Because we shouldn’t deceive ourselves. The digital age has provided too many opportunities for people who shouldn’t necessarily be putting out records and flooded whatever market may exist, reducing opportunities for everyone.
It’s like the famous tragedy of the commons, “an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently and rationally according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource.” So, I just quoted Wikipedia. Strike two, maybe.
So here I am, acting in my own self-interest and behaving contrary to the common good, through my second collection of songs for Mark Maynard’s Saturday Six Pack Radio show. For those who don’t know, I wake up every Saturday, improvise a song and send it to him for airplay later than evening. It requires little work from me, no financial investment, and gives me something to do besides mope in my Nairobi apartment about what my life has become.
Enjoy (if you can). You can find it here on Bandcamp and even purchase it if you are feeling particularly sorry for me.
Here’s the video for the lead track.
Since I’ve arrived here in the Gambia, I’ve been searching for music. Unfortunately, I’ve come up dry every night. Last Thursday, I heard music from behind the research compound, but was too tired to pursue it and, really, you can never be sure. Sometimes things sound cool through the echoes, but you might follow the sounds only to find Kenny Rogers being played for tourists.
Last night, I heard it again, and decided to chance it. It was so loud and chaotic, it sound like it might be a live band. I leave tomorrow, so this is my only chance.
I followed the sounds out to the back of the compound and found a group of old ladies gathered on plastic chairs around a giant stack of speakers, blaring out some kind of ultra hard beats. A kid with a laptop was DJing but it looked like people were just arriving. The scene was bizarre. Old ladies and grandkids politely chilling out to heavy beats through a wall of speakers.
I decided to go back later. I was wary. It could be some religious thing. It’s Islam here, but still…
When I went back, it was total chaos. This is definitely NOT a religious event (in the Abrahamic sense) and most certainly NOT a tourist event.
More people had arrived and were standing in a circle watching young dude do impossibly athletic dances while an old man MC egged them on and called other people to join. I had heard stories of dancing in West Africa and I have to say the stories are absolutely true. The young guys were the craziest, but kids, old ladies, women in fancy dresses and old men all got in the circle and showed their moves off and every time, people would go nuts with approval.
All to an energetic soundtrack that would get the cops out in a second in the US. I had never seen anything like it.
At one point, a blindfolded guy dressed as a woman comes out hold a dead chicken in one hand and money in the other. He does his chicken dance over a money pot and starts handing out notes to whomever is brave enough to get close to him. After the money runs out, he starts doing this thing where he leans over just barely touching the ground, seemingly suspended in air. Eventually, he disappears and returns out with a giant cinder block balanced on his back and does the same thing again. I have no idea what it was about but it’s clear that there’s order to this chaos.
After people start showing their moves again, a guy tries to get me to go into the circle. I’m like “no way.” I’m not going to be that bad dancing white guy. Some kids are egging me on trying to show me moves and cheering and laughing when ever I try. I should have tried harder. Music is a wonderfully great thing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a camera on me, but I did get an audio recording and a couple of pictures with my cell phone. I’m am most certainly coming back to West Africa.
In no particularly order at all, here are my favorites for 2014:
Bohren and der Club of Gore – “Piano Nights” – There’s something fascinating about people who graduate from hardcore, with its rigid rules and narrow forms, to more cerebral musical efforts. While “ambient jazz” conjures up images of new age office soundtracks, Bohren and der Club of Gore are like a horror show, where the characters are unaware of the supernatural nature of their predicament and ignorant of what lays in store.
Trap Them – “Blissfucker” – On the surface, New England’s (now Seattle) Trap Them are fairly conventional, but they give themselves enough room to prevent a zero sum competition for sonic space, allowing the listener to fully appreciate their monstrously violent sounds. Not for the faint of heart. Play on 12.
Taylor Swift – “1989” – I only first heard this record a couple of days ago but I nearly cried when I heard “Shake it Off’s” (near) perfection. Taylor Swift tries to offer herself as a slightly ditzy and social awkward lady of (white) people, but clearly she is so much more. Americans love very exceptional people who try to pass themselves off as unexceptional. In this respect, Swift is more than exceptional. While it is tempting to dismiss her, upon inspection, you realize that there’s a lot going on here. Words and notes are carefully chosen to simplicity and efficiency and she’s clearly loving every second of the entire process. While a couple of tunes could stand to be cut (such as the horribly trite, “Welcome to New York“) “1989” is a fantastic record. At 25 and with no signs of drug or sex scandals, we should expect several more decades of top notch music from an enigmatically gifted artist.
Goatwhore – “Constricting Rage of the Merciless” – I love this band. New Orleans metal which channels the best of early Slayer, Motorhead, Venom and Nuclear Assault, Goatwhore don’t sacrifice loudness for efficiency, drawing a brutal and listenable balance of both while, appealing to my old man, old school metal soul.
Swans – “To Be Kind” – Well, it’s the Swans, whose repetitive, mesmerizing and driving structures never fail to disappoint, even as grandparents. Post Jarboe Swans is every bit as great as their heyday in the 80’s and 90’s, but with the benefit of sagely brevity and modern production skills. Some bands suffer from being able to hear them. The Swans, on the other hand, require clarity because every sound counts.
St. Vincent – s/t – This one is hard to pin down, pop? Dance? Avant? Difficult to parse out all of the parts of this glorious hodge podge of everything, but the listenability of her latest effort and her formidable vocal and songwriting talents of Annie Clark can’t be denied. Word is that she was the opening act for the Black Keys. I hope that she blew them off the stage every night.
Arch Enemy – “War Eternal” – With Angela Gossow planning to leave to spend time with family and be normal, the future of Arch Enemy was uncertain. Finding a replacement for Angela’s impossible combination of invincible vocal chords and super model looks should have been out of the question, but it appears that Canada had been grooming a replacement all along. In many ways, “War Eternal” isn’t much of a departure from the rest of Arch Enemy’s output, but they have to be credited for consistency. It’s too much to expect radical diversions from the formula for a lot of heavy bands, particularly when the formula works so well.
Triptykon – “Melana Chasmata” – Just about everything that Tom Warrior does is amazing and this is no exception. While the transition away from Celtic Frost is fairly dubious given that everything that Warrior does sounds like Celtic Frost, we can ignore the monikers and imbibe in the brutal violence of his musical output.
Sunn O))) and Ulver – “Western Horn” – Ulver were one of my favorite black metal bands. Sunn O))) are, well, Sunn O))). The combination of these two should, theoretically, be nothing short of fantastic. Turns out, that’s completely the case. After having the great pleasure of seeing Stephen O’Malley with Keiji Haino this past April and been sufficiently blown away, this collaboration was a great surprise.
Yob – “Clearing the Path to Ascend” – Yob have to be consistently one of my favorite bands. There is a group of great active metal bands right which include, for example, Mastodon and Baroness. Yob strips away the Floydisms and the acoustics and boils it all down to a freebase of heaviness without sacrificing skill and power. Listening to a Yob record from beginning to end will rewire your brain in the best way possible.
I really have no clue. I think I’m too distracted by the utter awfulness of this musical crime against humanity. Can we really give Lavigne that much credit?
Is this racist? Somewhat odd given the themes of the song (submissive Japanese women ready to commit to her man “unconditionally”), but at least a step above the first clip.
Is this racist? I’m willing to say probably. Japanese girls bowing down to the white lady at the beginning kind of throws me over the edge. At least some locals got a paycheck….
Is this racist? Though I have to credit Styx with teaching me the first Japanese I ever learned, watching this video now does give me the shivers. Japanese people as army of mindless, though secretly cunning robots (with big teeth a la Breakfast at Tiffany’s) ready to infiltrate and destroy America’s sacred classic rock world.
Is this racist? Kobota Toshinobu and EXILE in blackface. I’m pretty sure Kobota and EXILE are both great fans of American soul and plenty of Japanese stars have tried to look like white people in the past so I’m hesitant to call this racist, but painful, nonetheless.
I’ll leave it up to the reader to discuss, but THIS is DEFINITELY racist:
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
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“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
I’ve known of Haino’s work since the early 90’s. Haino is an odd figure, blending Blue Cheer with Albert Ayler and infusing it with butou dance and Japanese minstrelism (a word I just made up). Somewhere along the line, I lost track of Haino’s work, particularly while living in Japan where he barely registers. In Osaka, you wouldn’t even know he existed. He told me he only plays there twice a year.
Fortunately, I got a translating gig for him so I was able to spend a little time talking with the man. Turns out, he’s a really funny guy. We talked at length about guitars, pizza, how young people in Japan are on the road to hell and the challenges of being in cities after living in the country for a long time.
I had forgotten what a major influence Haino has been on my musical life. I started using multiple amplifiers and didn’t shy away from the guitar because of Haino. Despite the amplified guitar’s somewhat pedestrian roots, Haino wields it like a fine sword, taking advantage of both the amplifiers and the room itself. It can be said that the entire room is Haino’s instrument. Though I’ve mostly given up playing (just don’t have the time) and wasn’t ever very good at all, I was incredibly moved to finally see one of my heroes play.
Haino was incredibly particular about everything. The lights had to be at a certain brightness and a certain color, and the audience was required to stand at a particular distance from the stage “for their own safety.” Though he was quite jovial about his specific requests, once the show started, it made sense why things had to be laid out in a certain way.
I’m working on a series of interviews with creative, interesting and amazing people I’ve known over the course of my life who, through whatever series of events, have found themselves in academia. This time, I’m interviewing Dr. Julie Huntington, who I know mostly as the oboe player in the seminal Michigan skronk outfit, Galen but now works on Francophone African literature in NYC.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Julie Ann Huntington. By profession, I am a professor of French language and comparative literature at Marymount Manhattan College. I also identify as a bicyclist, runner, advocate, writer, noise-maker, thrill-seeker, daydreamer, gourmande, and vagabond.
You’re from Southeastern Michigan, but now live in New York. I don’t know what I missed, how did that happen?
It’s a rather long story… that’s where the vagabond part kicks in. I’ve actually spent more consecutive years in New York City now (going on six) than any place in my life since graduating from high school. My first stay outside of Michigan in the summer of 1996 led me to a picaresque nanny job in a tiny town called Hem working for a psychiatric professional with some anger management issues and a college professor who tried in vain to seduce me with lines like “I see what kind of books you read… I know what kind of girl you are…” At the end of three weeks, we all agreed it was best for me to head to Paris to pursue other paths. With little money, I spent most of my days daydreaming and walking around the city. One day, I ended up wandering into an English language bookshop near the Notre Dame cathedral. After chatting with the owner, I secured lodging with some other ex-pats in a bed-bug infested library in exchange for a few hours of work each day. With little money, I spent much of my time reading books and helping out around the shop. George [Whitman] took notice of this and promoted me, calling me his Cordelia. In exchange for more responsibilities, consisting mainly of book-keeping and listening to George tell stories about lost generation Paris, I got my own room full of first editions and a sublime view of Notre Dame…
Filling in the gaps, I returned to Michigan to finish my BA at Eastern Michigan University in Anthropology and French. At the start of my studies, I had wanted to be a journalist, decided that I was ill-equipped to take on the burdens of truth and objectivity. Degree in hand, I headed back to Paris to consider my options…
I worked as a waitress in Paris in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris in 1998 for the World Cup matches and beyond. The restaurant isn’t there anymore, but I still have a scar on my knee from the celebrations. During that time, I decided to go to graduate school and prepped for my GRE exam…
And then you went down South?
In 1999, I moved to Nashville to start an MA-Ph.D program at Vanderbilt. My preliminary intention was to study XX century feminist narratives. As luck would have it, the woman with whom I had planned to work left the university and I had to shift gears. I became interested in issues of language and identity in areas where French was spoken as an official but not maternal or vehicular language. I was particularly intrigued by “noisy” writers who presented multilingual, musical, and otherwise resonant texts to readers. It all started with Ousmane Sembene… In my first year of graduate study, I read Guelwaar and God’s Bits of Wood… It was love at first read…
My interest in Sembene led me to Keur Momar Sarr Senegal in the summer of 2001 where I spent a summer working on a rural development project in coordination with community members and a group of Belgian and American volunteers…
I went back to Nashville and finished my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt in 2005. My work focused on exploring how instrumental literature, non-vocal music, and otherwise noisy phenomena are translated and transcribed into the frames of literary texts as a means of creating spaces for identity negotiation that lie beyond the limits of Western/Northern identificatory paradigms…
I worked as an Assistant Professor of French at Clemson from 2005-2008. While I was there, I spent summers taking students to Ghana on a summer program I created. I also traveled to Martinique and Guyane for research and conferences. I feel lucky to have visited Saint Pierre, Alawla-Yalimapo, Nzulezo by chance as sidetrips on these journeys as they are beautiful and unique places that have informed my work in important ways…
I loved the job at Clemson but was miserable living in small-town and even smaller-city South Carolina. I struggled to be happy there. It just wasn’t a good fit for me culturally…
When I was offered a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in NYC in 2008, I embraced the opportunity. Regardless of the professional pros and cons of my decision, I am happy with the choice I made. I love working at a teaching-focused job in a city where I feel joyful and inspired…
Since my arrival in NYC, I have spent time away in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and France for research, but have always felt compelled to “come home” to NYC. I’m not sure if this is my forever city, but my vagabond heart is happy here doing what I do for the time being.
I really don’t think I’ve seen you in person in nearly 20 years, at which time you were active in music. Are you still doing music?
Music is a part of my life everywhere I go and I sense that it always will be. Although I don’t have any regular projects at the present time, I find myself collaborating on a few projects every year. Most of these are spontaneous and performance-based. I feel like the energy and logistics of living in New York City foster these kinds of dynamic but ephemeral musical encounters. Some of my favorite NYC collaborations have been with Samuel Consiglio (of Tami on 12 inch and Perfect Weiners and Butts), who I met while dancing at Zoot’s in Detroit in the 1990s. Another performance moment I enjoyed was when I was invited to perform as an oboe-playing cannibal in a play—It Didn’t Have to Come to This by Normandy Sherwood.
I seem to know a lot of people who did odd music things, and then moved on to the wacky world of academia. How did you go from music to academia? Do you feel like your particular musical experience serves you well in your academic career?
Coming from a working class family in Michigan, many of my life decisions as a young adult were guided by financial imperatives. From a young age, I understood that work defines so many aspects of an average person’s day-to-day existence, especially in American culture. With that understanding, I followed the path that I thought would lead me to my greatest contentment. In spite of the present states of fiscal and identity crisis in academia, I feel like I made the right choice. Working as a professor is fulfilling in many ways. I learn so much each and every day in my interactions with colleagues and students, but also in my own investigations and explorations.
In terms of music, being a musician definitely helps me to be in tune with the people and texts with which I work. It is particularly useful in the space of the classroom. Playing in collaborative projects throughout the years has helped me become better in listening to and responding to others. I am very student-centered in my approaches to teaching and I often position myself as a collaborator-facilitator-coach when working with students on discussions and projects. One could liken the structure of a lesson to that of a jazz standard. In this respect, there are definite objectives and protocols in place to guide our interactions during class time, but there are also spaces for every participant to voice, interpret, and respond in a multiplicity of harmonious or cacophonous ways.
I became really interested in questions of linguistic, cultural, and regional identities in post-colonial frameworks, particularly as mediated in literary texts. Since there was already a fair amount of work being done on linguistic approaches to identity negotiation and appropriation in literature, I turned my focus to music. Although much work had also been done on the aesthetics and implications of oral genres in written literature, instrumental genres were not being considered to the same extent. I wanted to create a rationale and a vocabulary for considering sounding elements in literature, particularly non-vocal ones.
The book project came about after the series editor, Gregory Barz, approached me about revising my manuscript to give it a more interdisciplinary focus. We agreed that I would take out much of the literary jargon and construct narrative frames around the chapters.
A book in itself is strange because it fixes ideas on the written page, even if those ideas are still being revised, reconsidered, and reconfigured. It is like a time capsule of thoughts. All things considered, I am proud of this work with all of its shortcomings and strengths. In my view it is just the beginning, a point of departure, the start of a dialogue.
What took you to Senegal? In the book it sounds like you just kind of showed up there. While the experiences are obviously amazing (outside of drinking the borehole water: been there, done that), I’m kind of thinking the whole time “How did she get there?”
The decision to spend time in Senegal was motivated by a desire to get a feel for the geographic and cultural spaces and the aesthetic and linguistic protocols I was reading about in the works of writers like Ousmane Sembene and Aminata Sow Fall. I signed on to volunteer with ASREAD, L’Association Sénégalaise de Recherches, d’Études et d’Appui au Développement, an NGO in Keur Momar Sarr, where I lived and worked with members of the local community.
In a sense, I did just show up without any sort of formal agenda. I just wanted to learn as much as I possibly could during my time there about music, language, and culture. For the most part, I let the villagers guide my experience of that learning. This created openings and opportunities I would not have been able to witness or experience if I had come in with a clear itinerary and agenda.
I really enjoyed the cross-cultural, cross-linguistic and cross-disciplinary nature of the work, (and in the Julie-in-Africa vignettes).
Whereas personally, I find it very fulfilling to work across languages, continents, cultures, and disciplines, the work is challenging and not always well-received.
In a sense, interdisciplinary work is destabilizing. It requires critics—both readers and writers—to suspend self-ascribed notions of mastery of their respective methodological approaches and areas of expertise while exposing themselves to alternative modes of analysis and subject areas. Metaphorically speaking, interdisciplinary work is the mixed martial arts of academic work. In this respect, interdisciplinary practitioners develop proficiency in a multiple areas of expertise which they incorporate interchangeably depending on conditions and contexts. Multifaceted, versatile, and dynamic, interdisciplinary work creates opportunities for dialogue and exchange across categories, perspectives, and methodologies. The limits of this type of work is that is simply not possible to be a specialist in all styles. By consequence, interdisciplinary scholars often exchange the jargon and depth of analysis displayed in single-discipline scholarship for the accessibility and interwoven or textured quality of interdisciplinary work with varying degrees of success.
In terms of working across languages, cultures, and genres, there are multiple challenges at work here. The main challenge is that what we conceive of as the academy is still grounded in the geographic, linguistic, and cultural zones of Northern/Western nations. Even when working in scholarship grounded in African locations, critics find themselves faced with the imperative of constructing argumentation in dialogue with critical frameworks created within and endorsed by scholars working predominantly in Northern/Western academic and cultural systems. There is a type of academic hegemony at work here and it is difficult to overcome.
My parents and much of my extended family still live in Michigan, so I come back to visit a few times a year. I would also come back for an epic jam session.
What’s next? Anything new coming down the pipe?
I am working on a second book project examining culinary narratives, folklore, and recipes in contemporary West African fiction. I am also training for the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Julie’s book, “Sounding Off: Rhythm, Music, and Identity in West African and Caribbean Francophone Novels (African Soundscapes) is available for purchase HERE.