Jan 032010

You’re listening to an album that – on the face of it – is a long, long way from rock and pop, is astonishingly alien at times, astonishingly familiar at others: what do you do?

1) First you can wonder- what is it that’s influencing the way I react to this? And you can answer:

The seductive, floating-sweet oddness of Vasconcelos’ (small but perfect) contribution to Robert Wyatt’s magnificent    Comicopera . . .

A (pissed) evening last week spent listening to klezmer in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, moved, almost, to tears by words and sounds that seemed- on one level- incomprehensible . . .

Knowing sweet FA about Brazil, bar glimpses and hints: the shock of City Of God, the vigour and fun of CSS, the coma-inducing marshmallows of soft lounge, favelas, murdered kids and . . . the fact that, without the wonder, zest and spirit of the Brazilian teams of the 70s, you might not be the devoted (and long-suffering) football fan of today, chasing forever the chimera of your home-town team offering the same combination of ruthless effectiveness and miraculous skill . . .

2) Next you can think- maybe I should try and contextualize it? So you do:

We approach ‘World Music’ (that terrible, lazy ‘category’) with more than a little trepidation, those of us who grew up having swallowed the myth that one-two-three-four Anglo-American music (all of it, of course, in large part, African-derived music) was the only thing that counted, the only thing that could express how we feel. We approach Robert Wyatt and people like him- oddities, malcontents, revolutionaries simultaneously within and outside our own culture- with a similar apprehension: cognitive and affective and political challenges abound, the alienation of the languages- musically and lyrically- acting as a semi-permeable barrier to any attempt at dissolving into the music, at being moved and melted by it.  The temptation is then to patronise the alien, talk VERY SLOWLY AND VERY LOUDLY to it, whilst sticking, fundamentally, with what we know. We end up with a way of listening that shoves anything with significant jazz, classical, avant-garde, truly local elements, anything sung in Brazilian Portuguese, say, in Bulgarian, in Yiddish or even in an English accent, anything played on unfamiliar instruments, into a little box, patronized and patted on the head- we’re glad it’s there, equally glad if it stays there. We allow in reggae, say, Tinariwen, Buena Vista Music Club, Ali Farka Toure, maybe even Miles Davis, let through bits and pieces of the strange (which themselves have, of course, all been shaped, in part, by rock/soul/blues) to add some texture, bend things out of shape now and then. We maintain some pretty ferocious, if (thankfully) rarely predictable, border controls still: the blokes in the caps, sunglasses and automatic weapons do seem to have waved through a fair bit of Brazilian stuff over the last couple of decades, though, letting it hide in the lorry marked ‘Latin’. Some of its rhythms and playfulness and sadness- the love-life sex and swing of samba, of bossa nova, the morphing of indigenous and adopted US and European musics that’s become MPB- have become familiar, though never mainstreamed.

3) And then you can think- just get on with it: Continue reading »


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