originally printed in HiS Voice magazine, Prague, 2011
'Afrikan Machinery' by Lukas Ligeti (Tzadik, 2008)
November, 2008, Toronto: while gulping down generously sized mugs of free-trade coffee to prepare for their day jobs, my hosts are visibly fuming over the latest edition of the free Now Toronto weekly (the somewhat premature and spotty "best of 2008" issue.) My easy-going Canadian friends aren't normally given to fits of pique, but this year's editorial choice of the "best experimental artist" In Toronto is something that they can't abide. As left-field musicians themselves, my friends feel they have a personal stake in making the city synonymous with challenging sounds, and don't feel that solemn mission has to take second place to becoming an "indie-pop phenomenon," as the weekly paper has described this year's winner.
The "best experimental artist" in question, Laura Barnett, is an attractive and inoffensive purveyor of 'geek chic' fashion, but - more importantly for the Now Toronto editors - is a "musical scientist" whose specific synthesis involves an earthy little instrument (the African mbira, alternately known as likembe, kalimba or 'thumb piano') being manipulated by electronic processes. My friends' objections stem from the supposition that Barnett was not given her accolade for any outstanding conceptual rigor or boldness, but because her choice of implementation tools merely exploited the critics' very uncritical acceptance of all things "sustainable," "undiscovered" and hand-assembled: especially when a bit of technological polish also figures into the final product. I have to sympathize with their suspicions somewhat, since it remains painfully unsaid that records can be mediocre, or downright awful, even when such ethical concerns animate their existence. And, conversely, certain records animated by the most bone-headed beliefs can be sonically gripping. Having never spoken with Barnett, I can't totally vouch for the sincerity of her music (or lack thereof), although both her musical beginnings (opening shows for American pop-culture parodist 'Weird Al' Yankovic) and current activities give off more than a whiff of transitory, cute-and-quirky "novelty" music.
As my Canadian confreres are also quick to note, Barnett is far from being the first artist to offer a 21st-century "electrified" appropriation of the African thumb piano, and so attempts to seduce critics with her novel fusions should not be as effective as they have in this particular case. After all, the instrument is prominently featured in the music of critical darlings Konono No. 1 (a lineup of multiple likembes act as the 'cover stars' for their initial release on Belgium's Crammed Discs): the Congolese ensemble's addition of electronic distortion to the fundamental kalimba sound gives them an exceptional, memorable sting, one that hovers in the mix above a mélange of complementary percussive and vocal phrases. Indeed, the players in Konono No. 1 capably show how easily a change in attitude can change the way an instrument is perceived- in their hands, the spartan little resonating box is not a toy on which to casually make random "plink-plunk" sounds while lounging around the house. Rather, it is a consistently propulsive rhythmic machine that can "rock" as easily as much more complex electric instruments- simply by bestowing a little respect on the instrument, Konono No. 1 fashions the kalimba into a stentorian voice giving its orders to packed dance floors.
By acknowledging this respect, though, we scrape up against the surface of a cultural iceberg that runs much deeper than the 21st century musical examples already mentioned here. The thumb piano is regularly cited by African music scholars as being the 'quintessential African musical instrument': Nigerian legend Babatunde Olatunji has admitted as much, as has folk archivist Joseph H. Howard. Certain variations on the instrument's design are intended to have ceremonial purposes, e.g. the contacting of ancestors- the Zimbabwean mbira dzadadzimu (a thumb piano placed within a hollowed-out, resonating calabash) has attained a status as that country's national instrument after being used ceremonially for thousands of years. The modern custom of fixing bottlecaps to the base of the kalimba's resonator box, a simple but effective way of further modulating its tone, is a 'quick fix' also intended for the ceremonial purpose of contacting the spirit world. With all this in mind, it's interesting to note that the most stereotypically 'Western' instruments give West African highlife and other dance styles their exuberant form- King Sunny Ade even managed to repurpose the pedal steel guitar of the lonesome American plains as something his own; the instrument's quavering sweet-and-sour tones integrating eerily well with the disciplined groove of his band. Yet the kalimba's widespread use in other forms of African music is well documented, whether on Konono No. 1 CDs or on LPs released by labels such as Rounder and Folkways.
So, is it the "quintessential African-ness" of the instrument that makes it appeal to Western ears, or something else? For at least one listener - the electronic music interface developer Sergi Jorda - this appeal lies in the physical design of the kalimba, and the role that plays in gaining mastery over the instrument. Jorda writes in MIT's Computer Music Journal that "kalimbas have few notes- all of them 'correct' ones. Its shape and construction invites everyone to play it in the correct way: with the thumbs." This is basically true: the slender metal keys of the kalimba, typically arranged in a "V" formation with the longest keys in the center of the box and the shortest keys closer to its edges, make it nearly impossible for the kalimba to be incorrectly handled. There is also a very simple "mapping" of tonal values onto their respective keys, and these values can be quickly intuited despite the fact that 7 kalimba keys comprise a greater frequency range than a full octave's worth of Western piano keys. Several varieties of kalimba exist with different non-adjustable tunings, but even this is not really much of a setback on the road to mastering the instrument. The existence of these differently tuned kalimbas has also made it possible for one-of-a-kind kalimba ensembles to be formed, especially when utilizing the kalimbas that are not tuned uniformly for export to Europe and the U.S.
While admiring the kalimba, Jorda also notes "…it is true that the kalimba has little dynamic control, which further restricts its freedom, but it cannot be considered as a restricted instrument, at least compared with the average public interactive sonic installation. It is a well-designed instrument for 'all ages.'" Here Jorda is onto something. The instrument can be held in such a way that does not make demands upon other parts of the body: like the great iconic instruments of modern popular music, e.g. the electric guitar or saxophone, one can simultaneously play the instrument and be 'moved' by the results of that playing- the feet are free to shuffle and stomp, the head is free to shake and bob, and the body can generally contort and convulse as it likes, provided the thumbs don't stray too far from the keys. This, in turn, energizes the live audience and gives them that ever-crucial sense of being participants in a shared psycho-spiritual exploration of terra incognita: they become reassured that they are not 'pure spectators' whose presence has no influence on the way in which the performance unfolds.
Of course, this has often been one of the attractions to sub-Saharan African music in general, that it is evidently based on reciprocal exchange of energies between performer and audience, and not on a "one-way" transmission of such energy. While true in many cases, the flipside of this observation - that Western music, by and large, does not allow for this reciprocation of energy - needs to be questioned. The type of binary thinking that pits "rhythmic, sensual" Africa against "atmospheric, cerebral" Europe may be pathetically absolutist, but it is also sadly persistent. In its crassest form, this binary thinking seems to envision a vast buffer zone of insignificant or imitative cultures existing between the warring, irreconcilable forces of 'black' and 'white'- and who are perhaps envious of these phony, absolute cultural values. From here, we are just one small step from determining which of these polar extremes represents similarly absolute values of good or evil. Equally as bad, we must envision a world where "sensual" qualities of careless play cannot co-exist with moments of more sober reflection and self-study. Hasn't this always been the redemptive quality of all man-made music; that it could allow deep meditation on the sacred to merge with immediate sensory stimulation, even in cases where the music in question wasn't made for purely ritual or religious expression?
With all this in mind, a release such as Lukas Ligeti's Afrikan Machinery (Tzadik, 2008) stands out all the more for disregarding these absolute values and for seeing the sounds of diverse regional instruments as synonyms within a common musical language, rather than as sounds that require "translation" into another language. The album's cover photo - of a rudimentary earthen hut surrounded by photo-voltaic cells - symbolizes a refreshingly casual attitude of using whatever is available to maximum effect, rather than a worried insistence on making sure that technological and 'folk' elements are used in some prescribed "correct" manner. When Ligeti lets sub-bass rumbles and shimmering high-frequency tones of a pure electronic nature rub up against percolations of kalimba and other varieties of African percussion, one gets the distinct impression that he doesn't wish to make some grand statement about the sounds that different cultures are genetically predisposed to make (and, by extension, the conflict that results from such predispositions.) Instead, the implicit message of discs like this is that collective ownership of sounds is as ludicrous as the concept of poets "owning" words- the fusion of computer code and electrical potentials with humble 'little instruments' becomes less of a one-off novelty and more a natural state of affairs.
Ligeti's commitment to pluralistic music has certainly manifested itself in more unorthodox ways than what might be expected (he may be the only 'Western' musician ever to have released a CD exclusively for sale in Burkina Faso, home of the balafon and other exquisitely hand-crafted musical instruments.) His distinctive 'marimba lumina', designed by synthesizer luminary Donald Buchla, is a MIDI-powered percussive interface that allows Ligeti to create truly vibrant lattices of poly-rhythm, again informed by a myriad of African sources. His artistic pedigree and his past residencies in all the right places for musical collaboration (Brooklyn, Vienna etc.) may designate him as more of a "serious" musician than someone like Laura Barnett, but this avant-garde scorecard is not what makes his approach successful. In reality, his success owes itself to that same attitude of respect that can be ascertained from Konono No. 1's music. By not approaching the kalimba and other African percussions as toys, or as antediluvian relics that have to be played in the same way that modern people speak Latin (e.g. as a 'tribute' to a remote and ghostly civilization), Ligeti opens up a new set of possibilities and also escapes from that all-too-familiar avant-garde conundrum: this was a dilemma that André Malraux identified when bemoaning painters "who wished to be most modern, which means most committed to the future, [but] who rummaged most furiously in the past." Ligeti's strategy is not to see the kalimba, balafon, or other folk instruments as belonging to the past, but as tools that can still be made, played, technologically modulated, and enjoyed as readily as the output of a computer or sampler can be. The language of music is still comprehensible by anyone with ears to hear, and there is no need to act like instruments from pre-industrial societies can communicate only messages from the land of the dead.
And so, while I'd still agree with my friends that Ms. Barnett didn't deserve to be crowned as the "experimental" musician most representative of the high-pressure cultural center that is Toronto, I can't, in the final estimation, criticize her kalimba appropriation without sounding like an arch hypocrite. Both Ligeti and herself, though occupying vastly different spheres of cultural influence and working on different levels of self-referentiality, have fused cultural sensibilities in a way that establishes their own identity without totally disavowing or disrespecting the contributions of their 'appropriated' cultures. Ligeti's heart and soul may be more fully invested in the great cross-cultural experiment than Barnett's (he likens himself to a griot in a New York Times article, and says that the "tradition of my griot clan [a nod to his father György's reputation] is to do something new".) Yet both are partaking in this particular tradition: if it is a tradition that can be relevant in both the trendy thrift stores of Ontario and the tropical villages of Burkina Faso, then maybe the kalimba and its kin deserve a closer look.