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Joy V Angst - the African and Western Electric guitar

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 10:41 am
by howard male
Joy versus Angst - the African and Western approach to the Electric Guitar

As far as I am concerned the electric guitar might as well be two quite different instruments if we consider the way it has been approach in Europe and America in comparison with Africa.

As far as I have figured it out there are essentially two reasons for this, one practical the other emotional. So lets firstly describe these two different approaches to the instrument.

The African electric guitar always seems to be expressing joy, is always taking flight, is never showy but always expressive, and is more often than not, as clear as a bell in its melodic intent.

The post 60's Western electric guitar sound is something else altogether. Perhaps it just began as an expression of the technology behind it. Or rather, a pushing of that technology to its limits. Distortion was simply the by-product of amplifiers being pushed to their limits - audiences and therefore venues got larger, so the amps were turned up to the maximum to fill the space. Then this accidental sound became desired, and effects pedals were designed to magnify it with additional sustain and distortion, and then myriad other effects.

But there is more to it than that. I think the desire in the West for enhancing rather than eliminating this initially accidental distortion (for we mustn't forget there was always that option) is a reflection of a state of mind. I believe the clarity of sound of the African guitar, whether it be from Zimbabwe, the Congo, or Mali, is because music in these places serves a function and develops its character from its function. Africa is always under the threat of war, starvation or disease, and so music has to offer a temporary escape from these realities.

But in the West the average middle class boy forming his first band doesn't really have a care in the world, apart from his end of term exams or the fact he likes to think he hates his parents. So he has to look inwards (a luxury his African counterpart hadn't the time for) to find something to get upset about. He then creates a music of tension and angularity based on self pity, affected anger and testosterone-charged sexual frustration or aggression.

Rock guitar chords more often than not utilise all six strings, and the bar-chord is a gift from the gods for the rock guitar beginner. He smiles with pleasure the first time he unlocks its pseudo power. Just by shifting his fingers up and down the fretboard in the same position, he get this fundamental slab of electric guitar noise he knows from all his favourite records. For noise is what the Western rocker is essentially after, for noise is power, and power is something he, as an individual, finds very few opportunities to express in his cosy little world. The Rock Generations of the West didn't even get a war to fight in, as previous 20th Century generations had - nothing to worry about apart from how to make their guitars sound as frightening as possible to express their directionless discontent.

But correct me if I'm wrong - that power-chord sound is entirely absent from African guitar playing. Instead, single strings, or sometimes pairs of strings, are struck with the desire for maximum clarity of sound and conveyance of melody.

For the African guitarist has no time for navel gazing and no desire for creating tension or expressing power in his music. Music functions as an escape from horror so there is no desire to create a sonic expression of dissonance, death, or suffering. The African guitarist exists in a real world in which his powerlessness can be total, rather than searched for self indulgently. Music is also a great deal less to do with the expression of individual ego. Music has to be a means of escape. The guitar added ringing melody to the primal rhythms of Africa and became treasured for that. There was no need to work against melody, which is essentially what the rock guitarist does. The rock guitarist has heard decades of music centred on melody - the music of his despised parents' generation.

However things are changing in Africa with bands such as Tinawiwen where one can hear a bit of edge creeping into those clear tones, but the power chord is still thankfully absent from their baroque blues riffing.

The rock musician, and rock as a forty-year-old genre, exist in a permanent stasis of adolescence - angst ridden and power-chord crazed - but busy saying nothing.

I should imagine some of you might be spitting feathers by the end of this thinking-aloud piece, so please do correct any of my signature sweeping statements. My knowledge of African music is still fairly rudimentary and I would be curious to know if there are bands playing an African version of rock which I'm not aware of. And before any of you bring up Afrobeat, I see that as more funk influenced than rock influenced, and again, its tentions and power stem from real concerns rather than psuedo ones.

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 12:21 pm
by Adam Blake
I basically agree with you 100%, Howard. One thing, though, that's interesting is that in African musical instruments the buzz - which could be likened to distortion - is highly prized and a sign of an instrument having a good tone! Another technical note: in the African guitar music I've heard, guitarists rarely if ever bend strings. This is interesting in that the technique for bending guitar strings originates from black American blues.
("When you bend that string, man, that's your LIFE" - Buddy Guy)
Also, the six string power chord has lost its grip on angst-ridden teenagers. Since most crappy practice amps now have a distortion knob, and since the advent of Kurt Cobain, the three string power chord (which is much easier to learn) has taken over. Thus the rock youth have dispensed with thirds in chords. If Howard Goodall were here he would no doubt point out that thirdless chords have not been prevalent in Western Music since the time of the Renaissance. Hey-ho... Here we are now, entertain us...

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 3:35 pm
by howard male
Adam wrote -

Another technical note: in the African guitar music I've heard, guitarists rarely if ever bend strings. This is interesting in that the technique for bending guitar strings originates from black American blues.


Yes, I forgot to bring that into the equation. Perhaps one reason is they don't have time! Particularly in that congolese rumba/soukous style of playing.

And blues is generally mid to slow tempo allowing time for the bent string to creep in and represent the partially crushed spirit of the early 20th Century African American.

Adam continued -

Since most crappy practice amps now have a distortion knob, and since the advent of Kurt Cobain, the three string power chord (which is much easier to learn) has taken over.


Maybe this is why modern rock sounds so shiny but dead - a three string chord simply doesn't have the physical presence of a six string one - it doesn't push air.

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 4:15 pm
by Adam Blake
howard male wrote:[.And blues is generally mid to slow tempo allowing time for the bent string to creep in and represent the partially crushed spirit of the early 20th Century African American.

Adam continued -

Since most crappy practice amps now have a distortion knob, and since the advent of Kurt Cobain, the three string power chord (which is much easier to learn) has taken over.


Maybe this is why modern rock sounds so shiny but dead - a three string chord simply doesn't have the physical presence of a six string one - it doesn't push air.


Ah, Howard. We're back to our usual contrary postion! I defy ANYONE to tell me that the bent string of the blues represents a crushed spirit. There are so many examples I could choose: just one, the way Brewer Philips bends the last note of the intro of "Kitchen Sink Boogie" into infinity and beyond (ie, at least one and a half tones) is a magnificent roar of defiance and an irresistable invitation to dance as hard as you can. For those interested, it can be found on Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers wonderful live album, "Beware Of The Dog!".

Also, while I agree that a three string power chord doesn't have the weight of a six string, I don't agree that it doesn't push air. The practice pre-dates Cobain, of course, I should have mentioned Black Sabbath or The Stooges. I think that "N.I.B" or "I Wanna Be Your Dog" - monstrous though they are - definitely push a lot of air!!

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 4:52 pm
by howard male
Both points taken, Adam, but aren't the bent notes the 'blue' notes, as in 'feeling blue' as in crushed spirit? I agree with you in principle because there's actually nothing more satisfying than actually playing those bent notes - and so they do generate happyness! So, yeah.

I didn't know the string arrangement on the Iggy track, so once again, I'll concede that as your victory too. Maybe it's more down to a well miked amp than a string-count in some cases.

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 6:41 pm
by Adam Blake
It's such an interesting area: I think the point of the blues - from the point of view both of playing and listening/dancing to it - is to make you feel better about HAVING the blues. So you may be on the bottom of the economic scrapheap, treated like sh*t by "the man", or like a slave, or both etc. etc. etc, but when you play that music, or listen to it, or dance to it, it says you're not alone and that your life is worth something. And that you can have some fun!

As for me, as a card-carrying, white, middle-class Briton, I went for some years in my 20s without playing the blues because I had fallen in love with it - and devoured all I could find about the culture it sprang from - and the more I discovered about it, the less I felt I had the right to play it. It belongs to the black American people. My attitude was confirmed by the disgusting attempts to play the music by so many white folks that I heard along the way - some of these actually having a terrible influence on the genuine practitioners. (I've written about all this elsewhere.)

But I really did (and do) love the music and I think my faith was finally rewarded by getting to work with Errol Linton in the mid-90s. Errol is a real bluesman - with all the pros and cons that that brings - and if you play with him you can't play stock licks - they immediately sound like stock licks. So you have to answer Miles Davis's fantastic rhetorical question: "what notes do you WANT to play?" every time.

But then again, there's Bleeding Gums Murphy's assessment (from The Simpsons): "You don't play the blues to make yourself feel better, you play the blues to make the other guy feel worse."

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 7:24 pm
by NormanD
A lot of early-recorded African-American music is about having a good time - drinking, doping, sexing, making whoopy and general hokum. A lot of early songs with "blues" in the title weren't blues as we know it, and many were jazz, and not even featuring a guitar.

There's a whole argument (I forget by whom) that the idea of blues music as the lone singer moaning low about his tsures, bending his guitar strings into flattened sevenths, is a modern concept that never accurately represented what the majority of blues music was in its pre-war years. In short, the solo singers (the Mississippi Moaners) sold poorly at the time, yet their musical significance and importance has been built up by post-war ethno-musicologists. Some of the women singers - Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, etc - were far more popular than all of the "Blinds.." put together, but it's still the string benders we remember, and continue to be fascinated with.

You won't hear much partially-crushed spirit in Bessie's "Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle of Beer", or The Memphis Jug Band's "Cocaine Habit Blues". Another list, anyone?

Norman

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 8:08 pm
by Quintin
Adam wrote -

Quote:
Another technical note: in the African guitar music I've heard, guitarists rarely if ever bend strings. This is interesting in that the technique for bending guitar strings originates from black American blues.

Though you're generally right Adam the great Djelimady Tounkara is a great exponent of the technique though in a most subtle way. At his WOMAD workshop (which was my highlight last year) he talked about and demonstrated the influences which led to his unique sound which to my great surprise included Chuck Berry, amongst other 50's and 60's US guitarists, as well as the predictable playing styles of the Ngoni and the Kora. No doubt that's where he got the string bending from.

Some years ago I had quite a long talk to him about the African guitar 'sound' as being a non-musician I was intrigued why the two styles and sounds were so different. He gave me a detailed explanation but sadly my French wasn't up to his erudite explanation so I'm still (until Adam's answer that is) none the wiser!

Interesting subject though.

Q

PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 10:17 pm
by judith
Here's an exerpt from an article I read. I don't know Carmen Consoli's music, but her comment re: the electric guitar caught my attention.


Carmen Consoli:
George De Stefano hears, and hears from, the Italian pop star turned roots-explorer, and reviews her newest CD, Eva Contro Eva (Universal Latino)...
...An electric guitar-slinger with a big dramatic voice and charisma to spare, Consoli cuts a compelling figure, both on recordings and in concert. But she also can be alluringly subtle, exuding a slow-burn sensuality that's hard to resist.
She's in the latter mood on Eva Contro Eva, her sixth album, and the first to be issued in the United States, by Universal Latino. After a series of successful rock-oriented albums, beginning with Dueparole in 1996, she decided to change course for "Eva."
"I love rock," she says, "but an electric guitar nowadays is not the sound of revolution."...

[/i]

PostPosted: Sat Nov 18, 2006 11:50 am
by gordonfmoore
As a wannabe guitarist, the issue with distortion is hugely important. If you are rubbish at the guitar (like wot I am), then with clean tones every mistake you make is really obvious if playing a melody (or just jammin'). With chord changes you get that horrible finger slide squeal that my wife hates and leaves the room for.

But with some fuzz and distortion, well even I can sound like a guitar god. It's the noise. It covers over rubbish technique and allows you to get on with having fun - and boy, it is fun to crank up the volume and plug in an effects box and prance around, better than spending hours trying to train resistant fingers to do something they are too old to transform into. But I'd rather really play properly.

Musicians will always win out in the end though and it is what attracts listeners, but in a pub, well I guess punters just want noise and power, headbanging and then find someone to ...

PostPosted: Mon Nov 20, 2006 6:55 am
by Ian M
Howard, interesting piece, but I fear I disagree on several points.
First of all: distortion, as i understand it, arose from the simple difference between valves and transistors. When transistor based amplifiers started to be built in the 60s (WEM for example), it quickly became clear that they couldn't offer the same body or warmth to the sound of the electric guitar as traditional valve amps (Fender, Vox etc). Guitarists and technicians then began to realise that the valve imparted a harmonic distortion to the sound which gave it great warmth and body, which was absent with transistor amps. This is analogous, though not quite the same as, to the analogue tape v digital, or the vinyl v CD debates. Further, overdriving valve amps, pushing them to their limits, which became inevitable in the great volume expansion of rock bands. increased the distortion, again, it was often felt, in pleasingly harmonically rich ways. Check out Peter Green's tone, or of course, the doyen of electric guitar manipulation Jimi Hendrix. Once this was realised, people began making little electronic boxes to add more distortion, mangling and sonic alteration. You could describe this as widening the tonal palette of the electric guitar.

You may be right in describing the psychological make up of adolescent rock guitar players, but I don't think it is intrinsically connected to the possibilites of distortion and effects. This is a limit of their imagination and the narrow form of rock you describe, but apart from the fact that this kind of guitar solo died out largely with the punk revolution, it was never the only kind of guitar playing in rock or the other genres or sub genres. In fact rhythm guitar has a longer tradition than lead guitar, and if the seventies had briefly eclipsed rhythm guitar in favour of bombastic pretentious soloing, it quickly re-emerged in punk and particularly indie.
Indie was often characterised as the home of 'jangly' guitar bands, who often strove for that 'chiming' guitar sound you like in African music.

The chiming sound of American and Britsh bands is arguably a development of the American guitar styles like country and western and bluegrass, taken up by people like Roger McGuinn. It is a result of the ease with which you can arpeggiate chords on the guitar (playing chords in broken single string succession), and when intermingled with other instruments, gives a sparkling feel. To achieve this you need a clean tone, otherwise the individual notes bleed into each other (as with distortion) and the effect is lost.

African guitar playing similarly needs a clean tone, but I think its character is much more derived from the rhythmic drive of its lines rather than its tone as such. Arguably the guitar players are imitating the rhythmic elements of other African instruments. Like those long beautiful lines you can hear in kora playing. Which are no doubt related to the overall rhythmic basis of African music, which is very different to the 4/4 we are so used to here. Just listen to the lines and imagine them played by drums and you'll see what I mean, the phrasing is so different to the way an American or European musician would think.

So I don't think African guitar playing necessarily rules out effects.As you note, Tinawaren use a level of distortion which is more familiar in rock, but doesn't detract from their playing. And as for Konono No 1 - they are closer to wildly effected electronics than many Western guitarists.

But one thing I do want to urge caution about is the notion that African music sounds happy because it offers some sort of escape from the daily realities of life there. Unfortunately Western media coverage of Africa has given the impression that Africa is a continent full of nothing except wars, disease and poverty. Of course it has lots of problems, and appalling tragedies. But that is by no means the whole story. So did medieval and Renaissance Europe (war, plagues, poverty in abundance). But it also churned out great art, and you wouldn't say it was in despair everywhere all the time. And so it is in Africa. Despite all its many problems, there is a fantastic spirit and warmth there, to a degree which (sadly) you are not likely to find in Europe. And that is the joy which you find expressed in the music. Not an escape, but an expression of their culture and their society. Which is where you hit the nail on the head with your speculation about the disregard they have for the ego which drives many musicians here. They have no need for it, nor use for it.

Anyway, I've gone on a bit. But thanks for making me think about it.

PostPosted: Mon Nov 20, 2006 9:12 am
by Adam Blake
Thanks for saying all that, Ian. Especially namechecking Peter Green who was my great adolescent guitar hero (and I still think that, at his best, he was the best we ever had over here). It's so important to remember that, outside the European tradition, the audience and the performers are all in it together. They are not on separate sides of a divide and the idea of the big star egotripping in front of an adoring audience, or of the lowly musicians striving to entertain a diffident or indifferent audience, just doesn't arise. Thus, the music reaches "very fastful heights" - to quote Roy Harper's once infamous diatribe on the same subject! (cf. "I Hate The White Man" from "Flat, Baroque and Berserk")

PostPosted: Tue Nov 21, 2006 11:36 am
by howard male
Ian wrote -

Howard, interesting piece, but I fear I disagree on several points.


I didn't think you disagreed that much, Ian. It just seemed like you were simply adding details or putting a different slant on the points I raised, which is great. I think I said, as you did, that distortion was initially a by-product of the technology and only later became a sort after and refined element of rock music.

But I don't agree that rock guitar suddenly become mature with punk. There's still distortion in them-there bar chords, even if the solos have been cut back on. Punk is just a a more primitive form a foot stamping egotistical arrogance, which we like to look back on as being more politically articulate and morally right-on than it was. And the Country 'sparkling' sound is also still about making a big look-at-me kind of statement.

I would also suggest that clarity of tone isn't necessarily an aid to a rhythm guitarist. A little distortion often enhances the percussive element of the instrument. But I don't hear much African guitar as being rhythm centred anyway. I've just been listening to the wonderful re-release of 'The Best of Msondo Ngoma' on which the guitar work is fairly typical. And those single string or double string endless melody lines are to me a form of near-continuous soloing, soaring above the anchoring rhythm section rather than contributing to it.

I take your point about it being easy to put too much emphasis on the suffering side of Africa, but there's no doubt that, over all, it's still a place where few individuals have the time for the self-indulgent introspection leading to self-centred ego-driven music we have here - if there's not war or famine happening then there's the promise of one or the other or both in the future. But yes, of course one shouldn't underplay the fact that this music is an expression of cultural pride as well as a means of escape.

Rumba across the River

PostPosted: Wed Nov 22, 2006 2:02 am
by Charlie
In my review of the wonderful compilation of Congolese music from the 1950s and '60s, Rumba Across the River (*), I skirted around the difference in approach compared to Western guitarists, trying to point out the contrast without managing to nail it as clearly as Howard does.

But I wonder how he deals with Konono Number One, whose whole ethos seems to be distortion. And there were several Senegalese guitarists who were enamoured of Santana and Jimi Hendrix, who played with a deliberately distorted guitar sound - check some of Baobab's early recordings, released by the Dutch label, Dakar Sound.

(*) If anybody still has the November issue of the Observer Music Monthly, and doesn't plan to keep it forever, please could you get in touch by private message. We managed to throw our copy away before I had torn out the page with my review, each of which I confess I still keep and file away. For what purpose, I have no idea. It's a compulsion.

PostPosted: Wed Nov 22, 2006 10:44 am
by howard male
Charlie wrote -

But I wonder how he deals with Konono Number One, whose whole ethos seems to be distortion. And there were several Senegalese guitarists who were enamoured of Santana and Jimi Hendrix, who played with a deliberately distorted guitar sound - check some of Baobab's early recordings, released by the Dutch label, Dakar Sound.


As far as Konono No 1 go, I thought their sound was originally simply a by-product of their home-made equipment. Perhaps they then had a Eureka moment when they decided the din they were creating sounded damn good, but initially I don't imagine they could get those mikes and amps made from old car parts to sound any other way.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that they would now like to get away from that sound but they've been told that wouldn't be wise as that's what people want from them (or at least the West wants from them.)

As for the other guitarists you mention, Charlie, I'll use the argument I always use when I'm picked up on for an over generalisation - there's always going to be the exception that proves the rule. So just as there are Western rock guitarists who love a less distorted sound (Tom Verlaine and Johny Marr spring to mind), there are African ones who have fallen in love with noise.