Radio is the number one media of Haiti. The number one source of news and the number one source of music. I have heard many explanations for this fact: mountainous terrain, unreliable electricity and high rates of illiteracy, all of which limit the reach of print, internet and television. But for me these factors can’t entirely explain the Haitian radio phenomenon. Traveling around the country this summer, visiting stations and meeting their listeners, it was clear that radio has become part of a tradition of oral communication, one that has connected and sustained communities on this island for centuries. Some photos from along the way:
Radio travels all ways at once. It is both a natural phenomenon and a human technology; the original mass media and perhaps the most intimate media. It has been an instrument of research, a weapon of war and a source of entertainment—a luxury and a fixture, a career and hobby, an online app and a piece of furniture. Radio Contact explores the diverse experiences of radio through the words of those who have lived them: announcers, producers, engineers, listeners, developers, researchers and more. And while the stories begin in Boston, they travel much farther—radiating out in all directions at once. Hear them all at radiocontact.org.
My tenth annual Christmas-ish album. It’s hard to believe I’ve kept up this odd and time-consuming end-of-year ritual for so long, but here it is. Some old themes and rhyme schemes, and a few new ones. Something about this year made me feel my grown-up-ness. Maybe you are feeling it too. Either way, enjoy. Happy Holidays.
Meet Lokananta, the national record company of Indonesia. I was there this spring, and totally surprised to find out what kinds of music they are producing these days…I’ll give you a hint, it’s not just gamelan. If you’re curious, I just wrote a blog post for Sounding Out! on the company’s long and winding story. Read it here.
Here is a podcast on Kadongo Kamu music I recently produced for Afropop Worldwide, featuring Boston’s own DJ Paddy:
This piece grew out of a 4-month ethnography project I conducted on the significance of Internet Radio in Boston’s Ugandan community and the diaspora globally. The greater Boston area, specifically Waltham, is home to thousands of ethnic Ugandans drawn to the city for education and work. In 2009, a group of those immigrants founded Radio Uganda Boston, an Internet Radio station featuring a variety of news, music, and conversation. The technology proved difficult for some–one of the founders, Rob Kafeero, told me that he sometimes had to visit the homes of older listeners to show them how to access the online stream. But for other Ugandan emigres, especially those outside Boston, the Internet station was a perfect means to stay connected with their native country and culture. Kadongo Kamu is a powerful symbol of that culture, and the phone line at the station lights up with requests when the music comes on the air. If you enjoy what you hear in the podcast, I encourage you to check out DJ Paddy’s weekly Kadongo Kamu Special, Tuesdays at 5pm at radiougandaboston.com. You might not understand what the host and callers are talking about, but you can appreciate the music and hopefully get a sense of how important it is for the station’s dispersed audience.
My profile of Kenyan percussionist Kasiva Mutua is now up on PRI’s The World. Kasiva is a natural story-teller, so we decided to do the piece using only her voice: hours of interviews and concert recordings edited down to a 4-minute monologue. Many thanks to The Nile Project and KALW’s Julie Caine for making it possible. And a special thanks to host Marco Werman for getting my name right–I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of “Ian Cross” these days.
On Bali’s north coast the shadow play, or wayang, is in high demand as part of a blessing ceremony for children in their third month of life. In the week I spent with puppeteer Dalang Ketut Merta he performed almost every night, sometimes twice in a row in different villages. But don’t think that just because the wayang is sacred it has to be serious. Merta’s performances are a raucous and raunchy affair where fart jokes, giant penises and Japanese pop songs mix with dragons and gods in tales from the Hindu epics. By pleasing as it does both a divine and human audience, the wayang has managed to stay relevant here despite the ubiquitous presence of television and internet. Merta told me that the crowds have dwindled somewhat, yet in his thirty-five year career he has never had more than a few days off in a row. For him and his crew—two musicians and an assistant—this is a well-worn routine.
In this sprawling highland city, known for its technical university and indie music scene, buskers are as ubiquitous as they are persistent. One need to not seek them out, just take a seat at a food stall or hop on a minibus and a man with a guitar or ukulele will come to you. Along Dipatiukur Street, the slow traffic and busy market seem to be ideal terrain for these fleeting entertainers. They step onto passing busses, and after playing crouched in the doorway for about 30 seconds, extend a plastic cup for spare change. As soon as someone pays he is gone, almost as if we are paying him not to play, but go away.
On my way through Dipatiukur, I noticed a pair of musicians squatting besides the traffic jam, clearly not engaging in the guerilla performance tactics of their many colleagues. Later that afternoon on my return trip, I hopped off the minibus to pay them a visit. I asked if I could record something, and before I could even offer any money the guitarist and violinist launched into a pair of film songs that they learned off of YouTube. Apparently this is from the Korean TV series Full House.
When I asked the violinist how he learned music, he replied simply: “otodidak.” This cognate of ‘autodidact’ has somehow become an everyday term for ‘self-taught’ in Indonesia (besides autodidact musicians I have also met an autodidact audio engineer and guitar luthier). Their instruments were similarly DIY. The guitarist had tied together two strings in order to reach one of the tuning pegs, and he strummed with a piece of rigid plastic cut into a triangle. The violinist had added a fifth string to his instrument by drilling a hole in the headstock and inserting an extra tuning peg. Perhaps only in Bandung would you find such musically and mechanically inclined buskers. I gave the pair the equivalent of a few US dollars for their time; in this case at least their less aggressive approach to street performance paid off.
A 1979 article in Ebony Magazine asks in its title: “Can White People Sing the Blues.” An enticing subtitle draws the reader in further: “Ray Charles says ‘No,’ but a few are trying to prove him wrong.” The idea that certain types of musical ‘soul’ are the sole birthright of certain types of bodies is long-standing and wide-spread, like the Portuguese Fado singer who says: ‘one does not learn to be a fadista; one is born a fadista.’ But for those of us not content to play only within the musical forms of our biological ancestors there has always been a kind of second best option. Lacking the right body, we can still go to the right place. That’s how it was for the Rolling Stones in 1969, when they took a break from their North American tour to record a few tracks at the famous studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where black artists like Wilson Picket and Percy Sledge had helped define the sound of American soul music. The very first night there, the band cut a traditional blues number, “We Gotta Move.” Guitarist Keith Richards explained the choice later: “If ever I’m gonna do it, it’s gotta be here.”
As an American—albeit a white New Englander—I am used to thinking of my country as ground zero for soul, the place where British Blues players and Japanese Jazz cats come to find the real thing. But that has not always been the case. Two-hundred years ago, the United States grappled with its own musical inferiority complex, and sent its own brightest players abroad to soak up the ‘musical atmosphere’ of continental Europe, specifically Germany. The sounds they sought were quite different from what the Stones were after, but the language of the quest was not. American students of classical music flocked to Europe to find “real music” and “real emotion,” both of which were seen to be inherent to Germany. They were advised to seek out great masters such as Franz Liszt—who could apparently inspire tears with just a few chords—and to visit the graves of past masters to pay tribute. Many German music schools, including the prestigious Leipzig Conservatory, enrolled more foreigners than nationals. Americans represented a large percentage of this total, a trend that continued right up to the outbreak of World War One. Music was simply in the air over there, while America could boast little more than “savages and steam engines” according to some.
A documentary about the Muscle Shoals studio, where the Rolling Stones came to tap the root of black American music, was released in 2013. It features sweeping shots of the Tennessee River and surrounding cotton fields, interspersed with an impressive cast of musicians recounting the magic of the place. Somehow Bono is positioned as the poetic scholar of the studio, and despite the fact that he never actually recorded there he is able to tell us how the “the music comes out of the mud.” This tone runs throughout the film, and what bothered me about it (besides the assumption of Bono’s authority on the subject) is its failure to acknowledge that what really made the studio great was a handful of talented people: Rick Hall, Roger Hawkins, Spooner Oldham, and the rest of the house band. Their story is an obvious challenge to the notion that music is inherent to bodies—the producers and musicians were all white—but that doesn’t mean that it must be inherent to the place either. The film, just like American concert musicians in the 19th century, seems to give the physical place—the air and the mud—as much credit as the people. The thing is, when Aretha Franklin brought the Muscle Shoals rhythm section to New York to record a little tune called “Respect,” they sounded pretty good up there too.
In the fall of 2011 I moved to East Asia and stayed there for two years, first in Indonesia then in Japan. I witnessed and experienced many extraordinary moments, none of which are recounted on this record. Rather, the songs began as musings—imagined scenarios, inflated anxieties, and memories of what I had left behind—all filtered through the haze of dislocation and peppered with the jarring imagery of the outsider’s eyes. My musings grew into fantasies that tread the boundary of lived and imagined, and occasionally crossed over entirely. Even as my thoughts strayed inward and outward, they were always a product of circumstance, of being alone in a strange place where so much was uncertain that the mind had no choice but to conjure its own meaning.
WBUR Boston has described Ian Coss as “a gifted lyricist,
adept at weaving even the most mundane details into flights of fancy both
brooding and transcendent.” That ability to find inspiration in the ordinary has
defined a unique career as a songwriter, audio engineer, and music scholar. Ian’s
interest in recorded sound goes back to high school, when he bought his first
microphone and began crafting cheerless holiday albums for friends and family.
That microphone perished years ago in the humidity of Indonesia, but his
passion for sound has persevered. Ian’s latest album of original music, An Act of Imagination, is a surreal
reflection on two years spent living in East Asia, complete with the paranoia
of typhoid fever and the pang of long distance relationships.
Never one to settle for a single pursuit, Ian has spent the
past seven years studying Balinese gamelan music,
which he performs with his ensemble gamelankemana and in collaboration with a number of shadow puppeteers. Ian’s
work has been featured in the Bali Arts Festival, and his ensemble won first
place in the 2012 Bali Fusion Festival. Since then, he spent a year documenting
the sounds of urban Japan, helped to found an independent record label, and undertook
a PhD in ethnomusicology at Boston University. His radio productions have been broadcast around the country on programs such as The World and Afropop Worldwide, and his writing has been featured on Sounding Out and Commonhealth. Whatever he does, Ian keeps a
microphone in his pocket and his ears open to intriguing sounds.