Features I by I 15.06.13

Keeping it in the family: Auntie Flo on Highlife and the politics of World music

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On June 29th 1987, Ben Mandelson and Roger Armstrong of Ace Records imprint GlobeStyle called the first of three meetings with representatives of the UK media in an upstairs room of the Empress of Russia pub in Islington, London.

These meetings were to change modern global music discourse, fuel countless debates and facilitate a multi-million dollar industry under the term World music; a marketing exercise by which labels could promote, stores could organise and buyers could identify a myriad of artists under one, purportedly simple banner. What began with the intention of being a coherent way for the music industry and its consumers to relate to a vast diaspora of musical cultures has grown exponentially and become, for many, the modern genre of contention.

It’s been the catalyst for discussions about how the Anglophone West organises and profits from difference, finds value in what we consider to be foreign and exposes Western anxieties about authenticity, hybridity and locality that have become as much a part of how music is approached and consumed as the music itself. Like it or not though, it exists. After over twenty years of World music (and as the internet continues to re-figure how we communicate and globalisation permeates  borders) the power and influence of the term remains, so it is how we continue the dialogue considering the term’s impact that will shape how we view World music going forward – for better or worse.

Such a huge and difficult concept is something that fascinates Brian D’Souza, aka Auntie Flo. As well as his 2012 debut Future Rhythm Machine being recently nominated for Scottish Album of The Year, D’Souza’s club-night Highlife has sought to bring elements of this global musical diaspora to UK audiences in a way that works in constant, open dialogue with the World music terminology. Ahead of the first London Highlife event at Corsica Studios this Saturday alongside the Huntleys & Palmers label, I spoke to Auntie Flo about some of the issues raised by World music, and how his own work as a producer, DJ and promoter seeks to engages with them.

What impact do you think the term World music has had on your understanding of music?

It’s funny. When I was in Australia recently the crew who put me on in Melbourne took me to the local record shop Northside Records. By some coincidence I saw this book entitled World Music In Australia, which opens with the familiar discourse on the problems with the World music term.  Whilst identifying the problem with the term – Western-centric, almost racist overtones, colonial etc. – it also said that it’s the terms we’re stuck with and, in many ways, can be very useful.  One thing I get asked constantly is “What genre of music is this?” It happened twice during my sets in Sydney and Melbourne this weekend. One guy came up and asked me the question and said he had a bet with his mates – and I said I didn’t know. The problem is when music falls in between these broad genre definitions what are we to call it, and what makes us want to identify it in these ways? For Auntie Flo, Highlife and Huntleys and Palmers to be huddled under the World music umbrella doesn’t make sense to me, but it does mean that our work is on-going. I welcome that.

Definitely. What’s always struck me about World music is that the marketing agenda and critical rhetoric surrounding the term were one in the same. PR companies and labels wanted a way to promote music in a way that was open enough to encompass lots of styles – but not so broad that it included Western Anglophone music – and those who went onto discuss it as such saw the umbrella grouping together as a positive thing, rather than being wary of or openly opposed to it.

Yes, that’s true, but I suppose the other thing to consider is that the music buying experience in 1987 seemed a lot more simplified than in 2013. You just didn’t get the sub-genres of sub-genres which you get now. In record stores pop and rock could be placed together as most pop was rock, and not the hip hop/dance/rock hybrid we have today for example. I think we have to accept that we live in a capitalist society and therefore everything is market driven. If using World music helps shift more units, then we just have to accept that. If by using this terminology more people are going to get exposure to different musical cultures, different languages, races, then I’m all for it.

That’s understandable given the terms staying power, but there’s still the issue of how this process of identification impacts on how we relate to the cultures that these artists and their music come from.  The music doesn’t exist in a marketing bubble. Do you feel the language that surrounds World music needs develop in a new way so that this can become a more open and contentious discourse?

I reckon it all says a lot more about Western culture than the marketing itself. I mean, the marketers only react as best they see fit to help sell more units. They came up with World music because they thought the demographic of the market who would buy an African release would also be interested in a Latin American release, and therefore they would sell more if marketed together. I think this was a clever move and is probably true to a large extent for the record buying public from the US or Europe. As with all marketing it bent the truth a little, homogenised the genre but ultimately made it more palatable for the average record buyer.

The key thing is that if there is an interest from the record buyer for more information or massive increase in demand, then you will find a breakdown of World music. If the interest is there from the public, then you will see better and more accurate descriptions being used. This opens up another hugely interesting side of this which is that music is a portal into discovering the culture, politics and ideologies from wherever the music comes from. I spent ten years collecting pretty much exclusively music from the West – house, techno, disco, dubstep, electro, hip hop, soul, funk, jazz. I always denounced World music as traditional, cheesy, roots based music – be it afrobeat, salsa, bossa nova or whatever. I then noticed baile funk. Here was a music that opened me up to music being made outside of the US and Europe that was modern, futuristic and pretty fresh sounding, and was coming from Brazil.

I’ve never been to Brazil but that music gave me an insight into the party culture over there.  It seemed exciting that this stuff was happening over there as it was obviously influenced by hip hop and electro, but it was doing something true and more relevant to the locality. I then started to see the same thing happening all over the place with kuduro in Angola, kwaito in South Africa, digital cumbia in Argentina – the so-called global ghettotech. The similarities of these types of music, made by young kids in ghettos on cheap computer equipment and designed for big sound-system raves, gave birth to a new, and perhaps equally problematic catch-all genre descriptions in phrases like tropical and global bass. In a lot of ways, the use of bass as a descriptor sparks exactly the same debate as that of World music – even if we appreciate the music sonically, or for what it can represent to us and educate us about, how do we create and positively contribute to a discourse about a musical culture that doesn’t just end up alienating and confusing?

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One thing that I see Highlife invested in in that respect is how you’re working to help deconstruct the binary effect of World music between Us and Them – where the Us is a very small percentage of Western Anglophone music, and Them is so vast that it just becomes one massive Other that we feel we cannot or even refuse to engage more directly with. This can have the effect that we see Them as exotic, which in turn has an impact on what we consider to be aesthetically appealing. It’s precisely because we see it as Other that serves to make it seem irrelevant or disengaged from our everyday lives. It becomes a novel distraction rather that something to become invested it. How do you feel we can have it become a more active element of our everyday discussions of music culture?

I think music is fundamental undervalued and misunderstood in the West. It is treated as a luxury item, as a usable commodity but not as anything more than that. However, evolutionary psychology from the likes of Noam Chomsky tells us that music preceded language. In other words, human beings are inherently musical beings. When you look outside of the West, you find cultures which treat music in very different ways. It’s much more intrinsic and at the core of everyday life.  I think we would benefit from a much wider musical education taking place. This would begin with listening sessions of all different sorts of music from an early age, to then playing a wide variety of instruments from different countries and being educated in the music of different cultures. From this kids would gain an insight into these different cultures and barriers would be broken down. 

How do you feel this would work in a practical sense though? Is this something you’d be keen to be involved in yourself?

Actually, I was recently asked to consult with someone who wanted to make the Scottish government expose nursery school children to classical music for one hour a day. I thought it was a great concept in general. Musical education is often lacking and I thought it could be a great way to help young children open up to music. However, I thought limiting it to classical music was extremely short-sighted. Why should classical music be deemed superior to other types of music, I asked?  I was told that because of the complex composition structure it should be placed at the top of the hierarchy, and therefore be the first thing infants are exposed to.

I know there has been contradictory research on the effectiveness of the ‘Mozart effect’, and I can understand her side of the argument, but to exclude exposure to other forms of music imposes an imperialist and Western-centric attitude from a very young age. It typifies the Western view point on things. I argued that African polyrhythmic drum patterns or early Chinese and Japanese folk music could be just as complex as classical music and I believe that if the government were going to give this scheme the go ahead, it would have to be much more inclusive.

It is admittedly often a very niche exercise, but that’s something you’re personally invested in with Highlife. Highlife booked Charanjit Singh last year after the re-release of his Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat LP, and I’m interested about this in terms of revivalism. I feel that revival or revisionism comes into this in the sense that the LP was picked up on as “the first real acid house record”, but the conversation that has sprung up about his music since has maintained an element of exoticism in that people have expressed surprise at ‘Indian music’ sounding like this. What do you think this interest in Singh’s work recently says of how Western ideas of music constructs and promotes narratives of revival like this, and particularly in how we figure Indian music from a Western perspective? 

It’s just another marketing stroke of genius, right? When Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat was re-released it was sold as “the first acid house” record but of course, it wasn’t. It was a Bollywood record influenced by disco that used a Roland TB-303. Due to the bits of kit used it does have a resemblance to acid house, but of course it would – you can’t do much else on a 303! It’s like my friend saying Pet Shop Boys made the first rap record – just because it resembles another genre doesn’t necessarily make it part of it.  When I heard the Charanjit Singh LP it was a real watershed moment for me though. It made me think “What other undiscovered gems are out there like this from the past?” Since then I’ve discovered a lot of amazing Bollywood records which to me also sound well ahead of their time. This is what I meant by music being a portal into wherever the music comes from. I bought this from Charanjit’s manager after the Highlife gig and it continue to blow my mind. I’d totally recommend it if Singh’s work has sparked an interest for you, but you don’t know where to go from there. 

Amazing! It also made me think of the Highlife ethos overall. If we think of genre on a smaller, more direct scale, you could say that label, DJs and promoters act as gatekeepers. Local scenes rely on them for knowledge and exposure to artists and scenes that otherwise would have been lost in the World Music mire, but their grasp of the market is limited to the networks that they either get involved in or create themselves. How do you feel you and the Highlife project fits into this idea, if at all, and how do you feel Highlife can engage with this in a positive way?

One thing that we’ve tried to do with Highlife is create a bridge between World music and Western music. I noticed that a lot of nights specialising in World music would focus on the more roots based stuff, or something like the ‘global bass’ scene. I guess it’s what Eno and John Hassell were meaning when they came up with their 4th World concept. I wanted to find a middle ground of artists making original music that fitted into the cracks in between genres and sub genres; music that stood on it’s own merits but could entertain or challenge a Western set of ears. As a DJ it became my own and Highlife’s mission to find and promote this music.

I came from a background of playing and promoting house and my ears were tuned to these styles much like a lot of my peers, but I started to find all this similar music from outside of the Western dance music canon and that got me really excited. You can look at the acts we’ve brought from around the world to Highlife to get an idea – Rebolledo from Mexico, Matias Aguayo from Chile, Raoul K from Ivory Coast, Charanjit Singh from Bombay, but always mixed with European based acts looking outwards, such as Shackleton, Actress, Romare, Twitch and Cut Hands. You get a really interesting, non-genre specific mix in my opinion.  You can visit any of these acts countries of origin and you won’t find a scene exclusively for their music over there. They probably won’t even have much of a following. The music transcends the place it comes from, but the artist innately or subconsciously cannot fully get away from their roots in the music they make.

That’s interesting, especially when you consider the emphasis on locality in the World music terminology. One of the aspects I find contestable is that it, more often than not, the term devalues the music it tries to identify by positioning it as a simple, relatively unmediated product of a locality that only gains wider value when transformed by the music industry’s relationship with it and its associated technologies. Where do you stand on the idea?

I agree with that to some extent. Why can’t it just be about the music itself? Our tag line for Highlife is ‘The world is getting smaller: music is changing’. As the internet brings us closer together you are seeing more and more cross pollination of music and devolvement of scenes and genres. Whether an artist does it by sampling or actually working with musicians around the globe, this musical multi-culturalism has to be a good thing if used in a unique and exciting way. However the more this goes on the more pointless or troublesome genre definitions can become. The music we feature at Highlife does, like pretty much all music, have a locality element, but that is not the be all and end all of the music. To limit it to just location detracts from the other interesting things about the music.

Well, with the Highlife map, there seems to be a pretty strong emphasis on locality. I’m thinking largely in terms of design, and the way you’ve pinpointed acts according to geography. What did you set out to achieve with the Highlife map in terms of the club-night, the overall ethos of what you’re trying to do with it, and what how you hope to develop it in the future?

At the risk of sounding hypocritical, yes, we have used the Highlife map quite a bit to show the origins of the acts we’ve had play.  However, the map is really a marketing tool. Highlife is really not about localised scenes or the global ghettotech I talked about. We probably shot ourselves in the foot with the map as I reckon none of the artists would say their music is heavily influenced by the place they were born in. I guess the reason we used it is to bring to attention the fact that these artists are making ground breaking music outside of the Anglophone Western canon, but are designed for an open minded Westerner rather than the people of their homeland. The map therefore shows a completely different type of World music where acts don’t have to come from Detroit or London or Berlin to make groundbreaking music. Matias Aguayo does not ‘represent’ music from Chile but does have a Chilean influence embedded in his music – whether that’s a sound, or an attitude or whatever. I believe the same thing is true with all the acts on the map.

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