Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Get Gills Again

Dub makes such efficient use of what’s at hand. It’s like making soup out of your leftover vegetable scraps and bones or patching up your jeans when holes show up in the knees: The practicality might yield some tasty food or some hip fashion, but the idea is initially a pragmatic one. When Jamaican record producers and soundsystem DJs figured out that they could take rhythm tracks from existing songs and recycle them - drop the vocals and the guitar, mess with the effects, let somebody do a little extemporized toasting over top of it - and basically get two records out of one, it must have been a supreme moment in the history of hustling. Not that dub’s genesis was all crass, Lee Perry and King Tubby were probably smoking shamanistic amounts of weed, and the canabinoids must have really opened up their ears. Who needs singing, horns or guitars when you’ve got the heavy beats, the heartbeat bass lines and the funhouse echoes? Similarly, there's an advanced aesthetic of absence to dub. The music moves with the phantom sense of the sounds that are missing. Big, potent negative space. Or a cymbal accent can all of a sudden occupy center stage, and everything else can vanish while the metal crash dissipates off into nothing.

Dub became hugely popular in England, among DJs, producers, tea heads and musicians. At some point, and I don’t know when the exact moment was, people started making dub as the main product. I think of African Headcharge as being at the start of that trend. Dub for dub’s sake. It's a bit like the musical equivalent of a Pottery Barn faux antiquing kit. Old weathered furniture is cool -- why not mass produce stuff to look that way?

I think Nietsche would have found the creation of dub as a sole end product to be decadent. It signals a corrupt sense of taste. This, afterall, is a musical genre in which one can solo on the bendy metallic pan-lid sound of the noisemaker known as the flexatone.

Without the melodic logic to the deep structure and the sideman's restaint of the orignal backing tracks, dub got spongy and outrageous. Without a basic minimalist aesthetic, the music could start sounding like a bongo-heavy version of whale songs, churning reverberations and whoozy effects. But in the case of African Headcharge there was more to it. If Jamaican reggae got its Africanisms from marroon drumming traditions. Dub in the U.K. drew on the post-colonial African diaspora.

Picking up on the theme of the Joni Mitchell/Burundi post, African Headcharge -- the dub vehicle for producer and label mastermind (On U Sound and Soul Jazz) Adrian Sherwood and Ghanian drummer Bonjo -- often dropped dub rhythm tracks behind looped bits of field recordings of African chants. It's similar to the Eno/Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts record (which AHC mocked in tribute with one of their first records, My Life in a Hole in the Ground), but without the vestigal post punk traces.

I got turned on to African Headcharge by a guy named Gary Allen (Alan?). He was a dancer/designer who worked for Billy Idol at one point back in the mid-80s when I was 15 or so. I’ve still not been able to find the tunes that he put on a tape for me, but Environmental Studies is close enough. I love that there are tracks called "Beriberi" and High Protein Snack" on it. This is a track called "Breeding Space." This is music that -- along with the Eno/Byrne, Jon Hassell, Butthole Surfers, Tom Cora and Captain Beefheart -- I often employed for the explicit purpose of blowing people's minds. Parts of it now remind a little of Ornette Coleman's "Dancing in Your Head," and there are definite echoes of Augustus Pablo.
As another de-evolutionary specimen I offer Mushroom's "Tin Foil Hat" from their two-CD Glazed Popems. Mushroom are a Bay Area kraut-prog-avant-funk outfit. Most of their material sounds electric Miles-inispired, but this track has a defiantly meandering quality to it.
This is also music that, whether it knows it, is thoroughly pessimistic about the future. If the whole world is going to hell, why don't we just crawl back into the ocean and redevelop gills? You tell me.

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