Monday, March 31, 2014

WAYS OF LIFE // Part 1: Original Affluence


On several occasions over the years i have encountered versions of this ancient African parable:  
A band of nomads encounter a tree full of ripe fruits, and proceed to have a feast.  In the morning, as they are about to set off, a young man has bundled up a package of the fruits to take on their journey, so they can have food for another day.  An elder of the group stops him: "We don't have many rules, but the most important one is:  we give thanks, we enjoy, but we do not take with."  The young one asks: "but why not?"  The elder answers:  "Because the world is plentiful, and will provide for us.  But if we take more than we need, it will be the beginning of the end of our care free lives, and lead the entire world to catastrophe."  
The story always ends there, with no explanation; and i used to dismiss it as some kind of superstitious nonsense.  It was not until recently when i gained a little bit more understanding of the basic tenants of Marxism that i began to get a sense of the deep significance of this story, which contains perhaps the most crucial lesson for humanity.  This tale has everything to do with the global crisis on multiple fronts we are experiencing in the 21st century, as well as with the future of humanity from this point on, if there is to be any.  (if you can cite specific versions or know more about this, please leave a comment)

One of the central and most important tenants of Marxist analysis of economics is the concept of surplus value, or the material resources which are left over after all the needs of members of a society are met. According to Karl Marx, the evil of capitalism is not the competition it allegedly fosters or its supposed lack of concern for the poor.  Rather, it is the inevitable problem of surplus value and surplus labor, which is stolen from the workers who produced it, by the capitalists who control means of production. To simplify complex theories and make a long story short, Marx expressed roughly the same idea as the African fable: that surplus is basically the original source of inequality, hierarchy, inequality, injustice, slavery, and war.    

It is no coincidence that pre"civilized" peoples in Africa understood economics, society, the exact nature of their precarious relationship, and how it impacts individual quality of life as well as our collective fate, in such precise and profound ways, as did similar nomadic societies spread all over the world.   These are groups who figured out a way to live peaceful, egalitarian lives for at least many hundreds of thousands of years prior to the onset of sedentism, pastoralism, division of labor, class stratification, centralized power, subjugation, exploitation, and other aspects of so called "civilization". This is the consensus within the field of anthropology since at least the 1960s, with the remaining dispute being similar in nature to the controversy around Climate Change.  A simple google search on the subject will reveal source and further reading materials to back up these claims, such as Wikipedia on gatherer-hunters, or this piece from Psychology Today, which makes it very clear:  
Is it true that hunter-gatherers were peaceful egalitarians? The answer is yes. ...  If just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren't really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story.
The rise of Homo Sapien Sapiens as the dominant and only surviving species of advanced hominids in the entire Homo genus may have involved inter-species competition and violence, as our distant ancestors faired better in the survival game than others such as Australopithecus, Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo Habilis, etc., that once all cohabited this planet.  But after this, evolutionary biologists agree that our species has spent more than 90% of our time on earth in highly egalitarian, band-level Gatherer-Hunter societies which enjoyed peace and equality: our ancestors figured out a way to live sustainably for at least 200,000 to 500,000 years, but more probably 2 million years, and maybe even longer. 

The correct term for the lifestyle which lasted at least many hundred times longer than any other is Gatherer-Hunter, not Hunter-Gatherer, because the vast majority of their sustenance came from gathering fruits, nuts, roots, etc., with most of the small amount of meat coming from finding dead animals and a small percentage from hunting.  (Although it will take some time for mainstream culture to catch up)  It makes sense that humans would choose to gather most of their food, because hunting is comparatively both dangerous and much more work intensive.  This is especially probable considering that the Earth was surely much more abundant prior to the last glacial period, known as Würm, which lasted from 70,000–10,000 years ago, compared to after, and even more compared to today, because further processes of environmental degradation continued unabated ever since.  


There is no room in the nomadic lifestyle for the accumulation of property, and hence no great differences in material possessions.  Nomads typically only possess what they can carry, and any minimal level of social inequality is temporary (i.e. not inherited) and merit-based. That is, people can gain respect based on only their own actions (not those of their ancestors) - and there are no serious material privileges as a consequence. (Gyrus)  As the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins observed in his 1968 essay on the ‘original affluent society’:
Of the nomad it is truly said that his wealth is a burden. In his condition of life, goods can become ‘grievously oppressive’ … and the more so the longer they are carried around. Certain food collectors do have canoes and a few have dog sleds, but most must carry themselves all the comforts they possess, and so only possess what they can comfortably carry.
Sahlins coined the term "Original Affluence" to describe gatherer-hunter lifestyle.  This concept of affluence means "having enough of whatever is required to satisfy consumption needs, and plenty of free time to enjoy life".  Foragers achieve affluence by wanting little rather than producing a lot, thus free from greed.  Nomads live in societies where the concept of material wealth is nearly nonexistent, and have plenty of "real" wealth, which is free time for leisure and creativity.  The general high level of contentedness, satisfaction, happiness, and love of art, music, dance, and social games in many primordial groups such as the forest people of Central Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, and various indigenous peoples of the Americas is well documented. 

Even today, this original lifestyle enjoyed by our ancestors for the vast majority of humanity's time on earth, although greatly diminished to near extinction, has nonetheless survived.  In 2014, There are fully functioning nomadic, band level micro-societies which live in much the same way as this "Original Affluence", in Indonesia and other parts of S.E. Asia, the Amazon regions of South America, scattered throughout the land of Africa, among others places.  Although there are differences among these remaining groups, they share many similarities.  A very good example of today's gatherer-hunters, and the most studied of such groups, is the Dobe Ju/'hoansi people of Southern Africa, who live in and around the Kalahari Desert. A brief summary of the main characteristics of Dobe Society:

• gather 90+ percent of food
• zero starvation: 100% of population has enough food all the time
   (compared to 30% starving in our modern industrial societies) 
• work (acquiring food) 15 - 20 hours/week
• no division of labour other than sometimes between sexes 
• does not distinquish between work and play
• little trade between groups
• no hierarchy, no authority, only "temporary leaders" for specific projects 
• no private property
• very little to no social inequality, except things like respect for elders
• superb health 

The very few surviving groups of nomads today have been increasingly, during countless waves of marginalization of the past 10,000 years, pushed by "civilized" peoples to the least abundant areas, the very edge of their former habitats.  But even in such reduced and impoverished circumstances, studying some of them have lead sociologists to conclude that "scarcity is a myth", because people like the Dobe live without want 365 days a year.

Low Population density is obviously important to maintain these high standards of living, and various methods are employed by different groups, such as celibacy for all members for periods of 1 or 2 years after every birth, and processes of birth control and birth spacing. One study of child care among the Dobe found that women practiced an indirect form of birth control by extending infant breast feeding periods for several years. The stresses of lactation substantially reduced pregancy rates to produce average birth spacing of four years. The length of the period between births creates a direct benefit of avoiding the problem of having to carry more than one infant or toddler during seasonal movements, as well as the longer-term effect of keeping population sizes within limits that the resource base could comfortably support. 

Very few rules exist in band level nomadic societies.  In many such groups, besides the all important rule of no-surplus, the most significant rule is against competitiveness and expressions of individual ego.  If any member demonstrates selfishness or behavior which stems from egoism and pride, he or she is ostracized for a period as punishment.  (This is of course also exactly the opposite of our modern capitalist world order, where competitiveness is a virtue, selfishness is rewarded, and individualism/egoism is praised, while discouraging social cohesion, punishing generosity, and repressing empathy.)


But paradise did not last, and the glacial period came, covering large parts of the earth in ice and snow, causing millions of plant and animal species to become extinct.  It is likely that the humans which managed to survive and emerged after this 30,000 year cold began farming out of necessity, finding themselves in much more depleted and barren landscapes after the snow melted.  Thus the historic turning point came in the history of our species, and our lifestyle drastically changed, as most of humanity transitioned from nomadic gatherer-hunters to sedentary agriculturalists, from band to tribe level societies*, around 10,000 years ago. 

*Anthropologist Elman Service presented a system of classification for societies in all human cultures based on the evolution of social inequality and the role of the state, containing four categories: 
  • Band:  Gatherer-hunters, up to 100 members, no permanent, formal leader, egalitarian
  • Tribe: 100 - 300 members - Farmers, limited hierarchy, centralized leadership.
  • Chiefdom: roughly 300 - 1000 members, social stratification, strict hierarchy, centralized power.
  • State: millions of members, complex social stratification and centralized political power. 
A great number of accounts exist of the initial transition from nomadic bands to sedentary tribes.  For instance, the San people of Southern Africa (of which the Dobe Ju/'hoansi is one ethnic group) lived peacefully and sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years, before the arrival of Bantu tribes from the north.  The Bantus brought farming methods and technology, caused food surpluses and a sharp spike in population, after which massive and bloody wars between tribes began. 

There are also numerous examples of the steady increase of levels of inequality and scale of violence after the rise of agriculture.  The isolated Enga tribe of Papua, New Guinea traditionally lived on taro, yam tubers, half-domesticated pigs, and some forest game.  But the introduction of the sweet potato, a fast and easy growing crop from South America, caused a surge in food surplus.  Left overs were fed to the pigs, whose population multiplied; and pigs came to be used as currency during trade.  Thus a new political class emerged, who did not do any actual work, but began to control and manipulate trade for their own profit, becoming ultra wealthy compared to the poor farmers.  With all of this any traces of egalitarianism vanished, and wars became ever bigger and more frequent. 

This is how humanity traded quality for quantity, and gave up freedom and autonomy for hard work and security.  Life was worse off in many other ways as well, such as the reduction of our diet from being based on thousands of different raw plants to only a few kinds of plants and cooked grains (carbohydrates), leading to the appearance of many new, modern diseases, such as cancer, which did not exist before and would plague us to this day.  There are also theories of neurological effects of this change of diet, in terms of degenerative processes in the development of the human brain.   Agriculture indeed brought so many ills to human life that the scientist Jarred Diamond called it The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race**, in which he writes:
Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. ... with the advent of agriculture the élite became better off, but most people became worse off. Instead of swallowing the progressivist party line that we chose agriculture because it was good for us, we must ask how we got trapped by it despite its pitfalls. One answer boils down to the adage "Might makes right." Farming could support many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. ...  bands (which adopted agriculture) outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain gatherer-hunters (my correction - Zhao), because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandonded their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want.  
If the history of the human race began at midnight (and one hour represents 100,000 years), then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as gatherer-hunters for nearly the whole of that day, until at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. Gatherer-hunters practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.
**My only contention with Diamond's paper is his estimation of the short life span of pre-agricultural humans: is he talking about before or after the glacial period?  Depending on which he means the answer is surely very different.  With all the scientific conjectures we can make about environmental conditions and character of life before Würm, it is not a stretch to conclude that our ancestors during that long period might have lived longer than us. (But then there were other factors such as predatory animals, so at best it is difficult to say one way or another)

With the new lifestyle came new divisions of labor, as farmers worked much more than before to provide food for all, and others now concentrated on things like making leather or weapons. The accumulation of more possessions than others brought more bargaining power for the rich, leading to exponential increase of wealth, which meant the upper classes could increasingly exploit the labor of lower classes for their own profit ("it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." - Gore Vidal)  The transition also brought the advent of centralized power, in the form of the first priest-kings, or shamens, who claimed to have more direct access to the divine, which justified their dominion over other members of society.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Social inequality steadily increased as societies became ever larger and more complex.  The advancement of technology enabled even more drastically uneven distribution of wealth.  until we arrive at the nations states of 2014, where 0.01% of the world's population owns the vast majority of wealth and power.

I am not advocating that we return to what's left of the forests or necessarily to a pre"civilized" lifestyle.  But what i am certain of, is that self knowledge of the human race, and a clearer picture of our history is important.  In order to imagine a better tomorrow, we need to realize that humans are indeed capable of living peacefully and sustainably together for long periods of time.  Just as the African elder predicted in the ancient tale, today humanity faces crises on many fronts, which together poses great threat to our survival along with other forms of life on earth, with perhaps inequity at the heart of the problem.   Hard times lie ahead of us, but maybe also a chance at a new beginning, a chance to organize ourselves in better ways, guided by the wisdom of ancients.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

NO DRUMS ALLOWED: Afro Rhythm Mutations in America

Street bands playing Rock'n'Roll in Berlin, Marvin Gaye in a local bar in Thailand, Nas blaring on the streets of Johannesburg, House Music in the mega-clubs of Shang Hai - where ever one goes in the world today, no effort is needed to find African American music and its derivatives.

The embellishment of African derived rhythm/melody with European harmonics gave birth to Jazz, arguably the worlds most significant musical explosion of the millennium.  In the 100 years since, African American music, which became largely synonymous with American music, has been exerting a tremendous amount of global influence.  The spread of this influence accelerated even more after WW2, as the US became a global economic and military super power, aggressively pursuing a program of cultural imperialism, which increasingly saturated the world with its ideas, stories, images, and sounds.

But there is one peculiar thing which nearly all American music has in common - and the more one considers it, the more peculiar it becomes - an extensive emphasis on a unique rhythm, a rhythm very different from that which is found almost anywhere else in the world.  It goes like this: Boom - Bap - Boom - Bap, with a kick drum on the 1 and 3 or all 4, a snare drum precisely on the 2 and 4, with nearly nothing in between except maybe a high hat, and no major hits ever landing off the grid.  This rhythm is called the "Duple" in music theory, and you can find variations of it driving all modern popular American music styles: Blues, Motown, Soul, Funk, Rock, Disco, Hiphop, House, Pop, and beyond.

Duple Rhythm (beginning of video)

Classic Blues: 


The pervasive dominance of this simplified, rigid, and mechanical mono-rhythm, minimizing poly-rhythmic elements in the music to the role of embellishment, sometimes to the point of non-existence, is very different from the focus on complex polyrhythms in various forms of modern South American and Caribbean music. Cuban Son and Rumba, Brazillian Bossa Nova, Haitian Gwo Ka and Compas, Trinidadian Calypso; none of them rely so extensively on the Duple (besides sub-genres which were directly influenced by US exports, such as Ska Reggae, which heavily borrows from the Rhythm'n'Blues of the 50s).

Cuban Son:

Haitian Compas:

And if we zoom out to look at great traditions of music of the world: Asia, Middle East, and of course, Africa, with zero exceptions, the Duple beat is never a central element, and hardly even exist at all in the major bodies of music produced by these ancient cultures.  All of them are based on intricately interlocking polyrhythms arranged in hypnotic, complex mathematical patterns.  (the much younger European classical tradition, which developed as entertainment for royalty and the rich, has always regarded rhythm as an element of the under classes and "primitives", and has "long discarded African music as an oddity of the animal kingdom" - Piero Scaruffi. With very few exceptions, these attitudes and a refusal to accept African music and its offspring continued all the way through the 20th century until today, which explains the increasing gap between it and the rest of the world.) (01)

Indonesian Gamelan:

Siamou Music in Burkina Faso:

So how did North American modern music become so different?  Why did the evolution of American rhythm take this unique path?  The answer is surely very complex, including many elements such as Native American tribal influence and the folk music of the European colonists, most of which used relatively simple rhythms.  But there is another, perhaps even more important factor which might explain this phenomenon, a single historical process which began in the early days of America.  Historians and scholars have written much about it, but the story remains relatively untold in the public sphere.  The following is a condensed, brief, and generalized version.

When first brought to North America during the 1600s and 1700s, slaves from the West coast of Africa used drums to communicate with each other in much the same way as they did at home, sending coded rhythmic messages over long distances, which the Europeans could not understand.  In this way slaves held in different encampments could stay in contact, and rebellion could be planned.  But after some time the masters realized that the drums could talk:  

"…it is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes."  - Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 (1740)

Starting on the plantations of the Carolinas and Georgia, this ban soon spread nearly everywhere.  Without drums, slaves used whatever was around to make beats: spoons, washboards, furniture, and their own bodies with hand-clapping, drumming on various surfaces of the body (Patting Juba), and foot-stomping and shuffling (Ring Shout).  "It always rouses my imagination," wrote Lydia Parrish of the Georgia Sea Islands in 1942, "to see the way in which the McIntosh County 'shouters' tap their heels on the resonant floor to imitate the beat of the drum their forebears were not allowed to have."(02) These earlier practices are also the origin of modern forms such as Tap Dancing.

Slapping Juba:

Ring Shout:

The most widely used substitute for drums, partly because of its ready availability, was the human voice.  Field Hollers, Call and ResponseWork Songs, Prison Songs, and all kinds of Vocality were developed, with the voice often replicating drum patterns and to create counterpoints, using standard singing, chanting, as well as extended techniques such as guttural effects, interpolated vocality, falsetto, melisma, etc.  Sounds of the work itself such as chopping wood or marching, as well as foot stomping or hand clapping during off hours, provided a basic, skeletal time signature, over which the polyrhythmic vocal sounds could improvise (the roots of Scat Singing).  Sometimes imitating the beats of many drums in one line, these vocal elements filled the incremental temporal spaces between each clap of the hand or fall of the hammer, and played an important role in the preservation of African rhythmic heritage.

Slave Song:

Work Song:

Thus Afro rhythm traditions survived through mutation and adaptation, and formed the drum-less foundation of American music.  The descendants of these earlier styles later became wildly popular beginning in the 19th Century: Ragtime, Minstrelsy, Spirituals, Salon Music, Jubilee, Blues, and Gospel (which has been called "percussion music without drums" by historians).  The appropriation of Black slave music by White mainstream society started at this time, with the phenomenon of Blackface Minstrelsy.  One of the first and most enduring artist/thieves was Stephen Foster, who took African derived rhythms played on the African derived instrument the Banjo, and incorporated them into songs such as "Oh Susana" (which became one of the most popular American songs ever).  This, and the mixing of African slave traditions with European folk music were the origins of Country Music: "One of the reasons country music was created by African Americans, as well as European Americans, is because blacks and whites in rural communities in the south often worked and played together" - DeFord Bailey (03)

And because the drums were taken away, the forms of West African music which either were purely vocal or featured the voice prominently, traditionally played without drums, using simple instruments, such as many kinds of narrative song cycles in the Griot traditions of Mali and Senegal, took root in a big way and gained wide popularity in the deep South.  No specific African musical form can be identified as the single direct ancestor of the blues, but many elements of the Blues, such as the call-and-response format and the use of blue notes, can be traced back to the music of Africa. (04)

Historians have also speculated that the Spanish slavers, who first set up colonies in the Americas in South America, at that time had not long expelled the North African Moors after 800 years of Islamic rule back home, preferred not to import Afro-Muslims.  Thus a higher concentration of people from the Sahel/Mali/Senegal regions, many of whom were Muslim, ended up in North America, bringing with them their more vocal and string based traditions.  While more people from the Congo/Ghana/Nigeria regions arrived in South America and the Caribbean, with their more extensive drumming traditions.

A classic sound collage (Alan Lomax) comparing traditional vocal music from Africa and vocal music from the Delta, alternating, line by line, between American and Senegalese singing:

the direct ancestor of the banjo was the Malian/Senegalese instrument Xalam or Ngoni, widely used by Griots:

There was one exception to this drum-lessness: due to the Catholic laws in Luisiana being different from the protestant ones in Georgia and the Carolinas, drums were not banned in New Orleans, the center of the American slave trade, until much later, the second half of the 19th Century.  This and other crucial social conditions were the ingredients of a series of cultural/musical explosions that would change the course of the entire world.   

Prior to new waves of repression that would come, this port city directly connected to Cuba and the Caribbean, run by the French and Spanish, included a substantial Creole of colour land-owning middle class, so that "black" was not automatically equated with slavery - an anomaly in the South at the time, to say the least.  Before the 1890s when this mixed race group suddenly lost their privilege and equality, they participated in every level of society including politics, making a huge difference in terms of racial tolerance, inclusiveness, cultural exchange with Cuba, and the development of both local music as well as music in Cuba.

An economy based on trade meant less regimented attitudes and more respect for difference: "Untouched by the industrial revolution and less socially stressed than other plantation-oriented economies, New Orleans was able to retain the traditions of the various ethnic groups while they were rapidly being annihilated in the rest of the USA." - Piero Scaruffi (01)  Also, Southern Europeans had somewhat different ideas from the Northern Europeans in their treatment of slaves, due to their countries of origin being closer to Africa, and already heavily influenced by African culture.   New Orleans brothels allowed sex across the colour line (not just unheard of but completely INSANE in the 1800s) all the way until 1918, when the US government forced the mayor of New Orleans to segregate.

In this atmosphere of relative tolerance and less repressive laws, for much of the 19th century this opulent melting pot city was host to a vibrant nightlife, exotic rituals, tribal dances, pagan festivals, funeral marches and all kinds of parties which never seemed to stop.  Further, there was one place, indeed the only place on the entire continent, the "Congo Square", in the Tremé neighborhood, where slaves had for a long time been allowed to make music:  "In Louisiana during the 18th century, slaves were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They were allowed to gather in the "Place de Negres", informally "Place Congo", where the slaves would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music." - Peter Kolchin (05)

The dominant rhythmic figure popular in New Orleans and performed on Congo Square during this time, with origins in the many different slave musics of the Caribbean, is the three-stroke pattern known in Cuban music as tresillo (06).  Louis Armstrong must have heard it plenty as a boy, growing up mere blocks from Congo Square.  "Tresillo is the most basic and by far, the most prevalent duple-pulse rhythmic cell in sub-Saharan African music traditions, and the music of the African Diaspora." - David Peñalosa (07)  In the post-Civil War period, African Americans in New Orleans were able to obtain surplus military bass drums, snare drums, fifes, trumpets and saxophones.  As a result, an original African American drum and fife music arose, featuring tresillo and related syncopated rhythmic figures.

And so it was in the brothels and bars of the red-light district of New Orleans where a potent combination of Blues, Ragtime, Quadrilles, Salon Music, Afro-Latin music, Native American music, European folk music and Marching Bands, played by multi-racial musicians who shared a passion for syncopation and improvisation, with discarded military brass and reed instruments, first came together to form what we know as Jazz.   

"It is probably safe to say that by and large the simpler African rhythmic patterns survived in jazz ... because they could be adapted more readily to European rhythmic conceptions. Some survived, others were discarded as the Europeanization progressed. It may also account for the fact that patterns such as [tresillo have] ... remained one of the most useful and common syncopated patterns in jazz." - Gunther Schuller (08)

A few decades later a new hybrid style with even more reduced, simplistic, and obvious drum beats was born in the same city, in fact the exact same neighborhood: the first Rock 'n' Roll records were made in the Tremé district.  "Without New Orlean's rich musical contribution there would have been no Elvis Presley or Beatles. Because both acts were heavily influenced by the songs recorded by Fats Domino and Little Richards at Cosimo Matassa's Studios (close to Congo Square)." - Fabian Jolivet.

So there you have it: Jazz and Rock'n'Roll, probably the 2 most significant American cultural exports ever, both born in the only place in America where for a few decades slaves were allowed to play drums and dance. 

Though New Orleans Jazz did sometimes use rhythm patterns more subtle and complex than the Duple (but still much less intricate and nuanced than its influences: Afro-Latin and African music), the much wider and older history of drum-lessness had a deeply profound effect on American music in general, and the Duple fundamentally shaped all popular music to come in the 20th Century.  

There were of course other sources and reasons, both historical and modern: Native American music and Irish, Italian, German folk music such as the Oompah or Polka all used simple mono-rhythms; as well as modern environmental factors such as the rigid and repetitive sound of machines, factories, automobiles and trains in the industrialized landscape.

Native American Ritual Music: 

Irish Folk Music:

German Volkstümliche Musik:

All of these cultures contributed to the complex hybrid which is American music, but from where i'm standing, as a person from East Asia, an outsider to American music, to European music, and to African music alike, the origins of Jazz, Rock, Hiphop, etc. are clearly located much more in the blues and slave music from both at home and Latin America than traditions represented by the above 3 videos.  If one accepts the seminal, foundational influence exerted by transplanted African culture,  this legacy of drum-less evolution might just be the most important piece of the puzzle, the main answer to the question of how the Duple came to dominate American modern music.

But unlike African Americans who RE-invented their African musical heritage through memory and forgetfulness in a completely new context, Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean large preserved homeland drumming traditions, which survive nearly intact until today.  (09)  

Trinidadian Steel Drums are alive and very well:

Drums were also banned in the Caribbean, in places like Trinidad, but much later in the 19th Century.  So the slaves had a stronger connection to African rhythm culture, which was apparent when they started using frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums after the ban (as oil was an important national product), forming the Trinidadian tradition of Steel Pan and Steel Drum music (10).  Similarly, drums were taken away from slaves in Cuba at a later time, and the roots of Rumba lies in Afro-Cubans playing African music with "household items: the side of a cabinet functioned in the role of the present-day tumba or salidor (the primary supportive drum), while an overturned drawer served as the quinto (the lead drum) and a pair of spoons played the cáscara part on whatever was available." - David Peñalosa (11)  The handmade percussion instrument Claves, which came from hitting wooden pegs together in shipyards to accompany slave work songs, is now a ubiquitous in all Cuban music and its derivatives from Son to Mambo to Salsa to Timba, playing the Clavé rhythm pattern of African origin.

Afro-Brazilian percussion traditions are considered a national treasure:

Other reasons for the stronger ties with African culture in the Caribbean and South America include the much greater number of slaves (North America: 0.5 million, Caribbean: 5 million, South America: 5 million); as well as slavery lasting much longer:  Brazil until the 1880s, and Cuba until the 1890s.  Also important were certain practices in slavery: in places like Cuba, unlike in North America, slaves were literally worked to death to increase the profit of the sugar trade.  Since they were not bred to be sold (like in North America), fresh supplies had to be imported directly from Africa, a practice that continued in Havana until 1873. Thus Africans continued to arrive in South America constantly and much more frequently during the later period of the slave trade, maintaining their folkloric traditions through secret societies (particularly Yoruba and Kikongo) (12), producing amazing cultural hybrids such as Capoeira and music like in the videos above and below. 

Cuban Music and dance and its strong connection to African forms:

As we have seen, rhythm in America took on a very much unique and drastically different character, as result of a particular historical process, a specific evolutionary path.  This can be acutely felt today: consider Hip Hop: the simple, skeletal "BOOM - BAP" beat is the modern version of foot-stomping and hand-clapping, performing the same function of time-keeping, and just as 500 years ago, complex vocal delivery (rap) fills in all the fractions of time between, imitating and substituting for drum patterns - a mutated continuation of African musical heritage.

Usually the first reaction from Americans when this story is told is defensiveness.  But while it is indisputable that American rhythm is in general relatively more simplified and rigid compared to most of the rest of the world, it's not necessarily a bad thing.  The raw physical force of simplicity, that punch-you-in-the-gut-and-make-you-see-stars brute power of American modern music can not be denied.  Due to its development through the legacy of oppression and misery, American music is still without a doubt the best for expression of anger, frustration, and resentment in a modern world filled with injustice.  On another level, perhaps rigid, mechanical rhythms just suits our rigid and mechanical urban lifestyles better than organic polyrhythms; and the information saturated and sound polluted environments in which we live might explain the modern taste for stripped down and minimalistic beats.  Besides, the understatement of subtle, implicit, or suggested polyrhythms in a lot of African American music gives it beautiful new qualities and possibilities not found in African music.  (with that said i personally prefer Fela Kuti to James Brown :P)

But in many ways strong and explicit use of African polyrhythms is returning to African American music, from the self-conscious attempts to reconnect with Motherland culture made by musicians in the 1960s and 70s to the Chicago Juke/Footwork of today.  It seems unlikely that only 1 type of rhythm can sustain all these different kinds of music for long, and i think we are currently in the process of a global polyrhythmic revival.


Chicago Street Percussion:

Now we come to the grand finale, rainbow-in-the-sky, lighters-in-the-air, closing message of this long and dense story which spans half a millennium: African rhythm heritage not only survives, but THRIVES, in any hostile environment, despite every hardship, against every repressive measure, in defiance of all forces that tries to destroy it.

Thanks to Keith Jones, Wayne Marshall, and Darius James.

(01) Scaruffi, Piero. A History of Popular Music before Rock Music.
(02) Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. 
(03) Kingsbury Paul. The encyclopedia of country music: the ultimate guide to the music.
(04) Barbara Vierwo. Andy Trudeau. The Curious Listener's Guide to the Blues.
(05) Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery,
(06) Sublette, Ned. The World that made New Orleans: from Spanish silver to Congo Square.
(07) Peñalosa, David. The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins.
(08) Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz; Its Roots and Musical Development.
(09) Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues.
(10) Saldenha, Robert. Another Look At The History Of The Steel Band
(11) Peñalosa, David. Rumba Quinto
(12) Sublette, Ned. A History of Cuba and its Music.



Over the years i've heard people say things like "at least slavery gave us good music", or "without slavery music would be boring".  

To this i respond: 

1. Cultures mix via trade and other means all the time, such as the cultures all along the "Silk Road" trade routes: for example Turkish ideas inspired Chinese music and vice versa, without war or violence, and the resulting Uyghur music is anything but boring.  Similarly, Africa could have met Europe in a number of different ways, without subjugation or slavery. 

2. Given that much of American music was born in the only place where slaves were allowed to make music, what kinds of creativity would have blossomed from the meeting of African and European musical ideas, if the slaves were allowed to make music all over America?  What If there was no slavery at all and musicians could collaborate and inspire each other on equal footing??  And what if Europeans were never blinded by ignorance and racism, and had combined their developed harmony with sophisticated African rhythm starting from a much earlier time???

3.  Slavery created the need to express anger, sadness and resentment through music, and we have come to prize and "enjoy" these qualities in music.  But we should not get confused and believe these qualities to be inherently, naturally good.  Because without that legacy of abuse we would not enjoy angry and sad music at all, and would have come to appreciate other qualities instead.

4. Yes something good can come out of any catastrophic and violent injustice; but this is because of the strength of people and endurance of culture, not because of the injustice.  

5. Any argument that any part of slavery, how ever small, was good in any way, is an attempt to justify racist violence.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

BERLIN - Rebel Metropolis in Transition

A Chinese national magazine has asked me to write a short piece on Berlin: 

On the occasional sunny days of this unusually cold summer, Berliners spend as much time outside as possible.  The heavily graffiti covered streets, numerous parks, and all kinds of public spaces including in front of government buildings, are littered with groups of friends having picnics, grilling, drinking beer, from noon deep into the night, and the sweet smell of marijuana is nearly everywhere.  It is the kind of city where, after the sun sets you look around, where ever you are, and can likely count the number of people over 30 on 1 hand.  The Mayor is openly gay and can be seen at dance clubs with his boyfriend, club parties go from midnight to noon the next day, taking (not selling) most popular drugs is legal, police are rarely seen, and compared to almost anywhere else in the world, in Berlin there is an incredible feeling of freedom.

During the post WW2 development years major industry moved, and many big corporations settled in the Southern and other parts of Germany due to a variety of reasons including lower tax rates, and cities like Munich and Frankfurt have become rich (and with that, as is almost always the case, politically conservative).  With the absence of big money, and left over socialist health, welfare, and other social programs, Berlin has become a society of relative equality, with relatively even income/wealth distribution.  The gap between rich and poor is for sure growing, and with increasing rapidity during recent years, but as of 2013, still only a fraction of that of London or New York.  The unemployment rate fluctuates between 25 and 30% - astronomical for a major city - and if this was Los Angeles there would be daily guns and bombs, open warfare in the streets (shit, even with the 9% or whatever it is they have in LA, it already is!).  However, in Berlin people are not suffering anywhere near that level: homeless people (if you don't count the crusty punks) are seldom seen, and there is no such thing as a real "ghetto" (again, compared to other major Western, especially American, cities).  With the absence of drastic inequity also comes the absence of obsession with wealth, class, status, and its symbols, the kind of obsession normalized in the United States.  In Berlin no one gives a shit OR a fuck how much money or how many "important friends" you have, or what social circles you run in - maybe that's why some Hollywood celebrities like to hang out here and spend some comparatively relaxed and normal days.  

Berlin has been, for at least a century, famous for its art, music, and nightlife, even more so in the post-war decades.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and becoming the capital of not only East Germany but of the entire nation, the city has evolved a culture drastically different from other parts of Germany, with its ultra progressive, tolerant, and promiscuous attitudes.  The cultural center of Berlin keeps moving and shifting: during the 1990s it was Prenzlauer Berg, part of the former East, where all the crazy artists and drug users lived in illegal squats, and made art galleries and night clubs out of abandoned basements.  It was in these underground and unofficial spaces where what we know as "Berlin culture", of which the legacy of electronic and experimental music is an important part, evolved; Chicago House, Detroit Techno and other Afro-American dance and pop music, Italo-Disco, German electronic music stemming from the Kraut-Rock tradition, and later Jamaican Reggae and Dub, were the potent ingredients which gave rise to the now world famous Berlin Techno sound.  It is a rigidly mechanical, repetitively introverted and horizontally hypnotic music of deep patience and incremental changes within sameness, matching the city of few buildings taller than 6 or 7 stories, which for more than half the year is mired in frigidly cold weather, perfectly.   The former East side of town was also home to legendary industrial and experimental noise/electronic/rock group Einstürzende Neubauten (name translates to "Collapsing New Buildings"), where one of their 90s concerts on the 1st of May in Helmholzplatz turned into a historical confrontation with police.  1st of May, the traditional worker's day has now become a day of official protest in the city, where anti-authoritarian Leftist youths show their feelings toward capitalism and the powers that be.   Helmholzplatz used to be called L.S.D. park, where anarchistic hedonism and lawless creativity ruled, but is now surrounded by a suburbanized neighborhood of baby-strollers, chic apartments, and stylish cafes.  The hip part of the city since the early 2000s has moved geographically South to the former West, first to Kreuzberg and then now even further to Neukölln.  These neighborhoods are today a lot more colorful and diverse than the North side, filled with Turkish naturalized citizens and immigrants, as well as the ubiquitous international hipsters, and is often compared to the Brooklyn of a decade or 2 past.  Most of the big cultural events such as Karneval der Kulturen, many major dance clubs such as Tresor and Berghain, as well as countless underground art and music spaces are located in or around these areas (even the Day of Protest has moved to Oberbaumbrücke in Kreuzberg).  However, the latest rumor is that areas like Wedding and Charlottenburg, largely unexplored and long neglected areas, may become the next hot spots.  

Berlin is still known for its liberating and creative energy, its wild and hedonistic character, having been rated as the hippest city in Europe by major publications as recent as 2012.  But the forces of gentrification has been closing in, turning many independent art and music spaces into shopping malls and luxury lofts for the rich.  And while the influx of an international "creative class" has added to the city's character, ubiquitous hipsters and yuppies has at the same time surely diluted the city's uncompromising and stubbornly rebellious spirit. 

Dj Zhao is a Chinese/American journalist, Dj, and visual designer living in Berlin, and can be found at

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The New Denial

In a Johannesburg bookstore i came across a big hardback volume called Why Africa is So Poor, and on the back was this blurb:

 "This book shows that African poverty is not because the world has denied the continent the market and financial means to compete… Nor is African poverty solely a consequence of poor infrastructure or trade access …Greg Mills controversially shows that the main reason why Africa's people are poor is because their leaders have made this choice."

I have also been encountering this kind of thinking in everyday life: most recently an American "global bass" dj told me that "Africa just needs to stop acting like a bitch and man-up" adding that "it is their own corruption which is the real problem".  A while back some Germans told me much the same thing, that "The West" no longer has anything to do with today's affliction and misfortune in Africa, and that we should all stop dredging up the past.  Routine disavowal and willful ignorance have surely always played central roles in our brave new world, but these attitudes seem to comprise a new intensified wave of right wing denialism which renews a sense of European superiority during a time of economic turmoil, provides false moral grounds for the shirking of responsibility, and reinforces centuries old racism.  Let us look at exactly what is wrong with this grade A+ Bullshit:

• Claims of internal corruption being the primary reason for poverty in many parts of Africa today ignore historical facts of the African people's chosen leaders being systematically removed by Western powers due to non-compliance with foreign interests, and corrupt lap dog dictators installed in their place, who sells out their own people for personal gain, dooming entire populations to decades of famine, war, and disease.

• Claims of incompetence being responsible for under development leave out a multitude of  manipulative measures (such as "Aid") with which foreign agents keeps real development from  happening, thus keeping routes open for their continuing exploitation.

• These claims disavow the long term interest of multi-nationals to keep areas such as the Congo unstable and in conflict.

• These claims deny fundamental colonial causation of problems in the very structure of society and in every sphere of life, which are entirely too numerous to list here*, the effects of which not only live on, but ripple and multiply with each day.

• These claims take none of this into account, saying instead: "Africans simply can not govern themselves, and as soon as we leave, they mess everything up" - calling a man weak after stabbing him in the back.

Superficially, this kind of selective observation and false reasoning may seem either relatively harmless or at the most, only misinformed.  But upon closer inspection it unmistakably stems from and validates the same Eurocentric, Social Darwinist, and white suprematist ideology which justified systematic decimation of native peoples for the past 4 centuries.  Ultimately, according to this logic, the only possible reason that "Africans can not govern themselves" is "inherent (racial) inferiority" - these claims which blame the victims not only reveal the deep racism of those who make them, they allow injustice and horror to continue unabated.  People who make these claims, just like the ones who deny artificial conflict created by the Dutch masters between the Hutus and Tutsis as one of the central cause of the Rwandan Genocide, and instead cite fictional "ancient tribal hatred" as explanation, are fundamentally no different than Holocaust deniers, and not one bit less morally irresponsible or reprehensible.

French former Defence Minister giving Algeria "The Arm"
Plenty of other examples exist, such as Germany's refusal to call the Namibian Genocide what it is, under pressure from other former colonial powers - because if Germany was to start using the G word, the others would also have to recognize the extent of similar atrocities, and forced to pay reparations.   Similarly, the French former defense minister's recent response to Algerian request for recognition of colonial war crimes (photo) more than adequately illustrates this New Denial - it is a much easier option than any other.  And last but not least we have the likes of wildly popular right-wing historian Niall Ferguson, one of top 100 most influential people according to TIME magazine, saying things like "the British Empire was mostly a good thing, at least we brought civilization to the savages".  His books, which include Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, deny not only British Empire's pandemic destruction of culture and atrocities against vast numbers of human beings in Africa and around the world, but also, more importantly, Britain's primary authorship of the ideological constructs which made the holocaust possible.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for the strength in my African sisters and brother's hearts when they talk of reconciliation, forgiveness, and moving on; and do of course recognize the importance of letting go of the past and positivity for the way forward.  But while In the 21st Century by far not the only part of the globe still struggling with problems directly or indirectly resulting from colonialism, the situation in Africa is among the very worst, especially with the constant and increased presence of a predatory international economic order.  Many African nations are not yet ready to do what China did in 1984 - telling the former British colonizers "thank you for waking us up", in other words: "spare us your crocodile tears, just fuck off" - because the neo-colonial knife, unlike with China, is still firmly planted in their backs - and no real progress can be made until its removal.

*arbitrary national boundaries which divide ethnic groups;  inequality fostered within populations;  introduction of forms of governance and legal systems which go against local customs; suppression of education; banning of local languages; destruction of indigenous culture; collective psychological trauma from centuries of violence and oppression; etc, etc, etc, etc.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why are we surprised?

Abu Ghraib was no aberration, the recent pissing on corpses was no exception, and neither was last week's murder spree. quite the opposite, they are not only part of a larger culture developing in these places, incidents like this reveal the very essence of US ideology which drives foreign policy, they uncover the precise nature of these wars, of the real underlying American sentiment toward these wars, toward the people who have been constructed as enemies.

Bush jr. was unjustly criticized at the time for his use of words, because they were extremely accurate: "crusade". That's exactly what it always was: a civilizing mission to bring the light of Freedom and Democracy to uncultured primitives who are so backward that they are barely human.

With rhetoric like this as justification and guidance, no one should be surprised if a few occasional stories, out of no doubt tens of thousands, should surface.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What is Very Wrong with KONY2012

They give a man 1 fish to feed a family of 10, after having taken 1,000 fishes from him, while continuing to take massive quantities of fish from him every day, with no plans to stop taking fish from him, ever.

The giving of 1 fish makes the givers feel good, and makes them forget about having taken 1000 fish before, and makes it possible for the taking of fish to continue.*

The sentiment, the sympathy, the emotionalism, the tears, the "caring", the charity, the aid -- it is all an integral part of the machine which keeps plundering, raping and murdering Africa (and S. America and S.E. Asia).

The "apolitical" rhetoric of humanitarianism often cloaks, justifies, and ultimately equals military interventionism (intervention which serves economic and political self interest, beneath the talk of aid). Just like the allegedly "neutral" language of "free market", business, and development always conceals hegemonic ideology.

*fish stops being a metaphor and becomes literal when it comes to the Somalian Pirates.

and within the problematic world of Charity and Aid, Invisible Children is especially worrying:

How Invisible Children Falsely Marketed The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act

growing outrage in Uganda over film

TOTAL REVENUE $13,765,180

Advocating increased militarization of a government with plenty of human rights abuses, in order to catch a drastically diminished warlord who left the country 6 years ago, is not what Uganda needs.

It is unethical to knowingly misrepresent a war for any reason, least of all self aggrandizement and paychecks (likely not only from the bulk of revenue, but also likely from Ugandan military)

Invisible Children's super-hero fantasies of white men coming to save Africa make it even easier to disavow historical Western complicity and causation in African atrocities, from Rwanda Genocide to Congo War to LRA.

Again the westerners use the misery that they helped to create to make money and themselves look good while condescending toward and blaming the victim.

the West, and the US, did a lot to cause situations like this and monsters like Kony -- and things like Invisible Children furthers Western/US ideological agendas, not only reinforcing racist notions of superiority, not only prevents accountability for, or even admission of, direct or indirect crimes against humanity on the African continent, but makes it possible for them to keep exploiting, and create more future monsters.

1- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.

2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

4- This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.

5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

6- Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.

7- I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.
- Teju Cole @tejucole

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


There can be no reconciliation between total despair wrt the global situation, and a confident, cheerful disposition in the everyday sphere. Nor between knowing that nearly everything about the way we live is wrong, being aware of the epic scale cruelty and violence supported by our daily life, and making that life livable.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


i saw the best minds of my generation seduced by
advertising, distracted aloof oblivious,
serving clients in chic offices in the afternoon
after the next big project,
accessorized hipsters apathetic to the world outside
their little insulated bubbles refusing to see the bigger context,
who amused and sarcastic and ego-driven and narcissistic sat
up laughing in the artificial dinge of
fashionable bars floating through gentrified parts of the city
contemplating salaries,
who bared their brains for career within agencies and
saw lifestyle brands reaching target audiences successful,
who passed through startups with sexy cool eye wear
dreaming of fame attending exclusive social functions
among the celebrities of tomorrow,
who graduated with honors from the academies for cleverness;
publishing novel ideas on their edgy personal blogs,
who conformed upwardly mobile in tasteful denim,
untouched by distant horrors reduced to sound bytes and choosing
to ignore their removed complicity in it all...

Monday, November 07, 2011

Manufacturing Consent

just in case you have not read or seen it. like me.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Killing Hope

Killing Hope: US Military and CIA
Interventions Since World War II.

by William Blum

Table of Contents

1. China - 1945 to 1960s: Was Mao Tse-tung just paranoid?
2. Italy - 1947-1948: Free elections, Hollywood style
3. Greece - 1947 to early 1950s: From cradle of democracy to client state
4. The Philippines - 1940s and 1950s: America's oldest colony
5. Korea - 1945-1953: Was it all that it appeared to be?
6. Albania - 1949-1953: The proper English spy
7. Eastern Europe - 1948-1956: Operation Splinter Factor
8. Germany - 1950s: Everything from juvenile delinquency to terrorism
9. Iran - 1953: Making it safe for the King of Kings
10. Guatemala - 1953-1954: While the world watched
11. Costa Rica - Mid-1950s: Trying to topple an ally - Part 1
12. Syria - 1956-1957: Purchasing a new government
13. Middle East - 1957-1958: The Eisenhower Doctrine claims another backyard for America
14. Indonesia - 1957-1958: War and pornography
15. Western Europe - 1950s and 1960s: Fronts within fronts within fronts
16. British Guiana - 1953-1964: The CIA's international labor mafia
17. Soviet Union - Late 1940s to 1960s: From spy planes to book publishing
18. Italy - 1950s to 1970s: Supporting the Cardinal's orphans and techno-fascism
19. Vietnam - 1950-1973: The Hearts and Minds Circus
20. Cambodia - 1955-1973: Prince Sihanouk walks the high-wire of neutralism
21. Laos - 1957-1973: L'Armée Clandestine
22. Haiti - 1959-1963: The Marines land, again
23. Guatemala - 1960: One good coup deserves another
24. France/Algeria - 1960s: L'état, c'est la CIA
25. Ecuador - 1960-1963: A text book of dirty tricks
26. The Congo - 1960-1964: The assassination of Patrice Lumumba
27. Brazil - 1961-1964: Introducing the marvelous new world of death squads
28. Peru - 1960-1965: Fort Bragg moves to the jungle
29. Dominican Republic - 1960-1966: Saving democracy from communism by getting rid of democracy
30. Cuba - 1959 to 1980s: The unforgivable revolution
31. Indonesia - 1965: Liquidating President Sukarno … and 500,000 others
East Timor - 1975: And 200,000 more
32. Ghana - 1966: Kwame Nkrumah steps out of line
33. Uruguay - 1964-1970: Torture -- as American as apple pie
34. Chile - 1964-1973: A hammer and sickle stamped on your child's forehead
35. Greece - 1964-1974: "Fuck your Parliament and your Constitution," said
the President of the United States
36. Bolivia - 1964-1975: Tracking down Che Guevara in the land of coup d'etat
37. Guatemala - 1962 to 1980s: A less publicized "final solution"
38. Costa Rica - 1970-1971: Trying to topple an ally -- Part 2
39. Iraq - 1972-1975: Covert action should not be confused with missionary work
40. Australia - 1973-1975: Another free election bites the dust
41. Angola - 1975 to 1980s: The Great Powers Poker Game
42. Zaire - 1975-1978: Mobutu and the CIA, a marriage made in heaven
43. Jamaica - 1976-1980: Kissinger's ultimatum
44. Seychelles - 1979-1981: Yet another area of great strategic importance
45. Grenada - 1979-1984: Lying -- one of the few growth industries in Washington
46. Morocco - 1983: A video nasty
47. Suriname - 1982-1984: Once again, the Cuban bogeyman
48. Libya - 1981-1989: Ronald Reagan meets his match
49. Nicaragua - 1981-1990: Destabilization in slow motion
50. Panama - 1969-1991: Double-crossing our drug supplier
51. Bulgaria 1990/Albania 1991: Teaching communists what democracy is all about
52. Iraq - 1990-1991: Desert holocaust
53. Afghanistan - 1979-1992: America's Jihad
54. El Salvador - 1980-1994: Human rights, Washington style
55. Haiti - 1986-1994: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?
56. The American Empire - 1992 to present