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Monthly Archives: June 2017

Young Artists Keeping Cuba’s Traditional Music Alive

It’s only 7 p.m. on a Friday night in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, and the crowd is already up and moving like they’re several bottles of rum deep. We’re watching Cuban-born MC/producer Kumar Sublevao-Beat gyrate around the stage during his set at Manana, Cuba’s first-ever festival combining traditional Cuban sounds and international electronic music. Propelled by his band’s live mixture of jazz, funk, and Afro-Cuban elements, Kumar’s movements cause his ass-length dreads to fling to and fro against his bare torso. In between fancy footwork, he bridges past and present while triggering samples on an MPC. “Solo quiero conectarme a la Wi-Fi/Dame la contraseña,” he sings. Translation: “I only want to connect to the Wi-Fi/Give me the password.” In a country where internet access is extremely limited, the young Cubans in the crowd laugh, zealously picking up the phrase to sing along. After Kumar’s performance, I ask a couple of them why they liked it so much. “His music feels truly Cuban,” one explains with a smile.

Cuba’s eclectic history patches together Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, which color the music that seeps out of the country’s pores. It’s homemade and from the streets, with rhythms that stir you to move almost without thinking. It’s completely interconnected with the nation’s distinctive cultural identity. But in the frame of current popular music in Cuba, such homegrown sounds are often considered to be endangered relics compared to the dominant presence of non-native styles like reggaeton, which can be heard floating from passing cars and open windows almost everywhere. Young people view traditional music with an air of dismissal. “It’s like something expired to them,” one Cuban tells me. And yet, as the government begins to grant citizens greater access to the outside world, some of them, like Kumar, are safeguarding their cultural heritage by transposing traditional music to strike a key with contemporary audiences within and beyond the island’s shores.

Combining jazz, funk, and Afro-Cuban styles with lyrics about Wi-Fi passwords, Cuban-born MC/producer Kumar Sublevao-Beat’s music offers a fresh combination of old and new.

Home to just over 11 million people, life in Cuba is lived openly and joyously, albeit within the confines set by the relatively recent legacy of revolution. Tight governmental control is certainly limiting, but it has also fostered a true inventive nature amongst the people. Enterprises like El Paquete Semanal—a national network of hard drives and USBs distributing bootlegged music, TV shows, and films that exists as an entrepreneurial alternative to the internet—demonstrate staggering amounts of Cuban resourcefulness, and spirit.

As shifts start taking place within a country that has been closed off for decades, the changes present opportunities for Cubans to gain access to more information, more ideas, and more points of view than ever before. On one hand, this posits an exciting vision of the future. On the other, these outside influences may become predators of Cuba’s hugely unique and rich culture, as young people discard what they have and replace it with what appears to be shiny and new. This possibility makes the role of those working to preserve elements of Cuban heritage even more important.

Geovani del Pino, 73, is one of the global ambassadors of the polyrhythmic Cuban style known as rumba.

The seed of all Cuban music can be found in rumba, a combination of textures that interlock and play out through polyrhythmic percussion, dance, and song. The distinct sound, anchored by clavesticks, a wooden cylindrical hi-hat of sorts called the catá, and a trio of conga drums of different pitches, has not only molded genres within the country but also fanned out worldwide to touch everything from jazz, to disco, to funk. To rumberos—Cuban street drummers—rumba is as all-encompassing as life itself.

“It’s an expression of Cuban style,” says Geovani del Pino, the 73-year-old director of Yoruba Andabo, the Latin Grammy-winning 15-piece band that has been fundamental in representing rumba internationally. “I don’t think that someone who calls themselves Cuban feels a conga without his feet moving.”

Although considered to be secular music, rumba retains a significant overlap with elements of Afro-Cuban religions such as Santeria, Palo, and Abukuá, born from traditions and rituals brought over by slaves on ships from Africa centuries ago. And similarly to spoken language, rumba doesn’t stand still. It evolves, reflecting moments through time as it progresses. More traditional musicians stay closer to its form and ritualistic uses, leaving younger artists to experiment, twist, and pull the rhythms.

The Latin Grammy-winning band Yoruba Andabo has been fundamental in representing rumba internationally.

Santiago de Cuba-based MC Alain Garcia Artola, member of the lyrically outspoken rap group TnT Rezistencia, is one such individual. A co-founder of Manana, he and his two British partners say the event is more of an ambitious cultural exchange than just another three-day festival. They selected Santiago de Cuba as the site for the project because the city is culturally unique as the hub of Caribbean influences in Cuba.

“Cuba is changing now, it is opening to the world,” Garcia says in between loping strides throughout Teatro Heredia, the government-owned venue that was loaned to Manana for the duration of the festival. “And in this moment we need to protect our cultural roots and values, because it’s rich. It has loads to offer to different types of music.” In this sense, the protection comes in the spirit of collaboration at Manana, keeping folkloric and traditional music alive by breathing it into newer, more widely transmitted genres.

Alain Garcia Artola is a rapper and co-founder of Manana.

Mililian Galis is a musical master respected throughout the island, and one of the few remaining godfathers of Afro-Cuban drumming. He was invited to perform at Manana and bring his half-century’s worth of knowledge and experience to collaborations with Nicolas Jaar and Iranian composer Pouya Ehsaei. Resplendent in a shirt featuring a breakdancer in Timbs, Galis is a good-humored representative for tradition, seemingly bemused by the attention being paid to him by young, reverential fans at the festival.

“At first the collaborations were a little strange, because I’ve only worked in analog,” he says. These are ritualistic sounds, so there are boundaries on what can be changed and what needs to stay the same. “It’s not easy. Many times the rhythm of the drums don’t fit. But we worked on the rhythms, we collaborated, and everything came out wonderful.”

Live Collaboration at Manana Festival 2016

Galis and Pouya EhsaeiVia SoundCloud

Later at the festival, Ehsaei also performed a more thoroughly conceived cross-weaving of cultures with Ariwo, a conceptual group featuring trumpeter Yelfris Valdes and percussionists Oreste Noda and Hammadi Valdes, three celebrated Cuban musicians living in London. Their set simmered to an intensity as they wrapped the theater in somber Iranian electronic melodies that vibrated with elements of rumba. Ehsaei processed the three players’ instruments live into a simmering soundscape that was paralyzing and moving all at once. “After every single rehearsal and performance, I’m completely drained,” Hammadi says. “It’s got to do with the energies and the talking between us. It’s very powerful, very spiritual as well.”

Hammadi has been living and working in London as a professional musician for nearly 10 years and he watches changes in his homeland take place from the outside, feeling hopeful about how improved access to information will positively affect the way Cubans think about the world. There are, however, a few reservations. “I’m a bit concerned about the fact that, with all the things coming now into the country, we always like what’s coming from abroad and neglect what we have,” Hammadi says. “It’s not about trying to copy a concept or an idea; it’s trying to develop what we have and take it to a different level.”

Mililian Galis, center, is a godfather of Afro-Cuban drumming.

Santiago-bred DJ Jigüe’s set at Manana sonically and philosophically fell into step with Hammadi’s views. Wearing a wide smile set underneath a cowboy hat, he slid from hip-hop to Caribbean to electronic, all colored by a live percussionist who sidestepped a gimmicky feel by working into the rhythms, not beside them. “We’re trying to find new sounds based off what belongs to us,” Jigüe explained afterwards. “Doing the same music as a European DJ or an American DJ wouldn’t sound like us, and would be a failure.”

Ten years ago, Jigüe swapped the unhurried Caribbean feel of the east side of the island and relocated to Havana, where he founded Guámpara Music. Literally translating to “machete,” guámpara is a weapon used to clear a path—something Jigüe hopes to do with the label’s artists and releases. He proudly tells me that his enterprise is the nation’s first independent urban record label, which is a significant feat considering the puzzling and yet entirely expected conditions that professional Cuban musicians and associates are forced to navigate.

Just like any other facet of Cuban life, the government’s hands lay heavily on the back of the music industry. Every aspect—from performance, to production, to commercialization—is controlled by governmental institutions. While not able to run completely rogue from these constraints, as an independent label Guámpara operates with a few more degrees of autonomy, and with more marketing savvy in the way they promote themselves internationally.

Jigüe has five acts on his roster, who all take the stems of Afro-Cuban music and slice them into complementary parts. The collective includes Golpe Seko, a hip-hop duo highlighted by UK DJ Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura project, and Kamerum El Akadémico, a producer/MC from Santiago who blends rumba with hip-hop and swarthy reggae/dancehall melodies. “We’re Cubans, so regardless of what music we like, we were born on this island and we received a lot of influence from all the Afro-Cuban countryside music,” Jigüe says. “Those genres are like our banner to the world.”

“We’re trying to find new sounds based off what belongs to us,” says artist and label head DJ Jigüe. “Doing the same music as a European or American DJ wouldn’t sound like us, and would be a failure.”

Another like-minded musician from Havana bending traditional music into distinct shapes is Yissy Garcia. The young percussionist overlaps with Jigüe in outlook, and more literally in Yissy & Bandancha, her self-described “high speed Cuban jazz” group, in which she recruited him to DJ. Yissy grew up surrounded by rhythm and melody in Cayo Hueso, a colorful and musical barrio of Havana. She was raised in a family of musicians led by her father, renowned Cuban percussionist Bernardo Garcia, who promptly enrolled Yissy into the music conservatory at age 10.

Following graduation, Yissy completed her two-year servicio—mandatory government service required of all Cubans after high school—as part of a female salsa orchestra, travelling throughout Cuba and representing the country on international stages. When she’d had enough of playing other people’s music, she established Yissy & Bandancha after seeing a YouTube video where Herbie Hancock incorporated a DJ into his set up.

Havana percussionist Yissy Garcia used online crowdfunding to help make her band’s latest album, an especially impressive feat in a country where the internet barely exists.

“All the rhythms that we make aren’t pure,” she explains. “They’re more like developed rhythms, more fusion. For example, we love to use a street conga and mix it with a little drum and bass, funk; mix it up with the rumba. The tradition of Cuba is very strong to me—carrying rhythm in your blood.”

Earlier this year Yissy & Bandancha released their debut album Ultima Noticia, a shapeshifting work of jazz, funk, electronic, and Afro-Cuban notes. Almost as extraordinary as the LP was the method in which it was actualized—via crowdfunding. The idea was concocted to sidestep having to make a deal with a typically government-owned Cuban record label, where they end up owning everything. But to achieve crowdfunding success in a country where internet barely exists almost felt like an exercise in oxymoronic madness.

“We had about a week where we lost our internet,” Yissy says, “and then friends who were also helping us ended up with no internet, so everything was very tense. But in the end, thanks to many people and many collaborators, we reached our goal.” By the close of the crowdfunding campaign, Yissy & Bandancha surpassed their goal of $6,000 and released Ultima Noticia on their own label, Zona Jazz.

Two days after picking up the Best Hip-Hop Video at the Lucas Awards, Cuba’s equivalent of the VMA’s, Barbaro “El Urbano” Vargasgreets us at his family home in the working class neighborhood of Marianao in Havana. One of the most outspoken and prominent MCs releasing music in Cuba today, the 27-year-old is known for his nimble wordplay expressing anti-materialistic values that stand in contrast to those reflected in current popular reggaeton. “The people here are about clubs, bars, and parties,” Barbaro says. “Everyone is partying because everyone wants to leave, and I don’t understand it.”

After getting his start freestyling at informal, impromptu concerts in Havana, Barbaro began to write down his rhymes at the urging of Los Aldeanos, the political firebrands of Cuban hip-hop. Since putting pen to paper around four years ago, he has amassed a back catalog of tracks recorded from a simple home studio, in which he delivers his reality of, in the words of his biggest hit, “Lo rico de ser pobre”—the richness of being poor.

“My work in general is social, but it’s also personal,” he explains. “Music is communication. And if you don’t communicate anything to me, you’re not making music.”

“The people here are about clubs, bars, and parties,” says 27-year-old rapper Barbaro “El Urbano” Vargas, known for his anti-materialistic rhymes. “Everyone is partying because everyone wants to leave, and I don’t understand it.”

Barbaro’s most recent album, Los Ibeyis (meaning “the twins” in Yoruba), consists of two halves, with one “twin” full of darker lyrical content, and the other contrasting with lightness. The Afro-Cuban connection is present in name as well as more subtly in feel, as Barbaro wanted to represent something inherently connected to Cuban culture through his music.

One track on the second half of Barbaro’s album is “El Diablo Dentro Del Cuerpo” (“The Devil Inside the Body”), his poetic take on the collective Cuban psyche and what he calls their “double morals.” The song features singer Daymé Arocena as she cuts Barbaro’s urgent and forceful verses in half with a mournful lament. Unlike the MC, Arocena’s own work embodies her Cubanness in a gentler way, enchanting listeners with a voice that both sails and scats seamlessly. Using jazz as a familiar framework, she then builds in Cuban cultural decoders by way of rhythms, melody, and lyrical references as a wink for those who can recognize them.

This track from Barbaro’s most recent album features musical elements that are inherently connected to traditional Cuban sounds.

Thanks to the help of Gilles Peterson, who came across the 23-year-old at one of Barbaro’s shows a few years ago, Arocena has reached sold-out audiences spanning Europe, Japan, and Brazil. The effervescent singer welcomes us into her newly purchased apartment in the Havana neighborhood of Cerro—a physical symbol of her progression over the past few years. “In Cuba, if I performed at the cafe for 10 people, that was a star-like day,” she remembers with a laugh.

Arocena’s debut album Nueva Era, recorded in London and released last year on Peterson’s Brownswood label, is a collection of fluid, undulating Afro-Cuban jazz originals. She sings in both Spanish and English, sitting on the spectrum of world music while also giving away her precisely Afro-Cuban origins through expression of Santeria through song. A devoted santera, she sprinkles her lyrics with homages to her spiritual mothers, Yemaya, mother of the seas, and her sister Ochún, mother and mistress of rivers and the saint of love.  “That connection is bigger than what I can explain,” Arocena says of her faith. “I feel it and I trust it and I use it without fear.”

After travelling the world, meeting people from different countries, and exchanging ideas, Arocena has returned to the sounds of her home for her next album. She says it’s going to have even more Cuban flavor to it, with help from a trio of local musicians. “I’m researching rhythms—guajiranengónchangüí—stuff that people barely play,” she says with a laugh, “but stuff that’s Cuban, Cuban, Cuban.”

Havana singer Daymé Arocena has received international acclaim for her take on Afro-Cuban jazz.

Finally, we visit DJ Djoy de Cuba at his home in Vedado, the most modern area of Havana. In his late-30s, Djoy has been instrumental in initiating an electronic music scene in Cuba; a noble task in a place where most young aren’t interested in a beat unless it’s polyrhythmic. He has found ways to hold their attention by mixing rumba and salsa with recognizable electronic sounds. His living room overlooks the market next door, as the sounds of cockfights, indiscriminate chatter, and reggaeton waft in. “When it’s time to make music, everything comes out,” he says. “The loudness. The noise. The tumbadora [conga]. The guy selling stuff on the street. The woman cleaning the hallway—that’s part of the folklore; that helps me.”

Djoy was part of the group behind Cuba’s first-ever rave—a three-day event that took place on the beach in 1998 with one speaker, a black light, and a strobe. It grew into the mammoth Rotilla Festival, which attracted 20,000 attendees in 2010. Established without significant government assistance or approval, Rotilla was “kidnapped” the following year by the state, who organized competing concerts on the same dates on the same site. “It was so shocking that they would take our festival away,” Djoy says. “But I think it was an important moment in helping to get some 

“Danza Rumba”

Djoy de CubaVia SoundCloud

These days Djoy enjoys a more amicable relationship with Cuba’s cultural governmental institutions, which support the annual block parties he throws on his birthday for his neighborhood. Curiously funded in part by the Norwegian embassy (apparently the ambassador enjoys electronic music), Djoy has been arranging the event for the past 10 years, and the government obliges by closing down the street. It can be mind-boggling for an outsider to comprehend the systems, both official and unofficial, through which Cuba functions. “Nobody, nobody, nobody can imagine how we manage here until you’re here,” says Djoy.

DJ Djoy de Cuba helped organize Cuba’s first-ever rave in 1998 and continues to throw an annual block party in his neighborhood of Vedado, in Havana.

Over the past five decades, the country’s socialist past has predetermined the present Cuban way of life. Recent internal developments though, such as greater internet access and a growing private sector, also now compounded by the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations, seem to be heralding a new era. People from city to countryside alike are optimistic about change that still remains largely uncertain. No one knows how different things will be next year, or the year after that.

“I don’t think the future of Cuban music will be the same if we don’t work properly before we’re invaded by McDonald’s and Coca Cola,” Garcia Artola told me back in Santiago. “If that’s gonna happen, I want to make sure our musical heritage is kept intact—so that if people are eating a burger in McDonald’s, at least they’ll be thinking about how the drums make them happy.”

The Ongoing Evolution of Live Electronic Music

“EVERYTHING TONIGHT IS LIVE. THIS IS IMPORTANT. TOO MANY SEAMLESS ASS ELECTRONIC MUSIC SHOWS. FUCKING INHUMAN ASS SHOWS. WE KEEP THIS LIVE OR THE END RESULT IS DEAD.”

This declaration blared on a screen behind heady experimentalist Holly Herndon during a Los Angeles performance earlier this year, as a bleeping helicopter loop whirled through the room. The message was Herndon’s dislocated take on typical crowd banter, a sly disruption of what we have come to expect from a live show. This unruliness extended to the rest of her set, which incorporated hardware, software, vocals, dance, digital processing and manipulation of all sorts, and shapeshifting vaporware projections. It was anything but static. Sometimes it felt like pure video game sound design or ambient gallery music, other times it rippled with the intensity of a trap show. Neither a rock gig nor a typical live techno show or laptop DJ set, the performance inhabited an intriguing in-between space and showed why Herndon is one of the most now-thinking members of a rapidly growing group of dynamic live electronic artists.

For these vanguard acts, form and function don’t just inform each other—they overlap almost entirely. New technology acts as both medium and message, though it can be hard to tell where hardware ends and human begins, which is likely the point. Mistakes are inevitable and intertwined—and prized. These artists seek to push our expectations past the idea of someone recreating their songs in front of a crowd and go deep into an experience that’s both more memorable and more alive.

“The notion of what ‘live’ means is currently being challenged,” Herndon tells me. “As machines may be easily programmed to perform musical tasks, we have to ask ourselves: What part of a performance should be live? What new opportunities do we have to play with liveness once we are somewhat freed from mechanical aspects of performance? Is cerebral performance as compelling as motor skill performance, and will that change?”

Holly Herndon uses hardware, software, dance, and text-based banter to disrupt the traditional idea of a live show. Photo by Maria Jefferis/Redferns.

In one form or another, live electronic music has been around for as long as the tools have existed, cropping up in the popular consciousness in experimental, rock, and pop songs since the ’60s. Groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream helped lay the groundwork for live electro, house, and techno, which in turn influenced rave and acid house, which was exported to America as electronica in the ’90s, when acts like the Chemical Brothersheadlined arena rock-type spectacles. Things got a little stale electronically for a spell until Daft Punk’s 2006 Coachella performance and subsequent tour, which capitalized on the blog house crest, opening the door for the EDM and brostep explosion (and recent implosion).

But while EDM is fizzling out, the last few years have seen all manner of live electronic crossover successes—like CaribouDarkside, and Simian Mobile Disco—as the equipment required for pulling off such innovative sets has gotten more nimble. Right now, it feels like we’re in a critical phase of electronic music’s live evolution, at the foothill of a cultural shift toward a more definable movement in tech and music culture where anything is fair game, and audiences are open to radical shifts.

Holly Herndon photo by Chris McKay/Getty Images.

The most recent wave of live electronic pioneers is not without precedent. Detroit luminary Jeff Mills has been playing out for a couple of decades and is one of the more widely known practitioners of live techno; the way he works a drum machine can look like sorcery. “What makes something live is the usage of the musician’s intuition to feel what to do next—what to say with his instrument,” Mills explains. “It’s a reactionary gesture based on how the musician is analyzing the current situation.” Mills believes that the specific tools a practitioner uses are irrelevant. Though he sometimes prepares sections of his sets, after they reach a certain point, anything could happen.

Talking about whether audiences desire such musicality—or if they’re content with another decade of first-pumping brodude shenanigans onstage—Mills isn’t especially hopeful. “People have been doing many unique things in music for decades,” he says. “Unfortunately, these actions are often overshadowed by music sensationalism; throwing pies, crowd surfing, and all the things that mask over real talent in the music industry.”

Mills is not wrong: Main stage electronic artists often are only working from a predetermined playlist and favor cheap tricks over spontaneity and traditional talent. However, pre-recorded sets or backing tracks aren’t always terrible, and musicality or liveness does not make an artist better by rule; there are plenty of artists with decades of music theory in their brains who have no idea how to capture and maintain the attention of a room. So while there’s a certain whiff of rockism coming from Mills and other techno elder statesmen, it’s likely due to the fact that they’ve witnessed so many followers make millions off their backs.

Live techno master Jeff Mills is known for his drum machine dexterity. Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images

Octave One, another veteran Detroit act known for house and techno sets, has been playing live since 1999. The group is led by brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden, and their gear list is extensive, featuring both old and new machines. Though such an abundance of live tools leads to a higher probability that one of the machines will fail, it also allows for a huge amount of freedom. The Burden brothers have the ability to manipulate every sound coming from the speakers in one way or another. They can rearrange or program sequences, extend moments, play live or loop on the fly, and add effects. The infinite possibilities make each show unique.

“There is a certain satisfaction that comes from playing your own music and reinterpreting it in front of an audience,” Lenny says, talking about the difference between DJing and playing live. “Instead of two stereo tracks you have 24 tracks of various sounds to make something new from. Live isn’t better than DJing, however—there’s room for both things in the world of electronic music.”

Historically, the classic, purist view of club DJ culture considered the action on the dancefloor as the main focus of the room; instead of playing to the audience, like a rock group, the DJ played with the crowd. That idea was challenged in the ’90s and ’00s with the rise of superstar DJs, who often relied on pure spectacle, like a bunch of bass-addled Gene Simmonses.

But some of the more successful live electronic performers now seem to be having it both ways, borrowing tropes from both DJ and rock culture, creating sets that sometimes flow seamlessly like a DJ mix and sometimes have distinct breaks between songs to make room for applause and banter. If anything, these acts are akin to jazz artists or jam bands rejiggered with laptops and blinking drum pads, where what song you’re playing isn’t necessarily as important as how you’re playing it, how the arrangement changes, how long the riff goes on, how it will only be played this exact way once and only once.

With nearly two decades of live gigs in his rearview, Lenny suggests that novices should lean into the technical challenges of performing live instead of shying away from them. “One of the most important things is to be flexible,” he insists. “You will have bad sets. You will also have equipment failure almost every night. Don’t panic! Know your gear and setup well so you can troubleshoot and fix the problem, do it with a smile on your face, and keep playing. Chances are you’re the only one who knows that there is a problem. Sometimes mistakes make the best shows too.”

Veteran Detroit duo Octave One take pride in the improvisatory nature of their live sets.

There’s currently a whole crop of artists making music in the wake of Detroit techno’s first and second wavers, including the Amsterdam by way of Israel duo Juju & Jordash, aka Jordan Czamanski and Gal Aner. The pair is well-known on the European underground circuit, and they represent the jazzier side of the live spectrum. Armed with an extensive knowledge of musical theory, Juju & Jordash now play completely improvised shows—but it wasn’t always that way. After starting off doing gigs that featured both pre-prepared and spontaneous sections, they soon lost interest in the canned stuff. “We ended up only enjoying the parts that were totally improvised,” Czamanski tells me. “Having playback felt really stupid.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive to the way many musicians operate, preparation became their enemy. Their knowledge and experience with their gear, music theory, and—most importantly—each other gave them the courage to jump in the deep end, leaving many of their peers in the wake.

As a result, Czamanski believes that their brand of jamming has recently become more common. “Five years ago, more eyebrows were raised when promoters got our tech rider,” he says. “But now it’s way easier for them to get hold of the gear we need. It seems like many other live acts have more elaborate setups than a laptop these days, because all the new hardware makes it easier.”

Amsterdam-based duo Juju & Jordash’s live show slowly evolved into an entirely off-the-cuff affair.

Along with more durable, user-friendly hardware, the modern tool that has played the largest part in breaking open electronic music—both in composing, as a digital audio workstation, and performing, as a sequencer and live “brain”—is Ableton Live. In its 15-year existence, the German-based software has ascended to an indispensable weapon, an application that is both friendly to beginners and the gold standard for professionals.

There have been criticisms too, including what some considered to be a weak sound engine and a crummy warp function that bad DJs overused early on. A few years ago, outspoken producer Disco Nihilist said, “When you think of [Ableton], you think of shitty plip-plop techno. It’s easy, it’s cheap. [But] in a lot of ways Ableton can be more live than an MPC because you have more freedom and control in your set.” Almost every live performer I’ve ever met has used Ableton at one point or another, and the program itself continues to become stronger and more stable.

British purveyor of icy-hot house Jon Hopkins, who has been using Ableton onstage for about seven years, tells me that recent updates to the program have made it more vital than ever. Ultimately, it’s not about the technical specs as much is it about the user being freed of old linear hardware constraints. As attractive as old modular gear can be, such instruments are incredibly cumbersome on so many levels. Ableton frees the artist from all the uselessly complex facets of engineering electronic music and is generally affordable too. At this point, Ableton is the de facto choice as a stable sequencing brain for any sort of live set, and its applications are not even fully understood yet.

Jon Hopkins relies on the digital audio workstation Ableton Live to keep his sets fresh. Photo by Nick Pickles/Redferns via Getty Images.

Singer-producer Jessy Lanza had an Ableton-related epiphany a few years ago when she was on tour with Caribou, a band that is constantly blurring the line between organic and electronic in their shows. “It was really interesting to watch the audience respond to them,” she says. “There’s four people onstage—including two drummers—but so much of their set is reliant on Ableton as a brain. The most fun part was when the more acoustic-based performances and all of the sequenced stuff that people were changing in real-time met.”

Jessy Lanza photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images.

Lanza has a jazz background but she doesn’t play jazz music. The Canadian artist falls in a category of artists, like Grimes and FKA twigs, whose chief aim is to deconstruct pop music as we know it. She came to international attention when she began releasing music with Hyperdub, an imprint known for pushing boundaries of electronic music, and she has tried her hand at various vocal-driven styles: freestyle, R&B, pop. She began playing shows solo, working synths, singing, and triggering playback herself. “Playing live for me was really scary the first couple years,” she admits. “Playing alone, I always felt like I had to do a million things, but there’s only so much that one person can do.”

Inspired by Caribou, she hired herself a drummer and now revels in the newfound freedom onstage. “Having that energy and somebody to play off of has made such a huge difference,” Lanza says.

After starting her career playing solo shows, Jessy Lanza enlisted a drummer to keep her live sets more engaging.

As more and more electronic artists add live elements to their sets, and as the culture becomes more visible thanks to YouTube portals like Boiler Room, expectations for such spontaneity have risen as well. David August, a twentysomething from Germany who finds his musical center somewhere between house and classical, came under scrutiny a couple of years ago after playing a Boiler Room set—online commenters felt that, because his set was largely pre-structured in Ableton, he was not truly playing live; they had expectations for something more improvisational, so it felt like a cheat.

Since then, August has become more confident in his abilities, but he doesn’t use the word “LIVE” on the bill when he’s performing. He wants to avoid that sense of overselling what it is he’s doing, which sometimes involves extending synth lines and using effects or doing edits in-the-moment, but rarely playing with no preparation whatsoever.

I caught August last year at his first L.A. show. The set ran more than three hours. He was playing on the floor, and the place was packed, and most of the audience couldn’t really see what he was doing. From where I was standing, the most obvious crowd reactions came when he was improvising on his synthesizer or working on slow, long builds with gentle drops. It felt like a very cohesive DJ set with a few standout live moments, like August was still figuring out how his brand of melancholy, classical-tinged house should stand from the pack.

One possible conclusion came earlier this year, when August, who is classically trained, mounted a collaboration with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, playing in a palatial hall rather than a dank club. The event seemed to fit with the work of Mills, who has been trying such experiments for a while, and other current artists likeNils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, who are spearheading a micro-scene that’s becoming more popular than perhaps anyone could have predicted, breathing life into classical music in the process.

The Politics of Dance Music

“Meet Nico at the triangle on 66th St. next to the head.”

So goes the cryptic message from Nicolas Jaar’s publicist, in advance of my meeting with the 26-year-old producer. While hard to parse or plug into Google Maps, the directions seem fitting in this instance, in that Jaar’s own restless muse can make for slippery listening. But when I emerge from the subway station at 66th Street one Tuesday at dusk, such ambiguity becomes clear: The triangle marks the intersection of Broadway and Amsterdam on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the head is a bronzed bust of a famed early 20th century tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Nondescript in an Under Armour cap, olive tee, khaki pants, and a pair of camouflage Crocs, Jaar could still pass as a particularly devoted music student about to take in a performance at nearby Lincoln Center.

But for the past eight years, he has occupied a rare spot in American electronic music, a vanguard talent constantly nudging toward wide acceptance. He’s popular enough to headline festivals while never giving in to bigger trends. Ever since he released a string of singles and his 2011 debut album Space Is Only Noise while studying comparative literature at Brown University—turning him into an in-demand DJ before he was legally allowed to drink—his music has continued to slither away from easy tags. It’s slow and sensuous, bristling and foreboding, noisy and elegant. And with each new release over the last few years, Jaar has expanded his ambitions, moving from the brooding psychedelia of Darkside, his project with guitarist Dave Harrington, to Nymphs, a series of mercurial 12″s, to the noisy and abstract Pomegranates, a 20-track (imagined) score to Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 avant-garde film The Colour of Pomegranates, to the (legit) soundtrack for Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning 2015 film, Dheepan.

Now comes Sirens, with its cover art obscured like a lottery scratch card. Take a coin to that silvery surface and an old picture of Times Square becomes clear. But it’s not just any old picture. It’s a photo of the animated piece “A Logo for America,” which was created by Jaar’s celebrated Chilean visual-artist father Alfredo and played on a billboard in the middle of NYC in 1987. “A Logo for America” calls into question the way many people think of the United States as “America,” implying the erasure of Latin America. “It would be like the French calling themselves ‘Europe,’” Alfredo once told The New Yorker. The Sirens cover focuses on a particularly powerful still from the piece: an outline of the U.S. with the words “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” on top. The image’s confrontation of identity permeates the album, which is now streaming in full at Jaar’s site.

Though Sirens references current issues—“It’s hard for me to notmake a record about America right now,” says Jaar—it’s not the type of thing that will turn into a relic following Election Day. The record is Jaar’s most political work but also his most personal as it strikes a masterful balance between several sonic and emotional crosscurrents: from spiritual jazz to the menacing lurch of Suicide, gorgeous piano melodies to slinking reggaeton beats, furious white noise to charming old tapes featuring Jaar as a young boy talking with his father.

Sirens also alludes to the producer’s Chilean heritage and scenes from that country’s harrowing history; churning highlight “Three Sides of Nazareth” has Jaar repeating a harrowing hook—“I found my broken bones by the side of the road.” When General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Unidad Popular government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973—a military coup trained and supported by the CIA—Jaar’s parents left Chile for New York City, where they remained for many years. They were the lucky ones. The atrocities carried out by Pinochet’s junta are innumerable, and exact numbers are hard to come by, but during his nearly 20-year dictatorship, it is estimated that around 3,200 people were executed, nearly 40,000 were tortured, and another 80,000 were interned, while many more were “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. Jaar himself was born mere months before Pinochet’s reign came to an end.

The scratch-off cover of Sirens, featuring a photo of “A Logo for America,” an 1980s art installation by Jaar’s father Alfredo.

Near the triangle and the head, Jaar suggests we head south to the infamous tourist snake pit where his dad’s art once looped on repeat. Even though both of us are hearty New Yorkers, there’s something so grotesque and appalling about those blindingly bright blocks in Midtown: the density of vacationers outside Bubba Gump’s, the topless women with American flags painted across their nipples, the most ominous Spiderman imaginable. We last only a few blocks before ducking into a side street and hopping a train downtown, far from the hustle of grungy Elmos.

As we move through the city, our conversation drifts between nerdy music talk and larger political themes. Jaar can be both chatty and enthusiastic as well as cautious and considered. He deliberates over some answers for a full minute, as if arranging the entire thought in his head before uttering a single word. We touch on Carmen Miranda, the popular Brazilian samba singer and movie star of the ’30s and ’40s and her place at the center of the proto-psychedelic vision of Busby Berkeley’s “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” and the modern realities of a musical monoculture that makes certain acts unavoidable. The phrase “Potemkin village”—that is, a showy facade that diverts attention from a real problem—gets uttered often to describe American political and cultural life circa 2016. He enthuses about Alice Coltrane’s ashram tapes, laments the closing of revered NYC indie music store Other Music, and notes how the shuffle functions of algorithms falsely mimic the true notion of chance. “For good or for bad, I’m very curious,” he shrugs.

That inquisitive streak leads us to a performance by No Wave legend Lydia Lunch near Canal Street. While their work is separated by more than three decades, Lunch currently acts as a beacon for Jaar. Last year, he remixed one of her songs and had her perform as part of his residency at Queens venue Trans-Pecos. He also reissued both her 1990 spoken word album Conspiracy of Women along with a compilation of live recordings by her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks on his label, Other People.

Jaar admits that Lunch is one of his first mentors, teaching him to pay attention to words and lyrics and their intent. “Time is too short to not care about those things,” he tells me. To this day, her growled words still arise in the middle of his DJ sets, lending the music a distinct character and ferocity. He talks about how the potent way Lunch maneuvers between politics and abstract fiction turned a latch in his mind: “I’m excited by those two poles being so close to each other, because in the end there’s something in each of them that strengthens the other.”

The venue Lunch performs at is in the basement club of a ludicrously upscale luxury hotel. But despite the trappings, there’s a bit of the grunge and straight razor edge in Lunch’s set that brings to mind the danger of old New York City. Jaar takes in the scene like the intense music student he is.

“I feel an affinity with the political aspect of dance music—maybe it can increasingly become a place of protest.”

Photo by Callie Barlow
Pitchfork: You received such universal praise with your first album more than five years ago, but you decided not to follow it up with another solo LP until now. Do you feel like getting those early accolades made you reactionary?

Nicolas Jaar: [long pause] It’s very difficult for me to say whether I’m reactionary or not; that’s not for me to be able to see. But I can say that Space Is Only Noise had all these little tunnels in it, and I’ve tried to go into every single one of those tunnels ever since. And I see a way to imagine Nymphs—which is an album—and Pomegranatesand Sirens as a triangle of records. I don’t necessarily see Sirens as LP number two. I see the three as equally indicative of something, in equal measure. It’s out of happiness that I go down these different little tunnels. Darkside was definitely one of those too.

Is Darkside something you may go back to at some point?

Dave [Harrington] and I really love each other a lot, and that project was very much about how much pleasure we got from making music together. In a way, it’s the most musical thing for me because it’s really about jamming and having a lot of fun. And I can’t wait to potentially do that again. But, again, I’m just very curious. Also, if you go on a year-long tour, you need some time to re-adjust and think about things.

You talk about Nymphs and Pomegranates and Sirens as being of a piece—was the process linear?

At the end of 2014, I had finished Pomegranates and Nymphs and I thought there was one record in between them that I would put out. But it never felt right. There was something missing. There was something that I was not delving into in both Nymphs and Pomegranates, so out of that lack came Sirens.

How would you define that missing piece?

Nymphs and Pomegranates was very private, intimate music for me, on a personal level. In the moment, I was making them for myself. Making music everyday is how I cope with life, and I love that. At the beginning, Sirens wasn’t supposed to be remotely about me. But, as most things go, you end up seeing yourself in some of the things that you make at one point or another. I sent all of my best friends the record because I wanted to know what they thought, and every single one of them said, “This record feels like you the most.”

With Nymphs and Pomegranates, I had not questioned my idea of identity and I was just doing them as a constructed “me.” But in the months leading up to Sirens, there was a lot of change in my life—when you come back from a long tour, you really have to pick up the pieces in a way. I realized how much of a construct I had created for myself. This may be the trouble with the idea of one firm identity. I ended up being able to see myself in Sirens only when I realized that the broken mirror that I was seeing outside was also inside.

Considering how you reference your father’s visual art on the Sirenscover, do you feel like there’s a creative dialogue between your work and his?

At one point while making the record, I thought that I was starting to see a path but then I realized that it was very similar to my father’s path, and that in itself was an illusion. You see the struggle of that in the cover—only when you scratch off the lottery paper do you see his work. A part of me wonders whether it’s the last exorcism of my stuff with him. It’s hard for me to say, but I definitely put a picture that he took of me as a kid looking like I’ve been abandoned on the cover of Space Is Only Noise. So there’s that.

You sing in English as well as Spanish on Sirens. Do you write a song differently depending on the language?

The song “No,” which is in Spanish, happened after I had just been in Chile for two weeks. I go every year. When I was 2, my parents split up, and I went with my mother back to Chile. Then they got back together when I was 9, and I returned to New York.

So when I was in Chile this time, a newly created museum that documents the Pinochet dictatorship asked me whether I wanted to have a show there. I had already been thinking a lot about that stuff, as it was the reason why my parents came to New York; I was born here in NYC because of that, just before Pinochet finally stopped being in power.

I knew the history, had seen some movies, read some stuff, talked with parents and cousins about it. But after going to the museum, I started putting more physical details and imagery to it. What interested me a lot was that, in 1988, there was a referendum that asked the Chilean people: “Do you want Pinochet to stay for eight more years?” That simple, yes or no. So the resistance—which was artists, leftists, activists—created a campaign for the “no.” They effectively turned a negative message into a positive message, which seems like the most elemental change that you can do.

What is it like to understand more about your heritage and what was going on around you as a child as you grow up?

If I have any trauma, it’s from the time I was in Chile. So for me to get closer to that history and my father’s presence and absence is very heavy. It’s strangely tied with this period in Chile with reconstruction after the terrible atrocities of Pinochet.

For this album, I wanted to take this more personal thing and bring it into the context of this more context-specific political thing. The kind of sanctions that we need to put on certain things so that the world doesn’t combust is a matter of saying no: to profit, to a lot of these comforts, and we need to say no to killing innocent people. I know it’s very simple, but sometimes in the end you can see it on a very simple level. We know these things are bad and yet they keep on happening.

We keep being complicit in these things by distancing ourselves just enough.

Right, our comfort level is complicit in this. But I feel very fortunate to be living at the same time as Kendrick [Lamar], who makes us believe that culture can create change and awareness.

I was teaching these six amazing guys and girls at the Berklee College of Music in Boston right before I started Sirens. After we all got to know each other, the first questions that I asked were, “Can instrumental electronic music be political? Can it be protest music?” They are questions that I’m still asking myself and maybe in this record I’m asking them outright. The first assignment that I gave the class was to make a song that was a certain length and in a certain key and with no grid, no beats. I didn’t tell them what we would do with it. Then we took all six of their songs and put them in Logic on top of each other to hear what it sounded like and what their impulse was. To me, there was something political in that.

In what sort of way?

Six people from very different places and heritages around the world coming together and creating a cacophony of harmony, or a harmony of cacophony, where—depending on which way you listen to it—either works or doesn’t. It either feels like the work of one or the work of many. Is it political work? Is it a utopian work? I have no idea. But that’s very much what I was thinking about at that time, which was around the same time that To Pimp a Butterfly came out.

I feel an affinity with the political aspect of dance music—maybe it can increasingly become a place of protest. I have no control over how this album will be heard. It’s scary to me, and that’s a good thing. That’s what drives me.

Acoustic Guitars

The amps are still buzzing from Japandroids’ paint-peeling performance at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern when the band’s roadie steps out to make an announcement: An audience member has lost their wedding ring in the mosh pit. A mad scramble ensues, as smartphone flashlights swoop and swirl across the club’s checkerboard floor like mini-police choppers. Suddenly, a hand thrusts victoriously into the air, a ring pinched between its thumb and index finger. A chorus of cheers and hugs between strangers ensue. And so ends this five-minute tale of chaos, drama, camaraderie, and true love prevailing—there was no encore on this October night, but at least we got to see another Japandroids song play out in real life.

Ever since they appeared in a warm embrace on the cover of their 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, singer/guitarist Brian King and drummer Dave Prowse have engendered a palpable bonhomie among their fans. From day one, they’ve wanted to be the house band for the most pivotal moments of your life, bashing out the sort of garage-spawned, arena-sized pop-punk anthems that instinctively make you want to wrap your arms around your best mate and yell like hell to the heavens.

But where Japandroids’ 2012 follow-up Celebration Rock boasted possibly the most self-explanatory album title in rock history, it was the sort of party where they always had one eye on the clock, bracing themselves for the inevitable moment when the lights were flipped on, the room cleared out, and real-world responsibilities beckoned once again. And now that time has come. With their upcoming third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids have quit the adrenaline nightshift—they want to make music they’ll still respect in the morning.

Celebration Rock might be great for driving or partying, but there are certain circumstances where it’s just not the right album!” says King. “Great rock‘n’roll albums—like The Velvet Underground & Nico—work anytime because there’s a little something for everyone.”

Listen to the title track from Japandroids’ third album; the image shown is also the record’s cover.

Japandroids’ set at the Horseshoe is part of a small, six-city club tour marking the Vancouver duo’s return to the stage after a three-year layoff. But technically, they never stopped traveling in the interim. Though Prowse is still based in Vancouver, King has relocated to Toronto, but actually spends most of his downtime in Mexico City, where his girlfriend lives. When it came time to write material for the new album in the fall of 2014, they reconvened for five weeks in New Orleans, before bouncing back and forth among all the aforementioned cities. And while the album was mostly recorded back in Vancouver with long-time producer Jesse Gander, the road to completion also included pit stops in Montreal, New York, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

But on this warm-up tour, Japandroids aren’t just introducing audiences to some of the songs that make up Near to the Wild Heart of Life. They’re also introducing the songs to themselves. Because, for the first time, Japandroids the live band and Japandroids the studio entity have become two very different things—and, at this point, the former isn’t quite sure how it’s going to recreate the sounds produced by the latter.

At their core, Japandroids are still very much a band that writes valorous songs about living for the moment and loving for a lifetime. But the anxious, slash-and-burn abandon of old has matured into a steadier hand and confident poise; the gritty surface buffed away for a radio-ready polish; the duo’s minimalism blown open to absorb the infinite possibilities of the recording studio. For the first time on a Japandroids record, there are prominent acoustic guitars. And synthesizers. And a shoegaze ballad. And, in centerpiece track “Arc of Bar,” a seven-minute, Haçienda-bound psych-disco epic—complete with guest vocals from their girlfriends—that will require Prowse to use a sampler pad to trigger drum loops live.

“In some ways, we’re approaching this like it’s our very first record,” King says. “We’re removing all the self-imposed rules that led to the songs and the sound of our whole career up until now. When you do that, you can try anything.”

The evolution goes beyond those sonic embellishments. The title Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a line from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (sourced via Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s 1943 novel Near to the Wild Heart). And though King is reluctant to dwell on any direct literary influence, he was inspired to think more about crafting narratives this time, to bring more color, nuance, and dramatic purpose to a record where the booze-fuelled mania that produced his previous writing has been replaced by a clear-eyed contentment.

Really, the difference between the new Japandroids and the old Japandroids can be read through their albums’ covers. Like its predecessors, the new record is adorned by a black-and-white photo of the pair—but it’s a posed studio portrait instead of a candid backstage snap, and the guys are sporting nicer clothes and more serious facial expressions. These are subtle differences that underscore a big change: On Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids give you older us.

The setting of our interview only reinforces this growth. The day before the Horseshoe show, a band that once cut its teeth in DIY spaces and industry-resistant festivals is holding court in a boardroom at the Spoke, a private member’s club in downtown Toronto that charges an annual fee of $800. Granted, King and Prowse aren’t actually members themselves, but the posh environs are indicative of the kind of resources that Japandroids’ new big-league labels—ANTI- in the U.S. and Arts & Crafts in Canada—are investing to push the band to an even wider audience.

True to their humble roots, King and Prowse just order a couple of waters.