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.

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

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