Music brings us together. This is a known truth. In the unparalleled world we have now found ourselves thrown into – more connected than ever before online, but bizarrely cut-off from our social norms – the untiring ability of music to generate deep human connection is more marked than ever. From Italian balcony serenades to live concerts played from the homes of artists such as Chris Martin, Dua Lipa, and John Legend, music has given us all a blissful relief from the harsh reality of a global pandemic and has become the prime factor in our mental wellbeing.
It’s not that these instances have given us any kind of sweet slice of oblivion – we are fully aware that Charlie Puth didn’t decide to wake up and stream himself singing from his parents living room for the sake of it. He, like John Legend and Chris Martin, was graciously dipping into the ‘Together at Home’ concert series. The idea aims to unite people through music as we all sit at home, having unknowingly covered most of the series Netflix has to offer, told ourselves to not snack on anything else until dinner, and most likely tried to do a workout and given up shamefully quickly – wondering what to do next.
These are exceptional circumstances, we have all heard these words uttered in more forms than we knew possible over the past couple of weeks, but there is something about the rawness and nonchalance of these ‘concerts’ that provide a true sense of comfort in such an uncomfortable time. It has been so easy to find a feeling of familiarity and solace by watching our favourite artists serenade us from afar over social media. It feels like the world has stopped, but the music hasn’t, and in this heartening fact we can take great consolation.
This is not to mention the heart-warming videos of people from around the world singing from windows and balconies in a sort of wartime act of hope initially derived from plain boredom and an increased sense of community spirit. Morale has been boosted through the rooftops with the simple act of singing together, enduring this together, and coping with it together. A musical statement demonstrating humanity at its finest.
Whilst the unquestionable effects of Covid-19 on industries such as sport and travel are ruthless, the music industry, needless to say, has been faced with a similar heart-breaking struggle. Artists who make the majority of their income from playing live have been challenged with an unfortunate period of great insecurity for their music. The already ever-changing industry may have to force more changes as we inevitably move to a new, digitalised world. Covid-19 has plainly presented this fact; however, I don’t believe that the wonder of live music will ever fade with this digitalisation.
In the meantime, it is crucial that we should now acknowledge the joy music has brought us all over the world amidst this crisis, and give back to artists by buying merch, purchasing physical CDs/records, streaming their music, introducing your friends and sharing their music, and perhaps even buying tickets for a gig in six months’ time – a much more hopeful prospect.
As Covid-19 spreads, we realise that each week is wildly different from the last. The enchanting thing about music is that it is always there, and it will continue to be more important to us as times get harder. And if we have nothing else to owe this virus, it can be that it once again revealed the remarkable power of music.
Photo: Michaela Loheit via Flikr.
In 2010, the world was spoilt with films such as The Social Network, Inception, and Up. What we didn’t see coming, however, was Danish director Susanne Bier’s spectacular filmic escapade, In a Better World. Bier, best known in the UK for directing the worldwide series The Night Manager, created an arresting portrayal of the ‘other’ Denmark, one without such a strikingly harmonious society.
The thriller observes the extraordinary but precarious bond formed between two young Danish boys, which contrasts with a tumultuous and deteriorating marriage, as well as a violent relationship between the two fathers. Set against the backdrop of both Denmark and a war-torn African refugee camp, Bier uses the former as a deliberate and visible representation of the darker turmoil that exists in her depiction of Denmark. The film undeniably appears to be a haunting insight into man’s soul, and this proves to be the case upon listening to the soundtrack alone. Immediately, you recognise that this is the score from the kind of film that stays with you for days afterwards.
Hailing from Stockholm, Johan Söderqvist was delegated the momentous role of affiliating Bier’s vision with music, combining the elegance and scope of a Hollywood film with the honesty and challenge of a smaller, humbler indie. The Swedish composer employed the African instrument, the ‘mbira’, to carry the tone throughout the soundtrack. In fact, the opening scene – a first look at the refugee camp in Africa - establishes this instrument as the main voice of the film. It acts as a constant throughout the soundtrack, always in the foreground blending with scenes in both Africa and Denmark thanks to its soft nature. Its ability to serve an emotional but also rhythmical function captures the beats of the film perfectly.
With the writers of In a Better World, Bier hoped to construct something that dug beneath the smiling surface of Denmark, the best thing about the music is how it serves this idea faithfully. The music contradicts its own face-value purity and perfection; amidst the beauty, there are salient moments of uneasiness, instability and vulnerability. The accompanying music strips itself of any safety or security, leaving us only with a feeling of fragility underneath what seems to be a shining façade. Just like Bier’s Denmark, an idyllic setting that needs to be broken, Söderqvist recognises that there should be a notably tenuous feeling of safety which respects the overriding sentiment of the film. The composer generally employs a sparse musical texture using a lone male voice in all its vulnerability to create moments of intimacy. This is, however, counteracted by euphoric moments where Söderqvist incorporates unquestionably clichéd but unapologetic soaring strings: a build-up of tension released in an outpouring of emotion. This element of unpredictability means that it is the kind of music which makes you stop. The film has the same effect – it creates a deadly silence, and the music and picture work in accord in a way I have never come across in a score before.
Söderqvist should be commended for creating this heartbreakingly beautiful score; undoubtedly his most impressive work to date. It reflects the feelings of frailty and sorrow presented in the film with grace. The music has its own voice in the film, and whilst the picture itself has been praised profusely, the score should receive equal plaudits for its uniquely moving musical narration. I would urge anyone to listen and experience the emotional depth that Söderqvist’s work has to offer.
It seemed to be an age of glitter and glamour where the disco ball was hanging high and the flared trouser was donned with pride. Cult classics like Abba’s Dancing Queen or Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon were blaring in the local discotheque. Europop was in full swing. Dance orientated and fun-filled, it is unsurprising that even after the break-up or retirement of many of the artists, their music remains infinitely memorable.
Europop may be seen as a musical appeal to establishing European culture beyond its counterparts. Abba’s Benny Andersson spoke of the music he listened to when he was young during his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, citing the influence of blues music from eastern Russia, to Finland as well as Scandinavia: ‘It’s definitely in the Swedish folk music, you can hear it in the Russian folk songs, you can hear it in the music from Jean Sibelius or Edvard Grieg from Norway, you could see it in the eyes of Greta Garbo and you can hear it in the voice of Jussi Björling.’ Whilst it may be a stretch to say that there was an outright rejection of British and American music, there was a plea in European music to fashion itself away from the British or American musical monopoly, forming its own identity.
Liberative and lavish, Europop was even a reaction against political austerity in some parts of the continent. The Spanish disco scene boomed after the death of Francisco Franco and his Nuevo Estado in 1975, ending the musical censorship which even included the likes of peace-loving songs like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. This shortly followed the emergence of artists like Baccara with their chart-topping ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ reflecting a newly liberated Spain.
Whilst the fizz of Europop may have fallen flat in end of the 1990s, many of the music producers responsible for mass pop culture today are currently are European. The Swedish producer and industry legend, Max Martin was responsible for the teen pop sensation Britney Spears offering her the song ‘Baby One More Time’. Yet this song did not feel American at all, set in C minor this was a radical break from the major keys that dominated pop. Martin was also responsible for artists such as Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, and Katy Perry, crediting the Swedish public-school system for much of his success (even forming the Swedish Glam Rock band, It’s Alive, whilst there).
With the ever-shifting landscape of pop-culture, the impact of Europop seems to be a distant opium dream, yet its influence today is still profound. Beyond its aesthetic value, music appeals to both a national sense of identity that is pertinent given the current state of British politics, but also the bigger national collaboration that happens behind the scenes that we may not be aware of.
Anna de Vivo
You may have already heard that Lana Del Rey loves getting High by the Beach or that Post Malone ‘always be smokin’ like a Rasta’. In 1967, The Beatles proudly announced their favourite past-time of ‘getting high’ With a Little Help from [Their] Friends, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ten Crack Commandments have even prompted a following of dedicated disciples.
The romanticising of drug cultures through music is undeniably typical and unexceptional to the 21st century; hip-hop, rock, rap, trap, and reggae are perhaps the genres that immediately come to mind. Logan Freedman, data scientist at Addictions.com, even goes so far as to label rappers ‘lyrical drug peddlers.’ Interestingly, Rolling Stone challenges this, instead suggesting country music as encompassing ‘more lyrical references to drugs than any other genre’.
Nevertheless, the most significant peculiarity surrounding this musical narco-debate is its far-reaching and all-embracing character; it seems that drugs have evolved into an international musical leitmotif.
Mexico provides a fascinating example of this global narco-genre. Loosely translated as ‘drug ballads’, los narcocorridos are contemporarily popular with Mexican radio, films and television.
This subgenre of the Mexican romance ballad originates as early as the 1930s, when corridos (ballads) began to consider the drug trafficking milieu. The development of these melodies is rooted in banda music, the traditional folk music popular in rural Mexico and characterised by wind and metal instruments. Rather bizarrely, parallels have also been drawn between this narco-genre and 1980’s gangster rap. Jasmine Garsd supports this, labelling El Komander as ‘the Jay Z of Mexican drug balladeers.’
Los narcocorridos additionally fulfil a socio-politico function, commenting on current events within communities or moods of the period. This is reflected in G.E. Hernández’s definition: ‘a journey into the complex nuances of Mexican social and cultural history’. Rosalino Sánchez, known better by his narcocorrido pseudonym Chalino, exhibits this with his songs of revolution, romance and socio-economic regrets in the 1980s before his assassination.
The glamourisation of illicit activities is arguably the principle point of identification of los narcocorridos. The genre narrates the hyper-violent narco-lifestyle and criminal means of attaining capital, consequently prompting government attempts to silence the potent social tool. Elijah Wald’s Corrido Censorship recounts the defeat of the former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox no less, in proposing a ban on the narco-genre.
Other individuals in government have taken an alternative viewpoint; former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda suggested that los narcocorridos are the manifestations of a demoralised Mexican society accepting their reality: ‘You cannot blame narcocorridos for drug violence. Drug violence is to blame for narcocorridos.’
What little official restriction the Mexican musical narcoculture has been subject to has proved insignificant. Specific narcocorridos have been banned, Mexican musicians jailed, and the musical genre as a whole prohibited by the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Coahuila. Nevertheless, the defiant narcocorridos have become mainstream in Mexican popular culture and are now distributed in Guatemala, Colombia and Bolivia. Popularity has also extended north, with BBC’s Chris Summers estimating the US market to value at approximately $300 million per annum.
It has become clear that los narcocorridos are not only linked to crime in their lyrical composition, but also in their wider context. At times, this Mexican regional music is broadcasted in order to launder money sourced from the drug trade; cash in exchange for airtime is used as a cover. In addition, many Mexican narcocorrido musicians were killed during at the height of the Mexican drug war. This 2006-2008 murder spree included the assassination of Valentín Elizalde; his murder has been interpreted as a consequence of his narcocorrido A Mis Enemigos which denounces one of the oldest organised crime groups in Mexico, the Gulf Cartel.
Today there is fear on all sides. Worlfolk and deBree’s investigation discovered narcocorrido musicians limiting their tours in Mexico and hiring extra security when travelling to more volatile urban areas. Some even avoid singing drug ballads for fear of openly criticising cartels. Narcocorrido fans have also been affected by the threatening context in which this genre participates; there is the fear that buying one CD will signal loyalties to one cartel over another.
However, hope still exists for a continuing demand. Outside Mexico, radio broadcasts of los narcocorridos have increased in recent years, especially among US-based hispanohablante stations. They too feature in narcocinema and popular US television series, prime examples being the popular Netflix series, Breaking Bad, as well as NCIS: Los Angeles.
We cannot know how the ongoing Mexican Drug War will affect this narco-genre. Max Fisher of The New York Times does not expect the conflict to be absolved in the near future, with 2017 marking unprecedented levels of drug-driven brutality, surpassing the 20,000+ killings in 2016. Perhaps, the exponentially increasing violence will be voiced with a narcocorrido music revolution? Or will the cartels further dominate Mexican civilian life, forcing drug discourse in popular culture underground for fear of repercussions?
Cuba has always been an island brimming with culture. The country’s music scene is just one branch of a flourishing tree. Many of the world’s current artists can trace the roots of their ideas back to Cuban music. The island’s sound, at the vanguard of world music, is constantly evolving. To put it simply, Cuban music is much more than the soundtrack to your family meal out at Chiquitos.
The term ‘Cuban music’ encompasses a number of distinct sub-genres, each comprised of their own sub-sub-genres and so on... Take rumba for example, a style said to have three traditional forms, all emerging from Afro-Cuban culture which dates back to the 16th century when enslaved Africans were brought to the island.
Many of the sub-genres, notably guajira, son, and rumba, went on to inspire Flamenco rhythms, New Orleans R&B, and the infectious reggaetón, famously known as the music of choice for booze cruises across the globe.
To understand the basics of Cuba’s distinct sound, look no further than the pioneers of the music scene on the Caribbean island – the Buena Vista Social Club. Founded in the heart of Havana as a hedonistic, fraternal society before the revolution, the Buena Vista Social Club is now emblematic of Cuba’s musical golden age. Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, and Rubén González, all former members of the group, are considered the founding fathers of Cuba’s modern music scene.
In recent years, young artists have rejuvenated the scene. Far from breaking with traditional techniques, musicians such as pianist Roberto Fonseca and singer Daymé Arocena have sought to breathe new life into the island’s music scene, adapting and customizing the treasured rhythms of old.
Daymé Arocena is the country’s latest musical export. The young prodigy merges the piano lines made famous by the greats with more daring time signature changes and personal lyrics related to her religion, Santería, that she invokes with haunting chants.
Arocena’s introduction of electronic sounds into her album Cubafonía subtly fuses modernity with tradition, and while more conventional rumba often follows a set pattern, her songs are made up of unexpected twists and turns.
Cuba’s music scene is sophisticated, nuanced, and timeless. The sounds that emanate from the island have left a musical legacy strong enough to withstand today’s most unbearable chart-toppers. At night I sleep soundly knowing that, centuries from now, future generations will pour themselves a glass of rum, light a cigar, and kick back to some upbeat guajira.
Written by Thomas Davidson
Image source: http://hiphopandpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Screen-Shot-2013-12-27-at-12.42.42-PM.png
Cuba possesses one of the prominent and exciting music scenes in the world, and it is a truly impressive feat that such a small island has been able to influence world music to such an extent. For centuries, the Caribbean island has been a musical melting pot, out of which new rhythms and melodies have blossomed and permeated musical culture worldwide. This is largely due to the fact that Cuba has had for a long time a rich mix of different ethnicities. Spain colonised the island at the beginning of the 16th century, and after over-exploiting native Cubans for two centuries, they started to import African slaves to farm sugar cane and tobacco, whose descendants live in Cuba today.
When one thinks of Cuban music, the first words that come to mind are likely to be along the lines of ‘Habanera’ and ‘Mambo’, but now Cuban music is moving on. Hip Hop evolved in New York City in the late 70s and over the next three decades it established itself as a genre and as a new subculture. Originally Hip Hop was confined to the USA but soon its influence spread. Just as Hip Hop was a medium through which to channel frustration about racial discrimination in the States, so it became in Cuba. Cuban rappers also use their music to draw attention to issues such as mass tourism and AIDS.
Unsurprisingly, the adoption and appropriation of an American artform was not initially popular with the socialist government, especially because rap has always synonymous with protest. Hip Hop is not dance music, it is music to chew on. The state was fundamentally unhappy with the image of young black men getting up on stage and attacking the socio-political situation in the country. This all changed when a man named Harry Belafonte introduced none other than Fidel Castro to the genre. Soon afterwards, the then Minister of Culture Abel Prieto proclaimed Hip Hop “an authentic expression of cubanidad”, an apparent victory for young artists. In reality it was a tactical move to bring Hip Hop under state control. Artists favoured by the government obtained success, while others were pushed into obscurity. Even recently, Hip Hop artists have been thrown in jail for the offence of going slightly too far in their denunciation of police brutality.
Hip Hop everywhere has often been a centre for unbridled objectification of women, and it has been difficult for women to break through and find their own voice. Now Cuba probably has the highest percentage of female artists in its respective industry. Groups like Instinto, Anónimo Consejo and Explosion Femenina have all achieved some mainstream success, and the lesbian group Krudas Cubensi have earned recognition for their open discussion of homosexuality.
Nonetheless, while the nation is not as tightly controlled as it was years ago, it is not a land of the free. Freedom of expression in art is still a distant concept, and television and radio are still under state supervision. Accepted artists are given money for new turntables and prime concert locations, but push your social commentary too far and you’ll end up with nothing.
· Orishas – A Lo Cubano (2000)
· Anónimo Consejo – Los Nuevos Inquilinos (2011)
· Danay Suarez – Palabras Manuales (2017)
Photograph by Valentin Kokorin
Two weeks ago, I had my first ever ‘Electroverse’ experience. I doubt that many, if any, of my classmates knew exactly what to expect when we were invited to take part in a music workshop and attend the same band’s concert the following night. All we were told was that we would be introduced to a new musical genre created by Catalan poet Laia Malo and Mallorcan record producer Jaume Reus, who together form the Catalan-speaking duo Jansky.
They named themselves after the American physicist Karl Guthe Jansky: the first person to discover radio waves emanating from the Milky Way. Working with the concept of being able to ‘hear’ the planets and stars, the Jansky duo have created an intense, transcendental style of music that is clearly tied to these origins. By combining Reus’ electronica and occasional flute solos with Malo’s poems, they managed to invent something completely original. Yes, when I first discovered what it was, it all sounded slightly peculiar to me too. I mean, synthesisers, flute accompaniments, and poetry readings? Surely this couldn’t work. Well, I can now say that I was pleasantly surprised by the results.
The whole experience comprised a workshop with the band in the DSU’s Kingsgate Bar on a Thursday afternoon, followed by a live concert in central Newcastle on Friday evening.
After the event, we floated out of the venue and slowly made our way back to Durham. Nobody was entirely sure how to define what we had just experienced. What we all agreed on, however, was that we had been simultaneously moved, scared, and trapped in a musical realm we hadn’t been to before, in a place that we were all, nevertheless, eager to dive right back into.