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Jazz and Identity: Comment on Lydon's Iyer Interview

Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”.

Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still defined by his having “a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics.”

Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of “race” and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and “race” were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American.

Something similar happened with gender, on occasion, in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up, regardless of topic. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman for a time, and one department secretary was a man. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless. Male privilege manifested itself in the fact that it was apparently difficult for women not to be gender-conscious.

Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about Francophone scholars, yet being able not to play the “Frenchie card” when I didn’t find it necessary. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash and a fellow student teased me by calling me “Mr. Snottyhead.” As an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be so different.” (My response: “I know some Canadians who would despise that comment. But since I’m Québécois, it doesn’t matter.”) This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students, including seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one “Québécois of Swiss heritage.” In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

Again, a culture shock. Especially for someone coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed. This isn’t to say that Quebec society is devoid of similar issues. Everybody knows, Quebec has more than its fair share of identity-based problems. The fact of the matter is, Quebec society is entangled in all sorts of complex identity issues, and for many of those, Quebec may appear underprepared. The point is precisely that, in Quebec, identity politics is a matter for everyone. Nobody has the luxury to treat their identity as “neutral.”

Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments on Jazz end up associated more with his background than with his overall approach. As if what he had to say were of a different kind than those from Roy Hayes or Robin Kelley. As if Iyer had more in common with Koo Nimo than with, say, Sonny Rollins. Given Lydon’s journalistic background, it’s probably significant that the Iyer conversation carried the “Life in Music” name of  the show’s music biography series yet got “filed under” the show’s “Year of India” series. I kid you not.

And this is what we hear at the end of each episode’s intro:

This is Open Source, from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An American conversation with Global attitude, we call it.

Guess the “American” part was taken by Jazz itself, so Iyer was assigned the “Global” one. Kind of wishing the roles were reversed, though Iyer had rehearsed his part.

But enough symbolic interactionism. For now.

During Lydon’s interview with Iyer, I kept being reminded of a conversation (in Brookline)  with fellow Canadian-ethnomusicologist-and-Jazz-musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. Kalmanovitch had fantastic insight to share on identity politics at play through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, methinks she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in B-Town, so Lydon could probably meet her locally.


In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. (hey, I did hint symbolic interactionism’d be back!). It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, Jazz (or something like it) shall play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

Some cats work from nine to five
Change their life for line of jive
Never had foresight to see
Where the changes had to be
Thought that they had heard the word
Thought it all died after Bird
But we’re still swingin’

The following anecdote seems à propos.

Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indy Jazz Fest 1999. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play, and expected behaviour during shows. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go to Chaka Khan‘s show on the next stage over, if that was more to the heckler’s liking, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

It’s nothing personal.

Landing On His Feet: Nicolas Chourot

Listening to Nicolas Chourot‘s début album: First Landing (available on iTunes). Now, here’s someone who found his voice.

A few years ago, Nicolas Chourot played with us as part of Madou Diarra & Dakan, a group playing music created for Mali’s hunters’ associations.

Before Chourot joined us, I had been a member of Dakan for several years and my perspective on the group’s music was rather specific. As an ethnomusicologist working on the original context for hunters’ music, I frequently tried to maintain the connection with what makes Malian hunters so interesting, including a certain sense of continuity through widespread changes.

When Nicolas came up with his rather impressive equipment, I began to wonder how it would all fit. A very open-minded, respectful, and personable musician, Nicolas was able to both transform Dakan’s music from within and adapt his playing to a rather distant performance style. Not an easy task for any musician and Nicolas sure was to be commended for such a success.

After a while, Chourot and Dakan’s Madou Diarra parted ways. Still, Nicolas remained a member of the same informal music network as several people who had been in Dakan, including several of my good friends. And though I haven’t seen Nicolas in quite a while, he remains in my mind as someone whose playing and attitude toward music I enjoy.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the launch of Nicolas’s launch/show, on August 29. What’s strange is that it took me until today to finally buy Nicolas’s album. Not exactly sure why. Guess my mind was elsewhere. For months.

Ah, well… Désolé Nicolas!

But I did finally get the album. And I’m really glad I did!

When I first heard Nicolas’s playing, I couldn’t help but think about Michel Cusson. I guess it was partly because both have been fusing Jazz and “World” versions of the electric guitar. But there was something else in Nicolas’s playing that I readily associated with Cusson. Never analyzed it. Nor am I planning to analyze it at any point. Despite my music school background and ethnomusicological training, I’ve rarely been one for formal analysis. But there’s something intriguing, there, as a connection. It’s not “imitation as sincerest form of flattery”: Chourot wasn’t copying Cusson. But it seemed like both were “drinking from the same spring,” so to speak.

In First Landing, this interpretation comes back to my mind.

See, not only does Chourot’s playing still have some Cussonisms, but I hear other voices connected to Cusson’s. Including that of Cusson’s former bandmate Alain Caron And even Uzeb itself, the almost mythical band which brought Caron and Cusson together.

For a while, in the 1980s, Uzeb dominated a large part of Quebec’s local Jazz market. At the time, other Jazz players were struggling to get some recognition. As they do now. To an extent, Uzeb was a unique phenomenon in Quebec’s musical history since, despite their diversity and the quality of their work, Quebec’s Jazz musicians haven’t become mainstream again. Which might be a good thing but bears some reflection. What was so special about Uzeb? Why did it disappear? Can’t other Jazz acts fill the space left by Uzeb, after all these years?

I don’t think it’s what Nicolas is trying to do. But if he were, First Landing would be the way to go at it. It doesn’t “have all the ingredients.” That wouldn’t work. But, at the risk of sounding like an old cub scout, it has “the Uzeb spirit.”

Which brings me to other things I hear. Other bands with distinct, if indirect, Uzebian connections.

One is Jazzorange, which was a significant part of Lausanne’s Jazz scene when I was living there.My good friend Vincent Jaton introduced to Jazzorange in 1994 and Uzeb’s alumni Caron and Cusson were definitely on my mind at the time.

Vincent, musician and producer extraordinaire, introduced me to a number of musicians and I owe him a huge debt for helping me along a path to musical (self-)discovery. Vincent’s own playing also shares a few things with what I hear in First Landing, but the connection with Jazzorange is more obvious, to me.

Another band I hear in connection to Chourot’s playing is Sixun. That French band, now 25 years old, is probably among the longest-lasting acts in this category of Jazz. Some Jazz ensembles are older (including one of my favourites, Oregon). But Sixun is a key example of what some people call “Jazz Fusion.”

Which is a term I avoided, as I mentioned diverse musicians. Not because I personally dislike the term. It’s as imprecise as any other term describing a “musical genre” (and as misleading as some of my pet peeves). But I’m not against its use, especially since there is a significant degree of agreement about several of the musicians I mention being classified (at least originally) as “Fusion.” Problem is, the term has also been associated with an attitude toward music which isn’t that conducive to thoughtful discussion. In some ways, “Fusion” is used for dismissal more than as a way to discuss musical similarities.

Still, there are musical features that I appreciate in a number of Jazz Fusion performances, some of which are found in some combination through the playing of several of the musicians I’m mentioning here.

Some things like the interactions between the bass and other instruments, some lyrical basslines, the fact that melodic lines may be doubled by the bass… Basically, much of it has to do with the bass. And, in Jazz, the bass is often key. As Darcey Leigh said to Dale Turner (Lonette McKee and Dexter Gordon’s characters in ‘Round Midnight):

You’re the one who taught me to listen to the bass instead of the drums

Actually, there might be a key point about the way yours truly listens to bass players. Even though I’m something of a “frustrated bassist” (but happy saxophonist), I probably have a limited understanding of bass playing. To me, there’s a large variety of styles of bass playing, of course, but several players seem to sound a bit like one another. It’s not really a full classification that I have in my mind but I can’t help but hear similarities between bass performers. Like clusters.

Sometimes, these links may go outside of the music domain, strictly speaking.  For instance, three of my favourite bassists are from Cameroon: Guy Langue, Richard Bona, and Étienne Mbappe. Not that I heard these musicians together: I noticed Mbappe as a member of ONJ in 1989, I first heard Bona as part of the Zawinul syndicate in 1997, and I’ve been playing with Langue for a number of years (mostly with Madou Diarra & Dakan). Further, as I’m discovering British/Nigerian bass player Michael Olatuja, I get to extend what I hear as the Cameroonian connection to parts of West African music that I know a bit more about. Of course, I might be imagining things. But my imagination goes in certain directions.

Something similar happens to me with “Fusion” players. Alain Caron is known for his fretless bass sound and virtuosic playing, but it’s not really about that, I don’t think. It’s something about the way the bass is embedded in the rest of the band, with something of a Jazz/Rock element but also more connected to lyricism, complex melodic lines, and relatively “clean” playing. The last one may relate, somehow, to the Fusion stereotype of coldness and machine-like precision. But my broad impression of what I might call “Fusion bass” actually involves quite a bit of warmth. And humanness.

Going back to Chourot and other “Jazz Fusion” acts I’ve been thinking about, it’s quite possible that Gilles Deslauriers (who plays bass on Chourot’s First Landing) is the one who reminds me of other Fusion acts. No idea if Bob Laredo (Jazzorange), Michel Alibo (Sixun), Alain Caron (Uzeb), and Gilles Deslauriers really all have something in common. But my own subjective assessment of bass playing connects them in a special way.

The most important point, to me, is that even if this connection is idiosyncratic, it still helps me enjoy First Landing.

Nicolas Chourot and his friends from that album (including Gilles Deslauriers) are playing at O Patro Výš, next Saturday (January 23, 2010).

Jobs and Satisfaction

This one is more of a web log entry than my usual ramblings.

Executive Summary: Life Is Good.

Continue reading Jobs and Satisfaction


Started out the usual way, with emails and blogs. But then moved into very diverse and unique activities.

Went to a workshop on the game Guitar Hero, organised by GameCode and Ludiciné. Stimulating conversations on music, games, gender, sandboxes, playfulness, musicking, performance, competition, etc.

Then went on to the Ethnographic Film Festival. Was only able to watch a short excerpt of a short film from the Wapikoni Mobile project and a good part of a movie about food production in Europe (Malthus was wrong! 😉 ). Unfortunately, there were technical problems with the Wapikoni short, but it seemed fascinating. Glad to know there’s a Wapikoni Mobile podcast, but contrary to the Off-Courts podcast, it doesn’t include video content.

Then moved to a coffee jam at Caffè ArtJava. Had an excellent time and tasted some of the best espresso in my life. CAJ is set to participate in the growth of Montreal’s espresso scene.

From CAJ, went directly to Kola Note to pay tribute to Boubacar Diabaté‘s life and influence on Montreal’s (very dynamic, yet IMHO underrated) African music scene. Many of the players in that scene appeared on stage (in different bands) and the general ambiance was that of a strong community. Reminded me of the Francis Bebey tribute at Alizé, a few years ago, but last night’s event was more free-form, organic, cooperative… African. Got a chance to spend some time with fascinating people (like my good friends Guy Langué and David Mobio) who make Montreal’s African music community what it is.

Some seem to disagree on my observations but I feel this community is quite unique in that musicians cross any line to play and feel together. Appropriate tribute to Diabaté who was a «rassembleur» (bringing people together). In fact, Diabaté was the first person with whom I worked for my master’s degree research. Through this work, I eventually met with Madou Diarra who became more than a friend for me.

They Dropped The Other Shoe

[Disclaimer: I’m not necessarily an Apple fanboy but I have been an enthusiastic Mac user since 1987 and have owned several Apple products, from an iPod to a QuickTake camera. I also think that technology is having a big impact on arts, media, and entertainment.]

Just watched Apple’s "Showtime" Special Event. Didn’t really read or even listen to anything much about it yet. During that event, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced new versions of all the iPod models, a new version of iTunes, and the addition of movies to the iTunes store. In addition, Jobs gave a sneak peak of an upcoming box to link iTunes with televisions and stereo systems.

People are likely to have been disappointed by the announcements. They’re probably saying that Steve Jobs’s famous "Reality Distortion Field" isn’t working, or that he lost his "mojo." They might even wonder about his health. Again…

Not that the new products are really boring, but there tend to be high expectations surrounding Apple announcements. This one is no different as people expected wireless capabilities on iPods and recording capabilities on the new "media centre" box, which was in fact part of the expected new products from Apple.

But this event is significant in another way. Through it, Apple explained their strategy, revealed a number of years ago as the Digital Hub. What some have called "convergence," quite a few years ago. Nothing really new. It’s just coming into full focus.

Though we may never know how much of it unfolded as planned, Apple’s media/tech strategy may appear rather prescient in retrospect. IIRC, it started in 1996, during Gil Amelio’s tenure. Or, more probably, in 1997 during the switch between Amelio and Jobs. Even by, say, 1999, that strategy was still considered a bold move. That was before the first iPod which, itself, was before iTunes, the iTunes Music Store, and most other current media-centric technologies at Apple. It was also at a time when user-generated content was relatively unimportant. In other ways, that was during the "Web 1.0" Internet bubble, before the "Web 2.0" craze for blogs, podcasts, and "social networking."

Apple isn’t the only corporation involved in the changes in the convergence between technology and the world of "content" (arts, media, entertainment). But it has played a key role. Whatever his success as a CEO, Steve Jobs has influenced the direction of change and, to an extent, shape a part of digital life to his own liking. While he’s clearly not clueless, his vision of the link between "content" and technology is quite specific. It does integrate user-generated content of "varying degrees of professionalism" (which he joked about during his presentation) but it gives precedence to the "content industry" (involving such powerful groups and lobbies as WIPO, NAB, MPAA, RIAA, etc.). Jobs’s position at Pixar makes him a part of that industry. Which is quite different from what arts and expressive culture can be.

Jobs invites musicians on stage with him (John Mayer, Wynton Marsalis, John Legend). He respects musicians and he might even appreciate their work. But his view of their work is that they produce content to consumed. For Jobs, music tracks, audiobooks, television episodes, movies, and music videos are all "contents" to be enjoyed by consumers. Now, the consumer can enjoy content "anywhere" as Apple is "in your den, in your living-room, in your car, and in your pocket." But what about public spaces? Concert halls, churches, coffee shops, parks, public libraries, classrooms, etc.? Oh! Apple can be there too! Yeah, of course. But those are not part of the primary vision. In Apple’s view, consumers all have their own iTunes accounts, media libraries, preferences, and content-consuming habits. A nuclear family may count as a unit to a certain extent (as Bob Iger pointed out in his "cameo appearance" during Jobs’s event). But the default mode is private consumption.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Even the coolest things online are often based on the same model. It’s just that it’s not the only way to do things. Music, for instance, can be performed in public. In fact, it can be a collaborative process. The performers themselves need not be professionals. There’s no need for an audience, even. And there’s no need to see it as "intellectual property." Music is not a product. It’s a process by which human beings organize sound.

Ah, well…

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Music, Food, Industries, Piracy

000ady6y (PNG Image, 200×125 pixels)

Noticed it in Steal This Film. A very appropriate message. Process over product. Music is not a commodity. Food does not grow on profits.

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Glocal Craftiness: Coffee, Beer, Music

Was listening to the podcast (Episode 23) and thinking about coffee shops, cafés, brewpubs, bars, bands, venues…

Continue reading Glocal Craftiness: Coffee, Beer, Music