new insight into connections that can be made across genres and disciplines.
Automatic Writing was composed over a period of five years in the mid 70s. Ashley states he was depressed by the public’s disinterest in his type of music (avant-garde operas). He was intrigued by “involuntary speech” because his own mild case of Tourette’s syndrome led him to juxtapose his own uncontrollable vocal outbursts with the unconscious actions inherent in composing music. He saw his involuntary speech like a primitive means of making music.
Apparently his initial attempts at recording these Tourette’s outbursts failed. He confesses that the performances ended up being imitations of involuntary speech while there were only a few moments where he truly lost control his speech. The story goes that he waited until the summer when Mills College (where he taught) was deserted. Then and only then did he collect 48 minutes of truly unconscious speech.
This would be interesting enough for me to listen to it all the time – Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound did listen to it all the time… on acid. But, no, Ashley didn’t stop there. Since he composed mainly in episodic experimental operas, he added three more characters to layer on top of his vocal part. The second character is a female French voice translation of the Tourette’s speech. Third, there’s a Moog. Fourth, there’s an organ. I find these other voices to be an important piece to the puzzle. The best avant-garde artists always feel a need to transgress form and content, delivery and substance.
I don’t think Lil B’s “based” freestyle is far off from Robert Ashley’s involuntary speech opera. Both artists tap into the subliminal, the unconscious, the involuntary. The performers channel words and thoughts instead of willfully creating them. Sure there are many differences between avant-garde operatic music and avant-garde post-millenial rap. But there is justice in the fact that people will recognize and appreciate the beauty of the artistic process in both cases.