Cliché or not, works of historical fiction tend to speak more to the period in which they were created than to the era they chronicle. In our currently robust niche reissue culture where a once-unknown record by a Japanese avant-garde percussionist can sit comfortably between monthly Discogs major label top-sellers The Wall and Brothers in Arms, I regularly think of this adage. While the second-hand record reselling site's bread-and-butter is classic rock staples and Michael Jackson, there's no doubting it would not be the hub it is without the dedicated efforts of the countless niche record sellers and collectors out there who are often the first step in an overlooked or lost album getting the hipster reissue treatment. But do you ever find yourself asking, "Why this, why now?" The New Age boom capitalized upon and truly inaugurated for the mainstream record collector by Light in the Attic hit in early 2013 at the start of Obama's second term, at a time when hope was on the outs and a new breed of trolling was starting to engage with the mainstream--and if there's been one dominant theme in a lot of the art I've seen and heard in the past year, it's the desire to escape to an imaginary place or different time.
Nonetheless, for a record like I Am The Center to have the impact it did, it needs to embraced by a certain set of influencers in the form of individuals, music sites, and forums. How do certain records--such as 1983's Noir et Blanc by the grouping of Hector Zazou, Congolese singer/producer Bony Bikaye, and electronic duo Cy 1 released by Belgium's Crammed Discs--that had long been commanding $8 used prices at record stores like the late Other Music suddenly deemed worth of prices upward of $75 or some other ludicrous amount? Who decides that this record rather than, say the latest Sahel Sounds record, is deserving of write-ups and reviews in all the leading music site? "Recorded decades before its time" is a fairly enticing bit of publicist/marketing copy, but who decides just how much time a record was before itself and when does that time arrive? With so many albums and bodies of work that continue to seep down from record collector secret to overpriced commodity on the secondary market to inevitable deluxe reissue, no matter how revelatory they may be, after a while one starts to question the mechanisms at work that get `record collectors of all stripes battling it out for limited press editions of unknown techno tapes from 1990.
The world of dance music is a bit more straightforward in its fluid relationship with music history. For a while, I've had a younger DJ abroad friend whose complained about what he considers "selector DJ's," souls like Ben UFO, Hunee, Ron Morelli, or Jackmaster (more on him shortly) whose track choices inspire legions of copycats to conspire to find out what the track was, invariably sending the price of otherwise affordable records through the roof within the second-hand vinyl market--and this of course has nothing to do with the DJ's, but rather speaks to just how many lemming DJ's are out there. It's a trend I've become rather bemused by when cataloging my vinyl collection via Discogs--a solid barometer for seeing which records are enjoying sudden attention. About a year ago, I saw one of my own nu-disco faves, Les Aeroplanes sole release Les Impersonnel Naviguant, a record I spend $9 courtesy of Mathematics' in 2009 when the record was released going for $25 on the site, a stunning fact made sense by the following comment from November, 2015: "this used to sell for a few dollars before Morelli played it in one of his sets. bunch of speculators."
The Reissue Club
Today, the price has dipped to a reasonable $12--considering that it truly is a fabulous EP--but it speaks to a disconcerting pattern that seems to have originated within the DJ world and infected the whole of collector culture. Simply put, the average record collector seem much happier to just collect "hot" and/or "limited" reissues than to discover and dig up new music in earnest. If you ever want to get an up-close-and-personal look at how the typical American white cis male record collector operates, I highly suggest joining the Facebook group Now Playing. I've ruffled the 15,000-strong group's feathers a few times through comments I've made about the casual misogyny that has been a staple of the group since I joined and the lack of variety in terms of what's being posted. Now, the whole point of the group is to share what one is currently playing via some form of physical audio media, be it CD, tape, or most often, vinyl. And that whole premise can result in some rather candid and decidedly un-hip posts, like playing a favorite CD from one's youth that in turn belies the fact that most of the members seem to share a middle-class, suburban background where they were likely raised on MTV and national music magazine (yes, I am painting in broad strokes here). Moreover, if you make a daily habit like I do of scrolling down the page's countless posts provided by its many members, you might start to get the feeling of returning to the same well-stocked, yet largely predictable used record store that's heavy on the many strains of classic and contemporary rock, a mixture of jazz standards and engaging outliers, predictable exercises in experimental posturing via Terry Riley or Steve Reich, and a marked dearth in electronic, ethnic, and street music.
My most recent blow-up on the forum was a result of my applauding a member for posting a pop country CD due to what I consider the often-narrow purview of the group--keep in mind, this is a group that has kicked members out due to arguments over the merits of Phish. And sure enough, I got considerable pushback to my suggestion that the group might not be as eclectic as it would like to believe. "What, what do you mean? In the past hour, I've seen posts of Brazilian Tropicalia, obscure ECM cuts, Soundgarden, and Steve Reich! How much more eclectic can you get?!" went the typical response. Others got a bit more nasty, prompting a sympathetic message from a friend whose observations perfectly summed up a lot of what rubs me the wrong way about record collector cultures:
That was kind of nuts. I guess when people define themselves by how open-minded they see themselves and how free-wheeling they feel their tastes are they don't take kindly to being shown a different side. I'm not sure if a lot of them realize how their taste really is affected by external forces--like what their friends like, what the labels they like put out, etc. Like how there's a tendency to get behind whatever Mississippi reissues--so now they all like the Ethiopian stuff that they put out or how everyone seems really into Zamrock right now...they all went nuts for William Onyeabor when that stuff came out or they all [are] puppydog after Protomartyr. It's the posturing like 'I have this exquisite taste and I dig harder for my music than even the usual indie music fan' that is just silly.
Music Sites as Tastemaking Machines
The fact that there is more music in existence and will continue to be than any one person can ever keep up with is just one of them facts of life. From the start of rock criticism in the 60s up through the start of the twenty-first century, the "consensus album" was a concept that arose to refer to an album almost universally championed by critics often in spite of it not selling millions of records, adding an aura of artistic authenticity via it elevated critical status and the fact that the "mainstream" doesn't "get it." But the idea of the critic as tastemaker wasn't truly weaponized until early 2003 when Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber broke the known-unknown Broken Social Scene by bequeathing upon them the then-barely-a-year-old Best New Music imprimatur, which was already proving a fast track to national recognition to otherwise unknown entities. This was a period when the mainstream music machine was losing its grip on publications and music fans and readers of sites like P4K were adrift amongst the surfeit of music old and new. Schreiber and his site essentially became this generation's Robert Christgau and his Consumer Guide, highlighting which new bands were worthy of their readers' money and attention.
This new state of affairs is perhaps best articulated in Schreiber's self-congratulatory review of the Canadian supergroup in which he describes his valiant efforts to dig through the hundreds of promo CDs his still-nascent site received and were unable to get to, despite reviewing a not-inconsiderable amount of five albums a day. With the publicist-driven arm of indie and mainstream music promotion still in full effect--the era of the leaked record was still a couple years off though there was a healthy underground of indie music promo pirates--music fans still needed a music-publication-as-quality-filter. With the Broken Social Scene incident, he kicked into gear the internet version of "music critic firsties" which soon blossomed into The Pitchfork Effect. For nearly a decade, when an otherwise unknown indie band could ascend to great heights by the site's Best New Music imprimatur, you could pretty much bet that the downward trickle of influence was most likely coming from Pitchfork's direction or competitors like Stereogum and the many other music sites that implemented their own BNM analog. By the mid-00s, Facebook and MySpace were in full effect as were thousands of MP3 blogs, each one eager to back the right musical pony, from the Blog Rock of Black Kids to the Blog House of Justice. Many of these bloggers were eventually cherry picked by music sites like Resident Advisor, Tiny Mixtapes, and of course P4K. Or they transformed their blogs into music site brands of their own. Today, most of these sites are a shell of their former selves as running a music publication like you would a record label/festival isn't really a strategy built for the long-run. You're better off selling tickets, like RA does now.
The DJ Conundrum
But what these above examples speak to is the fact that the music nerd identity has always been one dominated by a colonialist-like mindset in which one gets to establish themselves as the go-to tastemaker amongst their friends, local scene, or on a national scale via social media and music sites. And with DJ Culture finally taking root in the States in a way it hasn't since the 90s, online social media groups committed to deciphering a marquee-named DJ's selections have emerged, armed with Shazam and instant messenger apps, to disarm them of their special selections (that they often work quite hard to obtain while others tend to just fall in their laps due to the still powerful promo economy). This debate came roaring back into focus last May via an FB post by Jackmaster, a DJ whose 'eclectic' taste has made him a lightning rod for DJ lemmings who bite his selections.
This post warranted not one, but two articles from the site DJ Tech Tools debating either side of the issue. It's a fairly predictable argument, with those hard-working DJ's understandably annoyed by having their digging efforts cherrypicked by any bloke with an internet connection while others wonder what really the big deal is as it's ultimately how you play the tracks and not which tracks you play that make a successful DJ. Of course, being able to pick bangers is a skill in of itself, but that can only get you so far.
It's fairly easy to chart why certain twelves and tracks suddenly receive newfound fame or recognition outside of a provincial scene--the Jackmaster- and Numbers-backed "What's A Girl To Do" being perhaps the most substantial example of this process following years of his and other DJ's he inspired backing the song, which ultimately topped the RA 2015 year-end singles chart eleven years after its original release. The world of overlooked long-players and how they ascend to influential and in-demand reissues is a bit more cryptic. As has been documented already, quirks in YouTube's algorithms have been instrumental in fomenting interest in two of this year's most successful and anticipated reissues: Midori Takada's Through the Looking Glass and Yasuaki Shimizu's Kakashi, both albums receiving well over a million years and put out by the Brooklyn-based Palto Flats label alongside the UK-based opportunists We Release Whatever the Fuck We Want. And while there are plenty of reissue label owners who seem to be in it for the minor celebrity granted to them for popping a wheelie on the zeitgeist, there just as many if not far more who are committed to releasing beloved and out-of-print records for the sake of putting them back in circulation and finding them a new audience. Though again, it often all goes back to the labels one trusts (as well as the people who run them) in combination with what's being touted in the music sites they still read, by the social media accounts they now follow, and by their friends with all three often championing the same record in a twenty-first century take on the "consensus album" (or song, or act, or scene).
Still, the question remains, who are the prime movers of today's reissue culture? And why is it now that records like Noir et Blanc are resonating with a generation of listeners and buyers who were either unaware of or indifferent to the record prior to this moment? In the way of a general answer, allow me to paraphrase an acquaintance and fellow record collector who despises record collectors. In a chat recently, this person acknowledged the importance of reissue culture's ability to reconfigure the accepted critical canon--one that was largely authored by white dudes--and construct a new timeline that is representative of a wider range of voices. But they also closed with the observation that more often than not, at the end of the day it's just rich white folk playing and selling rare black records to other rich white folk. And when you have a group of white guys all fighting for the right to reissue some lost classic authored by a person of color, has anything really changed or gotten better?
I think the answer is ultimately a bit of "sorta" and a bit of "not really," but I can't purport to have a definite answer to those questions, though I think they are important to ask, even though many seem glad to just follow the herd. Oh well, guess that's been the case since always.
Hey, Look! It's That Review of Noir et Blanc You Were Promised!
And while the tradition of rich white folk co-opting black music for their own financial gain is a story as old as the music industry, it's hard to feel so cynical when it's a label like Crammed Discs reissuing Noir et Blanc, an album they originally financed and released back in 1983. (And I'm Belgian, so yes, I know about the genocide in the once-Belgian-colonized Congolese area of Africa, as is seemingly every other Belgian. And it is something they talk about quite a bit. Almost like they understand that the subjugation and slaughter of an entire culture has long-lasting effects that aren't isolated to the time in which they occurred.) I will one day give Crammed the extended research and attention deserving of an article all its own, but for the time being, let's just say they are in small and esteemed company when it comes to being a label that has championed minor voices across the musical spectrum for over four decades. Having first encountered the label via the mindblowing Congotronics series back when it began in 2004, I must admit I was a bit embarrassed when I realized that the digital copy of Noir et Blanc that had been sitting in my iTunes for a couple years came from them; indeed, I'm just beginning to discover how rich and rewarding of a discography they boast. For instance, in the past week alone I've been introduced to the instrumental desertscapes of Steve Shehan. Let's just throw that up right there....
(Whoops, this internet. It's a distracting beast. Back to the review!)
Writing in the extensive new liner notes, Biyake paints a vivid picture of his interests leading up to the recording of Noir et Blanc, which stretched to include Stockhausen, Krautrock, and a desire to study electronic music, something he shared during a Radio Nova interview in 1981 with Pierre Job, otherwise known as the producer and songwriter Hector Zazou. An active player in the European underground whose bands and projects encompassed chamber music, minimal, and rock, Zazou soon hooked Biyake up with the five-person collective Diése 440 who "worked with elecroacoustic equipment and built synthesizers." Biyake in turn started working with two member of the group in particular, Guillaume Loizillon and Claude Micheli, who would become the duo CY1.
And perhaps this is a good time to note, informative, well-written liner notes and booklets accompanying a new pressing are always a good look (seriously, pay a goddamn writer to provide some insight of value if you're already throwing down the money required to reissue a record). I gotta admit, I let out a bit of an excited noise when after I hastily removed the plastic sheath and tilted the sleeve sideways to extract the new pressing, out flew a ten inch square booklet containing well over twenty pages of pictures and firsthand accounts from Bikaye, Loizillion, Micheli, guitarist Vincent Kenis, engineer Martin, clarinetist and Crammed co-founder Marc Hollandar, and Andy Beta? Yes, the go-to electronic music scribe who is not Philip Sherburne is here to tell us the tale of how he managed to discover the album over two decades ago via his Texas college radio station and a heady record collector while drawing all the necessary and expected lines outward to the contemporary artists like Fela and King Sunny Ade and Byrne and Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts that Noir et Blanc was compared to and and forward to the current hive of "Afro-electronic" labels and bands.
Otherwise, the booklet is chock-full of insightful nuggets from those enmeshed within the creative chemical process, focusing in particular on the uncanny marriage of Bikaye's worldly croon and cosmopolitan sensibility and a couple of French electronics nerds, all overseen by the album's "director," Zazou. In each account, much is made of the expansive setup employed by Cy 1, giving one the palpable sense that the two were really cooking with electric fire as they "laid down textures and often strange sequences, on which I built he songs which would become the backbone of the Noir et Blanc album," in Bikaye's words. Not that Bikaye wasn't holding his own against the sizable contribution provided by Loizillon and Micheli. In addition to writing the vocal melodies and singing, he was also a professional music producer as well, meaning that this wasn't just a studio full of players, but of sonic innovators and conceptualists, If Zazou was playing the role of director, than Bikaye was the skilled and involved lead performer who quite literally was responsible for the "global" tag the album was inevitably given, drawing upon no traditional melodies while singing in a linguistic mélange. Following Zazou's playing of the demos for Crammed Discs, this ad hoc assemblage of musicians were sent to a Brussels studio in 1983 where they set about recreating the song sketches with a host of supporting musicians like Fred Frith on guitar and violin, the reeds of Hollander and saxophonist Fred Wallich, Vincent Kenis' lively and sharp rhythm guitar, and the wide-ranging versatility of percussionist Chris Joris. In the case of Zazou, it's curious to consider that despite having his name first on the marquee, he plays nary a note on the album. Yet his vision was a prophetic one, moving the fourth world ideas of Jon Hassell past mere sonic tourism towards actively engaging and working with both artists from countries whose music was informing a growing breed of post-Eno producer-musicians and those homegrown DIY aural explorers eager to step outside of their comfort zone. The middle point at which they met was one that they created themselves, bending and breaking the rules to fashion a music that drew on existing styles and methods while rearranging them in a way that established a whole new blueprint for the blending of genres and cultures that can be heard across the underground and mainstream.
The opening pneumatic hiss that erupts almost stochastically over the swampy electronic shuffle of "M'Pasi Ya M'Pamba" sets the stage instantly for the rich and throaty baritone of Bikaye whose melodic phrasing drapes itself over the factory line-like efficiency of the electronic backbone constructed by Loizillion and Micheli. As Hollander notes, the "wall-sized modular analog computers" that belonged to the French duo "dated back to the '70s and seemed monstrous and antediluvian even then." Lacking any digital memory capacity, the two regularly had to reconstruct their patches and sequences from scratch, never quite rebuilding their electronic architecture in the same way. And while the similar tempo and narcotic swing of "Mangungu" can sound like it's a continuation of the thought process behind the previous track, the mix gets decidedly more animated courtesy of the reverbed guitar stabs of Vincent Kenis and the layered vocals that starts to make the album feel like a true group affair.
The drugged-yet-deliberate half-time dance of "Dju Ya Feza" pairs a more traditional two- and four-dominated beat with Bikaye's newly animated vocals as he pivots from somber crooning to a near mania in his chanting of the song's chorus, Kenis' quasi-harmonic rhythm guitar piercing the mix with a raucous polyphony while Hollander's multi-tracked saxophone provides the chorus that cheers the song to the finishing line. Where the album starts off on sure footing, the alien synthesis of European electronics and African rhythms and harmonics grows more intimate and natural-sounding so as by the time the mallet-esque arpeggiation that forms the backbone of " Eh! Yaye" sounds like the start of a true celebration and communal gathering of the musicians on hand, all riding upon an oblique bass sequence in 5/8. Kenis turns in a sultry, slinking guitar solo while Bikaye engages in a vocal call and response between himself and a cadre of back-up singers who voices seamlessly blend the masculine and feminine. The song builds in intensity with added flourishes entering the mix throughout, yet the electronic skeleton formed by Cy 1 keeps things uniquely stilted, if not comfortably stiff.
The depth of Cy 1's rich and animated synthesizer programming is on full display on the laid back lullaby of "Mama Lenvo," as a synthetic string line is undergirded by a frenetic arpeggiation that sounds like an outtake of the main synth hook of "Temporary Secretary" and an electrified mbira that queers the artifice, sounding like a true jam session. In his comments on the songs on Noir et Blanc, Bikaye explains that "Lenvo" is inspired by the rumba yambula, a dance performed by the old and tired. Calling to mind Cuba's role in the African Diaspora, Bikaye notes that on the island this rumba is danced solo and performed in 12/8 as native Cubans refused to recognize the 4/4 time signature of modern Congolese rumbas.
That Noir et Blanc is not simply an immediate transaction between Belgian and Congolese cultures, but looks to the outer rims of African Diaspora becomes abundantly clear on the robo-reggae of "Lamuka." Bikaye notes that some of the originators of Jamaican reggae came from Ghana and the Kongo. "The traditions of the deported Kongo people evolved into Kumina music, which is also an African Jamaican religion, which gave birth to the Rastafari style of percussion known as Nyabhinghi drumming," he writes. And it's not without significance that he sings the lyrics to both in Lingala, the Bantu language spoken throughout the northwestern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Angola. Bikaye switches up languages almost on a track-by-tack basis, moving from Lingala to Swahii to Pidgin French and Kikongo and evoking both the residue of colonialism and the heritage of his native country in doing so. But it's not just a symbolic act when listening to the nine compositions on Noir et Blanc as though Bikaye's words remain largely unintelligible to the mostly western and white audience that has purchased and championed the record, both the force they represent and the sheer power of their delivery serves to round out the album's sound as a whole while taming the expansive sonics wall of electronics wielded by Cy 1
The album's final stretch is kicked off by the lively-sounding downbeat of "Keba" (Watch Out), a song inspired by the brave and patient natures of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela with what sounds like a live piano twinkling in the background before the foreboding, chugging electronics of Cy 1 creep up in the mix before the song resembles a Rube Goldberg construction with its many moving parts working together to keep the rhythm going on the two and four. For an album so saturated in warm electronic rhythms and melodies with traditional instrumentation and vocals serving as cogs in the core musical engine, "Woa" is a stripped-back African hymnal. Percussive sequences generated by Cy 1's synths are buried beneath lightly pounding drums and a chorus chant led by Bikaye with bird sounds. The track is perhaps the most conventional offering on display across the album's nine tracks, yet there is something unsettlingly plastic about it; the live drums sound looped and off-set by a half beat, the touches of studio magic felt on every channel even if the song attempts to pass itself off as a spontaneous field recording, or at least capture the magic of the momentary, the celebration of the now.
Our current moment is one in which the ethnic musical tourism popularized during the late 70s/early 80s can be done from the comfort of one's home. If someone wants to make a Jersey Club track, they need not be from Jersey, they just have to know which Soundcloud accounts and YouTube channels to bite. The fact that someone like Zazou, who lacked the type of money that has enabled rock stars like Damon Albarn to engage in similar experiments with indigenous musicians (even if it's in service of a western piece of music like "In C"), looked to the communities embedded in his immediate surroundings is a testament to the powerful implications of his vision. He didn't simply borrow or reappropriate the sounds of others; he displaced both European and African musical practices and reconvened them in the neutral territory of the studio, allowing different experiences, ideas, and methodologies to intertwine and infect one another, giving birth to something truly singular. That his project remained largely dormant for so long speaks to the fact that perhaps we as listeners were not able to understand this earnest exchange. And regardless of how Noir et Blanc reclaimed its rightful place in the cultural canon of classic albums, the fact that it has is a moment both for celebration and considered reflection.