Deciphering Culture

Posts Tagged ‘Genre


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Northern Roots singer Tim Eriksen turned me on to this trio of North Carolina musicians who are rediscovering (continuing?) the African American string band tradition. Part of what Eriksen labels the revival of Hardcore Americana. Check out the recent stories on NPR:

The Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops A Brand-New Album

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 1, 2010 at 10:18 am


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The Noise Pop festival of indie rock in San Francisco (23 February to 1 March 2010) for its 18th year. I’m checking it out and pondering what exactly is “indie rock?”

    • Wondering what exactly “indie” rock is? Is it a genre or a sensibility?
    • Anton (violinist) of “string metal” band Judgement Day told me Noise Pop is not about genre but about showcasing innovative bands.
    • So this is where the ’80 new wave led: The Fresh & Onlys (REM meets The Cure meets Live) at the Rickshaw Stop.
    • Sean Lennon at The Independent — mostly neo-psychedelic singer-songwriter stuff (competent but not interesting or engaging) . Only time  he seemed to have his own voice was on the encore song ‘This World is Made for Men.” Then, with only a solo acoustic guitar and a harmony vocal, he made a statement — simple, unadorned, poetic
    • Art of Noise cocktail party — only thing more boring than the art was the party.
    • Tape Deck Mountain at Cafe du Nord: a great psychedelic trio with no stage presence but great songs with piercing, funny, sometimes touching lyrics. Play those pedals! Look at all those pedals! Ended the set with a straight-forward, funny, touching song: “I’ll Tell You Lies.”
    • Greg Ashley followed Tape Deck Mountain: interesting finger-picked psychedelia on a Les Paul. No lyrics — seemed like a collection of intros. Got bored and left during the third song.
    • Picture Atlantic: good hard pop rock band with good vocals but a little heavy on the hooks. How many pedals do you need to play pop rock? Tight song structure but ultimately nothing to set it apart from other competent, enjoyable bands. Three songs and I’m out.
    • Indie rock —  is it a continuation of ’80s new wave (also not well-defined) without the sense of style or the attitude but keeping the sense of humor (like new wave even when it’s morbid, it’s funny)

    • No club hopping tonight – spending the evening at Cafe Du Nord where the Mumlers close the show tonight.
      • Four band bill:
        • The Ferocious Few: guitar/drums duo that began busking the streets of San Francisco — great roadhouse vocals (singer with standard hipster — skinny jeans, scraggly beard,  little hat — I should open a little hat store with nothing but little hats)
        • Sonny and the Sunsets: bass/guitar/drums trio that plays catchy, quirky tunes a la Jonathan Richmond
        • The Growlers: five piece local band with a devoted following — good bar ban
        • The Mumlers: six piece ensemble out of San Jose — neo retro Memphis soul — absolutely great! Could be big with a little seasoning and a little luck

    • Industry Noise conference on the business of music
      • Highlight is keynote by Claudia Monson who handles the business side of Stephen Merritt and also plays with his Magnetic Fields ensemble.

There isn’t one Stephen Merritt style — I like this one:

    • Dizzy Balloon at Bottom of the Hill (all ages / afternoon show)
      • One of the best bands at Noise Pop and one of the youngest — good poppy, almost bubblegum songs with Green Day panache. I was skeptical when Kevin Arnold, festival creator, touted them as one of the bands that the festival might give a bounce but, lo and behold, they are that good. Live, they’re completely professional, musically tight and FUN!
      • They ended the show with a good and very fun cover of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.”
      • The clip below is “Crazy Jane”

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 26, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Addendum to: It’s only rock ‘n’ roll (Tinariwen)

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The exoticizing of the non-Western other in World Music is a continuing phenomenon — freely used in marketing and eagerly accepted by most fans. “Music of resistance” is one sub-category of that phenomenon. In a recent preview of a San Francisco concert by Tinariwen, I avoided emphasizing their music as born out of resistance (it’s only part of the back story) but the headline my editor wrote included “rebel music” as a descriptor (see: It’s only rock ‘n’ roll — also links to two other recent pieces on Tinariwen).

Today (February 20, 2010), the Touareg website Temoust posted an enlightening interview with sociologist Denis-Constant Martin of the Cité de la musique museum in Paris. Martin discusses the “musics of resistance” phenomenon. Must reading for World Music fans. 

Musique touaregue de résistance : La marchandisation des sons (reposted from the Cité de la musique website: )

“Un mythe, voire une mystique de la résistance s’instaure à partir de discours tenus sur la musique qui ne correspondent pas nécessairement à ce que l’analyse musicale pourrait elle-même déceler.”(“A myth or a mystique of resistance is established from discourses about music that does not necessarily correspond to what music analysis itself could detect.”)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 20, 2010 at 10:45 am

It’s only rock ‘n’ roll (@ East Bay Express)

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Desert Rock — Tinariwen brings rebel music out of the Southern Sahara

By Jeffrey Callen

A slow Hendrix blues riff, deep, rough and insistent, slashes through the aural space. Broken down and repeated, the opening riff is joined by the offbeat upstrokes of a second, trebly electric guitar establishing a shuffle counterpoint. A fast rap barely breaks through the sound of the guitars, becoming louder when it morphs into a sung chorus with backing vocals (three, maybe four words). About four minutes in, the guitars drop out and the song is stripped down: a fast rap over a loopy funk bass line, accompanied by handclaps and soft percussion. The offbeat guitar upstrokes return joined by an arpeggiated riff on a second guitar, then a lead guitar. The vocals become secondary as the guitars propel the song to its ending and the opening riff returns. While the description could fit a performance of an up-and-coming indie band at the Noise Pop festival later this month, (to read more click here for the East Bay Express article)

A couple of other recent pieces on Tinariwen in the New York Times and S.F. Bay Guardian

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 19, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Abderrahim Askouri — Moroccan Pop Innovator

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In 2002, I spent a year in Morocco researching the emerging alternative music scene in Casablanca. Most of my attention went to the creation of a new genre of  Moroccan music that soon carried the  label “fusion.” Heavily influenced by French fusion bands, such as Gnawa Diffusion, Moroccan fusion blended Moroccan genres (cha’abi, gnawa, houari…) with rock, rap, salsa (and other international–mostly Black Atlantic–genres). Fusion also built upon earlier musical blendings. One of the roots of fusion was the music of the ’70s, which included the folk revival that included bands such as Nass el Ghiwane. Less remembered were solo urban artists, such as Abderrahim Askouri, described to me as a “musician’s musician” from Hay Mohammadi in Casablanca who influenced Nass el Ghiwane and other folk revival artists and also Khaled who spent a couple of years refining his chops in the clubs of Casa before returning to Oran and becoming a rai superstar.

Record producer Maurice El Baz played me some Askouri tracks but despite an evening searching cassette shops in popular quartiers of Casa, I never obtained my own copy of Askouri’s work. I just stumbled upon a posting by Abdel Halim El Hachimi on his Tales of Bradistan on Abderrahim Askouri and had to pass it on. Now, I got to get a copy of the cd Abdel so luckily found.  A final note Abderrahim Askouri’s nephew Younes Askouri is a very talented singer-songwriter working in Casa today, a member of the 21st century fusion scene (YouTube clip below).

Abderrahim Askouri -- click on album cover to read the story

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 5, 2010 at 9:56 pm

This week's genre transgressions (Swedish hillbilly/swing) (Canadian Arab pop/pscyhedelic/jazz/protest music) (European classical spa music) (Polish avant garde)

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Swedish Hillbilly/Western Swing with some bluegrass tossed in? Bring it on! Fiddler Ralf Fredblad and company must have spent many a dark frigid Nordic night listening to the heart and soul of Appalachia. The Original Rockridge Brothers bang out some of the most authentic Hillbilly you’ll hear, without irony or any suspicious modern trappings. “Rockridge Hollerin'” is pure gold. (go to Musical Emissions)

Land of Kush -- Against the Day

Montreal composer Sam Shalabi has played or found his way to be involved in many genres, including punk, free jazz, improv. Lately he’s been composing for large ensembles, one of which is the 30 member Land of Kush.  “Against The Day” is a five section piece whose foundation is haunting vocals, strings, and Shalabi’s Oud. Combining aspects of Arab pop with pysch, the piece begins with the eerie “The Light Over The Ranges,” before moving into the more trippy, Arabesque “Iceland Spar.” (go to Musical Emissions )

SPA MUSIC? New Book from Oxford University Press: Water Music Making Music in the Spas of Europe and North America by Ian Bradley.

Many of the most famous composers in classical music spent considerable periods in spa towns, whether taking in the waters, or searching for patrons among the rich and influential clientele who frequented these pioneer resorts, or soaking up the relaxing and decadent ambience of these enchanted and magical places. At Baden bei Wein, Mozart wrote his Ave Verum Corpus, and Beethoven sketched out his Ninth Symphony. Johannes Brahms spent 17 summers in Baden-Baden, where he stayed in his own specially-built composing cavern and consorted with Clara Schumann. Berlioz came to conduct in Baden-Baden for nine seasons, writing his last major work, Beatrice and Benedict, for the town’s casino manager. Chopin, Liszt, and Dvorak were each regular visitors to Carlsbad and Marienbad. And it was in Carlsbad that Beethoven met Goethe. Concerts, recitals, and resident orchestras have themselves played a major role in the therapeutic regimes and the social and cultural life of European and North American watering places since the late eighteenth century. To this day, these spa towns continue to host major music festivals of the highest caliber, drawing musicians and loyal audiences on both local and international levels.
This book explores the music making that went on in the spas and watering places in Europe and the United States during their heyday between (…to read more)

Unsound New York website

“Hello, New York: Avant-Garde Eastern Europe” by Steve Smith (New York Times)  — Krakow’s “Unsound” Festival comes to New York City with “programs of club-oriented electronica, indie rock, free improvisation, ambient music and contemporary classical work. In some programs such distinctions become meaningless: at the opening event, for example, Sebastian Meissner, a German electronic artist, will collaborate with the young Polish contemporary-classical group Kwartludium in a project inspired by the seminal California punk-rock record label SST.” (to read more)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 1, 2010 at 9:56 am

The Sync/Lost Project — charting the history of electronic music

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Tracing the history of electronic music is a mind-boggling undertaking — hundreds of sub-genres that seem to be constantly morphing into a newer, hotter incarnation. 3Bits (a Spanish company that specializes in interface design) has created an interactive map / experience of electronic music history. They used Processing, the data-viz programming language invented by infographics legends Ben Fry an Casey Reas.

Their creation SyncLost is a multi-user installation for immersion in the history of electronic music. From a complex timeline, rhythms and sub-rhythms merge to create new sounds.

The project’s objective is to create an interface where users can view all the connections between the main styles of electronic music through visual and audible feedback. The choice is individual and leads to a collective consequence in the spatial visualization of information.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

January 29, 2010 at 9:49 pm

"Northern Roots," "Americana," "Traditional Music" — The Strategic Nature of Genre Definition

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Recently I interviewed singer Tim Eriksen and among the subjects we touched upon was his creation of the genre label “Northern Roots” for the mix of traditional Angl0-American music he performs (he also works in other genres, including punk, jazz and Bosnian pop). The quote below highlights the strategic considerations of genre definition for musicians, particularly those for whom industry-set categories seem inappropriate or constricting. Eriksen also eludes to the creative potential of creating one’s own niche (or genre label).

Tim Eriksen: Well, I’ll start with the Northern Roots thing with an observation my friend Joe Boyd made several years ago in an article in Pitchfork. He was asked if there was any traditional music that he was excited about and he mentioned me and said something to the effect that when people use the term “roots music” or “American roots music” or “Americana” they are usually talking about strictly Southern American traditions. And he singled me out for being unusual because of my interest in music from the Northeast. So for me, it is kind of a pragmatic thing, just a way of trying to identify what it is for people, to give a one or two word answer which is what venues are looking for, what magazines are often looking for, just to try and get a handle on it. So even if it’s not 100% true, it gets you a little way in the right direction (or in some kind of useful direction). Then you can complicate it and qualify it after that. So the way that I’m thinking about it is that I’m from the Northeast and I’m interested in my surroundings. I’m interested in little bits and pieces culturally, physically, the natural environment, history. And my eye has always gravitated toward things that aren’t supposed to be there, like old gravestones, things that were not a part of … my supposed popular culture (even though I’ve always participated in that in a million different ways).

Written by Jeffrey Callen

January 6, 2010 at 11:19 am

Genre Boundaries: World Music & the Space between Artist Self-Identification and Music Industry Categorization

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A recent conversation with “Northern Roots” singer Tim Eriksen set me to thinking about the strategic nature of genre identification. Eriksen is an exception in that he has created his own genre label to identify his quirky mix of  American “roots” material. For him it’s hopefullly a way-station on the way to defining his work as simply his own — in the way that a Bob Dylan album is always first of all a Bob Dylan album. Still, for most artists, genre identification is a necessary exercise in balancing self-identification (comfort with a label) with industry categorization (so interested listeners can find you). You got to play the game if you want to get heard.

Nowhere is the conundrum of genre more tangled than in the so-called World Music realm where issues of marketing and how to sell to the Western consumer take precedence. Although, aesthetics and some power dynamics have shifted in the almost three decades since World Music emerged as a marketing term. The following observations still seem pertinent.

World Music “fusions” are often little more than marketable forms of aural tourism in which exotic locales are tamed and made approachable for Western consumers. This use of “fusion” reflects the overwhelming preoccupation in Western discourse with “difference” in which interactions with non-Western cultures are presumed to be infrequent and of minor importance. While this orientation has come under intensive critique during the last several decades, it still exerts an intense pressure upon the Western mindset (see for example the writings on this by James Clifford and Arjun Appadurai) — plagiarizing myself from my dissertation French Fries in the Tagine (2006).

World music means music of the poor…. You get music from the poor and try to get the rich to listen to it… It’s like a big European producer coming in and saying “This is a good sound but you know it’s not well-exploited. We are going to do something better with that” (Interview of Reda Allali of Hoba Hoba Spirit, 2002).

Allali, of the Moroccan band Hoba Hoba Spirit, was stating a sentiment I heard repeatedly from African musicians, including Moroccan rapper Don Bigg and Malian bandleader Cheikh Tidiane Seck (for Salif Keita and Oumou Sangare). World Music is not a category meant for them and it doesn’t satisfy them, artistically or financially. It’s a matter of who has the control, musically and financially. But what about the opening up that can occur with crossing cultural and musical boundaries. That is the primary emphasis of Western artists who make the journey across musical boundaries between North & South, Western & Non-Western. I must admit that I disregarded the sincerity of that sentiment in forming my opinion of the World Music phenomenon. A recent interview of French World ‘n’ Bass ensemble Watcha Clan set me to reconsidering my opinions. For me, it’s still in process. Below are extracts from some of the source material I’m considering: the interview with Watcha Clan (available in full at and a piece I wrote on Moroccan musicians and their positionings regarding the World Music label a few years ago (available here).

Watcha Clan

…but there are all the misses, mostly World Music endeavors that perpetuate the worst of the North–South colonial heritage under the auspices of intercultural understanding. It’s the forefronting of the “Western” artist or musical reference and a certain rhetorical smugness that stands out. But all of this is just preamble to an album I don’t know what to do with. I should hate it. It’s rootless, “multi-cultural” music produced by “musical nomads.” On the surface, it’s all too precious but it’s got something and, sometimes, it’s got a lot. (to read more click: Deciphering Watcha Clan: Interview with Jeffrey Callen).

Hoba Hoba Spirit

The songs of Hoba Hoba Spirit fuse rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, and punk with cha’abi and gnawa. The members of Hoba Hoba Spirit were among the numerous musicians I met last year in Morocco who are creating music that transcends the narrow constraints imposed by the Moroccan music industry and media. Many of these musicians are making music that blends Moroccan traditions with musical styles from around the world. They feel this is simply a reflection of their lives which are both rooted in Moroccan tradition and enmeshed in webs of connection that make rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, reggae and salsa as much a part of their world as cha’abi, melhoun and gnawa.  Like numerous other musicians from the global South, they are  not interested in creating raw material for American or European artists or acting as exotic aural scenery for the Western market. (to read more click: Don’t Call it World Music).

Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 22, 2009 at 2:55 pm

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