Asian Dance Hybrids in the Archipelago of Kitsch
According to Ted Gioia, old music is ➚killing new music. And honestly, when was the last time you heard anything genuinely new? Pop has largely succumbed to the algorithm, while underground music’s youth-driven cutting edge relies on supercharged kitsch, eclectic cultural references thrown into a blender, bass-boosted, and presented as a kaleidoscope of genres suffixed with “-core,” a signifier reduced to its expression of an endlessly reproducible ideal type. When it’s not rediscovering the cultural relics of the past, pop now mines the musical diversity to be found in the global margins. The most prominent currents energizing dance music today come from marginalized Black and Afro-Latin communities, from funk carioca in the favelas of Brazil to Jersey club in the housing projects of Brick City. Amapiano, Afrobeats, neoperreo; these genres have begun to capture the Western pop music imagination in recent years, genres which themselves arose out of an endless refashioning of Western musical forms in the periphery.
According to Adorno, kitsch is the “precipitate of devalued forms and empty ornaments from a formal world that has become remote from its immediate context”; for Greenberg, kitsch “has gone on a triumphal tour of the world, crowding out and defacing native cultures in one colonial country after another, so that it is now by way of becoming a universal culture, the first universal culture ever beheld.” This was back in the mid-20th century. We haven’t yet reached that universal culture, though some might argue in that direction; rather, it is now the kitsch of the global majority that is returning to a culturally beleaguered West. Perhaps this is merely another phase in the cycles of global cultural circulation, a refrain of the 1920s advent of recorded music and the scramble to inscribe the world’s sounds onto shellac.
Of course, the world is not so easily explained by the pithy universalisms of Adorno or Greenberg. This segment is instead concerned with the particular. Inspired by dance music collective Eastern Margins, this segment probes the connections we might draw between the manifestations of kitsch in different localities in Asia. These Asian forms have their own unique connotations, histories, and links to subcultural identities, often working class, marginalized, or vulgar. Like Egyptian mahraganat, Brazilian funk carioca, Balkan turbo-folk, and other mass musics, they have also often been subject to varying degrees of criminalization and censorship as well as subsumption into narratives of the nation.
In the Philippines, it’s budots—both a genre rife with potty humor and a “form of self-expression: ‘Ka-budots pud nimo uy (You’re so budots),’” according to ➚Jay Rosas. Taiwanese might call it taike, a nebulous descriptor that connotes a sort of betel nut-chewing bumpkin that has at different points in history been reclaimed for underground rock, dance clubs, and electrified ➚Taiost temple processions. In Bollywood cinema it’s the tapori who gyrates to lewd music; in Vietnam, the scourge of trẻ trâu gesticulating at loud clubs blasting vinahouse. The elite in Sinophone Southeast Asia might turn their nose at manyao and the drug-peddling gangsters they associate with the genre. And in South Korea, the spectre of ppong-tchak haunts the underground, a genre once denounced for its Japanese flavor but now speaks to an ineffable feeling of folk Koreanness; ➚according to Lee Junhee, lecturer at Sungkonghoe University, “the word ppong is often associated with subcultures, kitsch-like elements in korea, cultural elements and factors that are hardly associated with ‘luxury’ or ‘high class’ but rather, intentionally used to express vulgarity.” It’s the Korean gaksuli performer cracking sexual jokes and mooning the audience, the manyao musician hocking a loogie before the beat drops, the taike spirit of making a track whose only lyrics are “gan ni niang”—fuck your mom.
These forms have yet to be subsumed within the broader fabric of Western popular music, though the efforts of underground musicians in the diaspora have begun to lift the veil. Eastern Margins aimed to “reclaim these sounds - to showcase them in their pure emotional glory” in their compilation album Redline Legends, arguing their case as a form of experimentalism in Asian mass culture; Eternal Dragonz showcased the spirit of ppong in their mixtape ➚Cola-Tek Autobahn, mixed by Seesea and DJ Yesyes. This process of reclaiming elides a palimpsest of overlapping differences within Asian nations and regions within those nations; budots itself is a sound from the periphery of the periphery, pitted against Manila-centrism in the Philippines that has since been touted as Pinoy-field dance music. If according to Adorno, all kitsch is ideology, then what is the ideology that might be teased from this musical kitsch and its “reclaiming”?
In September last year, Boiler Room had its latest Seoul edition. One DJ stood out in particular: sporting an umbrella hat, oversized iron scissors (yeot-kawi, typically wielded as a percussive instrument by Korean candy peddlers to attract customers), and a T-shirt emblazoned with the word jeulgeobda - to be joyful. That word certainly described the crowd at the site, packed to the brim with overjoyed dancers sweating it out to ppong-tchak and K-pop. But online, the set was polarizing—a largely foreign audience clutched their pearls in horror at the kitschy, bad music that had infiltrated their precious purveyor of cool. Some native Koreans were even apologizing. While the reaction of a chin-scratching devotee to the temple of Berghain might be predictable, the embarrassment of Korean viewers is a fascinating case study of the hegemony of subcultural capital.
In the language of business techno, to describe a techno track as “hypnotic” is often meant as a compliment. But the bouncy bass of vinahouse and the incessant high-pitched squeal of budots induce a hypnotism of their own. What’s the difference, then, between the hypnotism of minimal techno and the hypnotism of these regional forms? This segment explores the dialectic between popular and avant-garde, mainstream and underground, cringe and cool, in the Asian archipelago of kitsch.
- James Gui
Listen to hours of it on MPR ➚ here
In ‘Asian Dance Hybrids in the Archipelago of Kitsch’, music writer, researcher, and DJ, James Gui ➚@zkgui , has curated 12 hours of dusty, betel-nut chewing, bass boosted, hyper-pop’d (before gen z did it) music from across working class Asia with a group of young artists working within the genres.
From ➚@therealhojo in Taiwan we hear the spirit of ‘taike’ through mandopop, a slur-cum-genre referring to pre-1949 islanders, bumpkins, and then stimulant-fueled underground music scenes.
From ➚@supershelhiel in Malaysia, Manyao is Mandopop on ecstasy- the sickly sweetness of Chinese ballads hypercharged with trance synth stabs and high-octane kicks. heard today with a global mix of Indonesian funkot, UK garage, and homegrown hyperpop.
Then ➚@_lushlata_ gives us Bollywood bass and other sounds from the margins of the Indian subcontinent with a blend of UK dubstep, jungle, drum and bass.
➚@obese.dogma777 in The Philipines we get Budots with all its high-pitched, sliding synths, vulgar vocal chops. This is one of the first electronic genres in the region that came to national prominence recently as high-profile politicians, including Rodrigo Duterte, have used it for nefarious viral political campaigns.
From ➚@_n_x_p and ➚@puppy_ri0t, we get Vinahouse the bouncy, bass-heavy club genre that is ubiquitous in Vietnam’s urban soundscape.
Then from Korea the Future Kwankwang Medley crew gives us the hyper-kpop’d Ppong chat revival, a dance music genre once associated with the elderly, typically heard at highway rest stops, flea markets, or daytime dance halls called cola-teks. Ppong and its ethos can now be heard in basement venues across Seoul. ➚@future_kwankwang_madly
If Greenberg's kitsch “has gone on a triumphal tour of the world, crowding out and defacing native cultures in one colonial country after another, so that it is now by way of becoming a universal culture”, this is the kitsch that remains at the edges, consuming, misinterpreting, and resisting a universal culture, for whom the promise of an efficient, modern and globalized future never came– kitsch’s last stand when absolutely everything is kitsch.
Back in January '22, Anton Van Dalen joined us on MPR for an episode of Dena Yago's show New York Conversations. In this episode, Yago and Van Dalen discuss his art and his pigeons, which he has raised, bred, and flown on Avenue A since 1971. Born in Amstelveen, Holland in 1938, Anton van Dalen emigrated to the US and settled in the East Village in 1966, where he continues to live and work. Van Dalen, who first learned to rear the birds at the age of 12, is one of the few remaining pigeon keepers in Lower Manhattan.
Since then, we've enjoyed more of Anton's work at PPOW where his show, ➚Doves: Where They Live and Work, was up until the end of January '23, followed by a screening at Anthology of the documentary Anton: Circling Home about Van Dalen's "lifelong commitment to exposing inequality amidst the societal influences of technology, war, and capitalism with his personal and artistic dedication to the lives of the white pigeons who have lived on his East Village roof" since the '70s.
Keep an eye out for more on Anton Van Dalen next month when we'll be hearing from Morgan Schmidt-Feng, Katy Swailes, and Dennis Mohr, the producers of Anton. In the meantime, you can watch the film in its entirety ➚here and listen to his New York Conversation ➚here.
Self-portrait with Pigeon Coop facing South, 2014.
Thursday, February 2, 2023 by DJ Uncertain #readings #art #poetry
reading WHITNEY CLAFLIN: FOOD & SPIRITS
Do you ever see your friends
that all you can do
is very suddenly imagine them dead
and how sad that time will be.
For Nick Irvin's ➚Song Cycle No. 5, Whitney Claflin reads from her new book of poems "Food & Spirits". Recorded on October 8th, 2022 at Loong Mah with musical accompaniment by Maggie Lee.
Live from the studio with the kids from under the bridge. Listen to it all ➚here
Luca Atonucci and local artist/amateur historian, Joey Enos, talk about The Emeryville Mudflats and the recent Colpa Press publication on the site and phenomenon. The Emeryville Mudflats sit between a municipal landfill and the Oakland airport, and though it's origins remain enigmatic, the sculpture park that existed there had a huge influence on funk art/outsider art coming out of The Bay Area from the 60s through the 90s. The sculputre park and its loss tell the boom and bust story of countercultural movements, commerce, and the environment, but there's also something deeper there about art and impermanence. It's artists and keepers maintained anonymity, and records of it are incomprehensive, but the following links are some of its remains:
Listen to the conversation on MPR ➚here
Thursday, February 2, 2023 by DJ Uncertain #technology #music
Jace Clayton, Xandão, and Turbo Sonidero talk Cumbia
➚Jace Clayton is an artist, Dj, and writer. His book ➚Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
➚Alexandra "Xandão" Lippman is a DJ, anthropologist, and writer. She co-founded the record label and creative collaboration, ➚Discos Rolas, with Gary "Ganas" Garay in 2019, ran the ➚Sound Ethnography Project, and hosts a monthly radio show on Dublab called “Sound Study.” She produced ➚¡Un Saludo! Mexican Soundsystem Cumbia in LA, a compilation which highlights how LA became a hub of border-crossing cumbia sonidera in the United States.
➚Turbo Sonidero is a music producer from San José, CA with family roots in Mexico City and Puebla. He explores the darker, mystical undercurrents of cumbia as one half of Grupo Jejeje and through the Kumbia Obscura movement. He is co-founder of ➚Sonido Clash, a cultural arts collective exploring latinx art + sound
Listen on MPR ➚here
Back in May, Laraaji came by the studio and gave ➚this amazing performance. The performance was followed by a conversation with Jacob Gorchov of Palto Flats, which you can read an abbreviated version of below:
Jacob Gorchov: So the instrument you’re most associated with is the zither, an auto-harp. I wanna know, because that’s not what you came up studying as a child, how did you discover the zither? How did you decide and make that instrument your own?
Laraaji: So I studied violin, trombone, piano and pizza. I still study pizza. The first time I saw the zither, or the autoharp, was in a Kentucky bluegrass ensemble in the village at a coffee shop somewhere in the 70s. The autoharp was part of this bluegrass ensemble. Bluegrass music is where there’s a bass, sometimes a zither, a guitar, and an autoharp. An auto-harp is a chunky-looking instrument, although in this case it was being used very politely. I remember making eye contact, not knowing that I would have a story with that instrument later on in my Earth life. So fast forward into 1974/75. I’m in a pawn shop in Queens, New York pawning my guitar. I loved that guitar, but I needed money. So I went in to pawn the guitar. As I was going into the shop, I noticed this chunky looking instrument in the window and I said “Oh, there’s that instrument again.” I’m standing in front of the counter offering my guitar – Martin’s 16 string guitar with a fiberglass case, well worth about 175 dollars, or so I thought. The clerk offered me $25, and I said “I don’t know about that,” and just then, a very clear, articulate telepathic voice: “Don’t take the money. Swap it for the instrument in the window.” I couldn't ignore it. It felt like the voice of a great, great cosmic grandparent. Just warm, supportive and wise. And I was curious to see where this would go so I swapped the guitar for the auto-harp in the window – and $5. I needed money.
So, I left with the auto-harp, and I started experimenting with it – open tuning, electrifying it, and playing it through different approaches: percussion, boad, strummed, hammer dulcimer style. I researched it and experimented with it, usually with a tape recorder going. I'd record my improvisations and then go back and listen to things I thought were interesting, and I would repeat them about 100 times to get them into my subconscious mind to develop a vocabulary on the instrument. Then, after a while, I was able to busk on the sidewalks of New York, the parks of New York, from these altered states of contemplation. Just these streams of sonic presence. So it was an experiment to see what would happen if I were willfully in an altered state and allowed myself to interact with the string instrument, to feel what kind of sound or music would happen. Most of the time I would have folks sitting in lotus position or standing nearby in a trance, and that's when I discovered that with this music I was able to communicate something that I couldn't do with words. That was trance, altered state, flowingness and can even wake up the memory that we are star children, or cosmic beings. That our identity doesn't end at the skin, but that we are this weightless, timeless, glorious, wondrous presence. With that kind of memory getting invoked by this music – I said yeah. This was doing what I didn’t know I could do after 1974, attracting a paranormal hearing experience.
JG: So people would see you in the park and they’d be like – wow what is this music? And they’d come and just gather around, and go into a trance.
Laraaji: Something like that. Most of the time, my eyes were closed. I just imagined they were there. It was music to be in the moment by – it wasn't necessarily something that had an official beginning. I discovered that with eyes closed from a contemplative state, I could reference the unified feel as I just hear it, more of the feel than individual separate listeners. I am referencing rapport within this eternal timelessness, and the electric autoharp proved to be a good instrument with which to interact during this practice.
JG: At what time were you playing around with electrifying it? And playing around with doing different things with the autoharp that people hadn’t done before?
Laraaji: You know what the biggest room in the house is, Jacob? Does anyone know what the biggest room in the house is? The room for improvement. So, I was always improving on this instrument. I would be walking through a hardware store or an art supply store, and I’d say “Hm, what if I fool around with that on the auto-harp? And eventually the idea of – Why don’t I try to electrify it? I’d never heard an electric auto-harp. I went to Manny’s Music on 48th Street, I inquired and discovered there was an auto-harp pick-up and I placed it on the instrument in the store and strummed it. A clerk on the other side of the store was like “Ah, I’m in heaven!” and I knew I was on the right track. So constantly improving; “What if I did that with this – what if I tuned it that way? What if I put some stops under the string – what if I bowed it with a cello bow, or a bass bow, or an E bow? What if I played it through a phase shifter?” So a path of exploration and experimentation was the agenda.
JG: How long did you play the original auto-harp that you had?
Laraaji: Well, they keep changing. During the years of outdoor busking, you can imagine they take a weather beating. So I might’ve gone through two or three. This one I’ve had for maybe three or four years. It was an experimental release by Oscar Schmidt. It had a short life until I got wise on how to carry it. Certain ways of carrying this instrument were ruining the electronics. I didn't recognize it until I went through three auto-harps. The carrying case was not right for this instrument, I have to adjust it with tape and a bottle cap to protect some of the sensitive workings for this instrument. It’s a fixer upper. I take off the chord bars, so it no longer looks like an autoharp and I tune all of the 36 strings to feeling. When I get the feeling – the feeling might be the feeling of a vast desert, or a waterfall, or the expansive space or a mystical morning somewhere. When I can get a tuning that invokes my emotional imagination, then I can do improvisation through it and just explore the valleys and the mountains and all that it has to say and let it speak through me. That has allowed me to do performances and recordings without actual prepared music. Just be present, rehearse my facility, and allow guidance to come – free association, free flow improvisation within a harmonically prepared medium so that the music always has a soothing edge to it.
JG: So basically, when you perform, if you’re in an interior space or if you’re outside, you’re still able to transport yourself to other spaces. How do you feel that the spaces that you perform in, whether they’re outside or inside, affect your playing, or do they?
Laraaji: I take various approaches in performance, and one of them is always to feel out the space I’m in, whether it’s outdoors, whether a car is going by, leaves rustling in the wind – or indoors where it’s pristine silence, these elements come into awareness and I work with them. Outdoors, especially with large speakers and a large space, using sound to sculpt an obvious vast space is fun. Putting sound into space or vibrating space, expansive spaces, cathedral spaces. But in an intimate space, like a studio or in someone’s home or for therapeutic healing sessions, where we’re just working with one or two people. Those times we work with just the acoustic sound of the autoharp and other instruments. I allow the vibration of instruments to transport and suggest altered frequencies to the listener. Out of doors, I can rock out. Usually, with large audiences, it’s a feeling of galvanizing, using music to galvanize what appears to be a lot of separate individuals, through the suggestion of sound. Sound can suggest unity. Inner sound, Nadam – the cosmic sound current, can suggest through the listener, or through the performer or the meditator, the unity of the cosmos, the unity of the field. So in that aspect, at times I just go beyond the personal space and beyond the outdoor space and I am consciously intra-acting within this unified field. Hence, is not linear acoustics of relative space-time. You’ll hear in some of the music, a sort of lulling or repetitiveness, a sound current that allows the listener to stay and not go somewhere – just stay, be here, feel. So that’s the third space. The personal indoor space and your outer door space, and then the transcendental field, which is here. With meditative imagination, I found I can play within this field and observe the impact on listeners. The music can invite the listeners to take a vacation from linear mind content, and from the linear field, and just be here, you know, this nonlinear space.
JG: I was curious what you think the relationship between music and therapy is, and also the experience of humor and levity and how you approach that? I know you started off doing comedy as well and you have this amazing approach to your music where it's not taking itself too seriously and I’m just wondering how you came to be a comic?
Laraaji: Well, I grew up in a very laugh-oriented family. We laughed a lot and the idea of being playful and silly and actually getting someone else to laugh was just natural. In grade school I was easily part of any skits or talent shows that involved getting someone else to laugh. All the way up into college, the sideline was doing comedy for different events and then eventually trying it out in The Greenwich Village. After beginning to study consciousness, the laws of consciousness – cause and effect and how the consciousness that we continuously affirm moment to moment by our language and our thought, really impacts the way the universe shows up through us in this very moment. I felt my comedy was going to attract into my life situations that I didn’t want to take responsibility for. The comedy that I was doing was silly. One of my bits was that one of my favorite passions was ugly women, and that my first love affair was love at first shock.
But then I said “Now in a very short time, I’ll be attracting all these ugly women into my life.” Or, I’ll be creating ugliness. Maybe there are no ugly women at all. I’m just creating it. So I thought “Do I want to take responsibility?” And I said “No, I don’t. No way.” And I came to the realization that there are no ugly women in the universe. That I’m creating them, so I had to stop creating things like that. Everywhere I look I see a beautiful woman, except if it’s a man. Then it’s a beautiful man. So it resulted in a lot of beautiful people in my life, but I stopped doing comedy for that reason and just leaned into consciousness and music.
Eventually, my music led me into conferences, holistic centers, mediation centers and I got the idea of doing laughter mediation in the context of a yoga retreat or a new age conference. So there I am handling comedy. I'm no longer on a stage in a smoke filled room addressing people on another level using polarizing humor. I was now inviting people to get into internal laughter and to work their internal systems – from their pituitary gland, thyroid, to your thymus, your heart, abdominal organs and lungs, and grounding to the earth, grounding to the cosmos – using laughter very creatively. It’s beautiful, warm and socially bonding.
I’m working with heavy laughter, laughter we can cause to vibrate our pituitary. Try sending your voice into your head, first with your tone, and let your tone become a head-specific laughter. Vibrate your brain. One more crucial one is that supposedly with our immune system, we can actually perform our thymus, which sits just beneath the breast bone. We can thump our thymus (thirteen times a day is one prescription) to stimulate the production of T-cells from the thymus gland, and if you do that a couple times – just feel that sensation, thumping. Now, place your hand on the same area. Just think behind that breastbone, the sternum, sits the thymus. Now, let us tickle that thymus from the inside out with tone and then with laughter. You can just creatively target that area with [makes low laughing sound]. It’s to be taken very seriously. We’re raising the functioning of our immune system, so I just showed you the head and the thymus. There’s actually about seven or eight ways we play with laughter and of course, to be in this playful zone, we invite our inner child to come along this journey with us. When we take a playful attitude – we play with a water body at the beginning of the playshop, we play with toes, fingers, hands, the whole body is laughing, so it’s opening up the body, let go and laugh. There’s health benefits of laughter, you’re stimulating the pituitary, releasing endorphins, and massaging the abdominal organs, releasing stagnant or stale air from the lungs and so many yum, yum, yum things. Fifteen minutes of heavy laughter in the morning is equal to rowing a boat. Now, if you have to get to work on a boat, use the boat but laugh while you’re rowing.
JG: I wanted to ask – not into names specifically – but I remembered this bookstore in Harlem that you had this great history with. Tree of Life.
Laraaji: Yes, I’m striking the word history, and using just the word story. The Tree of Life on the corner of 125th street and Lenox avenue. Sometimes called UCLA – It was owned and operated by Kanya KeKumbha, who offered the bookstore as an injection into the community of spiritual books, books that you probably never knew existed. Now and then there would be psychic fairs there inviting people to come in and get readings, Kerlian photography, shiatsu and read books for free. I would position myself outside the store with the electric zither, a simple set-up, and channel music supportive of more inward-focused atmosphere. It was at that bookstore that two of the gentlemen there decided after listening for a while that my name, Edward Gordon, doesn't match the experience they were getting from my music.” We’ve done some research, and we’ve come up with a suggestion for a new name for you.” and I said [gulps] Uh-oh, cause if somebody says I got a name for you, you almost want to hear it and almost don’t, because it might start something. So I say “Ok, I trust you gentlemen – your intuition. Why don’t we meet in Central Park tomorrow, and we’ll initiate the name.” Now, little did they know that I was already looking for a name. I intuitively felt it would be three syllables, it would have something to do with the sun. How about that? They knew nothing about that. Sun and three syllables. The next day in Central Park, we met. They reveal the name as Laraaji. It’s an evolution from Larry Gordon that includes reference to the sun, and it’s three syllables.
JG: It also contains three triangles, right?
Laraaji: Yes, in upper-case, three triangles. And I added an ‘A’ to the name just to make it 7 letters – the numerological value of 7, not knowing that two As after the ‘R’ is how the Egyptians referred to Ra. So there it is, the sun, and the sun has always been a mentor for me. I love the sun, at a distance. So there it was: Laraaji. I accepted the name and it took a while for the biological family to take me seriously, but there it is. I was also concerned that if I changed my name would I start something like wanting to change it again but no, it’s still Laraaji Venus Bramananda.
When I travel, I use Edward Gordon in case someone needs to page me in an airport. Edward also means guardian of wealth. Many times people see the name and they don’t get it right. I’ve been called launderette. Breaking in a new name is fun.
JG: You’re a multi-instrumentalist. You play piano. You’ve got three piano recordings – the piano trilogy. I mean, your 80s recordings, there’s a lot of keyboard. Like ‘Vision’ is keyboard/drum machine. You get so many amazing sonic qualities to the music that you make. I guess I’m not really sure where you’re going with this.
Laraaji: Neither am I. Do we have to go somewhere?
JG: We could go somewhere. Where do you want to go?
L: Let’s go vertical.
Vertical space-time. I feel a lot of promise for vertical space time as the next quantum leap. Instead of trying to fix things on a cyclical plane, use the spiral plane and migrate up into a new kind of body form – more light, more sound, base body. Come into a higher bliss performance, unity performance. How can it happen? Maybe global sound immersion. I used to think maybe the electromagnetic field could play a part but that might not be safe. To all vibrate at the same time and feel the same intimate communion with the gaia, with Earth. With the omniverse. No words are spoken, just the word, the sound current vibrating. So, where are we going? I feel we’re going toward a sound and light respectful culture. Respecting tone and sound in a new way. I just have this feeling that that's the expanded new medicine and expanded philosophy, psychology. So instead of fixing this plane, if you thought it needed be fixed, just shift our vibrational frequency and be present in a new way.
JG: It’s amazing to have that be an aid, your music be an aid to getting to that plane. And I think we definitely need more laughter, need more sound healing, need more people to be attuned to that because you know, I think it’s therapeutic and I think it’s really wonderful and beautiful to be tuned in to that. So thank you for sharing that with us tonight as well. It’s really special.
Laraaji: Goodbye, for now. Hello forever.