Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Fabulous Counts: Get Down People b/w Lunar Funk, 1970
I'll probably go back to posting LPs soon, but I want to keep this 45 kick going a little longer if I can. Today's disc is from the Fabulous Counts, produced by Ollie McLaughlin for the Moira label of Detroit, distributed by a division of Atlantic. In addition to featuring two nasty funk tracks, it contains a relatively early example of delay in popular music, applied to a synthesizer on Lunar Funk. Delay appeared around the same time in some variations of reggae and rock and earlier on in less commercial music like the works of some modernist classical composers. Its use on this track is conservative compared to most dub, but to my ear, its presence creates a powerful effect. It contributes to the texture of the music by thickening it and it changes the dynamic of the song because it warps the sound in a way that no musician could. This was unusual in early funk to say the least, and the use of delay on Lunar Funk sounds like part of a songwriting experiment even today. This is not because it was applied in a less intricate way than in dub, but because of the way that the producer takes on a bigger role in crafting the shape and flow of the song and uses delay to give the song structure. The delay does not hover up and down in the mix, ultimately leading you through the whole song, it simply provides a backdrop for two of the song's bridges. The very title of the song tells you before you even listen that it is an exploration, a different sound or concept in funk.
Time and again, we see examples of how the same technologies and techniques were adopted in dramatically different ways by niche or regional music industries. In reggae, delay was used to produce distinct rhythms and a characteristic sound. Legend has it that producers originally used it to emulate the interference patterns that accompanied American radio broadcasts picked up in Jamaica. In modern classical music, it was a vehicle by which composers could discover and create new forms, which were a hot commodity at the time and have been ever since. In rock, it was used to endow music with a psychedelic mystique or aesthetic.
For an example of an instrument with a similar but less disjointed history in recorded music, we can turn to the pump-operated reed organ called the harmonium, an instrument less widely used among the world's music industries. It was originally brought over from Germany by missionaries, but is now produced primarily (or exclusively?) in India. It became popular among singers as a backup instrument. This was primarily because it freed the singer of the burden of finding an instrumental accompanist (a necessity in North Indian vocal music) who possessed the musical prowess required to play the bowed sarangi proficiently. Although few people ever truly master any instrument, the keyboard of the harmonium has a shallower learning curve than the sarangi. (Incidentally, sarangi was an especially unpopular instrument to learn in the early 20th century because it was associated with music played in unwholesome contexts and thus tended not to earn its players good reputations.) Some say that the harmonium was prevented from achieving ubiquity until the higher ups at All India Radio authorized it to appear on their recordings. Interestingly, the blogger Shubha Mudgal argues that although the harmonium has been criticized for failing to capture the microtonal precision of Hindustani music because its free reeds are harder to control than strings or other instruments, some gharanas have developed intricate harmonium techniques. I wonder, then, if the music industry really pushed it on the people or if it was the other way around. In any case, the harmonium seems to bother musical purists the most, and a great many listeners and highly gifted musicians in India appreciate its sound. The important point is that the harmonium entered the Indian record market to play a specific role mirroring vocal lines and it remains within a set of stylistic boundaries.
On the other side of the world starting in probably the 60's, musicians began incorporating the harmonium into Western albums, but not as a primary accompaniment instrument. For the jazz, folk, and rock musicians who used the harmonium on their albums in the 1960's and 70's, it was more of a nod to the sensibilities of Indian music and Indian philosophies, or at least the versions of them that were imported to the US and Europe around that time. Including a harmonium on an album became a signal that the musicians subscribed to or sought meaning in worldviews outside the Western mainstream. On few of the Western albums from that era that feature a harmonium does the harmonium play continuously across the whole album. Its inclusion coveys an idea and it colors an album rather than constituting the essence of its musical statement. Instruments like the harmonium and tools like the delay might have an easier time jumping between markets with the help of widely disseminated recordings, but in each case they are reworked, sometimes in very fundamental ways, to fit their new context.
I also wonder how the social resources that the internet offers musicians will impact music scenes across the world today in different ways. It has already made touring incomparably easier for small time musicians, at least in the United States and Europe, where they can almost effortlessly establish contacts in other cities. Diasporic communities the world over access homeland music through the internet as well. As much as people anticipate (or worry about) the cultural flattening effect that communications technologies and social networks will have on the world's population, the technology is also indisputably preserving some differences between people and nurturing new movements and subcultures.