Alpoko Don, Folk Culture and the Ethics of Field Recordings

Seems a lot of old timers like to complain about the decline of the blues, especially when the blues is understood as the last bloom of a vital folk culture. Yet, as I’ve insisted before, folk culture is not dying. Like it always has, folk culture is changing and adapting to the times.

Alan Lomax provided an incredibly important contribution to musical history, driving around the countryside and recording poor, rural musicians whose voices would otherwise never have been heard. Yet the growing awareness of the economics and politics of representation often call into question the ethics of field recording. Is it exploitative for an educated, upper-middle class white man to travel to economically marginalized regions or countries and record economically and culturally marginalized performers, sometimes without payment, for the sake of furthering their academic career? Sublime Frequencies, one of the foremost contemporary field recording labels, often seems to be faced with similar charges of unethical practice.

Advances in international telecommunications technology and the expanding realm of do-it-yourself internet culture pose at least two solutions. The first, undertaken by the Bandcamp-powered record label Sahel Sounds is to use these technologies to distribute payment for field recordings in a more democratic manner. While this solves many of the economic ethics of selling field recordings, it doesn’t answer any of the representational problems. Who chooses who gets heard, and how is it presented?

Which brings me back to my original argument: folk culture is alive and thriving, and the new technologies that many decry as the end of regionalized, local folk movements are helping to keep it that way. In the series of popular videos Greenville, South Carolina rapper Alpoko Don has uploaded to YouTube, he sits on his porch, hums a melody, and taps out a beat with his hands, all the while freestyling with a unique and well-developed sense of humour and timing. When his jokes hit home, neighbours and friends laugh audibly off-screen while Alpoko shoots them a knowing look.

If all this, except for the rapping, sounds uncannily familiar, it should. Front porch, a capella performances such as this are the backbone of most American folk musics. They require no professional equipment or training, just time, talent and a desire to convey a message. Alpoko’s videos are field recordings curated and published by the artist himself. As digital technology become more and more accessible, folk culture won’t disappear, it will merely begin to assert itself and connect to other musics in more global ways.

As always, of course I have no desire to assert an oversimplified 1:1 equivalence between the blues and rap, or any variety of music. Rather I wish to demonstrate the thriving, changing face of folk culture. If the folk-blues are dead, folk-rapping isn’t.

To anyone who thinks that folk music is dead or dying, there’s a front porch in Greenville, SC you oughta visit. Dig it!

Alpoko Don, “Sitting Sideways” (2012)

Clyde Maxwell, “Corrina” (1978)

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Filed under Blues, Contemporary Blues, Field Recordings, Folk, Hip-Hop, Lomax, Music, Post-War Blues

Allah-Las, “Busman’s Holiday”

This album’s been in heavy rotation lately. All the tracks are consistently great, but it really picks up with the third track, “Busman’s Holiday.” The jangle-y guitars and California haze make me want to re-watch DiG! (2004), the classic documentary chronicling the volatile and brilliant Brian Jonestown Massacre. Check the video below. Enjoy!

Allah-Las, “Busman’s Holiday”

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Filed under Alt/Indie, Music, Rock

Kendrick Lamar and Blues Tropes

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Latecomer as always, See That My Blog is Kept Clean is back on the scene, and as usual, about a year late in acknowledging some hype-garnering artist. By this point, if you’re not familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City you’re doing something wrong. While much well-deserved praise has gone out to the clever voicemails that structure the album and Lamar’s competent verses, so far no one seems to have picked up on two somewhat odd instances of blues tropes that resonate with the album. The first is the most direct. On “Backstreet Freestyle,” Lamar intones “Goddamn, I’ve got bitches: wifey, girlfriend and mistress,” oddly echoing Son House’s assertion, “I’ve only loved but four women in my life: my mother, my sister, my kid gal and my wife.” (Wherein, “kid gal” refers to a girlfriend or mistress.)

Much more interesting, because Lamar’s version greatly alters the tone and setting, is the echoed version of the blues and country platitude “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” In “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Lamar modifies this inherently rural trope to update the phrase to the postmodern landscape of contemporary Los Angeles: “I’ma show you how to turn it up a notch / First you get a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in / Pool full of liquor then you dive in it.” As the song deals more ambiguously with alcohol consumption than the blues songs that typically feature the above lyric, “Swimming Pools” contrasts this typically irreverent blues trope against a background of dark synths. Changing the setting from a river to a swimming pool alters the iconography, while maintaining the social resonance.

And yes, I understand Lamar is probably not in any way actually attempting to quote either of these blues traditions, but I do find it fascinating that these two common scenarios could be transferred across the years and styles from the blues to contemporary hip-hop. Culture is continuous, there are no hard and fast boundaries, and what’s green will grow, no matter what form it takes. I’m back. Dig it.

Kendrick Lamar, “Backstreet Freestyle” (2012)

Son House, “Death Letter Blues” (1965)

Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (1950)

Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” (2012)

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Filed under Blues, Country, Hip-Hop, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues

The American Folk-Blues Festival 1962-1966, Vol. 1-3

This is a pretty exciting find: all three volumes of the American Folk-Blues Festival dvds up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure. I had always seen clips from these films floating around on YouTube, and I’ve even posted some on here before, but never have I noticed the presence of these volumes posted in their entirety, each in a single clip. Anyways, enough talk. It’s time to get down to business, and we’ve got three hours of live blues to watch. Dig it!

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

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Filed under Blues, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues

Pro Era Freestyle & BBQ

As you may notice, I have a penchant for hopping on the bandwagons of up-and-coming hip hop artists, so count today’s post among that series. After hearing the merits of Joey Bada$$ and the Progressive Era crew praised, I checked out their installment of the Pitchfork TV series Selector and was delighted by the skill and diversity of the young crew. Feel free to skip ahead to the 2:15 mark where the freestyles start flowing, and flow they do. While Joey Bada$$ is ostensibly the star of the Pro Era crew, and indeed his freestyles are lively and entertaining, I found myself prefering the more varied flows of Chuck Strangers and Dirty Sanchez, as well as the double-time rhymes of CJ Fly. With the already apparent success of the Odd Future and the A$AP collectives, it would seem that the second era of the rap crew has landed. Dig it!

P4K’s Selector presents: Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era Freestyle & BBQ

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Filed under Hip-Hop, Music

Unknown Artist, “Kuda Lumping”

Earlier this summer, Ghost Capital put out a killer mixtape via Aquarium Drunkard, which featured this absolutely beautiful gem from an earlier compilation of field recordings from Indonesia, Street Music of Java. Street Music was released in 1990 on Original Recordings, and unfortunately all the artists have been left anonymous, but the tracks are all quite excellent. The greatest track by far though, is the first of two titled “Kuda Lumping,” Javanese for a traditional dance depicting horsemen. The songs rattles away at an effervescent pace which, with a short run time, makes the bubblegum melodies that much sweeter for their fleetingness. The buzzing budget guitar, spattering tabla and clattering tamourine are all killer, but the vocals are the real knock-out. Total gem. Love it.

Unknown Artist (Java), “Kuda Lumping”

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Filed under Music, World Music

James Brown, “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”

In an effort to educate myself on a corner of the musical world I’ve previously overlooked, and in some sense possibly scorned, I’ve hooked myself up with some James Brown. This move was mostly inspired by my enjoyment of the Wild Magnolia’s extremely funky self-titled 1974 album, and my subsequent realization, in conversation, that I did not have any other funk music within my scope of knowledge. I first picked up a copy of Brown’s single collecting debut, Please, Please, Please, and was surprised by the relatively mild R&B/Rock & Roll stylings therein contained. Regardless, I was on something of a mission to introduce myself to the raging funk that Brown is best known for, and accordingly plunged into the foundational classic of hip-hop sampling, In the Jungle Groove (1986). Unavoidably enjoyable, there’s not much to be said about the album that the grooving beats don’t say themselves. Though “Funky Drummer” is the most famous cut, with the drum break that sailed a thousand dj’s ships, and “It’s a New Day” is probably my favourite, with the gospel screams, I’d like to highlight “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” for its great a cappella breakdown and Brown’s instructing the engineer to keep the tape rolling during the break. Here’s the version from the 1972 album There It Is. Dig it!

James Brown and the J.B.’s, “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”

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Filed under Music, Soul