International crate digging gets new life online

Frank Gossner, aka DJ Franc O, recently spent three years living in West Africa for the sole purpose of crate-digging. He scoured 30-year-old private collections and the homes of old musicians in search of "Afrobeat, jerk, and soul" records — "not high-life or rumba or cha-cha," he clarifies. During this search, he was robbed at knifepoint, battled scorpions inside record sleeves, and endured respiratory infections from colonies of mold spores. A documentary about his "vinyl archaeology" trip, tentatively titled Take Me Away Fast, is in postproduction, but the hard documentation exists on his Voodoo Funk blog (voodoofunk.blogspot.com). After every excavation trip to Benin, Guinea, or other nearby country, Gossner chronicled his experience, assembled his musical findings into an hour-long mix, and posted it as a free MP3 for the world to reap.

And reap the world did. Voodoo Funk receives reader feedback from the U.S., Tanzania, India, New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, Ghana, and Russia. In a relatively short time, the blogger has absorbed an array of occupational functions, from journalist to novelist to diarist to teacher; the recent spate of international music blogs has introduced the roles of ethnomusicologist and archaeologist. Under different, more academic circumstances, Gossner's findings might remain deep in the stacks at a university library. But free, communal blogs provide a real alternative to that scenario. Every blog can take a specialized approach to an arcane musical niche, so that even within the region of West Africa, there exists a vast cornucopia of variety. John Beadle, a machinist at Harley-Davidson, tends the Likembe blog (likembe.blogspot.com) because he "wants to bring to light some little-known Nigerian sounds, particularly Igbo music, which is almost unheard outside of Nigeria." And Brian Shimkovitz, a "trained ethnomusicologist" who traveled through Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship, stocks Awesome Tapes from Africa (awesometapesfromafrica.blogspot.com) with the lo-fi recordings he picked up along the way.

In general, these blogs (and the bloggers themselves) challenge the accepted terrain of "world music," a term that has come to connote a very limited number of instantly palatable foreign sounds. Australian Aboriginal music, for instance, would probably be too experimental for most lazy-Sunday world-music enthusiasts, while Angola's kuduro music would lean too far toward hardcore urban sounds. "'World-music' purists look down their noses at a lot of this stuff because it can be cheesy and derivative," Beadle says of Likembe's output. "But this is the sort of music that the masses in Africa listen to."

Though the focus here is often on historically lost genres and out-of-print records, there's also an array of reporting on newer international genres. Ghetto Bassquake (ghettobassquake.blogspot.com), to name one of many, covers baile funk, reggaetón, dancehall, and other international dance-club beats. Matt Yanchyshyn's "world music for the masses" blog Benn Loxo Du Taccu (bennloxo.com) follows his travels in China, Syria, and Denmark, where he quizzes locals about their music scenes and unearths everything from Turkish hip-hop to Argentine classical music. "There seemed to be an opportunity to encourage younger people who weren't around for the initial worldbeat boom in the '80s," Shimkovitz says.

Unsurprisingly, some of these newer converts include musicians. When the members of Vampire Weekend, a New York City band with allegiances to all sorts of non-American sounds, discovered the Benn Loxo blog, they sent Yanchyshyn some of their earliest demo tracks. "I posted their song," he recalls. "Suddenly, it's picked up by a few key indie blogs, and next thing you know, they're famous." Likewise, Spanish electronic artist El Guincho recently sampled songs that originally resurfaced on Awesome Tapes.

Elsewhere, Tony Lowe started up the Cool Places blog and radio show (myspace.com/coolplacesradio) with Dean Bein. It traces the roots and development of Peruvian chicha and Southeast Asian music while sharing anecdotes about extraordinary cross-cultural musical influences, such as Javanese slaves in Guyana who play Eastern-tinged dancehall reggae. "If we can expand that acceptance and enthusiasm into all aspects of foreign cultures," the two write, "we'd truly be living as the global nation we should be. Music is just one of the first smoke signals."

 
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