Married couple Danny and Tiffany Preston started Rainbow Arabia with the purchase of a Casio AT-1, one of Casio’s ‘Ethnic Music Keyboards’ that facilitates playing in the microtonal scales that feature in non-Western musics, such as those of the Middle East. They listened to Congotronics and prolific Syrian musician Omar Souleyman, whose bootleg cassettes litter Middle Eastern and North African cassette kiosks and, thanks to the efforts of outré non-Western-pop-bottlers Sublime Frequencies, the neat CD and vinyl stores of Rainbow Arabia’s hemisphere. Thus equipped, Rainbow Arabia have plugged these interesting possibilities into a prefabricated niche whose most popular planes are formed by the intersection of the likes of Gang Gang Dance, High Places, Javelin, M.I.A., Little Dragon, The Knife… all with the intention to “just make fun and interesting music that everyone can relate to and maybe get exposed to some new culture,” say Rainbow Arabia.
Never mind the cultural appropriation bollocks, here’s “ethnotronic industrial pop.”
What is this ‘ethnotronic industrial pop’ you speak of? Let’s take a peek, insha’Allah. First, we can dispense with industrial. This LP lacks the jammed-out, cheaply produced live-rec grime (the charm) of Rainbow Arabia’s EPs that might have allowed such a tag to wander into the labelling line-of-fire. If that kind of grime can be called industrial, then halal punk demigod Souleyman himself has a far better chance of collaborating with Einstürzende Neubaten than these dudes do. As for ‘ethnotronic,’ it might be too late to snort derisively, but Danny Preston says the tag is self-explanatory, whereas ‘world music’ is a vague term. To wit: “Our sound has that 80’s feel to it but not quite as stereotypical as it was then. We have been exposed to more obscure music from different regions than what was available back then. Also, we have so many other types of influences that [fuses] together into something entirely new but old at the same time.” Neither the term ‘ethnotronic’ in itself, nor Preston’s explanation, serves to elevate the term ‘ethnotronic’ from the same doldrums of the vague where the term ‘world music’ lies, dehydrated and starving, limply swatting at the flies feeding at its eye crusts with a ragged United Colors of Benetton catalogue.
This is a band that wishes to distance itself from cultural politics by just, y’know, hanging out and having fun with some wicked Middle Eastern plunderphonics while, at the same time, making music videos featuring the pair in a desert (Californian, not Palestinian) trading day-glo machine gun rounds and psych grenades with their instruments wielded as weapons. To say that they’re all and only about the surface play of interesting, less-heard sounds while claiming to trump the ambitions and erudition of 80s ‘world music’ while also flirting with quasi-political posturing is a vacuous and hypocritical position to maintain.
Let’s assume that through the transnational interwebs Rainbow Arabia have probably possibly been exposed to far more music than their 80s forebears. First, I blush for Peter Gabriel, responsible for breaking musicians like Youssou N’Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to a Western popular audience whose ‘exotic’ or ‘Oriental’ musical horizons had until then been largely configured by the influence of raga and Afro & Euro-American folk idioms on rock and pop. Certainly the pop crossover phenomenon epitomized by the likes of Gabriel, David Byrne, and others (as well as the more experimental efforts of Eno and John Hassell) comprises some of the “stereotypical” ‘feel’ we associate with the 1980s music — a ‘feel’ perhaps freighted with a certain annually-regurgitated heal-the-world earnestness that is implicitly devalued in Preston’s defence of his band’s superior cultural genealogy. Rainbow Arabia come equipped with a modern, enhanced-exposure purview, a better honed armory of ironic detachment.
That Rainbow Arabia come better equipped to tackle ‘world music,’ that these days one can gain far much more exposure to the world and its diverse musics raises a second point. The assumption that the internet (because surely this is what Preston indicates) is a rhizomatic, enabling, open network that lets folk in the favelas freely funk out with, I dunno, b-boys in Austria has limited currency when you reflect on how the most valorized effect of the internet — democratization of information — has little sway in countries where democratization is either an aspiration or an empty buzzword. That several upheavals (often in the name of an absent or nominal democracy) have recently occurred in several Middle Eastern countries (whence much of Rainbow Arabia’s sound is sourced) and that these upheavals were met by widespread web censorship add impetus to this parallel. My point is that transcultural exchange is often not a two-way street. Power is invoked, and knowledge is taken and sold more often than shared. But of course, Rainbow Arabia are not tackling world music or the implications of such a task in a political sense. They disavow such engagement, though they adopt some of its suite of gestures. I find this exasperating.
It doesn’t help that to be “entirely new but old at the same time” is a shaky claim in these days of endless pop tessellations, or that this album sounds so much like so many other albums from so many other bands. First port of call, Sweden’s Little Dragons, whose album artwork for Machine Dreams was executed by Hideyuki Katsumata, whose work adorns a handful of Rainbow Arabia’s releases. “His art looks like how our music sounds,” says Preston, and it appears that the similarity with Little Dragon remains, however far removed that Swedish band are from what Preston acknowledges as the L.A. scene shared by Rainbow Arabia with Hecuba, Fool’s Gold, We Are The world, Warpaint, Polyamorous Affair, Devendra Banhart, Voices Voices, Alexandra Hope, Weave, Pizza!, Edward Sharpe.
Let’s add closer cousins High Places, Javelin, Gang Gang Dance (T Preston’s voice is uncannily like Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzi Bougatsos), without forgetting the less-than-inimitable (it seems) M.I.A. This last artist is a key comparison, one whose scintillating sounds seemed a truly fresh and original combo of elsewhere’s beats and pieces. But an artist whose ‘colourful’ raids into the the global (marginal, subaltern) sonic scullery are rapidly losing their charm as quickly as these forays’ thin, eroding veneers of political engagement borne upon an increasingly vacuous body of pop begin to bear badly the traces of their diet. Vital ital for the ears is harvested and masticated for the mass market. Ears cocked towards the other end receive a healthy dose of musical pap that is without a doubt essential listening but, picking at it, reveals itself as composed of political statement chewed down to sloganeering, an earnest ideal of musical community crossed with deference to roots digested into homogeneous reference.
Saying this album is derivative isn’t all bad, of course. With an open record bin before me, like so much rediscovered first through fourth-world booty, favorite track “Mechanical” is a clear mix-twin to Lucky Dragons’ standout Feather, and I’m thinking track three in the megamix could be any number of moody Fever Ray tracks, before a segue into an equally fitting Knife cut, before playing lightning hand and moving invisibly to Knife-a-like “This Life Is Practice.” Then something, anything with steel drums or something zitherish. To end, I was going to play the Moroder-ripping “Sequenced,” but decide on Giorgio’s very own “(Theme From) Midnight Express.” So very much more Oriental.
Rainbow Arabia might be good to dance to, but sunning oneself below its fluorescent glow isn’t going to sow the seeds of “new culture” in you. The centrifugal dirges and warped folkpunk energies of Souleyman are undoubtedly in Rainbow Arabia’s repertoire, but bottled and forgotten in the basement. Rainbow Arabia might have bought an ‘ethnic keyboard,’ but its potential remains minor and unstrung. Any microtones here are microscopic filigree on a Western confection. Speaking little to those other voices that Rainbow Arabia ostensibly enshrines — and I mean a real dialogue with the really Other — this new album turns, already old and readily forgotten, towards mostly well-trod terrain. In pop, the desert: I always knew it would be like this.