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A Question of Authenticity

PostPosted: Fri Oct 21, 2005 10:35 am
by howard male
Mark Hudson's response to CG's review of M'Bemba made me think of a very masculine and irrational attitude that men in particular often have about music. And that is a misguided notion of what authenticity is, and how important it is. Mark perfectly personifies this attitude. He doesn't just like African music, he likes real African music. He needs the dirt road under his feet before his ears will acknowledge that what he's hearing has substance; that what he is hearing is authentic. Any tinkering by western producers, i.e. music which has been Gabrieled or Coodered (Hi Garth!) is a definite no no.

This attitude is of course absurd. Take it to its logical conclution and you end up with a ghettoization of music and musicians which could almost be construed as fascistic: only the purist African music is true African music!

Yes there have been many monstrosities made in the name of crossover or fushion, but the notion that only the rough-edged is the real deal, is an insult to the cultures from where the music comes. The idea that an album could be just as good, carefully constructed under the heat of studio lights, rather than spontaniously generated under the heat of the unforgiving midday sun, is beyond such purist's comprehension - anything which adds sophistication, by their unbendible law of authenticity, subtracts substance. This is a kind of post-colonial inverted snobbery - we want our African, Cuban, or Brazilian music to smell of poverty and struggle, to blaze with the heroic overcoming of circumstances - so please don't add any more reverb to the vocals!

When Salif Keita spends (or his record company spends) a small fortune perfecting his latest creation with his like-minded producer, he is going against the grain of everything Mark Hudson has decided great art is. Keita is no longer playing Mark's game; creating music under adverse circumstances or even, as many world music musicians have had to, under a politically repressive, life-threatening regime.

Arranging music is for Western classical composers or Burt Bacharach. Playing it spontaneously, angrily even, is what we want from our third world rebels. Honest Jon's Records know this only too well, hence the extensive sleeve notes on recent releases by Lobi Traore and the like, where we get to read about the ramshackle farm at the end of a dirt road where the man's rough and tumble band were recorded on a vintage 1972, fifteen quid cassette recorder with a built-in microphone - OK so I made that last bit up - but it's not far from the truth when you consider the joy with which we all fell upon the fact that Konono No 1 made their own microphones from old car parts - we love that stuff!

The problem I have is when this romantic idea of the authentic prevents the appreciation of the brilliantly produced, finely honed, and even western influenced world music album. But as I say, we're all guilty. Our most treasured album is bound to be on vinyl, and probably found in a battered old cardboard box, spotted jutting out from under a junk-laden table in the local Oxfam Shop. Or even better; a fruit or fish-laden table in a market place in Bamako. The quality of the record becomes of secondary importance to the talisman-like aura it emanates whenever you slip it from its sleeve, lovingly study its apparently sandpapered surface (for scratches are another indicator of authenticity!) and place it as carefully as a baby into its pram, onto the turntable. And if you are a DJ, your like-minded audience are going to delight in those scratches as much as you do, because in this slick digital world, they are the best indicator of authenticity you're going to get. Hip-hop musicians have been pinching those snaps and crackles, and popping them, cut-and-paste styly, onto their own sonic collages for years now. To such a degree that it's hippness and stamp of authenticity has long been cancelled out.

Perhaps what this question of authenticity really comes down to, is that the authentic is not only political, it's also moral. It's an indicator of the music fan's soundness of character. If he (for it nearly always is a he) is, for example, an avid collector of vinyl then you can trust him with your first born. What's the worst they can do, bore them to death with thier dub reggae 12" collection?

For this isn't just a world music thing. I remember when almost every Roxy Music fan went off the band in direct relation to the growing sophistication of their records, so that the first two albums are considered the real deal, and thereafter, polish was equated with superficiality. Paradoxically though, as original fans dropped away, many more new fans replaced them, and they had the biggest hits of their career post-Eno. But all Roxy were trying to do was grow up, learn their craft, and get better at realising their musical vision. Expecting them to continue to make semi- naive records like those first two mile stones, is like expecting an artistically talented child to continue making charming crayon pictures with huge smiley suns, when all they want to do is make detailed pencil drawings of stealth bombers.

But we've all grown up now, haven't we? We need to consider 'M'Bemba' on its own terms, or in relation to the best western pop has to offer (as, ironically, Keita would like us to), and come to the conclusion that it's a finely honed, beautifully rendered, work of art, which is timeless whilst also belonging in the moment, and doesn't exist to conform to any expectations we might has as to what is or isn't, authentic.

PostPosted: Fri Oct 21, 2005 11:20 am
by NormanD
I don't want to join this debate (well, maybe if it keeps on raining), but just want to ask you Howard if you've read Mark's novel The Music In My Head, and the earlier non-fiction Our Grandmothers' Drums? I don't think they answer or address all the points you've raised, but they might put some of them in a particular context and maybe show where Mark might be coming from.


PostPosted: Fri Oct 21, 2005 11:26 am
by howard male
I did read 'The Music In My Head', several years ago, Norman, and quite enjoyed it. This isn't a personal attack on the man, just one of my thought pieces, pointing out a possibly distorted perspective we all at times have on the music in our heads. Mark was just a useful starting point for it.

PostPosted: Fri Oct 21, 2005 10:08 pm
by Chris Walsh
I often wonder: if indeed this wayward idea of authenticity is damaging the way in which we regard music, if perhaps this problem might die out on it's own.
Afterall, I've never owned a vinyl record in my life. And I doubt I ever will. They just don't sound as good as CD's. And, providing it's done well, I'll always go for the remastered version of old albums on record.
And I doubt this shift from CD's to IPODS will take on the same dynamics. (Firstly because IPODS sound worse all compressed like that).

My first job in the UK was as an assistant in a record/mastering studio in Chiswick called Metropolis. There I got to witness several great world music acts come in with records they'd recorded on there own (that really didn't sound like much as they were) and have them knocked into shape in no time at all. Simply by using some great equipment.
I heard the new Amadou & Mariam album before it was mastered at Metropolis. I can tell you that before Tony Cousins got his hands on it, the record sounded really, really flat. Sure the songs were there, but the record just didn't sparkle like it does now.

So I agree with Howard in that up-to-date technology is not to be shyed away from. The only thing I will say about these gizmos is that they can only make a good record better, they can't make shit shine.

But I reckon that this "purist attitude" (if it's as pervasive as Howard implies) is destined for extinction anyway.

It's certainly never come up amongst any of my music-loving friends.
I guess time will tell, eh?

PostPosted: Mon Nov 28, 2005 9:18 pm
by ritchie
Hey, years ago, because I used to record all my favourite vinyl tracks and then play the tapes in my car, I'm sure my youngest son grew up thinking that all music had to sound 'scratchy & jump'. perhaps I was just ahead of my time...if only I had called myself 'scratchy' instead of Ritchie, obviously thats where I started going wrong....ahh the good old days, when you had to put a coin on the record arm. (I resisted saying anything about winding the handle for the 78's). I wonder if food tastes better if it's cooked on an open fire?

PostPosted: Tue Nov 29, 2005 6:30 pm
by David M
Re authenticity, I have a feeling that I'm dropping myself in it by saying this but theres no debate without a mistake so here goes. Everytime I read or hear someone suggesting anothers taste in (for example) African music isn't in someway proper because it's not what the average man in the street in Bamako listens to it drives me bloody crazy. I have a number of work colleagues born in Ghana & Nigeria but our talk round music is limited because on the whole they like English & American acts...Dido is often mentioned!! I guess because my taste in English & American acts doesn't often extend to what they or the average man or woman on the street in London is whistling that must make my taste in these types of music similarly unauthentic.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2005 10:45 am
by howard male
David M wrote -

I have a number of work colleagues born in Ghana & Nigeria but our talk round music is limited because on the whole they like English & American acts...Dido is often mentioned!!

It comes back to what I've said elsewhere about the word exotic; Dido is exotic to your African friends, end of story! It is clearly impossible to make any even partially objective evaluation of a piece of music, because judgement is entirely contingent on your geographical location, cultural background or birthplace as a listener.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2005 4:45 pm
by Phil Meadley
or simply if you happen to like what you hear

Re: A Question of Authenticity

PostPosted: Sat Jan 14, 2006 10:17 am
by joel
It is a shame Howard has left.
howard male wrote:anything which adds sophistication, by their unbendible law of authenticity, subtracts substance. This is a kind of post-colonial inverted snobbery - we want our African, Cuban, or Brazilian music to smell of poverty and struggle, to blaze with the heroic overcoming of circumstances - so please don't add any more reverb to the vocals!

Because I would really like to know what he means by "sophistication".
And because he takes me back to 1976...

Sighting of Howard

PostPosted: Sun Jan 15, 2006 1:06 pm
by John Mason

PostPosted: Sun Jan 15, 2006 5:56 pm
by Guest
"the King is dead" .... "Long Live The King."

PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 10:08 am
by howard male
Joel wrote -

Because I would really like to know what he means by "sophistication".

It's not so much what I mean by sophistication as what we all mean by it - and that was kind of what the piece was about. It's interesting that the dictionary offers both a positive and a negative definition of the word which gets to the very heart of our mixed feelings about how music is presented to us:

Positive definition: to refine and/or make more complex.

Negative definition: to adulterate or make less natural.


PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 7:35 pm
by barryology
This is all a straw dog insofar as I can see. Many claim that programmed drum beats replacing drums and synths replacing saxaphones led to the death of Congolese dance music. Of course, the banality of these elements has been ubiquitous, but the original reason for it was that there wasn't enough money for the poorer youth bands to make use of Cuban and European instrumentation. This became a fashion, and some of it was flat out great dance hall music. Nonetheless, what made Congolese Rumba the world changing music that it was? It's modernity. Some of it meshes; some of it doesn't. But I have two names from Mali that express what there is to express about this faux controversy:
Toumani Diabate; Keletigui Diabate.