I was skeptical when Watcha Clan‘s “world & bass” sound first crossed my path and their first show left me unimpressed (Deciphering Watcha Clan). But there was something there that kept me coming back: the musical goals were ambitious and sometimes sometimes it really worked. Then the second time I saw them it all came together (Watcha Clan, Live in San Francisco). That performance and a conversation with keyboardist left me eagerly awaiting their new album:
…Clement and I talked about the change in the approach Watcha Clan was taking to creating musical fusion on their new album (for release in early 2011). The album will include more North African, Balkan and Jewish songs, including a Yemeni song played in a Balkan way. Clement said it’s in the same format – “traditional plus electric but deeper.” This time, they are spending less time working on the arrangements and putting more attention to finding the emotion. For each song, they start by recording two or three simple vocal tracks by Karine or Nassim. Then when they have a good vocal take, they build a mix around it. The approach seems to be paying early dividends. On Sunday night, the arrangements of the songs fromDiaspora Hi-Fi were more dynamic and felt both more immediate and filled out. They bore little resemblance to the watered-down versions I’d bemoaned last time I’d seen them. Last time, I saw Watcha Clan, I left eagerly awaiting their new album but unsure if I’d see them again live. This time, I’m eagerly awaiting the new album and looking forward to seeing them again when they return for a North American tour next year. And, remember, never judge a band by a single performance.
Now, Radio Babel is out and it’s worth the wait. Check out the video for “Hasnaduro” (above) for a taste and if you’re in L.A., check them out on August 6, 2011 at the Grand Performances series of free events downtown.
It took a little while to post (and it will move to Afropop.org’s front page later this week) but here is my review of Watcha Clan at the finale of the 2010 Jewish Music Festival in San Francisco. And be sure to check out the links to Charming Hostess, the opening band that was truly astounding.
Never judge a band by a single performance. The first time I saw the Marseilles-based Watcha Clan was in July 2009 at a small club in San Francisco and the performance fell flat. The songs lacked the moments of unpredictability that worked so well onDiaspora Hi-Fi, the arrangements felt hackneyed and stale. I left feeling Watcha Clan was just another electronic band that created interesting studio work but was out of its element live (check out my interview with Lado Clem of Watcha Clan on Afropop.org in 2009). I’m here to report that this is one of those times when I’m happy to be wrong. I saw Watcha Clan again on Sunday July 18, 2010 in a very different setting and they killed.
Watcha Clan, headlining the finale of the 25th edition of the Jewish Music Festival in San Francisco, turned in an exciting musical performance where, surprisingly, everything clicked. The staid, buttoned-down performance space of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is not an ideal setting for a “world & bass” band. YBCA books some interesting and innovative musical acts (just take a look at a fascinating installation by Oakland’s musical iconoclasts Charming Hostess) but it feels like what it is: a room tacked onto a museum. The lines of folding chairs set up in the room (for the rest…)
A recent conversation with “Northern Roots” singer Tim Eriksen set me to thinking about the strategic nature of genre identification. Eriksen is an exception in that he has created his own genre label to identify his quirky mix of American “roots” material. For him it’s hopefullly a way-station on the way to defining his work as simply his own — in the way that a Bob Dylan album is always first of all a Bob Dylan album. Still, for most artists, genre identification is a necessary exercise in balancing self-identification (comfort with a label) with industry categorization (so interested listeners can find you). You got to play the game if you want to get heard.
Nowhere is the conundrum of genre more tangled than in the so-called World Music realm where issues of marketing and how to sell to the Western consumer take precedence. Although, aesthetics and some power dynamics have shifted in the almost three decades since World Music emerged as a marketing term. The following observations still seem pertinent.
World Music “fusions” are often little more than marketable forms of aural tourism in which exotic locales are tamed and made approachable for Western consumers. This use of “fusion” reflects the overwhelming preoccupation in Western discourse with “difference” in which interactions with non-Western cultures are presumed to be infrequent and of minor importance. While this orientation has come under intensive critique during the last several decades, it still exerts an intense pressure upon the Western mindset (see for example the writings on this by James Clifford and Arjun Appadurai) — plagiarizing myself from my dissertation French Fries in the Tagine (2006).
World music means music of the poor…. You get music from the poor and try to get the rich to listen to it… It’s like a big European producer coming in and saying “This is a good sound but you know it’s not well-exploited. We are going to do something better with that” (Interview of Reda Allali of Hoba Hoba Spirit, 2002).
Allali, of the Moroccan band Hoba Hoba Spirit, was stating a sentiment I heard repeatedly from African musicians, including Moroccan rapper Don Bigg and Malian bandleader Cheikh Tidiane Seck (for Salif Keita and Oumou Sangare). World Music is not a category meant for them and it doesn’t satisfy them, artistically or financially. It’s a matter of who has the control, musically and financially. But what about the opening up that can occur with crossing cultural and musical boundaries. That is the primary emphasis of Western artists who make the journey across musical boundaries between North & South, Western & Non-Western. I must admit that I disregarded the sincerity of that sentiment in forming my opinion of the World Music phenomenon. A recent interview of French World ‘n’ Bass ensemble Watcha Clan set me to reconsidering my opinions. For me, it’s still in process. Below are extracts from some of the source material I’m considering: the interview with Watcha Clan (available in full at Afropop.org) and a piece I wrote on Moroccan musicians and their positionings regarding the World Music label a few years ago (available here).
…but there are all the misses, mostly World Music endeavors that perpetuate the worst of the North–South colonial heritage under the auspices of intercultural understanding. It’s the forefronting of the “Western” artist or musical reference and a certain rhetorical smugness that stands out. But all of this is just preamble to an album I don’t know what to do with. I should hate it. It’s rootless, “multi-cultural” music produced by “musical nomads.” On the surface, it’s all too precious but it’s got something and, sometimes, it’s got a lot. (to read more click: Deciphering Watcha Clan: Interview with Jeffrey Callen).
Hoba Hoba Spirit
The songs of Hoba Hoba Spirit fuse rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, and punk with cha’abi and gnawa. The members of Hoba Hoba Spirit were among the numerous musicians I met last year in Morocco who are creating music that transcends the narrow constraints imposed by the Moroccan music industry and media. Many of these musicians are making music that blends Moroccan traditions with musical styles from around the world. They feel this is simply a reflection of their lives which are both rooted in Moroccan tradition and enmeshed in webs of connection that make rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, reggae and salsa as much a part of their world as cha’abi, melhoun and gnawa. Like numerous other musicians from the global South, they are not interested in creating raw material for American or European artists or acting as exotic aural scenery for the Western market. (to read more click: Don’t Call it World Music).