Glocal music express

"I don't really go on the internet, it's like a ouija board, it's like letting someone into your head, behind your eyes." – William Bevan

Text by Felix L. Petty

I was lost, deep in the internet. I can't remember exactly what I was looking for when I noticed a suggested track on the YouTube sidebar Zia's "Helelyos". "Iranian Funk", it declared. Click. It was beautiful in its strangeness; a rolling and funky drum beat, horns blowing a hypnotic, cyclical melody, and an Iranian vocal that started off restrained before exploding in an octave-stretching demonstration of pure ebullience.

After some digging, it turned out this track was featured on a Finders Keepers compilation called Pomegranates, subtitled, "Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s". I soon found the album and listened. Despite the unfamiliarity of Zia's song, the tracks that really stood out were by Iranian singer Googoosh. Her songs are sultry, otherworldly ballads, her voice a crystalline echo over synthesised basslines and traditional percussion. In her day, Googoosh was one of the most popular singers in the world - her following and fame stretching from Pakistan to the Balkans - as iconic as Twiggy, as cool as Sandie Shaw. She was the first woman in Iran to wear hot pants, she cut her hair like Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle  and famously made outrageously sexual innuendo in a film. Sadly, her singing career was cut short, in part due to the restrictions of Iran's post-revolutionary government on women performing in public and compounded by her refusal to leave the country and move abroad, instead opting to marry a florist.

It called to mind Ros Sereysothea, a peasant singer from Battambang in Cambodia who moved to Phnom Penh in the mid-'60s and became part of the wave of local singers influenced by the western music that was seeping across the Vietnamese border via the GI radio stations. The new styles Sereysothea was performing mixed with the traditional Cambodian folk she had been singing previously. Sereysothea often adopted and reset the vocal melodies and tunes of the hippy movement, turning them into songs that reflected Cambodian life. Tragically, her career was cut short by revolution. A victim of the Khmer Rouge, she was dead by 1977.

Cultural value almost entirely relies on the context in which we appreciate something, so when Sereysothea sings a cover of a western psychedelic record, or appropriates the sound of distorted guitars and western vocal melodies, western "pop" is re-contextualised. And while a Eurocentric audience may view Googoosh or Sereysothea as exotic oddities, their music requires no specialist knowledge to appreciate. It is pop for millions of people around the globe.

In a world where we have access to almost everything written, recorded and committed to film, it can be hard to appreciate the difficulty required in finding these sounds halfway across the world. The west London label Honest Jon's has been doing stellar work in finding long-lost recordings from the EMI archives. Its compilation, titled Sprigs of Time, collates unusual 78s that would probably not have been accessed via the web. Rediscovery is part of it, but the desire to make connections between local sounds is an overriding concern, echoing the spirit of adventure that first took folk musicologists John and Alan Lomax into the southern delta to find and record the first American blues singers in their native environments.

Bollywood composer Charanjit Singh was setting traditional Indian ragas to the emerging technology of Roland 808 and 303 synthesizers in 1982, predating a bunch of kids in Chicago who adopted the same machines to develop acid house. And the internet has had such a momentous effect on the way we appreciate, understand and contextualise music that when Singh's Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat was re-released in 2010, it was widely regarded as a practical joke, the work of a modern producer working under a pseudonym. To dance music connoisseurs, it almost beggared belief that Singh was working with 808s and 303s five years before Phuture released their seminal "Acid Tracks" - the first acid house record. And, what's more, he was doing it in Bombay, far from the home of dance music.

This is partly because we experience music in a linear manner.

So if we were going to pitch a TV documentary about the mid-'80s "Madchester" scene, it would go something like this. In 1976, the Sex Pistols play Manchester's Free Trade Hall in a bill put on by the Buzzcocks and witnessed by Mark E. Smith, Morrissey and two lads who later buy guitars and form Joy Division (née Warsaw). Factory Records sign Joy Division, who, after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis, become New Order and open the Haçienda nightclub with the label in 1982. In 1986, the club's DJ Mike Pickering (who later forms the pop dance band M People) starts a night called Nude, which twists the angular guitars of Joy Division into the repetitive beats of acid house. Early Factory bands such as A Certain Ratio move towards a more house-oriented sound, while producers and groups like A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State emerge. By the late '80s, Happy Mondays and Stone Roses have formed, influenced by the two divergent traditions that developed in Manchester - the indie sensibility of the Buzzcocks, the Smiths, the Fall, and the music of New Order and acid house, thereby creating Madchester.

What this documentary would show is how a variety of different sounds, ideas and ideologies are born out of a single event and, when left to ferment, lead to an entirely new sound that is identified as representative of that location.

If The Sex Pistols hadn't played the Lesser Free Trade Hall, if Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner hadn't been there, we might not have had the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. Now though, when influence has been flattened into a spiral of YouTube links and Spotify playlists, such physical connections have all but disappeared.

TV execs may well be pacing nervously around their offices, wondering how they will plot out the music documentaries of the future if, thanks to the internet, location has become an irrelevance. What images will accompany sounds if geography is no longer a factor in an artist's development? A dull visual rendition of producers browsing the web, chatting on Facebook and fiddling with loops on Logic software?

This is the century of the online social network.

We are no longer contained by our locations, the internet having opened up a world of critics, collaborators and enemies who can be reached via social networks, blogs, Facebook groups and message boards.

The landscape has changed so rapidly that it feels like a lifetime ago when the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen were the first artists to make their names via MySpace - especially now that we exist in a world of YouTube, Mediafire, Last.fm, Bittorrent, Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

The Monkeys may have acquired fame and fortune by directly engaging with their fans on MySpace, but their style and concerns were still rooted within their home city of Sheffield. Indeed, despite initiating a new trend, it might be more appropriate to think of them as the last of an archetype as old as rock'n'roll; they just happened to come to prominence using a new method of distribution.

Music is defined almost entirely by the tools used to create it, from Mozart's piano to the electric guitar via the synthesiser. And in the absence of any new instrument, this age has been defined by the improvement of recording technology. GarageBand, Logic, Ableton; these software programs are defining the sound of music in the 21st century.

What this all means is that the internet has created both a new musical aesthetic based on technology and facilitated its delivery to consumers. This change leads us down a road towards a future where locally identifiable sounds will soon move effortlessly across borders, producing a huge, fragmented arrangement of genres, formed not around regional networks, but by the social networks of the web.

So how will this new aesthetic manifest itself sonically, given that making music is becoming an increasingly solitary activity? Empowered by pirated technology, and inspired by a deluge of music available through unconventional channels, these audio nerds are driven by their belief in the solo artist as hero-creator. Think of Burial (whose quote opens this article), who has stridently avoided using his real name, rarely giving interviews, and operating under the veil of anonymity.

Ultimately, though, his sound is too rooted in the cassette culture of the '90s' drum'n'bass scene to truly exemplify the new aesthetic. Instead, that accolade goes to another Hyperdub signing, Hype Williams. No act better exemplifies the dense web of influence that informs modern music than this pair. Theirs is music replete with the noise of YouTube rips, thriving in the gap between new work and reworkings.

Not only does the internet erase influences, it also shrinks the world. What difference does it make to an MP3 if it was made on a computer in Manchester, São Paolo or Adelaide?

Hype Williams' work is acutely aware of this.

Their music also draws on the idea, enabled by the net, of something existing post-geographically. Their music relies as much on the tropes of the UK bass scene as it does on R&B and hip hop and the detritus of Japanese culture, placing no more importance on one than the other.

Hype Williams' recent album, Black is Beautiful- released under their own names, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland - is the most powerful record to emerge from this new internet culture. It is the acceleration of pop culture into a sinewy sonic palette that owes no geographical allegiance, weaving itself around the density of sounds available just a click of a mouse away.

This essay started with a journey through the links of YouTube, driven purely by curiosity. It could end with the same impulse, but in search of the building blocks of Hype Williams' sound. Because, like the musical journeys that the web reveals through a whole world of links, the duo turn that thirst for discovery into something that sounds truly new. This is music that takes UK bass culture and renders it close to unrecognisable, something uniquely 21st century, that couldn't exist without the possibilities that the web enables.§

honestjons.com/label.php
finderskeepersrecords.com
hyperdub.net

  • Glocal Music Express – Felix L. Petty