And about time too.
E, B, C#, A
I expect I’ve used ’em too.
And about time too.
E, B, C#, A
I expect I’ve used ’em too.
Well, it's not everyday you receive a mystery gift through post, but today was officially mystery-gift-receiving-thru-the-post day!
It wasn't 100% unexpected as I had an email from a Japanese fan called Tsuyoshi saying that he wanted to send me a toy synth - and it turned out he wasn't joking!
Only a few days later I took delivery of a large parcel covered in Japanese Kanji writing bearing a Kyoto mail address, and this is what I found within:
Inside the box!
'Synthesizer Chronicle' & The Gakken SX-150
Attached to the box is a lovely full colour glossy synth magazine with lots of exciting pictures of classic synths from the MiniMoog to the Roland SH101, and 100's more. There's even a pic of Graham Massey (808 State) playing a Moog Prodigy, same as wot I got.
There's also the circuit diagram for the SX-150, plus instructions on it's assembly and some example patches.
Lots of articles to read, but unfortunately (for me) it's all in Japanese so I can't understand a word of it!
Carefully removing the magazine reveals the box of circuitry and bits that comprise the Gakken SX-150 synthesizer.
To my surprise, it really is a proper (albeit amazingly tiny) synthesizer with the controls one would expect to find on any synth worthy of the name: LFO (sine or square), Filter Cut-off & Resonance, a Pitch Envelope and Attack/Decay.
Even more intriguingly, it has a stylophone type continuous pitch controller. (Can I call it a pitch ribbon? Yeah, why not!)
However, there are important differences between a stylophone and the SX-150. The stylophone (invented in 1967) has a stylus operated keyboard so you can play actual melodies and offers no sound altering possibilities. The SX-150 is the exact opposite - the pitch controller is continuous (making picking out notes quite tricky!), but is able to make a much wider range of sounds with the LFO, filter and pitch envelope all working to make quite a surprising array of sounds and effects for such a 'simple' device.
Particularly good fun is setting a high pitch envelope and sweeping the LFO rate up and down for some serious pitch modulation!
Not only that, but it has proper sockets for output and you can even feed an external audio signal in (not tried that yet, but I will).
As soon as I get a moment I'll record some bits and pieces with it and post them here, but in the meantime you can check out what it sounds like on these links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--tJr_fwknM&feature=related (first 25 secs is good!)
I'd just like to say a really big thanks to Tsuyohsi for being so generous in sending me this gift - and I hereby publically promise to use it on the next Cassette Electrik song as a little gesture of thanks for his kindness!
Tsuyoshi is also in a band, in Kyoto, called Flicks, and you should have a listen to his electro/experimental works influenced by everyone from The Slits to Debussy:
Tongue in cheek article written for Sound on Sound’s ‘Sounding off’ column…
Drum kits are fine musical instruments, but they should be kept out of electro music! They are not appropriate to the genre, are limited in sonic possibility and, in my opinion, ruin live electronic music. I’m in a gigging electro band and it’s depressing to frequently have to share the (usually tiny) stage with one of these outdated acoustic beasts that one of the other ‘electro’ acts on the bill insist on using.
Before I launch into the reasons for disliking the drum kit in electronica, I should state that, as well as writing electronic music, I do actually also love drums and percussion. I even play the drums, to enhance my understanding of rhythm and swing, and have performed at Glastonbury with the Brazilian rhythm band I am a member of.
However, the acoustic drum kit has no place in electro. Not proper electro, anyway. Not the electro of my youth, bands such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Orbital; and not the electro of now, such as Four Tet, Aphex Twin and Kid Carpet.
None of these pioneers felt the need to add an acoustic drum kit to their setup as a sop to tradition. Why would they? They had the infinite expanse of uncharted electronic percussive sound to explore, so why limit it to the cliché of a set of drums?
Drum kits are for rock & roll. They are great for bashing out the heavy 4/4 needed to back up bass guitar, electric guitar and a charismatic singer.
They’re rubbish in electro. They can only do one sound: the drum kit. Electro demands an innovative and imaginative solution to rhythm through the use of drum machines, or by using a sampler to inject any sound in the universe into the percussion section. Imagine if Pink Floyd had tried using a drum kit for ‘On The Run’ instead of anticipating the whole glitch movement in electronica by 20 years. Or imagine the Art Of Noise using an open hi-hat for the intro of ‘Close To The Edit’, instead of a VW starter motor! Of course, there are countless examples of innovative percussion sounds in electronic music; it’s what defines the genre!
Out in the real world, at gigs, drum kits are seriously bad news. Drums are too loud and frequency-wide to allow any nuance of interesting electronics through. So-called ‘electro’ bands who use drum kits should be ashamed. These are the sort of electro outfits that also have bass guitars and electric guitars. Well, I’m sorry, that’s not electro, that’s rock. I don’t care if you do have a laptop on stage adding a tinny percussion track or providing a synth sound for the keyboards, you’re doing rock. It looks like rock, it sounds like rock, and it sucks like rock.
The process of manipulating recordings of real drums and experimenting with drum machines extends the possibilities of sound and music, and has itself generated countless scenes and genres. Where would drum & bass be without the ‘Amen’ break? Or disco without the cheesy cowbell and toms? Or techno without the 909 kick? Or Chicago house without that 808 handclap?
Even just being able to program drums in a style that’s faster and more intricate than a human can play is enough to create entire sub-genres of furious hardcore and breakbeat. Squarepusher, I’m talking to you!
For proof that drum kits are limited by what the human can play, why not watch ‘Monkey Drummer‘ by Aphex Twin on YouTube, for a demonstration of what it would take a human (or monkey) to play even a simple piece of acid-techno.
If this is all true (and it is) you may be asking: ‘why, then, has the music technology industry worked so hard to replicate the sound of the drum kit for us lucky electronic musicians all these years?’ And it would be a fair question. But have you ever actually compared the sound of a Linn drum machine or a TR606 with a real drum?
We’ve been very polite over the years, but let’s face it, no drum machines ever really sounded anything like the real thing; they simply provided an approximate bass thud for a kick, a splash of white noise for the snare and crash, and a plunk of discordant metal for that well known item of drum kit, the cowbell. Realistic? No. Inspiring sources of rhythmic sonic impulse? Definitely!
Drum kits are lovely things, and they have, without a doubt, helped shape the popular music of the 20th Century. But we have to realise that it is now the 21st Century and we have loads of electro to create and celebrate. I’d like to proceed without the curse of the drum kit, thanks very much!
First published in Sound on Sound magazine in August 2007
Last month, legendary blues man Taj Mahal performed a one-off concert with Tinariwen, a band from Mali, to great acclaim. Though the two had never played a note with each other until the day before the concert, “one of them just started playing a groove and off we went”, said Taj, after the show.
In a review of the concert, the Guardian believed this synchronicity came from the fact that “they share what is called ‘assouf’, the sense of pain and loss that is central to their rhythmic and compelling blend of desert blues.” But maybe the answer is much simpler, that the music of the blues and the music of Africa mixed so easily because the two came from the same place.
Most people are aware that there is some kind of link between modern-day pop music and Africa, knowing that pop came from rock’n’roll, which came from the blues, and that the blues originated with the slaves of the American South in the late nineteenth century. But why do these modern styles sound the way they do? Why those particular rhythms, melodies and harmonies?
The answer lies in three hundred years of cultural export from Africa to all parts of the Americas. And, depending on where the Africans landed – invariably as slaves – their music adjusted, and blended, with the styles and cultures of their new homelands to form the rhythms and melodies we hear today.
But there is not just a similarity between these styles, it is the same music, evolving as it passes between cultures and people over time, combined and recombined again and again.
One of the earliest examples of this blending occurred in Brazil. The Portuguese landed in 1500, and brought slaves to work on sugar and coffee plantations soon after, sometime around the mid-sixteenth century. The majority were from the Bantu tribe, who lived in an area now known as Nigeria, and the Yoruba tribe came from what is now Angola.
As they settled, the Yoruba culture became dominant amongst the slaves, as did their religion, which became known as Candomblé in Brazil. The music and dances of Candomblé functioned as an important way for the slaves to keep a spiritual connection with their homeland, by keeping alive their traditions and beliefs.
The carnival, that most famous of Brazilian celebrations where authorities allow the normal rules of society to be turned upside down for a day, was another outlet for the slaves’ music, as well as a way for them to vent feelings of frustration. And, despite being a European import, the carnival became a central focus of Brazilian life, something that continues to the present day with the spectacle of the Rio Carnival.
An early incarnation of the Brazilian carnival arose in the northeast of the country, in the region of Pernambucu. In this area, the slave masters allowed the slaves to organise themselves into groups representing the nations of their homelands. Each group would crown a king and queen, and the king would represent his tribe for the year.
These crowning ceremonies happened with the full blessing of the masters, and would involve participants dressing up in the fineries of the European court, including a range of characters such as an ambassador, pageboys and even ‘slaves’, who would hold a parasol above the newly crowned king and queen.
Accompanying these ceremonies was a style of music called Maracatu, a fusion of African and European styles. The African slaves did not have access to their traditional instruments, so would use whatever instruments were to hand. As a colonial outpost, this meant military instruments, particularly the snare drum and the bass drum.
In Maracatu, the player of the snare provides a constant roll, which the bass drummer punctuates with syncopated rhythms. Meanwhile, other musicians play more typically African-styled instruments, such as the Abé, (shaker), and the gongué (cowbell).
Maracatu took on other aspects of Western music, most notably the time signature. Instead of the complex polyrhythms of Africa, Maracatu uses Western time signatures, such as 4/4 and 6/8 (four or six beats to the bar), and then builds songs from four and eight bar repeats – similar to electronic dance music today.
However, Maracatu rhythms retained an important element of their African roots. Instead of each four-beat bar being exactly divided into 16 equal-length semi-quavers as in the West, in Maracatu, the relative length of each semi-quaver can be longer or shorter, giving the rhythms their distinctive swing.
It is this swing that Western-trained musicians find most difficult to master, contradicting their training, which focuses on ‘keeping regular time’. However, this swing is what gives the music its dance-inducing vitality.
Maracatu is a very early example of a style that came from combining African and European music, settling into a recognisable form as early as the 1750s. But it lives on today, influencing musicians such as Chico Science, who blended it with rock, rap and funk to create a new sound – Mangue Beat – in the 1990s.
Elsewhere in Brazil, the first settlers’ music moved in other directions. In Rio, European salon music, including the Polka, the Mazurka and the Waltz, had a greater influence. Such styles combined with the slaves’ Lundu music. The colonialists considered the Lundu to be far too lewd but, once combined with European music, it produced a lyrical dance style known as the Modinha, which also became popular back in Portugal.
The fusion of European and African styles also led to the Samba – today, the iconic Carnival music. After the emancipation of the slaves in 1888, it developed in two different directions. One strand emphasised the lyrical European melodic aspect of the Modinha, while the other, Samba Batacuda, employed large African drums – ‘bataque’ – to create a heavily percussive and syncopated music. These drums shifted the Samba away from melody and towards the rhythm and, like Maracatu, this rhythm has a very pronounced swing. It is this second, more percussive, style that forms most Samba music we hear today.
In 1950, Antonio Jochim took the syncopated rhythms of Samba and blended them with Jazz, American song and French impressionism to create the Bossa Nova (the ‘New Way’). It was an immediate worldwide hit, with songs such as ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ popular across the globe.
Similar styles emerged from other Latin American countries at around the same time. From Cuba came the Rhumba, a secular version of the ‘Bat’, a ritual dance of the Cuban religion, Santeria – similar to Candomblé. From the Dominican Republic came the Meringue, while Argentina contributed the Tango. All these styles were fusions of African and European music.
While many people still listen and dance to these Latin styles today, the dominant form of popular music in recent decades – rock’n’roll and its direct descendents – came from African music’s development elsewhere, namely in the southern states of North America.
There were significant differences between the music of the slaves in North America to those in the South America. In North America, members of the same tribes did not stay together, as often occurred in the south of the continent, and the masters rarely tolerated their religious practices. As a result, the music of North America had fewer roots in ritual and religion; instead, it was more a simple expression of their experiences living in a foreign land forced to work under terrible conditions.
The Field Hollers of plantation workers is the earliest instance of slave music we can find in the southern states of North America. The colonialists gave these work songs their name, while their church hymns heavily influenced the music’s style. Over time, such songs developed into gospel music, still a vital part of black communions today, and, latterly, heavily influencing the Soul music of the 1960s and 1970s.
The music of the Field Hollers developed in other ways, most obviously into the Blues, often spread via travelling musicians. As a development of Field Hollers, the music had clear African influences, but there were other connections. The original Blues instrument, the banjo, is an adaptation of an African single-stringed gourd instrument called the ‘hodu’, and the chords used may also relate to Africa. Some music historians believe that the distinctive ‘flattened’ thirds, sevenths and occasional fifths are an attempt to translate the modal tonality of African music onto Western musical scales.
Bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, such as John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, took up the electrically amplified guitar in the 1940s, giving the Blues a new tone. This innovation led to European and American Blues-Rock of the 1950s and 1960s, played by such groups as the John Spencer Blues Explosion, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
Mainstream popular music is a fusion of Rock’n’Roll, Latin and Jazz, combining the melodies and harmonies of the European tradition with the syncopated upfront rhythms and percussion from the African slaves brought across to the Americas. Today, when we listen to modern styles such as R&B and UK Garage, we can hear the syncopation and triplet rhythms of African music,
So it should come as no surprise that a band from Mali and a Blues man, who grew up in Massachusetts, can almost instantaneously fuse their musical styles together to create a blended sound. Rather than coincidence or a similar sense of pain fuelling their synchronicity, it is history that explains the Taj Mahal and Tinariwen phenomenon, for both man and band play a groove that, at heart, is much the same.
First published in AK13 magazine in July 2004.