I'm not sure what the blogging etiquette is re: posting entire articles that are available elsewhere. However, this is an excellent piece that deserves to be widely seen. Plus, I haven't got loads of time for posting original material at the moment. So what follows is an excellent essay by Jace Clayton on diasporic breakbeats, authenticity tropes, and making politicised Arabic-influenced electronic musics.
by Jace Clayton
(Originally published in the NYFA Quarterly
It’s party time in the Persian Gulf. I’m in the DJ booth, mixing Middle Eastern melodies and Western street beats to an Arab jetset on the roofdeck of the Dubai Hilton. Shopping Festival fireworks light the sky. I was invited to the United Arab Emirates by Shehab Hamad, one of the region’s more risk-taking event curators. He knew my work as DJ/rupture, and my label Soot , dedicated to rough diasporic breakbeats. Previously he’d invited Mutamassik, a Brooklyn-based DJ/producer whose style combines Egyptian roots with militant hip hop offshoots. Tradition literally gets scratched into the present during her performances.
One of the things that make DJs so thrilling and so boring is the slim distinction between easy charlatanism and mind-melting talent. A bad DJ is little more than a jukebox. A good DJ is a jukebox with a nice musical selection. And a great DJ reinvents the familiar and/or the obscure, imprinting her or his own personality via realtime improvisation using only fragments of other people’s music. A successful DJ can be a desegregationist, coaxing hidden harmonies out of unlikely voices. When hip hop started in the Bronx, DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa would mix in any record so long as it contained a funky beat: James Brown to Kraftwerk to the Monkees.
The type of mixing that Mutamassik and I do gains particular resonance with audiences who understand the Arab and African music we work with. Club spaces may be far from sacred, but they still operate along carefully codified rules, and when a DJ starts inserting sounds usually quarantined outside, people react. A potent DJ blend is both allegorical and prophetic: these sounds gel as if they were meant to be shared and reworked. So too, perhaps, the cultures that give rise to them.
With DJing, you can achieve what Russian composer Ivan Tcherepnin called “interpenetration without interference”—the ability for different sounds to occupy the same space and yet maintain their individuality in full detail. I love to exploit this polyglot nature: in Dubai this meant layering classic Moroccan milhun vocals (semi-classical sung poetry refreshed by contemporary contextual twists) with high-energy Indian bhangra rhythms and the latest slinky black American R&B instrumentals (with their current vogue for Middle East exoticism). Taking advantage of vinyl’s plasticity, I adjust the playback speed of all these disparate songs onto a common tempo, enabling two or three records to play simultaneously without chaos. Thus, songs made years or decades apart can become synchronized and multiple, with various audience members reacting to and recognizing different elements in the deep but danceable mix.
I’m fascinated by the frame-breaking possibilities of turntablism and sampling; but at the same time, I’m starting to view sampling as a very lazy gesture—innocent at best, creepily segregationist at worst. For example, if you’re sampling a sitar CD, it generally means that you can’t find—or can’t be bothered to look for—someone who actually plays the instrument. Sampling maintains cultural distance; collaborations require closeness. The difference is huge. It’s the difference between one-way cultural flow and the kind of dialogue that could lead to real community.
Proper collaborations offer much more than sampling, but even they aren’t untroubled. World music festivals love “fusion” groups whose members draw on diverse backgrounds to produce an anodyne sound seemingly intended to reassure the predominantly Western, middle-class festival audience: world music as foreign music with its distinctive features rubbed off, now suitable for mass consumption anywhere on the globe; difference with a jazzy backbeat you can groove to; the exotic but never the extreme.
Mainstream pop, reggae, and R&B offer an interesting solution: go synthetic. Star producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes have been inventing wildly creative pop songs for artists like Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake with a decidedly eastward lean. Yet there is, refreshingly, zero reliance on a veneer of authenticity. These are the few producers who can afford to legally clear all their samples, yet more often than not they choose to fabricate a prosthetic North African beat, or to replay a quarter-tone violin harmony line on a cheap synthesizer. Brilliant or lazy or both? Does pop’s self-replicating, amoebic logic wipe out all others? Suffice to say that The Neptunes song I played in Dubai received the best crowd response.
A glance in the other direction reveals an incredible culture of bootlegging, versioning, and westward exoticism in Arabic pop. At any Moroccan music store you’ll find endless cassettes such as HipHop Ray 2002! : a bootleg compilation that alternates rai hits with misattributed mainstream American rap. Or, a recent favorite of mine, the bootleg rai CD Compil Santana : the cover and CD artwork sports images of seven Moroccan vocalists . . . and Victoria’s Secret supermodel Laetitia Casta. Glamour becomes a universal glue.
Musical influence spreads like wildfire, wafting across borders of nation, language, and religion. Yet, controlling notions of authenticity police virtually all genres. Leatherbound anarchists are quick to classify what is and isn’t punk rock; “keeping it real” is a constant refrain in hip hop; talk of “pure” flamenco abounds in Spain although Arabic influences are clearly audible in the vocal ululations and sinewy guitar style of Spain’s cherished “national” music. So how do we keep it real if our mission is to adapt multiple traditions into an idiosyncratic unity? All music springs from multiple roots, yet the history of the hybrid is no history at all, just an X on the map where the border-crosser left both lands.
People who are actively situating themselves within multiple traditions tend towards iconoclasm. For example, Turkish artist Serhat Köksal performs with samplers, saz, electronics, darbouka, and spoken word. His output swerves exuberantly between Anatolian folk, experimental electronic textures, and improvisation heavily inspired by Turkish cinema. The pastiche may seem wild, but Köksal has worked to refine his approach for nearly two decades. Critically, Köksal is operating with polydirectional influences—new avant-garde trends inform his saz and darbouka playing, and vice versa. Film reaches across media to impact his sound as well. The title of his last performance cycle suggests a lot: No Turistik - No Egzotik Improvise/Electro Folk Cut . Neither the “ancient wisdom” of Turkish folk nor the “contemporary currents” of electronic music take precedent. Instead they frolic and tussle, each available to be infected by, or infatuated with, the other. Vulnerability is a precondition to cross-pollination. Open ears, opens minds, open wounds.
In addition to my activities as DJ/rupture, I make music as Nettle. Nettle originated in my fascination with the concept of an album heavily influenced by Middle Eastern ideas, but not necessarily at the audible level. I was unsatisfied with the narrative poles of electronic music—loop-based dance pieces or abstract/ambient pieces without storytelling force. A suite of rigorous modal improvisation in Arabic music called taqasims offered the solution: I knew and loved their internal play between free-flowing improv and strict technical guidelines. I spent a year or two translating these ideas into pieces for samplers and laptop. Two albums later I still wasn’t satisfied: one-way cultural flows aren’t good enough. I wanted community, two-way translations, the squeal of a feedback loop.
Earlier this year I was commissioned by a British arts council to transform Nettle into a proper live ensemble. Violin, oud, percussion, electronics, realtime sampling. I’d been involved in Barcelona’s Moroccan music community for awhile, but the Nettle project has upped the intensity of collaboration. A few days ago, Nettle’s violin and oud player, Abdelaziz Hak, brought up taqasims to explain his response to a beat I’d prepared for him. I broke into a silly grin.
This is working. We’re starting to get under each other’s skin.
Jace Clayton is a writer and musician based in Spain. He has performed around the world as DJ/rupture and Nettle and his essays have appeared in the Washington Post ,The Wire , and other publications