Archive for the ‘ Reflections ’ Category

A Response to Nicholas Payton, re: Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”

Jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton recently posted this tirade, deconstructing some of producer Pharrell‘s comments on the relationship of Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”.

I’m not defending Pharrell or Thicke. Whether or not there is legal grounds for a case of copyright infringement (Thicke openly acknowledges using the Marvin Gaye track as a basis for “Blurred Lines”), Payton’s post is primarily devoted to taking down Pharrell for his lack of music theory know-how. Which may very well be accurate criticism. But Payton pretty much tosses his credibility out the window with this volley:

“Hiphop as a whole is wack [sic]. It’s a parasitic culture that preys on real musicians for its livelihood. I may not know anything about Hiphop, but I don’t have to.”

Not like hip-hop is a major part of Black music. Not like the hip-hop aesthetic for sampling and remixing hasn’t proliferated as the dominant aesthetic for popular music of all types. Payton is a purveyor of “Black music”, in his own words, but writes off the most significant stream in both Black music and popular music of the last 40 years.

Without real artists and musicians like me, you’d have nothing to steal. I know enough about it all to know that.

Now, I can’t say I don’t understand Payton’s gripe with sampling. As an instrumentalist, playing notes with my fingers comes more naturally to me than manipulating pre-existing audio the way that beatmakers and DJs do. When an instrumentalist or vocalist sees a recording artist make a million bucks off a track based around melody that someone else wrote and played, it’s a natural reaction to view it as stealing. In the case of “Blurred Lines”, we’re not even talking about sampling– it’s outright, admitted lifting of certain musical ideas. (“Blurred Lines” is also, to be certain, not a hip-hop track. It’s not even close. But Pharrell is a producer and beatmaker who comes from the hip-hop tradition, hence this discussion of the hip-hop “aesthetic”).

Payton makes it clear that he has no interest in understanding hip-hop on its own terms. But he does acknowledge that:

A lot of our [Black] music has never been written down, it’s an oral and aural tradition passed down generation-to-generation from master to student.

Oral and folk musical traditions are inherently derivative. In fact, I’d argue that all musical traditions are derivative– whether folk, art, or popular music. Artists draw on their influences, and recombine them (hopefully, in novel ways). Beethoven took Schiller’s Ode To Joy and made something even greater. Zeppelin ripped off tons of blues artists and created music that reached a much wider audience.

I am not, repeat, NOT justifying copyright infringement, or stealing musical ideas. If you as an artist are going to say something creatively, you may as well attempt to say something new, and you’re unlikely to garner my respect unless you accomplish it. I’m just saying that the lines between inspiration and derivation are, ahem, blurred, and that Marvin got his ideas from others that came before him, the same way that jazz pioneers borrowed and built on the ideas of their musical forefathers.

Exhibit A: The Lick

The video above, now a common joke among jazz musicians, is actually pretty profound. There are dozens of examples of musicians (unknowingly?) using the exact same melodic fragment. Viewed one way, the ‘originality’ of those jazz artists– allegedly expressing their original improvisations– is no more than a collection of derivative ideas, chewed-up and regurgitated in differing contexts. The same could, potentially, be said for art and literature.

But that’s an overly simplistic view. In fact, watching The Lick, you can hear just how different, and artful (or not) those seven notes can be based on the context in which they are played. I could sort through Nicholas Payton’s (admittedly splendid) playing and identify some of his source material as well. One could call Bird and Miles “parasitic” for lifting Gershwin and Cole Porter’s chord changes, but that would miss the point of jazz music, much the same way Payton misses the point of hip-hop. It’s not your source material that determines the significance of your music– it’s what you say and how you say it.

One other aspect of Payton’s piece strikes me as contradictory. He makes a strong point that music literacy is not critical for musical talent or achievement:

Many of our Kings of Kings could not read music themselves, either because they were blind or just never learned to read. Reading music is certainly helpful, but it isn’t necessary to do so to be a great musician. All that is required is that you have ears.

But Payton proceeds to tear into Pharrell for not knowing his music theory:

One of the world’s most renowned producers can’t tell the different between a minor chord and a Dominant 7th, something that you learn the first week in music theory class.

Mr. Payton, I’ve gotta turn your words right back on you: knowledge of music theory “is certainly helpful, but it isn’t necessary to do so to be a great musician”. I’ll get as geeky as the next jazz-head on chord substitution and modal theory, but do we really think Robert Johnson knew the difference between major and minor? Or gave a shit? He had ears– just as Pharrell does– and whether or not Pharrell knows how to describe music in terms that are generally accepted among the jazz police, he’s made a lot of music that speaks to a lot of people.

It just so happens that “Blurred Lines” is not a track that particularly speaks to me– musically, or through its chauvinism-masquerading-as-liberation. But Payton’s arguments against Pharrell’s talent– and against hip-hop as a medium– just don’t hold water.

Why Keep Doing What You Love?

We’ve met lots of kids here on our travels through Latin America: kids fortunate enough to learn English in American schools and visit family in the US, other kids who have never left their hometown. We’ve seen kids 8- to 12-years-old working on construction on a poorly maintained mountain highway.

Clinton Curtis and Gray Reinhard pose with local children after our concert in Danli, Honduras

Last night, before our open-air concert in Danlí, Honduras, some disheveled-looking kids asked me for change. I apologized, but as I asked them about their town, their home, their expressions changed from miserly to curious. It was as if they had never before met an American who wanted to know about their lives. They asked about the band, about the kinds of music we play, about who we are and where we come from.

There are times when my practical nature questions the value of encouraging others to pursue artistic pastimes. For as many who are fortunate enough to carve out careers in what we love to do, there are countless more who flounder. If it’s so hard to make a living playing music with all the opportunities available to us in New York, is it right to encourage a child in a developing country to pursue their passion when it may frustrate their ability to build a stable life and family?

Students at La Casa De Cultura, Danli

But somehow, meeting these Latin American kids with (often, though not always) less opportunities than I’ve had gives the phrase and sentiment “keep doing what you love” new resonance. Why is it worth shooting for, no matter what your background? Because it’s difficult. Because not everyone gets to do what they love. But because some of us can, and because when we lead lives enriched by our passions, we can share and exchange that wealth with everyone else we can reach.

Justin Goldner is a bassist, guitarist, producer, songwriter, language junkie and lover of culture in all its manifestations. Follow him on Twitter @JusBass.

The Depth and Broad Reach of Communal Music

On the way back from a gig last Friday, I was lulled from my late-night subway stupor by a dude serenading straphangers with his 12-string. I had run into Darrell a handful of times before, occasionally sung him songs at his prodding, and always listened to his renditions with pleasure though he understandably never remembers me among the ocean of weary-faced New Yorkers he attempts to rouse with song. This time, he handed me his guitar and entreated me to sing some Beatles tunes together. A girl sitting across the subway, an invisible face only minutes before, joined in. Other subway riders looked up– pleased, irritated, or distracted.

It’s a pretty fantastic feeling to be making music off stage with someone you don’t know. In a city of invisible walls, it’s even more special to reach across and make an instantaneous, if momentary, connection with other human beings.

Karen Loew published this beautiful column today in The Atlantic on “How How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life (And why we should bring it back)”.

The reasons why are legion. We are insecure about our voices. We don’t know the words. We resent being forced into an activity together. We feel uncool. And since we’re out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.

This is a loss. It’s as if we’ve willingly cut off one of our senses: the pleasure center for full lungs and body resonance and shared emotion and connection to our fellow man.

The more I work in the music industry, the deeper I get into the craft of making music– which I love dearly– the more that I believe that the richest music lies not on stages and concert halls, not in headphones or subwoofers, but in the spontaneous joining of voices. For thousands of years before BMI and ASCAP, before sheet music, wax cylinders, the phonograph or the mp3, music existed as something possessed jointly by everyone in a community and open for anyone to participate in its creation.

One of the (relatively few) places where this paradigm continues strongly is within Gospel music and churches of various denominations throughout the country. While pop artists are “dumbing down” their melodies and rhythms, simplifying their music in order to reach the widest potential audience, in churches, it is shocking and inspiring the number of non-musicians– “laypeople”, if you will– who feel so strongly attached to and participate in what is incredibly sophisticated, demanding music.

It’s not surprising, then, that gospel music has played an in-extractable role in the development of American music for at least the last century, and that churches have produced many of the best musicians and performers from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Billy Preston to Chris Dave.

During a trip to South Africa last year, I had the great treat to meet Fatima Asmal-Motala, who graciously took me to visit a small Muslim after-school program in a Zulu “township” about half an hour outside Durban. The poverty was absolutely shocking: as far as the eye could see, slums thrust about on the sides of hills, people living in overturned shipping containers, walls thrown together from various discarded sources makeshift dwellings.

The real treat, however, was to get to hear the children, ranging from what might have been ages 7-15, sing devotional songs together in Zulu, English and Arabic. The sound of their voices together and the smiles on their faces were as inspiring as the desolate setting left me, a sheltered product of the first world, speechless.

In her article, Loew points out the few instances of its survival in American society, including during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games:

Belting at baseball games is an example of something essential, Schmid said. “No one there is worried about whether they’re good enough. That’s a wonderful feeling—that’s what I think we need to restore. That sense that: I’m good enough. I’m a happy amateur singer. I’m just going to let it out.”

As I mentioned in my most recent post, along with the Clinton Curtis Band I’ve been selected by the U.S. State Department to embark on an American Music Abroad tour later in 2012 or 2013, during which we’re excited not only to propagate and provide a vessel for American folk music traditions, but also to engage with and learn from the communal music of wherever they choose to send us.

One other related aside– I recently got around to seeing Béla Fleck‘s 2008 film Throw Down Your Heart, in which he journeys through Africa in search of the roots and progeny of the banjo, performing with talented artists and folk musicians from a number of countries. Great music and inspiring fare from start to finish.


5 Nov. 2008, 5:48am GMT – Atlantic Coast off of Morocco

First, relief. A huge sigh; for another minute I am guarded, cautious, checking 4 channels to avoid being hoodwinked by the media.

But now, incredulity. For 7 years and 8 weeks, the haze has slowly receded from the world outside my peripheral vision. After September 11, I became stuck to CNN, and I felt my nervousness in the immediate aftermath grow like a tumor into disappointment and ultimately rejection of all those silly high-flung words bandied about in civics courses– “Give me your tired, your poor…”, the “land of the free”. All I saw was ignorance, machismo, an unshakeable, deeply ingrained belief in manifest destiny. Even in my closest, most decidedly liberal friends and family members, I found an inability to see the house of mirrors all around them, to see the symmetry in American attitudes towards the world– towards extremists, a caricature that so many are painted with in American minds– and the world’s sometimes militant attitudes towards an overly muscular, hot-headed America. I was accused by my own mother of rejecting the West when I defended Muslim societies as not being fundamentally militant, and while she was wrong in her assessment of me, applying the very stereotypes she had come to adopt, she was accurate in perceiving my disgust with an American society that I had come to see as excessive and ignorant; no longer representing anything that it claimed to be. I compared the state of American politics to twisted, Orwellian regimes and corrupt theocracies, even to friends who have fought and suffered for the dream of democracy that I denied existed. And it was only natural to make these comparisons when so much of my energy was devoted to knowing the “other”– to understanding and experiencing what life is like outside a priveliged, secular, suburban, foggy dream.

My pool of friends has grown to become hugely– if not primarily– international. And I ran away from anything familiar– first, to cosmopolitan New York, and then, out of the country, any time and any way I could. Living as a stranger in a strange land has been my dream; only by forcing myself from my comfort zone at all times to do I feel like I am gaining ground in my life. The compulsion that I harnessed in my younger days of absorbing all forms of music has expanded to absorbing all ways of life outside my own realm of experience. I met people from all over the world, coming to New York and the states for some dream that I told them was dead, a figment of their imagination, a lie echoed on millions of TV screens.

But I am incredulous now because it’s as if I’ve seen a shadow of the other side, and I am afraid to believe. For all of Barack Obama’s shining rhetoric, he consistently understated the significance of his candidacy, the way in which his victory (and those of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin) reaches deep into the musty crevices of American society and sheds a little light up the passage of some American Dream. My prejudiced, single-minded, individualistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobe America chose a president of an unlikely background most likely quite different from their own. And suddenly, I’m aware of just how fortunate I am. Of how quickly I’ve forgotten the not-so-distant generations that came to this strange land with nothing and gave me the opportunity I’ve taken for granted.

All I can react with is incredulity, a wash of emotion. And once again I need to re-evaluate my paradigm that has proved incapable of accomodating the breadth of things that can occur in this world. I’ve lived in America all my life, yet there are still certain words that get bandied around so much that it seems their value is inflated, that they’ve lost any stable meaning: words like “democracy”, and “fascism”, “terrorism” and “freedom”. I can’t help but reflect, though, that Barack Obama’s campaign and success look to me an awful lot like the fairy tales of freedom I was told as a boy.

Now I’m ready to play my part in this indistinct thing called democracy. I layed my vote on the line, and I bear responsibility for giving this man the power that he has– and it is my duty to watch him like a hawk. In one week, I will return to a country that showed me something unexpected, something outside my realm of experience, something I am eager to experience for myself.

Two Kingdoms

I won’t fool myself into thinking I can come close to capturing what was a whirlwind 36 hours in Egypt. But I’ll share with you some impressions before they fade from my mind, while I’m still worn out and dazed from the experience.

Cairo is like no place I’ve been. It’s hot and bustling like New York, sans the expectation that everyone be provided a red carpet; people adjust and make the best of the present. The taxi meters don’t work? Everyone knows what a fair price should be. (Now THAT’S capitalism). Door on the train doesn’t work? You’d have to be an idiot to hang out there while the train is running anyway. The smog is visible and people often hock up half of what they breathe in. Crossing the road means sucking it up and jumping in front of a bus. Many people drive without their headlights at night for fear that their hand-me-down-from-Europe cars will burn out, but they’ll flash their brights to let you know you can cross (whilst they’re still speeding towards you). I didn’t feel my life was in my hands, however, until I tried the other side of the windshield, riding in a white mini-bus, whisking around highways that whiz past the city’s humongous mosques and cathedral.Traffic is terrifying, but I saw no anger or road rage. My taxi driver decided to make a third lane where there once were two; the other cars on the road followed and adjusted appropriately. Instead, as my friend Dan described it, the constant honking is echolocation, letting the others know, “I’m bearing down on you, don’t hit me!”

I took a tour bus with the crew down to Cairo from Alexandria. Our tour guide, a woman named Noaa had a laugh that could blow over trees. With the tourists of the crew in touristy spots, we were badgered with useless crafts, but the minute I split off from the others with a willingness to see the country on its own terms, I was bathed in the generosity of countless Egyptians eager just to communicate, to meet an American. Trading what few words we could muster in Arabic and English, the enthusiasm to reach out and meet a fellow human was unmistakable. Just about every person I met was eager to share something; this one studied Arabic literature; this one lived in Brooklyn for 10 years; this one worked as a pastry chef, on a ship and then in Italy– and then produced a handful of photographs of his life to prove it!

My companion on the train was a kind man who shared that he and his son were both pilots. He told me about the many places he had travelled, including to Israel on Sadat’s historical 1977 visit there (which resulted in the alliance of Egypt and Israel, as it stands today). “It’s beautiful there,” he reminisced, “green everywhere.” I asked him if he saw Israelis as friends of the Egyptian people. He responded affirmitavely. “As-salaam”, he said, “kwoyis li-kulam”: peace is good for everyone. I shared with him that I am Jewish and he reflected that our peoples are cousins. We exchanged numbers and kind words, warmth and a window into another life.Just about everyone showed an enthusiasm for American popular culture, and many a desire to live there. An exchange with a friend from the ship still makes me cringe. My friend uncomfortably told two Egyptians chaperoning our tour that he came from America. “U.S.A.!” they responded heartily. “Don’t do that,” said my friend. “You know you don’t like us.”

It concerns me deeply– distracts me while I’m working and walking by my way– that one particular American shown outward kindness by two strangers in their country reacts with hostility. Confronted with a living, breathing person showing him warmth, he saw only his prejudices, the images and propaganda that flash constantly on American TV. He is a good friend of mine, someone I respect for being genuine– but he left me deeply unsettled.

Along with their love of American pop culture, Egyptians expressed a distaste for George Bush (who supports their president, Hosni Mubarak). I didn’t pry into strangers’ opinions on their government, but Dan had observed a great deal of unhappiness with it. I have read analyses that posit anti-Americanism in Egypt is an expression of dissatisfaction with their own government when outward criticism would be banned.I estimate that 70% of the women I saw in Egypt wore some sort of hijab, headscarf, though it varied greatly in form, from flashy scarves matching tight clothes to fully-covered women with only their spectacles hovering outside their burka. I sensed here and in Turkey that many women choose to wear a headscarf as a way of claiming their own personal space. Stewardesses (stewardae?) dressed to attract attention received leers, but women dressed modestly commanded respect.

I’ve never before seen desert that stretches out as it does from the pyramids. The oft-repeated statistic is that 95% of Egypt’s population lives on 5% of the land, hanging onto the artery that is the Nile. On the train back to Alexandria, I watched people bent over in the sun, heaving to draw some bit of sustenance from that land. For the first time I comprehend what it takes for humans to settle down into societies; the precarious cusp on the sides of which lie a surplus of time and resources or a famine. Oxen stood idly by with skin stretched taut over jutting frames, like mummies with blackened skin, about to crumble back to dust. I wondered if in some remote corner of this wide land there remains an untouched pocket still speaking Coptic, the descendant of the ancient Egyptian language that was gradually replaced by Arabic after the conquests 1300 years ago.

Even just one night spent off the ship made me realize the energy that is missing on the ship, the static electricity of millions of people and ambitions bouncing off of each other all day. Returning to work, I feel like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. I can still feel the air in my lungs, a concoction of sweat and smog and desert sand not present in the sterile environment on board. It’s a nice little tanning-bed of a time capsule here, a fantastic chance to window-shop different countries and cultures– but I’m ready to jump back into the water.

You can see some more photos from the last couple weeks here:

P.S…. For those to whom I’ve reflected on New York as a falling Rome, here’s a funny collumn from the NYT: “Num Roma sumus?