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February 3, 2008

Blood Sucking Geeks

I was planning to inaugurate this blog with a brief-I-hoped and belated-who-cares post on this years' rock critics' polls, specifically the only two that matter: Pazz & Jop, which I invented and used to run, and Idolator, which began last year in the mistaken belief that with me gone from the Village Voice the franchise was up for grabs. Maybe--probably--later. In the meantime, something more manageable caught my eye.

     It was actually a Village Voice piece that got me started, which happens quite seldom these days: Julianne Shepherd's anti-Ivy League attack on the hot band du jour, Vampire Weekend. The Ivy League thing I'll barely touch on; what interested me was Shepherd's brief characterization of the recent Columbia grads' Afropop influences:

Re their Paul Simon fetish: "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa"--the one that cops Graceland rhythms but refashions a whimsical African pop form into an ode to Massachusetts's answer to the Hamptons--well . . . that's also questionable. But to be fair, jacking King Sunny Ade's steez is not the whole of their repertoire, and I get the feeling it's more about VW's flexing their own formidable technical ability (i.e., Joanna Newsom's liberal borrowing from traditional West African kora music) than the band's conscious desire to Westernize or "whitewash" an indigenous music.

    Now as it happens, I think Shepherd's analysis in this passage isn't so terrible as far as the cultural appropriation question goes (the class and style questions down below, no). What struck me was the mixing up of Afropop styles (or styles-with-ease, which the Urban Dictionary indicates is what a steez is). In part because I have the impression...

Shepherd is a pal of Michaelangelo Matos, one of the few younger critics (there aren't so many older ones) who knows anything about Afropop, this disappointed me. The three styles she references come from thousands of miles apart and have very little to do with each other--or as far as I'm concerned, their own talk and song titles notwithstanding, Vampire Weekend. Graceland--which to get ahead of myself everyone references--appropriates South African mbaqanga; I'm playing it now, for the first time in years, and it sounds great, but as in the South African bands (which frequently invoke the more sour Sotho sound, although most mbaqanga is Zulu) it waters down, the beats are much heavier than anything in Vampire Weekend unless you count their punky stuff, which isn't African at all. Kwassa kwassa is a typically mysterious dance from Kinshasa, 1800 miles and dozens of cultures northwest of Soweto, generally associated with the Congolese-Parisian star Kanda Bongo Man, whose innovation was speed soukous that sacrificed all the gentle parts of that gorgeous guitar music to the frantic sebene--not a putdown, I like him (especially when he has Diblo Dibala with him), but little more than a namecheck for Vampire Weekend. Finally there's Sunny Ade, whose juju jams hail from Nigeria, another thousand miles up the Atlantic coast, and who has even less to do with Vampire Weekend. Maybe Julianne was just being ironic. She's allowed because, unlike Columbia grads, she's not from the Ivy League.

      The reason all this puts me in a minor tizzy is that I've been championing Afropop for close to 30 years, with a certain success among my critical peers in the late '80s and early '90s and virtually none among the post-grunge and especially webwise critics. And now all of a sudden I'm inferring from places like Idolator (see especially the comments here) that this likable Columbia indie band (now on XL, which in Alternia today Doesn't Count As Indie) is suffering the dreaded Blogosphere Backlash for exploiting an exotic musical style these ignorant motherfuckers don't know shit about to begin with. But then, when I searched the blogosphere with the primitive tools at my Social Security-eligible disposal, I found not so much evidence of this. A Google search of "`vampire weekend' african," a perusal of the reviews at Metacritic, and even a scan of I Love Music's inevitable Vampire Weekend thread--well, I found stupid stuff of course, this is Web-based rock criticism, but less than expected.

    So OK--Graceland mentions galore; "filled with polyrhythmic techniques" (FYI, their attractively clattery drummer isn't up to it); "Afrobeat-infused indie-pop" (FYI, Afrobeat is Fela's jazzy-saxy-funky style, Afropop any African pop); "the ringing guitars of Orchestra Baobab and the twitchy pulse of Nigerian highlife" (FYI, Baobab put out an African record the writer in question may actually have heard, Sahel-based Islamo-Catholic salsa-mbalax in style and very non-VW, while Nigerian highlife is much heavier than the twitchier-I-guess Ghanaian norm, which has not much to do with VW either); "purely white sentiments and positively black sensations" (disgraceful, though not as disgraceful as the status-mongering Times mini-feature Idolator properly excoriated above). But many writers--Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, Alexis Petridis of The Guardian, and my co-contractees at the Rhapsody Music Blog, to name three--were pretty hip about the details (two of these, of course, work in dead-tree journalism, draw your own conclusions). Nitsuh Abebe, who is of Ethiopian heritage, did a humane and well-written review at Pitchfork, a rare thing. And I admired this blog entry by someone I'd never heard of: MarathonPacks.

    Me, I don't think VW are Afropop to any significant degree and--though they were ill-advised in more ways than I have the energy to enumerate to describe their sound as "Upper West Side Soweto"--have no problem with what appropriations I can discern. When I mentioned the brouhaha to my wife, who was enjoying their record all unawares and who has heard more Afropop than all four of them put together, she acknowledged the possibility politely and then proeceeded to point out several more interesting and acute sonic analogies. In an I Love Music post, someone I assume to be Pitchfork's Scott Plagenhoef nailed it pretty good: "I think they're essentially off-kilter, upbeat guitar pop, with-- in comparison to their peers-- something singular about both their music (e.g. not just the touches of African pop but their willingness to use space and let the songs breathe a bit) and their lyrics (detail-heavy, expressive; too bad they're images of wealth instead of poverty, otherwise they'd be critical manna)."  If there's gonna be backlash--and in current webcrit it's certain that there will be--it will reflect precisely the same psychological mechanism that has made Afropop such a hard sell to the young. Against all odds, Afropop sounds happy--less than it used to, the brief inebriation of independence having given way to the long internationally indifferent and domestically kleptocratic hangover, but even today. In their Ivy League privilege (though I wish some interviewer I could find--and I searched--would ask them what their parents do for a living, a crucial privilege question the young apparently resent getting near), so do Vampire Weekend. Post-grunge--this is only marginally a Bush problem, sad to say--that's counted a sure sign of shallowness by most serious young rock fans. How limited. How shallow.

February 3, 2008 9:17 PM | | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (1)

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Seems if I wanted to write a book about why people like the music they like and dislike the music they dislike (as my spiel goes), I should have waited a year and written a book about Vampire Weekend.... Read More

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Just to clarify, I wouldn't call Julianne Shepherd and I "pals," per se. We've know each other socially and are friendly, but by no means close. Afropop never came up in any case. I had problems with her piece, and others, as well--see this blog outburst (emphasis on "outburst") http://m-matos.blogspot.com/2008/01/heres-my-meager-addition-to-vampire.html

The reason most everyone whoe writes about them mentions Graceland is that it is the only African record -- or record recorded by African musicians -- most of them have ever heard. (Yes, right: Orchestra Baobab, on Nonesuch, which has a broad mailing list. Some of them have heard that too. Sounds nothing like Vampire Weekend.) I had to correct two pieces at Rolling Stone, one of which tagged them as South African sounding when in fact the only traces of Afropop in their music come from West Africa, the other using the word "Afrobeat" (right, Fela -- people have heard of him, if not heard his music).

In the defense of early supporters of this band, their first gigs were notable for the African sounds in the music. It was the first thing you noticed, what made them stand out from anyone else on the bill or anyone else in indie land. (The second thing you noticed was what a dreadful live band they were. They've improved. Some.) At this point, their debt to Two Tone ska is now clear live; the guitar parts sound like nothing so much as the English Beat.

That said, am I missing something? The Times piece does not seem dreadful to me. And the Idolator post on it was not in the least convincing. Sarcastic, yes. Smart, not particularly. Typical, most definitely.

Why is the Times piece dreadful? Because--in what is supposedly the newspaper of record, a newspaper that as it happens employs a higher percentage of music critics with some knowledge of African styles than any other in the land, with its critic of Senegalese heritage less informed than most of his colleagues--it runs a trend piece about a talented young band with no insight whatsoever into the band's music or the way any music reaches a public (that stuff about their blog pull is as received and secondhand as the rest--so snarky and shallow). With impregnable self-satisfaction it lets them makes minor fools of themselves--I really don't believe they're as devoid of soul or content as their quotes make them seem--and pretends to think the whole process is cute. Or, worse still, actually does think the whole process is cute--for what substantive difference does another good piece of art make in the world? All that matters is our ability to confine with our aura of knowingness.

I was bummed to see Julianne's missteps re: Afro-pop, especially because I like her writing generally. But hey, at least she stepped to the plate on the subject, something few pop music critics, as Bob notes, seem interested in doing.

Why is this? Part fear of Getting It Wrong, I think. Part disinterest due to the lack of resonant, industry-driven "stars" post-Fela and Sunny Ade's moment in the Western, ah, sun. And part (I'm going out on a limb here, based on some conversations with younger writers) an attitude that "world music" is a critical mine field, colonial-minded almost by definition, the province of exotic-Other-obsessed old white hippie dudes, and that as a European American, to even write about it, let alone play it, is an appropriationist act.

Yeah; I know.

Joe's mostly right about Vampire Weekend being alone in the field. But there's also the little Kenyan rock band Extra Golden on the indie rock taste-making label Thrill Jockey, and the Afrobeat revivialists in Brooklyn's long-running Antibalas. And there's a growing number of indie bands like Yeasayer and Man Man and Beirut who are riffing off international styles with varying levels of proficiency that are going to force critics to internationalize their listening, which is wholly overdue.

You're already seeing an aesthetic shift in indie shops like Other Music in NYC, which are carrying a growing number of compilations of vintage pop from Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, etc. And little labels are responding in kind. It's all pretty encouraging, although there's definitely a fetish for retro stuff over living acts, a sort of crate-digger mentality that seems informed by hip-hop. But whatever gets folks out of the bubble is fine by me....

There's definitely some soukous-style guitar. They seem to prefer a clean, distortion-free guitar sound rarely heard in other genres.

Julianne kind of set herself up for a moot point about Vampire Weekend's authenticity from the start, didn't she? Even if she felt they succeeded at simply making good music, they couldn't possibly live up to any African genre, nevermind the correct one, any more than you could call A Tribe Called Quest's sampling "less jazz" than Miles Davis's playing. It goes without saying that we're talking about apples influenced by oranges. These blogs (or "trend pieces") in question are making more of the novelty of the connection than even this band (who don't seem that modest about showing off), and it's only a novelty to them because Afropop hasn't been linked with a popular Western band's guitar lines since--I wasn't alive for this so it's a guess--Talking Heads?

With Graceland, Paul Simon didn't just train any mere backing band, he went over and collaborated with the actual practitioners and still came out with African-tinged pop, not Afropop. Vampire Weekend didn't even hire out anyone for their guitar lines and they play, uh, indie-rock. What they're doing is far too broad and general to say they're ripping off anyone in particular, making them almost eclectic enough to call original, relative to the current indie landscape. Or at least daringly unfashionable; ska might as well be rap-metal in 2008. They certainly use larger doses of that than Afropop, but it doesn't have the mystique or obscurity to get a faux-gatekeeper like Ms. Sheppard here so up in arms.

FYI: EXCERPTS, from Sarah Rodman's Boston Globe article on Vampire Weekend:

"The music is inclusive rather than exclusive," David Byrne says in an e-mail exchange. He heard VW's demos, was impressed by its live show, and became a high-profile advocate for the band. "It welcomes lots of elements, and the listener senses a welcome too. It's very poppy but not in an obvious way."

Byrne can probably relate to that description: His similarly culturally inclusive solo work and work with Talking Heads is a touchstone for Vampire Weekend, as are the sounds of New Wave, ska, and various springy guitar strains of West and South African music.

Those interminglings have produced what might be called " 'Graceland' grief" for the band from those who take exception to white Westerners integrating traditional African styles into pop music.

"I think it's a very Western thing to be hung up on that, and it's not something I would imagine that you would find in Africa," says Batmanglij. At least one VW MySpace pal who is intimately familiar with that type of criticism, agrees.

"My feeling is, that's another way of promoting our sounds, the music of our country or continent," says Albert Mazibuko, a vocalist in Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a contributor to Paul Simon's "Graceland." "I think the purpose of music is to share it with other people."

"I had a huge ska phase, and then I had a big punk phase and then rap," says Koenig, "and in different ways all those musics could be tied to a race or nationality or certainly backgrounds that I don't have. But in some ways, in all of those musics there's examples of people borrowing from each other and being experimental and also not being heavy-handed about it."

I guess it's beside the point that most of the people listening to this album now are totally contented to reference 'Graceland' and leave it at that.

Chiming in real late, just saw this blog recently...

I have nothing against Vampire Weekend really except for some of their sartorial choices. (I prefer the more absurdist, theatrical aristocrat look of The Upper Crust, if they're even still around). For some reason that I can't articulate, the stuff that's written about VW makes me want to hate them -- except of course for Julianne's piece and Xgau's rebuttal here for at least saying something new. It's not the the fault of VW at all, it's the nuevo-riche values that are barfed up in every review. It makes a pink collar gal like me turn absolutely blue.

As for the comment about there not being so many older critics? Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but it seems like most of the names that appear on mastheads of the major music mags are mostly 30s/40s on up.

Re: Sara Sherr "As for the comment about there not being so many older critics? Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but it seems like most of the names that appear on mastheads of the major music mags are mostly 30s/40s on up"
When Christgau wrote "...one of the few younger critics (there aren't so many older ones) who knows anything about Afropop..." it seems clear he meant that there aren't so many older critics who know anything about Afropop either."

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