August 20, 2004



Here are a few landmines we can all step on together: Are writerly lyrics the same kind of lyrics as, say, Girls Aloud lyrics? Doing which kind best is what kind of acheivement? Are knee jerk reactions a fruitful kind of thinking? What category of thinking are they? Are they worth checking in with, even when you think you've "dealt" with them? Is there any point in making popular music if it's going to sound like you and your friends talking over the Magnolia DVD? Is this about "good" and "bad" or about what each form is good at? Should we really make up a list of winners and losers? Isn't this more about trends and ontology—where the music is going and what function it serves beyond giving or not giving us jollies? Why does evil money-making pressure foster good music and bad movies?

Here's where blogs not paying really interferes, because the questions deserve not my snarky gasface but surgically careful, meat-locker cold parsings. This is, like, a book and shit.

I just now—plate of shrimp—heard Les Savy Fav's "Your Fading Vibe" and there's an almost direct quote from Pavement's "In The Mouth a Desert." After that, there's also a distinct hip-hop influence, which makes me think we should talk about different generations of lyric generators.

Click below for that Fela email I told you about, and some further thoughts.

Boris follows up on Keith: "Isn't "Afrobeat" a reification by critics grouping together what's actually a fairly organic Nigerian phenomenon: kinda like indie rock, only in Nigeria?" And in many more words, but the same spirit, a man named Sam Sweet sends the note below.

A word, first, though:

There is a point to saying things like "James Brown and funk are the same thing." Or, I think it's frutiful to approach the issue that way, from a low but distant magnification. Huge cables sometimes rise, glowing, from the water of perception when you sight along the blunt edge of a big-ass generalization. The reductive grouping that advocates resent is the same grouping that the same advocates reach for when celebrating whatever it is they're celebrating. There's a reason it's called Afrobeat, and it's a pattern that, though tweaked and variated upon, runs through all this music. Same way garage rock is all trebly and has little or no bass. There may be infinite distinctions within all that headache stuff, but to deny a larger identity is simply daft. You may think, for instance, that rejecting hip-hop because it has a lot of cursing is an entire nursery going out with the bathwater. That doesn't mean hip-hop isn't committed to profanity in a deep and consistent way. I do think that saying "James Brown" and "funk" are the same thing is a certain type of organization, and not false because there are dissimilarities within what's being organized. (And do various organizations cancel each other out? We say no! Bring the tools.) I also maybe think Afrobeat and funk are not equivalently varied and roomy. But enough—let's hear from Sam, who is in many ways more right than I am. (I also think his questions are good, so maybe this isn't the last we'll hear about Fela. I am going through the records now.)

Sam Sweet:

"The fact that you don't dig Fela (it'd be impossible for anyone but you to modify your distaste for Fela—it's your tongue, after all) isn't nearly as befuddling to me as your proposed rationale. That you just can't funk to it is completely reasonable. The music doesn't give you that "frozen vein feeling"—fair enough. Affirming that Fela's music generates "an absolute flatline" is slightly harder to bear (whether or not you dig Fela, there is little about him or his music that could logically be compared to flatlining, or flat lines, for that matter), but acceptable; but for an astute and well-versed listener such as yourself to loosely combine Afrobeat, the "afrobeat pattern" (still can't decipher what you mean by this exactly), the music of Fela Kuti, and the music of Antibalas into a single monolithic (and uninteresting) music is downright disturbing, almost enough to give me that frozen vein feeling, but not in a good way. Sloshing all these things/terms together makes as much sense to me as affirming that James Brown, American funk, the "funk pattern" (again: whut?) and neo-JB'ers The Sugarman 3 are one in the same. To use "Afrobeat" and "Fela" interchangeably is as sloppy as using "James Brown" and "funk" interchangely; while both Fela and Brown are the seminal practitioners of their genres, and while the music of both is emblematic of the genre as a whole, there is no way the name of either alone can accurately connote the diversity of the respective genre.

Perhaps proper discernment and respect for diversity even within seemingly narrow genres requires a degree of passion for the music at hand. The Buzzcocks, the Ramones, and the Misfits will likely sound the same to someone who hates punk; Herbie Hancock, Sonny Clark, and Horace Silver will likely be indecipherable from one another for someone who can't get into Blue Note; and God knows Gigolo Tony, Tony Rock, and the Miami Boyz are easily confused among 99.9% of the American population, although a groggy Dave Tompkins wouldn't confuse them for a second. But surely even the unannointed of us music lovers have ears wide enough to decipher and distinguish even in genres in which we're not fully immersed. Right? I thought so. I think so.

I think it's interesting you immediately connected your disinterest in the Antibalas record with your distaste for Fela (and the two combined seemed to ignite your conviction that Afrobeat on the whole, is off the mark); I found the Antibalas record to be one of the most contrived, uninteresting, and downright awful records of the year, but if anything, it illuminated everything that was great about Fela's music for me (not to mention artists such as Segun Bucknor and Orlando Julius, both of whom have seen reissue in recent years). As your friend Boris confirmed, backstory counts for a lot: the contrived imitations of the Antibalas record (everything from the political naming of names to the sound of the keyboards moves way beyond Felatic inspiration into wholesale replication) undermine the "revolutionary" political position the band assumes (more like de-volutionary), and while the band confirms they are maintaining Fela's political/musical approach for the 21st century, their music serves more as a clear, contrasting reminder of the very real, directly dangerous context from which Fela was operating in the 1970s and 1980s. Fela was not working from a template, politically or musically—even if you don't dig it, his contributions are strikingly unique. As much as one could pontificate (beautifully, in fact) on the similiarities/affinities between JB and Fela (there was much more than a "vague musical link," as the two men listened, visited and watched each other perform), even a superficial listen will demonstrate how individualized the two were. James Brown played James Brown music, and Fela Kuti played Fela Kuti music. To reference you friend's note about "folks' assumptions" the two sound as alike as the Louisianan Robert Pete Williams and the Malian Ali Farke Toure. And Antibalas and, they are about as similar as Stereolab and Electrelane. As for being a bad person: marking Antibalas for what it is seems entirely positive and necessary to me. The real mistake comes with confusing them with Fela/Afrika 70.

I'd be more interested in hearing about your personal reactions to the music itself, rather than large-scale theorizing and claims. What is it about JB's sound that you find so lacking in Fela? Do any individual parts of the music (besides Tony Allen's undeniable drums) speak to you? How do the lyrics strike you? Does the political element dis/interest you in any way? Far worse than essentializing musics is essentializing perspectives on music; why does a personal reaction need to be justified by a large-scale truth? It seems odd for Keith Harris to put down the essentialist understandings of "folks" (most folks?) in the same breath he uses to label the entire Afrobeat genre "boring, stodgy, and generic"- fundamentally predictable? If we were talking about Antibalas I'd agree, but this description simply can't be applied to the all the music of Fela Kuti, Peter King, Orlando Julius, Bala Miller, Segun Bucknor, Blo, Joni Haastrup, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Mariata, K. Frimpong, Ebo Taylor, the Third Generation, and countless others any better than it can be to all the music of Blue Note, or all the music of Specialty, or all the American funk music of the late 60s and early 70s, for which James Brown was (arguably) the primary inspiration."

Posted by Sasha at August 20, 2004 12:17 PM | TrackBack