October 11th, 2008


So wrong it's right, so right it's wrong

I was listening the other night to a 17-minute, ultra-minimal, ultra-repetitive guitar pattern by Albert Nene on Gumboot Guitar: Zulu Street Guitar Music From South Africa. "What is that?" Hisae demanded, amazed at how scratchy, amateur, long and "wrong" it sounded. I explained it was South African music played for teams of booted Zulu miners to dance to. It sounds the way it does because it's been transferred to the guitar from traditional African instruments, in this case the musical bow.

The "wrongness" of the sounds and structures of African pop music are as appealing as the wrongness of the cassette sleeves they come in. Conversely, the "rightness" of much Western pop is what makes it so disappointing -- this Keane song, for instance, which just blantantly copies David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes, but makes it into a much more conventional and boring song with a "catchy" chorus. You just long for something to be wrong or odd or interesting, and it never comes (then again, by Keane's standards this stuff is "experimental" enough to be losing them some of their "mortgage rock" fans).

Anyway, for those who want to explore Afropop's wonderful oddness, Brian Shimkovitz's blog Awesome Tapes from Africa (link via Digiki) is, well, awesome. It's not that these African artists are copying their heroes any less avidly than Keane are. Just that, for an artist like Prince Okla, that's likely to be a much more eclectic range of influences: "a synthesizer-centric clash of reggae, electropop, Bollywood and local flavours" (local in his case being Northern Ghana), as Brian Shimkovitz explained to Fader.

Matthew LaVoie's African Music Treasures is also a good resource; I particularly like the Islamic devotional music here.

Not all Western music is as wrongly "right" as Keane, though. Back in February Anne Laplantine started sending me tracks from a 1996 Martin Rev album called See Me Ridin'. "I'm very surprised by these love songs, so tender and naive," she wrote, and asked me to transcribe the lyrics.

I don't find this album tender -- for me it's an astonishingly pure, disciplined and nihilist piece of conceptual art (you can listen to big chunks of it here). Rev sings "abject" 1950s-style ballad lyrics over basslines suggesting stereotypical chord sequences. The starkness and oddness of the cheap electronic arrangements cancel the cliches of the chords and lyrics, and instantly we're in the world of Leonard Cohen's "Death of a Ladies Man", or a David Lynch film.

The 1950s are presumably a formative memory for Rev, the source of all conformity and normalcy and therefore the touchstone for all weirdness and artiness. See Me Ridin' sounds like the programmed memory cells of a dying, sentimental replicant, firing at random. It sounds like someone's unconscious structured by heteronormative love songs.

I'm fascinated by how the redundancy of this music (the fact that we know already how it sounds) allows Rev to strip it down to the most perfunctory minimal gestures. And I'm fascinated by the "isolated universals" that emerge. Isolated universals are universal themes (love, sex, dating, hurt) played out in the sealed echo chamber of a long-dead era. As in a Lynch movie, the ultra-normal sounds ultimately sick here, and sentimentality and nihilism dance cheek to cheek in the gym.

Rev was probably a sick, skinny weirdo in the 50s, but in 1996 he was wreaking revenge on the normals by singing in their idiom. His record is wrong in all the right ways.