India! The cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend! Okay I may have stolen that from some tourist website, but its mostly true. India has been, for some time, a hot bed of cultural diversity. One look at any Bollywood movie contains more song and dance and colour than a trip to the Moulin Rouge. But down to business, it’s the music that really pushes my buttons. If one scratches the surface then there is one obvious, and pretty big conclusion, that Indian music has literally exploded in Britain within the last few years. BBC 1Xtra being the main example, a constant transmission of varied new music and infectious rhythms. Even in mainstream dubstep and drum and bass one can hear the dramatic influence of Indian classics. Take Chase & Status’s sampling of the Devdas film and full discography’s of Indian influenced music The Nasha Experience, Kromestar and a fantastic Klute song. Dubstep stalwarts Loefah, Geiom, Kode9 and to a degree Digital Mystiks have also explored ‘foreign’ sounds often influenced by Indian culture and vibes, though not pinned down necessarily to the culture. And who could forget Punjabi MC! The Shankar family also helped push the sound further afield, highlighting the cultural importance of India to the world. Ananda Shankar’s Streets of Calcutta remains a personal favourite.
One of the most exciting experiments that fused the spirit of Bollywood with funk and hip-hop was the experimental compilation/mix Bombay The Hard Way. This collection of tracks came from Indian film director Anandji Shah along with his brother Kalyanji, who not only wrote and directed dozens of films, but scored them as well throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The source material itself remains incredible due to the fact that the two were able to take the old traditional folk melodies of India and combine them with the grooves and rhythm prevalent in American and European counterparts. Dan the Automator and DJ Shadow added some additional beats and a few extra sitars to the tracks together with spoken narrative from the films that accent the wildness of the pieces. More celebratory and fun than inspirational, yet it shows how wacky India can be.
The latter all obviously pay homage to their source material, however all really have watered it down with their own personal touch, be it drum breaks or extortionate amounts of bass. America is where I find the most intriguing sourcing of Indian material. DJ/Producer/Hip-Hop madman Madlib is known for sampling some off the wall material from time to time, but his Beat Konducta alias has found him crafting album’s worth of intriguing samples and beats. In particular, The Beat Konducta In India finds Madlib trawling through the collections of previously mentioned Bollywood archives. It’s an interesting concept, structure-wise meeting somewhere between the movie and street sampling of Burial and the adventurous plundering of The Avalanches. Sound-wise it’s nothing like either. The phrasing and jovial interjections found in Indian ragas and film dialogue partners nicely with Madlib’s looped rhythmic patterns. Madlib masterfully uses these sections of Indian music as upfront melody and as a balance between his own self-made underlying rhythms. Far from the misadventurous and often clumsy use of sample material found in most dubstep releases, Madlib allows the sitar drenched funk to come to the forefront of each track. Madlib still sounds like Madlib though; those tight singing basslines and clipped snares are still prevalent. But in place of his well known penchant for using soul, jazz and easy listening samples are swooping strings and Hindi vocals. In addition, and most obviously, In India’s basis in foreign sources is unusual yet inviting. The connection between Asian music and Hip Hop is a mode not often pursued or done well, yet here it sounds like Madlib’s been doing it for years.
Africa’s rhythmic virus
Madlib’s authenticity with sound does not stop there, his In Africa edition also impresses. But whilst Indian music continues to grow on home soil and Britain alone, the rhythm of Africa is currently taking over the world. Highlighted so poignantly by this year’s fabulously colourful (and LOUD) World Cup. It gave Africa its most worldwide platform yet to shine and sing and show everyone how noisy it can be. Point in case, the vuvuzela! Even though the players hated it, the vuvuzela was probably the one thing everybody remembers. The buzzing drones that constantly emanated from TV screens and speakers throughout the world was inescapable, casting an audible virus among listeners. More so than that it became a symbolic sound for all Africans, as one man explains;
“When we started the vuvuzela, there was so much sadness in our country in those years and it brought so much joy. All of a sudden people would go to the stadiums because of this instrument that was able to get fans on their feet and start cheering. For a few hours, they would forget about the reality in our society and enjoy the sound”.
But even before that, African rhythm had been a big influence on producers, especially in the UK, for some time. Even more so to this day the sound of Africa is producing home-grown talent that by far outshines its replicas overseas.
When you think of house music, sure the first cities you automatically think of are Chicago, Detroit and the rest of the American connection. But in terms of excitement and new vibes, there’s no other place to hear incredible house beats than in South Africa. Selling homemade mixes of house music became a big thing for South Africans in the mid 80s and by the time apartheid had ceased in 1994 a strain of African house called ‘kwaito’ was rife. Kwaito started out as merely slow house or broken beat music, overlaid with Zulu and broken township English vocals. It became ubiquitous with the sound of a ‘free Africa’ and spread like wildfire throughout the continent as a new black industry.
But although kwaito was often seen as the pertinent sound of Africa, house music was still around. A small group of DJs started to incorporate new sounds influenced from kwaito vibes, distinctly African basslines and legendary Hugh Masekela samples. Local house duos like Revolution or BOP were instant chart breakers.
With this new strand overshadowing traditional and kwaito music, house is now the heartbeat of urban South African music. Its celebratory new sound distinctly announces the fact that South Africa is the only country on the continent that has created its own unique local house culture.
When it comes to finding a niche market outside of the country, it wasn’t until 2008 until almost everyone heard the ubiquitous DJ Mujava track Township Funk. Still, to this day, one could argue that it is still the only SA house track to really explode on worldwide dance floors, but there is so much more to be heard. Along with the Mujava track DJs are beginning to play tracks that are so alien, yet organic and approachable to a willing audience. This new strand has been slowly infiltrating into the UK’s dance scene for a while now within the sets of Sinden, Ben UFO, Kode9, Bok Bok & L-Vis 1990 and many more by the day. And what better timing!? The World Cup although just over, continues to spread African fever across the UK, and long after the players’ tiffs have been dusted off the news shelves, reports of vuvuzela beratement continue on. It’s a chance that a lot of DJs are willing to take, and what a simple one too, the music is easy to mix and easy enough to incorporate into any set and of course is totally infectious.
Up to date there have been nearly non-stop excursions of rhythm almost certainly influenced by the new strain of rhythm infection circulating in Africa. Comparing a home-grown talent to an African master is always going to be one sided but I have a feeling that the pool of artists exploring this sound will continue to grow from our home soil. Breach aka ex soul boy Ben Westbeech has started to create simple house tracks on the surface, yet injects them with extra samples that turn the tracks on their head. ‘Fatherless’ for example starts off innocently enough taking nearly 2 minutes to fully realise. After this point, the soft focus of the flutes start to change and come to the forefront of the tune and co-exist with the rhythm, which in turn explodes into synchronicity after the drop. Afro-beat drums and bongos take over the simple beat the song started with and the whole track seems to come together.
Mujava, the said master of the style, also has a new song which further explores themes on which Township Funk explored. An extremely similar drum pattern is injected with more traditional instruments and sounds, improving the simple yet effective beat of his first hit. The main difference in Mugwanti is the solid vocal performance. Obviously I have no idea what the male protaginist is saying but it’s a cultural and beautiful red herring no one can avoid. After all we are the ones being introduced to this music. Midway through the track a M.I.A type female vocal intercepts the male vocal and brings a sense of familiar sound. This fits the track into the present and highlights the genius of Mujava allowing people to grasp what they know but also get excited by what they don’t.
All of this and I haven’t even discussed Shangaan Electro. This niche style from Soweto reaches peaks of up to 180 beats per minute and even though I could say it’s more traditional than African house, I’d be simplifying it too much. Marimba focused music coupled with old drum machines and keyboards moulded together by the craftsmanship of people totally focused on making high energy dance music. Along with video accompaniment the whole package baffles at first, and then thrills on the next. Soca and Footwerk music are easy comparisons, but Shangaan electro is distinctly Africa. But not only are these songs for dancing, they also contain boundless passion and soulful vocals. Zinja Hlungwani, the scene’s major man absolutely smashes it on N’wagezani My Love with something that I, or I doubt you, have ever heard before. There’s so much to talk about in the track, from the great vocal performance, to the high tempo drum pattern, to the snapped vocal sample taken straight from UK experimental music. You’ll have heard little like this before and it is still unlikely to work within a club environment anytime soon, but it is one of the most exciting and adventurous experiments I have heard in a long time. The main thing is that it will bring a smile to anyone’s face.
The main difference between India and Africa’s defining sounds? Well, for me, India’s signature permeates from its deep culture and traditional instruments. Even Punjabi MC would bring shame upon the family if he didn’t use a Sitar in his next track. Its establishment with Bollywood and soundtracks continue to this day and still thrills local audiences. In Africa, its signature sound is NOW. There’s no other time when the winds of change have been so strong for Africa’s people and its music. The culture sure is one of the main reasons for this turnaround, but the music is bought on by the drive of the people for change. Whilst India’s music stagnates merrily, Africa’s drives forward and packs a powerful punch.
The desert heat
Maurice Jarre’s fantastic soundtrack for Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 opened up a whole new world (Aladdin pun) of exploration for people who watched the film. The spirit of the unknown and the thrill of navigating the desert was a new concept back then and it blew people’s mind.
Nowadays, the desert doesn’t really seem like a fun place to go. Reports from friends say that the pyramids are ‘really just a big pile of bricks’. The glamour has gone and apart from ‘The Mummy’ films so has the thrill. However the music of the desert still has a lot to offer for a lot of new artists.
For me, the first thing I remember about desert music is probably Super Mario and my first foray into gaming. The N64 was for me the most exciting thing in my life in 1997 and coupled with the soundtracks for all the games (which at the time I took for granted) worked together superbly. Of course, it is a well-known fact that producers have also been influenced by the sound of video-gaming. In particular Flying Lotus and Samiyam often collaborate and singularly release tracks inspired by the bleeps of classic games.
In terms of the desert sound, one often would presume it is actually a very quiet place. But one producer sees that differently and is enthralled by its mystical, magical and imagined ancient past. Kingdom, a new producer from America has released a number of synth laden and often R’n’B focused tracks on up and coming labels for about a year but his forthcoming EP on the fantastic Night Slugs label is purely focused on the ancient Egyptian sound. Still focused on crafting R’n’B melodies he has twisted this to nasty effect on title track That Mystic. The low hum of the male vocal at the start recalls the sacred hum of awoken pharaohs whilst the high-pitched vocals and 8-bit starry synths are influenced by previously stated video game hi-jinks. His stuttering drum patterns are a staple throughout his discography and along with contemporaries Girl Unit, Bok Bok and Brackles, are purely constructed for the dance. The result is a thoroughly neck-snapping voyage through Egypt and one could imagine raving in the Nile to this one.
Whilst the sound of Egypt is probably still along way off fruition, unlike Africa’s burgeoning house scene, it is interesting to compare all 3 cultures in one article. To place them all together may seem strange but I feel as if all 3 have a connection in history. India’s musical heritage is deeply rooted and may have stagnated quite a bit in terms of modern influence. Yet it still remains hugely prolific in its output, including maybe a million Bollywood films and countless experimentations and cross-genre pollinations of the sound. In Africa there is no time like the present as stated. Whilst I see Egypt, but mostly Aztec sounds as something that may or may not be explored deeply in the future.
Past, present or future, music will always be influenced by culture. Full Stop.
Further Reading: For further explanation into what is going on musically and culturally in Africa right now then check out the two blogs linked below:
Furthermore, I wanted to include this fantastic track, but I couldn’t fit it in anywhere, listen below: