In the spring of 1932, King Fuad I convened the Cairo Congress of Arab Music. The stated goal: “reviving and systematizing Arab music so that it will rise upon an artistic foundation, as did Western music earlier.”
The advent of phonographs and radios meant that foreign music had begun to circulate in Egyptian parlors and public spaces. The idea of this Congress — which drew musicologists and composers from across Europe and the Middle East — was to create a road map for adopting Western scales, instruments and notation methods into Arab music without losing sight of their heritage. For three weeks they debated the superiority of their string instruments and brainstormed new ways to divide the octave scale: stick to quarter-tone increments or implement the Western 12-step system?
This may seem like a strange anecdote to include in a book called “Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.” But it’s a prescient metaphor for many of the issues that Jace Clayton tackles in his book about modern encounters among music, culture and technology. He’s known for his globally minded mixtapes as DJ Rupture and for his long-running blog Negrophonic, where many of the ideas in this book first began to bubble up. “Uproot,” his first book, is grounded in thrilling accounts from his world travels as a DJ, journalist and obsessive music collector.
Its scope is enormous, moving from interviews with Moroccan gnawa singers and vinyl archivists in Beirut to Mexican sonidero parties in Queens, and at first it may seem scattershot. But each story tells us something about transmission — the movement of ideas, people and technology in a globalized world. “Uproot” exposes the circuits that make music move around the globe, from mega-cities to mountain villages and back. Outside the global hubs of wealth and power, these channels tend to wind in ways we’re not used to, and that’s where things get interesting.
Self-serious music scholars might scoff at the low-budget aesthetics of electronic music in the developing world. Not Clayton. Instead, he draws our ears to the radical interventions happening in places where broadband Internet is sparse. One chapter touches on the Mexican party music known as 3bal (pronounced tree-ball), sometimes called “pre-Hispanico” because of its references to folkloric rhythms, which loop alongside shiny synths and outsize electronic drum sounds.
He heads to Monterrey, Mexico, to a regular all-ages bash at Club Rainbow with teenage DJ stars. “The weekly rave took place in the middle of downtown,” he writes. “Twin brothers in clown makeup sat on the curb, too poor to enter. A woman in a Saint Judas T-shirt sold loose cigarettes, amaranth bars, and tiny plastic-wrapped studs so the kids could customize their piercings before entering.” Inside the club, pandemonium: “A boy who couldn’t have been more than nine was grinding with a girl nearly twice his size and age. The dancers’ cages were open to all: they filled with a fearless range of body types, with everything being documented via cell-phone pics.” Whether in North Cyprus or northern Mexico, Clayton’s vivid prose gives the reader front-row seats to the show.
His defense of low-tech is refreshing. He dedicates a later chapter to the rudimentary music software FruityLoops — a lethal weapon for those with limited means. “Out there in the muddy trenches of informal music creation, FruityLoops is everywhere,” he writes. The adolescent stars of the 3bal scene work wonders with the software, as does DJ Figo, another young producer we meet in a dicey satellite city near Cairo. For Clayton, FruityLoops is revolutionary precisely because it’s free, easy to install and requires just a few hours to learn its basics.
Clayton’s alter ego, DJ Rupture, mixes regional sounds from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. After years of sampling and editing music from afar, however, Clayton’s real interest lies in the richer possibilities of face-to-face collaboration. Anybody can log into some online audio database and download percussion recordings from across the world; it takes patience to seek out collaborators and establish a healthy, productive working dynamic. “More and more I saw sampling used to maintain cultural distance,” he writes. “Naive at best, creepily segregationist at worst.”
But cross-cultural collaboration comes with its own baggage. The story of American pop music is inseparable from a certain kind of cultural theft. There have been countless controversies, from Iggy Azalea’s white girl rap affect to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, a black blues singer who remains unknown to many of Elvis’ fans. It’s hard to establish equal-footed relationships across a cultural divide because someone usually ends up with more money, more credit or more voice in the matter.
Clayton inverts this power dynamic with his sound art project, Sufi Plug Ins. The plug-ins — small computer programs that run inside larger ones — are designed to force users to think outside of their software’s Western musical bias. There are synthesizers tuned to North African quarter-tone scales, a drum machine that makes only clapping sounds and a module that lowers your volume five times a day out of respect for the Muslim call to prayer. Users must go through the disorienting experience of working through this totally foreign musical framework. It tips the cultural scales a bit, leading the two traditions to meet in the middle rather than on Western music’s home turf.
“I was interested in giving people a playful experience of interface frustration, turning the tables on ‘user-friendly tech,’” he writes. Music technologies are like languages, and each one has its own logic. Also like languages, electronic instruments come loaded with cultural biases and assumptions — and it’s easy to get trapped into one worldview. Even FruityLoops has this homogenizing effect. “The software gives access, but it also exacerbates sameness,” Clayton writes. An Australian hip-hop producer tells him, “There’s nothing worse than traveling from Brooklyn to Tanzania to see young kids making beats with the same sample pack on FruityLoops. I want to hear local music, local sound, local accents, local slang, language, and issues.”
“Uproot” is a gripping read that balances vivid storytelling with rigorous analysis and reflection. Those looking for a concise thesis uniting all of these anecdotes will come up empty-handed, however; they don’t so much illustrate one point as sketch a rough set of rules for how culture behaves in the 21st century. Clayton throws himself onto the front lines so we don’t have to, acting as a firsthand witness to the flowering of emergent cultures all across the world. He’s heard the sounds of the future, and this book teaches us how to listen too. What does it take? “Acknowledging that you don’t know what’s going on,” he writes, “while being willing to linger, listen and learn.”
Pearl is a writer and radio host based in Brooklyn and Mexico City. He’s currently a staff writer at the music magazine Resident Advisor.
Jace Clayton aka DJ Rupture
FSG Originals: 288 pp., $16 paper
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