Thursday, April 28, 2005

Beacon No. 32: After Dizzy, Who?

WHO COULD BE THE NEW AMERICAN GOODWILL AMBASSADORS? MASHERS!


The New York Times recently detailed the discovery of an hour-long concert recorded at Carnegie Hall in November 1957. It's historically significant because it's one of the few times John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk can be heard playing in the same band, and the concert was pretty much forgotten until recently. The tape of the concert was made for Voice of America, which in the 1950s helped promote jazz music abroad as an expression of American creative freedom and musical innovation.

The State Department had just sent Dizzy Gillespie and an integrated jazz band on a goodwill tour of the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America in 1956, according to John Brown's invaluable Public Diplomacy Press Review for the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. The point was to showcase jazz and counteract Soviet propaganda that portrayed the whole U.S. in the light of the Jim Crow South.

(Brown cites the April 15 Times Literary Supplement for this nugget, but alas, there's no link; Univ. of Michigan associate professor Penny von Eschen wrote the story, probably as an excerpt of her just-published Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.)

Jazz was all that in the 1950s, but what about today? Could State really send a jazz band abroad right now and expect it to win points? The form is hardly avant-garde anymore.

There's classical music, which will always reel in other countries' elites; but its cultural reach is necessarily limited and ... well ... slightly European, although Japan and China both have first-rate classical operations.

Country-and-western? Forgive me, Madame Secretary, but the world may have had its fill of cowboy hats, although some retro steel-guitar vibes might be welcome overseas.

That leaves rap and rock, and what else? I asked several people who are knowledgeable about what the kids are listening to the following question: Which American artists could you send overseas today as exemplars of American values like creative freedom, hard work, free expression and other positive stuff?

Replies came back quickly. One wag suggested the Marine Corps Marching Band, and we were off to the races, with one correspondent observing:

In the "rock" genre, Springsteen would make a good cultural ambassador for the US, but it would probably only happen in a Democratic administration. He's the closest thing there is to Woodie Guthrie ... unless you count Arlo Guthrie.

Britney Spears would be good to send broad, just to get her out of the country.

John Fogerty would be good for the same reasons as Springsteen.

I'd also send Creedence Clearwater Revisited, which is [Creedence Clearwater Revival] without John Fogerty, just to show the rest of the world what happens in America when lawyers get involved.

Another correspondent agreed:

What happened to roots rock, man? It's the core of what's best about American music—Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams.

This same writer also wondered about how much musical context foreign citizens have when they hear American music in the first place:

I once saw a kid on the main street of Kiev, playing guitar, surrounded by mopey young adoring girls. I walked closer and realized he was playing and phonetically singing "Rape Me" by Nirvana.

Another wondered about rappers and a possible jazz/hip-hop combo:

Too bad Ray Charles is gone.

"Clean" hip hop, i.e. non-gangsta bitch ho 187 stuff. Problem: Usually it's by college-educated brothers (and white boys) who rip on U.S. foreign policy. See Beasties. And it'll still get tarred with the violent sex-crazed rep of ghetto asshole hip-hop. And it behooves the listener to comprehend rapid-fire English, and slang.

But it's about the only thing young people in other countries would probably care about.

Jazz again is not a bad idea at all—universal language, and it would even have symbolic value as a repeat—but it would have to be giants. Also, jazz + hip hop has been done, but it would take the edge off rap's "ugly American culture." A ripping jazz band with a couple old gods and a couple superhot enlightened rappers to bring out the kids.

Or just hire Bono.

Finally, one reply talked at length about sampling and mash-ups, the electronic mixing of two different—often wildly different—songs, changing their tempos and phase-shifting the voices to make a seamless blend. It's become an underground club phenom—underground because mash-ups live and breathe copyright infringement.

... You might want to think about folks like Beck, DJ Spooky, DJ BC, Beastie Boys, and some artists who come later in the alphabet. All these folks are pushing the boundaries of music with innovative uses of sampling and mashing. In no uncertain terms, the work they are doing/inspiring others to do is adding a very interesting perspective to the current debate around digital copyrights. (And as an aside, you should check out www.creativecommons.org). The Beastie Boys have released a song with a creative commons license. And as an aside to the aside, NIN (Nine Inch Nails to some of you) just released an entire track in Apple's Garage Band file format to encourage people to cut it up and play with it.

While giving these people passports and ambassador-type responsibilities might seem foolish or an act of subversive support for a clear leftist agenda to insure that no one can ever make money off music again, I think that extolling the virtues of technical innovation and demonstrating the natural tension that exists in (rapidly diminishing) democracy would be a valid thing to show the world. After all, did we not clearly establish a framework in the Constitution so that "Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts. ..." The founders were well aware that democracy cannot and will not flourish without an active and empowered intellectual community exploring, poking, innovating and otherwise trying to figure out how to make [the Beatles'] "Day Tripper" and [the Beastie Boys'] "Triple Trouble" sound even better than hawks and doves playing with one another.

Finally, if none of you have heard the "Beastles," you should check it, check it out. Beastie Boys songs mixed with Beatles tracks. It might be the best thing to happen to the Fab Four since they stated they were more popular than Jesus.

So I looked, at the Beastles and much more. Mash-ups crackle with energy, at least in the West. DJs from San Francisco to the U.K. to France are in the game, squeezing together bands and songs that have no business occupying the same time zone, let alone the same track.

It seems like mashers are required to have a sense of humor to get in the game, judging from the humorous album-cover art and song titles that accompany most tracks. I particularly love "Hey Ladies Night," which combines the Beastie Boys' "Hey Ladies" with Kool and the Gang's "Ladies Night."

There's also LenLow's "To the Taxmobile!," which mashes the old Batman TV-show theme with the Beatles' "Taxman" and Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

Mash-ups are largely presented live or given away over the Web, and anyone with an MP3 player can download them. Mashing seems easy to learn and tough to master, judging by the commentary I saw on some of the sites.

In short, like our other recent exports—from skateboarding all the way back to, yes, jazz—mash-ups are everything people like about America: technical virtuosity, curiosity, humor, creativity and a dash of harmless criminality. If we could just get around some copyright problems and rain mash-ups and mashers on the world. ...

I'll leave the strictly old-school among you with "Rap Riders," a stellar combo of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm" and Blondie's "Rapture." It's even danceable.

1 comment:

Kane said...

this is pretty interesting stuff... i'm particularly interested though in the effects of digital music production such as sampling (and mash-ups) in rap music and how it's changed the way rap is not only made but perceived.. visit my site n leave a comment if u got something to say about this.. i'd appreciate it.

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