Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Author: suvogel

Finals Music

Tis’ the season for the library to be annoyingly overcrowded with people who aren’t actually working but feel too guilty to go back to their rooms and go to sleep. Their “five minute study break” has been going on for over half an hour, and you have a paper due in two hours. There are no rooms left in Chambers that aren’t covered with signs saying “DO NOT DISTURB.” Is there anywhere quiet on campus? No. Do you have to focus? Yes. It’s time to listen to a lot of low key, instrumental music.

The best places to find study playlists ranked in preference:

  1. www.8tracks.com

On 8 tracks, you can search by genre, band, mood, or tag. The playlists are sorted by new, trending, or popular (always pick popular). If you can stomach the overly cutesy pictures next to the mixes, you’ll find great, long playlists to keep you going for hours.

Here’s one to get you going:


2. Youtube playlist feature.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries?list=PL3FB4CE844FDD381C&w=560&h=315]

Okay, this one isn’t as exciting, but it is incredibly underutilized.  Search “your favorite band, playlist” and you’re set. This is also a great way to find up and coming people who don’t have albums out yet (or on Spotify yet).

3. Spotify

This is self-explanatory. If you don’t know what this is, how have you been doing your W101 assignments? I understand if you have loyalty to Pandora (but if you are exclusively a Pandora person: does “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel come up on every single one of your playlists, too? I understand the link between Elliott Smith, sure, but I can’t see the music preference algorthim going from Ke$ha to Sound of Silence. Life is a mystery.).

4. http://www.npr.org/music/

Their live stream is great 80% of the time, especially at night. It’s finals, you’re up at night. If you want to find new stuff, this is great. Plus, you feel kind of pretentious listening to NPR and death glaring the people talking too loudly at the table next to you, and in these trying times of academic uncertainty, we all need a little bit of a superiority complex.

Take what you will of this post in jest, but do check out some new music while you’re studying. If you’re attached to your computer, it’s a great excuse to hear something new.

Music, Tragedy, and National Identity


By now, all of us have heard about the coordinated attacks through France’s capitol, Paris, that left 129 people dead. Though little is known about the individual motivations of the attackers, information about some of the assailants’ nationalities sparked fear throughout Europe. One attacker is a confirmed French citizen and one is a refugee from Syria.  While home grown terror is concerning, considering refugees as terrorist threats adds a new complexity to the already tense discussion over the European refugee crisis.

Since the attacks, Polish officials have announced that Poland will stop taking in refugees.  Given that 8,000 individuals try to enter the European Union per day, if other nations follow Poland’s lead, it is easy to predict an increase in human rights violations as refugees become more desperate for the services of human traffickers, become increasingly willing to enter EU nations under unsafe conditions, and, once there, feel pressure to stay in Europe under any means necessary.  For refugees, especially Syrian refugees who have been relocated by fighting continuously over the past four years, “going home” is not an option.  So although President Hollande may have closed France’s borders and despite Poland’s pledge not to accept any more dislocated people, the reality is that they are more than likely still coming.

The question is, what are the dynamics of the society the refugees are coming to? In Paris on Friday night, football fans sang France’s national anthem as they walked out of the stadium. Media sources globally took this as a signal of French unity, pride, and defiance to terrorists. The Sydney Morning Herald compared the event to the spontaneous singing of the French National Anthem in the French Parliament after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year. Without knowing anything about the attackers, and indeed the French citizens singing the anthem did not know anything about the attackers while they were singing, the song suggests that protecting France comes from within France. The national anthem prioritizes nation’s borders as a meaningful construct for defining social inclusion.

Except as the French were rallying around being French for support, one of the attackers (if not more) was a home grown extremist. He would have known the French national anthem. The song indicates that he should be included in the acknowledgement of suffering and resilience because he is french. The refugees and non-citizens are not included in this song. We might see that a different criteria for social inclusion is appropriate and then, perhaps, a different choice of song to reflect strength and dignity of people following tragedy.

What does it tell us that in the wake of tragedy, we turn inward towards our own nation and find solace in things that differentiate us from the world ( in songs unique to our country for instance) rather than things that unite us with people globally? Is this instinct, which seems to be knee-jerk (I can’t imagine there was much thought or debate over what song to sing in response to this tragedy) a problem, a neutral fact about how people function within nations, or something to take pride in? What does singing the national anthem signify to refugees and non-citizens impacted by the attacks?



El Compa Negro: a Black man on the Mexican music scene?

We’ve recently discussed concepts of authenticity and ownership of music. In MacMillen’s discussion of the Balkans, readers were forced to question how locals, foreigners, city dwellers, and rural Bulgarians each interacted with folk music uniquely and similarly. While ethnomusicologists frequently degrade tourists’ interactions with music as lesser, seeing their fascination as intrusive, exploitative, or an attempt to appropriate culture, MacMillen suggested that foreigners, unlike urban Bulgarians, had the only truly organic encounters at folk music festivals because they had no pretense of being “traditional.” In contrast, MacMillen suggests, the urban Bulgarians were more performative than the foreigners because they were attempting to reconnect with their ancestry and perform their heritage in a way not authentic to how they currently lived (MacMillen, 2015).

In America, we see similar conversations of ownership emerge. One of the most heated examples of this comes when an outsider enters a cultural minority’s music scene. Who can and cannot enter the scene, enjoy the music, and perform the music is subject to ongoing debate. Nashville Public Radio covered the story of Rhyan Lowery, an African American 19 year-old from Compton, trying to break into the Mexican music scene. Rhyan’s  stage name is “El Compa Negro,” a name thats origins lie in a derogatory nickname from Black high school friends. His music, with lyrics like“I’m black, of course, African American, heart and soul of a Mexican” remain mindful of his unique status within the musical community. He is not trying to erase his race or force others to forget about what makes him distinct.

Yet when speaking about why he became involved in Mexican music, Lowery does not say he wishes to shake up the scene or prove a point. Rather, he cites his exposure to and love for Mexican instruments, like the accordion, saying, “The accordion — it’s amazing what they can do with the accordion, and what sounds you can get from it. Also, the tuba and the Charchetta, it’s awesome!”

He also appreciates the culture, specifically the women. ““I love Mexican women,” he says, “And Mexican women, they dance banda and cumbias and Norteñas. Music is the key to the heart so if I’m going to win the heart of a Latina, I have to do my homework.”

Is this appropriation? It doesn’t seem like it. It seems like a young man who grew up in a predominantly Mexican community practicing what he knows, but to the rest of the world that doesn’t line up. When we draw lines of musical ownership and authenticity based on skin color and define group membership solely on race, passionate musicians like Lowery can be (and are) shunned. Lowery knowledges that his choice in music can alienate him from his Black friends and his skin color can keep him at arms distance from the Mexican musical scene, often barring him access to preferable venues.

It is interesting which communities guard “ownership” of their music so tightly and to see which boundaries are more or less permeable. For instance, I feel like it is easier for minority artists to perform whiteness (Shakira singing in English) than it is for minorities to shift along the color spectrum but still not approach whiteness.


Why we are excited about “Hamilton: The Musical”

In 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed the above song  about founding father, Alexander Hamilton, at the White House. With punchy lyrics, Miranda captured Hamilton’s drive and ambition, rapping:

“The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father

Got a lot farther by working a lot harder

By being a lot smarter

By being a self-starter.”

With respect to being a self-starter, Miranda is like the character of his song. Six years after performing for the Obamas, Miranda had changed his original vision from a “concept album” about Hamilton to a Broadway musical boasting eight sold-out shows per week. People cannot get enough of Hamilton, and recently there have been discussions of creating a film production using the original Broadway cast.  So why is Hamilton the show to see this year?

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda, like his protagonist Alexander Hamilton, is an unexpected self-made man living his dreams: Reading articles about the story behind Hamilton’s creation is inspiring from beginning to end. First, as a child Miranda worked to receive an education he and his family valued. Miranda received a scholarship for a private high school and took the subway to transport himself between his Dominican neighborhood and the mostly white neighborhood that held the school. He attributes some of his lyrical ability in writing Hamilton, a show that expertly navigates traditionally haughty, esoteric topics in a fluid, accessible sound, to this “bifurcated childhood,” as it taught him to blend worldviews and cultural practices. Miranda further overcame obstacles in his environment when creating the musical itself. Miranda, initially inspired by  Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, needed Chernow’s approval to adapt the biography into a musical. Chernow was skeptical (especially upon hearing it was a musical utilizing hip hop), but Miranda’s incredible ability to synthesize Chernow’s work accurately into a four minute opening number persuaded Chernow that this was a worthy project. Miranda’s tenacity makes his lyrics written about Alexander Hamilton seem self-reflective: “I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
  2. Hamilton brings marginalized groups into U.S. history as participants, not subjugates:  Hamilton features a multiracial cast, trusting that after an initial introduction the audience will not question a black George Washington or a multiracial Alexander Hamilton. In an interview with the New York Times, Miranda and other cast members explain they want to represent America as it is today. Indeed, census estimates indicate that by 2050, America will be a majority-minority country. Despite changing demographic trends, the reality is that history textbooks depicting the time period of Alexander Hamilton are dominated by white men who do not resemble many Americans. As a result, young minorities in America might learn to correlate images of power, bravery, or strength with whiteness. Of course, it is impossible to rewrite history. However, that does not mean that talented individuals today should be typecast out of roles for the sake of historical accuracy.  Hamilton is not the first race blind cast, however it is one of the first shows to unapologetically answer the question “what if we dont worry about being realistic?” The answer, based on ticket sales, seems to be resoundingly positive. Both minority audience members and minority actors clearly benefit from Hamilton in that they are given permission to take up space where  they have been previously implicitly or explicitly shunned. More subtly, white audiences benefit from challenging notions of what it means to be “American.” Watching Hamilton makes white audience members confront any cognitive dissonance they may have as a result of both valuing  America’s roots as an immigrant society while also simultaneously feeling discomfort with brown (or “foreign”) actors playing these characters on stage.
  3. Hamilton Richard Rodgers Theatre Cast

3. Hip Hop music brings new life to Broadway: by using hip hop, not only does Miranda shake things up on the Broadway stage itself, he also perhaps privileges a different type of audience member in understanding Hamilton’s message. Unlike classic Broadway productions, to fully appreciate titles like “Ten Duel Commandments” you must be well-versed enough in rap to have heard Notorious B.I.G.’s song, “Ten Crack Commandments” (though if you’re like me and hadn’t made the connection, don’t worry, the song is still good). The speed of some songs is lightening quick, keeping the audience rapt to follow and providing an advantage to those who regularly consume rap music. We might imagine that the audience at Hamilton looks quite different than the audience for another Broadway show. The implications could be incredible. Imagine younger minority children feeling connected to the theater world, seeing actors who look like them, hearing voices that sound like theirs, and believing that this is a career path they are permitted to follow. In a few years, I can imagine schools with students talented in Hip Hop putting on Hamilton as their school play, Government and History teachers using Youtube clips from the production as teaching aids, and Miranda himself serving as an icon for young writers of color hoping to enter musical theater.


I do wonder about potential links between Steven Feld’s criticism of Herbie Hancock in his piece, “The Poetics and Politics of Pygmy Pop” and the production of Hamilton. In this case, Miranda clears owns the work he is producing, however if a goal is to use hip hop and a multiracial cast to make America’s history more inclusive of modern Americans and New Yorkers that look like the cast, we could question the venue. Currently, tickets cost between $93.00 and $484.00 per seat. A quick google search shows that day of tickets are being scalped for $1,000. While the costs associated with such a production are likely to be high, what type of American family could afford these tickets? Miranda has made efforts to make Hamilton accessible (publishing the lyrics to every song in the show for example), and it is likely an unrealistic and unfair burden to ask shows with social justice tilts to change ticket prices to better meet their social goals.

Does anyone else see this tension? Am I imagining problems in a show that is overwhelmingly positive?







In Praise of the Concept Album: “Hospice” By The Antlers

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsXKa97J6pM&w=640&h=360]

Last week I made the mistake of driving my car without an AUX cord at an off time of day for quality NPR programming. I found myself begrudgingly listening to two hours of pop music on the radio. As I listened, I thought about the concept of radio edits. There is so much pressure to pack a punch into about three minutes of air time.  It doesn’t seem surprising that all the music seems to follow the same generic script of love or lust. There isn’t much time for intricacy.

When I came home, I put on one of my favorite albums from high school. The Antlers put out “Hospice” in 2009, and the ten tracks are beautifully complex. BBC reviewer, James Skinner, compare the 52 minute long album to the sound of the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver.  While the sound is soothing and raw simultaneously, I continue to revisit the album not for the vocals but for the mental journey it demands of listeners.

Unlike many albums, Hospice is best understood listened from start to finish. I would never listen to a track from this album just on shuffle. Hospice is a concept album, meaning it develops a narrative throughout the album. Wake Silberman, the initial frontman of the Antlers, wrote this album to tell rich, deeply involved emotional story that cannot possibly be contained in a three minute song.

Silberman  loosely tells the backstory behind the album in an interview with Village Voice, explaining Hospice “tells the story of a psychologically abusive relationship, some of which took place in a children’s cancer ward. The record sort of drifts in and out of the hospital, which is true of the relationship itself. To an extent it’s autobiographical, but I guess the best way to say it is that there’s a few ways to lose someone. It’s not always through death, even if it resembles death.”

Going into Silberman’s world is dark. It can feel intrusive, as though you’re unsure the band truly intended you as the listener to witness such intimate moments. The tracks feature wonderfully vivid imagery: conversations with doctors, fights with the character’s lover, visits from her ghost, nightmares, and visits to the morgue. The character grapples with unsolvable struggles of what it means to love, to feel guilt, to feel and receive anger, to anticipate mortality, and to bereave.

Listening to the album is a heavy task. The album makes me want to both help and hold, and also be helped and be held. This is music you feel. I’m reminded of the power of music to tell a story in the way other media cannot. The lyrics are only one level. The integration of instruments, pitch, and even silence inform the narrative in powerful ways.  The vocals run a spectrum of human emotion from tortured to regretful to soft and sweet. You feel part of the character’s world, bonded to his struggle by the end of track 1.

Of course, music serves many purposes. Sometimes you don’t want to dive into the dark. Sometimes you want something to zone out to on 1-77. However, I encourage anyone searching for depth and complexity to consider this album. Albums like Hospice make me fall in love with music all over again.

Taylor Swift’s Diversity Problem

At MTV’s Video Music Awards on Sunday night, Taylor Swift announced the release of her new, highly anticipated video “Wildest Dreams.” The video depicts Taylor and a traditionally attractive white male filming a movie in an unspecified African country. Taylor uses beautiful shots of waterfalls and Savannah as backdrops to the music and even incorporates lions and giraffes into the video’s romantic vibe, however critics quickly noted there were no actual African people in the video. There are also no scenes of African cities, universities, construction, or scientific advancement. Taylor shows an Africa that is magical in its remoteness. Taylor paints a picture of wilderness as a hold out against modernity. Fans may love the images, but they are not seeing advanced countries with rich, complex cultures. Taylor’s video shows Africa as a white girl’s playground. Romantic or not, reviewers suggest that given the west’s colonizing and exploitative history with Africa, depicting Africa as only a beautiful, wild Savannah is insufficient and irresponsible.

“For a clip that’s set in Africa — it’s about as white as a Sunday morning farmer’s market,” Nico Lang writes. “The video wants to have its old-school Hollywood romance but ends up eating some old-school Hollywood racism, too.”

Perhaps Taylor’s choice to feature animals instead of African people was a conscious reaction to the backlash she received for her “Shake it Off” video, in which she was accused of culturally appropriating Black culture and valuing her Black back up dancers as props rather than people.  Maybe in Taylor’s world dancing in front of lions seemed like the safer move.

After all, Taylor and her director seem to have good intentions. All of her proceeds from advertisements off the video will benefit African Parks Foundation, a multinational organization dedicated to conserving parks throughout the continent of Africa, and many people of color worked behind the scenes to create the video.  However,  raising millions for African wildlife is not a free pass to ignore Africans’ desire for Taylor to engage with rather than experiment with their culture.

So how does Taylor Swift (and, for that matter, artists like Miley Cyrus and Lilly Allen who have also been under the microscope for such offenses) win? Can they include aspects of other cultures and people of other races in their videos without inherently being exploitative? Are we being too hard on Taylor, or does she as a self-proclaimed feminist have an obligation  to represent women of color better than she currently does?

Whether you personally find the reaction to “Wildest Dreams” an overreaction or a fair critique, I find the beginning of the solution to be listening. Instead of “shaking off” past critiques of cultural appropriation, musicians need to educate themselves on the history of their industry. Music is not divorce from a history of politics and power.  When you watch the music video and see an image of a lion in Africa, ask yourself: what Africa am I not seeing?