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March 22, 2014

Music Review: IR 29.1: New Generation Dub


One of the biggest crimes committed by the music industry has been their ability to co-opt, dilute and turn even the most radical of genres into something safe for mass consumption. Disco, punk and rap have all been taken and watered down so they would sell in Peoria. Even worse is how the industry corrupts these forms, turning them inside out, so instead of preaching against the injustices which brought the genres into existence, they become something promoting the very things causing the inequities railed against. While disco was turned into mindless dance music for social climbers and punk became new wave and all about dressing well, what was done to rap/dub music was by far the most horrendous.

Rap/dub, the art of free association spoken word poetry/singing being recited over somebody mixing sounds on a couple of turntables, was born out of necessity. It was a cheap and easy way to make music and to relate information to large numbers of people. Individuals, Afrika Bambaataa and groups, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, took existing recorded music, LPs in the early days, and by manipulating the vinyl and mixing the sound of two turn tables together, would create rhythms and beats for songs, like "The Message", that spoke of modern African American frustration with the poverty, crime and drug use they saw around them.

So, its heartening to know there are those in the world who still see the potential for rap/dub music as an instrument for change and education. As I mentioned in my review of IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub elsewhere on this site, the grass roots organization The Fire This Time (TFTT), has established the record label, IR (Indigenous Resistance) produce rap/dub music which speaks to the plight of indigenous people all over the world. In order to facilitate the making of this music they have established a freedub page where musicians, poets and songwriters can upload and download mp3s for the sole purpose of creating new songs. Thus musicians from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific can exchange ideas with people across the North America and create material which speaks to the plight of indigenous people everywhere.
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Their latest release, IR 29.1: New Generation Dub available for purchase as a download through Bandcamp not only is a great example of how this system works, it also shows there is more to this genre of music than most of us think. There are only four music tracks on the release, its being promoted as the first of two parts, hence the title 29.1, but they're plenty to give you both an introduction to the type of music they create and the ideas and hopes they are trying to propagate.

The second track on the release, "IR Dravidian: Earth & Life: Dr. Das Ambient Mix", is not only a great example of how their international community of artists work together to create songs, but shows you how hip hop/dub/rap can be so much more than what we hear on commercial radio. This track had been originally recorded as "Dravidian Spirit" by DJ Soundar of Asian Dub Foundation but has been remixed for this recording by Jamaican musician Dr. Das. Not having heard the original I can't comment on the impact the changes have made to the song. However I can tell you its a powerful mix of language and music which not only communicates an intellectual message but creates a strong spiritual and emotional foundation for the ideas expressed.

The Dravidian of the title are the Indigenous people of South India who have been gradually marginalized by the majority Brahmin-Aryan peoples for thousands of years according to DJ Soundar. Their culture dates back at least 6,000 years and the percussion rhythms you hear on this track are Dravidian. A quick trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica for keyboards and percussion, then down to Bogota Colombia for the sound of children reading a passage of the Tried & True: Revelations Of A Rebellious Youth by dub Jamaican writer Dutty Bookman. Finally there's a quick side trip up to North America for the words of Native American poet/activist/musician John Trudell which were recorded by Bookman for this mix.
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What's wonderful about this mix is how well all the seemingly disparate sounds, languages and ideas are blended together to create a unified message. Built around the core of Trudell's words about the nature of power, how people are being misled into believing money and the political vote are the true sources of power when they are merely manifestations of greed and exploitation ("We are connected to the real power source which is life and earth") the music is both ethereal and grounded enough so its message is emotionally and intellectually real.

Unlike most politically oriented music which tends towards the polemic, the music on IR 29.1: New Generation Dub doesn't ignore its media's role in conveying the message. The tracks on this recording work on multiple levels, reflecting the artists' concerns with conveying both a political message to the world at large and a reminder to their indigenous audience to never forget who they are and where they came from. The spiritual messages found in these songs aren't meant to make non-indigenous people feel better about themselves and their exploitation of the world like the ones found in New Age bookstores. Instead they're a means of reinforcing the cultural identity of those who have been the victim of systemic cultural genocide.

If you're like me, and the sound of rap/hip hop blaring from some car's souped up sound system is usually enough to hope the vehicle will blow up on the downbeat, these tracks are a revelation. They show that dub music can be more than just mindless noise and used as a viable tool for self-expression. With contributors from literally every corner of the world, this truly international collaboration gives voice to the concerns of indigenous people all over the globe while allowing each distinct culture to shine through.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review IR 29.1: New Generation Dub)

January 14, 2013

Music Site Review: Concert Vault


There was once a time when the only way you could get hold of the pop music you liked was by visiting a record store. If you didn't own either a record player or a tape deck of some kind the only way to listen to your favourite music was the radio. Which meant you were at the mercy of whatever your local station played. So if you didn't like the top 40 of the day you were usually out of luck. As for seeing your favourite band perform, that was only possible if they happened to go on tour and show up in your home town. If they were really popular they might show up on a television variety show and lip sync to one or two of their songs.

Prior to the 1980s, MTV and Much Music there was precious little live music on television in North America. The one or two shows, The Midnight Special and Rock Concert, to feature bands in concert were on late at night and the sound was usually crap as it was coming through your television's single tinny speaker. While advances in video and digital technology gave us more access to music through an increased variety of sources, we were still limited by the technology available for playing and transmitting. If you were lucky enough your television might have been able to hook up to your stereo, but the signal being broadcast was still only mono so you weren't much further ahead in terms of quality.

Everything changed with the Internet. First there was file sharing with sites like Napster allowing people to upload and download their favourite music. When the record companies panicked at the thought of losing control over their product they moved to quickly shut these sites down until they could figure out how to get their piece of the pie. Now the dust has settled on that front, there are a seemingly infinite number of sites out there allowing you to download and stream music (listen to online) or watch videos and concerts. However, like in the bad old days of top 40 radio, the majority of them seem to fixate on what is popular. If you have somewhat eclectic tastes finding one source to satisfy a craving for music of all genres and from all eras is as difficult as it ever has been.
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Thankfully there are some sites out there which take into account not everybody can be fit into the same round peg. One of the newest to launch specializes in audio and video of live concerts of all genres of popular music. Concert Vault is the brain child of Bill Sagan, best known as the CEO and founder of the music site Wolfgang's Vault. As with Wolfgang's Vault the bulk of the material on Concert Vault is taken from the archives of arguably the man who was the greatest promoter of popular music in the 20th century, Bill Graham. Sagan purchased the archive a number of years ago and has been finding new ways of putting it in the public's hands ever since.

At first glance Concert Vault is a little overwhelming. There are literally so many options available to a user it's difficult to know where to begin. However, Sagan and company have gone to a lot of effort to try and give you a variety of ways to experience the site. There's no way to make this embarrassment of riches easy to navigate, but if you take a couple of deep breaths and a few moments to get over your excitement, you'll find they have done the best job possible under the circumstances. First of all they've divided content up into eight distinct channels: rock, blues, jazz, country, folk/bluegrass, indie and interviews. There is also a separate channel for video only, which is itself divided up into the seven channels mentioned above. Of course you can also browse the site by performers through their A - Z index or check out their variety of themed playlists which gathers together selections from the vault.

Of course you always have the option of creating your own playlist or even queuing up a variety of concerts to play one after another in the "Queue" section of the site. While I'm not thrilled with sites that force you to use their own download managers (with the recent warnings about the threat to Java Script they might want to find another format anyway) I can understand their desire to control access and why they've chosen to go this route. The manager was easy to install and use and I had no problems downloading the concert I wanted (The Talking Heads live at Heatwave 1980 - brilliant, first introduction of their extended funk line up)

The first thing you should do is probably purchase a membership. While not necessary to stream product, it does ensure you unlimited access. You can either buy a monthly membership for $2.99 or pay an annual fee of $29.99. For that price you are given full access to the entire archive - non-members are limited in what they can view and listen to, unlimited streaming on all web browsers and mobile devices, special curated features and playlists for each of the seven music channels, the most you'll ever pay to download anything will be $5.00 and an annual credit of $24.00 against all purchases made at the Wolfgang's Vault Store. An extra $20.00 annually buys you a VIP membership. Honestly the only reason you'd want this is if you're planning on purchasing memorabilia from the store as it buys you a 10% discount and free domestic ground shipping.

Still the annual fee is a bargain even when you factor in having to maybe pay $5.00 for downloading an entire concert. Consider the fact it will cost you a minimum of something like $9.99 to download an album of music from iTunes and you can see how inexpensive this is. On top of that you're going to be downloading concerts you're not going to find anywhere else in the world - literally. Where else can you download the last concert ever given by the Sex Pistols and then flip a page and listen to Bill Monroe or Miles Davis.

What's even better is this isn't just a site for Boomers looking to relive their youth by downloading a Grateful Dead concert. Concert Vault also has wide variety of independent bands and you can listen to everybody from The Cowboy Junkies, REM to The Old 97's. Or check out some of the newer bands you might not have heard of before like Allah -Las, Alabama Shakes or Winter Sounds.

However, what makes Concert Vault special is the depth and breadth of historical recordings it puts at your disposal. To make a full inventory of what's available on the site would take weeks, but judging by the couple of skims I've made of its content I doubt you'll find a more complete collection of popular music in all its myriad forms anywhere else on the Internet. While some of the rarer selections might not be as pristine as we're used to when it comes to audio or video quality, a great many of them pre-date the digital era. Some of them, like a video recording of The Mink DeVille Band from 1978 in San Francisco, make up for their drawbacks in quality simply because of the opportunity they represent to see favoured artists at the height of their abilities when no other records of them exist.

I'm not an aficionado of online music sites, but from what I've seen of what's out there Concert Vault is definitely one of the best. In terms of organization, ease of use and diversity of content it would be hard for any site to compete. If you love music and want the opportunity to hear your favourite artists in concert without having to leave the comfort of your living room, this site will be a dream come true.


(Article first published as Music Site Review: Concert Vault on Blogcritics.)