Writing about his latest two-hour mix tape, African Apocalypse, DJ Umb says his main focus was on the Angolan and Portugese bass undergrounds. “I’ve been saying for a number of years that the future of dance music lies in these scenes, and that future generations of super-producers and superstar DJs will come to be dominated by producers in Europe with African heritage.”
The sound is raw, exciting, fresh and unlike anything I’ve heard before. In the South African electronic music landscape, more local producers and DJs are rising out of underground scenes each year to make inroads into Europe and the United States. Just think Black Coffee, Spoek Mathambo, DJ Mujava, Okmalumkoolkat, Felix Laband, Rudeboyz, DJ Spoko, Nozinja, Aero Manyelo and Moonchild.
Europe’s thing for African dance genres means that there is some form of trade between the continent and northern hemisphere dance floors. But how exactly that music reaches Western ears needs to be interrogated, whether via a download, a sweaty dance floor or a piece of vinyl.
In this first of a two-part series on selling contemporary African beats to colonial Europe, Lloyd Gedye explores the power relationships in these trafficking circles, and what it means for the artists and the scene. Just who benefits from feeding Europe’s dance floors?
Many may not know 25-year-old London-based Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi by his real name. Many may not even know him by his stage name, Arca, but they are probably familiar with his work. After all, he is the producer behind four tracks on Kanye West’s Yeezus, all four tracks on FKA twigs’ EP2, and he was the coproducer on Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura. He also toured with Björk for the release of the album, for which she expressed her “eternal gratitude” on Facebook. All of this adds up to some serious street cred.
To add to that, his 2014 debut album, Xen, received rave reviews, with Pitchfork critic Philip Sherburne declaring: “It’s been a while since it felt like there was anything really, categorically new in popular music, or even semi-popular music.” Having sampled Xen, The Con has to agree with Sherburne. It is a groundbreaking record that appears to point to a certain future for electronic music, in much the same way Aphex Twin’s music did in the early 1990s.
But not all of it is exactly new. There is a particular song on Xen, titled Thievery, which is a prime example of cultural appropriation. The song is essentially an Arca mutation of an electronic music form called tarraxinha that originated in Angola in the mid-90s, and as much as the song’s title alludes to the cultural appropriation, it is just another site of struggle in the long dispute over this genre’s ownership.
Tarraxinha was given to the world by Angolan kuduro producer DJ Znobia , and the first time a European-based producer began appropriating the genre was a decade later in 2004, when Lisbon-based DJ Nervoso tried his hand at it.
Thievery is the lead single from Xen, and its video is an eye-catching piece of art. As Ghersi explained to Vogue magazine, Xen is named after his ambiguous alter ego, which embraces both sides of the gender binary in his brain. The video for Thievery, which was created in collaboration with visual artist Jesse Kanda, maps Ghersi’s bones on to a 3-D figure that dances sensually to the beat. This figure is a visual representation of his alter ego, Xen.
The only places you will find any mention of tarraxinha in relation to Arca and Thievery is on blogs that write about the Angolan genre and its travels to Portugal through the Diaspora. There’s no mention of the genre in the mainstream press as music scribes faun over Arca’s music. You’ll also find nothing in the few interviews the artist has given.
It is likely that Arca was introduced to the genre through the production crew Nguzunguzu’s mix tapes The Perfect Lullaby, released in 2011, and The Perfect Lullaby Vol. II. released in 2014.
These two mix tapes saw the production duo splicing Western pop, hip-hop and R&B over tarraxinha beats, giving R Kelly, Ashanti, Aaliyah, Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Usher and Rick Ross a tarraxinha makeover. They were both incredibly well received by Western music press, with tastemaker website Pitchfork scoring the first playlist 8.1 out of 10, and the second 7.8.
The circumstantial evidence The Con is relying on to suggest Arca was probably introduced to tarraxinha by Nguzunguzu is the fact that they have shared the same stage before. Nguzunguzu have also included Arca’s music in their mix tapes, and in 2014, journalist Emilie Friedlander described attending an Nguzunguzu gig with Arca in a cover feature article for Fader magazine.
But the fight over the cultural appropriation of tarraxinha has taken an even nastier turn. After all, these artists are drawing influence from the genre, not claiming ownership of it, even if the ownership is sometimes assumed by those with no background knowledge who consume their music.
In March 2013, just more than a year before Arca released Xen and just less than two years after Nguzunguzu released The Perfect Lullaby, another struggle erupted over tarraxinha. At the heart of these disputes was a Portuguese production crew named Buraka Som Sistema (Buraka Sound System), who formed in 2002 when producers Branko, DJ Riot, Conductor and MC Kalaf Angelo came together.
Buraka Som Sistema were behind the record label Enchufada, which released DJ Znobia’s Hard Ass Sessions in 2009 (his first Western release), and were generally credited with popularising kuduro in Europe, especially though their hit single Yah! released in 2007, and their album Black Diamond, released in November 2008. The album featured another hit single, titled Sound of Kuduro, which featured DJ Znobia and pop producer M.I.A. But when they released their March 2013 single Zouk Flute, Buraka Som Sistema claimed to have invented a new genre called “zouk bass”.
A month earlier, Buraka Som Sistema took part in a videoed Boiler Room set in which they dedicated the first 15 to 20 minutes to this “new” music. The segment of their set included Zouk Flute, but the first song was a track called Tarraxo Na Parede by DJ Kuimba, featuring DJ Yudi Fox.
A month after the Boiler Room set, Man Recordings wrote a post on its website about what it deemed to be zouk bass. “Zouk bass, the term coined by Buraka Som Sistema as a term for the slow-motion tropical jams with which they opened their set at a recent Boiler Room performance, is currently all the rage,” it reads. “Numerous artists have been jumping on this new genre, but hardly anyone is hitting the right spot since the balance of slow-paced tarraxinha and zouk-inspired rhythms mixed up with heavy bass and R&B splinters is a particular science.”
“Buraka’s Zouk Flute, released last week for free through their Uppercuts label, could be considered the blueprint track,” it continued. “Regarding the genesis of zouk bass, however, there’s only one original tarraxo track (from DJ Kuimba ft. DJ Yudi Fox) in the zouk bass part of Buraka’s set. Other tracks come from Dubble Dutch, Buraka themselves, and bits from the as-yet unreleased Buraka-Schlachthofbronx collaborations.”
The blog post caused some angry reactions. DJ Umb, from the blog/record label Generation Bass, responded, “I personally would not consider Zouk Flute by Buraka as the blueprint for zouk bass. I’d opt for Kuimba’s track Tarraxo Na Parede as the blueprint. Plus, it was made by people with genuine African roots and they should not be ignored in all of this, otherwise I’m gonna start getting really pissed off,” continued DJ Umb.
The website Okayafrica.com put it more politely when writing about Buraka’s claim that they created zouk bass; “appropriated might be a better word”, they retorted. Perhaps trafficked is an even better word. The site also pointed out, like DJ Umb, that it was the track by DJ Kuimba that sparked the genre with Tarraxo Na Parede, which would eventually be officially released in May 2012 on the Deep in Zouk Bass EP from his production team, DZC Crew.
Once again, DJ Umb took another dig at Buraka Som Sistema. “Zouk bass as a name for a scene was first brought to our attention by a Buraka Som Sistema’s Boiler Room set, which incidentally started with the DJ Kuimba track from this release,” he wrote. “We know zouk bass has existed way before the Buraka Boiler Room set [as] tarraxinha.”
In an August 2013 interview for Boing Boing, DJ Umb again discussed this appropriation as he saw it. He said he took issue with Buraka Som Sistema’s claiming to have given birth to a new genre inside their studio. “Of course nobody can deny that it was Som Sistema that came up with a ‘new’ name for the sound,” DJ Umb told Boing Boing. “However, a lot of people don’t agree that it was ‘born’ in their studio.”
DJ Umb pointed out that many Angolan and Portuguese producers had been fusing bassy sounds with tarraxinha since 2003, and said Buraka Som Sistema’s claim was attempting to rewrite history, ignoring the work of DJ Znobia, DJ Nervoso, DJ Marfox and the DZC Crew. “You trace things back and you realise there’s a whole world of people not being acknowledged and slipping under the radar,” he said. “Someone more famous has come along and championed an existing genre of music and become the poster boy, girl or band for it.”
DJ Umb suggested this was an extension of colonialism. “We all know cultural appropriation has existed in music for a very long time, even before the blues,” he said. “The fact that people are calling a sound ‘zouk bass’ instead of its original name, tarraxinha or tarraxo, could be cited as a valid example.
“Many people in Europe and America are not ready to have this open conversation. Some of them still accuse you of making them feel guilty [just] because you are talking about it,” he said, pointing out that in other cases when the interest in the music is genuine, people are sometimes judged as trying to culturally appropriate the music when they are in fact just trying to share it and spread it, saying more tolerance should be shown to these people.
“Of course, there is a power imbalance because of the politics and practical reality of white privilege worldwide,” said DJ Umb. “Often this music is difficult to get hold of, which often boils down to those communities wanting to protect it from European and American eyes because of their past experiences of cultural appropriation. Some of these artists don’t want to be championed by the West. They don’t need our help,” he said.
Clearly the landscape of tarraxinha in 2013 was problematic and contested, where members of the African Diaspora living in Lisbon’s housing projects were pitted against European producers and DJs looking to ride the tarraxo/zouk bass train to fame and glory. But it’s not as though cultural appropriation began in 2013 with tarraxinha. As DJ Umb points out, it goes way back. Think Benny Goodman and swing, Elvis Presley and rock’n’roll, John Travolta and disco, Eminem and hip-hop; think Johnny Clegg and maskandi, Paul Simon and Malcolm McLaren and mbaqanga.
In his essay ‘African-American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation’, academic Perry Hall argues that cultural appropriation results in exploitation and strips the cultural product of its meaning.
Hall writes: “The pattern of separating the art from the people lends to an appropriation of aesthetic innovation that not only ‘exploits’ black cultural forms, commercially and otherwise, but also nullifies the cultural meaning those forms provide for African-Americans.” He argues that as white culture absorbs black art forms, it fails to engage with the humanity of “those whose shared living experiences collectively created the context in which such innovation is nurtured, maintained and supported”.
Hall compares cultural appropriation to a “strip-mining of black musical genius. And arguably this analogy exemplifies the more general manner in which people of colour have given their lands, labour, culture and much of their humanity to the enrichment of Western life.” There is clearly no space in Hall’s reading for the tolerance that DJ Umb calls for when judging those who are doing it for the love of the music. At the end of the day, they are stripping the form of its meaning too.
As rock scribe Robert Christgau wrote about Simon’s Graceland, there is a problem “with the way chatty lines” – such as “aren’t you the woman / Who was recently given a Fulbright” – were imposed on a beat created to help black South Africans “forget their loneliness”. Closer to home, legendary South African jazzman Jonas Gwangwa put it more succinctly: “So it has taken another white man to discover my people.”
Academics Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, writing in the introduction to the book Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, argue that to examine musical borrowing and appropriation, it is necessary to look at culture, power, race, class, gender and sexuality. “The act of borrowing from other musical cultures has been portrayed as primarily an open-minded and empathetic gesture of interest in and fascination with marginalised musics,” write Born and Hesmondhalgh. “Such a perspective holds the danger of treating non-Western cultures purely as a resource for the reinvigoration of Western culture.” The academics ask whether white musicians borrowing black forms and generating profit amounts to just another form of racial exploitation.
In another chapter in the book, titled ‘Digital Sampling and Cultural Inequality’, Hesmondhalagh used west London-based Nation Records as a case study to explore the ethical and aesthetic problems raised through digital sampling of non-Western music by European musicians. He argued that this stride towards multiculturalism by Nation’s global-fusion dance acts has led to the indulgence in exoticism, pointing to the fact that one of the label’s acts, Transglobal Underground, sampled a Tahitian women’s gospel choir on one of their songs, which went on to be used to sell Coca-Cola.
Perhaps its only fitting, then, to draw this to a close with this verse from Asian Dub Foundation, an act signed to Nation Records, whose lyrics were directed at the exploitative multiculturalism of their label-mates.
“We ain’t ethnic, exotic or eclectic
The only E we use is electric…
But this militant vibe ain’t what you expected
With your liberal minds, patronise our culture
Skimming the surface like vultures
With your tourist mentality, we’re still the natives
You’re multicultural, we’re antiracist
This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project