“…We should mention also a feature found in some African music that involves both form and polyphony, namely the tendency – in some pieces – for a number of apparently unrelated things to be going on at the same time. Some of this is due to the development of complex rhythmic polyphony, the simultaneous presentation of which seem, to the Western listener, to have little in common. It is hard to say whether the African listener feels all of these rhythms to be part of one over-all rhythmic structure (as a Westerner can conceive all of the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united), or whether the African can conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…”
My main source for used books is Gift’N’Thrift, a Mennonite thriftstore. I get a lot of cassettes and LP’s there, too. And picture frames. I recently picked up Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents by Bruno Nettl, the book from whence cometh the passage quoted above. It was worth every penny I paid for it – all fifty of them. It’s got some interesting observations and general insights and is inadvertently funny in its patronizing ethnocentricity, although, published in 1965, it came a little late to be really hilarious or to qualify as what I call “double anthropology”, i.e. anthropology that reveals as much about its creator as its subject . For a stunning example of that, check out the short film, African Pigmy Thrills, from the late ‘30’s, in which a group of Pigmies (sic) construct a bridge of vines across a raging river while some smugly asinine narrator embarrasses all white people with his condescension and pathetic attempts at humor. White people sure are a bunch of assholes.
Please notice that Mr. Nettl includes Africa (sub-Saharan, to be precise; North Africa he excludes from this work on the grounds that its folk and traditional musics have been heavily influenced by middle-Eastern peoples and are therefore properly “Asian” and not within the scope of his book, which is a ridiculous and specious argument) – Mr. Nettl includes sub-Saharan Africa among the “Western Continents”, which would seem to make sub-Saharan Africans “Westerners”, but he still makes a distinction between “Westerners”, by which he means people who “can conceive of all the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united”, and “Africans”, who may or may not “conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…” and who probably spend a lot of their time running around naked in the jungle spearing and eating each other. That the word “Negro” doesn’t appear in the quote above does not mean it doesn’t appear repeatedly in Folk and Trad…, although that really doesn’t reflect badly on Bruno, as “Negro” was the proper term in the early ‘60’s. Still, the chapter on African music is far more insulting than the chapters on European folk and traditional musics, though those were hardly celebratory, referring as they did to “gesunkenes Kulturgut”, which sounds like something Hitler would have wanted to eliminate. Why Nettl chose to write a book about the traditional folk music of people he had such distain for is beyond me, but the next chapter is about “The American Indians” so it should be pretty amusingly racist.
But what I really wanted to address here was the idea of “music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena”, because that’s standard operating procedure here at the BDSR Hondo. The majority of BDSR releases have layers of shit going on. Sometimes, there’s a riff or other repeated element that runs through the entire thing as a unifier, but it’s not unusual for us to just pile a bunch of sounds on top of each other and then turn up the volume on the track that sounds the least awful. In any case, there’s a lot going on. Minimalism ain’t our thing, man.
Way back, many moons ago, there was this acid-casualty around town. I worked with him and he was one of the few people I could almost always count on to be in the mood to drink Night Train and smoke pot when I was which was always. He owned a four-track and sometimes we would make a bunch of noise in his kitchen. It was from him that I stole the idea of recording independent jams and layering them. Last time I saw that guy, five years ago, I think, he was sixty pounds heavier, had a bunch of scars on his face from driving a pick-up into the side of a moving train and was muttering some paranoid gibberish about crop circles and chubacabras. I’m not making that up.
A significant portion of the bands I’ve been in in the past decade used layered unrelated phenomena. The ones that didn’t didn’t because I was outvoted. Piles of random sounds all trying to squirm their way to the top of the mix is what I like when I’m making music. I like it when other people are making music too, which is why I have numerous recordings of African folk and traditional music and not one Bach fugue.
Ephemeral sounds are good too. A few years ago, some other guy I know was talking about his recently purchased Robert Johnson box set. He was complaining about the static and hiss, a result of primitive recording techniques and the effects of age on the masters. He even managed to bitch about the fact that there were other sounds audible in some of the songs – Johnson’s creaky chair, car horns outside the hotel room where the recording took place, somebody coughing. I was stunned that a) anybody would buy a box set by Robert Johnson as opposed to Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Henry Thomas, Bukka White or any of the dozens of other country blues Negroes who picked and slid circles around Robert fuckin’ Johnson; and b) that anybody would complain about the static and hiss and car horns and coughing on old country blues recordings. The ephemeral sounds are and always have been intrinsic aspects of the pleasure of old country blues for me.
What’s that song? The one where Charley Patton’s voice rises up out of the crackling fuzz like a specter pushing his head up through the graveyard fog, shouting “Loooooord, have mercy on my wicked soul”? That hits me every time. I swear I can’t listen to Patton when I’m driving alone. I did it once, going across the mountain for some reason, and I had to pull over. Can’t drive them mountain roads when your eyes are blurry with tears. Jesus. Patton is a hungry ghost, moaning across an ocean of time. Then there’s Henry Thomas, whose Pan pipes still cut through the years of tape decay like shimmering razors though cornbread. Beautiful.
Layers upon layers, waiting to be discovered, like the meanings in myths, like how you can know someone for decades and still be surprised when they mention some insignificant event from their childhood because you never knew that. Like how the moon can sometimes catch your eye as you walk in from the car and make you pause, even though it’s the same fucking moon it’s always been. Like a detail in the Norman Rockwell print that Nana has had in her dining room forever, but which you never noticed before. All the elements are always there, but we pass them by. We fail to hear the melody under the noise or we just look through the reality because it doesn’t advance our agendas. Sad.
I’m touching on different things here: my deliberate mashing-together of unrelated recordings, accidental happenings on old blues sides, the unnoticed beauties of the plain and simple world around us – yet they somehow seem to go together. We miss so much. We don’t appreciate all there is. We don’t get it. We judge things as being “good” or “bad” depending on how well they conform to a notion we hold of how things ought to be. Then, like Bruno Nettl, we display our utter inability to truly appreciate anything which is foreign or contrary to our cherished prejudices.
I recommend Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents, I really do, not because it’s especially special in any way, but because, recommending it gives me an opportunity to recommend picking up any and every 50¢ book that looks vaguely interesting. Obscure used books are gold. Ephemeral noise is priceless. Norman Rockwell prints are sublime.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.