1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground: Review

1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground
Sublime Frequencies LP

Rai is familiar to most of us in its post-1980s incarnation as Algerian singers from the city of Oran such as Cheb Khaled who sang impassioned songs over drum machines, synths and Nile Rogers or, more recently, Dr. Dre style production. The roots of the music can be traced back to Bedouin music performed at weddings and other celebrations, transformed in the early twentieth century by stars such as the fierce Sheikha Remitti who introduced street slang, blunt sexual talk and the like to the traditional music, with its flutes and hand-drums. In between these moments lies what Sublime Frequencies calls “proto-Rai” – music made in Oran in the 1970s, after a period of assimilation of various foreign musical styles, after Algerian independence, and subsequent censorship by the Marxist government which sent the scene underground to seaside cabarets around Oran.
The disk is a revelation from start to finish – even for people already familiar with figures such as Bellemou, known as the “godfather of Rai”. The sound is driven by a solid bed of percussion, saxophones and trumpet that wouldn’t be out of place on an Afro-Cuban dance track. Accordions provide an organ-like warmth. The recordings come from 45s released by local Oran record labels which proliferated in the 1970s (tho Rai’s broader fame coincided with the ascendancy of the cassette, beloved of cab drivers around the world), and they sound lo-fi and funky, like a rare 1970s garage or funk side. Song titles like “He, Who Doesn’t Own a Car”, “I’m Still Getting Drunk … Still” and “The Nurse” strike a strange North African gangsta defiance. Stand out track is Cheb Zergui’s Ana Dellali (“I Cuddle Myself”). Zergui introduced the electric guitar into Rai and his sound is rhythmic and tough, as rock ‘n’roll as the Ethiopian Mahmoud Ahmed or Morocco’s Nass el Ghiwane, both from around the same period, and looking forward to Sublime Frequencies recent Tuareg rock discoveries such as Group Doueh and Inerane.

Marcus Boon

(Originally published in The Wire, 2008)

Global Ear: Toronto, on Rat Drifting

“Strange lads”, says performer Aimée Dawn Robinson, looking towards the makeshift stage that fills a part of the front room at Tranzac, an Australia and New Zealand social club that is the current center of experimental and improvised music in Toronto, in particular for the ensembles associated with excellent local label Rat-Drifting. On stage are The Reveries: Ryan Driver kneels on the floor with a mike placed in his mouth, strumming a quasi-ruler with a very elastic bass sound; Doug Tielli plays guitar and has a nose flute strapped to his face, through which he makes muffled sounds; Eric Chenaux, also strumming guitar, sings through a harmonica that is shoved up into his face. The group lurch through a set of standards including Jobim’s “Useless Journey” and “The Nearness of You”, filled with beautiful harmonics and stuttering guitar sounds that sound like Derek Bailey and the Hi-Los, bound, gagged and dosed with sedatives, then thrown into the boot of an old Cadillac, from which they continue to play, presumably for their lives. The room is almost empty, as it is for most Rat Drifting shows, and the Bluegrass band in the back room sounds louder through the walls than the guys right in front of us. A Friday night crowd of drunks staggers by the front window, peering through the glass and making faces at what they see. Strange.

Toronto’s experimental music scene has always had a hermit-like status in its hometown. Pianist and radio-work composer Glenn Gould refused to talk to people in person towards the end of his life. CCMC, the collective that has included Michael Snow, John Oswald and many other key Toronto improvisors, were famous for weekly shows to a mostly empty room at their performance space, The Music Gallery. More recent experimenters like Sarah Peebles and Nilan Perrera also remain virtually unknown to the city as a whole. Nobody seems too bothered by this. Rat-Drifting co-founder Martin Arnold compares the scene in Toronto to medieval monasteries which “were fierce places in terms of saving information that had come down to them. There’s still that abbey ideal here that this stuff is going on some place and you can join it if you want but if you don’t, it’s OK, because it’s going to be there anyway. It’s a place where you can remove yourself from given strains of cultural production and consumption.”

Rat-Drifting began when Arnold, an Edmonton-born composer and folk music fiend, traveled up to York University (where James Tenney also taught, and where I do now) to assist former CCMC member and improvisation guru Casey Sokol in a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. During work on the piece, Arnold met a number of Sokol’s younger students, including Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli, who all started playing downtown. Through this network, Arnold also met Eric Chenaux, former bassist of Canadian indie pop band Crash Vegas, as well as playing with his own post rock outfit Phleg Camp, and together, inspired by the efforts of Constellation and Alien8 in Montréal amongst others, they began Rat-Drifting in 2002.

Since that time, Rat-Drifting has gradually evolved into a whole ecosystem of cross-linked ensembles, most of which have produced highly impressive CDs. There’s the Reveries whispery distorted standards on Blasé Kisses, the Draperies’ synth and guitar improv on l’histoire du chapeau, Arnold’s pet project the Marmots’ Scratch Orchestra-like psychedelic jug band on Treacle Wall. And then there’s The Silt, whose two CDs, Red Whistle and Earlier Ways to Wander are full of glorious unlikely rock songs that emerge almost at random out of the conjunction of the three improvisors, Tielli, Driver and Marcus Quin, many of them sounding like Neil Young (another Ontario son) played at 16 r.p.m. Soon to come are the wobbling Beefheart-like big band Saint Dirt Elementary School, The Ryan Driver Quartet, featuring Driver’s gorgeous Chet Baker signaling through the flames vocals, and a remarkable half hour reworking of the traditional “Tam Lin” by Arnold for the Draperies and Toronto new music ensemble Array Music. It all sounds like an imaginary urban folk music – created for a place that has few obvious folk traditions other than native cultures, or the tradition of buying records made in other places.

Chenaux speaks of the label’s enthusiasm for improvising around song. “The song is older than anything. People like songs wholeheartedly here. It’s a great form for fucking with – and jazz standards allow so much.” “Those songs have so many valencies,” agrees Arnold. “They give you all the lushness and kitsch you want, but they have a history of being improvised on in the most serious way, and a lot of material to mess around with harmonically and melodically. The farther it gets from jazz, the more I like it.” Rat Drifting’s most recent success in this song-warping vein is Flocklight by Josh Thorpe, which consists of transcriptions of sections of songs by Tom Waits and The Shaggs, time-stretched so that they’re eight times longer than the originals, which form the basis for a series of remarkable ten minute plus pieces performed by Chenaux, Thorpe and others on a variety of string instruments. The result sounds like country’n’gagaku – very slow spiralling melodies that go round and round.

In describing their music the Rat-Drifters favor words like “slackness”, “laziness”, and “languor”. Chenaux speaks of his love for Cardew, Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars’ amazing 1,2, 1,2,3,4, which he’s performed with the Draperies, a composition in which a group of improvisors all play along with tapes heard through headphones that slowly go out of synch, creating a strange hallucinatory drift between the different performers. Which is sort of how Canada, a place terminally drifting away from itself, feels too.

“If you live in New York or Berlin or London,” says Arnold, “I don’t think you can even imagine the Reveries. Chicago and Louisville have histories of music that’s unbelievably raw and slow, but it’s exemplarily slow. It’s not just slow, it’s “Will Oldham slow.” And I like Will Oldham, but it’s very hard for an American not to be exemplary. So even if they’re doing washed out psychedelic music, it’s got to be the most washed out psychedelic music, and I think you hear them entrepreneurially placing their imagination.”

The Reveries’ sound, built around guitars and distorted vocal sounds, strips away most of the obvious signs of a recognizable song, leaving a hazy harmonic fog that sounds at once nostalgic and psychedelic, a distorted, drugged out, improvised memory. As improvisation, each piece retains a lot of the affective powers of song without retaining the shape or form. Arnold says he’s fascinated by “music that isn’t meant to be listened to – people practicing; lounge jazz at the end of the night when no one’s there; people whistling or humming to themselves; Elizabethan consort music, the stuff that was written for amateurs.” “Hopefully it doesn’t come across as theater,” says Chenaux. “I like the things that happen when you’re concentrating on something else, if you’re gardening or writing and you’re humming or whistling, the way that you make a melody happen when you’re not playing close scrutiny to it.”

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.


Sublime Frequencies’ Ethnopsychedelic Montages
by Marcus Boon

I am currently editing tapes of a Colombian Putumayo shaman named Santiago Mutumbajoy recorded by my friend and teacher, anthropologist Michael Taussig in the 1970s and 1980s, while doing fieldwork, for a CD that Locust’s ethno-music label Latitude will be issuing in 2006 The book Taussig wrote about his years travelling with Mutumbajoy as he moved around the Colombian Amazon conducting healing seances using the psychedelic vine potion yage or ayahuasca (the same one that William S. Burroughs went off in search of in the 1950s), Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, came out in the late 1980s. The book’s rich and complex descriptions of yagé sessions were one of the main reasons I went back to school. So it was a surprise when, after talking with Taussig, we found an old shoe box filled with cassettes, many of them still in good condition, made during Taussig’s time in Colombia.

These recordings are unusual for a number of reasons. Taussig, who lived and worked with Mutumbajoy for many years, holds him in high regard as a healer, and the recordings, which record Mutumbajoy’s singing, the swishing of curing fans, sounds of laughter as Mutumbajoy tells a joke, or someone staggers out of the room, ready to puke from the intense intoxication caused by the drug, are very warm, intimate and powerful, like listening to someone singing a lullaby in your ear. The escalation of the war in Colombia between the army, right wing militias and left wing guerrillas has made travel in the Putumayo dangerous, so that it would be difficult, for a number of reasons, to make recordings like these today. The mono cassette recorder picked up a lot of ambient sound too, notably the shifting sounds of bird and insect life that mark the arrival of dusk and dawn, which give a remarkable feeling of presence to the recordings. Taussig himself was a participant in many of the yagé healing sessions, and used the cassettes to make notes on what’s going on, even when incapacitated by the potion. You can hear the slightly slurred voice of an anthropologist on the tape, speaking observations into the microphone, describing the scene, theorizing, often barely able to finish a sentence.

I recently interviewed musicians involved with Rat-Drifting records in Toronto, who spoke of their interest in music that was not made in order to be listened to (The Wire, Jan. 2006). These tapes certainly fit that bill, at least if “listens to” means, “be consumed by the public in the form of performances or recordings which are to be distributed through public channels”. Occasionally you can hear public recordings, cumbia blasting on the radio, or from a jukebox in a bar, on the tapes. But the sound here has a ritual purpose: it is part of the shaman’s techniques for the work he or she does. And it is part of the anthropologist’s techniques for representing that work, for carrying out his or her own ritual, especially in a state of intoxication where any attempt at clear, objective representation would be even more impossible than it usually is. There is in fact a long association of drugs and recording – I think of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which, in the absence of any other notes, ends with a transcription of tape recordings supposedly made by Thompson, as he rampaged around Las Vegas, totally wasted. The fragmentation and/or transformation of consciousness by drugs is tracked and ordered by the linear passage of tape through recording device. But then the tapes can be cut up too, imitating the fragmentation.

If these recordings were made to allow remembrance of an event, as part of an anthropologist’s fieldwork, “raw data” if you like, that would end up in a book, then Mutumbajoy’s singing itself should also be understood as something other than a performance, even that of a “healing ritual”. Taussig writes: “We all drank [the yage] and fell into a dreamy doze. About three-quarters of an hour later a tiny hum began. It grew louder to counterpose the wind from the forest and the river’s rush. Utterly absorbed and lost in itself, the song went on for a long time. The singer was old and tired. His voice was rough and low. He seemed lost in himself, singing for the sake of singing, the rite singing to itself in complete disregard of our presence or judgments. The room was quiet. People seemed to be asleep.” (Shamanism, 438)

To play for yourself. To play for the spirits to make them come, which is what Indian raga musicians do. To play, as Cornelius Cardew did, for a revolution to come, for an imaginary audience, perhaps existing in the future, but for now hardly existing at all. To play for a tape machine, as Ngawang Sangdrol and 13 other Tibetan nuns in Drapchi prison did in the early 1990s, sending out a message to friends for sure, but also somehow finding a space or a moment in a prison to sing to a tape recorder, as many other people in many other empty rooms around the planet have done. There are many reasons to play, other than for an audience.

One of Taussig’s most important insights into Putumayo shamanism was his observation that contrary to clichés of the unity and homogeneity of ritual among traditional peoples, shamans in the Putumayo practice a kind of montage technique, using clicks, breaks, jokes and other methods to break through habit, conditioning, sickness, envy and the pervasive effects of colonial domination. When we think about montage, it’s usually thought of as a twentieth century western avant garde practice, a politically motivated attempt to destroy or rearrange a consensus, as practiced by John Heartfield, William Burroughs or Cabaret Voltaire. In fact, Brion Gysin, developer of the cut up technique, claimed that he got the idea from a magical curse that was placed on him while he was running the 1001 Nights club in Tangier, Morocco. In Haitian voodoo, the word “break” (“casse”), familiar to us from hip hop, indicates the moment where spirit possession takes place. It makes sense that colonized people, for that matter poor people everywhere, working mainly within cultural systems put in place by dominators, or working with little by way of materials except for scraps and left overs, would use montage techniques, and discover some of the same powers in it that the twentieth century avant garde did. We could say that montage is technical in the sense that Mircea Eliade defined shamanism in terms of “archaic techniques of ecstasy”. Or we could say, as Taussig does, that montage is part of the tools of shamanism precisely because colonization is already a modern phenomenon. The montage of the dadaists and the Putumayo shamans emerge from what Gaonkar has called “alternative modernities”, meaning equally but differently modern cultures which have appeared all around the world in the wake of western imperialism.

One of the most interesting trends in contemporary music has been the fusion of these two kinds of montage – the “traditional” forms, with their various uses of appropriation and montage, and new technological means of creating montage effects, from turntablism, to laptop cut and paste and sampling, to the various techniques employed by the avant gardes. This music – and it’s not just music of course – is a kind of third stream. You could place its origins as far back as the dadaists, who stole many of their techniques from traditional African arts, and then mixed them with print media; or the work of the minimalists, who mixed tape music with ethnomusicological theories and practices. Or Bob Dylan going electric, mixing Rimbaud with Appalachian folk song. Or Jamaican dub, itself a distorted echo of New Orleans music heard on far off radio stations across the Gulf of Mexico. Or hip hop, emerging out of the B-Boys’ taste for African polyrhythms purloined from old vinyl reshaped and engineered on turntables and mixers for block parties in the Bronx. More specifically, there are range of performers and composers from around the world who have consciously worked to blur lines between traditional and contemporary methods of creating montage, making their montage in fact precisely by breaking the boundaries, cultural, disciplinary and otherwise, which appear to separate us and them. I am thinking of French ‘nomad’ musician Ghedalia Tazartes, Brigitte Fontaine’s work with Areski and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu as examples. Psychedelic rock also works in this way: Brazilian Tropicalistas like Os Mutantes, Germany’s Can or Japan’s Acid Mother’s Temple are the most well known of these groups, but, as CD reissue programs by labels such as Shadoks are revealing, from Burma to Argentina, Morocco to Korea, there was hardly a place in the world that did not have its own explosion of psychedelic rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s – much of it superficially dependent on American or British models, but often incorporating both local instruments and musical techniques and a kind of pan-global vocabulary of African/blues riffs, glissandos and drones from Indian raga music and other trance music styles and motifs. All of these musicians share an interest in breaking through consensus reality, producing a direct transformation of consciousness, either in the listener or performer, using jarring juxtapositions of traditional and experimental sounds and sound making techniques. I call this kind of music “ethnopsychedelic” in opposition to the kind of smooth fusions that so much world music aspires to – a music of strange jumps, juxtapositions and alliances that are not situated easily on either side of the modern/traditional divide.

One of the most important precedent for ethnopsychedelia can be found in the work of Harry Smith. Smith embodies so many of the signs of the ethnopsychedelic, it’s hard to know where to start. His magpie-like collector’s sensibility which ran from records to images to Ukrainian wooden eggs; his own ethnographic recordings of everything from the Kiowa Indians to the unissued Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture on the Lower East Side; his interest in drugs and the effects of drugs on creativity; his remarkable montage films such as Heaven and Earth Magic. However, it’s the work he’s most well known for, the Anthology of American Folk Music that is most significant. Released in 1952, in three volumes, Smith’s anthology comprised 84 old recordings, and, as Greil Marcus writes in The Old Weird America, was “the founding document of the American folk revival” (87). But this was much more than a document. All compilations are montages in the sense that they are rearrangements, reconfigurations of a set of materials. Smith however went considerably further than this, designing the Anthology according a scheme of alchemical colors, situating the recordings next to quotes from renaissance alchemist Robert Fludd and images of the Pythagorean monochord. “I felt social changes would result from it,” Smith commented. The montaged rearrangement of American folk music, juxtaposed with these quotes, as well as Smith’s bizarre mock tabloid notes to each song was aimed at a transformation of America, a calling into manifestation via montage of forces, identities and events, repressed.

The most recent inheritors of Smith’s practice, and that of ethnopsychedelia, are a group of musicians in Seattle working under the name of the Sun City Girls, who play and record, and also run a world music label, Sublime Frequencies. The term “world music”, or for that matter “world” is of course as fraught as “America” was, in the time of Smith and now. “The equator runs through ten countries and I bet you can’t name all of them without looking at a map,” writes Sublime Frequencies co-founder Alan Bishop in his sleevenotes to Folk and Pop Sounds From Sumatra, Vol. 1, providing a clue as to the politics behind the extraordinary series of compilations and found sound collages that the label has been putting out over the two years: including music from Tibet, North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Burma, and Palestine At a time where the rest of the world is presented on American TV as a monstrous Lord of the Rings-like axis of evil/Mordor image, these compilations provide an antidote to rampant paranoia. As the press release for I Remember Syria states, “Syria is officially listed on the US Government list of Terrorist-sponsoring States ….Here’s a chance to actually discover Syria without the US State Department editing it first!”

Although some of these CDs can be regarded as compilations (Burma), or field recordings (Bali), the others are montages of the ubiquitous cassettes to be found in marketplaces in many parts of the world, along with radio recordings – sometimes a full song, sometimes just a clip, sometimes a voice, or a snippet from a radio play, or just radio static – and ambient local sounds. Anyone who’s sat around and played with a shortwave radio, especially when out of Europe or America will understand the fascination of this – and will appreciate that to listen to sound this way, moving and shifting across the dial, cutting and splicing, is not just some kind of abstract collage, but a portal into a sound world, in which different frequencies or transmissions fortuitously (whatever we mean by that word) blend and clash with each other, creating strange, delicate codings and communications.

This way of listening to sound gives the lie to the tendency of most ethnic music labels to present regional musics in homogenous categories or genres. Switching on the radio in most parts of the world, one is unlikely to hear a single homogenous style that “represents” a people, but a polyphony of styles and sounds that is as baffling and fascinating to locals as it is to tourists and outsiders. There is a lingering ethnomusicological prejudice in favor of the purity and order of certain folk styles, and against the cacophony of modernity which is present just about everywhere in the world, even, or perhaps especially where people are unable to claim any of the material benefits of modernization. Ghettos, shanty towns, dismal rural villages with a couple of generators and a muddy main street are as modern as the skyscrapered metropolises. And they have a modern sound world, which Sublime Frequencies is the first to document. Although the SF crew clearly love Arab classical music as much as they are fascinated by cheesy Burmese synth pop, there’s a real relish in confusing things here: on Radio Java, there are clips of bossa nova from Chico Buarque or someone similar; on the Palestine CD, a brief burst of Robert Wyatt’s “Alifib”. Again, more than being eclecticism for its own sake, these “foreign” intrusions mark the presence of the editors, their own tastes and idiosyncracies, the subjective nature of their choices. They also mark “the foreign” or “the intrusive” as something that is already being negotiated and appropriated through montage as a source of power and pleasure in these places – for these are certainly joyful disks for the most part.

Sublime Frequencies’ releases, which are notable also for the lack of credit or documentation that accompanies them, have been rather controversial, with some people asking whether this is one more entry in the long history of Western theft, appropriation and repackaging of other cultures? In terms of identity politics, it should be noted that the Bishop brothers are themselves half-Lebanese, complicating any simple claims as to where their work can be situated. CDs based on radio recordings are a challenge, because they are broadcast over airwaves and listeners can access them, skipping from station to station as they please, in a way that would be difficult makes documentation of specific sounds and tracks difficult. And it is precisely this free movement across the airwaves that Sublime Frequencies’ disks want to recognize and celebrate (interestingly, none of the Sublime Frequencies discs is copyrighted, either). Furthermore, many of the radio tapes and recordings are now already twenty years or more old, and are themselves part of a fast disappearing sound world (altho disks like Radio Sumatra: The Indonesian FM Experience and Radio Phnom Penh, both recorded in 2004 show there’s still plenty of life around). Still, although it may be hard to track down credits for a recording off the radio, that’s hardly true of tracks lifted from cassettes or vinyl, and it’s puzzling that SF consistently refuses to do this True, the esoteric nature of these CDs means that they are hardly likely to leave their issuers rolling in cash – Alan Bishop said in a recent interview with Erik Davis: “When it starts selling like fucking Outkast I’ll fly to Medan and start handing out Benjamins to anyone who looks like these guys.” (Davis, “Cameo Demons”) But if those recorded on SF disks had access to Western legal representation, it’s doubtful that they would wait around for Bishop to show up with a pile of cash in order to establish their ownership of their musical performances.

But that’s not the whole point. Sublime Frequencies releases aim, as Greil Marcus said about the Smith Anthology, to make “the familiar strange, the never known into the forgotten, and the forgotten into a collective memory” (The Old Weird America, 95). But who is the collective? Anyone modern, anyone affected by “globalization, which means, of course, everyone. For it is a global alchemy that SF aims at, rather than the American alchemy of the Anthology. Obviously, this is a more ambitious, more hazy endeavor. In a recent interview with Brandon Stosuy, Bishop commented that “what we’re doing is a DIY approach to everything, not dependent on institutionalized engineering of thought about foreign cultures and how they need to be accessed through brokers of politics, communication and finance”) (“No Sleep to Beirut”, 16). In Sublime Frequencies’ CDs, punk rock’s aggressive style of appropriation, suspicious of authorities and experts, claiming the right to set its own terms for action and interaction, meets the more subtle but ubiquitous appropriations of traditional folk culture, in which everyone steals techniques from everyone else. How different is this from the stealing that is already an essential part of Western imperialism, one in which might proclaims right? Aren’t Bishop and friends merely the newest “brokers” in a long history of brokering of native cultures? It all depends on what the result of the stealing is, what kinds of connections are forged by these appropriations, and how much knowledge and power flows back to those whose work is being presented and represented.

It’s worth thinking about the way in which Sublime Frequencies presents their music a little further. It is not just laziness which leads Bishop and co. to present their videos and sound edits without labels, subtitles, long ethnomusicological essays or kitsch pre-modern exotica. SF are interested in kitsch, but it’s the kind of kitsch that can be found in the markets and stores of the countries they travel in – a part of what Peter Lamborn Wilson has described as the drive within cultures to romanticize, exoticize themselves, presumably because they enjoy a certain way of living, a certain kind of fantasy about themselves. Superimposed and entangled as these fantasies are within Western colonial and imperialist fantasies, nevertheless, these fantasies exist, in an autonomous way, as they do in western cultures. To be captivated, charmed by these fantasies, these cultural fabrications, looking in from the outside is a delicate, complex matter. But it might also be a necessary part of developing a real respect for other cultures.

Is the kind of ethnomusicological documentation that usually accompanies “world music” releases really the only way of honoring this music? The argument goes that by not labelling or explaining what it is that we’re listening to or seeing, SF reduces the specificity of a particular cultural form in Morocco or Niger or Myanmar to a universalist, exotic sludge. Furthermore, just about any Western music, including that of the Sun City Girls, is labelled, named and subtitled. The refusal to accord this prestige of naming to foreign musics is yet another repetition of the western appropriation of native cultures, which have historically been stolen and used without permission or even credit.

Conversely, it is also true that the ethnographic labeling of music, as well as the visual rhetoric of documentary film subtitling, are kinds of appropriation too, which do very little for those labeled and which build the power of ethnomusicologists as authorities and experts. The fact that there are various kinds of collusion between certain members of ethnic cultures and certain experts, which claim to establish the authenticity of the native culture, and correct protocols of address of that culture does not necessarily solve the problem of who gets to speak for whom. Sublime Frequencies’ silence, their refusal to label music, can be seen to preserve a kind of secrecy around the music which reflects more accurately the position of that music within the culture that it’s found, and within the broader world too. There is a paradox here: by not labeling the music, it does not fully enter the global marketplace, since it remains nameless, or named only by the singer or musicians as he/she/they perform. This is what Bishop and co mean when they call their disks “raw”, and emphasize their interest in an encounter free of guidance, passports or expertise. At the same time, Sublime Frequencies’ disks are a part of the global marketplace, even while their disks encode a resistance to that marketplace. Nevertheless, their silence about labels may involve greater respect for these local musics than a rhetoric of “fair trade” or ethnomusicological accuracy, working on behalf of global capital or academic prestige, do. To paraphrase philosopher Donna Haraway, there is something like “encounter value” – and this value cannot be reduced to information or documentation.

What would this encounter value consist of? SF’s refusal to hand this music over on a plate is a way of saying: go and find out for yourself, we’ve given you a clue, but you have to actually go and find out for yourself and have the encounter, if you really want to know about this music. It’s punk DIY values, applied to our relation to the non-Western world. Of course, SF disks are sold in stores like any other disk and are thus folded back into the society of the spectacle where they can be consumed as one more piece of exotica. But evidently some consumers are dissatisfied that they aren’t being given the full spectacular experience. Something is missing. What? It isn’t more information, it’s the act of actually going to Niger or Myanmar and visiting and checking things out for yourself. Of course, in the current environment where the non-Western world is presented as a dangerous no-man’s land, awash with terrorists, this means taking a risk. But what’s new about that?

For now, Sublime Frequencies CDs are an interruption of “our” airspace, with something that isn’t being heard, even in indie or alternative music circles, and which really needs to be. Their CDs cut through the boundaries that make up US and THEM creating an open, fragmentary, montaged space in which unexpected sounds surge up, lines of flight that send us, not into pure abstraction, but into moments of other people’s lived history. What happens in the encounters that occur in those moments, how those encountered feel about it all, is an open question, and one that the Sublime Frequencies people wish to provoke. The power dynamic is no doubt an unequal one, but not in the way that one might initially think. We after all, are the novices when it comes to the world of ethnopsychedelia, and for us at any rate, these appropriations and juxtapositions are a necessary education as to the nature of many kinds of sound worlds otherwise lost or ignored, both here and elsewhere.

Works Cited

Davis, Erik. “Cameo Demons”, The Wire, Feb. 2004 (archived at http://www.techgnosis.com/scg.html).
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Gaonkar, Dilip, ed. Alternative Modernities. Duke University Press, 2001.
Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto. Prickly Paradigm, 2003.
Marcus, Greil. The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Picador, 1997.
Stosuy, Brandon, “No Sleep Till Beirut”, Arthur 18 (2005).
Taussig Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. University of Chicago Press, 1986, c1987

Sublime Frequencies CDs:
Folk and Pop Sounds From Sumatra (2004)
I Remember Syria (2004)
Radio Java (2003)
Radio Palestine: Sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean (2004)
Radio Phnom Penh (2005)
Radio Sumatra: The Indonesian FM Experience (2005)

Originally published in Electronic Book Review, 2006.

Mexico’s Sweet Gold

Mexico’s Sweet Gold

I was sitting in the 20th of November market in Oaxaca, Mexico sipping my post-lunch chocolate con leche when a short, sturdy old man, with skin about the color of my beverage walked up to me. He looked at the foaming bowl in my hand and nodded, approvingly. “In Oaxaca,” he said in a bassy growl, “no coca cola! Only chocolate!” And giving me a hearty punch in the arm, he walked on.
I had came to Mexico in search of chocolate, not gold. When Cortes and the Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century in search of El Dorado, they were surprised to find that the chief coin of the realm in Mocteczuma’s court was not the shiny, precious metal of their dreams, but the beans of the cacao tree. Diaz del Castillo, a soldier in Cortez’s army described how Mocteczuma’s men “brought in cups of fine gold, whith a certain drink made of the cacao itself which they said was effectual to provoke lustfull desires toward women.”
The gourmands of sixteenth century New Spain were less than impressed with the beverage however, and complained about the oily “skumme” which floated on its surface. Nevertheless, they brought the bean back to Europe and by the eighteenth century, chocolate drinking was highly fashionable among the aristocracy of Europe, who sipped the drink out of delicate cups in the mid morning from their beds in Versailles.
Alas, as we know, coffee, tea and the French revolution put an end to all of that, relegating chocolate drinking for the most part to a nocturnal activity for the caffeine-phobic. Meanwhile, the cocoa bean itself was put to other uses, becoming the worldwide number one confection, available in dizzying varieties, from the humblest Cadbury Bar to the dazzling bittersweet creations of the worlds master-chocolatiers in Paris, Milan and Zurich.
On a recent trip to Paris, I had come across a chocolatier in Paris’ chic Saint Germain neighborhood (La Maison du Chocolat), selling exquisite chocolates with Aztec and Mayan symbols carved onto the faces of the chocolate. How piquante it would be, I thought to myself, as I devoured a box with the companion of my choice, if chocolate was still used in Mexico!
A few months later, I was shopping in my local supermarket, when I noticed a that there was a Mexican brand of drinking chocolate lurking in the ethnic foods aisle, called Ibarra. Unlike the Dutch-processed cocoa familiar to most gringos, a brown floury powder from which all the oil or cocoa butter has been removed, this cocoa came in large round coin-like tablets, with the name of the maker emblazoned on them. The cooking method is simple. You scald milk as you would with cocoa powder, break up one of the tablets into small pieces and melt it in the hot milk, drop the mixture in a blender for a minute or two and then serve. Although excessively sweet, I loved the dark, smoky intensity of the drink. Reasoning that if such a product was available in my local supermarket then chocolate drinking must surely be alive and well in Mexico itself, I determined to go on a quest for “el oro dulce”, Mexico’s sweet gold.

On the plane to Mexico City, I was seated next to one of newly elected President Fox’s aides, who nodded approvingly at my half-read copy of Mayan code-breaking anthropologists Sophie and Michael Coe’s True History of Chocolate. Yes, he said, Mexicans are still passionate about chocolate – after all, they invented it. The Coes’ book backs him up. As the plane flew over the vast expanse of Mexico City, he suggested that the best cup of chocolate would be found at the City’s legendary Cafe de Tacuba, an elegant mural and painting covered hostelry near the Zocalo that dates back to 1912.
I enjoyed Tacuba’s elegant, metropolitan chocolate, and the gorgeous environment in which it was served, but I felt that the chocolate was … diplomatic, overly cautious and thus indistinguishable from any other “good” cup of chocolate in the world. So I wandered the city, drinking endless cups of Nescafe like everyone else and looking at the commercial drinking chocolate in the markets – the same chocolate that was for sale in Williamsburg. For succor, I gnawed on a slab of Valrhona cooking chocolate that a chef friend had given me as a parting gift, savoring its bitterness. Where was the real Mexican chocolate?
Driving home from the mariachis at the Plaza Garibaldi one night, a blasting brass band rendition of the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” still echoing through my head, local friends told us about El Moro, a 68 year old chocolateria that stayed open 24 hours a day. Curious, we swung the car around and arrived a little after midnight, to find the large tiled room packed with Mexican families feasting, while the TVs flickered on the walls.
El Moro’s menu is on the wall too. It has only two items: chocolate and churros. Churros, in case you’re wondering, are ten inch long strips of deep fried dough, dusted with sugar – a slender straight donut, perfect for dipping in the chocolate, which comes in four flavors at El Moro: Mexican, Spanish, French and Special. Taking our cue from the Mexican families around us, we ordered a copious spread of cocoa brews, along with a small mountain of churros. The Spanish was an intense, fiercely chocolatey brew, with dark depths in which cinnamon and vanilla flavors rose to the surface, requiring an extra hit of sugar to stand up to the bitterness of the brew. Like many of the other patrons, we requested a jug of hot milk to dilute the brew to the point where it could be drunk rather than eaten with a spoon. The Mexican was similar in style, but sweeter still. I asked the patron, Sr. Francisco Iriarte, why the cocoa was so sweet. He replied that the chocolateria has been in the Iriarte family since the 30s, when they emigrated from Spain, where the custom is to drink it thick and sweet. Personally, I liked the French the best, milkier, not too sweet but packed with cocoa flavor.
Although indisputably a chocolate drinker’s heaven, El Moro’s origins are in Spain – and in metropolitan Mexico City. But I wanted to go back to the time before the Spanish arrived, bringing cattle and therefore milk to mix into the chocolate (a good thing, according to chocolate guru Johnathan Ott, since the milk apparently cancels out the potential carcigenicity of the tannins in the cocoa). So I headed south to Oaxaca.
The chocolate center of Oaxaca is Oaxaca City’s 20 de Noviembre market, where a plethora of market stalls sell the beverage, alongside machetes, marimbas and piles of fried grasshoppers (chapulines). In Oaxaca chocolate is made with your choice of milk or water, and served in a cafe au lait type bowl. The milk drink is familiar to sippers of cocoa worldwide, although somewhat stronger. Great pride and attention however is taken with the foam (or espuma) that tops the chocolate bowl. Although commercial Mexican brands of cocoa like Ibarra advise the use of a blender to make this foam, the traditional way is to use a molinillo, a wooden whisk that looks like a magic wand, which is placed inside the chocolate bowl and spun between the hands to whip up the magic foam. When made with water, as it was in pre-Colombia times, the cocoa flavor comes through much more strongly, and other spices, including chili peppers, are often added to the brew, for balance.
The preferred time for Oaxacans to drink their chocolate is in the morning, at 6 a.m. In a country where the coffee is mostly depressing cups of Nescafe and tea from the tea bush is merely an affectation of the wealthy or of homesick Brits, people get their hit of caffeine from a sturdy cup of morning chocolate, often mixing the chocolate into the corn porridge or atole that is the prefered breakfast dish. While the humble cup of steaming cocoa enjoyed in England and America is relatively low in caffeine, the intensely cocoafied brews enjoyed in Oaxaca are so dense with cacao that you do get a little caffeine hit off them, although theobromine, said to be the source of chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers, is also a mild heart stimulant, giving you a little blood rush something like a sweet, cheap low-dose Viagra.
Ah yes, Viagra. Many people in Mexico told me about chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers in a tone that resembled national pride. Being nothing if not a thorough reporter, determined to bring my finely-honed mind to bear on the problems most afflicting mankind, I was of course curious to learn whether the tales of chocolate’s aphrodisiac qualities were true. Anthropologists like the Coes are dismissive on this subject, claiming that the tale is nothing more than a colonial fantasy – but theobromine, the most important alkaloid in chocolate is known to act as a mild heart (or blood?) stimulant, and is thus a pretty good simulator of arousal, whether sexual or otherwise. It is of course true that you can buy copious quantities of chocolate anywhere, including your local newsagent, but what with our poor Spanish, the tedium of Mexican TV and the fact that nearly every store for blocks around sold nothing but chocolate, the research team of two in my hotel room found ample time to conduct a thorough study of the issue, and concluded that whatever the anthropologists and psychologists say, chocolate creates a reproducible sensation that for all intents and purposes, is the same as horniness.
Although you can drink chocolate in the Oaxaca markets, the ultimate way Zapotec peasants get their daily dose of theobromine is to buy the raw cocoa beans from the Oaxaca market, toast them, and then grind them in a heated metate or grinding stone. For those people who lack the time (several hours) required to do this but unwilling to embrace the prepackaged products of Nestle or Ibarra, a number of chocolate grinders around the market in Oaxaca will roast and grind cocoa beans for you, in the same way that a good coffee store in El Norte will. These stores exude a powerful smell of cacao that can be sniffed for blocks around.
King of the chocolate barrio is the 50 year old Chocolate Mayordomo, where young Zapotec men and women grind up kilo upon kilo of cocoa for dignified looking Donas and sharp looking young men, in a row of three foot high grinding machines. The cocoa is grinded with canilla (soft stick cinnamon) and almonds, followed by hair-raisingly vast quantities of sugar, producing a familiar looking, but pleasingly bitter (or semisweet) cocoa powder.
Chocolate is in fact a passion pretty much everywhere in Mexico, and traces of its pre-Colombian roots can still be found. A few pounds heavier from all that cocoa butter, but indisputably happy, I still wanted to know the secret of great chocolate. So I asked Mayordomo’s owner,Sr. Flores and his daughter Zoila. They laughed and said “no exist!!!” But on further consideration they concured with Sr. Iriarte of El Moro’s opinion: “pure cacao, careful preparation, and love!”

Written on spec for The Guardian in 2002, but not published.

Meditation Music

Meditation Music

A heavy synthesizer drone fills the air, like something out of early Tangerine Dream. For a moment I can’t believe I’m actually hearing it. I’m standing in the bookstore at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. An elephant at the temple next door is giving blessings with his trunk. There is music in ashrams of course – devotional singing in groups, bhajans, chants – but this is different, the music unfolds slowly, some strange kind of fusion of Debussy, prog rock and raga, powerful and heavy. I ask one of the staff who it is and I’m told that it’s by Sunil, a former scientist who lived in the ashram for decades and began composing keyboard and later synthesizer music at the encouragement of one of the ashram’s two founders, The Mother, partner of the ashram’s namesake, Bengali poet, mystic and nationalist hero Sri Aurobindo. Sunil composed music in honor of the New Year each year from 1959 to 1998, and also set many hours of Aurobindo’s remarkable epic poem Savitri to music. I ask where I can buy the music but no one knows. They just call the music “ashram music”. I’m told that maybe someone at another office can burn me some mp3s, but nothing is for sale.
Although the ashram itself has proved itself adapt at running guest and publishing houses and a variety of other businesses which sustain the community, Sunil’s music was made as an act of devotion, and outside the visionary community founded by Aurobindo and the Mother it is almost unknown. It’s a remarkable story, but not unique. There is Alice Coltrane’s retreat from the jazz scene and commercial recordings to a California ashram where she sang and played, occasionally issuing cassettes of devotional music under the name of Swamini Turiyasangitananda that were available only at the ashram. Or Oliver Messiaen, who played the church organ at services at La Trinité in Paris from 1931 to his death in 1992. And this was not Messiaen’s only work outside of the conventional space of the concert hall. His famous “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed in the Stalag VIII-A concentration camp where the composer was interned during World War II, and received its performance in the camp for an audience of prisoners and prison guards with Messiaen playing a busted up old piano.
Many performers have had parallel careers performing and participating in religious communities – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan continued performing at Sufi shrines in Pakistan after his recordings became a fixture of yoga classes in the West. In other religious communities, including Christian Pentecostal churches, everybody sings and everybody participates and there is no audience. The line between producer and consumer is erased — and participants would probably claim that God (or Gods, or spirits) is the producer and the audience too. Communes offer another version of this — Amon Duul in Munich 1967, the early Faust in Würme emerged as “rock groups” out of much more undefined sets of collective activities, of which making music was one kind of ritual, complete with “om” chants, “tribal” percussion jams and other spiritual elements. Or Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, a group emerging out of a commune of 100 people living in a mansion in Los Angeles, selling home made LPs for $1 in their health food restaurant. Or the Sun Ra Arkestra in Philadelphia, whose performances always felt like looking in on a private festival or ritual, complete with esoteric language and style. Although not overtly religious, such groups made music as a way of exploring and expressing an ecstatic community that was an end in itself, and a “spiritual” one at that. Making and selling recordings could be an act of evangelism, a crazy get-rich-quick scheme fuelled by “cosmic” intuitions, or simply a humble attempt to make a living and support the community.
Indian classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath thought that students recording his lessons, or even notating what he was singing, was a bad idea and a corruption of what the music really is. Furthermore, he was against the recording of music and found even amplification problematic. He lived for a while in a famous Siva cave in the foothills of the Himalaya, singing for God and the community living in the cave – supporting himself with occasional trips to Delhi to perform for All India Radio. Practice, and the perfection of it also becomes an end in itself. Practice is of course a part of many music cultures from the decades of finger studies of classical pianists to weekly punk rock band practice. But the word practice also has a religious meaning, when the discipline of making music is performed with the intention of perfecting oneself before God. In such a practice, one might never actually utter a sound – in some traditions, the repetition of mantras, sacred or magical phrases, is thought to be more powerful if it is entirely mental; I’ve also been told of Indian classical musicians who mentally practice scales hundreds of octaves above or below those found on a piano, as an act of concentration.
At the highest level the mystery of music concerns the manifestation of sound as a set of powerfully affective structures that come from … who knows where? But if music is a gift then the act of listening also becomes creative and potentially devotional. Thus Cage’s 4’ 33” or Philip Corner’s “I Can Walk Through the World as Music”, both pieces where music and meditation come close to one another, in the act of paying attention to the actually existing sound environment. This act of paying attention could take you a long way – in various yogic traditions, one is advised to listen to “the unstruck sound”, the sound that remains when all that is temporary fades away again after manifesting … the original drone, Nad Brahma – “sound is God”.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.


Philip Corner, Gamelan Son of Lion and “Gamelan in the New World”

If you picked this cd up because of the title “Gamelan in the New World” with its suggestion of folkloric and ethnomusicological authenticity, expecting traditional Javanese or Balinese sounds, you will probably be in for a surprise when you encounter the joyous clattering of fluxus composer Philip Corner’s “Gamelan P.C” or Elena Cary’s “DNA”, in which the structural relationships between the four bases that compose the DNA strand are explored by being transposed to the gamelan. Although the gamelan had been an inspiration to generations of American composers, from Cowell, through Cage to Reich (and before them of course, back in the Old World, there was Debussy), the freedom with which these 1970s heads, high on the wondrous metallic resonances that the traditional Indonesian instruments make available, is eye and ear opening stuff. One of those chance encounters that irrevocably create a “New World” in the split-second before all the opposing forces of academe, orthodoxy and political correctness has the opportunity to stop it from happening.

In 1972, ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary took a position in the music program at Livingston College, part of Rutgers University in New Jersey, whose faculty then included Philip Corner and electronics composer Daniel Goode. In 1974, at a summer program for the study of Asian culture, she met West Coast composer Lou Harrison, who, after extensive study in Indonesia, produced a number of works mixing gamelan with Western concert instruments. “Lou was very encouraging for us to produce works for the gamelan”, Benary recalls. “We used his own gamelan which was home made. Four or five of us who played on those instruments went on and found other Gamelans, one of whom was Dan Schmitt, with his Berkeley Gamelan, another one was called Gamelan Pacifica. They wrote and performed their own compositions.”

Upon her return to the East Coast, Benary decided to build a Javanese gamelan, which beginners in the program could use as part of a study group, to gain hands-on experience in ethnic music. She built the gamelan, using directions written out by fellow former Wesleyan student Dennis Murphy, buying an 8 by 4 sheet of steel, and having it cut into strips for the keyboards, and building resonators out of discarded pet food and grapefruit juice cans. The Asian Music Performing Group at Livingston started using it, and Corner sat in with them.

In 1975, when Benary was pregnant, the group joined and merged with Corner’s New Music Performing Group (her “Sleeping Braid” is “an accompaniment for Lyra Samara Silverstein, then six months old”). Benary had initially been against composing contemporary music for the gamelan, feeling that traditional instruments should be used for traditional music. “I just hadn’t heard anyone do it in a persuasive way,” she says. “With Phil, I didn’t think he was doing a disservice to traditional music, because what he was doing had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music. I know some people, like Steve Reich, were bothered though.”

So the group began performing contemporary pieces written by various group members, and gave concerts at the school, at Princeton, and at lofts in New York. The name of the group, Gamelan Son of Lion, comes from translating Benary’s surname – which means Son of Lion in Hebrew. In 1976 or 1977 Benary was denied tenure at Livingston, and the gamelan was moved to Corner’s New York loft. Corner continued composing for gamelan until he moved to Italy in 1992, when the gamelan was moved to Goode’s loft – where Gamelan Son of Lion still rehearses and performs, incorporating wayang kulit shadow puppet shows to the music.

While Harrison, and other American predecessors, such as Colin McPhee, who’d lived in Bali and written compositions for the gamelan, were careful to preserve relatively traditional structures in their work, Corner and colleagues approached the gamelan from a Cagean perspective, as a set of sound producing objects whose nature was to be explored, free of any pre-existing determining forms or structures. And yet, in the course of his encounter with the gamelan, Corner found his own composition methods changing rapidly: “I had been working for years with resonant metals and gongs, cymbals, meditative things,” he recalled recently. “There’s even a piece for audience participation called “Metal Meditations” that I did. So I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom. My first impulse was to take one of those pieces and transcribe it to gamelan. I immediately realized that was totally absurd. The nature of the gamelan is like having a keyboard with a scale of notes, and which note do I pick for repetitive cluster like sounds? On what basis do I limit it to some of the choices of the gamelan and end up with something that would actually sound better? So I decided that to go further I would have to accept what the gamelan gave which was essentially the scalar pattern.”
Corner’s exploration of the gamelan’s pattern-creating abilities brought with it a reconciliation with a former enemy – numbers. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach, and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which the numbers always seemed to inhibit. But, in the fifties, there were also pieces where I explored pulses, or pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. But I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation.”

Curiously, as Corner himself has noted, in using mathematical structures to organize the gamelan’s pattern making abilities, he ended up reproducing some of the structural underpinnings of Indonesian gamelan music. While much process-based composition can look and sound as dry and cold as those early personal computer program instructions that were circulating in the late 1970s, here was a metal-based musical form that thrived on numbers and processes without ever sounding machine-like (even when, on Dika Newlin’s “Machine Shop”, the piece is “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper-punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, N.J.).

Metal has its own magic, and the gamelan instruments a life of their own, which emerges out of the resonant properties of metal, and the individual pieces of metal being tuned together as an inter-connected set. Corner explains: “The reality is the group, the instruments: the people come and go, the instruments stay the same, they’re matched and they go together. So you have the sense of joining something which already exists as a metaphysical phenomenon. Then, the physical aspect of it, sitting on the floor, taking your place before the instrument in an almost necessarily homageful posture. Relating to everyone in the way that the instruments are set up. Even when, as some people did, they did pieces from music with a music stand, it still had that feeling of being in it together, playing together, listening to each other and contributing to a whole.”

In the accompanying sleevenotes, Corner and co. display a determined refusal to abandon their search for their own (“American”) relationships to these instruments. Although he has since had his works performed in Java and Bali, collaborated with Javanese masters, and invited Javanese groups to play in the U.S., Corner only visited Indonesia for the first time in 1986 (he also studied with Lou Harrison in 1982). While much of the West Coast based gamelan music affiliates itself with the idea of a pan-Pacific culture which it then becomes a legitimate part of, the more geographically distant Gamelan Son of Lion is defiantly rooted in the Cagean experimental tradition of the New York avant garde, and its search for the New and the Marvelous. In an interview made just before Corner’s first trip to Indonesia, he observed: “You can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.”
The question as to Who We Are, or for that matter, what kind of a “New World” this is, remains open. As Benary says, many of the battles fought in the 1970s have been won, and the encounter of contemporary and traditional ethnic musics is an accepted part of the musical landscape, in the U.S. and Europe. Still, these CDs bear testimony to the possibility of a more radical encounter between traditional music, with all it’s accumulation of richness and detail, and the avant-garde’s raw apprehension of the sound universe in its totality. In Benary’s words:

“Outside me musics are in
A flux of contradictions.
But the flux which is my life
is one thing
Within me categories fade.
The synthesis within
is creation
From here music is taken
To return to the flux
From which its pieces come.”

Originally published as the sleevenotes to the Gamelan Son of Lion recordings published by Locust CDs.


Marcus Boon

The Buddha Machine is a plastic transistor radio sized object with a built in speaker that allows the listener to switch between 9 infinitely repeating sound loops, each ambient, minimal and melodic and all under 40 seconds. Made by FM3 (“FM San” in Mandarin), the Beijing based duo of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian, it has become one of the more unlikely successes to emerge from the global improv/electronic underground. Originally made in an edition of 500, half of which were to be used in art installations and performances, Virant and Zhang Jian have sold over 15,000 of the machines, and have been lauded by everyone from Spin to Entertainment Weekly. In a remarkable act of generic mismatching/shoe-horning, the New York Times listed the machine as one of the best boxed sets of 2005. A parade of hipster cognoscenti, from Brian Eno to the Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop have bought multiples of the machine and sung its praises, and in November, Staubgold will release a compilation of Buddha Machine remixes called Jukebox Buddha including contributions by Tortoise, Sun O))), Aki Onda, Adrian Sherwood, Blixa Bargeld and others.

Virant and Zhang Jian began FM3 in Beijing in 1999, at a time when there was no electronic music scene to speak of in the city. Virant, who grew up in Nebraska during the hardcore punk era of the early 1980s, had been living in various East Asian cities since the late 1980s, learning traditional instruments, while experimenting with minimalist loop based methods of computer music composition. Jhang Zian, who grew up in Chengdu in Szechuan province, studied piano in music school there, but dropped out to become a travelling musician. He moved to Beijing in 1995, the same year that Virant did, and became keyboard player of choice for the city’s underground rock acts like Confucius Says. In recent years, he has made his living creating soundtracks for theater, film and TV in Beijing.

FM3 began with the idea of musical performance built around a computer. The group started out making acid house-like tracks with a guitarist, but when the group became a duo, began working with folk music samples. At first the duo hired local musicians to record samples for them. But according to Virant, “we were never interested in making Chinese electronic folk music. Around 2002, we realized that what we wanted these people to play, we could do ourselves. What we were looking for were the weird things, the accidents, the pauses in between their really eloquent melodies. So we borrowed these instruments and then immediately it became much easier to make our music. At that time we performed live with prepared Chinese instruments or invented or modified ones, along with two laptops playing drones.”

This period is captured well on Ambience Sinica, a bootleg of a 2002 performance, and the more recent Mort aux Vaches disk released by Staalplaat in 2005. In fact, most of the sound loops that appear on the Buddha Machine are made from samples of traditional Chinese instruments including the gu zheng (Chinese koto), ma tou qin (Mongolian “horse head” fiddle) and sheng (mouth organ) used as loops in live performances from this period. Outside of performance, the duo split the work up, with Zhang Jian contributing an ever growing array of field recordings, and Virant cutting up and editing them.

As an outgrowth of their interest in transforming field recordings, the duo have made two contributions to Sun City Girls’ ethnomusicological label Sublime Frequencies, the excellent Streets of Lhasa, consisting of recordings of folk music and street sounds in the Tibetan capital, and Radio Pyongyang, a bizarre and fascinating edit of North Korean “commie funk” and other propaganda pop, taped from shortwave radio by Virant in Hong Kong and Beijing. Zhang Jian does not speak English, but in what sounds like more than fair Mandarin, Virant conveys my questions to him and I get brief, rather modest replies. I ask him how he relates to Sublime Frequencies aesthetic of weirdness and appropriation and he replies: “the Tibet things you can’t say are weird – actually it’s quite beautiful. Weirdness is an attraction of course, but when I start editing at home, I go for the beautiful parts, not just weirdness.”

Soon to come on Sublime Frequencies are recent recordings made by Zhang in Bangladesh, a second volume of North Korean sounds (as a Chinese citizen, Zhang can enter the country freely) and a compilation of recordings of minority folk musics from rural China, originally recorded and released by Huan Qing, an old friend of Zhang’s from Szechuan in a hand lettered and packaged 8 CD set in China.

Recently the group has been asked to contribute a sound environment for one of the parks at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. When I ask Virant whether he feels that FM3 are in danger of becoming poster-boys for globalization, Virant laughs and deadpans “Unfortunately we have not been exploited as a model for globalization!” In fact the group remains virtually unknown in China, outside of the small but rapidly expanding electronic music scene. “If you’re a really famous person like a theater actor you get invited to Germany to give a performance of traditional Chinese culture, you stay for a week and then you go back home. It’s a cultural exchange understanding of the world. Zhang Jian said recently that he’s not making more money now than he was say when we played the Louvre. If a classical musician like Tan Dun played the Louvre he’s famous and it’s a big deal in China. We played three shows at the Louvre to 500 people and it’s not in the media, nobody here knows about it – because people don’t understand what we’re doing.”

Alternative culture is emerging slowly in Beijing, and FM3 does play underground rock venues like Nameless Highland and Get Lucky, as well as “the current home of the avant garde”, a Tuesday night show called Waterland Kwanyin at a bar called Dos Kolegas, curated by Yan Jun (who also runs Kwan Yin records). There are magazines like Tong Su Ge Qu (“Pop Song Weekly”) devoted to underground rock, but FM3 is outside their radar. “With our current Buddha Boxing show, Zhang and I sit at a table and play Buddha Machines as if it were a card game. And the concept of it people don’t get – they don’t consider it a performance, so very quickly it’s not something they write about, and they ignore it.” Nevertheless, he insists that FM3 is a Beijing group, and that the Chinese and American origins of the duo are irrelevant, compared to their own particular musical tastes and ways of working. There is also a rapidly expanding noise/electronica scene in Beijing fuelled by almost universal access to computers and bootleg software. “You essentially have a nation of kids with access to free instruments and that instrument happens to be a laptop,” says Virant. In the wake of this access, a million Merzbows are blooming.

How to explain the success of the Buddha Machine? Setting aside the unquestionable beauty of the loops, there is something about the conjunction of these very abstract, brief, melodic, infinitely repeatable fragments with a Chinese factory-manufactured plastic object that really speaks to the moment that we find ourselves in. The Buddha Machine is like globalization in a box, and embodies many of its contradictions. Marx said that commodity fetishism turned a table on its head and made it dance around. Now FM3 have produced a fetish object that plays its own music to dance to – an industrial era manufactured object with an information age sound coming out of it. All the more ironic, since the original Buddha Machine, which looped Buddhist mantras and chants, related a pre-modern sound, that of devotional singing, to an industrial era object, arguably transforming it in the process into “information”. FM3’s Buddha Machine (neither of the group are Buddhists), is essentially an appropriation of the original design (sold in China as “Chang Fo Ji”), with the group’s own musical loops replacing the mantras. And their machine is produced at a Buddhist factory on the SW Chinese coast, whose primary business is making the original chanting machines for export to Buddhist temples and believers throughout the world.

Through their experiences working with the factory, Virant and Zhang Jian have become unlikely participants in the remarkable explosion of industrial activity that is happening in China today. “Every time we go to the factory we’re inspired because that area of China is where huge amounts of global products are made,” observes Virant. “You drive down the street and you see factories making this and that and we stop at every one. That’s all we really do now is weird factory tours throughout China looking for ideas! It’s inspiring being in this place that most people regard as a huge export base, making toys for the global economy — but which we see as a fertile ground for ideas.”

“Recently we were talking about making a new FM3 product,” Virant continues, “And Zhang said “OK, we’ve got to go to this city to do it,” and when we get there it’s a huge marketplace for bizarre things like keychains with LED lights. One market there is the world’s largest market for sunglasses and a high percentage of all the world’s sunglasses are made there. There are huge airline hangars where the producers display their wares – you go there and say “OK, I want 100 million of these,” — they’re not retail places. The real problem we had with the Buddha Machine is that we don’t look or talk like serious businessmen and we’re not going to buy a hundred million of anything so people won’t deal with us, because they don’t want to waste their time talking to weird musicians from Beijing. If Jeff Koons and others who deal with huge art projects started visiting these cities, eventually all global art projects would be exported from China! An installation person would just say “OK, I want this and this and this” and get it done at these factories and have them ship it over to whatever gallery he’s exhibiting in.”

FM3 have become garageland commodity producers, involved in a strange kind of DIY mass production – much like the Chinese factory owners whose initiation into the industrial capitalist marketplace dates to around the same time as the post-punk DIY ethos that spawned Virant’s interest in music. The Buddha Machines, with their tinny speakers and cheap, bright, plastic vibe are disposable, fragile, and peculiarly intimate – just like a lot of the “trashy” objects made in these factories and sold in shopping malls around the world. FM3 celebrate this aesthetic. “The first generation models were designed so you had to hold it really close to your ear to hear it properly,” enthuses Virant. “We like the intimacy of it – you have to get so close to this piece of plastic and then out of it comes this really evocative piece of music. Zhang and I have always been about taking cheap equipment to any place we can play. On the one hand we’re quite lazy and always looking for the easy way out, and on the other, we’re very devoted to this simple way of performing. With the Buddha Machine, the design of the boxes, the printing, we got it all done at the last minute. Even the speaker and the lo-fi 6-bit chip – we really like that. It gives you the idea that anyone could have done it and should have 20 years ago.”

“We were joking that if Carston Nikolai had made the Buddha Machine it would be this beautiful, brilliantly designed, hand crafted, silver 24-bit stereo amazing thing,” concludes Virant. “We play very quiet hypnotic music and the Buddha Machine is inoffensive, unassuming, made of cheap plastic. Almost like a Tamagotchi that plays music. That’s the kind of thing we’re attracted to. You have to see beyond the crass commercialization of all this stuff – and because Zhang and I are not living in a Xmas dominated economy we can. In the West maybe you see a Furby doll and it’s annoying because whatever Xmas ago Furby was huge, but what we see is an amazing speech recording device which we can then mold into any shape we want.”

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.


Four Seismic Musical Events

Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Ustad Hafizullah Khan, Hazrat Allaudin Sabri’s shrine, Dehra Dun, India, February 2001
The idea of a live performance not intended primarily for human ears is a powerful one – and many religious traditions value the idea of singing for God. In the Sufi temples of India and Pakistan, the main sound played in the courtyard is qawalli, ecstatic vocals backed by harmoniums and hand drums, popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also sang at all night sessions at Sufi shrines. Hazrat Allaudin Sabri was a fourteenth century Sufi master (founder of the Chishti-Sabri branch of Sufism) said to be so intense and austere that the only person who could stand near him was his musician, who sat with his back to him at some distance, so as not to be scorched by the master’s vibrations. 600 years later, Sabri’s shrine is still a very intense place, the shrine itself full of men praying, many of them in states of ecstasy. I visited the shrine with several masters of the Kirana gharana (Pandit Pran Nath’s gharana) to whom the place is sacred, including the late Ustad Hafizullah Khan, khalife of the gharana and a master sarangi player, and the remarkable singer Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan. It was mid-day, we sat in the courtyard, a crowd gathered, kids, old men, everything between. The singing began, not qawalli, but Hindustani raga music, and the crowd listened. Hafizullah’s son Samiullah began to sing and it pierced my heart, a beautiful pure tone. I looked around and saw that I wasn’t alone. The atmosphere was one of intoxication, tears, drunkenness, a world turned upside down but gently so. I saw a man do a backflip while pacing back and forth on the marble verandah to the temple, totally entranced. I felt like I’d smoked a pound of hash. “Music can do all this!” as one of my colleagues said to me.

Concerto for Voice and Machinery, Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget etc, the ICA, London, January 1984.
There are moments at a live performance, all too rare, when reality shudders, and our ability to stand aside as objective or passive observers collapses. As we are pulled into the vortex of the event, which Antonin Artaud gave the name of the theater of cruelty, there’s a surging of mythical forces. As the field of the possible opens up, things manifest as highly charged, overlapping fragments. Power moves through us. The Concerto for Voice Machinery held at the ICA, reviled but diligent patron of the avant garde, was such a moment.
There was a cement mixer on stage. And some power drills. Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget, various friends. Some microphones. I’m not sure what we were expecting. Some noise, probably, or, more idealistically, for some new buildings to collapse.
At some point glass was tossed into the amplified cement mixer, making a tremendous sound. Someone announced that there was a secret tunnel beneath the ICA leading to Buckingham Palace. Someone else, perhaps Blixa Bargeld, started drilling into the floor of the building (or was it the stage?). The sound was intoxicating, surging purple waves of noise. Dust and sparks flew. Property was being damaged. The management tried to turn the sound off. A tug of war developed between the audience and bouncers for control of the mobile power generator which was powering the cement mixer and drill. Gasoline was leaking everywhere. Someone from the ICA tried to reason with the audience, but after a brief debate, earnestly conceded that the audience was right.
Did the police come? I don’t remember. Did anyone find the secret tunnel and make it for a secret rendezvous with the Queen? I don’t know. Outside of that theater of cruelty and that mad moment of intensity, the pigeon shit in Trafalgar Square and long night time train ride back to south London awaited us, as though nothing whatsover had happened. But for a brief moment, Einsturzende Neubauten started to live up to their name.

Schooly D circa “Saturday Night”, Public Enemy circa “Rebel Without a Pause”, 1000 Boomboxes and Car Stereos, Streets of New York City, 1985-6.
Those visiting the yuppie playground that Manhattan has become today will find it hard to imagine the New York of the early 1980s, subway trains covered with spectacular graffiti, and the streets alive with the sound of hip-hop and funk blasted from beatboxes the size of refrigerators and a thousand car stereos. The city-wide avant art extravaganza pulled off by Dondi, Rammellzee and other graf heroes found it’s analog in a world of sonic experimentation that reached a peak of gorgeous weirdness in the mid-1980s in the early tracks of Philadelphia rapper Schooly D, and the Hank Shocklee/Eric Sadler productions of Public Enemy. Schooly D’s first records such as “P.S.K. (What Does it Mean?)” and “Saturday Night” remain some of the strangest, most dusted hip-hop tracks ever made. Somehow the dull, superheavy drum machine rhythms that hold these tracks together already contain in them the distorted echo of boombox bass and drums echoing through the canyons of projects, a nihilistic ghost sound underscored by Schooly D’s mumbled, just about incomprehensible lyrics, full of menace and mysterious doped up thrills, ready to clear any pavement. It sounded even better when heard on the radio in the street, with strange audible delays resulting when the track was simultaneously broadcast on stereos one two or ten blocks away. Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” is probably as close as we’ll ever get to having free jazz pumped at deafening volume into every public space in a city. The screeching siren like sax loop that sounded so fearsome blasting from a car rumbling across the potholes of Flatbush Avenue, bound for do or die Bed Stuy bound, actually comes “The Grunt” by the JBs. The sound ruled the streets and everybody knew it – Chuck D’s later claim that rap was a “black CNN” seems like a poor consolation prize by comparison.

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela – New York City, The Dream House, Fall 1993 to present.
Even as other minimalists are feted globally and reissue programs make available more and more amazing archival tapes and performances, it remains next to impossible to hear recordings of the work of minimalist founder La Monte Young. A strange paradox then that all you need to do to hear Young’s work is walk up the stairs at 275 Church Street in Tribeca New York, between 2 and midnight on a Thursday or Saturday, to become fully immersed in a sound and light environment by Young and his partner, visual artist Marian Zazeela. The full title of Young’s static drone tone piece is itself too long to print here, but, to quote Young’s description, it’s “a periodic composite sound waveform environment created from sine wave components generated digitally in real time on a custom-designed Rayna interval synthesizer.” Young and Zazeela first developed the concept of the Dream House in the early 1960s as semi-permanent sound and light environments where Zazeela’s calligraphic light sculptures cast luminous shadows while Young’s drones manifest and gesture toward a world of eternal sound. The atmosphere is somewhere between the Rothko Chapel and an Indian raga house concert. No performers, just speaker stacks, a carpeted floor and pillows, magenta lights. You can move and experience the sonic grid created by the tones used in the piece, or lay still and explore the way that “tuning is a function of time” as Young says. Young says that it’s unlikely that anyone has ever experienced the feelings created by the complex cluster of just intonation tones that compose this sound environment. My own experiences in the room have not been ecstatic, in fact I find it difficult to point to any particular affective power in the sound. Yet there’s a strange magnetism to that peanut-butter thick wall of sound in that room that keeps me coming back, “eternal sound” that waits patiently for us to change and recognize it for what it is.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007 in a feature on “seismic” live events.

An Interview with Sri Karunamayee

I first met Sri Karunamayee at a music workshop held in Rishikesh last winter, where she was teaching Indian classical music, alongside other students of the great Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, and other members of the Kirana gharana, India’s foremost school of classical singing.  Aside from her beautiful voice, Sri Karunamayee’s classes were impressive in the way they stressed the fundamentals of singing and sound. The roots of her ability to articulate a philosophy of sound and it’s Divine nature can be found in her life story.  

Sri Karunamayee was born into a family in Delhi that was devoted to spiritual music. She pursued parallel careers as a singer and an educator, achieving the status of a class ‘A’ broadcasting artist for All India Radio, while at the same time obtaining a Masters in Philosophy from Delhi University, and acting as head of the music department at V.M. College of Ghaziabad of Agra University. Throughout her life, she has been committed to music as a spiritual practice, seeking out the highest teachers like Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, Vediji.  She was one of the first students of Pandit Pran Nath, who in 1970 brought the Indian Classical vocal tradition to America, and numbered amongst his students, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley and Jon Hassell.  Sri Karunamayee pays regular visits to North America, at the invitation of the Bay Area’s Sur-Laya-Sangam (surlaya@flash.net), to teach Hindustani vocal music.

One day in 1966 while traveling by bus in Delhi, she felt the urge to go visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in the outskirts of the city. There, she Encountered the Ashram’s founder, an old family friend and holy man named Sri Surendra Nath Jauhar Fakir.  Strangely, she heard an ‘inner call’, and offered to sing a song for him.  After much persuasion, he gave in, and she sang, reducing the room to tears. Mindful of the time, she made her excuses to leave, but was refused.  She remains at the Ashram to this day, teaching and engaged in her Sadhana.

I visited Sri Karunamayee at Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi on a beautiful morning in May. The sound of cuckoos in the garden vied with the sound of auto-rickshaws, airplanes and the delightful urban chaos of Delhi. We spoke for several hours, with a large photo portrait of The Mother beaming down on us. The conversation was so exhilarating that even the Delhi public bus that I took back into the city center afterwards, a notorious source of discomfort, felt infinitely spacious and full of joy.

MB: In what way can we understand making music as a form of spiritual practice?

K: Music, and especially Pandit Pran Nath’s approach to music, is very close to silence, the Sunyatta, from which everything comes and to which everything returns. That music is so close to silence, that to attain it, one has to learn to go within, make the inward journey. It is not so easy. First one should have the aspiration to do so. One should know that there is something worthwhile in going to the depths, where there is not so much sensation, activity, turmoil and drama as on the surface. The very depths are so still and impenetrable.  In our own selves there are such levels.  If one wants to be fully dynamic and effective in the true sense we must contact and master this level of perfect silence and equilibrium. Playing with a top in full motion it appears static, fixed, and gray, but just a touch and lo, it assumes quite a turmoil, hectic movement and a riot of so many colors!  This is what life is like.  When you have achieved that balance, only then will you try to make this venture.  You were asking about pop music earlier.  If you want the surface, all the variety, thrills, change and change and change, then pop music is very good.  But if you want to know what is the ultimate reason why all this has been created, and not just be tossed by the rising and falling of the waves, if you want to know where the power of the waves comes from, you have to go to the tides. And what controls the tides?  

MB: How do you stop yourself from getting lost in those depths?

K: Indian music—the very blessing of the Divine as Shiva—has given us the gift of the tambura, the four stringed Veena or Drone, which gives you a feeling of groundedness, so you do not get lost as in Western music. The tambura will support you always.  It is said that even Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning and music, when she enters the Nada Brahman, the ocean of sound, feels that it is so impenetrable, so profound, that she is concerned less she, the goddess of music, may be lost, inundated by it. So she places two gourds around her, in the form of Veena, and then she is guided by them into it. 

MB: Such an ocean!

K: Yes.  And that ocean of sound is the sound of silence.  The depth of which is expressed in the sounds of the tambura.  

MB: The sound is the reflection of the silence?

K: Yes.  Silence: it is like the depth of depths.  It is the eternal game of hide and seek.  You may create any number of sophisticated games in the world, but the one game with universal appeal, which nobody is ever tired of, is the game of hide and seek.  From the child to the oldest person.  Everyone loves it.  Sound: from where does it manifest?  From where has it come? Where does it go?  It merges into the ether, the Sunyatta, and then it re-emerges.  Whether we are in the sound, or the sound is in us, it is always a mystery.  Even when we are not striking up any sound, does the unstruck sound not emanate through us, in spite of us?  The ocean of sound is composed of that struck and unstruck sound, all rolled into One.  And we are a part of that.  The drop is in the ocean.  But the drop in the ocean can say, yes I am ocean.

MB: Are we sound?

K: We are sound.  Aren’t we? When we are in control of sound, then we are sound.  And that sound is just like when you hold a set of scales, on one side you keep the weight, on the other you keep the goods.  So sound is balanced with silence.  You cannot be fully aware of the beauty of this sound unless you have tasted silence.

MB: Are we silence then too?

K: Yes. 

MB: How did you became involved in music?

K: Oh!  My involvement in music?  Surely it started before I was born.  Because “sound-crazy” as I am, how could I not be born in a family which was already resounding with the music of masters like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Fayyaz Khan and Pandit Bhatkande?  Through my grandfather’s hummings, my father’s singing, my elder brother and sister’s practice, and through their teachers.  But as a small child I liked to go to where nobody made any sound.  Where two doors met in our house there was such a place, and I would just go and hide myself there.  For hours I would stand there and feel the silence.  Silence going into sound, and sound turning into silence.  That was my favorite time.  Sometimes my mother would look at the brood and say “uh oh, where is Karuna?” We were a big family. I had to find my own corner of silence, which was essential for my existence. 

MB: Did you have a formal music instructor?

K: At the age of six, good teachers were coming and teaching my brother and sister.  But I was very small and it was not considered necessary for me.  But I had a gift.  Whenever I heard some music it just became ingrained in me.  My consciousness of silence kept my slate very clean.  Most of the time I enjoyed the silence, even when everyone was talking, I felt a kind of echo of the silence, as if I was in a tunnel, untouched by any of it.   Whatever I heard was imprinted, and I found myself singing in that way.  Nobody cared.  I would just put my head down and start going sa-re-ga-ma.  Sometimes I would hear my sound very clearly.  I would think: it may be that my sound is not heard, but I can think of music!  And holding that thread, not of the sound that I’m making, but of the concept of sound, with that I would go up the scales for many octaves.  And then I would say, alright, let me come down, keeping the thread, and I would find my voice becoming audible, very clear, and then deep, and then less clear, more unheard, but I could go deep also.  This was my favorite exercise.  I would go higher and higher like the birds at noontime in the sky.  Then I would imagine that somebody is taking water out of a well. You can go as deep as you want.  There is no limit on either side, up or down.  So I experienced infinity in height and depth through sound and silence. It gives you control over your mind. A thread of sound. 

But you asked about formal instruction.  In answer to my deepest aspiration for music as the path for my self-realization, at the age of twelve I was blessed by the teaching of Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya of Gwalior Gharana, a second generation disciple of the savant of Indian music, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who initiated me into the depths and lofty heights of Indian music with crystal clear understanding and with a due sense of devotion and commitment for which I am so grateful.

MB: When did you first meet Pandit Pran Nath?

K: I met him in 1953 at a music festival in Delhi.  This was a difficult time in Guruji’s life.  His master, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan had just died and Guruji was like a person who was very disturbed, uprooted.  When Guruji started singing, my teacher Dadaji said to me, “Listen carefully, this is the music for singing for which you have taken birth on earth.” Guruji sang “Miyan Ki Mulhar.” That is a raga of rain.  At certain moments, when Guruji sang, it seemed that he collected the breath of all of us, and held it for some time, and then gave it release.  About five thousand people were sitting in that hall.  So he held the breath of us all, collected our breath through his own breath, held it at one pitch and then let go.  When he let go, we also let go.  And that opened our eyes.  I could never imagine that someone could hold the breath of other people.  It was a shock to me.  All this can be done with music!  And when he ended there was torrential rain!  And suddenly Pran Nathji got up, he was very sad and frustrated and angry, and he said, “I’m not a musician, I’m only a teacher.”  And he left the stage.  We were very shocked. 

MB: The first time I heard a recording of him, I thought it sounded wrong.  I couldn’t understand what he was doing.  I’d never heard someone consciously trying to do what he was doing.  It educated my ears.

K: You need to develop a special faculty.  Then you can hear.  Supposing someone is born with no faculty to smell.  You say, “Oh a rose smells so beautiful!”  He says, “What are you talking about?”   Sri Aurobindo said people live in a three dimensional world.  But in fact we live in a four dimensional world. What is the fourth dimension?  The Divine.  To live with or without the Divine: it is like living with or without a dimension.  So living with or without music is living with or without a dimension.  Music is a dimension of our existence.  I first realized this when I heard everyone’s breath held in one man’s hand— and unless he decided to let go, we couldn’t release our breath.  Five thousand people sitting there.  So this can be done.  But what is happening in between the breaths? I became aware of that when I started learning from Pran Nathji.  

MB: What was Pandit Pran Nath like as a teacher?

K: He was a great teacher.  He would expect the best from you and could bring out the best.  Every step: the way of looking at notes, at rhythm, everything was Divine approach.  With him I felt there was no difference between Divine experience and musical experience.  Life was music, life was Divine.  It was one experience.  He said: music is just like waves, it is continuity, sometimes one aspect is shown more, another time, another aspect.  It should be a total experience.  I always used to look at notes from different angles, but he taught me to look at a note in its totality all at the same time.  All at the same time: you see how it is rising, and at the same time, how it is balancing to fall down.

MB: So it could go in any direction?

K: Yes.  The real music is between the notes, that is Pandit Pran Nath’s special contribution.  Notes are landmarks but in-between much happens.  When a child is growing from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, there are so many stages of maturity.  One Marcus was born as a baby, and it is the same person growing, passing through different phases in life. That is continuity.

MB: The note is always passing through time?

K: Yes, music with its notes, its sound and silence, is something continuous.  For our own limited understanding, we put limits on this continuity.  A mother who is with a child all the time cannot see how her child is growing, but any person who only sees the child every few weeks will say, “Oh, the baby has grown.”  The Western musical notation system cannot do justice to sound, it can just point.  That’s all.  Notation misses how one thing changes into another.   

MB: The great Balinese Gamelan master Wayan Lotring once said “In my time, all music was nothing but nuances…” 

K: Those subtle things in between go unnoticed because of the fast life, to notice them you have to slow down your own inner speed.  Look at pop music, how fast and loud it is.  It doesn’t give you the opportunity to think of the finest nuances, and observe how one thing changes into another.  It is so imperceptible.  But even it is made perceptible, if you can bring your consciousness to focus on that sacred phenomenon of one thing becoming another, to hold control over that is not a simple thing.  Things get out of hand!  

MB: I heard Pandit Pran Nath say that raga means living souls.  What did he mean by that?

K:  Pandit Pran Nathji was a Siddha-Nada-Yogi of the highest realization.  With his natural gift, and his sadhana of the purity of sound, he was able to offer a living experience of Ragas as divine entities coming and manifesting in their celestial true forms.  Every note and nuance had the power and potency to bless the singer and the listener alike with felicity and Ananda.  When the singer invokes the spirit of a particular raga, his own spirit gets attuned to a pitch of the raga, and through those sounds, he says to the spirits please come down and manifest.  He offers himself completely.  When he is singing a raga he is not thinking of anything else, every drop of him is taken possession of, there is no individuality left.  Unless that surrender is there, we have not invoked the spirit of the raga. 

MB: Can such a spiritual practice of Indian music really take root in a place like North America?

K: Music is a great barrier breaker.  Pandit Pran Nathji’s music was spontaneously appreciated and adopted by the spiritual seekers, practitioners following the Sufi path like Pir Vilayat Khan and his followers, and master musicians like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, John Hassell and others.  They open-heartedly welcomed this absolutely different tradition of Indian music—and even that of the Kirana Gharana—taking a head long plunge into the Nada Brahma in Yogic spirit.  This resulted in a sea-change in their approach, and the emergence of a new musical form which has been called minimalism. 

Just as India is dedicated to divinity, America’s ruling spirit is liberty.  They really respect freedom – but from that, misunderstandings also come, and you have to pay a price for this.  India has paid a price for divinity.  All kinds of sadhana are prevalent here, but in the name of sadhana, there is much negativity also.  In the same way, in America, there is a ruling spirit of freedom, but it is not fully applied.  It will be applied only when just as I say, “The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you and bows down before it,” in the same way,  the should say, “The free soul in me respects the free soul in you.”  Everyone! If we have perfected one quality, then all the other things will be taken care of.  When we have really mastered the idea of liberty, there is no difference between liberty and divinity!  And music is doing this work: music is that which will open all hearts, it is the fountain of grace which will pour down over all creation. 

Originally published in Ascent, 2002.