“Ghetto Sci-Fi Music” - in memoriam Ras G (1979-2019)

So sad to hear the news about Ras G yesterday. We had brief contact trying to set up an interview for this site related to his 2017 album My Kinda Blues, one of my favourite releases of that year and a record that still stands up in all its muted intent/musical intelligence.

Ras G was simple to interact with then, unassuming; gentle in his words and manner, open to the idea of talking with me even though there was no record to promote, no obvious benefit to him. The same qualities - simplicity, dedication to his music - memorialised yesterday online. I deeply regret not speaking to him when I had the opportunity to do so. That quiet presence, embodied in his person and heard in his music is rare, of real value.

I won’t write on My Kinda Blues here for the simple reason there’s a risk if I get started it won’t get done, and end up being filed in all my other half-written pieces (to be returned to). Though I recommend you listen to it in full, here’s the link.

Listening to the album again this afternoon, I was struck by how good the songs were and how distinctive; it is as the title has it, a personal Blues as felt by Ras G, filtered via hip-hop consciousness. I kept adding links of songs I liked to this draft, track 3, and 4 and 5 and 8 and it kept going on and on … Here’s track 8 - an amazing sound, no need to over-complicate anything, present it as it is:

Rather than an Afro-futurist cosmic vibe, as it appears was his wont, this album is intimate, sketches and ruminations with its own intensity. Far removed from that cliché of lo-fi – that enervates me so much, as music to chill to/to read a book to – this is music with depth and strong emotion coming through. It has its own distinctive voice and tone.

I liked this quote included in the Pitchfork story on his passing yesterday:

“My relationship with sci-fi is from a creational standpoint,” he told MerryJane in 2018. “My label is called Ghetto Sci-Fi Music, which is how I identify my studio and music-making methods. It’s Ghetto in terms of set-up/layout, but it’s a science to how it all works together and fiction to most who come from a more professional studio setting.”

Here’s an interview from February 2018 with Ras G sharing some of his dub picks, the genre he describes as the great-grand-daddy (if I heard it right) of all contemporary Black music genres … dub as a form of music that is felt, not seen or heard.

And here’s another great album, Beats of Mind - this is really fantastic (release info below the video).

As someone who appreciated his music but didn’t know him personally this news comes as a shock; the best way for me to pay my respects here is to put up his music.

Condolences to his friends and family in Los Angeles and fans/listeners across the globe. Please also consider donating to the GoFundme page for Ras G here, set up by his family to maintain his memory.

Sarathy Korwar "More Arriving" (The Leaf Label) interview, published at DownBeat

A desire to reinterpret South Asian music traditions for the modern era courses through Sarathy Korwar’s music. The drummer’s Day To Day, a 2016 release on Ninja Tune, embedded recordings from the Sidi people of Ratanpur (descendants of East Africans who came to India as merchants, sailors and indentured servants beginning in the 7th century) in a soundtrack provided by London’s new jazz generation. And on last year’s My East Is Your West (Gearbox), Korwar’s UPAJ Collective sought to correct what the bandleader sees as spiritual jazz’s misappropriation of Indian classical music through live renditions of pieces by Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pharaoh Sanders, among others.

“The mistake, or the problem with a lot of this kind of music is that a lot of jazz musicians back in the day—or even now, to be honest—think of the East as the repository of knowledge, where you can spend a week, learn a couple of scales, then come back and put it in your music,” Korwar said. “But these are musical traditions that take years to master and go back centuries.”

The percussionist recently spoke with DownBeat from London about More Arriving, his forthcoming album on The Leaf Label, and what pre-Brexit Britain feels like today.

Read more here.

To read the interview on the DownBeat site, and hear some other Korwar tracks, please go here.

Writing here, elsewhere (in the ethos, maintain & build)

Constant Elevation/ Maintain And Build 12'' Prod. Maniac Mob 1996

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the amount of website entries has reduced here. I haven’t moved to a Nepalese cave, or shack near a Lombok beach (or hiding out on a fire-escape in some major urban centre in the United States) where the Internet is tricky, even if the connection in Paris remains highly irregular. (Tech support faults my computer).

The past 18 months have been a mix for me following the death of my sister in late July 2017. Passing within a fog, at times – not depression’s stark certainty, but harder to define emotions such as confusion, doubt and loneliness. Splintered, exaggerated feelings and reactions, marked by pain. Where the suffering is cumulative, thick with the past, held within disorienting realisations: I am older today than my sister when she died, though her birth preceded my own by two years.   

Writers writing about themselves writing after loss are not my interest. Though I appreciate memoirs of writers experiencing extreme circumstances: imprisonment, political exile and the like. Sentimentality is always the main risk with this kind of writing, alongside falseness, egotism. Seeking out the “silver lining” when the cloud is more pertinent. Looking for meaning and transcendence when there is none. Ignoring the fact that it is never only this.

Suffering is malleable, shifting to fit within the lives we lead. Children need to be fed, jobs attended, bills paid. Ambivalence about this continuation of life when confronted by pain does interest me; as another example of the in-between emotion that shapes much of our lives - some refer to it as aversion. But the truth is as I was coming to terms with this loss, other aspects of my life were moving forward. I was working more as a journalist than before, for Passion of the Weiss and The Wire mainly, but other places too.  

This “outside” writing as a music journalist is the principal reason for the decrease for posts on my site. Since December 2018 too I’ve also been working on a project that I hope to finish this June. I won’t detail it here. One of the most useful pieces of online psych knowledge I’ve picked up is the danger of sharing projects (and success) prematurely – the chorus, or absence, of hosannas lessening the intensity required to complete something; the fact that there needs to be something to push against for us to complete the work. I’ll keep it quiet for now (“pray for me,” though that I get it done).

Some of this journalism I’ve published during this time can be read here at my Muck Rack page, but it’s not all here. The site provides a great service, compiling portfolios of journalists. Over time, I’ll put up some of this writing and will also keep you in the loop re a future by-line, which marks a new/old direction and for that reason means a lot for me.

Feel free to check out Passion of the Weiss - please consider donating to the Patreon so the site can only get stronger - and read/subscribe to The Wire, a print magazine dedicated to the underground and those making music because it means something to them, others is something precious in this era of the disposable, trivial-hysteric and slapdash.

Thanks to the great editors at Passion of the Weiss and The Wire, for the commissions and responsiveness to my ideas/work; to my family and all those in the Paris circle too.   

Coda:

Madlib/Donald Byrd: “Stepping into Tomorrow”/“Distant Land” (Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, 2003) plus more

For x-number of months I did a “Madlib” (on Madlib’s discography). With numerous interruptions, living my life, doing my work, listening to other music, I focussed my attention on trying to hear as much as I could of his music, across the various releases, genres, decades, inspirations. This partly reflects my OCD-aspect, the desire to hold onto an essence of something as a system, to see how it works together. When gaining knowledge, I like to be able to get a sense of how things fit, as if there’s always a broader logic waiting to be uncovered.

It also reflects the fact that this discovery came about via YouTube - a bossy task-mistress insisting on certain tracks, repeating them over and over as recommendations until I heard them. Many of these picks, coming from some algorithm consciousness were Madlib tracks, or Madlib associated projects. The process took on a life of its own and lasted for a while.

The process was also a way of assessing the constancy of my own preferences and tastes; as a barometer, litmus test. Allowing for diversity, among genres, but being constant within them. This sounds egotistical perhaps, but I think it’s useful for writers to be simple and upfront in terms of all this. It’s much more interesting (for me) to think about what this/that preference says about the person, rather than to hear aspects of autobiography in the critical appraisals, in that this music helped a writer psychologically, when they were down or something. (Let alone some writer presenting themselves as the arbiter of universal taste).

I really don’t trust this self-disclosure either. If, when you’re affected by something painful the last thing you’d want to do is listen to someone else go deep into their suffering. What you want is to forget. But this might again reflect something about the way I listen to music. There are plenty of songs that I might have listened to in bad times, but it wasn’t because I could relate to the lyrics, usually it was something about the quality of the sounds, or the voice of the singer.    

I sincerely believe that we are all predisposed to liking certain sounds, and this says something about ourselves and our histories. It’s as if these sounds click with something internal in us, as if making manifest something in our DNA. It’s not the music itself that we like, but how it activates something in us. This reaction does not have to be anything particularly deep, or representative of anything bigger (I’m with Cage here, a sound is a sound it does not have to mean anything).    

Throughout this “Madlib immersion”, I was surprised by something: I had thought that with my background listening to a lot of jazz over the decades, it would be the jazz-inspired Madlib work that would impress me most. What I found there – often, not always, was that this music seemed a little contained, as if he was self-conscious about his own debt, or admiration. This limited the achievement and squashed what makes Madlib’s music most interesting for me, the experimentation and freedom you can find there. Of course, there were exceptions, such as this:

This is an extraordinary piece of music, listen to the thwack of that bassline/drum interplay, something that has come back more recently in Madlib’s beats – see many of the Bad Neighbor instrumentals, for instance or the forthcoming Bandana album with Freddie Gibbs. Here, containment is a positive quality in itself: the way it simplifies the original melody from the 1975 album.

What’s striking is the way Madlib doesn’t use the trumpet line at all, or if he does it’s there as a detail, rather than the central focus. This is interesting and perverse (considering that it’s by Donald Byrd – why use the piece to ignore its central motif and the essence of its origins?) Madlib’s reworking simplifies it, makes it dense and uncomplicated.

The original piece was similarly simple – in its intention, but not its execution. Listening to it now, perhaps this is enhanced by my bad sound system, it’s all fluttery and high-end, wavery, which is attractive, but far removed from the way Madlib turned it into an almost late 70s disco-funk song.

The first piece from Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note that I was kind of obsessed with was “Distant Land” – now it feels like a photograph almost, it’s not so important to me. This is the one with the drums that break the music, sounding over-present, but also add to the overall feeling of naivety. Just over two minutes in, I liked the way the sounds separated from each other – becoming individualised, solitary elements on display – but what I really loved and still appreciate is the way you expect the trumpet to come back, again it’s Donald Byrd after all, but it doesn’t.

This is wonderful and strange; the entire piece seems to be so accessible (that boom bap type drum pattern etc) and then denies our expectations at the crucial moment. This appeals to me, I like this. Then, when the trumpet does return about a minute later, it’s so quiet, you can hardly hear it.

The original (unreleased) Donald Byrd piece from 1972 has a very distinctive quality, it sounds half-asleep, but the trumpet line as you’d expect is clear and prominent (unlike the way it was re-imagined by Madlib, three or so decades later):

Listening to the original Donald Byrd track now, after a few months from my previous time listening to it – I didn’t like it much before, it struck me as overly smooth, easy listening, lacking spirit - my instincts are proven right, as in expecting the trumpet to return or be more prominent in the Madlib version. The track follows a traditional jazz set up, two or perhaps more solos (what sounds like a vibraphone, then piano solo, there might be a solo before this) to return to the leader of the group on trumpet, in what is deeply satisfying, as expected. Byrd returns with a majestic half-solo around 5’30” (you can almost imagine the audience applause).    

There are other songs, which I might even like more than the two I’ve written about here, “Mystic Bounce” say or “Montara” but this writing is a good example of what I was mentioning at the outset. What you end up writing on often is different to what the original impulse was, for questions of ease or simplicity, or getting carried away with something. Rather than discussing the album in full, I’ll leave it there: two songs inspired by Donald Byrd. That makes sense.

This was meant to be an introduction to writing on some Madlib instrumentals, no problem, I’ll come back to them another time.     

Coda x 2:

"Church Going" Philip Larkin, read by Tom O'Bedlam (The Less Deceived, The Fortune Press, 1955)

A little obvious perhaps, it’s certainly one of the most famous poems written in English, well-known to any school or university literature student, but it’s still one of the most beautiful, especially in this reading. Often it’s stated baldly that this is not a religious poem, or is used to describe the increase of secularisation in Western countries, but the final verses remain ambiguous to me, as if the need - as we have seen in Paris recently - for some kind of communal space, whether it’s linked to religion or culture remains a keep aspect of what it is to be human.

“Bored uninformed knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation--marriage and birth 
And death and thoughts of these--for which was built
This special shell? For though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth 
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is 
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet 
Are recognised and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete 
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious 
And gravitating with it to this ground 
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in 
If only that so many dead lie round.”

(It pleases me to stand in silence here).

Paris Récit : Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, 15th April 2019

Paris, France. Rear of Notre Dame shot from boat moving along Seine. Rear of Notre Dame from bridge. Pigeons, people sitting on benches, camera tilts to recall front of Notre Dame. Exterior of the cathedral’s stain glass window, fades to interior shot. More of the stained glass windows from interior (they appear to glow). More exterior shots of Notre Dame from moving boat. Close ups of gargoyles. Tree lined Seine from moving boat. Fishermen in three tiny stationary boats on Seine (poles protect them). Two barges tethered together travelling along Seine.
— Description of the video

As it always seems to be the case with situations like this, I heard about the fire at Notre-Dame by chance – after seeing a tweet by an American expressing sadness at the sight of the Cathedral on fire. The French Ambassador to the United States in an interview later shared how he was surprised by his reaction – he felt like he, himself was burning. Then he was shocked to realise that he was crying.

The intensity of my own reaction also came as a surprise. I kept thinking about it that night and into the following day. I don’t feel French in any sense, though I’ve lived in Paris for more than a decade and my son has grown up here. I’m not Catholic, even if my parents were and would have identified this way until they felt alienated from the Church after the Second Vatican in the 1960s; none of their children went to Catholic schools. But I grew up in an environment that was influenced by this religious and cultural heritage. With grandparents named Byrne, Prendergast, O’Halloran and Munday how could it be otherwise.

Awkwardly, I tried to find some way of paying respect to the event and how I felt: I shared this video of bells, marking the Cathedral’s 850th anniversary on Twitter - afterwards noticing that some kind of white rights/believer person in the U.S had liked it, unfortunately.

Some time ago I remember reading someone make the comment that people (in the West) are more affected by the loss of heritage – the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying the 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 or Daesh laying waste to mosques and museums in Syria and Iraq – than the deaths of people in the same locations. This is true in terms of how journalists approach these stories too, the way they build up the shock-drama element, the sense of pathos.

Perhaps people find it easier to express sadness over the loss of “culture” the same way they are more likely to donate to crises linked to natural disasters rather than political violence. This might reflect cultural bias – or racism – but it could just as much stem from a tendency to lean towards the tragic in an almost literary sense, while seeking to be included in the narrative. Much of the despair expressed worldwide over the fire at Notre-Dame resembled this, with many adding personal recollections of their visits to Paris to their expressions of shock.

Apparently, again gleaned from a cursory look at Twitter there was a reaction to the international expressions of sympathy, with many exhibiting a “fuck France” attitude. Much the same dynamic played out after the terrorist attack at The Bataclan in 2015 - with many feeling frustrated by what they see to be the event’s over-exposure, compared with other like events in poorer parts of the world or where the people affected by it are not predominantly white.

You Retweeted Jacinta Koolmatrie‏ @JKoolmatrie Apr 16

Jacinta Koolmatrie Retweeted Rae Johnston

Can’t help but think about how silent everyone is when it comes to Indigenous heritage. It is destroyed daily but instead of being met by singing and mourning, we are met by armed police #Djabwurrung

Rae Johnston‏Verified account @raejohnston

Devastating news about Notre Dame, a genuine shame to see a beautiful, historic, spiritual place destroyed. In Australia, this happens all the time - usually for the purposes of mining, development or - in the case of the 800+ year old Djab Wurrung birthing trees - a highway.

Historians Alexandre Gady and Claude Gauvard detail in a France Culture video that the Cathedral had been threatened before: during the “terrorist phase” of the French Revolution and then later in 1871 by the Communards, who tried to torch the Cathedral, alongside other buildings in Paris, as the “capital of the reactionary bourgeoisie” (to use their phrase).

During the First World War, the Germans tried to intimidate the French population by targeting Notre-Dame in an air raid but bombed the nearby Saint-Gervais church, leading to 100 deaths. The Nazis during the Occupation didn’t dare “touch” it, being well-aware of its significance for French people.  

The French Ambassador to Washington when describing his reaction mentioned how he walked past Notre-Dame daily.  This detail reflects something of the nature of shock and how it’s experienced. After the massacre at The Bataclan I also held onto this kind of reaction (I kept thinking about how I had seen a show there just weeks before, in the same place where so many were killed).

But it also says something about the way Notre-Dame is seen by people living in Paris. It is part of the landscape, albeit an essential part – remember that all distances begin there.

I have been inside Notre-Dame only a few times. (The last visit turned me off, it was jammed with tourists, filming or taking photos on their phones. It’s always surprised me how laidback the French are about the impact of mass tourism on places of enormous cultural significance, it’s almost as if they accept the influx in certain places if other places are “spared”. Thirteen million people visited Notre-Dame each year. Place du Tertre in Montmartre, a square with low-rise buildings near Sacré-Coeur where Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo lived and Renoir had a studio is similar in this regard. Today it’s unvisitable, so crowded with people you can hardly move around, a kind of Disneyfied hell-hole with men in berets offering to draw you as a cartoon figure, spruiking their talents in multiple languages).

Notre-Dame was - is - the background to parts of my life here: a place I saw when doing other things in my day-to-day, when getting out at Saint-Michel, or buying books at Gibert Jeune. A place I walked past, and met friends nearby.

But it also has deep spiritual and emotional importance in Paris - for Parisians and French people in general - that’s hard to express. Speaking about it with my son, trying to find the words, I said that the fire bothered me more than if the Sydney Opera House had similarly been damaged. Quick as a flash, the soon to be 13 year-old replied, “That’s because you’re from Melbourne.” (Okay).

Outside the mildly humorous competition between France’s two richest men to out-donate each other, in the words of The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty

“In three days, the cathedral has been pledged €100m (£86m) from Francois-Henri Pinault, the ultimate owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent; €200m (£172m) from the Arnault family of Louis Vuitton fame; another €200m from L’Oreal owners the Bettencourt Meyers family, and €100 from French oil giant Total.”

… some aspects of the Notre-Dame story are particularly touching. The Fire Brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier who insisted on entering the cathedral with the firefighters - the heat of the fire reached 800C - and helped salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ. Fournier was also present during the aftermath of the massacre at The Bataclan in 2015, comforting the injured and praying over the dead.   

And then the work of the firefighters themselves, who symbolise Paris in a way that isn’t duplicated to the same degree, to my knowledge, elsewhere (seen jogging in groups in shorts throughout the city, selling tickets to the annual ball outside the various Town Halls). It came down to 15-30 minutes between the total building’s destruction. All focus was on ensuring that the fire didn’t reach the gothic bell towers, where one of the bells - the 13 tonne Emmanuel bell - could have sent the towers crashing down.

These videos, too, I find deeply moving, of people coming together spontaneously to sing and pray, while watching the fire. Some with tears in their eyes.  

This is the final piece of music played at Notre-Dame before the fire.    

J.S. Bach: The Violin Concertos, Amsterdam Soloists with Emmy Verhey (Brilliant Classics, 2006)

“Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach Artists: Emmy Verhey (violin), Camerata Antonio Luco, Rainer Kussmaul (violin), Henk Rubingh (violin), Thomas Hengelbrock (violin), Amsterdam Bach (Soloists)

About this album: Available as a separate release: all concertos for 1 violin by Bach. They are BWV 1041 and 1042: the well-known concertos. BWV1052, 1056 and 1064 are reconstructions. The latter one being for three violins. Soloists are among others Emmy Verhey and Rainer Kussmaul.”

Information taken from the YouTube video

Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind,” (Illmatic, Columbia Records, 1994) prod. DJ Premier, interviews plus live performance

“[Intro]
Yeah, yeah
Ayo, Black, it’s time, word (Word, it’s time, man)
It’s time, man (Aight, man, begin)
Yeah, straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap 
Where fake ni**as don’t make it back
I don’t know how to start this shit, 
yo... now”

Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”

Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*

What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:  

[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.

Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)

The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”

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