Annika Fingerhut (Pictured left to right: Cornelia Lund, Holger Lund)

Decolonizing Brazilian Pop, and the Rise of Re-versioning

By 25 July, 2022

“Colonialism is not over, it’s just less visible, especially in culture” – says Professor Holger Lund in his 2019 article Decolonizing Pop Music. But in three years, things have moved on, and the word is being heard more. Honey Dijon is just one example, she used it when talking about the whitewashing and re-marketing of dance music that came from Black and Queer communities.

Vinil Brasil, a record shop in São Paulo, is furthermore a sign of the growing interest in liberating music from the marketing policies of record companies. They already had a pressing plant by 2019, and now they have their own label specializing in music that was loved by listeners but never promoted by radio DJs in Brazil.

So, in the same way that the use of colonialism nowadays is no longer focused on a country’s occupation, more on ensuring that a country’s rulers allow their markets to be controlled by western interests, so colonialism in music production applies both to the physical material of discs and the music they carry. Music from the ghetto or a developing country is re-packaged and re-produced to match what record companies think western listeners will buy as a cultural product or even a political badge.

Still, as Lund, a curator, DJ and art, design and music researcher, pointed out in his earlier-cited article, Western enthusiasts have been responsible for much of the re-releasing, as was the case with Peruvian cumbia by Barbès Records in New York.

And then there is the question of authenticity, which some enthusiasts may equate with ‘original’ recordings that are free of the taint of marketing. But markets have changed and original Guccis co-exist with imitations, without protest from the ‘creators’, as Roberto Saviano has shown in his book Gomorrah.

Beyond commercial concerns there is a tension between roots and creolization, and sometimes hybrid music even reaches the status of intangible heritage, as happened in Cabo Verde with the morna.

In a fascinating essay by Cornelia Lund, who together with Holger runs the Fluctuating Images project, she states simply, that authenticity in hip-hop is about ‘staying true to the game’ and the game plays with images and codes, it doesn’t try to certify what is true.

In your restoration work why are you so interested in vinyl, not CD?

One reason is sound quality, especially for DJs – you get more punch, and you can see the music you play, the density of the grooves. But more important is the cost – it’s more expensive to make vinyl than to copy a CD, so instead of a recording being just one more in a sea of billions of files a vinyl release potentially gets more attention. Vinyl as a medium works like a filter of value.

If you release something on vinyl – even if it was in digital format five years before – it gets more attention, more airplay, and more attention for the musicians. One could think of an economic motive and scarcity value but instead it is more about targeting a different audience of vinyl music connoisseurs and lovers. And this audience exists not only in the Western world, but also in South America and in some countries in Africa. It is a worldwide community, interestingly regardless of musical styles.

With the Black Pearl label, we released Bosporus Bridges Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 at the same time as a re-mastered digital copy and on vinyl, and the vinyl version sold far more copies, it sold out. But it’s true that CD is coming back too, Boomkat in London have begun releasing some, especially since 2021.

Do you personally still feel entangled in neo-or post-colonial issues?

A book that really gave me a new perspective is Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music by Kyle Devine, because he shows how record-making and music media have a global ecological, social and economic impact. He prepared a balance sheet of the costs after visiting vinyl manufacturers. If you make records you use plastic, and he analysed the energy costs of raw material, manufacture, and transport. So, the fact is that even if you are successful in decolonizing music, still the production of materials is colonialist, in terms of where they come from and the harm they do.

Petro-capitalism is a totally colonial industry. The vinyl records might be made in a southern hemisphere country using their own oil, but it will be refined in the UK or the Netherlands and then sold back to them to use. They are not allowed to refine the oil themselves. Take for example the Ugandan music label Nyege Nyege. Even when the music production is done in Africa, the media production is all done in the UK and global distribution happens from there. The infrastructure is a colonial legacy, and the labels – and this happens with fashion design too – are controlled from or rely on the developed countries.

I am pleased that there are people like the ones at the eco-friendly Deep Grooves vinyl pressing plant in the Netherlands who are paying attention to this, and I hope there will be a ‘eco-fairtrade’ development similar to the one for chocolate and coffee.

Another big issue in Brazil and other non-western countries is the restitution of vinyl, originals are very expensive due to scarcity so many labels are now turning to re-issues. Boima Tucker’s article The Scramble for Vinyl talks about the need for this in Africa, and it’s important as well in Brazil, where Vinil Brasil in São Paulo is more than just a shop and a pressing plant. Since my article “Decolonizing Pop Music” in 2019 they also produce re-releases with their own label, taking care of music legacy.

And, as I predicted, Brazilian labels are now re-releasing a lot of early Brazilian hip-hop of the late 80s and early 90s. This music is all so great, never a bad track, and it took me a long time to understand why – all of it was released on small labels by a handful of dance party sound crews like Back Mad, Zimbabwe and Kaskatas, all of them linked to clubs – so they could just choose the ones that had been proof-tested in the clubs, or else at festivals.

And the Brazilians were quicker than people in other countries to realise that they now, with vinyl re-trending, could produce their own labels for the vinyl market.

These labels are mostly based in São Paulo and Rio, but the north-east is gaining a higher profile because of Black Lives Matter and related movements. In some cities in Bahia the population is only 2% white, and Brazilians are starting to think about the racism within the country – which had been ignored as it goes against their self-image as a hybrid ethnicity where everyone has a place, and in not being a colonial country. This is an important development, because it is changing the regional hierarchy within Brazilian music and giving more prominence to black music and specific regional black music styles like axé and brega from Bahia and Recife.

Is world music just a way for western listeners to choose what they regard as serious and authentic while labelling everything else as a bad imitation of western pop?

Western art has been framed by the idea of the creative originality of the composer, it goes back to the Romantics 200 years ago, but in other continents, what matters is the version, the performance, not the composer. For example, “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang. Some Brazilian and Mexican versions of this track are outstanding and are appreciated worldwide for their versioning.

Coming back to world music, I think it’s hyper-dangerous. This music, especially religious music was never intended for commercialization. And there is also a point raised by Martin Greve in his book Makamsiz, about collaborations between western artists like Eric Clapton, and Ry Cooder with non-western musicians. Many non-western musicians said it was mostly them who had to give up their musical scales and rhythms to produce something marketable to western audiences, not the other way round. You must ask the decolonising question: “Who profits?”. Even David Byrne’s book How Music Works, is a textbook of appropriation as well as being a textbook of acclamation of non-Western music – the two things are entangled.

I would like to replace the term ‘world music’ with a term that was used back in the days in Greece: Touristika. A music made primarily for tourists, like syrtaki, which is not authentic in the country of origin. Interestingly many Greek and non-Greek people can identify now with a genre like syrtaki as “authentic” Greek music.

I liked a vinyl record shop in São Paulo, where the World Music section started with France!

But to give a good example – the guitarist from Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood, teamed up with Shye Ben Tzur and Rajasthan Express to make an album called Junun, and this is a real sharing and cross-fertilization even down to the artwork and the representation of the musicians as a group.

Is there a tension between creolization and roots?

There is a new estimation of hybrid music for indigenous people. There are two reactions, either condemning it for being too westernized or to say: “No, hybrid music is ours as well”. There was an interesting lecture by the Congolese Professor Romain Malwengo Kingenzi at our recent Kinshasa-Berlin exchange, talking about the re-discovery of early Congolese rhumba, which itself was regarded as a hybrid because it was played with western instruments like electric guitar and western drum sets, and now the youth in Kinshasa are grabbing for this music, because they say it is ours too. The same happened earlier with Argentinian tango or Brazilian samba. These hybrid musical styles are now regarded as national music styles.

Then, roots – whose roots? When you look closely music is in most cases transnational, trans-ethnic, international, inter-ethnic. There are only rare cases where migration has not affected a musical development, so there is very little ‘pure’ or ‘traditional’ music in the world. As Michael Denning has shown in his book, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution regarding colonial port cities, there has been a huge and constant exchange of people, languages, and culture in general.

I can listen to opera in any language as long as it’s one I don’t understand”.

Timbre and sound can be valued over the semantics of what is said. American hip-hop was taken up in countries around the world by musicians and audiences who couldn’t understand the lyrics. They felt the emotion and they knew it was something relevant to them. People got the attitude: that this was music expressing the rebellion of minority groups against discrimination. This can happen even though music is not a universal language, it is always coded culturally, ethnically, religiously, but if you are able to decode it emotionally, you can appreciate it.

Should we also decolonize our listening? It’s an interesting question, because we come from a western polyphonic tradition, so we find it very difficult to appreciate, for example, Arabic music which is monophonic. And percussion in Brazilian music is completely different from the way it is played in many other countries. Take the berimbau for example, an African-related instrument which got prominence in the context of capoeira. Is it a melodic or harmonic string instrument or more of a rhythmic percussion instrument? Often it is used more in a percussive sense. Listening to it with ears focussing on melodic or harmonic developments may be monotonous and disappointing, listening to it as a percussive instrument however, it makes sense. On the other hand, a lot of Brazilian percussion instruments can develop melodic or harmonic functions, especially when used within a percussion ensemble. If you have an orchestra and an additional percussion ensemble sometimes it sounds like two orchestras playing together – that powerful, in an orchestral sense, a percussion ensemble can be in Brazilian music.

Funk was connected with the US Civil Rights movement and social protest, but the word ‘funk’ in Brazil is associated by many people with gangsters and drug trafficking. Is this music still a rejection of the dominant power in society?

Tim Maia is a good example of a ‘70s western-style funk band in Brazil. But there is another kind which is deeply connected to the favela: funk carioca, ghetto funk etc. And besides a listening experience, it works as a communication system for the gangs. I talked to Pedro Oliveira who has studied this, and this funk is used to recruit members and also as a coded message system to warn people by playing certain tracks that, for example, mean the police are coming, time to retreat, shoot back, etc. It has been forbidden on jukeboxes for this reason. This music covers styles like U.S. Miami bass as well as Brazilian montagem and funk. Often it uses a lot of sampling but not in the way it is used in western music: in the ‘90s for producing montagem they cut very short vocal or music samples and repeat them very rapidly. It’s uniquely Brazilian. Later, these elements of ultra-short and highly repeated snippets were taken up in the U.S. with juke as a black music style. Montagem is a kind of hard and rough music Western ears may have difficulties to adapt to. Sometimes juke seems to be the kinder sister of this elder bad boy brother who has no intention of pleasing the ears but rather cutting through them.

When rai [a form of Algerian folk music] was promoted in Europe they tried to fit it into a typical western model of ‘youth revolt’ against a conservative society, ignoring the fact that the government also promotes it and the whole concept of ‘youth revolt’ may not apply – lost in translation?

Lost in marketing too. It’s a strategy that worked very well, they sell Algerian music in Europe and create an image for tourists to come to the country, without understanding that the culture works completely differently.

You’ve said that non-Western pop is often viewed by music journalists as second-rate imitations of western music with no value of their own.

One must ask how it happened that Western and especially Anglophone pop acquired its global status.

It has changed over the decades – what Shakira did in the 90s for example was different to other decades – but I think Western pop music successfully managed to transmit the idea that they are the best, the most advanced, compared to local musics.

Anglophone pop was based on electronic amplification – in a period, where electrification in non-western countries was still only beginning. This music was modern per se in the ‘50s and ‘60s as it sounded electric-modern and powerful. And all the advantages electric capitalism was so eager to talk about – refrigerators, washing machines, radio and TV, the whole consumer paradise in regard to comfort and connectedness – had its ambassador in the powerful electric-sounding Anglophone pop music.

And it is promoted globally by a big publicity machine, so people start to connect with it, wanting to be on the side of success.

Mastering techniques can make the music seem more powerful too. They allow for improving the sonic impact to a maximum. You must understand what post-production is and how powerful its means are, to understand the aesthetic impact for example of western music and film making.

Still, when Simon Reynolds, and other writers hear in non-western hybrid music primarily the non-western imperfection and ‘impurity’, they miss the non-western perfection:

“Whether they’re spawned in European cities or the ghettos of the Southern Hemisphere, what all these exotic dance genres share is impurity: they are bastard and creole children based in the sound clash of folk forms with Western styles like hip hop, house, and techno”

Simon Reynolds, 2013

Reynolds’ criticism is also directed at European musicians sampling from music they don’t understand, so ‘purity’ seems to be the issue for him, but he misses the perfection in versioning (instead of composing), in deepness, in tenderness… and in sound.

With my pals at Black Pearl Records, we are still speculating how this specific non-western deep and tender reverb was done all over the world: in Turkey, in Iran, in South-east Asia – maybe imported western reverb modules were used but running differently and both deranging and ameliorating the sound? These hidden or neglected factors have perhaps more to say than we imagine when it comes to specific aesthetic values. Values, which both Western and non-Western listeners appreciate more and more.

Holger Lund is Professor of Media Design at the Ravensburg University of Cooperative Education. His research focuses on media design and music visualization, and he is involved with collecting and re-releasing non-western pop music through the Global Pop First Wave label.

Cornelia Lund is a research fellow at the University of the Arts, Bremen, and has taught media studies and design at various German universities. One of her key interests is African fashion and hair design, and together with Holger she runs the Fluctuating Images project, which encourages aesthetic and scientific analysis of the use of media in art, including VJ-ing.

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