Wednesday, January 18, 2012

M83 and Familiar Sonic Spaces

You don’t need to know Spanish in order to understand the core of Bebo Y Cigala’s seminal rendition of “Lágrimas Negras,” that old Cuban Standard. Bebo’s singing is so deeply embedded in the Flamenco tradition that he does not bother to adapt his vocal rhythms to the song, which is a Cuban Son; instead, he makes the Son fit his way of singing. Cigala too changes nothing. It does not matter that he is playing a popular tune or that he is singing with a Flamenco singer, his part is rendered in the uncompromising Afro-Cuban jazz playing for which he is famous. The primary reason the song works is of course musical: these masters make Flamenco, Son, and Afro-Cuban jazz harmonize perfectly.

But history plays its part. Flamenco developed in the late medieval period in southern Spain as a hybrid form that blended local musical styles with the imported patterns of Muslim, Jewish, and Gypsy (Roma) origin. The Muslim influence is so heavy in Flamenco, it forms part of a continuum with traditional Arab music, it seems to me. Along with musical styles, Spain also learned plantation agriculture from their former Moorish masters. Slave-driven cotton and sugar plantations were first developed in Africa by Muslim traders. Spain exported both the techniques of plantation economy and the work force from Africa to the Americas. Slaves and their descendants in Cuba created Son, as well as other popular styles like the rumba, danzon, boléro, and cha-cha-cha. Jazz was an expressive form of slave culture in the U.S. and it ultimately proved compatible with Cuban music. So to return to the question implicit in the earlier paragraph, why do Bevo and Cigala’s styles go so well with each other despite the fact that neither tries to adapt to the other? Because "Lágrimas Negras" as a whole reflects the transatlantic world of racialized slavery and the expressive cultures to which it gave birth. The triangular flows between Spain, Africa, and the Americas that constituted the slave economy are concretely represented in this song. It’s the sense of what Gilroy calls the Black Atlantic that we feel in this song even if we don’t understand a word of it.

(By the way, for some reason middle-class white people love this song and music like it, but they are generally less enthusiastic about contemporary popular genres. Celso Piña’s “Cumbia Sobre el Río” is every bit as ambitious a song as “Lágrimas Negras.” Piña’s song tries to fuse many recent popular (cumbia, reggaeton, dancehall, Hip Hop) styles into one whole. It is largely successful, I think, but middle-class white people are not so down with it. I don’t have the space here to speculate on the reasons for why this is.)

 This was a long preamble to the topic I wanted to discuss, M83's "Midnight City." Language in this song like in "Lágrimas Negras" is not necessary to understanding its effects. I've read that it's about Los Angeles but I don't think you would know it from listening to it. Rather than a evoking a physical geography, this song creates a kind of emotional topography. The song's very deliberate layering of elliptical synthesized sounds generates this sense. Each layer evokes diffused types of affect: melancholy, ennui, nostalgia, longing, the bittersweet, aching, wistfulness, and joy. You feel this song. It's meaning does not travel through your rational consciousness, and the voice in it, the lyrics, is not the privileged site of meaning-making. Instead it forms another dimension in its atmosphere. M83 foregrounds the secondary role that language plays in music, but what the band is doing is fundamentally true of all music.


  1. Great post and great site! (I'm here by way of a Elif Batuman recommendation.)

    Can I make a request? I would like to hear your thoughts on *Undun* by The Roots. It's one of my favorite albums of 2011 and I think is one of the most mature hip-hop/rap albums that I've come across.

  2. Thanks for reading and the comment! I will write about any song but I have to hear it repeatedly on a commercial radio station first. For good or ill, this site is dedicated to thinking primarily about commercial popular music. I do hope you keep reading.

  3. When I saw Celso Piña at the Troubadour last year, he played Cumbia Sobre el Río twice in a scant one hour set. It looked like he had the flu or something. Or like he missed a house payment and was only doing this gig to avoid foreclosure. Definitely didn't bring his A-game. Anyway, I agree, great post.

  4. E,
    Finally managed to get on here and poke around. I really like the historical reading you provide in the first section. I wasn't quite sure about the transition to M83 but, as I haven't really listened to these artists, I may be missing something. It is interesting to apply a historicist reading to pop music but it worked for me. Great stuff.