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Music Review: Mofongo Tumbao

Music sampling is not something I'm completely comfortable with people taking recordings made by others and simply playing it over a drum and bass machine. That's not creating music as far as I'm concerned, it's just making a compilation tape and adding a couple of extra tracks.

I know that's a very simplistic way of describing it, sometimes samples from numerous songs are used to create a piece, but all that proves is that they know how to use technology and what songs sound good together. Hell I could do that if you gave a good enough computer with the right software, and I would never consider myself a musician.

A musician is someone who actually, I don't know, at least offers up an interpretation of someone else's music if not actually creating the damn thing themselves from scratch. Can you picture someone waking up and saying, I feel inspired today so I think I'll go record a bunch of music from other people's records and splice them all together with a drum machine and mega bass?

On the other hand a process I do have respect for, although it is remarkably similar in execution has nothing in common artistically with sampling, is the compilation and composition of found sounds into a musical piece. While in the first instance what's being done is using another's music and basking in their glory in order to make mindless dance tracks, in the latter the composer takes a series of seemingly dissimilar sounds and assembles them into a coherent piece of music that is designed to have an emotional or intellectual impact on the listener.
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One of the first found sound pieces I heard was an album David Byrne and Brian Eno put out in the early 1980's called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. They took the title from a novel by a Nigerian writer and used found sound compositions to try and reflect the themes and ideas expressed in the book. They used everything from excerpts of radio talks shows, evangelical preachers, to a recording of an exorcism in their efforts.

While you could argue that they were more akin with samplers than found sound artists, their intent was similar to that of the latter far more than the former. Still, they were using recognizable sounds that would influence their listener's interpretations and impressions of their music. The difference between that and total found sound is evident when you compare their efforts with the new release by Puerto Rican musician Joe Ayala, (who calls himself Mofongo after a Puerto Rican dish made of mashed plantains, garlic, and pork crackling), on Aagoo Records, Tumbao

Mofongo started his musical life playing Salsa in his native Puerto Rico before moving to Boston to study Classical guitar at the New England Conservatory. He also studied composition and improvisation and played in an experimental Salsa band called Jayuya for four years. While at school he had developed tendonitis, which had forced him take a year off from his studies. Four years of constant live gigging with Jayuya took a physical toll on him and that's when he began to experiment with electronic music.

His creative process is highly improvisational in that he will start with any sound that catches his attention for one reason or another and proceed to build upon it with other sounds. Making use of the same software employed by the samplers he takes sounds that he has either recorded live – a drop of water dripping off a roof for example or the sound made by a piece of machinery at a particular point in time –, created himself, or picked out from one of thousand of recordings at his disposal, and loops, overdubs, distorts out of all recognition, and splices them together to make a unified piece of music.
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Each of the four pieces on the EP Tumbao are examples of a creative and experimental mind at work. He's not content with only trying to make sound collages pleasing to the ear. Just as the world around us can be filled with disharmony and discord, so too is his music. In fact at times the sound in some of his pieces is so harshly abrasive that it is difficult to listen too.

But this isn't easy listening pop music where the point is to distract the listener from the world around them or to reduce their capacity to reason. (Incessantly pounding bass that repeats the same thump, thump endlessly at excessive volume is not conducive to rational thought or behaviour) These are compositions that challenge the listener's understanding of what music is and force us to realize that an artist's intent is just as significant as the result.

In some ways these seemingly incomprehensible expressions are far more personal statements than any conventional "song" you're liable to hear on the radio. Mofongo has deliberately chosen each sound that has gone into the composition and with each decision reveals a little bit more about the way in which his mind works and his emotional state at the time. Considering the formulaic approach to music that is the norm with so many popular songs these days, any expression of individuality is welcome no matter what form it is wrapped in.

Mofongo's music is not going to be something you put on for a casual listen, or for background listening at your next social get together. But if you ever want to get your brain ticking over in a new direction than Tumbao is something you'll want to have in your collection. Intense to the point of being almost overwhelming in places, it is music that challenges your notions of what composition is and clears up once and for all the difference between sampling and found sound creation.

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